The Tale of the 1002nd Night by Joseph Roth

(c1939)  1998 St. Martin’s Press

How surprising that a novel by Roth should only find English translation (by Michael Hofmann) and publication nearly fifty years after it was written.  It’s an unusual book, not so much a story as a series of vivid scenes of Vienna life in the last years of change and decay before the Great War, scenes strung together like the pearls of the fabulous necklace gift of the Shah.

Roth conjures the physical Vienna with great specificity, walking us around the city with the details that prompt that “I know that place, I’ve been there” feeling in any visitor.  But we know only too well that the social world is decayed and dying.  We meet characters across the social spectrum but there will be no happy ending for any of them.  Roth is an incomparable stylist whose work gives the reader an exquisitely melancholy pleasure.

“…she sometimes surrendered to her dangerous dreams, knowing full well how foolish they were, and how bleak and bitter it was to wake from them.  Ridiculous dreams, fleetingly kind and beatific, for all the misery of waking from them.”

The last word from the waxworks sculptor: “I might be capable of making figures that have heart, conscience, passion, emotion, and decency.  But there’s no call for that at all in the world.  People are only interested in monsters and freaks, so I give them their monsters.  Monsters are what they want.”

Tapping the Source by Kem Nunn

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1984 Scribner

I have a strict rule that I will always buy something when I visit an independent bookstore.  It’s sometimes a bit of a challenge in a small shop like the combination coffee and book shop I visited in Bend Oregon last summer.  So I was pleased to find this reissue edition of a novel I’d enjoyed quite a few years ago.  I was even happier to find the story still fresh and engrossing, a really excellent novel.

It’s the original surfer noir novel,  well-plotted, strong characters, wonderful descriptive language eg when our young hero comes home after a shocking party night. “The sun was climbing fast by the time he reached the Sea View, heating up the streets, and the machinery of the town was heating up as well, moving into high gear now, the boomer gear, greased with hash oil and cocoa butter, hot-wired with cocaine, chugging to some New Wave anthem, and his heart was beating time, hammering erratically as he reached his room and stepped inside.”

or in a better moment in the surf – “On the horizon, the sun had begun to melt, had gone red above a purple sea.  The tide was low and the waves turned crisp black faces toward the shore while trails of mist rose from their feathering lips in fine golden arcs.  The arcs rose into the sky, spreading and then falling back into the sea, scattering their light across the surface like shards of flame.”

The Sisters Brothers: A Novel by Patrick DeWitt

It might be overreach to say that the Western is an infinitely adaptable literary form but it has proven to be a remarkably useful framework for cultural and psychological exploration.  That there are still new ways to tell a story within its seemingly simple structure is dazzlingly demonstrated in this 2011 novel.   Canadian author Patrick DeWitt spins elements of the traditional Western with the knightly quest tale, medieval morality plays, fairy tales, road movies and a contemporary comic sensibility into a fresh, funny, completely compelling story that might have been told around a campfire, in a mead hall, or on a comedy club stage.

The two brothers are characters usually seen only in the background of a standard Western, the hired guns who serve the corrupt boss.  DeWitt plucks them from the shadows to make them the leading men of a perverse knightly quest.  They are dark knights clad not in armor but in long dusters with the sleeves ripped off. The Commodore(king) sends them on a job(quest) to recover something of “great value”.  They have adventures and meet all manner of odd characters.  Much is learned and much is lost.  They betray their trust for the lure of the alchemist’s dream but perhaps find truer treasure at the end.

Continue reading “The Sisters Brothers: A Novel by Patrick DeWitt”

Browse: The World in Bookshops

ed. Henry Hitchings, Pushkin Press 2016

In his essay, “A Tale of Two Bookshops”, Juan Gabriel Vasquez quotes remarks made by Argentine author Adolfo Bioy Casares about why he writes.

“I dare to advise people to write, because it’s like adding an extra room to the house of one’s life.  There is life and there is thinking about life, which is another way of living it intensely.”

“What I did like was literature.  I felt that it was my homeland and I wanted to participate in its world.”