Constellation by Adrien Bosc (Willard Wood, tr.)

Title:  Constellation
Author:  Adrien Bosc
Translator: Willard Wood
Publisher:  Other Press, New York (2016)
ISBN: 978 1 59051 756 7

Is it on one of these bottomless nights that the airplane falls asleep and goes into exile?

Well-written prose can excuse a lot. That isn’t hyperbole – I truly believe it.  Portions of Adrien Bosc’s novel read like a historical report describing the 1949 crash of the Air France F-AZN, also called the Constellation.  A notable event mostly because the plane’s passenger list was filled with wealthy celebrities.  A champion boxer, a world renowned concert pianist, the inventor or the Mickey Mouse watch and a young woman from a poor family being whisked off to America by a rich, fairy godmother – together they amount to a metaphor no writer could resist.  Stars falling from the sky.

In his Almagest, a summation of mathematical and astronomical knowledge, Ptolemy offered the first analytical map of the celestial vault, identifying 1,022 stars and forty-eight constellations. In the Azores, after dusk, in an airplane named for a grouping of stars, forty-eight people went missing. At 2:00 a.m., 3:00 a.m., 4:00 a.m., 5:00 a.m., no sign awakens the Atlantic. Reflected in the infinite puddle are the Big and Little Dippers, Orion, and Scorpion.

Constellation CoverThe light and lyrical prose that runs through Constellation is typically French. Bosc’s sentences flow into each other as carelessly as events become memories. For this he will, inevitably, be compared to authors like Houellebecq and Laurent Binet. And it’s a fair comparison. He writes beautifully. But this is a book of isolated vignettes that never resolve themselves into a novel.  And I have to believe resolution was the author’s intention – to somehow create meaning out of tragedy; to find a pattern that will feed the symbolism; or (if we’re being cynical) to further invite those comparisons to Houellebecq and Binet.  Why else would Bosc inserts himself into the text, in textbook meta fashion, other than to bind together his stories of the dead.  Because his jarring and persistent presence has no other function. What his actual relationship is to the events he describes is never explained.  The ending, in which he speaks of his own birth, is particularly self-indulgent.  Readers will ultimately become confused.  It’s like spotting an ex at a cousin’s wedding, and wondering, what the hell are they doing here?

But Bosc does other things extremely well – all of which helps dilute Constellations flaws. Willard Wood’s translation captures the elegance in Bosc’s digressions. The epigraphs used as headings for each chapter were thoughtfully chosen by the author. The lives of the passengers, even those few who weren’t famous (a group of shepherds being flown from Italy to work in the American West), are treated as equally fascinating. Bosc writes them all mini-obituaries. He builds memorials to the dead.  The anecdotes he provides for each passenger make for a pleasurable afternoon’s reading.

That morning, she sees the great posters to her glory. In one stroke of the paperhanger’s brush, a SOLD OUT strip extends across each ad. Ginette chose her fate. It is easy to attach the label of “prodigy” to her precocious career and miss, through facile stereotyping, the child’s implacable will, hard work, and discipline, the mailed fist of her genius. A staccato like no other, fruit of the obstinacy of a serious child. We like fairy tales, Newton’s apple, Eureka moments, grace conceived as a punctual, innate, and ineluctable event, and we erase, because of our penchant of the marvelous, the prior groundwork, the tedious chores, the doubts. At seven, after a first concert at the Salle Gaveau, Ginette trains hard to overcome her anxiety, stop the trembling in her knees, conquer the sweat on her forehead and palms. In the evening, standing on the kitchen table practicing, she tells her astonished mother: “It’s to get used to performing onstage. The other day, I had stage fright, it was probably vertigo.”

There really isn’t very much else to the story otherwise. There’s no mystery sixty odd years after the crash of Air France’s Constellation to solve.  Without a black box there’s no way to be completely certain what happened, but the investigation at the time came up with a very reasonable theory of events. I was convinced. Bosc should perhaps take an example from another French writer, George Perec, who he quotes at the beginnings of both chapters 10 & 16. Perec was at his most brilliant when he was describing things without embellishment. Allowing the reader to see and experience them just as they were.

 

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The Meursault Investigation: A Novel by Kamel Daoud, translated from French by John Cullen

Title:  The Meursalt Investigation
Author:  Kamel Daoud
Translator:  John Cullen
Publisher:  Other Press, New York (2015)
ISBN:  978 1 59051 751 2

When L’Étranger was translated into English and published as The Stranger in the United States in 1946 two articles appeared in the NY Times. The first was a fawning profile of Camus, hailing him as the “Apostle of Post-Liberation France”. In the second article, a review of the actual book, Charles Poore wrote,  ‘Mersault’s unkindness toward his mother weighs more heavily in the court’s scales against him than the fact that in a drunk and heat-dazed moment he shot an Arab. There may be poetic justice in that, though it doesn’t seem to be the futilitarian point that Camus is making. (Incidentally, the fate of the Arab’s family is completely overlooked in the proceedings.)’

Daoud_MeursaultInvestigationPoore’s insight seems to have been exceptional, not the norm, among his contemporaries.  Albert Camus’ L’Étranger was once taught in schools across this country as an example of post-war existential and absurdist literature, but I don’t remember any examples of it being discussed in the context of colonial history.  A ommission that continued over time and which seems ridiculous in hindsight.  True, things were different in 1946 – the entire world would be rebuilding after the Blitz, the Holocaust, the Dresden bombings, the Vichy occupation, Pearl Harbor, the bombing of Berlin – every country had a tragedy and every tragedy seems to have been given a name that stuck. Existentialism, absurdism and nihilism were philosophies that fit then and (I suppose) continued to fit as time went on. And let’s face it – no one was in the mood to discuss dismantling a racist colonial system. Particularly not those who benefited from it.  Algerian Independence wouldn’t be won –  hard won – from the French until 1962, twenty years later.

Pied-noirs – black shoes – was the nickname given to the white, French colonists who benefited from the colonial system. And Meursault is the more extreme version of this privileged class. Camus’ place in and stance on Algier’s society was as complicated as his protagonist’s motivations were simple. As a journalist for an anti-colonial newspaper prior to WWII and during the Algerian War of Independence he would express sympathy, even some solidarity, for those who fought on the side of Algerian independence. “The truth is that we are living every day alongside people whose condition is that of the European peasantry of three centuries ago, and yet we, and we alone, are unmoved by their desperate plight.”  But he didn’t support full, Algerian self-rule.  Instead he thought it best for Algiers remain part of France. (The obvious question is “best for whom”?)  It was a stance which did not make him popular in Algiers and to this day he remains un-celebrated (and largely unclaimed) by the country where he was born. Camus was very much a man of his time, as was his book.

And so it is unsurprisingly an Algerian writer, Kamel Daoud, who has set out to correct the omissions in Camus’ narrative.  He gives the murdered Arab a name: Musa.  A mother. And a brother, Harun, who tells their (the “Arab”) side of the story.  In a way Daoud has created a parallel, Through the Looking Glass version of L’Étranger.  He opens with the words “Mama’s still alive today” and ends with “I too would wish them to be there in force, my spectators, and their hatred be savage”.   What happens in between is a tale told to a stranger in a bar decades after the events it describes took place.  Told by a narrator who is in every way Meursault’s opposite. Harun, as already stated, is Musa’s brother and so one of the Arabs Meursault & his friend Raymond despised.  He contextualizes the familiar story within the history of Algiers – his and his brother’s world – rather than the first half of the 20th century as experienced by Europe.  Harun ultimately disputes every fact in the original account, disperses our illusions, and goes on to explain the repercussions of that afternoon on the beach. Some we might never have considered. (One new detail that is introduced:  because Musa is never named in the original story, he can never be identified as a martyr and so his mother can not claim a martyr’s pension).

Meursault and Camus blend into a single man – the author/actor of this retold story – who is cleared of a murder he does not deny having committed and then goes on to write a book that enthralls the world. In this way Daoud holds both men, and by extension the readers who were complicit in the dehumanization of the victim, accountable.

Arab. I never felt Arab, you know. Arab-ness is like Negro-ness, which only exists in the white man’s eyes. In our neighborhood, in our world, we were Muslims, we had given names, faces, and habits. Period.  The others were “the strangers,” the roumis God brought here to put us to the test, but whose days were numbered anyway: one day or another, they would leave, there was no doubt about that. And so nobody responded to them, people clammed up in their presence, leaned on the wall, and waited. Your writer-murderer was wrong, my brother an his friend had no intention whatsoever of killing them, him and his pimp friend. THey were just waiting for them to leave, all of them, your hero, the pimp, and the thousands and thousands of others. We all knew it, we knew it from early childhood, we didn’t even need to talk about it: we knew one day they’d eventually leave. When we happened to pass through a European neighborhood, we used to amuse ourselves by pointing at the houses and sharing them out like spoils of spoils of a war. One of us would say, “This one’s mine, I touched it first!” and set off a frenzy of claims and counter-claims. We were five years old when we started doing that, can you imagine? As if our intuition was telling us what would happen when Independence came, but leaving out the weapons.

To his credit Douod doesn’t try to match the eloquence of Camus’ writing, cleverly dismissing its perceived worth in the very first page – “The murderer has become famous, and his story’s too well written for me to get any ideas about imitating him.”  Instead he focuses on what happened to that other, forgotten, mother and our narrator, Harun. How they dealt with their grief and survived the decades of war.  Harun is presented to us as a drunk – angry, bitter, irascible. His voice is coarse, his manner Falstaffian*. He is a tragic figure, too, in his own way.  Harun may have lived while his brother did not, but circumstances forced him to live in the shadow of another man’s version of Musa’s death. Though he goes on to paint a picture of what came after post-colonialism and rages against a country where religious has replaced the secular in day-to-day life – for him and his family all these events pivot around the millisecond, 2 o’clock in the afternoon, when his brother was shot.  “And  so when Musa went away into the mountains to talk to God about eternity, Mama and I left the city and went back to the village.”

I wonder what Camus would have made of it.

If you haven’t read The Stranger there’s really not much point reading The Meursault Investigation. It is not a stand-alone book. You will have to read both books, back-to-back. Which is not a suggestion but, rather, a directive. (Just in case anyone was confused). Daoud’s novel is increasingly relevant – as literature, as social commentary and as an aid in understanding current events. If that’s not compelling enough consider this: The Meursault Investigation corrects the record 70-years after and proves that every life – even a fictional one – is significant. That there always exists an untold story. And every story gains power in the telling.

 

*Perils of a reader/reviewer:  I just want to admit that at this point I’m not sure if that Falstaff comparison is entirely my own. If I somehow absorbed it from another review (or even the book itself?) it was unintentional & I’ve forgotten where I came across it.

 

 

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

 

Letter to Jimmy by Alain Mabanckou, translated from the French by Sara Meli Ansari

Title: Letter to Jimmy

Author: Alain Mabanckou

Translator: Sara Meli Ansari

Publisher: Soft Skull Press, Berkeley (2014)

ISBN: 978 1 59376 601 6

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There has long been a  tendency in the West to over-simplify African nations. The most obvious example  being the habit of dispensing with identifying the 56 countries which comprise the continent as individual nations and instead referring to them unilaterally as “Africa”.  Or the strange and so obviously condescending insistence in defining these countries by their conflicts and crisis, rather than by their triumphs (or, indeed, the mundanity of day-to-day life).  And so famine, apartheid, genocide, conflict diamonds, civil wars & child soldiers have, each in their turn, dominated our conversations about “Africa”. Western images of African nations has been shaped by National Geographic (on the one hand) and the current news cycle (on the other).   Or, to put it simply – by white Western agendas rather than African self-identification.

Thankfully, a new generation of writers has arrived – writers who are building a more complicated, nuanced picture of the continent and of the effects of diaspora on its citizens; who reject the over-simplification of their countries of origin and, by extension, themselves.

Alain Mabanckou is a featured author at this year’s 2015 Pen World Voices Festival and a finalist for the 2015 Man Booker International Prize. His latest book – Letter to Jimmy (on the 20th anniversary of your death) – is part memoir, part tribute and something of a departure from  his previous work.  Mabanckou is dealing with the concepts of identity, expatriation and race – all topics he’s explored to some extent in his other works. But in this, his most recent, offering he is in a more reflective mood. The simple premise of the book is that it is an open letter from the author to his hero James Baldwin.

At first the letter (letters, plural, would be more accurate) seem completely banal, as if Mabankou intends only to offer a re-cap of Baldwin’s life & career.  He spends pages establishing facts and timelines, discussing Baldwin’s relationship to his parents, his friendships with other black authors, his participation in the Civil rights movement, his books and his homosexuality – all of which I, a reader with a Baldwin shaped gap in their reading history, found very helpful.  But for those solely interested in a Baldwin biography there are already several of those available.  And Baldwin, himself, was an autobiographical writer (particularly in his essays).   It is only when Mabanckou gets past the foundational portion of his book and begins to draw parallels between Baldwin and himself, compare the world in which Baldwin lived to the world in which we live today, what it means to be African versus African American (and the relationship that exists between the two) that Letter to Jimmy engages.  Mabanckou brings a fresh perspective, one which is probably unique among Baldwin scholars.  The two writers have geography in common.  Mabanckou’s writes:  “I was born in Africa, the land of his ancestors.  I had lived in France, his land of refuge. And now I live in his homeland: America.”  Neither man, Mabanckou tells us, knew their biological father. They share similar views on race, society and the role of the writer.  Mabanckou has obviously spent a lot of time and effort reading and understanding Baldwin’s work.  His admiration and affection are apparent on every page.  Even the form of Letter to Jimmy pays homage to Baldwin’s two essays:  “My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation” and “Down At The Cross — Letter from a Region of My Mind” collected in The Fire Next Time.

This, though, is not a collection of essays.  Mabanckou has truly written a long, though somewhat fragmented, letter. He is carrying on a conversation with Baldwin in which Baldwin’s writings form the other half of the correspondence.  And so perhaps the most powerful passages (in light of the riots in the United States and migrants drowning in the Mediterranean) are when he – Mabanckou – discusses the relationship between Africans to African Americans.  When he tries to explain racism as it exists in both America and France, then and now.

On African immigrants in France –

However, the serious error regarding the perception of black communities in France, as Dominic Thomas points out in his essay, Black France, is to underestimate the different forces behind their  emergence.  One must be warned, he insists, against perceiving them as a homogenous community.  This is how, in a novel like The Black Docker, from Senegalese writer Ousmane Sembène, the author can describe a black community in which the West Indian ranks higher than the Senegalese, a term referring to all Africans, regardless of their country of origin, with everything that it implies about France’s attitude toward people of color from the black continent… How many times during my long stay in France do you think, Jimmy, I was asked if I was Senegalese*?

On the United States –

And when riots erupt on March 19, 1935, after the murder of a black man by a white police officer – several thousand men take it out on white-owned businesses, causing a good portion of the middle-class to flee the neighborhood – you see that, despite the widespread indignation, political figures merely make endless speeches, set up committees, and tear down a few hovels to replace them with housing projects.

(80-years later and the headlines are eerily similar. Mabanckou warns ‘If you return to this world, Jimmy, you will judge your homeland even more severely than you did when you were alive. Inequalities are now more subtle, and more hidden, in a society which has not yet resolved the issue that had been so important to you: redefining American identity, or, in your words, addressing integration through the “power of love.” ‘)

On race & racism  –

Instead of seeking out the definition of one’s status, one is better served by interpreting and untangling the meaning of works, what they convey, what they imply, for the destiny of the person of color. In the end, definitions imprison us, take away from us the ability to create ourselves endlessly, to imagine a different world. As long as these definitions appear absolute, the question of the other remains acute. It is in this vein that I understand your warning: “And, in fact, the truth about the black man, as a historical entity and as a human being, has been hidden from him, deliberately and cruelly; the power of the white world is threatened  whenever a black man refuses to accept the white world’s definitions.”

And again quoting Baldwin’s own words back to him –

“… the value placed on the color of the skin is always and everywhere and forever a delusion.” **

 


 

This is obviously not a traditional narrative and Sara Meli Ansari does an excellent job keeping the casual tone of the conversation and even capturing the  subtle idiosyncracies of Mabanckou’s English.  She also transitions nicely between the story that bookend’s the letter – Mabanckou’s fascination and eventual meeting with a homeless man on the Santa Monica beach to whom he dedicates Letter To Jimmy – somehow capturing the difference between the author’s anecdotal and epistolary voice.  But, I feel its my duty as a reviewer and Mabanckou fan to say that if you haven’t yet read his novels then this may not the book to judge him on. There is an energy and humor in his fiction that doesn’t find an outlet in his letter. He quotes Baldwin heavily, and a large portion of the book is an examination of Baldwin’s work and life.  What I am trying to say, poorly, is that his nonfiction is not what I would call indicative.

Still, I loved this book. And Letter To Jimmy might ultimately be judged as one of the more important books in Mabanckou’s oeuvre.  It is a frank discussion of race and racism, globally contextualized.  It is also an examination of a great 20th century author’s work; his historical importance and his relevancy in our own twenty-first century world.

 

*Alain Mabanckou was born in the Republic of Congo.  Senegal is located 3,709 km, or 2,305 miles away.

**The last two Baldwin quotes are both from “The Fire Next Time”

 

 

The Last Days by Laurent Seksik, translated from French by Andre Naffis-Sahely

22669613The Last Days by Laurent Seksik

Translated by Andre Naffis-Sahely

Published by Pushkin Press, London (2014)

Historical fiction is strange. We approach it with the understanding that what we are reading is and is not true.  We contract with the writer to accept his (or her) interpretation of events without requiring he take on the burden of proof.  The situation become even more convoluted when we deal with historical figures, versus fictional characters placed in historical settings. For better or worse,  Philippa Gregory’s Boleyn sisters have supplanted the historical Ann & Mary in her reader’s minds.  Personally, I prefer Hilary Mantel’s versions – but the point is that both portraits are flawed and filled with inaccuracies due to the limits of the historical records. The facts that are represented – dates, portraits, whatever written documentation remains – are true. The mannerisms, the inflections of the voice, the emotions and motivations, events that took place behind closed doors – all this information is fabricated by the author to add depth to the narrative. But it raises the question:  if history is, as Voltaire said, “fables that have been agreed upon” what then, are historical fictions?

Laurent Seksik’s The Last Days attempts to understand the last days of the author Stefan Zweig and his young wife Lotte, who will kill themselves at the end of the novel.

During his lifetime Stefan Zweig was one of the most celebrated and translated authors in the world. But while he was commercially successful, he is considered by critics to have been a minor author at best. It was an opinion he accepted, perhaps even shared, showing extraordinary humility. When his books were burned by the Nazis in 1933 he is reported to have called it an honor to see them thrown into the same bonfires as the works of great men like Einstein, Freud and Mann.

The Last Days skips over most of Zweig’s life and goes straight to the year 1942.  Stefan & Lotte are attempting to make a home in Petrópolis, Brazil after fleeing from Austria to England, then England to New York. Zweig is presented as a man dealing with middle age (he was 61) and – a bit like the varsity football player who peaked in high school – obsessed with the golden days of a Vienna that no longer existed.*  Lotte,  half his age and in awe of his celebrity, finds herself living a life of exile and self-imposed isolation that is very different from the glamorous existence she fantasized. The Last Days is a complicated novel – contemplative & thoughtfully written in a way that is uniquely French.

Andre Naffis-Sahely’s translation moves readers towards the couple’s death gently – the cadence of the writing slow and sad and achingly beautiful.  Zweig seems aged past his actual years and is actively disengaging from the world. Many of his friends are dead.  Those who managed to escape are pressuring him to take a political stand condemning Germany.** His world is shrinking – geographically and intellectually.  Something those around him are beginning to recognize.

“It’s funny to notice how the choices you made as a writers reveal your true inner nature. Mann opted to write about Goethe, while you chose to focus on Kleist and Nietzsche. You look for a path through the darkness and wander from country to country, with neither children nor a fixed address, and now you’ve buried yourself in this godforsaken place in the middle of nowhere, Meanwhile, Mann proceeds full steam ahead. Mann surrounds himself with people and protects himself. He has placed himself at the crossroads so as to watch all comings and goings, he’s the sun around which everyone else revolves. Whereas you have escaped to a place where nothing happens and have reached a point of no return. Mann is planning his reconquest of the literary world. Mann is busy building a statue to himself, while concealing his true nature. Mann will never own up to his pederastic inclinations. Mann conceals anything that might compromise his public image.  Mann sees himself as peerless. Mann looks for light and finds it in Thomas Mann. On the other hand, here you are doing your utmost to disappear.”

Seksik uses Ernst Feder, as he uses everything in his novel, as an opportunity to psychoanalyze these two people. He has a hypothesis that he is working through on the page.  It is fascinating to watch – though I couldn’t help wondering if reality wasn’t as tidy as he would like us to believe. Zweig’s suicide was, in fact. not entirely surprising when viewed in retrospect.  He had a history of depression (something his first wife, Friderike Maria von Winternitz, confirmed in her memoir about their life together after his death) and something Seksik only alludes to.***  Lotte, in my opinion, provides much more complicated subject matter.  She was hired by Friderike to act as Zweig’s secretary. They began an affair. Zweig eventually convinced Friderike to divorce him, and he and Lotte were married. She was completely devoted to the both the man and the world famous author. But Seksik is insightful enough to understand that a young wife might not have been entirely content with their life in Petrópolis.  Seksik’s portrait of Lotte, his interpretation of her psyche, is fascinating and troubling at the same time. She’s a pathetic creature willing to diminish herself in return for his love, and yet there are sparks of rebellion.  They amount to nothing, but their brief existence prevents the character from becoming two-dimensional.

On the whole neither Stefan or Lotte Zweig are sympathetic.  They are isolated, from society and each other, by the fog of depression. Yet Seksik manages to channel that depression into a semblance of life.  His characters are made of blood and bone. When husband & wife venture out with friends to celebrate Carnival Lotte wears a new red dress.  In the crowds Stefan loses sight of  her and Seksik describes his initial panic and his reaction when he finds her again.

He had lost hold of Lotte’s hand.  He looked around frantically. The thought that she might have drowned in that human flood terrified him. Pushing his way through the pandemonium, he began screaming out her name, a cry that was lost in the midst of that racket. Everyone around him was lost in jubilation. A man wearing a skeleton costume and a skull mask roared in his face. He felt oppressed by the crowd and began thinking he’d lost her for good. A group of women wearing open bodices surrounded him, their bodies dripping with sweat as they shook in a sort of primitive dance. He saw himself as rather grotesque, lost in a ragged crowd wearing a white linen suit. A man wearing a fake beard jumped towards him and stole his Panama hat from his head. He stood motionless, petrified. Then, just as quickly as the crowd had assembled, it dispersed. All of a sudden, he caught sight of her, covered in ticker tape, swaying her hips in front of a man playing maracas. He lingered for a while observing the scene, in the middle of that frenzied outburst, keeping his gaze obstinately fixed on his wife. She appeared to be floating before his eyes as if in a dream.  He felt a hand on his shoulder.

While Zweig’s popularity has waxed and waned in the decades since his death, European additions of his books have continued to be widely read.  He is currently experiencing a revival – the beneficiary of the public’s nostalgia for the Edwardian period fueled by the popularity of shows like Downton Abbey, as well as films like Atonement and The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson’s film was, in fact, inspired by Zweig’s novels). The New York Review of Books & Pushkin Press have recently reissued, between them, almost his complete catalog of books – translated into English to moderate success. There have been reviews and articles in The New York Review of Books, The Guardian, The NY Times Book Review, to name a few.  His suicide has been of particular interest, we humans are by our nature somewhat morbid.  Seksik has managed to elevate the conversation, gleaning beauty from tragedy.  Discovering truth in the absence of facts.

*The Youtube video below provides a sense of what that lost world was like.

**Fellow Jews who had fled the Third Reich took Zweig’s pascifism in life & eventual suicide to be an almost personal betrayal.  Mann wrote after learning of Zweig’s death: “He should never have granted the Nazis this triumph, and had he had a more powerful hatred and contempt for them, he would never have done it.”

***I can’t help seeing parallels to Virginia Woolf’s suicide at the beginning of the war. Her nephew, Quentin Bell, in his amazing biography tells how the Woolfs planned to commit suicide should there be a German invasion.  Leonard Woolf was Jewish, and rumors had already begun to spread on the fate of the Jews under Hitler. Bell attributes the stress of a possible invasion, along with the loss of their London home and the Hogarth Press offices during a Blitz as contributing to her final breakdown.