1 July 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

This match was judged by Florian Duijsens. For more info on the World Cup of Literature, read this, and download the updated bracket.

To pitch anyone against W. G. Sebald is a cruel exercise, even within the high-stakes tournament that is the World Cup of Literature. More so even than Bolaño, whose fame in the English-speaking world has also grown exponentially after his death, Sebald’s posthumous stature is gargantuan, and his presence in this tournament is that of a towering flâneur facing teams of tiny tots in soccer shoes and diapers.

Still, the game has begun and a winner can and must officially be declared only after this second-round match has been played. To introduce our players then: On our left, playing for the former French colony of Algeria, there’s The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris by Leïla Marouane, translated by Alison Anderson, on our right, sauntering about the field and peering at the crypto-fascist stadium architecture is W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, translated from the German by Anthea Bell.

A cursory glance at these books’ stats suggests several points in common: occasional footnotes, a playful approach to fact and fiction, an authorial narrator who was told the story by a restless third party, that third party being the bearer of two names and two identities. Yet this reader found one book almost infinitely stronger when the last pages had been turned and the final whistle blown.

Set in Paris, Marouane’s novel, her fifth, has at its center Mohamed Ben Mokhtar, a man of Algerian descent who, at the age of 40, though very successful at his only sketchily described job in finance, still lives with his mother and still is a virgin. He describes how, early on in his career, he legally had his name changed to Basile Toquard, lightening his skin and straightening his hair, all in order to ‘pass’ among the French more easily. His impulse purchase of an expensive flat at the beginning of the novel, however, forces him to renegotiate this split identity, especially once (in a very Hollywood move) he promises his devastated mother he will marry before he and his still devout brother leave on their haj to Mecca in a few months time. Though he tries to pop his cherry and find a suitable mate, his clock soon is running out as the women he courts turn out to be quite unlike the vixens his lustful gaze had suggested. The joke is on Mohamed as the plot derails amidst authorial interventions and that move most deserving of a literary red card, the ‘dream sequence’. In a silly take on Kafka’s The Judgment, these bits see the previously overprotective mother suddenly turned into a freethinking feminist artist, rendering poor Mohamed’s hard-won independence from her meaningless; who is he without his mother?

If this indeed sounds like a trippy Muslim take on The 40-Year-Old Virgin, you should know that Marouane adds a metafictional frisson by inserting both herself into the narrative (under the pseudonym of feminist Algerian author Loubna Minbar), as well as the female protagonists of her previous novels. This does not, however, get us any closer to any of the characters (or, really, the vagaries of post-colonial identity), instead often drawing us further away while the actors turn into warring stereotypes performing an increasingly bizarre allegorical romcom of letters.

Austerlitz, on the other hand, uses its central and titular character’s quest to learn more about his unknown heritage to simultaneously illuminate the way the 20th century has scarred us all. When young Dafydd Elias learns his real name is Jacques Austerlitz and later finds out that he came to Wales alone as a child on a Kindertransport from Nazi-occupied Europe, this sets him on a course that will lead him, both consciously and subconsciously, to learn more about his family and the horror that tore it apart.

As played out in hotel lobbies and train station waiting rooms, the story of both Jacques Austerlitz and Austerlitz the novel is one born from the Sebaldian belief that:

we also have appointments to keep in the past, in what has gone before and is for the most part extinguished, and must go there in search of places and people who have some connection with us on the far side of time

Though endlessly and fascinatingly digressive, all the digressions Austerlitz leads the narrator on have a bearing on both his past and on the way history is still unspooling all around and underneath us. From casual mentions of the “murderous town of Bacharach” and Schumann’s descent into madness, to longer essayistic reportage on Fort Breendonk outside of Antwerp or the concentration camp at Terezín, Sebald’s book bears witness to a past that is barely buried. As James Wood points out in his foreword to the 10th anniversary edition, it is impossible for a contemporary reader to make her way through the book without time and time again misreading the protagonist’s name as Auschwitz, a cursed name pointedly not mentioned anywhere in the book. The interspersed and unattributed photography, meanwhile, at once reminds us that this fiction is rooted in fact, these pictured places at some point having existed somewhere real, and nags at us as we realize that surely the boy in costume on the cover cannot be the fictional character Austerlitz; relics of the past they may be, but photographs in no way can offer us conclusive proof (or comfort).

All this to say that on the metaphorical soccer field this tournament calls home, Marouane may have conjured up a shape shifting team of conflicted French Algerians dressed in outfits that range from the traditionally Muslim to high-priced finance casual, a glance at Sebald’s side of the field reveals it to be deserted, the grass rolled up to uncover the foundations of the fortified encampment that once stood in the stadium’s stead. Outside, in the dilapidated and dark little bakery where you can only hear muted honks of the echoing vuvuzelas, is a man telling another man the story of our lives, “how everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life, how the world is, as it were, draining itself, in that the history of countless places and objects which themselves have no power of memory is never heard, never described or passed on”.

In the end, then, the result is the expected one: the Algerian team defeated, the stands and goals empty, the ref’s whistles always already forgotten.

Germany’s victory: 1-0.

——

Florian Duijsens is a freelance writer/editor/translator, senior editor of Asymptote Journal, and fiction editor at Sand. He lives in Berlin.

——

Did Austerlitz Dererve to Make it to the Quarterfinals?

Yes
No


7 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.

Click here for all past and future posts.

Hygiene and the Assassin by Amelie Nothomb, translated by Alison Anderson

Language: French
Country: France
Publisher: Europa Editions
Pages: 167

Why This Book Should Win: “I didn’t use to believe in the efficacy of verbal torture. And now as of these last few minutes I’ve started to believe in it.”

This post was written by aspiring German translator and recent University of Rochester graduate, Jen Marquart.

After receiving news that he has a rare form of cancer, Nobel Prize winning author Prétextat Tach decides to grant interviews to five journalists. The first four approach Tach from a straightforward manner—believing to have out smarted former colleagues—to be torn apart, humiliated, sickened and broken. Only with Nina, the fifth journalist, does the obese, grotesque, misogynist author meet his match in a brutal game of verbal wit. By the end of the interview both Nina and Tach have plunged into an inescapable abyss.

With each interview reading as a separate story around the central theme of literary culture (more specifically what it means to be a “good writer/reader” and the politics surrounding the Nobel Prize for Literature) Nothomb, in her powerful first novel, commands a dialogue digging at these issues:

“[…] You have sold millions of copies, even in China, and that doesn’t make you think?”

“Weapons factories sell thousands of missiles the world over every day, and that doesn’t make them think, either.”

“There’s no comparison.”

“You don’t think so? And yet there is a striking parallel. There’s an accumulation, for example: we talk about an arms race, we should talk about a ‘literature race.’ It’s a cogent argument like any other: every nation brandishes its writer or writers as if they were cannons. Sooner or later I too will be brandished, and they’ll prepare my Nobel Prize for battle.”

“If that’s the way you look at it, I have to agree with you. But thank God, literature is less harmful.”

“Not mine. My literature is even more harmful then war.”

“Don’t you think you are flattering yourself there?”

“Well I’m obliged to, because I am the only reader who is capable of understanding me. Yes, my books are more harmful than war, because they make you want to die, whereas war, in fact, makes you want to live. After reading me, people should feel like committing suicide.”

“And how do you explain the fact that they don’t?”

“Well, I can explain it very easily: it is because nobody reads me. Basically, that may also be the reason for my extraordinary success: if I am so famous, my good man, it is because nobody reads me.”

These funny and critical exchanges are taken to a higher level with Nina, who plays Tach’s game equally well, if not better. She plays with his words and calls bullshit on his “Freudian Slips,” all in an attempt to tease out the ‘real’ Prétextat Tach.

With biting witticism and the criticism of literature swirling around the disturbing life of one Nobel Prize author, Hygiene and the Assassin is one of the funniest and most engaging books I have read.

21 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.

Click here for all past and future posts.

Hygiene and the Assassin by Amelie Nothomb, translated by Alison Anderson

Language: French
Country: France
Publisher: Europa Editions
Pages: 167

Why This Book Should Win: Europa Editions publishes a ton of translations and deserves a victory; Nothomb was all of 25 when she wrote this; Nothomb has written 20-some-odd books and still doesn’t get the attention she deserves from American readers; She’s coming to Rochester days after the April 29th announcement, and that would be effing awesome if she won; most importantly, she deserves to win because of the passages below and the constant referencing of Celine.

I wrote today’s post.

This novel—Nothomb’s first, publishing in French in 1992, and just now available in English—may be the sharpest, funniest book on this year’s BTBA fiction longlist.

Here’s the basic set-up: Pretexat Tach (what a name!) is a Nobel Prize winning author, who is a recluse, and who is about to die. Because of his impending death, he agrees to be interviewed by a series of journalists, each one as moronic as the last. Tach tortures each of them in turn, berating them, humiliating them, and coming across as a total prick—but one who, despite (or maybe in part because of) his disgusting appearance, thoughts, and rants, is fairly entertaining.

Actually, instead of trying to describe the merits of this book—the way the final journalist undoes Tach, the way the plot feels all piecemeal until the last few moments when all the literary traps are sprung and the plot points braided together in a very tense, exciting way—I’m going to stop here and leave you with a couple examples of Tach’s awesome rants (and Nothomb’s stunning ability to come up with these, and Anderson’s skill at translating them).

Tach on how few people have really read his books:

“Those are the frog-readers. They make up the vast majority of human readers, and yet I only discovered their existence quite late in life. I am so terribly naive. I thought that everyone read the way I do. For I read the way I eat: that means not only do I need to read, but also, and above all, that reading becomes one of my components and modifies them all. You are not the same person depending on whether you have eaten blood pudding or cavier; nor are you the same person depending on whether you have just read Kant (God help us) or Queneau. Well, when I say ‘you,’ I should say ‘I myself and a few others,’ because the majority of people emerge from reading Proust or Simenon in an identical state: they have neither lost a fraction of what they were nor gained a single additional fraction. They have read, that’s all: in the best-case scenario, they know ‘what it’s about.’ And I’m not exaggerating. How often have I asked intelligent people, ‘Did this book change you?’ And they look at me, their eyes wide, as if to say, ‘Why should a book change me?’”

“Allow me to express my astonishment, Monsieur Tach: you have just spoken as if you were defending books with a message, and that’s not like you.”

“You’re not very clever, are you? So are you of the opinion that only books ‘with a message’ can change an individual? These are the books that are the least likely to change them. The books that have an impact, that transform people, are the other ones—books about desire, or pleasure, books filled with genius, and above all books filled with beauty. Let us take, for example, a great book filled with beauty: Journey to the End of the Night. How can you not be transformed after you have read it? Well, the majority of readers manage just that tour de force without difficulty. They will come to you and say, ‘Oh yes, Celine is magnificent,’ and then they go back to what they were doing.”

But really, the best section is this one on how Tach’s books are dangerous, how “writing is harmful”:

“There’s no comparison. Writing is not as harmful.”

“You obviously don’t know what you’re saying, because you haven’t read me—how could you know? Writing fucks things up at every level: think of the trees they’ve had to cut down for the paper, of all the room they have to find to store the books, the money it costs to print them, and the money it will cost potential readers, and the boredom the readers will feel on reading them, and the guilty conscience of the unfortunate people who buy them and don’t have the courage to read them, and the sadness of the kind imbeciles who do read them but don’t understand a thing, and finally, above all, the fatuousness of the conversations that wil take place after said books have been read or not read. And that’s just the half of it! So don’t go telling me that writing is not harmful.”

30 September 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Larissa Kyzer on Laurence Cosse’s A Novel Bookstore, which is available from Europa Editions in Alison Anderson’s translation.

Larissa reviews for us on a regular basis, when she’s not learning various languages, writing for L Magazine, or reading Scandinavian lit . . . She’s a smart reviewer, and this look at Cosse’s novel is interesting both in its praise and criticisms. Here’s the opening of her review:

“Who should we see at the police to denounce attacks against literature?” Such is the question that two bookstore owners—one an elegant heiress, the other a self-educated, solitary, bohemian bookseller—solemnly pose at the opening of French author Laurence Cossé’s satirical biblio-thriller, A Novel Bookstore. Both avid and opinionated readers, Francesca Aldo-Valbelli and Ivan (Van) Georg embarked on an entirely idealistic enterprise—to open The Good Novel, “a perfect bookstore, the kind where you’d sell nothing but good novels.” Their inventory selection process was complex and clandestine: a panel of eight unidentified novelists—each with their own code name, such as “Quinoa” and “Strait-laced,” or “The Red” and “Green Pea”—would generate lists of titles to be stocked. Books on hand would be old and new, from countries worldwide. However, The Good Novel would not fall prey to current publishing trends, and would not depend on forthcoming novels or best sellers—“books not worth bothering with”—to make a profit.

The Good Novel had a fabulous debut, but its unfettered success was not to last. Shortly after its opening, the store faced a sudden onslaught of attacks. Vitriolic opinion pieces declaring the store’s mission to sell only good books as “totalitarian” were published in newspapers. Malicious customers arrived in hordes, ordering Danielle Steele books they never planned to pay for. Most shocking, three of the members of the secret selection committee were not only identified, but violently attacked by mysterious strangers who pointedly taunted them: “It’s like being in a bad crime novel, huh. . . . ? With vulgar characters and a stupid plot . . . So this isn’t a good novel, huh?”

Click here to read the full piece.

30 September 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

“Who should we see at the police to denounce attacks against literature?” Such is the question that two bookstore owners—one an elegant heiress, the other a self-educated, solitary, bohemian bookseller—solemnly pose at the opening of French author Laurence Cossé’s satirical biblio-thriller, A Novel Bookstore. Both avid and opinionated readers, Francesca Aldo-Valbelli and Ivan (Van) Georg embarked on an entirely idealistic enterprise—to open The Good Novel, “a perfect bookstore, the kind where you’d sell nothing but good novels.” Their inventory selection process was complex and clandestine: a panel of eight unidentified novelists—each with their own code name, such as “Quinoa” and “Strait-laced,” or “The Red” and “Green Pea”—would generate lists of titles to be stocked. Books on hand would be old and new, from countries worldwide. However, The Good Novel would not fall prey to current publishing trends, and would not depend on forthcoming novels or best sellers—“books not worth bothering with”—to make a profit.

The Good Novel had a fabulous debut, but its unfettered success was not to last. Shortly after its opening, the store faced a sudden onslaught of attacks. Vitriolic opinion pieces declaring the store’s mission to sell only good books as “totalitarian” were published in newspapers. Malicious customers arrived in hordes, ordering Danielle Steele books they never planned to pay for. Most shocking, three of the members of the secret selection committee were not only identified, but violently attacked by mysterious strangers who pointedly taunted them: “It’s like being in a bad crime novel, huh. . . . ? With vulgar characters and a stupid plot . . . So this isn’t a good novel, huh?”

While the novel flirts with the mystery genre, it ultimately defies such classification. Starting much like a thriller, A Novel Bookstore quickly steps back, exploring—in great detail—Francesca and Van’s first meeting, their histories, and their debates on everything from Pierre Michon to whether the store’s inventory should be organized alphabetically, chronologically, or geographically (they opt for combination of the three). Cossé also playfully manipulates the narration, starting the story in third person, and then revealing an unnamed first person narrator who is actually a character in the story as well.

Each character is precisely articulated, with personalized quirks and gestures and even wardrobes. Cossé observes the smallest details—such as a hole in the elbow of a favorite sweater—and imbues them with meaning. These characterizations, combined with such explicit details about preparations to open the bookstore, immerse one in a world that feels entirely real. The thriller aspect of the novel falls to the wayside, with its eventual explanation feeling almost irrelevant to the real meat of the book. Reveling in minutia, occasionally overwrought declarations of literary superiority (Cormac McCarthy is consistently touted the greatest living writer), and piquant asides on the state of literary criticism in France, Cossé seems to have created an ideal shaggy dog story: it’s not really a matter of what “happens” or doesn’t, as the case may be, but simply immersing oneself among these characters.

As the novel progresses, however, this verisimilitude gives way to a much more fictional fiction—a plot-driven, theatrical dénouement that feels strangely out of step with the rest of the novel. Suspicions that The Good Novel is the victim of a greater “conspiracy”—wrought by members of the greater (very cynical) literary community—are actually well founded. And as the trials and tribulations faced by the bookstore and its denizens become more and more dramatic and outlandish, so do the characters’ responses. “With all due allowance, something happened here that is comparable to what happened with Al Qaeda and its consequences,” the policeman investigating The Good Novel attacks remarks.

It seems clear that the dramatic shift in tone at the end of the novel is intended to symbolically illustrate Cossé’s pet moral: that mainstream society only has a literary appetite for banal bestsellers, and that “lazy and frivolous” critics and journalists are in great part to blame for this mediocre taste.“They heap praise on books that are nothing but fluff, and in the rush they overlook real jewels,” we’re told. But maybe there is a bit of a wink in the self-righteous exclamations of the downtrodden booksellers. Cossé is, after all, a journalist herself. In the end, perhaps the greatest strength of A Novel Bookstore is to simply compel readers to consider their own literary preferences more consciously. For as Van says, “one of the most fortunate purposes of literature is to bring like-minded people together and get them talking.”

19 August 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Erin O’Rourke on Leïla Marouane’s The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris, which was translated from the French by Alison Anderson and published by Europa Editions earlier this year.

Erin O’Rourke has been interning with us all summer, reading a lot of the Italian books that were passed along thanks to our recent visit to the Torino International Book Fair. In her own words, she is an aspiring crazy cat lady, and is currently on a plane to San Francisco. (These two statements are unrelated. Maybe.)

She like the book quite a bit, and it does sound really interesting:

In four novels and a collection of short stories, Leïla Marouane has become a voice for the Algerian women’s rights movement, exploring themes of marriage, sex, and identity in the context of the religious and cultural divide of the Maghreb/Western Europe region. She fearlessly takes on the taboo, as her skill with comedy renders even the most troubling political or religious issues accessible. Born in Algeria in 1960, Marouane escaped persecution towards her writing by moving to Paris in 1990. This is her second novel to be translated into English, following The Abductor, which was published by Quartet Books in the UK almost a decade ago.

With The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris—vividly translated by Alison Anderson—Marouane skillfully constructs a light, comedic plot behind which hides a dizzying maze of questions that, like an Escher staircase, form an endless loop. The story starts out as a comedy of errors starring Mohamed Ben Mokhtar, an Algerian immigrant living in a Paris suburb who is also a forty-year-old virgin. Once a devout Muslim, Mohamed has left the faith and decided to free himself from his oppressively devoted mother by moving to Paris and Westernizing himself. He changes his name to Basile Tocquard, lightens his skin and straightens his hair, and sets out to become a famous poet and seduce as many blonde women as he possibly can. The results are hilarious, as in this great passage in which Mohamed naively plans out his new apartment:

For that passage, and the rest of the review, click here.

19 August 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [4]

In four novels and a collection of short stories, Leïla Marouane has become a voice for the Algerian women’s rights movement, exploring themes of marriage, sex, and identity in the context of the religious and cultural divide of the Maghreb/Western Europe region. She fearlessly takes on the taboo, as her skill with comedy renders even the most troubling political or religious issues accessible. Born in Algeria in 1960, Marouane escaped persecution towards her writing by moving to Paris in 1990. This is her second novel to be translated into English, following The Abductor, which was published by Quartet Books in the UK almost a decade ago.

With The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris—vividly translated by Alison Anderson—Marouane skillfully constructs a light, comedic plot behind which hides a dizzying maze of questions that, like an Escher staircase, form an endless loop. The story starts out as a comedy of errors starring Mohamed Ben Mokhtar, an Algerian immigrant living in a Paris suburb who is also a forty-year-old virgin. Once a devout Muslim, Mohamed has left the faith and decided to free himself from his oppressively devoted mother by moving to Paris and Westernizing himself. He changes his name to Basile Tocquard, lightens his skin and straightens his hair, and sets out to become a famous poet and seduce as many blonde women as he possibly can. The results are hilarious, as in this great passage in which Mohamed naively plans out his new apartment:

I determined where the bookshelf would go, along with the desk, facing the window, above the foliage that would inspire poetry to make Antonin Artaud and Octavio Paz week in unison in their graves, and then of course the bed, maybe a palatial king-size, where I would roll about with creatures to tempt angels and demons alike; a bathroom in tones of green and yellow, two sinks side by side, an oval tub that could easily seat two adults and into which I would plunge each of my future conquests and myself along with them; a separate toilet with a bookshelf that went right to the ceiling, where I would place my collections of Diplo and Politics, my graphic novels, and the girlie magazines I intended to acquire . . .

However, Basile (also called Mohamed, and sometimes Momo) is something of a paradox: although he claims that he only has eyes for Western women, the women he becomes involved with are all Muslim, Algerian, and just the sort of woman his mother would approve of. Each of these women inevitably thwarts Mohamed’s plans to bed them, leaving him continually frustrated. As time wears on and Mohamed’s “conquests” multiply—he is always certain that a wild night of sexual abandon is right around the corner—we begin to question Mohamed’s reliability as a narrator. He starts to lose chunks of time, staying up all night entertaining his girlfriends—or does he?—and sleeping all afternoon. Then, suddenly, he jumps ahead three months as though it were the next day. A mysterious writer, Loubna Minbar (or Louisa Machindel, or is it Lisa Martinez?) appears as a common link between everyone Mohamed meets. A manuscript Mohamed believes to be written by her appears in his apartment, throwing the reality of the events of the entire story into question.

For the unobservant reader, it would be easy enough to miss the clues that Marouane—who coincidentally shares the same initials as the mysterious writer—has sprinkled throughout the story, details that seem too murky and puzzling for such a lighthearted, frivolous story. Even so, it would be impossible to escape a growing suspicion that Mohamed is not really the narrator but the protagonist in someone else’s story. Each chapter begins in the other writer’s voice, saying “he said,” before returning to Mohamed’s narrative; every so often Mohamed addresses an unnamed figure in the second person; and he is reading a novel called The Sultan of Saint-Germain that seems to be based on his cousin’s life, or even his own. The central mystery revolves around the chameleon-like Loubna Minbar, who may or may not be Mohamed’s concierge, and who exacts her revenge on men by stealing their life stories for her novels and driving them mad in the process. Because, while Marouane’s novel masquerades as a man’s story, it’s really a story about women, about the countless Algerian women who have had to make the humiliating journey to freedom in the Western world on the currency of their wits and their bodies. Ignored by Mohamed in his quest for sexual liberation, they become the heroines of the story, enjoying the same freedom that eludes him. As their stories cleverly illustrate, it may be a man’s world, but women get the last laugh.

Like its title, The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris intends to provoke. And if you’re not careful it may also send you in circles, trying to get to the bottom of that staircase. As one of Marouane’s characters warns Mohamed, “Just reading her is enough to send you round the bend.”

15 July 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Following up on last week’s post about the various summer/fall 2010 previews that came out from The Millions and elsewhere, I thought that over the next few days, we’d highlight some forthcoming titles that sound pretty interesting to me. Sure I’m missing things and whatnot, so feel free to overload the comments section with recommendations. And click here to see all translation preview posts.

Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (Germany, New Directions)

From an interview with superstar translator Susan Bernofsky:

I’m just finishing up a new Jenny Erpenbeck novel for New Directions, Visitation, a book whose main character is a house. It’s a fascinating story, a sort of concise chronicle or saga that takes us through all the various upheavals of twentieth-century German history—but rather than being different generations of a single family, the characters in the book come from various families that overlap with and replace one another—sometimes peacefully, sometimes not. It’s a compelling, mysterious book, and I’m stunned by how skillfully Erpenbeck weaves the strands of the various stories together. There’s one passage in which she writes about children playing in a garden, and after a certain point you realize that some of these children are literally in the garden of the house while others are many thousands of miles away, in exile after their families were forced to flee—in the storytelling she turns the narration of a historical moment into a sort of outward explosion in space.

Sold!

Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris by Georges Perec, translated from the French by Marc Lowenthal (France, Wakefield Press)

Wakefield Press doesn’t receive nearly as much play as it deserves. Marc Lowenthal (translator, publisher, etc.) is producing some fascinatingly strange books in absolutely gorgeous editions. (I highly recommend The Young Girl’s Handbook of Good Manners which is one of the raunchiest, funniest books I’ve ever read. And by raunchy I mean there’s some really sick shit in there.) And Perec! One of the all time bests. And this small book is perfectly Perec-ian: for three days he records everything he sees as part of a “quest of the ‘infraordinary’: the humdrum, the nonevent, the everyday—‘what happens,’ as he put it, ‘when nothing happens.’”

Sleepwalker by Margarita Karapanou, translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich (Greece, Clockroot)

No matter what, I’d include this book on the list simply because I think Karen Emmerich is amazing and Clockroot extremely daring and interesting. But check this quote:

“God was tired . . . He looked down at his earth and what it had become . . . His people had betrayed him . . . Thus it was that he decided to send a new god to earth, a god people would recognize and worship from the start—a god made in their image, a god they deserved . . . He clutched his stomach, leaned over the earth, and vomited.”

Yep. And here’s an excerpt from Clockroot, and one from Words Without Borders.

The Woman with the Bouquet by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, translated from the French by Alison Anderson (France, Europa Editions)

This is the second Schmitt book to come out from Europa — the other being The Most Beautiful Book in the World — and both story collections sound pretty intriguing. But the real reason I wanted to mention this book is because it is fourth translation of Alison Anderson’s coming out this year. She’s like the C.C. Sebathia of literary translation!

The Clash of Images by Abdelfattah Kilito, translated from the French by Robyn Creswell (Morocco, New Directions)

This sounds very cool. It’s described as a “sweet, Borgesian mix of bildungsroman memoir, family history, short-story collection, fable, and literary criticism.” It also has a great cover, a brilliant quote from Elias Khoury (“We normally speak of writing as an adventure, but Kilito dares his reader to travel with him, on a quest to override the boundaries between reality and fiction, between literary criticism and storytelling”), and Creswell won a PEN Translation Award for this.

The Elephant’s Journey by Jose Saramago, translated by Margaret Jull Costa (Portugal, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

With Saramago passing away just a few weeks ago, it’s a good time to look over his career. I haven’t read many of the recent titles, but back in the day, I really liked Blindness, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, The Stone Raft, Blindness, and Balthasar and Blimunda, which is the book The Elephant’s Journey most calls to mind.

In 1551, King Joao III of Portugal gave Archduke Maximilian an unusual wedding present: an elephant named Solomon. The elephant’s journey from Lisbon to Vienna was witnessed and remarked upon by scholars, historians, and ordinary people. Out of this material, José Saramago has spun a novel already heralded as “a triumph of language, imagination, and humor” (El País).

The Wrong Blood by Manuel de Lope, translated from the Spanish by John Cullen (Spain, Other Press)

A couple months back, I met with some of the editors at Other Press, and they all raved about this book. Manuel de Lope has a solid reputation in Spain, and this is his first book to be published in English. All I’ve been able to read so far is the opening sentence, but this (along with the jacket copy and Katie’s recommendation) has me pretty intrigued:

It was the month of May, or the month of June, in any case summer was near, and within only a few weeks the war would break out, although nobody knew this at the time, and those who had premonitions couldn’t go so far as to believe them, because fear rejects what the intuition accepts, and they wouldn’t have been able to convince anybody anyway.

14 July 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Following up on last week’s post about the various summer/fall 2010 previews that came out from The Millions and elsewhere, I thought that over the next few days, we’d highlight some forthcoming titles that sound pretty interesting to me. Sure I’m missing things and whatnot, so feel free to overload the comments section with recommendations. And click here to see all translation preview posts.

I Curse the River of Time“: by Per Petterson, translated from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund (Norway, Graywolf Press)

Along with all the Bolano and Larsson books, this is probably one of the most anticipated works in translation coming out this year. Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses was an incredible success for Graywolf, and hopefully I Curse the River of Time will be as well. This is already available in the UK, and the reviews seem to be pretty positive, including this one in the Guardian, in which Rachel Cusk calls the book “a work of blackest tragicomedy, a novel as cold and scintillating and desolate as the northern winter landscapes that are its setting.” It centers around late-30-something Arvid Jansen, whose life appears to be tottering, so he goes to visit his mother in Denmark. This paragraph makes the book sound really interesting to me:

On the ferry he is paranoid and unstable; he punches a man he believes to be menacing him, only to discover later that this man is a childhood friend who was trying to greet him. He falls off a jetty and soaks the only clothes he has brought with him. He takes it into his head to chop down a tree his mother has always complained of in front of the cottage, thinking it will please her. He hangs around her, needy and clinging, when it is apparent that she wants to be left alone; and worse still, apparent that she is disappointed in him, in the failure of his marriage and in his underachievement generally.

Stella by Siegfried Lenz, translated from the Germany by Anthea Bell (Germany, Other Press)

This is just the first of several interesting translations that Other Press will be bringing out over the next few months. Stella is a student-teacher love story, although according to the jacket copy, “there is nothing salacious about their relationship, nor is it just a case of a crush between teacher and student.” The novel starts at the end, at Stella’s funeral, and the praise for Lenz’s “Heminway-esque” style is intriguing.

The Insufferable Gaucho by Roberto Bolano, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews (Chile, New Directions)

Another Bolano! Another collection of short stories! I can’t find the ND page for this book, but here’s a link to what I assume is the title story that appeared in the New Yorker a few years back. Opening sentence is so Bolano: “In the opinion of those who knew him well, Héctor Pereda had two outstanding virtues: he was a caring and affectionate father and an irreproachable lawyer with a record of honesty, in a time and place that were hardly conducive to such rectitude.”

A Novel Bookstore“: by Laurence Cosse, translated from the French by Alison Anderson (France, Europa Editions)

I’ll just let Europa describe this book-related mystery:

Ivan, a one-time world traveler, and Francesca, a ravishing Italian heiress, are the owners of a bookstore that is anything but ordinary. Rebelling against the business of bestsellers and in search of an ideal place where their literary dreams can come true, Ivan and Francesca open a store where the passion for literature is given free reign. Tucked away in a corner of Paris, the store offers its clientele a selection of literary masterpieces chosen by a top-secret committee of likeminded literary connoisseurs. To their amazement, after only a few months, the little dream store proves a success. And that is precisely when their troubles begin. At first, both owners shrug off the anonymous threats that come their way and the venomous comments concerning their store circulating on the Internet, but when three members of the supposedly secret committee are attacked, they decide to call the police. One by one, the pieces of this puzzle fall ominously into place, as it becomes increasingly evident that Ivan and Francesca’s dreams will be answered with pettiness, envy and violence.

Am I a Redundant Human Being? by Mela Hartwig, translated from the German by Kerri Pierce (Austria, Dalkey Archive)

And from the possible wacky to the quite probably depressing . . . I remember hearing about this book on an editorial trip to Vienna I took back when I was working at Dalkey Archive. Sounded like a pretty intense novel, and if I remember right (I probably don’t) the Austrian publisher compared Hartwig to Virginia Woolf. The novel centers around Aloisia Schmidt, a secretary whose life is utterly boring and mundane. From Dalkey: “In one final, guilt-ridden, masturbatory, self-obsessed confession, Aloisia indulges her masochistic tendencies to the fullest, putting her entire life on trial, and trying, through telling her story (a story, she assures us, that’s ‘so laughably mundane’ it’s really no story at all), to transform an ordinary life into something extraordinary.”

Aurorarama by Jean-Christophe Valtat (France, Melville House)

OK, I’m sort of cheating here—Valtat wrote this book in English—but whatever. Valtat sounds really interesting to me, so I’m breaking my own rule. This is Valtat’s second book to come out this year. Just a few weeks ago, FSG published 03, a novel about a man’s memories of a retarded girl he used to see every day and started obsessing over. What’s particularly cool about this book is the way it came into English (from Conversational Reading):

Former FSG editor Lorin Stein discovered this writer when he was browsing in a bookshop in Paris. The author of three previous books, Valtat had never before been translated into English. 03 was first published by Gallimard in 2005 and was not on submission to anyone in the U.S. or the U.K., so it took a chance encounter in a bookshop to bring this novel to an American readership.

That’s the kind of coincidental story that makes publishing awesome.

Aurorarama is set in 1908 in the Arctic city of “New Venice”:

But as the city prepares for spring, it feels more like qaartsiluni—“the time when something is about to explode in the dark.” Local “poletics” are wracked by tensions with the Eskimos circling the city, with suffragette riots led by an underground music star, with drug round-ups by the secret police force known as the Gentlemen of the Night. An ominous black airship hovers over the city, and the Gentlemen are hunting for the author of a radical pamphlet calling for revolt.

All sounds very wild, and very cool.

Klausen by Andreas Maier, translated from the German by Kenneth Northcott (Germany, Open Letter)

And now for the obligatory Open Letter title . . . Maier’s a very interesting writer, somewhere between Saramago and Bernhard. Klausen is a very well-constructed novel bringing together a collection of muddled, often contradictory voices to explain what happened (or didn’t happen) in a small German town. Reading this is quite an experience: the narrative flows from character to character, from event to discussion what really happened at that event, all building in a masterful way to a gripping conclusion involving a bomb. Or a shooting. Or something involving Italians. This may sound daunting or confusing, but it’s really not. It’s a great ride that hysterically portrays the sometimes insane workings of a close-knit community where everyone has an opinion (the right one!) about everything.

25 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

So, on top of articles in the Chronicle and the New Yorker, there was a third moment for translation that took place last week—The Elegance of the Hedgehog has now been on the NY Times Bestseller list for 52-weeks. From the Europa Editions website:

Five years ago, when we opened Europa Editions, people seemed to think we’d lost our minds. We came from a decades-long experience as independent publishers in Italy, and the idea that we would go risking our reputations, and the economic well-being of our Italian house by opening an independent press in America, one largely dedicated to fiction in translation, struck many friends and colleagues as mere foolhardiness, or perhaps the early signs of nascent senility. And maybe it was. But the idea that so many exceptional writers from abroad were not making their way to American readers due to resistance from the publishing industry itself, resistance that is as hard to explain as it is to overcome, was a siren song too seductive and intriguing to ignore. We founded Europa Editions with the idea of publishing quality fiction and non-fiction, much of it by foreign authors who were not otherwise being considered by the majority of American houses. Our project was as much a cultural enterprise as a business venture. We were convinced that dialogue between nations and cultures was more important than ever, and that this exchange was facilitated by literature chosen not only for its ability to entertain and fascinate, but also to inform and enlighten. We remain true to this ideal today. [. . .]

Three years ago we read and acquired a book that is today celebrating one year (its first year?) on the New York Times best seller list: the unassuming story of a French concierge and a young girl who become friends. Beautifully written, with a sprinkle of philosophy, the book had just begun to receive attention in France. Its author was a relatively unknown professor of philosophy at a small school in Normandy. We knew as we began reading this book that we were on to something big. But we could never have imagined how big, nor dream that anything like what has happened would indeed happen.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog has been read by well over half a million people in America since its publication in September 2008. Naturally, not all of them have loved it, but those who have speak about it—on blogs and web sites, in reading groups, with booksellers, and in messages sent to its publisher—as a life-changing book, one that, for the beauty of its writing and the story it tells, has moved them deeply. It is difficult and potentially ruinous to examine too closely the anatomy of a bestseller. All we are inclined to say about The Elegance of the Hedgehog and the characteristics that have made of it a best seller is that the book has touched a nerve in readers; its message responds to a need that apparently is widely felt at this moment. And not only by American readers: wherever it has been published, readers have embraced this remarkable book. It has sold over two million copies in France, one million in Italy, and millions more in the thirty odd countries in which it has been published. Much of this success has come about not through sophisticated or costly publicity, not through the designs of some marketing wizard, but simply by word of mouth: readers talking with other readers about a book they loved.

Congrats to Muriel Barbery, Alison Anderson, and Europa Editions!

13 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We’re into the home stretch now . . . For the next two weeks we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.



The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, translated from the French by Alison Anderson. (France, Europa Editions)

Based in part on choice editorial selections and in part on savvy marketing, Europa Editions has a knack for building huge audiences for their translations. And the independent stores love them. Love them so much in fact that Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog landed on the independent booksellers bestseller list.

Doesn’t hurt that this book has been getting reviewed everywhere.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a very approachable, engaging book featuring two bookishly intelligent characters: Renée Michel, an aging concierge who hides her intellectual pursuits from all of the residents of the swanky apartment building where she works, and Paloma Josse, a precocious twelve-year-old who has decided to kill herself.

In alternating chapters, Barbery (and by extension, her excellent translator Alison Anderson, who does a marvelous job capturing the voices of these characters) gives life to these two characters, allowing the reader to be fully immersed into the character’s head and various psychological issues. This sample is a good example of the tone, and subject of the book.

Monica Carter reviewed this for us, and touches on this novel’s wide appeal:

Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, her sophomore effort after a well-received debut Une Gourmandaise (The Craving), is the perfect introductory foray into those neophytes who consider the world of translated fiction intimidating. It is erudite while being accessible, intellectual as well as sweet, stylistic without pandering to the reader. And all this would seemingly make for a perfect novel that has not only sold well in Barbery’s native France, but also will sell well here in the United States. If you are looking for prototypes of “commercial novel,” look no further than this. [. . .]

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is written in an educated, sophisticated yet casual style with philosophical permeations throughout the novel. The philosophical presence is not inherent in either of the narrator’s points-of-view, as in many French novels, but it is used as more of a literary accessory for both Renée and Paloma—something to demonstrate an element of their character. Because it is a commercial novel, the lack of philosophical depth is overshadowed by Barbery’s statement on French society and the novel’s sentimentality. Ultimately, the reader connects with Renée and wants her to be valued and loved by an intellectual compatriot and the reader also wants her to recognize her self-worth regardless of her station in life.

In addition to the sample I linked to above, the Europa page for this book also includes a short interview with Barbery:

Your concierge, on the other hand, is an expert on Tolstoy, but also on philosophy. And even the teenaged Paloma, in her own way, expresses a propensity for abstract speculation.

MB: I followed a long, boring course of studies in philosophy. I expected it to help me understand better that which surrounds me: but it didn’t work out that way. Literature has taught me more. I was interested in exploring the bearing philosophy could really have on one’s life, and how. I wanted to illuminate this process. That’s where the desire to anchor philosophy to a story, a work of fiction, was born: to give it more meaning, make it more physically real, and render it, perhaps, even entertaining.

In this novel, erudite citations are side by side with references to comic books or the movies, and not just art house movies but commercial blockbusters.

MB: Like my characters, I ask myself: what do I like, what moves me? A good novel, of course, but also the brilliant manga of Taniguchi. Or a film made well and made purely for entertainment. Why deny oneself these things? I am not afraid of eclecticism.

2 December 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We just posted a review by Monica Carter of Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Europa Editions), translated from the French by Alison Anderson.

Monica works at Skylight Books in Los Angeles, and runs the phenomenal blog Salonica — Exploit. Explore. Examine., which is dedicated to international literature. She recently visited Paris, and has a series of posts reviewing Parisian books (including Toussaint’s The Bathroom, Fabre’s The Waitress Was New, Bouillier’s The Mystery Guest, and Queneau’s _The Last Days). Definitely worth checking out on a daily basis. . . .

Well, in terms of the review of Barbery’s novel, here’s the opening of Monica’s review:

Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, her sophomore effort after a well-received debut Une Gourmandaise (The Craving), is the perfect introductory foray into those neophytes who consider the world of translated fiction intimidating. It is erudite while being accessible, intellectual as well as sweet, stylistic without pandering to the reader. And all this would seemingly make for a perfect novel that has not only sold well in Barbery’s native France, but also will sell well here in the United States. If you are looking for prototypes of “commercial novel,” look no further than this. [Click here for the rest.]

2 December 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, her sophomore effort after a well-received debut Une Gourmandaise (The Craving), is the perfect introductory foray into those neophytes who consider the world of translated fiction intimidating. It is erudite while being accessible, intellectual as well as sweet, stylistic without pandering to the reader. And all this would seemingly make for a perfect novel that has not only sold well in Barbery’s native France, but also will sell well here in the United States. If you are looking for prototypes of “commercial novel,” look no further than this.

Barbery introduces not one, but two narrators that are both extremely intelligent and coincidentally reside in the same building at 7, rue de Grenelle (that’s the Left Bank, for those of you not in the Parisian geographical know). First we meet Renée Michel, the fifty-four self-described unattractive but autodidactic concierge who hides her intelligence from the privileged and oblivious tenants of her building. Then we meet Paloma Josse, a precocious twelve-year-old genius who lives with her family on the second floor and despises their wealth and petty distractions of upper-class French society. Driven to fatalism by her inane family and their motives as rich buffoons, and also by the idea of her dismal future which is due only to “all this good fortune and all this wealth,” Paloma decides that the only thing to do on her thirteenth birthday is kill herself and set fire to the apartment which her family loves so dearly. Quite a dour outlook for a twelve year-old who is “supersmart and gifted in her studies and different from everyone else.” So we have alternating über-intelligent narrators that are disregarded by the preoccupied wealthy inhabitants of the building. But Barbery has the narrators present themselves as stereotypes, so as to not be suspected of fulfilling any expectations, as we witness early on in the novel with Renée:

Because I am rarely friendly—though always polite—I am not liked, but am tolerated nonetheless: I correspond so very well to what social prejudice has collectively construed to be a typical French concierge that I am one of the multiple cogs that make the great universal illusion turn, the illusion according to which life has a meaning that can be easily deciphered. And since it has been written somewhere that concierges are old, ugly and sour, so it has been branded in fiery letters on the pediment of that same imbecilic firmament that the aforementioned concierges have rather large dithering cats who sleep all day on cushions that have been covered in crochet cases.

And similarly with Paloma:

Well, the fact is I am very intelligent. Exceptionally intelligent, in fact. Even now, if you look at children my age, there’s an abyss. And since I don’t really want to stand out, and since intelligence is very highly rated in my family—an exceptionally gifted child would never have a moment’s peace—I try to scale back my performance at school, but even so I always come first. You might think that to pretend to be simply of average intelligence when you are twelve years old like me and have the level of a senior college is easy. Well, not at all. It really takes an effort to appear stupider than you are.

And while Renée and Paloma try to appear as French stereotypes, what becomes the most stereotypical is Barbery’s flat, broad representation of “the rich” whose presence is merely to provide an unlikeable nemesis for our two narrators. Perhaps it is necessary to understand the nuances of Parisian classism, but the self-consumed wealthy elitist is known in all societies and gives us a hollow, stock cliché that isn’t quite believable. It serves Renée’s character better than Paloma’s—precisely because there is a class difference, which is deftly handled when Renée remembers her husband’s passing:

Lucien’s illness didn’t strike anyone as being worthy of interest. To reach people it must seem that the hoi polloi—perhaps because their lives are more rarified, deprived of the oxygen of money and savoir-faire—experience human emotions with less intensity and greater indifference. Since we were concierges, it was given that death, for us, must be a matter of course, whereas for our privileged neighbors it carried all the weight of injustice and drama. The death of a concierge leaves a slight indentation on everyday life, belongs to a biological certainty that has nothing tragic about it and, for the apartment owners who encountered him everyday in the stairs or at the door to our loge, Lucien was a nonentity who was merely returning to a nothingness from which he had never emerged, a creature who, because he had lived only half a life, with neither luxury or artifice, must at the moment of his death have felt no more than a shudder of revolt.

Whereas with Paloma doesn’t appreciate her parents, which makes her seem as vacuous and narcissistic as, ahem, a stereotypical rich person:

My parents are rich, my family is rich and my sister and I are, therefore, as good as rich. My father is a parliamentarian and before that he was a minister: no doubt he’ll end up in the top spot, emptying out the wine cellar of the residence at the Hôtel de Lassay. As for my mother…Well, my mother isn’t exactly a genius but she is educated. She has a Ph.D. in literature. She writes her dinner invitations without mistakes and spends her time bombarding us with literary references . . .

We find Paloma less likeable and sustentative than Renée, making her role as narrator underdeveloped, which also renders the narrative uneven. Paloma does give us some glimpses of wit and depth with her notebook divided into two parts entitled Profound Thoughts and Journal of the Movement of the World. Even so, the reader does get the sense she enjoys normal adolescent interests like Manga. But the novel truly belongs to Renée who reads Husserl, loves American blockbusters, the Japanese director Ozu, and her best friend, the maid Manuela. We learn of Renée’s insecurities about class difference and her fear of presenting herself as a smart, well-read person with provocative and valid opinions.

What disrupts the complacent musings of Paloma and Madame Michel is the death of a resident and the arrival of a new tenant, Kakuro Ozu. Enter the Eastern panacea for our narrators’ philosophical despair and loathing of Western wealth and social prejudices.

Finally, someone besides the reader to recognize Renée’s intellectual value and Paloma’s mental acuity and to satisfy both of their Japanese fixations. This is where the novel turns a bit mawkish and predictable. We like what Kakuro represents—a nice, intelligent person who seeks out other nice, intelligent people—and that he presents himself as person who actually likes Renée despite his own wealth and her lack of it. And for Paloma, Kakuro becomes what her parents cannot, a positive role model with money.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is written in an educated, sophisticated yet casual style with philosophical permeations throughout the novel. The philosophical presence is not inherent in either of the narrator’s points-of-view, as in many French novels, but it is used as more of a literary accessory for both Renée and Paloma—something to demonstrate an element of their character. Because it is a commercial novel, the lack of philosophical depth is overshadowed by Barbery’s statement on French society and the novel’s sentimentality. Ultimately, the reader connects with Renée and wants her to be valued and loved by an intellectual compatriot and the reader also wants her to recognize her self-worth regardless of her station in life.

There is a surprise towards the end that is done well by Barbery. Oddly, this denouement has the perfect amount of nostalgia, avoiding a saccharine and worn ending. Alison Anderson’s translation is capable, though quite literal. Having achieved “commercial success” makes this a fun and engaging read and the perfect introduction to the world of modern translated literature.

....
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