First Page: Days of Abandoment

Book cover showing a nude woman looking at herself in a mirror

 

A few months ago, I had a post where I talked about two books I had barely began to read at the time, The Blue Book and A Tale for the Time Being.  Thanks to ‘samples’ in ebook stores, I’ve more than ever been judging a book by its first few chapters, deciding if I want to purchase it or, more importantly, continue reading it.

Last night, unable to sleep because of my continuing cough, I downloaded the sample of Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment and began to read. I’ve never read any Ferrante, and by the end of that first, fairly short chapter I decided that I was going to binge read as many of her works as I could.

The writing is the sort that seems unaffected, with no obvious literary frills, as if the narrator is just using the most expedient means to telling her story. This is an illusion that takes great skill. She maintains the aura of reality even while taking writerly detours, like describing the view from the balcony of their new home, something unlikely to come up in an everyday recitation of events.

And I truly do buy into the reality. Halfway through chapter one, I realized my brain is thinking that this narrator is Elena, that she’s only reminding me of her husband Mario’s name because I already know him. I often forget fictional characters aren’t real, but usually this happens with television shows where I have spent years in their lives. Here I’m a few paragraphs in and my delusions are already settling in.

Today I stopped at the library and picked up Days of Abandonment, My Brilliant Friend, and then bought The Story of a New Name. As I was checking out at the library, the clerk smiled as if she had a secret, then said quietly, “You’ve found some good books.” I hope that I have.

 

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Thoughts on Commentary

Book cover showing a gray background with black geometric lines embossed on top

Commentary by Marcelle Sauvageot, translated from the French by Christine Schwartz Hartley & Anna Moschovakis (France; Ugly Duckling Presse)

Commentary is an epistolary memoir that begins with the author, Marcelle Sauvageot, on a train to a sanitarium where she  hopes to treat her tuberculosis but instead fears she will be merely trapped inside with other sick people. She writes (or addresses in her head) her lover, whom has grown distant as a result of her illness. A month into their epistolary friendship, she receives a letter that announces, “I am getting married… our friendship remains.” She writes back, a retrospective on their relationship together. It is more than a commentary on their relationship, it is also a commentary on the state of relations between men and women in the early 20th century. As such, she decides to publish it. A year later, she succumbs to her illness one last time.

This slim book is filled with the kind of honesty and poetry that might be in our hearts but that we never speak aloud. When we hear it, it is from the mouths of characters, feelings once removed. Sauvageot must have sensed her ending and realized that she had no reason to censor herself. As a result, she gives us beautiful passages like these,

In Corsica, after a long walk through the scrub brush, I came upon an open path. I held my horse by its bridle; its head was above mine, and I was barely visible between two arbutuses. I was holding pink peonies against my breast. I wish you could have been there to smell the fragrance of the brush; you would have understood the taste I have for the wild sometimes; you would have been simple and wild like me and we’d have loved each other. I held my horse tightly in my arms and crushed the peonies. There was no one around to love what I loved.

Her style reminds me of the musings of Colette or one of Nin’s more quotidian heroines, but less sensual than either. Her concerns are usually more in the interplay of ideas and words than sensations. This is not just a commentary on her relationship, but also a critique of her lover’s letters. She pulls out certain phrases and reviews them over and over, manipulating them and their meanings in ways only possible because he is not physically present; he is merely represented by the static set of words he put in the mail for her.

He gives her the same treatment, ‘scour[ing] the past for sentence in which I seemed to say I no longer loved you.” Illness and distance reduces their relationship to a transcript.

Maybe more than Colette, it reminds me of Knausgaard. The unflinching examination of everyday life and of oneself. The way a single train of thought allows time travel from the present and the view out the window to youth and the streets of the past to interior landscapes and reams. The belief that if every rock of thought and observation is overturned, we might eventually find more underneath than just beetles.

We read the book waiting for a revelation in her feelings, her coming to a conclusion, to an actionable take on her past. The revelation happens at the beginning, though, in her deciding to write at all. In her taking advantage of the severance to finally speak freely. She notes repeatedly that she was always the one in the relationship who obscured her feelings. He was the romantic whereas she was “clumsy”, “with a single ironic sentence I destroy the impression I’ve created.” Commentary is the act of her disregarding her usual irony. ‘Irony’ might be the defining word of the 21st century, of generation ‘i’, so Sauvageot’s work comes to us as a gift from a different time. It is too late for Sauvageot when she writes this, but her hindsight gives us a chance to look at ourselves honestly and openly, to love without irony.

Best Translated Book Award Link Roundup 2: The Longlist

Cover of Horses of God

Horses of God by Mahi Binebine, translated from the French by Lulu Norman (Morocco; Tin House)

“Poor Fuad, though, had no one to defend him; he had nothing but his legs.”


Cover of Blinding

Blinding by Mircea Cărtărescu, translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter (Romania; Archipelago Books)

“There were days when the only people I saw on the streets were blind.”


Cover of Textile

Textile by Orly Castel-Bloom, translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu (Israel; Feminist Press)

“It was not only avoiding thoughts of home that helped the good sniper to carry out his mission…”


Cover of Sleet

Sleet by Stig Dagerman, translated from the Swedish by Steven Hartman (Sweden; David R. Godine)

“When you’re the child of a small family farmer your back grows crooked already at an early age from you trying to bear as much on it as the grown-ups. “


cover of story of a new name

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Italy; Europa Editions)

“It was hot, I opened the window. I listened to the chickens pecking, the rustle of the reeds, then I became aware of the mosquitoes. I closed the window quickly and spent at least an hour going after them and crushing them with one of the books that Professor Galiani had lent me, Complete Plays,by a writer named Samuel Beckett.”


Cover of Tirza

Tirza by Arnon Grunberg, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett (Netherlands; Open Letter Books)

“Button it,” Hofmeester said, “your shirt. I can see everything. I don’t want to see everything. I’ve seen too much as it is.” Ibi was standing at the door, her upper body swaying rhythmically back and forth. She was crying without a sound.

The tenant buttoned his shirt, all the way to the top.”


Her Not All Her Cover

Her Not All Her by Elfriede Jelinek, translated from the German by Damion Searls (Austria; Sylph Editions)

“From the art of poetry war has arisen: People were bored by what they knew but they didn’t want to ask anything either. They wanted to answer right off. But there’s one thing they know for certain: Always conquer new ground! “


Cover of My Struggle Book 2: A Man in Love

My Struggle: Book Two by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (Norway; Archipelago Books)

“‘We’re going to stay a bit longer,’ Linda said. ‘And look, now you’re all getting some goodies!’Was she was referring to the vegetables on the board?

She had to be.

They were crazy in this country.”


Seiobo There Below Cover

Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai, translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet (Hungary; New Directions)

“…and you should not come back if tomorrow, or after tomorrow, dawn breaks, because for you it will be much better for there to be no tomorrow and no day after tomorrow; so hide away now in the grass, sink down, fall onto your side, let your eyes slowly close, and die, for there is no point in the sublimity that you bear, die at midnight in the grass, sink down and fall, and let it be like that — breathe your last.”

I think this is surely the most reviewed book of the bunch. I would have guessed My Struggle.


Cover of Autobiography of  a corpse

Autobiography of a Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, translated from the Russian by Joanne Turnbull (Ukraine; NYRB)

“An old Indian folktale tells of a man forced to shoulder a corpse night after night—till the corpse, its dead but moving lips pressed to his ear, has finished telling the story of its long-finished life.”


Book cover featuring ink drawing of paper scrolls

The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra by Pedro Mairal, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor (Argentina; New Vessel Press)

“This is where everything begins to be flattened by the gusting wind of time. People are suddenly horizontal, swept along by the invisible current.”


Book cover showing a close up of a man's dress shirt

The Infatuations by Javier Marías, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (Spain; Random House)

“But why do I say “too late,” I wonder, too late for what? I have no idea, to be honest. It’s just that when someone dies, we always think it’s too late for anything, or indeed everything — certainly too late to go on waiting for him — and we write him off as another casualty. It’s the same with those closest to us, although we find their deaths much harder to accept and we mourn them, and their image accompanies us in our mind both when we’re out and about and when we’re at home, even though for a long time we believe that we will never get accustomed to their absence. From the start, though, we know — from the moment they die — that we can no longer count on them, not even for the most petty thing, for a trivial phone call or a banal question (“Did I leave my car keys there?” “What time did the kids get out of school today?”), that we can count on them for nothing. And nothing means nothing.”

If Sieobo There Below is the most reviewed, this might be reviewed by the most diverse set of publications.


Cover showing a red and yellow pattern

A True Novel by Minae Mizumura, translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters (Japan; Other Press)

“A miracle happened to me two years ago.”


Cover showing a strange blue 3-d shape and a man walking along it

In the Night of Time by Antonio Muñoz Molina, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman (Spain; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

It’s strange how much trouble I’m having finding reviews and information about this book, considering it was published by one of the big five and you would think they would have marketing skills and budget. Maybe it’s just too large for reviewers to get to in time.


Book cover showing an owl eating a frog

The African Shore by Rodrigo Rey Rosa, translated from the Spanish by Jeffrey Gray (Guatemala; Yale University Press)


Book cover showing a black diamond on a white background

Through the Night by Stig Sæterbakken, translated from the Norwegian by Seán Kinsella (Norway; Dalkey Archive)

“I looked at her, the lovely renewed Eva. The just right level of tipsy Eva. The slightly nonchalant, amenable Eva. Whenever I dreamed of her, she was wearing the red dress she’d had on the first time we went out, to that Chinese restaurant. Yes, I think the two of us will always be together, I thought. What else could we possibly want?”


Book cover showing a gray background with black geometric lines embossed on top

Commentary by Marcelle Sauvageot, translated from the French by Christine Schwartz Hartley & Anna Moschovakis (France; Ugly Duckling Presse)

“This corner of myself judged you, measured you; and in judging and measuring you I saw your weaknesses, your insufficiencies; where is the harm in my staying, in my accepting these insufficiencies, in my loving them? O, Man! You always want to be admired. You do not judge, you do not measure the woman you love. You are there, you take her; you take your happiness, she seems not to belong to herself anymore, to have lost all sense of anything; you are happy.”


Blue book cover

Leg Over Leg Vol. 1 by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies (Lebanon; New York University Press)

“‘The Arabs have set the standard for both orientation and osculation, for to kiss the brow, as the Franks do, is meaningless. But why is the kissing of parts other than the mouth and the cheek devoid of the pleasure that the kisser experiences at those two spots?’ ‘Because,’ he replied, ‘one who is thirsty cannot quench his thirst by planting his mouth at the top of the water pitcher or on its side.’”


Book cover featuring the name Sjon in bold letters

The Whispering Muse by Sjón, translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb (Iceland; FSG)

“So clattering crockery and clinking cutlery formed my lullaby on my first ‘night’ as a guest on board the flagship of my benefactor, Mr. Magnus Jung-Olsen.”


Cover with strange painting

The Forbidden Kingdom by Jan Jacob Slauerhoff, translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent (Netherlands; Pushkin Press)


Book cover featuring a grid with soviet, nazi, and jewish symbols

The Devil’s Workshop by Jáchym Topol, translated from the Czech by Alex Zucker (Czech Republic; Portobello Books)


Book cover that shows the title growing like vines

The End of Love by Marcos Giralt Torrente, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (Spain; McSweeney’s)

“Why doesn’t anybody tell us that we are not always the same, that it takes time for us to become who we are?”


Book cover showing the back of a man's head

Red Grass by Boris Vian, translated from the French by Paul Knobloch (France; Tam Tam Books)


Book cover showing two photographs of Los Angeles

City of Angels, or, The Overcoat of Dr. Freud by Christa Wolf, translated from the German by Damion Searls (Germany; FSG)

“Very softly, and quickly repressed again, the question came to mind: What had actually made me come here?—just loud enough for me to recognize it the next time it announced itself, already more urgent than before. In any case, the scaly trunks of the palm trees glided by as though they were reason enough. The smell of gas and exhaust. A long drive.”


Cover of Sandalwood Death

Sandalwood Death by Mo Yan, translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt (China; University of Oklahoma Press)

” If a dog grunts, it is still a dog, and when a pig barks, it remains a pig. And a dieh is still a dieh, even if he does not act like one. Grunt grunt, arf arf. The noise drove me crazy. They knew they would be dead soon. So would my dieh.”

#readwomen2014

Just discovered #readwomen2014, an initiative to get more folks reading women authors.

A specific yearly reading goal can bend your reading in interesting ways. In this case, if nothing else, one would find out how few or many women authors they already read by noting how difficult it is for them to adjust to this goal.

Or, one can just skim through the huge list of suggested authors and see how many they have read or even heard of.

Afro-Vegan: Bridging Traditions

Cover of Afro-Vegan

Vegan cuisine lacks tradition.

There are examples of veganism or extreme vegetarianism going back to as far as ancient Greece and India, but most cases represent isolated individuals, not a lineage. There are few rare examples of near vegan cuisine being culturally sustained–Shojin Ryori and multiple Indian foodways for instance–but those are exceptions in the gastronomic world. Instead, veganism is more often associated with eschewing what came before, a deliberate turning away from a culture that shares different values.

As a result, most vegan cookbooks are instructional. The average reader is statistically probably unfamiliar with vegan cookery and in fact may have never had to prepare their own meals before, coming from a culture where meat-laden dishes can be delivered or picked up from a drive-thru. It is risky for a vegan cookbook to dive deeply rather than pan broadly, to presume even basic kitchen skills. This means we are treated less often to rich and uncompromising works like the beautiful and omnivorous Burma: Rivers of Flavor or Gran Cocina Latina.

Bryant Terry has always resisted these trends in modern veganism, seeking to ground his food in history, even an omnivorous history. Starting with Vegan Soul Kitchen, he has linked his recipes to family stories, century old traditions, and modern cinema and music. In his latest work, Afro-Vegan he goes further than ever. He maintains the habit of suggesting other cultural works like songs to tie into each recipe, and of “remixing” classic recipes with new twists, such as combining Southern skillet cornbread with North African dukkah. Unlike his past books, however, he goes further in emphasizing the linkages between what he cooks, traditional African American foodways, and the cuisines of Africa.

The book organization shows his emphasis on African and New World ingredients. “Okra, Black-eyed Peas, and Watermelon” get lumped together in one chapter, while “Grits, Grains, and Couscous” share another. Every recipe showcases some element of African cuisine but no recipe seems explicitly foreign. Terry reworks every ingredient or technique until it fits our modern expectations. Okra is grilled to make a spicy finger food, African black eyed pea fritters appear in a more traditional form and as softer patties for sliders. A whole chapter is devoted to cocktails, demonstrating that this is not intended to be a manual to recreate some kind of authentic African experience, but rather to incorporate tiny bits of tradition into modern life.

Terry does not talk down to his audience or spend much time explaining what’s needed in a pantry or how to deep fry. Because of this, he doesn’t need to water down his vision. Every dish works in concert, delivering a pitch perfect demonstration of Terry’s style. Sometimes this requires uncompromising instructions. Making Slow-braised Mustard Greens–which I would usually toss into one pot and call it a day–requires one pot and two pans, but the result is the creamiest mustard greens I’ve ever had. Za’atar Roasted Red Potatoes included more steps than I would expect from roasted potatoes–including taking the potatoes out halfway through to re-season, then laying each piece back on the baking sheet “cut side up”–but my boyfriend declared them, “the best anything. Ever.” The specifications may seem particular, but in each case Terry reassures that this is worth it. When describing how to meticulously remove the skin from every black-eyed pea used in Crunchy Bean and Okra Fritters, he suggests inviting guests to help. Even in the preparation, he manages to work in ways to make vegan food more about community building than dividing, furthering the book’s message.

Bryant Terry’s Afro-Vegan is one of the few vegan cookbooks I own that both explores a cuisine deeply while elevating it to new heights. It’s one that I’ll grab when I need inspiration for something new and exciting, as well as the one I’ll dog ear and bring to Louisiana on family visits. Hopefully other chefs will be inspired as well, and we can further the cause of integrating veganism into our communities and family histories.

Best Translated Book Awards Link Roundup 1

The readers for the 2014 Best Translated Book Award will begin making decisions soon. It’s time to quickly read any front runners that you want to argue about and join the betting pools!

This post will be a link roundup for discussion about the 2014 BTBA. Please let me know any links I missed in the comments. Once the longlist is posted, I will update with reviews and more information about each of the contenders.

BTBA 2014 site
Contains posts from the readers riffing on different nominees.

The Mookse and the Gripes BTBA discussion forum

Database of all 2013 translations (xlsx file)

Clues so far:

Speculation and Lists:

Chad Post’s personal predictions

The Mookse and Gripes’ predictions (and more scattered about the forums)

The Complete Review looks ahead to potential competitors (from May 2013)

Writers No One Reads 2013 preview (part 1)

Writers No One Reads 2013 preview (part 2)

Potential Long-listers

 

Soup’s On!


Cover of 30 Minute Vegan's Soup's On

Soup’s On by the 30-Minute Vegan–a.k.a. Mark Reinfeld–is pretty much what’s described on the tin: a variety of soup recipes all designed to be completed under thirty minutes. Soups are known for being fairly simple to make and for gaining flavor through time; here the simplicity is preserved and time saved by listing the flavor developing steps as “optional”.

The first chapter, “The Art of Soup Creation”, concerns how to make a soup, the kind of basic cooking instruction that beginning home cooks need and I wish more cookbooks provided. The usually cited foundational techniques for building flavor are skimmed over, however. Instead the focus is on using recipes as a template, explaining how to take a soup recipe, break it down into its requisite parts, then rebuild it with different ingredients. The book ends with another instructional chapter on soup finishing techniques, including recipes for garnishes like Vegan Crème FraÎche and Candied Pepitas as well as a few sides including ‘Cosmic Cornbread’ and Herbed Bread Sticks. Intervening chapters are organized by type of soup, such as “Creamy Blended Soups” and “Soups and Stews with Grains, Legumes, and Pasta”.

In addition to the recipe chapters, the book contains multiple appendices of varying usefulness. There are seasonal growing charts, but which climate zone they apply to is unknown, and the relevance of gardening in a book that implies 5 minutes can’t be spared to brown an onion is unclear. Another appendix contains a call to action against GMOs (the book is full of unsubstantiated health claims that seem out of place). More useful is a chart showing recommended soaking times of nuts and another chart showing measurement equivalencies for different natural sweeteners, allowing you to easily substitute agave nectar or brown rice syrup for sugar in any recipe. This is the kind of information that allows beginners to feel more confident in a kitchen, which seem appropriate to a book like this.

Less instructional are the recipes themselves. Everything I tried tasted delicious, especially a cauliflower soup that tasted like a velvety vegan cheese sauce. Producing that deliciousness, however, required me to make many judgement calls. Each recipe lists a few optional ingredients and cooking methods. In some cases the ‘optional’ method felt vital to me so I went with it, and I can’t be sure what the result would be for a novice following the bare bones version of each recipe. The recipe for Indian Chutney Stew with Tamarind, for instance, begins with pouring vegetable stock in a pot and then tossing in a slew of raw vegetables to boil. The main ingredient, tamarind paste, was to be one to three tablespoons. For such a pungent ingredient and the main flavor component of the dish, I would have appreciated a more specific suggestion. Meanwhile, adding a sweetener to balance the sourness of the tamarind was listed as optional. I found the soup almost inedible without this ‘optional’ ingredient. By following the ‘variations’ that involved sautéing the vegetables first, as well as adding some agave nectar, I ended with a delicious soup. The result was fantastic, but the recipe as written would not be something that I would recommend.

The target of this book appears to be inexperienced home cooks, but such cooks would be better served by learning more traditional ways of building flavor rather than how to throw things in a pot and boil them according to a recipe. If you are looking for some quick but tasty soup suggestions, I would recommend this book only in exchange for a promise to always take the 5 extra minutes to follow the optional instructions.

Eléctrico W

Electrcio W Cover

 

On Vincent Balmer’s first of nine days spent in Lisbon with his friend Antonio, they shared an olive-colored taxi to Rossio Square. Antonio was a native of Lisbon returning home for the first time after years ten traveling the world as a documentary photographer. Vincent watched Antonio look out the taxi window and light a cigarette. Vincent was struck by the tableau:

“It felt as if time had taken a step to one side, a divergence as fine as a crack in the glaze on porcelain. Something unfamiliar has insinuated itself inside me. I can think of no other way of putting it: I no longer saw a thirty-year old man in flesh and blood sitting beside me on that seat with its cracked leather, but a character, a character from a book.”

That night he sat down and described what he had seen, instantly deciding that it would be the beginning of a novel about Antonio entitled Eléctrico W.

Except that this is not the Eléctrico W that I read. The Eléctrico W that exists as a physical object in our world is a novel by French Oulipian Hervé Le Tellier and is about a writer named Vincent Balmer writing a novel. The metafictional playfulness extends a few layers deeper. In addition to writing Antonio’s story, Vincent is working on a novel about Pescheux d’Herbinville, a slighted lover known primarily for killing math prodigy Evariste Galois in a duel. The jealousy that drove Galois’ murder mirrors Vincent’s own emotional tensions provoked by Antonio’s romantic successes, leading the reader to turn pages faster to see if Vincent’s actions will also align with d’Herbinville’s. Additionally, Vincent has been translating a Portuguese Borgesian author named Jaime Montestrela. Montestrela’s works are all snippets about imaginary cultures engaging in a variety of strange but sublime religious rituals:

“When January 12 falls on a Sunday, the Picardy village of Abelvilly still to this day celebrates it as the Feast of the Gulerian, when this creature is hunted for the tender meat on its large fleshy ears. The gulerian is a patagrade with a bright orange pelt, similar to a badger in size and tortoise in mobility and agility, specific to that part of the Caux region and sadly extinct since the first Feast of the Gulerian in the year of grace 1197.”

We aren’t given to know if Le Tellier has hidden additional constraints within these stories, but Vincent thinks that Montestrela has. Each snippet is mailed to a different person on a different date, and each is dutifully recorded in his book. Are the stories secret messages passed around the world by post? More importantly, what are they communicating to us about Vincent?

Little of Le Tellier’s work has been published in English thus far, and what has been published has been of quite a different nature. Dalkey Archive has published two of his works. A Thousand Pearls (For a Thousand Pennies) is not a novel but rather a list of things that the author is thinking about. The Sextine Chapel is a series of erotic, interconnected short stories. Other Press is bringing his more traditional novels to the U.S., starting with Enough About Love and followed by Electrico W., both translated by Adriana Hunter. Most Oulipian novels, like the two Dalkey works, wear their membership patches on their sleeves; their constraints are the lure for the potential reader. Then there are those like Harry Mathews’ Cigarettes that defy the expectations impressed on them with the stamping of the press’s label by being, simply, beautiful novels, regardless of the witty games that the authors played in writing them. Eléctrico W., by Hervé Le Tellier, falls into this latter category, pleasing both fans of prime numbers and wordplay as well as those looking for beauty and truth.

Although I fall into the first category, it is Le Tellier’s talent for revealing simple truths about the everyday world that most pleased me about this book. Le Tellier’s skill at crystalline observation is ironic considering Vincent’s personal preference for embellished fantasy. He is a man who lives firstly in his imagination and only secondly in the world around him. The consequences of this reality blindness harm him every day. His love life is hopeless; he cannot flirt with women because he doesn’t recognize when they are mocking him. His novel is a failure; it is intended to be a portrait of Antonio but he never bothers to discern who Antonio actually is.  

Unsurprisingly, Vincent dismisses the sort of aphorisms that I found myself praising. Antonio’s talk is “cheap airport fiction,” and inspired by these drunken truths, Vincent says, “I came up with a new aphorism along the lines of ‘No aphorism tells the truth’…” Antonio works as a documentary photographer and his job is to create this kind of faux meaningful vision: “the girl dying behind the vulture”, as Vincent describes these works that superimpose beauty on violence in a cheap attempt at importance.The irony of Vincent’s distaste for aphorism is that, immersed in his own skewed vision of the world, he fails to realize what a self-hating sentiment it is. Despite, or perhaps because of, Vincent’s inability to authentically interact with the world, he uses his imagination to create his own truths to fill the world with.

The plot of Eléctrico W is propelled by Vincent attempting to construct scenarios to make life seem meaningful. When Antonio relates a tale of a long-lost love, Vincent decides to track the lover down to bring about a storybook ending. He even invents his own imaginary girlfriend because the story he is creating works better that way. Each chapter he–often in a ridiculous, American comedy-film fashion–adds an extra layer to the fantasy he is concocting from his apartment in Lisbon.

Eventually those around Vincent begin to reveal that they are people, not characters for him to write, and he must learn to release himself into the meaninglessness of reality. Vincent wasn’t the only one surprised by this; don’t we as readers also expect characters to serve the plot by behaving interestingly? While Vincent has trouble understanding Antonio’s request to control his own reality, the reader, who even further removed from acknowledging Antonio, is doubly shocked. The metafictional nature of the novel within a novel adds a confusing sheen of realism to the work, making it even more confusing about what right a reader has to demand certain qualities of Vincent or any character. What I initially took for a cheap postmodern trick succeeded fantastically, for not only Vincent but I, the reader, had lost track of what was true.

Kickstarter for My Struggle

Cover of My Struggle Book OneEarlier this week I bought the beautiful hardcover of My Struggle: Book 2, A Man in Love. I went to place it on my bookshelf alongside book 1, and that’s when I realized that book 1 was actually missing. I think I loaned to a friend right before he disappeared, reappearing weeks later in Mississippi where he presumably will be indefinitely. Now A Man in Love sits alone, glorious and thick, but proud. Maybe too proud to share the shelf space with a paperback companion anyway. 

Luckily, it may have a companion soon, if Archipelago’s Kickstarter succeeds. They’re seeking to release a hardcover of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book 1 next year. Currently they’re about $2500 short, so go back them so I can give my man a companion.

 

A Tale of Two Openings

I’ve been trying to read The Blue Book by A. L. Kennedy, but I’m having trouble working up any enthusiasm for the book. If I could pinpoint the reason, I might feel validated in giving it up, but instead I keep forcing myself to bring it to work with me in case I might feel like reading it during lunch. Finally a friend convinced me that I should not be so slavishly loyal that I don’t read at all, so I picked up some books on a whim and have been alternating between them and The Blue Book. I sped through two mystery novels this way, then started Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being.

As soon as I opened A Tale for the Time Being (henceforth, ATftTB), I noticed an eerie coincidence. Both ATftTB and The Blue Book begin in the second person. Seeing the word ‘you’ on a page, absent of dialogue, is a strange enough feeling, but to have both of the novels that I’m reading shock me with that word?

Even though both openings have that particular structural similarity, they are otherwise quite different, at least in how I reacted to them. The Blue Book‘s usage of ‘you’ irritated me a bit, while ATftTB drew me in. What was the difference? Even after rereading the first page of each over and again, I am still unsure.

The Blue Book begins:

But here this is, the book you’re reading.

Obviously.

Although I have no describable reason for assuming this, it strikes me as a literary affectation. The book that tells me about the book that I am reading. Except I have a hunch that this book will not be If on a Winter’s Night, a Traveler

Kennedy goes on to describe how I am approaching the book. “…you face it.” So far, yes, I am facing it. Then, “you are so close here that if it were a person you might kiss. That might be unavoidable.” Certainly if a person’s face were nuzzled into my lap as this book is, I would hope they would be someone I would feel comfortable kissing. “You can remember times when kissing has been unavoidable.” Can I? Not really. And even if I could, I certainly wasn’t remembering them until the narrator mentioned it.

This is Kennedy’s tactic; to attempt to put thoughts in my head. It kind of works, in the way not thinking of a pink elephant works. The problem is, I’m not clear why yet I’m being addressed this way, and if it has a point beyond affectation. I am still cautious, suspicious. I have not yet given Kennedy my trust. And here she is, trying to infiltrate my thoughts.

I agree that I did sign up for that when I picked up the novel; such infiltration is the entire purpose of literature. I guess maybe I am just used to books being a bit more circumspect. I would like to get to know someone, after all, before they nuzzle their face into my lap.

ATftTB begins:

Hi!

My name is Nao, and I am a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well, if you give me a moment, I will tell you.

This book introduced itself, or rather one of its narrators did. I already feel more comfortable with it. Then Nao launches into what a time being is, as promised. Like Kennedy, Ozeki is using a meta book within a book, and drawing attention to her technique, the kind of tricks that tend to make me mutter “MFA” under my breath and sigh. Nao, though, makes it clear to me fairly soon that the technique is not a show, her time being explanations linking the tactic to the works’ themes.

“You wonder about me,” Nao says. I am wondering about her; her observations still align with my thoughts so the fourth wall is reinforced rather than weakened. “I wonder about you.” Nao is suddenly relatable; we are sharing this activity of wondering together. The tiniest emotional connections begin to form (well, strengthen. They formed at that first exclamation point.) I pull back for just a moment before I get sucked in, just long enough to wonder, “how long can Ozeki keep up this conversation before it beings to feel false?” Nao continues, “Are you a male or a female or somewhere in between?…Do you have a cat and is she sitting on your lap? Does her forehead smell like cedar trees and fresh sweet air?”

I’m still not very far into the book, but so I can only give a noncommital answer to my question “how long will this feeling last?” At least 100 pages.