Monthly Archives: February 2017

Review: Transit by Rachel Cusk

transitTransit, Cusk’s second book in what will be a trilogy of fictional autobiographies about the aftermath of her divorce, begins with an unsolicited email that Faye, the narrator, receives from a psychic.  The self-proclaimed astrologist says  that she is in possession of specific details about Faye’s life: “She wished me to know that a major transit was due to occur shortly in my sky.”  Just as in Outline, the narrator deliberately leaves details about herself out of the narrative; we only get passing glimpses of her life through her interactions with others.  A visit to the hairdresser, a trip to a literary festival, a date, and a party at a friend’s home all become the backdrop for intriguing conversations and interactions that partly reveal Faye’s own story.

At the beginning of this story, Faye has moved back to London with her boys after her divorce and has bought an apartment that is a disaster.  It requires a complete overhaul and the demolition of her apartment by the contractors becomes a metaphor for her own life.  She sends her boys away to spend a few weeks with their father while her surroundings are being dismantled.  She describes her house to a man with whom she agrees to go on a date:

I felt cold.  There were builders in my house, I added.  The doors and windows were constantly open and the heating had been turned off.  The house had become a tomb, a place of dust and chill.  It was impossible to eat or sleep or work—there wasn’t even anywhere to sit down.  Everywhere I looked I saw skeletons, the skeletons of walls and floors, so that the house felt unshielded, permeable, as though all the things those walls and floors ought normally to keep out were free to enter.

There is always the feeling in a Cusk novel that a simple description, like this one about her renovated home, has a much heavier and deeper meaning than what we encounter at first glance.  There are several passages that I found throughout the book that I underlined and were worthy of multiple reads.

One additional aspect of Transit that I found particularly intriguing were the descriptions of Faye’s children.  Similar to Outline they are never physically present with Faye in the book.  We only get descriptions of them when they call her from their father’s home.  When the boys call her they are lost, or locked out of the house, or feeling alone; they are still in need of her maternal love and I felt sad that they were separated from her, even if only for a little while.  At the end of the book Faye is at a party and the boys call her cell phone because they are fighting and cannot solve their conflict.  They ask her for help and admit that their father is nowhere to be found.  There are additional hints at the father’s anger, maltreatment of Faye and lack of involvement in the boys’ lives.  I am very interested to see if Cusk will further explore the post-divorce family dynamic in the final book of the trilogy.

Fate, identity, love, marriage and transitions are all themes that Cusk explores though the interesting conversations she writes for her characters.  Cusk’s writing is both compelling and philosophical, a combination which so few writers are successfully able to achieve.

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Filed under British Literature, Literary Fiction

Review: Like Death by Guy Maupassant

I received an advanced review copy of this title from NYRB via Edelweiss.  This English version has been translated from the French by Richard Howard.

My Review:
like-deathOlivier Bertin is a painter in late nineteenth century Paris and his most famous work, his Cleopatra, has earned him enough fame to be sought out by the rich and famous of high society.  He is not interested in any romantic relationships with the bourgeois women he paints because he feels that are insipid and boring.  At a party one night, however, he meets the Countess Ann de Guilleroy and is immediately captivated by her beauty and charm and decides he must do her portrait.  As Bertin paints the Countess in his studio, the two have stimulating conversations and enjoy one another’s company more and more.

Like many romantic relationships, Anne and Bertin’s starts with great conversations and friendship.  Slowly, feelings of love overtake both of them until the painter can stand it no longer and decides he must have her.  When they consummate their relationship, Anne feels very guilty at first because she has had a good marriage to the Count de Guilleroy for seven years and they have a five-year-old daughter.  But she quickly realizes that Bertin makes her happy and she welcomes the painter into her inner circle so that they can have daily contact.

Henceforth she felt no remorse, merely the vague sense of a certain forfeiture, and to answer the reproaches of her reason, she now credited to a certain fatality.  Drawn to him by her virgin heart and her void soul, her flesh vanquished by the slow dominion of caresses, she gradually became attached, as tender women do who love for the first time.

There is no suspicion among Parisian society that they are having an affair and it simply appears that the Countess and Bertin are the best of friends and both share a love of the arts.  Bertin even becomes great friends with Anne’s husband, the Count.  Their affair carries on for twelve years and settles into an easy comfort, similar to many long-term marriages and relationships.  In two simple lines, Maupassant’s sublime prose describes the deep and abiding affection achieved by the lovers:

Months then passed, then years, which scarcely loosened the bond uniting Countess de Builleroy and the painter Olivier Bertin.  For him, this period was no longer theexaltation of the early days but a calmer, deeper affection, a sort of anitie amoureuse to which he had become easily and entirely accustomed.

The central crisis in the book occurs when Anne’s daughter, Annette, who has been growing up outside of Paris, makes her entrance into Parisian society at the age of eighteen; Annette is the exact image of her mother at that age and everyone, especially Bertin, notices the striking resemblance between mother and daughter.  Maupassant takes a lot of care in his writing to develop the contrast between the youth of Annette and the growing age of her mother and the painter.  He uses the seasons as a backdrop which  mimic the painter’s feelings and observations about mother and daughter.  For example, when Bertin first realizes that Annette is a younger, more energetic version of her mother it is springtime and Bertin has accompanied Annette to the park where children are playing and mother nature is in her first bloom.  The brighter, fresh weather and Annette’s youth give Bertin feelings of energy and passion that haven’t been stirred in him for many years.

At first it seems that the appearance of Annette has just reminded Bertin of the early stages of his relationship with Anne, that all-consuming, passion that marks the beginning of an affair.  But Bertin’s feelings gradually become deeper for Annette and he soon realizes he is even jealous of her fiancé.  Bertin doesn’t acknowledge his love for the young Annette until Anne detects them and points them out to the painter.  At this point in the book, Anne and Bertin both become hopelessly wretched because the painter has fallen in love with Annette, the younger, prettier version of Anne.  At times Anne and Bertin are a little hard to take because their feelings of misery are so intense and  they make frequent allusions to death which seemed a bit melodramatic.

Maupassant weaves an interesting commentary throughout the book on beauty, age, youth and the standards of beauty upheld by society.  Anne notices her increasing wrinkles and sagging skin and believes her appearance is to blame for Bertin’s lack of affection towards her.  And instead of being proud of her daughter she is jealous of Annette’s complexion yet unblemished by time and age.  Anne takes more time to apply make-up, takes extreme measures to make herself thin and only greets her lover in the dim light of the drawing room.  Olivier, too, suffers from an obsession with his aging appearance.  His white hair and paleness are particularly emphasized.  When a Parisian newspaper calls his art work old-fashioned, he becomes particularly distraught about his advancing years.  Maupassant’s meditations on the impossible standards of beauty to which we hold ourselves are just as relevant now as they were in the nineteenth century.

Overall, this was an enjoyable read because of Maupassant’s prose which perfectly captures the extreme and conflicting emotions of love and suffering.  The ending is rather dramatic, although not at all surprising given the title and other elements of foreshadowing that Maupassant scatters throughout his text.

 

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Filed under Classics, France, French Literature, Literature in Translation, Literature/Fiction, New York Review of Books

Review: Enigma Variations by André Aciman

My Review:
enigma-variationsGiovanni, Maud, Manfred, Chloe and Heidi.  There are the people whom Paul has loved or lusted after throughout the course of his adult life and each one has left an indelible mark on his character and on his soul.  Aciman is a master at capturing the different stages of a love affair by devoting a chapter to each of Paul’s partners who all contribute varying degrees of love, lust, passion and commitment to the story of his life.

The first two chapters of the book are the most compelling and showcase Aciman’s ability to describe and capture emotions that are oftentimes too private to share.  Paul, the narrator, arrives on a small Italian that was his family’s summer home and reflects back on the last season his family spent there when he was an adolescent.   Paul remembers that as a twelve-year-old boy he experienced his first sexual awakening and because his was physically drawn to another man he is confused and ashamed.  Paul’s mother wanted to have an old desk, a family heirloom restored, so she invited the local cabinetmaker over to their home to examine the desk.  Giovanni, an attractive, strong man with attractive hands and a mellifluous voice immediately drew young, adolescent Paul’s attention:

That morning in our house, because he stood so very close to me, something undefined in his face left me as shaken and flustered as when I was asked once to recite a poem in front of the entire school, teachers, parents, distant relatives, friends of the family, visiting dignitaries, the world.  I couldn’t even look at him.  I needed to look away.  His eyes were too clear.  I didn’t know whether I wanted to touch them or swim in them.

Aciman is a master at describing the innocent and naïve feelings that come with a first crush.  Paul begins showing up at Giovanni’s shop and helps him refurbish his parents’ desk.  The desk has a secret compartment that was not discovered by anyone in the family until Giovanni inspects it.  The hidden box within the desk that remains unknown to the family is a fitting image and parallel for the secret feelings that Paul has for the young and handsome cabinetmaker.  As Paul is visiting the island for the first time in ten years, all of his memories and desires for Giovanni come flooding back to him.  Paul is also there to inspect his family’s home which was burned down by the locals for some mysterious reason.  Aciman provides a compelling plot as the mystery of solving this crime is slowly unraveled throughout the first chapter.

The second chapter is devoted to Manfred, a man Paul meets at the Central Park tennis court in New York.  Paul is now in his late-twenties, has some sort of a career in writing and publishing and is living in New York City with a woman named Maud.  Aciman builds a complex character through Paul to make the point that love, passion and sexuality are never easy or well-defined.  Paul is equally attracted to and sexually stimulated by men and women.  Even though he lives with Maud and has a great physical and emotional relationship with her, he cannot stop thinking about Manfred whom he sees every morning at the tennis court.  It takes Paul two years to work up the courage to speak to Manfred.  When Manfred pays him the slightest attention with a look, a nod or a remark, Paul is elated.  Once again, Aciman is so adept at capturing the various stages of a person who has a romantic crush on someone and can only love from afar.  Paul has a private, inner dialogue with his longed for Manfred:

Every morning I watch you walk to your court, I watch you play, and I watch you leave an hour and a half later.  Always the same, never brooding, just silent.  Occasionally, you’ll say “Excuse me” when I happen to stand in your way, and “Thank you’ when your ball drifts into my court and I hurl it back to you.  With these few words, I find comfort in false hope and hope in false starts.  I’ll coddle anything instead of nothing.  Even thinking that nothing can come of nothing gives me a leg to stand on, something to consider when I wake up in the middle of the night and can see nothing, not the blackout in my life, not the screen, not the cellar, not even hope and false comforts—just the joy of your imagined limb touching mine.  I prefer the illusion of perpetual fasting to the certainty of famine.  I have, I think, what’s called a broken heart.

Anyone who has ever loved someone from afar can identify with the pain and torture of Paul’s words.  Finally after two years of this hidden, inner torment, Paul and Manfred go out for a drink and lay all of their feelings out for one another.  We are led to believe that Paul has finally found the right person for him, that a man like Manfred can satisfy him in a way that could never be by a woman.  But, this is only the half-way point of Paul’s story and it is far from over.

The last three chapters all deal with women that Paul is further drawn to.  Chloe, who Paul has known since college, has an especially profound effect on his emotions.  They keep running into each other at social gatherings about every four years and every time these accidental meetings take place their sexual passion is intense.  But they can never commit to one another so their relationship is nothing but a series of false beginnings that never go anywhere.  In the last three chapters, Paul’s self-doubts and emotional confusion don’t fade away with time or age.  Whenever he finds himself in a committed relationship, he is always looking for or thinking about someone else.  I found his story at this point a bit tedious because even in middle age he has not found what can make him happy.

Always looking, always doubting, never happy, Paul becomes a depressing, cliche of a dissatisfied middle-aged man.  Perhaps this is meant to reflect Paul’s continuing struggle with his sexuality;  Aciman’s language and plot in the first part of the story is much more interesting than the ending of the novel.  But overall, it is still worth the read.  This book has many of the same themes and subjects he explores in his previous novel, Call Me By Your Name.  This story also reminded me of Bae Suah’s exploration of the complexities of human sexuality in her novel A Greater Music.

About the Author:
Andre AcimanAndré Aciman was born in Alexandria, Egypt and is an American memoirist, essayist, novelist, and scholar of seventeenth-century literature. He has also written many essays and reviews on Marcel Proust. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, The Paris Review, The New Republic, Condé Nast Traveler as well as in many volumes of The Best American Essays. Aciman received his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Harvard University, has taught at Princeton and Bard and is Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature at The CUNY Graduate Center. He is currently chair of the Ph. D. Program in Comparative Literature and founder and director of The Writers’ Institute at the Graduate Center.

Aciman is the author of the Whiting Award-winning memoir Out of Egypt (1995), an account of his childhood as a Jew growing up in post-colonial Egypt. Aciman has published three other books: False Papers: Essays in Exile and Memory (2001), a novel Call Me By Your Name (2007), which was chosen as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and won the Lambda Literary Award for Men’s Fiction (2008) and Eight White Nights (2010).

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Filed under Literature/Fiction, Uncategorized

Post-truth, Post-structuralism, and now Post-Pleasure?: My Review of Jean-Luc Nancy’s Coming

coming-coverIn this age of addiction and excessive consumption where massive modes of pleasure are readily available, have we completely fucked ourselves into oblivion? Do we give a fuck about fucking anymore? And now that we have come to the point of post-structuralism, post-modernism, post-privacy and post-truth, have we also arrived at the era of post-pleasure? There are just a few of the provocative questions that French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy raises in his book Coming as he explores the tricky, elusive and titillating French word jouissance and its various associations with orgasm, sex, coming, pleasure, joy, property and consumption.

Coming, which is the English translation of the French title la jouissance, takes the form of an interview, divided into five part as Adèle Van Reeth, the producer and host of France Cultural Radio’s daily program on philosophy, asks Nancy a series of questions about the idea of jouissance.  Through the course of this dialogue, Nancy lays out the original meaning of jouissance, which was used solely as a legal term, and he takes us on a fascinating linguistic journey to discover how this word evolved to become associated with sexual pleasure and orgasm and from consummation is now associated with the modern idea of consumption. This book is an excellent introduction for those who are new to Nancy or for those who are familiar with his prolific writings as it contains some of his most favored topics: community, modern psychology, linguistics, Christianity, the body, sex and Platonism, just to name a few. Continue reading my review in the February issue of Numero Cinq

You can also read an excerpt from the book translated by Charlotte Mandell here

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Filed under French Literature, Literature in Translation, Nonfiction, Philosophy

Review: Recitation by Bae Suah

I received an advance review copy of this title from Deep Vellum via Edelweiss.

My Review:
recitationBoth of Suah’s books that I have read, A Greater Music and Recitation, are relatively short as far as novels are concerned, but both books took me a week to read;  because of their complexity and language dense with poetry and philosophy they required and demanded my full attention.  When Recitation opens, the main character, Kyung-hee, is in a train station in a European city but has no hotel reservations or a specific address to stay.  She is waiting for a person whom she has never met, a fellow-wanderer introduced to her by a friend who has agreed to let her sleep in his living room for  a few days.  When the fellow-wanderer stands her up, Kyung-hee meets a group of Korean immigrants who become fascinated with her and they take on the role as the narrators of her story.

Recitation is, among other things,  a reflection on what it means to feel at home somewhere in the world, it is a commentary on why we feel grounded and at peace in some places but not in others.  Kyung-hee travels around Europe and Asia, never staying in one place for very long.  She doesn’t identify herself as Korean, Asian, or the resident of a specific city, but instead she calls herself a “city dweller.”  The specific cities to which she travels are vague and not the focus of the text; each city becomes for her a palimpsest upon which she can inscribe her own experiences anew with each visit.  She identifies with the Starbuck’s logo more than any other symbol because it is the one thing that remains the same no matter where she goes.

Kyung-hee meets people to whom she does not assign specific names—the healer, the teacher couple, the German teacher, the East Asian man.  Even her lover is simply assigned the name of “Mr. Nobody.”  One of the few people she meets that she does call by name is Maria, but Maria is a shadowy figure that lingers in the background for much of the book with no specific details given about her life.  We only learn at the end of the story that Kyung-hee meets Maria in Berlin and Maria has allowed hundreds of travelers stay at her home throughout the years.  Another interesting detail about the people she meets is that they are all somehow connected.  The German teacher introduces her to the teacher couple and Mr. Nobody introduces Kyung-hee to his son Banchi who also knows Maria. It is Maria that introduces Kyung-hee to the community of Karakorum who are a tribe of global dwellers, never staying in one place for very long and for whom the mere fact of their wandering makes them uniquely connected and a type of community.

The most interesting and compelling part of the text for me was Kyung-hee’s descriptions of her job as a recitation actress and how an incident one night on stage gave her the motivation to travel the world.  As she is in the middle of a recitation, she walks across the stage and breaks her toe which causes her a great deal of pain.  When she gets the cast off of her foot she has a revelation:

It was probably the incident with the plaster cast that brought about that desire to detach myself from a specific location, to free my material self from being tied to a given set of coordinates, fixed in a single place.  Looked at from a certain angle, perhaps its more accurate to call my soul the author of that shriek of despair, and relegate my toe to the role of intermediary.

In addition, Kyung-hee describes her childhood in Seoul as she grows up under the strict and abusive authority of her parents.  They have little love and affection for their daughter and control every aspect of her life, including the types of books she is allowed to read.  She has a sister who is much older than her whom she rarely sees or interacts with.  In addition, her older sister is not subjected to the same harsh rules as Kyung-hee.  She lays around the house most of the day, has no job and smokes in her room without drawing any type of criticism from their parents.  One night Kyung-hee’s sister appears to her naked in her bedroom and her sister attempts to strangle her.  There are many layers of intriguing imagery that Suah weaves throughout the story of the sisters that makes us question their relationship and connection to one another.  After reading this part of her story I viewed Kyung-hee as less of a woman possessed with a sense of wanderlust and more of a refugee;  she has been forced out of her home by the cruelty of her family and can never return to that home.

Suah’s book ends on a vague note which is fitting for the rest of the narrative in which time, places and characters oftentimes blend together and become blurred.  Kyung-hee herself becomes a shadow of a figure; has she been real all along and since she never had a fixed home will anyone remember that she ever existed?  Is Kyung-hee destined to be one of those nameless refugees that are exiled from their home, never to return to a place of comfort and familiarity?  The Karakorum reminded me of the Greek concept of xenia which demanded that men give each other a warm place to stay, a meal and entertainment when they were traveling.  If a Greek did not offer such hospitality to a fellow traveler then he could be ostracized from his community and the same hospitality would be denied to him as a traveler.  Wouldn’t the world be a much better place if we extended the idea of xenia especially to refugees who are in the greatest need of comfort and hospitality?

 

About the Author:
bae-suahSuah Bae is a South Korean author who was born in 1965.

Suah Bae graduated from Ewha Womans University with a degree in Chemistry. Originally a government employee at Gimpo Airport in Incheon, Bae wrote stories as a hobby. At the time of her debut in 1993, Bae Su-ah (1965~ ) was a government employee working behind the embarkation/disembarkation desk at the Kimpo international airport in Seoul. Without formal instruction or guidance from a literary mentor, Bae wrote stories “as a hobby” while working at the airport; but it wasn’t long before she left her stultifying job to become one of the most daringly unconventional writers to grace the Korean literary establishment in modern years.

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Filed under Literature in Translation