9 June 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Throughout his work The Gray Notebook, Josep Pla mentions many different authors, some of whom have inspired him to pick up a pen. One of them is Marcel Proust. Even though Pla normally prefers nonfiction, he lauds the French novelist as “the greatest realist writer of all time.”

Proust resolves the childish oversimplification of the realism of his time by bringing to the foreground, with unique insight and a fabulous means of expression, a reality that is infinitely richer in sensuous and spiritual elements. It is very likely that great writers are significant in that they function as a kind of crossroads – in their ability to overcome contradictions that human petty-mindedness had transformed into rigid structures. I think it is evident that Proust banished from his literary horizons petty, low-ceilinged, reductive realism. On the one hand, he is much more realist than the writers in this vein and, at the same time, succeeds in sublimating reality by getting much closer to its essence, by re-creating it in its essential entirety, in its immense, wondrous complexity.

Pla shows what he has learned from Proust in The Gray Notebook, the first of his works to be translated into English. (Archipelago Books will be releasing another one of his books in the fall.) In fact, The Gray Notebook can be seen as Pla’s version of In Search of Lost Time, although, interestingly enough, Proust had only published two of the seven books at the time Pla had originally written this. Even though Proust’s name has come up a lot lately (thanks to writers like Haruki Murakami and Karl Ove Knausgaard), comparing him with Pla seems appropriate.

Even though Pla initially wrote these journal entries when he was in his early twenties, he returned to them decades later, so, like Proust, he was looking back upon his youth during a time when it had been so far away from him. Pla’s writing also shares some other similarities with Proust, such as his eye for detail, but the Catalan is no imitator: Where Proust favored long, digressive sentences about the French aristocrats that populated his world, Pla offers fragments of the less fortunate town and city folk that surrounded him. Throughout these fragments, Pla’s humor and wit shine, even during the darkest moments.

In fact, Pla started The Gray Notebook during one of those dark moments in time. In 1918, as World War I was ending, a deadly influenza pandemic was spreading throughout the world. (According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one-third of the world’s population was infected, and an estimated 50 million died from this flu.) As a result, the university Pla was attending in Barcelona closed for a time, so he had to return to his parents’ home in Palafrugell along the eastern coast of Spain. Even though he was studying law, Pla wanted to be a writer and, on his twenty-first birthday, he started composing his notebook entries.

After briefly mentioning his ancestors and some of his earliest memories, Pla starts to describe small-town life, which is filled with many colorful characters, including Roldós, the bohemian pianist at the local cinema, and Josep Bofill de Carreres (also known as Gori), the town magistrate. Gori has some pretty interesting opinions about everything, including justice, marriage, and the war. One night, in the café where Pla and his other friends get together, Gori talks about what he believes was the biggest effect of the war. “It introduced short underpants,” he says to Pla. “After centuries of wearing long underparts mankind today can finally breathe.” Gori also criticizes Pla for his love of realism and believes literature should be an escape from reality.

However, as seen in the quote mentioned earlier, the young Pla has plenty to say on that subject, too. Besides Proust, Pla also appreciates Catalan writers such as Josep Carner, who was also known as the “Prince of the Catalan Poets.” “Catalan literature today has a very attractive quality: It is a literature completely devoid of mannerism. Mannerism palls immediately. Its style is so difficult, so hard, so stiff, and so rigidly written and hedged with obstacles, that everybody writes as best he can . . . and make of it what you will!” He also defines realism as the “new rule” in literature because of the passion that inspires it.

Pla demonstrates this passion for realism even during the most humdrum moments. For example, his description of relaxing on a boat near the El Canadell beach is so vivid and realistic that a reader cannot help but be drawn into the scene.

At two o’clock, the toast-colored shadow is a foot wide and the sand the sun has just deserted is still warm. But as it gets later in the afternoon, the shadow spreads and the sand cools. . . . The light is a hazy, effervescent, dazzling white. It melds with the air, white walls, and pinkish sands to create misty vapors that glide, twist, and turn. The pale, bluish void of the sky seems to shimmer with light. The herd of foaming white horses gallops monotonously over the azure of the sea. Everything happens so quickly and spontaneously and in the red-hot frenzy the shade is so cooling that a drowsy stupor spreads through your body releasing and relaxing your entrails.

Not everything about Pla’s life is idyllic, though; this is particularly evident in the second half of the book, which covers most of 1919. By January of that year, Pla was able to return to Barcelona, although he was less than enthusiastic about getting his law degree (and returning to that city, which he describes as being “like one endless cemetery”). In fact, the entries for Barcelona present a sharp contrast to the ones for Palafrugell.

One of the reasons for this contrast is Pla finds himself surrounded by chaos at times. Even though the war is over, a general strike leads to the military occupying the city (Pla ends up doing some part-time service). He also witnesses unruly students wreaking havoc in a mineralogy and botany class. Meanwhile, Pla’s family becomes a source for other worries: His brother catches the still-lingering flu, and his father’s financial situation, which was never great to begin with, worsens.

Furthermore, Pla sometimes isolates himself from others. He calls himself a “chatterbox” but admits that he has “no talent for friendship”; after rudely interrupting a poet who is proposing a festival, he wins “another enemy.” Even when he is around friends, he leaves them to go out for strolls. “It seems I am fated to be a wanderer,” he writes. In fact, walking around Barcelona is something Pla likes to do a lot. At one point, he skips classes for four days so he could take strolls along the Rambla, one of his favorite streets in the city.

Still, Pla doesn’t spend this section of the book dwelling on the negative or living a life of solitude. For instance, Dr. Joaquim Borralleras (or Quim, as Pla calls him) eventually becomes a significant part of his social circle. (This circle also included Eugeni d’Ors and Francesc Pujols, who would both become famous in their own right.) While Quim criticizes Pla’s initial attempts at writing, he ultimately helps Pla fulfil his dream of being a writer by encouraging him to be a journalist. Pla apparently took Quim’s advice very seriously: He worked as a journalist until the 1970s, when he started preparing his complete works. (Incidentally, Quim was also the one who recommended that Pla read Proust.)

Pla’s remark that Proust composed “a reality that is infinitely richer in sensuous and spiritual elements” arguably applies to this work as well. Some readers may initially find it too rich: The multitude of characters, anecdotes, and opinions can seem overwhelming at times. However, Pla’s search through lost time is definitely one worth accompanying him on, especially as he grows as a writer and a man. Peter Bush’s translation is equally appealing, as he brilliantly retains the idiosyncrasies of these characters for English readers. (Having Pla call d’Ors “Frenchified” was a nice touch.) Overall, while Pla originally questioned the value of his notebook within its own pages, the reader who becomes enchanted by it will not only be thankful that it was preserved but will look forward to reading more from him in the near future.

9 June 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Christopher Iacono on The Gray Notebook translated by Peter Bush, and out from New York Review Books.

This is another 600+ page book that screams to be read—Pla’s tome describes life and observations in Barcelona, entries written by his twenty-year-old self in the early 1900s. And while Pla did rework and tweak his notebook over the almost fifty years he held on to it before publishing it, this promises to be a pretty candid view of what life was like in Spain then (including during the Spanish Flu, no less), and with a youthful critique and sense of certain sense of humor. And not to be overly book-reader-cocky about essay-autobiographies, but if NYRB published it, it’s obviously going to be a good read.

So add this one to your summer lists! And now, here’s a part of Chris’s review:

Throughout his work The Gray Notebook, Josep Pla mentions many different authors, some of whom have inspired him to pick up a pen. One of them is Marcel Proust. Even though Pla normally prefers nonfiction, he lauds the French novelist as “the greatest realist writer of all time” . . .

Pla shows what he has learned from Proust in The Gray Notebook, the first of his works to be translated into English. (Archipelago Books will be releasing another one of his books in the fall.) In fact, The Gray Notebook can be seen as Pla’s version of In Search of Lost Time, although, interestingly enough, Proust had only published two of the seven books at the time Pla had originally written this. Even though Proust’s name has come up a lot lately (thanks to writers like Haruki Murakami and Karl Ove Knausgaard), comparing him with Pla seems appropriate.

Even though Pla initially wrote these journal entries when he was in his early twenties, he returned to them decades later, so, like Proust, he was looking back upon his youth during a time when it had been so far away from him. Pla’s writing also shares some other similarities with Proust, such as his eye for detail, but the Catalan is no imitator: Where Proust favored long, digressive sentences about the French aristocrats that populated his world, Pla offers fragments of the less fortunate town and city folk that surrounded him. Throughout these fragments, Pla’s humor and wit shine, even during the darkest moments.

For the review in its entirety, go here.

27 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

It’s not very often that an Open Letter book is turned into a movie (in fact, aside from Duras’s The Sailor from Gibraltar and Ilf & Petrov’s The Golden Calf [which was actually made into three different movies] I don’t think any of our titles have become films), so it’s really exciting to find out about about this version of Quim Monzo’s A Thousand Morons (coming out in fall 2012):

There’s no IMDB listing for this movie, but it was part of the Seattle International Film Festival, which described it as such:

Dropped forks, high rise plunges, overzealous donators, and a fiercely liberated Virgin Mary are just a few of the subjects covered in director Ventura Pons’ masterfully random, occasionally interlocking collection of fifteen vignettes, delivered at a rapid-fire, pin-wheeling pace. Split into three parts and featuring a gaggle of Spanish stars, the film first delivers a variously blistering and tender take on modern foibles and breaches of etiquette, before moving on to a bawdy reexamination of classic myths and parables, all rendered in a delightfully chintzy silent film fashion. The final section, concerning a screenwriter’s exasperated relationship with his headstrong parents, finishes things off in fine form, with one last caustic sting in the tail. Moving with breathtaking assurance, SIFF favorite Pons (Life on the Edge, Forasters, Drifting) quick draws between savage black comedy and unexpected pathos to deliver an exhilarating and dazzlingly modulated ride. Everyone who sees it will have a different favorite part.

I don’t know exactly how this works, but hopefully someone will pick this up and distribute it across the U.S. . . . and maybe even here in Rochester. I’d love to see how Monzo’s wacky stories and viewpoint is converted to the screen.

6 September 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

There’s been a lot of talk about the revival of interest in long-form non-fiction thanks to the Internet and apps and what not. There’s longform.org, givemesomethingtoread.com, and, more to the electronic point, Kindle Singles.

Now, you could argue that this isn’t really a revival, but rather an embracing of a distribution system for journalism more in line with our times than the printing of magazines or newspaper or books on current affairs.

Regardless, in our Age of Apps, it seems like this revived interest could expand to short stories as well. Rather than buying a journal with a ton of short stories (many of which you probably won’t like), or reading the New Yorker, single-story delivery systems are kind of perfect. Witness the astounding success of One Story.

All of this is a long ramble to introducing Storyville, an iEverything app that provides a new story every week from around the world. It’s a very pretty app, and perfect for giving you something new to read on a regular basis that is interesting, enjoyable, and substantial (but not overwhelming).

One self-serving reason I’m mentioning this now is because Merce Rodoreda’s “Guinea Fowls” (available in her Selected Stories) is this week’s featured story.

Translator Martha Tennent provided a very interesting introduction to this story, which you can read here.

As a translator, I search for a concept of style that will help formulate a strategy for rendering the work into English. It is always difficult to translate from Catalan, for we lack in English a sense of the literary and cultural traditions that have produced Catalan literature, something that does not occur, for example, with French. When translating Rodoreda’s last, posthumous novel, Death in Spring—a surrealist novel that depicts a mythical world where ritual violence is part of the village’s daily life—I sought analogies in English that would help the Anglophone reader interpret the text. I found inspiration in Angela Carter’s Gothic tales and in the rich vocabulary and nature images of D.H. Lawrence. I developed a lexicon based on these writers and attempted to insert expressions garnered from these parallel genres in the English literary tradition at strategic points in my translation.

I worked in a similar fashion when translating the collection of short stories by Rodoreda. Her short narratives reflect at times a Virginia Woolf type of stream of consciousness, but more often a dramatic realism, even a laconic minimalism, seen in the styles of Hemingway or Raymond Carver, writers who helped me develop a style for the story “Guinea Fowl,” where the stark realism of a brutal market scene is glimpsed through the eyes of a young boy. The precision of observation and ear for capturing the rhythm of the spoken language that Mercè Rodoreda shows in much of her writing is clearly evident in “Guinea Fowl.”

Click here to download the Storyville app and to read Rodoreda’s awesome story . . . .

(One last digression: It’s amazing that last week Rodoreda’s Death in Spring was on NPR, and this week her story is being featured in Storyville. She was an incredible figure and I’m really glad Open Letter has been able to make her work available to a much wider group of readers. And hopefully this sort of “Rodoreda rediscovery” will go on for years and years and years.)

7 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Back when I was at Dalkey, we published a fantastic short story collection entitled Bad News of the Heart by Douglas Glover. The stories in there are touching, very funny, and incredibly well-crafted. Douglas went on to “win the Governor General’s Award“http://www.canadacouncil.ca/prizes/ggla/kf127248822388593750.htm for his novel Elle, and although we didn’t publish that novel, Dalkey did do his book on the Quixote, The Enamoured Knight. Douglas was great to work with, and you should definitely read his books.

We’ve been in touch off and on over the years, most recently concerning his new project, Numero Cinq, which started as “a reading, discussion and resource site for a small group of Douglas Glover‘s friends and Vermont College of Fine Arts writing students” and has grown into something much bigger.

Here’s a bit on the origin of the name:

The name for the blog comes from DG’s short story “The Obituary Writer” in which story the hero, based loosely on the author as a young newspaperman, harasses a distraught neighbour who lives in the apartment across the hall by making loud noises in the night and pretending to be a member of a sinister terrorist group called Numéro Cinq.

Nice.

Anyway, the site is definitely worth checking out. Recent posts include pieces on Rat Death and Dickens, and on The Poet as Translator.

In addition to all that, recently Douglas ran “Gregor,” a short story by Quim Monzo appearing in the forthcoming Guadalajara. Also one of my favorites in the book. You can read the whole thing here, but here’s the opening:

When the beetle emerged from his larval state one morning, he found he had been transformed into a fat boy. He was lying on his back, which was surprisingly soft and vulnerable, and if he raised his head slightly, he could see his pale, swollen belly. His extremities had been drastically reduced in number, and the few he could feel (he counted four eventually) were painfully tender and fleshy and so thick and heavy he couldn’t possibly move them around.

What had happened? The room seemed really tiny and the smell much less mildewy than before. There were hooks on the wall to hang a broom and mop on. In one corner, two buckets. Along another wall, a shelf with sacks, boxes, pots, a vacuum cleaner, and, propped against that, the ironing board. How small all those things seemed now—he’d hardly been able to take them in at a glance before. He moved his head. He tried twisting to the right, but his gigantic body weighed too much and he couldn’t. He tried a second time, and a third. In the end he was so exhausted that he was forced to rest.

He opened his eyes again in dismay. What about his family? He twisted his head to the left and saw them, an unimaginable distance away, motionless, observing him, in horror and in fear. He was sorry they felt frightened: if at all possible, he would have apologized for the distress he was causing. Every fresh attempt he made to budge and move towards them was more grotesque. He found it particularly difficult to drag himself along on his back.

12 January 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Not only did I survive the MLA, but I was also able to make it all the way back to Rochester without delay. (Couple U of R professors who were scheduled to go through Atlanta, and ended up stranded in L.A. for a few extra days. Hopefully they beat this latest chapter in Snowpocalypse 2011.)

Anyway, MLA was a pretty interesting experience. This was the first time Open Letter has displayed at MLA (or any conference for that matter), and the one thing I noticed was that women tended to avoid our booth like the plague. We shared the booth with Counterpath (awesome), and it must’ve been our discussions about football (Seattle?), or something. Regardless, it was an interesting show, and hopefully we’ll be back next year with a larger reception and even more books. (FYI: Next year’s MLA Presidential Theme is “Language, Literature, Learning.” Which seems, at first glance, to a quasi-outsider, to be, well, obvious, but there you are.)

In addition to all the presentations, panels, cocktail receptions, and job interviews, the MLA also includes a number of book awards, including the Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for a Translation of a Literary Work, which is awarded each even-numbered year. (I know, but it’s for the works from 2010, and since the MLA used to take place between Christmas and New Year’s Day, this made a bit more sense.)

This year’s award went to Breon Mitchell for his retranslation of Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum. Here’s what the selection committee had to say:

On virtually every page of Breon Mitchell’s new translation of The Tin Drum, the reader finds brilliant solutions to vexing problems. This meticulous work, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the original publication of Günter Grass’s classic novel, accomplishes precisely what one hopes for in a retranslation: it brings us closer to both source and target languages. Mitchell makes us aware that even good work, such as Ralph Manheim’s respected earlier translation, bears improvement, as great consistency, coherence, and tempo are achieved throughout the entire volume in rendering its obsessive drumming theme. The translator’s afterword, where Mitchell explains carefully and concisely all the “tools of the trade” available to twenty-first-century translators, performs an enormous contribution to the field by lifting the curtain on the translator’s craft and making clear to readers the huge challenges at hand.

Congrats, Breon! I’ve heard him speak about this translation a couple of time (most recently at the Wolff Symposium, which include this fascinating panel about his career in translation and work on The Tin Drum.)

It’s also worth nothing that honorable mention went to Lawrence Venuti for his translation of Edward Hopper by Ernest Farrés. Again, the committee:

Lawrence Venuti, one of our foremost translation theorists, has applied his principles of pragmatic and ethical translation to the contemporary Catalan poetry of Edward Hopper with superb results. Venuti’s translation of Ernest Farrés’s volume, written in a source language whose literature is little known in the English-speaking world, constitutes a beautiful triangulation of cultures and media. We read with fascination as the North American translator captures the Catalan poet’s meditations on the works of an iconic, popular North American painter. Venuti has not only accurately followed Farrés’s shifting styles through the progression of poems but also sought out some of Hopper’s own idiosyncratic vocabulary through excavation of the painter’s correspondence and diaries. This brilliant choice on Venuti’s part, explained in the volume’s introduction and demonstrated in the endnotes, results in an original translation strategy that redefines traditional fidelity to the source text.

Congrats, Larry! Ironically, at the last MLA, Erica Mena and I interviewed Venuti about his translation of Edward Hopper for what became the very first Reading the World Podcast. Venuti is always interesting, and he’s totally on in this podcast—definitely worth listening to.

28 June 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

As some people have noticed, our new Winter 2010 catalog is now available and listed on the Open Letter website..

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.

9 April 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Following up on this post, here’s the excerpt from Quim Monzo’s Gasoline that’s going to be read at the April 26th “Celebration of Open Letter” event.

In terms of set-up: Heribert is supposed to be preparing for a massive two-gallery show of new work. Instead, he couldn’t care less about painting. Or his mistress. Or even what’s going on with his wife . . .

He lines up all the blank canvases he has in the studio and examines them. What if he showed just that: white canvases, without the slightest trace of a human hand? It’s been done. Minimalism. And anyway, if he signs them he will have placed a few strokes of his own. He could not sign them. Someone must have done that, too. Is there anything original left to do? Even halfheartedly filling up all the walls of an exhibition isn’t new. Do you really have to do something new? Why? What is more important, to be honest or to be original? Out of honesty, people often refused to be original. And out of honesty people often fall silent rather than open their mouths only to hear their own voices. Will he be able to tell when he opens his mouth and nothing interesting comes out?

Helena’s voice floats up to him:

“I’m leaving. See you later.”

It seems to him that, in the past, she would always tell him where she was going when she left, to the gallery or to do this or that, or to see this or that person. Or maybe she had never done anything of the sort, and now he just imagined she had. He hears the front door close. He puts on his jacket, and as he goes down the stairs he tries to calculate how many times he’s done that this year. On the table next to the door there are two brochures: one from Chevrolet and another from Ford.

This time he has no trouble spotting her. She’s standing in front of the windows of a shoe store. Heribert hangs back by a telephone booth and watches her out of the corner of his eye. There’s a drunk hanging onto a mailbox, and a girl (dressed like an old-fashioned secretary) is trying to mail a big stack of letters (and looking afraid that the drunk may attack her). The phone in the phone booth rings. Heribert looks at Helena, who’s still looking at shoes, but has gone on to another window. He’s afraid the constant ringing of the phone no one is answering will make her turn around. He goes into the booth, picks up the receiver, and says hello. On the other end, he doesn’t hear a thing: no breathing, no click to indicate the call has been cut off. The line was totally dead. He hangs up and turns around. Helena is walking down the street. “All this,” he thinks, “just to see her go shopping or to the gallery . . .” Helena signals, and a taxi jumps three lanes and stops right in front of her. Heribert has to stop another one, quickly, but feels ridiculous lifting his arm to f lag it down. He will feel even more ridiculous, once inside, when he has to say, like in the movies, “Follow that car.” He remembers one where a taxi driver is thrilled when they ask him to follow another car, saying that he had been waiting all his long working life for that moment, like in the movies.

When he is in the cab and says it, the driver looks at him in the rearview mirror, gives a short laugh, and starts to talk. He talks nonstop the whole time, recklessly passing the other cars. Once, when Helena’s driver jumps a red light, Heribert’s steps on the gas and (between two lanes of traffic, almost scraping the cars on either side) shoots forward and crosses the street on the red just as a Cadillac Seville coming from the left makes the turn. They make such headway that, by the next red light, Heribert’s taxi is directly behind Helena’s. Heribert hides behind the driver’s head. If they keep up this pace, he thinks, soon they’ll take the lead, leaving the other car in their wake, turning this into the most original chase in history, in which they precede the pursued car instead of following it. They
go across the bridge.

Fifteen minutes later, Helena’s taxi stops on a wide, solitary avenue, lined with houses.

“Park across the street, a little farther down.”

Having to come up with such stratagems exhausts him. The driver says something under his breath and smiles. Looking out the back window, Heribert watches as Helena gets out of the cab and goes into one of the houses.

*

A couple of children are playing with an enormous ball in one of the yards. Heribert tries unsuccessfully to figure out what they’re playing: sometimes it looks like soccer, then like baseball, then a minute later like handball. Then they laugh and take a rest, leaning on the fence. Once, he thinks they look at him, whisper about him, and laugh again.

He sits on the curb, and since he’s getting bored, he starts doing things. First he counts the seconds that elapse between one particularly loud shout from one of the kids and the first car to go down the street (another taxi): 634. Then he counts the minutes until the next car (a Mercury Cougar) goes by: 18. He adds the 634 seconds and the 18 minutes: 652. He finds it interesting to add up dissimilar things. In school they said you couldn’t add apples and oranges. If he adds the 652 to the 2 kids playing in the yard, he gets 654 seconds, minutes, and kids. He counts the cars parked on that stretch of street: 17. Added to the previous 654 that makes
671 seconds, minutes, kids, and cars on that stretch of street. He thinks of adding in the 4 stoplights, the two garbage cans he can see, the fire hydrants, the potholes. If he could add up all objects, all feelings, all ideas, all creatures, add them all up together, everything would be so simple. How easy it would be to face any situation, get out of any labyrinth, form a fairly accurate image of the world; the world (for example) would be exactly 78,345,321,834,042,751,539 things. If he could just diagram this feeling of perplexity! But how? Turning the canvas into a blackboard and writing down all those figures seems idiotic to him. And the mere thought of coming up with a more elaborate way to depict that morass wears him
out.

He lets himself fall back. It feels wet. He looks at the white sky. It’s cold out. He thinks it’s strange that the two children are playing outside on such a cold day. He thinks, “If I start to imagine that the sky is empty, I’ll fall upwards, I’ll fall into the clouds.”

After a wait that seems interminable, Helena appears arm in arm with a tall man, with brown hair and a broad mouth, wearing a very long, gray raincoat and glasses with apple green, almost fluorescent, frames.

Thinking that he has to get up to follow them, he lies down again and keeps trying to convince himself that gravity will suck him up into the sky, but he doesn’t quite manage to believe it. When Helena and her escort catch a cab at the corner, he gets up, brushes off his pants, and starts walking home.

9 April 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Not a lot going on in terms of publishing news today, so I thought I’d take a break from the usual posts about ebooks, Zen wisdom, and disturbing novels to bring you a bit of information about Catalan author Quim Monzo, whose Gasoline recently arrived from the printer. (If you’re an Open Letter subscriber, I’m working on the special letter right now, and you should get your copy by the end of next week. Or so.)

Quim is considered to be one of the greatest Catalan authors of his generation. He’s most well known in Europe for his short stories (three of which — Mr. Beneset, Honesty, and I Have Nothing to Wear — appeared in Words Without Borders), but in the States, the only book that’s currently available is the fantastically comic (and ultimately tragic) novel The Enormity of the Tragedy, which was actually one of the first books I ever reviewed for Three Percent.

When Catalonia was the Guest of Honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair a few years back, it was Monzo who gave the opening statement. The link to the full pdf of his speech is broken, but here’s a funny, self-referential and self-deprecating bit that I copied out into an earlier post:

Won’t reading the names of all these writers (most of whom are unknown to the literary world that circulates in Frankfurt) just be tedious for the audience at the opening ceremony who will have to listen to so many unfamiliar names? Won’t they be looking at their watches and thinking, “What a bore!”? And so he decides he won’t mention any names (even though, in fact, he has already mentioned them in the very process of describing his doubts as to whether he should mention them or not). What’s more, he’s read that at the Frankfurt Book Fair there will be an exhibition that explains all this. Although—to be frank—how many of the persons who attend this inaugural event will later visit this exhibition with any more interest than a merely official show of etiquette? Let us be frank and optimistic: very few. Even if this is a Book Fair, where the least-known authors ought to be the ones who would most pique the reading appetite of those who were interested in discovering literary gems and not simply following the commercial drumbeat of what is in vogue at the time.

Monzo will be appearing in three events at this year’s PEN World Voices festival, including the New York Stories event on Thursday, April 29th, In Conversation with Robert Coover, on Friday, April 30th, and a roundtable on The Essay on Saturday, May 1st.

He was going to appear here in Rochester on Monday, April 26th, but schedules became complicated and he won’t be able to make it. (I will interview Quim and his translator, Mary Ann Newman during the Festival for an upcoming Reading the World podcast episode.)

Not to cram too much info into one post, but our April 26th event has morphed into a Celebration of Open Letter at which ten different readers (U of R folks, interns, fans) will read 3-5 minute segments from ten different Open Letter titles—including Quim Monzo’s Gasoline. I’ll post the section that’s going to be read separately . . .

1 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

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



Death in Spring by Merce Rodoreda. Translated from the Catalan by Martha Tennent. (Spain, Open Letter)

The other day, I had a really interesting conversation with David Del Vecchio and Lewis Manalo of Idlewild Books about covers for literature in translation. All the BTBA longlist titles are on display at Idlewild (rock on!) and it’s really interesting to take these all in at once.

One of the things David pointed out was just how dark all these books were. (Sidenote: I REALLY HOPE that one day he’ll write a long piece for us about all of his cover observations—all of us publishers could learn a ton from listening to a bookseller like David. I mean, we’ve seen Sessalee at B&N influence the look of more commercial fiction—pictures of hair anyone?—so it’s only cool that a hip, indie bookstore could help shape the look of translated titles.) I hadn’t really thought about the look of all these titles together—see, I don’t judge a book by its . . . actually, yes I do, we all do—but seriously, look at The Ninth, The Skating Rink, Confessions of Noa Weber, and, cough, Death in Spring, and the impression you get is that all of these books are bleak, dark, somewhat depressing, etc.

Personally, I think the Death in Spring cover kicks some serious design ass, but I can see how someone looking at a tree made of various bones might get the impression that the book is a bit morbid . . . But well, you know, in contrast to some of the other BTBA titles that might misrepresent (Memories of the Future looks awful mechanistic for such an insanely funny book), this one is pretty spot-fucking-on. The book opens with the narrator’s father trying to bury himself in a tree in order to avoid the village’s traditional death ritual . . . His attempt fails in brutal, disturbing fashion:

They started to shout. They shouted at my father who had little remaining breath and was clearly near his end. He was still alive, but only his own death kept him alive. They dragged him from the tree, laid him on the ground, and began beating him. The last blows made no sound. Don’t kill him, shouted the cement man. The mortar trough, filled with rose-colored cement, lay at his feet. Don’t kill him before he has been filled. They pried his mouth partially open, and the cement man began to fill it. First with watery cement so it would slide far down inside him, then with thick cement. When he was well cemented, they stood him up and put him back inside the tree. They replaced the cross and left to prepare the Festa.

Welcome to Merce Rodoreda’s nightmare world.

To fans of her earlier works—especially The Time of the Doves, this is shocking and totally unexpected. But it does sort of fit an evolution of Rodoreda’s work. Doves is a more conventional story of a woman’s loves and losses during the time of the Spanish Civil War. It’s gorgeous and lush, and has something in common with Virginia Woolf’s writing. But then there’s A Broken Mirror, which chronicles the dissolution of a family in three distinct sections, each written with a different tone and sensibility, starting with a more Victorian feel, then turning modernist, and ending with a very fractured, post-modern section. And then comes Death in Spring.

Death in Spring is a very surreal, violent (even houses are “upwrenched”) novel that traces the life of a young boy, through whose eyes we witness the terrifying and incomprehensible rituals that shape life in the village. In addition to the cement-pouring ritual (which is freaky) and the burying people inside of trees bit, there’s also the annual “trip down the river,” in which one unlucky person has to float through the river running under the village to clear out any rocks blocking the water’s passage . . .

The book can be interpreted in several ways—as a metaphor for life under Franco, as a creepy bildungsroman, so on—but one constant is the beauty of Rodoreda’s prose, especially as she struggles to convey something that’s almost beyond words. (To be honest: I’m stealing some of the comments Erica Mena made about this book and all of the times “language fails” in the book.) Personally, I think this is one of the most important books Open Letter has published so far. I can envision scholars and readers debating this a hundred years from now—and studying Martha Tennent’s inventive translation.

So I’ll leave off with another passage that’s beautifully sad:

When they pulled the boy from the river, he was dead; they returned him to the river. Those who died in the water were returned to the water. The river carried them away and nothing was ever known of them again. But at night, at the spot where the bodies were thrown into the water, a shadow could be seen. Not every night. Not today or tomorrow, but on certain nights a shadow trembled. They said the shadow of the dead returned to the place where the man was born. They said that to die was to merge with the shadow. That summer, the shadow of the boy was clearly distinguishable. It was unmistakably him because he had been separated from one of his arms, and the shadow had but one arm. Struggling against the current, the shadow—which was only will, not body or voice—attempted to slip beneath the village. And as the shadow struggled, the prisoner neighed.

7 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Erica Mena on Edward Hopper, a poetry collection by Catalan author Ernest Farrés, translated by Lawrence Venuti and published by Graywolf Press.

I’ve been interested in this collection for a while—partly because I love Catalan lit, but also because Quim Monzo’s Gasoline (which we’re publishing in April) opens with a Hopper image, which seems like an odd coincidence. (Or maybe not, since it’s not like Hopper’s unknown or anything.)

Anyway, Erica and I interviewed Larry Venuti about this book for our forthcoming Reading the World podcasts, and it was an absolutely amazing conversation. Larry’s explanations of how the project came about, all the theoretical and practical implications, his unpacking of one of the poems . . . very amazing.

That will be online soon (er, relatively speaking), but in the meantime, I want to encourage everyone to check out Alluringly Short, Erica’s new blog about poetry, translation, and poetry in translation (there’s a great post about Chilean Poetry definitely worth reading). And instead of trying to write a one-sentence bio, you can find out more about Erica via her entry in the Making the Translator Visible series.

And here’s the opening of her review:

Edward Hopper (Graywolf, 2009) is a complex and striking work of narrative-lyrical poetry, skirting on the epic, that is also one of the more interesting books of poetry to be recently published in English. There are a number of things that make Lawrence Venuti’s translation of Ernest Farrés’s book of poems in the voice of Edward Hopper unusual. One should be obvious from the previous sentence: a tripled persona in which translator speaks for poet who speaks for painter. Another is the scope of the project as a whole; Edward Hopper is envisioned as a complete sequence, gripping in its narrative-lyrical arc, though the poems equally stand alone. The book is also a work of ekphrasis—each of the 51 poems taking its title from a Hopper painting—but radically departs from mere description. The biographical (or pseudo-biographical) engagement with Hopper’s oeuvre sketches its own chronology, re-contextualizing each painting, and shedding new light or shadow on the works.

One might expect a poetic work of ekphrasis to be centered around the image, but what is most immediately enticing about this book is the narrative-lyrical arc which appropriates Hopper’s works and biography, subjugating them to the voice of the poet while the poet simultaneously becomes subsumed in them. It is a book of poetry that demands attention from the reader at every move, and demands that attention on its own terms. Like listening to a symphony in full, the poems in their individual movements culminate into a picture of a life that is at once specific and universally recognizable. Venuti, like a great conductor, moves the poetry through his own language that neither obscures nor clarifies the richness of the original, but allows it to be heard in its full tonality. The composition and translation both are ekphrasis at its most successful, its most layered. In “Self Portrait, 1925-1930” —the first poem in the book, and the only one with an overt intrusion of Farrés’s voice—Hopper is reincarnated through the Borgesian mirror of the painting into the body of Farrés. But the transmigration is incomplete, and the voice slips in opportune places throughout the book to reveal a Catalan poet seeing Hopper’s North America, and in it the broader scope of modernity’s disillusionment. Farrés shares Hopper’s “fears, obsessions, anxieties” and the immediacy of their pressure on the landscape and people resonate through the language, preventing even the slightest distancing of the voice.

Click here to read the full review.

7 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Edward Hopper (Graywolf, 2009) is a complex and striking work of narrative-lyrical poetry, skirting on the epic, that is also one of the more interesting books of poetry to be recently published in English. There are a number of things that make Lawrence Venuti’s translation of Ernest Farrés’s book of poems in the voice of Edward Hopper unusual. One should be obvious from the previous sentence: a tripled persona in which translator speaks for poet who speaks for painter. Another is the scope of the project as a whole; Edward Hopper is envisioned as a complete sequence, gripping in its narrative-lyrical arc, though the poems equally stand alone. The book is also a work of ekphrasis—each of the 51 poems taking its title from a Hopper painting—but radically departs from mere description. The biographical (or pseudo-biographical) engagement with Hopper’s oeuvre sketches its own chronology, re-contextualizing each painting, and shedding new light or shadow on the works.

One might expect a poetic work of ekphrasis to be centered around the image, but what is most immediately enticing about this book is the narrative-lyrical arc which appropriates Hopper’s works and biography, subjugating them to the voice of the poet while the poet simultaneously becomes subsumed in them. It is a book of poetry that demands attention from the reader at every move, and demands that attention on its own terms. Like listening to a symphony in full, the poems in their individual movements culminate into a picture of a life that is at once specific and universally recognizable. Venuti, like a great conductor, moves the poetry through his own language that neither obscures nor clarifies the richness of the original, but allows it to be heard in its full tonality. The composition and translation both are ekphrasis at its most successful, its most layered. In “Self Portrait, 1925-1930” —the first poem in the book, and the only one with an overt intrusion of Farrés’s voice—Hopper is reincarnated through the Borgesian mirror of the painting into the body of Farrés. But the transmigration is incomplete, and the voice slips in opportune places throughout the book to reveal a Catalan poet seeing Hopper’s North America, and in it the broader scope of modernity’s disillusionment. Farrés shares Hopper’s “fears, obsessions, anxieties” and the immediacy of their pressure on the landscape and people resonate through the language, preventing even the slightest distancing of the voice.

The ordering of the poems is brilliantly narrative, moving from the self-reflective interior to a railroad station and train that takes Hopper/Farrés from a rural setting to the archetypal city and eventually through middle age to Cape Cod. The bulk of the book is comprised by a sequence of cityscapes, including Hopper’s famous “Nighthawks, 1942” as an existential dialogue between the man and woman in the painting confronting the realization that “nothing in life is irreplaceable.” These insights, sometimes heard in the voice of Hopper, sometimes in a muted Farrés, and sometimes in the voice of the subject of the painting (which is always ultimately the self of the artists) border on the overly philosophical. It is the ironizing context of retrospective engagement with modernity, and the plurality of persona, that pushes these reflective moments into poignancy. Voyeurism and aural intrusion into the painting implicate the reader as well as the poet/painter/translator in these mini-dramas in which every subject is self. “Hotel Room, 1931” exemplifies this, spinning into the dizzying progression of time:

          At the hotel a woman in her underwear
          pores over a train timetable. An hour later,
          in low spirits and bone-tired,
          she’ll start to pace around the room
          leaving a fruity fragrance in the air
          that reeks of mustiness.
          A week later they’ll be no
          tangible results. A year later
          she’ll be the object of caresses.
          Another four and no lullabies.
          Another ten and the delicate balance
          between youth and age will be gone.
          Another twenty and she’ll cling
          to an expansive ethics of listlessness
          and Triumph of the Will.
          Another century and nobody’s
          going to remember a thing about her.
          In two centuries there’ll be
          no polar ice caps. When five
          billion years go by,
          there won’t even be a sun.

The fixed moment in history recorded in the painting expands into present and future—a bleak shared future of oblivion. We intrude on the intimacy of the moment, as Hopper does, and intrude on the intimacy of the moment of Hopper’s painting it, as Farrés does. This woman, privacy violated, becomes the catalyst for an ironic nihilism in which we are “directly implicated” (“The City,” 1927).

The city poems pulse with motion and frenzy, the fears and passions of a young Hopper/Farrés. In “The City, 1927” we along with him are submerged “deep down, in the very marrow, amidst a whorl / of elliptical subjects, colorful scenes.” Here, the careful density and pace of sound and rhythm in the language is evidence of a masterful translation, and Venuti’s Farrés is most powerful in places like “Summer in the City, 1949”:

          The man is looking for trouble,
          thrills, sublime ecstasies, places
          short on folklore, deals,
          calculated approximations, objects
          of desire that grab
          your attention and keep
          your cool, the latest rage
          at your fingertips, binges,
          infatuations, sexual icons,
          irrefutable proofs, joyrides, advice
          within parentheses, green lights, comfy shoes,
          forms of expression that presuppose
          supremacy, free tickets to the game,
          ways of killing time that are reckless and frenzied,
          the upper hand before bellyaching, answers
          as plain as the nose on your face.
          The woman, however, is looking for love.

The building, pulsing momentum of desire, of the city, and of moving through life is enthralling. The places where syntax slips over the enjambment—“grab,” “keep” and “rage” sliding into “advice” and “answers”—brush against the erotic tension of this poem, and the concise unenjambed second sentence of the poem counterpoints the cascading frenetic energy of male desire. Just glancing across the page at the Catalan reveals Venuti’s masterful treatment of the poem, which in the Catalan is one line shorter and doesn’t place the woman on a line of her own. There’s also the surprise of “bellyaching” which glides smoothly in the voice of Hopper, until the startling realization occurs that this is Hopper speaking Catalan and so “bellyaching” is a moment of linguistic impossibility that prevents the reader from becoming too comfortable with the language.

The frenzy of youth and the city thread through the bulk of the book, tempering bit by bit as the feminine (the presence of Nivison, Hopper’s wife and model for many of his female figures) becomes more prominent. The diction becomes mimetic of the journey out of the city to the bucolic Cape Cod setting, expanding into placid, airy and languorous description. The prosaic overtakes the poetic as comfort and familiarity replace the angst and frenzy of youth. Towards the end, as we fall into a comfortable rhythm, we are told:

          You’ve got this down pat. We sketch orbits
          around a highly valued microcosm,
          a landscape composed of organic dust,
          and calmly accept that the march of time
          will make us different from what we were,
          filling with meaning what was empty
          emptying of meaning what contained it.
          (“Sea Watchers,” 1952)

In “Sun in an Empty Room, 1963” (my personal favorite Hopper painting), which is placed near the end of the book, Hopper via Farrés via Venuti tells us:

          I rediscover myself and leave a sign.
          . . .
          All the same, I’m not moving very far.
          No matter where you go, you never find
          the way out of the labyrinth.

The labyrinth of these poems are much more than an homage to Hopper. They are a rediscovery. A new look at the intricate stories that make up the imagined life of one of the most important twentieth century U.S. painters. A poetical-fictional biography that succeeds in its imaginative power to entice the reader into believing it as truth, which of course it is. Like the works of great art they illuminate, these poems reveal a moment (of life, of time, of history) in its fullest dimension. In this book’s ambitious transcendence of the individual, Farrés shines through Hopper as a poet to pay attention to.

23 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Only seems appropriate that just before Christmas we should announce our summer list of titles . . . You can click here to download a pdf version of the new catalog (which contains excerpts from all the books), or, for those of you who are anti-pdf, the list below has the basic information for the next five Open Letter titles.

All of these titles will be available through better bookstores everywhere and through the Open Letter website. Additionally, you can subscribe and receive a year’s worth of books (10 in total) for $100 (free shipping!). Or get a six-month subscription (5 books) for only $60 (again, with free shipping).

Here are the titles from one of our best lists yet:

Gasoline by Quim Monzó (excerpt)
translated from the Catalan by Mary Ann Newman

For the first time in his life, Heribert Juliá is unable to paint. On the eve of an important gallery exhibition, for which he’s created nothing, he’s bored with life: he falls asleep while making love with his mistress, wanders from bar to bar, drinking whatever comes to his attention first, and meets the evidence of his wife Helena’s infidelity with complete indifference. Humbert Herrera, an up-and-coming artist who can’t stop creating, picks up the threads of Heribert’s life, taking his wife, replacing him at the gallery, and pursuing his former mistress. Heribert is finally undone by a massive sculpture, while Humbert is planning the sculpture to end sculpture, the poem to end poetry, and the film to end film, all while mounting three simultaneous shows.

A fun-house mirror through which he examines the creative process, the life and loves of artists, and the New York art scene, Gasoline confirms Quim Monzó as the foremost Catalan writer of his generation.

A Thousand Peaceful Cities by Jerzy Pilch (excerpt)
translated from the Polish by David Frick

A comic gem, Jerzy Pilch’s A Thousand Peaceful Cities takes place in 1963, in the latter days of the Polish post-Stalinist “thaw.” The narrator, Jerzyk (“little Jerzy”), is a teenager who is keenly interested in his father, a retired postal administrator, and his father’s closest friend, Mr. Traba, a failed Lutheran clergyman, alcoholic, would-be Polish insurrectionist, and one of the wildest literary characters since Laurence Sterne’s Uncle Toby. One drunken afternoon, Mr. Traba and the narrator’s nameless father decide to take charge of their lives and do one final good turn for humanity: travel to distant Warsaw and assassinate the de facto Polish head of state, First Secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party, Władysław Gomułka—assassinating Mao Tse-tung, after all, would be impractical. And they decide to involve Jerzyk in their scheme . . .

The Private Lives of Trees by Alejandro Zambra (excerpt)
translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell

The Private Lives of Trees tells the story of a single night: a young professor of literature named Julián is reading to his step-daughter Daniela and nervously waiting for his wife Verónica to return from her art class. Each night, Julián has been improvising a story about trees to tell Daniela before she goes to sleep—and each Sunday he works on a novel about a man tending to his bonsai—but something about this night is different. As Julián becomes increasing concerned that Verónica won’t return, he reflects on their life together in minute detail, and imagines what Daniela—at twenty, at twenty-five, at thirty years old, without a mother—will think of his novel.

Perhaps even more daring and dizzying than Zambra’s magical Bonsai, The Private Lives of Trees demands to be read in a single sitting, and it casts a spell that will bring you back to it again and again.

Klausen by Andreas Maier (excerpt)
translated from the German by Kenneth Northcott

Nobody knows exactly what happened in the small town of Klausen, or rather, everyone knows: a bomb went off on the autobahn, or at a shack near the autobahn, or someone was shooting at the town from a bridge; it all stems from a fight over measuring noise pollution on the town square, or it was the work of eco-terrorists, or Italians. And while nobody knows who or what to blame—although they’re certainly uneasy about the Moroccan and Albanian immigrants who are squatting in an abandoned castle—they all suspect that Josef Gasser, who spent several years away from Klausen, in Berlin, is behind it all. Only one thing is clear: Klausen was now a crime scene.

In Klausen, Andreas Maier has taken Thomas Bernhard’s method—the nested indirect speech, the repetition, the endless paragraph—and pointed it at an entire town. A town where one confusion leads to the next, where everyone is living in a fog of rumor, but where everyone claims to know exactly what’s going on, even if they’ve changed their story several times.

To Hell with Cronjé by Ingrid Winterbach (excerpt)
translated from the Afrikaans by Elsa Silke

Two scientists, Reitz Steyn and Ben Maritz, find themselves in a “transit camp for those temporarily and permanently unfit for battle” during the Boer War. Captured on suspicion of desertion and treason—during a trek across an unchanging desert of bushes, rocks, and ant hills to help transport a fellow-soldier, who has suffered debilitating shell-shock, to his mother—they are forced to await the judgment of a General Bergh, unsure whether they are to be conscripted into Bergh’s commando, allowed to continue their mission, or executed for treason. As the weeks pass, and the men’s despair at ever returning to their families reaches its peak, they are sent on a bizarre mission . . .

A South African Heart of Darkness, Ingrid Winterbach’s To Hell with Cronjé is a poetic exploration of friendship and camaraderie, an eerie reflection on the futility of war, and a thought-provoking re-examination of the founding moments of the South African nation.

As a special preview, coming up in the fall 2010 are: Mathias Énard’s Zone, Juan José Saer’s Glosa, Bragi Ólafsson’s The Ambassadors, and a couple more titles we’re still working on. More information as soon as we have it . . .

11 December 08 | Chad W. Post |

For the next several weeks we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.

The Enormity of the Tragedy by Quim Monzo, translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush. (Catalonia, Peter Owen)

The set-up of The Enormity of the Tragedy sounds like a dirty joke for the Viagra generation: Ramon-Maria wakes up one morning with an “indefatigable erection.” After many “experiments” trying to “relieve” his condition, he goes to a doctor and finds out that his erection is a symptom of a rare and fatal disease that leaves him with two months to live.

But one of the things that makes this novel so interesting is the fact that it doesn’t devolve into penis jokes and sexual set-pieces. Instead, Monzo focuses a lot on the “tragedy” in the title, treating Ramon-Maria situation—his fatal condition and the fact that his stepdaughter plots to murder him—in a straightforward, natural way. Monzo’s warmth as a writer ensures that the book is still funny, it’s just not the sort of slapstick comedy of errors that the initial description seems to point to.

Before reading this, I had read a couple Monzo stories, but that’s it. (Not much has been published in English, although in the interest of full disclosure, Open Letter will be publishing Benzina and Guadalajara over the next year.) This book blew me away though. Peter Bush’s translation is wonderful, and the way that Monzo crafts his story—playing Ramon-Maria’s attempt to “live large” (pun only half-intended) over his last few months against the adolescent struggles of Anna-Francesca. As the novel progresses and the plot becomes more complicated, everything builds to an inevitable conclusion that is also a bit shocking. And definitely not the punchline to a dirty joke.

When this first came out, I wrote a full-length review, which included this passage that does paint a decent picture of the Monzo universe:

Outside a molossus mastiff was observing a whisky-coloured cat. The cat started to run. The dog chased it. The cat tried to get away but found itself trapped in the cul-de-sac with no escape route and walls too high to climb. It turned around, fur bristling. The mastiff stopped. They both looked at each other, motionless. In the distance, a gate squeaked. The cat moved almost imperceptibly, jumped, legs outstretched, and scratched the dog’s cheek striping it in blood. It tried to take advantage of the mastiff’s disarray to make an escape, but the dog jumped nimbly, pounced on the cat, opened its jaws and tore it apart.

In terms of Monzo himself, he’s considered one of the best contemporary Catalan writers. He even gave the opening speech when Catalan was the guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair last year. This speech is another good example of his playful, self-referential style:

Won’t reading the names of all these writers (most of whom are unknown to the literary world that circulates in Frankfurt) just be tedious for the audience at the opening ceremony who will have to listen to so many unfamiliar names? Won’t they be looking at their watches and thinking, “What a bore!”? And so he decides he won’t mention any names (even though, in fact, he has already mentioned them in the very process of describing his doubts as to whether he should mention them or not). What’s more, he’s read that at the Frankfurt Book Fair there will be an exhibition that explains all this. Although—to be frank—how many of the persons who attend this inaugural event will later visit this exhibition with any more interest than a merely official show of etiquette? Let us be frank and optimistic: very few. Even if this is a Book Fair, where the least-known authors ought to be the ones who would most pique the reading appetite of those who were interested in discovering literary gems and not simply following the commercial drumbeat of what is in vogue at the time.

Monzo is an important writer, both for his novels and him many short story collections, and truly deserves to be on the Best Translated Book fiction longlist.

22 October 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This post originally appeared on the Frankfurt Book Fair blog.

Catalan Culture was last year’s Guest of Honor at the Fair, and put on a huge display of Catalan culture, and producing a number of slick publications and presentations to help make people aware of their rich literary tradition. (It’s sad, but I think a lot of Americans–and possibly others–think that Catalan is a Spanish dialect rather than recognizing that it’s a unique language. Again, Horace Engdahl, lack of literature in translation, America isolationism, etc., etc., etc.) Based on the sheer number of people visiting their booth and attending their fabulous parties, it seemed pretty successful, and based on my conversation with Carles Torner of the Ramon Llull Insitut, this positive effect has carried over quite well.

“Being the Guest of Honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair was very important to us,” Torner said. “By the end of this year there will have been as many translations of Catalan books into other languages as there was in 2007.” Which sounds sort of static, but is actually a huge gain considering that 53 titles (including a lot of multi-volume titles) were published in German in preparation for the Frankfurt Book Fair.

(I’m going to digress for a moment here: as I typed that it occured to me just how special it is to be the Guest of Honor. And just how civil, bookish, and outward looking the German publishing scene is. There’s a better chance of the Cubs winning the World Series than American publishers getting together and publishing a shitload of books in translation in preparation for BookExpo America. Dead horse, beating it, I know, I know, but for all doubters of Engdahl’s statments, here’s another instance pointing to just how right he is.)

(Another digression: the press I run is publishing three Catalan works over the next eighteen-months thanks to last year’s FBF and an amazing visit to Barcelona.)

Carles’s feeling is that the publication of Catalan literature–classic, modern, and contemporary–by German publishers sent a message to the rest of the publishing world. Jaume Cabre is a perfect example. After being published by Surhkamp for the Fair, his latest novel Les veus del Pamano was picked up by Dutch, Italian, French, and even Romanian publishers. That’s how the network of publishers I’ve mentioned before functions: if a couple well-respected presses publish a book, it sends a message to everyone else that they should pay attention. (Well–again with the horse–except maybe in the case of Le Clezio. He’s published by Hanser in Germany and many other fantastic presses, but Simon & Schuster doesn’t seem to be rushing his books back into print . . .)

In terms of numbers, over 80 translations of Catalan books came out last year around the world (or at least were subsidized by the Ramon Llull Institut) and that number will likely be broken this year.

Carles also mentioned that another great effect of being the Guest of Honor is the fact that they no longer have to spend time explaining what Catalonia is–something that used to be a huge problem. But now there are other problems. Similar to the situation with Dutch and China (see my earlier post), some Greek publishers became very interested in acquiring Catalan works last year, but at the time there were no Catalan to Greek literary translators . . . So the Ramon Llull Insitut organized a special seminar, helped get some translators up to speed, and now eight books are under contract with Greek publishers.

Since last year’s Fair, the Ramon Llull Institut has continued to expand its activities, hosting a number of events at this year’s PEN World Voices Festival (including one to celebrate the Review of Contemporary Fiction’s New Catalan Writing issue), planning a seminar in New York in November 2009 to bring together translators, critics, and publishers interested in Catalan culture, and opening an office in New York next year.

18 October 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The opening speech Quim Monzo gave at the Frankfurt Book Fair is now available as a pdf in German, Catalan, Spanish, and English.

It’s a very fun, self-referential speech about a writer trying to write his opening address. . . .

Won’t reading the names of all these writers (most of whom are unknown to the literary world that circulates in Frankfurt) just be tedious for the audience at the opening ceremony who will have to listen to so many unfamiliar names? Won’t they be looking at their watches and thinking, “What a bore!”? And so he decides he won’t mention any names (even though, in fact, he has already mentioned them in the very process of describing his doubts as to whether he should mention them or not). What’s more, he’s read that at the Frankfurt Book Fair there will be an exhibition that explains all this. Although—to be frank—how many of the persons who attend this inaugural event will later visit this exhibition with any more interest than a merely official show of etiquette? Let us be frank and optimistic: very few. Even if this is a Book Fair, where the least-known authors ought to be the ones who would most pique the reading appetite of those who were interested in discovering literary gems and not simply following the commercial drumbeat of what is in vogue at the time.

Monzo’s short story I Have Nothing to Wear (which reminds me of Cortazar’s “Don’t Blame Anyone”) is now available at Words Without Borders.

14 August 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As the Frankfurt Book Fair grows closer, there’s sure to be more and more articles and events promoting Catalan literature, and as a big fan of the Ramon Llull Institut and Barcelona, I’ll try and share as many as possible. One interesting program I came across today is GeoGraphia: Literary Landscapes:

GeoGraphia is a joint initiative by the Institut Ramon Llull, the Goethe-Institut and Literaturhaus.net to boost knowledge of Catalan and German literature in each other’s countries through an interchange of authors.

Three pairs, each made up of one German and one Catalan writer, will share their experiences on a journey through their respective countries. Acting at the same time as host and guest, native and foreigner, this journey there and back seeks to reveal the ego and the other and their roots, their common culture. During the journey, the writers will appear before audiences in a number of cities in Germany and Austria (at the Literaturhäuser) and in Catalonia, Valencia and Mallorca. The project will be presented at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October 2007.

Should be interesting, especially considering the participating writers: Katja Lange-Müller and Enric Sòria; Keto von Waberer and Carme Riera; and Michael Ebmeyer and Jordí Puntí.

14 August 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Although most of Mercè Rodeoreda’s novels have been translated and published in English, and although she’s become one of—if not the—most important Catalan writers of the twentieth century, it still feels like her work is greatly overlooked in this country. Which is a shame, since her writing is fantastic, and would greatly appeal to readers of Virginia Woolf and the like.

Along with The Time of the Doves, A Broken Mirror was the Rodoreda novel most recommended to me during a recent visit to Barcelona, and with good reason. This novel is a sweeping family saga, covering three generations, and a slew of important historical events, including the Spanish Civil War. In terms of the plot, the book is interesting enough, containing all necessary soap opera aspects, such as illegitimate children, incest, hidden secrets, financial scheming, and the like, all told in a very compelling way, drawing the reader into the world built around Teresa Goday, a pretty, young woman who marries a wealthy old man. Her children and grandchildren populate the novel and infuse it with memorable characters, conflicts, and events, one of the most remarkable being the haunting chapter in which one of the children drowns.

In contrast to most family epics, this book is only a couple hundred pages, as Rodoreda foregoes lengthy expository passages in favor of a more direct writing style that gets to the heart of the matter in a way that’s not entirely dissimilar from the writings of Nathalie Sarraute and Marguerite Duras. And it’s the stylistic advancements Rodoreda makes as the narrative develops that is most impressive about this book.

Split into three distinct parts, the family’s disintegration runs in parallel to the style in which it’s written, moving from a time/style of Victorian-like elegance, to a more modernist period, before concluding in a more fragmented, postmodern style. This development is strikingly evident in comparing the opening of the book with its conclusion.

As previously mentioned, it opens with an air of elegance:

Vicenc helped Senyor Nicolau Roviera into the carriage. “Yes, Sir, as you wish.” Then he helped Senyora Teresa. They always did it that way: first he, then she, because it took two of them to help Senyor Nicolau out again. It was a difficult maneuver, and he needed a lot of attention.

The end has a different feel entirely:

A few days later other shadows came to cut down the trees and to raze the house. Soon they saw by the trunk of the chestnut tree a disgusting rat, with a head that had been gnawed on, surrounded by a bunch of greenish flies.

In my opinion, the best novels are the ones that develop in complicated and interesting ways, challenging the reader’s expectations. Rodoreda’s book does just that. This novel is a true artistic accomplishment, and at the risk of writing in jacket-copy speak, I have to say that this is a true modern classic that deserves a much wider audience.

A Broken Mirror
by Mercè Rodoreda
translated from the Catalan by Josep Miquel Sobrer
University of Nebraska Press
218 pp., $24.95 (pb)

8 August 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This story has been around for months, but the International Herald Tribune has a piece on the troubles Catalonia is having getting writers to attend the Frankfurt Book Fair this year, where Catalonia is the Guest of Honor.

This is one of the rare times that the FBF chose to honor a region rather than a country, and initially, the Ramon Llull Institute was only going to invite authors writing in Catalan to attend. Spain’s literary world freaked out, Catalan backtracked, and ended up inviting Spanish authors as well.

But many are refusing to go, calling the gesture an insulting afterthought prompted by political interference and serving up a nasty dispute for the normally genteel confines of the world’s largest book fair.

I have no place commenting on Spanish/Catalonian art and politics (and politics of art), but this really isn’t doing much to help promote Catalan or Spanish literature. Catalonia has a great tradition of authors writing in Catalan, very, very few of whom have been translated into English. (Merce Rodoreda, a bastardized version of Albert Sanchez Pinol’s Cold Skin, and now Quim Monzo, are the ones that come immediately to mind.) In my opinion, following years of oppression, the Ramon Llull Institute deserves an opportunity to promote the writers it exists to support and to spread the word about a “Catalan asethetic.”

On the other hand, it doesn’t make much sense for both the Catalan and Spanish governing bodies to marginalize writers living in Catalonia and writing primarily in Spanish.

Maybe it would’ve been best to have Catalonia, Galicia, the Basque Country, and Spanish-speaking Spain all be Guests of Honor and to celebrate the whole of literature from Spain at once. But really, we can’t have Frankfurt without some controversy . . . that’s what publishing people thrive on.

3 August 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Quim Monzo is a great name for a writer (and maybe a baseball player), and our latest review is of his novel The Enormity of the Tragedy, which is about a man with a constant erection. (Insert male stereotype joke here.)

19 June 07 | Chad W. Post |

This October, Catalan will be the Guest of Honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair, which is a great opportunity to promote their literature to the world. (I’ve been a big fan ever since the Ramon Llull Insitut brought me to Barcelona . . . funny what a nice trip to a beautiful city can do. . . . )

There’s a lot of info on Catalan Culture now available at the Frankfurt site.

Of course, things are going as smoothly as they should . . . Catalonia, wanting to emphasize the uniqueness of the tradition of literature written in Catalan, is excluding from their delegation authors who live in Catalonia but write in Castilian.

I’m not going to pretend to understand the intricacies of this politically-charged situation, but I will say that barcelonareporter.com needs to stop using Babelfish (or whatever auto-translating program they’re using), since I am 100% sure that there is no contemporary Catalan writer named Enrique Vila-Kills.

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