Staff Picks: Crusaders, Complaints, Competition


This Week’s Reading

From Bob, Son of Battle: The Last Gray Dog of Kenmuir.


José Maria de Eça de Queirós, where have you been all my life? Dead, obviously—the man died in 1900 at the age of fifty-five—but his novels are acknowledged as classics in his native Portugal, and by well-educated people the world over. As readers of the Daily may remember, I tore through my first Eça book a few months ago. And now Margaret Jull Costa has translated The Illustrious House of Ramires, his last novel, about a provincial aristocrat—a dreamer and amateur historian—who tries to write a novella based on the exploits of his Crusader ancestors. Comedy and mayhem ensue. As in The Crime of Father Amaro, Eça’s tone shifts from light to dark, from tender irony to horror, then back again, in a single page, almost in a sentence, as Ramires—like a fin de siècle, Portuguese Quixote—tries to re-create the chivalry of his forbears. The plot is full of surprises, but even when our hero is just sitting at his desk, dreaming up deeds of valor, Eça takes us inside the fantasy, until we start to wonder whether Ramires has crossed the fine line between idiocy and genius. It’s rare to find such a thrilling portrait of the writer at work. —Lorin Stein

The other day, I picked up Letters to His Neighbor, a collection of Marcel Proust’s notes to Marie Williams, the women who lived above him at 102 Boulevard Haussmann. Translated from the French by Lydia Davis, the letters begin in 1908 and span some eight years of sincere pleasantries (“I think of you all the time”) and gentle complaints (“like all those who are ill I have learned to spend my life surrounded by ugliness”). In true Proustian fashion, the prose is winding, musing on everything from the properties of imagination (“when one is endowed with [it], as you are, one possesses all the landscapes one has loved … ”) to the Great War, which claimed Williams’s brother in 1915. Above all, Proust writes about the noise coming from the Williams’ floor, which disturbs him greatly; he’s always asking “that there not be so much [of it] tomorrow.” You’d think that would limit their correspondence, but Proust is a charmer: he showers Mrs. Williams with small gifts, like flowers and books and pieces of music; it’s no wonder the exchange lasted nearly a decade. —Caitlin Youngquist 

I’ve been reading Alfred Ollivant’s Bob, Son of Battle: The Last Gray Dog of Kenmuir to my son at bedtime. We finished the novel this week, and I choked up big time at the end. Even my son, who suffers from acute logorrhea, was silent for whole minutes at the close of the last chapter. A best seller when it was published in 1898, the novel was recently reissued by New York Review Books. It concerns a pair of shepherds and their sheepdogs in the far north of England who are bitter enemies. One dog, Owd Bob, is the pride of the land, a skilled and perceptive herder and a steadfast friend; his rival, the pugnacious Red Wull, is Bob’s opposite in every way, except in raw talent and in his loyalty to his master, the churlish Adam McAdam. The story’s drama takes form around the annual competition for the Shepherds’ Trophy, for which Bob and Red Wull are rivals, and around the threat of a rogue sheepdog, nicknamed the Black Killer, who commits the greatest sin, sheep murder; punishment is death. Ollivant wrote the book in a dialect of the North Country, using the terminology of shepherds. Lydia Davis, who read the story as a child and loved it, didn’t want Ollivant’s book to be forgotten and so translated it into a more standard English, smoothing out words and expressions—such as gimmeraiblinsnowt, and mun—that might puzzle the contemporary young reader. “Some people said—and some people still say,” she writes in a charming afterword, “that it is the greatest dog story of all time.” I leave the ranking to others, but I can attest that this taut and complex story of good and evil made a gabby kid quiet and a hard woman cry. —Nicole Rudick

When the women who narrate the thirteen stories in Rebecca Curtis’s 2007 debut collection, Twenty Grand and Other Tales of Love and Money, make decisions, they do so mostly out of desperation: in the title story, a mother is so broke that she must give a toll-taker a precious family heirloom that she didn’t know was worth twenty thousand dollars. And yet the younger characters don’t make many decisions at all; they while away their adolescences in the lake region of New Hampshire, working shitty jobs and pining for strange summer love. It’s these who seem the most confused, bereft of much ambition, most susceptible to being swindled. They get duped by fraudulent water-park owners and see their piggy banks gouged by roommates who are studying to be investment bankers. Curtis distends this lakeside temporal space into a vacuous, puddyish landscape for her girls, who move through it as if it’s something elastic and bottomless, something to waste—a coinage in its own right. No matter their ages, there’s never enough of either: when time and money are tight, they cannibalize each other; when there’s steady income of both, they conspire to fluidly disappear. The ways the women in Twenty Grand fail to love are ineluctably determined by both these currencies, and are often spectacular, like summer fireworks over a lagoon; this is what makes their stories so American. —Daniel Johnson

Thomas Bernhard’s Extinction is narrated by Franz-Josef Murau, who lives in Rome; early in the novel, his parents and brother are killed in a car accident. Murau’s reaction? “The sole term I could apply to them was blockheads. Their death, which can only have been caused by a road accident, I told myself, in no way alters the facts. There was no danger of yielding to sentimentality.” Bernhard writes Murau’s thought in his famously, brilliantly recursive manner; at one point he says, “To think is to fail.” This sort of irony and contradiction recur again and again, ouroboros-like, as Bernhard shows how unlikely it is that Franz-Josef’s account of his own life is either factual or truthful. The book dwells upon the space between these notions; and since Murau can’t be bothered to engage with other characters, there’s no possible measure of his veracity, giving the novel much its pleasure. The breadth and fluidity of Bernhard’s prose is also, even in English translation, much like the recent spate of wind in New York City—willful and idiosyncratic and, at times, arresting. —Noah Dow