This one is a bitter pill to swallow . . . Way back in July of 2010, I wrote a post about “The Next German Book I Want to See Translated” featuring this video:
Well, two-plus years later, on my birthday, Open Letter brought out Benjamin Stein’s The Canvas, a unique, very readable book about three main characters: two who are present in the book and have a showdown at the middle, and a third, who is mostly off-screen, but whose maybe-falsified memoir about the Holocaust sets this conflict in motion.
One of the interesting things about Stein that I learned during his extensive U.S. reading tour—which was insanely successful, and demonstrated just how much this book connected with readers—was that he appeared at a reading, and knows personally, Binjamin Wilkomirski, the author of the fake Holocaust memoir, Fragments, which inspired this novel.
At each of his events, Benjamin would talk about how he wrote this as a way to deal with the idea of Wilkomirski, who created a fake identity for himself—the man’s not even Jewish—and came to completely incorporate this into his worldview and consciousness. It is an intriguing set-up for anyone interested in psychology or the power of fiction, and one that’s explored marvelously (in my opinion) in The Canvas.
But alas. No Best Translated Book Award for Benjamin and Brian.
You should still buy the book though. It’s damn amazing, and captivating from cover to cover.
The Canvas is loosely based on the account of Binjamin Wilkomirski, author of Fragments (1995), a tremendously popular Holocaust memoir; like Minksy’s story it was proven to be a fabrication. But when I say loosely based, I mean loosely: Wilkomirski and Minsky are more like ghosts at the center of this book. There is plenty of plot, to be sure — murder, intrigue, interrogation rooms, the inevitable double-cross, and exotic locales — and the pages turn like in a supermarket thriller (or at least one daring enough to substantively tackle the inexhaustible questions of God, death, and memory). The book is ambitious in scope: it is about religious orthodoxy and the transgressive power of literature; it’s also about collective guilt and national identity. Yet The Canvas is so particular in its details that it comes with a glossary appropriately placed in the middle of the novel.
Most disturbing of all, in a novel ultimately about the mutability of memory, are lines like this one from Wechsler: “Someone who stole other people’s identities wouldn’t stop short of murder.” Is this true? And if so, what does it say about Minsky or Wilkomirski? Are they killers at heart? And what of Zichroni, who steals the memory of his patients by touch alone? And what of Wechsler, the man who steals Minsky’s “memories?” Or Wechsler, who confesses: “I am what I remember. I don’t have anything else.”
A fabrication of character and memory, The Canvas is both a great novel and a genuine Holocaust testimony, in that it bares witness to the lasting power of trauma and how it shapes the strange and subjective mystery of human experience. It is an upsetting book, unabashedly philosophical, refusing closure, and challenging the very notion of truth by reminding us how much depends on perspective. It also happens to be playful, suspenseful, and one hell of a page-turner. I could not put it down. Both times.
Additionally, Scott had the chance to interview translator Brian Zumhagen and talk about some of the translation issues in doing this book:
In the case of an idiom like that, I’m sure you’re worried about losing meaning with an English version.
Any translator, or anyone who reads translation knows there will always be a loss. And there are certain things you can’t do it at all. You can use a new idiom and hope it’s not too bound up with your own particular moment in time. There are those cases when you know the translator was trying to be a little too hip. That’s really painful. There’s one expression where Wechsler is talking about going to Spain and he takes a bunch of unsolicited manuscripts with him in a suitcase, and he throws it out. And the expression is der Koffer mußte dran glauben, or “the suitcase had to believe in it.” What the hell does that mean? It actually means the suitcase had to go, that it had to die. It’s a euphemism that sounds like the suitcase is getting its last rights. I wound up choosing the suitcase had to “bite the dust” because it has a similar meaning and has a similar gangsterish feel. I guess that’s the one point where twenty years from now it may seem a little cheesy, I hope not.
But in the book it also has the feel of an antiquated expression still in use.
Yes, and it’s that way in German as well. That kind of thing was fun. I don’t think anything in the book required too great a sacrifice. Which is why Benjamin’s so happy with it. And most of the things that were really challenging linguistically were interesting to do. And most of them came up in chapter two. The biggest problem: Whechsler quotes a German translation of a Polish poem, and in that translation is a play on words that only exists only in the German, and it becomes central to his own explanation of life in East Germany. “They live in the basements of huge tenement houses, and only the shop-sign WRINGER HERE betrays their presence” — In the German, mangel means “shortage,” as in the food shortage sense, but it also means “wringer,” as in pressing rollers used for pressing water our of clothes. I could have used the British term, “mangle,” which means the same thing, but then I’d be going with UK usage when the rest of the book is American usage. And then I found that “Wringer” is in the English translation by Czeslaw Milosz. And you don’t argue with Milosz. The problem then is than that I had to invent a new sentence, reveal the proscenium arch a little bit, and explain to the reader that in German the word for “wringer” is the same for “shortage.” This is the last thing you want to do. [. . .]
How did Stein respond to it? I’m guessing he appreciated how faithful you were.
He was fine with it because it retained the meaning. I had to make a radical move but it worked out well. In that same chapter there was a more fun radical move, in which I had to quote Tina Turner. And in a way that does not appear in the original.
This one I remember!
There’s a section when Wechsler’s wife is cataloging all of her book purchases, and Wechsler comments on the stories the inscriptions in her books tell. In one used book that she found at a flea market, there’s a loving dedication between two women, and he wonders what may have happened? Did somebody die? Did the relationship end? Wechsler’s wife, in the original, says, “Someone has sold their heart out for cheap.” This is the expression. And immediately I thought of Tina Turner’s “what’s love but a secondhand emotion,” because the German here, vertrödeln, contains the word for junk like you’d find at a flea market. So what Wechsler’s wife is literally saying is, someone has second-handed her heart. The closest thing in English would be “someone has trifled her heart away,” but nobody talks like that, and it doesn’t sound antiquated in the German. It’s too lofty. Nobody in the novel is saying anything like “forsooth methinks someone hath trifled away her heart.” I really hated the way it sounded. So finally I asked to Benjamin if he thought Wechsler’s wife would quote Tina Turner. I’m not sure he completely grasped what I was asking at that moment. So I went with: “I guess sometimes love really is a second-hand emotion.” Not a literal translation but it got to the heart of what she was saying. And he thought it was perfect.
Definitely worth checking out, as is Full Stop in general. It’s an excellent, excellent site.
For those of you unable to make any of the upcoming Benjamin Stein & Brian Zumhagen events (they’re in NY at the Deutsches Haus tomorrow night at 6:30, then at Columbia University Bookstore on Thursday at 6pm, and at 57th Street Bookstore in Chicago on Sunday, October 28th at 3pm), you can listen to them talk about the book on this Table podcast.
In the mid-1990s, East German novelist Benjamin Stein crossed paths with then-celebrated Holocaust memoirist Binjamin Wilkomirski at a literary conference, in a pleasant enough encounter. Soon after, Wilkomirski was exposed as a fraud who had invented his identity as a child Holocaust survivor; in fact he was Christian, born and raised in Switzerland.
In The Canvas, a novel just translated from German into English, Stein takes that encounter and builds from it a riveting story, told in two parts, about two fictional men who become intimately involved in the rapid rise and subsequent fall of a Wilkomirski-like character named Minsky. One protagonist is Amnon Zichroni, who is sent away from his ultra Orthodox Jerusalem community after he’s discovered reading secular literature. Zichroni remains religious but also pursues training as a psychotherapist and later aids Minsky in delving into his traumatic past. The other protagonist is Jan Wechsler, the writer who exposes Minsky only, it seems, to then flee from his own past in a similar fashion. These two stories meet, literally (and dramatically), at the center of the book—you can begin either with Zichroni’s life or with Weschler’s and must turn the book over to get from one to the other.
Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry speaks with Benjamin Stein about this unusual novel and about the ruptures in his own past, first when as a teen he decided to become a practicing Jew (having been raised in a nonreligious, staunchly Communist family) and later with the fall of the Berlin wall. We also hear from the book’s translator, Brian Zumhagen, whose voice and name may be familiar to New York City listeners from his day job as a news anchor at WNYC.
So, yesterday was the official release date for Benjamin Stein’s The Canvas, one of the most curiously designed Open Letter books to date. With two openings, and myriad ways to read it, you can read a totally different Canvas at the same time as your friend:
The novel consists of two narratives: Amnon Zichroni’s depiction of growing up in an orthodox Jewish family, and his eventual realization of his “gift” to see people’s memories; and, Jan Wechsler’s quest to recover his missing memories after receiving a mysterious briefcase with information about his past. These two stories play off each other in subtle ways, and it’s not until the very end of the book (or middle, if you prefer) that you find out how the two character intersect . . .
To celebrate this (and my birthday, which is why we always publish a book on September 26th), we’re offering The Canvas for free to all new Open Letter subscribers. If you’ve been thinking about signing up—and who hasn’t? what could be better than receiving an excellent work in translation every month—this is the time. You’ll get 6 books for $60 or 11 for $100, which is just an insanely good bargain.
So since up for the savings, and stay for the literature.
Or just sign up as a birthday present to me. Please?
Great news for Open Letter! The Daily Beast just posted a selection of five “Hot Reads” for September: The Spark of Life by Frances Ashcroft (Norton), We Have the War Upon Us by William J. Cooper (Knopf), Sutton: A Novel by J.R. Moehringer (Hyperion), Ike’s Bluff by Evan Thomas (Little, Brown), and The Canvas by Benjamin Stein (Open Letter).
Yay for us! And for Benjamin and translator Brian Zumhagen!
Before getting into the piece itself, I just want to say that we’re planning an October reading tour for Benjamin, and he’ll be in New York, Chicago, Buffalo, and Rochester between 10/15 and 10/30. All the details will go up later this week.
Also, if you’re a subscriber your copy of The Canvas is going out tomorrow. When you read the next post, you’ll understand the unfortunate delay in this. And if you’re not a subscriber, SIGN UP NOW and I’ll give you this book for free, in addition to your 5-book or 10-book subscription. (You’ll also be able to sleep better at night knowing that you helped out an ambitious, kind-hearted nonprofit press that’s over-loaded with activities and trying its best to spread the love of international literature.)
Here’s the write-up on The Canvas by The Daily Beast:
It’s rare that a book with an obvious gimmick isn’t, on some level, attempting to compensate for a deficiency that would glare more brightly under standard presentation, but luckily for Benjamin Stein, his new novel is far less experimental than it first appears. The book has two front covers, so that the reader can begin from either starting point and work his way toward the middle, each direction telling the story from the point of view of a different protagonist, First, Amnon Zirchroni, is a psychoanalyst in Zurich. The other, Jan Wechsler, is a publisher in Munich. For both men, their Judaism figures large in their lives, and in fact at the physical middle of the novel features a glossary of Yiddish terms that pervade the book. As the two stories close in on each other, a mystery develops around a potentially fabricated Holocaust memoir that echoes the real-life case of Binjamin Wilkomirski’s book Fragments, published in 1995. Although the bifurcated format is interesting for a minute or two, the best way to approach this book is to read alternating chapters of each character; in other words, like a standard narrative. And, really, there is no need for the distraction: this is a heady, distinctly German book with philosophical inquires on memory, identity, and language itself, and the complex plot should have had the confidence to stand on its own.
This is a great description of the book, and makes me want to reread it immediately. Also, I would recommend reading alternating chapters rather than one narrative than the next, but really, the choice is yours.
Personally though, I don’t think this is as much of a gimmick, as The Daily Beast writer claims it is. Let me explain.
The point of the two-sided, no-front-or-back set up is so that neither narrative—Amnon Zichroni’s nor Jan Wechsler’s—receives an preferential treatment. The core concept of this book is about the faultiness of memory, the malleability of reality, and the process by which we come to believe (or not believe) in something. The way you read this book will alter what you come to think about the main characters—in particular, Minksy, the Wilkomirskyi-esque character.
One idea that I had (thanks to former intern/U of R student Acacia O’Connor) to promote The Canvas was to send manuscript versions of it around to various readers organized in a variety of ways: with Zichroni’s complete narrative followed by Wechsler’s, vice versa, or with alternating chapters beginning with Zichroni, and vice versa. There are multitude ways you could read this book, but just those four would result in varied responses from readers, which is something I find really interesting. And which is why the book is printed like this. It’s not to be gimmicky, but to underscore the fact that neither of these narratives is more privileged than the other. (Which is one reason why this isn’t an ebook—you’d have to list one part before the other, or do something that wouldn’t be completely neutral.)
Anyway, thanks to The Daily Beast for kicking off the mass attention this book is certain to generate. And I’m sure you’ll be hearing more about this book over the next couple months.
Earlier this month I posted about World in Translation Month, and asked everyone to buy one Open Letter book to a) celebrate this special month and b) save our fiscal year (which is Quite Bad).
I want to take a minute to thank all of you who have helped out by buying a book directly from us (a lot of you did!), or from your local bookstore, Amazon, B&N, wherever. If you haven’t participated yet, there’s still fifteen days left to get in on the World in Translation Month fun . . .
(What’s really interesting to me is how many people have contacted me this month about doing interviews/special things to promote World in Translation Month. There’s a HUGE thing coming out next week that I can’t tell you about [yet], but which will likely impress a lot of you. And will likely involve one of my favorite translators ever. . . . I believe this is what is called a “tease.”)
Anyway, if you haven’t purchased an Open Letter title this month, I have a special suggestion for you.
Yesterday—literally—finished copies of Benjamin Stein’s The Canvas arrived in the office. If you’ve talked to me in person in the past few months, you’re probably already familiar with this novel (or novels?).
We first featured The Canvas on Three Percent a couple years ago as the Next German Book I Want to See Translated. That post included this BBC video about Benjamin Stein and his formally interesting novel:
Since that time, I’ve been able to read the novel (obviously) and can tell you that this novel (and Brian Zumhagen’s masterful rendering of it in English) is absolutely amazing. Beyond the fun formal aspect—in which you can start from either side (there is no “back cover”) and flip back-and-forth whenever you want—this pair of narratives is incredibly easy to get sucked into, and is extremely rewarding.
On one side, you get Amnon Zichroni’s story about growing up in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Israel before going to live with his uncle in Switzerland, then eventually coming to the States and learning psychiatric so that he can put his “gift” of being able to see people’s memories to good use.
Other side: Jan Wechsler receives a mysterious suitcase. When he finally opens it, he finds a bunch of materials that call into doubt everything Jan knows about his life, from where he was born to what sort of literary works he’s written.
How do these two narratives connect? You’ll have to read the book to find out . . .
And as a special World in Translation Month offer, NOT ONLY will we give you free shipping, but we’ll send this out as soon as you order (the official pub date is September 26th). You’ll have this book before everyone else, and this fall you can play the “oh, I read The Canvas back in May” card on your friends when EVERYONE is talking about this novel.
Order it now by clicking here.
And thanks again for your support of Open Letter. You’re the reason we do all the things we do—podcasts, reading series, books, blog posts, the BTBA, etc.—and you truly do make it worthwhile.
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