Where to Begin?

Even as a child, I was behind the curve. The toy store in the upscale shopping centre put my militia of Ninja Turtles, Jedi and Care Bears to shame. Unfamiliar brands glowered in judgment at my snot-nostrilled provincialism, the Play-Doh under my fingernails marking me as a suburbanite weaned on basic cable, a proper bourgeois childhood just out of reach. Instead of Barney, Babar. Instead of Barbie, American Girl. Most telling, on the shelves of these upper-class emporiums of Knoxville, Tennessee were the storybooks. No Goosebumps or Poky Little Puppy, here was another world: D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths, The Eleventh Hour and Roald Dahl, the appropriate companions of a growing mind that would soon expand to accommodate Robert Louis Stevenson, JRR Tolkien and The Secret Garden. How had I ever been content with Theodor Geisel and the Berenstain Bears?

This fall, New Directions – known as a pioneer of American modernism and foreign writers including Jorge Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda, Roberto Bolaño and WG Sebald – published six ‘storybooks’ for adults, or perhaps especially precocious children. The stated aim of the series is ‘to deliver the pleasure one felt as a child reading a marvellous book from cover to cover in an afternoon’. Curated by the Egyptian-born writer-translator Gini Alhadeff, each volume comes handsomely outfitted with a silvery spine and a design by book artist du jour Peter Mendelsund. Four of the books are brand-new works for English-language readers by contemporary New Directions authors – Helen DeWitt, Cesar Aira, Laszlo Krasznahorkai, Yoko Tawada – while the other two, by Clarice Lispector and Osamu Dazai, are drawn from the stockpile of their late authors’ output. All but one is a translation: two from Japanese, one from Spanish, one Portuguese and one Hungarian.

What to make of this array, both as individual ‘storybooks’ and as a series? Only the fourth book to be published under DeWitt’s name (not including Your Name Here, co-written with Ilya Gridneff, which never saw publication but occasionally circulates as a PDF), The English Understand Wool has unsurprisingly garnered the most critical attention. The storybook format suits DeWitt’s text well. It is the story of well-spoken seventeen-year-old Marguerite, whisked away from her life in Marrakech by her maman to have a tweed suit made in London. Once there, Marguerite is abandoned and soon learns from a detective that her life has been a lie: she is in fact an orphan whose presumptive parents have fleeced her of her fortune and made a break for it. Now a cause célèbre, possessed of only her excellent taste and prim expectations, she undertakes to tell her story in a memoir, but each instalment of her manuscript is meddled with by her New York publishers. That DeWitt, a genius famously ill-served by the publishing industry, has written a novella about a genius ill-served by the carrion gatekeepers of literary culture has not been lost on critics. But Marguerite’s story, as she is quick to remind her editors at every impasse, belongs to her alone. She won’t be told that she is a victim, that she is too young to account for herself, or that she should substitute ‘suit’ for her preferred word tailleur. That a ghost writer should commute her story – that of a ‘missing child’ raised outside the culture she was born into by imposters – to the kind of neutered copy the masses expect is quite out of the question. I am who I tell you I am, DeWitt seems to be saying, and I will speak for myself in the language of my choosing.

A more unusual choice is Laszlo Krasznahorhai’s Spadework for a Palace, translated by John Batki. It’s the second novella to appear since the oracular Hungarian writer announced his retirement in 2019; a third, A Mountain to the North, a Lake to the South, Paths to the West, a River to the East, is due shortly – Krasznahorhai says this is because he doesn’t consider these to be ‘books’. Subtitled ‘Entering the Madness of Others’, Spadework’s narrator is herman melvill, one letter and two capitals short of literary immortality, a meek to the point of non-existent librarian who sees shadows of the great mystic and mariner not only in his own biography (he too lived on East 26th Street, he too apprenticed at a customs office), but in the alcoves and belvederes of Manhattan through which he roams in a mania of overidentification with his near-namesake. The circumstances of melvill’s own life – the wife who has deserted him, the tedium of his post at the NYPL, even his grand ambitions for a Permanently Closed Library housing every lost, secret, or unread volume ever authored and into which no man can enter – occur as afterthoughts. Nor is Melville the only spectre haunting melvill’s wanderings: there is also Malcolm Lowry, the patron saint of dipsomaniacs whose Under the Volcano is equally plagued by unhomeliness, and the American artist and architect Lebbeus Woods, whose impossible designs, which seem to be both ascending and in the midst of collapse, capture melvill’s crisis.

‘Manhattan’, melvill thinks, ‘is a nightmare come to life’, and dreams, whether good or bad, seem to displace its residents as surely as climbing rents. Hence, we have a book that is not a book, about a non-person in a kind of non-place. ‘People must be told the truth,’ agonizes melvill:

and, if you are truly an artist, this is the spirit in which you have to create architecture and poetry and music and science and philosophy, you have to look people in the eye as you tell them the truth about this universe in which we exist, that in fact this universe means danger, hazard, stress and destruction – nothing is whole and intact, the very notion of an intact whole is a lie – peace and tranquillity, permanence and rest are illusion far more dangerous than the truth . . .

But melvill is no artist and has no instrument with which to articulate his disquiet or vent his demons. His interior monologue, rendered in one long sentence, comes closer than Krasznahorhai ever has to Thomas Bernhard’s eloquent stutter. But while Bernhard’s fanatical monologues were calculated to insulate their speaker from other people, to insist on uncontaminated individuality, melvill is all influence and no inspiration. For a man always on the move, he is a true paralytic. If anything as commonplace as a climax can be said to occur in Spadework, it comes through the sentences of another, as melvill turns to the ‘Resistance Checklist’ Lebbeus Woods inscribed in his notebook: ‘Resist that feeling of utter exhaustion. Resist hoping that next year will be better. Resist accepting your fate. Resist people who tell you to resist. Resist the panicky feeling that you are alone.’ And if Spadework has a moral, as storybooks are supposed to, it is that ‘There is no duality in existence.’ We have one life to live, this storybook tell us, and it is not ours.

The Famous Magician by Cesar Aira, translated by Chris Andrews, is my favourite of the new books. Aira is the ludicrously prolific Argentinian author of over a hundred short books that invariably come apart while somehow keeping their shape. Rules are established before being merrily violated, ho-hum personal accounts become far-fetched zombie stories, serious literary rumination gives way to comic book pastiche. I’m a little baffled by the avant-garde bona fides of Aira’s practice, which he calls el continuo, in which he writes a page a day (so, like a writer?) and resists the urge to revise (so, he keeps going?). But the method appears to have been working: the results have been books that don’t read like the ones you encounter in life but the kind you might pick up in dreams.

Meeting the titular figure at an outdoor market in Buenos Aires, a sixty-something writer who resembles Aira is offered the power to transmute sugar into gold if he gives up literature (‘a waste of time and dangerous for the purity of the soul’). The Aira-narrator is intrigued – he has tired of life and craves renewal through the miraculous – and finds himself torn between the ‘sham magic’ of his novels and ‘the real magic’ opening up before him. The Aira-like writer quizzes his friends about the magician’s ultimatum, then journeys to Egypt to give an absurd talk about contemporary art that seems to be mostly about airports, and later winds up over the Nile at midnight, engaged in a magical duel with the warlock. Our hero is narrowly rescued by a deus ex machina which, as in most of Aira’s output, splits the difference between idiocy and inspiration. Aira’s story could never survive the oxidation of logic, but sealed in its hermetic repository of senselessness, it’s a magic trick of its own.

The other three storybooks are all grab-bags. 3 Streets by Yoko Tawada contains three ghost stories set in Berlin, where the Japanese writer has lived since 2006. Tawada writes in both Japanese and German, and tends to be concerned with displacement, embodiment and the accidental epiphanies of exophony. Her books engage these themes by, for instance, telling the story of a kidnapped Vietnamese woman whose life begins to transform into the films of Catherine Deneuve, a circus polar bear who becomes a bestselling memoirist in the Soviet Union, or a closed-off island nation where children become frail and the elderly exuberant. Ghosts are a natural subject, as guests who nonetheless have an older claim on the land than the living. Each ‘street’ in the volume, translated by Margaret Mitsutani, is both charming and unnerving. In ‘Kollwitzstrasse’, a shopper in a grocery store meets the ghost of a child whose narrow taste in foodstuffs, the narrator realizes, must date from when this neighbourhood of the city was part of East Germany. The story ends by imagining the grief of the artist Käthe Kollwitz after the death of her son in a war fought for the wrong ideals. The narrator of ‘Majakowkiring’ walks the city enmeshed in a mélange of histories, having been visited by the discontented ghost of Mayakovsky, who steps out of a photograph in a restaurant:

The city is an amusement park of the senses, a rehearsal for revolution, a restaurant where loneliness is devoured, a workshop for words. Surrounded by city scenes that look like the future, you believe you’ll soon be able to grasp the future itself. This is especially true when you’re intensely, violently waiting for someone. The fact that even if you meet the awaited person at the appointed time you still have the days after that to live through, slowly, stoically, moment after moment. You want everything all at once, right now.

In ‘Pushkin Allee’, the stone soldiers in a memorial to the Red Army come alive and, hearkening to the distant words of Stalin, prepare to fight the Nazis in Kreuzberg. This may well be Tawada’s finest work, partly because of how moving it is when someone capable of so much wit knows when to be reverent. A perfect story.

Early Light, a kind of chaser to Osamu Dazai’s classic novel of decadence and depersonalization during the demise of the Japanese Empire No Longer Human (1948), is ostensibly another unexpected inclusion. Yet it is here that themes explored throughout the series – identity’s abnegation under the weight of art and history, the attendant wish for an alternative that fails to arrive – appear in their most unvarnished form. During the war in Tokyo, Dazai was left half-buried by rubble after a bombing raid, leading him to join his family in Kofu, only for bombs to fall there too. This enigmatically informs the story, written in the immediate aftermath, of a drunkard who feels himself extraneous to his wife and children (one of whom, blinded by the attacks, may never see again) and struggles to find heroism rather than degeneracy in his character.

The destruction wrought by modern life pervades the second story, ‘One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji’. Unable to enjoy the view of what is after all a dormant volcano (‘Fuji from the window of an apartment in Tokyo is a painful sight’), a writer finds himself unable to reconcile representation with the real thing, or to connect with the people around him. He feels helpless to protect those for whom he feels responsible (‘Those who suffer shall suffer. Those who fall shall fall. It had nothing to do with me, it was just the way the world was.’). It’s the definition of fatalism, but shorn of any nobility; he’s lived in indifference to himself for so long that there’s nothing left for other people. The end, in which the narrator, asked to take a picture for a pair of tourists posing in front of the mountain, cuts them out of the shot, could either cap the tragedy of a scoundrel who has decided to have done with humanity once and for all, or symbolize a more hopeful insistence that the only thing that endures be allowed its own frame at last. Or both. The title of the final story, ‘Villon’s Wife’ – an old translation by Donald Keene; the other two are by Ralph McCarthy – refers to Francois Villon, the medieval poet beloved by lowlifes. An indolent alcoholic who drinks what he earns for his stories remains swaddled in the life of the mind while his wife works off his debts and keeps secret her rape by a customer. In the last line, she reflects ‘There’s nothing wrong with being a monster, is there? As long as we can stay alive.’ She, too, is no longer human.

Clarice Lispector’s The Woman Who Killed the Fish, first published in Portuguese in 1968 and translated by Benjamin Moser, is the only volume originally composed with children in mind. A writer of formidable modernist pedigree, it is something of a relief to find her working in a chatty, mischievous mode and concerned with that most storybook of subjects, the ‘intimate life’ of animals. First, let’s exonerate the murderess of the title story: she forgot to feed the fish. It could happen to anyone. Throughout, she maintains her love of all things small and clear in their desires (‘Animals speak without words.’). It is a life’s story in animals: we meet cockroaches, a little lizard, two dogs, a monkey baptized Lisete who dies wearing the narrator’s earrings and necklace, an enchanted island of parakeets, fish, and tapirs, and a quarrelsome dog named Bruno Barberini de Monteverdi. The same enchantment extends to the next story, ‘The Mystery of the Thinking Rabbit’, which is flecked with lovely little asides like ‘as long as they’re loved, they don’t mind being a little dumb’, ‘every nature has its advantages’ and ‘a happy rabbit knows a bunch of things’.

The French writer and diarist Jules Renard also puzzled over the inner lives of animals and lamented that the weasels, dragonflies and ants he wrote about would never read his work. For his part, Ulisses, the dog-narrator of Lispector’s ‘Almost True’, has more on his mind than tummy-rubs and relates a kind of chivalric romance about a rooster, a witch and a fig tree. The last story, ‘Laura’s Intimate Life’, tells the life and times of a ‘quite advanced hen’. In the last episode in Laura’s eventful life as livestock, the question of interiority is turned on its head: she is visited by a diminutive being from outer space and together they wonder ‘what humans were like inside’. In these six books, we have six attempts at an answer, but each seems to say, ‘Well, where to begin?’ This one, at least, ends as all storybooks should, assuring us that all is well, at least for the birds, and with the words ‘the end’.

Read on: Ricardo Piglia ‘Theses on the Short Story’, NLR 70.