Over at Conversational Reading, Scott Esposito has posted a six-question interview with Margaret Carson, translator of Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds, which has been gathering a ton of praise. (Coincidentally, I finished reading his next Open Letter book—The Planets—while at MLA and can assure his fans that this is just as good. Very different book, but if you liked My Two Worlds, you won’t be disappointed.)
Without a doubt, one of the most interesting new books I read last year was My Two Worlds by Sergio Chejfec. The book raises quite legitimate comparisons to authors like Sebald and Walser, and its brief 100 pages are made expansive by intricate, precise prose. The book concerns the reflections made by its unnamed narrator over the course of a short walk through a park in some unnamed Brazilian city. What is perhaps most striking about this walk is the haze of thought that Chejfec creates within it. Reading, we sense some sort of meaning at the core of this thought, but that meaning stays elusive. It is from this movement between meaning and absence that the book derives its power. [. . .]
Scott Esposito: That’s interesting that you were taking on specialized vocabulary and knowledge to help the translation of this book. In my opinion, that strengthens the Sebald connection that I and others have established to Chejfec’s work, since a mastery of various minor forms of 20th-century knowledge was so essential to his project. Relative to other things you’ve translated, did you feel that Chejfec’s language placed more demands on your English?
Margaret Carson: Yes, language and its nuances are extremely important to Sergio, and part of the challenge of translating My Two Worlds was exploring equivalent words and phrases for the English version. Many of the descriptive passages take delight in visual minutiae, as for instance the appearance and texture of the path the narrator follows into the park, or the workings of the large fountain whose spray of water gives him the first inkling of Kentridge’s dotted lines. It was tricky to keep these and other passages moving in the English; what feels effortless in the original breaks down as soon as you begin to translate it. Often sentences would flash back to life again after a few key words were in place; it’s a joy to run wild in English and find such a wealth of possibilities.
In the midst of working on this translation I became won over by words that on previous projects I would probably have rejected as too obscure. For instance, a word that appears a few times at the end of the novel, “disyuntiva,” could be translated more commonly as “crossroads” or “dilemma”; but in choosing “disyuntiva” Sergio chose a word that strongly implies a choice between two options, and so “disjunctive” was really the best equivalent in English. Similarly, the adjective “lacustre,” which occurs twice in the novel, gave me pause; should I use the almost unheard-of cognate “lacustrine”—“of or pertaining to a lake or lakes”—or should I try something more familiar, such as “lakelike”? In the end I decided to keep the stranger word, “lacustrine,” completely justifiable, I thought, since “lucustre” is fairly strange in Spanish as well.
On the whole, I tried to stick quite close to the original, not just in word choice but also in preserving the length and density of the sentences. I had to search for models in English to give me an idea of how to structure and balance the clauses and sub-clauses that, as Enrique Vila-Matas points out in his introduction to My Two Worlds, seem to test the elasticity of the sentence itself. I was happy to discover that the long literary sentence en English is not a relic from 19th-century, and that many contemporary writers—among them Lynne Tillman, William Gaddis, and David Foster Wallace—provided excellent models that helped me carry over this essential part of Chejfec’s style.
Read the entire interview by clicking here.
Over at Conversational Reading, Scott put together a reading list based on Between Parentheses, Roberto Bolano’s essay collection, due out next month from New Directions. It’s an interesting list that includes Witold Gombrowicz, Horacio Castellanos Moya, Mario Vargas Llosa, Rodrigo Rey Rosa, Ernesto Cardenal, Enrique Vila-Matas, and Philip K. Dick.
It also includes this statement about Macedonio Fernandez’s The Museum of Eterna’s Novel:
“Everything says we should read him, but Macedonio doesn’t sell, so forget him.
Well, now. That’s not exactly true. At least from my relativistic perspective where Macedonio was the best-selling Open Letter title until Zone zipped right past it like a train on fire (sorry) to claim the top spot. Nevertheless, we do have some more copies that are looking for readers, so I think everyone should prove Bolano wrong about the selling, and right about the everything saying we should read Macedonio.
Back when the Life A User’s Manual Big Read first started,1 I referenced this huge chart of constraints that served as Perec’s guide in constructing this novel.2 At the time, the only constraint I mentioned was the “Knight’s Move,” which determines the chapter order of the novel. But as you can see in that chart, there’s a lot more at work behind this novel . . .
If memory serves, the Oulipo Compendium has the best explanation of the constraints at work in this book, but since I’m moving tomorrow and Wednesday (perfect time to be reading a book on an apartment building, no?) my copy is currently buried within one of about 28 boxes of books. So, turning to the second most expert info source on the Internets, here’s how Wikipedia explains it all:
[Perec] created a complex system which would generate for each chapter a list of items, references or objects which that chapter should then contain or allude to. He described this system as a “machine for inspiring stories”.
There are 42 lists of 10 objects each, gathered into 10 groups of 4 with the last two lists a special “Couples” list. Some examples:
number of people involved
length of the chapter in pages
a position of the body
2 lists of novelists, from whom a literary quotation is required
“Couples”, e.g. Pride and Prejudice, Laurel and Hardy.
The way in which these apply to each chapter is governed by an array called a Graeco-Latin square. The lists are considered in pairs, and each pair is governed by one cell of the array, which guarantees that every combination of elements is encountered. For instance, the items in the couples list are seen once with their natural partner (in which case Perec gives an explicit reference), and once with every other element (where he is free to be cryptic). In the 1780s, the great mathematician Leonhard Euler had conjectured that a 10×10 Graeco-Latin square could not exist and it was not until 1959 that one was actually constructed, refuting Euler.
Aside from these overarching combinatorial restraints, there are various moments of Oulipian fun and games to be found in Life, such as pages 259-265, which, as Scott pointed out features diagonal e’s, g’s, and o’s. (If you can’t see this, start at the far right side of line 1, which ends with “Pelage.” Drop to line 2, which ends “exiles.” Then 3, with “eye.” Slowly but surely, the e’s travel from far right all the way across to line 60—there are 60 characters in each line—which begins with “Embattled.”)
As someone mentioned in Scott’s question thread, in French, the crossing letters spell out “ame” (soul), for which, “ego” seems a satisfactory English equivalent.
But even better than simply finding a three-letter replacement for “ame” is translating all 179 lines3 into 60-character English statements that fit the pattern exactly. David Bellos deserves a MacArthur Genius Grant for this alone.
(It’s also fun that many of these 179 statements reference Life itself, such as “The puzzlemaker’s backgammon game giving him his bad tempers” or “The technician trying a new experiment, and losing 3 fingers.”)
In relation to these intricate—and near overwhelming—constraints, Christopher Beha included a bit of a warning about this in his 2006 article about an Oulipo conference that ran in The Believer:
On Saturday morning, the weekend’s final panel, “La Contrainte et après?: A debate on the achievements, ambitions, and future of writing without ease,” got off to a kind of false start before Frischer arrived with coffee for the panelists. Then there was much talk about whether a constrained work should announce itself as such. Mathews expressed the opinion that Perec’s work is too often reduced to its formulae, rather than read for its true pleasures. It’s an obvious temptation to think that learning the elaborate conceits of La Vie mode d’emploi might stand in for actually reading the book. And yet this is a bad mistake, for when one actually experiences the novel, the constraints that gave rise to it become rather beside the point—in that same way that Joyce’s Homeric parallels mean a bit less with each rereading of Ulysses; in the same way that neither the Big Bang nor the expulsion from Eden is foremost in our minds when we step outside on a beautiful morning.
Warren Motte commented on this tangentially in a “discussion with Martin Riker”: that appeared in Words Without Borders:
Whereas while that’s going on in the New Novel, there seems to be, in the last 20 years or so, a return to certain kinds of storytelling that had not been massively apparent in progressive writing in France for a long time. And I think Perec had a lot to do with that. You know he said about Life, a User’s Manual that you could read it in a number of ways, but one of the ways he wanted you to be able to read it was flat on your back on your sofa.
And it’s absolutely true . . . One can dig into the various constraints and other games, but in the end, Perec’s book is a masterwork because it’s so much more than these constraints—it’s a long series of moments that are best read “flat on your back.” And speaking of flat and backs, here’s the last two paragraphs of “Servants’ Quarters, 10”:
Today the room is occupied by a man of about thirty: he is on his bed, stark naked, prone, amidst five inflatable dolls, lying full length on top of one of them and cuddling two others in his arms, apparently experiencing an unparalleled orgasm on these precarious simulacra.
The rest of the room is more bare: blank walls, a sea-green lino on the floor, strewn with odd pieces of clothing. A chair, a table with an oilcloth covering, the signs of a meal—a can, shrimps in a saucer—and an evening newspaper lying open at a monster crossword puzzle.
To me, that’s what Life really is: an “unparalleled orgasm” and a “monster crossword puzzle.”
Also from this section, I highly recommend “Cinoc, 1,” which includes a long bit about how no one—including Cinoc himself—knows how to properly pronounce his name, and a bit about how over ten years he has gathered more than 8,000 rare words that he’s decided to save. Words like:
PISTEUR (masc. nn.) Hotel employee with the task of attracting customers.
So behind the math and the lists, there’s a great deal of fun in Life . . . (Sorry—it’s hard to resist creating non sequiturs with the title of this book. “Life is filled with sex and puzzles.” Yep, here all week.)
Read more: http://wordswithoutborders.org/dispatches/article/work-and-play-a-conversation-with-warren-motte/#ixzz1JuOTRyAM
2 I assume most everyone reading this blog knows about the Oulipo, but in case you don’t, Wikipedia has a nice overview page. In short, Oulipians use constraints in writing. The most obvious—and in some ways relevant—example is the “Lipogram,” which requires the writer to avoid using particular letter(s). Perec’s A Void was written entirely without the letter ‘E’.
A few weeks back, I posted about the first section of Life A User’s Manual (TRANSLATED BY DAVID BELLOS), which is the Spring Big Read over at Scott Esposito’s Conversational Reading blog. As mentioned, I love Life, haven’t read it in years, and had every intention of keeping up with this reading group and posting weekly comments.
Well, of course that didn’t happen.
I’m almost back on track though. Almost. But rather than abiding by Scott’s reading schedule I’m going to catch up by writing short(ish) posts about each “Part” of the novel. My last post covered Part I, so here goes with the second section of what is arguably Perec’s masterwork . . .
First off, I want to direct you to Scott’s first post about this section of the book. He does a great job of providing an entryway to this section, beginning with the wonderful con (or is it a double-con?) of Sherwood:
We’ve already been talking a great deal about things and descriptions, so now it’s time to talk about surfaces. I’m thinking specifically in terms of Sherwood’s Tale, in which our overly credulous Sherwood purchases what he believes to be the Holy Grail, but is in fact scammed by crooks [pp. 96 – 109].
It is one of those elaborate confidence scams where a person is shown one small piece of evidence after another to slowly build up trust in what is ultimately a big, unbelievable falsehood. As such, it is very much a story about surfaces, about essentially taking evidence at face value in a naive sort of way, which of course we all do as a simple part of life every day. If there is any one thing that has distinguished itself so far in Life A User’s Manual, it is that Perec is challenging us again and again to look beyond surface descriptions.
This particular version of that exhortation adds a special twist. In the lead-up to Sherwood’s Tale, Perec goes into the idea of collecting unica–objects like the Holy Grail for which only one example exists in the world. In his discussion of unica, Perec notes examples like “the octobass, a monstrous double-bass for two musicians,” or “animal species of which only one member is known to exist,” before finally giving us a small warning: “any object whatsoever can always be identified uniquely, and . . . in Japan there is a factory mass-producing Napoleon’s hat.” 
There are innumerable things about this book that draw me in—the self-referential bits, the descriptions of objects upon objects, the brilliant lists, the ambitious construction, the jigsaw puzzles and other games, etc.—but one of the strongest has to be the little mini-stories littered throughout the novel.
In Part Two, there are a number of really fascinating ones, which tend to revolve around quests for things, or for revenge . . .
There’s the aforementioned story of James Sherwood—collector of unica—and his attempt to buy the Holy Vase containing Christ’s blood. There’s Appenzzell’s pursuit of the Orang-Kubus, a Sumatra tribe living in the forest, moving and setting up new villages any time the outside world found them. There’s Ericsson’s quest to find the nanny responsible for the death of his son and suicide of his wife. There’s the conclusion of Bartlebooth’s life-quest to paint 500 seascapes, have them made into puzzles, complete the puzzles, then remove the watercolor and dip in into the sea.
Scott makes an interesting point about these quests in his second post related to Part Two of the novel:
At this point in our read, I would think that if the title “Life A User’s Manual” is to be taken as an unironic title we have to think it has something to do with these futile, ultimately life-constraining quests that have already proliferated so much in the book. We might consider what causes people to enter into these quests, what roles the quests serve in the lives of their owners, how and when they become traps, how they ultimately end, and whether and how they give a life meaning.
When I was reading this section, I was struck by how many of these quests or pursuits were either futile or self-destructive.
For example, when students decipher Appenzzell’s notebook about the Kubus, they find this “cruel and obvious truth” about why the Kubus kept moving everytime Appenzzell started getting involved with their tribe:
However irksome are the discomfitures which a man who has given himself body and soul to the profession of ethnography may encounter in his attempt to grasp the deeper nature of Man in concrete terms—or, in other words, to apprehend the minimal sociality defining the human condition by conquering the heteroclite evidence of diverse cultures—and although an ethnographer may not aspire to more than the discovery of relative truths (since it is vain to hope to reach any final truth), the worst difficulty I have had to encounter was not at all of that kind: I wanted to go to the absolute limit of the primitive; had I not got all I wanted in these graceful Natives whom no one had seen before me, who would perhaps no be seen again after me? At the end of an exhilarating search, I had my savages, I asked for nothing more than to be one of them, to share their days, their pains, their rituals. Alas! they didn’t want to have me, they were not prepared to teach me their customs and beliefs! They had no use whatever for the gifts I laid beside them, no use at all for the help I thought I could give! It was because of me that they abandoned their villages and it was only to discourage me, to convince me there was no point in my persevering, that they chose increasingly inhospitable sites, imposting ever more terrible living conditions on themselves to show me they would rather face tigers and volcanos, swamps, suffocating fog, elephants, poisonous spiders, than men. I think I know a good deal about physical suffering. But this is worst of all, to feel your soul dying . . .
And Bartlebooth’s 50-year plan is a perfect example of going from nothing to something to nothing, as he learns to paint, paints 500 ports, solves 500 puzzles, and then dips the 500 paintings in water, washing away the image and leaving only the experience . . . This is perfectly stated in the third reason for his lifelong plan:
The third was aesthetic: the plan would be useless, since gratuitousness was the sole guarantor of its rigour, and would destroy itself as it proceeded; its perfection would be circular: a series of events which when concatenated nullify each other: starting from nothing, passing through precise operations on finished objects, Bartlebooth would end up with nothing.
Perec’s relationship to “things” is a very fruitful line of inquiry, starting from his early work Things: A Story of the Sixties. More on that in a different post.
The other thing I wanted to mention was the thread of violence that runs through this Part. Not only is there the sordid story of Ericsson’s revenge, which results in a heap of dead bodies and a couple of suicides, but there’s this curious bit from “On the Stairs, 3” about the life of a flat and the building as a whole:
one day the young Marquiseaux girl will run off with the Reol boy, one day Madame Orlowska will leave again for no apparent reason, for no real reason either; one day Madame Altamont will fire a revolver at Monsieru Altamont and the blood will spurt onto the glazed hexagonal tiles of their octagonal dining room [. . .]
So, yes. If anyone has an comments/thoughts/opinions, post them below, or over at Conversational Reading.
Part III on Monday, Part IV next Friday, and then I’ll basically be caught up . . .
As mentioned a couple of times already, Conversational Reading is currently hosting a Group Read of Life A User’s Manual. This project officially kicked off yesterday with the first Part (up to page 89), and since I’m actually on schedule with this (although with nothing else), I thought I’d participate by writing up my own notes on this as we go. If asked (or even if not), I frequently refer to this as one of my all-time favorite books, but to be honest, I haven’t read it in more than a decade, when I was much younger and less well-read. So, I think it will be interesting going through this section by section, both here, and on Conversational Reading.
When talking about Life, it’s almost impossible to avoid talking about the contraints behind it. Perec was a member of the Oulipo, a French writing circle that applies certain restrictions when writing texts. (Most famous example: Perec’s A Void, a novel that doesn’t contain a single instance of the letter “e.”) The Oulipo has generated a number of great books and interesting experiments, with Life being probably the grandest and most ambitious. If you don’t believe me, check out this chart which lays it all out in all of its overwhelming complexity.
Personally, I mostly want to avoid talking about these constraints. If a novel is great, it’s great not just because of its underpinnings, but because of how it works as a whole.
The one contraint worth mentioning is the Knight’s Tour. For those not familiar with this book, it all takes place in an apartment building (11, rue Simon-Crubellier) that can be basically divided into a 10×10 grid. This is reprinted in the new edition on page 569, laying out all the apartments and who lives in them. This is helpful when reading, since each chapter focuses on one resident, and one of the 100 sections of this building. This sounds more complicated than it reads, but basically, characters who own large apartments (like Bartlebooth) have as many chapters as “squares” they own (in the case of Bartlebooth, he has 5 squares, so 5 sections).
With me so far? Now, in determining the order in which the chapters would be written, Perec employed the Knight’s Move to his 10×10 graph. The Knight’s Tour is a chess term, in which the Knight can move all over the board, landing on each square once and only once. If you want to see what this looks like when applied to Life then click here.
OK, now that the intimidating, crazy shit is out of the way, I want to try and convince you (if, that is, you need convincing) that the first part of this book is incredibly interesting, and fun to read even if you’re not a mathematician or an Oulipian junky. And I’ll try and do so by tying this into two of my favorite art works: Lost and Gravity’s Rainbow.
The Preamble and Part One lay out three main motifs that provide entrance ways to this work. First off, there’s the motif of “puzzle-making and puzzle-solving,” which is articulated in the Preamble. This section details the art of jigsaw puzzling—not those shoddy cardboard mechanically-created things, but real puzzles, the type made of wood, expertly designed, using various means of trickery to make things difficult for the puzzler. (For instance, cutting pieces that could fit in two places, using the same element in various places, etc.) But what’s most interesting is the interaction between the maker and the solver:
From this, one can make a deduction which is quite certainly the ultimate truth of jigsaw puzzles: despite appearances, puzzling is not a solitary game: every move the puzzler makes, the puzzle-maker has made before; every piece the puzzler picks up, and picks up again, and studies and strokes, every combination he tries, and tries a second time, every blunder and every insight, each hope and each discouragement have all been designed, calculated, and decided by the other.
As can be seen on this earlier cover jigsaw puzzles play an important role in this book. In fact, the central story is really all about puzzles . . . The outline of Bartlebooth’s story is given in Rorschach’s second chapter and in Smautf’s chapter. Smautf is Bartlebooth’s long-time manservant who helped orchestrate the millionaire’s life-long project. From his chapter:
Bartlebooth’s, and therefore Smautf’s, travels lasted twenty years, from 1935 to 1954, and took them in a sometimes fanciful way all around the world. [. . .] Bartlebooth’s idea was to go and paint five hundred seascapes in five hundred different ports. The ports were chosen more or less at random by Bartlebooth, who thumbed through atlases, geography books, traveller’s tales, and tourist brochures and ticked off the places that appealed to him.
Bartlebooth allowed two weeks for each port, inclusive of travelling time, which usually gave him five or six days on site. [. . .] On the penultimate day he would paint his watercolour, usually towards the end of the morning [. . .] He painted extremely fast, and never corrected himself. Scarcely was the watercolour dry than he tore the sheet of Whatman paper from the pad and gave it to Smautf. [. . .] Smautf wrapped the seascape in tissue paper, slipped it into a stiffened envelope, and packed the parcel in kraft paper with string and sealing wax. That same evening, or at the latest next day, if there were no post office nearby, the parcel was dispatched to: Monsieur Gaspard Winckler.
Crazy project, but it gets more interesting . . . When the watercolour arrived at Winckler’s (he also lives in 11, rue Simon-Crubellier, sixth floor right) he created a jigsaw puzzle out of the watercolour. Then, as sort of explained in “Rorschach, 2” and “Morellet,” Bartlebooth returned from his travels and started putting all these puzzles together, one-by-one. After he was finished, they went up to Morellet (floor eight, servant’s quarters) who used a special chemical process to reattach all of the pieces of the watercolour, allowing it to be removed from the wooden puzzle backing. (We’ll get to the final part of Bartlebooth’s project later.)
This brings up the second motif, which reminds me of Lost: the web of connections that bind these characters. As you read the first part, you start to notice all the overlaps among the residents of this building. And a good deal of them center around Bartlebooth, especially the aforementioned Smauft, Morellet, Winckler, and Rorschach. From there, the lines branch out, with Smauft connecting to the strange “cult of The Three Free Men,” who are holding an initiation ritual involving dice in the apartment at third floor right. Morellet is connected to the Plassaerts, etc., etc. (I believe these connections grow as the book progresses.)
Like Lost, one can get lost in the dizzying connections between the characters and their life histories—histories which intersect, nearly intersect, or parallel each other—and in trying to figure this all out. Which brings us back to the puzzling motif. In reading Part One, I felt like jigsaw puzzles were a sort of synecdoche for the book as a whole. That to “get” the novel, the reader has to puzzle out the connections, building a big mosaic of sorts represented by the apartment and the lives of the residents therein. And, as explained in the Preamble, the puzzle-maker is setting up traps, games, clues, etc. Again, feels a bit like Lost in that way . . .
In Winckler’s chapter, he points to the endlessness of connections when talking about organizing the postcards Smautf sent him from all over the world:
He wanted, so he said, to sort the labels into order, but it was very difficult: of course, there was chronological order, but he found it poor, even poorer than alphabetical order. He had tried by continents, then by country, but that didn’t satisfy him. What he would have liked would be to link each label to the next, but each time in respect of something else: for example, they could have some detail in common, a mountain or volcano, an illuminated bay, some particular flower, the same red and gold edging, the beaming face of a groom, or the same dimensions, or the same typeface, or similar slogans (“Pearl of the Ocean,” “Diamond of the Coast”), or a relationship based not on similarity but on opposition or a fragile, almost arbitrary association: a minute village by an Italian lake followed by the skyscrapter of Manhattan, skiers followed by swimmers, fireworks by candlelit dinner, railway by aeroplane, baccarat table by chemin de fer, etc. It’s not just hard, Winckler added, above all it’s useless: if you leave the labels unsorted and take two at random, you can be sure they’ll have at least three things in common.
One of the tricky things about reading a book like this—and here comes the Pynchon—is that it’s difficult to separate signal from noise. We know there are clues, but there’s also a surfeit of information, so picking out what to pay attention to is a bit tricky, a la Pynchon. Especially if you start seeing conspiracies everywhere . . .
For instance, let’s look at “Rorschach, 2.” In this chapter, the sort of unlucky fool introduced earlier is transformed into Bartlebooth’s nemesis. Rorschach (a Pynchonian name for sure, especially when you think about Rorschach tests, patterns, and puzzles) is connected to the TV and movie industry and wants to make a show based on Bartlebooth and his watercolour and puzzle project. Bartlebooth wants no part of this. Here’s the semi-sinister (re: Pynchon) ending of that chapter:
Without wishing to anticipate events, it might be useful to point out that Rorschach’s initiative had serious consequences for Bartlebooth. It was by hearing of these televisual misadventures that Beyssandre got wind, last year, of Bartlebooth’s story. And, oddly enough, it was to Rorschach that Bartlebooth came for the name of a director to film the final stage of his enterprise. However, that got him nowhere, except a step deeper into the web of contradictions which he’d known for many years would tie him inexorably tighter.
OK, fine. But what’s also interesting is that in describing what’s in Rorschach’s apartment, there’s a
silver statuette about ten inches high. It represents a naked, helmeted man on the back of an ox, holding a pyx in his left hand. [. . .] The statuette, a classical caricatural representation of the minor arcanum called the Knight of Cups, is supposed to have been unearthed during work on that “drama” entitled The Sixteenth Edge of This Cube which we have already had occasion to mention, and which does indeed deal with a murky tale of seeing into the future;
So, flip to the index to remind yourself of where The Sixteenth Edge of This Cube first appeared and in addition to finding a typo (this should refer to pages “15, 71, 72” not “15, 71, 42,” but we all make mistakes), you’ll be directed back to the chapter about “The Three Free Men” cult, which is having its initiation ceremony (which involves dice, remember?) in a vacant apartment:
Nobody lives on the third floor right. The owner is a certain Monsieur Foureau, who is said to live on an estate at Chavignolles, between Caen and Falaise, in a farm of thirty-eight hectares, a with a sort of manor house. Some years ago, a television drama was filmed there, under the title The Sixteenth Edge of This Cube; Remi Rorschach took part in the shooting but never met the owner.
Nobody ever seems to have seen him. There is no name on the door on the landing, nor on the list fixed on the glass pane of the concierge’s office door. The blinds are always drawn.
Does this mean anything? Is it a clue to something? And if so, what does it mean that this “drama” is only referenced in Part One? And speaking of dice, they are also alluded to in the story of Helene Gratiolet, who sells her inherited painting (foreshadowing next motif) to move to America with her husband to become professional gamblers participating in organized dice games. (Sort of seems odd to have dice—a symbol of chance—in a book so meticulously planned out.)
There’s also the thread maybe connecting Paul Winther’s The Mousetrap about a “dangerous psychopath wreaking murder in a Baltic port,” to Bartlebooth’s port obsession, to a clipping from a newspaper referring to The Worried Hulk by John Whitmer (awful similar to Paul Winther in cadence and number of letters.)
This kind of detail picking gets more complicated in relation to all the paintings described in this Part. Actually, painting is the third motif I wanted to point out. Not only are there are a proliferation of paintings described in Part One, but there are two painters who receive chapters (Hutting and Valene), and the whole Part (book?) is almost like a painting. A painting depicting everything that’s going on in the building (and in the inhabitants pasts) on a particular day in 1975, just before the Altamonts’ annual party.
This is already way too long, so I won’t get into the painting thing. But I hopefully will be back next Monday with notes on pages (93-173). And in the meantime, check out Scott’s post on Part One and please share your own reactions and comments below.
One of my all-time favorite books is Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual, and for
months years, I’ve been meaning to reread it.
Well, starting sometime soon, Conversational Reading will be hosting a Big Read of Perec’s classic novel.
No real info up there yet, but as soon as the schedule is announced, I’ll post it here. It’s been ages since I participated in an online book club, and I’m a bit psyched . . . Mostly just to reread Life, but also because Scott does such a great job of getting interesting content about the title under discussion. (I’m not-so-secretly hoping to contribute something myself.)
If you’re interested in joining in, be sure and get a copy of Godine’s revised edition of the book. This version contains some corrections, etc.
For more info about the new edition, and Perec in general, be sure to check out this interview Scott conducted with Godine editor Susan Barba.
Again with me and the last minute postings, but if you’re planning on participating in Conversational Reading’s YFT Reading Group, here’s the official schedule:
And more importantly, for anyone getting started, Scott posted an excellent overview of Marias’s work, linking to a number of overview pieces in The Quarterly Conversation, New York Review of Books, and elsewhere.
Even if you’re not participating in the book club, Scott’s piece is really interesting for finding out about Marias’s work. So often people talk about the more crazy aspects of his life—like the fact that he is the King of Redonda.
I’m already behind in the readings, but hopefully will catch up by the 3rd . . .
After reading a bunch of glowing reviews for the third volume of Javier Marias’s Your Face Tomorrow trilogy (including this one from the Independent in which the trilogy is referred to as “one of the most thoughtful and inspiring fictional works of the last decade”) I tentatively decided that I would spend the last few months of 2010 reading all 1,500 pages, so that I could fully experience the hype.
I love Marias’s other books—especially the twinned All Souls and Dark Back of Time, the latter of which actually references Normal, Illinois of all places—and back years ago, like literally years ago, when Volume I of the YFT trilogy came out, I read about half of it on a plane to somewhere and remember greatly enjoying it. Actually, all I really remember is that the sentences were labyrinthine in that Marias way, and that the book was all about reading, about learning how to read, how to interpret. At the time it seemed like vintage Marias: pensive, thoughtful, detailed and methodical to a point of near-overkill. But in contrast to some of his other books, which are often about secrets, human relations, and women’s legs, the mental meanderings of the YTF trilogy are strung onto a spy-thriller plot. It’s like Proust meets Ian Fleming. (Or some other reviewer platitude.)
Anyway, as compelling and mentally exhilarating the idea of reading one of the great twenty-first-century works (so far) might be, I still need a little motivation . . . It’s not like I’m not already inundated with fascinating samples, readings for the Best Translated Book Award 2011, or Open Letter books that need to be proofed. But still . . .
Which is why I’m thrilled that Scott Esposito put together a Your Face Tomorrow Reading Group. Kicking off this week (I believe—more info TK), this should be pretty interesting. Scott does shit right. (Check recent issues of The Quarterly Conversation if you doubt.) And I know he already has a number of great features lined up.
Hopefully we’ll be able to do some cross-posting, etc., etc., between Conversational Reading and Three Percent, and regardless, I’ll definitely keep everyone updated as things progress.
Now, if you’re not up for 1,500 pages of European intellectual spy games (of however you want to categorize this), you might be more interested in Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico, a very, very short Marias book that just came our from New Directions. I know little about this novel (except that Esther Allen translated it, so it must be awesome), although I do know that ND absolutely nailed the jacket copy: “In this classic Marias story, Elvis and his entourage abandon their translator in a seedy cantina full of enraged criminals.” Sold!
Seems ironically fitting to follow the first Making the Translator Visible post with this bit from Conversational Reading about a recent interview with Cesar Aira (whose Ghosts is—to steal a line from a New York Times article—so good it’s in need of adjectives yet invented that would be written in italics and all caps) in Letras Libres and Aira’s feeling about translators:
A una corrección sobre todo. Pero yo siempre a la traducción la tomé como un oficio del que viví. Ahí sí lo vi con todo pragmatismo, hasta tal punto que me especialicé en literatura mala. Porque los editores pagan lo mismo por la mala que por la buena, y la buena es mucho más difícil de traducir. Entonces terminé especializándome, bah, más bien tomando estos bestsellers norteamericanos, que son facilísimos de traducir porque están escritos en una prosa estereotipada.
Essentially: any pragmatic translator would prefer to translate bestsellers, because they sell more and the prose is so bad that they’re much easier to translate.
Here’s to hoping literary translators always remain quirky and as unpragmatic as wealthy independent publishers.
The article is primarily based on Sarah Pollack’s essay “Latin America Translated (Again): Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives in the United States,” which will appear in the next issue of Comparative Literature (pre-order your copy today!). Hard to get into too many specifics without having read Pollack’s essay, but it sounds like she questions the way Bolano’s personal life was mythologized in order to make him that much more marketable. (Moya points to the hippie-esque author pic on The Savage Detectives as an example of the “Bolano-as-Renegade” image, although TSD was written while Bolano was a calm family man.)
Since Scott’s Spanish is much better than mine, I’ll let him summarize the Moya piece:
Basically, in order to sell books marketers invented the Bolano myth, which Moya is taking as an act of U.S. cultural imperialism on Latin America. Throughout the rest of the piece, Moya goes on to argue that marketers and journalists created an image of Bolano to fit preconceived U.S. stereotypes of what a Latin American is—and especially what a Latin American author is. [. . .]
I can’t disagree too much with what Moya says, although I think he’s painting things a little too broadly. (Granted, this is a diatribe . . .) Where he’s dishing out blame, he’s mostly talking about the old media press and the publisher FSG, and while I would say that old media coverage of Bolano has featured a lot of what Moya calls out (remember the whole heroin thing?), I don’t think FSG is quite the publisher Moya claims it to be. True, it’s no New Directions, and, true again, if there was any justice New Directions would have gotten first shot at The Savage Detectives, but FSG does tend to treat literature with a lot more respect than other publishers out there.
First off, I agree with Scott. The mainstream media seems more to blame for this image creation than FSG. In fact, I’d argue that both FSG and New Directions did a great job marketing Bolano and helping introduce his masterful works to an English-speaking audience.
That said, this sort of stereotyping (in terms of what makes a “typical Latin American author” or constitutes a “typical Latin American book”) has gone on for a while, and in terms of aesthetic pigeonholing, publishers really do deserve a lot of the blame. Post-Garcia Marquez, it’s been near impossible for a non-magical realist from south of our borders to get published in America. A certain Isabel Allende-tainted vision of what “counted” as good Latin American literature came into being, and anything that didn’t fit that mold wasn’t marketable.
The “Crack group” (Jorge Volpi, Eloy Urroz, Ignacio Padilla, etc.) rose up as a response to this situation, this sort of pre-marketing that filters out certain types of literature in favor of more “marketable” books. And it would be foolish to pretend that marketing doesn’t play a role in which authors get published—especially in translation.
Another aspect of American cultural imperialism is our general arrogance that an author doesn’t exist until he/she is discovered by the American public. Although Bolano was huge in the Spanish-speaking world for years before his big novels were translated into English, there’s a tendency to treat him as a “new” author who has finally broke through. (Although the majority of reviews I read for 2666 and TSD were by really thoughtful, perceptive critics who were more engaged with the complexity of the work than with the myth of Bolano. So this is by no means a blanket statement.)
A good example of American publishing arrogance is what Scott Moyers said about W. G. Sebald on a “buzz panel” a few years back. I wrote about this at the time but his comment about how Sebald had been “getting his name out there a bit” thanks to New Directions, but that it was Random House’s publication of Austerlitz that put the “stamp of authority” on Sebald as one of Europe’s great writers still makes me vomit in my mouth a little bit.
Over at Conversational Reading, Scott Esposito is trying out an online book club experiment. Over the next month he will be reading Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks along with two friends—Sacha Arnold and John Lingan—and discussing the book online.
Hopefully this will generate an interesting conversation and will pull in some other readers along the way. (I’m tempted to join in, but I have thousands of manuscript pages and submissions waiting to be read . . .)
In case you’re interested in participating, here’s a bit of Scott’s intro to Buddenbrooks:
It was Mann’s first novel, published in 1901 when he was 26, and it charts (as called out in the book’s subtitle) the decline over multiple generations of the titular Buddenbrooks clan. Although I’ve never seen substantiation of this, it is commonly said that Mann, who received the Nobel prize in 1929, was awarded the Nobel for Buddenbrooks.
Although Mann would later take up 20th-century Germany in major works like Doctor Faustus and The Magic Mountain, Buddenbrooks is basically his statement on the lands that would become Germany during the 19th century. Although the book remains centered on the Buddenbrooks’, Mann does reach out broadly to include a wide cross-section of the society they inhabited. The exact location of the Buddenbrooks family mansion, and cheif theater of the novel, is never explicitly stated, but it is generally understood to be the northern German city of Lübec. Mann is said to have conducted detailed research into life int he 19th century to realistically depict the Buddenbrooks’ daily lives.
Scott Esposito’s series on independent presses in the recession continues with a look at Coffee House and its founder, Allan Kornblum:
SE: How sensitive is Coffee House to unexpected changes in grants and donations? For instance, if some of your expected grants got stuck in limbo due to budget cuts and freezes, would this force you to postpone titles?
AK: At one point Coffee House income was 60% donated and 40% earned. During the last two years, those percentages have flipped—not because of a drop in donated (which has been flat) but because of an increase in earned income. I know we’re in a world-wide recession—it’s not just a US problem. But between US sales and translation rights sales, we think we can continue to build on our recent growth in earned income. But whenever I say things like that, I have to remind myself and my listener that you have to have an “optimism gene” somewhere in your emotional make-up to be a publisher. I try to cock my head, get some distance, and coldly evaluate our books and the marketplace, and I think I’ve done that and I still think we can continue to improve our earned income. Time will tell if the idealistic part of my personality has fooled my realistic side. But to answer your question—for the moment, we believe we will be able to live up to all the commitments we’ve made to authors. If the recession drags on longer than anticipated, we’ll have to reassess our resources and our plans.
And his bit about the difference between corporate publishers and presses like Coffee House is spot on:
As a nonprofit, our mission is to serve the public good. Survival is a key part of serving the public good, but we’re not under pressure to make the same kind of margins as a for-profit house must make to serve both of its missions. And expectations are different—our authors don’t expect to be picked up at the airport in a limo when they tour. They sleep on couches in the homes of friends, not at the Hilton, when they give readings. And we don’t get into pissing contests with our peers, bidding up celebrity memoirs so a competitor won’t get it. But all that being said, we’re all at the mercy of the moods of the booksellers.
The latest installment in Scott Esposito’s series on how to publish in a recession features Margo Baldwin of Chelsea Green, which just finished its best year ever. Margo’s responses are really interesting—especially her predictions about the future:
Scott Esposito: As someone who has been publishing for quite some time, do you think the industry is at a crossroads?
MB: Indeed I do. It needs to reinvent itself: get rid of returns and huge advances and all the waste inherent in the system. Amazon has perfected the ordering to demand systems and other booksellers need to do the same. It’s no longer feasible to push lots of books out and then take them all back; way too wasteful. E-books and digital content will continue to grow, but will remain relatively small compared to printed books for awhile. Bricks and mortar stores will need to reinvent themselves into community activist centers with a mission in order to keep their customers. Chains will become less important except for the megahits and brand name authors. Backlist will continue to migrate to the internet.
SE: What parts of the publishing industry do you think will look different in a few years?
MB: Everything! Publishers will be more niched and using POD and e-books for penetration into certain markets. Bookstores will be transformed as above. General trade stores will stay afloat by being linked to Amazon and other Internet sites to gain commissions on backlist sales from their customers, while concentrating on frontlist titles. Many general trade publishers will have gone out of business or drastically reduced in size. More content will be published online and by subscription. More user-generated content will be sold. As the industrial culture crashes, how-to survive and thrive self-sufficiently will gain in importance.
The latest entry in Scott Esposito’s fascinating series of interviews with independent publishers about publishing during a recession is now available online. This time he talks with Richard Nash, publisher of Soft Skull, and one of the smartest (and most articulate) people in the field when it comes to talking about the business of books.
Scott Esposito: Since November, newspapers have been full of reports of layoffs and cutbacks at large New York publishers, and the general mood one gets from reading these reports is gloom. Would you agree or disagree that things are gloomy for publishing right now?
Richard Nash: There are several distinct things going on at once. The first is the macro-economic problem which is indeed giving cause for gloom as it has caused a serious drop on aggregate adult trade book sales, greater than any recession heretofore.
The second is the shift on what media consumers purchase, and how they consume it, occurring for books, music, television and film—because it is the smallest of those industries, and because its technology—the printed book—was the most robust and fine-tuned of the analog technologies, it is only know we’re starting to see the impact. And the impact is currently less on the industry itself; it’s more that the cumulative effect of the changes from other industries, chiefly the amount of content consumed online, is drawing people away from the printed book format. The shift can be cause for gloom if you’re of the handwringing temperament, but it is far more an opportunity to rid the publishing business of a lot of cant and laziness and arrogance.
The third is the effect of all the other, non-consumer-facing change sin technology, especially that of supply chain management, in combination with the above two trends. Basically, retailers and wholesalers have been rapidly shifting risk from themselves back onto the publisher. Retailers order fewer and fewer copies of each book, believing that if the book is a failure, they’ll be stuck with less slow-moving inventory, and if it is a success the publisher can just reprint and ship them more. Retailers and wholesalers share less of the burden of printing books on spec., the publisher ever more. This has been especially hard on independent publishers, without the capital/cash flow to be doing extra lower profit margin printings of the book, and getting stuck with higher initial units costs because they’re printing 2500 copies rather than 3500 copies of an average title. The macroeconomic situation has made this worse, and the collapse in music sales (pace the second observation) has hurt retailers like Tower, Virgin, Borders, putting more pressure on the books to perform . . . This phenomenon is cause for gloom, though it has been going on for years and won’t stop really until there’s been a significant shift to digital download of books, and to subscriptions for direct-to—consumer physical books.
And his comments about Anita Elberse’s article on the blockbuster model and how this model will play out over time are both hilarious and accurate:
RN: Oh she’s really not done much research—she’s only looked at the corporate model, and developed theories about what works on their system. Which is self-fulfilling, since their system is designed to work that model. It’s really quite dense. Almost hare-brained. [. . .]
Corporate houses were already shifting to publishing fewer titles, and the recession will accelerate that process. They will continue to follow Elberse’s model, which will cause them to become smaller and smaller companies, since chasing blockbusters has never worked in books except one or two years out of every four or five, when they’re lucky. There will be layoffs in all the down years, which will be the majority, until they’re really just backlists with a sporadic hit factory attached.
All of Scott’s interviews are really interesting, in part because there does seem to be a greater awareness among independent presses about how things are changing and about what business models/strategies need to be instituted in order to survive and continue serving the reading public.
Scott Esposito of Conversational Reading is starting a series on how the economic downturn/recession/late-capitalist implosion is impacting smaller, independent presses. As he writes, all the coverage has been focused on Random Reorganizing, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Hijinks, etc., but not much on what’s going on at places like a New Directions.
His first interview is with Declan Spring, senior editor at New Directions (and, full disclosure, member of Open Letter’s executive committee), and is very interesting, honest, and revealing.
SE: The recession was officially declared a couple of months ago, and many economists have backdated its beginning to early 2008. Over this time what has business been like—better, worse, or about the same?
DS: We’ve seen drops in sales throughout 2008, but especially in the spring and early summer. This was due to a number of factors: lower sales, a gap between lead titles, and returns (many of which came in from Borders). Things picked up at the end of the summer and early fall because some big books came out and the college orders were coming in. (New Directions is required reading for so many literature courses.) We did see much higher than usual returns in October from booksellers. (And I hear publishing sales were down 20% overall in October.) The national accounts (meaning the chains) were returning many books. You could say that our autumn drop was due to bookstores getting nervous more than an actual drop in net sales, at least that was the case with our books.
The biggest factor for us hasn’t been so much big drops in actual sales, but the enormous amounts of returns from booksellers, primarily the chains.
I don’t know if this applies to ND’s distribution relationship with W.W. Norton, but a lot of indie/university/nonprofit publishers have to pay their distributor a percentage on returns. Typically this is around 4%. And unlike the amount you pay on net sales for distribution (typically around 24-26%), there’s no way a press can put the charge on returns in a good light. With the percentage paid on net, if you’re paying more it’s because you’re selling more—sort of a win-win. But if stores are upping their returns . . . well, basically, presses just have to suck it, losing out on possible sales (if the book isn’t on the shelf, it won’t sell) and paying for it at the same time.
(This is part of the logic behind Jasmine-Jade’s million dollar lawsuit against Borders.)
Declan also points to the fantastic ND backlist as being one of the things that helps during times like these (a healthy backlist can make up for a lot of fluctuations in frontlist sales):
Most important, while we always expect people to get excited about the new books we publish—many of the most innovative and exciting foreign authors, and some of the foremost avant-garde American poets—we have always had the luxury of being able to count on the steady sale of our luminous backlist. James Laughlin started New Directions in 1936 and since then, ND has built up one of the great literary lists in American publishing. Those books are essential texts in any worthy bookstore and are adopted on a wide scale in college courses across the country.
And he also touches on the shelf life/browsing issue:
I first became really aware of New Directions books when I started haunting the St. Marks Bookstore (when it was actually on St. Marks Place) and their selection influenced what I read. I’m sure there are lots of people like me, and what’s encouraging for New Directions is that there are lots of young folks who still support the independents, recognize their value, and just eat up our books and revere the history of our press. I don’t think that’s happening quite as much in the Barnes & Nobles. As I said above, the greatest damage due to the economic downfall this year has been due to the fact that the chains aren’t buying as many books up front, they’re reducing their shelf life (our author Eliot Weinberger says books now have the shelf life of yogurt), and in response to the climate, they’re returning more books. That’s incredibly damaging for a small company like New Directions. It effects not only our sales, but how many we decide to print off the bat.
Great start to Scott’s series, and I’m excited to read what others have to say . . .
I first found out from Scott Esposito of Conversational Reading that Hermano Cerdo — the fantastic Spanish-language blog about literature and martial arts — is running an incredible Books of 2008 series of posts.
They’ve asked a wide range of authors and editors (mostly Spanish, although not entirely) to name the best book(s) they read this year. (Like The Millions’ Year in Reading these don’t have to be new books.)
I’ve been slowly working my way through all these posts and recommendations, but the one that caught Scott’s eye was Enrique Vila-Matas’s recommendation of Mis dos mundos by Sergio Chejfec
Chejfec es un escritor argentino (Buenos Aires 1956), tal vez no muy conocido, pero autor de libros tan recomendables como Los incompletos (Alfaguara 2004). En Mis dos mundos desarrolla la crónica de un paseante, de un caminador, en la línea de Walser, Magris o Sebald. Incorpora un sorprendente humor dentro de la densidad germánica de una historia casi inmóvil en la que cuenta básicamente la reflexión sobre el desconcierto general de un viajero extraviado, inteligente y con buena disposición (a todas luces inútil) para acoplarse en un mundo que no parece hecho para él.
In my opinion, when Vila-Matas compares another writer to Sebald and Walser, it’s worth paying attention . . .
Like most of us, Paul Davies and Fern Smith enjoy immersing themselves in a good book. [Ed. Note: That use of “like most of us” signals that we’re not reading a U.S. paper.] But when they stumbled upon a copy of The Rings Of Saturn by W G Sebald, the seed was sown for a new stage production.
Now 10 years after the book’s original publication, and seven years after the German author’s untimely death, Volcano Theatre Company are presenting the UK premiere of i-witness, which was inspired by his words. It’s the first time Sebald’s work has ever been taken to the stage.
But it isn’t a straightforward adaptation of The Rings Of Saturn, which is an account of the narrator’s walking tour of south eastern England. Instead it takes a wider look at literature in general.
You can see the 5 minute clip below, but here’s how it’s described:
During the performance, the cast of four – Smith, Davies, Catherine Bennett and Philip Ralph, who wrote the award-winning Sherman Cymru production Deep Cut – all give their own thoughts on Sebald’s book.
Bennett is fanatical about the things no-one notices. Davies plays music to keep the silence at bay. Ralph has not been sleeping well since he read it. Smith is hypnotized by the rhythm of endless walking.
Even aside from the Sebald connection, the Volcano Theatre Company sounds pretty cool—their last production was called “A Few Little Drops,” and “was staged in a purpose-built inflatable arena, complete with its own self-contained water world.”
Over at Conversational Reading, Scott Esposito has a great review of J.J. Long’s recent book, W.G. Sebald: Image, Archive, Modernity:
A partial list of major topics will bring more detail if not more cohesion: (post-)colonialism, photography, the gaze, maps, archives, police/nanny states, the Holocaust, passports/travel, taxonomies, World War II, memory, identity, Foucault. In other words, the raw material of Long’s book is the raw material of modernity itself, which, Long contends, is also the major ingredient in Sebald’s literature. And so, modernity being a difficult bag to grasp, it’s hard to get too tight a hold on what sits between the covers of Long’s book.
Perhaps the best way to sum it up is to say that Long discusses how Sebald’s books attempt to bring together the disparate aspects of modernity through the technology of the archive, much as the modern state tried to do. Long contends that Sebald’s books are archival in nature, and he attempts to show how Sebald’s archival books present aspects of modernity ranging from wonder and spectacle to migration and dislocation.
In recent years I’ve become increasingly interested in reading books dealing with Africa, and so I present the Africa Reading Challenge.
Participants commit to read – in the course of 2008 – six books that either were written by African writers, take place in Africa, or deal significantly with Africans and African issues. (Read more if you like!)
Participants are asked to post a reading list on their individual blogs and then write a review of each title they cover. Pretty interesting idea—simple to execute, and very valuable for anyone looking to find out more about literature from Africa.
Esposito suggested doing one for Reading the World . . . Which isn’t a bad idea at all . . .
The new issue of Quarterly Conversation is now available, and full of interesting pieces including reviews of Lydie Salvayre’s The Power of Flies, Dorothea Dieckmann’s Guantanamo (which won our inaugural Best Translation of 2007 award), and Yousef Al-Mohaimeed’s Wolves of the Crescent Moon. There’s also a longer essay by François Monti on the fascinating and strange fiction of Eric Chevillard.
A really cool feature is the Overrated/Underrated list in which each of the issue’s contributors selects one overrated and one underrated book. Interesting in and of itself, but really, I only got as far as this entry, which made me giddy with anticipation:
Underrated: Doctor Pasavento by Enrique Vila-Matas
Maybe it’s problematic to consider an award-winning book under-rated, but quite a few reviewers of Enrique Vila-Matas’s Doctor Pasavento complained that it was just the same book as the previous one, and the one before. Surface-reading at its worst: if Doctor Pasavento, the third volume of Vila-Matas’s metaliterary trilogy, indeed reiterates things that were said in Bartleby & Co. and Montano’s Malady, it does so with much more depth, addressing a very different theme: the difficulty of being nobody. It is the pinnacle of Vila-Matas’s body of work thus far, and it should appeal to readers of Sebald and Walser.
I really hope New Directions publishes this sometime soon . . .
Following on the Monzo review, Conversational Reading has an interesting Friday Column by Barcelona author Neus Arques called “On Translations or the Pursuit of the Domino Effect.”
Arques recently published her first novel, and discussing the long, winding road to trying to get her book published in English:
My agent’s strategy was to immediately move it in the European market. First, she approached publishers in smaller markets, such as Greece or Portugal. This would be the first tier.
If you succeed in overcoming hurdle one—and my novel has been fortunate enough to do so, with rights sold to Portuguese—then the agent targets more competitive markets, such as the Italian or German publishing industry. In the words of an Argentinean publisher: “Spanish is a marginal language as far as translation goes. It takes years to persuade an Italian or a French publisher that we have quality books to offer.”
She also includes a list of five ideas for trying to get her book published in translation, including having translated a chapter, and possibly being willing to translate the entire book to reduce the publisher’s costs . . .
Not sure any of her ideas will directly lead to publication, but whatever, it can’t hurt. I still find it strange and disturbing that the presumed best path to getting published in English is getting published everywhere else first. Like American editors need the confirmation of a dozen other countries/reading markets before they’re willing to look that closely at a book like this. . . . This is more true for large, commercial houses than it is for independents, but even so, it just seems backwards.
This took place a few days ago, but The House of Mirth has a fantastic write up (complete with video!) of the CJR panel on the state of book reviews that took place last week.
Sounds like a lively panel—like this exchange between Carlin Romano (on the populist side) and Steve Wasserman (on the intellectual criticism side):
Now it was Wasserman’s turn. “When I hear the word elitism,” he said, “I reach for my revolver.” Romano: “That’s quite a role model.” Wasserman: “Well, I only reach for it on Tuesdays and Thursdays.” Sifton: “That’s what Dr. Goebbels did, too.” We had reached an important threshold in any panel discussion: one participant had compared another to the Nazis. All in fun, you might say, but Wasserman kept up his attack, accusing Romano of reverse snobbery. What he was prescribing was “criticism as baby talk.” And Osnos, too, was guilty of a category error. “Criticism is not a species of selling,” Wasserman scolded him. “It’s something entirely other.”
On a related note, the National Book Critics Circle event “The Age of Infinite Margins: Book Critics Face the 21st Century” also took place last week. Scott Esposito at Conversational Reading wasn’t able to attend, but pulled out a couple interesting points from Literary Saloon’s coverage.
Specifically, Scott was upset about Wasserman’s desire for the old days “when you could tell you were dealing with a crank from the appearance of the letters and even the envelopes from the disgruntled readers, and he actually said that one of the things that disturbed him about the Internet is how presentation no longer separates the cranks from the serious.” Which I agree is rubbish.
Because “the act of reading is not natural” in the sense of “genetically organized,” the brain must “rearrange itself” to do so, a process Wolf explains on a neuronal level as she explicates the “plasticity at the heart of the brain’s design.” She reminds us that our ancestors invented reading only a few thousand years ago and that the advanced brains of expert readers today would not resemble those of Sumerians who deciphered cuneiform script, because complex and challenging reading changes the brain physiologically. That is why we must teach children to read, while we do not need to teach them vision or speech (as opposed to how to see well and speak well).
Antibooks. That’s the solution. It we just publish books people don’t really have to read, or memoirs about fake-memoirs, we’ll all be millionaires . . .
It’s not a translation, but Tom McCarthy is a young British writer I really like. His debut novel Remainder—originally published by Metronome Press before being picked up by Vintage here in the States—is quite impressive, mysterious, and captivating.
Scott Esposito at Conversational Reading has more about the new book, Men in Space, which sounds very different from Remainder, although potentially interesting.
Men in Space follows a gaggle of characters set adrift within a fragmenting world: a stranded cosmonaut who has no country to come back to, a misguided football referee who has lost all perspective, an unsettled police agent, self-indulgent drifters seeking authenticity, political refugees and Western hangers-on who just don’t seem to grasp what is happening on the streets around them.
Scott Esposito at Conversational Reading took up the recent AP-Ispos findings, comparing the finding that the average American reads 4 books a year to other countries (the U.S. comes out well in this, but there are reasons) and pointing to economics as one of the issues adding to this statistic.
If people who read 50 or more books per year are willing to cut consumption in response to prices, think what people who only read four books per year would do. Taking up this point, in an article at the Huffington Post, Alex Remington makes much of the rise of trade paperback prices, speculating of a growing gap in books for “the masses” and books for “intellectuals.” He says that trade paperbacks can increase in price because they’re targeted at better educated, more cultured readers who tend to buy books despite price increases, but that this practice leaves many readers behind.
He explains this in greater detail, and he’s partially right that prices for books are crazy. (Although people still could go to libraries, so cost can be overcome.)
As someone personally involved, I should point out that there are a lot of costs eating into the publisher’s revenue stream. In brief, a bookstore gets an average discount of about 45% off the retail price of a book. Of the remaining amount, 20%+ goes to the publisher’s distributors—more if you figure in charges for returns. Authors get 7.5%, or more, of the retail price on all sales, and most translators get 1.0%. That leaves approx. 35% of the retail price to cover salaries, production, marketing expenses, operating costs, etc. So, if a trade paperback lists for $15, the publisher gets about $5.25 per unit sold. And if a book sells about 3,000 copies (which is solid for a work of literature), that comes out to $15,750. And printing costs alone run about $6,000.
This is why I love non-profits that can raise the necessary funds, and work on the appropriate scale, to publish great works of literature at a reasonable price despite sales expectations.
But hopefully as technology advances, a new model will arise that will allow publishers to reach even more readers at a lower cost. Because it is important that all readers—income aside—have access to literature. Regardless of how great their local library system is.
And as a sidenote, apparently Bulgaria Youth Hate Books. At least this isn’t just a local problem . . .
Some of the photographs in the Max Ferber section of W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants harken back to what is probably the earliest work of fiction ever to embed photographs, Georges Rodenbach’s Bruges-la-Morte. Somehow I feel that Sebald knew this seminal work, which was first published in book form in 1892 (after appearing serially in Paris’ Le Figaro). Rodenbach’s Symbolist novel is the story of love and murder in the “dead” city of Bruges.
The book sounds fascinating, and is available from Atlas Books.
Nice to see The Guardian branching out and choosing Siddhartha Deb write on Indian Literature. As Scott Esposito at Conversational Reading points out, within the past couple months, the New York Review of Books, Harper’s, and the New Yorker have all had articles by Pankaj Mishra on new books from India.
It’s just that Scott Esposito writes about books that I’m interested in supporting. In this case it’s Carlos Fuentes’s The Death of Artemio Cruz and Roberto Bolano’s By Night in Chile.
Both are very interesting books, and Scott’s comparison of the two death-bed confessions is pretty illuminating. And worth checking out. As is Fuentes’s Terra Nostra, which, in my opinion, is awe-inspiringly awesome and his finest book.
In celebration of Reading the World Month, Scott Esposito has posted a number of interviews, reviews, and general articles about international literature in translation. (Full disclosure: He interviewed me as well to kick off this celebration. Which is why I really like him and keep posting about his site. Just so we’re clear about my bias.)
Linked from this article you can find other interviews with Katherine Silver, Karen S. Kingsbury, Howard Curtis, Humphries Davies, and Natasha Wimmer.
Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .
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. . .