For the past 30 years, Dalkey Archive has quietly and consistently been a vital aesthetic cornerstone in print. Here are some of my favorite titles.
For the past 30 years Dalkey Archive has quietly and consistently been a vital aesthetic cornerstone in print. Each year the publisher produces a new stream of titles sourced from all over the world, extending one of the most ambitious catalogs in literature. From canonical cornerstones like Gaddis, Barth, Barnes, Ashbery, and Huxley, to lesser known or more contemporary masters such as Hawkes, Infante, Kiš, Gombrowicz, and Reed, and through a world literature series focusing on Catalan, Norwegian, and Turkish writers, among others, the archive maintains a colossal library of important works available all under one roof.
What’s more, Dalkey Archive has done all of this with little regard for its own sustainability—it keeps all its titles continuously in print, regardless of commercial success, focusing instead on giving life to works it finds culturally valuable. It’s sort of like a museum in that way, a source intent only on providing sustenance for major works that may have disappeared, or never appeared at all.
The best way to dig into the archive is perhaps to go to its website and start clicking around, but in the meantime here are some titles I got a lot out of and recommend.
Geometric Regional Novel, by Gert Jonke (Austrian Literature Series)
I originally ordered this book based entirely on its title, which seemed to suggest a novel mimicking how a computer would describe a fantastical location it had dreamed up and then tried to generate. Which is actually not far off from how this book actually works. Essentially it is a catalog of styles depicting the odd and often puzzling behaviors found within a town seemingly ruled by an anti-logic somewhere between Kafka’s impossible dilemmas and Borges’s theoretical puzzle games. Jonke is a master of describing insane social contraptions—such as forests you are told to fear because of an invisible enemy, lists of arbitrary laws you could never begin to keep track of—with a mathematical finesse, more interested in exploring the space of the world than necessarily driving along what happens in it. The world of the Geometric Region, then, works like an impossible video game you could never begin to complete, full of historical precedents and surrealistic laws that build of the landscape a world that could exist nowhere else but in the word. It’s like looking into a petri dish designed by Dalí, where the logic of why things are the way things are is full of so many stories there is no story left to follow.
Tripticks, by Ann Quin (British Literature Series)
If you’re into Kathy Acker or William S. Burroughs, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be all over Ann Quin, who appeared between those two in lineage and produced four book-length works of fiction before drowning herself at age 37. Quin was a quiet but major player among the British experimental novel scene, malforming various strands of the new novel movement into something between modernism and stream of consciousness. Tripticks, her last book, is perhaps my favorite, as it takes the American road novel and shreds it into a thousand different styles. Tripticks employs punk language, interview transcriptions, cubist landscapes, cartoon panels, letters, list-descriptions, insane definitions, science-fiction physics, gunplay, absurdity, and confessionalism into a dark and twisting narrative that changes direction as fast as you can keep up, kind of like an actual road narrative should be. It’s rare to find a book with so much manic energy that is still able to move you forward into a story overflowing with information and laced with a contemporary sadness that transcends its era into now with lines like, “Any attempt to pump life and humor into such a corpse as you have become is like fucking a mattress.” For people who got all excited about the rerelease of Renata Adler’s Speedboat last year, to me this one goes twice as far.
The Magic Kingdom, by Stanley Elkin (American Literature Series)
I’ve recommended this book so many times over the years, mostly because a one-sentence description of its premise makes it one of the easiest books ever to sell: the father of a recently deceased 12-year-old persuades the Queen of England to pay for him and seven terminally ill kids to go on a free vacation to Disney World, a last treat before all the other children die. It’s easy to sell to someone with dark tastes, sure, but what’s most refreshing about this willfully insane plot is how incredibly Elkin is able to twist the dark with the absurd, and the absurd with a strange sense of emotional depth, somewhere on the register of David Foster Wallace in his ability to transcend via description. Elkin’s dying children are in no way morose; they are often wild and strangely witty, allowing the orchestration of huge scenes as the grieving father steers them around the fun park, trying to maintain some sense of hope and self. It’s somehow equally hilarious, moving, surreal, brutal, and touching at once, whorled up in a cauldron of scenes fueled by one of the more overlooked American masters.
The Other City, by Michal Ajvaz (Czech Literature Series)
Essentially, The Other City begins in a bookshop, with a man finding a particular title full of rune-like writing he has never seen before. In his exploration of the text and its aura's effect on his mind, he finds himself on an unraveling quest to a world contained between all the blank places among the everyday that most people overlook. The walls and beings of these spaces and people are, in Ajvaz’s gaze, all around us but hidden, essentially buried in broad daylight, perhaps underneath a cap in the ground or along a railway hidden underneath our feet. These worlds are connected to our own, and yet resemble a dream. The environments in The Other City are constantly on the cusp of the surreal, lacing everything that seems common with fantasy: sharks swimming in snow; massive flower ceremonies intersecting with ski lifts that bisect the city; strange animals with human properties; mazelike buildings; books within books; worlds within worlds.
Alix’s Journal, by Alix Cleo Roubaud (French Literature Series)
Alix Cleo Roubaud is perhaps best known as the young wife of integral member of the oulipo movement Jacques Roubaud. In the years following her death by pulmonary embolism, however, she has become recognized for her haunting photography, as well as the journals that chronicled the depression she experienced through the later years of her life. As its title implies, Alix’s Journal is set up as a journal, containing fragmentary accounts of her daily life as a bored young wife, though rather than stolid move-by-move narration, the text is by turns philosophical, depressed, minimalist, sentimental, pragmatic, death-obsessed, in love, drug-addled, objective… all in all meshing together stream of consciousness with matter of fact. Roubaud was an alcoholic and an insomniac, and much of what comes out of her seems half mired in dream, half in reality: “a dead rose sitting on my desk,along with a still life of negatives,prints,a sugar bowl,pots of ink,old postcards,recent unanswered letters,and a silent black camera,capped and dusty don’t do it,” Roubaud writes, in the typo-laden reportage of her world; “nightmares,all violent.” Rendered privately, not for direct publication or online, Alix’s Journal provides perhaps the most aesthetically modern relic of self-reportage possible.
Europeana, by Patrik Ouředník (Eastern European Literature Series)
Eurpoeana bills itself as “an eccentric overview of all the horrors, contradictions, and absurdities of this century.” It’s an ambitious statement, but somehow the book follows through. Ouředník boils down the strangest details of some of the most terrible and hellacious scenes to have taken place on earth, from plagues to World War I to contemporary racism and sexism, in just 122 pages. It’s almost guidebook-like, so flat and factual while at the same time describing the true evil of man, like a quiet parade of terror you find waiting in your sleep. I bought Europeana at a book fair one day when the editor working the table pointed at it and said, “Read the first sentence; you’ll buy it.” The first sentence is: “The Americans who fell in Normandy in 1944 were tall men measuring 173 centimeters on average, and if they were laid head to foot they would measure 38 kilometers.”
Other recommended titles:
Magnetic Field(s) by Ron Loewinsohn
Trio by Robert Pinget
With The Animals by Noelle Revaz
Project for a Revolution in New York by Alain Robbe-Grillet
Log of the S.S. The Mrs. Unguentine by Stanley Crawford
Nightwork by Christine Schutt
Assisted Living by Nikanor Teratologen
Autoportrait by Edouard Levé
The Complete Butcher’s Tales by Rikki Ducornet
Impressions of Africa by Raymond Roussel
The Journalist by Harry Mathews
The Age of Wire and String by Ben Marcus
Dust by Arkadii Dragomoshchenko
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