Tove Ditlevsen, trans. by Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman
RaveThe BafflerDitlevsen, as The Copenhagen Trilogy attests, refused to view the autobiographical text as a method of refining and distilling the self or granting it the long-view continuity a bloated project like Knausgaard’s My Struggle aims for. Resolution and synthesis were the lies of an average pen. Often described as a confessional writer, Ditlevsen seems implicitly to pose another, more urgent question: How exactly does one confess when the self is jagged, discontinuous, and prone to shifting with the wind? ... Ditlevsen’s writing can feel almost classical at times, a doomed Entwicklungsroman , rather than ethereal or self-evading; the early pages of The Copenhagen Trilogy brim with realist portraiture and charming neighborhood grotesques ... what complicates Ditlevsen’s self-portrait is her willingness to wield her reluctance to cohere as a battering ram—the text’s atmosphere is closer to the unwieldy essayism of Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights than the overdetermined misanthropy of a book like My Year of Rest and Relaxation . Contaminated by uncertainty and ambivalence, the notational quality of Ditlevsen’s depressive perception reveals itself as something more complex—experience isn’t so much flattened in her work as fractalized ... the distance of the present-tense narration is infinitesimal, almost asymptotic. Absent any hindsight, a preternatural evenhandedness reigns ... Her great achievement in The Copenhagen Trilogy was to compose a book that registers at once its author’s claims to continuity and the jagged contours of fact, that allows her projected salvation and terminal despair to coexist—if not in life, then at least on the page.
Patrick Modiano, tr. Mark Polizotto
RavePloughsharesEscape, the duplicity of memory, and oblivion itself—all, Modiano suggests, are essential to the act of living, which entails the periodic recreation of the self. What makes Invisible Ink such an enchanting read is its insistence on the importance of \'those spaces where memory blurs into forgetting,\' and its glyptic insights into the mechanisms by which forgetting offers up alternative chronologies, which in turn allow the past to be reconfigured ... His emotional payloads court the ineffable, resolving often into a feeling of windsweptness, of the multiplication of doubts, of having missed out or of having somehow, subtly, led oneself astray. His novels seem tacitly to ascribe to Barthes’s description of literature as \'never anything but a certain obliquity, in which we get lost.\' And so it hits, and hits hard, to find at the close a character doing what would almost seem, given all that’s gone before, an impossibility: trusting her memory.
MixedCleveland Review of Books... a work so ethereal and cobbled-together it seems a generous gesture to call it a novel at all ... abstruse dialogue and off-kilter sense of action ... If you’re inclined to think flying on a plane is unpleasant but maybe not the acme of alienating experiences, the novel’s opening pages are probably going to feel a little heavy handed. There’s a solemnity to the book that DeLillo seems to have tossed over it all like a fat comforter—it falls indiscriminately, draping everything from the seemingly supernatural to the banal in a flocculent sense of dread ... Some of the novel’s earliest thoughts on the constrictions placed on communication by contemporary life are...some of its most lucid ... DeLillo, here uncharacteristically sentimental, is concerned with the question of where exactly language is free ... an interrogative novel, but too often it frets over the sort of airy, unactionable queries that typify a certain brand of geriatric humanism ... DeLillo’s modish prophesying borrows, to a fault, apocalyptic thinking’s compressed experience of time.
Adania Shibli, Trans. by Elisabeth Jaquette
PositivePloughsharesTold in a procedural style redolent of the clinical detachment that typifies Coetzee’s own prose—an almost preternatural smoothness that seems to evade ideological commitment, as though the author is hiding behind the jointless armature of his prose ... Shibli is a deft chronicler of the blinkering of life wrought by oppressive regimes, the way their manifold codes and proscriptions tighten around perception like a coil of barbed wire ... In a way, Shibli seems a hierophant of the minuscule—in her text, minor details suture the past and present together, operating on a sub rosa level that beggars historical elision ... Shibli’s novel seems to model a wandering historicism, proceeding from one minor detail to the next and tracing, in the process, the filiation of sorrows, or what Édouard Glissant once called \'the relentless resumption of history.\'
Fernanda Melchor, Trans. by Sophie Hughes
PositiveBrooklyn RailAs the pummeling torrent of prose rushes forward, it runs over Melchor’s characters like an avalanche, incorporating the depths of their personalities—their speech patterns, their hopes, their loves, and (more frequently) their hates. Vitriolic, ribald, and brimful of expletives and slurs, the language trundles onward like a black sludge, a punishment to read ... Though the narration swarms parasitically around the book’s characters, adopting their language and tone, there’s a manic energy to the writing that seems always to interfere, holding the characters at bay and preventing them from taking full control of the narration. The slinking of Melchor’s sentences feels like a vision of the obsessive chains—of personality, of circumstance—that bind her characters to their fates. The way the writing rolls and churns, accreting clauses and voices, manages to decenter the characters’ perspectives. In this sense, Hurricane Season can often read like a bar-room conversation run amok, a hurly-burly convocation of wrathful voices. Interestingly, we never hear the Witch speak, so that in the end the book enacts structurally its central metaphor—the Witch is imprisoned by the perspectives of those around her, a cyclone of judgments and opinions that entrap and impale.
PositivePloughshares\"...a deeper excavation of the sordid ballet of human desire and a fresh dose of his incisive investigations of social and sexual alienation ... An episodic narrative told in clean slices that resemble self-contained short stories, Cleanness has a familiarly autofictional capsule structure ... The analytical distance that opens up in the prose is par for the course in Cleanness, as the narrator’s experiences are refracted again and again through the lenses of place and time ... Greenwell is obsessed with the periodicity of personal desire—the way age brings with it a categorizing of passions, a sifting of old loves down into sedimentary layers of intensity. This in turn adds an air of antiquity to the self, extending back as it does discretely into the past; it’s why the book can feel at once so perilously modern and so coolly baroque, and why a Sebaldian melancholy seems at times to waft up like a fog through the spaces in Greenwell’s lovingly turned sentences ... a curious, hypervigilant distance is always present in Greenwell’s writing, a product of the nascent fear of exploitation that pervades his writing and of his desire to schematize the passions. The relatively cool and collected narration of the book is essentially an attempt to view the flames of desire through a pane of tinted glass ... Which isn’t to say the book isn’t frequently and unbearably lovely ... What makes Cleanness so astonishing to read is Greenwell’s ability to discover again and again, in the midst of the calamitous storm of love, these moments of paradoxical calm.\
MixedOn the Seawall... a bumpy, fractious collection. L’Heureux’s stories range from sensitive, essentially realist studies of the fraught Catholic experience in the 1960s to ecstatically experimental tales, soaked in a punchy irony, that interrogate the extremities of religious experience via an equally extreme torquing of form ... The book’s first section, Mysteries, compiles a series of hyper-stylized stories that, with their stripped-down, schematic plots and didactic heavy-handedness, inhabit an uneasy space between parable and satire ... an ending fairly typical of L’Heureux’s short stories — a jumbled revelation that may sometimes feel perfunctory and too neatly gift-wrapped, as though L’Heureux had simply dropped the reins of his writing and exited his study in a hot air balloon ... Sometimes one registers a certain roteness in L’Heureux’s prose, a fundamental earnestness and belief in the step-by-step construction of stories which, combined with his reluctantly dark sensibility, may leave his stories feeling like an odd cross between Cheever and Oates. But sometimes the blandness plays to impactful effect ... At their best, L’Heureux’s sentences express a devotional cadence, shuffling languorously onward; their willingness to extend themselves, to fold in additional adverbs and adjectives and absolute phrases, is a mark of desire, the wish to prolong the palliative properties of prayer ... L’Heureux is often criticized for the indefatigable wryness he tends to bring to his narration, and for his willingness to too artfully arrange his plots. Oddly enough, the most affecting stories in The Heart is a Full-Wild Beast are those in which he abandons himself to omniscience, dictating the story with the warm wisdom of an avuncular god.
Hiromi Kawakami, Trans. by Allison Markin Powell
RaveOpen Letters ReviewYou don’t really need to be aware that Parade is a loose sequel to Kawakami’s previous novel, 2017’s Strange Weather in Tokyo, to enjoy the former, since it stands on its own as an enrapturing display of writerly grace and restraint ... there’s a slow sensuality at the core of Parade, a product of Kawakami’s relaxed faith in the blessedness of the quotidian. Time unfolds on a human scale, marked by minor intimacies ... You often get the impression that time has been loosened somehow, as though Kawakami were stringing it up leisurely on a washing line, careful to place her clothespins just so. At only seventy-nine pages, the book is an alchemical feat of miniaturization, a distillation and bottling-up of the essence of a summer afternoon; her slight, subtle prose turns so casually away from excess detail that the resulting image of reality is imbued with a curious weightlessness. We’re left with an ash-skeleton of sorts, or whatever remains after a lazy afternoon has burned away—the fibrous weave of a rotted-through leaf, say, or the hollow lambency of a cicada shell ... he nested dreaminess of the text—its air of rapt involution—is partly a result of this desire to transcend narrative time ... Kawakami’s depictions of haptic connection are stones dropped into a pool, reverberations in the empty vase of the self which, though they fade and leave us with no definite image of our desires, are enough, for a time, to fill the hollow vessel of the flesh, and to restore to the spindly architecture of the novel some measure of the sonority of being.
Bohumil Hrabal, Trans. by Paul Wilson
RaveFull Stop... it’s a violent romp, a coruscating horror story draped in crisp sheep’s clothing ... an extraordinary, heartrending read ... But it would be reductive to claim the book is powered only by its shock effects. Above the baseline brutality of All My Cats Hrabal weaves a startling and profound meditation on the zigzagging dialectic of care and violence, a befuddled study of the ways these drives intertwine, blend, and support one another in a haunting, inescapable form of symbiosis. There are, rest assured, plenty of limpid, tender scenes of interspecies communion—enough, by my count, to eke tears from the serest eye—and Hrabal’s treatment of his cats is by and large marked by a deep sensitivity ... The yeasty, buoyant formula that sends Hrabal’s stories rambling off like Catherine wheels—incorporating, greedily, everything they touch—produces a fictional vision in which tenderness is always one step away from brutality. The spellbindingly heimisch details of the text are, you quickly realize, only moments of stall before a great plunge ... It would be hard to overstate how moving these final pages of are, and they only gain in emotional heft when you consider the peculiar circumstances surrounding Hrabal’s death ... The violence that is the other end of caretaking, the dissolution of the self in the cared-for thing—it’s all there in Hrabal’s final tumble. The mystery and occlusion—the ironic indeterminacy of it all—is one final wink.
Hiroko Oyamada, Trans. by David Boyd
PositivePloughshares... a cool, self-controlled presentation tinged with a creeping surrealism ... What’s so startling about The Factory is the way Oyamada depicts the factory’s ascendance as a product of simple, placid acceptance. Despite the ghoulish creatures that prowl the margins of the novel, it’s really the specter of economic insecurity that provides The Factory with its generative anxiety ... The vagueness and matter-of-factness of Oyamada’s language has a clear purpose, increasing the disturbing sense of inevitability that pervades the story.
MixedCleveland Review of Books... seems a conscious attempt to expand the purview of [Lerner\'s] own brand of autofiction. In one sense, the novel’s polyphony, which incorporates the voices of Adam’s parents, is a way of allowing autofictional tropes to reenter the narrative...But perhaps more importantly, it’s also plumbly in line with Lerner’s muse-like interest in Whitman, whose transcendent democratic vision and co-opting of voices is central to the mission of The Topeka School and its investigations of ;bad forms of collectivity\' ... loves to make connections, to spell things out, but Lerner often pulls up short when it comes to interpreting the Midwest itself ... The anxieties of the Whitmanian mission—of achieving a sense of community through the writtenness of the world—turn out to be intractably twined with the anxieties of autofiction itself. Can autofiction effectively represent the Midwest? Lerner’s answer, as best as it can be made out, would seem to be a qualified yes—qualified because the Midwest-as-subject fractures, like a jutting iceberg, the narrator-centric unity of a traditional autofictional work ... The emptiness and expansion of the Midwest, so allusively touched on, produce an anxiety of cohesion that, undealt with, leads to the book’s few flaws. It’s undoubtedly responsible for the book’s awkward sociological bent, for instance. It’s why the subplot about Darren—a lost boy whose italicized tale of growing rage bookends each of the novel’s sections and is meant to unify the text’s investigations of white male rage—feels tangential and tacked-on. It’s also, most likely, why the book feels the need to make such a grandly etiological gesture, as though Lerner were making up for the lack of some more subtle cohesion. It’s not, in the end, that autofiction fails when confronted with the Midwest. It’s just that there are, unmistakably, signs of stumbling.
PanOpen Letters Review...the two novellas that make up Intimate Ties marked Robert Musil’s first great critical failure. Denounced as aimless and experimental...the collection was a fantastic flopola, and it doesn’t really take a careful autopsy to see why. Suffused with a dreamy eroticism but composed in an ironclad prose, the books are perilously short on the irony that would come to dominate Musil’s magnum opus, The Man Without Qualities ... Both novellas share a central fault. The ruminations—unable to waft up naturally from a precisely limned psyche, and so never fully inhabited—are imposed on Claudine and Veronica. Against this objection, Musil poses the ultimate unknowability of the heart’s depths, seeming to take in stride the resulting fact that his ceaseless fine-tuning of his characters’ despair becomes so much paint thrown against the wall ... the collection is probably best viewed as another hole to be struck on the punchcard of diehard Musilites everywhere, if any of them are still kicking around.
RavePloughshares... told in a prose so butter-smooth and sprueless it seems to have fallen fully-formed from O’Brien’s pen. The book’s sudden outbursts of stomach-turning violence come like speed bumps in the greater purl, made more jolting and haunting still by the terrible, clear-eyed maturity of the writing ... a punishing, relentless book, a gauntlet of neon-bright horrors, and yet O’Brien’s prose—and by extension Maryam’s voice—is capable of extreme delicacies, of a withy, caressing attention.
Javier Marías Trans. by Margaret Jull Costa
PanThe Open Letters Review... this constitutional elegance falls too thinly on his chosen subjects, and can leave the text feeling like a strangely refined smorgasbord—a caviar meatloaf, for instance, or a swordfish casserole. The brain is willing, in other words, but the plot is weak ... sees Marías running through a diluted pharmacopeia of his traditional themes, which are trimmed and repurposed for the exigencies of the central spy plot ... Though the prose never quite reaches the zodiacal purity of [Marías\'s] best writing, it’s this concern that ends up producing some of the book’s most poignant passages ... a book-length discursus that never materializes ... all in all, it’s a little superficial, with Marías’s limning of the Spanish 1960s coming across as hand-holdy, a touch over-glossed. Part of this is probably just a result of being an international writer, which can force anyone to over-explain the parochial. It does feel at times, though, that Marías’s internationalism has started to dilute his books ... in its long eventless drag, exhibits a painful patience of the worst sort—that is, the writer’s patience for himself.
RavePloughsharesRichly idiosyncratic characters and acts of tortured intimacy abound in Edwidge Danticat’s spellbinding new collection ... The curt, glittering poetry of Danticat’s 1996 short story collection Krik? Krak! has evolved in Everything Inside to a newly sober mode of storytelling that, for the most part, eschews the breathtaking in favor of the intensely personal and irredeemably particular. The relative simple premises in Krik? Krak! give way to reticulated plots stamped with so many amply realized characters that it seems a miracle when Danticat manages to wring coherence from their interweavings. Gone are the fervent accretions of metaphor, the airy style, and the mythic quality that typified her early work; in their place, Danticat doles out prickly investigations of transnational identity that are thickened by circumstance and mucked up by globalization. The bountiful, heartrending stories are circumfused with the impossibilities, grand and small alike, of lives lived in two places. Danticat restlessly interrogates the longings of distance, the disjunctions of diasporic experience, and the unsteady palimpsests of emotions that dwell in her characters’ hearts ... Danticat’s stories are careful to elude any totalizing of the immigrant experience ... Danticat’s hand, bewitched by her own tremendous gifts of empathy, applies a balm that, in its belatedness, only underscores, once again, the private histories of fracture and scission that have gone before.
Ingeborg Bachmann, Trans. by Philip Boehm
PositivePloughsharesThe plot of Malina...is impossible to follow; it exists only in the form of a wavering procession of scenes in the nameless narrator’s mind. Instead, appreciating Malina requires abandoning yourself to Bachmann’s darkly ponderous prose, which creeps and flows like magma, enfolding and swallowing up the bric-a-brac of reality—street names, childhood memories, momentary meetings. The text is labyrinthine, wandering, abstract; reading it feels like stumbling through the ramifying hallways of an abandoned castle with interminable galleries and courtyards stuffed with decaying statuary ... Anxiety dashes off its dark, recursive question marks, as the narrator perpetually interrogates herself, demanding to know whether her feelings are justified by her circumstances or simply the product of nerves, the rawness of her psyche. This uncertainty bleeds outward, extending even to language itself. Aphasia sweeps through the narrator’s long sentences, leaving behind a cindery, pale, depleted script ... Communication in the book is broken and elliptical, trailing off into silence ... Malina is, in essence, an agonizing assertion of being, a victory over the forces that conspire to shroud one in silence. As slippery and senseless as language can sometimes be, the book asserts, it’s still the best way of pinioning oneself to the world.
César Aira, Trans. by Chris Andrews
MixedThe Open Letters Review... a strange sort of author’s manifesto, and an apologia for Aira’s own discursiveness ... The ironic underpinning of the work, of course, is that Aira’s yen for distraction is part of the generative force behind his writings, and one of the main reasons for his fame ... As with many of Aira’s novelettes, there’s something dry, almost aseptic ... Aira’s lack of a larger schema under which his atomism of speculations would fall into order ultimately makes Birthday an unsatisfying venture.