New & Notable
This Week’s Hot Reads: October 27, 2014
A whirlwind of a book from the master of Haitian letters, an account from the Trans-Siberian Railroad, and the favorites of an editor at France’s most impressive publishing house.
Ready to Burstby Frankétienne (trans. Kaiama L. Glover)
“Every day, I employ the dialect of untamed hurricanes. I speak the madness of opposing winds. Every evening, I use the patois of furious rains. I speak the rage of overflowing waters. Every night, I speak to the islands of the Caribbean in the language of hysterical storms. I speak the madness of the sea in heat. Dialect of hurricanes. Patois of rains. Language of storms. Unfolding of life in a spiral.”
Thus speaks the narrator in the opening pages of Ready to Burst, a whirlwind of a book by the master of Haitian letters, Frankétienne. As can be evinced from this poetic onslaught of language launched forth from a “screaming mouth”—which both is and is not the author’s—calling this a novel would be grossly inappropriate. Written in 1968 out of a swell of anger against President François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, who oversaw the death, and exile, of tens of thousands of Haitians, Ready to Burst reads at times with an energy akin to the charged manifestos of the Italian Futurists. Using electric, even at times violent, language, Frankétienne reacts to Duvalier here by describing and, in a way, enacting the Spiralist movement that he, Jean-Claude Fignolé, and René Philoctète started in the mid-1960s.
Spiralism is no mere artistic theory, however; it is a cosmic project and revolutionary act, a radical reconceptualization of Time itself and an attempt at reconnecting and communing with the cosmos, history, and the word. If this project comes across as unwieldy, that’s because it very well may be, or at least too much for a single text to encapsulate. While Ready to Burst contains characters and a contemporary narrative, of sorts, that concerns a young man’s struggle to live under Duvalier, it is primarily a work about the creation of art and its function in society. Frankétienne, whose Dézafi was the first novel written in Haitian Creole, has gestured here toward the creation of his own Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work or art, which it seems he hoped would propel not only the Haitian people but the entire Third World to action. Though the project was perhaps doomed to fail in many ways from the start because of Spiralism’s, and no doubt the author’s, need to mature, this arresting fusion of Fanon and Jodorowsky by way of Joyce and Breton leaves the reader with an unmistakable and unique mark.
I visited Russia a few years ago and joined a friend who was studying abroad there. One afternoon, he told me that when he asked Russians whether they considered themselves European or Asian, they replied, “We’re Russian.” He said this with a distinct sense of surprise and confusion, as if Russians couldn’t exist unless they defined themselves according to his narrow categories. I imagine that David Greene, host of NPR’s Morning Edition and former foreign correspondent in Moscow, would be as shocked as my friend was by this answer. In Midnight in Siberia, Greene takes the Trans-Siberian Railroad across the country in which he lived for two years, yet at no point does he realize that the East/West binary is an utter fiction. Instead, he gives us a portrait of “the real Russia”—a phrase that, just like “the real America,” means nothing about Russia but reveals a great deal about Greene himself.
Had Greene stayed on the train, he may have written a more or less innocuous, even playful, travelogue filled with character sketches. For example, he enjoys sharing a rich array of homemade food that travelers, himself included, have brought to share with others; on occasion, the snoring in the close quarters of a third-class cabin is deafening. As soon as he ventures outside these confines, however, his social and political commentary becomes reductive at best and offensive at worst. Yes, many living in rural areas feel abandoned by their government, bureaucratic corruption runs unchecked, and the future of the country may be “as Gogol described it more than 150 years ago: careening down an uncertain path.” But this does not give Greene, or anyone else, the right to sermonize about how much better life could be for Russians, particularly when his paradisiacal alternative centers around those mythic “Western liberal values” that Bill Maher has recently championed with an equal sense of paternalism. After all, it requires a particular audacity to describe any country as one in which “today there is little to be proud of or believe in,” especially if the accuser does not even speak that country’s language.
I suspect many in Ferguson, Missouri, might think that a phrase like “this country’s system of justice—this country—is so deeply flawed” describes not Russia but the United States; countless women here will sympathize with the observation that “[l]ike so many Russian men, Sergei’s dad struggled with alcohol and abused his wife”; and our own Indian reservations seem eerily similar to the “villages with staggering poverty, unpaved roads, rampant illness, alcoholism, and dwindling population that are largely forgotten by the government.” Refusing to look inward at issues plaguing the United States, Greene remains blind to the very injustices and harsh realities that, in many ways, show how eerily similar Russia and America are.
Palace of Books by Roger Grenier (trans. Alice Kaplan)
Reading Roger Grenier, you feel as if you’re joining him in an inviting library, both of you seated in comfortable leather chairs and sipping calvados. He’s read all the books in the room—how he has the time, you’re not quite sure—and with a gentle and astounding ease, he recites countless lines from myriad texts and pieces them together into playful discussions of such grand topics as love, memory, death, and, naturally, writing. Such conversations about art, which is to say life itself, are always overwhelming in the best possible way. They compel you to fill a notebook with the titles of books fleetingly mentioned, before you lose them forever: that Sartre essay that’s long deserved a place on your nightstand, a Dumas novel you never knew existed. This fantasy, of casually discussing with a close companion the most pleasant and all-encompassing of topics, is the blissful experience of reading the Palace of Books.
Grenier speaks about his favorite writers, from Dante to Fitzgerald, as if they are his best friends. In a literal sense, this is somewhat appropriate; he was close friends with Camus and many of his contemporaries, and spending decades as an editor at that most impressive of French publishing houses, Éditions Gallimard, surely has given rise to many amusing stories. But on a deeper, more transcendent level, Grenier is indeed on intimate terms with all these figures and their writing. “The essence of a writer’s biography is in the list of books he has read,” Grenier quotes Valery Larbaud. Therefore, to know Grenier—the writer of dozens of novels, short stories, and literary essays throughout his 95 years—we must know his books. Subtle observations—about the different ways in which Camus and Beckett write how a protagonist approaches his mother’s death; why the Odyssey is a work about waiting; that “[w]riting is more or less an enterprise” to seduce the reader—fill this slim volume, giving us a glimpse into the mind and life of this most sensitive of readers. While it may not leave you with many profound truths, I dare you not to fall in love.