Some recent book reviews from our blog
(reviews of Jean Ferry, Michal Ajvaz,
Jasper Fforde and Maurice Blanchot)
The following is a compilation of some of the book reviews that have appeared in recent years on our blog, The Irreal Cafe, that we feel might also be of interest to irreal (re)views readers.
A copy was kindly sent to us by its publisher, Wakefield Press, upon the request of the work's distinguished translator, Edward Gauvin (we've previously published his translations of "The Pavilion and the Lime Tree" by Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, "The Wrinkle Maker" by Marcel Béalu and, indeed, one of the stories that appears in this volume, "Kafka, or the Secret Society)."
The book immediately stands out because of its elegant appearance. It is printed in a format I'm mainly familiar with in Europe – a matte (not glossy) paperback cover with a folded over leaf – that is largely reserved for literary works with a smallish print run. This sense of the literary was reinforced by the abundance of compelling black and white collages by Claude Bellaré. Indeed, seeing a small literary work so distinctively and lovingly put together in an American context served as a reminder of how rare that experience is here, and for reasons that are not entirely clear: the graphic work done on our mass produced trade paperbacks can certainly be of high quality, but the graphics and illustrations are generally limited to the front and back covers, leaving the rest of the book almost indistinguishable from any other book of its type, while the small press literary works also generally fall into the same standard trade paperback format with the disadvantage that they do not have such a large budget for the cover art. As every single story in this volume is illustrated by one of Bellaré's surrealistic collages, that is not a problem here.
And the stories themselves are quite brilliant. As this is but a short review, I will attempt to describe Ferry's stories succinctly but imperfectly by stating that they present a reality being pushed by the circumstances described in the story and the narrator's reflections on those circumstances to the breaking point and then, inevitably, past it. As in the story "Rapa Nui," in which the narrator finds himself at long last on Easter Island after 30 years of literally dreaming, time and again, that he was finally on Easter Island except that, at the end of the story's two pages, we learn that "not a line of the above is true, except that for 30 years I've wanted to go to Easter Island, where something awaits me…" The same is true in the story of Ferry's that we published, “Kafka, or the Secret Society,” in regard to the the mysterious, but flexible and expansive (perhaps endlessly expansive) membership parameters of the society mentioned in the title. Indeed, the stories generally share the quality of the island on which the narrator is stranded in "Letter to a Stranger," whose reality causes him to ask the reader, "Haven't you, in the dark, ever reached out with your foot for the final step of a staircase, only to find there wasn't one? Do you remember the utter disarray you felt for a moment? … Well, this land is always like that."
Indeed, this work reinforces for me the sense that we in the English-speaking world are not sufficiently familiar with the strong, and unique, tradition of the fantastic that exists in the Francophone world. Like many, I've been aware of and even read occasional works by such authors as Alfred Jarry and iconic names such as Baudleaire and Rimbaud. But that these are only the most famous names of what is a very deep tradition has been brought home to me from three sources in the course of my work with The Cafe Irreal: the translations that Mr. Gauvin has sent us (see above), the translations that Michael Shreve has sent us (Morphiel the Demiurge by Marcel Schwob, Hell by Remy de Gourmont, and Where Are the Plans? by Jean-Marc Agrati) and, in the course of my own translating and reading of the work of the Czech writer Michal Ajvaz, his mention in an essay (which I read several years ago) that the author who has had the greatest influence on him was Raymond Roussel.
This was a surprise to me as I didn't have at that time the slightest idea who Raymond Roussel was. I have since corrected this by reading Roussel's Impressions of Africa. It is true that it is not at all my favorite work from amongst what I have read of this group of authors, but perhaps to correct this I need to read a bit more of Ferry's work. For it turns out that Ferry wrote no less than three works about Roussel. Indeed, André Breton, who called Roussel the "greatest mesmerizer of our times," admitted in a letter to Ferry that "without you, I would probably still not see anything in him."
But here we have entered the realm of the translator's excellent introduction, and these and other aspects of Ferry, Jarry, Roussel, the Collège de ‘Pataphysique (of which Ferry was a leading member — "pataphysique" is "the science of imaginary solutions"), the Oulipo (a subcommittee of the Collège de 'Pataphysique) and other such matters are concisely and nicely explicated by Gauvin. Which is yet another reason to purchase this book, and/or recommend that your local library does the same.
There is much to be written regarding Michal Ajvaz’s recently translated novel, The Golden Age, published in 2010 by Dalkey Archive Press. In this post, I will limit myself to the interesting question of its lineage. Though reviewers have likened The Golden Age to the work of Franz Kafka, Jonathan Swift and Jorge Luis Borges, I think the first two are more incidental to it. Yes, there is a scene that takes place in Prague which is decidedly fantastical, but there is little else of Kafka in the work. And it is true that the main storyline takes place on a mysterious island that has been traveled to by the protagonist and so reminds of us of Gulliver’s Travels. But Ajvaz’s rather lengthy novel has a singular focus on the society that inhabits the aforementioned island, which differentiates it from Swift's tale, in which Gulliver travels to many different islands. Furthermore, whereas the societies on the islands in Swift’s work are depicted using the best traditions of satirical comedy, e.g., taking to absurd lengths many recognizable conventions of human society, the notable aspect of the depiction of the civilization on the unnamed island in Ajvaz’s work is the degree to which the author works to make it not resemble any conventions of human society.
And this is when I find myself turning to the last name on the list, Jorge Luis Borges, especially the story “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” And I have in mind here primarily "Tlon": in this story, Borges describes a world that, even in the context of the story, is fictitious even if it is also seemingly real, and which does not abide by the usual rules of language, culture, and social dynamics. In addition, “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” has multiple stories within the story, so much so that the reader becomes confused as to what the actual storyline is. All of these things can also be said of The Golden Age. But here, once again, the matter of length is important. For Borges' story is all of twelve pages long, while Ajvaz’s novel is fully 322 pages long. To sustain such a non-existing/existing, non-substantial/substantial world, founded on ideas and language as much as it is on any physical reality, is a considerable achievement for Ajvaz.
It also raises in my mind the question of whether one of Ajvaz’s many projects is to elaborate on and extend the work of some of the more fantastical writers working in an idealistic mode, exemplified by Borges. I am also thinking in this regard of Ajvaz’s work 55 měst (55 Cities), which is “a catalogue of settlements which Marco Polo related to Kublai Khan, compiled in honor of Calvino,” a work clearly inspired by, and building upon the foundation of, Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities. (I translated a small portion of this work, which appeared in Issue 31 of The Cafe Irreal).
This is not to suggest that Ajvaz’s work is derivative — indeed, the adjective I would use to describe his brilliant novel Druhé město (The Other City) would be “Ajvazian", so unique is it — but it does suggest that he considers himself to be working within a broader tradition of which Borges and Calvino are key figures, much as we would consider irrealism to be a part of the “Kafkan” tradition. I will certainly be contemplating this possibility as I read more of Ajvaz’s work, both his fiction and his critical work (including a book length essay on Borges). However, it will be slower going for me as the rest of his work hasn't yet been translated into English, and I will therefore be reading it in Czech. Next up for me will be a critical essay that Ajvaz wrote about Foucault’s essay on Magritte’s painting, Ceci n’est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe), a logical enough choice as I too wrote an essay about Foucault's essay.
"In Praise of Kaela"
(an additional note in regard to The Golden Age)
And what is the second thing I will be saying about this work? Even somebody who has read Michal Ajvaz’s The Golden Age might wonder, assuming it had been a while since they’d read the work, who or what is the “Kaela” that I am praising in the title of this postscript? Kaela, as it happens, is the narrator’s girlfriend, the woman with whom he has a relationship while he is staying on the island and the reason I’m praising her (or, especially, Ajvaz’s treatment of her) is that we know virtually nothing about her. Not what she looks like, not who her parents are, not what she did for a living (not that it’s clear that the Islanders exactly ever do anything “for a living”). Indeed, even the few times we learn how she reacts to what the narrator says or does, this reaction is not unique to her, but serves to indicate to us the reactions of the islanders in general. It is apparent in reading this work that Ajvaz knows full well that when writing a didactic work (and for all its richness, this is a very didactic work) one does not muddy it up with cliched concerns about “fully developing” the characters. Indeed, I can’t help thinking in this regard of seeing a brief feature about Ajvaz on Czech television in which he is asked about which contemporary authors he reads, and he responded that he is largely focused on the various aspects of his own work (which presumably includes, e.g., as he wrote a book length essay about him, close readings of Borges) and so doesn’t read much of his contempories. Perhaps, then, this is why he hasn’t been infected by the contagion of gratiuitous characterization in works of fantastic fiction. Or, more likely, he is simply immune to the contagion.
Two things, besides my reading of The Golden Age, have helped bring this issue to mind. The first was a recent visit by a (now) retired professor of English who, with one comment some twenty years ago (that, in Gogol, it is more proper to speak of "caricatures" than of "characters"), inspired me to write a paper that helped me to clarify the issue of characterization in fantastic literature. The second was the fact that, while sorting through some papers, I came across an excellent essay that also some twenty years ago influenced me in this matter of characterization: Joanna Russ’s “Towards an Aesthetic of Science Fiction” (Science Fiction Studies 2:112-119, July 1975). In it, Russ states that science fiction, like much medieval literature (and, I would argue, virtually all fantastic fiction), is essentially a form of didactic fiction. “That despite superficial similarities to naturalistic (or other) modern fiction, the protagonists of science fiction are always collective, never individual persons (although individuals often appear as exemplary or representative figures)…I would like to propose that contemporary literary criticism (not having been developed to handle such material) is not the ideal tool for dealing with fiction that is explicitly, deliberately, and baldly didactic. (Modern criticism appears to experience the same difficulty in handling the 18th century contes [which can be considered] as among the ancestors of science fiction.”
When I picked up Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde at the library last week, I thought it must either be a Thursday Next novel or a Nursery Crime tale, and I didn't stop to take a close look. Instead, happy to get my hands on it so soon after the library acquired it, I quickly checked it out. But when I began to read it, I found no mention of Fforde's earlier literary creations – instead I entered a strikingly original world that was sometimes as hard to decipher as a very challenging puzzle. There are many reviews of the book online if you'd care to take a look (especially if you want a detailed synopsis), but I would just like to talk a little about whether the book is dystopian and whether it's irreal.
First of all, in answer to the question of whether or not Shades of Grey is dystopian, I would have to say yes and no. The world depicted in Shades of Grey is darker and more negative than in previous Fforde novels, and he himself acknowledged his debt to classic dystopias and negative utopias in interviews he did with the Guardian and for the Bookgasm website, among other places. The protagonist in Shades of Grey, Eddie Russett, lives at some point in Earth's future, after the Something That Happened, in which a person's ability to see color determines his or her social status, potential marriage partners, and other vital things. If you've read any books in the Thursday Next series, you know that Fforde's knowledge of fiction is vast, and he is inclined to make frequent references to other works. In Shades of Grey these are often references to some of the most famous negative utopias ever written; he pays homage to them and he takes important cues and ideas from them. Here are some examples: in the world of Shades of Grey people use social engineering and eugenics in a way that calls to mind Huxley's Brave New World; we see individuals pitted against a society that prizes the collective good over individual rights as in Zamyatin's We; people are expected to tell the authorities about their neighbors' transgressions against the established order, as in Orwell's 1984; there are also echoes of Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake in which humans are purposefully changed in a way that's supposed to lead to peace and harmony (but which also results in the destruction of humans as we know–and are–them). But in the previously mentioned Guardian interview, Fforde himself says that not everything about the world of Shades of Grey is meant to be negative: over-population is no longer a problem; people have to do unpaid work for the collective good; and men and women seem to be on much more equal footing than they are in our own world. In addition Shades of Grey is written with a playfulness, lightness, and sense of humor that would be missing from a true dystopia; and Fforde borrows ideas from gentler works, such as The Wizard of Oz, something that would be out of place in a true negative utopia. There is an explicit reference to a place called the Emerald City, but there seem to me to be other nods to the children's books by Frank Baum. In the Oz books, Oz itself is divided into lands which are distinguished by their characteristic color, similar to the color-coding in Shades of Grey, and the importance of the Yellow Brick Road in Oz is paralleled by the importance of the Perpetulite roadway in Fforde's story. If Oz seems a strange place from which to glean ideas for a book like this, remember that many people consider Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz to be an allegory of early 20th century American populism.
And now I'll ask whether or not Shades of Grey is an irreal novel, and, again, I'll answer: yes and no. Much is explained in typical science fiction style in the novel, and it doesn't have the dreamlike quality that much irreal fiction displays. But in an irreal work there is always some key idea or element that can be seen as providing "many pointers toward an unknown meaning," and in the case of Shades of Grey this element is color itself. In the world that Fforde creates, the ability to see color determines one's social status, as I mentioned before, and the spectrum creates an ordered hierarchy with purple at the top. This hierarchy is then complicated by the existence of primary colors so that red isn't simply at the bottom, but can also serve, when a red marries a blue, to bring forth offspring who can see the much-vaunted purple. As a result color is used in the novel to make obvious references to issues of class, and in a less obvious way to race (those who can see no color, the greys, are often forced to do long hours of menial work). But color in Shades of Grey points to meanings other than that. The swatchman is a kind of healer who uses color to help people overcome all sorts of health problems, and the right color can cure impotence or trigger ovulation. In addition, color can be used as a drug, can be addictive and even deadly. Color also represents the ultimate commodity in a world which, as a result of "leapbacks," has a technology level similar to that of the early 20th century (there are still trains and Model T Fords but no radios). Color is prized and sought after; people of means colorize their gardens and custard puddings; communities look for ways to bring color into people's lives; there are even treasure-hunting expeditions to find valuable objects from the time before the Something That Happened from which color can be extracted. In other words, color indicates wealth and success and confers an elite status like gold or diamonds do in our world. Owning a painting (a Vermeer or other work from the time before the Something That Happened) is such a privilege that the owner must allow anyone to come and look at the painting on request—in order to enjoy the colors. Because color is something more than the sum of all these parts, it does give an irreal edge to the novel, and the book also calls to mind some other recent works of British irrealism. I'm reminded of Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go in which a group of never-quite-defined and identified beings are shockingly expendable and don't realize their fate until it's too late; of Magnus Mills' Explorers of the New Century, in which a group of beings that serve as pack animals in an expedition are also treated as expendable, and we don't find out until close to the end who they are; and of the Neanderthals in Fforde's own Thursday Next series who have been brought back from extinction by genetic experiments and live in uneasy association with humans, doing menial work and not loving it (particularly since they are not able to reproduce). All of these works feature groups of sentient beings who are being pushed, with a minimum of fuss and a little humor and a great deal of disregard of rights, into a fate that seems to benefit others but not to benefit themselves. Maybe such depictions are becoming more common because they bear a resemblance to our own lives, but one thing that does prevail at the end of Shades of Grey is a kind of hope that Jane (a Grey) and Eddie (a Red) can work together to figure out what's really going on in their world and to begin to change it to benefit all. Two sequels are promised, and if we're lucky, we may see in future Shades of Grey novels the making of an irreal revolution.
To have a chance at long last to read Maurice Blanchot’s novel Aminadab was something of an event for us. Long ago, when we were putting together The Cafe Irreal, we came across a review of Aminadab by Jean-Paul Sartre titled, “Aminadab or the Fantastic Considered as a Language.” The influence of Sartre’s review, also a polemic on Kafka’s work, is easy to spot in our publication: a citation from it serves as a preamble on our homepage and, indeed, the setting that Sartre uses in that citation helps explain why we are the “Cafe” Irreal even though we serve no food or drinks. At the time we were getting The Cafe Irreal into gear, however, Aminadab was not available in English translation; the part of Sartre’s review/essay that addressed Blanchot’s novel, therefore, was all we knew about the novel. In 2002, however, an English translation appeared and in 2010 we finally learned of it and read the book. Though this review has been a long time in coming, it will remain a preliminary one as the book will require another reading.
Based on this first reading, I would agree with translator Jeff Fort’s opening words to his introduction, in which he states that “this is a strange book.” Not specifically, however, for the reason that he gives (though it is no doubt true), i.e., that “strangeness is the very element in which [Blanchot's narrative] works move and unfold,” nor because of Blanchot’s tendency to “dispense with all recognizable narrative conventions.” Nor, for that matter, as an irrealist, did I find the Kafkan setting and structure of Aminadab strange. What I found strange and challenging about this novel, and ultimately unsuccessful, was Blanchot’s appropriation of Kafkan conventions and structures without an existential agent to inhabit them. Thus, the work starts out quite enticingly with Thomas, the protagonist, arriving in an unidentified village, making his way through a sparsely described but intriguing street and, upon seeing a woman seemingly signal to him from an upper window of a boarding house, deciding to enter the building and look for her. The rest of the novel is about that search, and all the difficulties that he has reaching her. This, of course, has obvious parallels with the plot outlines of Kafka’s The Castle. Indeed, in comparing the two novels Sartre writes that Kafka had perfected the technique in that work, in that “the hero himself is fantastic. We know nothing about this surveyor whose adventures and views we share. We know nothing except his incomprehensible obstinacy in remaining in a forbidden village. To attain this end, he sacrifices everything; he treats himself as a means. But we never know the value this end had for him and whether it was worth so much effort. M. Blanchot has adopted the same method; his Thomas is no less mysterious than the servants in the building. We do not know where he comes from, nor why he persists in reaching the woman who has signaled to him.” (p. 65)
Having now read Aminadab for myself, I have to question whether this parallel holds. There was, that is to say, an imperative to K.’s claim that he was a land surveyor; first of all, he might actually have been the “Land Surveyor whom the Count is expecting” that he claims to be in the novel’s opening pages and, secondly, even if not, even if his claim, which sets him on that uncertain trajectory toward the Castle, isn’t true, it is a claim that he makes under obvious duress, under threat of being forced to “quit the Count’s territory at once,” that is, being forced out of the inn and into the snowy night with nowhere to sleep. This is far different from the apparent motivation of Thomas, who sees the woman make “a quick sign with her hand, like an invitation; then she quickly closed the window…Thomas was quite perplexed. Could he consider this gesture truly as a call to him? It was rather a sign of friendship than an invitation. It was also a sort of dismissal. He hesitated. Looking again in the direction of the shop, he realized that the man who was sweeping had gone back inside as well. This reminded him of his first plan. But then he thought that he would always have time to carry it out later, and he decided to cross the street and enter the house.”
Thus, it is a matter of curiosity and momentary whim, perhaps additionally encouraged by a vague sense that he knows the woman, that inspires his journey; indeed the journey itself is often a series of discourses as he tries to clarify the laws of the house and his status in relation to them, discourses which are complemented by the “endless commentaries” of the various characters in the novel, with their “unreliable and conflicting clarifications," as Fort puts it. With these, he adds, the novel “enters into its most singular and proper mode,” (xiv), one which would seem to suggest Blanchot’s later works, which “gradually dispense with all recognizable narrative conventions and constantly verge toward the rarefied disappearance of the voice that proffers them.” (vii)
All of this leaves Aminadab with a floating quality, an endeavor undertaken out of a vague curiosity and compulsion and which continues on more or less the same basis, which then turns into an extended discourse which offers us, as Sartre complains, “a continual translation, a full commentary on its symbols.” (Sartre, p. 70) One example of this that is particularly striking occurs in the novel’s final pages, when the woman says to Thomas that “this night has its particularities. It brings with it neither dreams nor the premonitions that, at times, take the place of dreams. Rather it is itself a vast dream that is not within reach of the person it envelopes. When it has surrounded your bed, we will draw the curtains that enclose the alcove, and the splendor of the objects that will then be revealed will be enough to console the most unhappy of men. At that moment, I too will become truly beautiful…” (p.196)
In The Castle, on the other hand, K. is clearly a person with a desire to move up in the world – e.g., he is always trying to make contacts (above all with figures of power, such as Klamm) and trying to show, and impress, the others that he is indeed a player. The discourses are concrete ones, about officialdom, what the officials do and how one gets an in with them. His actions represent real aspirations, even if it isn't clear what it is he's really aspiring to, how the strange world of the village will receive those aspirations, or whether the aspirations might not themselves be entirely futile from the start.
Indeed, it is these conflicts between K.'s aspirations and the world he finds himself in that helps make it possible to classify The Castle as an existentialist work (as well as many other works which we consider to be irreal). Aminadab, by presenting us with an extended work that has a Kafkan structure but whose protagonist and narrative lack such aspiration, raises the question of whether there must be such a close association between irrealism and existentialism. Or, put another way, if we accept that an important element of irrealism is not just the absurd (meaning, in this case, the chasm between what we want and can imagine on the one hand and what our finite world and body allows us on the other) but also the passion of the absurd (the insistent, driven attempt to do the impossible and cross this chasm) then Aminadab might not be an irrealist work. By largely discarding any strong imperative in the protagonist or narrative — any of the passion mentioned above — the novel leaves the reader in the abstracted and disassociated state that more typically results from reading works of narrative experimentation. But, of course, the novel does utilize many Kafkan elements and structures, and so even in my own mind the matter is not settled.
Aminadab by Maurice Blanchot ; translated and with an introduction by Jeff Fort Lincoln ; London : University of Nebraska Press, 2002.
Literary Essays by Jean-Paul Sartre, Philosophical Library, New York, 1958, tr. Annette Michelson.
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