“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Thursday, December 30, 2010

On Pseudo-Hiatus

Just a quick note for anyone who's noticed the lack of posts on this blog over the last few weeks: I'm taking a break from the blog until the end of January when my Triple R reviews will resume (unless, for whatever reason, I decide to post something in the interim). I have been reading away, trying to get through some books from 2010 that I missed along the way, so you can expect reviews of some or most of the following next year: Gert Jonke's The Distant Sound, Jenny Erpenbeck's Visitation, Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad, Evan Dara's The Easy Chain, and a 'classic' novel--Henry Green's Loving. Oh, and happy new year and all of that.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Best AusLit 2010

Once again, in no particular order, I've listed my favourite works of Australian literature from 2010. This is an admittedly selective list and I'll just note quickly that it omits areas I tend not to read in, specifically 1) Australian genre-fiction, and 2) realist novels written by big-name authors. I have no doubt that I'm missing a lot of great genre work (and, of course, I hate the term 'genre', since much genre writing is both less formulaic and more innovative than much 'literary' writing), but--as to the second category--I'm simply allergic to that kind of fiction, so you won't see it here. Anyway, below is a list of great books definitely worth reading (and most of them were published by small publishers, too).

  • Other Stories by Wayne Macauley
I think I've raved about this book about as much as is possible, including naming it my favourite book of short stories from 2010, and being given the honour of launching it. If you haven't bought it yet, do so now, and if you want to know why you should, then read this or this.

  • Glissando by Dave Musgrave
To me, this is a book that really didn't get its due this year; many of the reviews of the book seemed more puzzled by it than anything else (or, worse, simply called it 'clever'). For my money, this is the most interesting Australian novel published in the last year, and it's full of inventive, comic prose, while still dealing with important Australian themes. All I can say is that from here on out, I'll read anything--absolutely anything--that David Musgrave publishes. Read the review here.

  • Like Being a Wife by Catherine Harris
This collection of stories reveals a sharp, dry wit and presents everyday situations through a wonderfully strange lens that never settles into either realism or surrealism. Harris is an extremely talented author and demonstrates mastery over the short form without ever simply falling into the trap of Carver-esque minimalism. Basically, it's a great book. Read the review here.

  • How a Moth Becomes a Boat by Josephine Rowe
Rowe offers a set of delightful stories in miniature, but, despite their brevity, they never feel slight or undernourished. This collection is real accomplishment and manages to do something genuinely interesting with the short story form. Read the review here.

  • The Mary Smokes Boys by Patrick Holland
The Mary Smokes Boys is a weird little book--and I mean this with the absolute greatest respect. Written in beautiful prose, this book keeps seeming like it's a realist novel, but, when you finish it, you realise it was something else entirely: a romance (in the medieval sense) or a fable that seems both in the world and somehow outside of it. Read the review here.

  • Child of Twilight by Carmel Bird
This is the first book I've ever read by Carmel Bird, and I'll have to admit that I was genuinely surprised to find that I really, really liked it, given that the themes within the book are outside of my usual interests. For me, it's not 100% perfect (I still have a few reservations about the framing device), but, at the end of the day, Bird is a world-class prose stylist. This is quite an unconventional novel full of weird and wonderful characters and which always manages to surprise, twisting and turning in directions that the reader wouldn't have expected. Read the review here.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Best Fiction in Translation 2010

Below is a list of my favourite books in translation from 2010 (in no particular order--I refuse to do 'top ten' lists as if such rankings are aesthetically meaningful). But these books are all incredibly great and worth reading. N.B. I've decided not to include any Roberto Bolano, for two reasons: 1) he's basically his own phenomenon at the moment (deservedly, I'd argue), and 2) I haven't read all of his books that have been translated this year. 

  • Zone by Mathias Enard
This novel composed of one continuous 517-page sentence is rightly being described as a masterpiece; it combines high modernism with spy-novel conceits and--whether or not you like it (and I did)--is a book that's certain to provoke a reaction. Read the full review here.
  • Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou
This hysterically funny novel filled with stories told by unreliable narrators in the Congo is an exceptional mixture of literary erudition, bleak humour and prosaic brilliance (and it's yet another novel basically devoid of full stops). I got to meet Mabanckou at a conference in Melbourne this year, and he was also very gracious, which was exciting for me (at least). Read the full review here.
  • The Literary Conference by Cesar Aira
Aira--who uses a pseudo-Dadaist compositional technique that involves not revising--writes weird, mad, little novellas. The Literary Conference, a book about cloning Carlos Fuentes, is an otherworldly delight. Read the full review here.
  • Prose by Thomas Bernhard
This book, Bernhard's first, is a collection of stories that could ultimately be construed as his juvenilia--but Bernhard's juvenilia is still better than 99% of all other authors' mature prose. The story 'The Cap' in here was my favourite short story of 2010. Read the full review here
  • Microscripts by Robert Walser
Even if Walser weren't one of the most singular prose stylists of the 20th Century, this book would be worth its price just for its reproductions of his 'microscripts'--stories written in pencil on the back of little scraps of paper with tiny letters that are less than 1 mm tall. Read the full review here.
  •  Running Away by Jean-Philipe Toussaint
This book could be best-described as a cross between the movie Lost in Translation and a Three Stooges slapstick film. Toussaint is a writer who would appeal to fans of both Samuel Beckett and Haruki Murakami, and, for all of his jokes, his books also manage to locate a real sense of melancholy and loss. Read the full review here.
  • Best European Fiction 2010 edited by Aleksander Hemon
Technically, not every story here is in translation, but 95% are. For my money, the Dalkey Archive, who published this collection, is pretty much the best press in the world, and while not every excerpt in here may appeal to you, Best European Fiction 2010 is a treasure-trove of authors who are still undeservedly unknown in the Anglophone world. Read the full review here.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Book Review: Zone

Mathias Énard

Mathias Énard’s Zone tells the story of a day in the life of Francis Servain Mirkovic, a French secret service agent of Croatian heritage, who is travelling by train through Italy; Mirkovic’s journey is no simple holiday, however. He is carrying a briefcase filled with secret documents that he intends to turn over to a man in Rome in exchange for enough money to retire from his life as a spy. Despite this set-up—which may sound worthy of an Alfred Hitchcock movie—Zone is no page-turning thriller, or at least not one in any conventional sense. Indeed, this novel, which has been translated from the French, is best-known for its unusual formal qualities: its 517 pages are composed of one, continuously running sentence.
            Technically, there are few full-stops in the book (at a few points Mirkovic reads chapters of an imaginary novel with standard punctuation and formatting), but by and large the book is written in a stream-of-consciousness style that catalogues Mirkovic’s freely associating thoughts while he is riding on the train. The use of this mode has lead some reviewers to compare Zone to some of the monumental works of 20th-Century Modernism, like James Joyce’s Ulysses and Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. With its political themes, pulp-fiction conceit, and more modern setting though, Zone is considerably more accessible than either of those two books. (And I would argue that more apt comparisons might be Claude Simon’s Flanders Road and Hermann Broch’s The Death of Virgil, which share both Zone’s breathless style and its thematic emphasis on war and empire). Zone is, nonetheless, a highly allusive and intentionally ‘literary’ book, which references such writers as Ezra Pound, Jean Genet, Robert Walser, Proust, Hemmingway, Ferdinand Celine, Homer, William S. Burroughs and Malcolm Lowry, among many others.
            But more than anything, Zone is a book about the history of European wars and genocides (with a particular emphasis on the eastern end of the continent where it elides into the Middle East). Indeed, the spies that Mirkovic works with simply refer to Europe as the ‘zone’, and Énard shows an incredibly vivid and interesting familiarity with this material cataloguing the Trojan War, Napolean, World War II, the Balkan Wars, and the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, in which Mirkovic served as a soldier. Mirkovic also spends a great deal of time ruminating on the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide and the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Yugoslav Wars, as well. All of which is to say that Zone isn’t exactly light reading, and Énard does nothing to spare his readers from the gritty details of life in a warzone.
            But for all of this ugliness, Zone itself is a beautifully written book, and Énard demonstrates incredibly precise control over his prose, which moves easily between Mirkovic’s present ride on the train and his often-harrowing memories. I’ll be honest—readers who are put off by difficult books (and don’t like stream-of-consciousness works by writers like Virginia Woofe and William Faulkner), probably won’t be converted by Zone, but for any reader willing to give something a little bit more challenging a go, Zone is an absolute must-read, and would certainly appeal to readers who have enjoyed Roberto Bolaño’s longer books like 2666 and The Savage Detectives. Zone is perhaps the most important literary work to be translated into English in 2010, and it’s absolutely essential reading for anyone with an interest in world literature.
Read an excerpt from Zone. Buy Zone here.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

What I've Reviewed in 2010 (with a Digression on Sexism and the Avant-Garde)

Next week, I'll be going through a series of my favourite books from 2010 (grouped to some degree by genre or country). In preparation, I thought I'd list the books I've reviewed this year; of course, this isn't the totality of what I've read (not even close), but these are basically the books I'll be choosing from next week. Here they are:

1.)  Zone by Mathias Enard (coming next week)
2.)  Six Tenses by Ryan O’Neill
3.)  Aliss at the Fire by Jon Fosse
4.)  A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava
5.)  The Philanthropist by John Tesarsch
6.)  The Empty Family by Colm Toibin
7.)  The Lost Scrapbook by Evan Dara
8.)  Leaving Home with Henry by Phillip Edmonds
9.)  The Literary Conference by Cesar Aira
10.)  The Mary Smokes Boys by Patrick Holland
11.) The Convalescent by Jessica Anthony
12.) C by Tom McCarthy
13.) Like Being a Wife by Catherine Harris
14.) Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things by Gilbert Sorrentino
15.) Other Stories by Wayne Macauley
16.) Richard Yates by Tao Lin
17.) Prose by Thomas Bernhard
18.) Kraken by China Mieville
19.) Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou
20.) Selected Short Stories by Janet Frame
21.) Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco
22.) Epitaph of a Small Winner by Machado de Assis
23.) Microscripts by Robert Walser
24.) How a Moth Becomes a Boat by Josephine Rowe
25.) Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya
26.) The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
27.) Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives by Brad Watson
28.) Antwerp by Roberto Bolano
29.) The Norseman’s Song by Joel Deane
30.) Child of Twilight by Carmel Bird
31.) The Theory of Light and Matter by Andrew Porter
32.) Reality Hunger by David Shields
33.) Glissando by Dave Musgrave
34.) Running Away by Jean-Philipe Toussaint
35.) Best European Fiction 2010 edited by Aleksander Hemon
36.) Barley Patch by Gerald Murnane
37.) 2666 by Roberto Bolano
38.) The Supply Party by Martin Edmond
39.) Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

I'm pleased that I was able to review authors from many different countries around the world, including Austria, Australia, Brazil, Chile, The Congo, El Salvador, France, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, The Philippines, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. (I'm not quite sure what happened to continental Asia, which is something to consider for next year.)

There is, however, also some bad news: I only reviewed books by five female authors (about 13% of my reviews). I didn't consciously intend to exclude women writers, but--in looking at this list--it's clear that I need to at least think about gender in relation to what I review next year.

One reason for this skewing--or so I suspect--is that my preference is very much towards work that is in an 'experimental' or avant-garde tradition; despite the importance of many women in this tradition (just off the top of my head: Djuana Barnes, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Mina Loy, H.D., Marianne Moore, Muriel Rukeyser, Kathy Acker, etc.), it still often seems--and this may well be due to media bias and coverage--that there's a lower percentage of women writing in the 'experimental' tradition than in other areas (although I'm not naive; I realise there is a larger bias against women authors in all areas, full stop). I do wonder about the reasons for this: are women writers in this tradition simply facing an uphill battle for exposure, or is this an area of writing that is, in fact, overwhelming male--and, if so, why? (N.B. I'm not sympathetic to the argument that formally experimental writing is inherently sexist, although I'd certainly be willing to agree that its current cultural formation is sexist). I'd love to hear your thoughts and comments about why women appear under-represented in this area of fiction...

If nothing else, this gives me a good reason to look at a few authors I've been meaning to read, like Herta Muller, Elfriede Jelinek and Ingeborg Bachmann. Who else am I missing? What other female writers in the aftermath of the avant-garde are out there that I need to read?