(Translated) novellas to read in an afternoon – the Spanish edition

A little while ago Derick Dupré mentioned on Twitter that was interested in reading a novella and so I dutifully recommended Aura by Carlos Fuentes, which is definitely a go-to recommendation for me.  But it got me thinking – why not recommend a bunch more?

I love the novella form.  I try to read either 500+ monsters, or books under 200 pages.  I want something sprawling, or I want it tight and effective and honed in on an idea.  Novellas are an exceptionally interesting form, and one that seems to be in fine favour across the world.

All of these can be easily read in an afternoon, and should be – novellas benefit from single-sitting reading, and the afternoon is best as you can then discuss it over dinner with your loved ones while they dutifully listen and smile and nod.

Today I am going to focus on novellas that were originally written in Spanish.

And so, here a handful I strongly recommend –

Juan Goytisolo – The Garden of Secrets (trans. Peter Bush, published by Serpent’s Tail); 192 pages

 

Twenty-eight people come together to tell the story of Eusebio.  Each of the chapters conflicts with and complements the others as Eusebio’s life comes into focus.  Though each chapter is short, they are wide-ranging, and the description of Hell comes to my mind quite often, particularly those weeping on a metal bed in a tower made from fire.  Eusebio’s many lives are fascinating and there’s just enough in each chapter to whet your appetite for this to be a full-fledged novella on its own.  To do this 28 times is pretty incredible.

Lorenzo Silva – The Faint-hearted Bolshevik (trans. Nick Caistor and Isabelle Kaufeler, published by Hispabooks); 149 pages

It begins simply enough.  A man out driving accidentally slams into the back of a woman’s car.  She is abusive to him (somewhat rightly), but he decides to exact his revenge by destroying her life.  This is all fine and entertaining, but then the narrator meets Rosana, the woman’s sister, and finds himself in love,then –

And then, read for yourself.  I’ve read this book a couple of times, and each time as the novella comes to a close my heart beats with dread and hope.  There’s a palpable sense of death that is evident from the first pages and concretely realised by the end.  The book drips blood.

The narrator is not a fine person by any stretch, and even his affection for Rosana is really just lust for a teenage girl.  But Rosana herself is appealing, and her inevitable destruction hurts when it comes.

Horacio Castellanos Moya – Dance with Snakes (trans. Lee Paula Springer, published by Biblioasis); 156 pages

Eduardo Sosa, unemployed, accidentally assumes the identify of a homeless man who lives in a car.  With four poisonous snakes.  Sosa finds this precarious existing appealing, even sexually appealing, and engages in a bout of rampant murder across San Salvador while fornicating with the snakes.  This is a strange, violent, hilarious book which lands a little less successfully than his novella, Senselessness, but seems to be less well-known and so deserves a mention.

Castellanos Moya blends humour and violence together very well; there is a kind of casualness to death in his books that helps spark ridiculous situations.  Death isn’t cheap, but it is common.  I also quite like the novella being written in the present tense, as it helps create a sense of urgency around the madness of death and snake-sex.

Rodrigo Rey Rosa – Severina (trans. Chris Andrews, published by Yale University Press); 86 pages

I must say that a book which has its main character own a bookstore, is alright with me.  The narrator notices a beautiful young woman in his bookstore, and notices too that she is stealing.  Rather than confront her he instead keeps an eye on the books she steals, in an effort to better understand her.

It turns out the woman, Severina, is stealing these books for Señor Blanco, a man who is – her father?  her grandfather? her husband?  Some mystical force?  It isn’t clear, and everyone, including Señor Blanco himself, has a different story about his identity.

What starts as a concrete and understandable story of infatuation quickly becomes strange and dream-like, with the answer to the mystery of the two always a paragraph away from being revealed.  The stringing-along sensation of Severina is fascinating and intense, and Severina herself remains continuously appealing as a motif for the narrator’s uncertainty and ambitions.

Chris Andrew’s introduction is phenomenal, and helps to place Rey Rosa among other Spanish-language greats who might already be familiar to an English-language reader.

Enrique Vila-Matas – Bartleby & Co (trans. Jonathan Dunne, published by New Directions); 178 pages

Vila-Matas is one of the four or five writers who mean the most to me in life, and Bartleby & Co. is among his best.  In it, the failed writer Marcelo chronicles the world of delayed, stumped, deferred writers – those who would ‘prefer not to’.  Each of the 86 sections serves as a footnote to the text Marcelo is unable to write, and offers a typically Vila-Matas blend of fiction, reality and literary history.  Many of these authors exist; many do not.  Many of these works exist; many do not.  Anecdotes are probably – probably – not true.

What does it mean to fail, and how do we know when we have?  If a writer takes thirty years between books, but after his break writes a masterpiece, have they failed?  If they write an unpublishable jumble, have they failed?  Vila-Matas is interested in what failure means and why literature-sick people often view their lives through these lens.  Phenomenal stuff.


And there they are.  And here is a picture of all of them together having a good time, with the exception of Goytisolo’s work because I can’t find it.

(Also, buy direct from the publisher if you can!)

Fragment #211 – 11 February 2020

It’s true that, until now, there was little in the way of discourse surrounding Joseph’s behaviour.  Some-someone must have slammed the door – what’s that?  NOTHING.

Joseph was not trustworthy.  We knew that.  We would never write: Joseph wasn’t trustworthy.  ‘Wasn’t’ is a word used either to obfuscate meaning or when discussing matters of friendship.  It wasn’t for Joseph.

 

HE

IS NOT

OUR FRIEND

 

And yet he’s there each month now.  We all are, we make the trip.  Marshall should have been dead by now.  He isn’t.  Nobody thinks he is being selfish, but how many times can we hold a last long boozy dreadful lunch?  It’s always the last one at the time, and now nobody has a healthy liver.  We’re ageing visibly, catching up to Marshall.  At least he has an excuse.  Cancer is an EXCUSE.

Oh we met when we were young.  We’re all friends now and have been for decades.  We know the names of each other’s CHILDREN, and have even been to their parties.  What’s that?  A car backing up?  Why is it so loud?

Joseph and Marshall either always hated each other or were the closest of everyone.  Depends who you ask.  Joseph says one thing.  Marshall won’t be able to answer soon enough.  But just don’t ask me.  I can’t take SIDES.  I can’t even decide between ice cream flavours.  I am not supposed to be the leader.

 

WHAT WAS THAT

 

We’re all dead eventually.  Marshall will be the first of us, I suppose, unless there’s some kind of an accident to one of us before – when?  Then.  What?  An ACCIDENT you say?

* * *

The above piece of writing comprises part of my fragments project, some of which are available on this website.  I intend to add new fragments piecemeal, not in any particular order, and as the occasion take me.

Fragment #20 – 15 August 2014

It’s the drinking, Patrick said.  It does me in every time and yet I can’t seem to stop it.  There’s a glamour to it, or there was.  There was.  No longer.

To our left sits a young couple, the man timid, withdrawn, his shoulders bent inward as though they would touch if his collarbones vanished.  The woman was stunningly beautiful and effusive in voice and gesture, talking happily about her day while her partner slouched.  They were eating ramen, great bowls of it steaming in front of them, and by their chopsticks, beer.  There was nobody else in the little side restaurant except for the smiling fat cook, who came from behind the curtain door to the kitchen, passing out ladles of ramen soup and chortling to himself.  As was the case every time I have been here, money never seemed to change hands, people ate and ate, and the beer was always cold.

Patrick wasn’t eating, though there was a bowl in front of him.  His lips, cracked, opened to take in the neck of the seventh or eighth bottle of beer for the evening.  His nose was red and already webbing from the effects of alcohol, and his forehead was pale, dotted with eczema, his hair lank and greasy.

I start each day the same: today will matter.  At first I am aspirational, vowing to wake early to seize every minute.  4, 4:30, 5 – really early, with hours to spare before work, or my wife, or anything.  It’s time for me.  But then I can’t get out of bed, my mind is fuzzy from wine or beer, and so I bargain with myself, reason that perhaps night-time will be better.  I think of Proust, or Pamuk, or any of the thousand writers who stayed up late.  And so the day passes.  And then it is evening, I am thirsty, the day was long, the first glass is poured, and – bargaining again.  Tomorrow will be different, tomorrow I can wake early, tomorrow is a new day.  And then I fall asleep, and then the cycle starts anew.

Patrick looks at the couple, her so beautiful, him seemingly downtrodden and badgered, though there has been zero indication that such behaviour might come from her.  She catches our eye, stops talking and tells us with great venom to mind our own business.  I swear I hear her say ‘drunks’ as she returns to talking about her day.  The man glances briefly at us before lowering his eyes again.

It’s killing me, Patrick said.  And I can’t seem to stop.

* * *

The above piece of writing comprises part of my fragments project, some of which are available on this website.  I intend to add new fragments piecemeal, not in any particular order, and as the occasion take me.

Some brief thoughts on Peter Stamm’s To The Back of Beyond (trans. Michael Hofmann)

The sky is darkening.  The children are asleep.  I suppose there are birds making noises, and lights from other houses.  Thomas and Astrid share a glass of wine.  Astrid goes inside for some reason or another.  Thomas stands up and just – walks away.  He leaves.  Astrid returns to find her husband gone.  Vanished.

And so begins a couple of decades of Astrid waiting about while Thomas wanders Europe.

It’s a pretty interesting premise, I suppose, though not enough is done with it, and the ending is both exceptionally rushed and entirely unearned.  It’s a real shame.

The bulk of this slim novel is concerned with the back and forth of Astrid and Thomas in the initial days and then weeks of his disappearance.  She deals with the children, his job, the police, and he just – he just walks around a bit and drinks a beer or two and eats food.  Astrid is bewildered by it all, and isn’t really able to answer any questions.  The smallness of her emotions are understandable, as she’s been completely blindsided by it all.

But then there’s Thomas.  We spend half the book with him, but we don’t know him at all.  He’s empty.  He doesn’t come across as empathetic in his reasoning for leaving (he doesn’t have any) or interesting in the deadness of his emotions (that is too grand a description).  Instead, he’s just an ordinary guy who decided to leave his entire family.  He’d be despicable if it was worth casting a moral judgement.

Which is something the book doesn’t do, neither through Astrid nor the narration itself.  Thomas’ absence simply is, and that’s the whole book.

There is a very fine part of the book near the end where it seems that Thomas is dead and the narration is playing interesting time games to build dread and anticipation.  This was quite effective, which made Stamm’s reluctance to commit to this all the more galling.  He couldn’t stick the landing, and instead, after a fine twenty pages or so of build-up, the novel deflates and skips through years and nation states and the raising of children and burying of dogs.

It’s a waste.  All of it.  Exploring the social structure which allows a man to leave his family is interesting, or at least it could be, except it doesn’t occur here.  Everyone is so very passive, and stoic without being stoic against anything.  They just – mill about their lives.

Not for me.  But the premise – yes.  That was interesting.  The unwritten books dealing with that concept are no doubt fascinating.  But they clearly aren’t Stamm’s to write.

I Remember – #988

I remember Noah Antweiler and his Spoony videos, and also spending a lazy evening watching videos chronicling his downfall and disappearance.  And then going back to rewatch his videos (particularly the one on FFVIII) – they do not hold up.

-6 June 2017

This post is part of the I Remember series.

The first 50 books – 2019

As of 13 June 2019 I have read 50 books for the year.

Let’s take a look at some statistics

  • 12/50 or 24% were written by women
  • 35/50 or 70% were translations
  • 7/50 or 14% were by Nobel Prize winning writers
  • 6/50 or 12% were fantasy novels

And the breakdown of books 41 – 50 are as follows:

  • 5/10 were written by women
  • 6/10 were translations
  • 3/10 were by Nobel Prize winning authors
  • 1/10 were fantasy
  • 3/10 were by small presses

I am pleased with the progress I made with the last 10 books, particularly as it relates to books written by women.  I did consciously try to read more books written by women, and in this I was helped by completing Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, which I still think is very strong, though perhaps would have been stronger with just the first book.  It really was a revelation, whereas the other two were variations on the theme.

I made significant progress with Elfriede Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher, but didn’t manage to finish it in time!  It should appear somewhere in the 51 – 60 range.  So far I think it is a strong book, and I like it, but I haven’t quite yet come to the understanding as to why she won the Nobel.  I can’t wait to find out, though!  And I know she both translated Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and considers it a key work in her own life, and that alone is enough to make me very curious and very interested in where she might take The Piano Teacher.

I recently – foolishly? – purchased all of the remaining books from Open Letter‘s back catalogue.  I now own everything they have ever published, and thank Anthony Blake for his assistance there.  It was really quite something receiving two enormous boxes of books!  Anyway, my intention is to spend some time focused on Open Letter’s books with a view to hopefully discovering a new writer I love forever and hold dear.

An interesting aside about Open Letter.  I have enjoyed a number of the books they have published.  And I have found at least one author (Sergio Chejfec) who I really admire.  But I haven’t yet found an author I love.  Dalkey Archive and New Directions have authors I love, but Open Letter?  Not yet.  Another challenge!

A month or so ago I was very much interested in reconnecting with fantasy, but that’s dropped off a bit recently.  I’ve been reading a lot, and having a good time with, and haven’t needed the kickstart that fantasy often provides.  And that is a common pendulum swing for me.  I’ll use fantasy books to get me going and then I’ll shift to more literary writers.  That said, I remain open to literary fantasy, and even epic fantasy, too, I just haven’t been reading it as much.

I’m making my way through Murakami’s 1Q84.  I read another 100 or so pages over the last few weeks.  Why?  Well.  I don’t know.  I suppose to see it through to the end?  I want to understand what it was that made Murakami think that this idea was worth spending 1,200 pages on.  So far, at about page 600, I can’t see it.  But there’s a lot more to go.  I look back at what I’ve read so far and – well, nothing has really happened.  Sure, I have daydreamed a lot about returning to Japan, but that is simply because I am reading Japanese names, and not due to any powers of description or emotion that Murakami might posses.  He is a singularly colourless writer, and when his ideas don’t quite connect (such as the woefully uninteresting Little People), then there’s just not much to his writing.

We’ll see, I suppose.