Two Short Works of Non-Fiction by Readux Books

Whether or not you subscribe to the theory that the digital age is creating an ADD society (there was a great article about this last month in The Guardian) time is at a premium in today’s world and there’s no arguing the attractions of shorter fiction.   Earlier this year I ran a series of posts featuring bloggers discussing why they love – or hate – short stories.  Novellas are also growing in popularity. Readux Books, the new publisher based in Berlin, has hit the sweet spot somewhere between the two with the release of their first collection of books this past October.

A lot of care has obviously gone into the making and launching these books.  Each is approximately 5,000 to 10,000 words – a length Readux feels is in keeping with “reading habits in the digital era, without room for slack, but that is long enough to allow complex themes to be developed.”  The gorgeous, brightly colored paperback covers referencing the German Expressionists.  The writing is experimental – of the four books, three are translations – yet accessible.   Readux has obviously made clever choices and taken some calculated chances in the planning stages.    And while each of the four books is sold individually, they share common themes, ideas and a consistent packaging that had me coveting them for my bookshelves.  This careful curating reminds me of some of my favorite independent publishers: New Directions, Open Letter and Other Press.

The two non-fiction titles are memoirs about life in Berlin, written from two different periods in the city’s history.  Yet, the Berlin described appears remarkably unchanged despite an 85 year gap in the timeline.  The changes in writing styles are much more drastic.  Franz Hessel’s In Berlin: Day and Night in 1929 lacks the post-modern trappings of City of Rumor: The Compulsion to Write About Berlin (written by Gideon Lewis-Kraus in 2013).  The former is a period piece that is similar to Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories.  Not surprising, as both he and Hessel lived in Berlin at the same time.  It’s not unthinkable that they would even have traveled in the same circles.

Hessel was a Jewish editor, author and translator.  He was a member of the German artist community.  His complicated marriage to the journalist Helen Grund inspired Henri Pierre Roche’s novel Jules et Jim (which, in turn, inspired the 1962 François Truffaut film of the same name).  Eventually, he would flee Germany for France and he and his son would be sent to an internment camp.  He died in 1941, the same year he was released from the camp.

But here Hessel is writing about the heady days before the tragedy of WWII.  His descriptions of Berlin and its citizens are frenzied and entertaining.  In Berlin is an all too brief excerpt of what I believe must have been a longer piece in which we readers get to follow Hessel and his companions as they drift between cabarets, parties and clubs. We meet the German equivalent of Flappers and get a taste of the sexually progressive atmosphere that permeated the city at that time.  The sharp, witty prose style is characteristic of Lois Long’s column for the New Yorker during the same period.

… Gert and Maria deliberate on what else we could undertake to do. “Why don’t you young people go upstairs and dance?” I ask.  “I don’t want to,” says Maria, “but maybe Gert would find some companionship in the Blaue Salon.” “Actually I was supposed to stop in to Ambassadeurs today at midnight.”” In my inexperience, I am informed that this is the newest extension of the Barberina.  Gert and Maria then discuss the quality of the various jazz bands and tango groups in the big hotels, in the Palais am Zoo, in the Valencia, etc.  I somewhat timidly introduce my experiences from the little Silhoette.  “why don’t we just go across the way here to Eldorado?  That’s where the real bedlam’s at.  You’re all for chaos, smoking and sport jackets, transvestites, little girls, and great ladies, aren’t you?  Of course you’re more for what’s proper, Gert, you want elegant dancing and limits, you want to go to Königin.”  But in the end we decide on something completely different.

If you’re in Germany you can buy a set of (4) posters featuring Readux covers.

In contrast, City of Rumor by Gideon Lewis-Kraus spends less time writing about Berlin, the city, and more on his conflicted emotions regarding it.  He is a modern-day expatriate.  Lewis-Kraus is an American journalist whose work has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, The New York Times Magazine and the London Review of Books.  His writing is as beautiful as Hessel’s, but also more fraught. The modern Berlin he describes is still a frenetic party scene, but seems less innocent and more world-weary. The essay, itself, reads much more self-indulgent; the main conflict being internalized.  Berlin assumes the secondary role, stripped of its unique character and becoming interchangeable with cities like Brooklyn, London or L.A.   “Hipster” is a word that comes to mind.   “Angst” is another.  Of course, the subtitle is “The Compulsion to Write About Berlin“, – so you could say that Lewis-Kraus has delivered on what was advertised.

The chapter about Berlin, like the lives of man of the people I knew in Berlin, had no such constraint – no relevant chronology, no narrative necessity. When I sat down to write about Berlin for the first time, all I could do was make a list of anecdotes, the ones that had lingered with me for some reason, in no particular order.  I wrote them out as a series of disordered episodes – the time we followed the votive candles to the rave in the toolshed in the middle of the park, the time our friend held a real art opening outside a fake art opening – and saw little use or accuracy in connecting them.  After all, they had only ever felt associatively connected in the first place.  They had, or course, happened in one particular order, though as far as I could tell they might very well have happened in any other order, or no order at all.

Side-by-side these essays seem not about Berlin but instead about two generations of young urbanites.  That contrast between authors is what I found most interesting.  Individually they’re entertaining reads – but considered together they have the potential to spark a larger conversation about historical, cultural and literary changes.

The two fiction titles are Fantasy by Malte Persson, translated from Swedish by Saskia Vogel and The Marvel of Biographical Bookkeeping by Francis Nenik, translated from German by Katy Derbyshire.

Publisher:  Readux Books, Berlin

In Berlin: Day and Night in 1929
ISBN:  978 3 944801 01 8

City of Rumor: The Compulsion to Write About Berlin
ISBN:  978 3 944801 03 2

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a thousand morons by Quim Monzó (translated from the original Catalan by Peter Bush)

Thousand_Morons-frontPierre Charles L’Enfant and Andrew Ellicott carefully planned Washington DC – with its precise grid of streets, beautiful tree-lined avenues and stunning perspectives. Older cities like Boston or lower Manhattan developed more organically, the seemingly haphazard  pattern of their streets dictated by the habits of those who used them.

A good short story collection can grow like a city. Either organically – as when an author writes stories and publishes them together once he has enough for a book (like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, or Salinger are good examples). Or through careful planning from the get/go – think James Joyce, Jennifer Egan and William Faulkner.  Obviously the critical thing is that the stories, themselves, are good. But a planned collection adds a layer of complexity for the reader. The stories can be linked or not. They can be built around a group of shared characters, set in the same historical period or geographic region. The more ambitious the author the more abstract the themes held in common become.

And then there is Quim Monzó.  Whose short story collections appear so meticulously planned, but whose individual stories manage to still feel spontaneous and dashing.  His new collection, a thousand morons, is exactly what it claims to be. A collection of portraits – mostly sketches – of morons.  Men & women from all walks of life behaving idiotically.  But these absurdities, these quirks of behavior and situation, are completely familiar.   The “moron” in the title is all-encompassing. The situations are simultaneously tragic and very funny.  Monzó explores the absurdity of the human condition while avoiding the obvious literary contrivances that go with it.

A young man visits his father, Mr. Beneset, in a nursing home.  Their conversation is nothing special.  But as they speak the father is donning lipstick, stockings, a bra and a dress.  This quirk, the component that unbalances us, moves the story away from the mundane and towards the sublime.

In Love is Eternal another young man bumps into an old girlfriend.  They rekindle their half-hearted romance.  When he learns she is dying he decides to make her remaining days happy, only to have the situation backfire on him completely.

In Praise a simple comment by a best-selling author, a sentence of praise for a debut collection of short stories, creates a domino cascade of expectations and obligations that traps the protagonist in a farce.  Praise is a prime example of how Monzó writes comedy with an underlying somberness – the impression he gives is that though these situations are silly and ridiculous to the reader, they are serious matters for his characters.

He could say: “No, I’ve not read it.  The fact is that recently I’ve only been re-reading the classics.”  He knows that for years when asked in interviews about the current books he was reading, Terenci Moix would always respond that he was re-reading the classics, period.  In theory, it is a strategy one can only use if one really has read the classics.  Because the interviewer could then ask which classic you are re-reading and, if he knows it, he would catch you out.

But that is only in theory, because in practice the ruse can be used without running into problems.  Nowadays, the likelihood one will run into somebody who has read a particular classic is miniscule.  Nonetheless, just in case, he ponders over what else he could say.  He could say: “The fact is I read so many books that I never remember the plots.  I know I liked it.”  That is not a lame response. Even Montaigne was often unable to remember what he was reading…

a thousand morons is divided into two parts.  Part 1 contains seven short stories of approximately 10 pages in length.  In Part 2 the stories are more numerous but even shorter, about 3 pages or less.  They are more like sketches or flash fictions than traditional short stories.  Monzó has truncated the narrative arc, moving quickly from beginning to end with very little detail wasted between.  The stories in Part 2 are snappy.  Joke – punchline: the annunciation goes differently than expected, a mother watches as technology disconnects her family, we witness an inane pick-up at a cocktail party and a hostile restaurant takeover.  It’s all situational irony, carefully planned and brilliantly entertaining.

It is the second collection of Quim Monzó ‘s short stories, translated by Peter Bush, to be published by Open Letter.  The first, Guadalajara, was cerebral and written in a dense prose.  In it Monzó played complex games with his description of space, interpretation of other authors’ works and with words.  a thousand morons is very different.  He’s left the literary games behind and simply held up a mirror.  The reader will easily recognize his- or herself in these stories.  There is nothing technically breathtaking in the writing, per se, other than its economy (which, actually, is rather breathtaking). He deftly – s0metimes brutally) depicts the emotions and eccentricities which lead his characters into the situations he is describing.  According to Quim Monzó, human beings write their own farces and (in the spirit of Sartre) create their own hells.  We star in our very own comedies every day without the slightest awareness that we’re doing so.

Publisher:  Open Letter Books, New York (2012)
ISBN:  978 1 934824 41 2

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