Friday, December 25, 2009


Look for these books on my blog over the next few weeks!

French writer Soupault (1897-1990) was a prominent member of the Surrealist movement until he was expelled in 1926 for refusing to toe the party line. This short novel appeared two years later and was translated by American poet William Carlos Williams the year after that. It follows the wanderings of a nameless narrator who sees Paris "for the first time" through his obsession with a young streetwalker and who witnesses the aftermath of a grisly crime.

In his first book, freelance writer Sante tours the underside of Manhattan's underclass circa 1840-1919. Clarifying his territory, he notes that "New York is incarnated by Manhattan (the other boroughs . . . are merely adjuncts)." Sante's bad old days are populated with lethal saloon keepers, thieves, whores, gamblers, pseudo-reformers, Tammany Hall politics, crooked cops et al. Capital of the night is the Bowery, center of the "sporting life"; bohemia encompasses the likes of short story writer O. Henry, a one-time embezzler from Texas, plus ethnic enclaves (with the Jewish and Slavic bohemians singled out as the most argumentative). East Side, West Side, semi-rural uptown, wide-open downtown, 19th-century Manhattan is presented as the realm of danger and pleasure. "The city was like this a century ago, and it remains so in the present," maintains an author who sees his Manhattan as seamy, seedy and sinister.

In Ajvaz's first novel to be translated into English, a Borgesian cohort of freakish creatures, talking birds and eccentric city dwellers lurk on the margins of an alternative Prague. An unnamed protagonist learns that a book written in an unearthly language is an opening to a dangerous world that is just around the corner from normal life. More and more frequently, the protagonist stumbles across scenes from the other city—he spies on an inscrutable religious service, is treated to a lecture on the subject of Latest Discoveries about the Great Battle in the Bedrooms. The city's inhabitants do not take kindly to his intrusions; he is pursued by weasels, shot at by a helicopter and nearly eaten by a half-man, half-shark. Meanwhile, overheard conversations dissolve into nonsense, elk are stabled inside statues and birds recite passages from an epic poem. Ajvaz's novel is a gorgeous matryoshka doll of unreason, enigma and nonsense—truly weird and compelling.

Paris Peasant is the first (and perhaps only) textbook of what the Situationists — strongly influenced by early Surrealism — nearly forty years later were to call ‘Psycho-geography’; the plumbing of the resonances of built spaces for the vibrations and sympathies that make love and play possible. In lovely, surprising and above all playful writing the man who went on to become a great Stalinist bore, churning out worthy novels in the cause of Party and Proletariat, celebrates the city as a place of happy and stimulating coincidences, encounters and inexplicable oddities. He offers us the urban world of mystery and possibility with its ambiguous teasing spaces, its public baths and parks with their constant invitations to nature and nudity, however respectable their outward appearence [sic].

One of the classic themes followed in this complex novel, translated from the Arabic, is cultural dissonance between East and West, particularly the experience of a returned native. The narrator returns from his studies in England to his remote little village in Sudan, to begin his career as an educator. There he encounters Mustafa, a fascinating man of mystery, who also has studied at Oxford. As their relationship builds on this commonality, Mustafa reveals his past. A series of compulsive liaisons with English women who were similarly infatuated with the "Black Englishman," as he was nicknamed, have ended in disaster. Charged with the passion killing of his last paramour, Mustafa was acquitted by the English courts. As he unravels his complicated, gory and erotic story, Mustafa charges the listener with the custody of his present life. When Mustafa disappears, apparently drowned in the Nile and perhaps a suicide, another door in his secretive life opens to include his wife and children. Emerging from a constantly evolving narrative, in a trance-like telling, is the clash between an assumed worldly sophistication and enduring, dark, elemental forces. An arresting work by a major Arab novelist who mines the rich lode of African experience with the Western world.

Banned in several Arab nations, this rich tale mesmerizes with its frank sexuality and scenes of war-torn Beirut. Zahra is a misfit mistreated by her mother, who brings her along to secret meetings with a lover, and by her father, a harsh disciplinarian who reacts angrily to her habit of picking at her pimpled face. She leaves her parents to stay with an uncle who has fled to Africa to escape being arrested for political activity. When his affection for her grows sexual, Zahra agrees to an unsuccessful marriage with his friend Majed. Eventually, she returns to Beirut, where "the war was like a weevil that had found its way into the heart of a huge bag of white flour and settled there," and begins meeting secretly to have sex with a man who may or may not be a rooftop sniper. A rotating first-person narrative gives everyone a voice; Zahra's is the most striking, but each character has memorable moments, as when Majed describes his adolescent arousal while reading Jane Eyre and seeing an illustration of the heroine kissing Mr. Rochester.

A special thanks to Richard and Caitlin for introducing me to some of these!

I also have a brand new Coach bag!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


rhapsodyinbooks said...

These look like wonderful gifts!!!

Merry Christmas!!!

James said...

Enjoy THE OTHER CITY by Ajvaz. I read it earlier this month and it quickly became one of my favorite reads this year.

E. L. Fay said...

Rhapsody: Merry Christmas to you too!

James: That's good to hear! I'll be starting it next. Merry Christmas!

Emily said...

Congrats on the great book haul, and the new bag!

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