Category Archives: New York Review of Books Poetry

My Literary jouissance of 2016

This year has been a tough one for many reasons.  It is hard to believe that there could be a “best of” list for anything related to 2016 and I really wasn’t going to bother making a book list.  But Grant from 1st Reading  twisted my arm a bit and I was reminded that if there is one thing that kept me moving forward in 2016 it was the plethora of fantastic books I came across this year.

The French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, in his most recent book entitled Coming, explores the French word jouissance (pleasure) and the similarities between sexual pleasure and artistic pleasure.  Sexual jouissance and orgasm are irresistible desires for humans which we can never fully satisfy and thus we are constantly coming back and reaching for The Other.  Nancy argues that even when an artist produces a jouissance in his or her viewers, there is always a constantly renewed dissatisfaction that keeps the artist working again and again.  I would extend Nancy’s argument about renewed desire and satisfaction to include Bibliophiles such as myself who wallow in the aftermath of a great piece of literature.  We, as avid readers, are always attempting to renew that high, that euphoria, that bliss which slowly creeps up on us when we close the last page of a great book.  Some of us, after a good read, might even have the same expression on our faces as Caravaggio’s Ecstasy of Mary Magdalene which is depicted on the cover of Nancy’s book.  So the list of books below were the ones that brought me jouissance this year; or if I may be so bold as to say they were the standout books that caused me to experience a literary orgasm.

coming

Two Lines 25 is published by Two Lines Press and this 192-page volume contains fascinating literature translated from Bulgarian, Chinese, French, German, Hebrew, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Russian and Spanish.  What excited me most about this collection is that it introduced me to the philosophy and writings of Jean-Luc Nancy.

The writing of Jean-Luc Nancy is one of my favorite literary and philosophical discoveries this year.  I have read three of his books: Corpus, Listening and Coming.  His philosophy explores what it means to be human and he deals with subjects of touching, listening, desiring and loving.  My review of Coming will be out next month and I have so many thoughts about this slim volume that is only 168 pages.

Oblivion by Sergei Lebedev is a haunting reflection on what life was like for the author during the years of the Soviet Union.  Lebedev’s prose is dense and poetic and so thoughtful that I found myself rereading entire sections of the book multiple times.  I am very excited that Lebedev has another novel forthcoming from New Vessel Press entitled The Year of the Comet.

War Music by Christopher Logue is a book that I dismissed as soon as I saw it in the FS&G catalog because I don’t usually read any time of modern retellings of Ancient myths.  But Anthony at Times Flow Stemmed had such great things to say about it that I decided to give it a try and I am so glad that I did.  I have so many things to say just about the first 50 pages of this book that I am not sure how I am going to handle a review.  I am thinking of doing several short pieces on each section of Logue’s poem.  As far as retellings are concerned, I also discovered Christa Wolf based on his suggestion and I thoroughly enjoyed her Medea and Cassandra.

Seagull Books Catalog.  It’s unusual to find a catalog on a best of list, but the one that Seagull publishes each year is very special.  It includes writing from authors, translators and even bloggers from all over the world.  This year I was invited to contribute to the catalog and some of my favorite literary bloggers also have pieces in the catalog.  Selections from Roughghosts, Times Flow Stemmed,   Tony’s Reading List and of shoes ‘n ships can all be found in this fabulous collection of art and literature.

The Brother by Rein Raud is a fast-paced, hard-hitting, short book that uses the plot structure of a western as an allegory for demonstrating the balance of good and evil in the world. It my favorite title from Open Letters this year whose books are fantastic.

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes is a skillfully written and poetic novel which serves as a fictional biography of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. The ways in which he must navigate his life and his art around the Soviet regime are heartbreaking.

The Parable Book by Per Olov Enquist is a true literary book that reads like philosophy, meditation, autobiography and parable. Sometimes we are given a very specific story from the author’s life, other times we are given an unclear stream-of-consciousness narrative, and still at other times we encounter a list of questions that the author poses on an entire page of the book. Enquist gives us the totality of a life that includes pivotal childhood memories, a bout of alcoholism that nearly destroys him, and the reflection of his elderly days during which he is waiting by the river to be taken to the other side. For anyone who enjoys serious literary fiction this book is a must-read. So far the English translation has only been published in the U.K. I am hoping it will also be available here in the U.S. This is a book that I look forward to reading multiple times.

A Lady and Her Husband by Amber Reeves from Persephone Books is a charming and entertaining look into the life of a middle-aged British couple that has been married for twenty-seven years. This book was written in 1914 so it brings up many political and social issues that were relevant at the turn of the last century and which continue to be discussed into the 21st Century. Debates that have taken place during the recent elections in the U.S. have reminded us that women are still paid less than their male counterparts, the minimum wage for workers continues to be too low, and millions of Americans still do not have access to proper healthcare.

Berlin-Hamlet: Poems by Szilárd Borbély is my favorite collection of poetry this year published by NYRB Poetry.  The layers of imagery, references and allusions to great figures like Kafka, Walter Benjamin, Attila József and Erno Szép are stunning. I find it so sad and tragic that the author succumbed to his deep sense of sadness and took his own life.

American Philosophy: A Love Story by John Kaag is another work of non-fiction that was one of my favorites this year.  Kaag’s journey from Hell to Redemption in his own personal life via the 10,000 books in Ernest Hocking’s personal library gave me an entirely new appreciation for American philosophers. Kaag also reminds us of the amazing resiliency of the human spirit and that no matter what we might suffer we must keep moving forward.

 

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Filed under British Literature, Classics, Favorites, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, New York Review of Books Poetry, Nonfiction, Persephone Books, Philosophy, Poetry, Russian Literature, Seagull Books

Review: Berlin-Hamlet — Poetry by Szilárd Borbély

I received a review copy of this title from NYRB.  This collection was published in the original Hungarian in 2003 and this English version has been translated by Ottilie Mulzet.

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My Review:
berlin-hamletI was debating whether or not to even attempt any type of review of this collection of poetry.  The layers of imagery, references and allusions to great figures like Kafka, Walter Benjamin, Attila József and Erno Szép could never be unpacked or fully explained in one short review.  But I found the language and images of Borbély’s  poetry so moving that I decided I had to at least attempt to put some thoughts together in order to bring more attention to this Hungarian poet and his tragic end.

The collection of free verse poems is divided into five interwoven themes and each poem in a cycle is given a sequential number.  The cycle of poems entitled “Letter” are based upon quotations extracted from diaries and letters of Kafka.  Borbély puts his own unique touch on each of Kafka’s quotations by rewriting and reworking them.  Kafka is the perfect figure through which to mix images of Berlin, with city he had a connection through Felice, and Hamlet, whose indecision is reminiscent of Kafka’s own hesitancy about his relationship.  The first in the series of “Letter” poems is the perfect blend of elements that include Kafka, Berlin, and reticence:

[Letter I]

At last I have a picture of you as I
once saw you. Of course not as when
I glimpsed you
for the first time, without your
jacket, bareheaded,
your face unframed by a hat. but
when
you disappeared before my eyes into
the entrance of the hotel,

as I walked beside you, and nothing
as of yet
connected me to you. Although I
longed only
for the strongest tie to bind me to
you. Tell me,
don’t your relatives pursue you
altogether too much? You shouldn’t
have had time for me, even if I had
come
to Berlin. But what am I saying? Is
this how I want
to bring my self-reproaches to an
end? And finally,
wasn’t I right not to have come to
Berlin? But
when shall I see you? In the
summer? But why
precisely in the summer, if I shan’t
see you at Christmas?

The second cycle of poems specifically deals with the city of Berlin and Berbely’s visit there in the mid-1990’s.  Each poem in this series is given the name of a specific place or a district in Berlin. Poem titles include, “Naturhistorisches Museum,” Herrmann Strasse,” and Heidelberger Platz.”   The translator, in his afterword, points out that it is in this series of poems where Benjamin’s Arcades Project is heavily alluded to.  The poems are a blend of Borbély’s personal experience of Berlin with that city’s complicated history.  In “Krumme Lanke” he opens with a memory of the “last days of the Reich” and proceeds to tell a story of two soldiers who ignore their superior’s orders and have a clandestine meeting.  The poem then shifts without a transition to the poet’s own memory of walking next to Krumme Lanke:  “Our conversation/ was more of a remember, a/revocation of all that had happened earlier. Like a/ film being played in reverse.”  There is a deep sense of wandering that pervades these poems as he visits train stations, various seedy parts of the city and the natural history museum and uses these places as starting point with which to reflect on Berlin’s past and the poet’s present.

The series of poems entitle “Epilogue” do not appear to have any specific references to famous authors and are the most deeply personal and reflective.  These poems only appear at the beginning and end of the collection and show us a writer who is battling many emotional demons:

[Epilogue II]

For the dead are expected to know the
path
above the precipice of the everyday.
When
they leave the lands of despair, and
depart
towards a kingdom far away and
unknown,
which is like music. Swelling, a solitary
expectation everywhere present. this
music
does not break through the walls. It
taps gently.
It steals across the crevices. Silently it
creeps,
and cracks open the nut hidden deep
within the coffer.

Next, are a series of poems entitled “Fragment” which are all addressed to an unnamed receiver.  There is a deep sense of not only hesitation but also loneliness in these poems.  He begins the first “Fragment” poem:

Yes, I could express it simply by
saying
that our conversation left in me a vacant space. Since then, every
day contains this space.

Of the five different categories of poetry, the “Fragments” are my favorite because Borbély’s  own voice, pain, and struggle come through most clearly.  I found a line from “Fragment III” especially chilling and laden with foreshadowing: “My need is for those who will know/how/all of this will end.”  Borbély tragically takes his own life in 2014at the age of fifty and there are hints throughout his poems that allude to his melancholy.

The final category of poems are called “Allegory” and are a mixture of philosophical observations which still maintain obvious references to Kafka.  The first poem in the collection especially evokes images of Kafka and his complicated relationship with his father:

[Allegory I]

The pierced heart, in which lovers
believe, recalls me to
my task.  Always have I desired

to be led.  My father’s spirit instruc-
ted me
in ruthlessness.  what he missed in
life, he now
in death wished to supplant.  I did
not

find my upbringing to be a comfort.
the spirit of our age is for me
excessively
libertine.  My scorn is reserved for
the weak.

Finally, a word must be said about the afterward which was beautifully written by the translator. It serves as a thorough introduction to Borbély’s life, literary influences, and style of writing but is also a fitting eulogy for this gifted poem whom the world lost too soon.

 

About the Author:
borbelySzilárd Borbély is widely acknowledged as one of the most important poets to emerge in post-1989 Hungary. He worked in a wide variety of genres, including essay, drama, and short fiction, usually dealing with issues of trauma, memory, and loss. His poems appeared in English translation in The American Reader, Asymptote, and Poetry. Borbély received many awards for his work, including the Attila József Prize. He died in 2014.

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Filed under Hungarian Literature, New York Review of Books Poetry, Poetry