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Reviews in Brief

M. J. Nicholls

Munchausen and Clarissa
Paul Scheerbart (tr. Christina Svendsen)
Wakefield Press, November 2020

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aron Munchausen, like Don Quixote, has been a trusty lodestar for imaginative vagabonds for centuries, spawning variations from the likes of early cinema pioneer Georges Méliès, Stalin-era satirist Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Monty Python illustrator Terry Gilliam, and Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels (no, seriously). Polymath Paul Scheerbart (1863-1915) took Munchausen as the robust scaffolding to scale his own dizzying heights of futuristic fantasy in this novel first published in the German in 1906.

In the drawing room of Count von Rabenstein’s Berlin mansion, the 180-year-old Baron entertains the assembled celebrities with tales of a utopian Melbourne, a sort of hyper-sensory live-in planetarium with exquisite architecture and sculptures, courting young Countess Clarissa, entranced by the progressive promise of a freer life Down Under. In contrast to the more worryingly communistic visions of utopia of the period such as H.G. Wells’s A Modern Utopia, in which society is folded into a caste system formed through mass extinction (no, seriously), or William Morris’s News from Nowhere, a magical land where ephebes and red-cheeked Venuses canter around village greens, exchanging flirtatious banter in Latin and Welsh, Scheerbart’s vision is a spanglier realm of interplanetary socialism. Here, man is at one with the seas and the skies, technological innovations are a thing of wonder and convenience, and hot air balloons populate the skies radiating heavenly music.

A witty, sparkling étude on a twentieth century that should have been, Munchausen and Clarissa is a marvellous utopian comedy.


The Netanyahus
Joshua Cohen
Fitzcarraldo Editions (UK) / NYRB (US), May 2021

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hen Cohen published the pathologically unreadable 800-page monolith Witz in 2010 with Dalkey Archive, a flabbergasting slurry of manic logorrhoea intermittently brilliant and excruciating, there was no indication as to how Cohen might harness his astonishing stamina for further high-voltage literary wowness. The answer was Book of Numbers, a violently readable novel that shirked thickets of opaque wtf in favour of turbulent meta-antics, formal play and punnilingual wizardry, and established him as the heir apparent to David Foster Wallace.

Continuing the downsizing present in his last novel Moving Kings, Cohen serves up a compellingly odd campus tale taken from an anecdotal story as relayed to the author by critic Harold Bloom. In the late 1950s, Hebrew scholar Ben-Zion Netanyahu (father of Israeli President Benjamin) visits the college of Corbindale to hold a polemical lecture on the Iberian Inquisition. Something of an affectionate tribute to Bloom, who is recast as the mild-mannered Ruben, outgunned by a chiding wife and a rebellious daughter, the novel serves up a stylish evocation of the period. The humour is occasionally reliant on pratfalls and overly long passages of domestic repartee, though on a prose level, The Netanyahus is as sublimely written a novel as anything you’re likely to read this year.


Death and So Forth
Gordon Lish
Dzanc Books, April 2021

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n what is served austerely as the final prose testament of Gordon Lish, the notorious editor, fiction-wrangler, and author of innovatively ignored novels and story collections, proffers a sequence of eccentric doodles, memoirish rambles, and repackaged stories on the moribund theme.

Now, to remark that these pieces read like the stylishly coiffured ramblings of an 87-year-old man might sound unkind, but these pieces read like the stylishly coiffured ramblings of an 87-year-old man (I remark, unkindly). Par example, ‘Hustlers All In the Rogue-Snown Night’, is a bizarrely strained exercise in stylistic incontinence, a stream-of-semi-consciousness ramble in the form of an opaque reminiscence about old nemesis Denis Johnson. Other stories such as ‘Excelsior’, force the reader to pursue an untetherable thread in heaps of prose yearnishly searching for unforced turns of phrase. By aggressively pursuing the unbland, the prose swiftly wobbles into incoherence, mimicking the skittery thought of an 87-year-old man.

On a less unkind note, the more palatable stories are those that temper abundance, such as the powerful ‘Grace’ where Lish relates his frustration at being stood up by his two friends Cynthia Ozick and Frank Lentricchia, tormentedly trying to think up other conversational titbits other than his dying wife. Or in ‘Bloom Dies’, where Lish recounts Harold Bloom’s wish to stare steely-eyed at the wall on his death-bed as a parting fuck-you to life.

The remaining short pieces have an admirable carelessness, showcasing a legendary lexophile having a final frolic with words, livened up with witty and repetitive duologues, continual self-interruptions, and needly editorial snipes on ill-willed word choice. Lish’s voice is one in continual dialogue with itself, a voice constantly in pursuit of a killer clause, a voice still searching for the finest imaginable sentence construction. This jeu d’esprit left me with tender readerly feelings towards the prose, if not a sense of having particularly enjoyed the results. Death and So Forth is the last hurrah from an extravagantly eccentric mind at the end of its tether.


The Adventures and Misadventures of the Extraordinary and Admirable Joan Orpí, Conquistador and Founder of New Catalonia
Max Besora (tr. Mara Faye Lethem)
Open Letter, January 2021

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arodies of the picaresque are not the rarest of literary species, whether we’re talking old-timers The Pickwick Papers and The Good Soldier Švejk, or newishbies The Sot-Weed Factor, Falstaff, or Forbidden Line, and Catalan writer Max Besora respects this rich tradition of the rollicking picaresque-on-speed, keeping the form chuckling along with his first novel in translation.

Being the tale of one Joan Orpí, founder of New Catalonia (the title tells no lies), the narrative is related to us by your classic untrustworthy narrator, chronicling our hero’s years bumming around the Catalan liminals, accosted at sabrepoint by highwaymen and women while struggling to please his perpetually unimpressed father, through his years sweltering in the jungles of Venezuela trying to form a less genocidal Catalan republic free from the butchery of noblemen. Most of the shenanigans are familiar to any readers of Cervantes (whose Quixote is deferentially rimmed throughout, making a brief appearance to share with Orpí his MS), and the star of the novel is the ebulliently inconsistent linguistic whirlwind on show—a punny and playfully parodic assault on Middle English, with frequent forays into Ebonics by a dwarf rapper and Chicano smack from Orpí’s loose-tongued sidekick.

As the original novel parodied the Catalan dialect of the period, translator Mara Faye Lethem has had to invent her own comical lexicon, and as a translation feat this places her on a par with Suzanne Jill Levine’s translations of Guillermo Cabrera Infante, or Michael Henry Heim’s translations of Sasha Sokolov and Karel Čapek. The range of comedic flair on show here make this novel a remarkably accomplished collaborative effort between Lethem and Besora. Beneath the work’s unflagging vim are sharply satirical assaults on the atrocities committed by Spanish colonisers of the New World, lending the novel an edge beneath the onslaught of frequently hilarious (and often tiresome) humour.


Solo Viola
Antoine Volodine (tr. Lia Swope Mitchell)
Univocal, May 2021

Eleven Sooty Dreams
Manuela Draegar (tr. J.T. Mahany)
Open Letter Books, February 2021

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hese two post-exotic novels from Antoine Volodine continue the Russo-Gallic author’s roman fleuve wherein various awkwardly named Eastern-European-sounding characters traverse the violently surreal prose-poetry of the author’s disquieting imagination. In Solo Viola, one of Volodine’s earliest post-exotic forays, an authoritarian regime helmed by the Frondists enact intraspecial cleansing while the protagonists, among them a circus strong-man and a horse pilferer, wobble around in rebellion of the fascism corrupting circus life and beyond. In Eleven Sooty Dreams (written under the female pseudonym Manuela Draegar) characters move through an unidentified war-torn landscape in a sequence of opaque, tedious, lyrical, and horrific episodes, alternating between the stories of Granny Holgolde, the most prominent of which features a young girl who, after a bombing attack, transforms into an elephant. As the title suggests, these stories have the hazy quality of dreams, wafting along on a kind of dream logic, making the prose intermittently banal and lyrical, never rising to the heights of wonder as achieved in Volodine’s masterpiece Radiant Terminus. Solo Viola is the stronger of these two short novels, a sveltely appealing introduction to one of the strangest fictional terrains ever created. Volodine’s universe is one of perpetual magic, frequently blown apart by barbarity.


The Posthumous Works of Thomas Pilaster
Éric Chevillard (tr. Chris Clarke)
Sublunary Editions, March 2021

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ric Chevillard specialises in uncategorisable novels that relish in tweaking the reader’s nose, from surreal farces that blow raspberries at the logic of space, time, and gravity, such as On the Ceiling, one of his earlier translated works, where a chair-headed character migrates to the ceiling upon falling in love, or The Author in Me, where a man’s loathing for cauliflower gratin somehow merges into a 42-page footnote about an ant. Chevillard shares with the Oulipo a relish for formal mischief and stretching an idea farther than that idea’s natural snapping point, although the strict tetherment to constraints is something that would vex such an unhinged creator.

His latest work to receive an Englishing is a take on the posthumous novel, wherein an editor, taking full advantage of still existing, massages the legacy of the corpse’s bottom-drawer scribblings. Here, the editor Marc-Antoine Marson explains how much the needy schoolboy Pilaster relied on his counsel, a trend that continued through his scattershot career, and presents excerpts of dubious coherence. Is the editor conspiring to show Pilaster as a hopeless dilettante? Is he, with blasts of disingenuous criticism, hoping to show Pilaster a cracked hack with no coherent literary vision?

Among the posthumous works include a 1956 diary, the pretentious utterings of a young man seeking to turn non sequiturs into aphorisms, and a later series of “analogical formulas with poetic pretentions”, arranged in a bullet-pointed list, imparting such pearls as “Only the feet and beak of a real duck are made of plastic.” There is a piece on reintroducing a man-eating tiger into the countryside, a short play where a grief-stricken lecturer collapses into babbling, and a series of non-strict haiku of the calibre “A glass of wine / my dearest bee / is not a tulip.” The range of forms and styles evokes my own novel Scotland Before the Bomb, a comparison I make through sheer vanity and proper critical accuracy. Chevillard’s imagination is incorrigible, and the chuckles come hard in this entertaining novel, another solid addition to a canon of nonpareil battiness.


M. J. Nicholls