3 Novellas for Summer

Loud footsteps in a vast and otherwise silent corridor; the cloying perfume of lilacs; an ice-cold drink at the end of a hot, dry day.  In Winter we bundle-up, huddle inside and create a barrier between ourselves and the elements. Summer, though, is a different story. We open ourselves up to the full sensuality of the natural world – we wear less clothing, bask in the sun & surf, spend as much time out-of-doors as the weather allows.  Antonia Skármeta, Marie NDiaye and Haruki Murakami are writers who know the power of evoking the senses. Below are three novellas.  Small enough to read at the beach, while camping in the woods, or on a shady park bench.  And still broad enough in scope to provide a brief (and welcome) escape from the everyday.

ADistantFatherTitle:  A Distant Father
Author:  Antonio Skármeta
Translator:  John Cullen
Publisher:  Other Press, New York (2013)
ISBN:  978 159051625 6

I’m the village schoolmaster. I live near the mill. Sometimes the wind covers my face with flour.

I’ve got long legs, and nights of insomnia have stamped dark rings under my eyes.

My life is made up of rustic elements, rural things:  the dying wail of the local train, winter apples, the moisture on lemons touched by early  morning frost, the patient spider in a shadowy corner of my room, the breeze that moves my curtains.

During the day, my mother washes enormous sheets, and in the evening we drink lemon balm tea and listen to radio plays until the signal gets lost among the dozens of Argentine stations that crowd the dial at night.

A Distant Father by Antonio Skármeta is straightforward storytelling written in beautiful prose. Imagine a handmade diorama of a Chilean country village, populated by picaresque characters, that depicts a young man’s coming of age and you’ll have some idea of the rudimentary plot (and feel) of this charming 92 page novella. Our narrator, the young man, describes his father’s departure on the same train from which he disembarked on the day he returned home after completing his studies.  This estrangement, between his father and his family (the narrator and his mother) forms the central mystery meant to drive the plot.  But the characters are what truly move this story forward.  Skármeta has a talent for developing fully realized individuals on the page – allowing them their quirks and eccentricities while avoiding grotesque caricatures of life.  The result is delightful: moments of tenderness balanced by comedic episodes (usually revolving around the narrator’s attempts at getting laid).


SelfPortraitInGreenTitle:  Self-Portrait in Green
Author:  Marie NDiaye
Translator:  Jordan Stump
Publisher:  Two Lines Press, San Francisco (2014)
ISBN:  978 1 931883 39 9

I have a love-hate relationship to Marie NDiaye’s books. The savagery of NDiaye’s writing repels even as it entices me to keep reading… a bit like a venomous snake. The kind that mesmerizes its prey as it rears back to strike.  She is a challenging writer, but her readers and fans find her worth the effort her books demand.  Marie NDiaye stands easily among the most exciting and experimental writers being translated into English today.

… The schoolyard is empty, the sweet lilac has numbed me. I must have been one of those children the woman in green carted off down an endless hallway, but fear and the inescapability of the torments to come kept me from crying out. Was I ever seen again? It’s true that green can’t possibly be the sole color of cruelty, just as green is by no means inevitably the color of cruelty, but who can deny that cruelty is particularly given to draping itself in all sorts of greens? Before going on my way, I pull three leaves off the lilac and slip them into the pocket of my shorts. That might come in handy, I tell myself, though for the moment I have no idea what’s awaiting me.

Self-Portrait in Green is  a disturbing little book, filled with portraits of women connected to a narrator who we are led to assume is NDiaye herself.  I suppose it would be more accurate to describe it as a collection of linked short stories. Though the format feels more connected forming a unified, continuous narrative than you’d expect in a book of stories. And there is the fact that the paperback is exactly 7-inches tall, 4-1/2 inches wide and 103 pages long – “petite” is an adjective that springs to mind.

These women in green who appear in story after story are subversively feminist (as were their predecessors in All My Friends). The intensity with which they interact with the world and the reader is terrifying. They present as strangers, friends, mothers, lovers, daughters and wives.  They are strong, mysterious, neurotic, paranoid, nurturing, dominant, submissive, beautiful and grotesque.  They contradict each other and at times cancel each other out, yet the copy on the back cover tells us that “(t)hey are all aspects of the internationally celebrated writer Marie Ndiaye.”


TheStrangeLibraryTitle:  The Strange Library
Author:  Haruki Murakami
Translator:  Ted Goossen
Publisher:  Alfred A. Knopf, Publisher, New York (2014)
ISBN: 978 0 385 35430 1

Haruki Murakami is a bona-fide international literary celebrity with a huge following. When that happens publishers are wont to rush to print anything – even random scribbles discovered on the back of a napkin. An argument could be made that The Strange Library is such a case.  It’s a remarkably slight book, dependent on the illustration/graphic design talents of Chip Kidd* to transform it into something more substantial.  Happily the collaboration is entirely successful.   Bright, beautiful, with a definite Zakka (a style of Japanese handicraft) influence – the book itself is an object to desire.  The story, narrated by a boy who discovers and is imprisoned within the labyrinthine basement of the strange library, is weird enough to meet the expectations of Murakami fans across the globe.  Of course, you’ll be finished with the entire book in 20 minutes – the slow, careful reader might stretch it out to a half hour – but sometimes good things really do come in small packages.

The library was even more hushed than usual.

My new leather shoes clacked against the gray linoleum. Their hard, dry sound was unlike my normal footsteps. Every time I get new shoes,it takes me a while to get used to their noise.

A woman was sitting at the circulation desk, reading a thick book. It was extraordinarily wide. She looked as if she were reading the right-hand page with her right eye, and the left-hand page with her left.

Murakami novels are often an assemblage of odd & uncomfortable, deceptively mundane, details – as demonstrated in the passage above. The narrator constantly remarks on the strangeness of the world he has stumbled into: the librarian’s strange eyes which read two pages at once, the awkward way in which the other characters speak, the size of the basement versus the footprint of the building & his ability to understand books despite their being written in Turkish (a language he does not speak). This mood/atmosphere of unease is established through direct explication. What information we are not told is simply not there – leaving an informational vacuum that is too substantial not to have been intentional. Perhaps this is because The Strange Library was targeted at children (albeit, in the way Grimm’s original Fairy Tales might have been targeted at children) and the legion of hardcore  fans. The Sheep Man, a character from Murakami’s earliest published writings makes an appearance. But, this “insider baseball” doesn’t detract from the book’s charm and shouldn’t deter the casual reader.  The Strange Library is a wonderful diversion into fantasy regardless of how you approach it – as a Murakami aficionado or amateur.

 

*The British version of the book is illustrated/designed by Suzanne Dean, the art director at Harvill Secker

 

What Do Margaret Wise Brown & Georges Perec Have In Common?

At what age do we as readers start requiring linear narratives? And demand that all books tell us stories?

Title:  An Attempt At Exhausting A Place In Paris

Author:  Georges Perec

Translator:  Marc Lowenthal

Publisher:  Wakefield Press, Cambridge (2010)

ISBN:  978 0 9841155 2 5

 

WakefieldExhausting4At what age do we as readers start requiring linear narratives? And demand that all books tell us stories?

Margaret Wise Brown’s iconic Goodnight Moon has been a bedtime staple for decades.  If you didn’t have it read to you as a child then you have almost certainly read it as an adult to a child in your life.  I’ve yet to attend a baby shower where there wasn’t at least one copy – if not multiples – unwrapped.  Adults discovering or rediscovering Goodnight Moon often express surprise at the sophistication of this little book.  The rhythm of the prose, the way the room in the illustrations grows darker as the pages are turned, and the insertion of “Goodnight nobody, goodnight mush” (a surreal moment if there ever was one) – these things speak of an author who was interested in non-linear narrative and experimental literature.

For this all to make sense it’s important to understand that there’s more to Margaret Wise Brown and her books than meets the eye.  She was a product of the modernist period in art and literature.*  In the early 1930’s she worked as a teacher at the Bank Street Experimental School in New York City.  At that time this cutting edge school’s focus was on early childhood education & development. She studied how children used rhymes to develop language. Sometimes, as in the case of her “Noisy Book” series, she would use the children as a kind of focus group and adjust some of the words based on their reactions & suggestions.  Toddlers would be shown picture book illustrations and teachers would time how long the pictures held their attention.  The Bank Street School was the epicenter of what became known as the golden age of children’s literature. And most of the ideas in Margaret Wise Brown’s books can be traced back to what she learned there.

 Goodnight Moon tells no story, per se.  There are no character arcs.  No morals explained. No dialogue. At the most basic level Goodnight Moon is a catalog of the items in a single room. And, yet, lovers of the book are as  familiar with the contents of that room as they are of any room in their own home.

What no one ever really discusses (and why should they? This is a children’s book we’re talking about) is the quiet, haunting quality of Brown’s writing.  There is none of the joyful silliness or made up rhymes you find in Dr. Seuss.  Or the reassuring sentimentalism found in many stories written for the very young. Goodnight Moon is poetry – childish, simplistic, naive – but poetry nonetheless.

…goodnight to the old lady

whispering “hush”

Goodnight stars

Goodnight air

Goodnight noises everywhere

 

In words a small child can understand Brown describes the line between consciousness and sleep.  The gradual loss of consciousness.  Eyes open in the dark, even after the moon disappears behind the clouds, you can still see the stars. Close your eyes and listen to the sound of your breathing. Then sleep and then silence. This sixty-one page children’s book has been many a child’s first experience with a concrete representation of the forward passage of time, even if the passage spans only 15 minutes.

The charms of Georges Perec’s An Attempt At Exhausting A Place In Paris are not so far removed from Goodnight Moon as one would think. It is a catalog of the things that the author sees and hears while sitting in place Saint-Sulpice. People and dogs passing, flocks of pigeons, the sound of church bells, changing of streetlights and the endless waves of city buses. It should be boring. There’s no story to speak of. No sense of narrative progression. No dialogue or ideas.  None of the things we are told make literature. And yet, somehow, Perec’s writing moves beyond a catalog of people, animals and things to capture the rhythms of life and time.  When he recognizes the writer Jean-Paul Aron (translated to John-Paul, which seems a bit over-zealous) walking by and then, later, walking by again, you perk up.  Because a name has been assigned to one of the many pedestrians passing by your window.  The buses begin to lose their anonymity – they become the 96, the 87 and the 63 – their appearance jumping out from the text.  And as the day draws to an end the sun sets and the lights in the buildings grow brighter.

The light is beginning to fade, even if this is still barely noticeable; the red of the stoplights is increasingly visible.

Lights come on in the cafe.

Two buses, Cityrama and Paris-VIsion, are unable to get by each other. The Cityrama eventually takes rue Bonaparte, the Paris-Vision would like to take rue du Vieux-Colombier. Policeman no. 5976 (“Michel Lonsdale”), at first confused, eventually grabs his whistle and intervenes – effectively, in fact.

A man walks by with his nose in the air, followed by another man who is looking at the ground.

A man with a can of Ribolin goes by.

people people cars

An old lady with a very beautiful Sherlock Holmes-style waterproof fitted coat

The crowd is dense, almost no more lulls

A woman with two baguettes under her arm

It is four thirty

 

As I said: there is no story in An Attempt At Exhausting A Place In Paris. In place of narrative Perec offers experience. Evokes a sense of place. We inhabit his senses – a brief possession. A windy, rainy day. Fading light. The world waking up on Sunday morning. As I write these things down I can’t help wondering how accurately he described what he saw. How much editing and revising happened afterwards.  Or whether accuracy even matters. Perec accomplished a far more difficult task than simply cataloging a place in Paris. On these pages he captured the relentless, forward progression of time and transformed it into poetry.

 

*In 1936 Méret Oppenheim’s Fur Covered Tea Cup was a part of the “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism” exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.  Brown’s book, Little Fur Family was published ten years later.  The first edition was covered in real rabbit fur.

Navidad & Matanza by Carlos Labbé (translated from the Spanish by Will Vanderhyden)

Navidad & MatanzaWhat kind of writer eviscerates his own novel?  What drives a person  to that extreme?  And – just so we’re clear – we’re not talking about paring down the prose or making a few surgical edits to tighten up the plot. Carlos Labbé rips out entire chapters of his book and leaves huge, gaping holes behind.  That takes guts. When it works it’s exciting and innovative.  And, yes, disturbing. When it doesn’t it’s frustrating and… well it’s frustrating.

There are two parallel narratives in Navidad & Matanza. The first, which opens and closes the book, is narrated by a journalist investigating the 1999 disappearance of the teenage son & daughter of a video game executive – Alicia & Bruno Vivar.  The Vivar family is fabulously wealthy.  And, if Domingo the journalist is to be believed, fabulously debauched. The youngest, fourteen year old Alicia, is the most jaded of the clan. Wise, as the saying goes, beyond her years.  Her education has been taken in hand by a much older “friend” of the family.  A Congolese theremin musician who goes by the name of Boris Real.  Domingo’s pet theory is that Real is linked to the siblings disappearance.  But it is only one of his many theories. He is constantly revisiting and re-imagining moments and scenarios; gathering first hand accounts from men and women who were witnesses to crucial events.

Domingo’s obsession with Alicia & Bruno’s disappearance is, perhaps, too personal.  His speculations on what could have happened – and on the daily lives of the brother & sister before they vanished – are exercises in voyeuristic fantasy.  Domingo displays all the tell-tale signs of an unreliable narrator. There’s obviously more going on here than the reader is privy to; Labbé manipulates us until we’re desperate to see those missing chapters. And yet the narrative remains solid despite their omission.

The man from the service station accompanied Alicia to the beach, walking two steps behind her for several kilometers through the night. She asked many questions and he answered them, aware all the time of the cash he’d make housing this strange group of people for a few days. Afterward everything would be calm and normal again. That’s what he believed, he said. But it wasn’t so. Every once in a while the girl would yell: Right? Left? And now, which way? It was like she was walking with her eyes closed, like she wanted to be guided in the darkness.  Then all of a sudden the sound of the sea was very near. When the sand and docas came into view, Alicia started to run.  Rising up from down below he heard a shrill, sharp sound. At first it seemed to him that a woman was screaming. The he though someone was doing something bad to the young girl. He quickened his pace across the beach. The night was moonless, and there were no streetlamps in the town, and so he was barely able to make out two distant silhouettes approaching the water. Little by little the shrill sound turned into a birdsong, into the gurgle of an immense stomach, and finally into a strange music. “A female robot, singing with her mouth shut in the shower,” that’s how Patrice Dounn’s theremin sounded to the man from the service station. The foreigner was standing on a dune, an open case beside him – a different case, not the one he’d opened in the kitchen – his left hand suspended above a strange gleaming, blue instrument. The other hand, the right hand, moved slowly toward and away from the object. The music was very beautiful.

The insertion of a second narrative complicates the story.   Domingo, we learn, is a test subject in an experiment.  He and six others are housed in an underground laboratory and administered a drug called hadon, making them fearful and prone to violence. They play the “novel-game” to pass the time;  writing and exchanging chapters, they all contribute to the plot of a single story.  They are writing the Vivar family history. Domingo is one of them.  Not only a character in the story; he is a writer.  Not just imagining scenarios as we suspected in the first narrative; but authoring them in the second.

Will Vanderhyden translation provides two separate styles for the two separate narratives in Navidad & Mantanza.  The portion set in the “real world’ is written in lush, sultry prose. In the emails that comprise the novel-game the prose is emptier, cleaner and more clinical. The missing chapters are even more keenly felt (is that possible?) because there is so little to go on – no landscapes, no physical descriptions or a sense of time.  Just excerpts from a correspondence, given without a context to place them in.

And yet the mind naturally reaches out to fill in the blanks left by those missing chapters, like water will fill crevices in rock. Not at first, but in the weeks afterwards I began to take ownership of Domingo’s and Labbé’s story, making my own assumptions on what was going on. Adding to and shaping the plot all on my own.  Until suddenly I realized I’d joined the game. That I’d become another player. A neat trick.

 

Publisher: Open Letter Books, New York (2014)
ISBN: 978 1 934824 92 4