As part of its French Literature Series, Dalkey Archive Press has translated and published two works of black humor. The first is from Antoine Volodine, the primary pseudonym of an author who–due to the politically subversive nature of much of his work–has published over twenty titles under three different names. Writers, published in its original language in 2010, is a collection of seven stories, each focused on an author struggling with the sickness of writing. Yet Volodine’s author-characters are not the hackneyed, tortured geniuses, alcoholics, romantics, or socialites. Among these authors are the dying or dead, the insane, the prisoner, the published and unpublished.
The opening story, “Mathias Olbane,” concerns a failed novelist and poet, wrongly convicted of being an assassin. In his twenty-six years of imprisonment, Olbane invents thousands of new words, thousands of names for imaginary places and people. But he writes no stories or poems. “Begin-ing” features an author institutionalized and barely literate, tormented by insanely murderous inmates into confessing that he has conspired with Martians. “The Strategy of Silence in the Works of Bogdan Tarassiev,” concerns a crime novelist who possesses no flair for suspense. Following a decade of silence, Tarassiev reemerges as a science-fiction writer and publishes a string of works populated with characters whose names are all variations on Wolff.
The comedic highlight of Volodine’s story collection is “Acknowledgments,” a writer’s twelve page litany of appreciation. Among those deserving of thanks: an unnamed woman from a party who “allowed me to touch and kiss her delicious breasts.” (She inspired the closing chapter of his novel). The fictitious author also acknowledges those he does not wish to thank: those whose “malicious critiques, mean-spirited little reviews, and unpardonable silences” led to his reputation as a difficult writer.
Also from Dalkey’s French Literature Series, originally published in 2002, is Edouard Levé’s Works, a lampoon of conceptual art or artistic installations. To some degree, the book also lampoons our expectation that a work of fiction must have a story. This one doesn’t. Works consists solely of proposals for 533 works of conceptual art.
One proposal is for a “Museum of Nobodies”–a wax museum not of historical figures or movie stars, but of persons chosen at random from the telephone book. The proposal is to open the museum with thirty statues and add two each year; an ever-evolving “hyperrealist memory of society” (7).
Reflecting the author’s penchant for photography, one proposed project is a series of photographs of small towns in America, the caveat being that these towns bear the names of foreign cities. Titles in this photographic collection might include Supermarket in Rome, Hair Salon in Paris, Cuba’s Town Hall. Other projects include dubbing a silent movie with dialogue that relates neither to the images or titles as well as a proposed documentary giving a profile of a painter without any of his paintings being shown.
While Levé’s Works is overtly humorous and accessible, many readers may find that some selections from Volodine’s Writers require a second read. The value of Volodine’s stories is how they introduce us to characters who don’t know which is worse–speech or silence. Ultimately both translations from Dalkey expand our notions of what fiction can do and may appeal to readers and writers interested in experimental fiction.
Volodine, Antoine, and Katina L. Rogers. Writers. London: Dalkey Archive Press, 2014.
Levé, Edouard, and Jan Steyn. Works. London: Dalkey Archive Press, 2014.