Becca Rothfeld is a PhD candidate in philosophy at Harvard, where she thinks about ethics, aesthetics, and the relationship between them (among other things). She writes book reviews, essays, and the occasional art review for The Nation, The TLS, Bookforum, Art in America, The Hedgehog Review, The New Republic, and elsewhere. She is a two-time finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.
PositiveThe New RepublicThe text streaks from Sophie’s memories of her childhood in Hungary to her drab days in drizzly Paris. At one point, the prose fragments into a play ... We know to doubt the whirl of pictures and fantasies that flit through Divorcing in part because we know that it is a fiction, and a dizzyingly hallucinatory fiction at that ... defiantly ambitious ... Divorcing was ahead of its time not only because it dares to suggest that marriage blinds and blinkers, but also because it is an early exercise in something as anhedonic as autofiction ... Kenner is right that Divorcing is a little too frenetic and a little too abstract. For all her meditations on epistemology, Sophie reveals little about her day-to-day life. We learn next to nothing about what she is reading or working on, and we never actually catch her in the act of writing or theorizing ... Though Divorcing is lamentably sketchy on so many of the workaday details, Kenner fails to appreciate that it is also sublimely scathing in its indictment of the male blowhards so endemic to academic philosophy ... Divorcing shines when it retires its feverish reveries and simply records things as they were. At its most vividly summoned moments, it reconstructs Ezra’s tyrannical outbursts or recalls Sophie’s childhood in scenes that seem excerpted from a quieter and better book.
RaveThe New York Times Book Review... sharp ... Perhaps despite itself, [Serpell] collection performs an ethical gesture in treating such faces as objects of attention and pleasure. The essays that follow are wise, warm, witty and dizzyingly wide-ranging...Her clear prose unknots a dense tangle of academic concepts along the way ... But Serpell may be at her most thrilling when she interrogates the very humanity of the Ideal Face ... Stranger faces refuse to signify or symbolize, which may be exactly why we try so hard to read them — and why it is so fun to read about them, at least when Serpell is doing the writing.
Heinrich Von Kleist, trans. by Michael Hoffman
PositiveThe BafflerPerhaps the most inscrutable of all his works ... His sentences, hypnotic and exquisitely controlled, span entire pages, rippling into ever wider and ever dreamier rings ... oxymorons abound in Michael Kohlhaas. Even Kleist can’t seem to make up his mind about his \'righteous and appalling\' protagonist ... Kohlhaas resembles many of Kleist’s most memorable characters, who are riven by an irreconcilable doubleness.
RaveBookforumJames Wood, haters claim, is a hater ... In fact Wood’s talent for appreciation far outstrips his gift for denigration. Of the twenty-eight essays collected in Serious Noticing...only two are negative. And even when he is hating, Wood remains eager to discover something to admire ... Even in his hit pieces, Wood is a designated (and frequently endearing) enthusiast. He frowns over the fiction he censures like a disappointed father. His disapproval is only a correlate of his abiding love ... Serious Noticing is two parts pan and twenty-six parts panegyric ... What makes Wood such a formidable opponent? The most obvious answer is the crackling sensuousness of his prose. He writes unusually tactile criticism, thick with images you can almost reach out and grasp ... Even when Wood’s points are theoretical, his writing is novelistic ... Wood’s writing is lush, but a wire of rigor runs through it, and the exactitude of its argumentation stings. The results are as agile as they are inspired ... And there is more to admire. When Wood is vicious, he is funny. Little can compete with the exhilaration of his hatchet jobs or even his throwaway jabs ... Wood’s style is distinctive, but it is hard to generalize about his taste, and perhaps the best thing about him is that he reinvents his approach to accommodate the exigencies of each book he reviews. Though his judgments are always meticulously justified, they are also consistently unpredictable, for Wood is willing to meet each work on its own terms ... He has stained my vision indelibly, and I can pay him no greater tribute than to read him (and to ask you to read him) as generously, justly, and gorgeously as he taught me to read.
Magda Szabo trans. by Len Rix
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewThe English edition of Abigail is as welcome as it is overdue. Len Rix’s translation is deft, but Szabo’s frank, conversational prose takes a back seat to her sinuous plotting: The novel unspools its secrets over many pages, and the resulting tour de force is taut with suspense ... at once harrowing and mesmerizing, all the more so because we glimpse its dramas through the uncomprehending lens of Gina’s youthful simplicity. Nothing could ruin a book so humane — but to resolve the novel’s central mysteries, especially the enigma of Abigail’s identity, would be to diminish some of its breathless urgency. To learn the truth, you must consult Abigail herself.
Peter Stamm, Trans. by Michael Hofmann
PanThe Times Literary SupplementIn The the ageing narrator writes himself...out of reality ... The moves, from here, are familiar and formulaic. First comes the fraying of the boundary between truth and fiction ... Next comes the obligatory hint that the book we are reading may be the very book the narrator wrote ... But he is confirmed by his unreality: if he is a fiction, then his book exists after all ... This is a neat and unsatisfying trick. Stamm’s characters, like his narrators, can only exist because they do not exist.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal[Lerner\'s] least embarrassed and most ambitious ... For the first time, he narrates from perspectives other than his own ... Mr. Lerner too was a high-school debate champion, and he sometimes writes as if he still wants to score political points. At times, he spoils the vivid picture of masculinity he has constructed by theorizing it for us: I lost track of the number of times the word \'masculinity\' appears directly in the text. Mr. Lerner’s other novels are pristine, but The Topeka School is looser and messier, in large part because it is so frantic to project its social virtues ... Still, Mr. Lerner’s prose is too rich to stoop to sanctimony for long. Sometimes, when Adam is debating, his words accelerate until they seem to speak themselves. Embarrassment becomes irrelevant: Every phrase acquires the weight of necessity ... Mr. Lerner can get away with writing so many books that are autofictional because a spirit speaks through him—because his language takes on a life of its own. He manages to shed himself when he marshals enough empathy and eloquence to imagine the worlds of others.
Vasily Grossman, Trans. by Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler
PanJewish CurrentsPlotlines fray and fail to cohere. Characters make a single appearance before dropping out of the book altogether. Worst of all, where [Grossman\'s] Life and Fate is vitally personal, Stalingrad borders on propaganda ... it does not smack of freedom ... it is largely the state-sanctioned \'truth\' that Grossman defends ... Much of Stalingrad’s dialogue could have been lifted from the script of a blockbuster action movie ... Often, Stalingrad’s paeans to the quiet heroism of the workers are transparent glorifications of uncompensated labor ... It is a testament to the chilling strength of the Soviet regime that the author of Life and Fate signed his name to Stalingrad, too.
Gregor Von Rezzori, Trans. by David Dollenmayer, Joachim Neugroschel and Marshall Yarbrough
MixedBookforum... too discursive to summarize, and I’m sure that Rezzori, or at least his narratorial ambassador, would accept the charge of plotlessness with pride ... fat with cliché-curdled reflections on the violence implicit in fiction ... There is no doubt that Rezzori is an important writer, maybe even a great one. He is well worth reading for the pleasure of his tangled language alone. Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, his best-known book, merits its reputation as a tour de force. But Subicz is a mean-spirited mouthpiece ... The book is salvaged, insofar as it is salvaged, by its occasional outbursts of love—and by the feats of observation that love can sometimes occasion ... a nine-hundred-page book can vindicate its self-importance only if it succeeds as an aesthetic exercise. As Rezzori noted with despairing jealousy, Musil’s tomes pass the test. But Abel and Cain cannot justify the demands that it makes on its readers. It is often beautiful, but it is frequently as kitschy as a cuckoo clock. Subicz shamelessly mythologizes \'a Europe that might still be European\'—but I doubt if this European Europe was really so golden for everyone. Better rain than the brutal—and banal—luminescence of Hitler weather.
Uwe Johnson, Trans. by Damion Searls
PositiveBookforumUwe Johnson’s Anniversaries is a book to live in: two volumes and more than 1,700 pages of roomy universe, robustly imagined and richly populated ... But Johnson’s rhythm is always patient, always mesmerizingly meticulous ... Anniversaries...is something between a diary, an autobiography, and an exercise in free association. Many of Gesine’s entries amount to love letters to her adoptive city ... Her meditations are dense with diatribes—so dense with diatribes that they begin to try a reader’s patience—against the Vietnam War, which she likens with great sanctimony and little subtlety to the Holocaust. But Johnson’s heroine is alive to the dangers of hollow outrage and dry documentation ... Unlike her borrowed reportage about the atrocities in Vietnam, her direct accounts of Nazi and Soviet brutality are relentless and rending ... Johnson is at his best when he personalizes an aching, anonymous history. Anniversaries’ engagements with the past can be palpable and piercing ... Anniversaries is less a work of plot than a map of human relationships ... Anniversaries is often difficult to follow: It demands an involved knowledge of German, Soviet, and American politics and a careful attention to what seem like marginal characters, who are apt to disappear for several hundred pages only to crop up again. Its content, in contrast, can be ethically easy. All of its protagonists are implausibly brave ... But ... How does Johnson know...about everything? How does he absorb so much so hungrily? His writing is inhuman, godlike in its immensity.
Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, Trans. by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson
PositiveThe New Republic\"The 76 pieces amassed in the newly (and deftly) translated Collected Stories are, for the most part, portraits of consummate comfort ... The milieu of the Collected Stories is dazzling, but their author remains unimpressed. His high-society chronicles adopt the formal yet familiar tones of an indulgent father toasting a spoiled child. And despite his occasional surges of lyricism... his voice is dusty with Latin locutions and dense with allusions to Schiller, Montaigne, and Augustine. A reader could be forgiven for assuming that Machado is a native of the ballrooms he describes with such facility ... some of the Collected Stories, masterful works of shrewd sadism, rival even the Brazilian giant’s best-known novels ... Despite the refinement of its setting, Machado’s fiction inflicts unlikely tortures on its characters and cruel suspense on its readers ... It’s only apt that the Collected Stories are so repetitive: The book is organized just like an obsession, with manic motifs that nag and gnaw ... As [Machado] picks not only his characters but also his readers apart, dangling us over the open flames, he can already see into our suspicious hearts: He already knows that we will spasm, not just with fear but with a rhapsodic rush of misery. The crowning cruelty is that we will enjoy it.\
PositiveThe NationSome Trick is understandably despondent and often crisply acerbic, but it rarely tips over into bitterness. DeWitt is a hot-blooded intellectual, and her contagious passion for the life of the mind can redeem even the bleakest lamentations ... In the world of Some Trick, the best words are so acute they lacerate.
PositiveThe Los Angeles Review of BooksOne of the problems with the essay is that Lerner does not explain why poetry’s failure is any more spectacular than our broader failure, endemic to all art and perhaps all interpersonal interactions, to communicate with absolute clarity ... [what] Lerner intuits beautifully and compellingly in The Hatred of Poetry, is that art’s failures matter precisely because its task is so vital.