Archive for the 'Book Reviews' Category
We’ve been waiting for these two titles from Adler since the announcement of them in early January. While the award-winning Speedboat promises the same impact today as it had in the 1970s, lauded for its unconventional narrative-exposé of the American landscape (a touchstone for writers like David Foster Wallace & Elizabeth Harken), its follow-up Pitch Dark promises the same verve with grating journalistic ability… only distilled to one moment, poised at a critical moment of an affair a woman has with a married man. Pathos abounds!
Kindertotenwald: Prose Poems by Franz Wright (Knopf)
Franz Wright amazed us with his Earlier Poems alone, but Kindertotenwald is a confirmation of sheer versatility. Love how the New York Journal of Books puts it: “At times Mr. Wright is intuitively brilliant, a true poet speaking prose, yet at times these read simply as prose. Tone is consistent and carefully modulated, though it varies and is embedded in the subconscious. It’s as though someone woke up from a deep sleep and began speaking.”
I Await The Devil’s Coming by Mary Maclane (Melville House)
Maclane is clearly a genius, but you can tell that she’s still working out her “philosophy”. Her writing is intense, but also playful and often quite funny. Though her name is synonymous with sexuality now, Maclane wrote about everything in her 1902 diary. Then a 19-year-old living in urban Montana, the book ranges from existential and depressed to intentionally silly and ridiculous. One of our staff picks!
The Book of My Lives by Alexander Hemon (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
There’s a good interview on the New York Times about the processes behind this *highly*-praised book and its Bosnian-born Chicago writer: What happens when a fiction writer breaks the resisted urge to write non-fiction on the subject of his old and new homes, in the process excising and exterminating “that precious, youthful part of (himself) that had believed (he) could retreat from history and hide from evil in the comforts of art”?
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2013)
(218 pages, hc, 29$)
Ostensibly an account of poet/novelist James Lasdun’s traumatic struggle with a former student and self-stylized “verbal terrorist” whose increasingly volatile cyber-stalking evolves into an online smear-campaign aimed at ruining the author, Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked, is also a book filled with thought-provoking riffs on middle Eastern politics, journalistic ethics, and George Eliot’s claim that “the last thing we learn in life is our effect on other people”.
Some reviewers have bemoaned the lack of dramatic “pay off” in the book, while others have questioned its very existence due to its risky legal and ethical dimensions (it quotes real source material, hate emails, etc, and stops just short of naming names). Its precarious mingling of fact and fiction and Lasdun’s own expressed ambivalence about the whole project, “the necessity of using private emails in a story about accusations of plagiarism and violations of privacy was an irony I was going to have to come to terms with,” add layers of complicity and complexity to what is in some ways a strained public defence of the author’s own “good name”. I think this strange mixture of awkward self-consciousness and the digressive and culturally varied manner in which Lasdun evokes (whether it’s through Gawain the Green Knight or Zoroastrian religion or ruminations on poetic craft) the personal dimensions of what is by all accounts a harrowing ordeal including public accusations of sexual misconduct and plagiarism, are what give this book its off kilter appeal.
Certainly, this is not a book for everyone, and it is more rhetorical and meditative than its somewhat sensationalistic title would suggest, gaining momentum in degrees that attain a kind of psychological slow burn, a quality for which Lasdun has been celebrated in both his poetry and intellectual thrillers. Give Me Everything You Have is ultimately a writer’s account of being cyber-stalked, and it is probably writers, and/or readers sympathetic to the self-doubt and vacillation of the neurotic mind struggling to attain self-knowledge, that will ultimately be rewarded by Lasdun’s account of descending into “the realm of stricken enchantment in which technology and psychology overlap, where the magical thinking of the primitive mind, with its susceptibility to spells, curses, witchcraft of every kind, converges with the paranoias peculiar to our own age.”
Here’s a list of our new and latest title arrivals in the shop. Click on a link to see a review, publisher info, interviews, excerpts…
- Miriam Bratu Hansen‘s Cinema and Experience
- Georges Perec‘s W, or The Memory of Childhood
- Nicola Barker‘s The Yips
- Woody Guthrie‘s House of Earth
- John Man‘s Ninja: 1,000 Years of the Shadow Warrior
- Adrienne Rich‘s Later Poems: Selected and New (1971-2012)
- Nancy Richler‘s The Imposter Bride
- D’arcy O’Connor‘s Montreal’s Irish Mafia
- Badiou and Zizek‘s Philosophy in the Present
- Antonio Negri‘s Art & Multitude
- Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt‘s Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire
- M.E. Saltykov‘s The Golovlyov Family
- Danilo Kis‘ The Attic
- Boris Pilnyak‘s Mahogany
- Fyodor Dostoevsky‘s The Crocodile
- Bei Dao‘s The Rose of Time: New and Selected Poems
- Tony Judt‘s Thinking the Twentieth Century (now in paperback!)
- 2 of Aleksandar Hemon‘s: Love and Obstacles and The Lazarus Project
- Tadeusz Borowski‘s This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen
- Claude Levi-Strauss‘ Tristes Tropiques
- Laszlo Krasznahorkai and Max Neuman‘s Animalinside (in a beautiful limited Sylph Cahier edition)
Well, here ’tis, the last installment of Argo’s Best Books of 2012. Not to say that we’ve necessarily saved the best for last, but here’s JP’s Best Books of 2012. Many thanks to all of you who have read our past posts about our best books. Now to prepare for a whole new year! Start cracking those spines!
JP’s 9 and a 1/2 Best Books of 2012 (give or take a month, in no particular order)
…To be honest, my tenth book on this list continuously veered from one book of poems to the next, so I decided to list the ones I was torn over. They are as follows, my “1/2″ book:
- Phil Hall‘s Killdeer (BookThug, 2011)
- Joshua Trotter‘s All This Could Be Yours (Biblioasis, 2010)
- Zach Wells‘ Track & Trace (Biblioasis, 2009)
- David McGimpsey‘s Li’l Bastard (Coach House Books, 2011)
- Michael Robbins‘ Alien VS. Predator (Penguin Books, 2012)
- Bryan Sentes‘ March End Prill (BookThug, 2011)
- Gabe Foreman‘s A Complete Encyclopedia of Different Types of People (Coach House Books, 2011)
…on to the list!
OBERIU: An Anthology of Russian Absurdism edited by Eugene Ostashevsky (Northwestern University Press, 2006): Perhaps it’s cheating to place a re-read in this list, but I consider this text to be a rediscovery for 2012. I had poked around the text since listening to its editor, Eugene Ostashevsky, but sat down for a front-to-back read during the year.
The absurdist movement OBERIU was producing and performing at a time when daily life was not far removed from complete absurdity. Under a Stalinist regime, citizens were either witness to or personally subjected to the exiling, murder and calamitous treatment of citizenry. Given this context, one can conclude why OBERIU aimed to reveal illogical foundations of our presumably logical world. However, this directive is more than a historical curiosity, and can be found in their art as much as their history. Language, particularly the logic and expectations we subject it to, are systems often subverted by this group to make way for new art, or what they deemed to be ‘true’ or ‘real’ art. OBERIU’s texts position the normal as the absurd by treating recognizable language in an absurd way, and even if the ‘true’ meaning of the texts is beyond me (I don’t speak a lick of Russian), this book’s translations are bona fide illuminations of great writers like Alexander Vvedensky, Daniil Kharms and Yakov Druskin, to name a few.
The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake (Back Bay Books, 2002): I have two Hemingway-philes for friends. Frustrated, I asked them one night that if Hemingway had never existed, who would they turn to then? They sent me to Breece D’J Pancake. I found his body of work, collected posthumously since his suicide at the age of 26, to reveal a youthful yet rough ‘n’ tumble register with amazing emotional depth. Pancake’s writing may not be as much on the minimalist side as Hemingway’s is, but it satisfied so much, with his dialectical Virginian twang and the grim realism of blue-collar ferry-drivers, boxers, cock-fighters, farmers and coalminers.
Additionally, the collection contains a foreword and afterword from a friend of Pancake’s, a professor from Virginia State, whose writings allow for a biographical reading of Pancake’s work with the added intimacy and mystery surrounding the author’s life and death.
Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo (Citadel, 2007): From the outset, I was immediately drawn into this straightforward story about a young soldier who survives an artillery strike at the cost of his own identity. Left blind, deaf, dumb and faceless, the novel traces the journey of Johnny’s mind atop a hospital bed for years, diving into memories of his hometown, family, aspiring wanderlust and small town sweethearts. Following his attempts to communicate with the outside world and to discern the passage of time is gripping enough. Surprisingly, you won’t find Johnny’s thoughts delving into his experiences in the war as much as his own intimate memories, save for one devastating moment in the trenches (unrelated to his accident), but his physical and psychological suffering bring out excellent meditations.
This book has been known to fall in and out, in and out of print during past wartimes, and for good reason; Johnny’s suffering amounts to broad, sweeping resolve on the function of war, command and freedom.
Mongrel by Marko Sijan (Mansfield Press, 2011):I’ve written about Mongrel in the past for the Argo’s first Featured Reading. While I hadn’t exactly read this novel during the year of 2012, it stuck with me throughout the year.
I initially took it as a realist rebuttal to Francesca Lia Block-style depictions of teenagehood. In comparison, Sijan’s novel provides a much-needed darker side of teenage life, an edgy and nigh-sensationalist series of stories that reveals urban youth in their violently emotional element. Situated in Windsor, a city defined by being ‘on the brink’ both temperamentally and geographically, and at a time when most of the novel’s characters are about to leave high school for the great Unknown that is the Real World, tensions run high for the book’s 5 characters and one can’t help but feel it. Each voice has flesh to it, as crazy as they can be, ranging from the über-aggressive macho jock to the raver-turned-self-proclaimed psychedelic mystic. My only assurance to prospective readers is that this book, above all, is wonderfully bald-faced.
Warlock by Oakley Hall (NYRB Classics, 2005): Pynchon was apt to deem the Wild West of the 1800s to be America’s Camelot. Told in part by the sideline journal entries of one John Henry Goodpasture, Warlock starts with the hiring of a fabled gunslinger to protect an independent town from an unruly gang, but quickly evolves into a narrative rich in conflicts between philosophies of law, myth and love. Posited at the end of the Wild West, one is able to observe the universe of spaghetti westerns in decline, and the dying era’s psychological razing of its inhabitants. With a plot full of constant, unexpected twists among thoroughly realized characters, I found myself juggling different moral compasses simultaneously. Based off of the classic OK Corral shootout, Oakley Hall has written a masterpiece of the cowboy genre, a Sergio Leone film that was never made. I dare you to read it.
Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms edited by Matvei Yankelevich (Overlook Duckworth, 2009): Among all the members of OBERIU, Daniil Kharms is one of my favourites. While the OBERIU anthology provides a superb smorgasbord of the movement’s different members, this collection contains excellent translations culled from across the board of Kharms’ published work, from the book’s central editor Matvei Yankelevich to the aforementioned OBERIU anthology’s editor Eugene Ostashevsky.
Kharms is one of those writers whose pertinence increases as the years go by. That is, as the world becomes an increasingly complex and science-centric place, Kharms’ work offers an absurd mirroring that points out the fallacies of our own presumably logical world. What is ‘normal’ or ‘logical’ is becomes contorted, violent or perverse, and it conversely can offer us a better reflection of ourselves than what can be found in most writers grounded in strict realism. All the more strange is that Kharms was no mad fool; for lack of a better idiom, there was method to his madness involving strict logic and a fascination with mathematics and philosophy, among other disciplines. This author was most certainly the most fascinating discovery of 2012 for me.
City of Bohane by Kevin Barry (Vintage Books, 2012): This book is notable for satiating my annual craving for fast-paced intrigue and action in a light book. A story of gang warfare in a steam-punk/western/film noir Irish city, set in a grim and polluted post-apocalyptic future, City of Bohane was too interesting to simply stack on the ol’ To-Read pile.
You may be apprehensive toward authors’ first novels, but rest assured, Kevin Barry has proven ability and style since his first book, the short story collection There are Little Kingdoms (Stinging Fly Press, 2007). City of Bonhane displays incredibly strong character, and sustains itself as both an exciting and fun read. It has an inventive context, climatic plot, cinematic coordination… Heck, even its unnamed nail-gargling narrator was a pleasure to read in the book’s consistent futuristic Irish slang.
A little bird mentioned to me in the summer of 2012 that there have been talks of turning this gem into a film. No surprise there, but there’s most certainly cause to find out why. Give it a shot.
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner (Vintage, 1991):I suppose it’s a bit unfair to place a classic among my top picks for the year, but this is one that slipped through my fingers for years. It’s a bit silly, as I’ve read The Wild Palms and even his juvenilia before this one. Regardless, now that I’ve taken the time to read it,I love Faulkner’s work all the more. The streams of consciousness, the decline of old Southern propriety and the resulting stress it has on its last bastion family… The Sound and the Fury is by no means a simple text (as he never used Hemingway’s comparably ‘short’ words), but it demonstrates Faulkner’s enigmatic style at its best. It seems pointless even now to argue the merits of a book that embodies the term ‘classic’ for literature, and its heart-wrenching contents unfairly make this a shoe-in for 2012, but it’s a favourite all the same.
Rebel Bookseller by Andrew Laties (Seven Stories Press, 2011): I admit, I began to read this book out of a sense of obligation once I started to run the Argo Bookshop with Jesse and Meg. Over the first 20 pages, however, I was drawn into its story of two young, idealistic booksellers-to-be and their entrance into the business just on the brink of the Big-Box and online bookseller movements, forced to adopt new strategies for the independent side of the business. There’s also technical aspect to Laties’ writings some may find dry or tedious, but he’s an endearing storyteller who is capable of considerable social insight among the calculated facts. For example, if you’ve ever wondered why books cost as much as they do, there is in fact a story behind it. The book is admittedly American-centric, but the essence of the book trade’s consumption shift is a must-read in the rapidly turbulent world of books today.
Here’s part 2 of our Best Books of 2012. Today is Argo Co-Owner Jesse’s Top 15 for the year. Click on a book title to view a review or general/publisher information on that book.
Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas (New Directions, 2012): The books on this list aren’t in any ascending or descending order, but if pressed I’d have to say that this is the book that most affected me and captivated my imagination all year. It is the story of an increasingly reclusive and anti-social retired Spanish publisher (also recovering alcoholic) set in the present. It is a deceptively simple avant-garde novel that tells a fairly straightforward story: pressed by a series of coincidences, restlessness and marital difficulties the publisher and three friends make a fateful trip to Dublin, where the publisher intends to hold a funeral for the Guttenberg era in Prospect Cemetery, where character Paddy Dignam is buried in Joyce’s fictional Ulysses, and gets much more than he bargained for. It’s about the sometimes harmful fanaticism for literature in a world it sometimes distorts and which seems intent on cutting it loose. It’s about the worlds of Beckett and Joyce and the pinnacles they represent in modern print. It’s about the particular brand of existential anguish that only literature can address, and about the power and limits of an art form that Borges’ described as “the sense of the imminence of a revelation which does not in fact occur”.
Dark Lies the Island by Kevin Barry (Vintage UK, 2012): Already in possession of a cult following for his 2011 novel City of Bohane, a kind of post-industrial western written in an imaginary Irish dialect, Kevin Barry is an equally fine, if not superior writer of short stories. Readers may already be familiar with “The Fjord of Killary” which was published to great acclaim a couple years back in The New Yorker, and Montrealers have the great chance to be able to see this fine craftsman and entertainer in action at Concordia University this coming March. Dark Lies the Island is being issued in North America in May 2013, but we carry import copies of this fine collection from the UK for anyone looking to acquaint themselves before this explodes on our own doorstep:
“A kiss that just won’t happen. A disco at the end of the world. A teenage goth on a terror mission. And OAP kiddie-snatchers, scouse real-ale enthusiasts, and occult weirdness in the backwoods.
Dark Lies the Island is a collection of unpredictable stories about love and cruelty, crimes, desperation, and hope from the man Irvine Welsh has described as ‘the most arresting and original writer to emerge from these islands in years’. Every page is shot through with the riotous humour, sympathy and blistering language that mark Kevin Barry as a pure entertainer and a unique teller of tales.”
Homo Faber by Max Frisch (Harvest, 1994): I was awed by this swiftly plotted meditation on the cult of reason by the once famous but now largely unread Swiss writer Max Frisch, a novelist of ideas whose works bear similarities with other mid-twentieth century authors such as Camus and Sartre grappling with the “accursed questions” in an age of existential uncertainty. The story follows protagonist Walter Faber, a successful UNESCO engineer, through a series of suspiciously coincidental encounters and travels that ultimately culminate in a love affair that ends in total ruination. Throughout we are witness to Walter’s stubborn blindness to something that increasingly comes to resemble Fate, an Achilles Heel formed through his slavish predisposition to logic and a kind of technological fundamentalism. The inspiration for the Volker Schlondorff’s 1991 film Voyager, Homo Faber has the power and inevitability of Greek Tragedy.
Killdeer by Phil Hall (BookThug, 2011): Killdeer is a heart-wrenching lyric testimony, bold dispatch on the spiritual crisis of contemporary Canadian poetry, regionalist manifesto, and much more. Unlike many other examples of “hybrid” writing this book of genre-bending “lyric essays” is utterly unpretentious and imbued with a spirit of true generosity and grace. Hall is everyone’s charming, eccentric uncle shot through with the dark inscrutability of Paul Celan. Killdeer is an incredibly moving, humbling series of poems that I have revisited several times over the past year.
Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra (Melville House, 2008): This 86 page novella is a weirdly luminescent, beguiling gem. On the surface a cursory story about a failed love affair between two pretentious arty youngsters and its aftermath, Bonsai achieves incredibly distilled emotional resonance and depth through its use of seemingly arbitrary but meticulous syncopation and intertextuality. The closest points of comparison are the Argentinean Cesar Aira or Brazilian Clarice Lispector, yet this book is somehow unlike anything I’ve read before. Zambra is an exciting young voice to watch out for.
Senselessness by Horacio Constellanos Moya (New Directions, 2008): Moya writes as if Thomas Bernhard was a sociopathic punk and had lived through the Latin American Nightmare to tell the tale.
Senselessness is the real deal, a visceral intellectual thriller by one of the most exciting International writers to be translated since Roberto Bolano:
“A sex-obsessed lush of a writer is employed by the Catholic Church to edit and tidy up a 1,100 page report on the army’s massacre and torture of the indigenous villagers a decade earlier. The writer becomes mesmerized by the poetic phrases written by the indigenous people and becomes increasingly paranoid and frightened, not only by the spellbinding words he must read, but also by the murders and generals that run his country.” – Wikipedia
The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor (FSG, 1984): Flannery O’Conner is one of those writers that upon first reading, one cannot forgive oneself for having not read them sooner. There is a palpable magic coursing through these pages, and each story is a miracle of character design and socio-cultural insight. Exemplars of the Southern Gothic mode, these stories are powerful indictments of the rampant Racism and warped Catholicism of the Deep South.
Wittgenstein’s Nephew by Thomas Bernhard (Vintage, 2009): I admit to a prejudice here: Thomas Bernhard is probably my favourite novelist, and I try to read at least one of his books a year. I love his ranting, obsessive and paranoid narrators, his omission of chapters replaced by single long unbroken paragraphs, his hallmark use of repetition and phrases that pile clause upon clause, his indictment of Austrian provinciality and bourgeois cultural pretension, his thematic preoccupation with art, madness, and death, his ruthless and continuously roving intellect, and his refusal to abandon the true spirit of literary inquiry in a time defined by intellectual compromises, half-measures, double dealings and dull careerism. That’s all I’ll say, other than that Wittgenstein’s Nephew is vintage Bernhard, a powerful tribute to a difficult friendship, and perhaps the author’s most empathetic book.
Poems 1959-2009 by Frederick Seidel (FSG, 2010):
“The excellent table manners combined with a savage display of appetite: this is what everyone notices in Seidel. Yet he wouldn’t be so special or powerful a poet of what’s cruel, corrupt, and horrifying had he not also lately shown himself to be a great poet of innocence.”—Benjamin Kunkel, Harper’s Magazine
“The most frightening American poet ever—phallus-man, hangman of political barbarism—Seidel is the poet the twentieth century deserved.”—Calvin Bedient, Boston Review
Henry & June by Anais Nin (Harcourt, 2001): This selection from the unexpurgated diaries of Anais Nin correspond to her intense affairs between 1931-32 with the famed Parisian expat Henry Miller as well as her infatuation with his wife June Miller. It is a record of daring artistic and sexual awakening filled with exquisite psychological insight and ruthless self-examination. Nin’s ever evolving, conflicted, contradictory and ultimately exploded sense of self is a wonder to behold throughout the course of the book, giving it the appeal of a novel. This is an erotic and inspiring journey of a woman striving to achieve, but continually just beyond the reach of self-knowledge.
The Day of the Locusts by Nathanael West (New Directions, 2009): Forget Fitzgerald or Hemingway, Nathanael West is the true prophet of the American Dream in all its volatility, climaxing into a harrowing spectacle of shit and glitter. This may be the Hollywood novel par excellence, a spiritual precursor to the way we live now that has more in common with the works of Joan Didion, Jonathan Lethem and Don Delillo than West’s contemporaries. West’s writing is furious, incisive and takes on almost cartoonish vivacity in its serialized structure. Issued jointly by New Directions in a beautiful edition with the equally classic Miss Lonelyhearts, this is essential reading for lovers of classic American literature.
Spurious/Dogma by Lars Iyer (Melville House, 2011/2012): Lars Iyer’s late capitalist satires of failed intellectuals poised before the permanent eclipse of the philosophic mind are like jumped-up Samuel Beckett for the Kenny Vs. Spenny generation. These books, the crux of which resolves upon the fraught friendship of buddies W. & Lars and their litany of insults are paranoid, apocalyptic and hilarious. Iyer has the rare gift, amply displayed here, of being able to expound on Blanchot and Kafka while making a dick joke. Spurious and Dogma form the first 2/3rds of a trilogy, the concluding volume of which, Exodus, is due January 2013. These books never fail to put a very large smile on my face.
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (Vintage, 2011): This Booker Prize winning novella is a brilliant meditation on the problems of the malleability of memory, personal legacy, and history. Part Bildungsroman, part psychological thriller, this is a taut and absorbing read with a real shocker of an ending that somehow manages to pull off its huge ambition. My first foray into the work of Julian Barnes and, I hope not my last.
Every Night the Trees Disappear by Alan Greenberg (Chicago Review Press, 2012): What can I say? A brilliant, poetic account that delves into the heart of one of the strangest films ever made. Alan Greenberg, author of the acclaimed Love In Vain: A Vision of Robert Johnson (the first screenplay to be published by a major publishing house as literature), gives us a worthy companion to Herzog’s infamous film that Rolling Stone calls “[t]he best book on the making of a film ever written.” A real sleeper hit, this book should seriously appeal to not only fans of the film or Herzog, but lovers of adventurous and risk taking cinema everywhere.
Hush Hush: Stories by Steven Barthelme (Melville House, 2012): Steven Barthelme’s irresistible stories describe pained and various searches for intimacy and connection between fumbling and addled men and women wounded by circumstance, but not beyond repair. Less deliberately iconoclastic than the work of his famous brothers Frederick and Donald, Hush Hush is an understatedly mischievous and eccentric work with great range and something for all lovers of short-stories. “Heaven” makes a strong bid for being my favourite short story of the year.
If you haven’t yet checked out our December book-of-the-month, we highly suggest that you do. Hush Hush is the second collection of short-stories from Steven Barthelme, the youngest brother in one of the most achieved families of fiction writers in American literature.
The stories in Hush Hush are simultaneously moving, funny, and spiked with just the right amount of perversity and strangeness. They are quirky and satiric without being glib, heartfelt and earnest without being sentimental, and their fidelity to the ordinary madness of the mundane is rendered with an empathetic eye and superb minimalist prose.
The range in Hush Hush recalls everything from Raymond Carver to Alice Munro, with occasional nods to the post-modern mischief of his brothers Donald and Frederick, making it the perfect gift for any lover of short-stories. And, for those of you who love literature but are strapped for cash, it’s 20% off until Christmas, making it around the same price as two pints. And which will prove better company the morning after?… I thought so.
Get a taste of the knee-slapping “Heaven” here, kindly posted in its entirety by the folks at Melville House.
Staff Pick: Every Night The Trees Disappear: Werner Herzog and the Making of Heart of Glass by Alan Greenberg
Every Night The Trees Disappear: Werner Herzog and the Making of Heart of Glass by Alan Greenberg (Chicago Review Press, 2012. 208 pages. 27.95$)
Heart of Glass is one of the strangest feature films ever released. A hallucinatory Bavarian folktale about a crumbling glass-factory and a town descending into collective madness, it received mixed reviews upon release, which included accusations of stylistic frivolity and exploitation of acting personnel, charges not uncommonly laid upon the film’s visionary director, Werner Herzog.
Like many other Herzog films, the bizarre backstory behind Heart of Glass became as notorious as the film itself, laden with a mystery and elusiveness all its own: it was said that the tonal peculiarities of the film were achieved through states of induced hypnosis, a process under which actors were guided by Herzog himself.
Alan Greenberg, long-time collaborator with Herzog and a famous and accomplished cineaste in his own right, worked with Herzog on the film, and illuminates in rich details some of the mysteries that have lurked within and behind this enigmatic film for years. However, Every Night The Trees Disappear is not a banal “making-of” of the film nor a piece of expository celebrity journalism, but an accomplished work of literature that mirrors and refracts, in a poetic and surrealistic manner, the peculiar spirit and dream-logic of the film in question.
Greenberg’s book moves from his initial meetings with Herzog, which are populated with the serendipity and oddballs of his films, through to personal accounts of the film’s strange and intuitive making (this does does disappoint) to a culminating scene near Skellig Rock in Ireland, where the film’s nigh mystic post-scrip was filmed and Greenberg almost dies, all in the hope of capturing a few elusive shots. His accounts of the filming, which are so absorbing as to read like a novel, are interspersed chapter by chapter with Herzog’s original scenario, which illustrates not only the evolution of the film, but how clearly Herzog had conceived of his vision for Heart of Glass before shooting even began. Greenberg shows that far from the superfluous experiment his detractors took it to be, the hypnosis was of central stylistic and thematic importance and served to dramatize how the films characters walk, in Herzog’s words “straight into a foreseen and foretold disaster, almost like a community of sleepwalkers.”
Herzog has spoken of an “ecstatic truth”, which in so far as I understand it, is a kind of fluid poetic truth that transcends civic time and order, and hints at something akin to the inner monologue of our inner-most selves. Greenberg’s book is a fitting homage to this ecstasy of truth, and should be of interest to any fan of the art of cinema seeking insight into the psyche and methods of one of its most visionary directors. In the words of David Lynch, “[Greenberg] magically depicts Werner’s deep obsessions, total commitment, and creativity. He shows the way Werner goes about his work using both his mind and his hands. This is rare and spectacular. Alan Greenberg proves beautifully in this book that there will never again be a filmmaker even remotely like Werner Herzog.” Highly recommended.
In these last few years, Jonathan Ball has justly gained a reputation as one of Canada’s most intriguing young poets. His previous books include Ex Machina (Bookthug, 2009), a self-proclaimed “latticework of poetic and philosophical statements concerning the symbiosis of humans, books, and machines,” as well as Clockfire (Coach House 2010), a collection of poetic-scenarios of 77 imaginary plays that would be impossible to produce. The latter in particular has already gained a somewhat cultish status among small press devotees and is one of our favourites here at the shop. Ball has been likened to a kind of Calvino/Lovecraft hybrid or a mixture of Lynch/Kafka, an avant-garde horror writer whose work pushes beyond the strictures of the workshop towards something potentially more transgressive and visceral, and whose genre-defying work has the potential for a more populist appeal. His new collection is The Politics of Knives (2012), with which release publisher Coach House Books is boasting that Ball has become “the Stephen King of verse”. Needless to say, expectations are high.
The first thing that will strike readers familiar with Ball’s work is how much less thematically or conceptually driven The Politics of Knives is. The book showcases a dizzying array of forms and subjects loosely revolving around film and “the language of violence” that range from invocations to the muse to erasure poems, from a kind of jumped-up Late Capitalist riff on Ferlinghetti’s “I Am Waiting” to fractured and remixed bits of Kafka’s The Castle and Hitchcock’s Psycho, and much else besides. “In Vitro City” gives us a portrait of a dystopian city of the future in a state of severe political lockdown, a gentrified metropolis made of glass where “all things are windows, so there are no windows,” and “hotels hold you, elevat[ing] penthouse to throne.”
Alternately, “He Paints the Room Red” gives us a scenario of a Warhol film from Hell, where an unknown author films himself preparing to write his life’s work over a period of days, only to douse himself, the work and the mise-en-scene (a sparcely furnished room he has painted blood-red) with gasoline upon the manuscript’s completion. He then lights a match, and the camera continues to record the end of this disconcerting ritual: “For hours in his created world, we watch our faceless author burn.”
Despite such striking and evocative images however, I confess to being somewhat disappointed on the whole by Ball’s new book. From the examples briefly cited above, it is clear that Ball wanted to step away from his earlier conceit driven books and try on various poetic guises in The Politics of Knives, exploring his general theme of “the language of violence” in a more open-ended manner. Contrary to criticising it for its diversity – which I indeed think is a virtue given how much Canadian poetry is suffering from the trend of trying to sell itself by making individual collections little more than extensions of a singular thesis or artist statement (what Phil Hall has dubbed “The Bad Sequence”) – one of the reasons I have reservations about the book is its habit of holding the reader at arm’s length in a predictable, almost token manner.
Ball delights in disrupting expectations. At the end of “He Paints the Room Red,” subsequent to his character burning himself to death, Ball confesses that he “do[es] not know his reasons.” “I don’t understand any of this,” he continues, “You’ll object. You’ll say: he’s your character. You’ll say: you wrote him, we read this, we know.” Although Ball is dramatizing the problem of traditionally held ideas about memesis and authorship, it is not enough to deflect responsibility in such a coy, almost smug manner, and he is in fact right: as readers invested in the work we do have a right to object. Ball doesn’t have to give us the story – but he can certainly do better than withhold it in this manner. In short, the deflection doesn’t feel earned. Additionally, it strikes me as somewhat counterproductive for a book that is striving to scare and to shock, that firmly situates itself in a lineage of horror stories (bastard-child though it may be), to continually foreground its artificiality in such a manner. Problems like this abound in the book. Does Ball sincerely expect us to be scared by the Boogeyman once he’s been revealed as an empty rhetorical concoction?
That said, there are a few poems in The Politics of Knives that showcase the reasons for the excitement surrounding Ball’s work. “The Process Proposed,” the collection’s opening poem and Ball’s self-described “perversion of the traditional invocation of the muse” grafts linguistic innovation directly to striking images in an act of concrete-lyricism at which Ball excels: “She made hyphens, made me use them. / Pulled brackets from her back. Saying: / These in your throat and these around your neck.” Dictated verse becomes an unruly voice in a psychotic’s head, and Ball’s musicality proceeds from the outset with a terse, hypnotic intensity: “When she spoke, she did not speak / but with exhalation of wires.” The poem is genuinely chilling and ventures into the dark, cobwebbed corners of a longstanding form, exploiting its malleability and dramatic potential. Another outstanding effort is “Then Wolves,” a poem rich in pastoral gloom that has the logic and inevitability of an old-world folk tale and marries the mannered vowel-play of Christian Bök with the traumatized imagism of Georg Trakl. It is a verbal feat, and showcases a simultaneous musical flair and constraint unmatched by other poems in the collection:
seek skin supine
among sins swallow cake wine
let this bread be mould daily
let this hunger loose
songs howling break branches
through torn chords
I find myself returning to The Politics of Knives for such poems alone. To his credit, even when Ball’s poems leave me unable to give him the benefit of the doubt and seem not to rise above the level of the sketch, I find myself intrigued by his comparative failures. Ball tries out a lot in The Politics and Knives, but it sometimes feels as if he is grasping at straws in a period of transition. It seems to me that the hallmark of a successful formal experiment is the illusion of its invicibility. I am also ambivalent about the ipso facto classification of Ball’s otherwise unclassifiable work as poetry, an appelation that sometimes feels earned only through its enjabment on the page and its fragmentary nature.
Given the dexterity of the poems in The Politics of Knives and the book’s occasional but distinctive successes, one could still make a case for Jonathan Ball’s status as a distinct and uniquely positioned figure in the contemporary Canadian avant-garde, though perhaps not even remotely in the way “the Stephen King of verse” epiphet might suggest. One certainly looks forward to his next book and hopes that his apparent range and diversity will be more successfully married to a more fully realized imaginative vision.
The Walk by Robert Walser. Trans. Christopher Middleton & Susan Bernofsky. New Directions, 2012. pp 90. $10.99
Despite his boasting one of the most distinguished cast of supporters in all 20th Century literature (Kafka, Benjamin, Bernhard, Hesse and Sontag to name just a few) the great, mad tragi-comic Swiss writer Robert Walser has remained something of a well kept secret. A cultish figure whose work anticipated Kafka as well as the surrealists, Walser’s work is spun out of a bizzare hybrid of pastoral and modernist qualities, alternately realistic and whimsically imaginative, his approbation of all things small and unintentionally beautiful giving way to wild confrontations and social misunderstanding. As translator Susan Bernofsky writes, his voice comprises a “mix of solemnity and whimsy, impertinence and veneration.” Sontag compared him to a good natured Beckett.
The Walk is the most recent of the half a dozen or so of his titles that have made their way into English in the past couple of years, and it is one of the best yet. Quite simply, it is a novella length fictionalization of a day’s journey on foot, a loose chronicle of an unnamed narrator’s (presumably Walser) informal stroll with attending sights, sounds, encounters and appointments both stilted and successful described, our perambulatory hero extolling the virtues of walkers and the malice of engines all the way through.
The subject fits Walser’s rambling, intuitive and discursive style perfectly, as the pace of the mind settles into that of the foot (or vice versa?), so that more typically edifying reflections upon writing and the mind are peppered with speculations upon the miserliness of tailors; “youthful presumed budding cantatrices” and “alleged retired actresses” roam the countryside among stray dogs and distasteful giants; and luxuriant pensiones bear placards with several hundred word essays advising potential “candidates” as to the ridiculous litany of virtues necessary to make the cut.
One of Walser’s greatest qualities as a writer is that he is effortlessly, perhaps unintentionally humourous, as if he can’t help himself, and this hilarity doesn’t preclude a genuine emotional engagement, a vague understated sadness. He doesn’t seem to have a bad bone in his body, and indeed his criticisms are always immediately followed by long fawning apologies to the reader who cannot help but fall pray to his charm. Hermann Hesse infamously said that if Walser had a hundred thousand readers the world would be a better place, and I believe he is right. With that many readers experiencing such unadulterated delight, who couldn’t help but crack a smile?