One of my favorite novels is Skylark, by the great Hungarian writer Dezso Kosztolányi (1885–1936). Thus I was very happy, earlier this year, to see New Directions bring out the first English translation of Kosztolányi’s final novel, Kornél Esti, and I’ve finally gotten round to reading it. Esti lacks the tightly plotted economy of Skylark, in which every word is perfect — in fact it’s hardly a novel at all, but a group of loosely linked, peripatetic stories that proceed from birth toward death, and the stories aren’t really stories but a high-concept mix of urban legends, folk tales, and sitcom premises — the German university president who can only sleep during lectures; the heroic life-saver who thereafter becomes a terrible nuisance; the kleptomaniac who steals words from books. Like Skylark, it’s a tender comedy tinged with the absurdity of life, the thrill of sociability, and the imminence of death, which I guess is exactly the kind of book I like.
Siddhartha Deb’s The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India is, well, a fascinating portrait of the “New India”: a country being transformed (at least superficially) by a gigantic influx of investment and the rise of a small but very visible wealthy class. My favorite chapter tells the riveting tale of a self-made business guru with a goofy smile, a million-pound Bentley, and a string of private business schools that may or may not amount to a pyramid scheme.
Philip Connors’ Fire Season describes his decade of summers spent as a fire lookout in the Gila Forest — five months a year of off-the-grid living in a 7-by-7-foot tower, far from the modern world. Solitude and fire management would make dull fodder for a lesser writer, but Connors’ memoir reinvigorates the whole concept of nature writing; it’s deeply thoughtful, deeply poetic, and quietly angry at what we’re doing to our world, without the sentimental bullshit.
And one more: Sheila Heti’s novel-from-life, How Should a Person Be?, was published in Canada in 2010, but won’t be out in the US until next June. Watch for it – it’s great.
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