Heartwood 5:5 – Leavetaking by Peter Weiss

LeavetakingLeavetaking is a compelling autobiographical novella by German-born Peter Weiss set in the decades building up to World War II.

Years have passed since the end of the war, and now that the narrator’s parents have both recently died, the adult children gather at their old house to settle the estate. The narrative unspools as an unbroken thread of the narrator’s reflections upon his early life, triggered by the return to the home of his upbringing. And I do mean both unspooling and unbroken – the novella takes the form of a single long paragraph, recounting events from the narrator’s boyhood and moving beautifully – steadily but unhurriedly – through his adolescence. The long-paragraph form takes a little getting used to, but the pacing overall achieves an intoxicating, immersive flow.

Weiss’s story includes a number of common experiences of childhood – the bullying frenemy, the intimidation of going to school for the first time, rebellion against parental rule, and the riches of childhood play and imagination. The second half of the book includes some frank scenes of his burgeoning libido, including some incestuous foreplay with his sister Margit. There are times when the storytelling gets very compressed, such as the surprising announcement of his sister’s death.

The narrator is captivated by literature, music and art, and he resists the idea of following his father in the textile trade or any other conventional avenue of work. As a young man he spends his time painting and wants to be an artist, getting help and advice eventually from Harry Haller, a character based on Weiss’s real-life mentor, Herman Hesse. His parents resist his artistic inclinations and his mother violates the trust he places in her as guardian of his paintings.

Readers might be surprised at how unconcerned with politics the young narrator is, at a time when Hitler’s regime has caused his family to move a number of times. The book ends with the narrator awakening in a way from his own self-involvement and indicates a turn toward others and toward the problems of the world. This is a fine short novel, well worth the small investment in time it takes to read.


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Heartwood 5:4 – Journey by Moonlight

Journey by MoonlightWith the encroaching demands of respectability hovering over his life as a lawyer and confirmed bourgeoisie, Mihály leaves Budapest with his wife Erzsi for their honeymoon in Italy. But he seems to be happier wandering the dark back streets of Venice alone than spending time with his new wife. While at an outdoor café in Ravenna, János, an old rival of Mihály’s, speeds up on a scooter and urges him (while also insulting Erzsi) to help him find their mutual friend, Ervin, who recently became a monk and is living somewhere in northern Italy. This blast from the past launches Mihály on adventures and misadventures that find him boarding (accidentally?) a train that takes him on an Italian sojourn away from his new wife, feeling his sanity ebbing upon the edge of a psychic whirlpool, and foremost, seeking some kind of resolution to a past dominated by his deep friendship with the enigmatic and death-obsessed brother-and-sister, Tamás and Éva Ulpius.

At the center of the quest is the spirit of Tamás, who committed suicide young, and Mihály’s realization that he has always been in love with Éva. Hungarian author, Antal Szerb has fun weaving various plotlines together in a casually-paced and satisfying fashion, reconnecting the remaining far-flung friends in ways that are filled with mystery and ambiguity. The story unfolds with unexpected developments and insights in ways that are warm, exploratory, intelligent, paradoxical, sensitive and, at times, ridiculous (but never gratuitously so, never over-the-top).

So what can you expect to find in Journey by Moonlight? Life and death, infatuation and love, the struggle against conformity. The intensities of youthful friendships. Romanticism, individuality, spirituality, the piled-up ruins of history. Impermanence and the lure of the past. The seeming link between eroticism and death. The supernatural is another recurring theme. Is there an afterlife? Do spirits of the dead return? And beneath it all – amid the ambiance of Venice, Tuscany and Rome – the question of whether it is better to die than to sacrifice the ideals of youth to the mundane concerns of the workaday world.

This book really got under my skin and, even with its fixation on mortality, I’d say it’s one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in recent years.


A review in Words without Borders calls Journey by Moonlight a “masterpiece of high modernism,” and notes that “Szerb’s novel has rightly become a cult classic in Hungary, a book read by all Hungarian students in much the same way that American students read J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye.” It goes on to list some of Szerb’s accomplishments: “president of the Hungarian Literary Academy by the age of thirty-two, full professor at Szeged University by the time he published Journey by Moonlight, two-time winner of the Baumgarten Prize (1935, 1937), brilliant literary scholar (An Outline of English Literature (1929), History of Hungarian Literature (1934), History of World Literature (3 vols., 1934)) and talented translator of writers and critics such as J. Huizinga, R. B. Sheridan, P. G. Wodehouse, and Henry Walpole.” Szerb was placed in a forced-labor camp in 1944 and died there in 1945.

Heartwood 5:3 – Adventures in Immediate Irreality

BlecherFor a moment I had the feeling of existing only in the photograph.

To read this book is to put yourself into the hands of a writer of uncommon sensitivity, insight and intelligence.

Structurally, Max Blecher’s Adventures in Immediate Irreality is composed of short, episodic chapters chronicling events in the life of the narrator from his boyhood to his years as a young man. They explore childhood haunts, early experiences of sexuality, his fascination with the cinema, fairs, waxworks, and things to be found in dusty attics. There are weddings and funerals, fever dreams and moments of equilibrium, and through it all an extraordinary perceptiveness.

Blecher’s primary concern is with the subjective mind and body confronting a world of everyday objects and matter amid places so vividly experienced as to seem somehow unsettled or even cursed. Attention to sensory perception abounds as sights and smells and sounds and textures are distilled in the many potent images and scenes. Sex and death commingle, waxwork figures take on a greater reality than living people, and the intricate webs that Blecher carefully spins he just as brilliantly collapses upon themselves. Hypersensitivity and melancholy rule the day and create for the narrator a sense of crisis arising from nothing more than living among things in the sensible world. Dust, mold, muck, blood. Sunlight. An uncanny interchangeability between subject and object; the mere membrane that separates certitude from incertitude. For Blecher, it’s as if Proust’s madeleine moments result not in wonder and fascination, but in vertiginous existential crises of dissociated identity, of being inexorably in the world but also separated from it.

The notion of life as stage and stage-set are everywhere in Blecher. As mentioned earlier, the wax museum especially captivates him, but also the cinema, and fairs, with their side-show spectacles. The artificial blossoms into reality while the real world around him flounders, meaningless as the drift of stars. Most remarkable to me is the concentrated attention Blecher gives his experiences, deftly weaving their sensory fullness into the particular scenes and the fluctuating waves of his agitation.

Blecher has been compared with Kafka and Salvador Dali, but the writer most closely associated with him may be Bruno Schulz, with his similar images of moldering objects, dust and heat, dress-maker’s dummies in stifling fabric shops, and the irreality of particular places.

Maybe it’s best, at this point, to let this most interesting book speak for itself. Here are a couple of passages in which the narrator finds himself immersed in the powerful aura of everyday things:

We could find additional melancholy antiques in another abandoned upstairs room, this one in my grandfather’s house. Its walls were lined with strange paintings in large gilt wooden frames or smaller pink plush ones. There were also frames made of tiny seashells assembled with meticulous care. I could gaze on them for hours. Who had pasted the shells? Who had made the tiny, agile movements that brought them together? Dead works like these gave instant rebirth to whole existences lost in the mist of time like images in parallel mirrors sunken in the greenish depths of dream.

All at once the surfaces of things surrounding me took to shimmering strangely or turning vaguely opaque like curtains, which when lit from behind go from opaque to transparent and give a room a sudden depth. But there was nothing to light these objects from behind, and they remained sealed by their density, which only rarely dissipated enough to let their true meaning shine through.


Max Blecher was born in 1909 and spent most of his life in Roman, Romania.  He was diagnosed with spinal tuberculosis at nineteen and died at the age of twenty-eight. He corresponded with such 20th-century figures as André Breton, André Gide and Martin Heidegger.

Further reading:
Max Blecher’s Adventures – The Paris Review
The Immediate Unreality – Dialogue on the Threshold
Beyond the Visible Plane – 3 a.m. Magazine
Brute Matter: Max Blecher’s “Adventures in Immediate Irreality” – Michigan Quarterly Review

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.


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.


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



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 


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




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.


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.”