9 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I have to thank GoodReads reviewer extraordinaire/B&N Union Square employee (who makes the best book displays ever) Karen Brissette for pointing me to this interview. She was searching for information on Iren Nigg (who is apparently awesome and totally not translated1) and came across this Stefan Sprenger interview that was done as part of the promotions for this year’s Best European Fiction anthology.

I didn’t realize this until Karen pointed it out, but Dalkey has a ton of interviews with BEF contributing authors available on their website. Looks like all of these ask the same six questions—all of which are interesting and worth asking, but lead to some pretty entertaining comments when applied to writing from Liechtenstein. Witness:

Do you see your work as fitting into the traditions of European fiction—or indeed any national or regional tradition?

I’m not part of a Liechtenstein tradition of literature, because there is no Liechtenstein literature, and never has been. There are a handful of authors in Liechtenstein, but they are individuals and solitary; there are no groups and no common ground. [. . .]

Are there any exciting trends, movement, or schools in contemporary Liechtenstein fiction? Who do you feel are the overlooked contemporary authors writing in Liechtenstein who should be more widely read and translated?

How could there be one? Literature and publishing need a critical mass in order to function. The Nanoprincipality of Liechtenstein isn’t even remotely close to this size. There’s also the fact that for the past century our national sport has been banking secrecy, keeping absolutely silent and discreet. [. . .]

Are there enough publishing outlets in Liechtenstein for contemporary fiction? Is there a market for literary fiction in Liechtenstein?

No. There isn’t a publishing house that would bring out the professional, long-term, and programmatic literature that comes out in and around Liechtenstein. That would presume a small national market: let’s say, to be generous, that such books would sell 500 to 800 copies. Those numbers are all the reason that there isn’t a publishing house here. It would only be possible if the government decided to use state funds for such an endeavor. Since literature is always a betrayal—especially considering Liechtenstein’s banking secrecy—we’re far more likely to have a Royal Liechtenstein Space Station on Titan than to finance a publisher of Liechtenstein’s literature.

Do you want your work to be translated? Why or why not?

No, of course not. I never would have taken part in BEF 2011 if the Archbishop hadn’t ordered it and if the royal service hadn’t threatened me with confiscation of my state-subsidized electric bike.

Brilliant! Dead serious that this makes me want to read Sprenger’s story . . . He sounds so entertaining.

On a sidenote, I’m really not sure how you’re supposed to answer the “do you want your work to be translated” question. If anyone says no, it’s for reasons that are likely pretentious and irritating. And the most common answer to yes has to be that translation helps you reach a larger audience, and, in this context, reinforces the belief that you’re only a “real author” if your work is available in English. But I’m maybe reading too much into this . . .

Regardless, I wish all interviews were this entertaining.

1 Anyone know more about Nigg? Very interested, but there’s next to no info online . . .

2 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [32]

The following was written by Mima Simić regarding her recent experiences in publishing “My Girlfriend” in the Best European Fiction 2011 anthology. Enjoy!

Best European Fiction for 2011 has hit the bookstores and review sections of your favorite cultural papers, but there’s some pretty bad non-fiction behind the best fiction Dalkey offers.

Sometime in April of 2010 I was informed that my story (“My Girlfriend”) was to be included in the 2011 Best European Fiction edition (as the Croatian representative, yay!). This was, naturally, quite a delightful piece of news for me; an opportunity to reach the vast English speaking market, as writing in so-called small languages can be quite a limitation to one’s literary ambitions. Dalkey received my story not in Croatian, but in English; it was I who translated it. As a conscientious author, and not wanting to be misread nor derided for my command of the lingua franca of the universe, before I’d sent it in, I had it (proof) read by a few native speakers, including my American professor of creative writing (American as in born, raised, writing and teaching in the U.S.).

All seemed well; no one from Dalkey contacted me except to sign a contract that allowed the publisher to use the story, or parts of it, for their advertising and other purposes. There was nothing in the contract about the text of the story itself, nothing about editorial interventions, proofreading etc. And why should there be? Even in “uncivilized” non-EU and non-U.S. countries (such as mine) we know that a publisher/editor ought to consult the author should they think it necessary to change their text. And one would expect this to be doubly true of Dalkey who are hailed as the trailblazer of translated fiction in the English-speaking world, are producing a report on best practices in publishing translations and have in fact published a guide to editing translations (!)

As no one contacted me about any edits, I presumed everything was fine with the story. Imagine then my astonishment when the Anthology arrived at my doorstep (in December 2010) and I realized that a diligent Dalkey editor not only made quite a few interventions in the text, but they also inserted (!) a piece of text that changed/determined sex of my narrator! As this gender/sex ambiguity is one of the thematic pillars of my story, this benevolent editorial intervention (which made the narrator a man and the relationship heterosexual!) completely changed my story, its aims and effects. To be sure, the author is not, nor can they be, the owner of the interpretation, but surely they should be the owner of their text? The copy editor’s job is not to rewrite or retell the story in their own words—but rather to intervene as little as possible and if they do change something, to check with the author before the text goes to print. Is this too much to ask of Dalkey? And is it unfair to ask this: Would this have happened to me if I had been an American author?

Needless to say, I was utterly shocked, appalled and flabbergasted by this act—especially as Dalkey (and this ambitious publication) was the last publisher I expected to get this kind of treatment from (I had my stories published in the UK before; in Chroma Journal and on Pulp.net, and both editors communicated with me about any/every edit). Also, this editorial gender-(re)assignment surgery was to me not only an artistic but also an ideological insult. I’m a lesbian writer, or rather—a writer who happens to be a lesbian—and I also happen to be a gender theorist—so whenever I write I’m absolutely conscious of the factor of identity and how important it is to play with it, subvert it. I would have thought that a reputable American publisher would be aware of such issues and of how language constructs reality and vice versa.

I don’t write straight stories; and I don’t want anyone to be straightening my stories, in any way, sexual or textual—and certainly not without my consent. I wrote to Dalkey to say I was sorry my story was ever published in the anthology under my name because their “editing” turned it into somebody else’s. It’s a piece of fiction I would never produce. This didn’t impress them much. The editorial director, John O’Brien said he didn’t know why these changed were made and offered to have a conversation (between myself and Dalkey) published in their magazine CONTEXT in which we would, in a civilized manner, discuss the matter (and presumably allow them to call the shots again). A barbaric creature from the Balkans, I never replied to his email.

Finally, I’d like to share with you the concrete details of editorial/proofreading interventions, so you can judge whether they were needed. To be sure, even if they had been, the mere fact no one ever contacted me to confirm I was OK with them (and they had at least half a year to do so, for the meager 5 pages of my story), they never asked for my authorization. If you have a look at the list of the “edits,” you’ll notice that not only did they change the rhythm of the story, the syntax and the sound but they went so far as to (re)interpret the story for the reader. How patronizing—both on myself and the readers.

Here are some of the more problematic edits (the first one is horrific, but the other ones weren’t pretty to look at either):

original:
Although she is blind, when we go out my girlfriend likes to make herself up. Sometimes I get a feeling she is flirting, but I suppose I’m just being paranoid.

edited:
Although she can’t see herself (why change this?), my girlfriend likes to make herself up when we go out. Sometimes I get a feeling she is flirting WITH OTHER MEN (nb: nowhere in the story do I suggest the narrator is a man!) etc.

original:
Some will say it’s as good as cheating, but those are the dull people always ready to explain to you the difference between love and fiction.

edit:
Some might say this is cheating, but only the same sort of dull people who’re always happy to explain the difference between love and make believe to you.

There is a big difference between the word FICTION and “make believe.” FICTION also refers to WRITING. why they had to change this one is BEYOND ME.

original:
Maybe some of the girls were boys, too.

edit:
Maybe some of the girls were actually boys anyway.

Why change this sentence?

original:
And now, after four years, it’s sort of passé, a matter too inappropriate to discuss

edit:
And now, after four years, it’s sort of too late – it would be too delicate to bring it up.

PASSE is not the same as too late. It has its own register, meaning and TONE. If I used it, that’s because I WANTED to use it. There was NOTHING wrong with the original, so why change it?

original:
She can tell the time by the smell of the stuff in the pan.

edit:
She can tell how long something’s been frying by the way it smells.

Why change this sentence? why, why, why?!

original:
When they hear my girlfriend is blind, most often people will first remember the downsides of dating a blind person, like missing out on the best part – the exchange of meaningful looks, the foreplay of signals, the silent innuendos.

edit:
When they hear my girlfriend is blind, most often people will first remember the downsides of dating a blind person, like missing out on the best partS OF BEING IN A RELATIONSHIP – the exchange of meaningful looks, the foreplay of signals, the silent innuendos.

WHY ADD THAT BIT? Those are NOT the best parts of being in a relationship, actually.

They’re part of the DATING.

I hope this letter will be a valuable lesson to the reading/writing/translating community and the publishers of the world. I know editor’s job is stressful one, but this fact by no means should relieve them of the responsibility for the mistakes they make. If I had a dentist pull out a wrong tooth or plumber flood my bathroom instead of fixing the pipe, I’d do my all to make them face to the consequences of the crappy job they’d done. As I’m sure Dalkey editors would do, too. Because no one likes walking the world toothless; and this is how things are done in the civilized world.

Sincerely,
Mima Simić

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.

4 January 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [6]

So, in addition to the interesting books I found in going through Dalkey’s catalog, I also came across a couple of odd listings that I thought I’d share in hopes that someone out there can explain this to me . . .

One of the reasons I go through all catalogs is to add all the new titles to our Translation Database. (Which is a pain in the ass, but does give me the opportunity to keep up with what books are coming out from all the other publishers out there.) Anyway, when I hit Herve Le Tellier’s The Sextine Chapel, my database alerted me to the fact that this was a “duplicate entry.” This isn’t all that unusual. Publishers occasionally have to delay titles, and sometimes end up relisting them in the next catalog. So no big deal.

BUT, in double-checking the info on The Sextine Chapel, the price has jumped from $12.95 (which is what it was listed at when it had a April 2010 pub date) to $34.95. (!!) Almost a 300% increase . . .

Adding to the weirdness is a listing on the same page for Herve Le Tellier’s A Thousand Pearls (for a Thousand Pennies), which is also due out in July 2011 and is retailing for $39.95.

It’s not like either of these are long books or special editions. According to all the available info, these are plain old paperbacks, that are 104 pages and 200 pages respectively. So, what’s going on here?

Speculation Point #1: This is the same price point Dalkey uses for its “Scholarly Series,” for which academics pay a $XX subvention (around $5,000) to have the books published by Dalkey. (See here for all the info.) These titles are done in very short runs (100 copies or so) and sold almost exclusively to university libraries.

So, are these translations part of the Scholarly Series? Is translator Ian Monk subsidizing these? That seems awfully weird, since they are “delightful and daring entertainments” that seem as geared towards the general public as anything else in Dalkey’s catalog.

And to add to the mystery, yesterday I also came across the Publishers Weekly review of Herve Le Tellier’s Enough about Love, which is translated from the French by Adriana Hunter and coming out from Other Press next month. This book lists for a reasonable $14.95 (it’s 240 pages), and sounds pretty entertaining. (From the Other Press copy: “Love at first sight is still possible for those into their forties and long-married. But when you have already mapped out a life path, a passionate affair can come at a high price. For our four characters, their lives are unexpectedly turned upside down by the deliciously inconvenient arrival of love. “)

Speculation Point #2: At $34.95 and $39.95, the two Le Tellier books from Dalkey will not be available in any bookstore in America. (Except maybe one or two truly Dalkey-devoted ones, but, well, you know what I mean.) Readers interested in Le Tellier will most likely just buy Enough about Love, which is great for Other Press, less so for the two Dalkey titles.

Speculation Point #3: The ebook versions of the Dalkey titles are listed for $14.95. Is Dalkey trying to promote a primarily ebook future for translations? Seems weird, since Dalkey isn’t the most wired of publishers.

Does anyone know what’s going on here? I’m mainly interested in this from a publishing decision perspective, since it seems to run counter to all that Dalkey has, and does, stand for of providing access to international works of literature.

But I’m also interested because it seems like there’s some sort of intriguing story to be told. This switch from a $12.95 to (the unsellable) $34.95 feels like some sort of punishment or retaliation or something. But where is this punishment directed? At Ian Monk? Le Tellier? The agent/French publisher? And what will this accomplish?

I’m totally confused and intrigued, and plan on speculating wildly (in my own head) if I don’t get the full story . . . If anyone has any leads, please e-mail (chad.post [at] rochester [dot] edu) or post them in the comments section below.

4 January 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Now that the University of Rochester’s mail services is back from break, I’m swimming in a sea of books, catalogs, and mailed in donations from our annual campaign. (Well, OK, maybe not swimming in a sea of donations, but thanks to all of you who did donate. And if you haven’t donated, you can by clicking here.)

One of the more interesting catalogs that arrived over break was the new Spring/Summer 2011 catalog from Dalkey Archive. There are a $%^&load of translations in here, from a number of different languages and countries. With the total number of original translations plummeting in 2010 (more on that later this week when I finally finish updating the Translation Database), I’m sure that Dalkey will be one of the top producers of translated literature.

As alluded to in the earlier post about Hotel Europa, Dalkey has traditionally supported its authors by publishing (and reissuing) several of their works, rather than dumping them if sales for a particular title aren’t all that impressive. This is very admirable, and this catalog features books from a number of “classic” Dalkey authors. (Can’t find these titles on the Dalkey site, otherwise I’d link to them. And all quotes are from the catalog):

  • Patrik Ourednik’s The Opportune Moment, 1855, translated from the Czech by Alex Zucker;
  • Juan Goytisolo’s Exiled from Almost Everywhere, translated from the Spanish by Peter Bush;

In Exiled from Almost Everywhere, Juan Goytisolo’s perverse mutant protagonist—the Parisian “Monster of Le Sentier”—is blown up by an extremist bomber and finds himself in the cyberspace of the Thereafter with an infinite collection of computer monitors.

  • Julian Rios’s Procession of Shadows, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor;
  • Luisa Valenzuela’s Dark Desires and the Others, translated from the Spanish by Susan E. Clark;

Dark Desires is the author’s autobiographical fantasia on the ten years she spent living in New York City. Valenzuela has called this book her “apocryphal autobiography,” and in it she says very little about her work as a writer, about the city itself, or even about literature.

  • Viktor Shklovsky, Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar, translated from the Russian by Shushan Avagyan;
  • Jacques Jouet’s Upstaged, translated from the French by Leland de la Durantaye;
  • Claude Ollier’s Wert and the Life without End, translated from the French by Ursula Meany Scott;
  • Goncalo M. Tavares’s Learning to Pray in the Age of Technology, translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn

In a city not quite of any particular era, a distant and calculating man named Lenz Buchmann works as a surgeon, treating his patients as little more than equations to be solved: life and death no more than results to be worked through without the least compassion.

There are also a number of interesting sounding “new voices”:

  • Jean Rolin’s The Explosion of the Radiator Hose, translated from the French by Louise Rogers Lalaurie;
  • Edouard Leve’s Suicide, translated from the French by Jan Steyn;
  • Abdelwahab Meddeb’s Talismano, translated from the French by Jane Kuntz;

Talismano is a novelistic exploration of writing seen as a hallucinatory journey through half-remembered, half-imagined cities—in particularly, the city of Tunis, both as it is now, and as it once was.

  • Asaf Schurr’s Motti, translated from the Hebrew by Todd Hasak-Lowy;

An unassuming, unambitious man named Motti, who owns a dog named Laika, has a good friend named Menachem. Motti and Menachem drink beer together every week, and Motti spends the rest of his time daydreaming an imaginary love story for himself and his neighbor, Ariella. Motti is the very picture of inertia, until, one night, a drunk Menachem, driving home from a bar with Motti, runs over a woman and kills her.

They’re also doing a couple Japanese Literature Publishing Project titles (Plainsong by Kazushi Hosaka and The Shadow of a Blue Cat by Naoyuki Li), and, what may the be the most exciting announcement, they’re brining out Mark Polizzotti’s new translation of Raymond Roussel’s Impressions of Africa.

I’m sure we’ll end up covering a number of these on the site, and as I peruse more catalogs, I’ll post other “Spring/Summer 2011 Preview” posts . . .

12 November 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Austrian actress, writer, and painter Mela Hartwig (1893–1967) published relatively little during her lifetime: a collection of stories, a novel, a novella, and a book of poems. She did most of this work between 1921, when she married and retired from acting, and 1938, when she and her husband moved to London to escape the Nazi occupation and annexation of Austria. Am I a Redundant Human Being?, written in 1931, was one of three completed novel manuscripts found (along with a fourth, incomplete novel) among her papers after her death. Unpublished until 2001, when it fueled a renewed interest in Hartwig’s work in her home country, the novel has now been translated by Kerri A. Pierce and published by Dalkey Archive Press—the first appearance of any of Hartwig’s books in English.

Am I a Redundant Human Being? is the monologue of Aloisia (known as Luise) Schmidt, a secretary at a Vienna construction firm. Luise narrates the events of her life from her early childhood at the turn of the twentieth century until about the age of 30. Judging from the intensely psychological focus of the book, it is clear that Hartwig’s Vienna is also very much the Vienna of Sigmund Freud; the narrative has the feel of a case study in low self-esteem. After an undistinguished school career, Luise’s life has been a mostly unbroken series of unfulfilling low-skilled clerical jobs and difficult relationships: tentative friendships with women, whom she tends to idolize and imitate excessively; and unstable romances with men, whom she tends to obsess over and who ultimately reject her over her neediness and her weakness of personality.

The bulk of the novel is taken up with the two most recent of these slavish involvements: first with Elizabeth, a narcissistic, melodramatic acting student, and then with Elizabeth’s arrogant ex-lover, the businessman Egon Z. (Note the quasi-Freudian use of initials to abbreviate surnames for the sake of anonymity, which Luise applies to all the men with whom she has been involved.) Although they come last in the story and take up almost half the book’s length, these two encounters underscore the essentially repetitive nature of Luise’s story, since they do not differ much in kind or significance from the earlier ones.

Further emphasizing this sense of repetition, Luise’s method throughout is to alternate descriptions of events from her life with moments of frank, poignant self-laceration that for the most part outshine in interest and originality the events that give rise to them. Here is one example from late in the novel:

I can’t remember what finally made me turn against this life, and the weak, pliable person I’d become, content with dreams—but I’ll never forget the disgust that filled me when I realized I was satisfied rather than desperate. I preferred escaping into dreams to confronting the real world. I was content with a phantom lover. I had become capable of deluding myself, precisely so that I wouldn’t have to see my life was hopeless. But no, I hadn’t “become” anything—I had always been like this. I had always fled from every deep, every painful emotion. Such sloth, such cowardice—I was simply repugnant. It seemed I wasn’t even capable of well-earned despair. Again I told myself that I’d never be able to experience true feeling, that I would only ever know its shadow. My whole life I’d lived off the one wretched ambition that still possessed me: to be more than I was; to reject and despise everything that was in my reach and to set goals I was incapable of reaching; to chase after emotions I was incapable of feeling; to seek out adventures I couldn’t live up to; to have a friendship that was no friendship, a love that was no love; ambitions yoked to a weak will, a will stuck in the mire of unfulfilled desire.

And another, from just six pages later:

What’s the point of a person like me, what? A person who will never amount to anything because she doesn’t believe in herself, who doesn’t believe in herself because she doesn’t amount to anything, a completely redundant human being? Who would miss me, who would mourn for me? My parents perhaps, but who else? I saw my mother before me, a vague image that only lasted a moment; I could hear her voice whisper in my ear, warning, imploring: “All you ever think about is yourself.”

How often had I heard “All you ever think about is yourself” from her? She’d said so at every opportunity, and yet I’d never understood or wanted to understand her. Now I flung her accusation back at myself: “All you ever think about is yourself.” It’s true, I admitted. All I ever think about is myself. My life might actually have something like a goal, a real purpose, if only I could forget myself, if only I could lose myself in the crowd, if only I could sacrifice myself to some higher purpose. But I had more fear of this sacrifice than of life itself. . . . Even if I knew I’d get back a thousand times what I’d given, I simply couldn’t let go of the tiny, despised bit of self that I still possessed, despite everything. Besides, what was I good for, really? The menial tasks that no one ever noticed? Simply becoming the tiniest cog in a huge machine wasn’t worth the sacrifice. I couldn’t afford to forget myself because everyone else forgot me anyway. Yes, I was self-absorbed all right, because otherwise I was nothing at all. Another repulsive revelation.

This degree of painfully heightened self-awareness both gives the book its Freudian flavor of psychoanalytic case study and, while fascinating, renders it static as a work of fiction. For although by the end of her monologue Luise has gained a slightly more mature perspective on her experiences, she has also not changed very much—except perhaps in the intensity of her resignation to her perceived character flaws. In this sense her narrative is if anything anti-psychoanalytic, since after describing her life Luise seems not to have learned how to cope with it any better. Instead, it seems as if her only point in her reminiscences is to remind us again and again of her deficiencies, and the constant repetition tends to undermine the reader’s desire to sympathize with her plight.

Despite the frustrations of the material, however, praise must be given to Pierce’s fluid and highly readable translation, whose momentum never flags throughout a work that is not broken into chapters and contains not even a single scene break. Nevertheless, in a few spots the text would have benefited from the attentions of a careful editor: a “leeching” instead of a “leaching,” two instances of “hand and hand” for “hand in hand,” a mistaken reference to a typewriter’s shift lock as the “caps lock,” and a document in which Luise is referred to with the specifically English or British (and somewhat anachronistic) title “Ms.” in place of “Fräulein.” These minor complaints aside, Pierce’s translation is a pleasure to follow from start to finish, even while Hartwig’s fiction itself seems to run in place.

12 November 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Dan Vitale on Mela Hartwig’s Am I a Redundant Human Being?, which was translated from the German by Kerri A. Pierce and published earlier this year by Dalkey Archive Press.

I remember first hearing about this book while on an editorial trip with John O’Brien to Austria. It sounded really interesting at the time—I think they pitched her as a Austrian Virginia Woolf—and I’m really glad this finally made its way into English. (Though I’m not entirely sold on the title . . . Feels so stiff, robotic.)

Anyway, Dan Vitale — who is a contributing reviewer — wrote this piece, and really seemed to like the book. (Typos and all.) Here’s the opening of his review:

The Austrian actress, writer, and painter Mela Hartwig (1893–1967) published relatively little during her lifetime: a collection of stories, a novel, a novella, and a book of poems. She did most of this work between 1921, when she married and retired from acting, and 1938, when she and her husband moved to London to escape the Nazi occupation and annexation of Austria. Am I a Redundant Human Being?, written in 1931, was one of three completed novel manuscripts found (along with a fourth, incomplete novel) among her papers after her death. Unpublished until 2001, when it fueled a renewed interest in Hartwig’s work in her home country, the novel has now been translated by Kerri A. Pierce and published by Dalkey Archive Press—the first appearance of any of Hartwig’s books in English.

Am I a Redundant Human Being? is the monologue of Aloisia (known as Luise) Schmidt, a secretary at a Vienna construction firm. Luise narrates the events of her life from her early childhood at the turn of the twentieth century until about the age of 30. Judging from the intensely psychological focus of the book, it is clear that Hartwig’s Vienna is also very much the Vienna of Sigmund Freud; the narrative has the feel of a case study in low self-esteem. After an undistinguished school career, Luise’s life has been a mostly unbroken series of unfulfilling low-skilled clerical jobs and difficult relationships: tentative friendships with women, whom she tends to idolize and imitate excessively; and unstable romances with men, whom she tends to obsess over and who ultimately reject her over her neediness and her weakness of personality.

Click here to read the full review.

26 October 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Monica Carter on Eshkol Nevo’s Homesick, translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston and published earlier this year by Dalkey Archive.

Monica is a regular contributor to Three Percent, and runs her own excellent website, Salonica.

Eshkol Nevo’s book is the first (?) in Dalkey’s Hebrew Literature Series. (I think. The Dalkey site is a bitch to navigate.) Monica makes it sound really interesting, and if you want more info on Nevo and Homesick, visit the author page, scroll down, and
watch the video interview/presentation. (Dead horse beating as always, but it would be a lot easier if, like with most other videos on the internet, I could embed that interview right here. But ah well.)

Here’s the opening of Monica’s review:

Eshkol Nevo has plumbed the emotional depths of the word “homesick” and come up with gratifying homage to the feeling of longing. As a member of the new guard of Israeli writers, Homesick is Nevo’s first translation into English. And what a fine choice it is to introduce English-speaking readers to Hebrew culture and literature. What many of us know about Israel is what we read in the media as well as what we watch on television—lots of discord and bloodshed, the constant search for peace. This book avoids any political message, instead focusing on the lives of the characters that are searching for their own version of peace.

A stratum of stories and viewpoints, Homesick delves into the tensions between loss and compromise, discontent and hope, self-perception and desire during the year of 1995 when Rabin was assassinated. It begins with Amir and Noa, a young student couple who are moving into an apartment in a house owned by the Zakian family. The house is in the area known as Castel, situated between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Nevo follows the lives of everyone in the house—Sima and Moshe Zakian, a young couple with two small children and Moshe’s parents, Avram and Gina. Added to this intimate variety of viewpoints are the young boy next door, Yotam, and his parents whose family just suffered the loss of their son, Gidi, to the war in Lebanon. There is also Saddiq, a construction worker, who lived in the Zakian house many years ago and frequent epistolary appearances from Amir’s friend, Modi. This may seem like a cavalcade of characters that could be overwhelming but it is tempered by Nevo’s short, incisive entries in each character’s voice. What’s even more impressive is that Nevo alternates these voices between first and third person to help the reader immediately identify the character. Focusing mostly on the interiority of the characters allows us to oscillate between voices and viewpoints while we learn the subtleties of each character’s psyche.

Click here to read the full review.

26 October 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Eshkol Nevo has plumbed the emotional depths of the word “homesick” and come up with gratifying homage to the feeling of longing. As a member of the new guard of Israeli writers, Homesick is Nevo’s first translation into English. And what a fine choice it is to introduce English-speaking readers to Hebrew culture and literature. What many of us know about Israel is what we read in the media as well as what we watch on television—lots of discord and bloodshed, the constant search for peace. This book avoids any political message, instead focusing on the lives of the characters that are searching for their own version of peace.

A stratum of stories and viewpoints, Homesick delves into the tensions between loss and compromise, discontent and hope, self-perception and desire during the year of 1995 when Rabin was assassinated. It begins with Amir and Noa, a young student couple who are moving into an apartment in a house owned by the Zakian family. The house is in the area known as Castel, situated between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Nevo follows the lives of everyone in the house—Sima and Moshe Zakian, a young couple with two small children and Moshe’s parents, Avram and Gina. Added to this intimate variety of viewpoints are the young boy next door, Yotam, and his parents whose family just suffered the loss of their son, Gidi, to the war in Lebanon. There is also Saddiq, a construction worker, who lived in the Zakian house many years ago and frequent epistolary appearances from Amir’s friend, Modi. This may seem like a cavalcade of characters that could be overwhelming but it is tempered by Nevo’s short, incisive entries in each character’s voice. What’s even more impressive is that Nevo alternates these voices between first and third person to help the reader immediately identify the character. Focusing mostly on the interiority of the characters allows us to oscillate between voices and viewpoints while we learn the subtleties of each character’s psyche.

Amir and Noa power the novel with the intense yet fragile nature of their relationship. Amir, a student in psychology and Noa, a photography student, vacillate between maintaining a simpatico relationship and wanting the freedom of being alone. This feeling of malaise in the relationship leads to Amir’s developing relationship with Sima, the attractive mother next door. Sima is struggling with her husband, Moshe, over religion which is their major bone of contention. Yotam, whose parents are literally cordoned off from each other by their own grief, also befriend Amir. Noa grows closer with Sima because even though they are both twenty-six years old, Noa finds the notion of settling down in as a couple constraining and looks to Sima for guidance. And among all these alliances, they are merely vying for their own version of an inner sanctum that they can call home. All characters reach the point in whatever type love they are experiencing—love of country, physical love, spiritual love, familial love—of wanting to abandon their situations in favor of living a life without the pain caused by loving someone else. This allure of leaving is shown exquisitely in this passage where Amir is waiting for Noa and irritated by having to wait for her, contemplates exiting the relationship:

If she doesn’t come in the next five minutes—I ‘m going alone. She just has to have all those scenes, so there’ll be a little tension, a little drama, otherwise she can’t create, right? Look who’s talking, Mister I’m-Out-of-Here. What was that supposed to be last night? You’re sitting in the living room, all cosy and comfy, eating soup—what could be more wintry than that?—and you start with those prickly thoughts. What happened, things started feeling homey and you got scared? Addicted, that’s what you are. Addicted to change. You pretend that all you want is four walls, a home, and then, the minute it happens, you start planning your getaway. Wait, hold on a second, maybe I’m putting the wrong spin on things. Maybe I really do need to get away for a couple of days, to breathe the air of solitude. But how? I sink without her, revert to being a spectator, a moaner, a masturbator, and when she comes home, my whole body reaches out for her and I want to devour her, to peel and eat her, then listen to her stories with all those little details only she sees. But that’s not actually a contradiction, not at all, she can be fantastic and still suffocate you with that dissatisfaction of hers that bubbles over on to you too. Oh come on, what are you, a symbol of serenity? A logo for shanti? Get serious, don’t put it all on her. But it’s a fact that before we moved in together, it was different. Before you moved in together? It was a lie, a pretence sprinkled with enough bits of truth to make it work, and now—now you want to close the boot on her.

Abandonment appears again as a theme with Yotam, the ten-year-old neighbor boy, who simultaneously feels abandoned and yearns to abandon when he finds a rotting house to hide in:

Inside, there were two rusty cans, a pile of coals and a smell, like someone had done a poo. And there was a mattress that looked new and a long shirt that only had one sleeve. It’s really kind of nice here, I thought. There’s no fridge or TV, but there aren’t any gigantic pictures of someone who’s dead or memorial candles with a smell that makes you feel sick and parent who don’t talk to each other. And not having a roof isn’t so bad either. Winter’s over already and it won’t rain any more. So who needs a roof? Just the opposite. A house without a roof is cool, like the car David’s brother has with the convertible top, the once we once rode in to a class party. You can sleep on the mattress at night and see all the stars, the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper, and the Milky Way that has no milk. Yes, I said out loud so it would be harder to change my mind later, I’ll stay here until night-time. And if it’s nice, maybe I’ll stay here for ever. No one cares anyway. They even forgot my birthday. I could disappear for a year now and they wouldn’t even notice. Just the opposite. They’d be glad.

This longing to belong, to be loved, pulses through the narratives leaving the reader feel sympathy for every character. Nevo establishes the rules of alienation for each character as the quick pacing pulls us along. The shifting voices and point-of-views coupled with the direct and intimate prose feel like we are dive-bombing into their emotions. Ultimately, each character discovers that their meaning of home can change. And that they can change. This is what makes this novel feel hopeful and redemptive. We all struggle to come to terms with who we think we are and how our self-perception can be so differ greatly when you enter into relationships that always involve some type of sacrifice.

There is a bomb scare, which couldn’t be avoided by Nevo and rightly so, but it grabs the focus for a moment and then evanesces into yesterday’s news without hijacking the novel or making it a centerpiece for manipulated drama. It brushes up against the lives of the characters, shows that it is a part of their existence, but doesn’t force the reader into a political corner. There are also moments of levity, but this was the one misstep of Nevo’s that seems distracting. The humorous scenes border on farcical, like a network sitcom offering the outlandish as plausible. In particular, there is a scene with Avram who is suffereing from hallucinations and believes that the construction worker, Saddiq, is his long lost dead son, Nissan. Saddiq finagles his way into Avram and Gina’s home to claim the house his family owned before the Zakians and in search of a family heirloom buried within one of the walls. The police arrive and hilarity supposedly ensues. This detracted from the beautiful and heartrending tone of the novel. This is a small indiscretion considering the scope and craftsmanship of the novel.

Homesick is a novel that engages on all levels and satisfies with its depth and style. Sondra Silverston’s translation is impressive. Well-written and translated well, this novel is a fitting introduction to the literature of Israel. Not often enough are we given such an accessible and universal look into lives of characters that seem a world away but want exactly what we want—people and places that we can call home.

14 July 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Following up on last week’s post about the various summer/fall 2010 previews that came out from The Millions and elsewhere, I thought that over the next few days, we’d highlight some forthcoming titles that sound pretty interesting to me. Sure I’m missing things and whatnot, so feel free to overload the comments section with recommendations. And click here to see all translation preview posts.

I Curse the River of Time“: by Per Petterson, translated from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund (Norway, Graywolf Press)

Along with all the Bolano and Larsson books, this is probably one of the most anticipated works in translation coming out this year. Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses was an incredible success for Graywolf, and hopefully I Curse the River of Time will be as well. This is already available in the UK, and the reviews seem to be pretty positive, including this one in the Guardian, in which Rachel Cusk calls the book “a work of blackest tragicomedy, a novel as cold and scintillating and desolate as the northern winter landscapes that are its setting.” It centers around late-30-something Arvid Jansen, whose life appears to be tottering, so he goes to visit his mother in Denmark. This paragraph makes the book sound really interesting to me:

On the ferry he is paranoid and unstable; he punches a man he believes to be menacing him, only to discover later that this man is a childhood friend who was trying to greet him. He falls off a jetty and soaks the only clothes he has brought with him. He takes it into his head to chop down a tree his mother has always complained of in front of the cottage, thinking it will please her. He hangs around her, needy and clinging, when it is apparent that she wants to be left alone; and worse still, apparent that she is disappointed in him, in the failure of his marriage and in his underachievement generally.

Stella by Siegfried Lenz, translated from the Germany by Anthea Bell (Germany, Other Press)

This is just the first of several interesting translations that Other Press will be bringing out over the next few months. Stella is a student-teacher love story, although according to the jacket copy, “there is nothing salacious about their relationship, nor is it just a case of a crush between teacher and student.” The novel starts at the end, at Stella’s funeral, and the praise for Lenz’s “Heminway-esque” style is intriguing.

The Insufferable Gaucho by Roberto Bolano, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews (Chile, New Directions)

Another Bolano! Another collection of short stories! I can’t find the ND page for this book, but here’s a link to what I assume is the title story that appeared in the New Yorker a few years back. Opening sentence is so Bolano: “In the opinion of those who knew him well, Héctor Pereda had two outstanding virtues: he was a caring and affectionate father and an irreproachable lawyer with a record of honesty, in a time and place that were hardly conducive to such rectitude.”

A Novel Bookstore“: by Laurence Cosse, translated from the French by Alison Anderson (France, Europa Editions)

I’ll just let Europa describe this book-related mystery:

Ivan, a one-time world traveler, and Francesca, a ravishing Italian heiress, are the owners of a bookstore that is anything but ordinary. Rebelling against the business of bestsellers and in search of an ideal place where their literary dreams can come true, Ivan and Francesca open a store where the passion for literature is given free reign. Tucked away in a corner of Paris, the store offers its clientele a selection of literary masterpieces chosen by a top-secret committee of likeminded literary connoisseurs. To their amazement, after only a few months, the little dream store proves a success. And that is precisely when their troubles begin. At first, both owners shrug off the anonymous threats that come their way and the venomous comments concerning their store circulating on the Internet, but when three members of the supposedly secret committee are attacked, they decide to call the police. One by one, the pieces of this puzzle fall ominously into place, as it becomes increasingly evident that Ivan and Francesca’s dreams will be answered with pettiness, envy and violence.

Am I a Redundant Human Being? by Mela Hartwig, translated from the German by Kerri Pierce (Austria, Dalkey Archive)

And from the possible wacky to the quite probably depressing . . . I remember hearing about this book on an editorial trip to Vienna I took back when I was working at Dalkey Archive. Sounded like a pretty intense novel, and if I remember right (I probably don’t) the Austrian publisher compared Hartwig to Virginia Woolf. The novel centers around Aloisia Schmidt, a secretary whose life is utterly boring and mundane. From Dalkey: “In one final, guilt-ridden, masturbatory, self-obsessed confession, Aloisia indulges her masochistic tendencies to the fullest, putting her entire life on trial, and trying, through telling her story (a story, she assures us, that’s ‘so laughably mundane’ it’s really no story at all), to transform an ordinary life into something extraordinary.”

Aurorarama by Jean-Christophe Valtat (France, Melville House)

OK, I’m sort of cheating here—Valtat wrote this book in English—but whatever. Valtat sounds really interesting to me, so I’m breaking my own rule. This is Valtat’s second book to come out this year. Just a few weeks ago, FSG published 03, a novel about a man’s memories of a retarded girl he used to see every day and started obsessing over. What’s particularly cool about this book is the way it came into English (from Conversational Reading):

Former FSG editor Lorin Stein discovered this writer when he was browsing in a bookshop in Paris. The author of three previous books, Valtat had never before been translated into English. 03 was first published by Gallimard in 2005 and was not on submission to anyone in the U.S. or the U.K., so it took a chance encounter in a bookshop to bring this novel to an American readership.

That’s the kind of coincidental story that makes publishing awesome.

Aurorarama is set in 1908 in the Arctic city of “New Venice”:

But as the city prepares for spring, it feels more like qaartsiluni—“the time when something is about to explode in the dark.” Local “poletics” are wracked by tensions with the Eskimos circling the city, with suffragette riots led by an underground music star, with drug round-ups by the secret police force known as the Gentlemen of the Night. An ominous black airship hovers over the city, and the Gentlemen are hunting for the author of a radical pamphlet calling for revolt.

All sounds very wild, and very cool.

Klausen by Andreas Maier, translated from the German by Kenneth Northcott (Germany, Open Letter)

And now for the obligatory Open Letter title . . . Maier’s a very interesting writer, somewhere between Saramago and Bernhard. Klausen is a very well-constructed novel bringing together a collection of muddled, often contradictory voices to explain what happened (or didn’t happen) in a small German town. Reading this is quite an experience: the narrative flows from character to character, from event to discussion what really happened at that event, all building in a masterful way to a gripping conclusion involving a bomb. Or a shooting. Or something involving Italians. This may sound daunting or confusing, but it’s really not. It’s a great ride that hysterically portrays the sometimes insane workings of a close-knit community where everyone has an opinion (the right one!) about everything.

25 June 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Larissa Kyzer on Manuel Puig’s Heartbreak Tango, translated from the Spanish by Suzanne Jill Levine and reissued by Dalkey Archive Press earlier this year with a new introduction by Francisco Goldman.

Puig’s an all-time favorite of mine, and in my opinion, this is his best book. (Even better than Kiss of the Spider Woman.) (I’m actually flipping through the new Dalkey edition as I type and thinking about rereading this over the weekend . . .) Puig was an amazing writer, and although I wish Open Letter could’ve been the press to reprint his early works, it’s great that Dalkey is making all of these available again.

Larissa Kyzer is a frequent reviewer for us, her most recent review (like two weeks ago recent) was of Sofi Oksanen’s Purge. (Larissa knows a lot about Scandinavian lit, which is why she reviews a lot of Nordic books for us.)

Here’s the opening of her review:

Built on recollections of his small hometown in the heart of the Argentine pampas, Manuel Puig’s Heartbreak Tango is a dizzy and heartfelt pastiche of seduction, jealousy, daydreams, and spoiled hopes in the lives of a self-indulgent and consumptive Casanova named Juan Carlos, his workingman best friend, and the women who suffer their affections. Blending documentary-style narration with the melodrama of radio plays and the clear-eyed aspirations of Golden Age Hollywood musicals, Puig intermixes high and low art—“the avant-garde with popular appeal,” he once wrote—so as to delight and entertain while mercilessly laying bear the hypocrisies and regressiveness of village life.

In her biography Manuel Puig and the Spider Woman, imminent Latin American translator Suzanne Jill Levine (who was also close friends with the author) notes that “Manuel saw Villegas [his hometown] as an ongoing melodrama or, translated to radio, a soap opera like the ones people used to listen to every afternoon . . .” Speaking of his friends and neighbors, Levine explains that, “. . . their feelings were the feelings of characters in a melodrama, and they spoke the language of those old songs, radio plays, and movies to which they were addicted.”

Heartbreak Tango likewise stages itself as a serial drama, and is divided into sixteen “episodes,” comprised of letters, newspaper clippings, police reports, diary entries, and scenes of dialog. Each episode is preceded by one of the myriad advertisements, tag lines, and song lyrics that surround these characters and color their points of view. “As long as you can smile, success can be yours!” claims a toothpaste commercial. “He treated her rough, and she loved it!” winks the tag line for a Jean Harlow film.

25 June 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Built on recollections of his small hometown in the heart of the Argentine pampas, Manuel Puig’s Heartbreak Tango is a dizzy and heartfelt pastiche of seduction, jealousy, daydreams, and spoiled hopes in the lives of a self-indulgent and consumptive Casanova named Juan Carlos, his workingman best friend, and the women who suffer their affections. Blending documentary-style narration with the melodrama of radio plays and the clear-eyed aspirations of Golden Age Hollywood musicals, Puig intermixes high and low art—“the avant-garde with popular appeal,” he once wrote—so as to delight and entertain while mercilessly laying bear the hypocrisies and regressiveness of village life.

In her biography Manuel Puig and the Spider Woman, imminent Latin American translator Suzanne Jill Levine (who was also close friends with the author) notes that “Manuel saw Villegas [his hometown] as an ongoing melodrama or, translated to radio, a soap opera like the ones people used to listen to every afternoon . . .” Speaking of his friends and neighbors, Levine explains that, “. . . their feelings were the feelings of characters in a melodrama, and they spoke the language of those old songs, radio plays, and movies to which they were addicted.”

Heartbreak Tango likewise stages itself as a serial drama, and is divided into sixteen “episodes,” comprised of letters, newspaper clippings, police reports, diary entries, and scenes of dialog. Each episode is preceded by one of the myriad advertisements, tag lines, and song lyrics that surround these characters and color their points of view. “As long as you can smile, success can be yours!” claims a toothpaste commercial. “He treated her rough, and she loved it!” winks the tag line for a Jean Harlow film.

These epigraphs offer a bittersweet and ironic counterpoint to the mundane realities of the characters’ lives—days spent laundering rich women’s linens, doing backbreaking construction work, or fending off the advances of would-be suitors. As the book progresses, however, they begin seem less and less farcical, and increasingly reflective of the bubbling tensions at play in these individuals’ world. A “Miss Spring” pageant ignites jealousy and gossip among debutants. Juan Carlos seduces several neighborhood daughters (all friends), while simultaneously conducting a very public affair with a much older widow. A family loses their fortune and social standing when an English investor is snubbed by their daughter. A poor maid murders the father of her illegitimate son after discovering his affair with her employer’s daughter. Life imitates art, with fewer happy endings.

Puig’s first love was the movies (he originally planned to become a film director), a fact is apparent in much of his work, not least Heartbreak Tango. This is more than just a fondness for referencing movie stars and Hollywood films throughout his novels, though—it’s a way of seeing. Puig is a master of montage, of cross-cutting intimate snapshots of multiple characters to show them in their greater context. For example, in one episode, he follows everyone through their daily routine, while also revealing their greatest fears and desires in that precise moment. It’s a day much like any other day, filled with work and worry, and yet Puig imbues it with such specificity that even the most trifling desires resonate with the reader.

The fact of the matter is, however, that most of their greatest fears are legitimate ones—weighty and insurmountable problems which threaten to overshadow whatever small happinesses they are able to steal for themselves in the form of an air conditioned movie, a cool siesta, or a freshly pressed and polished uniform. Juan Carlos cannot raise the money he needs to go to an expensive sanatorium to be treated for tuberculosis. After marrying a well-to-do public auctioneer and moving to Buenos Aires, a neighborhood girl is still can’t afford to send her family money to pay for her father’s medical treatments. An unwed mother struggles to find ways to support herself and still spend time with her infant son.

Perhaps then, it is no surprise that these characters take refuge in the romantic dramas of radio plays, the fictional tragedies of their favorite tangos. That well into middle age, they still cherish remembrances of short-lived adolescent passion, even if over time, their memories have edited out fickle lovers and disappointed youthful hopes. Or as two childhood friends realize while sharing a cup of maté years later, “’[O]ne always thinks the past was better. And wasn’t it?’ . . . Both found an answer for that question,” Puig reveals. “The same answer: yes, the past was better because then they both believed in love.”

14 April 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I know that Romanian lit has received a lot of love over the past few years (according to our translation database 13 books have been published in English translation since Jan 2008), and that the Romanian Cultural Institute is very proactive and persuasive, but it’s still a bit of a surprise that two (two!) major literary journals just came out with special Romanian-centric issues.

The new issue of the Review of Contemporary Fiction from the folks over at Dalkey Archive is all on “Writing from Postcommunist Romania.” This was edited by Ehren Schimmel and looks pretty interesting. (I would write more, but don’t have a copy, and there’s nothing available online. If I get a copy, I’ll post some sort of update.)

One of my favorite drinks journals is Absinthe, and this “Spotlight on Romania” issue looks particularly good. The guest editor for this issue is Jean Harris—novelist, editor, critic, and translator who used to run The Observer Translation Project and is now working on a new site called the Romanian Literary Exchange.

In addition to pieces from a number of interesting Romanian writers—Mircea Cartarescu, Lucian Dan Teodorovici, Stelian Tanase, Dumitru Tsepeneag, etc.—there’s also an informative opening piece by Carmen Musat on “Contemporary Romanian Literature: A Tale of Continuity and Innovation.” Wish this was available online to link to, but instead, here’s a brief excerpt:

In the early ’90s Romanians hungered for new expressive forms—viscerally. A long-denied craving for the real coincided with a reaction against fiction—all those novels we used to praise for their resistance-packed political references. We ached to salvage the forgotten/forbidden past. Publishing houses brought out titles and promoted authors taboo under the Communist regime. They immersed themselves in autobiographical texts: secret diaries never published before and comprehensive memoirs. True stories, destinies dramatically changed: the most impressive came from well-known politicians and writers of the inter-war period, people who refused to collaborate, who defected or became prisoners of the regime. Many of the titles had documentary value. The new books helped to reconstruct (shine light on or through) the formerly impenetrable atmosphere of terror, the virtual daily prison of communist Romania. And, of greatest significance for contemporary literature, these reconstructive texts functioned as a literary school sui generis for the writers who would publish in the middle ’90s. All in all, literature worked to recover direct discourse and rebuild authenticity.

Definitely worth checking out. And hopefully the Romanian Cultural Institute is sending copies of both of these to dozens of editors at a range of publishing houses. It would be great if these anthologies led to the translation and publication of a few more Romanian novels . . .

15 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next two days, we’ll be highlighting a book a day from the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



Brecht at Night by Mati Unt. Translated from the Estonian by Eric Dickens. (Estonia, Dalkey Archive)

Below is a guest post from Bill Marx — the man behind PRI’s World Books — about another BTBA 2010 title. Almost there . . . Almost time to announce the finalists . . .

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
There will also be singing
About the dark times.
Bertolt Brecht, Svendborg Poems

But can an artist who has absorbed some of the dark times sing of them? Questions of political opportunism, as well as the twisted prerogatives of creative egotism, drive the late Estonian writer Mati Unt’s postmodern historical novel Brecht at Night. Unt isn’t concerned about how playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht sang about the rise of Hitler and Stalin or the outbreak of World War II in Europe. Instead, Unt examines, via an arch vaudevillesque irony, the narcissistic machinations of Brecht in the year 1940, when, fleeing Nazi Germany, he and his entourage of wife, mistresses and children end up in Finland, the guests of playwright Hella Wuolijoki, a rich Communist sympathizer with Estonian roots. It is the portrait of the artist as a determinedly abstracted man, aside from his paranoid fear that Hitler has sent out assassins to kill him.

Unt’s Brecht is primarily concerned with making it to America, not attempting to make sense of the gathering forces of the night, which would touch on his uneasy relationship with the Soviet Union, Stalin, and Communism. The general impression left by the book is that it isn’t fear of censorship so much as a pervasive inner decay that holds Brecht back from dealing with reality: The worse thing for a writer is not, Brecht thinks, having to keep your mouth shut. Its a lot worse when you have nothing to say via that mouth.

Sadistically, Unt, a narrative kibitzer in the book, surrounds Brecht with realities that should have given the writer plenty to talk about. He provides excerpts from non-fiction accounts (newspaper articles, academic studies) of the horrendous happening in Europe, with a grim emphasis on the Soviet Unions thuggish hijacking of Estonia. He also provides potted biographies of Brecht’s friends and lovers, showing how they were used and abused by Brecht and by history, camp followers betrayed or left on their own to survive.

All of this could have been heavy-handed Brecht the selfish artist slapped around, over and over, in a circumscribed barrel. At his best, however, Unt brings sardonic humor to the dark proceedings, perhaps tapping on his own feelings about being an artist (playwright, novelist, director) bottled up by the Soviet Union. Unt’s Brecht chooses to see the world through Marxian rules, Hegelian hocus-pocus: The covert theme of the book is, of course, dialectics, Brechts greatest love. That streamlined notion of Brecht’s vision isn’t entirely fair, as least to his poetry, which at the time made use of ambiguity and skepticism, a satire that made full use of mockery. Still, the characters intellectual triangulation amusingly seems to free him from looking too deeply at the demands of the here-and-now, aside from the sexual and secretarial demands he makes on the women in his life. (Unt draws on John Fuegi’s biography The Life and Lies of Bertolt Brecht, which details the authors swinish treatment of women.) Occasionally the author tries to wake Brecht up via an impish surrealism, such as having a very un-dialectical frog pop up in his room to give him a scare.

Unt includes a memorably funny chapter about a real-life Estonian government who served as a stooge for the Soviets named M Unt (no relation to the author). The guy counts down his acts of repression before his bosses murder him: Lithuania has been accepted as part of the Soviet Union (3rd August). There’s still time to go before my death.

Still, it is difficult to keep the inventive black humor coming, and by mid-point Brecht at Night increasingly shoves the title artist aside to chronicle the lethal facts of Soviet domination. The books imagination gives way to presentation; it suggests that Unt lost interest in drawing (and re-drawing) ironic attention to Brecht’s disinterest in reality, his obsession with bourgeois comfort during a time of chaos. If Unt had included more of the un-dialectical consciousness that informs the (anti)lyrics in Svendborg Poems the books exploration of the amoral writer-in-exile would have been richer and more compelling. Unt has a considerable reputation as a stage artist but there is surprisingly little dramatic conflict in the book. His Brecht devolves into a didactic puppet.

Unt’s other novels available in English, Things in the Night and Diary of a Blood Donor, tap on rich veins of fantasy (apocalyptic meltdown, vampirism) to evoke the brutal truths about the somnambulism of life under (or after) the domination of the Soviet Union. In Brecht at Night the author speaks openly and powerfully about the crimes of authoritarian barbarity, the degradation of creativity and morality, the slippery slope of self-involvement. But one misses his customary wildness, his imaginative gusto, as he goes about it.

7 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next nine days, we’ll be highlighting a book a day from the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



Op Oloop by Juan Filloy. Translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman. (Argentina, Dalkey Archive)

I waited years for this book to come out. Years. Back in the early 2000s I went on an editors trip to Germany that was organized by the wonderful Riky Stock and included stops in Munich, Berlin, and Frankfurt. During one of these visits (my memory! I assume now that I’ve been in publishing for 10 years, I can start forgetting some details, right?) I met with the guys from Tropen Verlag, who not only were super-cool, but told me that rather than pimp any of their German authors, the one person I needed to pay attention to was a semi-obscure Argentine author named Juan Filloy.

Once I got back to the States, I started looking into Filloy and this handful of facts convinced me that no matter what, we (re: Dalkey Archive) had to publish him:

  • He lived in three centuries—born in the nineteenth, and passing away in 2000 at the age of 106;
  • Julio Cortazar loved him, and references Filloy’s Caterva in chapter 108 of Hopscotch;
  • Freud was a fan of Op Oloop, which led to a personal correspondence between the two;
  • Filloy was a lover of palindromes and wrote over 6,000;
  • and, not to be overlooked, almost all fifty-plus of his novels and collections of poems have seven-letter titles. (Op Oloop, Caterva, Vil y Vil, so on and so forth.)

The plot of Op Oloop is pretty simple: it chronicles the final day and night in the life of its titular character, Op Oloop, a Finnish transplant in Buenos Aires who is recently engaged to Franziska, the Finnish consul’s niece. As he likes to state, Op Oloop is a “man of method,” a statistician who lives his life in a very orderly, pre-arranged way.

Thus, Op Oloop was convinced yet again that it was simply impossible for him to act contrary to his nature. “SUNDAY: WRITING, BETWEEN 7:00 AND 10:00 A.M.” That was the rule. When life is as ordered as a mathematical equation, you can’t just skip a digit whenever you feel like it. Op Oloop was entirely incapable of any impromptu act that might violate the pre-established norms of his routine; even such a trivial, graphical set such as addressing an envelope he’d already begun while still within the allotted time.

It’s clear from the start that Op Oloop isn’t all there—his speech to the employees at his local spa about the need to unite on tipping and form a “Gratuity International” is proof enough—but on this particular day, things go from bad to worse, as Op’s “method” is thwarted and he can’t regain his sense of order.

Filloy’s protagonist is a step beyond eccentric, and Lisa Dillman’s ability to capture his peculiar speech, wordplay, and insanity is quite impressive. This is especially true in the lengthy section detailing Op Oloop’s special dinner with his friends (in preparation for him to sleep with his 1,000th prostitute—a situation that doesn’t go according to plan and is the final nail that breaks Op’s mind). This dinner is the section of the book that seems most Cortazar-like (Hopscotch is filthy with groups of characters bantering and making statements about Argentina and its people), although Filloy’s not quite as tight and witty and fluid as Cortazar (who is?).

“In Hollywood, everyone knows the caloric value of everything. Just as they all aspire unanimously to stardom, they’re all equally fanatical about being tres mince rather than overweight. Truly, there’s a veritable obsession with fat. Dieting forces them all to undertake endless calculations and combinations. All portions are measured on a basis of one-hundred-calorie units. For example, one hundred calories equals: a tablespoon of honey, or two mandarin oranges, or four dates, or twenty asparagus tips, or a quarter-inch thick steak measuring five inches long and two and a half inches wide . . .”

“So you must’ve gone round with tape measures, eyedroppers, and scales . . .”

“It’s not a joke. You know, I’ve noticed that Argentines in general tend to be quite sarcastic, yet they’re entirely lacking in humor deep down. They make fun of everything in particular, and yet as a nation are all unanimously dull. It’s truly incongruous!”

As the novel lurches from scene to scene, Filloy creates an interesting account of one man’s mental breakdown. With the exception of what happens at the whorehouse, most of the underlying motivations for his breakdown are mysterious, summed up by the idea that he’s “method personified.” A more conventional book would delve into this issue, maybe explain how the hell he ended up with Franziska in the first place, etc., etc., but this isn’t a conventional book. Which is why it’s on the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist . . .

17 November 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

OK, so I may have cocked up the title of yesterday’s ALTA post—my typing/hearing skills are pretty suspect . . . It should’ve read “Short Stop Only While Getting It Off,” although “short drop” might be a bit more, um, dirty—but I’m positive I have today’s right.

It actually came from John Nathan’s plenary lecture “Translating Style,” which was an extremely interesting and engaging presentation about the difficulties of capturing the author’s voice when translating Japanese literature. Anyway, the title of the first Mishima book that Nathan translated can be literally translated as “Tugging in the Afternoon,” but the Japanese word for “glory” is homonym for “tugging,” a bit of word play that would totally be lost in English. So instead, Nathan suggested “Glory Is a Drag,” which didn’t go over too well . . . Eventually—thanks to Mishima’s ability to come up with dozens of great titles—the book came to be known as The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea.

Anyone who reads this blog or thinks about/is involved with literary translation knows that this sort of bold departure is rather common. Translators are always faced with difficult choices—whether to cling to the original or cut and compensate in the target language, how to translate dialects, etc.—and it’s the way that great translators solve these questions through their great skill, imagination, and understanding of the literary art that makes them Great Translators in the first place.

Suzanne Jill Levine’s The Subversive Scribe is dedicated to exactly this. The first event I attended at ALTA was a special session in honor of Dalkey Archive’s recent reissue of this collection. (Unfortunately, none of the editors from Dalkey attended ALTA, although I did have a chance to meet the very cool Jamie Richards, who is one of the current translation fellows.) A lot of interesting things came up on this panel that sort of highlight what it is that I really love about translators and ALTA as a whole.

A lot of the discussion revolved around the idea that the translator is responsible for “recreating the reader’s relationship with the text.” In contrast to more academic activities and papers in which the professor tries to enact a fake sort of “critical distance” from the text they’re discussing, Jill (and translators as a whole) are much more personally engaged with the book. Aside from those instances in which loaded independent publishers use our enormous wealth to convince a translator to take on a project they’re not interested in (something that happens, well, like, never), translators work on books that they love. And they translate because they want to share that love with others who can’t experience the pleasure of reading the book in its original language.

One of the more fruitful metaphors to apply to the process of translation is to talk about it as a performance. That the original text is like a musical score and the translator the musician who jazzily reproduces the original in a new form. Obviously, there are many valid ways to “play” a text, and the art of the translator is being able to nail those verbal runs and bring the new set of readers into the author’s amazing world.

Which means that a translator has to be pretty damn creative. (Not to mention extremely talented. That’s why I’m just as in awe of great translators as I am of great authors.) And that’s sort of what Jill was getting at with her use of the word “subversive.” It’s not that she was sowing the seeds of revolution (although why not?) but pointing to the fact that translation is a creative process. That subversion = creativity. (Leading to an awesome quote about her relationship with the person who translated The Subversive Scribe into Spanish: “I was subverting him while he was subverting me.”)

(Sidenote for all who were there: I totally agree with the very awesome Erica Mena who objected to the comment that young translators have to spend a couple decades—couple decades?—practicing before they perform in this way. It’s always good to try these things with a partner, but it’s important for young translators to approach this as an enjoyable, playful, creative act. And that they should mature in the tradition of translation as jazz performance—it’ll only pay of bigger dividends in the long run.)

One of the more disheartening stories of ALTA revolved around Jose Lezama Lima’s Oppiano Licario. On a panel about Cuba, Pam Carmell—who received a NEA Translation Fellowship for her work on this translation—talked about why she translated Lezama Lima’s baroque masterpiece in the way that she did. That she made very conscious decisions to retain the baroque, stuffed, labyrinthine sentence structure of the original, instead of simplifying and boiling the book down to its basic plot structure. What I’ve seen of her translation is beautiful, and as a fan of Paradiso, I’d LOVE to read this . . . but, alas, the publisher didn’t quite agree with Pam’s approach and apparently this book is either never coming out, or is being retranslated into something that’s “easier” to understand. . . . And yes, I do know more about this particular situation, but I honestly can’t write about it here . . .

Anyway, tomorrow I’ll write a bit about Ilan Stavan’s plenary speech, which irritated me in the way that Malcolm Gladwell irritates me . . .

22 September 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Looks like this is going to be a week of Dalkey Archive reviews, with my piece on Anonymous Celebrity by Ignacio de Loyola Brandao coming out on Thursday or Friday . . . And not to give away too much, but my review is much more positive than what Timothy Nassau (former Open Letter intern who’s actually back in school and still reviewing for us) has to say about Gerard Gavarry’s Hoppla! 1 2 3, which was published earlier this year in Jane Kuntz’s translation.

As frequently occurs, a few days ago I was browsing through a bookstore when something caught my eye. The book was Negative Horizon by Paul Virilio, which “sets out [his] theory of dromoscopy: a means of apprehending speed and its pivotal—and potentially destructive—role in contemporary global society.” Chapter titles include “The Aesthetics of Disappearance,” “The Metapsychosis of the Passenger,” and “From the Site of the Election to the Site of the Ejection.” I did not purchase the book (the one time I’ve read anything Continuum published it took me over an hour to get through the first ten pages, though kudos to them for putting out a translation of Berlin Alexanderplatz), but something about it struck me as simultaneously so French and so absurdly pretentious that Paul Virilio has stayed with me.

Gérard Gavarry’s Hoppla! 1 2 3, a book I actually have read, has similar qualities. The title comes from the Bertolt Brecht line, “And as the first head rolls I’ll say: hoppla!” These morbid connotations, coupled with the three numbers, present a taste of what is to come. The basic story is that a youth from the housing projects of a Parisian suburb rapes and kills his mother’s boss, the manager of a supermarket. The novel aspect of the book is that the story is told three different times in three sections of eleven chapters each.

At first this may sound like a more drawn out and more blood-thirsty version of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style. The back of the book certainly backs this up as it describes how each section is “in a different tone or mode and with different sets of images and vocabularies—borrowed from tropical botany, the shipping industry, and ancient Greece.” But this is actually misleading. The whole book sticks fairly close to the same style throughout, and each retelling is more a chance to flesh out the basic plot than to cast it in an entirely new light.

Click here for the full review.

22 September 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As frequently occurs, a few days ago I was browsing through a bookstore when something caught my eye. The book was Negative Horizon by Paul Virilio, which “sets out [his] theory of dromoscopy: a means of apprehending speed and its pivotal—and potentially destructive—role in contemporary global society.” Chapter titles include “The Aesthetics of Disappearance,” “The Metapsychosis of the Passenger,” and “From the Site of the Election to the Site of the Ejection.” I did not purchase the book (the one time I’ve read anything Continuum published it took me over an hour to get through the first ten pages, though kudos to them for putting out a translation of Berlin Alexanderplatz), but something about it struck me as simultaneously so French and so absurdly pretentious that Paul Virilio has stayed with me.

Gérard Gavarry’s Hoppla! 1 2 3, a book I actually have read, has similar qualities. The title comes from the Bertolt Brecht line, “And as the first head rolls I’ll say: hoppla!” These morbid connotations, coupled with the three numbers, present a taste of what is to come. The basic story is that a youth from the housing projects of a Parisian suburb rapes and kills his mother’s boss, the manager of a supermarket. The novel aspect of the book is that the story is told three different times in three sections of eleven chapters each.

At first this may sound like a more drawn out and more blood-thirsty version of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style. The back of the book certainly backs this up as it describes how each section is “in a different tone or mode and with different sets of images and vocabularies—borrowed from tropical botany, the shipping industry, and ancient Greece.” But this is actually misleading. The whole book sticks fairly close to the same style throughout, and each retelling is more a chance to flesh out the basic plot than to cast it in an entirely new light.

To be sure, there are slight variations in each third of the novel: the first has occasional mentions of palm trees and coconuts; the second starts with a scene of two truckers on their way to the supermarket; and the third has certain qualities of solemnity and grandiosity reminiscent of the ancient world. But the most intriguing difference comes in the slang of Ti-Jus, the violent youth, and his friends. Anyone with an eye on France in the past few years knows that the suburbs around Paris are a place of constant tension as the young (infamously dubbed la racaille, or scum, by Sarkozy) start riots or have angry confrontations with the police. Gavarry captures the element of otherness that separates this generation from older ones by honing in on language. When Ti-Jus and his gang are on a train, they use words like Nucifera, spadices, coir, and drupe:

Because they use words like these—much more than because they’re brawny, restless, and voluble—the four adolescents in the Paris-Corbeil look like alien creatures: as foreign as winged angels, as subtropical sprites, or as young and dangerous pagan gods whose slightest prank would surely have unleashed a catastrophe upon mere mortals . . . But deprived as they are of the crutch of language, reduced to apprehending nothing but physical signals and assigning them meaning based solely on intuition, the passengers of the Paris-Corbeil have been demoted to an animal state, excluded from Homo loquens.

In the second section the slang changes to lining the windlass, stowing, and slackening the hawser while in the third we get Furreez, Pholus, and kyroballs! These words are nothing from my limited knowledge of slang in English or French, so a more fitting comparison for Hoppla! 1 2 3 than Exercises in Style seems to be A Clockwork Orange, another novel featuring four unruly youth and their own made up language.

But the key difference is that A Clockwork Orange is narrated wholly by someone already initiated into the patois such that we as readers eventually pick up on his manner of speaking and are able to follow along and empathize with Alex. Yet here the slang appears so infrequently that we are never allowed into the world of Ti-Jus, and thus never get to know him. In fact the characterization of everyone in the book is so spare that we can’t ever feel any attachment to them. This begs the question, who is the subject of the book?

Rather what, for the answer is language, and not that of Ti-Jus, but rather that of Gavarry. The reason I am so resistant to the description on the back of the book is that yes, the slang vocabulary changes from time to time, but it is overshadowed by the third person narrator, who keeps the same voice throughout. Luckily this voice is highly unique, but not without its problems, as the following passage demonstrates:

In the comfort of their passenger compartments, however, people were furious. The radio confirmed it—“You’re furious out there on the southbound!” In the Opel, in particular, Madame Fenerolo, in a fit of rage, went so far as to hit the off button on her car radio . . . and this made all the difference.

Switching off a car radio was a harmless gesture. A show of temper in such circumstances was perfectly understandable. Thus, the THIS in this made all the difference pertains not to the gesture itself, nor even to the acerbic abruptness of its execution, but to the fact that the manager had so fully and unreservedly embodied the meanness and viciousness of her gesture. The act itself has been brief. It lasted only as long as a click or a clack—“You’re furious out there on the click . . .” Nonetheless, just as when hatred or deceit have appeared, even once, on the most beloved of faces, and that same face then becomes forever hostile and deceptive in our eyes, convincing us that it had always been thus, the THIS which the manager’s act had manifested defined in advance the actions, positions, and words to follow, and indeed her entire person, and by retroactively modifying the images that she had previously generated at the SUMABA, THIS devalued those marvels into vulgar fantasies—not without their own attractions, certainly, but not even remotely loveable. Henceforward, both inside and outside the Opel, the climate degenerated—with each passing moment, the silence grew more oppressive, and then, all of a sudden, hail . . . THIS was in the air, epidemic, and THIS threatened to contaminate all persons and all matter, to infest every land, to gangrene burns and deepen wounds until all human bodies were stricken with its inhumanity. Wherever one went, whatever one did, soon dreaming would amount to nothing. However long and high the battlement, no matter how defrosted the surrounding woodland, our lookouts would be reduced to futile expectation, to pointless searching. Such that no mirage, no view anywhere in Île-de-France could console those watchers, our dreamers, nor could reason still have a hope of checking the ruthless momentum of the avenging hordes.

Near the end, Gavarry attaches an almost absurd level of bombastic and cataclysmic consequences to the smallest of gestures, yet he appears to do so completely without irony or humor. It is a style of writing that used sparingly could be highly effective, but when spread out over 160 pages becomes tedious. Gavarry has numerous passages about space and dimension, gesture and body. It is this that reminds me most of (how I imagine that book) by Paul Virilio, and the work of French post-modernists in general. From the most commonplace occurrences they are able to draw great significance that often seems to be baseless. Fiction should show how transcendent daily life can be, but if every second of it were like Hoppla! 1 2 3, I think the sheer awesomeness would drive me mad. An opera is good for four hours, but would become exhausting if it were any longer. That is why with much of this book, I felt like I only had a superficial understanding of what was going on due to the richness and complexity of the writing, yet I have no desire to ever read it again.

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

Yesterday’s afternoon mail brought with it two Georges Perec books that Godine just brought out: a new edition of Life A User’s Manual and Thoughts of Sorts, a collection of essays published posthumously in France in 1985. And which, according to the jacket copy, “completes the Godine list of Perec’s great works translated into English.”

The other Perec books available from Godine are:

W of the Memory of Childhood
Things: A Story of the Sixties & A Man Asleep
‘53 Days’
Three by Perec
and _ A Void_

This really is the summer of Perec—in addition to the Godine books, the spring issue of the Review of Contemporary Fiction is dedicated to Perec and includes pieces by Harry Mathews, David Bellos, Marcel Benabou, and Jacques Roubaud, along with a few pieces by Perec himself (“Statement of Intent,” “The Machine,” “The Doing of Fiction,” and “Commitment or the Crisis of Language”).

Perec’s a long-time favorite of mine. I came to him via Raymond Queneau and an obsession with the Oulipo. In face, Perec’s A Void, a lipogram novel that excludes the letter E, is probably the most famous example of an Oulipian constraint. Although the constraints governing Life (see this helpful Wikipedia page for some details, although the Oulipo Compendium has a much more detailed analysis involving the “knight’s move” and the clinamen) are much more complex and, in my opinion, resulted in a richer, more fulfilling book.

I’m definitely going to reread Life at some point this fall (I can see myself going on a Perec bender at some point . . . some point after the Best Translated Book stuff is over that is), and hopefully will write a much longer, more in depth post about the novel. In the meantime, we already have one excellent review of Life on the website: Bob Williams wrote this piece for us back some time ago. And equally as interesting as the review itself are these two Flickr pages that Sam Golden Rule Jones posted in the comments section. This one is Perec’s map of the apartment building in the book, and this one is Gabriel Josipovici’s enhanced version.

28 August 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Monica Carter on Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Normance, which was translated by Marlon Jones and published earlier this year by Dalkey Archive Press.

Monica is one of our long-time reviewers and runs the always excellent Salonica World Lit website. She also works at Skylight Books whose tagline (“What a neighborhood bookstore should be . . .) equals awesome. Skylight is also our “featured bookseller of the month summer” and recently redesigned their website. (It looks great! And the book search database works a lot better now. Although it sucks that you can’t click on the author’s name anymore to get a full list of her/his titles. Yeah, I know, I shouldn’t gripe in the middle of this post, but it’s Friday.)

As many of you know, I used to work at Dalkey, and after leaving, there have been pointed comments from both sides. Well, in the spirit of something, I want to recommend that any Facebook users become fans of the Dalkey page. It’s just too sad to see them sitting there with 29 fans . . . And while I’m at it, Open Letter has both a group and a fan page. Well, after looking at these more carefully, we’ve decided that the fan page is the better option, and as a result, we’re going to be posting much more frequently there. So if you’re not already a fan (or if you’re only part of our “group,” which has hundreds of more members), please “fan” us by clicking here.

OK, back to literature . . .

Céline’s Death on the Installment Plan is one of my all-time favorite books, and Normance seems to have a bit of the same unhinged, manic energy. Here’s the opening of Monica’s review:

When a reader, and I mean a true reader looking for guts, the unexpected and the challenging, encounters Céline, she knows that her literary fate is forever changed. Gather your beatniks, your cynics, your semi-autobiographers and toss in a dirty handful of John Kennedy Toole and this might give an idea of what reading Céline is like. Céline’s misanthropy is sobering and hilarious, best rendered in Journey to the End of the Night and Death on the Installment Plan, and is also a reaction to war, to unabashed nationalism and unquestioned authoritarianism. In Normance, the doctor turned writer returns to the theme of war, giving us unrelenting and dizzying account of the Allied bombing of Paris from April 21-22, 1944.

For this reason, this not an easy book to read, even for the Céline fan. And to translate it is even more challenging, but the task is easily handled b Marlon Jones, who also delivers an introduction that serves as a valuable companion to the book. Céline can be an obstacle in any language, but when the translation is this good, it justifies our efforts to attempt to read and understand his work.

He doesn’t separate much between the narrator, Louis/Ferdinand, and himself. And the reader doesn’t need to know if there is a difference once she is incessantly bombarded by the tommy-gun narrative that delivers blow after blow of loaded phrases broken up only by ellipses and exclamation points. Stuck in a building with his girlfriend, Arlette/Lili(again the blurring of fiction and reality), and the other tenants, he focuses on his lost cat Berbert and Jules, the hunchback artist he accuses of seducing his girlfriend and conducting the bombing:

“We’ll talk about Jules’s wizardry later! . . . criminal wizardry! directing all the bombs toward us! From way up in the sky! From La Fourche Valley! From the right, from the left! But he doesn’t get swept away himself! The hurricane doesn’t carry him off! it respects him! the sweetheart! doesn’t get his head chopped of by the propeller! doesn’t flip over with his canes, plunge into the bushes . . . onto the grill! Oof! he catches himself every time! a big gust . . . he’s spinning! vrrrr! he rolls to the other edge!”

Click here for the full review.

28 August 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

When a reader, and I mean a true reader looking for guts, the unexpected and the challenging, encounters Céline, she knows that her literary fate is forever changed. Gather your beatniks, your cynics, your semi-autobiographers and toss in a dirty handful of John Kennedy Toole and this might give an idea of what reading Céline is like. Céline’s misanthropy is sobering and hilarious, best rendered in Journey to the End of the Night and Death on the Installment Plan, and is also a reaction to war, to unabashed nationalism and unquestioned authoritarianism. In Normance, the doctor turned writer returns to the theme of war, giving us unrelenting and dizzying account of the Allied bombing of Paris from April 21-22, 1944.

For this reason, this not an easy book to read, even for the Céline fan. And to translate it is even more challenging, but the task is easily handled b Marlon Jones, who also delivers an introduction that serves as a valuable companion to the book. Céline can be an obstacle in any language, but when the translation is this good, it justifies our efforts to attempt to read and understand his work.

He doesn’t separate much between the narrator, Louis/Ferdinand, and himself. And the reader doesn’t need to know if there is a difference once she is incessantly bombarded by the tommy-gun narrative that delivers blow after blow of loaded phrases broken up only by ellipses and exclamation points. Stuck in a building with his girlfriend, Arlette/Lili(again the blurring of fiction and reality), and the other tenants, he focuses on his lost cat Bébert and Jules, the hunchback artist he accuses of seducing his girlfriend and conducting the bombing:

We’ll talk about Jules’s wizardry later! . . . criminal wizardry! directing all the bombs toward us! From way up in the sky! From La Fourche Valley! From the right, from the left! But he doesn’t get swept away himself! The hurricane doesn’t carry him off! it respects him! the sweetheart! doesn’t get his head chopped of by the propeller! doesn’t flip over with his canes, plunge into the bushes . . . onto the grill! Oof! he catches himself every time! a big gust . . . he’s spinning! vrrrr! he rolls to the other edge!

Amongst all the narrative shrapnel and the suffocating prose, we are forced to conjure up the horror of war, the imaginings of how destruction tastes and smells what it feels like. There is no other option and that is Céline’s redemption. Just as if you unwillingly placed in the middle of a battle zone, you beg Céline to stop, to change, to quit pounding away at the repetitive circle of the same scene we are forced as readers to walk in, hoping for any chance to escape. But he is unrepentant. He spares no acrimony for himself, his characters and especially his readers:

I’ll accept all your criticisms, your insults, but only as long as you’re not one of those book-borrowing, cadging, and then re-lending types! plague of humankind! If you got your claws on this book by the “let me just borrow it for a while and I’ll give it back” method, you can just keep quiet . . . naturally, by today’s standards, you’re quite right to do it this way! . . . you can say books should be stolen rather than bought without anyone batting an eye . . . it’s even sort of a matter of honor to never buy a book . . . not one person in twenty who’s read your work actually paid for it! pretty sad, eh? if we’re talking about ham, you think one slice can feed twenty people? or that forty asses can cram into on seat at the movies? . . . smile and say hi, poor plundered scribbler! although what’s worst of all is their utter contempt for your work after they got it for free! . . . the way they trash your writing, loathe it, use it to wipe their asses, don’t understand a fucking thing, run off to sell whatever’s left on the riverbanks . . . you’ll say, but there’s a solution! just drown all the loaners! And borrowers with them! imagine, letting the people who actually pay for my goods get screwed . . . fine! the grocer expects you to heckle him a little over the herring . . . but try to rip him off? call the police! . . . isn’t it horrible that I have to babble and clown for nothing? me, who’s paid out so much himself! . . . just the thought of being robbed makes me go pale, I start suffocating worse than I did in the ogre’s fists! . . . my blood, heart, nerves coagulate . . . worse than Delphine! . . . some guy comes up and asks, “Can I borrow that?” I lose consciousness! . . . and then this! look! this philosophy! . . . you can have it! hey there, you squandering slut of a muse, enough’s enough!

This is the type of vitriolic and sarcastic rant that abuts against another, with anger ebbing only when Céline needs to catch his breath. The immediacy of this narrative holds value for it’s literary ingenuity and witness to World War II, but it also reminds us of our own recent catastrophes in the United States, from September 11 to Hurricane Katrina. Destruction is cruel and pitiless and inescapable.

But as you read the last sentence, two competing but equally powerful feelings will converge within you—relief and anger. You have survived the Céline’s literary blitz . . . and be thankful that you weren’t really there.

24 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The past few years has seen a bit of a Witold Gombrowicz renaissance. Yale University Press has published Danuta Borchardt’s retranslations1 of Cosmos and Ferdydurke, Archipelago published Bill Johnston’s translation of Bacacay, and Dalkey Archive reissued A Kind of Testament. And coming in November from Grove is Danuta Borchardt’s new translation of Pornografia, a Gombrowicz novel I haven’t read, but that sounds pretty damn good:

In the midst of the German occupation, two aging intellectuals travel to a farm in the countryside, looking for a respite from the claustrophobic scene in Warsaw. They quickly grow bored of their bucolic surroundings—that is, until they become hypnotized by a pair of country youths who have grown up alongside each other. The older men are determined to orchestrate a tryst between the two teenagers, but they are soon distracted by a string of violent developments, culminating in an order from the Polish underground movement: the men at the farm must assassinate a rogue resistance captain who has sought refuge there. The erotic games are put on hold—until the two dissolute intellectuals find a way to involve their pawns in the murderous plot.

Gombrowicz was one of the best (Ferdydurke is an absolute must read), and it’s great to see so many of his books available again, especially now that they’re translated from the original Polish . . . Here’s the opening paragraph of Pornografia to get a taste of his style:

I’ll tell you about yet another adventure of mine, probably one of the most disastrous. At the time—the year was 1943—I was living in what was once Poland and what was once Warsaw, at the rock-bottom of an accomplished fact. Silence. The thinned-out bunch of companions and friends from the former cafes—the Zodiac, the Ziemianska, the Ipsu—would gather in an apartment on Krucza Street and there, drinking, we tried hard to go on as artists, writers, and thinkers . . . picking up our old, earlier conversations and disputes about art. . . . Hey, hey, hey, to this day I see us sitting or lying around in thick cigarette smoke, this one somewhat skeleton-like, that one scarred, and all shouting, screaming. So this one was shouting: God, another: art, a third: the nation, a fourth: the proletariat, and so we debated furiously, and it went on and on—God, art, nation, proletariat—but one day a middle-aged guy turned up, dark and lean, with an aquiline nose and, observing all due formality, he introduced himself to everyone individually. After which he hardly spoke.

If you’re intrigued, you can preorder the book from Booksmith by clicking here.

And now I’ll sit back and watch people searching for “polish porno” flock to our site for some serious disappointment . . .

1 Actually, Danuta Borchardt’s translations are the first from the original Polish edition—earlier editions were translated from the French versions.

31 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For whatever reason, April is a huge month for literature in translation. According to the translation database there are 39 works of fiction and poetry coming out in translation this month. We will be running full-length reviews of a number of these titles, but over the course of the month, I thought I’d highlight the April titles that catch my eye.

Also, more on this later, but since Shaman Drum is our featured indie bookstore for April, all of the “buy” links below go to their online catalog.

Rex by Jose Manuel Prieto, translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen (Grove, $24.00, buy)

This is one of the best 2009 books I’ve read so far this year. A very Nabokovian book, the novel is made up of a series of “commentaries” by a young Cuban tutor about his pupil’s mysterious family (possibly on the run from the Russian mafia) and about In Search of Lost Time, which J. refers to as The Book, claiming that it contains everything you need to know. (Proust hovers over this novel, especially in relation to the story of the fake diamonds . . .)


News from the Empire by Fernando del Paso, translated from the Spanish by Alfonso Gonzalez and Stella T. Clark (Dalkey Archive, $18.95, buy)

Del Paso’s Palinuro of Mexico is one of my favorite Dalkey books, so I was very excited to find out that they were bringing out another of his books. Epically long (704 dense pages), News from the Empire centers on Maximilian and his wife Carlota, the Emperor and Empress of Mexico from 1863 to 1867. This book was nicely reviewed in Publishers Weekly, where it was referred to as “a Mexican War and Peace.


The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker, translated from the Dutch by David Colmer (Archipelago, $25, buy)

Last year Archipelago had more titles on the Best Translated Book Fiction Longlist than any other press—a testament to Jill Schoolman’s taste. I wouldn’t be surprised if this year’s list was much the same. The Twin is one of the first big titles Archipelago is bringing out this year, the story of Helmer, a young man who has to return home to take over the family farm after his twin brother dies in a car accident. The story sounds fine, but it’s the laconic writing style that the critics have been praising. Susan Salter Reynolds called Bakker’s writing “fabulously clear, so clear that each sentence leaves a rippling wake,” and Michael Orthofer ended his review with this: “Yet in Bakker’s telling — those simple descriptions and the terse dialogue, with all its lack of true communication — it is an absolutely fascinating read. Well worthwhile.”


A Thousand Deaths Plus One by Sergio Ramirez, translated from the Spanish by Leland Chambers (McPherson & Co., $25.00, not avail. via Shaman Drum)

I haven’t received a review copy yet, but this novel (which also received an “A-” from the Complete Review) sounds pretty intriguing. It’s a novel about Juan Castellon, a Nicaraguan photographer the author discovers during a visit to Warsaw. The novel is told alternating chapters of Ramierz’s quest to reveal the artist’s identity and Castellon’s own side of the story, and according to Michael Orthofer, “It all has the feel of an elaborate literary game of the sort that Enrique Vila-Matas and Javier Marías are fond of playing.”

17 February 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

While I was at the AWP conference, a ton of interesting books arrived in our offices, all worth writing about. I’ll try and cover more of these over the next few weeks, but for now, I thought I’d look at the three titles translated from Spanish that caught my eye.

Rex by Jose Manuel Prieto is one of the spring books that I’m most excited about. Prieto’s first book — Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire — earned him comparisons to Vladimir Nabokov, and it sounds like Rex is working in that same vein, as a “sexy and zany literary game rife with allusions to Proust, Homer, Pushkin, and even Star Wars, set in a world of wealthy Russian expats and Mafiosos who have settled in Western Europe.” I talked to Esther Allen at some point when she was working on this translation, and I remember her recommending it highly. Even from the first paragraph it’s evident Prieto has a special command:

I’ve been reading it for years, the one Book. Over and over without stopping. Beginning again whenever I reach the final description of the vast party, the inaugural ball, returning immediately to the first words, when he’s dozing off in the house in Combray and dreams of stopping time in its tracks, solidifying it. I’ve opened it at random in ship terminals (Helsinki), English pubs, Istanbul cafes. Each and every time, without fail, I’ve been stunned by the intelligence, the penetration, the unique capacity to perceive things that escape every other writer. Always the right words, flowing out miraculously, as if he never had to stop and think about them, as easily and naturally as someone randomly humming syllables, nonsense noises, tra-la-la-ing a tune.

It’s thanks to Monica Carter that I recently found out about Scarletta Press. (That and the fact that the director came to the panel I was on at AWP.) A relatively young press, Scarletta is doing a couple of translations this season, including Ignacio Solares‘s Yankee Invasion, a historical novel about life in Mexico under U.S. rule. The novel is written as a memoir-in-process by an old Mexican man haunted by his experiences during the “Yankee Invasion.” Carlos Fuentes wrote an introduction for this novel, and Solares is one of Mexico’s most respected — and prolific — contemporary writers, so this should be worth checking out.

And speaking of contemporary Mexican writers, I also received a finished copy of the Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction anthology that Dalkey Archive is putting out thanks to a National Endowment for the Arts cultural exchange project. Edited by Alvaro Uribe (with the translations edited by Olivia Sears), this volume collects stories from sixteen Mexican writers born after 1945, including Cristina Rivera-Garza, Rosa Beltran, Juan Villoro, Daniel Sada, Guillermo Samperio, and Hector Manjarrez. I’ve heard elsewhere that a lot of these stories are Bonsai-esque, and I’ve been waiting to read a number of these authors for years, so I have big hopes for this book. The only thing that sucks (aside from the fact that Open Letter couldn’t apply for this project) is the interior design: I’m all for bilingual poetry collections, but printing prose on bilingual facing pages—especially when the text on the two pages in no way matches up—is sort of bizarre and hard to read. Probably would’ve been cooler to have the English in the front and Spanish in the back, and vice-versa for the Mexican edition.

26 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This post is giving away something about the make-up of the ten “Best Translated Book of 2008” poetry finalists . . . But whatever, there were four great poetry anthologies that came out this past year that deserve a bit of extra recognition, so in advance of tomorrow’s announcement, here are a few extra books worth checking out:

New European Poets edited by Kevin Prufer and Wayne Miller is one of the most comprehensive books of the year. Here’s the opening from Margarita Shalina’s great review:

It is difficult to get beyond the novelty inherent in the New European Poets project. Its remarkable scope, breadth and depth show-cases 290 poets representing 45 nations, all bridged by nearly 200 translators and directed by 24 regional editors. Every contributing poet’s first collection was published in or after 1970. The motivation behind the project is two-fold, reintroduce and reengage American readers with European poetry and express how the borders of Europe have been redrawn in recent decades there by altering its regional identities along with its identity as a whole. And what is contemporary Europe anyway?

This is a mammoth book, and a necessary one for anyone interested in contemporary European poetry.

*

Belonging: New Poetry by Iranians Around the World is edited and translated by Niloufar Talebi, and features a range of contemporary Iranian poetry. Peter Conners reviewed this for us and had this to say:

After reading her introduction and the first few sections of Belonging, I realized that Talebi had accomplished perhaps the greatest service that a translator of Iranian poetry for American audiences can provide: she made the Iranian poetic landscape feel familiar. Not only familiar, but modern, full of laughter, rich with wonder, completely joyful and terrible and worthy of revisiting multiple times. Without being able to compare it to the original Persian, I can only say that the poetry in Talebi’s translations is lucid, rich with music, and highly accessible.

In addition to this anthology, it’s worth checking out Niloufar’s Translation Project as well. She’s doing a lot of great things for Persian literature as a whole, and the blend of text and performance is unique and very compelling. (In fact, if you happen to be in San Francisco next week, you should check out the 2nd Annual Iranian Literary Arts Festival that the Translation Project is putting on.)

*

Part of the NEA’s International Exchange program, Contemporary Russian Poetry is an ambitious undertaking. Edited by Evgeny Bunimovich and Jim Kates, it features forty-four Russian poets, all born after 1945. It also features dozens of great Russian translators as well.

(As a sidenote, one of the books I’m looking forward to in 2009 is Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction, another NEA project that Dalkey is publishing. Edited by Alvaro Uribe and Olivia Sears, this looks like a great round-up of the current literary scene in Mexico.)

*

Edited and translated by David Hinton, _Classical Chinese Poetry is another book that, if for nothing else, deserves some praise for its enormous scope:

With this groundbreaking collection, translated and edited by the renowned poet and translator David Hinton, a new generation will be introduced to the work that riveted Ezra Pound and transformed modern poetry. The Chinese poetic tradition is the largest and longest continuous tradition in world literature, and this rich and far-reaching anthology of nearly five hundred poems provides a comprehensive account of its first three millennia (1500 BCE to 1200 CE), the period during which virtually all its landmark developments took place. Unlike earlier anthologies of Chinese poetry, Hinton’s book focuses on a relatively small number of poets, providing selections that are large enough to re-create each as a fully realized and unique voice. New introductions to each poet’s work provide a readable history, told for the first time as a series of poetic innovations forged by a series of master poets. From the classic texts of Chinese philosophy to intensely personal lyrics, from love poems to startling and strange perspectives on nature, Hinton has collected an entire world of beauty and insight. And in his eye-opening translations, these ancient poems feel remarkably fresh and contemporary, presenting a literature both radically new and entirely resonant.

12 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We’re into the home stretch now . . . For the next two weeks we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.



Homage to Czerny: Studies in Virtuoso Technique by Gert Jonke, translated from the German by Jean M. Snook. (Austria, Dalkey Archive)

Homage to Czerny: Studies in Virtuoso Technique is the second Jonke book that Dalkey has published, the first being the insanely comic Geometric Regional Novel. And if you like these, there’s even more Jonke on the horizon. In 2009, Ariadne Press is bringing out Blinding Moment: Four Pieces about Composers and Dalkey is doing another (can’t find the title right now) next fall.

This particular novel consists of two linked novellas. The first is “The Presence of Memory” and centers around an annual party thrown by Anton Diabelli and his sister Johanna. But in contrast to past parties, the one this year is going to be different . . . er, exactly the same:

What’s your brother doing? I asked

He’s comparing the photos he took of last year’s party, Johanna answered, with the positions of things as they have been laid out for this evening.

Why?

So there aren’t any mistakes.

What mistakes?

Everything should be exactly as it was at last year’s party, answered the photographer’s sister. [. . .]

What’s going to take place here this evening, said Johanna, is not supposed to be one of our usual summer parties, but rather an exact reflection, no, much more than a reflection: a REPETITION OF THE PARTY that we had last year on the same day at the same time.

It’s supposed to be exactly the same party again, added Diabelli.

Filled with strange conversations, and a nice twist at the end, “The Presence of Memory” is a cute story, made up of some nice, funny moments.

In my opinion, the stronger of the two novellas is the latter, “Gradus Ad Parnassum,” which is about two brothers—both formerly promising composers—stuck in the attic of the conservatory they attended with 111 dusty pianos.

The narrator was a very promising composer, whose career was derailed by his alcohol dependence, and who’s going through withdrawal while they’re trapped in the attic. His brother was a very promising student, except that he had a problem moving his fourth finger independently of the third or fifth, “and it’s this ability that ensures that you can play a scale or an arpeggio exactly evenly in every respect.” He addressed this problem—and failed in addressing it—in a very Jonke-ian way:

I remember that before we took our final examinations in music my brother had screwed a completely useless gadget around his fingers and soon after maintained that he couldn’t move his fingers at all anymore.

Eventually they’re rescued from the attic and the “mystery” of the 111 pianos is unveiled, leading to a pretty absurd predicament.

The main reason I wanted to cover Jonke’s book today though is because he passed away last week and Vincent Kling, one of Jonke’s friends and translators, wrote a nice piece about him:

“. . . because you keep on dreaming your dream about flying and open our eyes to a freedom that might not really exist but that we couldn’t live without.” This tribute to Gert Jonke was spoken by the artistic director of the Burgtheater in Vienna in conferring a significant theater prize last October. By then, the cancer that ended Jonke’s life on January 4 had visibly marked him. Americans can recall the sorrow over David Foster Wallace’s death to feel a similar loss. Wallace died unexpectedly, Jonke by stages the public saw, for he did not cut back on his appearances and was planning on making his debut as an actor later this month. But both writers had exceptional talent, versatility and virtuosity, and clarity within complexity. Decent men, too, people agree—Jonke was never known to say a bad word about anyone, focusing on his craft and ignoring hype and buzz. [. . .]

Jonke was the first recipient of the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in 1977 and later he won almost every prize, distinction, award, grant, and honor imaginable, but there wasn’t a whiff of competitiveness about him. While others postured and strutted and pontificated at awards ceremonies in his honor, he would get up and rhapsodize a half-impromptu acceptance speech richer and more satisfying than any item on the select menu. He never pretended to take awards for granted, and it was clear he was having a grand old time. He told me how happy he was to see his work better known, and he was especially taken with Italian and French renderings of his novels. Translators who came to pay their respects usually left feeling as if they were the main event.

It’s a sad loss for literature, and I’m especially glad that Homage made the long list—it’s a small way of honoring his literary achievements and bringing some additional attention to his work.

5 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I had the chance to meet Gert Jonke in Vienna a few years back. I was there with Dalkey publisher John O’Brien, looking for Austrian writers to publish in English. (One of the titles we heard about was A Fucking Masterpiece, which, according to the reading report we got, actually wasn’t, but it’s still one of the ballsiest titles I’ve ever come across.) Dalkey published Jonke’s Geometric Regional Novel back in the 80s a fantastic and imaginative book that contains one of the funniest faux-bureaucratic questionnaires to ever appear in print, and John was always looking for other Jonke books to publish.

(Dalkey did end up deciding on a few, including Homage to Czerny, which made the Best Transalted Book longlist. And Ariadne Books is doing one as well.)

One of my favorite moments with Gert was when I asked if he’d be willing to come to the U.S. for a reading tour. He politely declined, saying he wasn’t really interested in coming to the States because there’s no where you can smoke in this country. And he wasn’t sure if Red Bull would be as accessible here as it is in Austria . . .

If any English-language obituaries are published, I’ll update this post and link to them below.

2 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For the next several weeks we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.



I’d Like by Amanda Michalopoulou, translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich. (Greece, Dalkey Archive)

For me, this collection of linked stories (or collection of unwritten novels? or metafictional labyrinth?) has been the most pleasant surprise on the Best Translated Book fiction longlist so far.

Back a few years ago, when I was working at Dalkey Archive, I wrote the grant application that got this book a decent amount of funding from the NEA and Greek Government as part of the “International Literary Exchange” program that Dana Gioia of the NEA had put together. Anyway, at that time, Ana Lucic had found out about Amanda Michalopoulou and was able to give me a reader’s report and a short sample of the book to help with writing the grant. (In case you’re wondering, it’s great fun writing grants about books you haven’t read in their entirety. On one hand, providing details about why a book is grant-worthy becomes a bit more tricky, but it’s easier to believe that a book is “one of the most important works of the time” without any contradictory literal evidence.)

The sample that I remember reading is the story “What Will You Do Next?” in which a character and his author have a conversation on the phone. It’s a very playful, and very well done story, that got me excited about the book as a whole. (And btw, Karen Emmerich’s translation was incredibly well done. The Emmerich family is a wee bit talented.) But I left Dalkey before the finished translation arrived and over the winter break, finally had a chance to read this book and see just how imaginative, captivating, and complex it is.

When I read “linked stories” in jacket copy, I assume that some of the same characters appear from one story to the next. A baker in story one becomes the protagonist of story four, etc. But I’d Like is a bit more complicated than that. In her own words, Michalopoulou tried “to write stories that would read like versions of an unwritten novel. Or, better, to write the biography of those stories as well as their fictional writer.”

The result is somewhat reminiscent of Nicholas Mosley’s Impossible Object in which a character in one story seems to the be author of a few others, but each time the reader feels she’s figured it all out, the line between fiction and reality jumps once again, and you’re left wondering just how these gem-like stories really fit together.

I’m probably making this sound more confusing than it is . . . Part of Michalopoulou’s triumph is the way in which each story can be read and thoroughly enjoyed independent of the others, but the motifs littered throughout the book help create a sort of grand mosaic when taken as a whole. And it’s through these recurring lines and scenes—the older sister who dies in a car accident, the mom who is tragically injured, the idea that rain only exists inside us and we see it externally when it’s “raining for enough people,” the red beret, etc.—that the reader starts to see a knotted metafictional pattern emerge.

Monica Carter (curator of Salonica World Lit) reviewed this for us a few months back and called for publishers to bring out more of Michalopoulou’s work . . . More recently, Monica interviewed Michalopoulou for Context that touches on the “recurring motif” aspect of the book (and other things):

MC: It’s interesting that you felt you need to strengthen the presence of the red beret. I loved its appearance throughout I’d Like. I also felt that there was a definite drive to communicate certain ideas and themes, as though these stories were a form of release. Were you conscious of that, or was it more of an exploration of each character?

AM: It was both. Characters are the vehicles of ideas, but they have to work as characters. If not, you’re writing theory, not literature. The idea behind the characters in this book is that family can be a mechanism of oppression. I guess all my characters feel very clearly that they are obeying other people’s wishes. Writing can be a true act of disobedience, so the desire the younger sister has to write these stories down is a step towards salvation. I believe that writing can and should do that: save characters who are suffering, and, possibly, their author as well.

12 December 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The new issue of CONTEXT Magazine is now available online. (And I assume in print. For some reason, we don’t get copies in Rochester, but this is usually available at bookstores like St. Mark’s.)

Almost all of the readings, interviews, etc., are about recent Dalkey titles, such as the interesting excerpt from Annie van den Oever’s Life Itself: Louis Paul Boon as Innovator of the Novel, a recent scholarly series title, and Monica Carter’s interview with Amanda Michalopoulou Michalopoulou, the author of I’d Like (which is on the Best Translated Book fiction longlist).

In addition to these pieces, there’s a long review by Gonçalo M. Tavares of the yet untranslated À Sombra da Memória (In the Shadow of Memory) by Eugénio de Andrade, a Letter from Serbia, and an insanely long conversation between John O’Brien and Jeremy Davies.

15 April 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

I’m not sure if this is accurate or not, but a reader just alerted us to the new Dalkey Archive website pointing out that the “blog” is called the CONTEXT Blog, possibly signaling the end of CONTEXT magazine. This may just be speculation on their part, though it is true that the last issue of which came out sometime early last year . . .

There’s no real explanation in the “posts,” although there is a cryptic mention of “plans for something a bit more involved in the future” so maybe this “blog” will evolve into something as rich and rewarding as CONTEXT once was. (I just noticed that the last issue of the Review of Contemporary Fiction is from last summer, but in that case I know that a special issue on “New Catalan Fiction” should be out this month—there’s an event at the PEN World Voices celebrating it—so at least one of the critical publications Dalkey does is still coming out.)

I feel like Dalkey has put me in a funny position though . . . We’re often pretty critical of websites and digital book initiatives that are misguided or all messed-up (see E.J.‘s post about Zinio for instance. (And people usually think I’m the fierce and mean one . . . ) and this site is a mess of the highest order. As a former Dalkey employee though, I respect what the press publishes and hate seeming overly critical of it.

Nevertheless, this is such a poor showing of a redesign that in the issue of fairness, I have to point out a few critical issues.

First off, the positives: the shopping cart is very nice. And incorporating Google Books into the site is useful and pretty slick.

Negatives? The fact that you can’t search the site is a bit dismaying (that really is a pretty essential item, especially with all the author interviews online) and the fact that all linked text is black (and therefore indistinguishable from the rest of the text) is, uh, unforgivable. The “blog” should have a space for comments. On a more technical note, this site is laid out in tables. Seriously. Hello 1996, meet Dalkey Archive. Dalkey Archive, welcome to 1996.

At least there are still really good books coming out, although it’s unfortunate that the spring list is hidden in the news section and consists of 10 works of fiction/literature and 5 “Scholarly Series” books. (In the past the Scholarly titles were often subvented by the author and are mostly academic books that don’t generally appeal to a broad audience.)

The books I’m most excited about are: Knowledge of Hell by Antonio Lobo Antunes (which we just reviewed), I’d Like by Amanda Michalopoulou (which I wrote the NEA grant for, but haven’t read), Diary of a Blood Donor by Mati Unt (who also wrote Things in the Night) and the reprint of Monsieur by Jean-Philippe Toussaint (which is no Bathroom but is very good). Not so sure about the Nicholas Delbanco book, which, with its hardcover and paperback editions, may be subvented. (Could be wrong though—this just jumps out at me.)

Overall, a decent spring list, but totally mediocre website.

10 August 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Another CONTEXT 20 article worth pointing out is Michael Pinker’s Reading Witold Gombrowicz. As mentioned earlier, I’m a big fan and think everyone should read at least Ferdydurke. And Pinker’s article provides a great introduction:

Gombrowicz’s art envisages the tyranny of what he calls form. In his view, obeying the dictates of form is central to the human condition, ordering our relations with the world and ourselves. What others make of us—what we make of them—the form with which we invest them—determines our character in the world around us. As a result, the world is ambivalent, dualistic, experienced as an unnerving tension between the antinomies Gombrowicz regards as underlying all human activity: immaturity and maturity, superiority and inferiority, beauty and ugliness, and so on. Instead of age and maturity holding sway over youth and immaturity, the latter are really what the former desire—witness our fascination with, and efforts to prolong, youth. Compelled by this desire to recall youthful energy, innocence, and childish naivety, maturity defers to immaturity and, despite appearances, is defeated by it.

It also appears that Dalkey is reprinting Gombrowicz’s A Kind of Testament this fall.

8 August 07 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

Issue number 20 of Dalkey Archive’s CONTEXT is available online now, in part.

For some reason, the only items available online are articles about Dalkey’s books, or excerpts from those books. Without the potentially most interesting content—the frustratingly absent “Letter from Macedonia” and “Letter from Poland”, among other articles—it’s tending toward the simply self-promotional.

To be fair it’s only the online version, but the online version is the only way many of us can find this usually excellent publication.

EDIT: We must have caught them in the middle of updating the site. It looks like everything is available now.

6 August 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Not sure exactly when this came out, but the Spring 2007 issue of the Review of Contemporary Fiction now shows up on the Dalkey site as being available.

It’s the first “Dalkey Archive Annual” and is made up of excerpts of Dalkey titles. What’s disappointing is that these are all old Dalkey books—nothing there to whet the appetites of real fans. And nothing from the issue—not even the book reviews—is available online.

Also, it’s odd that the look changed from this to a more zine-type feel, to the new look for the Summer Issue (on Juan Emar), but all the changes at Dalkey over the past month might have something to do with that.

Regardless, it’s nice that RCF seems to be back, and hopefully the new issue of CONTEXT will be fully online in the near future. The TOC is intriguing, and the readable quote on the pdf placeholder is solid, but clearly that’s not enough . . .

....
Writers
Writers by Antoine Volodine
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

Antoine Volodine’s vast project (40 plus novels) of what he calls the post-exotic remains mostly untranslated, so for many of us, understanding it remains touched with mystery, whispers from those “who know,” and guesswork. That’s not to say that, were. . .

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My Brilliant Friend
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Reviewed by Acacia O'Connor

It hasn’t quite neared the pitch of the waiting-in-line-at-midnight Harry Potter days, but in small bookstores and reading circles of New York City, an aura has attended the novelist Elena Ferrante and her works. One part curiosity (Who is she?),. . .

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Stealth
Stealth by Sonallah Ibrahim
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

From the late 1940s to the early 1950s, Egypt was going through a period of transition. The country’s people were growing unhappy with the corruption of power in the government, which had been under British rule for decades. The Egyptians’. . .

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Miruna, a Tale
Miruna, a Tale by Bogdan Suceavă
Reviewed by Alta Ifland

Miruna is a novella written in the voice of an adult who remembers the summer he (then, seven) and his sister, Miruna (then, six) spent in the Evil Vale with their grandfather (sometimes referred to as “Grandfather,” other times as. . .

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Kamal Jann
Kamal Jann by Dominique Eddé
Reviewed by Lori Feathers

Kamal Jann by the Lebanese born author Dominique Eddé is a tale of familial and political intrigue, a murky stew of byzantine alliances, betrayals, and hostilities. It is a well-told story of revenge and, what’s more, a serious novel that. . .

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I Called Him Necktie
I Called Him Necktie by Milena Michiko Flašar
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

While looking back at an episode in his life, twenty-year-old Taguchi Hiro remembers what his friend Kumamoto Akira said about poetry.

Its perfection arises precisely from its imperfection . . . . I have an image in my head. I see. . .

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Return to Killybegs
Return to Killybegs by Sorj Chalandon
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

The central concern of Sorj Chalandon’s novel Return to Killybegs appears to be explaining how a person of staunch political activism can be lead to betray his cause, his country, his people. Truth be told, the real theme of the. . .

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