Over the next week or so, I’ll be unveiling all six of Open Letter’s spring 2009 titles. Our finished catalog will be back from the printer in the not-too-distant future, and on our website before that, but I thought it would be fun to give a bit of special attention to each of the titles.
First up is a reprint of Jakov Lind’s Landscape in Concrete, which will come out in March. (We’re also bringing out Ergo next fall, around the same time that the New York Review Books brings out Soul of Wood.)
Lind died last February, and it was the wave of fascinating obituaries that caught our editorial interest. Before picking up a single title, I was intrigued by his very strange biography. From the eulogy Anthony Rudolf gave at Lind’s funeral:
Where does the story begin? Jakov was born in 1927 in Vienna into an assimilated Jewish family. A few months after the Anschluss in 1938, his parents sent him on a children’s transport to Holland. There he joined one of many Zionist farms or training centres across Europe, in preparation for kibbutz life in the Yishuv, the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine. As we know from his fascinating and sophisticated autobiographies written in English, the tough-minded teenager, at odds with those Dutch Jews who did not resist deportation, went underground. He survived the war in Germany as a Dutch merchant seaman on a barge. He tells us that it was safer for a Jew to be in Germany “inside the lion’s mouth” rather than in Holland, where you would feel “its teeth and claws”. He even survived a physical examination when he checked into a hospital for venereal disease. “What, that too?” said the male nurse with a laugh, after inspecting the culprit.
The mutability of identity is a common theme throughout Lind’s life and work. In fact, Jakov Lind is actually a pseudonym—as Sasha Weiss details in her excellent essay, he was born Heinz Landwirth, changed his name to Jan Overbeek when he pretended to be Dutch seaman, and then became the author Jakov Lind.
In addition to his works of fiction—which are strange, brilliant books that can be a bit disturbing, but are also very funny in a sort of Beckettian way—he also wrote a “memoir trilogy” consisting of Counting My Steps, Numbers, and Crossing. And relating to his shifting identity and background, he wrote all of these in English.
Landscape in Concrete is set during World War II and features Sergeant Gauthier Bachmann, a totally unhinged German soldier who was discharged for insanity. The book opens with him wandering the forests searching for any company that will take him and let him participate in the war—as a German man it’s his duty to fight. Along the way he literally stumbles into Schnotz, a deserter and poisoner who is hiding in a hole in the woods waiting for the war to end. This excerpt features the beginning of their conversation.
The book gets darker and more odd as it develops, and as various people manipulate the hapless Bachmann. He’s very innocent at the beginning of the novel, but war can change people . . .
For more information about Lind and his works I’d also recommend checking out Joshua Cohen’s article Paying Tribute to a Living Legend, written shortly before Lind’s passing.
Joshua Cohen has a long review of both Kertesz books that have come out so far this year: Detective Story and The Pathseeker.
(Before going any further, I think it’s worth pointing out that Cohen rivals Three Percent fave Ben Lytal in the sheer number of literary translations he reviews.)
Cohen has mixed feelings about both books (but prefers The Pathseeker, calling it “the less surprising but ultimately more impressive fiction”), and about the quality of the translations.
But what I find most interesting is this:
I would like to say two words about the business and translation of books. One: Knopf — the American publishing house that has published more Nobel Prize-winner works than any other — has published Detective Story and is marketing it as a novel. And, Melville House — a small press based in Brooklyn — has published The Pathseeker as the debut of a series called “The Contemporary Art of the Novella.” It should be noted that in this instance, the novella is longer and more complex than the novel, which has been called what it’s not if only to help with its sales. Such are the hopes of multinational publishing. That Kertész has chosen to publish independently is laudable; Knopf was unwilling for reasons that were undoubtedly economic, or foolish.
There’s also a great quote from Kertesz about the first translations of his books (Fateless and Kaddish for a Child Not Born—is there a reason it’s not “for an Unborn Child”?) that were published by Northwestern some years back:
“I really tried to protest against the first translations, but I found complete rejection. The publisher was not willing to do new translations. It was a really bad feeling. It was as if you had a very sane character who has a rendezvous with the reader and the person who shows up is basically a real jerk, with a stammer, bad breath and a foul mouth.”
Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .
The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .