Arthur Rimbaud, translated from the French by John Ashbery
W.W. Norton: 165 pp., $24.95
This may be the most beautiful book in the world — lighted from within and somehow embodying all forms of literature at the same time. The 44 prose poems of "Illuminations" were Arthur Rimbaud's goodbye to poetry (though he had said goodbye before); they are poised on the brink of a new world. Rimbaud was on his way to Africa to live a life of commerce, to enter the world of buying and selling. In 1875, he gave the manuscript, famously, to his friend and ex-lover Paul Verlaine, requesting him to send it to a publisher.
"Illuminations" is often called the first work of Modernism; an opening that paved the way, John Ashbery writes in his introduction, for the Cubists, the ballets of Merce Cunningham and everything else we might care about. The language evokes memories a reader never knew she had: A future is built, boulevards and cities, using only words. "The Splendide Hotel was built amid the tangled heap of ice floes and the polar night. Since then the Moon has heard jackals cheeping in thyme deserts — and eclogues in wooden shoes grumbling in the orchard. Then, in the budding purple forest, Eucharis told me that spring had come." The poems are riddled with youth ("In the wood there is a bird, his song stops you and makes you blush") and a Bob Dylan-like exhortation to make room for the young: "I am the learned scholar with the dark armchair. Branches and the rain hurl themselves at the library's casement window." And this: "As for the world, when you go out, what will it have become?"
Tin House Books: 224 pp., $14.95 paper
Jim Krusoe is the mad scientist, the man behind the curtain. In "Toward You," the third in Krusoe's trilogy promising life after death, Bob, a mild-mannered upholsterer, continues work on his most fabulous invention: the Communicator, a device that enables the user to speak with the dead (something about "terminal waves" replacing sounds made by human vocal chords, but never mind).
Bob began work on the Communicator back in college, at the Institute for Mind-Body Research, where he also met Yvonne. When "Toward You" opens, Yvonne has reentered his life, along with her daughter, Dee-Dee. He has also just buried a dead dog in his backyard, a dog whose name tag bore the ominous coincidence, "Bob." Krusoe does something magical with regular words and regular life. His adjectives glow with possibility; the term "fair-sized brown dog" takes on a sci-fi, suburban backyard glow, like an alien presence with a new language that sounds enough like our own to make us strain to uncover its meaning. Bob is a time traveler, a hero. He's here to tell us, as my grandmother used to say, that "nothing is lost in this perfect world."
My Berlin Child
Anne Wiazemsky, translated from the French by Alison Anderson
Europa Editions: 193 pp., $15 paper
One great benefit of fiction (for a writer especially, but also for the reader) is the opportunity to imagine the lives of our forebears, to inhabit them for a while. "My Berlin Child" is based on the life of Anne Wiazemsky's mother, Claire, who worked as an ambulance driver in the south of France in World War II. This work gave Claire a sense of usefulness, a purpose. She does not want to return home to Paris when the war ends and goes to Berlin to work for the Red Cross. Wiazemsky weaves journal entries, letters and vivid storytelling to create one of the most immediate portraits of postwar life ever written. Identity, amid the refugees and flux, stretches over generations; Claire looks at photographs of her youth and barely recognizes the pretty young woman who looks back at her. Her daughter, the author, saw her own life somewhere in those photographs and letters. It is this recognition that gives the novel its vivacity and courage.
Salter Reynolds is a Los Angeles writer.