11 March 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The wait is over. Listed below are the twenty-five titles on this year’s Best Translated Book Award Fiction Longlist.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be highlighting each and every one of these as part of the annual “Why This Book Should Win the BTBA” series. It’s a fun way of learning about all of these diverse titles, and hopefully finding a handful that you personally want to read.

Speaking of diverse, I want to use this post to point out a couple of interesting facts about this year’s list:

  • Twenty-three different publishers have a book on this list, which is unprecedented;
  • There are translations from sixteen languages on this year’s longlist;
  • This year’s longlisted authors are from twenty different countries.

That’s a pretty solid spread. Not to mention the vast differences between these books: On the one hand there’s Nobel Prize-winner Elfriede Jelinek’s Her Not All Her, a slim, exquisitely crafted Cahier; on the other, there’s Antonio Muñoz Molina’s gigantic In the Night of Time. There’s the two-volume slipcased A True Novel by Minae Mizumura and Stig Dagerman’s short story collection, Sleet. There’s a very unconventional Arabic work from the nineteenth century just now being translated for the first time, and there’s a novel about an execution from Mo Yan, the other Nobel Prize winner on the list.

Overall, it’s an excellent list, one that will be really tough to pare down . . . But that’s the job for this year’s brilliant judges: George Carroll, West Coast sales rep; Monica Carter, Salonica; Scott Esposito, Conversational Reading and Center for the Art of Translation; Sarah Gerard, Bomb Magazine; Elizabeth Harris, translator; Daniel Medin, American University of Paris, Cahiers Series, Quarterly Conversation, and the White Review; Michael Orthofer, Complete Review; Stephen Sparks, Green Apple Books; and, Jenn Witte, Skylight Books. I want to personally thank them all for their hard work.

But this is just the beginning—on April 15th we’ll announce the finalists for both fiction and poetry, and in the meantime, stay tuned to read about each and every one of the following “best translated books” of 2013.

Also, a special thanks has to go out to Amazon’s giving program, for once again making $20,000 of prize money available for the winning authors and translators.

I’ll post information about any and all celebrations for the BTBA 2014 here as soon as things are arranged. In the meantime, here we go . . .

Best Translated Book Award 2014 Fiction Longlist

Horses of God by Mahi Binebine, translated from the French by Lulu Norman (Morocco; Tin House)

Blinding by Mircea Cărtărescu, translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter (Romania; Archipelago Books)

Textile by Orly Castel-Bloom, translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu (Israel; Feminist Press)

Sleet by Stig Dagerman, translated from the Swedish by Steven Hartman (Sweden; David R. Godine)

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Italy; Europa Editions)

Tirza by Arnon Grunberg, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett (Netherlands; Open Letter Books)

Her Not All Her by Elfriede Jelinek, translated from the German by Damion Searls (Austria; Sylph Editions)

My Struggle: Book Two by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (Norway; Archipelago Books)

Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai, translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet (Hungary; New Directions)

Autobiography of a Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, translated from the Russian by Joanne Turnbull (Ukraine; NYRB)

The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra by Pedro Mairal, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor (Argentina; New Vessel Press)

The Infatuations by Javier Marías, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (Spain; Knopf)

A True Novel by Minae Mizumura, translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters (Japan; Other Press)

In the Night of Time by Antonio Muñoz Molina, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman (Spain; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

The African Shore by Rodrigo Rey Rosa, translated from the Spanish by Jeffrey Gray (Guatemala; Yale University Press)

Through the Night by Stig Sæterbakken, translated from the Norwegian by Seán Kinsella (Norway; Dalkey Archive)

Commentary by Marcelle Sauvageot, translated from the French by Christine Schwartz Hartley & Anna Moschovakis (France; Ugly Duckling Presse)

Leg Over Leg Vol. 1 by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies (Lebanon; New York University Press)

The Whispering Muse by Sjón, translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb (Iceland; FSG)

The Forbidden Kingdom by Jan Jacob Slauerhoff, translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent (Netherlands; Pushkin Press)

The Devil’s Workshop by Jáchym Topol, translated from the Czech by Alex Zucker (Czech Republic; Portobello Books)

The End of Love by Marcos Giralt Torrente, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (Spain; McSweeney’s)

Red Grass by Boris Vian, translated from the French by Paul Knobloch (France; Tam Tam Books)

City of Angels, or, The Overcoat of Dr. Freud by Christa Wolf, translated from the German by Damion Searls (Germany; FSG)

Sandalwood Death by Mo Yan, translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt (China; University of Oklahoma Press)

2 December 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Sarah Gerard is a writer who used to work at McNally Jackson Books, but recently took a job at BOMB Magazine. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Bookforum, the Paris Review Daily, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Slice Magazine, and other publications. Her new book, “Things I Told My Mother,” can be purchased here. She holds an MFA from The New School and lives in Brooklyn.

A few of the BTBA judges have talked about how honored they are to be part of this process. I am also, but I want to be clear about one thing: it’s a lot of work.

The above is my tiny home office. It’s located in a small alcove in the hallway between my kitchen and my bathroom, in the studio apartment I share with my husband. The picture is in no way representative of the way my office looks every day. What I mean is this: recently, I left McNally Jackson Books, where I’d been a bookseller for three years, in order to join the team at BOMB Magazine, a publication that consistently pays homage to the art of translation. Because it would be difficult to inform every publisher of my address change, I still receive BTBA submissions at McNally Jackson, and have to return there every few days to pick up my mail. Each time, I find anywhere between two and ten new titles on the hold shelf for me, and add them to these stacks.

Meanwhile, new emails are coming in all the time from publishers; PDFs of books, eBooks, .mobi books. The judges are racing to keep up. And the list is always growing. Here are some of my recent favorites.

The African Shore by Rodrigo Rey Rosa (trans. Jeffrey Gray)

I mentioned BOMB Magazine. The current issue, #125, features a truly excellent conversation between Rodrigo Rey Rosa and Francisco Goldman. Rey Rosa was a protégé of Paul Bowles, who translated many of his books. It was under Bowles’s tutelage that Rey Rosa discovered his passion for writing, and it was Bowles who initially recognized Rey Rosa’s talent. Rey Rosa later returned to his home of Guatemala, where most of his books are set, and where he currently lives. But The African Shore is set in Tangier, a textured, mystical place full of almost noir-like intrigue. The possibility of violence hums on the outside of two stories held together by colonialism and the life of a snowy owl. Of the book, Francisco Goldman asks

FG: A propos of The African Shore, were there any special challenges for you in setting a novel in Tangier instead of Guatemala? Did you still consider yourself to be an outsider or a foreigner in relation to Tangier, or did you consider it home?

RRR: I wrote it in 1998. I dared to write the book when I realized that the Tangier that Bowles had written about—or better yet, created—had changed so much that it was no longer the same city. Only the wind remained… I lived there, and partially in New York, from ’82 to ’92, and spent summers in Tangier until 2001. When I started writing the novella, I could sense that I would never live in Morocco again. The book became a sort of farewell. But I never thought of Tangier as a home. I’ve never been at peace at home—but in Tangier I often was.

Regarding Jeffrey Gray’s translation, all I can say is that the book reads like a vivid dream seen through an opium haze, and sentence-by-sentence, is beautiful. I admit that I haven’t read Bowles’s translations, but am inspired now to seek them out and compare styles.

Sleet by Stig Dagerman (trans. Steven Hartman)

Two of Stig Dagerman’s books are up for the award this year: Sleet, a short story collection, and Burnt Child, a novel that I am now, after reading Sleet, very excited to begin. I admit, I had never heard of Stig Dagerman, but was intrigued by Sleet_’s introduction by Alice McDermott, blurbs from Graham Greene and Siri Hustvedt, and my general love of David R. Godine’s Verba Mundi series. As it turns out, Dagerman was a prolific writer in Sweden, who in his time was compared to everyone from Faulkner to Kafka to Camus. While most of the stories in _Sleet are a mote less philosophical than any of these writers’ works, I would be remiss if I didn’t strongly recommend the first and last stories, “To Kill a Child” and “Where Is My Icelandic Sweater?” (Laugh at the second title – it’s fine.) “To Kill a Child” had me hooked immediately and was promisingly quick and devastating, and “Where Is My Icelandic Sweater?”, a nearly novella-length work, had me reduced to a tear-soaked pile of loss and bereavement, and memories of my grandfather. Dagerman’s writing is personal and unsettling, hewing closely to characters being made to undergo humiliation and loss in an environment – mid-century Sweden – that’s almost too quaint for comfort. I would happily read this collection a second and even a third time.

Her Not All Her by Elfriede Jelinek (trans. Damion Searls)

This was one of the last books I staff picked as a bookseller at McNally Jackson:

The irony of a writer (Robert Walser) trying desperately to craft his own identity, only to succeed tragically at channeling through his words the voices of others. Jelinek captures Walser’s sad humor, his loneliness, and the eventual silence (silencing or death) of a voice that spoke through so many other voices. By way of madness? Genius? Damion Searls’s translation captures beautifully the skill of both writers: Jelinek’s performance and her ode to Walser.

I read this entire book in one mad, intensely satisfying, Homerically victorious sitting. I felt compelled despite its many (gorgeous, thrilling) challenges, to reach the end. Added to which, the book itself is lovely to look at – true objecthood achieved, Sylph Editions.

Here I should recall my last BTBA post, wherein I discussed Christa Wolf’s book City of Angels, which is also up for the award this year, and is also translated by Damion Searls. As it happens, Searls also – a trifecta of cool – translated Robert Walser’s A Schoolboy’s Diary, which is up for the award this year, too, and which author figures centrally into this Jelinek book we’re talking about currently – making a complete Searls circle, if you will.

Red Grass by Boris Vian (trans. Paul Knobloch)

I’m currently reading this book and am already completely blown away by it. While I’m not sure I can do it justice here, being that I’m still in the middle of it, I can already say that Vian’s (and Knobloch’s) sentences are some of the most lively I’ve ever read, and that the allegorical nature of the story rivals Kafka and Wells in its grace and complexity. It’s not exactly science fiction, but neither is it exactly Surreal. It’s something entirely its own – no other writer has done what Vian’s done here.

21 August 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This weekend, David Ulin of the Los Angeles Times joined the chorus of people begging James Franco to “just stop.” Generally speaking, I couldn’t care less about Franco (he was awesome in Spring Breakers), although using Indiegogo in a pretty hypocritical fashion to raise money to film his own short stories is a bit of egotistical circle jerking that does make me cringe.

But back to David Ulin’s piece. His ire comes from the introduction that James “I’m Going to Do One of Everything” Franco wrote for Damion Searls’s recent retranslation of Hermann Hesse’s Demian, which is available from Penguin Classics.

It makes total sense that Penguin would ask a James Franco to write an intro for this book—since everyone knows Franco, whereas 98% of people under the age of 25 have never heard of Hesse1, and anything to sell books.

What Ulin take umbrage towards is how self-indulgent and pointless this introduction is, a reaction that I can totally get on board with. (As can most people who favor quality over celebrity.)

His foreword, brief at less than three pages, highlights his discovery of the novel, as a 19-year-old UCLA dropout.

“Working at the North Campus eatery,” he writes, describing his own alienation, “I was serving the students who once had been my classmates.” He cannot explain to them why his decision to pursue acting over academics is so important, so elemental, but in the pages of Hesse’s novel, he feels understood.

To be fair, the situation Franco describes is one many readers will have experienced, that of finding one’s self in a book. It’s similar to the way I felt at the same age about On the Road, Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time, Camus’s The Stranger (and, yes, even, Steppenwolf and Siddhartha), as if in their pages, my inner life had somehow been written into being.

Franco, however, never pierces those surfaces, never explains to us his love for Hesse’s novel and what it means. The closest he comes is to observe that “Demian became my Demian, a voice I could listen to and contemplate as I tried to find my way from childhood to adulthood and into the world of art.”

Yes, yes, I want to say, but give me some insight on your relationship with the book. At its best, after all, what Demian has to offer is an abiding sense of conflict, of a character caught in the middle, between what’s expected and something more undetermined and wild. This, though, is a conflict Franco doesn’t seem to recognize.

Part of the problem is that Franco insists on writing about himself rather than Hesse’s novel, which leaves him unable to see the book on broader terms. Yet whatever the reason, his pat and superficial foreword is little more than a distraction — the very thing, in other words, that Hesse and Demian argue against.

David’s totally on point with his critique, but just to give you an example of just how bad this intro is, check out this paragraph:

After a couple of months [working at the North Campus eatery] I started reading Demian. I’m not sure if there was a connection, but one day, without warning, I hung up my apron and walked out the back, never to return. I had planned to work that day, so once I’d taken my exit, I didn’t know where to go. With Demian folded in my pocket, I headed into Westwood, full of passion because of what I had done. On the edge of campus I ran into one of my former classmates, a girl I once had flirted with, sunning herself on the grass. I told her what had happened, but it didn’t seem to register. I felt as if I had taken another step away from a conformist life and another step toward artistic freedom, but, talking to her, I sounded to myself like an immature kid who had quit his job.

I’m not sure which bit is better: “I’m not sure if there was a connection” or “a girl I once had flirted with.”

BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE.

So, I just actually read the Penguin Classics (“Because what you read matters.”) press release until right now. Here’s the header:

Featuring a Foreword and Cover Art by James Franco.

Cover art! See—one of everything! Oh, that Jimmy. Aside from the fact that both faces sort of look like Franco himself, the cover art isn’t bad.

The back side of the press release is killer though. There are bios for all the players: Hesse (who, mind you, won the Nobel Prize in 1946 and, for a time, was one of the most popular and respected writers in the world), Damion Searls, Ralph Freedman (professor emeritus of comparative literature at Princeton), and James Franco. There is exactly one photo on this back page . . . this one:

That’s right! Hermann Hesse! Oh, nevermind. Not sure if you can see in this pic, but Franco’s bio is also twice as long as Searls’s and about 18X Hesse’s.

Thank you, Penguin Random House Worldwide DominationCorp for making my morning with this shit. It’s hard to come slave away for literature that’s respected by a core group of readers’ readers when it’s so nice outside and no one is on campus. But the amount of true gut laughter I’ve experienced this morning reading Franco’s intro and this press release is so therapeutic. Totally mitigates the interior existential malaise at the fact that quality means to little to so many people these days. And that by criticizing the Franco Technique, I’m sure people will label me as an elitist, instead of someone who cares about literature and the value of thought. (Is there a difference though, really?)

I’ll end with the immortal words of Riff Raff Alien, the best character Franco has ever played: “SPRING BREAK FOREVER, BITCHES!”

1 This is a verifiable fact.

25 July 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Hannah Chute on Amsterdam Stories by Nescio, from New York Review Books.

Hannah is one of two Hannahs interning at Open Letter this summer. We’re still working on a good nickname for her—for now, depending on the situation, we (read: I) have been referring to the Hannahs as “Hannah” and “Other Hannah.” (If yet another of our interns, Reagan, was also a Hannah, things would get messy. Other Other Hannah?)

Anyway, this relatively small volume of stories by Nescio sounds pretty cool, particularly the chronology of style behind it, and falls into the category of compact volumes from NYRB that I personally can’t wait to dive into—a fairly long list that (in no particular order) includes Robert Walser’s Berlin Stories.

Here’s the beginning of Hannah’s review:

Nescio, Koekebakker, J.H.F. Grönloh. Writing only in his spare time, he was known to most of the world as a respectable and prominent businessman, the director of the Holland-Bombay Trading Company: exactly the kind of man whom his early protagonists would scorn, and at whom his later protagonists would smile grimly, knowing that “respectability” is society’s code-word for “half-stifled misery.” Producing only a few short stories, he went largely unnoticed during his lifetime, only posthumously gaining a place in the canon of Dutch literature. Now, his poignant and subtly humorous Amsterdam Stories have finally been brought to an English-speaking audience by Damion Searls, an award-winning translator who works with German, Norwegian, French, and Dutch texts.

The nine stories and novellas of this collection, arranged in chronological order of their writing, come together to form a composite portrait of a single life — quite transparently a version of Nescio’s own. In his early stories, such as “The Freeloader” and “Young Titans,” the narrator is Koekebakker, who is idealistic, poor, and (mostly) happy, confident as he is “going to do _something_” with his life. A vague, beautiful something that animates him and his group of four like-minded friends. The narrator looks back on this youth with jaded wistfulness: “We were kids — but good kids . . . We’re much smarter now, so smart it’s pathetic.” But in spite of this cynicism, it is surprisingly easy to get caught up in the half-baked ideas and humorous antics of Koekebakker & Co. . . .

For the rest of the review, go here.

25 July 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Nescio, Koekebakker, J.H.F. Grönloh. Writing only in his spare time, he was known to most of the world as a respectable and prominent businessman, the director of the Holland-Bombay Trading Company: exactly the kind of man whom his early protagonists would scorn, and at whom his later protagonists would smile grimly, knowing that “respectability” is society’s code-word for “half-stifled misery.” Producing only a few short stories, he went largely unnoticed during his lifetime, only posthumously gaining a place in the canon of Dutch literature. Now, his poignant and subtly humorous Amsterdam Stories have finally been brought to an English-speaking audience by Damion Searls, an award-winning translator who works with German, Norwegian, French, and Dutch texts.

The nine stories and novellas of this collection, arranged in chronological order of their writing, come together to form a composite portrait of a single life — quite transparently a version of Nescio’s own. In his early stories, such as “The Freeloader” and “Young Titans,” the narrator is Koekebakker, who is idealistic, poor, and (mostly) happy, confident as he is “going to do something_” with his life. A vague, beautiful something that animates him and his group of four like-minded friends. The narrator looks back on this youth with jaded wistfulness: “We were kids — but good kids . . . We’re much smarter now, so smart it’s pathetic.” But in spite of this cynicism, it is surprisingly easy to get caught up in the half-baked ideas and humorous antics of Koekebakker & Co. They are a bit ridiculous, especially seen from the narrator’s half-bitter, half-indulgent viewpoint, but they are sincere, delightful, and recognizably _real. The exception of course is Japi, the exasperating but fascinating “freeloader” of the collection’s first story, who is more allegory than man. He observes, he sits, he walks. He borrows money, smokes other people’s cigars, and takes his friend’s cloak when they are walking in the rain. And, when the world catches up with him and tries to pin him down into a job, he quietly and almost cheerfully steps off a bridge. A simple (even silly) story, but Nescio pulls it off with grace and warmth.

By “Little Poet,” written when Nescio was thirty-five, the narrator begins to lose his wistful nature and takes a more openly mocking stance toward his protagonist, and possibly against poetry in general. He leaves Koekebakker and his group behind, moving on to a nameless, doomed young poet, whom he pokes fun at mercilessly. One of the conduits of this fun-poking is the God of the Netherlands, who can’t seem to understand why he bothers to keep creating poets, particularly the meek, boyish breed like the Little Poet in question:

Twice the God of the Netherlands shook his venerable head and twice his long venerable muttonchops slid back and forth across his vest.
bq. It didn’t add up. There must be a mistake somewhere. A poet with no hair, that was very strange. The God of the Netherlands hadn’t cared much for poets for thirty years. You could no longer tell what to make of them. Respectable or disrespectable? Impossible to say . . .

God sighed. He’d have to talk it over with a real poet tomorrow. Maybe Potgieter . . .

Look, there goes the little poet. A handsome young man, you have to admit: thin, with a nicely shaved boyish face except for a pair of flying buttresses in front of his years, and so suntanned. He greets someone, tilting his straw hat a fraction about his close-cut hair.

Bizarre—so little hair—but it definitely was a little poet because God couldn’t figure him out, or Potgieter either. And Professor Volmer wanted nothing to do with him.

At one point, the Little Poet is walking down the street when he sees a group of women sitting outside a cafe and prays silently, “Oh God . . . what if you performed a miracle now, what if all their clothes suddenly fell off?” The narrator hedges this oh-so-scandalous thought playfully, writing in an aside: “You and I, dear reader, never think such things. And my dear lady readers . . . Mercy me, perish the thought.”
In his later stories, his writing begins to take on a different character. By “Insula Dei,” written twenty-five years and two World Wars later, his tone is bitter, though not unsentimental: Nescio has become an old man who cannot understand how his life — the shining promise he saw in his youth — has blinked past him. His nostalgia is more morbid now, colored as it is by war, hunger, and age. Reminiscing with the narrator about their youth, his friend Flip laments: “Back then we died of consumption, not tuberculosis.” Nescio’s skill lies in his ability to make even this macabre thought a thing of beauty.

As the title suggests, this is, in a sense, also a “city book” after the fashion of Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale (New York) and Andrei Bely’s Petersburg (St. Petersburg). These authors live and breathe their cities, and these works draw their readers onto the streets, into their cafes and parks and back alleys. Nescio accomplishes this with beautiful subtleness; Amsterdam is never the focus of his tales, but remains an unobtrusive but constant and compelling presence.

All in all, Nescio’s stories — often tragic but always beautiful — linger in the mind. They do not seem to have been composed; rather, they unfold with the grace of inevitability. Their melancholy weight means that they are best consumed slowly, leaving time between the stories to allow them to settle and be absorbed. At only 155 pages, this slim volume has a quiet power to match that of the most sweeping of Great Novels.

4 April 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Josh Billings on City of Angels, or, The Overcoat of Dr. Freud by Christa Wolf, translated from the German by Damion Searls and published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Josh Billings has reviewed for The Literary Review in the past, and is also a writer and a translator from Russian. His two book-length translations are Pushkin’s Tales of Belkin and Alexander Kuprin’s The Duel, both of which are available from Melville House.

Here’s a bit of Josh’s review:

Christa Wolf’s newly-translated City of Angels is a novel of atonement, and in this way the work of art that it resembles most to me is not another book, but the 2003 Sophia Coppola film Lost in Translation. Like that movie, its perched-on-the-shoulder meandering through a foreign city (Los Angeles in Wolf’s case, Tokyo in Coppolla’s) is patient to the point of boredom; at the same time, it is a very rigorous attempt to represent a state of being that more eagerly-paced works ignore. The effectiveness of this attempt is undeniable within the works themselves, but communicating it outside of the works can be frustrating. It’s like trying to tell a friend about a great dream you had: the events add up, but the atmosphere that surrounded those events vanishes. Reverse-engineering this disappearance, we could say that the most successful part of both City of Angels and Lost in Translation is not their locations, or their characters, but their dreaminess: that is, their capacity to transform the world (at least while we’re reading/watching them) into a place where everything means something, or has the potential to mean something. Wandering around in this supercharged world becomes a sort of metaphysical sleuthing. Does that sunset matter? Will the pair of shoes dangling from that telephone line have an eventual bearing on our fate? We don’t know for sure, and because we don’t know for sure we feel compelled to keep searching for whoever or whatever knocked our lives out of whack to begin with.

This is all fine and dandy—but one of the really great things about City of Angels is the way that it reminds us that in dreams (unlike, say, episodes of CSI), every character is you, meaning that after a certain point the trace-hiding villain and the clue-uncovering detective must turn out to be the same person. The book’s particular value as a work, not just about, but of atonement, lies in its relentless struggle to make the two Christa Wolfs face one another. This is much harder than you might think, given Wolf’s relentless honesty as an author and public figure—but then doesn’t it make sense that the better a detective was at detecting, the better their concurrent villain would be at covering his tracks?

In City, it is precisely this ability to cover, or rather sublimate (to borrow a word from the man whose overcoat furnishes the subtitle to this book) that scares Wolf. When a German newspaper uncovers and then reports a series of meetings that she had with the communist authorities decades earlier, she finds herself flabbergasted, not by the crime itself, but by her inability to remember it.

Click here to read the entire review.

4 April 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Christa Wolf’s newly-translated City of Angels is a novel of atonement, and in this way the work of art that it resembles most to me is not another book, but the 2003 Sophia Coppola film Lost in Translation. Like that movie, its perched-on-the-shoulder meandering through a foreign city (Los Angeles in Wolf’s case, Tokyo in Coppolla’s) is patient to the point of boredom; at the same time, it is a very rigorous attempt to represent a state of being that more eagerly-paced works ignore. The effectiveness of this attempt is undeniable within the works themselves, but communicating it outside of the works can be frustrating. It’s like trying to tell a friend about a great dream you had: the events add up, but the atmosphere that surrounded those events vanishes. Reverse-engineering this disappearance, we could say that the most successful part of both City of Angels and Lost in Translation is not their locations, or their characters, but their dreaminess: that is, their capacity to transform the world (at least while we’re reading/watching them) into a place where everything means something, or has the potential to mean something. Wandering around in this supercharged world becomes a sort of metaphysical sleuthing. Does that sunset matter? Will the pair of shoes dangling from that telephone line have an eventual bearing on our fate? We don’t know for sure, and because we don’t know for sure we feel compelled to keep searching for whoever or whatever knocked our lives out of whack to begin with.

This is all fine and dandy—but one of the really great things about City of Angels is the way that it reminds us that in dreams (unlike, say, episodes of CSI), every character is you, meaning that after a certain point the trace-hiding villain and the clue-uncovering detective must turn out to be the same person. The book’s particular value as a work, not just about, but of atonement, lies in its relentless struggle to make the two Christa Wolfs face one another. This is much harder than you might think, given Wolf’s relentless honesty as an author and public figure—but then doesn’t it make sense that the better a detective was at detecting, the better their concurrent villain would be at covering his tracks?

In City, it is precisely this ability to cover, or rather sublimate (to borrow a word from the man whose overcoat furnishes the subtitle to this book) that scares Wolf. When a German newspaper uncovers and then reports a series of meetings that she had with the communist authorities decades earlier, she finds herself flabbergasted, not by the crime itself, but by her inability to remember it. Practically everyone living in communist East Germany collaborated, she explains—but to forget this collaboration completely, and for so long? It’s like she’s robbed a house while sleepwalking: the standard language of will and guilt are literally applicable, but incapable on a deeper level of explaining exactly what happened. Is she guilty despite the fact that she forgot her crime? Because of this? Couched as they are in ecstatically-recriminatory language, the newspapers’ explanations of the case don’t make sense; and because they don’t make sense, Wolf is unable to feel any catharsis from their condemnation. On the contrary, she feels like a ghost, which is like being a prisoner except worse, since without sentencing there can be no hope of serving one’s time and being released.

In the face of this disjunction, Wolf turns to the only tool she knows for righting (writing) the world. Her atonement, which begins in thinking and journaling, but then progresses into a novel that I think we can say without too much of a jump into meta-ness is City of Angels itself, is a linguistic act. It’s a naming, meaning an attempt to assemble words into a shape that fits her suffering the way a map fits a city. In order to do this, Wolf uses a number of formal devices that seem alienating at first, but gradually reveal more and more to her, and us. One of the most effective of these is her habit of addressing a “You” who we realize after many pages is not a separate person at all, but the young German idealist that she used to be. As developed and dipped into over the course of the novel, this conversation manages to be strangely both dispassionate and intimate at the same. It’s as if we were reading the letters of an old married couple, now divorced, but still very close to one another: the insights are sharp, but there’s a tenderness about the liberties taken that make us realize that, for all their bickering, these are two people who share more than they want to admit.

One of the things they share, of course, is memory—not just specific memories but the patterns of remembering that Wolf suggests makes a person who she is. In her particular case these patterns are (like certain abnormal heartbeats) reliably unreliable. “I know that, sometimes. And then I forget it again,” she says apropos some insight—a sentence that can be read as both harmless and terrifying when we consider the fact that the person speaking has been, over the course of her life, not only a writer, but a German and a communist. Her pedigree gives Wolf a perspective on idealism that makes American amnesia look less like a cultural feature and more like something all human minds indulge in. At the same time, it doesn’t make this amnesia any less frightening. “I didn’t forget most of the things in my life, I wouldn’t survive,” counsels a sympathetic friend. To which the horrified Wolf asks, “Was our whole life for nothing?”

It’s a question that people have been asking for years in Los Angeles—which may be why, for all its Sebaldian meandering, City of Angels feels like a perfect fit for its setting: the great lost Teutonic Raymond Chandler novel. It’s a detective story, meaning a Bildungsroman played backwards or maybe looped, until the heroine finds herself forced to unlearn certainty and so enter into a more capacious acceptance of what she will not and, more importantly, cannot know. This sounds suspiciously similar to the forgetting that disturbed Wolf to begin with; but it is really a step in the opposite direction. It’s the step we see offered and declined at the end of that great proto-detective story Oedipus Rex, or offered and accepted at the critical moments in Shakespeare’s comedies. A generic signpost, in other words, pointing this way to a work where everyone ends up dead, and that way to a work where the heroine’s pride gives way to her love, and we all go back to our normal lives. Did we find out whodunit? Not exactly—but the killer is no longer at large. Writing—meaning exploration, detection, the search—has seen what it needed to see and then stepped back, leaving the unknown there but still lucidly absent, like a chalk outline on a sidewalk. Or, as Wolf puts it in her notebook:

“Now, writing is just working your way towards the border that the innermost secret draws around itself, and to cross that line would mean self-destruction. But writing is also an attempt to respect the borderline only for the truly innermost secret, and bit by bit to free the taboos around that core, difficult to admit as they are, from their prison of unspeakability. Not self-destruction but self-redemption. Not to be afraid of unavoidable suffering.”

The idea that any line of inquiry might pull back with the truth in its crosshairs sounds strange when we think about it from a legal point of view, but Wolf is not a lawyer: she’s a writer, meaning, among other things, someone concerned with lived experience. Like Dostoevsky and Melville, she understands that there is a blind spot at the center of all epistemology, whether it occurs on TV, or in a courtroom, or at a communist rally. Words don’t fit; so, as users of words we must either willfully blinker ourselves or accept that no tabulation will ever be perfect, and that we will always, on some level, be at fault. We will also be at least partially innocent—a_ fact that would seem like a relief but which Wolf struggles over the course of _City to accept. That she does not (in my reading at least) completely testifies both to her seriousness and the book’s strange faith; not in words necessarily, but in the ultimate unknowability of what words try to describe.

24 January 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the weekend, the National Book Critics Circle announced the list of finalists for this year’s awards, which consist of six categories: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, autobiography, biography, and criticism. You can find the complete list of finalists at the link above, but I just want to list the fiction finalists, since 40% of the list is literature in translation:

Jennifer Egan, A Visit from The Goon Squad (Knopf)

Jonathan Franzen, Freedom (Farrar, Straus And Giroux)

David Grossman, To The End of The Land, translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen (Knopf)

Hans Keilson, Comedy in a Minor Key, translated from the German by Damion Searls (Farrar, Straus And Giroux)

Paul Murray, Skippy Dies (Faber & Faber)

Interesting that there’s literally no overlap between this list and the National Book Awards shortlist . . . Not terribly surprised that Freedom is on here, but I really, really hope it doesn’t win.

In terms of the two translations, Dan Vitale reviewed both Comedy in a Minor Key and The Death of the Adversary for us earlier this year. Every since then (and after reading the almost over-the-top review in the New York Times), I’ve wanted to read this.

We never actually received a copy of To the End of the Land, but I’ve heard it’s pretty awesome . . . On a side-note, I had a sit-com like experience with David Grossman at the last Frankfurt Book Fair. When I was waiting to meet people for dinner, I crashed the fancy Hanser party, right during the time when Michael Kruger was introducing all the famous guests who were in the audience. I was circling around the back, trying to make myself invisible, when suddenly Kruger pointed right at me and said, “and we even have the recipient of the German Book Trade Peace Prize in the audience!” Everyone—truly everyone—turned to stare right through my guilty-looking self and applaud David Grossman, who was quite literally, right behind me . . . Anyway, hopefully Knopf will send us a review copy at some point . . .

And in terms of award announcements, we might have more about the NBCC awards later, but on Thursday, we’ll be announcing the 25-title fiction longlist for this year’s Best Translated Book Award. Stay tuned!

3 September 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Dan Vitale on both Hans Keilson books that FSG recently brought out: The Death of the Adversary (translated by Ivo Jarosy and originally published in 1962) and Comedy in a Minor Key (translated into English for the first time ever by Damion Searls).

This rediscovery has been getting quite a bit of attention, including a glowing piece in the New York Times Book Review in which Francine Prose claims that Keilson’s books “are some of the best ever . . . almost as good as Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom!”1

Anyway, Dan Vitale is one of our regular, and most consistent, reviewers. He has great taste, and this review really makes me want to carve out some time to read these books . . .

Farrar, Straus and Giroux has just released translations of two remarkable short novels by the German writer Hans Keilson, who turns 101 in December. Comedy in a Minor Key (1947) is appearing in the U.S. for the first time, while The Death of the Adversary (1959) is a reprint of an English translation first published here in 1962. Both are intensely focused works set during World War II in the German-occupied Netherlands (to which Keilson fled from Berlin in 1936 after earning a medical degree and publishing an autobiographical first novel), and each takes place in a relatively brief span of time that is expanded by carefully chosen flashbacks. But the similarities end there. The earlier book, as its title suggests, is surprisingly lighthearted given its setting, while the later book is a disturbing portrait of a man whose mind has been unbalanced by persecution.

Wim and Marie, the young married Dutch couple in whose house almost all the events of Comedy in a Minor Key unfold, are hiding Nico, a Jewish perfume merchant, from the German occupying forces. As the novel opens, Nico has just died of pneumonia, and his hosts, along with the attending physician, are deciding how to remove his body without attracting the attention of the authorities or any potentially unsympathetic neighbors who might report them. They decide that Wim and the doctor, under cover of a new moon, will carry Nico across the street to a park and leave him beneath a bench for the police to discover. All goes as planned, but the next day Marie realizes too late that they have left a telltale sign: Nico had been dressed in a freshly laundered pair of Wim’s monogrammed pajamas, additionally marked with an identifying number by the laundry where Marie had sent them. Suddenly the generous couple who had protected a Jew are themselves in need of protection.

This is a long, thoughtful review, and I highly recommend checking out the entire thing.

1 I kid, I kid. But she did say: “For busy, harried or distractible readers who have the time and energy only to skim the opening paragraph of a review, I’ll say this as quickly and clearly as possible: The Death of the Adversary and Comedy in a Minor Key are masterpieces, and Hans Keilson is a genius.” Which is pretty solid praise.

3 September 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Farrar, Straus and Giroux has just released translations of two remarkable short novels by the German writer Hans Keilson, who turns 101 in December. Comedy in a Minor Key (1947) is appearing in the U.S. for the first time, while The Death of the Adversary (1959) is a reprint of an English translation first published here in 1962. Both are intensely focused works set during World War II in the German-occupied Netherlands (to which Keilson fled from Berlin in 1936 after earning a medical degree and publishing an autobiographical first novel), and each takes place in a relatively brief span of time that is expanded by carefully chosen flashbacks. But the similarities end there. The earlier book, as its title suggests, is surprisingly lighthearted given its setting, while the later book is a disturbing portrait of a man whose mind has been unbalanced by persecution.

Wim and Marie, the young married Dutch couple in whose house almost all the events of Comedy in a Minor Key unfold, are hiding Nico, a Jewish perfume merchant, from the German occupying forces. As the novel opens, Nico has just died of pneumonia, and his hosts, along with the attending physician, are deciding how to remove his body without attracting the attention of the authorities or any potentially unsympathetic neighbors who might report them. They decide that Wim and the doctor, under cover of a new moon, will carry Nico across the street to a park and leave him beneath a bench for the police to discover. All goes as planned, but the next day Marie realizes too late that they have left a telltale sign: Nico had been dressed in a freshly laundered pair of Wim’s monogrammed pajamas, additionally marked with an identifying number by the laundry where Marie had sent them. Suddenly the generous couple who had protected a Jew are themselves in need of protection.

In this book, Keilson treats his characters tenderly, sympathizing with their difficulties and forgiving them their mistakes. His prose is plain and touching, his exposition brief and purposeful. Often, as in a play, he lets dialogue do the work of characterization. Although we feel at a slight remove from all three protagonists—particularly Nico who, it must be admitted, figures largely as a plot device, his death from natural causes a gently ironic counterpoint to the sufferings so many other Jews were experiencing during the same time—Keilson portrays them without denying them their basic humanity.

The Death of the Adversary, which Keilson began in 1942 but did not complete until well after the end of the war, is a denser, more upsetting work. Presented as the contents of a manuscript deposited for safekeeping during the war but never retrieved by its author, the nameless narrator’s reminiscences are shot through with a monstrous urgency: at the time he is setting them down he is anxiously awaiting the death of a figure he calls only B. and whom he refers to as his enemy, although they have never met. It quickly becomes clear to the reader, without Keilson ever stating it, that B. is Adolf Hitler and our narrator is a Jew.

For the first few pages we are trapped inside the narrator’s obsessive thoughts in a manner reminiscent of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground or a novel by Samuel Beckett, but this approach is soon largely replaced by a series of brilliant, haunting, set pieces from the narrator’s past, beginning at age 10 when his father first tells him of B.’s existence and ending some years later with his first actual glimpse of B., standing in an open limousine threading its way through a cheering crowd. In between, we are given other episodes from the narrator’s life, among them an early experience in which his mother forces him to rejoin a group of non-Jewish children who have refused to let him participate in their games; the ending of a friendship between the narrator and a young man who has embraced B.’s ideas; an incident at the department store where the narrator takes a job after completing school, during which he mediates a conflict between two angry customers and in the process attracts the interest of a friendly young saleswoman; and an evening at the apartment the saleswoman shares with her brother, where the narrator witnesses a conversation among the brother and several of his friends, all of them supporters of B. To the narrator’s silent dismay, one of these young men regales the party with a story of his recent adventure as part of a group of volunteers on a “secret assignment”: to cruelly vandalize a Jewish cemetery.

Throughout, the narrator portrays himself as an outsider humiliated by his passivity in the presence of others whose only advantage over him is the fact that they are not Jewish. Far from the placid tone of Comedy in a Minor Key, the voice of The Death of the Adversary is agitated and tense. Nearly all the figures in the novel seem surreal, at times almost freakish, poised on the brink of the devastations the war has not yet brought but which are prefigured in these smaller, personal offenses. Nowhere is this clearer than in the cemetery vandal’s description of one of his colleagues:

He ran like one possessed, it was a fantastic sight, the climax of the whole expedition, I’ll never forget it. He leaped like a black goblin from grave to grave—great big leaps, with his black body twisting and twirling in the air. He held his arms away from his body, moving them backwards and forwards as though he were rowing through the night. . . . And all the time he was making gurgling sounds that seemed to come from deep inside his guts. I went after him. I saw him trampling down the last mounds by the wall, his legs were moving faster and faster on the same spot. A mad fury seemed to have taken hold of him, he dropped down full-length on the grave, grabbed at the cold, wet earth with both hands and began to scratch and dig. His fingers devoured the soil, deeper and deeper they dug, as though he wanted to scratch the buried bones out of the ground.

The only characters in the book that are presented with the same poignancy as those in the earlier novel are the narrator’s parents, and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Keilson intended their portrayal as a tribute to his own parents, who died at Auschwitz, and a lament for their fate.

After the war, Keilson remained in the Netherlands, where he later turned to the study and practice of psychoanalysis, producing a landmark study of Dutch Jewish war orphans in which he pioneered the concept of “sequential traumatization in children.” Keilson was the first to discover that childhood trauma can be compounded by subsequent, even if apparently lesser, traumas. The mental health of the children he interviewed was influenced not just by prewar anti-Semitic persecution or forced separation from their parents during the Nazi atrocities but by the process of acclimation into foster homes and then, after the war, by conflicts over their decision whether to return home or remain with their foster families. Keilson’s work as a psychoanalyst displays an empathy and a sensitivity to suffering that are surely the equal—if not arguably the superior—of any of which a novelist is capable.

In a 2008 interview, Keilson stated that The Death of the Adversary is not much read in Germany but that he was pleased with its original reception in the U.S. where Time magazine chose The Death of the Adversary as one of the best books of 1962. It is certainly one of the best to be republished this year, and one of the best novels to have arisen from the horrors of the Third Reich.

17 July 07 | Chad W. Post |

N+1 just posted The New Novel a short story by Robert Walser, translated by Damion Searls.

As a fan of Walser’s this is great, and reminds me that I should pick up The Assistant, which recently came out from New Directions.

....
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