Reviewed by Tyler Langendorfer
Despite never having been translated into Icelandic, Tristram Shandy’s radical recalibration of storytelling’s fundamentals—in particular, style, structure, and the criteria for relevant content—laid the groundwork for many other texts that would come to influence Guðbergur Bergsson’s modernist work Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller. Now, half a century after its original publication in Iceland, this magisterial work been translated into English by Lytton Smith. In this “memoir,” a popular genre in Iceland at the time it was written, Tómas, a resentful, senile, self-absorbed retired bank clerk, elaborates on the minutiae of his life spanning World War II through the year of the novel’s publication in 1967. Through Tómas’s numbered composition books, we are privy to his anal-retentive habits, and idiosyncratic thought processes whose landing points include the intricacies of chamber-pot usage, the inherent amorality of money, and the invention of the ballpoint pen. Non-linear and largely absent of temporal markers, Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller is a unruly, borderless flow of life episodes and digressions, the latter in the form of folkloric tales, theater acts, dreams and a mini-essay. Yet as much as Tómas feigns to be in complete control of this text supposed to be his autobiography, it is the co-habitants of his world who come to define him. He suggests as much at one point, through a statement in line with the Hegelian view of human relations: “Does man, as an individual, only exist to the extent that he is a context for other people?” Bergsson, who would also garner recognition as a children’s book author and translator from Spanish (most notably of García Márquez and Cervantes), cemented his legacy with this genre-defying novel. Although a controversial figure over the years for his outspoken opinions on Icelandic culture, he is now widely revered by many of his compatriots, such as the writer Sjón, who referred to him as the “grand old man of Icelandic literature”; among his cohort, only Halldór Laxness, the country’s sole winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, outranks him in literary stature...
Reviewed by Lauren Goldenberg
“I will never cease to be a Jew, of course,” the narrator of Mihail Sebastian’s For Two Thousand Years declares. “That is not a position I can resign from. You are or you’re not. It’s not a matter either of pride or shame.” The speaker of these words is unnamed, but is so closely modeled on the author that the novel itself is nearly autobiographical. In some ways it feels more like a historical document: it was published in Romania in 1934, and has only now been translated into English by Philip O Ceallaigh, a famous Irish writer and translator. For Two Thousand Years begins in December 1923, when a new constitution making Jews Romanian citizens takes effect and recounts, from the narrator’s perspective, the experience of being a Jew in Romania between the two world wars. The narrator, a law student, is trying to focus on his intellectual endeavors while suffering regular anti-Semitic attacks and beatings, which have increased in reaction to the new law: “I received two punches during today’s lectures and I took eight pages of notes. Good value, for two punches.” He chronicles that year in a notebook that he eventually loses but refers back to throughout the novel. This notebook is the novel’s heart, and through it we witness how he suffers this violence with discretion and dignity, how he tries to make sense of his being a Jew, and how he remains mostly a silent witness to debates among his friends and acquaintances on Communism and Zionism, all while he tries to forge his own space of freedom to think...
Reviewed by Meghan Forbes
The Bauhaus school—founded in Weimar, Germany in 1919 by the architect Walter Gropius, relocated to its own campus in Dessau in 1925, and shuttered in Berlin in 1933, the year Hitler became Chancellor of the Third Reich—is both one of the great failed utopic visions and one of the most enduring successes of the twentieth century. Its lasting influence in architecture and design can be seen everywhere from the IKEA catalogue to Google's logo. Yet the school remained in operation precisely as long as that brief breath of optimism between the two world wars, when artists dared to imagine a post-war ideal of rationally applying new technologies not towards the obliteration of society, but rather its betterment. Gropius emphasizes in the first Bauhaus manifesto an underlying aim “to bring together all creative effort into one whole, to reunify all the disciplines of practical art […] as inseparable components of a new architecture.” A Doll for Throwing, the most recent collection of poems by Mary Jo Bang (her eighth in total, and fourth with Graywolf Press) opens with a poem—“A Model of a Machine”—that captures elegantly the Bauhaus ideal, which Gropius had described in its founding manifesto as being “to bring together all creative effort into one whole, to reunify all the disciplines of practical art […] as inseparable components of a new architecture” . . .
Reviewed by Tristan Foster
We often create a literal buffer between us and our fears in the shape of a mask; those masks can be seen on soldiers in war, in the form of makeup for a job interview, or as surgical masks worn by theatre surgeons and peak-hour commuters alike. Throughout history, civilizations of all stripes have known well the uses of the mask—our museums are full of fine examples; Ancient Greek theatre, too, used masks to clearly express gender, emotion, character, and class. But in one way or another, they all function like a snail shell: both as protection, and, paradoxically, as indication of the fragility it shields.
This strange dichotomy explicitly undergirds the various short stories in the French writer Marcel Schwob’s The King in the Golden Mask. The author prefaces his collection with an oblique explanation of his intentions; he proffers up his imagining of what a visitor from another world might observe of our own. This visitor possesses both “the blinkered view of the artist and the generalization of the scientist,” each of which serve to frame this visitor’s perspective upon our habits and customs. “Know that all in this world is signs,” he concludes as a way of signposting the collection’s overarching theme, “and signs of signs"...
Reviewed by Paul Kilbey
Colonialism is a numinous presence hanging over Die Stücke der Windrose. It is as if conquistadors have seized all the natives’ compasses and twisted them out of shape. That the cycle began with “East” is no coincidence: it is perhaps the most straightforwardly ironic number. This catalog of orientalisms takes in jaunty Turkish bells, sinuous augmented seconds, klezmer-style clarinet solos and a vampy Hungarian dance, and while these disparate elements are arranged with skill, “East” is a composition cut through with a deliberate sense of randomness that exposes the Western vision of the East for the tacky knock-off that it is. . . .
Reviewed by Sho Spaeth
Inheritance comes in many forms, not all of them easy entries in a grim tally of money in or money out. For the death of a parent, the stakes are even higher. In the days and months before they die, in the weeks and years after they are no longer alive, the child will weigh on a different scale the benefits they have been bequeathed by birth—ethics, aptitudes, relative station in society—against the defects that have come to them by blood—congenital illness, self-destructive tendencies, a feckless family. Grief masks what some kin feel as survivor’s guilt, even as they sense a lingering, atavistic dread that some sins, too, are hereditary.
The bleakness of this perspective is undeniable in the first chapter of Minae Mizumura’s Inheritance from Mother, translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter. The protagonist, Mitsuki, considers what she has been left with on the night of her mother’s death. There is the relatively meager amount of money she and her sister will split; there is the simple fact that they are both middle-aged women in an aging nation in decline; there is the romantic, grasping desire to want a beautiful life, a predilection that Mitsuki likens to a congenital defect, passed along from one generation of her family to the next; finally, there are the ruins of her own personal and professional circumstances, left unattended as she has been obliged to take care of her mother. And so the novel begins with a character who has long thought her mother’s death would mark a release, and instead finds herself mired in the messy reality of living, suffering under constraints of a different kind...
Reviewed by Christopher Fletcher
I read João Gilberto Noll’s two novels The Quiet Creature on the Corner and Atlantic Hotel in swift succession on a rainy afternoon, a reading punctuated with the heavy sound of the light rail moving alongside. I finished one and immediately started the other, reading until it was time to move on. For weeks after, I rued that marathon reading session as I tried to disentangle the plots in my mind. Atlantic Hotel featured a narrator nearing middle-age trundling from room to room in search of himself. Quiet Creature featured a young narrator being bundled from place to place as he waits to come into his own. Or was it the other way around?
Reviewed by Henry Zhang
To read the translator’s note for Juan Rulfo’s The Golden Cockerel and Other Stories is, in a sense, to witness border politics in action. The translator, Douglas J Weatherford, says: “A desire to capture both the universal and the regional qualities of The Golden Cockerel is at the heart of my decision to retain a modest selection of words and phrases in their original Spanish. A few of those are simply left untranslated and in regular type (e.g., pesos, tequila, cerveza, amigo), an indication that these are labels that are commonly known to English speakers in the US. Other expressions that are left untranslated are italicized to indicate their less common nature (e.g. mezcal, politico, rebozo). These are words and phrases that have a significant cultural component, are problematic in translation, or add a local flavor.” It is implied that everything else might be rendered in English without much violence. But to see these three types of words—italicized, unitalicized but markedly Mexican, and, might we say, naturalized?—is to witness different stages in a process of cultural assimilation...
Reviewed by Daniel Fraser
In Nights as Day, Days as Night, translated by Richard Sieburth, Michel Leiris presents the reader with a series of dream records, along with a few scenes from his waking life, set down between 1923 and 1960. Some of the dreams last for only a few sentences; others extend over several pages, and each of them is almost entirely self-contained. Many sparkle with wit and an amusing flippancy while others sink into horror and are truly unsettling. There are sexual fantasies, physical transformations, compressed temporalities, and sunken spaces. All are narrated through the veil of wakefulness. Their elements bubble up to the surface of consciousness and then disappear. But Nights as Day, Days as Night is not merely a dream journal. Leiris, as Sieburth reminds us from the outset, “preferred to classify these hundred and so Nights . . . among his poetry” rather than part of his great autobiographical project, and it is as poems that they might be most fruitfully read, prose-poems whose subject is the act of dreaming itself . . .
Review by Tim Rutherford-Johnson
Works for cello have often appeared at important junctures in Barrett’s output. Ne songe plus à fuir was one of his earliest experiments in composing with the essential structural features of the instrument (and the player’s interactions with it), as a way of representing the instrument’s essential character without the accumulated baggage of its performance practice and historical repertory. In this case, this meant reconsidering the cello as a “resonant box with four strings,” to borrow the title of that first conversation between Barrett and Deforce. Further to this, the cellist is thought of in terms of two hands, one holding a bow and both able to move in three dimensions. A large part of the compositional work after this is occupied with exploring the possibilities opened up by this “radically idiomatic” reinvention of the instrument.
Reviewed by Mark Haber
Put simply: childhood is strange. Countless writers have tried to capture this strangeness, the landscape of novelty that is a child’s world. Such Small Hands, a slim and haunting novel by Andrés Barba, not only succeeds at this but does so in one hundred haunting pages. Each one of these pages is exquisite, and the end result is a perfectly expressed work that transmits the perverse and bizarre experience that is youth, where games signify life and death and where relationships are teased and pushed to the breaking point. Childhood: part fairy tale, part nightmare...
A dark, elegiac exploration of interiority and traumatic consciousness, Ruddock’s Shot-Blue engages similar themes, troubling the distinction between inside and outside, between embodied selves and the surrounding world. Set on Canada’s sparsely-populated Arctic frontier, at a remote fishing outpost and summer resort on the fictitious Prioleau Lake, it is a novel of environmental and emotional extremes. Caught between the wilderness to the north and the suffocating insularity of their own rural, resource-poor community, characters are held hostage to one another’s moods and impulses.
Reviewed by Rosie Clarke
“I am afraid that the moment I cast off the garb of a poor, powerless, unidentified ‘city-dweller,’ I will become a refugee, stripped of my citizenship, with no idea of the direction I should take.” This perhaps best captures what drives the intense anxiety at the heart of A Greater Music and Recitation, Bae Suah’s two most recent works in Deborah Smith’s exceptional translation. It is an anxiety specific to a particular demographic: urban residents with an excess of options, and a deficit of purpose. Those who rely on their city to provide validation, when in fact the city is utterly ambivalent to human life; standing as a product of humanity’s creation, but providing no reason for humanity’s existence...
Reviewed by Canaan Morse
Two thousand years ago, Aristotle demanded that time, place, and action be unified in drama, but that compact had been around long before he, and continues to hold sway in the mainstream today. Even as innumerable creative writers have bent or broken that pact in innumerable ways, most of us begin a book with the fundamental assumption that it will be upheld on a sentence-to-sentence level. Can Xue has no interest in keeping such a promise, and never has. Her narratives have no memory – perhaps because in her worlds, memory is a form of nightmare. Better readers than I have pointed out that terms like “linear plot” and “comprehensibility” become fraught in Can Xue’s work; she invests little or nothing at all in the unity of time and place, and an anxious irrationality charges the space between her sentences...
Reviewed by Mark Molloy
To turn from Murder Most Serene to the second of Wakefield’s two recent Wittkop editions, Exemplary Departures—first published in 1995—is to encounter a remarkably different stylistic approach (that Wittkop composed the two books consecutively only amplifies the breadth of her proficiency). Whereas Murder Most Serene’s narrative was, in effect, an anti-narrative, hostile to reader and dramatic convention alike, in Exemplary Departures English language readers finally encounter Gabrielle Wittkop as master storyteller, indulging in rhapsodies of lyricism and virtuosically deploying the conventions of the gothic genre to achieve maximum aesthetic pleasure...
Review by Michael Schachter
The achievement of the performances on this album is so monumental that one finds oneself entangled in mental gymnastics to make sense of it—or more precisely, to make less sense of it. Faced with improvisations of such virtuosity, imagination, and structural integrity, even practitioners will be tempted by the narrative of Jarrett as a magical, mystical one-off, reaching heights inaccessible to mere mortals. (My own jazz piano teacher in high school once said to me: “Some players make you want to work, and some make you want to quit. Keith Jarrett makes you want to quit.”) And it is true that Jarrett puts more apparent distance between himself and common-practice jazz language than most, with unusually sparse recourse to idiomatic patterns and licks. Yet more than any other of Jarrett’s offerings, A Multitude of Angels gives a window into the essential rootedness of Jarrett’s craft, its foundations in tradition and listening and hard work—that is, in deep practice.
Reviewed by Jan Wilm
Jesus isn’t God, Jesus is Godot. Beckett’s Godot is an expected absentee, and in J. M. Coetzee's 2013 novel, The Childhood of Jesus, Jesus, both as an exalted religious figure and as a fictional character of that name, is neither present nor expected; instead, Jesus remains a symbolically charged absence. Rather than centering on the salad days of the Son of God and his parents Mary and Joseph, Coetzee’s narrative tells the story of three pedestrian figures bearing the names of David, Inés, and Simón. Knowing the backstory of this impromptu family may allow readers to fully appreciate Coetzee’s subsequent and latest novel, The Schooldays of Jesus, but it is hardly necessary and, rather, adds to a reader’s appreciation of the text, as The Schooldays of Jesus can be read both in dialogue with Coetzee’s earlier book and with a larger artistic tradition extending back to the work of Kafka and Dostoyevsky, and the music and life of Johann Sebastian Bach . . .
Review by Kenji Fujishima
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Saariaho’s work has become of the few twenty-first-century operas to reach anything close to global popularity, and the reason for that can be glimpsed in one of the other operas the Metropolitan Opera has staged this season, the more canonically established Tristan und Isolde. Like Richard Wagner’s masterpiece, L’Amour de loin is also about forbidden love—albeit one hindered by distance rather than social and emotional boundaries. Saariaho’s opera even has a Brangäne equivalent in a seafaring Pilgrim who acts as a go-between for both Jaufré Rudel, the hopeless-romantic troubadour/Prince of Blaye, and Clémence, the Countess of Tripoli who yearns to return to her childhood home of Toulouse. And like Tristan, L’Amour de loin culminates in a Liebestod of its own. In Saariaho’s case, it may only be one character who physically dies rather than both, but the implication of a death that’s as much fulfillment as tragedy is remarkably similar.
Reviewed by Tyler Langendorfer
Szilard Borbély was one of Hungary’s leading contemporary poets, as well as a noted translator, literary historian and dramatist. A recipient of many of his country’s most prestigious literary prizes, his oeuvre was largely unknown in the West at the time he took his own life in 2014. To the good fortune of English-language readers, two of his most notable works became available this past November, each in a masterful translation by Ottilie Mulzet: the poetry collection Berlin-Hamlet, first published in 2003, and his only novel, The Dispossessed, a sensation among the Hungarian reading public upon its original publication in 2013...
Reviewed by Ray Barker
The tautness and concision of Samanta Schweblin's short unsettling novel Fever Dream is evident even from its cryptic opening sentence: They’re like worms. These words are spoken to Amanda, a grown woman who is dying, by David, a child at her side in an anonymous hospital. The narrative is so stripped of identifying information—time, location, sentiment—that it feels, at moments, like a closet drama. David and Amanda’s dialogue forms and drives the narrative of this tense, dark domestic tale—equal parts fable and fantasy, dream and horrific yet elusive nightmare...