18 November 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our reviews section is a piece by George Carroll on two Maurizio de Giovanni books that Europa Editions recently released: Blood Curse and I Will Have Vengeance.

I’ve been hoping to cover more crime books on the site—mainly because there are so many, lots of people, including Tom Roberge, that love these sorts of novels, and because it’s a genre of fiction that I don’t read very often—and thankfully George Carroll agreed to try and review some of these for us.

The first ones he decided to write about are two of the five books by Maurizio de Giovanni that Europa Editions has published. He opens by comparing this series to those from two other famous crime writers:

There are curious similarities in three Italian mystery series, written by Maurizio de Giovanni, Andrea Camilleri, and Donna Leon.

They’re all police procedurals, and all set in Italy: Naples, Sicily, Venice.

The three protagonists are Commissarios: Luigi Ricciardi, Salvo Montalbano, and Guido Brunetti.

They all report to self-serving, social-climbing, ass-covering Questore buffoons: Angelo Garzo, Bonetti-Alderighi, and Patta

Each has a loyal, efficient, well-connected right-hand Sergente / Ispettore / Brigadier: Raffaele Maione, Giuseppe Fazio, Lorenzo Vianello.

And they all have testy, feisty relationships with their forensic pathologists: Doctors Modo, Pasquale, Rizzardi

But this is where most of those similarities end.

Click here to read the full thing.

18 November 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

There are curious similarities in three Italian mystery series, written by Maurizio de Giovanni, Andrea Camilleri, and Donna Leon.1

They’re all police procedurals, and all set in Italy: Naples, Sicily, Venice.

The three protagonists are Commissarios: Luigi Ricciardi, Salvo Montalbano, and Guido Brunetti.

They all report to self-serving, social-climbing, ass-covering Questore buffoons: Angelo Garzo, Bonetti-Alderighi, and Patta

Each has a loyal, efficient, well-connected right-hand Sergente / Ispettore / Brigadier: Raffaele Maione, Giuseppe Fazio, Lorenzo Vianello.

And they all have testy, feisty relationships with their forensic pathologists: Doctors Modo, Pasquale, Rizzardi

But this is where most of those similarities end.

De Giovanni’s Commissario Ricciardi novels are set in 1931 Fascist Italy whereas the other two series are contemporary.

Ricciardi has a neighbor, a muse, who he doesn’t meet until the second book in the series. Montalbano has a girlfriend who appears frequently at the beginning of the series but then gets more and more distant as the series progresses. Brunetti has a relatively happy marriage although his boss’ secretary is a bit of distraction.

Quite a few of Leon’s victims end up floating in canals. Oh, I hate floaters.2 Most of Camilleri’s novels have two incidents or two separate crimes that appear to be unrelated, but come together somewhere along the plotline. And de Giovanni’s Ricciardi has visions, which is the main thing setting this series apart from the others.

Ricciardi sees the last few seconds of the lives of victims’ violent deaths. Many of them lurk in the shadows and aren’t connected to the investigations. A child who fell from a third-story balcony (Can I go down and play?), a man in a barbershop bleeding from a razor cut to the neck (By God, I didn’t touch your wife! ). Gushing blood—there’s a lot of gushing blood.

His visions are a blessing and a curse. The upside is that even though the words the victims speak are enigmatic, they aid in resolution of the crimes. The downside is, well, life sucks when you’re sidestepping grotesque images of dead people all day. His solace comes in the evening when he sits in his room, watching his neighbor across the courtyard doing embroidery.

The tricky, and frustrating, device that de Giovanni uses is mixing up his character’s narratives. Most of the time he identifies who’s speaking or pondering or doing bad things. Other times he doesn’t, which creates red herrings and sends you down dead ends.

I Will Have Vengeance involves the death of an opera tenor, and Blood Curse, the death of an elderly fortune-teller and moneylender. Neither perpetrator is obvious or stereotypical. Both books, yes, read them, but in order.

De Giovanni is a very talented writer. He keeps enough hidden, layers his writing deep enough that the twists and turns come naturally. The books are dark enough to work in Europa’s World Noir series, which thanks to a very aggressive marketing campaign, were on feature tables in most independent bookstores over the summer.

1 Donna Leon has lived in Venice for 25 years, so I’m just going to call her Italian. I’ve lived in Seattle for 25 years and I don’t call myself a Pennsylvanian.

2 A great line and timely line by Coroner Dominic DaVinci in DaVinci’s Inquest.

2 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Santiago Gamboa’s Necropolis, which won the La Otra Orilla Literary Award in 2009, is frustratingly good, inventive, and obsessed with story telling. The premise is simple: An author much like Santiago Gamboa himself, is invited to participate in a literary conference about biography—one that will also be attended by a strange array of guests, including a porn star and an ex-con turned evangelical pastor—that takes place in a besieged Jerusalem. During the conference, the ex-con evangelical—who tells one of the most captivating stories in the book—is found dead of an apparent suicide. Maybe.

What’s interesting/frustrating about this book is that that plot point takes place on page 165, then is interrupted, textually at least, for almost 200 pages as other participants in the conference tell their stories, each of which is intriguing in its own right, but which, for a reader of traditional, conventional books obsessed with pacing, plot points, and building climaxes, must be crazy-making. (But those sorts of readers don’t really read these sorts of books, do they?)

I read this way back in the fall and meant to write up a review back then when all the connections between the various stories in the novel—which, in terms of their themes, ideas, and narrative styles, overlap and play off one another in a beguiling fashion—were still fresh in my mind. Now, I’m just left with the memory that, in contrast to say The Canterbury Tales or The Decameron, this novel is much more circular in its construction, looping back on itself in a way informed by the best of twentieth-century literature.

A lot of people reading this blog probably feel the same way, but god damn is it a good time for Spanish-language literature. Vila-Matas. Gamboa. Neuman. Labbé. Marias. Chejfec. Prieto. Valenzuela. Dozens of writers I can’t think of.

14 September 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Today’s Publishing Perspectives has a special feature on Europa Editions one of the coolest presses out there. It’s mostly an interview with editor (and translator) Michael Reynolds, who recently moved to New York from Rome to work in Europa’s U.S. office.

PP: How would you characterize Europa’s publishing philosophy?

Michael Reynolds: It’s an extension of the original idea of Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola. They started publishing authors from Eastern Europe in Italy about 35 years ago, when very few other publishers were doing so. Europa Editions is an extension of this same idea. Six years ago when the company was founded there were so few non-anglophone authors being published in America. It struck us as a shame that readers had no access to these authors, and, at the same time, it presented itself as a business opportunity.

PP: How have you developed such an avid fan base in such a short time?

MR: We publish for readers. The kinds of books we acquire, the way we package them, the way that we do outreach and try to create a dialogue with our readers, as opposed to publishing for critical acclaim or academic acceptance; we have our readers in mind at every stage of the process. We have been rewarded for this approach by their enthusiasm. Booksellers, too, are a very important part of that. We give them books that they can feel passionate about, that they can be proud to display, and most importantly that they can sell.

PP: How would you describe your readers?

MR: I would probably put them into two groups. There are those who are curious to read something from another country because it is from another country, and then there is a larger group of readers who don’t really care where a book comes from or what language it was written in. They are interested in an entertaining read, food for thought, quality fiction, a strong story — more or less the same things they look for when they chose any book, by an international author or otherwise. There are many publishers doing work in translation that are really good at reaching the first group of readers, but perhaps less expert in reaching the second group.

Click here to read the entire piece.

1 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Adelaide Kuehn on Alina Bronsky’s The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, which is translated from the German by Tim Mohr and available from Europa Editions.

Adelaide is a former intern and translation student, who has written for Three Percent a couple times in the past.

We ran a review a very positive review of Bronsky’s Broken Glass Park back in the day, and I’m really glad we’re finally able to post something on her new book.

Also worth noting that The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine is the 100th book published by Europa Editions—a pretty amazing accomplishment, especially since it seems like just yesterday that they were launching their operation . . . Ah, time . . . Europa’s month long celebration is technically over, but you can read about the festivities here.

On to the review:

“Sulfia wasn’t very gifted. In fact, to be honest, I’d say she was rather stupid. And yet somehow she was my daughter—worse still, my only daughter.”

As her seventeen-year-old daughter sobs on a kitchen stool after confessing she is pregnant with an unknown man’s child, all Rosa can think about is how stupid, pathetic and unfortunate looking her only offspring is at that moment. After overcoming this disgust for her own child, Rosa feels sorry for the girl and takes action. Scalding mustard seed baths, concoctions made of cranberry and stewed laurel leaves and a knitting needle inserted into the abdomen make Sulfia violently ill but fail to take care of her problem. Several months later, Sulfia gives birth to a baby girl named Aminat.

Alina Bronsky’s novel, The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, is the story of a lifetime of manipulations by a mostly, but not always, well-wishing mother. Rosa, the narrator and protagonist of the novel, controls, manipulates and judges everyone around her to get what she wants. She is frustrated by the lazy ineptitude of her daughter and does her best to insure that her grand-daughter does not end up the same way. Rosa believes that her grand-daughter Aminat has escaped her daughter’s bad genes and is on a mission to turn her into the beautiful, intelligent, well-mannered daughter she never had. Rosa takes over full control of the child and goes to great lengths to keep her away from Sulfia’s bad influence.

Rosa believes herself to be a superior being and makes that clear to everyone around her. With psychological domination and a little bribery, Rosa can accomplish anything. Rosa has an unfailing belief in her own actions, appearance, and ability to get people to do what she wants. And to her credit, Rosa almost always gets what she wants regardless of the repercussions for her loved ones. Rosa arranges, and eventually sabotages Sulfia’s three marriages, kidnaps Aminat and sends away Lina, Sulfia’s second daughter and regularly berates Sulfia with criticism about everything from her sloppy appearance to her failings as a mother.

This novel would be supremely depressing if it was not told with Rosa’s hilarious narrative voice. Alina Bronsky brilliantly conveys Rosa’s arrogance and vanity by allowing the reader to experience her thoughts and observations as she moves through the world wreaking havoc.

Read the full review by clicking here.

1 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

“Sulfia wasn’t very gifted. In fact, to be honest, I’d say she was rather stupid. And yet somehow she was my daughter—worse still, my only daughter.”

As her seventeen-year-old daughter sobs on a kitchen stool after confessing she is pregnant with an unknown man’s child, all Rosa can think about is how stupid, pathetic and unfortunate looking her only offspring is at that moment. After overcoming this disgust for her own child, Rosa feels sorry for the girl and takes action. Scalding mustard seed baths, concoctions made of cranberry and stewed laurel leaves and a knitting needle inserted into the abdomen make Sulfia violently ill but fail to take care of her problem. Several months later, Sulfia gives birth to a baby girl named Aminat.

Alina Bronsky’s novel, The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, is the story of a lifetime of manipulations by a mostly, but not always, well-wishing mother. Rosa, the narrator and protagonist of the novel, controls, manipulates and judges everyone around her to get what she wants. She is frustrated by the lazy ineptitude of her daughter and does her best to insure that her grand-daughter does not end up the same way. Rosa believes that her grand-daughter Aminat has escaped her daughter’s bad genes and is on a mission to turn her into the beautiful, intelligent, well-mannered daughter she never had. Rosa takes over full control of the child and goes to great lengths to keep her away from Sulfia’s bad influence.

Rosa believes herself to be a superior being and makes that clear to everyone around her. With psychological domination and a little bribery, Rosa can accomplish anything. Rosa has an unfailing belief in her own actions, appearance, and ability to get people to do what she wants. And to her credit, Rosa almost always gets what she wants regardless of the repercussions for her loved ones. Rosa arranges, and eventually sabotages Sulfia’s three marriages, kidnaps Aminat and sends away Lina, Sulfia’s second daughter and regularly berates Sulfia with criticism about everything from her sloppy appearance to her failings as a mother.

This novel would be supremely depressing if it was not told with Rosa’s hilarious narrative voice. Alina Bronsky brilliantly conveys Rosa’s arrogance and vanity by allowing the reader to experience her thoughts and observations as she moves through the world wreaking havoc. For example, Rosa often congratulates herself for her good looks and impeccable fashion sense:

My son-in-law liked me. It was understandable. I was a handsome woman. In my late forties I still looked as if I were in my mid-thirties at most. My skin was firm and radiant, and I made myself up every morning before I went anywhere—even if it was just to the kitchen. I wore only red and black. I could pull it off.

Rosa’s interactions with her husband Kalganov are also highly amusing. She tolerates him because he has a respectable job working for the government but when he leaves for another woman, Rosa is quite pleased. He still sometimes hangs around the apartment and looks up at Rosa:

Kalganov was good at that: ruining my mood. His presence could cast a shadow over any otherwise splendid moment. The spring day was beginning to fade. The wind no longer felt caressing, but rather treacherous. I closed the window and drew the curtain.

Rosa is happy to be rid of Kalganov because she does not have to carry so many groceries up to the apartment and can feign sadness to get sympathy from Sulfia. Whatever happens, Rosa makes it work to her advantage.

The novel takes place over eighteen years, beginning in 1978 when Aminat is born. The first twelve years are set in Soviet Russia, but when food, water and other goods become scarce, Rosa must formulate a plan to get her family to Germany. The Soviet regime is portrayed in the novel through Rosa’s dealings with hospitals, schools and housing services, all of which rely heavily on bribery and subtle flirting. Rosa eventually cashes in on a German cookbook writer’s inappropriate attraction to a teenage Aminat but convinces the naïve Sulfia that he is really in love with her. With the sponsorship of the German writer, Rosa gets government approval, visas and plane tickets to Germany in hopes of saving her family. While Rosa happily takes advantage of new opportunities in Germany, her family crumbles around her. The tragic ending of the novel is a result of everyone being pushed to, and for some well past, the brink of insanity by the wheeling and dealings of Rosa.

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine is Alina Bronsky’s second novel released by Europa Editions and translated by Tim Mohr. Bronksy’s first novel, Broken Glass Park, was nominated for the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize and The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine received a nomination for the 2010 German Book Prize. The German translation skillfully conveys the humor in the tenuous mother-daughter relationship, as well as the unfortunate irony of Rosa’s attempts at family betterment.

7 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

Click here for all past and future posts.

Hygiene and the Assassin by Amelie Nothomb, translated by Alison Anderson

Language: French
Country: France
Publisher: Europa Editions
Pages: 167

Why This Book Should Win: “I didn’t use to believe in the efficacy of verbal torture. And now as of these last few minutes I’ve started to believe in it.”

This post was written by aspiring German translator and recent University of Rochester graduate, Jen Marquart.

After receiving news that he has a rare form of cancer, Nobel Prize winning author Prétextat Tach decides to grant interviews to five journalists. The first four approach Tach from a straightforward manner—believing to have out smarted former colleagues—to be torn apart, humiliated, sickened and broken. Only with Nina, the fifth journalist, does the obese, grotesque, misogynist author meet his match in a brutal game of verbal wit. By the end of the interview both Nina and Tach have plunged into an inescapable abyss.

With each interview reading as a separate story around the central theme of literary culture (more specifically what it means to be a “good writer/reader” and the politics surrounding the Nobel Prize for Literature) Nothomb, in her powerful first novel, commands a dialogue digging at these issues:

“[…] You have sold millions of copies, even in China, and that doesn’t make you think?”

“Weapons factories sell thousands of missiles the world over every day, and that doesn’t make them think, either.”

“There’s no comparison.”

“You don’t think so? And yet there is a striking parallel. There’s an accumulation, for example: we talk about an arms race, we should talk about a ‘literature race.’ It’s a cogent argument like any other: every nation brandishes its writer or writers as if they were cannons. Sooner or later I too will be brandished, and they’ll prepare my Nobel Prize for battle.”

“If that’s the way you look at it, I have to agree with you. But thank God, literature is less harmful.”

“Not mine. My literature is even more harmful then war.”

“Don’t you think you are flattering yourself there?”

“Well I’m obliged to, because I am the only reader who is capable of understanding me. Yes, my books are more harmful than war, because they make you want to die, whereas war, in fact, makes you want to live. After reading me, people should feel like committing suicide.”

“And how do you explain the fact that they don’t?”

“Well, I can explain it very easily: it is because nobody reads me. Basically, that may also be the reason for my extraordinary success: if I am so famous, my good man, it is because nobody reads me.”

These funny and critical exchanges are taken to a higher level with Nina, who plays Tach’s game equally well, if not better. She plays with his words and calls bullshit on his “Freudian Slips,” all in an attempt to tease out the ‘real’ Prétextat Tach.

With biting witticism and the criticism of literature swirling around the disturbing life of one Nobel Prize author, Hygiene and the Assassin is one of the funniest and most engaging books I have read.

21 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

Click here for all past and future posts.

Hygiene and the Assassin by Amelie Nothomb, translated by Alison Anderson

Language: French
Country: France
Publisher: Europa Editions
Pages: 167

Why This Book Should Win: Europa Editions publishes a ton of translations and deserves a victory; Nothomb was all of 25 when she wrote this; Nothomb has written 20-some-odd books and still doesn’t get the attention she deserves from American readers; She’s coming to Rochester days after the April 29th announcement, and that would be effing awesome if she won; most importantly, she deserves to win because of the passages below and the constant referencing of Celine.

I wrote today’s post.

This novel—Nothomb’s first, publishing in French in 1992, and just now available in English—may be the sharpest, funniest book on this year’s BTBA fiction longlist.

Here’s the basic set-up: Pretexat Tach (what a name!) is a Nobel Prize winning author, who is a recluse, and who is about to die. Because of his impending death, he agrees to be interviewed by a series of journalists, each one as moronic as the last. Tach tortures each of them in turn, berating them, humiliating them, and coming across as a total prick—but one who, despite (or maybe in part because of) his disgusting appearance, thoughts, and rants, is fairly entertaining.

Actually, instead of trying to describe the merits of this book—the way the final journalist undoes Tach, the way the plot feels all piecemeal until the last few moments when all the literary traps are sprung and the plot points braided together in a very tense, exciting way—I’m going to stop here and leave you with a couple examples of Tach’s awesome rants (and Nothomb’s stunning ability to come up with these, and Anderson’s skill at translating them).

Tach on how few people have really read his books:

“Those are the frog-readers. They make up the vast majority of human readers, and yet I only discovered their existence quite late in life. I am so terribly naive. I thought that everyone read the way I do. For I read the way I eat: that means not only do I need to read, but also, and above all, that reading becomes one of my components and modifies them all. You are not the same person depending on whether you have eaten blood pudding or cavier; nor are you the same person depending on whether you have just read Kant (God help us) or Queneau. Well, when I say ‘you,’ I should say ‘I myself and a few others,’ because the majority of people emerge from reading Proust or Simenon in an identical state: they have neither lost a fraction of what they were nor gained a single additional fraction. They have read, that’s all: in the best-case scenario, they know ‘what it’s about.’ And I’m not exaggerating. How often have I asked intelligent people, ‘Did this book change you?’ And they look at me, their eyes wide, as if to say, ‘Why should a book change me?’”

“Allow me to express my astonishment, Monsieur Tach: you have just spoken as if you were defending books with a message, and that’s not like you.”

“You’re not very clever, are you? So are you of the opinion that only books ‘with a message’ can change an individual? These are the books that are the least likely to change them. The books that have an impact, that transform people, are the other ones—books about desire, or pleasure, books filled with genius, and above all books filled with beauty. Let us take, for example, a great book filled with beauty: Journey to the End of the Night. How can you not be transformed after you have read it? Well, the majority of readers manage just that tour de force without difficulty. They will come to you and say, ‘Oh yes, Celine is magnificent,’ and then they go back to what they were doing.”

But really, the best section is this one on how Tach’s books are dangerous, how “writing is harmful”:

“There’s no comparison. Writing is not as harmful.”

“You obviously don’t know what you’re saying, because you haven’t read me—how could you know? Writing fucks things up at every level: think of the trees they’ve had to cut down for the paper, of all the room they have to find to store the books, the money it costs to print them, and the money it will cost potential readers, and the boredom the readers will feel on reading them, and the guilty conscience of the unfortunate people who buy them and don’t have the courage to read them, and the sadness of the kind imbeciles who do read them but don’t understand a thing, and finally, above all, the fatuousness of the conversations that wil take place after said books have been read or not read. And that’s just the half of it! So don’t go telling me that writing is not harmful.”

15 December 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Acacia O’Connor on Valeria Parrella’s For Grace Received, which was published by Europa Editions last fall (which is approximately 7 catalogs in “Publishing Time”) in Antony Shugaar’s translation.

Acacia is one of the MALTS (Masters in Literary Translation Studies) students here at the University of Rochester. (For more info on our programs, click here.) She’s been interning for Open Letter all semester, during which time she came up with a couple killer marketing ideas, including an iPhone app that we need a developer for (it’s an anti-guinea pig game) and a really, really cool idea about reading groups, the physicality of books, and Benjamin Stein’s The Canvas.

She actually wrote this review for another class, for which she was supposed to write a review that really looked at the translation as a translation. Which makes this a really interesting piece.

They say “See Naples and die” (Vedi Napoli e poi mori). I once thought this meant that Naples, bordered on one side by a still-active volcano and the sparkling sea on the other, is so breathtaking that there’s no use searching for anything more beautiful. Not so, a southern Italian corrected me. In Naples you notice every little angle of life: Leopardi’s desert flower growing out of the Vesuvian hillside; sad-faced old women in babushkas living on the ground floors of bent and dirty alleys; desperate Senegalese immigrants scheming to pick the pockets of almost-as-desperate Neapolitan teenagers; the soaring song of the tarantella. After a few days in Naples, you’ve soaked in everything in its chaotic, dirty, beautiful honesty.

[. . .]

The collection consists of just four stories, but together they manage to touch on many of the major obstacles life in Naples—or anywhere else—presents. Okay, so there are some things that life does not thrust upon everybody: stabbings, mob bosses, stints in prison, adulterous affairs, drug trafficking, black market books, black market CDs. But in a certain sense these events are incidental. They are presented matter-of-factly, because for anyone familiar with a certain reality of Naples it truly is a matter of fact. Equally important to Parrella’s stories, however, are the emotional consequences for her characters, who sense the limitations of their lives and grapple with them. A copy shop boy in the story “Siddhartha” who once played guitar beautifully and could again, maybe, someday. The woman who despite having it all, longs for “The Imagined Friend.” They are conscious of Possibility and this awareness is painful.

The challenge Parrella’s work presents the translator is that it is idiomatic and makes use of the local dialect. The narration is conducted in a modern voice of Italian while dialogue makes frequent use of dialect. When I began reading Shugaar’s translation before having read the Italian, I wondered if the author had cut down using dialect in this second book of short stories. Well, yes and no. Neapolitan does appear less frequently, appearing via the use of mo’ (now/_adesso_) and ‘sto (this/_questo_), for example. Where it does appear, however, is practically invisible in translation, indicating that Shugaar has normalized the text, attempting to render it in a single English voice. Not only are they normalized, sometimes dialect phrases or casual comments do not always appear in a similarly casual voice in English, thus seeming overformalized.

Click here to read it all.

15 December 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

They say “See Naples and die” (Vedi Napoli e poi mori). I once thought this meant that Naples, bordered on one side by a still-active volcano and the sparkling sea on the other, is so breathtaking that there’s no use searching for anything more beautiful. Not so, a southern Italian corrected me. In Naples you notice every little angle of life: Leopardi’s desert flower growing out of the Vesuvian hillside; sad-faced old women in babushkas living on the ground floors of bent and dirty alleys; desperate Senegalese immigrants scheming to pick the pockets of almost-as-desperate Neapolitan teenagers; the soaring song of the tarantella. After a few days in Naples, you’ve soaked in everything in its chaotic, dirty, beautiful honesty.

On the copyright page of Valeria Parrella’s For Grace Received there is a note similar to that which is often shown before episodes of Law & Order. “This book is a work of fiction,” it warns. “The characters and events described in these stories are imaginary, but the social and environmental settings that produced them are, on the other hand, quite authentic.” The environment and society we’re dealing with, specifically, is that which you see before dying: Naples, the playground of the Gomorrah, a paradise of contraband. Taken more broadly, it is a profoundly human setting full of characters secretly nursing small hopes. Antony Shugaar’s translation brings us into the lives of these characters in Parrella’s English-language debut.

The collection consists of just four stories, but together they manage to touch on many of the major obstacles life in Naples—or anywhere else—presents. Okay, so there are some things that life does not thrust upon everybody: stabbings, mob bosses, stints in prison, adulterous affairs, drug trafficking, black market books, black market CDs. But in a certain sense these events are incidental. They are presented matter-of-factly, because for anyone familiar with a certain reality of Naples it truly is a matter of fact. Equally important to Parrella’s stories, however, are the emotional consequences for her characters, who sense the limitations of their lives and grapple with them. A copy shop boy in the story “Siddhartha” who once played guitar beautifully and could again, maybe, someday. The woman who despite having it all, longs for “The Imagined Friend.” They are conscious of Possibility and this awareness is painful.

The challenge Parrella’s work presents the translator is that it is idiomatic and makes use of the local dialect. The narration is conducted in a modern voice of Italian while dialogue makes frequent use of dialect. When I began reading Shugaar’s translation before having read the Italian, I wondered if the author had cut down using dialect in this second book of short stories. Well, yes and no. Neapolitan does appear less frequently, appearing via the use of mo’ (now/_adesso_) and ‘sto (this/_questo_), for example. Where it does appear, however, is practically invisible in translation, indicating that Shugaar has normalized the text, attempting to render it in a single English voice. Not only are they normalized, sometimes dialect phrases or casual comments do not always appear in a similarly casual voice in English, thus seeming overformalized:

“Eh”, dice lui, “vabbè, mo’ mandiamo a chiedere ‘sto controllo dei documenti, un’oretta e ce ne andiamo tutti quanti a casa. Per favore però, spegnete i cellulari”.

“Mannaggia”, dico io . . .

The treasury agent here is trying to sound non-chalant, like he has to inspect a copy shop but doesn’t necessarily want to. Vabbè could be alright/fine/whatever/OK, expressing “let’s just get this over with and we’ll all go home.” Here’s Shugaar’s:

“Mmm,” he replies, “well, let’s go ahead and request the document check, just an hour or so, and then we all go home. But, do me a favor please, and turn off your cell phones.”

“Rats,” I say . . .

First of all, what character not appearing on Sesame Street says “rats” these days? Mannaggia, so far as I have always thought of it, is damn or, at its most benign, darn. Secondly, the inspector has become somewhat more formal-sounding. In the Italian he does “request” a “document check,” but the vabbè, mo’ and ‘sto bookend the formality with a buddy-buddy feeling that doesn’t come through at all in the English. Shugaar makes some great choices for colloquial phrases without English equivalents. For example “bloody hell” for the exclamation “_che sangue_” retains both the swear and the blood.

Oddly, the awkward tenor of the dialogue in places is not due to remaining literal to the text. In fact, Shugaar makes choices throughout the novel to streamline the voice in English and make it sound fluid and colloquial. He sometimes adds or subtracts words, apparently for the sake of clarification. While a translator should approach the question of how literal s/he wishes to be on a phrase-by-phrase, or even a word-by-word basis, I frequently wondered why Shugaar would add words in one place when they were extraneous to comprehension and not add them in other awkward places. For example, a conversation about someone who shows up wearing a fur coat in the spring:

“Hello? We’re in the south of Italy. Think! Unless you’re stuck on an Alp, like you are, it’s springtime, next weekend I’m going to Procida . . .”

“Stuck on an Alp?” Just one? I consult the Italian.

“Pronto? Qui è il sud. Capisci? Fuori dall’alpe c’è la primavera, io il prossimo weekend vado a Procida.”

Okay, so it does say “outside the alp” singular rather than the Alps, which is indeed odd, but it also does not say he’s “stuck on it,” nor does it specify that the south is “of Italy.” One might say “we’re in the south of Italy” on the phone, but one might just as well say “This is the south,” which is closer to the source text and would capture the sassiness. Americans would understand the concept of the south being hot from our own geography. In conversation “_capisci_?” is used as we utilize “you know?” or “get/got it?” and in fact Shugaar does treat it this way in other places, leading me to wonder why he has the character call for thinking. If you’re going to totally invent being “stuck on” the mountain and add in “like you are,” why not pluralize Alps?

Is Shugaar trying to improve or clarify the text? Or is he “transmitting [that] feeling of foreigness to his readers” that Schleiermacher talks about in his essay “On the Different Methods of Translation”? With a text like For Grace Received, so full of contemporary idioms, the work of the translator is to absorb what a character says and spit it back out as if it were an average, modern person saying it in the target language. I think Shugaar would agree, but sometimes his choices come out like “rats!”—that is to say a little stale. A twenty-something copy boy in Naples who “_puzza a peste_” (smells really bad, literally like the plague) could say he “stinks to high heavens,” but would he? In America he would probably say he smelled like shit, or smelled terrible. If he says the paper in the copy shop “_fa schifo_,” it could mean the paper is “flimsy” but I would probably read it as “it sucks.”

For the most part, however, Parrella’s characters come through in all their honesty, impatience and vulnerability. They are all looking at holes in their lives, just as the main character of “F.G.R.,” the title story, looks down at a literal hole in her bathroom floor, pieces of plaster crumbling down into her downstairs neighbor’s tub. They catch glimpses at a more complete life, but it would take a lot of renovating to get them there. Perhaps this is an appropriate metaphor for translation: a hole waiting to be repaired. Once it is patched up and smoothed over, it will be an unscarred bathroom floor, but inevitably, before that is realized, some of the original plaster is going to crumble off around the edges.

6 October 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Catherine Bailey on Alina Bronsky’s Broken Glass Park, which was published by Europa Editions in Tim Mohr’s translation.

Catherine Bailey is a new reviewer for us—she’s a writer, artist, and activist from Seattle, WA who is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in English and a Graduate Certificate in Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Rochester. (Hence the connection.) And based on this, I’m hoping she can find some time to write a few more reviews for us . . .

Bronsky is an interesting figure. She was at this year’s PEN World Voices Festival, and her latest book was on the longlist for this year’s German Book Prize. (And I believe is forthcoming from Europa Editions.)

Here’s the opening of the review:

“Sometimes I think I’m the only one in our neighborhood with any worthwhile dreams. I have two, and there’s no reason to be ashamed of either one. I want to kill Vadim. And I want to write a book about my mother.”

So begins Broken Glass Park, the achingly beautiful debut novel by Russian-born Alina Bronsky (a pseudonym). This casual treatment of deeply harbored aggressive fantasies is characteristic of Bronsky’s central protagonist, seventeen-year-old Sascha Naimann, whose thinly veneered emotional turbulence reflects the collective restlessness of the inner city housing “projects” in which the story unfolds, and in which Bronsky herself lived for a time. Like Sascha, Bronsky emigrated from Russia to Germany during early adolescence and experienced the life ascribed to those residing in a small, peripheral community suffering from economic disadvantage, cultural displacement, and linguistic marginalization. But while Bronsky’s family found its way out of the projects, the Naimanns remain, resulting in tragic consequences that span generations.

The source of Sascha’s venomous hatred for Vadim is swiftly revealed: an abusive figure from the start, he murdered her mother one night in a fit of rage before the very eyes of Sascha and her two younger half-siblings. The novel opens approximately two years after the slaughter, and though Vadim is behind bars for his insidious crime, the horror of this loss is no less fresh—nor forgivable—in the mind of the protagonist, who also serves as the narrator. As Sascha’s inner monologue winds its way, somewhat disjointedly, through reminiscences of the days before her mother’s death, the profound intellectual rigor and thoughtful, psychological gravity to which the young woman was predisposed become apparent; yet, simultaneously, so does the fact that she has since devoted these energies toward the singular objective of her stepfather’s demise, for which she waits with an infinite and calculating patience. Sascha’s roiling detestation of Vadim and consequently, of all men, is kept in check only by the layer of pointed apathy with which she meets the rest of life. At one point Sascha muses, “A Russian children’s poem comes to mind: ‘My nerves are made of steel, no, actually, I don’t have any at all.’ It’s like it was written about me. I don’t have any.” She is as a walking corpse, disdainful of the petty tribulations saddling the people in her life, kept alive only by her ardent desire to bring death to her stepfather and a symbolic resurrection to her mother through the immortal act of writing.

Click here to read the full review.

6 October 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

“Sometimes I think I’m the only one in our neighborhood with any worthwhile dreams. I have two, and there’s no reason to be ashamed of either one. I want to kill Vadim. And I want to write a book about my mother.”

So begins Broken Glass Park, the achingly beautiful debut novel by Russian-born Alina Bronsky (a pseudonym). This casual treatment of deeply harbored aggressive fantasies is characteristic of Bronsky’s central protagonist, seventeen-year-old Sascha Naimann, whose thinly veneered emotional turbulence reflects the collective restlessness of the inner city housing “projects” in which the story unfolds, and in which Bronsky herself lived for a time. Like Sascha, Bronsky emigrated from Russia to Germany during early adolescence and experienced the life ascribed to those residing in a small, peripheral community suffering from economic disadvantage, cultural displacement, and linguistic marginalization. But while Bronsky’s family found its way out of the projects, the Naimanns remain, resulting in tragic consequences that span generations.

The source of Sascha’s venomous hatred for Vadim is swiftly revealed: an abusive figure from the start, he murdered her mother one night in a fit of rage before the very eyes of Sascha and her two younger half-siblings. The novel opens approximately two years after the slaughter, and though Vadim is behind bars for his insidious crime, the horror of this loss is no less fresh—nor forgivable—in the mind of the protagonist, who also serves as the narrator. As Sascha’s inner monologue winds its way, somewhat disjointedly, through reminiscences of the days before her mother’s death, the profound intellectual rigor and thoughtful, psychological gravity to which the young woman was predisposed become apparent; yet, simultaneously, so does the fact that she has since devoted these energies toward the singular objective of her stepfather’s demise, for which she waits with an infinite and calculating patience. Sascha’s roiling detestation of Vadim and consequently, of all men, is kept in check only by the layer of pointed apathy with which she meets the rest of life. At one point Sascha muses, “A Russian children’s poem comes to mind: ‘My nerves are made of steel, no, actually, I don’t have any at all.’ It’s like it was written about me. I don’t have any.” She is as a walking corpse, disdainful of the petty tribulations saddling the people in her life, kept alive only by her ardent desire to bring death to her stepfather and a symbolic resurrection to her mother through the immortal act of writing.

And yet, as the text carries on, we see that this is not so. Unbeknownst to Sascha, she is, in fact, a caring sister, a dedicated (if outwardly exasperated) friend, and a wellspring of sensual emotion. Through a fortuitously placed newspaper article, Sascha encounters Volker Trebur, the mysteriously alluring city section editor, and his son Felix. A complicated web of relationships develops between the three, revealing nuances of Sascha’s tenderness even as it demonstrates the extent of the damage done to her ability to give and receive love by the trauma she has sustained. Ultimately a character study, Broken Glass Park offers a poignant and telling portrait of the human condition through Sascha: she is furious, she is helpless; at times she is downright ugly, yet her compassion delivers others from pain. She is broken, and in struggling to repair herself, she often does nothing but widen the cracks in the pane of her fragile existence. Bronsky’s gift for subtle characterization makes Sascha a sympathetic, frustrating, and compellingly imperfect heroine.

Interestingly, Broken Glass Park is not composed of individual chapters; rather, it flows continuously. This stylistic choice greatly enhances the content of the novel, given that Sascha’s thoughts and perceptions are expressed in the present tense. The uninterrupted flow of the text allows for a seamless blending of the protagonist’s immediate moods and sensations with her tangential, introspective narration of actual past and imagined future. Reading Broken Glass Park is, at times, much like listening to someone think aloud—the free association so structurally important to the character’s voice leads to revelations far more significant than any dialogue would provide (though on the occasions in which it arises, Bronsky’s dialogue is solid). Moreover, the unceasing progression of the plot as told through Sascha’s eyes lends thrust to the ubiquitous sense of agitated ennui that permeates her fractured urban community. Its inhabitants are desperate for their various reasons, but escape seems distant if plausible at all. The droning of the narrator’s voice invites readers to participate, if only vicariously, in the relentless aimlessness of a journey devoid of destination—a phenomenon felt on a societal level by the impoverished immigrants of the projects, and on a personal level by Sascha’s cavernous depression. The text does not blink, so to speak, and the device is potent. There is no relieving respite from the imposition of the next heavy thought, the next unpleasant memory. There is nothing to do, in light of Sascha’s tragedy, and in light of the many unsung episodes of the troubled population around her, but to continue.

Among the novel’s most engaging themes is Sascha’s relationship with the polarities of her own emotional development. Though she condemns her mother’s gentle nature as the source of her downfall and swears to despise all men, Sascha finds herself drawn into various avenues of romantic and sexual experimentation. In her approach to these predominantly bumbling attempts at connection, she is at once mature beyond her years and alarmingly naïve. Likewise, her efforts to harden her heart for the task of exacting revenge on Vadim are counteracted by her role as a nurturing maternal figure to her young siblings and even her legal guardian, who is in many ways a child. By sending Sascha swinging, pendulum-like, between the forces of self-desecration and self-preservation, Bronsky implies that there are no absolute paths to personal fulfillment. In illustrating this tension throughout the entirety of her work, the author has given us a noteworthy body of ideas to contemplate long after the final page is turned.

Broken Glass Park, released by Europa Editions and translated by Tim Mohr, is a captivating and unsettling read. It was recently nominated for the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, a distinguished award in Europe, and with its delicate treatment of the existential complexities surrounding the perpetuation of violence and the salvation of acceptance, it is likely to garner much more critical acclaim.

30 September 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Larissa Kyzer on Laurence Cosse’s A Novel Bookstore, which is available from Europa Editions in Alison Anderson’s translation.

Larissa reviews for us on a regular basis, when she’s not learning various languages, writing for L Magazine, or reading Scandinavian lit . . . She’s a smart reviewer, and this look at Cosse’s novel is interesting both in its praise and criticisms. Here’s the opening of her review:

“Who should we see at the police to denounce attacks against literature?” Such is the question that two bookstore owners—one an elegant heiress, the other a self-educated, solitary, bohemian bookseller—solemnly pose at the opening of French author Laurence Cossé’s satirical biblio-thriller, A Novel Bookstore. Both avid and opinionated readers, Francesca Aldo-Valbelli and Ivan (Van) Georg embarked on an entirely idealistic enterprise—to open The Good Novel, “a perfect bookstore, the kind where you’d sell nothing but good novels.” Their inventory selection process was complex and clandestine: a panel of eight unidentified novelists—each with their own code name, such as “Quinoa” and “Strait-laced,” or “The Red” and “Green Pea”—would generate lists of titles to be stocked. Books on hand would be old and new, from countries worldwide. However, The Good Novel would not fall prey to current publishing trends, and would not depend on forthcoming novels or best sellers—“books not worth bothering with”—to make a profit.

The Good Novel had a fabulous debut, but its unfettered success was not to last. Shortly after its opening, the store faced a sudden onslaught of attacks. Vitriolic opinion pieces declaring the store’s mission to sell only good books as “totalitarian” were published in newspapers. Malicious customers arrived in hordes, ordering Danielle Steele books they never planned to pay for. Most shocking, three of the members of the secret selection committee were not only identified, but violently attacked by mysterious strangers who pointedly taunted them: “It’s like being in a bad crime novel, huh. . . . ? With vulgar characters and a stupid plot . . . So this isn’t a good novel, huh?”

Click here to read the full piece.

30 September 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

“Who should we see at the police to denounce attacks against literature?” Such is the question that two bookstore owners—one an elegant heiress, the other a self-educated, solitary, bohemian bookseller—solemnly pose at the opening of French author Laurence Cossé’s satirical biblio-thriller, A Novel Bookstore. Both avid and opinionated readers, Francesca Aldo-Valbelli and Ivan (Van) Georg embarked on an entirely idealistic enterprise—to open The Good Novel, “a perfect bookstore, the kind where you’d sell nothing but good novels.” Their inventory selection process was complex and clandestine: a panel of eight unidentified novelists—each with their own code name, such as “Quinoa” and “Strait-laced,” or “The Red” and “Green Pea”—would generate lists of titles to be stocked. Books on hand would be old and new, from countries worldwide. However, The Good Novel would not fall prey to current publishing trends, and would not depend on forthcoming novels or best sellers—“books not worth bothering with”—to make a profit.

The Good Novel had a fabulous debut, but its unfettered success was not to last. Shortly after its opening, the store faced a sudden onslaught of attacks. Vitriolic opinion pieces declaring the store’s mission to sell only good books as “totalitarian” were published in newspapers. Malicious customers arrived in hordes, ordering Danielle Steele books they never planned to pay for. Most shocking, three of the members of the secret selection committee were not only identified, but violently attacked by mysterious strangers who pointedly taunted them: “It’s like being in a bad crime novel, huh. . . . ? With vulgar characters and a stupid plot . . . So this isn’t a good novel, huh?”

While the novel flirts with the mystery genre, it ultimately defies such classification. Starting much like a thriller, A Novel Bookstore quickly steps back, exploring—in great detail—Francesca and Van’s first meeting, their histories, and their debates on everything from Pierre Michon to whether the store’s inventory should be organized alphabetically, chronologically, or geographically (they opt for combination of the three). Cossé also playfully manipulates the narration, starting the story in third person, and then revealing an unnamed first person narrator who is actually a character in the story as well.

Each character is precisely articulated, with personalized quirks and gestures and even wardrobes. Cossé observes the smallest details—such as a hole in the elbow of a favorite sweater—and imbues them with meaning. These characterizations, combined with such explicit details about preparations to open the bookstore, immerse one in a world that feels entirely real. The thriller aspect of the novel falls to the wayside, with its eventual explanation feeling almost irrelevant to the real meat of the book. Reveling in minutia, occasionally overwrought declarations of literary superiority (Cormac McCarthy is consistently touted the greatest living writer), and piquant asides on the state of literary criticism in France, Cossé seems to have created an ideal shaggy dog story: it’s not really a matter of what “happens” or doesn’t, as the case may be, but simply immersing oneself among these characters.

As the novel progresses, however, this verisimilitude gives way to a much more fictional fiction—a plot-driven, theatrical dénouement that feels strangely out of step with the rest of the novel. Suspicions that The Good Novel is the victim of a greater “conspiracy”—wrought by members of the greater (very cynical) literary community—are actually well founded. And as the trials and tribulations faced by the bookstore and its denizens become more and more dramatic and outlandish, so do the characters’ responses. “With all due allowance, something happened here that is comparable to what happened with Al Qaeda and its consequences,” the policeman investigating The Good Novel attacks remarks.

It seems clear that the dramatic shift in tone at the end of the novel is intended to symbolically illustrate Cossé’s pet moral: that mainstream society only has a literary appetite for banal bestsellers, and that “lazy and frivolous” critics and journalists are in great part to blame for this mediocre taste.“They heap praise on books that are nothing but fluff, and in the rush they overlook real jewels,” we’re told. But maybe there is a bit of a wink in the self-righteous exclamations of the downtrodden booksellers. Cossé is, after all, a journalist herself. In the end, perhaps the greatest strength of A Novel Bookstore is to simply compel readers to consider their own literary preferences more consciously. For as Van says, “one of the most fortunate purposes of literature is to bring like-minded people together and get them talking.”

19 August 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Erin O’Rourke on Leïla Marouane’s The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris, which was translated from the French by Alison Anderson and published by Europa Editions earlier this year.

Erin O’Rourke has been interning with us all summer, reading a lot of the Italian books that were passed along thanks to our recent visit to the Torino International Book Fair. In her own words, she is an aspiring crazy cat lady, and is currently on a plane to San Francisco. (These two statements are unrelated. Maybe.)

She like the book quite a bit, and it does sound really interesting:

In four novels and a collection of short stories, Leïla Marouane has become a voice for the Algerian women’s rights movement, exploring themes of marriage, sex, and identity in the context of the religious and cultural divide of the Maghreb/Western Europe region. She fearlessly takes on the taboo, as her skill with comedy renders even the most troubling political or religious issues accessible. Born in Algeria in 1960, Marouane escaped persecution towards her writing by moving to Paris in 1990. This is her second novel to be translated into English, following The Abductor, which was published by Quartet Books in the UK almost a decade ago.

With The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris—vividly translated by Alison Anderson—Marouane skillfully constructs a light, comedic plot behind which hides a dizzying maze of questions that, like an Escher staircase, form an endless loop. The story starts out as a comedy of errors starring Mohamed Ben Mokhtar, an Algerian immigrant living in a Paris suburb who is also a forty-year-old virgin. Once a devout Muslim, Mohamed has left the faith and decided to free himself from his oppressively devoted mother by moving to Paris and Westernizing himself. He changes his name to Basile Tocquard, lightens his skin and straightens his hair, and sets out to become a famous poet and seduce as many blonde women as he possibly can. The results are hilarious, as in this great passage in which Mohamed naively plans out his new apartment:

For that passage, and the rest of the review, click here.

19 August 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [4]

In four novels and a collection of short stories, Leïla Marouane has become a voice for the Algerian women’s rights movement, exploring themes of marriage, sex, and identity in the context of the religious and cultural divide of the Maghreb/Western Europe region. She fearlessly takes on the taboo, as her skill with comedy renders even the most troubling political or religious issues accessible. Born in Algeria in 1960, Marouane escaped persecution towards her writing by moving to Paris in 1990. This is her second novel to be translated into English, following The Abductor, which was published by Quartet Books in the UK almost a decade ago.

With The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris—vividly translated by Alison Anderson—Marouane skillfully constructs a light, comedic plot behind which hides a dizzying maze of questions that, like an Escher staircase, form an endless loop. The story starts out as a comedy of errors starring Mohamed Ben Mokhtar, an Algerian immigrant living in a Paris suburb who is also a forty-year-old virgin. Once a devout Muslim, Mohamed has left the faith and decided to free himself from his oppressively devoted mother by moving to Paris and Westernizing himself. He changes his name to Basile Tocquard, lightens his skin and straightens his hair, and sets out to become a famous poet and seduce as many blonde women as he possibly can. The results are hilarious, as in this great passage in which Mohamed naively plans out his new apartment:

I determined where the bookshelf would go, along with the desk, facing the window, above the foliage that would inspire poetry to make Antonin Artaud and Octavio Paz week in unison in their graves, and then of course the bed, maybe a palatial king-size, where I would roll about with creatures to tempt angels and demons alike; a bathroom in tones of green and yellow, two sinks side by side, an oval tub that could easily seat two adults and into which I would plunge each of my future conquests and myself along with them; a separate toilet with a bookshelf that went right to the ceiling, where I would place my collections of Diplo and Politics, my graphic novels, and the girlie magazines I intended to acquire . . .

However, Basile (also called Mohamed, and sometimes Momo) is something of a paradox: although he claims that he only has eyes for Western women, the women he becomes involved with are all Muslim, Algerian, and just the sort of woman his mother would approve of. Each of these women inevitably thwarts Mohamed’s plans to bed them, leaving him continually frustrated. As time wears on and Mohamed’s “conquests” multiply—he is always certain that a wild night of sexual abandon is right around the corner—we begin to question Mohamed’s reliability as a narrator. He starts to lose chunks of time, staying up all night entertaining his girlfriends—or does he?—and sleeping all afternoon. Then, suddenly, he jumps ahead three months as though it were the next day. A mysterious writer, Loubna Minbar (or Louisa Machindel, or is it Lisa Martinez?) appears as a common link between everyone Mohamed meets. A manuscript Mohamed believes to be written by her appears in his apartment, throwing the reality of the events of the entire story into question.

For the unobservant reader, it would be easy enough to miss the clues that Marouane—who coincidentally shares the same initials as the mysterious writer—has sprinkled throughout the story, details that seem too murky and puzzling for such a lighthearted, frivolous story. Even so, it would be impossible to escape a growing suspicion that Mohamed is not really the narrator but the protagonist in someone else’s story. Each chapter begins in the other writer’s voice, saying “he said,” before returning to Mohamed’s narrative; every so often Mohamed addresses an unnamed figure in the second person; and he is reading a novel called The Sultan of Saint-Germain that seems to be based on his cousin’s life, or even his own. The central mystery revolves around the chameleon-like Loubna Minbar, who may or may not be Mohamed’s concierge, and who exacts her revenge on men by stealing their life stories for her novels and driving them mad in the process. Because, while Marouane’s novel masquerades as a man’s story, it’s really a story about women, about the countless Algerian women who have had to make the humiliating journey to freedom in the Western world on the currency of their wits and their bodies. Ignored by Mohamed in his quest for sexual liberation, they become the heroines of the story, enjoying the same freedom that eludes him. As their stories cleverly illustrate, it may be a man’s world, but women get the last laugh.

Like its title, The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris intends to provoke. And if you’re not careful it may also send you in circles, trying to get to the bottom of that staircase. As one of Marouane’s characters warns Mohamed, “Just reading her is enough to send you round the bend.”

11 August 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Grant Barber on Carmine Abate’s The Homecoming Party, translated from the Italian by Antony Shugaar and published by Europa Editions.

In his own words, Grant Barber is “an Episcopal priest living on the south shore of Boston and a keen bibliophile. Maybe by the time he retires his Spanish will be good enough to try his own translations of Latin American fiction.”

As Grant mentions in his review, Abate’s Between Two Seas is also available from Europa Editions, and was also translated by Antony Shugaar. (Antony is a member of the Europa Edition All Star Translator team. Along with Alison Anderson, I think he’s translated approximately 75 books for Europa this year. Crazy.)

Anyway, here’s the opening of Grant’s review:

This short novel (171 pages) continues Europa’s practice of bringing interesting contemporary fiction from writers of Europe. What commends this novel most is the author’s voice underlying the first person accounts of Marco, a 13 year old Albanian- Italian boy living in a small southern Italy town, and his father who is a migrant laborer in France. Tullio, the father, returns home for a succession of Christmas celebrations, which anchor the novel’s unfolding time. Carmine Abate must be well served by Antony Shugaar, the translator of this novel (and Abate’s novel Between Two Seas, also published by Europa): the story confidently unfolds at a steady, gentle pace, with some loops forwards and backwards as the reader pieces together all the events.

Click here to read the full review.

11 August 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

This short novel (171 pages) continues Europa’s practice of bringing interesting contemporary fiction from writers of Europe. What commends this novel most is the author’s voice underlying the first person accounts of Marco, a 13 year old Albanian- Italian boy living in a small southern Italy town, and his father who is a migrant laborer in France. Tullio, the father, returns home for a succession of Christmas celebrations, which anchor the novel’s unfolding time. Carmine Abate must be well served by Antony Shugaar, the translator of this novel (and Abate’s novel Between Two Seas, also published by Europa): the story confidently unfolds at a steady, gentle pace, with some loops forwards and backwards as the reader pieces together all the events.

Abate creates believable characters not just of Marco and Tullio, but also Marco’s teenaged half-sister Elisa (the daughter of Tullio and his first, deceased wife), Marco’s best friend and cousin Mario, as well as glimpses of Marco’s younger sister, mother, and grandmother. The remaining, significant character is a somewhat mysterious older man who becomes in separate encounters a love interest of Elisa, and an almost mythical male adult figure for Marco during a long absence of his father. In fact underneath the specific characters are recognizably archetypal people and events: the boy just coming into adolescence observing the young woman discovering her sexuality, a powerfully important but absent father, a faithful dog companion, descent into grave sickness and return to health with an altered awareness, passing time marked by religious/mythical annual events, the final crisis when the mysterious man transgresses too far into the lives of the family and Marco’s resultant action.

To Abate’s credit these motifs do not mean a too-predictable story. Rather, the narrative pace holds the reader’s attention and elicits an investment in what happens. Part of the appeal of the novel is the growing sense that we are in familiar territory, but with a fresh telling, a slice of life in all it particulars well drawn. This book is an easy night’s read, smooth, sophisticated, generous hearted.

14 July 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All sounds very wild, and very cool.

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

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

25 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

So, on top of articles in the Chronicle and the New Yorker, there was a third moment for translation that took place last week—The Elegance of the Hedgehog has now been on the NY Times Bestseller list for 52-weeks. From the Europa Editions website:

Five years ago, when we opened Europa Editions, people seemed to think we’d lost our minds. We came from a decades-long experience as independent publishers in Italy, and the idea that we would go risking our reputations, and the economic well-being of our Italian house by opening an independent press in America, one largely dedicated to fiction in translation, struck many friends and colleagues as mere foolhardiness, or perhaps the early signs of nascent senility. And maybe it was. But the idea that so many exceptional writers from abroad were not making their way to American readers due to resistance from the publishing industry itself, resistance that is as hard to explain as it is to overcome, was a siren song too seductive and intriguing to ignore. We founded Europa Editions with the idea of publishing quality fiction and non-fiction, much of it by foreign authors who were not otherwise being considered by the majority of American houses. Our project was as much a cultural enterprise as a business venture. We were convinced that dialogue between nations and cultures was more important than ever, and that this exchange was facilitated by literature chosen not only for its ability to entertain and fascinate, but also to inform and enlighten. We remain true to this ideal today. [. . .]

Three years ago we read and acquired a book that is today celebrating one year (its first year?) on the New York Times best seller list: the unassuming story of a French concierge and a young girl who become friends. Beautifully written, with a sprinkle of philosophy, the book had just begun to receive attention in France. Its author was a relatively unknown professor of philosophy at a small school in Normandy. We knew as we began reading this book that we were on to something big. But we could never have imagined how big, nor dream that anything like what has happened would indeed happen.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog has been read by well over half a million people in America since its publication in September 2008. Naturally, not all of them have loved it, but those who have speak about it—on blogs and web sites, in reading groups, with booksellers, and in messages sent to its publisher—as a life-changing book, one that, for the beauty of its writing and the story it tells, has moved them deeply. It is difficult and potentially ruinous to examine too closely the anatomy of a bestseller. All we are inclined to say about The Elegance of the Hedgehog and the characteristics that have made of it a best seller is that the book has touched a nerve in readers; its message responds to a need that apparently is widely felt at this moment. And not only by American readers: wherever it has been published, readers have embraced this remarkable book. It has sold over two million copies in France, one million in Italy, and millions more in the thirty odd countries in which it has been published. Much of this success has come about not through sophisticated or costly publicity, not through the designs of some marketing wizard, but simply by word of mouth: readers talking with other readers about a book they loved.

Congrats to Muriel Barbery, Alison Anderson, and Europa Editions!

21 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Winter issue of Tin House is now available, and includes an interesting interview Heather Hartley conducted with French Belgian Japanese cosmopolitan writer Amelie Nothomb. Hartley’s intro does a great job in pointing out the huge difference between Nothomb’s popularity in the States (despite being published by New Directions, Picador, and Europa, she’s relatively unknown) and her cult-like popularity in France.

Every year since the 1992 publication of her award-winning first novel, Hygiéne de l’assassin (forthcoming in English, as Hygiene and the Assassin, from Europa Editions in Fall 2010), Amélie Nothomb has published one novel a year, brought out in high style each September during la rentrée, when the most sought-after books appear on the French market. Her publishing house, Albin Michel, opens its season with her book launch. Her novels have been translated into over thirty languages, including eleven in English, and her awards include the Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française, the Prix René-Fallet, the Prix Alain-Fournier (twice), the Grand Prix Jean-Giono, and many others.

She’s a phenomenon in France. In the tradition of Dead heads, groupies called “les Péplautes” (their name derives from her 1996 novel, Péplum) devote a good portion of their lives to following Nothomb from reading to reading, attending her lectures, and keeping up with the latest details of her peregrinations. But Amélie Nothomb is not French. The daughter of Belgian diplomats, she was born in Kobe, Japan, and spent a large portion of her childhood abroad in China, Laos, Bangladesh, Burma, and back in Japan. Many of these experiences are an integral part of her novels.

And since Tokyo Fiancee is a 2010 Best Translated Book nominee, it only seems fitting to quote this part of the interview:

Heather Hartley: In Tokyo Fiancée, you write, “the worst accidents in life are linguistic.” You play on the double meaning of the word “maîtresse” [which in French can mean either “teacher” or “mistress”], the Japanese notion “to play” [very different than the French literal meaning of “jouer,” to play], and the difficult, absolutely inescapable concept in French of “you”: the informal tutoiement or formal vouvoiement. What is born in the parenthesis between a misunderstanding and the right word?

Amelie Nothomb: Nothing is more difficult than finding le mot juste. And in fact contemplation and reflection are not enough.

[In Tokyo Fiancée,] what happens between the first major misunderstanding—the marriage proposal [regarding the two protagonists] that ends up in a huge misinterpretation—and the end of the book [where the two meet up in very different circumstances], is time. It took seven years between these two events.

Nothing replaces the work of time. The biggest discovery in life—and I’m speaking of life in the sense how we live it every day, where each one of us might live, let’s say, maybe eighty years—the biggest discovery in life is time.

Time can appear at first to be the principal enemy. When you’re young, you understand that time is going to go by, pass in front of you, through you. That it will destroy you, destroy your childhood, the things important to you. And it’s true that time destroys a tremendous amount of things. And to survive this is very difficult.

I remember when I was fourteen I declared that time was the worst enemy of all. And that . . . well . . . and that now, looking down from the heights of my great age, I don’t think it’s as easy as that. Yes, time is an enemy, but it is not just the enemy, time is the main, essential discovery we can make in our life, beginning with the moment where you discover this other dimension of it.

You know who your friends are after twenty years. It takes twenty years of friendship with someone to know the worth of friendship. And this, nothing can replace. Not even the most beautiful words or the most important promises—all of that is worth nothing. It is only time that can say if it’s a true friendship.

So what enables you to find le mot juste is time.

HH: Mark Twain said, “humor is tragedy plus time.”

AN: Brilliant! That’s exactly it.

[Via Literary Saloon, via Maud Newton.]

15 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Registration is open for next month’s European Book Club, in which Italy is the focus country, and the title being discussed is Stefano Benni’s Margherita Dolce Vita, which was translated by Anthony Shugaar and published by Europa Editions.

Stefano Benni’s enormously popular and distinctive mix of the absurd and the satirical has made him one of Italy’s best-loved novelists. This is his twelfth bestselling book of fiction. Fifteen-year-old Margherita lives with her eccentric family on the outskirts of town, a semi-urban wilderness peopled by gypsies, illegal immigrants, and no end of bizarre characters: a reassuring and fertile playground for an imaginative little girl like Margherita. But one day, a gigantic, black cube shows up next door. Her new neighbors have arrived, and they’re destined to ruin everything.

Over at the Europa Editions website, there’s a recap of an event with Benni and author Jonathan Coe, which includes this bit on Benni’s influences:

Coe spoke of his appreciation of Benni’s comedy in Margherita Dolce Vita. In its criticism of mindless consumerism it reminded him of the comedy of Jacques Tati in the films Playtime and Mon Oncle. Reacting, Benni said he admired Tati, but for him a much greater influence was Dario Fo.

Benni described how writing Margherita Dolce Vita came about; he met young girls who found it difficult to be non conformist at school, which led him to reflect on how life must be these days for an intelligent young girl.

The Europa Editions site also has a video of Benni reading in Italian.

There are two Book Club sessions: you can register for the one on May 11th at 6pm at the Istituto Italiano di Cultura (686 Park Avenue, between 68th and 69th Streets) by e-mailing italy.nyc [at] europeanbookclub [dot] org, and you can register for the May 19th one taking place at 7pm in the Central Library at Grand Army Plaza, Brooklyn by e-mailing eurobook [at] brooklynpubliclibrary [dot] org

27 February 09 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments [2]

This is a few days old already, but our friends at Europa Editions had a nice write up in the Times:

Some larger publishers are starting to envy Europa’s selection and its frankly retro publishing model. Mr. Carroll “finds things, picks things up for a little bit of money and makes a lot out of them,” said Jonathan Galassi, publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. “Most of publishing was once that way. It wasn’t about big money so much. He’s sort of preserving the old values of it’s-all-about-the-book and connecting the book with readers.”

(nodding)

2 December 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We just posted a review by Monica Carter of Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Europa Editions), translated from the French by Alison Anderson.

Monica works at Skylight Books in Los Angeles, and runs the phenomenal blog Salonica — Exploit. Explore. Examine., which is dedicated to international literature. She recently visited Paris, and has a series of posts reviewing Parisian books (including Toussaint’s The Bathroom, Fabre’s The Waitress Was New, Bouillier’s The Mystery Guest, and Queneau’s _The Last Days). Definitely worth checking out on a daily basis. . . .

Well, in terms of the review of Barbery’s novel, here’s the opening of Monica’s review:

Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, her sophomore effort after a well-received debut Une Gourmandaise (The Craving), is the perfect introductory foray into those neophytes who consider the world of translated fiction intimidating. It is erudite while being accessible, intellectual as well as sweet, stylistic without pandering to the reader. And all this would seemingly make for a perfect novel that has not only sold well in Barbery’s native France, but also will sell well here in the United States. If you are looking for prototypes of “commercial novel,” look no further than this. [Click here for the rest.]

2 December 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, her sophomore effort after a well-received debut Une Gourmandaise (The Craving), is the perfect introductory foray into those neophytes who consider the world of translated fiction intimidating. It is erudite while being accessible, intellectual as well as sweet, stylistic without pandering to the reader. And all this would seemingly make for a perfect novel that has not only sold well in Barbery’s native France, but also will sell well here in the United States. If you are looking for prototypes of “commercial novel,” look no further than this.

Barbery introduces not one, but two narrators that are both extremely intelligent and coincidentally reside in the same building at 7, rue de Grenelle (that’s the Left Bank, for those of you not in the Parisian geographical know). First we meet Renée Michel, the fifty-four self-described unattractive but autodidactic concierge who hides her intelligence from the privileged and oblivious tenants of her building. Then we meet Paloma Josse, a precocious twelve-year-old genius who lives with her family on the second floor and despises their wealth and petty distractions of upper-class French society. Driven to fatalism by her inane family and their motives as rich buffoons, and also by the idea of her dismal future which is due only to “all this good fortune and all this wealth,” Paloma decides that the only thing to do on her thirteenth birthday is kill herself and set fire to the apartment which her family loves so dearly. Quite a dour outlook for a twelve year-old who is “supersmart and gifted in her studies and different from everyone else.” So we have alternating über-intelligent narrators that are disregarded by the preoccupied wealthy inhabitants of the building. But Barbery has the narrators present themselves as stereotypes, so as to not be suspected of fulfilling any expectations, as we witness early on in the novel with Renée:

Because I am rarely friendly—though always polite—I am not liked, but am tolerated nonetheless: I correspond so very well to what social prejudice has collectively construed to be a typical French concierge that I am one of the multiple cogs that make the great universal illusion turn, the illusion according to which life has a meaning that can be easily deciphered. And since it has been written somewhere that concierges are old, ugly and sour, so it has been branded in fiery letters on the pediment of that same imbecilic firmament that the aforementioned concierges have rather large dithering cats who sleep all day on cushions that have been covered in crochet cases.

And similarly with Paloma:

Well, the fact is I am very intelligent. Exceptionally intelligent, in fact. Even now, if you look at children my age, there’s an abyss. And since I don’t really want to stand out, and since intelligence is very highly rated in my family—an exceptionally gifted child would never have a moment’s peace—I try to scale back my performance at school, but even so I always come first. You might think that to pretend to be simply of average intelligence when you are twelve years old like me and have the level of a senior college is easy. Well, not at all. It really takes an effort to appear stupider than you are.

And while Renée and Paloma try to appear as French stereotypes, what becomes the most stereotypical is Barbery’s flat, broad representation of “the rich” whose presence is merely to provide an unlikeable nemesis for our two narrators. Perhaps it is necessary to understand the nuances of Parisian classism, but the self-consumed wealthy elitist is known in all societies and gives us a hollow, stock cliché that isn’t quite believable. It serves Renée’s character better than Paloma’s—precisely because there is a class difference, which is deftly handled when Renée remembers her husband’s passing:

Lucien’s illness didn’t strike anyone as being worthy of interest. To reach people it must seem that the hoi polloi—perhaps because their lives are more rarified, deprived of the oxygen of money and savoir-faire—experience human emotions with less intensity and greater indifference. Since we were concierges, it was given that death, for us, must be a matter of course, whereas for our privileged neighbors it carried all the weight of injustice and drama. The death of a concierge leaves a slight indentation on everyday life, belongs to a biological certainty that has nothing tragic about it and, for the apartment owners who encountered him everyday in the stairs or at the door to our loge, Lucien was a nonentity who was merely returning to a nothingness from which he had never emerged, a creature who, because he had lived only half a life, with neither luxury or artifice, must at the moment of his death have felt no more than a shudder of revolt.

Whereas with Paloma doesn’t appreciate her parents, which makes her seem as vacuous and narcissistic as, ahem, a stereotypical rich person:

My parents are rich, my family is rich and my sister and I are, therefore, as good as rich. My father is a parliamentarian and before that he was a minister: no doubt he’ll end up in the top spot, emptying out the wine cellar of the residence at the Hôtel de Lassay. As for my mother…Well, my mother isn’t exactly a genius but she is educated. She has a Ph.D. in literature. She writes her dinner invitations without mistakes and spends her time bombarding us with literary references . . .

We find Paloma less likeable and sustentative than Renée, making her role as narrator underdeveloped, which also renders the narrative uneven. Paloma does give us some glimpses of wit and depth with her notebook divided into two parts entitled Profound Thoughts and Journal of the Movement of the World. Even so, the reader does get the sense she enjoys normal adolescent interests like Manga. But the novel truly belongs to Renée who reads Husserl, loves American blockbusters, the Japanese director Ozu, and her best friend, the maid Manuela. We learn of Renée’s insecurities about class difference and her fear of presenting herself as a smart, well-read person with provocative and valid opinions.

What disrupts the complacent musings of Paloma and Madame Michel is the death of a resident and the arrival of a new tenant, Kakuro Ozu. Enter the Eastern panacea for our narrators’ philosophical despair and loathing of Western wealth and social prejudices.

Finally, someone besides the reader to recognize Renée’s intellectual value and Paloma’s mental acuity and to satisfy both of their Japanese fixations. This is where the novel turns a bit mawkish and predictable. We like what Kakuro represents—a nice, intelligent person who seeks out other nice, intelligent people—and that he presents himself as person who actually likes Renée despite his own wealth and her lack of it. And for Paloma, Kakuro becomes what her parents cannot, a positive role model with money.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is written in an educated, sophisticated yet casual style with philosophical permeations throughout the novel. The philosophical presence is not inherent in either of the narrator’s points-of-view, as in many French novels, but it is used as more of a literary accessory for both Renée and Paloma—something to demonstrate an element of their character. Because it is a commercial novel, the lack of philosophical depth is overshadowed by Barbery’s statement on French society and the novel’s sentimentality. Ultimately, the reader connects with Renée and wants her to be valued and loved by an intellectual compatriot and the reader also wants her to recognize her self-worth regardless of her station in life.

There is a surprise towards the end that is done well by Barbery. Oddly, this denouement has the perfect amount of nostalgia, avoiding a saccharine and worn ending. Alison Anderson’s translation is capable, though quite literal. Having achieved “commercial success” makes this a fun and engaging read and the perfect introduction to the world of modern translated literature.

1 July 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

“I’m an unnatural mother,” the protagonist, Leda, says of herself.

In this brave and searing novel by Elena Ferrante, The Lost Daughter explores the psyche of a woman who regrets having children. Leda is a modern Italian woman. She is divorced. She is an accomplished professor. And she is comfortable being alone. She decides to take herself on six-week vacation off the Ionian coast to prepare for the upcoming school year. She lounges on the beach, and almost immediately, she becomes obsessed with a young mother and her little daughter. Before we realize it, we are accompanying her on deep psychological self-examination of her life as a mother, and how perhaps she never wanted to be or never should have been.

“When my daughters had moved to Toronto, where their father had lived and worked for years, I was embarrassed and amazed to discover that I wasn’t upset; rather, I felt light, as if only then I had definitively brought them into the world.”

Because Ferrante writes this book in the first person, Leda’s thoughts, feelings and confessions have an immediacy that is disturbing and difficult, at times, to take. We learn that Leda hasn’t been a good mother, but we still want to understand her. Ferrante handles this expertly with her narrative abilities, never giving us less than the truth, no matter how much it makes us want to turn away. It is unsettling to read Leda’s memory of her reaction to her daughter cutting her finger as she tried to peel an orange:

“She was five and immediately in despair: the blood flowed, along with tears of disappointment. I was frightened, yelled at her: I couldn’t leave her alone for a moment, there was never time for myself. I felt that I was suffocating, it seemed to me that I was betraying myself. For long minutes I refused to kiss her wound, the kiss that makes the pain go away. I wanted to teach her that you don’t do that, it’s dangerous, only Mama does it, who is grownup. Mama.”

What makes Ferrante’s writing so compelling is that she does not compromise—no compromise for Leda’s analytical review of her motherhood, no compromise in emotional depth, and no compromise for the human condition. Although she deals with topics particular to women in this novel—as well as her first two novels, Troubling Love and Days of Abandonment—she avoids sentimentality and the common characteristics associated with feminine writing: refinement and sensitivity. The slightly masculine tone propels the narrative forward and lends credence to Leda’s unforgiving self-examination.

Leda’s journey parallels her developing relationship with the attractive young mother, Nina, who initially ignites Leda’s jealousy. Nina’s uncomplicated and pure love for her little daughter preoccupies Leda, and angers her as she realizes that she dislikes the little girl, “…that there was something off about the little girl, I don’t know what; a childish sadness, perhaps, or a silent illness.”

What is also striking about The Lost Daughter are the surprises that come from the characters behavior, not plot devices cleverly inserted to string us along. The characters are so well drawn, that we do not question their unpredictability, we merely accept it and want more. We see this best when the little girl loses her doll on the beach and Leda finds it, but keeps it without letting Nina know that she has her daughter’s doll. The child cries and screams, Nina and her family desperately search for the doll, and Leda watches this with detachment and we don’t find out until the end why she does this. The characters are intricate, their details revealed to us through Ferrante’s precision.

A major reason why the narrative flows so well is due to Ann Goldstein’s translation of Ferrante’s novel from Italian to English. Goldstein has translated all three of Ferrante’s novels flawlessly and with each effort she captures the nuances of the author’s style and intent. We forget that we are reading a translated work, which perhaps is the best indicator that we are in the capable hands of a masterful translator.

The Lost Daughter is a swift and mesmerizing work that reminds us of the darkness that resides in all of us and that the mistakes we make can serve as illuminations into our own psyche. We may not like what we find, but Ferrante shows us that it is in these moments that we know ourselves most intimately and that is reason enough.

The Lost Daughter
By Elena Ferrante
Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein
Europa Editions
125 pages, $14.95

27 May 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This is the seventh Reading the World 2008 title we’re covering. Write-ups of the other titles can be found here. And information about the Reading the World program—a special collaboration between publishers and independent booksellers to promote literature in translation throughout the month of June—is available at the official RTW website.

Europa Editions started in 2005 as the English-language counterpart to Edizioni e/o, one of Italy’s most important publishing houses. Europa primarily publishes literature in translation, although they do do some English books (such as Steve Erickson’s latest) as well. And although the overlap isn’t 100%, Edizioni e/o is in the unique position of being able to publish a particular title in both Italian and English. (And with the recent creation of Sharq/Gharb, e/o’s latest publishing venture, you can add Arabic to that list as well.)

Anyway, one of the first titles Europa published was Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment, which did remarkably well and helped create a legion of Europa Editions fans. (It’s remarkable how popular Europa is with booksellers. Their books have a distinctive design, are very literary, and manage to find a readership. And now that Europa will be distributed by Penguin it looks like they’re about to jump to the “next level” so to speak.)

Ferrante’s an interesting figure. According to the Europa website, she is “one of Italy’s most important and acclaimed contemporary authors, [but] has successfully shunned public attention and kept her whereabouts and her true identity concealed.” (There’s not much more available online either . . .)

As described on the Europa website, The Days of Abandonment

tells the story of one woman’s headlong descent into what she calls an “absence of sense” after being abandoned by her husband. Olga’s “days of abandonment” become a desperate, dangerous freefall into the darkest places of the soul as she roams the empty streets of a city that she has never learned to love.

Considered somewhat scandalous in Italy, the shocking and straightforward tone of this novel really appealed to readers all over the world. And it’s not hard to see why based on the opening paragraph:

One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me. He did it while we were clearing the table; the children were quarreling as usual in the next room, the dog was dreaming, growling beside the radiator. He told me that he was confused, that he was having terrible moments of weariness, of dissatisfaction, perhaps of cowardice. He talked for a long time about our fifteen years of marriage, about the children, and admitted that he had nothing to reproach us with, neither them nor me. He was composed, as always, apart from an extravagant gesture of his right hand when he explained to me, with a childish frown, that soft voices, a sort of whispering, were urging him elsewhere. Then he assumed the blame for everything that was happening and closed the front door carefully behind him, leaving me turned to stone beside the sink.

(The first four chapters are available online.)

I might be wrong, but I think this is the most successful book Europa has published to date. And it’s a perfect Reading the World book—definitely worth checking out.

And if you like The Days of Abandonment, or if you’ve already read it, you may want to check out Ferrante’s latest, The Lost Daughter, which was reviewed over the weekend in the Seattle Times. (The review includes this selling line: “The Lost Daughter, is about as sentimental in its view of parenting as a Mother’s Day card inscribed in battery acid.”)

26 March 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

At the outset, I didn’t particularly care for this book. Yet, as a work of fiction, The Have-Nots bears no great deficiencies and has, in fact, a certain charm to it. In spite of this, or, perhaps, because of it, I can’t love this book. Perhaps my heart is too small to embrace the multitude of characters, or perhaps my distaste for post-9/11 literature is too great. This is such a novel of our time. The Have-Nots is a not a book about people who are lacking, but people who have too much—too much pain, too many memories, too much angst and ambiguity. They feel too much and dwell too much in each other. What they have not is any real awareness of the poverty of their respective existences. My distaste for this book is an entirely personal reaction to a fairly good, maybe even great, novel.

It is a very German work. The Holocaust plays a sort of bizarre Jiminy Cricket role in post World War II German consciousness. It’s ever-present now, framing and informing German literature. In this novel, Hacker plays with a narrative clockwork that I first encountered in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. In the four—really many more than that—simultaneous stories, dozens of lives perform work on the others; each story acts as a cog, turning the others in a gloriously complex movement that anyone could appreciate. Like Anderson’s characters, Hacker’s characters are grotesque, spiritually and emotionally deformed and, for all of that, beautiful. Hacker hasn’t Anderson’s or Joyce’s ability to define individual characters, but her grasp of this intricate form is extraordinary. Perhaps I’m reaching too much into my own recent activities, but this book is like the television show Lost.

Seriously, I think it is. Bear with me.

The Have-Nots follows the interwoven stories of dozens of characters in two countries: Jakob and Isabelle, Jim and Mae, Dave and Sara, and Andras and Magda. The beauty of these stories is that each exists and continues without the reader’s attention. To begin to describe the interconnectedness of it all would either be futile or take an incredibly long time. In either case, I won’t. Central to the novel are Jakob and Isabelle, a German couple who move to England where Jakob is to take a position made vacant by the death of a colleague in the attack on the World Trade Center. Isabelle, his new wife, is an illustrator. These bourgeoisie are the most significant characters, yet the haziest—they’re constantly lost in the world around them, swallowed by a book that attempts to encapsulate so many different lives that those at the center are lost in the drama of those at the edges and their hopeless stories full of violence, crime, abuse, drugs, and just about every other misfortune these characters could quietly experience. Sound like any award-winning television show in particular? Yessir, it sounds like Lost.

The world—even just the Western World—has always seemed enormous, with nations separated by geography, but especially by language. Hacker collapses this too-large world and brings Germany and England and New York within painful millimeters of each other. Perhaps in literature in translation, in books like Ms. Hacker’s, we all have the opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with cousins lost since Babel, with writers telling our stories in other languages. We were lost, but we’re now found through the shared emotion and shared events of novels like this one. In all of its beauty and complexity, Hacker’s book, which I still cannot love, has brought me to the realization that we’re all closer than I thought; uncomfortably close. Just like Lost.

This is also novel about class, but also about motion and interconnectedness and simultaneity and contrast. Nothing remains in stasis. Our characters occupy very different worlds and yet they exist side-by-side, largely anonymously, but in perfect symphony. This book’s triumph and its failure is in its unwavering pursuit of truth.

Unlike Lost.

The Have-Nots
by Katharina Hacker
Translated from the German by Helen Atkins
Europa Editions
341 pages, $14.95
978-1-933372-41-9

17 December 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

As if they weren’t already accomplishing enough via Edizioni E/O and Europa Editions, Sandra Ozzola Ferri and Sandro Ferri are starting a new press dedicated to publishing world literature in Arabic.

Sandra and Sandro’s latest publishing endeavor is perhaps even more ambitious: an Arabic imprint publishing fiction titles, in Arabic, to be distributed in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. The new venture bears the name Sharq/Gharb, a translation of the Italian publishing house’s name E/O (Est/Ovest—East/West)

These three publishing ventures (Edizioni E/O founded in 1979; Europa Editions, 2005; Sharq/Gharb, 2007) share a single objective: to create bridges between peoples through literature. Sharq/Gharb was founded with an even more specific goal in mind: the need to create more opportunities for direct contact between Europe and the Arab world, to encourage two-way exchange between readers and writers belonging to both traditions. Many wonderful writers in the Arab world are not being published in Arabic either because they refuse to bend to the demands of censorship or they suffer the consequences of more general difficulties plaguing the publishing industries in their native countries; an even greater number of fine authors writing in Arabic have never been translated into foreign languages, including English.

Sharq/Gharb was founded as a response to these problems.

The first title to be published by Sharq/Gharb is Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment.

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