By Tom McCarthy
The novel as a form is surprisingly undefined: there’s almost nothing it necessarily need be or not be. This murkiness or flexibility offers tremendous freedom, and it sometimes surprises me that more novelists don’t seize it. Tom McCarthy, author of various literary manifestos, has some strong ideas about what the novel should strive for. I don’t happen to agree with them, but they’re uncommon ideas, and as such they stretch and torque his novels in unexpected ways. McCarthy doesn’t like the word “experimental” applied to his work, nor should he. To experiment is not to know in advance the outcome, and what great art hasn’t, on some level, reached into unknown territory? In a literary moment, at least in America, that feels surprisingly conservative, with much praise for a return to conventional forms after the “high jinks” of postmodernism, reading C was, for me, perhaps not exactly what its author meant for it to be: reassuring.
The Last Jew
By Yoram Kaniuk
The Last Jew isn’t exactly new. Eighty this year, Kaniuk wrote his masterpiece in 1981. One of the most brilliant, wild, crazily ambitious novels of the last half-century, it was largely rejected by critics in his native Israel, and sat out of print for decades. It took almost thirty years for it to be republished there, and greeted with the thunderous critical applause it deserves. Unprecedented three decades ago, this mash-up of invented documentations—tape recordings of interviews, letters, official testimonies—still reads like something from a time yet to come. Its publication in America a few years back was miserably ignored. (I only found the novel by chance, browsing in a bookstore, because a quote by Sontag caught my eye in which she called him one of the three greatest writers she’d discovered in translation—the other two being Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Peter Handke). I’ve never read anything close to it. In the introduction to the new Israeli edition, Uzi Weil called it, “The least of a book I have ever read, and the most.”
By Jenny Erpenbeck
I’ve been a fan of the East-German born writer Jenny Erpenbeck since I read her first work translated into English, The Old Child and Other Stories, in 2005. Her writing is marked by an utter lack of the extraneous, and bristles with a sense of the uncanny. Visitation, her newest novel, traces a ghostly parade of successive inhabitations of a lake house outside Berlin that Erpenbeck summered in as a girl, making for an intimate portrait of the century of Hitler, Soviet communism, and the fall of the Wall. Like every aspect of Erpenbeck’s work, the novel’s form is wonderfully idiosyncratic. Erpenbeck is an opera director in her other life, and here she divides her novel into voices—The Gardener, The Architect’s Wife, The Red Army Officer—that ping off and swallow each other like in a score by Meredith Monk.
By Antonio Muñoz Molina
Another book, like The Last Jew, that rejects any easy description. It’s a novel that slips back and forth across the forgotten, moldy footbridges that still hang over the divide between Fiction, Memoir, and History. Why shouldn’t a novel sample from all three without ever holding up a road sign— You Are Here—to the reader? W.G. Sebald was brilliant at that, too, exploding, (but in so sly and gentlemanly a way) the old borders, and Sepharad is just as subtle and elegant about breaking rules. Following ripples that spread from the Sephardic diaspora, the Holocaust, and Stalin’s purges, it spins intuitive patterns between real and imagined lives. Its coherence is a mystery, like looking up at the Starn brothers work on the roof of the Met: all those sticks and so little rope. No one can explain what holds it up.
Nicole Krauss is the author of the international bestseller The History of Love . In 2007, Krauss was selected as one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists, and she was included as one of The New Yorker’s 20 under 40 best writers. Her fiction has been published in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Esquire, and Best American Short Stories, and her books have been translated into more than 35 languages. She just completed a Cullman Fellowship at the New York Public Library. Her new novel, Great House , was published in October, 2010. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. For more information, visit www.nicolekrauss.com