I’m in the middle of the most recent National Book Award winner The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard. It’s an oppressive book both in style and content. Each description comes with an aside or a qualification. When one character, a young Australian soldier, relieves himself on the side of the road during a break in a drive across the Japanese countryside, Hazzard describes it this way: “The young driver, profiting from the hiatus, had meanwhile peed behind bushes.” Everywhere there are these odd little inclusions like “profiting from the hiatus.” The book is about the occupation of a shattered, destroyed, and conquered place, specifically the Allied occupation of post-war Japan. There is still everywhere the lingering hysteria of war, which Hazzard, like the occupiers she describes, tries to forget or ignore by imposing a false civility on the situation. The interplay of the conquered and the conquerors thus leads to dense language and curious juxtaposition. The Great Fire reminds me a lot of what was probably the first truly difficult book I ever read, Graham Greene‘s, The Power and the Glory. In that book, the “civilized” is a priest and the uncivilized is the tropical criminality of Mexico. Luis Bunuel once suggested to Alvaro Mutis, purveyor of his own brand of magical realism and author of the incomparable The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, that it is not possible to write a gothic novel that is set in the tropics. Mutis supposedly refuted this by writing The Mansion & Other Stories, though I can’t comment because (as of yet) I have been unable to lay my hands on that book. So, at this point, I would have to agree with Bunuel. In order to invoke the tropics one must also invoke the oppressiveness of the conditions there; content dictates style, which brings me back to The Great Fire. Though the book is not set in the tropics, its setting is oppressive, and thus so is the writing. And though I’m only a little ways into the book, it doesn’t seem like this is a bad thing.
Longtime Millions reader Laurie writes in with news of a sale on classic lit at Barnes & Noble. These Barnes & Noble-branded editions are sometimes criticized for cannibalizing the editions of other publishers because the chain store offers them so cheaply. Then again, some might argue that cheap books (and especially cheap classics) are always a good thing. It appears that the series Laurie mentions is now sold out (at least on the B&N Web site), but I thought the issues Laurie raised about the series interesting enough to merit posting anyway. Laurie writes:Here's another item for your "book deals" section, if you're comfortable with it (I have no affiliation with this publisher; I just like a bargain. Comments on the moral dimensions welcome.):Barnes & Noble publishes their own editions of classic literature. One series, the "Collector's Library," focusing mainly on works of the 19th century, went on sale the day after Christmas. Each pocket sized (6 inch x 4 inch) edition is hardbound in red cloth with an attached red ribbon placeholder held in firmly a stitched binding (at least it appears well-made) that also holds the printed work in small but sharp type, on good quality, gilt-edged paper. These little books look good and feel nice. Marked down from $5 or $6, which was already cheaper than most paperbacks, they are now marked for clearance at $2.00 each. About the worst thing you can say about them is that the striped dustjackets are pretty unimaginative. Want a copy of Moby Dick or Treasure Island, though, that can fit in the back pocket of your jeans and that also looks nice on a bookshelf (probably sans dustjacket)? Scour your local B&N -- they're going fast.Two further notes about this series:B&N's choice of titles here is pretty eclectic -- of the 65 or so I could find (they have no published list of all the titles and have not yet responded to a request for such a list), they've published Tolstoy's Anna Karenina but not his War & Peace; Dickens' Great Expectations but not David Copperfield or Oliver Twist; Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, but no other poets of the era (Tennyson was incredibly popular but appears left out, ditto Byron, Shelley, Browning, Wordsworth, etc.), the French Revolution drama A Tale of Two Cities is present but not Les Miserables. On the plus side, there's a good mix of adventure (Treasure Island, Three Musketeers, Ivanhoe), horror (Frankenstein, Dracula, Phantom of the Opera), and human interest (Little Women, Sense & Sensibility, The Scarlet Letter), among others.The books are printed in China, which probably accounts for their cheap price, but that may be objectionable to environmentalists (industrial waste laws are weaker there) or supporters of U.S.-based printers. Or it may be a moot point - just what percentage of American books are printed overseas these days anyway?
The other day I found a fascinating blog devoted to words, linguistics, languages and other related topics called Languagehat. I have been meaning to mention it for a while, and today I have good reason to. I don't often talk about reference books on The Millions even though I use them every day. Lucky for us, Languaghat keeps track of these sorts of things. Today, he posts links to interesting reviews of new editions of two popular reference books, The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th Edition and Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition.
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer points to a small press that is "one of the most intriguing additions to the Northwest literary landscape in recent years." Clear Cut Press in Astoria, Oregon, distinguishes itself by publishing books in "handy pocket-size editions, inspired by a popular Japanese format, and with detachable covers with arresting images," and by splitting profits 50/50 with its authors, a cut far higher than authors can expect to get at a typical publishing house. The Post-Intelligencer calls books like Matt Briggs' debut novel, Shoot the Buffalo worthy of more prominent presses. Clear Cut also put out a collection of essays, Orphans, early this year by Charles D'Ambrosio who frequently appears in the New Yorker.
In my recent review of Alvaro Mutis' The Mansion, I noted the paucity of Mutis' writing available in English. Basically, there is Maqroll and not much else. From what I understand, much of what would remain of Mutis' writing to be published in an English-language edition would be his poetry, much of it featuring "Maqroll the Gaviero."But there is also Mutis' account of his time in Lecumberri, a Mexico City prison, after being accused of fraud by his employer Standard Oil in Columbia. Mutis would write, "I never would have managed to write a single line about Maqroll el Gaviero, who has accompanied me here and there in my poetry, had I not lived those fifteen months in the place they call, with singular precision, 'the Black Palace.'"Mutis' account, The Diary of Lecumberri, was published in 1959 by the Universidad Veracruzana and reprinted by Alfaguara in 1997.In 1999, a journal called Hopscotch translated and published a substantial excerpt of The Diary of Lecumberri, which is available as a PDF. Also included are a petition to the President for Mutis' release penned by Octavio Paz and several letters that Mutis wrote to the journalist Elena Poniatowska from prison.When things go bad in jail, when someone or something manages to break the closed procession of days and shuffles and tumbles them in a disorder coming from outside, when this happens, there are certain infallible symptoms, certain preliminary signs that announce the imminence of bad days. In the morning, at the first roll, a thick taste of rag dries the mouth and keeps us from saying hello to our cellmates. Everyone sits himself as well as he can, waiting for the sergeant to come and sign the report. Then comes the food. The cooks don't yell their usual "Anyone who takes bread!" to announce their arrival, or their "Anyone who wants atole," with which they break the mild spell left over from the dreams of those staggering around, never able to quite convince themselves that they are prisoners, that they are in jail. The meal arrives in silence and everyone approaches with his plate and his bowl to receive his allotted ration, and nobody protests, or asks for more, or says a word.