Stochastic Bookmark

abstruse unfinished commentary

about correspondence


the year in reading

It's not over yet, but far enough along to sum up some. Rather than adding to all the 'best of' lists, which weren't all that good this time around, I'll embellish on themes that emerged in the course of the year.

I feel I've finally got a good grounding in Argentinian literature, beyond Borges and Cortázar, and Bioy Casares and Sábato and Arlt, and Puig and Piglia and Aira and (a bit of) Chejfec. I've already raved about Marechal; other works added to the fold include:
Juan José Saer, La Grande (Steve Dolph) [Open Letter]
Pedro Mairal, The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra (Nick Caistor) [New Vessel]
Silvina Ocampo, Thus Were Their Faces (Daniel Balderston) [nyrb]
Silvina Ocampo: Selected and Translated (Jason Weiss) [nyrb/poets]
Alan Pauls, A History of Money (Ellie Robins) [Melville House]
Juan Filloy, Caterva (Brendan Riley) [Dalkey]
Juan José Saer, The One Before (Roanne L. Kantor) [Open Letter]
Haroldo Conti, Southeaster (Jon Lindsay Miles) [& other stories]
Yes, I'd read Filloy (Op Oloop) and Saer (The Witness and Scars) before, but this year's are stand-outs (as was Ocampo's poetry, but all were well worthwhile). And it's not like there's not more: Andrés Neuman, for one ... in any case, it's wonderful how much more has been made available lately.

But my reading's been all over the map this year, nearly 3/4 of it in translation. Beyond Argentina, I made inroads into South Africa (with which it rhymes) and Mexico, as more has become available thence too (but not only; f'rinstance I've yet to encroach upon Arabic or Korean lit). As for individual authors, I got caught up with (or in) Pinget (thx Red Dust! and Barbara Wright), Tabucchi, and Modiano. And poetry ... the nyrb/poets series, German monuments (Benn, Bachmann, Celan), French provinces (Tappy, du Bouchet, Bonnefoy) ... mo' Oulipo (Forte, Garréta, Le Tellier, Bury) ...

Of the this year's Best Translated Book Award-eligible englishings (or should that be americanings?), I've 25 under my belt (plus poetry), and I'll choose one per publisher for shortlist projection (with increasing uncertainty and longerlisting in descent):
Archipelago Books: Antonio Tabucchi Tristano Dies: A Life (Elizabeth Harris)
& other stories: Yuri Herrera, Signs Preceding the End of the World (Lisa Dillman)
Open Letter: Georgi Gospodinov, The Physics of Sorrow (Angela Rodel)
New Directions: Clarice Lispector, Complete Stories (Katrina Dodson)
[but may add another, between Aira shorts, Castellanos Moya, and Kurniawan]
Dalkey Archive: Juan Filloy, Caterva (Brendan Riley)
Two Lines: Wolfgang Hilbig, The Sleep of the Righteous (Isabel Fargo Cole)
[still have to pick up Richard Weiner, The Game for Real Benjamin Paloff)]
Seagull: Wolfgang Hilbig, 'I' (Isabel Fargo Cole)
Graywolf: Daniel Sada, One Out of Two (Katherine Silver) [in hand not yet read]
Yale/Margellos: Patrick Modiano, After the Circus (Mark Polizzotti) [still to buy, on MAO's say-so; only eligible Y/M I've read is Máirtín Ó Cadhain, The Dirty Dust (Cré na Cille)) (Alan Titley)]
Deep Vellum: Sergio Pitol, The Art of Flight (George Henson)
[tough call, I've read half their list so far, and Piglia or Shishkin or the in hand not yet read Chudori might be chosen]
Pushkin Press: Mikhail Elizarov, The Librarian (Andrew Bromfield) still to buy
AmazonCrossing: Bae Suah, Nowhere to Be Found (Sora Kim-Russell), on the to-buy list, wonder where I'll get it ... see MAO and review links therein.
[AC mostly translates genre but throws a bit'o'lit into the mix, augmenting rather than competing; in fact, Amazon funds the BTBA prizes and provides grants to non-profits: not so much a drop in the bucket as in the thimble.]
Braziller: Juan Villoro, The Guilty (Kimi Traube)
Coffee House: Valeria Luiselli, The Story of My Teeth (Christina MacSweeney) [I've only read Faces in the Crowd]
and as for the not my cuppa:
Europa Editions: Elena Ferrante, The Story of a Lost Child (Ann Goldstein)
McSweeney's: Alejandro Zambra, My Documents (Megan McDowell) has its advocates; I'm not among them.
(and I just don't know about Knopf's Pamuk or FSG's Ulitskaya or and so on ...)

It being that time of year, the season of giving, given that half of the publishers listed above are non-profits that depend upon donor support, for those US-based (Archipelago, Coffee House, Dalkey Archive, Deep Vellum, Graywolf, Open Letter, Two Lines) I encourage your tax-deductible contributions, so that they can translate those bucks into books.

Other high points not covered above I'd like to mention and recommend:
Gabriel Josipovici, Hotel Andromeda [Carcanet]
William Golding, The Spire [Harcourt]
Percival Everett, Erasure [Graywolf]
The Tale of the Heike (Royall Tyler) [Viking]
Jenny Erpenbeck, The End of Days (Susan Bernofsky) [New Directions]
Erlom Akhvlediani, Vano and Niko (Mikheil Kakabadze) [Dalkey Archive]
Josep Pla, Life Embitters (Peter Bush) [Archipelago]
Christian Bök, The Xenotext: Book I [Coach House]
S.J. Naudé, The Alphabet of Birds (S.J.Naudé) [& other stories]
(meant to say, not the only ones ... see here for a fuller rendering, including review links and such)


barter vs banter

When it comes to the question of what money is, the answer takes the form
1) a medium of exchange,
2) a store of value,
3) a unit/measure (that is, standard) of account,
though fresh-water economics generally gives precedence to the first item.

So why hasn't language been similarly split into
1) a medium of communication,
2) a store of meaning,
3) a standard of representation,
with the first item taking precedence among some of the hard-core? (Linguistics takes a tripartite division into form, content [semantics], and context [pragmatics], but it's not the same thing.)

And of course written language traces its roots to accountancy ... I could go on with other overlaps, conceptual and otherwise, but will leave all that unpaid/unsaid.

(yeah I'm still here, just all over the place, service will resume with 2015 reading in review shortly.)



So I've been at this thing off and on, lately more off than on, for ten years. In that span I've read nearly a thousand books, and for a long time recorded first impressions here for my own benefit but stopped when it became more hindrance than help (last year's monologging just displaced litchatboard dialogging since resumed). I've cast a wide net, and in particular got caught up with Latin American (esp Argentinean) and Eastern European literature (as translations have burgeoned), and filled many gaps in my poetry reading while creating some in The Bookshelf of Good Intentions. Not that I'll ever be well-read, not that that is the object; study is its own reward, with a bonus of better understanding (not to say knowledge), and of not knowing where it may lead, as the field may deepen but never narrows, as literature creates its own context even as it operates within a larger one, moreso than other arts. (Something similar pertains in mathematics.)

So what is it that I study? And why the slant towards foreign literature? Yes, there's history, and culture, but that's more ground than figure for me. What piques my interest is two-fold: the art of representation through language (which is rich enough to carry over in literary translation), and the situation of the individual apprehending his/her culture or society, whether at large or in detail (not only the author but also the intended reader). Between the two, without immersion in either the language or cultural/societal matrix, I take away (or better: incorporate, assimilate) more than I'd be able to otherwise: the different forms empathy takes, perspectives askew from those I'm familiar or comfortable with, just f'rinstance. I may not always get it, but I always get something out of it. And it's those little somethings I've tried to share here, and by formulating those somethings to draw more out of them for myself.

There are plenty of reasons for reading (or blogging), and plenty of ways to do it; I'm not saying that my rationale, or method, is better than others (even if I'm pretty good at rationalization and methodization), just that it works for me. For that matter, my idea of study differs from most, self-directed, more serendipitous than systematic; in this I've followed not so much a calling as resonances (and have described myself as a strict interdisciplinarian). Despite which, I've been able to lay claim to expertise in some areas (eg APL programming, financial markets: made for a nondeadening way to make a living) and to something beyond lay knowledge in many others.

Enough of explaining myself (even if only to myself). This being a bloggiversary ... I've catalogued past work before, on Nabokov and others; I'll add to the list homages to imitations of riffs on Frost, Dickinson, WCWilliams & Lewis Carroll ... and poems and prose I have no one to blame for but myself. And a bit of lit crit on spec, blue-skying on Tlön.


Reading music: scattered notes

At times certain themes emerge in my reading matter; this time, music was the keynote, or more properly, the incorporation of musical form into the writing, playing on Walter Pater's old saw on art's aspirations. All of the following required a slower tempo than I'm used to, but with commensurate reward.

The theme was introduced by Ingeborg Bachmann's Malina, though I'd picked it up more as another instance of a poet's novel; she'd also done opera libretti, and takes opera as structure and tone for the three-part narrative (with three principal parts), while permutational elements of duodecaphony are compositionally brought in. Other (Viennese) influences include Wittgenstein (Ludwig not Paul: of what we cannot sing we must be silent), and Freud, not to mention the novelists. Mark Anderson contributes a voluble valuable afterword, "Death Arias in Vienna", situating all this and more (but alas not online). Philip Boehm's translation seems a bit flat, but I suspect it's a matter of trade-offs. [John Taylor in Context]

Curiously, A.G. Porta overlaps some of the same territory in The No World Concerto (translated by Darren Koolman and Rhett McNeil), especially Schoenberg and Wittgenstein. Again it wasn't so much the music that prompted me as his early collaboration with Roberto Bolaño (Consejos de un discípulo de Morrison a un fanático de Joyce (Advice from a disciple of Morrison to a fan of Joyce), 1984 Premio Ámbito Literario winner; didn't publish on his own til 1999 with Braudel por (by) Braudel). No World in turn won the 2005 Premio Café Gijón and is the first to be englished. So ... two mirrors bumping into each other walking down the road ... or,

As noted in the review linked below, it is indeed "vulnerable to the line of attack James Wood mounted against Paul Auster in a 2009 New Yorker takedown: 'Because nothing is persuasively assembled, the inevitable postmodern disassembly leaves one largely untouched . . . Presence fails to turn into significant absence, because presence was not present enough.'"; and the Austerizing is annoying (to nonfans like yrs truly; fans will eat it up) but mitigated (but only mitigated) by relevance to the formal conceits (the Tractatus as well as dodecacaphony [tho warped rather than wrapped]). (Incidentally, the review is wrong in its finding that "the only full proper name I found in the novel was that of Leon Kowalski"; the other is Mrs. Oedipa Maas.) (and my lukecoldness may be attributable to having recently read Malina, better where there's overlap, but unfair comparison). [Eric Lundgren in TQC; interview in Bomb]

Finally, a novel that attracted specifically because of the music: Kirsty Gunn's The Big Music, on the Highland bagpipes and the pibrach (since I can't spell piobaireachd), analogue to the concerto. The story also blends elements of genealogy, history, and pedagogy (the last would put me off were it not stylistically justified; that said, the authorial instrusive asterisks make explicit much of what is clear implicitly, and so annoys). The review below covers the ground, but I'll note that one note is never sounded (until the last appendix). [Andrea Scrima in TQC; interview]

(I'm also dipping into Songbook: The Selected Poems of Umberto Saba [George Hochfield & Leonard Nathan], but the early stuff loses its music in translation ...)



I've read more of the fiction eligible for the Best Translated Book Award than in prior years, comprising a larger proportion of my reading (about a quarter), though only a small fraction of the candidates, but I think larger among the viable ones. For opinions that count, there's a more complete listing of the judges' ruminations than I linked last post ( though there's the occasional mistagged stray), and a dedicated message board for speculation. But here you'll have mine, as final as I can make it prior to the April 7 longlist announcement.

Those that should make the 10-title shortlist (should both in my estimation and, I expect, in the judges'):
Juan José Saer, La Grande (Steve Dolph) [Open Letter]
Andrei Bitov, The Symmetry Teacher (Polly Gannon) [FSG]
Leopoldo Marechal, Adam Buenosayres (Norman Cheadle) [McGill-Queen's Uni]

Those that I would shortlist, that should at least make the judges' 25-title longlist:
Bohumil Hrabal, Harlequin's Millions (Stacey Knecht) [Archipelago]
Sergei Dovlatov, Pushkin Hills (Katherine Dovlatov) [Counterpoint]
Patrick Modiano, Suspended Sentences (Mark Polizzotti) [Yale/Margellos]
Can Xue, The Last Lover (Annelise Finegan Wasmoen) [Yale/Margellos]
Drago Jančar, The Tree with No Name (Michael Biggins) [Dalkey]

Those that should make the longlist (should see above) and might be shortlisted:
Mikhail Shishkin, The Light and the Dark (Andrew Bromfield) [Quercus]
Wilma Stockenström, The Expedition to the Baobob Tree (J.M Coetzee) [Archipelago]
Hilda Hilst, With My Dog-Eyes (Adam Morris) [Melville House]
Éric Chevillard, The Author and Me (Jordan Stump) [Dalkey]
Julio Cortázar, Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia (David Kurnick) [Semiotext(e)]
Edouard Levé, Works (Jan Steyn) [Dalkey]
Carlos Labbé, Navidad & Matanza (Will Vanderhyden) [Open Letter]

Those that I would longlist that may not make the judges' cut:
César Aira, Conversations (Katherine Silver) [NDP]
Roberto Bolaño, A Little Lumpen Novelita (Natasha Wimmer) [New Directions]
Clemens J. Setz, Indigo (Ross Benjamin) [Norton/Liveright]
Pierre Michon, Winter Mythologies and Abbots (Ann Jefferson) [Yale/Margellos]
Sait Faik Abasiyanik, A Useless Man: selected stories (Maureen Freely & Alexander Dawe) [Archipelago]

The rest within the ambit of my reading (all of which I'm glad to have read, lest relegation seem dismissive), which the judges may well dip into:
Alberto Savinio, Signor Dido (Richard Pevear) [Counterpoint]
Georges Perec, I Remember (Philip Terry, David Bellos) [Godine]
Frankétienne, Ready to Burst (Kaiama L. Glover) [Archipelago]
Milena Michiko Flašar, I Called Him Necktie (Sheila Dickie) [New Vessel]
Hugo Ball, Flametti or The Dandyism of the Poor (Catherine Schelbert) [Wakefield]
Vladimir Lorchenkov, The Good Life Elsewhere (Ross Ufberg) [New Vessel]
Scholastique Mukasonga, Our Lady of the Nile (Melanie Mauthner) [Archipelago]
Jon Fosse, Melancholy II (Eric Dickens) [Dalkey]
Rodrigo Rey Rosa, Severina (Chris Andrews) [Yale/Margellos]
Carmen Boullosa, Texas: The Great Theft (Samantha Schnee) [Deep Vellum]
(I could be wrong: that last'un won the Typographical Translation Award ...)

And then there's the one that got away, unread:
Arno Schmidt, Bottom's Dream (John E. Woods) [Dalkey]
but only because it hasn't come out yet. Maybe next year ...

And finally, the only eligible poetry I've read, which should make the shortlist:
José-Flores Tappy, Sheds/Hangars: Collected Poems 1983-2013 (John Taylor) [bitter oleander]

No doubt I've missed some worthy candidates, which will be rectified by the longlist announcement; I'm grateful to the BTBA (and prime mover Chad Post) for past guidance (best among the awards, and transparently at that), and for more generally raising the profile of translated literature, making it easier to find and to sort out. (And while I'm being appreciative, thanks too to fiction judge Michael A. Orthofer, who's reviewed as much in translation on his site as the cumulative BTBA-eligible fiction; there's only so much one man can do, and he does so much more.)


Adam Buenosayres

I've been catching up with a lot of the BTBA contenders, and still mean to sort them all out, but Leopoldo Marechal's Adam Buenosayres (Norman Cheadle) [McGill-Queens] calls for separate consideration, not just as a likely shortlister. (Not a review; for that, Michael Orthofer's your go to guy for that.)

A satirical tour de farce, the novel is a strange hybrid, at once foundational and anomalous to Argentinian (and Latin American) literary tradition. Heavy on pastiche and parody, it leans on both Joyce (see below) and Dante (both exiles, I note; Marechal's exile from Argentinian culture was internal, for Peronist leanings), in the latter's case on Vita Nuova (Beatricial idealization, esp in Book VI, "The Blue Notebook") and Inferno (Book VII, "Journey in the Dark City of Cacodelphia"), though more in its score-settling aspects; Cervantes is also prominently in the mix. It is no less sparing of the theological or metaphysical, but no less chauvinistic as it takes Swift kicks at the pretentions of 1920's Argentina. The eponymous hero not only traverses Buenos Aires but in some ways embodies it (as do his circle, as too the Dantean circles).

Reception and influence: From Stephen Dedalus in Argentina, Richard Canning [TLS $ub only sorry]:
"Abundantly spattered with manure.” Thus Eduardo González Lanuza’s splenetic review of Leopoldo Marechal’s first novel, which appeared in the Argentinian journal Sur in 1949. Lanuza acknowledged that Marechal had been deeply influenced by James Joyce’s experimentation in Ulysses, but he dismissed Adán Buenosayres as derivative and disrespectful of the city in which it was set. Julio Cortázar was rather more impressed, hailing the novel as “an extraordinary event in Argentine literature”, even if he initially found it “incoherent” [see here]. Cortázar was most drawn to Marechal’s formal daring – an experimentation that informed his own writing style in novels such as Rayuela (1963; Hopscotch). It was a fellow Latin American Joycean, the Cuban writer José Lezama Lima, who first insisted on the connection between Adán Buenosayres and Rayuela. His own magnum opus, Paradiso (1966), adopts a similarly subversive approach to narrative orderliness and dialogic effect, this time applying it to his own city, Havana.
And as Cheadle points out in his introduction, so too the praises heaped up by Carlos Fuentes, Fernando del Paso, Ricardo Piglia, Ernesto Sábato, Augusto Roa Bastos ...

Canning again (til fair use runs out):
As Norman Cheadle’s lucid introduction points out, though the structure of Adam Buenosayres also invites comparison with Ulysses – its length; its mapping of plot across just three days; its episodic chapters; its self-conscious plurality of narrative modes; its textual jokes, puns and self-referentiality – in many ways the closer textual source remains A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. For Buenosayres, like Stephen Dedalus, is a writer, and this novel, like Joyce’s, is not only a Bildungsroman but a Künstlerroman [ntm a Roman à clef, with Xul Solar figuring prominently (and taking it in good humor, unlike Borges)]. The epic sense of disproportion characteristic of Marechal’s prose reflects just as much the awesome fear and opportunity felt by the young artist as the effects of rapid social transformation in the Argentinian capital immediately after the First World War. This was the age of Martinfierrismo, a literary renaissance focused on the journal Martin Fierro, which was promoted through the capital’s tertulias or literary salons, attended by a crowd of native writers, artists and thinkers, some lately having sailed back from Europe. [...] Marechal’s politics moved consistently away from liberalism, and by 1946 he was a functionary in what Borges termed the “Nazi-Fascist-Peronist dictatorship”. He was also a Catholic nationalist, and a key distinction between Adam Buenosayres and Ulysses relates to a paradoxical, even duplicitous element both in Adam’s character – based on that of the young Marechal [quoting his poetry] – and in the guiding presence of his author: aesthetic radicalism coupled with radical sociopolitical conservatism. [...] The internationalist horizons of the characters in Adam Buenosayres tend to be undermined not just by obdurate local forces of self-interest, but also by an underlying scepticism or contempt towards an ongoing history of European influence [...]

There's more to it than that, the sharp social satire f'rinstance (portrait of the society as a young country), and given its scope its oddness makes for some unevenness (and it wears its prejudices on its sleeves). But it's essential reading for a fuller picture of Argentinian literature, spinning gold out of the dross of what preceded it, and setting its course for the second half of the century.

For notes on my other reading, now and in future, see my postings over to TheFictionalWoods.


ex tempore

The past is a foreign country; its armies are massing on the border. The future is staging a strategic withdrawal, leaving little forage behind. In between, we get by moment to moment, occupying a thin slice of territory at once coveted and forsaken. Trapped in a never-ending now, we evade for a time the inexorable advance of what was and, so long as we can, follow an ever-receding what will be, gleaning what we may from what is. And though we try to steer to where we might find some respite, more often than not we are simply carried by the current.


December reads

Catching up on this year's prose (asterisks mark the BTBA-eligible) and less recent poesy ...

Philippe Jaccottet, And, Nonetheless: Selected Prose and Poetry 1990-2009 (John Taylor) [Chelsea]: essayistic capture of the light and transient color of moments of eternity
* Patrick Modiano, Suspended Sentences (Mark Polizzotti) [Yale/Margellos]: notes from the margins and erasures of Paris
* Pierre Michon, Winter Mythologies and Abbots (Ann Jefferson) [Yale/Margellos]: mainly medieval historical byways
* Can Xue, The Last Lover (Annelise Finegan Wasmoen) [Yale/Margellos]: gnomic intersubjectivities of dreams and loves oddly related
Witold Gombrowicz, Trans-Atlantyk (Danuta Burchardt) [Yale/Margellos]: frenzied farce as only Gombrowicz can ... reread, sort of; bills itself as An Alternate Translation, and indeed complements rather than supersedes the prior (perhaps overexuberant) attempt
* Hugo Ball, Flametti or The Dandyism of the Poor (Catherine Schelbert) [Wakefield]: vaudevillians, more proto-Brechtian than Dadaesque, from the initiator of the Cabaret Voltaire
* Vladimir Lorchenkov, The Good Life Elsewhere (Ross Ufberg) [New Vessel]: dark light comedy on the Assumption of Italy [MAO]
* Scholastique Mukasonga, Our Lady of the Nile (Melanie Mauthner) [archipelago]: Rwandan lycée as pococosm [MAO]
Christian Bök, Eunoia [Coach House]: Oulipo tributary, exercising vowels (after Rimbaud, Perec)

... and wishing all a best of 2015.


Best of 2014

Despite a nearly month-long hiatus (now thankfully ended), I've managed over 10 books per month, but unlike last year, way behind on what came out this year, especially in translation. So I won't opine on candidates for the Best Translated Book Award except to say that I expect Yale/Margellos to make a good showing on the longlist (and perhaps a first appearance by Counterpoint, for Dovlatov's Pushkin Hills) (but in a month or so I may have more to say about all this). Nearly half of my reading was first encounters, many of which augur further visits down the road.

But, if I have to select just one title from amongst all the excellent reading (and I have to), it has to be Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology (David Hinton) [FSG]: As I said before, not just an anthology (nor just great translation) but wrapped in the context of the development of the tradition and the aesthetic. As such, it was the book from which I drew the most, and that's saying a lot (though there's a lot of competition out there).

While this year I've been diligent about keeping an inventory of monthly reading, I don't think I'll be continuing the practice into the new year. The blog is just one of many things I'd like to take in a different direction. After all, it's worked for the reading ...