2014 Goldsmiths Prize

October 10, 2014 § Leave a comment

Forgot to blog about this the other day, but the second Goldsmiths Prize for literature just announced their shortlist.  Here they are:

Rachel Cusk, Outline

Will Eaves, The Absent Therapist

Howard Jacobson, J

Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake 

Zia Haider Rahman, In the Light of What We Know

Ali Smith, How to be Both 

The winner will be announced November 12th.

Prix Médicis shortlist, 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature announced

October 9, 2014 § Leave a comment

Two bits of literary news to share, both of which deal with French writers:

It was announced this morning that French writer Patrick Modiano won the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature.  He is the first Prix Goncourt (France’s most prestigious literary prize) winner to be selected as a Nobel laureate.

Also, the Prix Médicis, another French literary award that’s been around for over 50 years and is intended to recognize writers whose talent outstrips their fame, has released their short list.  Out of the eight titles, I’ve read/am reading four, and I hope to have reviews of most, if not all, of them posted by early November, when the winner is announced:

  • Véronique Bizot, Ame qui vive (Actes Sud)
  • Claudie Hunzinger, La langue des oiseaux (Grasset)
  • Hedwige Jeanmart, Blanès (Gallimard)
  • Frank Maubert, Visible la nuit (Fayard)
  • Laurent Mauvignier, Autour du monde (Minuit)
  • Eric Reinhardt, L’amour et les forêts (Gallimard)
  • Antoine Volodine, Terminus radieux (Seuil)
  • Valérie Zenatti, Jacob Jacob (L’Olivier)

And now the Prix Médicis shortlist for translated fiction:

  • Margaret Atwood, MaddAddam (Robert Laffont), traduit de l’anglais (Canada) par Patrick Dusoulier.
  • Lily Brett, Lola Bensky (La grande ourse), traduit de l’anglais (Australie) par Bernard Cohen.
  • Anthony Marra, Une constellation de phénomènes vitaux (J.C. Lattès), traduit de l’anglais (Etats-Unis) par Dominique Defert.
  • Antonio Moresco, La petite lumière (Verdier), traduit de l’italien par Laurent Lombard.
  • James Salter, Et rien d’autre (L’Olivier), traduit de l’anglais (Etats-Unis) par Marc Amfreville.
  • Taiye Selasi, Le ravissement des innocents (Gallimard), traduit de l’anglais (Royaume Uni) par Sylvie Schneiter.
  • Evie Wyld, Tous les oiseaux du ciel (Actes Sud), traduit de l’anglais (Australie) par Mireille Vignol.

Claudie Hunzinger, La langue des oiseaux (The Language of Birds)

October 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

Je ne sais pas ce qui s’est dit.  Je sais seulement que ce fut mon tour.  La question était:  Est-ce que les livres nous regardent?  Je savais que les tableaux, eux, oui, les tableaux que nous voyons nous voient du fond de leur éclat lointain – même quand ils sont proches.  Mais pas les livres.  Je ne me suis jamais sentie regardée par Robert Walser, Franz Kafka, Roberto Bolaño, ni par Li Bai, Du Fu ou Emily D.  Les livres n’ont pas d’yeux.  Ils sont aveugles.  Ils ne nous jugent pas du fond d’une tombe comme si nous étions Caïn; ils ne nous observent pas du haut d’un plafond telles des caméras de surveillance.  Au contraire, ils nous montrent leur dos, tournés ailleurs, vers le secret.  Nos lumières ne les attirent pas, ils émettent la leur, radioactive, qui éclaire jusqu’au mal dont nous sommes pétris et que nous leur avons confié.  Ils sont profonds.  Des puits.  Ils sont l’asile de nos douleurs, de nos blessures.  De nos pires folies.  De nos déraisons.  De nos voix les plus sombres.  Les livres n’ont pas d’yeux, ils ont des voix.  Il arrive que ces voix sortent de leur bouche d’ombre, nous parlent, oui, et ça, je l’expérimentais sans cesse.  Souvent les livres me parlent, et parfois d’une voix argentine, d’une légèreté enfantine, comme exhalée d’un caveau.  Mais de tout cela je n’ai rien pu dire, j’ai seulement répondu non, les livres ne nous regardent pas; et je répétais, n’arrivant plus à passer à autre chose, j’en étais ridicule, c’était impressionnant, je répétais non, les livres ne nous regardent pas, tout en me sentant expédiée en pleine catastrophe, ailleurs, butée, serrée, bloquée, dans mon blouson magique, lequel avait sans doute pour moi d’autres impénétrables desseins.  Et ensuite je suis restée muette comme une attardée mentale.  Jusqu’à la fin. (p. 19, iPad iBooks e-edition)

In Claudie Hunzinger’s 2014 Prix Medicis-longlisted novel, La langue des oiseaux (The Language of Birds in English), language, that of literature and of life, of nature and humanity, plays a central role in the narrative.  It is the medium through which we express ourselves, giving voice to those myriad emotions and thoughts that daily flow through, out, and over us.  Language is also meditation, through which we manage to filter our experiences, leaving us with manageable impressions.  In La langue des oiseaux, these elements, particularly in regard to literature and the understanding of other cultures and languages, are explored to great effect.

The plot is relatively simple:  a writer, Zsa Zsa, crushed by several literary rejections, decides on one autumn day to flee Paris with only a few books and other belongings.  She goes to live in a secluded wooded area, a hermitage almost, where she reflects on the literature of her life and her triumphs and failures so far.  Yet Zsa Zsa is not completely cut off from civilization; she has internet access and she stumbles across a Japanese immigrant, Sayo, who runs an online boutique of sorts, selling boys’ clothes for women.  Their exchanges spark a reaction from Zsa Zsa, leading her to delve further into the “language of birds,” that secret idiom through which so many mysteries withheld from more mundane tongues are at least partially revealed.  It is here, in these musings on language and thought, that Hunzinger’s narrative is at its strongest.

Well-read readers will recognize several writers who influence Zsa Zsa (and presumably, Hunzinger, since this does have some autobiographical elements, if I understand this tale correctly).  Of particular account is the American poet Emily Dickinson, to whom Zsa Zsa refers several times over the course of the story.  There certainly are traces of her and other writers (including those described above in the excerpted quote) in the narrative, particularly in the way Zsa Zsa views the surrounding nature and its denizens.  Hunzinger, however, does not dwell over long on these reminisces; Zsa Zsa is not a mouthpiece for literary appreciation.  Instead, these literary allusions serve to deepen the tale, making it more than just a chance encounter along the road of solitude.  There is an universal quality to Zsa Zsa’s meditations and her later friendship with Sayo.  In their talks about language and meaning, several comments are made that easily could take place between people that we all know.  Like those rare mythological heroes and heroines who can understand the languages of birds and wildlife, we too find ourselves learning new “languages” everyday in order to comprehend better the word around us.

Hunzinger’s prose is evocative, as the above quote reveals.  It freely moves between allusion and direct discourse, usually with a good balance between the two.  Voices and shadows.  Books possessing not eyes, but instead voices.  The narrative structure by itself is not terribly inventive, but the way that Hunzinger describes Zsa Zsa and her worldview, how she interacts with Sayo, those enrich the story greatly, adding enough layers for there to be the sense of something profound unfolding, yet not so much that the story feels bogged down by the weight of its own artifices.  La langue des oiseaux is a charming tale that manages to say more in less than 200 print pages than what most “deep” novels manage to express in 400.  Curious to see tomorrow if it’ll make the Prix Medicis shortlist.  It certainly is a powerful novel that hopefully will be translated into English in the near future.

Ali Smith, How to be Both

October 7, 2014 § 1 Comment

Consider this moral conundrum for a moment.

George’s mother says to George who’s sitting in the front passenger seat.

Not says.  Said.

George’s mother is dead.

What moral conundrum?  George says.

The passenger seat in the hire car is strange, being on the side of the driver’s seat is on at home.  This must be a bit like driving is, except without the actual, you know, driving.

Okay.  You’re an artist, her mother says.

Am I?  George says.  Since when?  And is that a moral conundrum?

Ha, ha, her mother says.  Humour me.  Imagine it.  You’re an artist. (p. 3)

Of the six 2014 Man Booker Prize finalists, Ali Smith’s How to be Both might be the most “artistic.”  I say this with scare quotes because often there is something about art that confounds and irritates many.  Whether it is the perceived “extra effort” that is often involved in understanding an art work’s (literary, visual, or performance, they are all the same here) merits or that niggling doubt that the viewer/reader just might be incapable of the requisite empathy in order to grasp just how that particular piece came into being, often such works are set aside in favor of more “tried and true,” less “difficult” pieces.  No, it is not a fair assessment, but it is one that takes place more frequently than any of us are ready to admit.

Yet when one does peer closer at the piece in question and when one does encounter something that captivates them, whether it be a line shadowed just so or a le mot juste or a cadence from an actress or singer that tugs at the heart’s strings, that person is then drawn into the dialogue that is symbolized by the piece or performance in front of her.  How to be Both is at its heart a dialogue that forms across the centuries between a sixteen year-old half-orphaned girl and a fifteenth century Renaissance painter, Francesco del Cossa, whose painting of Saint Vincent Ferrer haunts young George long after her fateful first visit to the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara just a few months prior to her mother’s death.  It is her life, her changing views on it and on art, coupled with the “voice” of del Cossa through his paintings that George observes, that form a gripping dialogue on just what does ars gratia artis mean in this day and age.

How to be Both intertwines these two narratives, one of a modern young woman with her contemporary concerns about how to live with those of fifteenth century Italy and the struggles that del Cossa had in establishing his art, his vision, in a place where the mercenary wars were about to give way a generation later to the ruinous French invasion.  Smith does an outstanding job in establishing these two voices, as George and del Cossa’s concerns are shown in vivid detail.  Smith shapes the narrative to suit this dual voice perspective:  there is a mixture of monologue, dialogue, and a bit of stream of consciousness.  In a less adroit hand, these elements easily could have collapsed under the weight of their artifice, but Smith manages to meld them together in such a fashion that each complements the other, making for a great read.

However, the intricate narrative structure is only just that, a structure around which the story and its themes are constructed.  Here too Smith does a fantastic job in establishing character and motivations.  The exploration of Art is done in a fashion that does not feel trite or treacly; after all, these two characters have suffered much for their eventual understanding of what Art entails.  Each little detail, from hawkers declaiming what they know the piece in question to be to questions of perspective, builds upon each other, creating a literary piece that is stronger than the sum of its already impressive parts.

How to be Both is the most daring of the six shortlisted titles on this year’s Man Booker Prize.  Its language is captivating, its characters are powerfully dynamic despite one not being presented in a “traditional” fashion, its themes are no less ambitious than trying to discern just what “art” truly might be.  In a fairly strong field, it holds its own when it comes to being a novel that can be read and re-read multiple times for greater appreciation.  It may or may not win the award next week, but How to be Both is certainly one of my two favorites from this year’s shortlist.

Laurie Halse Anderson, The Impossible Knife of Memory

October 6, 2014 § Leave a comment

At one level?  None of this mattered.  It was hard enough surviving day to day, both navigating the hordes at Zombie High and listening to the bomb that had started ticking inside my father’s head.  A little flirting with Finn?  That wouldn’t hurt.  But I concluded that it couldn’t go any further.  When we met after school for precalc tutoring, I made sure that there was always a table between us.  And when I was in his car, I kept my backpack on my lap, my face turned to the window and my attitude set to the frost level of “Don’t Touch.”

Despite this strategy, the hordes gossiped about us.  Girls in my gym class asked me flat out what Finn was like.  That’s how I found out that his family had moved to the district only a year earlier and that he had led the swim team to the state title but decided not to swim this year, and no one could figure out why.  I also learned that those same girls were pissed off; they’d assumed he was gay, because why else wouldn’t he have tried to hook up with them before?

I dialed up my serial killer glare and eventually they walked away. (p. 149)

This year has seen several high-profile literary works that touch upon some aspect of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  From Joyce Carol Oates’ Carthage and Cara Hoffman’s Be Safe I Love You to Iraq veteran Phil Klay’s 2014 National Book Award-longlisted short collection Redeployment, these stories have touched upon how the violence experienced by those returning soldiers have affected them and those that they love.  In Laurie Halse Anderson 2014 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature-longlisted The Impossible Knife of Memory, the deleterious effects of PTSD are explored through the eyes of an “Army brat,” Hayley Kincain, a high school senior who has been on the move for the past five years with her vet/trucker father, Andy, with each trying, seemingly futilely, to escape their issues.

The Impossible Knife of Memory follows mostly Hayley’s point of view, as we see through her jaded eyes her unease about being in yet another new town, with yet another school of teen fish to navigate.  Anderson does an excellent job in capturing the vulnerability behind that cynical façade, as can be seen in the passage above.  Hayley is a very introspective character, one who observes her world around her in acute detail, except when it comes to the central traumas that affect her.  She loves her father, but in lines such as this, it is clear that Andy’s struggles have become such a “normal” part of her life that it is hard for her to conceive of others being happy or free of the issues that affect her and her father:

Our living room smelled a lot like chicken wings and pizza and a little like weed when I walked in the front door.

Dad looked up from the television.  “Hey, princess,” he said with a grin.  “Have a good time?”

I hung up my jacket in the closet.

“Giants are playing,” he said.  “Philly, first quarter.  I saved you some pizza.  Double cheese.”  He frowned.  “What’s that look for?”

“You’re joking, right?”

“You love double cheese.”

“I’m not talking about the pizza.”

“Is it the wings?  You gave up being a vegetarian two years ago.”

“Are we going to play ‘pretend’?”

“Vegetarians can eat double-cheese pizza.”

“It’s not the food,” I said.

“Are you still upset about the cemetery?”

“What?”

Dad muted the television.  “I was thinking about what you said.  I’ll call the cemetery and find out how much those special vases cost.  Mom didn’t like cut flowers, but she hated being outdone by her neighbors, and that headstone looks awful.  Good idea?”  He let Spock lick the pizza grease off his fingers.  “Why are you still wearing the pissy face?”

“Did you run Friday night through the Andy-filter so instead of looking like a total ass, you can feel like you were a hero or something?” (pp. 185-186)

This scene encapsulates many of the central conflicts of The Impossible Knife of Memory:  Andy’s drug use, Hayley’s mom’s death, the willing blindness that Andy has toward his failure to cope with his war experiences, Hayley’s frustrations with him and with her inability to stick long in a place with friends.  Anderson illustrates these conflicts through short, sharp dialogues that cut to the heart of the matter with ease.  Each argument, each time Hayley withdraws from the affections of another semi-loner, Finn, each moment of solitude feeds directly into the subsequent one, until there is a clear sense that Hayley and Andy are flailing their way toward a possible bad ending.

Yet the story does not go full-tilt toward that.  Despite the sense that something ominous is inevitable, the actual conclusion is more nuanced.  Not all failures are final and not all who are lost remain lost in the void of their tortured memories.  For some readers, this might seem like a cop-out, a weakening of the events that lead up to the denouement.  Yet after some consideration, Anderson’s concluding chapters set the stage for the next part of Hayley and Andy’s lives:  recovery.  This does not mean that it is a “happy” conclusion, because for traumas and addictions, recovery is a life-long process with uncertain results.  However, having a bit of hope is more than having none, and in that sense, Hayley and Andy’s stories feel like they have reached a certain stage and that after the story concludes, there are a number of paths they could follow.  Imagining these in turn helps make those scenes already read all the more intimate, because they have established these characters as flawed, dynamic ones with whom we can relate.

A few things I’d like to write about this week

October 5, 2014 § Leave a comment

Been a bit busy this weekend to have much time to write reviews, but I do plan on reviewing the two Booker Prize finalists (Howard Jacobson’s J and Ali Smith’s How to be Both), along with at least two National Book Award-longlisted titles for Fiction (Phil Klay’s Redeployment and John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van).  If I have time, will cover more of the Prix Medicis longlist as well.

It’s funny how once Autumn arrives how my reading mood changes.  I seem to read more the final quarter of the year than any other time.  Maybe when it first starts to become cool at night, I just find myself staring more at my books than wanting to walk outside.  Certainly I’ve been reading some of the leatherbound books I’ve bought in recent years (recently finished re-reading Thoreau’s Walden and might write a review of it shortly; also just begun reading Hugo’s Les Miserables in both French and in the Easton Press edition of the original English translation) and I’m tempted by the idea of setting up a specialized blog just for reviews of “classics” after I’ve posted them here or on Gogol’s Overcoat.  Redundancy is never an issue when it comes to getting people to read things that I have written, n’est ce pas?

Speaking of “classics,” there have been occasional moments where I’ve toyed with the idea of compiling lists of possible “canonical” literatures, but with an interest in hybrids, of those works who can influence multiple societies and cultures.  For example, having Faulkner in not just a list of Southern literature, but also Latin American for his influence on the Boom Generation.  Sappho and Byron.  De Sade and Mirbeau.  Combinations like and unlike these.  Things that could shape world views and how we treat fellow human beings.  Such a corpus could say much more than just reiterating whatever socio-cultural “party line” you might want to follow when it comes to literature and its value today.

But for now, I’d like to dip back in to contemplating just what Hugo was saying through that sinner Jean Valjean.  Some things are ever a pleasure no matter how many times one has read it in the past or how long it has been since the last read.  Always something new to discover in certain literary works, if only we are willing to allow ourselves to be transformed by what we encounter within.

Tentative panels/signings I’ll attend at the Southern Festival of Books October 10-12

October 4, 2014 § Leave a comment

Unless something comes up, I plan on attending my fourth straight Southern Festival of Books lit festival in Nashville this upcoming weekend, October 10-12.  It’s a (mostly) free event, with only parking costs being the only guaranteed expense.  I won’t be there the full lengths each day (have a physical therapy appointment early Friday afternoon and there aren’t any compelling enough Saturday morning sessions for me to forgo sleep), but here are the sessions that I would either like to attend in full or at least catch the author in the subsequent signing in cases of schedule conflicts:

Friday:

Our Weird Little Worlds:  Short Stories (Antonya Nelson, David James Poissant) – 3-4 PM

Saturday:

Immigrant Song:  Novels of New Americans (Chantel Acevedo, Elsie Augustave, Cristina Henriquez) – 11:30 AM-1 PM

Station Eleven:  A Novel (Emily St. John Mandel) – 12-1 PM

(will likely attend the first and stay in line for both signing sessions)

What Happened There:  Veterans’ Stories in Literature (Phil Klay, Michael Pitre) – 1-2 PM (will be late for session)

Radiance of Tomorrow:  A Novel (Ishmael Beah) – 1-2 PM (likely only the signing)

Little Failure:  A Memoir (Gary Shteyngart) – 2-3 PM (late to session)

Sunday:

Brown Girl Dreaming (Jacqueline Woodson) 1-2 PM

A Path Appears:  Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity (Nicholas D. Kristof) – 2-3 PM (likely no signing session)

The Magician’s Land (Lev Grossman) – 3-4 PM

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