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

Winter solstice. The longest night of the year.

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

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

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

Cue 2016.

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

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

It will take time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cold comfort: The Absolute Gravedigger by Vítěslav Nezval

That terrible fist swings the bell
The blasphemer
Is boxing
Hell-bent on knocking out the eye of heaven
That cynically floods desolate white-washed houses
With radial light
With an iron resolution to act
While the knuckles crack
This fist delivers bruises shaped like swallow nests to roofs
In the name of vengeance
(from “The Blacksmith”)

Upon my first read-through of this newly translated collection of poetry by prominent Czech Surrealist, Vítěslav Nezval, I was struck by an eerie sense that the poet was speaking to the present moment. Published in 1937, the poems gathered in The Absolute Gravedigger form a gallery of darkening, disturbing, and frequently grotesque images that capture the mood of the shifting landscape of the years leading up to the Second World War. Some are small, contained, and often bucolic scenes. But others depict expansive nightmarish vignettes of obsession, violence, corruption and decay—evoking imagery worthy of Bruegel, Arcimboldo or Bosch—and closely aligned with the spirit and sentiment associated with the more widely known French Surrealism.

Returning for a second reading, in the immediate aftermath of the election of Donald Trump, I cannot help but wonder how quickly the lessons of the last century have been forgotten—and shudder at the thought of what potentially lies ahead.

gravediggerBorn in 1900, Nezval began writing and publishing poetry in the 1920s, but by the early ’30s, he and a number of his fellow Czech writers and artists had fallen under the influence of the French avant-garde. He first met André Breton in Paris in 1933, and the following year he helped found the Surrealist Group of Czechoslovakia, the first such group to receive the Breton seal of approval, so to speak, outside of France. Yet, even though they made important contributions to the movement, the Czech Surrealists have remained relatively obscure, a situation further exacerbated by the artistic restrictions applied under the years of Communist occupation. The release of The Absolute Gravedigger from Twisted Spoon Press should help to ameliorate that situation, and spark further interest in the work of Nezval and his contemporaries.

In his poetry, as evidenced in this collection, Nezval was a stylist who drew widely from the Surrealist playbook. In an interview in The Bohemist, translators Stephan Delbos and Tereza Novická describe their decision to work together as follows:

Nezval was prolific and incredibly gifted, so the book is over 200 pages, and contains a range of styles from traditional rhymed quatrains to freewheeling litanies and dense, paranoiac prose. A challenge to translate, to say the least, so approaching it as a team seemed like a good idea.

The diversity of the poems in this collection is difficult to capture in the space of a short review. Suffice to say that they range from the relatively conventional to the decidedly bizarre. For example, “The Windmill” is a section comprised of a series of rural compositions featuring farm and small town scenes. However, the imagery is vivid, sometimes surprising in its unexpected shifts, and an unmistakable darkness seems to wait just over the horizon, as demonstrated in this portion of “The Reapers”:

The birds have flown off
Everything on the verge of tears
Huge carts haul off bales of straw
A cock crows
And wheels squeak
The landscape changes
Brown pitchers peak from under gladiolas
And confusion seized the horses
The mills clatter
From afar
As a signal
Like an imminent declaration of war
And suddenly the whole place is holiday empty

Similar bucolic settings return in the later “Shadowplays” section which features tightly rhyming, orderly quatrains which, to preserve the feel of the originals, the translators have chosen to carry into English with as much of the spirit and musicality intact as possible. Because these pieces stand out so sharply against the more open and, at times, unrestrained quality of the rest of the book, this seems to be a wise choice. Coming on the heels of the intense, fantastic and disturbing imagery of the poems in the “The Absolute Gravedigger” section— the title poem, “The Fetishist,” The Blacksmith,” “Milking,” and “The Plowman”—the sudden appearance of a traditional formality catches the reader off guard.

2016-10-27-16-12-40The author has also included several pieces of his own artwork and the poems they inspired framed by two prose pieces in which he talks about the process of decalomania (the creation of abstract images by laying a thick layer of paint on a surface and pressing a piece of paper or canvas against it) and its influence on, not only the directly referenced pieces but other key poems in the book. Nezval explains that the process gave rise to prototypes of “the hybrid creatures” that people his most surreal poems.

There is harsh brutality that runs through the most fantastic and, to put it simply, “surreal” of these Surrealist poems. The characters that are brought to life, resemble the denizens of an adult Grimm’s fairy tale—grotesquely featured, obscenely sexualized, dirty, decaying—and trapped, sentenced to their miserable fates. But the piece that is most profoundly political, and devastatingly timely once again is the final poem, “The Iberian Fly.” Here on the wings and body of a gigantic fly making its way through the skies, a terrifying spectacle is playing out, summoning imagery reaching back to the Spanish Inquisition, but zeroing in on the rising waves of fascist ideology sweeping Europe. Nezval’s original version was apparently more specific, naming names, but increasing censorship stayed his hand before the final version went to print. All the same, the message is clear:

[The Iberian fly’s] proboscis
Was gradually
Immersed
Into several drops of blood
Squeezed out
Of different races
And subjected these drops
To analytical chicanery
Whose fraudulent result manifested
As diagrams
Once these drops
Of blood
Hardened into a crust resembling sealing wax

As the drop
Of drying Aryan blood
Turned into a faux jewel
Spectrally depicting
Absolute nobility
In the form of Ionic columns
Under which reflected in miniature
The beguiling image of bathing women
On the sparkling left wing of the Iberian fly
The other drops
Drying
Transformed
Under the touch of the dirty finger
Of the little man with the Chaplin mustache
Into this pictorial relief

The relief that is depicted in the following stanzas incorporates African and Asian features—a chilling echo of the type of racist graffiti, propaganda and attacks that we have seen post Brexit and, now Trump. And these patterns know no borders. In Canada, where I live, the past week has seen a sharp upturn in the same trends. The immergence of this translation, at this time, is uncanny, there is a new chill to these words, almost eighty years after they were first published.

Plus ça change.

The Absolute Gravedigger is published, by Prague-based Twisted Spoon Press, in a handsome hardcover edition featuring Nezval’s own decalomania artwork on the cover.

Through my people you shall know me: I, City by Pavel Brycz

It could be argued that the celebrated cities of the world – Rome, Paris, Vienna and others – owe their mystique to words of the poets who have walked their streets. But what of the humble, disregarded metropolises, where are their voices to be found? For Czech writer Pavel Brycz, his own love/hate relationship with the city in which he grew up inspired him to wonder how he might access the beating heart of a place more associated with crime and unemployment than romance. He decided to give the voice to the city itself, allow the city to express its affection for the souls residing within its boundaries, and the result, I City, is a work of melancholy tenderness.

CityMost is a city with medieval roots in the northwest region of the Czech Republic. Situated in the middle of the lignite mining region of Northern Bohemia, this fated urban centre has, since the mid 20th century, been associated with industrial development, pollution, environmental degradation, and the social problems that often percolate in similar communities. During the 1960’s, under the Communist government of the day, the historical old town was demolished to allow greater access to the lignite deposits lying beneath its foundations. Remarkably to preserve the late Gothic Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, dating from the 1500’s, the entire building was physically relocated 841 metres, a painstaking process involving 53 transport trucks set on special rails. Meanwhile, rows of uninspired housing constructed of prefabricated concrete panels were erected to house the relocated residents and the new workers who began to flood into the area. The personified city frames this event as indicative of its own nomadic spirit:

“Mine is a migratory soul. And one day you’ll wake up, and you’ll be somewhere totally different than you are today:
You’ve already experienced it once. Don’t you remember?
You looked on in astonishment as the church rode away.
Where does our faith ride? In which direction is our lack of faith headed?
To heaven or to hell, which is the destination of our future? Shhh…
Once before you watched the church slowly going, and the birds were off to the south.
You didn’t know what was behind it. Now, I’ll reveal it to you: I, city, unhappily, happy, hitched up invisible horses and dreamt of a promised land. And I dream about it still, incessantly.”

Through a series of “appearances” – short stories, fragments, prose poems – the city of Most tells its own history, through the stories of its children, young and old alike. And because it was leveled and rebuilt, these are timely, modern stories told with the magic of folktales. There are touching stories of love – kindled, sundered, missed by coincidence. There are the vagaries of youth – from the poetic angst of teenagers to the dreams of hockey glory in far off Canada. There are heartbreaking stories of the lost who return home, like that of the young woman who arrives on her parents’ doorstep after years of living rough in Prague and is welcomed without question; and of the lost who are lost for good, like the solemn lament for the young man whose mean life was cut short:

“He needed wings. He needed to wave at the world from high altitude. Now he’s gone. He sniffed Čikuli stain remover and flew off far away from me, though he lies dead on one of my streets. I, city, don’t know how to shed tears. Because of one boy, the rain won’t fall from the sky.”

The city, as narrator, loves its people, and, as such brings to life a place that is more than its industrial setting might reveal. Kafka, Pope John Paul II and other historical personages make fictional appearances, but it is the common person, the unadorned life, that gives the inanimate entity its pulse. Bohumil Hrabal, one of Brycz’s literary heroes comes to mind here, as his work likewise celebrated the lives of ordinary people.

For all the mixed emotions we often hold for the very places that shape us, Brycz has, in this unique novel, a created a city worth loving because it cares about its own, even if it is helpless to protect or change the fate of any one its citizens. It can only watch, listen and, at times, sit along side them:

“I am a city. I’m full of people. Nothing human is strange to me. I love people. But not because they are great.
I love them because they are small.
There are a lot of them, and they’re all lonesome.
Fettered, they yearn for freedom. They pray for immortality, and yet they don’t survive the touch of death, the Medusa jellyfish. They thought up money and they eternally lack it.
They explained their dreams and then they took sleeping pills.”

I, City, translated by Joshua Cohen and Markéta Hofmeisterová, is published by Twisted Spoon Press.

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.

Nothing less than the big questions: A reflection on Signs & Symptoms by Róbert Gál

“He who seeks, shall be found out.

What is not worth speaking about, is not even worth keeping silent about.

Consciousness is a disease of the spirit.

If life were bearable, there would be no death.”

This is not a review in the formal sense, but an attempt to formulate an answer to the question: So what do you think of Signs & Symptoms?

symptomsSimple, yes? Well, yes and no. It cannot be answered in this forum without an overview of the book in question so it will look suspiciously like a review. So be it. A few weeks back I read and reviewed a book entitled On Wing by poetic Slovak philosopher Róbert Gál, a recent release from Dalkey Archive Press. Signs & Symptoms was an earlier work translated into English and published by Prague-based Twisted Spoon Press in 2003. My copy and the question above, are courtesy of the author.

First of all, the book itself is beautiful to look at and to hold. Textured covers, French flaps, thick paper and an ethereal series of black and white photographs created specifically to accompany this work. But more about those later.

The text consists of three separate pieces unified by recurring themes. The first section “Epigraffiti”, is a collection of single-line aphorisms composed between 1995 and 2000. There is a distinctly pessimistic tone here in these simple observations about life, death, God, truth and the measure of possibility against faith, hope and the experience of time:

“Where possibility ends, there the past begins.

Reality is a long-forgotten possibility now being fulfilled.

The future never happened.”

A reflective neurotic, sometimes bitter, despondency prevails. Although this is the simplest section to read, I emerged feeling a slight heaviness in my chest. If this work begins, as the author’s note suggests from a “bottom”, a low place, this earliest segment sets the stage.

The centrepiece of the book is the second section, “Signs & Symptoms” which is, in turn divided into four parts or “circles”. The first circle sets off with a series of short prose pieces which open with an anecdotal feel – fragmented stories and conversations that lead into speculative statements. The philosophical observations soon take over completely.

“Panic is the emotional tremor of a short circuit, a protracted slide into permanent irritation. Not daring to say YES is symptomatic of fearing an expected NO. The moment before is firmly decided on taking a risky leap beyond. Signs speak through expression.”

The second and third circles, still maintain the short fragmented format but engage in much more intense, condensed ontological arguments, frequently requiring careful reading and re-reading. Here we are bluntly confronted with statements about the nature of being, existence as measured in hope, pain and desire. The real meaty stuff. This is where a few reviewers I found fell off the map a little. Me, I grabbed my journal, finding in these sections fuel for honing some of the ontological truths I have encountered in my particular experience of being in the world. Observations that I hope to be able to articulate in a writing project of my own.

Finally, the “fourth circle” opens up the atmosphere again, relaxing the intensity with some very striking observations about the reality of human relationships to the self and others.

The book closes with a section entitled “Postludia”, a collection of single sentence aphorisms and fragmented prose pieces. Distant echoes of themes from the earlier sections resurface here but the atmosphere is quieter, wiser, more poetic. If the author’s intent, as he indicates, is to re-imagine Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran, as avant-garde jazz musician John Zorn brought the music of Ornette Coleman “into the present” on his album Spy vs Spy, then it is in this final part of Signs & Symptoms that the contemporary feels especially close at hand and the work as a single experience reaches a sense of completion.

“‘Create a mask in your own image,’ runs the imperative of assimiliation.”

or

“Sympathy means that everyone is to blame for everything. And this excuses us, mitigating our guilt.

Nonethelss, such a purification takes entire lifetimes to carry out…”

Against this philosophical text which, taken as a whole, strikes me as On Wing did, with an inherent musicality (albeit discordant and experimental at times), the illustrations – a series of nude self portraits by Slovak photographer Lucia Nimcová – play against the text like a sort of dance. As illustrations they are intentionally metaphoric, but I found that the contrast of remote or removed images, frequently showing no head or face, against tight close ups, foster a separate and unique philosophical monologue that works well to complement or contradict the text, both being valid and desirable effects.

So, if it isn’t apparent, I would have to say that I found this to be an absorbing and challenging read. It is coming to me just at the right time for a number of reasons. But there is, of course, a fundamental universality to questions about the nature of existence or man would not have been pondering them for millennia. At this moment I am not looking for answers, I am rather focused on exploring and refining a way of posing questions to others.

There was a time, almost 30 years ago I shudder to think, when I completed a degree in Philosophy. It was not my first degree and I proved adept at synthesizing the most complex ideas and re-framing and defending them. I graduated summa cum laude. But I was neither fighting with ideas nor digesting them. On one of my last days I ran into a professor who asked after my plans. I told him I had taken the LSAT and applied to law school (I didn’t go but that’s another story). He nodded and said to me, “Your work is very strong, you can write very well, but you have no questions. A philosopher needs to have questions burning inside him.”

I agreed. He was right. Well, no, I did have questions but they were buried so deep and so close to my identity that I had no words to express them at the time. I did not know you could. As the years went by and those questions finally did break through and my life took paths I had never imagined, I often thought how desperately I would love to be able to go back and do a graduate degree in Philosophy. I had questions, by God! I still do. But by then I was in no position to return to school, I was a single parent and Philosophy is not exactly a fast track to a solid career. Neither is writing, the medium to which I am turning to explore my present questions, but at least I can do it on the cheap.

Signs & Symptoms is a text I suspect I will return to again as I go forward. The translation by Madelaine Hron handles the spirit and the complexity of the material smoothly. With my reading of On Wing, I marveled at the magic maintained in that translation. Here I realized that, of course, translation has long been an intrinsic element in the spread of philosophical ideas. In literary discussions some readers reject works in translation as necessarily less than the original insisting on engagement solely with texts in languages that one can read directly. How myopic to close one’s self off to the exchange of ideas! A book like Signs & Symptoms would have precious little impact knocking around in the borders of a small country like Slovakia where it was first published. Translation into English has set it free to engage a wide and diverse range of readers. A good thing indeed.

So that, Róbert, is what I think about this book. And thank you.

Ode to the soul of the world: Primeval and Other Times by Olga Tokarczuk

“God sees. Time escapes. Death pursues. Eternity waits.”

Welcome to Primeval, a mythical village that exists, if it exists, somewhere in Poland at the very heart of the universe. Watched over by a somewhat irresolute God and His angels, the people of Primeval and the surrounding communities live out lives filled with love and loss, joy and pain, birth and death. In her unusual and affecting novel Primeval and Other Times, Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk introduces a world endowed with a cosmology that skews conventional Christian wisdom, placing God on the sidelines of His creation. In this world view, matter and spirit are tightly bound at all levels of existence and imagination is a vital force driving life forward.

“Imagining is essentially creative; it is a bridge reconciling mater and spirit. Especially when it is done intensely and often. Then the image turns into a drop of matter, and joins the currents of life. Sometimes along the way something in it gets distorted and changes. Therefore, if they are strong enough, all human desires come true – but not always entirely as expected.”

This is not, as you might suspect, a conventional novel. Three generations of the Niebieski/Boski family form the backbone of the story but there is no overriding or direct narrative. Rather it dips in and out of the “Times” of a collection of archetypical characters, places, even objects; sweeping the reader along on a stream of vignettes plaited together to build a chronicle of the experiences of the residents of Primeval through the twentieth century, from the advent of the First World War to the rise of Solidarity. We meet Genowefa Niebieski, the wife of Mikał, the miller, who has been called up to join the Tsar’s forces. While he is away at war she gives birth to a daughter, Misia, and years later, a second child Izydor, a son born with hydrocephalus. Misia will, in time, marry Paweł Boski, a man of ambition who eventually rises to the role of Health Inspector under the Communist Party. Together they will have four children. Some secondary characters recur throughout, like Cornspike, a fallen woman who has retreated to a ramshackle old house where she lives, close to nature, with her daughter, Ruta, and the eccentric Squire Popielski. Other characters pass through, especially during WWII when the greater forces of the outside world penetrate the borders of Primeval bringing terror and destruction with them.

2015-08-29 18.47.59With the magical tone of a fairytale for adults, the world of Primeval is brought to life with a keen sensibility for botanical detail and the cyclical flow of months, seasons and years as they pass. It is a rural community. However, the close bond to nature defines not only village life, but the world beyond its borders where modernity increasingly stands in its opposition. At one point, as Misia, reflects on the mutability of the blossoms on her fruit trees, the orchard itself becomes an analogy for the broader patterns of human existence. There are apple-tree years and pear-tree years. In the former conditions are harsh but the brief blossoms intense and the animals that do survive are strong and aggressive.

“Apple-tree summers give birth to new ideas. People tread new paths. They fell forests and plant young trees. They build weirs on rivers and buy land. They dig the foundations for new houses. They think about journeys. Men betray their women, and women their men. Children suddenly become adult and leave to lead their own lives. People cannot sleep. They drink too much. They take important decisions and start doing whatever they have not done until now. New ideologies arise. Governments change. Stock markets are unstable, and from one day to the next you can become a millionaire or lose everything. Revolutions break out that change regimes. People daydream, and confuse their dreams with what they regard as reality.”

By contrast, nothing happens in a pear-tree year. Plants lay down deeper roots, animals and people grow stronger. Larger litters and healthier babies are born.

“People think about building houses, or even entire cities. They draw plans and measure the ground, but they do not get down to work. The banks show enormous profits, and the warehouses of large factories are full of products. Governments grow stronger. People daydream, and finally notice that each of their dreams is coming true – even once it is already too late.”

It is very difficult to describe the experience of reading this book. Ordered with Women in Translation month in mind, it arrived from the wonderful Prague based Twisted Spoon Press when I was in the hospital recovering from cardiac arrest. Once I could hold my thoughts together long enough to entertain the idea that I needed some books to read, Primeval and Other Times was one of two books that I asked my son to bring. In the opening passage, “The Time of Primeval”, the geographical boundaries of the village are laid out along with the risks and dangers personified by the features marking each direction and the Archangel assigned to guard the borders. I panicked, imagining that I would need to sketch out a map to keep all these relevant facts in mind. All month I have looked at this gorgeously bound volume sitting on my stack of books until I felt I was ready. My concerns, as it turns out, were for naught.

This is a captivating tale, rich with ideas and emotion. The constantly fluctuating threads of the tale are not disruptive. Rather they work smoothly together and allow the story to progress over such a vast time span with ease and forge an unforgiving and unforgettable vision of the world that is poignant, heartbreaking and gorgeous.

witmonth15Olga Tokarczuk is an award winning, highly respected Polish author. Born in 1962 and trained as a psychotherapist it was little surprise to find out that she frequently cites Carl Jung as a significant influence on her work. Primeval and Other Times was first published in Polish in 1996. This translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones was published by Twisted Spoon Press in 2010.

Bohemian dreamer: A Gothic Soul by Jiří Karásek ze Lvovic

“Fiction is eternal; reality perishes” we are warned in the preface of A Gothic Soul, “Invented forms live, real ones vanish. Truth is ephemeral; illusion everlasting.” What follows in this classic of Czech Decadent literature, originally published in 1900, revived in a new translation by Kirsten Lodge and lovingly presented by Twisted Spoon Press, is a poetic account of the emotional and philosophical torments faced by a troubled young man who struggles to place his disaffected existence between real life as lived by others and the internal world of his dreams.

2015-05-19 19.33.24One can sense from the outset that this is not a happy story. The author has already made it clear that it will not be a “story” in the typical sense at all but rather a journey of internalized reflections. A romantic darkness and decay looms large, it is hard to imagine sunlight filtering through. The humour, the playful nods that the narrator directs to the great French Decadent writers, is very black indeed. And yet this work is permeated with a remarkable beauty.

The hero of A Gothic Soul is the last of his line, raised by maiden aunts after his parents’ death. His childhood is gloomy and oppressive, haunted by a fear of inheriting the religious mania that drove a cousin to take his own life. He responds to the external world with an affect of remote deadness while allowing to flourish, within his soul, an internal reality filled with light and magic. Each time he resolves to engage with world, to seek an end to his lonely isolation, he ends up retreating into his dreams to seek comfort. A deep conflict arises when his natural misanthropy clashes with his abiding desire for a true and perfect companion, a male friend and lover with whom he can meld body and soul. On the few occasions when he meets a potential friend, his fear and shyness drive him away.

“But everything was so distant. He was sick – he felt it. He could find no peace. It was as though all the atoms of his soul had been vapourized. He could no longer calm himself. He longed for a friend, a kindred soul. How beautiful to give himself to someone and to feel that he had given himself to someone. His life would immediately acquire meaning. What happiness! What charm!”

Early in his self-exploration he believes that the ultimate respite for his agonized soul lies in the Church, in monastic life. But his nihilistic temperament causes him to lose his grasp on his faith, to fall away from the idols and saints that once gave him comfort and to question what it means to believe in God. Spirits now begin to follow him through the streets and into his ancient family home. Fears of madness return.

His reflections then turn to the role that his Czech identity plays in this wretched existence to which he seems to be condemned. His Czechness, his city, become entwined with his struggle to make sense of his inability to live life fully. Is his nation seeking its own medieval traces, its own Gothic soul? Does the fate of his nation trying to define a space for itself in the Austro-Hungarian Empire mirror his own search? Some of the most stunning passages in this novella read like a heartbreaking ode to his native city.

“And now the evening bells rang out over Prague. A weight, darkly clanging and tragic, fell from their harmony. And unexpected numbness imbued the air. Stifling shadows hung drowsily over the rooftops. Not even a wing of a belated bird moved in this air. Everything suddenly seemed to be standing stock-still to listen to the conversing bells. Iron strokes broke through the windows of belfries and towers. The resonant sound cascaded down before dying out in the distance, flowing haltingly over the city’s rooftops.”

As the story progresses, our hero continues to overthink his dilemma as he wanders the streets of the city or takes refuge in his rooms. His reasoning pivots between optimism and despair. He realizes that he is losing his grip, that a life unlived is his likely destiny.

2015-05-19 19.38.39Jiří Karásek ze Lvovic (1871-1951) was an instrumental figure in the formation of the Czech Decadent movement. In a fascinating Afterword and author’s Biography, translator Kirsten Lodge describes the nature and development of this movement. In contrast with other strains of the same tradition, for the Czech Decadents the themes of despair and death are taken to the level of national obsession. For Karásek, his homosexuality also deeply informed his conception of Decadent thought. A desperate homoerotic longing runs throughout A Gothic Soul. This is complimented in this gorgeously presented publication by a series of illustrations by artist Sascha Schneider (1870-1927).

Twisted Spoon Press is a small independent publisher based in Prague. This is my first encounter with one of their publications. I was drawn in by the sheer beauty of this book. It is a joy to read and an important literary work that still resonates 115 years after it was first published. Trust me, an electronic copy would not be the same. You will want the hard cover version.