Reading Borges: The Garden of Forking Paths

I think that, somewhere in the back of my mind, I must have a list of authors who I feel are almost Too Famous To Read, let alone Too Famous To Write About, for fear of having nothing original to think or say. I know this is absurd, because a) if I want to read a given book, there’s not much to stop me, and b) the point of writing this blog is to talk about my experience of reading books – something personal to me – not to pass an exam.

Anyway: I need to get over having this list of authors Too Famous To Read. Jorge Luis Borges was on it, but now I’ve borrowed a copy of his Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings from the library for Spanish and Portuguese Lit Months. I’m going to blog some thoughts on what I read, and see how it goes.

In ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’, Dr Yu Tsun – a Chinese scholar of English and agent of the German Empire during the First World War – is pursued by a mercenary in the pay of England. Tsun travels to the house of one Dr Stephen Albert, the only person he knows who can help him get his secret message to the Chief. Albert and Tsun discuss Tsun’s ancestor, Ts’ui Pên, who constructed a model of the universe as a labyrinth of paths, each forking at a point of possibility, creating new paths and futures with each eventuality.

It feels a little odd to read this story now, as a long-time reader of science fiction and fantasy, and therefore used to the idea of parallel worlds and branching realities (I’m assuming, of course, that these ideas would have been reasonably new to Borges’ audience in 1941). Still, there is a strong sense of Yu’s being at the centre of a labyrinth of pasts and possible futures – for example, as a point where the paths of the past collapse into the present (Yu says that he thinks his Chief disdains the Chinese “for the innumerable ancestors who merge within me”). But then there’s the ending, where all potential futures dissipate, and one reality was inevitable after all.

Book details

‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ (1941) by Jorge Luis Borges, tr. Donald A. Yeats (1958), in Labyrinths (coll. 1964), Penguin Modern Classics, 288 pages, paperback (source: library copy).

The Iliac Crest – Cristina Rivera Garza

Today’s book is a short, strange and slipper novel from Mexico, only the second novel by Cristina Rivera Garza to appear in English. At the start, two women visit, and take up residence in, the unnamed narrator’s house. One claims to be the writer Amparo Dávila, and says she knows the narrator from when he was a tree. The second woman is an ex-lover of the narrator’s, referred to only as “the Betrayed”. The two women begin to speak to each other in a private language, and tell the narrator that they know he’s really a woman. Feeling threatened, the narrator decides to find out if his visitor really is Amparo Dávila – but this sets him on a course that will lead him to question what he thought he knew.

In her introduction, Rivera Garza refers to Amparo Dávila as a writer who has been marginalised in real life. In the novel, Amparo tells the narrator that she is writing about her disappearance – and disappearance is treated as a contagion. The narrator realises that he is part of a community of the disappeared:

And disappeared were our voices, our smells, our desires. We lived, if you will, in the in-between. Or rather, we lived with one foot in the grave and the other on terrain that held only a minute resemblance to life. Very few knew about us and even fewer worried about our fate.

(translation by Sarah Booker)

By treating social marginalisation as a communicable disease, Rivera Garza externalises it, in a way that enables her vividly to blur the boundary between marginalised and ‘mainstream’. Other boundaries are also challenged throughout the novel: boundaries of gender, for example, or the line between concrete reality and abstract conception. The experience of reading The Iliac Crest is fluid and disorienting.

Book details

The Iliac Crest (2002) by Cristina Rivera Garza, tr. Sarah Booker (2017), And Other Stories, 144 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

Mama’s Boy – David Goudreault

This is the second Quebecer novel from Book*hug that I was offered for review by the translator, JC Sutcliffe (the first was François Blais’ Document 1). Mama’s Boy is David Goudreault’s first novel, and the first in a trilogy. It is framed as the testimony/confession of an unnamed man, who was separated from his mother as a child after she repeatedly tried to kill herself. He burned his way through foster families, thanks to his penchant for things like torturing animals and stealing. Now, as an adult, he believes he has tracked down his mother in another town. Faking his CV, he takes a job near her as an animal health technician, waiting for the right time to introduce himself.

I find that Mama’s Boy hinges very much on its narrative voice. As you’ll have gathered, Goudreault’s protagonist is not terribly sympathetic (to put it mildly), but there is a certain dark charisma to him that made me want to continue reading. For example:

Year in, year out, I continued my education collecting diagnoses and failures. I had so much experience repeating grades that I could have gone into teaching. French was okay, but I flunked all the other subjects without so much as lifting a finger. Even art. I made myself dope pipes out of clay, and I drew nothing but naked ladies. I was studying curves and perspective. Great geniuses are always misunderstood.

As time goes on, it’s not so much that the narrator becomes more likeable, but that there’s a greater sense of the tragedy underpinning his life, which further enriches the book. At the end of Mama’s Boy, I have no idea what will happen to its protagonist next – but I am keen to find out.

Since my review of Document 1, Book*hug have posted videos of readings from their Spring Launch. So, now you can watch JC Sutcliffe reading extracts from both Mama’s Boy and Document 1.

Book details

Mama’s Boy (2015)by David Goudreault, tr. JC Sutcliffe (2018), Book*hug, 184 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

The Blind Spot – Javier Cercas (#SpanishPortugeseLitMonths)

July is when Stu (Winstonsdad’s Blog) and Richard (Caravana de recuerdos) have traditionally hosted Spanish Literature Month. I like to join in, because I’ve always found some excellent books that way. Well, now the event has expanded to cover Portuguese as well as Spanish lit, and it goes into August as well. So, welcome to Spanish and Portuguese Literature Months! I have quite a few books lined up for this season, starting today…

Whenever I find myself in a reading slump, the way out is often to try something that breaks the pattern of what I’d been reading previously. My way out of a recent reading slump was some non-fiction. The Blind Spot is an “essay on the novel” by Spanish writer Javier Cercas (whose The Impostor was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker International Prize). Cercas explores his approach to his own work, and identifies a tradition of novels with similar characteristics, before going on to consider issues such as the writer’s role in public life.

The novels that most interest Cercas have what he calls a “blind spot” at their centre: a point of ambiguity or contradiction which animates the whole work:

at the beginning of [novels with such a blind spot], or at their heart, there is a question, and the whole novel consists of the search for an answer to this central question; when the search is finished, however, the answer is that there is no answer, that is, the answer is in the search itself, the question itself, the book itself.

(translation by Anne McLean)

Cercas’ key example of a “blind-spot novel” is Don Quixote which, he says, asks whether Quixote is mad, then demonstrates that he is both mad and sane – and, in Cercas’ view, Don Quixote ultimately shows all truth to be as ambiguous. Another example given by Cercas is Moby-Dick, in which the white whale is (irreconcilably) the embodiment of both good and evil.

I found this a fascinating idea to think about, and felt I could apply it to many of the novels that have stood out to me during the lifetime of this blog. For example, The Rehearsal asks unresolvable questions about what happened in a student-teacher scandal, and more widely about the nature of reality and performance. Human Acts asks whether and how the reality of an event such as the Gwangju Uprising can be processed. Nocilla Dream asks what kind of structure there can be in a de-centred, globalised world. In all three cases, the novel itself embodies an answer in the way that Cercas describes.

On the downside, I can’t help being disappointed that all of the novels discussed in The Blind Spot are by male writers, which feels like closing off whole realms of discussion. Still, as a book to think with, Cercas’ essay is nothing short of invigorating. I’ll leave you with a couple of quotations that I (mentally) underlined:

The best literature is not what sounds literary, but what doesn’t sound like literature; that is: what sounds true. All genuine literature is anti-literature.

***

The novel needs to be new in order to say new things; it needs to change to change us: to make us what we’ve never been.

You can read further reviews of The Blind Spot by Stu at Winstonsdad’s Blog, and James Doyle at Bookmunch.

Book details

The Blind Spot (2016) by Javier Cercas, tr. Anne McLean (2018), MacLehose Press, 176 pages, hardback (source: review copy).

Missing – Alison Moore: a snapshot review

A new Alison Moore novel always promises to be splendidly unsettling, and Missing is no exception. Moore’s protagonist is Jessie Noon, a translator living in the Scottish Borders. Jessie’s job may be about finding the right words in order to make a connection between writer and reader, but her life is full of gaps and ambiguities. Her son walked out on her years ago, her second husband much more recently. Her cottage might be haunted, and a plot strand set in 1985 suggests that something tragic happened then between the teenage Jessie and her young niece.

Missing is full of everyday minutiae: supermarket shopping, train travel, a halting relationship between Jessie and a local outreach worker. But there’s a constant undercurrent of tension and uncertainty: you can never be quite sure how each individual element will resolve. As a result, reading Moore’s novel feels like being on a knife-edge.

Book details

Missing (2018) by Alison Moore, Salt Publishing, 184 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

Childless – Ignát Herrmann

Childless is another Very Short Classic, reissued alongside The Four Devils which I reviewed at the start of the month. Ignát Herrmann (1854-1935) was a Czech writer who, as far as I can tell, has had only a few works translated into English. I haven’t been able to track down the original publication year of Childless, but this translation (by Marie Busch and Otto Pick) dates from 1925.

We are introduced to Ivan Hron, who was disinherited by his father but then worked his way back up to become the general manager of a bank. For ten years, he has been married to Magdalena, the daughter of an businessman. Hron’s marriage proposal was initially refused by Magda’s father, but later accepted when her family fell on hard times.

Personal wealth, a successful career, a loving marriage… Hron would seem to have been very fortunate in life. However, he feels one lack deeply – the lack of children:

In spite of all the glamour of his brilliant, exciting life, Hron did not get rid of the old-fashioned feeling that life is perfect only when it is blessed with children. What point, what aim was there in his whole successful career? Why had he worked himself up to the highest position which was open to him, why did he save, to whom would he leave his fortune when, old and frail, he would end his days? What would rejoice his heart in old age?

One day, when Magda has gone away to visit her parents, Hron chances upon some of her personal correspondence – and what he reads there changes everything…

I’d really love to know how Childless was received in its time, because the way it turns out is… well, interesting in comparison the image I have of the period. Although Herrmann gives time to both Hron and Magda, we tend to see her through Hron’s perspective, and I find it hard not to wish to hear more from Magda in her own right (outside of her letters). Having said that, Childless is an affecting piece, and I’m really glad to have read it.

Book details

Childless by Ignát Hermann, tr. Marie Busch and Otto Pick (1925), Very Short Classics, 45 pages, ebook (source: personal copy).

Childless is available on Kindle and Kobo for 99p. Read another review by Grant at 1streading’s Blog.

Eden Book Society: Holt House

The Eden Book Society was a private subscription publisher founded in 1919. For almost a century, it published horror novellas, always under pseudonyms. Now, the people behind Dead Ink Books have acquired the rights to the Eden Book Society’s backlist. This year, they are reissuing the six titles that the Society published in 1972; the first to appear is Holt House, by the mysterious L.G. Vey.

Somewhere in the Hampshire countryside, in the middle of the Holtwood, live old Mr and Mrs Latch. Ray watches them through a hole in the fence: as a child, he was taken to stay with the Latches one night when his mother fell ill. Mr Latch showed him something that was stored in the wardrobe; Ray can’t remember what it was, but the experience has blighted his life ever since. Now, as an adult, he has returned to Holt House to find out exactly what happened. When Mr Latch dies suddenly, Ray seizes the chance to befriend Mrs Latch and find his way into the house.

Of course, all is not as it seems. Ray finds that life at Holt House has a curiously timeless quality; a real sense of eeriness develops as Vey unveils this. But where the novel really shines is its exploration of Ray’s character: the realisation that he’s not entirely sympathetic, and the queasy to-and-fro of whether the tale’s real source of horror is setting or protagonist.

It would be nice to maintain the pretence, but I think I should be honest: there was never really an Eden Book Society, and Holt House does not originate from 1972. The Society is a publishing project from Dead Ink, and was initially funded via Kickstarter (they’re now offering subscriptions through the Society website, linked at the start of this post). However, the books are being published anonymously: Dead Ink have announced that this year’s novellas are by Andrew Michael Hurley; Aliya Whiteley; Alison Moore; Jenn Ashworth & Richard V. Hirst; Gary Budden; and Sam Mills. That’s a fine list of writers, and what really got me excited about the Eden Book Society in the first place. I don’t know who’s writing behind the name L.G. Vey, and it doesn’t matter: Holt House is a strong start for the Society; I can’t wait to see what’s next.

Book details

Holt House (2018) by L.G. Vey, Eden Book Society, 101 pages, paperback (source: personal copy).

Document 1 – François Blais

In the years since I started reading and reviewing more books in translation, one of the nice things has been the chance to talk to translators on social media. This has given me a greater appreciation of the work that goes into translation, and made me more attentive to the language of fiction in general.

One of the translators I’m in touch with on social media is JC Sutcliffe, who translates from French. Recently, she asked me if I would be interested in reviewing a couple of books she had translated, which were published by Book*hug in Canada. I’m not that familiar with fiction from Quebec, and I liked the sound of both novels, so I said yes.

The title I’m looking at today is Document 1 by François Blais; he’s written nine novels, but this is his first to appear in English. At the start, we’re introduced to a pair of amiable slackers: Tess and her partner Jude (those names are referencing Thomas Hardy, but as I’ve not read him I can’t explore that). From their home in Grand-Mère, the couple travel the world – via Google Earth and a flick of the mouse, that is:

We jump the four hundred kilometres separating Minnesota’s metropolis from Des Moines, Iowa. We’d better see what the buzz is down here. Fly low over Grand View University. Not much going on, it’s all very peaceful, but let’s just note in passing that the Des Moines fire hydrants are yellow. Another crucial piece of information to take up storage space in our brains. There’s not much happening on Euclid Avenue either, even though it seems to be one of the town’s major commercial streets. Lots of vehicles (trucks in particular), but no pedestrians: apparently strolling is not the done thing in Des Moines…

One day, against their usual instincts, the couple decide to go on a road trip, to Bird-in-Hand, Pennsylvania (they like places with unusual names, and it’s not too far to travel). The problem is, they don’t have a car, or indeed enough money to fund the journey. Eventually, they hit on an idea: to apply for a government arts grant that would fund a book of the road trip. Tess and Jude find a local writer, Sébastien Daoust, to lend his name to the grant application; the resulting text is the novel we’re reading (though it’s Tess who has ‘written’ it, with a very little help from Jude).

In case you’re wondering, the title of Document 1 comes from the default name of the Word file that Tess creates for the text. She says at one point:

Dear reader, as you have in your hands the finished product, with a beautiful cover, a beautiful ISBN number, and gushing thanks to the Arts Council, you must already know the title we chose. Admit it, it’s a pretty impressive title! I have no idea what it will be, but I know we’ll find something spectacular. I have faith in us.

And you can see how well that went…

I don’t always care for this kind of metafictional humour, but Blais gets it spot on for me. Tess has picked up a couple of ‘rules of writing’ books and keeps pointing out for our benefit the techniques she’s used in her text – techniques not necessarily used with much care or sensitivity (a random flashback resolved several chapters later, for example). Blais has managed to balance it so that he writes with a tin ear in places, yet this still works well in context, without coming across as making fun of his narrator – and Sutcliffe captures all that in her translation. When I write it out like that, it sounds onerous; but it reads so lightly.

Stu has also reviewed Document 1 over at Winstonsdad’s Blog, and he too is impressed with the novel’s dry wit. I hope we will see more of Blais’ work in translation, because this is a fine introduction.

Book details

Document 1 (2016) by François Blais, tr. JC Sutcliffe (2018), Book*hug, 172 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

The Four Devils – Herman Bang

Today’s book is one of the launch titles in Very Short Classics, an occasional ebook series from the people behind Abandoned Bookshop. Herman Bang (1857-1912) is a renowned name in Danish literature, but not widely translated into English. The Four Devils was originally published in 1890; this translation, by Marie Ottilie Heyl, dates from 1927.

As children, the brothers Fritz and Adolf were taken in by the circus; along with sisters Aimée and Louise, they became the Four Devils, talented trapeze artists. Aimée is in love with Fritz, but he has eyes for a rich married woman in the audience. Fritz waits for her after the performance each night; eventually, the woman notices and speaks to him, and everything unravels from there…

What makes The Four Devils such a pleasure to read is the intensity of Bang’s prose. As befits a story about trapeze artists, everything is refracted through the lens of movement and the body; here, for example, is Fritz regarding the rich woman in the circus’s stables, where he works as groom:

It was all for his benefit – ah, he knew it well; through 1000 little gestures – the straightening of her back, the movement of her arm, the glance of her eye, she showed that they were destined for one another. They seemed actually to touch, though each took care to keep the distance that separated them. In spite of it, they felt close to each other; it was as if some indescribable impulse had caught them in a double coil that held them both bound.

I found The Four Devils a fine introduction to the work of Herman Bang, and I’ll be looking out for more.

Book details

The Four Devils (1890) by Herman Bang, tr. Marie Ottilie Heyl (1927), Very Short Classics, 53 pages, ebook (source: personal copy).

The Four Devils is available on Kindle and Kobo for 99p. Read another review by Grant at 1streading’s Blog.

Man Booker International Prize 2018: and the winner is…

I’m late in covering this, as the Man Booker International winner was announced last Wednesday. Although the official and shadow shortlists had only two books in common, the judges came to the same conclusion as the shadow panel: Flights by Olga Tokarczuk (tr. Jennifer Croft) took the Prize. Congratulations to both author and translator, and of course to publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions.

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