Pure Wartime

God knows what you all see in America. I see war and devastation. The fucking pilgrims leaving England ’cause there wasn’t enough law and rigidity there, coming here hating all ideas, thought, questioning; the Quakers and the Pilgrims fighting it out with the money people in NYC and Washington and we’re the result. Great. Don’t think just kill ’em all. This country has already been through its empire and hasn’t even started to think. What I see here is a big black hole; no wonder everyone’s thirsting for religion: thirst is thirst; they hate the Arabs ’cause the Arabs are cultured.

Kathy Acker in gorgeous full-rant-mode from I’m very into you. It’s a collection of correspondence between Acker and McKenzie Wark between 1995-1996. It makes me want to immerse myself more deeply into both writers’ work. I read a lot of Acker in my late twenties, but haven’t done more than dipped into Wark’s writing.

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Han Kang’s The Vegetarian


It’s been ages since I read a book as fast as I read The Vegetarian by Han Kang, with its savagely beautiful cover. Fifty pages in I knew that this well-written novel, translated by Deborah Smith, would not release me until I read the final pages. The simple and direct narrative is ironically in direct contrast with the secrets that overpower the lives of its thoroughly fleshed out characters.

Although The Vegetarian is a desperately sad story, there are well-observed moments of  disarming beauty, as when a mother recalls her son giddy with the thrill of making her laugh, or the loneliness of the sound of a child sucking their thumb in a silent, darkened room.

Although its story is simple enough, The Vegetarian defies straightforward categorisation. Its characters are presented as conventional people, average to the point of cliché, at least until their transformations occur. The novel is compelling, not because of the intrusion of discomfort into the characters’ routine existences, but because when it raises the question of what would we do in these circumstances, the writer’s response offers surprises for both characters and reader.

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Genre Sublimation (Bieńczyk, Sebald, Bae Suah)

It isn’t possible to read books like Marek Bieńczyk’s Transparency without seeing traces of Sebald, rather like the lost Da Vinci that might lie hidden behind the Vasari mural in Florence. Bieńczyk’s form of literary historiography weaves autobiography and literary text in a discursive fusion that mostly works, though it gets a touch soggy through the middle section.

Sebald asked “what is literature good for?” and answered his question: “Perhaps only to help us to remember, and teach us to understand that some strange connections cannot be explained by causal logic.” Bieńczyk and Bae Suah’s literary sensibilities appear sharpened on this whetstone, writers that roam outside the narrow margins of genre. Bae Suah’s Nowhere to Be Found and Bieńczyk’s Transparency, though different in technique, share this reflexive subtlety that evokes a dreamlike response long after you’ve replaced the book on the shelf.

These books that reject the grinding repetition of the conventional novel are what I seek out when I read, texts that offer greater freedom than the swindle offered by tired novels that insist on controlling their readers with outdated literary devices.

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Admitting Light: Not Entirely

In Ancient Greece they used the lovely word diaphanes. You can repeat it for its pleasure alone, not knowing what it means, but feeling how it fills the mouth with clear air and opens it to the sun with its double a. It has survived in English as diaphanous and is found in the Romance languages, as diafan in Romanian, and in French diaphane. In Romanian it refers to something light and delicate, like a feather or a spring dress; the French usage puts greater emphasis on admitting light: not entirely, but noticeably. Porcelain can be diaphane, or an autumn leaf, or parchment, the old or aristocratic skin on one’s hands. Broadening this meaning one can also use diaphane to describe a silhouette (“it was beautiful, elegant, and diaphane“) or even sunlight seen in a particular way (“The sun was clear and diaphane, like white wine.”) (Despite their delicacy, both quotes are drawn from Sartre.

Marek Bieńczyk, Transparency. trans. Benjamin Paloff. Dalkey Archive Press, 2012 (2007)

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Transparency, Transparencia, Prezroczystość

Here’s a taster of Marek Bieńczyk’s Transparency, so good that I want to share, but also because typing it here it slows me down. This is one of those books, that you want to inhabit as long as possible, one of those books that convert into language thoughts or sensations you know have always been with you.

Why transparency, transpicuousness, transparencia, przezroczystość? Might this light have come to us from elsewhere? First of all, perhaps because of this: Couldn’t I say that it, transparency, is the first thing I remember in life, like an icon or roadside cross? The first image: a bright, empty room in the morning, with an enormous patch of sunlight, a yellow square on the wall. The air thus illuminated, with quivering bits of dust, so pure and full in that light that it seemed its interior had been revealed, so that transparency allowed the gaze to penetrate its bare surface to see an even deeper purity. Thus it lay dormant through long years, occasionally broadcasting a covert desire for solitude, quiet, absence; it was a visual projection of life,  of life’s unexcavated proto-Gospel, until at lasting burst out in the fullness of its name, transparency, transparencia, prezroczystość, as a theme, as truth and illusion, as the hobby of existence, the graspable handrail against which we may lean our very being, something we might even try to pour into text.

Marek Bieńczyk, Transparency. trans. Benjamin Paloff. Dalkey Archive Press, 2012 (2007)

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Strange Struggle With Meaning

It was during this translation [of Blanchot’s work] that I experienced another strange struggle with meaning: when in a simpler paragraph I found I could follow the thread of M. Blanchot’s argument from one sentence to the next, and that it made sense to me, I could not summarise at the end of the page or even at the end of the paragraph, what I had just read. I thought that this was my own weakness; then when I described this difficulty to others I found that it was true for them as well: it was in the nature of the argument to resist summary. Resisting summary did not mean resisting understanding. Somehow the experience of reading had to take place moment to moment; one had to remain in the moment and not look back on the whole; or dwell inside the moment and not stand back from it; one’s understanding proceeded like the guide’s flashlight illuminating one by one the animals painted on the wall of the ancient cave.

Lydia Davis, For Maurice Blanchot. Nowhere Without No, Vagabond Press, 2003

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An Unwitting Education

My education has been so unwitting I can’t quite tell which of my thoughts come from me and which from my books, but that’s how I’ve stayed attuned to myself and the world around me for the past thirty-five years. But when I read, I don’t really read; I pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop, or I sip it like a liqueur until the thought dissolves in me like alcohol, infusing brain and heart and coursing on through the veins to the roots of each blood vessel.

Bohumil Hrabal, Too Loud a Solitude. trans. Michael Henry Heim. Abacus, 1993 (1976).

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Max Frisch, Bae Suah and Meaningless Existence

There are my old chestnuts, those writers to whom I’ve become attached. They are sufficient that I could just read and reread their works till the end, but something compels me to seek out new voices, or those that are new to me.

Three decent train journeys provided enough time to be disappointed with Max Frisch’s Man in the Holocene, not for its writing, which was quiet, meticulously observed and refreshingly bleak, but for its conservatism. It began as a novel about a man pottering about his house pondering the storm outside, how we are eroded by age and disenchantment, and how minuscule we are in time and space, and turned into the recounting of a perilous journey. The ending unspeakably compromised what started as a tale of the utmost simplicity. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with Frisch’s story if this sort of novel amuses you, just simply not to my taste.

The coal-dark humour of Bae Suah’s Nowhere to Be Found is far closer to the complicated depths I seek in apparently simple novels. Bae Suah’s characters inhabit the meaningless of existence, echoing TS Eliot’s hollow men, painfully aware that “life is very long, ” and that things more often end “not with a bang but a whimper.” I wanted this book to go on for so much longer than its hundred pages, with its loops, its repetition and its uncertainties.

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Istanbul Rewards Persistence

Finished reading Istanbul: Memories of a City by Orhan Pamuk, a book I almost abandoned on a couple of occasions, struggling with its insipid writing style. Through a series of thematic essays, Pamuk scrutinises Istanbul, his family and growing up in the city, through an engagement with the work of other writers, photographers and painters. There is just enough charm to impel, but hindered by a narrative crammed with an exuberance of ill-assorted facts.

Visiting Istanbul this month with my daughter provided just enough provocation to wade through the pages that resemble an exhibition catalogue. I’ve not read Pamuk before, and most of the book left me ill-prepared for the last half dozen chapters where the writing soars if not to sublimity, but definitely to a type of grandeur.

I finished Istanbul today because I felt like nothing else but reading in the garden, bathed occasionally when the sun shook off the clouds. I read Istanbul, with a Beethoven piano sonata in the background, the first book I finished reading this month and the first since Doctor Faustus. By the final pages I’d grown rather attached to Pamuk’s book, which like its eponymous city, makes few concessions to its readers.

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But a Cloud

For my part, there is no difference at all between my own days which have gone by and the distant days of Noah about which I have heard. I have nothing in the world but the hour in which I am: it pauses for a moment, and then, like a cloud, moves on.

Samuel ha-Nagid (Ismail ibn Naghrela)(Spain, 993-1055)

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