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Literature & Criticism

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Masks behind Masks

One of the most innovative and daring Hungarian writers of the 20th century, Miklós Szentkuthy wrote such masterpieces as ‘Prae’, ‘St. Orpheus’ Breviary’ (comprising 10 volumes), ‘Narcissus’ Mirror’ and many others. Thanks to recent efforts by Contra Mundum Press, much of Szentkuthy’s work is now gradually being made available in English. In this essay, writer and scholar András Nagy discusses Szentkuthy’s life and work, painting a rich portrait of a man with many masks and a vast – and lasting – literary legacy.

Poetry and the Brain

When an award-winning novelist-translator and a renowned psychologist join forces to explore their common areas of interests, one can expect a wealth of interesting insights — and perhaps even answers to such questions as: How does poetry affect our thinking? Is poetical experience different from ‘ordinary’ experience? How does the brain make sense of poetical patterns in language? And, last but not least: Why do certain texts arouse aesthetic pleasure and what happens in the brain, when we feel the urge to read a poem again and again? In their recent book ‘Gehirn und Gedicht’ (The Brain and the Poem, Hanser Verlag, Munich 2011), poeta doctus Raoul Schrott and Berlin psychologist Arthur Jacobs explore these and other questions, aiming to offer an synthesis of contemporary neurolinguistic, evolutionary, and aesthetic research. And yet, says reviewer Hans-Dieter Gelfert, the result falls short of the professed goal of making sense of poetic experience from a neuroscientific perspective. For, nearly everything that is being said about the neurological responses to visual, musical or verbal stimuli in poetry applies to such stimuli in general, irrespective of their aesthetic quality. In the end, what fuses the various neuroscientific elements into the kind of poetic unity that gives rise to aesthetic enjoyment is something which the theoretical framework of the two authors cannot explain.

Fairies Forever!

Fairy tales seem quaint, imbued with the patina of a bygone age — literary misfits in a modern world. Why, then, do they continue to be so remarkably popular? One reason is their appeal to timeless experiences, conflicts, and narratives that are intelligible across different traditions. In a new edition of a 1934 collection of ‘modernized’ fairy tales, which was first commissioned by Peter Davies (and has now been updated, with a new introduction, by Maria Tatar), much of the patina is stripped away from the olden stories — and a significant dose of satire and black humour is added — revealing just how much fairy tales can tell us also about the modern world. As reviewer Dieter Petzold observes, many of the modernized versions amplify the originals, by adding details that make their fictional world often seem ‘more real’ than the silhouette world of traditional folktales. And, perhaps more tellingly, virtually all modern writers take an ironic stance — adding a layer of self-conscious awareness to the intrinsic strangeness of the worlds described.

Entering the Zone

Both a guide to, and a literary ‘amplification’ of, Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 ‘Stalker’, Geoff Dyer’s ‘Zona’ is quite literally — as the subtitle puts it — ‘A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room’. Just as in the movie a man named Stalker guides a writer and a scientist through ‘the Zone’ — an apocalyptic wilderness supposedly endowed with supernatural qualities — so Dyer leads the reader to questions at the limits of meaning. In doing so, writes reviewer Thorsten Botz-Bornstein, Dyer is not so much practising philosophy, but is pursuing a line of questioning that might be called ‘literary anthropology’. Dyer’s ruminations on Tarkovsky’s sense of place, his retelling of the film with all its décor, colors, flickering lights, noises and smells, all bring the reader closer to the metaphysical meaning of the film — its distinctly post-secularist intermingling of despair and hope.

The Art of Walking

‘Zbinden’s Progress’, Christoph Simon’s fourth novel, tells the story of Lukas Zbinden, an 87-year-old former schoolteacher who lives in a nursing home in Switzerland and who, one morning, decides to go for a walk with his carer, Kâzim. As the novel blossoms, Zbinden’s rich life is narrated, through stories that sometimes fall into step, sometimes part ways. Yet throughout, writes reviewer Benjamin Morris, ‘the locus of attention remains the walk: not just the present walk with Kâzim, but all walks, from walks past to walks future to the history and theory of walks’. A few stumbles notwithstanding, the novel — with its simple narratological formula: ‘someone, somewhere, for whatever reason, goes for a walk’ — is a fascinating read, not least due to Donal McLaughlin’s seamless translation from the original German into English.

The Map, the Territory, and the Airport Lounge

In his new novel ‘The Map and the Territory’, which won the Prix Goncourt upon publication in France in 2010, Michel Houellebecq tells the story of a fictional murder – of Michel Houellebecq. Calling the Houellebecq of the novel a genius, a brilliant writer, and echoing episodes from his life that anyone familiar with him would know, the real Houellebecq plays with the notion of a novel itself. In this sense, writes reviewer Jeremy Fernando, his novel does nothing other than remind us to look again – to re-look, and re-read.

The Aesthetics of Evil

Love and Evil are the driving forces of most, if not all, plots of dramatic and fictional literature. Yet, in discussions of aesthetics, evil has often been given short shrift. In his ‘Ästhetik des Bösen’ (Beck, Munich 2010), Peter-André Alt embarks on an in-depth study of the aesthetics of evil. From the Biblical myths of Lucifer’s and Adam’s Fall, through the 19th-century’s fascination with the social construct of the ‘criminal mind’, to the genocidal horrors of the 20th century, Alt ploughs his way through (mainly literary) material of intimidating scope and completeness. Yet, writes reviewer Hans-Dieter Gelfert, Alt’s attempt to rectify the omission of evil in discussions of European literary history is hindered by a strangely parochial blindness to outside (esp. British) influences on Continental Europe’s fascination with the topic.

The Spanner in the Works

A major portion of the poetry of Günter Eich (1907-1972) has, at last, been made accessible to an English-speaking readership in a new translation by Michael Hofmann. The judicious selection of poems gathered in the volume (‘Angina Days’, Princeton 2010) allows the reader to follow Eich’s development as a poet in detail. It is a journey which accompanies and reflects upon the personal, political and social issues of his time, the Cold War, rearmament, the German “Economic Miracle”, the Vietnam War, the suffering of the poor and oppressed. In his detailed review for The Berlin Review of Books, reviewer Axel Vieregg, himself a notable Eich scholar, offers annotations and footnotes, in an attempt to clarify some of Eich’s concerns that might otherwise be overlooked.

The Seductions of Poetry

The Poetry Lesson, by Andrei Codrescu, is a lucid yet playful book, that slips between memoir and fiction, jaunty anecdote and pure tangent, as it describes the first lesson of an ‘Introduction to Poetry Writing’ course, in the last year of its teacher’s institutional career. While Codrescu’s displays a light touch and an elegant frivolity throughout, the very cleverness of his approach leads reviewer Rupert Thomson to ponder what is left of the sense that a passion for poetry will achieve anything.

Interview: Humphrey Davies on Egyptian Writing

Leading Arabic-English literary translator Humphrey Davies, who has lived in Cairo for the past 35 years, paints a picture of contemporary Egypt through words and graphic narratives. Speaking to Sophie Roell, co-editor at FiveBooks and contributor to TheBrowser (which commissioned the interview), Davies explores the political dimension of everday life in pre-2011 Egypt by looking in depth at five recent books by Egyptian writers: Alaa Al-Aswany’s ‘The Yacoubian Building’, Ahmed Alaydi’s ‘On Being Abbas El Abd’, Khaled al-Berry’s ‘Life is More Beautiful Than Paradise’, Khalid Al Khamissi’s ‘Taxi’, and Magdy El Shafee’s ‘Metro’.