Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Valeria Luiselli's Sidewalks

"When the trip was over and I reread my notes, I swore I'd never write anything about Venice, simply because there's nothing more vulgar and futile than encouraging the production of even one more page about the city,...Writing about Venice is like emptying a glass of water into the sea."

From the second of two essays at least peripherally about Venice in Valeria Luiselli's book of essays Sidewalks. Ahem. She may be capable of irony.

In the opening essay, Luiselli visits Brodsky's grave in the cemetery of San Michele in Venice. After some searching, she finds it, giving her the opportunity to ponder dead Venetians and encounter living ones.

Most of the essays are at least partly concerned with place. I don't really know her biography, but from this she was born in Mexico City, lived for a while in Central America as a young girl, and in India as a teenager, and now in Manhattan. In one of the best essays she bicycles around a neighborhood in Mexico City while pondering the meaning of the Portuguese word saudade. (Meaning roughly melancholy? Or maybe not.)

They touch on longing and loss, though are also often funny. Why is it the young are so given to, and often so good at, melancholy? They can still afford it, I guess. I spent much of my late teens moping myself, listening to Townes van Zandt.

Authors mentioned by Luiselli: Joseph Brodsky, W. H. Auden, Cyril Connolly, Fernando Pessoa, Roland Barthes, Gilles Deleuze, Robert Walser, Walter Benjamin, W. G. Sebald, Wittgenstein, Lichtenberg, Borges, Cervantes. If that list of authors sounds good to you, you're going to like this. It does for me and I did.

It was published by Coffee House Press in 2014. It seems ably translated by Christina MacSweeney.

I'd heard of her before, no longer sure where, but I decided to read this now because she was coming to Toronto for an #AppelSalon event. In the end the event was cancelled. Now I'm regretting that. Her novel Faces in the Crowd is on its way to my local library.


  1. I read Luiselli's "The Story of My Teeth" a couple of years ago for the Tournament of Books and really did not get it.

    I think her fiction is too disjointed and experimental for me. Maybe I would have better luck with her essays. :D

    After reading your review, I think you might like Call Me Zebra by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi. It is absurdist fiction but she also name checks quite a few of the authors you listed as mentioned by Luiselli. :D

    1. Thanks for the mention of Oloomi--I'd never heard of Call Me Zebra. I see the Toronto library has it. I'll have to try it.

      I haven't read any of Luiselli's fiction yet, but I figure I'll at least give it a try now.

      I have mixed feelings about experimental approaches to fiction. I like it to be in the service of story and/or characters. But sometimes it feels like it's done for the author and the author's coterie, to impress. For me, it's Sebald--yes, but Finnegan's Wake--no.

  2. She's someone I like the idea of reading but the bits I've read didn't quite settle the way I'd hoped. The books she mentions here do intrigue me though, and I love what Coffee House puts out (mostly, anyhow).

    1. I just picked up Faces In The Crowd on Saturday. I'm now curious, but this will be the first of her fiction I've read.

      She was the one I was most interested in for the Appel Salon this spring. I wasn't active enough to get tickets for either Esi Edugyan or Sally Rooney. I've got Schofield's Martin John to read & if it seems at all interesting I'll go hear her.

  3. She came to Houston a few months ago. I read a thin nonfiction book she wrote, and decided to bail on her recent fiction. In my opinion, she has been overhyped.

    1. Interesting! I liked this one well enough I'll try another, but we'll see!