Staff Picks: Feckless Frenchmen, Old Philip Roth


This Week’s Reading

The hero of Emmanuel Bove’s My Friends, a wounded WWI pensioner with no friends, is possibly the most pathetic character in French literature. I invite corrections—there are so many feckless Frenchmen!—but first, consider this Seine-side gambit for drawing the attention of strangers: “As soon as a passer-by approached I hid my face in my hands and sniffed like someone who has been crying. People turned as they went past me. Last week I came within a hair’s breadth of throwing myself into the water in order to make it appear I was in earnest.” He never takes the leap, but the ending will wring your heart. —Robyn Creswell

J. M. Coetzee writes an elegant review of Philip Roth’s latest (what is it—twenty-sixth?) novel, Nemesis. I like that one heavyweight can address another in the literary ring. Writes Coetzee, “If the intensity of the Roth of old, the ‘major Roth,’ has died down, has anything new come in its place?” But before you click, a warning to all: Coetzee completely spoils the novel. —Thessaly La Force

A Google research paper examining how well computers translate poetry is less interesting for its findings—not all that well, just yet—than for its suggestion that our evolving Turing-test standards may be too high for most humans to reach, either. —David Wallace-Wells

The NYRB reprint of Frans G. Bengtsson’s The Long Ships is an unrepentantly guilty pleasure that, in its own way, reads like a Viking version of Hustle and Flow (Michael Chabon praised its virtues earlier on this blog). Part of Bengtsson’s charm is the characteristically black Scandinavian humor that seduces you into thinking that maybe the Middle Ages just got a bad rap. Witness the treatment given to unfortunate missionaries:

Such priests as did venture into those parts were sold over the border as in the old days; though some of the Göings were of the opinion that it would be better to kill them on the spot and start a good war against the skinflints of Sunnerbo and Albo, for the Smalanders gave such poor prices for priests nowadays …

And then there’s the wonderful account of the trials and tribulations of a young raider on the scene, Red Orm, just trying to make a name for himself in a world of sacking and pillaging where problems never end: “The Vikings ransacked the fortress for booty, and disputes broke out concerning the women whom they discovered … for they had been without women for many weeks.” After all, it’s hard out here for a thane. —Peter Conroy