Als Los Angeles de stad van de engelen is, moet New York de stad van de spoken zijn. De gewichtlozen, het nieuwe boek van Valeria Luiselli, zou je een literaire spokenroman kunnen noemen. Met dien verstande dat het hier om literaire spoken gaat, de geesten van de vele schrijvers die ooit in New York gewoond hebben.

Een jonge redactice bij een kleine uitgeverij is op zoek naar verborgen literaire parels, vergeten schrijvers waar lezers van nu belangstelling voor zouden kunnen hebben. Ze stuit op een Mexicaanse dichter die in de jaren ’20 van de vorige eeuw naar New York kwam, geïnspireerd door beroemde Amerikaanse dichters als Ezra Pound, Emily Dickinson en William Carlos Williams. De redactrice raakt meer en meer door deze Mexicaanse dichter geobsedeerd. Ze voelt zijn aanwezigheid op een oude zolderkamer en ziet zijn gezicht in een langsrijdende metro.
De structuur van De gewichtlozen houdt gelijke tred met haar obsessie. Gaat het in het begin steevast over haar – zowel jong en zoekend als iets ouder, het schrijven combinerend met de zorg voor haar gezin – in de tweede helft van het boek verschuift het perspectief steeds meer naar hem. Een structuur als een zandloper.

Een zandloper is trouwens ook een mooie metafoor voor Luiselli’s manier van schrijven. Ze daagt je uit haar verhaal om te draaien, keer op keer, zodat je steeds wat anders ziet. Ga op zoek naar de vele verwijzingen (de leukste vond ik die over de excentrieke gebroeders Collyer waarover ik eerder las in Homer & Langley van E.L. Doctorow) en kijk over haar schouder mee terwijl zij het verhaal schrijft. Net als haar andere boek Valse papieren zit De gewichtlozen minitieus in elkaar, maar leest het tegelijkertijd losjes doordat het uit korte stukken bestaat.

Literatuur is niet alleen wat je leest, maar ook waaróver je leest bij deze schrijfster. Schrijvers uit het verleden vormen de voedingsbodem voor schrijvers van nu. Als je goed kijkt kun je soms een glimp van hun aanwezigheid opvangen. In de mensenmassa op een ondergronds perron bijvoorbeeld, zoals Ezra Pound ooit:

            The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
            Petals on a wet, black bough. (p. 26)

30 April 2014


Uitgeverij Karaat, 2014
Oorspronkelijke titel Los ingrávidos, 2011
Vertaald uit het Spaans door Merijn Verhulst
189 pagina's


If we compare literature to a landscape I feel like I’ve just climbed Mont Blanc. Not quite the Himalayan heights of Ulysses or Remembrance of things past, but a rather challenging peak nonetheless. This week I spent reading Cloud atlas and I’m still a little out of breath. Around the time the movie version entered the cinemas last year I gave the book my first try and failed. It felt too complex and uninviting and I put it away after 15 pages or so. I realized this is not a book to be taken on too lightly. Lately, I’ve read some smaller books and discarded a few others, so I felt ready to try Cloud atlas once more. I started confidently and read on in three long bursts. Find the thread and follow it; don’t let go, because if you put it away too long you lose it.
Cloud atlas consists of six stories placed in chronological order. You start in the 19thcentury, going from the 1930’s and the 1970’s to our time. The last two stories are set in the future, starting at least one hundred years from now. The book evolves like a pyramid,

        5   5        
      4       4      
    3           3    
  2               2  
1                   1

so it’s always clear in which story and time you are. The stories are related, but in rather subtle ways. Mitchell gives you only a few easy-to-overlook clues.
A brilliant and challenging aspect of Cloud atlas is the language. Mitchell fits the language of each story to its time. Thus, not only do you have to get into a new story six times, you also have to adjust to a new style of language. The first, 19th century story takes some getting used to, the 20th century stories allow you some breathing space, but especially the fifth and sixth story are mindboggling at first. Compare it to coming first into the world of A clockwork orange. A strange setting, words that seem familiar in a way, but require you to give them meaning, not the other way around. The sixth story, the top of the pyramid so to say, may be about 80 pages, but I took almost a day to get through it. Once you get through there it starts going downhill again as you revisit the stories you discovered before.
Perhaps at this point I should also emphasize I enjoyed reading Cloud atlas a lot. The bigger the struggle, the bigger the reward, as I derived huge satisfaction from solving all the puzzles in this book. In the first part of the book all of the stories end with a cliff-hanger, so you can imagine the pleasurable sense of closure you get when you can finally continue these stories after a few hundred pages. As I mentioned already, there is a deeply buried thread connecting everything; rediscovering it again after having plodded along unwittingly for some time feels good.
David Mitchell has a lot of faith in his readers, because he doesn’t make anything easy. This is exactly what I like about him. He sets you to work, sharpens your mind and constantly provides exactly the right amount of plot tension. I cannot even begin imagining writing such a book. Mitchell holds up many balls in the air and pulls it off, seemingly without effort. Every page is necessary, there are no redundant passages; for a 500+ page book it actually seems condensed. Reading such brilliant books makes you wonder why you would ever waste your time on anything of lesser value. On the other hand, I suppose you can’t go on reading masterpieces all the time.
Just to give a small taste of Mitchell’s writing I’ll write down a few quotes from the book, each from the beginning of a story:

p. 3
Beyond the Indian hamlet, upon a forlorn strand, I happened on a trail of recent footprints. Through rotting kelp, sea cocoanuts & bamboo, the tracks led me to their maker, a white man, his trowzers & Pea-jacket rolled up, sporting a kempt beard & an outsized Beaver, shovelling & sifting the cindery sand with a tea-spoon so intently that he noticed me only after I had hailed him from ten yards away.
~The book’s first sentence. Notice the immediate focus on time, with the footprints. A reference to Robinson Crusoe as well.

p. 44
Labouring types surrounded me with bad teeth, parrot voices and unfounded optimism. Sobering to think how one accursed night of baccarat can alter a man’s social standing so irreversibly. Those shopworkers, cabbies and tradesmen had more ½ crowns and threepenny bits squirrelled away in their sour Stepney mattresses than I, Son of an Ecclesiastical somebody, can claim. Had a view of an alley: downtrodden scriveners hurtling by like demisemiquavers in a Beethovian allegro. Afrain of ‘em? No, I’m afraid of being one.
~A bit of James Joyce, a bit of T.S. Eliot´s The wasteland. Bleakness from the Lost Generation, after the First World War.

p. 90
´My guru, Luisaaa, my guru! He´s on his last reincarnation before—’ Richard’s fingers go pufff! Nirvanawards. ‘Come to an audience. His waiting-list normally takes, like, for ever, but jade-ankh disciples get personal audiences on the same afternoon. Like, why go through college and shit when Maharajah Aja can, like, teach you everything about . . . It.’
~Hippie-speak seems already slightly over the hill and wannabe cool. Must be the Seventies.

p. 153
Knuckle sandwich was actually a well-written gutsy fictional memoir. Culture-vultures discussed its socio-political subtexts first on late-night shows, then on breakfast TV. Neo-Nazis bought it for its generous lashings of violence. Worcestershire housewives bought it because it was a damn fine read. Homosexuals bought it out of tribal loyalty. It shifted ninety thousand, yes, ninety thousand copies in four months, and yes, I am still talking hardcover.
~Nice satire on a crappy memoir turning into a bestseller. Not hard to picture that happening right about our time.

p. 187
It was a sealed dome about eighty metres across, a dinery owned by Papa Song Corp. Servers spend twelve working years without venturing outside this space, ever. The décor is starred and striped in reds, yellows and the rising sun. Its celcius is adjusted to Outside; warmer in winter, cooler in summer. Our dinery was on the minus ninth floor under Chongmye Plaza. Instead of windows, AdVs decorated the walls. Set into the eastern wall was the dinery elevator; the sole entrance and exit. North was the Seer’s office; west, his Aides’ room; south, the servers’ dormroom. Consumers’ hygieners were ingressed at north-east, south-east, south-west and north-west. The Hub sat in the centre.
~The world of science fiction and dystopia, like Orwell’s 1984. Emotionless, functional language gives a good sense of the empty atmosphere.

p. 249
Adam, my bro, an’ Pa’n’me was trekkin’ back from Honokaa Market on miry roads with a busted cart-axle in draggly clothesies. Evenin’ catched us up early so we tented on the southly bank o’ Sloosha’s Crossin’, ’cos Waipio river was furyin’ with days o’ hard rain an’ swollen by a spring tide. Sloosha’s was friendsome ground tho’ marshy, no’un lived in the Waipio Valley ‘cept for a mil’yun birds, that’s why we didn’t camo our tent or pull-cart or nothin’. Pa sent me huntin’ for tinder’n’firewood while he’n’Adam tented up.
~‘Clothesies’ immediately brings to mind Gollum. Set furthest in the future, this language sounds more like American frontier around 1850 or so, Huckleberry Finn style. A little bit like The road too.

31 March 2013

Sceptre, 2004

Comments (1)

Dit is een boek dat Michaël Zeeman zou hebben bejubeld. Een boek over verleden en herinnering. Persoonlijke herinneringen in eerste instantie, maar later meer en meer gedeelde herinneringen die uiteindelijk alles in zich bevatten: de hoofdpersoon, zijn familie, zijn land, de wereld. Hierdoor is De Wetenden bovenal een oneindig boek, een eindeloos Droste-effect. Het begint eenvoudig genoeg, met de jonge schrijver Mircea die uitkijkt over het nachtelijke Boekarest. Maar al gauw val je via zijn mijmeringen door het ene gat na het andere, steeds dieper zijn herinneringen in. Dat het daarbij juist om dat vallen gaat en niet om de landing lijkt de enige logische conclusie die je uit dit boek kunt trekken. Zoek vooral niet naar de antwoorden, maar geniet van de vele mooie beelden en groteske visioenen die Cărtărescu je voorschotelt. En bedenk daarbij dat hij dit waanzinnige boek stiekem gewoon in de Watergraafsmeer schreef, tijdens zijn verblijf als gastdocent aan de UvA (zie interview in de Volkskrant 12 juni). “Uit de glinstering van de straal, niet langer dan een nanoseconde, was zo plotseling de stad Amsterdam verschenen, met elk van zijn vierduizend Vlaamse huizen, waarvan de statige gevels weerspiegeld werden in de grachten, die net als de kanalen van het binnenoor een halve cirkel vormden” (p. 439). En dan nu voor een verfrissende duik in het zwembad.

18 Juni 2010

De Bezige Bij, 2010
Oorspronkelijke titel Orbitor. Aripa Stângă, 2007
Vertaald uit het Roemeens door Jan Willem Bos

(citește în română)


Dit is geen gemakkelijk boek, maar het is een Roemeens boek en dus wilde ik het lezen. Eliade's stijl oogt alledaags en de dingen die hij beschrijft ook, maar schijn bedriegt. Vanuit het niets gebeuren plotsklaps de gekste dingen, dingen die me deden denken aan The curious case of Benjamin Button, maar ook aan Indiana Jones and the last crusade. Misschien kreeg ik die filmassociaties door te lezen dat Francis Ford Coppola naar dit boek de film Youth without Youth maakte. Hoe dan ook, laat vóór die film zeker dit bijzondere boek niet aan u voorbijgaan.

17 Februari 2010

J.M. Meulenhoff, 2007
Oorspronkelijke titel Tinerețe fără tinerețe, 1981
Vertaald uit het Roemeens door Jan Willem Bos

(citește în română)


The first of my New York books I read. Took me a while, as I started reading other things after finishing each section. But it was worth it, this slow going, to savour the quality of this unique book. The style is seemingly easy, but spot-on and switches from fast-paced detective to the philosophical/essayistic and the more easy-going narrative of the anecdote. A nice mixture. I liked the fact that Auster entices you all the way towards the end of his stories. You want to know the truth, the final meaning and, bang, there happens to be none. Just like the characters themselves the search for meaning is thwarted and shown to be useless. This is frustrating and stimulating at the same time. Has me thinking of other Austers to read, as well as a number of classics he refers to.

4 November 2009

Penguin Classics, 2006

Originally published as a trilogy 1990


Read it in a hurry to finish in time for class. Perhaps I should have taken a little longer, because what struck me as a quirky spy novel hardly worth its time turned out to be more, for both my professor and fellow students. I'd missed an interesting parallel with the Book of Job. And certain passages (in particular the ending) did yield more upon a closer reading. Enough to make me reconsider my initial opinion of this novel. What that opinion turned into eludes me. I'm not sure what I think of it now. But it certainly is more than just a flimsy spy novel.

21 April 2009


The real classic on the Adventure list. Second time I read it and it does get better. You just have to take the time for it. Ten pages an hour maximum, but that's okay. It can be quite dense at times, and yet it always makes you think. I don't suppose this book will ever get any easier. Still, I'm going to go back to it, another day. And hopefully some other books of his too. The Secret agent maybe.

31 March 2009


This is a difficult book to get through with its slow, dry text. It's divided up into three parts, in which part two makes up for most of the fun. But parts one and three are necessary and make part two possible, so to say. This structure, relying on unreliable editors and narrators is quite intriguing though. And if the narrative moves somewhat sulkily, the content makes up for it. Its plot about a (Calvinist) religious fanatic egged on to murder in the name of God by a devil figure shows nice parallels both with Faust (or something like The Mask or Star Wars) and with Muslim terrorists nowadays. It makes the book seem far ahead of its time and quite redeems all of its lesser qualities. Fascinating.

15 October 2008


Quite absorbing, this postmodern historical novel. Absorbing and intriguing. It's long, full of authorial asides, footnotes and epigraphs and has a catching story as well. The story is Victorian, the narrator is Victorian á la Dickens, but the whole novel reads like a parody of all that, a postmodern gimmick. But it's funny, thought provoking and reads like a train, albeit a long train. Excellent novel. (I like the ending confusion and author-as-character).

11 September 2008


The setting of this intriguing little novel is part communist, part fantastic. On one level it tells the story of an old man who's fanatically questioned by the secret police. They think he holds the key to some terrible mystery that could have its effect upon the whole society, until the hightest point of the hierarchy. And, maybe he does, maybe he doesn't. What is clear is that the old man is fond of telling stories. Each one of his memories links back to another series of memories and thus, in his recorded conversations with his questioners, he tells one long, associative tale. It doesn't seem to make sense, this tale, and it seems it doesn't have to. It's just a collection of stories that seem like fairy tales. Only somehow these fairy tales have their consequences for the people that listen to them. The line between fantasy and reality gets more and more blurred. The old man just keeps to his stories, but his audience sees one big political intrigue in it.
This novel is not about final meaning, because it doesn't seem to have any. It does, however, lure you in, slowly but steadily. You go from the narrator to a narrating old man, to narrating people within his stories. It seems like zooming in, but instead  it's only a continuous zooming out until you feel uncertain where it is you've begun exactly. It's the zooming that's the thing though, not the beginning or the ending, just the endless process of zooming. Intriguing, really.

7 August 2008

Meulenhoff, 1975
Oorspronkelijke titel Pe strada Mântuleasa, 1968
Vertaald uit het Roemeens door Liesbeth Ziedses de Plantes

(citește în română)


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