An attempt to map the distance between novelist and character goes awry in this peculiar, funny and intellectually rich romp by Chevillard (On the Ceiling, 2000, etc.).
The veteran French novelist opens with a brief foreword declaring his intention to address the intentional fallacy, inventing a wild fiction that he will occasionally interrupt with footnotes. Enter the narrator, who seems distinct not just from Chevillard, but from rational humanity: Buttonholing a young woman at a cafe, he fumes at length about how he turned murderous when his expected lunchtime meal of trout almondine proved to be cauliflower gratin, a dish he loathes with absurd intensity. This at first seems like flimsy material, but the interplay between the text and the footnotes thoughtfully distinguishes the thought patterns of the author and his invention. Audaciously, Chevillard doubles down on this provocative setup by embedding a brief novella within one of the author’s footnotes—a 40-page footnote that’s hard on the eyes but oddball fun, casting the hero in to a slow-moving chase of an ant that also makes room for a love affair and a circus. This isn’t bizarreness for bizarreness’ sake; much of what Chevillard (or at least the “Chevillard” of the footnotes) is addressing is the difficulty of corralling one’s inventions, making them adhere to reality while being singular and not simply mouthpieces for the writer’s own opinions. As the author’s lament for the state of literature mirrors his creation’s lament for being served a bad meal, it’s clear we’re deep into an allegory of the frustrations of making original art. But on this score, Chevillard needn’t worry—this is accessible, surprising and satisfying metafiction.
A curious, cleverly constructed matryoshka doll of unreliable narrators.
This third volume of the Neopolitan trilogy continues to chronicle the turbulent lives of longtime friends Lila and Elena, as begun in the enigmatic Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (2012) and The Story of a New Name (2013).
With Naples and the looming specter of Vesuvius once again forming the ominous background to the girls’ lives, Elena travels from the city of her childhood, first to the university in Pisa, and then beyond upon her marriage to Pietro, the intellectual heir to an influential Milanese family. Lila’s existence in Naples follows a more brutal and mundane course, but both young women are confronted with the social and political upheavals that echoed across Italy (and the world) during the late 1960s and early '70s. Always rivals as well as friends, Lila and Elena struggle to assert themselves in a landscape of shifting alliances and growing corruption in Naples as well as in a culture where women’s desires almost never direct the course of family life. The domestic balancing acts performed by both women—one leading a life of privilege, one burdened by poverty and limited choice—illuminate the personal and political costs of self-determination. The pseudonymous Ferrante—whose actual identity invites speculation in the literary world—approaches her characters' divergent paths with an unblinking objectivity that prevents the saga from sinking into melodrama. Elena is an exceptional narrator; her voice is marked by clarity in recounting both external events and her own internal dialogues (though we are often left to imagine Lila’s thought process, the plight of the non-narrative protagonist). Goldstein's elegant translation carries the novel forward toward an ending that will leave Ferrante’s growing cadre of followers wondering if this reported trilogy is destined to become a longer series.
Ferrante’s lucid rendering of Lila’s and Elena’s entwined yet discrete lives illustrates both that the personal is political and that novels of ideas can compel as much as their lighter-weight counterparts.
Inoue’s first book, published in Japan in 1949, recounts a tragic love triangle from the different perspectives of those affected.
The book begins with a framing device that feels old-fashioned yet contemporary in its self-consciousness. The “author” explains that he recently received a mysterious letter from a man named Misugi Josuke, who claims to be the subject of a poem published by the “author.” Josuke thinks the poem captured the “desolate dried-up riverbed” within him. He encloses three letters that came to him, asking that the “author” read and then destroy them. The first, addressed to Uncle Josuke, comes from a woman named Shoko, whose mother, Saiko, has recently died. Saiko divorced Shoko’s father for adultery when Shoko was 5. Josuke and his wife, Midori, have been close family friends for as long as Shoko can remember, and Shoko has always felt a special closeness to gentle Midori. The day before Saiko’s death, Shoko was supposed to burn her mother’s diary, but she read it and was shocked to learn that Saiko and Josuke have been having an affair for 13 years and that Saiko has been wracked with guilt. While thanking Josuke for his support, Shoko tells him she never wants to see him or Midori again. She also sends along a letter Saiko left for him. But the second letter is from Midori, who writes that she wants to end their marriage, which has been a sham all along. While appearing to involve herself with other men, she's always pined for Josuke, who's remained coolly aloof. She knows he thought he was protecting her from knowledge of his affair, but she discloses her own secret: She has always known. Saiko’s letter is a farewell. About to die, she tells Josuke her own guilty, passionate secret, one that Josuke has never suspected. Nor will the reader, although it makes complete sense.
This slight but elegant and moving novella is a lovely introduction to a prolific Japanese writer (1907-1991) largely unknown in the West.
Murakami (IQ84, 2011, etc.) turns in a trademark story that blends the commonplace with the nightmarish in a Japan full of hollow men.
Poor achromatic Tsukuru. For some inexplicable reason, his four best friends, two males, two females, have cut him off without a word. Perhaps, he reckons between thoughts of suicide, it’s because they can pair off more easily without a fifth wheel; perhaps it’s because his name means “builder,” while all theirs have to do with colors: red pine, blue sea, white root, black field. Alas for Tsukuru, he “lacked a striking personality, or any qualities that made him stand out”—though, for all that, he’s different. Fast-forward two decades, and Tsukuru, true to both his name and his one great passion in life, designs train stations. He’s still wounded by the banishment, still mystified at his friends’ behavior. Helpfully, his girlfriend suggests that he make contact with the foursome to find out what he’d done and why he’d deserved their silence. Naturally, this being a Murakami story, the possibilities are hallucinogenic, Kafkaesque, and otherwise unsettling and ominous: “Gray is a mixture of white and black. Change its shade, and it can easily melt into various gradations of darkness.” That old saying about not asking questions if you don’t want to know the answers—well, there’s the rub, and there’s Tsukuru’s problem. He finds that his friends' lives aren’t so golden (the most promising of them now hawks Lexuses and knowingly owns up to it: “I bet I sound like a car salesman?”); his life by comparison isn't so bad. Or is it? It’s left to the reader to judge. Murakami writes with the same murky sense of time that characterized 1Q84, but this book, short and haunting, is really of a piece with older work such as Norwegian Wood and, yes, Kafka on the Shore. The reader will enjoy watching Murakami play with color symbolism down to the very last line of the story, even as Tsukuru sinks deeper into a dangerous enigma.
Another tour de force from Japan’s greatest living novelist.
The narrator of the third volume of Knausgaard’s epic of the everyday recalls the frustrations and curious joys of boyhood.
It’s common to see My Struggle, Knausgaard’s six-volume set of heavily autobiographical novels, compared to Proust. With some reason: Both books are bulky, highly personal and unearth deep insights from humdrum acts. But where Proust is philosophical, Knausgaard is more plainly descriptive, and part of his books’ magic is how they gather strength, snowballing small detail upon small detail until he’s captured life’s fullness in a way traditional storytelling arcs fail to. This volume centers on Karl Ove roughly from the ages of 6 to 12, and it’s masterful on a number of fronts. Most prominently, it gets at the roots of the dysfunctional relationship with his father that Knausgaard detailed in the previous two books. Karl Ove was a sensitive boy who could do little to please dad, an emotionally closed-off teacher, and though the boy was rarely physically abused (My Struggle’s provocative title has always been a touch satirical), Karl Ove’s evolution from eager to please to contemptuous feels justified, exact and natural. Knausgaard reimagines boyhood in general with similar precision; at the time, his family lived in a remote Norwegian town, and the book is filled with forest treks, games, squabbles with friends and an overall sense of an identity coming together. That’s particularly acute in the closing pages, as puberty strikes and Karl Ove fumblingly tries to understand girls. (One early victim is subject to his insistence that they break a 15-minute kissing record, and he’s befuddled when she breaks things off soon after.) Candor and fearlessness are the hallmarks of the books: Knausgaard will share anything, not for shock value or self-indulgence, but to show that plainspoken honesty gets to the heart of the human condition.
Halfway through, this series is starting to look like an early-21st-century masterpiece.
Twenty-six spare, slyly off-kilter stories collected from the life work of Swedish-speaking Jansson, who wrote 11 works of adult fiction (The Summer Book, 1972, etc.) as well as a series of children’s books (Moominpappa’s Memoirs, 1994, etc.) before her death in 2001.
Written between 1971 and 1998, these stories consider loneliness, family, aging and creative experience, sometimes all together as in the opening story, “The Listener,” about an elderly woman who creates an elaborate chart of her memories. In “Black-White” and “The Other,” artists find themselves erasing the line between art and life, while “The Cartoonist” expresses artistic ambivalence as a man hired to carry on someone else’s cartoon becomes obsessed with understanding why his predecessor quit. “The Doll’s House,” concerning a retired upholsterer who builds a miniature world for himself and his uninterested lover, asks who ultimately owns the finished creation. In “A Leading Role” and “White Lady,” actresses juggle artificial roles and reality. In “The Wolf,” one of several stories with animal titles, a woman wonders if the Japanese artist she’s hosting will draw the caged animal they see together at the zoo or the one he imagines. In one of the volume’s most disturbing stories, it isn’t clear if a woman writer living purposely alone on an island allows a squirrel to terrorize her or if “The Squirrel” is her creation. Other stories use travel to consider relationships, memory and isolation. Most, like “A Foreign City” and “The Woman Who Borrowed Memories,” feature characters whose lives go out of kilter. But a few—“The Summer Child,” about a rural family and the difficult boy they take in for the summer; “The Garden of Eden,” about a woman negotiating between warring expat neighbors in Spain; “Travelling Light,” about a man who can’t escape his own generosity—offer slivers of gently sweetened optimism.
Windows crop up often in Jansson’s stories, reflecting the transparent wall between her lonely characters and their worlds but also Jansson’s expression of intangible thoughts and feelings with lucent prose.
A deftly plotted novel that probes the deepest mysteries: sin, redemption, love, evil, the human condition.
After he seemingly brought Harry Hole back from the dead in his last novel (Police,2013), Norway’s Nesbø gives his popular protagonist a breather, shelving the detective in favor of a stand-alone novel that plunges deeply into the religious allegory that has frequently framed his work (The Redeemer, 2013). In fact, the symbolism might initially seem laid on pretty thick for readers looking to solve a satisfying whodunit. Sonny Lofthus, the son of the title, is introduced as a prisoner with “healing hands,” one who was “prepared to take your sins upon himself and didn’t want anything in return.” Like Christ, he suffers for the sins of others and offers redemption. He is also a hopeless junkie. His back story suggests that Sonny was a boy of considerable promise, a champion wrestler and model student, proud son of a police officer. Then, when he was 18, he was devastated by the suicide of his father, who left a note confessing his corruption as the mole within the department, and the subsequent death of his heartbroken mother. After Sonny turned to drugs, he found himself in a web of evil; if he would confess to murders he hadn’t committed, the corrupt prison system would keep him supplied with heroin. Then a fellow prisoner comes to him for confession and reveals a secret that turns Sonny’s world upside down, inspiring him to kick his habit, plot an ingenious escape and turn himself into an “avenging angel,” delivering lethal retribution. The inspector obsessed with the case had a complicated relationship with Sonny’s father, and it remains uncertain until the climax (in a church, naturally) whether he wants to be Sonny’s captor or his collaborator. It’s a novel in which one character muses on “how innocence walks hand-in-hand with ignorance. How insight never clarifies, only complicates.”
One of Nesbø’s best, deepest and richest novels, even without Harry Hole.
The fifth novel by an award-winning Norwegian author and critic deserves to win her a much larger stateside readership.
The latest and best from Ullmann (A Blessed Child, 2008, etc.) resists categorization, except as a literary page-turner. It's a murder mystery. It's a multigenerational psychodrama of a dysfunctional family. And it's a very dark comedy of manners. Yet the author’s command is such that it never reads like a pastiche or suffers from jarring shifts of tone. The plot focuses on the events of one day, the 75th birthday of Jenny Brodal, a cold and caustic woman who's so resistant to the party being thrown in her honor that she ends her sobriety of almost 20 years and gets roaring drunk. Jenny's daughter Siri, who throws the elaborate party, is a chef and restaurateur. Her husband, Jon, is a mostly forgotten novelist with the worst case of writer's block since The Shining. He's also a narcissistic lecher and the source of the novel’s comedy. He had “planned to write a hymn to everything that endures and everything that falls apart. But truth be told he wasn’t sure what he actually meant.” The couple's two daughters remain on the novel's periphery, though one of them is seriously and increasingly disturbed. The girls' nanny, Milla—who has “breasts that men couldn’t help staring at''— has developed a mutual attraction with Jon, which strains both of their relationships with Siri. Echoes of dead children, grieving parents, empty marriages and broken lives abound. The day of the party becomes both farce and tragedy, with Milla disappearing and Jenny's drunken decline leaving questions until the very end.
The author might be best known in this country as the daughter of Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann, but her accomplishment here merits more than recognition by association.