Éric Chevillard’s <i>QWERTY Invectives</i>

Éric Chevillard’s QWERTY Invectives

A small figure strolls across the page at the start of each section of QWERTY Invectives, accompanied by its shadow. Each drawing has a different physique, different clothing, and sometimes a prop (a stroller, a cane, a dog), but their shadows hang dark and large, distorting their bodies into funny and sinister new shapes. These little drawings may be the least significant detail in the whole cahier, but they are also exquisite reflections of the text that surrounds them. Besides, Éric Chevillard is not one to dismiss insignificant details. QWERTY’s sections are defined and organized by topic, yet what we get each time is an entertaining and revealing distortion. Chevillard, as commanding and hilarious as always, is constantly shifting his grip on reality—not losing his mind, but finding it in the most unexpected places.

Translated by Peter Behrman de Sinéty for The Cahier Series, QWERTY is the partially transfigured opening excerpt from Chevillard’s 2014 book Le Désordre AZERTY (AZERTY Disorder, or Disorder According to AZERTY). It’s an abécédaire ordered by the rows of the French keyboard—typical Chevillard humor, to arrange his chaos in a strict but arbitrary fashion. The English version follows the convention of its own language, reorienting the work towards an audience that not only speaks a different tongue, but whose fingers fly across their keys in different patterns. It’s this unique mode of cultural translation that Chevillard expands on in his preface, reinforcing the link between the cahier and the series to which it belongs: questions of translation, explored through all manner of fiction and non-fiction. QWERTY certainly fits the bill, but Chevillard, known for his absurdism, does not draw the connections for you. In that sense, this may be one of the most difficult installments in the series, yet it won’t feel that way; it’s precisely his careful chaos, from the section breaks all the way down to the sentence-level logic, that gives Chevillard’s prose its captivating momentum. It’s hard not to follow where he leads.

  QWERTY Invectives   by Éric Chevillard  tr. Peter Behrman de Sinety  (Sylph Editions, February 2018)

QWERTY Invectives

by Éric Chevillard

tr. Peter Behrman de Sinety

(Sylph Editions, February 2018)

QWERTY’s narrator is a character spun from the prose itself. He passes himself off as an exaggeration of the author, but that’s only his jumping-off point. In one section, while decrying the excess of human waste in the world, our narrator indignantly recounts his own origins: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust: that was the plan. For my part, it’s what I signed up for; these were the terms I committed to when I was given the opportunity to assume corporeal form. Nothing else was on offer.” We can hear the idea being worked up, teased out and expanded with each phrase, until it can’t be read merely as a sarcastic quip. Chevillard is daring the reader to take him seriously by whining, with sass and well-structured wit, about his own position in life. It’s part of the humor, of course, that the reader might pause to think through the details of this fiction: Was there paperwork involved? Are there non-scriptural options? But ultimately, we are no more inclined to incorporate this detail into our conception of Chevillard’s world than we are to understand his narrator as a cohesive character. The writing is idiosyncratic and self-interested, brimming with signs of life, but those signs are Chevillard’s most brilliant deception; it is voice that does the work of character.

Though his narrator is inconstant, QWERTY’s most unifying subject matter is the real Chevillard, the middle-aged male author who self-consciously examines the dynamics of French culture and fitting into it, both socially and physically. Our narrator worries over his aging body and fears having it looked at—preoccupations that are common enough, but take on new consequences under Chevillard’s distractible care. One section begins as a lengthy contemplation of the dubious relationship between photography and truth-telling; the prose is animated by Chevillard’s usual amusing chains of illogic, but also by sincere inquiry. The narrator bemoans the death of the subject in the instant a photograph is taken—“Get away with you, that’s one horrific rictus!”—and eventually complains of his own disfiguration at the hands of photographers, on whom he naturally puts all the blame. He harbors an intense suspicion against the whole discipline of photography, and that suspicion is followed through again and again in different (always funny) directions.

What really happens is that the day following the photo-shoot, the newspaper publishes, in lieu of the author’s portrait, a picture of a polymorphous (but still wholly unimaginative) pervert, a fat-face modelled in a lump of butter by the thumb of a gorilla! The wrong my photograph has done me is not inconsiderable. Can it really be this unacknowledged case-study in premature baldness, haggard, all chin, who intends to speak on behalf of my famously subtle œuvre? They must be searching for him high and low, those mortuary attendants! Who does he think he is, this usurper, this caricature, this pitiful plagiarist?

The ruthless, cascading self-effacement—rather ingeniously translated by Behrman de Sinéty—reveals itself as a serious fear: the world wants something from Chevillard that he can’t give, or perhaps doesn’t have.

Our narrator is always waging war against something, and for much of QWERTY, that translates to serious cultural critique. The section on photography, certainly, is not just a personal lament but also a spirited tirade against image culture (which convincingly sidesteps the topic of selfies). For most of the cahier, that outward-facing scrutiny runs parallel to whatever nonsense Chevillard is drawing our attention to, but there are moments where it drops out almost entirely. The third section, named for the narrator’s enemy, is the most insular—the most like a traditional story. It depicts a bizarre rivalry between the narrator and his faithful (but unfortunately, faithfully married: “my enemy cannot bring himself to leave his wife in order to devote himself entirely to me”), moronic enemy. Their saga is constantly flirting with allegory, but resists being read that way; it outlines the struggle between the narrator and a self-loathing inner demon, but as usual, Chevillard isn’t straightforward or strict about it. The confrontations between these two enemies, recounted one after the other for several pages, follow an interpersonal logic that’s frenetic and never quite reveals itself. We know that the enemy sends “news from his holiday resorts—lovely little insult cards from Mimizan Plage or Ibiza”; and also that “the words for butterfly, for flower, for star, and for genius are quite unknown to him.” With each of these dizzying details, Chevillard manages to dive deeper in both valences, the ridiculous and the utterly serious. Once again, the narrator’s preoccupation with the progress of aging is at the fore, as he details how his body is failing him. But we also witness, from an intimate vantage, the pain of something new and perfectly contradictory: the narrator is drawing spirals around his frustrating stagnancy, this back-and-forth that ravages him without ever permitting him to change. Even in death, he muses, there would be no escape: “My enemy would like to see me dead. He would then accord me his friendship, and my corpse would attend all his parties.” In classic Chevillard fashion, the terms have been twisted, the word “friendship” even tossed around—but the relationship remains exactly the same.

Maybe we should have seen that morbidity coming, if Philippe Favier’s illustrations are any indication. They are really not illustrations at all, since they were not made specifically for QWERTY; but Favier’s combination of dark humor and mysterious ceremony is a fitting complement to Chevillard’s prose. Standing as a full-page visual introduction to the “enemy” section is one of the least humorous paintings in the cahier: a skeleton, bloodied head to toe except for the bright ivory of its hands, like an inverse Lady Macbeth. It seems to be mocking the warning it offers (who knows precisely against what), but the suggestion of pain is hard to ignore. It’s intended to reference Michael Jackson’s “Blood on the Dance Floor,” a punchy seduction song that takes itself a bit too seriously. Favier, like Chevillard, is drawing out logic beyond its extremes—no surprise, since the two have collaborated for several of Chevillard’s books. Favier’s other images in QWERTY include intricately diagrammed bodies and body parts, as well as cut-outs of photographs, meticulously arranged and often labeled in tiny white scrawl. Their details could have come straight out of Chevillard’s dreams—surreal, exact, amusing and self-aware—but their solid black backgrounds seem to curtain off something more sinister.

Favier’s paintings are like the remnants of some lost archive, which might lend a sense of entrenched authority to the text, but QWERTY is concerned above all with the present tense. The authority of Chevillard’s narrator doesn’t come from any historical archives, real or invented, but from the confidence in his voice as he talks us into new worlds. Behrman de Sinéty’s translation is a masterful rendering of that voice into English, preserving the narrator’s scatter-brained but haughty self-assurance and the intensely linear energy of his language. Every sentence unfurls at least as carefully in the English as in the French, so that the narrator always sounds sure on his feet. This holds true even when the translation must go beyond the linguistic, quietly accounting for cultural differences without disrupting the narrator’s voice. Rentrée, the French term for the beginning of the school year and a culturally loaded concept that Chevillard berates in one section, is deftly introduced as a verb to enable the narrator to play with its forms: “Return home? Oh yes, let’s – shall we? You’d think it was our era’s new-found mantra.” In the French, those first two sentences are only a few words, but since both the wordplay and its concision are impossible to replicate in English, Behrman de Sinéty recreates that pithy tone of voice with a few extra, stylized words. Later on in the English, once the concept has been made abundantly clear, the verb is seamlessly replaced with the calqued noun itself, rentrée.

Translation always goes beyond the linguistic, but QWERTY is an unusual case, and intentionally so. As Chevillard predicts (in translation) in his preface, it results in “foreshortenings, telescopings, even extensions—as meaning circulates down new-found conduits.” But translation is relevant in both languages; it’s in that marvelous way that Chevillard drives his stories, by reinterpreting terms and ideas that would normally be left to their assumed definitions. His writing does not always follow the rules of reality, but it is utterly faithful to the rules of language. In a bucking of literary trends (something the narrator urges “from time to time!”), QWERTY is not especially preoccupied with how language fails to account for the world around us. Chevillard’s playful, searching text is more interested in finding out what else language can account for.

 

 

Margaret Grabar Sage studies literature and translation at Yale University. She is an editorial assistant for Music & Literature, and her journalism and poetry have appeared in The Yale Herald and Yale Daily News Magazine.

Norah Lange’s <br><i>People in the Room</i>

Norah Lange’s
People in the Room

Reviewed by Hannah LeClair

In the opening pages of Norah Lange’s People in the Room, a flash of lightning blanches all the corners of a young girl’s bedroom on Calle Juramento, and illuminates the mask-like faces of three women sitting in the living room of the house next door. In that instant, recounts Lange’s unnamed narrator, “I saw them for the first time, began to watch them, and as I watched them, slowly examining their three faces in a row, one barely more elevated than the others, it seemed to me that I held—like the suit of clubs in a game of cards—the pale clover of their faces fanned out in my hand.” Lange’s darkly surreal novel crystallizes around this single moment of transfixion. For Lange’s teenaged narrator, the glimpse of these three women’s mysterious faces is like an “indelible first portrait” or “the beginning of an accidental life story” and her longing to uncover their story becomes an obsession that positions her as the protagonist of a strange narrative. Lange’s narrator enthralls—as she is herself enthralled by the women she watches from her window . . .

Dubravka Ugrešić’s <i>Fox</i>

Dubravka Ugrešić’s Fox

If the spirit of the fox enters a person, then that person’s tribe is accursed.

 

1.

In his 1953 essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” which postulates two quintessential moral dispositions at the heart of history’s main opposing ideologies, Isaiah Berlin divides the world’s influential writers into two categories of thought. Elaborating on Berlin’s dichotomy in her latest book Fox, which came out this spring in English translation, Dubravka Ugrešić distinguishes between “those who write, engage, and think with recourse to a single idea (hedgehogs), and those who merge manifold heterogeneous experiences and ideas (foxes).” Clearly, the fox sounds more enticing; Berlin equates the hedgehog with authoritarianism and totalitarianism, while the fox is deemed liberal and tolerant. The only problem is the questionable reputation it’s earned among the world’s oldest mythologies, fairytales, and legends: whatever it might have going for it in the way of “pluralistic moral values,” the fox has long been accused of “cunning, betrayal, wile, sycophancy, deceit, mendacity, hypocrisy, duplicity, selfishness, sneakiness, arrogance, avarice, corruption, carnality, vindictiveness, and reclusiveness.” That’s quite an indictment—and all the more reason for Ugrešić to select the wily animal as patron saint of her new book.  

Fox is subtle, virtuosic, and jarring; it’s also mordantly funny. In light-footed, deceptively playful detours and digressions, the book skips from Stalinist Russia to an American road trip with the Nabokovs, academic conferences and literary festivals to the largely untold story of the Far-East diaspora of persecuted Russian intellectuals on the eve of World War II. Fox is a novel, but its formal structure poses a challenge; some chapters read as essays, some as autonomous short stories, and while many recurrent threads reveal themselves upon closer inspection and reflection, unraveling the author’s narrative strategy takes time and attention.

  Fox   by  Dubravka Ugrešić   tr.  Ellen Elias-Bursać  and  David Williams   (Open Letter, April 2018)

Fox

by Dubravka Ugrešić

tr. Ellen Elias-Bursać and David Williams

(Open Letter, April 2018)

Part One, “A Story about How Stories Come to Be Written,” contains many of the novel’s essential themes and can be described as a matryoshka game of nesting stories and digressions; it is also a study on the inherent cruelty of the writing practice. Ugrešić tells the story of Boris Pilnyak, who tells the story of how a Japanese officer named Tagaki marries the infatuated young Russian Sophia, summons her to a village outside Osaka, and proceeds to mine their seemingly happy marriage for material to produce a novel. Filled with intimate details and vivid descriptions of Sophia succumbing to her husband’s passions, the book quickly becomes a literary sensation. Long after Sophia has applied for repatriation to the Soviet Union, Pilnyak visits a temple dedicated to the fox located high on a mountaintop in Japan and is inspired to draw on Sophia’s autobiographical account to retell the story of a “rather silly” woman whose youth is insignificant—up until the moment the writer Tagaki seduces her to write his “splendid novel.” As Pilnyak ponders how stories come to be written and reflects on the symbol of “cunning and treachery,” he concludes, in admiration, that the fox is “the writer’s totem,” the consummate trickster.

But let’s have another look at the story. Its pattern is simple; it follows the form of a fairytale. “She shudders, enthralled by the mysterious Him. He will put a spell on her, subjugate her, humiliate her, and betray her, and in the end She will arise as a heroine worthy of respect and self-respect.” If these are the rules of the game, the odds are not exactly stacked in Her favor. The heroine’s role has evidently been devised by someone else, and for someone else’s gain. But while the women among us would drily observe that it’s clearly preferable to be the author of one’s own narrative, Pilnyak claims that everything Sophia has written about her life before meeting Tagaki is a “bore.” Beware, Boris: the fox is not only clever; she’s unpredictable. Reversing the asymmetry in agency and power—who, for instance, is free to tell whose story—, the tables are turned and Dubravka Ugrešić, asking once again how stories come to be written, recounts Pilnyak’s less than glorious end: arrested at home and led away by a “painfully courteous” man in white, he was betrayed by the very consular staff member who introduced him to Sophia’s story in the first place. It’s like a Russian fable: Pilnyak the Fox—the shyster operating on a slippery moral scale—meets his demise at the hands of a hedgehog in Stalinist Russia: an authoritarian bureaucrat pledged to a monomaniacal ideology.

 

 

2.

Fox is, among other things, a fairytale about the ethics of writing. Threading throughout the book, however, is an equally compelling feminist subtext. While the word “fox” is masculine-gendered in most Western languages, it is not only feminine in China, Japan, and Korea, but is the mythological symbol of a female Eros. Considering the moral characteristics generally attributed to the fox, the obvious deduction is that female desire is treacherous and duplicitous. Thus, the essential question Fox repeatedly leads us back to—who is permitted to write, and who must submit to being written about—presupposes another, equally urgent question: whose desires are deemed socially and morally acceptable and worthy of being fulfilled, and whose are deemed dangerous?

Ugrešić’s approach to writing the book is itself foxlike; stories are woven together in a logic that’s not always apparent at first glance. Her method is suggestion and allusion; she circles around her themes, picking up fragments along the way that reverberate in unsettling ways. There is no one overarching truth, but a kaleidoscope of observations that merge into one another seamlessly, surreptitiously, giving rise to subtexts that percolate just beneath the text’s surface. It’s not merely a narrative form that Ugrešić is invested in here, however; it’s precisely this strategy of deflection that makes her circular mode of inquiry so effective.

This is why it comes as such a surprise, and why it feels all the more ironic, when Ugrešić seems to say that she’s not really privy to the cunning of the fox. Committed to literature despite its ever-diminishing readership, she presents herself as a hedgehog: haplessly adhering to a life purpose and to long-held intellectual ideals—among them a concept of literary citizenship that encompasses translation, editing, literary history, criticism, and theory—while everyone else is busy devising strategies for adaptation and survival. When a literary festival invites a motley assembly of expatriate authors to lecture on European migration and émigré life, the gathering soon comes to resemble a circus in which participants are required to perform their signature tricks. The event confronts the narrator with the sobering truth of her profession and her own position within it; her “disquisition on […] the inclusivity and exclusivity of cultural environments (only great cultures are inclusive, which is what makes them great; only small cultures are exclusive, which is what keeps them small) […] left the audience cold.” Regardless of how hard-won her insights and observations might have been, or the amount of lifeblood and sweat spent in arriving at them—indeed, regardless of the singular, urgent pertinence they might have held for the event at hand, had anyone bothered to listen—, they pale in comparison to the personal anecdotes and overwhelming popularity of the celebrated widow of a famous literary exile.

The widow, it turns out, is no fool. She is elderly, but elegant and upright; she befriends the narrator, taking a tender, almost maternal interest in her. And she knows a great deal about the marketplace of preconceived notions and her own place among them: in terms of succeeding or failing in the writing profession; of manufacturing myths to secure one’s place in posterity; of what’s deemed greatness, and why. She is not a writer; instead, she has devoted her life to the legacy of her husband, the Russian author of a refugee novel titled The Peninsula Hotel. “Into the foundation of every male national literature (there are only male national literatures) are built the time, energy, and imagination of nameless female readers,” she states unceremoniously. “Men value me. Why? Because I know ‘my place.’ Obediently I served and facilitated the literary talent of a man, I served the mind of a man, I am, therefore, a dream-woman for many men. I am also their dream-widow.”

The narrator is fascinated by the widow’s candidness; the older woman’s words—astute, reflective, in the serious business of exposing and dismantling illusion—exert a hypnotic effect on her. When the widow’s observations turn to her new acquaintance, however, the narrator grows increasingly uncomfortable:

“You’re besotted with your own voice and you neglect to keep an eye on the things around you. You think the beauty of your voice suffices, everybody will hear it, and it’s your job to sing. Yet as you yourself know, things don’t work that way. And meanwhile you’re no fox, the fox is most definitely not your totem.”

“What does that mean, being a fox?”

“Celebration of betrayal.”

“How can I be something I’m not?”

The widow issues the narrator a warning to “come clean” with herself about a few basic truths; what ensues can be called the fox’s soliloquy, an admonishment to essentially wake up and smell the coffee. Get smart, says the fox. Take a look around you. Watch your back, because no one else will—and stop worrying about setting the record straight, because there’s no justice in a world in which stupidity, malice, and envy are paramount. But the narrator is offended at the uninvited intimacy; the widow has seen through her, her pride is at stake, and her tone sharpens. She counters the widow’s observations with sarcasm, yet they stick to her like barbs; her wounded vanity can only absorb them in retrospect, when she is reminded of her own acts of mean-spiritedness toward people who deserved her generosity.

And yet. In Greek mythology, the siren Parthenope flings herself into the Gulf of Naples when her attempts at seducing Odysseus with her divine song fail. Female creativity that strives for recognition on the part of its male peers has slim prospects for survival, Ugrešić seems to be saying. And then she cites another myth in which the muses win a musical competition against the sirens and, as punishment, pluck the sirens’ feathers to make themselves victory wreaths as the sirens plunge to their deaths in the sea. If the sirens are understood as the expression of female creativity, and the muses as female servitude to male genius, then this is a tale of feminine rivalry in which female genius is made to pay the ultimate price for daring to assert itself against female obedience.

 

 

3.

Fox is a book of meandering paths; it conceals its irony in dark, unsparing observations that digress into territories where the boundaries between essay and fiction become blurred. Apart from Ugrešić’s signature concerns—the dangers of nationalism, the exile’s plight, the sorry state of contemporary literature as just another commodity on the cultural marketplace—Fox brims with footnotes, with the curious phenomenon by which certain persons and works become inscribed into history as seemingly insignificant, but all the more enduring asides. In a reversal of the famous Bulgakov quote from The Master and Margarita, “manuscripts don’t burn,” Ugrešić writes that “the only thing that cannot burn is the absence of a manuscript. And if we were to bet on eternity, perhaps it is precisely this absence of substance that would have the greater chance for victory than its presence.”

Ugrešić has described herself as a “literary smuggler.” Committed to literatures from Central and Eastern Europe largely (and regrettably) unknown in the West, she reacquaints us with a history we are growing less and less familiar with. Her essay-like chapter on the brief life of Soviet avant-garde literature in the years just prior to Stalin’s purges—“one of the greatest moments when art flourished, yet one of the most savage scourges of artistic minds in world cultural history”—describes a time when words were born from “vortices in the history of culture,” when they were dangerous and carried weight, casting contemporary literature’s relative powerlessness into stark relief. Konstantin Vaginov, Leonid Dobychin, Daniil Kharms, Alexander Vvedensky, and Velemir Khlebnikov were all dead by the age of forty or shortly thereafter because of statements and works that either landed them in prison, had them summarily executed, or provoked circumstances that led to suicide. “If I get a mobilization request, I would punch a commander in the face, they can shoot me but I will not wear the uniform and will not become a soviet soldier,” wrote Kharms before dying of starvation in a psychiatric ward. Anglophone readers are probably more familiar with the playwright Vladimir Mayakovksy, co-signer of the Futurist manifesto A Slap in the Face of Public Taste and author of the famous satirical plays Mystery-Bouffe, The Bedbug, and The Bathhouse, whose 1930 funeral was attended by 150,000 people, than with the rest of the Russian Futurists and members of the OBERIU group. Yet Ugrešić chooses to tell us a tale about the obscure Doivber Levin, “one of the briefest of footnotes in Russian avant-garde literature.” She details the meager catalogue of historical records his name appears in; she assesses the evidence of his literary production, none of which, it seems, has survived. Levin has secured himself a place in history by virtue not of what he has written, but by the utter absence of any tangible accomplishment. But when Ugrešić cites the dubious claims of his biographer, the fictional Ira or Irina Ferris (a “memorable name especially because it sounded so much like a well-designed pseudonym”) who presents several, evidently falsified, documents and postulates that Levin faked his death and escaped to Birobidzhan and subsequently to Shanghai; when she conjectures that he most likely did not, as reported, die heroically defending Leningrad, but survived elsewhere under an alternate identity, the reader wonders if maybe, just maybe, Levin—a native speaker of Yiddish born in the early years of the twentieth century to an Orthodox Jewish family, who quite possibly fled to Shanghai and then, on the heels of the Japanese military defeat, to Hong Kong, where, like countless others, he remained stranded at the Peninsula Hotel (of course!), hoping to emigrate—is, in an unlikely coincidence, the very same Levin the celebrated widow was married to. Considering Levin’s imaginary biographer’s love for the foxes that she claims visit her, unbeckoned, in her south London home, the fox becomes not only the writer’s totem, but a recurrent omen alerting the narrator to an imminent twist in fate. When she asks herself why the story has stuck with her for so many years, Ugrešić concludes:

My empathy for Doivber Levin was not, it seems, merely empathy out of principle for a man-footnote. It turns out that it was anticipation of what I was yet to experience, though I would have sworn (at the time) that such a thing could never happen to me. […] And I, too—having earlier inscribed on my inner map a random trajectory—found myself living abroad, becoming a person with two biographies, or two people with one biography, or three people with three biographies and three languages. […] In Levin’s case what remains is not a text but the absence of a text, a hole, a yawn, a pale sketch that spurs the imagination. […] The text’s absence glows with a magical light, it pulses, it is every bit as authentic and alive.

 

 

4.

In “The Devil’s Garden,” the most story-like, and saddest, chapter of Fox, Ugrešić’s fairytale totem makes an appearance as an elusive but curious animal that might possibly, finally, bring her luck. Relating how the experience of marginalization in and eventual exile from post-war Croatia eventually caught up with her, Ugrešić describes a period of “cracking,” an “internal erosion, […] crumbling, […] sliding” marked by an overwhelming sense of futility. “Our deepest desires pounce on us from unexpected places, snatch us by the throat, and steal our breath.” She concludes that she needs to overcome the anxieties and traumas of the exile and create some kind of home for herself: “the urge for home is powerful, it has the force of primal instinct […] the mind-set of the short-term—nourished and entrenched over time into a pigheaded moral principle—was more dangerous than I’d thought; it could turn against me if I didn’t toss it a morsel and staunch its hunger, if, in other words, I didn’t make a home from which, one day, if I so desired, I could catapult out again.” When she is unexpectedly bequeathed a house by someone she barely knew, despite all her misgivings, she returns to Croatia and for a brief time, against her better judgment, allows herself to believe in reconciliation with her past; in happiness and love. But just as the fox seems about to be tamed, just as it draws closer to the narrator’s life—literally brushes up against her leg in a playful tease—its trickster nature turns out to be all the more devastating. In more ways than one, the house and her native country turn out to be mined territory; the only way to survive is to pack one’s things for good, take one’s leave, and never look back.

Fox takes the principle of intertextuality and applies it to war and exile; the publishing industry and the future of writing in the information age; and the convoluted paths by which cultural and literary production are preserved. Navigating the webs of illusion history weaves, and creating new fictional strategies to lure the unsuspecting reader, Ugrešić teaches us that it’s not the obdurate principles of the hedgehog, but the wiles of the fox that are required to survive. “The world is a minefield and that’s the only home there is”: We are Scheherazade, we live with a sword above our heads, and we spin our stories as best we can as the red-haired fox “bound[s] around the garden like a coiled spring.” And we are also the fox:

[…] forever a stowaway, a migrant moving with ease through worlds, and when it’s caught without a ticket, then it spins balls on its tail, performs its cheap tricks. The flash of admiration it receives—ah the myopic susceptibility of the fox—is its substitute for love. These are its glory days. All else is a history of fear, flight from the hunter’s bullets, the constant baying of the hounds; a history of persecution, beatings, licking of wounds, humiliation, loneliness, and cheap consolation […].”

 

 

 

Andrea Scrima is an artist and writer based in Berlin. She writes literary criticism for The Quarterly Conversation, The Brooklyn RailSchreibheft, and other publications. Her novel A Lesser Day was published in a 2018 second edition by Spuyten Duyvil Press to coincide with the German edition, Wie viele Tage (Literaturverlag Droschl). You can visit her website at www.andreascrima.com.

 

Banner credit: Wellcome Collection

Dag Solstad’s <i>T Singer</i> & <i>Armand V</i>

Dag Solstad’s T Singer & Armand V

Reviewed by Hal Hlavinka

In his home country, Dag Solstad is an inescapable literary figure. His extraordinary and diverse output suggests a peripatetic mind ever searching for modernism’s golden calf: the New. Here in the States, one of our very own Saints of the New, Lydia Davis, taught herself Norwegian by reading Solstad’s infamous Telemark novel in the original. “Do exactly what you want,” she has said of his demanding style: “the drama exists in his voice.” But for most of us American readers, who rely on gifted translators to do all the heavy lifting, and who have had to be satisfied with the 2015 rendering of Shyness and Dignity or hunt down UK editions of Novel 11, Book 18, and Professor Andersen’s Night, the majority of his work remains hidden. Happily enough, this year brings a comparative glut of Solstad novels, as a pair of the author’s late works, T Singer and Armand V, have arrived in English—in lucid, agile translations courtesy of Tiina Nunnaly and Steven T. Murray, respectively—to reintroduce readers to the Norwegian giant’s dry wit and protean style…

Chico Buarque’s <br><i>My German Brother</i>

Chico Buarque’s
My German Brother

Reviewed by Chad Felix

Deep within My German Brother, Chico Buarque’s rich and inventive new novel, the narrator Ciccio, the youngest son of a respected literary family, announces that he’s “almost beginning to believe the things [he] made up.” The statement’s directness underscores its starkness: because his older (Brazilian) brother is gone, their mother is grieving by constructing a world in which her eldest child is still alive, “now drinking hot chocolate in the Café Tortoni, now strolling trough Plaza San Martín, now greeting a blind poet on Calle Maipú.” Ciccio plays along, making things up in an effort to soften the blow, half-believing . . .

Sergio Chejfec’s <i>Baroni</i>

Sergio Chejfec’s Baroni

Reviewed by Darren Huang

Sergio Chejfec has written a number of erudite, highly idiosyncratic, and densely philosophical works, either in the form of novels or novel-based visual art, that follow peripatetic narrators in their meditations on artistic creation, memory, and landscape. Baroni: A Journey, his most recent book translated into English, is a modern interpretation of the flâneur novel. The result is a stylistic tour de force, a rigorous exploration of the border between art and life, and an intimate chronicle of a man’s intellectual and spiritual engagement with an artist and her work…

Eva Salina Sings Vida Pavlović

Eva Salina Sings Vida Pavlović

Reviewed by Sophie Pinkham

“Sudbina,” the new album by American vocalist Eva Salina and Serbian-Romanian Romani accordionist Peter Stan, opens with the lines, Let me live, let me love. Salina’s wistful delivery leaves little doubt that hers is a hopeless plea. The singer’s fate is cruel; she can only watch the happiness of others. Stan’s accordion keens along with Salina, a trusted confidant alone in the room with her. At the end of the song, Stan cuts off the air to his instrument, leaving only the voiceless clacking of the keys.

Gerald Murnane’s <br><i>Stream System</i> & <i>Border Districts</i>

Gerald Murnane’s
Stream System & Border Districts

Reviewed by Timothy Aubry

…let’s get back to Murnane’s strangeness for a minute, because his fiction is so very, so intricately strange and one benefit of his refusal of realist protocols is that he can make it just as strange as he likes, thereby expanding our sense of and our admiration for the possible—the one thing, he notes, that the “actual” can never be.

Jorge Baron Biza’s <br><i>The Desert and Its Seed</i>

Jorge Baron Biza’s
The Desert and Its Seed

Reviewed by Sam Carter

Because any attempt at exculpation ultimately evaporates when forced to face the facts, what remains in The Desert and Its Seed is an excavation, a brushing away instead of a brushing off that seeks to uncover what Jorge Baron Biza once called “the difference between the exterior appearance of a tragedy and its interior view...”

Joe Frank: Somewhere Out There

Joe Frank: Somewhere Out There

Reviewed by Andrew Lapin

The artist and his medium were locked in a decades-long dance of death. While still in high school, having already weathered surgery for clubfoot, Joe Frank developed testicular cancer and had to undergo painful cobalt radiation treatments. He would spend the rest of his life in and out of treatment for various severe medical ailments, including bladder cancer. He also endured a kidney transplant. Long spells of medically and chemically induced quarantine provided Frank with ample time to ponder the alienation he felt from the world of the living, and ultimately translate much of that uncertainty into groundbreaking radio fictions.

Clarice Lispector’s <br><i>The Chandelier</i>

Clarice Lispector’s
The Chandelier

Reviewed by Nick Oxford

The Chandelier amplifies the lonely interior monologues and infighting that had been the hallmark of Clarice Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart. At the same time, it challenges the reader even more than any of Lispector’s earlier texts: the novel becomes a proving ground, where the only way to succeed is to persevere through the long sentences and blurred boundaries between Virginia’s life and her contemplation thereof...

Two Radical Texts from Wilhelmine Germany

Two Radical Texts from Wilhelmine Germany

Reviewed by Tyler Langendorfer

Though largely a conservative society, Wilhelmine Germany was nonetheless home to some of the most progressive and pioneering thinkers of its time. The pronounced militarism and censorship embodied by Kaiser Wilhelm II were counteracted by early human-rights activism and experimental, anti-reactionary art. Yet fiction and non-fiction from this period, in particular from exponents representing the liberal side of these conflicting forces, have remained largely unknown to Anglophone readers. Seeking to rectify this problem, the Berlin-based publisher Rixdorf Editions, in two authoritative translations by James Conway, has now released two texts never before available in English: The Guesthouse at the Sign of the Teetering Globe (1917) by Franziska (Fanny) zu Reventlow, a short story collection; and Berlin’s Third Sex (1904) by Magnus Hirschfeld, which according to Conway is “arguably the first truly serious, sympathetic study of the gay and lesbian experience ever written.”

Norman Levine's <br><i>I Don't Want to Know Anyone Too Well</i>

Norman Levine's
I Don't Want to Know Anyone Too Well

Reviewed by David O'Meara

His enthusiasts know the biography. Born to an Orthodox Jewish family in Minsk, Poland, in 1923, Levine was raised in Ottawa's district of Lower Town—occupied then by mostly French and Irish Catholics—before being sent to England as a pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War. Returning to Canada, he attended McGill University and published two poetry collections before his first novel, The Angled Road (1952) and a memoir, Canada Made Me in 1958 (“My writing begins with that book,” Levine would write). For some critics, this book is considered the main reason for Levine’s neglect in Canadian letters. Written as a three-month journey across the country, Levine’s recollections and portraits are less than flattering, depicting a gritty, desolate, working-class panorama of mid-century Canada. He writes: “No one is really a stranger in Canada if he was brought up in a small town. They remain so much the same across the country: a vast repetition, not only of the Main Street, the side-streets, the railway track, the river; but the same dullness and boredom."

Kate Briggs’s <br><i>This Little Art</i>

Kate Briggs’s
This Little Art

Reviewed by Jan Steyn

The table of contents announces seven chapters (the numbers are mine): 1) Dragonese, 2) D̶o̶n̶'̶t̶ Do Translations, 3) And Still No Rain / Roland Barthes Rhymes with, 4) Amateur Translator, 5) Maker of Wholes (Let’s Say of a Table), 6) Who Refuses To Let Go of Her Translations Until She Feels She Has Written the Books Herself (Or, Translation and the Principle of Tact).

I am interested in tables, so I turn to the fifth chapter and start skimming. It begins with the Bibliothèque François Mitterrand in Paris (the one with the four right-angled towers facing in on each other like open books and the “sunken forest garden” in its center). It ends with a plea to recognize the singularity of every translation. Ah, I think, she is here also “actively parrying against the all purpose explanation.”

And so: Kate Brigg’s book, This Little Art, is about translation, dragons, and tables. It argues for singularity and against all-purpose explanations. It applies the methods of genre-bending song and active parrying to evidence from Roland Barthes and the Bibliothèque François Mitterrand…

Ann Quin’s <br><i>The Unmapped Country: Stories and Fragments</i>

Ann Quin’s
The Unmapped Country: Stories and Fragments

Reviewed by Jennifer Croft

 

Ann Quin’s The Unmapped Country may be part of a larger resurgence. Jennifer Hodgson’s curation shapes these short stories and autobiographical sketches and the unfinished Unmapped Country itself into a chronicle of someone slowly running out of steam. What is feisty, even cocky at the start will fade into exhaustion; experiments seem to yield few findings, and the attempt to understand what underlies the daily misunderstandings of modern life is frustrated and stops short in an incomprehension that comes to feel absolute...

Hermione Hoby’s <br><i>Neon in Daylight</i>

Hermione Hoby’s
Neon in Daylight

Reviewed by Halley Parrey

Hermione Hoby’s aptly named debut novel Neon in Daylight examines the roles we assign ourselves to play and how our performances are received or simply ignored. Under Hoby’s purview, we do not fare much better at communicating than neon signs. We perform—we flare, we fizzle out—hoping to illuminate the darkness, which we achieve slightly, clumsily, if at all.

László Krasznahorkai’s <br><i>The World Goes On</i>

László Krasznahorkai’s
The World Goes On

Reviewed by Irina Denischenko

As in his earlier works, Krasznahorkai’s narrators in The World Goes On find themselves wandering in a world of forgotten revelations and corrupted messages, blindly groping toward ineffable essences that forever remain out of reach. As the reader eavesdrops on their minds caught up in obsessive thought patterns, s/he witnesses consciousness on the threshold of insight. By recasting themes familiar from his novels in short story form, Krasznahorkai condenses fragmented revelations, increasing their potency, and creates a sense of wholeness that short story collections often lack. The World Goes On is a labyrinth of parallel universes that echo and correspond to one another, creating, with each new story, a déjà vu like effect that renders the reader’s escape into linear clarity nearly impossible. Moreover, the broad scope of this collection clarifies the various links between Krasznahorkai’s recurrent themes and the importance of his stylistic innovations, such as his unending sentences and estranged narrative positions that dissolve the boundaries of narrative voices...

Veronica Scott Esposito’s <br><i>The Doubles</i>

Veronica Scott Esposito’s
The Doubles

Reviewed by Patrick Nathan

Through fourteen essays about fourteen films, Scott Esposito celebrates cinema’s power. After watching Terrence Malick’s Voyage of Time, wherein the earth’s and its universe’s respective lifespans are shown to be finite, Esposito posits that “What makes us human are the questions that are irresolvable. Our humanity will cease once we learn to render them irrelevant. And yet we strive to do just that.” Indeed, bracketing The Doubles as he does, beginning with Errol Morris’s A Brief History of Time and ending with Malick’s Voyage, Esposito establishes science’s paradoxical ability to at once shatter and deepen our collective mysteries. “Science stands opposite mystery,” he writes, “it wants answers that do not allow further mysteries”...

Cristina Rivera Garza’s <br><i>The Iliac Crest</i>

Cristina Rivera Garza’s
The Iliac Crest

Reviewed by Craig Epplin

If our bones will betray us, if they can betray us, it is because they have stories to tell. Like the rings of a tree, our bones have secrets to share with those who know how to listen. And in fact, much of the plot of The Iliac Crest turns on a secret. “I know you are a woman,” the houseguest breathes into the narrator’s ear one evening. The doctor does not immediately react, but the revelation of the secret, the dramatic display of the power inherent in its possession, interrupts his internal world and sense of self.

Eça de Queirós’s <br><i>The Illustrious House of Ramires</i>

Eça de Queirós’s
The Illustrious House of Ramires

Reviewed by Gary Michael Perry

When reading The Illustrious House of Ramires, it is difficult not to imagine the sound of pen scratching at paper. Barely a character appears who is not, in some way, engaged in the act of writing. From Father Soeiro’s history of the cathedral at Oliveira and Tonio’s compendium of scandals committed by Portugal’s oldest families to the novella whose composition sits at the novel’s centre, its content largely drawn from an epic Romantic poem by the protagonist’s Uncle Duarte, The Illustrious House is crammed to bursting with aspiring writers. Aggrieved letters are sent to the newspapers, archives sifted through, periodicals founded, the full spectrum of literate and literary nineteenth century life laid out before the reader.