[The Roof Rat Review.]
Marlon James. A Brief History of Seven Killings. Riverhead Books, 2014. It’s not brief. There’s an excellent 300-page book in the extant 680, but I worry that all the tough-guy padding is exactly what made Publishers Weekly decide it was an “essential history.”
Sylvia Townsend Warner, Alison Lurie (introduction). Lolly Willowes. New York Review Books Classics, 1999 (Lolly Willowes, or, The Loving Huntsman, 1926). Fantastic, and halfway through becomes fantastic in a completely unforeseen (to me) way. I love Trojan horses of genre.
Jenny Erpenbeck. Heimsuchung. , 2008. Spirit of Büchner: those same clean cuts in the prose whether she's going minute by minute or year by year. I regret that I didn't start reading her considerably earlier.
Alexander Pushkin. Boris Godunov and Other Dramatic Works. Oxford University Press, USA, 2007 (Boris Godunov and Other Dramatic Works (Oxford World's Classics), 1831). The translation seems a little flat, better in the short dramas than Boris Godunov itself, but what do I know; Russian prose in translation always delights, Russian verse makes me mourn my ignorance.
Homero Aridjis, Chloe Aridjis (trans). The Child Poet. Archipelago, 2016 (1984). This is wonderful, one of the rare books that seems contiguous with Juan Rulfo’s Mexico (especially Rulfo’s photographs, perhaps).
Stendhal, John Sturrock (trans), Lydia Davis (contributor). The Life of Henry Brulard. NYRB Classics, 2001 (La Vie de Henri Brulard, 1834). It’s not the most realized Stendhal, but all the rough patches are worth it for that wondrous, guileless ending where he finally approaches his long-anticipated first love, discovers he can’t write a word and breaks off the book.
Jesmyn Ward. Salvage the Bones. Bloomsbury, 2011. It’s well done, and the last sentimental turn moving in context. My quibble is with a lyrical mode that’s too available a default in American prose: a quibble with the decade, not this book.
Eça de Queirós, Margaret Jull Costa (trans). The Illustrious House of Ramires. New Directions, 2017 (A Ilustre Casa de Ramires, 1900). I forget who said that Eça doesn’t share the Naturalists’ hatred of life, but that’s his mode: to paint bumbling inconsequence (and be very funny about it) without contempt.
Yu Hua, Allan H. Barr (trans). The Seventh Day. Pantheon, 2015 (第七天, 2013). The tale of drifting ghosts, well, drifts. Yu’s flinty avant-garde heart softens once again.
Hui-Neng, W.Y. Evans-Wentz, Christmas Humphreys, A.F. Price (trans). The Diamond Sutra and the Sutra of Hui-Neng. Shambhala, 1974 (The Diamond Sutra and The Sutra of Hui-Neng, 1969). That cover painting of Hui-Neng tearing up a sutra really says it all, even if on his deathbed he advised not going out of your way to dishonor them.
Tove Jansson, Thomas Teal (trans), Kathryn Davis (introduction). The Summer Book. NYRB Classics, 2008 (Sommarboken, 1972). A life’s gathered wisdom shows everyone’s a Moomin.
Domenico Starnone, Jhumpa Lahiri (trans). Ties. Europa Editions, 2017 (Lacci, 2014). Starnone/Lahiri make a fine pairing. I really don’t know why this iteration of middle-class realism is so much more satisfying than most, but I hope they keep mining this vein.
Domenico Starnone. Trick. Europa Editions, 2018 (2016). There ought to be more such improvisations on “The Jolly Corner.” This one sets a bar for reckoning with artistic failure (or mediocrity), complete with infuriating grandkid.
Ian Bostridge. Schubert's Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession. Knopf, 2015 (2014). Even in overthought digressions Bostridge is good company, but best of all when he sticks to the 1820s and the notes on the page.
Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Rimli Bhattacharya (trans). Aranyak: Of the Forest. Seagull Books, 2017 (আরণ্যক, 1939). City boy is sent to administer a patch of country and falls in love with it, very plausibly, while improving it out of existence.
Jonathan Raban. Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings. Vintage, 2000 (1999). Cowper's "But I beneath a rougher sea" is now going to call this up for good, right alongside To the Lighthouse.
Charles Cooke. Playing the Piano for Pleasure. (Playing the Piano for Pleasure., 1941). Casual midcentury affability and hierarchies of taste, as if written by a low-key Nabokov who actually took an interest in music.
Hayao Miyazaki, David Lewis (trans), Toren Smith (trans). Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind: The Complete Series. VIZ Media LLC, 2012 (風の谷のナウシカ, 1995). I don't think I've ever met a more accomplished entrant in the arena of sci-fi epic.
Kazuaki Tanahashi, Roshi Joan Halifax (contributor). The Heart Sutra: A Comprehensive Guide to the Classic of Mahayana Buddhism. Shambhala, 2015 (2014). The quotes from physicists didn't teach me any physics, but the philology is laid out very nicely indeed.
Malcolm Braly, Jonathan Lethem. On the Yard. NYRB Classics, 2002 (1967). Midcentury realism at its best; the techniques and play of forces could have been set in an warehouse or army base or any male world, but prison was what Braly knew.
Wolfgang Hilbig, Isabel Fargo Cole (trans). I. Seagull Books, 2015 (1993). It's sort of the opposite of hard-boiled; the spy's fractured self is not an absence but an unmanageable stacked palimpsest, and it seems to get something very right about life in a surveillance society.
Yun Dong-ju, Kyungnyun K. Richards. Sky, Wind and Stars. Jain Publishing Company, 2003 (Sky, Wind, and Stars, 1948). I think its simplicity must be an especial challenge for a translator, and if you missed the opening note about poems for children being mixed in with poems not for children, you'd be very confused about the sequence. But the best few stand out in any edition.
Donald Merriam Allen (editor). The New American Poetry. Grove Press, 1960 (The New American Poetry, 1945-1960, 1960). A revealing look back at a time when the turtlenecked academic dereferentializers still had to rub shoulders with the sweaty guys on peyote, because nobody had quite worked out who was who.
Ge Fei, Canaan Morse (trans). The Invisibility Cloak. (隐身衣 / Yin shen yi, 2012). It was a bold move by the library to shelve this with the mysteries; it begins naturalistically enough, but the author remembers his avant-garde roots and it ends nowhere near that genre’s revealment.
Manfred Mittermayer. Thomas Bernhard: Eine Biografie. Residenz Verlag, 2015. The childhood scenes were the most illuminating; once it reaches the point of Bernhard exercising his public agons in print and keeping his private agons hidden for good, a biographer can only summarize the subject’s own words.
Carmen Boullosa. Texas. Alfaguara, 2013 (Texas, 2013, 2013). A prodigious and well-practiced talent concerned to give us a Western that moves outward rather than forward; the point is there’s a society, large and deep, however it fractures.
Álvaro Enrigue. Muerte súbita. Anagrama, 2013. It’s a lark, and the conquest of Mexico didn’t need to be in there, but the Quevedo and Caravaggio characters are well drawn, and I did learn something about early modern tennis.
Jakob Wassermann, Michael Hofmann (trans). My Marriage. NYRB Classics, 2016 (1932). A document of hatred tinged with pity... what's disheartening is that the writing doesn't seem to exorcise the hatred, and narration becomes one last ritual of defensive abnegation.
Yu Hua, Andrew Jones (trans). Chronicle of a Blood Merchant. Anchor, 2004 (许三观卖血记 (Xǔ Sānguān Mài Xuè Jì), 1995). The callous, stylized naturalism is established early, making it easier to sneak in sentiment through the back door later on.
Claire-Louise Bennett. Pond. The Stinging Fly Press, 2015. Prose narratives with just about all the furniture stripped away; what's left is style, and an intelligence that reminds me of my favorite online diarists. I look forward to more.
László F. Földényi, Tim Wilkinson (trans), Alberto Manguel (foreword). Melancholy. Yale University Press, 2016 (Melankolia, 1984). But ask not bodies doomed to die / To what abode they go; / Since Knowledge is but Sorrow's spy; / It is not safe to know. / / William Davenant / / I was surprised to see so much more Byron than Keats, but perhaps that's a Continental filter. It does make me want to read more Marsilio Ficino.
Herta Müller, Michael Hofmann (trans). The Land of Green Plums. Granta Books (UK), 2009 (Herztier, 1994). The rhythm of daily life under a dictatorship: annoyance, boredom, terror. Hard-edged sentences, poetic devices that aren’t a relief but a counterweight.
César Aira. The Lime Tree. And Other Stories, 2017 (El tilo, 2003). Restrained for Aira; if you didn’t know better, you’d suspect autobiography.
Tom McCarthy. C. Knopf, 2010. Wonderful pages, but it wants so much to be avant-garde that it entirely flips its coordinates and ends up antiquarian.
Jürgen Becker, Okla Elliott (trans). Blackbirds in September: Selected Shorter Poems of Jurgen Becker. Black Lawrence Press, 2015. The obliquity and brevity made me think of Celan, a bit, though the prosy music is completely different.
Sophocles. Sophocles: Ajax, Electra, Trachiniae, Philoctetes: Loeb Classical #21. Harvard University Press, 1920 (-450). The advantage of the ludicrous English (translated 1913) is that phrases list “dastardly poltroon” don’t compete with the Greek. One foreign language helps out another
Yang Mu, Lawrence R. Smith (trans), Michelle Yeh (trans). No Trace of the Gardener: Poems of Yang Mu. Yale University Press, 1998. Please face east when the Crab / shows an array of autumn hues with its many-legged obscenity / Versatile / / My metamorphosis, Louisa, is incredible / Patterns of wilderness embroidered on my clothes / swallow baby girls like nightfall / I slaughter, vomit, sob, sleep / Versatile / / Please repent with me toward the east / toward the hares of next spring / running and leaping over streams and death's bedding / Please testify with all the pleasures of your senses / Versatile
Javier Cercas. Soldados de Salamina. Tusquets, 2001. Some very successful autofictional tacking between invention and fact. "Only old people will want to read this," his publisher supposedly told him.
Christa Wolf. Kassandra. Suhrkamp, 2008 (1983). - If you can cease your victories, this city of yours will stand. / - You don’t believe it. / - Believe what? / - That we can cease our victories. / - I don’t know of any victor who could.
Audrey Yoshiko Seo, Stephen Addiss. The Art of Twentieth-Century Zen: Paintings and Calligraphy by Japanese Masters. Shambhala, 1998. No money / No things / No teeth / Just me
James Cahill. Distant Mountains: Chinese Painting Of The Late Ming Dynasty, 1570-1644 (History of Later Chinese Painting, 1279-1950). Weatherhill, 1982. Dong Qichang (Tung Ch'i-ch'ang, as Cahill calls him) is the centerpiece; "queasy" is Cahill's word for his rendering of space. These are art-historically self-conscious even by Chinese standards, and Cahill's right to say they don't offer as much immediate pleasure to the eye as early Ming, but Chen Hongshou is a fine way to close the volume out.
Li He, Paul Rouzer (preface), J.D. Frodsham (trans). The Collected Poems of Li He (Calligrams).. As poems these versions don't come up to David Hinton or A.C. Graham, but the notes are excellent, and there's value in seeing Li He complete, with more conventional poems alongside the exotic anthology standards--though one has the sense they might appear less conventional if translated by a different hand.
Heinrich von Kleist. Amphitryon. Reclam, 1994 (1803). The amazing thing is how for a few scenes at a time it will perfectly competently follow Moliére following Plautus; and then the frozen sea cracks open, and there's no end to the depths.
Joseph Cary. Three Modern Italian Poets: Saba, Ungaretti, Montale. University Of Chicago Press, 1993 (1969). Montale, as established, is my favorite; next to him Ungaretti seems needlessly vatic, Saba needlessly coy, but I profited from time with all three. Cary is good company. His casual English renderings of the poems, in small type, are often better than prestige poetic translations by others. The opening chapter, about the previous dismal fin-de-siècle scene, gets off zingers but does not seem unfair.
George Steiner. The Death of Tragedy. Yale University Press, 1996 (1961). A good read for anyone feeling aesthetically obsolete. The young Steiner presents himself as a wide-ranging Europeanist and this book, like Mimesis, leaves you hungry for a bunch of fringe-canonical literature (nineteenth-century plays, mostly) you never knew you had to read.
Hilary Mantel. The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. 4th Estate, 2014. She's a fine writer when she hits on a worthy subject; the title story is top form. Too much casual cruelty in many of the others.
Yi Mun-Yol. Canto bajo una fortaleza y El pájaro de las alas de oro. Estruendomudo, 2012. Two long stories. Song Under a Fortress (1978) was his first publication and already very together: / war games near the DMZ, an tragicomic Catch-22 military environment. The Bird With Golden Wings is an dying calligrapher looking back on his life and work and judging them failures; the description of the artist's life has many of the strengths of The Poet, but bleaker.
Bernard Williams. Moral Luck: Philosophical Papers 1973-1980. Cambridge University Press, 1982 (1981). Thoughtful papers on "why we go on at all," and related topics.
Novalis, Paul Klee (illustrator), Ralph Manheim (trans). The Novices of Sais. Archipelago, 2005 (Die Lehrlinge zu Sais, 1802). An effusion. Perhaps a Theory of Hesiod. Pairs with the Paul Klee drawings like chocolate and port.
Ivan Goncharov, Stephen Pearl (trans), Galya Diment (introduction). Oblomov. Bunim & Bannigan Ltd, 2006 (Обломов, 1859). I was expecting it to be entirely a novelty piece about inaction, and that part was very funny; but two hundred pages in, Oblomov meets a young lady and the book puts on the full dress of a nineteenth-century novel, a top-notch one at that.
Herta Müller, Philip Boehm (trans). The Fox Was Ever the Hunter: A Novel. Picador, 2017 (Der Fuchs war damals schon der Jäger, 1992). A slow build at first, but the prose is such that one trusts it to go somewhere; where it goes is a world without trust.
Éric Chevillard, Wyatt Mason (trans). Palafox. Archipelago Books, 2004 (1990). It's a romp, and the mutable animal is one of those great unstageable Gogolian conceits... but it's all tilting against some version of realism that may not even exist any more, and wouldn't notice us if it did.
J.J. Phillips. Mojo Hand: An Orphic Tale. City Miner Books, 1985 (1966). It's a glorious tumbledown, and I wish it were the go-to sixties cult book instead of Kerouac.
Eimear McBride. The Lesser Bohemians. Hogarth, 2016. I didn't expect "experimental nineties London erotic catalog" to turn into a generous book about trauma (not a book that uses trauma as a crutch), but am glad to be surprised.
Eugenio Montale. The Collected Poems of Eugenio Montale: 1925-1977. W. W. Norton & Company, 2012 (Tutte le poesie, 1984). The early poems are grand modernist synthesis; the late poems are like my blog when I'm in a bad mood, which is to say, often.