Luckily for many, Dalkey Archive is going to publish this autumn the English translation of Fragments of Lichtenberg, the bulky encyclopedic novel about the 18th century German scientist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg and his literary heritage. The playful premise of the novel is the belief that Lichtenberg’s aphorisms are not just disparate observations but rather snippets of an enormous roman-fleuve. Senge’s work is dedicated to the obsessive attempt by literary scholars to reconstruct the lost great novel. A French review promises the re-writing of Ovid, Robinson Crusoe, and Snow White as well as the appearance of Polichinelle and Goethe. The novel is a frolicsome and erudite mishmash of various genres with the indispensable marginal notes and embedded narratives. The reviewer describes it as “un gros machin tortueux à la Joyce” (a big tortuous Joycean thingamajig). It does sound promising, doesn’t it?
I am reading this huge French novel with echoes of Pynchon, Borges and Augusto Roa Bastos that I hope to review for this blog in the near future. While I’m at it, let’s take a look at some of the books to be published during the coming rentrée.
Antoine Volodine returns with Terminus Radieux. The novel is a set in a dystopian Siberia devastated by radiation and inhabited for the most part by the living dead and phantom soldiers. The title refers to the name of a kolkhoz (a Soviet collective farm) ruled by President Solovieï (the Russian for a nightingale), a man who invokes supernatural powers in search of omnipotence. In other words, 624 pages of pure madness.
Emmanuel Carrère’s Le royaume deals with the inception of Christianity in the 1st century. Among the characters figure St. Paul and St. Luke. The novel mixes history and the author’s personal reflections.
Pascal Quignard continues his Dernier Royaume series with the ninth volume called Mourir de penser. According to the brief description available on Amazon, the novel examines three issues: 1. In which way thought and death come into contact. 2. The affinity of thought to melancholy. 3. How thought protects itself against trauma.
Jean-Hubert Gailliot had been working on Le Soleil for eight years. The novel is about a certain Alexander Varlop’s quest to retrieve a stolen manuscript. The investigation proceeds from the Greek island of Mykonos, where the theft has taken place, to Palermo in Italy, and from there to Formentera in Spain. In the course of his inquiry, the protagonist finds out that the manuscript used to be owned by such luminaries of modernism as Ezra Pound and Man Ray as well as comes to the realization that he might be just a pawn in a game pursued by higher powers. The full description in French is available here.
These are the four novels that sound interesting to me. If something else draws your attention, let me know.
Contra Mundum Press is publishing this year the first volume of Szentkuthy’s erudite debut novel Prae. Something to look forward to. The towering figure of Hungarian letters remained virtually unknown in the English speaking world until the publication of Marginalia on Casanova, the first installment of his intellectual epic St. Orpheus Breviary, and the collection of critical thoughts and observations Towards the One and Only Metaphor. Dubbed by some as the Hungarian Joyce (partly because of his translation of Ulysses) Szentkuthy is in fact a distinct and original writer whose contribution to the 2oth-century culture is still to be fully assessed. This concise and alluring description of Prae at HLO should definitely infuse you with the yearning for its publication:
“Prae” is a huge mock-encyclopaedia of whatever we know (or its author knows) about mind and matter, history and self, language and reality, fact and fiction, man and woman. Its stance is a sort of Olympian irreverence of the writer as philosopher-clown toward controlling and ordering constructs of every description.
But there is more. A Szentkuthy issue of the journal Hyperion is available from Contra Mundum Press. A lot of interesting information there, including the biographical essay and some excerpts from his work.
If you can read French or Italian, grab your copy of Mikhail Shishkin’s The Capture of Ismail immediately because it’s his best and most difficult novel so far. If you thought Maidenhair was a challenge, you’re in for an overwhelmingly perplexing ride. Even most of the Russian critics were lost in this labyrinth of styles, voices and chronotopes. The novel is disorienting, frustrating and even outrageous. It requires multiple readings along with a notepad or an array of differently coloured highlighters to keep track of the characters and the events. Although a completely different beast, William Gaddis’s JR provoked in me a similar sense of confusion when time and again I suddenly realised that I was no longer sure of who was talking to whom.
Shishkin’s novel is an elaborate exploration of a certain theme through the media of masterly imitated styles and registers. Letters, diaries, lectures, law-court speeches, witness statements, criminology textbooks, ancient fables and chronicles, you name it. Out of these snatches and snippets, the writer gradually erects a horrifying monument to his major and perhaps only preoccupation: how to live with the knowledge of your inevitable death. That’s how Shishkin himself refers to the main agenda of his writing in an interview:
– For me, writing is like an attempt to answer the questions that I asked myself as a child. Once I was walking along with my grandmother, and on the side of the road we saw a dead cat. And my grandmother went home, got a shovel and returned. And when she buried it on the side of the road, I suddenly realized that I too will someday die… And grandmother will die, and all the people that I love and that love me will die some day. And what can one do about this? And ever since I have been asking myself: is it possible to fight death?
While walking through the atrocity exhibition unfolding on the pages of The Capture of Ismail, one stumbles over and over on this question and its derivatives. How to come to terms with death, injustice, suffering, disease, stench and putrefaction? The beauty of the language quite effectively brings home the sheer enormity of the subject matter. This contrast has become an immediately recognizable staple of Shishkin’s prose. The central motif is no less than suffering and death of a child. And you will find quite a few tormented children in this novel. There is even a defense speech in which an attorney tries to justify a woman who killed her own baby by invoking some primitive cultures practising infanticide as well as famous philosophers condoning it in certain cases. This passage appears to me a kind of A Modest Proposal with its satirical sting clinically removed. Shishkin is too serious to be grotesque.
Contemporary people like us, having just a different skin colour, smother, cut, strangle, drown, burn their babies, which is not considered a crime. On the Fiji Islands they still devour their children — read Bode or, at least Kohler. [...] Plato in his philosophical state without any hesitation destroys all the children conceived out of wedlock or by women older than forty. Moreover, he allows not only weak babies to be killed, but also those well developed, if the number of the newly born exceeds a certain limit.
Is it one of the main characters, the attorney Alexander Vasilyevich, defending just another client of his? I cannot confirm this with any degree of certainty since the novel is chock-full with interrupted plotlines that will not be necessarily resumed. The story of little boy Sasha who grows up to become the attorney Alexander Vasilyevich is one of the several developments that provide the reader with illusory stability in the chaotic environment of the novel. The atmosphere of a trial is asserted from the very beginning when we are introduced to the judge, prosecutor, attorney and defendant bearing the names of Slavic pagan gods. A woman referred to as Mokosh (goddess of fertility) is tried for murdering her blind mother. She is believed to have left her mother outside the house to freeze to death. The prosecutor in his speech mentions the Roman law according to which matricides were drowned in a sack with a dog, a rooster, a snake and a monkey. The attorney reminisces about a woman who shoved her supposedly stillborn baby into the burning oven, after which the doctor established that there was air in its lungs; hence, the baby had been alive. Mokosh is separated from her child. She fakes madness not to be sent to Siberia by smearing herself with her own excrement. When exposed, she strangles herself on the eve of the transportation. That’s it. And there will be more stories like that.
Most of the characters in the novel are pure nodes of suffering. There is very little hope all the way up to the semi-autobiographical Epilogue. One unhappy family replaces another until the author himself becomes a character in his novel. He does seem to be better-off than his fictitious predecessors, although there is enough misery in his own story to jerk a tear or two from an overly sensitive reader. Mind you, not necessarily everything is true, for Shishkin seems to throw in a good share of invention into his story. The more or less coherent plot-oriented parts of the novel tell us about people who are beset by death, disease and betrayal to such an extent that you cannot help but get rather desensitised by the time the book is finished. But what I find fascinating about this novel is actually everything besides these islands of traditional story-telling. That turbulent textual element which tends to break the narrative, and, out of the blue, overwhelm the reader with a ghastly historical testimony or a ludicrously salacious folk tale seguing into a cento of unattributed quotations. A postmodern symphony in prose, The Capture of Ismail is definitely one of the most impressive literary achievements by a Russian author in recent years. Shishkin’s approach in this novel is more radical and uncompromising than in his later two works available in English (Maidenhair and The Light and the Dark). One of my favourite episodes is the one in which a Russian medic arrives in Tundra to inoculate the Samoyedic peoples. A seemingly realistic story transforms half-way into a nightmarish journey to ancient Egypt which bears some resemblance to Russia at different moments in its history. A series of Biblical plagues is visited on the country, but, just like in the Bible, each time the heart of the King gets even more callous as large-scale iniquities are committed with renewed ardour.
Those who are familiar with Russian history will know that Ismail is the Turkish fortress captured by Russian troops at the end of the eighteenth century during the Russo-Turkish War. In charge of the storming was the legendary commander Alexander Vasilyevich Suvorov. In the novel, what is left of this historic event besides the title is the hapless attorney’s name which coincides with that of the great military leader. Actually, The Capture of Ismail crops up once in the narrative itself as the title of a circus routine a little boy wants to stage some day after watching a performance with trained animals. It will feature mice storming a cardboard fortress. The irony levelled at the impersonal grand history of the state is quite obvious here. Shishkin is more interested in individuals: humiliated, oppressed, hopeless and helpless. Being in their company is not the most pleasant way of spending your time, but that’s what you will have to resign yourself to if you wish to experience the best that contemporary Russian writing has to offer. I hope that the English translation of this novel will eventually appear and create a splash among readers of serious literature.
I can imagine dozens of Alan Moore buffs stumbling on this review, and grudgingly leaving the page as soon as they realise that it’s about a novel written by relatively unknown to the English reader Italian writer Giorgio Manganelli, not the psychogeographic exploration of the Victorian London and a paean to the mythology around Jack the Ripper. What can I say to these disappointed readers? Wait a little bit! If you are interested in Alan Moore’s From Hell, chances are you may take to this little novel too. By the way, in contrast to its English namesake, this book is actually set in hell. Without avoiding the inevitable nods to Dante’s Inferno, Manganelli’s work is an original and vivid description of a very personal version of hell. It is not an overpopulated canvas, but rather a miniature, which does not render the horrors depicted by Manganelli less spine-chilling than those immortalised by the great Florentine.
After death, the narrator finds himself in a place he believes to be hell. It’s a disorienting environment engulfed by fog in which things are usually not what they seem. He is met by somebody called the charlatan, whose role appears to oscillate between that of a respectful guide not unlike Dante’s Virgil and a sadistic demon right out of Pandemonium. The charlatan inserts a carnivorous doll into the stomach of the man, and since that moment the odyssey of this dead soul commences. What follows is a series of ceremonies and transformations interspersed by absurd dialogues. Actually, there is more of Samuel Beckett and Lewis Carroll in the infernal universe depicted by Manganelli than of Dante. Most of the characters are a weird lot that can’t stop wondering about the impossibility of making sense of their spectral existence, of time and space in hell and their experience thereof. The first ceremony is a game of dice between the narrator and the bizarre infernal denizens that seem to have stepped out of some lurid version of Wonderland:
I am sitting at the dice table, and around me there is a cat, a seal, a clock, and a chequered flag, a bit ruined; an experienced flag. We play: the minuscule dice fly and the doll gives me advice and pushes me. Make a bet now; now be careful. I lose hands and legs that get piled up in the corner; then I win them back, lose an eye, then an ear, then I start to win: the whiskers of the seal, the tail of the cat, all the odd numbers of the clock.
The main goal of the game is to lose. This ceremony is followed by another called “the pursuit of oneself”. The narrator gets involved in a wild chase of various malformed shadows, one of which is presumably himself. Undoubtedly, the self is one of the main motifs of the novel: how it is perceived by us and others, who and what we identify ourselves with. As the narrative becomes more confusing and unpredictable, different transformations of the main character occur. To mention just some: he turns into a moon, a city, a nose, a big toe, a penis, a winged creature. The absurdity of it all borders on sheer silliness, but the beautiful language and the vivid imagery give the author the benefit of the doubt. Partly, From Hell is a bona fide surrealist poem with free associations threaded one on another, the combination of uncombinable images, crass violations of logic, and unexpected alliterative explosions. This is how the narrator describes himself once he becomes a city teeming with all kinds of sinners and containing all possible instruments of torture and execution:
Cittá decrepita, antica, inveterata; mutili muri, affranti anfratti, dimore diroccate, vetusti vicoli viciosi. (A city which is decrepit, ancient, inveterate; mutilated masonry, fatigued fissures, dilapidated dwellings, crumbling cruel crooked alleys).
From time to time there arise quasi-learned discussions on what hell is, what structure it has and how it relates to the rest of the world: is it a an expanding maze? does it penetrate the whole universe like some noxious vapour? does it contain other hells? Of course, we never get any definite answers to any such questions. Even a lecture on the limits of hell delivered by a bespectacled amphisbaena leaves some room for interpretation. Whereas Dante’s Inferno is logical, hierarchical and coherent, the hell of Manganelli is simply preposterous. When the narrator undertakes a journey inside himself, the metaforicity of this experience is somehow ousted to the background. By that time we have seen enough of the place to accept the idea of a man literally walking inside his own body. The hallucinatory of the world of the living is the mundane in the netherworld. Different parts of the narrator’s body turn out to contain distinct places. Thus, in his fingers lie menacing grottoes inhabited by dragons,and in his right leg sprawls a deserted city. Further exploration of his body once again reminds us of the fact that there is no end to confusion and indeterminacy in this place. Here is what the dumbfounded traveller says when he enters his own head:
I see something that I can define as a project. I don’t know whether it is a palace, sarcophagus, battle plan, graveyard, altar; a huge wing of an unknown animal, the morphology of a non-existent and unpronounceable language.
The confusion experienced by the narrator is aggravated by constant deception and falsification on the part of the local dwellers. During his wanderings he meets several creatures that he exposes as false gods, one of which is a never-to-be-born foetus lying in an alchemist retort. And why should anyone be surprised when the narrator enters into a prolonged discussion on the false nature of divinity with a garrulous hairy ear surrounded by sentient mushrooms?
From Hell is as scatological as it is eschatological. There is shit everywhere. It threatens to inundate the poor man not only from outside, by also from within. In the course of the whole journey the main character has to suffer the nasty doll devouring his entrails and then defecating and urinating into his abdominal cavity. What is the significance of this perverse Beatrice? There might be many interpretations, but as to the real life prototype, there is more clarity thanks to Nicolas Tripet’s documentary Giorgio Manganelli: Discourse on the Difficulty of Communicating with the Dead. In an interview Manganelli’s daughter reveals that her father openly told her that he had her in mind when creating this character. She also mentions Manganelli’s terror of children, which sheds some light on the mixture of affection and aversion the narrator feels towards the creature nestling inside. It does seem like a very personal book, but it’s not my goal to dig deeper into the writer’s biography here.
As yet another attempt to look into the abyss, Manganelli’s novel will appeal to anyone who is interested in creative probing of the mythological dimension of hell. The neoavanguardia treatment of the subject matter adds a certain playfulness to it, so even the grimmest episodes that will not possibly make you laugh, might cause you to smile in disbelief at what you have just read.
It is my firm conviction that Patrick Süskind’s Perfume gave rise to a new sub-genre of the historical novel. I am not sure it is within my remit to give it an accurate definition or characterise it with the appropriate scholarly expertise. I will humbly abstain from any academic pretense. What appeared in the wake of Perfume‘s triumphal march is the historical novel that ironically revisits the 16th-18th century period with an unflinching portrayal of the gritty and explicitly gruesome aspects of life at the time, of that which heretofore had been either hushed up or considerably toned down. Right on the first page of his bestseller, Süskind makes it abundantly clear that what we are going to read is not some romantic Dumah-esque fantasy about the noble past:
In the period of which we speak, there reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women. The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells stank of moldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlors stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp featherbeds, and the pungently sweet aroma of chamber pots.
As you might know, this litany to various manifestations of the omnipresent stench goes on for a dozen more lines.
Some of the better-known excursions into the “gritty past” are Federico Andahazi’s The Anatomist and Andrew Miller’s IMPAC Award-winning Ingenious Pain. I would especially recommend the latter, which tells the story of an 18th-century English misfit completely impervious to physical suffering. The novel traces the trials and tribulations of James Dyer who makes a vertiginous ascent from a side-show freak to a prodigiously skillful (if cold-hearted) surgeon.
The Peruvian writer Fernando Iwasaki’s short novel Tooth Worm is a worthy addition to the said sub-genre. Welcome to the ghastly world of the 17th-century dentistry! If truth be told, I had never asked myself what would have befallen a person with teeth problems several centuries before. After reading Iwasaki’s book, I realised how lucky we are to inhabit the era of cutting-edge dental care.
Originally, the Spanish word neguijón was used to denote an elusive worm that was believed to nestle in the human gums and cause caries by eating away at the molars. Iwasaki graphically describes the way barbers, the dentists of the period, devastated their patients’ jaws with a hair-raising assortment of chisels, pincers, hammers, lancets and hooks in search of the mythical creature. Moreover, the reader has an exciting opportunity to see what these tools exactly looked like thanks to the illustrative woodcuts borrowed from historical medical treatises. In case your curiosity has been piqued, this illuminating post at Chirurgeon’s Apprentice will supply you with additional details concerning the long-standing tradition around the existence of the notorious parasite.
The alternating chapters of the novel are set in two different time frames and places. In one of these chronotopes we follow the adventures of several characters trying to escape from a prison in Seville during a bloody mutiny of the convicts; in the other we trace their fate in the Vice-royalty of Peru after the lapse of some years. Generally speaking, there are no healthy characters in Iwasaki’s novel. Each of them has some kind of ailment that could be treated at the time by such gut-wrenchingly barbaric methods, as, for example, the removal of a renal calculus through the patient’s anus. (In case you wondered, yes, Iwasaki gives a detailed description of this procedure as well). They suffer a lot and incessantly meditate on suffering as they go about their daily life. There is no lack of lurid musings like this:
Perhaps it was fever or melancholy, but while his bones were being sawed and the wound cauterised by boiling oil, it occurred to “Stumps” that a pair of pincers tugging at the molars caused even greater pain.
Of a particular interest is bookseller Linares who has organised the distribution of Don Quijote from Spain to the New World. There is something Quixotic about the man himself, as most of his knowledge about the world stems from the numerous tractates, disquisitions and compendia he has voraciously read. In an episode reminiscent of the book-burning scene in Cervantes’ masterpiece, Linares observes with a bleeding heart chaplain Tartajada, one of his companions in misfortune, choose which books to sacrifice for the makeshift barricade erected to delay the onslaught of the rampaging galeotes.
Bookseller Linares burst into tears as the chaplain added to the defensive wall Peter Martyr’s Decades of the New World edited by Nebrija, for he had recalled that it was about the giants of Patagonia and the sirens of the island of Cuba, more beautiful and affectionate than those of Madagascar. Or when he had to plug a nearby hole with the Sevillian edition of Summa de geografía by Bachelor Fernández de Enciso, a marvelous bestiary of the West Indies, whose forests were roamed by cat monkeys, lizards the size of bull-calves and pigs with armour of scales.
Linares even puts on a barber’s basin on his head for protection before an imminent attack of the criminals besieging the prison infirmary where he and his companions have found a temporary shelter. His main motivation to stay alive is the overwhelming longing to dip into the codices and manuscripts he has set out to read, for death itself is not as frightening to him as the grim prospects of “eternity without books”. It comes as no surprise that his ruminations on possible death are irredeemably bookish, as he wonders whether the forthcoming quietus will fit the description found in The Agony of Crossing Over by Alejo de Venegas or rather that of Alfonso de Valdés’ Dialogue of Mercury and Charon. Such meditative mood runs through the whole novel. Not really much happens in Tooth Worm story-wise. Except for a scuffle or two and flashbacks of a naval battle, the major events are tooth-pulling, gum-piercing and amputation. From beginning till end, we are immersed in the flawed world of brutal medical practices, following one excruciating manipulation after another, with little respite in between.
The lush language of the the novel deserves a special mention. To say that reading Tooth Worm has been a challenge would be an understatement on my part. A historian by education, Iwasaki has done his homework with an insufferable diligence. The diction of El Siglo de Oro returns with a vengeance on the pages of the book, forcing a meticulous reader to rummage through the academic El Diccionario de la lengua española on the regular basis throughout the whole reading. Iwasaki employs very rich vocabulary, and is always ready to pile a heap of synonyms or related words wherever he deems necessary. For instance, in the very first sentence of the novel we come across four different words for the sound of ringing bells: tañido, repique, doblar, rebato.
At the end of the book there is an eleven-page bibliography listing all the treatises mentioned by the characters of Tooth Worm. According to the author himself, he has invented only one apocryph, The Book of Treasure and Padlock of the Poor Knights of Christ and Solomon’s Temple, because The Knights Templar literature simply did not exist at the time. It’s always a pleasure to hold in your hands a carefully researched historical novel that not only offers the titillation of observing the gritty past from the safe distance of the technologically advanced twenty-first century, but also makes you aware of the vast body of medical knowledge produced by the time Don Quijote was published, and without which we might not be sitting so poised in the dental chair today.