Paperback Writers: Greek myth is hip, so is Richard Milward's new novel
Plus: How Sherlock Holmes made mistakes and a new translation of the Koran that seeks to correct errors in other versions.
This is weird, wild, wonderful. Dino Buzzati was a luminary of the Italian avant-garde around the middle of the last century. His writing started out as straightforward realism but moved toward Gogol and Kafka. Near the end of his life he created "Poem Strip," a graphic novel that was way ahead of the curve and retold the Orpheus story, set in Swinging '60s Milan. The images are surreal, sexy and frightening, and the text (translated here for the first time into English by Marina Harss, with lettering by Rich Tommaso) is both compelling and poetic. There are shades of Fellini, shades of Dickens, shades of the great Italian horror director Mario Bava. A beautiful book.
Take a deep breath. This 286-page second novel from a cool and already much acclaimed young British writer is written in a single paragraph, starting (in the case of the American edition) on the cover of the book itself. The hero is Bobby, an aspiring artist in the contemporary post-industrial north of England. Bobby lives in a dingy 1960s-built tower block (hence the title) and his typical breakfast is: "Two crushed ecstasy pills, one slice of toast (butter optional)." He's devoted to his girlfriend, and muse, and spends a lot of time in his local pub, "where all manner of beatniks and meatheads and drinkers and thinkers smash it into themselves." Everything spins out of control when Bobby's work is discovered by an art dealer from London and he heads south. Milward's work, fresh and bouncing with chemical-induced energy, has been described by the London Times as the youthful offspring of J.D. Salinger and Arctic Monkeys -- nice idea! Kerouac is another obvious influence, not to mention Irvine Welsh. There's some suggestion too of Joyce Cary's classic "The Horse's Mouth," especially in the heady and unexpected optimism of the writing.
Lore Segal: "Lucinella" (Melville House)
Segal hasn't published much in a literary career that now spans almost 40 years, but everything she's written is of enormous distinction -- Pulitzer-nominated, frequent appearances in the New Yorker, etc. All of which might tend to belie what dizzy, shameless fun "Lucinella" -- first published in 1976 and now reprinted as part of Melville House's elegant novella series -- actually is. The novel looks at New York literary life in a way that is scathing yet sweet. Here's a passage from the opening scene, at the Yaddo writer's colony: "On my left, that's Meyers, putting brown sugar on his porridge. (You've read his latest, which won the Pulitzer five years ago -- all about his fear that he is going crazy.) Across from us sits Betterwheatling, the English critic." Betterwheatling! The story visits three stages of its heroine's career, following her in and out of the loop. The construction is clever, the style delicious.
Pierre Bayard: "How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read"; "Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong" (Bloomsbury)
Here are two irresistible titles from a literary professor who could come only from France. Bayard argues that books are fixed objects that come alive only when read, and, since each reader is an individual, every reading is subtly, or maybe radically, different. Even not reading a book of which you've heard and think you nonetheless need to know about is valid. He gets into the social value of book-chat, as applied to works that many of us will have to put up our hands and admit we never got through -- James Joyce's "Ulysses," for instance. All this is done with a sly wit that tells us Bayard, in fact, absolutely loves literature and knows a lot about it: "Sherlock Homes Was Wrong" is a valentine to, and radical reinterpretation of, "The Hound of the Baskervilles." An extremely close reading has been involved; and "How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read" swiftly engages, enlightens and enthralls -- it's a book you'll want to talk about, and indeed read.
Philip Gourevitch (ed): "The Paris Review Interviews" (Picador)
Here's the latest yearly addition to the snazzy Picador repackaging of the Paris Review archive. "Narratives are very important nowadays in writing books. I don't care about theories. I don't care about vocabulary. What is important is whether the narrative is good or not. We have a new kind of folklore, as a result of this Internet world. It's a kind of metaphor," says Haruki Murakami in the interview he gave the magazine in 2004. "It's hard to write haiku. I write long silly Indian poems," said Jack Kerouac in 1968; and here's V.S. Naipaul in 1998: "People turn to writers, who are there to guide them, to provoke them, to stimulate them. I think there will be a lot of writing in India now. The situation will draw it out." The interviews, presented chronologically, present a changing view of what writers think they're up to as well as autobiography and the usual invaluable fund of inspiration advice. Also featured: Paul Auster, Maya Angelou, Orhan Pamuk, Philip Roth, Ezra Pound, among others.
J.M.G. Le Clezio: "The Mexican Dream" ( University of Chicago)
LeClezio won the Nobel Prize last year, and lots of people wondered why. This book, a work of nonfiction about the tragic results of the coming together of two worlds, gives a clue. It's Spain and Mexico, in the 1500s: "It was that language, sometimes mocking, sometimes threatening, which Cortes used to inspire his men, and it was the language of a dice player which he used to trick, frighten, or divert the strength of his Indian adversaries. . . . He loved them, he said, and he came on behalf of a great king who lived beyond the seas. . . . But beneath those loving words . . . were lurking domination, plundering, and slavery." LeClezio gets at the two colliding cultures by examining their respective dreams and fantasies, their world-views as proposed by language. It's rich, a precisely written and yet mysterious book, about Amerindian culture and Mexico itself, "where essential passions are more visible and where the mark of the ancient history of man is more easily perceived."
Charlotte Perkins Gilman: "The Yellow Wall-Paper, Herland, and Selected Writings" (Penguin)
Pressed into marriage in 1884, Charlotte Perkins Gilman became pregnant and sank into a deep depression. She had the baby and went through various rest cures while her husband forbade her from doing what she really wanted to do -- work. Eight years later, she transmuted this experience into "The Yellow Wall-Paper," now standard in anthologies and still one of the greatest American stories, a horror story, almost like Poe, except narrated by the victim and written by an early feminist. "The color is repellent, almost revolting, a smoldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight," is how the narrator describes the wallpaper in the room where she's effectively kept prisoner, and we feel her madness and dread. Other stories here, such as "The Giant Wisteria" and "The Rocking Chair," further demonstrate how Gilman recycled the Gothic to her purpose. Also included: a generous selection of her poetry, and the entire text of "Herland," a Utopian vision of a society run by women. "Herland" is sly and sprightly, a brilliant piece of thinking in fiction, and a testament to Gilman's own powers of survival.
Heinrich Boll: "The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum" (Penguin)
Boll won the Nobel Prize in 1972 and, unlike LeClezio (above), was already a major figure in world literature. That's because, in part, his fiction was always right on the social money. "The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum" is cast in the form of a police report made after a murder. It's a procedural, in effect, telling the story of how a young German woman is destroyed by the press, portrayed as evil by a journalist who jumps on the bandwagon of her association with a murder suspect. Boll wrote this brief, explosive novel with the Baader-Meinhof terror group fresh in his mind. But, as Kurt Andersen points out in his introduction to this new edition, the story applies to the post- 9/11 world too. Boll's way of telling -- he dances around events in the language of officialese -- provide the novel with its ironic power.
H.G. Adler: "The Journey" (Modern Library)
H.G. Adler lost 18 members of his family in the Holocaust and he survived the camps only through chance. After World War II, he fled to London, fathered a son and published many books and articles dealing in one way or another with his experience. He was admired by Elias Canetti and W.G. Sebald, yet died in 1998 in almost complete obscurity. Peter Filkins' translation of Adler's extraordinary 1962 novel "The Journey" suggests that the world might not have been ready for him -- not so much a question of Adler's message, as his means. The style of "The Journey" is more suggestive of James Joyce or Robert Musil than Primo Levi. It circles and slides, seeking to convey how it might be for a consciousness to go through what Adler did. Here, for instance, the book's voice slips into the mind of a Nazi (they're referred to, ironically of course, as "heroes") speaking to his victims: "Like little children, everything has to be done for you, though you arrive at the dinner table without uttering the slightest thank you. Nothing can be expected from you but the slightest smell." The condescension is there, the arrogance, the rotten self-justification -- yes, you think, a Nazi would actually talk and think that way. Adler shows the haze of evil, yet penetrates it. "The Journey" is endlessly sad and brave and haunting.
"The Qur'an: A New Translation" by Tarif Khalidi (Penguin)
Khalidi's predecessor in the Penguin Classics -- N.J. Dawood's version, published in 1956 and reprinted innumerable times -- was long a source of discomfort for Muslims and scholars of Islam. Dawood's translation, for instance, helped spread the misconception that Muslim paradise is full of female virgins for the benefit of God-fearing males, even though the Qur'an denies the possibility of carnal pleasure in paradise. Khalidi corrects that, and numerous other distortions, to get closer to how Muslims appreciate their holy text. He catches the harsh desert majesty of the original too: "Every soul shall taste death. You shall certainly be paid your wages in full on the Day of Resurrection. Whoever has been dragged away from the Fire and made to enter the Garden has indeed won out. And this present life is but the rapture of delusion."
Rayner is the author of many books, including "A Bright and Guilty Place." Paperback Writers appears at www.latimes.com/books.