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.

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.

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.

Haunting fables for a modern world: Ninety-Nine Stories of God by Joy Williams

She was a writer on my radar, Joy Williams, somehow unknown to me until recently, but then, the world of literature is large and sometimes voices pass us by until fate or chance draws them to our attention. Or, if the rather ambivalent and perplexed Lord who appears in so many of the stories in her latest collection has His way, a little divine intervention is exercised. And so it happened that I found myself in the ER earlier this week, an advance reader’s copy of Ninety-Nine Stories of God on my phone. Between the tests and assessments to rule out any heart problems (my own private post cardiac arrest paranoia I’m afraid), I devoured a healthy measure of these bite-sized fictional treats. The true cause of my symptoms laid me under for a good 36 hours, but I emerged today to finish the collection, slowly only for the sake of savouring these deliciously dark, reflective, engagingly original tales.

99storiesA healthy dose of the unique joy of Joy Williams proved the perfect medicine.

The ninety-nine vignettes and mini stories that comprise this precious volume run the range from the brief and aphoristic to “longer” tales that run for a page or two. A cast of literary, philosophical and other assorted personalities make appearances, as characters or subjects. Williams delights in building fables that feature Kafka, Karl Jung, Simone Weil, or Philip K. Dick among others. At times she reduces her musing to the very simplest of terms, as in this one sentence micro-story which receives its context, as most of the stories do, by the title which is always placed at the end:

You should have changed if you wanted to remain yourself but you were afraid to change.

SARTRE TO CAMUS

The Lord Himself is a regular presence, as one might expect. He tends to appear in the most innocuous situations—He waits in a pharmacy line for His shingles shot, dreams of participating in a demolition derby, and expresses horror at the suggestion that He go to Home Depot to purchase supplies for a tortoise He wishes to adopt. Williams’ God is as curious and confused by His creations, especially those of the human form and He seems to have little control over the fate of His charges.

The Lord was asked if He believed in reincarnation.

I do, He said. It explains so much.

What does it explain, Sir? someone asked.

On your last Fourth of July festivities, I was invited to observe an annual hot-dog-eating contest, the Lord said, and it was the stupidest thing I’ve ever witnessed.

NEGLECT

Bemused and caring, lovingly benign, this is a God one can’t help liking. Good thing too, because the world of the ordinary people (and animals, for that matter) who feature in the majority of these stories is often marked by loss, despair and an odd isolation from others.

In his Numéro Cinq review of The Visiting Privilege, a recent compilation of her first three collections of short stories, Jason DeYoung describes her work as:

Strange and dark, her stories and novels make their foundation in realism, but then you never know quite where they will lead to. Most stay firmly planned in the “manifest world,” while others drift off toward the uncanny.

This description holds fast here too, even in abbreviated form. The humour is black, and a disturbing energy courses just below the surface. Nothing is spelled out beyond the most spare, necessary, imagery. So many stories pivot, or pack their punch, not in the ostensible actions recounted but in the reactions of the characters which are often counterintuitive. There is a suggestion that we cling to our dysfunction, our delusions, possibly as a stand in for faith, leaving the poor Lord Himself an awkward outsider in a world He designed.

The style and format of this collection is most strongly reminiscent of Thomas Bernhard’s The Voice Imitator. Of course, it would be remiss if the great writer did not make an appearance as he does in a story about a woman reading book reviews:

She was reading a broadside that reviewed a number of books. The reviews were extremely intelligent and gracefully presented. She read about a cluster of works by Thomas Bernhard, the cranky genius of Austrian literature, works that had been translated into English. She doubted that she would buy these books. She learned that he always referred to his lifelong companion, Hedwig Stavianicek, as his “aunt”. She was thirty-seven years older than Bernhard. She couldn’t imagine she had been his lifelong companion for long.

Given the condition I’ve been in over the last few days that, through a wicked case of the flu, I reveled in these ninety-nine gems. This story goes on in a way that most wonderfully spoke to my state and made me smile:

She had had a fever for several days and she was loafing around, drinking fluids and reading. With her fever, the act of reading became ever stranger to her. First the words were solid, sternly limiting her perception of them to what she already knew. Then they became more frighteningly expansive, tapping into twisting arteries of memory. Then they became transparent, rendering them invisible.

I can assure you this will not be my last encounter with Joy Williams. I would encourage anyone whose interest has been sparked to check the review I’ve linked above which contains a video of Williams reading an essay entitled “Why I Write.” Ninety-Nine Stories of God will be released in July by Tin House.

Goethe Dies by Thomas Bernhard – My Numéro Cinq review

I have written about Thomas Bernhard’s novels before, but faced with prospect of writing a longer critical review of a book containing four short stories I was faced with a dilemma: What does one say about Bernhard?

The question really is: How much familiarity with Bernhard should one assume? He is, most definitely, a singular writer. Those of us who count ourselves among the converted tend to have bulging bookshelves filled with a healthy supply of Bernhard’s novels, memoirs and poetry. Others are uncertain or fail to be immediately captivated. A bit of Bernhard primer is thus in order for those potential new readers, especially in this instance, because Goethe Dies, the collection at hand, offers a perfect opportunity to experience the magic of the master in miniature. A treat I argue for readers no matter their degree of prior acquaintance.

So in the following review published at Numéro Cinq earlier this week I tried to balance my general discussion of Bernhard’s prose style to provide a context for the appreciation of my analysis of the stories that would not be too redundant for the experienced or too vague for the novice.

Here’s a taste of the review, please click through the link at the end to read the rest. And while you’re there have a look around. There is another great issue shaping up at NC.

A Master Set Loose in a Small Space: Review of Thomas Bernhard’s Goethe Dies — Joseph Schreiber

Goethe Dies

Once acquainted with the work of the late Austrian writer, Thomas Bernhard, it is difficult to remain indifferent. One is either put off by his endlessly convoluted sentences, his bitter, misanthropic vision, and his fondness for digressive, contradictory and self-obsessed narratives; or one is swept up in the singular energetic flow of his darkly comic genius and never looks back. For those who find themselves in the latter camp, the announcement of a newly translated collection of four short stories originally published in periodicals in the early 1980’s is good news indeed.

Bernhard in short form may lack the unleashed full force intensity afforded when a single paragraph is allowed to unspool over one or two hundred pages or more; but these minor works, if you like, offer a valuable and entertaining opportunity to observe a master at play in a small, contained space. As with the early stories of Prose and the micro-fiction of The Voice Imitator, the short pieces collected in Goethe Dies, recently released by Seagull Books, highlight many of the essential elements that lend Bernhard’s work such a distinctive, infectious voice. Consequently, they may be best appreciated against a certain familiarity with the author and the idiosyncratic features that characterize his novels.

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