Wednesday, April 11, 2012
Really loving a book—especially one that not everyone else in the world has read—comes with a very particular blend of emotions. There’s the feeling of private elation, as though the book’s been written for you personally. There’s that impulse to babble to everyone about how much you loved the book. And there’s the sense of gratitude that, out of the vast universe of books, this particular book happened to find you. All of these feelings are heightened, I think, when one falls in love with a book that has, in one way or another, only recently emerged and become available to you—either through a translation or an exhumation or a re-release. Over the past decade, I’ve read three books of this sort that have particularly stayed with me: Embers by Sandor Marai, Desperate Characters by Paula Fox, and There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya.
Desperate Characters, originally published in 1970, was re-released in 1999 after many years out of print. It’s a prickly and perfect little book, written with economy and grace and wryness and an astonishing command of our sympathies. Fox skewers the solipsism of her characters—Sophie and Otto Bentwood, fragile inhabitants of late-60s New York—without ever abandoning her empathy for them, and she’s a master of strange and chilling and small domestic symbolism (the plot mostly revolves around Sophie waiting to find out if she’s contracted rabies from the bite of a stray cat). Sophie and Otto’s lives provide the perfect canvass to delineate, with wrenching clarity, the changing social and political landscape of the time. Desperate Characters is that very rare thing—a social novella, no less wise and prophetic for being so slim.
Embers was written in Hungarian in 1949, fell out of print forever, and was translated into English in 2000, eleven years after Marai committed suicide. It’s an enchanting and haunting novella, told mostly as an elegant monologue—and extended accusation— delivered by an aging general to an old friend he’s invited over for dinner. The fact of the general’s direct address invites us to feel implicated in the events he describes—and I think in a strange way this device manages to subvert the possible artificial coyness of withholding the revelation of what’s occurred. By telling us what’s happened as though we already know, we sort of feel as though we do. This book feels like a fairy tale in the very best way, and its emergence from obscurity (and Hungarian) adds to this mythic feel.
There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby is a collection of stories that were selected and translated into English by Anna Summers and Keith Gessen and published in 2009. Though widely known in Russia, this collection was Petrushevskaya’s first English translation from a major American house. The stories are deeply strange and spare and utterly singular; they grapple with the inexplicable; they careen from dreaminess to nighmarishness, and from the literal to the metaphorical, and back again. They straddle realism and surrealism in a way that is both disturbing and gorgeous; one is always left wondering, deliciously, what kind of story one has just read.
All three of these books would be lovely and thrilling no matter what—at any time, and in any language. But the fact that they’ve only recently become accessible to me, as a reasonably young reader of English, makes them—at least to me—even more intoxicating and compelling.