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Paintings in Proust: A Visual Companion to In Search of Lost Time
Eric Karpeles
In Search of Lost Time
Marcel Proust, C.K. Scott Moncrieff, Andreas Mayor, Terence Kilmartin, D.J. Enright, Richard Howard
Within a Budding Grove (In Search of Lost Time, #2)
Marcel Proust, C.K. Scott Moncrieff, Terence Kilmartin, D.J. Enright

The True Deceiver (New York Review Books Classics)

The True Deceiver - Tove Jansson, Thomas Teal, Ali Smith Jansson's prose is magisterial, as cold and icy as the winter setting; the pace is also ingenious which mimics the slow melting of the ice as the winter transitions into spring. The psychological depth of the characters is very nuanced and potent here, and the dialogue is brilliantly handled and allows the narrative room to shift focus in a figural way. I look forward to reading more of Jansson's work after The True Deceiver.

Dead Souls (New York Review Books Classics)

Dead Souls - Nikolai Gogol, Donald Rayfield I need to read the new translation of this by Donald Rayfield, published by NYRB.

Parallel Stories: A Novel

Parallel Stories: A Novel - Péter Nádas For a more detailed review of Parallel Stories, I’ll insist that you read Tod’s review here on Goodreads and Scott Esposito’s wonderful review—and one with which I agree wholeheartedly—in the Barnes & Noble Review.Nádas has certainly written a monumental exploration of time, history, belonging, estrangement, and how the personal and the political affect individuals and their relationships with others. Roughly speaking, Parallel Stories centralizes the Lippy-Lehr and the Dohring families, exploring main members of each family, their lovers and more distant relations, their friends, and even the friends of their friends. While such a project, especially one of this length, could easily have been labeled a group of short stories with a loose theme tying them all together, Nádas does indeed succeed at making Parallel Stories a novel. However, if his claim—as he has stated—was to create “a monument to incompleteness,” the length of this novel is a problem: there is nothing that warrants such a lengthy examination (which results, at some points in iterative narrative arcs and redundant—because they are repeated so often—flashbacks in history), and this novel would have greatly benefited from a more concise and less broad structure.There are some Proustian moments here, an author with whom Nádas is often compared; but whereas Proust’s project actually solicits the volumes it takes for his narrator to reach the end of the Recherche, nothing in Parallel Stories does. The philosophical investigations here on time, history, individuality, isolation, desire, and self-annihilation do have their moments of brave insight and often prophetic assessments of our relation to our histories and to history itself, but Nádas often loses track quickly and focuses (almost solely) on the body, defecation, fluids, and sex. I agree with Scott Espositio’s review to which I’ve linked above in that these Proustian moments are mixed with a kind of nineteenth-century realism which seems at odds with Nádas’s project entirely, and so this works to make Parallel Stories a less effective work—mixing experimental, nonlinear writing with more cliched and hackneyed plot lines—than had Nádas stayed within the medium of memory and shifting temporalities.


In the Orchard, the Swallows

In the Orchard, the Swallows - Peter Hobbs Abandoned. I am obviously a fan of poetic novels, so I was eager to read this when reviews cited its poetic style and how psychologically resonant the interior life, musings, and grief of the narrator were rendered. I found the latter to be the book's strength; however, I could no longer read after the midway point due to what felt like trite and contrived prose. The pacing and style felt almost as if the book were directed to young adult audiences, and that's not a genre I read at all. Perhaps Ali Smith's praise for this novel set my expectations too high. Perhaps I'm just not in a sappy, love-lost kind of mood.

Spurious: A Novel

Spurious - Lars Iyer If you:...read too much Heidegger, Spinoza, and Kierkegaard in your formative years which then caused all experiences from puberty onward to become internal debates, crises of consciousness, self-reflexive moments that forced you to pull a Hamlet and dwell in your head rather than enjoy life without over-thinking it like those who read, say, Judy Blume in lieu of Kafka....have ever gotten drunk and thought that you were the Messiah....have ever gotten drunk and thought that your interlocutor was the Messiah....think that Béla Tarr is the Messiah....prefer your action rendered as "action" and thereafter rendered in Socratic dialogue, punctuated by ejaculations of "moor!" and "river!"...think that we are in the end of days....are a fan of Derrida & co. and need a laughingly perverse bout of crying or a cryingly perverse bout of laughing....have a problem with damp in your flat and make not mountains out of molehills but allegories out of mold spores....admire your best friend more than yourself (as does he).... well, then, you must hastily get your hands on a copy of this and begun reading your way through Iyer's trilogy tout de suite.

Pitch Dark (Nyrb Classics)

Pitch Dark - Renata Adler, Guy Trebay Review published in 3:AM Magazine: http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/century-of-dislocation/Do I need to stylize it, then, or can I tell it as it was?… Is that where it begins? I don’t know. I don’t know where it begins. It is where I am.These lines, from the opening pages of Renata Adler’s second novel, Pitch Dark (1983), should rightly be read as a self-reflexive rumination on the fragmented and nonlinear prose style in her two fictional works, an endeavor to centralize the act of storytelling (and, with it, the conflicts between objectivity and subjectivity) begun by Adler when Speedboat was published in 1976. The impact of Speedboat upon writers as diverse as David Foster Wallace, Elizabeth Hardwick, and David Shields proves its status as a sui generis text. As Guy Trebay notes:Speedboat … stamp[s] contemporary consciousness with its singular mark. Because the book prefigured by decades certain telegraphic forms of communication we now take for granted, it is easy to miss the point that Speedboat got there well before e-mails or Facebook or Twitter.Because Speedboat in effect reinvented the novel with its unique mix of vignettes, kaleidoscopic and panoramic reportage, and a presciently liberal social commentary, Adler’s prefiguration of how contemporary life is ingested in—and therefore best understood by—fragments represents a stylistic shift in narration. As such, Speedboat is a seminal text in the history of the literary novel’s evolution. Now that it and its companion novel Pitch Dark have been reissued by the New York Review of Books after being out of print for some twenty-five years, one can read these texts anew, posit their importance to experimental fiction written in the wake of Speedboat, and also admire Adler’s gift for incisive social and personal insights that are still relevant and resonant to this day.Both Speedboat’s and Pitch Dark’s narrators are reporters. In the former novel, Jen Fain shifts back and forth in time as she relates experiences at boarding school, graduate school, cocktail parties with academics, interviews conducted with people of different classes and races in her capacity as reporter, and the political conflicts that affect a liberal, bohemian social clique whose globetrotting always brings them back to Manhattan as if the city were a magnet. (These experiences are also Kate Ennis’s in Pitch Dark, but the later novel focuses more on Ennis’s psychological conflict than on the more external factors with which Speedboat is concerned.) As Adler eschews plot almost entirely, the vignettes Jen Fain offers form a whole only as one reads. Muriel Spark observes how, when reading Adler’s prose, “[y]ou have to piece it together as you would if you had picked up a stranger’s private journal.”Although Speedboat is more of a public chronicle than a private document like Pitch Dark, it is still very much a subjective view of city life and how this affects an individual’s consciousness. Fain observes: “I find that many city people give their most minute attention to the ethics of found objects, small.” In many ways, this is one of the pressing issues in Speedboat: how the mundane encounters in our lives—the bureaucratic idiocies at the institution where Fain serves as an adjunct; telephone calls from PBS soliciting donations; international phone calls with bad connections, effectively rendering them party-lines (as Matthew Specktor has also termed Adler’s prose style in his piece in The Believer); the political and intimate disconnect one has with one’s lovers—are like pieces in a puzzle which can never be placed together into a concrete whole, and yet, if we are to make sense of our individuality, must somehow be mapped on to our subjectivities, even if our attempts fail: “Something lost in translation there, perhaps. Everywhere.”And while “[p]eople seem to be unhappy in so many different ways,” Fain must incorporate the fragments of other people’s experiences in order to fathom her own. In this way, “the inevitable is being interrupted by strangers all the time,” thus affecting the narrative we attempt to construct for ourselves:The plot of things separating, not so common, disintegration, breaking up. The plot of one thing following in the track of another, as in thrillers, chases. The plot of things parallel. Suspense, which has time as an obstacle to a resolution in the future. Nostalgia, which has time as an obstacle to a resolution in the past. Maybe there are stories, even, like solitaire or canasta: they are shuffled and dealt, then they do or do not come out.Also affecting our narratives are, as Trebay believes Adler presages, our modes of communication and travel, which combine to further displace us from other people despite how necessary they are to the task of trying to understand our identities in relation to the world in which we live: “The jet, the telephone, the boat, the train, the television. Dislocations.”Pitch Dark takes dislocation as its main theme. Like Jen Fain, Pitch Dark’s Kate Ennis is a reporter, and, to some extent, the social, cultural, and political background with which Speedboat deals is one the reader must keep in mind when reading Pitch Dark. Due to this, the two novels read as companion pieces, with the first-person narrators blending into each other, complete with shared experiences and a common worldview. (Indeed, in the second section of Pitch Dark, the narrator even becomes Adler herself, causing Spark to wonder: “Does Miss Adler mean to suggest that she herself is Kate Ennis?”)Ennis’s main conflict in Adler’s second novel is whether to leave a married man with whom she has been having an affair for eight years. More poetic in both style and depth than Speedboat, Pitch Dark uses repetition to convey the circuitous meanderings of its narrator as she ponders whether or not to leave Jake (a conflict and character name that allude to Penelope Mortimer’s The Pumpkin Eater). Two oft-repeated refrains that get to the heart of Ennis’s mental state throughout the course of Pitch Dark are as follows:You are, you know, you were the nearest thing to a real story to happen in my life.Did I throw the most important thing perhaps, by accident, away?And while Ennis muses on her past with Jake, her present is sullied by the fact that her identity—and Pitch Dark is very much Ennis’s quest for autonomy—is subsumed beneath Jake’s as well as the other events in her life. In her attempt to excavate herself, Kate’s internal journey is mirrored by an external one that moves from Manhattan to New York State, from Orcas Island to the Irish countryside.Increasingly, Ennis’s travels give rise to feelings of paranoia and both cultural and self-dislocation: “I still have the sense, how to put this, that the land, even the sleeping country towns, know of me.” The titular section of Pitch Dark is the most plot-driven, but it is still very much interior in focus as Ennis deals with an ever-mounting sense of panic after a slight fender bender in a tiny Irish town, an incident that becomes a Kafkaesque nightmare involving a lorry driver as a bizarre “teamster” in a middle-of-the-night motorway ride to Dublin in a rented vehicle Ennis feels sure is under police scrutiny and which has hardly any gas in the tank. Spark is spot-on when she remarks of this section: “This is a superb piece of nightmare writing.”Like Jen Fain in Speedboat, Kate Ennis discovers that to think of the self as unaffected by one’s environment is a flawed endeavor; to this end, both narrators realize that the act of storytelling in which the “I” is front and center risks missing material or else running against the problem of how to incorporate it: “Because it would be part of what I know, part of what I have to tell, that I understand something, not everything, but something…” In this way, the quote with which I began this piece comes to suggest that a fragmented, solipsistic style is the best way to unearth one’s identity from the events that shape (and sometimes destroy) it. Describing a diary she kept in her twenties, Ennis observes:The penmanship was fine, still those clear, regular capitals. But the record was of moods. There were no events, few names, no facts, no indication of what happened… What few names there were appeared uncharacterized, and not part of any incident or sentence; and the moods were described only to the extent of being up or down, like a chart of the stock market or of an illness… The events simply were not there, and, more surprisingly, I could not reconstruct them.The collective anxiety of Manhattan life portrayed in Speedboat, along with the more personal anxiety and paranoia experienced by Kate Ennis in Pitch Dark, are ones that are still resoundingly relatable to our lives today. As Specktor writes:[Adler’s] work hasn’t dated: its depth of engagement on every level—with private life and the life of state—its comedy and perspective, its shrewd observation of everything from literature to politics to manners and back again, these qualities mark Adler’s work as fathomless, as damn near inexhaustible.Adler’s work is an analysis of the individual in ”an age of crime,” as she phrases it in Pitch Dark, one in which “[v]ery few of us, it seems fair to say, are morally at ease.” As Jen Fain remarks in Speedboat, as she attempts to quell mass hysteria on a tiny charter plane “start[ing] down the runway of the Fishers Island airport”: “For flights I have these pills. … I counted and found I had enough painkilling pills for everyone.” Substitute Xanax for the Valium and Percodan scattered throughout Speedboat and Pitch Dark, and one has our world today, a world in which external realities affect our inner states of mind, a world we inhabit with others whose differences in some way become part of our own story: “As much as this is the age of crime, after all, this is the century of dislocation. Not just for journalists or refugees: for everyone.”

The Dead

The Dead - James Joyce "Why is it that words like these seem to me so dull and cold? Is it because there is no word tender enough to be your name?"

Open City: A Novel

Open City: A Novel - Teju Cole open city n. an undefended city; spec. a city declared to be unfortified and undefended and so, by international law, exempt from enemy attack.Julius, a Nigerian psychiatrist living in Manhattan, is Teju Cole’s humane, aesthetic, and highly observant narrator in Open City, a debut novel that has earned Cole comparisons to such heavyweights as Proust and Sebald. While Cole’s project is similar in how he explores how our surroundings shape and inform our experiences, our subjective realities, and our relationships with others, the voice here is all his own even though some of the structural arrangements follow Proust—e.g., apart from the descriptions of Vinteuil’s “little phrase,” Julius’s description in Open City of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony is perhaps the most wonderful writing on music ever written—and Julius’s various meanderings about Manhattan (and also Brussels) echo sections of Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn with which I’m as yet only tangentially familiar.The concept of the open city, which is emphasized in the novel during Julius’s visit to Brussels, is critical to Cole’s examination of how many city-dwellers thrive on feelings of safety: “We are the first humans who are completely unprepared for disaster. It is dangerous to live in a secure world.” This is especially prevalent in Julius’s post-9/11 Manhattan, and also in the many conversations he recounts—with relatives, with strangers, with patients, with Al-Qaeda sympathizers, with colleagues, with neighbors—that blend the Japanese-American internment camps of WWII, the Nazi occupation, the Vietnam War, and other domestic and global conflicts in order to consider how these relate to collective and individual cultural identities, especially at the level of dislocation and fracture, poised between living and dying: “To be alive, it seemed to me, as I stood there in all kinds of sorrow, was to be both original and reflection, and to be dead was to be split off, to be reflection alone.”Cole’s salient prose takes in the breadth of human experience while living in a city whose ever-changing architecture, public spaces, crowds, and landscapes go unexamined by so many who live there. By contrast, because he is an outsider, Julius takes in everything, and on his walks through the city he is as able to observe a car accident, relate being mugged, offer the history of beached whales and birds dazed and dead by the Statue of Liberty’s torch as intrinsic (but often forgotten) parts of New York City’s narrative, and also reflect on the emotional experiences of a life lived straddling two very different worlds—that of Nigeria and that of Manhattan, that of childhood and that of adulthood, that of becoming and that of still becoming, only more consciously so. Just as the city has depths and hidden stories (“What Lenape paths lay buried beneath the rubble? The site was a palimpsest, as was all the city, written, erased, rewritten”), so, too, do individuals, and Julius’s narrative is as much about coming to terms with his adopted city as it is with himself: “I wanted to find the line that connected me to my own part in these stories” as it is “unimaginable how many small stories people all over this city carried around with them.”Open City is a profound meditation on how one should live one’s life with eyes wide open, taking in the inconsequential and relishing it for how it will later attach itself to our own subjective narrative, both in terms of how we view our lives looking back in time and also how we morph and change along with the cities we call our homes.

Speedboat (Nyrb Classics)

Speedboat - Renata Adler, Guy Trebay Review published in 3:AM Magazine: http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/century-of-dislocation/Do I need to stylize it, then, or can I tell it as it was?… Is that where it begins? I don’t know. I don’t know where it begins. It is where I am.These lines, from the opening pages of Renata Adler’s second novel, Pitch Dark (1983), should rightly be read as a self-reflexive rumination on the fragmented and nonlinear prose style in her two fictional works, an endeavor to centralize the act of storytelling (and, with it, the conflicts between objectivity and subjectivity) begun by Adler when Speedboat was published in 1976. The impact of Speedboat upon writers as diverse as David Foster Wallace, Elizabeth Hardwick, and David Shields proves its status as a sui generis text. As Guy Trebay notes:Speedboat … stamp[s] contemporary consciousness with its singular mark. Because the book prefigured by decades certain telegraphic forms of communication we now take for granted, it is easy to miss the point that Speedboat got there well before e-mails or Facebook or Twitter.Because Speedboat in effect reinvented the novel with its unique mix of vignettes, kaleidoscopic and panoramic reportage, and a presciently liberal social commentary, Adler’s prefiguration of how contemporary life is ingested in—and therefore best understood by—fragments represents a stylistic shift in narration. As such, Speedboat is a seminal text in the history of the literary novel’s evolution. Now that it and its companion novel Pitch Dark have been reissued by the New York Review of Books after being out of print for some twenty-five years, one can read these texts anew, posit their importance to experimental fiction written in the wake of Speedboat, and also admire Adler’s gift for incisive social and personal insights that are still relevant and resonant to this day.Both Speedboat’s and Pitch Dark’s narrators are reporters. In the former novel, Jen Fain shifts back and forth in time as she relates experiences at boarding school, graduate school, cocktail parties with academics, interviews conducted with people of different classes and races in her capacity as reporter, and the political conflicts that affect a liberal, bohemian social clique whose globetrotting always brings them back to Manhattan as if the city were a magnet. (These experiences are also Kate Ennis’s in Pitch Dark, but the later novel focuses more on Ennis’s psychological conflict than on the more external factors with which Speedboat is concerned.) As Adler eschews plot almost entirely, the vignettes Jen Fain offers form a whole only as one reads. Muriel Spark observes how, when reading Adler’s prose, “[y]ou have to piece it together as you would if you had picked up a stranger’s private journal.”Although Speedboat is more of a public chronicle than a private document like Pitch Dark, it is still very much a subjective view of city life and how this affects an individual’s consciousness. Fain observes: “I find that many city people give their most minute attention to the ethics of found objects, small.” In many ways, this is one of the pressing issues in Speedboat: how the mundane encounters in our lives—the bureaucratic idiocies at the institution where Fain serves as an adjunct; telephone calls from PBS soliciting donations; international phone calls with bad connections, effectively rendering them party-lines (as Matthew Specktor has also termed Adler’s prose style in his piece in The Believer); the political and intimate disconnect one has with one’s lovers—are like pieces in a puzzle which can never be placed together into a concrete whole, and yet, if we are to make sense of our individuality, must somehow be mapped on to our subjectivities, even if our attempts fail: “Something lost in translation there, perhaps. Everywhere.”And while “[p]eople seem to be unhappy in so many different ways,” Fain must incorporate the fragments of other people’s experiences in order to fathom her own. In this way, “the inevitable is being interrupted by strangers all the time,” thus affecting the narrative we attempt to construct for ourselves:The plot of things separating, not so common, disintegration, breaking up. The plot of one thing following in the track of another, as in thrillers, chases. The plot of things parallel. Suspense, which has time as an obstacle to a resolution in the future. Nostalgia, which has time as an obstacle to a resolution in the past. Maybe there are stories, even, like solitaire or canasta: they are shuffled and dealt, then they do or do not come out.Also affecting our narratives are, as Trebay believes Adler presages, our modes of communication and travel, which combine to further displace us from other people despite how necessary they are to the task of trying to understand our identities in relation to the world in which we live: “The jet, the telephone, the boat, the train, the television. Dislocations.”Pitch Dark takes dislocation as its main theme. Like Jen Fain, Pitch Dark’s Kate Ennis is a reporter, and, to some extent, the social, cultural, and political background with which Speedboat deals is one the reader must keep in mind when reading Pitch Dark. Due to this, the two novels read as companion pieces, with the first-person narrators blending into each other, complete with shared experiences and a common worldview. (Indeed, in the second section of Pitch Dark, the narrator even becomes Adler herself, causing Spark to wonder: “Does Miss Adler mean to suggest that she herself is Kate Ennis?”)Ennis’s main conflict in Adler’s second novel is whether to leave a married man with whom she has been having an affair for eight years. More poetic in both style and depth than Speedboat, Pitch Dark uses repetition to convey the circuitous meanderings of its narrator as she ponders whether or not to leave Jake (a conflict and character name that allude to Penelope Mortimer’s The Pumpkin Eater). Two oft-repeated refrains that get to the heart of Ennis’s mental state throughout the course of Pitch Dark are as follows:You are, you know, you were the nearest thing to a real story to happen in my life.Did I throw the most important thing perhaps, by accident, away?And while Ennis muses on her past with Jake, her present is sullied by the fact that her identity—and Pitch Dark is very much Ennis’s quest for autonomy—is subsumed beneath Jake’s as well as the other events in her life. In her attempt to excavate herself, Kate’s internal journey is mirrored by an external one that moves from Manhattan to New York State, from Orcas Island to the Irish countryside.Increasingly, Ennis’s travels give rise to feelings of paranoia and both cultural and self-dislocation: “I still have the sense, how to put this, that the land, even the sleeping country towns, know of me.” The titular section of Pitch Dark is the most plot-driven, but it is still very much interior in focus as Ennis deals with an ever-mounting sense of panic after a slight fender bender in a tiny Irish town, an incident that becomes a Kafkaesque nightmare involving a lorry driver as a bizarre “teamster” in a middle-of-the-night motorway ride to Dublin in a rented vehicle Ennis feels sure is under police scrutiny and which has hardly any gas in the tank. Spark is spot-on when she remarks of this section: “This is a superb piece of nightmare writing.”Like Jen Fain in Speedboat, Kate Ennis discovers that to think of the self as unaffected by one’s environment is a flawed endeavor; to this end, both narrators realize that the act of storytelling in which the “I” is front and center risks missing material or else running against the problem of how to incorporate it: “Because it would be part of what I know, part of what I have to tell, that I understand something, not everything, but something…” In this way, the quote with which I began this piece comes to suggest that a fragmented, solipsistic style is the best way to unearth one’s identity from the events that shape (and sometimes destroy) it. Describing a diary she kept in her twenties, Ennis observes:The penmanship was fine, still those clear, regular capitals. But the record was of moods. There were no events, few names, no facts, no indication of what happened… What few names there were appeared uncharacterized, and not part of any incident or sentence; and the moods were described only to the extent of being up or down, like a chart of the stock market or of an illness… The events simply were not there, and, more surprisingly, I could not reconstruct them.The collective anxiety of Manhattan life portrayed in Speedboat, along with the more personal anxiety and paranoia experienced by Kate Ennis in Pitch Dark, are ones that are still resoundingly relatable to our lives today. As Specktor writes:[Adler’s] work hasn’t dated: its depth of engagement on every level—with private life and the life of state—its comedy and perspective, its shrewd observation of everything from literature to politics to manners and back again, these qualities mark Adler’s work as fathomless, as damn near inexhaustible.Adler’s work is an analysis of the individual in ”an age of crime,” as she phrases it in Pitch Dark, one in which “[v]ery few of us, it seems fair to say, are morally at ease.” As Jen Fain remarks in Speedboat, as she attempts to quell mass hysteria on a tiny charter plane “start[ing] down the runway of the Fishers Island airport”: “For flights I have these pills. … I counted and found I had enough painkilling pills for everyone.” Substitute Xanax for the Valium and Percodan scattered throughout Speedboat and Pitch Dark, and one has our world today, a world in which external realities affect our inner states of mind, a world we inhabit with others whose differences in some way become part of our own story: “As much as this is the age of crime, after all, this is the century of dislocation. Not just for journalists or refugees: for everyone.”

Swann's Way: In Search of Lost Time, Vol. 1 (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)

Swann's Way - Marcel Proust, Lydia Davis (There are no "spoilers," I promise.)Combray"A sleeping man holds in a circle around him the sequence of the hours, the order of the years and worlds" — bedrooms; "the immobility of things" — habit — the magic lantern — weather; barometers — "Bathilde! Come and stop your husband from drinking cognac!" — the consolation of Mama's goodnight kiss — M. Swann — "our social personality is a creation of the minds of others" — "like good poets forced by the tyranny of rhyme to find their most beautiful lines" — "Since we tear the band off the newspaper so feverishly ever morning, they ought to change things and put into the newspaper, oh, I don't know, perhaps ... Pascal's Pensées!" — Françoise's "imperious" code — "that gesture" of Swann's "so like his father" — photographs and the "mechanical mode of representation" — George Sand — the Celtic belief of lost souls — the madeleine and tisane: "the truth I am seeking is not in the drink, but in me" — "the immense edifice of memory" — "a sort of twilight of flowers" — where everybody knows your name — "What, Françoise, more asparagus! Why, you've got a regular mania for asparagus this year." — the church at Combray — "it was always to the steeple that we had to return, always the steeple that dominated everything" — M. Legrandin, "the epitome of the superior man" — "in which Art allowed me a presentment of what it was," or actors' names — the lady in pink — Giotto's Virtues and Vices — the "different states of mind which my consciousness would simultaneously unfold while I read" — Bloch, barometers, Berma, and Bergotte's "mirrors of truth which were his books" — the etymological corruption of saints' names — Léonine's "little routine" — M. Vinteuil — "It was in the Month of Mary that I remember beginning to be fond of hawthorns" — "theatre in bed" — asparagus and chamber pots — Françoise's paradoxical pity — alter egos — the Méséglise way (the way by Swann's) and the Guermantes way — "blushing bodies undone by breath" — Gilberte among the pink hawthorns — "There's certainly a lot of music-making going on in that establishment" — the weather — Françoise's loyalty — "Zut, Zut, Zut, Zut" — landscapes; desire — sadism; voyeurism — the Vivonne — water lilies; neurasthenics — names; colors — "these dreams warned me that since I wanted to be a writer someday, it was time to find out what I was meant to write about" — Mme. de Guermantes — the depths of impressions — the two steeples of Martinville joined by Vieuxvicq's — "the smell of invisible, enduring lilacs" Swann in LoveMme. Verdurin's salon — Odette — "the bouquet of artificial pansies" — Dr. Cottard — "It's precisely the andante that completely paralyzes me" — the bronzes on the Beauvais couch — Vinteuil's "phrase or harmony ... that had opened his soul so much wider" — "a pure work of music contains none of the logical relationships whose alteration in language reveals madness" — Swann's connections — "a last chrysanthemum" — tea; cigarette cases; hearts — love and aesthetics — "searching for Eurydice" — straightening the cattleyas — "the little phrase had the power to open up within him the space it needed" — fashionable society — the Comte de Forcheville and Brichot — Cottard's "puns" — Dumas's Francillon and a Japanese salas — the effect of forbidden names on the little clan — "sonata-snake" — les cadeaux — "a painful need to master her entirely" — the bedroom light is on — "this strange phase of love" — jealousy; knowledge; letters — walking through the Bois imagining Chatou — "the Faubourg Saint-Germain's Noli me tangere" — the romance of railway timetables and the consolation of maps — Odette makes orangeade — Wagner — "the need to hear, and to understand, music" — preparations for absence — "his love was no longer operable" — M. de Charlus — influence — "Delightful—I'm turning into a real neurotic" — "We do not tremble except for ourselves, except for those we love" — Balzac's tigers — the staircase at the Marquise de Saint-Euverte's and "an empty milk can on a doormat" — men's monocles — the Princess des Laumes — "the phrases of Chopin with their sinuous and excessively long necks" — love; cholera — La Pérouse and the rue de La Pérouse — violins; "this body of sound" — an anonymous letter; suspicions — Théodore Barrière's Les Filles de Marbre — "Reality is therefore something that has no relation to possibilities, any more than the stab of a knife in our body has any relation to the gradual motions of the clouds overhead" — on the island in the Bois — "For what we believe to be our love, or our jealousy, is not one single passion, continuous and indivisible. They are composed of an infinity of successive loves, of different jealousies, which are ephemeral but by their uninterrupted multitude give the impression of continuity..." — brothel banter — Machard's portrait — Napoleon III and Forcheville "in the twilight of a dream" — retrospective presagesPlace-Names: The Namethe bedroom at Balbec's Grand-Hôtel de la Plage — "the beauty of landscapes" — Gothic steeples and sea storms — place-names: "proper names like the names people have" — "the countries we long for occupy a far larger place in our actual life ... than the country in which we happen to be" — Gilberte in the Champs-Élysées — "we no longer love anyone else when we are in love" — imaginary letters — Bergotte on Racine — the name Swann — Mme. Blatin and Les Débats — the beauties in the allée des Acacias — Mme. Swann — "a veritable fever for the dead leaves" of the Bois de Boulogne — automobiles; changes in fashion; the passing of time — "The reality I had known no longer existed"

The Beast in the Jungle

The Beast in the Jungle - Henry James James is my second favorite writer, after Proust, of course. “The Beast in the Jungle” is probably his most masterful tale—novella or short story, you decide—and it’s one that I’ve read at least twenty times. While many of my readings have been colored by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s now canonical essay “The Beast in the Closet,” this time around I read James’s tale from an entirely new perspective.And to me that’s the most marvelous thing about writers like James: one never encounters the same text; one always finds new entry points, threads, and cadences that were lost on the first (or tenth) reading. James’s work is always lucid and at the same time ambiguous, tapping into the ebb and flow of our psychological mindsets; I suppose it’s no wonder that our own psychological states while reading would blind us to the many other complex ideas and structures with which James is working with such laudable skill.“The Beast in the Jungle” is the tale of John Marcher, a narrative that pits existential and phenomenological questions of being against the ineluctable nature of language, speech, and what is unnameable. While Marcher is sure that something monstrous is going to happen to him, thus remaining hypervigilant through his entire life in wait for what he calls the beast, James is quick to show how the underlying narcissism that pervades our suffering—and which can blind us to the suffering of others—still courts a desire to be understood, acknowledged, and ultimately known. The analytic relationship between Marcher and May Bartram is one of the most beguiling and yet touching of these sorts of relationships in James’s fiction, perhaps because the sense of intimacy and the threat of the beast are interwoven in a way that causes the textual rhythm to literally pulsate at times (e.g., see the famous ending lines).If you are a writer and you’ve never read this, I honestly have no idea what sort of company you’ve been keeping. Not only is “The Beast in the Jungle” one of the very best examples of the short story, but it is also an investigation into the same representational inquiries with which we all deal when trying to nail down words for things that are simply unnameable. And if you’re a reader who has never read this: what on earth are you waiting for?

AnimalInside (The Cahiers)

AnimalInside (The Cahiers) - László Krasznahorkai Yet another beautiful Cahier in the series by Sylph Editions.

Max Neumann is well known for his often eerie portraits that echo psychological states; László Krasznahorkai is well known for his eerie, maddening, and Kafkaesque prose that delves into individuals’ relations to power structures and each other. Responding first to an image of Neumann’s depicting a terrifying yet incomprehensible animal, Krasznahorkai set the chain of collaboration that would become Animalinside into motion; Neumann’s resulting images—from the first textual response—are increasingly more horrifying, and Krasznahorkai’s prose follows this animal’s story in his typical long sentences with repetitive rhythms and compact rhetorical ways of rendering diction, e.g., “I extendextendextend around the Earth at the Equator” and “”so so sooo big that I extend across two galaxies, if I want and soooo so big that extend across one hundred galaxies.”Animalinside is about annihilation and apocalypse, but it is more harrowing than that: in identifying our fears and anxieties about power, Krasznahorkai shows that those in positions of power harbor the same kinds of misgivings that we do. In a sense, power entraps us in a very Foucauldian way, and to speak about power—to paraphrase Foucault—is only something that can be done from inside existing power structures. Krasznahorkai’s animal is inside us (“I, that thing that looks so ghastly, is within you, because I am within you”); at the same time, the animal appears to exhibit traits of alienation and isolation that characterize Krasznahorkai’s characters in other work. The impact of this here is to suggest that while we criticize power structures which cage us (“this space-cage... a cage made to my measurements”), preventing us from realizing our individuality, we are, oddly enough, complicit in our victimization within this totalizing hierarchy. 

Krasznahorkai’s instruments of power are panoptic:and that’s how life ends for you, because it is impossible to hide away from us, there is no depth within the earth that could be a refuge for you, we are here, above, here, look we’re watching from up here what you’re doing down there, but we don’t have to watch everything, because we know everything about you... I am inscrutable and indivisible and impenetrable...

And the end, as Krasznahorkai sees it here, is hardly something that can be prepared for or reckoned with because all of our cultural myths—and, too, the many ways in which we externalize power/knowledge systems, again to bring Foucault to mind—fail to consider that the true apocalypse does not come from outside, but from within:every aspiration to the infinite is a trap... and don’t count on me emerging from below the earth, and it is not from the mountains or from the heavens that I shall arrive, every picture drawn in anxiety, ever word written down in horror, every voice sounded in anguish with which you try to prophesize me is senseless, for there is no need of prophecy, there is no need for you to evoke me before I arrive, it will be enough to see me then...A true revolt, then, is impossible, and Krasznahorkai’s pessimism is obviously on display here, but there is also an overriding sense of sympathy for this animal despite his malevolence and his destructive intent: “if I jump up to sink my teeth into your throat, I hump into the trap definitively and inevitably, there is no point in speaking of escape. Into your throat.”

Called “the Hungarian master of the apocalypse” by Susan Sontag, Animalinside shows Krasznahorkai grappling with similar questions that his longer fictions consider; alongside Neumann’s images—often reminiscent of Munch’s Scream (“but what I hate most is how I’m howling here into the infinite”)—the paralyzing fear as we observe our own systemic collapse is made all the more uncanny, absurd, and downright chilling.

A Little Ramble: In the Spirit of Robert Walser

A Little Ramble: In the Spirit of Robert Walser - Robert Walser, Christopher Middleton, Susan Bernofsky, Tom Whalen My piece on Walser and Jelinek published in The Quarterly Conversation: http://quarterlyconversation.com/walking-with-walserWhat is “a writer’s writer”? Although the phrase is often used both haphazardly and problematically, there is something inherently useful about it when discussing the enduring legacy of certain authors. The OED attributes the first use of the term “a writer’s writer” to Orwell, who uses this description when writing about Gerard Manley Hopkins. This is particularly fitting, perhaps, as Julian Barnes—in his London Review of Books review of Lydia Davis’s translation of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary—brings Davis’s own discussion of Hopkins’s work to bear on what Barnes refers to as Davis’s status as “a writer’s writer’s writer.”Recently, too, J. M. Coetzee’s assessment of Gerald Murnane’s work in The New York Review of Books raises this question of inspiration and influence: as Coetzee himself is often described as “a writer’s writer,” does his praise of Murnane’s literary output cast Murnane into the realm of “a writer’s writer’s writer”? To be sure, while the term “a writer’s writer” is often ascribed to “difficult” prose, such as Proust’s and Beckett’s, it’s usually used to emphasize their influence on other writers and artists.Swiss-born modernist Robert Walser is perhaps the most unsung of these influential “writer’s writers,” and two recent collaborative texts underscore his ability to speak across artistic mediums. A Little Ramble: In the Spirit of Robert Walser, to be published in April by New Directions, includes short microscript pieces by Walser himself, as well as essays, creative writing, and art objects ranging from installation pieces to etchings, all of which speak to Walser’s own microscripts. This collection stems from a series of exhibitions curated by the late Donald Young in Chicago from December 2011 to October 2012, who, in his introduction, explains how he “became more and more interested in the connection between [Walser’s] writings and certain contemporary artists.” Another text, Austrian writer and Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek’s dramatic monologue Her Not All Her, with intercalated images by Thomas Newbolt, is collaborative in that Jelinek asserts in her subtitle that she is writing the piece “On/With Robert Walser.” In his afterward, Reto Sorg notes how Jelinek’s own text mixes with those of Walser: “It is almost impossible to tell when any given utterance has Jelinek speaking directly or when she is quoting texts by or about Walser, since the voices and languages intertwine, overlap, and blend together.” Indeed, the very title of Jelinek’s piece (in German, er nicht als er) is itself “formed out of the sounds of Robert Walser’s name.”Texts like these demonstrate not only Walser’s effect on the literary and aesthetic work in world literature half a century after his death but also his status as a niche author, a seeming prerequisite for any “writer’s writer.” Although Hermann Hesse has famously remarked that if Walser “had a hundred thousand readers, the world would be a better place,” his continued status as a marginal “writer’s writer” also causes a sense of protection and adoration to be aroused in his admirers; as one of Walser’s major English-language translators, Christopher Middleton, puts it: “Robert Walser was known only to a happy few, and his writing has a resistant purity which will keep any larger public, I hope, at bay forever.” Similar strains of idolizing homage and protective insulation are found in both A Little Ramble and Her Not All Her.* * * * Walser’s writings in A Little Ramble showcase his predilection for how small, everyday moments and observations can lend insight into more pressing issues affecting humanity and the world at large—themes apparent in all of his short writings, like those collected in Berlin Stories, Selected Stories, Speaking to the Rose, Microscripts, and Masquerade. “We don’t need to see anything out of the ordinary,” he writes in A Little Ramble’s title piece. “We already see so much.” Walser’s considerations of town and country, of walks and parks, of artists like Cézanne and van Gogh, and of the aesthetic world of Russian ballet and the cabarets of Berlin are paradoxically of no consequence and yet contain all the wisdom in the world. W. G. Sebald has called Walser “a clairvoyant of the small,” noting how he “almost always wrote the same thing and yet never repeated himself”: his “prose has the tendency to dissolve upon reading so that only a few hours later one can barely remember the ephemeral figures, events, and things of which he spoke.”Many of the contemporary artists engaging with the microscripts in A Little Ramble display a warm, glowing regard for this “writer’s writer.” Rodney Graham’s piece is a painted aluminum lightbox with chromogenic transparency depicting a genderless person reading in bed, eclipsed by the cover page of a 1937 edition of The Sunday Sun so that all the viewer can see are sets of fingers holding the newspaper at its edges, a coverlet, and the knobs at the top of the bedpost. In addition, Graham takes Walser’s microscripts and makes them even more microscopic, creating a series of pantoums dedicated to curator Donald Young, a self-reflexive move not out of step with Walser’s own metafictional insertions of self. Here, Walser’s “On the Russian Ballet” is metamorphosed textually, the opening sentence (“How ravishing, the Russian ballerinas from the Imperial Theatre in Petersburg”) becoming in Graham’s pantoumHow ravishingThe ballerinasLanguishingIn ice arenasAnother collaborative pairing juxtaposes Walser’s profound “The Park” with stills from Mark Wallinger’s video installation, Shadow Walker, which shows the shadow of a man against an exterior setting, his body morphed and transfigured due to the angle of the camera. This feels especially suitable to “The Park” which exclaims “it’s always Sunday in a park” and yet contains the lament: “What has become of us as a people that we can possess the beautiful only in dreams.”A Little Ramble also includes excerpts from friend Carl Seelig’s Walks with Robert Walser, diaristic recollections of Walser’s comments on various walks during and after World War II, when he took refuge at Herisau Clinic. Famously, when asked why he no longer wrote after 1933, he replied with: “I am here to be mad, not to write.” Seelig quotes Walser as saying the following on 16 May 1943:I was so glad this morning . . . to see the clouds instead of a clear blue sky! I have no use for grand vistas and majestic scenery. When such distant things recede—that’s when all that is nearby comes gently into view. What more do we need to feel content than a meadow, a forest, and a few quiet houses?Later, on 28 December 1944, Walser remarks: “The war at least has one benefit in that it forces a return to simplicity.” Despite his primary focus on what is ostensibly simple and mundane, Walser’s work always bemoans the modernization of the world, particularly how it separates the individual from these Arcadian meadows, forests, and “a few quiet houses.”For Walser, nature and individual work together to create a collective mood; in “The Teacher,” for example, a woman who “showed herself unwilling to be the doormat or dishrag of her most excellent husband” is eventually freed: “Liberated, overjoyed, she breathed a sigh of relief. In the sky, smiling little clouds were out for a stroll.” Similarly, in “Tiergarten,” Walser writes: “Everyone is displaying the same appropriate, mild solemnity. Is not the sky doing the same with its expression that appears to be saying: ‘How marvelous I feel’?” While these microscripts are celebratory, one thinks, too, of the claustrophobic setting of the Benjamenta Institute where the titular character in Jakob von Gunten enrolls himself to learn the secrets of being of service; in that novel, Walser’s childish, perverse, and lovable narrator represents a liminal character who exists in a temporal zone of uncertainty—somewhere between the idyllic beauty of the past and the capitalistic nightmare of the modern city, a tension that is also felt quite resoundingly in The Walk. While the external world moves toward war and anxiety, Walser’s writings echo these concerns while also taking internal refuge in the simple pleasures yet to be found in everyday moments and interactions.In “The Job Application,” Walser directly evokes the oppositional elements noted above with a narrative voice that uncannily speaks in the register of an older Jakob von Gunten:Large and difficult tasks I cannot perform, and obligations of a far-ranging sort are too strenuous for my mind. I am not particularly clever, and first and foremost I do not like to strain my intelligence overmuch. I am a dreamer rather than a thinker, a zero rather than a force, dim rather than sharp. Assuredly there exists in your institution, which I imagine to be overflowing with main and subsidiary functions and offices, work of the kind that one can do in a dream?In another writer’s hands, this might well descend into naiveté; however, Walser’s narrators are always extensions of himself as writer and observer, well aware of the cultural function of the artist as well as the artist’s task of critiquing society through deft observations (e.g., “The Job Application’s” juxtapositon of the oppressive and stifling nature of the modern workplace with dreaming and individual existence). As Seelig writes: “Robert is compelled to talk of the relationship between the poet and society. In his view, it is necessarily one of torment.” This is related to what Walser calls “sluggardizing” in his piece “Berlin and the Artist,” which Tacita Dean takes up in her visual response to that text, a collage of drawings, photographs, and cultural artifacts from Walser’s time, which she collected at flea markets around Berlin. As Dean interprets it:Sluggardizing . . . is the artist’s way: thinking, equivocating, waiting, delaying—indolence without intent. I like the word, which he wrote in German as Faulpelzerei—lazy under pelts, and I like that he has named this most maligned of behaviors, namely, this passive and recumbent state of incipient inspiration.It is no wonder that Walser has been so influential to artists and writers whose work is similarly charged with social criticism, examinations of the individual in relation to the world, and the attempt to fathom artistic inspiration.* * * * Jelinek’s Her Not All Her is a monologue that considers inspiration via Walser’s personal mythology and thematic concerns: where does inspiration come from, and what is at stake when the artist translates this moment of inspiration into a piece of art? For Jelinek, walking on/with Walser is the best way to consider such questions, and, despite the fact that the narrative voice in Her Not All Her is meant to be “[a] number of people [speaking] to each other, all very friendly and well-behaved (perhaps lying in bathtubs. as was once the custom in mental hospitals),” the voice also shifts from muse to artist, from connoisseur to creator, as if suggesting their interrelation. Indeed, Newbolt’s facing images stress this swapping of roles in creating and consuming art through figures who are so obscured by brushstrokes that the viewer must decipher them.Central to Jelinek’s analysis of the creative process is the identity of the writer: “Now who does the writer mean by himself?” Whether inspired by “a goddess” or a “soul . . . peeping out of your body as though a work lay there inside you . . . wanting to get out,” the writer “can only bring someone else to life, never revive himself.” This is especially interesting given the “I” in Walser’s writings, a persona that always causes the reader to question how much of Walser is encaged within this “I,” and also how much is poetic license (er nicht als er); as much as artistry is rooted in the artist, Jelinek also observes that “it’s from inside that you have to slide back the bolt so that you can finally get entirely out of yourself.” Jelinek continues:This Robert Walser is one of those people who do not mean themselves when they say “I.” It is true that he never stops saying “I,” but it’s not him. Like the music of late Schubert, or Schumann: mouldering away without really meaning it. Walser sees what everyone sees. And he shows us his tools for taking up what he sees.This tension between self and other maps neatly on to Walser’s “sluggardizing” wherein the writer strolls and observes life as a kind of flâneur, taking from everyday experiences the inspiration for a written piece and thus injecting into the mundane the flavor of poetry and philosophy.Tied into this are those people whom the writer encounters and houses in a work of art, a work that many of them would sadly fail to appreciate:Today, once again, no one has let me depict them with syllables, words, and lines. Once again, no one has welcomed me with open hands and arms. Maybe I go right past people too fast with all my requests. It must be almost unpleasant for them at times, to know that they possess such and such value, since they would then have to grant me almost exactly the same value too!This is the artist as a marginalized figure, existing on the outskirts of society while at the same time requiring social interactions in order to fuel the creative process. There is always the sense of witnessing and not being actively engaged with others: “I enter into every circle and then again none.”This outer antipathy between artist and society is joined by the inner struggle: how to represent in any artistic medium what strikes the artist in a sudden jolt of inspiration. This is also a problem of translation: of translating the “divine” material into language—the writer here is caught in the trappings of the limitations of language itself. As Jelinek writes: “the disadvantage of language is that it can all too quickly seem familiar and so you throw it off, horrified, as though you touched something disgusting. . . . Language is worth as little as life itself, for it is life itself.”It is with such limitations that the artist must work, and, as Jelinek journeys with Walser in reflecting on these moments of profound insight and the despair of creation, nothing is elucidated, yet everything is invoked: art’s intrinsic futility (and how it causes the artist to see the world differently) eventually leads to an oeuvre that inspires others. There is both the depth and the struggle to bring what one locates there to the level of discourse and representation: “And I speak of deep things. . . . No, my depth doesn’t reach its limits. No one should try to pour depths into something as shallow as me!”Walser’s legacy for Jelinek, then, in her walk with him, is a legacy that places the artistic journey above the actual creation: “All the lines are now stowed away safe and silent inside you like dead bodies. Even now there is life enough in most of us if only we give ourselves time to find ourselves!” For those who wish to follow in Walser’s footsteps, to take a little ramble with him, the task is to experience each moment and sensory perception to its fullest and to make oneself as humble and small as possible, an endeavor more about process than any teleological endpoint: “Everyone should make himself as small as he possibly can. That should certainly apply to me too, no question about it. I am not making fun of the somnolent. But I myself am always wide awake.” In this way the artist can translate to the best of his or her ability; as Walser observes in “Thoughts on Cézanne”: the artist’s function is “to make mountainous . . . the frame of things” and to depict things “which are as ordinary as they are remarkable.”

Strange Cowboy: Lincoln Dahl Turns Five

Strange Cowboy: Lincoln Dahl Turns Five - Sam Michel It’s work, remembering.What a brilliant novel by an erudite, unique prose stylist. Sam Michel’s prose is truly the star here, weaving in and out of time, memory, dreams, fantasies, and regrets. With precision, Michel mixes extremely long clauses—at times reminiscent of Faulker—with short, terse sentences closer in timbre to Beckett and Hemingway. But Michel is a stylist all his own, moving from high registers to lower, dialect-driven segments, always dazzling and puzzling the reader, in control at every shift, turn, cliff edge, and shoreline.Strange Cowboy takes place over the course of a day, but it spans a lifetime:Here went a day, the hours passed, a distance crossed, a place I had returned to, yet I found myself no less confused, in sense, equally afraid, unchanged to myself, save for how I sounded to myself in speaking.The scope and breadth here are astounding, especially given how Michel’s prose meanders, pulses, and poetically and rhythmically attends to the active memory life of the narrator, Lincoln Dahl, who has been asked by his wife to recall the birthday party given to him on turning five so that he can relate this tale to his own son, Lincoln, on his fifth birthday:All this day, other days, for weeks I think before this day, months maybe, maybe years since I first saw this child and understood I was a father, I have been trying here to tell the boy this story, recount a day for him that was for me the first remembered and most enduring time through which I could sustain myself in the belief that all I saw was me and mine and all for me and could not be or ever once have been without me.What happens is that this request sends Lincoln into absorbing, lulling, manic, and yet at the same time lucid reflections on his relationships—with his mother, with his father, with his neighbors and a dog named Hope, with his wife, and, most importantly, with his son:Uninvited scenes, some lived, some not, lines from dialogues, spoken and unspoken, images and phrases fastened onto things before me, as if whatever thing I told or thought to tell was free of me...I saw myself in him, my son and I as one, careening, riding level ground through wilde descents of seeing, and reseeing, my son and I revived, reenacted, able to act, acting, reenabled.The distance that we all feel in our relationships with those we love (“Perhaps it was this simple, to desire, people wanted”), the desire to speak and yet feeling paralyzed and rooted in patterns not conducive to communicating our truest emotions (“I despaired that there might never come a day my son and I would each be hearing from a clear desire if I should call him sweetheart”), the regrets that cause pangs when looking back at and assessing our lives and the impact we had on others—all of these are here, in soaring and dazzling sentences—some of which rely heavily on rhythm and others that rely on other devices like alliteration (e.g., “the follow I foresaw in seeking out a view upon a snowbound summit”)—that make one wonder how long Michel worked at perfecting them or if his talent is such that he can write sentences like this one in his sleep:I grow lighter, rather, rise, emerge, an inertial heat appears to bear me up and outward, as the past succeeds itself, accelerates and passes in and out of me, colliding with itself, disintegrating as it comes and goes, resolving finally into unfamiliar fragments, unwedded to the words and names through which such sounds and flashes once covered and once enshrouded.Strange Cowboy is a book that everyone who has lived, loved, and lost should read. And, since that is all of us, I would urge you not to wait a moment longer: Michel is bound to receive well-deserved accolades for this novel in the coming weeks and months. Flat-out amazing.

Dusk and Other Stories (Modern Library Paperbacks)

Dusk and Other Stories - James Salter, Philip Gourevitch I should preface this by saying that I’m not typically a big fan of contemporary short stories: I’m certainly not one to go in for many of the often formulaic and derivative New Yorker style pieces that seem to abound in just about every magazine and collection—often the very ones that get praised so highly. I’m much more interested in short stories that work well, and I’ve found that this is only the case for those who pioneered the form and who were masters at it: Poe, James, Mansfield, Borges, and company. However, I am trying to make an effort in 2013 to read more short stories, so I picked up Salter’s only short story collection today.

Imagine my surprise: me, a reader who prefers novels, besotted by the only short story collection this man wrote. I’m not even sure what Salter does that is so bewitching: his prose is simplistic; his sentences tend to be laconic and terse. But he does very intriguing things with temporality, and he’s able to move adroitly from one character’s perspective to another’s without leaving the reader feeling jarred or causing his narrative to flounder. There is also a skill evident here when it comes to shifting levels of consciousness and memory—for example, in “Twenty Minutes,” a woman who has been thrown from her horse, and knowing she has twenty minutes before shock gives way to full-blown pain, relives the most pressing memories in her life in a nonlinear fashion that isn’t Salter writing stream-of-consciousness so much as him proving to be incisive in getting at people’s various states of psychological unrest and feelings of loneliness.This is also a wide-ranging collection: the title story is one of the strongest—so it’s no surprise that the collection is named after it—and deals with the static life of a woman turned forty-nine, her regrets and her conflicted ways of dealing with those in her every day life; one piece looks at the levels of camaraderie, resentment, and jealousy in our adult relationships as they are formed in early life by focusing on a reunion at West Point; and another story offers an hallucinatory midnight stroll through the suburbs as a man who is a recovering alcoholic either falls off the wagon or, and Salter is really superb in this piece (“Akhnilo”), is completely sober.I’ve reached the ten-minute deadline I give myself for most reviews on here, but I don’t yet feel that I’ve been able to convey just how Salter’s prose struck me here—nor can I attempt to describe just what he does. But whatever he does, he does remarkably well and with such grace and ease that it’s a marvel the complex depths he plumbs here.

The Robber

The Robber - Robert Walser, Susan Bernofsky If you are fond of pleasure postponed, of insertions, digressions, concealments—and who is not?—this maze will amaze you.- William H. GassGass’s comments about Walser’s The Robber are spot-on: the novel is certainly a maze, “an unsolvable riddle” as Walser describes the Robber’s beloved Edith’s lips. The last novel that Walser wrote, The Robber was long left untranslated because it was found in its microscript form, a miniaturized version of Kurrent script which Walser used for his manuscripts from about 1917 onward and which he would then transcribe into longhand German soon after. When his posthumous papers were found, no one knew what to make of these documents, some citing Walser’s twenty-six-year-long stay in mental hospitals as evidence for writing gibberish, secret code, etc. In her translator’s introduction to The Robber, Susan Bernofsky suggests that Walser never intended for the novel to be read because it was the only one he kept in microscript form: “When Walser wrote The Robber, he must have been fully aware, at least after the first few pages, that he would never be able to publish it. This would explain why he never prepared a clean copy of the manuscript for submission to publishers.”But why would The Robber have been so condemned by publishers, especially given that it shows Walser—who, despite not making much of a living from his writing was still famous in his heyday, praised by Robert Musil and envied and imitated by the likes of Kafka—at the height of his powers? Perhaps that is precisely why no publisher would have touched The Robber because its themes, while radical, are to be found in virtually all modernist novels: madness, artistry, dissections of class and gender, authorial interjections and insertions, etc. The Robber truly is a novel whose style mirrors its content, and vice versa, so that the reader is left in Walser’s wholly capable hands, forced into often bizarre, idiosyncratic rhythms in large stretches of prose that simultaneously lull and jar the reader. What is this novel about? The Robber is about everything and nothing; it is about the anxieties and trappings of class just as the class system is undergoing a destabilization after World War I; it is about an unnamed Robber and the author of the novel about said Robber, identities that often become conflated and intertwined throughout the text (“I have to be constantly on my guard not to confuse myself with him”). Above all, The Robber is about love and contradiction: it is an attempt to render in prose the ineffable emotional highs and lows that come with living, loving, and the many metaphoric acts of “robbery” of which we are all guilty. However, with that said, due to the diversionary tactics employed by Walser in this novel and the authorial interjections of his narrator, The Robber is also about the failure that meets anyone seeking truth or the depiction of truth in art. As the narrator even notes of his role: “I will make it my business to depict to you. One shouldn’t say depict, but rather present... It isn’t right for everything to be uncovered, illumined, otherwise what would the connoisseur have left to ponder?” And so The Robber is a continuous game of hide-and-seek, of revealing and occluding, of explicating and silencing.Walser is a genius at using his characters to serve as microcosms for society at large—e.g., Jakob von Gunten in the eponymous novel, the writer-narrator in The Walk, Joseph in The Assistant, and the fluid “I” in his tales and criticism, an “I” that is both Walser and not Walser. What he is also a genius at is presenting individuals’ flaws and strengths, balancing out each aspect of his characters’—and our own—identities. While the Robber is persecuted by his community, the portrait that Walser (or, more accurately, the “I” narrating the novel) paints of him is sympathetic: “Flaws are touching.” And while the narrator distinguishes himself as socially superior to the Robber—discussing “this postwar age all aglitter with plebeian sentiment”—it is clear that Walser is asking us to not judge these prejudices, but instead to learn how they are instilled in the first place in order to overcome them.The Robber is the work of a master, and one is literally left breathless coming away from the novel—from the sheer magic of Walser’s prose and, sadly, from the fact that this was his final performance.