Monday, October 26, 2009

Hats Off to Pachyderme

Pachyderme, by Frédérik Peeters (Gallimard, 2009)

Let’s see… in the breathless opening to this 90 page graphic novel we get a traffic jam due to a wounded elephant; a blind pigkeeper; a gray hydrocephalic baby—vaguely alien-looking—in the woods; a cavalier and alcoholic skirt-chasing surgeon; and a beanpole of a Swiss secret policeman, complete with trenchcoat, stovepipe hat, and prosthetic proboscis, who like Get Smart’s Agent 13 turns up in the unlikeliest of places. A woman—our heroine Carice—walks though it all—from her car through the woods, as if in a trance, to a hospital to visit her diplomat husband, indisposed from an auto accident. Her goodbye note, which she intends to deliver in person, is in her purse. The hospital is vast, remote, and forbidding, filled with suitable loonies. Among those Carice meets in the lobby are a paraplegic who offers to help hide her if she’s a Jew, and an orderly who insists she’s come for the annual show patients put on. The secret policeman insists she see the Don Juan of a doctor before her husband, because the former has a file that should be in the latter’s hands: a file valuable to the Soviets, detailing activities of the Red Cross. The book's first third ends with Carice waking an apparently dead body in the morgue with her whistling. Chopin? the body asks. Carice nods. We learn of her too-early marriage, her dashed dreams as a concert pianist, and in the course of conversation realize that the aged cadaver she’s talking to is her future self.

This is a dream, Carice says. I must be dreaming.

Or I am! the dead body merrily replies. Or they are, all around us! Who knows?

Or maybe, Carice reflects, I’m not here right now…

It’s Switzerland, 1951. Despite the cavalcade of unlikely characters, the willfully eccentric situations, the tone is somber, the art insistently realistic. Nor is credibility stretched; the increasing strangeness is eerily convincing. We’re in something like a David Lynch version of The Shining.

Pachyderme is the latest from the Swiss creator Frédérik Peeters, dubbed “a young master” in the world of Francophone comics by no less than The Comics Reporter’s resident Euro-expert, Bart Beaty. He first came to notice in 2001 with the raw, headlong memoir Pilules bleues (Atrabile), about living with an HIV positive lover (translated by Anjali Singh for Houghton Mifflin as Blue Pills in 2008). After five Best Book nominations at the Angoulême Festival, Peeters finally took home the prize for the final volume of his black-and-white science-fiction tetralogy Lupus (also from Atrabile). This meandering saga, low on tech and long on character, is a record of Peeters’ increasing sophistication as both writer and visual storyteller, and starts out sort of Firefly to end up more Solaris. In the first book, rich girl runaway Sanaa jumps in with two unlikely buddies, Ted and Lupus, sportfishing on a distant planet, accidentally causing Ted’s death at the hands of bounty hunters her father has sent after her. The series becomes a headlong space chase; the odd characters Lupus and Sanaa meet along the way include a disgruntled revolutionary clearly modeled on a soixante-huitard. Once they outdistance their captors on an abandoned space station, the story rhythms relax into road trip and even domestic drama, as Sanaa announces her pregnancy. Of note as well are Peeters' two recent crime volumes RG, a collaboration with Pierre Dragon, a police intelligence officer.

Lupus featured frequent dream interludes, and alarming close-ups so macro as to be abstract, but these were clearly set off from the linear story in the here and now. The achievement of Pachyderme is a stunning poetic compression of dream and reality, and a surehanded marriage of image and narrative. For most of the book the reader is no more certain of what’s real and what isn’t—even what’s past and what’s present—than the heroine Carice, and yet like her we move smoothly forward, ever deeper into mystery, confident and troubled, trusting and compelled. The transitions are abrupt but enticing. The action moves too quickly for us to dwell on our befuddlement. Patterned wallpaper sprouts pink blossoms. A woman dancing is arrested by the eye of a stuffed flamingo. The whirlwind story blends several genres: haunted house, espionage, romance.

How does Peeters manage to make a seamless whole of it? For one, he conscripts the spectrum, displaying a canny mastery of color matched to décor. With such deft schemes are entire moods established. The tan fields, the russet woods, the blue hospital walls, the green morgue, Clarice’s purple dress and lavender stole… Peeters deploys an orchestral command of mood. When at last Carice enters the doctor’s lair, the sumptuous red drapery introduces a menacing note, heretofore unheard, to the book’s lush chromatic symphony. Only later do we notice the deft separation of lush, saturate fantasy from paler reality.

His dialogue also perfectly sustains the tone, at once worldly

“I’ve had to fend off more sophisticated techniques of seduction, Doctor. I won’t go so far as to say you disappoint me, but—”

and dreamy

“There must be several types of brain, don’t you think? With certain particular predispositions. For instance, I always know when a woman’s lying, but on the other hand, unlike most people, I have no sense of direction.”

Pachyderme is so tightly told, so invisibly rigorous, one almost imagines it embedded in a longer story, like the Dali sequence in Spellbound. (Only one panel made me groan: nosebleeds are so cliché.) Though the book features two pachyderms—including a golden pendant—one reaches the end with the enigma of its title tantalizingly intact. That so convoluted a narrative should lead us, down its byways and secret passages, to a moment of triumph, reassurance, and even grace, beside a hospital bed! The final page invites us to stand and applaud. This reader did. He leapt from his easy chair and clapped out loud.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Yuri Andrukhovych in New York

I had other plans for the evening, but when I heard that Yuri Andrukhovych was in town I changed my mind immediately. I had read his literary essays "Disorientation and Locality” and “My Europe” (co-published with the Polish writer Andrzej Stasiuk) in the German translation and often found myself laughing out loud while reading. I had read his novel,"Twelve Book", which many consider his best work in the German translation. A few years ago Barbara Epler, editor-in-chief of New Directions, asked me to read the book, write a report and make a recommendation if his work might do well in the American market. Despite my enthusiasm and praise, New Directions decided against translation and publication. Yuri Andrukhovych’s work has been published in Poland, Germany, Canada, the United States, Hungary, Finland, Russia, Serbia, Italy, Slovakia, Spain, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Croatia, and Bulgaria. Unfortunately, he remains largely unknown to the American reader.
Cosponsored by the Ukrainian Studies Program at the Harriman Institute of Columbia University and the Kennan Institute this event was not advertised anywhere. Nevertheless the room on the top floor of the International Studies building with the spectacular view of the Manhattan skyline was packed mostly with native Ukrainian speakers.
Yuri Andrukhovych had forgotten his reading glasses. So he read little and told stories instead, thereby revealing his unique sense of humor and remarkable talent as a raconteur. He spoke about the origins of his poem “Werwolf Sutra.” In 1986 he had a grant to stay in an East German artist residency. In the surrounding forests of Wiepersdorf he found the ruins of a former Soviet army town with its barracks, firing ranges, and outhouses covered with graffiti.
He recounted the background story of his novels "Recreations"(CIUS Press, 1998), "Perverzion" (Northwestern University Press, 2005) and "The Moscoviad" (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2008) and read selected excerpts.
He touched on the problems of translation. “Werwolf Sutra,” for example, had not been translated into English from the Ukrainian original but from the Polish translation. Of the four prestigious international literary awards he won; three were awarded to him in Germany, the other in Poland. Asked why he was so well received in Germany, Yuri Andrukhovych pointed out that Germany stood out in Europe for its knowledge about Ukrainian literature. Highly professional translators are available to translate from Ukrainian into the German language. He noted that Germany historically had always looked East and to the Russians, idealizing a quality they thought they lacked. “Just think of their quest for Lebensraum,” he said.
At 9:00 PM the organizers of the event urged the audience to leave, but the majority remained. Most mingled, shared their reactions to the reading and lined up to have books signed, to take photos, and to question Yuri Andrukhovych. All the available books were sold immediately.
“It is more important to live than to write,” Andrukhovych stated at one point during the evening and the crowd seemed to take his word for it. It was a great event featuring an inspiring writer. It was a privilege to have met the author of this distinctive literature.
.Before coming to New York Yuri Andrukhovych appeared at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. A video of that forum can be accessed at
He is scheduled to go to Cleveland next. If you get a chance to hear and see him in person, by all means take it.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The European Book Club

I am a voracious reader. I read everywhere: on the couch, in the bath tub, in bed, on park benches, airplanes, busses, and in the subway. Reading, I shut out the world and immerse myself in the world the author has created for me. Reading is my solitary pleasure. The bond is between the writer and me. I have never allowed anyone in to share my pleasure. It felt as if I’d be letting the world in to watch me making love.
For that reason, I have never participated in a book club. The last time I discussed literature in a large group was more than 30 years ago in high school, more specifically my German Gymnasium. Back then, only one interpretation of a work of fiction was allowed, that of the teacher’s. I sat in class knowing that the teacher was wrong, that there was more than one way of looking at the text, that all interpretations had value. Writers are open-minded; they present the lives and motivations of even the most despicable characters and often do so without judgment. So it was with great trepidation that I attended my first book club meeting.
Fifty percent of all the books in translation published worldwide are translated from English, but only six percent are translated into English. This amounts to 400 foreign fiction books (of which approximately seven are German) per year translated into American English. The European Book Club was launched one year ago by the librarians of the Austrian, Czech, French, German, Italian, and Spanish Cultural Institutes in New York City to expose more Americans to the wonderful literature of their homelands. From the beginning, it was a huge success. The Polish, Romanian, and Norwegian libraries have subsequently joined.
I was prepared. Reading Katherina Hacker’s The Have-Nots had not been a pleasurable solitary experience. In fact, I had to force myself to get through the story of well-to-do thirty-somethings, who like the rest of Germany, seemed to suffer from low-level chronic depression. I had a hard time following the multitude of characters and the simultaneous stories lines. I didn't care for the 9/11 reference, the wealthy protagonists, their pain, angst, and ambiguity. I wondered why Hacker had won the 2006 German Book Prize.
At the Goethe Institute’s new downtown location, twelve women and one man sat in a circle. Unsure how to act, I sat back to observe. Many participants found the novel difficult to read. Some had not finished the book. The group explored the motivation of the characters. The protagonists were one-dimensional and lacking in empathy. Had that been the writer's intention? We discussed the different prose style of American and German writers: great storytelling, entertaining literature as opposed to literature as Bildungsauftrag that made the reader work hard.
In no time I felt totally at ease and plunged into the discussion. We jumped around quite a bit, touched on the role of Holocaust in post World War II German consciousness, German guilt, and Herta Müller winning The Nobel Prize. Should we read her next? We discussed modernism in literature, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce. Maybe Katherina Hacker tried to do something similar? We all agreed that she didn't have the skill of those writers. We shared personal experiences about 9/11, living in Berlin, Poland, in Ceausescu's Romania, and as a Jewish American in 70s Germany.
I was impressed how polite and inclusive the group was. No one cut each other off. We pointed to the weak portions of the book with kindness. I sat there thinking what if I was to discuss this book with my friends in Germany? Would we have trashed the book, used much stronger language? Would we have been so kind?
After the official end of the book club, most stayed and continued the conversation over wine and pâté crackers. A diverse group of people had been brought together by their love for European literature. I was glad I had been part of it. This had been an extremely enjoyable evening. “When is the next meeting?” I asked before walking out the door. “Count me in.”


Friday, October 9, 2009

Interview with the Italian Writer Gianrico Carofiglio

Stefania Rega interviewed the Italian writer Gianrico Carofiglio for Absinthe.

To Judge and Tell:
An Interview with Gianrico Carofiglio
by Stefania Rega

Gianrico Carofiglio's first novel, Testimone inconsapevole (Involuntary Witness), was published in 2002. At that time, he was just over 40 and was working as a judge in Bari, southern Italy. Since then, he has published four more novels, including Il passato è una terra straniera, which has recently been made into a film. He has also written a graphic novel (Cacciatori nelle tenebre, 2007) and an essay about the power of words. His most recent prizes include Bremen Prize and the Grinzane Cavour Noir.

He is considered the only notable representative of Italian legal-thriller fiction.
With his elegant prose, Carofiglio unfolds his stories of common life characters involved in judicial cases against the unfailing background of his home town. His books are small paintings of common lives troubled by a crime before eventually returning to their quiet normality. His best known character is the lawyer Guerrieri, the lead of three of Carofiglio's novels — in addition to the one already mentioned, there is also Ad occhi chiusi (2003) and Ragionevoli dubbi (2007). Clearly fallible as he struggles with his indecisions and questions, Guerrieri embodies a sort of new hero, one that any reader can identify with.

In this interview, Carofiglio talks about himself and his novels, but also reflects on more general issues regarding literature and fiction.

Q: Your most famous character, Guido Guerrieri, is a great lawyer who brilliantly wins his cases. Nevertheless, it seems that most of his investigations are solved by chance and not so much by skill. And also he isn't so successful in his personal life. He actually seems a sort of anti-hero. Does his character signal a cultural and epochal indication? Is Guido Guerrieri the true modern hero?

A: In the real world investigations and trials are much more ruled by chance than in films and novels, or at least in certain novels. In my stories, I always strive to reproduce the procedures of the real world. If my readers, as it actually happens, find that Guerrieri is a sort of anti-hero… well, I am happy about that.

Q: You have often pointed out the wearing out of words, the progressive fading of their meaning. Yet, lawyer Guerrieri wins using his dialectical skills more often than by the evidence he provides. Is it the lack of the objective truth that leaves space for pure rhetoric?

A: On the contrary. Guerrieri wins (when he does) because he can use words that have a meaning. And that's totally different from the worst rhetoric.

Q: Speaking of words, your novels have been translated into many languages. Do you think that translations take something away from a literary text?

A: It depends. Good translations can teach many things to the author himself.

Q: You have also written a graphic novel together with your brother Francesco, the illustrator. In your opinion, is the combination of words and images another literary genre?

A: Yes, sure. It is a completely different language.

Q: Novels, graphic novel, film. How important is the means of expression to the telling of a story?

A: It depends. There are stories that can be told in many ways, others that require what is, still today, the most sophisticated form of expression: the novel.

Q: Other Italian authors of genre fiction — Faletti, Camilleri, etc. — are also best sellers. Why is this kind of literature so successful, in your opinion?

A: Many readers feel attracted by the dark side of these types of stories and from the chance that thrillers and noir offer to glimpse at least the basics of order among the disarray of crime.

Q: We had many great novelists in Italy after World War II: Calvino, Pavese, Moravia, Morante, Deledda … After one generation, how is the health of Italian narrative, in your opinion?

A: There are many talented writers in Italy right now. Some of them are really good, but none is truly enthralling.

Q: Besides being a writer, you are also a judge. Like you, many other contemporary Italian writers have another job. In the list of best-selling books we can find judges, comedians, physicists, screenwriters. Why do you think so many writers do not come directly from the Art of Letters?

A: Well, first of all most of these bestselling authors do not write novels, even if they try to tell stories. Apart from that, it has always happened that a good number of writers come from other professions, sometimes very different from literature.

Q: How did your work as a novelist emerge from your activity as a magistrate? I mean, in what way does being a judge support your storytelling?

A: As a boy, I did not want to be a judge, but a writer. That said, there is no doubt that being a judge provided me an almost unlimited mine of stories and characters. It's not an insignificant advantage if, one day, you start writing novels.

Q: You are also a Senator of the Republic. Do you think that literature also has a political aim or that it should respond exclusively to aesthetic criteria?

A: I think literature has an ineludible ethical value and that the worst sin for a writer is dishonesty, is using nickel-and-dime tricks, is being disrespectful to the reader.

Rome, August 2009

And the Winner Is ...

Barack Obama! Really.

And you've probably already heard that Herta Müller was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

As usual, there's excellent coverage over at the Literary Saloon.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Doisneau You Don't Know

After a recent visit to Avignon, France, I was enamored with an exhibition of Doisneau's works at the Musee Angladon-Dubrujeaud. The museum itself is a treat; teeming with European charm, it is the former house of Jean and Paulette Angladon-Dubrujeaud whom are 'heirs of the famous Parisian couturier and collector, Jacques Doucet'. Painters and engravers themselves, they generously donated their former home to showcase works from the 18th-20th century including some little known, but no less impressive works by Degas, Van Gogh and Modigliani. My favorite Modigliani they displayed was, of course, a woman sitting in a chair. Also, the little known Vang Gogh struck me for it's typical Van Gogh style, but an out of the ordinary subject-trains.Among the impressionist and expressionist works of the past two centuries, the black and whites of Doisneau were a wonderful contrast to the malleable lines and vibrant colors of the paintings. When most people think of Doisneau, images of the Paris that everyone dreams of are conjured up within a moment. His ability to capture what is uniquely "French" and perhaps even Parisian have been mass produced on everything from coasters to posters. But his portraits of artists and well-known figures add another dimension to his work. True, there is the presence of his inimitable eye in all of his work, but these photographs bring an intimacy, depth and humor to his oeuvre. These two following photos, Picasso with Bread Hands and Cesar Baldaccini (The Sculptor Cesar in his Workshop, show all of these elements as a perfect balance.

It's impossible to ignore the overwhelming sense of nostalgia that imbues his work, but when he turns his lens on fellow artists the positivity and compassion is evident. He makes us see in them what he sees in them. And that is what is magnetic about his work. Gazing at a photo of an artist working on a painting, you see the levels he was trying to uncover in his mind. The subject with his art as a subject, as if we are looking into a creative spiral. If you're in the neighborhood of Avignon, this is an exhibit to make a point to see.