Review – Rafik Schami – The Calligrapher’s Secret (trans. Anthea Bell)

This review was originally published on the Quarterly Conversation website in 2011.  The website no longer exists, so I have decided to extract it from there and publish it here.

Hamid Farsi, arguably Damascus’ greatest calligrapher, returns home one night to discover that his beautiful wife, Noura, has vanished. A number of priceless texts containing the secrets of calligraphy have disappeared along with her. Farsi suspects wrongdoing—and accuses the wrong man. In his rage he murders this man and winds up in jail, spending the dying days of Shukri al-Quwatli’s reign completing lavish commissions for the ruler’s coterie of friends, allies, and business associates in exchange for preferential treatment. The calligrapher, arrogant, exacting, and ambitious, seeks to reform Arabic script in order to modernise the language and, hopefully, the culture.

While suitably dramatic, these events comprise the very last moments of Rafik Schami’s 444-page novel, The Calligrapher’s Secret. Much of the text takes place in the preceding years, alternating between the Christian Noura, an ethereally beautiful young woman who wishes to read books and escape her parents, and the jug-eared Muslim Salman, whose naivety sees him exploited by parents, friends, and passers-by. While the two move from child- to adulthood they are introduced to various aspects of life in Damascus, acting as travel-diary surrogates for the reader and allowing Schami to create a selective, though at times effective, panoramic view of the turmoil afflicting Syria during the early and mid-1950s.

Schami’s novel is split into two unequal sections, titled “The First Kernel of the Truth” and “The Second Kernel of the Truth,” with these bracketed by an epilogue and prologue. The first section deals with Salman and Noura, who don’t know each other and hardly meet until near the section’s end, when they fall in love; the second section tells the story of Hamid Farsi, the great calligrapher and Noura’s uncompromising husband. Each section is sufficiently unrelated that, were the names of the characters to change, they could easily function as separate novels, and it is with this realisation that the novel’s shaky foundation begins to crack.

The initial protagonists, Noura and Salman, are defined as neatly and flippantly as above, and though they remain the primary focus for much of the work, Schami’s characterisation of them fails to extend beyond, in Noura’s case, the beautiful, bookish, unhappy newlywed, and in Salman’s the naive, provincial, insipid errand boy. During the 206 pages before the two meet they each go on an extended, decade-long tour through Damascus’ slums, Noura acting as our surrogate for the Muslim areas, and Salman the Christian. The people they meet exist purely within the confines of the paragraph or chapter they are encountered, and their lives and occupations are outlined as pleasantly and non-controversially as a tourist’s guidebook. Behold the poor cafe owner, behold the secretly gay butcher, behold the decrepit fortuneteller, behold the fried vegetable and falafel vendor. Blink and you’ll miss them, and it won’t matter much if you do.

On top of this, Schami takes great paints to drain the novel of any tension by continuously and explicitly foreshadowing the plot’s conclusion, as well as the fate of the characters. Sentences such as, “Later Salman was to say that the turning point in his life, the moment that made him a calligrapher, had been on a certain evening in January of the year 1956,” and “He had no idea how little time he had left,” appear often, occurring either directly before or after a significant event. Schami is unable to write the in-between parts of a novel; when the plot isn’t rushing toward its ill-defined goal it either wallows in endless detail about areas or people who don’t matter to the story and won’t appear again, or it skips years, filling in any important events through flashback. Worse, Schami has a habit of killing off supplementary characters as soon as the conflict they are involved with is complete, either by afflicting them with cancer and despatching them in a paragraph, or having them simply run away from Damascus.

The Calligrapher’s Secret is a literary soap opera without a central conceit. A novel propelled not by characters—for these people are like billiard bills, sent hurtling in a straight line, single-minded in their trajectory and uncaring as to the location or speed of any of the other balls until they collide and spring away from one another – but by events. The characters need a goal to travel toward, some grand ambition that interlocks or conflicts with the desires of the others. Of the three primary characters, only Hamid Farsi has a destination beyond the tip of his own nose, and he doesn’t appear as a proper protagonist until well into the last third of the novel.

The second section of the novel contains its best writing, plotting, and characterization, and it all centres around calligraphy. The art form, we learn, “has a magical effect on an Arab.” It has granted Hamid Farsi great wealth and status, which allow him to rub shoulders with the political and intellectual elite. But Farsi wishes to reform the script, seeking to remove superfluous characters and introduce newer, more modern and flexible additions to calligraphy to ensure that Islam and the Arabic world are capable of keeping up with the increasingly rich and powerful West.

The possession of, and appreciation for, calligraphy is seen as a status symbol and an indication of culture. Schami writes:

If you want to go carefully about making music with the letters, the empty space between letters and words calls for even greater skill. The blank spaces in a work of calligraphy are moments of rest. And as in Arabic music, calligraphy too depends on the repetition of certain elements that encourage not only the dance of body and soul but also our ability to move away from the earthly domain and rise to other spheres.

But the conservative forces of Islam are very powerful, and the school Farsi has recently begun is attacked by “The Pure Ones,” a group unable to accept any changes to the art of calligraphy. Their reasoning is that if the script was good enough for the Prophet, then it should be good enough for Farsi, an infinitely less important figure. Farsi, were he able, could explain to the Pure Ones that the various scripts used had been significantly updated in the intervening centuries; but, as is often the case, it is not logic or reason that prevails here.

With the intrusion of the Pure Ones, Farsi’s disappeared wife, the political upheaval of the late 1950s in Syria and the abrupt inclusion of murder, Schami’s novel slips into a pleasing melodrama. As noted above, a literary soap opera requires drama, tension, and excitement, and it is during this second section that Schami is able to provide the suitable ingredients. Coupled with this, the extended digressions on calligraphy function as a metaphor for Islamic society in general, and it is clear that while Schami harbours a deep love for and appreciation of Islamic culture, he is able to clearly perceive its tendency toward stagnation.

It is an oddity of the text that as soon as Salman and Noura – ostensibly the love story of the novel, and by far its largest focus – have disappeared, The Calligrapher’s Secret becomes quite enjoyable. The trouble of the Christian and Muslim relationship is never adequately dealt with, and it is a testament to Schami’s lack of craft that he is unable to do anything with the pair once they have openly declared their love other than have them vanish from the text entirely (only to reappear in a weakly connected epilogue). But Noura’s disappearance is essential, as it provides Hamid Farsi with the impetus to set events in motion that will allow the author to direct his attention toward the previously buried themes of the novel, explicitly tackling subjects instead of glossing over them.

The Calligrapher’s Secret seems to have been written with both eyes toward the Western audience. Far too much of the text is taken up with travelogue style writing, and the love story flatly does not work. The sections on calligraphy, which increase in duration and frequency as the text progresses, are expertly handled, and the use of the art form as a metaphor for Islam is superb. But this is a flabby novel, poorly told and loosely felt. The only time any of the characters even come close to affecting is when Hamid Farsi bends over his work desk, dips his reed pen into his ink, and writes. The rest is forgettable.

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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

Goals

Reading

  • 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)

Commentary

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. 

Some comments on Derek Maine’s Pontoon Boat is in the Front Yard

Your mom’s a slut. I just have to throw that out there. This isn’t going to be easy for either of us but we’re ripping off the band-aid, son.

The anger of a wronged man is vast and knowable.  Vast, because they perceive that the world is pulling them down, their jobs, their women, their children, their obligations – it’s all one giant conspiracy to keep them low, down, trodden upon. These men never look to economics or class.  No, that problem is too big.  And so it is the immediate surrounds which are to blame.

Knowable because they rage online, in person, to friends, to family.  Their rage comes in the form of fists, of Facebook posts, of picketing in the streets.  They cannot be silent.  Whatever grievance they  have must be heard, tediously stretching out across the decades that make up their miserable lives.

Women rage, too, but they have the modesty to remain quiet about it.

In Derek Maine’s Pontoon Boat is in the Front Yard, the rage comes via a message sent from father to son.  The son is 16, and his life has been hard.  But this story is not about him. No, instead it is about the father and his wife, ex-wife, the woman for whom his rage knows no bounds.  He airs his grievances to his son in explicit, detailed form, ostensibly wrapping them around the errors of the step-father, but this is not the entire truth.  The father’s rage reaches back to when she was young, at school, and extends forward to now and into the future.  This is a rage that will never be loosened.

The step-father, we learn, abuses the teenager, and at the end of the communication the father provides an answer to his son.  A gun, in the boat.  One squeeze of the trigger and the problems are over.  I note grimly that here the father offloads the responsibility of solving his son’s horrific problems to the child himself.  He will not pull the trigger – he will simply rage.

To his small credit, the father offers up a list of his own flaws, including that of violence against the mother.  But this list is used as a method of showing that he isn’t as bad as the others.

In truth they are all rotten.  Perhaps the son is not, but everyone else is a dark planet orbiting a fallen star.

Maine’s language is loose, and crude, and a touch too-heavy on the swearing.  Just a touch.  This message, however it is being communicated, is one of speech, streaming directly from the narrator in an out-pouring of anger.  This works, the character is believable, but the length of the short piece is just about as long as I’d like to spend inside his mind.  It’s exhaustive, and imagine living like that?

There are some shining bright spots.  Twice, the narrator mentions spending time with his son, and here the tone is pleasant, even kind.  It’s a nice balance, and shows that no matter how these men might hate the world, what they love, they love.

This strikes me as a very American story.  This is not a criticism or a commendation.  The ending involves violence, or at least, encouraging violence, and in a manner that I, as an Australia, perceive as close to uniquely American.  The answer provided is not to run away, or change, or engage the authorities – it is violence.  Violence, violence, violence.

The rage continues, the generations feed on one another, and in twenty years time this teenage boy will be saying something much the same to his own son, likely from jail, unquestionably full of his own inherited anger.

Derek Maine’s Pontoon Boat is in the Front Yard is a short story published online at Misery Tourism.  Derek’s Twitter account is @derekmainelives.

2020 in Review – the first 100 Books

October 28 marks the day when I read 100 books for the year.

Let’s take a look at the breakdown of what I read –

Books written by men – 81

Books written by women – 19

Translated works – 70

Nobel Prize winning works – 21

Books by Small Presses – 46

Fantasy novels – 5

Average pages – 168 pages

So let’s analyse the above

Obviously the glaring, massive, disappointing issue is the percentage of women writers compared to men. It’s not good enough and I am honestly surprised. If I was asked I would have said perhaps 40%, but here we are under 20% for the year.

I need to do better. I have enough books written by women to dramatically improve these numbers.

The next book, which I am almost done at the time of writing this, was written by a woman, but that would only take the year from 19% to 19.8%. Lots and lots of work here to do.

Some of the notable women writers I have read this year include the incomparable Marguerite Duras. I prefer her late works, which are sparse, pristine, close to formless. Open Letter publish a number of these and I would strongly, strongly recommend checking out her work.

I like Rachel Cusk, but A Life’s Work is not a book I connected with particularly well. In it, Cusk grapples with being pregnant and then having a child. And I mean, she really grapples with it. To the point where she struggles with whether or not she hates her child while loving it. And, for me, with a very young child, I just found it too much. I don’t love/hate my child, and I haven’t struggled with parenting. Perhaps when she’s 10 and I am distanced from the baby-phase I might be able to read such a book dispassionately, but alas at this stage in my life I cannot.

Christa Wolf’s No Place on Earth was very strong. Boiled down it’s an historical dialogue between a famous man and an unknown (to us, historically) woman. They discuss art, love, life and it’s all absolutely fascinating.

Otherwise, 70% being translated work seems about right. I certainly actively go out of my way to read translated work, and this is shown here. I would anticipate most years of my life would show 60-80% translated books, particularly now that my Updike/Bellow/Roth obsession of my twenties appears to be over.

Nobel Prize winners at 21 is fine. I have no real goal here other than I want to read as many as I can. One book in five seems fine, fine, fine. I’m drawn to novellas, as can be seen above, and it sometimes seems that most Nobel writers write big chunky bois.

Small Presses at 46% is good. I’d like to push that up to 50%, but I’m fine with where it is. Special shout-out as always to Open Letter, which make up 12 of the books I’ve read this year. They are doing excellent work. Other big hitters for me is Dalkey Archive Press and New Directions. The stalwarts, in other words.

Fantasy at 5 books is ok. I want it lower than 10% and here we are. Not much to say here. I tend to use fantasy as a way to kickstart my reading slumps and get me back into literature, but at times I’ll really dive deep into fantasy. Not this year, as we can see – though I have bought a simply enormous amount of books in the SF Masterworks and Fantasy Masterworks series. One day.

The average pages strikes me as slightly lower than I thought, but broadly speaking about right. I have a fondness for novellas. I have for years and I will continue to do so. The kind of literature I enjoy most explores an idea fully and then gets out of the way. That’s a novella.

So what does the rest of the year bring? Likely twenty more books. And they really, really need to be more heavily female. I’ve disappointed myself here, and with only two months left in the year I don’t really see how I rectify this in any meaningful way. Reading 20 books, all by women, before the year ends, still only puts me at one third written by females. Which I mean is better but c’mon.

At any rate, reading is not a numbers game, or not entirely so. I have not engaged in enough reading projects this year (ie – Spanish writers, Holocaust literature, Oulipo, etc), and this is something I’d like to do more of. Twitter is aflutter with reading projects and months devoted to a country or language or theme. And sure, that’s pretty great. But I chafe under the rope of another individual’s project, and so I will go it alone, reading, reading, reading.

But definitely reading more women.

Update – And here are the books

Barthes, RolandCamera Lucida28 October 2020
Thiong’o, Ngugi WaWeep Not, Child27 October 2020
Handke, PeterDon Juan25 October 2020
Zweig, StefanJourneys28 September 2020
Darrieussecq, MarieOur Life in the Forest26 September 2020
Leiber, FritzSwords Against Wizardry26 September 2020
Eaves, WillMurmur24 September 2020
Didion, JoanSouth and West24 September 2020
Pessoa, FernandoSelected Poems5 September 2020
Calvino, ItaloInvisible Cities3 September 2020
Bataille, GeorgesStory of the Eye2 September 2020
Aira, CesarDinner1 September 2020
Greene, GrahamDoctor Fischer of Geneva31 August 2020
Ionescu, AnamariaZodiac31 August 2020
Beckett, SamuelThe Lost Ones26 August 2020
Madej, RyanThe Marianas Trench26 August 2020
King, StephenThe Gunslinger25 August 2020
Eliot, T. S.Murder in the Cathedral25 August 2020
Bolano, RobertoThe Spirit of Science Fiction16 August 2020
Perec, GeorgesAn Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris16 August 2020
Levi, PrimoMoments of Reprieve15 August 2020
Origo, IrisA Chill in the Air11 August 2020
Beckett, SamuelDante and the Lobster9 August 2020
Pilch, JerzyA Thousand Peaceful Cities8 August 2020
Saer, Juan JoseThe One Before7 August 2020
Togawa, MasakoThe Master Key6 August 2020
Sebald, W. G.Campo Santo5 August 2020
Gappah, PetinaAn Elegy for Easterly3 August 2020
Bolano, RobertoBy Night in Chile31 July 2020
Vila-Matas, EnriqueBecause She Never Asked30 July 2020
Armitage, SamuelBook of Matches29 July 2020
Coleridge, Samuel TaylorThe Rime of the Ancient Mariner23 July 2020
Review of Contemporary FictionGeorges Perec Issue22 July 2020
Hamsun, KnutVictoria22 July 2020
Cusk, RachelA Life’s Work21 July 2020
Sirieix, FredSecret Service17 July 2020
Roth, PhilipZuckerman Unbound11 July 2020
Whitehead, ColsonApex Hides the Hurt10 July 2020
Xingjian, GaoThe case for literature25 June 2020
Roth, PhilipThe Ghost Writer23 June 2020
Beckett, SamuelThe Expelled and Other Novellas22 June 2020
Mieville, ChinaIron Council22 June 2020
Fernandez Mallo, AgustinNocilla Experience16 June 2020
Turner, DavidVictorian and Edwardian Railway Travel13 June 2020
Nors, DortheMirror, Shoulder, Signal9 June 2020
Modiano, RenzoOf Jewish Race4 June 2020
OndjakiThe Whistler3 June 2020
Sosnowski, AndrzejLodgings2 June 2020
Navarro, ElviraA Working Woman1 June 2020
Modiano, PatrickHoneymoon1 June 2020
France, AnatoleBalthasar31 May 2020
Baudelaire, CharlesThe Flowers of Evil26 May 2020
Wolf, ChristaNo Place on Earth26 May 2020
Brecht, BertoltMother Courage and her Children22 May 2020
Mella, DanielOlder Brother21 May 2020
Azam, MaryamThe Hijab Files19 May 2020
Tenev, GeorgiParty Headquarters18 May 2020
Alexievich, SvetlanaZinky Boys17 May 2020
Rey Rosa, RodrigoSeverina16 May 2020
Hesse, HermannJourney to the East14 May 2020
Neruda, PabloSelected Poems13 May 2020
Heaney, SeamusNew Selected Poems 1966-198712 May 2020
Baudelaire, CharlesParis Spleen9 May 2020
Duras, MargueriteL’Amour7 May 2020
Erikson, StevenGardens of the Moon6 May 2020
Holub, MiroslavVanishing Lung Syndrome6 May 2020
Krasznahorkai, LaszloSatantango30 April 2020
Maupassant, Gu dePierre and Jean29 April 2020
Barba, AndresSuch Small Hands28 April 2020
Camus, AlbertThe Plague28 April 2020
Watson, HollyNever Seen the Sea26 April 2020
Saat, MariThe Saviour of Lasnamae25 April 2020
Saramago, JoseAll the Names23 April 2020
Sebald, W. G.Vertigo18 April 2020
Ogawa, YokoThe Housekeeper and the Professor15 April 2020
Modiano, PatrickSleep of Memory14 April 2020
Rothes, JoshuaThe Art of the Great Dictators19 March 2020
Pizarnik, AlejandraThe Galloping Hour17 March 2020
Camus, AlbertThe Outsider16 March 2020
Bidart, FrankHalf-Light – Collected Poems15 March 2020
Rilke, Rainer MariaSonnets to Orpheus14 March 2020
de Juan, Jose LuisNapoleon’s Beekeeper12 March 2020
Modiano, PatrickThe Search Warrant9 March 2020
Mieville, ChinaThe Scar8 March 2020
Transtromer, TomasThe Half-Finished Heaven2 March 2020
Igov, AngelA Short Tale of Shame20 February 2020
Wolf, RorTwo or Three Years Later11 February 2020
Vollmann, William TWhores for Gloria6 February 2020
Kadare, IsmailBroken April5 February 2020
Mahfouz, NaguibMiramar4 February 2020
Duras, MargueriteAbahn Sabana David3 February 2020
Ljubic, NicolStillness of the Sea3 February 2020
Mariani, LucioTraces of Time1 February 2020
Duras, MargueriteYann Andrea Steiner30 January 2020
Blatnik, AndrejYou Do Understand24 January 2020
Nordbrandt, HenrikWhen we Leave Each Other23 January 2020
Zambra, AlejandroMultiple Choice16 January 2020
Hazan, EricA History of the Barricade9 January 2020
Hesse, HermannPoems6 January 2020
Zambra, AlejandroThe Private Life of Trees2 January 2020

I Remember – #1011

I remember leaving Brisbane early in the morning, and then eating sashimi and sushi in a tiny restaurant in Sennichimae in Osaka by the time it was night.  This by Jetstar, via Cairns, with two (minor) flight upgrades, and a (foolish) $150 taxi ride from the Osaka airport to our hotel.

-28 June 2017

This post is part of the I Remember series.

I Remember – #1009

remember playing Settlers of Catan with Anna and her siblings, and her sister’s husband (then, I think, her boyfriend), and how outrageously competitive Anna and I were together, to the point where we regularly exploded at and argued with one another in front of everyone.

-26 June 2017

This post is part of the I Remember series.

Some brief thoughts on Ryan Madej’s The Marianas Trench

Alcohol, drugs, sex, blood

It is the mystery that draws you in.  What is this place?  Who are these people? Their names are, initially, reduced to single letters – R, M.  What are they doing?  Why is it so gloomy?  Is this place an allegory or something else?

The narrator has, among their other problems, an issue with memory.  They can’t quite grasp time, it slips through their fingers.

Everyone seems to be in search of Mantra Hand.  You look like him, a character muses near the end of the book.  Pages later, the narrator adopts the name with a woman he meets and shares a drink with.  Her name, too, is pregnant with possibility – Caissa.

Drugs, sex, blood, alcohol

If I am jumping around a touch it is because Ryan Madej’s novella, The Marianas Trench (published by Orbis Tertius Press), is uncomfortably concerned with shifting time and place, and clarity of narrative expression.  He wants the reader to feel on edge.  The tone is ominous and the skies are always grey.  It is as though leeches had sucked dry the sounds, the colours, the smells, the vibrancy of the air.  This is Midtown.

The plot itself is reasonably easy to pin down even if the specifics of it are not.  The narrator has come into possession of

the journals, letters, and collages collected under the The Marianas Trench by Mantra Hand

“Everyone in Midtown”, the narrator tells us, knows the name Mantra Hand, and all, it seems, flit knowingly or otherwise from the real world into the occult.  He reads the works, he drinks, he has sex with women.  The people he interact with allude to esoteric matters, and the narrator takes it in his stride.  Very often he is unwell; very often he is unsure of the time or the day.  In Midtown such matters lose their focus, become less relevant.  Shadows sharpen.

This is the kind of novella where there is a City, there are Outskirts, there is Midtown.  This is a risk – universality or totality are difficult concepts to convey, but Madej manages it, and particularly well with Midtown.  It is Plato’s Form of Midtown, the essence of the essence of a city.

Sex, blood, alcohol, drugs

Menace hangs in the air.  Much of the pages of the novella are taken up with sex, which is bloodless even when blood is drawn; much of the novella is taken up with drinking, which causes no joy or sadness, just stupor and the passing of time.  Drugs are taken, but they serve to cloud already clouded minds.

Menace hangs in the air.  There is a scene where the narrator is handed a cup of water.  He notes that even the water is somewhat darkened in Midtown – chilling.  Chilling.

When something comes into the Archive it means one of two things: either the person is deceased or the person has consciously chosen to have the material archived.  Neither one of these conditions could be confirmed by any source … Midtown has only one way in and one way out, and Mantra Hand left the party early.

Madej plays with the ways in which a scene can be constructed, particularly around dialogue.  At times, he borrows from Gaddis or Joyce, beginning speech with a hyphen; other times scenes are entirely in italics, and at still other times dialogue is marked carefully and normally, with ‘he said, she said’ markers.  Chunks of text whirl dizzyingly down the the paths of different literary schools.

It is, perhaps, the vagueness which appeals most strongly across the narrative.  Places are rarely described beyond the most ordinary of words, and the characters themselves are hardly provided any visual cues at all.  It is a shock near the end to have a character’s engagement ring described at all, and this sudden sharpening of focus heightens the character’s perceived importance.  All of this allows the primary characters – who truly are Midtown and Mantra Hand – to hulk over the rest of the novel.  They cast long shadows.

Blood, alcohol, drugs, sex

And here is where I level with you – a novella wherein the narrator is in search of the writer of a masterpiece is exceptionally, phenomenally, my bread and butter as a reader.  I do not even need to be seduced – the clothes are off!  Thus, I was exceedingly well disposed towards liking this novella.  What I expected less was the tinges of the Occult, the esoteric highlights, the increasingly fractures sense of narrative place and time.  These appealed, also, and quite happily so.

But it should be cautioned that this is not a book for everyone.  It is narratively fragmented, and while the overarching detective plot is entirely comprehensible and enjoyable, the beat-by-beat writing demands attention and patience as the reader and the narrator together untangle Midtown and its denizens.  There very well may not be enough anchors to keep some readers connected to the book, and I could entirely sympathise with someone who found it too cobweb-strewn to continue with.  It is the kind of book where a brief spell of inattention can see 30 pages go by without your mind entirely able to process what has occurred due to the wispy nature of a lot of the description and characterisation.  All I can say is, do not let this happen to you, and if it does, re-read.  There is treasure here.

The book is one of the first by a new press, Orbis Tertius, and they have, for entirely understandable reasons, chosen to use Lulu for their printing.  This gives the book a glossy, shiny finish which I personally struggled with, and I found the font choice challenging to read at times.  I will fully admit that I have rather specific criteria for fonts, but I will say that I feel quite positive toward the size, margins and spacing of the text – this was very pleasing to my eye.

This is the first book in a planned tetralogy (though I believe the third book has somehow already been published, which is amazingly appropriate and thematically consistent), and as it stands right now my appetite has been whetted.  And I do have the third book next to me, beckoning, and so, perhaps…

(Note – While I did purchase this book outright, it’s worth noting that Ryan Madej and I exchange Twitter pleasantries fairly often.  I would hope this would leave me unaffected but it is worth noting.)