“Childhood is ancient”: Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy

The bell rings, we get up. The bell rings again, we go to bed. We retire to our rooms; we saw life pass beneath our windows, observed it in books and on our walks, watched the seasons change. It was always a reflection, a reflection that seemed to freeze on our windowsills. And perhaps now we saw a tall marbly figure stand out before us: it is Frédérique passing through our lives and maybe we’d like to go back, but we don’t need anything, anymore. We imagined the world. What else can we imagine now if not our own deaths? The bell rings and it’s all over.

Switzerland, the Appenzell: the area where Robert Walser took his walks, including his final snowy outing, and the location of the boarding school where the narrator of Fleur Jaeggy’s hauntingly pristine first novel is living, at the age of fourteen. She regrets that they didn’t know of the writer’s existence at the time, but the perfection of his death, and the season, set the tone for the story that she is about to share—a chilling winter tone that persists even as the months and years pass and the harsh, spare beauty of Sweet Days of Discipline works its way right through to the bone.

sweetdaysThis novella is marked by a tightly controlled narrative voice. It is a tale of obsession. There is little action, it is the narrator’s emotional intensity that drives the story forward. Looking back on the years she spent in a series of boarding schools, from the age of eight to seventeen, she zeroes in on this one particular year, at the Bausler Institut, where Frédérique—beautiful, remote, and obedient—first entered her life. She sets out to conquer this newcomer who, only a few months older, has come from the outside with a certain detached worldliness that instantly sets her apart from the other girls.

The narrator, whose education is directed, long distance, by her mother in Brazil, is a seasoned veteran of boarding schools where, as she puts it, “a sort of senile childhood was protracted almost to insanity.” She knows the game, and how to play it, which she does with a healthy measure of cynicism:

Part of your education is learning how to thank with a smile. An awful smile. There is a mortuary look somehow to the faces of the boarders, a faint mortuary smell to even the youngest and most attractive girls. A double image, anatomical and antique. In the one the girl runs about and laughs, in the other she lies on a bed covered in a lace shroud. It’s her own skin has embroidered it.

She is, however, only an average student—a fact that does not trouble her at all. At one point she admits that all she remembers from her school years is Baudelaire. No surprise. She seems to have almost absorbed his dark poetic soul. Her narrative is liberally strewn with metaphorical references to graves, coffins, corpses, and death.

She befriends Frédérique, in good part because the others find the new girl too distant, and keep their distance in return. They take walks together, and she listens with sometimes exhausted attention, as Frédérique talks of literature, philosophy, and travel. Her own obsession borders, she supposes, on love. But it is a chaste, almost brittle affection.

Spring thawThere is a simmering violence that runs beneath the surface of the narrative. The narrator, long neglected by her own family, harbours a bitterness that colours her detailed, frequently nasty, appraisals of the appearance and idiosyncrasies of others—the headmistress and her husband, her German roommate, the little black girl, and more. When Micheline, a gregarious new student arrives, she suddenly turns her back on her precious Frédérique, more it seems, out of a sadistic streak than affection for the newcomer. She registers no remorse until Frédérique’s father dies, causing her to leave the school for good.

This novella is filled with conflicted, often dark, emotion. The tension lies not so much in what happens, as in the sombre frostiness of the prose. Frédérique, it turns out, is deeply troubled; however, the nameless narrator, is perhaps more unsettling and tragic. Either way, the result is a tale—captured so deftly in this translation by Tim Parks—of stark, poetic beauty:

I persevered in the pleasure of taking my sadness to the limit, the way one does with some practical joke. The pleasure of disappointment. It wasn’t new to me. I had been relishing it ever since I was eight years old, a boarder in my first, religious, school. And perhaps they were the best years, I thought. Those years of discipline. There was a kind of elation, faint but constant throughout all those days of discipline, the sweet days of discipline.

Fleur Jaeggy is an Italian speaking, Swiss-born writer. Sweet Days of Discipline is published by New Directions. Two newly translated works will be coming out, July 2017, from New Directions in North America and And Other Stories in the UK.

 

The enigmatic fiction of Roger Lewinter: Story of Love in Solitude and The Attraction of Things

It is unusual to come to the end of a book and be completely at a loss as to how to write about the reading experience one has just had, and yet feel compelled to make some sort of attempt, however indirect or uncertain that might be. And that is exactly how I find myself now, having just finished Roger Lewinter’s novella The Attraction of Things. Together with Story of Love in Solitude, a very brief collection of three short stories, these two recent releases from New Directions (translated by Rachel Careau) serve as an English language introduction to the French writer and translator’s beguiling, meditative, and sometimes simply perplexing, fiction.

lovesolitudeThe latter volume, originally published in 1989, is one of the most unusual and strangely captivating books I read all year. The stories are focused and contained, reading almost like prose poetry, but they offer a taste of Lewinter’s idiosyncratic unspooling sentences that can wind around seemingly unrelated clauses before finding their way, from beginning to end, by such a circuitous route that one often feels inclined to retrace the pattern back to its source. It is an experience akin to untangling a long garden hose, or, more appropriately, following the designs of a richly decorated tapestry such as the Kashmir shawls that Lewinter’s narrator—whose writing and translating projects mirror the author’s so directly that the line between fiction and memoir appear to blur—obsesses over in the story “Passion” and throughout the course of the longer novella. Even attempting to write about Lewinter’s prose invites a tendency to add divertive notes, set off with dashes, not entirely unlike the style he employs.

See? Already it feels as if I am spinning my wheels. The reward though, especially in the shorter pieces, lies in the attention to detail and emotion, often of a detached or self-reflective nature, that is granted the events, objects or individuals with whom the narrator is engaged. The simplest story, the opening titular piece of Story of Love in Solitude, lasts for less than three pages and concerns the persistent presence of a spider. It captures so acutely the type of everyday irritation that quickly turns to a sense of loss when the routine is broken and an odd affection is realized after the fact.

athingsThe other two stories are more complex in the attractions and obsessions they entail and introduce characteristics that are present—and I want to say, more inclined to cause a measure of frustration—throughout the novella: Lewinter’s tendency to use explicit dates and translation projects to track time while he dismantles and reconstructs the chronological (in)consistencies in his stories—one which involves an epic battle against insect infestation and fate to save two camellias, and the other, which traces the protagonist’s drawn out and ultimately fruitless obsession with a young man he observes in the market. What makes these set-pieces work is the way that, for all his musing and meandering, Lewinter writes with an almost symphonic intensity, building tension into his narratives, and bringing each one to a charged conclusion. These small discursive journeys relate ordinary events that are oddly familiar, sensitive, and moving.

The same forces are at play in The Attraction of Things, which is the earlier of the two works, originally published in 1985, and, again, the overlap of characteristics between the narrator of the novella and, at the very least, the literary career of the author, create the sense that this is one voice, an alter-ego or fictionalized version of Lewinter himself. As he states, Attraction is:

…the story of a being who lets himself go toward what attracts him—beings, works, things—and who, through successive encounters, finds the way out of the labyrinth, to the heart, where passion strikes. This is the story of a letting go toward that passion.

The path that this being follows is one that appears to be characterized by an attempt to avoid deep emotional engagement with people by allowing objects—78 RPM records, Kashmir shawls, porcelain collectibles—to distract him. Against this pursuit of things, his mother and father become ill and eventually die, he allows a relationship with a woman to drift away, and lets a man take advantage of him. His passivity approaches denial of mortality, commitment, and sexuality. The flea market and the lure of things is a refuge. So too, is his work, which primarily involves immersing himself in the words of others.

Lewinter, the author and his narrator alike, has translated Karl Kraus, Elias Canetti, Robert Walser, and Rilke among others. But of special significance perhaps, is his deep association with the work of Georg Groddeck (1866-1934), the German physician widely regarded as a pioneer of psychosomatic medicine. If nothing else, this presents a possible context for understanding the manner in which the protagonist and his parents each face, and deal with, illness and physical ailments. There is a strong self-determination and stubbornness shared by the three family members that is, at the same time, a source of frustration to the son in his own distracted state. It is also interesting that Lewinter—separating him from his narrator is becoming redundant in this context—mentions writing about the connection between Bosch and Groddeck in an essay on paradise in psychoanalysis (Groddeck et Le Royaume millénaire de Jérôme Bosch—1974). Immediately this adds a new dimension to the obsession with Kashmir shawls—the colours and designs integrating cardinal points, black hearts, and angels—that runs throughout the novella and resurfaces in the later story “Passion.” To what extent are the textiles collected, cherished and hung on the walls an attempt to reflect a dream of paradise? But, most critically, when winding one’s way through the elliptical sentences that stretch on and on, often for a page or more, the narrator’s absorption with the work of a man who envied Freud’s discovery of psychoanalysis offers a way to “read” Lewinter’s distinct style of writing.

Any quotation from either book that captures a fragment of one of the gloriously nested sentences, would fail to do justice to the effect, or serve as a necessary sample for discussion, so permit me one longer, complete quote (by happy coincidence, this passage, which I selected as I was reading, happens to end a longer excerpt that was reproduced on Lit Hub):

The health of my father, since the previous September, had been deteriorating, the drugs having less and less control over the tremor that was now paralyzing him in spurts, disjointing his day with gaps to which, not wanting to hear of another hospitalization, he reconciled himself, and which I likewise trivialized; while, returning after the three months’ interruption occasioned by Antigone to Le chercheur, I finished the word-for-word translation in June, to find myself confronted with the difficulty unresolved, since I still didn’t know how to convey in French what showed through in the German, in my version rendering, as I was aware, only a state of amazement, not, in its magnetization, the torrent  of a life; and, the more I advanced, the more I was losing my way, when, on August 13, I had to have my father admitted, despite his refusal—“because you die there”—, to Thônex so that they could try, by gradually changing his medication, to stabilize his condition; but it was the balance found upon the death of my mother, three years earlier, that was undoubtedly slipping away.

Lewinter’s narrative clearly fits into the broad category of stream of consciousness writing. It is not as loosely unformed as some variations; the insertion of exact dates and concurrent writing and translation projects provides a structural formality and logic to the account. Not being well acquainted (yet) with the pioneers of the nouveau roman, I am not as well equipped as another reviewer (see John Trefry here) might be to draw refernces from that direction—my reading is necessarily instinctual and informed by the spaces where I related with particular poignancy to the larger story. The way the narrator’s mind wanders is reminiscent of the way we talk to ourselves and allows him to capture something somewhere between unarticulated thoughts and formal discourse. This is the private debate, the ongoing perseveration, the way we justify our obsessions with objects or people, our impatience with others—especially with those closest who invariably raise the most complex emotions—and any other shortcomings we care to catalogue and excuse as we structure our own internal narratives. As we articulate ourselves into being.

As the narrator’s equilibrium is slowly undone, that is, as his father’s deteriorating health challenges him to break down his own defenses, he is forced to finally open himself up and truly embrace the man he must admit he has never really understood. Father and son, mirrors in more ways than either wishes to recognize, are drawn, both resisting the pull, into a full acknowledgement of their affection for one another. And what is the first thing our narrator does to mark this breakthrough? He looks for an object to commemorate the occasion. There is constant interplay between emotional exhilaration and exhaustion that drives The Attraction of Things, at the level of the sentence and across the text as a whole, that to no small degree, contributes to the state in which a reader emerges at the end. In the span of 79 small pages one has experienced something at once fantastic and draining.

Not unlike a session on the analyst’s couch. And very much like the experience of trying to untangle and make sense of our own lives.

Lewinter is not going to be for everyone. If I was uncertain in the early chapters of Things after loving the smaller pieces in Story of Love, I became increasingly engaged as the father’s health deteriorated, in part because there were echoes of my own father’s decline and death over the first six months of this year. At times I almost had to laugh out loud at the older man’s stubborn resolve and refusal to give in to a weakening, crumbling body—my father was exactly the same. Now, having taken the time to write about this novella, I have come to respect and marvel at what it demonstrates about how an essentially ordinary, even mundane story can be told—no, orchestrated—and granted an operatic arc that creates an experience a reader will have a hard time shaking. There is a lot in this slender volume.

In the end, I am not certain I have articulated or elucidated anything especially profound about these two small books. To date, there is one more piece of fiction in Lewinter’s oeuvre and, as I understand it, Rachel Careau is still dedicated to translating his works. I know I will be watching for more.

Story of Love in Solitude and The Attraction of Things are published by New Directions. Each book is bilingual, with the complete French text following the English.

In good company: The Walk by Robert Walser

On Christmas Day, sixty years after Swiss writer, Robert Walser, took his fateful last winter stroll, I went for a walk through my neighbourhood. It was cold, -23C, but the low sun shone on a fresh 15 cm of snow, making it an ideal day for photographs. This being the first Christmas after the deaths of three of the people closest to me, it was a time of invigorated spirit and creativity mixed with sadness. Not entirely unlike the emotions recounted in the book I opened after returning home—Walser’s novella, The Walk.

walkNotably the first of Walser’s work to be translated into English, the path that led to the present edition of this book, a part of New Direction’s Pearl series, is interesting and informative. The original translation by Christopher Middleton was published 1955, and based on the 1917 stand-alone publication of The Walk. When the same piece was released as part of the 1920 collection, Seeland, the author had edited his first version—streamlining some sections, padding out others. With this in mind, translator Susan Bernofsky, applied Walser’s edits, only as necessary, to Middleton’s work. The resulting volume is a unique collaboration and, as Bernofsky notes in her introduction, the two versions offer fascinating insight into Walser’s “evolution as a writer.”

The narrator is a writer and a self-styled flâneur whose environment is not the bustling metropolis, but a semi-rural/semi-suburban setting featuring bucolic scenery and peopled with eccentric characters. The novella opens with our hero leaving the gloomy isolation of his daily confrontation with the empty page, to set off on a series of errands. He is in a jaunty, positive mood. It’s evident that being out on the street is where he feels most free, confident, and at ease.  Opinionated, observant, and self-conscious, the narrative that unfolds is marked by an excessive chattiness. Whether he is addressing the reader or someone he encounters, a certain manic energy drives the perambulator’s account:

In the water of a fountain a dog refreshes itself, in the blue air swallows twitter. One or two ladies in astonishingly short skirts and astoundingly high, snug, fine, elegant, dainty colored booties make themselves as conspicuous as anything else. Moreover two summer or straw hats catch my eye. The story about the straw hats is this: it is that in the bright, gentle air I suddenly see two enchanting hats; under the hats stand two fairly prosperous-looking gentlemen, who by means of a bold, elegant, courteous waving of hats seem to be bidding each other good morning, which is an occasion upon which the hats are evidently more important than their wearers and owners. The writer is nonetheless very humbly asked to be a bit careful to avoid jokes as well as other superfluousnesses. It is hoped that he understands this, once and for all.

This excessive attention to detail, and the tendency to address himself in the third person with slightly self-deprecating humour, creates a distinctively Walserian tone that would influence Bernhard and be so admired by Walter Benjamin and W.G. Sebald.

As he continues on his walk, Walser’s narrator, will stop into a bookshop and bakery, dine with a female friend, and attend to a variety of errands. He waxes lyrical, sometimes taking his praise well over the top when describing some of the houses, gardens, and natural settings he passes by, while he explodes with outrage at the slightest provocation. Inspired to impromptu speech-making, he bends over backward to flatter several women he encounters, and recites from memory a long-winded insulting diatribe to the unknown recipient of a letter he mails:

“He who works honestly, and devotedly exerts himself, is in the eyes of people like you, an outspoken ass. In this I do not err; for my little finger can tell me that I am right. I must dare to tell you to your face that you abuse your position because you know full well how many annoyances and tedious complications would be entailed if anyone were to rap your knuckles. In the grace and favor which you enjoy, ensconced in your privileged prescriptive position, you are still wide open to attack, for you feel without a doubt how insecure you are.”

In his outbursts, it becomes increasingly apparent that the writer/walker is channelling his own insecurities such as in the much-foreshadowed incident in which he angrily confronts a tailor whom he is determined to take for task for the fit of a suit—one it’s uncertain he either wants or, more likely, can afford. At his next stop, he proceeds to grovel before a tax official, explaining how his writerly profession does not provide a reliable income and he thus requires that he be taxed at the lowest feasible rate. When the taxman points out that he always seems to be out walking rather than plying his trade, the narrator launches into a detailed explanation of the critical importance of his daily excursions to the gathering and processing of the ideas that he will commit to paper when he returns to his dwelling:

“Walk,” was my answer, “I definitely must, to invigorate myself and to maintain contact with the living world, without perceiving which I could neither write the half of one more single word, nor produce a poem in verse or prose. Without walking, I would be dead, and would long since been forced to abandon my profession, which I love passionately.”

As the narrator reaches his destination, the end point of his outing where he will rest and reflect, all pomposity and bravado give way to the underlying sadness and loss that he carries with him. He walks then, not just for inspiration, but to try escape a gloom that is not confined to his room alone.

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The Walk was the only one of Walser’s works to be published in English during his lifetime. Now, sixty years after his death, his many novels and short story collections continue to appear regularly in translation. For a man who spent so much of his life confined to mental health facilities, nearly forgotten, and who fell silently in the snow on a solitary walk, this particular novella, so lovingly tended by two of his best known translators, is a fitting honour to his memory.

Another winter solstice is upon us: 2016 – The year in review

Winter solstice. The longest night of the year.

Moving forward, the days grow steadily longer and, in less than two weeks, we will leave a dark, disturbing year behind us.

But it would be reckless to imagine that 2017 will be brighter. However, with luck, we can be forewarned, forearmed, and determined not to relax our guard. We can stand together against the rising tides of hatred, and remember what is truly at stake.

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Since I started this blog two and a half years ago, winter solstice has become my annual check-in point. Last December, I reflected on the key elements of a year that began with a move to writing seriously about books and culminated with my first review for Numéro Cinq. Against that trajectory, I wrote about my trip to South Africa, and the pulmonary embolism and cardiac arrest that followed within a few weeks of my return. I imagined that the eventful year I had experienced would not likely, for better or worse, be exceeded this year.

Cue 2016.

This has been a year of heartache, anger, and dismay. Around the world and close to home. I watched the violence in Syria, the outcome of the Brexit vote, and the spectacle of the American election, among the other tragic and unexpected events that have unfolded. And as economic uncertainty and anxiety has grown in my own hometown—a city that lives and dies with the price of oil—the crime and homicide rate has risen sharply this year. It does not feel like the same community any more.

Then there is the lengthy roll call of the writers, artists, and performers who have left us. But to be honest, I cannot say that I have felt these losses as acutely as many others… I’ve been distracted by the immediate, personal losses that marked this year. My mother, my father, and one of my closest friends, all gone within the span of two months. And my grief—that most fundamental human emotion—is complicated, inarticulate, and wearing.

It will take time.

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But, 2016 has also been a time of amazing growth and opportunity for me as a writer. I don’t know how often I resolved, with the dawn of a new year that: This year I will write. Last December, with that first critical review under my belt, I could not have imagined that I would have, in addition to regular contributions to Numéro Cinq, published reviews at 3:AM, Minor Literature[s], The Quarterly Conversation, and The Rusty Toque. And I would not have dared to dream that I would see my essays and prose pieces published on line and in print, or that I would be invited to join the editorial team of The Scofield. As 2017 approaches, I have a handful of reviews scheduled and several prose projects underway. I’m also feeling inspired to return to photography after a lengthy hiatus, and to see how I can incorporate photos into my written work.

I have much to look forward to, in spite of, or rather, against the new darkness that threatens.

Art and literature are more important than ever at times like this.

So, this seems to be an appropriate time to look back over this year’s reading, and highlight the books that stand out for me.

I’ve read about 50 books to date, a little more than half of what I read in 2015. I don’t even want to hazard a guess as to how many books I bought, received as review copies, or brought home from the library. I feel, as usual, like I fell short of my intentions. However, I have to remember that I was writing, working on critical reviews, and dealing with considerable life stresses over the past twelve months.

More than ever before, I read like a writer this year. That is, I was especially attuned to voice, structure and approach to storytelling. Consequently, the books that made my year-end list tend to reflect this focus. Of course, any “best-of list” leaves out many excellent books. I’ve managed a baker’s dozen here, and it’s probably a reflection of the increased number of off-blog reviews I wrote that this year’s list is predominately composed of new releases. I was surprised to see that once I’d made my selection.

In reverse chronological order, my top reads of 2016 include the following:

Story of Love in Solitude by Roger Lewinter (France), translated by Rachel Careau
I will write about this collection of three short stories once I have completed The Attraction of Things. My verdict is still out on that title, but this tiny book is simply wonderful.

The Inevitable Gift Shop by Will Eaves (UK)
Fragmentary, cross genre writing that works fascinates me. Billed as a “memoir by other means”, it is Eaves’ unique tone that makes this blend of memoir, literary criticism, and poetry so compelling. His thoughtful reflections on reading and writing made this an ideal meditation to turn to after a year of reading critically and exploring my own literary voice.

gravediggerThe Absolute Gravedigger by Vítěslav Nezval (Czech Republic), translated by Stephan Delbos & Tereza Novická)
I have found myself turning to poetry more and more as the world seems increasingly unstable and, well, surreal. This newly translated collection of poetry by one of the best known Czech Surrealists should be essential reading at this time. Originally published in 1937, the darkness he could see on the horizon are all too familiar once again.

The Country Road by Regina Ullmann (Swiss), translated by Kurt Beals
I read this collection of short stories when I was in a very low mood. But in the spare, sombre prose of these tales I found a beauty that, rather than deepening my depression, brought strange comfort. Admired, in her lifetime, by the likes of Rilke, Mann, and Musil, Ullmann’s work is mostly forgotten today. This volume, released in English translation in 2015, is a rare treasure—one that I encountered at just the right moment.

panorama-coverPanorama by Dušan Šarotar (Slovenia), translated by Rawley Grau
For me, as a reader and a writer, one of the most important books I read this year is this literary meditation on migration, language, landscape, and loss. This novel finally broke through my own stubborn determination to hold to a sharp delineation between fiction and nonfiction, and has made me re-evaluate potential approaches to themes I wish to examine. What Šarotar achieves here with his own unique take on what might be deemed a “Sebaldian” approach, is the creation of an atmospheric, captivating, and intelligent work.

The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector (Brazil), translated by Idra Novey
Oh wow! In a way, I am glad I didn’t read Lispector before writing and publishing my essay “Your Body Will Betray You,” because she is exploring the process of coming into being so beautifully that I might not have been able to write at all after reading this. Employing an unconventional narrative, Lispector’s G.H. experiences a vivid, metaphysical crisis triggered by the sight of a cockroach. The result is a remarkable, thoroughly engaging read. I have at least three more of her books waiting for the new year.

Proxies by Brian Blanchfield (US)
I bought a number of essay collections this year and currently have several on the go. This collection impressed me not only for the way the essays were composed—written without consulting outside sources—but for some of the ideas explored, and for reinforcing the value and possibilities of the personal essay/memoir form. I also greatly appreciated his guiding caveat: Permitting Shame, Error and Guilt, Myself the Single Source.

SergioSergio Y. by Alexandre Vidal Porto (Brazil), translated by Alex Ladd
This book is significant and important for dealing with gender identity and transition in a sensitive and original way. I am, as a transgender person, critical of much of what passes as literary writing on this subject. This is a most impressive work with a startling and unique approach. As I noted in my review, Sergio Y. is novel that approaches the transgender experience from the inside and the outside, allowing for the comfort with names and pronouns to vary, over time and from person to person, reflecting the complexities of relationships that others, even loving family members, can have when an accepted and assumed identity is challenged. That is the book’s greatest strength.

surrThe Surrender by Scott Esposito (US)
This book was on my radar from the moment I first heard of it. Again, despite my typical gender related skepticism, I was drawn to this transgender-themed memoir/film critique/literary diary. I wanted to know how Scott would present his story—one that is not commonly heard. Although his journey is very different than mine, we share a certain sensibility. This is a brave and most wonderful book by a man who has long been one of my heroes. He has since become one of the many literary friends I have come to know and cherish this year.

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Atlas of an Anxious Man by Christoph Ransmayr (Austria), translated by Simon Pare
This book was a total surprise when it arrived courtesy of the good people at Seagull Books. This most unusual travelogue, a series of brief “encounters” across the globe, contains some of the most stunning descriptive language I have ever read. Each episode begins with the words “I saw…” and ends with a wise, evocative observation. From the North Pole, to South America, from deep inside the mountains of New Zealand, to a parking lot in San Diego, this is a journey that will not be easily forgotten. Highly recommended.

Quiet Creature on the Corner by João Gilberto Noll (Brazil), translated by Adam Morris
My third Brazilian book on this list is this enigmatic novella that led to one of the most entertaining literary discussions of the year. What is it about? Well that is the challenge. I had to read it three times before I could begin to get a handle on it. The narrator, a young man who finds himself in a strange situation that is rapidly growing stranger, is, in his oddly passive tone, almost more disturbing than whatever might be happening. Opaque and surreal, this book gets under your skin.

The Crocodiles by Youssef Rakha (Egypt), translated by Robin Moger
This novel still holds fast in my memory although I read it back in February. It is, as I described it in my review, a prose poem of simmering power, unwinding across 405 numbered paragraphs, tracing a torturous path from the first stirrings of poetic assurance within a trio of young men in the 1990s to the doomed protests of the Arab Spring. It is a dark, intense exploration of youthful political idealism, that builds on repeated images, themes and refrains to create a compelling narrative force as it moves toward its stunning conclusion. Again, this is another work that is increasingly relevant in today’s world.

On-the-edgeOn the Edge by Rafael Chirbes (Spain), translated by Margaret Jull Costa
Finally, the very first book I read in 2016 is probably my favourite book of the year. I wrote about this novel at length for Numéro Cinq and I regret that it has not generated more discussion. In what is essentially an extended monologue with brief cameos from other characters, Chirbes creates a memorable, engaging, and tragic character in seventy-year-old Esteban, a man who has lost absolutely everything in the economic collapse of 2008.  Thoroughly human in his wisdom, his resolve, his shortcomings, and his despair; this is a powerful and important book that deals frankly with many of the critical issues—including migration, xenophobia, and economic decline—that are more vital than ever as we step into 2017.

Souls in disarray: The Country Road by Regina Ullmann

It is no coincidence that the landscape of the earth is identical to that of the heart.

The work of Swiss poet and writer, Regina Ullmann, is permeated with an abiding sadness that seems to speak to the core of human existence. Her language, contemplative without moralizing, pierces the surface of the façades we present to the world. Encountering her work, one has the sense that she is drawing on a deep, dark well. But light filters through, creating a canvas that evokes rural and small town life in the early decades of the twentieth century—a world inhabited by farm labourers, young girls and women harbouring secrets, lonely old folk, circus performers, and hunchbacks.

2016-11-11-23-11-09Ullmann was born in Gallen, Switzerland, in 1884, into the family of a Jewish-Austrian businessman. Her father died when she was only a few years old. In 1902, she and her mother moved to Munich, where she would first read a number of the key poets of the day, including Rainer Maria Rilke who would become an important mentor and patron. However, Ullmann’s personal life was difficult. She had two daughters out of wedlock, the second with psychoanalyst Otto Gross, who left her emotionally wounded. Depression dogged her, worsening after her mother’s suicide in 1938. Her conversion to Catholicism in 1911, a move that greatly informed the tone of her work, was not sufficient to prevent her expulsion from the German Writers Association in 1935 on the basis of her Jewish heritage, so she left Germany, spending several years in Austria before relocating to her Swiss birthplace, where she would remain for over twenty years. She returned to Germany only a few months before her death in early 1961.

Throughout her career, Ullmann, won critical praise from the likes of Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse and Robert Musil—in addition to her champion Rilke—but she remained largely unknown and often struggled to make ends meet. She was, perhaps a step out of time, a modernist trailing ghosts of the past, but with the release of her 1921 story collection, The Country Road in English translation (by Kurt Beals, New Directions, 2015), her fragile, haunting work is offered a new lease on life.

And I, for one, was ready to meet her.

From the opening paragraphs of the title story, I was struck by the spare, unforgiving earnestness and sombre beauty of the prose:

Summer, but a younger summer than this one; the summer back then was no more than my equal in years. True, I still wasn’t happy, not happy to my core, but I had to be in the way that everyone is. The sun set me ablaze. It grazed on the green knoll where I sat, a knoll with almost sacred form, where I had taken refuge from the dust of the country road. Because I was weary. I was weary because I was alone. This long country road before and behind me… The bends that it made around this knoll, the poplars—even heaven itself could not relieve my bleakness. I was ill at ease, because just a short way into my walk, this road had already dragged me into its misery and squalor. It was an uncanny country road. An all-knowing road. A road reserved for those who had been, in some way, left alone.

In a sense, this opening sets the tone for the entire collection, evoking a landscape with its illusory freedom that will reappear again and again, balanced against the confined spaces—rented rooms, taverns, houses—occupied by people who often live alone or are drawn into shared solitude. Her narrators tend to affect a dispassionate distance, a non-judgemental piety, whether telling their own stories or imagining the thoughts and motivations of others; however, there is a persistent awareness of social stigmatization against which the most disadvantaged of her characters are regarded or disregarded. Ullmann’s world is one in which deeply burdened souls cross paths, rarely unveiling the true nature of the crosses that they bear.

It is difficult to convey the mood of these stories without implying that this is a catalogue of darkness and despair. There is rather a grounded and humane sadness, an awareness of loss that recurs. But there is more. Throughout the collection, an animated natural world—flowers, forests, gardens, vegetables, berries, stars and blue skies—regularly reminds the reader that an unquenchable beauty does exist against the odds. The story “Strawberries,” one of several tales narrated by a young girl who, like the author, has an older sister and a single mother, captures perfectly the summer magic of childhood:

Perhaps you will argue that the three of us had never learned to go without. But what does it mean to go without—assuming that we really couldn’t do it—if not to take pleasure in looking at things. We returned from our trips to the market feeling sated, and often we hadn’t bought a single bouquet, a single basket of early cherries. And the treasure chests of our minds was wide open. But the little mirror inside that chest had only to reflect the ground; it showed the stand piled high with fruits and vegetables. But we felt how that world, like jewelry and old music, was transformed and passed over into us.

Ullmann’s other worldliness that sees her writing suspended somewhere between modernism and an earlier form of gothic folk tale is best illustrated in “The Old Tavern Sign,” one of the strongest and most striking pieces in the entire collection. It begins with an old tavern “in a hidden corner of Styria,” that stood, “as if it had been left vacant, like an etching made by one soul to tell another just what a house really is.” The story follows the troubled emotions of a young farmhand who falls for a beautiful young girl—deaf-mute and simple-minded—who had been taken in and cared for by the old horsekeeper. The girl, as she grows, remains indifferent to all and everything around her, but her caregiver and the beasts, wild and domestic, protect her and keep her safe. The farmhand knows his affections are misdirected, and struggles to fight his persistent desire to go to the horse pasture:

But if he didn’t know this love, it surely knew him. It always recognized him. It knew if he lifted the pitchfork, how he lifted it, whether he took large steps or stood still, where he stood and dreamt. And when he slept, it took the power of its dreams for its own, and dreamt for him. He was climbing a fir tree, up to the top and then beyond. He didn’t even notice he was past its tip. And so he fell over it, down to the ground, and lay there with dream-shattered limbs, on the edge of the forest, and yet in his bed, and it was night, or morning. It didn’t matter, anyway.

In the end, as human desire meets the force of nature, with savage intensity, Ullmann maintains a measured poetic account that is as breathtaking as it is brutal.

This is a collection that is at once perfectly pitched my current state of sorrow, grief, and depression—and yet stunningly beautiful to read. Ullmann’s vivid imagery, her lost and lonely characters, and the gentle, thoughtful pace of her prose offers unexpected comfort for the weary soul. This is, in the end, an offering of small and tender joys.

Tracing hidden lines across the Americas: Counternarratives by John Keene

Stretching over a span of four centuries, Counternarratives is a collection of stories and novellas that defies simple description or classification. In just over 300 pages, John Keene manages to challenge and reinvent the way we think about historical fiction by subverting the conventional narratives again and again, peering into dark corners, and prying the lid off of stories not typically part of the grand narrative tradition that has dominated so much of contemporary American literature. First off, for Keene, America has a broader scope. This is the New World, primarily the United States and Brazil—the two countries most closely associated with the slave trade—but over the course of this book we also venture into Mexico, the Caribbean and across the ocean. The characters, primarily, though not exclusively, of Black African heritage, are drawn from history, the arts, and the imagination; and demonstrate a strong will to run against the currents of normative discourse within which they would have otherwise fallen under the radar or been rendered invisible. In allowing their lives to flourish on the page, Keene is effectively queering history. Many of his characters are either implicitly or explicitly queer with respect to sexuality or gender, but all of them through their stories, push up against accepted mythologies, inverting or “queering” them in the process.

CounternarrativesThe earliest narratives in this collection tend to keep some distance from the subject at hand, some even have an investigative documentary feel, complete with maps inserted into the text. Over the course of the book, the control of the voice shifts, as characters begin to take command of their own stories (mid-way through the powerful central piece, “Gloss, or the Strange History of Our Lady of the Sorrows” Carmel, the mute protagonist, starts to “speak” through the written word, abbreviated and phonetic at first, then increasingly fluid over time) until eventually, as the accounts draw closer to the present day, internalized, experimental stream of conscience narratives begin to come into play. With any collection of shorter works there is always the risk that the stories will begin to blur at the edges, losing distinction from one to another. Not so in this case. Although the themes and characters are not directly connected, this evolving style of storytelling—from the relatively dry historical reportage of the opening pieces, through more traditional narrative accounts to the disembodied, disturbing dialogue of the closing entry “The Lions”—provides a continuity that serves to create a cohesive work of astonishing depth.

Throughout, Keene demonstrates an enviable capacity to create vivid, memorable characters and breathe life into the vital cross currents of history. He does not allow himself to get bogged down in background detail but allows the time, place, and social dynamics to come to the surface through the wide range of individuals and the varied settings and styles that he allows his narratives, or rather counternarratives, to adopt. And although it may seem strange to speak about these short stories and novellas as if they almost have an agency of their own, that is what it feels like to engage with them. Due to extenuating personal circumstances, my reading of this collection actually extended over the course of three months, but whenever I was forced to put it aside for a time I never feared that I would not return, nor did I find it difficult to lose myself, once again, right where I left off.

counterThroughout this collection, customary beliefs are routinely challenged through the presentation of lives typically discarded or seen through the lens of the dominant power, in a manner that seeks to restore a level of dignity. Black, Native American and queer characters are granted a reprieve from the more conventional historical portrayal. However, that release, or escape if it comes, is often at a cost. Some of the narratives are abruptly truncated, ending partway through a sentence. In most instances a resolution is uncertain regardless of whether it signals promise or pain.

By way of offering a taste of this collection, I’ll touch on three pieces. The epistolary novella “A Letter on the Trials of the Counterreformation in New Lisbon” offers a report on the experiences of one Dom Joaquim D’Azevedo, sent in 1629, to attend to matters at an isolated monastery in Brazil where some disturbing occurrences had been reported. He arrives at this remote location, populated by two padres, one brother and their bondspeople, or slaves, to find himself facing what will reveal, in time, a veritable heart of darkness. The atmosphere is charged with an unusual energy from the outset, as the newcomer struggles to get his bearings in his new setting and size up his charges:

Resuming his comments about the monastery, Dom Gaspar could see that D’Azevedo was growing unsteady on his feet, and with a gesture summoned a stool, which a tiny man, dark as the soil they stood on, his florid eyes fluttering, brought out with dispatch. They continued on in this manner, Dom Gaspar speaking—Padre Pero very rarely interjecting a thought, Padre Barbarosa Pires mostly nodding or staring, with a gaze so intense it could polish marbles, at D’Azevedo—detailing a few of the House’s particulars: its schedule, its routines, its finances, its properties and holdings, its relationship with the neighboring town and villages, and with the Indians.

Before long, D’Azevedo settles into a rhythm, feels he is making progress and begins to tutor boys from the town. But strange noises and mysterious sightings inside the monastery begin to unsettle him while outside threats from encroaching Dutch forces escalate, creating an atmosphere in which an evil long brewing is brought to the surface. Dark secrets are revealed, D’Azevedo is forced to confront a truth he has long buried, and the identity of the small African servant who seems to be ever present comes to light. This piece is a strong example of evocative storytelling, reminiscent in mood of The Name of the Rose, but reframed within the context of the Catholic Church’s role in the Americas, the clash with tribal African traditions, warring colonial tensions, and questions of ethnic heritage, gender and sexuality.

By way of contrast, “Rivers” turns the tables on a classic of American literature, giving Jim Watson of Huckleberry Finn fame, an opportunity to flesh out the details of his life after the book ended. Jim, now a free man who has reclaimed his own name, James Rivers, is a tavern owner in Missouri when he chances to meet Huck and Tom on the street. Their conversation, is dominated by Tom’s racist jibes, but Jim remains circumspect. He thinks of what he could have told them but chooses not to (“I thought to say…/Instead I said…”), in this way sharing with the reader a full account of the women in his life, his children, his time in Chicago, and his return to his home state, while little is offered to his former acquaintances. There is no joyous reunion, rather the occasion is marked by arrogance on one side, bitterness and suspicion on the other. But as the Civil War looms, another chance meeting awaits.

Beyond this story, the narratives begin to take on an increasingly playful, experimental form in style and content. An especially affecting piece is Cold. Narrated from an internalized second person perspective, this short story takes us inside the troubled mind of Bob Cole, the composer, playwright and producer who co-created, with Billy Johnson, A Trip to Coontown in 1898, the first musical owned entirely by black showmen. It is now 1911, and the voice in his head taunts him, catalogs his losses, his failures, driving his desperate decision to take his life before the day is out. . .

For the last month or two, or five, has it been a year—why can you not remember?—these newest melodies you cannot flush from your head, like a player piano with an endless roll scrolling to infinity. Songs have always come, one by one or in pairs, dozens, you set them down, to paper, to poetry, like when you set the melody of the spiritual Rosamond was whistling as you walked up Broadway and in your head and later on musical paper clothed it in new robes. Then somewhere along the way after the first terrible blues struck you tried to hum a new tune, conjure one, you thought it was just exhaustion, your mind too tired to refresh itself as it always had, that’s why the old ones wouldn’t go away.

The pieces I have briefly touched on just graze the surface of this book. Its relatively short length can be deceiving. Counternarratives offers a demanding, immersive reading experience. It is, at the same time, compulsively engaging and deeply satisfying. I heard reverent talk of it long before I finally picked up my own copy earlier this year and I can fully understand the respect it has garnered even I find myself at a loss to do it justice. Bold and expansive, this is a haunting, unsettling, important work.

Counternarratives by John Keene is published by New Directions in North America and by Fitzcarraldo in the UK.

I am a horror in the face of things: The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector

Take it as a warning. Clarice Lispector prefaces this metaphysically intense novel with a short address to her “possible readers” that states:

This is a book like any other book. But I would be happy if it were only read by people whose souls are already formed. Those who know that the approach, of whatever it may be, happens gradually and painstakingly—even passing through the opposite of what it approaches. They who, only they, will slowly come to understand that this book takes nothing from no one.

She does not want your existential “blood” on her hands, dear reader. You have to be willing to surrender it freely, to engage with G. H.’s passion on your own terms, experience her horror and joy as she struggles to make sense of, and give voice to, the “truth” that she has just come to understand. And, if you do, you may well find that the journey is unforgettable.

GHIt is clear from the stuttering opening sentence of The Passion According to G.H. that the narrator, a woman known only by the initials embossed on her suitcases, is uncertain, fragile, and disoriented. It is only by recounting the events of the previous day, by shaping them and giving them form, that she can make sense of the radical transformation she seems to have experienced. This is not a conventional narrative. In her retelling, addressed to the invisible owner of a disembodied hand that she imagines she is holding—the “you” who is at once the reader and, as the monologue progresses, a stand-in for an intimate from her past—she pieces together a superficially simple encounter that unleashes in her a torrent of thoughts, images, and emotions. She spirals into a very vivid personal hell, suffers a crisis of vast existential and spiritual dimensions, and emerges a decidedly changed being. But what of it? As the novel opens G. H. has no clear idea, she must start with who she was to discover who—or what—she has become.

One day earlier, she had arisen late with the intention of cleaning and tidying the room where her former maid had lived, a task she anticipated to be arduous yet satisfying. Assuming the room would be dirty, dank, and disordered, she would exercise her talent or, rather vocation, for “arranging.” G. H. is a wealthy sculptress living in Rio de Janeiro, who paints a portrait of herself as an independent woman, with no husband or child; she admits to a certain measure of vanity, but confesses that hers was a rather referential existence, one that in essence left her ripe for the events that would soon unfold:

My question, if there was one, was not: “Who am I,” but “Who is around me.” My cycle was complete: what I lived in the present was already getting ready so I could later understand myself. An eye watched over my life. This eye was what I would probably now call truth, now mortality, now human law, now God, now me. I lived mostly inside a mirror. Two minutes after my birth I had already lost my origins.

G. H.’s rapid descent to the brink of madness, begins when she enters the maid’s room and discovers a stark, nearly barren chamber. Most unsettling is the sight of three charcoal figures etched onto the whitewashed wall: a man, a woman and a dog. But the unexpected calm and order of the entire room catches our narrator completely off guard. The bed has been stripped, the curtains are gone from the window, three monogrammed suitcases are stacked along one wall and the narrow wardrobe, stands cracked and bleached by the harsh sunlight. She describes the room as “the portrait of an empty stomach.” And as she ventures into the room, she feels as if she has entered a nothingness, a formless space that cannot contain her. To gain some control she decides to wash down the wardrobe, and that is when her nightmare begins.

Cracking open the wardrobe, she confronts a cockroach, emerging through the door. The sight of the roach ignites a primal reaction, tied to memories of childhood poverty, but ultimately bound to a much deeper fear for G. H.—the cockroach is a prehistoric creature, durable and enduring, holding in its being the horror of unformed eternal existence. However, it is her response to the situation, her decision to kill the roach, that triggers what will escalate into an all-consuming metaphysical crisis.

To trace out G. H.’s tortured passion, one step removed through the limitations of a relatively brief review, one can only vaguely approximate the actual experience of revelling in Lispector’s haunting, sensual language. Through the agony and ecstasy of her protagonist’s journey of self-discovery we are invited to bear witness, to share her joy, to feel her pain, to taste the dawning strangeness of it all. And her awareness is startlingly acute. For instance, in her act of violence against the roach she instantly realizes that she has violated something in herself:

Because during those seconds, eyes shut, I was becoming aware of myself as one becomes aware of a taste: all of me tasted of steel and verdigris. I was all acid like metal on the tongue, like a crushed green plant, my whole taste rose to my mouth. What had I done to myself? With my heart thumping, my temples pulsing, this is what I had done to myself: I had killed. I had killed! But why such delight, and besides that a vital acceptance of that delight? For how long, then, had I been about to kill?

The terror that drives the narrator toward the breaking point is grounded in her acknowledgement of a kinship between herself as a human woman and the despised roach. As someone accustomed to defining the self only in the context of the other, it is conceivable that to see herself reflected in such a primitive, base creature could provoke a crisis of Biblical proportions. It shakes her admittedly superficial self-identity to the core. To recognize herself in the face of the roach is to acknowledge the potential annihilation of the self. “—Hold my hand” she implores her invisible listener, “because I feel that I’m going. I’m going once again toward the most divine primary life, I’m going toward a hell of raw life.”

During the hours that follow, G. H. will wrestle with questions of heaven, hell, morality, humanity and, most critically, the troubling reactions that these metaphysical problems provoke in her. She fears her own ambivalence, and discovers that the promise of hell is not a torture of pain but a torture of joy.  In what she will insist are not hallucinations but “visual meditations”, her awareness of being is stretched and exploded, extending back beyond the Cradle of Civilization across deserts and oceans to reach beyond the time of the dinosaurs. To encompass the humble origins of the primeval roach. Gradually, slowly, she will begin to fashion a reformed, redefined spiritual sense of self, to approach her own salvation, to embrace life in all of its uncertain terms.

From its opening passages, The Passion According to G. H. is propelled forward with a relentless intensity that builds as the narrative proceeds. The final sentence or phrase of each chapter is carried forward to open the next, as if with each chapter the narrator is reorienting herself, gathering her resources to move on with her story. The revelations advance in fits and starts, more noticeably as her questioning becomes increasingly obsessed with the nature of being. There seem to be things she can only come to terms with piece by piece, as she attempts to reconstruct and express an understanding of a world in which she can exist. In the end, she must come to an acceptance that being is a process, an act of trust in the unknowable, a continual active re-engagement. Her creator, Clarice Lispector, knows intimately that language—words—are essential to articulating, not just the emotional journey G. H. endures, they are essential to articulating the truths of human existence, once being has been stripped to its most fundamental elements.

Although I have read many of her short stories, this was my first encounter with one of Lispector’s novels. I had wanted to read this particular title for years, but had not realized how closely her theme ties into the existential questions that drive my own most personal writing project. And in a timely instance of serendipity, my finishing this work dovetailed nicely with joining the editorial team of The Scofield in time to copyedit and proofread 70 pages of the upcoming Lispector issue which will be out very soon. The opportunity for some very focused, close reading of some wonderful Lispector inspired writing, including a number of detailed critical essays, has left me eager to read the rest of her work. I can fully understand why she was (and is) so beloved in Brazil, and such a powerfully influential writer.

The Passion According to G.H. was originally published in 1964. This evocative translation from the Portuguese by Idra Novey (2012) is published by New Directions.

Update: The Scofield Issue 2.1 Clarice Lispector and the Act of Writing is now available and can be downloaded for free as a PDF. You’ll find it here. You will find a wealth of Lispector related and inspired reading, including two short stories and much, much more!