This is exciting news! I’ve been waiting for this list for over a month since last year the longlist was announced at the end of January. Click here for the official announcement on the Three Percent blog. And here is the list of 25 titles — if this isn’t the most exciting list of books I’ve seen in a while . . . well, there’s no “if”: this is the most exciting list of titles I’ve seen in a long while.
- Leeches, by David Albahari, tr. from the Serbian by Ellen Elias-Bursac (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
- My Two Worlds, by Sergio Chejfec, tr. from the Spanish by Margaret B. Carson (Open Letter)
- Demolishing Nisard, by Eric Chevillard, tr. from the French by Jordan Stump (Dalkey Archive)
- Private Property, by Paule Constant, tr. from the French by Margot Miller and France Grenaudier-Klijn (University of Nebraska Press)
- Lightning, by Jean Echenoz, tr. from the French by Linda Coverdale (New Press)
- Zone, by Mathias Énard, tr. from the French by Charlotte Mandell (Open Letter)
- Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?, by Johan Harstad, tr. from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin (Seven Stories)
- Upstaged, by Jacques Jouet, tr. from the French by Leland de la Durantaye (Dalkey Archive)
- Fiasco, by Imre Kertész, tr. from the Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson (Melville House)
- Montecore, by Jonas Hassen Khemiri, tr. from the Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles (Knopf)
- Kornél Esti, by Dezsö Kosztolányi, tr. from the Hungarian by Bernard Adams (New Directions)
- I Am a Japanese Writer, by Dany Laferrière, tr. from the French by David Hormel (Douglas & MacIntyre)
- Suicide, by Edouard Levé, tr. from the French by Jan Steyn (Dalkey Archive)
- New Finnish Grammar, by Diego Marani, tr. from the Italian by Judith Landry (Dedalus)
- Purgatory, by Tomás Eloy Martínez, tr. from the Spanish by Frank Wynne (Bloomsbury)
- Stone Upon Stone, by Wieslaw Mysliwski, tr. from the Polish by Bill Johnston (Archipelago Books)
- Scenes from Village Life, by Amos Oz, tr. from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
- The Shadow-Boxing Woman, by Inka Parei, tr. from the German by Katy Derbyshire (Seagull Books)
- Funeral for a Dog, by Thomas Pletzinger, tr. from the German by Ross Benjamin (W.W. Norton)
- Scars, by Juan José Saer, tr. from the Spanish by Steve Dolph (Open Letter)
- Kafka’s Leopards, by Moacyr Scliar, tr. from the Portuguese by Thomas O. Beebee (Texas Tech University Press)
- Seven Years, by Peter Stamm, tr. from the German by Michael Hofmann (Other Press)
- The Truth About Mary, by Jean-Phillippe Toussaint, tr. from the French by Matthew B. Smith (Dalkey Archive)
- In Red, by Magdelena Tulli, tr. from the Polish by Bill Johnston (Archipelago Books)
- Never Any End to Paris, tr. from the Enrique Vila-Matas (New Directions)
I have read only four of these and have four more on the shelf waiting for me. I can’t wait to learn more about the ones I’m unfamiliar with and hope to get through a number of these before the ten finalists are announced on April 10. The winner will be announed as part of the PEN World Voices Festival later in the spring.
Run down by language: French (8), Spanish (4), German (3), Hungarian (2), Polish (2), Serbian (1), Norwegian (1), Swedish (1), Italian (1), Hebrew (1), Portuguese (1).
This list comes from 17 publishers! I’m sad that NYRB Classics was shut out, though I don’t know how many eligible titles they published this year (I would have voted for Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s The Letter Killers Club (my review here)). However, a few other favorites have strong representation: Dalkey Archive (4), Open Letter (3), Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2), New Directions (2), and Archipelago Books (2). All have catalogs worth following.
Here are links to my reviews of what I’ve read so far:
With a list this good, I don’t know where to turn next.
Here are links to the reviews of some of the books that I’ve read subsequent to posting this:
When I read Henry James, I always come away feeling somehow haunted. Ghosts of dreams and passion run through the pages, and physical death, at times, seems almost redundant. Consequently, Jean Strouse’s marvelous Alice James: A Biography (1980) struck me as particularly Jamesian.
Review copy courtesy of NYRB Classics.
Alice James was the youngest child of Henry James, Sr. and Mary Walsh James. She had four older brothers, the two oldest being William and Henry, commonly (and rightly) considered two of the greatest minds in American history. In learning about William and Henry I’d heard of Alice, but really I knew nothing about her. I am extremely happy to say that I enjoyed learning about her from Strouse as much (well, almost) as learning anything from William and Henry.
Strouse opens the biography with the control of and insight into the material we soon realize we will find on each page:
“When I am gone,” Alice James wrote to her brother William as she was dying, “pray don’t think of me simply as a creature who might have been something else, had neurotic science been born.”
By neurotic science she meant the science of nervous disorders, since her existence had long been dominated by mysterious illnesses for which no organic cause could be discovered and no cure found. Her prescient plea to William insisted that her life be judged on its own terms, without apology or excuse. At the same time, it recognized the temptation her friends and posterity would feel to explain her somehow, to imagine what she might have been. And in recognizing that temptation, Alice acknowledged that her life appeared to have been a failure.
This sense of failure due to sickness (though not the plea to be judged on her own terms) immediately brought to mind the character Mrs. Costello in Henry James’ ”Daisy Miller”: “Mrs. Costello was a widow with a fortune; a person of much distinction, who frequently intimated that, if she were not so dreadfully liable to sick-headaches, she would probably have left a deeper impress upon her time” (my review of “Daisy Miller” — which includes the quote — here). Indeed, Alice James had a brilliant mind which she applied to culture and politics, though her mental and physical capacity couldn’t support it. Of course, we’re talking about society at the end of the nineteenth century: the odds of Alice making use of her brilliant mind, regardless of physical problems, were never going to be good, something Henry James picked up on early.
The James family had the money to chase education wherever they thought they’d find it (and Henry James, Sr. spent his time trying to figure out the best way to parent and educate children), so the James children enjoyed “a sensuous education” from American and Europe. But as much as Alice was encouraged to partake, she was still expected to remain at home, waiting to get married (she never did get married — no signs she ever had any love interest). As much as she loved her father and as much as he supported the development of her intellect, years later, in her now famous diary, “[s]he could not turn the towering rage that comes through in her writing even twenty years after the experience itself against the kind father who had so blithely stimulated and thwarted her.”
While Strouse makes it clear that Alice was highly intelligent (something her two oldest brothers, especially Henry, saw and seemed to appreciate) and was thwarted by her father, this biography doesn’t go so far as to definitively blame her fragile mental state on anyone. Though the relationship caused strain, Alice was obviously close to her father, even going so far as to discuss her suicidal thoughts with him, receiving, in the process, his permission to commit suicide as long as it was truly the best option and she did it in a way that wouldn’t upset everyone. She thanked him for his permission (and he effectively took away her opportunity to rebel against him by committing suicide, since he now permitted it, which seems to have been his intent all along). Alice was also very close to William, and he seemed at times to be strangely flirtatious with her. Strouse downplays the potential connections, but it was in the summer of 1878 when she had the first, and maybe her worst, major breakdown, just before William was married.
Of course, this doesn’t mean Alice and William had anything untoward in their relationship. Alice’s breakdown seemed to coincide with times when someone’s affections threatened to be focused elsewhere, whether it was William or, later, Alice’s dearest friend Katherine Peabody Loring (another relationship where Strouse emphasizes that there is no real evidence that there was anything other than strong mutual, unsexual affection on both sides). Strouse presents Alice’s infirmity as a means to get people to focus on her, however intentional or not it may have been. Late in her relatively short life (she lived from 1848 and died of breast cancer in 1892), she was too sick to go anywhere and was tended closely by her brother Henry and Katherine Loring. She was simply waiting for death:
“The fact is, I have been dead so long and it has been simply such a grim shoving of the hours behind me as I faced a ceaseless possible horror, since that hideous summer of ’78 when I went down to the deep sea, its dark waters closed over me, and I knew neither hope nor peace; that now it’s only the shrivelling of an empty pea pod that has to be completed.”
It was also late in her life that Alice started her diary, which in large part she dictated to Katherine Loring. This is her literary legacy, and it has been said to be the equal of anything Henry or William wrote (I’ve never read the diary and find this hard to believe, but she certainly shows a sensitivity to the nuances in the world around her and an ability to look coldly inward that we might expect in William and Henry’s writing). William and Henry found out about the diary only after Alice died. Their responses to it are fascinating. Henry’s in particular shows just how insightful that man was as he seems to get Alice’s predicament perfectly:
The diary, he wrote, had impressed him immensely, “but it also puts before me what I was tremendously conscious of in her lifetime — that the extraordinary intensity of her will and personality really would have made the equal, the reciprocal life of a ‘well’ person — in the usual world — almost impossible to her — so that her disastrous, her tragic health was in a manner the only solution for her of the practical problem of life — as it suppressed the element of equality, reciprocity, etc.”
As a final note, though Strouse keeps the focus on Alice throughout, this book is also a great look at the entire James family. It doesn’t overlook the two middle brothers, Wilki and Rob, and some of the best portions are spent looking at potential ways Alice’s life affected William and Henry’s work (Strouse later brings up the potential connection between Alice and Mrs. Costello). I enjoyed each page and highly recommend it.
The finalists for the 2012 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction have been announced (here). The winner will be named on March 26.
- Lost Memory of Skin, by Russell Banks
- The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories, by Don DeLillo
- The Artist of Disappearance, by Anita Desai
- We Others: New and Selected Stories, by Steven Millhauser
- The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka
The only one I’ve read is We Others, and I fully endorse it (my review here). I’m happy to see two of the finalists are short story collections.
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 “A Prairie Girl” was originally published in the February 27, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
Click for a larger image.
I’ve been running behind on my New Yorker reading lately. Last night I made the goal (easy, since I have today off) to read the story in the morning, whatever it be. I was thrilled, then, that it was a story by Thomas McGuane, who I’ve been drawn to over the past years. His stories have a mixture of seriousness and humor, usually set in Montana or somewhere else in the American West, and this calls to me. I was also happy to see that the story was very short.
Though short, “A Prairie Girl” covers a lot of ground. It opens, I’m assuming, sometime in the last couple of decades of the twentieth century:
When the old brothel — known as the Butt Hut — closed down, years ago, the house it had occupied was advertised in the paper: “Home on the river: eight bedrooms, eight baths, no kitchen. Changing times force sale.”
The omniscient plural first-person narrator (quite a feat, if you can do it — it worked fine here; there is even a reference to the townspeople making up a fine Greek chorus) takes us comically through the history of the town by way of the brothel, presenting a nice local scene:
Who were they? Some were professionals from as far away as New Orleans and St. Louis. A surprising number were country schoolteachers, off for the summer. Some, from around the state, worked a day or two a week, but were otherwise embedded in conventional lives. When one of them married a local, the couple usually moved away, and over time our town lost a good many useful men — cowboys, carpenters, electricians. This pattern seemed to land most heavily on our tradespeople and worked a subtle hardship on the community. But it was supposed by the pious to be a sacrifice for the greater good.
When the brothel closed, all of the girls leave town save one, Mary Elizabeth Foley. She attended the Lutheran church and when a woman (her future mother-in-law) asked her where she was from, she said, “What business is it of yours?” McGuane goes for more humor: “Where was the meekness appropriate to a woman with her past? It was outrageous. From then on, the energy that ought to have been spent on listening to the service was dedicated to beaming malice at Mary Elizabeth Foley.”
Mary Elizabeth Foley is an ambitious woman, and she eventually weds — because she truly does love him and he loves her — Arnold, a gay man, the son of the president of the local bank. After all, “[s]he had been trained to accept the privacy of every dream world.”
The story moves quickly through their lives, much like an Alice Munro story. It says something for the story and its ambiguities that I wanted more, quite a bit more. I’m still trying to work out if that is a fault in an otherwise interesting story about the loving (though duplicitous) relationship between a former prostitute and a gay man in a tiny, judgmental community, but one where time can burnish faults. Where in a Munro story the clipped passage of time is part of the theme, I’m not sure it was here, and I wanted more room for the characters to develop.
Still, a nice story to get me back to reading The New Yorker fiction each week.
A couple of years ago I tried to read Geoff Dyer’s novel Jeff in Venice, Death in Varnasi on an airplane, and I didn’t get past the first few pages. It’s true: I cannot read on airplanes for some reason. Still, when I landed I moved on to another book, and, consequently, I’m coming late to the Geoff Dyer party. I was thrilled when I found out he had a new book coming out that is based on Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker (how in the world did he sell that?) and thought it was high-time I get to know the man who would write such a book (just not through Jeff in Venice – I haven’t been able to get over that terrible pun). I chose to begin with Dyer’s short book on The Great War, The Missing of the Somme (1994). And so, a short review:
I say “book about The Great War,” but, though there are dates and statistics, The Missing of the Somme is more a book about memory and forgetting, as well as how we control or even transform memory. Of course, Dyer uses this to redirect our focus on The Great War itself, being, as it is, the subject of many campaigns of remembrance, some, in fact, even before the battles were fought: “Even while it was raging, the characteristic attitude of the war was to look to the time when it would be remembered.”
Dyers wonders in this book how — and whether — the War will be remembered in the future, assuming, as he believes the generations before him have, that his would be the last generation to try to remember it. It’s been over fifteen years since Dyer wrote this book, and it’s nearly been a century since The Great War began. In the last couple of years, the last veterans of the war have died. I wonder, too, whether my generation will be the last to “remember” — or, rather, perhaps, the last generation to remember people “remembering.” It really is only a matter of time:
‘Memory has a spottiness,’ writes Updike, ‘as if the film was sprinkled with developer instead of immersed in it.’ Each of these photos is marred, spotted, blotched; their imperfections make them seem like photos of memories. In some of them is an encroaching white light, creeping over the image, wiping it out. Others are fading: photos of forgetting. Eventually nothing will remain but blank spaces.
But some of the more fascinating passages of this book focus on the ways people have tried create a specific type of memory of the war. In particular, Dyer looks closely at poems and monuments as two more or less permanent ways to remember and control memory, and my favorite portions deal with the monuments. It is here that we get what I take to be one of Dyer’s signature moves — inserting himself into the text. While I’m not sure it was necessary, we follow Dyer as he and some of his friends travel around to various monuments erected to remember The Great War.
I wouldn’t say this is the best book on World War I or even a necessary one, but it is, particularly for its short length, one that pays of and that enlightens, particularly as it focuses on the strangeness of memory and the quest to remember. It certainly has me anxious to read his book on D.H. Lawrence (which I have) and on Stalker (which I’ll be getting soon).
One of my favorite short stories is Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” (it’s right up there with almost anything else written by Flannery O’Connor). The story was first published in 1953 in the anthology Modern Writing I and in 1955 was included in the short story collection A Good Man Is Hard to Find. I have read it two or three times a year since the first time I read it around fifteen years ago. I have no inkling that this routine will cease. Not only is it a story that contains layers and layers and is always growing, it is also just a fun story to read, brilliant and painfully hilarious in its development and dark and powerful in its controversial conclusion.
I’ve become a big fan of The Library of America’s series (if not the covers themselves, but I remove the covers and they look lovely together in a row). This collection contains all of her short stories and her two novels, as well as a load of letters, essays, and other nick nacks she wrote through her short life. It’s a dream edition if you’re interested in digging into her work.
When I first read “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” it shocked me more than any other work of literature had to that point — of that I’m sure — and I’m struggling now to think of any work of literature since that has had the same sudden impact. It was the first thing I’d read by O’Connor, so I absolutely wasn’t expecting the violence and even four or five paragraphs before the ending I had no guess as to where it was going. When I finished it, I was drained and I loved it, but I certainly didn’t understand it. Now, a few dozen reads later and as familiar as I am with it down to its sentences, I’m still not sure I “understand” it, which is I’m sure why my relationship with it has been so fruitful and shows no signs of wearing out.
When the story begins, we meet a family I would consider it torture to be with for more than a few minutes. The head of the house is Bailey. He has three children, two loud-mouthed, selfish children who lack all discipline, and one baby, whom his wife quietly holds or feeds throughout the story. Bailey’s mother also lives with them. She’s a prideful old “lady” of the South, the type who will dress up for a road trip so that, if they get in a wreck, “anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.” No one in the family likes her. The parents ignore her while the children openly mock her. Here’s how O’Connor introduces the story and its characters.
The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee and she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey’s mind. Bailey was the son she lived with, her only boy. He was sitting on the edge of his chair at the table, bent over the orange sport section of the Journal. “Now look here, Bailey,” she said, “see here, read this,” and she stood with one hand on her thin hip and the other rattling the newspaper at his bald head. “Here this fellow that calls himself The Misfit is aloose from the Federal Pen and headed toward Florida and you read here what it says he did to these people. Just you read it. I wouldn’t take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it. I couldn’t answer to my conscience if I did.”
Bailey, used to such manipulation, pays her no attention, doesn’t look up and doesn’t speak. Grandma looks around the room, still grasping for anything: the children have been to Florida, she says, but have never been to east Tennessee. Eight-year-old John Wesley shows just how much respect they offer this old woman: “If you don’t want to go to Florida, why dontcha stay at home?” June Star, also without raising her head, responds, “She wouldn’t stay at home for a million bucks. [. . .] Afraid she’d miss something. She has to go everywhere we go.” Bailey keeps reading and the mother keeps feeding the baby apricots.
The next day, the grandma dressed nicely, the family piles into the car to drive to Florida. Bailey is driving, his wife is holding their baby in the front seat, and the two older children are sitting in the back on either side of the grandma. Grandma has also secretly packed her cat, since her cat, obviously, couldn’t bear to be without her for three days.
As they drive, we get a little portrait of the South through the grandmother’s misguided nostalgia:
“In my time,” said the grandmother, folding her thin veined fingers, “children were more respectful of their native states and their parents and everything else. People did right then. Oh look at the cute little pickaninny!” she said and pointed to a Negro child standing in the door of a shack. “Wouldn’t that make a picture, now?” she asked and they all turned and looked at the little Negro out of the back window. He waved.
“He didn’t have any britches on,” June Star said.
“He probably didn’t have any,” the grandmother explained. “Little niggers in the country don’t have things like we do. If I could paint, I’d paint that picture,” she said.
O’Connor seems to be giving us a dose of misdirection here. For one thing, as much as we’ve heard the grandmother talk about the good old days, this story is only slightly critical of such wrong-headedness. This isn’t a story about the Old South and the unfortunate new world. The grandma is wrong-headed and selfish, presumably both because it’s in her nature and because it’s the only way she can bolster her pride in the midst of her disrespectful descendents, but she could have been wrong-headed and selfish about anything — the point is that she is wrong-headed and selfish, as is everyone else in this story. This is going to get them all in trouble, and it’s an open question at the end whether the grandmother has done anything to redeem herself or not.
And she has something very specific for which she needs some redemption. As they drive, she begins to dream about a beautiful plantation she remembers from her childhood. She’s certain it’s close by and, rather than ask directly if she can go and see it, she manipulates the children into forcing their parents to take them there. She tells them that there is a secret panel in the house where the family hid its silver, and Sherman, when he marched through, couldn’t find it. It in’t true, though, curiously, she wishes it were. The older children are too unruly, so Bailey relents and takes the rough dirt road to the old house. It’s not for a while, but eventually the grandmother realizes the house is in Tennessee, not Georgia. At that moment, her embarrassment and fear of reprisal create a physical reaction in her, causing her to kick her hidden cat, who jumps on Bailey, who wrecks the car. When they recover, they see approaching a “hearse-like automobile.”
O’Connor paces The Misfits arrival perfectly, though we never for a second (the car is “hearse-like,” after all) think that anything good is going to happen. The Misfit, along with his two companions, comes to the shaken family.
“Lady,” the man said to the children’s mother, “would you mind calling them children to sit down by you? Children make me nervous. I want all you to sit down right together there where you’re at.”
“What are you telling US what to do for?” June Star asked.
Behind them the line of woods gaped like a dark open mouth. “Come here,” said their mother.
“Look here now,” Bailey began suddenly, “we’re in a predicament! We’re in . . .”
The grandmother shrieked. She scrambled to her feet and stood staring. “You’re The Misfit!” she said. “I recognized you at once!”
“Yes’m,” the man said, smiling slightly as if he were pleased in spite of himself to be known, “but it would have been better for all of you, lady, if you hadn’t of reckernized me.”
Bailey turned his head sharply and said something to his mother that shocked even the children. The old lady began to cry and The Misfit reddened.
“Lady,” he said, “don’t you get upset. Sometimes a man says things he don’t mean. I don’t reckon he meant to talk to you thataway.”
There have been many times when I’ve just sat down to read a bit of this story, to see how it develops to its ending, but each time I get to the arrival of The Misfit I just read it straight through and probably stop breathing, though I don’t know. It’s horrifying, even as the grandmother keeps trying to save her own life through shallow platitudes that The Misfit responds to “kindly.” The mother, who up till now has spoken only a word or two, is given one of the story’s most chilling lines: “Yes, thank you.” And there is the story’s last, strange line: “It’s no real pleasure in life.”
It’s a chilling story, fast-paced despite the carefully controlled philosophical underpinnings. O’Connor was a remarkable writer who should be read as frequently as any of the great masters of literature. If you haven’t already done so, this story is, I think, a great place to begin your own relationship with this brilliant woman.
When I was reading about Millhauser’s latest collection of new and selected stories, We Others (my review here), a few of the reviews lamented that the title story in The King in the Tree (2003) wasn’t included. I happened to have The King in the Tree, a collection of three novellas, on my shelf, still unread, and wanted to know what the fuss was about. After all, I think all of Millhauser’s writing is worth reading, so what made “The King in the Tree” stand out?
As mentioned above, The King in the Tree consists of three novellas: “Revenge,” “An Adventure of Don Juan,” and “The King in the Tree.” Each deals with the extreme results of love and lust and jealousy — love can ruin, love can be indistinguishable from pain. Millhauser is the contemporary torchbearer of the Romantics.
The first story, the shortest, will remind readers of Robert Browning’s classic dramatic monologues, particularly “My Last Duchess,” where a murderous Duke shows off a painting of his late wife to an increasingly horrified guest. In “Revenge” a widow in her late forties is showing her house to a prospective buyer, a slightly younger woman. It’s a dramatic monologue where we only know how the buyer is responding by what the widow says in response. The story is divided up by the locations in the house as the widow and the buyer move from place to place: Front Hall, Living Room, Downstairs Bath, Kitchen, etc. Here we meet both women in the front hall:
This is the hall. It isn’t much of one, but it does the job. Boots here, umbrellas there. I hate those awful houses, don’t you, where the door opens right into the living room. Don’t you? It’s like being introduced to some man at a party who right away throws his arm around your shoulders. No, give me a little distance, thank you, a little formality. I’m all for the slow buildup, the gradual introduction.
The widow’s husband, Robert, has been dead for about a year. Somehow, as she shows the rooms of the house, the widow also tells the story of how she and Robert met, a bit about their marriage, and, most importantly, how their marriage began to fall apart when she had a shadow of a thought confirmed: Robert told her he was having an affair.
Poor Robert! What a sad falling off. And so, creature of habit that I was, I wanted to comfort him, the poor man. I mean there he was, sitting all doomed and sort of crumpled and . . . and banal, so of course the only thing you want to do is reassure your husband, while at the same time it’s dawning on you what he’s actually said, and there’s a panic starting somewhere because this handsome man with his doomed look has gone and done something bad to you, if only you could stop comforting him and start concentrating long enough to figure out just what it unbearably is.
Of course, the news does sink in, and the couple drifts apart while remaining in the home’s close quarters. In the aftermath of the revelation, the widow “slept without sleeping, woke without waking.” The story continues to follow its disturbing track as the widow confesses how this event unhinged her, made her rethink all she’d ever thought about herself; suddenly she became painfully aware of her own body and examined the bodies of all women she encountered, stripping them as she imagined her husband was.
Now, this story doesn’t go to the same place as “My Last Duchess.” There doesn’t appear to be any reason to doubt the widow when she says Robert died when his car slid on black ice. But what we’re left with is this woman who has never had the opportunity to exact revenge on anyone, and she acknowledges candidly, “A house is a dangerous place: kitchen knifes, deadly hammers, sleeping pills, gas stoves . . .” A woman who, as they descend into the cellar, says to her prospective buyer: “Attics for suicide, cellars for murder.”
But “Revenge” isn’t about a twist or a shock. It’s about the gradual build up to shock and horror; it’s the “slow buildup, the gradual introduction,” that the narrator advocates in that first paragraph. It’s not my favorite Millhauser story, but I found it both fun and psychologically acute as we watch this widow slowly uncover just how love and jealousy have pulled her apart.
An Adventure of Don Juan
“An Adventure of Don Juan” begins in the canals of classical Venice. Don Juan is thirty years old. He does whatever he wants with whomever he wants. He is everything: “Men envied him, women of stainless virtue stood in the window to watch him rider by.” But as the story opens, Don Juan is unhappy. He has been in Venice for over a year, but something about it seems false. It isn’t that he’s bored but like “something akin to tiredness that wasn’t tiredness — as if a little crack, like a tiny flaw in crystal, had appeared deep within him and begun to spread.” Millhauser outdoes himself when he describes the allure and the facade by describing Venice’s watery streets:
What bound him was the shimmer of the place, the sense of a world given over to duplication and dissolution: the stone steps going down into the water and joining their own reflection seemed to invite you down into a watery kingdom of forbidden desires, while the water trembling in ripples of light on the stone facades and the arches of ancient bridges turned the solid world into nothing but air and light, an illusion, a wizard’s spell.
Then Don Juan runs into a rich Englishman named Augustus Hood. Hood invites him to his estate in England, and Don Juan sees an opportunity for something new. At the estate, Don Juan meets two sisters, Mary (Augustus’s virtuous wife) and Georgiana.
As the story progresses — or, rather, as Millhauser pulls his rope more and more taut, as if he’s gradually torturing these characters on the rack, millimeter by millimeter — Mary falls in desperate love with Don Juan, but Don Juan, against his nature, forbids himself of this prize because he really wants Georgiana. She, frustratingly, is not interested. In the backdrop is the marvelous estate of Augustus Hood, on which Hood has created a phantasmagoria (you can’t read too many Millhauser stories without that word coming to mind) out of classic scenes. He has, very realistically, created the mouth to hell, and going into it, much like we would a ride at Disneyland, we find that he has employed people to enact suffering as they play the role of the damned. In its execution, no detail was so small it could be ignored. Don Juan finds this all terrifying but intriguing. On the other side of the coin, Hood has also created Arcadia, which is Georgiana’s favorite place.
All of this artifice, all of this duplication and dissolution, as Don Juan learns what it is to suffer for (or rather, without) love. This is a fine story, and I liked it more than “Revenge,” but the best is yet to come.
The King in the Tree
“The King in the Tree” is Millhauser’s fabulous retelling of Tristan and Ysolt. And if Millhauser kept pulling a taut rope tighter in “An Adventure of Don Juan,” here we think the rope or the victims on the rack must surely break on page 5. By page 20 we can’t believe he’s still tightening it. Yet he pulls it tighter and tighter through 100 perfectly controlled pages, and in the end no one is spared.
Our narrator here is Thomas of Cornwall, King Mark’s faithful counselor. The King has recently wed the beautiful Ysolt of Ireland, and the only person he trusts to keep her safe is his loyal nephew Tristan. The King has essentially decreed that they should remain close. Of course, even on page one, rumors are abounding. The story begins like this:
The Queen is a whore — cut off her nose. The Queen is lecherous — burn her. Such are the interesting remarks one hears at court, from those who dislike the King’s new bride. Others, it is true, speak of the Queen’s exceeding beauty. By this they mean the Queen is guilty and should be hanged. For my part, I believe the Queen is beautiful and must be watched closely.
The King, for his part, wants to showcase his faith in his nephew and in his bride, but of course he cannot ignore what everyone is saying. Rumors might have been enough for him to act had the rumors been about anyone else, but to hang his nephew and bride for treason he needs evidence — he doesn’t want to find any evidence!
And Thomas is somewhere in the middle. He is loyal to the King, but he doesn’t want to bring the King pain. Which is impossible. The rumors cause pain, confirming the rumors will cause pain. Proving them wrong . . . well, how can you ever prove the negative here? Just because the King bursts in on Tristan and Ysolt fully clothed at one moment doesn’t mean they weren’t naked in a passionate embrace the moment before. No, it isn’t very long before Thomas admits to being on the side of death, knowing that the promise of more love means more ruin.
So the novella goes: the King feels satisfied that nothing untoward is going on between Tristan and Ysolt, but the rumors do not stop, so the King perches in a tree waiting to find them out. When they appear to be fully virtuous, he feels satisfied that nothing untoward is going on between them . . . and so on. And Millhauser keeps tightening the rope without breaking it. Soon, even their apparent chastity is a source of madness for the King:
Does the King fear their abstinence, suspecting it to be the sign of a love higher than his own? Or is it that, although he cannot bear to be betrayed, he can bear even less the shame of being spared?
Ah, this was a wonderful story, and you don’t need to know the story of Tristan and Ysold to enjoy it. Nor does knowing the classic story spoil “The King in the Tree,” which is only just faithful enough to keep you wondering what’s going on. I certainly wouldn’t skip “Revenge” or “An Adventure of Don Juan,” but the jewel in this collection is “The King in the Tree.”
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Michael Chabon’s “Citizen Conn” was originally published in the February 13 & 20, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
Click for a larger image.
I believe my work/life balance shifted dramatically in the favor of life today, so I hope to get caught up shortly — and this double issue gives me a bit of time to do it.
I love it when we get something by César Aira newly translated into English. There simply is no way to predict what it is going to be about (often even when you’re three-quarters of the way through the book), but you’re guaranteed a strange ride through beautifully strangeness. My first venture with Aira was with a landscape painter through Argentina in the 19th century. I’ve been with him in a the skeleton of a haunted condominium that is being constructed, on a trek to clone Carlos Fuentes, to a sunlit ice cream parlor where the strawberry ice cream contains arsenic, on a windy trip to Patagonia. In Varamo (2002; tr. from the Spanish by Chris Andrews), Aira takes us to Colón, Panama, in 1923, where we go through a rather eventful night with a lowly government clerk named Varamo.
Review copy courtesy of New Directions.
I think it’s worth relating an anecdote here. I began reading this book one night just before going to sleep. I was very tired and soon I was reading the same sentence over and over though my mind seemed to keep the story going forward. Eventually I woke myself up enough to put the book down. The next morning I couldn’t help but chuckle about where my mind had drifted the night before: some taxidermist executing his plan to pose a fish playing a piano, only quite a ways into the project realizing that fish anatomy doesn’t suit playing a piano. What a bizarre dream, I thought. Of course, the development felt just like a dream; here I had some strange idea that went on for a while before I realized that anatomical flaw and finally moved on. But at breakfast the next morning, a thought: this is Aira. I might not have been dreaming.
You already know, of course, that I wasn’t dreaming. Such is the joy (a part of the joy, that is) of the work of Aira.
So what is this book?
It begins at the end of a workday when Varamo stops to pick up his salary from the government.
In the interval between that moment and the dawn of the following day, ten or twelve hours later, he completed the composition of a long poem, from the initial decision to write it up to the final period, after which there were no further additions or corrections.
The poem, The Song of the Virgin Child, is declared a masterpiece of modern Central American poetry. It’s the only thing fifty-year-old Varamo had ever written, and he never wrote again. There was just something about that night after picking up his paycheck: “The action contained the inspiration, and vice versa, each nourishing and consuming the other, so that nothing was left over.”
The book Varamo is, from one perspective, a venture through that night seeking what created the poem. Though, playfully, the way we find out what happened is by deducing, “in the most rigorous sense of that word,” from the poem. Aira is playing here, once again, with the creative act in the writing process.
Picking up his salary ushers in a frenzied night of creativity. There is a reason, and it’s one of the fun parts of the book. When Varamo picks up his money, he immediately realizes that it is counterfeit. He cannot, therefore, go out and use the money. On the other hand, he cannot charge the government with giving him counterfeit money. It’s not long after this that we enter a new episode (the one I thought I was dreaming) when we see Varamo engaged in his taxidermy. And the night goes on.
As with his other works (particularly How I Became a Nun and The Seamstress and the Wind), the story plays out in a series of episodes, and the thread holding them together is sometimes rather flimsy, even if that doesn’t matter. It also doesn’t matter that we get seemingly important (or completely insignificant) facts rather late in the book. For example, we get this at about the half-way point, causing us to rethink our mental image of Varamo:
His mother was Chinese; he was Chinese; therefore he had to be her son; there could be no doubt about it. The conclusion was irresistible in Panama, for overwhelming demographic reasons.
Varamo is a strange book, and I do think it better for readers new to Aira to start with An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter or Ghosts (two that I think have a lot more substance to them than the rest, which are brilliant mediations on form and style, with excellent episodes, but which, for me, are not as fulfilling). One has to just let Aira go and trust that in the end it will be quite an experience, even if it’s hard to make sense of.
I also think it pays to know a bit about Aira’s creative process, which is a frequent theme in his books. For example, I think some may be disappointed that Varamo’s poem itself is hardly discussed in the book, though it is the whole reason we care about Varamo’s life at all (Aira is always brings something up and then drops it). We don’t read a line of The Song of the Virgin Child. Because we never really discuss the poem itself, it feels like a mere plot device, which can be frustrating. That said, the poem also the device that allows Aira to discuss some of his ideas about the creative act in the writing process, and, in particular, how to achieve “immediacy,” which, as Varamo is told, “is the key to good style.” (Immediacy is one thing Aira always achieves in his books.) Varamo is a great look at the mixture of form and substance and the life that creates each.