8 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.

Happy Moscow by Andrey Platonov, translated from the Russian by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler and others, including Olga Meerson, Jonathan Platt, Nadya Bourova, Angela Livingston, and Eric Naiman, and published by New York Review Books.

This piece is by BTBA judge Bill Marx, who also runs Arts Fuse, a great source for criticism and commentary on a range of art forms.

To my knowledge, none of Russian writer Andrey Platonov’s early science fiction novels have been translated into English. Robert Chandler, the writer’s fearless advocate and translator, once told me in conversation that they were minor efforts, though I would love to read them. To my mind, Happy Moscow reads at times like a marvelous anticipation of the futuristic excursions of Polish writer Stanislaw Lem. As in the latter’s acerbic novels, wry but demented visions of utopia and dystopia meet, mingle, and morph at the bloody crossroads of humanity and technology, language and gibberish, innocence and despoliation. As Eric Naiman writes in his introduction to an earlier version of the NYRB translation, “in both form and content this work captures the strange combination of enthusiasm and catastrophe that characterized Russia in the twentieth century.” Neither proclamations of unshakeable cheer nor prophecies of global meltdown are in short supply today: Platonov dramatizes the clash between Russian extremes of propaganda and reality to the point of cartoon absurdity. His deconstruction of reality-denying hubris remains provocative, still one step ahead of the postmodern pack.

Written between 1932 and 1936 and unpublished until 1991, Happy Moscow generates its characters (in particular Moscow Chestnova, the book’s sexy but sentimental and injury prone heroine) out of pure Stalinist kitsch, bloated visions of “immortal” vitality that from time to time crash into an increasingly degraded existence. Early on, the bold and beautiful parachutist Moscow finds herself plummeting helplessly to the ground:

She flew, her cheeks red and burning, and the air tore harshly at her body, as if it were not the wind of celestial space but a heavy dead substance—it was impossible to believe that the earth could be harder and still more merciless. “So, world, this is what you’re really like!”

Ah, the tragicomic exhilaration of the new Soviet woman falling toward the old, old ground.

Unsurprisingly Happy Moscow counterpoises its energetic (and amusing) rhetoric of ideological confidence with compelling images of excrescence and decay. Platonov’s humane ethos is articulated by a skeptical character as he is leaving a room filled with corpses that are being dissected in the scientific search for “the cistern of immortality”:

He was saddened by the sorrow and poverty of life, saddened that life is so helpless that it must almost uninterruptedly distract itself through illusion from an awareness of its own true situation. Even Sambikin was seeking illusions in his own thoughts and discoveries—he too was carried away by the complexity and great essence of the world in his imagination. But Sartorius could see that the world consisted primarily of destitute substance, which it was almost impossible to love but essential to understand.

Happy Moscow is a wild study in cosmic disillusionment, a diagnosis of linguistic, political, and metaphysical fiddle-faddle whose challenging use of broad caricature and stylistic instability will lead some readers to toss it into the bin of genre fiction, while others will dismiss it as a surreal doodle. But this book deserves to win because it is a sui generis masterwork, a satiric fantasia of unmistakable brilliance from one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, with ample collaborative evidence offered by the other pieces in this volume, particularly the story “The Moscow Violin.”

8 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.

The Hunger Angel by Herta Müller, translated from the German by Philip Boehm, and published by Metropolitan Books

This piece is by BTBA judge Bill Marx, who also runs Arts Fuse, a great source for criticism and commentary on a range of art forms.

In A Thousand Darknesses, her critical study about how literature manages to preserve the memory of the Holocaust, critic Ruth Franklin asserts that “every canonical work of Holocaust literature involves some graying of the line between fiction and reality.” One could apply that claim to the literature about the pitiless existence in the death camps of the period as well, the Russian gulags. Romanian writer Herta Müller’s masterpiece, The Hunger Angel, describes life in a Soviet forced-labor camp right after the war through a powerful, almost uncanny, melding of imagination and first-hand testimony. Beautifully translated by Philip Boehm, this is the finest volume I have read so far by the Nobel prize-winning author, and I have no doubt that it is a canonical work because it meets Ezra Pound’s oft-quoted demand for literature. What’s more, it does so despite the odds—transforming stale pieties and images about the era’s inhumanity into news that stays news.

Back in the early ’60s, critics such as Ted Solotaroff already felt that all that could be said about the horror had been said: “By now there have been a glut of books and articles, reminiscences and diaries, documentary history and objective analyses tell us everything we need to know about the ghettos and prisons and death camps; no survivor need feel compelled to assume the burdens of testimony to the degradation, torture and murder that reiterate through these accounts and finally dull and deaden consciousness of their import.” So much more has been revealed since then.

So how does The Hunger Angel expand our consciousness of this well-worn material? Partly because it deals with what had been a repressed part of Romanian history, an episode that the authoritarian Ceaușescu regime did its best to keep a secret. After the war, Romanians with a German background were sent off to Soviet work camps, where thousands died. Müller explains in her afterword that “the deportations were a taboo subject because they recalled Romania’s fascist past.” She wanted to write about this hushed-up injustice, and spoke to a number of elderly survivors about life in the camps, developing a special relationship with the poet Oskar Pastior. There was talk of a collaboration, but when Pastior died Müller fashioned the material into a novel that evokes, amplified through her distinctive creative vision, the man’s playfully stark poetic sensibility.

The book creates the consciousness of seventeen-year-old prisoner Leo Auberg through his meditations on objects (in his past as well as in the camps), minimalist contemplations of horror that are pungent, sardonic, poetic, humorous, acidic, and heart-breaking. Along the way Müller invents words to describe the dehumanizing experiences that beset the narrator, a compelling language that, according to translator Boehm, evokes “the displacement of the soul among victims of authoritarianism.” The value of such an inspired articulation of historical witnessing is summed up near the end of the book: “Little treasures have a sign that says, Here I am. Bigger treasures have a sign that says, Do you remember. But the most precious treasures of all will have a sign saying, I was there.”

31 August 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Bill Marx’s new PRI’s The World World Books podcast features an interview with Ross Benjamin, recipient of this year’s Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Prize for Speak, Nabokov and translator of Joseph Roth’s Job, which is due out in November from Archipelago Books.

It’s clear from this interview that Ross not only is a great translator, but also an amazing reader, and after listening to this, I feel like I need to read more of Roth’s works . . . starting with this one. (And his comments on why books need to be retranslated—not always because the original translation is flawed, but sometimes because the new translation can enrich the work—are pretty interesting.)

From the Archipelago website:

Job is the tale of Mendel Singer, a pious, destitute Eastern-European Jew and children’s Torah teacher whose faith is tested at every turn. His youngest son seems to be incurably disabled, one of his older sons joins the Russian Army, the other deserts to America, and his daughter is running around with a Cossack. When the parents flee with their daughter to America, further blows of fate await them. In this modern fable based on the Biblical story of Job, Mendel Singer witnesses the collapse of his world, experiences unbearable suffering and loss, and ultimately gives up all hope and curses God, only to be saved by a miraculous reversal of fortune.

And speaking of Archipelago, their Fall 2010 catalog arrived yesterday, and as always, they’re bringing out some great books, including:

Stone Upon Stone by Wieslaw Mysliwski, translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston, which is “a profound and irreverent stream of memory cutting through the rich and varied terrain of one man’s connection to the land, to his family and community, to women, to tradition, to God, to death, and to what it means to be alive.” (Check out this recent RTW Podcast for more info on Stone Upon Stone and Bill’s translation.)

and

My Kind of Girl by Buddhadeva Bose, translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha, which is “a Bengali Decameron for the twentieth century.” (Although much shorter.) The novella takes place in a railway station where four strangers are trapped overnight. “The sight of a young loving couple prompts them to share their own experiences of the vagaries of the human heart with each other in a story cycle that is in turn melancholy, playful, wise, and heart-wringing.”

and

The Chukchi Bible by Yuri Rytkheu, translated from the Russian by Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse, which is “a collection of the myths and tales of Yuri Rytkheu’s own shaman father. The stories compose both a moving history of the Chukchi people who inhabit the shores of the Bering Sea, and a beautiful cautionary tale, rife with conflict, human drama, and humor.”

15 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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



Brecht at Night by Mati Unt. Translated from the Estonian by Eric Dickens. (Estonia, Dalkey Archive)

Below is a guest post from Bill Marx — the man behind PRI’s World Books — about another BTBA 2010 title. Almost there . . . Almost time to announce the finalists . . .

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
There will also be singing
About the dark times.
Bertolt Brecht, Svendborg Poems

But can an artist who has absorbed some of the dark times sing of them? Questions of political opportunism, as well as the twisted prerogatives of creative egotism, drive the late Estonian writer Mati Unt’s postmodern historical novel Brecht at Night. Unt isn’t concerned about how playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht sang about the rise of Hitler and Stalin or the outbreak of World War II in Europe. Instead, Unt examines, via an arch vaudevillesque irony, the narcissistic machinations of Brecht in the year 1940, when, fleeing Nazi Germany, he and his entourage of wife, mistresses and children end up in Finland, the guests of playwright Hella Wuolijoki, a rich Communist sympathizer with Estonian roots. It is the portrait of the artist as a determinedly abstracted man, aside from his paranoid fear that Hitler has sent out assassins to kill him.

Unt’s Brecht is primarily concerned with making it to America, not attempting to make sense of the gathering forces of the night, which would touch on his uneasy relationship with the Soviet Union, Stalin, and Communism. The general impression left by the book is that it isn’t fear of censorship so much as a pervasive inner decay that holds Brecht back from dealing with reality: The worse thing for a writer is not, Brecht thinks, having to keep your mouth shut. Its a lot worse when you have nothing to say via that mouth.

Sadistically, Unt, a narrative kibitzer in the book, surrounds Brecht with realities that should have given the writer plenty to talk about. He provides excerpts from non-fiction accounts (newspaper articles, academic studies) of the horrendous happening in Europe, with a grim emphasis on the Soviet Unions thuggish hijacking of Estonia. He also provides potted biographies of Brecht’s friends and lovers, showing how they were used and abused by Brecht and by history, camp followers betrayed or left on their own to survive.

All of this could have been heavy-handed Brecht the selfish artist slapped around, over and over, in a circumscribed barrel. At his best, however, Unt brings sardonic humor to the dark proceedings, perhaps tapping on his own feelings about being an artist (playwright, novelist, director) bottled up by the Soviet Union. Unt’s Brecht chooses to see the world through Marxian rules, Hegelian hocus-pocus: The covert theme of the book is, of course, dialectics, Brechts greatest love. That streamlined notion of Brecht’s vision isn’t entirely fair, as least to his poetry, which at the time made use of ambiguity and skepticism, a satire that made full use of mockery. Still, the characters intellectual triangulation amusingly seems to free him from looking too deeply at the demands of the here-and-now, aside from the sexual and secretarial demands he makes on the women in his life. (Unt draws on John Fuegi’s biography The Life and Lies of Bertolt Brecht, which details the authors swinish treatment of women.) Occasionally the author tries to wake Brecht up via an impish surrealism, such as having a very un-dialectical frog pop up in his room to give him a scare.

Unt includes a memorably funny chapter about a real-life Estonian government who served as a stooge for the Soviets named M Unt (no relation to the author). The guy counts down his acts of repression before his bosses murder him: Lithuania has been accepted as part of the Soviet Union (3rd August). There’s still time to go before my death.

Still, it is difficult to keep the inventive black humor coming, and by mid-point Brecht at Night increasingly shoves the title artist aside to chronicle the lethal facts of Soviet domination. The books imagination gives way to presentation; it suggests that Unt lost interest in drawing (and re-drawing) ironic attention to Brecht’s disinterest in reality, his obsession with bourgeois comfort during a time of chaos. If Unt had included more of the un-dialectical consciousness that informs the (anti)lyrics in Svendborg Poems the books exploration of the amoral writer-in-exile would have been richer and more compelling. Unt has a considerable reputation as a stage artist but there is surprisingly little dramatic conflict in the book. His Brecht devolves into a didactic puppet.

Unt’s other novels available in English, Things in the Night and Diary of a Blood Donor, tap on rich veins of fantasy (apocalyptic meltdown, vampirism) to evoke the brutal truths about the somnambulism of life under (or after) the domination of the Soviet Union. In Brecht at Night the author speaks openly and powerfully about the crimes of authoritarian barbarity, the degradation of creativity and morality, the slippery slope of self-involvement. But one misses his customary wildness, his imaginative gusto, as he goes about it.

11 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next five 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 Ninth by Ferenc Barnás. Translated from the Hungarian by Paul Olchváry. (Hungary, Northwestern University Press)

Below is a guest post from Bill Marx, one of this year’s fiction judges and the man behind PRI’s World Books. We’ll run another guest post of his later this weekend.

A brilliantly unconventional look at life in a small village outside of Budapest in the late 1960s, Ferenc Barnás’s marvelous novel The Ninth comes off as an inventively dour, sardonically humorous version of Huckleberry Finn, except that the book’s nine-year-old narrator can’t light out for the territories once he begins to understand the duplicities of home, society and morality. His indigence is too overwhelming, his family situation too absurd (he has nine siblings) and the soft authoritarianism of the government too robustly restrictive.

What’s more, Barnás gives his observant child hero an additional handicap – a disability that makes it difficult for him to speak and to read. Thus book’s central metaphor works itself out with grim logic: in surroundings this resolutely repressive, everything of value—creativity, morality, truth, and humanity—is bottled up inside, pressurized. What sort of steam could escape the Communist stopper? The answer suggests why Barnás’s third novel, which he admits is autobiographical, takes the form it does—a child’s frank, fanciful, and anarchistic view of moral survival amid repression.



Yet Barnás doesn’t revel in the gloom, an admirable artistry of refusal that turns away from predictable opportunities for extremism to nurture an indirection and subtlety that only deepens the factual surrealism of the situation and the time. The ninth child lives in a poverty-stricken, secretive Catholic family that scrapes along by selling rosaries and religious gewgaws condemned by the Communist government. The boy’s domestic and school life is marked by starvation, overcrowding (the ten children sleep in three beds), overwork and abuse. His father is tyrannical and short-tempered; his mother is kind but passive. In the course of the book the family’s exhausting focus, under the father’s stern command, is to earn enough money to move into a larger house.

Barnás conveys the environment’s barbarism through ironic humor (“One afternoon, when for some reason I wasn’t in the mood to mutilate frogs out in the yard with the others . . .”) and memories of violence that are kept off-stage (“the other day our father gave us twenty lashes on our soles for being late, he used the iron’s chord but it was better than watching klaro get it . . .”). Catholicism serves as a rich satiric source of meager solace, wry hypocrisy, and amusingly secular observations, such as the peculiar but understandable satisfactions the inarticulate kid finds in serving as an altar boy: “It’s so good to see people shut their eyes while sticking their tongues above the tray! Nowhere else could I see so many different sorts of tongues; lots of them are quivering, and some are colored stranger than I ever would have thought.”

It is this agile emphasis on homey detail rather than trauma and despair that has led the book’s too few reviewers to dwell on Barnás’s admirable modesty and nuance. For me, The Ninth is all the more provocative because it depicts, through a nimble exploration of a child’s stream-of-consciousness, the vicissitudes of his imagination, and the tee-tottering state of his soul amid the village’s sickening perfidy, corruption, and stupidity. When the kid steals money from his teacher and spends his ill-gotten gains on cakes and candies for his classmates the idea is not to stage a pint-sized crime and punishment.

Barnás wants us watch his narrator shape the parameters of the self he will become, dramatizing whether the child will absorb the guilt and spiritual poverty around him or become an individual by embracing the possibility of change, by speaking the self-incriminating truth. Memorably, his confession seems to burst out of him, against his will: “Everything becomes even hotter inside me as something begins surging up into my chest, something sure to gush into my mouth in no time: the saliva is already sour in my throat, as at other times. ‘It was me,’ I say.” What looks like a modest tale of growing up becomes a far more ambitious examination of the formation of an ethical consciousness, almost out of thin air, in an authoritarian state built on lies and coercion.

Barnás’s nine-year-old narrator is a brave construct, an unconsciously sophisticated consciousness that filters life’s hardships and decisions through a startling innocence, an amoral earnestness. The character’s emotional life is weirdly attenuated, his thoughts often taking on a gnomic vagueness redolent of post-modern philosophy: “It must count a lot, what we assume on account of what, and what we imagine we hear in what; at least that’s what the last month taught me.” Translator Paul Olchváry skillfully captures the novel’s fascinating blend of arch artificiality, sharp-eyed realism, and antic fantasy, all at the service of depicting the inner life of the marginal among us.

16 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I’m a big fan of year-end lists. Especially year-end lists that include Open Letter titles . . . But seriously, the International Reads for the Holidays feature that Bill Marx put together for PRI’s World Books is a very solid, quirky, highly literary collection of great titles from 2009.

Bill is a panelists for this year’s Best Translated Book Award for Fiction, which I believe is why he goes on about “old” books and “new” retranslations in his openind statements. (We’ve had ongoing discussions about which titles qualify for the award, which we set up to honor new voices, new books that had never before been available to English readers. Although point taken re: ham fisted crap translations and the way the media tends to ignore new, complete translations of old books. But still . . .)

Anyway, here’s Bill’s fiction list:

  • Memories of the Future by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. Translated by Joanne Turnbull. (NYRB Classics) A Russian writer whose morbidly satiric imagination forms the wild (missing) link between the futuristic dream tales of Edgar Allan Poe and the postwar scientific nightmares of Stanislaw Lem.
  • Your Face Tomorrow Volume Three: Poison, Shadow and Farewell by Javier Marías. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa. (New Directions) The final installment in Marías’s super spy novel extraordinaire, a final playing out, to the point of demonic exhaustion, of the last century’s obsession with double agents, secret codes, voyeurism, and betrayal.
  • The End of Everything by David Bergelson. Translated by Joseph Sherman. (Yale University Press) First published in 1913, Bergelson’s prophetic novel makes use of a surprisingly nervy minimalism to tell the tale of a beautiful woman from a privileged background whose life is shattered by a marriage of convenience – a searching diagnosis of the anxious hollowness at the center of Jewish life during the turn-of-the-century.
  • Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto. Translated by David Slavitt. (Harvard University Press) An at times intentionally zany new version of one of the literary high points of the Italian Renaissance, an epic crowded with jousting men and monsters that influenced Spencer’s “Faerie Queen,” that Shakespeare lifted a plot from, and that Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges admired.
  • The Salt Smugglers by Gerard de Nerval. Translated by Richard Sieburth. (Archipelago Books) This volume is the rib-tickling oddity of the year: the first translation into English of an experimental novel that, back in 1850, appeared in a French newspaper masquerading as reportage.
  • The Golden Calf by Ilya Ilf & Evgeny Petrov. Translated by Konstantin Gurevich and Helen Anderson. (Open Letter) A satire of political and economic corruption in 1920s Russia whose delicious blend of the daffy and the acidic resonates today.

Visit the original article for the complete descriptions and his nonfiction list.

And while I’m writing about World Books, I want to mention (again) how impressive this program is. Over the past month, pieces have appeared on Horacio Castellanos Moya, Carl Gustav Jung’s Red Book, the passing of Chinese translator Yang Xianyi, Jake Adelstein’s Tokyo Vice, and the Best European Fiction anthology that Dalkey put out.

As part of the coverage of the Dalkey anthology, there’s also an interview with the volume’s “editor,” Alexander Hemon. Personally, I have a lot of issues with this book, why it was put together, and the way Dalkey’s marketing materials try and use “European” as a substitute for “World,” but regardless, this interview with Hemon is pretty interesting:

World Books: Are the writers in the anthology examples of authors who shape their fiction to address a global audience? Are there first class writers in Europe whose work resists adequate translation?

Hemon: Dan Brown (a cynical emotional manipulator) shapes his fiction to address a global audience. Great writers have integrity and sovereignty; they write what they write out of some kind of inner need, in pursuit of knowledge that is available only in literature. Rilke (whose work could also be accused of being removed from ordinary experience) believed that great art can only come out of necessity. I’m sure that there are writers in Europe who have yet to be translated or translated adequately–every great writer needs a great translator– but I do not believe that there is untranslatable literature. Robert Frost said that poetry is what is lost in translation, Joseph Brodsky said that poetry is what is gained in translation. I would go with Brodsky.

29 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Over at World Books, Bill Marx has a very thoughtful review of two Swiss horror books: The Vampire of Ropraz, by Jacques Chessex, translated by W. Donald Wilson and published by Bitter Lemon (a Best Translated Book nominee) and The Black Spider, by Jeremias Gotthelf, translated by H. M. Waidson and published by Oneworld Classics.

The spanking new The Vampire of Ropraz asserts that, when faced with irrational violence, the forces of ignorance and fear predominate. The classic The Black Spider (which was first published in 1842; this is a reprint of the 1958 English edition) revolves around a reneged deal with the Devil, who wants, but doesn’t get, an unbaptized child as payment for his services. The betrayal unleashes the title monster, who can be stopped by goodness, if it is free of moral corruption and hypocrisy. The latter turns out to be a tall order. But at least there’s some Paradise around to counterbalance Gotthelf’s Hell.

Interestingly, both of these books root their avenging vision of mayhem in the brutal mistreatment of children. Gotthelf appears to wish for a God “Who would avenge Himself terribly for all the injustice that is done to poor children who cannot defend themselves.” In a strange way, the Devil is doing the Lord’s work by punishing the sadists among the low- and upper classes.

I was pleasantly surprised by The Vampire of Ropraz, and although The Black Spider doesn’t sound like my sort of book, it does come with a ringing endorsement by Thomas Mann, who claimed it is “like almost no other piece of world literature.”

4 February 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Bragi Olafsson’s The Pets came out a few months ago, but with Iceland and its overturned government in the news these days, it’s a pretty good time for reviews to be appearing . . . Just this week two new reviews came out, the first being Lara Tupper’s piece in The Believer, which puts Olafsson’s novel about a man stuck hiding under a bed in some nice artistic company:

In a few ways, The Pets parallels Paul Auster’s City of Glass, which Ólafsson translated into Icelandic. Both focus on chance meetings; both feature a linguist. Auster’s interest in possessions, or loss of possessions, seems influential as well: the duty-free liquor in The Pets is a source of comedy and a partial cause of Emil’s extended entrapment—that and his inability to face the messy entanglements in his living room. Emil, frozen by embarrassment, unwilling to emerge, instead worries about the mishandling of his CD collection.

Ólafsson, who cites David Lynch as an influence, enjoys comic “scenes that are very shallow and profound at the same time.” The bed premise affords exactly this sort of comedy.

The other is from Bill Marx at PRI’s The World, which focuses more on reading this novel in light of Iceland’s financial implosion:

Let economics professors conjecture about how and why Iceland flat-lined; fiction probably furnishes more understanding of the self-destructive reasons behind the country’s financial breakdown. Creative writers often deal with accounts due, moral, financial, and otherwise; they can also train a prophetically comic and/or philosophical eye on the national collective unconscious, in this case a blend of cowardice, blindness, and greed.

I suspect that is not what novelist Bragi Ólafsson set out to do in this breezily acidic short novel (first published in 2001), but as a study of radical denial, a small scale vision of blindfolded lemmings marching toward the cliff, The Pets works as a raffishly amusing allegory of utter irresponsibility. It blows a warning whistle that sounds far outside of the Arctic Circle.

Ironically, Ólafsson himself was once a lucrative Icelandic export; he played bass in The Sugarcubes, Björk’s first band. The Pets, the first of his four novels to be translated into English, received critical acclaim in Iceland, as have his other books. Judging by this tale, Ólafsson specializes in a kind of impish deadpan, wry studies in what happens when the links between real estate and the psyche break.

The book (which we did in a beautiful—and cheap—paper-over-board edition is available at bookstores everywhere, on our website.

19 November 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In his latest World Books podcast, Bill Marx — who runs PRI’s The World’s very impressive World Books website — talks with translator Ellen Elias-Bursac, the translator of Dubravka Ugresic’s Nobody’s Home and several books by David Albahari, including the brillian Gotz and Meyer for which she won the 2006 American Literary Translators Association award.

Arts Fuse has a nice introduction to the interview and references a new, long, critically acclaimed Albahari novel that Elias-Bursac is currently working on. (I assume Harcourt will be bringing this out, but I’ll try and get the pud date and other details and post an update later.)

29 October 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

Novelist and critic Dubravka Ugresic talks to World Books editor Bill Marx about her latest collection of essays, “Nobody’s Home,” which trains a wryly spiky eye to a number of subjects, from the plight of public intellectuals to the fluid nature of cultural identity in the age of globalization.

30 September 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over at the PRI’s World Books, Bill Marx has a great appreciation piece for Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, a writer far ahead of his time, and who died 100 years ago yesterday:

“If Borges is the writer who made Garcia Marquez possible,” observed Salman Rushdie, “then it is no exaggeration to say that Machado De Assis is the writer who made Borges possible.” Rushdie’s piggyback history of the hemisphere’s premier intellectual ironists is correct but, at least until the last decade or so, Machado was a neglected progenitor, his finest novels hailed by a relatively small circle of discerning readers who wondered why the gargantuan achievement of the Brazilian writer wasn’t sufficiently recognized. [. . .]

Why has it taken so long for Machado to become as well known here as Borges or Marquez? In the 1950s and 60s Helen Caldwell and William Grossman translated the best of his fiction into English; these efforts were enthusiastically received by reviewers, including V.S. Pritchett and Elizabeth Hardwick. Among contemporary critics, John Barth and the late Susan Sontag are fans of Machado. But when the Latin American literary boom boomed across American campuses in the 1970s, lazy readers, gorging on diets of Marquez and Llosa, never adventured back in time further than three or four decades.

Perhaps the problem is that the remarkable playfulness of Machado’s fiction works against him. He is difficult to classify: romantic and realist, idealistic and cynical, rational and cranky. His life includes extremes as well: a mulatto who received little formal education, Machado was a shy epileptic who became president of Brazil’s Academy of letters and received a state funeral when he died in 1908.

22 September 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

South African writer, painter, and political activist Breyten Breytenbach talks to World Books editor Bill Marx about what his new book, “All One Horse.” says about his schizophrenic creative career. Breytenbach also reads a selection from the volume.

Bryten Brytenbach will be appearing with Dubravka Ugresic at the 92nd St. Y tomorrow, in case, you know, you’re in New York and you’re looking for something to do.

18 August 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over at PRI’s World Books, Bill Marx has a really interesting podcast interview with Marian Schwartz, whose retranslation of Bulgakov’s The White Guard was recently released by Yale University Press. (Bill Marx also put together a special White Guard related Geo Quiz.)

The interview is really interesting, touching on why people should read The White Guard in addition to The Master and Margarita, what some of the issues were with the previous translation, and, on a related note, how onomatopoeia works in the new version.

This isn’t the only new translation Schwartz has coming out this year—in October Seven Stories will release her retranslation of Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov.

I’m looking forward to getting my hands on both of these titles, and we’ll definitely review them as soon as possible.

On a related note, Marian Schwartz will be here in Rochester on October 1st to participate in a translator’s roundtable (which will be recorded and posted here) in part to talk about the opportunities and challenges of retranslating classics.

24 June 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Last week, Bill Marx—the mastermind behind the World Books section of PRI’s The World website—was kind enough to interview me about Reading the World for his World Books Podcast.

It’s always fun to talk with Bill—he knows more about international literature than almost everyone I know—and I think the conversation went pretty well.

Aside from this podcast though, I can’t recommend the World Books site enough. PRI’s The World—which is produced by PRI, the BBC, and WGBH in Boston—is one of my favorite public radio programs (one of the few, to be honest), and this site is quickly becoming one of the best world literature sites out there. A mix of interviews (with authors and translators), reviews, features, and podcasts, there’s always interesting new content on the World Books page (such as this interesting piece on Jordanian censorship).

I’ve linked to content from World Books a few times, and I hope this site will continue to grow and expand over the coming months and years.

In addition to this podcast with Bill Marx, I also had the honor of speaking with host Lisa Mullins about Reading the World for a short segment that will be broadcast later this week. It’s hard to judge these things, but I’m not sure I was quite on my game during this conversation, although I’m really glad that I recommended Nazi Literature in the Americas and suggested that kids read War and Peace and Don Quixote . . . Thanks to Harry Potter, modern kids are into monstrously long epics, right?

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Miruna, a Tale
Miruna, a Tale by Bogdan Suceavă
Reviewed by Alta Ifland

Miruna is a novella written in the voice of an adult who remembers the summer he (then, seven) and his sister, Miruna (then, six) spent in the Evil Vale with their grandfather (sometimes referred to as “Grandfather,” other times as. . .

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Kamal Jann
Kamal Jann by Dominique Eddé
Reviewed by Lori Feathers

Kamal Jann by the Lebanese born author Dominique Eddé is a tale of familial and political intrigue, a murky stew of byzantine alliances, betrayals, and hostilities. It is a well-told story of revenge and, what’s more, a serious novel that. . .

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I Called Him Necktie
I Called Him Necktie by Milena Michiko Flašar
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

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. . .

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Return to Killybegs
Return to Killybegs by Sorj Chalandon
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

The central concern of Sorj Chalandon’s novel Return to Killybegs appears to be explaining how a person of staunch political activism can be lead to betray his cause, his country, his people. Truth be told, the real theme of the. . .

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The Last Days
The Last Days by Laurent Seksik
Reviewed by Peter Biellp

Spoiler alert: acclaimed writer Stefan Zweig and his wife Lotte kill themselves at the end of Lauren Seksik’s 2010 novel, The Last Days.

It’s hard to avoid spoiling this mystery. Zweig’s suicide actually happened, in Brazil in 1942, and since then. . .

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Selected Stories
Selected Stories by Kjell Askildsen
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

To call Kjell Askildsen’s style sparse or terse would be to understate just how far he pushes his prose. Almost nothing is explained, elaborated on. In simple sentences, events occur, words are exchanged, narrators have brief thoughts. As often as. . .

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Letter from an Unknown Woman and Other Stories
Letter from an Unknown Woman and Other Stories by Stefan Zweig
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

After a mysterious woman confesses to an author simply known as “R” that she has loved him since she was a teenager, she offers the following explanation: “There is nothing on earth like the love of a child that passes. . .

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