The Journal of Failure – Week 21 of 2020

Week 21 of 2020 – 27 May to 2 June 2020

Goals

Reading

  • Goal – 100 / day, or 700 / week
  • Achieved – 831/700 – Success!

Writing – I Remember

  • Goal – 14 / week
  • Achieved – 4/14 – Failure!

Writing – Small Projects (Fragments, short stories, etc)

  • Goal – 3.5 minutes / day or 24.5 minutes / week
  • Achieved – 38 minutes – Success!

Writing – Large Projects

  • Goal – 5 minutes / day or 35 minutes / week
  • Achieved – 1 hour and 5 minutes – Success!

Getting myself out there

  • Short story reviews – Zero (Five total for the year)
  • Submissions – Zero (Zero total for the year)
  • Rejections – Zero (Zero total for the year)
  • Acceptances – Zero (Zero total for the year)

Commentary

Week 21!

Yeah so I forgot to do Week 20.  I have all of the cool interesting notes for the week, but the time has passed now so let’s just say I failed to report.

First things first – Black Lives Matter, the current protests have my full and total support, and as a white Australian I don’t really need to comment much beyond that.  Australia has its own horrible history and present to which I am somewhat accountable for.  I am not American so all I can say is that the Federal Government is wrong, the police are wrong, the State governments are wrong, and the people are right.  They are owed their due and deserve the fairness which they have never received.  I am horrified by what I see.

In terms of writing, I finished up the first draft of a story.  I have been tinkering away at it for a little while now, and while the end is messily put together, it’s the end I want, just not written well enough yet.  So, a first draft.  I’m going to set it aside for another week and then go back to it.  In the interim, I have started another short story, this time about a woman in a mildly abusive relationship who likes to listen to the arguments of couples in her apartment building and create elaborate backstories as to how these conversations came about.  All while drinking herself to sleep each afternoon in an effort to avoid seeing her philandering husband come home smelling of women.  Fun!

Otherwise, a mild catastrophe.  I have been working, on and off, on a larger piece for a while now.  Perhaps two months.  Here and there. Not as much as I should, but sometimes.  It was about 8,000 words.  Yes, “was”.  Anyway, I have been reading Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, a book I love and admire, but haven’t read in a couple of years.  I made it through the first part, about the critics.  Good times.  I start the part about Amalfitano, and – the novel I’ve been working on is an exact copy.  An accidental copy, but an exact copy.  I almost couldn’t believe what I was reading.  I’d forgotten about the details of Amalfitano’s adventures, but the broad strokes were certainly replicated in the text I’d been writing.

What a blow!  What a blow.  Instead now I must realise that this is not a project with legs but a writing exercise.  The parts that have nothing to do with Amalfitano’s section can be excised and repurposed, perhaps, but the rest must go.

At any rate, this week I spent a touch over an hour working on a new piece.  I’m aiming for both a time and a word count goal.  600 words each day until it’s 60,000 words.  Rough and tumble and getting it out there on the page.  I can do it!  And, so far, I have.  It’s going well.  I don’t think I’ve copied anything (I shall read every book to determine whether I have).

I think that copying is an entirely valid method of creating art, and one that I enjoy employing on a sentence-level when I am stuck for what to do.  I think rewriting or repurposing old stories is just fine.  Wholesale (accidental) copying, not so much, but taking on the challenges posed by earlier authors is entirely fine.

Anyway, other than that, I read quite a bit, and managed to finish:

First up was Christa Wolf’s No Place on Earth.  This was an interesting novella, though I understand that it is not perhaps the best place to start with Wolf as it isn’t entirely indicative of her obsessions as a writer.  Nonetheless, there’s a lot to like here.  Two poets, one minor (to today’s world) and one not, discuss art, integrity, creativity, ambition, sexuality.  The forgotten poet is, hardly accidentally, the woman, while the male poet continues to possess glory today.  The majority of this novella is their conversation and thoughts around it, particularly hers.

After that, Charles Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil.  I thought this had a fantastic opening and closing, but a sagging middle.  Perhaps because I was less enamoured with the grim, the muck, the tawdriness, the squalor?  I remain unable to properly comment upon poetry, but it is starting to open up to me.  I have a lot more to read before I feel comfortable giving too much of an opinion, but, here – this is very good.  I read a bilingual edition which I always find particularly fascinating, even when (in this case) I know virtually none of the language.

As some readers may have noticed, I am grinding away at poetry books.  I’ve read 11 this year, and perhaps 11 in my entire life before this.  I am trying to expand my horizons in this space and would love recommendations.  I own a fair bit, but I don’t really know where to start – English language only?  The towering monuments of art?  Easier, smaller works?  Advice welcome!

Then, Anatole France’s Balthasar.  Oh, dear me, no.  This is a collection of short stories, all of which are themed around myths and magic, the occult and religion.  Which, for me, is basically horrible and awful.  They feel like children’s stories in their tone, but the subject matter is adult, certainly.  I have an almost violent reaction to mystical works, works of myth, works of animalistic magic or dark forces.  Always have.  Streets run through my veins and skyscrapers reflect in my eyes.  I’m a city boy.

I like Patrick Modiano.  Like.  I read his works quite often (3 in 2020 so far, 2 in 2019, 3 in 2018), and I’ve always liked them.  I’ve never loved any individual work, but I think that the accumulation of books amounts to a very impressive whole.   He’s the kind of Nobel winner I can appreciate, but I don’t think he’s an eternal master by any stretch of the imagination (there are endless pieces on writers who should have, but didn’t win, and who did win, but shouldn’t have.  Needless to say I likely agree with them all).  Honeymoon is a fine book, like all of them, and I particularly appreciate his blend of memory, time, the fallibility of recollection, the fleeting nature of relationships.  I own 10 or 12 of his books and one day I think I’d like to just sit down and read them all – his work would, I believe, lend itself to such a treatment.

Lastly, Elvira Navarro’s A Working Woman.  It opens with a character in search of someone to go down on her while she’s on her period, and gets more outrageous and entertaining from there.  I really liked this book, and would recommend both it and everything the publisher (Two Lines Press) has put out.  They are on the cutting edge of avant-garde literature at the moment.  And, Enrique Vila-Matas himself has praised this novella, which is more than enough for me.  It’s sexy, it’s raw, it’s in-your-face, but it’s also sensitive and compassionate, and the narrator’s ability to examine herself suggests a great empathy for the human spirit.

And that was my week of failure.

Each week I aim to provide an update on the Journal of Failure.  These reports are intended to provide an impetus for me to achieve as much as I should/more than I do, and also to provide a further ongoing record of my life, as it is. 

Short Story Review – Luís Romano – Old Isidoro (trans. Jeff Hessney)

Beware the vengeance of a discomforted priest.

Isidoro is a stinking old man, homeless, a beggar, and perhaps evil.  It is said that

at night he turned into a spirit and that during the day he hid in cliffside caves where no one could come near him. Others swore he stole children’s souls on the seventh day after they’d been given birth.

The rumour of his misfortune and turn to evil is that he was excommunicated by a priest.  An old lady gives the story to the narrator, explaining that Isidoro was once rich and fortunate, but things turned sour on the night of his wedding.

What happened?  Well, he was out at midnight, and so was the priest who was to bless the marriage.  In his enthusiasm, he shot a gun into the air which spooked the priest’s mule, who bolted and fell off a cliff, drowning the priest.

But not before he hurled a curse at the man who had frightened his animal.

And so, because priests have power, Isidoro went from riches to rags, literally cursed via the power of Christ.

“The priest’s body disappeared forever, and to this day his malediction still pursues Isidoro, now a tortured soul, forever doing penance in this world of tribulations because of a curse sworn before dawn by a priest, the rightful representative of Jesus Christ on Earth, at the moment of his death, in the times when we on the Island believed in the Devil’s doings and in the power, art, and cunning of that Beast . . . by the sign of the Holy Cross . . . LUCIFER!”

Romano confuses the power of Christ and Lucifer, and clearly has sympathy for Isidoro, who was punished too much for what was, in effect, a tragic accident.  He doesn’t quite go far enough as to expressly write this sympathy into the characters, leavening the criticism of the priest with hints that Isidoro had learned witchcraft in his travels, and perhaps because of this, somewhat deserved his fate.

Is it fair to be punished so?  Does fairness come into the machinations of good and evil?  Perhaps.  Or perhaps we are unable to understand completely how an act could be good or ill when seen through the prisms of such elemental forces.  The story itself is not long enough to address these concerns, but they are there, and the lack of judgement over Isidoro’s actions, and criticism of the priest’s, sends a pretty clear message.

This is the first short story I’ve read from Cape Verde, and certainly the first translated from the Santo Antão dialect of the Cabo Verdean language.  The footnotes alone suggest that there are layers to this piece that I am unaware of.  This comes from the May 2020 Words Without Borders magazine, and perhaps now will herald the start of more literature arriving in English?  Time will tell.

Old Isidoro is a short story by Cabo Verdean writer Luís Romano, translated by Jeff Hessney.  

Author Luís Romano
Title Old Isidoro
Translator Jeff Hessney
Nationality Cabo Verdean
Publisher Words Without Borders

 

Short Story Review – Jean Back – European Clouds (trans. Sandra Schmit)

At some point I am going to realise that these stories exist to celebrate or critique the EU, and not necessarily because they possess independent literary merit.  At some point.

Our narrator is off to the supermarket to buy some provisions for a barbecue.  He accidentally locks his keys in his car on the way out, listen to accordion music, hears a racist conversation, then goes home.  This is told in a style that is a mix of onomatopoeia, stream of consciousness, associative thoughts, descriptions.  It’s quick, sharp, short, effective but a bit grating.  The narrator gets on your nerves even though there really isn’t much personality to speak of.  And then there are bits like this –

Two minutes from home with the car. Ordinary, but practical,
that supermarket. Good. It is a clear autumn day. Just like on
9/11 in Manhattan, at eight o’clock in the morning. The sun
had been shining just before. Like now, bright, but not warm.

Yikes, where did that reference come from?  It isn’t brought up again, and nothing in the story itself seems in any way related to 9/11.  I was actually shocked to read it and my mind kind of tumbled over it, tripped.  What’s it doing there?

Out of sheer laziness I stay next to the lamppost, looking and waiting and listening to the man playing the accordion, because I like accordion music, because that kind of music reminds me of René de Bernardi, at the erstwhile dancing club Beim Heuertz: dance parties, thé dansant, smootch slow and English Waltz. And also reminds me of Astor Piazzolla.

Some references are more neatly placed into the text, but as we can see from the above, and the next two quoted paragraphs, what is happening here is the narrator inserting the cosmopolitan nature of the EU into the story.  Back is adding worldliness without putting in the hard work, as these concepts aren’t engaged with, just written down.  I could do it, you could do it – throw in five musicians/writers/cheeses/wine varieties/chemists from around the world.  Five anything.  Are you sophisticated now?  Probably not.  It takes a touch more.  you need to do something with these words.

Don’t do this

What nationality are the clouds? Are they French, when they’re hovering over the Elysée? Spanish, when they’re hanging over Seville? What does a Swiss cloud look like? A Belgian one? Are the clouds
Portuguese when they drift over Dudelange? Luxembourgish,
when they arrive in Porto?

I mean like, maybe they are?  Maybe clouds have a nationality and maybe they are clouds and the idea is a human construct and it is ridiculous to place such an idea on to a non-human aerosol consisting of a visible mass of minute liquid droplets, frozen crystals, or other particles suspended in the atmosphere of a planetary body or similar space (thanks, Wikipedia!).

The above is the kind of thought I would hope a sixteen year old stoner would have, but an eighteen year old stoner would not.  They should have moved on by then to like, how, you know, death affects us all and everyone you can see is a walking corpse.  Man.

Also on today’s barbecue menu: three bottles of Chianti, two
packs of olives from Portugal, one Romanian brandy and at
five o’clock there’s Barça playing against Red Bull Salzburg.
Olé!

Perhaps I am being unfair.  I wouldn’t mind so much if there was more to the story, but the above paragraphs represent about a fifth of the total story.  There’s not much here, so why this?  What is it adding to the discourse of what it means to be European?  It is true, no doubt, that any one country is unable or unwilling to meet the entirety of its citizen’s needs, and that there are significant benefits to free trade and the movement of good, ideas, peoples.  This is something to explore.

But listing items and attaching a nationality isn’t doing that.  There isn’t enough here for this story.  The clouds aren’t impressed, man – they’re crying.

European Clouds is a short story by Luxembourger writer Jean Back, translated by Sandra Schmit.  

Author Jean Back
Title European Clouds
Translator Sandra Schmit
Nationality Luxembourger
Publisher European Union Prize for Literature

Please see also the other stories under review from this series:

The Journal of Failure – Week 19 of 2020

Week 19 of 2020 – 13 May to 19 May 2020

Goals

Reading

  • Goal – 100 / day, or 700 / week
  • Achieved – 730/700 – Success!

Writing – I Remember

  • Goal – 14 / week
  • Achieved – 9/14 – Success!

Writing – Small Projects (Fragments, short stories, etc)

  • Goal – 2.5 minutes / day or 17.5 minutes / week
  • Achieved – 29 minutes – Success!

Writing – Large Projects

  • Goal – 4 minutes / day or 28 minutes / week
  • Achieved – 30 minutes – Success!

Getting myself out there

  • Short story reviews – Zero (Five total for the year)
  • Submissions – Zero (Zero total for the year)
  • Rejections – Zero (Zero total for the year)
  • Acceptances – Zero (Zero total for the year)

Commentary

Week 19!

A bit of a strange week, this one.  I achieved most of my goals, but it felt like a low-impact week.  Odd how that is.

I think part of that could be that I’m reading a lot of novellas at the moment.  There’s a reason for this – limited time means limited opportunities for reading, and I have so many massive books on the go where I’m completely lost as to what’s going on.  I can comfortable read 20-30 pages at a time (unless it’s late at night), which is nothing when the book is 600 pages, and a huge amount when it’s 80 pages.  So, novellas.  I have also long had a fondness for them, as I briefly touched on in this post.

I’ll get the “I Remembers” out of the way.  Realistically I need to write seven per week to stay constant (because there are seven days in a week!), so anything above that is good.  I try to do 14/week because I am…behind.  But nine is fine.  Nine is fine.

For small projects, I am back on a story I’ve been tinkering with for a while.  It involves a small time lawyer who is all-too-rapidly falling into corruption.  My primary problem is I can’t quite figure out how many words I’m aiming for, so I alternate flexing grand and small depending on whether I think it’s a long story or not.  There’s a subplot I like, but if it’s only a 2,000 word story, it doesn’t really need it.  But if it’s 5,000, well – perhaps!  Anyway, I’ll figure it out in the writing.

The longer project is the same as last week.  I have two longer projects on the go. One on Rasputin, which I believe I have mentioned is in need of a total overhaul as the last solid work on it was so long ago now that there isn’t really a cohesive understanding of it from when I started to now.  The other is a story that borrows the worst of Bolaño while trying to emulate the best.  It’s very much in the vomit-on-the-page stage, to see what might come and which areas are worth salvaging into something else.  Anyway, I spent most of my time on the latter, tightening up areas, moving about sections, writing notes about things I know I want to have happen but for which I don’t quite have the words.  It’ll slowly taking form, and at about 8,000 words there’s enough there now to get a feel for it.  I expect it to be no longer than 40,000 words at this stage.

Otherwise, I recommend people listen to this great podcast by Open Letter Books.  I’ve listened to Chad and Tom for years and years, but this one really hit home because it’s clear that booksellers and publishers are facing enormous challenges at present.  I have lost count of the number of times I’ve filled up a shopping cart to order books to then stop and think – but what if I lose my job?  What if this cash is needed for food or housing?  I don’t normally worry about that, but with coronavirus it’s hard not to think about it.  The particular podcast was #179 from April, and I expect things have gotten harder if anything.  Anyway, if you can, buy a book from any of the fine indie publishers who need it now more than ever.

Disclaimer – I wrote something for Open Letter years ago, but I’m pretty sure I bought the book myself anyway.  At any rate, let’s be above board, folks.

Ok, let’s talk about reading.  It was quite a week – five books!  Like I said above, it’s novella time.  The longest was 197 pages, and the shorted was only 52 (a book of poetry).

First up was Hermann Hesse’s Journey to the East (trans. Hilda Rosner).  Generally speaking, I have a lot of time for Hesse.  I think The Glass Bead Game (trans. Richard and Clara Winston) is a magnificent work of intellectual literature, and I also think that his early work around homeless itinerants is also quite strong.  But – the mysticism sometimes gets to me.  I really need to be in the right mindset for it, otherwise it all comes across as hogwash.  And, this week, for me, it was hogwash.  Which is a real shame.

Following on from this was Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s Severina (trans. Chris Andrews).   There’s a lot going on in 80 or so pages – a bookstore owner falls in love/infatuation with a young book thief, and becomes embroiled in her strange living situation with her father/grandfather/???.  The mystery is there, and the books are there, and the writing is sharp and effective, but I think the general plot didn’t quite push far enough.  There are hints that the male figure in Severina’s life is an eternal role filled temporarily by seduced men, men who grow old and become dependent while she lives on and on and steals books, but this is hinted at and, frankly, I think I’m adding too much.  I would have liked it if the book really went further down this path, but it didn’t.  Nonetheless, it’s a fine novella.

Svetlana Alexievich’s Zinky Boys (trans. Julia and Robin Whitby) (also translated as Boys of Zinc) is phenomenal.  I’ve read it before and both times I was appalled at the violence and death and heartache of the survivors.  As with most (all?) of Alexievich’s work, this is constructed as a series of short, one to two page sections where an ordinary person talks about a significant event in their life and how they have struggled with the repercussions.  In this instance, it’s the Russian war with Afghanistan, which is near to 40 years old at this point.  The young soldiers weren’t provided with enough equipment, weren’t supported, weren’t valued during the conflict, and weren’t valued afterwards.  So many coffins returned to mothers or wives who couldn’t see their dead loved ones, weren’t told how they died, and weren’t looked after by the state over the following years.  Their lives were cheap and thrown away.  This book examines the failure of the state through the eyes of people it has failed most strongly, and is an excellent counterpart to her novel, Chernobyl.  Most curious, to me, are the wounded soldiers who miss Afghanistan, who recognise that it was the primary event in their life and now that it is over, there’s nothing for them to do but exist until they die.  And in this, sometimes without legs, or sight, or memory, or arms.  Harrowing.

Georgi Tenev’s Party Headquarters (trans. Angela Rodel) was quite good.  I was somewhat reminded of Svetislav Basara’s The Cyclist Conspiracy (trans. Randall A. Major), though it was less zany than that.  It has an exceptionally strong opening 20 pages, and while the rest of the novel is very good, it struggles to stay at that high level of shocking writing.  Nonetheless this is a pretty fascinating book, managing to explore various aspects of Bulgaria’s history in the lead up to the collapse of the Soviet Empire, with a particular focus on corruption, greed, and sex.

Maryam Azam is a young Australian poet.  The Hijab Files is, I believe, her first collection (and a very quick Google search confirms this), and deals primarily with a young Muslim woman’s final years of school as she grapples with sex, love and the constraints of being a Muslim woman in Australia, which essentially means living in an unfortunately quite racist society.  I’m not very well equipped to comment on poetry, but I did like this book, if mostly because it offered a sensitive perspective on a life that I know very little about.  I’m simply not a young Muslim woman growing up in Sydney, but at least know I am able to be more understanding of those challenges.

And that was my week of failure.

Each week I aim to provide an update on the Journal of Failure.  These reports are intended to provide an impetus for me to achieve as much as I should/more than I do, and also to provide a further ongoing record of my life, as it is. 

The Journal of Failure – Week 18 of 2020

Week 18 of 2020 – 6 May to 12 May 2020

Goals

Reading

  • Goal – 100 / day, or 700 / week
  • Achieved – 1,003/700 – Success!

Writing – I Remember

  • Goal – 14 / week
  • Achieved – 14/14 – Success!

Writing – Small Projects (Fragments, short stories, etc)

  • Goal – 2 minutes / day or 14 minutes / week
  • Achieved – 32 minutes – Success!

Writing – Large Projects

  • Goal – 3 minutes / day or 21 minutes / week
  • Achieved – 25 minutes – Success!

Getting myself out there

  • Short story reviews – Three (Five total for the year)
  • Submissions – Zero (Zero total for the year)
  • Rejections – Zero (Zero total for the year)
  • Acceptances – Zero (Zero total for the year)

Commentary

Week 17!

Not a bad week.  Not a bad week.

Reading is clearly here with a vengeance.  More on that later.

Writing actually went well for a change.  I vacillate between wanting to write in the morning or the evening.  This week it was evenings only, which worked well.

I have a small child – she’s 1.5 years old.  19 months or thereabouts.  We’ve changed our dynamics such that when she eats between 5:30 and 6pm, we eat.  We all eat the same food now (she has less or no salt), and then the dishes are done, the bath is done, she’s put to bed and it is – 7pm.  The night is ours.

And thus, writing can get done.

I spent most of my writing time working on a short story.  It has echoes of my time in Madrid, though refracted through the lens of a young woman who wants to be a revolutionary even though all she has experienced is middle class life, and all she has read are the novels of Mario Vargas Llosa and Antonio Lobo Antunes.  This went well enough, with a neat (unintended) switch of perspective mid-way through, but I was stumped for what to write about with a larger novel.  I’m stuck between resurrecting something old and dead, or starting afresh.  Every time I want to start from scratch I flick through all of the novels I own (well, a percentage of them) and then… copy a favoured writer.  That’s a base at least.  But I was stumped and stuck.

Eventually, though, I folded the above story into something I was working on mid-last year, and I think it went well.  That helped me formulate some further thinking about where I’m going with it.  There’s something here, I think, but the key is less about appreciating the potential of that which exists in my mind and more about forcing through the daily routine of writing, writing, writing.

For anyone who may be interested, I have read from an excerpt before, as part of a Sublunary Editions event, which you are welcome to watch and listen to here.

I’d certainly encourage anyone who is interested in fine literature to subscribe to Sublunary Editions.  Of course, I have been published there so I am somewhat biased, but all of the writers are handsome in their own way and very talented.

Otherwise, I have been quite taken by a YouTube project recently begun by two people I follow on Twitter – Derek Maine and Knowledgelost.  They are putting on weekly YouTube chats about literature (alongside their other videos), and I definitely recommend a listen.  Here’s the most recent.

I often think up projects involving YouTube or podcasts or what have you, but execution has never been my strong point.  I am pleased to see a growing literary YouTube channel.

In terms of reading I read bits and pieces from a lot of books, and finished a few.

I finished a short poetry collection by Miroslav Holub called Vanishing Lung Syndrome.  Skinning is a very fine poem, and the whole collection (which runs to 70ish pages) is worthwhile.  Holub is concerned with internationality, death, and the violence of damaged body parts.

Marguerite Duras’ L’Amour was excellent.  I quite like the spare, almost script-like prose of later Duras.  I never warmed to The Lover, but L’Amour and Abahn Sabana David (both published by Open Letter Books) are wonderful and really represent the kind of literature I love to read.  She’s rapidly climbing the ranks of one of my favoured writers, and there’s still so much to read.

Charles Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen was what I needed when I read it, which is to say I wanted something urbane, witty, dark, and claustrophobic to the city.  I got it.  I hadn’t read a word of Baudelaire before this, though I do have a bilingual edition of Flowers of Evil somewhere.  I was missing Paris, and missing the ability to walk through a city street, and this helped somewhat with that.

I had some trouble with Seamus Heaney’s New Selected Poems 1966-1987.  It is the second time I’ve read it, and I want to like it more than I do, but I have real trouble with writing that is focused so intently on nature, trees, bogs, mountains.  Whether in prose or a poem.  It doesn’t seem to stick in my brain, my attention wanders, time passes and pages turn and I have taken in nothing.  I have never much liked nature and it’s become more apparent as I have gotten older that I can’t read about it either.  Just slides right off.

Lastly, I have begun an ambitious project to read all of Pynchon again.  20-30 pages a day until it’s done.  It is a long, long project.  I’m about a hundred pages into Pynchon’s V, which I have not read since May 2004, which is astounding to me.  I remember parts of it, too, which says quite a bit about Pynchon as a writer, doesn’t it?

We’ll see if this project has legs or not.  I am very good at creating projects.  Very good.

And that was my week of failure.

Each week I aim to provide an update on the Journal of Failure.  These reports are intended to provide an impetus for me to achieve as much as I should/more than I do, and also to provide a further ongoing record of my life, as it is. 

Short Story Review – Rubem Fonseca – Night Drive (trans. Clifford E. Landers)

We’ve all been there.  Long day, work that won’t stay at the office, briefcase or bag bulging with papers, reports, briefs.  Things to do.  Maybe you have a wife, maybe you don’t.  Maybe children, maybe not.  Maybe a maid who can serve a meal French style, maybe your maid can only copy the English.  I don’t know.

And maybe you relax by taking the car out late in the night and perfectly executing a hit and run.

Rubem Fonseca’s short story, Night Drive (trans. Clifford E. Landers), is pleasingly banal until it becomes something else entirely.  Fonseca plays it straight, outlining an ordinary evening for our middle-aged narrator, who seems pleasant enough, though he is worn down from work and the needs of his family.  Relatable, I suppose.

The usual house sounds: my daughter in her room practicing voice modulation, quadraphonic music from my son’s room.  “Why don’t you put down that suitcase?” my wife asked.  “Take off those clothes, have a nice glass of whiskey.  You’ve got to learn to relax.”

The evening is built, piece by piece, across two very ordinary pages.  The narrator lets slip no hints as to his later adventure, and isn’t even all that glum or miserable about his life.  A son who asks for money during the coffee course – sure.  A daughter who asks for money during the liqueur course – sure.  These are middle-class issues, but nothing out of the ordinary.

A couple of hundred words later and the narrative shifts.  Details increase and time slows down.  Fonseca takes his time here, luxuriating in the description of the car hitting a woman out running.

I caught her above the knees, right in the middle of her legs, a bit more toward the left leg – a perfect hit.  I heard the impact break the large bones, veered rapidly to the left, shot narrowly past one of the trees, and, tires squealing, skidded back onto the asphalt… I could see that the woman’s broken body had come to rest, covered with blood, on top of the low wall in front of a house.”

Here is a man who takes pride in his work.  Contrast with the quoted paragraph above.  The “usual” house sounds versus the “perfect hit”.  It’s clear as to which part of his life he takes seriously, or where he becomes most alive.  Few people in the world, he muses, “could match my skill driving such a car”.

It’s a fine opening story.  Short enough to keep the reader going, but there’s a lot here.  How this will compare with the remaining stories is something we will find out together, but I leave you with this, a quote from the front cover of the book:

Each of Fonseca’s books is not only a worthwhile journey; it is also, in some way, a necessary one.

From our very own Thomas Pynchon.

Night Drive is a short story by Brazilian writer Rubem Fonseca, translated by Clifford E. Landers.  

Author Rubem Fonseca
Title Night Drive (from The Taker and Other Stories)
Translator Clifford E. Landers
Nationality Brazilian
Publisher Open Letter Books

 

Short Story Review – Najwa Binshatwan – The Government Sea (trans. Sawad Hussain)

An enticing concept for a short story can romance me to go just about anywhere the author pleases.  Najwa Binshatwan’s story, The Government Sea (trans. Sawad Hussain), sees a group of mental hospital patients, all old men, as they grapple with the sea near their hospital having suddenly vanished – gone to Malta.

Okay, from there you can take me anywhere and I’m happy to go.

Why, one individual wonders, would the sea have gone to Malta?  It has no relatives there.  Another person marvels at the garbage hidden underneath the water, the wreckages and dead bodies and discard junk.  We were swimming in that?

“Now that the sea’s run away, what we couldn’t see before is now in broad daylight,” added another.
“Dead fish, migrant bodies, and all sorts of garbage. Before, the surface was swollen with jellyfish, sea turtles, and boats abandoned by those who’d decided to travel by foot instead.”

And

“Of course it drowned, a painful death. Just look at all the migrant bodies that filled it up, and still there was no drainage system installed. Just look at all that trash and sewage.”

There’s a lot to like here.  The narrative is played straight but the people speaking are clearly bonkers.  Has the sea truly vanished, or are they just held back by a sign which admonishes them not to swim in the water?  The sea is “Under maintenance”, which sends the patients into paroxysms of confusion.  What they fail to realise is that signs can be moved from their original place, the classic ‘do not move from here’ written on every cleaner’s wet floor sign – where is here?  Where is the sea?

For me, the story is at its weakest when Binshatwan describes ordinary scenes, such as the below –

Angered, one of the men stomped against the floor, making the stale bowl of spaghetti by the door jump.  Cockroaches scurried out to seize the caked dregs of noodles and sauce that spilled out of the airborne bowl.

This reads clumsy.  The use of “Angered” takes away my own ability to interpret the man’s actions, and bowls don’t jump.  “airborne” doesn’t fit to my ear, and the whole section reads like an unedited first draft.  The flow just isn’t there.  Not so with dialogue, which is excellent; equally pleasing is the description of the vanished sea and the exposed sea-bed.

Through all of the patient’s hijinks and japes there is a strong undercurrent of violence and death.  Everyone is having such a good time (including the dear reader) that you don’t, at first, notice just how many body parts are on display, how many dead, how much violence.  The story floats on blood and flesh but my, aren’t we laughing?

And then everyone dies from a terrorist’s bomb.

With appreciation from M Lynx Qualey for providing the copy of ArabLit.

The Government Sea is a short story by Libyan writer Najwa Binshatwan, translated by Sawad Hussain.  

Author Najwa Binshatwan
Title The Government Sea
Translator Sawad Hussain
Nationality Libyan
Publisher Arablit Quarterly

 

Short Story Review – Gabriela Babnik – Ida (trans. Rawley Grau)

Ah, the immigration story.

An apartment building, the apartments, I suppose, all crammed together.  Enough so that Ida feels bad for those around her, who can hear her small child screaming.  Enough so that she wakes up at night to hear love-making, and she knows, she knows, that it comes from the black man and his partner above her.  She touches herself.

and sometimes, with the lovemaking, even the windows
would move. They would be carried from one end to the other
and at such moments Ida held on to the bed. With one hand.
With the other she reached down to between her legs, parted
the folds, sank into the soft flesh, and went inside.

In the light of day, though, what is fantasy becomes reality.  She visits the young couple. They have a child, ginger-haired, and they aren’t particularly interested in her discussion points.  Ida wishes to better understand why an African – his word – would come to Slovenia.  Was it for money?  For healthcare?  For money?  For money?  For money?  She can’t help herself, continuously steering the conversation back to that point.  Surely, she reasons, that this is why an African would want to come to Europe.  No other reason.

“It’s obvious you haven’t been through any war,” Ida said.
She didn’t know why she wanted to confront him, why she
persisted.

Muhammed, who comes from Burkina Faso, attempts first to gently dissuade her, but then becomes increasingly frustrated.  Why should he act as the mouthpiece for all Africans, and why should he be forced to admit what isn’t true?  He doesn’t state it outright (he is under no obligation to do so, after all; Ida, for all her masturbation, is a nosy neighbour), but it seems that he is here for love and for adventure.  Fine reasons.

Ida, blaming her menstruation, keeps pushing.  Muhammed is the dominant speaker here but his partner floats in and out of the room, looking after their small child.  At one point Ida touches the boy’s hair and the woman airily observes that they are teaching him to avoid being touched by strangers, especially on his head.  Clever.  Ida understands, and then pushes and pushes.

In the end, the conversation dies.  Ida, the European, is unsatisfied with the black African’s answers.  Ida, the European, makes an offhand comment to the other woman, who knows exactly what she means.  And then Ida, the European, is roundly chastised while Muhammed prays in the other room and then she leaves, defeated.

I suspect the late-night moans will continue from their room, though from now on I expect that Ida will not insert herself into their activities, even if from afar.  Not after that conversation.

Ida is a short story by Slovene writer Gabriela Babnik, translated by Rawley Grau.  

Author Gabriela Babnik
Title Ida
Translator Rawley Grau
Nationality Slovene
Publisher European Union Prize for Literature

Please see also the other stories under review from this series:

The Journal of Failure – Week 17 of 2020

Week 17 of 2020 – 29 April to 5 May 2020

Goals

Reading

  • Goal – 100 / day, or 700 / week
  • Achieved – 177/700 – Failure!

Writing – I Remember

  • Goal – 14 / week
  • Achieved – 11/14 – Failure!

Writing – Small Projects (Fragments, short stories, etc)

  • Goal – 1 minutes / day or 7 minutes / week
  • Achieved – 9 minutes – Success!

Writing – Large Projects

  • Goal – 3 minutes / day or 21 minutes / week
  • Achieved – 12 minutes – Failure!

Getting myself out there

  • Short story reviews – Two (Two total for the year)
  • Submissions – Zero (Zero total for the year)
  • Rejections – Zero (Zero total for the year)
  • Acceptances – Zero (Zero total for the year)

Commentary

Week 17!

Ah, and so, that old vice raises its head. Alcohol.  I blame the long weekend – well, no, I blame myself.  Myself.

The week started ok but it ended pretty poorly.  I am the kind of person who can drink alcohol without issue in terms of how it makes me feel the next day, except that my mind cannot focus on anything.  Physically I’m fine (maybe just tired), and mentally I’m ok except that I only really have the ability to focus on or enjoy YouTube and the like.  Which is a real bummer.

Here in Queensland, Australia, we had a number of restrictions relaxed, which essentially meant that we could see other people for the first time.  And so, my brother visited on Saturday.  We saw some friends on Saturday.  We saw my wife’s parents on Monday.  Drinks all round, celebrations all round.  Because there are so many small children the days started earlier, but boy they didn’t finish earlier!

Anyway, all of this is to say that it’s my fault and I should be better.

In terms of writing, I spent a small amount of time (12 minutes!) reconnecting with a larger piece I wrote a few years back about Rasputin.  I think there’s something to it, but I also recognise that I likely need to start its from scratch to regain the flow.  But there’s something there, I think.  It’s a touch too heavily influenced by Roberto Bolaño.  He is an author I admire very much as of today’s date (7 May 2020), but for whom I no longer feel an unhealthy obsession.  He’s a very important writer to me, but not as important as he was in my twenties or early thirties.  So, rewriting would benefit me and the project because I could smooth out some of those overt influences.

The shorter work involves a plump, cigarette-smoking widower in Belarus who is trying to untangle himself from the illicit smuggling empire his university-friend is running.  It’s not too bad.  I need to determine what kind of word count I’m aiming towards in order to give it stronger focus, but that will come as I continue writing it.

It should be noted that I am astonishingly aware that these goals are miniscule, and that not meeting them suggests a lack of interest in writing altogether.  Oh yes, I wrestle with that.  My heart wishes to write the most when I am incapable of doing so – it is the yearning, perhaps, that attracts me the most.  Having written is simply wonderful, though, and the times after the times where I have sat down to write are among the most satisfying of my life.

I finished just two books this week, and both of them were already well along by the time the week rolled by.

The first was Guy de Maupassant’s Pierre and Jean.    Not too bad.  Not too bad.  Pierre and Jean are brothers.  One of them inherits a fortune from a family friend, and one does not.  This leads Pierre (the “does not”) to become consumed with jealousy toward his brother; he wallows in misery, despondency, and suspicion towards others, which culminates in the primary thrust of the novel, which is whether or not their mother was unfaithful.  The first few pages (deliberately) impress upon the reader that this will be an inheritance novel, and then it swerves into something darker.  But not too dark, and therein lies the problem – Pierre plods gloomily about and then the book ends.  Not too bad.

Lastly, László Krasznahorkai’s Satantango, which I finished as I started – underwhelmed.  I almost couldn’t believe my eyes when I read the final ten or twenty pages, as I thought we were done with writers writing books where a character writes the start of the book in the final pages.  Yikes, I really did.  But otherwise, the mood Krasznahorkai sets is clear and effective – this is a gloomy, decaying, dark, grimy world.  And perhaps that is my problem.  I am not squeamish but nonetheless such matters are not to my taste.  There is something extremely unappealing to me about grubbiness.  Evil I can handle – Mikhail Bulgakov’s examination of Satan (and the rest) in The Master and Margerita or Roberto Bolaño’s glimpse into the abyss with 2666, or the demonic dwarf in Pär Lagerkvist’s The Dwarf.  These are all fine.  The Dwarf is perhaps the closest in terms of gloominess and grubbiness, but it’s offset by Lagerkvist’s humour and the excess of personality displayed by Piccoline.  So perhaps what I am looking for is levity.  Those reviewers who suggest that Krasznahorkai is funny are, well, differently made than I.

And that was my week of failure.

Each week I aim to provide an update on the Journal of Failure.  These reports are intended to provide an impetus for me to achieve as much as I should/more than I do, and also to provide a further ongoing record of my life, as it is. 

Short Story Review – Myrto Azina Chronides – A European Story (trans. Despina Pirketti)

The pain comes – labour pain. It tears the pelvis apart, my
loins, my uterus a ball of steel.I can feel him throughout my
entire body. He spreads all the way down to my nails. My
head empties and compresses like an accordion exhaling.“I’ll
go get the midwife” he tells me and uses his handkerchief to
wipe the sweat off my face.

Well, this is a fine way to open a collection of European short stories.  It’s mildly – mildly – on the nose, but given the mission of the book (to highlight the works of EUPL winners and have them write about Europe), well, it can be forgiven.  How else would you start a collection like this?

A European Story (trans. Despina Pirketti) by Myrto Azina Chronides is one grand metaphor for the generation after WWII as it grapples with birthing the new Europe.  Pretty explicitly so.

Mum died: a Jewish woman in Auschwitz, a British woman
during the Blitz, a Greek woman in German-occupied Athens
or perhaps a Trümmerfrau in Dresden, who had survived
the horror and perished amidst the ruins of the war, a Polish
woman, a…

The story shifts between a woman giving birth, and the woman’s life and memories prior to childbirth.  The sentences are short and sharp, and so are most of the paragraphs, running rapidly through European history both recent and ancient, connecting like occurrences and comparing events.  It’s a heady mix.

The childbirth sequences are the strongest from a purely narrative perspective.  It made me glad, not for the first time, that it is an experience I am able to avoid.  The narrator show indications of empowerment here; she notes that her partner is fearful of her power as she gives birth – this is an event of great magnitude, and she is the one who is doing it.

The other parts of the story are good, but they rely on overwhelming the reader with references to European history and concepts.  I like this – I love that kind of thing – but as a narrative it’s a bit disjointed.  The effect is to show the gamut of European history, and it works, but how much of this is truly a story?

I’m sinking; I feel that I’m sliding somewhere until I lose
consciousness. Everything around me turns red. I float upon
golden white clouds. Far away, at the edge of the horizon,
upon a distant hill, soldiers by the thousands are hoisting
their flags simultaneously. They’re not war banners. They’re
filled with blue skies and yellow stars: unity, solidarity, harmony. I melt within feelings of utter serenity.

And in the middle of the red meadow, a tree is born. I tentatively approach it: the tree of life carrying an apple. I come
even closer. But it’s not the fruit of Knowledge, I tell myself.
It is the apple offered to Paris, prince of Troy, by Discord, and
instead of “for the fairest” it reads “for the best”. I’m devastated.

I would say, politely, that this story doesn’t stand up on its own.  Contained within this collection it is fine and an appropriate starting point – but it is clearly a commissioned work, and feels like one.  I’m curious about Chronides and her other works, but this one is perhaps a touch too prepaid.

A European Story is a short story by Cypriot writer Myrto Azina Chronides, translated by Despina Pirketti.  

Author Myrto Azina Chronides
Title A European Story
Translator Despina Pirketti
Nationality Cypriot
Publisher European Union Prize for Literature

See also the other titles under review: