Fans of Fleur Jaeggy rejoice: A link to my review of I Am the Brother of XX and These Possible Lives at Numéro Cinq

Any one who has fallen under the spell of the shimmering spare prose of Swiss-born Italian writer Fleur Jaeggy is well aware of her uncanny ability to evoke subtle shades of darkness and weave tales that linger in the imagination. However, for English speaking readers it has been a long wait for new work to emerge in translation. Fourteen years to be precise. That patience is finally rewarded, as this month sees the highly anticipated release of not one, but two recent collections: I Am the Brother of XX, a compilation of short stories, and These Possible Lives, a set of three hyper-condensed biographical essays.

These works, not surprisingly, reflect a more personal, reflective quality than her earlier fiction, directly featuring, at times, other writers with whom she became friends over the years. Familiar themes are also revisited, lines between light and dark are blurred. Her prose is, as ever, sharp, essential, charged with spine-tingling beauty. And applied to biographical subjects—De Quincey, Keats and Marcel Schwob—it is quite wonderful indeed.

I invite you to read my full review of these new releases at Numéro Cinq. Here is a taste. Please link through at the end to read the rest. A second link leads to an excerpt:

Sacred Inertia | Review of I Am the Brother of XX & These Possible Lives by Fleur Jaeggy — Joseph Schreiber

One might argue that Fleur Jaeggy does not write so much as channel language, allowing her words to form imaginary spaces that exist on an altered plane of experience. To read her is to inhabit, for a moment, that space—one that exists in the shadows, one that contains, to borrow an expression from one of her earlier stories, a certain “sacred inertia.” You can almost feel it. There is an unmistakable current of brisk, melancholic foreboding that courses beneath the surface of her prose. The chill can make you shudder, the stark beauty of her terse sentences catch your breath. Atmospheric. Disconcerting. And strangely alluring. It is a rare author who manages to sustain an emotionally intense voice that is at once distinct, abstracted, and tightly restrained. However, anyone who has fallen under the spell of Jaeggy’s fiction will know its undefinable appeal.

Of Italian-speaking Swiss heritage, Jaeggy was born in Zurich in 1940. Raised and educated in Switzerland, she moved to Rome when her studies were complete. There she met Thomas Bernhard and Ingeborg Bachmann. The latter would become an especially close friend. In 1968, she relocated to Milan to work with the famed publishing house, Adelphi Edizioni. She married writer and publisher Roberto Calasso, and established a reputation as a novelist and translator over the following years. But it was her masterful fourth novel, I beati anni del castigo (1989), translated as Sweet Days of Discipline (Tim Parks, 1991), that introduced her to an English speaking audience. Exquisitely spare, this subtly disturbing tale of obsession set in a boarding school in the Swiss Alps, examines themes that continue to resurface in her work: familial dysfunction, emotional detachment, and a preternatural obsession with sadness or, as her narrator so poignantly puts it, the “pleasure of disappointment.”

Continue reading here:

Read the story “The Black Lace Veil” here:

Listening to Indigenous Voices (part 2), Canada: This Accident of Being Lost by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson

Okay, so maybe I was looking the other way and missed the sheer force of poetic nature that is Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, but after reading her latest collection of stories and songs, This Accident of Being Lost, I can only sit here and think: Where have I been? To balance my review of the Australian anthology, This country anytime anywhere, I was hungry for something vital and exciting from my own country—not that I didn’t think I wouldn’t find it from an Indigenous writer here, but I didn’t know where to look. I wanted something different than the fine, but more conventional narrative novels I’ve read in the past. I wanted something passionate, something that would challenge, discomfit.

And here it is.

Simpson is an acclaimed writer, musician, academic, and activist of Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg ancestry. She draws on the storytelling traditions of her people, merging them with elements of contemporary realism, speculative fiction, and spoken-word poetry. In turns introspective and political, her work is raw and uncompromising—shifting shape and stretching time—to bring the harsh realities of decolonization into focus through poems and stories that are vibrant, unexpected, and sometimes brutally funny.

Simpson’s writing erupts with an immediacy and intimacy that catches the reader off guard. The world she opens up is one where the uneasy ground between a self-centred, ego-driven contemporary culture, one with roots deep in the motivation and mentality of the colonial mindset that helped shape North American culture, meets an Indigenous worldview that values the dynamic interrelationships between family, community, ancestors, nature and the environment. This is the tension at the heart of the decolonial process. It is, at many levels, still a matter of paying lip-service, at best, to the legacy of the injustices endured by our Indigenous peoples. I may like to imagine myself “concerned” and “compassionate,” but reconciliation is meaningless unless otherwise unheard voices are truly heard.

This collection of short, often fragmented pieces does not endeavour to soft-peddle a message for easy consumption. Honest, frequently conflicted emotions—anger and bitterness, confusion and self-doubt, sadness and injury—come through; as does a deeply abiding respect and concern for the environment. As a storyteller and poet, Simpson’s power lies in the lyrical beauty of her language, and the vulnerability and sarcastic humour of her narrators. This is work that is at once engaging, entertaining, and thought-provoking.

An underlying theme in This Accident of Being Lost, is the reality of being an Indigenous woman today and the disorientation that can create. The protagonists are searching for connection, to others and to their heritage. The poetic pieces tend to feel more political in tone, either as direct protest songs, or in a more plaintive evocation of loss and pain such as “travel to me now” which begins:

the wind has worn my edges
the cold pricked away brittle skin
bones lying here in front of you
lost before they can begin

there’s red on the ice of the lake
there’s bruises that never heal
there’s past collapsing on present
she took things i didn’t know you could steal

As much as I enjoyed the poetry in this collection, it was the prose pieces, at least on this first reading, that made me fall in love (yes, love), with Simpson’s writing. She weaves a selection of original, often fragmentary, stories, that drop the reader into the imaginations, concerns, and anxieties of her narrators in a way that is abrupt and intimate.

We see attempts to reclaim Indigenous cultural practices in altered spaces. Stories delivered with pointed sarcasm. In “Plight,” a group of women engage in the guerilla-styled tapping of maple syrup from the trees in a Toronto park (albeit marking the trees before the leaves fall in the autumn to be certain they have the right ones), while in “Circles Upon Circles,” a family tries to revive the practice of harvesting wild rice from a lake now bordered with summer cottages. In both cases, white residents have to be appeased: “Listen to their paternalistic bullshit and feedback…. Let them bask in the plight of the Native people so they can feel self-righteous.” It is an emotionally exhausting process.

There are also a number of pieces that play with the way modern technology impacts communication. Online obsessions mediate relationships built around social media—intensifying insecurities and fragilities when texts don’t arrive, chat messages are ignored, and “real life” encounters are anticipated. But that is not where electronic interaction ends. The spirit world is also online. In the wonderful story “Big Water,” the narrator is engaged in text communication with Niibish, the surprisingly security-concerned spirit of Lake Ontario (Chi’Niibish to the Nishnaabeg people) as the lake waters rise, threatening the city of Toronto with extensive flooding. The lake is sending a message: “We’re in a mid-life crisis, out of shape and overcompensating because it’s too late to change any of that. Beaver’s doing push-ups on the soggy grass. Bear’s doing power squats and bragging about his seven-minute workout app and the option of having a hippie with a whistle to call out the next exercise.” It’s very funny, and yet it’s not. The message is serious.

Some of the narrators are delightfully sharp-witted, navigating settings—a firearms class or a daughter’s dance course—where they manage to hold their own. But it is in the more open, fluid pieces that explore the strained, breath- and bone-deep emotion of the search for connectedness with lovers, with the land, and even within the vagaries of modern society, that Simpson’s work speaks to me and to the “otherness” I struggle with. Her prose is exquisite, she handles longing and sadness so beautifully. In “Brown Against Blue,” a woman is heading out on a hunting trip with a man she loves, in the way that love is complicated and fragile. She doesn’t want to ruin the experience but fears she will. Her partner asks why things can’t just be “good” and she tells herself that one reason is because she is always “straddling the eroding edge of pathos.” But that’s not quite right:

I never teeter on the edge of things. I live there. I cheat on myself with Sad and she never abandons me. In a way that will sound awful to you, but not to me, she is the only one that loves me in the way I need to be loved. My constant lover, Sad, as muted, dysmorphic entrapment.

Another answer is that he lives in his own muted, dysmorphic entrapment that is slightly different than mine.

Songs and stories together, there are thirty pieces in this slim collection. They invite, and reward, re-reading. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson began collecting traditional narratives and essays in her earlier publications, before releasing her first collection of fiction, Islands of Decolonial Love, in 2013. That was where I had originally wanted to start, but I could not find it locally. I now want to explore her earlier writing, her music, and see what other writers and artists this leads me to.

This Accident of Being Lost is published by House of Anansi Press.

Listening to Indigenous Voices (part 1), Australia: This country anytime anywhere

Over the past decade, I’d like to think that my reading has broadened in scope. I used to scour and select books from mainstream literary reviews, major award longlists, and end-of-year round-ups. Reading works in translation, turning to smaller independent publishers, seeking more experimental writing, and allowing myself to follow my own idiosyncratic fancies have all served to expand the borders of my attentions (and the limits of my bookshelf real estate). But every now and then it doesn’t hurt to take stock and think: What are the gaps I might want to fill? What voices am I not listening to?

This year, when my friend Lisa of ANZ LitLovers announced her annual Indigenous Literature Week, I immediately thought of a book I picked up in Alice Springs this May: This country anytime anywhere: An Anthology of New Indigenous Writing from the Northern Territory. However, if I was going to read and write about an Australian publication, I promised myself that I would balance my efforts with the work of an Indigenous writer from Canada. That review will follow in a few days.

Published in 2010, This country anytime anywhere is a joint project of the NT Writer’s Centre and IAD Press. The initial phase involved workshops and consultations with over 100 Indigenous people—some established writers, but the majority beginners interested in telling their stories. The resulting collection of poems and stories is diverse, featuring writers who range from teenagers to elders and hail from urban, rural, and remote backgrounds. Critically, eight Indigenous languages and English are represented. There are several bilingual offerings and two submissions for which no comfortable English language translator could be found. This is an indication of the precarious state of some of these Indigenous languages.

The range of offerings in this slender volume is impressive—from family histories, to traditional folktales, to poetic expressions of anger, and narrative songs and stories. The variety of styles and subject matter is impressive. Many evoke a simple, unadorned voice. Magical, or more accurately, spiritual elements are often woven into the fabric of mundane, everyday life, speaking to the connection to a heritage and land that extends back centuries, millennia. But, as one might expect, these poems and stories echo sadness, loss and grief. Fallout from the Stolen Generation, the years (1910-1970) when many children were removed from their families, is still very present. The ravages of alcohol, mental illness, injury, and suicide are not ignored. But there are also stories of hope and survival.

One of the most widely known contributors, writer and poet Ali Cobby Eckermann, is represented with two bilingual (English/Pitjantjatjara) poems and two stories. “Spirit Gate,” which she describes as a “satirical work of fiction based on hope,” imagines the sudden disappearance of all the Aboriginal people from Alice Springs. The main character, Trevor, is awakened in his Melbourne home by the disembodied voice of his grandfather. The Song he hears is a summoning and he promptly leaves for Alice. Light-skinned, he arrives without attracting attention, to a community distraught by the disappearances. At a café, he listens to the clientele—“artists, social and youth workers, hippie-types and government ‘yuppie experts’”—debating the strange circumstances:

Snippets of conversation confirmed that all Aboriginal people had vacated the township region about a week ago. There had been no warning of the exile, no specific signs to the exodus, and most people had failed to notice the blackfellas had gone for several days. People had just assumed they’d gone for another funeral, or collecting royalty money somewhere.

Trevor learns that the non-Indigenous population feels “jilted and hurt.” Business and the tourist trade are threatened. Unruly behaviour on the streets and drinking on public lawns indicate that the Dry Town rules are being violated. It is a world turned upside down. Though the tone is tongue-in-cheek, Cobby Eckermann is taking a pointed stab at the industries that benefit from the Aborginal presence. In the end, the protagonist goes out to join his own people who have gathered beyond a spirit “Gate” to be renewed and regain the dignity they have lost.

Having just been out and spent time in Alice Springs and beyond (observing the town as an outsider but having an opportunity to engage with those who live and work there), this and a couple of the other pieces set in the community had an extra resonance. The desert imagery was also especially poignant for me—even after a short stay, the land gets into your system. The natural world is a common theme in much the poetry in this collection. For example, “Red Desert” by Maureen Nampijinpa O’Keefe opens:

See the thorny lizard walking along the red desert dunes.
See the snake slithering across the red desert sand.
See how high the eagle flies, hovering above the desert.

The spinifex glistens golden in the sun,
as the desert winds blow softly amongst the ghost gums.
See the leaves swaying to the desert wind.
Listen to the leaves rustle as the squawking of the white cuckatoos
breaks the desert’s silence.

This collection offers an interesting insight into contemporary writing from the Northern Territory. The poetry tends to have a plaintive, political undertone, while the prose pieces showcase the legacy of the long storytelling traditions of the Indigenous cultures. However, these are very much stories of the 21st century. And they are often brutal. Of note is “The Tree” (Gloria Daylight Corliss), a short piece that shifts between a third person narrative recounting a man’s memories of playing, camping and fishing beneath a large banyan tree, and a first person tale of personal loss and environmental degradation. What begins with a boy playing on the branches of the tree ends with the grown man hanging from the same tree. The urban-set “The Irony of that…” (Jessie Bonson) is a darkly playful tale of a teen-aged would-be writer who creates horrifying scenarios only to routinely erase them: “Edit – Select All – Delete.” But woven into the tapestry of her fantastic scenes are the very real domestic terrors that haunt her and her mother.

For the participants in this project, writing is healing. Since I traveled to central Australia to take part in a fundraising event in support of an Indigenous Women’s Council, this collection (which happens to feature female writers by a ratio of about 3 to 1) is a fitting complement to that incredible experience.

Immigrant tales with a difference: Tumbleweed by Josip Novakovich—My Rusty Toque review

On Canada Day it seems appropriate to call attention to a collection of stories by a Croatian born writer who immigrated, first to the US where he lived and taught for many years before moving to Montreal in 2009. He decided to settle here, and is now a Canadian citizen. Josip Novakovich is a master of the short story and his tales tend to stretch across borders, typically either stepping back into, or at least glancing at, his Balkan homeland. Yet in his latest collection, Tumbleweed, the majority of the stories are set in North America, in cities and rural locations where his migrant narrators are struggling to set down roots and build lives for themselves, often in the company of some unforgettable non-human characters. It’s a great introduction to an author with a respected international reputation who deserves to be better known here in his adopted home.

My review of Tumbleweed can be found in the latest issue of The Rusty Toque.

The weight words carry: Napoleon’s Road’s by David Brooks

I read Napoleon’s Roads, Australian writer David Brooks’ most recent collection of short fiction, as I made my way to Australia a little over a month ago. Looking back through the pages of this book to gather my thoughts to write these words, certain adjectives keep floating through my mind: shimmering, translucent, affecting, reflective, wise. There are sixteen tales here, written over a span of nearly twenty years: fragmented journeys, fables, and allegories that slip through the contemporary “real” world, wander imaginary landscapes, and explore the inner realms of the heart and mind. Taken as a whole, these stories reflect a few key themes, rather like light refracted through a multi-faceted crystal—ideas moving outward, layered and recombined to create a series of experiences that make for a most satisfying travel companion.

His prelude, “Paths to the City,” sets the tone, asking:

Why do we write? What are we groping for? Are words able to penetrate the night? Are they able to go down the road we only half recall, along which we see only our own back receding in a heat-shimmer of memory? Can they truly take paths we have not ourselves taken? Bring back the lost? Such weights they carry, these things that arrive as if unbidden, or that sometimes we think we summon from nowhere, you would think they were beasts of burden, each line a caravan, setting out by moonlight over pale trackless sand, guided by half-forgotten stars.

 What we can know, what we can say about what we know, and what is better left unknown, are questions that surface, explicitly and implicitly, throughout this collection. Brooks allows for gaps and spaces in his narratives, reinforced by the sharp, broken, fragmented style of many of the pieces. There is an evanescent quality that lingers, leaving a sense that many of the stories cannot be rewound and retold for fear of crushing them under the weight of pedantic description.

Many of his stories have a fable-like quality. There are echoes of Calvino, Borges, Kafka. But some of the most interesting pieces are multi-leveled meditations that spin out from a central subject in a sequence of fragmented reflections. The title story takes the long, straight tree-lined roads constructed in the French countryside under Napoleon. The narrator travels along these roads with his daughter, his account framed and interrupted by reflections on the history of the roads, their relation to the landscape, and memories from his own past. At one point he asks, “How to say that these roads are about what is not road, this text is about what it is not?” This a is a sentiment that resurfaces again and again—how much of any one of these stories is about what it is not?

The same fragmentary form is used to powerful effect in “Kabul.” The city the narrator is in exists in the past and the present at once. It is a place of horror and violence. It is the people he encounters. It is more:

It is not always the body, not only. Kabul is within us, but it is also a landscape of the days, a positive to their negatives, a trace. Weeks marked by craters, explosions of shells. Months marked by lies and betrayal. A field of engagements, tracks leading inland. (There, on those ridges, a hide-out. And if you could get to it, a view of the city. The minarets, the domes, convoys in or out. The land dry. The puffs of smoke where the shells hit. Or in winter, when it is covered with snow …)

In a series of single paragraphs, set apart by font and font size, a multi-dimensional, experiential vision of a city under siege is constructed.

Cityscapes are important. The allegorical story “A.” is an guide to the City, as an ideal and a real destination, a place we are ever moving towards—borne of our memories and our dreams: “… A. is distinctive, also entirely one’s own.” Calling to mind Calvino’s Invisible Cities, A. is “a different city for everyone who reaches it, a different memory for everyone who leaves it.” In the hauntingly beautiful “The Dead,” an angelic experience of the City is imagined. Wandering the streets, the angels visit the City of the Dead and the City of the Ruin, but again, the negative is evoked:

The City is what the City was. If we are taught to see by the stories we see or hear or read, if our vision is always the product of texts – the texts we have seen, and those seen by those who have written what we have seen – then the City that is is a hole, an absence, a possibility, beyond us as we ourselves are, as our friends are, our lovers. An edge which we think we glimpse through accident, irruption, exposure.

Reflections on time, memory, and loss also reverberate through this collection. The fragmentary piece “Grief” is the story of the death of an old woman, a relative of the narrator’s partner. It’s about the pain of losing a loved one. And, because grief has its strange trajectories, it’s also about a cat that keeps entering the narrator’s thoughts. The fractured narrative captures the disjointed experiences, hitting, at moments, the raw essence of grief:

A nausea perhaps. The overwhelming weight of being. But also something more, surely. The heart was wrenched, as if something had prised it open. The opposite of nausea. Not closed in by things, but offered them, in their depth. Or drawn by them, rushed into them. As if one were being sucked out of oneself. A force. A kind of gravity. The cat at its centre, there in the boot-room.

An entirely different mood is evoked in “Lost Pages,” a wonderful piece that employs a wide range of fonts and formats to play out a writer’s fear of losing those middle-of-the-night ideas, the hastily recorded texts, the unbacked-up electronic musings, and the memories that aging brain cells can no longer contain. There is unlikely to be a writer who can’t relate.

If, at the outset, Brooks asks why we write and questions the power of words, he comes at an answer most directly in the penultimate piece in this collection: “A Traveller’s Tale.” The writer who is about to begin a long story is, he suggests, akin to someone setting off on a voyage. The preparatory measures one would take for a journey and the nervousness that one feels about the uncertainties ahead are played out as the writer sits down with pen and paper or computer. And, although the technicalities of this preparation are typically removed from the finished narrative (except in this case, the one we are reading), the nervousness cannot be entirely erased because the journey, the journey of the storyteller, is too important, the heart too involved:

And when I say the heart, of course, I’m not sure that I’ll be understood – well, no, what I mean to say is that, to be understood, I feel I need to explain that what I have in mind when I say the heart is a very durable thing that stretched over a whole lifetime, that is one of the most stressed and yet most constant, toughest, most durable organs of the body; the heart that has to get up in the morning and take up the often heavy – often very heavy, often too heavy – burden of being, let’s call it, and carry it, somehow, to the day’s other end.

As he goes on to examine the emotional challenges of the journey, from the beginning of a story to the ending, he will touch at the heart of what words, memories and experience—the tools the writer must rely on—can accomplish. The nervousness is never resolved, and, he decides, the tale he is trying to tell is untellable.

But that can’t be the end. After all, there are fifteen other rich and varied tales that prove him wrong. Brooks is a consummate storyteller. Perhaps it’s all that nervous energy that makes his stories shimmer.

Out of place in a half-made world: The Exploded View by Ivan Vladislavić

Egan always found it strange to set foot for the first time in a place he knew from the plans. It was like folding out of two dimensions into three. You could almost hear the creases popping as you broke through the barrier. Sometimes it was disenchanting. You had convinced yourself, looking at the neatly inked blocks on the paper, at the street names, the community facilities, the cookie-cutter trees, that the place was rather pleasant. You imagined gardens, shady avenues and parks. And then you got there and found rows of impossibly small houses, not a leaf in sight, dust everywhere, shadowless walls, and the immense blue well of the sky, which reduced the world to sediment.

The end of Apartheid and the process of reconciliation offered great hope to the people of South Africa. It was, and still is, held up as a major achievement, a model to other nations, even if the dream has become tarnished in the realization. The plans always look better, more achievable, on paper. The Exploded View by Ivan Vladislavić, newly released by Archipelago, was originally published in South Africa in 2004, one decade after the first free elections. This collection of four loosely interlinked stories examines the uneasy space in which individuals living in and around Johannesburg find themselves as they try to adjust to—or exploit—a new social order where the shifting dynamics are not clearly defined. Too many loose edges exist, lines blur.

Vladislavić’s protagonists are ordinary men: a statistician, a sanitation engineer, a conceptual artist, and a contractor. Each one is a little neurotic, bearing hints of a vague identity crisis—the doubts of early mid-life in a world where the rules are changing. Their stories overlap with respect to place, a gated suburban development and a restaurant figure more than once, but each of the main characters is marked by particular degree of isolation.

“Villa Toscana” follows the misadventures of Les Budlender, a statistician seconded to help redraft the first non-racial census questionnaire that, in 1996, had caused great confusion. Shuttling between a diverse group of volunteers, and the Development Committee, his job is to help fine-tune a new form. And that brings him to a gated, faux Italian residential complex on the outskirts of the city where he meets a young Afrikaner named Iris. He is smitten; she is oblivious and eventually irritated by his increasingly odd behavior. Awkward, obsessive about detail, he tries to quantify everything as if comfort can only be found in numbers. He demonstrates a hyper sensitivity to his surroundings that, in the presence of Iris, is magnified and, in the end, unlikely to serve him well. But it allows for some striking descriptive passages:

She seated him in the lounge and went to make coffee. The rooms in Villa Toscana were small, square and white. The furniture, sparse and spindly though it was, seemed too large. He had the unsettling impression that he had strayed onto a page in a book, one of those picture books that were more interesting to adults than the children they had apparently been written for. He had lost all sense of proportion. He stood up, half expecting that he would have to stoop, and raised his hand above his head, measuring the distance between his outstretched fingertips and the ceiling. At least a metre. Probably, there were municipal regulations. Why did it seem so low?

The second and, for my money, standout piece in the book, “Afritude Sauce,” features Egan, a sanitation engineer on a business trip. He is out to visit a new RDP (low-cost subsidy) housing project called Hani View where there have been problems with the water and sewage system. He begins to sense that he is a prop in some sort of municipal drama. It begins with a seemingly staged (and photographed) demonstration of the inadequacy of the construction and, quite comically, the toilet facilities in one of the houses, and continues later that evening at dinner with a group of local business and council men at Bra Zama’s African Eatery. He tries to pride himself in being progressive, as a white man with a group of black men—the only racially mixed group in the room:

Mazibuko was right, Egan thought, it was going to be an experience. And he had an odd sense that it would be a significant experience too, that he would remember this evening, that he would look back on it. He could already see himself looking back on it, from a tremendous distance, and understanding, at last, what it was all about. He wishes he was there now, at that reassuring remove, on a height, filled with the wisdom of hindsight.

However, as the night progresses, he is increasingly at a loss to decipher how he fits into the political posturing that gradually leaves him sidelined as the conversation shifts into Sotho and he drinks too much for his own good. Later, back at his hotel, his embarrassment and irritation builds to a level of frustrated paranoia.

“Curiouser,” is the sole story with a black protagonist, in this instance an educated, middle-class artist, who has made his name with installation art pieces. Simeon also faces questions of identity, albeit from another angle. Questions about what is, or is not, appropriate for him to present in his art take on a different tone because of his colour. His own sense of himself is, to a significant extent, a private performance. Yet, when forced to consider the possibly illegal source of a large quantity of masks and curios he has purchased, it is clear that he, too, has an uncertain sense of how, or where, he fits in.

Finally, the collection closes with “Crocodile Lodge,” where the elements of the “new South Africa” meet with a devastating and brutal intensity. A contractor who specializes in erecting billboards for construction sites, caught in congested traffic reflects on his childhood love of Popular Mechanics, as he makes his way back to the location where he had been working earlier to try to find his missing cellphone. He remembers how the plans he absorbed from the magazine had shaped his idea of America and his ability to imagine the diagrams into virtual three-dimensional structures, from the smallest detail of a house, to the landscape outside:

Even the pines on the shore he exploded into their parts, so that each needle quivered beside a sheath in a stalk, each cone burst into separate scales, and each trunk shucked its bark like a coat. The world, disassembled as precisely as a diagram in a biology textbook, sucked in bracing breath and expanded. The universe was expanding, we were causing it to expand, by analyzing it.

This affinity for seeing how things fit together, for appreciating the “exploded view” had never left him though he wondered about its value in the modern world. Indeed, a new kind of awareness, alertness is required, when the world is in flux. Each of the protagonists in this collection find themselves out of step to a greater or lesser extent.

These stories, which could well be considered a novel in four parts, showcase Vladislavić’s great strength—an ability to burrow into the very human idiosyncrasies of the ordinary man. His attention to thoughts, mannerisms, and subtle details allow him to create, even in relatively confined spaces, characters that are honest, and slightly flawed, in a way that one can easily recognize and relate to. And his power of description applied to settings—interior, exterior, or imagined—carries an almost photographic quality. Well demonstrated in longer works like The Folly or Double Negative, this uncanny ability is likewise evident in his short fiction. The Exploded View is a welcome addition to the growing body of Vladislavić’s work to be made available outside South Africa, and, if you have yet to encounter his writings, is as good a place to start as any.

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.