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._
The Island of Second Sight by Albert Vigoleis Thelen, translated from the German by Donald O. White and published by Overlook
This piece is by Berlin book person, Amanda DeMarco, who is the brains behind Readux, a literary website with “reviews, interviews, articles, and opinion on German and French books and events.”
“All of the people in this book are alive or were at one time,” begins Albert Thelen’s foreword to The Island of Second Sight. However, they “appear subject to greater or lesser degrees of personal disjuncture, similarly the sequence of events has undergone chronological rearrangements that can even involve the obliteration of all sense of time. In case of doubt, let truth be told.” This is a book, then, with a troubled relationship to reality and an untroubled one to truth. That is, one that claims the ultimate authority of the storyteller.
Just as in his own life, the author’s alter-ego Vigoleis arrives on the island of Mallorca in 1931 with his wife Beatrice, and the pair flee the increasingly inhospitable political climate in 1936. The degree to which the intervening five years hew to Thelen’s biography is debatable; as is the book’s position in the cannon. Lauded as one of the great works of twentieth century literature, The Island of Second Sight is not only under-appreciated abroad (it was first translated into English 57 years after its original publication), but also at home, where its status is rather that of a cult classic, absurd for a book of its stature.
Vigoleis and Beatrice travel to Mallorca because they believe that Beatrice’s brother Zwingli is dying there. Instead they find that he’s been incapacitated by the unstoppable sexual powers of Pilar, a particularly beautiful Spanish prostitute. Thus begins the Vigoleis’s long engagement with putas, whom he greets with the same shoulder-shrugging cheer as the rest of the turpitude and degeneration he encounters on the island, as well as in his own mind: “The philosopher Scheler had been right after all, when he responded to the Archbishop of Cologne, who had accused him of unvirtuous conduct, by asking His Eminence if he had ever seen a signpost that had ever gone in the direction it pointed to.”
Before Vigoleis, too, succumbs to Pilar, she mercifully kicks the couple out and they drift from one absurd lodging and low-paid occupation to the next, two bohemians at the mercy of fortune, never far removed from the moans and wails of the cathouse. A growing gaggle of locals, emigrés, and vacationers populate the story as Vigoleis and Beatrice settle into Mallorcan life. Therise of fascism paints a thickening black streak through the story, whose shadiness is otherwise derived from the more quotidian excesses of various human appetites and failings.
In other reviews, you’ll read about Thelen’s quick-witted Nazi-mocking, including one magisterial scene in which Vigoleis, working as a tour guide (called a “Führer” in German, literally a “leader”) deludes and delights a gaggle of German tourists by narrating their tour with lies that aggrandize the Teutonic tradition. The Island of Second Sight is also praised for its numerous literary allusions, as well as for the diverse intellectuals of the day that Vigoleis comes into contact with and lampoons.
None of these are the reason that The Island of Second Sight should win the Best Translated Book Award 2013. What does make it worthy of the prize is its sheer linguistic fecundity and the contribution it makes to the tradition of narrative. Vigoleis is one of the true great incarnations of the storyteller. He’s very nearly a shape-shifter, and he employs his art not only on rightist tourists, but also lonely heiresses, local functionaries, and first and foremost on the reader.
Vigoleis is so garrulous, clever, and original that you will willingly follow him down any cow-path he cares to tread. Which is every path that offers itself. At 736 pages, discursion is the novel’s mode, and it is hard to say what is plot and what is tangent. Multiple, extended scenes dedicated to the attempted and ultimately counterfeited nonconsensual consummation of the miscegenational union of a purebred Pekinese and a lapdog of impure lineage? Journeys back into childhood, into the Middle Ages? The story of the joke that cost Unamuno his life? Ever-deepening reflections on the failings of Catholicism? On the writings of Teixeira de Pascoaes, whose writings Thelen translated from the Portuguese in real life? On the philosophical significance of the donkey? Why not.
Perhaps even more interesting are the recursive discursions, that is, the ones that themselves reflect on the nature of narrative. Thelen refers to Vigoleis in the third person, except when he doesn’t, for example, when pulling back to comment on his own storytelling prowess, which hazily bleeds into Vigoleis’s as we reenter the stream of the plot. Rumor, translation, transcription, letter writing, note-taking, testifying, confessing, lying for personal gain, lying for sport—every manner in which a story can be transmuted and transmitted has its day in The Island of Second Sight.
The text is as rife with neologisms as archaisms, rhetorical devices as well as low puns, enriched by a sprinkling of words from the six languages Thelen spoke. The book is a lexicographical treasure that particularly delights in the description of all that is base. Beatrice’s debauched brother Zwingli is even the editor of a poly-lingual dictionary of obscenities, to which Vigoleis is naturally a helpful contributor.
That translator Donald White has managed to capture the book’s riotous linguistic profusion is a small miracle. Let me cite one of the innumerable jewels that dot the novel: Vigoleis describes a period of uncharacteristic domestic harmony: “Wherever one looked, it was a scene of peace and concord. It was as if the word puta had been struck from our dictionary.” A paragraph later, Don Darío, fellow lodger and exploiter of Vigoleis’s half-baked business ideas, disrupts this rare bliss. Why? “. . . it was only an American millionaire who had enraged my putative business partner.” Of course, if harmony is puta-free, then an angry man is putative.
This is a book whose form echoes the copiousness of the chaotic, shifting social order it depicts. Filthy, generous, good-natured, manipulative, The Island of Second Sight is an utterly, amply, completely human book, and that is why it deserves to win the BTBA.
Today’s Publishing Perspectives is all about Jellybooks, a new service for “Discovering, sharing and group buying ebooks.” Online book discovery was the focal point of the last couple weeks of my “Intro to Literary Publishing” class, so this comes at a perfect time . . .
Anyway, here’s a bit of Amanda DeMarco’s article:
Set to launch in early spring, the Jellybooks experience corrects some common mistakes in online book browsing, says Rhomberg: “We have spent many months trying to understand why physical bookshops still play such an important role in discovery.” For example, people really do use book covers in deciding what to read, so you won’t see thumbnail reductions. Interestingly (but very right when you think about it), cost isn’t much of a factor in choosing a book: “We found that price information plays very, very little role when users try to decide what makes for a great read. Clearly it matters when they have decided to buy a book at which point they will shop around (i.e. buy online and not in a physical store), but during the discovery process, price information is not a factor, so lets get rid of it.”
Once a user finds a book that looks interesting, they can download the first 10% to a personal cloud library account to read later on a device of their choice. These samples will be available two to six weeks before the title appears in stores. There’s no DRM, and they can be shared with a link without restriction. [. . .]
Once you’ve started browsing, downloading, and sharing, Jellybooks will use the information it has gathered to offer you special 50-percent off “Sweet Deals” on books that fit well with your choices so far. Not every Jellybooks user will be notified about every sale. “Books are quite personal and you don’t want people to get the wrong perception that they’re getting irrelevant stuff or too much stuff. So your reading and sharing behavior allows us to determine if you would be interested in getting the deal.”
Similar to Groupon, the deal only happens if enough people sign on to purchase, which means sharing is important for attaining the required number. If it’s reached within the 12-hour span, the book is downloaded (Sweet Deals are currently e-books only) and your credit card is charged. One important difference from Groupon, Rhomberg notes, is that “the discount has to be earned by the group as a whole. With Groupon it often just automatically goes over. Here we don’t want you to feel it’s too automatic and so you’re lazy…In its nuances it’s constructed to be a little more social and a little bit more about recommendations.”
Sounds like an interesting addition to the constantly growing list of discovery sites . . . I signed up to receive notification when this goes live and will definitely post about it once it has and I’ve had a chance to play with it.
This is a guest article by Amanda DeMarco, editor of Readux: Reading in Berlin and contributor to Publishing Perspectives. Just so happens that Amanda is in Iceland right now, and totally wanted in on this Icelandic Week project. In addition to this piece, she’s working on at least one more for us, which will run later this week. In the meantime, be sure and check out her site—it’s incredible.
Couple quick notes about Icelandic names: Since last names are patronymics—refer to the person’s father, such as Gisla-dottir, or Olafs-son—it’s common practice to refer to someone just by their first name. And in terms of characters, ‘Þ’ can be replaced with ‘th,’ and ‘ð’ can be replaced by ‘d.’
“It started here actually,” says Þórdís Gísladóttir. She and Þorgerður E. Sigurðardóttir are talking with me in Kaffitár, Iceland’s largest coffee shop chain, in downtown Reykjavik. It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon and the place is packed with sweater-clad Icelanders chatting over steaming lattes. Þórdís and Þorgerður are the founders of Druslubókablogg,1 Iceland’s most popular book blog.
In December of 2008, Þórdís and Þorgerður sat down in Kaffitár and started talking about blogs. The two had been making radio programs about literature together, and they decided to branch out and do a blog, where they could write about whatever interested them instead of being restricted to an editorial program. Druslubókablogg now has fourteen regular writers, all women ranging in age from 25 to 46, who together post one update per day.
“We don’t really think of it as criticism,” explains Þórdís. The plan was always to be open to anything, so you’ll find reviews of chick lit next to literary fiction, recommendations for attractive bookshelves next to postings for readings, and since recently, interviews. Visually it’s a simple blog, though Þórdís says they’re upgrading to a “fancier” WordPress version soon.
Druslubókablogg gets anywhere from 300–400 to 1,500–1,600 visits per day. “I think that’s everyone who’s interested in literature,” says Þórdís, not joking. Considering that there are about 300,000 native speakers of Icelandic worldwide, it comes out to between 0.1% and 0.53% of all people who potentially could read it.
(It’s worthwhile to note that playing the numbers game in Iceland is a mind-trap for outsiders trying to make comparisons with their home country. The population is so small that it does not scale, so figures should be regarded as a curiosity or a general indication of popularity. The ‘this would be read by 200,000 people a day if it were in English!’ game doesn’t work.)
Þórdís attributes the site’s popularity to the lack of Icelandic alternatives: “If you’re interested, there’s not that much out there.” (This is a common form of Icelandic modesty—‘Oh it’s so small here, there’s no competition!‘—that should be taken with a grain of salt.) The site is read widely by Icelanders abroad looking to stay in touch with book culture at home—there’s a particularly large population in Germany that accounts for a couple hundred visits a week.
Þorgerður adds that Icelanders’ unusual proclivity for Facebook helps online projects like Druslubókablogg really take off: “Iceland is one of a kind when it comes to Facebook.” I know, I know, how could anyone be more obsessed than us? According to Þorgerður, it’s a deeply networked society: “All of Iceland is on Facebook and everyone is friends with everyone.”
Druslubókablogg has gotten big enough that several major Icelandic websites have wanted to host it. But according Þórdís, the sites haven’t been exactly what they wanted to be associated with: “The last offer we got was sort of from Iceland’s yellow press.” Þorgerður adds, “We have high standards in terms of the environment we’re in. It’s not just about getting more people to read.”
This was the point at which I really realized just how far Icelandic book culture diverged from either the American or German versions I’m used to, how deeply integrated books were into their media. Can you imagine foxnews.com or bild.de absorbing a major literary website? No, no you cannot. Þorgerður and Þórdís insist the sites only want their traffic, which I don’t doubt, but the fact that a sleazy news site can covet a lit blog’s traffic is telling in itself.
As Iceland’s premiere book bloggers, Þorgerður and Þórdís have a unique overview of Icelandic publishing culture. I asked them about some trends they’d seen recently. In the wake of the financial crisis that rocked Iceland’s economy in 2008, “there’s less coming out,” notes Þórdís.
But new genres have appeared, says Þorgerður. Historical fiction based on the Sagas always existed, but “the trend anyone can see is people are writing suspense, mystery, and crime novels. We take our literature very seriously, so people didn’t write mysteries before. It’s something you just didn’t do.” It’s a shift occurring across the Nordic countries, and one significant enough to be visible to English-speakers via translation.
Though it’s a significant cultural organ, Druslubókablogg is just a side interest for both women. Þorgerður works for a radio station and Þórdís is an award-winning poet and Swedish-Icelandic translator. “For us this blog is a hobby,” says Þorgerður, “but we’re always thinking about it.”
1 Druslubókablogg means “Book Sluts,” but it actually comes from an Icelandic radio show, not the well-known American book blog of the same name.
Here’s how they describe the magazine on their about page:
Readux is a Berlin-based literary website with reviews, interviews, articles, and opinion on German and French books and events.
For you, reader, Readux is a precious source of English-language information by people engaged in local book culture. For us, Readux is a chance to talk about the things we find most interesting or troubling in our reading lives, literary therapy for the lingually displaced. Hopefully, everyone walks away entertained.
Better than that though, is Amanda’s personal statement on why she started this site:
I lead my literary life in Berlin, so I wanted a platform where I could write about the fascinating (sometimes, to an American eye, profoundly weird) book culture I’m immersed in, much of which is otherwise completely inaccessible in English. And I knew other people who were interested in doing the same. Voilà Readux. Context is often what brings books to life; we do reviews, but we also give a lot of space to critical reception, interpretations, events, etc. Readux’s goal is to provide vivid impressions of books and their organic connection to society, written by people who are deeply engaged in local literary discussions.
This hasn’t been up all that long, but already they’ve kicked off a tour of French Moroccan literature (which includes pieces on Moroccan newspapers, and the amazing bookstores of Radat), and reviews of a couple German books, including Robert Walser’s Answer to an Inquiry.
Speaking of the Walser book—they’re currently running a contest to giveaway a copy of Answer to an Inquiry. Click that link to see all the details and enter your name in the drawing.
Worth checking out on a regular basis.
As reported by Amanda DeMarco in Publishing Perspectives, Switzerland has reinstated its fixed price system for books.
On March 18 the Swiss parliament approved a fixed price system for books in German-speaking Switzerland, both for online and in-store sales as of next year. The debate over fixed book pricing is a complicated and volatile one in Europe. Various degrees of price control exist side by side, and countries vacillate on the legality and benefit of fixed price systems. In Germany all books, including e-books and books sold as apps, are included in the fixed price system. French law excludes books that don’t closely correspond to a printed edition (apps), as well as foreign buyers and sellers. Britain hasn’t had fixed book pricing since the Net Book Agreement was declared illegal in 1997.
I’ve written about the “fixed price scheme” several times before (even in 2007(!) in relation to the Swiss), but in case you’re not already familiar, under this law retailers are banned from discounting books. So if you want to buy The Pale King, it’s the same $27.99 at Barnes & Noble, your local indie store, and in the airport. (And, in some countries, on Amazon.com and other online retailers.) Based on the cited consequences of this law—more independent stores, more diverse selection, no discount battles on
shitty best-sellers, etc.—I’m a big fan. And I know that’s quixotic, since half of Congress and 90% of corporate salarymen would shit themselves at the very idea of impeding the so-call free market. Which is dumb and deserving of another rant, but I’ll refrain and keep it on the Swiss:
Swiss publishing professionals often compare the effects of the repeal of fixed book pricing to those of the abolition of the Net Book Agreement in Britain: price wars over bestsellers, deep discounts of up to 30% by big booksellers like Thalia and Orell Füssli. Andreas Grob, Managing Director of Buchzentrum, a large distributor and wholesaler owned collectively by Swiss bookstores, has witnessed online sellers benefit while physical stores have experienced “ever-increasing problems.”
In Germany, where fixed book price law is strong, book prices have actually fallen in comparison with other goods over the past decade. Swiss book prices, in contrast, have risen over the past four years. “Economic theories say that free markets produce lower prices, but interestingly in the case of books that’s not so,” commented Dani Landolf, director of The Swiss Publishers Association (SBVV).
While bestsellers get deep discounts, the majority of other books become more expensive to fund the price wars. Sabine Dörlemann, president of Swiss Independent Publishers (SWIPS), expressed frustration that books from small publishers with tight budgets were assigned higher prices, which reduces sales though the publisher sees none of that extra money.
I love everything about this article, especially this bit:
The decision affirms the idea that books are not just like any other consumer product; their diversity and availability is desirable and demands protection. To have a variety of books, a variety of publishers is necessary; a large number of independent bookstores willing to stock titles from small and large presses alike is necessary for such a variety of publishers to thrive; and a fixed price system is needed to protect those bookstores, publishers, and ultimately authors. Or so the reasoning goes. For SWIPS, in the end the decision means that “more money ends up with us,” said Dörlemann.
“The small stone plaza was floating in the midday heat. The Christ of Elqui, kneeling on the ground, his gaze thrown back on high, the part in his hair dark under the Atacaman sun—he felt himself falling into an ecstasy.. . .
This slender, uncanny volume—the second, best-selling collection of stories by Russian author Ludmilla Petrushevskaya to appear in the U.S.—has already received considerable, well-deserved praise from many critics and high profile publications. Its seventeen short tales, averaging ten pages each, are. . .
The Urdu word basti refers to any space, intimate to worldly, and is often translated as “common place” or “a gathering place.” This book by Intizar Husain, who is widely regarded as one of the most important living Pakistani writers,. . .
The Whispering Muse, one of three books by Icelandic writer Sjón just published in North America, is nothing if not inventive. Stories within stories, shifting narration, leaps in time, and characters who transform from men to birds and back again—you’ve. . .
Luis Negrón’s debut collection Mundo Cruel is a journey through Puerto Rico’s gay world. Published in 2010, the book is already in its fifth Spanish edition. Here in the U.S., the collection has been published by Seven Stories Press and. . .
To have watched from one of your patios
the ancient stars
from the bank of shadow to have watched
the scattered lights
my ignorance has learned no names for
nor their places in constellations
to have heard the ring of. . .
When Icelandic author Andri Snær Magnason first published LoveStar, his darkly comic parable of corporate power and media influence run amok, the world was in a very different place. (This was back before both Facebook and Twitter, if you can. . .