The Counterfeiters: A Novel

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A Year in Reading: Claire Messud

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One of the great pleasures of this year for me was the last volume of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan tetralogy, The Story of the Lost Child. It’s not to be read on its own, though — you’ve got to devour the other three books first. Ferrante builds her rich and textured world over time, and this last volume would not, I think, truly make sense without the others. I also highly recommend the Algerian writer Kamel Daoud’s response to Albert Camus’s The Stranger: entitled The Meursault Investigation, it retells the iconic story from an Algerian’s perspective, and gives us a view of contemporary Algerian life in the bargain. The Sympathizer, a terrific first novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen, was another of my year’s discoveries: narrated by a Vietnamese double-agent who ends up in the United States, the book is rich, surprising, and often darkly funny. And last, but by no means least, while helping my teenage daughter to find some great books she might enjoy, I’ve had the joy of rediscovering some old favorites, including Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart and — delicious, always inappropriate, and oddly perspicacious – André Gide’s The Counterfeiters.

More from A Year in Reading 2015

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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A Year in Reading: Stephen Dodson (Languagehat)

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My year has been even more filled with good reading than usual; fortunately, some of the books are so well known there is little need for me to give them a plug, and I will list them at the end so you can point and laugh (“Seriously, you went over half a century without reading Jane Eyre?”). That frees me to talk about the ones that may not be as familiar, the first of which was Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350–550 AD. I know what you’re thinking: you know little and care less about the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries; why not go back to Julius Caesar or forward to Charlemagne? I would have said the same, but the book was a Christmas gift and I knew Brown was a good writer, so I plunged in. He begins with a passage about the “Harvester of Mactar” (in North Africa), who had his biography recorded on a stele; he rose from a lowly foreman to the owner of a comfortable farm and finally became rich enough to have a seat on the town council of Mactar. From this account of one forgotten and unimportant man, Brown develops a description of the social and religious structure of Roman Africa and how it was changing in the late fourth century; at that point Christians, though tolerated, were expected to be ostentatiously poor, and the central theme of the book is how that situation changed to one in which Christians were increasingly running the Empire and coming to decide that wealth could be godly after all. He does this to a large extent through a lengthy and riveting account of the life, connections, and personality of St. Augustine (with whom Brown moves from Africa to Italy, expanding the scope of the book to the whole Empire) as well as less well-known figures like Paulinus of Nola, Decimius Magnus Ausonius, and Pelagius and the rich and powerful women who supported and opposed them; by the time I put down the book I felt I’d been immersed in a nonfiction equivalent of a Leo Tolstoy novel. (It may also cause you to think about wealth and power in our own time.)

For my birthday I was given Stephen Kotkin’s Stalin: Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928; I was looking forward to it because I’d liked other things of his I’d read, but also somewhat dreading it because it was very long and only went up to 1928 and I had already read quite a bit about both Joseph Stalin and that period of Russian history. It turned out there was no need to worry — I enjoyed it so much I’m already impatient for the next volume. I have to immediately offer a caveat, though: it’s not exactly a biography, so if that’s what you want (Stalin was born a poor Georgian lad, he had good times and bad, and then he came to power and started executing people) you may be better off with a shorter and more focused, if less comprehensive, work. Kotkin goes for many, many pages, entire chapters, mentioning Stalin only as an afterthought or not at all; his idea is that you can’t understand the man without understanding the society and country he grew up in, so he starts with a detailed history of late-19th-century Russia and the people who affected its development (he made me so interested in the great industrialist Sergei Witte I took a break to read a whole biography). He is constantly turning away from Stalin to explain the forces at work in the Civil War or the evolution of Bolshevik ideas and practices. (I was reminded of Robert Caro’s magisterial multivolume history of LBJ.) If you can deal with that, though, I can’t recommend the book highly enough — Kotkin seems to have read and absorbed all the available material, and his judgments are consistently interesting and persuasive. If you want to read more about the Civil War, by the way, I highly recommend Evan Mawdsley’s The Russian Civil War. And if you want a short history of the period to orient yourself, you can’t do better than Sheila Fitzpatrick’s The Russian Revolution, a brilliant condensation of a complex subject; she doesn’t spend time on biographies or personalities, just tells you what happened and why between 1917 and 1937 in under 200 pages.

The most recent of these grand reading experiences was Leonid Livak’s How It Was Done in Paris: Russian Emigre Literature & French Modernism. It’s a specialized topic, but if you’re interested at all in Russian émigré writers and interwar French literature you have to read this book. Livak is one of those rare academics who can apply theory without becoming impenetrable, and he made me rethink everything I thought I knew about the subject. (He also won my heart by quoting Venedikt Erofeev’s gloriously bibulous and heartbreakingly romantic novel Moskva-Petushki in the acknowledgments; if that description intrigues you at all, run out and find one of the translations, Moscow to the End of the Line or Moscow Circles.) You probably haven’t heard of Boris Poplavsky, Gaito Gazdanov, or Yuri Felzen, but Livak will make you care about them and their struggles to find a way to write in the competing shadows of Marcel Proust and Soviet literature, and he ends with a tour de force comparison of Vladimir Nabokov’s Dar [The Gift] to André Gide’s Les Faux-monnayeurs [The Counterfeiters] that sent me back repeatedly to my well-read copy of the former (for my money, the best of his novels) and made me want to give the latter a try.

Oh, and those other books? Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation, Anthony Trollope’s Barchester novels, and the aforementioned Jane Eyre. That Rochester is a real louse, let me tell you!

More from A Year in Reading 2015

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

A Crazy Trolley to Nowhere and Back Again: Gert Jonke’s The System of Vienna

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With books that you planned to read this year still sitting on your shelf unread, and countless other recommendations swimming in your head, why should you even consider making room on your reading queue for a one originally published ten years ago in German and containing pieces dating back to 1970? But there is plenty fresh about Gert Jonke’s The System of Vienna: From Heaven Street to Earth Mound Square. Like the bulk of his work, this novel is musical, innovative, and difficult, not in a dusty academic way, but as a delightful puzzle, as a well-constructed argument, as a challenging game of chess. Thanks to Dalkey Archive Press, readers may now become acquainted with Gert Jonke’s work. Prior to Dalkey’s releases, Jonke’s books were unavailable in English. Having already published his Geometric Regional Novel and Homage to Czerny: Studies in Virtuoso Technique, with this new edition of The System of Vienna, Dalkey has distinguished itself as the American purveyor of the work of one of Austria’s most important writers.

Jonke’s The System of Vienna is a sprawling autobiographical novel (some describe it as a collection of linked stories) full of outrageous characters bustling through even more outrageous scenes. Beginning with a recounting of the narrator’s birth, and how his skin was tinged blue, the novel proceeds with descriptions of events that helped shape his personality, his consciousness, his obsessions: he encounters a man who thinks the French Embassy was built in the wrong place; he meets another who is unsure whether he is or isn’t the Chancellor’s confidant; he bumps into an eccentric stamp collector in the woods he thinks was imitating a tawny owl’s call; he meets another man (perhaps Jonke’s tribute to André Gide’s The Counterfeiters) who hands him a book called The System of Vienna; and he meets a paranoid fish merchant who believes that he masterminds Austrian politics from his stall.

Jonke is adept at blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction. And he ably navigates metafictional and musical composition elements with comedic and fabulist registers while also experimenting with language, with unique syntactic strategies that convincingly depict a person’s psychology, particularly one that is in crisis, on the page. The reading of the novel is hurried along by expressive hyphenations like “wrinkled-lined-shriveled” and “sheen-glinting,” and brimming with portmanteaus like “eveninglikemorningishly afternoonnight” and “opendoorclosedoorslyness.” These neologisms visually capture the speed in which the character experiences his rush of thoughts and sometimes even threaten to take over the narrative:

And were you not then actually inside the bakery and suddenly seated on the padded red plastic chair, and did you in all likelihood not even really take notice of the closingtheglassdoorbehindyou, your enteringthecoffeehouse-aroma, lookingforandchoosingaseat, goingovertooneofthosepaddedredplasticchairs and the seating of your person in such a way that it seemed to you as if nothing like this had ever occurred before…

And the rush of cumulative sentences, insane, qualifying and self-correcting sentences that collapse upon each other, perfectly mirror the narrator’s decreased confidence, his fragmented consciousness, his quickly devolving sense of self:

Therein was to be sought the reason and the cause why things are sometimes, mostly sometimes, rather often, sometimes rather often, mostly sometimes rather often, mostly rather often, sometimes mostly mostly, mostly mostly not as they should be.

As the novel progresses, the narrator falls into endless repetitions. It reaches its apotheosis in “Philosophy of Household Management”:

Since that time I don’t put flowers out onto the hallway window any more; I’ve given up putting flowers onto the hallway window, because it makes no sense to put flowers onto the hallway window, no, it’s not just senseless, but impossible, for that matter, since it’s not a common thing to set flowers onto hallway windows, and setting flowers onto hallway windows can even be grounds for having your lease canceled.

And so it continues for pages. In less accomplished hands these repetitions would prove tiresome, but the voice here perfectly meshes with the narrator’s desire to get things right, captures his tendency to get lost in mundanities and life’s day-to-day minutiae, and also reflects his mind’s slow dissolution.

As much as the novel is a series of progressions from one trolley-stop to another, many of its encounters are driven by digressions, that is, characters are likely to deliver tangent-filled monologues that go all over the place. Jonke’s meeting with the sculptor in “Furniture Show—Main Promenade in the Prater” is as stunning as it is baffling, where the sculptor’s speechifying is marked by constant qualifications, apologies, and all kinds of circuitous asides.

The narrator is plagued by his dreams. At one moment he dreamed he saw his great-aunt flying over hills “powered by two gigantic wings of a nose out of her shoulder blades.” But as bizarre as his dreams are, his waking life is sometimes just as vivid and overwhelming:

I look down at the dark spots with which the sidewalks and streets here are strewn, as if I were being drawn to the ground by these faint patterns of glinting mica eyes in the paving material.

At first I believe they are the remaining marks of large raindrops fallen out of the night onto the sidewalks and streets. But when the spots have not been absorbed by the heat of midday, I can only think that the sidewalks and streets are constantly being spit on in profusion by the burning sky of the given day or much likely, by the good people of Vienna themselves, the latter speculation making it no surprise at all to me that these blotches never disappear.

We find the narrator increasingly losing control of his hold on reality, where at one point he asks:

Is it not altogether possible that the course of our life in its entirety is determined by nothing other than an unremitting and regrettable or even lamentable captivity founded on a curious aggregation of altogether ceaseless and incredibly unremitting post-hypnotic suggestions?

But it is the novel’s penultimate chapter wherein we observe the fullness of Jonke’s imaginative, visionary writing. In “Caryatids and Atlantes—Vienna’s First Guest Workers,” the narrator discovers that he is able to commune with stone sculptures. He learns that they “apprehended” time “as a physically concrete reality” and that they “required eternity-dimensional masses of time clouds” in order to exist. But their relationship isn’t one-sided: he teaches them about sleep and dreams. His “sleep performances came to be esteemed” by the stone sculptures as a

wondrously exotic, serenity-inducing form of Gesamtkunstwerk or all-encompassing work of art matchlessly flung high aloft by [him], in all its incalculable vastness, into the air of those day-nights and night-days, aided by the sheer force of [his] individual personality.

It is an imaginative end to a highly experimental and visionary novel.

And this hasn’t even covered the narrator’s grappling with suicidal thoughts, his synesthetic experiences where he often feels like he were hearing with his eyes, his repeated anthropomorphizing of the elements and inanimate objects, or how the narrative, even with its many bifurcations, still closely resembles the structure of the hero’s quest wherein the hero meets and overcomes numerous challenges and emerges victorious. The System of Vienna, with its commanding cadences, self-absorbed insistence, and entrancing repetitions, not to mention its childlike surrender to fantasy, is boundless fiction that both puzzles and entertains.

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