1 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.

All posts in this series can be found here. And today’s entry is from THA REALIST Edmund Wilson 3 on Michal Ajvaz.

The Golden Age by Michal Ajvaz, translated by Andrew Oakland

Language: Czech
Country: Czech Republic
Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press
Pages: 336

Why It Should Win: Nabokov + Borges + Swift = Ajvaz; Dalkey Archive is one of the premiere publishers of translations; praised by the Hipster Book Club; much better than Ajvaz’s The Other City

“The Book You All Must Choose to Win BTBA 2010, Unless You Are All Pompous Egoists Like That Ass Nabokov”

by THA REALIST Edmund Wilson 3

You know, the Kingdom wasn’t such a bad place until that pompous ass Nabokov got up here. I had a nice run of about five years, just me and the deity talking over those really interesting questions of language and reality, the relationship between them, how this all pertains to novels. Wittgenstein would drop by from time to time. It was nice. But the inevitable had to happen sooner or later, that old émigré son of a bitch had to die sometime. So Mr. Genius of all Geniuses finally kicks himself over, and here he comes floating up on butterfly wings—I mean, puh-leeze, butterfly wings? where’d those even come from?—and let me tell you, for any of you who think the deity is full of Him/Herself, you should have seen it when Nabokov floated on up to the Kingdom of God . . . “oh, gee Mr. Nabokov, tell me how you channeled Pushkin for that—excuse the pun—god-like translation. Tell me again how unconventional you were when you wrote Lolita . . .”

It was enough to make me sick, if sickness had any meaning up here, although I have to admit, it was plenty fun watching the old man get all in a lather over that “idiot son” of his (his words, not mine) claiming to have spoken with his ghost. He was in such a rage, and impotent to do a thing! Guess real life isn’t like “The Vane Sisters,” is it Nabby! Heh, heh, heh . . . You should have seen him the day T.O.O.L.—that’s what he calls it, tool that he is—the day T.O.O.L. was published. You’d have thought the fallen angel had returned there was so much commotion. I have to give it to him, the Kingdom really shook that day.

But anyway, I digress. I bring up Nabokov—pompous ass that he is—only to introduce The Golden Age by Michal Ajvaz, the book that hack Nabokov would have written if he had any real talent, instead of just ego. It takes little butterfly-boy’s favorite conceit—that whole bit about language being reality and vice versa—but he transports it to an island world Nabokov couldn’t have dreamed up if he wrote ten Pale Fires. He populates this island with a civilization that makes Zembla look like the little podunk backwater it is—I mean, he describes it in detail for a good 150 pages, half the book, and I was riveted the whole damn time! Waterfalls inside of houses! Walls made of water! Telling time via smell! It was all so truly creative, and the best thing was that every one of these beautiful details doubled as a metaphor for the way language mediates reality. Oh, and no kiddy porn in the whole book. Imagine that.

The plot of the book is that years ago a European took a trip to this island, and now he’s making a sort of ethnological study of it from what he remembers. At the center of their society is this Book that they hand around and all write in—like a pen and paper Wikipedia. And then after the narrator is done describing the society that gave rise to this incredible Book, then Ajvaz indulges in the Borgesian conceit (he hates Nabokov too, by the way), the Borgesian conceit of a book within a book that tunnels down into itself nearly down to infinity. The book as reductio ad absurdum—brilliant! And we read this book alongside the narrator—which is a great book in and of itself, despite (or because of) it’s near-infinite nature—and this book-within-a-book-within-a-book comes to reflect on the whole society the narrator has just spent the previous 150 pages describing in such staggering detail. It’s all so brilliant. You can just turn to a page at random, and I bet you there will be a line or a sentence or a paragraph there that you could muse about for the rest of the day.

Really, if you extracted all the genuine talent in Nabokov (minus that cancerous lump of an ego) and tossed in a liberal dash of Borges and a touch of Swiftian satire, well, there you would have Michal Ajvaz. The book is surely the most staggering translation to be published in 2010.

24 January 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Dan Vitale on Bohumil Hrabal’s Vita Nuova, which is translated from the Czech by Tony Liman and available from Northwestern University Press.

Dan Vitale is a regular contributor to Three Percent—a program sponsored in party through a grant from NYSCA—and has written a number of thoughtful, interesting reviews for us.

Bohumil Hrabal is one of the all-time great writers. Closely Watched Trains, I Served the King of England, Too Loud a Solitude, all absolutely spectacular. It’s great that Northwestern has been publishing this “autobiographical trilogy,” which sounds both playful and captivating. The lack of commas and periods in this volume brings to mind the one-sentence Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, which is effing brilliant and will soon be available from NYRB.

Anyway, here’s a bit about Vita Nuova:

Vita Nuova is the second volume in a trilogy of autobiographical novels based on Bohumil Hrabal’s courtship of and marriage to Eliška Plevová (nicknamed Pipsi) and the first decade or so of his fame as one of Czechoslovakia’s most beloved writers. Originally published in samizdat in Prague in 1986, not long before Plevová’s death, and then in Toronto by Josef Škvorecký’s Czech-language 68 Publishers, the trilogy plays fast and loose with the concepts of both autobiography and the novel, reflecting each in a kind of narrative funhouse mirror: the books are narrated not by Hrabal nor a fictional stand-in but by Pipsi. That is, they are an act of creative ventriloquism by a novelist imagining that his wife had written three memoirs about their life together.

The first volume, In-House Weddings (translated, like Vita Nuova, by Tony Liman and available from Northwestern), is set during the late 1950s in the Prague district of Libeň, and covers the relatively short period between the couple’s first meeting in the courtyard of the building where Hrabal lives alone in a small flat, and their eventual wedding celebration in the same courtyard. Vita Nuova, which covers the first several years of the marriage, picks up the story shortly thereafter but with a sudden, startling change in Pipsi’s narrative voice, perhaps to reflect the “new life” indicated by the novel’s title. (The Italian is an homage to La Vita Nuova, Dante’s collection of annotated poems about courtly love, but the content of Hrabal’s book seems otherwise unconnected to Dante’s.) The relatively conventional paragraphs of In-House Weddings, though frequently made up of long and sometimes comma-spliced sentences, have given way to a series of pages-long paragraphs whose sentences, oddly, lack commas and periods but not initial capitals (although questions and exclamations are properly end-punctuated). A preface to the book acknowledges a stylistic debt to Molly Bloom’s stream-of-consciousness soliloquy in James Joyce’s Ulysses, but (at least in translation) Hrabal’s prose is less disciplined and poetic than Joyce’s. After a chapter or two, the reader learns to rely on the capitals as the primary sign that one sentence has ended and another has begun, and the absence of periods becomes only the memory of an odd quirk that is never fully justified by the narrative.

Marriage has seemingly changed not just Pipsi’s writing style but her personality. In the first volume, she is strong but also forgiving and somewhat naïve. Ethnically German, hailing from a well-to-do family in the Czech region of Moravia, a survivor of racially-motivated persecution and forced labor during World War II, and most recently having been abandoned by an unfaithful fiancé, Pipsi is enamored of Hrabal and mostly indulgent toward his vices of procrastination and drink (though also quietly dismayed by them). In Vita Nuova she has suddenly become much flintier and more opinionated, much more open in her displeasures and dissatisfactions; as with the change in prose style, it is difficult to tell if Hrabal intends the contrast deliberately or has not exercised enough care in presenting the complexities of Pipsi’s character. At times we seem meant to pity her; at others she seems as extravagantly fuming a witness to her husband’s hapless misadventures as Margaret Dumont’s characters were to Groucho Marx’s shenanigans.

Click here to read the full review.

24 January 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Vita Nuova is the second volume in a trilogy of autobiographical novels based on Bohumil Hrabal’s courtship of and marriage to Eliška Plevová (nicknamed Pipsi) and the first decade or so of his fame as one of Czechoslovakia’s most beloved writers. Originally published in samizdat in Prague in 1986, not long before Plevová’s death, and then in Toronto by Josef Škvorecký’s Czech-language 68 Publishers, the trilogy plays fast and loose with the concepts of both autobiography and the novel, reflecting each in a kind of narrative funhouse mirror: the books are narrated not by Hrabal nor a fictional stand-in but by Pipsi. That is, they are an act of creative ventriloquism by a novelist imagining that his wife had written three memoirs about their life together.

The first volume, In-House Weddings (translated, like Vita Nuova, by Tony Liman and available from Northwestern), is set during the late 1950s in the Prague district of Libeň, and covers the relatively short period between the couple’s first meeting in the courtyard of the building where Hrabal lives alone in a small flat, and their eventual wedding celebration in the same courtyard. Vita Nuova, which covers the first several years of the marriage, picks up the story shortly thereafter but with a sudden, startling change in Pipsi’s narrative voice, perhaps to reflect the “new life” indicated by the novel’s title. (The Italian is an homage to La Vita Nuova, Dante’s collection of annotated poems about courtly love, but the content of Hrabal’s book seems otherwise unconnected to Dante’s.) The relatively conventional paragraphs of In-House Weddings, though frequently made up of long and sometimes comma-spliced sentences, have given way to a series of pages-long paragraphs whose sentences, oddly, lack commas and periods but not initial capitals (although questions and exclamations are properly end-punctuated). A preface to the book acknowledges a stylistic debt to Molly Bloom’s stream-of-consciousness soliloquy in James Joyce’s Ulysses, but (at least in translation) Hrabal’s prose is less disciplined and poetic than Joyce’s. After a chapter or two, the reader learns to rely on the capitals as the primary sign that one sentence has ended and another has begun, and the absence of periods becomes only the memory of an odd quirk that is never fully justified by the narrative.

Marriage has seemingly changed not just Pipsi’s writing style but her personality. In the first volume, she is strong but also forgiving and somewhat naïve. Ethnically German, hailing from a well-to-do family in the Czech region of Moravia, a survivor of racially-motivated persecution and forced labor during World War II, and most recently having been abandoned by an unfaithful fiancé, Pipsi is enamored of Hrabal and mostly indulgent toward his vices of procrastination and drink (though also quietly dismayed by them). In Vita Nuova she has suddenly become much flintier and more opinionated, much more open in her displeasures and dissatisfactions; as with the change in prose style, it is difficult to tell if Hrabal intends the contrast deliberately or has not exercised enough care in presenting the complexities of Pipsi’s character. At times we seem meant to pity her; at others she seems as extravagantly fuming a witness to her husband’s hapless misadventures as Margaret Dumont’s characters were to Groucho Marx’s shenanigans.

There are many misadventures here, most of them of a domestic nature. The most entertaining involve Hrabal’s attempts at home improvement, aided by his diminutive friend Pepíček Sviatek. Even seen through Pipsi’s judgmental eyes, a slapstick scene in which Hrabal and Pepíček take apart and clean a soot-clogged stovepipe is a match for anything in a Laurel and Hardy short.

But sometimes Pipsi cannot contain herself, and lets fly with an outburst that would have been unimaginable coming from her in volume 1:

And now [Hrabal’s love-struck artist friend] Vladimir took the near-empty buckets and spun them in the air and whisked the last of the tar against the wall and then he cried out and collapsed in a heap and just lay there moaning like he’d fallen off a cliff And [Vladimir’s lover] Tekla leaned over him and clasped her hands and covered her eyes and my husband took a long draft from the pitcher and then passed it to Jirka and as they drank their eyes never left Vladimir who now sat up and raised that beautiful head of his and then he got to his feet and ran straight at the tar-wet wall onto which he’d poured out his very soul and he struck it headfirst but that wasn’t enough for him so he began to head-butt the wall like a ram and rivulets of blood flowed down around his eyes and Vladimir stood there and drove his head into the wall again and again and Tekla ran into the hallway and into the kitchen in tears implored Jirka and my husband to help and when they ran in Vladimir was already collapsed at the foot of the wall [. . .] unconscious and Jirka and my husband lifted his limp body and carried it into the hallway and Jirka brought a pail of water and knelt down and gently washed Vladimir’s face and his forehead . . . And that was all I could stand and I screamed at Tekla at the top of my lungs . . . Are you crazy you’re all out of your minds! For God’s sake what kind of crap are you trying to pull? And I turned on my husband and yelled in his face And you! How can you stand by and watch your friend like this!

For the most part, however, Pipsi takes a sympathetic view of her husband and his travails, especially when it comes to his writing. (Hrabal at this time had published only a book of poems, and was working intermittently on the stories that would later appear in the collection Pearls of the Deep.) She offers on more than one occasion to support them both on the income from her job as a server in a hotel restaurant so that he can quit his own job at a paper-recycling plant and concentrate full-time on his writing, but he consistently refuses. Still, even at her most generous, Pipsi is forced to treat the childlike Hrabal with something like tough love, though leavened with genuine concern and affection for his idler’s ways:

In vain I told my husband to drop everything to forget about going to work to concentrate on his writing in vain I told him to let me worry about the money but I guess my husband wasn’t quite ready yet for the solitude for the grit required to confront himself every day and work on his own writing [. . .] my husband got into this habit of settling down to write just before I got home from work he hammered away at the [typewriter] and when I came home he pretended to just be hitting his stride but oh well he’d have to pack it in now that I was home and pack it in he did because I had just about enough already I was sick of the standard excuse that he couldn’t write when I was at home [. . .] it was the same old tired excuse that I always countered with . . . Forget the job I’ll look after you . . . And my husband always pretended not to hear and when I laughed and stared him down he always averted his eyes and for the rest of the night wouldn’t utter a word [. . .] but with those oft-repeated words of mine I forced him to withstand that look to withstand and comprehend the full import of those words . . . Forget the job I’ll look after you . . . and somehow those words gave me strength I looked at my own reflection in the mirror and what I saw was a woman a waitress a cashier a fair woman who’d been brought back from the brink by her husband and now that I offered to look after him he was terrified that perhaps I was right perhaps he didn’t have the stuff to be alone to get down to writing all those things he went on about to others . . .

Although the Hrabal portrayed in Vita Nuova bears very little hint of his future status in Czech literature (this transformation will likely be described in the third volume of the trilogy, Vacant Lots, due out later this year from Northwestern in Liman’s translation), Hrabal the author of Pipsi’s “memoirs,” looking back on himself from the vantage of a quarter-century, has masterminded a ferocious and fascinating tangle of narrative perspectives. Toward the end of the book, we get this from Pipsi:

he was scared of mirrors he never wanted to look into a mirror but ultimately he always convinced himself that perhaps his face had improved that maybe he wasn’t as badly off as what he just saw in the mirror And then he looked at himself again at first just a guilty little glance and then he zeroed in and stared and as usual was alarmed by what he saw . . . How did he see himself?

It’s a good question: just whose opinions of Hrabal are we getting here? Hrabal the character’s? Hrabal the author’s? Or Pipsi the narrator’s? It’s impossible to know for sure. Whatever the answer, Vita Nuova gives us the opportunity to peer into Hrabal’s funhouse mirror, deep within which, without a doubt, is a grateful tribute to a long-suffering but loving spouse.

27 October 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Really late with my ALTA 2010 write-ups (there are a couple in the works though), but I wanted to make a special post congratulating Alex Zucker on receiving this year’s National Translation Award for his translation from the Czech of Petra Hulova’s All This Belongs to Me.

From the press release:

Alex Zucker received the 2010 National Translation Award for his translation of Petra Hůlová’s All This Belongs to Me (Northwestern University Press, 2009). The $5,000 prize is given annually to the translator whose work, by virtue of both its quality and significance, has made the most valuable contribution to literary translation. [. . .]

Zucker, a freelance translator based in the U.S., has translated two novels and numerous short stories, as well as plays, poems and song lyrics. His translation of Czech author Jáchym Topol’s first novel, City Sister Silver, was selected for inclusion in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.

All This Belongs to Me chronicles the lives of three generations of women in a Mongolian family whose differing points of view reveal complex identities and dramatic secrets beneath the daily rhythms of nomadic existence and the modern realities of living in Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar.

This is a book I’ve wanted to review on the site for a long time, but haven’t had time to do this myself . . . If anyone’s interested in writing about it, just e-mail me. I have a copy in the office I can send off to you asap.

22 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The final installment in The Guardian‘s_ Stories from a New Europe series is This Part of Town Is No Place for Old-Timers by Czech author Jachym Topol. David Short translated this piece about a Czech writer remembering life before 1989, his father’s failure as a writer and dissident, and how the post-wall society is filled with crappy chain restaurants and other ways to lure in tourists:

Now don’t start drowning in nostalgia, I tell myself. It must be better here now than it was back then. In those days, the barracks across the street with the red star on the front was where Soviet soldiers used to take their meals. The Soviets with their tanks and rockets held their Czech gubernium on a tight rein, and with it one-sixth of the world, and that was horrendous; while this globalised tat – well, it’s Freedom. The God-awful tackiness of city centres is evidence of the freedom to travel, I reassure myself. It’s the same here as in Florence, Kyoto or Lisbon. People want to be alike, since difference breeds only misunderstanding and violence. And it’s hardly overstating it to say that that year, 1989, when Eastern Europe rose in revolt, we shot straight out of Orwell into Huxley. But which is better?

In the end, this was definitely my favorite of the six stories in the series. And unlike some of the other writers featured by The Guardian, if you’re interested in reading more Topol, his novel City Sister Silver is available from Catbird Press, and Gargling with Tar is currently being translated by David Short.

Probably more than any of the five pieces, this story would fit perfectly in The Wall in My Head an anthology of stories, essays, and images that we’re publishing on November 9th, to mark the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Words Without Borders (specifically Rohan Kamicheril and Sal Robinson) put together this fantastic collection, which includes pieces by Peter Schneider, Ryszard Kapuściński, Vladimir Sorokin and Victor Pelevin and new work from Péter Esterházy, Andrzej Stasiuk, Muharem Bazdulj, Maxim Trudolubov, Dorota Masłowska, Uwe Tellkamp, Dan Sociu, David Zábranský, Christhard Läpple, and a host of others.

You can preorder the title directly from us by clicking the link above, or you can order it from The Booksmith, our store of the month, by clicking here. Or, for the biggest savings, you could just take out an Open Letter subscription and receive the next six OL books for $65. (Or the next 12 for $120—just click the image below for more details.)

4 February 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

I’m somewhat ashamed that this is the first time we’re posting about the European Book Club. I’m not sure exactly when this started (I just found out about it from Bill Martin of the Polish Cultural Institute), but looking at the books included in the 2008 program—Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser, Amara Lakhous’s Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio, Peter Sis’s The Wall—this is a pretty amazing program.

Between March and November (and skipping July and August), the club meets once a month (there are sessions both in New York and Brooklyn) to discuss a book selected by one of the participating cultural centers. The cost of participating is free—all you have to do is buy a copy of the book and read it—but from what I’ve heard, the sessions fill up really quick, so if you’re interested in attending you really should register online as soon registration opens.

The first book in the 2009 season will be City Sister Silver by Jachym Topol, translated from the Czech by Alex Zucker, and published by Catbird Press, a book that I’ve personally wanted to read for a while now . . .

Think one part Burgess, a little bit of Joyce, mix in some Kerouac, spiced with American Indian myth and . . . wahlah . . . City Sister Silver. Jachym Topol’s novel rocked the Czech literary scene. Marked by rapid changes in syntax, style, spelling, grammar and dialogue Topol’s style is both wild and brilliant. From one sentence to the next Topol shifts tone and meaning, mixing the vernacular with traditional literary form. Though not so radical to the English speaking world, Topol’s style marks a turning point in Czech literature. City Sister Silver is the only book from the 1990s to be included in the list of the 100 Greatest Czech Prose Works of the Century.

The book kicks off soon after “time exploded.” With the Velvet Revolution kicking, City Sister Silver is an account of one man’s response to the new era. It is nearly impossible to summarize the many plot lines as the novel skips and jumps from dreams to drunken delusions to stark reality. In a very small nutshell: Potok is an actor, a black market entrepreneur, a drinker and a romantic. Potok and his droogs rule the underbelly of Prague and have their hands in nearly every public project and business venture. Yet, he has little interest in business; Potok’s main agenda is to find his soul mate, his sister.

The book club will take place on March 23rd at the Czech Center (321 East 73rd Street), with a second session at the Brooklyn Public Library (not sure if that’s on 3/23 as well or not).

Registration isn’t open yet—as soon as it is, I’ll make another post for anyone who’s interested in attending.

....
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