The Discovery of America

While we were working on PEN America 8, I came across an anthology published in 2006 by the wonderful Akashic Books called A Fictional History of the United States (with Huge Chunks Missing), edited by T Cooper and Adam Mansbach. In it, seventeen terrific authors re-imagine moments in American history. The first piece is a little different from the rest (though the variety throughout is impressive): written by Paul La Farge, it presents eleven different stories about "the discovery of America." We liked the piece so much, we asked La Farge to let us reprint it in the new issue of the magazine. Here's an excerpt:
According to another story, America was discovered by the Basques, who sailed the Atlantic in fishing boats, in search of cod. The Basques may have been blown across the ocean by a storm, because in those days storms were more frequent than they are now. Indeed, in the earliest times, when Europe and America were so close that you could practically jump from one to the other, the air between them was a perpetual storm, vast and greenish black, which shot lightning into the narrow body of water that would one day become the Atlantic. Imagine how each continent must have looked to someone standing on the other shore in those days: a black land, lit only in flashes, where it seemed always to be raining. Nonetheless, the Basques took to their boats and crossed the ocean to America, where they left artifacts: wool caps, leather wineskins, and sturdy Basque shoes. None of these artifacts have survived, but when the French arrived in Louisiana, hundreds of years later, they found a tribe of Indians there whose language was unlike any they had ever heard, with the possible exception of Basque.
This week, La Farge has an essay in the online journal of Poetry magazine that is partly about faits divers-- "short accounts of horrible and mysterious events" that ran in cheap French newspapers early in the last century. The essay focuses on Luc Sante's new translation of Novels in Three Lines, by Félix Fénéon-- of whom LaFarge says, "One might suspect that Fénéon was a fictional character, if only his biography did not contain so many improbable contradictions"-- as well as a new translation of Victor Segalen’s collection of prose poems, Stèles.

La Farge doesn't mention it in the essay, but his lovely third book, The Facts of Winter, itself re-imagines this bygone literary form. In it, La Farge presents a contemporary of Fénéon, whom one suspects is a historical figure-- and he is no less fascinating for being fictional: Paul Poissel is an "exceedingly minor author," and his book, "translated" by La Farge, is a "series of dreams, all dreamed by people in and around Paris during the winter of 1881, which is to say that it is a fictional account of the imaginary lives of people who may or may not be real."

Adam Mansbach, meanwhile, one of the editors of A Fictional History, has a new book out, The End of the Jews, about "a young Jewish man in the 1930s and a young Czech woman in the 1980s." It's also about jazz, race, writing, and many other things. There's a new interview with Mansbach by Buzz Poole over at The Millions.

1 comment:

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