Message in a Bottle
Super Bowl Sunday Sale: 12% Off in Honor of the 12th Man

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Were you to create a Venn diagram for the sets Football and Literature, you’d end up with just a sliver of intersection. Reading and athletics are generally more dissimilar than alike, and even when they come together, golf and baseball take publishing precedence. As the adage has it, the smaller the ball, the better the writing. So there isn’t a great deal of overlap between the book audience and the pigskin audience.

imageimageimageExceptions to the rule exist, of course, as they always do. George Plimpton, the patrician editor of The Paris Review, briefly put down his blue pencil and put on a helmet during an NFL preseason, recording the details of the fiasco in Paper Lion. Frederick Exley produced one of the great memoirs of all time by chronicling his obsessive relationship with the New York Giants and their golden-boy quarterback Frank Gifford in A Fan’s Notes. And Don DeLillo brilliantly described the metaphoric war that is gridiron violence in his novel End Zone. As great as these books are, they stand out like monuments in a fallow field far from the paths where the literati typically tread. We simply don’t think of football all that often.

But our ivory tower isn’t so tall that we can’t hear the roar of the crowd from the loudest stadium that ever was. We’ve tallied so many blue-and-green jerseys coming through our doors that we’ve run out of hashmarks. We’ve silently, surreptitiously streamed playoff coverage through the computer screens we’re supposed to use to search for titles. We can’t hide our feelings any longer—the Super Bowl train is ready to pull out and our tickets are in hand. All aboard!

What does this mean? Well, to accommodate all you Seahawks supporters out there (and ourselves) we’ll be opening early on Sunday, February 2nd and shutting our doors early, too. Our special Super Bowl hours will be 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., leaving plenty of time for you to shop and still see the game. Even better, we’re celebrating with a sale. In honor of you, the community of Northwest fans, everything in the store will be discounted twelve percent. 12% savings for the 12th Man!

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Grab a book to read during halftime! Buy a game to distract the kids! If you don’t care about football at all, pick up some scented soap and a couple of candles and enjoy a quiet bubble bath while everyone else is screaming in front of the TV. We’ll let you know the results on Monday, assuming we’re not too hoarse to talk.

—James

Unfinished Symphonies

Billy Collins, former US Poet Laureate, is the author of a funny yet poignant poem (does he write any other kind?) called “On Turning Ten,” in which the narrator laments the passing of time: 

You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.

But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.

This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.

He’s prematurely jaded, of course, but he’s not wrong. Youth is a time of limitless possibilities, and aging is a process by which options are whittled away. Maturity might be accepting that each opened door leaves others permanently closed behind you. I can’t say for sure, since I recently had a conversation with a friend that involved a good deal of rueful head-shaking on his part. How can I work more AND stay home with the kids? Can I wear a jaunty scarf and live in a Parisian garret without a sou AND have a country house with a yard that’s big enough for a Bernese Mountain Dog, a vegetable garden, and a tree fort? Clearly, I have a long way to go on the road to true adulthood. I have come to terms with the idea that I’ll never start in center field for the Mariners (or even sit on the bench), so I may get there yet.

Spending as many hours in a bookstore as I do doesn’t really help, though. Most days I’m purely delighted by the sheer volume of entertaining volumes there are to read, but every once in a while I become aware of how many of those will never make it to the top of the pile on my nightstand. Whatever time I take with a book is time taken away from a hundred others. All around me are eons worth of writing that I’ll never experience, characters I’ll never meet, stories I’ll never hear the end of. And since I’m changed a little by each book I do read, all around me are hundreds and thousands of unlived lives. In a few of those, maybe I’d be the author of my own books, which would be even more crushing—think of all the ones I’d never write.

The mature response to this existential crisis would be to shrug it off, but the artistic response would be to create something from it. Which makes Ivan Vladislavić an indisputably mature artist. He’s a South African writer who’s published several books, the most recent of which is The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories. It’s a slim (but not slight) work in which he discusses some of the many fictional projects he’ll never complete. As he puts it in his introduction, “These notes deal with unsettled accounts. They concern stories I imagined but could not write, or started to write but could not finish. Most were drafted to some point before being put aside but a few went no further than a line or two in a notebook… There were hundreds of failed stories to choose from.” He shares ten of these in discrete chapters, each of which begins with the seed that tantalized him without ever germinating. “Mrs. B,” for example, was inspired by the photographic plates in an old book recounting a 1926 expedition to the island of Komodo by the Burdens, an American naturalist and his beguiling, seemingly unflappable wife. Adventure in an exotic setting, along with the opportunity to recreate a romantic, bygone era while applying contemporary irony to its foibles—what could go wrong? This:

Probably, I should have written “Mrs. B” immediately, having glanced at the photographs and the maps to absorb an atmosphere, or dipped into the text at most, a quick plunge in a clear pool for some specimen phrase or idiom. There were clues enough for the invention of a world. But I could not leave well enough alone. I read the book.

This reading muddied the waters. It left me with a fuller sense of the Burdens and their world. I liked them less than I wanted to.

Disenchanted by the “stupid prejudices of their age,” Vladislavić abandons his couple and later writes a completely different story about a book collector who becomes obsessed with Helena, a woman who exists as nothing more than a name inscribed on a flyleaf. “You could say that Helena displaced B in my affections. In the end, real people are nearly always harder to like than fictional characters.”

Other aborted undertakings were inspired by personal experiences, politics, history, or art, but virtually all were in some way influenced by literature. Vladislavić reacts continually to a host of writers, including Laurence Sterne, Italo Calvino, Robert Walser, Don DeLillo, Georges Perec, Donald Barthelme, and Elias Canetti. We discover throughout Loss Library the myriad unexpected ways in which one artist can affect another, and one of its most notable qualities is that it demonstrates so concretely and unpretentiously the way books are built out of other books. One antecedent that’s not directly acknowledged is experimental French writer Marcel Benabou’s Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books, which similarly recounts a lifetime of thwarted productivity in a more tongue-in-cheek style. Benabou was in turn influenced by proto-Surrealist literary dandy Raymond Roussel and his How I Wrote Certain of My Books, but I fear I’m taking us too far through the looking glass now. None of that information is necessary to appreciate the varied pleasures of Vladislavić’s reclamation project. Reading it is akin to listening to the commentary track while watching a favorite DVD or hearing about the origins of a hit song on VH1’s Storytellers

Not a bad metaphor, really—call the book a tight acoustic version of what would likely have been a bloated, overproduced pop album. When properly shored up, as they are here by essay and anecdote, these fictional fragments are powerfully suggestive and as satisfying as any complete work. They’re further supported by an immaculate design scheme. Collagist Sunandini Banerjee has created and tipped in a dozen different subtly layered images to accompany the text. To the careless eye, they appear flat spills of ink, but more graded tones and figures emerge from the darkness the longer they’re examined until they seem almost bottomless. They’re exactly the right grace note for a book with an infinite center.

What does that mean? Well, at the heart of The Loss Library is the title story, the only entry that has a final form. It provides a tour of an endless Borgesian library that’s stocked with all the books never written by all the writers who’ve ever lived, and even the books never written by the ones who never lived. Some of their potential authors had their careers (and lives) cut short by war, while some simply lost faith in their talent. “Sorriest of all, in my opinion,” says the guide, “are those that were talked away by their authors. Talking is easier than writing, and that is why so many stories are frittered away in conversation.” Which I think is my cue to shut up.

—James

New Nobel Laureate

The latest winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature was announced yesterday in Stockholm, and poet Tomas Tranströmer is the lucky fella (it’s almost always a fella, as only 12 of the 108 prize-takers have been women). Hey, you’re saying, isn’t he Swedish? The fix was in! Well, it has been almost forty years since the Swedish Academy awarded the Nobel to one of their own, so I guess you could say they were due. The best way to see if they were right would be to read his poetry, of course, and the best book to pick imageis probably The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems. As is inevitable in these cases, copies of his work have immediately disappeared from bookstore shelves and warehouses, so it’ll be a little while before this one comes back into stock. In the meanwhile, we at least have news accounts to suggest he’s an interesting figure. According to the Guardian, “[h]e suffered a stroke in 1990 which affected his ability to talk, but has continued to write …  At a recent appearance in London, his words were read by others, while the poet, who is a keen amateur musician, contributed by playing pieces specially composed for him to play on the piano with only his left hand.”

I make a prediction every year about who I think is going to get the award, but I haven’t been right yet. One thing that makes the winners so hard to predict is that there are so many credible nominees. Even restricting the options to writers from the US, we have Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and Cormac McCarthy, all of whom have had their names bandied about as serious candidates. I’m not sure it’s possible to bandy anything seriously, but you know what I mean. North of the border there’s a pair of big-leaguers, Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro, and we haven’t begun to touch on the many dozens of authors outside North America who usually form the group from which the winners get tapped. A whole world of authors exists who deserve attention, and at the rate of one Nobel laureate a year, there isn’t time to give them all proper credit.

I’ve been trying to drop hints to the Swedish Academy for a long time about who should get that credit next, but so far they haven’t been listening. If you know anyone in Scandinavia, pass this link along—it couldn’t hurt.

imageMy first dark horse in the race is Ismail Kadare from Albania. Much of his work was produced while that country was controlled by the Communist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, so his novels are often set in the distant past. As such, they discuss various forms of political oppression in the only way they can, allegorically rather than directly. The Three-Arched Bridge is set in the 14th century on the eve of an Ottoman invasion, The Pyramid describes the vast (and unnecessary) construction project launched by the Pharaoh Cheops, The Palace of Dreams takes place in a surreal 19th-century bureaucracy where even sleep is no refuge from the watchful eye of the government, and so on. The restrictions under which Kadare labored served to deepen his writing, forcing him to make his books function on at least two levels. As historical fiction, they’re vibrant and realistic pictures of fascinating times and places, and as covert commentary, they resonate even more powerfully. Born in 1936 with nearly fifty novels behind him, he’s exactly the kind of late-career author the Nobel usually honors. 

imageSomeone in the running who may need to get a few more miles under his belt is Javier Marías (b. 1951). He spent a substantial amount of time in the US growing up and has translated many American writers into Spanish, but has also found the time to write
fourteen novels of his own. He started early, publishing his first book before he was twenty, and is now smack-dab in his prime, probably the most respected literary name in Spain. One of his most characteristic and accessible novels is Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, about a man who embarks on an affair with a married woman only to have her die in his arms on their first night together. He spends the rest of book trying to balance his feelings of responsibility against a desire to keep from being exposed, with sometimes comic and sometimes intense results. Marías recently completed what may be his most significant work, the three-part novel Your Face Tomorrow. There’s an enormous amount that goes on between its covers, but imagining James Bond if Proust had created him will give you the idea. In the barest description of the plot, the narrator, a Spaniard living in England, is recruited into a hyper-secret intelligence organization, falls for a colleague, and eventually finds himself in over his head, but that hardly does the book justice. Threads go back to British military snafus in World War II and betrayals during the Spanish Civil War; the meanings of words shift as they’re translated fromimage language to language; the psychology of marriage and estrangement is examined; and the philosophy of violence is investigated from all angles. It’s kind of an exploded diagram of a spy novel where every action actually has a thought behind it, part of an entire stream of consciousness. You won’t tear through it in a weekend, but if you have a season to spend with it, you’ll be well rewarded. 

These two aren’t the only worthies who may someday wear the crown (note to self: check to see if there’s an actual laurel wreath involved) but I’ll save them for another day. Remember, if you hear either of these author names pronounced on the radio in a Swedish accent in years to come, you heard them here first.

James

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