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...
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...