July 11, 2015 § 5 Comments
Title: The Travels of Daniel Ascher
Author: Déborah Lévy-Bertherat
Translator: Adriana Hunter
Publisher: Other Press
ISBN: 978 159051707 9
The Travels of Daniel Ascher by Déborah Lévy-Bertherat is a generally inoffensive, if slight, novel brought out just in time for Summer. According to a Publisher Weekly article, Other Press is marketing the title as a “YA Crossover”, which speaks to the awkward position the book occupies. The plotting and prose are not sophisticated enough to impress adult fiction readers, but the characterizations (and perhaps even some of the situations?) are too sophisticated (without being engaging) for tweens and early teens. In other words: the novel lacks the pleasurable appeal of genre, and at the same time offers no challenge to the literary fiction reader.
Hélène Roche is a 20-year old archeology student, invited by her Great-Uncle Daniel to stay with him while completing her studies in Paris. He is the author of a beloved series of children’s adventure novels known as The Black Insignia series. Novels everyone seems to have read and adored… except Hélène. Her relationship to Daniel is complicated. Even as a child she was critical – thinking his word games “dumb”, his adventure stories “all the same” and finding his behavior clownish. Whereas Daniel, in contrast, is inordinately fond of her. At holidays he never forgot to single her and her brother out from the other cousins with special gifts – exotic items he picked up on his travels. And, of course, inscribed copies of all his books. Still, despite his many kindnesses Hélène goes out of her way to avoid him.
Otherwise it’s a very convenient arrangement for her: she is given her own apartment on the top floor of Uncle Daniel’s building. Rent free. He resides on the ground floor and is frequently out of the country. He leaves her notes and sends her letters, planning for them to spend time together when he returns. Otherwise he leaves her to her own devices.
That evening she found a postcard of Patagonia in her mailbox. It was sent from Ushuaia, featured low-slung houses against a background of mountains, and had a really beautiful stamp. She recognized her great-uncle’s handwriting, the same writing as those dedications in the Black Insignia books, its sloping letters clinging to each other with tiny connecting hooks as if afraid of losing eachother. My dear Hélène, I hope you’ve settled into rue Vavin. It’s magnificent here. I’ll tell you all about it, but only if you insist… Affectionately, Daniel H.R.
Hélène is not the only member of the Roche family who has issues with Daniel. The adults in particular seem to have mixed feelings, his two sisters and Hélène’s mother and father seemingly the only ones who have a genuine affection for him. Which makes what happens next so odd. Hélène begins to probe into the mysteries of Daniel’s life. Daniel is Jewish. A war orphan, adopted by the Roches after his family was killed in the Holocaust. And while she goes to great lengths – even so far as to travel to America with her boyfriend to visit Daniel’s “Ascher” relatives – her sudden interest is inexplicable. Almost half-hearted. In fact, everything about Helene comes across as half-hearted. Her research is never presented as a means for her to become closer to Daniel, to understand him, or to learn about her family’s history. With one or two exceptions she does not engage with him in any meaningful way as she sets about excavating his life as if digging through an ancient ruin. Hélène moves through the world in a state of self-absorbed ennui. Smoking, brooding and thinking herself better than everyone around her. Déborah Lévy-Bertherat has done something worse than create an unlikeable character… she has written a thoroughly uninteresting one. One who has no more self-knowledge at the end of her narrative journey than she did at its beginning. This matters as, despite it being a third person narrative, the entire story is told through the lens of Hélène.
As for the ending and the mystery’s final resolution – well, to be blunt, it’s a bit ridiculous. My reaction to it all is very similar to my reaction to Antoine Laurain’s The Red Notebook, another French novel written in a similar vein. Neither book demands an emotional commitment from its characters or readers.
The redeeming feature of The Travels of Daniel Ascher is the amount of care and thought which went into publishing the English/American edition. Adriana Hunter has made a lovely and flowing translation (she was also the translator of Hervé le Tellier’s Eléctrico W) of the source text. The writing itself is really very fine with pretty flights of fancy – for example that line in the passage above describing Daniel’s handwriting. Other Press has created a lovely book in a style reminiscent of the Lemony Snickett’s Series of Unfortunate Events series and filled it with charming pen and ink illustrations by Andreas Feher. Included at the end of the book is a drawing showing the spines of a complete set of Black Insignia books and a list of the titles in the series “so far”. Overall the physical presentation is delightful – whimsical in a way which is normally just my style.
June 29, 2015 § 4 Comments
Title: The Meursalt Investigation
Author: Kamel Daoud
Translator: John Cullen
Publisher: Other Press, New York (2015)
ISBN: 978 1 59051 751 2
When L’Étranger was translated into English and published as The Stranger in the United States in 1946 two articles appeared in the NY Times. The first was a fawning profile of Camus, hailing him as the “Apostle of Post-Liberation France”. In the second article, a review of the actual book, Charles Poore wrote, ‘Mersault’s unkindness toward his mother weighs more heavily in the court’s scales against him than the fact that in a drunk and heat-dazed moment he shot an Arab. There may be poetic justice in that, though it doesn’t seem to be the futilitarian point that Camus is making. (Incidentally, the fate of the Arab’s family is completely overlooked in the proceedings.)’
Poore’s insight seems to have been exceptional, not the norm, among his contemporaries. Albert Camus’ L’Étranger was once taught in schools across this country as an example of post-war existential and absurdist literature, but I don’t remember any examples of it being discussed in the context of colonial history. A ommission that continued over time and which seems ridiculous in hindsight. True, things were different in 1946 – the entire world would be rebuilding after the Blitz, the Holocaust, the Dresden bombings, the Vichy occupation, Pearl Harbor, the bombing of Berlin – every country had a tragedy and every tragedy seems to have been given a name that stuck. Existentialism, absurdism and nihilism were philosophies that fit then and (I suppose) continued to fit as time went on. And let’s face it – no one was in the mood to discuss dismantling a racist colonial system. Particularly not those who benefited from it. Algerian Independence wouldn’t be won – hard won – from the French until 1962, twenty years later.
Pied-noirs – black shoes – was the nickname given to the white, French colonists who benefited from the colonial system. And Meursault is the more extreme version of this privileged class. Camus’ place in and stance on Algier’s society was as complicated as his protagonist’s motivations were simple. As a journalist for an anti-colonial newspaper prior to WWII and during the Algerian War of Independence he would express sympathy, even some solidarity, for those who fought on the side of Algerian independence. “The truth is that we are living every day alongside people whose condition is that of the European peasantry of three centuries ago, and yet we, and we alone, are unmoved by their desperate plight.” But he didn’t support full, Algerian self-rule. Instead he thought it best for Algiers remain part of France. (The obvious question is “best for whom”?) It was a stance which did not make him popular in Algiers and to this day he remains un-celebrated (and largely unclaimed) by the country where he was born. Camus was very much a man of his time, as was his book.
And so it is unsurprisingly an Algerian writer, Kamel Daoud, who has set out to correct the omissions in Camus’ narrative. He gives the murdered Arab a name: Musa. A mother. And a brother, Harun, who tells their (the “Arab”) side of the story. In a way Daoud has created a parallel, Through the Looking Glass version of L’Étranger. He opens with the words “Mama’s still alive today” and ends with “I too would wish them to be there in force, my spectators, and their hatred be savage”. What happens in between is a tale told to a stranger in a bar decades after the events it describes took place. Told by a narrator who is in every way Meursault’s opposite. Harun, as already stated, is Musa’s brother and so one of the Arabs Meursault & his friend Raymond despised. He contextualizes the familiar story within the history of Algiers – his and his brother’s world – rather than the first half of the 20th century as experienced by Europe. Harun ultimately disputes every fact in the original account, disperses our illusions, and goes on to explain the repercussions of that afternoon on the beach. Some we might never have considered. (One new detail that is introduced: because Musa is never named in the original story, he can never be identified as a martyr and so his mother can not claim a martyr’s pension).
Meursault and Camus blend into a single man – the author/actor of this retold story – who is cleared of a murder he does not deny having committed and then goes on to write a book that enthralls the world. In this way Daoud holds both men, and by extension the readers who were complicit in the dehumanization of the victim, accountable.
Arab. I never felt Arab, you know. Arab-ness is like Negro-ness, which only exists in the white man’s eyes. In our neighborhood, in our world, we were Muslims, we had given names, faces, and habits. Period. The others were “the strangers,” the roumis God brought here to put us to the test, but whose days were numbered anyway: one day or another, they would leave, there was no doubt about that. And so nobody responded to them, people clammed up in their presence, leaned on the wall, and waited. Your writer-murderer was wrong, my brother an his friend had no intention whatsoever of killing them, him and his pimp friend. THey were just waiting for them to leave, all of them, your hero, the pimp, and the thousands and thousands of others. We all knew it, we knew it from early childhood, we didn’t even need to talk about it: we knew one day they’d eventually leave. When we happened to pass through a European neighborhood, we used to amuse ourselves by pointing at the houses and sharing them out like spoils of spoils of a war. One of us would say, “This one’s mine, I touched it first!” and set off a frenzy of claims and counter-claims. We were five years old when we started doing that, can you imagine? As if our intuition was telling us what would happen when Independence came, but leaving out the weapons.
To his credit Douod doesn’t try to match the eloquence of Camus’ writing, cleverly dismissing its perceived worth in the very first page – “The murderer has become famous, and his story’s too well written for me to get any ideas about imitating him.” Instead he focuses on what happened to that other, forgotten, mother and our narrator, Harun. How they dealt with their grief and survived the decades of war. Harun is presented to us as a drunk – angry, bitter, irascible. His voice is coarse, his manner Falstaffian*. He is a tragic figure, too, in his own way. Harun may have lived while his brother did not, but circumstances forced him to live in the shadow of another man’s version of Musa’s death. Though he goes on to paint a picture of what came after post-colonialism and rages against a country where religious has replaced the secular in day-to-day life – for him and his family all these events pivot around the millisecond, 2 o’clock in the afternoon, when his brother was shot. “And so when Musa went away into the mountains to talk to God about eternity, Mama and I left the city and went back to the village.”
I wonder what Camus would have made of it.
If you haven’t read The Stranger there’s really not much point reading The Meursault Investigation. It is not a stand-alone book. You will have to read both books, back-to-back. Which is not a suggestion but, rather, a directive. (Just in case anyone was confused). Daoud’s novel is increasingly relevant – as literature, as social commentary and as an aid in understanding current events. If that’s not compelling enough consider this: The Meursault Investigation corrects the record 70-years after and proves that every life – even a fictional one – is significant. That there always exists an untold story. And every story gains power in the telling.
*Perils of a reader/reviewer: I just want to admit that at this point I’m not sure if that Falstaff comparison is entirely my own. If I somehow absorbed it from another review (or even the book itself?) it was unintentional & I’ve forgotten where I came across it.
May 26, 2015 § 8 Comments
Author: Anne Garréta
Translator: Emma Ramadan
Publisher: Deep Vellum Publishing, Dallas (2015)
ISBN: 978 1 9419 2009 1
…The party lasted well beyond the usual timeframe. Strictly speaking, I was no longer listening to the music; it was passing through me. I was cuing up the records as if by instinct, my vision obscured by a veil of blood. I was in a coma agitated by rhythms that were more and more painfully arousing my desire without ever draining it. In a vague fog I discerned the compact mass of people dancing, flattened one against the other and yet swaying, lifted up in waves. United almost without fissure, they were probably incapable of moving, but the entire mass vibrated in rhythm, all individual drives undone and lost in a higher, sovereign need. George told me later that everyone who entered the club mixed gradually into this mob and that between the hours of two and six in the morning nobody left, the employees were overwhelmed. At eight in the morning, emptied, I collapsed onto a bench and went to sleep.
That night sealed my reputation. It still reigns supreme in my memory; no other night ever achieved such furious intensity…
There have been enough reviews posted online by now that it should come as no surprise to learn that Sphinx is an Oulipian novel and that the particular constraint it operates under is gender. Specifically, an absence of gender identification. Garréta, and her translator Ramadan after, set themselves a monumental task of eliminating masculine and feminine from language. It is difficult to discuss Sphinx while ignoring this subversive act but I find that too often the novelty of Oulipo, the gamesmanship and artistic bravado, is allowed to overshadow what should be the central premise of my (of any) review – whether the final product is well-written – and to limit how we discuss the work. The fact that the author writes under constraint is really just ornamental gilding. That delightful, if inessential, layer of the novel that remains unnecessary to our enjoyment of the book yet adds to our appreciation. It is something I come up against when describing Oulipo to a particular friend of mine. I go on and on about the technical skill involved in writing under this or that constraint, only to receive the response – ‘I see. Oulipo. I’m pretty sure that’s an Old French word for “sitting around drinking absinthe and making shit up”.’ Because, when you say it all out loud it does sound a bit pretentious and showy. And it does beg the question, when you’re devoting so much time to grammatical or structural minutiae what are you sacrificing? The assumption being something is getting lost, the focus being all on conforming to the constraint. The difficulty lies in convincing readers that the answer can be: nothing. From the right pen, of course.
First let me say that Anne Garréta has written a novel that very much reminds me of Jeanette Winterson’s Written On the Body (though Garréta’s book came first, published in French in 1986 while Winterson’s novel was published in 1992) in both prose and premise. This struck me immediately. Winterson’s novel – about a nameless, genderless narrator in love with a married woman who is diagnosed with Leukemia – poses the question “Why is the measure of love…loss?”. Garréta’s book deals in those very same themes. The prose style is also similar: dense, ornate, sensual. Winterson’s a little more earthy, Garréta & Ramadan more formal. Both narrators are self-absorbed in their grief. Taken altogether I believe it’s safe to make the if then statement – if you enjoyed Written On the Body then you will also enjoy Sphinx. Though this is not meant to imply that they are in any way the same book or story. They are most definitely not.
Emma Ramadan refers to Sphinx‘s unidentified narrator as Je in an essay she wrote for 5 Dials. It seems as good a name as any (and much better than constantly referring to ‘the narrator’). And so Je is a former religious student turned D.J., infatuated with an African-American dancer named A***. In one way Sphinx is Je’s attempt at charting the course of their relationship. The events in Je‘s life that lead to their first meeting, Je & A***’s courtship, cohabitation, visits to America and Je’s connection to A***’s family. The relationship lasts long enough that the initial passion wears off and is replaced by whatever it is that comes after. But A*** dies and Je is left behind to sort through the memories and emotions of their time together. We become lost in Je‘s skewed perspective – narcississtic and self-absorbed – which we’d like to attribute to grief but which ultimately we come to understand is the central component of who Je is. A man/woman locked so far into his/her own psyche as to be almost incapable of acknowledging a world separate from/outside of it. It makes a modicum of sense when we read “I was about to turn twenty-three…”. Je’s complaints of ennui, Je’s intellectual pretensions, sense of superiority and nihilism can only be acceptable, and then just barely, in young adults… even among Parisians. And so Je remains compelling despite his/her obvious flaws.
I felt as if I had never been permitted such transparency with anyone – anyone but A***. Had I confided more in A*** than in anybody else? What had I revealed? Had I unmasked myself, or at least what I thought I knew of myself? No, more likely I had exposed my own collapse, the ruin of the edifice I had so painfully constructed out of rhetoric and made to stand in for identity. I was forcing myself to forget this nudity. My soul was not retreating behind a multitude of appearances that it could have incarnated endlessly, but rather, hollowed from the inside, was being instilled with doubt over this cavity that it hadn’t filled with anything. I was then forced to recognize what I had always secretly wanted others to discover: “I” is nothing. It was a painful triumph when, faced with this beloved being, I finally achieved what I had always been aiming towards: the ability to confess my own weakness, my nothingness. But the weight of this nothingness was revealed only to me; it remained unintelligible to A***, and I remained in the barrenness, the ruin, at last revealed as if by accident, following this confrontation with m own nudity and death. “What am I,” I was asking myself, “other than what you do not know how to say about me?”
There’s more happening in Sphinx than gender obscuration.
Gender, though, remains at the center of this book. And, whether we mean it to or not, it becomes something of a game to look for hints or flaws that might reveal something. It seems right to admit that early in my reading I assigned Je a sex. And when I say “sex”, what I mean is that I assigned Je a male or female body. (I won’t say which, and I hope you’ll understand why in a moment). The body was really more a function of environmental factors in the story rather than any behavior Je displayed or any slip the author (or translator) might have made. At first this troubled me – as if I’d somehow failed the challenge of setting aside my preconceptions. Until I realized that all I had actually done was provide Je with genitalia – not gender identity. And that I never felt compelled to do the same with A*** – whose appearance, personality, sexual parts and gender identity remained nebulous – changing from page to page.
Which brings me back to the passage at the beginning of this review. I’ve gone back to read and re-read it at least a dozen times. The night at the club, described early in the book, that marked the peak of Je’s career. Je, whose narrative voice – both evocative yet precise – driven but emotionally cold – perfectly described the synchronized, rhythmic mass of bodies on a dance floor. “…the compact mass of people dancing, flattened one against the other and yet swaying, lifted up in waves. United almost without fissure, they were probably incapable of moving, but the entire mass vibrated in rhythm, all individual drives undone and lost in a higher, sovereign need.” It’s a lovely bit of prose. One that made me realize I was mistaken in believing that Garréta’s characters, Je and A***, exist without gender. Rather – Garréta has achieved the complete opposite. They, Je and A***, simultaneously encompass all possible variations of gender and gender identity. Which some might say amounts almost to the same thing… but not quite.
A few notes about the author, the English translator and translation of Sphinx:
Sphinx was Anne Garréta’s first novel. It was published in 1986 when the author was twenty-three. Garréta is one of the few female members of Oulipo and the first member to have been born after the group’s genesis. She won the Prix Medicis in 2002 for her book Pas un jour.
The English edition of Sphinx, published by Deep Vellum Press, contains both an Introduction by Daniel Levin Becker and a Translator’s Note by Emma Ramadan. Both are worth reading and add to the pleasure of the book. In addition Ramadan wrote an article on translating Sphinx for Five Dials No. 33 – which can be read online here. Even if you are not a translator, or a translation junky, the challenges of bringing this novel to English are absolutely fascinating.
May 18, 2015 § 6 Comments
Title: Faces In The Crowd
Author: Valeria Luiselli
Translator: Christina MacSweeney
Publisher: Coffee House Press, Minneapolis (2014)
ISBN: 978 1 56689 354 1
*This review contains spoilers*
Subway trains make me think of Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity. Not all the time, obviously. But sometimes a train will be moving in a dark tunnel and a second train will overtake it. They will run on parallel tracks for a few seconds, side-by-side. Until the tracks diverge and the two trains separate – each into its own tunnel. Or one gains momentum and pulls away. If you are a passenger in one train, for those few seconds when the two trains are accelerating at the same rate of speed you can see clearly into the lit car, filled with passengers, traveling beside you. It’s eerie. Two reference frames briefly merge. Then one train begins to move away and the tenuous connection stretches taught, snaps. You are once again hurtling through a dark tunnel.
The plot of Faces In the Crowd seems to me to be built around this experience, peculiar to underground mass transit. Valeria Luiselli’s two narrators move through the same city but within different frames of reference. A young Mexican woman writes about the time when she lived in Harlem, translating (and fabricating) the poems of a forgotten Mexican poet named Gilberto Owen. The novel contains post-modern elements. As this woman writes from present day Mexico City about her past her husband and children interject, comment on and insert themselves into her narration.
The story is also being told from a different perspective, that of Gilberto Owen. He is a Mexican poet living in Philadelphia in the 1950’s. He travels to Manhattan regularly to see his children. Luiselli drifts between these two artists – creating a third level of narration in which we are led to believe that Owen’s parts of the story are actually being written in the present by the young woman in Mexico City. A star between paragraphs notifies us of a change in speaker. But sometimes even that can be misleading.
When I was in other people’s beds, I slept deeply and got up early the next morning. I’d dress quickly, steal the odd personal items – my favorites were towels, which smelled good, or white singlets – and depart in a good mood. I’d buy a coffee to go, a newspaper, and sit in some very public space, in full sunlight, to read. What I most liked about sleeping in other people’s beds was precisely that, waking up early, rushing out, buying a real newspaper, and reading in the sun.
My husband stands behind me as I write. He massages my shoulders, too hard, and reads what’s on the screen.
Is it him saying that or you?
Him – she barely speaks now.
And what about you, how many men have you slept with?
Only four, or perhaps five.
No one else. What about you?
There’s a lot of experimental writing happening in Faces In the Crowd. It’s a complicated book. Luiselli, a resident of New York City, has (like her two main characters) spent a lot of time travelling the NYC subways. Trains and platforms appear throughout the pages. The plot – and I use that term loosely – is convoluted and challenging. The characters are fascinating but not particularly charming. They do not drive the narrative so much as participate in an exercise in prose, an experiment in time and space. The narrator’s lives and thoughts overlap. They are, both metaphorically and literally, passengers on two trains traveling on parallel tracks. Sometimes running alongside each other and at other times entering separate tunnels. The twist arrives when they reach their destinations.
Valeria Luiselli can fairly be described as the new It Girl of Mexican literature. She’s everywhere these days: the Brooklyn Book Fair, Bomb Magazine, LA Review of Books, the London Book Fair, selected as one of The National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 40, Electric Literature, The New Yorker, The Guardian, LitHub, NPR… Faces In the Crowd has been long listed for numerous prizes & shortlisted for the 2015 Best Translated Book Award. Luiselli also has a new book of essays coming out this Summer. She is a talented writer and a unique voice – there’s a casual, brusque earthiness in the way her characters express themselves, particularly the female writer in Faces… (who readers can be excused for imagining as a fictional version of Luiselli, whether or not that is the case). She is almost masculine in her descriptions of casual sexual encounters. “I could have told him I was going because I was incapable of sustaining and inhabiting the worlds I myself had fabricated, that I also had a scar splitting my face in two. Perhaps I could have made love to him in the bathtub. Perhaps I did make love to him.” “My husband has started reading some of these pages again. Did you use to sleep with women? he asks.”
Cliché as it may be, Frida Kahlo comes to mind while reading these pages. Or at least Salma Hayek’s portrayal of Frida. And the quiet desperation that goes hand-in-hand with having once been young in NYC that Jennifer Egan describes so perfectly in A Visit from the Goon Squad, particularly Sasha’s sections, and Joan Didion captured in her famous essay about leaving the city behind. Valeria’s writing reminded me of all those things.