14 December 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week, fresh off a publication in the Boston Review, Jess Fenn (JR Fenn) joins Chad, Brian, and Best Translated Book Award judge Patrick Smith (P.T. Smith) to talk about the second part of Death in Spring. They trace a few motifs, talk about dystopias and literary world-building, and much more. Another very informative and captivating episode about one of the greatest novels of the past hundred years.

Both Death in Spring and Selected Stories are available through the Open Letter website, and if you use 2MONTH at checkout, you’ll get 20% off.

Feel free to comment on this episode—or on the book in general—either on this post, or at the official GoodReads Group.

Follow Open Letter, Chad Post, Brian Wood, and for more thoughts and information about upcoming guests. Be sure and buy the Boston Review to read Jess’s story, and follow Patrick on Twitter for various book thoughts and terrible sports takes.

And you can find all the Two Month Review posts by clicking here. And be sure to leave us a review on iTunes!

The music for this season of Two Month Review is Montseny by Els Surfing Sirles.



5 December 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Coming up on this Thursday’s Two Month Review podcast I join Brian Wood, Meg Berkobien, and Anastasia Nikolis to talk about the opening section of Death in Spring, the first Rodoreda novel that Open Letter ever published. To preface that conversation (which is a lot of gushing over her prose and ideas, along with some solid historical information), I thought I’d break out some aspects of Part I.

If you prefer, you can also download this post as a PDF document.

As always, you can get Death in Spring and Selected Stories for 20% from our website by using the code 2MONTH. It’s also available at better bookstores everywhere.

And be sure to join the Goodreads group and subscribe to the Three Percent Podcast on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.

This week’s podcast—the first to dig into Rodoreda’s final novel, Death in Spring—is one of the most informative ones we’ve recorded to date. This isn’t to dismiss anything that came before (I love all my baby podcasts equally), but given Meg Berkobien’s background both as a translator and academic, she was able to bring the knowledge. You’ll have to listen to the whole thing to get all the goods, but here are a few choice bits that provide some background.

First things first, although this book was published posthumously, a few years after her passing, it’s by no means incomplete. There’s a mention on the Mercè Rodoreda Foundation website about how she submitted it for a literary prize back in the 1960s. It lost, she was greatly disappointed, she spent twenty years refining and honing it. That’s committment! And god damn does it show. This is one of the most carefully crafted novels I’ve ever read. No word is out of place (special shout-out to Martha Tennent), every image is layered throughout, every sentence feels twice as long as it is. This book is magical. So, although it was “unfinished” in the sense that she never approved the final proofs, but it’s not incomplete. It’s a full novel with a satisfying ending. As you’ll see.

One of the first things you’ll notice is that the village in which the novel takes place is unlike any village you’ve ever visited. Outside of time, home to a very unique set of myths and rituals, this place is a bit bewildering and disturbed. (Or a slightly exaggerated and twisted version of the myths and rituals in our lives?) Although the geography doesn’t seem nearly as unsettled, the layout of the village can be hard to visualize. But, thanks to Mercè (via Meg), we have this sketch of the village:



There’s a lot more that could be said about the background to this novel, but I think that’s best left to the podcast. Also, I kind of want to provide a bit of an overview to this section, but, well, I’m afraid that it will scare some of you off since it will sound absolutely batshit. Still, it can be useful for understanding the set of quotes below, so here goes:

In part one we’re introduced to our main character, a fourteen-year-old boy who lives in a village that is bound by strange beliefs and rituals. One of those rituals involves what happens to a dying body—something that the boy sees firsthand in the opening pages of the novel when his dad passes away. Freed from his parents, he serves as the reader’s lens onto the village in which he lives. In this first part, a lot of the world building is set forth. We learn about some of the major characters (the Blacksmith, the stepmother, Senyor), and some of the annual events that organize the lives of the villagers. At the start of this section, a bee is following the boy, at the end he crushes a bee. That happens as well.

As you can probably tell, the plot itself—though there, though compelling—is secondary to the way in which Rodoreda creates this almost alien environment. Although “world building” is a term usually used more in connection with Game of Thrones than modernist literature in translation, it’s very apropos here, for this part.

Rather than ramble on about this, I want to give you a taste of Rodoreda’s writing, which is absolutely phenomenal. And to tie her prose to the idea of world building, I’d like to look at three things that run throughout this section: myths, rituals, and fears. I’m more or less just going to piece together quotes from the book that fit into those respective categories. This will also give you an immediate sense of how weird this book is, and will probably (hopefully) make you want to read it. It’s wild! There’s nothing quite like Death in Spring and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible.

This post and these lists will likely serve as building blocks for trying to create a larger understanding of what Rodoreda’s up to in this book as we go along. Not that there’s a single reading or way to understand this book—not by any means. The ways in which interpretations of images and motifs shift throughout the novel is one reason why this is so rich, so engrossing, and so lasting. Let’s dig in.

Myths

The old men explained that the low wind on Maraldina blew through the brush when no one was on the mountain. It carried souls that wandered the mountain with the sole purpose of creating fierce winds whenever we went in search of powder, rendering our work more arduous. The wind was telling us that ours was a senseless job, something that was better left undone. Souls have no mouths, so they spoke to us through the voice of the wind.


Souls and shadows show up a lot in this book. Usually tied together. Shadows take on a real physical presence in this novel, even if it is a presence that works on the edges of existence. They’re also responsible for a lot of the beliefs held by the villages, including this creation myth:

On a slope, man met shadow and they never parted. They established the village. The man, the shadow by his side, planted the first wisteria. But that’s not exactly how it was. A long time ago when the oldest of the old men in the village was young, he witnessed the birth of everything. The village was born from the earth’s terrible unrest. The mountain was cleaved and it collapsed into the river, scattering the water through the fields. But the river wanted to flow with all of its water gathered together and began burrowing beneath the crumpled mountain, emptying it little by little. The river never rested until all the water could flow happily together again, although at times it grew furious when it hit the rock ceiling. They say that one night, not at the bottom of the slope, but on the ground, on the rocks hurled from the cliff, the moon showed two shadows joined at the mouth. And it rained blood. That is how it all began.


Yep. As Meg mentions on the podcast, Rodoreda was very interested in cosmogony, which is quite evident in this book. There’s one more myth that I want to share—one that also crosses over into the section about the village’s rituals:

Near the canes where I was hiding, a group of dirty, disheveled women were sitting on the ground away from the fire, their eyes blindfolded. They were the pregnant ones. They covered their eyes because if they gazed at other men, the children they were carrying would also take a peek and begin to resemble the men. They said a woman fell in love with every man she saw, and the longer she was pregnant, the faster she fell in love. So, what with women falling in love and children looking, what shouldn’t happen, happened.


This is an example of how these unusual beliefs—how genetics are influenced by love—end up creating a series of rituals that keep this society functioning. In this case, all pregnant women are blindfolded, which, though cruel and misguided (although some flat-earther out there would probably buy into this “science”), is not as violent and messy as what happens when you die.

Rituals

Again, I don’t want to give away too much (read the book!), so I’ll just quote this passage about what happens when someone is dying and why without any larger context:

Don’t kill him, shouted the cement man. The mortar trough, filled with rose-colored cement, lay at this feet. Don’t kill him before he has been filled. They pried his mouth partially open, and the cement man began to fill it. First with watery cement so it would slide far down inside him, then with thick cement. When he was well cemented, they stood him up and put him back inside the tree. They replaced the cross and left to prepare the Festa. [. . .] I would end my days locked in that tree, my mouth full of cement that had been mixed with crimson powder, my entire soul within. Because, you see, the blacksmith used to say that with the last breath, without anyone realizing, your soul flees. And no one knows where it goes.


Cement to keep your soul in. Otherwise maybe it will be part of the fierce winds that make the search for powder more difficult. OK. Got it. And speaking of that powder, the men and boys gather this special pink powder every spring so that they can repaint all of the houses in the village. Every year. Like clockwork. As if it’s part of nature.

For a funeral Festa, they killed horses and pregnant mares. First, they ate the soup, then the horse or mare, and then a morsel—but only a small piece because there wasn’t much to go round—of the little ones the mares were carrying inside them. They made a paste with the brains; it helped digestion.

If you think that’s gross, wait till you read about the stepmother snacking on balls of fat . . .

Fear

Most, if not all, rituals exist because a group is afraid of what would happen if they don’t perform the ritual. Their mythic beliefs contain a bit of danger (don’t let the souls out!), so they create a particular set of actions to stave off the threat. They’re afraid of something.

There are a variety of normal fears sprinkled throughout the first couple parts of this book, but one thing that I want to track as we read and talk about this is the role of Senyor. Here’s how he’s introduced:

All of the houses were pink except one: the house that belonged to Senyor. He lived at the top of the small mountain that was cleaved by a cliff and overlooked the village, protecting and menacing. The cliff, topped by Senyor’s house, was covered with ivy that blazed in autumn and died soon after.


Innocent enough, I suppose. But then there are a few lines that, taken together, bring in a slightly more ominous tone:

When I had finished planting the grass, I thought again about Senyor’s house. I could see the side of it, the side without windows. It was topped by a spire. I could see Senyor, in my thoughts, coughing and eating honey, waiting always for the river to carry away the village. [. . .]

When we burned [the leaves], we would look up because Senyor’s head would appear through the long, narrow, middle window, and we would stick out our tongues at him. He would remain motionless, as if made of stone, and when the blue smoke disappeared, he would close his window, and that was it until the following year.


We’ll see more of Senyor soon enough, but I think I’ll leave it there for now. This is a much easier book to talk about (just wait till you hear the podcast) than it is to write about. Granted, I’m sort of holding back because part of the joy of reading this first section is finding yourself in a strange new world that you slowly come to understand—something I don’t want to take away from anyone. But even putting that aside, there’s just so much here. So many approaches to take. In future weeks, I hope to get more into the actual craft of her sentences and paragraphs, talk a bit more about how an element (like the bee in this section) is introduced early on and then weaves through the chapter accruing significance as it goes along. There’s also the issue of what sort of bildungsroman this really is, and if there’s a different world that this village maps on to (such as Franco’s Spain).

This is a good start though—especially if you listen to Thursday’s podcast. That really puts things in motion.

4 October 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The voting is in and . . . Well, The Physics of Sorrow and Maidenhair ended up with the most votes. That said, we’re not going to do those books next. Instead, since we haven’t featured any books by women yet—and since Catalan is undergoing some serious shit right now—we’re going to start by doing two books by Mercè Rodoreda: Selected Stories and then Death in Spring. And then we’ll do Physics of Sorrow. In fact, for the Physics season, we’ll do a live recording in New York with Georgi Gospodinov himself! So, stay tuned.



Here’s the schedule for the third season of the Two Month Review, the “Rodoreda and Catalan Independence” season:

October 26: Introduction to Mercè Rodoreda

November 2: Selected Stories: “Blood,” “Threaded Needle,” “Summer,” “Guinea Fowls,” “The Mirror,” and “Happiness” (pages 1-50)

November 9: Selected Stories: “Afternoon at the Cinema,” “Ice Cream,” “Carnival,” “Engaged,” “In a Whisper,” “Departure,” “Friday, June 8” (51-102)

November 16: Selected Stories: “The Beginning,” “Nocturnal,” “The Red Blouse,” “The Fate of Lisa Sperling,” “The Bath,” and “On the Train” (103-143)

November 23: Selected Stories: “Before I Die,” “Ada Liz,” “On a Dark Night,” “Night and Fog,” and “Orléans, Three Kilometers” (144-207)

November 30: Selected Stories: “The Thousand Franc Bill,” “Paralysis,” “It Seemed Like Silk,” “The Salamander,” “Love,” and “White Geranium” (208-255)

December 7: Death in Spring Part One (1-27)

December 14: Death in Spring Part Two (28-68)

December 21: Death in Spring Part Three (69-118)

December 28: Death in Spring Part Four (119-150)

And then we’ll kick off 2018 with Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow and will follow up with Mikhail Shiskin’s Maidenhair, Dubravka Ugresic’s Fox, and Rodrigo Fresán’s The Bottom of the Sky.

Get the books now and join the Goodreads group to join in the discussion! And, of course, subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.

15 February 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This review actually appeared online a couple months ago, but National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward’s piece on Merce Rodoreda’s Death in Spring made it onto “All Things Considered” last night.

I personally think Death in Spring is one of the most unique, and interesting books that we’ve published, and it’s fantastic that this is getting such great publicity. This is available at better bookstores everywhere, and through our website.

Additionally, this is part of our First 25, a collection of the first 25 titles we published, available for $200 $175. (Just enter “FIRST25” at checkout to receive the $25 discount.)

And to whet your appetite, here’s an excerpt from Death in Spring:

I removed my clothes and dropped them at the foot of the hackberry tree, beside the madman’s rock. Before entering the river, I stopped to observe the color left behind by the sky. The sun-dappled light was different now that spring had arrived, reborn after living beneath the earth and within branches. I lowered myself gently into the water, hardly daring to breathe, always with the fear that, as I entered the water world, the air—finally emptied of my nuisance—would begin to rage and be transformed into wind that blew furiously, like the winter wind that nearly carried away houses, trees, and people. I had sought the broadest part of the river, the farthest from the village, a place where no one ever came. I didn’t want to be seen. The water flowed, sure of itself, confident with the weight that descended from mountains, snow and fountains escaping the shadows through holes in rocks. All the waters joined together for the delirium of joining and flowed endlessly, the land on both sides. As soon as I had passed the stables and the horse enclosure, I realized I was being followed by a bee, as well as by the stench of manure and the honey scent of wisteria that was beginning to blossom. The water was cold as I cut through it with my arms and kicked it with my feet; I stopped from time to time to drink some. The sun, filled with the desire to fly, was rising on the other side of Pedres Altes, streaking the white winter water. To trick the bee that was following me, I ducked under the water so it would lose me and not know what to do. I knew about
the obstinate, seven-year-old bees that possessed a sense of understanding. It was turbid under the water, like a glass cloud that reminded me of the glass balls in the courtyards beneath the strong wisteria vines, the wisteria that over the years upwrenched houses.

The houses in the village were all rose-colored. We painted them every spring and maybe for that reason the light was different. It captured the pink from the houses, the same way it took on the color of leaves and sun by the river. Shut inside in winter, we made paintbrushes from horsetails with handles of wood and wire, and when we had finished them, we put them away in the shed in the Plaça and waited for good weather. Then all of us, men and boys, would go to the cave on Maraldina in search of the red powder we needed for the pink paint . . . When we returned to the village, we would mix the red powder with water to make pink paint that winter would erase. In spring—bees buzzing about, blooming wisteria hanging from houses—we painted. And suddenly the light was different. [. . .]

I decided to stroll through the soft grass, up the incline; at the end of the slope the tree nursery appeared from behind some shrubs. The seedlings had tender trunks and no leaves; but all of them would carry death inside them when they were transplanted in the forest and grew tall. I walked among them, and they looked like objects you only see when asleep. I stopped at the entrance to the forest, at the divide between sun and shadow. I had seen the cloud of butterflies earlier. The trees in the forest were very tall, full of leaves—five-point leaves—and, just as the blacksmith had often told me, a plaque and a ring were attached to the foot of each tree. There were thousands of butterflies, all white. They fluttered around anxiously; many of them looked like half-opened flowers, the white slightly streaked with green. The ground was carpeted with old, dry leaves and a rotten odor rose from beneath them . . . I lay down under a tree and watched the cloud of butterflies bubble among the leaves. I looked at them through a web of leaf nerves until I was tired, and as soon as I let it fall, I heard footsteps. [. . .]

The steps stopped. Everything was quiet. As I strained to listen, I thought I could hear someone breathing. I felt a weight in the middle of my chest from listening and thinking I heard something: the same ill feeling as when they locked me in the cupboard for hours, the village deserted, and I would wait. This was the same. Nothing had changed: the leaves were the same, and the trees and butterflies, and the sense that time inside the shadow was dead. But everything had changed. [. . .]

The man who was approaching carried an axe on his shoulder and a pitchfork in his hand. He was naked from the waist up, his forehead smashed in. His face had been disfigured by the rushing river, and he was unable to close his eyes because the skin on his forehead was poorly attached. His red, shrunken skin was pulled tight, always leaving a slit in his eyes. He had patches of black hair on his chest, his was body sunburned. [. . .]

With his axe he began making a cross on a tree trunk; he had marked it with a stone, top to bottom and side to side. He worked mechanically, and after a while he dropped to his knees and began to cry. I held my breath. Still crying, he stood up, spit in his hands, and rubbed them together. The bee buzzed in and out of the flower. As the axe cut the trunk, you could see the line begin to emerge . . . The tree was as wide and as tall as a man, and I noticed the seedcase inside. It looked slightly green in the green light of the forest, the same color as the tree trunks in the nursery. The man poked the seedcase with the pitchfork, first on one side, then the other, until it fell to the ground. Smoke rose from the gap left in the tree. The man put down the pitchfork, wiped the sweat from his neck and rolled the seedcase to the foot of another tree . . . Then he sat on the ground and looked in the direction of the setting sun, at the butterflies.

Many of the leaves on the low branches were partially eaten away, others merely pierced by little holes. The caterpillars never stopped chewing, as they prepared to become butterflies. The man looked up with eyes he could not completely close. The air became wind. The man turned around, picked up the iron plaque, and looked at it as if he had never seen it before. He rubbed a finger over it, following the letters, one by one, until finally he stood up, seized the pitchfork and axe and headed toward the entrance to the forest, the axe on his shoulder flashing from time to time between the low-lying leaves. He came back empty-handed; and as if everything were going to begin again, the bee returned and entered the flower and the man approached his tree. He was weeping. He entered the tree backwards. . . . I was frightened. Frightened about the resin bubbling all alone, the ceiling of light hidden by leaves, and so many white wings flapping. I left, slowly at first, backing away, then I started to run, as if pursued by the man, the pitchfork, and the axe. I stopped by the edge of the river and covered my ears with my open hands so I wouldn’t hear the quiet. I crossed the river again. On the other side I left behind the odor of caterpillar-gorged leaves and encountered the fragrance of wisteria and the stench of manure. Death in spring. I threw myself on the ground, on top of the pebbles, my heart drained of blood, my hands icy. I was fourteen years old, and the man who had entered the tree to die was my father.

2 September 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over at NPR, Jesmyn Ward has a really nice write-up of Merce Rodoreda’s Death in Spring:

When a friend gave me Merce Rodoreda’s Death in Spring, he told me it would blow my mind. Ten pages in, I doubted his claim.

The book begins when the narrator, a 14-year-old boy from a small mountain village, slips into a cold, sometimes savage river to escape a bee. His swim is interspersed with descriptions of his isolated community, with its pink painted homes and wisteria vines that “over the years, upwrenched houses.”

Rodoreda’s prose, even in translation, is bold and beautiful, but structured into short chapters and flashbacks. The effect is impressionistic, truncated and frustrating. I couldn’t orient myself in the narrative.

And then I surrendered.

Sure, I’m 125% biased, but Death in Spring is damn amazing. Rodoreda is one of the greats of the twentieth century. This novel, Time of the Doves, her Selected Fiction are all incredible.

But I’m going to digress for a moment and hate all over the NPR commenters on this post.

When this first went up, three separate people wrote in to complain that there was no “SPOILER ALERT”:

It would be really good if you posted a SPOILER ALERT. I unwittingly read something about the novel that probably should have been read only in the novel. I continued to read, thinking that would be the last spoiler, but it wasn’t. I only got past learning that his father was killed in a very unusual way when it appeared I was going to get more details from the book. I doubt you can do a rewrite but can you post a spoiler alert~? :o] Thanks~!

OK, so now, there is a “SPOILER ALERT” warning at the top of the page, but seriously, WTF? Some readers can be so god damn annoying. Yeah, the narrator’s dad dies, “in a very unusual way.” On page 15. And even if you only read books for the simple plot points (hey—you should check out this John Locke guy, he’s probably right up your alley), then wouldn’t it really be spoiled if you knew the unusual way in which he was killed? Whatever. These people piss me off.

And I know that’s wrong, and I should feel guilty about it, but they reduce books to the most basic of components and try and strangle actual conversation about literature because if you happen to mention anything, you’ve “ruined the surprise.” GAARRRRGGGGHHHH!

1 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

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



Death in Spring by Merce Rodoreda. Translated from the Catalan by Martha Tennent. (Spain, Open Letter)

The other day, I had a really interesting conversation with David Del Vecchio and Lewis Manalo of Idlewild Books about covers for literature in translation. All the BTBA longlist titles are on display at Idlewild (rock on!) and it’s really interesting to take these all in at once.

One of the things David pointed out was just how dark all these books were. (Sidenote: I REALLY HOPE that one day he’ll write a long piece for us about all of his cover observations—all of us publishers could learn a ton from listening to a bookseller like David. I mean, we’ve seen Sessalee at B&N influence the look of more commercial fiction—pictures of hair anyone?—so it’s only cool that a hip, indie bookstore could help shape the look of translated titles.) I hadn’t really thought about the look of all these titles together—see, I don’t judge a book by its . . . actually, yes I do, we all do—but seriously, look at The Ninth, The Skating Rink, Confessions of Noa Weber, and, cough, Death in Spring, and the impression you get is that all of these books are bleak, dark, somewhat depressing, etc.

Personally, I think the Death in Spring cover kicks some serious design ass, but I can see how someone looking at a tree made of various bones might get the impression that the book is a bit morbid . . . But well, you know, in contrast to some of the other BTBA titles that might misrepresent (Memories of the Future looks awful mechanistic for such an insanely funny book), this one is pretty spot-fucking-on. The book opens with the narrator’s father trying to bury himself in a tree in order to avoid the village’s traditional death ritual . . . His attempt fails in brutal, disturbing fashion:

They started to shout. They shouted at my father who had little remaining breath and was clearly near his end. He was still alive, but only his own death kept him alive. They dragged him from the tree, laid him on the ground, and began beating him. The last blows made no sound. Don’t kill him, shouted the cement man. The mortar trough, filled with rose-colored cement, lay at his feet. Don’t kill him before he has been filled. They pried his mouth partially open, and the cement man began to fill it. First with watery cement so it would slide far down inside him, then with thick cement. When he was well cemented, they stood him up and put him back inside the tree. They replaced the cross and left to prepare the Festa.

Welcome to Merce Rodoreda’s nightmare world.

To fans of her earlier works—especially The Time of the Doves, this is shocking and totally unexpected. But it does sort of fit an evolution of Rodoreda’s work. Doves is a more conventional story of a woman’s loves and losses during the time of the Spanish Civil War. It’s gorgeous and lush, and has something in common with Virginia Woolf’s writing. But then there’s A Broken Mirror, which chronicles the dissolution of a family in three distinct sections, each written with a different tone and sensibility, starting with a more Victorian feel, then turning modernist, and ending with a very fractured, post-modern section. And then comes Death in Spring.

Death in Spring is a very surreal, violent (even houses are “upwrenched”) novel that traces the life of a young boy, through whose eyes we witness the terrifying and incomprehensible rituals that shape life in the village. In addition to the cement-pouring ritual (which is freaky) and the burying people inside of trees bit, there’s also the annual “trip down the river,” in which one unlucky person has to float through the river running under the village to clear out any rocks blocking the water’s passage . . .

The book can be interpreted in several ways—as a metaphor for life under Franco, as a creepy bildungsroman, so on—but one constant is the beauty of Rodoreda’s prose, especially as she struggles to convey something that’s almost beyond words. (To be honest: I’m stealing some of the comments Erica Mena made about this book and all of the times “language fails” in the book.) Personally, I think this is one of the most important books Open Letter has published so far. I can envision scholars and readers debating this a hundred years from now—and studying Martha Tennent’s inventive translation.

So I’ll leave off with another passage that’s beautifully sad:

When they pulled the boy from the river, he was dead; they returned him to the river. Those who died in the water were returned to the water. The river carried them away and nothing was ever known of them again. But at night, at the spot where the bodies were thrown into the water, a shadow could be seen. Not every night. Not today or tomorrow, but on certain nights a shadow trembled. They said the shadow of the dead returned to the place where the man was born. They said that to die was to merge with the shadow. That summer, the shadow of the boy was clearly distinguishable. It was unmistakably him because he had been separated from one of his arms, and the shadow had but one arm. Struggling against the current, the shadow—which was only will, not body or voice—attempted to slip beneath the village. And as the shadow struggled, the prisoner neighed.

25 September 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Natasha Wimmer has an interesting piece on Catalan author Merce Rodoreda. It’s great introduction to Rodoreda—considered to be one of the greatest Catalan authors of all time—even if Wimmer does prefer The Time of the Doves (available from Graywolf) to Death in Spring (which we brought out last year and was masterfully translated by Martha Tennent).

I can’t remember the first time I read Mercè Rodoreda’s The Time of the Doves. It might have been when I was 13, living with my family in the high-rise suburbs of Madrid. It might have been when I was 17, back in Madrid with my mother for a few weeks in a sweltering rented room. Or it might have been when I was 19, on my own in the city, sharing an apartment near the train station with four South American girls. In any case, I read it in Spanish, under the title La plaza del diamante (the original Catalan title is La plaça del diamant). And I read it at about the same time as I read Nada, by Carmen Laforet. These were the first serious books I read in Spanish, and I’ve never forgotten them.

Certainly, few books have been as gorgeously sad. On a personal list of misery-inducing favorites including Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea and Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, The Time of the Doves ranks near the top. Set in Barcelona around the time of the Spanish Civil War, it’s tragic simply as a function of its setting, but Rodoreda plumbs a sadness that reaches beyond historic circumstances, a sadness born of helplessness, an almost voluptuous vulnerability. This condition will be familiar to readers of Rhys’s novels, to which Rodoreda’s novels bear a certain resemblance. Rodoreda’s women are notable for their almost pathological lack of volition, but also for their acute sensitivity, a nearly painful awareness of beauty. [. . .]

For those who’ve only read The Time of the Doves, Death in Spring will come as a surprise. In it, Rodoreda works in an entirely different register, heavily symbolic and fable-like. Signs of this tendency are visible in a number of her short stories, some of which are collected in My Christina and Other Stories. In this collection, Rodoreda’s full range of expression is on display, from the almost banal realism of a later novel, A Broken Mirror, through the exquisite impressionism of The Time of the Doves and Camellia Street, to the garish symbolism of Death in Spring. In Rodoreda’s more symbolic fictions, nature comes to the fore and humans mimic animals or morph into them, as in the short story “The Salamander,” in which a woman who sleeps with a married man is burned to death and turns into a salamander, returning to live under her lover’s bed.

The use of symbolism is a form of sublimation, in the same way that the ruthless elision and economy of Rodoreda’s writing in The Time of the Doves is a form of sublimation. In both cases, Rodoreda heightens and transforms the brutal reality of existence in a world of endless war. The artfulness of the latter method, however, stands in contrast to the often garbled mythmaking of some of the short stories and Death in Spring. Like “The Salamander,” Death in Spring is set in a village that’s part medieval, part contemporary and part infernal. A river runs beneath it, through a rocky passage, and every year one man must swim it to make sure the village isn’t about to be washed away. Most emerge near death, their faces torn by the rocks, but even this is benign compared with the village’s rituals of death, in which living villagers are stuffed full of pink cement and entombed upright in trees.

You can read the whole article here and when you’re inspired to purchase all of Rodoreda’s books, you can do so via Brazos Bookstore’s online catalog by clicking here.

23 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Jeff Waxman from The Front Table was kind enough to let me write a pretty long piece on Merce Rodoreda’s Death in Spring, a book that I absolutely love. Rodoreda’s something special, and the book (which is paper-over-board—get it while it’s hot!) has one of the most intricate, fitting, and cool covers we’ve published so far.

Aside from the exposure to excellent works of literature from all over the world, the best thing about my work with literature in translation is the editorial trips to Spain, to France, to Estonia, to German, to Argentina—and I’m surprised more people don’t become translators or publishers for this alone. I first heard of Mercè Rodoreda—arguably the most influential Catalan author of the twentieth century—during such an editorial trip to Barcelona a few years back that was organized by the brilliant and hip Ramon Llull Institut and consisted of four days of meetings with editors, publishers, critics, and Catalan authors.

Catalan culture is in a bit of a tricky position. A completely different language from Castilian (what we commonly refer to as “Spanish”), Catalan was strongly discouraged during the Franco regime, and a number of Catalan artists—Rodoreda included—went into exile during this time. After Franco’s death in 1975, there’s been resurgence in interest in the Catalan language and in Catalan culture as a whole. Catalonia—located in the northeast part of Spain, bordering France and including Barcelona—has taken pride in reclaiming its literary and artistic heritage, and promoting its unique society to the rest of the world. On the literary end of things, the selection of Catalonia as the Guest of Honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2007 (the first region—in contrast to country—to be honored as such), really helped raise the awareness of Catalan literature among editors, writers, and reviewers around the world.

That said, Quim Monzo’s self-referential opening speech at the book fair (Monzo is another Catalan author I learned about during this trip and that Open Letter will be publishing) is honest to a point of self-deprecation about the worldwide interest in Catalan literature:

“Won’t reading the names of all these writers (most of whom are unknown to the literary world that circulates in Frankfurt) just be tedious for the audience at the opening ceremony who will have to listen to so many unfamiliar names? Won’t they be looking at their watches and thinking, “What a bore!”? And so he decides he won’t mention any names (even though, in fact, he has already mentioned them in the very process of describing his doubts as to whether he should mention them or not). What’s more, he’s read that at the Frankfurt Book Fair there will be an exhibition that explains all this. Although—to be frank—how many of the persons who attend this inaugural event will later visit this exhibition with any more interest than a merely official show of etiquette? Let us be frank and optimistic: very few.”

So where does Mercè Rodoreda fit into all this?

Click here for the rest.

26 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This was a great week for Open Letter books, with three of our recent releases getting some nice coverage:

First up was Hannah Manshel’s review of Death in Spring for The Front Table:

In English for the first time in Martha Tennent’s translation, Death in Spring is about a society that finds highly elaborate ways to elude the inevitable and to conquer time. Its means are slow and insidious, ritualistic and bizarre, always teetering on the line between the real and the magical. Its members, obsessed with imprisoning themselves, pour concrete into the mouths of the dead to keep their souls from escaping. Every spring, they paint the houses pink and it’s unclear whether anyone remembers why. Though the novel is propelled forward by a linear narrative, it is its characters’ evasion of this diachrony that is most captivating. The book is driven by linguistic and thematic repetition, like a prose sestina in which the end words could be symbols or simply icons, aesthetic trends or markers that unfold and elaborate the path of the narrative. We see wisteria and bees, horses and butterflies, souls and prisoners weave in and out of the text, each time reappearing with a new relevance, a new level of meaning.

Christopher Byrd’s review of Jerzy Pilch’s The Mighty Angel in the B&N Review is also pretty fantastic:

From the opening paragraph — in which the protagonist awakens to discover a couple of Mafiosi in his room who have taken it upon themselves to act as literary agents for a female poet — to the closing paragraphs that flick away the tragic arc that’s usually prefabricated for books in the end-of-the-bottle genre, Pilch teases out plenty of LOL moments from desultory situations. All told, The Mighty Angel furnishes enough Schadenfreude to stylishly blacken just about any comedic sensibility.

Becky Ferreira at L Magazine agrees:

Pilch’s prose is masterful, and the bulk of The Mighty Angel evokes the same numb, floating sensation as a bottle of oadkowa Gorzka. But it’s not until Jerzy haphazardly reveals facts of his grandfather’s life that the naked grotesquerie of alcoholism pierces through the book’s often casual and flippant wit. Though the final chapters posit a chance at redemption, it remains unclear whether Jerzy is breaking the cycle, or just trading in one vice for another. To Pilch’s credit, both of Jerzy’s possible paths seem unfortunate and equally likely.

And finally, Michael Orthofer is the first to weigh in on Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s Rupert (he gave it a B+):

What’s riveting about Rupert’s account is his self-assuredness. Yes, he often speaks of ‘Rupert’ in the third person, an abstraction he’s removed from — but then Rupert is, after all, the ultimate ‘I am camera’. It’s a fascinating split-personality on display here — and some . . . perversely fine writing. [. . .] Cleverly, artfully done, Rupert: A Confession is no pleasant read, but an oddly seductive one. Well worthwhile.

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

Catalan Days — a month-long festival celebrating the arts, food, and literature of Catalonia and the Balearic Islands — really got underway on Saturday with a performance by Jessica Lange of Merce Rodoreda’s The Time of the Doves.

This event was arranged in part to celebrate our release of Death in Spring, Rodoreda’s final novel, which she spent decades on, and which was left unfinished. (Well, sort of. The book ends the only way it can—the “unfinished” nature of the manuscript seems to be more editing-based than plot-based.) Martha Tennent was on hand to introduce her translation of Death in Spring and Rodoreda in general. Martha’s a great translator and in fact, she translated the abridged version of Time of the Doves that Jessica Lange performed. (The novel is actually La Placa del Diamante and the “doves” in the title are actually pigeons—stinky, smelly pigeons—which is how Martha translated it. That said, “The Time of the Pigeons” isn’t really a selling title . . .)

Jessica Lange was pretty amazing. Her reading of the novel lasted almost two hours, encapsulating the whole book, from the narrator’s memories of the festival where she met her future husband (he convinces her to leave her fiance for him), through their early years as a married couple and her fairly submissive role in the relationship, to the Civil War years when Quimet goes off to fight and Natalia almost kills her children to end their suffering, through the marriage of her daughter. (Not to give too much away. Although it’s not like the plot of this book is really what matters. Rodoreda’s beautiful prose and compelling characters are the real draws.)

The book can be pretty intense, and when Jessica Lange broke into tears on stage, she really ramped up the emotional content of the novel and had everyone sucked into Rodoreda’s world. Everyone I talked to afterward was stunned by just how incredible the performance was, but what’s really amazing—and what is the definition of “professional”—is the fact that she received the translation of the script on Wednesday . . .

Rodoreda was a remarkable writers, and as I said in my brief intro about why Open Letter decided to publish this book, she can easily be categorized as one of the great women writers—in the same league as Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, etc.—but that’s actually somewhat limiting. The Time of the Doves, A Broken Mirror, and Death in Spring are three of the greatest novels of the twentieth century and demonstrate the evolution of Rodoreda’s aesthetic and writing style. She never repeated herself, and although there are certain similarities between Time of the Doves and Death in Spring, her artistic ambitions are quite different—almost amazingly so. This constant search for a new way to tell a story is why she’s not just a great woman writer, or one of the best contemporary novels, but one of the all-time Great Writers.

7 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

On Friday, finished copies of Merce Rodoreda’s Death in Spring arrived at our office (along with the equally gorgeous and well-written The Mighty Angel by Jerzy Pilch), and since the PEN World Voices events for Jan Kjaerstad and for Merce Rodoreda are right around the corner, we thought we’d make a special offer to anyone interested in reading these books prior to the PEN events.

So, for the rest of the month, you can get both The Conqueror and Death in Spring for the one low price of $22. Just click here for details.

(The Rodoreda event is also part of Catalan Days, a special celebration of Catalan performing and media arts, literature, and gastronomy taking place in NY from April 15th to May 20th.)

7 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Last Thursday was “Open Letter Day” at the Harvard Crimson, as the university daily newspaper covered three new Open Letter books: The Mighty Angel by Jerzy Pilch, Death in Spring by Merce Rodoreda, and Landscape in Concrete by Jakov Lind. (Typically, these links would be to our Indie Bookstore of the Month, but Shaman Drum’s online catalog doesn’t have listings for these three titles . . . )

Will Fletcher’s review of The Mighty Angel really captures the humor and horror of this book:

he modern literary tradition—in particular, the Lost Generation writers and their contemporaries—has done something curious in romanticizing the throes of alcoholism. Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald were all raging alcoholics and filled their novels with characters who acted likewise. But never before, and rarely today, does a novelist confront addiction so intimately and personally as Jerzy Pilch in his recently translated novel, The Mighty Angel.

It’s unclear for whom the narrative is intended. As the narrator, Jerzy speaks to himself, speaks to his lover, speaks to himself again (this time sober), speaks to the girl in the yellow dress, and—it seems—speaks to us as well. In his own words, he is “writing about you and [he’s] writing about [himself] not only to show that true alcoholic prose does not end in death; it ends in life, and who knows how life will end.” His ambivalence towards alcohol abuse—and, for that matter, toward any direction for his life in general—composes the novel’s substance. This ambiguity forces Jerzy to face a constant struggle: “. . . therapists are striving to bring reality to the point of sobriety, whereas I’m striving to bring reality to the point of literature, and at a certain moment our paths inevitably diverge.”

And Jenny Lee’s praise of Landscape in Concrete is spot-on:

The dreamlike quality of the novel emanates from Lind’s ability to create sparse but symbolic landscapes and to fill them with characters whose simple exteriors incapsulate deeper historical echoes. Of course, the enchanting essence of the story is much more akin to that of the original Grimm stories than their doe-eyed Disney counterparts (it revolves around shocking wartime occurrences) but Lind’s gift for eccentric descriptions of characters and events transforms the more gruesome and explicit scenes into something strangely pallatable. Lind’s descriptions endow the starved, inhuman, and ruthless characters of the war with unreal qualities that make the whole narrative easier to digest.

Unfortunately, you can’t always go three-for-three, and in this case, it was Death in Spring that fell a bit short of Keshava Guha’s expectations:

While reading Death in Spring, Mercè Rodoreda’s final work, it is easy to forget how unlikely the publication of the book is. In Francisco Franco’s anti-Catalan Spain, Rodoreda faced not only suppression and exile but the extinction of her native language. Under Franco, Catalan’s very existence was threatened, banned outright in the public sphere and severely curtailed in the private sphere. In this context, while translations of Spanish language novels achieved worldwide fame and renown in the 1970s and 1980s, Catalan writers remained obscure, even after Franco’s death in 1975, when the ban on Catalan was lifted. With her translation of Death in Spring, Martha Tennent hopes to begin to redress this historic injustice.

How deeply unfortunate, then, that the novel itself cannot live up to the promise of a hidden classic. A brief work of only 150 pages, told in dense four-page episodes, Death in Spring creates a world at once strange and familiar: a nameless town characterized by brutal, gratuitous violence and the prevalence of the bizarre, narrated through an unusual set of eyes—those of a teenage boy. Rodoreda’s narrator is a remarkably dispassionate protagonist, remarking in turns on the macabre and the surreal with unflinching ambivalence.

Nevertheless, here’s one more instance of how the Harvard Crimson is one of the absolute best college newspapers out there. Good taste aside, how many other college papers review three literary titles in one day?

31 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Death in Spring by Merce Rodoreda is probably our biggest book of the spring. I was planning on giving away a few copies of the galley, but the response from reviewers was so overwhelming that we quite literally ran out (we don’t even have a copy in our archive) and even had to send out a few unbound copies.

This novel—which has never before appeared in English—was published posthumously, and has since gone on to become a contemporary classic.

Rodoreda herself is considered to be one of the greatest Catalan writers of all time, and the works of hers that have been previously translated into English—The Time of the Doves, A Broken Mirror, etc.—have strong cult followings. In fact, last summer Leonard Lopate had Sandra Cisneros on his show to talk about Rodoreda.

Well, Death in Spring won’t be available for a few more weeks, but it’s already generating some excitement. Publishers Weekly recently reviewed it, referring to the novel as “marvelously disturbing” (it is!) and praising Martha Tennent’s translation: “The plot, though anemic, has its share of increasingly perverse twists, and the intense lyricism of Rodoreda’s language, captured here by Tennent’s gorgeous translation, makes her grotesque vision intoxicating and haunting.”

Even more exciting than a positive early review is this event on May 2nd that the Ramon Llull Insitut organized, and which stars Jessica Lange:

Saturday, May 2, 8 pm
Death in Spring and The Time of the Doves – Merce Rodoreda
Baryshnikov Arts Center, 450 West 37th Street

The Time of the Doves is the most acclaimed novel by one of Catalonia’s best-loved writers, Mercè Rodoreda (1908-1983), a master when it comes to explain a story with powerful vividness. Before the reading, Martha Tennent and Chad Post will present the latest novel by Mercè Rodoreda to be translated into English: Death in Spring. Read by Jessica Lange. Directed by Joan Ollé

Admission is free
Reservations are required
212-279-4200 / www.ticketcentral.com

Cosponsored by Institut Ramon Llull and Open Letter

(Still can’t believe I get to go onstage just before Jessica Lange . . .)

Looks like Ticket Central just posted the reservation page for this event, so click here for tickets. Based on the number of queries I’ve already received, I suspect tickets are going to go fast . . .

And you can preorder the book from us directly by clicking here. (Unfortunately, since this isn’t available yet, it’s not listed in either our March or April featured Indie stores. But I’m sure if you call your local independent they will reserve/order you a copy.) Or you could subscribe to Open Letter by clicking the box below.

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