Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Ramona Ausubel’s “Atria” was first published in The New Yorker‘s April 4, 2011, issue.
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Ramona Ausubel is a young author. This is her first story in The New Yorker — indeed, it is nearly her first story anywhere. Her debut novel comes out in 2012 with a collection of short stories to follow.
When I started “Atria” I was a bit worried. Hazel Whiting has just finished her freshman year, and the first few columns seemed to set up a stereotypical situation in a typical manner: Hazel is unhappy being a teen and is turned off by most teenage things, including the teenage boys. She lives with her mother, and, though they are far from hostile, there’s the familiar teenage depression and “You are such a teen-ager . . . I though I was done with this stage after your sisters went through it, and that was ages ago. Now I’m right back where I started. Couldn’t you just skip ahead?” To which Hazel answers, “Gladly.”
Fortunately, and to good effect, the story ventures away from this familiar scenario as we learn more about Hazel’s family. Hazel has three older sisters, but she is much younger; they have all moved away and have their own homes and families. We also find out that Hazel was a surprise and that her father died just before she was born:
This family had been symmetrical, a family of plans and decisions made years in advance in which Hazel was a very late, very surprising accident followed almost immediately by her father’s diagnosis. While Mother grew fatter, Father grew thinner, and everyone had felt certain that they were watching a direct transfer of life from one body to another.
Hazel and her father were never in the world together — by the time she entered, he had already closed the door behind him. Her mother was still wearing mourning black in the delivery room, surrounded by a ring of grieving daughters. The final shock came when the baby was not a boy but a girl, looking nothing like the man she was meant to replace.
Desiring to get to adulthood as quickly as possible, Hazel thinks that, “[p]erhaps, if she opened her arms to whatever came to her and stopped turning it all away, she might arrive at adulthood earlier.”
There is obviously something she could do to make her feel much more adult. It happens with a young 7-Eleven clerk in “a muddle of bushes that hid them from the road and the midday gassers and snackers.”
Hazel did not tell her mother that she had had sex with a convenience-store clerk, and that it had been disappointing but harmless — she felt no ache to see the boy again, no real change in her own body, no broken heart. She had done this grownup thing, yet she suspected that her mother would find her even more childish for it.
Again, this ventures slightly into the familiar, but I found Ausubel’s writing took the story to different levels. And then the story moves again. I want to give a brief glimpse at where the story goes after this because this is where the story became quite unique, and I believe that this avoids spoilers.
Besides her usual disdain for hanging out with other teenagers, now that Hazel has more fully entered adulthood she spends her weekend wandering around the residential neighborhoods. It happens again, after an encounter in a church parking lot, and this time it is not consensual: “Why did I agree to grow up?“ Soon Hazel is pregnant and unsure who the father is. There’s a whiff of a new story line involving small town gossip, but Ausubel presents the town’s response with irony and care; in other words, she’s not criticizing the town but simply presenting a genuine response:
Beth Berther, who could not cook even one thing, left a grocery-store cake — chocolate with chocolate frosting and the word “Condolences!” scrawled in orange cursive on top.
Another turn: Hazel is sure her baby is some animal. Not a monster, necessarily, but some zoo animal. A lion, maybe, or a koala. And I ended the story content.
Imre Kertész was one of the first authors I reviewed on this blog. His the other books in his tetralogy (Fatelessness, Kaddish for an Unborn Child, and Liquidation) are brilliant. (For some reason Melville House doesn’t consider Liquidation a part of this sequence, so they call it a trilogy.) I couldn’t wait to get the missing piece — trilogy or tetralogy — Fiasco (A kudarc, 1988; tr. from the Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson, 2011). I was thrilled when I found out Melville House was publishing it. I must not have been the only one waiting because the back of this book, where a little synopsis would appear, it simply says, “Finally: the heretofore untranslated ’missing’ book from the trilogy that won Imre Kertész the Nobel Prize.”
Review copy courtesy of Melville House.
Despite the lack of synopsis, it is no secret what this book is about. Kertész, a survivor of the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, who when released quickly found himself in another totalitarian regime that was Communist Hungary, doesn’t write about anything else.
So why read more Kertész if you’ve read one? Because Kertész’s writing expresses many things besides the horror of the Holocaust (though never does it forget the horror of the Holocaust). For one, his characters often remark on the irrationality of their existence — no, the arbitrariness under which he suffered, the absurdity of life. I believe this passage from Fiasco gives a great sense. This is Kertész writing as Kertész:
Well then, at the time I came into the world the Sun was standing in the greatest economic crisis the world had ever known; from the Empire State Building to the Turulhawk statues on the former Franz Josef Bridge, people were diving headlong from every prominence on the face of the earth into water, chasm, onto paving stone — wherever they could; a party leader by the name of Adolf Hitler looked exceedingly inimically upon me from amidst the pages of his book Mein Kampf; the first of Hungary’s Jewish laws, the so-called Numerus Clausus, stood at its culmination before its place was taken by the remainder. Every earthly sign (I have no idea about the heavenly ones) attested to the superfluousness — indeed, the irrationality — of my birth.
Kaddish for an Unborn Child and Liquidation are the two books that most accutely express this idea, which rings as a type of philosophy. In one, a man rages and mourns a child he doesn’t have because he couldn’t bear to see one born; in the other, a man doesn’t commit suicide because it would be redundant. They’re devastating books, but the intelligence behind them, which is surprisingly touched with compassion, makes them sublime.
Another reason for reading anything you can by Kertész is that the books are always unique in structure. Fatelessness seems the most conventional, but Kaddish for an Unborn Child is essentially one long sentence (that works) and Liquidation is begins with a play the main character wrote that tells the details of his death — it even gets his friends’ reactions right, word-for-word.
Fiasco is also unique. We begin here:
The old boy was standing in front of the filing cabinet. He was thinking. It was midmorning. (Relatively — getting on for ten). Around this time the old boy was always in the habit of having a think.
He had plenty of troubles and woes, so there were things to think about.
But the old boy was not thinking about what he ought to have been thinking about.
The old boy, it turns out, is Kertész (though it is never explicit). There he is, thinking, as is often the case midmorning. (Relatively — getting on for ten). The book begins rather simply. I’d like to draw a comparison, if I could, to the canon form in music. The first line of music is the old boy standing by the filing cabinet. Another note comes in (a few pages later):
“I’m just standing here in front of the filing cabinet and thinking,” the old boy as thinking, “instead of actually doing something.”
Well certainly, the truth is — not to put too fine a point on it — that he should long ago have settled down to writing a book.
For the old boy wrote books.
That was his occupation.
Or rather, to be more precise, things had so transpired that this had become his occupation (seeing as he had no other occupation).
Throughout the first part (the first 115 pages), these phrases will be repeated as others are added, much of what comes building on and incorporating what came before. As the part progresses, it becomes more and more complex, and more and more murky, though relationships between ideas become clearer. It might sound frustrating, but it was very satisfying reading. Kertész may have challenging structures, but I’ve always found his writing (surely, thanks to superb translating from Tim Wilkinson) to flow smoothly. This was no different. It remains clear what is going on, so the effect of the above is not to confuse but to give us a window into the mind of the old boy sitting at the filing cabinet, getting thoroughly worked up about the prospect of writing a book.
The old boy has already written one book, which, at first, was not well received. Take, for example, this letter from a prospective publisher:
We consider that your way of giving artistic expression to the material of your experience does not come off, while the subject itself is horrific and shocking. His behaviour, his gauche comments . . . annoyed . . . the novel’s ending, since the behaviour the main protagonist has displayed hitherto . . . gives him no ground to dispense moral judgements.
This book the publishers disliked so much is Fatelessness, which does indeed have a narrator with a surprising tone that might come off as cynical and, well, gauche, particularly as he seems to lack the appropriate reverence we as society might deem appropriate given the content.
So, much of part one is the old boy thinking about writing his next book while also remembering the process of writing (and the agony of publishing) his first book. In the filing cabinet are his old papers, which he reads (and which we get nice long passages of). Though he was there, he still gets a shock — practically gasps with surprise — when he reads, ”I could be gunned down anywhere, at any time.” The result of all of this mixing and building is a masterful part one that goes into the process of writing about experience, and about experiencing the Holocaust in particular:
As I was reading this passage, these memories came alive within me, and at the same time I was able to verify that the sentences fitted together in the organic sequence I had envisaged. That was all very well, but why had not what existed before those sentences, the raw event itself, that once-real morning in Auschitz, come to life for me? How could it be that those sentences for me contained merely imaginary events, an imaginary cattle truck, an imaginary Auschwitz, and an imaginary fourteen-and-a-half-year-old boy, even though I myself had at one time been that fourteen-and-a-half-year-old boy?
He finds it hard to reconcile the art that goes into recreating the experience with the real experience itself. He also speaks about the capacity of a reader to really understand this work of the imagination. To illustrate, he tells the awful story of 340 Jews who were killed.
that these 340 deaths on the rocks, for instance, might rightly find a place among the symbols of the human imagination — but on one condition: only if they had not occurred. Since they did occur, it is hard even to imagine them. Rather than becoming a plaything, the imagination proves to be a heavy and immovable burden, just like those boulders in Mauthausen: people do not want to be crushed under them.
So this is part one, only about a third of the book, and already I’ve exhausted the space I usually take to write a review. What is the second part? Well, the old boy finally settles down to write his next book. And the second part is the book the old boy writes. Like Fatelessness, it features Georg Köves, that fourteen-year-old boy we first met at the railroad tracks at Auschwitz. The war is over, and Georg is no longer in a concentration camp. However, he soon finds himself in Communist Hungary. And he has an urge to write a book about his experiences in the concentration camps.
To be honest, as much as I loved the first part, I only admired the second part. It was long and felt, uncharacteristically of Kertész, long-winded. I wasn’t as enthralled with the ideas or with Köves’s life. That said, when the time comes to reread Kertész, I’ll not hesitate a second to reread this book with his others. It is a great, layered look at the process of writing a book that never lets the reader forget the horrors the book is recounting — indeed, they are emphasized.
Thank you Melville House and Tim Wilkinson for making it finally available in English.
Just in case anyone was wondering whether my goal to read more Cynthia Ozick was still in tact, the answer is a resounding Yes! Any of the books I’ve read so far (The Shawl, The Cannibal Galaxy, and Foreign Bodies) would be enough to keep up my interest, and I’m happy to say that my hunger was far from sated — rather, it was substantially increased — when I read The Puttermesser Papers (1997).
Honestly, I could spend this entire review and then some simply writing about the first twenty pages of this fantastic book. It is in those pages that we meet Ruth Puttermesser when she is still young.
Puttermesser was thirty-four, a lawyer. She was also something of a feminist, not crazy, but she resented having “Miss” put in front of her name; she thought it pointedly discriminatory; she wanted to be a lawyer among lawyers. Though she was no virgin she lived alone, but idiosyncratically — in the Bronx, on the Grand Concourse, among other people’s decaying old parents.
This first chapter is called “Puttermesser: Her Work History, Her Ancestry, Her Afterlife.” When we meet Puttermesser she is employed in the blueblood Wall Street firm of Midland, Reid & Cockleberry; she was hired “for her brains and ingratiating (read: immigrant-like) industry, was put into a back office to hunt up all-fours cases for the men up front.” It is the middle of the century, so it is surprising that Puttermesser has even this job. Perhaps it is because the firm is doing its part for diversity:
Three Jews a year joined the back precincts of Midland, Reid (four the year Puttermesser came, which meant they thought “woman” more than “Jew” at the sight of her.
Somehow, while touching upon the Jewish lawyers, Ozick also touches on some hilarious aspects of Wall Street culture. Did she once work in a Wall Street law firm? I don’t believe so, though it is hard to imagine anyone coming up with the following quip without having direct experience. Even better that it is subdued and part of a passage meant to show the failed attempts at solidarity between the Jews and the other lawyers:
They bought the same suits from the same tailors, wore precisely the same shirts and shoes, were careful to avoid tie clips and to be barbered a good deal shorter than the wild men of the streets, though a bit longer than the prigs in the banks.
Puttermesser doesn’t last long in this environment. After suffering through an “anthropological meal” where her employers “explored the rites of her tribe,” Puttermesser leaves private practice to work for the City of New York’s Department of Receipts and Disbursements, as Assistant Corporation Counsel — “it had no meaning, it was part of the subspeech on which bureaucracy relies.” We’re only a few pages into the book at this point, though it has been funny and sad already. We have a firm picture of Ruth Puttermesser, the trials in her life, her attitude toward those trials – Ozick has let us know that we’re in the hands of a master. And that this portrait, while comic, will also be sad.
Now if this were an optimistic portrait, exactly here is where Puttermesser’s emotional life would begin to grind itself into evidence. Her biography would proceed romantically, the rich young Commissioner of the Department of Receipts and Disbursements would fall in love with her. She would convert him to intelligence and to the cause of Soviet Jewry. He would abandon boating and the pursuit of bluebloods. Puttermesser would end her work history abruptly and move on to a bower in a fine suburb.
This is not to be. Puttermesser will always be an employee in the Municipal Building. She will always behold the Brooklyn Bridge through its windows; also sunsets of high glory, bringing her religious pangs. She will not marry. Perhaps she will undertake a long-term affair with Vogel, the Deputy in charge of the Treasury; perhaps not.
The difficulty with Puttermesser is that she is loyal to certain environments.
The loneliness and tragedy of Puttermesser’s life is especially apparent in the next passage when Puttermesser has a type of out-of-body experience and we hear of her visits to her great uncle Zindel, “a former shammes in a shul that had been torn down.” (On John Self’s review of this book he quotes a great passage about the disintegration of the shul.) But . . .
Stop. Stop, stop! Puttermesser’s biographer, stop! Disengage, please. Though it is true that biographies are invented, not recorded, here you invent too much.
This long scene did not occur. “Uncle Zindel lies under the earth of Staten Island. Puttermesser has never had a conversation with him; he died four years before her birth.” We learn that “Puttermesser is not to be examined as an artifact but as an essence.” What does this mean exactly? It seems Ozick herself had this question when she closes this first section, “Hey! Puttermesser’s biographer! What will you do with her now?”
This opening section was originally published in 1977, in The New Yorker. Subsequently it was collected in Levitation: Five Fictions, Ozick’s third collection of short stories. Over the years, Ozick answered the question “what will you do with her now?” by publishing four more chapter in Puttermesser’s life — “Puttermesser and Xanthippe,” “Puttermesser Paired,” “Puttermesser and the Muscovite Cousin,” and “Puttermesser in Paradise” – each also published in various literary magazines before coming together in this remarkable collection.
In each, Puttermesser ages approximately one decade. In “Puttermesser and Xanthippe,” Puttermesser is 46, still working at the same place, and having an affair with Morris Rappoport, “a married fund-raiser from Toronto.” Within the bureaucratic system, there is abuse of power — even corruption. And Puttermesser’s tolerance ends one night when Morris leaves her because she’d rather read Plato than have sex. She’s uncertain exactly how it happens and is shocked when she find a female clay figure lying in her bed. Unwittingly, she brings the creature to live; Puttermesser has created Xanthippe, the first female golem. Together they work to make Puttermesser the new mayor of New York City, ushering in a brief period of unprecedented prosperity and peace.
We next meet Puttermesser at “the unsatisfying age of fifty-plus” in “Puttermesser Paired.” She’s been reading George Eliot and George Lewes, fantasizing about her own George Lewes, when in walks a potential mate twenty years her junior. This particular story offers a tremendous essay on the relationship between Eliot and Lewes and Eliot’s subsequent husband John Cross, twenty years Eliot’s junior and potentially a George Lewes wannabe. It’s a remarkable story.
In “Puttermesser and the Muscovite Cousin,” Puttermesser reconnects to her Russian roots when her Soviet cousin asks for some help. Not only is this story interesting for its portrayal of Perestroika, but also it looks at Puttermesser’s guilt when she traces her ancestry back and realizes how different her life has been from her cousin.
Finally — well, nearly finally (more on that in a second) — we find Puttermesser on the night of her violent death when she is nearly 70. She has occasion to ponder her name, which literally means “butterknife.” There’s no greatness there, and there’s evidence that a name can denote greatness:
For instance: the poet Wordsworth giving exact value for each syllable. Or Mann himself — Man, Mankind, seeking the origins of human character in Israelitish prehistory. Or how one Eliot reins in the other Eliot: “the jew squats on the windowsill” — that’s Tom — rebuked by Deronda’s visionary Zion — that’s George. And James the aristocratic Jacobite, pretender to the throne. Joyce’s Molly rejoicing. Bellow fanning the fires; Updike fingering apertures; Oates wildly sowing; Roth wroth. And so on. Puttermesser: no more cutting than a butterknife.
Before we leave her entirely, though, we go with her back to when she was 19 and madly in love with an prideful intellectual college boy.
There is much to experience in these pages, and Ozick throughout is entirely in control and pays out by the sentence. Surely Ruth Puttermesser (“no more cutting than a butterknife”) is one of the great literary creations of all time.
The ten fiction finalists for the Best Translated Book Award have been announced
- Agaat by Marlene Van Niekerk, tr. from the Afrikaans by Michiel Heyns
- Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer by Ernst Weiss, tr. from the German by Joel Rotenberg
- The Golden Age by Michal Ajvaz, tr. from the Czech by Andrew Oakland
- Hocus Bogus by Romain Gary (writing as Émile Ajar), tr. from the French by David Bellos
- The Jokers by Albert Cossery, tr. from the French by Anna Moschovakis
- A Life on Paper by George-Olivier Châteaureynaud, tr. from the French by Edward Gauvin
- The Literary Conference by César Aira, tr. from the Spanish by Katherine Silver
- On Elegance While Sleeping by “Viscount” Lascano Tegui, tr. from the Spanish by Idra Novey
- The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson, tr. from the Swedish by Thomas Teal
- Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck, tr. from the German by Susan Bernofsky
I have read only three of the finalists and reviewed only two (the highlighted ones above, with links to my reviews; I will soon have a review of A Life on Paper up). Of the longlisters I read, I’m not surprised A Jew Must Die is not on this list (though it is certainly worth reading), but I did really like Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico.
By any measure, these are fine books. I have four on my shelf to read, and I’m looking forward to each.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Haruki Murakami’s “U.F.O. in Kushiro” (tr. from the Japanese by Jay Rubin) was first published in The New Yorker‘s March 19, 2001, issue and then republished in their March 21, 2011, issue.
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Much of this issue is devoted to the recent earthquake in Japan, which is why they republished an older Murakami story. “U.F.O. in Kushiro” opens just after the major 1996 earthquake in Japan. Images from the quake are all over the news, and Komura’s wife does not leave the television. He can’t quite understand her extreme fascination to the quake: she’s there when he wakes up, when he gets home from work, and when he goes to bed. He doesn’t think she eats or uses the bathroom.
Komura’s relationship with his wife is interesting but hard to pin down. Though Komura was enjoyed fast relationships, he has been totally faithful, though his wife is apparently not attracitve physically and does not have an attractive personality.
Still, though he himself did not quite understand why, Komura always felt his tension dissipate when he and his wife were together under one roof; it was the only time he could truly relax. He slept with her, undisturbed by the strange dreams that had troubled him in the past.
Every once in a while his wife leaves him a letter telling him that she’s going to stay with her parents for a few days or weeks. She always comes back, a bit more at ease. But something is different after the earthquake:
But the letter his wife had left for him five days after the earthquake was different: “I am never coming back,” she had written, and gone on to explain simply but clearly why she no longer wanted to live with Komura. “The problem is that you never give me anything,” she wrote. “Or, to put it more precisely, you have nothing inside you that you can give me. You are good and kind and handsome, but living with you is like living with a chunk of air. It’s not your fault. There are lots of women who will fall in love with you. But please don’t call me. Just get rid of the stuff I’m leaving behind.”
Alone and distracted, he decides to take a bit of time off work.
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Hearing Komura’s plan, a colleague at work recommends Komura take a trip to some out of the way place. When Komura says that he thinks that is just the ticket, his colleagues asks him to transport a small box for him, promising that it is nothing dangerous and would not get him in trouble even if the police scanned it. He just doesn’t want to mail it and doesn’t want to take the time for the trip himself.
I found it a strange device, but it gets Komura away and to Shimao, the intended recipient of the box. Ultimately this gets him to his strange discovery.
Personally, I was underwhelmed, as I have been when I’ve tried Murakami in the past (I must admit here that I’ve never given his work a fair shot and haven’t read his more reputable works). I didn’t buy the devices and was unsatisfied by the revelation at the end, probably because it is abstract. I imagine others won’t have these same issues with the story, since I know his popular titles have similar abstractions that make them work.
On the plus side, it is certainly interesting to read throughout, and I never got bored as the story unfolded.
I am too young to have been a part of any talks about the Beattie generation. She published nearly 50 stories in The New Yorker between 1974 and 2006, but over 80% of those were published before 1990. Nearly 50% were published between 1974 and 1981, when she was publishing three or four stories per year in the magazine. From what I remember, I had never read an Ann Beattie story, and I’m not sure I would have any time soon were it not for the recent publication of The New Yorker Stories, a collection of, obviously, her New Yorker stories. When browsing for that book in a bookstore, though, I came across her also recently published novella, Walks with Men (2010). Thinking this relatively late work might be a good introduction to Ann Beattie, I picked it up. I’d like to recommend you not make the same mistake — go with her short stories!
There is nothing wrong with the writing in this novella. Indeed, its direct, sparse style is refreshing and can be captured in the first sentence:
In 1980, in New York, I met a man who promised me he’d change my life, if only I’d let him.
The narrator here is the young Jane Jay Costner. She’s 22 and has gained a certain degree of notoriety for an interview she gave The New York Times, in which she, a summa cum laude Harvard graduate, “disparaged [her] Ivy League education, at graduation, in the presence of President Jimmy Carter, and stated [her] intentions to drop out and move to a farm in Vermont.” Listening in was Neil, 44, the man who promised to change her life, in only she’d let him. A year after the interview (a year Jane spends in Vermont, true to her word, with her boyfriend), she returns to New York for a medical procedure. Neil finds her and makes his promise with a condition: “You give me a promise that nobody can trace anything back to me. I explain anything you want to know about men, but nobody can know I’m the source of your information.”
He proceeds to teach her about matters of taste and culture, digging deeply into the nuances of sugar and salt. We see it coming: Jane soon moves in with Neil, quite content to research birds for a book he’s writing. The interesting thing is seeing how Beattie gets there, or, rather, how Beattie is suddenly just there.
You see through this; understand I was naïve, even if you factor in that I was young. The ’80s were not a time when women had to put up with male tyrants. No woman had to fit herself around a man’s schedule. To do so was lazy, as well as demeaning. But I didn’t introspect; I didn’t ask enough questions. I expressed passivity by pretending to myself that whatever I did for Neil was charming, old-fashioned dutifulness. More embarrassing still was the fact that I let him support me, that I had delusions about becoming a major essayist (In this culture? as Neil would say).
If you think for a minute, you might guess what happened next, because clichés so often befall vain people.
I moved in with Neil.
Such ellipses often work well. Another comes soon. Jane learns, though we know it’s coming because we know this story, that Neil is married. His wife shows up one day to talk to Jane, and they commiserate for a moment without necessarily warming into a friendship. As they talk about how manipulative Neil is, they can’t help but exude a bit of pride that he is — though not exclusively — their man.
“My friends were suspicious.”
“My friends hate him, but still: a lot of them fantasize about sleeping with him.”
“My friends do, too. They call him. Flirting.”
“Then he asks you what he should do about them, right? Letting you know how loyal he is, and at the same time making sure you know how untrustworthy your friends are.”
This is still early on in the novella, so it’s not a spoiler to say that Jane moves out . . . to a friend’s house . . . for two weeks . . . until, after a bit of drinking, Jane returns. It has been raining. Another ellipsis:
Three months later, after their quickie divorce, we got married at City Hall.
The book started out well enough for me. Largely, I enjoyed Beattie’s writing and, at first, could move along with the blank space where many writers would find the need to elaborate, perhaps not entirely trusting the reader to connect the dots and fill in the characters’ development. Still, the story was quite familiar at first, and about halfway through I was already getting tired of Jane’s frustrating relationship with a man she understood but was powerless to resist, one of those relationships filled with hatred but also with a glowing kernel of irrational attraction. I began to see that it was simple to connect the dots because the ground between was material we’ve seen before.
Then the novella turned into one rather large blank for me. It was no longer particularly unoriginal (Jane’s hippie exboyfriend comes back to New York too, but there’s not much tension, surprisingly, even though he now goes by Goodness; Neil has some trouble that causes him to leave the picture too), but it is all of the sudden very arbitrary and, by my eyes, meaningless. The blanks where most authors would be explaining become bigger, and the reader is left to wonder if even the characters care about what has happened.
This happens in life, obviously, and I’m a fan of works that can somehow show how arbitrary life can be by flouting the reader’s expectations not just for a satisfying resolution but for for any resolution at all. Here, though, it just seemed like blanks, like something unfinished. For a short story, this can work quite well. For this novella (is it because it is a novella?) it just doesn’t.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Ben Marcus’s “Rollingwood” was first published in The New Yorker‘s March 21, 2011, issue.
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I’m afraid it has been one of those weeks, and I haven’t even glanced at this story yet. Nor have I been able to respond to comments. No worries: I will get caught up. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this one.
Deborah Eisenberg’s The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg has won this year’s PEN/Faulkner. I have the lovely, large books, and think it is a deserving winner. Long live the short story!
It doesn’t hurt, in my estimation, that Eisenberg’s long-time companion is Wallace Shawn (whose father was long-time editor of The New Yorker).
There is concern that New Directions is perceived as an “eat your vegetables” publisher. You might not enjoy them, but the books are healthful and good for you in the long run, even if they don’t exactly hit that spot that just craves giddy satisfaction. This is wrong: New Directions books can satisfy the most self-indulgent pleasure. For one thing, the funniest book I read last year was the wild The Literary Conference, by César Aira, and I was thoroughly charmed by Gert Hofmann’s Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl. Okay, okay, so doubters are going to say, “Come on! One’s called The Literary Conference! I want excitement and intrigue and you’re telling me to read a book entitled The Literary Conference? And I don’t even know who this Lichtenburg is, but . . . really? You’re telling me to read these?” To which I respond, “Yes, I am. And I also recommend An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter.” And now I’ve just read another New Directions book that belies any claim that New Directions books should be reserved for a more sober time in life. It’s another of their great Pearl Series, and it’s title shouldn’t stand in the way: Javier Marías’s Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico (Mala Indole, 1996 ; tr. from the Spanish by Esther Allen, 1999).
Review copy courtesy of New Directions.
I was putting off reading this book because I have yet to tackle the third volume of Marías’s Your Face Tomorrow Trilogy. I have a stack of his books at home, unread because I feel I should finish what I’ve started first. Why haven’t I read the third book of a trilogy I highly recommend? Because it’s a big book, and I do most of my reading on a train. I still haven’t figured out how to pack it around with me. I’m sure, though, that once I begin it I won’t be sorry. Just as I wasn’t sorry when I finally opened up this Pearl due to its placement on the Best Translated Book Award longlist.
It was delightful to read the first lines and find myself back in Marías territory. An as yet unnamed narrator jumps into the action head first. How? By iterating and reiterating around a slightly abstract concept. In this case, wrath and fear of revenge.
No one knows what it is to be hunted down without having lived it, and unless the chase was active and constant, carried out with deliberation, determination, dedication and never a break, with perseverance and fanaticism, as if the pursuers had nothing else to do in life but look for you, keep after you, follow your trail, locate you, catch up with you and then, at best, wait for the moment to settle the score.
. . . vengeance is extremely wearying and hatred tends to evaporate, it’s a fragile, ephemeral feeling, impermanent, fleeting, so difficult to maintain that it quickly gives way to rancor or resentment which are much more bearable, easier to retrieve, much less virulent and somehow less pressing, while hatred is always in a tearing hurry, always urgent.
Before we get even a sense of who’s speaking or why, Marías gives us around 5 pages of this delightful meandering. Of course, we may not know who is speaking or why, but all the time we’re getting a nice look at this speaker’s mind. For some time he has been running from someone whose sole purpose — he thinks — is to avenge some foul deed. From the title we know that this deed probably took place in Mexico . . . with Elvis. Soon, our suspicion is confirmed.
It all happened because of Mr. Presley, and that is not one of those idiotic lines referring to the record that was playing on the night we met, or to the time we were careless and went too far, or to the idol of the person who caused the problem by forcing us to go to a concert to seduce her or just to make her happy. It all happened because of Elvis Presley in person, or Mr. Presley, as I used to call him until he told me it made him feel like his father.
It isn’t a spoiler to explain a little bit about the mishap in Mexico, though I completely understand if some readers simply intrigued about the prospect of Marías writing about Elvis in Mexico want to turn their eyes here. For the others, this gives a glimpse at one theme Marías is playing with: the power of words, the power (or ills) of translation.
Elvis is making a movie, at least a part of which will be filmed in Mexico. However, Elvis “says he found out they pronounce the letter c differently in Spain and that’s how he wants to pronounce it.” Since our narrator happens to be the only person from Spain employed by the movie studio, he goes along to help Elvis with his accent (he’s going to sing one of the songs entirely in Spanish — err, but he hopes without the Mexican accent) and to act as a translator.
One night in a cantina, there’s a scuffle between Elvis and some shady characters. Our narrator gets caught in the middle:
“¿Qué ha dicho?” now it was Roland César’s turn to ask me. Their inability to understand each other was enraging them, a thing like that can really grate on your nerves in an argument.
“Que quién es usted para decir que nos vayamos.”
“Han oido, Julio, muchachos, me pregunta el gachupín que quién soy yo para ponerlos en la calle,” Montalbán answered without looking at me. I thought (if there was time for such a thought) that it was odd that he said I was the one asking who he was: it was Presley who was asking and I was only translating, it was a warning I didn’t pay attention to, or that I picked up on too late, when you relive what happened, or reconstruct it.
Bad Nature is funny (I hope that is apparent), but it is also surprisingly intense and psychologically acute. Marías trademark, nearly obsessive analyses are a part of that. Also, I think it is important to note that, for this reader, Esther Allen’s translation didn’t stand in the way at all. The prose flowed perfectly, allowing me to satisfy my craving in one sitting. I recommend this to any and all.
Fiction: A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan
Poetry: One with Others: [a little book of her days], by C.D. Writght
Biography: How to Live: Or, A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer
Nonfiction: The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson
Criticism: Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics: Russia, Poland, and the West, by Clare Cavanagh
Autobiography: Half a Life, by Darin Strauss
For a list of all finalists, click here.
My apologies. I first reported that Grossman’s novel won.