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.

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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.

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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.

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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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