Since we publish two of his novels, and since we featured his band yesterday, I thought today would be a perfect day to excerpt Bragi Olafsson’s The Ambassador, which is translated by Lytton Smith. (FYI: Lytton is the one responsible for providing me with the bottle of Brennivin featured in my upcoming “Black Death” post. So blame him.) Without a doubt, The Ambassador is the best novel ever written about a Lithuanian poetry conference. Most definitely.
Poet (and building superintendent) Sturla Jón Jónsson, is the Icelandic representative to this Lithuanian poetry conference. Which makes sense—he just has a new collection out that’s getting a lot of praise . . . Well, that is until he goes away and a major newspaper runs a story accusing Sturla of plagiarism. And that’s just the start of Sturla’s troubles. In Lithuania, someone steals his new overcoat, so he decides to swipe someone else’s jacket—which, obviously, doesn’t end up working all that well for him.
Here’s how Karen Russell—author of Swamplandia put it in a recent issue of PEN America:
Bragi Olafsson’s English language debut [Ed. Note: The Pets was his English language debut, but whatever], The Ambassador, is the strange, hilarious, and brilliant story of Sturla Jon Jonsson, a building superintendent who also happens to be a venerated Icelandic poet. He’s on his way to Lithuania to represent his nation at a literary festival, opening the door for all kinds of scathingly funny insights into the “situation of the writer.” It’s a tricky book to paraphrase—boozy, literary Icelandic black comedy? Icelandic picaresque? No “elevator story” exists for it, according to the book’s publisher, the fabulous Open Letter. It’s unlike anything else out there, anda joy to read. Sturla gets into all sorts of jams over the course of this short, weird novel, from being accused of nicking his latest poetry collection from a dead cousin to losing his overcoat, the only piece of clothing with a high thread count that this starving artist has ever owned. Kafkaesque yuks and keen insight are brought to you by the badass genius translator Lytton Smith—one of my favorite poets and author of the acclaimed debut The All-Purpose Magical Tent—and he uses all his creativity and rigor here, as well as his deep knowledge of Icelandic culture. Sturla’s inimitable voice can now infuriate and delight an American crowd.
And Agni just reviewed this, stating:
When we read as consumers we are consuming a product; but reading a novel like The Ambassador requires us to look at literature the way my father looks at ferries—to see an ingeniously designed, carefully constructed assemblage of parts, an assemblage that is good and valuable because it functions so well. Ólafsson’s novel has no flashy packaging—the main characters are devoid of youth, beauty, and conventional charm, the pacing is slow, and the plot wanders—but he has assembled these homely and mismatched materials into an exquisitely crafted novel that is gratifying to see at work.
One other bit about the book before we get to the sample. In The Abassador, everyone who attends this Lithuanian poetry conference receives a copy of The Season of Poetry featuring translated poems from a number of the conference participants. Well, Lytton actually recreated this book, which is available as a $.99 ebook and features “translations” from writers such as Jason Grunebaum, Jesse Ball, and Matthew Zapruder. So, for the price of a John Locke novel, you can get some faux-international poetry! (This actually is a brilliant collection—both the poems themselves and the games surrounding these poems are immensely satisfying.)
At long last, here’s a bit of The Ambassador. This is actually the editorial Sturla Jón Jónsson writes for the newspaper before taking off for the international poetry conference (after the jump):Read More...
This one’s a given. Bjork + Bragi Olafsson. (We’ll be featuring Bragi’s literary work later this week.) Man, does this take me back . . . Originally released in 1988, Life’s Too Good is still pretty awesome.
“Birthday” was what really put The Sugarcubes on the map, and evokes a very particular period of time (for me at least). It’s charming song, one that Bjork referred to as a “tasteless pop song.” In her own words:
“It’s a story about a love affair between a five year old girl, a secret and a man who lives next door. The song’s called Birthday because it’s his fiftieth birthday, but not many people can figure that out of the lyrics ‘cos it’s more about the atmosphere around it and how they touch. It’s a tasteless pop song—not even that. A pop song—very unusual”
“I was always changing my mind about what the lyrics should be about. I had the atmosphere right from the start but not the facts. It finally ended up concentrating on this experience I remembered having as a little girl, among many other little girls’ experiences. It’s like huge men, about fifty or so, affect little girls very erotically but nothing happens . . . nothing is done, just this very strong feeling. I picked on this subject to show that anything can affect you erotically; material, a tree, anything.”
Yep. More Icelandic music and books tomorrow!
The new issue of PEN America, PEN’s literary journal, came out during last week’s World Voices Festival. As always, it’s loaded with good stuff, including excerpts of Marcelo Figueras’s Kamatchka, Andrzej Sosnowski’s Lodgings, Herve Le Tellier’s erotic as hell The Sextine Chapel, and Quim Monzo’s Guadalajara. (BTW, the Monzo story, “Literature,” is absolutely amazing.)
Additionally, this issue contains a lot of pieces from the 48th Congress of International PEN, which took place back in 1986, and became the basis for this year’s Festival since it “explored how writers use their imagination naturally and gracefully to speak to one another across boundaries, and the way governments, too, are capable of using their vision to improve the world’s troubles.” Included in this issue are pieces by Kurt Vonnegut, Toni Morrison, John Barth, Salman Rushdie, Kobo Abe, Danilo Kis, Adam Zagajewski, Gunter Grass, Margaret Atwood, etc., etc. (Really looking forward to exploring all this.)
But the main reason I’m writing this post is to praise “The Good Books: A Forum.” Basically, this grew out of the idea that all the writers at the festival could bring a book they love and swap it with the Gideon Bible in the hotel where they were staying. (BTW, DO IT!!! This should become common practice among all.)
Instead, PEN put together this feature in which scads of authors recommended the one book they would bring to some sort of mythical “book swap.” The Book of Disquiet by Pessoa was recommended any dozen number of times, and Don Quixote got plugged a couple times. The whole list is interesting, but for obvious reasons, the one that caught my eye was Karen Russell’s The Ambassador:
Bragi Olafsson’s English language debut, The Ambassador, is the strange, hilarious, and brilliant story of Sturla Jon Jonsson, a building superintendent who also happens to be a venerated Icelandic poet. He’s on his way to Lithuania to represent his nation at a literary festival, opening the door for all kinds of scathingly funny insights into the “situation of the writer.” It’s a tricky book to paraphrase—boozy, literary Icelandic black comedy? Icelandic picaresque? No “elevator story” exists for it, according to the book’s publisher, the fabulous Open Letter. It’s unlike anything else out there, anda joy to read. Sturla gets into all sorts of jams over the course of this short, weird novel, from being accused of nicking his latest poetry collection from a dead cousin to losing his overcoat, the only piece of clothing with a high thread count that this starving artist has ever owned. Kafkaesque yuks and keen insight are brought to you by the badass genius translator Lytton Smith—one of my favorite poets and author of the acclaimed debut The All-Purpose Magical Tent—and he uses all his creativity and rigor here, as well as his deep knowledge of Icelandic culture. Sturla’s inimitable voice can now infuriate and delight an American crowd.
You can purchase your own copy of The Ambassador by clicking here, and you can get PEN America right here. (FYI: this post is so on top of things that the new issue isn’t even available for sale yet. But it should be up there momentarily.)
As some of you might know, Bragi Olafsson’s new book — The Ambassador — released a couple weeks back. It’s an incredibly fun book centering around the journey of Icelandic poet Sturla Jon Jonsson to poetry festival in Lithuania where he loses his overcoat, steals someone else’s, is accused of plagiarism, and gets drunk a lot. While he’s there, he also receives The Season of Poetry, a small book featuring poems from the various festival participants.
In the novel, this book is referenced, and a few of the festival-goers are described, but not very many, which is what led translator Lytton Smith to come up with the fun idea of having American poets and translators recreate this poetry collection. Each of the participants invented a poet, and a poem by that poet that they then supposedly translated into English . . . In other words, this is a collection of fake poets, falsely translated, and plays off of the themes of truth, fiction, and plagiarism that run throughout the novel. (There was a panel at this year’s ALTA on imaginary translations, which this would’ve fit into perfectly.)
Click here to download a PDF, EPUB, or Kindle edition of the collection, which features “translations” from such writers as Sawako Nakayasu, Jason Grunebaum, Idra Novey, Eliot Weinberger, Jesse Ball, Matthew Zapruder, and Becka Mara McKay.
There’s also this playful intro from Lytton himself:
From the mystified pop culture references of Argentine poet Silvia Plata to the almost intangible tracings of Danish-Yogaslavian-Croatian poet Lørpsliç Bierkegårt, from the deeply personal lyrics of Greek poet Ioanna Theodorou to the distressed political writings of Hindi poet Radhika Matiyani, the selection of poems before you, translated by English-language poets from America and the U.K., offers a rare glimpse into the world of translation.
These poems originate in a strange volume, titled The Season of Poetry. _The Season of Poetry apparently gathered poems by writers from across the world who had come together in Lithuania for an International Poetry Festival one October. Based in Vilinius and the spa town Druskininkai, participants in the festival shared their verses, met one another face to face, and attended talks covering topics including “the work of German poet Günther Meierhof” and “references to overcoats in European modernist poetry.”
I stumbled across this book online—and how nice it is to still be able to stumble across a book in this digital age—via a series of chance hyperlinks in a salvo of blog comments about poetry readings and academic conferences. The only document I could find surving from this festival was a fragmentary PDF scanned from an unidentified archive. As far as I can tell, the original, assembled and edited by one Gintaras (his last name was nowhere recorded), contained the poems in Lithuanian translation and, on the facing page, in the source language.
Struck by the beauty and happenstance of this unusual assemblage of poets, all of whom had somehow escaped my notice, I contacted a number of writers and translators to see if they would bring these poems into English. My hope was to honour the original volume’s desire to spread the word about international writing, and in the process to encourage readers to discover international poets as yet unknown to them. Since each poet at the festival was asked to recommend one other poet, we now have, despite the partial nature of the PDF, a set of reading suggestions to which we might turn after this book.
Little else can be ascertained about the project. Gintaras did write a foreword, which promisingly began by explaining his desire to “assemble a poet from every corner of the globe, as though the globe has more than just four corners,” with the hope that “we will have poets we could pin onto an atlas like noticeboard pins, brightly colored and one per country.” However, the foreword soon digresses into a tirade about the pressures of organizing an international poetry festival when the organizer is faced with having to arbitrate between American and Icelandic poets and antiques dealers over the theft of items of clothing from restaurants. The reference (possibly to some work of European or Scandinavian literature?) is confoundingly mysterious.
One poem from the volume surviving as that fragmentary PDF is not translated here: a poem called “The Lesson” (or, in the original Icelandic, “kennslustund”). The poem, a meditation on how much life one is allotted on this earth, would have made a lovely addition to this translation of The Season of Poetry. Sadly, however, there was some debate as to the original author (was it really Sturla Jónsson?) and some question of plagiarism lurking around the text. While my own opinion hovers over labelling this as a case of ‘influence’ rather than literary theft, I decided to omit the poem from the current document in order that everything presented be nothing less than entirely upfront and aboveboard. Should readers be curious about the details of this literary theft, which makes for an intriguing story, they can be found in the book The Ambassador by Bragi Ólafsson (Open Letter Books, 2010).
Lastly, I hope this small pressing of poems might, like some form of rhizome, hypertext us all to other poems. May I suggest as a starting place the other poetry translated and written by the translators who have kindly given their time to this project, a list of which can be found in the Translators’ Bios at the end of the volume?
As you may already know, Bragi Olafsson’s new novel, The Ambassador, is releasing next month. It’s an awesome, hilarious, fun novel about an Icelandic poet who attends a poetry festival in Lithuania, where his coat is stolen, where he gets pretty wasted, and where he meets a bunch of eccentric poets (surprise?). (Read an except by clicking here.)
Anyway, we have a really cool promotion for this in the works (some of you already know about this, but I’ll officially announce and explain it later), and in addition, Bragi’s going to be giving a few readings over the next few weeks. Specifically:
Book Talk with Bragi Olafsson
Thursday, September 30th at 6:30pm
Scandinavian House, 58 Park Ave. (at 38th St.), NYC
The World on Our Bookshelves: The Import of Literature in Translation
Saturday, October 2nd at 9am
Pages & Places Festival
ArtWorks, 503 Lackawanna Avenue, Scranton, PA
Reading and Discussion at 192 Books
Tuesday, October 5th at 7pm
192 Books, 192 Tenth Ave. (at 21st St.), NYC
(please RSVP by calling 212.255.4022)
I’ll post more about the Pages & Places Festival separately, but for now, here’s the basic info. And I hope you can come out to at least one of these.
To celebrate the release of this book (Bragi’s second with Open Letter, you should also check out The Pets), we’re giving away 10 copies. Simply go to our Open Letter Books Facebook Fan Page and click “like” or leave a comment on the “giveaway post.” We’ll select the winners on Friday . . .
Totally biased, but I think this is one of our strongest seasons yet, what with Zone, the new Bragi Olafsson novel, the first of a million or so Juan Jose Saer books (one of my absolute favorites! If you can’t wait for our book, check out The Event from Serpent’s Tail—absolutely incredible), and our first poetry title . . . You can download a pdf of the catalog by clicking the link above, but here are links to each of the books, along with their respective copy:
The Sixty-Five Years of Washington by Juan Jose Saer. Translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph (Argentina)
It’s October 1960, say, or 1961, in a seaside Argentinian city named Santa Fe, and The Mathematician—wealthy, elegant, educated, dressed from head to toe in white—is just back from a grand tour of Europe. He’s on his way to drop off a press release about the trip to the papers when he runs into Ángel Leto, a relative newcomer to Rosario who does some accounting, but who this morning has decided to wander the town rather than go to work.
One day soon, The Mathematician will disappear into exile after his wife’s assassination, and Leto will vanish into the guerrilla underground, clutching his suicide pill like a talisman. But for now, they settle into a long conversation about the events of Washington Noriega’s sixty-fifth birthday—a party neither of them attended.
Saer’s The Sixty-Five Years of Washington is simultaneously a brilliant comedy about memory, narrative, time, and death and a moving narrative about the lost generations of an Argentina that was perpetually on the verge of collapse.
Zone by Mathias Enard. Translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell. (France)
Francis Servain Mirkovic, a French-born Croat who has been working for the French Intelligence Services for fifteen years, is traveling by train from Milan to Rome. He’s carrying a briefcase whose contents he’s selling to a representative from the Vatican; the briefcase contains a wealth of information about the violent history of the Zone—the lands of the Mediterranean basin, Spain, Algeria, Lebanon, Italy, that have become Mirkovic’s specialty.
Over the course of a single night, Mirkovic visits the sites of these tragedies in his memory and recalls the damage that his own participation in that violence—as a soldier fighting for Croatia during the Balkan Wars—has wreaked in his own life. Mirkovic hopes that this night will be his last in the Zone, that this journey will expiate his sins, and that he can disappear with Sashka, the only woman he hasn’t abandoned, forever . . .
One of the truly original books of the decade—and written as a single, hypnotic, propulsive, physically irresistible sentence—Mathias Énard’s Zone provides an extraordinary and panoramic view of the turmoil that has long deviled the shores of the Mediterranean.
The Selected Stories of Merce Rodoreda. Translated from the Catalan by Martha Tennent. (Catalonia)
Collected here are thirty-one of Mercè Rodoreda’s most moving and challenging stories, presented in chronological order of their publication from three of Rodoreda’s most beloved short story collections: Twenty-Two Stories, It Seemed Like Silk and Other Stories, and My Christina and Other Stories. These stories capture Rodoreda’s full range of expression, from quiet literary realism to fragmentary impressionism to dark symbolism. Few writers have captured so clearly, or explored so deeply, the lives of women who are stuck somewhere between senseless modernity and suffocating tradition—Rodoreda’s “women are notable for their almost pathological lack of volition, but also for their acute sensitivity, a nearly painful awareness of beauty” (Natasha Wimmer).
The Ambassador by Bragi Olafsson. Translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith. (Iceland)
Sturla Jón Jónsson, the fifty-something building superintendent and sometimes poet, has been invited to a poetry festival in Vilnius, Lithuania, appointed, as he sees it, as the official representative of the people of Iceland to the field of poetry. His latest poetry collection, published on the eve of his trip to Vilnius, is about to cause some controversy in his home country—Sturla is publicly accused of having stolen the poems from his long-dead cousin, Jónas.
Then there’s Sturla’s new overcoat, the first expensive item of clothing he has ever purchased, which causes him no end of trouble. And the article he wrote for a literary journal, which points out the stupidity of literary festivals and declares the end of his career as a poet. Sturla has a lot to deal with, and that’s not counting his estranged wife and their five children, nor the increasingly bizarre experiences and characters he’s forced to confront at the festival in Vilnius . . .
Bragi Ólafsson’s The Ambassador is a quirky novel that’s filled with insightful and wry observations about aging, family, love, and the mysteries of the hazelnut.
Lodgings by Andrzej Sosnowski. Translated from the Polish by Benjamin Paloff. (Poland)
Lodgings is the first representative selection of Sosnowski’s work available in English. Spanning his entire career, from the publication of Life in Korea in 1992 to his newest poems, this is a book whose approach to language, literature, and the representation of experience is simultaneously resonant and strange—a cocktail party where lowlifes and sophisticates hobnob with French theorists and British glam rockers, unsettling us with the hard accuracy of their pronouncements.
One of the foremost Polish poets of his generation, Andrzej Sosnowski’s work demonstrates a dazzling range of influences and echoes, from Ronald Firbank and Raymond Roussel to John Ashbery and Elizabeth Bishop. Also an influential editor and critic, he has received most of the literary honors available to poets in Poland, including the prestigious Silesius Prize.
Taking off in just a few minutes for Bulgaria to participate in the translation related part of this year’s Sozopol Fiction Workshop, which is sponsored by the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation for Creative Writing. This seminar brings together English and Bulgarian writers for three days of workshops, guest lectures, and “roundtables on various issues from the lifecycle of the book, including how to work with agents, editors, translators, and publishers.”
It should be rather interesting . . . And assuming we have an internet connection, I should be able to blog about all my adventures. I actually have to fly from Rochester to Atlanta to Paris to Sofia, where I’ll eventually take a bus to Sozopol . . . Given my recent travel record (a night spent in JFK, a night spent in a hotel near JFK, a 5-1/2 hour volcano related delay, a flight that lasted an additional 2-1/2 hours as we rounded Iceland, etc.), this all seems like it’s never going to work.
Actually, it seems like I’m living Bragi Olfasson’s forthcoming novel, The Ambassador, which is about an Icelandic poet who is invited to a poetry conference in a small town in Lithuania. He flies to Vilnius, is supposed to take a bus to this other town, decides to skip it after his overcoat is stolen at a restaurant, drinks a lot, etc. . . .
This should be a lot of fun, and I may even have time to catch up on some things—such as my e-mail. (Seriously, if you’ve emailed me recently—or not so recently—and are awaiting a response, I’m getting there. These trips jack my ability to keep up with certain things. I’m not ignoring you, I’m just working through the tons of messages I’ve been receiving . . .)
The article I wrote for Publishing Perspectives about the Iceland Literary Festival (along with a video interview with Kristjan B. Jonasson, the head of the Icelandic Publishers Association) will go live tomorrow morning, but in the meantime, I thought I’d put together a short write-up of some of the interesting contemporary Icelandic writers I met at the festival last week. This is obviously an incomplete list, but if you’re at all interested in finding out about Icelandic literature, it will hopefully serve as a good starting point:
More information about these and other Icelandic authors can be found at the Icelandic Literature Fund website (Agla at bok at bok.is is the person to contact for sample translations, etc.) and the Fabulous Iceland site that was set up to promote Iceland culture in advance of their being Guest of Honor at the 2011 Frankfurt Book Fair.
With its 99.9% literacy rate (seriously), and a roster of great authors (Halldór Laxness, Hallgrímur Helgason) that belies the fact that it has a smaller population than Bakersfield, the nation of Iceland could fairly be called a book lover’s paradise. (There’s even a “Library of Water” there, which, according to my Icelandic American partner, delivers exactly what it promises.)
It could also be called a rock lover’s paradise — it’s home to the acclaimed band Sigur Rós; the world’s most beloved swan-clad chanteuse, Björk; and — because no nation can claim rock cred if the stiffest available beverage is lemonade — Brennivín, nicknamed Black Death, an ungodly strong schnapps that tastes like rye bread soaked in sulfuric acid and then set on fire. (I speak from experience here. Bitter, bitter experience.)
With that in mind, it’s not entirely surprising that Iceland has given the world one of the best novels written by a former rock musician.
(Two quick notes: I have an unopened bottle of “Black Death” that Bragi brought for me during his tour. His description of how nasty—and strong!—Brennivin is sort of scared me off. But if anyone wants to give it a go . . . And secondly, in the category of random promotions, in addition to Björk and Sigur Rós, anyone interested in cool Icelandic music has to check out Múm, especially Go Go Smear the Poison Ivy. Incredible CD. And now back to The Pets . . . )
After describing the plot of the novel—Emil’s frightening old acquaintance Havard shows up in Reykjavik and, through a sequence of events you simply have to read, ends up in Emil’s living room while Emil hides under his bed for hours narrating this novel—Schaub makes his case for The Pets as the great rock novel.
So what we have is 157 dark, scary and unbelievably funny pages, much of which is narrated by a man hiding under his own bed. That might not scream “rock” at first blush, but the novel is infused, in its own way and very much on its own terms, with music. Emil is a borderline-obsessive jazz fan who takes maybe a little too much pleasure in his Miles Davis collection; Havard’s musical tastes run toward playing Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” ad nauseum and, at one point, buying a ukulele for no discernible reason. Kraftwerk’s paranoiac “Computer World” makes a brief appearance, too, at just the right claustrophobic time.
But if you were building an argument for the true rock novel being as unselfconscious about rock as possible, The Pets could be Exhibit A. More than most fiction that concerns itself with music, Bragi’s novel captures the dark side of rock — paranoia, fear, self-doubt and the cowardice that’s sometimes, maybe often, the flip side of rock-star braggadocio.
Of course it’s possible that this is all rock-nerd wishful thinking, and that Bragi didn’t intend to write a slyly great rock novel, but rather just a less slyly great novel. Perhaps it’s just his biography getting in the way. I don’t think so, but either way, we win. So how long do we have to wait for English versions of his other books? Open Letter, get Janice Balfour on the phone. Takk!
Oh, and about future books of Bragi’s, next fall we’ll be bringing out The Ambassador, which is being translated by Lytton Smith as I type. (I’ll post a sample in the not-too-distant future . . .)
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.
Below is a recording of Bragi Ólafsson reading from The Pets and having a conversation with Lytton Smith (who we hope will be translating Bragi’s next book The Ambassadors for us) as a part of the Reading the World Conversation Series on October 7th, 2008. We’ll be announcing the spring line-up for the Series soon!
Not too terribly long ago, Barnes & Noble.com started Barnes & Noble Review a weekly web magazine featuring reviews of books, CDs, DVDs, etc. Pretty interesting strategy—rather than compete with Amazon on price, provide compelling editorial content. B&N has attracted a nice line of reviewers, including John Freeman (former NBCC president and new American editor of Granta) and Christopher Byrd.
And more relevant to this post, they’re also covering some great books, including a few Open Letter titles.
Last week, Bragi Olafsson’s The Pets was featured on the Best Fiction of the Year list and was plugged by Paul La Farge:
The best short novel I’ve read this year must be Bragi Ólafsson’s The Pets, which makes more room for strangeness in its 157 pages than most novels can find in two or three times that length. [. . .] Ólafsson, who used to play bass in Björk’s band The Sugarcubes, handles the absurdity of the situation with a droll matter-of-factness that’s reminiscent of Murakami, but as the story goes on the drollery gives way to a subtle menace. A catastrophe is about to happen, and the question is, will Emil be able to prevent it, or will he be trapped by his own cowardice? Small, dark, and hard to put down, The Pets may be a classic in the literature of small enclosed spaces—a distinguished genre, which includes “The Metamorphosis,” No Exit, and a fair amount of Beckett.
In the brand new issue, Nobody’s Home by Dubravka Ugresic is reviewed by the aforementioned Christopher Byrd:
Abreast with this endeavor, she also looks into how globalization has affected, what the stalwarts of the Frankfurt School termed, the culture industry. For instance, in the essay “Transition: Morphs & Sliders & Polymorphs,” she notes, “Only in times ruled by firm, frozen values—political, religious, moral aesthetic, has the writer enjoyed . . . a special status. . . .Today, in…market-oriented cultural zones—an intellectual is simply a ‘player’ . . . a performer, a circus performer, an entertainer, a vendor of ‘cultural’ souvenirs.” Following this idea to its logical endpoint, one wonders, does the author factors herself into her own indictment? She does. While tallying the ills of civilization, Ugrešić avoids coming across as remote or above the fray. Indeed, alongside engaging in forceful cultural readings, she discourses on things like gardening and the pleasure of having one’s nails done. In sum, her provocative bent is not cheapened by her unmitigated desire to please.
Omnivoracious, Amazon.com’s weblog, has an interview with Bragi Ólafsson about The Pets, lies, and his new book:
Amazon.com: Tell me more about that, what that was like.
BÓ: Most of the time it was very stupid questions and silly answers. That’s what the pop press is basically about. Playing around. Because there isn’t so much to talk about. And, of course, we had to talk about Iceland because people were curious about the music scene in Iceland and how cold it is in Iceland. We told a lot of lies about Iceland because we were in the position to make fun of the whole thing, instead of just giving dry answers to these questions. And, I think Björk still does that sometimes. She gives really strange facts about our country.
Amazon.com: Do you remember any of your lies?
BÓ: Well, it was about what the food is or the drinks or some extremities. Probably something about drinking, because Iceland, like Finland, has a reputation for being big drinkers. So we tended to exaggerate that a bit. Here’s a story about playing with the media: Once, when in Denmark the government passed the laws on gay marriage—it would have been ’89 or ’90—they were the first European country to allow gay persons to get married. Me and the main singer of the Sugar Cubes, we sent out a press release to the press saying that we had gotten married in Denmark and had gone on our honeymoon in Sweden, and the press believed it. Every single newspaper. It was on the front page of Liberation in France.
BÓ: The book I’m writing now is about this character’s father, who is approaching 70 and his friend—a film director and a playwright, but they’ve never had the opportunity to make a film or have a play staged. But all of a sudden they got the opportunity, because an old friend of theirs, who’s a pharmacist, gives them money to start making a picture. So it’s about that, and it’s about other things. At the same time, one of these characters, his father dies and he lives in Hull, it’s an old fishing port in England, and they had to go to Hull to collect his inheritance. As usual in my books, it’s two stories that come together somehow.
If I would have to explain what these books are about, I would say it’s about how to write, how to write a fiction. Because what interests me most in writing fiction is the view, how you see the world, from what point of view. And so, this story I’m writing now is told by a female character, who knows these characters. She’s not really a part of the story, but she’s somehow connected to it. She both knows everything about these characters and she knows nothing. It’s the first time I’ve used a female protagonist.
One of these days I’ll be able to a) sleep in and b) write some posts . . . Right now I’m in Minnesota for tomorrow’s Twin Cities Book Festival.
Bragi Olafsson will be speaking with Bill Holm tomorrow at 11:30am, and for a complete list of readings and events, click here.
The list of exhibitors is pretty extensive as well.
For anyone in the area, the festival is taking place at the Minneapolis Community and Technical College. Directions are available here.
Once again, Rochester’s local morning news proved to be one of the most unique TV programs in American history, following a visit by a Croatian literary writer with a visit by an Iceland literary writer. (Has there ever been a case when a general news show interviewed two international authors over a two-week span?)
Bragi was great on here, as he was last night in Buffalo. Tonight’s event—here at the University of Rochester at 6 pm—will include a conversation between Bragi and translator/author Lytton Smith. Should be very entertaining and interesting. And we will post the video from this in the near future.
This week is probably going to be another slow one for Three Percent, but for good reason. Bragi Olafsson is in town and we’ve stacked up a number of events and readings, beginning tonight. Here’s his official schedule:
Reading and Discussion on
Monday, October 6th, 8pm
Karpeles Manuscript Library
220 North St.
Reading the World Conversation Series
with Bragi and Lytton Smith
Tuesday, October 7th, 6pm
Rush Rhees Library
University of Rochester
(Tuesday morning we’ll also be on WHAM 13 again, which we’ll post as soon as possible. I’m convinced that this is the only TV in America that has had literary authors from Croatia and Iceland on their morning program in one month.)
Bragi Olafsson and Dubravka Ugresic
Wednesday, October 8th, 7pm
52 Prince St.
New York, NY
Idlewild Lunchtime Series: Bragi Olafsson
Thursday, October 9th, 12:30 PM
12 W 19th St. (near 5th Ave.)
New York, NY
Bragi Olafsson in conversation with Mark Binelli
Thursday, October 9th, 7 pm
536 West 112th St.
New York, NY
Bragi Olafsson and Bill Holm
Saturday, October 11th
Twin Cities Book Festival
Minneapolis Community & Technical College
Reading and Discussion with Bragi
Tuesday, October 14th, 7:30 pm
Elliot Bay Book Co.
101 South Main St.
This month there are two Open Letter books available through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program: The Pets by Bragi Olafsson and The Taker and Other Stories by Rubem Fonseca. So any and all LibraryThing users should request a copy.
We conducted this interview a few months ago, but thought we’d run it in its entirety today, since his book is now available and will be shipping to bookstores in the very near future.
Bragi Ólafsson was born in Reykjavik, and may be most well known for playing bass in The Sugarcubes, Björk’s first band. After recording three albums and touring the world, he quit making music and turned to writing. He is the author of several books of poetry and short stories, and four novels, including Time Off, which was nominated for the Icelandic Literature Prize in 1999 (as was The Pets), and Party Games, for which Bragi received the DV Cultural Prize in 2004. His most recent novel— The Ambassador (which Open Letter will publish in late 2009)—was a finalist for the 2008 Nordic Literature Prize and received the Icelandic Bookseller’s Award as best novel of the year.
The Pets is now available in Janice Balfour’s translation (978-1-934824-01-6; $14.95) will be the first book of his to appear in English.
Bragi was kind enough to answer some questions about his work and life over e-mail.
Open Letter: As a writer, you started out writing poetry and have even done some playwriting. How did that transition—from poet to playwright to novelist—take place? Have you continued writing poetry, or have you shifted your focus exclusively to the novel?
Bragi Ólafsson: My first literary idols were poets, so it seemed obvious to write poetry. I wrote my first texts when I was 13 or 14 years old. These poets I read were mostly Icelandic, and through them and their translations of European and American poets I came into contact with “foreign” literature, and started appreciating a lot of modernist prose and playwriting. The writer who has probably influenced me the most, and served as the biggest encouragement, is Harold Pinter. But as I knew that I would never be able to write plays as good as his, I decided to concentrate on poetry, and eventually prose. However I’ve written some radio plays for the State Radio, and one play for the City Theater. And now I’ve been commissioned to write a play for the National Theater. After I published my first novel I’ve gradually stopped writing poetry; somehow I have become intimidated by its form. I think I have realized that the novel is the form that suits me the best.
OL: You translate as well, right? How did that come about?
BO: I have translated some poems and Paul Auster’s City of Glass. The reason why I translated Auster’s book is that my publisher asked me to do it. I don’t consider myself as a translator. But I have great respect for Paul Auster, he has written some excellent books, and edited a very good anthology of Twentieth Century French Poetry. A person who likes Max Jacob doesn’t have to worry about anything.
OL: Turning to _The Pets_—one of the most striking things about the book is the fact that for most of the novel, the main character, and main narrator, Emil is trapped under his bed. Was this a restriction you set out for yourself at the beginning of the novel, or did it occur naturally during the writing process?
BO: After an English friend of mine told me of a rather unfortunate incident he had with a guinea-pig, cement and a water-hose, I wanted to write a story about a person who is assigned to take care of a few pet animals. I had some difficulty in finding the correct form and tone for the story, but one day when I was sitting in my living room, looking at the open window with a steaming hot coffee in front of me, I started to imagine some unwanted person coming through the window and me hiding under the bed, and all of a sudden that very idea and the story about the pets came together. Thus the method of telling the story existed from the start. But that the main character is trapped under his bed is not really a restriction, on the contrary it’s very helpful for the imagination of the person writing the story. In fact I would like to write more novels from that point of view, I feel comfortable under a bed, it’s probably something from childhood.
OL: A series of “the view from under the bed” books would be fantastic. . . . Personally, as the book went along, I got more and more anxious about how Emil was going to get out and how the situation would be resolved. (Being an ex-smoker, the few references to how long it had been since his last cigarette gave me vicarious nic fits.) I guess that’s what I would see as the main constraint—how is this going to end? And without giving much away, I have to admit that I was pleased and shocked by how the story was resolved. When did you know how the novel would end the way that it does?
BO: I’ve had lots of comments on how the novel ends. While many readers find it very frustrating, even feel betrayed, other readers think it is the proper ending to a story like this. One reader came up to me and told me that the ending of The Pets was the second best ending he had read in a book. I was of course very flattered to hear that, especially because this reader seemed like a “normal” person, not a literature student. And when I asked him what was the best ending he had read, the answer was: For Whom the Bell Tolls! It made my day.
I had not decided how The Pets was going to end when I started the book, and I think that decision came rather late in the writing process. I had tried two or three different endings but always felt I was betraying myself and the story by not letting it end the way it does. I think it’s a good thing when an ending of a book gives the reader the permission to decide for himself what has really been going on in the story and what will happen after he has read the last page.
But talking about strange or disturbing endings; there’s a book called The Golden Egg by a Dutch writer, Tim Krabbé. It was made into a very good film called Spoorloos, by a Dutch film director, and the ending of that film is probably one of the most unpleasant, and at the same time one of the most exhilarating, endings in film history. But then the same director remade the film for Hollywood, and what happened? The new film, which was called The Vanishing, got a happy ending, so that American movie-goers wouldn’t be too troubled by what they had seen.
OL: Returning to your earlier response for a second—I really can’t believe the guinea pig story is true! For me, that scene encapsulates what I really like about your book—it’s very funny, and at the same time slightly disturbing. Are there any authors/books that influenced your style and sense of humor?
BO: Yes, the guinea pig story is true. I didn’t see it happen myself but I’ve been in the backyard where it happened!
I try to avoid naming authors which I think have influenced my way of writing – because I don’t really know who have – but I very much like the humor and precision in Gogol, Chekhov and Pinter, and the novels of Evelyn Waugh, Italo Svevo, Thomas Bernhard and Saul Bellow, just to name a few very different authors. And the brilliant humor of Halldor Laxness, and another Icelandic writer, Thorbergur Thordarson, is very important for Icelandic writers and artists. But I’m no less influenced by films. Films like Playtime by Tati, La grande bouffe my Marco Ferreri and Mulholland Drive by David Lynch have some comic moments that I think about almost every day; scenes that are very shallow and profound at the same time. For example the scene in Lynch’s film about the meeting in the boardroom; it’s worth hundreds of books, it’s total genius (if that word means anything).
OL: On top of everything else, you also run the fantastically named publishing company, Bad Taste, in Iceland. Could you tell me a little bit about how it got started and what you publish?
BO: Before my friends and I formed The Sugarcubes we started the company Bad Taste. The Sugarcubes were actually formed in order to finance the publishing company, which it then did for five or six years. Bad Taste has been the leading independent record company in Iceland for 20 years, although we have never made any money out of it, only lost a lot of it. (Two years ago The Sugarcubes reformed for just one night to save Bad Taste from bankruptcy. And we succeeded.) We not only publish popular music but also modern Icelandic music and jazz, and historical recordings. Then we publish some books as well. My first book of poetry was published by Bad Taste in 1986, and two years ago I started a series of little books, called The Bad Taste Booklets, containing poetry, both translated and original, and prose.
OL: When I visited Icelandic publishers, I was fascinated by the idea that most of the works of fiction published in Iceland all come out during the same month—something that would never happen in America. What kind of challenges/opportunities does this pose for a publisher?
BO: Some traditions are good, but this old tradition of only publishing books in October and November is not one of them. The Icelandic reading public sees literature as Christmas presents, and if your book doesn’t catch any attention as such, it won’t sell any copies. Because of this the publishers behave like total barbarians in the five or six weeks before Christmas, they advertise like madmen on television and in the papers, and the books are mainly sold in the supermarkets. It’s not a very civilized situation. And the obligation on writers, to finish their books in time for the so-called Book Flood, is not good for literature’s sakes, obviously it sometimes results in half-finished books. And a writer that publishes a half-finished book is stuck with it for the rest of his (half-finished) life. And it’s a problem not only facing the writers but also the critics, as they have to read and review dozens of books in the space of some five or six weeks. I may not sound too happy about this – and I am not – but still, this hysterical book-craze in November and December is of course a lot of fun too, especially when you don’t have a book out yourself and can watch the other writers suffering.
OL: Are you working on a new book?
BO: Yes, I’m working on a novel which is related to my last novel, The Ambassador. This one has the working title The Screenplay, and tells the story of two men in their late sixties (a film director, educated in Czechoslovakia, who has never made a film after he finished his studies, and a playwright and a translator who has never actually had a play produced) who suddenly, with the help of an old acquaintance, a rich pharmacist, get the opportunity to write and produce a film of their own. But at the start of the novel one of the two guys, who’s called Örn Featherby, gets the news that his recently dead English father, who lived in Hull and whom he hadn’t had contact with in thirty years, has left him in his will a great collection of shoes, almost two hundred pairs that should fit his son. Örn decides to collect his inheritance, but because he has a bad fear of flying he has to travel by sea, and he and his friend, whose name is Jón Magnússon, go on a trawler to Hull, with the intention of using the time on board to work on their screenplay. The story is told by Jón Magnússon’s ex sister-in-law, who is also indirectly a character in the novel, so we follow the adventures of Jón and Örn Featherby through the eyes of a woman.
(Does this make sense? The novel itself probably doesn’t make any sense at all, but the description of it should . . .)
Selected Works by Bragi Ólafsson
Hvildardagar (Days Off, a novel), publ. Bjartur 1999
Gaeludyrin (The Pets, a novel), publ. Bjartur 2001 (in English, Danish, German and Spanish translation)
Samkvaemisleikir (Party Games, a novel), publ. Bjartur 2004
Sendiherrann (The Ambassador, a novel), publ. Mal og Menning 2006
Dragsugur (Draught), publ. Bad Taste Ltd 1986
Fjorar Linur og Titill (Four lines and a title), publ. Bad Taste Ltd 2006
Groid Hverfi (A Solid Neighbourhood), a radio play broadcasted by the State Radio in May 2003 (in English translation).
Belgiska Kongo (Belgian Congo), a stage play which has been performed at The Municipal Theatre in Reykjavík since May 2004.
Interview copyrighted © Open Letter, 2008
This morning, the second Open Letter book arrived — The Pets by Bragi Olafsson.
Just last week, Kirkus reviewed this, giving it the most positive review I’ve read in quite some time:
Icelandic novelist Ólafsson’s English-language debut is part Beckettian or even Kafkaesque black comedy, part existentialist novel in the Paul Auster mode, and part locked-room mystery in which the murderee is alive and well and hiding in the bedroom. [. . .] Dark, strange, elusive, compelling and oddly charming.
To celebrate this release, through the end of the month, you can purchase a copy through the Open Letter website for $10.50 (which seems absurdly cheap for a hardcover). Of course, you can always buy a subscription and get 6 books for $65 or 12 titles for $120.
Bragi’s reading tour kicks off of October 6 with an event in Buffalo, then on the 7th he’ll have a reading and conversation with Lytton Smith here at the University of Roichester. On October 8th at 7:00pm, he’ll be at McNally Jackson in New York with Dubravka Ugresic, and on Thursday the 9th he’ll do a lunchtime event at Idlewild Books in NY, followed by an evening event at Book Culture (formerly Labyrinth) along with Mark Binelli.
Then, on Saturday, October 11th, he’ll be participating in the Twin Cities Book Festival, before flying off to Seattle for a reading at Elliot Bay Book Company.
I’ll post a more detailed schedule in a couple weeks, and of course, we’ll post any and all recordings of these events.
Yesterday, over at Booksquare there was an interesting post on “Why Publishers Should Blog,” that generated a bit of discussion:
Just as authors need to better market themselves and their books, so do publishers. While the audience for a publisher website is diverse — authors, booksellers, journalists, agents, readers, and more — talking about books on your website the same way you talk about books in your catalog simply isn’t cutting it. In printed material, you have various constraints. On the web, you have the ability to do something special: tell the world what excites you, the publisher, about a particular book.
Kassia then went on to point out some glaring faults of commercial publisher websites—which really is a fish, gun, smoking barrel situation. But she’s got a point. Publishers are light years behind in terms of web promotion, although indie presses, like Soft Skull, like McSweeneys, are much more personality driven, and it shows in the legion of fans who read and talk about their publications.
So, anyway, since we have this blog (which I hope gives readers some sense of the Open Letter “personality” so to speak, although our mission for this site goes well beyond promoting Open Letter books), I’d like to tell everyone about how excited I was to see Bragi Olafsson’s The Pets included in Josh Glenn’s Summer Reading List at the Boston Globe’s Braniac blog:
Open Letter, which, as I’ve mentioned, is a new literary imprint (housed at the University of Rochester) dedicated to publishing translations, is bringing out a 2001 novel of “cowardice, comeuppance, and assumed identity” by the former bassist for The Sugarcubes (Björk’s band). Ólafsson’s most recent novel, The Ambassadors, received rhe Icelandic Bookseller’s Award as best novel of the year, so he’s no flash in the pan. In fact, although the prose looks breezy and fun, he’s something of an Oulipian: For most of the novel, Emil — the protagonist — is trapped under his own bed.
(As a sidenote, I’m a big Josh Glenn fan—especially of his Generational Theory, which has lead to many a heated discussion at my house.)
This is a fantastic book, and as the first work of fiction we’re publishing, it’s a great representation of the type of books we’re into—fun, enjoyable, innovative in ideas and style . . . This even comes through in his interview:
After an English friend of mine told me of a rather unfortunate incident he had with a guinea-pig, cement and a water-hose, I wanted to write a story about a person who is assigned to take care of a few pet animals.
And I’m really pleased that Bragi will be touring the U.S. this October, appearing at Book Culture with Mark Binelli and at McNally Robinson with Dubravka Ugresic. (More on both of these events in the near future.)
I wish that I could give away copies of this book to everyone I know—and I wish we were publishing it now, since it would make a great beach book. (Though to be honest, I never go to the beach, and I’m not entirely sure what this “beach book” category is. But to me, reading an Icelandic book in the summer heat is deliciously ironic.)
Some of you may be aware of our other website—the official Open Letter books site. In addition to information about our titles, there’s also a page with OL merchandise, and more relevant to this post, a way to subscribe to our books. For $65 you can get the first six titles; for $120 you can get the first twelve, with a title arriving each month. With the majority of the titles being published in paper-over-board format, this is a really good deal . . . Although we have yet to advertise this, a number of people have already signed up, which makes me think that this type of subscription service is something people will be interested in . . .
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