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Alphabetical Africa (New Directions Book) av…
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Alphabetical Africa (New Directions Book) (urspr publ 1974; utgåvan 1974)

av Walter Abish

MedlemmarRecensionerPopularitetGenomsnittligt betygOmnämnanden
2036100,235 (3.56)6
Alphabetical Africa, Walter Abish's delightful first novel, is an extraordinary linguistic tour de force, high comedy set in an imaginary dark continent that expands and contracts with ineluctable precision, as one by one the author adds the letters of the alphabet to his book, and then subtracts them. While the geoglyphic" African landscape forms and crumbles, it is, among other things, attacked by an army of driver ants, invaded by Zanzibar, painted orange by the transvestite Queen Quat of Tanzania, and becomes a hunting ground for a pair of murderous jewel thieves tracking down their nymphomaniac moll. "… (mer)
Medlem:shirinyan
Titel:Alphabetical Africa (New Directions Book)
Författare:Walter Abish
Info:New Directions Publishing Corporation (1974), Paperback, 164 pages
Samlingar:Ditt bibliotek
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Taggar:Ingen/inga

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Alphabetical Africa av Walter Abish (1974)

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I heard about this book a few years ago and was intrigued by the constraints Abish put on himself while writing: using only words that start with A in the first chapter, then A and B in the second, then A, B, and C in the third, until he get to Z and then to remove letters one chapter at a time, leaving the last chapter with only words that begin with A. It's a rather amazing feat to attempt and when I found the first word that didn't fit the pattern, I was crushed. Never have I been disappointed to see the word "in." It's so innocuous a preposition that you don't even think about using it, but that innocuousness makes the challenge all the greater: he wasn't able to us "the" for 2/3 of the book! Once I found one mistake I tracked another 23 (mostly prepositions, why his editor didn't catch them or tell him is beyond me) over the course of the 152 pages, which is still astounding.

I'm not entirely sure what the story was about, except that it was some rather undefined travels through an unrealistic Africa. Characters kept appearing and then disappearing and I wasn't ever sure if the "ants" were a metaphor for soldiers or not. As letters were added to the alphabet the story became clearer, but never to an extent that I was intrigued by it. What kept me going was to see how well Abish dealt with the challenge, which I think he did admirably well.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2013/jul/12/oulipo-freeing-literatur... ( )
  Bodagirl | Dec 23, 2017 |
I enjoyed this a great deal. It was funny, engaging, and interesting. The oulipian constraint gave the book an interesting narrative drive: as the letters disappeared, one knew the characters would disappear as well. Reaching P2, I knew that Queen Quat would be gone. At H2, the first-persona narrator would morph into the more abstract "author." In the end, there would be only Alex, Allen, and Alva.

It also worked well that Africa shrank with the vocabulary.
( )
  le.vert.galant | Jan 26, 2015 |
This book isn't simply "in the line of writers such as Raymond Roussel, Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec and Harry Mathews," as Ashbery says in the back cover copy. That's because, unlike those authors, Abish does not try to match his stories with the constraints he gives himself. His linguistic constraints are "terrifying and irrefutable," as Ashbery says (chapters from A to Z and back to A, each one containing only a subset of letters of the alphabet), but the stories he tells are carefree and funny.

I think this matters because in the Oulipo tradition, the stories that are told have some correspondence, in tone, philosophy, pointlessness, absurdity, and so on, to the rules the authors imposed on themselves. That correspondence is the glue that binds the books together: otherwise Perec and others could have simply taken existing novels or newspaper accounts (as Goldsmith and others do now) and subjected them to predetermined rules. The lack of correspondence in "Alphabetical Africa" is its principal characteristic, I think: after you have marveled at what he's done with his alphabetical rules, and after you've laughed at his stories, you're left wondering whether the two have collided randomly, or for surrealistic purpose, or whether, in fact, Abish never thought through the possible meanings of the lack of correspondence between his insouciant stories and his rigid rules. More on this at the end.

In Perec's "Life: A User's Guide," for example, the elaborately constrained writing is in close harmony with the stories of the people in the apartment building. Just as the principal character tries to make a life that will sum to nothing, so the writer's constraints produce a distorted narrative that cannot conform to ordinary novels. In Roussel, the elaborate rules (which are, in contrast to Perec's, largely unknown, despite Roussel's own book on the subject) are in intricate and partly hidden harmony with the acephalic or obsessive or autistic behavior of his principal characters and his implied narrator.

"Alphabetical Africa" is often very funny. Its humor is a kind I recognize, without difficulty, from other authors of the 1970s. He is interested in Africa's politics ("But can Alva's claims also cure Americans bombing Chad beaches. Anyhow, all concur America's angst cannot corrupt Chadians," p. 6), in the absurdity of the places he visits, and in the ridiculous continuation of colonial and tourist expectations; but he is insouciant about most of it. He is untroubled about mentioning that his characters take acid: they are who they are. The result is a politically invested but carefree tone that reminds me, in a different sphere, of Arlo Guthrie. He spins cliché plots about dictators, spies, and murders, and he weaves in tourist impressions and fears, all in a kind of deadpan colloquial collage.

Meanwhile, each chapter in the first half of the book adds another letter, and each chapter in the second half subtracts one, and the machinery of that expansion and contraction works alongside the stories but almost never to any determinate purpose. A reader watches the first letters of many words, and also attends to the stories. The result is not a surrealist juxtaposition, because it so often seems that Abish is simply trying to write well, in spite of his own constraints. The first chapter "M" is not at all exceptional in this regard:

"M
"My memory isn't accurate anymore. Mentioning my memory makes me feel insecure. A few months ago Alex and Allen kidnapped a jeweler in Antibes and killed him almost inadvertently..."

Because this is chapter "M," a reader will be watching for Abish to display as many m's as he can. So the second sentence here, with four m's, stands out. But the sentence immediately following serves the purpose of furthering one of his stories. So it is not clear how we are expected to attend to the alliterations. Are we to read as Oulipeans for part of one sentence, and then forget that regimen, and think instead about the plot? When "Alphabetical Africa" is funny, it is so in spite of its linguistic constraints. (The first chapter "C" is an excellent example: it's really funny, and doesn't suffer, but also doesn't gain, by being constrained to words beginning with "a," "b," or "c.") Same when it's violent, or absurdist, or intentionally hackneyed.

The principal expressive option here would be surrealism: the stories would be juxtaposed in unexpected and irrational ways with the language used to express them. But that does not happen often, or consistently, and sometimes it seems not to happen intentionally. In most cases, Abish's narrator seems to have one set of concerns, and his compositor another.

In the end, it seemed to me that this is a lighthearted spoof about American attitudes to Africa in the 1970s, placed, for reasons I think the author himself never entirely analyzed, into the "terrifying and irrefutable" Procrustean frame of a linguistic game. It is an example of a book that reveals a crucial criterion for constrained writing: there needs to be a nameable connection between the linguistic constraint and whatever stories are being told. That connection can be a contrast (irrational, surrealist, or satiric) or a harmonious correspondence (between constrained lives and rule-bound writing, between partly unknowable psychologies and partly private constraints, etc.) -- but it has to be something the reader can conclude was planned and controlled, or at least observed, by the writer.

*

Reading this on Facebook July 2014, Andrei Molotiu noted that some Oulipo writers seem to be great "despite" their Oulipean interests. I might not be interested in such a writer. There should be a strong connection between story and constraints: it can be a strong contrast, or dissociation, or affinity, but it really has to work as a whole: otherwise it seems to me the interest of any constraint is diminished. Note the constraint in this book, by itself, isn't interesting. Anyone can invent a constraint: not everyone can write a book based on a constraint, but that's not a very interesting goal anyway. Relatively few people can figure out how to link or contrast the constraint to the material (story, subject matter, voice, mood).

And just to be clear about the argument I'm proposing: I am not especially interested in organic, harmonious, "coherent" (Ruskin's word) relationships between form and content, or in the humanist or romantic traditions that require such relationships. I do find I want the relationship between form and content to be acknowledged in some manner: form and content can exhibit a radical disconnection, disharmony, incoherence, randomness, surrealism, or irrationalism; regardless of the kind of relationship, I am most engaged when the author (or the narrator, or the text) demonstrates that the problem has been considered. Abish doesn't seem to notice, or care. ( )
  JimElkins | Jul 9, 2014 |

Abish adroitly actualizes Africa. Arts and ambiance. Ants, alligators and antelopes. And attractive Alva.

Brilliant, albeit a bit boring, alphabetical adventure amuses.

Cross continental chase after Alva carries author all around Africa. Characteristic African culture becomes apparent.

Demanding constraints delimit Africa's alphabetical boundaries.

Experimental aspects don't always dominate composition.

First few chapters are a bit constrained, as expected. Further chapters bring freedom and don't appear especially awkward.

Growing alphabetical bank also allows African country's expansion.

Hard earned alphabets birth fresh characters

'I' finally enables chronicler's appearance as a character himself.

Justifiably, I's entry brings changes in descriptive direction.

Keenly advancing, Abish accomplishes his experimentation goals admirably.

Linguistic gymnastics can't be enough for every literature lover, however. Likable content is always desirable.

Modes of communication - cuneiform codes, click lanuguages, communication across foreign dialects - form a frequent motif.

Narrative covers many aspects - murder, loot, chase, battles, ant extermination, colonization, foreign investors, changing African landscape and culture, amorous escapades - and much more.

Over all, it is fairly imaginative but it lacks focus and often digresses into abstraction.

Plot has to lose characters as their first name initial alphabet is dropped.

Quite often, a character's involvement is limited by his/her allowed presence.

Regardless, I enjoyed one particularly interesting element of Alphabetical Africa.

Second half methodically loses alphabets, and hence names of people and places are lost. Shrinking African landscape is mirrored in shrinking language and shrinking populace.

Technique of narration nicely parallels the content in this manner. Territory of Africa expands and contracts just as the language does.

Unfortuantely, Abish's innovative style doesn't make for an interesting read most of the time.

Vocabularic efforts are very impressive, I'll admit.

(Walter. Walter Abish . Well, I can finally be on first name terms with the author.)

Xeric environs of Africa are, however, at times reflected in the narrative since it is somewhat lacking in engagement.

You should read this only if you have a strong interest in experimental styles.

Zooming in and out effects do make for an interesting technique worth checking out.
( )
3 rösta HearTheWindSing | Mar 31, 2013 |
Years ago I wrote a paper on Alphabetical Africa that asserted, in part, that the "story" struggled to express itself through the alphabetical artifice, some evidence of which was to be found in the erroneous use of words beginning with disallowed letters. Someone who knew Abish mentioned this to him at a party, and he replied "You're kidding! My editor and I went over it again and again to make sure there weren't any errors!" So viva la story! ( )
1 rösta OshoOsho | Mar 30, 2013 |
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Ages ago, Alex, Allen and Alva arrived at Antibes, and Alva allowing all, allowing anyone, against Alex’s admonition, against Allen’s angry assertion: another African amusement . . . anyhow, as all argued, an awesome African army assembled and arduously advanced against an African anthill, assiduously annihilating ant after ant, and afterward, Alex astonishingly accuses Albert as also accepting Africa’s antipodal ant annexation.
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Alphabetical Africa, Walter Abish's delightful first novel, is an extraordinary linguistic tour de force, high comedy set in an imaginary dark continent that expands and contracts with ineluctable precision, as one by one the author adds the letters of the alphabet to his book, and then subtracts them. While the geoglyphic" African landscape forms and crumbles, it is, among other things, attacked by an army of driver ants, invaded by Zanzibar, painted orange by the transvestite Queen Quat of Tanzania, and becomes a hunting ground for a pair of murderous jewel thieves tracking down their nymphomaniac moll. "

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