The Book That Never Was
I have no idea how to write anymore. Every week, I come up with some dumb idea for how to get back into posting here—”Five Outcomes for International Literature Post-COVID,” “Escapism During Quarantine,” “Can You Stress Drink AND Read Real Literature?,” “Why Are All the Quarantine Listicles So Dumb?: The Virus and Taste”—but is anyone really interested in the Translation Database right now? And what is the appropriate tone for a frightened nation? Why are publishing? Why are anything? Ugh.
Anyway, most of the rare moments when I shake free from my existential despair take place when I’m teaching my World Lit class. (You should buy all the books on that list, but do so through a different Bookshop.org affiliate—whichever local store you want to help out.) It’s a small class (six students), which makes Zoom (a company that’s only going to seem more and more evil as time passes) much more tolerable. (I also love my larger class on publishing, but I’ve taught that one every semester for eight years, so it comes with a different level of anxiety and preparation and need for student interaction.) Every year, I look forward to teaching this particular class, mostly because I put together a list of ten recent translations—several of which I haven’t had time to read. Every week we read a book, discuss it, then interview the translator. Having the opportunity to learn from some of the greatest translators of our time is exciting for everyone involved. And always seems to energize me.
This year, I was planning on doing something I’ve never done before: Record all of these interviews, transcribe them and put them into a book surrounded by my own commentary. To be honest, this was more of a desire than a proposal—I had no idea what this would end up looking like, whether or not it would hold together, and, most importantly, whether anyone would actually be interested in a book like this. (Answer: Probably not!)
I diligently recorded the first handful of interviews, got them electronically transcribed, and started worked on rewriting them into something logical and maybe interesting. (Transcribing a transcribed interview is a nightmare of a time suck, FYI.) I finished the first one with Lola Rogers on The Colonel’s Wife by Rosa Liksom, and was—momentarily at least—proud of it. And when I started working on one with Aleshia Jensen and Aimee Wall talking about Maude Veilleux’s Prague, I deluded myself into thinking there was a path to making this an interesting series of essay-interviews that build and interlock and cover a whole wealth of issues related to translation, publishing, reading.
And then COVID-19.
I’m so stressed about Open Letter, about our books that are coming out right now (Cars on Fire and Four by Four), about what the future might hold, about how to justify my work-at-home hours to the University of Rochester, how to stay somewhat sober, whether or not I’ll make it through my next great depressive spell (unlikely!), whether I’ll ever see human beings again . . . All of that has made it impossible to work on this book idea. And I don’t know that I will in the future. I think this will be yet another book idea that gets scrapped, or written and destroyed. That goes unpublished and unread. (Save the trees, save the readers!)
But, I do have this one piece with Lola. So, since I have nothing else of my own to share right now, and can’t write until I get past this utter despair, I’m going to share this with you. Chapter One of The Book That Never Was.
Enjoy, stay safe, and wash your hands.