5 September 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Usually, I try and feature a work of translation as part of the “weekend reading” series, but I’m making an exception this week in order to highlight Joanna Scott’s new novel, which just came out this week.

Aside from being an outstanding novelist and short story writer (Arrogance and The Manikin are particularly worth reading), Joanna is one of the most beloved English professors here at the University of Rochester and has served on Open Letter’s Executive Committee from day one.

Even if I didn’t know her personally—and hadn’t worked with her daughter a couple summers ago—I would still be really excited about De Potter’s Grand Tour. Here’s a bit from the FSG website:

In 1905, a tourist agent and amateur antiques collector named Armand de Potter mysteriously disappeared off the coast of Greece. His body is never recovered and his wife is left to manage his affairs on her own. But as she starts to piece together his life, she realizes that everything was not as he had said. Infused with details from letters and diary entries, the narrative twists forward and backward through time, revealing a lost world of fake identities, underground antiques networks, and a husband who wasn’t what he seemed. [. . .]

Told with masterful narrative agility, De Potter’s Grand Tour is a tale as grand as the tour guide at its center. Drawing on real letters, legal documents, and a trove of diaries only recently discovered, Joanna Scott points delicately toward the story’s historical basis and unfolds a detective tale of the highest order.

Given Joanna’s literary sensibilities and intimidating intelligence, I think this is going to be pretty amazing. My copy is supposed to be available today, and with a weekend of 90 degree temperatures, it seems like the perfect way to end the summer is sitting on the beach with this book.

A couple months back FSG featured De Potter’s Grand Tour in their weekly “Work in Progress” newsletter. So if you’re interested, you can read the first chapter here.

13 April 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We’re down to the last three longlisted titles, so we’re going to have to cram these in before Tuesday morning’s announcement of the fiction and poetry finalists. I’ll be writing the first two, Bromance Will will bring it home tomorrow evening.

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

It’s not surprising that Sjón’s books read like musical compositions. A lyricist, member of the board of the record label Smekkleysa (Bad Taste), and sometime singer, Sjón has been involved in Iceland’s amazingly creative music scene for some time now. In my opinion, this is why his earlier novel The Blue Fox works so well. The prose is concise, the voices play off each other incredibly well, and the book’s underlying architecture help it to do more in 100 pages than most authors pull off in 300+.

The Whispering Muse is a different sort of book: there’s a stronger, more linear plot (in 1949, Valdimar Haraldsson, an Icelander obsessed with the influence of eating fish on the Nordic peoples, is on a boat with Caeneus, who entertains the passengers of the boat with his stories of the Argo and retrieving the Golden Fleece); the passages are a bit longer, less immediately poetic; and it’s a bit funnier. That said, it’s distinctly Sjónian.

Most of the humor derives from the fussy speeches of Valdimar Haraldsson, former editor of Fisk og Kultur and author of Memoirs of a Herring Inspector, who just won’t stop talking about how a diet rich in fish is the recipe for Nordic superiority:

In its early stages the human heart resembles nothing so much as the heart of a fish. And there are numerous other factors that indicate our relationship to water-dwelling animals, were it no more than the fact that the human embryo has a gill arch, which alone would provide sufficient evidence that we can trace our ancestry back to aquatic organisms. [. . .] The same was true of the aboriginal settlers of Scandinavia, who followed the edge of the ice sheet when the great glacier began to retreat at the waning of the Ice Age. Instead of following in the footsteps of the herbivores and the predators that preyed on them, they kep tot eh seashore, benefiting from the easy access to food.

It would be superfluous to describe in detail the Nordic race’s astonishing prowess in every field. People have observed with admiration the extraordinary vigor, stamina, and courage with which these relatively few dwellers of island and shore are endowed.

Vadimar is a great protagonist/narrator precisely because he’s such a drag to listen to and be around. He’s funny—in a pathetic sort of way—but also annoying as shit. (Which is why everyone would rather listen to Caeneus’s tale.) That’s a hard thing to pull off, and one solid reason why Sjón deserves this year’s BTBA.

A lot of the other reasons I think this should win are personal. I’m not exaggerating at all when I say that I love Iceland and would give anything to retire there (or start Open Letter’s Reykjavik office). Great people, music, books, and hamburgers. What more does one need?

And Sjón? One of the kindest, most down-to-earth, wonderful writers I’ve ever met. He was responsible for getting Can Xue into the Reykjavik International Literary Festival last fall, which, in my opinion, is reason enough to give him this award.

Plus, this was the only “original” book of the three that FSG brought out last year, a publishing plan that helped launch his career in the States and ensures that his future books will be desired and supported by a healthy group of fans. The matching covers and simultaneous release was a bold move on the part of FSG, and I love to see an innovative, literary press get rewarded for things like this. So, go Iceland!

29 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Jeremy Garber on Talking to Ourselves by Andrés Neuman, translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia, out from FSG.

Andrés Neuman has quickly become an in-house name here at Open Letter/Three Percent, and, as Jeremy hints at in his review, everyone either can’t wait to get started on reading him, or can’t wait to keep reading him. Andrés will also be at the University of Rochester at the end of April for our Reading the World Conversation Series event.

Jeremy has written for The Oregonian, the Oregon Historical Quarterly, and on Powells.com, and is a great source of reviews in general and reader of world lit. Here’s a bit from his review:

Talking to Ourselves (_Hablar solos), the second of Neuman’s books to be rendered into English, could not be more unlike its predecessor in translation—be it thematically or stylistically. Whereas Traveler of the Century was an epic novel of ideas, Talking to Ourselves is a far more intimate, personal work dealing with loss and mortality. There are no early-19th century self-rearranging german towns or cave-dwelling organ grinders to be found herein, but instead a small family forced to confront a reality teetering precariously upon the cusp of sorrow and uncertainty.

Set across an ambiguous landscape that appears to encompass both Spain and Latin America, Talking to Ourselves transcends geographical borders as easily as it does those of fidelity and compassion. Mario, afflicted with a cancer that brings him ever closer to death, sets out on (what he knows to be) a final road trip with his young son, Lito. staying behind is Mario’s wife, Elena, heartbroken over her family’s impending fate, yet able to find mild comfort within the pages of literature. With Mario’s illness looming, husband/father, wife/mother, and son are left to make sense of their inevitable realities however best they can—longing for intimacy and release, yet unable to overcome the emotional alienation imposed upon them by imminent dissolution.

Told, in turns, from the perspective of each of the three main characters, Talking to Ourselves is, narratively speaking, a most ambitious effort. Alternating between Lito, Elena, and Mario, Neuman captures the distinction and nuance of these individual voices—inhabiting their inner worlds (in one form or another) to reveal fears, hopes, misgivings, doubts, and longings. Not only is each respective chapter told from the viewpoint of one of the three—each is also conveyed in a different format altogether: Lito’s excitable, curious, and impatient stream-of-thought expression befitting a 10-year old, Elena’s ongoing and forthright diary compositions, and Mario’s series of tape recordings to be left behind for Lito after his passing. Neuman’s stylistic choice works to magnificent effect (however arduous a task it must have been to pull off), as he easily transitions between voices and forms to reveal the thoughts and feelings that seem to so overwhelm each character, despite their inability to share openly with one another.

For the rest of the review, go here.

29 January 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

If you somehow managed to overlook the 2012 translation of Andrés Neuman’s breathtaking Traveler of the Century (and woe betide all whom continue to do so), you now have two exceptional works of fiction from the young Argentine virtuoso demanding your immediate attention.

Accolades aplenty have been piling up for Neuman since publishing his first novel (the as-yet untranslated Bariloche) at the age of 22: he was named to the illustrious Bogotá 39 list of outstanding young Latin American authors (sharing company with the likes of Daniel Alarcón, Junot Díaz, Eduardo Halfón, Santiago Roncagliolo, Juan Gabriel Vásquez, and Jorge Volpi, among others) and has been awarded both the Alfaguara and Spain’s National Critics prizes—and was twice a finalist for the Herralde Prize. Prestigious honors celebrating an already prodigious output—Neuman has authored some twenty works, including five novels, five books of short stories, nine collections of poetry (not including the volume that assembles a decade’s worth), a selection of aphorisms and literary essays, and a travel book about Latin America. Oh, and he translates poetry into Spanish. And writes a regular column. And maintains a very popular literary blog (which, unsurprisingly by now, was named one of the best in Spanish by an El cultural survey). All of this and yet he’s still a few years shy of his 40th birthday.

Roberto Bolaño, always the veritable critic, arbiter, and champion of literary prowess, in an essay entitled “Neuman, Touched by Grace” (collected in Between Parentheses), offered the following non-hyperbolic sentiment:

Among young writers who’ve already published a first book, Neuman may be the youngest of all, and his precocity, which comes studded with lightning bolts and proclamations, isn’t his greatest virtue. born in argentina in 1977, but raised in andalusia, andrés neuman is the author of a book of poems, Métodos de la noche Night Methods, published by Hiperión in 1998, and Bariloche, an excellent first novel that was a finalist for the most recent Herralde Prize.

The novel is about a trash collector in Buenos Aires who works jigsaw puzzles in his spare time. I happened to be on the prize committee and Neuman’s novel at once enthralled—to use an early twentieth-century term—and hypnotized me. In it, good readers will find something that can be found only in great literature, the kind written by real poets, a literature that dares to venture into the dark with open eyes and that keeps its eyes open no matter what. In principle, this is the most difficult test (also the most difficult exercise and stretch), and on no few occasions neuman pulls it off with frightening ease . . . When I come across these young writers it makes me want to cry. I don’t know whether a drunk driver will run them down some night or whether all of a sudden they’ll stop writing. If nothing like this happens, the literature of the twenty-first century will belong to Neuman and a few of his blood brothers.

Talking to Ourselves (_Hablar solos), the second of Neuman’s books to be rendered into English, could not be more unlike its predecessor in translation—be it thematically or stylistically. Whereas Traveler of the Century was an epic novel of ideas, Talking to Ourselves is a far more intimate, personal work dealing with loss and mortality. There are no early-19th century self-rearranging german towns or cave-dwelling organ grinders to be found herein, but instead a small family forced to confront a reality teetering precariously upon the cusp of sorrow and uncertainty.

I wonder whether, perhaps without realizing it, we seek out the books we need to read. Or whether books themselves, which are intelligent entities, detect their readers and catch their eye. In the end, every book is the I Ching. you pick it up, open it and there it is, there you are.

Set across an ambiguous landscape that appears to encompass both Spain and Latin America, Talking to Ourselves transcends geographical borders as easily as it does those of fidelity and compassion. Mario, afflicted with a cancer that brings him ever closer to death, sets out on (what he knows to be) a final road trip with his young son, Lito. staying behind is Mario’s wife, Elena, heartbroken over her family’s impending fate, yet able to find mild comfort within the pages of literature. With Mario’s illness looming, husband/father, wife/mother, and son are left to make sense of their inevitable realities however best they can—longing for intimacy and release, yet unable to overcome the emotional alienation imposed upon them by imminent dissolution.

“There’s a lot of horribleness [she] refuses to countenance,” I agree with what Helen Garner writes in one of her novels, “but it won’t just go away.” In fact the job of horror is to do the opposite: to resurface. “So somebody else has to sort of live it.” By avoiding the subject of death, Mario delegates it to me, he kills me a little. “Death will not be denied. To try is grandiose.” And feeds it. “It drives madness into the soul.” Like one truck driving into another. “It leaches out virtue.” Leaves it barren. “And makes a mockery of love.” And there are no more clean embraces. Here all of us fall ill.

Told, in turns, from the perspective of each of the three main characters, Talking to Ourselves is, narratively speaking, a most ambitious effort. Alternating between Lito, Elena, and Mario, Neuman captures the distinction and nuance of these individual voices—inhabiting their inner worlds (in one form or another) to reveal fears, hopes, misgivings, doubts, and longings. Not only is each respective chapter told from the viewpoint of one of the three—each is also conveyed in a different format altogether: Lito’s excitable, curious, and impatient stream-of-thought expression befitting a 10-year old, Elena’s ongoing and forthright diary compositions, and Mario’s series of tape recordings to be left behind for Lito after his passing. Neuman’s stylistic choice works to magnificent effect (however arduous a task it must have been to pull off), as he easily transitions between voices and forms to reveal the thoughts and feelings that seem to so overwhelm each character, despite their inability to share openly with one another.

We all live in an ellipsis.

While missing her husband and son terribly (and worrying incessantly about their well-being), Elena, per the fragility of her immediate existence, allows herself to be courted by Mario’s doctor—an affair that first excites, but later disgusts. As she records her daily interactions within her journal, she also discovers parallels within the books she reads (which include, it must be mentioned, the likes of César Aira, Margaret Atwood, John Banville, Roberto Bolaño, Anton Chekhov, Richard Ford, Javier Marías, Lorrie Moore, Flannery O’connor, Kenzaburō Ōe, Cynthia Ozick, Virginia Woolf, and others), excerpting them in her diary as if to corroborate her own interior state—or, at the least, to help make sense of its ceaseless tumult.

Work, work. That’s all I know how to do. You have to be very sad to hate vacations. You are so responsible, people tell me. They can go to hell. I look for things to be responsible for because I can’t be responsible for myself. Sometimes I think I don’t deserve to be a mother. Sometimes I think I had a child in order to stop myself from jumping out of the window. Sometimes I think I should have been the one who got ill. Sometimes I think about being fucked hard. Women who know what they want never want anything interesting.

Foolish it would be for the reader to look for answers pertaining to the existential dilemmas of life and love. Talking to Ourselves considers a host of subjects, not the least of which being death, sickness, caretaking, parenthood and filial responsibility, devotion and infidelity, sex, passion, the duality of pleasure and pain, mourning, dishonesty, individual experience, and the inherent differences between men and women. If Neuman’s novel seems rich with life, it’s not only because his characters and their situations are so well-conceived, but also on account of his story being the stuff that life is so often composed of. To be sure, there are moments of tenderness, joy, and humor to be found throughout the book (especially when narrated by young Lito)—but Neuman’s capacity for unyielding compassion in the face of unflinching circumstance speaks volumes about the depths of his empathy and ability to synthesize through fiction the often unsettling realities and conflicting motivations of mortal existence.

When I see a couple kissing, believing they love one another, believing they will endure, whispering into each other’s ear in the name of an instinct to which they give lofty names, when I see them caressing one another with that embarrassing avidness, that expectation of discovering something crucial in the other’s skin, when I see their mouths becoming entangled, the exchange of tongues, their freshly showered hair, their unruly hands, fabric rubbing and lifting up the like the most sordid of curtains, the anxious tic of knees bouncing like springs, cheap beds in one-night hotels they will later remember as palaces, when I see two fools expressing their desire with impunity in broad daylight, as though I weren’t watching them, it’s not merely envy I feel. I also pity them. I pity their rotten future. And I get up and ask for the bill and I smile at them askance, as though I had returned from a war which the two of them have no idea is about to commence.

With but a pair of works currently in translation, it is still rather evident that Andrés Neuman possesses a formidable talent. Talking to Ourselves, despite its solemnity (tempered though it may be by beauty and bittersweetness), is an exceptional work of considerable emotional breadth. While the story itself may well be dolorous, it radiates with an authenticity that can often be elusive in fiction. There’s a vibrancy and liveliness to Neuman’s writing (as well-evidenced, too, in Traveler of the Century) that is irresistible. Even if one were not captivated by his arresting tale, persuasive characters, or sonorous prose, the impassioned effects of his storytelling are inescapable.

Short of the inebriated automobiler who Bolaño feared might one day rob us of his wordsmithing savvy, the literature of our adolescent century may well indeed belong to Andrés Neuman (as well as Gonçalo Tavares, assuredly).

Enjoy life, do you hear?, It’s hard work enjoying life, and have patience, not too much, and look after yourself as if you knew you won’t always be young, even though you won’t know it and that’s okay, and have plenty of sex, son, do it for your sake and mine and even your mother’s, lots of sex, and if you have children, have them late, and go to the beach in winter, in winter it’s better, you’ll see, my head hurts yet I feel good, it’s hard to explain, and go traveling on your own once in a while, and try not to fall in love all the time, and care about your looks, do you hear me?, men who don’t care about their looks are afraid of being queer, and if you are queer, be a man, in short, advice isn’t much use, if you disagree with it you don’t listen, and if you already agree you don’t need it, never trust advice, son, travel agents advise you to go places they’ve never been, you’ll love more when you’re old, I thought of my father the moment we got down from that truck, our true love for our parents is posthumous, forgive me for that, I’m already proud of the things you’re going to do, I love the way you count the time on your fingers when you set the alarm clock, or do you think I don’t see?, you do it secretly, under the covers, so I won’t know you have difficulty working it out, I’m going to ask you a favor, whatever happens, whatever age you are, don’t stop counting the time on your fingers, promise me, octopus.

6 August 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Vincent Francone on The Art of Joy by Goliarda Sapienza, from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

This book is by definition and appearances a tome. At just over 700 pages (and hardcover) it’s a doorstop for a doorstop. But I will be one of the first people in line to champion lengthy books, and argue that insane length ≠ poor quality. Just because a book takes you a few hours to read and sits at 85 pages does not make it fantastic. Same can be said for 500+ page books (massive books like Knausgaard’s A Time for Everything can read just as quickly as the majority’s go-to 150 page novels). Just because it might take you a week or two to work through it, it doesn’t make it a crap book . . . And based on the jacket copy and what Vincent discusses in his review, Sapienza’s The Art of Joy sounds like a truly fascinating read, in great part because of the author’s own life (Goliarda was a Bad. Ass.). I’ve got a copy of this at home and am dying to read it myself . . .

Enough rave-ranting from me! Here’s the beginning of Vincent’s review:

Readers love a good story. But they really love a good author bio. If an author’s life story is interesting, readers get excited. They share a book with friends by first telling them about the writer. Oh, this Bolaño guy—he was a heroin addict and was in a Chilean jail and should’ve been killed but some high school chums saved him. This Burroughs dude—he shot his wife at a party! A writer with an interesting life is bound to attract readers because we love a good tale, especially if it is (supposedly) true. Hopefully we can get past the myths and legends of the bio page and actually read the works these writers produce.

I wonder if that will be the case with Goliarda Sapienza. Her back story is pretty great (here I go sharing her bio): she was an actress who worked with Visconti; she was a writer of some renown whose biggest project, which she spent years composing, was rejected by every publisher and dismissed by Italy’s top critic as “a pile of iniquity”; she was broke often and once jailed for the theft of a friend’s jewelry; she died penniless; her friend and lover self-published her masterpiece, which was, of course, recognized as a book of genius well after her death. This is a familiar story to readers of Dickinson or John Kennedy Toole, as endearing as her poems of solitude and his comic novel: the legendary writer not recognized in their lifetime.

In the case of Sapienza, the bulk of her novel The Art of Joy may intimidate readers who would be happy to share her story of poverty and literary struggle at a cocktail party, but might not venture further and actually read the thing. But if they do they’ll discover a compelling novel that sweeps through Italian history, bounces through philosophical ponderings, and tries damn hard to shatter as many taboos as it can.

For the rest of the review, go here

6 August 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Readers love a good story. But they really love a good author bio. If an author’s life story is interesting, readers get excited. They share a book with friends by first telling them about the writer. Oh, this Bolaño guy—he was a heroin addict and was in a Chilean jail and should’ve been killed but some high school chums saved him. This Burroughs dude—he shot his wife at a party! A writer with an interesting life is bound to attract readers because we love a good tale, especially if it is (supposedly) true. Hopefully we can get past the myths and legends of the bio page and actually read the works these writers produce.

I wonder if that will be the case with Goliarda Sapienza. Her back story is pretty great (here I go sharing her bio): she was an actress who worked with Visconti; she was a writer of some renown whose biggest project, which she spent years composing, was rejected by every publisher and dismissed by Italy’s top critic as “a pile of iniquity”; she was broke often and once jailed for the theft of a friend’s jewelry; she died penniless; her friend and lover self-published her masterpiece, which was, of course, recognized as a book of genius well after her death. This is a familiar story to readers of Dickinson or John Kennedy Toole, as endearing as her poems of solitude and his comic novel: the legendary writer not recognized in their lifetime.

In the case of Sapienza, the bulk of her novel The Art of Joy may intimidate readers who would be happy to share her story of poverty and literary struggle at a cocktail party, but might not venture further and actually read the thing. But if they do they’ll discover a compelling novel that sweeps through Italian history, bounces through philosophical ponderings, and tries damn hard to shatter as many taboos as it can.

The theme of a woman exploring her sexuality is nothing new to American readers who devour Fifty Shades of Sex in the City and The Real Desperate Housewives of Wherever. But The Art of Joy is bound to challenge readers of this sort, less because of the subject matter and more for the tone. Though not short of description one might find in the average bodice-ripper (“his hands close around my waist and lift me up, making me soar, light as a feather. It was like looking into a ravine. The greater the terror, the greater my desire to plunge in”), the book digresses and meanders through 20th century Italian history and political and philosophical tangents along with the odd murder plot and musings on the true dominant theme of the book: rebellion and freedom. The readers witness the book’s hero, Modesta, age and transform from an innocent girl raped by her father to a lover of men and women, wife to a man-child, aristocrat, rebel, libertine, mother, and anti-fascist imprisoned for her politics. And as Modesta grows into an independent woman, Sapienza becomes a liberated writer, shifting from first to third person willy-nilly, letting her muse have full reign over self-editorial impulses. The book slowly makes room (lots of it) for politics along with the perils of male-female relationships and whatever else entered Sapienza’s head during the time she held the pen.

And yes there’s some sex. But, despite the outrage from Sapienza’s critics, it’s a pretty tame story. Those looking for a dirty book will be disappointed. The Art of Joy is less about sexual exploits and the price they demand and more about defiance of all social constraints, sexual, political, and domestic. Sapienza introduces us to her ideal heroine, who is bold, transgressive, intelligent, and willing to suffer for her convictions. And she laughingly names her Modesta! In one chapter, Modesta tells her son that the reason people call her a whore has less to do with her sexuality and more to do with their manipulation of his feelings for her. People want to dominate unchained femininity, she suggests, and how better to achieve this aim than by condemning sexual expression. In this moment, among any like it, Sapienza conveys her theme perhaps a bit too demonstrably, but this is what makes the book so gripping. The sexual exploits and melodramatic plot too often feel trite. Absent the digressions and socio-political discussions, the book would suffer, becoming little more than the literary equivalent of Seinfeld’s Euro-trash flick, Rochelle, Rochelle. But compressed chapters and engaging (though at times overwrought) prose make the 670 pages seem like something unique.

I anticipate split opinions on this one; no one is going to feel indifferent about Sapienza’s book. And this is a good thing. I appreciate art that is this divisive and elicits strong feelings, positive and negative. But I still don’t know if I love it or hate The Art of Joy. I admire it. I respect the author. I love her story, maybe more than I love her book. And I get the feeling that immediate recognition and success might have offered Sapienza the chance to write better books. Instead, we have her life and her tome, both of which will have to do.

8 May 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Vincent Francone on The Whispering Muse by Sjón, from Farrar Straus and Giroux.

The first time I saw The Whispering Muse was in a bookstore in Riga, Latvia, misplaced somewhere on the D-F shelf. Taking this as a sign of meant-to-be, I bought it, and promptly placed it on my to-read shelf. This was two years ago. But I’ve been itching to get to it since! And the new editions from FSG have some pretty awesome looking covers…

Here’s a bit of Vincent’s review:

The Whispering Muse, one of three books by Icelandic writer Sjón just published in North America, is nothing if not inventive. Stories within stories, shifting narration, leaps in time, and characters who transform from men to birds and back again—you’ve seen this sort of thing before in Ovid, Bulgakov, Kafka, and Rushdie to name a few. But the slim novel’s metaphysics are less striking than its blending of myths, serving the reader an exciting book that touches on the cannibalistic nature of story telling; any tale, regardless of time and place, is ripe for postmodern plucking and consumption.

To read the rest of the review, go here

8 May 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The Whispering Muse, one of three books by Icelandic writer Sjón just published in North America, is nothing if not inventive. Stories within stories, shifting narration, leaps in time, and characters who transform from men to birds and back again—you’ve seen this sort of thing before in Ovid, Bulgakov, Kafka, and Rushdie to name a few. But the slim novel’s metaphysics are less striking than its blending of myths, serving the reader an exciting book that touches on the cannibalistic nature of story telling; any tale, regardless of time and place, is ripe for postmodern plucking and consumption.

The year is 1949, a fact quickly established by the primary narrator, Valdimar Haraldsson, Icelandic fish enthusiast and quasi-eugenicist. Haraldsson boards the MS Elizabet Jung-Olsen, a merchant ship bound for the Black Sea, and encounters Caeneus, first mate and former Argonaut who, yes, sailed under Jason during his infamous quest for the Golden Fleece. This, regardless of the fact that the year is, again, 1949. This is the kind of book where none of those pesky rules of time and space carry any weight. Caeneus entertains the guests of the ship with after-dinner stories of his adventures with the Argonauts while stalled on the island of Lemnos amid comely enchantresses.

Caeneus’s inspiration comes from a splinter of wood he carries in his pocket—the titular whispering muse— a remnant of the long gone Argo. The mighty ship reduced to a mere splinter seems a good metaphor for the ethereal, the history lingering in our memories, the tiny specter that inspires and haunts all of us, but I suspect such readings are perhaps too heady for such a playful novel. Not to diminish any interpretive reading of The Whispering Muse, but I’m far happier savoring the goofy jumps from Caeneus’s story to Haraldsson’s absurd lecture on the superiority of the Nordic people, which he attributes to their fish consumption, than in picking it apart for deeper meaning. Perhaps this is because the novel’s breezy tone and brevity prevent me from looking at it as anything more than entertaining fabulism. The seafaring novel is constantly moving, sailing across narratives and landing nowhere near where I expected, instead stopping abruptly. A longer novel might have meandered, but Sjón keeps it slim and quick, a short effective burst of whimsy and surprise.

Despite the fun The Whispering Muse provides while reading—and it is a lot of fun—it was difficult to completely immerse myself in the book. Lyrical at times and certainly engaging, I was nevertheless detached from the events of the novel, witnessing them from afar. Critics of framed narratives sometimes complain of the frustration that can accompany distancing stories inside stories. Typically I do not agree, but here I sense that Sjón doesn’t necessarily care about his characters, which makes me wonder why I would invest anything in them. There are passages that amuse and delight, but the joy comes from the idea of what is happening rather than what is actually happening. This is not to say that the book is unsuccessful, but those who are looking for rich characterization need not crack open The Whispering Muse. Thankfully, I am less concerned with characters are more interested in the possibilities of the novel, which Sjón presents in 141 taut pages, beautifully translated by Victoria Cribb.

4 April 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

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

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

Here’s a bit of Josh’s review:

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

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

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

Click here to read the entire review.

4 April 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

25 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch._

Traveler of the Century by Andrés Neuman, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia and published by FSG

This piece is by bookseller and BTBA judge, Stephen Sparks.

Let me entice you by stating flat out that Andres Neuman’s Alfaguara Prize-winning Traveler of the Century (trans. Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia) is a 600-page novel in which not much happens. In some ways, it stands, a hulking mass (Andres the Giant?), in the corner opposite Houellebecq’s Map and the Territory. (Wrestling allusion thrown in for Chad’s sake.)

There is a plot, yes—the young traveler of the title stumbles into the neither here-nor-there city of Wandernburg (think of a magic mountain nestled among invisible cities), falls in love with a betrothed woman (you will too), demonstrates the affinities between translation and love (it’s sexy), fends off the stuffy morality of small town life (no surprises here), all while a mysterious rapist is on the loose (actually, stated like this, a lot does seem to happen)—but this is above all a novel of ideas, of heady conversation, of intellect. Which, fortunately, does not make it any less riveting.

Most of the action, for lack of a better word, in Traveler of the Century takes place in a salon, among a set of conversationalists who range from the brash and revolutionary to the staid, the ill-informed, and the amusingly ill-equipped. Ideas are bandied about, poetry is recited, and sexual tension swells until it can no longer be contained. Neumann’s ability to pace a novel in which conversation is the primary mover is admirable and although some of his efforts early in the novel are a little clumsy, he picks up steam and refinement as he proceeds. This is an interesting phenomenon to watch unfold: Neumann’s work is by no means perfect. Instead, it’s one of those novels in which the seams sometimes show, reminiscent of Bolano’s Savage Detectives, in which the reader gets to watch a writer figure it out as he goes along. The rewards have to be more than sufficient for a book like this to work, and they are, they are.

Fittingly, some of most remarkable moments in Traveler of the Century concern translation. In one memorable scene, the professor, a staid conservative who rests on his laurels, argues against the possibility of translation. As the bore goes on and on, Hans, the traveler of the title, reflects that

everything he said was applicable to the field of emotions—in short, someone who disbelieved in the possibilities of translation was skeptical of love. This man . . . was linguistically born to solitude.

And, a few moments later, Hans is forced to concede a point as the professor argues

that it is far easier to think in a foreign language than to feel in it . . . and from this one can deduce that any feeling expressed in another language cannot be the same feeling, not even a variant of it. At best it can be inspired by another feeling. Call this an exchange, an influence or what you will. But, I beg you, do not call it translation.

This fruitful dialectic is a prime example of Neumann’s strategy for moving his novel along. It also brings to mind several questions about the nature of translation, which is of course relevant to anyone reading this blog.

I stated earlier that this is not a perfect book, but I nevertheless believe it deserves to win the BTBA because its merits far outweigh its imperfections: Traveler of the Century is, like the wandering city in which the traveler finds he cannot escape, a place to get lost in.

28 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a book that I talk about on our yet-unpublished “2013 Preview Podcast.” Which hopefully will be up in a few days, once our podcasting computer is fixed. So when you hear me talk about Ways of Going Home by Alejandro Zambra, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, and published by FSG, you can temper my vocal enthusiasm with this review.

I’ve been a big Zambra fan since I read the first paragraph of Bonsai. His first two novels—one of which we published—are spectacular gems, best read in one sitting and reflected upon for days.

Which is why it’s a bit heartbreaking that Ways of Going Home is a bit of a disappointment. (To me at least.) I’ve been looking forward to this book since I read a sample way back when, and I’m really glad that FSG is behind it and will help get Zambra an even larger international audience than he currently has. But it would be intellectually dishonest to simply praise this book because Zambra’s one of our authors and a great guy, and Megan’s a friend and a great translator. Which is why I wrote this as seriously as I could.

Ways of Going Home, Alejandro Zambra’s third book to be published in English (and second translated by Megan McDowell), packs a lot of themes—historical memory, difficulties of love, honesty in art—into a brief 139 page novel set between the two great Chilean earthquakes in 1985 and 2010. It’s an ambitious project from one of Granta’s “Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists,” and one that is a bit of a mess.

Before getting into the reasons why I think this book doesn’t work, here’s a brief synopsis of the two intertwined storylines: In what I’ll call the “Claudia novel” storyline, the narrator is growing up in Chile in the mid-1980s, at the time when Pinochet was finally forced out. On the night of the 1985 earthquake, he meets Claudia, a pretty, slightly older girl who is somehow connected to the boy’s neighbor, Raúl, the only single man in the neighborhood. Two years after the earthquake, he sees Claudia again, and she asks him to spy on Raúl. That’s part one. Part two—of the Claudia novel narrative—takes place twenty years later, with the narrator decides to try and find out what’s going on with Claudia. Oh so coincidentally, she’s about to return home to deal with her father’s death, during which time, she hooks up with the narrator, explains her life story (bit more on that later), and then breaks things off with the narrator.

Interspersed between these two sections are two sections written by the “author” about writing his Claudia novel. The author and his wife have separated, he’s a bit lonely and nostalgic, and having a really hard time writing this novel. He wants Eme—his estranged wife—to read it and approve of it, and he surrounds his explication of this basic desire with a ton of quasi-intellectual observations about life and forgetting, parents and love, and everything else. He reunites with Eme briefly, but that doesn’t really work out. Then the 2010 earthquake takes place.

Two earthquakes, two failed love stories, two tellings of the same story involving his mother, Eme claiming Claudia’s story is just a retelling of hers, the end of Pinochet’s realm kicks off the book and Sebastian Pinera’s election ends it—there’s a lot of doubling in this book. Also the two narrators—one pretty obviously the novelized reflection of the other.

Overall, this set-up—which calls to mind tons of so-called metafictional works, such as Lost in the Funhouse and the vastly superior Mulligan Stew—is Zambra’s attempt to break out of the writing style that defined his first two novels. This is a very difficult situation for a young author. Those two books have a very specific style, one that’s emotionally affective, incredibly compelling to read, and instantly recognizable. The writing in those novels is very precise, almost poetic, and the stories are related from a restricted third-person point of view, allowing for certain “cheesy” moments to play more seriously than they might in a first-person voice.

Anyway. Ways of Going Home feels like a novelist trying to change his aesthetic, maturing from something simple and direct into something more complex and respectably “Literary.” Reading the representation of the author in this novel as Zambra himself, and the author’s relationship to the Claudia novel he’s writing as Zambra’s relationship to this book, it’s clear that there’s a lot of anxiety, an awareness that this book might not live up to heightened expectations. And one of the best tricks for evading that is to foreground it (it’s a book about an author who can’t write his next novel!) and then bury it in a false postmodern trick (the novel isn’t just a novel, but a novel about the difficulty of writing novels!). Everything about this rings false, and makes me feel sympathetic for Zambra—he doesn’t have to hide his talents. But then again, I have no idea what it’s like trying to create art after being anointed by just about everyone important in the world of letters.

You can read the entire review by clicking here.

28 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Ways of Going Home, Alejandro Zambra’s third book to be published in English (and second translated by Megan McDowell), packs a lot of themes—historical memory, difficulties of love, honesty in art—into a brief 139 page novel set between the two great Chilean earthquakes in 1985 and 2010. It’s an ambitious project from one of Granta’s “Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists,” and one that is a bit of a mess.

Before getting into the reasons why I think this book doesn’t work, here’s a brief synopsis of the two intertwined storylines: In what I’ll call the “Claudia novel” storyline, the narrator is growing up in Chile in the mid-1980s, at the time when Pinochet was finally forced out. On the night of the 1985 earthquake, he meets Claudia, a pretty, slightly older girl who is somehow connected to the boy’s neighbor, Raúl, the only single man in the neighborhood. Two years after the earthquake, he sees Claudia again, and she asks him to spy on Raúl. That’s part one. Part two—of the Claudia novel narrative—takes place twenty years later, when the narrator decides to try and find out what’s going on with Claudia. Oh so coincidentally, she’s about to return home to deal with her father’s death, during which time, she hooks up with the narrator, explains her life story (bit more on that later), and then breaks things off with the narrator.

Interspersed between these two sections are two sections written by the “author” about writing his Claudia novel. The author and his wife have separated, he’s a bit lonely and nostalgic, and having a really hard time writing this novel. He wants Eme—his estranged wife—to read it and approve of it, and he surrounds his explication of this basic desire with a ton of quasi-intellectual observations about life and forgetting, parents and love, and everything else. He reunites with Eme briefly, but that doesn’t really work out. Then the 2010 earthquake takes place.

Two earthquakes, two failed love stories, two tellings of the same story involving his mother, Eme claiming Claudia’s story is just a retelling of hers, the end of Pinochet’s realm kicks off the book and Sebastian Pinera’s election ends it—there’s a lot of doubling in this book. Also the two narrators—one pretty obviously the novelized reflection of the other.

Overall, this set-up—which calls to mind tons of so-called metafictional works, such as Lost in the Funhouse and the vastly superior Mulligan Stew—is Zambra’s attempt to break out of the writing style that defined his first two novels. This is a very difficult situation for a young author. Those two books have a very specific style, one that’s emotionally affective, incredibly compelling to read, and instantly recognizable. The writing in those novels is very precise, almost poetic, and the stories are related from a restricted third-person point of view, allowing for certain “cheesy” moments to play more seriously than they might in a first-person voice.

Anyway. Ways of Going Home feels like a novelist trying to change his aesthetic, maturing from something simple and direct into something more complex and respectably “Literary.” Reading the representation of the author in this novel as Zambra himself, and the author’s relationship to the Claudia novel he’s writing as Zambra’s relationship to this book, it’s clear that there’s a lot of anxiety, an awareness that this book might not live up to heightened expectations. And one of the best tricks for evading that is to foreground it (it’s a book about an author who can’t write his next novel!) and then bury it in a false postmodern trick (the novel isn’t just a novel, but a novel about the difficulty of writing novels!). Everything about this rings false, and makes me feel sympathetic for Zambra—he doesn’t have to hide his talents. But then again, I have no idea what it’s like trying to create art after being anointed by just about everyone important in the world of letters.

Put in that context—striving to evolve as a writer in a situation in which everyone expects huge things from you—makes the bad writing in this book nearly forgivable. But only nearly.

Claudia’s first memory of the stadium is also happy. In 1977 it was announced that Chespirito, the Mexican comedian, would bring the entire cast of his show to perform at the National Stadium. Claudia was four years old then; she watched Chespirito’s show and she liked it a lot.

Her parents refused to take her at first, but finally they gave in. The four of them went, and Claudia and Ximena had a great time. Many years later Claudia found out that for her parents that day had been torture. They had spent every moment thinking how absurd it was to see the stadium filled with laughing people. Throughout the entire show they had thought only, obsessively, about the dead.

This is a pretty trite set-piece, and one that comes off as über-manipulative and totally unbelievable. (I distrust all writing that hinges on memories of a child, since most of these memories are way more specific than any person would actually have.) It’s the sort of manipulative sequence you’d find in story from a mediocre creative writer. (See how it contrasts the naive happiness of the child with the sullen awareness of the parents? And how parents sacrifice for their children? Do you see what I did there?)

But it gets worse:

I’ll always remember the pain, one night, years ago: in the middle of an argument we started caressing each other and she got on top of me, but in the middle of penetration she couldn’t control her rage and she shut her vagina completely.

SHUT IT! SHUT THAT VAGINA!

A few days ago Eme left a box for me with the neighbors. Only today did I dare open it. There were two shirts, a scarf, my Kaurismäki and Wes Anderson movies, my Tom Waits and Wu-Tang Clan CDs, as well as some book I lent her these past months.

God, that is SO PRECIOUS. At this point in time, can you really do something like this in an unironic fashion? Your Wes Anderson movie? Oh, you, Mr. Narrator, are SO SMART AND SENSITIVE. (And have very questionable taste in directors.)

This isn’t the Zambra book I wanted to read. In part because one of the challenges Zambra’s trying to face—how to write about Pinochet and the violent history of Chile when that wasn’t something you experienced first hand—could have resulted in an absolutely fascinating book.

In the Claudia section of Ways of Going Home, the one that opens in 1985, just a few years before Pinochet is deposed, the narrator is 9 years old, fairly confused about the politics of the country, in part because his parents have remained on the sidelines during the Allende-Pinochet periods. He is a character forcibly disconnected from the past, living in a sort of constructed world:

We arrived, finally, at a neighborhood with only two streets: Neftalí Reyes Basoalto and Lucila Godoy Alcayaga. It sounds like a joke, but it’s true. A lot of the streets in Maipú had, and still have, those absurd names: my cousins, for example, lived on First Symphony Way, near Second and Third Symphony, perpendicular to Concert Street, and close to the passages Opus One, Opus Two, Opus Three, et cetera. Or the very street where I lived, Aladdin, between Odin and Ramayana and parallel to Lemuria; obviously, toward the end of the seventies some people had a lot of fun choosing names for the streets where the new families would later live—the families without history, who were willing or perhaps resigned to live in that fantasy world.

“I live in the neighborhood of real names,” said Claudia on the afternoon of our reencounter, looking seriously into my eyes.

In case you don’t catch the subtext—and it’s these sort of so-obvious-as-it’s-beaten-over-your-head allusions and metaphors that marks another flaw in this book—Claudia’s family is political, was part of Allende’s government, is reactionary.

I vote with a sense of sorrow, with very little faith. I know that Sebastián Piñera will win the first round I’m sure he will also win the second. It seems horrible. It’s obvious we’ve lost our memories. We will calmly, candidly, hand the country over to Piñera and to Opus Dei and the Legionaries of Christ.

It’s an interesting artistic conundrum: How to write about a childhood taking place during a very important time in history, but one that you, and a lot of your characters, weren’t directly impacted by. Tricky.

Which brings me to David Shields. If you read enough David Shields, your relationship to literature is irrevocably altered. The part of Shields that always sticks with me is the idea that the best works of art are those in which the creator’s consciousness as he/she creates is revealed in the course of the work of art. Frequently, these are hybrid works that aren’t exactly autobiographical or fictional—what Shields refers to as “lyric essays.”

There are hints in Ways of Going Home that this sort of “coming clean” is something that Zambra was aiming for:

It’s strange, it’s silly to attempt a genuine story about something, about someone, about anyone, about oneself. But it’s necessary as well.

Or, more explicitly (this book excels at stating things explicitly):

Today my friend Pablo called me so he could read me this phrase he found in a book by Tim O’Brien: “What sticks to memory, often, are those odd little fragments that have no beginning and no end.” I kept thinking about that and stayed awake all night. It’s true. We remember the sounds of the images. And sometimes, when we write, we wash everything clean, as if by doing so we could advance towards something. We ought to simply describe those sounds, those stains on memory. That arbitrary selection, nothing more. That’s why we lie so much, in the end. That’s why a book is always the opposite of another immense and strange book. An illegible and genuine book that we translate treacherously, that we betray with our habit of passable prose.

I think about the beautiful beginning of Family Sayings, Natalia Ginzburg’s novel: “The places, events, and people in this book are all real. I have invented nothing. Every time that I have found myself inventing something in accordance with my old habits as a novelist, I have felt impelled at once to destroy everything thus invented.”

The sort of honesty and directness that Zambra is talking about and aiming for is much more evident in his earlier works. See the opening of Bonsai:

In the end she dies and he remains alone, although in truth he was along some years before her death, Emilia’s death. Let’s say that she is called or was called Emilia and that he is called, was called, and continues to be called Julio. Julio and Emilia. In the end Emilia dies and Julio does not die. The rest is literature:

The unveiling of the creative process in Ways of Going Home is way more dishonest. Instead of seeing the real Zambra struggle with the above themes and his attempt to create a more “mature” style, we get two manipulative narrators, each as “novelistic” as the other. Going back to the doubling mentioned way back in the beginning of this review, instead of having two narratives—one fictional, one an autobiographical reflection on that—we get two fictional bits, which play off each other in a way that, unfortunately, isn’t very satisfying.

All that said, I eagerly await Zambra’s next book. He is one of the best young Latin American writers, and even this book, as disappointing as it might be to me, is better than a lot of books that will come out this year. He is still an author to watch.

22 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Vincent Francone on the forthcoming novel The Story of My Purity, written by Francesco Pacifico, translated from the Italian by Stephen Twilley, and published by FSG.

The Story of My Purity is the first of Pacifico’s books to make its way into English. He’s also the author of Il caso Vittorio, 2005 Dopo Cristo (which he co-wrote as part of the Babette Factory_, and the wildly titled San Valentino. Come il marketing e la poesia hanno stravolto l’amore in Occidente, which Google helpfully translates as Valentine’s Day. Such as marketing and poetry have distorted the love in the West.

Here’s a bit of Vince’s review of The Story of My Purity:

The blurbs call it a comic novel in the tradition of Italo Svevo, and indeed echoes of Svevo are evident, as are echoes of Pirandello and Aldo Busi. Like these writers, Pacifico fixates on the Italian soul, tortured by Catholicism and lascivious desires. The hero of the book, Piero Rosini, is a pious husband in a sexless marriage, an editor for an ultra-conservative Catholic publishing house, and a former bohemian bent on maintaining his chastity even as he fantasizes about his sister-in-law’s breasts. His staid life is uprooted by the image of his sister-in-law dancing to Elvis, a seemingly innocent gesture that opens up buried desires. These desires lead him to abandon his life in favor of a libertine existence that his lingering faith will never allow him to enjoy.

Pacifico balances the frustrations of his protagonist with a collection of characters that range from anti-Semitic coworkers obsessed with a book revealing the Jewish origins of Pope John Paul II, a father who dismisses his son’s piety, and a gaggle of liberated females who challenge Piero’s resolve. The turns along Piero’s road take him deeper into the life of the sophisticated European libertine, yet each step forward is matched by a step back. As he journeys slightly closer to the precipice of sin, Piero creates an alter ego with which to live out his fantasies, though, as always, the foundation of religious faith proves unshakable.

As funny as all this is, and as much as the reader roots for the protagonist, Piero is not exactly a sympathetic character. Lacking true depth, he waltzes through people’s lives making promises he cannot keep. Early in the novel, Piero befriends an ambitious writer by promising publication that he is well aware will never come. Why lie to this poor sap? Well, because he represents something: the release of Piero’s obligations, a rebellion against the confines of his job, marriage, and religion. But Piero’s exodus out of his devout lifestyle is more like a tourist wandering through preapproved landmarks. In the end, the casual man about town is as trapped as ever, unaware of the events his meanderings have created.

Click here to read the full piece.

22 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I have long lamented the lack of literature translated from Italy, the country of my grandparents. The span between Dante and Umberto Eco is wide, populated with fine writers, though it seems few of them get translated, much less read. Thus, it was with great interest that I approached Francesco Pacifico’s novel, The Story of My Purity.

The blurbs call it a comic novel in the tradition of Italo Svevo, and indeed echoes of Svevo are evident, as are echoes of Pirandello and Aldo Busi. Like these writers, Pacifico fixates on the Italian soul, tortured by Catholicism and lascivious desires. The hero of the book, Piero Rosini, is a pious husband in a sexless marriage, an editor for an ultra-conservative Catholic publishing house, and a former bohemian bent on maintaining his chastity even as he fantasizes about his sister-in-law’s breasts. His staid life is uprooted by the image of his sister-in-law dancing to Elvis, a seemingly innocent gesture that opens up buried desires. These desires lead him to abandon his life in favor of a libertine existence that his lingering faith will never allow him to enjoy.

Pacifico balances the frustrations of his protagonist with a collection of characters that range from anti-Semitic coworkers obsessed with a book revealing the Jewish origins of Pope John Paul II, a father who dismisses his son’s piety, and a gaggle of liberated females who challenge Piero’s resolve. The turns along Piero’s road take him deeper into the life of the sophisticated European libertine, yet each step forward is matched by a step back. As he journeys slightly closer to the precipice of sin, Piero creates an alter ego with which to live out his fantasies, though, as always, the foundation of religious faith proves unshakable.

As funny as all this is, and as much as the reader roots for the protagonist, Piero is not exactly a sympathetic character. Lacking true depth, he waltzes through people’s lives making promises he cannot keep. Early in the novel, Piero befriends an ambitious writer by promising publication that he is well aware will never come. Why lie to this poor sap? Well, because he represents something: the release of Piero’s obligations, a rebellion against the confines of his job, marriage, and religion. But Piero’s exodus out of his devout lifestyle is more like a tourist wandering through preapproved landmarks. In the end, the casual man about town is as trapped as ever, unaware of the events his meanderings have created.

Pacifico does a good job creating a character that is devious, charming, and frustrating. The reader wants to scream at him through laughter. There are moments of joyful hilarity, interesting metaphors, and some damn fine writing over all. But behind it boils a tension that is impossible to ignore and the sense that the whole book will fall apart. That it doesn’t is worth noting; Pacifico is a skilled writer who reigns in the story just as Piero, intentionally or not, reigns in his desires, just when they seem about to explode. The final result will surely frustrate some readers (it’s a bit anti-climatic, though, considering Piero’s behavior, this is fitting), but the portrait of the devout Catholic, torn between lust and a religious dogma impossible to exercise from the soul, is fascinating.

2 November 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Around the midpoint of Down the Rabbit Hole, the debut novel by Juan Pablo Villalobos (translated by Rosalind Harvey, recently published by FSG, and not to be confused with the mystery novel by Peter Abrahams), the narrator, Tochtli, the young son of a Mexican drug tsar, states:

Books don’t have anything in them about the present, only the past and the future. This is one of the biggest defects of books. Someone should invent a book that tells you what’s happening at this moment, as you read. It must be harder to write that sort of book than the futuristic ones that predict the future. That’s why they don’t exist.

In a sense, Villalobos is trying to write that very book. All media coverage of Mexico is mired in reports of drug war violence, a subject that permeates Down the Rabbit Hole. That all of the characters have names derived from Nahuatl, an indigenous language, can be seen, perhaps, as a connection of these very contemporary events to the history of Mexico. One might justifiably say that violence, innocence, and corruption are the themes of the book, and, by extension, the themes of Mexico.

Aside from the Borgesian idea of a book that details the literal present, there is not a Borgesian or magic realist moment in this recent novel from Latin America. Roberto Bolaño and Horacio Castellanos Moya have done a good job of eradicating the myth that literature from south of the border is solely populated by spirits and two hundred year old patriarchs, but another brand of fiction has cropped up in its place: narco-literature. Down the Rabbit Hole may qualify as such, though only in the sense that it takes place largely in the secluded palace of Yolcaut, Tochtli’s paranoid criminal-emperor father. Though this is the setting, and though there are mentions of violence, they are filtered through the lens of a small child who relays events in a simplistic manner, allowing the reader a glimpse into the life of a narco unburdened by the machismo voice of a typical narrator.

This is not to suggest that Down the Rabbit Hole lacks in machismo. There are few women in the book save for the “mute” servants and prostitutes who exist on the outskirts of Tochtli’s view. More than once Tochtli places male behavior into the simple polarities of macho and faggot. To be macho is to take things “like a man”; to cry at the sight of two animals being killed is to be a “faggot.” This dichotomy, effortlessly understood and accepted as law by a child, does not offend the reader as, they are constantly reminded, these are the thoughts of an unusual storyteller in an unusual situation. By employing a child to tell this story, Villalobos allows his readers to accept the violence, sex, and dirty dealings that exist on the periphery of Tochtli’s obsessions: hats (he has a vast collection), samurais, and Liberian pygmy hippopotamuses, which he longs to add to his personal zoo. Just as the reader is ready to accept these as the quirky, charming interests of a young boy, Tochtli reveals his other obsession: differing methods of turning people into corpses (he mostly admires the French for their guillotines). Tochtli’s narration gives the reader a view into an ugly world without the usual genre gimmicks of the narco-novel or police procedural. The effect is infinitely more unsettling.

I must admit I had reservations about Down the Rabbit Hole. I have tired of child narrators. This, however, is miles away from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night. Here we have a naive view of a terrifying world where few are trusted and everyone is a potential traitor; here we have innocence on the verge of corruption.

The slim number of pages aids in the success of the book; a longer version might have seen the concept grow tiresome. But no moment of the novel takes the reader out of its world and the rising action and denouement that might have felt tacked on to a lesser novel feel natural here. At just 70 pages, Down the Rabbit Hole strikes quick, leaving a strong impression.

2 November 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Vincent Francone on Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Down the Rabbit Hole, which is translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey and available from FSG.

This is a book I first heard about a while back when the innovative and amazing And Other Stories announced that they’d be bringing it out in the UK. Really glad that it found a U.S. publisher, and given FSG’s recent publications of Spanish-language literature—books by Andres Neuman, Alejandro Zambra, Roberto Bolaño—this fits right in.

Here’s the opening of Vince’s review:

Around the midpoint of Down the Rabbit Hole, the debut novel by Juan Pablo Villalobos (translated by Rosalind Harvey, recently published by FSG, and not to be confused with the mystery novel by Peter Abrahams), the narrator, Tochtli, the young son of a Mexican drug tsar, states:

“Books don’t have anything in them about the present, only the past and the future. This is one of the biggest defects of books. Someone should invent a book that tells you what’s happening at this moment, as you read. It must be harder to write that sort of book than the futuristic ones that predict the future. That’s why they don’t exist.”

In a sense, Villalobos is trying to write that very book. All media coverage of Mexico is mired in reports of drug war violence, a subject that permeates Down the Rabbit Hole. That all of the characters have names derived from Nahuatl, an indigenous language, can be seen, perhaps, as a connection of these very contemporary events to the history of Mexico. One might justifiably say that violence, innocence, and corruption are the themes of the book, and, by extension, the themes of Mexico.

Click here to read the entire piece.

12 October 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The new issue of FSG’s Work in Progress weekly newsletter (which is maybe the best publisher newsletter out there), has an interview with Rosalind Harvey, co-translator with Anne McLean of Oblivion by Hector Abad and Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas, and solo translator of Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Down the Rabbit Hole, which just came out from FSG (and came out from And Other Stories last year).

Down the Rabbit Hole is fascinating for several reasons, not least because it’s told from the perspective of a child. How did that affect the experience of translating the book?

For me the voice is the most important aspect of translation (and literature in general, I think), whether it’s a child or an adult narrator. When the voice is clear and strong and believable enough to remain in your mind, that’s your starting point. I read Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but mainly I was just listening out for Tochtli’s voice and trying to recreate it in English. [. . .]

Are you generally a reader of books in translation, either from Spanish or from other languages? How do other books in translation inform your own work, if at all? Are there any translators you particularly admire?

I do read quite a lot in translation; I try to read books written in Spanish in the original, and translated books I have admired in the last year or so include All The Lights by Clemens Meyer, translated by Katy Derbyshire, and a Swedish thriller called Blackwater by Kerstin Ekman, translated by Joan Tate. Obviously I admire Anne McLean a great deal and she taught me a lot about how to translate, and I also admire Suzanne Jill Levine for her creativity and humor (she has a great book about translating Cabrera Infante which I recommend), and the great Edith Grossman is incomparable.

It’s generally acknowledged that literature translated into English gets fairly bypassed by readers. Do you agree? What do you think can be done (or is already being done) to bring translations further toward the forefront? Why is doing so important?

Yes, it does happen but only because they aren’t given access to it! Things are looking up though—I know for a fact that there are interested and varied audiences for translation after having done three translation-related events this year in the UK, which were all very popular and elicited some really interesting responses. I think we need to translate and publish more of a range of writing: good literature is wonderful, but difficult or avant-garde work is not for everyone and so I’d like to see more Estonian chick lit, Indonesian thrillers or Bolivian erotica. People read that stuff as long as it’s good, it doesn’t matter where it’s from, so bring it on! As a reader I would say that reading translation is no more or less important than reading a literature, but as a translator I guess I say that reading translations can give you a broader vision of the world and of people and emotions, making you more aware of the huge differences but also similarities between people. Good literature from anywhere can do that.

On a related note, why is translation important to you, personally? What delights you about the work you do?

Translation is important to me as someone who’s always loved words, language, and wordplay in particular. I love punning, and playing around with words, and I always have ever since I learned to speak. When I was younger I want to be a writer, and translation is a form of writing. It is also often said that it’s the closest form of reading, and I love the chance my work gives me to really get inside a text, as well as getting inside a character’s head, and to be intimately involved with the creation of a book.

Here the complete interview here.

25 April 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Jeremy Garber on Andres Neuman’s Traveler of the Century, which is just coming out from FSG in Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia’s translation.

Jeremy Garber is a used book buyer for a large independent bookstore. (And one of my GoodReads friends, where I read a lot of his reviews.) His work has appeared in The Oregonian, the Oregon Historical Quarterly and on Powells.com. He is an avid Philadelphia Phillies fan.

I’ve been hearing about Andres Neuman for some time now, and am very excited to check out this novel. We actually featured him back in 2010 as part of our “22 Days of Awesome” series . . .

Here’s a bit from Jeremy’s review of Traveler of the Century:

Neuman’s lengthy novel could be best described as a postmodern work cast in nineteenth century attire, owing more to the refinement of classical fiction than to the cleverness and affectation of more modern works. Neuman himself describes it thus: a “futuristic novel that happens in the past, as a science fiction rewound.” Traveler of the Century is not set some two hundred years ago merely to capture that era’s milieu, but is done so in a way so as to compare and contrast twenty-first century ideals, beliefs, and moralities against their historical counterparts.

Hans, Traveler of the Century’s itinerant protagonist, is an enigmatic adventurer and translator, intent on a brief stopover in Wandernburg on his way to Dessau, but soon finds himself increasingly unable to make his way onward. As Hans’ stay prolongs itself, he encounters and befriends a number of local residents, including a sagacious, aging, and nameless organ grinder who lives in a nearby cave with his affectionate dog Franz. Hans, per an invitation, begins to attend weekly conversations at the home of Herr Gottlieb, one of Wandernburg’s more esteemed households. At these salon talks, populated by a small group of about six or seven, topics as varied as European history, politics, literature, poetry, religion, art, and architecture are routinely discussed and debated into the late hours of the evening. While there, Hans is introduced to Herr Gottlieb’s daughter, Sophie, a betrothed and independent young woman with whom hans later falls in love and embarks upon an ambitious translation project.

Click here to read the entire review.

25 April 12 | Chad W. Post |

Traveler of the Century is an exquisite, dazzling work of fiction. Its author, Andrés Neuman, is a young argentinian writer, born in 1977, whose relative youth is belied by a remarkably prodigious literary output. Neuman has written nearly twenty distinct works, including four novels, nine books of poetry (a tenth compiles them), four short story collections, a book of essays, and a book of aphorisms (in addition to his translations of german poet Wilhelm Müller). His writing has been celebrated throughout the Spanish-speaking world, having attracted a number of prestigious awards, and his international renown is clearly on the ascendancy as his works find their way into ever more translations.

With the publication of granta’s winter 2010 issue (“Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists”), many English-speaking readers had their first introduction to Andrés Neuman via his short story “After Helena.” The late Roberto Bolaño offered his own high praise for Neuman (well before Traveler of the Century had even been written), including a short piece about him (“Neuman, Touched by Grace”) in his nonfiction collection Between Parentheses (published in English translation in 2011). Bolaño, ever the discerning critic, wrote about neuman after reading his first novel (Bariloche):

Good readers will find something that can be found only in great literature, the kind written by real poets, a literature that dares to venture into the dark with open eyes and that keeps its eyes open no matter what. In principle, this is the most difficult test (also the most difficult exercise and stretch), and on no few occasions neuman pulls it off with frightening ease . . . When i come across these young writers it makes me want to cry. I don’t know whether a drunk driver will run them down some night or whether all of a sudden they’ll stop writing. If nothing like this happens, the literature of the twenty-first century will belong to Neuman and a few of his blood brothers.

With Traveler of the Century, Neuman’s first book to be translated into English, it is evident that the myriad hype surrounding this young writer is indeed well-deserved.

Written in Granada between the spring of 2003 and the fall of 2008, Traveler of the Century (El Viajero del Siglo) was published in Spanish in 2009 and was summarily awarded two of Spain’s most distinguished literary honors (the Alfaguara Prize and the National Critics Prize). The awards themselves place Neuman in the company of a veritable who’s who of Latin American letters, counting as their recipients Cela, Vargas Llosa, Donoso, Onetti, Marias, and Vila-Matas, amongst others. His fourth novel, Traveler of the Century has already been translated into ten languages.

The novel is set in the small, fictional German town of Wandernburg sometime in the early nineteenth century (presumably in the mid- or late-1820s). A town where the streets are constantly rearranging themselves, “it is impossible to pinpoint the exact location of Wandernburg on any map, because it has changed places all the time.” Wandernburg, from the german verb “wandern” (to hike, ramble, roam, or wander), is nestled between Dessau and Berlin in the northeastern part of the country. Despite the metaphysical qualities inherent in the town’s geographical layout, it would be a grave error to classify Traveler of the Century as containing any elements from the Latin American subgenre of magical realism.

Instead, Neuman’s lengthy novel could be best described as a postmodern work cast in nineteenth century attire, owing more to the refinement of classical fiction than to the cleverness and affectation of more modern works. Neuman himself describes it thus: a “futuristic novel that happens in the past, as a science fiction rewound.” Traveler of the Century is not set some two hundred years ago merely to capture that era’s milieu, but is done so in a way so as to compare and contrast twenty-first century ideals, beliefs, and moralities against their historical counterparts.

Hans, Traveler of the Century’s itinerant protagonist, is an enigmatic adventurer and translator, intent on a brief stopover in Wandernburg on his way to Dessau, but soon finds himself increasingly unable to make his way onward. As Hans’s stay prolongs itself, he encounters and befriends a number of local residents, including a sagacious, aging, and nameless organ grinder who lives in a nearby cave with his affectionate dog Franz. Hans, per an invitation, begins to attend weekly conversations at the home of Herr Gottlieb, one of Wandernburg’s more esteemed households. At these salon talks, populated by a small group of about six or seven, topics as varied as European history, politics, literature, poetry, religion, art, and architecture are routinely discussed and debated into the late hours of the evening. While there, Hans is introduced to Herr Gottlieb’s daughter, Sophie, a betrothed and independent young woman with whom hans later falls in love and embarks upon an ambitious translation project.

Neuman’s novel is colored by a number of rich subplots that are woven effortlessly into an already well-textured narrative. A series of nefarious and sinister crimes work their way into the tale, for example, and are portrayed in stunning complement to other rising action. Minor characters, such as Hans’s new best friend (and weekly salon attendee), Álvaro, figure prominently into the story and are as well-conceived and believable as both Hans and Sophie. Nearly every aspect of Traveler of the Century seems carefully crafted and assiduously arranged. Neuman’s prose is both beautiful and engaging, lending the novel yet another characteristic that makes up its captivating essence.

Traveler of the Century, at heart, is both a novel of ideas and a love story. Neuman explores many exigent issues throughout the book (relevant to both post-napoleonic Europe and the modern world), including continental politics, national sovereignty, war, peace, economic development, immigration, poverty, nation building, empire, women’s rights, labor, and revolution, as well as more literary subjects such as poetic norms, style, philosophy, fiction, and the role of the translator. that neuman was able to so expertly include these elements into the novel without straying into the didactic, rendering them essential components to the story, demonstrates the mastery with which he composed this fantastic book.

Neuman’s work, in all its many aspects, represents a summation of the narrative form. Traveler of the Century is a complete novel that allows us an opportunity to reassess the present (and the future) by looking behind us. It is truly a timeless tale, one that demonstrates a past, once contemplated through the often clarifying lens of fiction, not all that dissimilar from the contemporary. Andrés Neuman seems to possess a formidable talent, and Traveler of the Century may well presage a lengthy and accomplished literary career the likes of which only come along a few times in a generation. Traveler of the Century, while penned by a young, spanish author born in Argentina, is, nonetheless, an European novel of considerable consequence. As more of his works undoubtedly make their way into translation, Andrés Neuman is surely a name that will come to be uttered in the same breath of his masterful forebears.

When I was young, because I was young once like you, I heard many organ grinders play, and I can assure you no two tunes ever sounded the same, even on the same instrument. That’s how it is, isn’t it? The less love you put into things the more they resemble one another. The same goes for stories, everyone knows them by heart, but when someone tells them with love, I don’t know, they seem new.

27 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

After a bit of a hiatus, Read This Next is back, with a book of truly massive proportions. This week’s title is Parallel Stories by Hungarian author Peter Nadas, which is translated by Imre Goldstein and just out from FSG.

It’s impossible to mention this book without talking about its size and scope. The 1,133-page novel opens in 1989 with a university student in Berlin discovering a corpse during his morning run. From there, the novel stretches back to 1939 to relate a series of interconnected stories focusing on three “unusual” men: Hans von Wolkenstein, whose mother is linked to “secrets of fascist-Nazi collaboration,” Agost Lippay Lehr, whose father worked for Hungary’s political regimes, and Andras Rott, “who has his own dark record of mysterious activities abroad.”

Nadas spent 18 years writing this book (or series of books—I’ve always heard of this referred to as a trilogy), yet, according to editor Elizabeth Sifton, this is a very tight, very well-constructed novel.

And Tim Nassau, who reviewed this for us, claims it’s one of the best books he’s ever read, one that he would recommend indiscriminately. Here’s another bit of his review:

Most of the books I have reviewed for this site were only reviewed in one or two other places: small journals, literary blogs, a paragraph in Publishers Weekly, perhaps . . . This is, of course, the norm for literature in translation, and the discrepancy between the quality and coverage of these books has been bemoaned enough that I do not need to revisit it here. Every so often, however, a new book comes out that is big enough and important enough for its translation to be an event, and everyone takes notice. [. . .]

Which is why I do not intend to review Parallel Lives. Enough people will do so that several will surely do a better job than I could; Jonathan Lethem reviewed 2666 for the New York Times, and, to be honest, I find such a high level of competition intimidating. The case might be different if I hated the novel, if I believed that all the hype was just a ploy to move copies, but I do not believe these things. If you have come here to know, simply, if you should read this book, then the answer is yes. It is one of the best novels I have read, and I recommend it indiscriminately. Here is post-war Eastern Europe: an encyclopedia of people’s lives as exhaustive in detail as it is ambitious in scale, an unflinchingly honest depiction of political and personal perversions. Yes, the characters are the products of Nádas’s imagination, but the way he describes their emotions and motivations reveals such an uncommonly deep and sensitive understanding of what forces constitute any person that the reader cannot help but feel he is gazing at his own soul.

So instead of talking about the plot of the book, etc., Tim spends most of the review praising Imre Goldstein’s translation. You can read the full review by clicking here.

And after reading that, I’m sure you’ll want to read an excerpt from the book itself, which you can do by clicking here. (It’s fitting that this, the longest book we’ve featured in Read This Next also has the longest sample.)

In addition, you can also click here to hear Elizabeth Sifton’s comments on the book. It’s cool to hear her talk about this, and she manages to make this sound even more interesting.

Finally, FSG published this interview with Nadas, which is also worth checking out.

27 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Most of the books I have reviewed for this site were only reviewed in one or two other places: small journals, literary blogs, a paragraph in Publishers Weekly, perhaps . . . This is, of course, the norm for literature in translation, and the discrepancy between the quality and coverage of these books has been bemoaned enough that I do not need to revisit it here. Every so often, however, a new book comes out that is big enough and important enough for its translation to be an event, and everyone takes notice. On the back of my reader’s copy of Parallel Stories, Hungarian writer Péter Nádas’s magnum opus, it says, at the bottom, “Author Appearances • National Publicity • National Advertising.” I don’t know if these phrases were printed as a request or an order, but they certainly create a grand air of expectancy, and I can’t help imagining an exclamation point after each phrase (Author Appearances!), as if a literary carnival were coming to town. Perhaps they are, simply, a statement of how it will be, as if the naming of these things could call them into being.

Not that the publishers should be worried. Susan Sontag, perennial blurber though she was, called Nádas’s last novel, Book of Memories, “The greatest novel written in our time, and one of the great books of the century.” That one clocked in at upwards of 700 pages after 11 years of writing. Parallel Stories runs over 1,100 pages and took 15 years to produce. It is being sold (National Advertising!) as a modern day version of War and Peace or The Magic Mountain, and Nádas has been dubbed a new Proust, so why not throw In Search of Lost Time into the mix? We must pity those reviewers who come late to the party and find that all the good comparisons to other thousand page novels have already been taken (it’s a twenty-first century Hungarian Tale of Genji!). We seem to have on our hands a masterpiece, a ready-made Classic in the great modernist tradition of Europe, or at least that’s what someone wants us to believe.

Does any of this sound familiar? Does it not recall the excitement around another massive book published by FSG at almost exactly this time three years ago? Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 is a tremendously different book than Parallel Stories (to neither one’s discredit), but it was met by a small media frenzy, winning the Triple Crown with write-ups in the New York Times Book Review, the New York Review of Books, and the New Yorker. I do not bring any of this up to criticize, but merely to observe that, as a reviewer of exclusively foreign literature, I find myself in the rare position of being one of the score of critics that will weigh in on this novel, rather than one of only two or three.

Which is why I do not intend to review Parallel Lives. Enough people will do so that several will surely do a better job than I could; Jonathan Lethem reviewed 2666 for the New York Times, and, to be honest, I find such a high level of competition intimidating. The case might be different if I hated the novel, if I believed that all the hype was just a ploy to move copies, but I do not believe these things. If you have come here to know, simply, if you should read this book, then the answer is yes. It is one of the best novels I have read, and I recommend it indiscriminately. Here is post-war Eastern Europe: an encyclopedia of people’s lives as exhaustive in detail as it is ambitious in scale, an unflinchingly honest depiction of political and personal perversions. Yes, the characters are the products of Nádas’s imagination, but the way he describes their emotions and motivations reveals such an uncommonly deep and sensitive understanding of what forces constitute any person that the reader cannot help but feel he is gazing at his own soul. The following is a description of Döhring, a fellow university student around my age:

He had lived in the city for two years but had neither friends nor acquaintances. How else could he explain this except that this was the way he wanted it to be.

He did not say that yes, I am a prematurely embittered, rather sad person and the reason I chose to study these sciences is to steel myself against constant suffering, to give my mind some means to battle my gaping doubts, and perhaps these studies will help me find out what makes me suffer.

Listen, people, he would have shouted, all day long I pretend that everything is all right, but that makes me suffer even more. Help me, somebody, anybody, come, knock on my door, break down my door, anytime. No, he did the exact opposite.

What I would like to do, very briefly, in lieu of reviewing Parallel Stories by Péter Nádas, is review its translation by Imre Goldstein, and to do so from the same position as the majority of its potential English-speaking readers: as someone who does not speak Hungarian. Goldstein has translated several authors (his translation of Tranquility by Attila Bartis won the Best Translated Book Award a few years back), but his focus is on Nádas; this is the sixth book by the author that Goldstein has translated, and it took him five years to do so. But what, now, is there to say about his work here? Very little, and this is perhaps the highest praise: the English does not feel stilted or encumbered (unless it is meant to), and so the book reads very well; if the translation drew undue attention to itself, then something would be amiss.

And yet, on every page, there are the marks of an elegant translation. Consider the second to last sentence in the passage above, the one that begins with “Help me.” Every sentence leading up to it is constructed out of long, drawn-out phrases, the results of a rational mind considering its own irrationality until, finally, emotion takes over, the pace picks up, and the thought ends on an “anytime” that sounds slightly off. It seems like it should be the “anytime” of a friendly neighbor (Stop by anytime!) and so here it makes the desperation that much more palpable, as if decorum were slightly out of reach. Consider this brief passage, from the description of the architect Samu Demén, as well:

Everything on him was finely wrought; everything was long, longoid, bony though not without some flesh, like his fingers; at the same time wild and unruly, like the fine strands of his shiny black hair that spilled out from under his headgear.

The use of “longoid” evokes, perhaps, the image of some strange scientific specimen, and its juxtaposition with “long” instantly tempers how we think about this person. So too with the word “headgear.” Why not just say hat? Demén is certainly not wearing any orthodontic appliances, but “headgear” gives a sense of the eccentricity and the awkwardness that characterize Démen, who appears charming and at ease until he opens his mouth.

Such gestures, be they the choice of adjective, the pacing of a sentence, or a certain image (such as the notedly not uncharacteristic “fat shit sausage”) are not always that subtle, and their accumulation over a thousand pages is the constitution of a style. I cannot tell you if these two passages are “accurate” translations, but they are written in English and they operate in English and if they operate as well as they do then we have Imre Goldstein to thank. Every word in this book was written by Nádas, certainly, but by Goldstein as well. Parallel stories indeed.

19 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

One of the fall books that I’m interested in checking out is Peter Nadas’s Parallel Stories, an extremely long trilogy (like 1200 pages long) that’s coming out from FSG this October.

This week, in FSG’s consistently interesting Works in Progress newsletter has an interview with Nadas about this new book. Here’s an excerpt:

This fall FSG will publish Parallel Stories by acclaimed Hungarian author Péter Nádas. Editor Elizabeth Sifton writes, “After his last novel, A Book of Memories, appeared in English in 1997, many critics and readers agreed with Susan Sontag’s assessment that it was the greatest novel written in postwar Europe. But Nádas was already moving past that signal achievement. And now we can see how Parallel Stories—which took eighteen years to write, Nádas has said, and appeared in Budapest in 2005—extends and deepens the scope of his fiction, both in historical terms and in the most intimate, hidden terms of body and soul. The multilevel narrative reaches back to the 1930s, thickens in the crisis seasons of 1944–45, 1956, and 1961, and thrusts forward to 1989; and at every point we experience the intense and daring ways that the men and women he so memorably creates live through or transcend, create or deny the brutalities of their strife-torn times. This is a great novel about the twentieth century and, with its dazzling formal innovations and daring candor, a postmodern novel for the twenty-first.” [. . .]

Csaba Károlyi: You wrote an article called “Structure and Plot Patterns in Parallel Stories,” in which you formulated the creative problem at the crux of the novel. You wrote: “I could no longer escape the thought that prose writing actually works as the maid-servant of causal thinking.” Your aim was “to write the stories of people who can’t ever have met, who have only a very superficial knowledge of each other, and yet interfere most profoundly with each other’s lives.” I can see that your characters are intertwined even more closely than that, though, and still, the whole thing does not fall to pieces or become chaotic. As if the plan had been more radical than its realization. And in any case the reader will insist on deciphering on a causal basis, no matter what.

Péter Nádas: And they will succeed, too. I try to leave open the points that offer clues for this deciphering. Not in all cases, though.

We constantly strive to control the effect of our words or actions. The question is what sort of qualities this effort produces in other people. I have no guarantees concerning the perceptions of others. I tried to take all of this into account when I created connections between the different people, plot lines, or historical periods.

And then some systems are identical, others are similar, and yet others are different. We can say that people act along similar or even identical lines because they had similar upbringings or are constitutionally alike. And there are also differences according to these criteria—when, for example, you do something or other not because that’s the way you were socialized, but because you’re going against your socialization, following your instincts, or acting upon
your convictions. People can have direct and strong interactions; there are cases of both direct and indirect impact: when A has influenced B but does not know C, who was influenced by B, then, although A doesn’t know it, he or she actually influenced C. A causal relationship always tries to stick to being unequivocal, but I tried not to lose sight of the multivalence of things. This naturally yielded structures that no longer fit into the structure of causal thinking. Naturally, causation isn’t entirely absent but it falls into a totally different context or exists in a different space from the start.

The whole interview can be found here.

4 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece that I wrote on Vladimir Sorokin’s Day of the Oprichnik, which just came out from FSG in Jamey Gambrell’s translation.

Since this is a day of Sorokin (the event write-up, the discussion in the podcast), I’m going to skip all the normal author and reviewer stuff and go straight to the review:

Since the novel’s main engine, so to speak, is the attempt to describe (and satirize) an invented world, these set-pieces work exceedingly well. It’s through Komiaga’s experiences that we learn about the “Western Wall” that cuts New Rus off from the stinking filth of Europe, about the political issues related to taxing all the Chinese inhabitants of Siberia, about the importance of religion, the ban on hard drugs (weed and coke are totally cool), and the restrictions on swearing and obscenity. This novel operates within one of the common trappings of science-fiction novels, in which the author ends up building a plot simply in order to show you the various aspects of the world he invented.

You can read the entire review by clicking here.

4 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Set in a futuristic Moscow (2028 according to the jacket copy), Day of the Oprichnik is exactly that: a day in the life of Andrei Danilovich Komiaga. The oprichniki were essentially a cultish “death squad” that was set up by Tsar Ivan the Terrible back in the mid 1500s to protect his ass and slay his enemies, and in Sorokin’s latest novel, they do exactly that—and in graphic detail—all in service of His Majesty, the new ruler of Russia.

As a reader jumping in blind to this book, it doesn’t take long to realize that this isn’t exactly the Russia we’re familiar with . . . In the second paragraph, Komiaga is awoken by screams, moans, and “the death rattle” emanating from his “mobilov” and recorded by “the Secret Department, when they were torturing the Far Eastern general.” Then there’s reference to a “news bubble,” the Far Eastern Pipeline which “will remain closed until petition from the Japanese,” and his Mercedov with its “transparent roof.”

It’s in the last paragraph of this opening chapter that we see what direction Komiaga’s day is heading:

In the rearview mirror I see my homestead receding. A good house, with a heart and soul. I’ve been living in it for only seven months, yet it feels as though I was born and grew up there. The property used to belong to a comrade moneychanger at the Treasury: Gorokhov, Stepan Ignatievich. When he fell into disgrace during the Great Treasury Purge and exposed himself, we took him in hand During that hot summer a good number of Treasury heads rolled. Bobrov and five of his henchmen were paraded through Moscow in an iron cage, then flogged with the rod and beheaded on Lobnoe Mesto in Red Square. Half of the Treasury was exiled from Moscow beyond the Urals. There was a lot of work . . .

Over the rest of the book—the rest of Komiaga’s day—he helps destroy the home of a fallen nobleman (and rapes his wife in some surreal prose), goes to church (New Rus is ardently religious), investigates a pasquinade defaming His Majesty’s son-in-law, helps pass judgement on an obscene new performance, takes a bribe, does some super-hallucinagenic mindmelding drug of Philip K. Dick proportions, tries to help repress a subversive storyteller, consults a psychic for His Majesty’s wife, and participates in a oprichinki orgy, among other sordid, frequently disturbing tasks.

Since the novel’s main engine, so to speak, is the attempt to describe (and satirize) an invented world, these set-pieces work exceedingly well. It’s through Komiaga’s experiences that we learn about the “Western Wall” that cuts New Rus off from the stinking filth of Europe, about the political issues related to taxing all the Chinese inhabitants of Siberia, about the importance of religion, the ban on hard drugs (weed and coke are totally cool), and the restrictions on swearing and obscenity. This novel operates within one of the common trappings of science-fiction novels, in which the author ends up building a plot simply in order to show you the various aspects of the world he invented.

In this case, there’s no really overarching plot to speak off aside from simply seeing what happens in a typical day in the life of a member of this special group. What they’re allowed to do, how their oppression works, etc. In contrast to the sci-fi book that relies on the creativeness of its inventions (social, scientific, and whatnot), the reason Sorokin’s book is mostly successful is due to its satirical charms and frightening truth that, no matter what changes, there’s always a secret group of oprichniki with special privileges.

It’s probably my own shortcoming, but I get the sense that some of Sorokin’s targets slipped by me . . . Or, to put that more positively, that Russian readers (or readers more well versed in the contemporary Russian scene), will get even more out of this. One bit that I particularly liked (which brought to mind an essay of Dubravka Ugresic’s from Thank You for Not Reading and plays to my obsessions) was this bit about literature in New Rus:

Bookstands are also standardized, approved by His Majesty and approved by the Literary Chamber. Our people respect books. On the left side there’s Orthodox Church literature; on the right the Russian classics; and in the middle, the latest works by contemporary writers. First I look over the prose of our country’s contemporary writers: Ivan Korobov’s White Birch; Nikolia Voropaevsky’s Our Fathers; Isaak Epshtein’s The Taming of the Tundra; Rashid Zametdinov’s Russia—My Motherland; Pavel Olegov’s The Nizhny Novgorod Tithe; Savvaty Sharkunov’s Daily Life of the Western Wall; Irodiada Deniuzhkina’s My Heart’s Friend; Oksana Podrobskaya’s The Mores of New Chinese Children. I know all these authors well. They’re famous, distinguished. Caressed by the love of the people and His Majesty.

One of the main problems I had with this book is that it’s not as humorous or biting or disturbing as I expected. Sorokin has been the figurehead for contemporary Russian literature for years now. He’s been featured in major publications on several occasions (like the New York Review of Books where he was referred to as “the only real prose writer, and resident genius” of late-Soviet fiction), with the general view being that his works are the most subversive, controversial, brilliant things being written in Russia today.

For example, almost every single piece about him that I’ve read (or written), makes mention of the fact that the Putin Youth symbolically flushed his books down a paper-mache toilet. Or that the untranslated novel “Blue Lard” has a graphic sex scene starring Khrushchev and Stalin. All of which ended up constructing a sort of image of a punk trouble-maker, a shocking sort of explosive writer. That may be true in some contexts, but Day of the Oprichnik, for all its political concerns, isn’t the fireball of controversy that I was expecting . . .

Getting that reputation out of the way allows for his work to be appreciated for other reasons though, which will benefit his reputation (in this country at least) in the future. Day of the Oprichnik isn’t a bad book, in fact, it’s enjoyable to read—something that sounds odd to say when it’s a book featuring a sizable helping of destruction and violence. But Komiaga’s voice is compelling, and he serves the reader well in leading us through this new, perplexing world.

An interesting aspect of Komiaga’s voice, that happens also to be a translation question, is the use of italicized words throughout the text. Sometimes these italics imply a special new code of sorts, like when he refers to “an order to squash the innards” during “a raid,” or the order to perform a “red rooster.” Other times, the italics are particular phrasings emphasized to provoke a certain feeling (usually creepy), like in this bit related to the nobleman’s wife:

This work is—passionate, and absolutely necessary. It gives us more strength to overcome the enemies of the Russian state. Even this succulent work requires a certain seriousness. You have to start and finish by seniority.

There are so, so many of these italicized words and phrases in the book, many of which just seem odd or distracting or emphasizing the wrong word. (“I’ve seen many book and manuscript bonfires—in our courtyard, and in the Secret Department.”) I have every confidence in the world in Jamey Gambrell’s translation (she also did Sorokin’s The Queue and The Ice Trilogy, so she definitely knows his work and style), but I am curious as to how these worked in the original Russian. Sometimes punctuation and other forms of emphasis don’t always translate exactly . . .

Overall, Day of the Oprichnik is an intriguing book (a 7.1 out of 10), and hopefully in combination with the recent publication of The Ice Trilogy, will help English readers have a much better understanding of Sorokin’s art, and not just his reputation.

4 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As mentioned on last week’s podcast, and further elaborated on in this week’s one (BTW, you can subscribe to the Three Percent podcast at iTunes), Vladimir Sorokin was one of the authors I was most interested in seeing at the PEN World Voices Festival.

Way back when, I read his short, early novel The Queue in a Readers International edition, and at the time I found it pretty charming and inventive. The entire book is a play-like narrative about an endless number of people waiting in line to buy . . . something. They have no idea what’s for sale, how many will be available, or anything else. But they feel obliged to wait and find out. Out of this sort of dry, Soviet setting, an absurd, Beckett-like story develops in which people fall in love, leave the line, return to line, recite their number in line, stay in line for days . . . In short, a fun, entertaining little book.

Over the ensuing years, Sorokin’s reputation as the contemporary Russian author worth paying attention to has grown in leaps and bounds, mostly due to the portrayal of his books as shocking, offensive, aggressively anti-govermental, all the stuff that we (Americans, literary readers, seekers of the new) tend to gravitate towards.

When Ice came out from NYRB the other year, it was a pretty hotly anticipated book, although in the end, the reviews were fairly mixed, possibly due to its mostly non-political bent. (I’d also blame the fact that this was only the middle part of a trilogy. The book can stand alone by itself, but I think it will benefit from the larger scope of the trilogy.)

So this spring, when both FSG brought out Day of the Oprichnik and NYRB published the complete Ice Trilogy and Sorokin was selected to attend the World Voices Festival, it felt like his time had really come. Add to that this feature in the New York Times and it seemed like this was going to be Sorokin’s coming-out party. His real launch into the American literary scene.

It’ll be interesting to see how this all plays out . . . Day of Oprichnik is interesting, but not exactly what most American’s are looking for. I’m reading The Ice Trilogy
now, and find it more intriguing, but it’s also a complicated book for readers to get a handle on, since there are things about the cult that are simple and good-hearted, and things that are creepy as shit.

But before getting to that, I want to say that I wish the conversation between Keith Gessen of N+1 and Sorokin would’ve gone a bit smoother. Not that it was a bad event, but with Sorokin’s need to be translated and his meticulous, thoughtful, halting style of speaking, the conversation got a bit bogged down and Keith wasn’t really able to get to all the points he had obviously planned on. There was a lot of time spent talking about the beginning of his career, especially about Norma, in which the first 100 pages contain scene after domestic scene in which all the characters end up eating a little package of shit . . . They also talked about the literary underground and The Queue, but most of the new works were left out when time ran out . . .

Hopefully Gessen and Sorokin will do a written conversation at some point. Keith’s a very perceptive reader, and I think he would be able to frame Sorokin’s importance in a very meaningful way that would really help draw people to his works.

Although it was a bit disturbing—because the book is a bit disturbing—I think the performance of Ice worked a bit better. This event took place an hour after the conversation, and much of the audience was the same as at the first event. It was directed by Kornel Mundruczo from Hungary and took place in the Old Gymnasium. Setting wasn’t ideal—the actor and actresses read from a table on the same level as the seats, so for short people like me, we weren’t able to see all that much—nevertheless, it was very well-done, especially considering that their first rehearsal was on Tuesday . . .

Not to give away everything, but Ice (and the trilogy as a whole) is about a cult that aims to “awaken the hearts” of the 23,000 chosen people. They believe that once your heart is awoken, you can understand all the “heart words” and that once all 23,000 members are found, the world will be transformed into something beautiful and hippy and stuff.

All sounds pretty good, right? Well . . . the way they determine whether you’re “chosen” or not is by pounding the shit out of your chest with a hammer containing a piece of the ice meteor left by the Tunguska event. If you heart speaks its true name, then you’re saved! If not, you die. Creepy, no? And all the chosen people have blond hair and blue eyes, naturally.

The coolest moment of the performance was at the end, when the cult’s workings have been revealed and they’re expanding their search for the 23,000. At that moment, a screen dropped down and the best faux informercial I’ve ever seen was projected on it. The ad was for the ICE Machine, which looked like a rubber s&m sort of chestplate with a chunk of ice over your sternum, which, when plugged in, would repeatedly pound you and awaken your heart. It was perfectly spot-on in the way it kept cutting away to an image of the ICE Machine floating against a black background, available for only $230 by calling 23-23-223-23-23 . . .

As intended, this performance got me psyched to read the whole trilogy, so expect a formal review at Three Percent in the next few weeks . . .

16 November 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

As any and all long-time (or probably even short-time) readers of Three Percent know, we pick on publisher websites quite a bit. (See for instance, any and every post about Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.)

Most often they deserve it for many of the same reasons that we like to make fun of book ads. I’m totally ripping off Richard Nash here, but if every company advertised its products the way book publishers do—a picture of the product with three quotes saying how great it is—capitalism would’ve crumbled long ago.

And just look at this mess. All the “You Might Also Like . . .” crap is annoying at best, especially since it’s followed at the bottom by “New Books Similar to This One.” And where’s the info about the book (ISBN, price, page count)? Near the bottom of the listing in all italics. You’d never know it, but if you click on the image of the book cover, you get to read an excerpt! And what’s up with all the ads and “Hot@Harper” shit? My six-year-old daughter has better aesthetic sense than the people who designed this.

BUT, occasionally a corporate press gets it right. Like with FSG’s Work in Progress monthly newsletter/website. (Granted, this is apples to oranges in comparing to Harper’s trainwreck, but I’m willing to bet Harper’s monthly promo emails are as aesthetically confused.) Not only is this site elegant, it looks like something you’d want to read, and the marketing aspects of it are subdued and enhanced with interesting content. Such as this conversation between Marion Duvert and Richard Howard on Roland Barthes (Barthes? Can’t imagine another “big” publisher referencing him—AND Samuel Beckett—in their monthly promo-newsletter):

So he called me just to say hello, and say that he would like to come to New York, and could I show him around a little bit because he had never been here.

I said certainly, and that I looked forward to it very much. He arrived. He had the first copy of, I think, Mythologies in print. The first day was very proper and careful. But we got along very well. It was apparent that he had made the right choice, and that we were going to be friends. I suppose that means I met the man first. But he came carrying a book, and I think he knew that I was a translator; and he wanted me to see it. I did translate right away three or four of those pieces that were published in various periodicals here. That was the beginning.

I don’t think he ever again read any of my translations [of him]. I don’t think he had any . . . it isn’t that he didn’t have interest. He would say that he didn’t know English well enough to have it make any difference; it was just his satisfaction that they were in English. At the beginning I think there was some interest in that fact, but I never heard from him again on that subject.

I would ask him questions. I remember calling him up once and saying that he had referred to somebody inadequately or incorrectly, as I just knew. Did he want me to silently correct the mistake? He said, “Oh, of course. Do whatever you want. I have no idea.” And then there was some question of some king or even Egyptian pharaoh, and he said, “Well, make it up. Make it up. I don’t remember the case myself. If it’s not correct in the French text, just make up something.” He had decided that I was trustworthy, and he could rely on me to take care of such things, and there was no further discussion about it. He was not an anxious author about his translations.

This month’s issue also includes interviews with Edith Grossman and Natasha Wimmer on Mario Vargas Llosa, both of which are pretty interesting:

Chapman: You’ve translated a number of García Márquez’s novels—another Latin American Nobel laureate—who is lionized as much for his influence as for his writing. Do you also see the Vargas Llosa imprimatur in younger writers?

Grossman: I can’t really answer that question except in the broadest terms. Vargas Llosa’s influence may lie in the intertwining of the personal and the political. García Márquez’s influence is more stylistic, I think: the intertwining of fantasy and reality, perhaps. They both owe a great debt to William Faulkner and, most of all, to Miguel de Cervantes. On the other hand, the impact of the Latin American Boom on young writers everywhere was enormous, and I don’t think Toni Morrison or Salman Rushdie, for example, would write the same way without that older generation of Latin American writers.

Chapman: Speaking of the next generation, what was your reaction to Granta‘s “Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” list?

Grossman: I was very happy that Granta devoted an issue to young Spanish-language writers. In fact, I translated one of the stories, by a Peruvian, Santiago Roncagliolo. He’s a wonderful writer—I did a novel of his, Red April, a couple of years ago.

Kudos to you, FSG, for figuring out this interwebs thing and how 21st-century digital marketing can work. If you’re interested, you can subscribe here.

3 September 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 September 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

24 March 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

Peter Handke’s latest novella to be published in English translation is narrated by a chef who operates and lives in an inn in the Île-de-France region outside Paris, near the ruins of the Port-Royal-des-Champs convent. Experiencing a period of solitude due to lack of business (all his neighbors — his potential customers — have moved away), he occupies his time reading. Thus, he is an ideal audience for a visiting storyteller who suddenly and fancifully appears in his garden: a visitor from another century and out of the pages of literature — the legendary lover Don Juan.

Handke, in addition to being a brilliant, occasionally controversial playwright and essayist, has for four decades written numerous brief, brilliant, piercing novellas (and two longer works of fiction, including his masterpiece My Year in the No-Man’s-Bay). These works have carried forward the tradition of intensely psychological German-language modernism (Handke is Austrian) and at the same time taken it in new, breathtaking, highly self-conscious directions. A simple recital of some of his titles — The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick; A Sorrow Beyond Dreams; A Moment of True Feeling; and the collection of journal entries The Weight of the World — is enough to capture the dual atmosphere of mournful angst and tender beauty in which his entire oeuvre is steeped.

So, the entrance of the title character in Don Juan: His Own Version is, for Handke, uncharacteristically lighthearted, even farcical:

. . . Don Juan came hurtling head over heels onto my property. He had been preceded by a sort of spear, or lance, that whizzed through the air in an arc and dug itself into the earth right at my feet. The cat, which was lying next to that spot on the grass, blinked a few times, then went right back to sleep, and a sparrow — what other bird could have pulled this off? — landed on the still quivering shaft, which then continued to quiver. In actuality the lance was just a hazel branch, slightly pointed at the tip, such as you could cut for yourself anywhere in the forests around Port-Royal.

The novella’s subtitle, which translates literally as something closer to “As Told by Himself,” is misleading for a few reasons, most obviously that Don Juan isn’t actually the narrator. We do not hear Don Juan directly describe his exploits — not even in quoted dialogue — but instead are told everything secondhand, by the chef. Additionally, the novella is not a retelling of the famous Don Juan legend depicted in the well-known play by Molière or the libretto of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. Instead, Don Juan’s narrative spans the previous week, a period marked by encounters with several women. We get fewer details of each encounter than of the one before, ostensibly because they are significant to Don Juan only in the ways that they differ from each other. Also, we might suspect, Handke feels that each encounter is basically the same as the others. All that seems to interest him is the archetype.

The first of the week’s encounters is with a young bride in a village near Tblisi, Georgia, and the last is one about which we receive no details whatsoever. The intermediate encounters take place in far-flung cities — Damascus, Ceuta (North Africa), Bergen (Norway), and an unnamed city in Holland — due to Don Juan’s supernatural ability to travel quickly from one part of the world to another, in the company of his servant, the driver who initially met him at the Tblisi airport.

In order to characterize these encounters, the word “seduction” is studiously avoided. This is because, according to Don Juan himself (via the chef), he “was no seducer.” The chef explains:

He had never seduced a woman. He had certainly run into some who had accused him of doing so. But these women had either been lying or no longer knew what they were thinking, and had actually intended to express something altogether different. And conversely, Don Juan had never been seduced by a woman. Perhaps now and then he had let one of these would-be seductresses have their way, or whatever it was, only to make it clear to her in the twinkling of an eye that there was no seduction involved and that he, the man, was neither the seducee nor the opposite. He had a kind of power. But his power was of a different sort.

Perhaps his power is linked to the fact that this “version” of Don Juan is propelled not by lust or the urge to conquest, but by a profound sadness:

Don Juan was orphaned, and not in any figurative sense. Years earlier he had lost the person closest to him, not his father or his mother, but his child, his only child, or at least so it seemed to me. So one could also become an orphan when one’s child died, and how. Or maybe his woman had died, the only one he loved?

. . . What drove him was nothing but his inconsolability and his sorrow. To transport his sorrow to the world and transmit it to the world. Don Juan lived off his sorrow as a source of strength. It was bigger than he was and transcended him. Armored in it, so to speak, and not merely so to speak, he knew that although he was not immortal he was invulnerable. Sorrow was something that made him impetuous, and, in an opposite and equal reaction (or rather action by action), completely permeable and open to whatever might happen, while at the same time invisible when necessary. His sorrow furnished provisions for his journey. It nourished him in every respect. As a result he had no major needs. Such needs did not even rear their heads. . . . His sorrowing, fundamental rather than episodic, was an activity.

Indeed, Handke’s Don Juan is hardly the romancer and swashbuckler of legend but more of a tempered and introspective figure, much like the protagonists in many of Handke’s works since Slow Homecoming (1984). These characters are personified as wanderers — sojourners often suffering from unspecified psychological trauma, whose psychic survival seems to depend on their capacity to apprehend every last detail of their physical surroundings. This is why so much of Handke’s fiction is both mentally claustrophobic and expansively celebratory of nature, why it can feel at the same time so suffocatingly pessimistic about humanity and yet unguardedly optimistic that the soul may nevertheless flourish in a world that contains so much splendor. Toward the end of the novella, the chef captures some of this natural beauty:

In the hill forests around Port-Royal the edible chestnuts had just come into bloom, and the cream-colored strings of blossoms hung down among the dark oaks like crowns of foam atop waves, seething on all sides in the area surrounding the ruins, and from the silent surf rose, at the very top, back on the Île-de-France plateau, the pale red roof of the former cloister stables of Port-Royal, a roof with a tile landscape more beautiful and strange and yet dreamily familiar, as part of a barely discovered planet, than anything I had seen before, and the swallows swooping above it into the last sunlight moved twice as fast, as if propelled by the light.

Don Juan: His Own Version is an intriguing and frequently thought-provoking exercise. Although not on par with Handke’s earlier work, it contains many examples of his acutely self-aware and at times exquisitely gorgeous prose. Even, as here, when displayed only occasionally to its best advantage, Handke’s voice is strong and nearly unparalleled in contemporary world literature.

24 March 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Review Section is a piece on Peter Handke’s latest novella, Don Juan: His Own Version, which is translated from the German by Krishna Winston and published by FSG.

Dan Vitale—one of our new “contributing reviewers,” which is sponsored by a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts—wrote this review. He’s a big Handke fan, and although this may not be Handke’s absolute best, it sounds pretty interesting:

Peter Handke’s latest novella to be published in English translation is narrated by a chef who operates and lives in an inn in the Île-de-France region outside Paris, near the ruins of the Port-Royal-des-Champs convent. Experiencing a period of solitude due to lack of business (all his neighbors — his potential customers — have moved away), he occupies his time reading. Thus, he is an ideal audience for a visiting storyteller who suddenly and fancifully appears in his garden: a visitor from another century and out of the pages of literature — the legendary lover Don Juan.

Handke, in addition to being a brilliant, occasionally controversial playwright and essayist, has for four decades written numerous brief, brilliant, piercing novellas (and two longer works of fiction, including his masterpiece My Year in the No-Man’s-Bay). These works have carried forward the tradition of intensely psychological German-language modernism (Handke is Austrian) and at the same time taken it in new, breathtaking, highly self-conscious directions. A simple recital of some of his titles — The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick; A Sorrow Beyond Dreams; A Moment of True Feeling; and the collection of journal entries The Weight of the World — is enough to capture the dual atmosphere of mournful angst and tender beauty in which his entire oeuvre is steeped.

So, the entrance of the title character in Don Juan: His Own Version is, for Handke, uncharacteristically lighthearted, even farcical.

Click here to read the full review.

2 March 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next four days, we’ll be featuring each of the ten titles from this year’s Best Translated Book Award poetry shortlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



If I Were Another by Mahmoud Darwish. Translated from the Arabic by Fady Joudah (Palestine, FSG)

This guest post is by Brandon Holmquest—poet, translator, and editor of CALQUE. Brandon is devoted to the reception and promotion of international poetry, so I’m really glad he was able to serve on the panel this year. And write up a couple books!

Translation has a lot of unintended consequences, like most human endeavor. Obviously it brings a given work, or the work of a given writer, to a new audience. At times, in doing so, it carries with it a literally “foreign” concept of poetry itself or, in the case of Mahmoud Darwish, of the poet as a social institution. It’s all well and good to say Darwish was “the national poet of Palestine,” but even a cursory examination of that statement reveals complications. For one, Palestine is not technically a nation at all, so how does that work, exactly? And so on.

Questions of this kind are germane to Darwish’s work, especially the late work. He was well aware of his role in Palestinian culture, as a representative, spokesman, voice, etc. He took that role and its responsibilities very seriously. Over time, this had a marked effect on his work, for example in his serious attempt to speak for and to all levels of Palestinian society, the doctors as well as the refugees, which lead him away from opacity and towards story-telling, parables, and other such devices.

This same phenomenon can be seen in the work of other poets who shared Darwish’s circumstances, writing to and for a people undergoing a difficult history. Zbigniew Herbert in Communist Poland, Nicanor Parra in Pinochet’s Chile. In such cases, what it means to simply be a poet is very different from anything we’ve experienced in this country in a very long time, perhaps since Whitman.

An American poet picking up Fady Joudah’s translations encounters this very quickly. Translation foregrounds the content of such work. All of these poems might well have been written in one or another complicated form. In Arabic, they may be in quantitative verse and rhyme like the devil himself. In English, they read like so:

If I were another on the road, I would not have looked
back, I would have said what one traveler said
to another: Stranger! awaken
the guitar more! Delay our tomorrow so our road
may extend and space may widen for us, and we may get rescued
from our story together: you are so much yourself . . . and I am
so much other than myself right here before you!

Well constructed, somewhat conservative free verse, which is pretty vanilla stuff in contemporary English-language poetics. The kind of poems people can “understand.”

And our hypothetical American poet either writes Darwish off, which would be stupid, or s/he takes a deep breath and starts to rethink some things, and maybe as a result that poet’s idea of the possible, the valid and the poetic expands.

Because, really, fifty million Elvis fans just can’t be wrong. And once that happens, things get very interesting very quickly. Once one accepts Darwish’s self-evident validity as a poet who says things, the next thing is to wrestle with what it is he’s saying.

It is here that If I Were Another becomes very valuable. It is a collection of Darwish’s very late work, very well and elegantly translated. As such, it contains some of his most intellectually and emotionally nuanced work. Poems you meditate over, argue with, or simply contemplate; poems that make statements in compact, associative and/or Aesopish way impossible for prose. Poems that, even in Joudah’s English, sound like pure Darwish.

26 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This post is giving away something about the make-up of the ten “Best Translated Book of 2008” poetry finalists . . . But whatever, there were four great poetry anthologies that came out this past year that deserve a bit of extra recognition, so in advance of tomorrow’s announcement, here are a few extra books worth checking out:

New European Poets edited by Kevin Prufer and Wayne Miller is one of the most comprehensive books of the year. Here’s the opening from Margarita Shalina’s great review:

It is difficult to get beyond the novelty inherent in the New European Poets project. Its remarkable scope, breadth and depth show-cases 290 poets representing 45 nations, all bridged by nearly 200 translators and directed by 24 regional editors. Every contributing poet’s first collection was published in or after 1970. The motivation behind the project is two-fold, reintroduce and reengage American readers with European poetry and express how the borders of Europe have been redrawn in recent decades there by altering its regional identities along with its identity as a whole. And what is contemporary Europe anyway?

This is a mammoth book, and a necessary one for anyone interested in contemporary European poetry.

*

Belonging: New Poetry by Iranians Around the World is edited and translated by Niloufar Talebi, and features a range of contemporary Iranian poetry. Peter Conners reviewed this for us and had this to say:

After reading her introduction and the first few sections of Belonging, I realized that Talebi had accomplished perhaps the greatest service that a translator of Iranian poetry for American audiences can provide: she made the Iranian poetic landscape feel familiar. Not only familiar, but modern, full of laughter, rich with wonder, completely joyful and terrible and worthy of revisiting multiple times. Without being able to compare it to the original Persian, I can only say that the poetry in Talebi’s translations is lucid, rich with music, and highly accessible.

In addition to this anthology, it’s worth checking out Niloufar’s Translation Project as well. She’s doing a lot of great things for Persian literature as a whole, and the blend of text and performance is unique and very compelling. (In fact, if you happen to be in San Francisco next week, you should check out the 2nd Annual Iranian Literary Arts Festival that the Translation Project is putting on.)

*

Part of the NEA’s International Exchange program, Contemporary Russian Poetry is an ambitious undertaking. Edited by Evgeny Bunimovich and Jim Kates, it features forty-four Russian poets, all born after 1945. It also features dozens of great Russian translators as well.

(As a sidenote, one of the books I’m looking forward to in 2009 is Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction, another NEA project that Dalkey is publishing. Edited by Alvaro Uribe and Olivia Sears, this looks like a great round-up of the current literary scene in Mexico.)

*

Edited and translated by David Hinton, _Classical Chinese Poetry is another book that, if for nothing else, deserves some praise for its enormous scope:

With this groundbreaking collection, translated and edited by the renowned poet and translator David Hinton, a new generation will be introduced to the work that riveted Ezra Pound and transformed modern poetry. The Chinese poetic tradition is the largest and longest continuous tradition in world literature, and this rich and far-reaching anthology of nearly five hundred poems provides a comprehensive account of its first three millennia (1500 BCE to 1200 CE), the period during which virtually all its landmark developments took place. Unlike earlier anthologies of Chinese poetry, Hinton’s book focuses on a relatively small number of poets, providing selections that are large enough to re-create each as a fully realized and unique voice. New introductions to each poet’s work provide a readable history, told for the first time as a series of poetic innovations forged by a series of master poets. From the classic texts of Chinese philosophy to intensely personal lyrics, from love poems to startling and strange perspectives on nature, Hinton has collected an entire world of beauty and insight. And in his eye-opening translations, these ancient poems feel remarkably fresh and contemporary, presenting a literature both radically new and entirely resonant.

3 April 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

So, following up on yesterday’s post about the coverage of Bolano in The Nation and at Bookninja, today Michael Orthofer at the Literary Saloon has info about the anxiously awaited 2666, Bolano’s final book, and supposed magnum opus.

How very exciting to find that, at least on the American Amazon.com site, Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, in Natasha Wimmer’s translation, can now be pre-ordered (and judging by the sales ranks, some people already have). Better yet, FSG is apparently making it available both in a three-paperback-volume boxed set as well as a 912-page hardcover — both available on 11 November.

I’m a big fan of the dual three-paperback and hardcover printing—fantastic idea, especially for a “difficult” 900+-page book. Although I’m willing to do/sell/admit to anything to get a galley version . . .

And to follow up on a comment I made at the Columbia Translation conference—basically, that I had heard Natasha Wimmer wrote a really great overview piece on Bolano that was distributed with the galleys and helped reviewers in writing about the book—the article in question is actually available online.

25 July 07 | Chad W. Post |

The new Peter Nadas book is out— Fire and Knowledge —and received a nice, thoughtful review from Benjamin Lytal in today’s New York Sun.

(I may be repeating myself, but seriously, Ben gets to review the cream of the crop . . . )

The book sounds interesting, but also seems to be one of those mishmash books of essays and discarded fiction that is interesting in part, but isn’t worth reading all 400-pages. . . . I’m really looking forward to the new novel that’s on its way. I believe it’s part of a trilogy that FSG will be publishing. Supposedly it’s on the scale of The Book of Memories, which I’ve heard FSG (or Picador, I forget) is reissuing this soon.

....
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