Thursday, April 28, 2016

Crocodile Tears

Two  Crocodiles by Fyodor Dostoevsky and Felisberto Hernández

—how true it is that we know not beforehand the fate that awaits us!

What happens when you put a Russian and a Uruguayan crocodile into the same small tank (or between the same two covers)? You get a lot of crocodile tears.

Dostoevsky’s 1865 story “The Crocodile: An Extraordinary Incident” is described, on its title page, as “A true story of how a gentleman of a certain age and of respectable appearance was swallowed alive by the crocodile in the Arcade, and of the consequences that followed.” The description is not only funny, but apt in characterizing the brilliantly dry, matter-of-fact tone in which this shrewd little satire unfolds. 

One day, so Dosotoevsky’s narrator relates to us, a pompous civil servant named Ivan Matveitch takes his wife, Elena Ivanovna, to see the exotic and “monstrous” crocodile on exhibit at the Arcade, part of a travelling sideshow from Germany. Boldly taunting the creature to impress his pretty young wife, Ivan Matveitch is promptly gobbled up, swallowed whole before her much-astonished eyes. In the words of friend and narrator, Semyon Semyonitch (which, forgive me, I will quote at some length), this is what ensues:

The crocodile began by turning the unhappy Ivan Matveitch in his terrible jaws so that he could swallow his legs first; then brining up Ivan Matveitch, who kept trying to jump out and cltuching at the sides of the tank, sucked him down again as far as his wasit. Then bringing him up again, gulped him down, and so again and again. In this way Ivan Matveitch was visibly disappearing before our eyes.  At last, with a final gulp, the crocodile swallowed my cultured friend entirely, this time leaving no trace of him. From the outside of the crocodile we could see the protuberances of Ivan Matveitch’s figure as he passed down the inside of the monster. I was on the point of screaming again when destiny played another treacherous trick upon us. The crocodile made a tremendous effort, probably oppressed by the magnitude of the object he had swallowed, once more opened his terrrible jaws, and with a final hiccup he suddenly let the head of Ivan Matveitch pop out for a second, with an expression of despair on his face. In that brief instant the spectacles dropped off his nose to the bottom of the tank. It seemed as though that despairing countenance had only popped out to cast one last look on the objects around it, to take tis last farewell of all earthly pleasures. But it had not time to carry out its intention; the crocodile made another effort, gave a gulp and instantly it vanished again—this time forever. This appearance and disappearance of a still living human head was so horrible, but all the same—either from its rapidity and unexpectedness or from the dropping of the spectacles—there was something so comic about it that I suddenly quite unexpectedly exploded with laughter.

In fact what at first appears a matter of horror, soon turns decidedly amusing, bizarre, as the just-devoured Ivan Matveitch begins to speak, to cajole his awestruck wife from within the bloated belly of this same beast. When his wife exclaims with wonder that he is still alive, he replies, “Alive and well, and thanks to the Almighty, swallowed without any damage whatever.” In fact, he feels so well, is so steadfast in his devotion to his work, that he determines (expounding all the while) to continue his official duties as a civil servant from his new home inside the crocodile!

Paired with this tale, producing an interesting reaction between them, is the much shorter, if equally amusing story by the same name by the great Uraguayan writer, Felisberto Hernández. Based in part on the author’s own experience as a self-taught pianist who earned his living playing music in the silent-screen theatres and cafes of Uruguay, the story is narrated by a lonely concert pianist trying hard to make ends meet. One day he makes the inadvertent discovery, when he finds himself weeping in the middle of a concert, that his tears are more of an attraction than his music. Told in a voice and style reminiscent of (if predating) that of Boll’s The Clown and “The Laugher”, Hernández’s “The Crocodile” is one of numerous tales “about quietly deranged individuals” that has distinguished the career of this highly influential stylist. Revered by such writers as Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, and Roberto Bolaño, Hernández is a writer whose works I am delighted to know. 

“The Crocodile: An Extraordinary Incident” by Fyodor Dostoevsky was translated by Constance Garnett. “The Crocodile” by Felisberto Hernández was translated by Esther Allen.

Peter Adam Nash

Tuesday, April 19, 2016


Siamese by Stig Saeterbakken

Beauty and Sadness by Yasunari Kawabata

The Vegetarian by Han Kang


It's been a siege of spiteful characters, plots, and world views--months really, since through pure happenstance I started to read the backlog of novels I've been accumulating since year's end.

What exactly is spite? Not an easy word to define, spite evokes the worst character traits: simmering anger, bitterness, vindictiveness, pettiness, resentment, vengefulness. I imagine the spiteful would reside in Dante's Fifth Circle, hard on the banks of the River Styx. Filippio Argenti is one of the only souls in hell for whom Dante feels only spite ("I would see him pickled in that swill.") The spiteful imagine great wrongs done to their person; they feel deeply, but only to the end of exacting revenge. Spite presumes a form of justice that doesn't even accounts but obliterates those who have given offense. Perfect spite is nurtured, kept alive as a means of providing the spiteful a reason to live.

A nearly-blind Edwin Mortens lives in the bathroom of a flat with his almost deaf wife Erna. They hate each other but depend on one another physically and psychologically--they torment one another, suspect infidelities, are envious and spiteful--a marriage made in hell. Saeterbakken, author of Journey Through Night and Self-Control specializes in character studies of men and women living in extremis, surviving in the face of suffering and loss, spreading the wealth, so to speak, by tormenting those around them. Siamese is a novel Beckett might have written or brought to the stage. The sequential interior monologues of Edwin and Erna are perfectly suited to the theater--Edwin seated in the bathroom staring with milky eyes at nothing; Erna seated at the kitchen table in a run-down apartment muttering about her husband's vileness. Nurturing their hatred so as to continue living, after a fashion.

 Revenge isn't inherently spiteful: one might get back at someone coolly, just to even the score. But the best sort of revenge is obsessive and therefore steeped in spite--and the payback, ideally, will both duplicate the original offense and quote it. The finest novel of revenge-spite that I know of is Kawabata's Beauty and Sadness, a title that suggests the great Japanese writer's penchant for delicate stories of unhappy love, but which actually delivers a bitter tale of terrible revenge enacted long after the precipitating crime. As the novel opens, Oki Toshio is journeying from Tokyo to listen to the New Year's bells in Kyoto. But his real hope is to visit a lover whom he impregnated and abandoned twenty years before--Otoko Ueno. Ueno is now a famous artist who lives with a young lover and protege, Keiko Sakimi. Keiko is jealous of Ueno's former lover, but her feelings of hatred and her desire for revenge, as is typical in Kawabata, are just as much directed against what to her appear to be the cruel customs and repressive culture of traditional Japan. As Keiko plots exquisite and terrible revenge against Otoko and his family, Kawabata reveals deeper fissures in the social fabric of Japan: the subservient role of women is one of them, but more poignant is the Kabuki-like ritual of love-death. Ueno and Keiko share a destructive passion: Ueno's detachment and world-weariness are well suited to Otoko's deep-seated grief for his treatment of Ueno, but Keiko is nearly driven mad by the passivity and introspection that has allowed Ueno to live her life as a victim. Keiko dispatches her victim callously, methodically, and without a hint of passion. Her spite is reserved for Ueno--this is the genius of the novel--rather than for the man who abandoned her.

“Before my wife turned vegetarian, I thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way." Thus begins the most disturbing--I suppose I should use the word "transgressive"--of the three novels, the story of an ordinary woman who has a dream of blood and elects to become a vegetarian as a result. Where's the harm? Hardly as serious as the mad hatreds of the Mortens or as obsessive as the revenge described by Kawabata--vegetarianism, after all, would seem to be a personal and an ethical decision, to be respected and honored. But Yeong-hye's husband and family behave as if she had elected to become a serial killer: they torment her with arguments, they stuff food into her mouth, they treat her as if she were insane.  Yeong-hye's response is to become nearly catatonic, to abandon not only meat but her life and, eventually, her language. Her tormentors are ordinary people--her family--but the spiteful ways in which they insinuate that Yeong-hye has no rights over her own body suggest the brutal way in which men (and some women) assert the proposition that women are not agents and that their bodies belong to husbands and fathers and mothers.

The spite trilogy. Hardly cheering, but each of these three novels was compelling in the way that a traffic accident is compelling--you slow down despite yourself, relieved that it isn't you--this time. 

George Ovitt (4/19/16)

Friday, April 8, 2016

The Feet of the Word

A Red Cherry on a White-tiled Floor by Maram Al-Massri

Where horses
cannot gallop,
where there is no
to allow
a beam of light to pass,
where no grass
I cling
to the feet of the word.

Published to critical acclaim in Tunis in 1997, A Red Cherry on a White-tiled Floor is a selection of poems by Syrian born author, Maram Al-Massri, that will impress the reader at once with its spare, unadorned language, and with its emotional and sexual candor. There is a curt, sometimes lyrical gravity to her writing, a concentration of insight and feeling, at points an almost wincing vulnerability in the poem’s various speakers, that makes it all feel instantly familiar to the reader, starkly, intimately, real. For those versed in classical Arabic love poetry, these poems may resonate even more deeply, colored as they are by the loss and longing characteristic of the poetry of such masters as Rumi and Hafiz, as well by the more modern treatments of these much-beloved subjects by such Syrian contemporaries as Fuad Rifqa and Huda Naamani. By one recent critic Al-Massri was called “an Arab love poet for the modern age,” a title she wears quite well.


He felt no shame before her
in his old cotton clothes
and his torn socks.
He undressed,
the way the need for love
strips naked,
and descended
like an angel
upon her body.


I killed my father
that night
or the other day—
I don’t remember.
I escaped with a suitcase
filled with dreams and amnesia
and a picture of me
with him
when I was a child
and when he carried me
on his forearm.

I buried my father
in a beautiful shell,
in a deep ocean,
but he found me
hiding under the bed
shaking with a dear loneliness.


Maram Al-Massri was born in Lattakia, Syria. Since 1982 she has lived in Paris. A Red Cherry on a White-tiled Floor was translated by Khaled Mattawa.

Peter Adam Nash

Thursday, March 24, 2016

What I Know of Norway

In 2013 my good friend and founder of this blog, George Ovitt, published a collection of short stories under the title The Snowman.  Here, for your enjoyment, is one of my favorites:


The moon shone like water on the white comforter.
I couldn’t sleep. We had finished a bottle of wine at dinner—a cheap Shiraz from Chile, not my favorite. There had been an hour set aside for reading. She flipped through the Times while I waded into another in a series of Scandinavian detective novels—brooding books written by men whose names I couldn’t recall when someone at work would ask me if I had read anything good lately. This one was by a Norwegian and had won the prestigious Nils Gunderwald Prize. On the first page the alcoholic detective is called to a small village near the town of Fredrikstad, south of Oslo. There he encounters both a decapitated body and an old school acquaintance. The body hasn’t decomposed in the winter cold. The detective, who, we are informed, smokes Gitanes and drinks too much Dovgan vodka, recognizes the dead woman as an ex-mistress, a physician with whom he had a brief affair between the second and third of his failed marriages. Her name was Kristen. The school chum—the translator has used the word “chum” as well as “corpulent” and “tendentious” to describe the detective’s friend—has also been in love with Kristen and may be the father of her son, now a young man studying archeology at the University of Gothenburg.
My wife asks me if I know the capital of Burkina Faso. I tell her Ouagadougou. I spell it. She says that can’t be right. And I say that I may have misspelled the name, but that I am quite certain Ouagadougou is correct. She looks at me through her reading glasses—she is very beautiful and, as is always the case, looking at her reminds me of my failures.  She pushes her hair back and then does that thing women do which requires them to raise their arms above their heads and simultaneously bare their abdomens and accentuate their breasts while casually tying their hair into a kind of half-knot that invites pulling, a triple-erotic whammy. Without smiling my wife points to my book and asks me if I like it. But she gets up and walks into the kitchen before I can formulate an answer that will seem both thoughtful and approving without at the same time suggesting that she should read the book since I know she has despised Scandinavian writers since learning of Knut Hamsun’s Nazi sympathies.
I pretend to read but strain to hear what my wife is saying. She is speaking softly on her cell phone, standing near the back door, right next to the Super Quiet Maytag dishwasher her parents gave us for our first anniversary. The morose detective has been attacked in his hotel room, or perhaps he has merely fallen down drunk. It is snowing and all of the usual outdoor sounds are muted. The hotel is seedy, which seems out of character given what I know of Norway. Water is rushing up through the sink, gurgling in a ghostly way. My wife is laughing and I think how she never laughs with me.  I call out to her, just her first initial, R, and ask if she would bring me a beer.  She doesn’t respond. The dishwasher is coming to the point in its cycle that I refer to as its death throes—the glassware is clinking too loudly, and I think of how upset my wife will be if anything breaks. The chum, whose name is Eriksson, discovers the unconscious detective and slaps his face to “bring him about.” The translator, I begin to feel, lacks sensitivity for English idioms. I wonder about this. There is a picture of the translator at the back of the book, but no picture of the author. This too seems odd. When my wife comes back into the room, without my beer but with a glass of water for herself, I smile and mention to her the infelicities of the translation. I’m hoping to say something witty enough to make her laugh, just as I heard her laugh a moment ago. She says that “bring him about” is fine, she’s used the phrase herself.  I ask her about the circumstances and she shrugs. I mention that consciousness involves the interconnected firings of billions of neurons as well as the leaching of chemicals, like serotonin, across neural membranes. She says that she is going to bed. I get a beer.
My wife takes her time in the bathroom. Our apartment is downtown and small. I work uptown but enjoy taking the subway. My wife is a stay-at-home wife, that’s what I call her, perhaps with a trace of irony. She feels that she has worked hard all of her life and deserves to take a sabbatical. I have three weeks off each year. During that time we drive to Ohio to visit my wife’s extended family. Every year we rent a couple of cabins on Lake Williams.  While my wife goes shopping with her mother, I teach my nephews how to play chess. They find the game boring and dislike my enthusiasm. When my wife leaves the bathroom she is wrapped in a towel. The floor is wet and her clothes are strewn about like flowers.
R lies across the bed nude. I have brushed my teeth thoroughly and used the last half ounce of Listerine.  I begin to kiss her, but she rolls away and pushes down under the sheets. I do the same. I say that I love her. She looks at me and rubs her hand across my face. It is a mistake to do so but I repeat the words. My wife is a quiet person, undemonstrative. Her manner of keeping still and being inward was once attractive to me. She turns toward the wall and seems to say that she loves me, but the rustle of the bedclothes makes it hard to hear what she is saying. I say ‘good’ and turn my back to her, hoping that I will sleep. I don’t.
In the morning I will take my novel back to the library, unfinished. If she has time, my wife will empty the dishwasher. We need wine so I will stop at the shop on the corner for a bottle. Perhaps white, a Sauvignon Blanc. The Times arrives early, but I will have left for work by the time the blue cylinder is tossed onto our stoop.
What our hearts most desire eludes us. Joy flies from us like the airy light of a full moon in March.  

*       *        *

To order a copy of the entire collection go to:

Peter Adam Nash

Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Polylogical Chinese Restaurant or My Occasionally Postmodern Mind

The Illogic of Kassel by Enrique Vila-Matas

In the aftermath of World War Two, when virtually every German city had been destroyed by Allied bombing, the city of Kassel decided to postpone its reconstruction until 1955, when its citizens opted to turn their backs on the headlong industrial re-development embraced by such cities as Dresden and Cologne and devote themselves to the promotion of culture instead. It seemed to them a fitting rejoinder to Hitler and his contempt for modern and avant-garde art. 

Founded there and then, by painter and academy professor, Arnold Bode, was  the first of a series of 100 day-long exhibitions called documenta, a pioneering art festival, still running today, that initially included the works of such now world-famous artists as Picasso and Kandinsky. Writes Michael Glasmeier and Karin Stengel:

Again and again, the documenta has shattered the world of art, whether on poor postwar times when people thirsted for art, whether in rebellious years of revolution, whether in the lighthearted era  at the end of the 20th century or whether at the turn of the century dominated by globalisation. The history of documenta is a history of defeats, of doubts, of scandals and, at the same time, of renewal, of discovery and artistic creativity. Above all, however, it has always been a history of success.

Indeed the most recent documenta, dOCUMENTA (13), the exhibition of which Vila-Matas writes in his novel, drew a record-breaking 904,992 visitors.

The Illogic of Kassel tells the strange, funny, consistently beguiling story of a sixty-three year old Catalan avant-garde writer who receives a phone call from an enigmatic woman one day, inviting him to participate in this selfsame festival. Perplexed as to why the committee would invite him, a writer, to take part in such an exhibition, generally the preserve of sculptors, painters, and dancers, he soon discovers that his mission, his charge, is in fact quite novel, indeed distinctly avant-garde: for three weeks he is merely to sit down every morning at his own special table in a nondescript Chinese restaurant on the outskirts of Kassel and write—a living, breathing art installation. In essence he is told: “Here’s an invitation to a Chinese restaurant, we’re asking you for art, now let’s see what you make of it.”

The puzzled narrator, long intrigued by the idea of the avant-garde, indeed curious to discover whether the avant-garde as a movement still exists, decides to accept this singular invitation to Kassel. There, he soon finds himself seated at his appointed table in the Dschingis Khan each morning, surrounded by sometimes curious, though mostly indifferent diners as he toils away at his craft, only to spend his afternoons and evenings, like the other visitors there, wandering through the many exhibitions, “that great garden of contemporary marvels”, a few photos of which are included below.

What compounds the wonder of this funny, affectionate, and highly inventive novel is that the story itself—at least the premise of it—is true: Vila-Matas himself was actually working at his desk in his apartment in Barcelona one day when he was interrupted by a call from a mysterious-sounding woman who made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Featured below is the author Vila-Matas at work in the Dschingis Khan.

Enrique Vila-Matas was born and raised in Barcelona. He has written numerous works, including Bartleby & Co., Dublinesque, Montano’s Malady, and Never Any End to Paris. The Illogic of Kassel was translated by Anne McClean & Anna Milsom.

Peter Adam Nash 

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Erotics of Luck

Dostoevsky's Last Night, by Cristina Peri Rossi

That's the inside of Donald Trump's Taj Mahal, built with leveraged funds by Mr. Trump on prime ocean-front property in decrepit Atlantic City in 1978, a joint that was once the chief draw on the briefly revitalized boardwalk, a dump today, bankrupt since 2014, purchased on the cheap by Carl Icahn, who is now involved in a court battle as 1,000 former employees seek to recover their pension and health funds. As if. Meanwhile The Donald has moved to greener pastures--Bloomberg's Disney/Manhattan, Chicago, and maybe 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Why not? The golden boy from Queens who was born on third base has evinced little concern for the misadventure on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City. You win a few, you get bailed out, and then you win a few more. Maybe run for president. It's a great country.

My father loved the high life and I've always loved the low, so the Taj was perfect for both of us. We went together once, in 1984, to the very room pictured above--a glitzy Crystal Palace without the optimism--faux art deco, rooms reeking of prime ribs, furtive sex, and disinfectant. A louche airplane hanger of a casino brimming with slots and roulette wheels and blackjack tables; crowded with pensioners bused in from dumps like Rahway free of charge, blue-haired ladies given a paper sack of quarters as seed money, gimpy gents wearing baseball caps and banlon slacks (as was my Old Man)  who pumped nickels into the one-armed bandits and gawked at the hookers strolling the worn carpets, cocktails in everyone's hand (you couldn't stand it sober) babes wearing too much make-up adorned in seedy evening wear stroking the necks of the high rollers at the poker tables. Nothing is as depressing as money, nothing, that is, except those who lust after money. 

I'd gambled some before. I liked horse races and spent a fair amount of time betting on the ponies at Monmouth Park. With horses you have a chance; the contingencies are under control. Handicapping is a form of scholarship, Talmudic. How does Serendipity run in mud? Who's riding her, who's her trainer? How did she run at Belmont last week? Not to mention the horses are beautiful to watch, not like staring at a dealer pulling cards out of a shoe. I'd avoided casinos most of my life. Tagging along with my father, I played a few hands of blackjack and hung around the craps table (always the best action). The drinks were watery; we saw a good show, ate steaks, and had a nice time. But gambling, casinos, the whole obsession with luck and beating the unbeatable house--this I never understood. Though I now live a few miles from three or four casinos I'm never tempted, maybe because the desire to see if I could dip my toe in the game--just once, with a limited stake--is too risky. Maybe because of the horror stories about folks who bet their houses (no bailouts for them), or maybe because there are other things to gamble on every day, like whether or not you can get through twenty-four hours intact.

Are there any great books about gambling aside from Dostoevsky's "The Gambler"? The Hustler and The Color of Money, both by Walter Tevis come to mind, but I can't find any others on my shelves--Leaving Las Vegas is a suicide novel with a gambling on the side. I'm not even sure the book under review  is actually about gambling.What I suspect is that the author, a highly regarded Spanish woman, wanted to write a book about the folly of male sexuality and used gambling as a metaphor--a vain man trying to seduce Lady Luck. What is gambling after all but a flirtation with the erotic--with intense pleasure or, more likely, with exquisite pain willingly submitted to--a fundamentally masochistic pastime. As with sex or love, you never beat the house.

Reading "The Gambler," or reading Joseph Frank on Dostoevsky's obsession with games of chance, one immediately makes the connection between desire and gambling. Rossi has paraphrased, to good effect, many of the most evocative sections of Dostoevsky's short novel. Here's the Master:

“I wanted to fathom her secrets; I wanted her to come to me and say: "I love you," and if not that, if that was senseless insanity, then...well, what was there to care about? Did I know what I wanted? I was like one demented: all I wanted was to be near her, in the halo of her glory, in her radiance, always, for ever, all my life. I knew nothing more!”

And Rossi:

"There are other days, however, when I wake up feeling a terrible anxiety and can't wait for time when I can be alone with a slot machine (as if it were a lover), when I can caress it, seduce it, listen to it sing, plug it with coins like bullets, strip it, humiliate it, rape it."

Dostoevsky's Last Night abounds in such passages (to an embarrassing extent). Jorge, the journalist- gambler at the novel's center, casts his addiction in erotic terms: he seduces, yearns for, rapes--never lusting after money--he has no interest in money, nor does he care if he wins or loses--all of his desire is directed at conquest, of Luck or of every woman he encounters.  He tries to seduce his psychoanalyst in precisely the way one asks for another card when one knows to stand pat--there's no chance of winning, it's absurd to try, but there's that momentary pleasure that comes of thinking for a fleeting second that the woman or the cards might turn your way.

I can't help but think that Cristina Peri Rossi dislikes men--who can blame her? She imagines at one point that all men "speak daily to their sex" but that women never do so. Her journalist is a pathetic creature, led about by his twin obsessions--to bet and to bed. Rossi generously allows him to seduce every woman he meets, but the couplings are not only passionless, they're routine in the way betting on roulette is routine--an activity that is simply boring.

But I liked the book in spite of its mawkishness. The pointlessness of Jorge's existence was refreshing: surely, living in Barcelona, one could live exactly in this fashion and still be happy. The novel, despite the loose framework (a cheap trick) of character revelation through psychoanalysis, lacks psychological complexity. Jorge gambles and seduces for the pleasure each affords him. A charming motivation in a world where every action appears to be reducible to a utilitarian or pragmatic calculation. Unadulterated narcissism--taking a gamble on the sheer inexhaustibly of pleasure. Freud wouldn't have condoned such a life, but he would have understood it.

"Dostoevsky took the train to Hombourg on May 4, filled more with trepidation and remorse than excitement as he left Anna in tears at the station. He wrote her a day later: 'I'm acting stupidly, stupidly, even more, badly, and out of weakness, and there is just a minuscule chance hell with it, that's enough.'" Frank reports dryly that after four days of "winning and losing," Dostoevsky was "wiped out completely." He would return to Russia--escaping debtors prison--and write three of the greatest masterpieces of world literature.

"Nothing could be more absurd than moral lessons at such a moment." ("The Gambler")

Vera Coking beat Trump in an eminent domain lawsuit in 1995. Trump wanted to bulldoze Ms. Coking house, adjacent to his Plaza, for limousine parking. Needless to say, I never returned to the Taj Mahjal, though my father did, many times. He always enjoyed himself.  


Dostoevsky's Last Night is available from Picador Press; it was published in 1992.

George Ovitt (2/18/16)

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Dark Terminus Of All We Know

through the night by stig sæterbakken

Is this what death looks like? A house with nothing in it?

Driven from his home by his irate wife, Eva, following her discovery of his affair with a young woman in town, the narrator, a modest Norwegian dentist named Karl Christian Andreas Meyer, has just returned home to his sullen and resentful family after a period of contrition, when his teen-aged son, Ole-Jacob, commits suicide, shaking him to the core of his being:

Grief comes in so many forms. It’s like a light being turned on and off. It’s on, and it’s unbearable, and then it goes off, because it’s unbearable, because it’s not possible to have it on all the time. It fills you up and it drains you. A thousand times a day I forgot that Ole-Jakob was dead. A thousand times a day I remembered it again. Both were unbearable. Forgetting him was the worst thing I could do. Remembering him was the worst thing I could do. Cold came and went. But never warmth. There was only cold and the absence of cold. Like standing with your back to the sea. Ice-cold ankles every time a wave came in. Then it receded. Then it came in.

An arresting, truly brilliant study of guilt and misgiving, Through the Night is a the story of one man’s deeply affecting struggle to come to terms with his grief. Yet to say this, to state it in such prosaic, conventional terms, is to trivialize the force of such feeling, as it is described in this novel. Indeed so consuming, so total, is the loss this narrator feels that even of this commonplace objective—his own mental health—he remains fearful, unsure: “What will we do, I wondered. When this is over. When we’re finished with all the grief. When we’ve gotten through it, if we get through it, what on earth will we do then.” 
Perhaps one of the most frightening aspects of grief, as it is depicted in this darkly radiant tale, is its potential to isolate one from others, from the people one knows and loves. The writer C.S. Lewis captured this poignantly in his famous 1961 book, A Grief Observed, a work—written immediately following the death of his wife—in which, fumbling brilliantly for the words to do justice to the experience, he describes it as something akin to fear, though not fear itself, only to add, "At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me."

This is very much the case with Karl Meyer, the protagonist of this novel. And no wonder. Can even someone who has experienced grief firsthand truly fathom the grief of another? Is such an experience actually relative, commensurable, at all? Or is it—like its sister, love—in fact stubbornly, intrinsically personal, always and necessarily unique? For how else could we bear so many depictions of it—in the literature we read, in the films we watch, in the music to which we listen at night—but as signal variations on this grave and universal theme. 

As with any fresh depiction of grief, indeed with the fresh depiction of any emotion in fiction at all, the devil lies squarely in the detail. One has only to think of Joyce’s story “Araby” with its ‘high, cold, empty, gloomy rooms,’ its ‘dark, dripping gardens,’ its rusted bicycle pump, and the ‘brown imperturbable’ faces of the houses in the streets to reminded of this fact. Sæterbakken himself is especially adept at stringing his protagonist’s grief upon the nails of so many stark and original details. Undoubtedly one of the most effective, most jarring of his touches in this novel, that single detail that opened up this character’s grief to me, that made me feel it in the pit of my stomach, in the marrow of my bones, is the narrator’s habit, started almost by accident one day, of calling his dead son’s cell phone number, which continues to glow, to implore him, in the directory of his phone.

Ole-Jakob. I know that you’re there. You’re there somewhere, and I’ll find you.

Stig Sæterbakken (1966-2012) was one of Norway’s most acclaimed contemporary writers. His novels include Siamese and Self-Control, both published by Dalkey Archive Press. He committed suicide in 21012. Through the Night was translated by Seán Kinsella.

Peter Adam Nash

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Wandering Soul

The River Below by François Cheng

Lifting my gaze, I scan the horizon:
The longed-for return, when will it come?
The bird takes flight to regain its nest:
And the fox, dying, turns to its lair,
Upright and loyal, yet I live in exile,
When shall I forget my fate, what day what night?

                                                          Qu Yuan

“French writing continues to emerge from unusual sources,” writes John Taylor in his 2008 essay on the matter in the Michigan Quarterly Review, a fascinating piece in which he introduces the reader to the work of three prominent Chinese-French writers, Dai Sijie, Gao Xingjian, and François Cheng, whose extraordinary novel, The River Below, is the subject of this post.

In The River Below Cheng “uses the conceit of the medieval dit to let one Tianyi, a Chinese artist, tell the story of his life, as he travels from China (where he was born in 1925) to Paris (where he lived in the 1950’s) and then back to Communist China.” The dit is a form of storytelling believed to have originated in late 12th Century France as a means of distinguishing allegorical tales, tales that concealed a truth within a purely fictional story or conte, from other more popular tales. Typically the dit signified a moral or instructive story, what soon proved to be a successful compromise “between the heaviness of didactic treatises and the lyricism of courtly poetry…”

No doubt this was precisely what Cheng had in mind when he wrote The River Below. As one reviewer describes the novel: “It unrolls like an allegorical scroll, its characters at once individuals and symbolic figures, as in the I Ching, in which the individual reflects the universal,” making the novel seem both ancient (timeless) and distinctly, significantly modern. 

In fact one of the most remarkable characteristics of this layered, deeply sophisticated novel is the constant interplay between these different narrative modes—that of allegory and that of the anxious modern Bildungsroman. It is the nearly seamless interplay of these different narrative styles that gives the novel its unusual resonance, its force.

Early on in the story, the protagonist, Tianyi, in a line straight out of a fairy tale, reflects upon his discovery of the powers of traditional Chinese calligraphy: “…I was won over by the magical power of brush and ink. I sensed it was to be a weapon for me. Maybe the only one I would have to protect me from the overwhelming presence of the Outside.” Now contrast this passage with the novel’s modern, distinctly Tristram Shandy-like opening in which, with the same casual disregard with which Tristram’s mother—at the very moment of Tristram’s conception—interrupts his father at his business by asking him if he remembered to wind the clock, the young Tianyi makes the foolish mistake one night of calling out to a grieving wid0w in the voice of her dead husband, not knowing that “If by chance someone among the living answers her cry with a yes, he loses his body, which is quickly entered by the dead man’s wandering soul that then returns to the world of the living. And the soul of the one thus losing is body becomes in turn the wanderer…” Near the end of this opening section the elder Tianyi, looking back over his long and rootless life, remarks, in words that Laurence Sterne himself might have penned (if with no intended humor): “I was convinced that from then on everything in me would be perpetually out of joint.”

And so it is, as we follow young Tanyi in his wandering throughout China, to France, to Paris, then back again to China, a nation torn asunder by the zealotry of Mao Tsé-Tung. Juxtaposing an artist’s lyrical sensibility against the violent upheavals of revolutionary China, The River Below is a subtle, broadly challenging novel of ideas that is rich with rewards for the patient and talented reader.

François Cheng Is a Chinese-born French academician, novelist, poet, calligrapher, and translator.

Peter Adam Nash