The 2011 Best Translated Book Award winners were announced tonight.
Fiction: The True Deceiver, by Tove Jansson, translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal
Poetry: The Book of Things, by Aleš Šteger, translated from the Slovenian by Brian Henry
Excellent! And this is the first year the winners get some prize money, $5,000 for each author and $5,000 for each translator (I’m not sure what they do if the author is deceased). I have had The True Deceiver for over a year and will pull it down as soon as possible.
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Sam Lipsyte’s “Deniers” was first published in The New Yorker‘s May 2, 2011, issue.
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The first thing I’d read by Sam Lipsyte was “The Dungeon Master,” published last year in The New Yorker (my thoughts here). I was basically just above indifferent with that story, though looking back I’m more fond of it now than then.
But then there’s this one. I’ll have to ask commenters, does it get better after the half-way mark? Because that’s where I quit — for now. I actually started the story on Monday and have chipped away at it since, but I just can’t bring myself to finish it right now. Neither the story nor Lipsyte’s writing was doing anything for me, and I thought it better to cease and desist than proceed. Perhaps I was in a bad mood. Perhaps it’s that I just finished Alistair MacLeod’s wonderful No Great Mischief. But I can’t find it in my to finish this story now — and maybe I’ll never return to it (if I do, my thoughts will show up in this post).
It’s strange, because I still have the goal to go back and read the very few stories I’ve missed over the past two and a half years (I believe I still need to read three or four to remain a completist) – that, more than the story so far, is what will probably force me to return here sometime.
Not long after posting the above, I decided to start “Deniers” over and read it straight through. I’ve forced myself to do worse. It turned out that, though I still didn’t like the story, my very negative reaction the first time around was more my fault — and, sure, Alistair MacLeod’s — than the story’s. Still, there’s this sentence: “Hate-crime hands, loving now.” It’s meant to be ironic, but by the end of the story, where it appears, I was again quite annoyed.
When the story began, even the first time, I was interested. In a couple of pages we meet Mandy Gottlieb as a little girl. Her father Jacob is a Holocaust survivor who barely speaks to her, let alone about his experiences in the Holocaust.
His gastric arias mostly stood in for conversation, but some evenings he managed a few words, such as the night he spotted Mandy’s library book on the credenza. This teen novel told the story of a suburban boy who befriends an elderly neighbor, a wanted Nazi. Mandy watched her father study the book from across the room. The way he handled it made her think he was scornful of its binding or paper stock, but then he read the dust flap, shuddered. He whispered in his original language, the one he rarely used, so glottal, abyssal.
Mandy’s mother had hoped for a more exotic life, but when the exotic came to her in the form of “the older European man, handsomely gaunt, haunted, roaring up on his motorcycle at a county fair,” she married Jacob. After the book episode above, Mandy expresses a bit of disappointment that her father never speaks about it. “Mandy decided she wouldn’t read anything else about the era of her father’s agony. If she wasn’t good enough to hear his story, so be it. Other, more generous catastrophes would arrive.”
And it’s at this point the story began to lose me each time. There’s an affair tied to corporate America blighting the peace of the community, her mother’s subsequent suicide, and then Mandy’s recovering from a coke addiction and trying to distance herself from her crazy ex-boyfriend after she’s caught him in a threesome and he invites her to make it four. The tone of the piece is strange. After relaying in a quick summarizing fashion, it simply says, “Yes, the vicissitudes.” It gets a bit stranger when Mandy summons “her inner banshee,” and her now-ex-boyfriend leaves carrying his prized copy of Hamsun’s Hunger.
Perhaps the trite tone is a reflection of the way Mandy deals with the disasters in her life, but I couldn’t help but read it as Lipsyte himself trying to be stylistically hip. I find this passage speaks my mind:
At the plastic table on the patio, overlooking a tomato field, her father picked at bird crap.
“Daddy,” Mandy said. “That’s poop.”
Her father gave a lazy leer.
“How’s your mother?”
Jacob picked at the flecks.
That passage reflects Mandy a bit later. She’s regained some stability and now visits her ailing father in his rest home. Mandy soon finds her new stability threatened when she is befriended by a man in somewhat similar circumstances to the man in Francine Prose’s A Changed Man.
So after reading the story one and a half times, it is better than my first impression. Still, I found its tone trite and frustrating, even if Lipsyte can carry the reader through smoothly. Perhaps, again, though, it was more my fault than anything wrong with the story.
And so I’ve made it to the last (or, perhaps, most recent) of Coetzee’s fictional/factual memoirs, Summertime (2009). I’d been looking forward to reading this book for some time. It was a finalist for the 2009 Man Book Prize, and I cheered for it even though at the time I hadn’t read it or any of the other finalists (Booker 2008 still looming large in memory). A report from John Mullan, a judge that year, after the award was given to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall are that the voting was split between Wolf Hall and Summertime until he cast the deciding vote. Lucasta Miller and Sue Perkins, the two votes for Coetzee, both expressed some remorse of their own by reminding Mullan; “agenbite of inwit,” they said to him afterwards.
Well, in Summertime Coetzee takes his memoir project even further than he did in Boyhood and Youth, the two preceeding memoirs wherein Coetzee writes his past in the third person. Here, Coetzee is again the subject of the narrative, and we begin with that familiar third-person perspective with some of Coetzee’s notebooks from 1972 – 1975. However, here there are interjections of some other voice within the narrative, imploring someone to go a little deeper, explore this question more, before moving on to another narrative strand. It turns out that Coetzee has died. His biographer, a Mr. Vincent, is going through his old notebooks; these particular ones that introduce the novel appear to be first drafts of passages for Coetzee’s third memoir, which he never finished. The interjecting voice is Coetzee himself trying to dig deeper into certain topics in the narrative.
Vincent has taken it upon himself to write what would have been in that third memoir, covering Coetzee’s early thirties, around the time he published his first novel, Dusklands. When Youthended, Coetzee was still in England; from there he eventually went to teach at a university in the United States. For most of the period Summertimecovers, though, Coetzee is back in South Africa, uneasily tending his ailing father. His mother is dead.
To get at this period in Coetzee’s life, Mr. Vincent chooses five people to interview: Julia, Margot, Adriana, Martin, and Sophie. These interviews, or their resultant text, are the contents of Summertime, and with the first one we realize that Coetzee is playing with biography.
The section with Julia is formed as an interview. Julia was a neighbor to Coetzee and his father. She was married and rather lonely, and eventually she and Coetzee became lovers, though that term doesn’t exactly fit. Vincent asks a question and Julia answers, and Vincent hopes the results can be used to provide color to his biography. But what we get is a story where Coetzee is merely a side character, and a kind of miserable burden at that. Whatever indications Vincent gleaned from Coetzee’s notebooks about how important these people were to him, their impressions of Coetzee are quite different:
Mr Vincent, I am perfectly aware it is John you want to hear about, not me. But the only story involving John that I can tell, or the only one I am prepared to tell, is the one, namely the story of my life and his part in it, which is quite different, quite another matter, from the story of his life and my part in it.
Julia is particularly concerned about how her role in Coetzee’s biography could spin out of her control: “by dint of a quick flip, a quick manipulation of perspective, followed by some clever editing, you can transform it into a story about John and one of the women who passed through his life. Not so. Not so.” Simply put, Coetzee was a minor part in her grander life, and she’s not even that interested in him anymore, though she at least kept up with his literary output. Therein she finds justification for her feelings toward Coetzee:
Well, cast your mind back to the books he wrote. What is the one theme that keeps recurring from book to book? It is that the woman doesn’t fall in love with the man. The man may or may not love the woman; but the woman never loves the man. What do you think that theme reflects? My guess, my highly informed guess, is that it reflects his life experience. Women didn’t fall for him — not women in their right senses. They inspected him, they sniffed him, maybe they even tried him out. Then they moved on.
In the next section we meet Margot, Coetzee’s cousin whom he deeply loved when they were children. By the time we get here, Vincent has already interviewed Margot and has used Coetzee’s style (that third person) to dramatize her account. In this meeting with her, Vincent is reading his work to her loud. She frequently interjects because his product is so far, in her mind, from what she said in the interview.
I was under the impression you were simply going to transcribe our interview and leave it at that. I had no idea you were going to rewrite it completely.
Vincent, it turns out, has his own ideas about how these lives intermingled and his words are warping their experiences. It’s important, at this time, to note that Vincent never met Coetzee. He’s just a great admirer.
His next interview takes place in Brazil where he has found Adriana. Again this section is presented as a straight interview, only this time there is a silent translator involved in the transmission. Coetzee taught Adriana’s talented daughter while her family was living in South Africa. His interest in her talents eventually spilled over to an interest in her mother who spurned his advances, often made by way of the written word.
You say you decided not to read his last letter. Do you ever regret that decision?
Why? Why should I regret it?
Because Coetzee was a writer, who knew how to use words. What if the letter you did not read contained words that would have moved you or even changed your feelings about him?
Mr Vincent, to you John Coetzee is a great writer and a hero, I accept that, why else would you be here, why else would you be writing this book? To me, on the other hand — pardon me for saying this, but he is dead, so I cannot hurt his feelings — to me he is nothing. He is nothing, was nothing, just an irritation, an embarrassment. He was nothing and his words were nothing. I can see you are cross because I make him look like a fool. Nevertheless, to me he really was a fool.
The next section is an interview with an old university friend named Martin who suggest to Vincent it is naive to believe that a theme that comes up in an author’s work is there because it was present in the author’s life. The last section is an interview with another colleague, Sophie. Together Sophie and Coetzee taught a class at the University of Cape Town, and she suggests Coetzee didn’t fully understand the history of South Africa and of the Afrikaners, again somewhat destabilizing the impression Vincent had of the man from his work.
It’s a fantastic book, incredibly fluid and fast-reading and yet complex in its many layers. What here is true? I certainly don’t know. Possibly none of it. Certainly much is false. Coetzee’s mother didn’t die until 1985, but here she’s dead by the early 1970s. Coetzee was also married at this time and had two children, but there is no indication of any such relationships in Summertime. Oh, and Coetzee himself is not dead. Despite and with these departures, Coetzee is teasing any line between fact and fiction and showing how submitting life to words ensures not clarity but more mystery, presenting his character as an aloof, awkward annoyance, tolerated, perhaps sometimes admired, but not loved and not particularly important in the grander scheme of these other characters’ lives.
However, then the book ends in an interesting way. We go back to Coetzee’s notebooks to look at some undated fragments. In particular, these fragments focus on the time he was caring for his father. They are brief but incredibly intimate passages. And it isn’t even that the two men talk — in fact, they don’t really — but they’re in close quarters together. it takes this book back to personal and intimate at the same time it casts in relief the loneliness and alienation.
There was an interesting comment stream on John Self’s recent review of John Burnside’s A Lie About My Father, a memoir. Is there a greater proportion of lousy memoirs than in other book categories, even throwing trashy celebrity and misery memoirs out of the mix? What makes someone’s life interesting to those of us not living it? Well, I can say that I usually avoid memoirs, but I’ve read a number that are just as good as anything else I’ve read. Certainly, J.M. Coetzee’s three books based on his life are included there when he turns his cutting pen on himself. I recently reviewed the first of his memoirs, Boyhood. Right when I finished reading it I picked up the next one, Youth (2002). As much as I enjoyed Boyhood, I was more engaged with Youth.
The book opens when Coetzee is nearing 20. If Boyhood was about the artist as a young man, Youthis about that artist attempting to fit himself into his vision of what an artist is. The strained relationship with his parents becomes altogether worse. Now Coetzee is “proving something: that each man is an island; that you don’t need parents.” But he isn’t just separated from his parents. In the opening pages, we see several examples of just how separate Coetzee is from almost anyone, especially women. For one thing, he doesn’t trust that anyone sees in him what he hopes: that he is an artist. It plays out both sad and funny because he wants lovers, but he cannot trust their motives. Here, for example, is his reaction to a sexual encounter with Jacqueline, a friend of a friend:
In fact he is not carried away. Not only is there the matter of the sand, which gets into everything, there is also the nagging question of why this woman, whom he has never met before, is giving herself to him. Is it credible that in the course of a casual conversation she detected the secret flame burning in him, the flame that marks him as an artist? Or is she simply a nymphomaniac, and was that what Paul, in his delicate way, was warning him about when he said she was ‘under therapy’?
Well, despite Coetzee’s misgivings, Jacqueline moves in with him (something typical for an artist, he feels). But this relationship just doesn’t work. He wants love and sex and connection, but he wants it to generate from the fact that he is an artist. Now he’s enmeshed in a relationship that takes away his sleep and, worse, any time he could devote to writing. So he’s with her because he’s an artist, but with her he cannot be an artist; along those same lines, she does not see him as an artist. His relationship with Jacqueline is stop and start. She moves out, and he feels relieved. Then he allows her to move back in for various reasons, not the least of which is because he thinks that is how a true artist would live.
Yet whole days pass in a fog of grey exhaustion. He curses himself for letting himself be sucked back into an affair that costs him so much. If this is what having a mistress entails, how do Picasso and the others get by? He simply has not the energy to run from lecture to lecture, job to job, then when the day is done to pay attention to a woman who veers between euphoria and spells of the blackest gloom in which she thrashes around brooding on a lifetime’s grudges.
Although no longer formally living with him, Jacqueline feels free to arrive on his doorstep at all hours of the night and day. Sometimes she comes to denounce him for some word or other he let slip whose veiled meaning has only now beocme clear to her. Sometimes she is simply feeling low and wants to be cheered up. Worst is the day after therapy: she is there to rehearse, over and over again, what past in her therapist’s consulting room, to pick over the implications of his tiniest gesture. She sighs and weeps, gulps down glass after glass of wine, goes dead in the middle of sex.
His is not a romantic life. Whatever hopes he has that his art will grow as he mimics his artist idols, his demeanor just isn’t compatible with the lifestyle he thinks he should lead, causing this already lonely and distant young man to retreat even further.
As the book progresses, Coetzee moves away to England, anxious to achieve the artist’s life in a more metropolitan setting. To live there, though, he must work. He’s qualified to do computer programming, so he ends up working for IBM, which, much like his experiences with a lover, saps his time and diminishes his art. But why should it be this way? He’s miserable, and isn’t that the state of mind he’s been looking for?
Why is it a greater sacrifice, a greater extinction of personality, to hide out in a garret room on the Left Bank for which you have not paid the rent, or wander from café to café, bearded, unwashed, smelly, bumming drinks from friends, than to dress in a black suit and do soul-destroying office-work and submit to either loneliness unto death or sex without desire?
So Youthbecomes much mor than just a young man’s quest to become his vision of an artist. It is also about Coetzee’s genuine attempts to battle loneliness and depression and to find some human touch, even when his natural instinct is to shy away. He finally quits his job at IBM, but that means he has even fewer people to speak to: “Day after day goes by when not a word passes his lips. He begins to mark them off with an S in his diary: days of silence.” One day Coetzee bumps into someone by mistake and mutters “Sorry!”
Sorry: the word comes heavily out of his mouth, like a stone. Does a single word of indeterminate class count as speech? Has what occurred between himself and the old man been an instance of human contact, or is it better described as mere social interaction, like the touching of feelers between ants? To the old man, certainly, it was nothing. All day long the old man stands there with his stacks of papers, muttering angrily to himself; he is always waiting for a chance to abuse some passer-by. Whereas in his own case the memory of that single words will persist for weeks, perhaps for the rest of his life. Bumping into people, saying “Sorry!”, getting abused: a ruse, a cheap way of forcing a conversation. How to trick loneliness.
Certainly this book, with all of its layers strengthened by Coetzee’s absolute control and precision, is one of the highlights of my work through Coetzee’s oeuvre (my work through Coetzee’s oeuvre being one of the highlights of my reading life).
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Thomas McGuane’s “The Good Samaritan” was first published in The New Yorker‘s April 25, 2011, issue.
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I don’t know much about Thomas McGuane. His most recent novel is Driving the Rim, a book set in Montana; here is a quick sentence from the Publishers Weeklyr eview: ”Berl Pickett is a smalltown doctor whose ill-advised decision to try to cover up an old friend’s suicide attempt leads to dire consequences when she later dies from her injuries: his clinic privileges are suspended and he faces a possible criminal negligence charge.” For whatever reason, since I moved away from the Rocky Mountain west, I’m much more interested in books set in that region. It helps that the books have been superb, particularly Maile Meloy’s books of short stories and Larry Watson’s Montana 1948. So it looks like McGuane has a backlist I’ll be checking out: Some Horses, Ninety-Two in the Shade, Gallatin Canyon, Nothing but Blue Skies, and The Longest Silence: A Life in Fishing, among others. And “The Good Samaritan” leads me to believe going through McGuane’s books will be well worth my time.
“The Good Samaritan” is also set in Montana. Szabo is a divorcee who has a day job at an office but rushes home at night to take care of a ranch, “a word that was now widely abused by developers. He preferred to call it his property, or ‘the property’ . . .” He devotes all his time to it: “Sometimes he was so eager to get started that he let his car running.” It’s enough to make him seem crazy; after all, “[h]is activity on the property, which had led, over the years, to arthroscopic surgery on his left knee, one vertebral fusion, and mild hearing loss, thanks to his diesel tractor, yielded very little income at all and some years not even that — a fact that he did not care to dwell on.” But, as McGuane soon says, “Szabo was not nuts. He had long understood that he needed to do something with his hands to compensate for the work that he did indoors, and it was not going to be golf or woodworking.”
One evening, Szabo is in such a hurry to mount his beloved John Deere tractor that he had an accident:
Here his foot slid off the step, leaving him briefly dangling from the handhold. A searing pain informed him that he had done something awful to his shoulder. Releasing his grip, he fell to the driveway in a heap. The usually ambrosial smell of tractor fuel repelled him, and the towering green shape above him now seemed reproachful.
This is just the beginning of this story that takes us all over the place. We learn what Szabo does in his daytime work when he has to call in to his assistant, Melinda, to ask her to find him some help. She certainly thinks he needs help at work, but he means on the property; he hates to admit it, but he needs some help on the property — for a short time. After a few interviews with some shady characters, Melinda thinks she’s found the perfect fit when she meets Barney:
He told Melinda that he was extremely well educated but “identified with the workingman” and thought a month or so in Szabo’s bunkhouse would do him a world of good.
I’m going to stop there. There’s no sense in spoiling the story by disclosing a few of the details of Szabo’s life that need dealt with. Needless to say, I recommend it, even if the ending did leave me a bit befuddled (I’m sure that was part of the point).
Certain that I would enjoy them, I’ve been putting off reading J.M. Coetzee’s three fictional memoirs for some time, even going so far as to assume that, had I read it, I would have chosen his third, Summertime, as the 2009 winner of the Booker Prize. So, when I got that Coetzee craving, familiar over the past few years, I delved in, reading each of the three one after the other. I won’t spoil my reviews of the next two, but I will say that I was right to suspect I would enjoy the first, Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life (1997).
In writing this memoir, Coetzee has chosen to adopt a rather unique perspective (which worked so well in his fellow South African Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room): he’s writing about himself in the third person. Where one might expect “I/We lived outside the town of Worcester” one instead gets “He/They lived outside the town of Worcester.” Worcester is a small town, out of the way, in South Africa. This provincial background will haunt him later on when he wants to become a serious artist, longing for a more dramatic boyhood in, say, London. The time period is the late 1940s and early 1950s, just before and after Coetzee reaches adolescence. I’d say this background hindered him not in the least, providing ample experience for a supreme output that also happens to include a wonderful, rich book about that very background.
As the book develops, one is, of course, reminded of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In fact, in many ways, Boyhood is a portrait of who Coetzee was in youth, giving a bit of insight into how he became the author of his oeuvre. In the book, which reads much more like a novel than a memoir, Coetzee gives us youthful impressions of terror and fascination in a variety of familiar situations – at school, in sickness, at sport — and of wonder and repulsion at a dawning awareness of words, art, and social ills. Furthermore, much of this book deals with Coetzee’s early uneasy relationships with his mother and father. But similarities to a masterpiece of world literature do not diminish Coetzee’s accomplishment. In fact, I welcomed the obvious connections.
In regards to his relationship with his parents, Coetzee’s relationship with his mother is both tender and sad, rendered in unsparing prose. We sense just how much Coetzee yearns for her, feels comforted by her. At the same time, perhaps because of his dependence and certainly because of his demeanor, he yearns to separate himself and, through general coldness or alienation, succeeds in gradually pulling away, something she recognizes but is powerless to remedy.
He shares nothing with his mother. His life at school is kept a tight secret from her. She shall know nothing, he resolves, but what appears on his quarterly report, which shall be impeccable. He will always come in first in class. His conduct will always be Very Good, his progress Excellent. As long as the report is faultless, she will have no right to ask questions. That is the contract he establishes in his mind.
A central character in Boyhood, it is interesting to track his relationship with her in the future books where her absence sticks out all over the place. In this book, the absent parent (which will also change in future books) is Coetzee’s father; he’s practically on the periphery of his son’s experience at this point in time.
He has never worked out the position of his father in the household. In fact, it is not obvious to him by what right his father is there at all. In a normal household, he is prepared to accept, the father stands at the head: the house belongs to him, the wife and children live under his sway. But in their own case, and in the households of his mother’s two sisters as well, it is the mother and children who make up the core, while the husband is no more than an appendage, a contributor to the economy as a paying lodger might be.
What his father does in his absence becomes very important to Coetzee’s fate. Again, it is fascinating to track this relationship, which has a certain degree of resentment and repulsion, and see it develop into a type of tenderness. It reminded me of some of the relationships in Coetzee’s other books, principally the relationship between Michael K and his mother in Life and Times of Michael K.
Another central aspect to this book is Coetzee’s developing intellect. One passage in particular that certainly brings up A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man was the one that explored, as Coetzee grows up, his fascination with words and sounds that all connect at an early age into an intelligent perspective on language and its beautiful subtleties.
Is fok is spelled with a v, which would make it more venerable, or with an f, which would make it a truly wild word, primeval, without ancestry? The dictionary says nothing, the words are not there, none of them. / Then there are gat and poep-hol and words like them, hurled back and forth in bouts of abuse whose force he does not understand. Why couple the back of the body with the front? What have the gat-words, so heavy and guttural and black, to do with sex, with its softly inviting s and its mysterious final x?
These are all fascinating and worthwhile aspects of this book, but I hate to leave without addressing something quite obvious. Coetzee’s youth in South Africa was troubled at all turns by government sponsored racism. In this book, we get mostly confusion, as, for example, in the following passage where Coetzee is watching a black boy on the street:
So this boy who has unreflectingly kept all his life to the path of nature and innocence, who is poor and therefore good, as the poor always are in fairy-tales, who is slim as an eel and quick as a hare and would defeat him with ease in any contest of swiftness of foot or skill of hand — this boy, who is a living reproof to him, is nevertheless subjected to him in ways that embarrass him so much that he squirms and wriggles his shoulders and does not want to look at him any longer, despite his beauty.
Of course, as always, Coetzee’s skill with language and clarity — even when clarity is painful or coolly distant (as it often is when he discusses his parents) — allows for this to be much more than a simple memoir. At its heart it is still concerned with language and with the way language interacts with the world around. It’s an excellent book. And I’ll give a slight spoiler now for my upcoming posts on Youth and Summertime: they only get better.
The 2011 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction is:
The two other finalists are:
- The Privileges, by Jonathan Dee
- The Surrendered, by Chang-rae Lee
If you have read my review of Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad (linked to above), you know that I fully endorse this year’s decision. A part of me, though, likes to rush out and buy the Pulitzer winner upon hearing it, which I don’t get to do this year.
Before the Best Translated Book Award put Georges-Olivier Châteaureynard’s A Life on Paper on its longlist (and now it’s a finalist), I had never heard of this French author, despite his long career (not that this surprises me). I hope to get to know his work much better, though that will require a lot of work from translators. So far, from my slight research online, A Life on Paper (tr. from the French by Edward Gauvin, 2010) is the only work of his to find its way to English. Thanks to Small Beer Press for bringing this one to our attention, and hopefully Edward Gauvin is working on some of Châteaureynard’s novels.
A Life on Paperis a collection of more than twenty short stories compiled from several collections Châteaureynard has published over a thirty-year period. Most of the story are very short indeed. I can’t emphasize this enough: it was a delight to read one or two a day over a month. While writing this review I was often reading a passage to quote and found myself still reading after a few pages.
Categorizing Châteaureynaud seems futile. He’s called a fabulist, but I think this is too limiting; frankly, some of his stories seem to be written just for the fun of it, with no metaphorical intent whatsoever. I would say he’s like Kafka — the bizarre happens in an every-day setting and the characters keep acting like it’s completely sane — only his tone is quite different, reminding me more of Melville’s story-telling style. Well, there’s no reason to categorize him, and I hope some passages from his stories will give a better sense of whether you’d enjoy this collection.
The first story is “A Citizen Speaks,” from April 1974. It’s only a couple of pages long, a good introduction to the collection because it introduces right away just how strange this book can be. Here’s how it begins, first in the first-person plural and then in narrowing down to the first-person singular:
As for the blight, we call it rust for its color. In reality, whether mold or oxide, its true nature eludes us. Does it not assail stone and slag alike? Both zinc and bronze? Even woodwork corrodes here. The leprosy spares only living things: a tree will spend ten years unscathed, slowly rising over a path, but let a branch be cut, treated, painted, and varnished — that branch will be disease-ridden in a few months. So unerring is it that old men’s complexions often imitate its taint. That was how my father died: reddish, as though life had singed him.
In a clearing separated from everything else, seeming to exist somewhere else, in fact, is a marble statue of a fawn. As unique as the clearing is, though, the fawn is not immune to the blight.
On his cheeks, chest, and thighs blossomed brown spatters of blight; hardly the least curious feature of this kind of decay is that it begins from within, making its way from the heart of the thing to its surface.
I’m skipping a lot here (even though it’s such a short story), but in an effort to show some of the descriptive powers at work, and some of the strange imagery, I want to move to the point in the story where the narrator has an irrepressible desire to stab the statue with a stick.
From the wound, with a stirring as of dust, red shavings drained away, a coarse powder of mingled rust and marble that I momentarily mistook for blood. I could not have been more terrified had the faun brought his hands to his chest.
“A Citizen Speaks” is not the strongest story in the collection, but the narrative pull and the fluid writing was certainly enough to get me hooked. Yes, I pretty much knew then that I would enjoy this book.
“A Life on Paper,” the next story in the collection, introduces a narrator, a type of academic, who is fascinated by what is called the Siegling-Brunet collection. It is in this story that I first felt the whiffs of that old style of narration with the formal tone that still manages to contain irony, humor, and emotion. It also shows how Châteaureynaud can treat a ludicrous subject with seriousness that passes on to the reader.
The Siegling-Brunet collection no doubt constitutes the most extensive gathering of photographs devoted to a single person. Kathrin Laetitia Siegling was born in London on January 12, 1939. On April 14, 1960, she died in Amiens, where she had moved with her husband François Brunet. She lived, then, some 7,750 days, during which, at the rate of some dozen shots every twenty-four hours, her picture was taken 93,284 times. To the best of my knowledge, the negatives were never preserved, but the 93,284 prints were.
Sadly for our narrator, the photographs are now scattered around.
Victims of a lack of imagination too common to waste time maligning, Brunet’s heirs all but gave away the chests that contained, in its entirety, an iconography unique in all the world: the life of a woman captured and made fast hour after hour, from birth to death.
What I liked so much about this story is that it remained focused not on Kathrin, the subject of the photographs, but on her obsessed father, Anthony Siegling. What was he trying to do? Why? And how exactly could he have practically accomplished what he did?
We must imagine what these twenty years of unyielding routine were for him and her. For twenty years, Anthony Siegling never went to bed without first passing through that doorway, bathed in red light, to his darkroom; without having selected, enlarged, developed and fixed, dried and glazed a dozen portraits of his daughter. What could his thoughts, his state of mind have been — his exaltation and, almost certainly, his occasional exhaustion? With his infinite patience, night after night, image after image, was he able, in discerning an almost imperceptible change in Kathrin’s features, to surprise time at work? For truly, the mystery of time itself is caught in the continuity of the Siegling-Brunet collection. Kathrin’s appearance remains unchanged from photo to photo, and yet the first show us a newborn, and the last a woman dead at twenty.
The death of Kathrin is fittingly anti-climactic. Such is not the case with another story about the death of a young woman, “The Peacocks.”
To introduce a couple that must have been fun to write because they were certainly fun to read, I’d like to touch on “Unlivable” and then look a bit more closely at “Icarus Saved from the Skies.”
“Unlivable” begins in a riot of humorous details that are, on the surface, pointless, but which lend to a cumulative effect. It’s the “(picnic, lighting)” kind of detail, and I think Châteaureynaud’s use of Nabokov’s method works well. Let’s throw Woody Allen in the mix of “styles I thought of” as well; I can almost see him delivering this as his monologue at the beginning of Annie Hall.
Accommodations obsess me. I have what you might call a housing neurosis. Most of my childhood was spent in cramped quarters (my mother sublet the cellar to me and my father), leaving me with a tendency toward claustrophobia no less crippling than the legacy of agoraphobia bequeathed me on visits to my grandparents (father’s side), a pair of fanatical balloonists. I’d rather not discuss my other grandparent’s house; my asthma specialist says it’s best not to think about it.
Without making too big a deal of things, suffice it to say I’ve gone through a few rough patches. If I tallied them up, the lows of my life as a renter would vastly outnumber the highs. For a while I lived in flames. Well, I exaggerate. They were flamelets, but annoying all the same. At all hours of the night and day, fires would break out spontaneously in my apartment, here or there, behind a painting, inside a closet, under a chair, in the laundry hamper . . . None of my belongings were safe. How often did I find myself penniless, needing a new driver’s license, all because my wallet had gone up in smoke along with my jacket while I was asleep?
Eventually our neurotic narrator seems to get the perfect house.
Now, to end with a look at one of the more fabulistic of the bunch, “Icarus Saved from the Skies.” In this story, Châteaureynaud destroys a marriage he begins hopefully on the basis of a fantastic deformity:
The ironies of fate are infinite. Around the time I turned twenty, despite having decided to steer clear of both doctors and women, I met Maude, then a surgical intern, and at her pressing request became her lover.
Don’t go thinking I’ve ever borne the slightest ill will toward the medical body, much less a woman’s body. My prejudice extends only to the physician or female likely to see me naked, discover my misfortune, and make it even crueler to bear.
From the title, we can guess quickly what the deformity is. With humor and pathos, we see the narrator and Maude become more and more intimate until he is forced to show her his budding wings. She’s fascinated and determined to help him however she can. Where he wants to melt into a corner to hide his deformity, she wants him to have pride and to feel blessed. But he can’t: “Who was I really? Did I even know? A cripple? A monster? A future carnival freak? An angel in the making?”
He is ecstatic when one day, after their marriage, the wings seem to shrink. Maude becomes depressed.
It wasn’t long before I accused her of being more fascinated by my deformity than in love with me. To this she snapped back that I had the wingspan of a waterfowl and was birdbrained to boot.
She’d scored a point there and, beating a hasty retreat, I went to sulk in my office.
Yes, there’s a bit of Wodehouse in that strangely both understated and overstated, “She’d scored a point there.” But I can’t see Wodehouse taking this narrator to the darkness as Châteaureynaud will do.
And if, one of these days, someone else besides Maude were to show interest . . . A poor way to thank the woman who’d taken me as I was at the worst moment of my life, but my own underlying ingratitude reassured me at heart: I saw it as proof I wasn’t on my way to being an angel.
I really could go on. I looked forward to a new story each night, knowing that it would be different from the other stories in the collection and different from anything else I’d read. Châteaureynaud has immense literary skill and he’s put it to work to both give us pleasure and give us something to think about.
As an afterthought, it’s been over a months since I finished this book, and I still haven’t found its substitute, a bit of short reading guaranteed to please daily.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s “A Withered Branch” was first published in The New Yorker‘s April 18, 2011, issue.
Click for a larger image.
Back in 2009, Petrushevskaya published “The Fountain House” in The New Yorker (Aug. 31, 2009). What a strange story about a bus crash, a death, a body stolen from a morgue, and a ressurrection. I didn’t understand that tale well, but I enjoyed reading it. I can say again with “A Withered Brach” that I didn’t understand it very well — only this time, I didn’t particularly enjoy it. It’s not that I disliked it. I enjoyed the writing — the way Petrushevskaya leaves much unsaid — and the emotion is felt. It’s just that when I closed it, I was left wanting more, and not in a good way. Of course, I would appreciate anyone’s efforts to help me get more out of it.
The story takes place in 1973. The narrator has just strolled into Vilnius, a city in Lithuania which was at the time in the USSR. The first paragraph has the narrator gasping in relief when she gets there: “I was alive. I almost cried with joy.”
She had made her way to Vilnius by hitchiking.
We ate. They drank all the vodka. I told them I was on the wagon. Then the thug (my driver was peeing behind a tree) asked me whom I was going to sleep with that night. I said, “With Alexei” — my driver — “of course.” The thug didn’t argue: I was Alexei’s passenger. When Alexei came back and we got in the truck, he asked me a question. I told him that I couldn’t, that I was sorry; he didn’t insist — he was tired and drunk.
The remainder of the story shows the narrator making her way with no real home, depending on the kindness of strangers. One in particular is her “twin soul,” brought up in the very first sentence. I don’t want to go into details about how they’re twin souls, but they share tragedy. By the end, the twin soul is “a withered branch on a dead tree.”
I find it interesting that I like how Petrushevskaya leaves much unsaid, refers to emotional hot points in asides, and at the same time I felt that the story was lacking something. It’s short enough I’ll reread it, but on a first impression, I’m a bit disappointed.
And in more prize news, the 2011 IMPAC Dublin Award shortlist has been announced. I’ve read two (the ones with links below).
- Galore, by Michael Crummey
- The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver
- The Vagrants, by Yiyun Li
- Ransom, by David Malouf
- Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann
- Little Bird of Heaven, by Joyce Carol Oates
- Jasper Jones, by Craig Silvey
- Brooklyn, by Colm Tóibín
- Love and Summer, by William Trevor
- After the Fire, a Still, Small Voice, by Evie Wyld
For the first time since I started following the prize, there are no books in translation, which is a shame. Also noteworthy is the inclusion of three Irish writers and three Australian writers. However, I’m all for their inclusion. For fun, Malouf won the award in 1996 for Remembering Babylon and Tóibín won in 2006 for The Master.
Of the two I’ve read, I greatly preferred Brooklyn. I have and am looking forward to Love and Summer, and I have but am not particularly looking forward to Let the Great World Spin. I’m not particularly interested in The Lacuna, though I do like some of Kingsolver’s other work.