One of the many interesting things about judging the Best Translated Book Award is the sense it gives you of what (and how much) is actually being translated into English (and published/distributed in the US). Thanks largely to Dalkey Archive Press’ Library of Korean Literature, for example, we’re suddenly exposed to about a dozen Korean titles this year (without the Dalkey publications, it would be more like … one). The statistics can be revealing – and disappointing. Sure, we get … well, if not quite any number so at least a whole lot of French titles – but Chinese ? Isn’t Chinese literature hot right now ? Last time the database we rely on was updated (i.e. there might still be some unaccounted for) I counted all of three eligible titles.
Numbers-wise, among the literatures which seems to consistently punch above its population-weight, along with Icelandic and Hebrew, is Dutch (meaning: Dutch and Flemish), and while we have (at last count) quote-unquote only six works of fiction to consider … well, damn, it is an impressive selection (and the Vondel Prize-folks — who have to consider two years’ worth of publications — have their work cut out for them).
I haven’t seen one of these yet — The Square of Revenge, ‘An Inspector Van In novel’ by Pieter Aspe – and I suspect that its being part of a mystery series makes it a longshot to get longlisted, but I note that Aspe has apparently sold millions and that this book did get reviewed in The New York Times Book Review (only as part of Marilyn Stasio‘s ‘Crime’-round-up, but still). [As it turns out, there’s a double-bill of Inspector Van In novels eligible – a second one, The Midas Murders, having also appeared in the eligible period (but failing to make it onto the database for now – an omission Chad will rectify shortly. So that’s seven – and counting … – Dutch titles in the running.]
Even if they are great mysteries, the Aspes will be hard-pressed to compete with the other Dutch titles elbowing for spots on the longlist. First off, there’s Hella S. Haasse’s The Black Lake , in Ina Rilke’s translation — which fellow-judge Daniel Medin has already delighted in in a previous Three Percent/BTBA post. Haasse — who died just two years ago, at a very ripe old age – wrote this back in 1948. While quite a bit of the work by this grand old lady of Dutch literature has been published in translation, it’s great to see this important, powerful little novel about colonial Indonesia finally also available in English.
There’s another, even older work in the running, Jan Jacob Slauerhoff’s 1932 novel, The Forbidden Kingdom. This unusual time-bridging narrative features Portuguese traveler and poet, Luís de Camões, as well as a modern-day (well, early 20th-century) events, and is a wonderful (and wonderfully surprising) more-than-just-adventure novel.
Then there’s Gerbrand Bakker’s Ten White Geese — which you might also recognize from the title it was published in the UK under, The Detour , since it, in David Colmer’s translation, already won the biggest translation-into-English prize on the other side of the Atlantic, the 2013 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, With Bakker’s previous novel, The Twin, already making the 2010 BTBA shortlist it’s clear he’s an author – and this a book – that has to be taken pretty seriously.
Finally, there are the two Sam Garrett-translated titles – notable not just because they share a translator (Anthea Bell has him beat there, hands down, with five translations in the BTBA-running) but because they’re in many ways quite similar works – and both were incredibly successful in the Netherlands. One is Tirza, by Arnon Grunberg, the other The Dinner by Herman Koch. Amazingly, both were reviewed in the not-known-as-very-open-to-fiction-in-translation New York Times Book Review – here and here – and The Dinner even got the Janet Maslin treatment in the daily Times (she loathed it).
One seems to have done much, much better sales-wise than the other — The Dinner, which actually can boast of being a New York Times bestseller (indeed, it spent quite a few weeks on the bestseller lists). Yet Tirza is the clearly superior work; as Claire Messud concluded in her NYTBR review of The Dinner, that novel, while “absorbing and highly readable, proves in the end strangely shallow”. Tirza, on the other hand, is both entertaining and, ultimately, profound.
Both novels have a horrific twist. In the case of The Dinner it is one that’s, at least in its outlines, fairly obvious early on – but just keeps getting more twisted and horrific as the novel progresses (an admittedly very nice and disturbing touch). Tirza seems to follow a simpler arc of personal dissolution before taking its more surprising final turn into the abyss.
The Dinner uses a meal at a fancy restaurant as its foundation, taking readers through the many courses while incongruously (that’s the intent, anyway) increasingly disturbing revelations are made. With one of the characters running for high political office (prime minister, in fact), The Dinner is a cruel satire of contemporary Dutch movers and shakers (and any notion of civilized behavior in general). By turns shocking as well as occasionally funny, it does have considerable shock-value-appeal – but there’s not that much more to it. Koch does reasonably well, but not quite well enough with what is also ultimately a very ugly tale that – as Messud noted – doesn’t really have much depth to it.
Tirza also involves an almost unspeakable act, but Grunberg is the far superior craftsman in leading readers there, the shock, when it comes, all the more affecting. It’s a remarkably convincing portrait of a man falling apart. Like Koch’s novel, it’s uncomfortable to read, in part, but whereas Koch’s exaggerated satire can also be shrugged off – good for cocktail-party chatter, but hardly to be taken seriously as an in any way a profound critique of society – Grunberg’s novel sits much deeper.
I can see the easy appeal of The Dinner – part of which is surely also that it can be shrugged off fairly easily, as over-the-top satire often can. Tirza, much more personal than public (no one running for the highest office in the land here …), may not be a novel whose protagonist readers want to identify with either, but it’s a completely convincing portrait of (a) contemporary man and contemporary society.
This BTBA selection process, of narrowing down the three or four hundred eligible books, first to a longlist, is challenging. I’ve just gone over the Dutch titles here, and I think there’s a strong case to be made for four of them to at least reach the final-25 stage. Whatever the outcome – I am only of nine judges, after all, and I can’t be sure how my fellow judges feel about these (and the many other worthy) titles – I’d be surprised if Tirza didn’t make the cut, and if The Dinner did.
Daniel Medin teaches at the American University of Paris, where he helps direct the Center for Writers and Translators, is an editor of The Cahiers Series ,and co-hosts the podcast entitled That Other Word. He has authored a study of Franz Kafka in the work of three international writers (Northwestern University Press, 2010) and curated the second volume of Music and Literature magazine (Krasznanorkai/Tarr/Neumann). He advises several journals on literature in translation.
This seems a timely moment to announce the forthcoming appearance of a translation issue I’ve edited for The White Review. For those unfamiliar, TWR is a London-based journal of art and literature that publishes print (quarterly) and online (monthly) editions. In addition to supporting new writers, the editors make it a point to highlight literature in translation. Recent numbers have included contributions by Dubravka Ugrešić, Vladimir Sorokin, Enrique Vila-Matas, and Javiar Marías, to name but a few.
I spent this past autumn selecting material for the issue, which is slated to go live early next month. Not surprisingly, there was significant overlap with my readings for the BTBA. Here are a few examples:
One’s by the late great Hella S. Haasse, whose gem, The Black Lake, I cited in a previous post. I’ve found the lack of attention devoted to this novel baffling. It is a beautiful little book, conceived and executed with intelligence and grace. The translator, Ina Rilke, ranks among the very best working from Dutch today. You’ve probably come across her work at one point or another by now: Rilke was behind the classic Eline Vere by Louis Couperus, which Archipelago brought out back in 2010; she’s translated multiple titles by W.F. Hermans and Cees Noteboom; and she’s currently at work on Max Havelaar by Multatuli for NYRB Classics. (There’s a full overview of her activity, along with a lovely snapshot of Rilke with Haasse, here.) We’ll print the striking first pages of The Black Lake in The White Review. If your experience of them in any way resembles mine, then you’ll find yourself unable to stop.
I’m delighted that we can include an excerpt from the third volume of Faris al-Shidyaq’s Leg over Leg. The publication of volumes 1 and 2 earlier this year by NYU Press’s Library of Arabic Literature was a moment of glory for literature in translation. Expect plenty of hot sauce in this excerpt—that, and no shortage of ingenious linguistic dexterity on the part of translator Humphrey Davies. For an in-depth take on volume 1, have a look at this review by Michael Orthofer. I share his excitement entirely, and am certain that others will as well once given a taste of al-Shidyaq’s writing.
Occasionally, a work of brilliance will make it possible for a virtuosic translator to outdo, line for line, a great deal of what’s recently appeared in her target language. In 2012, the English of George Szirtes for Satantango’s Hungarian struck me as superior to the sentences of most novels written that year in English. The same’s true of John Keene’s version of Letters from a Seducer by Hilda Hilst. Scheduled to appear this month, it was perhaps my most unforgettable reading experience of 2013. I’m terribly eager to read more Hilst now—and impatient to get my hands on Keene’s Annotations too.
I was glad I could include an excerpt from Orly Castel-Bloom’s acutely funny—and correspondingly painful—Textile. Castel-Bloom writes uncanny narratives that depict, with sensitivity but very little mercy, contemporary Israeli society. First published in 2006, this unpredictable and frequently grotesque novel is unlike most other Israeli fiction that I’ve encountered; it’s as close to Gogol as Hebrew can get. Translated by the eminent recipient of 2010’s BTBA, Dalya Bilu.
I’d like to devote a bit more space to two titles that have survived months of BTBA reading on my own personal shortlist. The first is Stig Sæterbakken’s Through the Night, whose emotional resonance brought me to tears. I found it the bravest, perhaps even riskiest of the novels in competition. (I was also surprised to discover, in its weaknesses as in its strengths, unlikely affinities with The Devil’s Workshop by Jáchym Topol.) Here’s the beginning of a review by Taylor Davis-Van Atta that will appear soon at Asymptote:
In an essay completed not long before his death last year, Stig Sæterbakken wrote: “How strong would our passions be, separated from our fear of dying? We want to live, sure. But we want to die as well. We want to be torn apart. We want to drown in the wonders of ecstasy.” Both the craft of this passage—a single rhetorical question opens a rich vein of content—as well as its sentiment seem to me to epitomize something of both Sæterbakken’s personal philosophy and his artistic ambition. As with all of his writing, the question posed by the Sæterbakken is simple, but deceptively so, situated as it is at an existential crux. And, as with all of his writing, it cannot be ignored nor easily grappled with. Sæterbakken seemingly holds no fear himself when examining the heart of his own experience, swiftly identifying a terrible and unavoidable paradox, an impossibility that nonetheless must be negotiated and further explored. His prose, which so often conveys the mandatory ugliness and pain of existence, yet which is always charged with beauty and great tenderness, is itself infused with paradox. The author of endlessly interesting novels and essays, Sæterbakken is an indispensable artist, one who must be reckoned with and one whose day in the Anglophone world is, I believe, shortly at hand.
Through the Night, Sæterbakken’s last published novel, centers around Karl Meyer, a middle-aged man who, prompted by the sudden suicide of his teenage son, Ole-Jakob, is forced to confront his past disgraces and contemplate his complicity in Ole-Jakob’s death, all while enduring overwhelming feelings of grief. The novel, which almost reads as two separate works, opens in the immediate aftermath of Ole-Jakob’s suicide, with Karl’s wife, Eva, having just lodged an ax in the screen of the family television set. The act is a statement of protest (Karl has been binge-watching since their son’s funeral), but it could almost be interpreted as a telegraphed message from Sæterbakken to his reader regarding what is to come: there will be no further distraction from the situation at hand, however terrifying and all-consuming it becomes. Indeed, the novel quickly delves into Karl’s past through a series of short vignettes in which Karl sets about tracing the history of his life’s two defining love affairs—with Eva and with another woman, Mona, for whom he had recently, if temporarily, left his family.
Issue 5 of Taylor’s Music & Literature, which will publish in spring 2015, will be devoted to Sæterbakken, Chinese novelist Can Xue, and Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. You can order your subscription, and explore numerous reviews and features, here.
Stig Sæterbakken makes a brief appearance in the introduction to the below interview of Mircea Cărtărescu. As director of the Lillehammer Festival, Sæterbakken was instrumental in bringing the Romanian novelist to Norway. There, Cărtărescu spoke with Audun Lindholm, the editor-in-chief of Vagant, Norway’s most prestigious literary magazine. (Before he embarked upon My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgård directed the same journal.) The latest issue of The Quarterly Conversation includes a long conversation between Lindholm and Cărtărescu about the Blinding trilogy. Below, a few questions and answers concerning the volume that has just appeared in English—The Left Wing— thanks to Archipelago Books.
AL: You call the child a bricoleur—could the same be said of the novel’s author?
MC: Yes. Generally, I begin with something ordinary and realistic, something I know well, and then, step by step, the logic of the text takes over. I never know what I’m about to write on the next page, I have no plan, I don’t know where I’m headed. I take advantage of the fact that I write quite slowly: because I write by hand, I have plenty of time to think at the same time. The most important thing is the texture of the individual page—it takes precedence over the story or the characters or the larger structure. Writing by hand creates an intimate relationship with the white sheet of paper, almost functioning like a mirror. When the writing turns out really well, it is as if I saw the final text in front of me, I simply erased the white of the paper that hides it. I have the impression that most prose writers start with a strong impression or a clear image in mind, gradually expanding on it and constructing a whole. I, on the other hand, aim at a writing process that consists of a series of such impressions. And I must admit that when I read other novels, even the most realistic among them, my attention is drawn to these very moments, to certain pages and specific formulations.
AL: “You do not describe the past by writing about old things, but by writing about the haze that exists between yourself and the past,” we read early on in Blinding: The Left Wing. And later: “I was always afraid to go to sleep. Where would my being go to during all those hours?”
MC: Yes, I think that the best pages of Blinding are not those that are realistic but those that are phantasmal, oneiric. The earliest memories we have, from the age of two, three, or four, mainly resemble dreams. We may recall buildings, landscapes, and people, and we have the feeling that they must have been real—otherwise we could not have seen them in such vivid detail. The same is true of some of our dreams. I have strong memories of particular dreams I’ve had, outrageous and disturbing dreams. I envision dreams, memories, and reality like a Möbius strip whose sides are indistinguishable from one another. I try to avoid changing historical facts and instead fill the gaps in my memory with fantasies. When information is hard to come by, I let my pen do the work.
To read the interview in its entirety—or a review of the novel published in the same issue—visit the Winter 2014 number of The Quarterly Conversation.
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