The Six Water-Cooler Fiction Translations of 2015 [My Year in Lists]
Following on my last post, here’s the first entry in my manic series of year-end lists.
To kick this off, I thought I’d start with the list of the six books in translation that were the most talked about this year. I did some really heady numerical analysis to determine this—searching Facebook mentions, retweets, aggregating all the other year-end lists out there, tallying GoodReads reviews and images of bookstore displays—and came up with the works of fiction from 2015 that you should read if you want to be part of the general literary conversation. These are the “water cooler” books, the titles that, if you mention them randomly at a bar, someone might vaguely have heard of them. Conversely, mentioning them around anyone involved in the world of international literature will feel almost redundant.
I wouldn’t be surprised if all six of these made the shortlist for the next BTBA. And if you haven’t read them, you might want to. They’re not all on my personal list of 2015 favorites, but no one will scoff at you for spending a week with any of these.
The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions)
I read volume one of Ferrante’s quartet last year, and am currently listening to volume three, Those Who Stay and Those Who Leave. To me, personally, all of the books are fine. There’s nothing wrong with them, but they don’t get me all that excited either. I guess in my opinion, the prose isn’t doing anything new, and this is a time in my life where I’m waiting for something new and different to blow me away. That said, soap operas have an addictive quality to them, and reading/listening to the life-long interactions of a group of people from the neighborhood plays to that directly.
If you want a slightly different opinion, check out David Kurnick’s piece in Public Books. I literally got an email from a publicist about this as I was putting together this post. Quick scan of the piece: He likes Ferrante!
In Ferrante, by contrast [to Franzen and DeLillo], we see what grand novelistic ambition looks like devoid of writerly vanity. When her novels point to the largest political and ethical scales, as they do, the gesture is fascinatingly equivocal, as if to thread a question about our access to those scales into the emotional texture of the writing.
Sphinx by Anne Garreta, translated from the French by Emma Ramadan (Deep Vellum)
There are two very notable things about this novel (at least on the surface): 1) it’s the first work by a female member of the Oulipo to make it into English, and 2) there are no pronouns in this love story about A**.
Tom Roberge liked this book more than I did (in part, maybe, because I was distracted by the pronoun thing, which is interesting, but I’ve seen that before, and pulling that off is more mind-blowingly difficult in French than English), and spent a lot more time getting into the real meat of this book.
Garréta’s unnamed narrator, a seminary student turned DJ, also becomes infatuated with someone, a dancer known as A***, early on in the course of the story. And yet to compare what then unfolds (and how, in terms of story-telling) in Sphinx to that in Queer is indeed an odious comparison. Like all of Burroughs’s writing, Queer is gritty and disheveled, the beauty found in the mess itself, in the enjambment of disparate and unflinching insights into the human condition. Sphinx, on the other hand, is more poetically beautiful, a breathtaking portrait of obsession and pursuit described with such pervasive lucidity, such self-awareness, such lyrical resonance, that the story often feels like a spectral presence. [. . .]
Both are novels of pure, unadulterated, all-consuming obsession. A form of psychological addiction that infects the mind like a drug. A desire—a need—so unbounded and palpable that life before the object of desire is rendered meaningless, or at least preliminary, a trial run for the real thing. Inhabiting these narrators’ mind space is intoxicating, pure and simple. And I can’t think of a better reason to read, which is perhaps why, now, when recommending Sphinx to customers, I say, merely: “Trust me; it’s amazing.”
None of this praise is as valuable as the fact that one of the people from Pentatonix has been pushing it to all of their fans. One of the many reasons that Deep Vellum’s first year has been so wildly successful.
Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman (And Other Stories)
I’m pretty sure this was the only literary translation to be a finalist for this year’s GoodReads Reading Good People’s Choice Golden Book Awards. (Or whatever they’re called.) That’s pretty impressive, given that almost all of the other books were either insanely popular and trendy, or just bad. (Note: To Kill a Watchman won for fiction, so, yeah . . . )
I read this book immediately after I finished grading all the exams for my spring course, and while on the way to BEA in NY. Whenever I get done with my “required” reading, I tend to devour a bunch of stuff immediately, only some of which sticks in my mind. Which is why I probably need to reread this. I remember liking it, liking the way it plays with language, liking the general conceit and the issues it brings up, but also feeling like it was a bit slight. (I did apparently give it four-stars on GoodReads though.)
As time has gone on and more and more people have told me about how this is one of the greatest books of the year, I feel like maybe I read it too quickly and passively, that maybe I should go back and revisit it, so that it can “get under my skin” the way it did for BTBA judge Heather Cleary:
It’s not just that it’s impossible to put down—in both Herrera’s Spanish and Lisa Dillman’s English, its language is a fever dream of mixed registers and literary allusions pulled perfectly taut across the story. This would probably be reason enough to add my voice to the chorus of praise for the novel, but it seems even more timely to talk about Signs now, less than a week after Donald Trump, the poster child for backward thinking about borders and the people who cross them, had another moment in the spotlight on Saturday Night Live. Less so because the novel tells the story of an fierce, unflappable young woman who makes the journey from what is recognizably (though not explicitly) Mexico into what is recognizably (though not explicitly) the USA in search of her missing brother—though it is indeed a compelling story—than because the novel offers a powerful, nuanced take on the negotiation of those contact zones in which not only nations, but also languages, traditions, and identities meet, complicate, and enrich one another.
It’s worth noting that And Other Stories is bringing out a new Herrera book—The Transmigration of Bodies—in May 2016.
My Struggle: Volume Four by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (Archipelago Books)
Similar to the Ferrante, I’m trying to catch up with the cool kids and am only on volume three of this seemingly endless series. I’ve talked on the podcast about what I like about Knausgaard—the glacial structural movements of each volume, the fugue-like time-shifts of the narrator’s memories, the mundanity of it as an antidote to the overblown nature of a lot of contemporary books—and I’m not sure I have much more to add about that here.
I do want to complain about the weird nature of the media love fest for Knausgaard—it’s like most of these reviewers just discovered that there’s literature being written in other languages, and probably can’t name five other living Scandinavian authors, much less speak intelligently about any of their books—but why bother. We all know that there’s very little appreciation of divergent opinions in mainstream review coverage, and once an author has been “chosen” every magazine and paper and blog and listicle generator imaginable will have to voice their opinion, oftentimes to the detriment of covering better books from the same country. This is how Murakami Haruki becomes the one Japanese author everyone has to write about, despite the fact that there are several others equally worthy of this sort of media fawning. (Although most aren’t published by Knopf, which does, for
better or worse, make a difference.)
There’s nothing to be done about this—people in the media act like sheep and all want to have their voice heard about the big books everyone is talking about—and it’s not like Knausgaard is completely undeserving, it’s just frustrating to people who actually read a significant amount of international literature and actually know a lot about works from a particular country or region. Instead, there’s basically no point in publishing anything from Norway for the next few years, because it will be such an uphill battle getting attention for it, and any reviews you do get will just compare it to Knausgaard.
But whatever—that’s the sad lament of an every-struggling publisher. You should read these books since most everyone else has. (Or has taken an unwavering stance against him.) Or, better yet, read his review of Houellebecq’s Submission.
The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector, translated from the Portuguese by Katrina Dodson (New Directions)
Talk about getting all the love! This book is on every single year-end list I’ve seen, and a few others highlighting the best covers of the year.
The rebirth of Lispector—whose books have been available in one translation or another for decades—really started with Ben Moser’s new translation of The Hour of the Star back in 2011. That was followed by the release of four of her novels (three in new translations, one translated for the first time ever) in 2012, which generated a lot of attention for Lispector (in part because of Ben Moser’s unflagging enthusiasm). It all reached a crescendo with this massive volume though, which brings together all of her stories into one chunky, attractive volume.
I’ve yet to dive into this, although I have read a couple of the included volumes in their past translations. What I hope will happen a result of #LispectorFever is that New Directions retranslated The Apple in the Dark. I generally like Gregory Rabassa’s translations, but I feel like a new translation is well-deserved and would help find a much larger audience for one of her most ambitious novels.
The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Coffee House Press)
Luiselli’s rise has been meteoric! In 2014 when I entered her novel Faces in the Crowd into the first ever World Cup of Literature (a contest she damn near won), it seemed like only a handful of people had read her. Now, with the publication of her third book and second novel, she’s being featured in the New York Times, New Yorker, Lit Hub, NPR, Slate, Huffington Post, Dissent Magazine, you name a media outlet and I’m sure they’ve run something about this book.
Which is all really wonderful. I’m actually using this book in my spring class, in part because I really like Valeria and her writing, in part because the story of how this came to be—and how it was edited in translation—opens up so many great topics for my students to think about and debate.
In short: Luiselli wrote this for the Jumex Foundation as a sort of serial novel for the workers at the Jumex juice factory. In the vein of the professional readers at the Cuban cigar rolling factories, she sent the workers one chapter at a time, which was distributed as a sort of chapbook to everyone at the factory. Some of these workers formed a reading group, and all of their comments about that particular section were sent back to Valeria, who listened to them, then wrote her next installment.
For the editing process, Chris Fishbach of Coffee House treated this like a book originally written in English, editing it more like an original text than a work in translation. (By contrast, most editors of translation focus on syntax, grammar, word choice, register, tone, etc. It’s still complicated and intensive, but slightly different.) The whole project became more collaborative with Christina MacSweeney adding a “Chronology” to the book that doesn’t exist in the original Spanish edition, and with Coffee House publishing a “Fact Check” booklet created by their proofreader. This is more than a simple novel—it is an artistic enterprise that is very layered and fascinating. And it features one of the most distinctive, enjoyable fictional voices in recent memory.
It’s worth noting that all six of these books—which truly are among the most talked about translations of 2015, all statistical jokes aside—are from independent and nonprofit presses, and that four of the six are by women writers.
Tomorrow, I’ll be back with a list that’s a bit more loopy.