• Monthly
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $other
  • use PayPal

ONE WEEK TO DOUBLE YOUR DONATION!

A generous CounterPuncher has offered a $25,000 matching grant. So for this week only, whatever you can donate will be doubled up to $25,000! If you have the means, please donate! If you already have done so, thank you for your support. All contributions are tax-deductible.
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Imaginary Encounters

Have you ever heard of Nella Larsen?  She was an important novelist (1891-1964) of the Harlem Renaissance, who died in obscurity in New York City. I mentioned her most recently a few weeks ago in a review of Edward White’s The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America.  Van Vechten was instrumental in getting Larsen’s novels published by Alfred Knopf.  So imagine my surprise as I’m reading a new novel by Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli and Nella Larsen appears—not as an historical marker, but as a character.  Moreover, because of Luiselli’s daring use of time (in this truly crazy novel), Larsen is there as a contemporary character, i.e., living in New York City today.  The SAME Nella Larsen who was important during the Harlem Renaissance, not her daughter (she had no children) or someone else with that name.

In truth, it is not always clear if the scenes involving Larsen (and others) are set in the present time or in the past, so let me explain.  The narrator of Faces in the Crowd is a young Mexican woman, a poet, living in Brooklyn with her husband and two children.  She works for a small publishing house that brings out English translations of Spanish writers.  It’s her duty as an editor to identify works in Spanish and recommend them to the publisher for translation and publication.  She is unnamed, but most of the narration in this short novel is through her perspective.  She’s obviously stifled in her own writing (and, hence, begun writing the novel we are reading) and clearly frustrated by her current duties as mother and translator/editor.  Her husband is an architect, completing the blueprints for a rather extensive house that will be built in Philadelphia.  That’s the framework for what occurs in this dazzling narrative.

Things are complicated right from the beginning.  Barely a few pages into the narrative, she writes, “Novels need a sustained breath.  That’s what novelists want.  No one knows exactly what it means but they all say: sustained breath.  I have a baby and a boy.  They don’t let me breathe.  Everything I write is—has to be—in short bursts.  I’m short of breath.” There are no chapters in the narration, simply short passages, mostly less than a page, jumping through time: the past, the present and the future.  In her current work she comes across a slim volume of poems by Gilberto Owen, a Mexican poet/diplomat who died in Philadelphia in 1952.  Her proposal that his poems be translated and published is approved by the publisher of the press where she works, after numerous other projects are turned down.

Husband, boy, and baby are never given names, though on one occasion the husband is referred to also as “Gilberto.”  When she mentions her family, it is almost always the demands they put on her work.  “I know that when I go into the children’s room, the baby will catch my smell and shiver in her cot, because some secret place in her body is teaching her to demand her part of what belongs to us both, the threads that sustain and separate us.  Then, when I go into my own room, my husband will also demand his portion of me and I will give myself up to the indefinite, sudden, serene pleasure of his touch.” Before she was married, before she had children, she led a rather promiscuous life and those previous lovers also wander in and out of her thoughts.  When her son, is told that he is going to have a baby sister, he replied, “I’d prefer a baby rabbit,” obviously mirroring her own ambivalence.

Everything overlaps.  She believes that she sees Gilberto Owen a number of times in the city. She speculates that he knew Nella Larsen, whom she also observes.  Other writers (Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams) also appear, plus anonymous figures she does not know but who keep reappearing.  Her husband not only reads what she is writing but then begins narrating several of the sections of the book (or is it simply her attempt to record his response to her writing)?  She fakes the translation of a few of Owen’s poems and tells her editor that they were translated by another famous writer.

The passages are brief, clipped, and often quite witty.  Tunneling Owen’s observations she observes of one of her friends, he “would have said that he spoke with spelling mistakes.” From time to time, she relates incidents that appear to have little to do with her own situation:  “A young husband was asking the Newark district court judge to grant him a divorce because his fiancée hadn’t told him until the wedding night that, instead of a right leg, she had a wooden prosthesis.  He had stolen the false leg as evidence for his hearing, and she’d filed suit for robbery.” Shades of Flannery O’Connor?

What does this all add up to?  A woman on the verge of madness, post-partum depression?  A poet suffering from writer’s block?  Time-traveling but also meta-criticism of a poet’s literary mentors/inspirations?  All of the above and more as the essays published in the same volume amplify.  As reader, you finish the novella, flip the book upside down, and then begin reading these essays, called Sidewalks, also about writing and writers but, significantly, about displacement, the peripatetic life of a writer described as an “alien non-resident of New York,” moving from continent to continent, putting down no roots, but always on the verge of moving on again.

Faces in the Crowd and Sidewalks must have been an overwhelming challenge to Christina MacSweeney, the translator, but the result is quite memorable.  What a remarkable new voice.

Valeria Luiselli: Faces in the Crowd and Sidewalks

Trans. by Christina MacSweeney

Coffee House Press, 147 pp and 111 pp.

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.  His books include Invisible Darkness: Jean Toomer & Nella Larsen. Email: clarson@american.edu.

 

More articles by:

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
October 16, 2019
Patrick Cockburn
How Turkey’s Invasion of Syria Backfired on Erdogan
Chitrangada Choudhury – Aniket Aga
How Cotton Became a Headache in the Age of Climate Chaos
Jack Rasmus
US-China Mini-Trade Deal: Trump Takes the Money and Runs
Michael Welton
Communist Dictatorship in Our Midst
Robert Hunziker
Extinction Rebellion Sweeps the World
Peter A. Coclanis
Donald Trump as Artist
Chris Floyd
Byzantium Now: Time-Warping From Justinian to Trump
Steve Klinger
In For a Dime, in For a Dollar
Gary Leupp
The Maria Ramirez Story
Kim C. Domenico
It Serves Us Right To Suffer: Breaking Down Neoliberal Complacency
Kiley Blackman
Wildlife Killing Contests are Unethical
Colin Todhunter
Bayer Shareholders: Put Health and Nature First and Stop Funding This Company!
Andrés Castro
Looking Normal in Kew Gardens
October 15, 2019
Victor Grossman
The Berlin Wall, Thirty Years Later
Raouf Halaby
Kurdish Massacres: One of Britain’s Many Original Sins
Robert Fisk
Trump and Erdogan have Much in Common – and the Kurds will be the Tragic Victims of Their Idiocy
Ron Jacobs
Betrayal in the Levant
Wilma Salgado
Ecuador: Lenin Moreno’s Government Sacrifices the Poor to Satisfy the IMF
Ralph Nader
The Congress Has to Draw the Line
William A. Cohn
The Don Fought the Law…
John W. Whitehead
One Man Against the Monster: John Lennon vs. the Deep State
Lara Merling – Leo Baunach
Sovereign Debt Restructuring: Not Falling Prey to Vultures
Norman Solomon
The More Joe Biden Stumbles, the More Corporate Democrats Freak Out
Jim Britell
The Problem With Partnerships and Roundtables
Howard Lisnoff
More Incitement to Violence by Trump’s Fellow Travelers
Binoy Kampmark
University Woes: the Managerial Class Gets Uppity
Joe Emersberger
Media Smears, Political Persecution Set the Stage for Austerity and the Backlash Against It in Ecuador
Thomas Mountain
Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed Wins Nobel Peace Prize, But It Takes Two to Make Peace
Wim Laven
Citizens Must Remove Trump From Office
October 14, 2019
Ann Robertson - Bill Leumer
Class Struggle is Still the Issue
Mike Miller
Global Climate Strike: From Protest To Power?
Patrick Cockburn
As Turkey Prepares to Slice Through Syria, the US has Cleared a New Breeding Ground for Isis
John Feffer
Trump’s Undeclared State of Emergency
Dean Baker
The Economics and Politics of Financial Transactions Taxes and Wealth Taxes
Jonah Raskin
What Evil Empire?
Nino Pagliccia
The Apotheosis of Emperors
Evaggelos Vallianatos
A Passion for Writing
Basav Sen
The Oil Despots
Brett Wilkins
‘No Friend But the Mountains’: A History of US Betrayal of the Kurds
John Kendall Hawkins
Assange: Enema of the State
Scott Owen
Truth, Justice and Life
Thomas Knapp
“The Grid” is the Problem, Not the Solution
Rob Kall
Republicans Are Going to Remove Trump Soon
Cesar Chelala
Lebanon, Dreamland
Weekend Edition
October 11, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Becky Grant
CounterPunch in Peril?
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail