Thursday, January 31, 2013

Zeruya Shalev

Husband and Wife

When finally I put down this novel I was trembling. Described in The Scotsman as an “emotional white-knuckle ride,” this story plunges the reader deep into the heart of a rapidly disintegrating marriage in present-day Jerusalem. In prose so accomplished, so stirring, at times so achingly beautiful that one is tempted to drop one’s guard, to sit back, relax, and surrender oneself to its rhythms, Shalev is relentless in her determination to draw the reader inside the very skin of her protagonist, a mother and social worker named Na’ama Newman, as she registers the bruising daily trauma—each banal and horrific detail—of her imploding love life and family.   

The simple plot is set in motion one morning when Na’ama’s husband, Udi, a healthy, active man, wakes up at home after a solitary outing in the desert to discover that he cannot move his legs.  Unable to find a physical, medical explanation for his paralysis, they are forced to recognize that the problem lies elsewhere, in their marriage itself, their once-happy life together attacked from within by an aggressive emotional cancer.  From there, their relationship quickly spirals out of control, fueled—as fire by gasoline—by years of pent-up disappointment, longing, recrimination, and fear. Told from Na’ama’s acute, often startling perspective, Husband and Wife is the story of one woman’s desperate, exasperating, sometimes valiant attempt to save her marriage and family, to check the momentum of what at points seems as terrible, as implacable as fate.  While the novel might just as well have been set in Shanghai, Durban, or Madrid, so little do we see of modern Israel, so broadly human is the story’s appeal, one cannot help but suspect that this tangled and septic relationship is somehow reflective of the anguish and violence of Jerusalem itself.

Grim, depressing as this sounds—and is (Why would anyone but a masochist read such stuff? Or recommend it?), the novel is also singularly exhilarating in its pacing and candor, in its fearless—thereby hopeful—depiction of relationships and love.  “Husband and Wife is not a book for the faint-hearted,” writes critic Jamie Jauncey, “but for anyone prepared…to experience with almost hallucinatory vividness the complex and conflicting emotions of a modern woman dealing with a disintegrating relationship, there can be no finer opportunity.”  If, like Kafka, you believe that a book should be an axe for the frozen sea inside us, then pick up a copy of this one.  It will shake you to your core.

Zerya Shalev was born at Kibbutz Kinneret. She has an MA in Biblical studies and works as a literary editor at Keter Publishing House. Shalev has published five novels, a book of poetry and a children`s book. Her novels Love Life, Husband and Wife, and Late Family (Terra) have received critical acclaim both in Israel and abroad and have been bestsellers in several countries. Love Life has been included in Der Spiegel`s prestigious list of "20 Best Novels in World Literature" over the last 40 years, together with the work of Saul Bellow, J. M. Coetzee and Philip Roth. Husband and Wife is included in the French Fnac list of the "200 Best Books of the Decade." Shalev has been awarded the Book Publishers Association’s Gold and Platinum Prizes, the Corine Prize (Germany, 2001), the Amphi Award (France, 2003), the ACUM Prize three times (1997, 2003, 2005), and the French Wizo Prize (2007).  Husband and Wife was also nominated for the Femina Prize (France, 2002). A feature film of Love Life, produced in Germany, was released in 2008. Her books have been published abroad in 25 languages.  Husband and Wife (‏בעל ואישה‎) was translated by Dalya Bilu and is published by Grove Press, New York.

Peter Adam Nash

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Veronica Volkow

Years ago, during a long sojourn in Mexico City, I became acquainted with the poetry of Veronica Volkow.  I first heard her name in conjunction with her translations, into Spanish, of Elizabeth Bishop, John Ashbery, and, among prose writers, Victor Serge and Leon Trotsky.  I was able to read a handful of her poems in the fine anthology published by Copper Canyon Press, Reversible Monuments: Contemporary Mexican Poetry, edited by Monica de la Torre and Michael Wiegers--a book I often turn to for relief from the increasingly obscure and pointless verse featured in the notable American poetry journals. Volkow and many of her contemporaries (she was born in 1955) write challenging poetry that is engaged with politics and history and political traditions within Latin America--the obvious influences on Volkow are Octavio Paz and César Vallejo, whose volume Trilce (1922) brought the aesthetic of surrealism to Latin American poetry; other influences on Volkow are mystics like St. John of the Cross and, especially, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz.  Bishop was also a central figure for Volkow, and she has noted that Bishop's sense of the opacity of reality fits her (Volkow's) own sensibility.  "We are all dancing above the void," Volkow has written, and there is in her poetry a sense of the magic of a life lived in the spirit of this dance.

This poem is from her newest collection, Arcana, and Other Poems, translated by Luis Ingelmo and Michael Smith.


El mago                                                                                   

¿Quién escuchó la voz del viento,

la palabra que dice,

su grito interminable en la montaña,

y descifró el lenguaje de los ruidos,

el galopar de letras del follaje,

y las «eles» del agua?
¿Quién atrapó con un nombre el fondo de la noche,
la rasgadura del rayo?
Poderes precisos de lo etéreo,
y un saber que rescata en manos de aire.

Lo eterno es hueco, es forma, es alma

—esa imposible sed de la memoria.

Sin cuerpo y sin las cosas,

sólo viento y sueños, las palabras,

viento tejido por los sueños,

almas al aire que el silencio olvida,

estatuas de la ausencia insomnes,

despertar de la nada hacia la nada.

Hay sombras en los sueños

que no son de las cosas,

sino cuerpos quizá de las palabras,

ánimas de los nombres,

resurrección de la llamada.

Para poder morir son las palabras:

salvación profunda de lo ido,

tiempo enamorado que habla.

The Magician

Who listened to the voice of the wind,

the word that speaks,

its unceasing shout in the mountain,

and deciphered the language of noises,

the galloping of the letters of foliage,

the liquid ‘l’s’ of water?

Who captured with a name the night’s depth

and the tearing flash of lightning?

Precise power of the ethereal,

and a knowledge that rescues in aerial hands.

The eternal is a gap, a form, a soul

—that impossible thirst of memory.

Bodiless and without substance,

nothing but wind and dreams, words,

wind woven by dreams,

souls in the air which silence forgets,

insomniac statues of absence,

waking from nothingness to nothingness.

In dreams there are shadows

which are not of things,

but maybe the body of words,

the soul of names,

the resurrection of calls.

Words are to help us die:

profound salvation of what’s gone,

time speaking in love.

Arcana and Other Poems was published by Shearsman Books, one of the best, if not the best, sources of contemporary poetry from Europe and the Americas.  Here is the link for Volkow, and for the press.

For Reversible Monuments, see

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

What is literary genius? Remarks on Imre Kertész

It reads: "You get what you deserve" or "to each his due," words inscribed on the gate looking out from the administration building at Buchenwald.  It was to Buchenwald that Imre Kertész was taken as boy, after spending, by his own account, three days in Auschwitz.  He survived, and wrote a trilogy of novels that, for me, offer one definition of literary genius--Fateless, (or, Fatelessness*), Kaddish for an Unborn Child, and Fiasco.  I toured the grounds of Buchenwald; it is, as the young narrator of Fateless says, an oddly idyllic spot, and yet the feeling of the place is more akin to another gate, another greeting, the one above the City of Woes encountered by Dante in Canto III of Inferno.

"The Wehrmacht occupied Hungary on March 19, 1944. On the previous day [Admiral Miklos] Horthy had met Hitler at Klessheim.  Under the threat of unilateral military action, the Nazi leader compelled the regent to accept the German occupation and set up a pro-German government.  Hitler also demanded that some 100,000 Jews be delivered 'for labor' in Germany. Horthy submitted."**

In Fateless, the young narrator, György Köves, is taken from his home in Budapest to Auschwitz, and then on  to Buchenwald, and finally to a small camp at Zeitz.  He nearly dies, presumably of typhus, but survives his ordeal to return home "[A]t about the same time of year as I had left. At any rate, the forests all around Buchenwald were green, grass was already sprouting over the mass graves of buried corpses . . . "

As I made my way through this slender novel, whose bland, two-line plot summary, given above, makes it sound like one of  many novels about the Holocaust, it occurred to me that I was in the presence of something else entirely--I was reading a book that was a work of genius, and I wondered aloud at the effect Kertész's oddly understated style was having on me.  Halfway through Fateless, I told my colleague Peter Nash how moved I was by the book, and what genius Kertész possessed, but I was hard pressed to say what I meant.  What does the term "literary genius" mean?  Many writers nowadays appear to write "works of genius," but I confess to having encountered few such works, and am often disappointed to find this high praise attached to the most quotidian of books.

In Fiasco, the "old boy," Köves himself, lives in a tiny, precisely described apartment with his wife, is a writer, and reminiscences about the process of composing his first novel (which was Fateless, published in 1975): "My work--writing the novel--actually consisted of nothing else than a systematic atrophying of my experiences in the interest of an artificial--or if you prefer, artistic--formula that, on paper, and only on paper, I could judge as an equivalent of my experiences." And, "As soon as I started to write the novel, I stopped remembering." [74-5; my emphasis]

As counter-intuitive as these sentences sound, they are correct, and capture the genius of Fateless: Kertész doesn't reproduce his experiences, or capture them in language--he relives them, with the reader as witness, right on the page.  Fateless isn't a novel of the Holocaust told from the point of view of history, or narrated retrospectively--with the burden of history's cunning imposed by our memories--Kertész tells the story of his experience of the "Endlösung der Judenfrage" as the child he was, believing in the goodness of adults, trusting that his life would continue, that no one, certainly no German, could wish him ill.  The books is, as the author tells us, lived and not told. 

Young Köves, newly arrived in Auschwitz, reports his impressions--one wishes to say "naive" impressions, but could they have been other than what they were?  Who could believe what the camp was for, what the thick smoke, the odor portended? The lack of irony makes this passage wrenching: "...I saw no sign of confusion or fear in the German soldiers near us. I remembered the terrified reactions at home to air raids, and this superb calm, this invincibility, suddenly helped me to understand better the respect with which people at home in general spoke of Germans. Just then I noticed two lightning-bolt symbols on their collars. I realized that they must belong to the famous SS troops, of which I had already heard so much back home."  Köves's mind reaches backward, to "what he heard at home" and extends no further than the point where he stands--in the gravel, just off the train from Budapest, hungry and thirsty, but not terrified, not yet terrified.  Literary genius, it occurred to me, is this quality: not to mirror reality, or to comment on the world, or to report one's state of mind, but to unfold the world as it is experienced, purely and clearly, as if for the first time, through the words of someone who appears to know no more than the reader. 

Every student of Wittgenstein's Tractatus is familiar with the famous seventh aphorism, the tautology which states that "Those things of which we cannot speak, we must pass over in silence."  Of course.  But far more interesting is an earlier aphorism which says that "the meaning of the world lies outside of the world."  When Kertész writes in Fiasco: "I was taken to Auschwitz not by the train in the novel but by a real one," he is asserting the primacy of experience over both language and memory; in Fateless, Kertész comes as close to opening for the reader the terror of the Holocaust as one can come.  This, for me, is one way of thinking about literary genius: both extending the reach of expression and showing what lies beyond it, in the realm of the unspeakable.

*At the university library, I looked up Sorstalanság in a fat Hungarian-English dictionary; it means "fatelessness."  My copy, translated by Christopher C. and Katherine M. Wilson and published in 1992 in the wonderful Northwestern University Press series of European fiction (this was a full decade before  Kertész won the Nobel Prize), is called Fateless.  Tim Wilkinson, a noted translator of Hungarian fiction, has produced a version, titled Fatelessness, and published it with Vintage Books in 2004.  Wilkinson's Fiasco, published by another great press, Melville House, was a delight (I'm awaiting Kaddish in the mail).  I have no basis for comparing the translations and have quoted the earlier Wilson version here.

**From Saul Friedlander, Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945: The Years of Extermination.

Monday, January 28, 2013

China Blues

Fortress Besieged by Qian Zhongshu  (圍城,围城

“1937 was a hellish year for China,” writes Jonathan Spence in his deeply informative introduction to this popular and highly acclaimed novel.  “After years of threats and corrosive expansion into Chinese territory, the Japanese finally moved to all-out war, first in the Peking region, and soon after in Shanghai…by the late fall of 1937, the Chinese troops had crumbled, and the Japanese advanced triumphantly through the largely abandoned defense lines to the Nationalist capital of Nanking.  There, in December 1937, the infamous ‘Rape of Nanking’ brought death or agonizing humiliation to hundreds of thousands of Chinese men, women, and children…. It is into this bleak setting that Qian Zhongshu unceremoniously tosses his hapless hero Fang Hung-chien.” 

Widely recognized as the greatest Chinese novel of the twentieth century, Fortress Besieged is, for all its satire of western-leaning intellectuals, scholars, philosophers, doctors, and professors, a remarkably un-political story, given the chaos and suffering in which it is set, focusing almost myopically as it does on the picaresque, often comical bumbling of the wisecracking “moral weakling”, Fang Hung-chien.  The prodigal son, Fang returns to China, to Shanghai, on the eve of the Sino-Japanese War, aboard the Vicomte de Bragelonne, a ship packed to overflowing with Chinese nationals, Indians, Vietnamese, French, and Jews in flight from Hitler.  With nothing but a fake diploma, no prospects for work, and the not unpleasant knowledge that his wealthy fiancée is dead, he sets out to find his place in the fraught and rapidly changing nation.  Yet the novel is hardly so serious as that, but asserts itself as a clever, unabashedly erudite comedy of manners in which we are introduced to a dazzling assortment of nationals and foreigners in late 1930’s China: “the lowly porters, shopkeepers, innkeepers, bus drivers, country folk, soldiers, prostitutes, and French policemen serving their mother country in her Concessions in China; the middle-class returned students, country squires, journalists; and the rising middle-class bankers, compradors, factory managers, Japanese collaborators, and others”, each delightfully, indelibly described.

Subtle, sophisticated, rife with allusions to Chinese and European philosophy, literature, history, culture, and folklore (each meticulously footnoted for those so inclined), Fortress Besieged is nevertheless a highly readable, highly satisfying novel for expert and novice alike.   

Qian Zongshu (Ch’ien Chung-shu, 1910-1998) is one of China’s foremost “scholar-novelists.”   A devotee of Hegel and Proust, and a master of classical Chinese, English, Greek, Latin, German, French, Spanish, and Italian, Qian is seen by many in China as the last link  in an unbroken chain of geniuses stretching back to Confucius.  Yet his life as a writer was anything but easy.  Having returned to China in 1938, like his character Fang Hung-chien, he, along with other intellectuals like him, was persecuted by Mao Zedong, forbidden to study and write and forced for years to work as a janitor. Besides being one of the few acknowledged masters of vernacular Chinese in the twentieth century, Qian was also one of the last authors to produce substantial works in classical Chinese, most notably his magnum opus, the five-volume Guan Zhui Bian, literally ‘the Pipe-Awl Collection,’ an extensive assortment of notes and short essays on poetics, semiotics, and literary history.

First published in China in 1947, Fortress Besieged was translated by Jeanne Kelly and Nathan K. Mao and published by New Direction Books in 2004. 

I’d like thank my friend Estelle Wu for her recommendation that I read Fortress Besieged.  I am grateful to her.

Peter Adam Nash

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Ko Un: Poet, Monk, Dissident

Ko Un's life story is remarkable.  He grew up in a poor, rural region of South Korea.  He has been imprisoned four times for his political views, in particular for his opposition to the military government of Park Chun-hee in the 1970's.  Ko also spent ten years as Buddhist monk (1953-63); he has written over one hundred books--of poetry, fiction, and memoir, of which only a fraction are available in English.  His name often comes up in discussions of the Nobel Prize, and yet few in the West are familiar with his work.  I was fortunate enough  to come upon Clare You's translation of Ko's selected poems, The Three Way Tavern, published by the University of California.  It's a lovely book, with a generous overview of Ko's work and a fine introduction to his life and aesthetic by Clare You.  Here is You's comment on Ko's character (a man after my own heart): "A man of wantonness and spiritual yearning, with outbursts of creative energy, and irrepressible distaste for oppressors, and insatiable appetite for the unknown, a wry sense of humor--this seems to describe the temperament of Ko Un."

 Ever since reading Kenneth Rexroth's versions of Tu Fu while in college, I have sought out a certain kind of East Asian writer--one who is able to turn deceptively simple observations of the physical world into  insights that uncover subtleties of human experience (of course, it isn't only East Asian writers who do this). Since I have no Asian languages, I rely on gifted translators to allow me, at most, an intimation of the world of these great poets--who can say what Tu Fu's intentions were when he wrote: "Screech owls moan in the yellowing/Mulberry trees. Field mice scurry,/Preparing their holes for the winter./Midnight, we cross an old battlefield,/The moonlight shines cold on white bones."  Reading this poem for the first time in 1968, I had no doubt of what Tu Fu was referring to--the "white bones" made his subject clear.  And yet I now understand that when we read poetry in translation, we are placing our trust in another writer in just the way, as children, we trusted our friends to catch us as we played "buck-buck."  In his wonderful book on Rilke, William Gass demonstrates in memorable fashion the problems of translating a poet whose world is rather familiar to us--but what of the lost worlds of Tu Fu or Ko Un?

With Ko Un the problem appears insurmountable: what do I know of Korea?  What did it feel like to grow up poor in Gunsan in the 1930's?  To attempt suicide over the depredations of the Korean War? To live as a monk?  All of this is beyond me, and what is left are the shards of a life, memorably preserved in simple verses.

Morning Rooster

At the rooster's second crow, she is thinking more
about her son who left home two years ago
than about her husband who died last year.
Because he's buried
on the hill out back, he didn't leave home forever.
When the rooster crowed at dawn,
Changok was gone, pounding a nail
into his mother's heart.
Hoping against hope he'd return at daybreak,
Mother was up, didn't even have a sip of cold water, just thought of him.
She folded the blankets on the chilly floor of her room,
swept the garden,
swept the first snow fallen outside the gate,
and straightened her back on the thought of her son.

The University of California Press maintains and regularly expands an exceptional poetry list.

George Ovitt (1/27)

Friday, January 25, 2013

Climbing Mount Mordant/Thomas Bernhard

In German, Bissigkeit, with bissig being viciousness. Mordant.  Mordancy.  As in "The most mordant of writers was Thomas Bernhard."  No cynic, Bernhard could turn a huckster like Sartre to pâté en terrine with a single ten-page sentence.  The rollicking, circling, repetitive, nihilistic, unpackable, Kafkaesque cadences of Bernhard--the only writer apart from Kafka who makes me laugh out loud*--usually end at the same point, the very one Sophocles makes in Oedipus at Colonus (line 1225): "Better never to have been born."  The climax of Bernhard's Yes is an affirmation of suicide, and only the puckish Bernhard, who I would guess loved life in the way all true nihilists do, would write a mad monologue affirming that there is nothing worth affirming, that life is not so much absurd as horrifying, that no human act could have value, and that, nonetheless, the whole  affair is best understood not as tragedy but as farce. 

It would be coy to say that Bernhard was the great chronicler of our era; he wasn't, and such a notion  would have left him in stitches.  He was of no era, or perhaps he was of the greatest of centuries, the sixteenth, when wit and murder danced an allemande with plague and famine.  Moving through a typical blasted Bernhard landscape is like being parachuted into the milieu of Matthias Grünewald, perhaps into one of the panels of his Crucifixion, a world in which cruelty was seasoned with decorum--no anonymous drones dropping bombs in Grünewald; the lashes were applied by a man, whose grotesque mask seems to say--"Well, what can I do?"  As in Bernhard, the Old Masters were never mistaken about the causes and nature of suffering, and Icarus lands with an indifferent splash.

File:Mathis Gothart Grünewald 060.jpg

How radical a writer was Bernhard? Here is the publisher's description of his novel Gargoyles (a charming Christmas tale for the kids): "One morning a doctor and his son set out on daily rounds through the grim, mountainous Austrian countryside. They observe the colorful characters they encounter--from an innkeeper whose wife has been murdered to a crippled musical prodigy kept in a cage . . . " There's more. A "paranoid prince" and a "parade of human grotesques." No bestseller here. One imagines literary agents rushing to sign Bernhard to a mega-deal; motion pictures, a fawning review in Harper's, a Twittered version of the book for the attention-deficient crowd. Then again, perhaps not. On the surface, Bernhard is never a cheerful read, yet, as in The Castle, with its own version of the human nightmare, Bernhard's monsters are so clearly us that we laugh to feel reassured: yes, it really is all right to be vain, monomaniacal, greedy, and cruel. Bernhard's truths are often too much to bear, but they are truths nonetheless.

Reading Bernhard's Wittgenstein's Nephew or, my personal favorite, The Old Masters, one asks, 'what is comedy?'  Thanks to Shakespeare and Northrop Frye, we presume that comedies always veer toward weddings and renewals of life--as with the crocuses at the conclusion of Humbolt's Gift.  But also thanks to Shakespeare, we know there is more to comedy than transvestism, drunkenness, sexual double entendres, and nuptials. Shakespeare, after all, not only wrote "A Midsummer Night's Dream," but also "Measure for Measure," and "A Winter's Tale."  Aristotle taught us that tragedy purges pity and fear, but he also taught us that that comedy purges bitterness (ψόγος) and our  natural loathing of the absurd. One might argue that life is far more likely to provoke invective than a sense of fatedness--this is the central discovery of Kafka--a king knows tragedy, but we clerks feel absurdity in our bones.  The writer who thought "writing was praying," wrote these witty lines:

Last night I dreamt about you. What happened in detail I can hardly remember, all I know is that we kept merging into one another. I was you, you were me. Finally somehow you caught fire.”  

Somehow you caught fire. I have to laugh when I read this passage though there is nothing funny in it. Here is, I am certain, the meaning of Kafka's famous line about "the frozen sea within us."  Great literature wakes us up, and the more deeply we are asleep, the greater the tug needed to rouse us.

Bernhard travels a similar road, less fastidiously than Kafka:

"The atmosphere in Hoeller's house was still heavy, most of all with the circumstances of Roithamer's suicide, and seemed from the moment of my arrival favorable to my plan of working on Roithamer's papers there, specifically in Hoeller's garret, sifting and sorting Rooithamer's papers and even, as I suddenly decided, simultaneously writing my own account of my work on these papers, as I have here begun to do, aided by having been able to move straight into Hoeller's garret without any reservations on Hoeller's part, even though the house had other suitable accommodations, I deliberately moved into that four-by-five-meter garret Roithamer was always so fond of, which was so ideal, especially in his last years, for his purposes, where I could stay as long as I liked, it was all the same to hoeller, in this house built by the headstrong Hoeller in Defiance of every rule of reason and architecture right here in the Aurach gorge, in the garret which Hoeller had designed and built as if for Roithamer's purposes, where, Roithamer, after sixteen years in England with me, had spent the final years of his life almost continuously, and even prior to that he had found it convenient to spend at least his nights in the garret, especially while he was building the Cone for his sister in the Kobernausser forest, all the time the Cone was under construction he no long slept at home ....."  

This sentence continues, in the least compromising of all Bernhard's novels--Correction--and reprises all of the (three) numbingly and, eventually, hysterically repeated themes of the novel--the garret, the Cone, and the papers of Roithamer, another of the many stand-ins for Wittgenstein who often appears, thinly disguised, in Bernhard's novels.  How attractive the Wittgenstein's must have been to Bernhard--a family decimated by suicides!  One wonders what the austere logician of the Tractatus would have made of  Correction's baroque syntax and its relentless mockery of seriousness and taciturnity.  I've just quoted a passage from pages one and two; weeks later (it seems) we arrive on page one hundred twenty five and find this: "If I walk barefoot they won't hear me, I'd thought, and so as soon as I'd entered Hoeller's garret I walked around and back and forth a lot in my bare feet in order to practice this barefoot walking in Hoeller's garret..." One feels as if one is trotting up the down staircase, or trapped in a dream of jogging endlessly for a bus, not moving one inch. Or one is living one's life, as it is, and not moving one inch.

 "The limits of my language are the limits of my world," wrote Wittgenstein, and Bernhard appears to counter with the proposition "Even within the limits of language there is to be found an unlimited world."  This is what Bernhard shares with Kafka--the conviction that language need not take us anywhere--through neither narrative nor conclusion--to show the meaning of the world.  Why do we need beginnings, middles, and endings when, as in Kabala, every word is capable of pushing us into the abyss?

*See David Foster Wallace, "Some Remarks on Kafka's Funniness from Which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed," in Consider the Lobster. Typical Wallace: "It's not that students don't 'get' Kafka's humor but that we've taught them to see humor as something you get--the same way we've taught them that a self is something you just have. No wonder they cannot appreciate the really central Kafka joke: that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseperable from the horrific struggle."  It is much the same with Bernhard, with outcomes more likely to result in despair than resignation. 

Perhaps as a bit of publishing pro bono work, one finds Thomas Bernhard's books in so-so Vintage Paperback editions, with outdated prefaces (by, for example, George Steiner--two pages!).  But this is being rectified, as in the new edition of Gargoyles, which has no introduction whatsoever. 

Bernhard, the wittiest of misanthropes, whose account of his literary prizes (My Prizes: An Accounting)  is the last word in the genre of Self-Justifiying Public Ingratitude, isn't for the faint of heart.  But you never know: look at how popular David Lynch was for a few seconds.  The Bernhard lover hopes a serious press will take up the cause--and quickly--of reissuing TB in suitable editions so that one can disseminate mordancy at the appropriate holidays.  

George Ovitt (1/25)




Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Other Europe

Contemporary East European Poetry: An Anthology, edited by Emery George

How many Eastern European poets can you name? Until some months ago I myself could name but three: the Polish and widely-feted Milosz, Szymborska, and Zagajewski. Great poets, surely but hardly representative when it comes to the dazzling multitude of nations, languages, and cultures that comprise this historically rich, politically charged region, a fact made plain to me one evening when I happened upon a copy of this extraordinary anthology in a local bookstore. “Eastern Europe is one half of Europe,” writes the editor, Emery George, in his introduction to the collection. “It is a vast and vital realm of society and culture which, for all the attention lavished on it since World War II, remains for many Americans either that sinister expanse ‘behind the Iron Curtain’ or, at best, ‘the old country,’ where tales of Dracula, ethnic grandmothers, and good recipes come from.” 

Offering readers a sampling of the work of no less than 162 contemporary poets, both men and women, from at least fifteen different languages, this volume is astonishing both in its breadth and resonance, stamping the names and homelands of these poets on the cluttered, workaday maps in our brains. Including writers from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania,Poland, Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, as well as former Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany, editor Emery George also provides a short if illuminating section on Yiddish poets still writing today. Here, from the anthology, is my own brief sampling:

In Chalk Rooms

                                                                 let all the walls
                                                                 about me be green
                                                                 like a whole harvest
                                                                 of summer’s meadows
walls like light
        sliding through green bottle-glass
walls like forest
       moss-grown and damp
walls like mouldy
       cheese on a knife
and walls like frogs
       so cool and loud
walls with gentleness
        like budding leaves
walls of juiciness
        as of chopped turnip tops
walls in that tone
        in which rain soaks moss
and yellowed like cabbage
        butterflies abandoning cocoon
walls hard and green
        corrugated wet
encompassing me
                                                                 as have only woods and waters.
                                                                 but the world listens
                                                                 to me as to a gnat’s song
                                                                 though I suffer terrible
                                                                 famine for greenness

 Aina Kraujiete (Translated by Inara Cedrins)

Father’s Winter

The birds have all left
my father’s tall trees.
Now only frozen stars
cling to the black branches.

Old farm tools stand stagnant:
plows, scythes, hands and hoes.
It seems there is nowhere to go,
nothing to make us wonder.
The wonders of Father’s life
have passed unnoted and expected—
who will marvel at the water or grass,
or write down the spring or winter?

If you listen, at night
you can hear the deep and heavy sighs
of the senile, faithful Guernsey 
passing up from the cattle-shed.

All thoughts, like snow, blend to one.

Justinas Marcinkevičious (Translated by  Irene Pogožzelskyte Suboczewski)

The Early Chaplin

We know the early Chaplin but before him
was an earlier Chaplin   Those films
are already forgotten   Chaplin
had the face of a brute he bared his teeth
like a wildcat readying to spring and had no
scruples he seduced women hired gangsters
to rub out his rivals rejected he sought revenge
by all means fair and foul when the lovely Mabel
Normand was in an auto race this blackguard
wetted down the pavement switched around the signs sending
the car to the precipice planted dynamite despite
everything Mabel survived and won he almost
burst with fury the audience
was bursting with laughter and of course showed
him no sympathy at all   He did not yet have
his dress suit cane mustache   He had
a monocle and goatee   His name was not
Charlie but Chas   This went on
for some time  But in time
his face figure and inner self began to change  This
happens not only to actors but
to apostles and mere mortals   More than one
person has lived through this in his youth wondering
and suffering when his skin
hardened in a grimace which
seemed to be an exact replica
of the inner self when it crumbled and again froze
in another mould    No one knows
how all this happens   This is no
run-of-the mill decision  Maybe inspiration   Thus Chaplin
after making thirty-five films went ahead and
changed from Chas to Charlie   In the last
of these films they both were there Charlie
dreamed of being Chas   From sleep
the loiterer was wakened by the policeman’s stick   He got up
from the park bench and hobbled
into the distance with an embarrassed smile   There was no
anger in him only hope   No craving
for success but a desire
to defend human dignity   From the pursuer
he became the pursued   And this was now
the early Chaplin whom
we came to love without ceasing to laugh

Wiktor Worosylski (Translated by Magnus J. Kryńnski and Robert A. Maguire)

Emory George is the author of sixteen books, including seven of his own poetry and two collections of the work of Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti.  Contemporary East European Poetry: An Anthology is published by Oxford University Press.

Peter Adam Nash 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Zero Hour

Stephen Dunn is one of a half-dozen living poets to whom I turn regularly--for delight in his metaphysical wit, for insights into what poetry can do to ease our overheated lives, for the pleasure that comes with watching someone find just the right word.  This is a favorite, and speaks to a question never far from my mind--

Zero Hour

It was the hour of simply nothing,
not a single desire in my western heart,
and no ancient system
of breathing and postures,
no big idea justifying what I felt.

There was even an absence of despair.

"Anything goes," I said to myself.
All the clocks were high. Above them,
hundreds of stars flickering if, if, if.
Everywhere in the universe, it seemed,
some next best thing was gathering itself.

I wanted to feel something,
but it was nothing more than a moment
passing into another, or was it even less
eloquent than that, purely muscular,
some meaningless twitch?

I'd let someone else make it rhyme.

Dunn, born in 1939, is the author of sixteen books and teaches at Richard Stockton State College in New Jersey.  This poem is from Different Hours, published in 2000.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Alberto Moravia: Two Friends, three versions

Alberto Moravia

I like the writer as an older man, as here; the great Alberto Moravia, a writer who, above any other, evokes for me the urbane (and lost) life, as in La Dolce Vita, Marcello Mastroianni, Sophia Loren, and the trinity of twentieth century emotions--boredom, contempt, and amour (always problematic, often failed).  Moravia's novels and stories, especially The Conformist (1947), Conjugal Love (1947), Contempt (1954), and Boredom (or The Empty Canvas 1960) are replete with the world-weariness and anxieties of a European post-war generation that lamented what was irrevocably lost--a generation that echoed the fin-de siecle sensibility of Joseph Roth, Stephan Zweig, and Robert Musil. In Moravia, the failure of love is the failure of larger hopes and a mirror for the duplicities of political and social life generally.

The three novellas collected in Two Friends, translated by Marina Harss, and beautifully produced by Other Press in a volume that also contains a splendid introduction by Thomas E. Peterson, variant textual readings of the novellas, and an account of the discovery of the typescript of the book in a suitcase in the basement of Moravia's home on Lungotevere della Vittoria, reprise Moravia's central themes: political turmoil, sexual longing, domestic betrayals, and bad consciences.  For the admirer of Moravia, the great attraction of Two Friends is the opportunity to observe the writer's process of composition.  Each of the three versions of the text contains essentially the same story--that of the troubled relationship between the wealthy playboy Maurizio and  the idealistic/apathetic intellectual  Sergio--but in each version Moravia shifted focus and narrative voice, struggling, it appears, to find the best way to tell the story. 

In Version A, set in 1938, Maurizio and Sergio cope, each in his own way, with fascism and the war--Maurizio through womanizing and self-pity, Sergio through a kind of half-hearted anti-fascist engagement.  In Version B, set in 1945, Sergio has joined the Communist Party, though not so much from conviction as from boredom; he is in love with Lalla, and, as he often does, Moravia demonstrates the ways in which a sexual relationship fails to compensate for a dearth of human feeling--in this case, Sergio's.  Version C, narrated in first person by Sergio, is the most satisfying and fully realized of the three retellings of the story, with Sergio and Maurizio now plausible rivals in love and politics, and with a fuller development of Lalla's (now Nella) character. 

Moravia's view of women can be odd--they at times appear to be nothing more than sexual vessels, or objects of male "ego-projection" (Moravia--the consummate Freudian novelist!), but, when he needed to do so, when the story required it,  Moravia created women who were more fully realized characters than their often self-absorbed male counterparts.  In my view, Moravia's strength lies in the ideas he puts at the center of his stories, those "what if" thought experiments that depend as much on mood and language and tone of voice as on plot or character.

Moravia is among the most cinematic of writers--that is perhaps why Bertolucci, Godard, de Sica, and others have made (quite good) films of his books. He crafts mise-en-scène like a screenwriter, then evokes character with precise exchanges of dialogue and minimal authorial interference. 

Here is a bit of description, clear-eyed and rendered without nostalgia, taken from Version A. Sergio is seeing Maurizio's home and garden after many years away:

In [Sergio's] memory, the garden was large and full of trees; now it appeared to be a small rectangle with a few medium-sized trees and two or three flower beds surrounded by gravel paths. But the gravel was dirty and the flower beds had been invaded by weeds which had begun to turn yellow in the summer sun. The trees had grown wild, but no taller. He noticed an air of neglect and age, which he could not pinpoint in any single element but seemed to affect everything. Just as old age exacerbates certain characteristics, this air of neglect was neither poetic nor atmospheric; it was not the melancholy, charming neglect of an aging castle, but rather the casual indifference that clings to something that is neither beautiful or ornate.

Moravia's novels are available both from Other Press and New York Review Books.  Here are the links:  and 

George Ovitt (1/21; Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Day)

Sunday, January 20, 2013


"The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home."
                                             Charles Baudelaire

“Man as civilized being, as intellectual nomad, is again wholly microcosmic, wholly homeless, as free intellectually as hunter and herdsman were free sensually.”  
                                             Oswald Spengler

Flâneur. Derived from the French verb flâner, meaning “to saunter or lounge”, flâneur is a term traditionally understood to mean "stroller, idler, walker". As described on The Arcades Project website, he is typically an educated man and wealthy enough to spend his days strolling idly through the streets of Paris (or some other such city), probing his surroundings and making observations about people and places that might otherwise go unnoticed. He is “a narrator who is fluent in the hieroglyphic vocabulary of visual culture,” a voyeur with a “cool but curious eye”. Rootless, anonymous, an inveterate outsider, he is a man who, for all his refinement, for all his vanity, is wildly protean in nature, sometimes invisible, often solipsistic, degenerate, effete. He is a parasite, “dragging the crowd for intellectual food.” And how we envy him this, this indulgence of eye and heart and mind. From Charles Baudelaire, Georg Simmel, Marcel Proust, and James Joyce to Franz Hessel, Walter Benjamin, Juan Goytisolo, and Edmund White, intellectuals and writers alike have found themselves transfixed by the enigma of this distinctly modern, distinctly urban prowler.

The nameless 46 year-old narrator of Genazino’s short novel The Shoe Tester of Frankfurt is just such a man.  While not wealthy enough to support his penchant for wandering the streets of Frankfurt, he is lucky enough to be employed by the small but rapidly expanding Weisshuhn Shoe Factory as a tester of shoes! And so begins the irony, the humor, of this lightly, delightfully philosophical tale. “All you have to do is spend the whole day walking around in brand new shoes,” explains the narrator, “and then write as detailed a report as possible about your sensations while walking.” Troubled by his past, by failed relationships, by love, he lives his days in silent rebellion against what he calls his “unauthorized life”--the fact that he was born into the world without his consent. Yet he is no misanthrope--no Timon of Athens, no Schopenhauer.  As with all flâneurs he finds the city irresistible, drawn out of his apartment each day to wander its crowded streets, to examine its shops and restaurants, marveling like a child at the sights and sounds, and piecing them together as clues. For the details of urban life, he has a promiscuous eye (and nose), noting with interest, with pleasure, a woman in a wheelchair, a Mickey Mouse tie, the stench of “hairspray, gasoline, bratwurst, smoke and chicken excrement.” He marvels at a cockeyed dog.  In his ramblings through the city he notices a Japanese woman eating a peach, admires “an old cardboard trunk with a tin-plated handle”, observes an elderly gentleman in a restaurant who has dropped a potato on the floor. The “unlooked-at-people” hold a particular fascination for this man without qualities in his restless struggle to make sense of the city in which he swims, to discover the meaning of his aimless, lonely, fish-like life.

Wilhelm Genazino was born in Mannheim, Germany in 1943, has published numerous books, including eight novels, a trilogy, and two collections of essays.  His many literary honors include the Bremer Literaturpreis (1989), the Hans-Fallada-Preis (2003), and the Georg-Büchner-Preis (2004).  He lives in Frankfurt.  The Shoe Tester of Frankfurt was translated from the German by Philip Boehm and published in 2006 by New Directions Books, New York. 

Peter Adam Nash