Short Takes

September 12, 2010

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By Yiyun Li
Random House, 240 pp., $25

These beautiful stories present several generations of Chinese characters living in a culture that has undergone tremendous changes. The several generations can hardly understand each other, all living with very different degrees of belief in the legacies of ancient superstitions, feudal morality, and traditional manners.

In “House Fire,” six women form a detective agency to search out and punish the treachery of men. What they discover is far stranger than the simple betrayal of husband and wife.

“Sweeping Past” tells the tale of three girls who become sworn sisters, only to have their ancient sisterhood take the blame for a family tragedy two generations later. In “Kindness,” a young girl grows old under the protective influences of adoptive parents, a teacher, and an army superior. She refuses to acknowledge or accept what they offer her, leading instead a life of self-denial and privation.

The formal language and measured cadence seem at odds with the twists and turns of the plots. But the language works perfectly with the secret motives and hidden shames that move the stories to their wayward and often weird conclusions.

By Laurence Cossé
Translated, from the French, by Alison Anderson
Europa Editions, 424 pp., $15

Like a good thriller, this novel begins with several titillating acts of violence. Its violence is directed at an unusual target — the members of an elite, secret literary committee. The task of this committee is to select books to be sold at The Good Novel, a Parisian bookstore that stocks only great works of literature, as designated by the members of the committee. (The selection includes the usual Greats: Stendhal, Dostoyevsky, Proust, Conrad, Faulkner, Woolf, but also the less usual, Borges, Kipling, Grace Paley.)

In time, we learn the genesis of the store, become acquainted with its two principals and many supporters, and recognize the direction of its mission. All too soon, we return to the brutal acts of sabotage that imperil the store’s existence. The perpetrators of the attacks — envious authors, unscrupulous publishers, venal prize judges, lazy critics, servile second-raters — are obvious from the get-go. It is the elusive and enlightened enterprise of the bookstore, the romance of its owners for it, for each other, and for great literature that give the novel its power and grace.

By Milan Kundera
Translated, from the French, by Linda Asher
Harper, 192 pp., $23.99

In essays, Kundera rescues, celebrates, and mourns European works of art that have been crucial to his life. Having come from Czechoslovakia and later relocated to France, Kundera is most familiar with and most attached to Eastern European and French artists, many not well known to Americans.

He movingly defends the value of the now underrated and unread authors Anatole France and Curzio Malaparte. He laments the lack of influence on later novelists of Rabelais, “the founding father, the genius of the nonserious in the art of the novel.” He writes with persuasion and precision about Czech composer Leos Janacek and English painter Francis Bacon.

For me the most compelling essays contain bits of opinion or recognition which, while self-evident, had never captured my attention with quite the same force. For example: “I was rereading ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ (Gabriel García Márquez) when a strange idea occurred to me: most protagonists of great novels do not have children.” He lists the childless: Don Quixote, Tom Jones, all of Stendhal’s, Balzac’s, and Dostoyevsky’s heroes. “In the 19th century, it was taken for granted: whatever happened in a novel had to be plausible. In the 20th century, this rule lost its force.”

Barbara Fisher, a freelance writer who lives in New York, can be reached at bfishershorttakes