Thursday, April 12, 2012

Fiction Notes: Two Books

I somehow neglected to include in my list of incoming books Agota Kristof's excellent trilogy of novels, collected in one volume, The Notebook, The Proof, and The Third Lie. Possibly because I'd already read them before writing the post. Kristof is a Hungarian writer, of mostly plays, living in Switzerland, writing in French. The novels came to my attention by way of the list of Eastern European writers compiled earlier this year by Anthony of Time's Flow Stemmed. The Kristof recommendation came from Stephen Mitchelmore in the comments, which, as is usually the case, meant it shot up to the top of my own secret list of books to look into. The first book is a notebook ostensibly kept by twin brothers living with their unpleasant grandmother in wartime. The second is a third-person account of the life apparently led by one of the twins after the other manages to escape their occupied town. The third is a first-person account of the brother who left, after coming back to find his twin. I say "ostensibly" and "apparently" because little is as it seems. Anyway, I'm not going to review them, but I think they are remarkable novels. Simple language, though each book is slightly different given the differing modes of narration (and each book was translated into English by a different person). Worth a look.

One book that I did include on the list was Teju Cole's novel, Open City. Cole first came to my attention a few months ago via his Twitter feed, which primarily consists of "small fates": daily deaths or violences rendered as oddly literary, elliptical mini-stories suitable for the 140-character medium. They gave me pause, and seemed to fit in with my mainly leftwing timeline. Only later did I learn he'd not only written a novel but that it was up for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Awards don't mean much to me, though I confess the NBCC carries a wee bit more cachet for me than the others, for no good reason I can name. Possibly the attention they pay to William H. Gass. But anyway. In this case, it was, perhaps too easily, the comparisons to, and admitted influence of, Sebald that got my attention. Also, I wasn't sorry to have a contemporary non-white writer to look for. In the event, the book is pretty good. Our narrator, Julius, a psychiatric resident, keeps himself at a distance, as he recounts various events and interactions, including a trip to Brussels and brief sketches of his childhood in Nigeria. A disquieting read, at times, including a couple of surprises, about which we are unable to either come to any conclusion or to feel comfortable. The Sebald comparison is appropriate, without his influence being felt too heavily (happily, there are no photographs). The spectre of 9/11 hangs over it a bit, but again, not too much. I'll be looking out for any subsequent novels Cole may write in the future.

Sunday, April 01, 2012


Yes, lots of books are going out, but that doesn't mean nothing new is coming in, particularly when a birthday comes along. Mine was last week (42), and not surprisingly, I received several books, plus gift certificates to book shops.

The haul, fiction or literature-related (*=acquired w/gift certificate):

The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1941-1956
Satantango by László Krasznahorkai
Tyrant Memory* by Horacio Castellanos Moya
Open City* by Teju Cole

Non-fiction (*=ditto):

The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker's Notebook by James Boggs
The Modern World-System III: The Second Era of Great Expansion of the Capitalist World-Economy, 1730s-1840s  and  
The Modern World-System IV: Centrist Liberalism Triumphant, 1789-1914 both by Immanuel Wallerstein  
Direct Action: An Ethnography by David Graeber  
Works of Love* by Søren Kierkegaard  
Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison* by Michel Foucault

And I notice these books were all written by men. How easily my apparent default re-asserts itself! To be fair, the bookshops are not awash with books by woman authors that I'm interested in. Almost picked up Marilynne Robinson's new book of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books, and may still. Ditto Ellen Meiksins Wood's Liberty and Property, her follow-up to Citizens to Lords (which readers may recall I wrote about here), as she continues her social history of Western political thought.

I'm naturally very excited to finally have the second volume of Beckett's Letters in my grubby hands. It's enormous! The first volume, my first time reading an author's letters, was marvelous (see my post on it here; links to several other posts drawing from the volume can be found therein). Satantango will be my first Krasznahorkai novel, so I can finally see what some of the fuss has been about. Unless I foolishly acquire one of his others before reading it, like I might once have done. (I'm not going to do that.) The Moya was kind of a wildcard. I was looking for Senselessness, which had been much blogged about a while back; failing that I just wanted an interesting New Directions or Dalkey book. The shop I was in didn't have too many (fewer than they used to have, I think; but god do they have tons of NYRB Classics: and yet, somehow, none of the ones I'm interested in). Then surprisingly I noticed Tyrant Memory, so we'll see. Open City, I admit, has my attention because of the Sebald comparisons; a brief sample was inviting enough. And I like Cole's twitter feed, so there's that.

I read The American Revolution this past week (it's very short). It's good, though not nearly the great book that Revolutions and Evolutions is. I hope to have something more to say about both books in the coming weeks. I'm pleased to have the third and fourth volumes of Wallerstein's awesome Modern World-System study to hand. Though I'm eager to dive into them, I'm going to have to hold off, because I want to revisit the first two, make some useful notes, both towards a blog post or three and towards re-acquainting myself with his arguments. Suffice it to say that I find Wallerstein's theses persuasive (and the Marxist criticisms of them as unpersuasive; basically they amount to "you're not being Marxist enough", which oddly isn't terribly helpful). Direct Action is but one of a few David Graeber books on my list to read, after loving both Debt and, previously, Possibilities. This one is huge, too, and I still have yet to write anything about Debt (which I will, I hope, probably in conjunction with whatever I have to say about Wallerstein's work). So it may be a while before I dive into this one.

Works of Love crowded its way into my awareness by way of Simon Critchley's bibliographical essay at Ready Steady Book, in support of his new book Faith for the Faithless. His book looks interesting, too, but it'll have to wait. It's probably a little silly to have acquired Works of Love just now, given that I've yet to finish reading Either/Or, but I knew it had a decent chance at being available at the relevant bookshops, and so it was. And that brings us to Discipline & Punish. I'm wary of Foucault, for a variety of meta reasons, but I've actually yet to read him. I picked this one, on a whim, because I'm increasingly disgusted by our prison industrial system and wanted to see what he has to say about the origins of prison as such (I also expect to be reading more deeply into Angela Davis' writings about prison; not surprisingly, none of her books were on hand in the shops). (Note: the Foucault and the Kierkegaard books are both available in new editions from their publishers—Vintage and Harper Perennial, respectively—both of which publishers have revamped their lines of literature and philosophy, at least in the US. I only bring this up because the Harper Perennial covers are hideous; the Vintage ones are much better.) (Second note: I still have gift certificate cash to burn.) And so it goes.