Stochastic Bookmark

abstruse unfinished commentary

about correspondence



I rarely reread fiction. Not that I get everything out of it on the first pass, attentive though I may be, but subsequent passes extract little more of substance, less than I can get from new material. Often not the fault of the book, rather of my obtuseness as to what's in it, no less marked in the second go-round.

Over the past decade, the only fictions I've reread are Tristram Shandy, vol I of Peter Weiss' The Aesthetics of Resistance (in prep for vol II), and, recently, Gilbert Sorrentino's Mulligan Stew (prompted by the impending 3% Two-Month Review podcasts, though I may not tune in. Much.), and Hemingway short stories. Also, new translations of Calvino's Cosmicomics, two Musil novellas, Kafka shorts, and Witold Gombrowicz's Trans-Atlantyk, though that shouldn't count as a reread as such.

The blog bears testimony to fruit borne of prior rereadings: Borges, Poe, and especially Nabokov (who insisted rereading was the only reading), the most reread being Pale Fire, my favorite book. But any correlation between frequencies of blogging and rereading is coincidence, not causation. Most of my rereading preceded blogging anyway, much of it self-motivated, some related to literary forum group reads (in which obtuseness could be ameliorated by other perspectives, or simply by finding something new to say) (esp the late lamented NYTimes Book Forum) (and yes some overlap between).

So, my Bookshelf of Good Intentions currently includes a number of rereads I hope to address in the not too distant future (but then I was saying that 15 years back*):
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, last encountered in college, but I wanted to get through the rest of his work before returning to (well, except for Israel Potter and Clarel, and I still haven't gotten to Billy Budd) (and rereading The Confidence-Man, a better candidate for the Great American Novel, rerewarded).
Umberto Eco, Foucault's Pendulum, so underappreciated you'd think there was a conspiracy or something.
Thomas Pynchon, Mason & Dixon (prior rereadings were The Crying of Lot 49 & Gravity's Rainbow), and maybe Against the Day down the road.
William Gaddis, The Recognitions ...  

* finally cleared Geroge Eliot's Daniel Deronda off that list



 they say that the best things in life are free
but they'll kill you on the accessories
they say that actions speak louder than words
but words do more than they say

(and the journey is the destination
but you can't get there from here)


2022 reading

2022 was marked by a bounty of highly anticipated books, which by and large (some larger than others) did not disappoint ... so, looking back on looking forward:

the cinderblocks:

Luis Goytisolo, Antagony (Brendan Riley) [Dalkey]: making of the writer and of the writing; past impinges on present (and vice versa), especially familial (in decline) and childhood, in bourgeois provincial Catalonia, Franco bracketed (and replaced by early neoliberalism); high degree of difficulty (exacerbated by having read first half 3 years back); most important release of the year, revitalized Sp/Cat literature.

Mircea Cărtărescu, Solenoid (Sean Cotter) [Deep Vellum]: I'd been waiting for this since while he was writing it: saw him at McNally Jackson in 2013, touring for Blinding, and in Q&A brought up some of the esoteric maths he'd employed (even before then he'd described his writing as fractalic), he responded that in what he was then engaged in these became more central. I was expecting more in the way of fractals (and fractional dimensions) and chaos theory (strange attractors) but had to recalibrate once into the text. Much more on a fourth dimension mostly spatial ... with ruminations suggesting Rubik's tesseract (in college a mandatory Eng Comp class set a task to describe an object, any object, so of course I expounded on the tesseract), otherwise nods to other maths, but that's not really the point, more on modes of escape ...While a continuation and elaboration of prior writings, there's a lot more going on, investment in surreality and dreams (initially I was reminded of Michal Ajvaz, whose Empty Streets (Andrew Oakland) [Dalkey] I caught up with earlier), driven by existential and physical fear and pain (and attendant madnesses), childhood trauma (not to mention dentistry, in which I've had to indulge lately), set in the physical and psychical ruins of Bucharest under Ceaușescu (some have compared Solenoid to Adam Buenosayres, similarly city-centred). Also, we're talking alternative autofiction here; and, for purportedly anti-literature, there's sure a lot of literary tropes in play. For all that, tis a baggy beast on stilts, but it carries you along, willingly or no. But ... Blinding was fresher, and this will respark interest.

Jon Fosse, Septology (Damion Searls) [Fitzcarraldo]: waited for the single-volume version, tho there's nothing singly voluminous in the whole (starting with a double [at least] portrait of the artist), no person, not even God, or the play of the light ... it can be a bit much; can be seen as in dialogue with My Struggle Knausgaard, sole cover blurber ... sparse reveals buried under text mountain.

Olga Tokarczuk, The Books of Jacob (Jennifer Croft) [Riverhead]: big'n'baggy but not sloggy, no thread unstitched; best o'the bricks, weird (intended or not) resonance with 20c Jacob Taubes.

Halldór Laxness, Salka Valka (Philip Roughton) [archipelago]: the first part, Thou, Pure Grapevine, in the insularity of a remote village, shone; the second part, Birds on the Shore, brings the world in, to lesser effect satirically and otherwise.

the rest:

Laszlo Krasznahorkai, A Mountain to the North, a Lake to the South, Paths to the West, A River to the East (Ottolie Mulzet) [NDP]: visit to monastery on Kyoto outskirts; been waiting a long time for this, worth the wait, LK at most lyrical; other New Directions offerings this year, Chasing Homer & Spadework for a Palace (John Batki), kinda slight.

Hermann Burger, Brenner (Adrian Nathan West) [archipelago]: multithreading past and present (no future) even within paragraphs, playing off preconceptions of Proust antiliterarily, and to cigars what Moby-Dick is to cetology (speaking of which ...)

Pierre Senges, Ahab (Sequels) (Jacob Siefring & Tegan Raleigh) [Contra Mundum]: a meta-picaresque, as meta as it gets, in (too) many directions, or dimensions, a send-up on culture (or what passes for it in America) (and elsewhere), playing to the crowd of the very few in its excesses, and for the most part (barely) getting away with it ... variations on a theme exhaustive and exhausting, at times sloggy; doesn't measure up to Fragments of Lichtenberg, but exceeds what else has been englished and fun besides.

Luis Sagasti, A Musical Offering (Fiona Petch) [Charco] (also Firefly from a couple years back) tight harmonious braid; not so much the way I roll as what I roll in; likewise,

Daniel Mendelsohn, Three Rings [WmCollins, couldn't wait for nyrb]: billed as Auerbach / Fénelon / Sebald but much more, tightly woven multidimensional digressions on (prior) writing models and representation.

I should also mention Nobelaureate Abdulrazak Gurnah, Paradise [New Press], Desertion, & By the Sea [Bloomsbury] older stuff newly available; these are the 3 essentials, not yet tempted by Afterlives.

So that's what I knew about beforehand, but there was quite a bit I didn't see coming ...

Carl Phillips, Then the War: and selected poems 2007-2020 [FSG]: held off after prior selected til; strong, assured, if a bit repetitive at times

Gary Indiana, Fire Season [Seven Stories]: selected essays, many shine, others only occasionally glint

Fleur Jaeggy, These Possible Lives (Minna Zallman Proctor) [NDP]: nominally de Quincey Keats and Schwob but concisely all over the place

Peter Weiss, The Shadow of the Coachman's Body (Rosmarie Waldrop) & Conversations of the Three Wayfarers (E.B. Garside) [NDP]: proto-nouveau roman boarding house follies & tripartite monologue, cri-de-flâneuris

Emily Hall, The Longcut [Dalkey]: putting Bernhard's voice to different use, impressive debut

Mieko Kawakami, All the Lovers in the Night (Sam Bett & David Boyd) [Europa]: Tokyo isolata; held off til this'un (paired it with or against Sayaka Murata, Convenience Store Woman (Ginny Tapley Takemori) [Grove])

Sevgi Soysal, Dawn (Maureen Freely) [archipelago]: corrosive 70s Turkey under martial law in provincial city

Shuri Kido, Names and Rivers (Tomoyuki Endo & Forrest Gander) [Copper Canyon]: Japan's current Far North Poet (I've been remiss with Japan having concentrated on China, working on correcting)

This year's reading skewed towards this year's releases, at least as many more read as listed above, mostly at least worthwhile ... and meanwhile, from prior years, some off-the-runs that stood out:

Ludwig Hohl, The Notes: or On Non-premature Reconciliation (Tess Lewis) [Yale/Margellos]

Jens Bjørneboe, Moment of Freedom (Esther Greenleaf Mürer) [Norvik]

Jerzy Ficowski, Everything I Don't Know (Jennifer Grotz & Piotr Sommer) [WorldPoetry]

Diane Seuss, frank: sonnets [Graywolf]

Ye Lijun, My Mountain Country (Fiona Ste-Lorrain) [WorldPoetry]

Hjalmar Söderberg, Doctor Glas (Paul Britten Austin) [Anchor]

Claude Simon, The Acacia (Richard Howard) [Pantheon]

David Albahari, Globetrotter (Ellen Elias-Bursać) [Yale/Margellos]

Lucia Berlin, A Manual for Cleaning Women (Stephen Emerson, ed) [Picador]

Hồ Xuân Hương, Spring Essence (John Balaban) [Copper Canyon]

Rosmarie Waldrop, Gap Gardening: selected poems [NDP]

Kiwao Nomura, Spectacle & Pigsty (Kyoko Yoshida & Forrest Gander) [Omnidawn]

and some genre-play of various sorts:

Hervé Le Tellier, The Anomaly (Adriana Hunter) [Other Press]

M.John Harrison, The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again [Gollancz] (followed up with You Should Come With Me Now [Comma])

Chi Ta-Wei, The Membranes (Ari Larissa Heinrich) [Columbia]

Percival Everett, The Trees [Graywolf]

All in all, a rewarding year of reading. As to what's in the pipeline for 2023, dunno ...


BTBA, sorely missing

I was disappointed but not surprised that the Best Translated Book Award remains in abeyance, the announcement buried in Chad Post's 3% update:
When we put [the BTBA] on hiatus in 2020, it totally made sense. The world was ending! Everything was on fire! But now, three years later, the world is still on fire (maybe even more so), and we haven’t done a single thing.
There are two-three issues at play here. First off, the funding from Amazon dropped over the past few years, and without any other organization/angel donor to step in . . . well, reducing the prize money is a step in the wrong direction.
Secondly, the time required to coordinate fourteen judges, accept and log over six hundred submissions, and properly promote all the longlist/shortlist/winners is a lot. (Time is the villain of this post.)
Finally, I want it to be different from the National Book Award for Translated Literature and the Man Booker International. But how? What is the rationale? What makes it interesting?
If you have ideas and ambition and desire, hit me up. (Preferably by text. I’m embracing my worst email habits at this time.)
I share Chad's predilection for "pro-experimental weird literature", and the long and the short of the BTBA lists were an unparalleled resource for finding it (although moreso in its earlier years). Part of the genius of its structure was the inclusion of independent booksellers (along with translators) as judges, however much their incentives might misalign (not so evident to me as Chad makes out, given the interdependence of indie bookstores and indie presses, but he's earned the right to complain, though how such serves to reboot the award is a bit of a mys[t]ery). And BTBA's continuance, however much to be desired, is of less moment than Chad's involvement in keeping Dalkey Archive afloat. Meanwhile, he's had a sliver of time to update the Translation Database ...


another year in reading

Again, a bit shy of 100 titles. Over 2/3 in translation (which the TLS best books gave short shrift: first year I hadn't read any of their selections), whether prose or poetry. [NB: All links below lead to M.A. Orthofer's Complete Review.]

Substantial works included S.Y. Agnon's Only Yesterday (Barbara Harshav) [Princeton] and Peter Weiss' The Aesthetics of Resistance Vol II (Joel Scott) [Duke] (for which I had to reread Vol I, hoping Vol III forthcoming sooner). University presses also supplied new englishings of foundational works: Mateiu Caragiale's Rakes of the Old Court (Sean Cotter) [Northwestern] and Alexander Griboedov's Woe from Wit (Betsy Hulick) [Columbia].

My favorite press, Archipelago Books, had a strong list this year, from which I read short story compendiums from Kjell Askildsen and Saadat Hasan Manto, poetry from Giuseppe Ungaretti and Nabaneeta Dev Sen, and novels: Jean Giono's Ennemonde (Bill Johnston), Hanne Ørstavik's The Pastor (Martin Aitken) and Andrea Bajani's If You Kept a Record of Sins (Elizabeth Harris), that last the best I've read so far but I still have Willem Frederik Hermans' A Guardian Angel Recalls on the shelf ...

New York Review Books also kept me busy, between Walter Kempowski, Victor Serge, Adalbert Stifter, Natalia Ginzburg, and Aleksandar Tišma (just to mention the high points). The best from other presses were:
David Albahari, Götz and Meyer (Ellen Elias-Bursać) [Dalkey]
Miroslav Krleža, On the Edge of Reason (Zora Depolo) [NDP]
Luis Sagasti, Fireflies (Fionn Petch) [Charco]
Federico Falco, A Perfect Cemetery (Jennifer Croft) [Charco]
Thomas Bernhard, The Cheap-Eaters (Douglas Robertson) [Spurl]
Eric Chevillard, The Crab Nebula (Jordan Stump & Eleanor Hardin) [Nebraska]
Linda Boström Knausgård, Welcome to America (Martin Aitken) [World Editions]
Vladimir Sharov, Be as Children (Oliver Ready) [Dedalus]
I could go on and on with honorable mentions, but too many to mention.

As for books written in English, I read little of this year's offerings: Cynthia Ozick's Antiquities was the stand-out, but Joshua Cohen's The Netanyahus merits mention. Otherwise, I completed William Gaddis and Ann Quin, filled in James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, and in poetry, Nobel laureate Louise Glück's Poems 1962-2012.

All in all, a good year in reading, if not in posting.


another year another post

... to mark another bloggiversary, albeit a thin one; this is the longest I've gone without posting since inception. Part of it is that the BTBA was deferred until next year; I'd mentioned that 3% had planned to review (via podcasts) all the past winners, but that too was shelved due to other commitments (such as keeping Dalkey Archive going and marking where it's been). I'd thought of posting something along similar lines myself (having read the majority of the poetry and nearly all the fiction winners), but found it more a matter of my tastes than of intrinsic merits (if that's what the judges' tastes are). It seems that my tastes have diverged somewhat from those of prize-givers more generally (less so with BTBA than with other awards) in working out what it is I need to read. The need to write, on the other hand, is less pressing, at least for the time being.


2020 in perspective

A difficult year, even for reading: I fell short of 100 books again (as I had in 2018). Not that the circumstances affected my daily routine as much as most, but they did distract. It seems as though buzz and prize lists were skewed towards debuts, good as such but not quite of the requisite caliber, and of course the topical became all the more so. So, four picks for each of four categories, spare on the commentary:

Of what came out this year, what stood out:
Mercè Rodoreda, Garden by the Sea (Maruxa Relaño & Martha Tennent) [Open Letter]
Aleksandra Lun, The Palimpsests (Elizabeth Bryer) [Godine/Verba Mundi] (yes a debut, but exophonic fun)
José Eduardo Agualusa, The Society of Reluctant Dreamers (Daniel Hahn) [archipelago]
Tomás González, Difficult Light (Andrea Rosenberg) [archipelago]
(Archipelago provided many other riches for me this year: Pla, Mukasonga, Vladislavić, Kovačič, and from last year Khoury, Ikonomou, Onetti ... also from last year, but from Verso, Vigdis Hjorth, as I mentioned this mid-year)

So, rewards were to be found in backtracking translations:
Antoine Volodine, Minor Angels (Jordan Stump) [Nebraska]
Antoine Volodine, Bardo or Not Bardo (J.T. Mahany) [Open Letter]
Siegfried Lenz, The German Lesson (Ernest Kaiser & Eithne Wilkins) [New Directions]
Wolfgang Koeppen, Death in Rome (Michael Hofmann) [WWNorton]
(Also among the worthy, I filled in Kadare & Nooteboom, along with first encounters with Ruth Kluger [thx2 Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau] & Ricarda Huch)

Similarly, the best reading of English originals was stuff I'd long missed:
Helen Garner, The Children's Bach [text]
Edmund White, Forgetting Elena [Vintage]
Fran Ross, Oreo [NDP] (thx2 biblioklept)
Toni Morrison, Jazz [Vintage]

And the best of the poetry was all in translation:
Hilda Hilst, Of Death, Minimal Odes (Laura Cesarce Eglin) [co-im-press] (2019 BTBA)
Selected Poems of Su Tung-p'o (Burton Watson) [Copper Canyon]
Yves Bonnefoy, Together Still (Hoyt Rogers w/ Mathilde Bonnefoy) [Seagull]
Etel Adnan, Time (Sarah Riggs) [Nightboat] (2020 BTBA & Griffin)

So that's a wrap. Maybe a bad wrap, but I guess it's a fair cop.


In Memory

Amid the noise and clamor attending the acquisition of Simon & Schuster by Penguin Random House, a more consequential merger transpired this past week, with Deep Vellum folding in Dalkey Archive on the occasion of the demise of the latter's founder, John O'Brien. His legacy extends beyond the press and its associated efforts (The Review of Contemporary Fiction, CONTEXT), which itself speaks volumes, to the mentorship and advice proffered to many now involved in publishing, especially of literary translation. An idealistic vision tempered by clear-sighted pragmatism governed his endeavors (as is evident in conversations from 2009 and earlier), which will be no less durable despite his absence. Nonetheless, it comes at a difficult time for literature in translation, not solely due to but exacerbated by the ravages of lockdown on independent publishers and booksellers alike; there was a pre-Covid drop-off from the plateau in the mid-tweens, and now circumstances put the 2021 BTBA off (even prior to Chad Post's assumption of a continuing role in the merged press, which inspires confidence). Better days are ahead, but we have to get to them first, and that depends on our ongoing support for non-profit publishing of literature in translation, which would be fitting tribute to John O'Brien's vision.

add: tributes from John Toomey and Chad Post


Crystal Bloggiversary

Hard to believe that I've been doing this for fifteen years, even if it's slowed way down, keeping my wheel to the shoulder rather than the other way round, feel free to pass. Of course, nowadays blogging seems as quaint a vehicle as an Amish buggy, but I've been online nearly twice as long, always involved in some forum or other, talking books*, yet another outmoded medium, as for that matter the written word is being forsaken for image or emoji. Yeah, that's overblown, what with all the would-be writers, unlike say the coarsening of public reasoned discourse (promoted in and by the late lamented blogosphere, which is really merely less prominent) in other media (where I steer clear). That this here blog is public is almost incidental; it's more a matter of collecting my thoughts and giving them intelligible form, sharing more an afterthought, and as I've said before, my writing is mostly in the service of my reading. Part of the difficulty in adding to this accretion is in not restating what went before; another part is that much of what I'm thinking requires overarching context that's just too much work to elaborate (the occasional nonliterary post provides a bit of that). Also, I tend towards a succinctity meant to be unpacked in multiple but complementary ways.

One upside of such sporadic posting is that my last visit to the Bookshelf of Good Intentions is still on the front page. So this time round, a reread of Homer (after 50 years!), Fagles rather than Pope (well, also Stephen Wolfram's A New Kind of Science, but that's a whole nother thang). Seemed timely, since reading The Odyssey's conflict between Zeus and Poseidon coincides with Jupiter and Saturn being visible in the otherwise sparse metro area night sky (and then that is now there's Alice Oswald ...)

And a downward glissando (that is, quick notes, in descending order) on BTBA reads since my last post (EEG took the title):
Vigdis Hjorth, Will and Testament (Charlotte Barslund) [Verso]: dysfunction radiating thru family ties that bind, delayed reveal intrinsic to plot [TWR]
Christos Ikonomou, Good Will Come From the Sea (Karen Emmerich) [archipelago]: follow-on to Something Will Happen, You'll See, which was tauter though less interwoven [BOMB]
Ariana Harwicz, Die, My Love (Sarah Moses & Carolina Orloff) [Charco]: Mommie Direst, postpartum manic depression [LatAmLit]
Selva Almada, The Wind That Lays Waste (Chris Andrews) [Graywolf]: evangelical fabular encounter, well wrought but not too remarkable [pshares]

The biennial collection of throwaway lines:
wash your face don't touch your elbow hand in your cough and stay at least six feet away from home
in lowercase no one can hear you scream
parody is the sincerest form of irony
do I ruin it for the kiddies when I tell them the ball pit is bouncy rubble?
so, liquid propane gas, which is it, liquid, gas, or just a phase it's going through?
semi-autofiction comes with trigger warnings
he couldn't get the clock to run backwards so he mounted it in the corner next to the mirror on the adjoining wall but it still gave the correct time from behind the mirror
every integer can be represented using a decimal point followed by an infinite number of nines, except zero
been so busy lately I had to spend the weekend catching up on my procrastination
(on Dec31) I'd like to apologize to everybody I called just after midnight to wish a happy New Year's Eve. But they're not taking my calls any more.

* this spring saw an online reunion of the NYTimes BookForum, 20 years after I'd joined; despite efforts to start anew, it quickly petered out ... its independent rump successor forum was also recently wiped clean, while readerville (Salon TableTalk successor) was disappeared some long time ago. Activity on the surviving forum I frequent has also waned (mine included). And a sad if inevitable end of an era: Evelyn C. Leeper of Usenet's rec.arts.books (where I newbied) has shut down her bookstore page ...