Less Can Be More (Extract)

Extract from an article in Issue 9, August 18, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. This recent collection of short fiction works is mostly long on literary talent and reader satisfaction Love Today By Maxim Biller Translated from the German by Anthea Bell New York Simon & Schuster 216 pages; $23 Adam Haberberg By Yasmina Reza Translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan New York Vintage 146 pages; $14.95 Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love By Lara Vapnyar New York Pantheon 148 pages; $20 The Book of Getting Even By Benjamin Taylor Hanover, New Hampshire Steerforth Press 166 pages; $23.95 Does Etgar Keret, the popular post-modern Israeli writer, have a popular post- modern doppelgänger in Berlin? Like the Israeli, Maxim Biller usually writes opaque sketches about restless young people scuffling among the realities and regrets and hopes and fantasies of love. Biller even sets a number of the stories in Keret's Tel Aviv. But the similarities pretty much end there. While Keret's primary impulse is to go for the darkly comic and the surreal, Biller is more prone to the dark and the all too real. Born in Prague in 1960, Biller has lived in Germany since his parents took him there in 1970. "Love Today" is his first collection to appear in English and easily the best of the four short works under review here. A typical Biller story involves a café, a man, a woman and a relationship brought on by some unhappy circumstance only hinted at. Biller is usually very specific with inconsequential information, as in "You're Greta," which opens like this: "They met on the corner of Choriner Strasse and Schonhauser Allee, outside the magazine kiosk with the white shutters and the green metal roofs." Yet such matters as just who the protagonists Greta and Maarten are, or why the father of Greta's child is in prison, or why Greta imagines herself dead, are never explained. Oddly enough, however, this calculated narrative strategy does not exasperate. True, 28 stories may be too many for this volume; several are eminently forgettable. Yet the best of Biller's work on display here successfully echoes the exquisite minimalism of Ernest Hemingway's early stories. (Biller's "Baghdad at Seven-Thirty" is a virtual homage to Hemingway's classic, "Hills Like White Elephants.") And several stories, like the one about the miserable bride-to-be in Tel Aviv ("In Bed with Sheikh Yassin"), or the one in which the narrator wickedly evokes a certain renowned Yiddish writer ("My Name Was Singer") rank with the best of just about anybody. Then again, when Biller writes a story like "Happy Ending with Sticky Tape," in which a man named Primo Tischmann tapes up everything in his apartment, including himself, you might think you're in Etgar Keretland again. But in all, Maxim Biller has made a terrific debut in English. Yasmina Reza is quite the phenomenon. Born in Paris in 1960, the daughter of a Persian Jewish father (himself born in Moscow) and a Hungarian Jewish mother, Reza initially pursued an acting career. Earning only modest success on stage, Reza, rather like the actor-turned playwright Harold Pinter she much admired, then tried her hand at writing drama. Her third effort, "Art" proved a worldwide smash, reportedly earning some $200 million. Other successful plays followed, as well as a film script, a collection of autobiographical sketches and three novels. Most recently, "Dawn, Dusk or Night," Reza's fictional account of a year spent with French then-presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy, was a bestseller in both French and in English. "Adam Haberberg" is Reza's latest novel and the most recent to appear in English. Like the earlier novel "Desolation" (1999) and several of the essays in "Hammerklavier (1997), "Haberberg" deals with melancholy, loss, regret, failure, aging, isolation and similar Gallic, Jewish and 21st century themes. Very much a downer, one might conclude, but one would be wrong. If there's little hope in evidence, there's still a fair share of humor, such as the character who "for years has been writing a kind of essay with a metaphysical thrust inspired by the life of the gangster Meyer Lansky." Along with the humor, "Haberberg" also harbors a lot of humanity. "Desolation" is a dramatic monologue that could possibly serve as a theater piece, but "Haberberg" is a fully realized novel. It concerns a despairing middle-aged Jewish writer in Paris who suddenly encounters an old school acquaintance and spends a comically disastrous evening with her. Much of the story is taken up with Haberberg's self-absorbed, self-pitying rants, and that's a bit wearying. But the novel ambushes the reader near the end with a monologue that would electrify on the stage as much as it does on the page. Some phenomenon, Yasmina Reza. Talk about decline and fall. In 2004, Lara Vapnyar, who had emigrated from Russia to the U.S. a decade before, published a collection of short stories called "There Are Jews in My House." The book was launched in a blizzard of publicity, including a "Vogue" profile of the artist wearing a Vera Wang gown. The surprise was that the excellent short stories proved worthy of all the hype. Flash forward to 2008 and "Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love." Although Ms. Vapnyar at 37 still looks fetching in her book jacket photo, there's no glamorous profile in a fashion magazine that I know of. She's now married, has two kids and lives in unglamorous Staten Island. On the other hand, she now publishes in the likes of "Harper's" and "The New Yorker." On the third hand, she now has nothing interesting to write about. Lapnyar no longer writes about Russia and she no longer writes about Jews. Instead, the six stories in "Broccoli" are all rather desultory exercises about generic Russian or East European women living loveless lives in New York. These women are as bland and uninteresting as the food that, no doubt as the result of some marketing expert's suggestion, provides a unifying motif to the stories. Recipes are even included at book's end: borscht, mayonnaise salad, fossilized meatballs and other such items for which Russian cuisine is justly infamous. (Canned peas, boiled bologna and lard are among Vapnyar's beloved ingredients.) Nowhere do these stories have anything like the rich detail and intriguing dynamics that so enlivened Lapnyar's debut collection. Only once does even a glimmer of wit emerge, as when a character in "Luda and Milena" decides to recreate a Greek pie she's seen on the Food Network: Contributing Editor Matt Nesvisky frequently writes about books. Extract from an article in Issue 9, August 18, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.