Words for This-Worldly Things

This week I’ve been reading Mathias Énard’s Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants, translated by Charlotte Mandel, and… just… wow. It’s a gem of a novella and it really confirms for me that Énard is like the James Joyce of our time. That level of greatness in literature is with us today, here, now. Énard can do rapidly unspooling yet tightly controlled maximalism. He can do finely honed, exquisite minimalism. Just when you’re thinking that he’s got a particular groove he works in, because you’ve read Zone or Compass, along comes Tell Them to upend your preconceptions.Read More »

Twilit or Otherwise?

For the Glasgow Review of Books, I’ve reviewed Iain Galbraith’s almighty translation of Esther Kinsky’s River:

Only a few pages into Esther Kinsky’s River, I began to anticipate a very particular word. Sure enough, fifty or so pages later, there it was. The novel is narrated by a young woman from Germany who has spent a significant portion of her life in London, and at one point she recalls the summer she “landed temporary work in a basement office” while coming to terms with the death of her father. The office “was situated in a dark building on a permanently busy thoroughfare near the big north London train stations”, and every evening, after she had completed her menial work pulling files, she would step out into the smog and make her escape from “the crepuscular cellar”. “Crepuscular” is the word I was waiting for.

The use of that word is an intriguing choice on the part of Kinsky’s translator, Iain Galbraith, since Kinsky’s original text, in German, describes the cellar simply as “dämmrigen”: “dim”. Strictly speaking, in English, “crepuscular” is an adjective that applies only to motion or behaviour, not to a static space like a cellar. Foxes and badgers are crepuscular animals, awake and active twice a day, once in the hours between sunset and true darkness and again between the softening of night and the first rays of dawn. The light at these times of day is crepuscular, too, moving as it does, ever so slowly, from one state of illumination to another. With regard to a space like the cellar, dank and dim but not in a state of activity or flux, a term of greater precision but similar poetry would be “twilit”. “Crepuscular” might apply to the people who work there, but not to the cellar itself. Still, I was happy to see the word appear in River — and reappear five or six times throughout the novel — because even if it felt askew, it didn’t feel like an error of judgment on the translator’s part. It is, in fact, the word most apt to describe the mechanics of River as a whole, as the novel sets about enacting an aesthetics of the crepuscular.

That said, Anna MacDonald’s review of River, published at 3AM Magazine, is by far the best review of this book out of the many I have read.

Beautiful, But Not Sublime

Like most readers new to Olga Tokarczuk, I was won over by Jennifer Croft’s recent translation of the novel Flights. This week, for Splice, I’ve taken a look at how Antonia Lloyd-Jones’ more recent translation of Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead compares to the dizzying heights of Flights:

No doubt, by this point, readers who discovered Tokarczuk with Flights will suspect that Drive Your Plow sounds like something rather different. It certainly is, and there’s no escaping the feeling that it’s a comparatively minor work. That’s not necessarily to fault the novel on its own terms. Like Flights, it does something exciting, something structurally daring, in casting onto the page a handful of dissociated topics and striving to foreground the spirit that unites them. Unlike Flights, however, it doesn’t leave much to the reader’s imagination, as the whodunit narrative and the consistent first-person narration work together to funnel everything through Janina’s consciousness. The connections between events are explicated and streamlined, closing down the spaces for speculation that Tokarczuk meticulously carved into FlightsDrive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a simpler book, more of a closed circuit, so carefully and holistically constructed as to seal off the access points that would invite readers to participate in making it meaningful. To put this in terms that William Blake would appreciate, it’s a beautiful book that arrives in the wake of a sublime one; it is thoughtful and suspenseful, cinematic and gripping, but its beauty is easier to regard and admire than to immerse oneself in.

Zambra’s Intimacy

Following on from Jason DeYoung’s review of Alejandro Zambra’s Not to Read, published this week on Splice, I spoke to Zambra’s translator, Megan McDowell, about Zambra’s profile as a critic:

In your introduction [to Not to Read], you also say that by the time Alejandro Zambra “stopped contributing criticism to the Chilean press”, circa 2009, he had “consolidated both a certain renown and a voice, and developed a way of thinking about literature”. His criticism has some noticeable features — unashamed enthusiasm for his subjects, the use of the first-person voice, a focus, above all, on the impressions made by works of literature — but, in your judgment, what is it that makes his “way of thinking about literature” so distinct?

It’s hard to separate his way of thinking about literature from his literature. I think you highlight some key things, but I would focus on the intimacy of his writing. I think both his criticism and his fiction are examinations of received ideas about literature (and received culture in general), in which he searches for his own voice within that context. These critical pieces show Alejandro looking at other writers who have struggled to find, and who have found, their voices, and he clearly learns from them. They don’t tend to be canonical writers, the writers of Literature who have a solid, ‘authorial’ voice (think Vargas Llosa), but rather writers who are engaged and really struggling with questions of how and why to write.

Go, Went, Gone Again

Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone is the gift that keeps on giving. I still haven’t had a chance to read the book, but the criticism it has prompted is far and away the best and most informed of any I’ve read in 2017. Here, for instance, is Franziska Lamprecht in Full Stop:

Jenny Erpenbeck’s book talks a lot about bodies, bodies with black skin and bodies with white skin, bodies with visible and invisible scars, bodies with a place to be and bodies in a vacuum, bodies with supposedly little time left and bodies with supposedly too much time, bodies in limbo outside of time, bodies with a history and bodies without a future. How the being of those bodies is shaped by something as abstract as “the law,” specifically the law that regards individuals fleeing brutal wars in Libya, Sudan, Niger, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Algeria, Egypt, Ghana, and Burkina Faso is what Richard, the protagonist of this fictional story based on real events, tries to understand. …

Richard understands: Dublin II allows all the European countries without a Mediterranean coastline to purchase the right not to have to listen to the stories of arriving refugees. In other words, so-called “asylum fraud” means one must tell a true story in a country where no one’s legally obligated to listen, much less do anything in response. And the soon-to-be-implemented fingerprint scanning system, he reads, will preclude all misunderstandings as to whether an individual belongs to a group that must be listened to or not.

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Why a Novel?

Who knows what to make of Jenny Erpenbeck’s new novel, Go, Went, Gone?

James Wood has written a deeply appreciative review in the New Yorker, calling the novel “magnificent” and counting “among its many virtues” the fact that “it is not only alive to the suffering of people who are very different from us but alive to the false consolations of telling ‘moving’ stories about people who are very different from us.” He basically reads the novel as a character study of its protagonist, Richard, insofar as Richard’s established character is impinged upon and mutated by his voluntary encounters with asylum seekers in Germany. He doesn’t really read the novel with an eye towards the political, moral, or aesthetic implications of Erpenbeck’s choice to take Richard as her protagonist, except to see Richard as a sort of device that buffers Erpenbeck from simply telling a “moving” story about one or more refugees.

Jonathan Dee, however, has an exceptionally perceptive take on the novel, which really amounts to a takedown of impeccable detail and nuance. “Richard goes to a town hall to discuss the refugee issue,” he writes:Read More »

Knausgaard’s Reinvigorated Realism

Karl Ove Knausgaard, "Some Rain Must Fall"Once again the publication of a new volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle has been met with a flurry of extremely well-considered responses, but none so incisive as Anthony Macris’ long essay in the Sydney Review of Books. Although it’s ostensibly a review of Some Rain Must Fall, it actually goes much further in order to extrapolate from commonplace remarks on Knausgaard’s style in order to articulate precisely the governing aesthetic of the entire My Struggle series:

Much has already been written about Knausgaard’s literary style: the plainness of his language, the massing of detail, the ostensible tendency to over-narration. Critics seem divided as to whether his writing is long-winded and sloppy, his talent failing his ambition, or whether it’s fit for purpose, admirably serving the drama without overly drawing attention to itself. At any rate, there’s more than enough praise to counter the negative view, with writers like Zadie Smith and Jeffrey Eugenides lining up to support his work enthusiastically. Whatever your view I would argue that, no matter what camp you fall into, it’s hard to deny that with My Struggle Knausgaard has pulled off something extraordinary, that he has to some degree, if not reinvented realism, then refreshed it for a contemporary literary readership that is perhaps growing tired of tightly scripted novels that resemble movie scripts, or maximalist fictions that rely on outlandish hyperbole. In turning his back on the trappings of standard conceptions of literariness — for example, the kind of high-blown lyricism and overweening self-romanticism that sank Harold Brodkey’s much vaunted autobiographical novel, The Runaway Soul — Knausgaard has effectively employed a cruder mimesis, one that refuses to engage with the kind of trompe l’oeil effects that can in their own way achieve verisimilitude.

Instead, his style is based in part on what I word term a naïve epistemology, one that harkens back to the Cratylic tradition of the word, a belief that there’s a natural correspondence between words and things, and that by naming things we can create worlds. Metaphor, simile and other poetic devices are virtually non-existent in the My Struggle novels. While comparisons to Proust abound in discussions of Knausgaard (a comparison he invites), his style couldn’t be more different to Proust’s filigree, hypotactical sentences whose sinuous lines, in the great tradition of modernist subjectivity, mimic the train of thought. Knausgaard, like Proust, may draw upon the great internal sweep of remembrance to generate his novel, but his conveyance of choice is made up largely of concrete images, dialogue and simple declarative sentences. Often, in paratactical mode, these sentences are strung together with commas, breaking every rule of ‘good’ grammar. It’s tempting to think this style is a new kind of rendering of consciousness, but I would argue differently. Consciousness in Knausgaard is a kind of extreme ossification of realism, a near empirical entity, gleaned principally from observation of the external world and thoughts narrated as statements of fact, which is easy enough to claim in first person, where the narration of thoughts and emotional states correlate with the authenticity of the narrating subject. Consciousness as a mediating factor, a substance that distorts reality and that must be shown to do so, isn’t evoked. Language is at the service of a what-you-see-is-what-you-get sensibility, and it’s a sensibility that isn’t afraid to dwell on lived experience at length, a Stendahlian mirror that reflects not in a series of tableaux, but that is as vast as the universe it captures, and is somehow co-extensive with it.

This is a somewhat technical way of saying that Knausgaard’s realism is not the kind of realism we are accustomed to. In fact, while working in a realist paradigm, Knausgaard, in his desire to write rapidly and in volume (the near 700 pages of Some Rain Must Fall took, he claims, a mere eight weeks to write), has challenged the limits of contemporary realism. All the standard tropes of realism are there: concrete events plotted in chronological time (there is some achrony, but within the acceptable limits of realism); a hero narrator whose consciousness is the spoke of the wheel; carefully selected conflicts that drive the story forward; internal struggles with self, external battles with people and institutions. But the edicts of contemporary realism that Knausgaard chooses to flout are those of tightness and brevity, and of relegating description and ‘undramatic’ events to the background in order to foreground the ‘real meat’ of the narrative: heightened events, turning points, moments of conflict. There is instead a merging of foreground and background in order to create more vivid textures of lived experience.

Proof positive, as if any more were needed, of the extraordinary value of the Sydney Review, and a real enrichment of the experience of reading Knausgaard.