Wednesday, May 30, 2007

kenzaburo oé

In “A Personal Matter” Oé throws directly an ethic dilemma, one of the most terrible decisions a father can make: killing his own son. Its protagonist is Bird, a disturbed intellectual in a failing marriage whose utopian dream of going to Africa, collapses when his wife gives birth to a brain-damaged child. Though the assassination does not happen in the novel it is what keeps the plot spinning, and we only learn in the very last moments that all his efforts are destined to fail, so in the end the real horror is questioning what is worse. Like in other works by Oé (The novellas in “Teach us to outgrow our madness”) the recurrent karma of the damaged son is the epicenter of the narration, a constant well of despair and reflections,

A fragment of an interesting interview with Oé:

Q: Do you believe that a writer chooses his themes or do they come upon him?
A: Nadine Gordimer has written that we don't choose a theme or a situation or story. The theme chooses us, that is the goal of the writer. The time, the days choose us as a writer. We must respond to our time. From my experience I can say the same thing as Nadine Gordimer: I didn't choose the story of a handicapped son, or we didn't choose the theme of a handicapped boy's family. I wanted to escape from that if it were possible, but something chose me to write about it. My son chose me. That is one definite reason I continue to write.
Q: You write in another essay, "The fundamental style of my writing has been to start from my personal matters and then link it up with society and the state and the world."
A: I think I am doing my works to link myself, my family, with society -- with the cosmos. To link me with my family to the cosmos, that is easy, because all literature has some mystic tendency. So when we write about our family, we can link ourselves to the cosmos. But I wanted to link myself and my family with society. When we link ourselves to society then we don't write very personal matters but we are writing an independent novel

Monday, May 28, 2007

kate grenville

Thank you Chris for this book!

This is a very interesting novel about how Australia began its colonization. The narration starts (in an extremely linear fashion --the total opposite of how memory works!) in London and the description there seems to borrow a lot of Dickens's most impressive depiction of poverty. It is in London where we meet William Thornhill who, instead of being killed after stealing 'brazilian wood', is deported to the New South Wales, a colony that would later become Australia. He is sent there with his wife Sal (my favorite character), and from then on, everything consists of being able to endure all the hardships of this new land, especially the natives, black people that are seen as exotic animals, enemies and a dangerous plague.

Thornhill, this man that has escaped death and comes from a very poor background, needs madly a sense of ownership and this is one of the concepts that the novel manages to pass to its readers. But nothing is easy in this land that is not being discovered (as we have been taught in our school classes --same thing in America), but invaded, since indigenous people have been living there for hundreds of years. So naturally when this illiterate man looks around (he will later feel proud of being able to write his own initials), he thinks:

"It took him some time to admit to himself that his hundred acres no longer felt quite his own. A small group of blacks was always about, even if almost unseen. Their bodies flickered among the trees, as if the darkness of the men were an extension of bark, of leaf-shade, of the play of light on a water-stained rock. The eye could peer but not know if it was a couple of branches over there, or a man with a spear, watching" (198).

Spears are also very important in this book and there´s several scenes in which we watch men being speared, gutted, their bodies dismembered, etc. Nature and landscape are also beautifully conveyed.

Sense of ownership, of being an alien, of being sentenced, of being among people you don't know, of being an outcast, of not being able to go back to your own country: these are the ideas that this wonderfully written novel accomplishes.

An interesting description of a kangaroo:

"Seen up close, a kangaroo was a creature out of a dream, put together from different parts: the ears of a dog, the muzzle of a deer, that thick tail like a furred python. Something was wrong with the proportions, so the back feet were nearly as long as the tail, while the forepaws were stolen from a child" (224).

Trivia: did you know that 'Joey' is the name for the baby kangaroo?

Saturday, May 26, 2007

margaret atwood

I’ve never been drawn to sci-fi or even fantastic literature, but “Oryx and Crake” is a novel that left me wondering about the capacity some writers have to project their anxieties and ‘fantasies’ based on society into the future, sometimes with scaring, prophetic results. In Atwood's dystopic future we see genetically altered animals (pigoons and wolvogs); class disorders, ecological disaster and humanity's extinction. Some may feel daunted by this prospect, especially when it seems so close to reality and not at all something created out of scratch. In fact, Atwood made a sort of ensemble directly from the headlines of newspapers, magazines and websites.

The novel begins with the character Snowman. Here, a couple of paragraphs:

“Snowman wakes before dawn. He lies unmoving, listening to the tide coming in, wave after wave sloshing over the various barri-cades, wish-wash, wish-wash, the rhythm of heartbeat. He would so like to believe he is still asleep.
Out of habit he looks at his watch — stainless-steel case, burnished aluminum band, still shiny although it no longer works. He wears it now as his only talisman. A blank face is what it shows him: zero hour. It causes a jolt of terror to run through him, this absence of official time. Nobody nowhere knows what time it is.”

Thursday, May 24, 2007

rikki ducornet

Nicolas (the protagonist of 'The Fountains of Neptune') says: "My sleep began in the spring of 1914. I slept through both World Wars and the tainted calm between. It was as if I had been cursed by an evil fairy, pricked by an enchanted spinning wheel; an impenetrable briar had gripped my mind."

Rikki Ducornet was recommended to me at ‘Subterranean Books’ (still a bookstore where there’s actual people talking about literature and reading books!). So thanks to them I was acquainted with this fabulous (that’s meant literally) writer. In “The Fountains of Neptune” we are introduced to Nicolas who, after witnessing his mother's murder, falls into a long coma, skipping both world wars. He wakes up by the sea, in France, so evidently his situation reflects the problematic concepts of memory, reconstruction of the past, the importance of myths and remembering.
My favorite scene is almost at the end of the novel. This is an eerie story where a woman is found dead with his monkey-husband, both dressed in formal attire, the monkey dressed very elegantly, with a tuxedo, and a wedding ring on the precise finger!
Ducornet can be considered a post-modern writer (especially through the fragmentation of her storytelling—great debt to Angela Carter, a friend of hers) where fiction is seen as an infinite process of the mind. She seems fascinated with the idea of mind as a process of fiction; fiction understood as a species of magic: words engendering worlds.

An excerpt of an interview:
Q: That reminds me of The Aleph?
A: Borges' Aleph is, among other things, a wonderful metaphor for the mind of the writer. Like Borges, I am interested in Kabalistic texts, that metaphysical delirium which is an attempt to find the word, or, rather the letter potent enough to precipitate a cosmos. My characters are often seen thrashing about in metaphysical deliriums!
Q: I was also wondering how the Surrealist movement has informed your writing?
A: The great surrealists: Breton, Eluard, Ernst, Toyen, Mansour, Tanguy--have all been a profound inspiration. They led me to Freud and to alchemy, to the aborigine paintings of dream time and to aesthetic experiments of all kinds including collage.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

natsume soseki

Today's may 23 (my birthday, I don't know why the Blogger marks the 22)

(Thanks Barbara for this gift!) I didn’t know about this author, supposed to be one of the most influential modern writers in Japan. In “The Three Cornered World” Soseki (in an autobiographical gesture) tells the story of a man who retreats to a country hotel in order to paint or write poetry (for him both manifestations are almost the same), but he is not very successful in his attempts of ‘creating’ anything because the daughter of the hotel’s owner has a mysterious story to tell. Actually it is only in the last paragraph of the novel when the protagonist is able to grasp the idea for his work of art, which he thinks, must be inspired by ‘compassion’, the only ‘great’ feeling.
The novel is structure in such a way that it permits the first person narrator to dig into all kinds of hypotheses about art, literature and painting, and even though many occidental references are given (Lessing, Shelley, Swinburne, Sterne, Oscar Wilde, Ibsen) the narrator manages to deprecate western art through a series of examples: painting, literature, and even food: “There is not a single Western dish, with perhaps the possible exception of salads and radishes, which could be said to have an attractive colour” (62).
While reading the novel it just came to me the thought: If García Márquez’s ‘Memoria de mis putas tristes’ is supposed to be inspired in Kawabata’s, ‘House of the sleeping beauties’, maybe Carlos Fuentes did read this novel before writing his miniature masterpiece, ‘Aura’. Just an impression! Anyhow, what is true is the legacy Soseki has managed to pass in future generations, especially in Japan (Mishima, Tanizaki and Oé).
A quote:
“An artist is a person who lives in the triangle which remains after the angle which we may call common sense has been removed from this four-cornered world”.

charles baxter

I came across this novel by chance. Read it and loved it! I have passed it along to other friends (with uneven success!) It seldom happens that you find a really good novel that almost lacks depressive statements and/or scenes, and I think ‘The feast of love’ is the case. Of course there is death and despair in the novel, but this is conveyed in a beautiful manner (Like one of the final scenes where a character playing football falls, his heart failing. The whole description in the ambulance splendid, and the reason not described in medical terms –heart attack, tachycardia, etc—but of the man having a ‘big heart’).

A difficult topic to tackle, because it can get cheesy or absurdly romantic, Baxter manages to re-imagine A Midsummer Night's Dream, (one of the quotations of the novel) to show an array of personalities in search for their ideal mates in all levels (parents, children, lovers, etc.) The common ground for this is a coffee shop, his owner the narrator and main character.
I recently read ‘Saul and Patsy’, Baxter’s last novel, but I think ‘The feast of love’ is definitely a better novel than the former (it was finalist for a NBA)

When asked about how he came up with the idea for The Feast of Love, Charles Baxter replied, "I began by using my own insomnia, and a nighttime walk I took once down to the vacant lot at the corner of our street. I heard voices coming from someone's house, and I thought of that line from Shakespeare, 'The night air is full of voices,' and I thought: I'll write a novel with voices, a sort of Midsummer Night's Dream in which people are paired off with the wrong partners at first and then are paired off with the right partners later, and everyone will tell their stories to Charlie, who will be this shadowy listener, like the reader."

Monday, May 21, 2007

erica wagner

Just finished reading Erica Wagner’s first novel, “Seizure” (She is known for her story collection “Gravity” and because she works as literary editor of The Times.) I’m always drawn to new versions of the Gothic, and what better than this novel recommended by Josephine Hart, master of psychological horror. The story goes:
Janet receives a strange phone call: her mother has just passed away leaving her a house in the coast. Her knowledge is that the woman died when she was 3 years old so she is naturally shocked to hear this. And now she must go (afraid that a seizure might get hold of her while driving) to the coast where an unknown man, Tom, awaits her. Until the last moment she doesn’t (want to) realize that this man is her brother, and the novel exploits direct scenes of incest between them, building up the plot in a very Gothic manner.
Highly recommended, this novel just came out. I still haven’t read any reviews…
About the seizures, a reflection by the narrator:

“What are they like? people asked her sometimes. Once she tried this: Imagine you come into a room. It looks like a pleasant room. The furniture’s nice and it’s clean and orderly. It seems comfortable and even homely. Now, go out of the room again. The person—your friend, or a stranger—who’d led you into the room now reveals what had been kept hidden before: not long ago, there was a murder in that room. All the evidence has gone, of course, but the echo of the act remains. That kind of stain can never be truly erased. Go back into the room. What do you think of it now? It is not so comfortable, not so homely. You want to leave and you turn to go but you find that your friend—or the stranger—has locked the door from the outside” (78).

And, a few lines later, “still, it wasn’t right, this description”.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

achmat dangor

"Bitter Fruit" begins with Silas Ali, former member of the African National Congress, when he spots ex-police officer Francois Du Boise, a man who, 20 years earlier, raped Silas' wife, Lydia. Now, Du Boise is in pretty bad shape but Silas notices through some gestures, he is still the same fascist in this new ‘free’ post-apartheid South Africa.
After this disturbing encounter Silas starts wondering about his own son, Mikey, -- who, we learn later, happens to be Du Boise's biological son – and this gives way to anxious brooding: “A distant fear came back to Silas, one that he rarely allowed to take shape in his mind—Mikey is not my son, son physically” (91). This idea is reminiscent of Coetzee’s “Disgrace”, and I was left thinking about these unavoidable rapes that seem to end up in conception against all odds. The following paragraph is eloquent:
“There are certain things people do not forget, or forgive. Rape is one of them. In ancient times, conquerors destroyed the will of those whom they conquered by impregnating the women. It is an ancient form of genocide. It does not require a Sufi prophecy to see the design in that. The Romans and the Sabine women, the Nazis and Jewish women in the concentration camps, the Soviets in Poland, Israeli soldiers and Palestinian refugees, white South African policemen and black women.
You conquer a nation by bastardizing its children” (204).
Althoug Silas tells Lydia that he has seen Du Boise at the grocery store, she is furious, maybe because the time has come to unveil Lydia’s karma of having given birth to and raised the son of the man who raped her. Is this the way they learnt to cope with apartheid?, What’s beneath this oppressive system that makes impossible the contact between individuals, favoring superficial differences (skin, color, race)? As Nadine Gordimer has shown in her own novels, the results of impersonal oppression can be deeply personal, wounding the psyche irrevocably.
Gordimer herself said of Dangor; “In the post-apartheid era, Dangor has tackled in ‘Bitter Fruit’ with the honesty of his insight, the problems as well as the promises fulfillment of the enormous change that freedom brings about”

Saturday, May 19, 2007

t.c. boyle

‘Drop City’ is the name of a commune of around 70 hippies (with its leader, ‘Norm’), in California. Everything is going well until authorities make them leave the paradisiacal California and Norm comes up with the idea of going to the border of Alaska, where an uncle has left him a cabin. This is an ironic challenge to these people, but they embark on it and decide to endure the hardships of the Alaskan winter. Here Boyle makes great description of the landscape, the wildlife (as in when an immense wolf tampers into their land) with a highly poetic tone.
Norm’s motto is LATWIDNO -- Land Access to Which is Denied Nobody, and this invites a series of unusual characters that spend their time doing ceramics, preparing brownies with hash, putting acid in their orange Juice (one of the extreme scenes, when a little girl drinks the juice containing acid while her mother, ‘mother earth’, coolly waits for her trip to pass), beading hair bands on their heads, and practicing free love.
T.C. Boyle has a good ear for dialogue, and I like this novel because it is not only very entertaining, but it allow us to take a look at this plastic society and re-think what is often called ‘the American dream’.

Friday, May 18, 2007

harold brodkey

Following Saul Bellow there's another great american writer that hasn't been widely read. Or at least, not totally accepted as the Nobel Laureate: Harold Brodkey. When I started reading 'The runanway soul', I just couldn't believe that what he was describing was the very neighbourhood in which I was living: The Loop in St. Louis. With the same trees, the same buildings, even some vintage stores, so that was a real kick to keep on reading this novel of about 900 pages. (The Spanish translation, 'El alma fugitiva' is also available in Publishing House Anagrama).

So Brodkey is a rare case. In his own words, "to be possibly not only the best living writer in English, but someone who could be the rough equivalent of a Wordsworth or a Milton, is not a role that a half-way educated Jew from St. Louis is prepared to play."

Critics were harsh to the novel, because of its autobiographical quality (His alter ego, Wiley Silenowicz comments on his difficult childhood --he was actually adopted--, his disgust for his adopted sister, and his androgynous behaviour), its postmodern strategies, and its blunt language and slang. ('Catcher in the rye' seems a nursery rhyme compared to this). Some consider his prose too impenetrable and excessive in its sexual descriptions. For instance:

''The alluring, imaginarily dimensioned dementia of meaning tucked into the animal bribe with its hint of favorable apocalypse: I have to fight it off, this sense that the conclusion is ALL. Masturbation is nutty with idealism, with hallucinations, with self- induced finalities...'The not- stayingness of pleasure hurts oracularly-and intimately.''

Thursday, May 17, 2007

saul bellow

(Not yet the last man on the list). One more incredible writer, and this goes to a dear friend who said I was focusing too much on 'menopausic' women writers! That's funny. So I was thinking about this amazing novel that I read last year. I know Saul Bellow inspires adoration in some people (not necessarily misoginists) and boredom. I remember a well known writer (can't say the name) saying that it was boring to hear descriptions of vegetable markets and street anecdotes trying to convey romanticism. Well, it is true that Bellow is a great writer that has concentrated on male portraits, so it's a good thing to keep away from bias and read "Humboldt's gift', according to Nadine Gordimer, Bellow's most important novel. The novel was published in 1975, but has been reprinted by Penguin several times. The novel begins with its protagonist, Charlie Citrine, going to interview his admired writer, a poet (Humboldt) once succesful, but doomed to failure and decadence. As Charlie begins getting recognition and fame, Humboldt, modelled on the poet Delmore Schwartz (1913-1966), slowly desintegrates. The novel is plagued with incredible characters (especially the mafioso Rinaldo Cantabile; incredible scene when he destroys Charlie's car), dialogues, and description of extravagant people wandering from Chicago to New York in the fifties-sixties. Humboldt feels betrayed by Charlie, a metaphor for the american-succesful-writer, pretty much prostituting himself to the system (through his award winning biographies, Broadway Plays, etc). While Charlie goes on accumulating success after success (though his personal life is really crappy) Humboldt finishes his days broke and alcoholic... Bellow described his novel as a "comic book about death".

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

cormac mccarthy

Cormac McCarthy is a recluse, he doesn’t give interviews, he doesn’t like talking about literature, and he does not have friends that drink (this he said in a rare and unique interview). “Blood Meridian” is supposed to be the most shocking novel by Cormac McCarthy, although I still haven’t read “The Road”, McCarthy’s last novel in which he depicts an apocalyptic world… But in “Blood Meridian” McCarthy doesn’t refrain from presenting a devastating landscape, full of violence, blood and death. It is true what some have said about his prose having the character of the landscape it describes: Harsh and pure, as if it had been sculpted by wind and sand, like a naturally occurring phenomenon. In “Blood Meridian” McCarthy displays this violence through the eyes of a young boy, in the 1840's, who joins a band of cutthroats who hunt Indians on the border between Texas and Mexico, under the leadership of an amoral, albino arch-monster known as the Judge. The scenes of ‘scalp-hunting’ are extreme and vividly detailed through the novel, as well as other massacres, such as the one in which McCarthy describes how a man holds another man’s head and it seems he’s in going to kiss him, but instead he presses his mouth into the man’s eye socket and plucks the eye-ball out. A sordid band of American scalp hunters and the avenging Indians, these are the groups that McCarthy uses as a metaphor for this country’s moral debates.
A paragraph following:
“A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets . . . and all the horsemen’s faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools”.

Monday, May 14, 2007

amos oz

Amos Oz is the most important Israeli writer, known for his novels, essays, short story collections, and also for his open pacifism. “The Same Sea” was one of last year favorites (although it came out in 2003?). This is a rare ‘novel’ that defies classification. In fact one could even wonder if it is a novel at all. Some ‘chapters’ are extremely descriptive making the narration a sequence of events, others are read and structured as poems, and you feel you would like to read them aloud. In the novel Oz takes few characters, a distorted family (he has said that the family is the most inspiring ‘topic’ and ‘symbol’ of our culture): Albert Danon, in his sixties is mourning his wife’s death, Nadia (remembered with great emotion—there’s a recurrent image of her sewing a napkin that’s left unfinished by her death), and their son, Rico, spending time in the Tibet, where he intends to find himself. This is the excuse Oz’s uses to accomplish his metaphor.
He says:
“One of the things I wanted to introduce in The Same Sea beyond transcending the conflict, is the fact that deep down below all our secrets are the same. The fact that somewhere beyond race and religion and ideology and all other great dividers, the insecure, timid, hoping, craving and trembling self is very often very close to the next insecure, timid, craving, hoping, fearing, terrified self. In a sense, all our secrets are the same. That's what I wanted to convey through The Same Sea in a playful way”.
“I wrote it, by the way -- and this what I am going to say now may have a sort of meta-political significance. It is a novel that erases, deliberately, every boundary. It erases the line between prose and poetry. It erases the line between storytelling, fiction and confession, because much of it is very personal, extremely autobiographical, directly without any disguise”.
For an interesting interview with Amos Oz, see

javier marias

In general I dislike Javier Marías, but I love this novel. And since this blog privileges fiction that’s worth highlighting, novels that you would recommend to a friend, A heart so white is in it! Marías is one of the most important writers (if not the most) working now in Spain. Marías is that kind of author that detonates either love or hate, he can be considered boring, tiring, and his long sentences sometimes make you think everything he says is a constant speculation. These characteristics are traceable in this novel, in my opinion a masterpiece full of mysteries and enigmas that unfolds not only in the most evident sense (a strange death at the beginning of the novel) but also as a way to talk about our language as the most important enigma. In fact, the main characters are Juan, a translator and Luisa, translator also. They meet at an international meeting between Margaret Thatcher and Juan Carlos of Spain, both alone with the two leaders. Digressions about the art of translating, the impossibility to grasp through words reality and so on are constants in the novel. There’s an exquisite and almost perverse fascination in the way Juan imagines changing the words, manipulating the meaning of certain phrases and ideas.
How do we think, how do we translate, how do we lie, and, most important, how do we listen? These are the ideas that the novel conceives.
The mystery is also neuralgic to the novel, and goes along with important intertexts, Macbeth, and sleep --- murdered sleep, and a devastating fire. Here, a sample of Marías distinctive pace. Look for the first period:
“What happened between us both happened and didn't happen, it's the same with everything, why do or not do something, why say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, why worry yourself with a ‘perhaps’ or a ‘maybe’, why speak, why remain silent, why refuse, why know anything if nothing of what happens happens, because nothing happens without interruption, nothing lasts or endures or is ceaselessly remembered, what takes place is identical to what doesn't take place, what we dismiss or allow to slip by us is identical to what we accept and seize, what we experience identical to what we never try; we pour all our intelligence and our feelings and our enthusiasm into the task of discriminating between things that will all be made equal, if they haven't already been, and that's why we're so full of regrets and lost opportunities, of confirmations and reaffirmations and opportunities grasped, when the truth is that nothing is affirmed and everything is constantly in the process of being lost. Or perhaps there never was anything”.
“Corazón tan blanco” (winner of the IMPAC award in 1997) was translated by Margaret Jull Costa.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

john banville

Max Morden, a retired art historian in his mid fifties (and this allows him to display a series of analogies from painting—Bonnard, Van Gogh, Picasso) retreats to the sea after his wife dies of cancer. He has been, in his own words, a dilettante kept by a rich wife and this Irish seaside, where he once spent a holiday as a boy, is the setting in which he starts remembering and mixing traumatic episodes as a way to grapple with death. The sea is also the place where he first fell in love with an entire family, the wealthy and sophisticated Grace family, named by the narrator as ‘The gods’. (Mr Grace is “the Poseidon of our summer”, the twin children are also seen through mythology. Myles, who is mute and has webbed toes is a “malignant sprite”. Chloe, producing “an archaic pipe-note” by blowing on a blade of grass, is Pan. Even the children’s governess, Rose, is “Ariadne on the Naxos shore”).
There’s two scenes that I consider masterful in the novel, and they regard Morden’s wife. One takes place when, under chemotherapy, she looks at another woman in the street, a woman evidently undergoing her same ‘treatment’ and the narrator describes the gaze between the two women, a fleeting but powerful gaze, intimate, inaccessible, abyssal. And then, while at the hospital, she starts taking photographs of the inmates. This causes some stir in the hospital, although the sick people were posing willingly and even happily.

Winner of the Booker Man Prize 2005, the judges said:
“The Sea is both a reconciliation with loss and an extraordinary meditation on identity and remembrance. Utterly compelling, profoundly moving and illuminating, it is unquestionably one of the finest works yet from a sublime master of language”.

In an interview Banville said: “The novel is taken less and less seriously these days, and one has a duty of care for the poor old battered medium.”

Saturday, May 12, 2007

antonio lobo antunes

Antonio Lobo-Antunes has been in the Nobel lists for some years now. Lobo-Antunes is one of my favorite writers, he has been compared to W. Faulkner because of his fragmented narrative that takes different characters and develop them almost 'til exhaustion. His novels usually take about 500 pages, but he has that rare quality of making the reader feel that s/he is reading, or almost listening, to an oral account of facts and stories, so when you get the pace, the rythm follows smoothly, like a long song, an epic poem. I'm thinking here especially of his death trilogy, where I would highlight 'La muerte de Carlos Gardel'. This is a difficult novel, a novel that demands from the reader some effort, (what Barthes called an 'active reader'), especially at the beginning that seems almost impenetrable. But once you catch the thread, the reading follows smoothly. Lobo-Antunes's novels have been translated into Spanish with great success (Mario Merlino translator, under cutting-edge Publishing House 'Siruela'), but we're still waiting for the english versions of his work.
In other novels, such as 'Manual for the Inquisitors' and 'Portugal's Splendor', the writer
describes Portugal’s colonial wars in Africa, as well as Salazar's dictatorship. Lobo Antunes actually fought the war in Angola and that is a recurrent topic in his novels.
Gossip: he seems to be in constant war with another Portuguese writer: Saramago!

Friday, May 11, 2007

ruth rendell

I love this short novel. I found it in London last year. Incredibly, when I was boarding the plane the 'liquid frenzy' unleashed and I wasn't even allowed to take this tiny book in the plane... Anyway, I think this is an exemplary sample of a suspense-psychological-mystery nouvelle. Polly, its main character, is an enigmatic woman that doesn't seem to know what her actions will unleash! Her main characteristic is her 'cleptomaniac' tendency, and the way she deals with everyday conflicts is always based on her capacity to steal; so her revenges, in the novel, are transformed into her thefts. I think that through this story we are able to see what's going on in our society in terms of facades and impersonations in the higher classes, and Polly's apparent craziness is a metaphor for our day-to-day incoherences and absurdisms, because even though Polly follows the patterns of what society means by 'normal' (having a job, a fiancee, a stable and economical situation), she still cannot manage to conceal her inner and most instinctive self, that is, the one corresponding to an almost amazonic woman: castrating, confronting, savage. Through her acts we can see the vulnerability of our social order, of our actual set of rules and expectations. So even when Polly participates in the bourgeous spectacle, she is not able to be loyal to it.
The story begins, "The first time she stole something Polly was eight years old."
Other quotations:
"Stealing things from people who had upset her was something Polly did quite a lot".
"There was her Aunt Pauline; a girl at school; a boyfriend who left her. And there was the man on the plane..."
"Humiliated and scared, by a total stranger, Polly does what she always does. She steals something. But she never could have imagined that her desire for revenge would have such terrifying results".

Thursday, May 10, 2007

elisabeth reichart/cynthia ozick

"Stella, cold, cold, the coldness of hell." This is how Ozick's miniature masterpiece begins, a story that has caused both wide attention to the author as well as personal self-criticism and debate. Ozick has commented on her decision to never again write what she considers to be a matter for archives, data or history, and this is because her portrayal of these three women (mother, her baby and an adolescent niece) in a death camp was almost entirely made up by her (except the fact that some babies were thrown to the electrified fence, data that she read in another book).
Another book that follows this pattern is "February shadows", by Austrian writer Elisabeth Reichart. I found this book while reading fiction in the context of the online workshop on Austrian literature promoted by "Dispatches of Zembla" blog. I like this novel because of its writing, displayed almost like a long poem, with short paragraphs, repetitive sentences, and poetic constructions that make wonderful use of synechdoque and metonymy. In her novel, Reichart takes the year 1945 in a little Austrian town where 500 out of 570 Russian soldiers of the Mauthaussen concentration camp escaped but were hunted down by National Socialists and inhabitants of the Mill district, people considered 'apolitical'. She shows how nobody helped the soldiers, but creates fictitious characters to do this.
I find this conflict very controversial, and I've found a good explanation for this, called by Berel Lang, 'transcodification'. Berel explains: "Mixing actual events with completely fictional characters, a writer simultaneously relieves himself of an obligation to historical accuracy (invoking poetic license), even as he imbues his fiction with the historical authority of real events"

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

flannery o'connor

Flannery O’Connor is well known for her stories, mainly set in the south (she was born in Savannah, Georgia) and featuring odd characters that would later be described as ‘freaks’. Noonday Press –Farrar, Straus and Giroux has published her ‘Collected Stories’ in a single volume. In her brief career (she died at age 39) ‘Wise Blood’ stands as a unique novel, one I’ve been meaning to read again, because it has that special quality, some uncanny and innovative set of images that linger in the mind long after the book is read. Its main character, Hazel, is a religiously conflicted adolescent who starts competing with a street preacher by creating his own ‘sect’: “The Church of Christ Without Christ”. He is followed by an idiotic character, Enoch, that contrasts with Hazel’s serious and stern personality. But Enoch is crucial in his quest, since he is the one to have ‘Wise blood’...
Along with William Faulkner and Carson McCullers, O’Connor stands as an American classic, a very special, very individualistic, idiosyncratic and Catholic writer. Her portrayal of these ‘freakish’ characters is always done with satire and distanced objectivity.
Worth seeing also is John Huston’s film, a very loyal translation of the novel, based quite literally on O’Connor’s work.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

colm toibin

THE MASTER is Henry James. And Henry James is the character
that Toibin chose for this peculiar and beautiful novel.
Colm Toibin won the IMPAC award last year with his novel.
In their comments on the novel the judges said
“In The Master, Colm Tóibín captures the
exquisite anguish of a man who circulated in the
grand parlours and palazzos of Europe, who was
astonishingly alive and vibrant in his art,
and yet whose attempts at intimacy inevitably failed
him and those he tried to love. It is a powerful
account of the hazards of putting the life
of the mind before affairs of the heart".
This is especially true when the narrator describes
the suggestive attraction that seems to feel Henry
James toward Hammond, an attentive butler who makes
everything possible to please him. This eroticism is
rendered with great subtlety and the narrator manages
to express the delicacy of James gestures, as well as
his will to resist and avoid this attraction.
That's one of my favorite parts. Toibin also emphasizes
melancholic undertones that are laid bare through the
writer's life via appropriating James's insgiths when
describing his fears and desires. After the failure of
his play "Guy Domville", Toibin describes:
"Nonetheless, he remembered the shock and the
shame of the opening night of 'Guy Domville'. He told
himself that the memory would fade, and with that
admonition he tried to put all thoughts
of his failure out of his mind" (49).
Toibin also swims through James's thougths regarding
Oscar Wilde, seen as a sort of rival in London:
"Wilde had been much on Henry's mind over the previous
months. His two plays were still running at the Haymarket
and the St. James. Henry had no difficulty adding up the
money Wilde had been making" (70).
Toibin has made an exhaustive research, as is detailed in
the Acknowledgments, where he specifies:
"I have peppered the text with phrases and sentences
from the writings of Henry James and his family".

About this book, Joyce Carol Oates said in an interview:
"what I like about it is that the Henry James he is creating
is like a ghost--he doesn't say much. It's a novel that's
almost about nothing--but it's a novel that I can identify
with. I feel that the writer is like an observer at the margin".

Monday, May 7, 2007

kobo abe

Kobo Abe's 'The face of Another' (1966) is one of the most fascinating novels about identity: identity construction, the loss of identity, the dissociation we experience when 'faced' with one another. A massive bestseller in Japan (though it's hard to think of this novel -any of his novels- as mainstream literature, or commercial-friendly, easy to digest literature), Abe's novels have received wide reception in the English-speaking world, but not many in the Spanish one. In this novel a scientist focuses on an improbable and fantastic project: creating a mask for himself, after being dramatically scarred in a laboratory accident with an explosion of liquid oxygen. Because he was wearing his glasses, he was able to protect his eyes, but the rest of his face is totally eaten away. At the beginning he wanders in the streets with his head entirely bandaged... while he works assembling the materials for his mask. Although his wife is sympathetic and helpful, he begins to deteriorate psychologically and one of the most shocking moments of the novel happens when he decides to seduce his own wife with his 'mask' that he has been keeping as a secret. However her sixth sense proves more powerful than he expected...
Abe has been compared to Kafka (in the novel, the character 'K' couldn't be more intertextual) and to Samuel Beckett, for his drastic sense of humor verging on the grotesque. This is a phenomenal novel that catches your attention from the first line: "At last you have come, threading your way through the endless passages of the maze. With the map you got from him, you have finally found your way to my hideaway..." (3). And by the end, the attention is shifted to an allegorical setting, through the figure of a girl walking in the streets and young men whistling at her. She walks without showing her right side of her face, then, surprising the men she stops and faces them: "The right side of her face, which she revealed for the first time, was pitifully disfigured with keloid ridges and distorsions, and was completely transformed. (No full explanation was given, but the name 'Hiroshima' was constantly repeated in the following dialogue.)" (230). Abe's novels have been reprinted by Vintage books.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

irene nemirovsky

Back to 'Suite Francaise', Irene Nemirovsky's posthumous work (VIntage books has another novel 'Fire in the blood' coming soon, a newly discovered novel by the author). The edition includes the two novellas and are followed by an impressive set of appendixes. These are opened with the handwritten notes that formed the novel (first picture above). Then we have Irene's ideas of the novel, how she wanted it to develop, what she wanted to highlight, and several ideas on the genre. Her admiration for Russian writers is evident and she mentions repeatedly Anna Karenina and War and Peace. She insists on describing the conflicts in an olbique way: "Instead of describing the death of the hostages, it's the party at the Opera House I must show". Her ambitions were high, too: "Try to create as much as possible: things, debates... that will interest people in 1952 or 2052". The second appendix is the gripping correspondence between Irene's husband, her editor, some friends. When Irene is taken by the police, her husband keeps on trying to find out were she is. It is painful and horrendous to read, since we know that she has died in Auschwitz, and Michel Epstein (Irene's husband) goes as far as to send a letter to the German Ambassador, Otto Abetz, were he explains: "My wife's grandparents, as well as my own, were Jewish; our parents practised no religion; as for us, we are Catholic and so are our children who were born in Paris and are French... Despite being of Jewish descente, [Irene] has no sympathy whatsoever-all her books prove this-either for Judaism or the Bolshevik regime" (404). Michel's letter drew some attention and he was imprisoned at Creusot, then taken to Drancy. Then he was deported to Auschwitz and sent immediately to the gas chamber. As for Irene, she was registered at the extermination camp at Birkenau, and was so weak that she was sent to the Review, "the infirmary at Auschwitz where prisoners who were too ill to work were confined in atrocious conditions. The SS would periodically pile them into trucks and take them to the gas chambers".
A beautiful paragraph from Irene's notes in the first appendix:
"The pine trees all around me. I am sitting on my blue cardigan in the middle of an ocean of leaves, wet and rotting from last night's storm as if I were on a raft, my legs tucked under me! In my bag, I have put Volume II of Anna Karenina, the diary of K.M. and an orange. My friends the bumblebees, delightful insects, seem pleased with themselves and their buzzing is profound and grave. I like low, serious tones on voices and in nature. The shrill 'chirp, chirp' of the small birds in the trees grates on me... In a moment or so I will try to find the hidden lake" (388).

Saturday, May 5, 2007

jon mcgregor

The first picture is from the original release of McGregor's novel in the UK. The second, less austere, is the American version (Mariner books). This is a book i've been meaning to stress for some time and have been recommending to several friends because it is the kind of book that takes a simple story (a street accident that hides a mystery) as an excuse to explore the diverse relations in a neighbourhood filled with 'characters'. These are people that one could see walking in the streets, taking the bus, walking their dogs, etc, so what McGregor does is absolutely fantastic because he takes all these people and goes through their lifes and conflicts in an impressive, poetical way, just counting on the accident as a link to connect all this characters. He traces with great insight the private lives of every person, focusing on the ordinary and the minimal to display his magnificent poetic talent. Consequently, this is not a conventional novel, the dialogues are included in the narration and blank spaces are used to suggest time-space changes and phases. An example of McGregor's unconventional, almost experimental "ecstatic writing" (Times Literary Suplement):
"There was a soft muzzle of rain falling, there was a breathless silence in the air, and it was in that moment that I started thinking about it all over again.
About that last day of summer, three years before, the last day in that house.
The child, at the end of the day, and that moment of shocking inevitability".
This person is refering to the 'accident', the knot that ties the narrative throughout the novel. In an interview McGregor said that he was tired of being asked what this novel was about, and despite being longlisted for the booker, he got some nasty critics for his alleged 'affectation and adolescent approach', though I think otherwise. I would join this novel to Raymond Carver's poetic-symbolic prose in his best short stories.

Friday, May 4, 2007

nadine gordimer

I will be posting more comments on Nadine Gordimer, but why not start with this impressive novel by one of the leading contemporary writers. 'The pickup' begins with Julie, a pampered white girl in need of reparing her car... Then Ibrahim (though we don't know his real name until almost half of the novel is read), comes along working illegally in the car service center where Julie leaves her car. Rapidly they begin a relationship were Julie plays the metaphor of the condescending white making amends with this exotic 'other'. But Gordimer's approach is complex and difficult to stereotype, so when Julie leaves everything to follow Ibrahim to his (arabian) country (I surmise Morocco, though the novel doesn't name it), things get more complicated. As an alien, and a woman, who doesn't speak the language, she fits oddly in this Muslim society. There's a lot of unexpected turns in the novel, but what I really like here is the transformation that Julie experiences staying in the desert, her effort to surpass the language barrier, and the joy, almost mystic, that provides the contemplation of the desert. Here Gordimer offers a numer of precious images for this apparently barren landscape. The desert symbolizes the gap between these two cultures, as well as the freedom everyone requires to make contact with that elusive, perhaps impossible, other. As the narrator says: Ibrahim "is not looking at her when his regard is on her" and Julie is simply "looking for herself reflected in those eyes."

Thursday, May 3, 2007

peter handke

Peter Handke is one of the authors that I've been reading for a while. Blogs "Dispatches from Zembla" and "Flowerville" have been punctuating a Handke debate for a while, along with an online workshop on Austrian Literature. So these are the two Handke novels that I'm selecting here . NYRB Classics Publishing House is doing a very important thing publishing and reediting several authors that are crucial to our time (as various as Pavese, Emilio Gadda, Henry James and Peter Handke). "A sorrow..." is a painful yet inspiring book (difficult to categorise: novel, memoir, testimony?) that takes Handke's mother death notice as the burning fuse of his reflexions. I couldn't help noticing Patricia Highsmith's introductory quotation (Ransom for a dog), in which the unexpectedness and apparent tranquility of the moment conceals the worst tragedies (an uncanny feeling that is fully described in Joan Didion's 'The year of magical thinking'). "Abcense" is a denser book and narrative than "A sorrow..." and focuses on a group of travelers through a series of landscapes that allow us to go back to biblic symbols. As usually with Handke, domestic and every day details surface in the narrative, enhancing the value of gestures, habits and even mannierisms along this novel. Handke's sequence is versatile and has allowed him to delve into diverse strategies: "Caspar Hauser" traces the mumblings of words and dislocated phrases through a wild kid bereft of language; "The Left'Handed woman" is a deft excercise of ventriloquism with a woman's sensibility and direction in the middle of a marital crisis, and "Essay on boredom" allows Handke to join the Spanish culture through a series of impressionistic notes...

georges-arthur goldschmidt

I couldn't find the cover of the book (I think the only one translated into English, Lord knows why it's the only one), "Worlds of Difference", where Goldschmidt (second photo) revisits his own life during WWII in a French orphanage. However, it is hard to say it is his life since, as Peter Handke points out in the foreword, Goldschmidt's is a "nameless hero". Still his evocative prose makes you think of concepts such as homeland, identity and the dissociation that happens with exile. Goldschmidt himself spoke german and after the war started to write in French. His hardships during this period are poetically displayed in this short novel, and his conscience of being a Jew is dramatically presented through the eyes of a kid: "But then it suddenly struck him that in Sunday school, whenever the word 'jew' was uttered, the pastor would always look at him, and the word had made him frightened" (3). The narration also tackles some perceptions that have been poetically addressed by german speaking writers (Ingeborg Bachmann and Herta Muller): "the total indifference of objects that share our travels" (11). "Objects too kept separating him from home" (20). There's also an assortment of sharp perception related to sexuality, identity and perversity. Goldschmidt has translated into French many novels by Peter Handke.

diamela eltit

Here we have four covers of Diamela Eltit's translated novels. Eltit's impeccable trajectory begins with 'E. Luminata' a postmodern work that takes a female character watching the anachronistic lights of a city under curfew. The scenario is a public square and the writing jumps from scene to scene in a somewhat cinematic fashion, as well as theatrical. In fact, many references are made to different and diverse traditions, such as Golden Age Theater, and the Caribbean-musical novel. Eltit uses even different fonts as the novel develops.
Last year there was quite a stir in Chile with the National Award for Literature, where Eltit was shortlisted, but naturally in such a misogynistic country, little could be done... As we know, having a female President is not exactly a proof for justice. In addition Chile characterizes for its insular quality, a country that has to see the Nobel Prize awarded before the National, as is the case with poet Gabriela Mistral.
'The fourth world' is a brief but incredible novel in which the writer takes a 'twin' couple talking in the mother's womb. In this novel we trace the derogatory term 'sudaca' when the twin-girl goes to sale... I'm not telling more! "Sacred Cow" is considered a more accessible novel in Eltit's scope. Here she takes the metaphor of blood (mainly menstrual, but also as a result of violence) through the feminine experience of loss. It's quite fascinating and makes me think of the notion of abjection developed by Julia Kristeva in 'The powers of horror'. And 'Custody of the eyes' (In Spanish 'Los vigilantes') takes after William Faulkner's 'Sound and Fury', especially through the eyes of the idiot kid and his fractured language. Some approaches have focused obsessively in Foucault's panoptycon, though what amazes here is the epistolary genre taken to extremes.