At Public Books, our editorial staff and contributors are hard at work to provide readers with thought-provoking articles. But when the workday is done, what is actually on our nightstands? Here we bring you, in our own words, a behind-the-scenes look at what we have been reading this month.
Managing Editor and LITERATURE IN TRANSLATION SECTION EDITOR
Józef Czapski, Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp, translated from the French by Eric Karpeles
In a notional locked-parlor game I hope to never actually have the occasion to play, I sometimes inquire of my captive companions: if you had to, on what theme could you deliver a reasonably competent impromptu lecture, without books? That we would all find compelling and intelligible? At first glance, the fit between theme and venue in the case of Lost Time might seem woefully poor. How could a group of ill-treated, malnourished, and propaganda-fed Polish prisoners of war possibly find the energy to care about the fictional travails of ultra-privileged aristocrats and social climbers in late 19th- and early 20th-century France? And yet, as the book’s translator, the painter Eric Karpeles, explains in a thoughtful introduction:
Initially taking up À la recherche du temps perdu on the basis of aesthetic inquiry, Czapski soon recognized its value as a practical template for survival. The lectures offered a viable counterpoint to the repeated interrogations the men were forced to endure. His lectures were an act of resistance, stimulating the recovery and retention of personal memories that could protect and defend his colleagues from the attempt to deprive each of them of a sense of self.
The pathos of the project is even greater once you learn that Czapski and his fellow 395 prisoners were virtually the only survivors of the Soviet secret police’s murder, in April and May 1940, of roughly 22,000 Polish officers and intelligentsia, what would become known as the Katyn massacre. Not that anyone would wish to live with such miserably high stakes, but, pace Simon During, have the humanities ever had such a powerful defender as this?
Children’s & YA Literature Section Editor
Ibi Zoboi, Pride
I rarely buy hardcovers. But I was seduced by the beautiful endpaper portraits of the two black teens who fall for each other in this richly reimagined remix of Pride and Prejudice. For Austen fans, it’s terrific fun to track how the love story that unfolds between Zuri Benitez and Darius Darcy—set in a rapidly gentrifying section of Brooklyn—parallels but also departs from the plot of its classic predecessor. But given that my 12-year-old devoured Zoboi’s novel with as much pleasure as I did, it seems that no knowledge of Austen’s novel is necessary for young people to revel in this romance. When I asked him what he liked about it, he said that he was intrigued by the fact that Zuri and Darius were both black, but from “different areas of wealth”—thereby giving me an opportunity to talk with him about the concept of class. Austen would approve.
Urbanism Section Editor
Tana French, The Witch Elm
It’s hard for detective novelists to switch their framing from cops with guns and badges to victims with their trauma and unreliable memories. Tana French, a luminary in the field, has turned from the Dublin Murder Squad to tracing the hurt and anxiety of a burglary victim in her newest novel, The Witch Elm. The book’s title suggests a timeless haunting Irish fairytale, but the actual result is an immensely satisfying reflection on privilege, family duty, and class in contemporary Ireland. Victimization is at the heart of the story, with some surprising conclusions about how those scarred by violence attempt to reboot their lives and find agency.
TV Section Editor
Virginie Despentes, Baise-moi, translated from the French by Bruce Benderson
Virginie Despentes, King Kong Theory, translated from the French by Stéphanie Benson
A casually dispensed blow from an angry boyfriend. An unprovoked stream of sex-phobic invective from a moralistic roommate. An unimaginably brutal gang rape, whose merciless perpetrators get off scot-free. The quotidian realities of a culture fueled by misogynistic violence are enough to make any woman snap. What would happen, Despentes asks, if we not only refused to take it any longer, but leaned in to our rage, embraced it so fully and completely that there was no turning back? At the start of Baise-moi (direct translation: Fuck Me), Nadine, a pensive young porn aficionado and sex worker, and Manu, a whiskey-pounding punk and sometime drug dealer, have each endured about a thousand times more than they can take. When these soul sisters cross paths, the ultimate bender ensues. Fueled by booze, fucking, and guns, the two embark on a bloody road trip through France that would, and does, leave the most unbearably self-possessed chauvinist pig shaking in his loafers. If he’s lucky enough to survive the encounter, that is. At times, the nihilism might feel a bit much, even for the most unflinching of feminist killjoys. But when you think back to what started it all off, well, you can’t help but relate.
King Kong Theory reads as a nonfictional corollary to Despentes’s novel: in this acerbically humorous series of meditations on the author’s experiences in the sex, porn, literary, and film industries, she charts her own coming-to-feminism and reacts to the squeamish reception and banning of Baise-moi’s film adaptation. Sensitive guys beware, for this remarkable little book pulls no punches and spares no man’s feelings. “I am writing,” Despentes writes, “for all those girls who don’t get a look in the universal market of the consumable chick.” But, she continues, “I would never swap places, because it seems to me that being Virginie Despentes is a more interesting business than anything else going on out there.” Fuck yes.
B-Sides Section Editor
Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game, translated from the German by Richard and Clara Winston
I look back at my adolescent brushes with Herman Hesse and sigh. Demian, Steppenwolf, and Siddhartha were juvenile pick-me-ups, a tonic that transformed my run-of-the-mill angst and alienation into something magnificent and misty. Leafing through those slender volumes—it helped that they were slender—I felt myself approaching an empyrean truth denied to the befuddled sellout adults around me. I distinctly remember giving up on The Glass Bead Game, which Hesse published in 1943, during his Swiss exile from Nazi Germany. It was massive and complicated: the central character grew old and disillusioned and died inexplicably. Dude, bummer.
I recently returned to it, though, for a piece I am writing about moments when game worlds turn into real worlds—you know, Enders Game, War Games, Tron, all the spiritual classics. And I realized that The Glass Bead Game baffled me as a teen because it was intended to. Inside the novel’s world, the mysterious “glass bead game” offers cultured young men (oh yes, men and nothing but; Hesse’s oblivious sexism remains in full force) a Key to All Mythologies. But this time through, what struck me was how hollow the glass bead game’s consolations are, how incomplete are the triumphs of the master gamers. Hesse reveals insecurities about seeming spiritual revelations: by 1943 he had begun to see the cracks in his game world. No wonder moody teen John spurned the book; no wonder it is the only Hesse novel I want to go back to in 2018.
Public Streets section Editor emerita
Ursula K. Le Guin, No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters
No Time to Spare is the last book published by Ursula K. Le Guin, who died at 88 this past January. The 2014 recipient of a National Book Award Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters and author of more than 20 novels, translated into more than 40 languages, makes herself at home in this series of brief, searching turns of thought that crystalize the preoccupations of her last decade: the imagination and fiction that probes its limits, aging, Homer, gender, cats.
In elegant formulations that move nimbly between the folksy and the sublime, these essays embody what Le Guin describes as “old intelligence”:
If memory remains sound and the thinking mind retains its vigor, an old intelligence may have extraordinary breadth and depth of understanding. It’s had time to gather knowledge and more practice in comparison and judgement. No matter if the knowledge is intellectual or practical or emotional, if it concerns alpine ecosystems or the Buddha nature or how to reassure a frightened child: when you meet an old person with that kind of knowledge, if you have the sense of a bean sprout you know you’re in a rare and irreproducible presence.
Indeed, as I read these essays, I know I am.
Shoptalk Section Editor
Inez Tan, This Is Where I Won’t Be Alone
Inez Tan’s debut short story collection, This Is Where I Won’t Be Alone, explores themes of belonging, exclusion, and community in the many places one might call (or wish to call) home. Displaying equal parts wit and grit, Tan’s stories render vivid microcosms of characters and places who feel immediately, deeply knowable and relatable (of course, “it is dangerous to relate to literature,” states the narrator in “Tragic Flaws,” which reads as a sharp part-manifesto, part-cross-generational autobiography). The opening story, “Edison and Curie,” portrays in tragicomic fashion the price of giving your life to the institution. Pick it up for the pleasure and profundity packed into each short story, stay for the fascinatingly touching narrative of the sentient oyster.