It’s not common for a literary writer to release multiple books in the same year or even in the span of a couple of years. So, naturally, Nell Zink released two books on the same day. In my review of Nicotine I said that “Nell Zink is unlike any writer working today.” As it so happens, Private Novelist cements that claim in a big way. After reading back-to-back Zink novels, it’s hard to overstate the breadth and virtuoso talent that is Nell Zink.
Private Novelist contains the two earliest pieces of Zink’s fiction, published here for the first time. One was written eighteen years ago over the course of a month, and the other was composed seven years later in the same fashion. Both are peculiar little novellas that complement the reading experience of Zink’s more traditional works. Most fascinatingly, these early works provide perhaps the most intimate look at a writer who in some respects could be referred to as enigmatic and mysterious.
Zink arrived relatively late into the literary scene, at least by conventional metrics. She was approaching fifty when Mislaid was finally picked up for publication, after an unsuccessful period of shopping her other novel, The Wallcreeper. This tale doesn’t sound out of the norm for writers who have tried to see their work through publication, but Zink’s story is quite different than the average.
Up until Private Novelist, what was known about Zink’s discovery was her link to a quite famous modern writer. See, Zink has a proclivity for birding. The most outspoken mainstream birder with a literary mindset is none other than, yes, Jonathan Franzen. At some point around 2012, Zink, an American residing outside of Berlin, garnered Franzen’s attention after he read a convincing letter on the work of German ornithologist, Matin Schneider-Jacoby. Franzen then asked her to send along her own fiction to which she dutifully replied with her collected manuscripts. At the time, Zink claimed that she wrote fiction as a personal act, and reportedly saw no need to justify her self-worth as a fiction writer by seeking publication. She fired off a quick draft of The Wallcreeper, and Franzen, taken by her writing, began acting as her agent of sorts.
Although he failed to find a home for The Wallcreeper, he succeeded in pushing Mislaid into the hands of his own agent and then onto the publication schedule of Ecco (HarperCollins). And after the critical success of the novel (longlisted for the 2015 National Book Award), Nell Zink’s catalogue of fiction is starting to find its way into commercial print.
Private Novelist provides a more detailed origin story, but it also, happily, induces increased intrigue into the life and mind of Nell Zink, who can comfortably be referred to as a burgeoning voice of generation who is very close to gaining the distinction as a major voice in a incredibly short interval of time.
Before Franzen, Zink’s work was exclusively read by a private reader, the little known Israeli novelist, Avner Shats. The first novella in Private Novelist is a faux translation of Sailing Toward the Sunset, Shats’s novel originally published in Hebrew. In here the full title is: Sailing Toward the Sunset by Avner Shats by Nell Zink.
As with all things written by Nell Zink, it’s not what you would expect. Zink doesn’t know Hebrew so the translation is quite obviously anything but literal or honest. Within this long novella, Zink reimagines Shats’s narrative about the search for the heir to the Israeli throne, among other things. The plot is relatively complex considering that Zink herself isn’t concerned with providing a linear narrative. She even comments periodically about the lack of a coherent objective: “Were I efficient in any way, I would have re-created Shats’ book of short stories, his reviews and feuilletons, his diary and letters, and his bank statements by now. Ashamed of my indolence, I will pass to another topic.” Instead, in each of the twenty-four chapters, she includes digressions and interludes, weaving fiction and nonfiction into one intwined love letter to art and life. She delves heavily into metafiction and the work is rife with postmodernist flourishes, paying homage to Shats, a writer who has been called Israel’s token postmodernist.
Instead of a cohesive fictional tale, Zink blurs the lines between fact and fiction.
“In a sense, I am a fictional literary figure already—the novelist Nell Zink. This novelist will come into real existence for most people the day Sailing Toward the Sunset appears in a shop with cardboard around it, and will cease to exist the day it is remaindered.”
She offers her opinions and insights on the literary canon which are often times hilarious. On the subject of Marcel Proust she contests that there is two well-known facts about his work: “(1) the mature Marcel is thrown back into the past by the taste of muffins, and (2), the book contains secret references to Proust’s homosexuality. For example, Albertine is really Albert.” On Thomas Pynchon: “Having allowed a missile with sexual content to penetrate Sailing Toward the Sunset, I feel I should mention Gravity’s Rainbow, but I won’t.”
The most indelible of passages come when Zink sips into her own voice and talks candidly about her life, and the thoughts that occupy her overtly intelligent mind: “Already I suffer from nostalgia and vain regrets, a personal Anxiety of Influence: How can I maintain cohesiveness and unity without into pointless rehashing of subjects and characters already flogged to death?” This thought is certainly relatable to writers everywhere, as well as to any participant of the human existence.
In the second novella, European Story for Avner Shats, Zink takes what she has learned from the process of formulating a narrative and applies it to a swift depiction of artists and educators on fellowship at the Villa Romana in Florence. The trio of main characters, one of whom resembles Shats, takes readers on a satiable journey through the minds of those who are constantly evaluating and reevaluating articles and mechanisms of importance.
Private Novelist is probably best enjoyed with a preexisting familiarity with Zink’s work. While the narratives here are unconventional and often meander, the tangents that are touched upon are well-worth Zink’s roundabout manner of arriving at profound junctures. With that being said, what Nell Zink has done here is a showcase of vast intelligence and an innovative style of storytelling. The word genius almost assuredly gets tossed around too often. The definition of a literary genius is subjective, but Zink continues to demonstrate that no matter what definition is used as the standard, she is some sort of genius.
We are lucky to have her.
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