Anna Vilner

THE POLYGLOT LOVERS

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THE POLYGLOT LOVERS BY LINA WOLFF, TRANSLATED BY SASKI VOGEL

The Polyglot Lovers is a manuscript written by Max Lamas, a lauded middle-aged author, whose ego Lina Wolff deconstructs in her sharp and satirical second novel of the same name.

Wolff’s meta-tale begins with Ellinor, who is traveling to Stockholm for a literary critic she met online, a man named Ruben. Ellinor finds Ruben repulsive; nevertheless, she carries on with their date: a night that ends in violence. In an act of revenge, Ellinor calmly waits until Ruben falls asleep before destroying his most prized possession—Max Lamas’s sole manuscript. Cut to part two: Max’s perspective. He dreams of a particular woman, he tells us, “A very young polyglot lover with enormous, white, milk-scented breasts.” His sentiments are familiar, cliché even, but Wolff pushes his language ever so slightly toward the absurd, incorporating numerous descriptions of female bodies and moments of existential dread (“the tristesse, oh the tristesse!”). In the third and final section, Wolff gives voice to Lucrezia, whose grandmother, an Italian marchesa, is the main subject of Max’s manuscript. Wolff’s tonal shifts between sections are handled deftly by Saskia Vogel, the translator responsible for bringing this novel into English.

The French author Michel Houellebecq also appears in many forms in Wolff’s novel: in references, on Ruben’s secret bookshelf, as an epigraph to Max’s section. But Wolff’s The Polyglot Lovers is not about Houellebecq, per se—it is about the recurring figure of Houellebecq in the literary world. Readers will inevitably conjure their own equivalent to him, and to Max Lamas, and Wolff encourages us to do so, for her novel raises the following questions: how do we define literary genius, and who do we allow to define it for us?

And Other Stories.

—Review by Anna Vilner

THE SON OF BLACK THURSDAY

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THE SON OF BLACK THURSDAY BY ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY, TRANSLATED BY MEGAN MCDOWELL

Those familiar with the surreal landscapes and sheer unpredictability of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s films will find that The Son of Black Thursday, a retelling of his childhood in Chile, is a remarkably cinematic novel. In this new translation by Megan McDowell, readers of English are gifted with a further look into the boundless imagination of the artist.

The story begins in the bleak, mining town of Tocopilla in the 1930s and is populated by an eccentric cast: Sara Felicidad, his giantess mother who doesn’t speak but sings in arias; Raquel Lea, his twin sister who recites verses as a baby and eventually grows fat from all of the poetry inside her. There’s also the Rabbi, a ghost who has accompanied the family for generations. “Without him,” Jodorowsky writes in his introduction, “I never could have put down roots in this world that is made, to a large extent, of aggression.” This is precisely the type of world in which Alejandro’s parents find themselves. The country’s government headed by Carlos Ibáñez del Campo, and Jaime, Alejandro’s father, becomes convinced he must murder the tyrant. He sets off on the mission, leaving his family behind. Without her husband, Sara Felicidad shrinks into herself, hides her “long, sensual hair [in] a severe bun,” and opens a litany of businesses in Santiago. While Raquel Lea is sent away, young Alejandro grows up with his mother in shops like “The Eighth Chakra” and “The Apple of Harmony,” absorbing the wild stories around him. Jodorowsky seems to use this novel to repurpose some of the pain from childhood. He rewrites his parents—who he has referred to as “distant” and “oppressive”—into dream-like characters and he mythologizes every event, blurring the line between what is real and imaginary. As in his cinema, the audience of The Son of Black Thursday will gladly suspend their disbelief to witness the captivating and delightfully off-kilter scenes of Jodorowsky’s early years.

Restless Books.

—Review by Anna Vilner

AFTER THE WINTER

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AFTER THE WINTER BY GUADALUPE NETTEL, TRANSLATED BY ROSALIND HARVEY

In her novel After the Winter, Guadalupe Nettel depicts solitude in its many forms—as a loveless affair, for example, or a one-bedroom apartment during an endless winter. First, we meet Claudio, who keeps everyone at a distance, including his older lover. He only shows tenderness to his Upper West Side apartment, which he prefers bare, free of any living thing. “Protecting it from any intruders,” he says, “is my way of honoring my sanctuary and of turning it . . . into the mausoleum where I would like to be buried for all eternity.” Then there is Cecilia, a Mexican student in Paris who lies awake at night, listening to her neighbor’s sobs. She turns toward the wall, as if to offer her ear, only to retreat into herself once it all becomes too much to bear. Nettel allows these stories to unfold separately, side-by-side, before they inevitably intersect. Her characters’ mental states are described with precise language, mirrored in Rosalind Harvey’s translation: “I was weighed down by the present,” Cecilia thinks to herself, “the lack of meaning in my own life, the enormous space between my breastbone and my back, never my own death, let alone old age, which I thought of as so far away.” There are many similarities between Cecilia and Claudio—their difficult childhoods in Oaxaca and Havana, their ruminations on death—but what most connects them here in After the Winter, what Nettel understands with such sensitivity, are the contradictory desires we have to both live alone in our apartments, our self-made mausoleums, and to escape them, to leave them behind and seek out human connection.

Coffee House Press.

—Review by Anna Vilner

THE DESPAIR OF MONKEYS AND OTHER TRIFLES

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THE DESPAIR OF MONKEYS AND OTHER TRIFLES, BY FRANÇOISE HARDY, TRANSLATED BY JON E. GRAHAM

At seventeen, Françoise Hardy lands a contract with Vogue record company. Later that year, she hears “Tous les garçons et les filles” on the radio, alongside Johnny Hallyday and Sylvie Vartan. The elation she feels at her sudden rise to fame is complicated, however, by her self-doubt: “No, I truly never imagined that the world of song would open its doors to me so easily,” Hardy writes, “Nor that they would close immediately on a gilded prison where, like it or not, I would spend the rest of my life.”

In her memoir, The Despair of Monkeys and Other Trifles, Hardy distances herself from the public persona that was crafted for her long ago. Determined to escape her role as style icon and muse, she focuses on her growth as an artist. She does so by discussing her insecurities—the discomfort she felt in her body as a young woman, the jealousy that plagued her relationship with her husband, actor and singer Jacque Dutronc. She writes, too, of the spiritual grounding she found outside her musical career, through the birth of her son and her lifelong study of astrology.

For fans of Hardy and her contemporaries (Serge Gainsbourg and France Gall, among others), The Despair of Monkeys is indispensable. It tracks the connections between the musicians and producers of the time, as well as the evolution of the Yé-Yé movement, the pop style that first captivated French audiences in the early sixties. Hardy’s memoir is sure to pique the reader’s interest with charming, celebrity-filled anecdotes, and it will also sustain it with her acute self-awareness, and her willingness to be vulnerable before her audience.

Feral House.

—Review by Anna Vilner

SMOKE

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SMOKE, BY JOHN BERGER, DRAWINGS BY SELÇUK DEMIREL

Smoke, written by John Berger and illustrated by Selçuk Demirel, is a pictorial prose poem that—from behind a mask of levity and charm—presents a compelling argument about our condemnation of the cigarette.

Berger begins with a brief history of smoking: “We described journeys . . . discussed the class struggle . . . swapped dreams.” His words pop on the pages dominated by white space. Opposite them, Demirel illustrates innocuous smokestacks, ashtrays, squinting individuals taking a drag⏤wherever and whenever they’d like—in restaurants, between games of tennis, etc. Smoke curls from mouths, from trains and chimneys. In one drawing, smoke ascends into a nude silhouette that hovers above a line of old-fashioned houses.

Suddenly the narrative switches. Smoking is declared deadly and becomes a “solitary perversion,” while the environment is polluted with other, deadlier fumes. The smoker, according to Berger, becomes a sort of outlaw, while the real culprits go unnoticed.

An instinct might be to flip through this slim volume and allow its vivid, sensual images and sparse language to pass through you. But Smoke is deceptively simple—its power lies in the careful pairing of the two forms. Digested slowly, this small book produces a mounting tension meant to incite criticism, and cause us to examine our ever-changing societal values.

New York Review Comics.

—Review by Anna Vilner

SEXOGRAPHIES

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SEXOGRAPHIES, BY GABRIELA WIENER, TRANSLATED BY JENNIFER ADCOCK AND LUCY GREAVES

The most striking quality of Sexographies is Gabriela Wiener’s fearlessness—her ability to broach any topic without the slightest flinch, however unfamiliar or achingly personal. In “Guru & Family,” Wiener spends two nights at the home of an infamous polygamist on the outskirts of Lima. She enters swiftly into the world of Badani and his six wives—tracing their genealogies, discussing female ejaculation, and taking a private belly dance lesson from La Gatita. In “A Trip Through Ayuahuasca,” Wiener purges with tobacco leaves and then, guided by a shaman in the Amazon jungle, takes her prescribed dose, later emerging from “the mosquito net as if from a white uterus.” Then, in the compact and rhythmic “The Greater the Beauty, the More It Is Befouled,” Wiener opens with an anecdote about one of Freud’s patients, a Russian aristocrat who suffered from body dysmorphia, before she deftly segues into her own obsessions, with interludes of Nietzsche, Bataille, and others.

Wiener’s essays do not deal solely in sex, as the title of the collection may suggest, but in the exploration of identity and gender. How are we to make sense of our own bodies and the bodies of others? Why is it that we—with the internet at our fingertips—supposedly know more than ever, yet often experience less and are less open to the experiences of others? Wiener urges us to ask these questions in order to uncover the artificial boundaries that have confined us to our own experiences. With a voice as unapologetic as it is searching, this gonzo journalist delivers her findings on a wide variety of topics, from egg donation to prison tattoos to BDSM. Nothing is off limits to Gabriela Wiener and she spares her readers no detail of her adventures. The result is Sexographies—an addictive and darkly funny collection that surprises at every turn.

Restless Books.

—Review by Anna Vilner

THE CHANDELIER

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THE CHANDELIER, BY CLARICE LISPECTOR, TRANSLATED BY BENJAMIN MOSER AND MAGDALENA EDWARDS

“She’d be flowing all her life. But what had dominated her edges and attracted them toward a center, what had illuminated her against the world and given her intimate power was the secret.” From its opening lines, The Chandelier is a daunting and deeply consuming experience. Clarice Lispector’s second novel, what we might think of as a coming-of-age story, has been effortlessly rendered into English by Benjamin Moser and Magdalena Edwards. The translation feels effortless in the sense that it retains Lispector’s elegant and inventive language. Effortless because it reads not as a translation but as a profound character study of a woman who is as much of our time, our consciousness, as she was when this novel was first available to Brazilian readers in 1946.

The Chandelier presents a certain re-prioritization by Lispector. Plot, for one, is second to her poetics and structurally, the novel avoids pause or interruption—there are no chapters and few section breaks. It is easy for readers to get lost in these sentences, in the rhythm spurred by repetition, in Lispector’s use of ethereal language. Virginia’s existential fears and desires are described at length: “Atop each day she’d balance on the tips of her toes, reads one passage, atop each fragile day that from one instant to the next could snap and fall into darkness.” The dialogue, both external and internal, is often as inscrutable as Virginia herself. There is, however, a loose chronology tracking Virginia’s childhood at The Farm and stretching into adulthood where we find her in an unnamed city, attending dinner parties, and taking a lover. Virginia’s family looms as a constant presence in her life, despite the distance she puts between them. Long after her submission to them as a girl—to her brother Daniel, in particular—she finds herself in the delicate position of growing into herself and away from their influence, a tension that persists until giving way altogether.

New Directions.

—Review by Anna Vilner

FROM LONE MOUNTAIN

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FROM LONE MOUNTAIN, BY JOHN PORCELLINO

From Lone Mountain is a five-year collection of stories and comics from King-Cat, the self-published zine which, over the past three decades, has earned John Porcellino a cult following. Porcellino’s pairing of minimalist drawings with his unfiltered observations of nature and his own interior struggles results in a refreshing voice—one that is intimate, unpretentious, and instantly recognizable to readers. His central preoccupation in this series, as it moves from Denver to San Francisco and back to Denver again, is the concept of home: “Now I don’t even know if I know what ‘home’ means anymore,” he confesses. “It’s not necessarily a physical place, right? But maybe it’s that place where we feel connected to the meaning of our own lives.” In spite of the loss of his father and his beloved cat Maisie, Porcellino continues to connect with the world around him. In the issue “Places,” we inhabit the towns and neighborhoods that formed him. Overlooked, little known places such as Scott County, Kansas, where, below the plains and croplands, he and his friend discover an oasis of crayfish “waving their happy claws,” or Dekalb, Illinois, where he reflects on his warehouse job and the evenings of refried beans that led him to pack up and move away from a comfortable, yet unfulfilling life.

Porcellino invites his readers along on a road trip with him—a slow, deliberate one. And thankfully, with such an observant guide, nothing seems to go unnoticed: not crane flies or catalpa trees or the “size, location, and position of the heart”.

Drawn & Quarterly.

—Review by Anna Vilner