Category Archives: Nonfiction

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: The Story Smuggler by Georgi Gospodinov

the-story-smugglerWhen I first read Gospodinov’s novel The Physics of Sorrow I was completely captivated by his poetic language, insightful metaphors and riveting storyline.  Despite its brevity, Gospodinov’s writing in The Story Smuggler, #29 in the Cahiers Series, is as equally lyrical and absorbing as his longer novel.  He begins his narrative with a discussion of the Bulgarian word тъга which is usually translated as “sorrow, melancholy.”  But he explains that it is really a word that means much more than “sorrow” or “melancholy” because this noun also encompasses a “longing, something unrealized, a dream of what has been lost forever or of what has never been achieved.”  Finally, he adds that this feminine noun doesn’t overwhelm us immediately, but instead creeps up on us as, “her waters are placid, her poison is slow, enfeebling.”

Gospodinov uses this Bulgarian word as a starting off point from which to reflect on all of the freedoms that he and other Bulgarians weren’t allowed to experience under a totalitarian regime.  There is a melancholic beauty to Gospodinov’s language as he describes his childhood filled with repressed and hidden sorrows:

Some smuggle cigarettes, others alcohol,—or weapons.  Our contraband, being invisible, is more dangerous.  Our contraband is undetectable by scanners.  The excess baggage that we conceal is stories, our own and those of others.  I come from a place where people are accustomed to holding their peace, or to recounting their stories in secret.  A place of unarticulated тъга—vast, hidden fields of it.

Gospodinov gives numerous examples of a longing for things that are forbidden during his boyhood in Bulgaria: cakes, chocolate, trips abroad, jeans, and pop music.  Each school child, he tells us, had an “illicit secret” notebook called a lexicon which was wrapped in colorful paper and written in with a multitude of colorful pens.  All school books were wrapped in the same white color and all notebooks were written with the same blue ink, so the decorating of their lexicons was a kind of rebellion in itself.  They would also leaving drawings, quotations, or the highly coveted images cut out from Western magazines in one another’s books.

The children would have questions listed in their lexicons and secretly pass around and answer each other’s questions.  The questions might seem rather mundane or unimportant to those of us who grew up in the West but these were all topics that Bulgarian teenagers living under Communism were not able to discuss openly: What country would you like to live in?  Do you listen to rock music? What is your favorite movie/actor/actress?  Do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend?  These lexicons were the primary means of teenagers attempting to smuggle their own stories among one another:

The lexicon was a place of escape, a refuge, a territory of not fully conscious teenage resistance and struggle for an identity of one’s own, for a profile different from the one imposed by the system.  A small personal niche, a private chamber, a secret enclave where you could see yourself wearing jeans, illegally smuggled by some long-distance lorry-driver; where you could flip through a contraband copy of Rolling Stone; where you could be a world traveler and a happy visitor of beloved Italy, France or Japan.

There is a sense that Gospondinov spends the rest of his life traveling around the world and writing in an attempt to make up for the sorrow, the  тъга, from his early years.  In the 25 short yet description chapters of The Story Smuggler he writes about trips to Germany, Iceland and England.  And he writes about his urge to write—poetry, fiction, diary entries— from a very early age. But there is a underlying feeling that he can never really recover the simple pleasures and freedoms that were denied to him throughout his formative years.

This volume was translated from the Bulgarian by Kristina Kovacheva and Dan Gunn.  The illustrations, which are also quite intriguing, are done by the Bulgarian graphic artist Theodore Ushev.

This is the first selection I have read from the Cahiers Series and I am was so impressed with the quality of writing and art work in this slim book that I ordered six more publications from the series.  I would love to know what other Cahiers that readers have enjoyed.  I would like to make my way through the entire series if all of the volumes are all as well-written as this one.

story-smuggler

A sample illustration by Theodore Uskev from The Story Smuggler

 

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Filed under Nonfiction, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Cahier Series

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

Sacrificed on the Altar of Truth: My Review of American Philosophy—A Love Story by John Kaag

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Laocoon and His Sons, Vatican Museum

In Book 2 of Vergil’s Aeneid, the poet relates the story of the Trojan Horse and the sack of Troy in vivid and horrifying detail.  The Trojans are standing on the beach which was recently deserted by the Greeks and debating whether or not to bring the massive wooden horse they find into their city.  Laocoön, a priest of Apollo, warns the Trojans about accepting any gift from the Greeks and utters one of Vergil’s most famous lines:

equo ne credite, Teucri.
Quidquid id est, timeo Danaos et dona ferentis.

Do not put your trust in the horse, Trojans.
Whatever it is, I fear Greeks even when they are bearing gifts.*

After Laocoön warns the Trojans about the dangers of the horse and launches his spear at the monstrous structure, two deadly serpents slither out of the sea and grab not only Laocoön but also his two sons that are standing nearby.  The Trojans assume that Laocoön is being punished by the Gods for defiling the horse.  But the opposite is true: Laocoön is right in his fears about the horse and the gods are trying to silence him with this horrific punishment. The Trojans stand on the beach in terror as they watch Laocoön and his sons being swallowed up by the sea serpents:

Tum vero tremefacta novus per pectora cunctis
insinuat pavor, et scelus expendisse merentem
Laocoonta ferunt, sacrum qui cuspide robur
laeserit et tergo sceleratam intorserit hastam.

Then indeed a new terror made the hearts of all the Trojans
tremble and they say that Laocoon had paid the price for
his deserved crime, Laocoon who struck the sacred wood
with his spear and hurled his wicked weapon against
the horse’s back.

John Kaag, author of the book American Philosophy: A Love Story stumbles upon the library of Ernest Hocking in New Hampshire, a priceless collection of over 10,000 books, many of which are rare first editions.  When Kaag finds Hocking’s library, he is in the midst of a personal crisis as his first marriage is crumbling and has been for many years.  As Kaag takes on the task of attempting to catalog and to save some of Hocking’s most valuable books, he finds a large bronze bust in Hocking’s library that was a replica of the famous Laocoön and His Sons statue from the Vatican Museum.  Kaag reflects on the story of  Laocoön and the tragedy of being punished for attempting to do the right thing:

This is what happens to people who have the bad luck of being painfully honest.  Maybe being less honest and alive was better than being self-righteously dead, I thought.  My recent experiment with honesty had been rather brutal.  I’d harbored secret doubts about my marriage for years, but as I edged toward thirty, it had become harder and harder to remain silent.

Days before his birthday Kaag sold his wedding ring and this resulted in an epic fight during his birthday party which their families and friends witnessed.  Kaag remarks that in the end he didn’t die, but there were many occasions during the dissolution of his marriage that he wished he had died..

Kaag concludes about the Laocoön story: “Being punished for telling a lie made sense, but being sacrificed on the altar of truth seemed cruel.”

To learn more about Kaag’s journey from hell to redemption in his personal life, his discovery and cataloguing of Hocking’s collection, and his reflection on American philosophy read my full review in the December issue of Numero Cinq.

*All translations of Latin in this post are my own. My translation style is very literal which can be viewed by some as awkward and clunky, but that’s how I roll with my Latin.

american-philosophy-a-love-story-book-cover

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Review: Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others and Me by Teffi

My Review:
TeffiThis book is a collection of autobiographical essays from the renowned, female Russian author Teffi.  The essays were all written during the early part of the twentieth century and reflect Teffi’s own struggles with having to flee a turbulent and oppressive Russia.  The collection is divided into four parts, the first of which is entitled “How I Live and Work.”  These first few essays in the book capture her inner thoughts and self-doubts as she becomes Teffi “The Author.”

The second part of the book, “Staging Posts” deals with various aspects of Teffi’s personal life from her upbringing in a wealthy Russian family to her emigration to Paris during the Russian Civil War to her time in France during the German Occupation.   Teffi is well-known for her wit, but these essays show us an emotionally tender and serious woman.  She begins her essay entitled “Valya” on a sad and brutally honest note: “I was in my twenty-first year.  She, my daughter, was in her fourth.  We were not well matched.”  In this essay Teffi has a difficult time connecting with her daughter and I was not surprised to find out that her marriage was dreadfully unhappy and she eventually leaves her family in order to pursue her writing career.

My favorite essay in the third section of the book “Heady Days: Revolutions and Civil War” is the one that describes Teffi’s bizarre encounters with Rasputin.  This essay is a perfect example of Teffi’s ability to write a humorous essay but also to display her serious and emotional side.  When Teffi meets Rasputin, he is smitten with her and he tries to seduce her.  But Teffi sees right through his act; although many women have fallen for his smooth words and intimate gestures, Teffi finds his behavior strange and a little pathetic.  Rasputin comes across as a buffoon and we do laugh at his antics, but at the same time we also feel sorry for this ridiculous man who is finally killed by one of the many assassins who are after him.

The fourth and final part of the book is dedicated to some of the famous authors and artists that Teffi has come in contact with.  At the age of thirteen Teffi is enthralled with Tolstoy’s War and Peace.  She is so distraught by the death of Prince Andrei in this novel that she is determined to meet the author and ask him to change the story.   Teffi shows up at Tolstoy’s home but is so flabbergasted to meet him that all she can do is ask for his autograph and slink away in embarrassment.

The quality that comes through in every one of these essays is Teffi’s innate ability to read and truly understand people.  When she meets Lenin she senses a man who is crafty and cunning.  She meets many famous people throughout her life, from the Russian poet and novelist Merezhkovsky to the artist Repin to various other writers, journalists and politicians.  She is never fooled by the façade of their importance but instead she sees the true humanity beyond the exterior.

I have to admit that I am smitten with Teffi after reading this one volume from NYRB classics.  I ordered three more of Teffi’s books after I finished this one. I don’t think I’ve done Teffi’s writing justice in this brief review and so everyone must read a least one of her essays to experience her brilliant writing.

About the Author:
Teffi PicTeffi was a Russian humorist writer. Teffi is a pseudonym. Her real name was Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya (Наде́жда Алекса́ндровна Лoхви́цкая); after her marriage Nadezhda Alexandrovna Buchinskaya (Бучи́нская). Together with Arkady Averchenko she was one of the most prominent authors of the Satiricon magazine.

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Filed under Classics, Literature in Translation, New York Review of Books, Nonfiction, Russian Literature