Book Reviews

Context N°21

Shimon Ballas. Outcast. Trans. Ammiel Alcalay and Oz Shelach. City Lights Publishers, 2007. 308 pp. Paper: $13.95.

In Outcast Shimon Ballas introduces an old man, a Jew born in Iraq who converted to Islam in the 1930s, reviewing his divided existence. Honored by President Saddam Hussein at the publication of his The Jews and History, a somewhat flustered Haroun Soussan self-deprecatingly begins to recollect a career spanning the twentieth century in a memoir intended to be read after his death. Against a backdrop of events occurring during the British hegemony to the start of the Iran-Iraq War, he deconstructs his ambitions, intellectual proclivities, and strained personal relations. Haroun is American-trained, a civil engineer, one of the builders of modern Baghdad, who married an American in Beirut and had a son in the United States, yet returned to his homeland, leaving his family behind. A moralist, he ponders his inability to win a coveted diplomatic post, his failed first marriage, and estrangement from childhood comrades Assad and Qassem while justifying a lifelong struggle for integrity. If much of Iraqi politics during his tumultuous lifetime, the milieu of this tale, seems recondite, Haroun remains a sympathetic figure in his prolonged angst and dashed hopes. Ballas’s artistry feelingly renders a man fraught with regret for his first wife Jane, now dead, and lost son; for Assad the poet’s disappointment in him; for Qassem the Communist’s imprisonment and exile; for the misery of his scholarly daughter by his second wife, wed to a shiftless husband, mother to an unhappy child. In his study, contemplating his attempt to serve liberal ideals, Haroun offers an intimate view of a society now largely consigned to history. Shifting between past and present, his sanguine, reasonable voice reminisces over the uneasy consciousness of defeat, torn between two paths, two cultures, his life a careworn sacrifice to outmoded views, over which looms the disaster awaiting his beloved Iraq. [Michael Pinker]

Violette Leduc. The Lady and the Little Fox Fur. Peter Owen/Dufour Editions, 2008. 104 pp. Paper: $20.95.

The lady of the title is a desirous Mrs. Dalloway, a sixty-year-old Sasha Jenson, lit at times with joy and wonderment at her dear old Paris. She belongs to a different sort of Parisian demimonde than that of Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight—of which this slim novella by the author of La Bâtarde is the companion and every bit the equal—she is not only a drifter, she is an absolute vagabonde who must surrender to begging on the street. She is a feminine version of Poe’s flâneur in his story “The Man of the Crowd”—she feeds off the crowd, the city; she abandons herself to its quotidian. She quivers from utter abjection to delight and delirium, through prose that is ecstatic, odd, even a bit demented, rushing forth like le Métro which keeps the rhythms to the novel as well as her life, along with the rumblings of her stomach. Leduc’s old lady is as entranced by Paris transports as Zazie, choosing it and its inhabitants over nourishment, forgoing wheat pancakes and her last francs to buy a train ticket. But more than anything this character is searching for some sort of warmth, or recognition, ascribing personalities to objects she meets on her path, encounters which inflame her and carry her through the street, like her infatuation with a fellow train traveler she names the “lollipop eater.” “He was not a brother in poverty but a secretly cherished black sheep. He was her prophet with nothing to prophesy, but it was enough that he was there.” She is greeted by the past in the present-day, colliding with memories on street corners, succumbing to almost mystical visions and fantasies as her hunger, a spiritual as well as physical hunger, intensifies. Like the shabby fox fur she befriends, a fellow cast-off, this lesser-known work by Leduc is an exquisite find. [Kate Zambreno]

Julio Cortázar and Carol Dunlap. Autonauts of the Cosmoroute. Trans. Anne McLean. Archipelago Books. 2008. 354 pp. Paper: $14.00

“Rest areas, monotonous? To us they seem more diverse all the time, we feel and experience them like microcosms where our red capsule touches down each day as if on undiscovered little planets”: thus write Julio Cortazar and his partner Carol Dunlap towards the end of their charming travel guide to the Autroute du Sud and its rest stops, which they slowly traversed in 1982 in their red Volkswagen Combi Van named Fafner (a.k.a. “the Dragon”). The plan is simple: they will drive from Paris to Marseille without once leaving the highway, stopping at two rest stops per day, the second of which will serve as their home for the night. On the road for less than thirty minutes at a time, they spend most of their days on flowered lawn chairs (“the Florrid Horrors”) reading and writing, eating and drinking, and making pseudo-scientific observations on the flora and fauna they encounter (trinkets at service stations, construction workers, caterpillars, golden retrievers). The livability of rest stops, we quickly learn, varies wildly from one to another. Our travelers deal with this constant fluctuation as best they can, and these minor inconveniences become the adventures of their journey. With no high-speed chases or international intrigue, each morning, each carefully recorded meal (“Lunch: corned beef, chickpea salad, cheese, cherries.”), each soaring skylark takes on greater significance; when attended to, these small morsels of daily life, the things others rush past at seventy miles per hour, expand to fill whatever space the couple will allow them. Cortazar and Dunlap are on the run from a persistent “gloom” at home in Paris; they’re looking to escape their “demons.” But rather than escape to some exotic island, they escape to an enchanted quotidian, into another dimension within our own, sharing the same ground but of another temporal field: “a land of great silence, a land of time that lengthens and nevertheless moves on unnoticed.” And it works. “Outside of time,” they tell us, away from ringing telephones and doctors and deadlines, they “knew for the first and last time what absolute happiness was.” But as this happy claim intimates, there is lurking sadness here. So while the outcome of events seems inevitable (Paris to Marseille), nevertheless, one feels a need to accompany these travelers to the very end, to see them safely to their final destination. [Danielle Dutton]

Christine Brooke-Rose. The Christine Brooke-Rose Omnibus: Four Novels: Out, Such, Between, Thru. Carcanet Press (U.K.), 2007. 742 pp. Paper: $35.95.

The Christine Brooke-Rose Omnibus, first issued in 1986, provides a crash course in this prolific author’s too long neglected fiction, offering four of her early novels: Out (1964), Such (1966), Between (1968), and Thru (1975). All are representative of their proto-postmodernist moment, aligned with Beckett and the New Novelists—engaging with questions of identity, consciousness, discourse, and science—and share a concern for transgressing both territorial and textual boundaries. As Brooke-Rose states in Out, “knowledge certain or indubitable is unobtainable.” Out is set in the near future after a “displacement” that inverts race relations, so that whites—“the colourless”—are in servitude to an African upper class. Brooke-Rose pits this reversal—one that foregrounds an unsteadiness and even complete breakdown in self-identification—against narrative representation itself. In Such, which opens with the speaker rising from his own coffin, Brooke-Rose uses the language of astrophysics to explore a physical death that offers a cognitive rebirth. Between—whose central figure is a female translator, a circulator of linguistic codes—is written without the verb “to be,” suggesting an absence of fundamental selfhood. Finally, Thru takes place in a university classroom and directly engages literary and philosophical debates via its formal arrangement of narrative interpolated with calligrammes and mathematical formulas. Although the full Omnibus is difficult, Brooke-Rose, indebted to continental philosophy and French modernism, offers clues to its decoding: “The author has lost authority many times in the history of narrative,” she writes in Thru. “When one type has consumed itself, the element of manipulation becoming too visible thus destroying the fictive illusion, and no-one has yet come along to renew it, usually, as here, reconstructing it by perpetual destruction, generating a text which in effect is a dialogue with all preceding texts, a death and a birth dialectically involved with one another.” This statement might just describe the project underlying all four novels—a death of the fictive illusion and the birth of a new kind of text, one in conversation with all preceding texts and linguistic possibilities. [Stefanie Sobelle]

Alasdair Gray. Old Men in Love: John Tunnock’s Posthumous Papers. Bloomsbury, 2007. 312 pp. Cloth: £20.00.

Alasdair Gray’s eighth novel is his first since A History Maker (1994); like its predecessor Poor Things (1992), it is ostensibly a collection of manuscripts. These are the work of John Tunnock, a retired Glasgow schoolteacher and headmaster with epic literary aspirations. Tunnock dies under suspicious circumstances in early 2007, and his sole heir appoints Gray editor of Tunnock’s papers. Gray also provides marginal glosses, illustrations, and decorations to the material, which includes diary entries, fragments of narratives (concerning Socrates, Fra Lippo Lippi, and the Victorian clergyman Henry Prince), an account of Tunnock’s boyhood and adolescence in a now thoroughly bygone Glasgow, and a brief history of the earth, from Big Bang to the Roman conquest of Britain. What unites this disparate body of material is debatable, though the novel’s title suggests one way to think about it. Other possible titles are mentioned in the text: Who Paid for all This? and Money at Play. Taken together the three are reminders of Gray’s long-standing interest in the way that the complex structures of nations and cultures find telling expression in the most intimate personal relationships. In an “Epilogue” purportedly written by critic Sidney Workman, Gray reveals the novel’s contents as largely a compendium of unfinished work he had at hand. Such candor is unnecessary in the face of the collection’s finest accomplishment, its incremental evocation of Tunnock himself. With his lengthy meditations on the work he longs to write, Tunnock is an intriguing author figure, alternately inspired and frustrated by the varying forms of encouragement and criticism he receives from those who comment on his project. He reflects on the disparity between his responsibility to society and to his own desires, though death infinitely forestalls any conclusion to this ancient dilemma. This is fine work by Gray, and one can only hope that American publication is soon to come. [Stephen Bernstein]

Jordi Coca. Under the Dust. Trans. Richard Thomson. Parthian Books, 2007. 200 pp. Paper: $17.95.

Surely one of the defining genres of twentieth-century literature has been the bildungsroman set amid the oppressive pressures of a fascist state, a coming of age narrative that juxtaposes a delicate child’s emerging sensibilities over the nature of identity and freedom (emotional, sexual, spiritual) with the greater culture’s struggle against the ruthless suppression of those very sensibilities. Within such a complex psychological matrix, the child’s bewilderment over the mayhem they witness becomes a potent irony as the reader sees that what the child witnesses indeed defies understanding. Add to that list of deeply unsettling childhood narratives Under the Dust, the account of a manchild, a Catalan in Barcelona, whose impoverished family struggles in the early years of Franco’s brutal dictatorship. Deploying the immediacy of a first-person narration (rendered with pitchperfect care by Thomson), Jordi Coca records with deadpan deftness the boy’s gradual realization of the depth of the threat all about him. With extravagant subtlety, however, Coca takes the stuff of his own grim childhood and fashions an edgy, ironic parable that despite the heavy pall of violence and death—a father prone to black rages, a younger brother who died just months old of fever, a friend who throws himself under a train—pulses with a determined urgency toward the reclamation of the human spirit. Even as the boy’s father faces government detention for trafficking in stolen goods, his mother moves into her final trimester. And gloriously the boy who, desperate for acceptance and raised amid the street fighting of the late civil war, had turned to the dead-end life with the roaming street gangs stumbles onto books and finds within the breathtaking simplicities of narrative a logic broader than despair. The two books that entrance the boy are telling: Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and his Journal of the Plague Year, together suggesting the promise of the boy’s deliverance; tales, like Coca’s, of self-preservation amid a poisonous environment. [Joseph Dewey]

Anna Kavan. Guilty. Peter Own Ltd./ Dufour Editions, 2008. 189 pp. Paper: $32.95.

Part Dickensian bildungsroman, part Kafkaesque nightmare, Anna Kavan’s previously unpublished novel Guilty follows the fortunes of Mark, the narrator and son of a celebrated war veteran. After his father becomes a pacifist, he retreats into exile, leaving Mark under the care of Mark’s mother and Mr. Spector, a longtime friend who has remained loyal despite the father’s ideological about-face. Spector is at first a generous surrogate parent—he uses his tremendous influence to provide the boy with an education and a job after he finishes. Over time, however, Spector starts living up to his suggestive name. Mark meets and becomes engaged to Carla, who inspires him to make more of a life for himself in the world. But Spector is a persistent doppelganger, whose influence begins to oppress Mark’s increasingly fragile sense of identity. Kavan, who died in 1968, flavors her protagonist’s voice with touches of Proustian lyricism, even as she tightens the screws toward a climax worthy of a tautly plotted thriller. Her descriptive passages render the visible world with an unsettling vividness and transparency, through which readers can perceive the growing void that threatens to consume Mark. Of the topiary chessmen that decorate the grounds of Mark’s school, Kavan writes, “When the sun was high, these arboreal curiosities could resemble a grotesque company of medieval giants, with their attendant dwarf-shadows. […] All their transformations, however, as my first glimpse had showed me, possessed the common quality of malice, which infected the air around them, as if, throughout the centuries of their long lives, they’d been accumulating contempt and bitterness for their human creators, which found expression in this emanation.” With its backdrop of war and misguided nationalism, Kavan’s novel will certainly resonate with a contemporary readership. [Pedro Ponce]

Victoria Redel. The Border of Truth. Counterpoint Press Ltd., 2007. 324 pp. Cloth: $24.95.

Sara Leader passes her summer days between the New York Society Library, where she is translating the philosophic writings of Walter Benjamin, and group counseling sessions for soon-to-be parents adopting refugee children. These seemingly divergent projects lead Sara to investigate the secret history of her father, a Holocaust survivor. Compound the now familiar subject of writers tracking ancestors lost to the Nazis with the cliché metaphor of a game of chess and the treatment of memory as fragments, and Victoria Redel’s second novel, The Border of Truth, just shouldn’t work. Yet as Redel illuminates the dark corners of ordinary familial relationships, The Border of Truth becomes both seductive and unique. The novel consists of alternating narratives: the third-person account of Sara’s summer and the first-person letters to Eleanor Roosevelt of Itzak Rejdel (a.k.a. Richard Leader, Sara’s father), a teenager stranded on the Quanza, an actual ship of Jewish refugees denied entry into the United States, whose passengers the first lady lobbied to free. Sara’s own survival is less a matter of checkmate and more one of kindness from strangers, while memory’s truths are better analogized to her densely woven caned chair. When initially addressing Roosevelt, Itzak speaks “as if she were a cigarette girl on Tin Pan Alley,” but as the novel progresses, his letters often turn to the brooding quandaries of a desperate young man ashamed of the sacrifices he is forced to make: “We are given many chances, Mrs. Roosevelt. Chances for truth and chances for freedom.” By placing Itzak’s story of survival in parallel with those of a contemporary Salvadorian housekeeper and a Lebanese hairdresser who also fled war-torn countries, Redel reminds us that we are a country of refugees. Though Benjamin’s Angel of History “would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed,” Sara inevitably realizes she needs not to reconstruct the brutality of the past, but rather to forgive the betrayals that are its consequences. [Stefanie Sobelle]

George Konrád. A Guest in My Own Country: A Hungarian Life. Trans. Jim Tuckler. Other Press, 2007. 352 pp. Paper: $15.95.

Konrád should have died, and after that, he should have left Hungary. He and his sister were able to escape their town in the great Hungarian puszsta for Budapest during the Second World War. All the other children died in the camps. Without exception. For the most part, his college classmates left to teach in American universities. “I wanted to know what was going on, in these streets,” he writes in this memoir. “It was an unfinished story, and I refused to tear myself away from it.” It is a story he is still writing, even though he acknowledges it is one that perhaps never can be told. “In place of a childhood,” he writes, “there is an absence.” In 1956, he looks out from a library at Russian tanks in the streets, submachine in hand. He becomes a well-known writer, critical of communism. “The living conscience of a deeply disturbed society,” Istvan Deak calls him. But his books were not published in Hungary and circulated only in samizdat. He was, he notes, a non-person. The dislocations seem too great to overcome, bridge, or resolve and yet they are ones he needs to write, even if he says that his only “goal was internal emigration . . . I had no desire to win or lose, just hold out a while longer.” Like Walter Benjamin, another Jew, who had difficulty leaving the hell Europe had become by the 1930s, Konrád had to live and write, “rung by rung,” as Benjamin describes his life, “according as chance would offer a narrow foothold.” He was, he says, a cautious young man, even if his socially conscious, highly critical (and more or less autobiographical) novels are not. When Robert Creeley was asked whether poetry was radical or conservative, he answered that it was conservative. Poetry conserved what was important to itself. Creeley did not add that in its conservatism poetry was radical. Konrád’s conservatism only underlines how radical he is. Is this a Hungarian life? Yes and no. “For a man who no longer has a homeland, writing becomes a place to live,” Theodor Adorno notes. Writing permitted Konrád to live in Hungary. But he never left the land he can no longer call home. [Robert Buckeye]

Lydie Salvayre. Portrait de l’écrivain en animal domestique. Seuil, 2007. 240 pp. €18.00.

In her latest novel, Lydie Salvayre offers a “portrait of the writer as a household pet,” an animal that has learned how to please its master, capering and fawning in order to ingratiate itself. That beast is the narrator herself, an anonymous writer who negotiates a Faustian bargain with Jim Tobold, the self-styled “King of Hamburgers,” whose fast-food empire has consumed the entire world, just as the entire world consumes his burgers. Her task is to write his life: not a mere biography, but rather a testament, a Gospel-according-to-Tobold wherein the principle of unfettered capitalism will finally be elevated to the divine status that it surely deserves, thanks to the efforts of its one true prophet. More than an amanuensis, the narrator serves as the mirror in which Tobold admires his own person, sitting at the feet of the man as he explains to her who he was, who he is, and who he will become. Tobold breathes the rarified air of a person whose wealth mocks the very notion of wealth. A citizen of the world now, well removed from his humble beginnings in France, he is constantly in motion, flitting from continent to continent, summoning one of his innumerable Gulfstreams as a lesser being might hail a cab. Despite herself, the narrator finds that such a lifestyle—as crudely philistine as it might have seemed to her before she abandoned her principles—is not without its rewards. She rubs elbows (and other body parts) with the glitterati: Clooney, Melanie Griffith, Brad Pitt (sans Angelina), Leonardo DiCaprio, Sophie Marceau, Bill Clinton, and a disturbingly priapic Bill Gates. In terms of sheer charm, she feels “Bob” De Niro is without equal. Like the rest of Salvayre’s work, this book is smart and pungent, simultaneously amusing and sobering. Swiftian in its conception, her Portrait puts satire to a variety of uses. Chief among them is a reflection upon art and power, and more precisely the ways in which the latter may tame the former, inveigling it to lie on its back in order to have its belly scratched. [Warren Motte]

Raymond Queneau. Letters, Numbers, Forms: Essays 1928-70. Trans. Jordan Stump. University of Illinois Press, 2007. 251 pp. Paper: $45.00.

“Few if any twentieth-century writers are as present in the twenty-first-century French novel as Queneau,” argues Jordan Stump in the introduction to this volume. Raymond Queneau (1903-1976) was a writer’s writer, a figure who influenced at least two generations of French writers during his lifetime, and whose vision of literature and its potential continues to shape progressive literature in key ways, more than thirty years after his death, both in France and beyond. Many of his novels have been rendered into English, but only a few of his essays have been translated. This volume collects thirty-three pieces from a variety of sources, arranging them in chronological order. It provides a deeply compelling narrative of an encyclopedic, infinitely inquisitive, rigorous mind at work, right in the thick of things, over a period of four decades. The pieces have been chosen very judiciously indeed: all of Queneau’s most important critical statements are present here, from his early days in Surrealism to his foundational gestures in the Oulipo group. While most of the essays deal with literature, either in practical or more theoretical terms, some focus more closely on language itself, in particular on language as daily practice. Others, like the piece on Joan Miró, deal more broadly with aesthetics; and there is even a meditation on the role of mathematics in the classification of sciences.

The translations are luminous ones, rigorously faithful to both the letter and the spirit of the original. They shine most brightly in those instances where Queneau’s French presents the thorniest problems, displaying a depth of resource and creativity that Queneau himself would undoubtedly applaud. One has come to expect no less from Jordan Stump, who has brought a wide diversity of French writers into superb English translations in recent years, from Balzac and Verne to Claude Simon, Marie Redonnet, Eric Chevillard, Christian Oster, and Antoine Volodine. He is moreover a distinguished scholar of Queneau, with a book-length study of the latter’s novels, Naming and Unnaming: On Raymond Queneau (1998), to his credit. The introduction that Stump provides in this volume is both useful and invigorating: it situates Queneau with regard to the intellectual history of the period and discusses the evolution of his thought with a great deal of insight. The notes to the individual essays are always informative, never obtrusive. In short, this is an “important” book, one that is long overdue, a book that will be welcomed by serious readers of any stripe, whether amateur or professional. [Warren Motte]

Christina Milletti. The Religious & Other Fictions. Carnegie Mellon UP, 2006. 191 pp. Paper: $16.95.

Every so often a collection comes along that shows just how wide lean short stories can open the largest of questions. The Religious & Other Fictions is one such book: minimal stories, pristine in language, that don’t flesh out characters and settings as a traditional story might so much as use the pleasures of the story as an act of philosophy. Reminiscent of Chekhov for their unspoken themes, for their dependence on readers to see significance between the lines, the eleven stories that make up this collection circulate around the absences that always enable belief, the multiple meanings that people have to blinder themselves to in order to be certain. “Parcel Post” alternates between Harlequin Romance-esque passages about yearning hearts and the Post-it notes that a woman leaves for a deliveryman who never delivers the “gift” she hopes for but gives her another, a fantasy that she inhabits. Here as in the other stories, both verities and lies dissolve under scrutiny. Fables reveal more truth than the fable of facts. In “Where Nööne is Now,” a daughter discovers, at the moment she is to have her mother’s tombstone engraved, that she never knew her real name, let alone the fate of her missing sister who may or may not have been beaten for doubting that U.S. soldiers behave more nobly than others. In the title story, memorials of memorials—that is, photos of memorials—memorialize memorializing, which is always a fiction. More to the point, in stories about a man who inherits a butcher’s shop, tourists played by guides, or even the 1,000 girls living in the same apartment, Milletti’s characters can never be sure if a truth, history or belief is false; or else they are oblivious to the illusionist nature of the world and only the reader is left to wonder how anyone knows what they know; how can we believe anything, especially if we have no basis for belief (unless that’s what belief is)? Given the political and religious climate we live in today, these stories speak to our moment in a way that is of our moment. [Steve Tomasula]

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