Attention Span 2012 | Marc Lowenthal
Nikolai Gogol, trans. Bernard Guilbert Guerney, rev. and ed. Susanne Fusso | Dead Souls | Yale | 1996
I actually prefer Gogol’s short stories, and found myself having to force my way through my first reading of this classic (in the translation that earned Nabokov’s approval, though I haven’t checked out the newer ones). Some memorably grotesque characters and episodes, but the real reason this is on my list is that I keep finding myself translating the book into a contemporary context, and thinking about “dead souls” in today’s regions of cyberspace, debt, and biopolitics. It appears that Gogol has a Facebook account, for example, and is sharing links and getting “liked,” which conjures up an intriguing Dead Souls 2.0, with Mark Zuckerberg as today’s Chichikov, collecting deceased “profiles” for economic gains I can only guess at…
Wayne Koestenbaum | Humiliation | Picador | 2011
The way the concept of “abjection” got valorized in the art world in the 1990s, something similar seems to have happened with the concept of “failure” in more recent years. (Self-loathing is difficult enough to confront without having to feel like one is being trendy on top of it.) But perhaps “humiliation” is a rubric that has a better chance of not being absorbed into art world/academic discourses: this little book really felt to me like an honest, gutsy take on everything I, myself, try (and fail) to never, ever think about.
Éric Losfeld | Endetté comme une mule ou La passion d’éditer | Pierre Belfond | 1979
While my fascination with Surrealism’s glory years of the 1920s–30s is now a part of what I would be forced to call my youth, my interest in the later period of the 1950s–1960s and the movement’s third and fourth generations has begun to grow. Surrealism itself always had a predilection for the “minor” Romantics (they more than anyone lifted once “minor” poets like Lautréamont into “major” status), so it only seems right to reciprocate and explore some of its own “minor” participants: Jean Schuster, Ado Kyrou, José Pierre, Gérard Legrand, etc. Among this contingent was the movement’s colleague, Eric Losfeld, Surrealism’s unofficial (and relentlessly beleaguered) publisher: he published all but one of their erratic postwar journals, along with everything else subversive in France after WWII (the list of his books that encountered legal and censorship woes would go on for pages). André Breton’s writings of the same period did get uncomfortably heavy-handed and pretentious, and there is a somewhat impotent seriousness to it all, but this was interestingly balanced by an open engagement with pop culture. There is a very enticing region in pre-’68 French publishing where science fiction, Surrealism, and smut overlapped, and that region can be labeled “Losfeld” (his name translates from the Flemish as “wasteland,” which is what he published under—Le Terrain Vague—after his first incarnation as Arcanes went under). These memoirs (reputedly not 100% reliable) are thoroughly enjoyable, with anecdotes on many of his authors, from Breton to Benjamin Péret to Isidore Isou (the egomaniacal Isou introduced himself to Losfeld in the street by trying to convince him that he was God). Losfeld is usually (and superficially) summarized as being the man behind the soft-core heroines Barbarella and Emannuelle, but the fact is that there are very few publishers whose complete backlist would be something I’d like for my shelves, and Losfeld is one of them. (Though whether all of his under-the-counter publications will ever be traced back to him to actually establish a complete backlist seems uncertain.)
Nescio, trans. Damion Searls | Amsterdam Stories | New York Review of Books | 2012
Nescio (penname of J. H. F. Grönloh) was new to me, and this slim volume apparently gathers almost all of his prose together. The sparseness of his output adds to his work’s wistfulness. Those who like the Swiss Robert Walser will want to check out this Dutchman: they both manage to pull off—in the midst of their quiet humor, bumbling young characters, and fuddy-duddy bucolic raptures—a similar sort of unexpected quiet devastation almost without changing register. The stories are essentially about how the dreams of one’s youth don’t so much collapse, decay, or self-destruct, but just gently wear down into smooth, lovely little stones. Which can still be very easily thrown through the fragile facades supporting whatever it is we happen to be calling our lives.
Patrik Ouredník, trans. Alex Zucker | The Opportune Moment, 1855 | Dalkey | 2011
The very versatile and smart Czech author Ouredník is one of my favorites right now. This is his third book to appear in English. (I would actually recommend one of the other two first, though, such as his justly celebrated—in other languages if not to the same degree in English—Europeana, a 120-page summation of the twentieth century at turns brutally funny and just brutal.) Describing the subject matter of this recently translated novel ends up making it sound pedantic and dull, whereas Ouredník is anything but. It basically depicts the absurd horror of any ideological effort at a utopia—and thus, by extension, the absurd horror of modernity. Reading the diarist reports of the little isolated utopian group it depicts is a bit like reading Lost, but in 136 satirical pages instead of 6 bloated seasons that ended up devolving into farce.
Thomas de Quincey | The Last Days of Immanuel Kant | Blackwood’s | 1827
A short biography that can be easily found online in the second volume of De Quincey’s Narrative and Miscellaneous Papers through Project Gutenberg. I picked this up out of curiosity as to what had led Marcel Schwob to translate it into French, and discovered that in many ways, De Quincey’s portrait of Kant must have offered something of a template for the portraits Schwob himself collected together in his masterpiece Imaginary Lives (which itself then provided the template to Borges’s Universal History of Infamy). De Quincey’s focus on the strange details of Kant’s life (the fact that Kant never perspired, for example)—his biographical “science of the particular”—can be taken as one of the roots to Schwob’s own science of the particular that would in turn influence Alfred Jarry—who would eventually formulate said science as his increasingly ballyhooed Pataphysics.
Juan José Saer, trans. Steve Dolph | Scars | Open Letter | 2011
This was my introduction to Juan José Saer. It was a brutal, monotonous, and hypnotic read. I feel like I need to read some more of his novels before committing myself to saying anything (there are at least five others that have been translated into English), as this one put me in a bit too much of a dark mood to think about it clearly.
Marcel Schwob | Le livre de Monelle | Éditions Allia | 2005 (1894)
I perhaps shouldn’t be including Schwob in my list because I am involved in bringing out a new translation of The Book of Monelle this year, which would seem to make for a bit of a conflict of interest. But it is for that same reason that I’ve reread this little book at least five times this past year, and not to include it would prevent me from stating, unequivocally, what I’ve grown to realize with each repeated reading: Marcel Schwob’s Le livre de Monelle is one of the most beautiful books ever written. Equal parts Thus Spoke Zarathustra and the Brothers Grimm, this symbolist masterpiece of mourning deserves to be better known in English.
Robert Walser, trans. Christopher Middleton | Thirty Poems | Christine Burgin / New Directions | 2012
My first encounter with Walser some twenty years ago (through Christopher Middleton’s translated Selected Stories, which must have seen print now through at least four different publishers) deeply affected me. His ambulatory voice, his radical modesty, his disengaging humor speckled with pinpricks of incredibly understated pathos was just unlike anything else I had ever read. Today we have a plethora of Walser in English (three new books just this year), and I have to confess that my enthusiasm has waned with every new one since I first read him, to the extent that I’ve been unable to finish any of the most recent translated volumes I’ve picked up. I’ve come to think that quantity perhaps doesn’t ultimately serve Walser well. All of which is to say that I find his voice and his writings most effective in small (modest) packages, and that this slim book of his verse essentially reintroduced me to him. Another lovely package from Christine Burgin Gallery.
Donald E. Westlake | The Ax | Mysterious Press | 1997
This noir novel has only grown more timely in the fifteen years since it came out: Westlake turns what should be an absurd plot into the perfect parable for our neoliberalist times. A laid-off manager at a paper mill realizes that the only way he is ever going to get rehired anywhere is by physically eliminating (literally murdering) his competition. The debilitating and emasculating humiliation of unemployment, the incompatibility of morality and survival in a corporate-run world are very convincingly captured as Westlake unfolds a plot out of Cornell Woolrich (it’s pacing and unfolding reminded of older pulp fiction like Rendezvous in Black). For anyone working in the publishing world, the fact that the murderous dog-eat-dog struggle he depicts is over a position in the paper manufacturing industry will add an extra layer of cruel irony to the book that it didn’t yet have in the late 1990s. (Though the first round of attempts at digital books was already taking place at that point, even if without success, so I’m sure Westlake’s choice of industry backdrop wasn’t total coincidence.)
Denis Wood | Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas | Siglio | 2010
There has been a small avalanche of “mapping” books over the last number of years. Of the ones I have perused, this one has been my favorite, perhaps because of Wood’s DIY modus operandi, and because the project at its heart goes back a good number of years and is something of a collective, lifelong undertaking. How to measure distance with heartstrings: the mapping out of a neighborhood via the placement of its jack o’ lanterns on a Halloween evening, the blobs of lights between its trees, its local rents and absentee landlords, its sidewalk graffiti, or its aural spacing of wind chimes.
Marc Lowenthal runs Wakefield Press. He also has a day job.
This is Marc Lowenthal’s first contribution to Attention Span. Back to 2012 directory.