Review – Mirjana Novaković – Fear and Servant (trans. Terence McEneny)

This review was originally published on the Quarterly Conversation website in 2010.  The website no longer exists, so I have decided to extract it from there and publish it here.

In the years since Count Otto van Hausberg last visited Belgrade, the Austrian-ruled city seems to have changed, and not for the better. Fog and mist have settled around the city walls, and everywhere there is talk of murder, rebellion, and death. And in the twenty years since his last visit (or is it thirty? or more? the Count is never quite clear on the matter) the stench of vampires has come to Belgrade. Hausberg is unsure whether these vampires are real, which means the Last Judgement is approaching, or if they are fake, which means that he, Satan, has made a foolish mistake in wasting his time hunting the simple dead.

Satan? Perhaps. In the opening pages to Fear and Servant, Serbian author Mirjana Novaković supplies sufficient evidence to suggest that Otto van Hausberg is Satan. Hausberg possesses intimate memories of Gethsemane and Christ’s fall, he has a certain smell of brimstone, and is accompanied by a seemingly demonic servant. Yet a few pages later this evidence is undermined by Hausberg’s fears, his seeming mortality, his lack of any explicit power, and his shock when others take his Infernal Self seriously. So is Hausberg Satan, or merely man?

Therein lies the rub. Throughout Fear and Servant the question of truth and identity are continually raised. Hausberg is the very definition of an unreliable narrator, demanding and expecting reliability and seriousness from those around him while consistently feeding the reader a series of half-truths, exaggerations, sleight-of-hand stories and, most often, qualifications that seem to shed greater light on a previous topic, while simultaneously clouding others. He refers to himself as the devil and is pleased when others recognise his infernal powers, but when he is required to act or be an immortal figure of evil, he becomes afraid, vacillates, and often flees. He fears being wounded; there is a brief clue, buried in a long paragraph, that indicates he suspects another devil has come to Belgrade as well. But how could that be true? “The time I have spent among the rabble of mankind,” Hausberg says, “has taught me that people love and enjoy nothing so much as their belief that a lie is in fact the truth.”

The early seventeenth century aristocracy in charge of Belgrade welcome Hausber to their city, and invite him to an upcoming ball. Naturally, this ball requires a costume, which adds to the pervading sense of falsehood. Hausberg dresses as the devil, and becomes startled when, again, people take him seriously and refer to him as such.

During the extended ball sequence, we are introduced to our second narrator, who tells us that she is “Maria Augusta, Princess of Thurn und Taxis, wife of Prince Alexander of Württemberg, the former regent of Serbia.” This is true, but much of the rest of her story may not be, for many of the details clash with Hausberg’s perspective of the events. Our two narrators soon travel to Dedinaberg, where there have been indications of vampires killing at night. The aristocracy in Belgrade believe there are vampires yet don’t’ take their existence particularly seriously; their reaction is similar to, say, an attack from a stray wolf. Now that Novaković has brought her narrators together, the essence of the novel becomes clearer. In the complex play of Hausberg’s and the princess’s versions of lie and truth, the story changes from a mere hunt for vampires to an extended examination of the nature of good and evil. As the hunt for vampires continues, Novaković is careful to provide equal amounts of evidence to suggest they are real as not, which feeds into Hausberg’s that, if they are real, the Last Judgement is near and he lacks sufficient power to win against God.

Fear and Servant is Mirjana Novaković’s second published work, and her first novel. This novel, which was shortlisted for Serbia’s NIN literary prize and received the Isidora Sekulić Award. Was followed by Novaković’s second novel, Johann’s 501, a dystopic vision of Belgrade, its citizens drugged and obsessed with the occult. In all of her literature, Novaković struggles with the fluctuating truth of language and its inability to accurately portray reality, due in part to the inherent instability of a world which shifts according to each individual’s perception of it, but also thanks to the inherently unstable nature of language and communication.

Fear and Servant has been published in English Geopoetika’s Serbian Literature in Translation series, though the book is not yet available in most English-reading nations (the United States included). Titles in the series include well-established authors such as Svetislav Basara and Zoran Živković, as well as upcoming and emerging authors.

As Hausberg himself notes, not everything is as simple as its surface would indicate:

Men and women who never blanch at acts of evil cannot bring themselves to face Evil Itself. I’ve often wondered why. Of course they’re mistaken in believing me to be evil through and through, as if there were nothing else to me. They don’t understand, the foolish creatures: if I were pure evil, I would be God. Because God is God so that He might be nothing but good, and that is the same as being nothing but evil.

If all the world is, as Novaković suggests, a composite of varying and disagreeing truths, then the balance of the world is mostly lies and thus belongs to Satan. Toward the end of the novel this concept is made explicit during a parable where God direct his Angels to paint, on the Seventh Day of Creation, a canvas showing how this newly created world should be. Satan (then, of course, still Lucifer) paints the story of the ages, beginning with primeval forces and ending with the locomotive and electricity. In judging the paintings, God takes note of Lucifer’s effort, but ultimately he determines that Michael’s work, which is a blank canvas, is the best, purest and most true representation of the world as it should be. Lucifer, rebelling, becomes Satan, and the world is written into being. Novaković’s suggestion is that Satan is the closest and most knowable deity, while God is too aloof to properly understand the tragedies and failures of mortal existence. This is reflected in Fear and Servant, where Satan is virtually identical to everyone else in terms of power and influence; the primary difference is his memory, which is long and dwells quite often on the sacrifice of “Fishmouth” (his name for Jesus), and his capacity for reasoning and thought, which makes him, as the princess points out, similar to the many philosophers who vie for her attention at court. Satan, then, is us, though slightly enhanced, and, because he is knowable, ultimately more appealing than God.

Much like in José Saramago’s The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, which portrayed God as unknowable, uncaring, and willing to sacrifice his son to ensure the ascendancy of Christianity in the coming centuries, in Fear and Servant Novaković makes of Satan a sympathetic figure, putting him forth as the progenitor of the arts, particularly of literature, and also showing him to be the only one of the two who actually has a concern for the acts of mortal man. Hausberg constantly refers to works of literature and art that he could not, as a 17th century Count, possibly know, including Moby Dick, Tolstoy and, most tellingly, Charles Kinbote from Nabokov’s Pale Fire. Hausberg notes that art must have been created by evil, for it purports to present lies as truth, and offers a prism upon the world which by definition must be artificial and thus false. Yet at the same time art provides man with a glimpse of what is beautiful, good and true, in stark contrast to the world around us, darkening our reality while brightening the sublime. How could this complex interplay of truth and lie, argues Satan, be anything but my own creation, and not God’s? Lest the novel come across as a heavy-handed essay on theology, truth and art, however, one should be reminded that, at its heart, Fear and Servant is the story of the hunt for vampires, and the violence and terror that such a hunt brings.

Fear and Servant offers an apologia for Satan while excoriating God. The goodness of God is not, in fact, an achievable aim for a flawed human being; instead, the qualities of both God and Satan must be harmonised. In the end the vampires are as real as one would wish, and so too concerning Hausberg as Satan. Read as though he is, Fear and Servant offers an extended retelling of Christ’s death and the complex relationship between Satan, God, and the world. Read as though he isn’t and Hausberg becomes a somewhat mad Count whose thoughts on art and literature demand attention, and whose beliefs in God have become fractured following the dark history of central Europe during the 17th century.

The Journal of Failure – Week 46 of 2020

Week 46 of 2020 – 4 November to 10 November 2020



  • Goal – 100 / day, or 700 / week
  • Achieved – 1,090/700 – Success!

Writing – I Remember

  • Goal – 7 / week
  • Achieved – 9/14 – Success!

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

  • Goal – 1 minute, 20 seconds / day or 9 minutes, 20 seconds / week
  • Achieved – 17 minutes, 16 seconds – Success!

Writing – Large Projects

  • Goal – 1 minute, 20 seconds / day or 9 minutes, 20 seconds / week
  • Achieved – 20 minutes, 31 seconds – 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)


Week X!

A week of resetting.  A week of calibration.  A week of determining what it is, exactly, that I want.

October 2020 was, for me, an exceptionally busy period at work.  Consequently, writing and reading fell by the wayside.  But this time is over, now, and I simply must refocus my energy on the things that matter.  There’s so little time available to us all.

I have a child coming.  My second.  They will be here in April, and the habits I develop now will help appreciate and utilise the small amounts of time I will have to myself when they are here.  Right now, I am in a golden period of life, because my daughter (2) goes to bed early and my wife (34) goes to bed early and I (38) can go to bed whenever I like.  Similar to Machiavelli, the idea of reading and writing into the night while socialising with and sharing ideas with the greatest minds of all time, is very heaven.  And so I must do that.

This week, reading went quite well.  I read some fantasy nonsense, which was great.  And quite a bit of actual fine and good literature.  Kadare, Bernhard, Howe – these are fine names.  Fine names.

I wrote, for the first time in quite a while.  A new short story, cribbing from an overhead story in my own life.  I am not sure if this will become a story worth completing, but it’s being written and that is the primary goal.

Otherwise, I have re-categorised my current short works in progress to better attain a high-level view of the work I need to redraft, the work that needs to be complete, the work that needs to be submitted.  I aim to tackle the end of 2020 and the entirety of 2021 with the fullness of my ego, arrogance and talent, which means I must and will submit, submit, submit.  No more crouching in shadows, it’s time to write and publish.  I have read enough.

I aim to polish and complete my story about a failed gangster in Belarus.   I aim to polish and complete my story about a disappointed housewife.  I aim to polish and complete my story about a man who regrets everything in his life while aiding an idle rich fool to murder an abhorrent dentist.  With all of these stories, I want to combine the high and the low (see – Saul Bellow) with the violence of power and the futility of art (see – Bolaño).  I admire the capacity of evil to be seductive, I appreciate the flower that grows in the muck.  I appreciate failed individuals who nonetheless keep pushing their Sisyphean boulder.  I admire the unknowable grandness of men and women who contain multitudes and magnitudes.

In terms of a larger novel, I have returned, I think, to my novella on Rasputin.  I read it this week, and while I recognise many clumsy, choppy areas, I think that the overall thrust is fascinating and capable of exploring many of the ideas that I care about.  The polyphony of voices is a touch too-Bolaño, which remains a constant concern for me.  When I flounder in terms of ideas or plot or the next word, I devolve to what I know, and what I know how to do is cut-rate Bolaño and mawkish sentimentality.  I can fix the former but not the latter – eschew sloth and excise everything cliche.  Be better.

I recognise these writing goals are small.  They should be entirely achievable, and to not achieve them suggests to myself and the world that I am not actually interested in writing.  But I also want to ease myself in and increase the pressure – specifically 10 seconds / day / week in short story writing, and 20 seconds / day / week in longer form writing.  The gradual grind up and up suits me alright, and has worked in the past, but oh my, I dislike when I fall back and need to restart.  What’s wrong with me?  Time is hurtling by.

I finished Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World.  This is the first book in his 13ish book series, The Wheel of Time.  It’s fine. It’s fine.  I read it when I was 16 and thus it will always have a place in my heart.  Reading this book is me returning to old friends.  Friends I’d like to see for a little while, but not every weekend.  I usually read the first three, or first five, books of the series, before finishing.  Both points offer neat and clear end points, and in both cases, the extra novels diminish the totality.  I’ve never completed the series (and nor did Jordan, who died), and I am unsure if I ever will.  The gender issues make me very uncomfortable, and the explosion of minor characters drags everything to a crawl.  When I read fantasy I want to be pushed along by the plot.  I don’t want to make notes and keep a record of nations, political systems, factions, etc, etc, etc.

Anyway, on to the real and true literature!

Susan Howe’s Debths was an exceptional discovery for me.  She is an American poet, and her focus (at least for this book) is found texts and memory.  This collection really blew me away – I have never read anything like it.  The corruption of public domain text alongside brief pieces on memory were just fantastic.  I am not fully equipped to comment upon poetry, as I haven’t really read enough, but this was a revelation.

Thomas Bernhard’s My Prizes is a collection of pieces by Bernhard surrounding the prizes he won throughout his life.  And while he is curmudgeonly throughout he certainly, ah, accepted the prizes and prize money.  Sure, he was poor, but there’s a certain lack of integrity here which makes the entire collection somewhat uncomfortable.  Particularly because Bernhard himself boiled his life down to integrity, integrity, integrity.

Ismail Kadare’s The Successor is a great novella that is about 30 pages too long.  It opens with the successor to the current dictator in Albania being dead, perhaps killed, perhaps a suicide.  We don’t know.  Kadare keeps the view of the novella high and broad, providing an understanding of the general political and cultural situation of the city and nation.  This is very good.  The middle section concerns itself too heavily, I think, with characters, names, particulars – this is a book that would have been stronger if it had stayed almost entirely as a fable.  Nonetheless, it’s quite good, and highlights, yet again, that Kadare is a Nobel-worthy writer.  When will his time come?

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 21 of 2020

Week 21 of 2020 – 27 May to 2 June 2020



  • 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)


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.

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



  • 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)


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



  • 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)


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.”


“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

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: