This week’s New York Times Book Review is devoted entirely to international literature, a welcome choice. I don’t generally love “theme issues”, but the NYTBR can do an issue like this anytime they want.
It’d be easy to complain about all the international writers who are not included in this 28-pager, but instead let’s appreciate the ones who are. Chile’s increasingly legendary Roberto Bolano gets cover-article respect from James Wood, who writes beautifully and makes a convincing case for Bolano’s place in the contemporary canon (it’s just too bad that Bolano had to die before this canonization took place). Wood effuses about a single long sentence in Bolano’s The Savage Detectives that he describes as “a poem”:
The musical control is impeccable, and one is struck by Bolano’s ability to nudge on his long, light, ethereal sentence — impossibly, like someone punting a leaf — image by image, the falcon, the red hue, the sunset, the dawn, the dawn seen from a plane, the femoral artery, the blood vessel, the abstract painter.
Nobody will miss the fact that Wood is attempting to nudge forth his own “poem” in this critical piece, and my only problem with Wood’s very thoughtful piece is that it is too achingly worshipful, too ecstatic, too much like a series of forehead kisses. Even when a great writer has just died and is being newly appreciated, this can be off-putting. Regardless, Wood makes his point, and I’m going to read Bolano’s book.
At least two of today’s translated authors get something more like a hard smack than a kiss to the forehead, particularly Austria’s Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek, whose Greed is massacred by Joel Agee for numerous stylistic and philosophical excesses. It’s a funny piece:
This sounds like a page turner. Now I too have misled you. Nothing is further from Jelinek’s mind than advancing a plot or even just telling a story.
Lucy Ellman is no kinder to Depths by Sweden’s Henning Mankell, and I’m not quite sure whether or not Sophie Harrison intends to be kinder to Grotesque, Natsuo Kirino’s tale of a quirky teenage murderer in Japan. Harrison refers to it as a “disconcerting stump of a book”, but makes it sound rather intriguing despite this.
There’s relatively more positivity in Fernanda Ebertstadt’s review of Nada by Spain’s Carmen Laforet, Terrence Rafferty’s review of Delerium (what’s with the one-word titles?) by Colombia’s Laura Restrepo and Liesl Schillinger’s review of All Whom I Hove Loved by Israel’s Aharon Appelfield, which takes place in World War II-era Romania.
Ken Kalfus is a new favorite writer of mine (his dark comic novel A Disorder Peculiar to Our Country is still resonating in my brain) and I’m glad to see his byline on an article about Ice (another one-word title) by Vladimir Sorokin of Russia. Elizabeth Schmidt’s consideration of The Story of the Cannibal Woman by South Africa’s Maryse Conde rounds out an impressive global array.
Speaking of impressive global arrays, I was frequently reminded of Words Without Borders, a website and non-profit organization dedicated to international literature in translation, as I read this issue (full disclosure: I work as a technical consultant for Words Without Borders). It’s great that the New York Times Book Review is also paying special attention to translated literature, but I do wish they had reviewed the new book Words Without Borders: The World Through The Eyes of Writers in this issue, or, barring that, I wish they hadn’t produced a cover that looks a lot like the cover of the book. Witness:
Well, somebody at the NYTBR must have liked the book, anyway! It’s the thought that counts, and overall I’m very happy with this week’s issue of the Book Review.
The “Week In Review” section of today’s Times also includes a memorable piece by NYTBR chief Sam Tanenhaus about his odd brush with Don Imus, who happened to be a vocal fan and supporter of Tanenhaus’s 1997 biography of Cold War-era troublemaker Whittaker Chambers. Tanenhaus points out that Don Imus had many high profile co-dependents in his long career as a professional loudmouth, and hints gently at hypocrisy among these media/industry friends today. It’s a very good piece, proving once again that for all Sam Tanenhaus’s oddities as an editor, his articles are always worth reading.