Saturday, February 18, 2012

Ivan Vladislavic's The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories

I'd been waiting for Ivan Vladislavic's The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories somewhat anxiously since discovering that it would exist. I say anxiously in part because that waiting also entailed hoping that it would, in fact, be what I hoped it would be, though I didn't know quite what that was. (This can be a thrilling but somewhat stomach-tightening process in discovering a book that seems to be just what you were looking for -- I've left a book unopened for a while simply because I'm afraid that it won't speak to me as directly as its title does, or that it won't end up being about what I want it to be about). What I do know is that lately, I've had somewhat of an insatiable appetite for books that are in a roundabout way about writing -- to get at some sort of truth about process, perhaps, or simply to understand what writing is better.

The Loss Library, as lovely a thing open as it is closed with its accompanying illustrations, did not disappoint.

Ivan Vladislavic describes this collection of stories he hasn't written (plus the completed titular story that deals in books his predecessors haven't written) as a gathering of "unsettled accounts" or "case studies of failure". But while I appreciate the soul-baring nature of such statements and can relate to the sentiment, as reader, I felt nothing akin to failure or unsettledness. I would instead describe the collection as being an account of circling things -- ideas, characters, research, inspiration -- in a way that brings them into such a clear focus that, in the end, the fictionalized version needn't exist at all. What exists instead is something I find much more interesting: a map of sorts through the formation of the idea itself.

In The Last Walk, he begins with an idea to write about a writer who dies while walking to his favorite vista in a winter landscape -- a thought inspired by the famous photograph of Robert Walser dead in the snow on his own such walk. In preparing to write the story, he instead finds himself "preoccupied with hats", preoccupied with how a photograph documents a moment (quoting Geoff Dyer), and disappointed to discover a photograph of the same scene from a different vantage point that alters some of the enigma that drew him to the image in the first place. In Gravity Addict, a story idea of a woman who is writing a book called The Art of Falling instead becomes a thought about Don Delillo's account of the World Trade Center collapse. In Mrs. B, his research for a fictionalized account of the Burden Expedition in search of the Komodo dragon leads him to dislike the real people involved so strongly he can't see fit to continue with the project -- leading, then, to this strange and dismal thought:

In a gloomy corner of hell reserved for readers, the damned clutch copies of the books they dislike most. The masters of scholarly misunderstanding and the critics who turned a profit on review copies fight over the armchairs in which no one may sit. Instead, they crouch in the corners, where a little light lingers, trying to decipher the notes on the backs of their hands. Sometimes they open the books they carry and gaze dumbfounded at the space between the lines. The room is lined with shelves and the shelves are crammed with books, more books than you could read if you lived to be two hundred years old, but the damned, who have all the time in the world, are not allowed to touch.

To which I can only say: yeesh.

The more wonderful aspect of this image, though, approaches what is wonderful about this collection of essays as a whole: that image of a room lined with more books than you could read if you lived to be two hundred years old. Doesn't that line make your heart leap a little bit at how much knowledge there is in the world? When you think about that, don't you kind of panic, want to simultaneously absorb everything you can and also move on to the next thing because OH MY GOD THERE'S SO LITTLE TIME FOR ALL THIS STUFF? That's how I feel. That, at its most heartfelt and poetic and urgent moments, is how this book feels. And it is, I think, an honest, lovely, and heartbreaking way to think about not only writing but also reading -- always an expedition, always something of a race against the clock, always an attempt at something, often a desperate one. But nothing beats that feeling when the thing you're trying to trying to describe gets drawn close enough that you no longer feel a need to describe it. The Loss Library is an account of that, over and over. The word "failure" has no place here at all.

Friday, February 17, 2012

On Thursday, I was lucky enough to be able to attend one of the Center for the Art of Translation's Lit & Lunch events with translator and poet Richard Howard. As many of you may know, Mr. Howard is an accomplished translator of French poetry and literature, notably introducing American readers to the works of Alain Robbe-Grillet and Nobel Prize winner Claude Simon, as well as rendering canonical works by Baudelaire, E.M. Cioran, Camus, Foucault, and Roland Barthes into English. His latest project, in fact, is a translation of Barthes' complete Mythologies, due next month. (Can you believe we've been reading an incomplete text of Mythologies all this time?)

And, for good measure, he's also the translator of the beloved Little Prince, a fact I just learned. As a poet, he's proven himself equally adept, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1970.

At yesterday's talk, a free event held at 111 Minna, Mr. Howard spoke of the vagaries of translation, focusing specifically on the difficulties presented by Stephane Mallarme. He also gave an account of a scandalous 1912 balletic adaptation of Mallarme's poem "The Afternoon of the Faun" during which Nijinsky simulated masturbation.

One of the more entertaining moments of Mr. Howard's talk came during a discussion of "three old men" who influenced his reading and writing. One was his grandfather, a great book collector in the 19th-century mold; another a professor at Columbia in the 1940s; and the third, much to my delight, was a bookseller, Richard Laukhuff. Laukhuff, a German immigrant who settled in Cleveland, seems from what I can gather to be one of those legendary early-20th century figures who took bookselling with a seriousness that seems almost unfathomable now. His eponymously named store specialized in carrying challenging and often hard to find literature. If you were an Ohioan in the 1920s and wanted to find something by that smutty Jimmy Joyce, you went to Laukhuff's. Hart Crane apparently knew this; he frequented Laukhoff's Bookstore. The incident that Mr. Howard related is of a more mundane moment in bookselling, one that hearkens back to a different era.

One afternoon, while Richard and his mother were in the shop--the Howards were family friends of the bookseller and his wife, both of whom, according to Howard, "never left the shop"--a woman inquired about purchasing a Bible. Laukhuff, who was sitting behind the counter, turned down the woman's request. After the customer left, Mrs. Howard, who knew that there were indeed Bibles in the store, asked Laukhuff why he would send the woman away empty-handed. To which he replied, "There are some days when one doesn't feel like selling a Bible."

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If you're interested in more events like this one, including an upcoming conversation between Haruki Murakami's collaborative translators Jay Rubin and J. Philip Gabriel (April 3), check out the Center for the Art of Translation's events page or consider donating to this fine non-profit.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Out with the NEW

Yesterday I escaped from the bookstore (and our super-busy used book buy counter) to work an off-site event at Fort Mason Center for the annual Gambero Rosso Italian Wine tasting. And while I didn't get a chance to sample any of the hundreds of wines being poured, I did manage to talk with oodles of Italian wine fans, a cult-like crew that brimmed with excitement for the 2012 Italian Wine Guide!

The Gambero Rosso guide to Italian wine is an amazing production, rating and reviewing more than 20,000 wines from close to 2,500 producers, and folks were chomping at the bit to get theirs. Maybe due to the fact that the 2012 guide won't officially release for months yet, and the copies we had available yesterday were shipped directly from the bindery to the event. Nice to have friends in high places, yes?

The upshot of all of this is that I managed to save just a few copies to have available for sale here in the store! So if you (or someone you want to do something nice for) want to get a copy way before the clamoring masses, simply disregard our website's 'not available' notice and put that copy in your shopping cart! Or come in to Green Apple and check the wine and spirits shelves in our cooking section. (click here to go to the item listing on our site)

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Madame Figaro

You've probably all seen the March issue of Madame Figaro by now , but if not, here's the cover. Don't miss the SF coverage in the middle; we're on page 118.