Tag Archives: NYRB Classics

Tatyana Tolstaya, The Slynx

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Tatyana Tolstaya’s The Slynx is a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel. Lately in the interest of preserving my mental health I’ve avoided reading any SF that seemed the least bit apocalyptic or dystopian. Which these days is pretty much all of it. But this is another old half-written review I’ve just now finished, so The Slynx slipped in last year. Anyway, it’s the kind of post-apocalypse E. C. Segar might have invented for Popeye to sort out: a world of mangled language, kinetic brawling, and ubiquitous foolishness. This book is too colorful to depress.

Generations after “the Blast,” the world is divided between the ignored minority of Oldeners–people alive during the Blast, who stopped aging in that moment and remember the world before–and the Golubchiks, born after the Blast. The Golubchiks act like feral toddlers on a sugar high. They steal and brawl and only half pay attention; anything the Oldeners tell them comes back garbled. A Golubchik’s idea of a fun game is “smothers”: “you stuff a pillow in someone’s face and smother him, and he flails and sputters and when he gets away, he’s all red and sweaty, and his hair’s sticking out like a harpy’s.”

The Slynx’s voice is as far as you can get from the flat, monotonous prose that oftens seems standard in science fiction:

Old people say the Slynx lives in those forests. The Slynx sits on dark branches and howls a wild, sad howl—eeeeennxx, eeeeennxx, eeenx- aleeeeeennnxx—but no one ever sees it. If you wander into the forest it jumps on your neck from behind: hop! It grabs your spine in its teeth—crunch—and picks out the big vein with its claw and breaks it. All the reason runs right out of you. If you come back, you’re never the same again, your eyes are different, and you don’t ever know where you’re headed, like when people walk in their sleep under the moon, their arms outstretched, their fingers fluttering: they’re asleep, but they’re standing on their own two feet.[1]

It’s unusual for an SF novel written in third person to have a narrator with a personality. Readers aren’t encouraged to think of third person prose as having a narrator at all. A story is being told, but not told by anyone. But all fiction has a voice; modern fiction just hides it behind a curtain. (So we never wonder what hidden assumptions that hidden voice might bring to the story… but that’s another argument.)

Reading The Slynx it is like meeting a weird but charismatic and funny storyteller and getting so engrossed in conversation that hours pass and you don’t notice. The Slynx is written in the rhythm of voice. The narrator slips into second person (“If you wander into the forest…”) as people do when talking. The Slynx speaks in a voice from out of the world it’s created, a storyteller with an eccentric worldview and a vocabulary of malapropisms. That voice is the main tool The Slynx uses to create its world.

The Slynx tells the story of Benedikt, a scribe in a village near what used to be Moscow. Benedikt copies out the poetry and philosophy of the local ruler, Fyodor Kuzmich Glorybe. Most of it’s plagiarized from once-famous Russian authors. When Fyodor Kuzmich resorts to his own words they’re drivel.

Like the work of another Russian author published by NYRB Classics, Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, The Slynx is preoccupied with text and ideas. But what matters in Benedikt’s world aren’t the ideas themselves so much as how they’re perceived.

B. Kliban once drew a cartoon of a king standing on a balcony telling his subjects “I’m the king, and you have to do what I say or I won’t be king anymore.” If The Slynx followed the standard clichés of the post-apocalyptic genre it would have set the Oldeners up as an ossified elite for a fresh-thinking hero to knock down. That’s not what we have here–the Oldeners are marginalized. As stewards of civilization they’re ineffectual, and not because they fell from some earlier height. The survivors of the blast were perfectly ordinary. Their children just never paid them attention.

The saying goes that knowledge is power, but in Benedikt’s world what’s powerful is what people can be convinced to respect as knowledge. The Golubchiks scorn the Oldners’ ideas, but they’re impressed by what they see as culture. Fyodor Kuzmich is head of the village because as long as the Pushkin holds out he sounds wise and literate.

Pre-blast books are treasure, albeit treasure with an aura of danger: for years after the Blast, the surviving books were radioactive, which is the official reason they’re confiscated by officials called Saniturions. Unofficially, the Saniturions just don’t think the Golubchiks can take care of them. They might read them with dirty hands, or use them as pot lids! When Benedikt rises in the world and gains access to the Saniturions’ library he’s impressed by the pristine, unread books. The worn, well-read books, he thinks, must not have been important enough to take care of.

Benedikt isn’t a careful reader. Neither is The Slynx’s narrator, who thinks like Benedikt and often gets inside his head. Nor are the Saniturions who, for all the books they’ve collected, don’t understand them better than any other Golubchik. They take stories literally. They filter them through their worldview and culture without understanding that other ways of thinking and living exist. No need for a Slynx; Benedikt lets his reason run away by itself. Near the end of the novel Benedikt thinks he sees the Slynx in someone else’s face; in reply he’s told to look at his own reflection.

But The Slynx is not one of those dystopian novels in which the author spends 200 pages ranting that everyone else is stupid.[2] The Golubchiks aren’t what this book considers civilized, but it’s not sour or angry and it lets the Golubchiks tell their own story. We laugh with them as much as at. And The Slynx is a book in love with books, and an argument that books are worth loving. Whether he understands them or not, Benedikt is amazed at how books bring voices and images and experiences into his head. He’s distraught when he discovers he’s finally read the whole library.

And in its final chapter The Slynx suggests that no matter how long stupidity holds power, or how scorched-earth their rule, the spirit of civilization survives to, eventually, rise again. What’s great is, despite everything, how uncynical this book is. That’s something recent science fiction hasn’t given me enough of. I’ve sworn off reading about apocalypses, but for The Slynx I’ll make an exception.

  1. For some reason the excerpt on the Powell’s Books website doesn’t have apostrophes. The book itself has all its punctuation.  ↩

  2. Hello, Brave New World!  ↩

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, The Letter Killers Club

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Memories of the Future, a collection of stories by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, was among my favorite books of 2010. Krzhizhanovsky was a 20th century Russian writer of absurdism, surrealism, magic realism, and science fiction. Bad luck and Soviet censorship kept all but a handful of stories out of print in his lifetime. His work was buried in an archive to be unearthed decades later. The NYRB classics imprint has begun slowly translating and publishing his work in English.

The Letter Killers Club is a novel and a frame for several stories, quasi-stories, and narrative fragments. I could say many of the same things about it as I said about Memories of the Future–the prose is startling, the ideas come at rapid fire, and Krzhizhanovsky draws vivid characters in very few strokes. I’ve seen Krzhizhanovsky compared to Borges and Kafka, but he reminds me more of StanisÅ‚aw Lem. The Letter Killers Club recalls A Perfect Vacuum, Lem’s volume of reviews of nonexistent books–conceptions of books that don’t exist and don’t need to because Lem boiled them down to their essences.

The narrator of The Letter Killers Club is friends with a famous author who for two years has written nothing. One night, the author explains: in his youth, a financial emergency forced him to sell his library. He afterwards spent hours reimagining the books that stood on his empty shelves, and in doing so found the inspiration to write books of his own. Years later he acquired a case of writers block and returned to what worked before, setting up a room of empty shelves. But now he found he preferred keeping his ideas in his imagination: fixing his conceptions as letters on a page killed them. [1] Now he’s the president of a club of “conceivers,” the Letter Killers Club, who gather every week to share stories that will never be set down on paper. He invites the narrator along.

By the end of the first chapter you might expect a straightforward collection of club stories. But the meetings of the Letter Killers Club are… intense. The conceivers use nonsense-syllable aliases and skulk in like they’re attending a combination conspiratorial conclave and Ph.D. thesis defense. If a conceiver is gauche enough to read from notes, the president throws them into the fireplace. The meetings aren’t so much storytelling sessions as conflicts. The audience seems anxious to challenge the speaker–each week’s featured conceiver is on trial. The stakes are left unspoken. They feel pretty damn high.

Krzhizhanovsky is dealing with the same preoccupations that dominated many stories in Memories of the Future: writers with no outlet for their work, stories treated as matters of life and death. One story in Memories of the Future argues that writing isn’t just an occupation but the thing the writer owes the world, payment for his or her existence. That’s serious. You can’t blame Krzhizhanovsky for coming back to these themes. They’re his life. Barring those few precious published stories, the only people his writing connected with were the audiences who gathered to hear his own private readings. He had no publisher, and he must write, and I sense in his stories a feeling of bottled-upness. The malaise that hangs over the Letter Killers comes from their inability, or refusal, to fulfill their purpose. A story never read is never complete.

The conceptions vary in tone and content. The longest story, and the one that most put me in mind of Lem, is a science fictional tale of a machine, the “ex”, that can posses people’s bodies, working them like puppets, leaving their minds aware but sidelined like passengers in vehicles out of their control. At first its creators sell it as a way to deal with the insane: their care is an economic burden, goes the argument, but putting them under the control of an ex will turn their bodies, if not their minds, into productive workers. As you might expect in a story like this the exes’ influence spreads. They become the tools of a government that sees citizens as economic units rather than human beings.

Another story deals with an actor playing Hamlet who enters a world inhabited by previous performances of Hamlet to steal Richard Burbage’s mojo. Another is about a priest moonlighting as a jester, changing costumes as needed, whose career goes haywire when his vestments are stolen. With the dystopian tale, they share a thread that runs through some (though definitely not all) of the stories in The Letter Killers Club: the mismatch between the outer and inner life, actors and the parts they play, people’s real selves and the roles imposed by society. Like the characters in these stories, the Club members live in a world that expects one kind of story from people with other stories inside them. The Letter Killers Club doesn’t pay much attention to the world outside the president’s doors, but you can’t forget these people are meeting in the Soviet Union–near the end one member observes, in reference to the empty shelves, that the police can’t search what isn’t there. The members of the Letter Killers Club can speak their ideas in their empty library, but can’t give them to the outside world. The friction between their inner selves and their outer roles is wearing away at them.

Apparently five volumes of Krzhizhanovsky’s collected works have been published in Russian. I hope we don’t have to wait long for more to appear in English. His writing spent too long bottled up, and deserves to be read as widely as possible.

  1. An idea familiar to anyone who’s been unable to work because they can’t stand the thought of substandard results. Part of the reason this blog was so rarely updated in the last year is that most of what I tried to write was in my own personal opinion too inane to share.  ↩

Dino Buzzati, Poem Strip

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Sometimes a book comes late to the party. It walks in bearing beer and waving a hot new album it’s discovered, to find that very CD blaring from the stereo and the guests already drunk. That’s Poem Strip, Dino Buzzati’s graphic novel retelling of the Orpheus myth. I gather Poem Strip was an important comic in Italy; according to one review it was the 1970 winner of the Paese Sera Best Comics of the Year Award. But in English Poem Strip made its first appearance in 2009, and entered like an aging swinger who’s never revised his mustache and still wears forty year old polyester bell bottoms.

Here’s the problem: Poem Strip is absurdly, distractingly sexist. Buzzati drew many pictures of women for this book, and most are at least half and generally some smaller fraction of naked, and even while ushering guests down staircases or staffing the front desk in an office they tend to pose as though for girlie mags. Derek Badman, in his review at MadInkBeard, speculates that these women were in fact traced from girlie mags. He also complains that some of Buzzati’s drawings are crude. I think we have to cut the guy some slack on the art; he was obviously drawing one-handed. It’s a lot like the often-adolescent and now mostly embarrassing underground comics of the 1960s; you get the sense that this is the work of a guy who’s just realized standards have opened up to the point that he’s allowed to publish sexy drawings, and in all the excitement has forgotten that sometimes it’s better not to.

Much of the early part of the book is taken up with a song from Buzzati’s Orpheus—here a rock star named Orfi—called “Witches in the City.” Orfi alternates paranoid ramblings about all the women he thinks are out to seduce him with chanted litanies of names—“Barbara Yvonne Leda Fiorella,” et cetera, as though implicating the entire other half of the human race. Not only are women sirens luring men onto sharp rocks, they’re all in on it together, man. I hope Buzzati got into therapy at some point.

It’s too bad Poem Strip is hiding behind this huge stumbling block, because there’s also a lot to like. Stylistically, it looks like a collaboration between Fredrico Fellini and Glen Baxter, colored with a limited palette. Buzzati references Fellini directly at one point, as well as Murnau’s Nosferatu, Arthur Rackham, and a number of other artists who he credits in his brief forward. He fits his style to the tone of the page, swinging from realism to expressionism and back and still managing to keep Poem Strip a unified whole.

You know the story (at least, you should). Orfi, despite his weird gynephobia issues, has somehow managed to keep a relationship going with Eura. Who dies. In case you hadn’t guessed, this is Euridyce. So Orfi follows her into the underworld, reached through a strange door in the Via Saturna. He’s met by a talking overcoat that at one point calls itself “Kruschevian.” An interview with the translator confirms that the overcoat is a reference to the Soviet premier but unfortunately doesn’t explain the connection. (I wish Poem Strip had a new introduction, or maybe some footnotes.)

Life, in the overcoat’s view, is like an ocean whose tides are set by death’s huge gravitational pull. In the afterlife, the absence of death creates a different emotional landscape. The dead can’t die again, can’t be injured and have no need for physical pain, so they have fewer things to fear. They have less to lose, and fewer reasons for sadness. With all of eternity to play with, anything can happen; life’s possibilities never close off. Knowing the answers to the ultimate questions, they have no sense of the uncanny. They have no need to pass on their genes to a new generation, so no need to feel passion.

To placate the dead Orfi sings to them about what they can no longer feel. This is the best and most substantial passage in the book. Buzzati illustrates an old man who “checks his mailbox for the hundredth time but there’s nothing there,” dried leaves on the wind forming “strange ghosts in the sky,” a bogeyman floating over the city. Every image gets at least a page to itself. The art here is mostly at the expressionist end of the scale, as much designed as drawn, and weirdly evocative. A thing that rises by the side of the road and reaches out to a traveler is depicted pretty much as a blob, but it’s scary as anything.

Finally, Orfi finds Eura, and loses her again—but not the way you’re thinking. This is where Buzzati kind of redeems himself in terms of gender politics. Usually this myth treats Eurydice like the rope in a tug of war. She dies, Orpheus drags her out from Tartarus, then she’s yanked back because of something Orpheus does. But in Poem Strip Eura refuses to follow Orfi out of the underworld at all. Eura doesn’t mind being in the afterlife. She’s in the right place. She’s dead.

And maybe, Eura hints, the afterlife isn’t a cold, passionless place after all. Love is not absent, and she and Orfi will be together again when the time is right. It’s Orfi who’s yanked away from the flatly prosaic afterlife to the land of the living. Poem Strip returns to the themes of Orfi’s song in the last few pages, depicting swirling storms and “turreted clouds of eternity.” the disturbing, uncanny world of the living goes about its business as Orfi stands in the Via Saturna, holding the promise of Eura’s ring.

Kenneth Fearing, Clark Gifford’s Body

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I’m starting to write reviews again. I’m not entirely convinced by this one, but at some point I have to stop fiddling with it, so here it is.

Clark Gifford’s Body is an obvious reference to the old song about John Brown, who sparked the Civil War with his raid on Harper’s Ferry. (Which may have been a blessing in disguise; arguably, only the war could have put an end to slavery in anything like a reasonable amount of time.)

A hundred years later, in the far-flung year of 1959 (Clark Gifford’s Body was published in 1937; no explicit date is given for the raid, but, as Robert Polito points out in the introduction, it’s not hard to work out), Clark Gifford and his “Committee for Action” seize radio stations across the country–Gifford himself takes WLEX in Bonnfield–and spark a twenty-year civil war.

The New York Review Books Classics edition of Clark Gifford’s Body demonstrates the importance of typography–in this case, the importance of getting the page numbers right. The page numbers are in the same font as the text, printed at the same size, located just under the text, where the next line would be, if there were one. So on the left-hand page my subconscious was constantly interpreting the page number as part of the text, and I kept getting knocked out of the story by phrases like “The short-wave of a number 200 of local stations…”

Kenneth Fearing wrote Clark Gifford’s Body in fragments. Narrative islands, written in different styles from different points of view, form a bigger picture like the dots in a pointillist painting. The sketches are set up to thirty years before and thirty years after Gifford’s raid. It’s a history of the future.

As such, Clark Gifford’s Body is technically science fiction. It may not satisfy many SF readers: socially and technologically, the future looks a lot like 1937. I’m willing to forgive. Within the story, we have a limited view of this society, and that twenty year civil war would not have laid a smooth road for the march of progress. In more critical terms, this kind of near-future SF is really about the present. Kenneth Fearing wrote Clark Gifford’s Body about his own world.

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Patrick Leigh Fernor, A Time to Keep Silence

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A Time to Keep Silence is Patrick Leigh Fernor’s account of his experiences as a guest in two French monasteries during the 1950s, and his visit to a long-abandoned monastery carved out of the rocks in Cappadocia, Turkey. It’s a short book, less than a hundred pages; it describes the monasteries and tells their histories, but doesn’t get too heavily into analyzing what it sees. Fernor has theories, but he doesn’t try to definitively explain why the monks chose a silent, regimented lifestyle, or what it means to them. He doesn’t feel qualified.

Fernor begins in a Benedictine abbey, where he comes to feel relatively at home. He then moves to a Trappist monastery where the monks’ lives consist of ceaseless work, endless prayer, and a distinct lack of central heating.1 He has less direct contact with the monks and their values never cease to be alien. Finally, he describes the long-abandoned Cappadocian monastery, not a living place but a part of monastic history, its inhabitants long gone. Fernor zooms out as he goes. Each section creates more distance between the reader and the monks, each section takes away from the reader’s sense of connection. Compared to most nonfiction A Time to Keep Silence is structured backwards; it begins looking like it might have the answers but it leaves with only questions.

Fernor’s more certain about the monastery’s effect on himself. At first the lack of distraction is disorienting. He spends most of a couple of days asleep. He suspects he was recovering from “the tremendous accumulation of tiredness, which must be the common property of all our contemporaries,” created by the thousands of minor stresses and demands on our attention everyone faces every day, which have grown exponentially in the fifty years since this book was published. He feels peaceful, focused, and attentive.

You don’t have to be religious to see why certain people might find this attractive. We live in a world of noise, distraction, and random hostility. Sometimes even the most ordinary inanimate objects–jar lids, DVD cases, computer programs, new shirts full of pins–are out to get you. Sometimes you just want to get the hell away.

“The Abbey was at first a graveyard,” says Fernor; “the outer world seemed afterwards, by contrast, an inferno of noise and vulgarity entirely populated by bounders.” Fernor doesn’t share in the monks’ religion and doesn’t try to explain what their lives are all about, but I suspect for at least some of them the answer to that question is closer than it seems.

  1. The Trappist monastery’s program was developed by a seventeenth-century aristocrat gone radical. According to a legend recounted in the book, after his mistress died he walked into her sickroom to find the undertaker had decapitated her body to fit it into the coffin, casually leaving her head on a table. ↩


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“Everyone appears ridiculous when in love,” writes Gyula Krúdy in Sunflower. I’m cynical enough to believe it. Love inspires people to greatness. It also inspires people to stage elaborate, embarassingly public marriage proposals involving scoreboards, skywriters, and/or mariachi bands. I don’t understand why women say yes to these things. This is one major reason why I do not expect ever to marry.

Sunflower looks at love from all angles, and finds it ridiculous. All angles contained in Budapest’s upper class, sometime around the turn of the 20th century, anyway, and for the same reason P. G. Wodehouse wrote about the upper class. Poverty isn’t funny.

Sunflower isn’t ridiculous in the way Wodehouse is ridiculous. Wodehouse is funny ha ha. Krudy is funny peculiar. Sunflower has a dark side. Everyone’s falling in love, or out of love, or just worrying about love, but death isn’t far away; you don’t get love without danger. As soon as we meet Andor Álmos-Dreamer he dies for love. He gets better, but it sets the tone. The novel skips back and forth through family histories. Men fight duels over women, or just drop dead, sometimes because their wives asked them to. Death doesn’t stop love: one character, Miss Maszkerádi, was fathered by a ghost.

All this is described in stunning prose, with images and metaphors packed in one after the other, urgently running together. It’s like Krúdy wasn’t sure this slim novel would have room for them all. Hungarian, and Krudy in particular, is apparently next to impossible to translate. I don’t know how well this book represents Krudy, or how much came from the translator. Either way it’s a marvel. (This despite the fact that the translation sometimes turns incongruously modern. Would a young woman around 1900 or so call a guy a “creep?” Or, for that matter, a “guy?” Would she say “crap,” or “Men stink?”)

Miss Maszkerádi isn’t into looking ridiculous. She judges her present as though she’s looking back at a distance of fifty years. She doesn’t want to do anything she might feel embarassed about later. The one thing she loves, and identifies with, is a solid and immovable willow tree. Pistoli, the local squire, feels the trees inviting him to hang himself on their branches. He’s smitten with Miss Maszkerádi. This can’t end well. And it doesn’t… Krudy foreshadows heavily enough that I’m not spoiling anything by letting slip that Pistoli doesn’t survive the book. But it doesn’t end too badly, either—or at least no worse than anything else. Hardly anyone minds appearing ridiculous, or even dying. It’s the price you pay for living.

Harpies and Peanuts

Wilde attributes this joke to Carlyle: a biography of Michelangelo that would make no mention of the works of Michelangelo. So complex is reality, and so fragmentary and simplified is history, that an omniscient observer could write an indefinite, almost infinite, number of biographies of a man, each emphasizing different facts; we would have to read many of them before we realized that the protagonist was the same.

—Jorge Luis Borges, “On William Beckford’s Vathek

In the early 16th century, aspiring artist Bartolomeo Torri was thrown out of his teacher’s home after he got a little too absorbed in his anatomy lessons: “for he kept so many limbs and pieces of corpses under his bed and all over his rooms, that they poisoned the whole house,” wrote Giorgio Vasari. Cherubino Alberti fixated on medieval siege engines and filled his home with model catapults. Later, Franz Xavier Messerschmidt believed he was pinched and abused by a “Spirit of Proportion” who could be warded off by pulling grotesque contorted expressions, which Messerschmidt recorded in sculpture.

The cover of Born Under Saturn

Margot & Rudolf Wittkower’s Born Under Saturn is a history of “the Character and Conduct of Artists,” as the subtitle puts it. And, yeah, a lot of these guys are characters. Others were normal, well-behaved types, but, honestly, you’re not going to read this book for Rubens or Bernini. But Born Under Saturn isn’t a freak show. The Wittkowers are analyzing popular ideas about artists, and although stories of eccentricities, feuds, and crimes make this book more readable than a straight academic treatise they also serve a purpose: the varied mass of biography breaks down cultural stereotypes about artists.

Continue reading Harpies and Peanuts