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“Any day I may walk down 125th Street, say from 8th Avenue on over to Lenox or Fifth, I can see people gesturing wildly on the street; I can hear wild political statements; I can see dope addicts; I can see people acting out wild fantasies; I can see people clinging to rural ways in a hopped-up, whirlwind industrial environment; I can see youth gangs acting fantasies of violence.

“Of course, I can do that on 6th Avenue and 42nd Street, too.

“I can see clashes of taste in dress, music, religion, morals -- everything.

“I see a whole chaotic world existing within the ordered social pattern -- with the cops on the corner, the busses running on schedule, the subways on schedule, and so forth -- everything that it takes to keep a big city operating -- and I can see a million contradictions to that order.

“I can see all the details of experience which we pass by daily and never stop to define; or, when we do, we attempt it only in sociological terms which cut the heart out of it. As far as the individual man who is caught up within this experience is concerned, he is living out the chaos within the recognized order and though he might be only vaguely aware of it his sense of reality is affected. He is more apt to get a sense of wonder, a sense of self-awareness and a sharper reflection of his world from a comic book than from most novels.”

-Ralph Ellison

from “What’s Wrong with the American Novel?”

The American Scholar, 1955

Sarah Gaddis (SWALLOW HARD, Atheneum): In a flashback of an obsessive relationship, the novelist and translator Lydia Davis leads the reader in circles as she shifts beginnings and endings and perceptions in this tale of loneliness, bitterness, and wit. Each scene of the unraveling affair, which is recounted by an unnamed woman and takes place in a fictional California coastal town, is at times as visually stark and stunning as a Hopper painting, at times fractured, as if seen through a prism. As readers we are invited to take the responsibility of confidante seriously from the first, circular sentence to the last. Lydia Davis, THE END OF THE STORY (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1995; High Risk Books, 1995; Serpent’s Tail, 1996)

K. Callaway (“Estonian Letters”): Five hundred years of Sephardic life, culture, and struggle in the Diaspora, through the lens of Victor Perera’s own family -- and, most beautifully, through the Ladino sayings remembered from his childhood. As Isabel Allende says on the cover, “This is a precise and beautiful narrative.” Victor Perera, THE CROSS AND THE PEAR TREE (Knopf, 1995; University of California, 1996; Flamingo, 1997.)

Much better than merely good travel meditations, Philip Marsden’s books are also deeply ethical investigations -- loose-ended ones, and warranted. The first is about his journey into the heart of Armenia in memory of the Armenian genocide; the second tells of his years-long friendship with an elderly Polish woman living in Cornwall who takes him to search for her lost world in the new Poland. Excellent travel-writing: we could use more of this kind of sensibility-at-large. And the writing itself, in long stretches, approaches perfection. Philip Marsden, THE CROSSING PLACE (Flamingo, 1993; Kodansha, 1995) and THE BRONSKI HOUSE (Flamingo, 1995; HarperCollins World, 1997)

George Garrett (THE KINGDOM OF BABYLON SHALL NOT COME AGAINST YOU and WHISTLING IN THE DARK, Harcourt-Brace): In a season of Civil War books, some of them highly praised and commercially successful, quietly came NASHVILLE 1864, by Madison Jones; his first book in some years, a lean, evocative look at the Battle of Nashville from a child’s point of view. Of Jones’ fiction Flannery O’Connor wrote: “He’s so much better than the ones all the shouting is about.” That condition is unchanged. Madison Jones, NASHVILLE 1864: THE DYING OF THE LIGHT (J.S. Saunders, 1997)

It has also been a season of Hollywood novels. Muriel Spark adds some new wrinkles to that genre; most of her story takes place in London and France and involves the gifted American film director Tom Richards, his complicated family life, and the dangers and daring of his craft. Muriel Spark, REALITY AND DREAMS (Houghton-Mifflin, 1997)

The central figure of Anthony Burgess’ latest and evidently last work is an artist also, a painter and a composer and a great seducer, and BYRNE is unlike any novel you have read or will read in a long time, being written entirely in fluent verse, four out of five parts in Byronic ottava rima, with one section of virtuosity in the Spencerian stanza, all of it, believe it or not, lively and accessible reading. Anthony Burgess, BYRNE: A NOVEL (Carrol & Graf, 1997)

Viriditas Digitalis: Among the many things that surpass my understanding is the remarkably insufficient attention given to Frances Newman’s audacious and lacerating novels. Writing in the late ‘20s, Newman -- an aristocratic southerner who died, an apparent suicide, at 40 -- presented in these two books a profoundly modern rendering of female interior life. Appalled contemporary (male) readers were astonished to learn that said life included a vigorous absorption with matters sexual and (worse) a cynical recognition of the pitifully circumscribed possibilities that society offered even the most privileged women of the time. Nevertheless, such famed literary curmudgeons as H.L. Mencken and James Branch Cabell lauded the brilliance of Newman’s heavily ironic stream-of-consciousness work. Within the last few years the University of Georgia Press has reissued both novels in its Brown Thrasher series, so perhaps they will eventually find the appreciative audience they deserve. Frances Newman, THE HARD-BOILED VIRGIN and DEAD LOVERS ARE FAITHFUL LOVERS (University of Georgia Press, 1994)

Katherine McNamara: Anna Maria Ortese, the very fine contemporary Italian writer, was called a “magical realist”; if that is so, hers is a psychically rigorous, not fantastic, mode: a realism that refuses to invent what it does not know; that is, refuses to tell a falsely-“magical,” comforting story. Very little of her work exists presently in English: two (soon, three) American translations, one from England. Each translator may be commended for having pitched his tone exactly so as to convey, in its proper American and English timbres, the beauty of her formal style. Hers is, I think, real literature, which is always an endangered species. Anna Maria Ortese, THE IGUANA, and A MUSIC BEHIND THE WALL, Stories Vol. 1 , tr. Henry Martin (McPherson and Co., 1994 and 1996) and THE LAMENT OF THE LINNET, tr. Patrick Creigh (The Harvill Press, 1997) See Archipelago, Vol. 1, No. 1, “The Great Street.”


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