Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Louise Erdrich’s “Nero” was originally published in the May 7, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
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This is a strange little story I can’t quite make sense of — though I did enjoy it. The narrator is an older woman looking back to when she was seven and spent a few weeks with her grandparents while her own parents prepared for the birth of a sibling. The opening paragraph is great as it introduces the perhaps slightly paranoid world of her grandparents. First, we meet the guard dog, Nero, who at night is set out to pace in front of the cash register in the grandparents’ grocery store. Then we meet the grandfather who “slept behind a locked door with my grandmother on one side of him and a loaded gun on the other. This was not a place where a child got up at night to ask for a glass of water.”
While the little girl is there, she witnesses the development of parallel love stories. Her uncle Jurgen is secretly courting the grocery store’s bookkeeper, Priscilla Gamrod. Priscilla has a “mean snub-nosed cocker spaniel named Mitts,” and every day Nero spends his time trying to figure out a way over the fence to find Mitts.
Both love affairs seem doomed. For one, Nero is hardly trained for love. While the smaller dogs are treated with affection, Nero is handled at a distance, the thinking being that the lack of human affection will make the dog more apt to going after any perceived threat. As for Jurgen and Priscilla, there’s Priscilla’s father standing in the way.
Priscilla was twenty-five, but she still lived with him. Her mother had died, leaving the two of them bound by a grief that eased with time but was replaced by Mr. Gamrod’s jealous dependence. This had got so bad that he insisted on fighting any man who tried to court her. He’d beaten them all.
When Mr. Gamrod finds out about the relationship, he and Jurgen schedule a time and place for the fight.
I won’t go into how the story moves from here, but one of the interesting aspects of the story is the relationship between Jurgen and Nero and between the narrator and Nero. Jurgen is a bit small, his muscles stringy and tight. No one thinks he’s going to win the fight, but he goes calmly. It’s the same kind of calm he has when we see him subduing animals, such as those he needs to wrestle before their slaughter and even Mitts, whom he flicks on the nose each time she bites his hand until “Jurgen is inevitable.” He doesn’t subdue Nero, though, for the reasons already laid out. Nero is high-strung and destructive, almost mad.
How does the little girl fit into all of this? I’m working this out, enjoyably. We see that she has a connection with Nero that no one else has. She sympathizes with him and even feels in him a kindred spirit: “For I had a confused sensation that we were both captive — in different bodies, true, but with only one dark way out.” Later in the story, we learn of another connection the little girl has with a wild animal, that time with an escaped python who slithered over to the terrified girl, touched her cheek with its tongue, and then moved on.
So there are a several interlacing elements in this story, and I haven’t quite reconciled them all. In fact, I I believe my ultimate estimation of the story will be dependent on that reconciliation; at this time, I’d still recommend Erdrich’s last New Yorker story, “The Yeard of My Birth” (thoughts here) over this one, but “Nero” is an interesting read nonetheless. Happy to get any help from the comments.
I was really anxious to read Never Any End to Paris (París no se acaba nunca, 2003; tr. from the Spanish by Anne McLean, 2011) when it came out at about this same time last year. Indeed the opening pages pulled me in pleasantly. But something happened and I hit a stall somewhere in the middle. I put it down and didn’t pick it up again until recently when it became a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award. Now, there is a lot here. This is the perfect book for someone out there, but I still had a hard time getting through it.
Review copy courtesy of New Directions.
Back to that great beginning though. Our narrator — a man who clearly resembles Vila-Matas himself — tells us about a trip he made to Key West, Florida, to enter a Hemingway look-alike contest:
I don’t know how many years I spent drinking and fattening myself up believing — contrary to the opinions of my wife and friends — that I was getting to look more and more like Hemingway, the idol of my youth. Since no one even agreed with me about this and since I’m rather stubborn, I wanted to teach them all a lesson, and, having procured a false beard — which I though would increase my resemblance to Hemingway — I entered the contest this summer.
He is disgraced and comes in last; or, rather, he doesn’t place at all since he is disqualified, not in resembling Hemingway in the slightest. The narrator is telling this story from a lectern. This book is, in fact, a three-part lecture about irony that the narrator is presenting — well, more like rambling. That’s not a criticism. He is improvising:
You’ll see me improvising on occasion. Like right now when, before going on to read my ironic revision of the two years of my youth in Paris, I feel compelled to tell you that I do know that irony plays with fire and, while mocking others, sometimes ends up mocking itself. You all know full well what I’m talking about. When you pretend to be in love you run the risk of feeling it, he would parodies without proper precautions ends up the victim of his own cunning. And even if he takes them, he ends up a victim just the same.
The principle part of the narrators lecture on irony consists of his experiences in the mid-seventies living in Paris in a flat he rented from Marguerite Duras. His fascination with Hemingway already in full swing, he lived there trying to relive the famous author’s experiences related in A Moveable Feast (from which this book gets its title): “Well, when I was fifteen years old I read his book of Paris reminiscences in one sitting and decided I’d be a hunter, fisherman, war reporter, drinker, great lover, and boxer, that is, I would be like Hemingway.” His life, like his personages, does no such thing. Not even his time in Paris is like the great writer’s; while Hemingway says he was poor and very happy, the narrator’s time in Paris is poor and very unhappy. But it does stick with him.
This whole set up is fascinating. Indeed, the whole book is fascinating as the narrator recounts an intellectual coming-of-age, encountering a variety of Paris intellectuals (one of my favorites being the one with Georges Perec). The narrator certainly doesn’t hold himself bound by the topic of his lecture, freely going wherever his story takes him. Indeed, the narrator hardly holds himself bound by the structure of a lecture. The books itself, at 197 pages, has 113 sections, some more and some less related to other sections.
Also, hopefully from the few quotations above, it’s obvious the writing is impeccable, propulsive, the translation fine as can be. So what was my problem? It’s totally my problem, though one I think many others will share. Much of this book is told to other insiders. I’m not quite there, I’m afraid. Perhaps with some more knowledge of mid-1970s Paris and the intellects at work then this would have been more compelling to me. I still really did enjoy this book, it just turned out it was one I could put down and not pick up again, never quite feeling a loss. I’m glad I’ve now finished it, and I hope it finds its way to its proper readers.
Never having read Toussaint before, I had no idea what to expect when I opened up the latest of his works published by Dalkey Archive (they’ve published nine now, including The Truth about Marie, which was just longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award). Perhaps that’s a good way to approach this book, with no foreknowledge. But I’ll go on . . . Reticence (La Réticence, 1991; tr. from the French by John Lambert, 2012) turned out to be a wonderfully atmospheric and ambiguous tale about paranoia. It will frustrate many readers, but once I started playing along I found the whole thing enjoyable.
Review copy courtesy of Dalkey Archive.
In Reticence, a nameless narrator, thirty-three years old, has taken a holiday to the fictional island of Sasuelo. It’s the end of October, and he has with him his eight-month-old son. The story he tells begins with a disturbing omen — a dead cat is floating in the harbor — but otherwise all appears to be fine as our narrator walks around the town pushing his son in a stroller. The primary reason — if there is any reason — he went to Sasuelo was to see the Biaggis. Perhaps some old friends. Before he arrived, he sent them a letter, letting them know he’d be in town. But, now that he’s in town, he just can’t seem make that visit.
To a certain extent if I’d come to Sasuelo it was to see the Biaggis. Until now, however, held back by a mysterious apprehension, I’d always put off the moment of going to visit them and steered clear of the area around the house when I went for walks in the village. Even on the day of my arrival, when I was still planning on going over to their place as soon as I’d got settled into the hotel, I’d stayed in my room all afternoon. Two days had now gone by since then and I was starting to wonder at the fact that I hadn’t yet bumped into them in the village, even if I’d been careful to avoid their house every time I went out.
He does venture to the house eventually, but upon arrival he again felt some strange reticence and simply stood outside. He checked their mailbox and found that his letter had just been delivered. A way to keep his presence unknown, then, he takes back his letter along with a few of the others and leaves.
It’s about that time that we readers sense that something is not right here. After all, some of the narrator’s trips around the village, to the docks, and to the Biaggis’ are at night, and he leaves his son at the hotel. And just who are the Biaggis, and why does our narrator, who seemed to feel just fine visiting them, begin to feel apprehension at the thought of seeing them?
But Reticence gets more and more strange when, without any foundation, our narrator is convinced the Biaggis (or at least Paul Biaggi) are on to him, spying on him, even staying at the same hotel, the better to keep an eye on him:
Four tables had been occupied, which intrigued me because it seemed to me that there hadn’t been so many guests on other days. Could it be that someone who didn’t normally eat breakfast in the dining room came down today for the first time? Could it be that Biaggi – because I immediately thought of Biaggi – had come down to have breakfast in the dining room this morning? But if it was Biaggi, I thought, why had he come down precisely today for the first time? Why, if he was at the hotel, didn’t he have his breakfast brought up to his room as he must have done on the other days? Was he now indifferent to whether or not I knew he was staying at the hotel, or had he realized I’d cottoned on and given up trying to hide altogether?
Our narrator becomes more and more convinced something is amiss, that Biaggi, whom we haven’t seen, is getting closer and closer to him — again, though, why does this matter if he himself was planning on visiting the Biaggis on the first day he arrived at Sasuelo?
It’s a story filled with questions as the tension constantly builds. We readers know that the narrator is being irrational, but we go along with him (what else can we do — we know so little), suspecting something is amis but without any foundation. His paranoia becomes the hook that pulls us along. We see him begin a paragraph wondering if Biaggi was somewhere and end it with certainty, and we keep going, even sometimes forgetting ourselves that this narrator must be slightly unhinged, and here he is with an infant. Speaking of which, where is the mother?
If this sounds fun and interesting, I promise it is, but I must also proffer a warning: this is a book about atmosphere and paranoia, not about answers. I loved it. I was certainly worried for the narrator, but not for the reasons the narrator would hope. Then again, there are moments when the narrator seems to know what’s going on, and then he just keeps walking.
So, not knowing much about Toussaint going in, this book was certainly enough to build up my appetite. I now have another author I need to catch up with.
I know that there is some criticism toward publishing anything we can find written by Roberto Bolaño. The most recent, The Secret of Evil (El secreto del mal, 2007; tr. from the Spanish by Chris Andrews, with Natasha Wimmer, 2012) is actually composed of some stories and sketches (many obviously incomplete) found on Bolaño’s computer after he died in 2003. Whatever criticism levelled by others, I’m one who gratefully receives. His is such a unique voice, and even the short sketches here exhibit his vim and clarity as he leads his characters to the abyss. It’s particularly refreshing to get a few stories in here with Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano. And, to be honest, who cares if these stories conclude? It’s not as if even in his published works Bolaño gave us any real sense of resolution, so what we get here is Bolañoesque. Hey, many of these inconclusive pieces may actually have been finished for all we know. After all, the title story begins like this:
This story is very simple, although it could have been very complicated. Also, it’s incomplete, because stories like this don’t have an ending.
Review copy courtesy of New Directions.
The Secret of Evil contains nineteen potentially incomplete pieces (some are obviously incomplete) that, so says the preface, Bolaño was working on in his last months. It’s a little treasure, filled with openings and meanderings I wish others could write now that Bolaño is gone. A sign of the appetite for more Bolaño, many of the pieces have been seen recently elsewhere. Three — “Vagaries of the Literature of Doom,” “Beach,” and “Sevilla Kills Me” – were published in Between Parentheses (my review here), one — “Labyrinths” – in The New Yorker (my thoughts here), one — “Scholars of Sodom” — in The New York Review of Books (full text here), and one — “I Can’t Read” — in Harper’s (full text here). And Granta (which also published “Beach”; the abstract here) went so far as to make a graphic HTML experience for the incredibly violent “The Colonel’s Son” (click here), which they published last year in their horror issue (my review here).
Let me briefly give a sense of a few of the pieces. First, “The Colonel’s Son,” which I hadn’t read when I posted on Granta‘s horror issue, is a very disturbing and apparently complete piece of horror fiction. While much of Bolaño’s fiction can be called horrific, I mean that this one has zombies — well, kind of. The piece begins, “You’re not going to believe this, but last night, at about four a.m., I saw a movie on TV that could have been my biography or my autobiography or a summary of my days on this bitch of a planet.” The movie our narrator watched that so resembled his life is a violent B-grade zombie movie. The remainder of the piece describes the movie in detail, examining the motives while maintaining the narrator’s voice. It does indeed sound like a fairly typical zombie movie, but given the story’s first sentence, and given that this is Bolaño, we know there’s a bit more here. For example, the HTML movie has as its disclaimer: “The following HTML5 movie contains the sort of images that you see every day in the news, and thus might not be suitable for children.”
A particularly chilling but realistic piece is “The Room Next Door,” which begins, “I was once, if I remember rightly, present at a gathering of madmen.” Another, “Scholars of Sodom,” contains two parts. The first is an incomplete start to story about V.S. Naipaul. Part II is a look back at that story:
Many years ago, before V.S. Naipaul – a writer whom I hold in high regard, by the way — won the Nobel Prize, I tried to write a story about him, with the title “Scholars of Sodom.”
This Part II proceeds to tell what the story might have been meant to tell, and, in a brilliant way, brings up for criticism Naipaul’s strange essay accusing Argentina as being a country full of sodomites.
As this short book proceeds, the pieces seem to get shorter and more evidently incomplete. But these also contain some real gems, such as “Death of Ulises,” which, if you’ve been following Bolaño, you know is about Ulises Lima and Bolaño’s alter-ego Arturo Belano. It begins, “Belano, our dear Arturo Belano, returns to Mexico City.”
And one of my favorite pieces may be the shortest and most incomplete of all. It’s “The Days of Chaos,” the book’s last entry. It begins, “Just when Arturo Belano thought that all his adventures were over and done with [. . .].” We find out that Belano’s handsome young son Gerónimo ”had disappeared in Berlin during the Days of Chaos.” The story contains seven short paragraphs; three of those are simply “This was in the year 2005.” Obviously, Bolaño didn’t live to see 2005, but this is a sort of cast out into the future, and it ends up by taking us to the past, almost making a journey with Bolaño return full circle:
This was in the year 2005.
Gerónimo Belano was fifteen. Arturo Belano was over fifty, and sometimes he could barely believe that he was still alive. Arturo had set off on his first long trip at the age of fifteen too. His parents had decided to leave Chile and start a new life in Mexico.
And that’s the end. To me it’s as if I’ve just finished Finnegans Wake, and I’ve just been escorted back to the very beginning. How’s that for the poetics of inconclusiveness?
Bolaño’s body of work is too complicated to be contained in one or two complete, published works. Each piece, even these small ones, are part of a larger puzzle that is well worth the time considering, even if we’ll never get to the end.
I’m late posting this, but on April 17 the shortlist for the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction was announced:
- Half-Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan (my review here)
- The Forgotten Walz, by Anne Enright
- Painter of Silence, by Georgina Harding
- The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller
- Foreign Bodies, by Cynthia Ozick (my review here)
- State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett (my review here)
I was thrilled to see Enright and Ozick on the shortlist. I certainly did not expect to see them there. The winner will be announced on May 30. My vote goes to Ozick.
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Ian McEwan’s “Hand on the Shoulder” was originally published in the April 30, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
Click for a larger image.
Another week, another excerpt from a popular, prize-winning author’s forthcoming novel. The New Yorker disappoints again. There is a world of gifted short fiction authors out there who get ignored each week this magazine decides to market a new novel instead of cultivate the art of the short story. The short story is an art form far removed from the excerpt, but The New Yorker (is it more and more?) seems to treat short stories as primers, apprentice pieces, a precursor to a novel proper. What a reductive perspective. The short story need not be so humble. Fortunately, there are dozens of quality literary magazines out there publishing a generation of short story writers; it’s just too bad that their readership is a tiny fraction of that of The New Yorker.
So, “Hand on the Shoulder,” an excerpt from McEwan’s fall novel Sweet Tooth. I haven’t been a fan of McEwan’s late work, but Sweet Tooth sounds interesting. Here, quickly, is the current write-up on Amazon:
The year is 1972. The Cold War has entered a moribund phase, but the fight against Communism goes on, especially in England’s cultural circles.
Serena Frome, the beautiful daughter of an Anglican bishop, has just completed her maths degree at Cambridge. Her brief affair with one of her professors leads to an interview with MI5. Serena lands an assignment in Operation Sweet Tooth: the funding of artists and writers with whom MI5′s political views align. Her “target” is Tom Healey, a promising young writer. First she falls in love with his stories, then she begins to fall in love with the man. When his novella wins a prestigious prize, the deceit becomes too much for Serena to bear. But before she can confess, her cover is blown, scandalizing the literary world and crippling MI5′s efforts. Who blew the whistle and why? Ian McEwan will keep you guessing in this superbly deft and witty story of betrayal, intrigue, and love.
“Hand on the Shoulder” covers the affair that leads Serena into MI5. However, that she ends up at MI5, this being an excerpt rather than a fully fleshed short story, means next to nothing in the end, yet here’s how a story that ultimately is about an affair begins: “My name is Serena From (rhymes with “plume”), and forty years ago, in my final year at Cambridge, I was recruited by the British security service.” It’s 1972, and the world is changing. For one, her boyfriend Jeremy is the first openly gay person Serena knows, as the laws changed only five years earlier (they don’t remain boyfriend and girlfriend long). The Cold War is in a “moribund phase.” The very fact that a woman would be recruited into MI5 was a fairly unique event. But Serena doesn’t really care about much of this — not yet. She’s busy happily dealing with men from the old school.
One day while she’s walking with Jeremy, his history tutor Tony Canning comes toward them and begins asking questions. He was fifty-four and Serena twenty-one, and his questions and his authority were probably more directed at gaining her affections than pushing her into potential recruitment. It worked. That summer of 1972 becomes a golden age for Serena as she meets Canning at an out-of-the-way cottage each weekend for cooking, sex, and cultivation. Canning’s is a heavy hand, and he began directing Serena’s reading, forcing her to read histories and newspapers (well, only the Times) he chooses and give reports. She gets better, but she doesn’t think any of it is as important — distant as it felt — as the affair going on in front of her.
When I started reading the paper, the government’s fifth state of emergency was still months ahead of us. I believed what I read, but it seemed remote. Cambridge looked much the same, and so did the woods around the Cannings’ cottage. Despite my history lessons, I felt I had no stake in the nation’s fate. I owned one suitcase of clothes, fewer than fifty books, some childhood things in my bedroom home. I had a lover who adored me and cooked for me and never threatened to leave his wife. I had one obligation, a job interview — weeks away. I was free. So what was I doing, applying to help maintain the security of this ailing state, this sick man of Europe? Nothing, I was doing nothing. I didn’t know. A chance had come my way, and I was taking it. Tony wanted it, and I had little else going on. So why not?
I actually found “Hand on the Shoulder” interesting as it roamed around 1972 and the imminent change coming for both England and for Serena. But this is all a setup. In order to resolve this piece of “short fiction,” we need to leave behind the themes that make the story interesting and focus solely on the affair. And it’s not that the affair isn’t interesting in and of itself: Canning is one of those older men who becomes infantile during sex. ”He was one of those Englishmen wrenched from Mummy at age seven and driven into numbing boarding-school exile. They never acknowledge the damage, these poor fellows; they just live it.” But the story goes in many directions, suitable to a novel, and we readers are forced to either get excited or not about that novel coming in November.
For the first time since 1977, the Pulitzer committee elected to honor no work of fiction.
The three nominated finalists were:
- Train Dreams, by Denis Johnson (my review here)
- Swamplandia!, by Karen Russell (my review here)
- The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace
Each has its problems.
Train Dreams is a novella first published in The Paris Review in 2002. It won the O’Henry award for short stories in 2003. So, though I liked it a lot, I can see why it didn’t win — though why was it eligible in the first place? In the end, it just must not have been declared good enough.
The Pale King is the unfinished novel David Foster Wallace was working on when he committed suicide in 2008. The Pulitzer can and has been awarded posthumously, but it is understandable why it wasn’t awarded to an unfinished book an editor put together — as the Pulitzer website puts it, this book was “posthumously completed.” Again, if it was eligible in the first place, it must have just been not good enough.
Swamplandia!, in my opinion, just wasn’t very good. So I’m with the committee on that one.
It will be interesting to see how this hits the world of publishing. Afterall, it’s one thing to be a finalist when another book has won. But if no book wins . . .
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Junot Díaz’s “Miss Lora” was originally published in the April 23, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
Click for a larger image.
It’s been just over two years since Junot Díaz’s ”The Pura Principle” was published in The New Yorker (click here for my thoughts). In that story we spent time with Yunior and his brother Rafa, who was dying of cancer. When “Miss Lora” begins, it is 1986. Rafa has died, and Yunior, still suffering a “fulgurating” sadness, is about to realize he has more of his brother in him than he thought.
Years later, you would wonder if it hadn’t been for your brother would you have done it? You’d remember how all the other guys had hated on her — how skinny she was, no culo, no titties, como un palito, but your brother didn’t care.
Rafa, like his father, was content to sleep with any woman. The skinny woman above was a middle-aged school teacher whose toned muscles eliminated any fat from her body. Yunior doesn’t particularly find her attractive; he would rather sleep with his Puerto Rican girlfriend, Paloma, but she doesn’t want to make any mistakes (and realizes that sleeping with him would certainly be one).
Suffering from grief, hormones, and a daily dread of a nuclear holocaust . . . well, we know where this is going, in part because of the first lines of the story: one day Miss Lora touches him, and he can tell it’s different:
Miss Lora touched you, and you suddenly looked up and noticed how large her eyes were in her thin face, how long her lashes were, how one iris had more bronze in it than the other.
They sleep together, this school teacher and this sixteen-year-old boy. He’s insatiable for some time, and it’s only later, when he’s in college, that he feel comfortable enough to tell someone and that someone realizes the criminal nature of the events.
One thing I like about Díaz (and I admit I’m not a fan) is how even using ugly language — both in content and grammar — he’s able to have characters earn the reader’s sympathy, even if the character himself doesn’t realize anything is out of hand. Here’s a Dominican boy growing up in New Jersey in the shadow of Manhattan, part of a culture where such things are relatively common, even looked on with pride. And Díaz can present this without making judgments, leaving it for his readers to determine how they feel.
That said, I’m still not much of a Díaz fan, as much as I admire what he’s capable of doing. I can’t quite get into the language which can, in a couple of lines, use a phrase like “hating on her” with a word like “fulgurating.” I just haven’t wrapped my mind around that, and I had a similar hangup with The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (my review here), and I realize that it is my hangup. I liked this story quite a bit more than “The Pura Principle” (which I thought meandering), and I sense that in time it will grow in my estimation, but I’m still hoping for something a bit different in the weeks to come.
I believe that when some people see a book from, say, NYRB Classics, Open Letter, New Directions, or, as here, Dalkey Archive, they think it must be some inaccessible book that, while nice to read, is a chore. I’ve mentioned this before when I had a lunch with New Directions president Barbara Eppler and she mentioned her perception that readers thought New Direction books were “eat your vegetables” books. Of course, this couldn’t be further from the truth, and in a comment to that same post Amateur Reader said New Directions is not a produce vendor but a “confectioner.” That goes for the other publishers I mentioned too. To put it mildly, Nisard would have hated each of them.
The reason I went into that is because I’m worried some people in the mood for a bit of fun might turn away from the book I’m about to write about. The cover is very sober, somber. The main premise in the book is a bitter repudiation of a real-life 19th-century literary critic named Désiré Nisard. But Demolishing Nisard (Démolir Nisard, 2006; tr. from the French by Jordan Stump, 2011) is one of the funniest books I’ve read. It is a real treat that, if it were food, you’d feel guilty partaking.
Review copy courtesy of Dalkey Archive.
Then again, perhaps best you go into this book thinking it will be a grave account of one man’s wrestle with the past. I did. And the book’s first few sentences tend to support such a preconception.
According to Désiré Nisard, French literature fell into an irreversible decline with the death of Bossuet and the end of the seventeenth century, an opinion he expressed in 1835, so imagine how things must have gone downhill since, imagine the distaste he would surely have felt for this book, dating as it does from the early years of the twenty-first. And no, it will not be written in the style of the Latin classics so dear to his heart, but such a flaw would have been only the pretext seized upon by old two-face Nisard to justify his disdain: we’re not that naïve.
And — not that I wouldn’t welcome such a book — I couldn’t have been more pleased when I found just how much the narrator detested Nisard and just how eloquently he voices such revulsion:
He is the slime at the bottom of every fountain. Irretrievably, there has been Nisard. How can we love benches, knowing that Nisard often pressed them into service? Gently stroking a cat’s silken fur, my hand inevitably reproduces a gestures once made by Nisard. Strawberries are the less delectable for Nisard’s love of them. I would welcome the immediate snuffing out of the beneficent sun that also warmed Nisard – sharing his filthy bathwater would inspire no greater disgust. If he could be besotted with a certain Élisabeth, how can we not be put off by the passions of love? Our innocence forever blushes at his brutish experience of this world. Nisard ruined everything in his wake, cities and countrysides alike. If he one day bit into a hazelnut, how can we still have a soft spot for squirrels?
But who is this Nisard? I certainly hadn’t ever heard of him, and I’m not convinced anyone pays him much mind anymore. As the narrator’s wife Métilde says, as she tries to calm the narrator down a bit, “Virtually no one knows who he is, and in any case who gives a damn?” Yet, the narrator cannot help but lament the very emergence of the world because, well, I’ll let him tell you: “Once there was nothing and then there was something, and as it happened this was a bad thing, for the result was Nisard.”
The fun and cleverness also permeates the book’s structure. Between segments where the narrator is attacking Nisard as an infant, we get present-day newspaper clippings about such things as deciding to attack a country on no evidence of weapons of mass destruction. Nisard was the man behind that, and he still sticks to his views. Recently Nisard became the winkle-spitting world record holder. And, “In a Tuesday, August 3 interview on RTL Radio, Désiré Nisard reaffirmed his position that France’s minimum wage is overly generous [. . .] .”
Demolishing Nisard is also sprinkled with little tidbits of Nisard’s biography (and an unfriendly obituary). He does indeed sound like an odious man, pandering to the forces in power just to jockey for position of authority over people who hated him. He wrote a multi-volume Histoire de la littérature française, a few other texts, and (according to this book; I couldn’t find support for this — I didn’t look terribly hard) a little book called A Milkmaid Succumbs, which he later tried to eradicate. (Even this leads the narrator to brilliant regret: “[I]t is to be lamented that the lucidity which moved Nisard to seek out an destroy every last copy of his roguish tale did not shine its cold objective light on his entire existence: a noose is so easily tied.”). Apparently in all of his literary criticism, Nisard decried romanticism and did his best to prop up classicism, in the narrator’s eyes showing no intellectual sophistication in anything. Our narrator puts it best here: “In the midst of magicians and sorcerers, Nisard is the disenchanter.”
Fortunately, not a bit of this book, either as written or as translated, is disenchanting. It maintains its vim throughout as the narrator single-mindedly spits fire at Nisard while at the same time seeking out, with sick notions of revenge, Nisard’s lost saucy novel. One has to wonder, though, what is this doing to the narrator? Certainly Métilde, for one, things he is getting “every bit as odious as Nisard.” If he wants magic and sorcery, why shun the sun simply because it also shone down on Nisard? The book’s existential conundrum: in hating Nisard, the narrator brings on his own Nisardification.
It is a lot of fun to read this repudiation of conventional literary taste. I’ll pass on to you our narrator’s plea:
I wouldn’t say no to a little help. Join me. Let’s go after him together, a pack of us on his tail, ten or twenty strong. Come lend me a hand, at least two of you.
I was a bit surprised to see listed among the finalists of the Best Translated Book Award the very short Upstaged (La Scène usurpée, 1997; tr. from the French by Leland de la Durantaye, 2011). But, to be honest, I’m not sure why I was surprised. Yes, I liked a few of the books left off of the list of finalists more, but Upstaged, which is written incredibly well, had me laughing out loud. That tends to be rare, and I welcome it.
Review copy courtesy of Dalkey Archive.
Upstaged is an attempt for a director’s assistant to document and make sense of a crazy evening at the theater. On the evening in question Marcel Flavy was directing his new play, Going Out to the People, in which the President of the Republican Council puts on a disguise and, well, goes out to the people and has an encounter with Republican rebel Théodore Soufissis. In the audience sat a detested, skeptical theater critic for The Morning Republic. The night, of course, doesn’t go as planned — it goes far better, in fact. Our narrator tries to be objective (which adds to the book’s droll tone) as she recounts these events “with no other aim than edification of a noble profession.” Here’s how the fun begins:
The events this chronicle was undertaken to relate began in the second minute of the second act. Nicolas Boehlmer, preparing to smoke his last cigarette before going onstage, heard a knock at his dressing-room door. “Come in,” he called out. He was to note later how difficult it was to deliver this unexpected line at a moment when he had already entered the imaginative universe of his character. In response to his invitation, a stranger entered — one wearing the same wig, makeup, and clothes as Boehlmer (the outfit — according to costume-designer Sylvie Plumkett — of “a careless intellectual”).
This stranger, who will become known among the theater troop as the Usurper, proceeded (with “perfectly unthreatening authority”) to bind Boehlmer with a red, white, and blue scarf.
Boehlmer recalls the following phrase: “I am indeed taking a part of you, but you will soon find it returned unharmed. You have my word.” The Usurper added: “In case this does not go without saying, I very much admire your work.”
To Boehlmer’s dismay, the Usurper rushed out and began performing Boehlmer’s role in the second act. The role? That of Republican rebel Théodore Soufissis. The Usurper was performing just as Boehlmer had performed the role (he’d obviously seen many performances), with the same gestures and all . . . for a while. Soon the Usurper was introducing subtle revisions in the script and the action. Nevertheless, the director, though mortified, fell under the Usurper’s spell and even knocked Boehlmer on the head when Boehlmer escaped his bonds and tried to get his role back.
Then, at then end of Act II, the Usurper disappeared, leaving the cast to pick up the pieces and finish the third and final act. And the critic? Of course he thinks the play is brilliant, a definite improvement to the text he had in his lap as he watched. His review is appended to the director’s assistant’s account:
Too often in theater a line of dialogue is shoved forward like a reheated pizza instead of like something unique to its time and its place — a time that is none other than now, and a place that is none other than here.
As a theatrical farce, I found Upstaged completely enjoyable, but, as I mentioned above, was still a bit surprised that it was a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award. I’m fairly confident that much of the politics of the little book were lost on me. In an afterword, translator Leland de la Durantaye adds a bit of color to Upstaged, explaining that it is part of Jouet’s ”La République roman” series. So apparently I’m not very good at putting together the pieces of the story — such as the red, white, and blue scarf, the Republican rebel, and a newspaper called The Morning Republic — because I’m still not sure I understand what it was saying . . . but I completely enjoyed its playfulness.