Friday, 30 November 2012

My Month in Books, Part Two (Nov)

10. Adam Thirlwell — Miss Herbert

Miss Herbert: A book of novels, romances and their translators, containing ten languages, set on four continents and accompanied by maps, portraits, squiggles and illustrations—titled The Delighted States in the United States—is a digressive meditation on literary style, translation and avant-garde genealogy. The (English) title refers to Juliet Herbert, the English governess of Flaubert’s niece, Caroline. Her womanly charms were admired by Gustave—“at the table my eyes follow the gentle slope of her breast”—and she helped him complete an English translation of Madame Bovary, a “masterpiece” that was lost by Herbert when she returned to England. The book, Thirlwell states: “ . . . is my version of Nabokov’s ideal novel—which is not really a novel. It has recurring characters; with a theme, and variations; and this theme has its recurring motifs. It just has no plot, no fiction, and no finale. It is a description of a milky way, an aurora borealis.” Split into five “volumes” with a series of “books” separating each short “chapter” (essay), Thirlwell’s beautifully designed and visually stunning mini-tome is a charming ramble through Flaubert, Sterne, Nabokov, Joyce, Kafka, Gombrowicz and Proust, filled with marvellous and often contradictory musings on the problems of translation and retaining style, plus delicious literary trivia, as if Markson had written proper paragraphs. (My favourite morsel being that Nabokov delivered his 1937 lecture on style to Joyce and the Hungarian football team). Clearly, this book should be picked up and devoured by, more or less, everyone on my GR friend list, even if you find Thirlwell’s sentences a little too staccato. [This version also includes Thirlwell’s translation, from the original French, of Nabokov’s ‘Mademoiselle O’ and the original text, rather unnecessarily].

11. Petros Abatzoglou — What Does Mrs. Freeman Want?

From the reviews: “wonderful little page-turner” and “sweet and funny book.” This does not sound like the Dalkey Archive, and yet, the book formally fits the bill despite its unfortunate “readable” quality. The narrator, also named Petros Abatzoglou (see!), recounts the marriage of Mr & Mrs Freeman, from its teacher/student beginnings through its tortured sexual lows to its better-late-than-never mutual love and understanding. What makes the style curious is the narrator is “speaking” the story to a paramour who is frequently addressed in the second person and never talks back (us readers?) and peppers his narration with chatty asides and comments on his beachside shenanigans. One wonders if the novel is an exercise in cunning subtlety, or simply a loose, chilled-out (very Greek?) approach to the art of fiction. Either way it’s over in an hour and thirty and Kay Cicellis is the translator.

12. Ivan Turgenev — Fathers and Sons

Tremendous. Forget the patchy, barely coherent A Hero of Our Time. This is your pre-Tolstoy, pre-Dostoevsky (almost—excusing a decade or two) Russian masterpiece. Do you want to be a nihilist with a casual interest in botany and medicine? Do you sneer at aristocratic values but have the hots for a milf with a vassal-soaked estate? Do you treat your father’s house like a hotel, and only pay fleeting three-year visits, during which you torment your poor mother and her servants? Do you want to snog your best friend’s father’s girlfriend because you like her cute bastard? Then, my nonfriends, Bazarov is the bloke for you. Richard Freeborn’s translation makes use of British slang for the chummy moments, i.e. “mate,” which is arguably better than “dude,” but only by a whisper. Apart from that, the excellence of Ivan’s best one shines through. These gimps on the cover are piggishly apt.

13. Declan Kiberd — Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Living

Hey, pleb! Ever fancied reading the second hardest masterwork by James Joyce, but felt too damn plebeian to do so? Has it ever occurred to you, as you sit in your disreputable alehouse quaffing toxic hemlocks to escape the hell of your nine-to-five backbreaking manual occupation, that a 933pp novel about a cuddly Jewish-Irishman and his quirks is the solution to the pain of being born poor, dumb and drunk? Maybe you haven’t read a book since school, and even then, you only skim-read the first two pages, you lardy ignoramus? Perhaps you think, in your infinite plebitude, James Joyce is a runner-up on The X-Factor? Oh, you silly proletariat fool! Come hither, does Declan Kiberd have a book for you! In fact—no he doesn’t. He has a book for us clever people who have already read Ulysses. A book written especially so us eggheads can feel better about our elitist tendencies and continue to plough our self-regarding furrows by pretending we are reading a text written for the Everyman rather than Everyman-in-a-Thousand. See what I did there? Or are you too busy rolling around in your own vomit to notice? Kiberd’s book is at its most engaging when moving section by section, although overall it reads more like a brilliant riff on his most beloved book rather than a coherent reading of Ulysses for the plebs. Nice try, though.

14. Gore Vidal — Palimpsest: A Memoir

This memoir covers the first forty years of the Vidal saga, alighting on his blind senator Grandpa, savage alcoholic mother, childhood sweetheart, licentious sex life, and endless hobnobbery with the most prominent actors and politicians of the period as he mosies up the Hollywood ladder and cosies up with Kennedys. Written in the sumptuously arch manner familiar to anyone who has seen a Vidal clip on YouTube, the memoir establishes a warm if prickly tone, and treats the reader as an intelligent confidant(e) for the duration. Vidal’s life was far from “tough” in the street sense, but it wasn’t without personal and financial trials. Far from being drip-fed millions since birth, Gore’s father was a Scrooge and his mother a vengeful rival who delighted in his failures. Since he moved in a world where homosexuality was not the lynching offence it was to the lower orders (in the 40s), he was able to enjoy full sexual freedom and promiscuity, despite the predictable condemnation of The City and the Pillar that forced him to work for a decade in theatre, film and TV, where he made enough to become the leisurely aesthete he aimed to be (i.e. to achieve complete artistic freedom, rather than a wanton lust for money—though Vidal was clearly used to a expensive lifestyle and eager to maintain this). Apart from some rather bland material towards the end on Jackie & Jack Kennedy, who seem to be deeply uninteresting figures on the whole, this is a swinging memoir of an outstanding life that will induce fits of envious knuckle-biting and book punching. But that’s our problem.

15. William H. Gass — Finding a Form

Gass is my new loverboy. You can have near nonagenarian loverboys, right? In ‘Pulitzer: The People’s Prize’ Gass performs sober seppuku upon this embarrassing quasi-literary, crowd-pleasing “prize,” bestowed upon nonbooks no one can remember a month later. ‘A Failing Grade for the Present Tense’ explores the popularity of this limited tense choice among creative writing students, and offers suggestions as to more multifarious tenses for those trapped in the terminal now. ‘Finding a Form’ and ‘A Fiesta for the Form’ are some of Gass’s most exuberant and musical essays (and this man can swing), bursting with energy and vitality and loving paeans to the Latin-American hipster scene, where the novel has been quietly evolving of late. Among the authors profiled include Robert Walser (a moving portrait of the reluctant artist as a strange man) and Ezra Pound (an hilarious portrait of the fascist as a scissors-and-paste man). His pieces on autobiography and the origins of the avant-garde also serve up long sittings of simply divine, blistering writing. No one approaches words on the page with the same attention to the musicality of each syllable, the sibilance of letters within words, the alliterative bounce of words off words, the assonant resonance of vowels and their bowels. This stuff matters, and Gass makes it sing as he flexes his almost extraterrestrial intellect in the philosophical digressions and deep-probing explorations of the worlds within words. The only hiccups in reading are caused by the essays flying at times over my head. Otherwise: nineteen of the hundred greatest essays ever written by a human. The other eighty-one essays are, unsurprisingly, by Gass too. Read Gass, dammit!

16. Ali Smith — The Reader

Ali Smith’s selection of “favourite” writing (within budget, pending permissions, circa 2006, mostly 20thC) is an eclectic, if sometimes disappointingly tame, rodeo of rompers and criers. Let’s use the mixtape analogy, shall we? When we compile mixtapes, we commonly fill them with our favourite tunes of the moment, ongoing all-time musical obsessions, and whatever obscure Throbbing Gristle B-sides are currently filling our ears. Ali has filled this book with canonical all-timers (Angela Carter, Muriel Spark, Joy Williams, George Mackay Brown), some present-day loves (Maggie O’Farrell, Nicola Barker, Lydia Davis), and a bursting bag of B-sides (too numerous to mention). By focusing on the B-sides she keeps the adventurous reader both delighted and infuriated (one minute it’s William Carlos Williams, the next an excerpt from Louise Brookes’s autobio, then onto Alasdair Gray and an obscure WWII historian called Armando).

17. Adolfo Bioy Casares — Asleep in the Sun

Despite the back cover revealing the entire plot, this surreal anthropomorphic bodyswap novel contains as much wit as that other canine comedy, Mikhail Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog. Lucio, in a series of implausible “letters” written from a mental asylum, narrates his tale of wife-fixing gone awry. Sending his wife Diana off to be “cured” of her undesirable traits, upon her return he finds a docile impostor inhabiting her body, and a dog in possession of her soul. Eager, in his bumbling way, to find answers, Lucio finds himself the victim of the sinister asylum doctors, rendered in the creepiest B-movie tradition. A diverting slice of unusualness for a lazy weekend with a fine, fine moral: don’t send you wife off to the nuthouse if she nags at you too much.

18. Fernando Del Paso Palinuro of Mexico

Del Paso favours the maximal form—Palinuro of Mexico and News From the Empire are sprawling imaginative playgrounds, concerned with the seemingly limitless possibilities of the human mind to transcend anything with everything. In Palinuro of Mexico Del Paso has created a magical, surreal, artificial and dreamlike narrative. The titular character is, at times, both narrator and subject (sometimes he narrates about himself in the third person)—a medical student in passionate love with his cousin Estefania. Ostensibly, this is a novel about the body—in love, in pain, in all its staggering medical complexity—and the irresponsible people responsible for keeping it ticking. Ostensibly, this is about a lovedrunk incestuous romance between sex-mad cousins. Ostensibly, this novel is a “state of the nation” piece about the decline of Mexico. Ostensibly, this is a form-breaking metafictive wonderland with nods to Sorrentino’s satire, Bolaño’s breathless run-on sentences, Sterne’s incomplete encyclopaedism, Rabelais’s delirious vulgarity, Ducornet’s tempestuous romances. Ostensibly, this is an enormous strutting vulture larded with medical terminology, literary references, nonsensical internal monologues that run for up to ten pages sans paragraph breaks. Ostensibly, this is that all-too-rare bird—a freewheeling uninhibited masterwork in pursuance of pure readerly pleasure, of that Gassian wonder of the word. Ostensibly, it is all these things, and a million more you can think up if you do the decent thing and read this exasperating Mexican supernova tomorrow. A thin line between love and hate, perhaps . . . but love will prevail in the end. I promise.  

19. Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky Memories of the Future

Coming up, Knig-o-lass will teach us how to pronounce this writer’s cumbersome surname. In the meantime, here’s seven fantastical stories. ‘Quadraturin’ is a slice of Russian absurdism qua Gogol. ‘The Bookmark’ is an early, essentially metafictional story about storytellers losing control of their characters and other opaque meanderings. ‘Someone Else’s Theme’ continues the literary satire, spliced with a fantastical layer that makes the story impossible to pin to one thing . . . halfway into certain pages it seems the story has morphed into another entirely. ‘The Branch Line’ and ‘Red Snow’ are entirely fantastical dream-narratives with shades of Bulgakovian magic, closer to surrealism in style. ‘The 13th Category of Reason’ is irresistible black comedy. ‘Memories of the Future’ transports the time-machine yarn to Stalinist Russia in an extremely detailed SF number that predates the nouveau roman’s contraptive exactitude. Joanne Turnbull (translator) preserves the wordplay and unusual snakiness of his sentences, making this septet an uneven but quiet delight. 

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