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literature : first proof

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by Benjamin Fondane

A cinepoem—introduced by Leonard Schwartz.

What needs to be understood about the following text is that Benjamin Fondane wanted it to disappear. Let me explain.

Benjamin Fondane was born in 1898 in Romania, the second child of a Jewish family of German descent. At the time when his poems first appeared in Romanian in the avant-garde literary reviews of Bucharest and his native Iasi, Fondane believed that poetry represented "the sole reason for being to persevere in being" and that "only poetry could succeed where morality and metaphysics had failed." But by the early '20s poetry as it existed (after the war years) seemed as much a lie to him as everything else, and his belief in an aesthetic justification of the universe crumbled. In a statement in which much of his later writing and thought is already prefigured, Fondane wrote of this break that "dans la nuit, jai commence a crier sans mots"—"in the middle of the night, I began to cry, without words." From this point forward Fondane's abiding interests would be the absurd and the contradiction between human liberty and all forms of rational thought and language.

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literature : review

Body Party

by Andrew Durbin

On Robert Glück's Communal Nude

In her 2000 essay "Writing/Sex/Body," first published on the Buffalo Poetics Listserv, Dodie Bellamy describes her practice as "a writing that subverts sexual bragging, a writing that champions the vulnerable." This constantly changes her relationship to her audience, her community—and to the text: "No way I can stand in front of an audience reading this stuff and maintain the abstraction of 'author.'" She "stiffens" herself in the performance of her "I" and "invades" her own privacy. In reading, she freezes herself into a corpse, a "not a body": Is this a problem? In his response to Bellamy, "Writing Sex Body," the poet and novelist Robert Glück writes: "Why write about body and sex unless they are problems?" He argues that these categories and their performance, the thing that "stiffens" us, allow for a beginning—of an argument, of an exchange. And they are problems, of the body and of sex, and of the communities of those bodies and sexes, that are central Glück's own work, from his novels to his critical essays, which have been collected for the first time in Communal Nude (Semiotext(e) 2016). "This is the goal," he states from the outset of the collection: "to unframe writing about sex and the body, to derail the mechanisms that make a unified position."

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literature : interview

Alexandre Vidal Porto

by Bruna Dantas Lobato

“What can’t I be in São Paulo that I could become in New York?”

In Alexandre Vidal Porto’s debut novel, Matias na Cidade, published in Brazil in 2005, the protagonist is at a crossroads: he can choose to stay with his wife, kids, and maid—or he can leave everything behind. He seems to have that choice, but really he’s run out of options. The desire to find oneself is central to Vidal Porto’s characters. In his second novel, Sergio Y., published in English this month by Europa Editions, the titular character chooses to leave São Paulo for New York and change his name to Sandra. But, once again, there’s very little choice in the matter. It’s more like fate.

Vidal Porto leads us into the private lives of frustrated urban explorers who need a change of scenery, flâneurs who feel confined in familiar streets and seek a new beginning. His writing moves from dark to light, as his characters walk to higher ground for safety. From up there, they are able to see their own paths and decide where to go next. When faced with crisis, they choose life.

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literature : interview

Abdellah Taïa

by Georgia Phillips-Amos

“I’m not influenced by literature. I find everything I need in the reality of life, in my place within that reality.”

At twelve years old in Salé, Morocco, Abdellah Taïa touched a high-voltage generator and lay dead for an hour before surprising everyone and breathing again. He defied death and would have to keep doing it: as a lone effeminate youth in his neighborhood, he was a target of sexual violence every day. On one occasion Taïa cites as a turning point, grown men on the street yelled in the night to wake him, threatening rape, and though he lay sandwiched between his mother and seven siblings in a shared bed, no one sheltered him. He is an artist intimate with vulnerability and he is unafraid. He is also a political activist who, in 2006, became the first renowned Arab artist to come out publicly in Morocco, a country where homosexuality continues to be illegal.

Born in 1973, Taïa has lived in Paris since 1998 and writes books and films in French. Following his first two novels, Salvation Army and An Arab Melancholia, the forthcoming Infidels is his third to be translated into English. Echoing Taïa’s own exile, these books take place between Morocco and Europe, where on the streets and in bedrooms his stories collide in tenderness and violent urgency.

Built in a series of rhythmic soliloquies, Infidels is a timely novel about Islamic fundamentalism, intimacy, betrayal, and panic. “I change realities,” the protagonist Jallal says, “really and truly enter fiction, cross the border, take on other colors.” Taïa’s characters are fugitives constantly in motion: they get close, they love; they manipulate, they spit at each other’s feet. Their days and their transgressions are beautiful, but in a merciless world they can also be terrifying.

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literature : first proof

Two Poems

by Eric Amling

“Consider Satan’s feelings…as love is the anvil that shaped the scythe…let summer loosen your expectations…the hottest night of the year…in a little leather pouch…”

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literature : review

Bad News

by Lizzie Tribone

Disobeying history in Don Mee Choi’s Hardly War.

Don Mee Choi quotes Gertrude Stein’s Wars I Have Seen in the epigraph of her new collection of poetry, prose, and opera, Hardly War: “It is funny about wars, they ought to be different but they are not.” This line introduces the book’s preoccupation with the homogeneity of conflicts, certainly, but also with Stein herself. Not only does Choi display a stylistic fidelity to Stein’s oeuvre, by way of radical experiments with language and syntax, but the very inspiration for the collection stems from her as well.

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literature : interview

Stephen O’Connor

by Melody Nixon

”In a way, I am like some demented lawyer seeking only to get a hung jury—with the saving grace being that, when the truth is not obvious, people tend to do their most profound and significant thinking.”

In Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings—Stephen O’Connor’s newest book, and most ambitious to date—the choice of subject matter is deeply problematic and deliberately problematized. At a time when discussions of representation, identity politics, racial privilege, and authorial authority are waking up the publishing world, O’Connor wades into this territory full knowing that his own identity is overrepresented and that his viewpoint is, in a sense, not welcome. In short, he does what should not be done when he imagines himself into the lives of Sally Hemings, an enslaved young woman, and her power-wielding master Thomas Jefferson, then figures the shape of their sexual relationship—all along writing while white, while male, while an employed academic, while a writer and not a historian, archivist, activist, or scholar of racial justice. He does this with his eyes open.

Over the course of our conversation, I’ve come to understand that he has not written this book to provoke or to engender a self-serving sense of shock; he has written with a belief in the possibilities of liminal space and in the revelations that occur at the point of tension. The result is a book that jars, unequivocally, and that disquietingly brings to the surface the anguish of past and present America. This is not a book that can leave you untouched. Its fine-point poetic sensibility and vivid description combine to haunt, to create a sub-dermis itch that begs relief—while offering, at last, a subtle but searing indictment.

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literature : from the editor
literature : first proof

Three Poems

by Sally Wen Mao

Anna May Wong Goes Viral

In the future, there’s an oracle
            where you can search
for where you belong. I ask this engine
            and it replies:
do the deleted scenes choke you
            up? In the future, I am young
and poor, so I become a webcam girl.

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literature : first proof

Flat White (20/20)

by Anna Moschovakis

A compromised translation.
With, and for, Samira Negrouche.

 

There are the pages that arrive without your writing them at the end of the night that an editor won’t expect that forge a path toward an imaginary book you watch recede as time goes by you prefer to think of it forever inside the dead memory of the computer.

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literature : interview

Danielle Dutton

by Kate Zambreno

“For me she is that awkward cucumber, but also the roses and carnations. She spreads. She crushes. She’s crushed. Margaret is the whole garden.”

To preface this conversation, I’m tempted to just repeat my blurb of Danielle Dutton’s new book, Margaret the First, but instead I will just fill in the part that was cut. It goes something like this: “Ever since I read her brilliant book of miniatures, Attempts at a Life, and SPRAWL, her ecstatic portrait of a nervous housewife, I’ve told every serious reader I know that Danielle Dutton is a genius (this is the phrase that was cut), one of the most original and wonderfully weird prose stylists of our time.” “Genius” has become mostly an empty and suspect superlative when applied to literary talents, but I like thinking of it as sharing the same etymology as “generosity” (as both derive from the Latin generōsus, meaning “of noble birth”). It seems the right word to describe the brazen feat of tenderness Danielle pulls off in Margaret the First, her visionary portrait which rewrites the life of the much caricatured seventeenth-century writer Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle. And a genius that has for its roots a deep generosity also encompasses Danielle’s literary vision, including the books she has put out with her publishing project, Dorothy, which in only a few years has become one the most important protectors of urgent, weird, philosophical, non-market-driven literature—including Renee Gladman’s Ravickian series, Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s Fra Keeler, and Amina Cain’s Creature. On the eve of Margaret’s publication, Danielle and I spoke about her decade-long possession writing the book.

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literature : first proof

Two Poems

by Abdellatif Laâbi

The bite of the days. Fallow love. The quartered horse. Wild ink. The contagious rose. Isle of marble. Blind man’s vomit. The name of mud. The absent-minded god. Wise bullets. Crippled sheets. The cage of the heavens. White coffee. The sobbing of things. Northern leprosy. The mouth's little lakes. Potter’s field of crowned heads. The nomad flame. Ashes of words.

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literature : review

After the Crash

by Ellie Robins

Christos Ikonomou, Rafael Chirbes, and new fiction from the eurozone.

In July last year, the printing presses ground to a stop in Greece. The country was in uncharted territory, its banks under a stranglehold as the nation said oxi to austerity. While the streets exploded in righteous rage, publishers couldn’t pay their bills and printers couldn’t buy paper or ink.

High drama, but Greek publishing had been struggling for quite some time: literary agents estimate that just eight to ten thousand people in a population of eleven million can be classified as avid readers. During the credit boom, small publishers flourished nevertheless, but when the Greek economy collapsed in 2009, it took much of the literary industry with it. In 2013, the National Book Center was shuttered—and with that, Greece lost the official body dedicated to promoting Greek literature at home and around the world.

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literature : first proof

So Many Olympic Exertions

by Anelise Chen

Efficiency is a battle waged against time. The runner’s only enemy is time, and his only tactic against time is perpetual onward movement. The legendary nineteenth-century pedestrian, Mensen Ernst, who reportedly ran 5,000 miles from Constantinople to Calcutta (and back) offered: “To move is to live, to stand still is to die.” Faithful to his mantra, during a run from Cairo to Capetown, he propped himself against a palm tree, put a handkerchief over his eyes, and was found dead the next day.

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literature : interview

Alexander Chee

by Nicholas Mancusi

“Stakes for women artists of the time were stakes on a much different scale. You had to be a genius just for people to accept that you might be human.”

Alexander Chee’s first novel, the well-received Edinburgh (2001), was a slim, introspective, semi-autobiographical novel about a boys’ choir in Maine, and the echoes of the abuse that some of the boys suffer at the hands of the choir director. His second novel, on the surface, couldn’t be more different. The Queen of the Night is the sprawling and dramatic story of famous opera singer Lilliet Berne, following her as she survives brothels, prisons, and imperial palaces in Second Empire and Third Republic France. The book, which took 13 years to complete, is painstakingly researched and plotted with baroque intricacy.

I first heard Alex read from this novel when I was his undergraduate student in 2009, on the cusp, he had said at the time, of the novel’s publication. I sat down with Chee to discuss the story of the novel, and the novel’s story, in his apartment in Hell’s Kitchen.

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literature : first proof

Rombaud

by Álvaro Enrigue

An excerpt from Sudden Death

Jean Rombaud had the worst of all possible tasks on the morning of May 19, 1536: severing with a single blow the head of Anne Boleyn, Marquess of Pembroke and Queen of England, a young woman so beautiful she had turned the Strait of Dover into a veritable Atlantic. The notorious Thomas Cromwell, chief minister to Henry VIII, had brought Rombaud over from France for this express purpose. In a curt missive, Cromwell asked that he bring his sword—a piece of miraculously fine craftsmanship, forged of Toledo steel—because he would be performing a delicate execution.

Rombaud was neither beloved nor indispensable. Beautiful and immoral, he drifted coldly in the tight circle of very specialized workers who thrived in the Renaissance courts under the blind eye of ambassadors, ministers, and secretaries. His reserve, striking looks, and lack of scruples made him a natural for certain kinds of tasks known to all and spoken of by none, the dark operations that have always been unavoidable in the conduct of politics. He dressed with surprising good taste for someone with the job of killer angel: he wore expensive rings, breeches lavishly trimmed with brocade, and royal-blue velvet shirts unsuited to a bastard, which he was in every sense of the word. Cheap gemstones were braided with gypsy panache into his gold-streaked chestnut hair, the gems filched from mistresses conquered with the various weapons over which God had granted him mastery. There was no knowing whether he was silent because he was clever or because he was a fool: his deep blue eyes, which turned down a little at the corners, never expressed compassion, but they never expressed any kind of animosity either. Also, Rombaud was French: for him, killing a queen of England was less sin than duty. Cromwell had called him to London because he believed this last quality made him a particularly hygienic choice for the job.

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literature : interview

Margo Jefferson

by Tobi Haslett

“Crude action is required here. Take off that limb, see what’s left.”

Margo Jefferson was born into a world of exquisite, punishing distinctions. A daughter of the Negro elite—or the colored aristocracy, or the blue vein society, or the “big families”—she was raised among a fearfully dignified milieu, a people desperate to prove themselves. To prove their intelligence, refinement, moral scruples, and impeccable taste. “Clever of me to become a critic,” she writes in her recent memoir, Negroland. “We critics scrutinize and show off to a higher end.”In 1995, she was rewarded, yet again, for all of that scrutiny—with a Pulitzer Prize.

In Negroland, Jefferson’s discriminating judgements are pitched at her own upbringing, full of strenuous dignity and strident achievement. For the women of Negroland, of course, the stakes were impossibly high: Jefferson recalls the brutally enforced social hierarchies and the cruel inspection of physical beauty. Her girlhood was a minefield dotted with malicious little differences—in hair texture, skin color, the flare of the nostril, and the thickness of the lips. By the 1970s, she was a radical feminist.

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literature : interview

Matt Gallagher

by J. T. Price

“War isn’t a destination, nor is it a topic to be mined for scribes with nothing else to say.”

Youngblood, Matt Gallagher’s debut novel, is a story of the American occupation set in an isolated Iraqi town where violence has flared, settled, and may be poised to flare again. Lest that sound too macro an account, it’s really a narrative about people—those encountered on a daily basis by Lt. Jack Porter as he seeks to abide by orders, take care of his men, and do all that he possibly can to maintain a fragile peace in the region. Predictably, those objectives do not always align so well, with fealty to one sometimes pulling him afoul of another. The novel is unique among modern war literature I’ve read for delivering a more pointillist, day-to-day vision of what it’s like to be an occupier of another country, even when you are well aware of the absurdities that go with that less-than-desirable role. Among Youngblood’s wide-ranging cast of characters, Porter must negotiate his way through a gung-ho sergeant, an unreasonable chain-of-command, a Suzanne Somers-enthralled sheik, a cool-as-a-cucumber interpreter, a local boy incensed by the loss of his pet goat, and a bereaved Iraqi mother who longs for life in the Western world. It’s a messy journey that is less one of escalating drama than of steady attrition, and if the narrative edges don’t quite meet in places, Gallagher (as Porter) warns us of as much in the novel’s preface: “I’ll answer crooked, and I’ll answer long. And when they get confused or angry, I’ll smile. Finally, I’ll think. Someone who understands.”

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literature : from the editor

Spring Books Preview

Recent and forthcoming highlights selected by Justin Taylor, John Keene, Albert Mobilio, Dawn Lundy Martin, Alan Gilbert, Ken Chen, Ander Monson, Chelsea Hodson, and Lawrence Giffin.

There will be 300,000 books published in the US this year. We asked a few writers which ones are worth looking out for.

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literature : interview

Robin Coste Lewis

by Matthew Sharpe

"I don't accept the idea of my history as tragic."

I met Robin Coste Lewis in the summer of 2002 in the MFA program at Bard College, where she was a student and I was on faculty. She was then working on a nonfiction narrative about the history of her family in Louisiana. She had received a graduate degree in Sanskrit literature from Harvard Divinity School, and had been a professor at Hampshire College. Shortly before I met her, she’d suffered a traumatic brain injury, was no longer able to teach at Hampshire, and was, in a profound sense, starting over. I did not realize at the time the extent to which this was the case, given her lively presence and the speed and agility of her mind both in conversation and on the page. Not long after that summer, she put aside that family history project, at least in the prose form it then occupied, and took up poetry. She reported some years later that she had told a fellow poet that “brain damage has turned me into a poet,” to which the other poet replied, “Oh thanks a lot, Robin.”

Trauma—historical trauma—is central to Voyage of the Sable Venus, Robin’s debut book of poetry, indeed her first book of any kind, which won the National Book Award last year. The title poem, some seventy pages long, is, as Robin writes in her prologue, “a narrative poem comprised solely and entirely of the titles, catalogue entries, or exhibit descriptions of Western art objects in which a black female figure is present, dating from 38,000 BCE to the present.” So “Voyage” depicts 40,000 years of systemic violence, objectification, and distortive caricature residing in what Western civilization has often construed as the domain of the beautiful. The paradox, as Robin told me, is that many of the artworks she invokes are indeed beautiful. So, emphatically, is the poem. We spoke at length about this paradox, and about her feeling both angered and liberated in the process of the writing, feelings that a reader is also likely to experience in a prodigious poem which, to paraphrase Audre Lorde, uses the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.

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literature : interview

Toni Sala

by Hal Hlavinka

“What distinguishes the writer from the reader is that the writer goes first.”

Toni Sala has been quite busy, but you wouldn’t know it. The author of more than a dozen novels—and the winner of the Catalan government’s 2005 National Literature Prize—Sala is but the latest in a series of Catalan authors to make a recent, mid-career debut in the United States. His newest novel, The Boys, appeared this past November from Two Lines Press in a stunning translation by Mara Faye Lethem, bringing Sala’s sharp wit and ominous vision to a US audience for the first time. Translation-savvy readers might hear a little Rodoreda and Monzó in Sala’s prose, but the most significant comparison could be to Bolaño’s more Iberian-inflected work—light-footed, death-haunted sentences that tumble along at the shuddering speed of a car crash. The Boys takes as its centerpiece the tragic deaths of two brothers, explored through several overlapping perspectives that shift and shuffle the drama so to get nearer to the tragedy’s still-beating heart.

Our conversation was bookended by the November 13 Paris attacks and the December 2 San Bernardino attack, events that have and will continue to change both of our worlds. Toni shared something in our initial pleasantries that I found exemplary of his approach to story: “A few hours after the Paris attacks, a burned car was located in Vidreres, the little town where The Boys is set. Vidreres is seventy kilometers from the border, and the vehicle contained false plates and unactivated phones, which set off the alarm in Catalonia. In the end, it was likely something to do with the drug trade. But the center of the world can be everywhere.”

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literature : interview

Eka Kurniawan

by Jesse Ruddock

“The writer’s task is to recognize when he or she has to stop, what to abandon, when to depart.”

Ghosts pour off the pages of Eka Kurniawan’s debut novel, Beauty Is a Wound. They rub at the windowpane and even play hands at the card table. Badly buried in the twentieth century, their “damaged bodies” have now arisen, seeking justice. And Kurniawan, in telling their stories, is giving it to them.

Published in English this year and collectively hailed in the US as a masterwork, Beauty Is a Wound first appeared in Indonesia in 2002, four years after the fall of Suharto. The dictator’s thirty-one-year chokehold on Indonesian history was broken, leaving Kurniawan free to rewrite it as one huge song. This book is improbable, covering three full generations of one family—the brood of genius prostitute Dewi Ayu—without letting up. Here opposites unite: terror and good humor, blasphemy and faith, death and life. Kurniawan’s prose is in constant elegant turmoil, influenced by everything from Harlequins to Hegel.

His second novel, Man Tiger, came out this year in English too. A slimmer, more intimate book, it also stars a ghost: the spirit of the white tiger dwelling in young Margio, an inheritance from his grandfather. Another family saga, it’s signature Kurniawan in its serious playfulness. It alternates flash and inner quiet. We feel everything from the tenderness of family meals to the roughness of a torn jugular.

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literature : interview

Naja Marie Aidt

by Mieke Chew

Women in Denmark should be both women and men at the same time, but “men” and “women”—what does that mean?

As a young single mother, Greenland-born Naja Marie Aidt began writing poetry and prose in Denmark, where she published for over twenty years. Since 2008 Aidt has been living in Brooklyn, and her writing has been translated into nine languages, yet it’s only recently found its way into English. Last year, Baboon, the short story collection that won Scandinavia’s highest literary honor—the Nordic Council Fiction Prize—was translated by US poet Denise Newman, published by Two Lines Press, and awarded the PEN Translation Prize. This year, Open Letter Books published Aidt’s first and only novel to date, a literary thriller: Rock, Paper, Scissors.

Aidt’s writing grabs readers by the shoulders. She guides us into moments of reckoning-near-collapse: A brother and sister remember their father differently. A small girl sees her father kissing another man. A stranger speaking in tongues forces his way into a couple’s small car. A mysterious bite fills with puss. The boy next door turns his lust on a goat. This is fiction that never simplifies but holds true to what Virginia Woolf saw clearly: “The beauty of the world, which is so soon to perish, has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder.” 

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literature : review

The Necessary Rage

by Scott Esposito

On Iván Repila’s The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse

It may be that, looking back, we recognize these as the years when the social fabric began to fray. The years in which the rich began to take just a little too much of the world’s wealth, when citizens of the wealthiest nations grew just a little too callous toward refugees from the poorest, when the effects of our environmental mismanagement became just a little too dramatic to brush off. The years, in other words, when order broke down and the only response for the dispossessed became rage.

The author Iván Repila invites this subtext for his second novel, published amid historic poverty in his native Spain in 2013 and now arriving in English.

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