The latest addition to my website is Pierre Senges‘ Fragments de Lichtenberg (Fragments of Lichtenberg) . This is another glorious post-modern romp, this time taking as it starting point the relatively unknown German scientist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg. Lichtenberg left behind a collection of what he called Sudelbücher in German, which translates as, approximately, scrap books in English, containing a large amount of aphorisms. The basis of this work is firstly to look at Lichtenberg and his life from various aspects, some historical and some decidedly fanciful and, secondly, to follow a group of people known as Lichtenbergians, who think these fragments can be arranged to form a coherent Great Novel. Most of them not only want to create a great novel but a specific great novel, such as a variation of Robinson Crusoe or Snow White’s eighth dwarf (and many more). Lichtenberg has great fun mocking them all, while taking the idea well beyond the realms of normalcy, all the time keeping his tongue firmly in his cheek. It is a enormous fun and completely over the top.
The latest addition to my website is Ricardo Piglia‘s Respiración artificial (Artificial Respiration). This novel, published during Argentina’s Dirty War, goes around that issue, focussing on history and literature and, using, to some degree the detective novel form. The first part involves an exchange of letters between writer Emilio Renzi and his uncle Marcelo Maggi. Renzi had learned from the family that Maggi had stolen money from his wife and run off with a dancer. It seems that the real story is more complicated, involving politics. Maggi is writing a book about Enrique Ossorio, who worked in the early nineteenth century for an Argentinian dictator, while spying against him for the opposition and the aggrieved wife is the great-granddaughter of Ossorio. In the second part of the book Renzi goes to meet his uncle but does not find him but has long discussions, primary about literature with his uncle’s friends. The book is enigmatic, discursive and one of the great Argentinian novels.
The latest addition to my website is Pierre Senges‘ La réfutation majeure (The Major Refutation). This is a brilliant pastiche, allegedly the French version of a sixteenth century work by the very real Franciscan monk Antonio de Guevara. No manuscript of this work has been found and, even if it did exist, it is not sure that De Guevara was the author. I wonder if Senges was inspired by the quote from Alain Resnais’ My American Uncle, in which a character says America doesn’t exist. I know. I’ve been there.. The basis of the refutation, written thirty years after Columbus and after other subsequent explorers, is that the whole discovery of the Americas was a fraud. There is no such continent. De Guevara proves this by showing vested interests who want it to exist, previous accounts, the fact that if it is so big someone, lots of people, would have discovered it before and so on. His arguments are brilliant and ingenious and the book is incredibly erudite and well-written, even if entirely tongue-in-cheek. Who knows, perhaps Donald Trump is just the figment of some Hollywood mogul’s imagination?
The latest addition to my website is Jean Stafford‘s Boston Adventure. Jean Stafford had a strong reputation when this book was released in 1944 but her reputation seems to have faded (this book is currently out of print, though easily obtainable). The book tells the story of Sonia Marburg, twelve years old when the book starts, daughter of poor immigrants to the US (he, Hermann, German, she, Shura, Russian) who live in (the fictitious) small town of Chichester, across the bay from Boston. Shura has mental health issues and is not happy with her lot. Hermann is not happy, either, having hoped to make his fortune in the US. Shura works as a chambermaid in a hotel mainly catering for summer visitors from Boston but is often substituted by Sonia when she is unwell. There Sonia meets a rich Bostonian, Miss Pride, who takes an interest in her and when , firstly, Hermann runs away, and then Shura is committed to an asylum, Miss Pride takes Sonia in as her trainee secretary. Stafford mocks the Boston patrician society, seen primarily through Sonia’s eyes. Sonia herself feels trapped and more or less Miss Pride’s plaything but cannot find a way out. Though a bit dated, it is a book still worth reading.
The latest addition to my website is César Aira‘s Yo era una mujer casada [I Was a Married Woman], one of his stories that has not (yet) been published in English. This one tells of a woman, Gladys, in a terrible marriage. Her husband abuses her, drinks, does drugs and takes all her money (she is the sole breadwinner). She has no real friends, only imaginary ones, her parents are on the other side of Buenos Aires and she rarely sees them. She does not leave him saying it could be worse. She is surprised when he decides to visit them but horrified when he returns with a box which, when she opens it, contains the heads of her parents. Eventually, but only after a few days, she realises that they are not real heads but merely models, made by a sculptor friend of her husband. She subsequently gets very ill and, when she returns from hospital, finds her husband has sold most of her possessions and is sitting in a chair, in a catatonic state. She does find a solution but not even vaguely the obvious one, involving a magic carpet, a ruby and, in particular, a statue hidden away in a poor neighbourhood.
The latest addition to my website is Robert Walser‘s Jakob von Gunten (Jakob von Gunten). This was an unusual novel for the time, as it is told inside the head of the protagonist, a young man who fantasises, has strange dreams, is full of contradictions and may be an unreliable narrator. Like Walser himself, Jakob leaves his well-to-do family and enrols (at his own expense) in a school that is concerned with educating future servants. Jakob does not really fit in, clashing with the headmaster, quarrelling with the faithful knight, Kraus, a fellow student who is much more obedient than Jakob and is nominally his best friend, and wondering what is going on as the teachers do not teach and the instruction that we enjoy consists mainly in impressing patience and obedience upon ourselves. Jakob rebels and adapts as well, accepting at times his own worthlessness but then challenging it. The novel was clearly ahead of its time, as Walser’s reputation only really came after his death.
The latest addition to my website is Joyce Cary‘s Herself Surprised. This is the first in a trilogy which primarily aims to give, in each volume, the points of view of the three main characters. This one gives the point of view of Sara Monday. She starts as a housekeeper, marries the son of the house, has four daughters with him, but is broke, when he dies with many debts. In the meantime she has met Gulley Jimson, the key character of the trilogy, an artist, wife-beater, reprobate, scrounger, and, from the perspective of the reader, an unlovable man. However, he is fiercely independent, painting what he wants, even when given a paid commission. His talent is open to question many times during the book – most people do not like his work – but he has much support and even has a painting in the Tate Gallery. However, Sara continues to support and help him throughout the book, even coming close to marrying him and only not doing so when she finds out he is already married. Even when she is working as a housekeeper for Wilcher, the third key character of the trilogy, she helps Jimson, stealing from her employer to finance him, with disastrous consequences. But it is Jimson that makes this book and the other two books of the trilogy – the not very lovable rogue.
The latest addition to my website is Jean Giono‘s Le Grand Troupeau (To the Slaughterhouse). This is Jean Giono’s World War I novel, telling of the horrors of that war. We follow both the fate of those left behind (but near the front), older men and women in this novel, as well as their loved ones off fighting a bloody and vicious war. The story tells of a particular family, with the two young men away fighting and the old man and the young women left to look after the farm. While the old man and the young women struggle, Giono, in particular, spares us no details of the actual war, with one of the young men, Olivier, seeing most of his unit killed, several in front of him, and images of crows and rats eating dead bodies. This is definitely not of one Giono’s joyous novels but a worthwhile addition to the literature of the horrors of war.
The latest addition to my website is Julien Gracq‘s Au château d’Argol (The Castle of Argol). This was Gracq’s first novel and was rejected by Gallimard, no doubt because it is somewhat overwrought. It tells of a rich, noble scion buying, sight unseen, a remote castle in Brittany, to which he invites Herminien, his best friend, and Heide, Herminien’s girlfriend. During the course of the novel, we meet no other person, apart from a brief glimpse of a servant, and with the castle, hidden in a large and mysterious forest and overlooking the sea, with a deserted coastline. Albert and Heide seem to fall in love almost at once and the inevitable love triangle plays itself out, though what we might most remember is the lavish, Gothic descriptions Gracq gives us of the castle and its surroundings.
The latest addition to my website is Ivan Cankar‘s Hiša Marije Pomočnice (The Ward of Our Lady of Mercy). Cankar is often considered the father of the modern Slovenian novel. This is a very sad story, set entirely in a charity ward for girls in a Viennese hospital. All the girls have some unpleasant disease and most of them will die during the course of the novel. We see all the girls as individuals, Malchie, based on the daughter of Cankar’s landlady in Vienna, Tina who has visions, Lois, the haughty girl from a rich family but whose parents are obnoxious, Katie, the lonely working-class girl whose father is a drunk and whose long-suffering mother dies before she does. The charity ladies are mocked as are some of the parents but Cankar feels a lot of pity for these poor girls, as we do after reading this novel.