3 April 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Clarice Lispector is undoubtedly one of the great writers of the past century. Her recent rediscovery—sparked off by the reissuing of The Hour of the Star in Ben Moser’s new translation—is definitely merited, and will hopefully usher in a time in which any number of very deserving female authors from the not-very-distant past finally get their due. Writers like Nathalie Sarraute (the author who most came to mind as I was reading Lispector’s The Chandelier) or Mercè Rodoreda or Ann Quin or Dorothy Richardson or Elsa Morante. (I’m sure you can come up with twenty others.)

The most recent entry in Lispector-mania is The Chandelier, Lispector’s second novel, published in 1946, three years after Near to the Wild Heart, is a true literary event. It’s rare enough that an author of this magnitude and difficulty breaks into the widest circles of the literary establishment, and triply rare that the author in question has a never-before-translated novel right there waiting to be devoured by an already desirous audience.

This book is going to get so much coverage over the next few months. Which is why I really don’t feel bad taking some time to explore my personal reaction to reading this book—and think through some questions about reviewing translations—especially since I personallyhad a really hard time connecting to this novel.



The Chandelier by Clarice Lispector, translated from the Portuguese by Benjamin Moser and Magdalena Edwards (New Directions)

I’m not sure exactly why I couldn’t ever really get into The Chandelier, but there it is. I spent a few weeks working my way through this, occasionally enraptured by the philosophical nature of the prose, frequently skimming to try and find the next plot point, often feeling more obliged to pick this up than excited to get back into it—all of which is probably user error. I generally read too fast. There are so many books stacked up, so many self-imposed reading goals. And time is a premium. Usually that’s not a huge deal—I live in a town whose two sources of pride are a garbage plate and a grocery story, so there aren’t a lot of distractions—but I just couldn’t find the right reading pace for this book.

Beyond that—and again, this is on me, for being a bit of a dummy—I just couldn’t find the right hooks to get into this. I got the general point of it, but to me it read like a much less elegant version of one of Sarraute’s brilliant novels. Over the multiple weeks of reading this, I texted a half-dozen literary friends to see if they had read it and maybe had that magic insight that would make it all fall into place and get me hooked. But, alas.1

This got me thinking about reviews, and what their role can/should be. Nothing that comes after this statement is all that revolutionary, or even necessarily connected to this book. But trying to envision the perfect review for The Chandelier led to a lot of circular arguments about reviews in general. I’m not going to go over all of them right now—this is probably the first of several posts over the next few months about reviewing translations—but let’s see where this all goes. So I’m just going to make some general statements and then argue with myself for a bit.

A Review Should Hype a Book

I think this is a commonly held belief—especially when it comes to reviews of translated books. There are so few opportunities for most of these titles to get any ink-time, so what’s the point in writing about a subpar book that you don’t really like? These opportunities should be maximized by drawing attention to wonderful books that are masterfully translated. If reviews are supposed to bring readers to particular books, shouldn’t we use this opportunity to direct the curious to the masterpieces out there?

Furthermore, what is gained—for the translation profession as a whole—by shitting on a translated title? Just don’t write/tweet/say anything! There are so many good books out there deserving of attention, not to mention all the great translators doing amazing work—so just write about those.

But is that really what criticism is? How can the translation profession really improve if these books aren’t ever criticized? Translators, not to mention readers of international fiction, can gain a lot from seeing what works, what doesn’t work, witnessing the mind of a sharp reader in action. We expect critics to actually break down books originally written in English and examine what works and what doesn’t, thus saying something about art & the world & writing, and we should expect the same treatment for a book that happens to be originally written in another language. There are truths about art and life that can be pulled from this, especially if we give it a close, critical reading.

There’s a fundamental difference though: most translations have been critically analyzed in their original language and have gone through an extensive vetting process to get here. It’s a bit suspect to suddenly be taking down a translated book that was critically acclaimed in its home country. What are you criticizing? The form and writing of the book itself? Based on what? American standards? Biases that are built out of reading mostly American novels with their American styles? If the ending of a Chinese novel isn’t Hollywood enough, then it should ripped apart? Or are you actually criticizing the translation and just not on sure enough footing to say so?

One Should Never Criticize Individual Word Choices in a Translation

So much of so-called “translation criticism” is just nitpicking translations with little to no understanding of the original. Actually, it’s even worse than that. There are two types of people who criticize translations: those who know the original language and get all bent up about the translator using “mom” instead of “mama” or “dove” instead of “pigeon,” and there are those critics who don’t know the original language, but still attribute any and every quirk of the prose to the translator as some sort of “mistake.” It’s another example in which translation criticism is basically taking an international text, comparing it to American-centric literary values, and declaring it inferior. And the “critic” never takes into consideration all the thought about possible choices that the translator went through with nearly every word—the translator, who’s not even given an opportunity to explain—-

Hold the fuck up! We’ll get to the last part of that soon. But first off: sometimes individual word choices are valid examples of how a text works or doesn’t. And NOT just for translations. Remember the criticism of Uncle Charles “reposing” to the outhouse in Joyce? The example that Hugh Kenner turned around into an example of Joyce’s genius and the way he “gave over” that word to Uncle Charles, saying something about his particular perspective on how he sees himself? Individual words are important in constructing characters and a legit critic will apply the same sort of standards to books written in English or in any other language. If a character is using words in dialogue that he would NEVER EVER USE then there’s a problem—no matter who wrote it. Again, a good critic shows how these sorts of choices are building blocks to great literature.

A Review Should Always Talk about the Translation

Fine, except that a translator doesn’t have the same leeway as a writer working in English. We’re bound by the original text and if we don’t reproduce it, we’ll be savaged—by you, by an academic, by a fellow translator—for not being “faithful” enough. It’s unfair to hold us to the same standards, since we’re under a different set of constraints.

I figured you were a translator, given your general defensiveness.

Watch it.

I’m not sure exactly what a critic is supposed to do. On the one hand, we’re supposed to review as many translations as possible to help readers break out of their provincialism, but we’re not supposed to apply the same criteria to these books as those originally written in English. If we criticize the words on the page, the translation, I suppose, then we’re being unfair to translators like Gregory Rabassa’s “Professor Horrendo”; if we don’t write about the translation, then we’ll get a letter from PEN about how we need to “name the translator”; and if we say the translation “seems pretty competent,” then we’re just dumb assholes who aren’t giving credit and don’t know how to review translations. What is it that you want, exactly?

To be treated as an equal to the author. You wouldn’t be reading this book at all if it weren’t for us. (Triply so if it’s from a language that’s not Spanish or French.) The amount of time put into the creation of this book is astonishing, not to mention the sheer amount of critical and creative thought. It’s not like a translator is the same as a goddamn app—we’re artists and deserve to be included in the conversation about the art works that we create. That’s not too much to ask. Sure, it takes you a bit of extra work to engage with the book on two levels—as a book and as a translation—but that’s just the sort of critical thinking that you’re good at, right?

What’s a Review Good For?

But wait. If the point of reviewing a translation is to get general readers to read a great book, do we really want to get into all this technical shit?

Not shit.

Technical SKILL then. Deep dives into translation theory and how to reproduce a language’s syntax in English are 100% guarantees of boring the piss out of a general reader. A solid quarter of Americans didn’t read a book last year. Check that. A quarter of Americans are PROUD they didn’t read a book last year. And half of the rest of them read one book and it was either their high school girlfriend’s self published 99 cent Amazon ebook of dinosaur porn or whatever piece of mediocrity was part of their “One City, One Book!” environment. People don’t give fucks about the intricacies of translation—unless you’re a translator, and the bookselling world shouldn’t be all about YOU. There are, what?, 20,000 readers of literary fiction out there? And, let’s be honest, the translations we’re talking about are works of literature, not spy novels or romances or whatever. Of those 20,000 readers, probably 500 or so read actual book reviews. If you want these reviews to be promotional tools for international literature, we need to up that number. And to up that number, we have to focus on what readers want: plot descriptions, information about what makes a book unique, why it’s worth reading and what about it might not work for everyone. The SAME reasons why they come to a book (or don’t) when it’s written in English. Why should they treat translations as something exotic and more complicated? Doesn’t that defeat your very point?

There must be a middle ground.

One of the things I’ve encountered are book review editors shying away from reviewing translations because they don’t have a reviewer on hand who’s read the original. Or can! But even if they can, do you understand our deadlines? And that they’re REAL deadlines? And Christ, none of us get paid. Yeah, I know YOU’RE underpaid, but $500 for a 500 word review? Can you imagine asking someone to read a novel in the translation AND the original for $500? AND write a review AND have it in by next Saturday? We’re all doing the best we can.

That’s exactly the point! Why are you criticizing us when we’re also doing “the best we can”? We’re slaving away—also for no money—riddled with self-doubt and the fear that critics like you will blow apart all of our work over a single word? A word we chose because it was the best of five bad options? We’re just as talented of wordsmiths as you are, but criticizing our work is somehow just, but criticizing a critic is a bad look and sour grapes and whatever.

How Small Is This World

Here’s my big problem: I’m paid next to nothing to talk about books. Books! Books barely matter anymore to anyone. It’s a thankless project that doesn’t earn money, can maybe find you love (if you love books, like, legitimately), and gets no respect. I’ve said it before and will again that book people are only in it to make it to the end. Just get by. Win and advance. Whatever your inspirational of choice might be. So I do my job. I read books that are by dumb young Brooklyn kids about trust fund living and college aspirations. These books are fucking terrible. I read experimental jet set trash from the intellectuals who feel threatened by the idea that most everyone would rather be playing Netflix and chill. (Fuck YOUR mixed metaphors.) I read translations that are basically just boring books and some that are poorly written—in both languages—and some that are great. Most of the time I just feel manipulated by rich people, but that’s America circa 2018. Yet the things I write about translations—which I think are fun and from the perspective of an informed reader who is just READING the books—are the ones that lead into a tiny wormhole filled with translators saying translator things about how translations translate and translations should be translation translate. It’s the most unreal world. So touchy! American authors are less concerned about reviews because they know no one gives a FUCK about reviews. But translators only want reviews to exist in a world that’s there just to please them.

You’re such a self-involved old white man prick. Wanting to be part of the conversation, instead of judged from on high by someone with questionable taste and knowledge is completely batshit insane. You make all these comments about the tenuous state of books and translation, but, hey, you’re a fat white dude writing reviews in the Age of Yelp. You know who doesn’t matter? You. Reader responses will always exist, but your livelihood comes from newspapers. Newspapers. Seriously. We’re creating something and you’re sitting there blogging. Eat shit. The future of bookselling or readership or whatever you think you understand doesn’t need you at all.

You know who sucks? Publishers.

OMG. They are the worst.

It’s all just a racket for their benefit. A game in which we pretend our lives have meaning so that they can make more money.

I think my editor got paid twice my salary to fix three comma splices. Whereas I translated a goddamn book. Commas! We’re talking about commas.

Because assholes.

Have you ever looked into how much money the big publishers make? The book industry has to be profitable for some people, right? But how does that work? And who is screwing us?

_Look. I’m not a journalist, but . . . _

——————


1 I ended up relying on this review from Music & Literature. It’s a really smart piece that will appeal to those new to Lispector and seasoned Lispector readers. Here are the three quotes I found most useful and intriguing:

The power of Lispector’s heavily textured sentences and Virginia’s unbridled introspections and contemplations of who she wants to be cannot offset the fact that this three-hundred-page book would have benefited from being as economically edited as her more acclaimed works. Virginia’s monotonous ruminations often blur together; her thoughts and struggles can be profound and beautiful, but so many pages of the same rolling waves of dreamy sentences can sap even the hardiest reader’s will to dig into the work. This novel is perfect for those who already revere Lispector and want a further understanding of where her thoughts and aesthetic went after Near to the Wild Heart.

Benjamin Moser and Magdalena Edwards’ shrewd, supple translation of The Chandelier showcases the brilliance of Lispector’s singular style and astutely unfurls the longer, more complex sentences that the author had come to use as a fundamental unit of composition.

Coming out, as it does, during Lispector’s many travels with her husband, The Chandelier deals with a larger alienation and disconnect not only from society, but from other people, and even from oneself. Virginia’s monologues and internal struggles often feel more akin to the philosophical wrangling of a person struggling for the right language to wring herself out. Near the end of the book’s first part, Virginia laments how “Suddenly the words from which she lived in childhood seemed to have run out and she couldn’t find any others” as well as how words define her deepening relationship with her lover Vicente: “She started to change into Vicente’s words and sometimes she would feel that it was more than words that were transformed.” This linguistic transformation gives rise to perhaps the most convincing and joyous moment in the novel, where Virginia is able to speak “the first word of her new experience.” This crisis of identity and where Virginia sees herself within the world is at least glimpsed at in that beautiful moment between her and Vicente.

14 December 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The pub date for Chronicle of the Murdered House by Lúcio Cardoso, which is translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson, with a biographical note from Ben Moser officially came out on Tuesday, December 13th. To celebrate the release of this Brazilian masterpiece, we’ll be running a series of pieces over the rest of this week, including an interview with the translators, some early reviews, an excerpt, and part of Ben Moser’s piece.

We’ll start with this—the press release that was sent to reviewers and booksellers with the galleys.

The book is available at better bookstores everywhere, or through our website. If you order before the end of 2016, use the code BOOKSEASON at checkout to receive 40% off your total order.

“When a friend suggested that Chronicle of the Murdered House might be the greatest modern Brazilian novel, I was startled. There are so many more obvious candidates, after all. But as I thought about it, I realized that the statement wasn’t as strange as it sounds. The book itself is strange—part Faulknerian meditation on the perversities, including sexual, of degenerate country folk; part Dostoevskian examination of good and evil and God—but in its strangeness lies its rare power, and in the sincerity and seriousness with which the essential questions are posed lies its greatness.“—Benjamin Moser



There are a number of approaches to Lúcio Cardoso’s life and work that mark the first English-language publication of his Chronicle of the Murdered House as a major literary event.

For one, there’s Cardoso’s influence on the beloved Clarice Lispector, whose own work is currently enjoying an incredible renaissance. Clarice was enamored with Cardoso, and, as Benjamin Moser explains in his introduction, transformed one of Cardoso’s suggestions into the title of one of her most famous books—Near to the Wild Heart.

Although their writing styles are quite different, you can see the impact Cardoso had on Lispector while reading Chronicle of the Murdered House. The introspective nature of its prose marked a significant turning point in the history of Brazilian writing, carving out a path that Lispector and many others would eventually follow. In contrast to what came before, writing for these authors was less an activity concerned with social or national issues, but, again in Moser’s words, “a spiritual exercise, not an intellectual one.”

For a lot of readers and critics, this approach is particularly interesting given Cardoso’s position as a gay Brazilian author who was also a member of the Catholic Church. Although Chronicle itself doesn’t address many themes of contemporary gay literature, Cardoso’s sexual orientation does influence a lot of his writings, especially in terms of the role homosexuals could play in Brazil during that period.



The comments about Cardoso’s spirituality—as a Catholic and in terms of the goal of his writing—are particularly interesting in context of the morally suspect situations found throughout the book. In isolation, or as part of the jacket copy at least, these bits sound almost overly sensational. There’s incest. Madness. Adultery. An obese, cross-dressing character locked up in his room. There’s a cultured woman from the city whose very presence calls into question generations of familial habits.

The novel is never sordid just for the sake of being sordid though, and beyond the machinations of the plot—which twist and turn like great mid-century, or even Victorian, works—there is the form through which Cardoso tells his story. With shifts of tone and point of view, he utilizes confessions, diary entries, letters, statements, reports, to bring to life this once great family that is now represented by a crumbling estate that they can’t afford to maintain. (A very Faulknerian image.)

This a book that is a “classic” on a number of counts, including its scope, its literary style that approaches but doesn’t always embrace the high modernists, and in its import to Brazilian literature as a whole. A book of this import—that’s spectacular and complex—requires a brilliant translator to really make it work in English. Thankfully, Margaret Jull Costa—translator of such literary giants as Javier Marías, Fernando Pessoa, José Maria Eça de Queirós, José Saramago, and many more—was willing and able to undertake this task. With the help of Robin Patterson (translator of José Luandino Vieira), they have fully captured the intricacies and beauty of Cardoso’s writing, producing a rendition that’s as linguistically powerful as the original.

For such a lengthy book, Chronicle is a rather quick read. It embraces its page-turner impulses, and uses a non-linear structure to stimulate and engross the reader. From the very opening chapter, the reader can get a sense of the overall pattern of dissolution driving the lives of the characters, but keeps reading in order to witness all the juicy details and see just how crazy things can get. (Answer: As crazy as the wake scene in the final chapters.) It’s a book that fills in a gap in our collective knowledge about Brazilian literature from the twentieth century, and hopefully will spark a resurgence of interest in one of Brazil’s greatest literary stars.

4 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Amanda Nelson, BTBA judge and managing editor of Book Riot. We will be running two of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector, translated from the Portuguese by Katrina Dodson (Brazil, New Directions)

The two kinds of literature I most gravitate to are: 1) epic, sweeping, generations-long East-of-Eden-War-and-Peace-ish narratives; you know, old-fashioned stories that draw you in and shove you deep into the lives of the characters and 2) shorter, more introspective, less plot driven punch-in-the-gut books that use words and sentences like a razor to cut out your heart; you know, the ones you have to read with a pen so you can underline each perfectly crafted thought. The Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector is somehow (miraculously) both of these things. That is why it should win.

It’s odd to think of a huge collection of short stories as in any way comparable to the multi-threaded Steinbecks and Tolstoys (and Dickenses and George Eliots and etc.), and it’s true that the characters in Lispector’s stories don’t appear and re-appear. You’re not following a single person or family from birth to death, but you are following Lispector from (artistic) birth to (actual) death, and her characters are so human, so vivid and flawed and normal and strange and real, the stories could be and are about everyone and no one. All the happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

One of the most remarkable things about this collection is that it is so complete. You can follow the writer’s development from the beginning of her career through her artistic maturity and into and out of the more experimental phases, accompanying her along all the twists and turns of her mind until she died. There are so few female authors (especially from the middle class, especially mothers) with a body of work that begins at young adulthood and continues into old age, that isn’t interrupted by the necessities of marriage or children or caring for aging parents. There is nothing at all wrong with a writer not writing anymore or taking pauses to do those things—it’s just notable that the gaps you so often find in the work of women because of necessity is not really present here. Editor Benjamin Moser says it best in his introduction: Clarice was a “woman who was not interrupted: a woman who did not start writing late, or stop for marriage or children, or succumb to drugs or suicide. A woman who, like so many male writers, began in her teens and carried on to the end.”

That inherent feminist thing happening in the book is also notable in the stories themselves, and while we judges have spent time debating just how accidentally (or maybe not) misogynistic some of the long list might or might not be, there’s no ignoring that the Lispector is simply better at portraying women than pretty much any other candidate (the Ferrante and Nettel being the only real competitors). Lispector gives us the inner lives of women from childhood through very old age. Not only are women underrepresented in literature in general and literature in translation specifically, but when they are present it’s so often as a plot prop or object through which the male characters (or authors) can discover things about themselves. That is not Lispector’s game: her women are real, they wrestle with marriage, they struggle with motherhood, they make art, they are bored, they have affairs, get old, play the “cool girl” game long before Gillian Flynn’s Amy gave it a name in Gone Girl. Lispector’s stories all in one place say: we have always been here.

That’s the macro, now about the micro: Lispector is precise at a word-for-word level. To put on my I-Was-Raised-Southern-Baptist hat, I was constantly put in mind of a verse in the book of Hebrews about the word of God being a double-edged sword that cuts between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow, while reading these stories. She’s doing surgery with sentences. A few tidbits:

Not being devoured is the most perfect of feelings. Not being devoured is the secret goal of an entire life. (“The Smallest Woman in the World”)

I also knew that only a mother can resolve birth, and ours was the love of those who rejoice in loving: I was caught up in the grace of having been allowed to love, bells, bells ringing because I know how to worship. (“The Foreign Legion”)

And out of a whole lifetime, by God, sometimes the only thing that saves a person is error, and I know that we shall not be saved so long as our error is not precious to us. (“Mineirinho”)

I’m going to tell you all a secret; life is fatal. We keep this secret in muteness each faced with ourselves because it’s convenient, otherwise we would make every instant fatal. (“Soul Storm”)


And on the translation: well, what an undertaking. To translate the work of a lifetime, to maintain its uniformity without losing the nuances of what changed about her style or tone or voice over time? It’s an admirable feat. Dodson catches that slight, off-kilter weirdness that Lispector’s language has, that low-level-buzz of unease, without being awkward or missing a word or leaving a verbal pothole for the reader to stumble over and cause you to fall out of the story. It’s seamless, it’s strange, it is very, very good.

18 December 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Today’s Best Translated Book Award post is by Mark Haber of Brazos Bookstore. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.

Before encountering the massive, indispensable Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector, I was already a fan. I enjoyed The Hour of the Star and was jolted by the existential brilliance of The Passion of G.H. However, enjoying something and writing about it can often be mutually exclusive. You see, I’m in over my head. Lispector looms large in my mind, a giant, and to attempt writing about her work in any critical way will only expose my shortcomings. More than anything, I’m an enthusiast. I love books and authors not because I always understand them but often because I don’t. The beauty and strangeness of the language, the veil of mystery that hovers above the text—this is what I love most about literature. Did I fully understand Bolaño’s 2666? Or Adler’s Speedboat? Or Paul Metcalf’s Genoa? Of course not. Yet my love for them is powerful and authentic. My favorite books are the ones that demand to be revisited, that contain the ineffable, that bring a sense of wonder, even a blissful confusion. And so, being in waters too deep, I’ll simply list the reasons why you should (and you really should) read the Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector

1. She’s utterly, and without exception, a singular writer.

2. She doesn’t indulge the reader or suffer fools.

3. She writes sentences like: “The sun caught in the blinds quivered on the wall like a Portuguese guitar.”

4. The mythology which surrounds her is deserved.

5. Read as a whole, the Complete Stories is the entire breadth of a literary genius’ artistic life expressed in stories.

6. Like many New Directions books, it’s also an object of art. As such it’s something for guests to envy and/or covet. In this spirit, three copies should be acquired: one for the coffee table, one for the shelf with the other Latin American greats and one, of course, to read.

7. She mixes the domestic and the mythical seamlessly.

8. In her stories there exists no “known,” only the act of grasping and searching for the known.

9. She’s perhaps more enigmatic than even Franz Kafka or Fernando Pessoa.

10. There’s often a humdrum, domestic setting softly rearranged by a kind of ecstatic madness (of language, of character, or both).

11. The translation by Katrina Dodson is lucid and a feat of translated literature.

12. Her stories are dense with the mystery of being alive.

13. The story “One Hundred Years of Forgiveness” opens with: “If you’ve never stolen anything you won’t understand me. And if you’ve never stolen roses, then you can never understand me. I, when I was little, used to steal roses.”

14. Epiphanies aren’t cheap and her stories are replete with them.

15. She’s silly, obtuse, complex, irreverent, satirical and mournful often inside a single paragraph.

16. She will undoubtedly lead you to other Latin American greats like Machado de Assis or Silvina Ocampo or Liliana Heker. Trust me, there’s tons.

17. When she smacks against the confines of language, the reader witnesses her frustration and is all the richer for it.

18. She has more registers in a single story than many 500 page novels.

19. The interior world and the exterior world are given equal attention, often at the same time.

20. The story “Brasilia” is worth the price of admission.

21. Her writing is religious or mystical without trying to be; it simply is.

22. Lispector had no regard for the “rules” of writing and this disregard grants a freedom and vigor evident throughout the book.

23. She’s indulgent and pragmatic: she will digress on a whim and then smack the reader with the point that she’s making.

24. A morning of solitude, a cup of coffee or tea and her stories will bring unequivocal bliss.

25. She contains multitudes.

19 August 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is Kate Garber, bookseller at 192 Books. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.

We know there are many connections to be made in themes and characters across countries and decades. I’d like to provide a fresh example by sharing three passages I ran across while reading for this year’s fiction award. While the children in the following novels face different emotional struggles, each responds with a similar defense mechanism.

Alexandrian Summer by Yitzhak Gormezano Goren, translated by Yardenne Greenspan (New Vessel Press), first published in Hebrew in 1978.

This scene takes place in Alexandria, Egypt in 1951, in a hotel run by ten-year-old Robby’s family, and frequented by eleven-year-old Victor’s family. The relevant thing to know here is that Victor is much more worldly than Robby, and has already introduced him to “a very nice game.” You guessed it, “‘Each of us will lie down in turn, and the others will stick it to him,’ Victor set the rules of the game.”

But what struck me was a passage when the two boys are watching Victor’s father and brother walk away from the hotel, and Victor tells Robby that his father is taking his brother to a prostitute.

“Robby had never heard that word, but his heart told him that its meaning lay in those moldy, mysterious corners, in the appealing, frightening world of sex. Plug your ears, hear no more. But every cell in his body thirsted for more knowledge.” Once Victor tells Robby what a prostitute is, and how “there are houses like that, there are,” Robby falls into confusion.

A father taking his son to a prostitute. Would his father also come to him one day and say, “Robby, let’s go,” then take him by the hand to a big, dark house? What do those houses look like? Maybe they’re more like palaces? Rooms upon rooms, like cells in a beehive. In each cell, a naked woman. . . . He wouldn’t know what to do. His eyes would cling to his father for help . . . [His father would] say, “That’s it, from here on out, you’re on your own.” On his own in a small, seedy room with cobwebs and . . . a woman.

My brief analysis: Of course the first thing Robby latches onto is The House. How better to displace his deep emotional confusion than to spend his energy wondering about the room layout and moving through space. It’s the sort of displacement that a child can latch onto, and which we also often recognize in dreams. (Robby will clearly be dreaming of labyrinthine palaces and cobwebs in attics for a long time, right?)

Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes by Per Petterson, translated by Don Bartlett (Graywolf Press), first published in Norwegian in 1987.

This tiny collection of stories centers on young Arvid. Right at the beginning, Arvid’s Dad has been unable to hold a job since “the shoe industry capsized and sank,” and he’s just returned from another six month stint that didn’t work out. The family gathers. “They were all so bewildered they never got round to asking about anything except what was in the suitcase.” [Spoiler: It was lots of duty-free treats.] They’ve settled and gathered in the kitchen. “And of course Uncle Rolf had to have his say. It was a mystery to Arvid why he came round so often, didn’t he have his own place to live?”

This is kind of a throw-away line but I love it. Obviously Arvid knows where his uncle lives. A mere two pages later: “Uncle Rolf . . . drank up and went home to his flat in Vålerenga. The flat was full of clutter and dust balls everywhere . . . and whenever Arvid came to visit him he had to help with the dishes.” But the backdrop is Uncle Rolf’s condescension to Arvid’s father. In this conversation following his father’s perceived failure, Uncle Rolf says “‘The thing is, Frank, you don’t have any social aspirations, and you know it!’ . . . Arvid could see the irritation crawling around his dad’s face, and it was contagious for he could feel himself getting upset.”

At least for a moment, he can grapple with the mystery of where Uncle Rolf lives, to postpone the mystery of who his father is, and whether his Uncle is correct.

One night, a few pages later: “He dreams that his dad’s blue T-shirt with all the muscles inside it is suddenly empty and flabby and hanging there on a nail in a large empty attic room.” Arvid’s dreams won’t let him avoid the confusion, displacing mysteries onto further representative objects.

The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector, translated by Katrina Dodson (New Directions), originally printed in Portugese in the collection The Foreign Legion, 1964.

In a short story called “Monkeys,” a woman buys a little monkey “whose name would be Lisette. She nearly fit in my hand. She was wearing the skirt, earrings, necklace and bracelet of a Bahian woman.” Very soon, after “admiring Lisette and the way she was ours,” the narrator and her two boys are off in taxis rushing the little monkey to emergency rooms, fearing that she is about to die.

“The next day they called, and I told the boys that Lisette had died. My youngest asked me: ‘Do you think she died wearing her earrings?’ I said yes.” Including the question about her earrings, I think that Lispector has made this moment of grief even more poignant than, say, a question about how she died or whether they can get a new monkey. Read the whole story and it might make you cry.

*

Just to supplement literature with memory, I conclude with another small example of this displacement (also focusing on architecture, in fact). As a child, I didn’t watch many movies, but was curiously obsessed with the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I was entirely creeped out by the Child Catcher, but still needed to watch it over and over. The only clear memory I have of the film is the scene where he searches the doll-maker’s house for children and tells his minions: “You have to know where to look . . . under the floors, in the cracks in the walls, in the woodwork.” Every time I watched the film, I waited anxiously for that scene, hoping to one day figure out how it would be possible for a child to hide in the cracks in the wall. It’s absurd, but was a huge part of my inability to process the coexistence of curiosity and fear, and might be the reason these small elements strike me so.

I don’t mean to say that all children think in the same way—perhaps not everyone reading this associates the deepest experience of childhood to be utter confusion and perpetual displacement—but mostly I hope to remind us of one benefit of reading a wide variety of literature in translation:

Maybe your experiences don’t apply to everyone, but there are few things more unifying than recognizing that your experiences pop up here and there in literature, throughout all of space and time. On one level, we hope to increase our cultural exposure and diversify our empathy; on another, we can take a moment to realize that we’re nothing new. It sometimes doubles as good therapy.

29 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.

A Breath of Life by Clarice Lispector, translated from the Portuguese by Johnny Lorenz and published by New Directions

This piece is by Will Vanderhyden (aka Willsconsin), student in the University of Rochester’s Translation Program and translator of Carlos Labbé’s Navidad and Matanza, which will be released in 2014.

Before I talk directly about why I think Clarice Lispector’s A Breath of Life deserves to win this year’s Best Translated Book Award, I want to offer a little background about how this novel’s English publication came about, mostly because it strengthens my overall argument, but also because it deals with issues relevant to literature in translation more broadly. (I realize that readers of Three Percent might already be familiar with much of the following information regarding Lispector and her English translations, so if you are one of those readers, please forgive the lengthy digression).

Although she is considered by many to be the greatest Brazilian writer of the twentieth century, Clarice Lispector has never enjoyed a large English language readership. She is wildly popular in Brazil, revered and adored to the point of idolatry. Her strange, captivating prose, epic life story, and striking beauty have made her a legendary national icon. Her books are sold in vending machines, her face adorns postage stamps, and her name appears regularly in all sorts of literary and popular media. But for whatever reason—be it the challenging nature of her work, the fact that she’s a woman, flat English translations, or a general lack of interest in Brazilian literature—she has never enjoyed the popularity among English readers of other Latin American Boom writers like Jorge Amado, Julio Cortázar, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Over the last several years, New Directions and Benjamin Moser—author of Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector, a finalist for the National Book Circle Critics Award in 2009—have been working to change that. In 2011, New Directions published Moser’s retranslation of The Hour of the Star (the last novel Lispector published during her lifetime), and in June of 2012 they published a series of four new translations of Lispector novels, all edited by Moser. This series includes retranslations of three of her most well known books—Near to the Wild Heart (translated by Alison Entrkin), Aqua Viva (translated by Stefan Tobler), and The Passion According to G. H. (translated by Idra Novey)—as well as the first English edition of A Breath of Life (translated by Johnny Lorenz), a novel which was published after Lispector’s death, and assembled, organized and edited by her close friend Olga Borelli.

In the introduction to A Breath of Life, Moser refers to New Directions series of Lispector translations as “the most important project of translation into English of a Latin American author since the complete works of Jorge Luis Borges were published a decade ago.” According to Moser, the original English translations of Lispector’s work were woefully inadequate, flattening out, “correcting,” and explaining the strange grammar, idiosyncratic syntax, and surprising word choices that define Lispector’s style. Lispector’s own response to an early French translation of Near to the Wild Heart, which upset her because of the liberties it took in translating her style, provides definitive support for Moser’s sentiment, in a letter to her editor at the time she wrote:

I admit, if you like, the sentences do not reflect the usual manner of speaking, but I assure you that it is the same in Portuguese. The punctuation I employed in the book is not accidental and does not result from ignorance of the rules of grammar. You will agree that elementary principals of punctuation are taught in every school. I am fully aware of the reasons that led me to choose this punctuation and insist that it be respected.

Though he acknowledges that, to some extent, translators invariably tend to smooth out oddities and correct “errors” present in original works, for his own translation of The Hour of the Star and for the other Lispector translations he edited for New Directions, Moser aimed for the greatest fidelity possible to the syntax and grammar of her Portuguese originals. In the afterword to The Hour of the Star, he writes: “The translator must therefore resist the temptation to explain or rearrange her prose, which can only flatten it and remove from it the ‘foreign’ aura that is its hallmark, and its glory.”

Lispector has clearly carved out her place in the canon of world literature. Her unique artistic vision, innovative narrative style, and philosophical insight situate her comfortably among the best writers of the twentieth century. And in light of the aim—and what I believe to be the success—of the Moser/New Directions project, the comparison to the translation of Borges’ complete works, which might come off as overblown at first glance, seems to me entirely appropriate. Because A Breath of Life is the only title in the New Directions series that is not a retranslation, it is the only one eligible for the BTBA. Which is not to say that it necessarily represents the significance of the entire project, but at the same time, its importance as a translated book cannot be fully appreciated outside that context.

So, finally, A Breath of Life. This novel, like much of Lispector’s work, delves into the relationships between thoughts, sensations, words, facts, and objects; into the ways language constructs and mediates what we call reality. It is structured as a sort of dialogue between a male “Author” and Angela, a character he creates. In short, alternating passages, the two voices reflect on the nature of time, meaning, death, and on the relationship between author and character, between creator and creation. As the “Author” states:

Angela and I are my interior dialogue: I talk to myself. Angela is from my dark interior: she however comes to light. The tenebrous darkness from which I emerge. Pullulating darkness, lava of a humid volcano burning intensely. Darkness full of worms and butterflies, rats and stars.

If the novel had a plot, it might be described as the “Author’s” struggle to understand Angela and his relationship to her, and Angela’s struggle to understand herself and her relationship to the “things” of the world. But it all takes place inside; there is no action, no grounding in the world, no “real” handhold.

The structure of an interior dialogue between author and character—which might be thought of as defining a split in Lispector’s mind, a divided self—undermines the distinction between form and content, laying bare the ways in which not only fiction and fictitious characters, but the “facts” of the world in which we live, and our identities, what we call “selves,” are fabrications of language. As the “Author” writes: “Reality does not exist in itself. What there is is seeing the truth through dream. Real life is merely symbolic: it refers to something else.” And: “I wouldn’t exist if there were no words.” And: “Angela goes from language to existence. She wouldn’t exist if there were no words.”

If all this sounds really abstract, well, it is. Many questions are raised and very few unambiguous answers are given. Angela tells us:

I know the secret of the sphinx. She did not devour me because I gave the right answer to her question. But I am an enigma for the sphinx and nevertheless I did not devour her. Decipher me, I said to the sphinx. And she fell mute. The pyramids are eternal. They will always be restored. Is the human soul a thing? Is it eternal? Between the hammer and the blows I hear silence.

There are many such quotable lines and Nietzsche-esque aphorisms, but in itself this probing into the nature of reality, identity, and meaning is not really what gives this book its power. It is the way Lispector’s style is able to render these ideas not only thought but also felt. The structure and rhythm of her sentences, the surprising juxtapositions, and subtle, provocative rearrangements of ordinary language are able to tap into something primordial that transcends the limits of ordinary expression. And here we readers of Lispector in English are indebted to the extraordinary work of translator Johnny Lorenz and the vision of Benjamin Moser, who, by holding true to Lispector’s unconventional grammar and syntax, sustain the jagged, hypnotic musicality that makes her prose so intellectually rewarding and so viscerally resonant.

A Breath of Life deserves to win the BTBA because it is the only entirely new part of a translation series that reintroduces a canonical writer to English readers; but also because it is a beautiful, original, and deeply intelligent book by a writer who leaves us, like the sphinx, mute and wondering at her genius and her mystery.

(As far as wrestling goes, no contest: Lispector will seduce all comers with her feline eyes then crush them with the weight of her brain).

25 February 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over at Bomb’s blog you can read “First Kiss,” a short story by Clarice Lispector, and translated from the Portuguese by Rachel Klein.

The two of them murmured more than talked: the relationship had begun just a little while before and they were both giddy, it was love. Love and what comes with it: jealousy.

—It’s fine, I believe you that I’m your first love, this makes me happy. But tell me the truth, only the truth: you never kissed a woman before you kissed me?
It was simple:
—Yes, I’ve kissed a woman before.
—Who was she?, she asked sorrowfully
He tried to tell it crudely, he didn’t know how.

The tour bus slowly climbed the mountain range. He, a kid surrounded by noisy kids, let the cool breeze hit his face and pass through his hair with its long fingers, fine and weightless like those of a mother. At times he remained quiet, without quite thinking, and only feeling – it felt so good. Concentrating on feeling was difficult in the midst of the uproar of his friends.

Read the full story here.

13 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Quantum Sarah on Clarice Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart, which is translated from the Portuguese by Alison Entrekin and is available from New Directions.

Here is part of her review:

“He was alone. He was unheeded, happy, and near to the wild heart of life.” This is the epigraph, borrowed from Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, that captures the modernist spirit so essential to Clarice Lispector’s revolutionary novel, Near to the Wild Heart. As her fierce and precocious protagonist struggles through adolescence and young adulthood, Lispector offers a wealth of luminous meditations on human nature, consciousness, individuality, and God. In this new translation by Alison Entrekin (New Directions, 2012), the intensity and brilliance of Lispector’s prose thrills to life. Surprising, powerful, and revelatory, Near to the Wild Heart recounts with unforgettable candor the life of an audacious young woman in modern society.

Lispector’s breakthrough novel rose to instant and lasting fame in Brazil upon publication in 1943, and it’s no wonder: the ideas presented within are mind-blowing. Take, for instance, Joana’s description of what it feels like to be in a relationship:

Click here to read the entire review.

13 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

“He was alone. He was unheeded, happy, and near to the wild heart of life.” This is the epigraph, borrowed from Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, that captures the modernist spirit so essential to Clarice Lispector’s revolutionary novel, Near to the Wild Heart. As her fierce and precocious protagonist struggles through adolescence and young adulthood, Lispector offers a wealth of luminous meditations on human nature, consciousness, individuality, and God. In this new translation by Alison Entrekin (New Directions, 2012), the intensity and brilliance of Lispector’s prose thrills to life. Surprising, powerful, and revelatory, Near to the Wild Heart recounts with unforgettable candor the life of an audacious young woman in modern society.

Lispector’s breakthrough novel rose to instant and lasting fame in Brazil upon publication in 1943, and it’s no wonder: the ideas presented within are mind-blowing. Take, for instance, Joana’s description of what it feels like to be in a relationship:

Just as the space surrounded by four walls has a specific value, provoked not so much because it is a space but because it is surrounded by walls. Otávio made her into something that wasn’t her but himself and which Joana received out of pity for both. . . Besides: how could she tie herself to a man without allowing him to imprison her? How could she prevent him from developing his four walls over her body and soul?

This startling metaphor is remarkably precise: haven’t we all felt, at one time or another, “enclosed” by a loved one, albeit protected? Don’t the structural walls of relationships also compromise our identity, defining us with a substance that is not ourselves? Add to these astute insights Lispector’s radical writing style, which mirrors the process of thinking – much like in Woolf’s The Waves. Though nominal events do take place in the text – Joana’s father dies; Joana goes to live with her aunt; Joana attends boarding school, gets married, and leaves her husband – inner mental life constitutes the book’s central concern. Fraught with dense introspection, many pages are devoted solely to Joana’s philosophical quandaries:

. . .She asked herself many questions, but she could never answer herself: she’d stop in order to feel. How was a triangle born? As an idea first? Or did it come after the shape had been executed? Would a triangle be born fatally? Things were rich. – She would want to spend time on the question. But love invaded her. Triangle, circle, straight lines. . . As harmonious and mysterious as an arpeggio. Where does music go when it’s not playing? -She asked herself. And disarmed she would answer: may they make a harp out of my nerves when I die.

Indeed, Joana is a beautiful thinker, but the wilderness of her imagination also isolates her from others. Other characters perceive her with confusion, sometimes labeling her “evil” or “unfeeling”: “She’s a cold viper, Alberto, there’s no love or gratitude in her,” her aunt says. On the other hand, her husband, Otávio, is baffled by the fatal mix of attraction and repulsion Joana arouses in him. Nonetheless, he can’t deny the way she profoundly impacts his life: “She would rise up in him, not in his head like a common memory, but in the center of his body, vague and lucid, interrupting his life like the sudden pealing of a bell.” A sort of irony emerges in the push-pull attitude Joana exhibits toward relationships, alternately embracing others for the comfort they promise and rejecting them when they burden her.

I question whether the actions and emotions Joana unleashes are really “evil” – they’re intense, for sure, but I think Joana is better described as amoral. And it’s precisely this lack of conventional mores that allows her to imagine and discover so much: because she moves through life without needing to label anything ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ Joana can think unrestrained. No thought or feeling is taboo for her, even if it proves her animal nature. If a man devouring meat allures her, or if contrived human “goodness” disgusts her, she’s not embarrassed or afraid to report it with gritty impartiality:

. . .goodness makes me want to be sick. Goodness was lukewarm and light. It smelled of raw meat kept for too long. Without entirely rotting in spite of everything. It was freshened up from time to time, seasoned a little, enough to keep it a piece of lukewarm, quiet meat.

. . . she had seen a greedy man eating. She had secretly watched his bulging eyes, gleaming and stupid, trying not to miss the slightest trace of flavor. And his hands, his hands. One holding a fork with a piece of bloody meat (not warm and quiet, but very much alive, ironic, immoral) skewered on it, the other twitching on the tablecloth, pawing it nervously in his urgency to eat another mouthful already. . .The ferocity, the richness of his color. . . A shiver had run down Joana’s spine, with the sorry cup of coffee in front of her. But she wouldn’t be able to tell afterwards if it had been out of repugnance or fascination and lust. Both no doubt. . . As if she were watching someone drink water only to discover her own thirst, profound and ancient.

As difficult of a heroine as Joana is, and as difficult as Lispector’s prose may be – sometimes verging on abstraction – there’s something deeply relatable about both: a deep yearning to understand and to be understood permeates the text of this book. Beneath the surface of her words, Joana is deeply self-conscious, frustrated with her ability to say what she actually means. Wearily, she repeats:

‘Yes, I know. . . The distance that separates emotions from words. I’ve already thought about that. And the most curious thing is that the moment I try to speak not only do I fail to express what I feel but what I feel slowly becomes what I say. Or at least what makes me act is not, most certainly, what I feel but what I say.’

This is the challenge, which Moser points to in his introduction, that forms the crux of the book: to capture “the symbol of the thing in the thing itself;” to successfully unite words with meaning and emotions. This linguistic struggle parallels Joana’s own psychological struggle to make herself understood in relation to others, while simultaneously preserving her individuality. Should she exist alone, full-fledged – like a solitary word – symbolizing only that which she contains in her own form? Or should she attach herself to other layers of meaning – people, beliefs, or God – which will necessarily plaster themselves over her own essential meaning?

Joana’s conundrum, though complex, is common. Haven’t we all been bound in the archetypal struggle of communication at some point? “Try to understand my heroine, Aunty, listen,” Joana says. “She is vague and audacious. She doesn’t love, she isn’t loved. . . However what Joana has inside her is something stronger than the love that people give and what she has inside her demands more than the love people receive. Do you understand, Aunty? I wouldn’t call her a hero, as I promised Daddy myself.” Yet Joana is a heroine of sorts: as much as she might defy our expectations, she’s brave enough to tell the truth. By maintaining her selfhood to the last, Joana gives us something deeply real. Though the truth may not be convenient or comfortable, those who have the courage to tell it are the real heroes.

21 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The finished copies of the four new Lispector translations—Near to the Wild Heart, A Breath of Life, The Passion According to G.H., and Agua Viva—and in addition to creating a picture of Lispector when you put the fronts together (click here to see what I’m talking about), if you flip the books over, you can create a second image of Lispector:

Beautiful. And reason #765 why you should buy—and READ—all four of these.

16 April 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

All four galleys arrived today, and every single book I was planning on reading has been pushed aside for the moment . . .

(ONE COMPLAINT: There is really no reason whatsoever to include a quote from J-Franz on the front of Near to the Wild Heart. I saw that and threw up a little bit in my mouth, especially considering that—at least based on all of his fiction and that totally mental Harper’s essay from a while back—my taste in literature and Franzen’s tend to overlap not at all.)

29 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

A couple weeks ago, Ben Moser was in town for the unfortunately acronymed NeMLA conference. We took advantage of this to host a special RTWCS event to talk to Ben about his biography of Lispector (Why This World, Oxford University Press), his new translation of The Hour of the Star, and the four Lispector books he’s editing for New Directions.

The results were pretty entertaining, in part because Ben (who is also a contributing editor to Harper’s and on the board of the National Book Critics Circle) is so damn entertaining, and in part because Lispector is one of the most interesting literary figures of this past century.

6 July 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This is pretty cool. Starting this month, PEN America is launching PEN Reads an online reading group allowing readers and authors to interact. And being PEN, they’re also going to include essays and commentary from prominent world authors, scholars, etc., etc.

The first book in the program is Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star (which is available from New Directions):

This haunting tale of love and pain, death and art, is widely viewed as the Brazilian author’s masterwork. Written shortly before her death, this slim novel boldly cracks open the riddles of daily existence and draws out glimmering bits of truth. Beautifully translated from the Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero, The Hour of the Star is a vivid reminder of the power of literature, and an affirmation of its ability to connect the seemingly disparate points of the human condition.

Lispector’s amazing, and I’m really looking forward to reading this and joining in the conversation . . . To get things started, PEN posted the opening section of the novel and an introductory essay by Colm Tóibín:

The Hour of the Star is like being brought backstage during the performance of a play and allowed odd glimpses of the actors and the audience, and further and more intense glimpses of the mechanics of the theatre—the scene and costume changes, the creation of artifice—with many interruptions by the backstage staff.

Nothing is stable in the text. The voice of the narrator moves from the darkest wondering about existence and God to almost comic wandering around his character—watching her, entering her mind, listening to her. He is filled with pity and sympathy for her case—her poverty, her innocence, how much she does not know and cannot imagine—but he is also alert to the the writing of fiction itself as an activity which demands tricks which he, the poor narrator, simply does not possess, or does not find useful. It is hard to decide who to feel more sorry for, Macabea or the narrator, the innocent victim of life, or the highly-self conscious victim of his own failure. The one who knows too little, or the one who knows too much.

The narrative moves from a set of broad strokes about character and scene, with throw-away moments and casual statements which sum up and analyse, to aphorisms about life and death and the mystery of time and God. It moves from a deep awareness about the tragedy of being alive to a sly allowance for the fact that existence is a comedy. The story is set both in a Brazil that is almost too real in the limit it sets on the characters’ lives and a Brazil of the mind and the imagination, made vast by the way in which words and images, and shifts of tone and texture, are deployed by Lispector in her mysterious swan-song.

And if you’re interested in more info on Lispector herself, you should definitely check out Ben Moser’s Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector. Here’s a link to the first chapter and a link to a piece Ben wrote for Publishing Perspectives.

3 September 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

This post is two days overdue, so you may already have noticed that Brazos has replaced Skylight as our “Featured Bookstore” for September.

Back when I did sales calls at Dalkey, I used to love calling Brazos and talking to Karl Kilian. Very nice guy, very kind, very interested in our books. So I was dismayed when he decided to take a job at the Menil Collection and was going to have to sell the store . . . Well, as is detailed in this article, twenty-five local individuals stepped up, pooled resources, formed Brazos Bookstore Acquisition, a limited liability corporation, and saved Brazos.

Jane Moser—the store manager, and more on her in a second—has a great quote about this: “Houston is known for its oil and conservative politics. It’s really nice to have a literary community take a stand and say it will not let the store disappear.”

To be completely honest, I’ve never been to Brazos—or even to Houston, although I seem to know a lot of cool literary people down there—and the real reason I want to feature Brazos this particular month is because of Jane’s son Benjamin. Ben Moser is the new literary editor at Harper’s, a very funny guy, and the author of Why This World, the new biography of Clarice Lispector. He’s actually in the States right now to promote the book and will be “reading at Brazos” on September 14th.

All month, all of the books mentioned in our posts will link to Brazos’s online ordering catalog. Please take advantage and help support Brazos—one of the top indie stores in the country.

13 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Following up on my earlier post about Benjamin Moser’s forthcoming Lispector biography, Why This World, I want to correct some information about her available titles.

In addition to all the New Directions ones I listed on the original post, Family Ties is also available from the University of Texas Press, and this fall, the UK based Haus Publishing will be reissuing The Apple in the Dark with a new introduction by Moser.

(Haus is one of the coolest presses I’ve come across recently. Found out about them at the London Book Fair thanks to their connection with American University of Cairo Press. And the fact that they do amazing work. More on them in a separate post . . .)

(And granted, I’m not very old, but once, one of my interns was reading Family Ties and I made a joke about Michael J. Fox and the TV show. As it turns out, my befuddled intern wasn’t born until after the show had gone off the air.)

9 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

From today’s Publishing Perspectives piece by Moser about the origins of his project (Why This World) and all that he went through to research this elusive figure:

Maybe because the project began with such élan, I found myself undaunted by the many obstacles that were thrown at me. Neither the cuisine of rural Ukraine, where Clarice, the daughter of Jewish refugees was born; nor the rush-hour traffic in Recife, where she grew up; nor the zealous guardians of the archives of Bern, where she lived as the wife of a Brazilian diplomat, could dissuade me from my task.

I pored over thousands of pages of master’s theses from obscure universities; I learned Yiddish in order to read family memoirs. Time and again, I tugged out an abusively overused credit card: to buy books, including, ultimately, more copies of her rare first novel, Near to the Wild Heart, than are in all the libraries in the United States put together; to chase down some elusive materials in a suburban house in Manchester; to pay a visit to a man in Paris who may or may not have been her lover (he wasn’t); to put myself on yet another fourteen-hour economy flight in order to spend long days speaking to often-reluctant witnesses.

I got called an anti-Semite and an Ugly American; I also got to spend afternoons with loving Jewish grandmothers who made me tea and sent their maids to my hotel with homemade soup when I came down with the flu. I got to eat pizza with a woman in Kiev who had just returned from Chernobyl and who casually laid her Geiger counter on the table as she was digging through her purse in search of her cigarettes.

7 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

One of the fall books that I’m really looking forward to is Benjamin Moser’s biography of Clarice Lispector entitled Why This World, which, according to the back jacket, is “based on previously unknown manuscripts, numerous interviews, and years of research on three continents.”

Moser replaced the late John Leonard as the author of Harper’s “New Books” column, and is also a contributor to New York Review of Books. (And his mom runs Brazos Bookstore—a future featured indie bookstore.)

Lispector was born in the Ukraine, but grew up in Brazil and wrote all of her works in Portuguese. Most of her books are available from New Directions, including The Hour of the Star, Selected Cronicas, and Soulstorm. (University of Texas did Apple in the Dark a number of years ago, but it’s currently out-of-print.)

She was a fascinating writer, and her life sounds equally intriguing. I’m hoping to write a full review of this bio in the not-too-distant future, but here’s a bit from the beginning about the mysterious, beautiful Clarice Lispector:

In this void of information a whole mythology sprang up. Reading accounts of her at different points in her life, one can hardly believe they concern the same person. The points of disagreement were not trivial. “Clarice Lispector” was once thought to be a pseudonym, and her original name was not known until after her death. Where exactly she was born and how old she was were also unclear. Her nationality was questioned and the identity of her native language was obscure. One authority will testify that she was right-wing and another will hint that she was a Communist. One will insist that she was a pious Catholic, though she was actually a Jew. Rumor will sometimes have it that she was a lesbian, though at one point rumor also had it that she was, in fact, a man.

What makes this tangle of contradictions so odd is that Clarice Lispector is not a hazy figure known from shreds of antique papyrus. She has been dead hardly thirty years. Many people survive who knew her well. She was prominent virtually from adolescence, her life was extensively documented in the press, and she left behind an extensive correspondence. Still, few great modern artists are quite as fundamentally unfamiliar. How can a person who lived in a large Western city in the middle of the twentieth century, who gave interviews, lived in high-rise apartments, and traveled by air, remain so enigmatic?

....
The Odyssey
The Odyssey by Homer
Reviewed by Peter Constantine

Now goddess, child of Zeus,
tell the old story for our modern times.

–(The Odyssey, Book I, line 10. Emily Wilson)

In literary translation of works from other eras, there are always two basic tasks that a translator needs. . .

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I Remember Nightfall by Marosa di Giorgio
Reviewed by Talia Franks

I Remember Nightfall by Marosa di Giorgio (trans. From the Spanish by Jeannine Marie Pitas) is a bilingual poetry volume in four parts, consisting of the poems “The History of Violets,” “Magnolia,” “The War of the Orchards,” and “The Native. . .

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Joyce y las gallinas
Joyce y las gallinas by Anna Ballbona
Reviewed by Brendan Riley

This review was originally published as a report on the book at New Spanish Books, and has been reprinted here with permission of the reviewer. The book was originally published in the Catalan by Anagrama as Joyce i les. . .

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Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World
Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World by Ella Frances Sanders
Reviewed by Kaija Straumanis

Hello and greetings in the 2017 holiday season!

For those of you still looking for something to gift a friend or family member this winter season, or if you’re on the lookout for something to gift in the. . .

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The Size of the World
The Size of the World by Branko Anđić
Reviewed by Jaimie Lau

Three generations of men—a storyteller, his father and his son—encompass this book’s world. . . . it is a world of historical confusion, illusion, and hope of three generations of Belgraders.

The first and last sentences of the first. . .

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Island of Point Nemo
Island of Point Nemo by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès
Reviewed by Katherine Rucker

The Island of Point Nemo is a novel tour by plane, train, automobile, blimp, horse, and submarine through a world that I can only hope is what Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès’s psyche looks like, giant squids and all.

What. . .

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The Truce
The Truce by Mario Benedetti
Reviewed by Adrianne Aron

Mario Benedetti (1920-2009), Uruguay’s most beloved writer, was a man who loved to bend the rules. He gave his haikus as many syllables as fit his mood, and wrote a play divided into sections instead of acts. In his country,. . .

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