Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Shakespeare and Company, Paris: A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart

A Review of

Shakespeare and Company, Paris:

A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart

Originally published in the

Shakespeare and Company, Paris:
A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart
Edited by Krista Halverson
Shakespeare and Company Paris, $34.95

Any young writer who’s passed through Paris at any time over the past six decades and didn’t stay at least a few nights at the English-language bookstore Shakespeare and Company has simply not done Paris correctly. Founded in 1951 by American expat George Whitman and evolving through a series of names and incarnations until eventually being rechristened after the bookstore that first published James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922, Shakespeare and Company has housed more than thirty thousand writers and wannabe writers as they explored the City of Lights at invaluable leisure, as well as in considerable squalor. In exchange for free lodging in the upstairs library’s makeshift bunks—or, in the high season, on the floor of the store itself—George only asked for an hour or two of volunteer work per day, a two-page autobiography for inclusion in his vast files, and a commitment to reading one book for each night spent in his sanctuary. Most Shakespeareans stayed for two or three nights, but many stayed for weeks or months, and a few inmates remained in some guise or other for years. George offered these accommodations as a form of forward payment for the hospitality that he’d received in his early years of tramping all over globe, and with his Left Bank bookstore’s Seine-side view of Notre-Dame cathedral he gave more than half a century of writers an inestimable gift of time and space. Virtually every one of his guests has written about the store in some form, and now that George has passed away and the store has been taken over by his daughter, Sylvia (who was named after the founder of the original Shakespeare and Company, Sylvia Beach), an official history has finally appeared: Shakespeare and Company, Paris: A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart.

A Young George Whitman
Edited by Shakespearean Krista Halverson, this multifaceted and multi-genre history collects nearly a century of material about George and his bookstore, including an account of Beach’s original Shakespeare and Company, a selection of George’s early travel journals, clips of newspaper and magazine articles about the man and his freeform Paris utopia, narratives by scores of store denizens—including an introduction by Jeanette Winterson—several exemplary (and often bizarre) volunteer bios, poems by some of the more well-known store associates, excerpts from an unsurprisingly diverse number of authors mentioning George and his store, and decades of evocative and beautifully laid-out photographs. Threading it all together, Halverson’s exceptionally well-researched and deftly crafted narrative paints a portrait not just of George and his store, but of a city and a country and a century, in rich and informed perspective. Many of the writers and publications associated with the store over the decades have been notoriously shoddy, and Halverson manages to capture the slapdash flavor of the place and its people while transcending the first-draft quality of many of its past exemplars. Perhaps a large part of this book’s gleaming polish can be attributed to the influence of George’s daughter, Sylvia, who inherited the bookstore in 2011 when George passed away at the age of ninety-eight, and who brought it into the twenty-first century while somehow managing to retain much of its original bohemian integrity. Straddling several overlapping and contrasting worlds, this book captures the madness and squalor of the place while being in no way squalid itself, which is a seriously impressive feat.

Sylvia Whitman, her partner David Delannet,
and editor Krista Halvorson
The most valuable part of this book for people who knew George is the selection of his early travel journals, because it captures his mind and voice in a way that was almost totally inaccessible to even most of his best friends. As the book’s narrative mentions, George was not at all a conversationalist, and his essentially solitary personality often seemed miles away from the store, even as he stormed through its center. In fact, many Shakespeareans doubted that this mad King Lear even knew anything about literature, often judging him by the sub-literate Beat and wanna-Beat writers who abused his hospitality, and it’s enlightening to see how extraordinarily well read and sophisticated and intellectually resourceful he was—as well as how good a writer he was, his early voice very quickly maturing in the most curious directions. If this book serves its central character as well as he deserves, it will spawn a fuller collection of his journals, as well as an in-depth biography. These pages are a revelation, but they also seem like a preface to deeper volumes, because it would be a tragedy to let this fascinating man fade away into mere cameo appearances in books by the writers he hosted and inspired.

Sylvia and George Whitman
That’s not to say that this great man was also a really great guy. Halverson’s narrative dances around his personality by referring to him as “irascible” and “cantankerous” while illustrating with kid gloves a few slight shades of how abusive he could be. For a more gloves-off portrait (that’s still entirely loving and grateful), see Jeremy Mercer’s 2005 memoir Time Was Soft There. Clearly in the employ of Sylvia Whitman, who has a deeply moving last word here in a heartrending afterword that more than makes up for the book’s gentle circumlocutions, Halverson has her hands tied in what she can convey in this history, but despite what got left on the editing-room floor (or what was perhaps hidden from her), Halverson mirrors George’s complex sophistication in how she juggles so much competing information and influence to create a document that feels both so satisfyingly full and so tantalizingly suggestive of what’s missing. Halverson is so adroit an editor and writer that for readers who don’t know the bookstore’s ins and outs she only leaves one gaping lacuna in the book’s surface: the relationship between George and his daughter’s mother, who’s never named or described or even alluded to in this book, even when narrating Sylvia’s unconventional upbringing. Like an Old-Testament patriarch, George was nearly seventy when Sylvia was born, but the girl’s mother is completely and conspicuously elided from these pages. Nearly perfectly balancing her dual duties as hired editor and truth-telling chronicler—and outshining any quibbling critique of her herculean efforts—Halverson satisfies insider and outsider alike with this book, creating a work that serves as a brilliant standalone history while simultaneously inspiring untold future volumes. With so many thousands of writers in George Whitman’s prodigious debt, surely this is not the end of his story.

—David Wiley

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Jim Walsh’s Gold Experience: Following Prince in the ’90s

A Review of Jim Walsh’s

Gold Experience: Following Prince in the ’90s

Originally published in the Minneapolis StarTribune

on January 22nd, 2017

By Jim Walsh
University of Minnesota Press, 200 pages, $16.95

Minneapolis native Prince was perhaps the last American pop musician who could legitimately be compared to such prime movers as Elvis Presley or James Brown or Jimi Hendrix. Arriving almost fully formed as a teenage recording artist in the late 1970s, he drew upon a particularly vibrant circle of musical scenes, absorbing the exuberance of disco, the edginess of punk rock and new wave, the fervor of Michael Jackson, and the pyrotechnic thrills of Van Halen and heavy metal, transforming it all into a body of work that was as accomplished as it was ambitious. He flashed through the 1980s in a delirious purple dream, besting himself so often and so brilliantly that he quickly became his only competition, thrusting himself into the 1990s as virtually the only musician left standing, which is the position Jim Walsh’s new book Gold Experience: Following Prince in the ’90s finds him in.

Prince logo.svg
Walsh covered Prince for the St. Paul Pioneer Press between 1994 and 2002, and this book collects all of his articles about the little purple guy as he attempts to continue surging forward. Adding very few editorial comments to this collection of clips—and presumably making no revisions, capturing both writer and subject, who were the same age, in journalistic amber—Walsh eschews hindsight perspective and delivers the reader right into the drama of each moment, making it possible to experience Prince’s development during these years with a sense of urgent suspense. His maniacal energy and challenging diversity suddenly beginning to lose traction in a cultural landscape that would rather be sedated by Seattle’s stultifying borecore or L.A.’s mellow stoner rap, Prince struggled to maintain purpose and relevance in the 1990s, and Walsh documents his wavering trajectory in observant and sometimes painful detail. At the book’s outset Prince had recently changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, and it’s telling that for almost the whole era that this book documents Walsh refers to him as “the former Prince.” Nearly every new step seems to herald a return to Prince’s golden age, with Walsh cheering him on (and occasionally lecturing him), but as the decade slacks toward millennium it gradually becomes clear that Prince won’t be reinstating his purple reign in time to celebrate 1999.

Jim Walsh
Following Prince as he tries to recapture his astonishing prime, Walsh’s Gold Experience is in fact a chronicle of the artist’s silver age, and as such it serves more as a record of the journalist’s emotional journey than as a vital document of a crucial time. With his hero going astray again and again, Walsh struggles with acceptance as he’s forced to compare this fluctuating luminary to the dimmest bulbs of the era. It’s astonishing to see Walsh refer to the monochromatic Beck as “state of the art” in comparison to anything that Prince could do, but that’s just how far pop musicianship had descended into dreary incompetence, leaving little room for a true polymath to shine. Vividly capturing the hope and heartbreak of this waning musical epoch, Walsh’s Gold Experience paints a poignant portrait of the artist formerly known as Prince.

—David Wiley

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Rikki Ducornet’s Brightfellow

A Review of Rikki Ducornet’s


Originally published in the

Rain Taxi Review of Books, Fall 2016

By Rikki Ducornet
Coffee House Press ($15.95)

Novelist, poet, essayist, illustrator, children’s-book author, and all-around magical artificer Rikki Ducornet has been dazzling readers for more than four decades with her wildly inventive literary landscapes, her variegated works often eliciting comparisons to such polymaths as Jorge Luis Borges, the Marquis de Sade, Lewis Carroll, and Angela Carter. Her best works—especially her second novel, Entering Fire, and her two turn-of-the-millennium novels, The Fan-Maker’s Inquisition and Gazelle—defy even these affinities, as all great books must. Ducornet’s is an uneven genius, however, and her misfires can be disconcerting. Her newest novel, Brightfellow, swerves between highs and lows, offering her devotees a number of precious glimpses into her inspired inner regions while frustrating readers who might not know where to put their foot down in such an oddly balanced topography.

Brightfellow follows a wounded boy named Stub through his precarious childhood—which includes a formative episode when his parents stick him with a mentally ill nanny who introduces him to the work of a bizarre semi-mystical writer/artist named Verner Vanderloon—and then into young adulthood, when he runs away to live as a transient on the local university campus. Perhaps too coincidentally, Vanderloon had been a professor at the school and upon retirement had left his papers in a special collection in its library. Further chance brings the circumspect Stub into contact with emeritus professor Billy Sweetbriar, who knew Vanderloon. Within days he offers Stub—who upon meeting Billy chooses to call himself Charter Chase—a place to stay at his house while Stub/Charter works on his ostensible Fulbright project. Amazingly, Stub’s room at Billy’s house affords him a direct view into the bedroom of the eight-year-old girl he’s been fascinated with above all the other “campus brats,” a girl named Asthma who’s conspicuously in the Dantean ninth year of her life.

Ducornet breezes through these coincidences blithely, but what really rankles is how she treats Stub/Charter’s existence as a kind of game. As anyone who’s been homeless knows, unstable subsistence is far more dangerously uncertain than any linguistic juggling act. Stub becomes a brilliant thief, but despite Ducornet’s exuberant inventiveness, the practicalities of his day-to-day survival are totally unconvincing and keep the reader from investing in the gravity of his struggle. The worst turn comes when, finally in the luxurious cradle of Billy’s campus house, Stub/Charter decides to improvise a fraudulent research project for which he invents an entire Pacific-island people for Vanderloon to have discovered and documented, fabricating reams of notes and creating an entire language and mythology that he regales Billy with over dinners—as if any homeless person would ever play games with his meal ticket, or with his very ability to remain in his university universe, especially when his host is a Romance-language specialist who would easily see through his half-baked philological extemporizations. Ducornet has always brilliantly thumbed her nose at traditional realism, but this novel’s momentum simply doesn’t pull off the magic to bend its reality like this, the flippancy of its development betraying a classist bent that assumes that its readers have never been hungry.

Reviewing Brightfellow from end to beginning, as we’re meant to, a different pattern emerges. As in G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, Charter’s pursuit of Vanderloon compels him through a series of escalations that vacillate between reverence and blasphemy, to arrive at an elusive prime mover whose surprise appearance somehow works as an ex post facto reconciliation of the book’s impossible progressions. Mocking and aping his deity (or is his creator merely a gnostic demiurge?), Charter has renamed himself and has even created his own apocryphal testament, but he inexorably charts and chases his inspiration toward ends that may or may not justify the novel’s tortuous means. As in Cormac McCarthy’s Chestertonian Blood Meridian, the mystical denouement reconfigures the entire novel, and the results are similarly mixed.

Brightfellow’s success or failure doesn’t just hinge on whether this back-to-front redirection works, of course. Ducornet’s prose almost always transcends her narrative missteps, and her twistedly inspired reflections upon this novel’s field of play make for a brilliantly illuminating funhouse to get lost in. As Charter surreptitiously observes his darling Asthma—his stolen-spyglass furtiveness like a fusion of Vladimir Nabokov’s creepers Humbert Humbert and Charles Kinbote—his influence on her escapes his fumbling grasp so drastically that he’s several steps behind when he finally realizes that Asthma’s been observing and imitating him, nearly to the point of exposure. Readers who don’t worry about things like being hungry and who see life and literature as a mere series of signs will titter knowingly at his trip with Asthma and her friend to view a screening of Rear Window, but Charter’s fantastic final flight resonates profoundly as he searches for someplace like home and is magically ushered along to the ending in search of, in Vanderloon’s words, “just what it is you are wanting.”

—David Wiley

Monday, April 18, 2016

Neel Mukherjee’s A Life Apart

A Review of Neel Mukherjee’s

A Life Apart

Originally published in the Minneapolis StarTribune

on April 18th, 2016

A Life Apart
By Neel Mukherjee
W.W. Norton, 371 pages, $16.95

After the enormous success of Indian-British writer Neel Mukherjee’s epic second novel, The Lives of Others, his American publisher is now bringing out his award-winning debut, A Life Apart, a much less ambitious work, but nonetheless a richer and more rewarding read. While The Loves of Others offers an encyclopedic panorama of Mukherjee’s home city and countryside, A Life Apart focuses on just two intertwining counterpoints: the life of Ritwik Ghosh, a Bengali expatriate trying to make his way in 1990s London, and the imagined life of Miss Maud Gilby, a minor character in Bengali polymath Rabindranath Tagore’s polemical 1915 novel, The Home and the World. Like Ritwik in London, Miss Gilby is an expatriate in India living “a life apart” among world events that ultimately overwhelm her intricately small experience as an observer and bit player.

Miss Gilby is a British woman hired as a companion and tutor for Bimala, the main character of Tagore’s novel, and in Mukherjee’s version it fairly quickly becomes clear that Ritwik is writing Miss Gilby’s back story as a kind of exploration of his own outsider experience. Like any good symbiotic author/character relationship, the two narratives influence and warp each other as they evolve and encompass more and more of the life around them. Needing a place to stay after finishing his university exams and failing to renew his visa, Ritwik moves in with and begins taking care of Anne Cameron, an elderly woman who he discovers had lived in India as a young woman. Her slowly unfolding history, explored through the personal memorabilia that Ritwik digs up and asks her about, subtly yet dramatically adds texture and substance to Miss Gilby’s evolution as a character and as a part of her estranged society in India. While Tagore dispenses with Miss Gilby in his book’s first chapter, Ritwik’s version sifts entirely through her rich interior reflections, which are of course also complex reflections of Ritwik’s own expatriate experience.

Mukherjee’s second novel likewise features a parallel narrative written by a young male protagonist, and while part of that novel’s drama is in discovering the secondary narrative’s intended audience—a real-life relationship that beautifully bends the reader’s understanding of the novel’s stratified world—Mukherjee’s intertwining of author and creator in A Life Apart is far more dazzling and effective. Not especially gifted at characterization, Mukherjee exceeds far more as a prose stylist who weaves brilliant interiors, and A Life Apart is by far his best writing so far. Ritwik’s own climactic experiences are somewhat haphazard and unconvincing compared to Miss Gilby’s more orchestrated denouement—as well as to the far better plotted The Lives of Others—but this novel’s supple prose absolutely outshines any other consideration to create an unforgettably penetrating work of art.

—David Wiley

Sunday, December 27, 2015

José Eduardo Agualusa’s A General Theory of Oblivion

A Review of José Eduardo Agualusa’s

A General Theory of Oblivion

Originally published in the Minneapolis StarTribune

on December 27nd, 2015

By José Eduardo Agualusa
Translated by Daniel Hahn
Archipelago Books, 244 pages, $18

Like the Portuguese Fernando Pessoa and the Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges, the Portuguese-Angolan writer José Eduardo Agualusa is a literary trickster who dazzles with his artificial fictional creations, but unlike his headier forebears, his work is rooted in the more complicated and bloody everyday world of colonial and postcolonial Africa. Basing his new novel, A General Theory of Oblivion, on the story of a woman named Ludovica Fernandes Mano, who bricks herself into an eleventh-floor apartment building on the eve of Angolan independence and stays there for almost thirty years, Agualusa claims to extrapolate his “pure fiction” narrative from her notebooks and from photographs of the writing she did on her walls, but he in fact invents the entire thing. Any Internet search about any aspect of her story comes up empty (mirroring the fruitless web-sleuthwork depicted in a later section of the novel), yet this brilliant work isn’t any less emotionally moving or politically weighty because of its fakery.

Looping through a series of spirographic circles, Agualusa’s unconcentric narrative draws the story of Ludo’s self-confinement into the starry revolving sphere of her adopted country’s revolutionary and counterrevolutionary growing pains, encompassing diamond smugglers, government assassin/torturers, disappearing poets, and redeemed mercenaries within its scintillating web. An agoraphobe whose tragic history isn’t revealed until the end, Ludo came to Angola with her sister Odete and brother-in-law Orlando, who works for a diamond company, and when intrigues cause the other two to disappear, Ludo has nowhere to go and barricades herself in against the various agents who want to root out Orlando’s stolen diamonds. Every practical aspect of her self-sequestration is totally unbelievable, from how she eats and goes to the bathroom (a problem that’s never mentioned) to even the relationship between the building and its surroundings, but Agualusa hilariously seems to thumb his nose while daring the reader to call his bluff.

An outlandishly orchestrated series of coincidences brings all the revolving characters together into a confrontation outside of Ludo’s recently opened door, like a parody of the culminations at the end of each book of John Dos Passos’ USA Trilogy, yet the resulting resonances are as profound and affecting as that in any conventional flesh-and-blood chronicle. Agualusa is a master of varied genre structure, and he has great fun shifting from spy novel to pastoral narrative to interior reflection, but his heart is deeply invested in his characters, and each individual’s unique story burns itself into the reader to make us reconsider our capacity for empathy and understanding. Finally finding human connectedness after so many years, Ludo also unwittingly facilitates connection between the revolving cast around her, creating in this highly artificial novel a profoundly satisfying and merciful sense of human family.

—David Wiley

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Silvina Ocampo’s Thus Were Their Faces

A Review of Silvina Ocampo’s

Thus Were Their Faces

Originally published in the

Rain Taxi Review of Books, Winter 2015

Thus Were Their Faces
By Silvina Ocampo
Translated by Daniel Balderston
Preface by Jorge Luis Borges
New York Review Books ($17.95)

As a short-story writer, poet, and translator in twentieth-century Argentina, Silvina Ocampo lived and wrote within several long shadows. Virtually synonymous with that time and place, Jorge Luis Borges loomed large over every aspect of its literature and left little for anyone else to do, or even think of. Ocampo’s oldest sister, Victoria—the founder and editor of Sur, the journal and publishing house that brought South American Modernism to the fore—was also a domineering figure of her era. Married to Borges’s friend and occasional collaborator Adolfo Bioy Casares, who was the author of the brilliantly chilling novel The Invention of Morel, the youngest Ocampo sister was surrounded by the giants of her milieu, and if Bioy Casares and Victoria Ocampo worked in Borges’s penumbra, Silvina Ocampo worked within his centermost umbra. Time has not reversed these relationships, but as Borges’s apotheosis has transformed him into a fixed star in the literary firmament, his spreading radiance has brought even some of his lesser-known colleagues’ faces to light. New York Review Books’ recent compendium of Ocampo’s fiction, Thus Were Their Faces, collects more than forty of her short stories from the 1930s to the 1980s and attempts to distinguish her as a unique voice while very clearly illustrating her tertiary position during those Borgesian decades.

Ocampo originally trained as a painter, studying with de Chirico and Fernand Legér in Paris when she was a young woman, and when she returned to Buenos Aires and dedicated herself entirely to writing, she brought a visual sensibility and an eye for detail to her work that fills its pages with a teeming and tactile mass. In her long story “The Impostor,” which presents itself as the journal of a young man who may or may not be the imagined alter ego of another young man who ends up killing himself, she recounts an almost senselessly meticulous progression of occurrences among the densely object-rich summer estate where the two distrustfully circle each other. Ocampo describes every room and every object on the shelves and in the closets, overloading the reader with front-end details while very slowly allowing the characters’ background realities to warp into bizarrely repeating patterns. It’s an interesting idea, and there’s a lot to look at and notice in it, but despite her visual sharpness, Ocampo has a very dull writing hand. The key Borgesian influence here is Henry James, who often comes up with ingeniously twisted ideas but ends up larding them with the most tedious narrative textures and very quickly loses interest in their meat as he dutifully draws out their flesh. Borges had the magic ability to extract all the best influences from his masters while discarding all their chaff, and in his hands James mixes with Kafka and Chesterton and countless others to bloom into works that were as beautiful as objects as they were interesting as concepts. In Ocampo’s fiction, the influences are largely untransformed, and her often fascinating ideas don’t ever rise up into self-realized flowers that the reader can savor.

Ocampo translated Poe, Melville, Swedenborg, and Dickenson—a thoroughly Borgesian grouping of authors—and she very closely follows her more illustrious colleague in how she absorbs them into her own work, but to much less effect. She loves the obsession and intricacy of Poe, attempting in her story “The Perfect Crime” to create a water-tight murder plot in much the same way that Borges did in his story “Emma Zunz,” but she merely produces a trick while Borges’s story mirrors Poe’s true psychosexual grotesquerie. Transforming Melville’s overwhelming prolix, Borges creates “The Library of Babel” and “The Aleph,” in which he crafts endless Melvillian enumeration into tiny, dazzling snowglobes, while Ocampo merely lists everything in a child’s bedroom, without stacking it into any kind of artfully composed arrangement. Reflecting Swedenborg’s inspired mysticism, Borges creates “The Writing of the God,” in which an imprisoned Mayan priest discerns in the patterns of a jaguar the secret divine words that can set him free, while in “Report on Heaven and Hell” Ocampo explains how angels and demons will try to entice and trick the dying into following in their respective directions, the two-page story serving more as a brief musing than as a miniature world. Ocampo attempts to channel Dickinson’s interior weirdness more overtly than does Borges, but while Borges reflects Dickenson’s Shakespearean fireworks with his own dazzling and densely inventive thrills, Ocampo merely seems sadly downbeat, with her stories’ weirdness merely described and implied rather than surreally conveyed.

While much of Ocampo’s imagination and style exists as a kind of Borgesian subset, there are several key differences between the two that may entice readers who are interested in a different perspective on the emerging magical realism of the period. Ocampo is a much more domestic writer than Borges, focusing on interior drama and development rather than on paradoxes and theoretical imaginings, and her Dickensonian isolation is much more traditionally personal than his. Ocampo also dispenses almost entirely with displays of erudition, allowing her characters’ consciousness to fix the stories’ parameters rather than having it all sifted through the infinite Borgesian kaleidoscope, making her more appealing to readers who are alienated by Borges’s dizzying library of Babel. Yet while Ocampo is more interested in characters exploring the limits of their sanity than in cosmic librarians exploring the limits of the known universe, her work is paradoxically much colder and much less emotionally engaging. Borges isn’t at all a character writer, but he gives a lot of himself in his work and centers it all with his own generous and vulnerable humanity, while Ocampo’s characters are more like sad, distant zombies. Entirely lacking Borges’s vivacious shimmer, Ocampo’s world and voice are ruminative rather than exploratory, seeming to exemplify Cynthia Ozick’s lament that, “after Kafka, after Borges, what is there to do but mope?” If Borges’s infinitesimal labyrinths can be likened to Bach’s endlessly inventive Goldberg Variations, Ocampo’s fictions are more like sad, slow, minor-key dirges, with an emphasis on the word minor.

—David Wiley

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Vladimir Nabokov’s Letters to Véra

A Review of Vladimir Nabokov’s Letters to Véra

Originally published in the Minneapolis StarTribune

on November 22nd, 2015

Letters to Véra
By Vladimir Nabokov
Edited and translated by Olga Voronina and Brian Boyd
Alfred A. Knopf, 864 pages, $35

Russian-American writer Vladimir Nabokov, author of the seminally twisted novel Lolita, dazzled readers in any genre he took up, including among his dozens of volumes of fiction, poetry, translation, criticism, and memoirs a heartbreakingly moving and entertaining collection of letters that he exchanged with the American writer and critic Edmund Wilson. His more general Selected Letters also paints a rich portrait of his extraordinary mind and life, but that volume omitted nearly all of his letters to his singularly brilliant wife, Véra. From their initial masked-ball meeting in 1923 until his death in 1977, Véra was Nabokov’s sole intended reader for every book that he wrote, and any biographical account invariably employs the word “genius” to describe her, and so the decades-awaited Letters to Véra fills in much of the missing texture of the love-relationship that Nabokov described as “cloudless.”

Co-edited by Brian Boyd, whose two-volume biography serves as the gold standard for Nabokov studies, Letters to Véra follows the couple’s early romance as Russian émigrés in 1920s Berlin, which they fled for Paris in 1937 to escape the Nazis, and then to America in 1940 to escape the Nazis again, and then to international fame after the publication of Lolita in the 1950s. The greatest mass of letters recounts Nabokov’s brilliant literary tours through 1920s and 1930s Europe, along with his concurrently exhausting searches for work to support his family and his writing. The most illuminating batch of letters, from the spring and summer of 1926, recounts in minute detail his everyday reading and writing and teaching and eating schedule, written at Véra’s request to keep her informed and amused as she attempted to gain weight and manage her anxiety in a German sanatorium, giving the reader a glimpse of some of the accompanying pain that this loving couple endured.

The most excruciating batch of letters recounts his search for work in 1930s Paris while he was also having an affair, his stress-exacerbated psoriasis nearly driving him to suicide as Véra kept her distance with their young son, Dmitri. Illuminating all of this with a nearly Nabokovian brilliance himself, co-editor Boyd fills in all the background details in a staggering two-hundred pages of endnotes that relentlessly track down nearly every person or book or butterfly that Nabokov mentions. Boyd and co-editor/co-translator Olga Voronina have also rendered Nabokov’s Russian into a supple and agile English that sounds startlingly like the master’s own playful pyrotechnics, often coining ingenious cross-language puns with a literary mimesis comparable to the butterfly mimicry that lepidopterist Nabokov relentlessly traced throughout both art and nature.

As Nabokov finally finds success after decades of intense and precarious labor, he’s separated from Véra less and less, causing this collection to peter out rapidly, but the encompassing silence of the final years speaks volumes about the couple’s ultimate closeness and connectedness. Not simply cloudless, Vladimir and Véra’s full-spectrum love is one of literature’s greatest stories, and incorporating nearly every aspect of for-better-or-worse, this monumental volume wildly surpasses its every expectation.

—David Wiley

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Jean Findlay’s Chasing Lost Time: The Life of C.K. Scott Moncrieff: Soldier, Spy, and Translator

A Review of Jean Findlay’s

Chasing Lost Time:

The Life of C.K. Scott Moncrieff:

Soldier, Spy, and Translator

Originally published in the

Rain Taxi Review of Books, Fall 2015

Jean Findlay
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, $30

Discussing Marcel Proust’s vast novel In Search of Lost Time in his Lectures on Literature, Vladimir Nabokov wrote that C.K. Scott Moncrieff “died while translating the work, which is no wonder.” At more than 1.2 million words and running into seven overflowing volumes, this multi-faceted mega-novel contains such an overwhelming portrait of the interior and exterior world that no individual English translator has ever taken it on again. In 1981, Terence Kilmartin revised Scott Moncrieff’s translation according to the 1954 French edition, and then in the late eighties D.J. Enright revised it again, this time according it to the new Pléiade edition, and then in the late nineties Penguin books forsook Moncrieff altogether and broke the task up among seven new translators, one for each volume. Each subsequent translation has brought the novel closer to Proust’s actual words and intentions, which is arguably the most important consideration, but none has captivated the imagination the way that Scott Moncrieff’s did in the 1920s. One of the truly magical reading experiences available to English-language readers, his version, called Remembrance of Things Past after Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30, largely paraphrases and recasts Proust’s labyrinthine sentences into an English that’s meant to mirror the original in ambience rather than in exactitude, and although it’s become obsolete, his was the version that dramatically altered the course of English and American Modernism. While he’s been rightfully accused of “prettifying” Proust’s original, Scott Moncrieff still did an immense service to the English language, and a new biography by his grand-niece Jean Findlay largely sets the record straight about this remarkable translator.

Chasing Lost Time: The Life of C.K. Scott Moncrieff: Soldier, Spy, and Translator is in equal parts literary biography, intricate family chronicle, brutal war narrative, spy novel, spiritual examination, sex farce, and entirely all-compassing portrait of a lost era. Charles Kenneth Scott Moncrieff (Scott Moncrieff is his compound family name) was by most standards a complicated and contradictory figure—a gay Catholic soldier, writer/critic/translator, aesthete, and spy—but in this searching and thoroughgoing biography, all his parts adhere together into an integrity rarely seen in our modern age of fractured meaning. Not at all a family apologia, this is instead a richly layered excavation of the spiraling strata of letters, diaries, writings, documentary records, and reminiscences about a man for whom life had purpose and sense, and who created a time and place in the universe for himself that he genuinely loved. A friend and colleague of Joseph Conrad, T.S. Eliot, the Waugh family, Robert Graves, Noël Coward, and Wilfred Owen, among countless others, Scott Moncrieff cast an enormous figure in the literature and mind of his time, and Findlay does a seriously impressive job of drawing together every imaginable mention of him in the era’s ceaselessly proliferating remembrances of things past.

C.K. Scott Moncrieff,
painted by Edward Stanley (1919)
Like Proust, Scott Moncrieff was born into an upper-middle-class family devoted to public service and was a sensitive child who as a young man leaned toward literary dandyism. Both writers immersed themselves in poetry and art, and both were fascinated by Catholic iconography and significantly found an early idol in aesthetic art critic John Ruskin. Unlike Proust, though, who due to infirmity was barely able to fulfil his obligatory military service, Scott Moncrieff was thrust into the darkest pit of the First World War, where he fully embraced Catholicism and maintained a shockingly indefatigable spirit among all the horror. Findlay reconstructs battles with extraordinary vividness and rigor, digging as deep into the military archives as she does into personal memoirs, giving as comprehensive a view of Scott Moncrieff’s battalion within the ever-shifting military theater as she does of his own individual war experience. Although she thankfully doesn’t try to ape Proust’s style, she follows threads in the same way he does, and the details that she focuses on form a Proustian trail of scintillating imagery, such as the shards of the destroyed Ypres cathedral’s stained glass that he found and carried with him and then passed parts of to another fellow-soldier, or the Bible in which he dutifully noted every time and place he took communion while serving, forming an intricate military and spiritual itinerary across Europe.

Although very seriously wounded in battle, Scott Moncrieff remained largely unfazed by the terribleness of it all, unlike so many of his friends who were stricken with what we today call post-traumatic stress disorder. Seeing innumerable fellow combatants devoured by this unprecedented new kind of war, he actually seemed to have a positive experience as a soldier. Part of this was because of his new faith, which made everything seem magical and sacred—a common phenomenon during times of extreme terror—but part of it was that he was simply blessed with solid mental health, and it’s thoroughly remarkable to read the biography of a literary person who just didn’t suffer the way that so many other sensitive people do. He does grow quite a bit, however, especially after nearly losing his leg in battle. Serving from the home front after a very long recuperation, he attempted to steer his friends and fellow poets to safer assignments, and his inability to keep the remarkable Wilfred Owen alive marked a serious turning point for him. Having been one of the poet-critics to foster and tutor the budding new poet, encouraging him to explore the assonance and consonance of the Old French martial epic the Song of Roland, which Scott Moncrieff was translating into English as a kind of solace for no longer being able to fight himself, he saw Owen’s lightning-like artistic development far eclipse his own, and it’s after the junior poet’s death in battle that he stopped thinking of himself as a poet anymore.

Turning toward translation after the success of his version of the Song of Roland, he followed it with the similarly bellicose Beowulf, and then he found his true purpose: Proust. For many people, reading Proust for the first time is a nearly religious experience, and to see Scott Moncrieff become totally consumed with it is a similarly thrilling experience. At the same time he took an assignment as a low-level spy for England in Mussolini’s Italy under the cover of the passport office, a job he’d partly created when he was at the War Office, and combining this with his translation fees, he was able to support an ever-expanding network of family and non-family dependents. Living in fascist Italy also allowed him a much freer sex life than he’d had in Edwardian England—a terrible irony if there ever was one—and he recounted it all in hilarious detail in his life-long correspondence with Vyvyan Holland, one of Oscar Wilde’s sons. As gleefully promiscuous a translator as he was a lover, his insatiable interests often took him away from Proust as he became sidetracked by Stendahl and then discovered Pirandello, who was his other major contribution to English letters. Part of this was foot-dragging over the translation of Sodom and Gomorrah, fearing that Proust’s frank depictions of homosexuality would run him afoul of English obscenity laws, and unfortunately this cost him a lot of time and resulted in an even more euphemistically paraphrased translation, which is one of this remarkable biography’s only true bummers.

Jean Findlay
Regarding Scott Moncrieff’s faith and sexuality, Findlay makes the extraordinary point that part of Catholicism’s appeal for him was that it offered him perpetual forgiveness, which was a stark contrast to the unbending Protestantism of his native Scotland. For him Catholicism was a religion that actually allowed and expected him to be a sinner. Although seemingly a nonbeliever herself, Findlay’s portrait of her great-uncle’s faith experience is imbued with the magic of a G.K. Chesterton or Graham Greene novel, making his rapid life and death (at age forty, from cancer, with a volume of Proust left to go) feel nonetheless whole and satisfying, because that’s how it felt to him. Entirely humbled by greater writers and having recognized his own intermediate role, as his translations swept England and America he even turned down an advance to write a novel of his own. Not at all unctuous or self-aggrandizing, he was simply a happy servant of literature and life whose individualized niche allowed him to shine in his own way. Similarly, this surprisingly luminous biography highlights its subject without drawing excessive attention to itself, yet it nonetheless glows too. Findlay holds Scott Moncrieff up to our fascinated attention, and after a while the reader begins to notice Findlay’s own varied and intricate attentiveness just as much. As with Proust, the reader marvels at how much and how well she notices, and at her seemingly limitless resourcefulness. Unlike Scott Moncrieff and Proust himself, who were both unable to finish their lives’ work, Findlay seems with this book to have actually recaptured lost time.

—David Wiley

Monday, June 1, 2015

Jorge Luis Borges’ Conversations, Volume 1

A Review of Jorge Luis Borges’

Originally published in the

Conversations, Volume 1
Jorge Luis Borges & Osvaldo Ferrari
Translated by Jason Wilson
Seagull Books, $27.50

In his prologue to the newly translated Conversations, Volume 1, Jorge Luis Borges wrote that “the best event recorded in universal history happened in Ancient Greece some 500 years before the Christian era, namely, the discovery of dialogue,” adding that, “remote in space and time, this volume is a muffled echo of those ancient conversations.” Borges as a short-story writer, essayist, and poet often posited himself as the only real character in his work—he himself was the lonely cosmic librarian, the vast rememberer, the existential detective, and the sole repository of awful knowledge—but in a very happy paradox, he was also a brilliant conversationalist who could engage in genuine dialogue with anyone lucky enough to be in his presence. Starting in the spring of 1984, Borges appeared on a weekly radio show with fellow poet and essayist Osvaldo Ferrari to discuss anything that came to their minds, ranging from literature and philosophy to history and culture to politics, travel, the tango, and far beyond, and the result is a three-volume series of conversations that are just now being translated into English.

Conversations, Volume 1 collects the first forty-five of these conversations, begun when Borges was nearing eighty-five, and the series presumably covers a bit less than a year per volume until his death in 1986. Consequently, the ideas and reflections and conjectures documented in these pages are a kind of last word from one of literature’s true sages. Borges had been blind for three decades at this point, and so his speech is wholly unprepared by any kind of agenda or notes and follows a discursive route that often strays far from the chosen topic that Ferrari springs on him each week. Answering a question about a particular poet or book or idea, Borges spirals out from the intricate particulars of the person or volume at hand to address metaphysical conjectures about authorship to Buddhism to Japanese customs to the fact that the Old English and Old Norse poets had read and were trying to write their own Aeneid, zeroing in on the exact three lines from Beowulf that are direct translations of Vergil—and almost never back again until Ferrari repeatedly imposes his refrain, “to return to the idea of….”

As a master lecturer and raconteur, Borges invariably shapes his narrative arcs in the form of parabolae rather than hyperbolae and carefully plots how to curve back to the initial inspiration as he brilliantly creates each looping outward thread, but unfortunately these radio conversations have temporal limits that rarely allow him to complete the full texture of his thoughts. Battling time, Ferrari too often pulls Borges back to the original topic and thus retards the full bloom of what Borges was trying to create with him. Other interview collections, such as Richard Burgin’s two books of conversations with Borges—one featuring a wide variety of interviewers, and the earlier, better collection featuring just him and Borges—offer a much freer range of play that more fully captures Borges’ dazzling but warm conversational sparkle. Ferrari also often tends to agree with his master too quickly, rapidly justifying and synthesizing whatever Borges says in a way that sometimes seems sentimental, as if the two poets were maudlin old codgers talking their way toward peace with the world. At other times he simply seems to be trying to rein the old coot in.

To be fair, the still young Ferrari has a seriously impressive range of specific and general knowledge and is almost always able to react with genuine understanding and insight into whatever ancient or modern poem Borges happens to be reciting from memory. He recognizes everything Borges brings to light and often offers exceptionally well pointed examples from his own immersion in poetry and philosophy, serving if not as a perfect foil for Borges, then at least as a worthy sparring partner. He tends too much toward philosophy and generalization to match Borges’ full rainbow genius and is clearly unable to reconcile the inherent battle between conversational depth and real-time radio space, but despite these limitations he throws so much more into the mix than most other interviewers that at times the two actually do approach the ideal of Platonic dialogue. It’s also important to reflect that in today’s impoverished media landscape, these conversations could never happen, especially as a popular weekly feature, and that confronted with the paucity of intelligence on modern radio waves, Ferrari would come off as Borges himself.

Gazing up at Borges’ towering mind through the lens of these stereoscopic conversations, one of the sad truths that this volume reveals again and again is that genius in not democratic. All writers are not created equal, and although Borges’ profound humanity mostly employs his innate status among the .001% of the world’s intellectual elite for the purpose of exceptional good, he can also fall victim to its myopia and prejudice. Compared to the disdainful snobbery of, say, Vladimir Nabokov, Borges is entirely gracious and thoughtful, but he nevertheless has old-fashioned biases about the relationship between culture and virtue and occasionally speaks quite regrettably in these conversations about “the people” and “the poor.” He makes an excellent case against ignorance, however, advocating for learning as a way of banishing evil, and so even though this collection won’t make him any more attractive to readers who consider him “too academic,” his own example of putting his gifts to good use is utterly inspiring. As a Latin American, Borges invigorated an entire literature and brought it to the world stage, and while he may profess a modest cluelessness about his influence in these conversations, his reflective dialogue with Ferrari repeatedly points out how he rewrote the rules of literature and how countless other writers have been illuminated and inspired to create in ways that had not existed before him, illustrating the fact that art is not a zero-sum game. Borges in his dotage may not be a model citizen for all to emulate, but in these dialogues—as in any other genre he attempted—the fundamental unfairness of his outrageous talent is almost always a wonder and a delight.

—David Wiley

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Vladimir Pištalo’s Tesla: A Portrait with Masks

A Review of Vladimir Pištalo’s

Tesla: A Portrait with Masks

Originally published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on May 17th, 2015

Tesla: A Portrait with Masks
By Vladimir Pištalo
Graywolf Press
452 pp. $18

Among the late-nineteenth-century luminaries who accelerated the world into irreversible modernity, few were as literally electrifying as the Serbian-American inventor and engineer Nikola Tesla. A futurist, showman, and quintessential mad scientist, Tesla was the main impetus behind alternating current, which allowed energy to be transferred easily over long distances, and his public persona dramatically engaged a world that was eager to be dazzled by shimmering spectacle, forcefully rushing the age of the horse and buggy toward both enlightenment and calamity. With his newly translated novel Tesla: A Portrait with Masks, Serbian writer Vladimir Pištalo takes on the man and the myth to create a novel of scintillating luster and wide-ranging resonance.

Vladimir Pištalo
Rounding up all the usual fin de siècle suspects—Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, and dozens of others—Pištalo charts Tesla’s rainbow arc from obscurity to international fame and almost completely back again, infusing the historical happenings with rich poetry and unique vision. Structurally, this is a fairly conventional historical novel, written almost entirely in short declarative sentences, but Pištalo casts it through a dreamy and often surreal inner reflectiveness that weaves it all into a dazzling yarn. Like Tesla, who didn’t believe in Einstein’s relativity, Pištalo never truly bends time/space in his narrative, and so despite the modernist subject matter, the novel’s greatest pleasures are actually in his time-tested approaches to character and development, at which he excels. The repulsive Edison, the warmly doddering Twain, the terrifying J.P. Morgan, and the brilliant, bizarre, and baffling Tesla all come alive and spark off of each other to luminous effect, taking the reader on a grand tour of the electric age’s highlights.

Pištalo doesn’t just dwell among the stars, however. His most vivid and moving portrayals are of the under-side of life, of the people left behind in Europe, and especially of the workers toiling in the sewers beneath the towers of the American wealthy. After being swindled by Edison and then squeezed out of his own company by unscrupulous backers, Tesla finds himself digging ditches in New York, and his vivid, loving, brutal, and unsentimentally drawn fellow laborers approach a Twain-like richness of humanity and tragedy. Mirroring all of this, Tesla’s own under-side shadows him constantly, repeatedly pulling him down from the heights that he can’t help from destructively overshooting. Likewise, he can’t restrain the modern world that he’s helped to call into existence and that to his horror is rushing toward unprecedented global conflict.

Nikola Tesla
While Pištalo’s grasp of the time period’s movements and undercurrents are deeply nuanced, his portrayals of Tesla’s actual scientific advances aren’t always entirely convincing. In lieu of technical detail, he loads the narrative with metaphor, focusing on the philosophical and literary resonances of each new development. At turns Tesla is a cypher for Prometheus, the biblical Jacob, Don Quixote, Milton’s Satan, Byron’s Manfred, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which can all be a bit much as Pištalo begins simply referring to Tesla by these names. Nevertheless, as a meditation on humanity’s dually creative and self-destructive nature, this highly polished novel serves as a classic literary mirror of who we are and where we’re heading.

—David Wiley

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Gabriele D’Annunzio’s Pleasure

A Review of Gabriele D’Annunzios Pleasure

Originally published in the Rain Taxi Review of Books, Winter 2013/2014

Gabriele D’Annunzio
translated by Lara Gochin Raffaelli
Penguin ($17)

The Italian writer and statesman Gabriele D’Annunzio largely gave up literature for politics when Italy entered into the First World War, and his books and reputation have never fully recovered. A fervent nationalist whom many—including Mussolini himself—saw as a forerunner of fascism, D’Annunzio was a larger-than-life figure whose importance now seems absurdly dated and whom modernity would simply prefer to forget. In the English-speaking world, his original impact has often seemed entirely baffling, because Victorian translations excised the seminal gist of his true contribution, leaving a refined shell whose brittleness quickly desiccated and disappeared from the larger literary consciousness. His first novel, Pleasure, shocked its original readers with a frank and even devious focus on sexual seduction, but its 1898 translation into English as The Child of Pleasure cut out all the sex, rendering the novel into a neutered virtuoso piece, leaving many readers—including myself—with the impression that D’Annunzio was just a pallid reflection of the English Aesthetic movement. The Child of Pleasure read like a frangible novelization of Walter Pater’s imitators, leaving very little pleasure in its narrative portrayal or in its effect on the reader, but arriving at the 150th anniversary of D’Annunzio’s birth, Lara Gochin Raffaelli’s new translation of Pleasure will perhaps single-handedly resuscitate D’Annunzio as a world writer and place this glimmering first novel in its key spot among Europe’s great works of Decadent literature.

The novel opens with the main character, Andrea Sperelli, a young aristocratic writer and artist, awaiting the return of an estranged lover in a room suffused with her memory. Pleasure then plunges the reader into a world of reminiscence and desire and longing, where objects take on the essences of the humans who touch them and where humans themselves serve as objects on which to play out the obsessive interior dramas lurking beneath the surface of each new interaction. Sperelli is a dissolute aesthete raised by a father who initiated him from a young age into the cult of beauty, indoctrinating him with the most spurious sophism and leaving him with no fundamental grounding at all. While Sperelli serves in part as a mirror of D’Annunzio himself, who took on much of his character’s persona in subsequent years, the play of the novel is in making the reader descend into this depravity at the closest range, perhaps a bit like Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert seducing us into the ultra-sophisticated world of his sickness, with the ironic distance only implied through extra-textual references. The exceptional Raffaelli provides generous notes to her translation to delineate some of these subtleties, but the overall thrust of Sperelli’s seductions is clear even without them.

With this new translation, the influence on the subsequent century’s literature is now shockingly apparent. Both Marcel Proust and James Joyce were great admirers of D’Annunzio’s work, and the influence especially on Proust’s In Search of Lost Time makes itself retrospectively evident on nearly every page. Both Sperelli and Proust’s narrator are monsters of obsessive narcissism, but even more strikingly, D’Annunzio’s mingling of art and objects and essences opens a key passageway into the infinitely interconnected world of Proust, where the sound of a spoon knocking against a plate or the feel of uneven stones beneath the narrator’s feet or the taste and smell of a madeleine cookie dipped in tea can call up a universe of internal associations. More than Proust, however, D’Annunzio immerses the reader in the material experience of making art—at least when not consumed with seduction and memory; the passages describing the thrillingly intricate processes of etching and printmaking outshine even the book’s most sensuous and associative passages, prefiguring the relentlessly detailed artistic methods described in William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, which also seems in this novel’s debt.

Yet while Pleasure may be a great precursor to many of the past century’s key works of literature, it fails in one respect. Rather than making Rome his own, or even absorbing ancient or medieval or renaissance Rome into his own personal iconography, D’Annunzio very much lived in the Rome of Goethe, which for writers of the nineteenth century was modern Rome. Goethe occupied a place in his age that not even Proust or Joyce occupy in our own, so the influence is understandable, but to have the narrative—and Sperelli himself—so constantly quote his German master is to make a terrific refusal to be original. Part of this is for effect—Goethe informs the narrative when Sperelli is with his main lover, Elena, which is most of the time, and when he’s with his secondary lover, Maria, it’s Shelley whose works fix the key—and it’s actually a pretty neat effect, but it leaves a huge void by living in the shadow of these towering high Romantics. D’Annunzio’s Sperelli is meant to strike for his age a figure as symbolic and representative as Goethe’s Werther was for his, and although he succeeded in making Sperelli a metonym for the age of Decadence, much like Jay Gatsby is for our own shoddier decadence in America, perhaps part of D’Annunzio’s desuetude lay in not creating a lasting foundation for himself—or in not transforming a classical myth into a modern one the way that Joyce did with The Odyssey and Fitzgerald did with The Satyricon. Still, Pleasure is truly a pleasure, and its potency is its own. D’Annunzio’s characters may be steeped in their age, but his methods and vision are strikingly original, and this novel confidently announces itself not just as a mere echo or harbinger, but as a fully fledged advent of its own.

—David Wiley