‘Brulard’s Day’ by Marie Ndiaye, translated by Jordan Stump

Ndiaye’s long sentences, sometimes luxurious, sometimes incredulous, interrupted by abrupt or incomplete remarks—I’d read ‘Brulard’ again and again just for that, just to reexperience her beautiful prose arrhythmias. Brulard runs into acquaintances who aren’t where they should be. Strangers turn up out of nowhere to send tumbling off-course Brulard’s day of desperate waiting. Ndiaye gives you just enough to make you want to fill the gaps in Brulard’s experience without the author’s help. You sense, though, under the story’s restless current, an odd stasis, as if maybe all that’s really happening is nothing. So at the end, when you look back and say, ‘This is the story of Eve Brulard, an out-of-work actress whose precarious situation becomes so outrageous that it pushes her over the edge,’ you disbelieve yourself at once, saying instead – and seeming no less implausible – ‘ . . . out-of-work actress who’s received a terrible shock, after which everything that happens is hallucination as she tries to unknow the terrible thing that she’s just learned.’

Ndiaye says: “She understood, but, oh God, how she dreaded learning what it was that she understood.”

First published in French as ‘Une journée de Brulard’ in Tous mes amis, Minuit, 2004. First published in English in All My Friends, Two Lines Press, 2013

‘Kitchen Plays’ by Mieko Kanai, translated by Paul McCarthy

We’re in a maze which, arguably, Kanai never lets her readers leave even if her characters do manage to escape (not certain). The opening paragraph, such a paragraph that I wish I could memorize it, takes the form of a spiral within the larger spiral that’s the story’s overall shape: images like “spindle-tree hedges” and a “triangular stone” keep slipping into view as the narrator zigzags along a narrow path towards his childhood home. The maze, although I’m uncertain about this, could also be the maze of his own memory. Again and again he forgets the characteristics of the zigzag path, which he must have wandered many times: its upward incline, for example, towards a sandstone summit. Returns to the homeward-bound maze alternate in his account with reminiscences of a train journey away from home. His point of view alternates too; he is a child, an adult, a child, adult. He is alternately “I” and “he”. Each time he recalls his journey home or away from home, the details seem to spiral farther away from actual events, spiraling deeper into fantasy—and why?

With meandering and truncated phrasing, Kanai writes: “The abruptness with which one remembers that one has forgotten even the fact of having forgotten. At this rate, he’d probably forgotten that he’d forgotten many other things. So I think. In this weightless space of memory.”

First published in Japanese in Tangoshu, Chikuma Shobo, 1979. First published in English in The Word Book, Dalkey Archive Press, 2009

‘An Account of the Land of Witches’ by Sofia Samatar

Within Samatar’s ‘Account’, an ‘Account of the Land of Witches’ by the slave Arta prompts the ensuing ‘Refutation of the Account of Witches’ by Arta’s master, which incites ‘A Refutation of the Refutation of the Account of the Land of Witches’ by Sagal, a scholar trapped by bombings in her home country, and so on in a total of five accounts nesting each inside the other like those fabulous matryoshka dolls which make so lovable a metaphor. Samatar varies the vocabularies, styles, and prejudices of her narrators so deftly that they truly are different people living inside and beside her, their worlds as complete as those of novels even though the story is very short. It’s not until Sagal’s ‘Refutation’ that the Land of Witches begins to seem unreal, even though she is refuting the man who refuted Arta’s first-person account. Sagal’s ‘Refutation’ is so fearful, fragmented, frustrated—she must flee her war-torn country but can’t so much as leave her house—that I wonder whether the ensuing section, in which a band of travelers seeks the Land of Witches using Sagal’s writings as a guide, is but a fantasy of Sagal’s, so desperate is she (like Arta) for escape. That said, Arta’s account is so rich in detail, in immediacy, grounded in its own almost Borgesian metaphysics, that you cannot not imagine yourself right there beside her.

In the Land of Witches: “The smallest child can roll time into a ball and chase it down the stairs or fashion it into elaborate paper chains. In the pastry shops, they drizzle time over the cakes.”

First published in The Offing, 2017 and available to read here; collected in Tender, Small Beer, 2017

‘Death Customs’ by Constantia Soteriou, translated by Lina Protopapa

There are many stories here, even more stories than there are voices; and there are many voices. A whole chorus of voices in the ancient Greek dramatic style. Are they ghosts? Are they old women who, together with Spasoula, waited for their sons and husbands to be released from Turkish camps or identified in mass graves, waiting together with her now that she is dying?

– Is there anyone she hasn’t forgiven, so we can bring them to her to forgive?
– She must be guilty of many sins.
– Sins, sins.

The chorus’ chanting alternates with a narrator’s reminiscences, her lonely voice just as musical and even more eerie, her incantations forming invocations, flagellations: “I forgot the chest. You forgot the chest. I forgot the chest . . .” The translator’s footnote says Soteriou’s Greek text uses almost no punctuation and makes few explicit connections between ideas, making us seem to slide in and out of time, a vividly remembered past bleeding out into a hazy, offside kind of eternity which is also the purgatorial present. Why is the narrator so furious with Spasoula and so fond of her at the same time—this Spasoula who tends the graves of other people’s loved ones? That is one story within Soteriou’s story. There are also the murders of POWs committed by both sides of the Greek-Turkish wars, conflicts in which nobody is innocent. The old women who are left attend to funerary customs according to pantheistic, Islamic, Christian, and folk traditions. The mass graves of POWs are “a higgeldy-piggeldy of bones . . . nobody knew who was who . . . a well full of Greek and Turkish bones . . .”

First published in English Granta, June 2019, and available to read here

‘Zoya Andreyevna’ by Nina Berberova, translated by Marian Schwartz

Most disorienting in this story is Berberova’s subtle mirror, which she turns on the reader, the practice of reading, and the inhumaneness of humanity. Zoya arrives at a Ukrainian boardinghouse, fleeing the civil war that is slaughtering Bolshevik Russia. She must conceal everything that’s good about herself—her intelligence and education, her youth, her stockings—because such attributes are not trending in communist populism. But who is Zoya? Digging for clues, the landlady and her daughters examine Zoya’s unusual name. They rifle her suitcase, her underclothes, her wastepaper, her torn skirt. From the appearance of her things, they form no conclusions beyond the prejudicial: she’s a foreigner therefore diseased; she has good stockings therefore this penniless refugee must be loathsomely privileged. In real life I’d hardly condone such invasions of privacy or snap judgments based on outward appearances; but as the reader of Zoya’s story, do I not form my impressions of Zoya in exactly the same way as her landlady? Mustn’t I cobble together Zoya’s image based on Berberova’s inspections of her physiognomy, accent, underclothes, overclothes, private letters, table manners, and whatever symbolisms might be implicated by her name? Fiction, being fiction, protects its readers from moral culpability vis-à-vis its characters: the invasiveness of curiosity and the unfairness of appearance-based judgments ‘do not matter’ because Zoya isn’t ‘real.’ But what if she was? You’d like to think that, unlike Zoya’s landlady, you wouldn’t toss Zoya literally into the street if she appeared to contract a disease. ‘But these are exceptional times,’ you might say as you await your COVID vaccination, meanwhile glaring with horror at anyone who sneezes.

“These were fairy-tale times,” Berberova writes. The landlady and her daughters feel “that in the general displacement, the universal alarm, the time had come for them, too, to live and act . . . Something told them that there were not two or three or four of them but no end to the people, no counting them—whether they had a needle or a slotted spoon in hand—gripped by the general hatred and vindictiveness.”

First published in English in The Ladies from St. Petersburg, New Directions, 1998

‘Autolysis, or Ways of Disappearing’ by Sylvia Warren

In one sense, ‘Autolysis’ is the story of humanity’s unhumanity. It’s well known, though rarely admitted, that the human body is not just human. We couldn’t live without the bacteria in our guts, for instance. Only death, when our bodies decompose into the Earth, reveals us for what we truly are; and this revelation is a lifelong project. Warren unconceals it through fantasy. There are many fairy tales, it’s true, of humans turning into nonhuman animals, humans metamorphosing into trees, humans caught between humanity and fish-hood. But Warren’s story is the first I’ve read in which becoming-fungus is a run-of-the-mill aspect of contemporary women’s life cycle. In ‘Autolysis,’ coming of age means learning the nonhumanity, the “rot,” as Warren puts it, innate to one’s body. There are rituals to instigate various stages of the transition, rituals to palliate the pain of metamorphosis. And this is another way to read ‘Autolysis’: the phased development of a woman’s inborn fungus coincides with the familiar metamorphoses that are her human-reproductive cycle. Warren illuminates by exaggeration the hidden agonies which every woman suffers but is ideologically bound to consider precious—even amidst the recurring horror of her body becoming alien to itself.

“Things were budding inside, forming fleshy growths that burst outwards under my skin. I lay there in the dark of my bedroom, a wet itchiness as the insides of me became too large . . . I waited to disappear into the bed, tied down by the maze of mycelia until I melted and decomposed.”

Published in minor literature[s], February 2020, and available to read here

‘Queen’ by Amina Cain

A quilt of objects, layers, and gaps, ‘Queen’ is an anti-drama of monotony and dirt in the small and stagnant world of hotel chambermaids. Cain’s abrupt, often fragmentary sentences which insist upon their nouns, sometimes consisting only of nouns, stitch together a static drama of things, one beside the other and another and another in an assemblage that is perfectly contingent. There are human things and nonhuman things. They are nonhierarchical. People and objects have the same ontological and dramatic status, the same ability or lack thereof to move the plot. You could almost say nouns are the plot, a plot picked out in disconnected dots. Their separation, the space between—in that silence is the drama. For in this encounter between things, which isn’t at all obliged to happen the way it happens, bodies and roles and backstories and identities slip-slide into each other. Forms are exchanged. Relationships quietly light up the silences and become meaning in potentia. A juxtaposition suggests an unnecessary connection which suggests another and another till the story leaves its world: ‘Queen’ ends with Cain’s prose-objects side by side with a quotation from Clarice Lispector.

A quotation from Cain: “Objects. The tiny cameo necklace my grandmother gave me. Something Marguerite gives me, on paper. Keep it in your pocket, she says. I touch a wall. Make dinner for Marguerite. Eat quietly. A lamp on the wooden table. An album with sounds of geese, and then wolves howling. Eight o’clock . . . Overcast sky. Painting of a river scene, children with kites.”

Collected in Creature, Dorothy Project, 2013

‘Brasília’ by Clarice Lispector, translated by Katrina Dodson

In 1956, Brazilian President Juscelino Kubitschek commissioned the design and construction, from scratch, of a new capital city: the city of Brasília was to be a center of modernist, egalitarian, highway-driven progress with the shape, visible from above, of an airplane. By 1960 this concrete and steel embodiment of networked unity and nationalist-cosmopolitan innovation was complete; and in 1962, with no idea that Walt Disney was planning, along the same lines but wheel-shaped, an Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow in the United States, Clarice Lispector visited Brasília for the first time, returning briefly twelve years later. On both occasions, what she wrote about it was fantastical but not. She invented an ancient history for the two-year-old city, imagining the original ‘Brasilianaires’ as “extremely tall blond men and women” who “sparkled in the sun,” were completely blind, and, “dressed in white gold,” were altogether more like skyscrapers than people. Lispector’s Brasília is so hospitable that there’s no room for pedestrians. It’s so bright and vigilant one feels guilty for feeling guilty. The utopian imperative is so insistent that tears and tiredness aren’t allowed. There’s such a rational lack of corners that this actual, real-life city seems not to exist—like a fantasy without magic. Lispector’s writing, too, is dizzying, euphoric, terrified, insomniac, as she recognizes in herself the temptation to wish for absolute order, to create a situation where although freedom and clarity are the first imperatives, there are no surprises. And no rats.

“A whole part of us, the worst, precisely the one horrified by rats, that part has no place in Brasília. They wished to deny that we are worthless. A construction with space factored in for the clouds. Hell understands me better . . . —The construction of Brasília: that of a totalitarian State. —This great visual silence that I love. My insomnia too would have created this peace of the never.”

Collected in The Complete Stories, New Directions, 2015

‘George’s Wife’ by Véronique Bizot, translated by Youna Kwak

Besides being a linear or actually quite curly narrative, this story feels like a sort of diorama of a particular insulated interior, namely a cluster of affluent condos. What counts most decisively as ‘action’ is extreme inaction. What passes, leaving aside flashbacks, for a ‘plot’ is the acquisition of guests and their arrangement in a condo for a dinner party. Which character comes forward as the ‘protagonist’ is unclear. Although neither the narrator nor anybody at the dinner party is George, this George is on the barbed tip of every tongue and thought. So if this is George’s story, we’re getting it obliquely and at second hand. George himself appears nowhere except in memories, ill-timed references, and a distant, unacknowledged glance. If this is the narrator’s story, it’s given to us incomplete and from the side: we see its disembodied George-infested edges and no more. Scattered through the story like abstract portraits are other characters’ untold stories and unanswered questions, hints at which add nothing to the plot but much to the diorama. I read in an interview that Bizot trained as an interior decorator. Reading ‘George’s Wife’, I feel as if I’m wandering a painstakingly eccentric dining room. ‘Why put that detail there?’ I wonder, and ‘Why is such an obvious thing missing?’

“On that side, fairly tall and dense trees block the view I might have of George’s patio, a hideously tiled slab of flambé flagstone, overhung by a striped orange awning trimmed with grayish fringe, underneath which I imagine him seated and, like me, motionless.”

Collected in Gardeners, Diálogos, 2017; published here in Brooklyn Rail and here in The Short Story Project

‘The Memory’ by Mitsuyo Kakuta, translated by Polly Barton

Kakuta’s narrator says of a certain celebrity model who happens to be the same narrator’s sort-of stepdaughter: “In the end, her beauty terrifies them. Her looks are not the kind to enthrall or impassion. When people look into her eyes, they feel like they are being seen through, stolen away, sucked in toward some kind of terrible misfortune.”

Terrifying beauty. Carnivorous, destructive beauty. This is the paradox of the sublime (says Kant, of whom more below). Sublimity is easy to spot in certain art and landscapes, sharks and octopuses. But in a human? How, with just a look, can a human whirlpool another human towards terrible misfortune? I’m suspicious of the ‘windows to the soul’ trope. The notion that someone’s eyes can reveal their inner perverseness, holiness, or emptiness sounds practically phrenological. Yet Kakuta’s narrator insists some inner secret is the dark fount of the model’s physical sublimity. Could the secret lie not with the model but with the narrator—she who’s so insistent that this other woman is sublime? We’re told that this young woman believes herself to be guilty of a horrible crime. Why, then, does she choose the life of a celebrity model? Once you ask yourself that question, Kakuta’s story changes color. Personally I suspect the narrator of feeding the young woman the ‘memory’ of her guilt in order to conceal the narrator’s own part in the tragedy and create the opportunity for the narrator to play the magnanimous stepmother. But see what you think. A single event broadcast-spawns how many memories, each possessed of self-destructive malleability?

Published here in Words Without Borders, March 2015

‘One Woman and Two Great Men’ by Danielle Dutton

The last sentence of this story is a lie, but the story is fiction made of fact. Most of the events in the plot really happened; Fleur Jaeggy did translate Thomas de Quincey’s translation of Andreas Wasianski’s account of Immanuel Kant’s bedtime routine. But because Dutton’s gorgeous prose has a way of seeming gently tongue-in-cheek, it feels as though the events that she’s describing didn’t happen even though they did. The translations and usurpations of each ‘great man’ by another and another give Dutton’s summation of these events the dubious flavor of rumor—a summation, by the way, which isn’t really a summation since the events thereby aggregated have yet to conclude: de Quincey’s fame eclipsed Wasianski’s and then they died, Dutton says, but because Jaeggy still lives, who knows whether she might eclipse de Quincey in the ruins of literature’s so-called canon? And what about Kant? Ostensibly what matters here are not Kant’s philosophical achievements but various rumors concerning his eccentric way of going to bed and his uneventful way of quitting the world for good. But Kant did theorize that because our minds generate the structures (space and time and so on) which make reality intelligible, we have no idea what reality is in itself beyond the schemata we ourselves impose upon it. As such, Kant’s philosophy, which de Quincey said was the least interesting thing about him, could be a hidden engine of Dutton’s depiction of Jaeggy’s depiction of de Quincey’s depiction of Wasianski’s depiction of this:

“. . . first, he’d sit on the side of the bed and with an agile motion vault obliquely into his lair; next, he drew one corner of the bedclothes under his left shoulder and, passing it below his back, brought it round so as to rest under his right shoulder; fourthly, by a particular tour d’addresse, he operated on the opposite corner in similar fashion, finally contriving to roll the blanket around his entire person. How pleasing it is to imagine Immanuel Kant thus enswathed (self-involved as a silkworm) . . .”

Published here in The Chicago Review, November 2020

‘I am the Brother of XX’ by Fleur Jaeggy, translated by Gini Alhadeff

Both sister (XX) and brother (the brother of XX) seem to want to become writers. XX seems to wish to turn her brother, who is also our narrator, into a fictional character, exaggerating his experiences in what may be the germs of stories. Meanwhile she urges him not to write but instead to find a job in a bank or some such place so that he might ‘succeed in life.’ The brother of XX is obedient but spends his life regretting it, is in fact obsessed with regret, consumed by resentment for the sister who made him betray his true calling. It’s as if he’s forgotten his own name; he sees himself as nothing but the tool of XX, and he redacts her name too in double strokes of rebellion and revenge, canceling her out twice over. But it’s as if his words are stuck. His descriptions are precise, he identifies novel and unexpected connections—”There is a kinship in the clothes”—he sees, in short, like the poet he should have been. But his narrative voice is stuck, his sentences are repetitive and broken. Stumbling as if struggling to articulate how it feels to be the lifelong prisoner of a lie. Such sentences make the reader stop. They stop you. I wonder if the brother of XX realizes his insistence on unfamiliar, unflowing, unconventional constructions—in other words, expressions which are entirely his own—also constitute resistance.

“I myself felt apparent.”

Collected in I am the Brother of XX, New Directions, 2017