Books on GIF #61 — 'First, the Raven: A Preface' by Seth Rogoff
This Sunday's book is 'First, the Raven: A Preface' by Seth Rogoff.
Sorry I missed you guys last Sunday. I was overscheduled, I had read too many bummer books in a row, and I had back-to-back-to-back sad things happen. Seriously, I was like:
BUT I AM SAD PANDA NO MORE, MY FRIENDS. That's because I read this incredible novel. 'First, the Raven' brought me so much joy, I feel like Marie Kondo after folding a shirt. I mean, look how happy she is:
'First, the Raven' is the second book I've reviewed this year from Sagging Meniscus Press. (You may remember it also published 'The Button Thief of East 14th Street,' which was excellent.) When the publisher sent it to me, the press release included a hand-written note that said the book 'isn't just interesting or pretty good — it's a masterpiece.' That's a tall order, but Rogoff delivers. His book is hard to describe, but I'll give it a try. It contains stories within stories within stories, kinda like one of these Russian dolls:
The book is a preface to a Czech novel that the protagonist, Sy Kirschbaum, has spent the last 17 years in Prague translating into English, and is only 20 pages away from finishing. It also depicts a reunion in a Portland, Maine, bar between Sy and his old friend Gabe. The two had a falling out over Ida, who is Gabe's wife and who was Sy's former lover and muse. Ida has had some kind of breakdown and sends for Sy (or so Sy believes), causing him to pause the completion of his project and head to Portland. During their conversation, Sy recounts at length to Gabe and two women who join them the entire plot of the thousand-plus page novel he's been translating all these years, 'Blue, Red, Gray' by Jan Horak. And within that tale there are several others about a Czech painter who hides his true identity, something called the Mondeschein Bible, Noah's release of a raven from the Ark after the flood, Sy's romantic interlude with Ida years ago in Berlin and Sy's complex relationship with Horak. The stories expand and contract perfectly like an accordion, or like breathing, like:
No yawns, coughs or hiccups interrupt that breathing. Rogoff writes vividly and holds your attention as he drives the narrative through twists and turns of 20th century Czech history and old friendships gone sour, as well as art, philosophy and religion. A lesser writer could have gone off a cliff and made this book a confusing mess. But 'First, the Raven' is clear and interesting, particularly the recounting of 'Blue, Red, Grey,' which is too involved to describe here but would be worth reading by itself. But what I think I loved the most about the book is how despite its clarity and directness, it still challenged the reader to wonder about how some of the characters will handle issues raised in the book that remain unresolved. For example, we know that because Sy is writing this preface that he has finished his translation, but we don't how he's going to live beyond this project that has consumed him for nearly two decades. Will he find new purpose? Will he go mad? I worry about Sy. Someone should check on him. In another example, a peripheral character, Paul, gets up from the bar and heads out into the blizzardy night, ostensibly to buy cigarettes, but he leaves his coat behind and never returns. Sy notices the abandoned coat still draped over the barstool several times, forcing us to wonder what happened to Paul. Did he succumb to the elements on a search for smokes? Did he jump in a cab and head home figuring he'd pick up his coat the next day? Or something else? This lack of certainty made the book feel more real to me. People leave stuff behind, wait, maybe it's better to say that people move forward without something or someone once essential to them, all the time, and how they cope is anyone's guess. We hope for the best for them and try to help, but we're struggling with our own losses and absences, too. That's life, and Rogoff captured it. I need a gif here, so here's a guy named Paul wearing an awesome coat:
'First, the Raven' was one of the best books I've read this year. It's fresh and original and good, and I couldn't put it down. It made me excited about reading again, and I look forward to Rogoff's and Sagging Meniscus's next work. In the meantime, I urge you all to read this book!
'First, the Raven: A Preface' by Seth Rogoff was published by Sagging Meniscus Press in 2017. 197 pages.
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What's next? In the coming weeks Books on GIF will review 'The Power' by Naomi Alderman, 'The Shipping News' by Annie Proulx and 'Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay' by Elena Ferrante, among others.
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Thanks for reading!*
* Thanks especially to Donna for copy editing this review! (I rewrote parts of this after she edited it, so any typos or errors are mine.)