Daily Postings
literature : interview

Susan Daitch

by Evan Lavender-Smith

"There are times when all writing is like the cinema hat you can't take off, and once it's in place, there's a tendency to catastrophize, to make things more interesting."

Stories and texts get passed from one character to another in Susan Daitch's fictions. Details change. Truth becomes relative. For the reader, the desire to understand "what happened" soon takes a backseat to the appreciation of "what is happening" with respect to narrative form. Tensions between form and content—constant alterations to the map's depiction of the territory—are especially prominent in her newest work, The Lost Civilization of Suolucidir, a novel in which an international, intergenerational series of characters searches obsessively for a phantom city. Over the course of a few weeks, Daitch and I corresponded about her characters' obsessions and the value of art in relation to cultural and geological catastrophe. 

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literature : interview

Geoff Dyer

by Ryan Chapman

"I'm glad that the work is still proving elusive enough to resist attempts to gather it all up in a critical hamper or net."

Because Geoff Dyer's two previous books tackled Tarkovsky's film Stalker (Zona) and life aboard a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier (Another Great Day at Sea), one might be forgiven for approaching White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World as a stopgap work, a mere collection of previously-published essays and reportage: fan service. Rather, its seemingly straightforward travel narratives—with stops in Tahiti, the Arctic Circle, New Mexico, and China, among others—are obliquely fictionalized and rife with the author's hopscotch intellect. Everywhere he goes Dyer finds inspired connections across music, art, and time.

Perhaps White Sands can be best summarized by the two photographs bookending the text itself, both taken during a trip to Egypt. Dyer noticed a half-ruined ancient statue of a king and queen appeared complete if one simply stood from a different vantage point: the woman's absent form becomes instead a gesture of shyness, as if she were ducking behind her partner. The moment rewards a skewed, deep-time approach to looking at the world. In an email interview conducted during the author's book tour, I asked him about these approaches.

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literature : first proof

The Hypochondriac in the Landscape

by Walter Benjamin

Penned between 1906 and 1912, the following fragment of fiction is among the earliest writings of critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin. This tale—along with many other of his fables, parables, riddles, and novellas—are gathered in The Storyteller, forthcoming in late July 2016 from Verso Books.

 

ONLY FOR GROWN-UPS. NERVOUS TYPES—BEWARE!

Above the landscape hung such storm clouds as cause that specific fear of storms among young people known to physicians under a Latin name. It was a gently apprehensive mountain scenery. The path was steep and tiresome; the air was very hot and high temperatures prevailed. A mature man—greyed by the passing of the years—and an adolescent moved as inaudible points through the silence. They carried an empty stretcher. From time to time the gaze of the younger man fell upon the stretcher and his eyes would fill with tears. It was not long before a doleful song streamed forth from his mouth, reverberating from the mountain with a thousand sobs. "Red of the morning, red of the morning lights the path to an early death." In the distance, bloody bolts of lightning tinged the sky. Suddenly the singing broke off and was followed by a faint groan. "Permit me for a moment," the young man said to the elder one. He rested the stretcher on the ground, sat down, closed his eyes and folded his hands.

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literature : interview

Dorthe Nors

by Lauren LeBlanc

"The adjective is just something we put in front of beings or places to tie them to the ground or lift them to the sky."

To Americans, Scandinavian literature in recent years has been synonymous with crime novels. Incidentally, the popularity of books such as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo introduced fiction in translation to thousands of readers who might not have otherwise encountered it. Writer Dorthe Nors found herself translating these novels before going on to publish her own work—fiction which is playful and dark in turn. But where Scandinavian crime fiction employs psychological strategy to probe a wide range of human depravity within the genre, Nors in no way conforms to this or any other literary standard. She experiments with form as a means to explore the rich inner lives of her characters. There's great humor and unflinching pathos in her examination of modern life in all of its absurdity and loneliness. She skewers our relentless need to be connected. Her story collection Karate Chop was published in 2014, and a collection of her novellas, So Much for That Winter, is now available from Graywolf Books.

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literature : review

Visible Men

by Paul Devlin

"A thousand clinics could not cure the sense of unreality that haunts Harlem as Harlem haunts the world."

Invisible Man: Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison in Harlem, which accompanies an exhibition now on view at the Art Institute of Chicago, collects and contextualizes one of the most significant archival finds of mid-century American culture: their hitherto lost 1948 collaboration—an essay by Ellison with photographs by Parks that offers a gritty panorama of Harlem life. Foreshadowing each man's achievements in subsequent decades, the book also reproduces and explores Parks's interpretive photo spread of Ellison's Invisible Man for Life magazine in 1952.

Parks was also an accomplished writer, and Ellison was also a professional photographer—a curiously symmetrical pairing that undoubtedly adds dimension to this reconstruction. They knew how to communicate, and Ellison even printed from Parks's negatives, which is how some prints ended up among his papers. At the time of this collaboration, Parks and Ellison—born in 1912 and 1913, in Fort Scott, Kansas and Oklahoma City, respectively—were running in parallel, both accomplished journeymen in the fields in which they'd find the most success. They'd both had years of significant achievement to look back on, but were still scrambling for steady traction. By 1952, both had achieved national recognition and prominence that would never dissipate. The book straddles that liminal moment when both failure (or at least frustration) and success looked equally possible.

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literature : first proof

Late Saturday to Early Sunday

by Olga Tokarczuk

Translated by Jennifer Croft

God created drugs with an addendum, a few minutes after midnight on Saturday night—in other words, on Sunday, when he wasn't supposed to be doing anything anymore, for the work of creation had reached its end. Thus it might be said that God's creation of narcotics was a violation of both law and order.

And the fact that he was tired after his six-day project is hardly an excuse.

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literature : interview

Daniel Saldaña París

by Ottessa Moshfegh

"I feel ignored and doomed to anonymity, but free to do whatever I want within the sacred space of literature."

I met Daniel Saldaña París last fall and soon discovered that we probably descended from the same galaxy; our imaginations have traveled a similar celestial pathway down into this mysterious shitstorm called "life on Earth." I'm not afraid of being completely grandiose and arrogant around Daniel. He's a generous friend and understands what it means to be overwhelmed by one's own growth, and devastated and entertained by the limitations of the idiots all around. It's important to have at least one friend like this.

This interview was conducted over email rather formally alongside a more personal correspondence. "All my appetites are on the rise lately. I want to eat, drink, and fuck all day. I think it may be from overexercising," he wrote. "Everyone is a slave. I am retreating from the brainwashed society. The only way for me to spiritual freedom is celibacy and daily purge of delusion," I wrote back. So, it's like that between us.

Daniel is from Mexico and writes in Spanish. I don't read Spanish, so I haven't read much of his work. His first novel, Among Strange Victims, was recently translated into English by Christina MacSweeney. As I read it, I felt I was witnessing a great performance. It reminded me a little of young Mozart showing off at the emperor's golden harpsichord, giggling and improvising variations on Salieri's welcome march, startling all the wigged and powdered Viennese stiffs. And I sensed something desperate and inflamed in the writing, too, as though the author assumed all along that nobody would ever read his book. That's probably what I like most about it—the cocky, indulgent, nihilistic virtuosity.

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literature : first proof

Horizontal Bar

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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