TOKENSby Dan Fall, Tatiaana L. Laine, Helena Fitzgerald, and Kenneth Schneyer
A Life on Paper
translated by Edward Gauvin,
Small Beer Press, 2010
The book jacket of A Life on Paper calls Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud “France’s own Kurt Vonnegut.” But during my brooding, meandering tour through this first English collection of his work, it was not Vonnegut’s glee that Châteaureynaud showed me. Instead, there were generous dollops of Poe’s monomania, Chekhov’s compassion, Melville’s slyness. But Châteaureynaud could never be mistaken for a North American, in any case. His fascination with the small and delicate and his embrace of destiny, even while confronting us with the fantastical, is a combination I don’t think we grow here.
American fantasy readers will see that Châteaureynaud comes from a different tradition than our native urban fantasists and magical realists. He does not engage in “world building.” When he employs, with surgical precision, a magical or fantastic device, it is, as in Poe, because it is vital to the thematic core, and without it the structure would collapse. Sometimes the uncanny exists only in the minds of the characters, as if to say, “Is this not magic enough?” In this sense, reading Châteaureynaud is more like experiencing Rod Serling than Ursula K. Le Guin.
At the center of each of these tales is a ruthless emotional honesty, a refusal to look away from fragility and failure. “The Gulf of the Years” dares to ask what the heart of a time traveler truly seeks. In “The Guardicci Masterpiece” and “The Beautiful Coalwoman,” lovers, casual and passionate, confront the improbability, even the impossibility of their desires. In “Icarus Saved from the Skies,” we ponder whether those who love us understand us better than we understand ourselves, or whether their compassionate influence is wholly destructive.
Themes surface and resurface. How many writers have shown us the Sirens more than once? Who is so fascinated by museums? And who, apart from John Irving, is so desperately concerned with the moral accountability of the writer in the act of writing, or in the act of abandoning or disowning his work?
Translating Châteaureynaud requires a mastery of both the literary and the speculative, as well as near-perfect pitch. Edward Gauvin, a product of both Iowa and Clarion, who publishes his own fiction as H.V. Chao, is one of the few who could have pulled it off. These stories do not feel like translations; there is an immediacy, even an intimacy here that dissolves any distance of language. It is largely through Gauvin’s efforts that English-speaking readers have experienced Châteaureynaud at all, in such venues as AGNI Online, Conjunctions, The Harvard Review, and in the Brooklyn Rail.
Do I imagine the echoes of others I have loved in this book? Maupassant might have written “The Pest,” China Miéville “A City of Museums,” Samuel Beckett “La Tête,” Ray Bradbury “The Peacocks,” and John Crowley “The Gulf of the Years.” Yet there is no imitation, conscious or otherwise, in these 23 stories spanning some 30 years. Rather, Châteaureynaud’s dance steps are so nimble that he seems, without effort, to show us what is best in others.
Craig Morgan Teicher
Cradle Book is described as a series of fairytales. But Craig Morgan Teicher’s second collection of poems is more precisely described as a series of aphorisms and parables—paeans, all, to our soul-stealing world. With grim aplomb, Teicher sets about his task, constructing single-page tales that seemingly pre-date contemporary notions of narrative.
Historical poetic relations abound: Andrew Marvell’s metaphysical poetics spring to mind, as does John Dryden’s Fables, Ancient and Modern, which Dryden partly penned and partly translated. That our own moment does not separately categorize this tradition of poetic and philosophical narrative (the tradition of Socrates, the tradition of Jesus, the classical poetic and narrative tradition world-wide), is more a fault of modern assumptions than modern interest. Our contemporary notions of what a poem or story might be is curiously truncated by moralism and entertainment: moralism, in that there must be a moral; entertainment, in that there must be a happy ending, or, at least, a just one.
Teicher is right, of course, and courageous as well, to resist contemporary valuations that are, really, valueless. And in his poem-stories, he is in good company. Kurt Vonnegut’s introductory lines to Anne Sexton’s Transformations (the 1971 title from Houghton Mifflin is based on Grimm’s fairytales), could just as neatly describe Cradle Book:
“She domesticates my terror, examines it and describes it, teaches it some tricks which will amuse me, then lets it gallop into my forest once more.”
T.S. Eliot, in his essay, “Baudelaire,” serves equally well:
“Baudelaire perceived that...damnation itself is an immediate form of salvation—of salvation from the ennui of modern life, because it at last gives some significance to living.”
The great challenge of literature is always changing, is as mutable as our striving and forgetful cultures—but always, it is some part of the author’s job description to strip away our truisms and describe the gaping unknown. Teicher, in Cradle Book, sits somewhere on the other side, and transmits.
From Cradle Book’s “The Wolves”:
“... the wolves are made of something less than air.
Their bite is like a breeze. When they run a few leaves shake. Perhaps a flower bends when they howl.
Pass through the woods whenever you like. What you have to fear is not the woods.”
Molly Fox’s Birthday
!Deirdre Madden’s novel of life in the theater, as told in the voice of a playwright, is a close examination of friendships past and present, as well as the friends themselves. Madden’s nameless narrator spends one day alone in the home of her friend Molly Fox, a famed theater actor. She details her long-running friendships with Molly and their mutual friends, as well as many personal characteristics of these friends. In a single day, this divorced, single, childless, professionally successful playwright spends more time contemplating her friends and friendships than do the hoi polloi in a lifetime. Adrift in the minutiae of clothing, family histories, and personality flaws, one begins to wonder if this analytical look back into one’s life leads to well-developed, authentic characters in her plays, or whether this analytical nature is better restrained than indulged.
There is the issue of Molly Fox’s fame. Our narrator attempts to convince us that she only thinks of Molly as a simple, honest friend and is not star-struck by her friend’s fame and award-winning stage performances. While our narrator is successful in her own right, she is, by nature of her profession, less recognizable, and this seems to create a small, nagging sense of insecurity in her. She met Molly by having a slight crush on her, and they later became close as Molly acted in several of her plays.
Like Fox, Deirdre Madden spotlights adoration—whether it’s the narrator’s adoration of Molly Fox, or their male friend’s admiration of various women in his life. Her attention to detail can be somewhat tedious, dragging the 24-hour span of the novel. But there is an authenticity to it all which is perhaps, if not show-stopping, the more divine intention of theater.
—Tatiaana L. Laine
The Bars of Atlantis
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010
The easiest category into which one could place Durs Grünbein’s collection The Bars of Atlantis might be memoir, with the essays’ personal recollections and opinions gathered from experience. It would, however, be memoir of a kind nearly incomparable to the narrative confessionals that currently dominate our understanding of the genre. Grünbein, known as a poet (his 2005 poetry collection Ashes for Breakfast gained him international recognition), here switches to an autobiographical and analytical form. These essays live somewhere right on the border between poetry, criticism, and autobiography, never quite settling into any one category.
Grünbein’s meandering, imagistic style, the imbuing of banal subjects (obscure fish in one piece, airplanes in another) with unexpected and somewhat mysterious meaning, is the practice and language of poetry, translated into an essayistic form. Grünbein looks at institutions and traditions from the outside in. He quotes Bachelard, saying “the poetic image is…always a little above the language tied to meaning.” Grünbein’s essays live in that space just above the connection to meaning. Rather than confronting the reader with simple critical argument, he presents a series of images as a vehicle by which to move toward meaning through something closer to poetry.
In the title piece, a long essay meant to explicate a single line in one of his own poems, Grünbein tells the reader, “We will proceed by leaps and bounds, but brief trip will contribute to the trip as a whole.” The essay then moves like a slideshow in fast-forward through a survey course’s worth of great philosophers’ works side by side with minute, vivid memories from Grünbein’s childhood. Yet this giddy sprint through reference and memory settles into a stunning coherence, in which metaphors concerning travel, water, space, distance, dreams, swimming, and a handful of other themes coalesce to bring together a long literary tradition with the contemporary moment. The entire collection functions like this essay, using disparate, dreamlike images and reflections to achieve a vivid and surprising coherence.
Grove Press/Black Cat, 2010
Sofi Oksanen drops us right into the small cottage of Aliide Truu after a thin, straggly, unkempt young woman of questionable origin is found in her yard. We are given details about a ripped dress, fingernails, and telltale torn tights. Oksanen gives us the entire gray, sad mystery from every thought and detail to the larger hidden story we uncover bit by bit.
Oksanen alternates between a 1990s Estonia struggling to join the rest of the Western world in its fashion and technology, and a 1940s Estonia struggling to join the rest of the Western world in obtaining a state of political freedom and rest. The characters’ blunt acceptance of the depressing conditions is typically Scandinavian, bringing to mind the people and events of Haldor Laxness’s Independent People.
Details build this story as Oksanen catalogues every item in the house, from worn wooden floorboards to a description of the sausages on the table. All senses are engaged as we imagine the taste of the bitter percolated rationed coffee, smell Martin’s sour odor, hear the cabinet scratching into place to hide Hans, taste the valerian Aliide prepares. Like Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, Oksanen manages to paint Purge as a vivid adventure within a cottage we know inside and out, the way we knew every inch of the boat in Life of Pi.
Politics are a physical character, directing everyone’s actions. Oksanen’s historical research is thorough—though she is young enough to be one or two generations removed from the era’s experiences. She sets the political climate with details about the uniforms, songs sung throughout the town, and the fear that everyone lived in. Aliide even marries oily, shady Martin for the political power she thinks he has.
The love story: two sisters in love with one man. A Romeo and Juliet-esque demise is quite romantic for a Finnish work: a bit of reindeer with your squash and cream potatoes.
—Tatiaana L. Laine
Grove Press/Black Cat, 2010
Nuori, epäsiisti nainen on löydetty Aliide Truun pihasta. Saame tietää että revitty kolttu, sukkahousut ja sormenkynet ovat myös löydetty paikan päältä. Sofi Oksanen vie meidät pieneen pirttiin. Oksanen kertoa meille tämän synkän tarinan yksityiskohtaisesti. Toinen, piiloitettu tarina selviää meille pikku hiljaa.
Oksanen kertoa 1990s Virosta jolloin kansa yritti liittyä Europan kultuurin, teknologiaan, ynm. Välillä hän kertoa 1940s Virosta, jolloin kansa taisteli vapaudesta. Kirjan henkilöt suostuu näihin olotiloihin, ja tämä on tyypilistä pohjoismaalaista oloa. Tulee mieleen Haldor Laxnessin Independent People.
Yksityiskohdat kertoavat meilli tämän tarinan. Oksanen kertoa meille kuluneista lattioista ja makkaroista. Maistamme kortilla ostettua kahvia, haistamme happamia hajuija, kuulemme kaapin siirtoa, ynm. Kuten vene Yann Martelin Life of Pi:ssa, Oksanen näytää meille pirtin joka nurkan.
Sofi Oksanen on tuttkinut täydellisesti ajat ja paikat. Hän vie meidät siihen polittiseen henkeen, puvut, laulut ja pelko. Vaikka itse ei ole nähnyt näitä aikoja. Aliide nai Martinin, sillä han uskoa etta miehellä on politista voimaa. Tässä on rakkaus tarina myös. Siskot rakastavat yhtä ja samaa miestä. Vahan Romeo ja Juliet suomalaisittain. Suomalaista romanssia, poroa ja perunamuusia.
Translated into Finnish by Tatiaana L. Laine