Manuele Fior, The Interview (Review)

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A quick update to this earlier post about Manuele Fior’s 5,000 km per Second. The other day I read his new book, The Interview. It’s a strange work, not quite as good as the earlier one, perhaps, but still worth reading. Like its predecessor, it’s gorgeously drawn and illustrated, although the strong yet somewhat sickly palette of the previous book is replaced her by a brown-tinted black-and-white (it looks almost sepia, which makes sense inasmuch as the events we are reading about, although set in our future, are in fact in the past of the time of the book’s telling). As befits its title The Interview contains more dialogue than 5,000 but it also has long, striking wordless sections.

For example:

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The Interview is set in 2048 in a devolved Italy (the specific location is Udine and environs) after some never-explained dramatic political events. Raniero is a psychologist with a failing marriage, a cantankerous and mostly unlikeable friend who despairs about the new world they’re all living in (Fior is very good at unpleasant male characters), and a penchant for old-fashioned gasoline-engine cars. (Pretty much no one drives them anymore and he can only get the gas for them on the black market.) The car is important because the book begins with an accident: driving home late one night, Raniero sees strange triangular flashing lights in the sky and is so compelled by them that he drives into a ditch. But instead of being traumatized by the accident, he’s filled with a strange hilarity.

He’s also concussed, which opens up the possibility that everything that comes after is some kind of hallucination, but the point really seems to be that alternative or deranged mental states are worth paying attention to. Shortly thereafter he begins treating a new patient, Dora, whose parents—like the parents of the Dora in Freud’s pioneering case study—have brought her in for treatment, in this case because of hallucinations. Fior’s Dora claims to have seen aliens and to be able to communicate with them. Dora and Raniero eventually become involved—a terrible ethical violation, as his friend Walter reminds him—which was a state only implied as a fantasy (explicitly on Dora’s part, according to Freud, but surely on his as well) in Freud’s text. But as in Freud’s text, this Dora ends up being the one in control. Although she does not abandon the therapy, peremptorily giving the doctor two weeks notice, like any common servant, the way Freud woundedly realizes his patient has done, this Dora goes on to become the central figure of the book.

Fior’s Dora is a member of the New Convention, a group professing liberation of all sorts, especially sexual, loosely modeled, presumably, on various 60s and 70s counter-cultural movements. (There may be more specific Italian antecedents I’m missing here.) The book gets stranger when it becomes clear that what Dora says is true—there really are aliens, and Raniero can see them too. In fact, before long, everyone can see them. Interestingly, the aliens have nothing to say to humanity: they are meaningless or, perhaps more accurately, beyond our ideas of meaning. Indeed, their function in the book is to precipitate a new world order, in which telepathy amongst people becomes regular and routine. The book never explains how this happens, instead skipping forward in its final pages many years, where we finally get the interview of the title. (Though of course we have seen the initial intake interview between Dora and Raniero earlier on.) Dora, now 130 years old, is interviewed at a university or institute of some kind where she tries to explain to the students states of being that no longer exist, especially the state of being in love. Being in love was a function, she explains, of a world without telepathy, a world in which it was difficult, basically impossible, for one person to understand another, even though people spent their lives trying to do so. The compensation, if that is the right word, for that isolation was love, a mixture of joy and pain that Dora cannot explain to the students.

In the end, The Interview reminds me of 5,000 km per Second in that both are about missed or failed encounters, except that what’s missed here isn’t just an individual relationship, as in the previous book, but of the ability of different generations to understand each other. Although the book implies that humanity is suddenly transformed for the better by the recognition that it isn’t alone in the universe, the ending suggests that the new world that arises after that moment is just as full of incomprehensibility as earlier times. Dora’s experiences as a young person, no matter how radical she felt herself to have been, are as incomprehensible to the youth of the 22nd century as she was to her elders in 2048. I can’t decide what Fior wants us to make of this fact. Should we be consoled that things never change, and yet that we bumble on just the same? Should we despair that the same problems keep coming up?

The Interview is a puzzling, stimulating, moving, and visually beautiful book of interest even to those readers who don’t think comics or science fiction are their thing. Jamie Richards translated it, a fact I am glad to see the publishers have acknowledged a bit more prominently than last time. Maybe next time on the cover?

 

 

2017 Year in Reading

Although traumatic and anxious-making in so many ways, 2017 was a good year for reading. I read more books last year than in any year since I started keeping a list in 2014. I was freed of an onerous work responsibility halfway through the year, which helped, as did my decision to switch to audio books on my commute, once I realized that even my beloved NPR was raising my stress levels. (I don’t mind audio books, it turns out, though I learned what most of you probably already knew: the narrator matters a lot.)

Of the 115 books I completed, 50% were by women and 50% by men (one was co-authored). 37% were translated and 63% were originally written in English. (I read one book in German.) Only 13% were non-fiction. The glib explanation might be that reality is bad enough right now without reading about it; the better one is that we need fiction to understand reality.

I wrote about my books of the year in the final issue of Open Letters Monthly. If you don’t want to click the link, I’ll repeat what I said at the beginning of my reflection:

The books that meant the most to me this year recount the rise of—and resistance to—fascism in 1930s and 40s. These might be books from the past, but they feel all too timely.

Mihail Sebastian, For Two Thousand Years. Trans. Philip Ó Ceallaigh. My god, this book is good! I had a lot to say about it at OLM.

Hans Keilson, 1944 Diary. Trans. Damion Searls. Keilson was a mensch. I wrote about him for Numéro Cinq.

Girogio Bassani, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. Trans. William Weaver. Together with Scott and Nat, I enjoyed this wistful but definitely not precious remembrance of pre-war Jewish life in Ferrara.

And best of all, the highlight of my reading year:

Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate. Trans. Robert Chandler. For several weeks I was consumed by this extraordinary book about the pivotal months of late 1942 and early 1943 in the Soviet Union. At OLM I said, “But Life and Fate isn’t just a work to respect. It’s also a book to love. What Life and Fate has in spades is flow, momentum, energy. It has life. Combining the warmth of Chekhov with the scope of Tolstoy, Grossman’s magnum opus is that paradoxical thing, an intimate epic.” I wrote several posts about it, too.

Other highlights:

Carl Seelig, Walks with Robert Walser. Trans. Anne Posten. I wrote about it here. This is a joyous book. Couldn’t you use some joy right about now?

Roger Lewinter, The Attraction of Things and Story of Love and Solitude. Trans. Rachel Careau. Thanks to Scott Esposito for giving me the chance to write about these enigmatic but indelible syntax-destroying books.

Liana Millu, Smoke Over Birkenau. Trans. Lynne Sharon Schwartz. This memoir of Holocaust survivor Millu was a revelation to me. We don’t hear enough about women’s experiences in the Shoah. So impressed that I added it to my course this coming semester.

Nathan Englander, Dinner at the Center of the Earth. Is it the lousy title that’s kept people from talking about this book? Or is it that Englander has written a smart, balanced, non-polemical/non-hysterical novel about Israel likely to alienate readers with entrenched opinions about the situation there? The best review I’ve read is shigekuni’s. Englander’s second novel is short and deceptively simple. I bet it took him ages to write. I’m looking forward to re-reading it soon.

Nina Allan, The Race and The Rift. Speaking of shigekuni, he turned me on to these wonderful SF novels. Both brilliant; I liked The Race best. For fans of Doris Lessing and David Mitchell, and especially people who think they don’t like SF.

Joseph Roth, The Emperor’s Tomb. Trans. Michael Hofmann. A nominal sequel to Roth’s famous Radetzky March (which I read so long ago that I can’t remember a thing about it), this is a fascinating example of that rare species, the modernist historical novel. I planned to write about it for German Literature Month but I left it too late and then I got the stomach flu… This book is amazing, though: it tempts us to wallow in Hapsburg nostalgia before pulling the rug out from under us, as it details first the hardscrabble aftermath of WWI and then finally taking an unexpected swerve into the even worse depredations of an incipient WWII. The philosophers Deleuze and Guattari were fond of the enigmatic term “line of flight.” I never understood what they meant, but Roth’s novel embodies what I think it might. The Emperor’s Tomb is a book on the run from itself, jumping forward temporally and stylistically in unexpected ways; it is a late work by an author who refuses to give readers what they have come to expect from him.

Daphne du Maurier, The Scapegoat, Rule Britannia and My Cousin Rachel. I wrote about these here and here. All wonderful, especially The Scapegoat.

Willa Cather, My Antonia. Late to that party! It’s amazing! More here.

Some bests:

Best comic with disagreeable characters: A surprisingly competitive field, including the first two volumes of Riad Sattouf’s The Arab of the Future, the first two volumes of Jason Lutes’s Berlin serial, and the winner, Manuele Fior’s 5,000 km per Second, which I wrote about here in what is surely the least-visited post in the history of this blog.

Best non-apocalyptic SF: Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2140. It’s too long and some of the characters are flat/embarrassing, but I was fascinated by Robinson’s carefully detailed vision of New York after a huge rise in sea levels. Maybe not plausible when it comes to climate (though I sure want it to be) but definitely when it comes to capitalism. “Wherever there’s a commons there’s enclosure. And enclosure always wins.”

Series that most kept my spirits up: Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs. I listened to or read the first eight this year, and I’m starting to worry what I’ll do when I’ve finished them all (at least she’s still writing them). Maisie calls herself a psychological investigator: she’s a former WWI nurse who is trained by a philosophical/medical/psychological/political éminence grise and social reformer to do PI work and, as the series develops, a whole lot more. (That sounds preposterous and it is a little preposterous, but not that much, or not enough to bother me, anyway.) The books aren’t particularly suspenseful, and sometimes Maisie is a little too good, but I love the period details, I’m willing to believe in the centrality of trauma (maybe the books’ abiding belief), and most of all I’m captivated by the way Maisie wrestles with the combination of ability, work, and good fortune that let her succeed at a time when so many equally deserving people did not.

Best unpretentious essayistic biography: Marie Darrieussecq, Being There: The Life of Paula Modersohn-Becker. I blogged about this terrific book here.

Book I most regret not posting about: Anita Brookner, A Start in Life. Seems like a lot of people are (re)discovering Brookner’s charms. And why wouldn’t readers be in love with a writer whose first book begins: “Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature”? Maybe many of those readers share my fascination with the late 70s/early 80s, a period that still seems to me at least to be relatively recent but is actually closer to WWII than the present. Brookner has an old-fashioned gravitas and authorial certainty, yet she doesn’t read like a mid-century author. I plan to read more of her this year.

Best use of modernist literary style to tell a Victorian story: Sarah Moss, Bodies of Light. Read this early in the year: it stayed with me, and I look forward to reading the sequel.

Best first half of a book: Philip Pullman, The Book of Dust Volume I: La Belle Sauvage. I agree 100% with Michael Orthofer: the brilliant, insidious first half devolves into an overly long chase/pilgrimage sequence (I don’t care if it’s modeled on Spenser: still fundamentally boring). I’ll read the next one eagerly, though.

Best WWII spy story no one seems to know about: William Christie, A Single Spy. Double agents. Soviets and Nazis. Dramatic escapes. Strong writing. Perfect light reading.

Best romance novel: Jennifer Crusie, Bet Me. Admittedly, the only one I read, but Rohan steered me right here. Like Laurie Colwin, but hot. I’ll read more.

Funniest book of the year: Elif Batuman, The Idiot. Hoping to post about this before my copy is due back at the library. I laughed to the point of tears many times: “We learned about people who had lost the ability to combine morphemes, after having their brains perforated by iron poles. Apparently there were several such people, who got iron poles stuck in their heads and lived to tell the tale—albeit without morphemes.” If you went to college in the 90s, this book is for you. Don’t worry, it’s not really a college novel.

Reliable pleasures: The Cadfael series continues to delight; the Montalbano books are back in form after some mediocre episodes; three books by Maurizo de Giovanni impressed me (would have read a lot more if only my library carried them). I finally read the first three Bernie Guenther books by Philip Kerr: fantastic!

Not-so reliable pleasures: The latest Lahlum disappointed—the bloat that crept into the last one is in full force here; I read my first book by John Lawton, in the Inspector Troy series: unpleasant; the new Indridason series: the jury is still out.

Good but maybe overrated: Jane Harper, The Dry (I’ll read the next, but it faded fast in memory); Don Winslow, The Force (part of me adored this Richard Price/George Pelecanos/David Simon novel of New York corruption, but part of me thought it was getting away with validating the homophobia, misogyny, and racism of its main characters in the guise of being cool/anthropological).

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I published a number of pieces in 2017, and I look forward to doing so again this year. (Apologies to any editors reading this—I am working on your piece, I promise.) Sadly, though, the two venues I have written for the most, Numéro Cinq and Open Letters Monthly shut down this year. Together with Tom’s change of pace at Wuthering Expectations, my reading and writing year ended up feeling somber and end-of-an-era-ish.

But I’ll end on a happy note: I was lucky to share reading and writing experiences with several friends. Jacqui and I read Elizabeth Bowen’s The Hotel. Scott and Nat and I read Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (as mentioned above). Marat helped me out with Grossman. Nat and I read L. P. Hartley’s The Boat, which was fun even if we didn’t much like it. Thanks to them, and to everyone who read what I had to say at this space, however erratically, especially those who commented either here or on social media. You make doing this worthwhile. Best wishes in 2018.

My plans for the year are to make very few plans. But if you want to read something with me, just drop me a note in the comments or on Twitter. And if you want to see my reflections on the last few years, you can read about 2014, 2015 & 2016.

“I Told You Not to Look at Me”: Comic Books by Liana Finck and Manuele Fior

Earlier this fall I read two wonderful comic books in close succession, Liana Finck’s A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New York (2014) and Manuele Fior’s 5,000 km per Second (2009, translated 2016 by Jamie Richards, though the publisher does its best to bury this credit, hiding it in tiny print on the last page).

Artistically, they’re as different as could be, but they’re both beautiful. Thematically they didn’t at first seem to have anything in common, but paging through them again I start to see connections. Both are about dislocation and uncertainty, but one is much more confident than the other that these melancholy states can be overcome.

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Finck’s book is named after a popular feature in the Yiddish newspaper Der Forverts (The Forward)—“bintel brief” means “a bunch of letters”—in which readers wrote in with their personal problems and ethical dilemmas. This early advice column became a mainstay of the paper, which began publishing from the late nineteenth century and continues today (though in much-reduced form). By the late 1920s, its daily circulation was 275,000, though its influence dwindled as Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe (shamefully) ground to a halt in the 1930s. Even without these government restrictions, however, the paper would have declined. For its task was paradoxical: the more it addressed the concerns of Jewish immigrants to America—the more it helped them work through the difficult process of assimilation in a new world—the more it prepared its own obsolescence.

Yet contrary to the story of Yiddish disappearance that’s been dominant for fifty years (leading to a contrary narrative that’s rapidly becoming just as clichéd, namely, that Yiddish isn’t dying), A Bintel Brief is an energizing, even joyful book. Which is amazing, because it’s filled with stories of despair, uncertainty, and pain.

At the beginning of the book, the narrator’s grandmother sends her a notebook, one the narrator had often noticed in her grandparents’ apartment when she visited as a kid. It’s a scrapbook of pages clipped from old newspapers. When she opens it, out steps a man (“old-fashioned,” “otherwordly”) who introduces himself as Abraham Cahan.

In real life, Cahan was a novelist and journalist who edited The Forward from 1903 to 1946. In the book he is an impish, wise, and excitable figure who rapidly falls in love with modern life. (After he gets a haircut, some new outfits, and a sharp pair of glasses he looks like any other Brooklyn hipster.) Eventually, after making the point about his own obsolescence as the editor of a paper written in a language most of its readers are learning to give up, Cahan disappears from the narrator’s life. But this turn of events doesn’t feel sad, since the book is about giving up the past—not heedlessly, but hopefully. It’s about being honest with yourself about who you are. And it’s about rejecting the guilt that comes from leaving anything behind.

The story of Cahan and the narrator frames the heart of book, which consists of sample letters sent to The Forward. Finck has condensed and edited them to fit the form of a comic book, but she’s been faithful to the spirit of the original. The letters are remarkable—heartfelt, passionate, disturbing, upsetting. Cahan’s responses are measured, firm, almost terse. A recently married woman complains about the many duplicate wedding gifts she and her husband have received (pillow after pillow, lamp after lamp), then worries that she is ungrateful. A barber dreams of slitting a customer’s throat after being insulted and then becomes so obsessed he’ll follow suit in real life that he can’t go to work. A cantor loses his belief in God and wonders whether he can continue in his profession—after all, he knows no other. A childless couple is offered a baby—the mother is penniless and young and can’t keep him—and can’t decide whether to adopt it, imagining all the things that could go wrong, even though they want a child more than anything.

Cahan agrees with the woman that a gift registry (though of course he doesn’t call it that) is entirely sensible and anything but rude: “Your ‘dream’ of having a decent life in America would be better classified as a ‘reasonable expectation.’” He exhorts the barber to “simply laugh off the dream and drive the whole matter out of his head.” He reminds the cantor that freethinkers and believers alike agree that “only a pious Jew may be a cantor” and for a nonbeliever to continue in the role would be “a shameful hypocrisy.” Yet he adds that many cantors have gone on to find work in the theater: “There may be other opportunities for you to make use of and honor your voice.” And he chides the couple for their “Hamletism”: “You should stop asking ‘to be, or not to be,’ and adopt the child immediately.”

Throughout, Cahan’s sympathy for the plight of new immigrants, all of whom are poor and oftentimes exploited, is apparent. To a woman who writes that she is convinced her friend and neighbour has stolen her watch, a precious gift from her son, which keeps the family from going hungry because she pawns it whenever they run out of money, Cahan writes, “What a picture of the wretchedness of the worker’s lot is to be found in this letter!”

These personal conflicts become even more powerful by being told through Finck’s arresting illustrations. The black and white drawings (interspersed with the occasional illustration in the pale blue of old airmail envelopes) express the past without being mannered or old-timey. Finck’s lines are often wispy (an artistic objective correlative for the Yiddish luftmensch, maybe?), but more powerful moments are usually rendered in a thicker, expressionist style. I’m not much good at describing drawings. Take a look at these examples instead:

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Although intelligently and carefully illustrated, words, as its title suggests, matter a lot in A Bintel Brief. That’s not true of 5,000 km per Second, which contains very few words, most of them from conversations that remain unfinished or at cross-purposes. The story is a love triangle, sort of. Piero is a shy, smart teenager with a garrulous, outlandish, confident, not very nice friend, Nicola, who makes fun of him in the guise of looking out for him. Yet Piero isn’t that nice. We see this in his relationship with Lucia, a girl who moves with her mother into Piero’s apartment building at the beginning of the book, and who he falls for. The not nice part doesn’t come until much later, though. At first he seems hard done by. For as soon as they get together, it seems, they separate. (I say “seems” because of Fior’s narrative structure and editing: each section of the book jumps forward in time without any exposition.) Piero travels to Egypt and Lucia to Norway. She writes him a letter breaking off their relationship—“without you I can breathe again”—and ends up with the son of her host family. Years later, pregnant with her first child, she reads about Piero’s work as part of an archaeological team in Egypt and calls him. (Their initially awkward but increasingly intimate conversation, pursued across a continent and despite the one-second lag in the phone call, gives the book its title.) Later, they meet up again back in Italy and get together for a drink. That evening, at first joyful and heartfelt, then increasingly maudlin and rueful, eventually becomes upsetting, even sinister. In a riveting scene, he follows her to the bathroom of the bar and locks the door. Their sex is consensual, probably, but a failure. Fior captures the indignity of middle-aged intimacy without disparaging that desire. In fact, since we see it as a product of all the ways that life seems to make choices for us, all the ways we become people we couldn’t have expected to become, we sympathize with it deeply—but we don’t romanticize it either.

Piero can’t get it up; Lucia tells him to take her home. In a central panel she repeats what she said at the beginning of their fumbling: “I told you not to look at me.” We can read this as her shame at herself, at the body she’s become. But we can also read it as a demand, almost a snarled rejection: leave me alone. After all, Piero is married with a child. His desire for Lucia after all this time seems driven more by anger and insecurity (he’s convinced things didn’t work out with Lucia because Nicola was always getting in the way) than by constancy and star-crossed love. In a final turn of events, our sympathy for Lucia is challenged. We’re left unsure whether there’s anyone to admire in the book, but a coda set in the early days of their teenage courtship reminds us of the joyful start of even relationships that turn bad for reasons that are too complicated to parse.

Fior’s drawings are sumptuous without being lovely (nothing twee about this book). Even when vibrant the colours have a sickly hue. Greenish yellows, browns and purples predominate. See what I mean?

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I learned about this book from Shigekuni; be sure to read his compelling review.

It’s strange: although at first I liked Bintel a lot more than 5,000, the latter has stayed with me longer. Warmth is probably the quality that’s most important to me—definitely in people, and often in books. Finck’s book—so sympathetic to both those who need advice and those who give it—has warmth in spades. Fior’s book is not warm—not cold, exactly, but definitely unsparing, sometimes just this side of tawdry, though also keenly aware of what time does to people—but I keep thinking about it. That doesn’t mean it’s better. It just rattled me a little more.

Fortunately, reading isn’t a zero-sum game, so no need to choose. They can be read in an hour, but they’ll stay with you a lot longer. The best news is that Fink and Fior each have a new book out in English in 2018. I’ll be getting to them as soon as I can.

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