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January 21, 2007|Susan Salter Reynolds

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Meanwhile Take My Hand

Poems

Kirmen Uribe, translated from the Basque by Elizabeth Macklin

Graywolf: 200 pp., $14 paper

KIRMEN URIBE, born in 1970, was among the first Basque children able to go to school in their own language. At 18, he joined the pacifist movement Insumismo; in 1995 he was jailed as a conscientious objector and had to accept his first literary prize in handcuffs. He writes poems, rock lyrics and columns for a Basque newspaper and lives in a fishing town on the Bay of Biscay dating from the 13th century; his people have always been fishermen. "Meanwhile Take My Hand" was published in 2001 in Basque (Euskara) and in 2003 in Spanish. Elizabeth Macklin's translation is crisp and pure; she writes in her preface that the endeavor often felt "like jamming," given the complexities and obscurities of the language, which is famously like no other. The poems are each a beacon of light and memory, surrounded by conflict, explosion and interruption, like this fragment from "Danger": "You picked up old bombs bare-handed, / come by on the old war front, / in the underbrush we found the trenches, / like wounds too deep, unable to heal." In "A Language," Uribe, who dedicated his life to his own, writes "A language is like a shadow. / If you raise a fist, / it will raise one too. / If you run away, it too / will flee, right behind you."

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Conjugal Love

A Novel

Alberto Moravia, translated from the Italian by Marina Harss

Other Press: 144 pp., $14 paper

"CONJUGAL LOVE," first published in 1947, is a mysterious novel about love and work, morality and sex, in which Silvio (a self-involved but not entirely unlikable bourgeois) marries Leda -- beautiful, unpossessible, mysterious and above all "kind." The couple go to their house in Tuscany to spend a month alone. Silvio wants to write a novel but soon decides that making love to Leda every night drains him of energy, initiative and passion. If he's to complete the novel, they must abstain. Leda agrees and promptly takes up with Silvio's barber, who visits the house every afternoon. "Conjugal Love" is deceptively complicated, a string of intense moments, revelations and doubts. Can we ever know the people we love? What lies at the heart of and drives our creativity? How terrifying would it be to really understand yourself? When Silvio finishes the novel, he's disappointed -- even more so when he discovers Leda and the barber among the haystacks and sees their pure passion, a kind he'll never have. He must decide whether to settle for a marriage of "forced and decorous composure" or leave. More important, he must live with his own mediocrity.

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Joyce's Voices

Hugh Kenner

Dalkey Archive: 120 pp., $13.50 paper

THE late critic Hugh Kenner wrote about James Joyce, Gustave Flaubert, Ezra Pound, Samuel Beckett and others as if his very life depended on it, as if he were tracking a wild animal to its lair in his writer-prey's soul. One day in 1975 he got a letter from a reader in Missouri asking what he meant by a sentence in "A Homemade World" about Joyce's "Ulysses": "Joyce began 'Ulysses' in naturalism and ended it in parody." Kenner's answer, delivered in four 1976 lectures, is the heart of this book. He describes the evolution of the narrative voice from myth and the eloquent, moralizing declamation of theater to that of a narrator who reports only what he sees. In the old style, literature was only as good as its morals; in the new, it's every man for himself. "Ulysses," Kenner said, was the "decisive English-language book of the century" because Joyce wrote it in two voices simultaneously: the objective narrator's and Bloom's, who (like many Joyce characters) had squeezed himself into an ill-fitting myth. The narrator's efforts to be objective, to report on Bloom from outside, are subverted by a combination of self-deception and Molly Bloom's sheer vitality. Kenner writes with a tremor of doubt that inspires readers to engage -- always preferable to slack-jawed acceptance of his authority and brilliance.

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susan.reynolds@latimes.com

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