Two Short Works of Non-Fiction by Readux Books

Whether or not you subscribe to the theory that the digital age is creating an ADD society (there was a great article about this last month in The Guardian) time is at a premium in today’s world and there’s no arguing the attractions of shorter fiction.   Earlier this year I ran a series of posts featuring bloggers discussing why they love – or hate – short stories.  Novellas are also growing in popularity. Readux Books, the new publisher based in Berlin, has hit the sweet spot somewhere between the two with the release of their first collection of books this past October.

A lot of care has obviously gone into the making and launching these books.  Each is approximately 5,000 to 10,000 words – a length Readux feels is in keeping with “reading habits in the digital era, without room for slack, but that is long enough to allow complex themes to be developed.”  The gorgeous, brightly colored paperback covers referencing the German Expressionists.  The writing is experimental – of the four books, three are translations – yet accessible.   Readux has obviously made clever choices and taken some calculated chances in the planning stages.    And while each of the four books is sold individually, they share common themes, ideas and a consistent packaging that had me coveting them for my bookshelves.  This careful curating reminds me of some of my favorite independent publishers: New Directions, Open Letter and Other Press.

The two non-fiction titles are memoirs about life in Berlin, written from two different periods in the city’s history.  Yet, the Berlin described appears remarkably unchanged despite an 85 year gap in the timeline.  The changes in writing styles are much more drastic.  Franz Hessel’s In Berlin: Day and Night in 1929 lacks the post-modern trappings of City of Rumor: The Compulsion to Write About Berlin (written by Gideon Lewis-Kraus in 2013).  The former is a period piece that is similar to Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories.  Not surprising, as both he and Hessel lived in Berlin at the same time.  It’s not unthinkable that they would even have traveled in the same circles.

Hessel was a Jewish editor, author and translator.  He was a member of the German artist community.  His complicated marriage to the journalist Helen Grund inspired Henri Pierre Roche’s novel Jules et Jim (which, in turn, inspired the 1962 François Truffaut film of the same name).  Eventually, he would flee Germany for France and he and his son would be sent to an internment camp.  He died in 1941, the same year he was released from the camp.

But here Hessel is writing about the heady days before the tragedy of WWII.  His descriptions of Berlin and its citizens are frenzied and entertaining.  In Berlin is an all too brief excerpt of what I believe must have been a longer piece in which we readers get to follow Hessel and his companions as they drift between cabarets, parties and clubs. We meet the German equivalent of Flappers and get a taste of the sexually progressive atmosphere that permeated the city at that time.  The sharp, witty prose style is characteristic of Lois Long’s column for the New Yorker during the same period.

… Gert and Maria deliberate on what else we could undertake to do. “Why don’t you young people go upstairs and dance?” I ask.  “I don’t want to,” says Maria, “but maybe Gert would find some companionship in the Blaue Salon.” “Actually I was supposed to stop in to Ambassadeurs today at midnight.”” In my inexperience, I am informed that this is the newest extension of the Barberina.  Gert and Maria then discuss the quality of the various jazz bands and tango groups in the big hotels, in the Palais am Zoo, in the Valencia, etc.  I somewhat timidly introduce my experiences from the little Silhoette.  “why don’t we just go across the way here to Eldorado?  That’s where the real bedlam’s at.  You’re all for chaos, smoking and sport jackets, transvestites, little girls, and great ladies, aren’t you?  Of course you’re more for what’s proper, Gert, you want elegant dancing and limits, you want to go to Königin.”  But in the end we decide on something completely different.

If you’re in Germany you can buy a set of (4) posters featuring Readux covers.

In contrast, City of Rumor by Gideon Lewis-Kraus spends less time writing about Berlin, the city, and more on his conflicted emotions regarding it.  He is a modern-day expatriate.  Lewis-Kraus is an American journalist whose work has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, The New York Times Magazine and the London Review of Books.  His writing is as beautiful as Hessel’s, but also more fraught. The modern Berlin he describes is still a frenetic party scene, but seems less innocent and more world-weary. The essay, itself, reads much more self-indulgent; the main conflict being internalized.  Berlin assumes the secondary role, stripped of its unique character and becoming interchangeable with cities like Brooklyn, London or L.A.   “Hipster” is a word that comes to mind.   “Angst” is another.  Of course, the subtitle is “The Compulsion to Write About Berlin“, – so you could say that Lewis-Kraus has delivered on what was advertised.

The chapter about Berlin, like the lives of man of the people I knew in Berlin, had no such constraint – no relevant chronology, no narrative necessity. When I sat down to write about Berlin for the first time, all I could do was make a list of anecdotes, the ones that had lingered with me for some reason, in no particular order.  I wrote them out as a series of disordered episodes – the time we followed the votive candles to the rave in the toolshed in the middle of the park, the time our friend held a real art opening outside a fake art opening – and saw little use or accuracy in connecting them.  After all, they had only ever felt associatively connected in the first place.  They had, or course, happened in one particular order, though as far as I could tell they might very well have happened in any other order, or no order at all.

Side-by-side these essays seem not about Berlin but instead about two generations of young urbanites.  That contrast between authors is what I found most interesting.  Individually they’re entertaining reads – but considered together they have the potential to spark a larger conversation about historical, cultural and literary changes.

The two fiction titles are Fantasy by Malte Persson, translated from Swedish by Saskia Vogel and The Marvel of Biographical Bookkeeping by Francis Nenik, translated from German by Katy Derbyshire.

Publisher:  Readux Books, Berlin

In Berlin: Day and Night in 1929
ISBN:  978 3 944801 01 8

City of Rumor: The Compulsion to Write About Berlin
ISBN:  978 3 944801 03 2

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All My Friends by Marie NDiaye, translated from the French by Jordan Stump

All My Friends is a book of short stories by French author Marie NDiaye.  The second book released by Two Lines Press – a new publisher associated with The Center for the Art of Translation in California, – it is translated by Jordan Stump.  I’d heard many good things about NDiaye, and Stump seems to have an affinity for translating unusual narratives, so I was looking forward to reading this book.

Which makes it hard to admit that on first reading I found the collection somewhat disappointing.  The five stories are not linked, but they share a common theme – the main character’s inability (or is it unwillingness?) to connect with reality.  All five are written in the first person and each narrator drags the reader further into the rabbit hole of psychosis.  Because our perception of what is going on is so severely limited and dependent on a series of unreliable narrators, many of these stories are disorienting.  NDiaye makes little effort to distinguish between what is reality and what is delusion.  What breadcrumbs she leaves are sparse – small, easily overlooked clues as to what is actually going on.

The first story, “All My Friends”, is about a retired teacher stalking a former student.  The student is now his housekeeper.  His obsession with her dominates his life and defines his remaining relationships.  She, in term, loathes him – and seems to take a kind of sadistic pleasure in tormenting him with her disdain.  At least that’s what he believes.  The situation, as these situations tend to, crumbles.  The final scene is chilling… but a bit confusing if you think too hard about what triggered it.

“All My Friends”, along with two of the longer stories in the collection: “The Death of Claude Francois” and “Brulard’s Day”, are particularly challenging.  The narratives are fragmented. and at times difficult to follow.  These short stories read as exercises, character sketches intended to be absorbed into a larger work (a novel perhaps) at a later date?  They lack emotional weight as stand-alone stories.  These narrators are so unreliable – their memories and perceptions so distorted – that it is impossible to believe anything they say.

I became increasingly suspicious… not to mention a bit paranoid.  I did not trust these people, but they were all I had.

And that’s what makes this collection so brilliant.  We are shown the world and events only from the narrator’s perspective.  And that perspective is a bit skewed – to say the least.

Jimmy’s dog ran towards her, leapt up, dampened her cheek with a hearty lick.  For the few seconds that the dog’s eyes were level with Brulard’s, she had the brutal feeling that she could see her own anxious soul reflected of submerged deep inside them.  The dark mirror of the dog’s pupils seemed to be showing her not her own miniaturized face but something else, unexpected, inexplicable – as if, Brulard told herself at a loss, her appearance had suddenly changed beyond all recognition, or as if the dog’s incomprehensible black eye were reflecting Brulard’s true, secret being, of which she herself had no notion, which she couldn’t describe, even on finding it thus revealed in the gaze of that pitiful creature.

The remaining two stories are less complicated, but equally rewarding.  They’re also easier to summarize than “The Death of Claude Francois” and “Brulard’s Day” (which, though convoluted, are still wonderful) .  In “The Boys” we meet René: an awkward, teenaged boy who spends all his free time at a neighboring family’s farm – the Moers.  On one visit he witnesses the mother selling her attractive, younger son.  Though this event will ultimately tear the family he idolizes apart, René becomes convinced that this is the path down which his own happiness lies.  Things, needless to say, do not go as planned.

René, as a character, is fascinating.  As you learn more about his life you realize that in his family he is the golden boy.  René’s mother gives him the best food at dinner.  His brothers and sisters admire him.  But his family circumstances are very different from the Moers’.  René’s family appears to survive at the edge of starvation.  His mother is a prostitute for the migrant laborers in the area and all the children have different fathers.  And so his vision of himself waivers between grandiosity and soul crushingly low self-esteem.  Remove the strange circumstances this story places him in and René could be any young man-boy with a high opinion of himself that he has done little to justify.

In “Revelation” NDiaye switches from the son to the mother.  A woman takes her mentally handicapped son on a bus ride with the intention of abandoning him once they reach their destination.  This is a very short story, only six pages long, and focuses entirely on the mother’s emotions.  At first she tells us of how she hates her son.  How he annoys her and how she mistreats him at home.  “He’s unbearable, she sometimes thought.  And also: he seems not so much insane as stupid, appallingly stupid.” Yet, we are told -

She was angry with herself for that.  This son was not cruel.  His capacity for meanness had waned even as the mother’s aggressive rancor grew.  She realized that her despair and her rage were fueled by nothing other than the progressive disappearance of those emotions in the son.

The mother, like all the characters in these stories, is self-absorbed.  She is concerned with events only in how they affect her, and as she sits next to her son she does not think about what will happen to him.  She has already begun the process of re-shaping the narrative in her head.  This son becomes the only son who understood her.  She is abandoning him because he is driving her mad, but once he is gone she will love him because of the loss her represents to her.*  She will make the most of the situation and will miss him as much as she previously despised him.

All My Friends is a slim little book.  After finishing and absorbing (and you definitely need time to absorb) what I’d just read, I couldn’t help but wonder what a longer story by this author – with all its edges softened and gaps filled in –  might look like?  That’s the tease of All My Friends.  A bit like If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler, Marie NDiaye’s stories are just strange enough and interesting enough to spark readers curiosity.  And then leave them impatiently waiting for more.

Publisher:  Two Lines Press, San Francisco (2013)
ISBN:  978 1 931883 23 8

*Children, as a rule, do not fare well at the hands of adults in Ms. NDiaye’s world.

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