Not sure how I missed this, but back in May, Joshua Cohen had a fantastic little review of the posthumous collection of W.G. Sebald’s early literary criticism, A Place in the Country, in the Times. Aside from being whip smart, Cohen’s piece mentions a few features about Sebald’s “novels” that I hadn’t realized:
All four of his novels bear the marks of these influences, in images and even lines lifted verbatim: parts of Stifter’s story “Der Condor” appear in “The Rings of Saturn,” and of Walser’s short story “Kleist in Thun” in “Vertigo,” unacknowledged. But then Sebald also borrowed from the living, especially from the biographies of émigrés: the poet and translator Michael Hamburger has a cameo in “The Rings of Saturn.”
None of this was plagiarism, or even allusion. This was Sebald proposing a self whose only homeland was the page: Existence beyond the bindings was too compromising. This principle corresponds to the photographs Sebald included in his novels, black-and-white portraits he’d purchased from antique markets; in “Austerlitz,” that boy in the cape holding the plumed tricorn is not Jacques Austerlitz — it can’t be: Jacques Austerlitz is fictional — and yet it is more Jacques Austerlitz than the boy it actually depicts, who remains unknown to the reader (and who remained unknown even to Sebald, who, according to James Wood, paid 30 pence for the photo).
The page is the new horizon at the same time that it’s the old one. All words and works, bound together and repeated and rephrased and reused—mine and yours and Walser’s and Sebald’s and Cohen’s—forever and ever. Of course, Sebald and Cohen say it better than any of us can.
I did as much as possible myself; it was an article of faith, a matter of simple human decency to do the dirty work as long as I could… Three things — a phone, computer and car — are all you need to produce films. Even today I still do most things myself. Although at times it would be good if I had more support, I would rather put the money up on the screen instead of adding people to the payroll.
Herzog on experience:
Beware of useless, bottom-rung secretarial jobs in film-production companies. Instead, so long as you are able-bodied, head out to where the real world is. Roll up your sleeves and work as a bouncer in a sex club or a warden in a lunatic asylum or a machine operator in a slaughterhouse. Drive a taxi for six months and you’ll have enough money to make a film. Walk on foot, learn languages and a craft or trade that has nothing to do with cinema. Filmmaking — like great literature — must have experience of life at its foundation. Read Conrad or Hemingway and you can tell how much real life is in those books.
Herzog on money:
The circumstances of funding never just appear; you have to create them yourself, then manipulate them for your own ends. This is the very nature and daily toil of filmmaking. If your project has real substance, ultimately the money will follow you like a common cur in the street with its tail between its legs. There is a German proverb:“Der Teufel scheisst immer auf den grössten Haufen” [“The Devil always shits on the biggest heap”]. So start heaping and have faith.
It’s all very Herzog, and all very good. Out September 2 from Faber & Faber. You also might look into this killer blu-ray collection that just came out this year and is on this guy’s x-mas list.
Courtesy of Grant Snider and capturing my feelings exactly. Never let a brand die. Word on the street (see: my girlfriend) is that the Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is better than 1Q84, so whether that means more weird sex and vanishing cats or less weird sex and vanishing cats, plan your bingo moves accordingly.
With Márquez, Gordimer, Berger, and others passing, it’s been a rough year on literature. Now Pierre Ryckmans (AKA Simon Leys) is gone, leaving us a rich body of critical work. Outspoken, concentrated, eccentric, lucid, and always interesting—Ryckmans was a rare breed of critic who could be humane and combative and smart all at once. Pick up his collected essays, The Hall of Uselessness, out on NYRB and worth every bit of your attention. From the short essay, “Momento Mori,” parting words:
We never cease to be astonished at the passing of time: “Look at him! Only yesterday, it seems, he was still a tiny kid, and now he is bald, with a big moustache; a married man and a father!” This shows clearly that time is not our natural element: would a fish ever be surprised by the wetness of water? For our true motherland is eternity; we are the mere passing guests of time. Nevertheless, it is within the bonds of time that man builds the cathedral of Chartres, paints the Sistine Chapel and plays the seven-string zither—which inspired William Blake’s luminous intuition: “Eternity is in love with the productions of time.”
In tandem with publishing a César Aira story entitled “Picasso,” The New Yorker has a little interview of the international-lit juggernaut Barbara Epler this week. It’s always refreshing to see some Aira float to the top of the cultural conversation—same with New Directions. There’s a nice aside in the interview in which Epler talks about meeting Aira on a trip to Argentina, with characteristically Airan results:
For several weeks, he’d ignored my e-mails from New York asking if I could see him, until the morning I was flying off, when a brief note appeared—“I love all my publishers a priori”—saying that he’d pick me up at my hotel the next morning and show me the town. He ran me through three museums in ninety minutes: it was the White Rabbit tour. When we finally sat down and I could have a beer, I tried to talk to him about his own books, which turned out to be a dreadful idea. We only started enjoying ourselves when he told me that his favorite English-language author is Muriel Spark.
"Flight forward," indeed. A collection of Aira’s short stories entitled "The Musical Brain and Other Stories" is due out by ND next year. Check out the title story, also published in The New Yorker in 2011.
It’s Christmas in August, is how it feels right now. First the Fancy galley comes in and now this: The Minotaur’s Daughter by Rowland Saifi. Now in the spirit of fair disclosure, I’m going to admit that I occasionally workshop/play chess/drink beers with Rowland. That being said, he’s just about the best writer I know—always trying something new; always finishing projects he starts; always funny and smart and generous and punch-you-in-the-gut powerful on the page. Rowland’s a literary lifer, which is about as good as it gets these days. The Minotaur’s Daughter is a beguiling novella, structured around the starts and stops you’d encounter in a labyrinth, and as attuned to the sounds words make as to the story’s rhythmic engagement with memory. I read it on loose sheets in the air from Houston to Chicago and hit the ground dizzied and drunk on the sentences. But let’s let the work speak for itself:
You have a second self. But this is not unusual. There were several moments when you felt as if you could succumb to a sort of mental collapse, from which there would be no recovery, not a glass of milk, not a hair comb, nor well-wisher could keep you from water. In those moments, when you wring your hands, pull at your face, and consider your possessions, there among the dissolution of things with a puffy face, an empty stomach, and your kidneys aching, there at the precipice, even, with childhood clothes neatly folded all around you, stuffed animals and garbage bags of books, love letters gathered and bundled, but not torn, and gently placed in a rubbish bin, standing there in the one pair of shoes you allowed yourself, stripped of all connotative gifts, unused for fear of bad spirits and yet you carried them from place to place, from episode to episode, because of the guilt they inflict upon you and the memory of when gifts arrived biannually, you stand combing your hair, feeling the tortoise-shell teeth move along your tender, sun-burned skull, and thinking about all that you have owned, or carried unused, the emptiness of the town you ruined, and thinking that despite a few good years, and a few good years after, there came a voice whispering in the second person, a voice that you are unsure is the voice of sanity, but a voice you are sure is below, promising a soft landing, coaxing you to let the wind carry you - and why not?
Out now on Spuyten Duyvil and with blurbs by Jesse Ball, Laird Hunt, and Danielle Dutton. This is what’s happening in literature. Right now, this.
Daniel Mendelsohn has a nice article on John Williams’s final novel, Augustus, out in August on NYRB Classics. This is the same author whose book Stoner—the quiet, sobering college novel about an aging professor—became a surprise hit last year in the UK, almost 50 years after its publication. Williams won the National Book Award for Augustus, but the novel has languished out of print for some time now. Mendelsohn’s write-up will double as the introduction to the new addition, and is a nice rendering of the author’s subtle style:
The main theme at play in all three of Williams’s mature novels is in fact rather larger: it’s the discovery that, as Stoner puts it to the mistress he must abandon for the sake of his family and his job, “we are of the world, after all.” All of Williams’s work is preoccupied by the way in which, whatever our characters or desires may be, the lives we end up with are the often unexpected products of the friction between us and the world itself—whether that world is nature or culture, the deceptively Edenic expanses of the Colorado Territory or the narrow halls of a state university, the carnage of a buffalo hunt or the proscriptions of the Roman Senate. At one point in Augustus a visitor to Rome asks Octavian’s boyhood tutor what the young leader is like, and the elderly Greek sage replies, “He will become what he will become, out of the force of his person and the accident of his fate.”
The Paris Review has a nice little interview with experimental author Dodie Bellamy. Active for around three decades, Dodie was part of the Bay Area’s New Narrative movement, a loose grouping of writers that tried to test the boundaries of narrative fiction with techniques that were more closely associated with poetry. On her new book, The TV Sutras, out now from Ugly Duckling Presse:
I’m compelled to take risks in my work, to write toward taboo, both content-wise and formally. This can create a lot of anxiety. To keep going I have to shut out my awareness of an audience and throw myself into my fictive world like some outsider artist perv. Think Henry Darger salivating over his nubile cut-outs. When I do that, subject matter becomes sculptural—these bits of material that I manipulate until everything makes sense in this alternate reality. Self-criticism comes in during gaps where I lose my focus, or sometimes when I’m up in front of a room giving a reading and I’m unexpectedly mortified, and there’s nothing else to do but to continue reading with an air of confidence while thinking, How could you write such sick fucking stuff?
For what it’s worth, Coach House Books put out an awesome compendium of writing associated with New Narrative, which I highly recommend if you want to see where the possibilities of fiction might lie.
The NYTimes has a great write-up of rock star cover designer Peter Mendelsund’s two new books, Cover and What We See When We Read. Without a doubt, Mendelsund has designed some of the most iconic covers of the last decade. Go to your shelf and pick out a beauty published in the last few years and chances are it’s from his hand.
To come up with a cover, Mr. Mendelsund begins by scribbling notes on a manuscript and underlining key thematic sentences. He hangs the marked-up pages above his computer. Then he begins cataloging his ideas on a piece of paper covered with 16 rectangles, filling each one with a word, phrase or tiny sketch. He picks the most promising concept and creates a draft on the computer.
Once he has a rough design in place, he will often switch to illustrating by hand, drawing with an ink brush, layering on paper collage or filling in blocky shapes with gouache, a dense watercolor. Finally, he prints out a mock cover, wraps it around a hardcover and leaves it on his bookshelf for a few days. If his eye is spontaneously drawn to it a day or two later, he considers his direction on the right track. If the cover disappears into the background, he knows something is missing.
And of course, plug time: come out to Peter’s release party, next Tuesday, August 5 at 7pm here at the powerHouse Arena. I’m trying not to use our Tumblr as a promo platform so when I break the rule you can tell it’ll be great. Seriously, just look at these new Kafka covers. COME ON!
Today on “What Should You Read While The New Yorker’s Archives Are Open,” we’ve got the amazing "Black Box" by Jennifer Egan. The story first appeared in 2012 Summer Fiction issue, which focused on science fiction and was definitely the last great one to date. As you might notice from the style, Egan wrote the story using Twitter and famously serialized it in tweets across ten nights. But what really makes this piece move is a totally fascinating, prescriptive second-person perspective, where each tweet is instructional and the action takes place in the gap. Check it:
If your subject is angry, you may leave your camouflage position and move as close to him as possible to improve recording quality.
You may feel afraid as you do this.
Your pounding heartbeat will not be recorded.
If your Designated Mate is standing on a balcony, hover in the doorway just behind him.
If he pivots and discovers you, pretend that you were on the verge of approaching him.
Anger usually trumps suspicion.
If your subject brushes past you and storms out of the room, slamming the door, you have eluded detection.
Of course, don’t miss the amazing Works by Edouard Levé, translated by Jan Steyn for The Dalkey Archive. The thesis of the book is captured in its first point: “1. A BOOK OF WORKS THAT THE AUTHOR HAS CONCEIVED BUT NOT BROUGHT INTO BEING.” That’s just the start.
3. Proust’s head is drawn on a page of In Search of Lost Time. The words tracing out the contour of his face form a grammatically correct sentence.
15. A leather jacket made from a mad cow.
19. A butterfly is released into a room, hidden from sight. Every night, its flight, detected by laser beams, is transmitted to a mobile machine equipped with an hourglass. By morning, the imprint of the nocturnal flight is drawn in sand on the floor.
26. A building is transformed into a cemetery. The rooms become vaults.
35. Fake drawings by artists from the early twentieth century are folded up and inserted into books in provincial libraries. The books are chosen for the coincidence of their dates of publication and the supposed dates of the drawings. At an undetermined date, a reader discovers the work. Not imagining that it might be a fake, since the usual motive for forgery – the financial enrichment of the forger – is not operative here, experts authenticate the drawing. The artist’s body of works is augmented. Wrongly so.
There aren’t a whole hell of a lot of books I get excited about, but this is one of them: Fancy by Jeremy M. Davies. Jeremy is the Senior Editor at The Dalkey Archive, and a damn good writer to boot. His first book, Rose Alley, is so jam packed with narrative goodies that you get to feeling every single sentence could veer off and become its own 250-page novel at any moment. It’s like Pynchon and Ronald Firbank had a love child who did nothing but watch nasty films and memorize words like “frottage.” Fancy is composed of a series of pet-sitting instruction from an elderly shut-in to a young couple. If that doesn’t get you going I’m not sure what will. But really, this is mad, maddeningly good stuff, like Bernhard on a softer, funnier, more thoughtful day. Check out this opening:
Rumrill said (for that was his name): Why not let us settle in with a blunt sort of proclamation, a postulate, for example that this space here, where we sniff and shuffle, is located in my home, Rumrill’s home; and that these cats, were any cats present, are my cats, the cats of Rumrill. And then, with all of that said, I might take a breath and illustrate my testimony; I might extend a finger in the direction of my ceiling or walls, at one or another of my little animals—if any had been brave enough to join us—after which demonstration you would be forced to admit, or else persuaded, or else enticed, that I had made myself clear. He added: Myself, which is to say, Rumrill.
(Vollmann as his cross-dressing alter-ego, Dolores. Image from powerHouse’s very own: The Book of Dolores.)
The New Republic has a great profile of the always fascinating William T. Vollmann up today. Love this first sentence:
As for being suspected of being the Unabomber, William T. Vollmann was suspected of being the Unabomber. He discovered this accidentally, after he requested his FBI file, for a piece he was writing for Harper’s about privacy. His FBI file is 785 pages long; only 294 were released to him. When Vollmann first discovered he was a Unabomber suspect, he thought: “ ‘Wow, this is really fun!’ I bustled about telling all of my friends. Then I started reading more of it.” He’s still angry that the content of his fiction was marshaled against him. His novel Fathers and Crows, for instance, is about the clash between the Iroquois and the first French missionaries to what was then called Kebec. An FBI operative rather ambitiously deduced that its title had something to do with the “FC” the Unabomber was known to scrawl on his bombs. “Fathers and Crows,” Vollmann said incredulously, “which took place in seventeenth- century Canada. It was outside what’s now the U.S. in a time before there was the U.S. It was evenhanded, I thought, about Iroquois and Jesuits. [But] they were saying, since he supports the Iroquois torture of the missionaries, he’s clearly in favor of terrorism.” (Not everything the FBI said about him was unkind, or not exactly unkind: “By all accounts, VOLLMANN is exceedingly intelligent and possessed with an enormous ego.”)
For those of you who haven’t read Vollmann before, pickup Rainbow Stories and get the fuck ready.
Why does one write? Because it isn’t there! Unlike Everest and other celebrated eminences. Beginners sometime ask me how a novel is written, the answer to which is: Any way at all. One knows only when it is finished, and then if one is at all serious, he will never do it the same way again.
I should like the reader to be aware that a book of mine is written in the English language, which I love with all my heart and write to the best of my ability and with the most honorable of intentions — which is to say, I am peddling no quackery, masking no intent to tyrannize, and asking nobody’s pity. (I suspect that I am trying to save my own soul, but that’s nobody else’s business.)
To celebrate the relaunch of its website, The New Yorker is opening up its archives for free this summer. Take a half hour and read this beautiful Bolaño story, “Clara,” from an August 2008 issue.
One night I dreamed of an angel: I walked into a huge, empty bar and saw him sitting in a corner with his elbows on the table and a cup of milky coffee in front of him. She’s the love of your life, he said, looking up at me, and the force of his gaze, the fire in his eyes, threw me right across the room. I started shouting, Waiter, waiter, then opened my eyes and escaped from that miserable dream. Other nights I didn’t dream of anyone, but I woke up in tears. Meanwhile, Clara and I were writing to each other. Her letters were brief. Hi, how are you, it’s raining, I love you, bye. At first, those letters scared me. It’s all over, I thought. Nevertheless, after inspecting them more carefully, I reached the conclusion that her epistolary concision was motivated by a desire to avoid grammatical errors. Clara was proud. She couldn’t write well, and she didn’t want to let it show, even if it meant hurting me by seeming cold.
Great essay by Meghan Forbes on Bohumil Hrabal’s Rambling On: An Apprentice’s Guide to the Gift of the Gab (Karolinum Press: 2014) over at LARB:
The promise of recurrence is perhaps the defining principle of Hrabal’s prose. Characters within a story often speak in circles that continually draw their yarns back into focus; characters from past stories will pop up again in later ones, adding greater dimension to the people in Hrabal’s tales. Ominously, it is the police commandant who recurs most often. Always interrupting late-night revelries, his posturing is at once sinister and ridiculous. Hrabal, with a wink to the reader, lays his cards bare when the police commandant suddenly appears alongside two wheelchair-ridden friends making their way home in the snow: “I spotted, in one of the side avenues, a Volga parked, with the police commandant leaning against it, lost in thought, just as he always popped up, so he popped up now, whenever he wasn’t expected, up he popped.” The way in which the same characters pop up and are woven through the stories in Rambling On leaves us with the sense that it is more than a collection of fragments of village life, that each story is a chapter in a loose narrative, revealed gradually through the circular reemergence of motifs and individuals. The content of Rambling On is mirrored in its structure; the iconic banter of Hrabal’s characters is replicated on a larger scale, as an organizing principle for the book as a whole.
If you’ve never read the Czech giant, go out right now and grab I Served the King of England, out on the wonderful New Directions Press. An absolute classic.
(JIM BALLARD, The Magician (Study for a Portrait), mixed media and collage, 2009, by Luca Del Baldo)
Over at VICE, Blake Butler has a nice piece on the gross, glorious High Rise (1975) by J.G. Ballard:
So, besides the violence, how does Ballard manage to make this book so unnerving? I’ve read a lot of novels full of brutal descriptions of grotesque arenas, but there was something else to High Rise beyond its circus of slow degradation. The book’s most central power seems to come not from how its world unravels but how clearly and steadily the narration holds the reader as he descends. From the start, the conceptual framework of the book (citizens within a communal living space gradually become unhinged unto total chaos) provides the reader with a feeling of a laboratory experiment, less a narrative where we are supposed to change or care, and more like a documentary through which we are made witness to a condition of the world amidst us all. This isn’t a parable or even a nightmare; it’s a possible future. The narrators could be our children, their children, or ourselves.
I read Ballard’s Crash (1973) a number of years ago and still have never felt quite so nauseous from a book. But nausea means you’re alive.
The July issue of Asymptote Journal is out and is, as usual, amazing. Don’t miss this provocative piece (fiction? impression? description?) by Sergio Chejfec entitled The Witness:
“Our first protagonist is Julio Cortázar. He’s been in Buenos Aires for a while now. Two years before, he was living in Bolívar, from where, in a letter, he wrote, “life here makes me picture a man getting crushed by a steam roller.” Within eight months he’ll be teaching in Chivilcoy; he’ll miss Bolívar and will feel like an exile. But for now, in the capital, he’s unsure where his life is taking him—this is what stands out from his correspondence. It’s January, 1939, but he hasn’t left on vacation (though he doesn’t specify what it is that stops him). Actually, a vacation wouldn’t interest him. Cortázar wants another life, an abrupt and unexpected transformation: what he’d like is to literally hop on board a cargo ship for Mexico. His anxiety comes through in the next letter, written that same month, in which he regrets postponing the trip, at least for now: there aren’t any ships in Buenos Aires bound for Mexico. The nearest port besides is Valparaíso, so he puts off the trip for the following year and commits to saving money. Cortázar admires Mexico, wants to see the Aztec pyramids and hear the local music.”
"The journeys we make during the reading of a book trace out, in some way, the private spaces we inhabit. There are texts that will always be our dead-end streets; fragments that will be bridges; words that will be like the scaffolding that protects fragile constructions. T. S. Eliot: a plant growing in the debris of a ruined building; Salvador Novo: a tree-lined street transformed into an expressway; Tomás Segovia: a boulevard, a breath of air; Roberto Bolaño: a rooftop terrace; Isabel Allende: a (magically real) shopping mall; Gilles Deleuze: a summit; and Jacques Derrida: a pothole. Robert Walser: a chink in the wall, for looking through to the other side; Charles Baudelaire: a waiting room; Hannah Arendt: a tower, an Archimedean point; Martin Heidegger: a cul-de-sac; Walter Benjamin: a one-way street walked down against the flow."
Stefan Zweig was an enormously prolific author—he composed dozens of novellas and short stories, two novels (one incomplete), a shelf worth of fat biographies, comparative studies of great artists, philosophers and healers, a hefty memoir—and that’s not to mention plays, libretti, poems, hundreds of articles and over 30,000 letters. So where to plunge in?
A helpful guide to Stefan Zweig from George Prochnik. On Wednesday, May 7, Prochnik and his wife Rebecca Mead will join us to discuss the collaborative interplay between writers and their domestic partners. Learn more about here.
Adding the inevitable winding footnote to the production of The End Of The Tour—the upcoming film in which Jason Segel captures the late David Foster Wallace’s estimable legacy of wearing do-rags—the Wallace estate has officially come out against the film.
Surprised it took this long for something to happen…
“Talent isn’t enough, she had told us. Writing is work. Anyone can do this, anyone can learn to do this. It’s not rocket science, it’s habits of mind and habits of work. I started with people much more talented than me, she said, and they’re dead or in jail or not writing. The difference between myself and them is that I’m writing.”—
Recent American wars have made the term “redeployment” a household word. Troops are moved around, withdrawn and redistributed in one big seemingly endless war. Phil Klay’s stunningly fine and poignant debut collection of short stories, Redeployment, uses the word “war” both as military language and as the world his characters inhabit. These 18, often brutal stories are told by different narrators who have a variety of jobs and ranks. The tone and style throughout is understated, quiet, reserved—in perfect counterbalance to the horrific events that are being described.
A great primer on Phil Klay via Shelf Awareness - the author will celebrate the Brooklyn book launch of Redeployment with novelist Patrick McGrath in March. To RSVP here, go here.
An excerpt from Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes’ “HRC”
Only two days left til White House correspondents Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes launch their Hillary Clinton bio at our store! This excerpt should be enough to hold you over until then - make sure to RSVP here.