Recent Open Letter Publicity [Justine, Gessel Dome, Ugresic, and More]
I don’t post on social media all that often—unless I’ve been drinking—but do generally try and share all of the reviews and publicity pieces that come up about Open Letter. And as with anything else, this tends to come in waves, including the onslaught of pieces from the past few days that I’ve been sharing. Here’s a rundown of recent publicity for the press and its authors:
Well, first off, the new issue of World Literature Today is dedicated to this Neustadt Laureate, and includes her acceptance speech, Dubravka Ugresic and Contemporary European Literature by Alison Anderson, and a piece I wrote about The American Nobel. And available only through WLT’s digital edition are The Scold’s Bridle by Dubravka, Mothers and Daughters: Generational Conflict and Social Change in the Work of Dubravka Ugrešić by Emily D. Johnson, and Crafting Serious Work Out of Mass Culture: The Early Prose of Dubravka Ugrešić by Dragana Obradović.
It wasn’t, however, just the money situation that inhibited me from ever introducing myself as a translator. It was equally that I just couldn’t translate to others what it meant to be a translator, let alone how I, a New Zealander with no Yugoslav roots, came to learn the language formerly known as Serbo-Croatian and translate the work of Ugrešić, one of the great living European writers. Reduced to its essence, the backstory is both fantastic and prosaic: it involves a restless young man who sought adventures on distant shores, came unstuck in a short and sad marriage, the end of which left the no-longer-so-young man searching for meaning that for a time he found in books. In New Zealand, in particular, translating all this to some dudes standing around a barbeque was pretty painful. Over time, I developed a series of useless analogies. I’d say that a translator is like the cinematographer, the author like the director. Or that the translator is like a sound engineer or producer shaping how an author “sounds.” When the dudes at the barbeque still looked puzzled, I’d just say that a translator is like a better class of wedding singer.
And finally, during the Neustadt Festival, a number of people were interviewed by the radio station KGOU, and these pieces are starting to come out online. The first is actually with me.
Justine by Iben Mondrup, translated from the Danish by Kerri A. Pierce
Complete Review just posted a review of this, giving it a “B.” (Which I’ll totally take from Michael Orthofer. I’m pretty sure he would fail me in any class I took with him.) The review is mostly summary, but does get at some of the aspects of the character and setting that make this book really interesting:
Mondrup captures the pretentious and often obnoxious (especially the professors) art-school-scene creepily well, with more the more old-fashioned grandfather-figure and the ultimately tamer, crowd-pleasing Ane as helpful counterparts to the purely pretentious, or, for example, the philosophical Vita (a fairly successful sculptor). Justine, meanwhile, is marked especially by her uncertainty. There’s a lot of anger there, too, or frustration, and she vents successfully, and even comes up with some interesting ideas, including ultimately resuscitating her lost project, but for the most part, and for most of the novel, she is flailing.
Brian S: Iben, I’ve never read de Sade’s Justine, but am I correct in thinking there are some parallels between that and your novel? Or is that coincidence?
Iben Mondrup: If there’s any comparison, it’s all about opposites, the polar opposites of De Sade’s Justine and mine. My Justine is sexual subject, she’s the one who desires, whereas De Sade’s Justine is an object of desire. She (my Justine), is aggressive, she’s going for what she wants as opposed to De Sade’s Justine, who is the target—and eventually the victim—of the desires of the world. She possesses no will.
Kerri Pierce: There’s a funny story, actually, about the graphic on the cover. One of my favorite parts of the book, and one of the editor, Kaija’s, favorite parts as well—which I also think speaks to Justine’s character—is when a one-night stand asks Justine if she’s a lesbian (and his tone is rather dismissive/incredulous) and she responds: “Wolf.”
Brian S: Kerri—I loved that moment in the book. That was brilliant.
Iben Mondrup: Exactly, she sees herself as a predator. A wolf, a lone she-wolf.
Gesell Dome by Guillermo Saccomanno, translated from the Spanish by Andrea Labinger
Kim Fay just reviewed this for the Los Angeles Review of Books and digs into one of the most salient and difficult aspects of the book:
There came a point while I was reading Gesell Dome that I cringed whenever new characters were introduced, wondering what horrible things were going to happen to them. But I somehow knew that, even as a reader, I was not allowed to look away. As I grew weary of horror after horror, all I wanted to do was turn my head—but if I did, then I would become complicit.
By using a narrator who is not shocked, who does not look away from anything, Saccomanno shines a gruesome, graphic light on what people are willing to ignore so that their comfort remains intact. He compounds this with a fearlessness when it comes to rationalization. “We’re not Auschwitz,” the narrator declares, and if someone sexually abuses a few kids, “it’s not the same as Bosnia. Give me a break. There’s no comparison.”
Radiant Terminus by Antoine Volodine, translated from the French by Jeffrey Zuckerman
Radiant Terminus comes out on February 7th (although copies will go out to subscribers this week), but in the meantime, you can read an excerpt on EuropeNow. Here’s the opening paragraph from the excerpted section:
The captain was named Umrug. His life had started somewhat chaotically. His father, Choem Mendelssohn, was a bird, and his mother, Bagda Dolomidès, was Ybür.
Also worth noting this comment Brian Evenson made on Facebook when listing his favorite books of the year:
Pleased too that I could write the intro to Antoine Volodine’s exceptionally strong Radiant Terminus, which is out from Open Letter in February. I’ve said before that I think American literature would be much better if more writers were reading Volodine and I still think this: he’s one of my half dozen favorite living writers.
You may also want to check out this “starred” review from Kirkus:
French “post-exoticist” Volodine returns with a dark view of the near future, where science fiction meets a certain kind of horror. [. . .] A landmark of modern dystopianism, portending a time to come that no one would want to live in.
Finally, Rochester’s local alternative paper, City Newspaper ran a piece on Open Letter as a whole, with the amazing headline, “Open Letter Finishes 2016 Strong.” It starts by putting our NEA grant into a local context, then goes on to talk about some recent review coverage and our plans to make 2018—our ten year anniversary—the “Year of Open Letter.”
The last few weeks of December set Open Letter Books up for a great 2017. In mid-December, The National Endowment of the Arts awarded the small literary translation press an Art Works grant of $40,000. This was the largest amount awarded to any Rochester organization this cycle — BOA Editions and George Eastman Museum each received $20,000; the Rochester Fringe Festival received $25,000; and Gateways Music Festival and Geva Theatre Center were each awarded $10,000.