Huxley's demons and the grace of Hanif Kureishi
Plus: Brilliant translations of Victor Hugo, Robert Walser, Rilke and others.
In 1643, an entire convent in the small French village of Loudun was apparently possessed by the devil. The convent's charismatic priest was eventually convicted of seducing the nuns in his charge and being in league with Satan. Then he was burned at the stake. Aldous Huxley's brilliant book about this religious scandal was first published in the 1950s and has drifted in and out of print ever since. Now it's back, together with handsome HarperPerennial re-issues of Huxley's "The Perennial Philosophy," "The Doors of Perception" and "Heaven and Hell." "The Devils of Loudun" shows Huxley's genius at its best: It's his scientific, almost forensic and detailed approach that makes us feel the truth and horror of what happened long ago in France.
Hanif Kureishi: "The Black Album With My Son, the Fanatic: A Novel and a Short Story" (Scribner)
Hanif Kureishi always writes with grace and fluent brio, and this is a smart reissue, a coupling of two of his earlier books, both dealing, presciently, with rising tensions between Islam and the West, showing young Asians -- born in Britain -- seduced by fundamentalism and becoming almost like young Trotskyites. In "My Son, the Fanatic," originally published in the New Yorker, and later filmed, a taxi driver ponders the increasingly strange behavior of his son. Is it drugs? the father wonders. But, no, the influence turns out to be religion. Kureishi, a hater of imperialism but a lover of liberalism and hedonism, got at these issues early on, giving his fiction real heft.
William Carlos Williams: "In the American Grain" (New Directions)
In his genre-defying first published book, William Carlos Williams meditates on episodes in American history. We see Columbus, facing mutiny, and Cortez, preparing to assassinate Montezuma and destroy the "ornate dreams" of all that Montezuma built. Sir Walter Raleigh is here, and Aaron Burr and Lincoln, as well as the vain, original, driven Edgar Allan Poe. The treatment is free and episodic, beginning with the Vikings, while the writing, as Rick Moody notes in his introduction to this new edition, feels as fresh and vigorous as it did nearly a century ago. Raleigh -- "beloved by majesty, plunging his lust into the majesty of a new world," Williams notes. Superb stuff from a great poet.
David Grossman: "Writing in the Dark" (Picador)
David Grossman, the Israeli novelist, author of the wondrous "See Under: Love," ponders politics and literature. His reflections on the Polish writer Bruno Schulz (shot by an SS officer in World War II) offer inspiration about what story can do. His plea for peace and sanity in the Middle East, made in a speech to the Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Rally, provide a special moving pungency, since Grossman's own son had been killed in the disastrous second Lebanon war of 2002. Grossman sees Israel as: "A victim once again -- but this time, a victim of itself, of its own anxieties and despair, of its own nearsightedness." Not all will agree, though Grossman's grief gives his words clarity and sober authority.
Robert Walser: "The Tanners" (New Directions)
The Swiss writer Robert Walser -- admired in his life by Kafka and Walter Benjamin, among others -- died in 1956 and was pretty much forgotten until re-introduced by the late W.G. Sebald, who had known him. Sebald called Walser "a clairvoyant of the small" and in "The Tanners," an early novel with the taste of autobiography, we see exactly what Sebald meant. The book follows the Tanner brothers and chronicles their minor adventures and misadventures. But it's the dream-like and delicate quality of the writing that astounds. Here Simon Tanner thinks about his fellow employees at a bank: "They all wrote with diligent fingers, made calculations using calculating machines and also sometimes their memories, thought using their thoughts and made themselves useful with their knowledge." When Walser met Lenin in Zurich, he apparently said: "So, you, too, like fruitcake?" In the lightness lies something deep and subversive.
Victor Hugo: "Les Miserables" (Modern Library)
The plot is familiar from the musical and various film versions. The escaped criminal Valjean becomes a successful man but is pursued and caught by the implacable policeman Javert. Then Valjean escapes again, caring for the young Cosette, and Javert hunts them both. Hugo writes in short chapters, moving us swiftly from the Napoleonic wars to the barricades of 1848. But the book is dauntingly immense, and new translations are therefore rare. This one, by Julie Rose, is a smash: lively, dramatic, racy, making Hugo as readable in English as he might have wished. "Les Miserables" is one of the great adventures in world fiction, and Rose encourages the reader to make it afresh. Introduced by Adam Gopnik.
Richard Stark: "The Rare Coin Score," "The Handle," "The Seventh" ( University of Chicago Press)
Richard Stark, a.k.a. Donald Westlake, died recently, but the University of Chicago continues to re-issue his landmark series of hard-boiled novels featuring the lean and mean anti-hero Parker, who sets up heists that then tend to be derailed by the stupidity-venality-treachery of his colleagues. The plots work like machines, as Luc Sante notes in his introduction to this new set, but nonetheless turn on human foible. "You can read the entire series and not once have to invest in a bookmark," Sante writes. Parker's the biz, and so was Westlake.
Rainer Maria Rilke: "The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Rilke" (Penguin)
"This, then, is where people come to live; I'd have thought it more of a place to die," begins the great poet Rilke's only novel, more of an autobiographical prose-poem really, chronicling a young man's arrival in Paris and his lonely obsessions with death and with trying to be a writer. "I strolled through the Tuileries. Everything to the east, before the sun, was dazzling, but where the sunlight fell, the mist still hung like a grey curtain of light. Grey amid grey, the statues took the sun in gardens still draped." Many other would-be writers have read this short work, and some, like Saul Bellow, have been successfully influenced by it. But few have Rilke's almost morbidly sensitive powers of observation. A brilliant new translation by Michael Hulse.
Maureen N. McLane: "Same Life" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Maureen N. McLane, in her debut collection, has a batch of poems entitled "After Sappho" -- Sappho being, of course, the great Lesbian poet of ancient Greece, whose work has come down to us in fragments:
some say a host of horsemen, a horizon of ships
under sail is most beautiful but I say it is whatever
you love I say it is
That's a bold, exhilarating version. "The daily failures are piling in heaps / at the ends of all driveways / and no one is sure there's recycling," McLane writes in "The Daily Failures," one of many poems here that deal with loss of life and loss of love with a fierce, redeeming wit. 'Go litel myn book / and blow her head off," begins "Envoi." Terrific.
Raul Zurita: "Purgatory" ( University of California)
On September 11, 1973, supported by the CIA and U.S. military forces, General Augusto Pinochet deposed the democratically elected Salvador Allende in Chile. A brutal military dictatorship began, and Raul Zurita, then an engineering student, was arrested, detained and tortured in the hold of a ship. That experience began a poetic journey: "They've shaved my head / they've dressed me in these gray wool rags / Mom keeps on smoking / I am Joan of Arc / They catalog me on microfilm," writes Zurita in one of the poems in "Purgatory," a sequence that uses many different strategies -- some autobiographical, some surreal, some graphic -- that have caused its author to be compared to Pablo Neruda. Fair enough: Although Zurita seems odder, tougher, wilder. This work -- ably translated and introduced by Anna Denny -- seems, also, to predict Roberto Bolaño.
Rayner is the author, most recently, of "A Bright and Guilty Place." His Paperback Writers column appears at latimes.com/books.