Georgi Gospodinov and The Physics of Sorrow (Introduction)
Throughout this season of the Two Month Review, Santiago Morrice will be writing weekly pieces about the section of the book discussed on the previous week’s podcast. These will likely go a bit more in depth into the style and content of the novel itself, nicely complementing the podcasts.
On last week’s podcast, Chad and Kaija talked a bit about how Open Letter came to publish The Physics of Sorrow, its general success, their personal relationships to the book, and how to correctly say “Georgi” and “Gospodinov,” but I thought I’d give you a bit more background into his work, and this novel in particular.
Georgi Gospodinov is one of the most translated Bulgarian authors of the late twentieth century. He has written award winning works in a variety of genres. His earliest poetry collection, Lapidarium (1992, Modus Stoi͡a︡nov), named after the archaic Roman word for galleries of stonecraft, won the Bulgarian National Debut Prize. He then published two other poetry collections, Letters to Gaustin (2003) and Ballads and Maladies (2007). Many of these poems have been anthologized within European collections. He’s also served as an editor to I’ve Lived Socialism: 171 Personal Stories (2006) and Book of Socialism (2006), collections of reflective pieces on life in Bulgaria. And Other Stories (2001; translated to English in 2007 by Zornitza Hristova and Magdalena Levy, Northwestern University Press), Gospodinov’s first formal collection of short stories, was longlisted for the 2007 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award for its English translation. From this particular collection, the short story “Blind Vaysha” was adapted as an animated short by director Theodore Ushev, which was nominated for Best Animated short at the 89th Academy Awards. His first full-length novel, A Natural Novel (1999; translated to English in 2005 by Zornita Hristrova, Dalkey Archive Press), was well received globally.
Stylistically, Gospodinov abandons long and cohesive runs for series of short, fractured, yet interrelated stories. He often utilizes these stylistic choices to address a calm doom that pervades life, and he frequently comments on the influence of the Communist politics on everyday Bulgarian life.
And these themes continue in new permutations in the text at hand, The Physics of Sorrow, which, like so many of Gospodinov’s titles, lives up to its name. Originally published in 2011, this work has been translated into seventeen languages, including to English by translator Angela Rodel (who we will get into more soon) in 2011 through the Open Letter Press. It has won numerous awards across Europe, and was a critical and commercial success in Bulgaria.
At is simplest and most concrete the The Physics of Sorrow is a receptacle of the experiences, memories, and imagination. Through a process of “embedding” primary narrator Georgi Gospodinov can enter and experience the memories of others. Through this process Georgi experiences the sorrows of those in his family both as they occurred and as someone reflecting on a history he did not personally understand.
Gospodinov’s writing remains clear from the most concrete to the most metaphysical of moments. At times the piece feels like a memoir highlighting the emotional mechanisms of people surviving the horrors of war, then smoothly shifts into pages of contemporary scientific methodologies, which then shift into the blunt reflections of an author towards the craft of their own work, which then transforms into another form for another topic or another landscape—these shifts sometimes occurring all within the span of a page. At each shift Gospodinov maintains a clear vision and approach to the work at hand and carries the reader gracefully through the chaos of memory. As you will come to learn The Physics of Sorrow lives up to its name. As a meticulous exploration of the world at large, Georgi Gospodinov’s work challenges conventional understandings of memory and truth, fracturing one into the other and providing a detailed, scientific account to the mechanisms by which this process of breaking occurs. As a collection of deep dives, The Physics of Sorrow constructs experience where the timeless unborn, invertebrates, children, the sinful union of bull and man, soldiers, diagrams and the perpetually misplaced each have a perspective and a stake in what can be known.
The translator, Angela Rodel, lives and works in Bulgaria as a translator for contemporary Bulgarian writers. She received her B.A. from Yale and her M.A. from Yale in Linguistics. Angela Rodel received an NEA translation grant for her work on this book and provides her expertise with Bulgarian translations to bring Gospodinov’s genius to English audiences. For the last decade, she’s worked to translate the most celebrated Bulgarian literature for English audiences and has worked on dozens of translations, cementing her position as an authority on Bulgarian to English Translation. Among all these translations, she’s received awards for her translation of The Physics of Sorrow, including the National Book Center’s 2015 Peroto Prize for translation from Bulgarian and 2016 American Association of Teachers of Slavic and Eastern European Languages (AATSEEL) Prize for Best Book of Literary Translation.
Due to the Communist government following World War II, modern Bulgarian literature was relegated to government control for much of the twenty-first century. From this point of the century, we can look at Dimitar Dimov’s Tobacco (1951) as an exemplary work of Communist-controlled Bulgarian literature and Dimitar Talev’s The Iron Oil Lamp (1952) for Bulgarian authorship at large. But as Communist control lessened towards the end of the 20th century, and authors experienced newfound freedoms, the scope and variety of literature blossomed. As you prepare to dive into Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow, or as a follow up or compliment to the book, two works that really help define the modern state of the country are Ivailo Petrov’s Wolf Hunt (1986), translated by Angela Rodel, and and Hristo Karastoyanov’s The Same Night Awaits Us All (2014). Thanks to the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation and translators like Angela Rodel, interested readers have access to far more Bulgarian books now than they did just a few years ago.