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...
Reviewed by Darren Huang
The story of a Homeric return is at the heart of Ema, the Captive, the second of more than fifty novels César Aira has written to date. On the surface, the book’s storyline, set in nineteenth-century Argentina, might seem conventional: a white woman living tranquilly on the periphery of a European stronghold is kidnapped by a band of natives and sold into captivity. She serves as a concubine to various chiefs and magistrates within the Indian kingdom and dispassionately observes their way of life. After an extended period, she returns to her former village and introduces elements of native culture to her people. But Aira is a sly and ironic writer, and cannot take such a realist plot seriously...
Reviewed by Lauren Goldenberg
Language fails as a means to define love; the sentiment is too great, too felt to be held in words. The French author Emmanuelle Pagano’s first book to be translated into English, Trysting, manages to convey the emotion indirectly, definition via fiction. The simplicity of its English title belies the strangeness of the original French, Nouons-nous. Reviewing the various definitions for nouer and trysting, some current, some obsolete, some very specific (the final of six definitions for “tryst” in the Oxford English Dictionary is: An appointed gathering for buying and selling; a market or fair, esp. for cattle) it became clear that Pagano’s achievement is contained within the combined definitions of the two titles. To tryst means to meet at a designated place and time (surprisingly, the OED gives no mention of love or lover). Nouer is a bit more complicated, but en bref it means to tie up, to knot, and the reflexive form means to establish, engage, take shape, begin. Roughly, I read nouons-nous as something like knotting ourselves. Pagano’s book is a series of episodes, whether a brief glance or many years, that reveal the myriad ways love occurs. As two people are brought together, there’s a connection, a start, a moment’s knot. Some of the passages underscore one particular aspect of a relationship and are only as brief as a sentence, while others, running a couple of pages, bring together a wider array of themes. There are no names, often no genders, no ages. Just two people, crossing paths . . .
Reviewed by Alex Primiani
Where else would a confused and slightly paranoid polar bear find good inspiration but in Kafka’s stories? When the first of the three protagonists of Yoko Tawada’s Memoirs of a Polar Bear is introduced to Kafka’s “A Report to an Academy” and “Josephine the Singer,” readers unprepared for Tawada’s playfulness and sense of humor might be forgiven for thinking the scene a bit on the nose. Her capable hands, however, have brought us a novel equal parts brilliant and strange, hysterical and disturbing...
Reviewed by Rachel Hurn
“If each household hired a writer-servant to sit and concentrate on the human troubles we each must bear, every household might be free from care,” Mary Ruefle declares in My Private Property, her newest collection. In this volume, she continues to do what she does best: take a microscopic look at the human condition and try to make some sense of it. Fundamentally, this is what all writers do—make sense of our stories—which may be why so many of us are prone to depression, anxiety, and even suicide. Ruefle’s sheer skill at bottling the essence of what it means to be alive is a rare gift, and one that, based on her quote above, quite possibly burdens her. But Ruefle has found a way to be both a slave to writing and a functioning, working human, which is no small feat...
Review by Ian Maleney
What is Femenine’s relationship to time? Can we say it constructs with or submits to time? Morton Feldman said that to construct with time, to create music with a surface, was to let time be—not to parcel it out as you wish, but just to let it be. Eastman putting a clock on stage seems to say something else: we might very well let time be, but time will never do the same for us. When our time is up, it’s up.
Reviewed by Mona Gainer-Salim
Like so much of Cave’s music, the album seems poised on the edge of catastrophe, aware that the surface of daily life can be violated and punctured without warning. Here, though, this familiar mood is inflected with a rare vulnerability. In peeling back the various levels of control—musical, vocal, narrative—that have in the past made their music awe-inspiring, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds have made a record that is perhaps less perfect and less magisterial than before, but one that is experimental in the best sense
Reviewed by Anne Posten
Apparently, if we are to believe the venerable Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Robert Seethaler’s slim latest work, A Whole Life, is “a novel for sadists.” Such a proclamation seems an extreme one for a book whose diminutive size and unpretentious premise fairly trumpet harmlessness. Nor does the title belie the content. A Whole Life is in fact just that: a compressed chronicle of one man’s entire life, from birth (nearly) to death. The facts that the man in question is a resident of a tiny Austrian alpine town, and that his life spans the first three tumultuous quarters of the twentieth century do not at first glance contradict the assumption that the reader will find little fodder here for her darker impulses. Or perhaps they do. What is it, really, that a reader looks for from an encounter with a foreign life, whether fictional or real? What impulses, dark or ennobling, attract us to a work of literature in the first place?
Reviewed by Camille Gajewski
Slow, relentless forces permeate the world of László Krasznahorkai; his characters are subject to glacial currents that bear them ever onwards, an inch at a time, toward a horizon they constantly imagine but never actually behold. In so doing, they cry, or laugh, or cry laughing, or carry out the timeworn repetitions that make a life, until the moment they come up against the horizon. And there they are either denied, held at a distance from that which they seek, or, having come too close to the mystery, are obliterated.
Reviewed by Adriana X. Jacobs
Sylvia Legris’s new collection The Hideous Hidden articulates a fixation with the body and its composition that encompasses its relation to home, society and language. The relationship between the body’s interior and its exterior also preoccupies this volume, as it does human life, for which the body remains a continuous site and source of discovery and inquiry. In The Hideous Hidden, Legris takes us into the specific language of the body, a dense, multilingual lexicon so far removed from the way we generally speak about and engage with our bodies that it can feel, reading this book, that she is addressing a different species entirely . . .
Reviewed by Chad Felix
A minor miracle has happened in a port town sorely in need of miracles: Guayaquil, Ecuador. Last Palm Sunday, we are told, lightning strikes a phone booth, transforming the city’s best public telephone (“The one public phone at the Calderón that doesn’t filch your coins”) into the city’s only affordable one: in fact, it is connecting people with their friends and family for free. You can speak to them for nothing at all. As far as miracles go, this is a pretty small one: a phone is malfunctioning. But Mauro Javier Cardenas begins his extraordinary debut The Revolutionaries Try Again—a book rife with miracles both useless and unbelievable (elsewhere, a baby Christ effigy weeps a torrent of tears; elsewhere, thousands claim to have experienced the movement of the sun, which is in awe of an Earthly appearance of the Virgin) —here, with a small service to the Ecuadorean people . . .
Reviewed by Tyler Langendorfer
Midway through Emili Teixidor’s Black Bread, a question surfaces: “Does memory have a guiding thread or purpose?” The many enigmatic qualities of memory seem to be under investigation here and throughout the entire novel. Its qualities alongside its centrality in the understanding of ourselves: How does it shape the type of person we become? Would we be completely different with a whole new set of memories? Black Bread frequently alludes to memory’s instability, its wavering between continuity and transience: What images and words trigger memories to reappear? Why do some individuals stay in our mind longer than others? Yet perhaps the most disquieting aspect of Teixidor’s insistent investigation is his consideration of memory’s value in our relationships with others: Do memories demand fidelity to loved ones? If friends and family start to fade from the mind, does their importance diminish with them? As the burden of these inquiries takes hold, the adolescent narrator of Black Bread, Andreu, realizes that the dissolution of his connections with the past—-the ephemerality of meaning that this precipitates—-is a fate worse than death. . . .
Reviewed by Mark Haber
The Mexican author Yuri Herrera knows the fine line between the real world and the fantastic; his first two novels in English skirt this line to perfection. His first book to be translated, Signs Preceding the End of the World, follows a young Mexican girl, Makina, as she crosses the border into the United States, a journey fraught with peril and untold dangers. Upon reading the book, it was evident that Signs Preceding the End of the World was no typical border novel and Herrera no typical writer. The story, deftly told in spare but harrowing strokes, is infused with a mythical ambience, leaving the reader room to imagine the cultural and political consequences Herrera only hints at. The Transmigration of Bodies, his second book to appear in English, inhabits the same world, and reading it after Signs Preceding the End of the World underscores the feeling that the color has been switched on and volume raised...
Reviewed by Bruna Dantas Lobato
Stig Sæterbakken’s writing is stark, savage, uncompromising—and it only became darker as his career progressed. Invisible Hands and Don’t Leave Me, both released in Seán Kinsella’s English translations this summer, often center on solitary male protagonists who are self-destructive and whose attempts to repress significant emotional traumas manifest in sexual deviancy. In some cases, his protagonists resort to such extremes in order to make themselves seen; they are trying to reassess their own relevance within a given narrative situation or structure, as they explore the ways and degrees to which they are visible and invisible to the most beloved people in their lives...
Reviewed by William Dougherty
In his later years, Radulescu was a prolific recording artist, and after 1993, with the support of various ensembles and festivals, released a new CD of his works on average annually. As with the 2007 album, Radulescu closely supervised these recordings, often performing on or conducting them himself. (He was one of the sound icon players on the aforementioned disc.) Radulescu went so far as to make his presence at rehearsals and recording sessions a contractual obligation for access to his scores—and with good-reason, since his scores often contain notational ambiguities that require clarification or even, when it comes to certain extended techniques, physical demonstration. But this hands-on approach, while ensuring that interpretations would be close to Radulescu’s heart, had a devastating flaw: it relied too heavily on the composer’s physical presence.
Review by Anna Zalokostas
Taking place somewhere between the worlds of the living and the dead, between dream life and waking life, between what is real and what is imagined, Carmen Boullosa’s early novel Before meets the everyday with bewilderment. In this dream world of childhood, realism is nothing short of an act of magic; the supernatural suffuses the ordinary. Ghosts speak, a wardrobe transforms drawings into physical objects, the kitchen scissors breathe heavily under a bed pillow, a turtle bleeds, a petticoat is marked with stigmata, an embroidery needle pierces the maid’s hand without producing a speck of blood. And a young girl hears strange noises at night—footsteps that keep pursuing her, closing in on her in the dark . . .
Review by Pauline Fairclough
Most striking of all to me, Barnes’s Shostakovich has no discernible sense of humor. He repeats the priceless anecdote about how Shostakovich was sent a personal tutor to instruct him in Marxism-Leninism: one day his teacher asked, “Who are you in comparison with our great Leader?” and Shostakovich, recalling the text to Dargomizhsky’s comical song, in which a similar question is posed, deftly quoted in reply, “I am a worm.” In Lev Lebedinsky’s telling, Nina Shostakovich reported this conversation (at which she was present), laughing till tears ran down her cheeks; yet none of the hilarity transfers itself to Barnes’s Shostakovich. And I think there is a reason for this: the protagonist of The Noise of Time is a bleak and broken figure, one who looks back on happier times not with joy, or humor, but with a permanent sense of loss. In Barnes’s words, Shostakovich was “a man crushed into a hundred pieces of rubble, vainly trying to remember how they—he—had once fitted together.” The sense of dislocation, of a man who cannot reconnect with his younger self, is total. This Shostakovich, in his old age, sees “only what was gone” and awaits his own demise with a grim eagerness, believing he had lived too long.
Review by Sarah Gerard
For six months in his eighteenth year, Gerald Murnane believed he would be a priest. He’d attended mass with his family every Sunday since he was small and was much affected by his Catholic upbringing; he considered himself to be a very spiritual person and had even experienced, on a few occasions, what he describes as a “religious fervor.” But in 1957, Murnane had an awakening. He realized that even the greatest fervor of Sunday masses gave scant inspiration to the vibrant inner world engendered by his lifelong fascination with horseracing. In his memoir published nearly six decades later, Something for the Pain: A memoir of the turf, he traces the unique path of his artistic and spiritual development through the lens of the sport, and in so doing creates a singular and intimate glimpse into the life of a famously private writer . . .