Heartwood 5:2 – The Green Child

JacketHerbert Read’s three-part novel, The Green Child, starts out with a bang. In the first paragraph, a South American dictator’s assassination is revealed to have been faked as he, our protagonist Olivero, is on his way now by ship to Europe.

You know, it really might be best to start reading this book without knowing anything more (I’d save the book’s Introduction as well until after you’re done). But if you’re going to disregard this advice, I’ll let you know that this book explores such wide-ranging things as the structure of society and political systems (especially of a Utopian sort), the value of surrendering to wherever your personal destiny will lead you, and the possibility of alternative worlds with their own integrally complex cultural beliefs and practices.

The three sections of the book are distinctly different. The first part of the novel, concerns Olivero’s return home, after thirty years away, only to discover the stream where he once spent so much time is now flowing in the opposite direction. His moonlit investigation into this conundrum is quickly compounded and sidetracked (in ways you will simply have to discover for yourself) before the chapter ends in a most dramatic fashion.

The middle section deals with the protagonist’s stumbling into the role of benevolent autocrat for a small community in inland Argentina. My only quibble with the book is just how smoothly things go for Olivero once he gets to Argentina, but it’s fascinating and fun to watch as he and a few others work to overturn the existing government and institute the ideals of revolutionary Europe which have come down to us from Voltaire, Rousseau, and Volney.

The third part of the book picks up – in a through-the-looking-glass way – where the first left off and shows Read as an effective world-builder. This section places Olivero and the green girl in reversed roles from what we found in the first chapter, only this time the individual’s attempt to adjust and assimilate into an utterly foreign culture is brought to full maturity in a calmly beautiful conclusion.

But stop, I’ve already said too much. Step away from whatever screen you’re reading this on and go treat yourself to a most unusual and thought-provoking reading experience. The Green Child awaits.

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Heartwood 5:1 – Tristram Shandy

celibacyTristram Shandy
by Laurence Sterne  (1713-1768)
749 pgs.  Everyman’s Library, 1991.
Originally published, 1759-1767

Many a reader and literary critic has commented on Laurence Sterne’s 18th Century novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. So, I’ll defer to these many others, saying only that I had good fun reading this, especially the first two parts, in which the reader shares time with Tristram’s father and uncle Toby and their various hobby-horses.

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OK, it hardly seems fair to such a delightful and unconventional book to leave it at that. Unlike Tristram, I wanted to make short work of this, but I guess I should at least outline the story and highlight some of the book’s most noted traits.

The main characters are Tristram’s father (Walter) and his uncle Toby, accompanied by an assortment of characters at Shandy hall. The main events in the story surround Tristram’s conception, his physician-bungled delivery, botched Christening, and further botched circumcision – all relayed with comic brio. Walter expounds with great flair on various and sundry subjects, and battle-wounded uncle Toby, along with his sidekick Corporal Trim, reenact the sieges they read about in the newspaper. The latter part of the book includes Tristram’s Grand Tour through Europe and ends with uncle Toby wooing his neighbor, the widow Wadman.

But these bare plot details in no way prepare you for the what awaits in Tristram’s telling of the story. So, let me say a little about that.

The story unfolds as a mashup of narrative styles, told out of chronological sequence, and filled with digressions and interruptions along with various appeals to the reader and other acts of authorial self-consciousness. The influence of Cervantes is notable as are Locke’s notions about the irrational association of ideas. Sterne leaves a variety of gaps in the text: using asterisks to replace words, blank spaces and even blank pages, and in one place he’s actually excised a chapter along with its associated page numbering. There are occasional drawings, and at one point Tristram diagrams the digressive paths taken in earlier parts of his book and promises (falsely) to be a more linear storyteller henceforward. The author’s Preface appears toward the end of volume I, and the Dedication to volume III comes mysteriously after Chapter XIX. It should be mentioned that Sterne’s narrative style was important to the development of psychological fiction, modernism, and even postmodernism.

storytelling graphic

Now you must be thinking this sounds like a book mostly interested in showboating and trickery, but it’s much more than that – this is deeply enjoyable reading, with warm and eccentric characters, interesting ideas and situations, and short chapters that most often propel the reader humorously along. Readers who have enjoyed Don Quixote should have fun with this as well. You could surely do worse than to while away some time in the company of Tristram and the brothers Shandy.

Heartwood Favorites – 14 from ’14

Below you’ll find the list of books published this year that I most enjoyed.

Heartwood readers know that my main reading interest is older international literary fiction, but I also read new releases, as well as some non-fiction and poetry. Additionally, the old and the new come together when foreign books that were published years ago finally get their first (or a new) English translation.

What I most admire about the books below is what makes them so difficult to write about – their dexterous and creative way with words; their narrative idiosyncrasies, interiority, and perspicacity; the frequent interweaving of other cultural material (especially literature and art); a sense of place uniquely realized and expressed. These books offer fascinating, richly satisfying pleasures to the reader, but consternation to the list-maker who wishes to convey the essence of these reading experiences.

So rather than write my own capsule summaries, I’m simply listing the titles. But you can read summaries or brief reviews in the library catalog by clicking on the titles. For most of the books I’ve also linked to longer reviews from a variety of sources, and for two of them I’ve linked to reviews I did manage to write earlier this year.

I liked most everything I read that was published this year – a rare and happy situation –but these were the cream of the crop. If you like good writing I think you’ll find something here to enjoy.

Fiction

BridgeBridge
by Robert Thomas
BOA Editions   156 pgs.
read more: Bookslut, Kirkus, author website

 


Hotel AndromedaHotel Andromeda
by Gabriel Josipovici
Carcanet   139 pgs.
Heartwood review

 

 

HarlequinsHarlequin’s Millions   (orig. pub. 1981)
by Bohumil Hrabal
trans. Stacey Knecht
Archipelago Books   312 pgs.
read more: Tweed’s, WaPo, Words without Borders
see also: Heartwood on Hrabal’s I Served the King of England

Pushkin HillsPushkin Hills   (orig. pub. 1983)
by Sergei Dovlatov
trans. Katherine Dovlatov
Counterpoint Press   161 pgs.
Heartwood review

 

ProfessorThe Professor and the Siren   (orig. pub. 1986)
by Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
trans. Stephen Twilley
New York Review Books   69 pgs.
read more: Complete ReviewParis Review
see also: Heartwood review of Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard

ConversationsConversations   (orig. pub. 2007)
by César Aira
trans. Katherine Silver
New Directions   88 pgs.
read more: Three Percent, Entropy, Public Books

 

Unnecessary WomanAn Unnecessary Woman
by Rabih Alameddine
Grove Press   291 pgs.
read more: LA TimesBoston Globe, WaPo, SFGate 

 

 

Unclassifiable Comic Book / Fiction / Non-Fiction Hybrid

FantomasFantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires   (orig. pub. 1975)
by Julio Cortázar
trans. David Kurnick
Semiotext(e)   87 pgs.
read more: Complete Review, MIT Press, Three Percent
see also: Heartwood review of Cortázar’s Hopscotch

 

Non-Fiction

Place in the CountryA Place in the Country: On Gottfried Keller, Johann Peter Hebel, Robert Walser, and Others   (orig. pub. 1998)
by W.G. Sebald
trans. Jo Catling
Random House   208 pgs.
read more: NY Times, The Spectator, LA Review of Books, Slate             

Collection of SandCollection of Sand   (orig. pub. 1984)
by Italo Calvino
trans. Martin McLaughlin
Mariner Books   209 pgs.
read more: The Guardian, The Independent, Bookanista 

 

SidewalksSidewalks
by Valeria Luiselli
trans. Christina MacSweeney
Coffee House Press   110 pgs.
read more: Asymptote, LA Review of Books, Music & Literature

 

Geek SublimeGeek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty
by Vikram Chandra
Graywolf Press   236 pgs.
read more: NY Times, New Republic, Complete Review

 

 

Poetry

CaribouCaribou
by Charles Wright
Farrar, Strauss, Giroux   82 pgs.
read more: World Literature Today, NPR, TweetSpeak

 

 

Moon Before MorningThe Moon Before Morning
by W.S. Merwin
Copper Canyon Press   121 pgs.
read more: The Rumpus, Poets@Work, The Wichita Eagle

 

 

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Heartwood 4:6 – Pushkin Hills by Sergei Dovlatov

Pushkin HIllsIn Sergei Dovlatov’s entertaining Pushkin Hills, Boris Alikhanov is a struggling writer who takes a job as a tour guide at Pushkin’s estate. The book begins with his journey there and his interactions with the other guides and cultural functionaries. He gets settled into a squalid room with a raging alcoholic known as Misha for a landlord (whose drunken babblings include some great non sequiturs and neologisms). Boris learns what he has to in order to give tours and he seems to enjoy it, despite having to put up with ignorant tourists. He stays away from offers to go out for a drink, remarking that it’s easy for him to say no to the first one but once he starts he’s like a train without brakes.

Boris has a wife, he’s semi-separated from, who wants to emigrate to America with their daughter, but he doesn’t want to leave Russia, saying it would be a disaster for an author to be removed from speakers of his native tongue. You get the idea that Boris doesn’t write much but he has managed to publish a number of pieces in literary magazines and they have caught the eyes of Soviet censors. The news of his wife’s emigration plan causes Boris to fall off the wagon in a big way, and his spontaneous candor in a phone conversation with her after she has left the country raises the question of whether or not they will ever be getting together as a family again (yet he seems like a guy whose various transgressions are frequently forgiven).

This is a stylish and snappy piece of writing that surprises the reader with unexpected turns and an episodic storyline. Dovlatov is fond of witty dialogue and of aphorisms, such as “You want justice? Relax, that fruit doesn’t grow here.” There’s something both straightforward and enigmatic in his concise sentences. He leaves you wanting more – in a good way – and he tempts you to reread him for the pleasure of his prose, in this case, capably translated by his daughter Katherine. This is a short, comic, satisfying novel that should appeal to most readers.

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Masha Gessen, writing in the New York Review of Books, says in Russia Dovlatov “went from being a writer known to very few to a household name and, finally, to the status of a classic. Dovlatov is to Russian vernacular what Casablanca and Mark Twain are to American speech.”

Heartwood 4:5 – Hotel Andromeda by Gabriel Josipovici

Hotel Andromeda in the Everett Public Library catalogIn Hotel Andromeda, Gabriel Josipovici has written a beautiful and thoughtful tribute to eccentric 20th-century American artist Joseph Cornell, while also telling an engaging story of his own. This is one of those rare books in which, at least from my perspective, not a single false note is struck and every word belongs.

Helena is an independent scholar who lives in London and writes books about artists such as Monet and Bonnard. She is currently working on one about Cornell, and it is giving her some difficulty. In rotating fashion, the short chapters focus on Helena’s notes for her book-in-progress, her visits with fellow tenants Ruth (on the top floor) and Tom (in the basement), and her interactions with the surprise visitor, Ed, a photojournalist who has been driven out of Chechnya where Helena’s uncommunicative sister Alice lives and works at an orphanage. Helena learns that Ed has been sent by her sister who told him Helena would put him up temporarily as he looks for work. She is stunned by the appearance of this inconvenient messenger from her long-silent sister but she reluctantly agrees to let him stay.

Not a lot happens in the book – just perfectly executed conversations about art and life and contemporary Chechen/Russian politics, along with conflicted yearnings for connection, communication and solitude. The way Cornell’s life and art are woven through the story is fascinating and skillfully done, and these sections suffuse the book with an aura of dream, reminiscence, imagination, and childhood.

Heartwood normally focuses on older books, but I enjoyed Hotel Andromeda so much, with its short chapters and narrow columns of dialogue, that I wanted to give it some immediate attention. Josipovici’s book also fits here in a couple other ways: in several places it refers to Heartwood-featured author Camille Flammarion, and, as chance would have it, a photo of the Cornell box Hotel Eden appears on the cover of Felisberto Hernández’s Lands of Memory which was featured in Heartwood earlier this year.

The library owns several attractive books about Cornell, or you can read about him and sample his work online here and here and here.

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Heartwood 4:4 – The Birds by Tarjei Vesaas

The Birds with citationThe Birds is the story of Mattis, a man with learning disabilities in his late 30s, and his sister Hege who takes care of him. They live near the shore of a lake somewhere in rural Norway. Hege knits sweaters almost constantly to bring in the little money that supports the two of them. Due to his general ineptitude, Mattis is unable to secure much in the way of work  – he’s even worn out his welcome as a day laborer, though his neighbors could always use the help at harvest time.

Mattis is afraid of thunderstorms, is spellbound by the habitual flight-path of a woodcock, and sees omens in the two dead aspen that everyone refers to as Hege and Mattis. The story is told from Mattis’s point of view and we quickly discover his enthusiasms and desires as well as his worries and fears. We also come to understand with great intimacy the complex personality that lies beneath his “simple,” slow, and clumsy behavior. Every detail is significant in Mattis’s life and the natural world is especially filled with meanings, both awe-inspiring and frightening.

In one of my favorite scenes, a couple of bikini-clad girls rescue Mattis and his sinking rowboat from an island in the lake. He manages to take charge of the situation, rowing the girls in their boat and towing his empty boat behind as the girls indulge his vanity and chat with him along the way. This success helps convince him that he should offer a ferry service to take people across the lake. But everything changes for Mattis when he brings a lumberjack across who then takes lodging at the house with him and his sister.

I don’t know if I would have ever heard about this tremendous book if I hadn’t been reading My Struggle, the remarkable, multi-volume autobiographical novel by Karl Ove Knausgaard that’s been getting all kinds of coverage in the literary world in recent months. There is quite a bit in Knausgaard about art and music and literature, and somewhere in Book Two he complains about Norwegian fiction of the past fifty years, contentiously claiming The Birds (from 1957) is one of that country’s last successful novels. I love to follow leads like this, what Alan Jacobs calls reading upstream –  that is, finding out who has influenced the writers you admire and then reading the books they have read or enjoyed. Since reading so often shapes a writer, it’s frequently worth taking the bait when an author you like starts dropping names. It definitely worked for me in this case. So, who influenced Tarjei Vesaas? I don’t know yet, but after reading The Birds I’m beginning to think I should find out.

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Heartwood 4:3 – Colonel Chabert by Balzac

Colonel ChabertThe Colonel at the center of this novella by Balzac was left for dead and buried in a mass grave during the Napoleonic battle at Eylau. After miraculously digging himself out and being ever-so-slowly nursed back to health by a farmer couple, he returns to Paris where he discovers that his wife has remarried, and that she treats the news of his survival as the scheme of an imposter and would-be usurper of her (his) fortune. Chabert is penniless, physically disfigured, and ridiculed by those who hear him tell of his battlefield experience. He convinces a lawyer to take his case in the fight to restore his name and fortune, but his dignity and honor are no match for human avarice and callous disregard.

This powerful moral tale, told in Balzac’s capable yarn-spinning style, contains some of the darkest views of humanity to be found anywhere in his multivolume The Human Comedy. That the human condition has not improved since then can be readily confirmed by a casual glance at the daily newspaper. The book ends with the last encounter between the destitute and raving Chabert and his lawyer, Derville, who gives Chabert some alms and afterward tells an associate that he is leaving the practice of law and bitterly condemns the egregious behavior he has seen throughout his career, the multitude of “crimes that justice is powerless to rectify.”

I picked up Colonel Chabert after reading about it at length in Javier Marías’s recently translated book The Infatuations – a novel that opens with a shocking murder and is deeply concerned with questions of desire, moral erosion and the slippery slope of rationalized self-interest. The Infatuations also features some beautiful writing about grief. I encourage you to read both.

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