15 September 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

While looking back at an episode in his life, twenty-year-old Taguchi Hiro remembers what his friend Kumamoto Akira said about poetry.

Its perfection arises precisely from its imperfection . . . . I have an image in my head. I see it clearly before me. Its colors are glaring and harsh in their brightness. But as soon as I rush to capture it, it explodes, and what I write down are separate bits that don’t form a whole. Do you see it now? It’s as if I tried to glue together a broken vase, piece by piece. But the shards are so fragmentary that I don’t know which goes with which or how I fit them together, there’s always one fragment left over. But this fragment! It makes the poem. It alone gives meaning . . . . My requiem should be a vase with water shooting through the glue in its cracks.

Soon after this speech, Kumamoto wrote this “requiem”—which he also called “his poem”—and now Hiro is writing his. Also, like his friend, Hiro is fixated on a broken object; in this case, it’s his bedroom wall, which has a hairline fissure that he’s been staring at for the last two years, so he can figure out how to fit himself inside it. Hiro has spent a lot of time staring at this crack, because following a traumatic incident when he was eighteen, he became a hikikomori, a young person who shuts him- or herself in a room and has no interaction with anyone else. Even though his parents still left food at his door, they pretty much gave up on him. However, at the beginning of this wonderful novel from Japanese-Austrian writer Milena Michiko Flašar, Hiro finally re-emerges into the outside world.

After leaving his parents’ house, he makes his way through the hustle and bustle of the city streets and finds sanctuary in a park he remembers from his childhood. Every day for months, he sits on the bench in the park, alone and indifferent to his surroundings. Then, one day, Ohara Tetsu appears. Hiro calls this man, who is sitting on the bench beside his, “Necktie” because of the red-and-gray striped tie he wears with his suit. At first, Hiro quietly observes this man as he eats his lunch, reads his paper, and takes naps. For a couple of weeks, they share the same spot in the park without saying much to each other, although Hiro begins to wonder why he spends so much time in the park instead of an office. Then one day, “he looked at me unexpectedly through the rain. I jumped up. I hadn’t counted on that. Not with this unexpected knowing look. I’m not alone, it said, you are there.”

At this point, Hiro begins to “fall out of his cocoon” and allows himself to befriend this “salaryman” in his mid-fifties. The two start out with a silent understanding, but eventually Hiro, who had unsuccessfully tried to forget how to speak, and Tetsu engage in a conversation. Actually, Tetsu does all the talking. After making small talk about the dangers of smoking and the work his wife Kyōko puts into his bento box lunches, he confesses that he hasn’t yet told her that he was fired for sleeping on the job.

From that moment, Hiro, despite his initial reluctance, becomes Tetsu’s confidant. For months, they meet each other every day in the park; when it rains, they hang out in a jazz club. At first, it seems that these two unlikely friends couldn’t be more opposite. After all, Hiro has never been in the workforce—and doesn’t appear to have any plans to enter it—while Tetsu has dedicated most of his life to the firm that eventually fired him. However, as they start to share painful moments from their pasts, they realize that they have something important in common: both came from families that put pressure on them to be and act a certain way. So while Tetsu did not shut himself in his bedroom in his parents’ house, he shut himself off from the world in other ways. Furthermore, like Hiro, Tetsu is starting to experience freedom once again.

I Called Him Necktie is a story about wanting to belong to a world that has allowed you that freedom. Hiro wants to belong to his family again, while Tetsu wants to continue to be useful to his wife. As their friendship grows, the two learn they cannot just shut themselves in a room or a nightclub or even in an office. They have to exist as flesh-and-blood human beings with souls in an increasingly mechanical world. They have to live. But fortunately, they also have each other to help them through it.

Flašar further strengthens the bond between her characters through her minimal prose style, which comes through wonderfully through Sheila Dickie’s sensitive translation. Flašar doesn’t just discuss poetry in her novel: Hiro’s simple, childlike narration has its own unique rhythm that not only fit his character, but it never gets caught up in all of the noise and flash outside of the park. Instead, as a narrator, Hiro focuses on the delicate nature of human beings. In addition, the minimal use of punctuation shows a language that is unhampered by formality, so it flows like the water through the cracked vase mentioned in Kumamoto’s speech. Because of the touching story and poetic quality of the prose, I Called Him Necktie is a book that readers of literature-in-translation will definitely want in their collection.

6 April 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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.

Awakening to the Great Sleep War by Gert Jonke, translated from the French by Jean M. Snook, and published by Dalkey Archive Press

This piece is by writer, BTBA judge, and runner of Salonica World Lit, Monica Carter.

I will confess that I have a strong predilection for the works of the late Austrian writer Gert Jonke. The opportunity to wax on about his gifts in an open forum led me into dangerous territory: do I unabashedly demand that Awakening to the Great Sleep War win the Best Translated Book Award solely on my enthusiasm or do I try to pragmatically and logically lay out the novel’s superior strengths based on a unbiased literary perspective? I know I should do the latter. But the problem is that his gifts are so unique and particular that his work really defies logic. If you are the type of reader that can wholly surrender your logic and reason to the absurd and surreal fictional worlds Jonke creates, then you will end up loving him as I do and eschewing attempts at critical pragmatism and decorum. You, too, will rant like a literary lunatic when anyone questions his originality or place in the canon of world literature.

Awakening to the Great Sleep War does not have a traditional plot or narrative. None of Jonke’s works are known for their adherence to the basic tenets of story. He is no Robert McKee. In “normal” Jonke works, a character is introduced into an abstract world that can lead the reader in endless philosophical and metaphysical offshoots that give the reader pause to discover their own imagination. In this novel, Burgmüller is the character through which we experience the surreal experience of time, space, love and the city. An “acoustical decorator,” he begins the novel by trying to teach the telemones how to sleep since they have held up buildings for so long, surely they must be tired. As ridiculous as this may sound, Jonke somehow manages to impart a sense of empathy on the reader for an inanimate object and the job of architecture in general. When discovers that the building with the telemones is gone one day, Burgmüller considers the possibilities before he arrives the conclusion that his efforts could have been useful:

Or had they, in his absence, learned how to sleep after all-had they gotten tired at last, as sleepy as petrified darkness pulled in toward the center of the earth when the trap doors to the planet’s cellar began to open?

That’s a reason this novel should win in my opinion. How many authors can pull that off?

Never fear, traditionalists; there is a love story amongst the surreal renderings of our dear Jonke. There are two love stories of the classic sort—man loves woman, she leaves; man loves another woman, she too leaves. Then there is the lesser-known love story between a woman and a housefly named Elvira. But regardless of who loves whom, the love is as poetic and mournful as any other love story, as Jonke displays in Burgmüller’s girlfriend’s plea to love the housefly as she does:

But the most important thing at present, she continued, was to give Elvira a chance to rest, not to frighten her in any way, above all not to make an unnecessary noise, you know, people talk much too loudly, as she was now noticing, and if he would please just put himself in the position of the housefly; just imagine, she explained, if that huge building over there across the way suddenly started a conversation with the church tower behind it, can you imagine how loud their words would sound to you, you would thin the tall building or the church yelling at you, or that they were screaming at each other, do you understand what I mean, and when we talk with each other, it must seem about that loud to Elvira, in future we have to talk much more quietly, better yet, whisper, do you understand, nothing above a whisper!

Burgmüller loves this woman and feels he must love Elvira as much to prove his love for her. It’s one thing to explore the love relationship between a woman and a housefly, but to do it with a blend of humor and poignancy is rarely done in adult literature and done successfully. Through the rest of the novel, Jonke examines the vicissitudes of love with another doomed love affair. Burgmüller falls for a writer who views her typewriter as a “reality-producing projector.” Within one paragraph, the invisible line between reality and art as a reflection of reality is woven into her struggle as an artist to perfectly represent reality and how this struggle affects their relationship:

Unflustered, she crouched at her typewriter, into which she transmitted her tapped signals as usual long into the night, continuing to work on her world, in which her eyes now became a compass rose torn by its own magnetic needle, cut up by the letters of a white-hot cuneiform script, yes, a cuneiform script of the harbor cities that reproduced themselves incisively upon all the coasts with their power-saw boats, in the service of an endless alphabet, like a science without proofs, until the morning flickered like fire from the towers, all of which crossed her lips as usual, whispered in a low voice, while she was sitting at her typewriter as if at a steamship propelled by sewing machines, floating, drifting downstream in the room, midstream in her description, from which he could now hear something about cats with heads like ants, and palm trees with crayfish living in their branches, but that could also have had to do with an entirely different chapter of her story that had crushed on ahead, considering her work tempo he never know how far ahead of him she was at any given time.

Jonke tackles the philosophical questions of literature and art and how the artist struggles between the importance of the word and the importance of what the word represents. Can anyone ever really love in a reality like that? These are questions not often asked to the reader, but nonetheless are always present in the relationship between the writer and the reader. No other novel on the long list challenges us in this way.

A novice translator could easily have mishandled all of Jonke’s absurd, surreal concepts and themes, but Ms. Snook understands the nuance in Jonke’s text to convey the aims of his novel. With a traditional narrative and story structure, it is easier to be more loyal to the text and more literal. In this case, the translator must also understand the abstract concepts and how to put those conceptual ideas in play without sacrificing the wit of Jonke’s style. Thus, this seems one of the most challenging efforts as far as translation is concerned because the translation must carry through thematically as opposed to carrying the story through a conventional structure. Each word holds more weight so that the subtext is present. To have such intimate knowledge of the writer’s work as well as the language clearly makes this novel the strongest translation on the list.

Finally, there is the simple fact that Jonke’s lyrical language paired with his post-modern themes makes for a the most distinctive voice among the top twenty-five books. He was a novelist ahead of his time that created a body of work so magical, original and insightful it would be a disservice to not give the award to Awakening to the Great Sleep War. No other novel on the list is as creative. No other novel on the list offers itself as the masterpiece of the writer’s entire body of work nor solidly establishes that writer as a prominent voice in the history of their country’s literary heritage. Then again, I am in love with Jonke and always will be. And that is lOve with a capital O which is as close to Jonkean love as one can get.

18 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Lisa Boscov-Ellen on Thomas Glavinic’s The Camera Killer, which is translated from the German by John Brownjohn and published by AmazonCrossing.

Lisa Boscov-Ellen is another MA student here at the University of Rochester, and translates from Spanish. She was also in my class last semester (and this one!), where she wrote this fairly negative review . . .

The Camera Killer by Austrian writer Thomas Glavinic, translated by John Brownjohn, is a psychological thriller that was first published in 2003 as Der Kameramörde. The unnamed narrator travels to the region of West Styria over Easter weekend with his “partner” Sonja to stay with their friends, Eva and Heinrich Stubenrauch. Shortly after they arrive, the two couples hear about an appalling crime committed nearby, which they and the rest of the public are compelled to follow in the news over the weekend, each with differing reactions. The original report is that a man forced “two children of seven and eight to kill themselves by jumping from tall trees and filmed those crimes with a video camera. A third boy, the deceased children’s nine-year-old brother, managed to escape.” More information is gradually released, such as the fact that the surviving boy is in an induced coma and the mother has been institutionalized, and the video of the crime is even broadcast to the public on the news. The novel (really on the border of being a novella) focuses on the reactions of the four individuals as they follow the manhunt and the media sensationalism of the event.

The disturbing premise is certainly absorbing, and the book is by no means a standard thriller or detective story. However, despite the low page count (it’s just over 100 pages), the book seemed to drag on. Glavinic appears to be equally interested in the ability of his characters to continue on with their ordinary activities and concerns in spite of the horror that edges in. A pretty standard passage reads as follows:

“Heinrich and I put up the net. We marked out the court with discarded articles of clothing and broken twigs stuck in the ground (those of the previous day that had been dislodged by the wind or the nocturnal rainstorm). We also flattened the grass at the edge of the court by treading it down.”

“The wicker basket was unpacked by my partner and Eva. My partner extolled the fact that our short walk there had refreshed her and said we should at once devote the time that remained before the storm broke to playing doubles. We duly did so. Team Heinrich/self beat Team Eva/my partner 15:6. Heinrich pronounced this pointless; the difference in level of ability was too glaring. So we changed partners. My partner and I were narrowly defeated (11:15) by the Stubenrauchs.”

The book follows events like this, with a focus on minute and mundane details, until an arrest is made.

Click here to read the full review.

18 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Camera Killer by Austrian writer Thomas Glavinic, translated by John Brownjohn, is a psychological thriller that was first published in 2003 as Der Kameramörde. The unnamed narrator travels to the region of West Styria over Easter weekend with his “partner” Sonja to stay with their friends, Eva and Heinrich Stubenrauch. Shortly after they arrive, the two couples hear about an appalling crime committed nearby, which they and the rest of the public are compelled to follow in the news over the weekend, each with differing reactions. The original report is that a man forced “two children of seven and eight to kill themselves by jumping from tall trees and filmed those crimes with a video camera. A third boy, the deceased children’s nine-year-old brother, managed to escape.” More information is gradually released, such as the fact that the surviving boy is in an induced coma and the mother has been institutionalized, and the video of the crime is even broadcast to the public on the news. The novel (really on the border of being a novella) focuses on the reactions of the four individuals as they follow the manhunt and the media sensationalism of the event.

The disturbing premise is certainly absorbing, and the book is by no means a standard thriller or detective story. However, despite the low page count (it’s just over 100 pages), the book seemed to drag on. Glavinic appears to be equally interested in the ability of his characters to continue on with their ordinary activities and concerns in spite of the horror that edges in. A pretty standard passage reads as follows:

Heinrich and I put up the net. We marked out the court with discarded articles of clothing and broken twigs stuck in the ground (those of the previous day that had been dislodged by the wind or the nocturnal rainstorm). We also flattened the grass at the edge of the court by treading it down.

The wicker basket was unpacked by my partner and Eva. My partner extolled the fact that our short walk there had refreshed her and said we should at once devote the time that remained before the storm broke to playing doubles. We duly did so. Team Heinrich/self beat Team Eva/my partner 15:6. Heinrich pronounced this pointless; the difference in level of ability was too glaring. So we changed partners. My partner and I were narrowly defeated (11:15) by the Stubenrauchs.

The book follows events like this, with a focus on minute and mundane details, until an arrest is made. The Camera Killer relies perhaps more on what is not said than on what the narrator describes, but the tone doesn’t entirely work. These detailed descriptions, the flat and stilted tone, and the disappointing dénouement detract from the author’s intriguing and Kafka-esque approach. The narrator comes off as cold and robotic, and I imagine that is a deliberate choice to create contrast between the low-key prose and the intensity of the situation rather than a failure on the part of the writer or translator, but the narrator makes a rather dull robot. Rather than being chilling in its banality, it’s just bland.

The narrator is not the only one without much of a personality; the women—or “womenfolk” as they are often referred to—do little more than prepare food, think about food, act scared, and nag the men. Heinrich is the only one with any defining characteristics and that’s basically that he’s an irritating, inconsiderate jerk. The most intriguing character was probably the “fancy-dress cat” that occasionally appears around the house.

It is possible that part of the problem is the translation, although I do not have the knowledge of German to determine if that is the case. Both Glavinic and Brownjohn have received critical acclaim in the past, and this is the third time Brownjohn has published a translation of Glavinic’s work. In fact, Brownjohn has translated over 200 books and has received multiple awards, including the Schlegel-Tieck Prize and the Helen and Kurt Wolff Prize. Glavinic has achieved both critical and commercial success; his book Das bin doch ich (“That’s Me”), was short-listed for the German Book Prize, How to Live (Wie man lebel soll) reached the top of the Austrian best-seller list, and the original version of The Camera Killer, Der Kameramörde, was awarded the Friedrich-Glauser Prize for crime fiction. Nonetheless, there were moments that sounded a bit strange in English, for example: “Masticating, she said it was a glorious day and it mustn’t be spoiled by talk of murder and so on; Eva should bring influence to bear on Heinrich in that regard,” “We betook ourselves to the Café Wurm, surveyed the tables in the garden without sighting our womenfolk, and went inside,” or when the cameraman threatens to “pay the family a visit on October 31st and Halloween them all to death.” The frequent use of “my partner” and “womenfolk” was somewhat irritating, although I suspect that is more likely true to the original.

Perhaps some of my disappointment was due to the fact that the jacket copy described it as “gripping,” which it is not. The twist at the end of the book is very important, and unfortunately I anticipated this surprise quite early on in the book. I’m not convinced that everyone will, and I think my dissatisfaction upon reaching the final lines is absolutely influenced by the fact that I expected them. Overall, I didn’t feel that I wasted the small amount of time it took to get through this short thriller, as it was unique and at times very-well written. However, monotonous narration and occasionally awkward phrasing led me to wish that Glavinic had considered writing The Camera Killer as a short story instead.

24 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

There is inarguably no better hook, line, and sinker for a reader to pick up a novella than one that is written by an author who had lived and died as Stefan Zweig: living in exile like the unrivaled Nabokov, banned by the government (or, in Zweig’s case, Nazi Germany), and who had fulfilled his authorship with a self-proposed sealing of his own fate. Confusion is the account of young college student Roland who has become enamored with the intellectual, bewildering, and isolated world of his greatest idol – his college professor. Roland gravitates to the secluded home of his professor – the seclusion prompted by the fear of being unmasked of his secret. The novella, referencing the Greats (writers and philosophers alike) blurs all three of the greatest distinctions of love of the Ancient Greeks: Philia, Èros, and Agápe (though the novella does not address them explicitly). Roland tells us that he has “…more to thank [his professor] than my mother and father before him or my wife and children after him. I have never loved anyone more.”

I hate to admit that I hadn’t read any of Stefan Zweig’s work nor had any real knowledge of the explosion of fame that followed him during his lifetime – and even worse, of the second boom upon his recent rediscovery (truly, for shame). Stefan Zweig’s momentous, celebrated writing reaped slightly more positive attention during his lifetime (as aforementioned, he committed suicide in 1942) than contemporary critics – but then the first hill on the roller coaster is always the tallest, and you can’t argue with physics. But upon reading several criticisms on Zweig’s oeuvre, I’ve realized that one is either convinced; lamenting the relatable, melancholy life dirge we sing to, or – vehemently depreciates his acclaimed forte as an author (such depreciations are still fewer, but Michael Hoffman, writer for London Review of Books shamelessly assaulted Zweig, saying: “Stefan Zweig just tastes fake. He’s the Pepsi of Austrian writing.”). My fellow-reviewer Quantum Sarah has said that if we can’t find something favorably note-worthy in a novel, then perhaps we aren’t looking in the right places – and you say, “but if we were to do this with all forms of artistic expression, we would be forced to find genius in, say, incomprehensible modern art and only-comprehensible-when-acid-tripping techno.” I see your point. However Quantum Sarah may be onto something, and as I’ve already said – you can’t argue with physics.

The glaring intellectuality in Confusion is not only a theme, but much more of a setting – everything takes place within profound thought and dense analyses of drama and literature – takes place through Roland’s fever-pitched stream of consciousness. Stefan Zweig emphasizes both Roland’s developed intellect and anxiety (both directly correlated to his professor) through melodramatic diction such as:

I had never before known language as ecstasy, the passion of discourse as an elemental act, and the unexpected shock of it drew me closer. Without knowing that I was moving, hypnotically attracted by a force stronger than curiosity, and with the dragging footsteps of a sleepwalker I made my way as if by magic into that charmed circle – suddenly without being aware of it, I was there, only a few inches from him and among all the others, who themselves were too spellbound to notice me or anything else.

This romantic approach to literature is one that every reader can and should find believable and relatable – I remember my first cherished novel and the first time I became enamored with the eloquent lecture of a professor. When in a classroom, shuffling through articulations of a piece of great literature or philosophy (in Roland’s case, the lecture regarded Goethe and Shakespeare) and so to feel the foreign vertigo of enlightenment.

However, all of that being said, this tone is consistent throughout the novella. In fact, Roland’s fervent ardor for his professor is not behaviorally unbelievable, but his stream of consciousness reveals an overdone, unbelievable anxiety that only contradicts their interaction.

I was at his door at seven o’clock precisely, and with what trepidation did I, a mere boy as I was, cross that threshold for the first time! Nothing is more passionate than a young man’s veneration, nothing more timid, more feminine than its uneasy sense of modesty.

When Roland’s diction and tone plateaus and persists with this steady, anxious tempo, it strips more credible, believable narratives. His paranoia (exceeding a more mild and authentic curiosity) in the stream of consciousness is excessive compared to, say, an equally curious, but more convincing Stephan Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. (Dedalus, too, portraying his creator through his journey, and Joyce, also a well-educated writer fortunate enough to be esteemed in his own lifetime.)

Regarding the debate of Zweig’s credibility with the written word, a very hesitant, judicial part of me found some validity in Hoffman’s review. The plot is structured well – the secret was tastefully revealed, lacking smoke and mirrors but still satiating the reader’s curiosity. The context clues are placed with strategic perspicacity. But that tone, the overdramatic, agonizing whine of a young man (who, let’s be honest, would never lay as many girls as Roland if this were, in fact, his diction) was not passion; it was stale. In fact, his anxiety throughout the book is so magnified upon, that it seems almost hyperbolic; comic. And like Russian works that I have read, tragic dramas are entirely capable of successfully providing a paranoid, manic, first person narrative that the reader is both enthralled by and continues to mourn with. I found Roland so un-relatable that mourning with him, and for his professor, was only achieved once throughout the novella.

In the last dozen pages of the book, I finally believed Roland without considering too much diplomacy. He writes: “…While below in the vaults, in the deep caves and sewers of the heart, the true dangerous beasts of passion roam, glowing with phosphorescent light, coupling unseen and tearing each other apart in every fantastic form of convolution[.]” It is here that he contemplates not his flighty emotions, but human nature – those three Ancient Greek distinctions of love, and branches into a quasi philosophical inquiry.

And while I remain torn on a final assessment on the piece (I couldn’t help but find Roland’s experiences relatable, even if he didn’t articulate them in a relatable manner) I still encourage others to pick it up due to the controversy revolving around Zweig’s writing. I am only on one side (that being the minority, it seems) of the fence.

24 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Rachel Crawford-Fisher on Stefan Zweig’s Confusion, which is translated from the German by Anthea Bell and is available from New York Review Books.

Rachel is a student at the University of Rochester majoring in English Literature, minoring in Philosophy and Russian Studies. She has freelanced for hardcore punk zine Define the Meaning and for local literary organizations. She is an aspiring prose fiction writer. She prefers Russian literature and German philosophy.

Here is part of her review:

There is inarguably no better hook, line, and sinker for a reader to pick up a novella than one that is written by an author who had lived and died as Stefan Zweig: living in exile like the unrivaled Nabokov, banned by the government (or, in Zweig’s case, Nazi Germany), and who had fulfilled his authorship with a self-proposed sealing of his own fate. Confusion is the account of young college student Roland who has become enamored with the intellectual, bewildering, and isolated world of his greatest idol – his college professor. Roland gravitates to the secluded home of his professor – the seclusion prompted by the fear of being unmasked of his secret. The novella, referencing the Greats (writers and philosophers alike) blurs all three of the greatest distinctions of love of the Ancient Greeks: Philia, Èros, and Agápe (though the novella does not address them explicitly). Roland tells us that he has “…more to thank [his professor] than my mother and father before him or my wife and children after him. I have never loved anyone more.”

I hate to admit that I hadn’t read any of Stefan Zweig’s work nor had any real knowledge of the explosion of fame that followed him during his lifetime – and even worse, of the second boom upon his recent rediscovery (truly, for shame). Stefan Zweig’s momentous, celebrated writing reaped slightly more positive attention during his lifetime (as aforementioned, he committed suicide in 1942) than contemporary critics – but then the first hill on the roller coaster is always the tallest, and you can’t argue with physics. But upon reading several criticisms on Zweig’s oeuvre, I’ve realized that one is either convinced; lamenting the relatable, melancholy life dirge we sing to, or – vehemently depreciates his acclaimed forte as an author (such depreciations are still fewer, but Michael Hoffman, writer for London Review of Books shamelessly assaulted Zweig, saying: “Stefan Zweig just tastes fake. He’s the Pepsi of Austrian writing.”). My fellow-reviewer Quantum Sarah has said that if we can’t find something favorably note-worthy in a novel, then perhaps we aren’t looking in the right places – and you say, “but if we were to do this with all forms of artistic expression, we would be forced to find genius in, say, incomprehensible modern art and only-comprehensible-when-acid-tripping techno.” I see your point. However Quantum Sarah may be onto something, and as I’ve already said – you can’t argue with physics.

Click here to read the entire review.

20 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Earlier this week, the Goethe Institut in Chicago announced that Jean Snook was this year’s winner of the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize for her translation of Austrian writer Gert Jonke’s The Distant Sound, which was published by Dalkey Archive Press.

Here’s what the jury had to say:

The jury for the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Prize is pleased to award the prize for 2010 to Jean Snook for her translation of Gert Jonke’s The Distant Sound, published by Dalkey Archive Press. The Austrian novelist, poet, and playwright Gert Jonke (1946-2009) wrote a German rich in descriptive detail and evocative sound effects that Snook has rendered with consummate skill into an English as poetic, funny, and crazy as the original. In long, spooling sentences and synaesthetic images, she gives English-speaking readers access to a writer who deserves a place next to better-known contemporaries such as Thomas Bernhard and Arno Schmidt. Jean Snook makes the tightrope act of translating Jonke’s exploration of language as a means of capturing the ineffable look effortless.

This is the fourth book of Jonke’s Dalkey has published. The last—Homage to Czerny, also translated by Snook—was longlisted for the 2008 BTBA. And while we’re talking about Jonke, it’s worth revisiting the obituary Vincent Kling wrote about him when he passed away.

In terms of Jean M. Snook, she

lives with her husband on the easternmost tip of North America, the Avalon Peninsula on the island of Newfoundland, where she has taught German language and literature at Memorial University since 1984. She has translated Else Lasker-Schüler’s Concert and Luise Rinser’s Abelard’s Love for the University of Nebraska Press; Evelyn Grill’s Winter Quarters for Ariadne Press; Hans Eichner’s Kahn & Engelmann for Biblioasis; and, thanks to a reference from translator Renate Latimer, Gert Jonke’s Homage to Czerny: Studies in Virtuoso Technique for Dalkey Archive Press, where she received very welcome editorial assistance from Jeremy Davies. Continuing with Dalkey Archive Press, she began translating Jonke’s The Distant Sound during a stay at the Europäisches Übersetzerkollegium in Straelen, Germany, in 2007, and finished the translation in 2009, when it won the inaugural Austrian Cultural Forum Translation Prize. Her translation of the third book in Jonke’s trilogy, Awakening to the Great Sleep War, is due to appear later in 2011. She is now translating a book by the Swiss author Paul Nizon.

Congrats! And the official ceremony will take place on June 13th, right before the start of the annual Helen and Kurt Wolff Symposium.

12 November 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Austrian actress, writer, and painter Mela Hartwig (1893–1967) published relatively little during her lifetime: a collection of stories, a novel, a novella, and a book of poems. She did most of this work between 1921, when she married and retired from acting, and 1938, when she and her husband moved to London to escape the Nazi occupation and annexation of Austria. Am I a Redundant Human Being?, written in 1931, was one of three completed novel manuscripts found (along with a fourth, incomplete novel) among her papers after her death. Unpublished until 2001, when it fueled a renewed interest in Hartwig’s work in her home country, the novel has now been translated by Kerri A. Pierce and published by Dalkey Archive Press—the first appearance of any of Hartwig’s books in English.

Am I a Redundant Human Being? is the monologue of Aloisia (known as Luise) Schmidt, a secretary at a Vienna construction firm. Luise narrates the events of her life from her early childhood at the turn of the twentieth century until about the age of 30. Judging from the intensely psychological focus of the book, it is clear that Hartwig’s Vienna is also very much the Vienna of Sigmund Freud; the narrative has the feel of a case study in low self-esteem. After an undistinguished school career, Luise’s life has been a mostly unbroken series of unfulfilling low-skilled clerical jobs and difficult relationships: tentative friendships with women, whom she tends to idolize and imitate excessively; and unstable romances with men, whom she tends to obsess over and who ultimately reject her over her neediness and her weakness of personality.

The bulk of the novel is taken up with the two most recent of these slavish involvements: first with Elizabeth, a narcissistic, melodramatic acting student, and then with Elizabeth’s arrogant ex-lover, the businessman Egon Z. (Note the quasi-Freudian use of initials to abbreviate surnames for the sake of anonymity, which Luise applies to all the men with whom she has been involved.) Although they come last in the story and take up almost half the book’s length, these two encounters underscore the essentially repetitive nature of Luise’s story, since they do not differ much in kind or significance from the earlier ones.

Further emphasizing this sense of repetition, Luise’s method throughout is to alternate descriptions of events from her life with moments of frank, poignant self-laceration that for the most part outshine in interest and originality the events that give rise to them. Here is one example from late in the novel:

I can’t remember what finally made me turn against this life, and the weak, pliable person I’d become, content with dreams—but I’ll never forget the disgust that filled me when I realized I was satisfied rather than desperate. I preferred escaping into dreams to confronting the real world. I was content with a phantom lover. I had become capable of deluding myself, precisely so that I wouldn’t have to see my life was hopeless. But no, I hadn’t “become” anything—I had always been like this. I had always fled from every deep, every painful emotion. Such sloth, such cowardice—I was simply repugnant. It seemed I wasn’t even capable of well-earned despair. Again I told myself that I’d never be able to experience true feeling, that I would only ever know its shadow. My whole life I’d lived off the one wretched ambition that still possessed me: to be more than I was; to reject and despise everything that was in my reach and to set goals I was incapable of reaching; to chase after emotions I was incapable of feeling; to seek out adventures I couldn’t live up to; to have a friendship that was no friendship, a love that was no love; ambitions yoked to a weak will, a will stuck in the mire of unfulfilled desire.

And another, from just six pages later:

What’s the point of a person like me, what? A person who will never amount to anything because she doesn’t believe in herself, who doesn’t believe in herself because she doesn’t amount to anything, a completely redundant human being? Who would miss me, who would mourn for me? My parents perhaps, but who else? I saw my mother before me, a vague image that only lasted a moment; I could hear her voice whisper in my ear, warning, imploring: “All you ever think about is yourself.”

How often had I heard “All you ever think about is yourself” from her? She’d said so at every opportunity, and yet I’d never understood or wanted to understand her. Now I flung her accusation back at myself: “All you ever think about is yourself.” It’s true, I admitted. All I ever think about is myself. My life might actually have something like a goal, a real purpose, if only I could forget myself, if only I could lose myself in the crowd, if only I could sacrifice myself to some higher purpose. But I had more fear of this sacrifice than of life itself. . . . Even if I knew I’d get back a thousand times what I’d given, I simply couldn’t let go of the tiny, despised bit of self that I still possessed, despite everything. Besides, what was I good for, really? The menial tasks that no one ever noticed? Simply becoming the tiniest cog in a huge machine wasn’t worth the sacrifice. I couldn’t afford to forget myself because everyone else forgot me anyway. Yes, I was self-absorbed all right, because otherwise I was nothing at all. Another repulsive revelation.

This degree of painfully heightened self-awareness both gives the book its Freudian flavor of psychoanalytic case study and, while fascinating, renders it static as a work of fiction. For although by the end of her monologue Luise has gained a slightly more mature perspective on her experiences, she has also not changed very much—except perhaps in the intensity of her resignation to her perceived character flaws. In this sense her narrative is if anything anti-psychoanalytic, since after describing her life Luise seems not to have learned how to cope with it any better. Instead, it seems as if her only point in her reminiscences is to remind us again and again of her deficiencies, and the constant repetition tends to undermine the reader’s desire to sympathize with her plight.

Despite the frustrations of the material, however, praise must be given to Pierce’s fluid and highly readable translation, whose momentum never flags throughout a work that is not broken into chapters and contains not even a single scene break. Nevertheless, in a few spots the text would have benefited from the attentions of a careful editor: a “leeching” instead of a “leaching,” two instances of “hand and hand” for “hand in hand,” a mistaken reference to a typewriter’s shift lock as the “caps lock,” and a document in which Luise is referred to with the specifically English or British (and somewhat anachronistic) title “Ms.” in place of “Fräulein.” These minor complaints aside, Pierce’s translation is a pleasure to follow from start to finish, even while Hartwig’s fiction itself seems to run in place.

12 November 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Dan Vitale on Mela Hartwig’s Am I a Redundant Human Being?, which was translated from the German by Kerri A. Pierce and published earlier this year by Dalkey Archive Press.

I remember first hearing about this book while on an editorial trip with John O’Brien to Austria. It sounded really interesting at the time—I think they pitched her as a Austrian Virginia Woolf—and I’m really glad this finally made its way into English. (Though I’m not entirely sold on the title . . . Feels so stiff, robotic.)

Anyway, Dan Vitale — who is a contributing reviewer — wrote this piece, and really seemed to like the book. (Typos and all.) Here’s the opening of his review:

The Austrian actress, writer, and painter Mela Hartwig (1893–1967) published relatively little during her lifetime: a collection of stories, a novel, a novella, and a book of poems. She did most of this work between 1921, when she married and retired from acting, and 1938, when she and her husband moved to London to escape the Nazi occupation and annexation of Austria. Am I a Redundant Human Being?, written in 1931, was one of three completed novel manuscripts found (along with a fourth, incomplete novel) among her papers after her death. Unpublished until 2001, when it fueled a renewed interest in Hartwig’s work in her home country, the novel has now been translated by Kerri A. Pierce and published by Dalkey Archive Press—the first appearance of any of Hartwig’s books in English.

Am I a Redundant Human Being? is the monologue of Aloisia (known as Luise) Schmidt, a secretary at a Vienna construction firm. Luise narrates the events of her life from her early childhood at the turn of the twentieth century until about the age of 30. Judging from the intensely psychological focus of the book, it is clear that Hartwig’s Vienna is also very much the Vienna of Sigmund Freud; the narrative has the feel of a case study in low self-esteem. After an undistinguished school career, Luise’s life has been a mostly unbroken series of unfulfilling low-skilled clerical jobs and difficult relationships: tentative friendships with women, whom she tends to idolize and imitate excessively; and unstable romances with men, whom she tends to obsess over and who ultimately reject her over her neediness and her weakness of personality.

Click here to read the full review.

4 August 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

The most recent addition to our Reviews Section is a review by Stephen Sparks of Thomas Bernhard’s Prose, translated from the German by Martin Chalmers and published by Seagull Books.

Stephen Sparks is currently on his second go-round as a bookseller at Green Apple Books in San Francisco, after having spent a year as a publishing fellow at Dalkey Archive. He’s in the process of finishing an MLIS program. And you may recognize him from The Book vs. The Kindle videos Green Apple made a few years ago. (And which name-checked Ricardas Gavelis’s Vilnius Poker as an ass kicking Lithuanian vampire novel.)

Bernhard is a personal favorite, especially The Lime Works and Correction. Prose sounds like vintage Bernhard, what with the rants, the depressing view of life, the suffering of the main characters, etc. Here’s the opening of Stephen’s review:

Anyone familiar with Thomas Bernhard’s work can call forth a string of adjectives, one more off-putting than the last: bleak, anguished, splenetic, death-obsessed. Correction is about a scientist who kills himself after spending six years constructing a bizarre monument to his sister. The Loser focuses on a musician so lost in Glenn Gould’s shadow that silence, followed by suicide, seems the only logical choice. The Lime Works tells the story of the murder of a wheelchair-bound woman by her monomaniacal husband. And so on. Coupled with Bernhard’s uninterrupted blocks of text and digressive ranting against the loathsomeness of Austria, these morbid plots hardly offer the most welcome invitation for those who don’t habitually dress all in black or aren’t given to self-flagellation.

Fortunately, for all of its easily identifiable Bernhardian preoccupations—its suicides and murderers, its haunted characters—the previously untranslated story collection Prose provides, in miniature, both an ideal introduction and a refresher to the work of one of the singular European writers of the twentieth century.

Click here to read the full review.

4 August 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Anyone familiar with Thomas Bernhard’s work can call forth a string of adjectives, one more off-putting than the last: bleak, anguished, splenetic, death-obsessed. Correction is about a scientist who kills himself after spending six years constructing a bizarre monument to his sister. The Loser focuses on a musician so lost in Glenn Gould’s shadow that silence, followed by suicide, seems the only logical choice. The Lime Works tells the story of the murder of a wheelchair-bound woman by her monomaniacal husband. And so on. Coupled with Bernhard’s uninterrupted blocks of text and digressive ranting against the loathsomeness of Austria, these morbid plots hardly offer the most welcome invitation for those who don’t habitually dress all in black or aren’t given to self-flagellation.

Fortunately, for all of its easily identifiable Bernhardian preoccupations—its suicides and murderers, its haunted characters—the previously untranslated story collection Prose provides, in miniature, both an ideal introduction and a refresher to the work of one of the singular European writers of the twentieth century.

A typical Bernhard story (both in Prose and in his novels) takes the form of a report or confession of narrator who witnesses the dissolution of another character’s mind—as Ben Marcus argues, Bernhard is less a narrative storyteller than an “architect of consciousness.” The narrator serves as a filter through which the victim1 pours his defense, which, at this remove takes on a deeply ironic aspect. By keeping the subject at arm’s length, Bernhard can create an at times unbearable tension: does the distance save the reader from identifying fully with the victim1 or does it cause us to suffer more due to the fact that Bernhard’s narrators are themselves sufferers by proxy, thus magnifying the amount of anguish a book can contain?

The sixth of seven stories in this collection, the excruciatingly ironic “The Crime of an Innsbruck Shopkeeper’s Son,” offers a prime example of this technique. The titular character, the narrator’s fellow student and roommate, is driven to desperation by being different, a dividing line drawn between him and his family:

Georg was an exception. He was the center of attention, but thanks to his worthlessness, thanks to the scandal which he represented for the whole family, always frightened and embittered by him, not least where they tried to cover it up, a horribly crooked and crippled center of attention, which they wanted out of the house at all costs. He was so greatly and in the most dreadful way deformed by nature they always had to hide him. After they had been disappointed down to the depths of their faecal and victual detestableness by the doctors’ skills and by medical science altogether, they implored in mutual perfidiousness a fatal illness for Georg, which would remove him from the world as swiftly as possible; they had been prepared to do anything, if he would just die . . .

The “scandal” Georg causes, we find, is due more to his intelligence than a mysterious deformity: being born into a merchant family, this “useless, ever deeper and deeper thinking beast” who “even wrote poems,” deviated too much from the rigid stupidity of the shopkeeping class. As in a fairy tale, Georg’s murderous family conspires to rid themselves of this nuisance. Despite his perceived monstrosity, Georg proves himself strong enough to overcome his family’s evil designs and flees to Vienna.

In a fairy tale, such an escape signals a happy resolution. In Bernhard’s stories it signals the point at which any similarity to a fairy tale falls apart. There’s no redemption in this universe. Escape is only exchange, in this case one prison, the family cellar at Innsbruck, for another: Vienna, “the most dreadful of all old cities of Europe . . . such an old and lifeless city . . . such a cemetery.” And, since Georg once again finds himself claustrophobically entombed, he commits his final, and in the eyes’ of his family, unpardonable crime.

“The Crime of an Innsbruck Shopkeeper’s Son” and five other of the stories in Prose fall into the basic pattern above: a highly subjective secondhand report on the crime of a hypersensitive character. The irony being, of course, that the perpetrators of the so-called crimes are in fact victims of grave and at times obscure injustices themselves—and justice’s blindness serves only as a convenient excuse for its idiocy. This is typical Bernhard, surprising only in its relentlessness.

In the two remaining stories—“The Cap” and “Juaregg”—Bernhard deviates from his typical distance (if not pattern) by presenting confessions without an intermediary. In “The Cap,” the narrator, suffering from a “_pathological nature_,” is so incapable of action that even the decision to go for a walk proves to be an unrelenting torment. Even more unbearable than action, however, is twilight, at which time he flees the house in terror to walk in either of two directions: toward an ugly town or toward a beautiful town. Imagine then his overwhelming consternation when he finds a cap on the road leading toward the ugly town and assumes the proper course would be to attempt to return it to its owner. But to whom does the cap belong? Is it a woodcutter’s or a butcher’s or even a farmer’s cap? And what if he puts it on? But he has no right to put it on, for he is not a farmer, a butcher, or a woodcutter. And what color is the cap?

These questions cascade over him, inordinately agitating his already fragile mental state. He wants nothing more than a life without complications, but such an eventless existence is impossible for someone in his state. Like many of Bernhard’s characters, the narrator in “The Cap” suffers so much precisely because he is not mad. He believes that by going mad he would manage to escape his anguish:

But the truth is that I want to go mad, I want to go mad, nothing I want more, than really go mad, but I fear that I am far from being able to go mad. I at last want to go mad! I don’t want to be only afraid of going mad, I at last want to go mad. Two doctors, one of whom is a highly scientific doctor, have prophesied that I shall go mad, very soon I would go mad, the two doctors prophesied, very soon, very soon; now I’ve been waiting two years for it to happen, to go mad, but I still haven’t gone mad.

This breathless, hysterical desire is merely another form of madness and bars the way to any escape. This is the fate of Bernhard’s characters: a crazed desire for insanity or suicide, both options being viewed as an end to suffering. To go on living is possible, of course, but always with the awareness that “We are at liberty to kill ourselves.”

A friend and I, both booksellers, were recently discussing a curious compulsion we feel when recommending “depressing” books: we find that we search, almost unconsciously, to find something palatable on which to focus our enthusiasm. This is natural enough in sales, I suppose, but nonetheless troubling. In the case of Bernhard, for instance, I find myself explaining that while his work is, well, almost unbearably grim, there’s comedy and pathos in it as well. This is true—Bernhard is a savagely hysterical writer—but highlighting it obscures a fundamental characteristic of his, and many of our best writers’, work: the acknowledgement that life is itself not particularly palatable. This isn’t to say life, and by extension superior works of art, aren’t graced by moments of remarkable beauty, but by focusing only on the “nice” we risk shutting ourselves off from the fullness of experience.

Bernhard offers us such a discomforting vision. In the story “Is it a Comedy? Is it a Tragedy?” his narrator offers an opinion that “one describes best what one hates.” Our literature is much richer for this assumption.

1 Everyone in Bernhard’s fiction is a victim, whether of a bad childhood, failed ambitions, or simply of having been born: “The catastrophe,” Prince Sarau reports in Gargoyles, “begins with getting out of bed.”

24 March 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

Peter Handke’s latest novella to be published in English translation is narrated by a chef who operates and lives in an inn in the Île-de-France region outside Paris, near the ruins of the Port-Royal-des-Champs convent. Experiencing a period of solitude due to lack of business (all his neighbors — his potential customers — have moved away), he occupies his time reading. Thus, he is an ideal audience for a visiting storyteller who suddenly and fancifully appears in his garden: a visitor from another century and out of the pages of literature — the legendary lover Don Juan.

Handke, in addition to being a brilliant, occasionally controversial playwright and essayist, has for four decades written numerous brief, brilliant, piercing novellas (and two longer works of fiction, including his masterpiece My Year in the No-Man’s-Bay). These works have carried forward the tradition of intensely psychological German-language modernism (Handke is Austrian) and at the same time taken it in new, breathtaking, highly self-conscious directions. A simple recital of some of his titles — The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick; A Sorrow Beyond Dreams; A Moment of True Feeling; and the collection of journal entries The Weight of the World — is enough to capture the dual atmosphere of mournful angst and tender beauty in which his entire oeuvre is steeped.

So, the entrance of the title character in Don Juan: His Own Version is, for Handke, uncharacteristically lighthearted, even farcical:

. . . Don Juan came hurtling head over heels onto my property. He had been preceded by a sort of spear, or lance, that whizzed through the air in an arc and dug itself into the earth right at my feet. The cat, which was lying next to that spot on the grass, blinked a few times, then went right back to sleep, and a sparrow — what other bird could have pulled this off? — landed on the still quivering shaft, which then continued to quiver. In actuality the lance was just a hazel branch, slightly pointed at the tip, such as you could cut for yourself anywhere in the forests around Port-Royal.

The novella’s subtitle, which translates literally as something closer to “As Told by Himself,” is misleading for a few reasons, most obviously that Don Juan isn’t actually the narrator. We do not hear Don Juan directly describe his exploits — not even in quoted dialogue — but instead are told everything secondhand, by the chef. Additionally, the novella is not a retelling of the famous Don Juan legend depicted in the well-known play by Molière or the libretto of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. Instead, Don Juan’s narrative spans the previous week, a period marked by encounters with several women. We get fewer details of each encounter than of the one before, ostensibly because they are significant to Don Juan only in the ways that they differ from each other. Also, we might suspect, Handke feels that each encounter is basically the same as the others. All that seems to interest him is the archetype.

The first of the week’s encounters is with a young bride in a village near Tblisi, Georgia, and the last is one about which we receive no details whatsoever. The intermediate encounters take place in far-flung cities — Damascus, Ceuta (North Africa), Bergen (Norway), and an unnamed city in Holland — due to Don Juan’s supernatural ability to travel quickly from one part of the world to another, in the company of his servant, the driver who initially met him at the Tblisi airport.

In order to characterize these encounters, the word “seduction” is studiously avoided. This is because, according to Don Juan himself (via the chef), he “was no seducer.” The chef explains:

He had never seduced a woman. He had certainly run into some who had accused him of doing so. But these women had either been lying or no longer knew what they were thinking, and had actually intended to express something altogether different. And conversely, Don Juan had never been seduced by a woman. Perhaps now and then he had let one of these would-be seductresses have their way, or whatever it was, only to make it clear to her in the twinkling of an eye that there was no seduction involved and that he, the man, was neither the seducee nor the opposite. He had a kind of power. But his power was of a different sort.

Perhaps his power is linked to the fact that this “version” of Don Juan is propelled not by lust or the urge to conquest, but by a profound sadness:

Don Juan was orphaned, and not in any figurative sense. Years earlier he had lost the person closest to him, not his father or his mother, but his child, his only child, or at least so it seemed to me. So one could also become an orphan when one’s child died, and how. Or maybe his woman had died, the only one he loved?

. . . What drove him was nothing but his inconsolability and his sorrow. To transport his sorrow to the world and transmit it to the world. Don Juan lived off his sorrow as a source of strength. It was bigger than he was and transcended him. Armored in it, so to speak, and not merely so to speak, he knew that although he was not immortal he was invulnerable. Sorrow was something that made him impetuous, and, in an opposite and equal reaction (or rather action by action), completely permeable and open to whatever might happen, while at the same time invisible when necessary. His sorrow furnished provisions for his journey. It nourished him in every respect. As a result he had no major needs. Such needs did not even rear their heads. . . . His sorrowing, fundamental rather than episodic, was an activity.

Indeed, Handke’s Don Juan is hardly the romancer and swashbuckler of legend but more of a tempered and introspective figure, much like the protagonists in many of Handke’s works since Slow Homecoming (1984). These characters are personified as wanderers — sojourners often suffering from unspecified psychological trauma, whose psychic survival seems to depend on their capacity to apprehend every last detail of their physical surroundings. This is why so much of Handke’s fiction is both mentally claustrophobic and expansively celebratory of nature, why it can feel at the same time so suffocatingly pessimistic about humanity and yet unguardedly optimistic that the soul may nevertheless flourish in a world that contains so much splendor. Toward the end of the novella, the chef captures some of this natural beauty:

In the hill forests around Port-Royal the edible chestnuts had just come into bloom, and the cream-colored strings of blossoms hung down among the dark oaks like crowns of foam atop waves, seething on all sides in the area surrounding the ruins, and from the silent surf rose, at the very top, back on the Île-de-France plateau, the pale red roof of the former cloister stables of Port-Royal, a roof with a tile landscape more beautiful and strange and yet dreamily familiar, as part of a barely discovered planet, than anything I had seen before, and the swallows swooping above it into the last sunlight moved twice as fast, as if propelled by the light.

Don Juan: His Own Version is an intriguing and frequently thought-provoking exercise. Although not on par with Handke’s earlier work, it contains many examples of his acutely self-aware and at times exquisitely gorgeous prose. Even, as here, when displayed only occasionally to its best advantage, Handke’s voice is strong and nearly unparalleled in contemporary world literature.

24 March 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Review Section is a piece on Peter Handke’s latest novella, Don Juan: His Own Version, which is translated from the German by Krishna Winston and published by FSG.

Dan Vitale—one of our new “contributing reviewers,” which is sponsored by a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts—wrote this review. He’s a big Handke fan, and although this may not be Handke’s absolute best, it sounds pretty interesting:

Peter Handke’s latest novella to be published in English translation is narrated by a chef who operates and lives in an inn in the Île-de-France region outside Paris, near the ruins of the Port-Royal-des-Champs convent. Experiencing a period of solitude due to lack of business (all his neighbors — his potential customers — have moved away), he occupies his time reading. Thus, he is an ideal audience for a visiting storyteller who suddenly and fancifully appears in his garden: a visitor from another century and out of the pages of literature — the legendary lover Don Juan.

Handke, in addition to being a brilliant, occasionally controversial playwright and essayist, has for four decades written numerous brief, brilliant, piercing novellas (and two longer works of fiction, including his masterpiece My Year in the No-Man’s-Bay). These works have carried forward the tradition of intensely psychological German-language modernism (Handke is Austrian) and at the same time taken it in new, breathtaking, highly self-conscious directions. A simple recital of some of his titles — The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick; A Sorrow Beyond Dreams; A Moment of True Feeling; and the collection of journal entries The Weight of the World — is enough to capture the dual atmosphere of mournful angst and tender beauty in which his entire oeuvre is steeped.

So, the entrance of the title character in Don Juan: His Own Version is, for Handke, uncharacteristically lighthearted, even farcical.

Click here to read the full review.

2 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next fourteen days, we’ll be highlighting a book a day from the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



The Weather Fifteen Years Ago by Wolf Haas. Translated from the German by Stephanie Gilardi and Thomas S. Hansen. (Austria, Ariadne)

Wolf Haas’s The Weather Fifteen Years Ago has the dual distinction of being the most obscure title on this year’s Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist and also the most formally experimental. Although before you run away and hide, I should say right now and here that this is also one of the most readable and engaging titles on the longlist—despite its formalist tendencies.

Which, given Haas’s background, makes a bit of sense. Haas is most famous in Austria for his “Detective Brenner” crime novels that “present the exploits of a cantankerous ex-cop plagued by migraines” (according to Thomas S. Hansen’s afterword). The Weather Fifteen Years Ago, originally published in German in 2006, may be his first non-thriller, but the way in which the reader pieces together the plot from the five-day long interview between Wolf Haas and an anonymous female book reviewer, functions sort of like a mystery.

In the novel The Weather Fifteen Years Ago, Wolf Haas is being interviewed about a book he wrote with the same title that is more or less a prolonged story of unrequited love. The novel inside the novel revolves around one Vittorio Kowalski, who appears on a game show to show off his ability to remember what the weather was like in a particular small village in the Austrian Alps every day for the past fifteen years. In and of itself, this is a pretty remarkable, but the Haas of the novel knows that there’s something more to the story . . . Why would a man memorize the weather every day for some podunk town where his family once vacationed? (A: A girl. It’s always a girl.)

From this seemingly innocent, yet oddly compelling story, a whole world unfolds, one that’s both intricate in terms of its plot (there’s a lot more to this little summer love than one initially expects) and in terms of how the interviewer talks with (fictional) Haas about the way the (imaginary) book is written.

I know that sounds confusing, but here’s the opening page just to give you a sense of how easy it is to fall into this book and how many levels this works on:

BOOK REVIEW: Mr. Haas, I’ve been going back and forth for a long time about where I should start.

WOLF HAAS: So have I.

BOOK REVIEW: Unlike you, though, I don’t want to start at the end. Actually—

WOLF HAAS: Strictly speaking, I don’t start at the end either. I start with the first kiss.

BOOK REVIEW: But in a way that’s the whole point of the story you’re telling. Or, the way I see it, the goal toward which everything moves. Speaking strictly chronologically, it belongs at the end of the story. Your hero has been working toward this kiss for fifteen years, and in the end he finally gets it, but you don’t describe this scene at the end. Instead, you prefer to put it right at the opening.

WOLF HAAS: There were actually a few openings I liked better. My problem wasn’t so much the beginning, or how I should start, but where to put the kiss. You can’t just stick it at the end, where it belongs, so to speak. But that would be intolerable. When someone has been waiting for, or as you say, working toward, a kiss for fifteen years, and hten he finally gets it, how are you supposed to describe that?

BOOK REVIEW: While I was reading, I wondered if you were declaring war on the reviewer by moving the conclusion to the first page.

WOLF HAAS: That would have been pushing it too far.

This infamous kiss—described so precisely, clinically in Haas’s imaginary book—is what the Book Reviewer and (fictional) Haas then build to in their interview, and by the time you as a reader actually get there, the weight of the moment is incredible . . .

It’s a lot of fun to puzzle out the various plot points of the imaginary book under discussion, and I’d be interested in hearing from other readers as to whether they think the imaginary book is supposed to be all that well written. The Book Reviewer seems to have a lot of respect for it, and for (fictional) Haas’s writing, but at the same time, there are scenes she describes that seem interminably dry:

BOOK REVIEW: When you read this passage, it’s almost maddening how you describe the wedding guests in such a detailed way. Here, of all places, when all you want to know is if, and how, Vittorio Kowalski escapes, you lose yourself in the artistry of describing Anni’s wedding dress. When it first appeared three days ago, Anni called the color “vanilla.”

WOLF HAAS: Three days and seven hours ago, yes.

BOOK REVIEW: And now it says it was by no means vanilla. And then there follow some digressions about vanilla ice cream at the swimming pool and you even give the price of a scoop of vanilla ice cream at that time.

That’s what makes this book a lot of fun: to imagine the imaginary literary work behind all these allusions and discussions. And (the real) Haas does a marvelous job of making this feel like a genuine conversation. Sure, belief is suspended when you consider the idea of a book reviewer spending five days talking to an author about a single book (not to mention the implausibility of just how precisely she seems to know the book . . .), but still, the conversation flows and as the book progresses, it gets more and more engaging. The “metafictional” frame never distracts from the story. And speaking of the “metafictional” element, I’ll end with a long quote from Hansen’s afterword about this:

All metafiction confronts readers with clearly playful literary experiences. Haas chooses to do more than interrupt a plot line with meta-narrative or digression; he presents the whole narrative in this form. The result produces some intriguing puzzles to engage readers in constructing their own interpretations and even alternative story lines. The often argumentative conversation between the fictional author and the interviewer, in which they disagree about interpretation and even plot, establishes the unreliability of any narrative point of view. “Haas” claims to tell Vittorio Kowalski’s quest for love, and in doing so, he betrays an identification with his character so close that at one point the third person and first person pronouns merge: the narrator’s “he” (describing Kowalski) slips into “I.” To add to this shifting point of view, the time levels in the tale are also porous. The narrated sequence of events does not unfold chronologically but emerges according to the associative vagaries of interviewer and author—and both comment on this fact. Time is almost an exercise in praeteritio, which is driven by disclaimers like “we won’t mention the fact that . . .” or “I’ve cut a certain passage.” These strategies themselves generate new content and propel the reader through various associative digressions toward the dramatic climax.

Definitely worth reading.

14 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

CALQUE has an excellent piece by translator Vincent Kling on the recent death of Austrian writer Gert Jonke. Kling’s piece and the five short pieces he translated are all worth reading, but here are a few highlights:

Parody is alive and well: a rough parallel from the 2008 election in the United States is found in the considerable part Tina Fay played on Saturday Night Live in focusing opposition to Sarah Palin – rough because Jonke was a master at making political points without such direct reference. In one of his last plays, for instance, a character laments that the national assembly has sold all the air space over the country to a monopolistic advertising agency, which will erect huge banners to blot out the sun, moon, stars, the birds in flight, and the wind. Too buffoonishly over the top? Not when people in Vienna recall that the tower of the cathedral and other landmarks were long draped by scaffolding over which advertisements for insurance companies were hung and that one firm has in fact recently been granted exclusive legal rights to all the billboards in the city. [. . .]

Ordered perceptions are a sometime thing anyway. “Hyperbole 1,” from a series of snapshots or vignettes in drama form called Insektarium, is one of several studies by Jonke showing the social origins of perception and memory. That process forms the basis of his Geometric Regional Novel. If the difference between how the human eye and the insect eye perceive their surroundings is a marvel of nature, it might be even more miraculous to ponder how different the outside world can appear to any two human observers. The man and the woman are watching the same circus performance but placing opposite meanings on the same phenomena. Even as the show is taking place, not after it, the observers are “distorting” reality by negotiating an understanding of what they’re seeing and then storing those “distortions” in their memory. [. . .]

“The Projector” is thus a shorter, funnier, but not less powerful version of stories like George Perec’s W or The Memory of Childhood, Doron Rabinovici’s The Search for M., or W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, right down to the realization that restoring memory, or being provided one in the first place, starts the process of resolution almost regardless of how dreadful the events were. Not knowing what one intuits is worse, because the horror is present in sublimated but damaging form, unavailable for processing. The spotless mind does not experience eternal sunshine, to cite another film about memory, for it isn’t spotless; its blankness is already a taint. Nor is the conferring or denying of memory unconnected here with rewarding or punishing consumer behavior; the owner of the movie theater reserves the right to make the audience happy or miserable based purely on payment, so the tensions of capitalist structures, always present in Jonke and always reduced to their logical absurdities, make up another theme.

Jonke was an amazing author, and thanks to Dalkey Archive and Ariadne Books, a number of titles are now available (or will be shortly), all of which can be ordered from Skylight Books by clicking here.

2 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

These two books arrived a couple weeks ago and are nearing the top of my reading list:

Every Man Dies Alone is one of three Hans Fallada books Melville House is bringing out this season. (The Drinker and Little Man, What Now? being the other two.) A mammoth book (although written in only twenty-four days!), Every Man Dies Alone is based on the true story of a working-class couple that resisted the Nazis. This is Melville House’s lead title for the spring, a book that they’ve been pushing as a sort of German Suite Francaise and lost masterpiece. Based on the relative success of his other novels — Little Man, What Now? was even made into a movie — it’s surprising this book wasn’t translated into English before now. A great find for Dennis and Valerie, and every indication points to this book taking off. And the production on this book is phenomenal: the end papers feature full color maps of Berlin, and included with the afterword are all the historical documents related to the “true story behind the novel.”

Gert Jonke’s Homage to Czerny made the 2009 Best Translated Book Fiction Longlist, which is one reason I’m very interested to read his Blinding Moment, which just came out from Ariadne Books. Ariadne Books is pretty press that specializes in Austrian literature. (In addition to Jonke’s book, I’m very excited about Kathrin Roggla’s we never sleep, which is due out later this spring.) Jonke’s book is a collection of four pieces—“The Head of George Frederick Handel,” “Catalogue d’oiseaux,” “Gentle Rage, or The Ear Machinist: A Theater Sonata,” and “Blinding Moment: A Novella.” According to the copy, he “takes the works of four composers (plus a universally loved saint) as the starting points of profound but often hilarious explorations of human struggle and triumph, of spiritual yearning and fulfillment.” In addition to Jonke’s pieces, Vincent Kling’s translator’s afterword looks really interesting. It’s a pretty substantial piece that places this book within the context of Jonke’s entire career.

Hopefully we’ll have full reviews of both of these titles online within the next month or so.

12 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.



Homage to Czerny: Studies in Virtuoso Technique by Gert Jonke, translated from the German by Jean M. Snook. (Austria, Dalkey Archive)

Homage to Czerny: Studies in Virtuoso Technique is the second Jonke book that Dalkey has published, the first being the insanely comic Geometric Regional Novel. And if you like these, there’s even more Jonke on the horizon. In 2009, Ariadne Press is bringing out Blinding Moment: Four Pieces about Composers and Dalkey is doing another (can’t find the title right now) next fall.

This particular novel consists of two linked novellas. The first is “The Presence of Memory” and centers around an annual party thrown by Anton Diabelli and his sister Johanna. But in contrast to past parties, the one this year is going to be different . . . er, exactly the same:

What’s your brother doing? I asked

He’s comparing the photos he took of last year’s party, Johanna answered, with the positions of things as they have been laid out for this evening.

Why?

So there aren’t any mistakes.

What mistakes?

Everything should be exactly as it was at last year’s party, answered the photographer’s sister. [. . .]

What’s going to take place here this evening, said Johanna, is not supposed to be one of our usual summer parties, but rather an exact reflection, no, much more than a reflection: a REPETITION OF THE PARTY that we had last year on the same day at the same time.

It’s supposed to be exactly the same party again, added Diabelli.

Filled with strange conversations, and a nice twist at the end, “The Presence of Memory” is a cute story, made up of some nice, funny moments.

In my opinion, the stronger of the two novellas is the latter, “Gradus Ad Parnassum,” which is about two brothers—both formerly promising composers—stuck in the attic of the conservatory they attended with 111 dusty pianos.

The narrator was a very promising composer, whose career was derailed by his alcohol dependence, and who’s going through withdrawal while they’re trapped in the attic. His brother was a very promising student, except that he had a problem moving his fourth finger independently of the third or fifth, “and it’s this ability that ensures that you can play a scale or an arpeggio exactly evenly in every respect.” He addressed this problem—and failed in addressing it—in a very Jonke-ian way:

I remember that before we took our final examinations in music my brother had screwed a completely useless gadget around his fingers and soon after maintained that he couldn’t move his fingers at all anymore.

Eventually they’re rescued from the attic and the “mystery” of the 111 pianos is unveiled, leading to a pretty absurd predicament.

The main reason I wanted to cover Jonke’s book today though is because he passed away last week and Vincent Kling, one of Jonke’s friends and translators, wrote a nice piece about him:

“. . . because you keep on dreaming your dream about flying and open our eyes to a freedom that might not really exist but that we couldn’t live without.” This tribute to Gert Jonke was spoken by the artistic director of the Burgtheater in Vienna in conferring a significant theater prize last October. By then, the cancer that ended Jonke’s life on January 4 had visibly marked him. Americans can recall the sorrow over David Foster Wallace’s death to feel a similar loss. Wallace died unexpectedly, Jonke by stages the public saw, for he did not cut back on his appearances and was planning on making his debut as an actor later this month. But both writers had exceptional talent, versatility and virtuosity, and clarity within complexity. Decent men, too, people agree—Jonke was never known to say a bad word about anyone, focusing on his craft and ignoring hype and buzz. [. . .]

Jonke was the first recipient of the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in 1977 and later he won almost every prize, distinction, award, grant, and honor imaginable, but there wasn’t a whiff of competitiveness about him. While others postured and strutted and pontificated at awards ceremonies in his honor, he would get up and rhapsodize a half-impromptu acceptance speech richer and more satisfying than any item on the select menu. He never pretended to take awards for granted, and it was clear he was having a grand old time. He told me how happy he was to see his work better known, and he was especially taken with Italian and French renderings of his novels. Translators who came to pay their respects usually left feeling as if they were the main event.

It’s a sad loss for literature, and I’m especially glad that Homage made the long list—it’s a small way of honoring his literary achievements and bringing some additional attention to his work.

5 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I had the chance to meet Gert Jonke in Vienna a few years back. I was there with Dalkey publisher John O’Brien, looking for Austrian writers to publish in English. (One of the titles we heard about was A Fucking Masterpiece, which, according to the reading report we got, actually wasn’t, but it’s still one of the ballsiest titles I’ve ever come across.) Dalkey published Jonke’s Geometric Regional Novel back in the 80s a fantastic and imaginative book that contains one of the funniest faux-bureaucratic questionnaires to ever appear in print, and John was always looking for other Jonke books to publish.

(Dalkey did end up deciding on a few, including Homage to Czerny, which made the Best Transalted Book longlist. And Ariadne Books is doing one as well.)

One of my favorite moments with Gert was when I asked if he’d be willing to come to the U.S. for a reading tour. He politely declined, saying he wasn’t really interested in coming to the States because there’s no where you can smoke in this country. And he wasn’t sure if Red Bull would be as accessible here as it is in Austria . . .

If any English-language obituaries are published, I’ll update this post and link to them below.

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