"My Two Worlds" by Sergio Chejfec [25 Days of the BTBA]
As with years past, we’re going to spend the next five weeks highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.
Click here for all past and future posts in this series.
My Two Worlds by Sergio Chejfec, translated by Margaret C. Carson
Publisher: Open Letter Books
Why This Book Should Win: Because of all the great stories surrounding how it was discovered and published. Also because fellow BTBA-er Enrique Vila-Matas said that it “paves the way for the novel of the future.” That’s some solid praise.
I was just at the AWP conference where I ran into a lot of people who were big fans of this book. (They were especially excited to get their hands on The Planets, his next book, which comes out from Open Letter this summer.) And at least a few of these Chejfec fans asked how we discovered him. Sure, he’s the author of 13 books, and teaches at NYU, but neither his prolific career, nor his proximity to Rochester had anything to do with how this book came to be published.
Back a couple years ago, Scott Esposito linked to a year-end roundup post from the always interesting (and martial arts inflected) blog Hermano Cerdo in which Enrique Vila-Matas gushed about My Two Worlds and compared Chejfec to both Sebald AND Walser. That’s serious, eye-grabbing company.
Anyway, I posted about this on Three Percent and almost immediately thereafter I received an email from Margaret Carson about how she had just translated a piece of this for an upcoming issue of BOMB Magazine. She sent it along, we all fell in love, and quickly decided to sign on three books of his . . .
Everyone on the Open Letter editorial committee immediately recognized the importance and beauty of Sergio’s writing. This is one of those novels with a very simple plot—a writer at a literary conference in Brazil wanders around looking for a park and thinking about his upcoming birthday and the not-so-wonderful reviews his new book has been receiving—that is utterly dependent upon the quality of the writing and the atmosphere created.
Or, as Vila-Matas says in his introduction:
I begin as I’ll end: adrift. And I begin by wondering if novels have no choice but to narrate a story. The answer couldn’t be simpler: whether they intend to or not, they always tell a story. Because there’s not a single intelligent reader who, given something unique to read, even the most hermetic of novels, would fail to read a story into that impenetrable text. [. . .] If I really think about it, Chejfec is someone intelligent for whom the word novelist is a poor fit, because he creates artifacts, narrations, books, narrated thoughts, rather than novels. My Two Worlds, for instance, is above all a book that reminds us that there are novels with stories, but there are also not-so-orthodox novels—Chejfec’s are in this camp—though these may also contain stories. The story in My Two Worlds isn’t easy to summarize because—as it true for all his novels—what’s important seems merely an excuse to highlight the dramatic role of the incidental.
That goal—“to highlight the dramatic role of the incidental”—can be found right off the bat in the opening paragraph of the novel:
Only a few days are left before another birthday, and if I’ve decided to begin this way it’s because two friends, through their books, made me see that these days can be a cause to reflect, to make excuses, or to justify the years lived. The idea occurred to me in Brazil, while I was visiting a city in the south for two days. I couldn’t really understand why I’d agreed to go there, not knowing anyone and having almost no idea about the place. It was afternoon, it was hot, and I’d been walking around looking for a park about which I had almost no information, except its somewhat musical name, which by my criterion made it promising, and the fact it was the biggest green space on the map of the city. I thought it impossible for a park that large not to be good. For me parks are good when first of all, they’re not impeccable, and when solitude has appropriated them in such a way that solitude itself becomes an emblem, a defining trait for walkers, sporadic at best, who in my opinion should be irrevocably lost or absorbed in thought, and a bit confused, too, as when one walks through a space that’s at once alien and familiar. I don’t know if I should call them abandoned places; what I mean is relegated areas, wehre the surroundings are suspended for the moment and one can imagine being in any park, anywhere, even at the antipodes. A place that’s cast off, indistinct, or better yet, a place where a person, moved by who knows what kind of distractions, withdraws, turns into a nobody, and ends up being vague.
One last little story that seems so very Chejfec-ian: Last spring, Sergio was on a PEN World Voices panel with me about “The Publishing Revolution.” We talked about any number of subjects, but a lot of time was spent talking about book discovery, about how to get your book into the hands of the right reader at the right time, especially in this increasingly digitally driven world. We used My Two Worlds as an example, about how we were planning on promoting it on GoodReads, through websites and interviews and all that.
After the panel ended, Sergio wandered over to Housing Works to browse around. Inside, he overheard this young man going on and on to a friend about this book he had just read and that had completely blown him away. Naturally, the book he was raving about was My Two Worlds, and he ended up spending a nice bit of time chatting with Sergio about it . . .
UPDATE: I can’t believe I forgot to include this initially, but watch the video below to hear Margaret Carson and Sergio Chejfec discuss the book, the translation, and the book in general.