6 May 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Welcome back to my monthly ramble about forthcoming works of literature in translations, which, as always, is punctuated by jokes, rants, and whatever else comes to mind.

Even more so than usual, I’m really excited about this month’s offerings—and I actually have some things to say about the books themselves!—so my usual intro will be a bit shorter (and less angry) than usual.

That said, I do have something serious that I’d like to talk about: retranslations. Specifically, what books from the last decade will be retranslated 50-60 years from now.

Way back when, I was on a panel at the London Book Fair with John Sturrock shortly after his retranslation of the “Sodom and Gomorrah” section of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time had come out. At some point during the conversation, he mentioned the accepted adage that every great work of international literature has to be retranslated every 50 years or so.

I’ve never heard a great explanation of why a translation “ages” faster than the original, but this belief—that a translation is somehow less “lasting” than the book itself—has been repeated by dozens of great writers and translators and, for whatever mysterious reason, seems to be true.

The cynical side of me would argue that the need for retranslations is tied to the financial windfall that comes from the “DEFINITIVE TRANSLATION!” marketing copy that accompanies these books. Especially since the books that tend to be retranslated are the ones with the largest classroom sales . . . Well, except maybe War & Peace, which would make most undergrads cry, but Random House still made bank off of that.

On a less cynical note, there is something to the idea that a translation can be “refreshed” every so often. That, for whatever strange mental reason, the changes to the way language is used in the target language make certain translations feel very dated. Which makes no sense when you think about it—outdated slang in the original is given a pass, but in the translation it seems glaring—but it happens.

From a translator’s perspective, a retranslation must be a fun challenge: How do you distinguish your Thoman Mann, Cervantes, Lispector, Tolstoy from the versions that came before? I feel like most translators who retranslate classics tend to have a specific reason for working on a given book. Something about the earlier versions doesn’t gibe with their interpretation or idea of how the book should be rendered. (This makes for great afterwords, such as Breon Mitchell’s fantastic one for his translation of Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum.)

Point being, retranslations happen. Classic texts are “made new” for new generations of readers all the time, and each generation of readers has “their” Dostoyevsky/Cervantes/etc. And there’s no reason to believe that this will stop anytime soon. (Back to Cynical Chad: If a publisher can make money on a retranslation of a popular book, they will.)

Which raises the question: Fifty years from now, which works of contemporary international literature will be retranslated?

I have a hard time thinking about this for some reason . . . My assumptions are that books that continue to sell in decent quantities (or could, given a “definitive” new translation), that have reached a certain level of “critical acclaim,” and that have some sort of theoretical justification for why they’d need a retranslation (for example, a book that was incomplete at the time of publication or whatever) will be ones that publishers will consider retranslating.

So projecting oneself 50 years into the future, which books might fit these criteria?

I’m interested to hear what everyone else has to say, but the first authors that come to mind are Bolaño, Knausgaard, and . . . I’m at a loss. Even with those two, I can’t imagine retranslating either. Especially not a Natasha Wimmer translation! But I have the same reaction to every author I think of (David Grossman? Mo Yan? Mikhail Shishkin?), but yet, I know this is going to happen to some book that I revere. It’s an interesting mind experiment though . . . if our goal is to bring out books that people will be reading in 2114, then essentially we’re trying to publish books that will inspire future generations of translators to work on them . . .

I think all of Knausgaard’s death stuff from the first volume of My Struggle is starting to get to me . . . on to the May books!

My Struggle: Book Three by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (Archipelago Books)

Speaking of Karl Ove . . . On Friday, at the PEN World Voice “Literary Mews with CLMP” event, I had a chance to talk briefly with Eliot Weinberger about Knausgaard. Can’t remember how this came up, but he pointed out that My Struggle may well be the worst thing to ever happen to MFA program, because students will be tempted to imitate Knausgaard somewhat self-indulgent autobiographical style: “Hey, my life is as boring as his is!” As Eliot pointed out, there is a 100-page section about getting beer for a New Year’s Eve party . . .

Which is all absolutely true—I do not envy creative writing instructors—but, I think perceptive readers really could learn a lot about structure and form from Knausgaard. The reason his books work (and granted, I’m only at page 300-and-something in the first volume, so take this with a grain of ignorance) is partially due to his sentence writing, and mostly due to the way his digressions are organized and the grand shifts of the narrative. That 100-page bit on getting beer for the party is a perfect counterpoint to his father’s filthy drunken death. And within each of the parts, the way in which the narrative shifts from present moment (the writing of My Struggle, more or less) to the past (e.g., death of his father), to a pertinent moment in the more distant past (e.g., his adoration for his brother, which he unspools while considering whether he should propose having the funeral in their grandmother’s totally wrecked house) works like a musical score, almost like a fugue.

Young writers should pay attention less to the content—“I can chronicle every second of my life as well!”—and more to Knausgaard’s real art.

Harlequin’s Millions by Bohumil Hrabal, translated from the Czech by Stacey Knecht (Archipelago Books)

This year is the 100th anniversary of Hrabal’s birth, which is why Archipelago has a number of great events lined up for this book. (Unfortunately, I’ll be in town for exactly none of them.) If you have a chance to check out any of the events in Brooklyn or Boston, I’m sure they’ll be quite entertaining . . . just like Hrabal’s prose.

Harlequin’s Millions is actually the next book that I’m going to start reading, once all my grades are in. I went on a Hrabal bender probably ten years ago, and haven’t read anything since . . . So I’m really looking forward to getting into this and into Rambling On: An Apprentice’s Guide to the Gift of the Gab.

Papers in the Wind by Eduardo Sacheri, translated from the Spanish by Mara Faye Lethem (Other Press)

So how about that all-Madrid Champions League final? Although Real Madrid looks like the best side in all of Europe right now, I’m really hoping that Atlético Madrid pull this out. After decades of Barça and Real Madrid dominance, it’s exciting to see a new team breakthrough—one that spent less than half of what those superpowered clubs did on wages.

Actually, I’m willing to bet that Ronaldo spent more on beauty products in the past year than Atlético did on its entire team.

(I’m sure Will Evans and George Carroll could see that joke coming a mile away.)

Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Coffee House)

Luiselli actually has two books coming out this month—this novel and Sidewalks, a collection of personal essays. Both of these books sound really interesting (I love the idea of Faces in the Crowd being told in four different times by two different narrators), as does Luiselli’s life in general: born in Mexico City, raised in South Africa, author of a novella in installments for workers in a juice factory . . . But here, just watch this:



Why I Killed My Best Friend by Amanda Michalopoulou, translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich (Open Letter)

I’ll explain this in more detail in a later post, but my World Literature & Translation class selected this book as the “Best Translated Book of Our Class.” I had them read eight contemporary translations and then argue about which one is the best and why. Some classes focus on the translation challenges, other on the general enjoyability of the book itself, others on trying to raise the profile of a certain literary scene that might otherwise be overlooked . . . It’s kind of a perfect way for being able to bring up a ton of different issues related to literature.

WIKMBF has been getting a lot of attention recently. It was on Flavorwire’s Must-Read Books for May, and featured on _Music & Literature. Since I’m clearly biased in favor of this novel, I’m going to let Jennifer Kurdyla explain why you should read it:

Much like the exquisitely rendered friendship of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy, set during a similar time period in Italy, here is a portrait of what it means to use and be used by the people you love most, to see the best and worst of yourself in a face not your own. And it’s a sign of incredible maturity and wisdom for this fine, prolific, and audacious young writer to fearlessly embrace the challenge of brining that uncomfortable internal conflict to the page. She reminds us how it feels to be, as Maria is, knocked down by “a wild animal [that] charges into the room . . . before I know what’s hit me,” and to meet the gaze of “an eye glaring fiercely” at us when that eye is, perhaps, our own.

How’s the Pain? by Pascal Garnier, translated from the French by Emily Boyce (Gallic Books)

This past weekend, I took my kids to a cabin in the Adirondacks where we all experienced the Adirondack Extreme Adventure Ropes Course. Actually, to be honest, I didn’t make it to the “Extreme” course . . . although I was somehow able to balance, climb, zip line, and swing through the five main ropes courses. This was my first ropes course experience, and it was fucking incredible. Zip lines are kind of the best thing ever. I want to travel to work by zip line. And to swing over a river 100-feet off the ground is the closest I’ll ever come to feeling like a superhero . . . That said, this experience also reinforced just how out of shape I am these days. There was one section that involved crawling through three hoops while on a tightrope wire . . . I could barely lift my leg over the ring . . . It’s like that Louis C.K. bit about how the hardest part of his day is putting on his socks. Getting old and chubby is not fun. On the bright side, two days later I can actually lift my arms again!

A Man: Klaus Klump by Gonçalo Tavares, translated from the Portuguese by Rhett McNeil (Dalkey Archive Press)

That cover reminds me a bit of Tao Lin’s Taipei, although a lot less shiny. Given this post on Caustic Cover Critic the finished cover may be entirely different. And seriously, what’s going on with the four books listed on that blog? The original listed covers—the ones with the large images and the bibliographic info on the left—are totally fine. Nothing mind blowing, but respectable. Elegant. The new ones? OUCH. I just don’t get it at all. Also, you can now order all your books through Dalkey’s website using your Amazon account?!? I can’t imagine independent bookstores—or Barnes & Noble—are pleased about that.

Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones, translated from the Italian by Clarissa Botsford (And Other Stories)

On the flipside, I really love And Other Stories’s covers. I also like the way in which the first batch all had one particular look—a lot of angles, “X’s” like on the cover above—and the second batch fits together—lots of circles, like with this book. These are books that, even if I don’t have time to read them, I must own. As a complete set. That’s powerful in terms of marketing and branding, and is one—of many—things that And Other Stories has done right in launching their press.

Ludwig’s Room by Alois Hotschnig, translated from the German by Tess Lewis (Seagull Books)

Seagull is also at the far end of the design spectrum—their catalogs are legendary in their opulence, and their books are well-crafted and always quite attractive. Tess Lewis was a judge for the BTBA a couple years back, and it’s great to see that she has a book eligible for next year’s award. And of (quite loose) category of “World War II” books, this one—about a man who comes to realize the disturbing lengths his great-uncle’s village went to in order to protect the people who worked in a nearby prison camp—seems pretty unsettling.

Fear: A Novel of World War I by Gabriel Chevallier, translated from the French by Malcolm Imrie (NYRB)

I’m personally not big on war books, but this bit of Chevallier’s bio caught my eye:

He began writing Fear in 1925 but did not publish it until 1930, a year after his first novel, Durand: voyageur de commerce, was released. Fear was suppressed during World War II and not made available again until 1951.

Books that are suppressed are the most intriguing books . . .

OK that’s it for May. Hope you find a couple of things on here worth checking out.

10 March 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Last weekend, over 14,000 writers, publishers, agents, translators, reviewers, professors, and readers swarmed the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle for the annual Associated Writing Programs conference—four days of heavy drinking, pot-chocolate (it’s legal in Washington!), endless craft panels, a bustling exhibition hall, and the most awesomely awkward dance parties ever.

Put a huge number of book people in any one place and shit is bound to get weird. And when a huge percentage of these book people are young, struggling writers? Weird plus neurotic. Good thing Bubble Man was at the entrance to greet everyone with some love.

Over the past decade, AWP has grown to be one of the largest and most important book events of the year. No longer just a place where mediocre poetry is belted out to the accompaniment of crushing depression and a strummed guitar, AWP is a crucial sales outlet for a lot of presses. (Especially poetry presses, who, due to the decline of other outlets and the increase in AWP attendance will sell $3,000+ worth of books over the weekend.)

Personally, I think this was the best AWP I’ve ever attended. We broke all our sales records—thanks to a few superfans who bought books and brought friends over to buy all the rest of the books—had a great time with local friends George Carroll, Jay Weaver, Don Mee Choi, and Owen Rowe, enjoyed all the Elliot Bay Book Company experiences, danced a lot too much, and threw an epic (and soon to be annual) Open Letter Happy Hour.

That said, this blog isn’t really about happiness and stability . . . So, here are a few observations and jokes to give you a better sense of AWP and to lead into this month’s translation highlights.

1) Someone really needs to do a book entitled The Hats and Beards of AWP. AWP is like Williamsburg on steroids. There can never be enough beard and skinny jeans! Also, George Carroll’s lovely wife kept referring to AWP—usually pronounced as three distinct letters, “a,” “w,” “p”—as a single word: “Awwwp.” Which is a way cooler way to say its name, and which led to the conference-long game of trying to identify the “Wizard of AWP.”

2) What the hell is this, and what is it advertising?

3) Please stop with the endless poetry readings. I know everyone that’s part of an MFA program wants a chance to read their work out loud, but some of the events are 4+ hours long. That’s just insane and mind-numbing. Especially given the fact that more than half of the poets read with the same annoying cadence. I went to one poetry reading, and left after texting this imitation to a few friends:

And then. I read.
Read a poem.
Poem of poem.
I believe. AWP is. Is. Is.
A place. Pleasant place.
AWP IS. It is.
It is a place of performance.
Performance place.
We. We perform.
AWP. AWP performs.
Me. Me. Writing.
Me. Poetry
AWP. Me.

4) Why does everyone come home from AWP with a wicked, neverending cold? Are writers inherently dirty and germ filled? CLEAN YOURSELVES NEXT YEAR. My sinuses can’t take this shit.

5) Every night from 10-midnight, there is an AWP dance party. And yes, it is filled with as much awkward as you’re envisioning. Thankfully, there is free beer and wine for the first hour, and the DJ specializes in playing Rap for White Girls (e.g., Nelly’s “Ride with Me”), so by around 11, there’s a lot of normally self-conscious people on the dance floor moving in ways that sort of resembles dancing. In other words, it’s totally awesome. (Somewhere there exists a video of me and Scott Esposito dancing to Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.”) It’s non-judgmental—because, well, look around—truly all-ages, and a pretty fun release after 10 hours of bad poetry and the worst indoor lighting imaginable.

But this year, the Saturday night dance party was a bit of a train wreck. It all started off with one douchebag lonely hipster doing a methodical hip thrust in the middle of the dance floor. Wearing only a wife beater and more hair grease than Cristiano Ronaldo. I’m not sure if he thought he was being ironic, or simply performing some sort of desperate mating call, but he managed to piss off most everyone there. And then, because “hipsters” of this sort just can’t embarrass themselves enough, he actually got on stage, had a friend join him, and even lost the wife beater . . . before someone official threw him off—an unsavory 45 minutes later. We spend most of the night hoping, for his sake, that he was tripping balls—even though that wouldn’t change the fact that he was the worst person there ever. And because this image is scarred on my brain forever, I figured I’d share it with all of you. You’re welcome!

OK, now on to this month’s interesting translations!

Trans-Atlantyk: An Alternate Translation by Witold Gombrowicz, translated from the Polish by Danuta Borchardt (Yale University Press)

I love Gombrowicz, but have never gotten around to reading this book about a penniless Polish writer who escapes the Nazis and moves to Argentina—much like Gombrowicz himself. When I was in Argentina a few years back though, we were taken on a literary walking tour and if memory serves, we went by the bar where Witold used to hang out and rant about how much Borges sucked. Apparently he had a thing against JLB, and liked to tell EVERYONE about it.

One evening, a friend challenged him on this by asking what Borges stories Gombrowicz had read. His very Polish response: “None! Why would I ever waste my time reading that crap?”

God I love Polish writers.

Killing the Second Dog by Marek Hlasko, translated from the Polish by Tomasz Mirkowicz (New Vessel)

Sticking with that same theme, I would read anything written by this guy who, according to the New Vessel website, was considered to be the “Polish James Dean.”

Add to that picture the fact that this book is about two Polish con men trying to swindle an American widow, and I’m completely sold.

Stone Tablets by Wojciech Zukrowski, translated from the Polish by Stephanie Kraft (Paul Dry Books)

A few months back, I found out that basically all of my ancestors on both sides of my family are from the area surrounding Gdańsk/Danzig. More specifically, my dad’s side is made up of Pomeranians and my mom’s is all Kashubians. This is one reason why I got into The Tin Drum right from the start—one of the main characters in the opening section is a Kashubian arsonist. Fire AND Poland! (Actually, taking this character as representative for larger Kashubian characteristics explains a lot about my personality.) Anyway, later on in the novel, there’s a great speech by Oskar’s Kashubian grandmother:

“That’s Kashubes for you, little Oskar. Always getting hit on the head. But you are going where things are better now, and leaving old Granny behind. Because Kahsubes don’t move around a lot, they always stay put, and hold their head still for others to whack, because we ain’t really Polish and we ain’t really German, and Kashubes ain’t good enough for Germans or Pollacks. They want everything cut and dried.”

Also, Stone Tablets is about a Hungarian diplomat in India during the Hungarian Uprising. But let’s be honest—I’m mostly including it here because the author is Polish.

Rambling On: An Apprentice’s Guide to the Gift of the Gab by Bohumil Hrabal, translated from the Czech by David Short (Karolinum Press)

Sticking with Eastern Europe . . . There are two Bohumil Hrabal books coming out this spring: Rambling On this month, and Harlequin’s Millions in May. If you haven’t read Hrabal, you absolutely must. Too Loud a Solitude, Dancing Lessons for the Advanced of Age, I Served the King of England, these are all fantastic novels that embody Hrabal’s idiosyncratic style that is joyful, conversational, and instantly engaging. Here’s Adam Thirlwell’s description of it from his wonderful The Delighted States:

In Czech, there is a word for Hrabal’s style. This word is Hrabalovština. Hrabalovština is a comic display of vocabulary, of headlong words and invented syntax—it is a system which is forever trying to put off its own demise. But Hrabal’s own word for his style was palavering, and palavering is a much more useful and precise concept for this style, this new invention in the art of the novel. Palavering is an art, and it is committed to deferral, to a comic refusal to be polite, and stop talking. It is, according to Hrabal, “my defense against politics, my policy in fact.” And this word policy is important. It shows how considered and meditated was Hrabal’s apparently natural style. Because the truest poetry is also the most feigning. Against the direction and drive of ideas, Hrabal offer the more vulgar luxuries of digression, and of free association.

Hopefully this collection of short stories and Harlequin’s Millions—and other celebrations and articles related to the centennial of Hrabal’s birth—will help spawn a new group of Hrabal fans . . .

I Remember You by Yrsa Sigurdardottir, translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton (Minotaur)

Here’s a bit from the opening of the review of this novel in the Independent:

Leaving aside the literary merits of I Remember You, residents of Iceland were thoroughly terrified by the book—but, ironically, for its jacket, featuring a pair of intensely staring eyes that (for some reason) deeply disturbed—and even obsessed—many Icelanders, and occasioned a slew of complaints.

Why didn’t Minotaur use this cover instead of that crap up there? And why can’t I find an image of this? I want to know how intensely these eyes are staring!

Speaking of Iceland, I really wish I could go to the Secret Solstice Music Festival in June. Scratch that. I wish I could just move to Iceland and spend the rest of my days tending bar and floating in the Blue Lagoon.

Also, one other random thing: Unless I’m missing something, there are only three books by women coming out in translation this month. That’s embarrassing.

A Curse on Dostoevsky by Atiq Rahimi, translated from the French by Polly McLean (Other Press)

This novel—the fourth to be made available in English from Afghani writer Rahimi—sounds really fun:

Rassoul remembers reading Crime and Punishment as a student of Russian literature in Leningrad, so when, with axe in hand, he kills the wealthy old lady who prostitutes his beloved Sophia, he thinks twice before taking her money or killing the woman whose voice he hears from another room. He wishes only to expiate his crime and be rightfully punished. Out of principle, he gives himself up to the police. But his country, after years of civil war, has fallen into chaos. In Kabul there is only violence, absurdity, and deafness, and Rassoul’s desperate attempt to be heard turns into a farce.

Given how Other Press has been killing it lately, I won’t be surprised if we’re talking about this next year as a potential BTBA 2015 longlist title . . .

Decoded Olivia by Mai Jia, translated from the Chinese by Olivia Milburn (FSG)

We never seem to receive galleys for the “fun” books in translation that presses bring out. A tragic, complicated novel about World War II survivors? Perfect for Post. A thriller about code-breaking and an autistic math genius? Seems more Flavorwire that Three Percent. Shit! I want code breaking! I like math!

But seriously, although I’m sure this isn’t as interesting as the jacket copy makes it out be, it does sound like a good escape from the “heavier” stuff that I feel like I’ve been reading this year. Actually, right now, to balance the more traditionally “literary” stuff I’ve been reading (and will be reading after the BTBA longlist announcement), I’ve been reading Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic. I’m not quite halfway done, but I’m really enjoying it . . . It’s very entertaining, and although I’ve never seen the movie Stalker or the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. video games, both of these things make sense. I also have things to say about the “meaningfulness” of “entertaining” books, but I think I’ll save that for next month.

On Leave by Daniel Anselme, translated from the French by David Bellos (Faber and Faber)

By contrast, On Leave is a bit more serious . . . One of the few novels about the French-Algerian War, On Leave is a book about three soldiers who, on a 10-day break from the fighting, realize that they don’t really fit into society anymore. It was published during the conflict (in 1957; the war ended in 1962), and was read by almost no one. This truly is a lost classic, and kudos to David Bellos for translated it and Faber and Faber for publishing it.

Also, extra-thanks to the Faber publicity department for using a blurb from Paul Doyle’s Three Percent review on the press release. I’ll never forget the first time Grove pulled a blurb from one of my reviews, and I still get giddy when Three Percent pops up in places like this.

Falling Out of Time by David Grossman, translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen (Knopf)

Of all Grossman’s books, this is the one that sounds the most intriguing to me, mostly for it’s genre-bending nature:

In Falling Out of Time, David Grossman has created a genre-defying drama––part play, part prose, pure poetry––to tell the story of bereaved parents setting out to reach their lost children. It begins in a small village, in a kitchen, where a man announces to his wife that he is leaving, embarking on a journey in search of their dead son. The man––called simply Walking Man––paces in ever-widening circles around the town. One after another, all manner of townsfolk fall into step with him (the Net-Mender, the Midwife, the Elderly Math Teacher, even the Duke), each enduring his or her own loss. The walkers raise questions of grief and bereavement: Can death be overcome by an intensity of speech or memory? Is it possible, even for a fleeting moment, to call to the dead and free them from their death? Grossman’s answer to such questions is a hymn to these characters, who ultimately find solace and hope in their communal act of breaching death’s hermetic separateness. For the reader, the solace is in their clamorous vitality, and in the gift of Grossman’s storytelling––a realm where loss is not merely an absence but a life force of its own.

That’s all for this month. Check back in on Tuesday, March 11th to find out which books made the longlist for the 2014 BTBA in Fiction. And April is LOADED with great translations, including one of the best Open Letter books of 2014 . . .

7 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The new issue of Bookforum arrived in the mail yesterday. Traditionally, the summer issue (covering June/July/Aug) has a significant special section—last year it was “Utopia/Dystopia” and the year before was “Fiction Forward,” with a focus on six new writers.

This year’s special section is Best Sellers and opens with an essay by Ruth Franklin on the history and contents of best-seller lists. (Or, as she points out, fast-seller lists, since “the pace of sales matters as much as the quantity.”) There are also interesting essays by Gerald Howard and Michael Dirda, along with short overviews of a variety of best-sellers, from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road to Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago to Jaws.

In terms of the normal reviews, there’s a piece by former Harper’s editor Roger Hodge on Intern Nation (a sweetly provocative choice considering Hodge’s exit from Harper’s and all that turmoil), a review by Eric Banks of Raymond Roussel’s Impressions of Africa and New Impressions of Africa, one by Leo Robson on Bohumil Hrabal’s Vita Nuova and Gaps, and a fascinating looking piece by J. C. Hallman on Janet Reitman’s Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion. (Yes, I suppose I am on a bit of a cults kick right now.)

Most of these pieces aren’t available online, but seriously, a subscription is $18/year. Pony up, people. (I feel like there is something interesting going on in today’s culture—we’ve gone from demanding everything for free to being completely willing to pay small amounts of money for the ease and convenience of having something at hand. Publishers always freak out about piracy, without admitting that if they made a very simple, convenient way to buy reasonably priced material—and FYI, $29.95 for an ebook is a long cry from “reasonable”—in the way readers want, at the time that they want, piracy won’t be all that much of an issue. Anyway.)

24 January 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Dan Vitale on Bohumil Hrabal’s Vita Nuova, which is translated from the Czech by Tony Liman and available from Northwestern University Press.

Dan Vitale is a regular contributor to Three Percent—a program sponsored in party through a grant from NYSCA—and has written a number of thoughtful, interesting reviews for us.

Bohumil Hrabal is one of the all-time great writers. Closely Watched Trains, I Served the King of England, Too Loud a Solitude, all absolutely spectacular. It’s great that Northwestern has been publishing this “autobiographical trilogy,” which sounds both playful and captivating. The lack of commas and periods in this volume brings to mind the one-sentence Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, which is effing brilliant and will soon be available from NYRB.

Anyway, here’s a bit about Vita Nuova:

Vita Nuova is the second volume in a trilogy of autobiographical novels based on Bohumil Hrabal’s courtship of and marriage to Eliška Plevová (nicknamed Pipsi) and the first decade or so of his fame as one of Czechoslovakia’s most beloved writers. Originally published in samizdat in Prague in 1986, not long before Plevová’s death, and then in Toronto by Josef Škvorecký’s Czech-language 68 Publishers, the trilogy plays fast and loose with the concepts of both autobiography and the novel, reflecting each in a kind of narrative funhouse mirror: the books are narrated not by Hrabal nor a fictional stand-in but by Pipsi. That is, they are an act of creative ventriloquism by a novelist imagining that his wife had written three memoirs about their life together.

The first volume, In-House Weddings (translated, like Vita Nuova, by Tony Liman and available from Northwestern), is set during the late 1950s in the Prague district of Libeň, and covers the relatively short period between the couple’s first meeting in the courtyard of the building where Hrabal lives alone in a small flat, and their eventual wedding celebration in the same courtyard. Vita Nuova, which covers the first several years of the marriage, picks up the story shortly thereafter but with a sudden, startling change in Pipsi’s narrative voice, perhaps to reflect the “new life” indicated by the novel’s title. (The Italian is an homage to La Vita Nuova, Dante’s collection of annotated poems about courtly love, but the content of Hrabal’s book seems otherwise unconnected to Dante’s.) The relatively conventional paragraphs of In-House Weddings, though frequently made up of long and sometimes comma-spliced sentences, have given way to a series of pages-long paragraphs whose sentences, oddly, lack commas and periods but not initial capitals (although questions and exclamations are properly end-punctuated). A preface to the book acknowledges a stylistic debt to Molly Bloom’s stream-of-consciousness soliloquy in James Joyce’s Ulysses, but (at least in translation) Hrabal’s prose is less disciplined and poetic than Joyce’s. After a chapter or two, the reader learns to rely on the capitals as the primary sign that one sentence has ended and another has begun, and the absence of periods becomes only the memory of an odd quirk that is never fully justified by the narrative.

Marriage has seemingly changed not just Pipsi’s writing style but her personality. In the first volume, she is strong but also forgiving and somewhat naïve. Ethnically German, hailing from a well-to-do family in the Czech region of Moravia, a survivor of racially-motivated persecution and forced labor during World War II, and most recently having been abandoned by an unfaithful fiancé, Pipsi is enamored of Hrabal and mostly indulgent toward his vices of procrastination and drink (though also quietly dismayed by them). In Vita Nuova she has suddenly become much flintier and more opinionated, much more open in her displeasures and dissatisfactions; as with the change in prose style, it is difficult to tell if Hrabal intends the contrast deliberately or has not exercised enough care in presenting the complexities of Pipsi’s character. At times we seem meant to pity her; at others she seems as extravagantly fuming a witness to her husband’s hapless misadventures as Margaret Dumont’s characters were to Groucho Marx’s shenanigans.

Click here to read the full review.

24 January 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Vita Nuova is the second volume in a trilogy of autobiographical novels based on Bohumil Hrabal’s courtship of and marriage to Eliška Plevová (nicknamed Pipsi) and the first decade or so of his fame as one of Czechoslovakia’s most beloved writers. Originally published in samizdat in Prague in 1986, not long before Plevová’s death, and then in Toronto by Josef Škvorecký’s Czech-language 68 Publishers, the trilogy plays fast and loose with the concepts of both autobiography and the novel, reflecting each in a kind of narrative funhouse mirror: the books are narrated not by Hrabal nor a fictional stand-in but by Pipsi. That is, they are an act of creative ventriloquism by a novelist imagining that his wife had written three memoirs about their life together.

The first volume, In-House Weddings (translated, like Vita Nuova, by Tony Liman and available from Northwestern), is set during the late 1950s in the Prague district of Libeň, and covers the relatively short period between the couple’s first meeting in the courtyard of the building where Hrabal lives alone in a small flat, and their eventual wedding celebration in the same courtyard. Vita Nuova, which covers the first several years of the marriage, picks up the story shortly thereafter but with a sudden, startling change in Pipsi’s narrative voice, perhaps to reflect the “new life” indicated by the novel’s title. (The Italian is an homage to La Vita Nuova, Dante’s collection of annotated poems about courtly love, but the content of Hrabal’s book seems otherwise unconnected to Dante’s.) The relatively conventional paragraphs of In-House Weddings, though frequently made up of long and sometimes comma-spliced sentences, have given way to a series of pages-long paragraphs whose sentences, oddly, lack commas and periods but not initial capitals (although questions and exclamations are properly end-punctuated). A preface to the book acknowledges a stylistic debt to Molly Bloom’s stream-of-consciousness soliloquy in James Joyce’s Ulysses, but (at least in translation) Hrabal’s prose is less disciplined and poetic than Joyce’s. After a chapter or two, the reader learns to rely on the capitals as the primary sign that one sentence has ended and another has begun, and the absence of periods becomes only the memory of an odd quirk that is never fully justified by the narrative.

Marriage has seemingly changed not just Pipsi’s writing style but her personality. In the first volume, she is strong but also forgiving and somewhat naïve. Ethnically German, hailing from a well-to-do family in the Czech region of Moravia, a survivor of racially-motivated persecution and forced labor during World War II, and most recently having been abandoned by an unfaithful fiancé, Pipsi is enamored of Hrabal and mostly indulgent toward his vices of procrastination and drink (though also quietly dismayed by them). In Vita Nuova she has suddenly become much flintier and more opinionated, much more open in her displeasures and dissatisfactions; as with the change in prose style, it is difficult to tell if Hrabal intends the contrast deliberately or has not exercised enough care in presenting the complexities of Pipsi’s character. At times we seem meant to pity her; at others she seems as extravagantly fuming a witness to her husband’s hapless misadventures as Margaret Dumont’s characters were to Groucho Marx’s shenanigans.

There are many misadventures here, most of them of a domestic nature. The most entertaining involve Hrabal’s attempts at home improvement, aided by his diminutive friend Pepíček Sviatek. Even seen through Pipsi’s judgmental eyes, a slapstick scene in which Hrabal and Pepíček take apart and clean a soot-clogged stovepipe is a match for anything in a Laurel and Hardy short.

But sometimes Pipsi cannot contain herself, and lets fly with an outburst that would have been unimaginable coming from her in volume 1:

And now [Hrabal’s love-struck artist friend] Vladimir took the near-empty buckets and spun them in the air and whisked the last of the tar against the wall and then he cried out and collapsed in a heap and just lay there moaning like he’d fallen off a cliff And [Vladimir’s lover] Tekla leaned over him and clasped her hands and covered her eyes and my husband took a long draft from the pitcher and then passed it to Jirka and as they drank their eyes never left Vladimir who now sat up and raised that beautiful head of his and then he got to his feet and ran straight at the tar-wet wall onto which he’d poured out his very soul and he struck it headfirst but that wasn’t enough for him so he began to head-butt the wall like a ram and rivulets of blood flowed down around his eyes and Vladimir stood there and drove his head into the wall again and again and Tekla ran into the hallway and into the kitchen in tears implored Jirka and my husband to help and when they ran in Vladimir was already collapsed at the foot of the wall [. . .] unconscious and Jirka and my husband lifted his limp body and carried it into the hallway and Jirka brought a pail of water and knelt down and gently washed Vladimir’s face and his forehead . . . And that was all I could stand and I screamed at Tekla at the top of my lungs . . . Are you crazy you’re all out of your minds! For God’s sake what kind of crap are you trying to pull? And I turned on my husband and yelled in his face And you! How can you stand by and watch your friend like this!

For the most part, however, Pipsi takes a sympathetic view of her husband and his travails, especially when it comes to his writing. (Hrabal at this time had published only a book of poems, and was working intermittently on the stories that would later appear in the collection Pearls of the Deep.) She offers on more than one occasion to support them both on the income from her job as a server in a hotel restaurant so that he can quit his own job at a paper-recycling plant and concentrate full-time on his writing, but he consistently refuses. Still, even at her most generous, Pipsi is forced to treat the childlike Hrabal with something like tough love, though leavened with genuine concern and affection for his idler’s ways:

In vain I told my husband to drop everything to forget about going to work to concentrate on his writing in vain I told him to let me worry about the money but I guess my husband wasn’t quite ready yet for the solitude for the grit required to confront himself every day and work on his own writing [. . .] my husband got into this habit of settling down to write just before I got home from work he hammered away at the [typewriter] and when I came home he pretended to just be hitting his stride but oh well he’d have to pack it in now that I was home and pack it in he did because I had just about enough already I was sick of the standard excuse that he couldn’t write when I was at home [. . .] it was the same old tired excuse that I always countered with . . . Forget the job I’ll look after you . . . And my husband always pretended not to hear and when I laughed and stared him down he always averted his eyes and for the rest of the night wouldn’t utter a word [. . .] but with those oft-repeated words of mine I forced him to withstand that look to withstand and comprehend the full import of those words . . . Forget the job I’ll look after you . . . and somehow those words gave me strength I looked at my own reflection in the mirror and what I saw was a woman a waitress a cashier a fair woman who’d been brought back from the brink by her husband and now that I offered to look after him he was terrified that perhaps I was right perhaps he didn’t have the stuff to be alone to get down to writing all those things he went on about to others . . .

Although the Hrabal portrayed in Vita Nuova bears very little hint of his future status in Czech literature (this transformation will likely be described in the third volume of the trilogy, Vacant Lots, due out later this year from Northwestern in Liman’s translation), Hrabal the author of Pipsi’s “memoirs,” looking back on himself from the vantage of a quarter-century, has masterminded a ferocious and fascinating tangle of narrative perspectives. Toward the end of the book, we get this from Pipsi:

he was scared of mirrors he never wanted to look into a mirror but ultimately he always convinced himself that perhaps his face had improved that maybe he wasn’t as badly off as what he just saw in the mirror And then he looked at himself again at first just a guilty little glance and then he zeroed in and stared and as usual was alarmed by what he saw . . . How did he see himself?

It’s a good question: just whose opinions of Hrabal are we getting here? Hrabal the character’s? Hrabal the author’s? Or Pipsi the narrator’s? It’s impossible to know for sure. Whatever the answer, Vita Nuova gives us the opportunity to peer into Hrabal’s funhouse mirror, deep within which, without a doubt, is a grateful tribute to a long-suffering but loving spouse.

19 July 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

I’ve been a huge fan of NYRB for years. I think I even have copies of the first twelve/thirteen books in those very unfortunately designed covers. Every season I drool when their catalog arrives. I’ve been planning a post for weeks entitled “Albert Cossery is Effing Awesome,” which is due in part to NYRB’s publication of The Jokers. (And to give props where props are due, the post is also indebted to New Directions for publishing A Splendid Conspiracy. And to GoodReads for hooking me up knowledge-wise.) I love visiting Edwin Frank and Sara Kramer, and Edwin’s monthly missive about one of their new titles is by far the most erudite and learned of all publisher newsletters. NYRB is definitely one of the best presses publishing today.

The only this that sucks is that, thanks to their Random House distribution agreement, their catalog lists titles that aren’t coming out for another year. (These titles aren’t even on the NYRB website yet.) This is anguish-making . . . yet, the new list is pretty phenomenal, so as an interlude in my ongoing series of forthcoming fall translations, here’s a list of titles not coming out until spring/summer 2011.

Act of Passion by Georges Simenon, translated from the French by Louise Varese. (June 14, 2011)

Originally published in English in the ’50s, this has been out-of-print forever, and sounds like a great addition to the ongoing Simenon renaissance that NYRB has been undertaking the past few years. By the time this comes out, I think NYRB will have reissued 11 Simenon novels, including Dirty Snow, Red Lights, Three Bedrooms in Manhattan, and The Engagement. (Back some time ago, Mark Binelli and I co-hosted a Words Without Borders reading group on The Engagement. a That was a lot of fun, especially since we disagreed about the book—I thought it was pretty cool, Mark found the writing pretty annoying. Anyway.) This novel is about Charles Alavoine—an upstanding, bourgeois citizen haunted by a sense of loneliness—and his meeting with Martine, a “young woman helplessly adrift in the world” who both awakens Alavoine and “sets the stage for his tragic disintegration.”

Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age by Bohumil Hrabal, translated from the Czech by Michael Henry Heim. (April 12, 2011)

Another excellent reprint. I read this years ago and absolutely loved it. The novel is a monologue from an aged man who tells a group of sunbathing women about his lovers, scandals, adventures. “As the book tumbles restlessly forward, and the comic tone takes on darker shadings, we realize we are listening to a man talking as much out of desperation as from exuberance.” All of Hrabal’s books are worth checking out, especially I Served the King of England, Too Loud a Solitude, and Closely Watched Trains. But this is really one of the best, and I’m glad that eight months from now it will finally be available again.

The Doll by Boleslaw Prus, translated from the Polish by David Welsh. (February 8, 2011)

I feel like this is a book that’s been recommended to me over and over again . . . And finally, come next February, I’ll finally have a chance to read it. From the catalog copy: “The Doll is a classic of Polish literature, a novel that takes in the whole nineteenth century and looks ahead to modern questions of empire, revolution, anti-Semitism, and socialism. [. . .] The rich cast includes the old clerk Rzecki, nostalgic for the revolutions of 1848; the young scientist Ochocki, dreaming of flying machines; the deranged adn manipulative Baroness Krzeszowska; the angelic widow Stawska; the wise dowager duchess; and many more.”

The Ice Trilogy by Vladimir Sorokin, translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell. (February 8, 2011)

This is an interesting publishing story and situation. Back some years ago, there was a great article about Vladimir Sorokin in either the New York Review of Books or the New Yorker. (Thinking it’s the former, but my memory . . . blah.) Anyway, his work sounded really interesting and super-offensive. For example, his novel Blue Lard includes a gay sex scene involving clones of Khrushchev and Stalin. In fact, his work was so offensive that the Pro-Putin Youth dumped copies in a fake toilet bowl. (I can’t believe that I can’t find a picture of this on the Internet. Events like this are why YouTube exists!) Anyway, NYRB scooped up rights to a few of his books, including Ice, which came out in hardcover back in 2007ish. Ice got mixed reviews (memory serves, again, disclaimer), wasn’t quite as crazy/funny at The Queue (also available from NYRB, and which I would whole-heartedly recommend), etc. Now NYRB is bringing out The Ice Trilogy, of which, Ice is the middle volume. “Bro, the first section of Sorokin’s chef d’oeuvre, relates the mysterious emergence of the brotherhood in the aftermath of a massive meteroite striking Siberia (a historical occurrence known as the Tungus event.)” (I’m personally fascinated by the Tungus event.) “23,000 bring the trilogy to a wildly suspenseful close. All 23,000 members of the brotherhood have at last been brought together and they are preparing to stage the global destruction that will return them to their origins in pure light.” I read Ice when it came out, and although I didn’t love it, I found myself compelled, reading it in just a couple sittings, sucked in for inexplicable reasons. Very curious to see how it reads surrounded by the other two parts . . . .

UPDATE: Special thanks to Lisa Hayden Espenschade for this link to a story (in Russian) about the whole Sorokin controversy. And for these photos:





(Nate and E.J. go away for a day, and I start posting toilet pictures. Suppose it could be worse . . . )

17 August 09 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

I don’t usually like to re-post things that have appeared on The Literary Review, mainly because I think our site and Michael’s have an audience Venn diagram that looks more like a single big circle than two overlapping ones, but this is too good to pass up.

This weekend, Adam Thirlwell had a piece in The Guardian about Bohumil Hrabal’s I Served the King of England:

Through his palavering narrators and theatrical characters, Hrabal discovered a crucial law of comedy: we are most funny precisely in proportion to how seriously we take ourselves – to how absolutely we have lost our sense of humour. A sense of humour, in Hrabal, is really a sense of proportion: the ability to diminish the things of this world to their true size. This, in the end, is the real way to be a hedonist: to be content with how small the world’s pleasures are, to be happy with humiliation. Ditie’s diminutive stature, which leads him to try to impose himself on the world in such grandiose ways, is really metaphysical. For everyone is miniature, but with such grandiose ambitions. So everyone is laughable.

If you haven’t read the book yet, you definitely should go pick up a copy right away. It’s incredible.

3 December 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Tomorrow morning we will unveil the 25 works of fiction that made the “Best Translated Book of the Year” longlist, but as a prelude, I thought I’d highlight a few titles that didn’t make it and a couple of magazines that deserve some special recognition.

A twenty-five title longlist might seem like a lot, but it was actually pretty difficult to choose the 25 best fiction titles from all of the great works of international fiction that came out this year. And inevitably a few worthy titles had to be left off. Arguments could be made for any number of titles that didn’t make it, but the ones I think deserve honorable mention are:

The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions). Ferrante’s first book, Days of Abandonment really put Europa Editions on the map, and this book is really good as well.

Knowledge of Hell by Antonio Lobo Antunes, translated from the Portuguese by Cliff Landers (Dalkey Archive). Martin Riker of Dalkey Archive said that this was one of the best translations Dalkey published this year, and that it is a “really intricate, sophisticated piece of translating. The book is very complicated, and I completely agree that Cliff did a remarkable job with this.

The Tsar’s Dwarf by Peter Fogtdal, translated from the Danish by Tiina Nunnally (Hawthorne Books). Joanna Scott blurbed this book, saying “There’s a potent mix of heartbreak and hilarity in this vividly imagined novel . . . The dwarf Sorine is completely spellbinding.” Larissa Kyzer agreed in the review she did for us.

To Siberia by Per Petterson, translated from the Norwegian by Anne Born (Graywolf). Out Stealing Horses, last year’s breakout novel for Petterson—and in some sense for Graywolf as well—was a finalist for the Best Translated Book award. There’s more Petterson to come — Graywolf is doing I Curse the River of Time, which is a finalist for this year’s Nordic Prize — so he’ll have more chances.

The most beautifully designed book that didn’t make the longlist has to be Bohumil Hrabal’s Pirouettes on a Postage Stamp, translated from the Czech by David Short (Karolinum Press). The book itself sounds fantastic—“On its surface a verbatim record of an oral interview conducted by Hungarian journalist László Szigeti, the book confuses and confounds with false starts, digressions, and philosophical asides.”—and although you can’t tell from the online image, the book itself is very sharp and the pages are very creamy (as fellow panelist Jeff Waxman called them).

If the year actually started in October 2007, sexoPUROsexoVELOZ and Septiembre by Dolores Dorante would’ve definitely made the poetry list. It was translated by Jen Hofer and published by Counterpath, one of the most interesting new presses out there. Steve Dolph is a huge fan of this book—if only its publication had been delayed a few months . . .

In terms of magazines, Absinthe, Calque, and Two Lines are three of the most impressive translation-oriented publications out there. (Along with Words Without Borders, of course.) All three are well edited, filled with exciting content, and beautifully produced. I especially like the unique size and shape of Two Lines. Not to mention a subscription to any one of these would make a fantastic holiday present . . . Just saying.

That’s it for now. Tomorrow we’ll release the complete longlist . . .

....
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