Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts tagged ‘contemporary literature’

This week I’m reading three books, moving from one to the other and back again. The books are: David Carl’s Heraclitus in Sacramento, Jane Hirshfield’s Nine Gates and Herta Müller’s The Appointment. What an odd and wonderful conversation these books are having. All so different, all turning over similar questions about how language works to make meaning.

The Appointment is fiction, obviously, but it’s running a careful hand along the idea of individual identity in a system which wants to forbid (destroy might be a better word) individual thought. The novel covers a single day as a young woman rides the tram to an interrogation session. She’s being watched because she was caught sewing notes (‘Marry me’, with her name and address) into the lining of the men’s suits bound for Italy from the clothing factory where she works. This is life under Ceaușescu.

The worst thing is this feeling that my brain is slipping down into my face. It’s humiliating, there’s no other word for it, when your whole body feels like it’s barefoot. But what if there aren’t any words at all, what if even the best word isn’t enough?

It’s really hard to categorize David Carl’s book Heraclitus in Sacramento. It’s a study, really. A collection of writings and thoughts around the acts of reading and writing. There is a fictional or personal thread as well, which draws it all together. But not tightly. Although it’s a bound book it feels more like a bursting folder collecting notes scribbled and torn from the margins of other books; these notes are in dialogue with so many other works, as is the elusive narrator. It’s a slow and curious read, and I’m really enjoying it. The first section is called “Lucubrations” and here is some of what it looks like:

Is he still at liberty to believe that the reading of words might improve him; might go some distance in making him a better person?

He still believes in such things as better and worse; if not in perfection, then at least in perfectibility. He believes there are things he can do that will make him better than he is, as surely as he believes that there are things he can do that will bring him pleasure.

But what do words have to do with this?

That is a question for him to live with a bit longer.

According to Aristotle, “Poetry is the product either of a man of great natural ability or of one not wholly sane.”

Poetry is the liberation of language, and language the very possibility of poetry.

Nine Gates is Jane Hirshfield’s collection of essays on understanding poetry. It is more classically academic in tone than the other two, but Hirshfield’s language remains lavish and alive even when she’s in an explaining mode. The first essay of the book is about concentration and it reminded me of Jan Zwicky’s interview printed at the back of her collection Chamber Music, in which she talked about “that wordless configuration in the world which lit up, arrested my attention” and the idea of “lyric availability.” Hirshfield gets at this from a number of different directions, using other poets’ ideas as well as her own descriptions. Everyone trying to describe the state of heightened attention involved in artistic creation.

In a passage about how poetry connects the poet with the reader, or the poet with his or her own past, there is this marvelous line:

Shaped language is strangely immortal, living in a meadowy freshness outside of time.

She is writing about the intimacy of repeating words—one’s own or someone else’s. Giving them form in the mind or aloud. How this formulation/formation works through the reader or the thinker. This sentence speaks to both The Appointment and Heraclitus in Sacramento, bringing my reading into a little conversation that will keep me company as I continue through all three books.


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Again in the spirit of women-in-translation month, here are four books in translation, of women writers, which I had the pleasure to review over the last few years.

The first is Swiss even! Noelle Revaz’s With the Animals, translated by W. Donald Wilson. Here is a part of my review which can be seen here at The Rumpus:

The book involves an element of the grotesque that rises up from time to time as a bizarre form of comedy. Paul is so ridiculously out-of-touch, so pathetically calculating and selfish. And so he can only lose, no matter his stubborn violence and wretched attempts to assert his power. Watching his downward spiral would be more thrilling if the reader wasn’t so certain he will cause plenty of damage in his descent. The book isn’t interested in revenge or balance or catharsis – despite a gentle movement in those directions.

If Rousseau, a Swiss writer of an altogether different generation, wanted to convince us of primitive man’s inherent nobility, than Revaz is calling out his theory in the plainest terms. There is nothing ennobling about Paul’s love of dirt and cow shit. Nothing but cruel freedom in his disassociation from other members of his species. But that very challenge makes the book a thoughtful and provocative read. And Revaz’s writing is both daring and defiant.

The second is Chasing the King of Hearts by Hanna Krall and translated by Philip Boehm, published by the wonderful Peirene Press:

This premise—that something as intangible and fragile as the connection and love between Shayek and Izolda should trump all impossible distances and insane governmental decrees and genocidal rules—is where the novella hinges. It is not so much that Izolda believes that within the context of the war she still deserves the success of her life and love, but rather despite it. On a purely psychological level, Izolda operates as if the war simply does not touch her. While her actions and movements are all prescribed and countered by what is happening in the Polish ghetto, in various prison camps, in Vienna, even in the Guben labor camp, her mindset remains firmly beyond these prescriptions. And this is this novella’s most remarkable offering.

The entire review can be seen here.

The third I want to mention is Taeko Tomioka’s Building Waves, translated by Louise Heal Kawai. Much has been said about another of Dalkey’s Japanese list (and for good reason!), Hiromi Kawakami’s The Briefcase. But Tomioka’s novel is wonderful and interesting and bizarre and deserves to be more widely read. Here is part of what I said about it, and the whole review can be read here:

Tomioka wanders through this socio-economic context using a feminist lens. Kyoko and the other women in the book—Kumiko (who becomes Katsumi’s lover after Kyoko), Ayako (Katsumi’s wife), Yoko (one of Kyoko’s friends whose husband leaves her), Amiko (a young mother), and Misawa (an older woman and artist)—are all bumping up against these expectations of what it means to be a woman, a mother, a wife. Kyoko sits at the farthest end of the spectrum, the woman who has mostly decided to reject traditional roles, and the other women fall in an untidy line somewhere along the range. What binds them all, to Tomioka’s credit, is that each is more searching than resolute, more hesitant than decided. And the book’s ultimate tragedy—although represented through a single and sad event—is a kind of despair at the paradox of refusing the superficiality of an unexamined life but knowing, at the same, that there are no easy answers, if there are answers at all, to any of your questions.

And the fourth is an old favorite of mine, always worth revisiting. Love, Anger, Madness by Marie Vieux-Chauvet, translated by Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokur. I so wish more of Marie Vieux-Chauvet’s work would be translated. Her novel Fille d’Haiti is incredible and powerful and deserves to be read widely. I reviewed the book at The Quarterly Conversation, here is part of what I had to say:

Love, Anger, and Madness also demonstrates Vieux-Chauvet’s impressive stylistic range. The diary technique in Love renders Claire, an otherwise despicable and dangerous woman, sympathetic. Granting the reader such unfiltered access to her thoughts reveals the complex nature of her situation and the influence of her troubled past. Vieux-Chauvet’s confident use of the third-person omniscient in Anger places each family member within the reader’s confidence. Yet suddenly, halfway through this second novella, Vieux-Chauvet switches into two back-to-back monologues by siblings Paul and Rose. These two narratives are powerful laments, swan songs about the dashed hopes and disillusionment of a generation of Haitian youth. And finally, Madnessreads much like a play, with clear echoes of Greek drama, a technique which highlights the “staged” or “forced” quality of the very violence the story seeks to indict.

Reading the passages below this afternoon and mulling their ideas over – especially after attending an outstanding short conference yesterday with Mathias Enard, talking about his books, specifically Zone and Boussole (Compass, which will be out later next year in English), and how they dialogue with ideas of contemporary and historical Europe – the historical/political and the emotional intersections of individuals:

Recognition, in the sense I’ve been using it so far, refers to a cognitive insight, a moment of knowing or knowing again. Specifically, I have been puzzling over what it means to say, as people not infrequently do, that I know myself better after reading a book. The ideas at play here have to do with comprehension, insight, and self-understanding. (That recognition is cognitive does not mean that it is purely cognitive, of course; moments of self-apprehension can trigger a spectrum of emotional reactions shading from delight to discomfort, from joy to chagrin.) When political theorists talk about recognition, however, they mean something else: not knowledge, but acknowledgement. Here the claim for recognition is a claim for acceptance, dignity and inclusion in public life. Its force is ethical rather than epistemic, a call for justice rather than a claim to truth. Moreover, recognition in reading revolves around a moment of personal illumination and heightened self-understanding; recognition in politics involves a demand for public acceptance and validation. The former is directed toward the self, the latter toward others, such that the two meanings of the term would seem to be entirely at odds.

Yet this distinction is far from being a dichotomy; the question of knowledge is deeply entangled in practices of acknowledgement…

From Rita Felski’s Uses of Literature

I enjoyed a lovely and interesting book last week— Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin (tr. Chi-Young Kim). It read easily, smoothly, but it’s a book that won’t leave me and I find myself thinking about it still days after finishing. I keep thinking about how it worked, and the texture of it. I think I am mostly taken with its slightly odd structure and 2nd person POV, two things that will charm me immediately. It’s also set in South Korea and very subtly immerses the reader in Korean customs at a time of great intergenerational change. Finally, it asks some provocative questions about the nature of familial love.

The basic premise of the novel is that an older couple has come to Seoul to visit their children. At the train station, they get separated from each other and the wife/mother goes missing. The book is about the family looking for her—both in the present story in and around Seoul, but also “looking for her” in a much more metaphorical way.

I love odd POVs and Please Look After Mom plays with variations of the 2nd person. Other times I’ve seen this done it’s usually a kind of mock how-to type of narrative. (I’m thinking of Lorrie Moore’s “How to be an Other Woman” and similar examples.) In this novel, however, the 2nd person functions like a kind of self-accusation – the narrator is both the subject and the object of what’s being said. If you know Jamaica Kincaid’s powerful and very short story “Girl” – it reminded me in some ways of how that 2nd person works. An inner voice that is shaded with a particular emotion.

Before you lost sight of your wife on the Seoul Station subway platform, she was merely your children’s mother to you. She was like a steadfast tree, until you found yourself in a situation where you might not ever see her again—a tree that wouldn’t go away unless it was chopped down or pulled out. After your children’s mother went missing, you realized that it was your wife who was missing.

This example quote is just one of the 2nd person POVs, because it shifts to inhabit several characters… and it even uses the POV to reveal the answer to one of the book’s central questions. I loved that trick (though maybe others would find it a bit like cheating—I didn’t, it felt very natural). And I love thinking how the POV enhanced the book’s emotional current, while playing with that very distance between narrator and character.

The book’s metaphorical “searching” is extremely well-done, looking at ideas of memory and regret. By inhabiting so many different voices, it questions how a family sees each other, and specifically how each family member “sees” the family’s central figure—the mother. In this case, no one seems able to see her until she vanishes and then each person is stuck inside a memory-reel, looking for clues. Who was she? What was her life? Why didn’t she seem important until she left?

Finally, in a subtle but deliberate way, Please Look After Mom is also very much about motherhood—from different angles and how it is transformed from one generation to the next. It’s carefully and lovingly done. Both smart and beautiful.

Two of the books I’m reading (or rather, one I just finished and one I’ve almost finished) have suddenly started speaking to each other. I so love when this happens.

I read Rachel Cusk’s Outline last week, and am just about to finish Lydia Davis’s The End of the Story. On the surface they could not be more different—in both style and approach, but I realized today that they are circling in their different ways around the same question of the subjectivity of narrative. Cusk does this by removing the self entirely from her project.

The book has a nearly completely effaced narrator who absorbs the stories of everyone else around her. One after another, the reader experiences the narrator’s disappearance beneath someone else’s narrative, only to surface briefly and then do the same thing again. But in its strange way the book keeps opening up, again and again, this question of how we narrate the self, how the self adjusts and transforms memory.

And in The End of the Story Davis does this from the opposite direction, by sticking extremely close to the narrator, allowing her to tell and re-tell events from all possible angles. This narrator doesn’t ever disappear, and she’s so interested in the impossibility of her own disappearance within the framework of the narrated self that she arrives around to the same set of questions.

Both books give a sense of vertigo—the endless dizzy spiraling of subjectivity— but with such very different prose styles. They make for a wonderful comparison and I’d like to read the two books all over again.


I sat down and read Daniel Albright’s beautiful Evasions yesterday, which is part of the ever-excellent Cahiers Series. Everything from the Cahiers Series is about translation in some way, but they take this notion and let it stretch extremely far. And I love this, I’m so interested in how the idea of translation applies to people and how we use language (and other mediums) for translation, and not just in terms of translating physical texts. In this particular piece, Albright collects together the fragments of writing, thinking, poems, dreams—all the ways in which our interior emotional lives fulfill/translate themselves into writing— that accompanied him for about a three year period after his father passed away. He notes in the introduction that he was dealing with other issues at the same time, and there is a feeling of different types of emotional convergence in his writing.

Some of the pieces are a little inscrutable, but this doesn’t actually detract from the pleasure of reading them. They become a kind of puzzle – a way to look inside a mind and wonder how it is coming up with what it’s producing. I like poetic expression that challenges a bit, and often I don’t want to know the reasons behind a particular poem. If I can find meaning in it for myself, this is enough.

There is a moment when Albright addresses this idea – in a small section called “The Vanita of a Literary Critic.”

The critic can respect the integrity of a work of art, but can he respect its self-concealedness? On a few occasions, as a critic, I have felt, not only that I had solved the technical problem of the means by which a poet had achieved a certain striking effect, but also that I had made the effect itself publicly overt, that I had forced an aperture in the poem through which the most casual schoolchild could behold its beauty – a feeling of desecration, as if I had permanently damaged some part of the poem, injured the lid by which the poem kept some of its secrets half-hidden, lovelier for its shadow.

I absolutely love this idea that a critic can “injure the lid by which the poem kept some of its secrets half-hidden.” I like the fine line here – because I love criticism and what it reveals, but I think critics must also accept the damage or the danger inherent in wanting to get below the surface of a piece of a writing.

Some other moments I stopped and had to re-read, to really think about what Albright was saying:

From a section called “A Character”

Whose strength lies entirely in the purity of her self-knowledge, who does not mind being wretched, frigid, hysterically blind, ideological, devious, as long as her honesty with herself is unimpaired.

Or this one, from “Capillaries”

Watching films of the inside of the body: human life consists of only two states, the excited, which is a spurt and a subsiding, and the calm, which is a trembling.

There is so much more – it isn’t a structured essay at all, but more like a collage of thought and feeling. It creates a complex whole, something to read and read again. It does very much feel like a translation of felt experience – through one simple medium (word), even if the form of that word changes from moment to moment. I think this is very true to how we do try to “translate” ourselves creatively. What Evasions does is give one possibility of what that might look like.

January and February took me by surprise – I have been reading a ton, but nearly all of my reading for the past two months has been for the prize that my novel won last year, The Christopher Doheny Award. This is an award that honors writing about physical illness and these books (both memoir and fiction) have been fascinating, difficult, sad, beautiful—they have given me much to think about.

That reading period is now over and I’m excited about the book that was selected for the prize this year. I will write more about it when I’m able to.

In the midst of all that reading, I’ve been reading/re-reading short books and essays and turning to a lot of comfort reading. I’ve now finished Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart, am about halfway through her The Passion According to G.H. I spent one evening comparing two translations of Agua Viva (1989’s The Stream of Life, tr. Elizabeth Lowe and Earl Fitz, and 2012’s Agua Viva, tr. Stefan Tobler). The differences between these two versions are both very slight and really interesting – and worth a post all on their own. The 1989 version is definitely worth picking up for Hélène Cixous’s marvelous introduction. I’ve also now re-read The Hour of the Star and can’t stop thinking about it. February has been a month of Lispector.

Comfort reading also means Anne Carson, so I’ve been reading and re-reading “The Glass Essay” and Nay Rather as well as selections from Men in the Off Hours. I could just get lost in her work. I have started flipping through red doc > but didn’t have the concentration for it on the afternoon I settled in. So that’s on my list this week.

One work stands out from all this “small” reading as well—Alice Oswald’s Tithonus, 46 minutes in the life of the dawn. I have Anthony to thank for this one. What an absolutely stunning text. I keep reading and re-reading. I am hard-pressed to pick a favorite passage, but this one may just be it (I had to put a hyphen in to preserve the line-breaks, why WordPress can’t do this, I’ll never know):

     she never quite completes her

sentence but is always almost

and this is what draws me to the

window this huge fragment broken off

with the mind-spire winding through

it also unfinished

she never quite completes her

sentence but is always almost

and this is what draws me to the

window too late I notice my head still

balanced on my neck but severed by

light from myself not knowing but


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I will be getting back to this space more regularly soon – we moved to a new village in March and I’ve been very busy getting settled in. I am extremely happy with our new place – even if I will miss our old farm house from time to time. But this new place has…. built-in bookshelves!! Everywhere!!  (Which I filled up a little too quickly, even if I did a major book sorting/giving away before we moved. Sigh.) In any case, things are nearly back to normal and I have been reading some wonderful stuff, all of which I am excited to write about. A short list:

  • Clarisse Francillon’s collection of stories Le Quartier – wonderful and touching vignettes of 1950s Paris
  • Jonas T. Bengtsson’s A Fairy Tale – reviewing this one soon for Necessary Fiction
  • Chris Yates, Night Walk – these are really lovely nature essays in praise of exactly what the title says, walking at night
  • Amy Sackville’s Orkney – read this a few months ago and it just enthralled me

Also, I just started reading Sworn Virgin by the Albanian author Elvira Dones. Here is a book whose cover flap I actually should have read before diving in. On the first page the gender pronouns are switching all over the place – but this is the story of a young Albanian woman who has been living as a man in her village for the last fourteen years. The novel opens with her arrival in America, and the implication is that she will be able to be a woman again. This is proving difficult for her. Promises to be a really interesting book.

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Also, In March I reviewed Christa Wolf’s slim novella August over at Necessary Fiction. I loved this little book – it’s simple and careful and all about memory.

August opens with the words, “August is remembering.” And this very simple sentence (the present tense of it absolutely perfect) directs the reader toward a series of tender meditations on this man’s early life. That word tender seems strange when the first memory called up is about the loss of his mother during a bombing raid on a refugee train, about a difficult conversation with a woman from the Red Cross and 8-year-old August’s medical exam and subsequent removal to a tuberculosis hospital. But despite the implied horror of these events, August’s tone is tender. Perhaps it is the distance Wolf gives him, 60 years in the future, or perhaps it is the life she has given him—a life mostly only hinted about—to fill those 60 years.

Alongside the careful tenderness in August’s tone there is also a feeling of resignation, and a cautious sorrow. Now a widower, now ready for retirement, now a man with plenty of time to be quiet and alone with his own thoughts—August fits the mold for the kind of memory piece that has even become a genre: an older man looking back upon his life and revisiting its twists and turns, its more difficult questions. But August isn’t interested in understanding anything. And this is the key. August simply wants to look at it again. To feel it all again. To peer through the windows of his mind and see the people and the objects of this particular and short period of his life.

You can read the rest of the review here.


Have had the pleasure of reviewing two wonderful books lately for Necessary Fiction. The first is Red Room: New Short Stories Inspired by the Brontës—and this title tells you nearly all you need to know, except how absolutely excellent the writing is in this collection. Unthank Books and Editor A.J. Ashworth put together an incredible list of contributors, and each writer seemed to have had their fun with the idea of re-envisioning, re-writing, or working through Brontë inspiration:

Here is a little of what I had to say about the collection:

There are also stories that engage with the melancholy of the Brontës, like David Rose’s beautiful “Brontesaurus” and Carys Davies “Bonnet.” The first is an elegant story of loneliness and academic solace, a piece that worries away at words like grief and drear in first a strictly literal manner and then a more emotional, more metaphorically delicate way. In “Bonnet” we are back to contemplating the real Charlotte Brontë in an imagined scene that quite possibly could have taken place and that gets at the heart of Charlotte’s conflicting personality: the passionate writer, the careful lover.

The range of subject and theme in the other stories is quite impressive: the deceptions of a modern-day governess, the death of a loved one, a contemporary Catherine & Heathcliff romance, a hike on the moors invoking Sherlock Holmes and much Brontë lore, and even fictional letters between Emma Woodhouse and Jane Eyre. As a purely selfish wish, I would have enjoyed a bit of direct engagement with Anne Brontë, she seems so often overlooked and yet her works are as powerful and complex as her two more studied sisters. And it is fun to speculate what a story inspired by Branwell or the Brontë children’s fantasy worlds of Angria or Gondal might have added, but this is not to say that Red Room feels incomplete, only a little Charlotte-heavy. As a whole, Red Room is a provocative, emotionally-engaging and witty anthology. It is clear that the authors featured here took to their task with both application and admiration.

You can read the whole review here.

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Next, I read a début novel by an American writer, Elizabeth Gentry, called Housebound, which was quite simply excellent. If you are a fan of Barbara Comyns (and I know many of you are), you will want to go right out and get this book.

“They” are a peculiar family—nine children, two parents—living in a large house on the outskirts of a small city. In many respects, they are an experiment, a utopia created by the parents according to very specific rules. The greatest of which is their near complete isolation from anyone else excepting a weekly trip to the library. This excludes the father who works every day in the city—and his difference from the rest of the family is an important element of Gentry’s narrative structure. Now, if this house and family is a utopia, it is one without a moving force; it has turned inward and become frozen. And even when the story’s action begins with Maggie, the oldest child, deciding to leave the family and take a job in town, this feeling of being perched and poised continues. As Maggie begins her preparations for leaving and, suddenly relieved of her role as child-minder for the first time, begins to wander about the property and visit the neighbors, there is a sense of the family holding its breath. And this psychological stillness begs the question—what is everyone waiting for? That tension stretches on, and gently but powerfully becomes the novel’s focus.

I have nothing but high praise for this unique story and Gentry’s descriptions and careful storytelling. It is quite dark in some ways, but thoughtful and beautifully written, and more interested in complicated salvation than any kind of long drawn-out portrayal of gorgeous failure. That sentence may need some explaining, but I hope it is clear that I mean this book does not focus on making something horrible seem beautiful nor on ending on some trite feeling of redemption. The book has a wonderful mood to it and I’m really looking forward to anything else that Gentry will write.

You can read the whole review here.

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Also, I’ll sneak two mentions of my own writings in this post. I have a short poem in the Fall issue of the Ann Arbor Review. A tiny thing, some thoughts about the word proof.

Lately, I’ve been working to write fiction from photographs again, and it was nice to think about the very first time I did this and ended up with “St. Tropez.”

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Finally, I started reading Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses (tr. Anne Born) the other day. What a beautiful book—I am sad it has taken me so long to get to his work. (Of course I could say this about so many authors-the panic of someone who would like to read it all.) Reading this book has me also thinking about John Pistelli’s list of books he’d put into a category he is calling Penitential Realism. I am very drawn to this idea, and I would definitely put Out Stealing Horses on this list. His essay on this idea of Penitential Realism (HT: Anthony at Time’s Flow) has been circulating around in my brain for the last week or so.

Something I am really enjoying in Out Stealing Horses are the narrator’s tangents—how odd, or slightly off-topic, but always somehow organic they seem to be. Like this one, which addresses a supposed coincidence in the story, but ends up commenting on life and fiction in general, but also addresses something Pistelli mentions in his essay about the books on his list and their “resistance to the kind of holistic plotting that binds the narrative into a fully meaningful structure of coincidence…”

I have in fact done a lot of reading particularly during the last few years, but earlier too, by all means, and I have thought about what I’ve read, and that kind of coincidence seems far-fetched in fiction, in modern novels anyway, and I find it hard to accept. It may be all very well in Dickens, but when you read Dickens you’re reading a long ballad from a vanished world, where everything has to come together in the end like an equation, where the balance of what was once disturbed must be restored so that the gods can smile again. A consolation, maybe, or a protest against a world gone off the rails, but it is not like that anymore, my world is not like that, and I have never gone along with those who believe our lives are governed by fate.


Some Writing

Between January and March this year, I had the very real pleasure (and subsequent immediate self-doubting anxiety) of seeing several short fiction pieces, and one translation, published around this beautiful lit-loving internet:

In January the exciting and new Sundog Lit published the first of my Elemental stories, “miner’s daughter.” These are very short pieces that I’ve been playing with as I work on a longer cycle; they are also auxiliary pieces to the novel I’m slowly writing about a woman who discovers a naturally-occurring nuclear fission reactor (and abandoned mine).

PANK just recently published a second one, called “Mining.”

In March then, Two Serious Ladies, which is an online journal that has published some of my favorite contemporary writers, included a short piece I first wrote over 10 years ago and have been re-writing ever since.  “Gongneung subway, 1.am”

Also, the always-beautiful Cerise Press included my translation of Ramuz’s “The Two Old Maids” in their spring issue. This journal does such wonderful work and this issue hosts a number of really beautiful translations as well as essays. Two of my favorites from this issue are Mary P. Noonan’s essay on Beckett and Jacqueline White’s on Mata Hari.

The Ann Arbor Review published a very tiny poem called “For September.” This poem is the perfect example of something I wish I could re-write now that it’s been published – an ongoing war with my inner poet.

Finally, at Necessary Fiction, I was very happy to be involved in a Round Table Discussion on Kate Zambreno’s Heroines with fellow writers/readers Helen McClory, Joanna Walsh and Christine Cody. This book has continued to stimulate some very interesting discussions around the web, and I highly recommend it.

Some Reading

My reading has been very much all over the place for the last few months—a mixture of contemporary titles, classic and contemporary Japanese novels, and back to Virginia Woolf’s Diaries. I’m also about halfway through Lyndall Gordon’s biography of Woolf and thoroughly immersed—Gordon filters all auto/biographical information about Woolf and her family and peers with lengthy discussions of Woolf’s fiction and other writings. It’s all extremely compelling.

I have discovered a handful of writers this winter worth looking further into. The first is Michelle Latiolais, whose story collection Widow was published by Bellevue Literary Press. She has a novel as well, which I will read soon. And I’m going to write a full post on Widow, but will say quickly here that it was an exceptional collection—the combination of emotional and cerebral that I absolutely love, with narratives just a bit inscrutable but which attain a high emotional resonance. She reminded me of Christine Schutt in many ways (and indeed, Schutt blurbed the book). The second is Mariko Nagai, whose collection Georgic I wrote about here.

I’ve also read two quite different francophone women writers, neither of whom has been translated into English but who were both incredibly well-published in their lifetimes and who walked along the periphery of the “nouveau roman.” The first is Hélène Bessette who was French, and the second is Clarisse Francillon, from Switzerland although she lived for most of her life in Paris. Imagine my delight at finding at small back room at the public library in Vevey that houses the Francillon collection—all of her own work plus the library she donated to the city when she died in 1976. Imagine my further delight when I learned I could check anything out and that it wasn’t restricted to use on site. I toddled home with a tall stack of her novels and am getting acquainted. Her novel Le Carnet à Lucarnes (The Skylight Notebook) is described in the Dictionnaire Littéraire des Femmes de Langue Française in this way:

L’héroine y incarne au féminin trois archétypes de l’imaginaire occidental: Hamlet, le tourmenté, Don Juan, l’insatisfait et Faust, l’orgueilleux.

[In this book, the heroine represents a feminine personification of three western archetypes : Hamlet, the tormented, Don Juan, the unfulfilled and Faust, the proud.]