I notice a trend in book reviewing these days; or rather a conspiracy between publishing houses and book reviewers: a European novel, any European novel, often meeting very low standards of craftsmanship, is translated and published amidst a flurry of enthusiastic PR sound bytes that bombard me with the “discovery” of an important/great/unique/original modern voice from abroad; book reviewers lap this up and, notwithstanding the novel’s unredeemable shabbiness, exalt it like the new something. For instance, My Struggle is the modern-day In Search of Lost Time, and Karl Ove Knausgård is the new Marcel Proust. If anything, this myopic sycophancy helps me know that most reviewers have never read Proust and command but a vague, generic notion of what he performed as a novelist: he’s just the French guy who wrote a long-winded, multi-volume autobiographical novel about memory full of mundane details and no plot. Basically they have familiarity with the gewgaws anyone can glean from the back cover synopsis. It doesn’t surprise me that those champions of contemporary Scandinavian literature omit or downplay Knausgård’s stunted verbal skill, his non-existent imagination for unexpected metaphors, his inability to combine words we’d never think possible of combining; nor do they decry his excessive use of flat declarative sentences that describe things – rocks, trees, people, clothes, cars, buildings, emotions – in the most ordinary, straightforward way; or lament his poor vocabulary that comes straight from a kindergarten classroom or a newsroom; in sum, they never mention the enormous gulf between Knausgård and Proust regarding style. I’ve also noticed that many recognize Knausgård’s numerous flaws as a novelist: in conversations with some defenders of him, I’ve even noticed that if pressured to give me examples of “good writing” from his novels, they’ll confess that praising Knausgård concerning trifles like metaphor and linguistic inventiveness is a complicated, embarrassing business. But in spite of perceiving all those problems, consensus will insist that My Struggle is a “great novel.”
I have a theory why this occurs. I could chalk it up to the general ignorance of book reviewers; they’re a worthless lot, I know that. Bill Henderson once edited a book called Rotten Reviews, collecting the stupid things the press wrote about great novelists; one could easily fill a book of fawning reviews devoted to fleeting successes that no one reads anymore. This era could provide matter for dozens of volumes. But I fear something more insidious than traditional stupidity turns mediocrities like Knausgård into modern Prousts. I believe these encomia stem from a sense of guilt and overcompensation. A few years ago people learned with shock that Americans don’t translate a lot; this served as a call to arms to many small publishers to fill the gap, and so a new era of foreign fiction translation started with remarkable missionary zeal; one entity even named itself Three Percent, that being the percentage of foreign books translated in America. It didn’t help that Horace Engdahl, of the Royal Swedish Academy, around the same time accused American literature of being too insular. I think many fiction writers, editors and reviewers are afraid of looking too insular, too provincial and so they praise indiscriminately whatever reaches their shores. Afraid of offending, they automatically turn everything with a whiff of world literature into a modern masterpiece. This was no doubt great news for foreign novelists: no matter how small and insignificant their talent is, their chances of being “discovered” went up; meanwhile Alexander Theroux, whose Darconville’s Cat puts to shame just about anything translated from Europe in the last 10 years, not only can get his old novels reprinted but had difficulties finding a publisher for Laura Warholic and had to resort to a comic book publisher. I guess he’s not up to the standards of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, publishers of Knausgård. Theroux, one of the great masters of English-language prose, cannot compete with Italian Elena Ferrante, Frenchman Patrick Modiano (practitioner of “the style blanc” like Edmund White so aptly called it), and his mediocre countryman, Michel Houellebecq, who writes with the dryness of a reporter relating a presidential debate. A lightweight like Enrique Vila-Matas, who writes book porn designed to hit readers’ g-spots (oh, a book about an old-fashioned book editor pining for the days when literature was taken seriously; you know, the usual rose-tainted bullshit about how the past used to be so much better; I’d be more impressed if he wrote a metafictional novel about a fanatic lover of literature planning to assassinate a lightweight novelist called Enrique Vila-Matas in order to free shelf-space for superior novelists) is translated and praised, whereas Gonzalo Torrente Ballester, a novelist who deals in more refine intellectual pleasures, continues to languish in almost absolute obscurity outside Spain.
This business of the number of translations has created a false dichotomy between American and world literature; instead those who pretend to care about literature should be worrying about the matter of quality versus mediocrity. The fact that many bad European novelists can’t get translated into English isn’t as dire to me as the fact that an American novelist can’t get published in his own country; those Americans who complain about the lack of translations, where were your concerns for literature when Sergio de la Pava had to self-publish A Naked Singularity? What are you doing to bring Theroux back into print? Why are you so obsessed with discovering European literature, when you don’t even know yours?
And it’s not just substandard European literature making it to the USA; it’s also the best American literature failing to cross its borders. From my position in Portugal, I observe and deplore the way American novelists are treated. I endure the ignorance of people who generalize about American literature as one that is not serious, demanding or innovative, who think that it is merely entertaining and composed of best-sellers about vampires and symbologists. The truth is, most great American novelists are practically unknown outside America. I live in a country where a nobody like book reviewer James Wood has two translations, but no one’s ever read William H Gass’ masterful, thought-provoking essays; Lydia Davis, the lady of the one-sentence short-stories, becomes instantly famous because of the Man Booker International, but no one has heard of Guy Davenport, who writes something more complex than disposable one-sentence short-stories. Jonathan Franzen and Paul Auster are the faces of contemporary American fiction, their works are urgently translated within months or a year of their publication, but John Barth and William T Vollmann had to wait until 2014 for their first translations. And then there’s the impact the American book reviewers have on what European fiction is translated here. Elena Ferrante, a boring chronicler of contemporary Italian using forgettable raymond-carveresque prose, showed up here around 2001, was duly ignored and vanished quickly; that’s the logical way to treat writers who don’t add anything to literature. But in 2014 she returned, this time people took notice, praise was universal. What alchemic process turned her into a “genius,” like a reviewer here called her? What happened in those 15 years? Well, it happened that James Wood wrote a glowing review about her; and since we all know Wood is the “greatest living critic of his generation,” no one dared question his judgments. It shocks and worries me to see his name mentioned in a Portuguese review of an Italian novelist, clearly as an appeal to authority; just in case the Portuguese reviewer’s word isn’t good enough for the reader, just in case the reader has doubts, just in case he hesitates, here’s the foreign, American authority to reassure him that it’s alright, nay, crucial, to believe in Ferrante’s genius. This example of lack of self-esteem in reviewers who don’t believe their own tastes is as disgusting to me as seeing a collection of Saul Bellow’s short-stories promoted with Wood’s name on the cover; it’s reached a point where Portuguese publishers perceive Wood as important and powerful enough to sell, by his name alone, a book to readers. I find this worrying, it smacks of insecurity, submission, inability to judge for one’s self, lack of confidence in one’s own tastes and experiences, and the fear of articulating one’s own words. Editors stop taking chances on obscure, unknown writers, stop believing their instincts, they let others decide for them, and throughout the world everything is translated at the same time, choices become uniform, strangling diversity, novelty and surprise. Today America is so powerful it can not just export/impose its worst writers, it can even export/impose other nations’ A text in the right New York newspapers will elevate anybody to the status of master.
A novelist from the worst Europe has to offer is the Hungarian Péter Nádas. He’s been hailed as a new Proust too; this is a cliché of reviewing by now; everyone’s likened to Proust. In recent years I’ve seen Orhan Pamuk, and Modiano compared to Proust. They’re all the new Proust, but not as much and not as often as Knausgård is the new Proust; Knausgård is the new Proust in lots of reviews, it’s almost impossible to read one without finding that comparison; Modiano is, at best, the new Proust three eights of the time periodicals afford him. One of course wonders if Proust would be considered a new Proust if he were published nowadays; most likely, like Theroux, he couldn’t even get published. You see, the things that make Proust Proust are the things that make him unmarketable these days – long-winded sentences, long digressions, attention to the beautiful sentence, the Flaubertian belief that the most ordinary thing can always be described in a new, riveting way, the sacredness of revision, the goal of perfection – and also the reasons why Theroux had to fight off dumb editors who wanted to tamper with his last novel, which prompted him to work with Fantagraphics, the only publisher "willing to publish the full manuscript without carping or cosy abridgements." Proust took decades to polish his masterpiece; Knausgård who a tacky 3,000-page novel in a rush, in a few years. Who genuinely gives a fuck about Proust and his legacy?
But I was talking about Nádas; the bletcherous novel the New York newspapers are trying to convince me that is a masterpiece is a beast called Parallel Stories. It’s long, over 1,000 pages. Part of its status comes from this: its size imposes respect; long novels just demand acquiescence and reverence. It’s a historical novel about Hungary from the 1930s to the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s about several families and personal relationships, and there are tangential bits and bobs about concentration camps, Nazism and Communism. It’s one of those novels about lots of characters coming and going, meeting and falling apart, human stories with social problem in the background. Basically it’s a traditional 19th century novel. The novelist tries to pretend it’s not by doing all those things dear to modern novelists, like getting rid of punctuation marks and quotation marks; you know, little cosmetic tics just so you know you’re in the presence of an iconoclast who’s not going to write the traditional novel.
He’s also modern in that dunce-brained sense of hating plot and narrative: stories jump back and forth, and reviewers have noticed that attempts to piece everything together is nearly impossible. I tried, and failed, so I agree. But then again, I didn’t venture much beyond page 300. On page 68 I wrote this marginalia: “I give up giving a fuck.” This resentful, spiteful text is what happens when someone continues to read for more 230 pages after giving up giving a fuck. However while I read I failed to find anything Proustian; I guess the comparison, as so often is the case, stems from the lazy observation that both wrote “long books.” Reviewers cling to the superficial elements and ignore the style that makes Proust a wordsmith of the highest calibre and Nádas a mere journalist. As it happened with Knausgård, reviewers are honest enough to admit that the novel suffers from verbal ineptitude, but they brush it aside in the name of, I don’t know, themes (War! Soviet Union! Oppression! Ruminations about the Body!) and a sense of gravitas (holding that book makes you feel its physical weight, which gets confused with its depth). So we have Adam Kirsch telling us that literature isn’t about words, really, that’s just a mix-up, literature is what you get in spite of words:
But when a novel has little stylistic allure, and little narrative momentum, and no sense of humor, and deals with the history of an unfamiliar country, and is more than 1,100 pages long, its virtues will become irrelevant to many readers.
He actually declares novels contain many more virtues beyond stylistic allure, narrative momentum, and humor. Kirsch belongs to that school of thought that believes that so long as novels teach us something about history and philosophy, or the human condition, or about the times we live in, or fulfil the great duty of making us feel more human (that’s always popular with readers, isn’t it?), then those virtues annul the fact that they’re poorly written. That’s nice, but do you know when I feel human the most? When I’m reading kick-ass prose! And let’s not forgot another problem: the perception of Europeans as more profound and serious writers. Parallel Stories, many will point out with awe, is a novel by a man who lived during the Soviet Union, I mean does that not carry solemnity? Can such a novel not be anything other than dignified? Which American novelist can boast of political repression? Who can show the wounds, physical and emotional, of political turmoil? Norman Mailer getting arrested during a protest and spending a night in jail with Noam Chomsky pales when compared with secret police and gulags. European novelists, it must be said, should thank Franco, Salazar, Hitler and Stalin and the dictators of the 20th century, and Nazism and the Soviets, and the Holocaust, and STASI, and civil wars and colonial wars. Were it not for them, half their reputation as novelists would be gone immediately. Because if they didn’t have the horrors of history from which to extract readymade novels, obese with profundities that impress gullible people, they’d have to be judged on their skills with words, and then they’d truly fucked.
Kirsch may not think that the absence of “stylistic allure” should harm the virtues of Parallel Stories, but it’s what I noticed above all.
Drollic characters amble through the novel, unable to muster interesting thoughts or perform memorable actions. Plot does not exist. And yet the novel opens with a strong beginning, one that tricks the reader. A young student, Döhring, finds a body in a German park. Policemen arrive, including Dr. Kienast, who behaves like a Leonardo Sciascia inspector. He shows a bizarre sense of humour while interviewing the witness: “In fact, the amused detective was merely recalling what he had read in some silly magazine, sitting in the dentist’s waiting room a few days earlier, namely that in Germany every year about seventeen thousand students enrol for studies in philosophy and twenty-two thousand in psychology. This would mean that during a whole generation more than a million people would be busy with the mechanics of the spirit and the soul, a big number indeed, though the number of people dealing in commerce, finance and military matters is several times larger.” He has some unusual traits: “The body had at least another half hour before cooling off completely; its scent would live that long. Dr. Kienast felt a strong urge to sniff the entire body as a police dog would. Although he did not dare do it, in his professional eagerness he could not fend off the attraction of the dead body. He sniffed the air, he sensed the bitter smell of stale tobacco piercing the affected fragrance of the body. As if he wary of such a perfume. In fact, he was amused by his temporary cowardice.” Ah, sniffing corpses? Now that’s creepy, that’s a character to follow. “He was considered weird, a person who had to be allowed to have his way and be told to stop only if he was about to mix one up in some dark or unclean business.” But unfortunately he’s stopped by the novelist and the only dark or unclean business is the one pertaining to all the body odour and faecal matter that runs throughout the novel, as if the action took place in the Augean stables. You see, this sniffing business isn’t a particular trait, it’s endemic to the novel: Before the first chapter ends we realize smell is the main sense characters use in the novel. Kienast’s married to a woman described as “an evaluator of fragrances.” In no time Nádas is spending more pages describing shit and piss and their interaction with characters than anything else:
“He licked the taste of his prick from his palm and wasn’t bothered by the strong smell of his ass either. But he wouldn’t dare reach into his hole yet. He was always a bit afraid of reaching into soft shit, but his rectum seldom remained unclean. It had grown light enough by the fire for him to see himself grow darkly erect against the flames, his purple bud open and then close under the folds of skin; but it wasn’t so light that he would have to be ashamed ... If it got dry, he made it more slippery with his spittle, but the excitement had already squeezed out the fore liquid, the liquidum seminale, also known as seminal fluid, through the wide-mouthed urethra, which made it slippery and increased his pleasure.”
“Putrefying urine, the translucent drops of semen that bubbled forth at the most innocent sensual excitement, the dried remains of the previous night’s ejaculation and the excretions of his penis, now swelling, now shrinking under the uncircumcised foreskin, were the ingredients that produced this lasting, penetrating odor. He kept sniffing it, drew it across his lips.”
People fart, piss, shit, bleed, sneeze, orgasm, leak milk from their breasts. But the smell dominates. Open any page at random and you’ll find them, the oozing body, the stench, the shit, busy nostrils at work:
130: “Familiar smells were mixing in the thick steam.”
137: “He did not understand why he smelled the smell of shit so strongly, and then who was the one who smelled it.”
145: “The scent was almost too sweet, yet overall it was rather dry and acrid.”
181: “Not to smell the shit anymore.”
206: “On his fingers, he had to preserve the secretions and exudations of his body.”
263: “The darkness no longer smelled of sausages in stewed onion and tomatoes, that was certain.”
737: “She asked if the others were aware of the smells, because she was, even as she spoke.”
It’s like reading Patrick Susskind’s The Perfume, except he had minimum skills as a storyteller. These characters are so sensitive to the smell of shit you’d think Nádas created metapneustic organisms.
And the experiment yields the same results with cocks; at any given page I can read about someone touching his penis or testicles. “He hadn’t yet touched his testicles,” we’re told about someone in page 214. But give him time, sooner or later he will, Nádas’ characters can’t keep their hands off them. Somewhere else:
“He could be satisfied with his cock.
His cock had a nice curve. There were women whose clitorises were located unusually high; his wife was one of them.
He didn’t mind; at least he could feel each time that he could satisfy even those women.
That’s how they lived with each other.”
Turn to page 414 and it’s there, the almighty cock: “At the mere thought, at the mere fancy of the possibility of such proximity, my cock filled my hand and began to grow stiff.” On 638: “I shit on the listless cocks of all those jokers.” And pussies; I could make a list of pussy references the size of a porn star’s cock. There’s more cock and pussy in this novel than in the entire oeuvre of Philip Roth. That’s not a compliment. If only it had the dialogues, vivid characters and comic situations he comes up with.
You know, if this were a Stephen King novel (and as far as I’m concerned, it is) and every character suffered from bromidrosiphobia, we’d mock him for writing samey characters without individuality, wouldn’t we? We’d have a good laugh at the old hack for writing one-dimensional characters who share the same traits, isn’t that right? We’d talk about the excess, the lack of subtlety in how he explores the relationship between ourselves and our bodies, isn’t that true? But thanks to the double standards of official book reviewing, in Nádas’ amazing novel it’s alright for every character to be exactly the same concerning olfactory obsessions: “Kovach exuded rough goodness, and somehow it was also his nature greedily to collect all bodily pleasures, to hoard them senselessly, as if one could store enough warmth of female and male bodies or scents of male and female pubic hair and stockpile them for leaner times.” They can all have the same traits, be tiresomely identical, without distinguishing features, and we’ll call it the great literature!
If this novel shows anything is that hygiene standards before the fall of the Berlin Wall were pretty low in the oppressed peoples of the East. Or maybe the BO serves as a symbol of moral rot, like the flies in Sartre’s play. You can believe anything you want when you wander into the woods of wondering, eventually you always find the witch you were looking for. But I do wonder if in a novel about shit, the act of writing shitty prose is not in itself a way of fusing theme, content and style. It may just be I’m seeing this the wrong way. In any event, the prose is quite atrocious:
“A young man who ran in the park every dawn had discovered the body. He was the only one the investigators could question. It had been completely dark when he set out, and he ran almost every day on the same path at the same time.
Had it not been so, had not everything been routine and habit, had not every stone and shadow been engraved in his mind’s eye, he most probably would hot have discovered the body. The light of distant streetlamp barely reached this far. The reason he noticed the body, lying on and half dangling off a bench, was, he explained excitedly to the policemen, because on the dark coat the snow had not melted at all. And as he was running at a steady space, he related a bit too loudly, the whiteness flashed into his eyes from the side.”
This is newspaper prose. You could find this in a crime report. And although it is a scene depicting a crime, it doesn’t explain why the rest of the novel seems written for readers with the reading comprehension level of a British tabloid. Other parts, though, sound like the weather report: “The rain threatened to fall on that early cold spring morning but did not, as for days it had not, and the weather remained as it had been all along.”
Another annoyance is the pervasive short paragraph:
“Ultimately it was the sight of his body that restored her calm.
She stopped fuming.
As if she knew what had happened and as if she were reinforcing her realization with a clumsy nodding approval.
The maid replaced the receiver and remained where she stood, facing the wall. She had to turn away, not to see anyone, for at least a second.”
“The next morning, the priest climbed the tower too.
Who knew what might be happening there.
He wanted to see what was causing the threatening silence.”
Why paragraph breaks here? Is the reader too dumb to follow Nádas for more than 4 words? He needs a breather between them? Why not just write: “The next morning, the priest climbed the tower too. Who knew what might be happening there. He wanted to see what was causing the threatening silence.” What’s the difference? What’s this mania with short sentences? Is he afraid his readers will get lost in his complex web of language? Reading this novel is like being talked down to by a mongoloid. Every page, every time I have to endure another of his tiny, microscopic sentences, I hear Nádas whispering, “Oh, reader, you’re such a moron I have to take it slow with you; I have to explain all of this very clearly because my novel is such a staggering work of complexity, you’d get lost without my assistance.” Fuck him! Give me Torrente Ballester’s 50-page paragraphs instead!
Then there’s the description of things. This is where the Proust comparisons really gave me a chuckle. What to say of sentences like:
“The sirens of receding ambulances slowly dissolved in the wind.”
“She stood in the doorway of the sitting room, a little wet, the fluffy pink terry-cloth bathrobe barely gathered around her ample body, in her high-heel slippers, her bleached, tousled hair still dripping.”
“André Rott’s pitch-black wet hair fell on his forehead, he knitted his thick eyebrows almost distrustfully, and his dark eyes, adorned with lively long and curvy eyelashes.”
“His forehead was bony, lumpy, and convex, his nose thin, hooked, with a very prominent ridge.”
This is Raymond Carver, this is point and describe what you’re seeing in the most mundane and direct way possible. This is literature exiled from aesthetics. Nádas may as well have told me to go stare in a mirror, because he sure as fuck isn’t showing me anything I haven’t seen before.
It’s impossible to read a single page without a cluster of clichés, stock phrases, and commonplaces infecting everything. About a character, Nádas lets us know that “his body was thin as a blade.” A character has “unruly hair” and a “gleaming white forehead.” People wipe “pearls of perspiration” from their foreheads. A “soul shudders” inside somebody. I didn’t notice any “soul shivering,” but it’s probably between pages 700 and 1000. There’s somebody about whom “All artificial materials made him sweat like a pig.” Has anyone actually ever seen a pig sweat? A woman feels stuff, emotions perhaps, in the “depth of her soul.” Characters suffer “pangs of conscience,” no doubt from being characters belonging to writers who burden them with stock phrases like “pangs of conscience.”
And the stale metaphors and similes pour on: we learn somewhere that “outside the wind roared,” because what else does the wind do in novels but roar?
Something happens to somebody “And then he bellowed so loudly that the woman’s enormous body trembled like a leaf.” How else could she tremble? This is a novel where things are “seared into one’s brains,” although expressions like “seared into one’s brains” are the lazy type that sear into my mind as fleetingly as a culacino on a counter.
Should I bring out more?
“The realization struck her like lightning.” Has a realization ever struck a character as other than a fucking lightning? Are they paying royalties to Zeus?
“Pain assailed her in merciless waves.” Ah, the famous waves of pain, so great, so gigantic, so overwhelming they jump from novel to novel, no one escapes their grip, like a tsunami.
“She started out on the wet street in the hazy December cold.” A good thing to know that streets in Hungary are as cold and hazy in December as in the rest of Europe during that month.
“The fire had long yellow tongues.” My God, how extraordinary! The fire described as having long and yellow tongues! I never saw that one before. Even though anyone who’s ever seen a fire the first thing he thinks is that it looks like long yellow tongues, no one ever dared describe the fire as long, linguiform and yellow. Nope, Nádas had to remind us that the fire is long and yellow and linguiform. We readers who venture into Nádas’ verbal skill will sure get our money’s worth on ostranenie, won’t we? Yes, sir, I will never look at fire again without thinking of this highly original way of describing fire. It’s like I’m looking at fire for the first time, a veil removed, nay, burned, a veil burned by a long, yellow-coloured, linguiform fire.
And the sky? Did I mention the sky yet? “They all walked together for a while under the pitch-dark sky, which was occasionally rattled by the din of distant battle.” It’s a good thing it’s a pitch-dark sky; imagine that, saying that the night has the colour of pitch.
“Above the floating heads, the sky was a saturated blue.” Fuck me, a saturated blue! A saturated blue! The sky, a saturated blue! Where does this man come up with these gems? What Arabian Night treasure-filled caves did he pillage for these unique marvels? Fancy that, a sky saturated blue.
More stock images: “The enormous, muddy river with its deep current, this is the familiar river, but familiar from where.” I think sometimes this is a metafictional novel where Nádas is taking the piss with all those clichés. The one about the familiar river, that has to be on purpose! It’s like he’s saying, “I’m going to feed you the most garden-variety sentences I can come up with, and you’re still going to call that shit great literature! Fuck you, assholes!” He knows, the smug son of a bitch knows that people are going to read the New York newspaper reviews and are going to curb their memories of thousands of past novels describing rivers in colorless, flat, anodyne ways with predictable adjectives.
And when he attempts lyricism, oh God. Somewhere he talks about somebody’s “ache of the soul.” It’s telling that he doesn’t specify which disease. António Lobo Antunes in a novel mentions a “colitis of the soul.” Precision, rigour, sharp imagery, those are the virtues of Lobo Antunes, none of Nádas shit-coloured fuzziness.
“Ever since then, she had had to find a roof for every single night. This was not a figure of speech.” Well, no, it’s not, it’s just another stock phrase, a commonplace, a cliché. Although I guess we could consider it a metonymy wherein roof stands for house or home. But of course it’s not a figure of speech; Nádas would have to be acquainted with them. This guy wouldn’t know a figure of speech if Cicero came back from the dead to teach him rhetoric.
More problems abound, but it’s time to wrap up, so I’ll just add some minor examples: the annoying habit of saying one thing without showing it. We’re told that “André had a penchant for biting sarcasm that he found difficult to restrain when it came to Ágost.” Apparently he restrained it quite well because I didn’t notice it up to that point. Perhaps he displays his sarcasm around page 980 or so, I don’t know.
Then there’s the clumsy pairing of words: “They completed simultaneously the two entangled sentences whose meaning they couldn’t really comprehend in the chaotic cacophony.” OK, “chaotic cacophony.” Now, what is wrong in this? Well, think of this, dear reader: does “harmonious cacophony” make sense to you? What the fuck is a cacophony if not chaotic? If it weren’t chaotic, it wouldn’t be cacophonic, it’d be euphonic. Sloppy writing, there’s no other word for it. And we’re still just on page 194.
“I was wading into the deserted jungle of the city, and there was no way back.” How is a jungle deserted? Aren’t jungles teeming with activity and life? Isn’t that why we have expressions like “city jungle,” and “concrete jungle,” because the way we all live together, clogged, fighting for resources, resembles the way species survive in jungles?
And I can’t help pointing out the constant repetitions: “He placed it in his lap, possibly so that at the same time he could squeeze his testicles stuck between his thighs. And since his weenie was already between his thighs, it grew painfully hard.” Look, why not just write: “He placed it in his lap, possibly so that at the same time he could squeeze his testicles stuck between his thighs. And since his weenie was already between them, it grew painfully hard?” I don’t know where the 18 years went to, but they sure weren’t employed removing redundancies. Writing a 1000 page like this is easy, when you’re so careless you repeat yourself three times per page.
Allegedly this novel took 18 years to write. That’s a lie, a fabrication, some marketing hustle. This novel did not take 18 years to write! If Nádas spent the editor’s advanced money on hookers and a Lamborghini, and then had to rush it, I understand. But don’t insult me by saying he took 18 years of his life to write this! Don’t fucking lie! Don’t fucking tell me this novel took more time to write than Ulysses, Fado Alexandrino, Ada or Ardor, Madame Bovary, War and Peace, The Maias or A Frolic of his Own. At best this novel took one year for research and perhaps 18 months for writing. Surely there was a typo: they meant months instead of years.
I have the suspicion Nádas had more ambition than talent; he wanted a sprawling novel about European history, with all of it: the death camps, the Holocaust, the Nazis, the Soviets, but he didn’t have any craft to shape it into actual literature that transmits any sense of aesthetics. This is a facsimile of literature. It’s like he managed to write a novel, not with language, but in spite of it. This novel isn’t really about European history, it’s about the triumph of Raymond Carver’s style. “It’s a lot of hooey, the whole text, every bit of it, said the man standing stark naked in the door of his cabin.” A lapsus linguae? “Boredom is what’s killing us,” another character complains. I’ll maintain that Nádas is writing a metafictional joke to make fun of people who consider this great literature. This novel is shit. The people who mock Paulo Coelho praise this; the same who’ll use Coelho’s awful prose against him, pretend not to see it in the pages of Nádas. Many of the people praising this ugly novel are obviously suffering from kalopsia. If the adulation this mediocrity has received indicates something, is that there’s been a tremendous loss of sense of beauty, nobody knows what an exquisite literary text is anymore.