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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

A glimpse at contemporary European fiction - experiments in form and adherence to tradition

Am reading through or at least around in Best European Fiction 2017(Dalkey Archive Press), and breaking w/ usual practice I have a copy next to so that I can recall the names of some of the authors; book is structured as one short story or novel excerpt per European country/language group (e.g., there Spain Basque and Castillian). I had literally never heard of any of the authors, which says something either about me, about cntemporary European fiction, or about the editors of this collection (the preface is by Eileen Battersby). The first several stories in the collection were not promising; we know that European writers have long been interested in experiments in form and style, heavily influenced by French New Wave cinema and structuralist and post-structuralist (and many other "ists" I think) literary criticism. The first several stories in this collection involve shifts in narrative POV, broken chronology, and various other devices and, you know what?, this is no longer avant garde or cutting edge. Broken narrative is by now a cliche, and an off-putting one at that. Moreover, the first few stories focus on the adolescent angst of writers or hip artists. Ugh - this topic is suddenly coming up all over the place (see 2 most recent NYer stories), and I think it speaks to the proliferation of writing programs - too many people writing too much when they don't have enough experience of the world to write about anything but themselves. One of these stories, though, The Two Writers, by Stephane Lambert, does make a terrific observation that I think makes it worth reading: Lost opportunities in life are the starting places for writers. That's a really smart observation - absolutely true, writers can and do use these missed opportunities to explore through art the lives they could have or almost led. Two more conventional stories in the collection, one by Czech writer Jiri Harjicek, about a soccer coach who faces a crisis when one of his players may have had unprotected sex with a young girl, and Ida Jessen, of Denmark, give hope that the entire volume won't be an experiment in form. Harjisek's story is like a well-made play - very convention, perfect in form, beginning, middle, and end, could have been written, mutatis mutandis, 50 years ago. Jessen's (Postcard to Annie) is especially moving, as a middle-aged woman reflects on a turning point in her life based on one tragic incident that she witnessed in her youth - I wonder if this story of achieved opportunity is her version of working out a missed opportunity from her own life? - and then, in the present, reflecting back on the course of her life; it's a story broad in scope and deep in feeling.

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