Jeff Waxman from The Front Table was kind enough to let me write a pretty long piece on Merce Rodoreda’s Death in Spring, a book that I absolutely love. Rodoreda’s something special, and the book (which is paper-over-board—get it while it’s hot!) has one of the most intricate, fitting, and cool covers we’ve published so far.
Aside from the exposure to excellent works of literature from all over the world, the best thing about my work with literature in translation is the editorial trips to Spain, to France, to Estonia, to German, to Argentina—and I’m surprised more people don’t become translators or publishers for this alone. I first heard of Mercè Rodoreda—arguably the most influential Catalan author of the twentieth century—during such an editorial trip to Barcelona a few years back that was organized by the brilliant and hip Ramon Llull Institut and consisted of four days of meetings with editors, publishers, critics, and Catalan authors.
Catalan culture is in a bit of a tricky position. A completely different language from Castilian (what we commonly refer to as “Spanish”), Catalan was strongly discouraged during the Franco regime, and a number of Catalan artists—Rodoreda included—went into exile during this time. After Franco’s death in 1975, there’s been resurgence in interest in the Catalan language and in Catalan culture as a whole. Catalonia—located in the northeast part of Spain, bordering France and including Barcelona—has taken pride in reclaiming its literary and artistic heritage, and promoting its unique society to the rest of the world. On the literary end of things, the selection of Catalonia as the Guest of Honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2007 (the first region—in contrast to country—to be honored as such), really helped raise the awareness of Catalan literature among editors, writers, and reviewers around the world.
That said, Quim Monzo’s self-referential opening speech at the book fair (Monzo is another Catalan author I learned about during this trip and that Open Letter will be publishing) is honest to a point of self-deprecation about the worldwide interest in Catalan literature:
“Won’t reading the names of all these writers (most of whom are unknown to the literary world that circulates in Frankfurt) just be tedious for the audience at the opening ceremony who will have to listen to so many unfamiliar names? Won’t they be looking at their watches and thinking, “What a bore!”? And so he decides he won’t mention any names (even though, in fact, he has already mentioned them in the very process of describing his doubts as to whether he should mention them or not). What’s more, he’s read that at the Frankfurt Book Fair there will be an exhibition that explains all this. Although—to be frank—how many of the persons who attend this inaugural event will later visit this exhibition with any more interest than a merely official show of etiquette? Let us be frank and optimistic: very few.”
So where does Mercè Rodoreda fit into all this?
Click here for the rest.
This was a great week for Open Letter books, with three of our recent releases getting some nice coverage:
In English for the first time in Martha Tennent’s translation, Death in Spring is about a society that finds highly elaborate ways to elude the inevitable and to conquer time. Its means are slow and insidious, ritualistic and bizarre, always teetering on the line between the real and the magical. Its members, obsessed with imprisoning themselves, pour concrete into the mouths of the dead to keep their souls from escaping. Every spring, they paint the houses pink and it’s unclear whether anyone remembers why. Though the novel is propelled forward by a linear narrative, it is its characters’ evasion of this diachrony that is most captivating. The book is driven by linguistic and thematic repetition, like a prose sestina in which the end words could be symbols or simply icons, aesthetic trends or markers that unfold and elaborate the path of the narrative. We see wisteria and bees, horses and butterflies, souls and prisoners weave in and out of the text, each time reappearing with a new relevance, a new level of meaning.
Christopher Byrd’s review of Jerzy Pilch’s The Mighty Angel in the B&N Review is also pretty fantastic:
From the opening paragraph — in which the protagonist awakens to discover a couple of Mafiosi in his room who have taken it upon themselves to act as literary agents for a female poet — to the closing paragraphs that flick away the tragic arc that’s usually prefabricated for books in the end-of-the-bottle genre, Pilch teases out plenty of LOL moments from desultory situations. All told, The Mighty Angel furnishes enough Schadenfreude to stylishly blacken just about any comedic sensibility.
Becky Ferreira at L Magazine agrees:
Pilch’s prose is masterful, and the bulk of The Mighty Angel evokes the same numb, floating sensation as a bottle of oadkowa Gorzka. But it’s not until Jerzy haphazardly reveals facts of his grandfather’s life that the naked grotesquerie of alcoholism pierces through the book’s often casual and flippant wit. Though the final chapters posit a chance at redemption, it remains unclear whether Jerzy is breaking the cycle, or just trading in one vice for another. To Pilch’s credit, both of Jerzy’s possible paths seem unfortunate and equally likely.
What’s riveting about Rupert’s account is his self-assuredness. Yes, he often speaks of ‘Rupert’ in the third person, an abstraction he’s removed from — but then Rupert is, after all, the ultimate ‘I am camera’. It’s a fascinating split-personality on display here — and some . . . perversely fine writing. [. . .] Cleverly, artfully done, Rupert: A Confession is no pleasant read, but an oddly seductive one. Well worthwhile.
Our latest review is of Guillermo Rosales’s The Halfway House, which is coming out from New Directions next month.
Rosales was a Cuban exile who was misdiagnosed as a schizophrenic and ended up committing suicide. Before taking his own life, he destroyed most of his writings, leaving behind only two works: The Halfway House and El Juego de la Viola, which is also forthcoming from New Directions.
Jeff Waxman (who works at 57th St. Books and edits The Front Table) wrote this review, which begins:
The first of Cuban author Guillermo Rosales’s novels to be translated into English, The Halfway House is not a story that we’re accustomed to. This is the anti-success story, one in which hope is choked out by failure and abandonment; this is the greater, sicker part of the immigration narrative. The Halfway House is without spiritual redemption, but somewhere in this hopeless mess lies some kind of beauty.
In his excellent introduction, José Manuel Prieto asserts that this book is Dantean. Indeed, this book is a shot of light through the darkness of human misery and William Figueras is our Virgil, our narrator. This novel tells Figueras’s story, following him from his first day in a boarding home to a day just like it three years later. Figueras comes to the halfway house as a last resort, a place to go when his relatives have disowned him and “nothing more can be done.” Though he begins his time in the halfway house as a victim—his portable television is stolen moments after he arrives—Figueras participates in the suffering of his fellow residents, beating and abusing them, stealing from them, and being complicit in their sexual abuse. The fact that they’re effectively unaware of their own misery and unused to anything else doesn’t matter; Figueras knows what he’s doing and he’s as much a devil as he is a guide, and as much a sinner as he is a lover.
Click here for the full review.
Rubem Fonseca’s The Taker and Other Stories continues to get some really good coverage, including two recent reviews at The Front Table and The National.
The Front Table is Seminary Co-op’s online newsletter/review magazine. It’s been around in one form or another for almost two decades, and the current variation is really impressive, with great reviews of interesting books and a Editors Speak section that’s really interesting. Oh, and a great review by Stan Izen of The Taker:
I am a good Hyde Park liberal: I argue vigorously on the side of equality for all and I donate monthly to Doctors Without Borders. Still, I really have no idea of the depth of despair suffered by the abandoned lonely, the poorly cared for elderly, and those bereft of hope and opportunity. Reading Rubem Fonseca’s new collection, The Taker and Other Stories, is a short walk through these foreign neighborhoods. Fonseca’s writing is rough; many of his characters are angry and disaffected, and they assuage their rage, not by brooding in their rooms and writing poetry, but by brutally murdering those they see as having everything they don’t. The reading is often upsetting but it is also revelatory, and that is the thrill of reading these stories. [. . .]
I used to read to find myself, now I read to get out of myself. Fonseca’s shocking, funny, thoughtful, fanciful stories electrify the emotions and disturb the reader. Kafka is correct, as usual, when he says: A book must be an ice-axe to break the seas frozen inside our soul. Fonseca’s writing does exactly that, in spades.
I want to give it a bit more time before getting too excited, but I have hopes that the Arts Section of Abu Dhabi’s The National could be the new New York Sun. I mean hell, they have Ben Lytal writing for them:
The Brazilian author Rubem Fonseca writes with a violence that his peers – writers of postmodern crime fiction – eschew. Think of Haruki Murakami, who has used noir plot devices to give structure and grit to adolescent dream narratives. Or Michael Chabon, who has reimagined Jewish-American history through the lens of detective fiction. Or Fonseca’s co-linguist, Jose Saramago, who in some of his recent novels has been writing like Paul Auster, making the mystery novel a vehicle for philosophical thought experiments.
None of these other authors goes to crime fiction for blood. Though some maintain an interest in evil, the consistent trend in highbrow crime fiction has been away from the dark alley and into the cerebral stratosphere. Fonseca couldn’t differ more. Vital to his stories is the troubling moment when the slashing crimes of his characters become too palpable and, to the engrossed reader, almost participatory.
It’s a very detailed, very enthusiastic review . . . But beyond the nice attention for one of our books, I’m just thrilled that Ben Lytal is back reviewing!
The Front Table has gone through a few changes over the years. Dedi Felman—who, until recently, worked with Words Without Borders—helped found this publication, which Seminary Co-op (in Chicago) distributed to all of their members. At one point in time, Philip Leventhal—now an editor at Columbia University Press—was the managing editor. And now, The Front Table has entered the digital age as an online book magazine edited by Jeff Waxman (who has written a number of great reviews for us).
In the near future, this magazine will include a fully scannable image of the physical front table at Seminary Co-op, which you really have to see to believe. I can’t remember the exact number, but I believe there are over 100 books on display (either on tables, or faced out along the wall) in Seminary—a decent sized space, but not the largest indie bookstore in the world.
There are also Book Lists of what booksellers are reading, an Editors Speak section allowing University and literary editors to talk about a book they’re publishing, and a review section that’s being updated very regularly.
Even though this just went live, it’s already a pretty impressive site, and I’m sure it will continue to expand as time goes on.
As presaged by its title, contradiction is the theme of Peter Stamm’s novel, All Days Are Night. Gillian, a well-known television personality, remains unknowable to herself. And Hubert, a frustrated artist and Gillian’s lover, creates art through the process of. . .
It’s a rare and wonderful book that begins and ends with violence and humor. At the start of Etgar Keret’s The Seven Good Years, Keret is in a hospital waiting for the birth of his first child while nurses, in. . .
Last year, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was an unexpected critical hit. Now, it’s just been published in the U.S. and has already received a great deal of positive critical attention. The Vegetarian was a bold book to attempt as an. . .
It’s been almost a year since the publication of Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, but despite being included on the 2015 PEN Translation award longlist, and some pretty vocal support from key indie presses, the book has. . .
Jorge Eduardo Benavides’ novel La paz de los vencidos (The Peace of the Defeated) takes the form of a diary written by a nameless Peruvian thirty-something intellectual slumming it in Santa Cruz de Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands. Recently relocated. . .
Anyone with any interest at all in contemporary Moroccan writing must start with Souffles. A cultural and political journal, Souffles (the French word for “breaths”) was founded in 1966 by Abdellatif Laâbi and Mostafa Nissabouri. Run by a group of. . .
Randall Jarrell once argued a point that I will now paraphrase and, in doing so, over-simplify: As a culture, we need book criticism, not book reviews. I sort of agree, but let’s not get into all of that. Having finished. . .