3 April 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Clarice Lispector is undoubtedly one of the great writers of the past century. Her recent rediscovery—sparked off by the reissuing of The Hour of the Star in Ben Moser’s new translation—is definitely merited, and will hopefully usher in a time in which any number of very deserving female authors from the not-very-distant past finally get their due. Writers like Nathalie Sarraute (the author who most came to mind as I was reading Lispector’s The Chandelier) or Mercè Rodoreda or Ann Quin or Dorothy Richardson or Elsa Morante. (I’m sure you can come up with twenty others.)

The most recent entry in Lispector-mania is The Chandelier, Lispector’s second novel, published in 1946, three years after Near to the Wild Heart, is a true literary event. It’s rare enough that an author of this magnitude and difficulty breaks into the widest circles of the literary establishment, and triply rare that the author in question has a never-before-translated novel right there waiting to be devoured by an already desirous audience.

This book is going to get so much coverage over the next few months. Which is why I really don’t feel bad taking some time to explore my personal reaction to reading this book—and think through some questions about reviewing translations—especially since I personallyhad a really hard time connecting to this novel.



The Chandelier by Clarice Lispector, translated from the Portuguese by Benjamin Moser and Magdalena Edwards (New Directions)

I’m not sure exactly why I couldn’t ever really get into The Chandelier, but there it is. I spent a few weeks working my way through this, occasionally enraptured by the philosophical nature of the prose, frequently skimming to try and find the next plot point, often feeling more obliged to pick this up than excited to get back into it—all of which is probably user error. I generally read too fast. There are so many books stacked up, so many self-imposed reading goals. And time is a premium. Usually that’s not a huge deal—I live in a town whose two sources of pride are a garbage plate and a grocery story, so there aren’t a lot of distractions—but I just couldn’t find the right reading pace for this book.

Beyond that—and again, this is on me, for being a bit of a dummy—I just couldn’t find the right hooks to get into this. I got the general point of it, but to me it read like a much less elegant version of one of Sarraute’s brilliant novels. Over the multiple weeks of reading this, I texted a half-dozen literary friends to see if they had read it and maybe had that magic insight that would make it all fall into place and get me hooked. But, alas.1

This got me thinking about reviews, and what their role can/should be. Nothing that comes after this statement is all that revolutionary, or even necessarily connected to this book. But trying to envision the perfect review for The Chandelier led to a lot of circular arguments about reviews in general. I’m not going to go over all of them right now—this is probably the first of several posts over the next few months about reviewing translations—but let’s see where this all goes. So I’m just going to make some general statements and then argue with myself for a bit.

A Review Should Hype a Book

I think this is a commonly held belief—especially when it comes to reviews of translated books. There are so few opportunities for most of these titles to get any ink-time, so what’s the point in writing about a subpar book that you don’t really like? These opportunities should be maximized by drawing attention to wonderful books that are masterfully translated. If reviews are supposed to bring readers to particular books, shouldn’t we use this opportunity to direct the curious to the masterpieces out there?

Furthermore, what is gained—for the translation profession as a whole—by shitting on a translated title? Just don’t write/tweet/say anything! There are so many good books out there deserving of attention, not to mention all the great translators doing amazing work—so just write about those.

But is that really what criticism is? How can the translation profession really improve if these books aren’t ever criticized? Translators, not to mention readers of international fiction, can gain a lot from seeing what works, what doesn’t work, witnessing the mind of a sharp reader in action. We expect critics to actually break down books originally written in English and examine what works and what doesn’t, thus saying something about art & the world & writing, and we should expect the same treatment for a book that happens to be originally written in another language. There are truths about art and life that can be pulled from this, especially if we give it a close, critical reading.

There’s a fundamental difference though: most translations have been critically analyzed in their original language and have gone through an extensive vetting process to get here. It’s a bit suspect to suddenly be taking down a translated book that was critically acclaimed in its home country. What are you criticizing? The form and writing of the book itself? Based on what? American standards? Biases that are built out of reading mostly American novels with their American styles? If the ending of a Chinese novel isn’t Hollywood enough, then it should ripped apart? Or are you actually criticizing the translation and just not on sure enough footing to say so?

One Should Never Criticize Individual Word Choices in a Translation

So much of so-called “translation criticism” is just nitpicking translations with little to no understanding of the original. Actually, it’s even worse than that. There are two types of people who criticize translations: those who know the original language and get all bent up about the translator using “mom” instead of “mama” or “dove” instead of “pigeon,” and there are those critics who don’t know the original language, but still attribute any and every quirk of the prose to the translator as some sort of “mistake.” It’s another example in which translation criticism is basically taking an international text, comparing it to American-centric literary values, and declaring it inferior. And the “critic” never takes into consideration all the thought about possible choices that the translator went through with nearly every word—the translator, who’s not even given an opportunity to explain—-

Hold the fuck up! We’ll get to the last part of that soon. But first off: sometimes individual word choices are valid examples of how a text works or doesn’t. And NOT just for translations. Remember the criticism of Uncle Charles “reposing” to the outhouse in Joyce? The example that Hugh Kenner turned around into an example of Joyce’s genius and the way he “gave over” that word to Uncle Charles, saying something about his particular perspective on how he sees himself? Individual words are important in constructing characters and a legit critic will apply the same sort of standards to books written in English or in any other language. If a character is using words in dialogue that he would NEVER EVER USE then there’s a problem—no matter who wrote it. Again, a good critic shows how these sorts of choices are building blocks to great literature.

A Review Should Always Talk about the Translation

Fine, except that a translator doesn’t have the same leeway as a writer working in English. We’re bound by the original text and if we don’t reproduce it, we’ll be savaged—by you, by an academic, by a fellow translator—for not being “faithful” enough. It’s unfair to hold us to the same standards, since we’re under a different set of constraints.

I figured you were a translator, given your general defensiveness.

Watch it.

I’m not sure exactly what a critic is supposed to do. On the one hand, we’re supposed to review as many translations as possible to help readers break out of their provincialism, but we’re not supposed to apply the same criteria to these books as those originally written in English. If we criticize the words on the page, the translation, I suppose, then we’re being unfair to translators like Gregory Rabassa’s “Professor Horrendo”; if we don’t write about the translation, then we’ll get a letter from PEN about how we need to “name the translator”; and if we say the translation “seems pretty competent,” then we’re just dumb assholes who aren’t giving credit and don’t know how to review translations. What is it that you want, exactly?

To be treated as an equal to the author. You wouldn’t be reading this book at all if it weren’t for us. (Triply so if it’s from a language that’s not Spanish or French.) The amount of time put into the creation of this book is astonishing, not to mention the sheer amount of critical and creative thought. It’s not like a translator is the same as a goddamn app—we’re artists and deserve to be included in the conversation about the art works that we create. That’s not too much to ask. Sure, it takes you a bit of extra work to engage with the book on two levels—as a book and as a translation—but that’s just the sort of critical thinking that you’re good at, right?

What’s a Review Good For?

But wait. If the point of reviewing a translation is to get general readers to read a great book, do we really want to get into all this technical shit?

Not shit.

Technical SKILL then. Deep dives into translation theory and how to reproduce a language’s syntax in English are 100% guarantees of boring the piss out of a general reader. A solid quarter of Americans didn’t read a book last year. Check that. A quarter of Americans are PROUD they didn’t read a book last year. And half of the rest of them read one book and it was either their high school girlfriend’s self published 99 cent Amazon ebook of dinosaur porn or whatever piece of mediocrity was part of their “One City, One Book!” environment. People don’t give fucks about the intricacies of translation—unless you’re a translator, and the bookselling world shouldn’t be all about YOU. There are, what?, 20,000 readers of literary fiction out there? And, let’s be honest, the translations we’re talking about are works of literature, not spy novels or romances or whatever. Of those 20,000 readers, probably 500 or so read actual book reviews. If you want these reviews to be promotional tools for international literature, we need to up that number. And to up that number, we have to focus on what readers want: plot descriptions, information about what makes a book unique, why it’s worth reading and what about it might not work for everyone. The SAME reasons why they come to a book (or don’t) when it’s written in English. Why should they treat translations as something exotic and more complicated? Doesn’t that defeat your very point?

There must be a middle ground.

One of the things I’ve encountered are book review editors shying away from reviewing translations because they don’t have a reviewer on hand who’s read the original. Or can! But even if they can, do you understand our deadlines? And that they’re REAL deadlines? And Christ, none of us get paid. Yeah, I know YOU’RE underpaid, but $500 for a 500 word review? Can you imagine asking someone to read a novel in the translation AND the original for $500? AND write a review AND have it in by next Saturday? We’re all doing the best we can.

That’s exactly the point! Why are you criticizing us when we’re also doing “the best we can”? We’re slaving away—also for no money—riddled with self-doubt and the fear that critics like you will blow apart all of our work over a single word? A word we chose because it was the best of five bad options? We’re just as talented of wordsmiths as you are, but criticizing our work is somehow just, but criticizing a critic is a bad look and sour grapes and whatever.

How Small Is This World

Here’s my big problem: I’m paid next to nothing to talk about books. Books! Books barely matter anymore to anyone. It’s a thankless project that doesn’t earn money, can maybe find you love (if you love books, like, legitimately), and gets no respect. I’ve said it before and will again that book people are only in it to make it to the end. Just get by. Win and advance. Whatever your inspirational of choice might be. So I do my job. I read books that are by dumb young Brooklyn kids about trust fund living and college aspirations. These books are fucking terrible. I read experimental jet set trash from the intellectuals who feel threatened by the idea that most everyone would rather be playing Netflix and chill. (Fuck YOUR mixed metaphors.) I read translations that are basically just boring books and some that are poorly written—in both languages—and some that are great. Most of the time I just feel manipulated by rich people, but that’s America circa 2018. Yet the things I write about translations—which I think are fun and from the perspective of an informed reader who is just READING the books—are the ones that lead into a tiny wormhole filled with translators saying translator things about how translations translate and translations should be translation translate. It’s the most unreal world. So touchy! American authors are less concerned about reviews because they know no one gives a FUCK about reviews. But translators only want reviews to exist in a world that’s there just to please them.

You’re such a self-involved old white man prick. Wanting to be part of the conversation, instead of judged from on high by someone with questionable taste and knowledge is completely batshit insane. You make all these comments about the tenuous state of books and translation, but, hey, you’re a fat white dude writing reviews in the Age of Yelp. You know who doesn’t matter? You. Reader responses will always exist, but your livelihood comes from newspapers. Newspapers. Seriously. We’re creating something and you’re sitting there blogging. Eat shit. The future of bookselling or readership or whatever you think you understand doesn’t need you at all.

You know who sucks? Publishers.

OMG. They are the worst.

It’s all just a racket for their benefit. A game in which we pretend our lives have meaning so that they can make more money.

I think my editor got paid twice my salary to fix three comma splices. Whereas I translated a goddamn book. Commas! We’re talking about commas.

Because assholes.

Have you ever looked into how much money the big publishers make? The book industry has to be profitable for some people, right? But how does that work? And who is screwing us?

_Look. I’m not a journalist, but . . . _

——————


1 I ended up relying on this review from Music & Literature. It’s a really smart piece that will appeal to those new to Lispector and seasoned Lispector readers. Here are the three quotes I found most useful and intriguing:

The power of Lispector’s heavily textured sentences and Virginia’s unbridled introspections and contemplations of who she wants to be cannot offset the fact that this three-hundred-page book would have benefited from being as economically edited as her more acclaimed works. Virginia’s monotonous ruminations often blur together; her thoughts and struggles can be profound and beautiful, but so many pages of the same rolling waves of dreamy sentences can sap even the hardiest reader’s will to dig into the work. This novel is perfect for those who already revere Lispector and want a further understanding of where her thoughts and aesthetic went after Near to the Wild Heart.

Benjamin Moser and Magdalena Edwards’ shrewd, supple translation of The Chandelier showcases the brilliance of Lispector’s singular style and astutely unfurls the longer, more complex sentences that the author had come to use as a fundamental unit of composition.

Coming out, as it does, during Lispector’s many travels with her husband, The Chandelier deals with a larger alienation and disconnect not only from society, but from other people, and even from oneself. Virginia’s monologues and internal struggles often feel more akin to the philosophical wrangling of a person struggling for the right language to wring herself out. Near the end of the book’s first part, Virginia laments how “Suddenly the words from which she lived in childhood seemed to have run out and she couldn’t find any others” as well as how words define her deepening relationship with her lover Vicente: “She started to change into Vicente’s words and sometimes she would feel that it was more than words that were transformed.” This linguistic transformation gives rise to perhaps the most convincing and joyous moment in the novel, where Virginia is able to speak “the first word of her new experience.” This crisis of identity and where Virginia sees herself within the world is at least glimpsed at in that beautiful moment between her and Vicente.

14 December 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The pub date for Chronicle of the Murdered House by Lúcio Cardoso, which is translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson, with a biographical note from Ben Moser officially came out on Tuesday, December 13th. To celebrate the release of this Brazilian masterpiece, we’ll be running a series of pieces over the rest of this week, including an interview with the translators, some early reviews, an excerpt, and part of Ben Moser’s piece.

We’ll start with this—the press release that was sent to reviewers and booksellers with the galleys.

The book is available at better bookstores everywhere, or through our website. If you order before the end of 2016, use the code BOOKSEASON at checkout to receive 40% off your total order.

“When a friend suggested that Chronicle of the Murdered House might be the greatest modern Brazilian novel, I was startled. There are so many more obvious candidates, after all. But as I thought about it, I realized that the statement wasn’t as strange as it sounds. The book itself is strange—part Faulknerian meditation on the perversities, including sexual, of degenerate country folk; part Dostoevskian examination of good and evil and God—but in its strangeness lies its rare power, and in the sincerity and seriousness with which the essential questions are posed lies its greatness.“—Benjamin Moser



There are a number of approaches to Lúcio Cardoso’s life and work that mark the first English-language publication of his Chronicle of the Murdered House as a major literary event.

For one, there’s Cardoso’s influence on the beloved Clarice Lispector, whose own work is currently enjoying an incredible renaissance. Clarice was enamored with Cardoso, and, as Benjamin Moser explains in his introduction, transformed one of Cardoso’s suggestions into the title of one of her most famous books—Near to the Wild Heart.

Although their writing styles are quite different, you can see the impact Cardoso had on Lispector while reading Chronicle of the Murdered House. The introspective nature of its prose marked a significant turning point in the history of Brazilian writing, carving out a path that Lispector and many others would eventually follow. In contrast to what came before, writing for these authors was less an activity concerned with social or national issues, but, again in Moser’s words, “a spiritual exercise, not an intellectual one.”

For a lot of readers and critics, this approach is particularly interesting given Cardoso’s position as a gay Brazilian author who was also a member of the Catholic Church. Although Chronicle itself doesn’t address many themes of contemporary gay literature, Cardoso’s sexual orientation does influence a lot of his writings, especially in terms of the role homosexuals could play in Brazil during that period.



The comments about Cardoso’s spirituality—as a Catholic and in terms of the goal of his writing—are particularly interesting in context of the morally suspect situations found throughout the book. In isolation, or as part of the jacket copy at least, these bits sound almost overly sensational. There’s incest. Madness. Adultery. An obese, cross-dressing character locked up in his room. There’s a cultured woman from the city whose very presence calls into question generations of familial habits.

The novel is never sordid just for the sake of being sordid though, and beyond the machinations of the plot—which twist and turn like great mid-century, or even Victorian, works—there is the form through which Cardoso tells his story. With shifts of tone and point of view, he utilizes confessions, diary entries, letters, statements, reports, to bring to life this once great family that is now represented by a crumbling estate that they can’t afford to maintain. (A very Faulknerian image.)

This a book that is a “classic” on a number of counts, including its scope, its literary style that approaches but doesn’t always embrace the high modernists, and in its import to Brazilian literature as a whole. A book of this import—that’s spectacular and complex—requires a brilliant translator to really make it work in English. Thankfully, Margaret Jull Costa—translator of such literary giants as Javier Marías, Fernando Pessoa, José Maria Eça de Queirós, José Saramago, and many more—was willing and able to undertake this task. With the help of Robin Patterson (translator of José Luandino Vieira), they have fully captured the intricacies and beauty of Cardoso’s writing, producing a rendition that’s as linguistically powerful as the original.

For such a lengthy book, Chronicle is a rather quick read. It embraces its page-turner impulses, and uses a non-linear structure to stimulate and engross the reader. From the very opening chapter, the reader can get a sense of the overall pattern of dissolution driving the lives of the characters, but keeps reading in order to witness all the juicy details and see just how crazy things can get. (Answer: As crazy as the wake scene in the final chapters.) It’s a book that fills in a gap in our collective knowledge about Brazilian literature from the twentieth century, and hopefully will spark a resurgence of interest in one of Brazil’s greatest literary stars.

1 November 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Click the “Enter Contest” button below for a chance to win one of 15 copies of Chronicle of the Murdered House by Lúcio Cardoso (and translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson) that we’re giving away through GoodReads this month.

“A real revolution in Brazilian Literature.“—Benjamin Moser

Long considered one of the most important works of twentieth-century Brazilian literature, Chronicle of the Murdered House is finally available in English.

Set in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais, the novel relates the dissolution of a once proud patri­archal family that blames its ruin on the youngest son Valdo’s marriage to Nina—a vibrant, unpredictable, and incendiary young woman whose very existence seems to depend on the destruction of the household. This family’s downfall, peppered by stories of decadence, adultery, incest, and madness, is related through a variety of narrative devices, including letters, diaries, memoirs, statements, confessions, and accounts penned by the various characters.

Salacious, literary, and introspective, Cardoso’s masterpiece marked a turning away from the social realism fashionable in 1930s Brazilian literature and had a huge impact on the writing of Cardoso’s life-long friend and greatest admirer—Clarice Lispector.


Goodreads Book Giveaway

Chronicle of the Murdered House by Lúcio Cardoso

Chronicle of the Murdered House

by Lúcio Cardoso

Giveaway ends November 15, 2016.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway




24 July 15 | Chad W. Post |

This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is from judge Kevin Elliott, bookseller at 57th Street Books in Chicago.

As a reminder, you can stay up to date with all BTBA goings on by liking our Facebook page and by following us on Twitter. And by checking in regularly here at Three Percent.

Recently, Benjamin Moser, author of “Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector” wrote an op-ed for the New York Times discussing the state and struggle of international literature in English translation. Among the statistics and observations of what it takes to bring great writers of non-English languages to not only America, but the world at large, Moser notes that “Literature is made by a community: present and past, dead and alive,” but cautions against the homogeneity that our English-ruled world could impose upon that very same literature.

The Japanese novelist and critic, Minae Mizumura’s book, The Fall of Language In The Age of English, is half memoir of a writer finding her literary voice through U.S. education and the ultimate decision to practice her art in her native (and dying) Japanese. The other half is a much more academic screed against the very same homogeneity that Moser openly struggles with. To Mizumura, this homogeneity is a present threat that endangers the truths in literature that cannot be translated no matter how hard we work at it. In the shadow of that threat lies her steadfast loyalty to writing not only in her native tongue, but also with a conscious awareness and reverence for the literary traditions of Japan.

To Mizumura, dying languages are worth preserving through literature. To Moser, literature of all languages is worth translating. In fact, works of lost literature are waiting to be discovered.

Both Moser and Mizumura mention the invasive reality of English on the world of literature. In their own separate ways, both argue for the concurrent needs to both preserve and promote regional literatures. It is a delicate balance, to be certain. One actively pursues new translations from the Portuguese. The other consciously writes in her native tongue despite being educated in America. One brings a nearly forgotten voice into English on a wider scale than ever before. The other reinterprets an English classic to reflect the post-war conditions of Japanese tradition in the face of the American led industrial globalized society. It is, however, a society that has led to opportunities of discovering more international writing as well as the decline of the very traditions that Mizumura laments in the wake of popular writers such as Haruki Murakami.

Where, then, does this place the three percent figure that is front and center to the English reading world in relation to works in translation? How does someone like me, who is only fluent in the most dominant of languages (with some understanding of casual kitchen Spanish and a picture-book reading competence in German) become so interested in translated fiction? How do I convince others to pick up a lesser known novel that took more than a year of laborious and patient translation work and give it a chance? Why does it matter?

I spend a lot of time thinking about these questions as not only a bookseller, but as a person in an ever-increasingly connected world.

First, I think it matters exactly because we are living within such prevalent connection. Connections that can seem intimate, but so often result in quick flashes and selfies across our screens . . . gone in less time than it takes for Nicholas Cage to steal a sports car. Literature, for me, has always been about curiosity in other perspectives about the world, whether that is a personal narrative of universal human themes or a plot-driven story that pushes us to think in different ways. In a world where seemingly everyone has access to each other all the time, literature gives us a moment of pause and growth. A pause that doesn’t always present itself to us in a media saturated globalized world.

Convincing other people to take these pauses in others’ experiences of the world—especially from other cultures—often boils down to curiosity, which is a quality I find most readers possess. Though it may make Mizumura’s hair stand on end, I don’t see it as much of a stretch to point out to casual readers that learning how one Japanese individual cleans her apartment (Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up) isn’t that far removed from learning how one Afrikaner woman organizes and makes sense of her life and family history (Karel Schoeman’s This Life). A stretch for some, of course, but you’d be surprised at how many customers in my store don’t realize that one of the most popular books currently featured on daytime talk shows is translated from another language . . . and how much pointing that fact out to them has opened them to the realization that translated works of all kinds can be relevant, interesting, and perhaps even important to them.

My conscious interest in international literature started unexpectedly when the editor of this site, Chad W. Post, reached into the trunk of his car and handed me a strange and little known novel by the British experimental writer, Ann Quin. The book was Tripticks and I was told it was “British and intense and about America.” I doubt Chad remembers the exchange, but I read the book and thought it was like nothing I had read before. There was a beat sensibility to it and a Woolf-like tone, but with a completely different feel and a critical romanticism about America that I found utterly compelling. And for some unknown reason, It stuck in my head that it was British. It wasn’t British like Dickens or Austen or Hardy. It was something new to me. From that point, I remember paying more attention to where authors were from and began consciously seeking out contemporary novels from other countries and cultures.

Despite the rampant spread and saturation of the English language in culture and literature, an English novel about America led me to the wider world of international literature and, in part, to a genuine curiosity in understanding experiences around the world. From a bookselling perspective, I don’t see why a book about cleaning your clutter can’t do the same. Of course, with the popularity of authors like Knausgaard or Murakami among readers these days, leading someone to the next translated novel isn’t often that much of a stretch, but with only three percent of all books published in America being translated, I’m happy to have an entry point for readers available anywhere I can find one.

As for approaching four percent, it may not be something achievable in the near future for books in translation based on scale alone, but I’m seeing small micro publishers sprout up regularly who are dedicating their efforts toward bringing international literature to the English reader. In a way, the larger issues that Moser and Mizumura struggle with and passionately work for aren’t dissimilar from what I aim to do as a bookseller. Every day I work to preserve the importance of taking the time to read books while simultaneously aiming to open people up to discovering the myriad nuances of art and experience.

Over the next year, I’ll be reading through as many of the hundreds of eligible titles for the 2016 BTBA as I can. I couldn’t be more excited to be a part of the process. But as much as I’ll be offering my opinions and reactions to the books themselves, I’m also interested in sharing what I’ve seen happening in translation at the bookselling level. From the energetic and passionate publishers I’ve been in communication with to the unique ways that different bookstores work to point out the existence and importance of international lit, there are amazing things happening to bring more readers (and more books) into the three percent realm many of us are eager to grow.

29 March 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.

A Breath of Life by Clarice Lispector, translated from the Portuguese by Johnny Lorenz and published by New Directions

This piece is by Will Vanderhyden (aka Willsconsin), student in the University of Rochester’s Translation Program and translator of Carlos Labbé’s Navidad and Matanza, which will be released in 2014.

Before I talk directly about why I think Clarice Lispector’s A Breath of Life deserves to win this year’s Best Translated Book Award, I want to offer a little background about how this novel’s English publication came about, mostly because it strengthens my overall argument, but also because it deals with issues relevant to literature in translation more broadly. (I realize that readers of Three Percent might already be familiar with much of the following information regarding Lispector and her English translations, so if you are one of those readers, please forgive the lengthy digression).

Although she is considered by many to be the greatest Brazilian writer of the twentieth century, Clarice Lispector has never enjoyed a large English language readership. She is wildly popular in Brazil, revered and adored to the point of idolatry. Her strange, captivating prose, epic life story, and striking beauty have made her a legendary national icon. Her books are sold in vending machines, her face adorns postage stamps, and her name appears regularly in all sorts of literary and popular media. But for whatever reason—be it the challenging nature of her work, the fact that she’s a woman, flat English translations, or a general lack of interest in Brazilian literature—she has never enjoyed the popularity among English readers of other Latin American Boom writers like Jorge Amado, Julio Cortázar, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Over the last several years, New Directions and Benjamin Moser—author of Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector, a finalist for the National Book Circle Critics Award in 2009—have been working to change that. In 2011, New Directions published Moser’s retranslation of The Hour of the Star (the last novel Lispector published during her lifetime), and in June of 2012 they published a series of four new translations of Lispector novels, all edited by Moser. This series includes retranslations of three of her most well known books—Near to the Wild Heart (translated by Alison Entrkin), Aqua Viva (translated by Stefan Tobler), and The Passion According to G. H. (translated by Idra Novey)—as well as the first English edition of A Breath of Life (translated by Johnny Lorenz), a novel which was published after Lispector’s death, and assembled, organized and edited by her close friend Olga Borelli.

In the introduction to A Breath of Life, Moser refers to New Directions series of Lispector translations as “the most important project of translation into English of a Latin American author since the complete works of Jorge Luis Borges were published a decade ago.” According to Moser, the original English translations of Lispector’s work were woefully inadequate, flattening out, “correcting,” and explaining the strange grammar, idiosyncratic syntax, and surprising word choices that define Lispector’s style. Lispector’s own response to an early French translation of Near to the Wild Heart, which upset her because of the liberties it took in translating her style, provides definitive support for Moser’s sentiment, in a letter to her editor at the time she wrote:

I admit, if you like, the sentences do not reflect the usual manner of speaking, but I assure you that it is the same in Portuguese. The punctuation I employed in the book is not accidental and does not result from ignorance of the rules of grammar. You will agree that elementary principals of punctuation are taught in every school. I am fully aware of the reasons that led me to choose this punctuation and insist that it be respected.

Though he acknowledges that, to some extent, translators invariably tend to smooth out oddities and correct “errors” present in original works, for his own translation of The Hour of the Star and for the other Lispector translations he edited for New Directions, Moser aimed for the greatest fidelity possible to the syntax and grammar of her Portuguese originals. In the afterword to The Hour of the Star, he writes: “The translator must therefore resist the temptation to explain or rearrange her prose, which can only flatten it and remove from it the ‘foreign’ aura that is its hallmark, and its glory.”

Lispector has clearly carved out her place in the canon of world literature. Her unique artistic vision, innovative narrative style, and philosophical insight situate her comfortably among the best writers of the twentieth century. And in light of the aim—and what I believe to be the success—of the Moser/New Directions project, the comparison to the translation of Borges’ complete works, which might come off as overblown at first glance, seems to me entirely appropriate. Because A Breath of Life is the only title in the New Directions series that is not a retranslation, it is the only one eligible for the BTBA. Which is not to say that it necessarily represents the significance of the entire project, but at the same time, its importance as a translated book cannot be fully appreciated outside that context.

So, finally, A Breath of Life. This novel, like much of Lispector’s work, delves into the relationships between thoughts, sensations, words, facts, and objects; into the ways language constructs and mediates what we call reality. It is structured as a sort of dialogue between a male “Author” and Angela, a character he creates. In short, alternating passages, the two voices reflect on the nature of time, meaning, death, and on the relationship between author and character, between creator and creation. As the “Author” states:

Angela and I are my interior dialogue: I talk to myself. Angela is from my dark interior: she however comes to light. The tenebrous darkness from which I emerge. Pullulating darkness, lava of a humid volcano burning intensely. Darkness full of worms and butterflies, rats and stars.

If the novel had a plot, it might be described as the “Author’s” struggle to understand Angela and his relationship to her, and Angela’s struggle to understand herself and her relationship to the “things” of the world. But it all takes place inside; there is no action, no grounding in the world, no “real” handhold.

The structure of an interior dialogue between author and character—which might be thought of as defining a split in Lispector’s mind, a divided self—undermines the distinction between form and content, laying bare the ways in which not only fiction and fictitious characters, but the “facts” of the world in which we live, and our identities, what we call “selves,” are fabrications of language. As the “Author” writes: “Reality does not exist in itself. What there is is seeing the truth through dream. Real life is merely symbolic: it refers to something else.” And: “I wouldn’t exist if there were no words.” And: “Angela goes from language to existence. She wouldn’t exist if there were no words.”

If all this sounds really abstract, well, it is. Many questions are raised and very few unambiguous answers are given. Angela tells us:

I know the secret of the sphinx. She did not devour me because I gave the right answer to her question. But I am an enigma for the sphinx and nevertheless I did not devour her. Decipher me, I said to the sphinx. And she fell mute. The pyramids are eternal. They will always be restored. Is the human soul a thing? Is it eternal? Between the hammer and the blows I hear silence.

There are many such quotable lines and Nietzsche-esque aphorisms, but in itself this probing into the nature of reality, identity, and meaning is not really what gives this book its power. It is the way Lispector’s style is able to render these ideas not only thought but also felt. The structure and rhythm of her sentences, the surprising juxtapositions, and subtle, provocative rearrangements of ordinary language are able to tap into something primordial that transcends the limits of ordinary expression. And here we readers of Lispector in English are indebted to the extraordinary work of translator Johnny Lorenz and the vision of Benjamin Moser, who, by holding true to Lispector’s unconventional grammar and syntax, sustain the jagged, hypnotic musicality that makes her prose so intellectually rewarding and so viscerally resonant.

A Breath of Life deserves to win the BTBA because it is the only entirely new part of a translation series that reintroduces a canonical writer to English readers; but also because it is a beautiful, original, and deeply intelligent book by a writer who leaves us, like the sphinx, mute and wondering at her genius and her mystery.

(As far as wrestling goes, no contest: Lispector will seduce all comers with her feline eyes then crush them with the weight of her brain).

29 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

A couple weeks ago, Ben Moser was in town for the unfortunately acronymed NeMLA conference. We took advantage of this to host a special RTWCS event to talk to Ben about his biography of Lispector (Why This World, Oxford University Press), his new translation of The Hour of the Star, and the four Lispector books he’s editing for New Directions.

The results were pretty entertaining, in part because Ben (who is also a contributing editor to Harper’s and on the board of the National Book Critics Circle) is so damn entertaining, and in part because Lispector is one of the most interesting literary figures of this past century.

3 September 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

This post is two days overdue, so you may already have noticed that Brazos has replaced Skylight as our “Featured Bookstore” for September.

Back when I did sales calls at Dalkey, I used to love calling Brazos and talking to Karl Kilian. Very nice guy, very kind, very interested in our books. So I was dismayed when he decided to take a job at the Menil Collection and was going to have to sell the store . . . Well, as is detailed in this article, twenty-five local individuals stepped up, pooled resources, formed Brazos Bookstore Acquisition, a limited liability corporation, and saved Brazos.

Jane Moser—the store manager, and more on her in a second—has a great quote about this: “Houston is known for its oil and conservative politics. It’s really nice to have a literary community take a stand and say it will not let the store disappear.”

To be completely honest, I’ve never been to Brazos—or even to Houston, although I seem to know a lot of cool literary people down there—and the real reason I want to feature Brazos this particular month is because of Jane’s son Benjamin. Ben Moser is the new literary editor at Harper’s, a very funny guy, and the author of Why This World, the new biography of Clarice Lispector. He’s actually in the States right now to promote the book and will be “reading at Brazos” on September 14th.

All month, all of the books mentioned in our posts will link to Brazos’s online ordering catalog. Please take advantage and help support Brazos—one of the top indie stores in the country.

13 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Following up on my earlier post about Benjamin Moser’s forthcoming Lispector biography, Why This World, I want to correct some information about her available titles.

In addition to all the New Directions ones I listed on the original post, Family Ties is also available from the University of Texas Press, and this fall, the UK based Haus Publishing will be reissuing The Apple in the Dark with a new introduction by Moser.

(Haus is one of the coolest presses I’ve come across recently. Found out about them at the London Book Fair thanks to their connection with American University of Cairo Press. And the fact that they do amazing work. More on them in a separate post . . .)

(And granted, I’m not very old, but once, one of my interns was reading Family Ties and I made a joke about Michael J. Fox and the TV show. As it turns out, my befuddled intern wasn’t born until after the show had gone off the air.)

9 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

From today’s Publishing Perspectives piece by Moser about the origins of his project (Why This World) and all that he went through to research this elusive figure:

Maybe because the project began with such élan, I found myself undaunted by the many obstacles that were thrown at me. Neither the cuisine of rural Ukraine, where Clarice, the daughter of Jewish refugees was born; nor the rush-hour traffic in Recife, where she grew up; nor the zealous guardians of the archives of Bern, where she lived as the wife of a Brazilian diplomat, could dissuade me from my task.

I pored over thousands of pages of master’s theses from obscure universities; I learned Yiddish in order to read family memoirs. Time and again, I tugged out an abusively overused credit card: to buy books, including, ultimately, more copies of her rare first novel, Near to the Wild Heart, than are in all the libraries in the United States put together; to chase down some elusive materials in a suburban house in Manchester; to pay a visit to a man in Paris who may or may not have been her lover (he wasn’t); to put myself on yet another fourteen-hour economy flight in order to spend long days speaking to often-reluctant witnesses.

I got called an anti-Semite and an Ugly American; I also got to spend afternoons with loving Jewish grandmothers who made me tea and sent their maids to my hotel with homemade soup when I came down with the flu. I got to eat pizza with a woman in Kiev who had just returned from Chernobyl and who casually laid her Geiger counter on the table as she was digging through her purse in search of her cigarettes.

7 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

One of the fall books that I’m really looking forward to is Benjamin Moser’s biography of Clarice Lispector entitled Why This World, which, according to the back jacket, is “based on previously unknown manuscripts, numerous interviews, and years of research on three continents.”

Moser replaced the late John Leonard as the author of Harper’s “New Books” column, and is also a contributor to New York Review of Books. (And his mom runs Brazos Bookstore—a future featured indie bookstore.)

Lispector was born in the Ukraine, but grew up in Brazil and wrote all of her works in Portuguese. Most of her books are available from New Directions, including The Hour of the Star, Selected Cronicas, and Soulstorm. (University of Texas did Apple in the Dark a number of years ago, but it’s currently out-of-print.)

She was a fascinating writer, and her life sounds equally intriguing. I’m hoping to write a full review of this bio in the not-too-distant future, but here’s a bit from the beginning about the mysterious, beautiful Clarice Lispector:

In this void of information a whole mythology sprang up. Reading accounts of her at different points in her life, one can hardly believe they concern the same person. The points of disagreement were not trivial. “Clarice Lispector” was once thought to be a pseudonym, and her original name was not known until after her death. Where exactly she was born and how old she was were also unclear. Her nationality was questioned and the identity of her native language was obscure. One authority will testify that she was right-wing and another will hint that she was a Communist. One will insist that she was a pious Catholic, though she was actually a Jew. Rumor will sometimes have it that she was a lesbian, though at one point rumor also had it that she was, in fact, a man.

What makes this tangle of contradictions so odd is that Clarice Lispector is not a hazy figure known from shreds of antique papyrus. She has been dead hardly thirty years. Many people survive who knew her well. She was prominent virtually from adolescence, her life was extensively documented in the press, and she left behind an extensive correspondence. Still, few great modern artists are quite as fundamentally unfamiliar. How can a person who lived in a large Western city in the middle of the twentieth century, who gave interviews, lived in high-rise apartments, and traveled by air, remain so enigmatic?

15 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Well, at least in relation to Open Letter books . . . The new issue of Harper’s has two pieces on Open Letter titles: a long review by Robert Boyers of Woman of Rome: A Life of Elsa Morante by Lily Tuck and a shorter review of Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s Rupert in Benjamin Moser’s New Books column. (Both pieces are accessible online to subscribers only.)

Rupert: A Confession just released this week, but is available at better bookstores everywhere, and through our website. And I think Ben does a better job describing this book that I ever could. After comparing it to Camus’s The Stranger, he brilliantly sums up the novel’s protagonist:

His Rupert is a walker in the city who offers extended thoughts on the proper layout of public squares, methods for downloading and cataloging online pornography, men who wear comfy sweaters (“an arresting demonstration of farmerly freshness of the kind that . . . feels sorry for you because you’re too uptight and inhibited to dress properly”), and the type of woman who “wants to rove around Afghanistan on stolen horses and feel the auras of Tibetan scales with the energy paths of her vulva.”

You can read one of the funniest excerpts from the book here. (Warning: PDF format.) To celebrate the publication of this striking book and our first Harper’s review, we’re going to giveaway 10 copies. To enter into the drawing, simply e-mail me at chad.post at rochester dot edu with your full mailing address.

I’ll write more about Robert Boyers’s piece on Morante later in the month, after the copies of Morante’s Aracoeli are back from the printer. She’s an amazing writer and deserves a post of her own. Not to mention, Robert Boyers wrote the intro for our reissue, so we can include that as well . . . In the meantime though, you can read a sample of Aracoeli by clicking here. (Again, PDF format.)

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