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!

Homecoming – Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador by Horatio Castellanos Moya

In the note appended to the 2007 re-issue of Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador, author Horatio Costellanos Moya describes how a playful exercise in imitation led to very frightening death threats. Within a week of the book’s publication in 1997, his mother called to warn him against returning to El Salvador as he had planned. The immediate and hostile reaction indicates that not only was the element of satire missed, but the miserable misanthropic protagonist’s exaggerated rants were not entirely without grounds. But what angered some, impressed others, and the little book has endured, inspiring study, debate, and requests from citizens of other Central American countries for Castellanos Moya to similarly skewer their troubled nations. And now, at last, this incendiary novella is available in English from New Directions, in a no-holds-barred translation by Lee Klein.

RevulsionPresented with exuberant Bernhardian spirit, Revulsion is a relentless parody of the Austrian writer’s trademark style. The rhythms, repetition, and tone of Bernhard’s classic works are evoked along with a brutal, insistent ravaging of El Salvador and its capital city that is reminiscent, if not even more graphically emphatic, than the famous rants Bernhard routinely leveled against his own native country.

The eponymous narrator here, in a role common to many Bernhard novels, is on the receiving end of a breathless monologue recorded over the course of one single paragraph that stretches for more than 80 pages. The speaker is Edgardo Vega, a professor of art history who fled El Salvador for Montreal at the age of eighteen. Now, a further eighteen years later he has returned for the first time, to attend his mother’s funeral and ensure that her house is sold so that he can secure his claim on his share of her estate. To say there is no love lost between Vega and his native country would be an understatement.  His most prized possession is his Canadian passport, if he is proud of anything it is his successful escape from the pathetic aspirations of his middle class brother, the crime, the social decay, and the miserable dearth of anything resembling class or culture in San Salvador.

San Salvador is horrible, Moya, and the people who populate it are worse, they’re a putrid race, the war unhinged everyone, and if it was already dreadful before I took off, if it was unbearable for my first eighteen years, now it’s vomitous, Moya, a truly vomitous city where only truly sinister people can live, which is why I can’t explain why you’re here, how you can be around people who are so repulsive, around people whose greatest ambition in life is to be a sergeant; have you seen them walk, Moya?

No custom, institution or individual is left unscathed. Vega rails against his brother who owns a lock and key business, but shows no interest in books or art or anything beyond the most pedestrian popular music. He has less respect for his “ex-clothing store clerk” wife and his two “pernicious” boys who spend their time glued to the television set and have the audacity to call him Uncle Eddie. Even the old school friend with whom he is sharing a few hours at the local bar, a place he tolerates only in the quiet hours between 5:00 and 7:00 pm, is not entirely free from a measure of Vega’s contempt. The patient narrator’s literary ambitions are soundly ridiculed. In this way, Castellanos Moya is mocking himself, as he allows his ranting character to eviscerate his country.

The famished little stories about sex and violence aren’t worth it, I say this to you with affection, Moya, you’d be better off staying in journalism or another discipline; but at your age to be publishing these famished stories is a pity, said Vega, no matter how much sex and violence you put into them, there’s no way these famished little stories will transcend. Don’t waste your time, Moya, this isn’t a country of writers, it’s impossible for this country to produce writers of quality; it’s not possible for writers who are worth it to emerge in this country where no one is interested in literature, art, or any manifestation of the spirit.

As Vega’s account of the indignities to which he as thus far been subjected over the course of his return to his home town builds to a hilarious conclusion, one can feel the enthusiasm with which this exercise in imitation was created. Imagery is pushed to a vile extreme in places and, as much as humour slides through, the polemic unleashed against El Salvador is merciless. Castellanos Moya captures Bernhard’s tone and style with an almost pitch perfect delivery right down to the surprise ending. But with a protagonist who spits enough venomous spleen to make Bernhard’s most hyperbolic vitriol read like an afternoon at a Sunday school picnic, it is little wonder the satire was lost on some readers. All the same, for those who love the infectious wit and humour of the Austrian master, Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador is a wonderfully entertaining look at post-Communist El Salvador through a very dark lens.

Poets, artists and other lost souls: Last Evenings on Earth by Roberto Bolaño

A poet can endure anything. Which amounts to saying that a human being can endure anything. But that’s not true: there are obviously limits to what a human being can endure. Really endure. A poet, on the other hand, can endure anything. We grew up with this conviction. The opening assertion is true, but that way lie ruin, madness, and death.

The individuals that populate the stories collected in Roberto Bolaño’s Last Evenings on Earth tend to be poets, writers, artists, and dreamers. Typically they are oddly groundless, restless beings who seem to drift through not only their own lives but through the lives of those they encounter. Most are either exiles or products of the Chilean diaspora, loosely set down or wandering between Mexico or Europe. As a result, their existences carry a ghostly aura, they are haunted by an otherness that is indefinable to themselves and obscures their relationships with others. The narrators or protagonists are unsure of their own memories, sometimes anxious and paranoid, sometimes bored and aloof–unwilling to trust, to fully engage with those around them.

eveningsIn this, my first encounter with Bolaño’s work, I found myself captivated by the misty melancholic mood, the affecting prose, and the characters, who are commonly struggling with the vagaries of what it means to be creative and to find value in life. Yet there is an underlying ambivalence, anxiety, and insecurity that lends the collection an atmosphere that can be unnerving and faintly depressing. And it can also tend to contribute to blurring of the edges of many of the stories so that a reader may, at the end, be left with a sense of appreciating the journey but losing track of the details that set many of the tales apart.

That is not to imply though that there are not stories that stand out. In my reading, my favourites were the ones that happened to strike me as especially sad, but then I read this book at the bedside of a dying parent. Sadness was the order of the day.

The title story follows a young man and his father on an ill fated holiday to Acapulco. Their days pass in relative calm, though a strain can be felt in the relationship between the two. The father wants to go out, have fun, while the son prefers more solitary outings and spends much of his time reading a book about surrealist poets and contemplating the fate of one particular poet, a minor writer who disappeared and was essentially forgotten by his peers. Father and son engage in aimless conversations that highlight their differing temperaments while the latter is haunted by a feeling of impending doom. For a time the imagined threat is held at bay:

Then the lull comes to an end, the forty-eight hours of grace in the course of which B and his father have visited various bars in Acapulco, lain on the beach and slept, eaten, even laughed, and an icy phase begins, a phase that appears to be normal but is ruled by the deities of ice (who do not, however, offer any relief from the heat that reigns in Acapulco), hours of what, in former days, when he was an adolescent perhaps, B would have called boredom, although he certainly would not use that word now, disaster he would say, a private disaster whose main effect is to drive a wedge between B and his father: part of the price they must pay for existing.

As the threat becomes real, the son’s passive reaction to all of the warnings that come his way add to a tension built on the very human ability to fail to act on one’s better instincts. Bolaño is a master at exploiting the ambivalence that erodes relationships. Again and again his characters prefer to observe rather than engage, things are left thought but unsaid until, very often, it is too late.

Another especially poignant story is ‘Mauricio (“The Eye”) Silva’. Here the narrator recounts the experiences of a fellow Chilean exile he meets in Mexico City. The Eye is described as a sensitive man, one who always tried to avoid violence, “even at the risk of being considered a coward.” He eventually finds work as a photographer and as his modest fortunes improve he develops a style of dress that sets him apart from other Chilean exiles and likely leads to the intimation that he is a homosexual–a designation received with considerable derision, even fear, by his fellow countrymen at that time.

One night the narrator encounters The Eye in a cafe. The description of his friend is striking. Bolaño’s characters seem to pay particular attention to the appearances of their friends and acquaintances, almost as if they are looking to read something lurking beneath the surface, an understanding, a message or an ulterior motive:

I sat down next to him and we talked for a while. He seemed translucent. That was the impression I had. The Eye seemed to be made of some vitreous material. His face and the glass of white coffee in front of him seemed to be exchanging signals: two incomprehensible phenomena whose paths had just crossed at that point in the vast universe, making valiant but probably vain attempts to find a common language.

On this evening, The Eye not only confirms his sexuality, but announces that he will be moving to Paris where he can live more openly and pursue the kind of photographic work he has always dreamed of. It will be years before they meet again. The narrator, now married with a child and published books to his credit, crosses paths with The Eye in Berlin and learns of the life altering, disturbing experiences his friend had in India. It seems that the man who had always tried to avoid violence has discovered, like other Latin Americans of his generation born in the 1950’s, that violence would ultimately find him, even on a distant continent.

The fourteen stories that comprise Last Evenings on Earth are imbued with a wistfulness that captures the spirit of dislocation of the exiled. But with his evocative, evenly paced prose Bolaño speaks to a borderlessness that many of us feel when we don’t fit in wherever we happen to be. It is, perhaps, the writer’s soul that responds, I don’t know. I feel at a loss to define it, in this, my first experience with his work, but I do know I will return for more.

Last Evenings on Earth is translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews and published by New Directions.

“A wandering mind is a marvelous sight”: Moods by Yoel Hoffmann

When we, that is to say you, approach a work like Moods, by Yoel Hoffman, you have to be prepared to relinquish everything you expect a novel to be. You will encounter a story, no many stories, and stories within stories, working their way in and out of 191 micro chapters. You also have to be prepared to walk, lockstep, for the most part, with the author who invites you to join him under the umbrella of the third person plural–not the royal “we”–but something much more intimate except, of course, when it makes no sense to speak in the plural and the author has to step aside and admit that, by “we” he means “I”. Confused yet? Don’t be. This has to be one of the most infectiously readable pieces of experimental fiction that you can imagine.

MoodsMoods is, if nothing else, a metafictional playground peopled with characters drawn, for the most part, from the life of the author himself–aunts and uncles, childhood loves, neighbours and assorted professionals. And just when you least expect it, he hits you with an observation that catches you off guard. He weaves you, the reader, into a story that is, in all it’s assorted bits and pieces, about life–the messy business of living of it and the way a writer can or cannot write about it. He moves hypnotically from memories to philosophical musings:

. . . my father (Andreas Avraham) hides from Francesca, my stepmother, records he bought because the money he receives (in transparent bills) isn’t enough for her.

The music he listens to consists of a single sound, like the straight line on the monitor when the hearts stops beating. The scent of eternity is like that of goulash. Everything’s frozen over. Jokes one tells are revealed in full like that famous rainbow arched through a cloud. Each season extends to infinity. You stand there, and the streets run beneath you. Women lie down forever. A faint soft sound like the fur of a foal (of a donkey) wafts through the air, and the colours are all pastel.

It is a book, as the title tells us, of moods. And the mood that permeates this work is one of sadness. It is smelled in stairwells and trapped between the crumpled covers of physics textbooks. It is the sadness of missing loved ones, whether they have gone away or have died. There is a wide arc of time, reaching to eternity in its metaphysics, spanning some seven decades in the real life of the author (and vicariously for his reader companion).

The reader can no doubt guess what sort of music we’re trying to compose. Mostly blues. The sentimental melancholy suits us as a suit fits a tailor’s dummy. If someone asks us to look at something rationally, in a major key–as, for instance, Tellmann did–we get angry.

Hoffmann is an Israeli writer born in Romania in 1937. The history of his people, family members and friends, comes through as he writes about those he has known, but his worldview transcends religion and political boundaries. Hoffmann, a former professor of Japanese Buddhism at the University of Haifa, spent years studying in Japan, living for a time in a Zen monastery. His knowledge of and sensitivity to the Japanese koan, sets the tone for the questions he asks and the observations he makes, whether he is pondering the nature of the universe or the order of names in a phone book.

We can now reveal to the readers of this book a deep secret, but they’re not allowed to reveal it to readers of other books.

Feet follow one another. Hands cut through the air. The mouth opens and closes. The inner organs expand and contract, according to their nature. What’s outside is standing or walking.

Prayers can be heard everywhere, whether a person says them aloud or not. Frogs need only themselves. The marsh reeds know the right direction.

And because these things are set forth here, it’s a wonder this book is sold for so little.

So what to make of Moods? Novel or autobiography? The short chapters, most no longer than a couple of paragraphs, sometimes follow thematically or chronologically. Characters appear and reappear. Anecdotes lead to reflection which in turn to leads to metafictional contemplation about the nature of literature in general and fiction in particular. Hoffmann is skillfully and enthusiastically playing ideas against one another. It is both funny and emotionally engaging. Unlike many postmodern works that are so unabashedly metafictional in nature–that is novels that dissect the novel you are reading as you read it– Moods is infused with warmth and humanness. It pulls a reader in and treats him or her with a respect that is, Hoffmann would argue, with some seriousness, a responsibility for which a writer should be held criminally liable.

And although sadness is the underlying mood, reading this book is, quite simply, a joy.

Moods is translated with poetic sensitivity to the flow of the language and the linguistic playfulness by Peter Cole. Published by New Directions who have, over the years, published most of Hoffmann’s novels, Moods is a shortlisted title for the 2016 Best Translated Book Award.

“That’s just who I am”: Is that Kafka? 99 Finds by Reiner Stach

“Now I’ve taken a closer look at my desk and realized that nothing good can be produced on it. There’s so much lying around here, it creates disorder without regularity, and with none of that agreeableness of disorderly things that otherwise makes every disorder bearable.”  (Find #29 Kafka’s Desk)

I have never understood those who feel inclined to disparage Franz Kafka. It should be sufficient to admit that a writer, especially one whose work has entertained and inspired so many and has clearly withstood the test of time, is simply not one who speaks to you. Admit, if you like, that you just don’t “get it”. But why, like Joseph Epstein in a 2013 Atlantic Monthly column, declare that Kaka’s apparent joyless, dark vision of the world reflects a personal defect that undermines his worth and proclaim: “Great writers are impressed by the mysteries of life; poor Franz Kafka was crushed by them.”

isthatkafkaOf course, there is no law that says that great literature and a delusory, ominous imagination are mutually exclusive, nor does a writer’s work necessarily represent their personal inclinations or moral character. Readers can, and have been, misled. And although Kafka, a German Jew living in Prague in the early part of the 20th century plagued by a persistent, crippling and ultimately fatal illness, would have more than ample reason to be every bit as morose as the tone of some of his most famous works suggest, Is That Kafka?, a collection of 99 fragments, letters, reminisces and insights offers an image of a man who was warm, friendly and well liked by those who knew him. He comes alive here as anything but a soul tortured and crushed by life.

Newly released from New Directions, this entertaining, illustrated compendium of facts and photographs, texts and testimonies represents a selection of fascinating finds uncovered by Reiner Stach in the course of researching his acclaimed three volume biography of Kafka. These are exactly the sort of glimpses into Kafka, the man, that rightfully inform a sensitive biographical study but can easily get lost in the retelling. An affectionately curated collection such as this volume offers a chance to slip back in time and glimpse the human, humorous man behind a body of work that has acquired mythic dimensions that would likely have embarrassed, if not horrified, its creator. Translated by Kurt Beals, this richly illustrated volume is ideal for anyone who has found themselves drawn to Kafka’s work, a book best enjoyed at leisure, a few entries at a time.

Divided into themes such as Idiosyncrasies, Reading and Writing, Illusions, Reflections and more; the entries are labelled and presented as exhibits, each offering an image, an excerpt, or an anecdote. We learn that Kafka was frightened of mice, fond of children, delighted in slapstick, and was skeptical towards doctors, medicines and vaccines – perhaps to the detriment of his own health. The floor plan of the apartment where he lived with his parents and sisters while writing The Metamorphosis is reproduced with the rooms marked as reassigned in the setting of his famous tale, while photographs of events at which Kafka is thought to have been present are scoured to pinpoint a tall, slim individual who might be the very man himself – the finds that give rise to the book’s title “Is that Kafka?” Some pieces will be known to even he most casual fan, such as the excerpts from two drafts of Kafka’s Will famously advising his friend Max Brod to collect and destroy all of his writings. Others may well surprise even the most dedicated enthusiast.

KafkaPersonally I was fascinated by Kafka’s reluctance to suffer doctors gladly (“Medicine knows only how to treat pain with pain, and then they say they have treated the disease,” he complained in a letter) and his attraction to what might be understood as alternative or holistic remedies. He was, like many with prolonged, serious illnesses, constantly on the alert for new treatment options, relocating as his symptoms demanded. He did seem to enjoy travel insofar as he was able to do so, fascinated by the experience of riding the Metro in Paris and even entertaining the creation of a series of guides for travelers on a budget. Women were drawn to him as evidenced by his numerous love affairs, his sisters adored him, and he was especially close to his youngest sister Ottla. Although he never did marry or have children of his own, he was deeply invested in his sisters’ children and appears to have taken great care selecting gifts and books for the youngsters he had a an opportunity to know.

However, one of my favourite finds is an extended account from a letter to Felice Bauer to whom he was twice engaged. Perhaps she had accused him of being too dour but he takes great pains to convince her that he is quite capable of falling into uncontrollable laughter by describing an incident during a ceremony at which he and a colleague are being honored with promotions at the Workers Accident Insurance Institute where he was employed. He starts to laugh during his colleague’s speech, a situation that is worsened when the president takes the stage:

“But as he began his speech–the sort of customary speech that you know long before you hear it, following the imperial formula and accompanied by heavy chest tones, altogether meaningless and unjustified–as my colleague cast sidelong glances my way, trying to warn me even as I fought for self-control, but in the process vividly reminding me of the pleasures of my earlier laughter–I couldn’t hold myself back. At first I only laughed at the harmless little jokes that the president scattered here and there; but whereas the law tells us to respond to these jokes only with a respectful smile, I was already letting out a full-throated laugh, I could see my colleagues give a start for fear of contagion, and I felt more sympathy for them than for myself, yet I didn’t try to turn away or cover my mouth with my hand, rather in my helplessness I kept staring into the president’s face, unable to turn away, probably feeling that it could only get worse, not better, and so it would be best to avoid any change at all.” (Find #51)

The portrait of Franz Kafka that takes shape over the course of these carefully edited and selected discoveries is one of an engaging, intelligent man – someone who could be shy and nervous at times, but hardly a man totally consumed and destroyed by hopelessness and despair. This makes the singular visions that haunt his work, that continue to speak to readers and are recognized all too frequently in a real world that turns, at times, on an axis that is rightly called Kafkaesque, even more profound because they did not define his life or relationships with others. He channeled them into his writing. Maybe that release even kept him sane.

Stach argues: look at his letters, his diaries, his sketches and unfinished drafts, and it becomes clear that Kafka’s whole life was literature. Thus to understand it fully, his stories and novels tell only part of the truth. He wrote, like all great writers, because he had to. As he says in the conclusion to the piece quoted at the outset of this review:

“Wretched, wretched, and yet well intended. It’s midnight after all, but considering that I’m very well rested, that can only serve as an excuse insofar as I wouldn’t have written anything at all during the day. The burning lightbulb, the quiet apartment, the darkness outside, the last waking moments entitle me to write, even if it’s the most wretched stuff. And I hastily make use of this right. That’s just who I am.”

All the world’s a stage: On the Edge by Rafael Chirbes – My review for Numéro Cinq

My latest review for Numéro Cinq is now live. On the Edge by the late Rafael Chirbes has just been released in North America (New Directions) with a UK release forthcoming from Harvill Secker in July. This is an unforgiving portrait of Spain in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis, through the eyes of one man who has lost everything:

On-the-edge

For the Spanish writer, Rafael Chirbes, there was no room in the creative process for an aesthetic devoid of ethics. As a documentarian of his native country, from the post-war years through the transition to democracy in the 1970’s, and on into the opening decade of the 21st century, the late author offered a defiant chronicle of the point where social, economic, and political dynamics intersect with the harsh realities of the human condition. He argued that if the artistic endeavour aims to stand at that intersection, no perspective could remain neutral:

A point of view situates you somewhere, in a location where potentialities—ways of being—battle one another. When you write, or paint, as when you read or look at something, you have to be conscious of the fact that the author wants to invite you to look where he’s looking. Your mission is to protect yourself. Know that they want to seduce you.

This advice, from a brief interview segment in A Thousand Forests in One Acorn: An Anthology of Spanish-Language Fiction (Valerie Miles, Open Letter Books, 2014), should serve as fair warning before one enters into the emotional labyrinth that is Chirbes’ lauded ninth novel, On the Edge. Recently released by New Directions, in a measured yet lyrical translation by Margaret Jull Costa, this book will serve as highly anticipated introduction for English language readers, to a writer at the height of his powers: a writer who has chosen, in this instance, to stand on the rapidly shifting ground of a country in the throes of economic collapse.

Find the rest of the review here

Winter solstice (again): 2015 – The year in review

I tend to run solstice to solstice, so this seems as good a time as any to pull together my thoughts about the year that was. I debated the conventional “best of” list affair, but somehow that is not reflective of the way I read or engaged with literature this year. I began the year still finding my footing as a book blogger, my earliest reviews tended to be less critical, more personal. By the end of the year I feel I have endeavoured to establish a more critical but, hopefully still accessible approach. Off my blog, it was an honour to cap off 2015 with my first review on Numéro Cinq where I have been invited to join the masthead. I am most thankful to Douglas Glover, the fine editor of this fine magazine, for having faith in my ability to write.

8294617299_b22c0cd186_z(1)I read and write about books as a an effort to strengthen my own skills both as a reader and a writer, but behind it all is a writing project of my own that has been struggling its way into being, seemingly with an infinite number of forays down paths leading to dead ends. So the following is a review of the year and, along the way, a nod to some of the books, new and not so new, that kept me company.

Reading in translation: I have typically read widely, but I never stopped to focus specifically on literature in translation, or, for that matter, to even think of much that I did read as being translated – sounds odd, I know, I think I just thought of myself as someone who tended to read internationally. Joining a shadow jury for the IFFP and then devouring as much of the BTBA long list as I could manage was, for me, a significant turning point in the way that I saw and focused my reading. My books are now shelved (or stacked) by original language. Apart from English I read books in 20 languages over the past year; German, French, Afrikaans, Czech and Spanish topped the list.

istrosIndependent and not-for-profit publishers: This year I became more conscious about looking to and supporting independent publishers. I was already well aware of Istros Books, a small UK publishing house dedicated to bringing Balkan and Central European writers to an English speaking audience, but this year I had the pleasure of meeting with publisher Susan Curtis, and visiting her closet sized office in the heart of London. She has been a most supportive influence in my development as a reviewer, and because I believe in their books and trust her instincts as an editor, I always look forward to their new releases. I also became conscious of other publishers including And Other Stories, Twisted Spoon, and Two Lines Press, just to name a few. I would reckon I bought few books from major publishers over the course of the past year, and trust me, I bought a lot of books!

2015-10-22 11.21.29Seagull Books: Here I have to credit (or blame?) Anthony of Times Flow Stemmed for bringing Calcutta based Seagull Books to my attention in recent months. I may be late to the party as they seem to have a core of passionate devotees. A book from Seagull is, quite simply, a finely crafted treasure, a reminder why books will never be supplanted by their electronic versions. They are also willing to take on authors or works that other publishers often balk at as witnessed by their impressive German, Swiss, French and African literary offerings, but any publisher who can transform a child’s tale by Thomas Bernhard into a huge, gorgeous picture book for all ages is alright by me!

23818667295_d1e4f92c94_zSouth Africa: I have had a significant interest in the literature of South Africa for a number of years but this spring, feeling especially isolated and unhappy in my present circumstances, I decided, rather suddenly, to visit the country for the first time. I aimed for the solstice, effectively trading what would have been summer solstice here in the north for winter solstice in the southern hemisphere. I spent time with a dear friend in the Eastern Cape, then kicked around Cape Town and dropped a small fortune on books.

An ending does not give a life meaning: On my last full day in Cape Town, I sat in the Company’s Gardens, took the notebook I had carried and scribbled in, back to front as is my habit, throughout my journey; opened it to the first page and began to write. I felt I had reached a point, perhaps of closure, a space in which to truly start to pull together my endless personal writing project. I was certain I could, from that vantage point, look back over the months to June of 2014 when I walked away from my job, wildly manic after a period of unbearable workplace stress, and finally begin to give shape to that story I had been trying to tell for so long. I was at an end, of sorts, so I thought, and now I could work back.

14344933323_66912ab5a8_zBut I was wrong: Just over two weeks after I returned home, a pulmonary embolism I had unknowingly developed, a souvenir most likely of my recklessly long flight back, triggered cardiac arrest – in my sleep. The quick response of my son, who happened to be home, saved my life. I nearly reached that “end”, not the one that I imagined would be the point at which I could render my particular life experience and write some meaning into it, but an end final and complete. One that would have left me mute, distorted in the memories of those who have known me. The story would no longer be mine.

So what of writing? That is most critically the end to which I read, seeking ways into a story, or stories, I that need to be able to explore – to ultimately put behind me. I can write easily about other people’s words but I choke up on my own. And so the following list of books are those which spoke to me this year as a reader and a writer. I read over 90 books and enjoyed many including: the long overlooked Hansen’s Children by Ognjen Spahic, Ivan Vladislavić’s Double Negative, While the Gods Were Sleeping by Erwin Mortier, Can Xue’s The Last Lover, Marlene van Niekerk’s monumental Agaat, not to mention her wonderful Swan Whisperer from the Cahier series, and  Primeval and Other Times by Olga Tokarczuk. I have, by the way, excluded from this accounting a host of writers I expect to like and therefore read regularly, often repeatedly, including Bernhard, Sebald, Borges, Coetzee, Damon Galgut, and, added to the group this year, Bohumil Hrabal.

But the following books were, for me, the most vital. Thbirdse order is chronological, as read:

The Alphabet of Birds (And Other Stories) S J Naudé (Afrikaans/tr. SJ Naudé)
* This debut collection, of long, simmering, often disturbing, stories is simply some of the most sensuous work I have ever encountered. The characters are typically groundless, searching South African ex-pats, uncertain residents trying to find their place, and or those suspended somewhere in between.

atavisms

 

Atavisms (Dalkey) – Maxime Raymond Bock (French/tr. Pablo Strauss)
* The thirteen stories that make up Atavisms reach back hundreds of years, stand in the present, and spin into the future to explore the Québécois experience – at the personal and the political level. Bock skillfully employs a variety of genres to create what reads, in the end, as a mulit-facetted yet cohesive whole. Most impressive.

 

The Elusive Moth (Open Letter) – Ingrid Winterbach (Afrikaans/tr. Iris Gouws & Ingrid Winterbach )
* This novel about an entomologist in search of some way to fill or heal an ache that even she is at pains to articulate becomes an evocative exploration of memory, loss and anxiety. The story unfolds through scenes that repeat motifs, imagery, and fragmented conversations; set against racial tensions building in the small town where she has come to conduct research. The result has an unforgettable cinematic, art film feel.

 On Wing (Dalkey) / Signs & Symptoms (Twisted gal_on-wingSpoon) – Róbert Gál (Slovak/tr. Mark Kanak/Madelaine Hron)
* As I have tossed my own writing goals between fiction and memoir, happy with neither, I had sensed that an experimental approach might be part of the mix. However I had been frustrated with many of the works I had encountered – at least in so far as they spoke to me in a meaningful constructive way. With On Wing and then Gal’s earlier Signs & Symptoms I finally encountered works that I could enter into with my own observations and begin to map out ways of talking about the essentially philosophical issues I want to address. Re-engaging with philosophy years after my formal studies in the field, has also been critical to framing the way I view the essentially ontological questions I wish to articulate. So I am most grateful to Róbert for both his writing and his encouragement.

A Sorrow Beyond Dreams (Farrar Straus and Giroux) – Peter Handke (German/tr. Ralph Manheim)
* This 69 page memoir, Handke’s finely wrought tribute to his mother written within months of her suicide at the age of 51, not only paints a careful and delicate portrait of a woman trapped by her circumstances, but offers reflections on the challenges of telling a true story – distilling an entire life to the essential elements – when it might be easier to simply make up stories, to, say, write a play. A whole life is messy to write about with elegance. Handke succeeds.

dreamhorsesA Dream of Horses & Other Stories (Roundfire Books) – Aashish Kaul
* This is a collection of dreamscapes populated by seekers of truths, purveyors of words, storytellers and readers. Most of the protagonists are writers, negotiating the fine balance between truth and imagination, struggling to capture the point of intersection in words. At least in my own experiences as a writer, or would-be-writer, that is what spoke to me throughout this melancholy, impressionistic book. And that is why it has to be on my list.

Vertigo (Dorothy Project) – Joanna Walsh
* Short story collections dominate my favourite books this year. It was an intentional focus, again with an eye to becoming more confident with medium. To that end, I recognize that the stories I am drawn to tend to have narrative arcs that are less pronounced, or more subtle, than some may like. The writing is typically more evocative, more ambiguous, more difficult to define and pin down. Like Vertigo – brutally sharp, spare and gorgeous, cutting to the quick of everyday life – an exquisite piece of work.

Dry Season (Istros Books) – Gabriela Babnik (Slovene / tr. Rawley Grau)
* I read many fine and challenging works from Istros Books this year, but the most stunning and devastatingly original has to be the EU Prize winning novel Dry Season. This tale of a love affair between a 62 year-old Slovenian woman and a 27 year-old man from Burkina Faso breaks every expectation, weaving African magical realism into a layered metafictional narrative that culminates in an ending so unexpected that it suddenly throws everything into a new light. Or does it?

sleepSleep of the Righteous (Two Lines Press) – Wolfgang Hilbig (German/tr. Isabel Fargo Cole)
* 2015 saw the release, for the first time in English, of two works by the late German author Wolfgang Hilbig – both championed and translated by Isabel Cole (The other, I, from Seagull Books is waiting on my shelf.) The magic of this collection, set in East Germany before and after re-unification, lies in the atmosphere created by the long sentences that flow, like a stream, back and forward again. Starting grounded in a harsh reality the narratives slip into a subtly surreal, gray-toned, world where reality blurs at the edges and memory takes on a haunting, dark quality.

Adventures in Immediate Irreality (New Drections) – Max Blecher (Romanian/tr. Michael Henry Heim)
* It may well be that my most memorable read of the entire year is one of the last – an impulse buy if I can be honest. A prisoner of the plaster body casts that were the standard treatment of spinal tuberculosis, Blecher’s creative imagination penetrates the experience of being in the world at the level of minute, intimate detail and manages to capture with acute sensitivity those moments of reality in flux and flow. I don’t know how unique this way of interacting with the world is, but as someone who has always had a discordant, dysphoric relationship with his own body, there is more for me, personally, in this book than I can begin to express. A fine closure to a year of excellent reading experiences.

Finally I am most grateful for the conversation and company of the book bloggers and twitter literary folk with whom I have been so fortunate to engage over the past year. I have a dearth of book lovers in my real life. I was at a Christmas party the other night and a game was played in which we were each to share our three worst Christmas gifts – two true and one lie. I was saddened how many people included books among their worst gifts ever. Breaks my heart. Bless you all for keeping me (somewhat) sane.

Chronicler of sensation: Adventures in Immediate Irreality by Max Blecher

“Brute matter – in the deep, heavy masses of earth, stone, sky or water, or in its least understood forms: mirrors, paper flowers, painted statues, glass marbles with their enigmatic internal spirals – has always kept me a prisoner bumping painfully against its walls, yet spurred me on to share in the strange and senseless adventure of being human.”

Confined to bed for the last decade of his short life, Max Blecher’s masterful Adventures in Immediate Irreality is nothing short of an intimate exploration of the ineffable question of what it means to exist in, and of, the world of matter and emotion. The boundaries between body and spirit are, for Blecher and his unnamed young protagonist, unfixed, shifting, and nebulous – sometimes seemingly just out of reach, sometimes oppressively sharp and painful. This is a luminous, original work that slips between the acutely hyper-real and the hallucinatory surreal, leaving in its wake a trail of vivid, sensuous imagery.

And that, superlatives notwithstanding, is the simple description. As the narrator himself would admit: “Ordinary words lose their validity at certain depths of the soul.”

irrealityBorn in 1909 into a Romanian Jewish family, Blecher grew up in the town of Roman. In 1928, shortly after moving to Paris to study medicine, he was diagnosed with spinal tuberculosis and would spend the rest of his life in sanatoria, virtually immobilized in body, if not in spirit. During these years he would produce two novels, a book of poetry, and a number of articles and translations before he finally succumbed to his illness in 1938, when he was 28 years-old. His work has been variously compared to that of Proust, Kafka, Bruno Schultz and others, but to pigeonhole him would be to do a disservice to his singular vision which, in no small part, might be thought to be unique to his youth, his circumstances, and his acute sensitivity and innate ability to capture the most essential elements of being alive – his memory heightened by the harsh reality of being captive to a painful, disabling disease. It is not a work of surrealism, although there are dreams, visions, and elements of fantasy; but these aspects are set against the very real passion, anxiety, and disillusionment of adolescence.

So, with death an abiding presence in his own life, Blecher sets out to chronicle, with precision and attention to detail, in the flood of real and unreal experiences that his young protagonist encounters in his various “adventures” at home and around town. Beset from an early age by episodes, or “crises” as he call them, our narrator begins with an account of the way his perception of his surroundings and his sense of self within them – his identity – periodically dissipates and then resolves again. He emerges from these episodes with a recharged clarity, but he worries it won’t last.

“The feeling of distance and solitude during the moments when my everyday person has dissolved into amorphousness differs from all other feelings. When it persists, it turns into a fear, a dread of never finding myself again. A vague silhouette of myself surrounded by a large luminous halo looms somewhere in the distance like an object lost in fog.

Then the terrible question of who I actually am comes alive in me like a totally new body with unfamiliar skin and organs.”

This “terrible question” is what he sets out to try to answer by recounting, with an immediate, almost confessional tone, experiences that he hopes will lead to a clearer understanding of himself. Not surprisingly, his emerging sexual attractions direct much of his energies. He recalls his first intimate experiences with Clara in the back room of the sewing machine shop she runs with her brother. Later he will obsess and fantasize about Edda, the wife of the son of a family he regularly visits. In each circumstance, he agonizes over his insecurity, his inability to express himself with the confidence and grace he assumes that everyone else posses without question. In some respects, he is likely no different than most other adolescent boys exploring the dark and mysterious depths of sexuality, but he is so painfully introspective that he can’t help dissecting his physical and emotional reactions at the microscopic level, and the closer he looks, the more uncertain he feels.

Blecher’s protagonist acknowledges that he exists in a porous, sensuous relationship with the world of nature and matter. The moments of crisis that haunt his early years, the instances when the thin veil of reality is pulled aside, have formed and defined his relationship to the world of objects. Perception is eroticized, as Herta Müller describes in her introduction, leading to the “constant comparison of one thing with a hitherto unimaginable other.” Consequently his descriptions lean toward the vivid, often extreme and grotesque, as in his early morning observation of men unloading a delivery in the marketplace “their arms laden with sides of red meat and purple beasts glistening with blood, as tall and proud as dead princesses”. Lined up along the wall of the butcher shop, the carcasses are described:

“…like scarlet sculptures carved from the most diverse and delicate material. They had the watery, iridescent shimmer of silk and the murky limpidity of gelatin. The gaping stomachs were edged with the lace of muscles and the weighty necklaces of beads of fat. The butchers stuck their red hands in and extracted the precious innards – round, rubbery gobbets of hot flesh – which they spread out on a table. The fresh meat had the velvety sheen of a monstrous, hypertrophic rose.”

Coming of age in the 1920‘s, our hero is also fascinated with the technologically facilitated representations of life that were becoming ever more prominent in the still new 20th century. It is as if, one step removed, the world can be contained, engaged with in a way that seems to be more real than reality itself. Thus he is drawn to mirrors, to photographs, to cinema and, most passionately, to wax museums. He describes the tendency to lose himself in his imagination and slip vicariously into the worlds he sees portrayed or reflected. Even when the image he confronts is, in truth his own, as he once chances to find in a display outside a photographer’s booth at the fair grounds. The encounter triggers his existential musings:

“I would suddenly find my own life, the life of the person standing in flesh and blood outside the display case, indifferent and insignificant, just as the living person inside the display case regarded the travels of his photographic self from town to town as absurd. And just as my picture traveled from place to place contemplating new vistas through the dirty, dust-laden glass, so I myself went from one place to the next, constantly seeing new things, yet never understanding them. The fact that I could move, that I was alive, was merely a matter of chance, a senseless adventure, because just as I existed inside the display case I could exist outside it and with the same pale cheeks, the same eyes, the same lackluster hair that made such a sketchy, bizarre, unfathomable image in the mirror.”

Always hyper-aware and self-conscious, Blecher’s protagonist recognizes and makes note of his own oddness, his ritualistic behaviours and paranoias, and his compulsion to engage in what he knows is unseemly (at least with respect to the constraints of his “proper” upbringing). He takes, for example, to following women on the street and one evening, once the unaware object of his pursuit has disappeared into her home, he decides to open her gate and take up a position kneeling in her front yard. Another time, on the edge of town, he cannot resist losing himself to the sensual and tactile sensations of a field of mud and manure, an adventure that nearly has very dire consequences.

The matter-of fact delivery that carries this remarkable novel, is one of its most devastating qualities. Our narrator is attentive to detail – sights and sounds, scents, textures and tastes – but he is so completely self-focused that he observes and interprets the actions of others with a naive and curious absence of empathy. Or maybe he feels too much. He senses the world imposing itself upon his very being in a way that makes it difficult for him to comfortably negotiate his way in a material space and, as such, he seems to inhabit a plane of existence just off the axis of that which other people and things inhabit. That dissonance, more than any of his surreal dreams or startling descriptions, creates the measure of irreality that is sustained throughout, culminating with the narrator’s last desperate pleas, and leaving the reader with a unique, indelible experience that is not easily forgotten.

Blecher_MOriginally published in 1936 as Întâmplări în irealitatea imediată, Blecher’s Adventures in Immediate Irreality initially garnered little attention. Translations began to emerge in the 1970s, but again, the world was not quite ready. This new translation by the late Michael Henry Heim, was prepared when Heim himself was critically ill. He even learned Romanian in order to dedicate himself to the task. Romanian-American writer Andrei Codrescu remarks, in his preface, on the “mysterious filmanets of death” connecting the author and his translator that truly set this translation apart from other previous fine efforts. Released in February 2015 by New Directions, Adventures in Immediate Reality comes complete with a preface by Codrescu and a translation of Herta Müller’s introduction from the German edition.