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<Larissa Kyzer>

10/10/12 4:00am

The Canvas

By Benjamin Stein, trans. Brian Zumhagen
(Open Letter)


“No one knows better than I that the boundary between reality and fiction in every story runs meanderingly through the middle of language, concealed and incomprehensible—and movable.”

This observation, made by one of the book’s two increasingly unreliable narrators, is easily applied to the novel itself, a sophisticated Choose Your Own Adventure that’s not only a complex narrative but also a significant exploration of how form and structure irrevocably affect a story’s reception.

Delving into truth, memory, empathy, and self-making, Stein’s novel takes inspiration from the real-life scandal of Binjamin Wilkomirski, a Swiss man who notoriously penned a successful but falsified Holocaust memoir in the late 1990s. The Canvas is comprised of two stories: that of Jan Weschler, a Jewish publisher living in Munich, and of Amnon Zichroni, a dedicated scholar of the Talmud who can physically experience the memories of others. The tales literally begin opposite and upside down from one another—the book has two covers, and Jan and Amnon’s stories meet in the middle; a reader could start at either end of the book or alternate back and forth between the two. These narratives intersect abruptly and surprisingly; whose version of events you believe largely depends on whose you read first.

Stein immerses the reader in the lives and memories of both characters—in Jan Weschler’s East Berlin upbringing and eventual conversion to Orthodox Judaism; in Amnon Zichroni’s brush with secular literature as a child and his resultant move to Switzerland. Rather than providing any real sort of clarity, however, the intimacy provided by the first-person narration actually obscures the stories more; in particular, Weschler’s discovery that his life is not what he remembers is profoundly shocking not only to him but also to the all-too-trusting reader.

05/08/12 1:38pm

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This is the last of Larissa Kyzer’s dispatches from the just-concluded PEN World Voices Festival.

An opportunity to “[e]njoy intimate readings by Festival participants inside the homes of famous Westbeth residents” the second Literary Safari held during this year’s PEN World Voices Festival was, in response to the whimsical chaos of last year’s event, ever so slightly more streamlined. In addition to the simplified map of Westbeth’s winding hallways and the reading schedule that was handed to each guest, this year, attendees had the advantage of signage throughout the hallways and balloons taped to each hosting apartment’s doorway. It lent a cheerful suburban party vibe to what is otherwise the single most hip literary event to have ever been conceived.

Last year’s attendees came to this year’s safari with plenty of tips on how to maximize the experience and see, depending on your predilections, either the most readings or the most apartments. (Lurk near the back of each apartment for an easy exit during the inevitably late-running Q&A; don’t revisit an apartment you went to last year.) Scheduled in optimistic twenty-five minute increments with five minute “passing periods” in between, the maximum number of possible readings/apartments that one could see during the course of the night would have been four; my group was proud to have successfully seen three.

Colson Whitehead was this year’s marquis participant, but part of what makes the Literary Safari such a unique and pleasantly awkward event is the opportunity to be introduced to new authors, to sit knee-to-knee with luminaries who while unfamiliar to you, are important participants in their home country’s literary milieu. There are undoubtedly downsides to this arrangement from the writer’s perspective, as attendees just love forcing international authors to shill their country’s cultural output wholesale, asking hugely generalizing questions about “the state of fiction” or sometimes, even non-literary traditions in another country or geographic region. Example: “Is fiction less popular than film in [insert country name here]?”

In her first reading of the evening, Romanian author and journalist Gabriela Adamesteanu, was asked a battery of such questions, which she kindly qualified with nuanced responses. When asked to talk about how literary reception in Romania might be different from that in the U.S., she explained that following the country’s revolution, the public’s main reading interest was in non-fiction, particularly the memoirs and essays that had been censored during communism. In the intervening ten years, however, a new wave of young authors is reinspiring an interest in novels and poetry.

Adamesteanu herself has been a leading member of the Romanian intelligentsia and was an outspoken advocate for a civil society during the communist years; she was an editor of the sociopolitical magazine 22. She was at the festival to read from her novel Wasted Morning (first published in 1984; translated into English last year), which was identified by the attending Director of the Romanian Cultural Institute as “one of [Romania’s] major modern novels,” and an incisive portrait of the country during the rule of dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. Though Adamesteanu was very quiet and self-effacing, listening first to a reading of her novel in English and then selecting a small passage to read in Romanian herself, the passage chosen was an assertive one—an emotional scene in which a man believes that his partner has recently had “an adventure” with another man, resulting in a clandestine abortion.

An event monitor in the back of the room ensured that all attendees got to their next reading on time, so we were able to dash to our next, that of prolific Lebanese author, critic, and playwright Elias Khoury, whose novels Archipelago Books has been in the process of releasing in English since 2006. Khoury was perched in one corner of a comfortably cluttered living room in one of Westbeth’s coveted duplex apartments, with attendees crowded around on couches and curled up on the oriental carpet, sipping the wine that was laid out on an end table. Both hosts being painters, the walls were covered in large canvases and multi-media pieces, to which Khoury gestured: “I hope my words can match the beauty around us… This is not an official reading, so I cannot behave like writers behave. We can speak like friends.”

05/04/12 1:56pm

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Originally slated as an event wherein “three successful European writers engage in a conversation about the alienating effects of seeing one’s life reflected in the public eye,” Thursday’s “Fame and the Writer” panel at the NYU Deutsches Haus ended up—due to last minute scheduling complications—being a much more intimate (and occasionally more literal) discussion between Deutsches Haus director Martin Rauchbauer, and German-Austrian author Daniel Kehlmann. Kehlmann’s 2005 novel, Measuring the World, has been an immense success for the young author (still under 40), selling nearly two million copies and making him one of the most widely read authors in the German-speaking world. Kehlmann’s follow up book, Fame, a ‘novel in nine episodes,’ has met with equal commendation, although its literal reception as a commentary on celebrity has surprised the author somewhat. The title Fame, he explained, was intended to carry a little irony in the wake of his surprising success—like when Sean Connery said he’d never be in another James Bond movie and then returned in Never Say Never Again.

“These strong, resounding one word titles have such a force,” he said, referencing Martin Amis’s novel Money and Lion Feuchtwanger’s 1930 novel Success (which is also, of course, the title of another of Amis’s novels). “It makes it difficult to see that there are many motives and themes” that go into a novel. “I’m not complaining,” he assured us. “It’s just interesting.”

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Kehlmann differentiated between the idea of fame and that of celebrity, the latter of which he thinks is “not a very interesting phenomenon.” When he said that he didn’t honestly have much to say on the subject, Mr. Rauchbauer countered with a passage from Fame in which a famous actor meets his own impersonator, who seems to have better ideas about how to be the celebrity than the man himself. Kehlmann, acceding that the passage was, in fact, examining the idea of celebrity, then explained that he was interested in the experience of detachment that everyone has from their public self—the sense that “deep in our heart we are completely different than people see us.” This isn’t true just of celebrities, he said. “It’s just amplified for them. But philosophers have [shown] that the person we really are is the person we develop and put in the world. That is our true self.”

The conversation then shifted to a discussion of the reception of literature in the public eye and the an author’s obligation to promote his/her work via book tours, festivals, and readings. Acknowledging the irony of having this conversation while himself at a festival, Kehlmann admitted that “I do think the way literature is organized in society—and many other authors have agreed with this—goes too much in the way of events… What any moderately successful writer does is spend one or two years writing a book and then one year explaining it… You spend all this time putting these things together and then you have to go publicly disassemble them.”

Kehlmann then read another short, humorous passage from Fame, in which an author explains—in response to the ubiquitous question, “where do you get your ideas?”—that he gets all of his ideas while in the bathtub. He had never understood this question, he said, even though it was what he was asked most frequently. Until one day he realized that “where do you get all your ideas” was simply “what became of the equally dreary question in the 70s and 80s, ‘why do you write?’” The question of an author’s intentions in creating, Kehlmann said, had “some social and political relevance. But in a time now when people are less concerned with writers trying to change the world, the focus has shifted.”

05/04/12 10:31am

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This is the first of Larissa Kyzer’s dispatches from the 2012 PEN World Voices Festival, which approaches its frenzied climax this weekend.

The Lunchtime Literary Conversations series, hosted by La Maison Française at NYU, is now a mainstay of the PEN World Voices Festival. Each year, several of these events bring together two authors—usually one of French or Francophone extraction—to discuss a variety of topics over the lunch hour. Wednesday’s conversation, between Eugène Nicole and Lila Azam Zanganeh, was a delightful pairing, highlighting the “miraculous points of intersection [of] interests and passions” that both authors share. Nicole, who was born on the tiny North Atlantic island (and French territory) of Saint Pierre, is a respected Proustian scholar at NYU whose cycle of five interrelated novels about his native isle, L’Oeuvre des mers, has taken inspiration from À la recherche du temps perdu. Zanganeh was born in Paris to Iranian parents, and currently teaches at Harvard. She is also a respected literary critic, and recently wrote her first semi-fictional book Enchanter: Nabokov and Happiness, in which she pays homage to her own Great Author.

Although both speakers graciously shared the mic and consistently shifted the conversation to the other’s work, the panel clearly belonged to Zanganeh, a wholly enthusiastic, well-spoken, well-read, and charming speaker. On her impetus, they started by discussing the “anxiety of influence,” particularly when one’s work has been so affected by an author of such great stature, like Proust or Nabokov. Nicole referenced Enchanter (Zanganeh’s book), in which, he noted, she “constantly” quoted Nabokov, integrating his work within her own without ever “breaking tonality.” Zanganeh laughed that doing this was “indeed very perilous,” since Nabokovians are “very jealous of their author,” and eager to find fault with tributes that fall short of their inspiration. All the same, she said, “in order to pay homage fully” to an author like Nabokov, “you need a measure of disrespect and irreverence.” It was necessary, she said, for her to “punch him on occasion.” She then reeled off a short, happy list of censures against her hero: “He was a terrible poet! I don’t like his Russian works—I secretly don’t like Pale Fire that much.”

Nicole then suggested that Enchanter was not just about Nabokov, but rather “a lively way to say something about Nabokov, using his own words.” This got to the heart of Zanganeh’s reading of Nabokov, to her strongly felt assertion that he is “a great writer of happiness.” So her own book about him “had to be playful.”

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Zanganeh then turned the conversation to Nicole’s work, starting by reading a short excerpt from L’Oeuvre des mers, which had been translated into English for the occasion by NYU professor and lauded translator Richard Sieburth. (It bears noting that none of L’Oeuvre des mers has been translated into English, nor has any of Nicole’s other fiction. Even if only based on the passage read during this lunchtime event, this clearly needs rectifying.)

When setting out to write L’Oeuvre des mers, Nicole felt a great deal of responsibility toward the place where he was born, his “filiation.” Saint Pierre, he explained, “had not yet entered into French literature.” (Chateaubriand and Celine, he mentioned, had written maybe a page each about the island, but that was all.)

The Saint Pierre that emerged in the course of the conversation was something of a no-man’s land, neither North American nor really French, a French territory, but not one that most could locate on a map—”a place that is, and yet isn’t,” Zanganeh summarized. And yet, as a child, Saint Pierre was the whole world to Nicole, to all of the residents. “We are dealing with an island,” he said. “Islanders think that nowhere else exists.” At the age of 14, in order to continue school, Nicole had to leave Saint Pierre in order to attend a private school in France. From this experience, he began to practice “focusing from far away,” a skill that has served him well in the course of his novel writing, as he very rarely returns to the island now. “I always had this dual image of being far away, and still exactly where I was [in France],” he said.

After meandering discussions of lived experience’s integration in fiction, the Proustian sentence, how “all of literature is a rewriting,” and the elasticity of English as compared to French, the conversation concluded with the question of practical writing techniques. When she starts a project, Zanganeh admitted, she has difficulty focusing. “You want to do anything else—you want to check your email, run around, eat chocolate,” but it eventually becomes easier to focus on writing. For Nicole, it’s not a matter of forcing himself to work for a specific number of hours a day, but rather to “give as much information as possible in each sentence.” He tries to capture images, to see the full possibility of a given location or circumstance. As with a child, he explained, for whom “one centimeter of asphalt is a world.”

03/28/12 4:00am

Amsterdam Stories
By Nescio, Trans. Damion Searls (NYRB)

A slim collection of novellas, short stories, and excerpts from an unfinished novel, Amsterdam Stories introduces English readers to the complete works of Nescio, one of the most beloved Dutch authors. Neither a particularly prolific nor commercially successful author during his lifetime, Nescio’s fiction now resonates as a love song to Amsterdam, a snapshot of The Netherlands in an era of profound change, and a bittersweet reflection on talent and youth fallen short of its promise.

Latin for “I don’t know,” Nescio was the pseudonym of J.H.F Grönloh (1882-1961), a co-director of the Holland-Bombay Trading Company. In his professional life, Nescio embodied the middling bourgeois existence that haunts nearly all of his bohemian characters. Four of the best pieces in Amsterdam Stories explore this tension and follow the lives of a motley group of disaffected artists, including Koekebakker, a struggling journalist, and Bavnik, a self-deprecating painter.

In “The Freeloader,” Bavnik befriends Japi, an echo of Melville’s Bartleby who declares “I am nothing and I do nothing.” This pursuit intrigues as much as irks his acquaintances, each of whom is attempting to evade the numbing grind of office jobs and banal respectability. The story also showcases Nescio’s poetic use of language and lyrical repetitions: “The freeloader you found lying in your bed with his dirty shoes on when you came home late; the freeloader who smoked your cigars and filled his pipe with your tobacco and burned your coal…”

Koekebakker narrates in retrospect, balancing light-hearted nostalgia with loss. “We were on top of the world, and the world was on top of us, weighing down heavily,” he sighs in “Young Titans.” And yet, even though these young men were poor, working jobs which “confiscated the better part of our time… [and] kept us out of the sunshine,” even though Bavnik couldn’t paint the world as he really saw it, and their hopes came to nothing—the wonder of this age of possibility is clearly what matters to him in the end.

The romantic undertone of the Koekebakker stories may be attributable to the time of their writing—all between 1909 and 1914, prior to World War I. Contrast this with the “world in tatters” that Nescio describes in the astounding “Insula Dei,” which was written and set in 1942, during the Nazi occupation. Where his young artists spent their days wandering outside Amsterdam, admiring the setting sun “blazing yellow” on the dikes, “Insula Dei” finds its narrator, Dikschei, freezing on a “gray, icy day” waiting for a meager share of milk at the market. Meeting an ailing old friend, Dikschei takes him to a cafe, splurging his ration tickets on bread and ham. “These aren’t the first eventful times I’ve lived through,” he says, resigned. “[A]nd if I’m granted even more years… I will most likely get to my third war.” But in his friend’s declaration that he is “an island,” that no man can himself be occupied, Dikschei recognizes and embraces a quiet self-possession, an internal rebellion against forces beyond one’s control.

03/14/12 4:00am

The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning
By Hallgrímur Helgason
(AmazonCrossing)

Tomislav Boksic, or Toxic, is the go-to hitman for the Croatian mafia in New York. A former soldier, Toxic prides himself on his impeccable hit record, his “sex bomb” girlfriend, and his decadent Manhattan lifestyle. But when kill #67 turns out to be an undercover FBI agent, Toxic has to flee America, assume the identity of a televangelist named Father Friendly, and hide in Iceland, a country he only knows from travel advertisements of “lunar landscapes and sunny faces.”

In the wake of its financial collapse, Iceland has invested significant energies in exporting itself both as a tourist destination (think of all those alluring subway ads), and—justifiably—as a hotbed of cultural innovation. A new partnership between AmazonCrossing and the Icelandic Literature Fund is representative of this effort: The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning by Hallgrímur Helgason is one of ten Icelandic novels that the press will release in English this year. Hallgrímur previously gained attention in the U.S. with his slackers-in-the-city novel 101 Reykjavík, and Baltasar Kormakur’s subsequent film adaptation. (There’s a fun moment in Housecleaning when Toxic discovers “the most famous bar in the land, heavily featured in some hip movie years back”—referring to the iconic Kaffibarinn in 101 Reykjavík.)

Housecleaning shares much of 101 Reykjavík’s sensibilities. On one hand, both protagonists—with their respective rating systems for women—could use some feminist sensitivity training. On the other, both books make for great mini-guides to Icelandic culture. It’s a clever device in Housecleaning—Toxic is essentially a tourist, so there’s ample reason to share factoids about Iceland: the country has no army, prostitutes, or handguns; and on particularly warm days (60ºF), businesses close for a “sun-break” so that “employees can go outside and enjoy the heat wave.”

Housecleaning is also notable in that it wasn’t actually translated from Icelandic—Hallgrímur wrote the novel in English. The prose is rhythmic and fluid, and showcases his linguistic creativity. Toxic not only has a flare for descriptions (“her hair… has the color of butter fresh from the fridge”) but also converts all the Icelandic names and words he hears into a phonetic English hitman-ese: he hears a woman’s name, Gunnhildur, as “Gunholder.” The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning was written prior to Iceland’s meltdown, but these efforts to familiarize outsiders with Icelandic culture and situate the country in a greater global context feel particularly appropriate for the current moment.

11/23/11 4:00am


Karaoke Culture

By Dubravka Ugrešic, Trans. David Williams

(Open Letter)

For the uninitiated, Dubravka Ugrešić’s essay collection Karaoke Culture provides an emblematic, if occasionally disjointed, snapshot of the author’s notable body of work. Available now just a year after its initial publication (very unusual for a translated work), Karaoke Culture is a timely collection on topics from the rise of participatory culture and “the anonymous artist” (the title essay), the preferred nomenclature and adopted personas of third wave feminists (“Bitches”), the “psychopathology” of reflexively loving a homeland you didn’t choose (“No Country for Old Women”), and a personal reflection on the vicious media harassment which led Ugrešić to emigrate from the newly-formed Croatian state to the Netherlands in 1993 (“A Question of Perspective”).

Reading Karaoke Culture is—in the best way possible—much like sitting with a highly caffeinated intellectual over tea. Ugrešić is a conversational writer; the zig-zagging structure of her essays suggests a fluid writing process that hews close to the author’s thoughts as she works from each initial observation to a final, incisive epiphany. Her cultural touchstones are restricted neither by country nor time nor genre: within the collection she makes easy reference to everything from Gone with the Wind and IKEA to Bulgarian Idol and Henry Darger. When these disparate references cohere within one essay, the effect is luminous. Only rarely within the dense collection does Ugrešić’s elliptical logic-dart miss its mark, leaving a few of the essays feeling somewhat over-determined.

The 22 essays in Karaoke Culture read fast—several are only two or three pages—but the collection rewards rumination. On first reading, it might appear that Ugrešić is herself channel-surfing, hopping among divergent topics to simply cover as much ground as possible. But so much the better. Here she diagnoses contemporary culture in all its facets, underlying the parallels between ideologies and societies that have long understood themselves to be diametrically opposed.

Throughout the collection, Ugrešić’s outspoken, absurdist humor and her genuinely global perspective shine through. Karaoke Culture is a rarity: a thoughtful, personal and informative work of socio-cultural critique that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

08/17/11 4:00am


KismetMore BeerOne Man, One MurderHappy Birthday, Turk!

By Jakob Arjouni


(Melville House)


“Crime=Culture.”So says Dumbo publisher Melville House about their new imprint, Melville International Crime. MIC represents the publisher’s latest venture to expand their existing catalog of fiction in translation, but although Melville House has introduced innovative series before, cultivating a line of international crime novels is not a particularly new idea. Gowanus-based Akashic Books launched its city-specific Noir series in 2004, and Soho Crime was dedicated to armchair travel and murder long before the Stieg Larsson boom. However, it is interesting to see a boutique press like Melville turn its attention to genre fiction.


Among the first books published by MIC are the “Kanyankaya Thrillers”by German author Jakob Arjouni. His private eye Kemal Kanyankaya is a character straight out of Hammet and a quintessential outsider-investigator: an ethnic Turk raised by adoptive German parents, he has always lived between two worlds in his hometown of Frankfurt, never entirely comfortable in either.


Happy Birthday, Turk! (easily the best in the series) finds the down-and-out Kanyankaya hired by a Turkish woman to track down the killer of her husband, a laborer whose death isn’t a high priority for local police. More Beer takes the suspicious conviction of four “eco-terrorists”in a bombing and murder as its premise; in One Man, One Murder, a German man hires the PI to find his girlfriend, a Thai prostitute who was kidnapped while trying to collect forged visa papers. Kismet, the most recent installment, finds Kanyankaya facing off with a violent Croatian gang. All unfold in a matter of days and are laced with Kanyankaya’s engagingly laconic sarcasm. There’s also a frank brutality which affirms the high stakes of each case and the lengths that Kanyankaya will go to get his man: he’s drugged, attacked by rats, suffers joint dislocations, is locked in a room full of tear gas, and is roundly beaten on numerous occasions.


Individually, however, the series is spotty. In both More Beer and One Man, One Murder, the intrigues become so entangled that it’s hard to care when Kanyankaya reveals whodunit—after making several key discoveries to which the reader is not privy. The detective’s understandable bitterness at being treated as an interloper or a fetish object feels increasingly belabored as he subjects every potential client to the same litmus test: “You must have checked the Yellow Pages. But why Kanyankaya, why not Müller?”And while he continues to investigate several cases after being fired and gives an impassioned speech about disenfranchised immigrants in Germany, he’s by no means an idealist. Treating housewives, prostitutes, buddies, and corrupt officials with equal disdain, it’s hard to believe that he ever cares much about the people involved in his investigations—he just wants the satisfaction of winning.


With this new imprint, Melville is capitalizing on their strengths in ways which stand to benefit both their current and potential audiences. Crime fiction fans are generally completists who want to read all of a favorite detective’s cases—even the rocky ones. And Melville has a knack for series—they’ve resurrected the novella as a viable (and marketable) form with their brilliant “Art of the Novella”line, establishing their press as a quality arbiter of taste while also engendering something like brand loyalty.


By expanding into international crime fiction, Melville stands to create a similar loyalty among new readers. Any even marginally good crime novel serves as a shorthand introduction to the social concerns, epochal tensions, and defining fears of its culture, the way the Kanyankaya thrillers address Germany’s struggle with immigration, cultural inclusion, and nationalism. Crime is culture, made accessible.

05/02/11 2:30pm

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The PEN World Voices Festival concluded over the weekend; see our previous coverage here and here.

Just after work and just before sunset, the “Literary Safari,” that took place at the Westbeth Center for the Arts’ romantically crumbling apartment complex just off the Hudson River in the West Village, combined two of New Yorkers’ most beloved pasttimes: attending exclusive cultural events and envying the well-appointed, divinely located apartments of our betters. The Safari promised a “unique experience,” and so it was. For two hours, guests were invited to “wander the hallways” of Westbeth, attending readings by 20 international authors in the homes of Westbeth residents.

For those unfamiliar with the community, Westbeth (which is, to this day, managed by a non-profit orgnaization)—is located in a former Bell Laboratories complex which were converted, in the late 60s, into 383 studio apartments by architect Richard Meier. The community first opened to residents in 1971, promising affordable housing for low and middle income artists of all stripes. (Don’t get excited—Westbeth stopped even waitlisting prospective residents in 2009 “due to the length of time applicants now spend on the list.”) The complex is 13 stories tall, and all of the studios, whose eccentric and whimsical floor plans vary considerably, are centered around a large central atrium. The hallways themselves give the building a sort of art-school dorm feel: many of the doors are painted or decorated by the owners, and each one features a different color triangle, oriented in various directions and suggesting some sort of cryptic code or affiliation. Idiosyncrasies in the layout render it impossible (on certain floors) to walk from the western end of the building to the eastern end, making navigation in the twisting, labyrinthine hallways feel not unlike stepping through the looking-glass.

The Safari was scheduled so that if everything ran precisely on time (which it didn’t) and you knew exactly where you were going (which we didn’t), one could attend four different readings and Q&As during the course of the night. Our first stop was in an elegant studio with breath-taking (and possibly a bit too distracting) views of the Hudson. Lynne Tillman, a novelist and short story writer who has been active in the downtown New York literary scene and has written extensively about—and in response to—the lives and work of contemporary artists (such as Andy Warhol and Kiki Smith), perched comfortably in an overstuffed armchair within a knee’s reach from her audience. She read a story from her newest collection, Some Day This Will Be Funny.

Before starting, Tillman encouraged any authors present to become writer-members of PEN: you need “just one book,” to join, she said, “and you don’t need to be invited.” Her reading was expressive, but restrained, punctuated by the late arrival of a guest who shuffled in as she was narrating, “anything might happen.” As the man tried to settle in unobtrusively, Tillman looked up and said, without irritation, “[t]hat’s a good time for you to sit down.”

After the reading, she cheerfully fielded inquiries about what it actually means to be a ‘Writer-in-Residence’ (“nothing much”) and how she makes the decision of when to introduce a character’s first name, particularly when the story is told in the first person. (“It’s a question of preciosity,” she mused, before explaining in depth considerations of interiority and the importance of “shifting” a reader’s expectations.)

The Q&A ran long, and we shuffled into the hallway a few minutes after the next reading was scheduled to begin. Urged on by a fellow guest whose whole purpose of attending was, understandably, “to see as many apartments as possible,” we wended our way through corridors, getting lost only once before finding ourselves—a bit late—in front of the apartment where Norwegian poet and editor Gunnhild Øyehaug was scheduled to be reading. The door, unfortunately, was locked.

Thrown off by this unexpected wrinkle, but not wanting to miss two readings in a row, we elected to head a few floors down to the reading of Marcelo Figueras, an Argentinian journalist, screenwriter, and novelist whose English-language debut, Kamchatka, will be released next month. The host’s apartment opened onto a seemingly interminable, L-shaped hallway, but after being cordially shown in by the host and her inquisitive cat, we sat at a kitchen table across from where Figueras perched on her bed. After an enthusiastic introduction from his English-language publisher, Figueras read two passages from his novel, in which a man remembers his childhood in Buenas Aires during the military junta of the 1970s.

Perhaps in a nod to the internationally-oriented festival, or perhaps in light of the curious Westbeth setting, Figueras chose passages which highlighted “two exotic places: Buenos Aires, which is not exotic to me, but is for much of the rest of the world,” and Kamchatka, a small peninsula in the far East of Russia which comes to represent a distant place of freedom and escape to Figueras’ young narrator, whose only experience with the region comes through playing the board game Risk. The passages read were episodic and felt almost complete, like a short story, and, in their descriptions of the children’s board games, invited listeners (at least some of us) a chance to mentally compare our own strategies for world domination with those of the young narrator.

After getting directions from Figueras’s host—”this is a really weird map,” she assured us, while trying to trace a path on our event handout—we made our way to our last stop, to see the disarming and boisterously charming short story author and creative writing teacher Daniel Orozco. Descending the stairs into a multi-level apartment (this one with a much fatter, more suspicious cat), we settled into the cozily cluttered studio of a lifelong Westbeth resident. As the guests sat on a piano bench and squeezed onto a sofa, Orozco situated himself at the end of the kitchen table and apologized to his host for reading the same short story (from his forthcoming collection Orientation) that he had favored his last guests with.

Orozco is a consummate reader, and in the course of his alternately hilarious and disturbing story about an increasingly distressing tour of an everyday white collar office, he seemed to not only connect with his audience, but also feed off their energy. The story—which was selected for inclusion in the 1995 edition of Best American Short Stories—is rhythmic and features, as a guest stated later to Orozco’s distinct approval, an utterly “relentless” narrator. Definitely the kind of story which truly shines when being read out loud.

Following this invigorating performance, Orozco talked about his writing process in a little more detail. “I need to find a puzzle,” he said, explaining that creating constraints of form or structure helped give him a place to start a story. The result, he said, is “hopefully something humane. I tell my students that all stories are about people. Borges wrote about people, even if it doesn’t seem like it.”

Having guidelines to write from doesn’t always make the process enjoyable, of course. “I hate writing 75% of the time,” Orozco said. “If writing were a person, that would be a really bad relationship. But the other 25% make it worth it.”

04/28/11 4:18pm

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Previously at the PEN World Voices Festival‘s “Lunchtime Literary Conversations” at NYU’s La Maison Française, we met Ludovic Debeurme and Kjersti Annesdatter Skomsvold.

“I read a lot of novels—only great novels. I attach no importance to novelty, so I’m actually very liberated.” So explained, via interpreter, the dignified and elegant French author Laurence Cossé, a former journalist and bitingly satirical novelist of numerous works of fiction, many of which are available in English. Her most recent novel to be translated, A Novel Bookstore, is deeply interested with the process of taste-making for the erudite—the manner in which the serious reader of discrimination selects the novels that will occupy her time. This makes for an interesting topic of conversation, particularly when in discussion with the multi-talented Hervé Le Tellier, who besides working as a linguist, food critic, teacher, and mathematician, is also the author of over a dozen works of poetry and fiction, and a member of the famously selective, playfully avant-garde French literary collective Oulipo.

Cossé, one gathers very quickly, places a refreshingly unwavering trust in her own taste and aesthetic—or if not her own, the “enthusiasm of someone whose taste [she] trust[s].” In her view, however, there is a limited amount of fiction that might be considered Great—particularly when speaking of work by contemporary authors. (When asked by an audience member to name some important emerging French female authors, she imperiously replied: “There are a few rising stars, but their work is uninteresting. It would annoy me to speak of them.”)

Le Tellier claimed to be “less cynical than Laurence,” explaining, for instance, that “not every Oulipo member likes all the books written by other Oulipo members,” and—drawing from the example of Borges’ “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”—one must consider a “masterpiece” in the context of the epoch in which it is written.

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But both Cossé and Le Tellier agree that one must be choosy about the books he or she invest time in. They both claimed to adhere to a five-page test of each book they begin reading—after five pages, said Cossé, she knows if a book is worth bothering with. Said Le Tellier, “There’s just too many books—too many bad books, too many good books.”

The question of translation elicited interesting comments from both authors, each of whom had an example of an author who is, by frequent account, better in translation. (Le Tellier: Dostoyevsky is said to be better in English; Cossé: Goethe is best in French.) But as might be expected from an Oulipian who favors writing under pre-determined, often grammatical or linguistic constraints, Le Tellier also raised some interesting concerns about what of a novel might be irrevocably lost in translation. Calling a piece of fiction, at its most basic, an “arrangement of words,” he noted that if an author spends hours thinking about the placement of a single comma, only to have that comma disappear (for grammatical reasons) in the translation, “it’s hard to say what is preserved.” Something as integral as word order gives a text a “different musicality” when translated.

The conversation was deftly guided by editor and author Rakesh Satyal, whose self-admitted “gimmicky” question “what contemporary authors—French or American—do you think are under-appreciated?” gave both Cossé and Le Tellier quite a bit to remark on. In a quick quip which delighted the chatty audience, Le Tellier interrupted his co-panelist’s answer: “You say me, and I’ll say you.” Cossé—mostly ignoring (or not understanding) the joke—quickly responded that she loved the work of Cormac McCarthy and would “put him above everyone.” (This is a preference that is echoed in A Novel Bookstore, where one of the characters refers to McCarthy as one of the greatest living authors.)

Le Tellier talked of his preference for Nicholson Baker and Fred Chappell, apologizing because he believed that they were, in fact, reasonably famous already. He also noted that appreciation for an author is sometimes more pronounced in countries outside of his own, noting the example of France’s enthusiasm for Paul Auster. ”We have Great American writers in France who are not Great American writers in America.”