A Note on Imminent Departures

As you, my dedicated reader, have no doubt noticed, my posts here on The Afterword have been somewhat more sporadic than they used to be and there are less reviews posted than there have been in years past. This is because–I can finally say it out loud now–I have been granted a Fulbright to study Icelandic at the University of Iceland for the 2012-2013 academic year. (Yay! crowd noises Yay!) As such, I have spent the last beaucoup (or “boo-coo,” as we used to say at home) months (years) working on grant applications and acceptance paperwork, travel logistics, preliminary language study, and the whole nine yards. In the midst of all this, my reading and reviewing has had to take a back seat; it’s immensely hard (at least it has been for me) to construct a coherent thought on any remotely challenging literature when you’re trying to decode another country’s visa regulations.

I’ve now got most of the aforementioned logistics worked out, or am in the process of getting them worked out, but I won’t be back to regular reviewing for awhile, I don’t think. It’s absolutely my intention to continue posting informal, and–as it’s possible–professional reviews on this site going forward, but I can’t say with what regularity. So bear with me, check back, and accept my very appreciative thank yous for ever taking the time to visit this blog. It’s been a pleasure to write and know that a few someones out there in the world (read: The Internet) are reading. (Hi, mom!)

Oh, and should you have any interest in reading about Icelandic grammar, the culture shock of the recently expatriated, or other little odds and ends while I’m living in Reykjavik next year, please feel free to drop in on my other, new blog: Eth & Thorn.

Farewell to Partners & Crime

Yesterday I learned the sad news via GalleyCat that after 18 years in business, Partners & Crime, the superb West Village independent bookstore dedicated entirely to new/used/rare mystery, crime, espionage, and thriller fiction is closing. The one positive–and it’s a big one considering recent bookstore closure trends–is that P&C does not seem to be shuttering because of any problems with rent or sales. (It’s not every closing bookstore that thanks its landlord…) Here’s the goodbye message they’ve posted on their website’s homepage:

After 18 years in the shop on Greenwich Avenue, Partners & Crime Mystery Booksellers is closing its doors on September 20th.

We’ve had a great run and have enjoyed helping a generation of readers find the books they love.

We’ve had a lot of fun, learned a tremendous amount, and enjoyed our time with all of you – customers, authors and publishers.

Stop by, reminisce and check out our THANK YOU sale — and maybe find that favorite title you really can’t live without!

Couldn’t have done it without you!

With our great appreciation to all , and a special thank you to Bernard Charles, our landlord, for all their support.

So there you have it–a little over a month to do just as P&C suggests: stop by, say thank you, buy a book, and bid adieu to a great New York City institution.

For my part, I thank you very much, Partners & Crime! Your interested, interesting, friendly, and knowledgeable staff assisted me in particular with tracking down/selecting a number Scandinavian crime novels, right as I started getting into the genre. Some of these were harder to acquire than others, too: I remember, for one, the gentleman who helped me order Lime’s Photograph when I was frustratedly trying to find any Danish thrillers or crime fiction whatsoever–I actually enjoyed our conversation more than the book.

Spontaneous Reads: Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink

As a rule, I am perilously bad at keeping up with periodicals, lit mags, and other regular media outlets–I can’t exactly say why, but even if the topic of a long-form essay really interests me (I’m thinking here of a recent New Yorker piece on IKEA that I still haven’t finished, some six or seven months later), I often will often start it and then let it languish in a basket on my living room floor, collecting dust until I finally give up and recycle it. This is not an aesthetic judgement on the state of journalism, or even a stringently articulated preference for fiction–I just tend to spend more of my time reading short stories and novels.

My partner, however, is an adamant and regular cover-to-cover reader of several periodicals and is generous about sharing tidbits here and there of  recently acquired, timely, and esoteric factoids from journalists whose work he reads regularly. I’m often rather impressed and entertained by his summaries of articles and essays he’s been reading, so it was nice for me to recently pick up a copy of Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink–a collection of food writing in that magazine from the 1930s to the early 2000s. I frequently enjoy food writing–I think cooking and eating make for very fertile and evocative springboards for other interesting topics (memory, history, socio-cultural analysis, etc.) and it’s just fun to read about delicious food. So this collection provided an ideal framework for me to dip into the journalism that I’m always telling myself I should read more of.

Overall, the collection is wonderful; a very interesting window into the development of The New Yorker, as well as the gastronomic topics and themes that were very of the moment in which they were written. I also very much appreciated that many of the pieces were as much about the people involved in the production of food/meals as the food itself.

Since I read the collection almost cover to cover (not counting the fiction section, which looked enjoyable, but wasn’t the point for me), I made some short observations on most of the pieces as I went through. The book was divided into several sections, which I’ve indicated in bold.

Continue reading

Bridge Series Event on Monday: Dalkey Archive Translators

From the Bridge Series website, here:

 

Celebrating the Translators
of Dalkey Archive Press’s National Literatures Series

A Reading and Discussion with

Todd Hasak-Lowy, Mary Ann Newman,

Burton Pike & Damion Searls

moderated by

Joshua Cohen

Monday, May 14, 7 PM

McNally Jackson Books

52 Prince Street (between Lafayette & Mulberry)
New York, NY 10012

PEN World Voices Festival Recap #3: The Literary Safari, 2.0

My last PEN event this year was the second Literary Safari at Westbeth, which was another remarkable event that I was able to write about for The L Magazine. The full post is available on their website, cleverly titled by someone-not-myself as “Stalking the Exotic Author at the Westbeth Literary Safari,” here. The full text is below.

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An opportunity to “[e]njoy intimate readings by Festival participants inside the homes of famous Westbeth residents” the second Literary Safari held during this year’s PEN World Voices Festival was, in response to the whimsical chaos of last year’s event, ever so slightly more streamlined. In addition to the simplified map of Westbeth’s winding hallways and the reading schedule that was handed to each guest, this year, attendees had the advantage of signage throughout the hallways and balloons taped to each hosting apartment’s doorway. It lent a cheerful suburban party vibe to what is otherwise the single most hip literary event to have ever been conceived.

Last year’s attendees came to this year’s safari with plenty of tips on how to maximize the experience and see, depending on your predilections, either the most readings or the most apartments. (Lurk near the back of each apartment for an easy exit during the inevitably late-running Q&A; don’t revisit an apartment you went to last year.) Scheduled in optimistic twenty-five minute increments with five minute ‘passing periods’ in between, the maximum number of possible readings/apartments that one could see during the course of the night would have been four; my group was proud to have successfully seen three.

Colson Whitehead was this year’s marquis participant, but part of what makes the Literary Safari such a unique and pleasantly awkward event is the opportunity to be introduced to new authors, to sit knee-to-knee with luminaries who while unfamiliar to you, are important participants in their home country’s literary milieu. (There are undoubtedly downsides to this arrangement from the writer’s perspective, as attendees just love forcing international authors to shill their country’s cultural output wholesale, asking hugely generalizing questions about “the state of fiction” or sometimes, even non-literary traditions in another country or geographic region. Example: “Is fiction less popular than film in [insert country name here]?”)

In her first reading of the evening, Romanian author and journalist Gabriela Adamesteanu, was asked a battery of such questions, which she kindly qualified with nuanced responses. When asked to talk about how literary reception in Romania might be different from that in the U.S., she explained that following the country’s revolution, the public’s main reading interest was in non-fiction, particularly the memoirs and essays that had been censored during communism. In the intervening ten years, however, a new wave of young authors is reinspiring an interest in novels and poetry.

Adamesteanu herself has been a leading member of the Romanian intelligentsia and was an outspoken advocate for a civil society during the communist years; she was an editor of the socio-political magazine 22, and also the president of an activist the Romanian chapter of PEN for several years. She was at the festival to read from her novel Wasted Morning (first published in 1984; translated into English last year), which was identified by the attending Director of the Romanian Cultural Institute as “one of [Romania’s] major modern novels,” and an incisive portrait of the country during the rule of dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. Though Adamesteanu was very quiet and self-effacing, listening first to a reading of her novel in English and then selecting a small passage to read in Romanian herself, the passage chosen was an assertive one–an emotional scene in which a man believes that his partner has recently had “an adventure” with another man, resulting in a clandestine abortion.

An event monitor in the back of the room ensured that all attendees got to their next reading on time, so we were able to dash to our next, that of prolific Lebanese author, critic, and playwright Elias Khoury, whose novels Archipelago Books has been in the process of releasing in English since 2006. Khoury was perched in one corner of a comfortably cluttered living room in one of Westbeth’s coveted duplex apartments, with attendees crowded around on couches and curled up on the oriental carpet, sipping the wine that was laid out on an end table. Both hosts being painters, the walls were covered in large canvases and multi-media pieces, to which Khoury gestured: “I hope my words can match the beauty around us…This is not an official reading, so I cannot behave like writers behave. We can speak like friends.”

Khoury read a passage (in English, and briefly, in Arabic as well) from As Though She Were Sleeping, which was just released in April. But before doing so, he gave extensive background about the book and its context–a meandering discussion which sweepingly encompassed Palestinian history, comparative Biblical and Quranic traditions, dream analysis, and Khoury’s belief that language should be “feminized” in order to better represent marginalized experiences. “Literature and religion are in the same register–they both speak about love, about death. Religion is totally masculine [because] with monotheism, god became masculine. Literature [and therefore language] can play the other role, can represent the oppressed.”

Khoury spoke of the novel’s character, Milia, so intimately that one attendee thought she was a real person in his life; the author clearly has a rich and full relationship with his creations. “This is the story of a woman I met in my imagination,” he explained. “We became very special friends–she allowed me to enter her inner life…I loved this woman.”

Another Archipelago author, the Norwegian writer Karl O. Knausgaard, read a few doors down the hall, in “the smallest duplex in Westbeth,” according to one of the hosts. Knausgaard was clearly less taken with the chatty intimacy of the event, and stationed himself in a corner from where he could more easily fend off idle remarks about Brooklyn and the frequently botched pronunciation of his name. When the hosts suggested that he might start his reading a little early, Knausgaard demurred–”two minutes: we will start on time”–and then, at the stroke of 8:30, stood up, button his linen suit jacket, and introduced his reading. “There is no action in this passage,” he warned. “No real characters or dialog. This is a meditation–a meditation on death.”

If this sounds intense, it was, but it was an appropriate tone for the passage, and Knausgaard is a very forceful, very engaging reader. The passage he read came from his autobiographical book My Struggle, in which he explores the death of his alcoholic father in the context of his own life. It is the first of six books that Knausgaard has written about his life, but is not strictly a memoir. “I’m a fiction writer,” he explained. “I wrote two novels before this. If I’d have known that I’d write six books [about my life], I wouldn’t have started.” The book did start as a piece of fiction, a project that Knausgaard worked on unsuccessfully for three years. When he started to write about himself, using real names and real situations, however, the project fell together. “I have a language for everyday life,” he said simply.

Following the reading, Knausgaard remained standing and looked to his audience. “If you have any questions, I’m supposed to answer them.” One question asked dealt with how Knausgaard handles writing about his life now, given that his books are no longer narrating past events, but rather his current daily life. “I have to write very fast to get distance from myself,” he said. The first 3,000+ pages of his work were written over the course of three years, although most was done in just one, with very little revision after the fact.

The next–important and inevitable–question was about the significance of Knausgaard’s title, which in Norwegian (Min kamp) carries perhaps a much more direct reference to Hitler’s manifesto of the same title. “[Its significance] besides being a provocation?” he asked, smiling ever so slightly. The title My Struggle, he explained, is meant to work on multiple levels. On one hand, it is a series of books about his life, and therefore, his tribulations and experiences. On the other, it is a gesture toward the intertwining of art and life, and a question about the nature of taboo. “You can’t just go to a cafe and sit down and start reading Mein Kampf–it’s totally forbidden.” But an awareness of the content of that book, Knausgaard asserted–with reference to the similar manifesto of Anders Breivik, the Norwegian man who killed over seventy people, many teenagers, last year–is vital. “I think everyone should read Mein Kampf, it’s an obligation we all have. It’s healthy to see what that is.”

PEN World Voices Dispatch 2: Fame and the Writer (Talk with Daniel Kehlmann)

My second recap from the PEN World Voices festival is of a talk with German-Austrian author Daniel Kehlmann. This was originally posted on The L Magazine website here; the full text is below.

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Originally slated as an event wherein “three successful European writers engage in a conversation about the alienating effects of seeing one’s life reflected in the public eye,” Thursday’s “Fame and the Writer,” panel at the NYU Deutsches Haus ended up–due to last minute scheduling complications–being a much more intimate (and occasionally more literal) discussion between Deutsches Haus director, Martin Rauchbauer, and German-Austrian author Daniel Kehlmann. Kehlmann’s 2005 novel, Measuring the World, has been an immense success for the young author (still under 40), selling nearly two million copies and making him one of the most widely read authors in the German-speaking world. Kehlmann’s follow up book, Fame, a ‘novel in nine episodes,’ has met with equal commendation, although its literal reception as a commentary on celebrity has surprised the author somewhat. The title Fame he explained, was intended to carry a little irony in the wake of his surprising success–like when Sean Connery said he’d never be in another James Bond movie and then returned in Never Say Never.

“These strong, resounding one word titles have such a force,” he said, referencing Martin Amis’ novel Money and Lion Feuchtwanger’s 1930 novel Success, “it makes it difficult to see that there are many motives and themes” that go into a novel. “I’m not complaining,” he assured. “It’s just interesting.”

Kehlmann differentiated between the idea of fame and that of celebrity, the latter of which he thinks is “not a very interesting phenomenon.” When he said that he didn’t honestly have much to say on the subject, Mr. Rauchbauer countered with a passage from Fame in which a famous actor meets his own impersonator, who seems to have better ideas about how to be the celebrity than the man himself. Kehlmann, acceding that the passage was, in fact, examining the idea of celebrity, then explained that he was interested in the experience of detachment that everyone has from their public self–the sense that “deep in our heart we are completely different than people see us.” This isn’t true just of celebrities, he said. “It’s just amplified for them. But philosophers have [shown] that the person we really are is the person we develop and put in the world. That is our true self.”

The conversation then shifted to a discussion of the reception of literature in the public eye and the an author’s obligation  to promote his/her work via book tours, festivals, and readings. Acknowledging the irony of having this conversation while himself at a festival, Kehlmann admitted that “I do think the way literature is organized in society–and many other authors have agreed with this–goes too much in the way of events…What any moderately successful writer does is spend one or two years writing a book and then one year explaining it…You spend all this time putting these things together and then you have to go publicly disassemble them.”

Kehlmann then read another short, humorous passage from Fame, in which an author explains–in response to the ubiquitous question, “where do you get your ideas?”–that he gets all of his ideas while in the bathtub. He had never understood this question, he said, even though it was what he was asked most frequently. Until one day he realized that ‘where do you get all your ideas?’ was simply “what became of the equally dreary question in the 70s and 80s, ‘why do you write?’” The question of an author’s intentions in creating, Kehlmann said, had “some social and political relevance. But in a time now when people are less concerned with writers trying to change the world, the focus has shifted.”

Dispatch from PEN World Voices: A Lunchtime Literary Conversation with Eugène Nicole and Lila Azam Zanganeh

My first PEN WV event this week was on Wednesday afternoon, at the regular “lunchtime literary conversation series” that is ever-so-conveniently around the corner from my office. Each year, several of these events bring together two authors to discuss a variety of topics over the lunch hour. Past events have often featured rather unlikely pairings—for instance, all Norwegian author Kjersti Annesdatter Skomsvold  and French graphic novelist Ludovic Debeurme had in common, I believe, was that neither had been published in English–and often, that’s part of the appeal. In these slightly off-kilter match-ups, there can be an endearing attempt on the part of both guests–who in all likeliness, are not familiar with the work of their co-panelist–to connect with the other’s work, to find common ground in artistic practice or thematic interests. To affirm their shared status as successful, notable authors–and usually as authors whose native language is not English–carefully navigating a week-long literary event where most of the audience has never before heard of them. Yesterday’s event broke with this tradition admirably–Nicole and Zanganeh, although neither contemporaries in age, background, or writing concerns, were a delightful and well-matched pairing, who both obviously had a great deal of respect for one another’s work.

I wrote about the event for The L Magazine; you can see it here. The full text is below.

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The Lunchtime Literary Conversations series, hosted by La Maison Française at NYU, is now a mainstay of the PEN World Voices Festival. Each year, several of these events bring together two authors—usually one of French or Francophone extraction—to discuss a variety of topics over the lunch hour. Wednesday’s conversation, between Eugène Nicole and Lila Azam Zanganeh, was a delightful pairing, highlighting the “miraculous points of intersection [of] interests and passions” that both authors share. Nicole, who was born on the tiny North Atlantic island (and French territory) of Saint Pierre, is a respected Proustian scholar at NYU whose cycle of five interrelated novels about his native isle, L’Oeuvre des mers, has taken inspiration from À la recherche du temps perdu. Zanganeh was born in Paris to Iranian parents, and currently teaches at Harvard. She is also a respected literary critic, and recently wrote her first semi-fictional book Enchanter: Nabokov and Happiness, in which she pays homage to her own Great Author.

Although both speakers graciously shared the mic and consistently shifted the conversation to the other’s work, the panel clearly belonged to Zanganeh, a wholly enthusiastic, well-spoken, well-read, and charming speaker. On her impetus, they started by discussing the “anxiety of influence,” particularly when one’s work has been so affected by an author of such great stature, like Proust or Nabokov. Nicole referenced Enchanter (Zanganeh’s book), in which, he noted, she “constantly” quoted Nabokov, integrating his work within her own without ever “breaking tonality.” Zanganeh laughed that doing this was “indeed very perilous,” since Nabokovians are “very jealous of their author,” and eager to find fault with tributes that fall short of their inspiration. All the same, she said, “in order to pay homage fully” to an author like Nabokov, “you need a measure of disrespect and irreverence.” It was necessary, she said, for her to “punch him on occasion.” She then reeled off a short, happy list of censures against her hero: “He was a terrible poet! I don’t like his Russian works—I secretly don’t like Pale Fire that much.”

Nicole then suggested that Enchanter was not just about Nabokov, but rather “a lively way to say something about Nabokov, using his own words.” This got to the heart of Zanganeh’s reading of Nabokov, to her strongly felt assertion that he is “a great writer of happiness.” So her own book about him “had to be playful.”

Zanganeh then turned the conversation to Nicole’s work, starting by reading a short excerpt from L’Oeuvre des mers, which had been translated into English for the occasion by NYU professor and lauded translator Richard Sieburth. (It bears noting that none of L’Oeuvre des mershas been translated into English, nor has any of Nicole’s other fiction. Even if only based on the passage read during this lunchtime event, this clearly needs rectifying.)

When setting out to write L’Oeuvre des mers, Nicole felt a great deal of responsibility toward the place where he was born, his “filiation.” Saint Pierre, he explained, “had not yet entered into French literature.” (Chateaubriand and Celine, he mentioned, had written maybe a page each about the island, but that was all.)

The Saint Pierre that emerged in the course of the conversation was something of a no-man’s land, neither North American nor really French, a French territory, but not one that most could locate on a map—”a place that is, and yet isn’t,” Zanganeh summarized. And yet, as a child, Saint Pierre was the whole world to Nicole, to all of the residents. “We are dealing with an island,” he said. “Islanders think that nowhere else exists.” At the age of 14, in order to continue school, Nicole had to leave Saint Pierre in order to attend a private school in France. From this experience, he began to practice “focusing from far away,” a skill that has served him well in the course of his novel writing, as he very rarely returns to the island now. “I always had this dual image of being far away, and still exactly where I was [in France],” he said.

After meandering discussions of lived experience’s integration in fiction, the Proustian sentence, how “all of literature is a rewriting,” and the elasticity of English as compared to French, the conversation concluded with the question of practical writing techniques. When she starts a project, Zanganeh admitted, she has difficulty focusing. “You want to do anything else—you want to check your email, run around, eat chocolate,” but it eventually becomes easier to focus on writing. For Nicole, it’s not a matter of forcing himself to work for a specific number of hours a day, but rather to “give as much information as possible in each sentence.” He tries to capture images, to see the full possibility of a given location or circumstance. As with a child, he explained, for whom “one centimeter of asphalt is a world.”