The wonderful weirdness of José Eduardo Agualusa’s A General Theory of Oblivion



This is one weird book — but in a good way. In fact, in a wonderful way. The author, José Eduardo Agualusa, a much-praised Angolan writer, has published 24 books of short and long fiction and poetry, including one young adult novel. Five of these books have been translated into English by Daniel Hahn. Agualusa has won several heavyweight grants and two significant awards, the RTP Great Literary Prize in 1997 and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2007. He is the first African writer to receive the latter award since it began in 1990. From his website I learned that his books have been translated into more than 25 languages. I might mention that his website is in English, Portuguese, French, and German.

Angola was for some time under Portuguese rule. The narrative here is primarily of a woman named Ludovica Fernandes Mano, known as Ludo, who lived with her sister and brother-in-law until they moved away. She no longer hears from them. Always cautious and somewhat reclusive, Ludo decides, the day before Angola achieves independence, to build a brick wall that will separate her apartment from others: no one will even know she is there. At first, we might think that she is agoraphobic but near the end of the book we will learn there is another reason for her fears. Well, really we learn this earlier but the reader doesn’t know what to make of it. In other words, we are prepared for everything and still surprised, and that is a masterful trick. (One chapter is titled “The Subtle Architecture of Chance,” which could serve as a description of or guideline to Agualusa’s method of construction.) Independence is followed by Civil War, which lasts for 27 years. She lives in the apartment for 30 years, alone, sometimes catching a pigeon for dinner and constantly writing her story on the walls that surround her, and in notebooks. To keep warm, she burns everything in the apartment, including “thousands of books.” At one point she tells us “I realize I have transformed the entire apartment into a huge book. After burning the library, after I have died, all that remains will be my voice. In this house all the walls have my mouth.” She has a dog named Phantom. She tells us that she does not believe in either God or man. She does believe in Phantom (and that is a faith that makes sense to me). A seven-year-old thief named Sabalu turns up in her apartment and he is smart enough to understand that he needs a grandmother more than the bully who sends him out to steal. He and Ludo become great friends.
More… ““In this house all the walls have my mouth””

Links from The Smart Set and beyond



The world’s most famous consulting detective seems to be on everyone’s minds of late. Benedict Cumberbatch, Robert Downey, Jr., Ian McKellan, and Jonny Lee Miller have all taken on the role of Sherlock Holmes in the last five years, and audiences keep coming. Read Paula Marantz Cohen on the character’s sustained appeal and Fred J. Abbate on how the most devoted fans are trying to learn to think like Sherlock. (philly.comThe Smart Set)

For many bookish library-dwellers, the pages of a book are sacred and the margins are a no trespassing zone. For others, doodling, scratching, and commenting — the art of marginalia — are an indispensable part of understanding a text. Read Dustin Illingworth on the intimacy and beauty of parallel text and Mike Miley on stepping into the mind of David Foster Wallace. (The MillionsThe Smart Set)

What one chooses to read speaks volumes about the reader. Books are often a political or ideological statement. Choose wisely. Read Rebecca Solnit on Esquire’s “Books Every Man Should Read” — and which ones women shouldn’t and Jessa Crispin on why nothing is a “must-read”. (Literary HubThe Smart Set) •

Historian Mary Beard on her new book, old cultures, and whether we are doing as the Romans do


Left: cover of SPQR. Right: Mary Beard
Mary Beard is a classics professor at University of Cambridge. Her books have covered everything from ancient art to Roman laughter. Her honors include a National Book Critics Circle Award. She is a public intellectual in the old-school sense of narrating BBC specials, as well as adding a contemporary twist with an active Twitter account and a blog. Her most recent book SPQR: A history of Ancient Rome was published earlier this year. The Smart Set editor Richard Abowitz reached Beard for this interview by phone in her hotel room in Philadelphia, where she was scheduled to make an appearance at the Free Library of Philadelphia later in the evening. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

TSS: Let me start by asking about one of the many Roman oddities: for people that were so concerned with their genealogy — so obsessed, as you point out, that they would put great effort to fabricate it back to the founders of Rome and mythic kings — they seemed remarkably willing to accept outsiders as Romans and as emperors and as consuls.
More… “When In Rome”

Embracing aging through paint and rust in Valparaiso, Chile



We had climbed halfway up the staircase of a Valparaiso sidewalk when Salvador Dalí appeared. He was stenciled to the landing above, waiting for us with his perked up handlebar mustache. For a closer look, my fiancée Melanie and I stepped around another stray dog, his long body blocking almost the whole width of the concrete step — Valparaiso’s take on multi-use public space.

Morning had barely arrived and cargo ships at the port, in the distance below, had probably unloaded enough plastic silverware to outfit Chile’s entire fast food industry. Meanwhile, the hung-over hills overlooking the port still slept, still hugged a blanket of overcast gauze. I wondered how many cans of Escudo beer the town had put back last night. And how many new stencils had been tattooed to its buildings?
More… “What the Walls Taught Me”

William Carter is reworking the most famous translation of À la recherche du temps perdu. But will it really make Proust more accessible?



William Carter, in the first volume of his epic ongoing Proust edition for Yale University Press, characterizes Proust’s seven-volume series À la recherche du temps perdu as “considered by many to be the greatest novel of the 20th century and perhaps of all time.” The series — Du cote de chez Swanni (Swann’s Way), A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower), Le Cote de Guermantes (The Guermantes Way), Sodome et Gomorrhe (Sodom and Gomorrah), La Prisoniere (The Captive), Albertine dispartue (The Fugitive), Le Temps retrouve (Time Regained) — was written by Proust between 1913 and 1927 and has been confounding, transporting, and flattening readers ever since.

But it’s not actually À la recherche du temps perdu that sits at the heart of Carter’s work (two volumes of which have appeared so far, Swann’s Way and In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower); he’s not, as you might think at first, offering a new translation of Proust’s books. Instead, Carter has embarked on a thorough revision and annotation of an English-language translation. The translation in question is of course the one done by Scottish author and translator C.K. Scott Moncrieff between 1922 and his death in 1930.
More… “Moncrieff Relief”

Links from The Paris Review, Design Observer, and the New York Review of Books



Happy Friday the 13th to all the friggatriskaidekaphiles out there! Those who flout the superstition around this day would fit in well among the members (13, of course) of the Thirteen Club, who celebrated occasions such as these by walking under ladders, spilling salt, eating morbid food, and actively trying to beget terrible luck whenever possible. (The Paris Review)

On the other hand, if you have friggatriskaidekaphobia, maybe the stress of today’s date is making you grind your teeth. Quite biting your nails and check out the bizarre history of the mouth guard. (Design Observer)

Franzen-hating Friday, anyone? Tim Parks doesn’t need you to like what he’s reading, but he implores the adoring fans of Rushdie, Murakami, Ferrante, and other purveyors of the contemporary literary novel (and its kin) to cease the madness. (The New York Review of Books) •

Three cheers for predestination in Marilynne Robinson's The Givenness of Things



When I was a child I read poorly written Sunday-school books. They happened to be Catholic books because I read them in a Catholic Sunday school. My mother was a Congregationalist and she would have preferred I be reared to that austere faith, but she lacked the strength to battle the passionate alcoholics and living martyrs of my father’s side — Catholics to a man jack.

It was bad news for me but even worse for the nuns. There was hardly a moment when I wasn’t in their face, loaded with questions they weren’t answering: Why do humans have immortal souls and not animals? Why would God create people with free will if he knew ahead of time some of them would damn themselves to eternal agony? Was this some kind of self-loathing he was working out symbolically through us?

These were small-town nuns, not scholars, and so they brushed off all of my questions with, “It’s a holy mystery.”
More… “The Novelist as Anglerfish”

Can we really learn to think like Sherlock?



At the Museum of London earlier this year was an exhibit titled “The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die.” As a long-time Sherlock Holmes enthusiast as well as a practicing philosopher, I know this to be true. Since his first appearance in 1887, the great detective has been memorialized by over a hundred actors in dozens of plays, films, radio, and television adaptations, as well as in countless works of fiction. In the last few years alone, Holmes’s immortality has been demonstrated in original television series like Sherlock and Elementary and in highly imaginative movies like the blockbuster action series Sherlock Holmes, starring Robert Downey, Jr., and the poignant elegiac Mr. Holmes, starring Ian McKellen.

What lies behind our enduring fascination with this character and this surge of current interest in particular?

Holmes offers Watson a number of rules for what directs his work as a detective. I have extracted these rules from his stories and novels as follows:
More… “The Many Minds of Sherlock Holmes”

Richard Rorty, liberalism, and radicalism


Mycroft Holmes: model radical?

In politics, at different times in my life, I have been on the center-right and the center-left and the center. But in spite of having co-authored a book entitled “The Radical Center: The Future of American Politics,” I have never really been a radical of any kind. I understood why recently when I read, for the first time, one of the late philosopher Richard Rorty’s most celebrated essays, “Campaigns and Movements,” published in Dissent in the Winter of 1995.

Rorty began by poking fun at the belief of the editors and writers of Partisan Review in the middle of the twentieth century that it was very important to support both democratic socialism and avant-garde modernism in the arts, which were both linked in some obscure way to “the crisis of modern society.”
More… “Why I Am Not A Radical”

On Inconvenient birthright, native tongues, and last breaths


Giving life to today's news

What do you do when a bizarre combination of birthright and computer convention means that much of the digitized world doesn’t believe in your existence? (Wired)

You can’t choose your death like an item off the lunch menu. But what if you could? Do you know what you would order? (Wilson Quarterly)

Imagine the dialogue of your first memory. Even if you don’t know what exactly was said, chances are you have a strong connection to the language that was spoken. The impression made on you by the words, the accent, and the timbre of the language is one that will likely never go away. (Nautilus) •