6 January 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The new issue of The White Review is incredibly stacked. There’s an interview with Vladimir Sorokin. A piece by Enrique Vila-Matas. Poems by Gerður Kristný. Art by Mark Mulroney (we used to drink together and go to Rochester Red Wings games!).

But if that’s not enough, or, if you’re too cheap to spend the £14.99 (UK) / £18.99 (Rest of World) (which, to be honest, is pretty steep given the awful exchange rate . . . I could buy a hundred sandwiches for the cost of a subscription), you should definitely check out all the free online content.

Here are a few highlights:

  • Vertical Motion by Can Xue, translated from the Chinese by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping (You can buy the entire collection here.);
  • To Kill a Dog by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Brendan Lanctot;
  • The Dispossessed by Szilárd Borbély, translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet;
  • The Black Lake by Hella S. Haasse, translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke;
  • Textile by Orly Castel-Bloom, translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu;
  • Leg over Leg by Ahmad Fāris al-Shidyāq, translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies.

I don’t need Bookish’s algorithm to state that if you check out all of those samples, you’ll find at least one book that you’ll want to read.

5 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is Lily Ye’s review of Vertical Motion, this week’s Read This Next title. Vertical Motion is coming out next month from Open Letter, and is translated from the Chinese by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping.

For an “experimental” Chinese writer, Can Xue has received a good deal of attention in the U.S. She’s had books published by New Directions, Northwestern, Yale University Press, and Henry Holt. Additionally, her stories appear in Conjunctions on a regular basis.

Here’s the opening of Lily’s enthusiastic review of her latest collection:

The word that continues to come to mind as I read Can Xue’s short stories in Vertical Motion is uncanny. Her stories summon the feeling of the familiar as unfamiliar, of the known as unknown. The uncanny, Freud’s unheimlisch, is often described as having to do with a return, a repetition of the known which reveals an unknown element. Oftentimes, uncanny objects are those which return from childhood, and indeed in Xue’s stories we find familiar elements from childhood stories, such as intelligent cats, children exploring a secret garden, and a couple with a mysterious plant, as in Rapunzel. But Xue does not tell bedtime stories—the reader is never allowed to get settle in and get comfortable.

Xue’s style has a counterintuitive effect: it creates unease by being simple and straightforward. In Alain Robbe-Grillet’s writings, his technique of exhaustive description is applied with the intended end of eliminating all external significations for the objects in his work, to create a system of internal signification in which narrative is formed through the transformations and mutations of these objects. But Xue accomplishes this, very successfully, through a completely opposite tactic, by offering just enough information to allow the reader’s imagination to start working, but never enough to complete the picture we so desire. We become trapped in a world of her making because we are determined to understand it, because we feel as if we should understand it.

Click here to read the entire review. And click here to read three of the stories.

5 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The word that continues to come to mind as I read Can Xue’s short stories in Vertical Motion is uncanny. Her stories summon the feeling of the familiar as unfamiliar, of the known as unknown. The uncanny, Freud’s unheimlisch, is often described as having to do with a return, a repetition of the known which reveals an unknown element. Oftentimes, uncanny objects are those which return from childhood, and indeed in Xue’s stories we find familiar elements from childhood stories, such as intelligent cats, children exploring a secret garden, and a couple with a mysterious plant, as in Rapunzel. But Xue does not tell bedtime stories—the reader is never allowed to get settle in and get comfortable.

Xue’s style has a counterintuitive effect: it creates unease by being simple and straightforward. In Alain Robbe-Grillet’s writings, his technique of exhaustive description is applied with the intended end of eliminating all external significations for the objects in his work, to create a system of internal signification in which narrative is formed through the transformations and mutations of these objects. But Xue accomplishes this, very successfully, through a completely opposite tactic, by offering just enough information to allow the reader’s imagination to start working, but never enough to complete the picture we so desire. We become trapped in a world of her making because we are determined to understand it, because we feel as if we should understand it.

In her story “A Village in the Big City,” the protagonist is visiting an old neighbor, Uncle Lou. During his visit, he finds that Uncle Lou’s floor (the 24th) has suspended itself in midair while Uncle Lou’s cousin who is “so ugly that he can’t associate with others” waits outside the apartment:

The person was on the stairs, which is to say he was in midair. Judging by his voice, he must be hanging in midair. I couldn’t bear to shout again, because I was afraid he would fall. Maybe the one facing danger wasn’t he, but I. Was he saying that I was in danger? I didn’t dare shout again. This was Uncle Lou’s home. Eventually he would have to return. Perhaps he had simply gone downstairs to buy groceries. It was a nice day. The sun was out, so it was a little hot in the room. So what? I shouldn’t start making a fuss because of this. When I recalled that someone outside was hanging in midair, I started sweating even more profusely. My clothes stuck to my body; this was hard to endure.

As can be seen here, Xue’s protagonists, who are often the narrator as well, are oftentimes just as perplexed as her readers may be, only heightening the sensation of unease. Even the narrator is unsure what is happening around them, though this is the very world that they inhabit, and there is a feeling that there is something they should know about this world that everyone around them takes for granted (Uncle Lou is not at all disturbed by the floating building) but they are unable to come to grips with. Another example, from “The Brilliant Purple China Rose,” in a fairly conventional seeming set-up, a couple, Jin and Mei, live next door to Ayi, a busybody neighbor:

When Mei turned around to close the door, what she saw in the room startled her: a rat was sneaking back and forth under the tablecloth on the dining table. There had seldom been rats in their home. Was it really a rat? [. . .] Shaken, Meid stood in the room and said, “Rat.”

Jin’s gaze left his book and he glanced at her. Then he returned to the book and said:

“The rat is Ayi. You needn’t worry too much.”

Jin is completely unperturbed. No explanation is given for how or why Ayi has turned into a rat, and the reverse transformation back from being a rat is never addressed in the slightest. I wavered reading this story, wondering if I had missed something obvious: Was this metaphorical or literal? And most of all, how does Jin know, why doesn’t he care, and why does Mei simply accept this explanation?

This is Xue’s incredible success in obstructing external signification through the transformation of familiar elements into unfamiliar. We have seen humans turn into animals, but not like this—we cannot successfully connect her fiction to known narratives. Xue destabilizes the very idea of familiarity, upends what the reader believes is knowable, by stripping away the expository that we have come to expect. The reader becomes like one of the “little critters” in the titular story “Vertical Motion.” These creatures can neither see nor smell and can feel only through their skin. Twisting and turning, they dig through the earth, remaining always underground. Gravity lets them know which way is up, but they never know how close or far they are from the surface.

5 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As part of this week’s Read This Next activities, we just published an interview with Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping about their translation of Can Xue’s Vertical Motion.

Here’s an excerpt:

Read This Next: You’ve been working with Can Xue for a while now. How did you first discover her work?

Chen Zeping: We had read some of her short stories along with some by other avant-garde writers. After translating one story for Manoa and one for Conjunctions, we continued translating stories by Can Xue whenever either she or editors invited us to do so.

Karen Gernant: Another translator, Herbert Batt, was serving as guest editor for an issue of Manoa that was published in 2003. He asked us if we would like to translate some stories by the avant-garde writer Can Xue. We translated five, of which Manoa’s editor Frank Stewart selected one. Can Xue evidently liked our work, for when Conjunctions editors Brad Morrow and Martine Bellen solicited a story from her for an issue that also appeared in 2003, she turned to us to translate the story.

RTN: Can Xue’s writing is simultaneously straightforward—it’s not complicated to read from sentence to sentence—and complex—the straightforwardness masks a great deal of narrative depth. As translators, does this style pose any special challenges?

CZP: I understand that the translators’ job is to transfer the works into another language in such a way as to convey the original. We avoid adding any interpretation if we do not have to. In most cases, CX’s stories have their own surface logic so that sentences are also logically connected.

KG: As Chen Zeping suggests, we translate what we see on the page, allowing readers to interpret these words as they choose. We think that readers must enter into Can Xue’s stories in order to understand them. But we do not think it’s our job as translators to lead readers toward that understanding.

Click here to read the whole interview.

2 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s Read This Next title is Vertical Motion, a new collection of stories by Can Xue, which is translated from the Chinese by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping and coming out from Open Letter in mid-September.

Super-intern Lily Ye explains why we selected this book for RTN:

This week we’ve chosen Can Xue’s Vertical Motion, a collection of truly fantastic short stories. We chose this book for many reasons. To start off, we haven’t been featuring any Asian writers so far, and since we say we’re committed to promoting literature the world over, we’d like to start correcting this oversight. Read This Next followers can also look forward to an advanced preview of a collection of short stories by celebrated Taiwanese author Huang Fan coming this September.

Can Xue (actually a pseudonym meaning “dirty snow, leftover snow” for Deng Xiaohua) has received praise from Robert Coover and Susan Sontag, has been likened to Kafka multiple times, and has been hailed as an innovative writer to be admired not just within the bounds of Chinese literature, but in world literature. Growing up in the Cultural Revolution during which her parents were sent to the countryside, Xue only received a formal education up through elementary school. She learned English on her own and has written books on Dante, Borges and Shakespeare.

Translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping in collaboration, Vertical Motion features stories that do not complicate their language, but draw complicated worlds nonetheless. Readers will be dropped into settings and times which seem almost familiar, almost recognizable. Plants that grow underground, blind beaked underground creatures, cotton candy that can be summoned from thin air—all of Xue’s stories challenge what you think you know, what you think you should know, and what you think you can know. Read the title story and two more in the advanced preview to start exploring.

Click here to read “Vertical Motion,” “Red Leaves,” and “Elena.” And check back later in the week for an interview with the translators and a full review of the collection.

11 March 09 | Chad W. Post |

Recently, I happened to be on the same flight as super-translator Michael Henry Heim (who literally speaks more than a dozen languages). We got to talking about books (naturally) and about what we were currently reading, and as it turns out, we had both brought along Can Xue titles for our trip. He was reading Blue Light in the Sky & Other Stories (from New Directions) and I was reading Five Spice Street (just out from Yale University Press).

What Michael noticed when I gave him my copy of the book and press release (the reason I’m mentioning him at all in this review), is that the quote on the press release was an unedited version of the opening paragraph of the novel.

Since there are very few reviews that focus on the translation (other than to say it was “smooth” or “occasionally clunky”), I thought I’d take a moment to point out the great editing job Yale did on this opening paragraph and what a difference this can make.

So, from the unedited version on the press release:

When it comes to Madam X’s age, here on Five Spice Street opinions differ: there’s no way to decide who’s right. There must be at least twenty-eight points of view, because at the oldest, she’s about fifty (for now, let’s fix it at fifty); at the youngest, she’s twenty-two.

There are a few instances in this paragraph in which the reader is forced to reorder the sentence in order to understand it. Like with the placement of “opinions differ” in the first sentence, and “because at the oldest” (what’s the oldest? the points of view?) in the second. Fixing these sorts of knotty sentences is what one does when editing a translation—even if you don’t know the source language.

Here’s the first paragraph as it appears in the finished book:

When it comes to Madam X’s age, opinions differ here on Five Spice Street. One person’s guess is as good as another’s. There are at least twenty-eight points of view. At one extreme, she’s about fifty (for now, let’s fix it at fifty); at the other, she’s twenty-two.

For a book like this—essentially a surrealistic romp that obeys its own internal logic—it’s important that the writing is clear and direct. In short, the “plot” of Five Spice Street is that Madame X and Mr. Q have had an affair, and everyone on Five Spice Street has their own opinions about it. About how old Madame X, about whether Mr. Q is attractive, about whether Madame X is conducting strange rituals in her bedroom at night, about how the affair started, etc. It’s a novel of voices that constantly contradict one another and that—instead of advancing a linear plot—sort of over-stuff the book with details and speculations and unrelated anecdotes.

This is a very chaotic novel, which isn’t to say that it’s not interesting. Can Xue has a way with images, and the occasionally dashes of humor are great. Five Spice Street is a truly unique novel—in the style in which it’s written and in its overall aesthetic.

It’s also a novel that’s best approached in small doses. Taken as a series of individual scenes, or mini-tales, it’s a pretty compelling read. But with the constant shifting of events, of details, of every possible “fact” presented in the novel (everything seems possible, nothing seems true) creates a sense of constant flux that may or may not really add up to anything in the end.

Blue Light in the Sky & Other Stories contains an afterword in which Can Xue explains—kind of—what she’s up to in her writing. And although this was specifically written for Blue Light, I think it applies rather nicely to Five Spice Street as well:

The particular characterists of my stories have now been acknowledged. Nevertheless, when someone asks me directly, “What is really going on in your stories? How do you write them?,” I’m profoundly afraid of being misunderstood, so all I can say is, “I don’t know.” From any earthly perspective, in truth I do not know. When I write, I intentionally erase any knowledge from my mind.

I believe in the grandness of the original power. The only thing I can do is to devoutly, bring it into play in a manmade, blind atmosphere. Thus, I can break loose from the fetters of platitudes and conventionas, and allow the mighty logos to melt into the omnipresent suggestions that inspire and urge me to keep going ahead. I don’t know what I will write tomorrow, or even in the next few minutes. Nor do I know what is most related to the “inspiration” that has produced my works in an unending stream for more than two decades. But I know one thing with certainty: no matter what hardships I face, I must preserve the spiritual quality of my life. For if I were to lose it, I would lose my entire foundation. [. . .]

Some people say that my stories aren’t useful: they can’t change anything, nor do people understand them. As time goes by, I’ve become increasingly confident about this. First, the production of twenty years’ worth of stories has changed me to the core. I’ve spoken of this above. Next, from my reading experience, this kind of story, which indeed isn’t very “useful,” that not all people can read—for those few very sensitive readers, there is a decisive impact. Perhaps this wasn’t at all the writer’s original intent. I think what this kind of story must change is the soul instead of something superficial. There will always be some readers who will respond—those readers who are especially interested in the strengthening force of art and exploring the soul. With its unusual style, this kind of story will communicate with those readers, stimulating them and calling to them, spurring them on to join in the exploration of the soul.

Kudos to Yale University Press for launching the Margellos World Republic of Letters Series and for including in it such a wonderfully strange, unconventional novel. This bodes really well for the series as a whole.

Order from Harvard Book Store.

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