As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.
Prehistoric Times by Eric Chevillard, translated from the French by Alyson Waters and published by Archipelago Books
This piece is by translator, critic, and BTBA judge, Tess Lewis.
For sheer narrative inventiveness and luxuriant delight in the seductive power of fiction, you can do no better than pick up a book by Eric Chevillard. Chevillard is one of France’s most mercurial and impish contemporary writers. He has written more than twenty idiosyncratic books that push Big Questions to absurd extremes and his Prehistoric Times is an intellectual roller coaster and fun house mirror gallery in one.
The unnamed narrator, an archeologist by training, was “derailed” by a fall while excavating a cave with dozens of Paleolithic paintings. He has been demoted to guardian and guide in the site, a position he is as unsuited to fill as the uniform that goes with it, his predecessor having been much shorter and fatter. In his meandering monologue, the narrator justifies his delay in taking up his duties despite increasingly menacing threats of dismissal.
The narrator’s reflections swing from the abstract to the concrete and back again. Sometimes his progress is logical, sometimes associative, but the connective tissue, Chevillard’s antic, slightly off-kilter, acrobatic prose, virtuosically rendered into English by Alyson Waters, makes the web of his thoughts seem inevitable and coherent even at its most absurd.
The size of his uniform’s cap leads the narrator to meditate on the genesis of thought and to formulate a series of hypotheses about how the shape of the skull might affect the quality of the thinking done in it. Would thoughts develop more freely in a dome-shaped brainpan or would they get lost or confused? Alternatively, would a turnip-shaped skull engender sharper, more focused thoughts or simply constrict them? Then he segues to recollections of his childhood, to wondering whether Homo Sapiens had usurped the place of more intelligent ancestors, Homo Sapiens Sapiens, to man’s need for rituals, to speculation on the aesthetic ideas of troglodyte painters and how imagination changes man’s relation to world. He zigzags over a great deal of territory, assuring the reader that he is not wasting time, though by now the reader feels as if he has been led by the nose in random circles and U-turns.
There is indeed a method to his meandering. His ruminations have all been preparation for his grand ambition, to create a work of art that will endure, like his beloved cave paintings, outside of recorded history. In Chevillard’s hands, the novel of ideas is as exhilarating as a metaphysical fairground. Strap yourselves in and enjoy the ride.
Russell Valentino is a superstar in the world of literary translation. Just look at his bio from the University of Iowa:
Russell Scott Valentino is professor of Slavic and comparative literature and chair of the Department of Cinema and Comparative Literature. He has published a monograph on nineteenth-century Russian literature and seven book-length literary translations from Italian, Croatian, and Russian. His essays, translated fiction, and poetry have appeared in journals such as The Iowa Review, Two Lines, POROI, Circumference, Asia, Modern Fiction Studies, Slavic Review, and 91st Meridian. He is the recipient of a 2002 NEA Literature Fellowship and a 2004 Howard Foundation fellowship, both for literary translation, as well as two Fulbright research awards to Croatia.
And if that’s not enough, he’s also the founder and publisher of Autumn Hill Books (a few months back we reviewed Becka McKay’s translation of Suzane Adam’s Laundry, which was published by Autumn Hill), and was recently named the editor of the Iowa Review, replacing David Hamilton, who has been editing the journal for the past 2 years. (And yes, Russell has plans for bringing more translation to the pages of the Iowa Review. And launching an online review section that may even cover some books not yet translated into English.)
Unfortunately, we interviewed Russell before coming up with the “favorite word in any language question” (Russell: maybe you could add something in the comments?), but here are the rest of his responses with my comments in italics:
Most Difficult Translation You’ve Ever Done: Persuasion and Rhetoric by Carlo Michelstaedter
As you might have noticed, Russell rephrased our question from “best thing you’ve ever translated” to “most difficult,” pointing out that it took him ten years to complete this book, which was published by Yale University Press in 2004 and is available (in part) via Google Books. I don’t know much about the book itself, but this brief description from Amazon.com sounds intriguing . . . and a bit depressing:
Ostensibly a commentary on Plato’s and Aristotle’s relation to the pre-Socratic philosophers, Michelstaedter’s deeply personal book is an extraordinary rhetorical feat that reflects the author’s struggle to make sense of modern life. This edition includes an introduction discussing his life and work, an extensive bibliography, notes to introduce each chapter, and critical notes illuminating the text.
hours of completing Persuasion and Rhetoric, his doctoral thesis, 23-year-old Michelstaedter shot himself to death. The text he left behind has proved to be one of the most trenchant and influential studies in modern rhetoric, a work that develops Nietzschean themes and anticipates the conclusions of, among others, Martin Heidegger.
Books You Think Need to Be Published in English: La Langue maternelle and Apres J.C. by Vassilis Alexakis
One of the joys of asking a lot of translators what books should be published in English is finding out about authors you’ve never heard of . . . although maybe you should have. Alexakis isn’t exactly unknown, having won the Prix de l´Académie Française in 2007 for Apres J.C. Of course, there’s not much info available on him in English, but according to Wikipedia (World’s Favorite Go To Source for Quick Info), he “is a Greek-French writer of numerous novels in Greek, his mother tongue, and French. His works, drawn from two cultures, are full of tender irony; his style gives the reader an intimate and personal perspective on his stories.” Although neither of these two books are available in English, Autumn Hill published Alyson Waters’s translation of “Foreign Words“http://www.autumnhillbooks.com/foreign_words/foreign_words.htm a few years back. Here’s the AHB description:
Foreign Words is a book that takes us on a journey through time and space with the story teller as he travels from Paris where he lives as the book opens, to Greece where he grew up, and where his father has just died, to the Central African Republic as he undertakes the study of Sango.
Why learn Sango is a question the book’s narrator himself has trouble answering. His ruminations on the surprising decision to study it are both humorous and penetrating.
On Wednesday, November 9th at 7:30pm, Two Lines is collaborating with The Bridge reading series to put on a special event at McNally Jackson (52 Prince St.) in celebration of the new issue, Counterfeits. “Counterfeits” editor Luc Sante will host the event, and will be joined by translators Aaron Kerner, Patrick Philips, Alex Zucker, Alyson Waters, and author Magdaléna Platzováfor.
In preparation for this event, Two Lines just posted an interview with Alyson Waters about Albert Cossery and her translation of The Colors of Infamy, which is coming out next month from New Directions.
Scott Esposito: We’re here to talk about your excerpt from The Colors of Infamy, which comes from the third novel by Egyptian-French writer Albert Cossery to be published in the past couple of years. Cossery, who died in 2008 and did most of his writing decades ago, has become something of a sensation lately, with these new translations getting rave attention in a lot of leading periodicals. Why do you think Cossery has caught on so much?
Alyson Waters: I wish I could say that he’s moved into best-sellerdom, but that would be overstating the case a bit! I think that Cossery’s a great writer, and maybe it’s taken some time for people to realize that here—an Egyptian author who writes in French translated into English is not everyone’s first choice as a “go-to” book. We’re fortunate to have wonderful publishers like New Directions and New York Review Books who took a chance on publishing these translations in the last few years, although some of his work was translated into English decades ago, but it’s all gone out of print. I started translating The Colors of Infamy for the pleasure of it some seven or eight years ago, but it wasn’t until I won a PEN Translation Grant for the book that publishers sat up and took notice. I was lucky that Barbara Epler of New Directions wanted me to translate A Splendid Conspiracy as well. And now, in addition to The Jokers, brought out last year in Anna Moschovakis’ translation, New York Review Books is bringing out a revised version of a translation by Thomas Cushing of Proud Beggars that was originally done in 1981. It would be nice to think that all this interest has to do with the Arab Spring, and that may be true right now as far as new readers are concerned, and I hope interest continues to grow. But those of us who have been pushing for Cossery to have a bigger presence in the English-speaking world have been doing so for about a decade, some even longer. He’s got a wicked sense of humor, a very appealing anti-work/anti-capitalist/anti-materialist philosophy that goes with our current recession mood, I think, and a rather cynical—though some might say accurate—view of the benefits of any revolution for the poorest of the poor—all of which can be seen quite clearly in The Colors of Infamy.
Click here to read the full interview, and be sure to order a copy of the new issue while you’re there.
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.
The Jokers by Albert Cossery, translated by Anna Moschovakis
Publisher: New York Review Books
A Splendid Conspiracy by Albert Cossery, translated by Alyson Waters
Publisher: New Directions
Why Cossery Should Win: One of the best discoveries of 2010; Cossery would’ve loved the Egyptian revolution; Cossery’s belief in idleness is awesome; Cossery’s belief in hedonism is awesome; both books are hilarious; he has 2-in-25 odds, which is twice as good as any other longlisted author
Led by young people dreaming of freedom from authoritarian control, energized by plots and counterplots placed on Facebook and Twitter, the inspiring revolution in Egypt fits the resurrectionist fantasies of author Albert Cossery (1913-2008), though he would have preferred the liberating results be attained with less sacrifice and energy. His languid fiction treats subversion as a romp, a nervy comic game played against repression and routine. Given his delight in turning government puppets into clowns, Cossery would have reveled in how quickly Hosni Mubarak became a superannuated figure of farce.
Cossery left Egypt as a young man for Paris, where he hung out with Albert Camus and other French intellectuals while leading a life of hedonism (he estimated he had slept with over 2,000 women). His fiction financed his bohemian lifestyle and promulgated his relaxed anarchistic perspective—he was no lover of democracy but a libertine, an ironic satirist in the manner of Oscar Wilde who thought men salvageable as long as they didn’t bore. (Objects of desire, fear, and sentiment, women are irredeemable, at least in these two books.) The Jokers sums up the attributes of Cossery’s ideal male: “That he gives me a wonderful sense of plentitude, even when caught up in life’s trivalities. The breath of joy he conveys. That’s how you recognize the richness of a man’s love.” Think of a guy who exudes perpetual delight, especially when contemplating nihlistic destruction: the cocky panache of Cossery’s buddy-buddy vision of the world.
Both of the entertaining Cossery novels on the BTBA long list are masculine love stories in which young men who set out to undercut their clueless oppressors in Middle Eastern cities. For me, A Splendid Conspiracy, published in French in 1974, is the stronger of the two, perhaps because Cossery seems to be paying serious attention to his multi-layered faux-noirish tale of murder, political intrigue, and sexual perversity. The Jokers, which dates from 1963, deals with the same theme—a plucky, ultimately futile takedown of offical power—but provides sketchier, less exhilerating black comedy, though it has a nicely absurd payoff.
Also, given current concerns with terrorism, A Splendid Conspiracy presents an especially nervy parody of “revolutionary” violence. A police inspector in a small Egyptian town suspects a team of “radicals” are kidnapping and/or killing some of its most notable citizens. Of course, Cossery’s gang of sluggards, who mock everything but leisure and sex, are suspected to be the culprits. In one striking passage the ringleader of the laidback crew expresses sympathy for those dedicated to the decombustion of the status quo: “The tinest bomb that explodes somewhere should delight us, for behind the noise it makes when it explodes, even if barely audible, lies the laughter of a distant friend.” What price the joy of deconstruction? Cossery never asks.
I just received a copy of The Jokers last week, and as soon as I finish it I’m going to write my own appreciation of just how awesome Albert Cossery is. I can’t believe I never heard of this guy before this summer . . . His books are incredibly funny, smart, well-crafted—but more on that in a later post.
In the meantime, here’s David Ulin’s wonderful review of both Cossery books that came out this year: The Jokers (translated by Anna Moschovakis, published by NYRB) and A Splendid Conspiracy (translated by Alyson Waters, published by New Directions):
The Jokers is one of two Cossery novels newly translated into English; the other is A Splendid Conspiracy, from 1975. If these books are any indication, someone should get the rest of his writing — there are seven other titles — back into print. The Jokers is a small masterpiece, the story of a group of pranksters who conspire to bring down the governor of the unnamed city in which they live. They do this not by direct action or revolution but rather by a subtle subversion, initiating a campaign to overpraise the official so lavishly that his credibility is destroyed. “Has anyone ever known revolutionaries to attack a government with praise?” asks a young man named Heykal, the driving force behind the plan. Later, Cossery elaborates on the peculiar challenges of this quiet insurrection: “The governor was the sort of public figure who stumps even the cleverest caricaturists. What could they do that nature hadn’t already accomplished? Short and potbellied, with stubby legs, he had a squashed nose and huge bug eyes ready to pop out of their sockets. . . . But in fact the governor was only trying to show that in this city of chronic sleepers he was awake.”
Here, we see the delicate tension that defines Cossery’s vision, located somewhere between ironic derision and a very real sense of sedition. For all that Heykal and his friends Karim, Khaled Omar and Urfy (a teacher popular among his students because he “inculcated them with a single principle: to know that everything grown-ups told them was false and that they should ignore it”) claim to stand outside the ordinary push-and-pull of society, they clearly have a purpose and a point of view. What sets them apart is the knowledge that even if they succeed in overthrowing the governor, it won’t make any difference; they cannot derail “the eternal fraud.” Why do it, then? As a lark, in part, a remedy for boredom, but also as an existential statement, a protest at once pointed and absurd.
Were this all there is to The Jokers, it would be a vivid effort, a philosophical novel in the most essential sense. Yet the true measure of Cossery’s genius is how he finds room for real emotion, even among those who might purport to disdain the feelings he describes.
Cossery’s definitely worth checking out . . . I wouldn’t at all be surprised to find both of these books on the Best Translated Book Award longlist for this year . . . (Again, I’m not on the judging committee, so this is pure speculation.)
Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .
The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .