A 14-Hour Zen Koan Shoved Though My Soul [Some August Translations]
Another month, another preview that’s late. This month caught me a bit by surprise though—how is it possible that the new academic year starts in three weeks? It just doesn’t seem right.
So in the spirit of “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” essays, I thought I’d kick off this month’s list of books with some info and pics from the insane 176-mile bike ride I made to Niagara Falls and back.
I’ve been talking about doing this for years now, and friends were always intrigued to do it with me. You can ride all the way to Buffalo along the Erie Canal, it’s pleasant, there are a bunch of small towns along the way, our plan was to go slow, take the whole day, then get picked up and driven back to Rochester. Unfortunately, for one reason or anther, none of this ever panned out.
Last month, after going on numerous 20 and 30 and 40 mile bike rides, I felt like I had to give it a try. Ever since the crushing shittiness of this past winter—during which it seemed like no one ever left their house except to go to work and watch their tears freeze—I’ve been in a bit of a funk. Why not try and break out of this with an epically long bike ride? One that will leave me mentally and physically exhausted, with no energy to mull over the meaninglessness of everything?
I’m going to include a few anecdotes below, but surprisingly, nothing at all went wrong. I made it all 88 miles to a shitty hotel in Niagara Falls that I had found online, and then, the next day, I turned around and rode all the way back to Rochester, and I didn’t even die! (Mostly, my wrists just hurt from the constant vibrations of riding on an unpaved path for 14+ hours.)
Mentally, this was kind of brutal though. If you’ve never been to the Erie Canal, it looks basically like this:
Which is beautiful, but for seven straight hours? Over that period of time, while you’re doing one repetitive motion, pumping continuously, it becomes pretty monotonous, like pounding a Zen koan through your soul. It was like Extreme Meditation Yoga Ultimate Supreme. Sure, there are towns to break up the never-ending green, but these “towns” are pretty much all like Gasport, where the population is “just right”:
In my mind, before going on this journey, I figured every little town along the way would have a quaint little diner, complete with killer pie and coffee. This is absolutely not true. Instead, every town consists of a convenience store/video rental store/titty mag place run by likely meth heads. There is nothing quaint about buying overpriced Gatorade from toothless people.
Nevertheless, it was an awesome experience, one that I want to replicate next summer, but this time going east toward Syracuse.
That’s what I did over my summer “vacation.” Now onto the books!
Leg over Leg: Volumes 3 & 4 by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies (Library of Arabic Literature)
The incredible Leg over Leg has been featured on Three Percent before and the release of the final two volumes is an event to people in the know.
Just to give you a sense of why this book is so compelling and weird, Volume 3 opens with a bit about the troubles of mankind:
Are they not enough, the troubles to which men are subject by way of misery and care, effort and wear, toil and disease, hardship and dis-ease, of deprivation and lucklessness, despair and unhappiness? Men are carried to nausea and craving, born in pain and suffereing, nursed to their mothers’ detriment, weaned to their imperilment. They crawl only to stumble, climb only to tumble, walk only to lag, labor only to flag, find themselves unemployed only by hunger’s pangs to be destroyed.
This goes on for a couple paragraphs, resolving with “In addition, some are born afflicted with (among the various defects and diseases)” which is followed by a list of defects that’s 14 pages long and includes things like: “ “sa’ar, ‘smallness of the head’,” “_qan’asah, ‘extreme shortness of the neck, as in one with a hunchback’,” and “hawas, ‘a touch of insanity.’” This is all brilliant.
Susan Sontag: A Biography by Daniel Schreiber, translated from the German by David Dollenmayer (Northwestern University Press)
I’m including this on here for two very different reasons: 1) I’m sure it’s an interesting book, but I’m waiting for Ben Moser’s Sontag bio to come out, and 2) as part of a special research project I’m working on for the Publishing Task Force at the Italian Trade Agency, I’ve started collecting information on nonfiction works in translation. It’s not quite ready to be shared yet, but I’m getting there. So expect more nonfiction to pop up in these monthly previews . . .
The Last Days of My Mother by Sölvi Björn Sigurdsson, translated from the Icelandic by Helga Soffia Einarsdottir (Open Letter)
Rather than explain to you why I like this book, I’ll let PW do it for me:
The setup: Hermann’s girlfriend of seven years leaves him for a French dentist, then his native Iceland’s banking system goes belly-up, and finally his 63-year-old mother, Eva, is diagnosed with a rare and terminal cancer. The punch line: a bitterly laugh-out-loud novel of Nordic misery. Spurred by his mother’s impending expiration date, the duo set out for the Netherlands, chasing the last-ditch hope of an unlicensed miracle drug called Ukrain offered by the Low Countries clinic. In fact, his mother’s miracle drug of choice is alcohol, not to get “drunk” but rather to be pleasantly “pompette.” The novel follows the pair’s groggy adventures as they attend a Nazi ball, smoke hash, and befriend an eclectic cross-section of Amsterdam characters. Eva has strong opinions: Milan Kundera is the most beautiful man alive, the “smartest use of an airline ticket was to buy something light that gained weight the further north you went,” and more alcohol is the “best remedy for the sad syndrome others liked to refer to as a hangover.” But Hermann accepts it all, having vowed that his abiding mission is “to make Mother happy during the last days of her life.” As his mother’s illness takes its inevitable course, Hermann gains a deeper appreciation for the pleasures and purpose of life. Sigurðsson’s novel successfully straddles the line between impious gallows humor and a heartfelt depiction of a son’s love for his mother.
The Diary of the Fall by Michel Laub, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa (Other Press)
There’s no doubt that the international reader is always an insecure, worried reader, like some supine hysteric on a couch. I mean, I know nothing of the language in which this story called ‘Animals’ was written. Or also I do not know where precisely Porto Alegre is – where this story by Michel Laub begins. It does make, I’m just saying, a reader anxious. I have to assume that it’s Brazil. And yet also I think it’s possible in some bronco way not to care about these ethical problems and instead just attend to what’s right there.
So this story looks like a list of the animals that the novelist-narrator’s owned throughout his life, but really this list is therefore a pretext for a miniature autobiography and yet, really, to redescribe it one final time, this autobiography is a pretext for defining a life in one particular way: as a systematic process of loss. And this is moving, no question, but the thing I really love about this story is how it manages its matryoshka feat – to be at once a free floating meditation, leaping like some street cat from wall to wall, while also going deeper and deeper into a single theme.
This was one of my favorite stories in the Granta issue, so it’s exciting to see a full book of his available in English.
It’s impossible for me to reference Other Press and not mention how devastating Paul Kozlowski’s (aka PK) passing was. Moby Lives has a great piece about PK—who was going to be working for Melville House!—that gets at what an amazing person he was, and what an amazing book person. Reading the World wouldn’t have existed had it not been for PK and Karl Pohrt, and now we’ve lost both of them. They were both the best, and both played a big role in my involvement with the book world. I still recall various parts of conversations I had with both of them (one of the last times I saw PK he was giving Kaija advice on how to pitch High Tide), and when I was in Ann Arbor last week, I would’ve given anything to spend the day in Shaman Drum shooting the shit. I miss them both.
On a funnier note: Which is more embarrassing, the fact that Neymar posted a photo to Instagram of himself recovering in Ibiza with Paris Hilton (who should only be known for her spot-on cameo on The OC in which she name-checked Thomas Pynchon), or that Drake is considered the unofficial celebrity ambassador for the Toronto Raptors and got them fined for “recruiting” Kevin Durant? Sports gossip is dumb.
The Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami, translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel (Knopf)
As was announced a couple months ago, first editions of this will come with stickers designed by Japanese artists. Yes, stickers. So you can pretend you’re in high school, decorating your Trapper Keeper. Well, it is Murakami, the most beloved young adult author in the world, so maybe this does make sense.
In other perplexing news . . . BuzzFeed got another $50 million in venture capital funding earlier this week to help expand their list-making abilities. Whatever. That is what it is, and considering that the company is valued at $850 million, it makes sense. But this is the part that got me:
BuzzFeed will also expand its video unit, henceforth known as BuzzFeed Motion Pictures. The unit recently moved onto a 45,000-square-foot lot in Hollywood — not bad for a site sometimes stereotyped as a home for cat videos. (from CNN Money)
BuzzFeed Motion Pictures? It’s an easy joke to make, but I really do hope that their “movies” consist of nothing but cute animals and “The 29 Most Minnesotan Things Ever.”
Globetrotter by David Albahari, translated from the Serbian by Ellen Elias-Bursac (Yale University Press)
Albahari is a stunningly good writer, and both Leeches and Gotz & Meyer are worth checking out. This one sounds like it’s going to be equally as interesting, plus, Banff!:
Narrated in a single uninterrupted paragraph, the novel takes place in the late 1990s at the Banff Art Centre in the Canadian Rockies. Three men—a painter from Saskatchewan and the narrator of the tale, a writer from Serbia, and a man whose traveling Croatian grandfather long ago jotted his name in a local museum’s guest book—become acquainted, then attached, then fatally entangled. On a climactic mountain hike that seethes with jealousy, desire, shame, and guilt, each man must engage in a final struggle. Albahari seizes his reader’s attention and never yields it in this remarkable, gripping tale.
F by Daniel Kehlmann, translated from the Germany by Carol Brown Janeway (Knopf)
Wow, this cover SUCKS. The original one, from Rowohlt is a million times better:
Also, congrats to Carol Brown Janeway on being the 2014 recipient of the Ottaway Award for the Promotion of International Literature From the press release:
Carol Brown Janeway has been a leading advocate for literature in translation during her long career at Alfred A. Knopf. The list of international writers she has published includes such luminaries as Patrick Süskind, José Donoso, Yukio Mishima, Elsa Morante, Ivan Klíma, Robert Musil, and Nobel laureates Imre Kertész, Heinrich Böll, and Thomas Mann. She is the translator of seminal works by Bernhard Schlink (The Reader), Thomas Bernhard (My Prizes), Ferdinand von Schirach (Crime), Sándor Márai (Embers), Margriet de Moor (The Storm), and Daniel Kehlmann (Measuring the World), among others.
“Works”: by Edouard Levé, translated from the French by Jan Steyn (Dalkey Archive)
This is one of those conceptual books that’s a book of concepts. A list of 533 “works conceived of but not realized by its author,” it’s reminds one of the Oulipo, maybe of a more concrete counterpoint to Benabou’s Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books. Leve, who died tragically young, has developed a pretty solid cult following, and like Suicide and Autoportrait, this unique book is likely to do really well.
“Moon in a Dead Eye”: by Pascal Garnier, translated from the French by Emily Boyce (Gallic Books)
Moon in a Dead Eye is one of six= Garnier books that Gallic is bringing out. In a way, this reminds me of NYRB and their Simenon program—curious and prolific author who has an extensive backlist to mine and promote.
This one sounds particularly intriguing, because gypsies!
See you next month!