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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Card Catalogue

Alistair Ian Blyth

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To purchase Card Catalogue

Title: Card Catalogue
Author: Alistair Ian Blyth
Genre: Novel
Written: 2020
Length: 149 pages
Availability: Card Catalogue - US
Card Catalogue - UK
Card Catalogue - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B : enjoyably bookish literary deep-dive skim

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The world of Card Catalogue is an almost entirely literary one, book-obsessed. The significant characters the narrator has contact with are almost entirely book-men: Gribski, who has a grand, strange library which the narrator only glimpses once (and which he convinces Gribski to lend him a single book from) and Obmanschi -- "A mostly unpublished writer and obscure figure on the periphery of avant-garde literary circles in inter-bellum and nineteen-forties Bucharest". Their very beings are almost entirely literary, dominated by their books and reading.
       The author-narrator is similarly book-obsessed -- scouring libraries even in his dreams, for example, and imagining non-existent books ("Idiota, a lost Latin translation of a lost Armenian translation of a lost pseudo-Platonic dialogue between Socrates and Hippolytus Terentyev"). He is fascinated by the idea of Gribski's collection -- one that remains almost entirely beyond his actual ken; Gribski is: "a burrower and grub-worm encysted in a bibliotheca abscondita" but his library of exceptional tomes is one the narrator only gets a small real-life impression of, the rest left up to his imagination ..... And while Obmanschi actually "owned no more than a dozen or so books" (and wouldn't have had room for a large collection in his single-room apartment in any case), he too lives entirely submerged and engaged in the literary, a great reader (in libraries).
       The author-narrator can approach these figures almost only through the lens of the literary. He is an author, he is writing a (this) book, but physical character-description, or accounts of personal experience largely elude him; as he explains:

By the very nature of my condition, I was unable to keep a record of those events, their motivations and manifestations, which might then have furnished the raw materials for a novel, of the kind that draws upon autobiographical wellsprings, rather than the book I am now attempting to write, constructing fictional characters from the fabric of other fictions.
       Obmanschi was an obsessive cataloguer, and his apartment was filled with thousands of slips of paper, fiches of identical size that were his reading notes and catalogue. Much of Card Catalogue consists of samples of these -- two longer stretches of the novel, focused on two of Obmanschi's projects: his catalogue of: "every mention of the tarakan ('cockroach') that he had come across in his reading", as well as the material for a book he envisaged writing: "a 'catalogue raisonné' of all the books to be found in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Russian fiction". These examples and the accompanying commentary are both amusing and interesting, making for unusual connections as well as unexpected insights into the authors and works, a detail-obsession that often also reflects on the work (or life) as a whole -- down to the observation about how:
The Gogolian cockroach peeps out at us from the cracks under the skirting board; the Dostoevskian cockroach is heard but not seen, rustling behind wallpaper, scurrying across the floor in the dark.
       The narrator tends towards this systematic collecting, too, with lists (such as of the imagined books in his dreams, or the dusty: "inventory of the multifarious detritus and dust that litters or clings to the various surfaces of the room in which character N—— wallows indolently") or a deep-dive into the color yellow (that oppresses him at one point).
       The contrast between fundamental specificity -- the very building-blocks of literary works arduously catalogued and considered -- and the elusive and ephemeral is striking in the novel. What reading-experiences are recounted focus on details, not the whole; mentions rather than entire books. So also Obmanschi's catalogue of books-in-books makes for a second-hand account of the reading experience (and, to some extent, what it means to the (fictional) characters). Meanwhile, many of the books otherwise mentioned are ones that have never existed, or been lost -- down to Obmanschi's own: "failed and forgotten avant-garde manifesto". Typically, too, the one book that the narrator borrowed from Gribski's grand collection is never identified -- or even opened by the narrator -- and winds up becoming yet another (more or less) lost work.
       Obmanschi's cataloguing-exercise ultimately proves also, if not one of futility -- it served his purposes -- ephemeral, all traces of it soon lost (beyond in the narrator's record here). Indeed, for all the characters' all-consuming literariness, Blyth allows none of them a lasting satisfaction in it; read into that what you will ..... Fiction -- taken apart, or in whole-book-chunks -- is building-block for them, arguably necessary even to their very being, but there's no getting around the sense of the characters (including the narrator) as in some ways -- or perhaps even entirely -- failed and ultimately unfulfilled characters, still seeking.
       Card Catalogue is an appealing literary work, an immersion into a book-dominated world that is firmly grounded in an impressive familiarity with a great deal of classical literature -- especially Russian literature --, and offers fascinating incidental literary titbits (even if a considerable number of them are cockroach-related). The mix between deep-dive into the smallest details from a wide range books -- of which Blyth offers a considerable number -- to more sweeping overview, much like a quick taking-in of a great library, makes for an engaging work -- at least for those of a literary bent. Card Catalogue is both good fun and quite an impressive little novel.

- M.A.Orthofer, 20 February 2020

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Alistair Ian Blyth: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British translator and author Alistair Ian Blyth was born in 1970.

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© 2020 the complete review

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