New & Noteworthy
In the Act begins: “As long as Helen was attending her adult education classes twice a week, everything worked out fine: Edgar could have a completely quiet house for his work, or his thinking, or whatever it was.”
In Rachel Ingalls’s blissfully deranged novella, the “whatever it was” her husband’s been up to in his attic laboratory turns out to be inventing a new form of infidelity. Initially Helen, before she uncovers the truth, only gently tries to assert her right to be in her own home. But one morning, grapefruit is the last straw: “He read through his newspaper conscientiously, withdrawing his attention from it for only a few seconds to tell her that she hadn’t cut all the segments entirely free in his grapefruit—he’d hit exactly four that were still attached. She knew, he said, how that kind of thing annoyed him.”
While Edgar keeps his lab locked, Helen secretly has a key, and what she finds in the attic shocks her into action and propels In the Act into heights of madcap black comedy even beyond Ingalls’s usual stratosphere.
Fictionby Natalia Ginzburg
Translated from Italian by Gini Alhadeff
With a contribution by Cecily Brown
An almost unbearably intimate novella, The Road to the City concentrates on a young woman barely awake to life, who fumbles through her days: she is fickle yet kind, greedy yet abashed, stupidly ambitious yet loving too—she is a mass of confusion. She’s in a bleak space, lit with the hard clarity of a Pasolini film. Her family is no help: her father is largely absent; her mother is miserable; her sister’s unhappily promiscuous; her brothers are in a separate masculine world. Only her cousin Nini seems to see her. She falls into disgrace and then “marries up,” but without any joy, blind to what was beautiful right before her own eyes. The Road to the City was Ginzburg’s very first work, originally published under a pseudonym. “I think it might be her best book,” her translator Gini Alhadeff remarked: “And apparently she thought so, too, at the end of her life, when assembling a complete anthology of her work for Mondadori.”
Early Light offers three very different aspects of Osamu Dazai’s genius: the title story relates his misadventures as a drinker and a family man in the terrible fire bombings of Tokyo at the end of WWII. Having lost their own home, he and his wife flee with a new baby boy and their little girl to relatives in Kofu, only to be bombed out anew. The father explains to his daughter: “‘Everything’s gone. Mr. Rabbit, our shoes, the Odagiri house, the Chino house, they all burned up.’ ‘Yeah, they all burned up,’ she said, still smiling.”
“One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji,” another autobiographical tale, is much more comic: Dazai finds himself unable to escape the famous views, the beauty once immortalized by Hokusai and now reduced to a cliche. In the end, young girls torment him by pressing him into taking their photo before the famous peak: “Goodbye,” he hisses through his teeth, “Mount Fuji. Thanks for everything. Click.”
And the final story is “Villon’s Wife,” a small masterpiece, which relates the awakening to power of a drunkard’s wife. She transforms herself into a woman not to be defeated by anything, not by her husband being a thief, a megalomaniacal writer, and a wastrel. Single-handedly, she saves the day by concluding that “There’s nothing wrong with being a monster, is there? As long as we can stay alive.”
Spadework for a Palace bears the subtitle “Entering the Madness of Others” and offers an epigraph: “Reality is no obstacle.” Indeed. This high-octane obsessive rant vaults over all obstacles, fueled by the idées fixes of a “gray little librarian” with fallen arches whose name—mr herman melvill—is merely one of the coincidences binding him to his lodestar Herman Melville (“I too resided on East 26th Street . . . I, too, had worked for a while at the Customs Office”), which itself is just one aspect of his also being “constantly conscious of his connectedness” to Lebbeus Woods, to the rock that is Manhattan, to the “drunkard Lowry” and his Lunar Caustic, to Bartók. And with this consciousness of connection he is not only gaining true knowledge of Melville, but also tracing the paths to “a Serene Paradise of Knowledge.” Driven to save that Palace (a higher library he also serves), he loses his job and his wife leaves him, but “people must be told the truth: there is no dualism in existence.” And his dream will be “realized, for I am not giving up: I am merely a day-laborer, a spade-worker on this dream, a herman melvill, a librarian from the lending desk, currently an inmate at Bellevue, but at the same time—may I say this?—actually a Keeper of the Palace.”
A certain writer (“past sixty, enjoying ‘a certain renown’”) strolls through the old book market in a Buenos Aires park: “My Sunday walk through the market, repeated over so many years, was part of my general fantasizing about books.” Unfortunately, he is suffering from writer’s block. However, that proves to be the least of our hero’s problems. In the market, he fails to avoid the insufferable boor Ovando—“a complete loser” but a “man supremely full of himself: Conceit was never less justified.” And yet, is Ovando a master magician? Can he turn sugar cubes into pure gold? And can our protagonist decline the offer Ovando proposes granting him absolute power if the writer never in his life reads another book? And is his publisher also a great magician? And the writer’s wife?
Only César Aira could have cooked up this witch’s potion (and only he would plop in phantom Mont Blanc pens as well as fearsome crocodiles from the banks of the Nile)—a brew bubbling over with the question: where does literature end and magic begin?
“That woman who killed the fish unfortunately is me,” begins the title story, but “if it were my fault, I’d own up to you, since I don’t lie to boys and girls. I only lie sometimes to a certain type of grownup because there’s no other way.” Enumerating all the animals she’s loved—cats, dogs, lizards, chickens, monkeys—Clarice finally asks: “Do you forgive me?”
“The Mystery of the Thinking Rabbit” is a detective story which explains that bunnies think with their noses: for a single idea a bunny might “scrunch up his nose fifteen thousand times” (he may not be too bright, but “he’s not foolish at all when it comes to making babies”). The third tale, “Almost True,” is a shaggy dog yarn narrated by a pooch who is very worried about a wicked witch: “I am a dog named Ulisses and my owner is Clarice.” The wonderful last story, “Laura’s Intimate Life” stars “the nicest hen I’ve ever seen.” Laura is “quite dumb,” but she has her “little thoughts and feelings. Not a lot, but she’s definitely got them. Just knowing she’s not completely dumb makes her feel all chatty and giddy. She thinks that she thinks.” A one-eyed visitor from Jupiter arrives and vows Laura will never be eaten: she’s been worrying, because “humans are a weird sort of person” who can love hens and eat them, too. Such throwaway wisdom abounds: “Don’t even get me started.” These delightful, high-hearted stories, written for her own boys, have charm to burn—and are a treat for every Lispector reader.
The always astonishing Yoko Tawada here takes a walk on the supernatural side of the street. In “Kollwitzstrasse,” as the narrator muses on former East Berlin’s new bourgeois health food stores, so popular with wealthy young people, a ghost boy begs her to buy him the old-fashioned sweets he craves. She worries that sugar’s still sugar—but why lecture him, since he’s already dead? Then white feathers fall from her head and she seems to be turning into a crane . . . Pure white kittens and a great Russian poet haunt “Majakowskiring”: the narrator who reveres Mayakovsky’s work is delighted to meet his ghost. And finally, in “Pushkin Allee,” a huge Soviet-era memorial of soldiers comes to life—and, “for a scene of carnage everything was awfully well-ordered.” Each of these stories opens up into new dimensions the work of this magisterial writer.
Fictionby Helen DeWitt
Maman was exigeante—there is no English word—and I had the benefit of her training. Others may not be so fortunate. If some other young girl, with two million dollars at stake, finds this of use I shall count myself justified.
Raised in Marrakech by a French mother and English father, a 17-year-old girl has learned above all to avoid mauvais ton (“bad taste” loses something in the translation). One should not ask servants to wait on one during Ramadan: they must have paid leave while one spends the holy month abroad. One must play the piano; if staying at Claridge’s, one must regrettably install a Clavinova in the suite, so that the necessary hours of practice will not be inflicted on fellow guests. One should cultivate weavers of tweed in the Outer Hebrides but have the cloth made up in London; one should buy linen in Ireland but have it made up by a Thai seamstress in Paris (whose genius has been supported by purchase of suitable premises). All this and much more she has learned, governed by a parent of ferociously lofty standards. But at 17, during the annual Ramadan travels, she finds all assumptions overturned. Will she be able to fend for herself? Will the dictates of good taste suffice when she must deal, singlehanded, with the sharks of New York?