One Pleasure Books [BTBA 2016]
This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by reader, writer, and BTBA judge P. T. Smith. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.
There have been books throughout the year that stand out because they astound on a general level, accomplish a number of things well. Others are memorable because they do one or two things incredibly well. In some cases, it’s as if the books are devoted to that one ambition, to that one possibility of literature. This seeking out of one specific bit of a book, whether it’s something in the structure, tone, style, or subject matter, etc. has a couple motivations. The most common one, unfortunately, is when a book isn’t very good, and I still want to engage with it. I have faith there must still be something interesting there, and I seek it out. When it’s found, not only does the reading experience turn more pleasurable, but help forms another way to think about writing. Less common, more worth spending time writing about, are the books that have the one fascinating aspect and do it so well that the reading becomes about that singular pleasure, even if others play in the background. And in the end, I just find this way of identifying a single stand out aspect of a book a way of entertaining myself and beginning conversations. So, here are some BTBA books from the latter category, of books memorable from one pleasure, rather than mundane books scarcely saved.
The first such experience in BTBA reading was Violette Leduc’s Thérèse and Isabelle (trans. Sophie Lewis). The story of a love affair, kept secret, between two girls at a boarding school, Thérèse and Isabelle is so hyper focused it is nearly overwhelming, which is exactly what Leduc portrays. It is unrelentingly physical: “My recollection of the two fingers grew sweeter, my swollen flesh began to recover, bubbles of love rose up. But Isabelle was there again, the fingers turned faster and faster. Where had this mounting wave come from? Smooth wrappings inside my knees. My heels were drugged, my visionary flesh was dreaming.” There is little to no time spent describing how or why these two are attracted to each other, because it is irrelevant. All that matters is the overpowering attraction, the desperate emotional desire that courses in their bodies.
With absolutely nothing in common with Thérèse and Isabelle, Christian Kracht’s Imperium (trans. Daniel Bowles) may have at its heart something to say about the blind following of ideals that led to the world wars, as the cover copy wants to emphasize, but that was not the compelling reason to read. Instead, the humor, the parody of historical adventure novels, is the source of pleasure. The hero is the joke, August Engelhardt, idealist, blind to his flaws and to the fact that other people aren’t the naïve waif he is. His faith is in coconuts, the purest food devised by God, and in nudity. Telling the story of Engelhardt’s travel to New Guinea, his life on an island there, and the failure of his attempt to found a society, the narrator celebrates and mocks sailing and adventure tales, all the while cynically undermining, knowing his utter failure is coming, the man it puts forth as a hero.
It’s through prose that makes the most minute details and observations into something affecting that Jean Echenoz’ story collection The Queen’s Caprice (trans. Linda Coverdale) finds its identity. The opening story, “Nelson,” is of that oftentimes epically depicted historical figure, Admiral Nelson, but this is not of battles and history being made. Instead, it is him visiting friends, their care for him, his adjustment to age and his loss of arm and eye. It is a simple, pleasing tale of him planting acorns so for them to grow into “trees whose trunks will serve to build the future royal fleet.” Only then can the grand scheme of history return through his death in battle. The title story is a roving description of a country landscape, leaving a writer’s hand to travel across the surrounding land, in details of hills and trees, all building to make a tiny moment with ants full of depth and insight. These stories are above all quiet. That quietness is the success of The Queen’s Caprice, parsing down even and abundance to the quietness scenes that can communicate the most.
Regina Ullmann’s The Country Road (trans. Kurt Beals) is a story collection that is completely of a time and space, yet a step outside of that, a skewed mirror image not quite real, but unsettled. The Dream of My Return (trans. Katherine Silver) is Horacio Castellanos’ distillation of paranoia, anxiety, and haunting guilt of a culture, of a time, into the daily life of a man who may in fact be utterly safe. This could go on, this way of reading and talking about books, the aspect that makes one memorable, makes it stand off from others, but these are the best of the bunch so far, though if I wrote this a week from now, Léon Bloy’s Disagreeable Tales (trans. Erik Butler) would probably make the cut for its triumph of the sinister.