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Highlighting forgotten, neglected, abandoned, forsaken, unrecognized, unacknowledged, overshadowed, out-of-fashion, under-translated writers. Has no one read your books? You are in good company.

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(un)justly (un)read (JS)

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These writers are famous in some part of the internet or the world. Some may be famous in your own family or in your own mind.

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Posts tagged SS

"[Jane Bowles’] novel, Two Serious Ladies, was a revelation—a work of genius, unique, subversive. These terms are overused, and usually misused, but are true of this audacious, brilliantly written novel, this masquerade, comedy, tragedy, with its anarchic, singular views of sexuality, marriage, femininity, masculinity, American culture, exoticism. Jane Bowles ignored the worn lines between conscious and unconscious life; she beggared the realist novel with writing indifferent to prosaic notions of reality. Her dialogue is the most particular and idiosyncratic in American literature, as peculiar and condensed as speech in jokes and dreams. I loved and respected Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky, ‘He of the Assembly,’ and ‘Pages from Cold Point.’ But Jane Bowles’s novel shifted the ground for me—she made the world of writing move. Move over and sigh.” — Lynne Tillman, Nothing is Lost or Found

@WritersNoOneRds / Facebook

why, I often wondered
why was I a poet,
first of all

most of all, I wanted
to have been a bird
if I could have been a bird

but I wanted the starlings
to have been fed,
first of all


*

At Tin House, Stephen writes about the forgotten poet Alfred Starr Hamilton, whose strange and haunting work has been revived by The Song Cave.

The Academy of Modern Ruins is repurposing this abandoned gas station on Route 66 as The Philosopher’s Library. Submit a book that’s changed your life. (via invisiblestories)

"The history of literature is, of course, strewn with the neglected, the misunderstood, the forgotten, the never fully realized, and minor figures more influential than renowned. If one were to draw a Venn diagram comprised of each of these categories, Marcel Schwob, along with a handful of others, would be at the heart of their intersections. But how, one despairs, can a man praised so highly during his own life fall completely by the wayside posthumously, as if it was his vitality alone that kept him from obscurity?"

At 3:AM Magazine, Stephen writes about the rediscovery of Marcel Schwob and interviews translator Kit Schluter about Schwob’s haunting work, The Book of Monelle.

Bolaño compiles a virtual canon of writers no one reads—including, in no. 8, our beloved Marcel Schwob—in his advice for writers of short stories. (via invisiblestoriestheparisreview)

No one reads the Belgian Georges Rodenbach (1855-1898), author Bruges-la-Morte, which in addition to being called “the Symbolist novel,” was the first fictional work to incorporate photographs.

Rodenbach, who stated that silence was the thread connecting all of his work—which spanned eight volumes of poetry, four novels, a number of essays and short stories—worked as a lawyer and journalist in Paris (where he befriended Mallarme, Renoir, and Maeterlink, among others), despite his deep affection for his native soil. Of the distance he put between himself and Belgium, he wrote:

One only truly loves what one no longer has. Truly to love one’s little homeland, it is best to go away, to exile oneself for ever, to surrender oneself to the vast absorption of Paris, and for the homeland to grow so distant it seems to die. […] The essence of art that is at all noble is the DREAM, and this dream dwells only upon what is distant, absent, vanished, unattainable.

Bruges-la-Morte, which made him famous when it was published in serial form in 1892 and is undoubtedly his masterpiece, conjures the city of its title. In his forward, in fact, Rodenbach stated his goal in writing the novel was to “evoke a city… in its essence, [as] a person whose shifting moods persuade or dissuade us and determine our actions.”

image

The plot centers on the obsessive widower Hugues Viane, who moved to Bruges after the death of his wife several years before the novel opens. With no occupation to fill his time, Hugues wanders the melancholy town, meditating on death and longing for the grave. A bizarre and scandalous romance begins when he sees a woman he takes to be the exact double of his dead wife in the streets. The novel’s associations with morbidity and despair, not to mention its shocking conclusion, created a stir among town officials, who later refused to permit a memorial statue of the writer to be erected in Bruges—hence Rodenbach’s suitably eye-catching tomb in Paris, pictured above.

The outline of the plot may lead one to assume that the novel is a melodrama, but it steers away from action in favor of the internal world. Writing in the Guardian, novelist Alan Hollinghurst claims that Rodenbach “creates a rarefied world, internalized and intensified by feeling.” And the always reliable Nick Lezard contends that Bruges-la-Morte “is one of the greatest novels ever written about grief, loneliness, and isolation…”

Some representative passages should suffice to put you under the pall of Bruges’ gray northern skies:

Bruges was his dead wife. And his dead wife was Bruges. The two were united in a like destiny. It was Bruges-la-Morte, the dead town entombed in its stone quais, with the arteries of its canals cold once the great pulse of the sea had ceased beating in them.

And

As he walked, the sad faded leaves were driven pitilessly around him by the wind, and under the mingling influences of autumn and evening, a craving for the quietude of the grave … overtook him with unwanted intensity

Portrait of Rodenbach by Lucien Levy-Dhurmer

  • For more, see a gallery of photographs included in the book or some of Fernand Knopff’s haunting artwork inspired by the novel.
  • Dedalus Books publishes English translations of three of Rodenbach’s works, including Bruges-la-Morte.

[Photo of Rodenbach’s tomb in Paris by nikoretro]

A Laszlo Krasznahorkai Reading List

Over at Tin House, Stephen offers a reading list for fans of Laszlo Krasznahorkai.

In March of last year, English-language readers were finally presented with Satantango, the first novel by Laszlo Krasznahorkai, the writer Susan Sontag once called “the contemporary Hungarian master of the apocalypse.” The novel, considered a masterpiece in the author’s native country since its original publication in 1985, adds to his work now available in English, revealing in the process one of the most singular oeuvres in contemporary literature. And, though the time between translations of Krasznahorkai’s novels appears to be shortening (New Directions will publish his Seiobo There Below this spring), readers suffering withdrawal from his bleak, absurdist universe have much to explore. Below is a short, non-exhaustive list of writers, all Mittel-European, who share affinities with Krasznahorkai.


The CastleFranz Kafka

Looming behind Krasznahorkai is the hulking edifice of Kafka’s Castle, a novel perhaps all the more imposing because of its incompleteness. Krasznahorkai shares with Kafka a sense of metaphysical darkness and confusion coupled with a suitably dark sense of humor, rendering a world in which context is at best guesswork. Unanchored, Krasznahorkai’s characters drift through a gloomy landscape that mirrors their own uncertain morality, unable, as Kafka so relentlessly exposed, to make informed decisions—and, as we’ve come to expect, doomed to be punished for what they do not know.

The Adventures of SindbadGyula Krudy

Kafka isn’t the only of Krasznahorkai’s forerunners to have his name turned into an adjective. According to translator George Szirtes, “Krudyesque” is a term that in Hungarian extends beyond a merely literary descriptor to encompass “experience comprised of the nostalgic, the fantastic and the ironic.” Krudy’s Sindbad Stories—collected as The Adventures of Sindbad (NYRB)—take place in a world that will strike readers of Krasznahorkai as familiar, if less unrelentingly bleak. These tales of amorous conquests unfurl mistily, though they ring with an achingly melancholic erotic tension. Modernist, prefiguring “magical realism,” and amoral: the stories are not cautionary in any sense, despite the constant refrain that desire causes nothing but trouble—and leads to a landscape strewn with suicides.(Zoltan Huszarik adapted Krudy’s stories in his 1971 film Szindbad.)

Kornel EstiDezso Kosztolanyi

Perhaps one need look no further than Krasznahorkai’s (typically lengthy) praise on the jacket of Kornel Esti to understand the importance of this novel not only to Krasznahorkai, but generations of Hungarian writers:

If anyone truly wanted to write the history of the Hungarian people, the author would certainly take the Dantean first sentence of Kosztolanyi’s Kornel Esti as the work’s epigraph: in a word, the most wondrous first sentence ever written in the Hungarian language.

Kornel Esti is the shadow self we all dream we have, a figure who arises at that moment when we first become aware that making one decision excludes all others. He’s the one who thereafter says ‘yes’ when we say ‘no,’ who lights fires and causes trouble. While the writer—Kosztolanyi and his stand-in narrator—sits at home, Esti is out gathering experiences in a world in which the following logic applies: “If a girl jumps into a well, she loves somebody” (in Bernard Adams’ translation). Like Sindbad before him and like Krasznahorkai’s characters after, Esti is a ravenous scamp, always moving and scheming, even if he has no particular destination or goal in mind.

Gargoyles/Three Novellas Thomas Bernhard

George Szirtes famously characterized Krasznahorkai’s prose as a “slow lava flow of narrative, a vast black river of type.” This often earns him comparisons to Samuel Beckett and Thomas Bernhard, the vitriolic Austrian. Beckett’s influence on modern literature is obvious; Bernhard’s less so. And while at the sentence level the comparison between Krasznahorkai and Bernhard is slightly superficial, the two writers do share similar, almost gnostic worldviews.

One gets the impression from reading Bernhard that middle Europe (i.e., the whole world) is full of raving lunatics doing their best to refrain from contact with the idiocy of other people. What in the U.S. we refer to quaintly or claustrophobically, depending on our temperament, as “small town life” is in Bernhard—and Krasznahorkai—a cesspit of malice, intrigue, and decay. His landscapes, like nearly all of those mentioned so far, are strewn with suicides. His narrators are hyper-aware of their own incipient madness and the fine line wavering between sanity and insanity. Despite (or possibly because of) this, Bernhard’s angst-ridden fiction is unsettlingly funny: laughter echoing out of the abyss. This, in the end, might be the best way to characterize Krasznahorkai’s work as well.

E.M. Cioran

The only non-novelist included in the list is the Romanian ex-patriot E.M. Cioran, whose aphorisms are collected in volumes with titles such as On the Heights of DespairAll Gall is DividedThe Trouble with Being Born, and A Short History of Decay. Cioran’s pithiness may stand in contrast to Krasznahorkai’s abhorrence of the full-stop, but the two men share a sensibility and sensitivity that transcends its articulation. A sampling of Cioran’s aphorisms (in Richard Howard’s translations) should suffice to prove the point:

“Man secretes disaster.”

“The proof that man loathes man? Enough to be in a crowd, in order to feel that you side with all the dead planets.”

“He who has not suffered is not a being: at most, a creature.”

“If death were not a kind of solution, the living would certainly have found some means of avoiding it.”

TranquilityAttila Bartis

Attila Bartis is a contemporary of Krasznahorkai. His novel Tranquility, published in Hungary in 2001 and in an English translation by Imre Goldstein in 2009 (which won the first Best Translated Book Award), has been called “one of the bleakest books ever,” an assessment that holds even if the novel is compared to the Krasznahorkai’s fiction. Bartis’ novel is an unforgettable portrayal of madness, incest, violence, and that species of hatred that boils over in the cauldron of an Oedipal relationship. It convincingly depicts a world in which “pleasure [is] but ennobled pain,” a scathing allegorical representation of an era scarred by disastrous, inhumane politics. Of the books on this list, it stands the closest to the psychological depths plumbed by Krasznahorkai.

No one reads the “storm goddess” Mary Butts (1890-1937), a woman who “more often sought out what was curious than what was virtuous.” Admired by her contemporaries Ezra Pound, Ford Madox Ford, and Marianne Moore, Butts’ writing (where it gathers any light at all) tends to be overshadowed by her notorious escapades, which included practicing black magic with Aleister Crowley, smoking enormous amounts of opium, and abandoning her only child.
Possessing legendary vitality, Butts was not always unread: in the 1920s, she published pieces in The Little Review, which was not then a forgotten periodical, and her novels, especially Armed With Madness and Death of Felicity Taverner (collected and published by McPherson & Co. as The Taverner Novels) were praised and scorned by the more renowned—and remembered—of the modernists. With a more than a hint of panic, Virginia Woolf called the former work, with its relentless questioning of values, “indecent.” This is perhaps not surprising given Butts’ natural predilection for the outlandish.
More generous in his assessment is Paul West, who compares Butts to Clarice Lispector and writes that her





most conspicuous originality consisted in her resolve to depict worst things, or things at their worst, with a view to transforming them, which means assimilating into one’s being a sense of Creation’s massive, impersonal onslaught.





Written as an inverse of Eliot’s desolate Waste Land, Armed With Madness is Butts’ finest work, an ecstatic, allegorical quest for meaning in a world shattered by war and nihilism. Set in a remote corner of Cornwall, Armed With Madness chronicles the discovery, by a close-knit group of young men and women, of what may be the Holy Grail. It is a book ripe with strangeness, madness, love, and violence. It is also the most perfect embodiment of Butts’ odd, bewitching prose:





They went in. Pine-needles are not easy to walk on, like a floor of red glass. It is not cool under them, a black scented life, full of ants, who work furiously and make no sound. Something ached in Carston, a regret for the cool brilliance of the wood they had left, the other side of the hills, on the edge of the sea. This one was full of harp-noises from a wind when there was none outside. He saw Picus ahead, a shadow shifting between trunk and trunk. Some kind of woodcraft he supposed, and said so to Felix who said sleepily: “Somebody’s blunt-faced bees, dipping under the thyme-spray”; a sentence which made things start living again. Would they never have enough of what they called life? There was no kind of track over the split vegetable grass. A place that made you wonder what sort of nothing went on there, year in year out.





Mary Butts’ wild life caught up to her in 1937, when she died of a perforated ulcer.
*
For more, read a review of Nathalie Blondel’s biography, Mary Butts: Scenes From the Life or browse the writer’s Journals.
(Portrait by Cedric Morris)
[Writers No One Reads is on Facebook.]

No one reads the “storm goddess” Mary Butts (1890-1937), a woman who “more often sought out what was curious than what was virtuous.” Admired by her contemporaries Ezra Pound, Ford Madox Ford, and Marianne Moore, Butts’ writing (where it gathers any light at all) tends to be overshadowed by her notorious escapades, which included practicing black magic with Aleister Crowley, smoking enormous amounts of opium, and abandoning her only child.

Possessing legendary vitality, Butts was not always unread: in the 1920s, she published pieces in The Little Review, which was not then a forgotten periodical, and her novels, especially Armed With Madness and Death of Felicity Taverner (collected and published by McPherson & Co. as The Taverner Novels) were praised and scorned by the more renowned—and remembered—of the modernists. With a more than a hint of panic, Virginia Woolf called the former work, with its relentless questioning of values, “indecent.” This is perhaps not surprising given Butts’ natural predilection for the outlandish.

More generous in his assessment is Paul West, who compares Butts to Clarice Lispector and writes that her

most conspicuous originality consisted in her resolve to depict worst things, or things at their worst, with a view to transforming them, which means assimilating into one’s being a sense of Creation’s massive, impersonal onslaught.

Written as an inverse of Eliot’s desolate Waste Land, Armed With Madness is Butts’ finest work, an ecstatic, allegorical quest for meaning in a world shattered by war and nihilism. Set in a remote corner of Cornwall, Armed With Madness chronicles the discovery, by a close-knit group of young men and women, of what may be the Holy Grail. It is a book ripe with strangeness, madness, love, and violence. It is also the most perfect embodiment of Butts’ odd, bewitching prose:

They went in. Pine-needles are not easy to walk on, like a floor of red glass. It is not cool under them, a black scented life, full of ants, who work furiously and make no sound. Something ached in Carston, a regret for the cool brilliance of the wood they had left, the other side of the hills, on the edge of the sea. This one was full of harp-noises from a wind when there was none outside. He saw Picus ahead, a shadow shifting between trunk and trunk. Some kind of woodcraft he supposed, and said so to Felix who said sleepily: “Somebody’s blunt-faced bees, dipping under the thyme-spray”; a sentence which made things start living again. Would they never have enough of what they called life? There was no kind of track over the split vegetable grass. A place that made you wonder what sort of nothing went on there, year in year out.

Mary Butts’ wild life caught up to her in 1937, when she died of a perforated ulcer.

*

For more, read a review of Nathalie Blondel’s biography, Mary Butts: Scenes From the Life or browse the writer’s Journals.

(Portrait by Cedric Morris)

[Writers No One Reads is on Facebook.]

The Kingdom of Writers No One Reads?

The Literary Kingdom of Redonda

From the Paris Review, Art of Fiction, no. 190:

INTERVIEWER

In addition to being a Spanish citizen, you are the king of the island of 
Redonda, a micronation in the West Indies. I believe you are the first monarch The Paris Review has interviewed. How did you come by your crown? 

JAVIER MARÍAS

There was a shipping magnate in the nineteenth century by the name of Shiel, who lived in the Caribbean, and he had eight or nine daughters but no son. Finally, he had a male baby, Matthew Phipps Shiel, who became a writer. To celebrate his son’s fifteenth birthday in 1880, Shiel claimed ownership of the uninhabited island of Redonda, which is close to Montserrat and not far from Antigua. He organized a coronation with a Methodist minister from Antigua, and M. P. Shiel was crowned king of that island. Recently, I learned that Redonda is the equivalent to Transylvania in Europe, which is appropriate for a literary legend. It’s a very rocky place with limited access. It was used as a harbor for smugglers, and there were legends of terrible beasts and horrific events that happened there. Shortly after Shiel’s coronation the British decided to annex the island because aluminum phosphate was found. The Shiels disputed the British for years, and finally the colonial office said they were not going to give the island back to anyone, let alone a crazy ship owner and a writer, but they had no objection to Shiel using the title of king of Redonda as long as it was, as they said, void of content.

Eventually, Shiel settled in Britain, where a younger writer named John Gawsworth helped him in his old age. When Shiel died in 1947, Gawsworth became his literary executor and heir to his estate. Gawsworth activated an intellectual aristocracy, as it was called, and named dukes and duchesses, including Lawrence Durrell, Henry Miller, and Dylan Thomas. Gawsworth had been a very promising figure, publishing books at nineteen. He fought in India, Algeria, and Egypt during the war. Amazingly, he published small booklets of poetry everywhere, even in Calcutta. I don’t know how he managed to do that during the war. He was one of the youngest members of the Royal Society of Literature and was in touch with many of the major literary figures of the time, from Thomas Hardy to T. E. Lawrence. But Gawsworth became a drunkard and was soon penniless. He had a lot of debts with his landlord and bartenders and started to sell titles to these people. He even put an ad in the Times to sell the title of king of Redonda. A lot of people were interested. I reproduced a telegram in one of the books I published under my Reino de Redonda imprint. I have it here. Carl Werner Skogholm of Denmark wrote: 

Your Royal Highness, King John Gawsworth of Redonda,

Regarding your advertisement I beg to send you the following questions which I hope you will kindly answer:

1) What is the King’s duties?

2) What is the King’s rights?

3) Is the Isle of Redonda a good place to live in?

4) Is it possible for the King to contact Diana Dors?

5) I have two daughters. Is it possible for girls to inherit the throne?

It would be wonderful to become a king suddenly. I hope to be able to—if you are still willing to sell.

(image via littletoboggans)

(via invisiblestories)

Dalkey Archive Press, or How to Publish Writers No One Reads

[The following was written by Stephen (SS), a bookseller and panelist on the Best Translated Book Award jury—and, as a caveat, a one-time employee of Dalkey Archive. Any responses should be directed to him. I apologize to those of you not interested in polemics. Nevertheless, it’s my hope that among the followers of this blog, which represents a sizeable community of readers who care about discovering and disseminating works that are too easily overlooked, there will be some who care enough to feel that the actions of Dalkey Archive Press are, at the very least, irresponsible.]

To reward you for at least scrolling past this rant on your dashboard, the three of us at WNOR offer some book recommendations below.

[NOTE: As of December 7, Dalkey Archive submitted several worthy titles (as PDFs) to the BTBA committee.]

*

A few weeks ago, I learned through Chad Post, organizer of the Best Translated Book Award, that Dalkey Archive Press, who publish the most translations per year of any English-language publisher, was withdrawing from the competition, citing expenses. The justification offered was that sending eligible titles to the members of the nine-person judging panel, of which I am a member, leaves “a smoking hole in [our] budget.” (Despite the fact that the judges all accept PDFs.) Tacked on to this already questionable excuse was the kicker: “And… we’ve never won.”

As a reader and a bookseller, I’ve long been passionate about translated fiction. Along with inimitable New Directions, which served as a model for Dalkey’s early efforts, Dalkey Archive has always seemed to me one of the most daring publishers in the United States. The Press brings to English-language readers work from across the world, often publishing the kind of challenging and innovative fiction that larger, for-profit publishing houses would never touch. Their list is rich in significant, enduring titles and I can happily say that during the course of my career I have sold hundreds of copies of these books.

So it’s a real disappointment—less for myself than for those whose reading worlds just got a little smaller for lack of exposure to Dalkey’s books—that (a) a publisher of this caliber would withdraw from a competition designed to promote translated literature, their ostensible raison d’etre and (b) that their excuse for doing so would be so transparently insincere. In his reaction to this move, Chad Post, who in addition to organizing the BTBA also runs Three Percent, a good resource for readers interested in translated literature, effectively sums up the reasons why a publisher claiming budget concerns in their refusal to send books to the judges is baseless. (It boils down to this: it would cost Dalkey in total about $120 to mail books to the panelists.) Even if we accept for a moment the possibility that the Press is in such desperate financial straits that it can’t afford to mail—or, again, to email!—books to judges, the lack of consideration the publisher is demonstrating toward its authors and translators, the cultural agencies who underwrite the work, and the readers the Press ostensibly aims to reach is galling.

Read more

Benjamin Ivry, writing in the Jewish Daily Forward, has convinced me that we’d all read the avant-garde poet Mascha Kaléko if only we could. (Thanks to the Poetry Foundation for pointing this out.)

Question your teaspoons: an interview with Oulipian Daniel Levin Becker

Daniel Levin Becker is the youngest member of the Oulipo, a writing group or secret society or “bunch of nerds” who employ constraints in the construction of elaborate—whether apparent or not—literary works. The Oulipo, an acronym for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, which translates into something like “Workshop for Potential Literature,” includes many eminent (and/or obscure) members among its ranks: Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec, Italo Calvino, Harry Mathews, and Anne Garréta, among others.

Many Subtle Channels (Harvard University Press, 2012) is Levin Becker’s history of the group and his role within it. It’s unique among its kind: an accessible, intelligent, and often funny examination of a phenomenon that has more often been treated academically. While there are other good works on the Oulipo in English, Many Subtle Channels offers the most human account of the benefits of potential literature. I find it hard to imagine a more ideal introduction to the group.

Stephen (SS) recently talked to Daniel about constraints, potential, and picketing zipper factory employees.


One of the more charming characteristics of Many Subtle Channels are the footnotes scattered throughout the text. You mentioned that your publisher… suggested… that you cut several. Are there any excised notes you particularly care to share with the world?

Ooh, what an offer. (I have a project in the queue—where it’s probably of more use to everyone than in any sort of incarnation—called “Index of murdered darlings,” consisting entirely of things I was compelled, by my editor or by better judgment, to excise from MSC.) I was actually trying the other day to find an early footnote about the supposed “pirate translations” of the essay in which Calvino breaks down the algorithm he used for If on a winter’s night a traveler, and could find no trace of it anywhere. Weird! Anyway, here are three:

42 That’s right: Perec was an anticipatory plagiarist of Salt-n-Pepa.

207 Flarf is also related, temperamentally if not officially, to Spoetry, the art of composing poetry based on input from spam email text. Although Flarf and noulipo dovetail thanks to their mutual interest in “conjunctive/accumulative” procedures, the former is decidedly more surrealist than oulipian or post-oulipian, insofar as it surrenders a great deal of the control to outside circumstances. Google is a good generative device, but one is not in control of the algorithms it uses, unless one is very, very high up on the totem pole at Google—and this eliminates from Flarfian experiment the essential possibility of opening the hood to mess with the engine.

218 Paris is, however, a French city, which means at least a few of the businesses on any commercial street are bound to have some kind of awful pun for a name, hearty wordplay being as natural to the French as casual racism—which doesn’t make Paris that much more oulipian but does make the Oulipo much more Parisian. (This is, for the record, Mathews’s answer whenever anyone asks him whether the Oulipo is inherently French: it’s inherently Parisian. He pronounces the word to rhyme with derision.)

Can you tell us a little bit about how the Oulipo is constituted? How does one become a member of the group? How does one avoid becoming a member (or being a member after one is inducted)? 

One becomes a member first by attending one of the Oulipo’s monthly meetings as a guest of honor and presenting whatever it is of one’s work that dovetails with oulipian interests, then by being unanimously elected by the group. One can avoid becoming a member very easily: by asking to be a member and thereby becoming permanently ineligible for membership. After one is inducted one cannot quit or be kicked out; the only official way to leave the group is to commit suicide for no purpose other than to leave the group, and to do so in the presence of a notary. A few people have distanced themselves from the group’s activities by just sort of ceasing to participate, but they’re still officially considered members, just inactive ones. This includes dead members. 

Throughout the book, you offer several ways the Oulipo has been defined. Is there a definition that’s more apt than others? Have you formulated your own response to the inevitable question of “So what is the Oulipo, exactly”?

I usually go with some variation of “a research group of writers and scientists whose collective subject of inquiry is the literary potential of mathematical structures.” Sometimes—okay, often—I replace “research group of writers and scientists” with “bunch of nerds.”

Read more

No one reads Wendy Walker’s The Secret Service (1992), a spellbinding and disorienting spy-novel/gothic fantasy (to narrow it down to two broad and non-exhaustive categories) that nearly defies description.

The premise of The Secret Service is simple, at least in the barest retelling: set in England in 19th century, a continental conspiracy is uncovered that if revealed will disgrace—and quite possibly ruin—the British royal family. The secret service of the title are called to unravel the plot, a task seemingly made easier by a recent discovery that enables agents to transform themselves into objects—in this case: a wine goblet, a bronze statue of Thisbe, and a rosebush—to infiltrate the conspirators’ ranks. As with all remarkable fiction, Walker’s plot at this, the simplest, point turns back upon itself, digresses, and passes into realms familiar to readers of Calvino, Poe, Borges, and Dickens.

The book’s flavor is perhaps best hinted at by lists; lists that tantalizingly allude to the infinite while always falling short even of the object they hope to describe. Henry Wessells writes:

The novel is filled with strange erudition, sensuous descriptive language, broken glass, crackpot science, gruesome technology, unexpected turns, and a succession of stories within stories…

And Douglas Messerli, who published the book in the now-defunct Sun & Moon Classics series, describes it in terms that remind one of a modern Metamorphoses:

Walker’s world is a world of mystery, castles, architectural wonders, secrets, changelings, doubles, madness, terrorism, and death—in short, as she herself prefers to characterize this work, she is writing in the tradition of Gothic fiction, horrible and terrifying in its revelations. If her writing style outshines even her inventiveness of story, these two work in tandem to create themes that for some may be even more overwhelming. For Walker’s world is also one of eternal change, constant alteration where humans and landscape morph into one another and, in so doing, transform experience into a series of encounters dangerous for those who prefer tranquil stasis.

Image: Cezanne, Still Life with Bottles

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You’d be forgiven for not reading Jean-Pierre Martinet, as he is only now, twenty years after his death, beginning to move from the literary fringes to cult status in his native France—and possibly beyond. With the translation of his novella The High Life (Wakefield Press, trans. Henry Vale), we now have an opportunity to discover Martinet in English.

There seems no better introduction to Martinet than the following statement he wrote for a dictionary of contemporary French literature, a sentiment that serves well as a credo for many of our unread writers:

Starting from nothing, Martinet’s career followed a perfect path: he ended up nowhere.

The High Life is a slim novella about poor, fumbling Adolphe Marlaud, a clerk in a funeral parlor who attempts to “live as little as possible so as to suffer as little as possible,” but who, like many who so defy the gods, is led directly into the kind of complications he sought to avoid: in this case, into the arms of his obese and obscene concierge, an unforgettably vile and lascivious woman. A bizarre love affair (of sorts) follows and ends with inexorable tragedy.

Martinet exists somewhere in the desolate region carved out by Louis-Ferdinand Celine and Jim Thompson, bleak and hard-bitten, but with traces of dry humor:

Madame C was very fond of reading. She often opened up the mail of the building’s residents.

The strangeness of our sexual relations had put me off a bit in the beginning, of course, but then I ended up taking some pleasure in them. You get used to anything.

The High-Life is also reminiscent of the Czech writer Hermann Ungar’s overlooked classic depiction of “sexual hell” (in Thomas Mann’s words), The Maimed.

With only a handful of novels to his almost-forgotten (or never remembered) name—including his masterpiece Jerome, which has been compared to the aforementioned Celine, as well as Samuel Beckett and Dostoevsky—we hope there’s more Martinet in store for English-language readers.

(Photo by Eugene Atget)

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No one reads Henry de Montherlant (1895-1972), a French essayist, playwright, and novelist who ended his life by swallowing a cyanide capsule and then shooting himself—an excess in keeping with his personality.
Montherlant belongs to that class of writers one is forced to recommend in apologetic tones. (Other notable figures in this canon include Hamsun, Celine, Highsmith, and Pound.) Despite being a bestselling and celebrated novelist—Les Célibataires (The Bachelors, 1934) won the Grand Prix de Littérature de l’Académie Française and his tetralogy Les Jeunes Filles (The Girls, 1936-39) was translated into a dozen languages—Montherlant presents a trying case.
Yet, if you can make it past his haughtiness, cynicism, pederasty, “black-hearted misogyny” (B.R. Myers, in an appreciation published in The Atlantic), his collaboration with the Germans during the Occupation, and the withering criticism directed at him by Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex, you’ll find a writer of immense talent who has seen his star eclipsed by lesser—and dimmer—lights.
When the publisher of the only Montherlant novel still in print in English translation—the political satire and reckoning, Chaos and Night (NYRB)—describes the work as ”sardonic, bemused, [and] without hint of consolation,” it’s not surprising that he remains unread. But, as is the case with writers like Emmanuel Bove, the sheer gumption of being so resolutely contrary has its merits. All readers could do with such a challenge. Montherlant may be one of the most entertaining to undertake.

No one reads Henry de Montherlant (1895-1972), a French essayist, playwright, and novelist who ended his life by swallowing a cyanide capsule and then shooting himself—an excess in keeping with his personality.

Montherlant belongs to that class of writers one is forced to recommend in apologetic tones. (Other notable figures in this canon include Hamsun, Celine, Highsmith, and Pound.) Despite being a bestselling and celebrated novelist—Les Célibataires (The Bachelors, 1934) won the Grand Prix de Littérature de l’Académie Française and his tetralogy Les Jeunes Filles (The Girls, 1936-39) was translated into a dozen languages—Montherlant presents a trying case.

Yet, if you can make it past his haughtiness, cynicism, pederasty, “black-hearted misogyny” (B.R. Myers, in an appreciation published in The Atlantic), his collaboration with the Germans during the Occupation, and the withering criticism directed at him by Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex, you’ll find a writer of immense talent who has seen his star eclipsed by lesser—and dimmer—lights.

When the publisher of the only Montherlant novel still in print in English translation—the political satire and reckoning, Chaos and Night (NYRB)—describes the work as ”sardonic, bemused, [and] without hint of consolation,” it’s not surprising that he remains unread. But, as is the case with writers like Emmanuel Bove, the sheer gumption of being so resolutely contrary has its merits. All readers could do with such a challenge. Montherlant may be one of the most entertaining to undertake.

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