Having been at this for almost three years myself, I’m astounded by Michael Orthofer’s ability to keep writing such quality posts and reviews for so long. He’s on top of everything related to international literature, and really does cover stuff that no one else is writing about.
So congrats, Michael!
And in related news, Michael recently bought a Sony eReader. I’ll be very interested to see what he thinks of this as time goes on . . .
Back on April 5, 1999, the Complete Review published its first review, giving Nicholson Baker’s The Everlasting Story of Nory a “C” for being “too cute for its own good.” Well, 2,250 reviews and ten years later and CR is still going strong.
Michael Orthofer has a nice write up about his first decade running the site, and his desire to do even more:
The mix of books covered at the complete review remains eclectic (mostly my fault/taste), and while best-known for coverage of translated (and, occasionally, not-yet-translated) fiction, I’m more or less satisfied with the range of books covered. I’d always like to cover more — far more — but the logistics are too daunting. (The grand irony of the site for me also always remains that since it takes up so much of my time I actually read less than I otherwise might.)
He’s already averaging 225 reviews a year—for one person that’s absolutely amazing. And yes, it really is just one person:
After all these years I also figure it is time to abandon my hopes of creating an independent institutional identity for the complete review. I’ve always tried to stay in the background (and would, of course, prefer disappearing completely unrecognized behind the scenes, an entirely anonymous puppet-master), but despite my best efforts to de-personalize the site it has become futile to avoid the obvious: complete review, c’est moi. Not that it’s always been that way, not absolutely entirely, but by now I figure some ninety-five per cent of the reviews, and near as much of the weblog-content can be ascribed to me, and all of it in recent times, and so I might as well do away with any pretense of there being anything more to the complete review than me for now. (There’s always hope that the complete review-as-institution concept can be revived, but between my ‘vision’ for the site, and my taskmaster-skills … don’t count on it.) Hence one minor change: posts and reviews will now be signed ‘M.A.Orthofer’, as I might as well lay claim to (and accept blame for) them.
Congrats to Michael and best of luck for the next ten years.
I don’t think there’s a reviewer, or publication, in America that’s as diverse as Michael Orthofer’s Complete Review. Nor as meticulous about record keeping and self-aware about its reviewing trends.
Back in 2004, Michael started the How International Are We? report to find out how good of a job he was doing in reviewing books from around the world. At the time, Complete Review contained 1,200 reviews, two-thirds of which were books originally written in English.
Every 100 reviews (which happens about every six months or less—how does he do this?!) he posts an update to this report looking at the makeup of the most recent batch of reviews. He’s now up to 2,200 reviews total, and of the past 100, only 21 were written in English, whereas 23 were originally written in French. He also added a couple new languages, and has now reviewed books from 50 different languages. He also posted a chart with all the relevant data. Interestingly, books originally written in English now make up 50% of the 2,200 reviews—a much smaller percentage than the 66% it was back four years ago.
We’re a bit late with the news—I swear, the Book Fair will be my excuse for everything for the next three weeks at least—but Uwe Tellkamp’s Der Turm won this year’s German Book Prize. Hasn’t been a huge amount of interest from American or British publishers (surprise!) for this 1,000 page book. Michael Orthofer is one of (if not the) first American’s to review the novel giving it a solid B+:
Der Turm is set in Dresden, in the East Germany of the 1980s, then still the German Democratic Republic. The book covers the period right up to the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, though it moves at varying speeds across these years, lingering over particular episodes and stretches, then leaping over longer periods. [. . .]
Tellkamp offers a vast survey of East German life, even as he keeps it within relatively limited areas: school, the workplace (the hospital and the publishing house), army life. For the most part, those whose lives are described are fairly well-to-do — if not financially particularly well-off, at least relatively secure in their places, and certainly comfortable (even as that occasionally proves illusory). True, occasionally strangers are assigned a portion of their living spaces, as lines are redrawn in the houses and officialdom literally encroaches on their lives further, but most can get by relatively comfortably. Tellkamp does, however, pointedly describe the lives of the truly privileged, the nation’s favoured sons, which some of the others catch a glimpse of — an entirely different world. [. . .]
Yes, in many respects Der Turm is a glorious epic of that sad last decade of East German history, with some remarkable patches of writing and some very fine scenes. Yet it feels incomplete as a history, the pendulum swinging too far and spitefully back in a book that drips with contempt and feels too personal in its reckoning with an entire nation and system.
Michael Orthofer from Complete Review is responsible for getting me interested in Amelie Nothomb. He’s reviewed twelve of her books, grading all of them between a B and an A. (Most are in the A or A- range, with Loving Sabotage—published by New Directions—receiving an A+.)
Unfortunately, despite this praise, Nothomb has been overlooked in America, and in fact, her last few books have only been published in the UK and not in the U.S.
And to add to that—this interview, which is in one of the UK’s largest and most respected papers, doesn’t seem to be tied to a recently released or forthcoming title . . . I feel like I must be missing something: why would a newspaper interview a literary author (especially one from Belgium) without some pressing cause? Those Brits and their literary coverage . . .
The interview itself is pretty fascinating, starting with the autobiographical elements in her work (and the way this is limited):
Fear and Loathing, awarded the Académie Française prize in 1999 and skilfully filmed by Alain Corneau in 2003, tells the story of the year she spent working for a big Japanese corporation, following Amelie-san’s catastrophic encounters with the company’s hierarchy. The Character of Rain, first published in 2000, reimagines the author’s early years in Japan, charting her transformation from an unresponsive piece of living matter to the beloved focus of the household. Ni d’Eve ni d’Adam, which won the Prix de Flore at the end of last year, returns to the same period of her life as Fear and Loathing, but this time tells the story of her love affair with a young Japanese man. [. . .]
Nothomb’s autobiographical fiction is further constrained in time, dealing only with her life before the publication in 1992 of her sensational debut, Hygiene de l’Assassin (The Assassin’s Purity). Since then she has gone on to become a fixture of the French literary calendar, publishing one bestseller a year, as regular as clockwork. This formidable track record has gained her legions of adoring fans, and an army of envious detractors, but her success has yet to find its way into her fiction. Her literary digestion is very slow, she explains, and her life after the age of 25 “doesn’t inspire me”.
And if you think a “bestseller a year” is impressive, that’s nothing:
Sixteen published novels represent only a fraction of her prodigious output, however. Nothomb declares herself to be in the middle of her 64th manuscript, having reached a rhythm where she completes three or four manuscripts a year, publishing only those which she feels comfortable sharing with others.
She’s the Joyce Carol Oates of Belgium! (Although with fewer annual publications, of course.)
I also got a kick out of her refusal to read for The Guardian books podcast:
Confident, witty and courteous with a quick intelligence, a keen sense of humour, and the assurance brought by continued success, it is all the more puzzling that Nothomb should be unwilling to do a brief reading. She modestly suggests that she isn’t gifted as an actress, and cites the difference in literary cultures between England and France, where writers seldom perform their work in public. But the real reason for her refusal is a question of identity. Her literary voice is so vibrant, so baritonal that on first meeting, her light, airy speaking voice comes as something of a surprise. It’s a curious mismatch of which she is only too aware. If she was to read her own work, she says, she would betray it.
This interview has convinced me to go pick up some of her other works (and to have Open Letter check out a few of the untranslated ones) after 2666, Senselessness, etc., etc.
We mentioned this a couple weeks back, but this morning, the Literary Saloon has a more factual follow-up to Douglas Kibbee’s claim that translations are on the rise, as evidenced by the increase in coverage for translations in the New York Times Book Review.
Michael Orthofer—who both questioned the veracity of this statement and the idea that a review of a translation a week was a success—compiled some stats on the last three issues:
Of the 62 books reviewed in all a mere two — Ogawa Yoko’s The Diving Pool and Michael Krüger’s The Executor — were originally written in a foreign language (and they only received the ‘books-in-brief’-treatment).
I have a complicated relationship to all of this, in part because I feel that Kibbee’s kind of right—things are getting better for translations, he just chose an odd way of “proving” it—and that it’s not necessarily the mandate/responsibility of the NYTBR to cover a certain number of literary translations. True, it’s unfortunate that so few foreign voices make their way into the Book Review, and as a publisher who is always scrapping for any review coverage we can get, I wish the Times reviewed only literary translations, but I don’t feel like the Times is unilaterally hostile towards all books in translations.
(I’m sure many bloggers will disagree with me about this, but I really believe that what gets reviewed is tied up in a more complicated dynamic including who the publishers are, what’s hot, how publishers publicize, etc., etc. It’s just not as simple as translation vs. English . . . It may fall more into the realm of large publisher—with all the clout and organizational resources associated with that—versus small—and often disorganized or too busy to focus—and since large publishers have the means to really promote their books, and since so few are works in translation, these statistics turn out the way they do. I’d be interested in seeing what the percentages are for coverage of translated books from commercial presses versus translated books from indie presses. I suspect that a healthy percentage of books reviewed in the NYTBR from independent presses are literature in translation—but that the number of reviews of books from independent, or university, presses is rather modest. In shorthand, it’s complicated . . . )
One thing that came up at the Translation Conference panel was the relative lack of translator-reviewers. At a panel that took place a few weeks ago, representatives from the New York Times and The New Republic commented on how it can be difficult to find a good reviewer familiar enough with the context and tradition surrounding a particular work of international literature to be capable of writing a really thoughtful, interesting review.
That may be a bit of a cop-out, but it is absolutely true that there are far more American writers reviewing these days than there are translators . . . Not sure in the end if this would make a difference, but if there were a couple dozen very active translator-reviewers out there pitching books, capable of writing about a work from Brazil without relying solely on the English version and flap-copy bio of the author, maybe there would be an overall increase in the amount of general coverage of translations. . . .
Over at the Literary Saloon it appears that Michael Orthofer has received a galley of Nazi Literature in the Americas, the next Bolano book to be published in English. It’s due out from New Directions in February, which is a mere 1 . . . 2 . . . 3 . . . 4 months away. (A third of a year! Good God!)
Well, it’s never too soon to start the hype, and Orthofer does a great job of writing selling-type copy:
First of all, it comes with an epigraph by Augusto Monterroso, which already goes a long way in winning us over.
The book itself is a sort of mock-encyclopedia of imagined author-lives, complete with an extensive bibliography (a closing section titled ‘Epilogue for Monsters’). At just over two hundred pages it looks the right size not to be too wearing, and this seems exactly the sort of thing Bolaño’s talents are suited for.
Over at the Literary Saloon they point out that this issue—the “Fall Books Preview”—is surprisingly lacking in fiction coverage.
But we couldn’t help but notice that the fiction coverage is . . . limited. Three titles — one of which is a New York Review Books title (Sorokin’s Ice), and another of which is . . . the latest Harry Potter. Meanwhile, four films are discussed (including a Harry Potter . . .).
The lack of fiction coverage doesn’t stop there though. Actually, looks like The New Republic is featuring even less than that:
- In the current issue: four reviews, with the review of two Loeb Classics volume of Hesiod about as close to fiction as it gets
- The 27 August issue, which admirably reviews the recent complete Zbigniew Herbert collection, as well as . . . Tina Brown’s The Diana Chronicles, but no fiction
- The 6 August issue: four reviews, no fiction
- The 23 July issue: four reviews, no fiction
Just what book culture needs—another review of The Diana Chronicles.
A Canadian author sued Nobel Peace Prize winner and Iranian human rights activist Shirin Ebadi Thursday, saying she reneged on getting a publisher for a book they had written after she was warned that the book’s publication might spoil sales of her other books.
For anyone interested in French literature, this is a special time of year. And as cited in Complete Review, here are three overview articles (sorry, all in French) of the 700+ titles about to drop: Le Figaro, Libération, and La République des Lettres.
If you find any others of interest, please let us know.
This is the first I’ve heard of African Writing, but I’m very impressed. There’s a lot of interesting content, including a list of 50 contemporary African writers that’s definitely worth checking out.
Turns out today is the Literary Saloon’s fifth anniversary. Congrats on your first 4,454 posts!
Michael at Complete Review has a great post this morning about the literary scene in Brunei Darussalam.
Recently, there was a meeting of high ranking representatives to “express their concern over the future of the literature scenario in Brunei Darussalam.”
They proposed for major works of local literary writers to be translated so that their books could be promoted globally.
“Translation (of local writings) is very important, as this would ensure that our writers are introduced to the world,” they said, adding that the ultimate goal is to see a local writer receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 10 to 20 years’ time. (Via Brudirect.com)
I’ll be shocked if any of you can name a single author from Brunei—this is why we turned on the comments, fyi—so obviously, they have a ways to go . . . That said, it sounds like the monthly magazine Bahana might help spread the word a bit, and their hearts and interest are in the right place. Not sure how easy it will be to find a translator, but if the government puts up a bit of funding to offset publication costs, some publisher will jump on this.
Aflame Books is an independent publisher based in the UK. It publishes, in English translation, works from Africa, Latin America and the Middle East; works whose brilliance has been hidden from the English-speaking world by the barriers of culture and language.
Very admirable and necessary mission, and the books sound interesting. Titles will be “distributed” though IPG in the U.S., so they will be available, although hopefully Aflame will be able to find a worth U.S. house to publish U.S. editions of some of the titles. It’s just a fact of business that a U.S. publisher can do a lot more for a book in the States than a UK publisher can, regardless of distributor. And if the point is finding readers to appreciate these books, it’s better all around for UK presses to sell U.S. rights than to pretend they’re going to make a killing in the U.S. market.
Complete Review has an interesting post today about a recent poll in which readers voted on the best Norwegian novel of all time.
Ibsen? Hamsun? Undset? Lars Saabye Christensen? Jan Kjaerstad? All losers.
The winner was Gert Nygardshaug’s Mengele Zoo, a mystery novel by an author Michael Orthofer hasn’t even heard of. (Which is saying a lot.)
This just reconfirms my belief that here in the States, The Manny would win by a landslide.
From Orthofer at the Complete Review
Everyone is (or will be) having a lot of fun with this one: Pierre Jourde wrote a novel based on his dad’s tiny hometown (i.e. ultra-provincial nest) and his unflattering portrait led — after a while — to some unpleasant scenes when he showed up in the neighbourhood again. So now we have headlines such as: French writer savaged by his characters [. . .]
The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .