22 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Asymptote, one of the prettiest (and smartest) online magazines, has a new issue out to kick off the new year, and it’s pretty packed with interesting material:

For one, we got to talk to our favorite Francophile, Edmund White, about why Proust is “a more profound psychologist than Freud”. We also have an excerpt from the new novel by Amélie Nothomb, the Belgian phenom behind Fear and Trembling; Life Form is about yet another cultural clash—this time with an American soldier in Iraq. But perhaps we are proudest of bringing you the first ever English translation from Toh EnJoe’s 2012 Akutagawa Prize-winning novel, Harlequin’s Butterflies. In the fascinating interview Toh also granted us, the Physics PhD elaborates on his “un-local novels”, and how we must cherish the ability to enjoy strange things.

I’m particularly interested in Harlequin’s Butterfly, especially after reading this note from Sim Yee Chiang and Sayuri Okamoto about the translation:

Harlequin’s Butterfly is a complex work in which (to give one out of any number of possible summaries) the entanglement of idea (‘butterfly’) and praxis (‘net’) is told and retold from multiple perspectives, making it all the more deserving of the Akutagawa Prize. The first chapter, presented in its entirety in this extract (along with the introduction of the second chapter for clarity’s sake), forms the comedic version of the tale, and is dominated by the imposing figure—a veritable Pantalone—of A. A. Abrams. To translate humour is treacherous enough, but to recreate Abrams’ American English from a Japanese translation of a Latino sine inflexione rendering of his original English? Straining our ears, we managed to catch echoes of Clare Quilty.

And the opening—although maybe a bit too goofy at first (calls to mind Calvino, but the handstand joke falls flat, in my opinion)—is pretty mesmerizing:

Books that may only be read while traveling would be nice.

Books that may also be read while traveling are boring. For every thing, there must be a right time and place. A book suited for reading anywhere and anytime is nothing more than a half-baked sham.

This book, without a doubt, takes the form of A Book To Be Read In Two Minutes While Doing A Handstand and has indeed been made for the express purpose of handstand reading. Its significance cannot be fully grasped via non-handstand reading. You can open the book normally and follow the words on the page, but the feeling is nothing compared to the sensation of actually finishing the book while standing on your hands. The story ingeniously employs the rush of blood to the head. By adapting this principle, Revelations That Come In The Thick Of Anger and the like can be created easily.

This happens during a flight between Tokyo and Seattle. The copy of Confession To Someone With Three Arms that I have purchased from the kiosk sits on my lap. I try flipping through it, but as usual nothing sticks in my mind. It might be the flight speed, but the letters seem to lag ever so slightly behind the page, scrambling to catch up. Absorbed by their movements, I am only able to see a mass of print; I am utterly distracted.

At this stage, I give up the pointless struggle and start to think about books that make use of the movements of letters. Every time I travel, the same thing happens. I stuff two or three books in my bag, even buy additional books during the trip, but strangely, I have yet to get very far in any of them.

The ability to convert these vague feelings into wealth instead of words is called business sense.

While no multimillionaire, it is by listening to such fancies as these that Mr. A. A. Abrams amasses a respectable fortune.

This all happens during a flight between Tokyo and Seattle.

Mr. Abrams is a man who is continually onboard planes, without having any particular destination. Flying is his business, and so he flies as much as he can, staying in hotels near airports when forced to remain on land. He is neither flight attendant nor pilot, just a traveler with nowhere to go.

Be sure and check it all out.

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.”

21 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Winter issue of Tin House is now available, and includes an interesting interview Heather Hartley conducted with French Belgian Japanese cosmopolitan writer Amelie Nothomb. Hartley’s intro does a great job in pointing out the huge difference between Nothomb’s popularity in the States (despite being published by New Directions, Picador, and Europa, she’s relatively unknown) and her cult-like popularity in France.

Every year since the 1992 publication of her award-winning first novel, Hygiéne de l’assassin (forthcoming in English, as Hygiene and the Assassin, from Europa Editions in Fall 2010), Amélie Nothomb has published one novel a year, brought out in high style each September during la rentrée, when the most sought-after books appear on the French market. Her publishing house, Albin Michel, opens its season with her book launch. Her novels have been translated into over thirty languages, including eleven in English, and her awards include the Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française, the Prix René-Fallet, the Prix Alain-Fournier (twice), the Grand Prix Jean-Giono, and many others.

She’s a phenomenon in France. In the tradition of Dead heads, groupies called “les Péplautes” (their name derives from her 1996 novel, Péplum) devote a good portion of their lives to following Nothomb from reading to reading, attending her lectures, and keeping up with the latest details of her peregrinations. But Amélie Nothomb is not French. The daughter of Belgian diplomats, she was born in Kobe, Japan, and spent a large portion of her childhood abroad in China, Laos, Bangladesh, Burma, and back in Japan. Many of these experiences are an integral part of her novels.

And since Tokyo Fiancee is a 2010 Best Translated Book nominee, it only seems fitting to quote this part of the interview:

Heather Hartley: In Tokyo Fiancée, you write, “the worst accidents in life are linguistic.” You play on the double meaning of the word “maîtresse” [which in French can mean either “teacher” or “mistress”], the Japanese notion “to play” [very different than the French literal meaning of “jouer,” to play], and the difficult, absolutely inescapable concept in French of “you”: the informal tutoiement or formal vouvoiement. What is born in the parenthesis between a misunderstanding and the right word?

Amelie Nothomb: Nothing is more difficult than finding le mot juste. And in fact contemplation and reflection are not enough.

[In Tokyo Fiancée,] what happens between the first major misunderstanding—the marriage proposal [regarding the two protagonists] that ends up in a huge misinterpretation—and the end of the book [where the two meet up in very different circumstances], is time. It took seven years between these two events.

Nothing replaces the work of time. The biggest discovery in life—and I’m speaking of life in the sense how we live it every day, where each one of us might live, let’s say, maybe eighty years—the biggest discovery in life is time.

Time can appear at first to be the principal enemy. When you’re young, you understand that time is going to go by, pass in front of you, through you. That it will destroy you, destroy your childhood, the things important to you. And it’s true that time destroys a tremendous amount of things. And to survive this is very difficult.

I remember when I was fourteen I declared that time was the worst enemy of all. And that . . . well . . . and that now, looking down from the heights of my great age, I don’t think it’s as easy as that. Yes, time is an enemy, but it is not just the enemy, time is the main, essential discovery we can make in our life, beginning with the moment where you discover this other dimension of it.

You know who your friends are after twenty years. It takes twenty years of friendship with someone to know the worth of friendship. And this, nothing can replace. Not even the most beautiful words or the most important promises—all of that is worth nothing. It is only time that can say if it’s a true friendship.

So what enables you to find le mot juste is time.

HH: Mark Twain said, “humor is tragedy plus time.”

AN: Brilliant! That’s exactly it.

[Via Literary Saloon, via Maud Newton.]

17 June 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

Michael Orthofer from Complete Review is responsible for getting me interested in Amelie Nothomb. He’s reviewed twelve of her books, grading all of them between a B and an A. (Most are in the A or A- range, with Loving Sabotage—published by New Directions—receiving an A+.)

Unfortunately, despite this praise, Nothomb has been overlooked in America, and in fact, her last few books have only been published in the UK and not in the U.S.

And to add to that—this interview, which is in one of the UK’s largest and most respected papers, doesn’t seem to be tied to a recently released or forthcoming title . . . I feel like I must be missing something: why would a newspaper interview a literary author (especially one from Belgium) without some pressing cause? Those Brits and their literary coverage . . .

The interview itself is pretty fascinating, starting with the autobiographical elements in her work (and the way this is limited):

Fear and Loathing, awarded the Académie Française prize in 1999 and skilfully filmed by Alain Corneau in 2003, tells the story of the year she spent working for a big Japanese corporation, following Amelie-san’s catastrophic encounters with the company’s hierarchy. The Character of Rain, first published in 2000, reimagines the author’s early years in Japan, charting her transformation from an unresponsive piece of living matter to the beloved focus of the household. Ni d’Eve ni d’Adam, which won the Prix de Flore at the end of last year, returns to the same period of her life as Fear and Loathing, but this time tells the story of her love affair with a young Japanese man. [. . .]

Nothomb’s autobiographical fiction is further constrained in time, dealing only with her life before the publication in 1992 of her sensational debut, Hygiene de l’Assassin (The Assassin’s Purity). Since then she has gone on to become a fixture of the French literary calendar, publishing one bestseller a year, as regular as clockwork. This formidable track record has gained her legions of adoring fans, and an army of envious detractors, but her success has yet to find its way into her fiction. Her literary digestion is very slow, she explains, and her life after the age of 25 “doesn’t inspire me”.

And if you think a “bestseller a year” is impressive, that’s nothing:

Sixteen published novels represent only a fraction of her prodigious output, however. Nothomb declares herself to be in the middle of her 64th manuscript, having reached a rhythm where she completes three or four manuscripts a year, publishing only those which she feels comfortable sharing with others.

She’s the Joyce Carol Oates of Belgium! (Although with fewer annual publications, of course.)

I also got a kick out of her refusal to read for The Guardian books podcast:

Confident, witty and courteous with a quick intelligence, a keen sense of humour, and the assurance brought by continued success, it is all the more puzzling that Nothomb should be unwilling to do a brief reading. She modestly suggests that she isn’t gifted as an actress, and cites the difference in literary cultures between England and France, where writers seldom perform their work in public. But the real reason for her refusal is a question of identity. Her literary voice is so vibrant, so baritonal that on first meeting, her light, airy speaking voice comes as something of a surprise. It’s a curious mismatch of which she is only too aware. If she was to read her own work, she says, she would betray it.

This interview has convinced me to go pick up some of her other works (and to have Open Letter check out a few of the untranslated ones) after 2666, Senselessness, etc., etc.

16 October 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Acide Sulfurique is a book we heard about in Frankfurt, and coincidentally, it’s covered in Cafe Babel.

About a TV-reality show called “Concentration”—as in concentration camps—the book sounds dark and disturbing. Critical reaction was mixed:

‘And the moment finally came when the pain of another was no longer enough: they wanted the spectacle’. So reads the first line of this most unpleasant of novels. The fictional programme ‘Concentration’ basically functions like a concentration camp, except for the fact that every step and emotion of the prisoners is transmitted straight into the living rooms of the gawping general public: barbarism in moving pictures. That which was initially thought of as good by Nothomb – the denunciation of a lecherous perversity of such a spectacle and public depiction of the private – becomes a farce in Sulphuric Acid. The mix of extermination camp and I’m A Celebrity – Get Me Out Of Here! is all too brazen. Sulphuric Acid attempts a comparison which is inevitably doomed to failure, over and above the banality with which it concerns itself.

The book did hit the best-seller lists though, which points to a scary/interesting trend:

Over the past few years, the European book market seems to have one salient recipe for media success: Nazism. Les Bienveillantes (‘The Kindly Ones’, 2006), was a bestseller for American-born Jonathan Littels and swept up many awards in the process. German author Günter Grass’ fall from grace after his secret involvement in the SS was brought to light preceded the publishing of his most recent novel last year, Peeling the Onion (‘Beim Hauten des Zwiebel’, 2006). Nazism sells, indeed.

Not sure quite what to make of that, but it bodes well for the forthcoming Omega Minor.

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