above: inaugural Look at This Fucking Hipster case study Nikolai Gogol.
The week started and ended with works in translation. The first? Leila Marouane’s The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris, which I picked up last month during a visit to Powell’s. It starts out in a familiar vein: the protagonist is a successful businessman from an immigrant family looking to assimilate and advance in society; as the title suggests, we get more than a small glimpse into his private life, fantasies, and anxieties. It seems to be operating from a well-worn template (the overall shape of things could apply in any number of cross-cultural situations), but over time becomes something more surreal and metafictional. All of which made for an interesting shift in tone and shift in expectations, but didn’t necessarily blend (for this reader, at least) into a cohesive whole — though there were some impressively uncomfortable moments along the way.
That was followed by Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls, via Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation. I’m reading the book in increments (finished Book One last night, in fact), and so far I’m enjoying it thoroughly — the details, the humor, and the ambiguity are all compelling on their own and in combination, but it’s the narrative tone, at once omniscient and deeply frustrated, that’s particularly impressive.
Between the two, I read Ellen Willis’s Out of the Vinyl Deeps, about which a lot has been said already. It’s moving, insightful, and — as with nearly everything of Willis’s I’ve read — incredibly challenging. Between reading this and hearing Geoff Dyer at McNally Jackson earlier this week, I feel as though my own assumptions as a critic are ripe for evolution — which is as it should be.
Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists has been a great thing to read in gearing up for a long trip: it’s a world charter about foreign correspondents, those willful illegal aliens who are either carrying the globe on their shoulders, or at least doing enough kvetching to make it seem that way. Rachman has a byline editor’s economy for prose, back story revealed almost exclusively in small, day to day actions that are never telegraphed. I wish I had him looking over my shoulder today. Curley waited for the paperback. He liked his novels like he liked his women: flexible, travel-ready. Still, if you’ve read the book and hated it, or plan on hating it, check out this utter ethering from NYMag.com!
Otherwise, my weird thirst for mid 20th century Brit poetry continued with The Whitsun Weddings, my maiden voyage into the work of Philip Larkin, pimped by Christopher Hitchens in Vanity Fair. It’s often clever stuff, albeit a bit too much talk of toads, squalor, and our inevitable graves. Next up on the English “Languish and Anguish” 2011 tour: Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One, which by its description sounds like some badass across-the-pond answer to Miss Lonelyhearts.