Monday, 30 January 2012

New From NYRB. . .

It’s been ages since I gave NYRB Classics a bit of love, but I recently read another one of their amazing gems and so the gushing has to commence again.  

The book this time is The Letter Killers Club by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, translated by Joanne Turnball.  I’d previously read his surrealist collection of short stories, Memories of the Future, so I knew to expect something wild and different.   Like that collection, The Letter Killers’ Club is similarly filled with great storytelling but it’s got an added narrative and thematic structure that creates a really original and thought-provoking read.  Our narrator gets pulled into a mysterious club that meets every Saturday in a room filled with empty bookshelves.  The members each take turns relating their own fictional tales, but from the top of their head, with no notes to refer to.   These stories cannot and never will be written down because the club is devoted to the idea of clearing the mind from the overwhelming and artistically suffocating existence of the world's printed pages, in order to focus on the simplicity and purity of literary "conceptions." The stories that follow are marvellous and diverse, ranging from a sci-fi tale about a bacteria experiment, designed to control the movements of limbs, that turns into a nightmarish world of mind-controlled drones and their dictators, to a comic tale about three men trying to decided definitively what mouths were specifically created for - whether to kiss, eat, or to spout words.  My favourite is the first tale, read aloud as a play about Guilden and Stern both competing for the role of Hamlet, which involves a visit to a shadowy, muttering cavern filled with former "roles", including Richard Burbage who takes the opportunity to escape. It's very clever and amusing.

Weaved in among the stories however, is our narrator's growing unease as he observes the different members, in particular a mysterious man named Rar who will eventually reveal just why the narrator has been invited to this exclusive club.  There's a very sophisticated and intriguing debate running through this novel about the danger and yet universal necessity of the printed word - which of course our narrator can't help setting down in the very book we are reading.  Fans of Calvino, Borges and even Beckett would enjoy this, along with readers of Orwell, Wells and Huxley.  It nestles very nicely, if a bit rebelliously, on the shelf of books about books and bibliophiles.
I have a few other recently published NYRB classics on the to-be-read-soon pile, all by writers I’ve previously read and admired, so I know I’m in for a treat.  Albert Cossery has a really unique literary style, combining political satire with a sense of absurdity cushioned by  humanity.  The Jokers was a fantastic read and I’m sure Proud Beggars will also deliver – plus I’m intrigued to read political fiction set in Cairo in the wake of Egypt’s ongoing protests.  I also have copies of Gregor von Rezzori’s An Ermine in Czernopol (his Memoirs of an Anti-Semite was such an unusual and powerful book), and Robert Walser’s Berlin Stories.  I’ve read his novel Assistant, plus in lieu of getting someday to Berlin myself (it's on the bucket list!)  I enjoy reading about the city, particularly in the early 20th century, an interest fueled after devouring Doblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz and then watching all of Fassbinder’s movie in a marathon three days (we won’t rant about the epilogue today).   

Coming out in March will be Amsterdam Stories by a new writer to me, who goes under the pseudonym Nescio.  His short stories have been compared to F. Scott Fitzgerald and I have visited Amsterdam, so I’m very much looking forward to the collection.  And then in April, NYRB is continuing to bring out the work of Stefan Zweig and will be publishing Confusion, about a civil servant’s love of reading and scholarship.  I’ve read and enjoyed a number of Zweig’s books, and I’m also thinking it might be a very good companion piece to one of my favourite NYRB titles of all time – John Williams’ heartbreaking Stoner

Over on their tumblr page, NYRB has posted a fall preview here and here for a fix of even more forthcoming goodies.

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