15 September 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

While looking back at an episode in his life, twenty-year-old Taguchi Hiro remembers what his friend Kumamoto Akira said about poetry.

Its perfection arises precisely from its imperfection . . . . I have an image in my head. I see it clearly before me. Its colors are glaring and harsh in their brightness. But as soon as I rush to capture it, it explodes, and what I write down are separate bits that don’t form a whole. Do you see it now? It’s as if I tried to glue together a broken vase, piece by piece. But the shards are so fragmentary that I don’t know which goes with which or how I fit them together, there’s always one fragment left over. But this fragment! It makes the poem. It alone gives meaning . . . . My requiem should be a vase with water shooting through the glue in its cracks.

Soon after this speech, Kumamoto wrote this “requiem”—which he also called “his poem”—and now Hiro is writing his. Also, like his friend, Hiro is fixated on a broken object; in this case, it’s his bedroom wall, which has a hairline fissure that he’s been staring at for the last two years, so he can figure out how to fit himself inside it. Hiro has spent a lot of time staring at this crack, because following a traumatic incident when he was eighteen, he became a hikikomori, a young person who shuts him- or herself in a room and has no interaction with anyone else. Even though his parents still left food at his door, they pretty much gave up on him. However, at the beginning of this wonderful novel from Japanese-Austrian writer Milena Michiko Flašar, Hiro finally re-emerges into the outside world.

After leaving his parents’ house, he makes his way through the hustle and bustle of the city streets and finds sanctuary in a park he remembers from his childhood. Every day for months, he sits on the bench in the park, alone and indifferent to his surroundings. Then, one day, Ohara Tetsu appears. Hiro calls this man, who is sitting on the bench beside his, “Necktie” because of the red-and-gray striped tie he wears with his suit. At first, Hiro quietly observes this man as he eats his lunch, reads his paper, and takes naps. For a couple of weeks, they share the same spot in the park without saying much to each other, although Hiro begins to wonder why he spends so much time in the park instead of an office. Then one day, “he looked at me unexpectedly through the rain. I jumped up. I hadn’t counted on that. Not with this unexpected knowing look. I’m not alone, it said, you are there.”

At this point, Hiro begins to “fall out of his cocoon” and allows himself to befriend this “salaryman” in his mid-fifties. The two start out with a silent understanding, but eventually Hiro, who had unsuccessfully tried to forget how to speak, and Tetsu engage in a conversation. Actually, Tetsu does all the talking. After making small talk about the dangers of smoking and the work his wife Kyōko puts into his bento box lunches, he confesses that he hasn’t yet told her that he was fired for sleeping on the job.

From that moment, Hiro, despite his initial reluctance, becomes Tetsu’s confidant. For months, they meet each other every day in the park; when it rains, they hang out in a jazz club. At first, it seems that these two unlikely friends couldn’t be more opposite. After all, Hiro has never been in the workforce—and doesn’t appear to have any plans to enter it—while Tetsu has dedicated most of his life to the firm that eventually fired him. However, as they start to share painful moments from their pasts, they realize that they have something important in common: both came from families that put pressure on them to be and act a certain way. So while Tetsu did not shut himself in his bedroom in his parents’ house, he shut himself off from the world in other ways. Furthermore, like Hiro, Tetsu is starting to experience freedom once again.

I Called Him Necktie is a story about wanting to belong to a world that has allowed you that freedom. Hiro wants to belong to his family again, while Tetsu wants to continue to be useful to his wife. As their friendship grows, the two learn they cannot just shut themselves in a room or a nightclub or even in an office. They have to exist as flesh-and-blood human beings with souls in an increasingly mechanical world. They have to live. But fortunately, they also have each other to help them through it.

Flašar further strengthens the bond between her characters through her minimal prose style, which comes through wonderfully through Sheila Dickie’s sensitive translation. Flašar doesn’t just discuss poetry in her novel: Hiro’s simple, childlike narration has its own unique rhythm that not only fit his character, but it never gets caught up in all of the noise and flash outside of the park. Instead, as a narrator, Hiro focuses on the delicate nature of human beings. In addition, the minimal use of punctuation shows a language that is unhampered by formality, so it flows like the water through the cracked vase mentioned in Kumamoto’s speech. Because of the touching story and poetic quality of the prose, I Called Him Necktie is a book that readers of literature-in-translation will definitely want in their collection.

4 September 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Christopher Iacono on Letter from an Unknown Woman by Stefan Zweig, translated by Anthea Bell and published by Pushkin Press.

In case you’ve forgotten, Chris is a writer, copy editor, and proofreader from Methuen, MA; he’s also a regular reviewer for Three Percent and runs the Good Coffee Book Blog, and Twitter-publicly apologized for ruining Murakami for me. He’s a good guy.

Have we mentioned how much we LOVE Pushkin Press’s covers I mean good hot damn.

Anyway, here’s the beginning of Chris’s review:

After a mysterious woman confesses to an author simply known as “R” that she has loved him since she was a teenager, she offers the following explanation: “There is nothing on earth like the love of a child that passes unnoticed in the dark because she has no hope: her love is submissive, so much a servant’s love, passionate and lying in wait, in a way that the avid yet unconsciously demanding love of a grown woman can never be.” This theme of a child’s submissive love runs throughout Stefan Zweig’s story collection Letter from an Unknown Woman and Other Stories.

In the title story, which kicks off this collection, a woman sends a letter to “R” for his birthday, announcing that her son has died and that his receipt of her letter means that she has died as well. After this announcement, she tells him that she began to love him before he even moved into the apartment building in Vienna where she also lived: She was fascinated by his imported objects and expensive books in different languages. After the first time she saw him, this love grew even more intense. Then, one day, after a chance encounter where he simply smiled at her, she became his “slave.”

She remained his slave, even after her mother and stepfather moved out of the apartment building and into a villa in Innsbruck. In fact, she made trips back to Vienna just to see him. Despite the fact he was usually seen with other women, she still saved herself for him, even rejecting marriage offers from men who were willing to take care of her and her son.

For the rest of the review, go here.

4 September 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

After a mysterious woman confesses to an author simply known as “R” that she has loved him since she was a teenager, she offers the following explanation: “There is nothing on earth like the love of a child that passes unnoticed in the dark because she has no hope: her love is submissive, so much a servant’s love, passionate and lying in wait, in a way that the avid yet unconsciously demanding love of a grown woman can never be.” This theme of a child’s submissive love runs throughout Stefan Zweig’s story collection Letter from an Unknown Woman and Other Stories.

In the title story, which kicks off this collection, a woman sends a letter to “R” for his birthday, announcing that her son has died and that his receipt of her letter means that she has died as well. After this announcement, she tells him that she began to love him before he even moved into the apartment building in Vienna where she also lived: She was fascinated by his imported objects and expensive books in different languages. After the first time she saw him, this love grew even more intense. Then, one day, after a chance encounter where he simply smiled at her, she became his “slave.”

She remained his slave, even after her mother and stepfather moved out of the apartment building and into a villa in Innsbruck. In fact, she made trips back to Vienna just to see him. Despite the fact he was usually seen with other women, she still saved herself for him, even rejecting marriage offers from men who were willing to take care of her and her son.

Perhaps it was folly, for then I would be living somewhere safe and quiet now, and my beloved child with me, but—why should I not tell you?—I did not want to tie myself down; I wanted to be free for you at any time. In my inmost heart, the depths of my unconscious nature, my old childhood dream that one day you might yet summon me to you, if only for any hour lived on. And for the possibility of that one hour I rejected all else, so that I would be free to answer your first call. What else had my whole life been since I grew past childhood but waiting, waiting to know your will?

On a couple of occasions, he does summon her, and she submits, but things do not turn out the way she always dreamed they would be.

“A Story Told in Twilight” is another story about submissive love that goes unnoticed in the dark—figuratively and literally. A young man, who is staying with some friends in Scotland, is visited one evening by a vision in white, a mysterious girl whose identity is obscured by the twilight. The girl kisses him, and he falls in love. After she visits him again the next night, he is determined to discover her identity. Based on a single clue, he believes that she is Margot, the oldest of his three cousins. Even though Margot never shows any affection toward him, he wants her to reveal herself as the mysterious girl. When she doesn’t, he begins to feel tormented and causes harm to himself and the one who truly loves him.

No harm is caused in the third story, “The Debt Paid Late”; in fact, that story can be seen as the perfect counterpoint to “Letter from an Unknown Woman.” Like the first story, “The Debt Paid Late” is narrated by a woman writing a letter; however, this time, she is married to a doctor and telling her story to a longtime friend. This story begins at the end of a stressful year of taking care of her daughter’s children, who all had scarlet fever, and arranging her mother-in-law’s funeral. Feeling that she’s worn out, her husband recommends that she spend a few weeks in a sanitarium. Instead, she decides to stay at an inn in an isolated village in the mountains. On her first night there, however, she encounters a former stage actor from her past. This encounter triggers memories from her days as a naïve girl who believed that she was in love with him; as a result, she made herself vulnerable to danger. These memories make her realize that she is obligated to help the actor now that he is in a low point in his life.

Memories of the past are also evoked in the last story, “Forgotten Dreams,” which is the shortest story in the collection. During his visit to a seaside villa, a man reunites with a woman he once loved and reproaches her for marrying “that indolent financier with his mind always bent on making money.” He tries to remind her of the “independent idealist” she once was. However, she tries to convince him—and herself—that no one really understood her as a girl, and her husband has really made her dreams come true.

What makes these stories great is Zweig’s brilliance in capturing the complicated feelings of the characters as they dwell on the lost loves of the past. As they look back, they realize that they didn’t understand the risks that came with submitting themselves to love. While describing these risks, their thoughts and words are sometimes imbued with joy, sometimes with sadness. It’s tricky to keep these emotions balanced, especially within the confines of a short story, yet Zweig manages to do just that. As a result, he is able to shed light on what the unknown woman called the “love of a child that passes unnoticed in the dark.”

19 March 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Emily Davis on Zbinden’s Progress by Christoph Simon, translated by Donal McLaughlin (and with an introduction by Barbara Trapido), recently out from And Other Stories.

Due to some schedule hiccups (prep for AWP, AWP, post-AWP) and other interference (Scranton, PA, tinkering with the Web World in a manner that made the site inaccessible from outside University networks for the past two days), we finally kick back into our regular schedule of reviews and review posts. Not much more to say on that subject, so just take a look at And Other Stories’s covers—they’re fun! And we like the And Other people (People?, capital P?) in general, so that, too.

“Walking” novels seem to be something authors go back to again and again, reaching as far back (and probably farther) as Jane Austen (yes I did just go there), using it as a tactic to drive dialogue, narrative, etc. Open Letter’s own Sergio Chejfec uses walking frequently in his prose as a wonderful narrative device. What strikes me as fascinating is the many ways in which walking is put down on paper—no two authors seem to approach or apply the action quite the same way, rendering very different and delightful results. Here’s a part of Emily’s review (which I know for a fact she wrote, inspired, after taking a walk. FULL CIRCLE.):

The narrative style of Zbinden’s Progress is a sort of monodialogue: it’s not quite a monologue, though Zbinden’s is the only voice we hear. Nor is it a dialogue exactly, though Zbinden occasionally asks Kâzim a question and we can infer, from Zbinden’s side, that Kâzim both answers Zbinden’s questions and asks him some of his own. Zbinden is constantly interrupting himself to greet and have short conversations with all the other residents and caretakers he meets on his way down the stairs, but again, even though there are pauses to indicate the other people’s responses and we can more or less infer what they’ve said based on Zbinden’s replies, the only words on the page are the ones Zbinden speaks.

In a way, the narrative form mimics a walk: walking can be a social activity, and you might interact with any number of people (or animals, or trees, or buildings, if that’s more your style) along the way, but at its heart, walking is a highly individual experience, in that the impressions left by the walk, although they may be influenced by others, are ultimately the walker’s own.

Walking—and to be more specific, going for a walk—strikes me as a very human activity. We might go for a stroll around the neighborhood or a hike through the woods; our ancestors may have trekked across a continent as pioneers on the Oregon Trail or in much earlier migrations as hunter-gatherers. Walking is one of the simplest, most ancient ways of interacting with and exploring the world we live in, and as humans in an increasingly indoor and insular world, we might do well to take Zbinden’s advice and take the time to get to know the world outside.

For the full review, mosey on over here.

16 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is SUPER EFFING CREEPY, and is by Phillip Koyoumjian on Jeremias Gotthelf’s The Black Spider, newly translated by Susan Bernofsky, who god only knows how didn’t need therapy after translating this, and out from New York Review Books, who will be responsible for my nightmares tonight. (I love you all.)

Just from reading the intro paragraph to Phillip’s review I want to both read this book and promptly burn it to, as my grandmother would say, “Get the fusel out.”1 I’m a fan of high literary heebie-jeebies, and a fan of knowing all-things-entomology is the source of 99.9% of movies and books of things that scare the shit out of us—and HOLY HELL does this book sound awesomely horrific—but spiderbugs and evil infestations strike a conflicted cord. Ain’t no amount of Mason jars and notecards going to stop this mess… But oh, how good this book sounds.

Here’s a bit of Phillip’s review:

Framed by a “contemporary” (i.e. nineteenth century) christening feast in the same village, the story of the spiders narrated by an old man is prompted by a comment about an incongruously dark post in his home. He carries his audience centuries back to a time when a cruel knight imposed impossible burdens upon the villagers. Desperate, they debate whether or not to accept a deal from Satan in which they exchange an unbaptized child for his assistance. One villager makes the decision for them by agreeing to Satan’s terms, albeit believing she can outwit him. What follows is the town’s attempt over several generations to prevent the loss of a soul and keep tethered the forces of evil that they allowed to become unleashed in their town.

The Black Spider, while a chillingly satisfying horror story, could be found in the Old Testament. God’s people, subjugated by a cruel ruler, acquiesce to the temptations of evil and lose their trust and fear in God (and of course all of this is instigated by a woman). The people are punished; only the faithful are preserved. A priest finally rids the land of evil, and the villagers and their descendants resume their piety and holiness. But then they lapse, and the evil is unleashed again, and again the evil is contained, although this time by a repentant layman (initially misguided, of course, by women). Thus it serves (or served) as a warning of the perils of sin and virtue of redemption, this time in the Alps rather than along the Jordan. That the author of this work was a pastor is probably more than coincidental.

For the rest of the review, go here.

fn.1 While the definition of fusel is this, my grandmother uses it to mean “all things that are bad.” You can get the fusel (as is appropriate) out of wine, out of foods, out of yourself (by taking hot baths), but you cannot—absolutely cannot—get it out of children. That’s locked in there until they grow up.

16 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

In The Black Spider (Die schwarze Spinne —here newly translated by Susan Bernofsky), Jeremias Gotthelf—the pseudonym of Swiss pastor Albert Bitzius—spins a morality tale of evil in a Swiss hamlet. Originally published in 1842, The Black Spider illustrates with terrifying vividness a village tormented by deadly spiders over several generations. This is more than just a story of gratuitous horror: it presents the cause of this terrible affliction and the villagers’ (periodic) deliverance from it as lessons in sin and redemption.

Framed by a “contemporary” (i.e. nineteenth century) christening feast in the same village, the story of the spiders narrated by an old man is prompted by a comment about an incongruously dark post in his home. He carries his audience centuries back to a time when a cruel knight imposed impossible burdens upon the villagers. Desperate, they debate whether or not to accept a deal from Satan in which they exchange an unbaptized child for his assistance. One villager makes the decision for them by agreeing to Satan’s terms, albeit believing she can outwit him. What follows is the town’s attempt over several generations to prevent the loss of a soul and keep tethered the forces of evil that they allowed to become unleashed in their town.

The Black Spider, while a chillingly satisfying horror story, could be found in the Old Testament. God’s people, subjugated by a cruel ruler, acquiesce to the temptations of evil and lose their trust and fear in God (and of course all of this is instigated by a woman). The people are punished; only the faithful are preserved. A priest finally rids the land of evil, and the villagers and their descendants resume their piety and holiness. But then they lapse, and the evil is unleashed again, and again the evil is contained, although this time by a repentant layman (initially misguided, of course, by women). Thus it serves (or served) as a warning of the perils of sin and virtue of redemption, this time in the Alps rather than along the Jordan. That the author of this work was a pastor is probably more than coincidental.

The villagers are flat and more or less archetypes (the fallen woman, the good priest, the evil lord), but character development is not essential to experiencing Gotthelf’s horrifying evocation of paranoia and fear. He deftly illustrates the terror the spiders wreak among the villagers, not least when the spider on Christine’s face unleashes its full wrath:

. . . Christine felt as if her face was bursting open and glowing coals were being birthed from it, quickening into life and swarming across her face and all her limbs, and everything within her face had sprung to life, a fiery swarming all across her body. In the lightning’s pallid glow she saw, long-legged and venomous, innumerable black spiderlings scurrying down her limbs and out into the night, and as the vanished they were followed, long-legged and venomous, by innumerable others.

This ought to serve as a warning to any arachnophobes: Gotthelf does spares no detail in his description of the hairy, spindly legs of spiders creeping up the necks of the villagers or the spiders’ beady eyes watching them in their sleep.

The Black Spider is a delightfully creepy tale of a town plagued not by some weird monster or flesh-eating plague, but by the very real (albeit not ubiquitous) venomous spider. As an admonition against sin and a call to faithfulness it may be of more interest to some than to others. However, as a horror story, it ought to terrify every reader and make him wonder if the feeling on the back of his neck are hairs standing up in fear, or tiny hairy legs crawling upward toward his head.

6 September 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is from Tiffany Nichols on Patrick Roth’s Starlite Terrace, from Seagull Books.

Tiffany also reviews literature in translation for the San Francisco and Sacramento Book Reviews and runs the mouthwatering food porn and book-geeking Tumblr blog tiffany ist. Here’s the beginning of her review:

Every fictional work set in L.A. begins with a slow crawl through its streets in the early hours of the morning right after sunrise. Maybe it’s always done this way to emphasize the vast sprawl of the city and highlight the loneliness of its inhabitants, or maybe it’s intended to emphasize that L.A., like New York, is only quiet from 4 a.m. to 6 a.m. Starlite Terrace is no different. So sit back, relax, and cruise around the streets of Sherman Oaks and Hollywood with no purpose or direction.

Starlite Terrace provides no new insights about L.A. or literary fiction, but its redeeming quality is that it seems to be a poetic extension of Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero, featuring analogous characters in their twilight years who were in their prime in the 50s and 60s instead of the 70s and 80s. These characters are as alone and lost as the ones of Less Than Zero, but more attached to reality—probably due to old age.

The work consists of four short stories related by loneliness and despair featuring a cast of residents living in the same apartment complex under the same name as the work. This collection of stories explores the lives of four respective residents through observations and interactions with other neighbors in the apartment complex. Like any apartment complex, the phenomena where neighbors who know the most about you are the ones you speak to the least holds true in Starlite Terrace. The first and last stories in the collection, which focus on loneliness and ill-formed memories based on illusion, frame the inner two stories concerning despair and taking desperate measures to find and attempt to win back lost loved ones.

For the rest of the review, go here.

6 September 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Every fictional work set in L.A. begins with a slow crawl through its streets in the early hours of the morning right after sunrise. Maybe it’s always done this way to emphasize the vast sprawl of the city and highlight the loneliness of its inhabitants, or maybe it’s intended to emphasize that L.A., like New York, is only quiet from 4 a.m. to 6 a.m. Starlite Terrace is no different. So sit back, relax, and cruise around the streets of Sherman Oaks and Hollywood with no purpose or direction.

Starlite Terrace provides no new insights about L.A. or literary fiction, but its redeeming quality is that it seems to be a poetic extension of Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero, featuring analogous characters in their twilight years who were in their prime in the 50s and 60s instead of the 70s and 80s. These characters are as alone and lost as the ones of Less Than Zero, but more attached to reality—probably due to old age.

The work consists of four short stories related by loneliness and despair featuring a cast of residents living in the same apartment complex under the same name as the work. This collection of stories explores the lives of four respective residents through observations and interactions with other neighbors in the apartment complex. Like any apartment complex, the phenomena where neighbors who know the most about you are the ones you speak to the least holds true in Starlite Terrace. The first and last stories in the collection, which focus on loneliness and ill-formed memories based on illusion, frame the inner two stories concerning despair and taking desperate measures to find and attempt to win back lost loved ones.

“The Man at Noah’s Window” concerns Rex, a regular at Noah’s Deli near the apartment complex, who is trying to find substance in his life based on a myth that his father’s hands were used as a stand-in for Gary Cooper’s in High Noon. However, when Rex passes away and the narrator views the film searching for a hand double, he finds no evidence that one was ever used.

“Solar Eclipse” focuses on a father, Moss, who contemplates hiring a hit on his runaway wife, only to be preempted when the hit man is killed at the planned rendezvous point the day before they were to exchange funds.

“Rider on the Storm,” the most disturbing, focuses on Gary, who attempts to track down his lost love after obtaining a gun, only to throw himself into a fire at an L.A. party.

“The Woman in the Sea of Stars” provides murky closure to the collection. June, a collector of wedding gowns who never remarried, randomly reconnects with a relative of her estranged grandfather the day before her 70th birthday. June calls an impromptu celebration that quickly turns macabre when she throws the ashes of her estranged grandfather into the swimming pool of the apartment complex then dives into the water beneath the ashes.

The atmosphere of the novel does have that German Expressionist, early Hollywood noir feel. It is enhanced by Roth’s fleeting references to the German art community that migrated to Hollywood to develop early noir cinema in the 20s and 30s. He also relies heavily on noir film elements such as flashbacks, an unidentified narrator, and characters who are living undesired lives and fulfilling predetermined destinies to progress through the chain of stories.

However, the references to old Hollywood may start to wear on the reader. Therefore, when navigating through this work, brush up on your Hollywood history as it is heavily relied upon and used almost like an additional character in the work. These references are almost to the point of nostalgic reminiscing, leading one to believe that the author has a minor obsession or past with old Hollywood. The references are so plentiful that they might come off as a crutch or some form of intellectual pretension to readers who are not attuned to this time period in L.A:

They say Marilyn1 gazed longingly out her third-floor window every night, that orphanage window on ElCentro, looking across at the illuminated ball. The RJO ball, I mean, the globe over by the corner of Gower and Melrose. It’s still there. In those days, the RKO ball was always lit up at light. Little Marilyn hitched her dream to that ball as she looked out her window, into the light—her dream of being a movie star. Like Jean Harlow.

. . .

I remembered that cemetery on whose sloes D.W. Griffith had shot the Civil War scenes in his silent Birth of a Nation, and realized that, from there, you could see clear across to Burbank. And in the mid-fifties, down below along Pass Avenue, just a stone’s throw from where today the Ventura Freeway cuts through, was the Columbia Rand, with Hadleyville, the town in High Noon, in which Rex’s father was supposed to have served as Cooper’s hand double.

Despite the reliance on esoteric references to the Hollywood of yore and the slow crawling prose (imagine coastal fog slowly rolling over the Hollywood Hills from Santa Monica), the reader will be drawn in either for the all-American allure of all things Hollywood and L.A., despite being a novice of the subject, or by Roth’s ability to slowly and deliberately build a monotonously complex community in such a brief collection of short stories. The reader’s payoff in completing the book is the appreciation for their own relationships, preventing them from being removed and isolated from society like the characters in Starlite Terrace.

1 This is Marilyn as in Marilyn Monroe.

26 August 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is from P. T. Smith on Inka Parei’s What Darkness Was, from Seagull Books.

This book was another one several of our reviewers jumped at, and yet another strong and insanely fascinating sounding piece of German literature, and German literature in translation. That, and Inka Parei has a pretty rad sounding name, and some intriguing titles to boot (The Shadow-Boxing Woman, to name another).

Here’s some of Patrick’s review:

Of all the Holocaust novel genres, the most interesting is often the one that doesn’t describe clearly defined horrors, written with a clarity that brings the events into the present, whether written in present tense or not, but the one grasping at memories, personal or cultural, and even more so the ones of shadow memories, of the gaps that narrators have passed over or lost—_Sebald’s Austerlitz_ one of the definers of this sub-genre. Inka Parei’s What Darkness Was takes this forward, acknowledging that history has been made in Germany since the Holocaust, and that it too can be poorly understood and put into a larger continuum of culture, and lost or denied culture. Set in late 1977 in West Germany and within the addled, lost consciousness of an old man, What Darkness Was isn’t a novel of direct connections, of completeness, of action and reaction, or of explanations for the reader, but instead of gestures toward, of using abstraction, atmosphere to set the reader up to find how it comes together, and what it has to offer from the past and for the future. Its title, embedded in a passage midway through this slim novel, stands as an example, or even a definition of this . . .

At the opening, our old man protagonist is in complete darkness, even literally, but also in his place in life. His house is not his home: it is not one he built, bought, or aged in, but inherited, without being able to remember from whom. Disconnected from his present, “part of him was still living in Berlin;” yet not able to recall enough of his past to bring that to life either. As Parei builds the setting, there is slight humor in an old newspaper with a picture of Elvis that is not, though contemporary for the novel, a cultural calling from the past, refusing idealization by being not the hip-swinging Elvis, but the aged, fat, soon-to-die-on-a-toilet Elvis. Though humor is not a running current, a keenness of detail is, and Katy Derbyshire’s translation preserves the wonderful way that states of being and atmosphere intermingle and become the same . . .

For the rest of the review, go here.

26 August 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Of all the Holocaust novel genres, the most interesting is often the one that doesn’t describe clearly defined horrors, written with a clarity that brings the events into the present, whether written in present tense or not, but the one grasping at memories, personal or cultural, and even more so the ones of shadow memories, of the gaps that narrators have passed over or lost—_Sebald’s Austerlitz_ one of the definers of this sub-genre. Inka Parei’s What Darkness Was takes this forward, acknowledging that history has been made in Germany since the Holocaust, and that it too can be poorly understood and put into a larger continuum of culture, and lost or denied culture. Set in late 1977 in West Germany and within the addled, lost consciousness of an old man, What Darkness Was isn’t a novel of direct connections, of completeness, of action and reaction, or of explanations for the reader, but instead of gestures toward, of using abstraction, atmosphere to set the reader up to find how it comes together, and what it has to offer from the past and for the future. Its title, embedded in a passage midway through this slim novel, stands as an example, or even a definition of this. Until coming across it in the text, the title is vague, but beautiful, then:

The night seemed endless. The old man felt wide awake. He tried to understand what darkness was, how merciless and absolute it was—nothing could chase it away. You could only ever light up tiny parts of a darkness like that, every light source ridiculous in comparison to the sun. Lamps, even very strong ones, had a light that was limited, its end foreseeable with the naked eye.

This shedding of light onto little spots of darkness is the aim of the novel, even while aware of the impossibility of full light, even finding time to dwell in the dark and find beauty. It goes beyond aesthetics, ideas, or any cultural examination, and instead is the core of the novel; indeed it is the plot. This trick, turning usual extraneous-to-the-plot elements into plot, is exciting, original, and makes a compelling read (I planned to put the book down after sixty pages and go to bed, then promised I would stop at ninety, before finally just finishing it in one read). At the opening, our old man protagonist is in complete darkness, even literally, but also in his place in life. His house is not his home: it is not one he built, bought, or aged in, but inherited, without being able to remember from whom. Disconnected from his present, “part of him was still living in Berlin;” yet not able to recall enough of his past to bring that to life either.

As Parei builds the setting, there is slight humor in an old newspaper with a picture of Elvis that is not, though contemporary for the novel, a cultural calling from the past, refusing idealization by being not the hip-swinging Elvis, but the aged, fat, soon-to-die-on-a-toilet Elvis. Though humor is not a running current, a keenness of detail is, and Katy Derbyshire’s translation preserves the wonderful way that states of being and atmosphere intermingle and become the same: “Too little sleep was like a blanket that was too thin or too short, something you could not help tugging at, in a constantly restless and alert state” or the menace behind “the absence of sound in all the lifeless things that cities consist of, the silence of the mortar, the walls and rail, the aluminum casings, the silence of wood and hewn stones.” This world the old man is walking through, it can leave people behind, it can pass over accomplishment and sin—unless someone moves against the silence.

The old man is not obviously that someone. His time is spent in silence, watching his neighbors, half-heartedly contemplating his past while avoiding any participation in his present outside of the watching. His re-entry to both is sparked by the first watched neighbor he has contact with, known only as “the stranger.” The stranger, a recent arrival in the next-door apartment, becomes the central point for the old man’s thoughts, and the center of his actions, along with the actions of the others in the neighborhood. The old man is compelled to know the stranger, to find out more, yet also to keep him no more than a stranger; he is both scared for and scared of. Here is where I can struggle with giving too much away, ruining the few “events.” The blank slate that is the stranger allows him to exist with more than one identity, an identity from the Baader-Meinhof Germany of the novel’s present, given to him by threatening neighbors and by the old man himself, and the unnamed victims of Germany’s past—as “He’s one of them. I have to save him,” passes through the old man’s thoughts.

A struggle between the often separate realities of intellectual, rational understanding of experience, and of immediate physical experience is often played out at the same time as the past vs. present dynamic, one that dominates the old man in simple ways like a reflection on a childhood memory of spinning around and watching objects around dissolve, all while knowing that was only in his eyes and in paralyzing ways, describing the stranger’s eyes, “as though they affected his sight, but he knew that was an illusion. In reality it was him, looking at the stranger, who was distracted by eyes like that, plunged into confusion and overlooking other things.” It at times becomes a fight for sanity, a fight to be able to exist rationally, yet accept one’s experiences, and for the old man, experiences are not always something he wants to accept. He has a home that was gifted to him by an unknown man except for a last name, and all the men he remembers with the name have as guilty a past as he does, as German men of his age did.

Early on, the old man, seeing a scratch he made in paint as he unlocked a door is “unsettled. . . . that he could see across the layers of different coats of paint as if looking back across decades, down to the surface.” Looking at a simple scratch, at such a benign physical marker of the past is too much for him, and during this, the world around him is fogged and scattered, but as he watches more, hears more, tries to act and respond to current events, more and more memories come to him, and more clearly. The physicality of his present as he searches the basement, trying to find out what his neighbors are up to and how the stranger is involved, bring the clearest narrative of his past in the military, culminating in a cold reality that had been until now in that darkness.

This is not to say that What Darkness Was pulls itself into a formal, structured narrative. At the end we are not left with answers, and there is much in the novel that is as unclear to the old man as it is to us, though we are made to wonder if we haven’t lit our lamp bright enough, pushed it into the right corners, or maybe are simply a little too American and don’t know 1977 Germany well enough. Or must some things remain in the darkness and all we can do is bring out the most important things, and not, either intentionally or passively, keep the most dangerous things in the dark, for they will dim the present as well.

16 August 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Rachael Daum on Dark Company: A Novel in Ten Rainy Nights by Gert Loschütz, from Seagull Books.

Rachael (with an “A-E”, thankyouverymuch) I believe it’s been mentioned before, is a former intern-student of Open Letter, and a great friend to and advocate for literature in translation. She won out in the mad grab to get her hands on this book to review: Seagull has been putting out some really exceptional stuff lately (or per usual, I should say), and several of our regular reviewers were pining for Dark Company. And I don’t blame them—it looks like a pretty rad read . . .

Here’s the beginning of Rachael’s review:

If you open Gert Loschütz’s new novel Dark Company expecting a clear answer as to who the titular dark company are, and why the protagonist’s grandfather warned him against them, you are sadly doomed to disappointment. Indeed, if you want a clear linear plotline neatly laid out, a consistent character set, or a steady setting, you’re going to have a rough ride. It is unwise to approach this slender tome anticipating clarity; rather, you’ve got to gird yourself, step warily, and simply go. However, that is a great part of the magic of this new book: the challenge here is to keep up with the narrator, Thomas, in his fluctuating life, and to accept it as impossible. What makes this novel, translated by Samuel P. Willcocks, ultimately satisfying and worthwhile is its glimmering prose, the fascinating and highly changeable life of our protagonist, and the constant rain that ties together every event.

Dark Company is marked as a book “told in ten rainy nights.” In fact, each of the ten chapters opens with a different facet of a cold, rainy night: the rain itself, the chilling wind, the fog, or the artificial light that shines, but offers no comfort to those outside or inside. Indeed, as the book progresses, the weather and the surroundings—different every chapter—themselves become characters that lead Thomas through the narrative. These elements are personified, as the wind is when it opens the third chapter, finding “its way into the house through the cracks to tear the handle from your hand and send the doors slamming. The wind moans in the chimney, rattles the windows, and when I go out at night I can hear a shrill whistling.” The elements here have agency, indeed more than our protagonist, Thomas, ever really seems capable of. The rain that pulls us through the book blocks out all light; the author, who cites Kafka and Rosendorfer as influences to his own style, must consciously equate this lack of natural light to lack of illumination for the characters and the readers. This, however, does not deter a reader—rather, she is swept along with the plot as surely as the people in the book are, straight into the flood.

For the rest of the review and more darkness and rain, go here.

16 August 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

If you open Gert Loschütz’s new novel Dark Company expecting a clear answer as to who the titular dark company are, and why the protagonist’s grandfather warned him against them, you are sadly doomed to disappointment. Indeed, if you want a clear linear plotline neatly laid out, a consistent character set, or a steady setting, you’re going to have a rough ride. It is unwise to approach this slender tome anticipating clarity; rather, you’ve got to gird yourself, step warily, and simply go. However, that is a great part of the magic of this new book: the challenge here is to keep up with the narrator, Thomas, in his fluctuating life, and to accept it as impossible. What makes this novel, translated by Samuel P. Willcocks, ultimately satisfying and worthwhile is its glimmering prose, the fascinating and highly changeable life of our protagonist, and the constant rain that ties together every event.

Dark Company is marked as a book “told in ten rainy nights.” In fact, each of the ten chapters opens with a different facet of a cold, rainy night: the rain itself, the chilling wind, the fog, or the artificial light that shines, but offers no comfort to those outside or inside. Indeed, as the book progresses, the weather and the surroundings—different every chapter—themselves become characters that lead Thomas through the narrative. These elements are personified, as the wind is when it opens the third chapter, finding “its way into the house through the cracks to tear the handle from your hand and send the doors slamming. The wind moans in the chimney, rattles the windows, and when I go out at night I can hear a shrill whistling.” The elements here have agency, indeed more than our protagonist, Thomas, ever really seems capable of. The rain that pulls us through the book blocks out all light; the author, who cites Kafka and Rosendorfer as influences to his own style, must consciously equate this lack of natural light to lack of illumination for the characters and the readers. This, however, does not deter a reader—rather, she is swept along with the plot as surely as the people in the book are, straight into the flood.

There are few constants in the novel, rain, again, being one, and the vanishing of characters being the other. Early on, Thomas admits to a boyish wonder of Henry Hudson, “the explorer I admired above all others for the way he had disappeared. The way he sailed off at dawn (and never returned) spoke to me of true modesty and greatness.” This ominously becomes a veritable tattoo of the novel In almost every single chapter, we are introduced to a person—a colleague in the German Navy, a former lover, a nameless woman working on an angel statue in a workshop—who disappears. The natures of their disappearances are all different: Daniel, a fellow sailor in the British Navy, vanishes after the appearance of an African sailor who joins and introduces voodoo magic to the ship; Katharina, a young woman Thomas shared a night and a tattoo with, seems to melt away with her blood on the pavement after being attacked by some guard dogs, only to appear later in England; her Doppelgänger vanishes with a promise on her lips after chasing after somebody who, in a Marquez-like twist, has Thomas’s face. Thomas’s grandfather, continually referenced to but never seen in the novel, has a theory about vanished people:

He believed that all those who had vanished had not really vanished at all but were all gathered somewhere, in designated places. If I have understood correctly what he was saying, they travel in a particular kind of train which carries them across the length and breadth of Europe, unceasingly: that is to say, they never leave the train. . . . Since these trains are not listed on any timetable and never stop—or stop only in very remote, hidden places—it is difficult to detect them.

It is, then, this baleful continual movement of the train that pushes the narrative along like the rivers and eventual floods of rain do. Thomas—and thus the reader—learns to expect, and accept, their inevitability.

There does seem to be a striking passivity in Thomas’s acceptance of how the narrative plays out, which is baffling. That is, Thomas is content merely to let things happen to him. He repeatedly follows people into the darkness, once even as far as being led to the meeting of a religious cult in which he is apparently “The Promised One.” Thomas yearns to “go back, back to the rivers, the docks, the warehouses where a man could lose himself walking round, not back to my flat by the river but to a boat, and so what if my license had expired . . .” He never helps himself, and in his yearning eventually ends up a worker on a train. As a former skipper, he deals in transit, and never seems to get anywhere himself. His timeline is all but impossible to figure out—was he struck from his position as a skipper because he may have killed a woman? did he meet the woman who resembled Katharina after his work on the train? when did he have the affair with the married woman? when did he meet his possible son? is this the titular dark company?—and this question of time and madness is what sweeps the reader along as surely as Thomas is pushed forward by his work on the boats and on the train, and his life aboard a bus (a sad parody of Noah’s ark) that takes him away from his flooded house. It becomes apparent that Thomas does not trust the reader and indeed keeps things from her, allowing for gross jumps in logic (one moment he is waiting in a bar till “zero hours forty,” and then he admits that “this was the place and I had to wait. If she had come at eleven, we could have sailed at twelve,” with no previous mention to waiting for anyone. Perhaps, the readers reflect drily, he doesn’t trust us with his secret). He eventually references his omissions, finally admitting to them and their fatality: “Add one more fault to my list of omissions. . . . Everything that I have failed to do leaps out at me from the dark, my failures lurk in the driving rain, in the whistling sound overhead.”

It is impossible to read this book and not notice the beautiful translation from German into English by Willcocks. The text reads absolutely effortlessly in translation, with glittering descriptions of Thomas’s surroundings that are timed to an English pace and sound-set perfectly: “Instead [there was] fog, silence and the smell that so often accompanies fog, a smell of fire, a burning smell, a hint of smouldering trees and smoke creeping over the ground at knee height . . .” It is, however, Willcocks’s poetic employ of generally difficult English words that is worth our attention and applause. For example (emphasis mine), Thomas’s “world outside . . . dissolve[s] into a fuzzy stroboscopic fog of impressions,” and Katharina’s dogs, “two deep-chested, powerful beasts . . . stopped at her command (a word? a signal?) and eyed us, obediently, yes, but truculent too, truculent in their obedience.” Willcocks has weighed the very sounds of the words he applied to the English text, resulting in a sensuous, sonorous prose. Ultimately, in the translation itself as in the text, this is a book for a reader looking for a thematic and highly, wonderfully literary challenge, and though the reader is left with gaping questions apathetically unanswered, it can’t be denied that it was worth buckling in for the ride and getting caught up in the flow of the flood with Thomas and the debris of his life.

11 June 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Jennifer Marquart on Anatomy of a Night by Anna Kim, from Frisch & Co.

Jen is a former University of Rochester student, and a translator from German. Her first book-length translation, Ror Wolf’s Two or Three Years Later (Open Letter Books), comes out next week.

Here’s the beginning of Jen’s review:

“At night Amarâq is coated with a darkness as viscous as unmixed colors, neither the fjord nor the mountains, valleys, lakes, or the river exist, there is only a black mass, a void that spreads across the landscape sporadically, pressing what’s left but leaving holes that it fills with abstract elements, moving pictures, waves of light in a sea of light.

At night Amarâq becomes a broad plain that melts the two dimensions into the third, the earth with the sky—suddenly everything is sky.”

Immediately, Anna Kim’s Anatomy of a Night (translated by Bradley Schmidt) draws us in and confines us to a small, five-hour sliver of life in Amarâq Greenland: an impoverished Inuit village that is plagued by a wave of suicides. Over the course of these pages—through deep personal ties and chilling alienation—the topics of poverty, isolation, and suicide swirl around the inhabitants of the town. Is it the poverty and isolation that drives these folks to take their own lives? Is the strained history between Greenland and Denmark a factor? Or is there something more, something deeper and ingrained in Amarâq?

Head over here for the rest of the review.

11 June 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

“At night Amarâq is coated with a darkness as viscous as unmixed colors, neither the fjord nor the mountains, valleys, lakes, or the river exist, there is only a black mass, a void that spreads across the landscape sporadically, pressing what’s left but leaving holes that it fills with abstract elements, moving pictures, waves of light in a sea of light.

At night Amarâq becomes a broad plain that melts the two dimensions into the third, the earth with the sky—suddenly everything is sky.”

Immediately, Anna Kim’s Anatomy of a Night (translated by Bradley Schmidt) draws us in and confines us to a small, five-hour sliver of life in Amarâq Greenland: an impoverished Inuit village that is plagued by a wave of suicides. Over the course of these pages—through deep personal ties and chilling alienation—the topics of poverty, isolation, and suicide swirl around the inhabitants of the town. Is it the poverty and isolation that drives these folks to take their own lives? Is the strained history between Greenland and Denmark a factor? Or is there something more, something deeper and ingrained in Amarâq?

Anatomy of a Night is broken up into one-hour sections, with each section broken down into smaller vignettes. It is in these snippets that we learn about the villagers and their relationships. We are thrown into this insular society without much of an introduction and only over the course of the novel do we see the relationships between people develop and dissolve, and see the emergence of Amarâq as the real binding element. All of these characters are inherently tied to the village in one way or another through generations or a personal calling. Because of the evolving web of stories across the whole of the novel, identifying a key example of this intricate technique is very difficult1; however, one of the most interesting relationships is between Ole and Magnus, two adolescent boys who resolve to commit tandem suicide:

“They wrap the scarves around the bedposts, tie knots. They sit down on the carpet, close to the post, wrapping one end around each of their throats, and knotting them under their chins. They work synchronously, their movements are coordinated, practiced.”

And farther down the page:

“Magnus sits back down on the floor, scoots over to the bed, takes the scarf, wraps it around the end of the bedpost, and knots it under his chin; light from the street falls on the wall, on the pictures Magnus had cut out of magazines and schoolbooks. He considered them outrageously beautiful photos, until about a year ago, when he stopped collecting them because he could no longer remember why he had started. It’s always the same motif: a sandy beach, the ocean in the background so blue it appeared to merge with the sky, but there was no horizon—the horizon was missing in all of the pictures.”

Even during one of the most intimate moments one person can have with another, there still lingers a sense of loneliness and alienation. Though a little more than halfway through the novel, these passages are like a skeleton key, unlocking a well-guarded secret—or maybe they just deepen the mystery.

At times, especially at the very beginning, the prose is a little difficult to grasp hold of, but what really catches and draws you in is Bradley Schmidt’s masterful rendering of Anna Kim’s text. Schmidt’s deft touch allows the prose to sing with full force; a pleasure to read from the first word to the last. Anna Kim’s gorgeous ebook (YES! Ebooks can be gorgeous), published by the new Berlin based Frisch & Co., is a haunting, thoughtful, beautiful work that sticks with you long after it’s done.

1 Here is a map of characters from Frisch & Co., illustrating this point.

25 April 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the course of this week, we will be highlighting all 6 BTBA Poetry Finalists one by one, building up to next Friday’s announcement of the winners. All of these are written by the BTBA poetry judges under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win.” You can find the whole series by clicking here. Stay tuned for more information about the May 3rd ceremony.

Almost 1 Book / Almost 1 Life by Elfriede Czurda, translated from the German by Rosmarie Waldrop, and published by Burning Deck.

Erica Mena is a poet, translator, and editor, not necessarily in that order. Her original poetry has appeared in Vanitas, the Dos Passos Review, Pressed Wafer, and Arrowsmith Press. Her translations have appeared in Two Lines, Asymptote, PEN America, and Words without Borders, among others. She is the founding editor of Anomalous Press.

Most of us have probably never heard of Elfriede Czurda. That’s because this translation is her first publication in English. More interestingly, it’s a translation of (almost all of) her first book to appear in her native German, as well as the entirety of her second book. It’s unusual for poets’ first books to be translated into English, in part because of most publishers’ self-fulfilling expectations that unknown poets are hard to sell, and even harder in translation. But translator, and extraordinary poet herself, Rosmarie Waldrop has an advantage in this sense: she and her husband co-edit this book’s publishing house, Burning Deck, and so can take risks on new work they feel deserving of an English readership. (Burning Deck, I want to point out, brought out the phenomenal BTBA finalist engulf — enkindle by Anja Utler, translated by Kurt Beals that I reviewed last year for Three Percent.)

Which is not to say that Elfriede Czurda is unknown in German. She’s won numerous awards for her work which includes poetry, plays, and criticism, and has published three books in the past five years. But introducing new, living, experimental authors to an English poetry readership already resistant to works of literary translation is a daring move, one that we’re fortunate independent houses like Burning Deck continue to take. And that brings me to why, I think, Almost 1 Book / Almost 1 Life should actually win the Best Translated Book Award this year. It’s utterly daring.

The book is divided into two sections, “Almost 1 Book” and “Almost 1 Life.” The first part of the work is definitively hybrid: it includes lineated verse; long, meandering lines that spill across the page; blocks of prose; images; diagrams; and text-images reminiscent of the world-wide mid-century concrete poetry experiments. Take one page spread of the book as an example, the one that is the most varied:

The verso is the second and page of a section of a long poem called “Mutilation with Intent,” this section titled “manifesto of the stitchomantic cat.” I can’t imagine what the word “stitchomantic” was in the original German, my German being literary nonexistent. What I do know is that it’s evocative, inventive, and fascinating in English. It resonates with schizophrenic. It makes me think of an automated sewing machine, and a particular kind of invented advertising language that might say “stitch-o-matic.” The “-mantic” also could be “manic,” especially given that it’s a cat and all cats are of course neurotic. The recto is a narrative-poem-rhebus of sorts. This sets my mind spinning, thinking about translation of image-reliant poetry; how the images sound in English versus how they sound in German, the meanings that can be read into and out of them shifting based on context (of the poem, and of the culture). Images are percieved to be universal, but of course are far from that.

It’s not all flashy typographics. One of my favorite poems in the first section is a obsessively comprehensive microscopic description of a landscape that shifts into the poets body, and the body of an unknown you:

by the rain-puddled wheel-rutted road on the mossy ground rank
dandelion ribwort plantain clover milkwort grass
on either side of the road pear- apple- and plum-trees galore
a beetle with a black carapace and an orange dot in the lower third
of it climbs up a blade of grass and tries belly-up head-first to reach
the next blade belly and legs pale pink like shrimp shells

The excessive detail, the attempt at wholeness of description, the violence done to the landscape and the body in this attempt, is exquisite.

The second section of the book, “Almost 1 Life,” is a poem composed of seventeen sections with three “editorial digressions” and is part satire, part “(almost) true-life-novel,” and begins with discussion of the work at hand in relation to its reader:

i put the reader off with promises: all our famous animosities will
become characters in this (almost) true-life-novel
the reader’s reaction is not what i expected (he wants to wait and see)

And readers who do wait and see, who are willing to take the risk that Czurda and Waldrop have taken, each in their own language, are richly rewarded. The reward of a work like this is directly proportional to how challenging it is to read. The playfulness of the language belies a serious challenge to readerly poetic expectations, it gives with one hand and takes twice as much with the other. It entrances and disturbs, and stays, like good poetry should, lodged under your skin like a bullet.

8 April 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.

The Hunger Angel by Herta Müller, translated from the German by Philip Boehm, and published by Metropolitan Books

This piece is by BTBA judge Bill Marx, who also runs Arts Fuse, a great source for criticism and commentary on a range of art forms.

In A Thousand Darknesses, her critical study about how literature manages to preserve the memory of the Holocaust, critic Ruth Franklin asserts that “every canonical work of Holocaust literature involves some graying of the line between fiction and reality.” One could apply that claim to the literature about the pitiless existence in the death camps of the period as well, the Russian gulags. Romanian writer Herta Müller’s masterpiece, The Hunger Angel, describes life in a Soviet forced-labor camp right after the war through a powerful, almost uncanny, melding of imagination and first-hand testimony. Beautifully translated by Philip Boehm, this is the finest volume I have read so far by the Nobel prize-winning author, and I have no doubt that it is a canonical work because it meets Ezra Pound’s oft-quoted demand for literature. What’s more, it does so despite the odds—transforming stale pieties and images about the era’s inhumanity into news that stays news.

Back in the early ’60s, critics such as Ted Solotaroff already felt that all that could be said about the horror had been said: “By now there have been a glut of books and articles, reminiscences and diaries, documentary history and objective analyses tell us everything we need to know about the ghettos and prisons and death camps; no survivor need feel compelled to assume the burdens of testimony to the degradation, torture and murder that reiterate through these accounts and finally dull and deaden consciousness of their import.” So much more has been revealed since then.

So how does The Hunger Angel expand our consciousness of this well-worn material? Partly because it deals with what had been a repressed part of Romanian history, an episode that the authoritarian Ceaușescu regime did its best to keep a secret. After the war, Romanians with a German background were sent off to Soviet work camps, where thousands died. Müller explains in her afterword that “the deportations were a taboo subject because they recalled Romania’s fascist past.” She wanted to write about this hushed-up injustice, and spoke to a number of elderly survivors about life in the camps, developing a special relationship with the poet Oskar Pastior. There was talk of a collaboration, but when Pastior died Müller fashioned the material into a novel that evokes, amplified through her distinctive creative vision, the man’s playfully stark poetic sensibility.

The book creates the consciousness of seventeen-year-old prisoner Leo Auberg through his meditations on objects (in his past as well as in the camps), minimalist contemplations of horror that are pungent, sardonic, poetic, humorous, acidic, and heart-breaking. Along the way Müller invents words to describe the dehumanizing experiences that beset the narrator, a compelling language that, according to translator Boehm, evokes “the displacement of the soul among victims of authoritarianism.” The value of such an inspired articulation of historical witnessing is summed up near the end of the book: “Little treasures have a sign that says, Here I am. Bigger treasures have a sign that says, Do you remember. But the most precious treasures of all will have a sign saying, I was there.”

6 April 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.

Awakening to the Great Sleep War by Gert Jonke, translated from the French by Jean M. Snook, and published by Dalkey Archive Press

This piece is by writer, BTBA judge, and runner of Salonica World Lit, Monica Carter.

I will confess that I have a strong predilection for the works of the late Austrian writer Gert Jonke. The opportunity to wax on about his gifts in an open forum led me into dangerous territory: do I unabashedly demand that Awakening to the Great Sleep War win the Best Translated Book Award solely on my enthusiasm or do I try to pragmatically and logically lay out the novel’s superior strengths based on a unbiased literary perspective? I know I should do the latter. But the problem is that his gifts are so unique and particular that his work really defies logic. If you are the type of reader that can wholly surrender your logic and reason to the absurd and surreal fictional worlds Jonke creates, then you will end up loving him as I do and eschewing attempts at critical pragmatism and decorum. You, too, will rant like a literary lunatic when anyone questions his originality or place in the canon of world literature.

Awakening to the Great Sleep War does not have a traditional plot or narrative. None of Jonke’s works are known for their adherence to the basic tenets of story. He is no Robert McKee. In “normal” Jonke works, a character is introduced into an abstract world that can lead the reader in endless philosophical and metaphysical offshoots that give the reader pause to discover their own imagination. In this novel, Burgmüller is the character through which we experience the surreal experience of time, space, love and the city. An “acoustical decorator,” he begins the novel by trying to teach the telemones how to sleep since they have held up buildings for so long, surely they must be tired. As ridiculous as this may sound, Jonke somehow manages to impart a sense of empathy on the reader for an inanimate object and the job of architecture in general. When discovers that the building with the telemones is gone one day, Burgmüller considers the possibilities before he arrives the conclusion that his efforts could have been useful:

Or had they, in his absence, learned how to sleep after all-had they gotten tired at last, as sleepy as petrified darkness pulled in toward the center of the earth when the trap doors to the planet’s cellar began to open?

That’s a reason this novel should win in my opinion. How many authors can pull that off?

Never fear, traditionalists; there is a love story amongst the surreal renderings of our dear Jonke. There are two love stories of the classic sort—man loves woman, she leaves; man loves another woman, she too leaves. Then there is the lesser-known love story between a woman and a housefly named Elvira. But regardless of who loves whom, the love is as poetic and mournful as any other love story, as Jonke displays in Burgmüller’s girlfriend’s plea to love the housefly as she does:

But the most important thing at present, she continued, was to give Elvira a chance to rest, not to frighten her in any way, above all not to make an unnecessary noise, you know, people talk much too loudly, as she was now noticing, and if he would please just put himself in the position of the housefly; just imagine, she explained, if that huge building over there across the way suddenly started a conversation with the church tower behind it, can you imagine how loud their words would sound to you, you would thin the tall building or the church yelling at you, or that they were screaming at each other, do you understand what I mean, and when we talk with each other, it must seem about that loud to Elvira, in future we have to talk much more quietly, better yet, whisper, do you understand, nothing above a whisper!

Burgmüller loves this woman and feels he must love Elvira as much to prove his love for her. It’s one thing to explore the love relationship between a woman and a housefly, but to do it with a blend of humor and poignancy is rarely done in adult literature and done successfully. Through the rest of the novel, Jonke examines the vicissitudes of love with another doomed love affair. Burgmüller falls for a writer who views her typewriter as a “reality-producing projector.” Within one paragraph, the invisible line between reality and art as a reflection of reality is woven into her struggle as an artist to perfectly represent reality and how this struggle affects their relationship:

Unflustered, she crouched at her typewriter, into which she transmitted her tapped signals as usual long into the night, continuing to work on her world, in which her eyes now became a compass rose torn by its own magnetic needle, cut up by the letters of a white-hot cuneiform script, yes, a cuneiform script of the harbor cities that reproduced themselves incisively upon all the coasts with their power-saw boats, in the service of an endless alphabet, like a science without proofs, until the morning flickered like fire from the towers, all of which crossed her lips as usual, whispered in a low voice, while she was sitting at her typewriter as if at a steamship propelled by sewing machines, floating, drifting downstream in the room, midstream in her description, from which he could now hear something about cats with heads like ants, and palm trees with crayfish living in their branches, but that could also have had to do with an entirely different chapter of her story that had crushed on ahead, considering her work tempo he never know how far ahead of him she was at any given time.

Jonke tackles the philosophical questions of literature and art and how the artist struggles between the importance of the word and the importance of what the word represents. Can anyone ever really love in a reality like that? These are questions not often asked to the reader, but nonetheless are always present in the relationship between the writer and the reader. No other novel on the long list challenges us in this way.

A novice translator could easily have mishandled all of Jonke’s absurd, surreal concepts and themes, but Ms. Snook understands the nuance in Jonke’s text to convey the aims of his novel. With a traditional narrative and story structure, it is easier to be more loyal to the text and more literal. In this case, the translator must also understand the abstract concepts and how to put those conceptual ideas in play without sacrificing the wit of Jonke’s style. Thus, this seems one of the most challenging efforts as far as translation is concerned because the translation must carry through thematically as opposed to carrying the story through a conventional structure. Each word holds more weight so that the subtext is present. To have such intimate knowledge of the writer’s work as well as the language clearly makes this novel the strongest translation on the list.

Finally, there is the simple fact that Jonke’s lyrical language paired with his post-modern themes makes for a the most distinctive voice among the top twenty-five books. He was a novelist ahead of his time that created a body of work so magical, original and insightful it would be a disservice to not give the award to Awakening to the Great Sleep War. No other novel on the list is as creative. No other novel on the list offers itself as the masterpiece of the writer’s entire body of work nor solidly establishes that writer as a prominent voice in the history of their country’s literary heritage. Then again, I am in love with Jonke and always will be. And that is lOve with a capital O which is as close to Jonkean love as one can get.

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.

28 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._

The Island of Second Sight by Albert Vigoleis Thelen, translated from the German by Donald O. White and published by Overlook

This piece is by Berlin book person, Amanda DeMarco, who is the brains behind Readux, a literary website with “reviews, interviews, articles, and opinion on German and French books and events.”

“All of the people in this book are alive or were at one time,” begins Albert Thelen’s foreword to The Island of Second Sight. However, they “appear subject to greater or lesser degrees of personal disjuncture, similarly the sequence of events has undergone chronological rearrangements that can even involve the obliteration of all sense of time. In case of doubt, let truth be told.” This is a book, then, with a troubled relationship to reality and an untroubled one to truth. That is, one that claims the ultimate authority of the storyteller.

Just as in his own life, the author’s alter-ego Vigoleis arrives on the island of Mallorca in 1931 with his wife Beatrice, and the pair flee the increasingly inhospitable political climate in 1936. The degree to which the intervening five years hew to Thelen’s biography is debatable; as is the book’s position in the cannon. Lauded as one of the great works of twentieth century literature, The Island of Second Sight is not only under-appreciated abroad (it was first translated into English 57 years after its original publication), but also at home, where its status is rather that of a cult classic, absurd for a book of its stature.

Vigoleis and Beatrice travel to Mallorca because they believe that Beatrice’s brother Zwingli is dying there. Instead they find that he’s been incapacitated by the unstoppable sexual powers of Pilar, a particularly beautiful Spanish prostitute. Thus begins the Vigoleis’s long engagement with putas, whom he greets with the same shoulder-shrugging cheer as the rest of the turpitude and degeneration he encounters on the island, as well as in his own mind: “The philosopher Scheler had been right after all, when he responded to the Archbishop of Cologne, who had accused him of unvirtuous conduct, by asking His Eminence if he had ever seen a signpost that had ever gone in the direction it pointed to.”

Before Vigoleis, too, succumbs to Pilar, she mercifully kicks the couple out and they drift from one absurd lodging and low-paid occupation to the next, two bohemians at the mercy of fortune, never far removed from the moans and wails of the cathouse. A growing gaggle of locals, emigrés, and vacationers populate the story as Vigoleis and Beatrice settle into Mallorcan life. Therise of fascism paints a thickening black streak through the story, whose shadiness is otherwise derived from the more quotidian excesses of various human appetites and failings.

In other reviews, you’ll read about Thelen’s quick-witted Nazi-mocking, including one magisterial scene in which Vigoleis, working as a tour guide (called a “Führer” in German, literally a “leader”) deludes and delights a gaggle of German tourists by narrating their tour with lies that aggrandize the Teutonic tradition. The Island of Second Sight is also praised for its numerous literary allusions, as well as for the diverse intellectuals of the day that Vigoleis comes into contact with and lampoons.

None of these are the reason that The Island of Second Sight should win the Best Translated Book Award 2013. What does make it worthy of the prize is its sheer linguistic fecundity and the contribution it makes to the tradition of narrative. Vigoleis is one of the true great incarnations of the storyteller. He’s very nearly a shape-shifter, and he employs his art not only on rightist tourists, but also lonely heiresses, local functionaries, and first and foremost on the reader.

Vigoleis is so garrulous, clever, and original that you will willingly follow him down any cow-path he cares to tread. Which is every path that offers itself. At 736 pages, discursion is the novel’s mode, and it is hard to say what is plot and what is tangent. Multiple, extended scenes dedicated to the attempted and ultimately counterfeited nonconsensual consummation of the miscegenational union of a purebred Pekinese and a lapdog of impure lineage? Journeys back into childhood, into the Middle Ages? The story of the joke that cost Unamuno his life? Ever-deepening reflections on the failings of Catholicism? On the writings of Teixeira de Pascoaes, whose writings Thelen translated from the Portuguese in real life? On the philosophical significance of the donkey? Why not.

Perhaps even more interesting are the recursive discursions, that is, the ones that themselves reflect on the nature of narrative. Thelen refers to Vigoleis in the third person, except when he doesn’t, for example, when pulling back to comment on his own storytelling prowess, which hazily bleeds into Vigoleis’s as we reenter the stream of the plot. Rumor, translation, transcription, letter writing, note-taking, testifying, confessing, lying for personal gain, lying for sport—every manner in which a story can be transmuted and transmitted has its day in The Island of Second Sight.

The text is as rife with neologisms as archaisms, rhetorical devices as well as low puns, enriched by a sprinkling of words from the six languages Thelen spoke. The book is a lexicographical treasure that particularly delights in the description of all that is base. Beatrice’s debauched brother Zwingli is even the editor of a poly-lingual dictionary of obscenities, to which Vigoleis is naturally a helpful contributor.

That translator Donald White has managed to capture the book’s riotous linguistic profusion is a small miracle. Let me cite one of the innumerable jewels that dot the novel: Vigoleis describes a period of uncharacteristic domestic harmony: “Wherever one looked, it was a scene of peace and concord. It was as if the word puta had been struck from our dictionary.” A paragraph later, Don Darío, fellow lodger and exploiter of Vigoleis’s half-baked business ideas, disrupts this rare bliss. Why? “. . . it was only an American millionaire who had enraged my putative business partner.” Of course, if harmony is puta-free, then an angry man is putative.

This is a book whose form echoes the copiousness of the chaotic, shifting social order it depicts. Filthy, generous, good-natured, manipulative, The Island of Second Sight is an utterly, amply, completely human book, and that is why it deserves to win the BTBA.

19 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Our new GoodReads Giveaway is for Ror Wolf’s Two or Three Years Later: Forty-Nine Digressions, which was translated from the German by Jennifer Marquart and is coming out in June. After struggling for a week this summer trying to figure out to describe this book, we came up with some killer jacket copy—one of the few examples of jacket copy that I’m actually proud of:

bq, Working in the traditions of Robert Walser, Robert Pinget, and Laurence Sterne, Ror Wolf creates strangely entertaining and condensed stories that call into question the very nature of what makes a story a story. Almost an anti-book, Two or Three Years Later: Forty-Nine Digressions takes as its basis the small, diurnal details of life, transforming these oft-overlooked ordinary experiences of nondescript people in small German villages into artistic meditations on ambiguity, repetition, and narrative.

Incredibly funny and playful, Two or Three Years Later is unlike anything you’ve ever read—from German or any other language. These stories of men observing other men, of men who may or may not have been wearing a hat on a particular Monday (or was it Tuesday?), are delightful word-puzzles that are both intriguing and enjoyable.

You can read an excerpt here and you can click below to enter the drawing.


Goodreads Book Giveaway

Two or Three Years Later by Ror Wolf

Two or Three Years Later

by Ror Wolf

Giveaway ends March 31, 2013.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter to win


28 February 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This one is a bitter pill to swallow . . . Way back in July of 2010, I wrote a post about “The Next German Book I Want to See Translated” featuring this video:

Well, two-plus years later, on my birthday, Open Letter brought out Benjamin Stein’s The Canvas, a unique, very readable book about three main characters: two who are present in the book and have a showdown at the middle, and a third, who is mostly off-screen, but whose maybe-falsified memoir about the Holocaust sets this conflict in motion.

One of the interesting things about Stein that I learned during his extensive U.S. reading tour—which was insanely successful, and demonstrated just how much this book connected with readers—was that he appeared at a reading, and knows personally, Binjamin Wilkomirski, the author of the fake Holocaust memoir, Fragments, which inspired this novel.

At each of his events, Benjamin would talk about how he wrote this as a way to deal with the idea of Wilkomirski, who created a fake identity for himself—the man’s not even Jewish—and came to completely incorporate this into his worldview and consciousness. It is an intriguing set-up for anyone interested in psychology or the power of fiction, and one that’s explored marvelously (in my opinion) in The Canvas.

But alas. No Best Translated Book Award for Benjamin and Brian.

You should still buy the book though. It’s damn amazing, and captivating from cover to cover.

18 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Lisa Boscov-Ellen on Thomas Glavinic’s The Camera Killer, which is translated from the German by John Brownjohn and published by AmazonCrossing.

Lisa Boscov-Ellen is another MA student here at the University of Rochester, and translates from Spanish. She was also in my class last semester (and this one!), where she wrote this fairly negative review . . .

The Camera Killer by Austrian writer Thomas Glavinic, translated by John Brownjohn, is a psychological thriller that was first published in 2003 as Der Kameramörde. The unnamed narrator travels to the region of West Styria over Easter weekend with his “partner” Sonja to stay with their friends, Eva and Heinrich Stubenrauch. Shortly after they arrive, the two couples hear about an appalling crime committed nearby, which they and the rest of the public are compelled to follow in the news over the weekend, each with differing reactions. The original report is that a man forced “two children of seven and eight to kill themselves by jumping from tall trees and filmed those crimes with a video camera. A third boy, the deceased children’s nine-year-old brother, managed to escape.” More information is gradually released, such as the fact that the surviving boy is in an induced coma and the mother has been institutionalized, and the video of the crime is even broadcast to the public on the news. The novel (really on the border of being a novella) focuses on the reactions of the four individuals as they follow the manhunt and the media sensationalism of the event.

The disturbing premise is certainly absorbing, and the book is by no means a standard thriller or detective story. However, despite the low page count (it’s just over 100 pages), the book seemed to drag on. Glavinic appears to be equally interested in the ability of his characters to continue on with their ordinary activities and concerns in spite of the horror that edges in. A pretty standard passage reads as follows:

“Heinrich and I put up the net. We marked out the court with discarded articles of clothing and broken twigs stuck in the ground (those of the previous day that had been dislodged by the wind or the nocturnal rainstorm). We also flattened the grass at the edge of the court by treading it down.”

“The wicker basket was unpacked by my partner and Eva. My partner extolled the fact that our short walk there had refreshed her and said we should at once devote the time that remained before the storm broke to playing doubles. We duly did so. Team Heinrich/self beat Team Eva/my partner 15:6. Heinrich pronounced this pointless; the difference in level of ability was too glaring. So we changed partners. My partner and I were narrowly defeated (11:15) by the Stubenrauchs.”

The book follows events like this, with a focus on minute and mundane details, until an arrest is made.

Click here to read the full review.

18 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Camera Killer by Austrian writer Thomas Glavinic, translated by John Brownjohn, is a psychological thriller that was first published in 2003 as Der Kameramörde. The unnamed narrator travels to the region of West Styria over Easter weekend with his “partner” Sonja to stay with their friends, Eva and Heinrich Stubenrauch. Shortly after they arrive, the two couples hear about an appalling crime committed nearby, which they and the rest of the public are compelled to follow in the news over the weekend, each with differing reactions. The original report is that a man forced “two children of seven and eight to kill themselves by jumping from tall trees and filmed those crimes with a video camera. A third boy, the deceased children’s nine-year-old brother, managed to escape.” More information is gradually released, such as the fact that the surviving boy is in an induced coma and the mother has been institutionalized, and the video of the crime is even broadcast to the public on the news. The novel (really on the border of being a novella) focuses on the reactions of the four individuals as they follow the manhunt and the media sensationalism of the event.

The disturbing premise is certainly absorbing, and the book is by no means a standard thriller or detective story. However, despite the low page count (it’s just over 100 pages), the book seemed to drag on. Glavinic appears to be equally interested in the ability of his characters to continue on with their ordinary activities and concerns in spite of the horror that edges in. A pretty standard passage reads as follows:

Heinrich and I put up the net. We marked out the court with discarded articles of clothing and broken twigs stuck in the ground (those of the previous day that had been dislodged by the wind or the nocturnal rainstorm). We also flattened the grass at the edge of the court by treading it down.

The wicker basket was unpacked by my partner and Eva. My partner extolled the fact that our short walk there had refreshed her and said we should at once devote the time that remained before the storm broke to playing doubles. We duly did so. Team Heinrich/self beat Team Eva/my partner 15:6. Heinrich pronounced this pointless; the difference in level of ability was too glaring. So we changed partners. My partner and I were narrowly defeated (11:15) by the Stubenrauchs.

The book follows events like this, with a focus on minute and mundane details, until an arrest is made. The Camera Killer relies perhaps more on what is not said than on what the narrator describes, but the tone doesn’t entirely work. These detailed descriptions, the flat and stilted tone, and the disappointing dénouement detract from the author’s intriguing and Kafka-esque approach. The narrator comes off as cold and robotic, and I imagine that is a deliberate choice to create contrast between the low-key prose and the intensity of the situation rather than a failure on the part of the writer or translator, but the narrator makes a rather dull robot. Rather than being chilling in its banality, it’s just bland.

The narrator is not the only one without much of a personality; the women—or “womenfolk” as they are often referred to—do little more than prepare food, think about food, act scared, and nag the men. Heinrich is the only one with any defining characteristics and that’s basically that he’s an irritating, inconsiderate jerk. The most intriguing character was probably the “fancy-dress cat” that occasionally appears around the house.

It is possible that part of the problem is the translation, although I do not have the knowledge of German to determine if that is the case. Both Glavinic and Brownjohn have received critical acclaim in the past, and this is the third time Brownjohn has published a translation of Glavinic’s work. In fact, Brownjohn has translated over 200 books and has received multiple awards, including the Schlegel-Tieck Prize and the Helen and Kurt Wolff Prize. Glavinic has achieved both critical and commercial success; his book Das bin doch ich (“That’s Me”), was short-listed for the German Book Prize, How to Live (Wie man lebel soll) reached the top of the Austrian best-seller list, and the original version of The Camera Killer, Der Kameramörde, was awarded the Friedrich-Glauser Prize for crime fiction. Nonetheless, there were moments that sounded a bit strange in English, for example: “Masticating, she said it was a glorious day and it mustn’t be spoiled by talk of murder and so on; Eva should bring influence to bear on Heinrich in that regard,” “We betook ourselves to the Café Wurm, surveyed the tables in the garden without sighting our womenfolk, and went inside,” or when the cameraman threatens to “pay the family a visit on October 31st and Halloween them all to death.” The frequent use of “my partner” and “womenfolk” was somewhat irritating, although I suspect that is more likely true to the original.

Perhaps some of my disappointment was due to the fact that the jacket copy described it as “gripping,” which it is not. The twist at the end of the book is very important, and unfortunately I anticipated this surprise quite early on in the book. I’m not convinced that everyone will, and I think my dissatisfaction upon reaching the final lines is absolutely influenced by the fact that I expected them. Overall, I didn’t feel that I wasted the small amount of time it took to get through this short thriller, as it was unique and at times very-well written. However, monotonous narration and occasionally awkward phrasing led me to wish that Glavinic had considered writing The Camera Killer as a short story instead.

2 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is something I wrote about Mark Harman’s translation of Amerika by Franz Kafka, which is the book we’re discussion at the first ever Writers & Books/Plüb Book Club. (Which my iPhone autocorrected to “Book Clüb,” so fuck and yes.)

Anyway, I’m not sure how I never read this before, but I am sure that this isn’t the perfect book for me to be reading at this time . . . Nevertheless, it’s Kafka, it’s stimulating, it brings things up, and I’ve tried to encapsulate my 2013 readerly reaction to this:

A couple years ago, some trickster posted the first page of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest to a Yahoo group looking for advice about “his” new novel. Not surprisingly, the um, yahoos, didn’t recognize the source text and populated the message board with all sorts of terrible advice about the lack of action and the fact that he “knows what to do—just dump it and start over!”

Obviously, this provided a shitton of laughs for the literati, for those who respect DFW’s writing and know that these same yahoos probably cream themselves regularly over Twilight books and Fifty Shades.

Putting aside the snarky cultural divide between those who read “literature” and those who read “fiction,” there is an interesting corollary to this experiment: What happens when we dissociate a text from its author’s reputation?

In the case of Infinite Jest, I think the narrative strategies stand by themselves—that text simply reeks of freshness and risk-taking and competence and something new. (At least at this moment in time.) But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t cases when a reputation taints a book and makes it more than it is. Just look at the critical reaction to J-Franz’s Freedom. Take the Franzen mystique/name off the cover, give it to people with no idea, and the flaws in that book become screamingly apparent.

Anyway, my point in bringing this up: How does one read Kafka after everything in the world has become “Kafkaesque”?

‘When Karl appeared before them and greeted them, they put away the ledgers quickly and picked up some other large books, which they opened. One of them, evidently only a clerk, said: “I should like to see your identity papers.” “Unfortunately, I don’t have them with me,” said Karl. [. . .] “You’re an engineer?” asked the other man, who seemed to be the chief office manager. “Not yet,” Karl said quickly, “but—” “That’s quite enough, [. . .] then you don’t belong here. I would ask that you heed the signs.” [. . .] “Take this gentleman to the office for people with technical skills.” [. . .] In the office into which Karl was now taken, the procedure was, as Karl had foreseen, similar to that in the first office. However, on hearing that he had attended middle school, they sent him to the office for former middle school students. But once in that office, when Karl said that he had attended a European middle school, they declared that they were not responsible for such cases and requested that he be taken to the office for former European middle school students.’

This is funny . . . in a Kafkaesque way. (Sidenote: Reminds me of The Squid and the Whale, when the kid is trying to impress a girl by claiming to love “The Metamorphosis,” a story he’s never read. Him: “It’s really Kafkaesque.” Her: “That’s because it’s written by Kafka.”) But reading this now, after having read The Trial and The Castle and hundreds of other books influenced by this (I feel like George Saunders’s “CivilWarLand” is an updated version of the “Theater of Oklahama”) it feels predictable, like an episode of 30 Rock or something.

So, how do you read Kafka now?

To read the full piece, just click here. And yes, this is how I spent the first day of 2013—writing a review of Kafka. I LOVE YOU, THREE PERCENT READERS.

2 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

A couple years ago, some trickster posted the first page of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest to a Yahoo group looking for advice about “his” new novel. Not surprisingly, the um, yahoos, didn’t recognize the source text and populated the message board with all sorts of terrible advice about the lack of action and the fact that he “knows what to do—just dump it and start over!”

Obviously, this provided a shitton of laughs for the literati, for those who respect DFW’s writing and know that these same yahoos probably cream themselves regularly over Twilight books and Fifty Shades.

Putting aside the snarky cultural divide between those who read “literature” and those who read “fiction,” there is an interesting corollary to this experiment: What happens when we dissociate a text from its author’s reputation?

In the case of Infinite Jest, I think the narrative strategies stand by themselves—that text simply reeks of freshness and risk-taking and competence and something new. (At least at this moment in time.) But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t cases when a reputation taints a book and makes it more than it is. Just look at the critical reaction to J-Franz’s Freedom. Take the Franzen mystique/name off the cover, give it to people with no idea, and the flaws in that book become screamingly apparent.

Anyway, my point in bringing this up: How does one read Kafka after everything in the world has become “Kafkaesque”?

When Karl appeared before them and greeted them, they put away the ledgers quickly and picked up some other large books, which they opened. One of them, evidently only a clerk, said: “I should like to see your identity papers.” “Unfortunately, I don’t have them with me,” said Karl. [. . .] “You’re an engineer?” asked the other man, who seemed to be the chief office manager. “Not yet,” Karl said quickly, “but—” “That’s quite enough, [. . .] then you don’t belong here. I would ask that you heed the signs.” [. . .] “Take this gentleman to the office for people with technical skills.” [. . .] In the office into which Karl was now taken, the procedure was, as Karl had foreseen, similar to that in the first office. However, on hearing that he had attended middle school, they sent him to the office for former middle school students. But once in that office, when Karl said that he had attended a European middle school, they declared that they were not responsible for such cases and requested that he be taken to the office for former European middle school students.

This is funny . . . in a Kafkaesque way. (Sidenote: Reminds me of The Squid and the Whale, when the kid is trying to impress a girl by claiming to love “The Metamorphosis,” a story he’s never read. Him: “It’s really Kafkaesque.” Her: “That’s because it’s written by Kafka.”) But reading this now, after having read The Trial and The Castle and hundreds of other books influenced by this (I feel like George Saunders’s “CivilWarLand” is an updated version of the “Theater of Oklahama”) it feels predictable, like an episode of 30 Rock or something.

So, how do you read Kafka now?

According to all of the intros and quotes and whatnot, this new Mark Harman translation of The Missing Person (which is marked in his desire to not correct a single error—from the intentional misspelling of “Oklahama” to the slip from dollars into pounds to the lack of serial commas, which is ironic, considering this is the American edition) presents the “funny” aspect of Kafka’s writing. But to be completely honest, although there are a few fun scenes, I didn’t find this actually “funny” . . . I mean, maybe in an academic chortling sense, like in the various minor send-ups of the American Dream (Karl is a rags-to-riches-to-lift-boy story because America is fucked), or in certain lines, like “No one wants to be an artist, but everyone wants to be paid for his work.” Amerika isn’t one one-hundredth of one percent as funny as, say, Infinite Jest.

That’s not to say that this book isn’t really good—it absolutely is. But take “Kafka” off the cover, and it’s a 2.5 or 3 star book out of 5 for me.

The sort of social criticism found in here is interestingly contemporary in a lot of ways, but also strikingly pat for a well-read contemporary reader:

And perhaps he wouldn’t even have been admitted to the United States, which was very likely according to his uncle, who was familiar with the immigration laws, and the authorities would have sent him home, completely ignoring the fact that he no longer had a home country. For one could not hope for pity here in this country, and the things that Karl had read about America in that regard were quite true; here it was only those who were fortunate who truly seemed to enjoy their good fortune amid the indifferent faces on all sides.

And it’s this “indifference” that always clogs me up when I’m reading Kafka. Sticking to this novel, the number of injustices heaped on poor Karl is astounding and a bit crippling if you approach this book from a realist angle. All the dismissals and abuses, starting with the stoker and ending with Karl being held hostage to serve a severely overweight “singer,” are depicted in ways that are claustrophobic and infuriating.

One way to read Kafka is historically: He never went to America, but pulled this critique together through other sources, so what was he getting at exactly? And was the book supposed to end happily as he suggested, or like The Trial?

The unfinishedness of it all (the opening chapter, “The Stoker,” being the only part that was satisfactorily edited by Kafka himself) is another troubling aspect to approaching this. Sure, it gets scholars off in all sort of obtuse ways, but that doesn’t mean much to your standard educated reader. Sure, it’s “interesting” in ways that fill class time and shitty MLA presentations, but Amerika’s impact isn’t what it once might have been. The influence of the “Kafkaesque” mindset has, no doubt, and is crucial to understanding the period of art, literature, and society we’re currently living in, but the specific connection between this “novel” and the way one reads the world is a bit more tenuous.

What’s interesting about not-loving a pre-ordained book is that it makes me feel guilty. I’m intentionally eliding lots of aspects of this novel to make a really pedestrian point. That said, I think it’s easy as a publisher/review writer/wanna be respected reader to prop up the already blessed. This is one case where I don’t feel comfortable over-emphasizing the fun parts of the book, and would rather just say, “yeah, it’s just OK.”

6 December 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over at Full Stop, Scott Cheshire has a lot of love for Benjamin Stein’s The Canvas, including this review:

The Canvas is loosely based on the account of Binjamin Wilkomirski, author of Fragments (1995), a tremendously popular Holocaust memoir; like Minksy’s story it was proven to be a fabrication. But when I say loosely based, I mean loosely: Wilkomirski and Minsky are more like ghosts at the center of this book. There is plenty of plot, to be sure — murder, intrigue, interrogation rooms, the inevitable double-cross, and exotic locales — and the pages turn like in a supermarket thriller (or at least one daring enough to substantively tackle the inexhaustible questions of God, death, and memory). The book is ambitious in scope: it is about religious orthodoxy and the transgressive power of literature; it’s also about collective guilt and national identity. Yet The Canvas is so particular in its details that it comes with a glossary appropriately placed in the middle of the novel.

Most disturbing of all, in a novel ultimately about the mutability of memory, are lines like this one from Wechsler: “Someone who stole other people’s identities wouldn’t stop short of murder.” Is this true? And if so, what does it say about Minsky or Wilkomirski? Are they killers at heart? And what of Zichroni, who steals the memory of his patients by touch alone? And what of Wechsler, the man who steals Minsky’s “memories?” Or Wechsler, who confesses: “I am what I remember. I don’t have anything else.”

A fabrication of character and memory, The Canvas is both a great novel and a genuine Holocaust testimony, in that it bares witness to the lasting power of trauma and how it shapes the strange and subjective mystery of human experience. It is an upsetting book, unabashedly philosophical, refusing closure, and challenging the very notion of truth by reminding us how much depends on perspective. It also happens to be playful, suspenseful, and one hell of a page-turner. I could not put it down. Both times.

Additionally, Scott had the chance to interview translator Brian Zumhagen and talk about some of the translation issues in doing this book:

In the case of an idiom like that, I’m sure you’re worried about losing meaning with an English version.

Any translator, or anyone who reads translation knows there will always be a loss. And there are certain things you can’t do it at all. You can use a new idiom and hope it’s not too bound up with your own particular moment in time. There are those cases when you know the translator was trying to be a little too hip. That’s really painful. There’s one expression where Wechsler is talking about going to Spain and he takes a bunch of unsolicited manuscripts with him in a suitcase, and he throws it out. And the expression is der Koffer mußte dran glauben, or “the suitcase had to believe in it.” What the hell does that mean? It actually means the suitcase had to go, that it had to die. It’s a euphemism that sounds like the suitcase is getting its last rights. I wound up choosing the suitcase had to “bite the dust” because it has a similar meaning and has a similar gangsterish feel. I guess that’s the one point where twenty years from now it may seem a little cheesy, I hope not.

But in the book it also has the feel of an antiquated expression still in use.

Yes, and it’s that way in German as well. That kind of thing was fun. I don’t think anything in the book required too great a sacrifice. Which is why Benjamin’s so happy with it. And most of the things that were really challenging linguistically were interesting to do. And most of them came up in chapter two. The biggest problem: Whechsler quotes a German translation of a Polish poem, and in that translation is a play on words that only exists only in the German, and it becomes central to his own explanation of life in East Germany. “They live in the basements of huge tenement houses, and only the shop-sign WRINGER HERE betrays their presence” — In the German, mangel means “shortage,” as in the food shortage sense, but it also means “wringer,” as in pressing rollers used for pressing water our of clothes. I could have used the British term, “mangle,” which means the same thing, but then I’d be going with UK usage when the rest of the book is American usage. And then I found that “Wringer” is in the English translation by Czeslaw Milosz. And you don’t argue with Milosz. The problem then is than that I had to invent a new sentence, reveal the proscenium arch a little bit, and explain to the reader that in German the word for “wringer” is the same for “shortage.” This is the last thing you want to do. [. . .]

How did Stein respond to it? I’m guessing he appreciated how faithful you were.

He was fine with it because it retained the meaning. I had to make a radical move but it worked out well. In that same chapter there was a more fun radical move, in which I had to quote Tina Turner. And in a way that does not appear in the original.

This one I remember!

There’s a section when Wechsler’s wife is cataloging all of her book purchases, and Wechsler comments on the stories the inscriptions in her books tell. In one used book that she found at a flea market, there’s a loving dedication between two women, and he wonders what may have happened? Did somebody die? Did the relationship end? Wechsler’s wife, in the original, says, “Someone has sold their heart out for cheap.” This is the expression. And immediately I thought of Tina Turner’s “what’s love but a secondhand emotion,” because the German here, vertrödeln, contains the word for junk like you’d find at a flea market. So what Wechsler’s wife is literally saying is, someone has second-handed her heart. The closest thing in English would be “someone has trifled her heart away,” but nobody talks like that, and it doesn’t sound antiquated in the German. It’s too lofty. Nobody in the novel is saying anything like “forsooth methinks someone hath trifled away her heart.” I really hated the way it sounded. So finally I asked to Benjamin if he thought Wechsler’s wife would quote Tina Turner. I’m not sure he completely grasped what I was asking at that moment. So I went with: “I guess sometimes love really is a second-hand emotion.” Not a literal translation but it got to the heart of what she was saying. And he thought it was perfect.

Definitely worth checking out, as is Full Stop in general. It’s an excellent, excellent site.

16 November 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece that I wrote about Wolf Haas’s Brenner and God, which is translated from the German by Annie Janusch and available from Melville House.

This is the first Brenner book to come out in English, but actually the seventh in the series. I believe that Melville House has rights to 2 or 4 more, so there will be more Brenner in the near future . . .

Also, if you’re interested, Tom Roberge and I spent a lot of time talking about this book on this week’s podcast.

Anyway, here’s the opening of my review:

Brenner and God_ is the first book in the “Brenner” series to come out in English, and only the second Wolf Haas title overall. The Weather Fifteen Years Ago came out from Ariadne Press a few years back and blew away the BTBA fiction committee—one reason why I was really excited to pick up this novel.

Unlike Weather, which is a postmodern, playful novel that’s one long interview between a female book reviewer and Wolf Haas, Brenner and God is a fairly straightforward detective novel. It centers around Brenner, a former detective who is now a chauffeur for a two-year-old girl whose father is a “Lion of Construction” responsible for building the controversial MegaLand, and whose mother runs an abortion clinic that is constantly besieged by protestors. So when Helena disappears from the back of Brenner’s car, he has dozens of suspects to investigate . . .

I don’t read a lot of detective novels, so I’m not sure exactly how to categorize this. Tom Roberge and I talked about on our most recent podcast—the difference between crime books that focus on the horrors of the criminal mind, and the ones that function more like a puzzle. In which case, Brenner and God fits more into the second category. There is some violence and gross killing, but the motives of those involved aren’t necessarily psychotic, per se. It’s more about business and politics and sex.

Click here to read the full review.

16 November 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Brenner and God is the first book in the “Brenner” series to come out in English, and only the second Wolf Haas title overall. The Weather Fifteen Years Ago came out from Ariadne Press a few years back and blew away the BTBA fiction committee—one reason why I was really excited to pick up this novel.

Unlike Weather, which is a postmodern, playful novel that’s one long interview between a female book reviewer and Wolf Haas, Brenner and God is a fairly straightforward detective novel. It centers around Brenner, a former detective who is now a chauffeur for a two-year-old girl whose father is a “Lion of Construction” responsible for building the controversial MegaLand, and whose mother runs an abortion clinic that is constantly besieged by protestors. So when Helena disappears from the back of Brenner’s car, he has dozens of suspects to investigate . . .

I don’t read a lot of detective novels, so I’m not sure exactly how to categorize this. Tom Roberge and I talked about on our most recent podcast—the difference between crime books that focus on the horrors of the criminal mind, and the ones that function more like a puzzle. In which case, Brenner and God fits more into the second category. There is some violence and gross killing, but the motives of those involved aren’t necessarily psychotic, per se. It’s more about business and politics and sex.

In that way, and in terms of the overall tone of the book, it most reminded me of early Echenoz (Cherokee, Double Jeopardy, Big Blondes) and Rubem Fonseca (High Art). (Although to be accurate, Fonesca writes about some totally fucked up characters, especially in our collection The Taker & Other Stories.)

Evaluating this as a detective novel, I found it really satisfying. A lot of “clues” are laid out, and everything unspools and fits together in a way that’s nicely paced and keeps the reader guessing right along with Brenner. It also includes a lot of the necessary tropes: a retired detective called back into service, a slew of dead bodies, clipped conversations, decent sleuthing, tense situations, a car chase, a kidnapping, a hot redhead, and some banging. It’s a very entertaining book to read, and I’m convinced that these books will gain a larger and larger following as more of the titles from the series become available.

Now, onto my issues.

One of the most notable features of this book is the narrator. Rather than being told from a first-person p.o.v. or from an omniscient, distanced p.o.v., the narrator in Brenner and God is also a sort of character—one who is maybe similar to Brenner, but has a distinct personality and is relating this story in a self-aware way that’s only somewhat successful:

My grandmother always used to say to me, when you die, they’re gonna give that mouth of yours its own funeral. So you see, a personal can change. Because today I am the epitome of silence. And it’d take something out of the ordinary to get me started. The days when everything used to set me off are over. Listen, why should every bloodbath wind up in my pint of beer? Like I’ve been saying for some time now, it’s up to the boys to take care of. My motto, as it were.

Personally, I prefer to look on the positive side of life these days. Not just Murder He Wrote all the time, and who-got-who with a bullet, a knife, and extension cord, or what all else I don’t know.

As a sort of companion through Brenner’s complicated affair, this narratorial voice works pretty well. It helps to create a sort of fun, almost jokey tone that elevates this from being a horrifying book about a child kidnapping into something that’s more literary, almost a reflexive look at what makes detective novels detective novels. (Which brings to mind Butor’s Passing Time, a truly amazing book that should definitely be reprinted by Dalkey or New Directions or Alma Books or Open Letter or someone.)

This narratorial technique also allows for shifts in scenes and perspectives in a way that feels more conversational than contrived—a line that a lot of detective books have to walk. It also allows for Haas to call attention to particular bits, either as a way of generating tension and readerly interest via heavy-handed foreshadowing (the constant references to the “five deaths” and how the city will be torn apart at the end of the book), or of distracting the reader from some other potentially useful detail.

My problem with the narratorial voice is pretty specific. First off, the sort of intentional heavy-handedness comes off as a bit condescending to me. I swear, the phrase “pay attention” appears at least 400 times every chapter1 and becomes the most irritating of authorial tics.

Pay attention: Natalie was the clinic’s psychologist, because a pregnancy’s never terminated without psychological counseling. [. . .]

Pay attention. Brenner was thinking to himself, _Milan will definitely know someone who can unlock Knoll’s phone for me, the sort of thing someone at a gas station knows. [. . .]

And I’ve got to say, Brenner had seldom been so right. Within just a few hours he would become all too conscious of just what little clue he truly had at that moment.

But for now, pay attention.

More befuddling are these two references to the reader (I assume):

My dear swan, Brenner hadn’t been in a funk like this in a long time. [. . .]

My dear swan, Knoll, the congressman, and the two bully-boys . . .

“Swan”?!? I assume I’m just not getting something here and am more than willing to own up to my ignorance. But still. It’s weird and disruptive to me as a reader.

There’s also a certain habit of Haas’s/Janusch’s of ending sentences with a comma (or “because”) followed by a clipped sort of explanation. This will make more sense in the examples below. At first, I thought this style was kind of cool, and very fitting for a detective book—there’s something stark about it, almost puzzle-like in how the “explanation” phrase fits into place. But by the end it felt more like a crutch than a technique. As if this was the only way the narrator could talk to convey his personality.

But Brenner’s shadower was bald in such an old-fashioned way, with a wreath of hair around his head, i.e., the worst kind in the rain, because the raindrops hammer way at the unprotected bald part, and regardless, wet hair. [. . .]

But now, either on account of the pills or the nonalcoholic beer or quite simply from age, or a rusty brain, or withering horomones—in all events, no line. [. . .]

Because one thing’s clear: when you’ve come as far as [SPOILER] has, you don’t waste any time coddling your witnesses, no, you mop them up like fly droppings because—no sentimentality.

Anyway, that’s probably a personal quirk that exposes more about my reading likes and dislikes than the book itself. And overall, I think this is really fun and will be greatly enjoyed by scads of readers. As a detective book, I think it’s really solid. As a work of translated fiction, I’d give it a 6.5 out of 10.

1 Slight exaggeration.

14 September 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Quantum Sarah on Peter Stamm’s new collection of stories, We’re Flying, which came out from Other Press in Michael Hofmann’s translation earlier this year.

Peter Stamm has a number of books available in English translation, including Seven Years, which was on last year’s Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist.

Quantum Sarah was a spectacular summer intern who is not back in school, but will likely be reviewing for us again in the not-too-distant future. Here’s the opening of her review:

In his new collection We’re Flying, Swiss author Peter Stamm weaves together a multitude of perspectives with the ghostly fiber of loss. This fascinating set of short stories centers around the general theme of the “human condition”—joy and sadness, birth and death, couples and families, work and school. However, a generous majority of these tales unfold against a subconscious background of grief, whether real or imagined: the widow that learns posthumously of her husband’s affair; the toddler abandoned by his parents at preschool; the frustrated artist. Yet the book isn’t a blurred mess of sympathy; rather, it’s a sharp analysis of life’s chronic pain and beauty. Precise, disquieting, and high-impact, Stamm’s new collection slices away surface tissue to reveal the downright messiness of human life

Stamm’s stories are surprisingly fleshed-out with minimum verbage. Like the artist in one of his stories, Stamm writes surgically: “You paint what you see with the maximum of precision, but you don’t care about the precision of the depiction . . . What counts is decisiveness.” His characters are quickly but sharply sketched; his story-world is modeled on the one at hand, but as though seen through a microscope, with fine-grained crystals of detail. Stamm shows, instead of tells—in “Sweet Dreams,” a newly-cohabiting girl reflects on the meaning of family while imagining an old black-and-white photo of relatives.

Click here to read the entire review.

14 September 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In his new collection We’re Flying, Swiss author Peter Stamm weaves together a multitude of perspectives with the ghostly fiber of loss. This fascinating set of short stories centers around the general theme of the “human condition”—joy and sadness, birth and death, couples and families, work and school. However, a generous majority of these tales unfold against a subconscious background of grief, whether real or imagined: the widow that learns posthumously of her husband’s affair; the toddler abandoned by his parents at preschool; the frustrated artist. Yet the book isn’t a blurred mess of sympathy; rather, it’s a sharp analysis of life’s chronic pain and beauty. Precise, disquieting, and high-impact, Stamm’s new collection slices away surface tissue to reveal the downright messiness of human life

Stamm’s stories are surprisingly fleshed-out with minimum verbage. Like the artist in one of his stories, Stamm writes surgically: “You paint what you see with the maximum of precision, but you don’t care about the precision of the depiction . . . What counts is decisiveness.” His characters are quickly but sharply sketched; his story-world is modeled on the one at hand, but as though seen through a microscope, with fine-grained crystals of detail. Stamm shows, instead of tells—in “Sweet Dreams,” a newly-cohabiting girl reflects on the meaning of family while imagining an old black-and-white photo of relatives:

Lara could see the pictures, big family get-togethers in a garden in the north of Italy, pictures full of people she didn’t know, even her mother didn’t know some of the names. Thereafter the family had fallen apart . . . When Lara had visited Italy with her parents, there hadn’t been any more big reunions, only visits in darkened homes with old people who smelled funny and served dry cookies and big plastic bottles of lukewarm Fanta.

Rather than directly stating Lara’s isolation in her new romance, Stamm instead gives us vivid objects to evoke the feeling: a faded photograph. Dry cookies and lukewarm Fanta. Old people whose homes are lonely and “funny”-smelling. Later on, we get “a barely used coffee machine that Laura found on eBay, a chest for their shoes, a whole stack of yellow bath towels that were on offer”—objects that carry a false connotation of stability, but which are really as destructible and transient as her new relationship.

There’s an uncanny equanimity and composure in Stamm’s voice as he makes us privy to frequent scenes of psychological pain. When Angelika brings home a forgotten child from her daycare job, her boyfriend Benno is both warm and insensitive: he plays with the child, making droning noises like an airplane—“We’re flying!” he yells—but later begins to unbutton her blouse in front of the boy. “I’m not going to let that runt spoil my fun,” he snarls, engrossed in a cop show. After the boy’s parents come to pick him up, Angelika is confronted with the reality of Benno’s revealed selfishness and lack of care. “She freed herself and said she would have a quick shower too. She locked the bathroom but didn’t undress. When Benno knocked on the door, she was still sitting on the toilet, with her face in her hands.”

Heavy, shocking endings like these cap off many of Stamm’s stories, but not all of them are as tragic. In “Seven Sleepers,” a lonely vegetable farmer finds his first love; in “The Suitcase,” an elderly man surreptitiously slips a suitcase beneath his dying wife’s hospital bed with her necessary items—and a bar of chocolate.

We’re Flying is eerily readable—perhaps due to how much of ourselves we recognize in his characters. In a varied and colorful array of stories, Stamm manages to portray human life as the emotional mishmash that it really is, full of misery and beauty, full of falling and flying.

24 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

There is inarguably no better hook, line, and sinker for a reader to pick up a novella than one that is written by an author who had lived and died as Stefan Zweig: living in exile like the unrivaled Nabokov, banned by the government (or, in Zweig’s case, Nazi Germany), and who had fulfilled his authorship with a self-proposed sealing of his own fate. Confusion is the account of young college student Roland who has become enamored with the intellectual, bewildering, and isolated world of his greatest idol – his college professor. Roland gravitates to the secluded home of his professor – the seclusion prompted by the fear of being unmasked of his secret. The novella, referencing the Greats (writers and philosophers alike) blurs all three of the greatest distinctions of love of the Ancient Greeks: Philia, Èros, and Agápe (though the novella does not address them explicitly). Roland tells us that he has “…more to thank [his professor] than my mother and father before him or my wife and children after him. I have never loved anyone more.”

I hate to admit that I hadn’t read any of Stefan Zweig’s work nor had any real knowledge of the explosion of fame that followed him during his lifetime – and even worse, of the second boom upon his recent rediscovery (truly, for shame). Stefan Zweig’s momentous, celebrated writing reaped slightly more positive attention during his lifetime (as aforementioned, he committed suicide in 1942) than contemporary critics – but then the first hill on the roller coaster is always the tallest, and you can’t argue with physics. But upon reading several criticisms on Zweig’s oeuvre, I’ve realized that one is either convinced; lamenting the relatable, melancholy life dirge we sing to, or – vehemently depreciates his acclaimed forte as an author (such depreciations are still fewer, but Michael Hoffman, writer for London Review of Books shamelessly assaulted Zweig, saying: “Stefan Zweig just tastes fake. He’s the Pepsi of Austrian writing.”). My fellow-reviewer Quantum Sarah has said that if we can’t find something favorably note-worthy in a novel, then perhaps we aren’t looking in the right places – and you say, “but if we were to do this with all forms of artistic expression, we would be forced to find genius in, say, incomprehensible modern art and only-comprehensible-when-acid-tripping techno.” I see your point. However Quantum Sarah may be onto something, and as I’ve already said – you can’t argue with physics.

The glaring intellectuality in Confusion is not only a theme, but much more of a setting – everything takes place within profound thought and dense analyses of drama and literature – takes place through Roland’s fever-pitched stream of consciousness. Stefan Zweig emphasizes both Roland’s developed intellect and anxiety (both directly correlated to his professor) through melodramatic diction such as:

I had never before known language as ecstasy, the passion of discourse as an elemental act, and the unexpected shock of it drew me closer. Without knowing that I was moving, hypnotically attracted by a force stronger than curiosity, and with the dragging footsteps of a sleepwalker I made my way as if by magic into that charmed circle – suddenly without being aware of it, I was there, only a few inches from him and among all the others, who themselves were too spellbound to notice me or anything else.

This romantic approach to literature is one that every reader can and should find believable and relatable – I remember my first cherished novel and the first time I became enamored with the eloquent lecture of a professor. When in a classroom, shuffling through articulations of a piece of great literature or philosophy (in Roland’s case, the lecture regarded Goethe and Shakespeare) and so to feel the foreign vertigo of enlightenment.

However, all of that being said, this tone is consistent throughout the novella. In fact, Roland’s fervent ardor for his professor is not behaviorally unbelievable, but his stream of consciousness reveals an overdone, unbelievable anxiety that only contradicts their interaction.

I was at his door at seven o’clock precisely, and with what trepidation did I, a mere boy as I was, cross that threshold for the first time! Nothing is more passionate than a young man’s veneration, nothing more timid, more feminine than its uneasy sense of modesty.

When Roland’s diction and tone plateaus and persists with this steady, anxious tempo, it strips more credible, believable narratives. His paranoia (exceeding a more mild and authentic curiosity) in the stream of consciousness is excessive compared to, say, an equally curious, but more convincing Stephan Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. (Dedalus, too, portraying his creator through his journey, and Joyce, also a well-educated writer fortunate enough to be esteemed in his own lifetime.)

Regarding the debate of Zweig’s credibility with the written word, a very hesitant, judicial part of me found some validity in Hoffman’s review. The plot is structured well – the secret was tastefully revealed, lacking smoke and mirrors but still satiating the reader’s curiosity. The context clues are placed with strategic perspicacity. But that tone, the overdramatic, agonizing whine of a young man (who, let’s be honest, would never lay as many girls as Roland if this were, in fact, his diction) was not passion; it was stale. In fact, his anxiety throughout the book is so magnified upon, that it seems almost hyperbolic; comic. And like Russian works that I have read, tragic dramas are entirely capable of successfully providing a paranoid, manic, first person narrative that the reader is both enthralled by and continues to mourn with. I found Roland so un-relatable that mourning with him, and for his professor, was only achieved once throughout the novella.

In the last dozen pages of the book, I finally believed Roland without considering too much diplomacy. He writes: “…While below in the vaults, in the deep caves and sewers of the heart, the true dangerous beasts of passion roam, glowing with phosphorescent light, coupling unseen and tearing each other apart in every fantastic form of convolution[.]” It is here that he contemplates not his flighty emotions, but human nature – those three Ancient Greek distinctions of love, and branches into a quasi philosophical inquiry.

And while I remain torn on a final assessment on the piece (I couldn’t help but find Roland’s experiences relatable, even if he didn’t articulate them in a relatable manner) I still encourage others to pick it up due to the controversy revolving around Zweig’s writing. I am only on one side (that being the minority, it seems) of the fence.

24 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Rachel Crawford-Fisher on Stefan Zweig’s Confusion, which is translated from the German by Anthea Bell and is available from New York Review Books.

Rachel is a student at the University of Rochester majoring in English Literature, minoring in Philosophy and Russian Studies. She has freelanced for hardcore punk zine Define the Meaning and for local literary organizations. She is an aspiring prose fiction writer. She prefers Russian literature and German philosophy.

Here is part of her review:

There is inarguably no better hook, line, and sinker for a reader to pick up a novella than one that is written by an author who had lived and died as Stefan Zweig: living in exile like the unrivaled Nabokov, banned by the government (or, in Zweig’s case, Nazi Germany), and who had fulfilled his authorship with a self-proposed sealing of his own fate. Confusion is the account of young college student Roland who has become enamored with the intellectual, bewildering, and isolated world of his greatest idol – his college professor. Roland gravitates to the secluded home of his professor – the seclusion prompted by the fear of being unmasked of his secret. The novella, referencing the Greats (writers and philosophers alike) blurs all three of the greatest distinctions of love of the Ancient Greeks: Philia, Èros, and Agápe (though the novella does not address them explicitly). Roland tells us that he has “…more to thank [his professor] than my mother and father before him or my wife and children after him. I have never loved anyone more.”

I hate to admit that I hadn’t read any of Stefan Zweig’s work nor had any real knowledge of the explosion of fame that followed him during his lifetime – and even worse, of the second boom upon his recent rediscovery (truly, for shame). Stefan Zweig’s momentous, celebrated writing reaped slightly more positive attention during his lifetime (as aforementioned, he committed suicide in 1942) than contemporary critics – but then the first hill on the roller coaster is always the tallest, and you can’t argue with physics. But upon reading several criticisms on Zweig’s oeuvre, I’ve realized that one is either convinced; lamenting the relatable, melancholy life dirge we sing to, or – vehemently depreciates his acclaimed forte as an author (such depreciations are still fewer, but Michael Hoffman, writer for London Review of Books shamelessly assaulted Zweig, saying: “Stefan Zweig just tastes fake. He’s the Pepsi of Austrian writing.”). My fellow-reviewer Quantum Sarah has said that if we can’t find something favorably note-worthy in a novel, then perhaps we aren’t looking in the right places – and you say, “but if we were to do this with all forms of artistic expression, we would be forced to find genius in, say, incomprehensible modern art and only-comprehensible-when-acid-tripping techno.” I see your point. However Quantum Sarah may be onto something, and as I’ve already said – you can’t argue with physics.

Click here to read the entire review.

11 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

The latest review to our Reviews Section is a piece by Brian Libgober on Michael Wallner’s The Russian Affair, which John Cullen translated from German and is available from Nan A. Talese Books.

Here is part of his review:

Michael Wallner’s second novel opens with its female protagonist watching as a bearded man goes for a swim in the river. It is twenty degrees below zero and windy. Welcome to 1960’s Moskva (not Moscow), a place where national elites eat zakuski instead of hors d’oeuvres and drive chaiki instead of limos.

Atmosphere is no doubt one of The Russian Affair’s strongest suits. The book presents an account of everyday life during the Brezhnev era that is both knowledgeable and authentic. Not all of it will come as a surprise to Western readers. The use of newspaper instead of toilet paper, the endless lines, the resentment toward elite privilege – these were all details of daily life in communist Russia that were well-reported in the West. Wallner references these facts early on in the book (one imagines that he would have to), but he doesn’t stop there. He uncovers an astounding variety of day-in-the-life minutiae that will be surprising and fascinating to most. He describes the struggle for necessities like screws and washers, the angling for a grave within the Moscow city limits, the ability of any government vehicle to supersede traffic law, the bath houses, the almost religious importance society invested poetry, etc. The details roll on and on without becoming dull. One could almost believe that the German screenwriter/author had grown up there.

Click here to read the entire review.

11 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

Michael Wallner’s second novel opens with its female protagonist watching as a bearded man goes for a swim in the river. It is twenty degrees below zero and windy. Welcome to 1960’s Moskva (not Moscow), a place where national elites eat zakuski instead of hors d’oeuvres and drive chaiki instead of limos.

Atmosphere is no doubt one of The Russian Affair’s strongest suits. The book presents an account of everyday life during the Brezhnev era that is both knowledgeable and authentic. Not all of it will come as a surprise to Western readers. The use of newspaper instead of toilet paper, the endless lines, the resentment toward elite privilege – these were all details of daily life in communist Russia that were well-reported in the West. Wallner references these facts early on in the book (one imagines that he would have to), but he doesn’t stop there. He uncovers an astounding variety of day-in-the-life minutiae that will be surprising and fascinating to most. He describes the struggle for necessities like screws and washers, the angling for a grave within the Moscow city limits, the ability of any government vehicle to supersede traffic law, the bath houses, the almost religious importance society invested poetry, etc. The details roll on and on without becoming dull. One could almost believe that the German screenwriter/author had grown up there.

Even though Wallner’s story is best classified as an erotic thriller, the book is clearly in dialogue with Anna Karenina. His female lead, Anna, was named by her father, a state-sponsored poet, whose oeuvre bears a resemblance to the writings of Isaac Babel. Unlike Tolstoy’s Karenina, Wallner’s Anna is both a realist and a pragmatist. A married woman with proletarian concerns, her affair has little to do with either sex or love. It has a lot more to do with getting good health care for her child and escaping the drudgery of her practical marriage. The tension driving the novel does not come primarily from the psychological tension in Anna’s head over her affair, but rather from the high-stakes political intrigue into which she has been thrust. The differences between The Russian Affair and Anna Karenina provoke reflection on the eccentricities of the era, as well as on our own book-publishing climate.

John Cullen’s translation reads briskly. Its prose is rich in detail, but is not overly ornate:

Gray-brown buildings with missing plaster, a collapsing barbed wire fence, a street full of potholes, the rusting skeleton of a cannibalized tractor at the side of the road. Across the street a storefront whose sign was missing so many letters that the word bakery could barely be deciphered. Anna’s heart sank; in the middle of the street, she turned around in a circle. Silence reigned, but somewhere far off, a generator was running. The air smelled like fire. (The Russian Affair, 386)

Wallner’s second novel is a solid follow-up to his debut, April in Paris, and a strong entry to the erotic-thriller market. He continues to hone his social-history intensive style, which brings an intellectual edge unique to his preferred genre.

29 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Phillip Witte on Robert Walser’s The Walk, which comes out from New Directions next week, and was translated from the German by Christopher Middleton and Susan Bernofsky. (The joint translation set-up is explained in Phil’s review.)

Phil was an intern here way way back, and is now working at the Plutzik Foundation, where one of his tasks is to run the foundation’s blog, A Fistful of Words. If you’re not familiar with Hyam Plutzik, I highly recommend checking out this post that Phil wrote for The Paris Review. And while you’re reading Phil’s writing, be sure and check out his personal blog, Gloomy Grammar, where he recently wrote a post about another New Direction book, Antigonicks, Anne Carson’s rendition of Sophokles’s Antigone. (Since when did we start spelling “Sophocles” as “Sophokles”? This is disorienting. Not sure I approve. Although, “Cyklops” is a pretty rad spelling. Ikarus. Hmm.)

Here’s a bit from Phil’s review:

It’s time to say a bit more about Bernofsky’s preface, because most of what I focused on in my reading are themes to which she explicitly directs attention. She describes the unusual history of the book: Der Spaziergang was first published in 1917, but Walser revised and published it again a few years later. In 1955, Christopher Middleton translated the first version into English, unaware that a revised version existed. For the present edition, Bernofsky updated Middleton’s translation (“an English text I . . . greatly admire,” she calls it) according to Walser’s own revisions, which were significant at the level of sentence, but minor in terms of plot and theme. Bernofsky’s intention is “to give the English-language reader the opportunity to peer over Walser’s shoulder as he revises himself.”

In his revisions, Bernofsky suggests, Walser “minimiz[ed] the divide between the writing protagonist and the walking protagonist.” But the divide remains, at least at the beginning, and throughout the novel, though the two personalities merge, a metaphysical struggle persists between them. The two roles are introduced separately in the opening pages, as the narrator refers to himself in the third person as first one—“With a kind face, a bicycling town chemist cycles close by the walker”; and then the other—“The writer is nonetheless very humbly asked to be a bit careful to avoid jokes as well as other superfluousnesses.” (Happily, as the latter example shows, Walser didn’t leave all of his thickly layered ironies behind when he left Berlin. The Walk might be read, I think, as a tragicomedy of the tension between irony and sincerity as played out by the contenders, walker and writer.)

The walker and writer, being phases of the one narrator, exist in separate narrative times: the writer is presumably recording the experience of the walk only after having completed it. Gradually, the two activities become indistinguishable, occurring simultaneously: when he declares “I have two or three important commissions to execute, as well as several utterly insuperable arrangements to make,” is he referring to the errands of the walk, or the writing tasks presently before his pen? At another point, “with a bound I enter the charming situation in question,” it is not clear whether the bound is literally an energetic step or metaphorically setting out to describe the scene.

Click here to read the entire piece.

29 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For the narrator of Robert Walser’s The Walk, walking is the better part of writing. Shortly before declaring his arrival at “something like the peak” of this 90-page Pearl from New Directions (translated by Christopher Middleton and Susan Bernofsky—more on that in a second), Walser’s narrator delivers a brilliant defense of the writer’s habit of walking, which looks to too many observers like idleness but is, he declares, a vital part of his technique. “Do you realize that I am working obstinately and tenaciously with my brain,” he explains to a tax collector, “when I present the appearance of a simultaneously heedless and out-of-work, negligent, dreamy, idle pickpocket, lost out in the blue . . . ?” He goes on—and on; Walser did not write dialogue. His characters declaim, often through bizarre turns:

Mysterious there prowl at the walker’s heels all kinds of thoughts and notions, such as make him stand in his ardent and regardless tracks and listen, because, again and again confused by curious impressions, by spirit power, he suddenly has the bewitching feeling that he is sinking into the earth, for an abyss has opened before the dazzled, bewildered eyes of the thinker and poet. His head wants to fall off. His otherwise so lively arms and legs are as benumbed. Countryside and people, sounds and colors, faces and farms, clouds and sunlight swirl all around him like diagrams; he asks himself: ‘Where am I?’

Elsewhere in the speech the narrator lays out the argument that walking is his way to observe, experience the world, gather “reports” and scenes which will serve as fodder for his other occupation. The above paragraph is a good example of the rhetorical gusto that is frequent in Walser’s work, usually in the service of irony. In a preface, Bernofsky describes the “straight-faced and earnest” quality of this and other works of the later-period Walser, as a contrast to the “thickly layered ironies of the Berlin period that preceded it;” in The Walk, such bravado is actually part of the narrator’s personal conflict. Early in the story he declares, “On account of this haughty bearing, this domineering attitude, I shall soon, as will be learned, have to take myself to task.” But, despite his verbose and aggrandized tone, the writer and walker narrating The Walk is, the reader feels, sincere in his belief that one cannot write if one does not walk, and that the writing justifies the walking.

Unfortunately, a writer cannot be writing while he is walking, and vice versa. When he wants to take a break, to stop writing, what does he do? “Relax in brief respite,” says the narrator. “Writers who understand their profession at least a little take the same as easily as possible. From time to time they like to lay their pens aside a while.” The novel begins at the start of his walk: “I put my hat on my head, left my writing room, or room of phantoms, and ran down the stairs to hurry out into the street.” Writing and walking, however codependent, are to some extent irreconcilable pursuits. And one may have one’s preference: our narrator “loves to walk as well as he loves to write; the latter of course perhaps just a shade less than the former.” (The pun on “shade,” intended or not, seems to wink at the reader by alluding to the “phantoms” of the writing room. Whether or not a similar pun occurs here in the German I cannot say, but that need not matter for my enjoyment of it in the English I am reading. More, again, on this, in a moment.)

It’s time to say a bit more about Bernofsky’s preface, because most of what I focused on in my reading are themes to which she explicitly directs attention. She describes the unusual history of the book: Der Spaziergang was first published in 1917, but Walser revised and published it again a few years later. In 1955, Christopher Middleton translated the first version into English, unaware that a revised version existed. For the present edition, Bernofsky updated Middleton’s translation (“an English text I . . . greatly admire,” she calls it) according to Walser’s own revisions, which were significant at the level of sentence, but minor in terms of plot and theme. Bernofsky’s intention is “to give the English-language reader the opportunity to peer over Walser’s shoulder as he revises himself.”

In his revisions, Bernofsky suggests, Walser “minimiz[ed] the divide between the writing protagonist and the walking protagonist.” But the divide remains, at least at the beginning, and throughout the novel, though the two personalities merge, a metaphysical struggle persists between them. The two roles are introduced separately in the opening pages, as the narrator refers to himself in the third person as first one—“With a kind face, a bicycling town chemist cycles close by the walker”; and then the other—“The writer is nonetheless very humbly asked to be a bit careful to avoid jokes as well as other superfluousnesses.” (Happily, as the latter example shows, Walser didn’t leave all of his thickly layered ironies behind when he left Berlin. The Walk might be read, I think, as a tragicomedy of the tension between irony and sincerity as played out by the contenders, walker and writer.)

The walker and writer, being phases of the one narrator, exist in separate narrative times: the writer is presumably recording the experience of the walk only after having completed it. Gradually, the two activities become indistinguishable, occurring simultaneously: when he declares “I have two or three important commissions to execute, as well as several utterly insuperable arrangements to make,” is he referring to the errands of the walk, or the writing tasks presently before his pen? At another point, “with a bound I enter the charming situation in question,” it is not clear whether the bound is literally an energetic step or metaphorically setting out to describe the scene.

Would I have noticed and paid so much attention to these distinctions had I skipped the preface? Perhaps not. A preface or introduction offers context for the work about to be presented, which may or may not be helpful. My enjoyment of the book was no less for having read Bernofsky’s preface, my grasp of the philosophical and emotional complexity of the narrator no more certain (The Walk is, to be sure, a difficult book, for all of its 90 pages). But—less enjoyable, more certain, than what? I only read the novel and its preface in the one order. I leave it to the reader to decide whether or not to save the preface till afterwards. But I will also warn the reader that in detailing some of Walser’s revisions, Bernofksy spoils the ending of the book, the power of which is partly (not entirely) thanks to a delayed reveal. The spoiler doesn’t ruin the experience—I still read the book twice in one weekend, to my increasing pleasure and puzzlement—but it might have been omitted, or the Preface relocated to an Afterword.

There’s more to be said about this book as a translation and as a novel. Concerning the latter, Walser’s humor is unrelenting, which makes the inward-turning ending all the more poignantly sad. Among the narrator’s hilarious apostrophes to dogs, or to no one in particular concerning the heavenliness of children, there’s a weird scene in which the narrator is threatened with force-feeding by a matronly Frau Aebi. That this turns out to be Frau Aebi’s joke is, to me, actually more disturbing than the forcefeeding itself would have been, which reinforces my sense that Walser is deliberately experimenting with irony and sincerity.

As a translation, this may become an important book for the unusual case which the text presents. Depending on its reception by critics better qualified than I, perhaps it will help to advance or complicate the ongoing debate concerning reading and review practices for translated works. On May 3, Bernofsky contributed to a panel discussion on the very subject in the PEN World Voices Festival, in which she expressed her opinion that translations ought to be judged according to their success as a piece of writing in the target language, to an extent independent of the original. Her respect for Middleton’s text of The Walk, without which one imagines she would have retranslated the work entirely on her own, further demonstrates her position.

Lorin Stein, a translator and editor of the Paris Review, was also on the panel at PEN. He took the very different view that translators ought to be less visible and “minimize the damage” to the original which all translation must necessarily cause, perhaps in that it strips from the work its original sound. Stein also posited that translation adds an apparatus to a work, which publishers, editors, and translators ought to minimize (for instance, Stein insists on not printing his own name on the jacket of his published translations) in order to deliver the work and its author unadorned to the reader. Bernofsky’s preface, including the revision and translation history of The Walk, is an elaborate and complicated apparatus to be sure. But, to reiterate, the jury is out as to whether I think it enriched or detracted from my experience of the book. I’ve had one experience of The Walk for which I am very glad. Other readers will, I hope, have theirs.

17 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Earlier this month I posted about World in Translation Month, and asked everyone to buy one Open Letter book to a) celebrate this special month and b) save our fiscal year (which is Quite Bad).

I want to take a minute to thank all of you who have helped out by buying a book directly from us (a lot of you did!), or from your local bookstore, Amazon, B&N, wherever. If you haven’t participated yet, there’s still fifteen days left to get in on the World in Translation Month fun . . .

(What’s really interesting to me is how many people have contacted me this month about doing interviews/special things to promote World in Translation Month. There’s a HUGE thing coming out next week that I can’t tell you about [yet], but which will likely impress a lot of you. And will likely involve one of my favorite translators ever. . . . I believe this is what is called a “tease.”)

Anyway, if you haven’t purchased an Open Letter title this month, I have a special suggestion for you.

Yesterday—literally—finished copies of Benjamin Stein’s The Canvas arrived in the office. If you’ve talked to me in person in the past few months, you’re probably already familiar with this novel (or novels?).

We first featured The Canvas on Three Percent a couple years ago as the Next German Book I Want to See Translated. That post included this BBC video about Benjamin Stein and his formally interesting novel:

Since that time, I’ve been able to read the novel (obviously) and can tell you that this novel (and Brian Zumhagen’s masterful rendering of it in English) is absolutely amazing. Beyond the fun formal aspect—in which you can start from either side (there is no “back cover”) and flip back-and-forth whenever you want—this pair of narratives is incredibly easy to get sucked into, and is extremely rewarding.

On one side, you get Amnon Zichroni’s story about growing up in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Israel before going to live with his uncle in Switzerland, then eventually coming to the States and learning psychiatric so that he can put his “gift” of being able to see people’s memories to good use.

Other side: Jan Wechsler receives a mysterious suitcase. When he finally opens it, he finds a bunch of materials that call into doubt everything Jan knows about his life, from where he was born to what sort of literary works he’s written.

How do these two narratives connect? You’ll have to read the book to find out . . .

And as a special World in Translation Month offer, NOT ONLY will we give you free shipping, but we’ll send this out as soon as you order (the official pub date is September 26th). You’ll have this book before everyone else, and this fall you can play the “oh, I read The Canvas back in May” card on your friends when EVERYONE is talking about this novel.

Order it now by clicking here.

And thanks again for your support of Open Letter. You’re the reason we do all the things we do—podcasts, reading series, books, blog posts, the BTBA, etc.—and you truly do make it worthwhile.

1 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

With the Best Translated Book Award announcements taking place Friday, May 4th at 6pm at McNally Jackson Books it’s time to highlight all six poetry finalists. Over the course of the week we’ll run short pieces by all of the poetry judges on their list of finalists.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

False Friends by Uljana Wolf, translated by Susan Bernofsky

Language: German

Country: Germany
Publisher: Ugly Duckling Presse

Why This Book Should Win: Ugly Duckling is one of the most consistently interesting presses (or “presseses”?) in the world, and Susan Bernofsky one of the greatest translators ever.

Today’s post is from Erica Mena and is actually a chunk of the review she wrote of this for the Iowa Review. Click here to support the Iowa Review and read her full piece.

False Friends by Uljana Wolf, translated by Susan Bernofsky, is a delightful foray into language and poetry. Even for someone who has no knowledge of German, the playful shifts between the English translation and the German hinted at behind it are enlightening: both Bernofsky and Wolf clearly delight in the slipperiness of language and sound.

Cognates and homonyms suffuse the poem, toying with seemingly straightforward sentences and twisting them around against themselves. Bernofsky sustains this density of sound against the lightness of the tone, a balance she creates through deft rhythmic and rhyming patterns. The rhythmic quality of the prose poems is striking. In much of the book, Bernofsky hits regular iambic meter, and the poems are stuffed with internal rhyme with equally surprising (because non-lineated) sentence-end rhymes. The bouncy rhythm and dense sounds drive the reader forward through sometimes nonsensical phrases, foregrounding the absurdity of language.

Many of these prose poems read as though they could be nursery rhymes for precocious, hyper-literate children:

he who has a hat has what? i ask. broad-brimmed, you say, a roof above one’s head, cornered, crushed, and most likely of felt—so you’ll feel sheltered till a gust comes blustering by.

But there is exquisite darkness in the images:

still, it would be sinful, you say, not to speak of swans: six is silence, seven love, and in the end there’s a one-wing surplus. seems silly perhaps, but fairy tales save us many a swan song. so i say: consider the woodpecker’s third eyelid sliding supportively across its pupil. with its help, you can strike home any point without eyes popping from sockets. and after that first flutter of hard knocks, the silence cannot hurt you at all.

This book moves deceptively quickly, thanks to all its brilliant poetics and puns. It’s worth a second, third, even a fourth read. It demands to be read out loud, in the way that good poetry does. The book is organized alphabetically (“a DICHTonary of false friends true cognates and other cousins” reads the text on the title page). Each letter gets a short, 6­–12 line block of prose full of alliteration and punning. The alphabet runs the gamut in English, then the second section of the book begins (on noticeably different paper, and printed differently, to accentuate the shift) in German. The original German poems have one obvious difference from the English: they are titled with words rather than listed under the letter of the alphabet. So “A” is, in German, “art / apart.” What especially stands out is that almost all the words in the German section that function as a title are English words—or at least, cognates to English words.

There are English quotes and phrases peppered throughout the German section as well. In “bad / bald / bet-t / brief” Wolf writes, “stattdessen morgens zu berg (take a bet?) und nachts out of bed (siehe ad).” The corresponding line in Bernofsky’s English reads, “standing on end instead (fake a bet?) and at night out of hand (see the ad).” Bernofsky takes the English embedded in the German and re-appropriates it to fit the rhythmic and sonic requirements of her line. “Fake a bet” is similar enough to “take a bet” at least in terms of sound, but it means something stranger, more open-ended. The same goes for “at night out of hand” rather than “out of bed.” The English that Wolf originally used would have made clear sense as a phrase in Bernofsky’s translation (though to a German reader in the original may have been somewhat more unclear). Bernofsky tweaks the phrases with inspiration to unsettle the poems. The project of the book is to toy with language and meaning, with things that sound similar and even the same across languages but mean strange, funny, unusual, and odd things. This is the joy of cognates, as any language learner will tell you—the surprise they can bring to the familiar. By defamiliarizing these phrases, Bernofsky brilliantly constructs an unfamiliar reading experience in English.

30 April 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

With the Best Translated Book Award announcements taking place Friday, May 4th at 6pm at McNally Jackson Books it’s time to highlight all six poetry finalists. Over the course of the week we’ll run short pieces by all of the poetry judges on their list of finalists.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

engulf — enkindle”: by Anja Utler, translated by Kurt Beals

Language: German

Country: Germany
Publisher: Burning Deck Press

Why This Book Should Win: Burning Deck! Rosemarie and Keith Waldrop have done more for “experimental” international poetry in translation than anyone. They deserve to be honored.

Today’s post is from Erica Mena.

engulf — enkindle is a stunning book of poetry. It literally stunned me into absolute submission; it is the book of poetry I’d been wanting to read for years. It’s a small volume, and I read it in one sitting, faster than I normally read poetry, because I couldn’t slow down. The language sunk its hooks into me and pulled me through the book, like rafting down rapids. If some of this sounds violent, that’s no mistake – the book is full of sensual violence, done to the body of language and the body in the poem.

want now: you – drive into me
want to push to the edge, hang, you
haul all my: shale, scrape
it off from: the head, from the shoulders
to rootstock throat gravel: you split me
give me – as if severed – sharp
countours – fangs wolffian ridge
questions too – will i? –
i – take you to me
                                 balances I

The stacatto lines, broken by strange punctuation, expose themselves as duplicitious; the punctuation is superfluous, and yet it’s not. It’s a violation of the line, of the rules of grammar, but it forces a rhythm on the almost unwilling reader. It’s pleasurable and distressing simultaneously, mimetic of the poems. The I in the poem submits to the violence of the you, while exerting her own controlled violence over the reader, and the poem and ultimately her poetic body.

Like most “experimental” texts this work demands more of its reader, a different set of tools and strategies. It is a text that has been splayed wide open, disgorging multiple readings. This extract from the second poem could be read as describing what the poetry itself is doing:

     II

– percieve:     just at the opencuts: set free
furrow –          to stand, sense, to drift now am: pitching to you
                        through the: fissures [. . .]

[The bracketed ellipsis is mine.] Pay attention to the slippery shifts of meaning across and through the punctuation, the way caesura is inserted into the lines and creates tension with the phrases that follow the colons. Feel the tension that is created by the speeding up and slowing down of the lines, the gaps in meaning and thwarted grammatical expectations (the missing subject for “am” for example).

This is poetry that demands several readings, at least one of which must be aloud. When I teach poetry, I always ask that the students read the poems out loud, as well as to themselves, and if I suspect they have not done it we do it together. Great poetry creates sonic space on the page, and visual space in the voice, and the movement between these opens up new meanings. Traditionally, this happens behind the semantic content of the poem, but Beals’s rendering of Utler’s poetry prioritizes its lyric qualities. In engulf – enkindle, the poems hinge on sound and silence, on rhythm and breaking, with meaning following.

XI

finally, startled from sleep, find:
the larynx deseeded is
hollowed: hands palpate,
it: fumbling, feathered, from
ribcage entwine themselves
deeper into the: reed swallow: light,
gurgling, darkly well, dimly
they: keel towards hulls towards hollows
weave: cavities, gorges of
stalks of fingers of (..)
so to speak: towards the bittern – neting place,
in the singing reed so it’s called – grow
entangled as – flotsam and jetsam – stitched
up to the: glottis rustling
almost trembling i hear you again: say
song you say song – what is: song

Kurt Beals is a genius. I can’t imagine how these translations could have come to be otherwise. He may have been working at an advantage; Germanic languages share many rhythm and sound paterns, two of the most impressive features of this translation. Still, the strangeness of these poems, which demand so much of the reader, must have demaned even more of Beals. To create this kind of complexity in translation is nothing short of stunning, an acheivment compounded by the shifting registers and pacing of the language.

This is an uncompromising work of brilliance on both Utler and Beals’ parts. It’s sharp and sexy, challenging and riviting and absolutely relentless. This is the poetry I’ve been waiting my whole life for.

27 April 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Heather Simon on Aglaja Veteranyi’s Why the Child Is Cooking in the Polenta, which is translated from the German by Vincent Kling and published by Dalkey Archive Press.

Heather Simon is another of Susan Bernofsky’s students who kindly offered to write a review for our website. And this is quite a review. It makes the book sound really interesting and strangely funny, but then, at the very end, the review takes a seriously dark turn.

Here’s the opening of her review:

Why the Child Is Cooking in the Polenta by Aglaja Veteranyi cartwheels through the childhood exploits of the unnamed daughter of circus performers: Romanian refugees caravanning through Europe with dreams of fame, fortune, and a big house with a swimming pool. Veteranyi’s (almost) memoir and literary debut is told from the point of view of an ungainly young girl who is constantly being shushed by authority. Her mother—who never lets anyone get a word in edgewise—makes a living dangling from her hair, and her father works as clown and amateur filmmaker, shooting home-style documentaries for the narrator to star in as a silent protagonist; her only line is ever “Help.”

Relaying events in the present tense, the first-person narrator carries the reader on her jagged journey through circus camps, crowded hotel rooms, a short stint at a Swiss boarding school, and finally the vaudeville stage—all before hitting puberty. The narrator has no say in the direction of her journey. She hates parading around with the circus, claiming, “The closing parade with fanfare music is almost as awful as when I had my appendix out. All the artistes stand in a row or a circle and wave. That’s so embarrassing.” To make matters worse, every day the narrator worries that her mother will die while performing. “I sleep late in the morning to shorten my fear, because if I get up early the fear will last until her performance begins,” she confesses.

But what can the narrator do to change her situation? Whom can she tell? She is forbidden from having friends—even speaking to someone without permission is “prohibited” because according to her mother other people might be dangerous or steal her family’s circus acts. On the rare occasion that the narrator does voice her opinion, she is either punished or ignored. Throughout the book, the narrator claims she wants to be an actress and make a lot of money. But when she gets an opportunity to perform on stage she laments, “I pictured happiness differently.” This is probably because her visions of being a glamorous actress didn’t involve nipple tassels. She also hadn’t considered that her modest earnings would spark an onslaught of monetary requests from distant aunts and ancient grandparents. What does the narrator really want? “. . . To be like the people out there. There they can all read and they know things; their souls are made of white flour.”

Click here to read the full review.

27 April 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Why the Child Is Cooking in the Polenta by Aglaja Veteranyi cartwheels through the childhood exploits of the unnamed daughter of circus performers: Romanian refugees caravanning through Europe with dreams of fame, fortune, and a big house with a swimming pool. Veteranyi’s (almost) memoir and literary debut is told from the point of view of an ungainly young girl who is constantly being shushed by authority. Her mother—who never lets anyone get a word in edgewise—makes a living dangling from her hair, and her father works as clown and amateur filmmaker, shooting home-style documentaries for the narrator to star in as a silent protagonist; her only line is ever “Help.”

Relaying events in the present tense, the first-person narrator carries the reader on her jagged journey through circus camps, crowded hotel rooms, a short stint at a Swiss boarding school, and finally the vaudeville stage—all before hitting puberty. The narrator has no say in the direction of her journey. She hates parading around with the circus, claiming, “The closing parade with fanfare music is almost as awful as when I had my appendix out. All the artistes stand in a row or a circle and wave. That’s so embarrassing.” To make matters worse, every day the narrator worries that her mother will die while performing. “I sleep late in the morning to shorten my fear, because if I get up early the fear will last until her performance begins,” she confesses.

But what can the narrator do to change her situation? Whom can she tell? She is forbidden from having friends—even speaking to someone without permission is “prohibited” because according to her mother other people might be dangerous or steal her family’s circus acts. On the rare occasion that the narrator does voice her opinion, she is either punished or ignored. Throughout the book, the narrator claims she wants to be an actress and make a lot of money. But when she gets an opportunity to perform on stage she laments, “I pictured happiness differently.” This is probably because her visions of being a glamorous actress didn’t involve nipple tassels. She also hadn’t considered that her modest earnings would spark an onslaught of monetary requests from distant aunts and ancient grandparents. What does the narrator really want? “. . . To be like the people out there. There they can all read and they know things; their souls are made of white flour.”

With days in constant motion, the only thing consistent in the narrator’s life are her fantasies about lounging poolside with Sophia Loren and the question she keeps asking about why an unknown child is cooking in the polenta. While the question of the child in the polenta is repeated throughout the book, her explanations evolve from darkly whimsical narratives, “When the grandmother’s outside, the polenta says to the child: I’m so alone, wouldn’t you like to play with me? And the child climbs into the pot,” to alarming capitalized outbursts like, “THE CHILD IS COOKING IN THE POLENTA BECAUSE ITS MOTHER JABBED SCISSORS INTO ITS FACE.”

The growing sense of despair in the narrator’s voice mirrors the increasingly hopeless state of her existence. Even when she has the opportunity to go to school briefly, between taunts from classmates and writing standards on a blackboard in the attic, all she comes out of it having learned is how different she is from everyone else. On the page the text physically appears as disconnected as she is. The first line of each paragraph is not indented; instead the lines that follow are. And paragraphs rarely ever exceed one or two sentences. Within this erratic layout, Veteranyi proliferates her world through a series of surreal reflections: “When the mother cries, there’s a flood in her belly, because the baby cries too.” Some pages consist of a single unexpected declaration like, “MY FATHER IS SHORT LIKE A CHAIR.” The empty space on the page leaves room for the reader to contemplate what has intentionally been left out. Other pages end abruptly on sudden notes of sadness: “If I get used to hell quickly, then maybe we can leave here pretty soon.” Veteranyi has endless ways to illustrate loneliness.

The narrator’s story largely correlates with actual events in Veteranyi’s life. Her writing is at times intentionally inaccessible, indicative of the child narrator whose wounds are too fresh to talk about. In this type of experimental literature, there is a fine line between genius and confusion. A line Vincent Kling, professor of German and contemporary literature at La Salle and seasoned translator, ignites as he fearlessly renders Veteranyi’s starry and sordid German in English. He preserves Veteranyi’s unsettling descriptions and outbursts, with statements like, “Backs grew all over my father’s body,” and “I want to be raped by two men at the same time,” both which serve to heighten the underlying presence of uncertainty and pain.

All in all Polenta displays the awkward beauty of a contortionist. In his afterword, “A Home in Language,” Kling connects the dots between Veteranyi’s life and her work, helping readers to make sense of her often obscure prose. He divulges that Veteranyi was multilingual yet remained illiterate until the age of seventeen. Glimpses like this help illuminate her disjointed style and eccentric use of language. According to Kling, there is little that distinguishes the narrator from Veteranyi. Perhaps the most significance difference is that the narrator gives up without fighting, whereas Veteranyi refused to accept defeat, arguing her way into acting school and defending the style of Polenta to dubious critics.

Polenta marks a personal triumph for the author. This success that makes it all the more heart wrenching to learn that in 2002, just a few years after publishing Polenta, Veteranyi took her own life. Proof, as Kling puts it that “literary expression is not always the reliably curative therapeutic act it is often considered.” Yet it was through the process of opening old wounds that Veterani was able to spin her tumultuous childhood into a single venomous cloud of cotton candy, making a home for herself in Swiss literature.

27 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next two weeks highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

The Shadow-Boxing Woman by Inka Parei, translated by Katy Derbyshire

Language: German

Country: Germany
Publisher: Seagull Books

Why This Book Should Win: Seagull produces some damn beautiful books.

Today’s post is by Hilary Plum, an editor with Interlink Publishing and co-director of Clockroot Books. Her novel They Dragged Them Through the Streets is forthcoming from FC2.

Hell and Dunkel (in German: Light and Dark) are two squatters in Berlin, young or youngish women, the only remaining residents in their wing of a “formerly elegant Jewish apartment house.” At the opening of The Shadow-Boxing Woman, Hell’s monotonous daily life is disturbed: Dunkel has disappeared. Hell sets out on a search for her missing neighbor, not out of friendship—she and Dunkel rarely speak—or even any real sense of morality, but some other more visceral drive, one which leads her and the novel through a dark picaresque in ’90s, post-Wall Berlin. Her tone deceptively flat, Parei offers an unsettlingly intimate evocation of the city. In her portrayal Berlin is both sinisterly populated and desolate, everywhere its surfaces defaced and indistinguishable from the prevailing refuse and excrement, a place in a state of ruin and troubled growth, continual becoming and decay (as the Eastern philosophy the novel toys with might put it).

“I can’t imagine a greater contrast than between Dunkel’s apartment and mine. At least bearing in mind that the layouts are exactly the same, mirrored across the axis of the stairwell,” Hell tells us, and maybe you’re starting to sense what this uncanny, masterfully structured novel is up to. The Shadow-Boxing Woman is a political fable in contemporary motifs: never simple allegory, but through the story of these two women offering a profound commentary on existence in fractured and then reunited Berlin. Hell is joined on her search for Dunkel by Markus März, some kind of old consort of Dunkel’s, who has come from the suburbs in search of a father long lost to him in Germany’s division. März is a bank robber of sorts (the novel’s understatement and ambiguity make an “of sorts” always in order as one describes it), and his and Hell’s hunt for Dunkel echoes the forms of both a crime novel and a classic tale of the Wild West, two outlaws teamed up on a near-hopeless quest. Interspersed with this plotline is a series of scenes from Hell’s past, just as the Wall is coming down, when she suffered some monstrous incident of violence; in response she has turned to martial arts, as well as developing, it seems, the relentlessly precise awareness that pervades the novel, the extraordinary eye for detail that is both hypnotic and suffocating. Hell deploys her martial arts skills several times in the novel’s course, with a casual brutality befitting any cowboy; but in time specters will return to haunt her, and us.

Parei sets all this up playfully, with a wicked humor that will have you grinning at lines—which makes the poignant moments that radiate briefly from this dark landscape all the more moving. “We need a dream-world in order to discover the features of the real world we think we inhabit“ is the old line by Feyerabend that often returns to me, especially when confronting a dream world as deftly made as this one, feeling so real to the senses and suffused with a wisdom that can’t be easily distilled. The Shadow-Boxing Woman is marvelously made, strange and commanding, its deep political insight resonating perfectly from within the novel’s architecture. How nice to give such a subtly constructed work the grand applause of a big award—so give this novel the BTBA!

24 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next three weeks highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Seven Years by Peter Stamm, translated by Michael Hofmann

Language: German
Country: Switzerland
Publisher: Other Press

Why this book should win: Dismantled relationships FTW!

Today’s post is by Tom Flynn, bookseller and events coordinator at Seminary Co-Op in Chicago.

Let’s get this bit out of the way first: Peter Stamm’s Seven Years is not a terribly pleasant novel. The characters—particularly the narrator, Alexander—are deeply flawed people who probably would have done better in their fictional lives had they never encountered one or another or, after meeting, run in opposite directions. But it is also an engrossing read with direct, clear prose that engages and eggs the reader on.

Alexander is a German architecture student who, at the end of his final year of school, becomes involved with a Polish woman, Ivona, whom he does not much like. She does not engage him intellectually, he finds her unattractive, and he feels her to be beneath him socially. Yet he finds himself unable to stop seeing her. While this is going on, he begins a relationship with a fellow student, Sonia, who possesses an ambition and drive completely absent from Alex. Sonia and Alex marry and open a firm but after several years (the seven year itch that the title can, perhaps, be understood to reference) of marriage Ivona reappears in his life and he takes up with her once again. The effect of this affair eventually lays bare the weakness of his and Sonia’s relationship, which, despite its solid presentation at the beginning of the novel, is doomed to crumble around them.

Architecture and its various metaphors prove an apt vehicle for exploring Sonia, Alex, and Ivona’s movement through life. Sonia wishes to build socially conscious structures that work toward the creation and fulfillment of an ideal human. She has very firm ideas on the type of life she and Alex ought to lead: their work, home, and family life are all clearly laid out. Alex, for his part, finds himself happiest designing buildings he can never build, nor wants to construct; he would rather explore space on the page than express it in the world what with all the compromises that accompany such efforts. He allows others to determine the shape and course of his life, effectively drifting from one event to the next. And Ivona is simply a dweller, moving from one small, unpleasant residence to the next with little regard for how much smaller the physical space she inhabits becomes along the way. Instead, she carves out a world within that houses her love—her mania, really—for Alex and Alex alone.

Much of the drama in the novel feels, well, anti-climatic. A sense of the inevitable pervades the novel. Alex is by no means a passionate character, nor is he anyone—in fiction or life—for whom one should feel much pity. The events of the novel plays out as they do because of his own inertia, his willingness to meander in whatever direction circumstances take him. He builds a life with Sonia because it’s what she wants and it seems he should want her. He returns to Ivona time and again not because he wants to, but because she is always reaching out to him, no matter how he treats her. Inertia is his natural state and by novel’s end his inability to act has yielded the life he sees laid out before him.

Really, I could go on at much greater length about Seven Years. There’s just something about the characters and Stamm’s understanding of human nature that causes the myriad issues the novel raises to jut out in my mind. Truly excellent novels—which in my estimation Seven Years is—worm their way into the reader’s mind, giving them something to gnaw on. The excellent novel also possesses a life of its own and, to turn the phrase somewhat, gnaws on the reader, too. Or creates an itch that the reader can’t help but scratch.

10 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next five weeks highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Funeral for a Dog by Thomas Pletzinger, translated by Ross Benjamin

Language: German
Country: Germany
Publisher: W.W. Norton

Why This Book Should Win: Two reasons: 1) during Thomas’s reading tour, three consecutive events were disrupted by a streaker, a woman passing out and smashing a glass table, and a massive pillow fight amid a Biblical thunderstorm; 2) the phone number.

The following piece is written by Erin Edmison who is a partner at Edmison/Harper Literary Scouting and worked on Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision, which beat out Eugenides & Co. for the NBCC award in fiction.

Thomas Pletzinger is a romantic. He’s not a Romantic; the language of his 2011 debut novel Funeral for a Dog is more observational than emotional, or maybe it’s observational about emotion, in the way of that midcentury German master, Max Frisch (ripples of Montauk lap at this novel’s edge). Then again, Pletzinger’s book feels totally modern (if not Modern). The characters’ central drama has to do with The Way Some of Us Live Now: over-educated, burdened by choice, willing to throw out the cultural roadmaps, but unsure how to draw new ones.

Daniel Mandelkern (his surname translates to “almond seed,” and is also the German word for the amygdala, the part of the brain most responsible for processing memory and emotion) is at a crossroads. He’s left his doctorate in the German-sounding field of ethnography (we would call him a cultural anthropologist) to write feature pieces for the Arts & Culture section of the Hamburg newspaper. His wife Elisabeth is his editor at the paper, and it’s starting to chafe: “(since I started working for Elisabeth’s department, our marriage has become more professional).” When she sends him on what he considers to be a ridiculous assignment— fly down to Italy’s Lake Lugano to interview Dirk Svensson, a mega-bestselling but reclusive children’s book author, and fly back that night—Daniel knows exactly what she’s punishing him for. She wants a child; Daniel’s resistant.

The specter of that phantom trio (Daniel, Elisabeth, Baby Mandelkern) is only one of a series of threesomes—both romantic and situational— that occur throughout the book, down to Svensson’s three-legged dog. The three-part arithmetic of one person choosing between two options leads to several of the book’s dilemmas, and they’re ones many of us face: I could live here, or there; I could love this woman, or that one; I could have this kind of life, or one completely different. All is not possible; one must choose. When Mandelkern arrives on the shores of Lake Lugano, he’s surprised to find he’s not the only person coming for a visit: a fetching Finnish doctor named Tuuli and her young son also clamber into the boat when Svensson comes to pick them up. And contrary to the dossier given to him by his wife before the trip, Svensson doesn’t live alone, but with a curly-haired American photographer named Kiki. But it’s when Mandelkern unlocks a trunk in the bedroom to discover reams of unpublished stories that he realizes who is really the guest in this house on the Italian lake, more present because of his absence: the departed Felix, who seems to have been the glue holding this motley crew together. What was meant to be a reporting trip of a few hours stretches to days as Mandelkern pieces together the relationship between Svensson, Tuuli, and Felix, a series of tales that starts in Brazil, continues in New York, and finishes in Italy.

But they don’t really finish in Italy, do they? Mandelkern must go home; Tulli, too. And despite having an ending that wraps around to the beginning, Funeral for a Dog, left me feeling unfinished, too, in the best of ways. But aren’t we all? We get fuller and fuller of stories and memories in this life, but we’re never finished, until we are.

Click here for an interview with Pletzinger and Ross Benjamin conducted by Diana Thow.

And watch the reading interrupted by the pillow fight by clicking below:

10 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Book Reviews section is a piece by Monica Carter on Inka Parei’s The Shadow-Boxing Woman, which is available from Seagull Books and translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire.

Monica Carter is a regular reviewer for Three Percent. She also runs Salonica World Lit and, as part of her participation in the Mark Program, has been blogging for PEN Center USA.

Katy Derbyshire runs the fantastic Love German Books blog and is becoming one of Seagull’s go-to translators. (She’s done a number of books, but I can’t find a list online. Perhaps because Katy’s too modest to post her accomplishments on her website . . .)

Seagull Books is mystifyingly awesome. They seemed to come from out of nowhere and are doing amazing work. They’ve published works by Max Frisch and Thomas Bernhard and Tzevtan Todorov and Imre Kertesz and Abdourahman Waberi and Ivan Vladisclavic. They run a publishing school in India. They are helping to get the incredible Cahiers Series distributed in the U.S. And their “catalog” is the most amazing printed object I own. I can’t reproduce the incredible quality of this online, but maybe these two mediocre pictures will give you a sense.



Here’s the opening of Monica’s review:

Fiction post-Berlin Wall (and I am referring to immediately post-Berlin Wall) is rarely told in the way that Inka Parei has done in The Shadow-Boxing Woman. The prose imitates the dark, crumbling and ravaged atmosphere of East Berlin as well as the psychological state of the narrator, aptly named Hell. Parei sets out to write a post-modern novel about a post-era Germany. The Shadow-Boxing Woman delves deep into the wreckage of East Berlin, both physically and emotionally, by examining the minutest of details, the myopia of Hell’s world, and how fearful she is of exploring the world that just opened around her.

With Parei’s frugal and brutal prose, the reader immediately sees the rotting, barren buildings and neighborhoods, the poverty of her life, and an overwhelming sense that Hell is a forgotten human being. The abandoned apartment building she lives in with one other neighbor is disgusting: “The paint is hideous. Emitting a matt sheen and almost impossible to remove it, it resembles the excrement the German Shepherds deposit on the pavements here, fed on rust-coloured lumps of pre-processed food.” The only person determined enough to stay here in this building is her neighbor, Dunkel. Dunkel and Hell don’t speak much to each other, but when Dunkel suddenly leaves, Hell feels unstable and desperate to find her.

This relationship sets up the crime novel dynamic, although it is conveyed so subtly the reader never feels as if they are a classic “crime novel.” It seems more of a awkward love story, which it is not.

Click here to read the entire review.

10 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Fiction post-Berlin Wall (and I am referring to immediately post-Berlin Wall) is rarely told in the way that Inka Parei has done in The Shadow-Boxing Woman. The prose imitates the dark, crumbling and ravaged atmosphere of East Berlin as well as the psychological state of the narrator, aptly named Hell. Parei sets out to write a post-modern novel about a post-era Germany. The Shadow-Boxing Woman delves deep into the wreckage of East Berlin, both physically and emotionally, by examining the minutest of details, the myopia of Hell’s world, and how fearful she is of exploring the world that just opened around her.

With Parei’s frugal and brutal prose, the reader immediately sees the rotting, barren buildings and neighborhoods, the poverty of her life, and an overwhelming sense that Hell is a forgotten human being. The abandoned apartment building she lives in with one other neighbor is disgusting: “The paint is hideous. Emitting a matt sheen and almost impossible to remove it, it resembles the excrement the German Shepherds deposit on the pavements here, fed on rust-coloured lumps of pre-processed food.” The only person determined enough to stay here in this building is her neighbor, Dunkel. Dunkel and Hell don’t speak much to each other, but when Dunkel suddenly leaves, Hell feels unstable and desperate to find her.

This relationship sets up the crime novel dynamic, although it is conveyed so subtly the reader never feels as if they are a classic “crime novel.” It seems more of a awkward love story, which it is not. Because Hell, whose name means light, and Dunkel, whose name means dark, appear tacitly bound together “because like her and me are ten a penny in this city.” Yet, throughout the novel, we don’t get much sense of why Hell feels they are so inextricably connected. Part of this is due to Parei’s avoidance of emotional introspection, but also a lack of detail about Hell’s life until that point, and what constitutes her life throughout the novel. We have a very vague of idea of how she has money to support herself, what her likes and dislikes are, and what her motivations are. Hell’s behavior is primal, almost dog-like; trying to find Dunkel is her only goal, as if Dunkel were her lost owner.

Then there’s Hell’s love of martial arts which allows her seriously injure people in a swift movement. We witness Hell’s sense of justice when she watches two thugs threaten the owner of the café she frequents:

I pull the knife out of the ham and hold it into the bain-marie. Then I bend over the blond man and open his windpipe, an inch-long incision just below his Adam’s apple. I turn to the landlord, still clutching his son in his arms. Behind his ear is the silver ballpoint pen. I pull it out, unscrew it, remove the cartridge and the rear part, dip the front end in hot water, bend back over the blond man and insert the point of the tube into the cut. Five seconds of fear he might die. Then at last a sucking and whistling, suck and more whistling. He’s breathing with the trembling of the tube that I’ve stuck into his throat.

For a young woman, this is an unusual show of bravery, skill and detachment. Not to mention, Hell smokes a pipe. These masculine qualities highlight Hell’s acute sense of survival amidst the decay of her surroundings as well as her own life. But, when Hell’s falls in love with a sympathetic bank robber who had a fling with Dunkel recently, it is difficult to understand why, except that it might keep her connected to Dunkel in some way.

In the end, Hell and Dunkel reunite, the two polar opposites, paralleling the reunification of Germany, to form a whole that that one half cannot exist without the other. Dunkel returns refreshed, happy and with new clothes, to rescue the fearful and downtrodden Hell. Equal parts mystery and love story, what thematically is the most prominent is that sense of rescue. All the characters in this novel either rescue or are seeking to be rescued so that someone else can do for them what they cannot. Each discovers a way to prevail against mauer im kopf (the wall in the head).

With the odd tenor of this novel, Katy Derbyshire does a valiant job in keeping with Parei’s impersonal tone and slight prose. Because the prose is so minimal, it is more important that the translator find the closest nuance and meaning. Derbyshire does this with unwavering loyalty to the Parei’s words and tone without losing any of the novel’s impact.

Overall, The Shadow-Boxing Woman is a striking novel with a post-modern approach to events in the past. In small, profound ways, Hell, Dunkel and even East Berlin rise from the ruins towards a better future. It is not sentimental, at times almost feeling apocalyptic, but it is homage to our ability to move forward with our scars of human destruction merely reminders of what we overcame.

4 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by regular contributor Will Eells on Paul Scheerbart’s The Perpetual Motion Machine, which is translated from the German by Andrew Joron and available from Wakefield Press.

Speaking of Wakefield Press, I truly believe that it is one of—if not the—most interesting presses out there today. From the deliciously funny and incredibly off-color Young Girl’s Handbook of Good Manners for Use in Educational Establishments to Perec’s Attempt at Exhausting a Space in Paris to Fourier’s “Hierarchies of Cuckoldry and Bandruptcy,“http://wakefieldpress.com/fourier_cuckoldr.html Wakefield has carved out a niche for doing peculiar books that defy categorization in very intriguing ways. Witness:

The Perpetual Motion Machine: The Story of an Invention, recently published by Wakefield Press and translated by Andrew Joron, chronicles the two and a half years Scheerbart spent trying to creating a “perpetual motion machine,” a device considered impossible to create due to its violation of the laws of thermodynamics. However, The Perpetual Motion Machine is not just a memoir. In fact, it’s pretty hard to describe what it is at all. Part-fiction, part-memoir, part-blueprints, and part-philosophical-treatise, The Perpetual Motion Machine is the intersection of art and science, presented in the form of a narrative.

The defining characteristic of the text is Scheerbert’s joyful exuberance and his almost unyielding optimism. He truly believes, despite all logic, reason, and evidence, that building a perpetual motion machine is possible, even after countless failures. He has no discernible background in science, and he has to hire a plumber to build his contraptions for him. At times he doubts himself and his work; he even gives up from time to time, but he always goes back to believing. The book even ends with Scheerbart bragging that he “succeeded in flawlessly solving the problem” . . . though he can’t tell the reader how he solved it for fear of “invalidating its registration at the patent offices.”

Read the full review here.

4 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Paul Scheerbart was a German writer and artist who lived around the turn of the twentieth century. He was perpetually broke, even though he was constantly writing books, newspaper articles, and plays. Even when he was alive he was not generally well known or successful, despite the influence his book Glass Architecture would soon garner, or the praise he would receive from eminent intellectual Walter Benjamin.

The Perpetual Motion Machine: The Story of an Invention, recently published by Wakefield Press and translated by Andrew Joron, chronicles the two and a half years Scheerbart spent trying to creating a “perpetual motion machine,” a device considered impossible to create due to its violation of the laws of thermodynamics. However, The Perpetual Motion Machine is not just a memoir. In fact, it’s pretty hard to describe what it is at all. Part-fiction, part-memoir, part-blueprints, and part-philosophical-treatise, The Perpetual Motion Machine is the intersection of art and science, presented in the form of a narrative.

The defining characteristic of the text is Scheerbert’s joyful exuberance and his almost unyielding optimism. He truly believes, despite all logic, reason, and evidence, that building a perpetual motion machine is possible, even after countless failures. He has no discernible background in science, and he has to hire a plumber to build his contraptions for him. At times he doubts himself and his work; he even gives up from time to time, but he always goes back to believing. The book even ends with Scheerbart bragging that he “succeeded in flawlessly solving the problem” . . . though he can’t tell the reader how he solved it for fear of “invalidating its registration at the patent offices.”

However, what makes The Perpetual Motion Machine occasionally transcendent are the moments when Scheerbert contemplates the ramifications, both good and bad, of his “perpet.” That is when the text bleeds from non-fiction to eerily prescient fiction—or one might say fantasy, or science fiction:

In the year 2050 A.D. there lived in the nation of Germania a general who was more malicious than all the other generals of his time put together.

At that time the Europeans were waging a great war using bombers against the Americans. Many bombing victories were achieved, thanks to the ultramodern science of war. In spite of this, the Americans continued imperturbably to survive.

Naturally this aggravated the most malicious general of his time, who held the highest power of command in Germania.

What did this monstrous person, who went by the name of Kulhmann, do as a result?

Kuhlmann worked out a plan that was supposed to inundate all of America.

He wanted to surround all of Europe with gigantic walls and then inject the waters of the Mediterranean and the Baltic into the Atlantic Ocean with the aid of two billion perpets.

The response to this barbaric plan was a single cry of horror; a peace agreement was immediately reached with America.

Through these hypothetical musings, Scheerbart effectively illustrates what I see as the joy of science: the possibility, the hope, and the expectations that come with the potential applications of a newly developed scientific theory or model. Thus, the question becomes almost more important than the answer, which when unsolved remains unknown, and therefore infinite.

This is how I understand the drive for the individual to pursue science, and The Perpetual Motion Machine is the kind of book, a very specific category to which I would also add Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams, which renders the beauty of science in a way the artist can experience it. Translator Andrew Joron deserves recognition for his superb rendering of Scheerbart’s humor, joy, ego, and despair, in a language that is extremely readable but somehow still feels like it comes from a bygone age. Though the story drags when Scheerbart explains the insignificant changes he makes to his model, as the reader knows full well the project is doomed to fail, Scheerbart’s flights of fancy—and tailspins into fear—elevate The Perpetual Motion Machine into something that will likely appeal to anyone who dreams of the coming future.

3 November 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Book Review section is a piece by Monica Carter on Daniel Kehlmann’s latest novel, Fame, which is available from Pantheon in Carol Brown Janeway’s translation from the German.

Monica Carter is a regular contributor to Three Percent, and a member of the Best Translated Book Award fiction panel. She lives in Los Angeles and runs Salonica World Lit.

I really want to thank Monica for writing this and articulating part of the reason why I’m not a big Kehlmann fan. Not to give away too much of the review—you really should read it—but this paragraph is perfect:

What is frustrating is that Kehlmann invents a concept and instead of delving into the characters, it feels as if he just stuck a plot and some semi-developed characters around it. So, yes, these stories are creative, but are they worthwhile? Perhaps if he weren’t so seemingly impressed with his own ability to mock the world in which we live, mock his own participation and mock the reader, it would feel less of a one-noter and more like a nuanced orchestral piece.

Click here to read the entire piece. (Which isn’t as negative as it may seem from that example.)

3 November 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Daniel Kehlmann’s new book of short stories, Fame, might also be entitled The Price of Fame. Celebrated, at the age of 31, for his novel Measuring the World, Kehlmann’s latest book of episodes—ahem—short stories focuses on the murky delineation between the technologies that help us live our lives and actually living our own lives. I presume that the fodder these technologies provide is going to usher in a new movement in literature whether we like it or not. Although these stories are peppered with irony, surrealism and humor, they may have been more developed had the author been unknown or, at least, lesser known.

Meta-fiction gets fair play in much of the stories; Kehlmann refers to himself as the author who can change her destiny towards the end of his most powerful story, “Rosalie Goes Off to Die.” There’s also “A Contribution to the Debate,” in which a computer geek runs into a famous author, Leo Richter, and attempts to find a way into his stories:

I had to talk to him. That was it: talk to him, admit everything exactly the way it happened, the way I’ve just told you now. Didn’t matter what he did next, he wouldn’t be able to resist it, because it was the real story. My entry into fiction. Right now, at breakfast.

The geek is infatuated with Lara Gaspard, a character in Richter’s novels. In this same story, Kehlmann employs a techno-chat room style of prose with truncated sentences and abbreviated thoughts. And even though through most of the story this style enhances the pathos of the narrator, there are times when it becomes lazy writing:

Then both of us silent for a time. He smoked, I smoked and the rain did its raining thing.

On the surface, this is an entertaining collection of Kehlmann’s inventive takes on modern culture: because of a cell phone number mix-up, man is thought to be somebody else, an actor takes to impersonating himself at night only to have his identity stolen by another impersonator of him, a writer takes the place of another writer at a conference and she is lead into a spiraling descent. The writer—Leo Richter—and the actor—Ralf Tanner—show up in some form in many of the stories. But the interlinking people and objects in these stories becomes predictable and leave the reader a bit bored, like listening to a comic pound a joke into the ground. He wrings the concept of identity in the modern world to the last drop.

What is frustrating is that Kehlmann invents a concept and instead of delving into the characters, it feels as if he just stuck a plot and some semi-developed characters around it. So, yes, these stories are creative, but are they worthwhile? Perhaps if he weren’t so seemingly impressed with his own ability to mock the world in which we live, mock his own participation and mock the reader, it would feel less of a one-noter and more like a nuanced orchestral piece.

Carol Brown Janeway, who also translated Measuring the World, does an adequate job with the translation. There are times when prose feels outdated or uneven, but it is not enough to distract the reader. To her credit, translating a story written in the style of a chatroom is a challenge and she impresses with her skill.

Fame is a book of episodic stories for the moment and for our ever-present social networking culture; however, one wishes that Kehlmann might have taken advantage of this opportunity to create stories that last longer than a simple episode. With our increasing dependence on modern technology, Kehlmann delivers a status update to be read, laughed about, and then forgotten.

11 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For those who didn’t get enough from the other week’s Read This Next on Gregor von Rezzori’s An Ermine of Czernopol, we’ve added an interview with the translator, Philip Boehm. Here’s a little excerpt:

Lily Ye: What did you think of the way in which Rezzori is able to voice different characters (as there is a lot of direct quoting in this novel) and how did you approach the translation of these different registers and argots into English?

Philip Boehm: First I have to “hear” the voices in the original. Then I try to find a suitable musical key in English. I also work professionally as a theater director and am often struck by how that activity overlaps my work as a translator—interpreting the text, envisioning the script, clearly defining characters, etc.

In rendering the accents and argots, it’s important to bear in mind that a Russian inflection, say, sounds different to a German ear than to an English one. There are also occasions when it’s best to know the proper mispronunciation.

Read the full text here.

29 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Lily Ye on this week’s Read This Next book, The Ermine in Czernopol by Gregor Von Rezzori. This novel is translated by Philip Boehm and forthcoming from New York Review Books.

This is the first book in the Von Rezzori trilogy, which also includes The Snows of Yesteryear and Memoirs of an Anti-Semite. All three titles are available from NYRB . . .

Here’s the opening of Lily’s review:

The Ermine of Czernopol is the first of Gregor von Rezzori’s semi-autobiographical novels about growing up in what was Austria-Hungary. In it, childhood is the conduit through which we must understand everything. The thing about a being a child is an unorthodox and oftentimes uncanny mode of perception, due to the foreign nature of those not yet fully socialized, coupled with a certain inability of expression. And this is an inevitable coupling as the very language that could do justice to children’s intuitions is only attainable through the very socialization that would dull these intuitions.

This is the conundrum that von Rezzori overcomes beautifully in Philip Boehm’s unabridged translation of The Ermine of Czernopol. In this memoir, we are treated to the un-opening of the world, its people and its countries, as understood by a group of children growing up in Czernopol, where there is a little bit of everything thrown together. The narrator speaks for his younger self, a young boy in this group of nigh inseparable siblings, as they eavesdrop upon the conversations of various adults, their primary source of information of the outside world. They listen to their frequent house guest, the prefect Herr Tarangolian, who gossips with authority; their tutor Herr Alexainu, who expounds on the nature of love; and countless others—all the while forming their own collective judgments and implications without fully comprehending what is being said. They dwell on the sounds of words and take delight in particular turns of phrase:

“The sayings we overheard, the whimsical sentences, the amazing word formations all burst into glowing colors when touched by the magical light of association [. . .]. It was like a star dropping from the sky if one of my siblings actually used in speech one of the words that had so excited us—for instance, when Tanya spoke of a leap of a great capacity—and if we were able to trace it back, not to the gymnastic exercises which Herr Alexainu had also described as a king of capacity, but to a name—in this case that of a certain Fraülein Kapralik. . . .”

To read the entire review, click here.

29 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Ermine of Czernopol is the first of Gregor von Rezzori’s semi-autobiographical novels about growing up in what was Austria-Hungary. In it, childhood is the conduit through which we must understand everything. The thing about a being a child is an unorthodox and oftentimes uncanny mode of perception, due to the foreign nature of those not yet fully socialized, coupled with a certain inability of expression. And this is an inevitable coupling as the very language that could do justice to children’s intuitions is only attainable through the very socialization that would dull these intuitions.

This is the conundrum that von Rezzori overcomes beautifully in Philip Boehm’s unabridged translation of The Ermine of Czernopol. In this memoir, we are treated to the un-opening of the world, its people and its countries, as understood by a group of children growing up in Czernopol, where there is a little bit of everything thrown together. The narrator speaks for his younger self, a young boy in this group of nigh inseparable siblings, as they eavesdrop upon the conversations of various adults, their primary source of information of the outside world. They listen to their frequent house guest, the prefect Herr Tarangolian, who gossips with authority; their tutor Herr Alexainu, who expounds on the nature of love; and countless others—all the while forming their own collective judgments and implications without fully comprehending what is being said. They dwell on the sounds of words and take delight in particular turns of phrase:

The sayings we overheard, the whimsical sentences, the amazing word formations all burst into glowing colors when touched by the magical light of association [. . .]. It was like a star dropping from the sky if one of my siblings actually used in speech one of the words that had so excited us—for instance, when Tanya spoke of a leap of a great capacity—and if we were able to trace it back, not to the gymnastic exercises which Herr Alexainu had also described as a king of capacity, but to a name—in this case that of a certain Fraülein Kapralik. Of course we had never laid eyes on her, but people said she gave Italian lessons. In any event, beyond our associations with capers and capricious—expressions our father liked to use in reference to us—her name called to mind a fun-loving woman from Capri. A similar wealth of associations opened up when a chance to overlap in pronunciation created by the miracle of fused meanings; for instance, when we heard the newly experienced word ektase—ecstasy—in the name of Năstase, which right away seemed to capture this young man’s tango-like essence.”

Von Rezzori does not condescend a child’s point of view with a child-like vocabulary, but rather uses his rather extensive supply of words with a precision and an ingenuity of combination that, stunningly, do not give a sense of some overly precious precocity but instead imbues in the reader with that sense of wonder and of first understanding that children experience but do not have power to express.

Perhaps the central figure in the text, as the object of the children’s greatest affection and curiosity is the Austrian officer Major Tildy, who they fall in love with immediately, without knowing almost anything about him. They spend the majority of the novel trying to hear more and more about him, as he defends the honor of his sister-in-law, a promiscuous woman from a wealthy family possessing a recognizable nose, and finds himself put away in a mental institution. Such is their infatuation that when they hear he is part German they spend an incredible amount of time speculating on the nature of Germans, and on the beauty of war. For them there is no such thing as a just war—there is just war. They understand the question only in terms of existence. When they are forced to grapple with their observations of Jewish discrimination within Czernopol, which culminates with a great riot in the streets, they understand not “that Jews are also people, but rather the reverse, that people are sometimes also Jews.” And so on, go the discoveries of this group of siblings, the unnoticed eavesdroppers in a city full of both turmoil and laughter.

For children find themselves in the unique position of alterity which still allows them access into realms of privileged knowledge, as it were, because they are not expected to understand the information that passes before their very eyes and ears. Von Rezzori seizes upon this privilege of youth and puts together an exquisitely recounted tale of childhood that contains not only the excitement and wonder of discovery, but also the cutting commentary and revelation that accompany such discovery when precisely expressed.

25 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s Read This Next selection is The Ermine of Czernopol, the first in a trilogy of semi-autobiographical works by Gregor von Rezzori (The Snows of Yesteryear, Memoirs of an Anti-Semite), all of which are available from New York Review Books.

We chose this book because of its unique and revealing perspective: von Rezzori works through the recollections of the eyes and ears of a group of children, using “we” almost exclusively, and it is through these children’s growing understanding and point-of-view that von Rezzori uses his power of description and imitation bring to life the discovery of a city and the entanglements of its citizens. Von Rezzori’s extensive vocabulary does not spare his young subjects, and so the reader has the pleasure and the advantage of innocent fascination without the language of innocence.

Much of the narrative centers on the children’s obsession with Major Tildy, an Austrian officer whose extreme attention to propriety and honor and extreme guard against losing face prove very costly. And the city discovered, the city of Czernopol, is diverse to say the least, with the characters featured in this story proving themselves extremely peculiar, whether or not through the hyperbole of childhood. A stint in a mental institution, an acclaimed locksmith poet, a tutor who shuns socks, and a production of The Nutcracker ballet all feature in this insightfully and incisively written book, where children are not spared anything.

This week we will have a full review and an interview with the translator Philip Boehm. Read the extended excerpt to begin your introduction to the city of Czernopol and its peculiar sense of humor.

25 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Brady Evan Walker on Joseph Roth’s Job, which was recently retranslated by Ross Benjamin and published by Archipelago Books.

Brady Evan Walker is a writer who splits his time unequally between New Orleans and Brooklyn, constantly on the run from the horrors of NY winters and LA (Louisiana, not L.A.) summers. He blogs infrequently at The Hole in Thin Air.

Joseph Roth is one of the greats of European Literature. A number of his books—including the epic Radetzsky’s March—are available from Overlook. Job was first published (and translated into English) in 1930, and was long overdue for a new translation. For more information on Ross’s translation and the history of this book, I’d highly recommend listening to this interview that Bill Marx of PRI’s The World Books did with Ross last fall.

Here’s the opening of Brady’s review:

Job, recently published by the consistently incredible Archipelago Press in a new translation by Ross Benjamin, is the first, and still only, book by Joseph Roth—a household-canon-grade writer in Europe—I have read. (I did have to get this review out in a timely fashion, and his other, more infamous masterpiece, Radetzsky’s March, is over 500 pages and sounds like an Austro-Hungarian version of One Hundred Years of Solitude, of which reading would have undoubtedly delayed this review.)

Job is one of those lyrically imbued novels packed with poetic turns of phrase and unwieldy sentences, slipping, slaloming, galloping and tumbling by with such rhythmic intent that it’s hard, as a writer, not to underline, annotate and copy down at least one thing on any given page. Joseph Roth, a widely-traveled journalist, undoubtedly found in the novel a place to let his verbosely winding hair down.

When we meet Mendel Singer, the “pious, God-fearing and ordinary . . . everyday Jew,” he is a mediocre children’s bible teacher with a dull home and emotionally distant family. When his fourth child is born sickly and skeletally contorted at the opening of the novel, Singer’s average life tips toward the downhill slope. It’s interesting that Roth, himself a Galician-born, shtetl-raised Jew, used village life as the basis for his retelling, where the original Job’s great wealth and influence had no place. Benjamin’s afterword sketches a brief biography, wherein he says of Roth: “[I]t is no wonder that the centuries-old figure of the migrant Jew who is nowhere at home would strike the writer as an embodiment of the peripatetic nature of postwar modern life . . . prompting him to evoke the trope of Jewish exile in Job.”

You can read the full review by clicking here.

Job
25 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Job, recently published by the consistently incredible Archipelago Press in a new translation by Ross Benjamin, is the first, and still only, book by Joseph Roth—a household-canon-grade writer in Europe—I have read. (I did have to get this review out in a timely fashion, and his other, more infamous masterpiece, Radetzsky’s March, is over 500 pages and sounds like an Austro-Hungarian version of One Hundred Years of Solitude, of which reading would have undoubtedly delayed this review.)

Job is one of those lyrically imbued novels packed with poetic turns of phrase and unwieldy sentences, slipping, slaloming, galloping and tumbling by with such rhythmic intent that it’s hard, as a writer, not to underline, annotate and copy down at least one thing on any given page. Joseph Roth, a widely-traveled journalist, undoubtedly found in the novel a place to let his verbosely winding hair down.

When we meet Mendel Singer, the “pious, God-fearing and ordinary . . . everyday Jew,” he is a mediocre children’s bible teacher with a dull home and emotionally distant family. When his fourth child is born sickly and skeletally contorted at the opening of the novel, Singer’s average life tips toward the downhill slope. It’s interesting that Roth, himself a Galician-born, shtetl-raised Jew, used village life as the basis for his retelling, where the original Job’s great wealth and influence had no place. Benjamin’s afterword sketches a brief biography, wherein he says of Roth: “[I]t is no wonder that the centuries-old figure of the migrant Jew who is nowhere at home would strike the writer as an embodiment of the peripatetic nature of postwar modern life . . . prompting him to evoke the trope of Jewish exile in Job.”

The novel is divided between two sections, the first in Zuchnow (the Singers’ native home) and the second, America, where the Singers quickly immigrate in an effort to protect their promiscuous daughter from herself and her trio of horny Cossacks.

While the novel sees Mendel Singer through a series of misfortunes (a son gone missing in the Russian Revolution, a son dead at war, a wife dead of grief, &c., &c.), the center of the novel is Mendel and his wife’s relationship to their crippled son, Menuchim, whom they leave with friends in Zuchnow when they immigrate, thinking him too sick to endure the trip. Three quarters through the novel, Mendel finally gives up on God and humanity, then mopes through his days, more or less sapped of the will to live but for the hope of seeing his Menuchim.

The virtue of the novel lies in the synchronism between its lyrical rhythm and its portrayal of quotidian misery. In simple lines like “Today the dead seemed deader than usual,” or “Nothing happened. Yet infinite things seemed to want to happen,” serve as punctuating stops between epic flights like:

She neglected her duty at the stove, the soup boiled over, the clay pots cracked, the pans rusted, the greenish shimmering glasses shattered with a harsh crash, the chimney of the petroleum lamp was darkened with soot, the wick was charred to a miserable stub, the dirt of many soles and many weeks coated the floorboards, the lard melted away in the pot, the withered buttons fell from the children’s shirts like leaves before the winter.

What a sentence! What a dully unpleasant (yet so beautiful-sounding!) existence.

Though Roth has no compunction about cruelty to his characters, there are certainly moments in which he allowed bits of saccharine fairy tale-telling to creep. (In the afterword, Benjamin reveals that Roth once confessed that he couldn’t have written the ending had he not been drunk.) (NB: Roth died of alcoholism.) But because the novel works on such an entrenched psychological level, digging deeply into its characters, the sudden turn of fortune doesn’t elicit that deus ex romantic comedy sigh of frustration that might come of any sudden, punctuating upswing, rather I, at the very least, found myself turning the pages, curious how this bedraggled and tortured man would react to something good, not so much interested in the odd event itself. And it was all still as compelling and sweetly limned as all of that bad.

22 July 11 | Julianna Romanazzi | Comments

In addition to Leif Randt’s Ernst Willner prize, the Festival of German-Language Literature has also announced its Ingeborg Bachmann, Kelag, 3sat, and for the first time ever, Audience Award for its submissions of new German literature.

The Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, one of the most prestigious that the Festival awards, was given this year to Maja Haderlap for her Im Kessel (In the Kettle). The prize, named after famed Austrian writer and playwright Ingeborg Bachmann, was awarded by the provincial capital of Klagenfurt for EUR 25,000.

Also taking home an award was Steffen Popp with the Kelag Prize for his Spur einer Dorfgeschichte (Trace of a Village History). The Kelag Prize was donated by the Kärntner Elektrizitäts und Aktiengesellschaft (a local electric company) and worth a handsome EUR 10,000.

As well as the the Kärntner Elektrizitäts und Aktiengesellschaft, another corporate sponsor also awarded a prize. 3sat, a German-Austrian cultural broadcasting company, gave its 3sat Prize to Nina Buβmann for Große Ferien (Long Holidays) and a cash prize of EUR 7500.

Beginning this year at the Festival’s 36th inception VILLIglas sponsored the a new annual prize, the VILLI Audience Award. The award, donated by VILLIglas owner Phillip Daniel Merckle, was voted on by the public exclusively through the internet and given to Thomas Klupp for his 9to5 Hardcore.

21 July 11 | Julianna Romanazzi | Comments

After a three day marathon of reading a seven-person panel of judges for the Festival of German-Language Literature announced Leif Randt as the winner of the Ernst Willner Prize for his novel Schimmernder Dunst uber CobyCounty (The Haze Over Coby County), translated by Stefan Tobler.

The Festival, formerly known as the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, takes place yearly in Klagenfurt, Austria as a publicized event and since 2006 has been endowed yearly with EUR 25,000 in prize money. It is currently one of the most important awards for German literature. Submissions to the competition must be previously unpublished and have their original language as German, and during the judging process competitors must convince the public, the jury and its auditors of the quality of their pieces.

As part of this year’s Festival, Leif Randt was awarded the Ernst Willner Prize, so named after one of the Festival’s founders, for his work which has since been published.Schimmernder Dunst tuber CobyCounty has since been accepted by the BerlinVerlag publishing house and will be out in print in August. The book is Randt’s second novel to be published and follows his promising first _Leuchtspielhaus (Luminous Playhouse) which appeared in 2009 and won the Nicolas Born Debut Prize.

1 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

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

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

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

On to the review:

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

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

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

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

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

Read the full review by clicking here.

1 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Earlier this week, the Goethe Institut in Chicago announced that Jean Snook was this year’s winner of the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize for her translation of Austrian writer Gert Jonke’s The Distant Sound, which was published by Dalkey Archive Press.

Here’s what the jury had to say:

The jury for the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Prize is pleased to award the prize for 2010 to Jean Snook for her translation of Gert Jonke’s The Distant Sound, published by Dalkey Archive Press. The Austrian novelist, poet, and playwright Gert Jonke (1946-2009) wrote a German rich in descriptive detail and evocative sound effects that Snook has rendered with consummate skill into an English as poetic, funny, and crazy as the original. In long, spooling sentences and synaesthetic images, she gives English-speaking readers access to a writer who deserves a place next to better-known contemporaries such as Thomas Bernhard and Arno Schmidt. Jean Snook makes the tightrope act of translating Jonke’s exploration of language as a means of capturing the ineffable look effortless.

This is the fourth book of Jonke’s Dalkey has published. The last—Homage to Czerny, also translated by Snook—was longlisted for the 2008 BTBA. And while we’re talking about Jonke, it’s worth revisiting the obituary Vincent Kling wrote about him when he passed away.

In terms of Jean M. Snook, she

lives with her husband on the easternmost tip of North America, the Avalon Peninsula on the island of Newfoundland, where she has taught German language and literature at Memorial University since 1984. She has translated Else Lasker-Schüler’s Concert and Luise Rinser’s Abelard’s Love for the University of Nebraska Press; Evelyn Grill’s Winter Quarters for Ariadne Press; Hans Eichner’s Kahn & Engelmann for Biblioasis; and, thanks to a reference from translator Renate Latimer, Gert Jonke’s Homage to Czerny: Studies in Virtuoso Technique for Dalkey Archive Press, where she received very welcome editorial assistance from Jeremy Davies. Continuing with Dalkey Archive Press, she began translating Jonke’s The Distant Sound during a stay at the Europäisches Übersetzerkollegium in Straelen, Germany, in 2007, and finished the translation in 2009, when it won the inaugural Austrian Cultural Forum Translation Prize. Her translation of the third book in Jonke’s trilogy, Awakening to the Great Sleep War, is due to appear later in 2011. She is now translating a book by the Swiss author Paul Nizon.

Congrats! And the official ceremony will take place on June 13th, right before the start of the annual Helen and Kurt Wolff Symposium.

16 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is Jennifer Bratovich’s piece on Thomas Pletzinger’s Funeral for a Dog, available from W. W. Norton in Ross Benjamin’s translation.

I’ve been holding onto this review for months, waiting first for the book to come out, then for Ross and Thomas to come here, then . . . I simply forgot about it. Better late than never though, especially since Jennifer Bratovich—a former student—really, really dug this book.

Anyway, for more Three Percent love for Funeral and Thomas and Ross, you can read this interview from the Iowa Review or check out this video of their event on campus.

Or, you can read Jennifer’s review:

Thomas Pletzinger doesn’t waste any time. In the first paragraph of his stunning debut novel Funeral for a Dog, his central character Daniel Mandelkern tells exactly what to expect: “I’m sending you seven postcards and a stack of paper, XXX pages. This stack is about me. And about memory and the future.” Sure enough, the “stack of paper”—which includes interview transcripts, drawings, and facsimiles a la Johnathan Safran Foer minus some of the schmaltz—is a fresh, vigorous read that nimbly weaves together the anxieties of the (real and reconstructed) past and the unknown, dubious future.

Mandelkern is an ethnologist/journalist whose professional and personal life are under increasing strain (his wife Elisabeth is also his editor, and they have been arguing). The novel finds him leaving Hamburg on assignment to interview Dirk Svensson, a peculiar author of children’s books who lives on a lake with his three legged dog. During his stay, Mandelkern stumbles upon a manuscript of Svensson’s revealing a complicated mix of people, events, and circumstances.

Click here to read the full piece.

16 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Thomas Pletzinger doesn’t waste any time. In the first paragraph of his stunning debut novel Funeral for a Dog, his central character Daniel Mandelkern tells exactly what to expect: “I’m sending you seven postcards and a stack of paper, XXX pages. This stack is about me. And about memory and the future.” Sure enough, the “stack of paper”—which includes interview transcripts, drawings, and facsimiles a la Johnathan Safran Foer minus some of the schmaltz—is a fresh, vigorous read that nimbly weaves together the anxieties of the (real and reconstructed) past and the unknown, dubious future.

Mandelkern is an ethnologist/journalist whose professional and personal life are under increasing strain (his wife Elisabeth is also his editor, and they have been arguing). The novel finds him leaving Hamburg on assignment to interview Dirk Svensson, a peculiar author of children’s books who lives on a lake with his three legged dog. During his stay, Mandelkern stumbles upon a manuscript of Svensson’s revealing a complicated mix of people, events, and circumstances.

Pletzinger is careful never to reveal too much to us at once. Structurally, the novel alternates between a chapter of Svensson’s narrative manuscript and a handful of Mandelkern’s observations and reflections, told in easily digestible, paragraph-long chunks with clever titles. Theses parallel stories unfold and converge, overlapping and slowly piecing together the histories of Pletzinger’s characters.

It is this process of uncovering and revealing that makes the novel so interesting to read. It is up to us to start seeing relationships between the smallest details (for example, golden bobby pins). Mandelkern admits he is obsessed with “making connections where there are no connections”. As Mandelkern introduces us to the details of his life with Elisabeth and his investigation into Svensson’s world, we are given so little information that we are left on our own to decide exactly how these details fit together:

We had no mission outside of ourselves (I found her red hair in the corners of my apartment). From our words and thoughts we designed streets and moved more purposefully, maybe more meaningfully, in them (she showed me the remote map quadrants), we used our bodies (I went beyond my boundaries).

This caffeinated, contemplative style propels the novel forward through the longer portions of Svensson’s manuscript (which stays truer to traditional form, but still preserves Pletzinger’s brisk, smooth style).

And within the larger context of the novel, what is missing seems to be just as important as what is present. Furthermore, as Mandelkern reads Svensson’s manuscript, he learns that only a fraction of it is true—another fraction is completely fictional, and the remainder is just a series of attempts at building some kind of cohesive, understandable connection between the real and the reconstructed. Both authors struggle desperately with the burden of stitching together and making sense of their histories, because as Svensson notes, “What you don’t hold on to disappears”. This fear of impending loss seems to drive the novel as it drives Svensson and Mandelkern to complete their work, to make sense of their histories and to move forward past them.

That said, readers have to pay attention. Pletzinger’s characters are linked in specific ways. By the end of the novel, when everything is being pulled together in one large chunk, it takes a moment to recall everything that was in Svensson’s plot-heavy manuscript. This book is packed with details that come back again and again. That one brief sentence snuck somewhere in one of Mandelkern’s jotted down paragraphs that you will never be able to find again, offhandedly mentioning a painting on the wall? Probably important. And such is the sad exuberance of Funeral for a Dog—a beautiful self-referential story about love, longing, and loss that should probably be read at least twice to fully appreciate.

30 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Guardian is one of my favorite newspapers for any number of reasons, but I particularly like their series and their overall international focus.

For instance, earlier this month they launched their New Europe Series, which features an in-depth look at four European countries: Germany, France, Spain, and Poland. (The Poland page will be available next week.)

Each section features tons of pieces about the focus country, mostly in the political, economic, and social bent, but most pertinent to this blog, there’s also a lot of literary coverage.

For years, the Guardian has been running a “World Literature Tour,” but according to Richard Lea’s intro to the new Germany focus, technology and the internets rocked the archives, decimating all the comments people wrote about the literature of Finland, Turkey, Germany, etc., etc.

So now they’re kicking this off with a new system. Instead of having a space for comments, there’s now a form where you can make a recommendation, which is fed into a very readable, very browseable spreadsheet. (I have to admit that having tried—on several occasions—to slug through the hundred of comments for any particular country, that I’m very jacked about this new method.)

And although it can still be a bit overwhelming, the results are pretty cool. Here are the spreadsheets for Germany, and for France. (Doesn’t look like the Spain one is up yet.)

Richard Lea’s overviews are all worth checking out as well, so here are links to the pieces on Germany, France, and Spain. And don’t forget to log in your own recommendations at the bottom of these pages. (Like maybe all your favorite Open Letter titles?)

As if this weren’t enough, as part of this series there are also “What They’re Reaidng In XXX” for each of the respective countries:

In Spain:

Meanwhile, the publishing engine continues its unstoppable course. Long ago, a few large publishing companies, such as Santillana, Planeta and Mondadori, took control of the lion’s share of the market. However, despite the steamrolling presence of these companies, not only do small publishers survive but new ones keep popping up and – even in this recession-ridden 2011 – it is these small players who manage to keep alive the embers of independence and surprise: Periférica, Libros del Asteroide, Páginas de Espuma, Minúscula and Nórdica, to name but a few distinguished examples.

Talking of new arrivals, one has to mention Juan Marsé‘s new book Caligrafía de los sueños (Lumen), an introspective inquiry into the Barcelona of the post-war period. Marsé is a master of the art of covering the same territory a thousand times and always making it seem new. The author of unforgettable portraits of a Spain facing a very uncertain future, such as Ronda del Guinardó, Si te dicen que caí and Rabos de lagartija, returns to familiar material: everything is sad in Marsé, a sadness that also includes meanness, humour and, of course, memory. His legions of followers are delighted as always.

b. But in Spain, right now, the most awaited book of the year is undoubtedly Javier Marías’s new novel, Los enamoramientos (Alfaguara). The eternal Spanish Nobel prize candidate and the author of what have already become contemporary classics, such as Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me and A Heart So White, has handed over to the printers a spine-chilling story about the highs and lows of our miserable lives. Marías is always Marías, and his arrival in the bookshops is always the publishing event of the season. [. . .]

Looking a little further back, Anatomía de un instante (Mondadori) by Javier Cercas is one of those essay/fiction books that is so linked to a real – and brutal – event that it not only managed to hypnotise Spanish readers at the time of its well-publicised launch many months ago, but still manages to do so now. The recent commemorations of the 30th anniversary of the attempted coup d‘état by a group of military officers, on 23 February 1981 (the real pretext for this work of literary pseudo-fiction), has helped to maintain interest in Cercas’s book. He is undoubtedly one of the most interesting authors on the young literary scene in Spain, besides being an especially lucid and sharp columnist.

The Germany piece is kind of funny. It’s kind of a downer, focusing either on books that were derided by critics, or that sold really poorly:

More challenging fare was provided by Melinda Nadj Abonji. Her novel Tauben fliegen auf (“Falcons without Falconers”), a family drama about Yugoslavian immigrants in Switzerland, won the 2010 German Book Prize, Germany’s answer to the Booker. But unlike previous winners by authors such as Katharina Hacker, Julia Franck and Uwe Tellkamp – all reliable suppliers of highly marketable light novels for a moderately demanding reading public – Abonji’s novel was a commercial disaster, just reaching number 50 on the bestseller list shortly before Christmas.

New books by Günter Grass and Christa Wolf reminded us that there were once such things as great German writers. Gruppe 47 (Group 47), a literary association that influenced an entire era and encompassed the country’s best authors, disbanded long ago. Which author under 60 could play that role today? Thomas Lehr, perhaps, whose September. Fata Morgana is a linguistic tour de force set in the aftermath of 9/11 and is both celebrated and controversial. Pedantic critics derided it for not having a single punctuation mark (despite the full stop in the title), as if punctuation has anything to do with literature.

The piece on French literature doesn’t have too many recommendations, but does have some info on the French publishing scene (and French controversies):

To understand what literary life in France is like, imagine a pond. A pond that’s getting smaller and smaller, with just as many fish in it, so that the water is getting more and more crowded. You can guess what happens: each one has less and less space to evolve, to find food, and even to develop the energy required to discuss ideas. Sales of books continue to be weak in 2011, after a particularly flat year for publishers and bookshops. Apart from the usual juggernauts, such as titles from the bestselling authors Mark Lévy and Amélie Nothomb, and more sporadic successes such as the latest novel from Michel Houellebecq (winner of the Prix Goncourt in November last year), most novels and essays struggle to make any money. [. . .]

This polarisation is reflected in the way the press talks about books. In newspapers the space devoted to literature is now relatively stable after a dramatic decline over the past 10 years. As a result, critics struggle to cover the full range of books produced, caught between the need to talk about what everyone else is talking about, the need to explore types of literature that almost no one is talking about and the wish to get themselves talked about by taking up increasingly clear-cut positions.

In these circumstances, what happens to the discussion of ideas? It is still alive with regard to the big questions that run through society (political, religious, social, historical, and so on). According to the philosopher and novelist Bernard-Henri Lévy, the French situation is unusual in that, instead of being permanently fixed, “intellectual groups re-form around each issue like iron filings around a magnet”, a situation which has become more marked in the last 20 years. In January 2011 the “affaire Céline” shook the cultural world. The writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline, who wrote some truly great books and also some violently anti-semitic tracts, was included in the calendar of national commemorations, to mark the 50th anniversary of his death. His presence in this official brochure provoked such a furore that the minister of culture eventually backed down and removed Céline.

There’s tons more worth checking out here, including a review of Thomas Pletzinger’s Funeral for a Dog and an article on the 100 Years of Gallimard. It’s very easy to spend a morning (or a month) looking through all of this. Especially once all the Polish stuff is up . . .

30 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Ah, the storied Swiss Alps: snow capped mountains, fields of wild flowers, burbling streams of clean water, simple folks out doing what simple folks do in such settings. Take for example the flock of sheep accompanied by blond haired girl along a winding path. Especially of note is how she picks up a rock and wings it at errant sheep.

In this, his second novel, Frisch gives a modernist take on the heroic quest for meaning by the solitary man in nature. Balz Leuthold, 30 years old, is a sorely disappointed man. Seventeen years ago he had accompanied his older brother (himself 30, soon to be married) in these same mountains. He had vowed then not to settle for the ordinary, but instead achieve the extraordinary in . . . something.

You could still tell yourself: you’re only twenty, everything’s still possible. And how proud you are when everything was still possible! Later it was: twenty-five’s no age at all, and you like reading about people who had achieved nothing at twenty-five, which was something out of the ordinary, and those around them who did not believe that they had this or that achievement in them. True, you still didn’t know in what field your future achievements would lie, but in the meantime you wore ties and hats of a style that would never occur to a ordinary citizen, and even at times you were afraid you might be ridiculous . . . and worthless and worse than anyone else on earth, it was a painful thought but not without its comfort; at least it gave you the feeling that it made you a special person, perhaps a criminal, and it was only when you failed to achieve anything by way of misdeeds that others could not do equally well, that a new and more despairing fear set in that your extraordinary achievement might not happen.

Hipsters beware! As the Preacher says in Ecclesiastes, “nothing new under the sun.”

As the novel unfolds Balz is revealed as not such a total failure, except in his own eyes. He has a Ph.D., is ready to take on his new job of teaching (although in that system it sounds like he will teach school-aged children), and is engaged to a woman named Barbara.

After a trek he arrives at an inn at the base of some mountains, and the reader learns he intends to climb one by a route never achieved before, the North Ridge. (The helpful afterward by Peter von Mott explains that Frisch’s contemporary readers would have recognized this as the North Wall of the Eiger Mountain which many had failed to climb yet, with upcoming tries much in the news.) Balz spends a day or two at the inn during bad weather, strikes up a relationship with Irene, a woman who has come to the inn with a married couple. He makes a practice climb on another rock face, one which we hear has been only successfully climbed by a few; clearly he is fit and experienced, not as wholly delusional as the reader might have feared from earlier descriptions. When he reaches the top of this climb he stands in the silence in an anticlimactic moment, an achievement with no self-evident meaning.

Balz sets out to climb the North Ridge. Irene follows, and turns out to be no innocent lured by the dashing young man. His fiancé Barbara arrives at the inn after their departure, gets the picture, reveals that she actually doesn’t really love Balz (nor he her). Yet she goes to the camp where Irene has stayed, and they have an agreeable conversation; at nightfall Balz has not returned and a rescue party is sent out.

Balz does return, changed. It’s safe to say he won’t feel the need to achieve the spectacular anymore, and he does have an answer of sort for his living the rest of his life. No need to reveal what forms those developments take. To me the resolution seemed satisfying, “correct.”

This novel is 100 pages and a quick read in an evening. It’s an entertaining book to see in the context of modernism in general and Frisch’s overall works specifically. As the Afterward points out, the themes in this novel are ones Frisch returned to frequently. I had read Man in the Holocene in college, and lent it out never to be returned. It’s good to find a great writer who holds up.

15 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

Click here for all past and future posts.

Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer by Ernst Weiss, translated by Joel Rotenberg

Language: German
Country: Moravia
Publisher: Archipelago
Pages: 560

Why This Book Should Win: Again with the Mad Scientist!; Archipelago titles are always contenders; the novel is long, engrossing, gothic, and classic.

Today’s entry is from Bill Marx, who is a BTB judge, editor of Arts Fuse, and runs PRI’s The World: World Books. He also teaches at BU.

You wouldn’t know it from the myopic reviews, at least the ones that I have read, but Georg Letham is one of the greatest horror novels of the 20th century. (Probably the greatest—name the contenders.) Not horror in the adolescent Stephen King/H.P. Lovecraft mode of rampaging monsters, but in the scientific romance genre, a modernist version of the Gothic mythopoetic imagination found in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, and H. G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau. It sits proudly with those wonderful books, daring to go to hallucinogenic extremes when linking the sadistic depths of the scientific mentality with the amorality of modern life.

Because it was published in 1931 by a Czech-Jewish writer and deals with a “mad” homicidal doctor (a bacteriologist), who wants to benefit a mankind he feels nothing for, the critical tendency has been to see the story as a expose of the fascist mentality, which it is, and as a Freudian nightmare, which it isn’t. Or that is the least interesting reading of this jaw-dropper of a book, as exemplified by the dreary Nation piece that reduces Weiss’s fascinating narrative into a mirror of the process of psychoanalysis.

Weiss’s vision in Georg Letham is not rote Freudian; it is firmly in the social critique/ apocalyptic Darwinian mode. “Can man triumph over nature?” asks Georg. “Never. He, man, is only an experiment on the part of nature, the terrible.” Thus evolution (or God) may be experimenting with pitiless objectivity on us, generating humans out of animals. And the terrible is woven into everything we think and do: the predominate metaphor in the novel—repeated to the point of saturation—is the degrading/violent transformation of humans into animals (rats and frogs dominate) and animals into humans (a “feminist” retelling of Adam and Eve stars two rats in a pit and ends with the female gobbling up the male). Tossed into prison for killing his wife (because she nauseates him), Georg ends up looking for a cure for Yellow fever in the tropics (fire), with a memorable flashback to his brutal father fighting an army of rats during a hellish expedition to the North Pole (ice).

Some warnings before tackling Georg Letham—its structure is lumpy, little more than a series of set pieces that are of novella length. And if you have an abnormal fear of rats and love dogs you will have a very hard time, though the victims dish out some payback to their not-so-fittest tormentors. Adventurous readers with stout temperaments will find this gruesome diagnosis of modernity worthy of Nietzsche (“herd mentality”) and sociologist Max Weber. The latter summed up Georg’s dissociated type perfectly: “specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart,” though as an unreliable narrator Georg is self-consciously (and poignantly) aware of his lack of humanity. Weber also refers to civilized men as souls trapped in “the polar night of icy darkness.” Georg Letham is a demanding but magnificent deep freeze of a novel, classic horror served zero to the bone.

10 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

Click here for all past and future posts.

The Blindness of the Heart by Julia Franck, translated by Anthea Bell

Language: German
Country: Germany
Publisher: Grove
Pages: 424

Why This Book Should Win: Anthea Bell is one of the best translators working today; this novel won the German Book Prize in 2007; it made the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize last year for the UK edition.

Since this novel has already won a number of prizes, here’s a series of quotes and comments from other award givers:

“Framed by the story of a child abandoned in the chaos of postwar Germany, this novel shows epoch-making events through the eyes and emotions of the ordinary people – above all the women – who always bear their brunt. After the tramuas of the 1914-1918 war, half-Jewish Helene escapes to Weimar Berlin, an emancipated nurse breathing the air of freedom. As the darkness of the Hitler era closes in, marriage to a pro-Nazi engineer link dictatorship at home and in the state, in a novel finely attuned to every exercise of power- and every act of resistance.” — Independent Foreign Fiction Prize

“Against the background of two world wars, Julia Franck tells the disturbing story of a woman who leaves her son, without finding herself. The book is persuasive in its vivid use of language, narrative power and psychological intensity. A novel for long conversation.”, is how the seven judges for the German Book Prize announced their choice.

(And just for the oddity of this quote, here’s another bit from the German Book Prize people: “There was a big majority for the judges’ choice of Julia Franck’s novel Die Mittagsfrau as the winner for the 2007 novel of the year. This decision was preceded by energetic and intense discussion of all titles; there was particularly lively argument as to what a contemporary German novel is able to achieve over and above literary fashions and off-the-peg goods”, says Felicitas von Lovenberg, speaking on behalf of the judges. “Off-the-peg goods” is my new favorite phrase. Along with “unintended fuckery.”)

Keeping on with the glowing praise for this novel, here’s a bit from Julia Pascal’s review in the Independent:

It is easy to see why The Blind Side of the Heart won the German Book Prize. Julia Franck’s novel, based on her own father’s life, is one of the most haunting works I have ever read about 20th-century Germany. Its distinction is Franck’s ability to explore intergenerational trauma in a totally fresh way – as if the 39-year-old author had lived through two world wars and returned as a witness.

Helene is the daughter of a Jewish mother and an Aryan father. Brought up in Saxony she, and her sister Martha, suffer the consequences of their father’s war injuries and their mother’s mental illness. Both escape poverty and enjoy a freer life with their decadent Jewish aunt in Weimar Berlin.

What is so clever about Franck’s characters and plotting is that she shows the women maturing without any sense of political awareness. Although they see Lotte Lenya in Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, the larger political struggle, between Communism and Nazism, hardly touches them. The rise of Hitler is so understated that its gathering momentum gives the book a compulsive charge.

Granted, there is a surfeit of WWII-related books out there, but to convince you of the worthiness of this title, here’s an except (or technically, an excerpt of an excerpt):

They headed to the station at a run. But on the staircase down to the station, a uniformed nurse with a protruding belly came towards them, obviously a colleague of his mother’s. She told them the special trains weren’t coming into Stettin, they’d have to go out to Scheune, walk to the next stop; that was where the trains were going from.

They walked along between the tracks. The nurse got out of breath quickly. She jostled into place next to his mother and Peter walked behind them, trying to hear what they were talking about. The nurse said she hadn’t got a moment’s sleep, she kept thinking of the bodies they’d found in the hospital yard at night. Peter’s mother didn’t reply. She didn’t mention the soldiers’ visit. Her colleague sobbed, she admired Peter’s mother for her dedication, even though everybody knew, well, that something wasn’t right about her origin. The nurse laid a hand on her round belly and puffed, but she didn’t want to talk about that now. Who had that courage after all? She could never have taken one of the stakes herself and pulled it out of one of the women’s bodies, staked like animals, their guts all torn to shreds. She stood still for a moment and propped her heavy body on Peter’s mother’s shoulder, taking deep breaths, the woman who survived had kept calling for her daughter, but she’d bled to death beside her long before. Peter’s mother stopped still and told the nurse gruffly to stop talking. For heaven’s sake, stop it.

The narrow platform at Scheune was crowded with people waiting. They sat on the ground in groups and eyed the new arrivals with mistrust.

Nurse Alice! The call came from a group of people sitting on the ground; two women waved their arms wildly. Peter’s mother followed the call of the woman, who seemed to have recognized her. She squatted down next to them on the ground. Peter sat down next to his mother; the pregnant woman followed them but stayed on her feet, indecisive. She shuffled from one foot to the other. The women whispered amongst themselves, and two women and a man disappeared with the pregnant nurse. When a woman had to pee she was accompanied by several people if possible. People said the Russkis were hiding in the bushes and jumping out on women.

(FYI: The above translation is by Katy Derbyshire, not Anthea Bell. Katy’s a great translator as well, runs “Love German Books” and is a big champion of Julia Franck.)

17 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

Click here for all past and future posts.

Microscripts by Robert Walser, translated by Susan Bernofsky

Language: German
Country: Switzerland
Publisher: New Directions/Christine Burgin
Pages: 160

Why This Book Should Win: Most beautifully designed book on the longlist; beyond being an interesting text, it has a fascinating backstory; Walser has been in the running for several years with The Assistant and The Tanners, but has yet to win; Susan Bernofsky (who has multiple titles on the longlist) is amazing and deserves to win.

Today, one of our BTBA judges looks at Robert Walser’s Microscripts.

This is not a book to simply be read. It is a collection of secrets, devised by the author, only to be initially dismissed as gibberish, sorted by a caretaker sometime later, taken in by an amateur who thought otherwise, transcribed into German by a team of two over a decade, then finally, expertly translated into English and re-ordered and edited in book form.

The stories and fragments are for the most part without titles, rendered in a defunct miniature script, never meant to meet the reader’s eyes. They rely upon a portrait before each translation begins, the first sentence sometimes dictating a makeshift title.

With Walser’s writing, there is a silent step back, a gathering of thoughts before each move is made, so as to disarm the unknown future. There is no pretense, no absolutes and little residue. Not much to grab onto in the form of a sure-footed narrative here, no plot-driven whirlwind tales or any reliance upon full-blown characters.

The rhythms of language and syntax devise paths of their own device. An image of a conversation that’s taking place forces your gaze upon a singular object. The entirety of a description ultimately pays tribute to the subject of the story. Walser’s words can leave you directionless. They carry you along, adrift in his language, unsure of both the author’s intention and your path upon reading his words.

I remember someone at New Directions telling me about the existence of the Microscripts while the English translation was still in the works. I had built up images in my head accordingly, filed them away, and waited for the true object to be revealed sometime later. Then I was given a sample facsimile of one of “texts” at a book fair. I was intrigued and puzzled, as one would be without the aid of a proper translation. I regarded the image simply as an objet d’art, putting the oversized loose sheet on the bookshelf and waited for an answer.

This volume of well-ordered scraps is anything but. The transparent design echoes the ordering of a puzzling archive, allowing the reader to flitter between image, original text and translation freely. An afterword by Walter Benjamin gives credence to his contemporary and provides needed context.

Ultimately, the book functions as an unintended collaborative artwork made by many, celebrating the work of an unrivalled master of the minuscule and perhaps, unintentionally functioning as a guide of how to unlock secrets slowly over time.

9 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Erica Mena on Anja Utler’s engulf—enkindle, which is translated by Kurt Beals and came out in December from the admirable Burning Deck.

The best source for info on German poet Anja Utler seems to be this site (which, for those of you into poetry of the experimental flavor, looks pretty awesome on the whole), which has this to say:

Her first volume of poetry, asfsagen, was published in 1999, followed by münden – entzügeln (engulf – enkindle) in 2004. The year before, she received her doctorate for her thesis on women Russian modernist poets.

That same year she was awarded the Leonce-und-Lena-Preis, an award devoted to outstanding younger poets. That award jury described her poetry as “sensual sound constructions, on paper as in recitation, without being pure sound-poetry. Rather, they are language games of psychological world perception, that out of the substance of their words create shafts of illumination through which our curiosity, but also our bafflement in the exploration of language, feel their way.”

Erica Mena is a member of the Best Translated Book Award poetry committee (quick interjection: engulf—enkindle isn’t eligible for this year’s award, but come BTBA 2012 . . . ), who is also a poet, translator, and noted screeder.

But today, Erica is gushing rather than screeding . . . Based on the first paragraph alone, I think Erica kinda sorta likes this collection . . . (And be sure to scroll to the bottom to hear a recording Erica did of one of the poems):

engulf — enkindle is a stunning book of poetry. It literally stunned me into absolute submission; it is the book of poetry I’d been wanting to read for years. It’s a small volume, and I read it in one sitting, faster than I normally read poetry, because I couldn’t slow down. The language sunk its hooks into me and pulled me through the book, like rafting down rapids. If some of this sounds violent, that’s no mistake – the book is full of sensual violence, done to the body of language and the body in the poem.

want now: you – drive into me
want to push to the edge, hang, you
haul all my: shale, scrape
it off from: the head, from the shoulders
to rootstock throat gravel: you split me
give me – as if severed – sharp
countours – fangs wolffian ridge
questions too – will i? –
i – take you to me
                                 balances I

Click here for the full review.

9 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

engulf — enkindle is a stunning book of poetry. It literally stunned me into absolute submission; it is the book of poetry I’d been wanting to read for years. It’s a small volume, and I read it in one sitting, faster than I normally read poetry, because I couldn’t slow down. The language sunk its hooks into me and pulled me through the book, like rafting down rapids. If some of this sounds violent, that’s no mistake – the book is full of sensual violence, done to the body of language and the body in the poem.

want now: you – drive into me
want to push to the edge, hang, you
haul all my: shale, scrape
it off from: the head, from the shoulders
to rootstock throat gravel: you split me
give me – as if severed – sharp
countours – fangs wolffian ridge
questions too – will i? –
i – take you to me
                                 balances I

The stacatto lines, broken by strange punctuation, expose themselves as duplicitious; the punctuation is superfluous, and yet it’s not. It’s a violation of the line, of the rules of grammar, but it forces a rhythm on the almost unwilling reader. It’s pleasurable and distressing simultaneously, mimetic of the poems. The I in the poem submits to the violence of the you, while exerting her own controlled violence over the reader, and the poem and ultimately her poetic body.

Like most “experimental” texts this work demands more of its reader, a different set of tools and strategies. It is a text that has been splayed wide open, disgorging multiple readings. This extract from the second poem could be read as describing what the poetry itself is doing:

     II

– percieve:     just at the opencuts: set free
furrow –          to stand, sense, to drift now am: pitching to you
                        through the: fissures [. . .]

[The bracketed ellipsis is mine.] Pay attention to the slippery shifts of meaning across and through the punctuation, the way caesura is inserted into the lines and creates tension with the phrases that follow the colons. Feel the tension that is created by the speeding up and slowing down of the lines, the gaps in meaning and thwarted grammatical expectations (the missing subject for “am” for example).

This is poetry that demands several readings, at least one of which must be aloud. When I teach poetry, I always ask that the students read the poems out loud, as well as to themselves, and if I suspect they have not done it we do it together. Great poetry creates sonic space on the page, and visual space in the voice, and the movement between these opens up new meanings. Traditionally, this happens behind the semantic content of the poem, but Beals’s rendering of Utler’s poetry prioritizes its lyric qualities. In engulf – enkindle, the poems hinge on sound and silence, on rhythm and breaking, with meaning following. Try listening to this without reading along, and see what kind of difference it makes.1

XI

finally, startled from sleep, find:
the larynx deseeded is
hollowed: hands palpate,
it: fumbling, feathered, from
ribcage entwine themselves
deeper into the: reed swallow: light,
gurgling, darkly well, dimly
they: keel towards hulls towards hollows
weave: cavities, gorges of
stalks of fingers of (..)
so to speak: towards the bittern – neting place,
in the singing reed so it’s called – grow
entangled as – flotsam and jetsam – stitched
up to the: glottis rustling
almost trembling i hear you again: say
song you say song – what is: song

Kurt Beals is a genius. I can’t imagine how these translations could have come to be otherwise. He may have been working at an advantage; Germanic languages share many rhythm and sound paterns, two of the most impressive features of this translation. Still, the strangeness of these poems, which demand so much of the reader, must have demaned even more of Beals. To create this kind of complexity in translation is nothing short of stunning, an acheivment compounded by the shifting registers and pacing of the language.

This is an uncompromising work of brilliance on both Utler and Beals’ parts. It’s sharp and sexy, challenging and riviting and absolutely relentless. This is the poetry I’ve been waiting my whole life for.

1 Here’s a recording Erica made of “Utler IX”:

7 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

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

All posts in this series can be found here. Today’s entry is from Katy Derbyshire, translator from German and curator of Love German Books. And the book she loves is Visitation.

Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated by Susan Bernofsky

Language: German
Country: Germany
Publisher: New Directions
Pages: 150

Why It Should Win: Susan Bernofsky; in a sense, the main character is a house; Susan Bernofsky; the translation of the title (Heimsuchung).

Visitation, quite plainly, should win the BTBA because it’s a babe of a book, written by a thinking reader’s babe of an author and put into English by thinking reader’s babe of a translator. I’m allowed to say that; I’m a woman.

That may not be enough for you—although lord knows it should be, because it’s not just that men get much more review coverage, it also just happens to be more often men who win these literary and translation prizes, so my facetious argument is actually striking a blow for feminism. But in the interest of fairness, I shall provide a few more details.

Jenny Erpenbeck is an opera director who writes stunning novels. You might want to read that sentence twice because it’s so awesome. She once pretended to be 17 and went back to high school to research a book. Her mother was a highly respected translator from Arabic. And I’ve met her and she’s gorgeous.

Susan Bernofsky is a translator, scholar, writer and blogger. She teaches translation and creative writing and has written a biography of Robert Walser, who she also happens to translate. She’s co-curating the Festival Neues Literatur in NYC as we speak. And I’ve met her and she’s gorgeous. I was totally intimidated at first but then realized she’s not only one of the most impressive translator babes ever (and believe me, there’s a lot of tough competition on that front), she’s also actually really nice.

Just a quick recap here: we have two women both utterly devoted to and excellent at what they do. If that’s not worth a prize I don’t know what is. But you may be one of those people who thinks it’s books and not people that deserve prizes. In that case, you’ll want to know something about the book these two über-babes have been generous enough to give us, I suppose.

It’s a structure you may be familiar with: the house as the element uniting a series of narratives, as in Alaa-al-Aswany’s Yacoubian Building, Elif Shafak’s Flea Palace, and Nicole Krauss’s latest. Only Erpenbeck takes a very thorough chronological approach, going right back to the formation of the land itself, the previous owners of the plot, the house’s architect, and so on to its demolition some time after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Because the house is not far outside of Berlin, and so a witness to all that twentieth-century German history.

What I particularly adore about the novel is that it doesn’t focus solely on the Nazi era. But that’s a personal thing; I can only assume everyone else in the English-speaking world is utterly fascinated by Nazis, judging by the number of books dealing with them, either written in English or translated. So don’t worry, there are some Nazis and some murdered Jews and some collaborators in amongst all the other beautifully sketched characters. And to get to Susan Bernofsky’s excellent work, each section is written in a different style, gorgeously rendered in English as in German.

In other words, this is a novel with brains, brawn and beauty—it’s basically a babe of a book. If the BTBA were Miss World, Visitation would win the swimsuit competition and then turn down the main prize because she had to work on actually forging world peace once she’d completed her Ph.D.

12 January 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Not only did I survive the MLA, but I was also able to make it all the way back to Rochester without delay. (Couple U of R professors who were scheduled to go through Atlanta, and ended up stranded in L.A. for a few extra days. Hopefully they beat this latest chapter in Snowpocalypse 2011.)

Anyway, MLA was a pretty interesting experience. This was the first time Open Letter has displayed at MLA (or any conference for that matter), and the one thing I noticed was that women tended to avoid our booth like the plague. We shared the booth with Counterpath (awesome), and it must’ve been our discussions about football (Seattle?), or something. Regardless, it was an interesting show, and hopefully we’ll be back next year with a larger reception and even more books. (FYI: Next year’s MLA Presidential Theme is “Language, Literature, Learning.” Which seems, at first glance, to a quasi-outsider, to be, well, obvious, but there you are.)

In addition to all the presentations, panels, cocktail receptions, and job interviews, the MLA also includes a number of book awards, including the Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for a Translation of a Literary Work, which is awarded each even-numbered year. (I know, but it’s for the works from 2010, and since the MLA used to take place between Christmas and New Year’s Day, this made a bit more sense.)

This year’s award went to Breon Mitchell for his retranslation of Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum. Here’s what the selection committee had to say:

On virtually every page of Breon Mitchell’s new translation of The Tin Drum, the reader finds brilliant solutions to vexing problems. This meticulous work, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the original publication of Günter Grass’s classic novel, accomplishes precisely what one hopes for in a retranslation: it brings us closer to both source and target languages. Mitchell makes us aware that even good work, such as Ralph Manheim’s respected earlier translation, bears improvement, as great consistency, coherence, and tempo are achieved throughout the entire volume in rendering its obsessive drumming theme. The translator’s afterword, where Mitchell explains carefully and concisely all the “tools of the trade” available to twenty-first-century translators, performs an enormous contribution to the field by lifting the curtain on the translator’s craft and making clear to readers the huge challenges at hand.

Congrats, Breon! I’ve heard him speak about this translation a couple of time (most recently at the Wolff Symposium, which include this fascinating panel about his career in translation and work on The Tin Drum.)

It’s also worth nothing that honorable mention went to Lawrence Venuti for his translation of Edward Hopper by Ernest Farrés. Again, the committee:

Lawrence Venuti, one of our foremost translation theorists, has applied his principles of pragmatic and ethical translation to the contemporary Catalan poetry of Edward Hopper with superb results. Venuti’s translation of Ernest Farrés’s volume, written in a source language whose literature is little known in the English-speaking world, constitutes a beautiful triangulation of cultures and media. We read with fascination as the North American translator captures the Catalan poet’s meditations on the works of an iconic, popular North American painter. Venuti has not only accurately followed Farrés’s shifting styles through the progression of poems but also sought out some of Hopper’s own idiosyncratic vocabulary through excavation of the painter’s correspondence and diaries. This brilliant choice on Venuti’s part, explained in the volume’s introduction and demonstrated in the endnotes, results in an original translation strategy that redefines traditional fidelity to the source text.

Congrats, Larry! Ironically, at the last MLA, Erica Mena and I interviewed Venuti about his translation of Edward Hopper for what became the very first Reading the World Podcast. Venuti is always interesting, and he’s totally on in this podcast—definitely worth listening to.

7 December 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Phillip Witte on Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky and published earlier this year by New Directions.

Phillip Witte was an intern for Open Letter way back in the day, and also had a summer internship at New Directions. He’s a great reader, was a fantastic intern, and is one of those young people who gives me hope about the future of literary publishing. (Honestly.) Last I heard he was working at The Strand, although he may be looking for another publishing gig . . .

Anyway, Susan Bernofsky is awesome, and we’ve sang her praises any number of times on this blog. She’s told me repetitively about just how good this particular book is, and I feel like a horrible reader for not having found time to read it yet. (But soon! I can see this making the BTBA longlist, which is the perfect opportunity to set aside a few days to enjoy this.)

This is Jenny Erpenbeck’s third book to be published in translation by New Directions, the others being The Book of Words and The Old Child & Other Stories. I can’t begin to guess how many times I’ve heard great things about her books—in particular Visitation.

Anyway, on to Phil’s review:

Jenny Erpenbeck has already received a great deal of well-deserved critical acclaim in the wake of her third novel, Visitation (New Directions, translated by Susan Bernofsky), which Vogue has called “a remarkable achievement.” Such a response (especially coming from the mainstream, one is tempted to say) is very exciting for the cause of literary translation, and particularly in this case given the book’s unconventional tactics.

The novel eschews convention in many ways, foremost among them being that its central character is a place—on a lakeshore, a collection of adjacent properties, a summer getaway, a garden, a paradise. It is based on an actual place in Brandenburg, Germany, where Erpenbeck’s family had a summer home for the latter part of the 20th century. In her recent interview with Vogue, Erpenbeck explains how she arrived at the present work: It began as an effort to retain something of the lost childhood home (a desire we can all relate to, especially those of us who have only recently fled the nest). As it progressed, however, Erpenbeck widened the novel’s attention from her own relationship with the house to the house itself as a locus of the lives, stories, comings and goings of its many inhabitants over the twentieth century.

Twelve of these inhabitants drift in and out of the book; unnamed for the most part, they are of all ages, and they come from all different sides of Germany’s many different conflicts of the long century. The original Jewish owners of the house emigrate before the Nazi threat in the 30s. A Nazi architect renovates the house, delighting his young wife’s whims with a hidden closet and a metal bird affixed to the balcony railing. During the Russian advance at the end of World War II, a Russian officer takes up brief residence in the architect’s bedroom, unaware of the architect’s wife hidden in the secret closet. After the war, the architect is forced into exile for illegally doing business with the West, and is replaced by a communist writer and her family, returning from their own Siberian exile. In the nineties, a young married couple who enjoy sailing on the lake briefly occupy the toolshed as subtenants.

Click here to read the full piece.

7 December 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Jenny Erpenbeck has already received a great deal of well-deserved critical acclaim in the wake of her third novel, Visitation (New Directions, translated by Susan Bernofsky), which Vogue has called “a remarkable achievement.” Such a response (especially coming from the mainstream, one is tempted to say) is very exciting for the cause of literary translation, and particularly in this case given the book’s unconventional tactics.

The novel eschews convention in many ways, foremost among them being that its central character is a place—on a lakeshore, a collection of adjacent properties, a summer getaway, a garden, a paradise. It is based on an actual place in Brandenburg, Germany, where Erpenbeck’s family had a summer home for the latter part of the 20th century. In her recent interview with Vogue, Erpenbeck explains how she arrived at the present work: It began as an effort to retain something of the lost childhood home (a desire we can all relate to, especially those of us who have only recently fled the nest). As it progressed, however, Erpenbeck widened the novel’s attention from her own relationship with the house to the house itself as a locus of the lives, stories, comings and goings of its many inhabitants over the twentieth century.

Twelve of these inhabitants drift in and out of the book; unnamed for the most part, they are of all ages, and they come from all different sides of Germany’s many different conflicts of the long century. The original Jewish owners of the house emigrate before the Nazi threat in the 30s. A Nazi architect renovates the house, delighting his young wife’s whims with a hidden closet and a metal bird affixed to the balcony railing. During the Russian advance at the end of World War II, a Russian officer takes up brief residence in the architect’s bedroom, unaware of the architect’s wife hidden in the secret closet. After the war, the architect is forced into exile for illegally doing business with the West, and is replaced by a communist writer and her family, returning from their own Siberian exile. In the nineties, a young married couple who enjoy sailing on the lake briefly occupy the toolshed as subtenants.

The only person who remains quietly in the background throughout the book is the gardener, constantly performing the same rituals of planting, pruning, beekeeping and harvesting. Erpenbeck’s scrupulous repetition in describing these actions, laced with minute changes, enacts the cycle of seasons and years in which everything stays more or less the same even as everything decays and is renewed. Erpenbeck’s prose in Susan Bernofsky’s translation tends toward luxurious run-on sentences that nevertheless must end. The gardener does eventually disappear, but the villagers continue to tell fantastic stories about him.

The novel is divided into short chapters, each devoted to a brief moment of these lives and the lives of their neighbors and children. In shimmering prose full of radical juxtaposition, minute descriptions of daily routines are tightly interwoven with rhapsodic fits of reminiscence. Fragments of speech unassigned to any particular speaker echo like ghosts in an empty house. The immediate concerns of these people are as various as their backgrounds; what unites them is the place, the garden and the house, which most of them badly want but can’t quite allow themselves to call home.

The word itself, home—where and what it is, how we manage to find it, keep it, lose it, and find it again—seems ultimately what is most at issue for Erpenbeck. Unable to hold on to her childhood home in actuality, Erpenbeck sought to do so in writing; far from answering the problem, Visitation seems to complicate it in the most beautiful fashion. The word visitation may indicate Bernofksy’s take on the problem, taking into account the original title Heimsuchung, which also translates as “home searching.”

Perhaps in this search we really only make nothing more than visits to various places. Yet we keep looking, maybe because the idea, the word home itself, keeps drawing us on. In one early chapter, “The Cloth Manufacturer,” Erpenbeck lets home resound among achingly familiar scenes of quiet family life in the countryside:

Arthur says to him, Ludwig, his son: let me take a turn, and he picks up the spade himself and tosses the earth back into the hole all around the root ball. Ludwig places his arm around Anna, his future wife, and the two of them look at the broad, glittering surface of the lake. Home. Why does everyone like looking at the water so much, Doris asks. I don’t know, Anna replies. Doris says, maybe because there’s so much empty sky above a lake, because everyone likes to see nothing sometimes. You can let go now, Arthur says to Doris.

This is the Jewish family, the original owners, forced to flee by the threat of the Nazis. In a later chapter, “The Writer,” a communist family has returned from an exile imposed by the same threat. The chapter is sprinkled with a similar recurring phrase:

This doctor wasn’t even born yet when she returned to Germany. He has traveled to Japan with one or the other government delegation, to Egypt, to Cuba. I a-m g-o-i-n-g h-o-m-e. Down in the kitchen the cook is making the plates clatter, the gardener is sitting on the threshold to his room, on the meadow her granddaughter and the boy next door are spraying each other with water. . . .

The recurring phrase, “I a-m g-o-i-n-g h-o-m-e”, represents a fragment typed out at the tail end of the writer’s current work-in-progress. Living in the house, enjoying the garden, sitting to dinner with her whole family: these are not home; she hasn’t gotten there, wherever it is, yet; she is still “going.” And the fact that the repeated phrase is spelled out with dashes reminds us that it is typed: it unifies the act of heimsuchung with the act of writing, as the author set out to do. Unlike the sentence, it does not necessarily have an end—which is just as well, because Visitation is well worth reading again.

12 November 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Austrian actress, writer, and painter Mela Hartwig (1893–1967) published relatively little during her lifetime: a collection of stories, a novel, a novella, and a book of poems. She did most of this work between 1921, when she married and retired from acting, and 1938, when she and her husband moved to London to escape the Nazi occupation and annexation of Austria. Am I a Redundant Human Being?, written in 1931, was one of three completed novel manuscripts found (along with a fourth, incomplete novel) among her papers after her death. Unpublished until 2001, when it fueled a renewed interest in Hartwig’s work in her home country, the novel has now been translated by Kerri A. Pierce and published by Dalkey Archive Press—the first appearance of any of Hartwig’s books in English.

Am I a Redundant Human Being? is the monologue of Aloisia (known as Luise) Schmidt, a secretary at a Vienna construction firm. Luise narrates the events of her life from her early childhood at the turn of the twentieth century until about the age of 30. Judging from the intensely psychological focus of the book, it is clear that Hartwig’s Vienna is also very much the Vienna of Sigmund Freud; the narrative has the feel of a case study in low self-esteem. After an undistinguished school career, Luise’s life has been a mostly unbroken series of unfulfilling low-skilled clerical jobs and difficult relationships: tentative friendships with women, whom she tends to idolize and imitate excessively; and unstable romances with men, whom she tends to obsess over and who ultimately reject her over her neediness and her weakness of personality.

The bulk of the novel is taken up with the two most recent of these slavish involvements: first with Elizabeth, a narcissistic, melodramatic acting student, and then with Elizabeth’s arrogant ex-lover, the businessman Egon Z. (Note the quasi-Freudian use of initials to abbreviate surnames for the sake of anonymity, which Luise applies to all the men with whom she has been involved.) Although they come last in the story and take up almost half the book’s length, these two encounters underscore the essentially repetitive nature of Luise’s story, since they do not differ much in kind or significance from the earlier ones.

Further emphasizing this sense of repetition, Luise’s method throughout is to alternate descriptions of events from her life with moments of frank, poignant self-laceration that for the most part outshine in interest and originality the events that give rise to them. Here is one example from late in the novel:

I can’t remember what finally made me turn against this life, and the weak, pliable person I’d become, content with dreams—but I’ll never forget the disgust that filled me when I realized I was satisfied rather than desperate. I preferred escaping into dreams to confronting the real world. I was content with a phantom lover. I had become capable of deluding myself, precisely so that I wouldn’t have to see my life was hopeless. But no, I hadn’t “become” anything—I had always been like this. I had always fled from every deep, every painful emotion. Such sloth, such cowardice—I was simply repugnant. It seemed I wasn’t even capable of well-earned despair. Again I told myself that I’d never be able to experience true feeling, that I would only ever know its shadow. My whole life I’d lived off the one wretched ambition that still possessed me: to be more than I was; to reject and despise everything that was in my reach and to set goals I was incapable of reaching; to chase after emotions I was incapable of feeling; to seek out adventures I couldn’t live up to; to have a friendship that was no friendship, a love that was no love; ambitions yoked to a weak will, a will stuck in the mire of unfulfilled desire.

And another, from just six pages later:

What’s the point of a person like me, what? A person who will never amount to anything because she doesn’t believe in herself, who doesn’t believe in herself because she doesn’t amount to anything, a completely redundant human being? Who would miss me, who would mourn for me? My parents perhaps, but who else? I saw my mother before me, a vague image that only lasted a moment; I could hear her voice whisper in my ear, warning, imploring: “All you ever think about is yourself.”

How often had I heard “All you ever think about is yourself” from her? She’d said so at every opportunity, and yet I’d never understood or wanted to understand her. Now I flung her accusation back at myself: “All you ever think about is yourself.” It’s true, I admitted. All I ever think about is myself. My life might actually have something like a goal, a real purpose, if only I could forget myself, if only I could lose myself in the crowd, if only I could sacrifice myself to some higher purpose. But I had more fear of this sacrifice than of life itself. . . . Even if I knew I’d get back a thousand times what I’d given, I simply couldn’t let go of the tiny, despised bit of self that I still possessed, despite everything. Besides, what was I good for, really? The menial tasks that no one ever noticed? Simply becoming the tiniest cog in a huge machine wasn’t worth the sacrifice. I couldn’t afford to forget myself because everyone else forgot me anyway. Yes, I was self-absorbed all right, because otherwise I was nothing at all. Another repulsive revelation.

This degree of painfully heightened self-awareness both gives the book its Freudian flavor of psychoanalytic case study and, while fascinating, renders it static as a work of fiction. For although by the end of her monologue Luise has gained a slightly more mature perspective on her experiences, she has also not changed very much—except perhaps in the intensity of her resignation to her perceived character flaws. In this sense her narrative is if anything anti-psychoanalytic, since after describing her life Luise seems not to have learned how to cope with it any better. Instead, it seems as if her only point in her reminiscences is to remind us again and again of her deficiencies, and the constant repetition tends to undermine the reader’s desire to sympathize with her plight.

Despite the frustrations of the material, however, praise must be given to Pierce’s fluid and highly readable translation, whose momentum never flags throughout a work that is not broken into chapters and contains not even a single scene break. Nevertheless, in a few spots the text would have benefited from the attentions of a careful editor: a “leeching” instead of a “leaching,” two instances of “hand and hand” for “hand in hand,” a mistaken reference to a typewriter’s shift lock as the “caps lock,” and a document in which Luise is referred to with the specifically English or British (and somewhat anachronistic) title “Ms.” in place of “Fräulein.” These minor complaints aside, Pierce’s translation is a pleasure to follow from start to finish, even while Hartwig’s fiction itself seems to run in place.

12 November 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Dan Vitale on Mela Hartwig’s Am I a Redundant Human Being?, which was translated from the German by Kerri A. Pierce and published earlier this year by Dalkey Archive Press.

I remember first hearing about this book while on an editorial trip with John O’Brien to Austria. It sounded really interesting at the time—I think they pitched her as a Austrian Virginia Woolf—and I’m really glad this finally made its way into English. (Though I’m not entirely sold on the title . . . Feels so stiff, robotic.)

Anyway, Dan Vitale — who is a contributing reviewer — wrote this piece, and really seemed to like the book. (Typos and all.) Here’s the opening of his review:

The Austrian actress, writer, and painter Mela Hartwig (1893–1967) published relatively little during her lifetime: a collection of stories, a novel, a novella, and a book of poems. She did most of this work between 1921, when she married and retired from acting, and 1938, when she and her husband moved to London to escape the Nazi occupation and annexation of Austria. Am I a Redundant Human Being?, written in 1931, was one of three completed novel manuscripts found (along with a fourth, incomplete novel) among her papers after her death. Unpublished until 2001, when it fueled a renewed interest in Hartwig’s work in her home country, the novel has now been translated by Kerri A. Pierce and published by Dalkey Archive Press—the first appearance of any of Hartwig’s books in English.

Am I a Redundant Human Being? is the monologue of Aloisia (known as Luise) Schmidt, a secretary at a Vienna construction firm. Luise narrates the events of her life from her early childhood at the turn of the twentieth century until about the age of 30. Judging from the intensely psychological focus of the book, it is clear that Hartwig’s Vienna is also very much the Vienna of Sigmund Freud; the narrative has the feel of a case study in low self-esteem. After an undistinguished school career, Luise’s life has been a mostly unbroken series of unfulfilling low-skilled clerical jobs and difficult relationships: tentative friendships with women, whom she tends to idolize and imitate excessively; and unstable romances with men, whom she tends to obsess over and who ultimately reject her over her neediness and her weakness of personality.

Click here to read the full review.

6 October 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

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

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

Here’s the opening of the review:

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

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

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

Click here to read the full review.

6 October 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8 September 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Sorry . . . All German, all day here at Three Percent. But again, following up on the first post this morning with the overview of the German Book Prize longlist, the shortlist was announced just a few hours ago and includes exactly two of the titles I thought sounded most interesting. (I so suck at predicting things like this. Which is why I’m not betting on the Man Booker . . . or the Nobel.)

Anyway, here are the six finalists, with the winner to be announced at the start of the Frankfurt Book Fair:

Jan Faktor, Georgs Sorgen um die Vergangenheit oder im Reich des heiligen Hodensack-Bimbams von Prag (Georg’s concern about the Past)

Thomas Lehr, September (Fata Morgana)

Melinda Nadj Abonji, Tauben fliegen auf (Falcons without Falconers)

Doron Rabinovici, Andernorts (Elsewhere)

Peter Wawerzinek, Rabenliebe (Motherless Child)

Judith Zander, Dinge, die wir heute sagten (Things We Said Today)

English excerpts will be available sometime over the next few weeks. I’ll definitely post about that as soon as they appear . . .

8 September 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Love German Books is rocking my world today . . . In addition to the German Book Prize roundup we wrote about earlier, Katy also has an interview with Susan Bernofsky about her translation of Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation, a novel that sounds really curious . . . Here’s the description from the New Directions website:

A house on the forested bank of a Brandenburg lake outside Berlin (once belonging to Erpenbeck’s grandparents) is the focus of this compact, beautiful novel. Encompassing over one hundred years of German history, from the nineteenth century to the Weimar Republic, from World War II to the Socialist German Democratic Republic, and finally reunification and its aftermath, Visitation offers the life stories of twelve individuals who over the decades seek to make their home in this one magical little house. The novel breaks into the everyday life of the house and shimmers through it, while relating the passions and fates of its inhabitants. Elegant and poetic, Visitation forms a literary mosaic of the last century, tearing open wounds and offering moments of reconciliation, with its drama and its exquisite evocation of a landscape no political upheaval can truly change.

Katy’s interview is really interesting (in part because she’s a translator and asks good questions, in part because Susan is great at giving interviews), such as this story about translating Erpenbeck’s The Book of Words:

Jenny is wonderful to work with. She’s very generous about answering questions and giving feedback when I’m not sure how to handle one of her many untranslatables – for example in The Book of Words I wound up having to make up a whole little passage about lilies and lilies-of-the-valley to replace her play on Näglein (little nails) in the dialect sense of Nelken (carnations), and it was very helpful to be able to talk it through with her.

Actually we had a little incident in that same book – she didn’t think to tell me that she had cobbled together an entire word-collage page based on her own translations of lines from American pop songs circa 1978 – thank goodness I noticed one of them, and then my editor Declan Spring noticed a lot more, and then Jenny sent me a list of all the songs she’d used. It would have been nuts if all those titles had wound up as back-translations from her (sometimes rather idiosyncratic) German renderings. But now she’s taken to compiling, for each book, a list of all the questions her translators ask her – then she sends the list around to the other translators, just as a FYI. Now that’s an exemplary author.

And for those interested in Susan’s upcoming projects:

KD: Do you follow contemporary German writing? Is there a writer or a book you’d love to translate but haven’t yet had the chance?

SB: Yes, I do, in part by reading your blog! And there are a lot of really interesting writers who haven’t been translated yet. Right now I’m rooting for Wolfgang Herrndorf (I love his stories in Jenseits des Van Allen-Gürtels). And I really wanted to translate Gerhard Falkner’s short novel Bruno, but I couldn’t find a publisher who wanted to commit to the project.

KD: What are you working on right now?

I’ve been translating a beautiful book of poems by Uljana Wolf, Falsche Freunde/False Friends (they’re prose poems that play with letters of the alphabet). We just found out that Ugly Duckling Presse in Brooklyn is going to publish it, which is wonderful news. Next after that will be a 19th century horror story for New York Review Books: The Black Spider by Jeremias Gotthelf. I can’t wait! It’s one of the most frightening stories I’ve ever read, and also one of the most beautiful.

Finally, for those of you in the Rochester area, Susan is going to be here on September 23rd to talk with Barbara Epler, the publisher of New Directions. They’ll be primarily talking about Robert Walser, though I’m sure the conversation will spill over into other translations, including the Erpenbeck books Susan’s done for ND.

8 September 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over at Love German Books, the wonderful Katy Derbyshire has a fun and informative overview of all the titles on this year’s German Book Prize longlist. As with years past (this is the third year that Katy’s written this sort of overview) she noticed some common themes among the books:

Teenage girls seemed to crop up rather frequently, which I love because there’s nothing sexier to read about than teenage girls. I do wonder if it’s a reaction to Helene Hegemann’s success though. The other common thread is setting things abroad, preferably in Eastern Europe or Paris as opposed to the USA, which was all the rage last year. Or if it’s not set abroad, an oppressive village setting is a bit of a classic in contemporary German writing. Also, about half the book covers feature some variant of trains, planes and automobiles – it would seem the German readership longs to get away from it all.

As a result, each of the write-ups has a note about where the book is set, and “Teenage Girl Factor” . . . Check out the link above to read about all the titles, but here are the ones that piqued my interest based on her write-ups:

Alina Bronsky, Die schärfsten Gerichte der tatarischen Küche

This is billed as “a delightfully spicy novel for women – emotionally charged, sensual, shocking and exotic – the story of the most passionate and astute grandmother of all time.” Which majorly pisses me off I’m afraid; because what do men get to read then – tales of golfing grandfathers?

Anyway, as with her first novel Broken Glass Park, Alina Bronsky just writes so entertainingly and convincingly that I can’t help jettisoning all my prejudices and simply enjoying the prose. This time it’s a quirky grandmother trying to abort her ugly daughter’s immaculately conceived foetus. Which is a hell of a lot funnier than it sounds. Very possibly a German version of that Ukrainian tractors book – fun, light post-Soviet reading matter with strong characters. Rights have already been sold to Europa Editions, so look out for an American version, probably translated by Tim Mohr. I know I’ll be reading it.

Jan Faktor, Georgs Sorgen um die Vergangenheit oder Im Reich des heiligen Hodensack-Bimbams von Prag

Jan Faktor is utterly cool – I’ve seen him live a couple of times and always gone home happy. According to the blurb, this is a book about a boy growing up in Prague: “Caught between war-traumatised aunts, a tyrannical uncle and a dazzlingly beautiful mother, all Georg wants is to escape to a new future.”

The extract is great stuff, detailing Georg’s concerns with his genitals and his obsession with his past. The language is delightful and intricate and witty but I suspect, from the extract, the length of the book – about 600 pages – and what I’ve heard him read, that it’s probably very, very rambling. The novel was also shortlisted for the Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair in the spring and is on the longlist for oddest title. Too long for my weak wrists though, I’m afraid.

Michael Kleeberg, Das amerikanische Hospital

A Frenchwoman makes friends with an American soldier recovering from the Gulf War in the Parisian hospital of the title. I like the little I’ve read of Michael Kleeberg’s writing in the past – he seems to be uninterested in trendy subjects and chooses “real stuff” to write about. The publishers say: “Michael Kleeberg skilfully and movingly interweaves contemporary history and private lives, the mental horrors of war and the physical horrors of an unfulfilled wish for children with the dense atmosphere of Paris.”

The extract is like a puzzle, and possibly the novel as a whole unfolds this way, which is always fun. The soldier describes the Middle East in a beautiful, unrealistic, imagery-laden monologue, which gets very disturbing. My notes: Woah. Seems very good. I’ll read it if it makes the shortlist.

Thomas Lehr, September

Two female protagonists, one an American who dies on 9/11, the other an Iraqi who dies in a bombing three years later. Lehr’s previous novel, 42, was shortlisted for the German Book Prize in 2005 and is a bizarre scenario in which time stands still for everyone but a small group of people. The publishers say: “In densely poetic language, September tells a story about Islam, about oil, terror and war and about two women who stand for the victims of this conflict.”

And people, it’s fantastic stuff! Even the pattern the words make on the page is beautiful. Lehr avoids the traps of Orientalism, sketching a Middle East rife with sin and sensuality, myth and bathos. Contrasted with Long Island, other private calamities. My notes are strewn with “OMG”s. Odd words, odd sentences, odd punctuation. I think he makes the two women sisters. Mentally. I think they watch each other and tell the other’s story. But maybe they don’t. I really need to read this book.

Andreas Maier, Das Zimmer

A grown-up narrator recounts his childhood memories of his rather eccentric uncle. Maier’s second novel Klausen is out now in translation by Kenneth J. Northcott. I once saw Maier in the flesh and he had an unappealing Al Qaeda-style ginger beard. But don’t let that put you off. The publishers say: “Das Zimmer is both a portrait from memory and a novel, perhaps the beginning of a great family saga, a reflection on time and civilisation, on human dignity and how to maintain it.”

The language in the extract is a delight, smattered with great words that jump out at you. And it’s full of intelligent ideas and strange characters, primarily of course that uncle. It certainly made me want more – a real contender, at least for my reading pile.

Andreas Schäfer, Wir vier

A family shaken to its foundations by the murder of a son. The publishers say: “Us four lucidly, sovereignly and movingly tells the story of a trauma and its consequences. The reader cannot get away from it.”

And yes, the extract is great stuff. Infused with threat and oppressive atmosphere from beginning to end, everyday life lived with an appalling memory at the back of everybody’s mind. Traces of violence popping up everywhere, and a strong-minded mother holding it all together, just about. Deceptively simple narration, so much going on below the surface. I liked it a lot, I’ll read it if it makes the shortlist.

Thanks for this overview, Katy, and we’ll be posting more about the award as soon as the shortlist is announced. (And yes, still pulling for Maier. . . . Klausen is a damn amazing accomplishment, and this new book sounds fascinating.)

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.

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

The most recent addition to our Reviews Section is a review by Stephen Sparks of Thomas Bernhard’s Prose, translated from the German by Martin Chalmers and published by Seagull Books.

Stephen Sparks is currently on his second go-round as a bookseller at Green Apple Books in San Francisco, after having spent a year as a publishing fellow at Dalkey Archive. He’s in the process of finishing an MLIS program. And you may recognize him from The Book vs. The Kindle videos Green Apple made a few years ago. (And which name-checked Ricardas Gavelis’s Vilnius Poker as an ass kicking Lithuanian vampire novel.)

Bernhard is a personal favorite, especially The Lime Works and Correction. Prose sounds like vintage Bernhard, what with the rants, the depressing view of life, the suffering of the main characters, etc. Here’s the opening of Stephen’s review:

Anyone familiar with Thomas Bernhard’s work can call forth a string of adjectives, one more off-putting than the last: bleak, anguished, splenetic, death-obsessed. Correction is about a scientist who kills himself after spending six years constructing a bizarre monument to his sister. The Loser focuses on a musician so lost in Glenn Gould’s shadow that silence, followed by suicide, seems the only logical choice. The Lime Works tells the story of the murder of a wheelchair-bound woman by her monomaniacal husband. And so on. Coupled with Bernhard’s uninterrupted blocks of text and digressive ranting against the loathsomeness of Austria, these morbid plots hardly offer the most welcome invitation for those who don’t habitually dress all in black or aren’t given to self-flagellation.

Fortunately, for all of its easily identifiable Bernhardian preoccupations—its suicides and murderers, its haunted characters—the previously untranslated story collection Prose provides, in miniature, both an ideal introduction and a refresher to the work of one of the singular European writers of the twentieth century.

Click here to read the full review.

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

Anyone familiar with Thomas Bernhard’s work can call forth a string of adjectives, one more off-putting than the last: bleak, anguished, splenetic, death-obsessed. Correction is about a scientist who kills himself after spending six years constructing a bizarre monument to his sister. The Loser focuses on a musician so lost in Glenn Gould’s shadow that silence, followed by suicide, seems the only logical choice. The Lime Works tells the story of the murder of a wheelchair-bound woman by her monomaniacal husband. And so on. Coupled with Bernhard’s uninterrupted blocks of text and digressive ranting against the loathsomeness of Austria, these morbid plots hardly offer the most welcome invitation for those who don’t habitually dress all in black or aren’t given to self-flagellation.

Fortunately, for all of its easily identifiable Bernhardian preoccupations—its suicides and murderers, its haunted characters—the previously untranslated story collection Prose provides, in miniature, both an ideal introduction and a refresher to the work of one of the singular European writers of the twentieth century.

A typical Bernhard story (both in Prose and in his novels) takes the form of a report or confession of narrator who witnesses the dissolution of another character’s mind—as Ben Marcus argues, Bernhard is less a narrative storyteller than an “architect of consciousness.” The narrator serves as a filter through which the victim1 pours his defense, which, at this remove takes on a deeply ironic aspect. By keeping the subject at arm’s length, Bernhard can create an at times unbearable tension: does the distance save the reader from identifying fully with the victim1 or does it cause us to suffer more due to the fact that Bernhard’s narrators are themselves sufferers by proxy, thus magnifying the amount of anguish a book can contain?

The sixth of seven stories in this collection, the excruciatingly ironic “The Crime of an Innsbruck Shopkeeper’s Son,” offers a prime example of this technique. The titular character, the narrator’s fellow student and roommate, is driven to desperation by being different, a dividing line drawn between him and his family:

Georg was an exception. He was the center of attention, but thanks to his worthlessness, thanks to the scandal which he represented for the whole family, always frightened and embittered by him, not least where they tried to cover it up, a horribly crooked and crippled center of attention, which they wanted out of the house at all costs. He was so greatly and in the most dreadful way deformed by nature they always had to hide him. After they had been disappointed down to the depths of their faecal and victual detestableness by the doctors’ skills and by medical science altogether, they implored in mutual perfidiousness a fatal illness for Georg, which would remove him from the world as swiftly as possible; they had been prepared to do anything, if he would just die . . .

The “scandal” Georg causes, we find, is due more to his intelligence than a mysterious deformity: being born into a merchant family, this “useless, ever deeper and deeper thinking beast” who “even wrote poems,” deviated too much from the rigid stupidity of the shopkeeping class. As in a fairy tale, Georg’s murderous family conspires to rid themselves of this nuisance. Despite his perceived monstrosity, Georg proves himself strong enough to overcome his family’s evil designs and flees to Vienna.

In a fairy tale, such an escape signals a happy resolution. In Bernhard’s stories it signals the point at which any similarity to a fairy tale falls apart. There’s no redemption in this universe. Escape is only exchange, in this case one prison, the family cellar at Innsbruck, for another: Vienna, “the most dreadful of all old cities of Europe . . . such an old and lifeless city . . . such a cemetery.” And, since Georg once again finds himself claustrophobically entombed, he commits his final, and in the eyes’ of his family, unpardonable crime.

“The Crime of an Innsbruck Shopkeeper’s Son” and five other of the stories in Prose fall into the basic pattern above: a highly subjective secondhand report on the crime of a hypersensitive character. The irony being, of course, that the perpetrators of the so-called crimes are in fact victims of grave and at times obscure injustices themselves—and justice’s blindness serves only as a convenient excuse for its idiocy. This is typical Bernhard, surprising only in its relentlessness.

In the two remaining stories—“The Cap” and “Juaregg”—Bernhard deviates from his typical distance (if not pattern) by presenting confessions without an intermediary. In “The Cap,” the narrator, suffering from a “_pathological nature_,” is so incapable of action that even the decision to go for a walk proves to be an unrelenting torment. Even more unbearable than action, however, is twilight, at which time he flees the house in terror to walk in either of two directions: toward an ugly town or toward a beautiful town. Imagine then his overwhelming consternation when he finds a cap on the road leading toward the ugly town and assumes the proper course would be to attempt to return it to its owner. But to whom does the cap belong? Is it a woodcutter’s or a butcher’s or even a farmer’s cap? And what if he puts it on? But he has no right to put it on, for he is not a farmer, a butcher, or a woodcutter. And what color is the cap?

These questions cascade over him, inordinately agitating his already fragile mental state. He wants nothing more than a life without complications, but such an eventless existence is impossible for someone in his state. Like many of Bernhard’s characters, the narrator in “The Cap” suffers so much precisely because he is not mad. He believes that by going mad he would manage to escape his anguish:

But the truth is that I want to go mad, I want to go mad, nothing I want more, than really go mad, but I fear that I am far from being able to go mad. I at last want to go mad! I don’t want to be only afraid of going mad, I at last want to go mad. Two doctors, one of whom is a highly scientific doctor, have prophesied that I shall go mad, very soon I would go mad, the two doctors prophesied, very soon, very soon; now I’ve been waiting two years for it to happen, to go mad, but I still haven’t gone mad.

This breathless, hysterical desire is merely another form of madness and bars the way to any escape. This is the fate of Bernhard’s characters: a crazed desire for insanity or suicide, both options being viewed as an end to suffering. To go on living is possible, of course, but always with the awareness that “We are at liberty to kill ourselves.”

A friend and I, both booksellers, were recently discussing a curious compulsion we feel when recommending “depressing” books: we find that we search, almost unconsciously, to find something palatable on which to focus our enthusiasm. This is natural enough in sales, I suppose, but nonetheless troubling. In the case of Bernhard, for instance, I find myself explaining that while his work is, well, almost unbearably grim, there’s comedy and pathos in it as well. This is true—Bernhard is a savagely hysterical writer—but highlighting it obscures a fundamental characteristic of his, and many of our best writers’, work: the acknowledgement that life is itself not particularly palatable. This isn’t to say life, and by extension superior works of art, aren’t graced by moments of remarkable beauty, but by focusing only on the “nice” we risk shutting ourselves off from the fullness of experience.

Bernhard offers us such a discomforting vision. In the story “Is it a Comedy? Is it a Tragedy?” his narrator offers an opinion that “one describes best what one hates.” Our literature is much richer for this assumption.

1 Everyone in Bernhard’s fiction is a victim, whether of a bad childhood, failed ambitions, or simply of having been born: “The catastrophe,” Prince Sarau reports in Gargoyles, “begins with getting out of bed.”

2 July 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Monica Carter on Herta Müller’s The Passport, which was translated from the German by Martin Chalmers and rapidly reprinted by Serpent’s Tail last fall when she won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Monica Carter is one of our top reviewers and a great champion of world literature. She’s on the fiction committee for the Best Translated Book Award, works at Skylight Books in L.A., and runs the always fascinating Salonica web site.

Here’s the opening of her review:

No one quite captures the alienation of the dispossessed like Herta Müller. The Romanian-born German Nobel Laureate delves deeply into the subconscious of people suffering from the emotional and political ramifications of living life under a communist dictatorship and gives us characters whose only hope is to find a way out. Having lived through the Ceausescu dictatorship, Müller’s ability to convey the confining limits of village life under Communism is unique and unparalleled. The Passport is a shuddersome and compelling work comprised of image-laden depictions of the repressed desolation and understated anguish of the town’s inhabitants. The central protagonist, Windisch, is the town miller who wants nothing more than to escape to West Berlin with his wife and grown daughter.

Through the short, nonlinear stories, or more aptly, histories, Müller infuses the narrative with symbolism, dream sequences and superstitions. The apple tree, used as a fear-inducing specter, could represent the Communist regime devouring the freedoms of those who live by its rule:

“In the morning night watchman didn’t lie down to sleep. He went to the village mayor. He told him that the apple tree behind the church ate its own apples. The mayor laughed. The night watchman could hear fear behind the laughter. Little hammers of life were beating in the mayor’s head.”

Click here to read the full review.

And that’s it! Have a great weekend—see you back here on Tuesday!

2 July 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

No one quite captures the alienation of the dispossessed like Herta Müller. The Romanian-born German Nobel Laureate delves deeply into the subconscious of people suffering from the emotional and political ramifications of living life under a communist dictatorship and gives us characters whose only hope is to find a way out. Having lived through the Ceausescu dictatorship, Müller’s ability to convey the confining limits of village life under Communism is unique and unparalleled. The Passport is a shuddersome and compelling work comprised of image-laden depictions of the repressed desolation and understated anguish of the town’s inhabitants. The central protagonist, Windisch, is the town miller who wants nothing more than to escape to West Berlin with his wife and grown daughter.

Through the short, nonlinear stories, or more aptly, histories, Müller infuses the narrative with symbolism, dream sequences and superstitions. The apple tree, used as a fear-inducing specter, could represent the Communist regime devouring the freedoms of those who live by its rule:

In the morning night watchman didn’t lie down to sleep. He went to the village mayor. He told him that the apple tree behind the church ate its own apples. The mayor laughed. The night watchman could hear fear behind the laughter. Little hammers of life were beating in the mayor’s head.

This is the typical eerie passage from Müller. As her terse and poetic style provides a haunting rhythm and distance, the dour reality of town life coupled with the characters’ desires to become part of the West sets an ominous tone the builds as the novel progresses. Nature itself is portrayed as a character, and its different elements make repeated appearances that are both fanciful and surreal:

“The owls have no peace, and the water has no peace,” says Windisch. “If it dies, another owl will come to the village. A stupid young owl that doesn’t know anything. It will sit on anyone’s roof.”

The night watchman looks up at the moon. “The young people will die again,” he says. Windisch sees that the air just in front of him belongs to the night watchman. His voice manages a tired sentence “Then it will be like war again,” he says.

Throughout the novel, Windisch is a sad and anxious character. A miller without money or much else searches to obtain passports from a local for himself and his family. Unable to achieve this, he endures a bleak existence not only without respect from his wife, but also resigned to her bouts of vitriol. Their freedom rests on their daughter’s sexual favors with the village militiaman and priest. This knowledge, as horrific as it is, seems like the only way out of their plodding existence that is surrounded by death and time.

Müller allows the reader no sense of redemption, constructing the same hopelessness created by a totalitarian government. Our Windisch rides through the town on his bicycle and through his eyes, everyday objects morph into phantoms that disturbs the reader. Müller is a master of a direct and breviloquent prose that heightens the harsh realities of Windisch’s life and the lives of all those imprisoned by Communist rule in Romania. Perhaps not her best work, but a startling novella that limns a world of heartbreak and obsession and the tragedy of desperation it can create.

22 June 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Review Section is a piece by Monica Carter on the Selected Prose of Heinrich von Kleist, which was translated from the German by Peter Wortsman and published by Archipelago Books.

Monica Carter is a very steady reviewer for us, who also serves on the fiction panel for the Best Translated Book award, runs the fabulous site Salonica and works at Skylight Books in L.A.

Always strange to say things like this about mega-famous authors who influenced writers like Kafka and Mann, but it seems like Kleist is undergoing a sort of moment—at least as regards American publishers and readers. In addition to this wonderful collection, Melville House reissued the Martin Greenberg translation of Michael Kohlhaas a few years back as part of their stunning Art of the Novella series.

Here’s the opening of Monica’s extremely positive review:

For as little known as he is, for as long ago as he lived and for a short a time as he was alive, it’s amazing the amount of impacting work German short story writer, poet, dramatist, and essayist Heinrich von Kleist produced during his life time. Born in 1777 and dead of suicide in 1811, Kleist suffered the bane of many famous writers—ridiculed and dismissed during his lifetime but respected and revered once time passed and history decided he was a worthy entry in the annals of literature. Today his plays are considered classic stalwarts of the German theatrical canon and his prose is known to have heavily influenced Kafka and Mann. And once again, the English speaking contingent of world literature can thank Archipelago Books for bring his varied and masterful work to our attention.

The Selected Prose of Heinrich von Kleist is a collection of superbly crafted stories and essays that span cultures and centuries but deftly exposes the universality of human tragedy. Although at first glance the language may feel dated and melodramatic, it is deceptive to label him as a writer with an antiquated style that was only relevant to his era. His style is distinct and was also considered so at the time, and what becomes more evident to the reader as she moves through this collection of prose is that the complexity of his language serves as a respite for the reader from the tension created by the intricate plotting. Once the reader settles into his prose, the language laden sentences that seemingly turn themselves inside out mesmerize us into a leisurely pace that is comforting in its cadence.

Click here to read the full review.

22 June 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For as little known as he is, for as long ago as he lived and for a short a time as he was alive, it’s amazing the amount of impacting work German short story writer, poet, dramatist, and essayist Heinrich von Kleist produced during his life time. Born in 1777 and dead of suicide in 1811, Kleist suffered the bane of many famous writers—ridiculed and dismissed during his lifetime but respected and revered once time passed and history decided he was a worthy entry in the annals of literature. Today his plays are considered classic stalwarts of the German theatrical canon and his prose is known to have heavily influenced Kafka and Mann. And once again, the English speaking contingent of world literature can thank Archipelago Books for bring his varied and masterful work to our attention.

The Selected Prose of Heinrich von Kleist is a collection of superbly crafted stories and essays that span cultures and centuries but deftly exposes the universality of human tragedy. Although at first glance the language may feel dated and melodramatic, it is deceptive to label him as a writer with an antiquated style that was only relevant to his era. His style is distinct and was also considered so at the time, and what becomes more evident to the reader as she moves through this collection of prose is that the complexity of his language serves as a respite for the reader from the tension created by the intricate plotting. Once the reader settles into his prose, the language laden sentences that seemingly turn themselves inside out mesmerize us into a leisurely pace that is comforting in its cadence.

But what drives the narrative are the perfect marriage of character and plot. From the beginning of each story, we know what will happen to these characters, yet still we read on because Kleist gives the illusion that hope is just after the turn of the page. A slight altering of a worn maxim can cover Kleist’s characters and their travails—destiny hath no fury like a fate scorned. And scorned they are.

There are the cursed lovers in “The Earthquake in Chile” and “The Betrothal of Santo Domingo,” the mysterious and plagued fortunes in “Saint Cecilia and The Power of Music (A Legend)” and “The Marquise of O . . .” and the ugly side of revenge in “Michael Kohlhaas.” “Michael Kohlhaas” is more of a novella and is the mainstay of the collection. It chronicles the path of a horse trader, Michael Kohlhaas, who is wronged by a local junker and spends the rest of his life seeking vengeance. Of course he loses everything in the process, but Kleist draws this out in a believable manner.

What’s also dazzling about this collection are the topics: unexplained pregnancy, biracial love affairs, and mental disorder. Sign me up. Perhaps the contentious nature of these stories caused hostility toward Kleist during his lifetime, but his unwavering commitment to truth makes his work seem more contemporary and more courageous considering the social mores of the time. His characters are the antecedents to what later became the classic character types in German literature. This innovativeness paired with his fast-paced plotting make him a necessary read for the consummate short story reader or writer.

Finally, the collection closes with two ruminative essays on meditation and art: “On the Gradual Formulation of Thoughts While Speaking” and “On the Theater of Marionettes” are light and astute pieces that display his process of self-reflection. After the intensity of the short stories that precede these essays, their presence and tone gives a welcome insight into the artist himself.

The Selected Prose of Heinrich von Kleist is a work that surprises, unsettles and engages. His language drowns you and the unfortunate fate of his characters enduring the relentless blows of an unforgiving plot keep you tense. These are classic tales from a talented writer whose work refuses to let literature or history to look away.

28 April 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Just got an e-mail from the Goethe Institut in Chicago announcing that Ross Benjamin has been awarded this year’s Wolff Translation Prize. Here’s the official press release:

The jury for the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Prize is please to award the prize for 2009 to Ross Benjamin for his translation of Michael Maar’s Speak, Nabokov, published by Verso. The jury finds that this remarkably musical translation reads beautifully, and brings to English-speaking readers an important study of a writer of world stature whose works cry out for skilled exegesis. Benjamin’s translation is elegant, witty, even playful, doing justice to both the German original and the book’s subject. The translator reveals a sophisticated understanding of literary criticism and his own sure sense of literary style.

Congrats, Ross! And Speak, Nabokov sounds fascinating:

On the eve of the controversial, posthumous publication of The Original of Laura, Michael Maar follows his critically acclaimed The Two Lolitas with a revealing new perspective on Vladimir Nabokov’s life and work. Hunting down long-hidden clues in the novels, and using the themes that run through Nabokov’s fiction to illuminate the life that produced them, Maar constructs a compelling psychological and philosophical portrait. Characteristically graceful and engaging, Speak, Nabokov offers a vital new perspective on the twentieth-century master.

Ross will be officially honored at the annual Wolff Symposium in Chicago, which will take place on June 21st and 22nd.

23 April 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Jessica LeTourneur on Emine Sevgi Ozdamar’s The Bridge of the Golden Horn, which is translated from the German by Martin Chalmers and published by Serpent’s Tail.

Ozdamar was born in Turkey and moved to Berlin because of her interest in German theater. She’s the author of several plays and was awarded the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize for an excerpt from her first novel.

Jessica LeTourneur studied literature, history, and journalism at the University of Missouri, and attended New York University’s Publishing Institute in 2005. In the past, Jessica has worked as a journalist, as well as at The Missouri Review and W. W. Norton & Company. Jessica currently resides in Phoenix, Arizona and is pursuing a Master’s degree in History and Scholarly Publishing at Arizona State University. She’s also working on a review of Suzanne Jill Levine’s The Subversive Scribe . . . .

Here’s an excerpt from her review of The Bridge of the Golden Horn:

“Since their beginning, stories have pretended to take place far away. Faraway and once-upon-a-time are code words for Here and Now.” When these words from John Berger’s introduction are applied to this moving novel by Turkish playwright and actress Emine Sevgi Ozdamar, they ring inordinately true. The Bridge of the Golden Horn opens with the most well-known plotline: Once upon a time there was a young girl who sought more out of life than she currently possessed. So she left home, traveled to a faraway land, and along the way encountered a myriad of obstacles, found herself in both silly and impossible situations, all of which taught her valuable lessons by the novel’s conclusion. The end. Yet in the case of The Bridge of the Golden Horn, this familiar narrative device takes the reader along on a surprising and wholly satisfying journey with a quirky and complicated narrator. This unnamed narrator is a sixteen-year-old girl who dreams of being an actress, and so she forsakes her native Istanbul for Berlin—lying about her age in order to obtain a job as a migrant worker in a factory—in the hopes that she’ll accumulate enough money to send herself to drama school. As is usually the case in such stories, all does not go according to plan, and the novel chronicles the four year span—beginning in 1966—during which the heroine acquaints herself with love, sex, communism, and foreign languages. So she says herself: “I wanted to learn German, and then rid myself of my diamond in order to become a good actress. Here [Istanbul] I would have to come home every evening and look in my parents’ eyes. Not in Germany.”

Written in a fluid stream-of-consciousness style, Emine Sevgi Ozdamar’s semi-autobiographical novel propels the reader through the narrative with its long chapters and quick pacing; it feels like you’re straddling a cantering horse, powerless to slow down. The novel’s tone forces the reader to feel what the narrator feels at any given moment, whether it be about her family, home, sexuality, politics, or theatrical aspirations. With its clipped and direct prose, the narrative pulls you in without being sentimental or melancholy: “Every cigarette we smoked that night showed us that we had made a mistake. We had run away from the herd and now we wept for the herd. This was Berlin. This Berlin had not existed for us yet. We had our hossel [sic], and the hossel was not Berlin.”

Click here to read the full review.

23 April 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

“Since their beginning, stories have pretended to take place far away. Faraway and once-upon-a-time are code words for Here and Now.” When these words from John Berger’s introduction are applied to this moving novel by Turkish playwright and actress Emine Sevgi Ozdamar, they ring inordinately true. The Bridge of the Golden Horn opens with the most well-known plotline: Once upon a time there was a young girl who sought more out of life than she currently possessed. So she left home, traveled to a faraway land, and along the way encountered a myriad of obstacles, found herself in both silly and impossible situations, all of which taught her valuable lessons by the novel’s conclusion. The end. Yet in the case of The Bridge of the Golden Horn, this familiar narrative device takes the reader along on a surprising and wholly satisfying journey with a quirky and complicated narrator. This unnamed narrator is a sixteen-year-old girl who dreams of being an actress, and so she forsakes her native Istanbul for Berlin—lying about her age in order to obtain a job as a migrant worker in a factory—in the hopes that she’ll accumulate enough money to send herself to drama school. As is usually the case in such stories, all does not go according to plan, and the novel chronicles the four year span—beginning in 1966—during which the heroine acquaints herself with love, sex, communism, and foreign languages. So she says herself: “I wanted to learn German, and then rid myself of my diamond in order to become a good actress. Here [Istanbul] I would have to come home every evening and look in my parents’ eyes. Not in Germany.”

Written in a fluid stream-of-consciousness style, Emine Sevgi Ozdamar’s semi-autobiographical novel propels the reader through the narrative with its long chapters and quick pacing; it feels like you’re straddling a cantering horse, powerless to slow down. The novel’s tone forces the reader to feel what the narrator feels at any given moment, whether it be about her family, home, sexuality, politics, or theatrical aspirations. With its clipped and direct prose, the narrative pulls you in without being sentimental or melancholy: “Every cigarette we smoked that night showed us that we had made a mistake. We had run away from the herd and now we wept for the herd. This was Berlin. This Berlin had not existed for us yet. We had our hossel [sic], and the hossel was not Berlin.”

While Ozdamar’s lyrical writing technique contains shades of Postmodernists who have especially favored a stream of consciousness style (such as Joyce and Woolf), her writing is wholly her own:

Berlin had been like a street to me. As a child I had stayed in the street until midnight, in Berlin, I had found my street again. From Berlin I had returned to my parents’ house, but now it was like a hotel, I wanted to go back on the street again. On the ship the men took the newspapers down from their faces and looked at me. Every evening a shipful of people would come to see me on the stage as an actress. The men would fall in love with me. I suddenly realized that I was very curious about what these men who would fall in love with me would look like. I wanted to die onstage like Moliere, in the middle of the set. I saw myself onstage, other actors carried me in their arms, I bled from my mouth, died and left behind no children who had to weep after my death. The ship was just in the middle between Asian and European Istanbul. The actress came out of my body, she pushed a man and child in front of her and threw them into the Sea of Marmara. Then she came back and entered me again. When the ship reached the Asian side, I knew that I never ever wanted to get married. I could hardly wait to get home. Before I got on the bus, I called my mother. ‘I don’t want to marry, I want to go to drama school.’

In addition to being the author of The Bridge of the Golden Horn, Emine Sevgi Ozdamar has also written plays, and is a trained actress. With this experience, Ozdamar has clearly gained a masterful understanding of the nuances of language, and sheutilizes literary devices found in playwriting to push the novel’s plot towards its conclusion, a technique that works brilliantly throughout the entire novel.

At its core, though, The Bridge of the Golden Horn is a modern-day fairy tale. While few would consider 1966 “long ago”, or Istanbul and Berlin “a far away land” (in the traditional fairy-tale sense; both are pretty far away from where I sit in Phoenix), the novel contains a colorful cast of characters, heartbreaking and hilarious events, a teenage girl on the verge of womanhood, and all of this takes place in a dramatically shifting modern world – a densely wooded forest of life, iconic of a fairy tale. In his introduction, John Berger states, “perhaps story-tellers have always been listened to because they fill a lack.” Luckily for readers, Emine Sevgi Ozdamar’s profound, illuminating, and ultimately lovely novel, The Bridge of the Golden Horn is a powerful story that can fill in for whatever may be lacking.

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.

5 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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



Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada. Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann (Germany, Melville House)

Below is a guest post from Tom Roberge, an editor at Penguin, avid fan of international literature, and big lover of this book.

Last March was a strange time for novels dealing with Nazis. On the one hand Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones finally appeared in the US, and reactions on both ends of the critical spectrum were hyperbolic. The fictional memoir of a Nazi officer who details his role in scores of unspeakable atrocities that won two of France’s major literary awards, it was either heralded as a masterpiece or dismissed as utter garbage by American critics. I wanted nothing to do with it, not because I cringe at descriptions of violence and depravity—I generally gravitate towards them—but instead because I’d read so many reviews that accused Littell of a grievous fault: being a bad writer. Questionable morality I can handle; bad writing I cannot. To this day, the only person I’ve spoken to who’s read the book was a used bookseller at a flea market, and he claimed that it was the best book he’d ever read.

On the other hand was Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, which for some absurd reason had never been published in the U.S. since it was completed just before the author’s death in 1947. But thanks to Dennis Johnson at Melville House Books, this oversight has been addressed. At the heart of the story are Otto and Anna Quangel, a middle-aged German couple whose soldier son has died just before the book’s opening. At first simply stunned into near paralysis, they slowly emerge from their passivity and begin a quiet civil disobedience campaign by making and distributing anti-Nazi postcards. They imagine they’re sparking revolution, or at least sparking a conversation about a revolution, but the truth is that the cards are rarely seen by anyone other than citizen informants and their official contacts. Their efforts are not only largely fruitless, they’re also incredibly dangerous; as you can imagine, the Nazis didn’t look kindly on defiance.

What makes Every Man Dies Alone so remarkable is its portrait of what we’d now call “average” Germans during World War II. They’re average on one level because they’re blue collar employees living in modest conditions. They are also surrounded by and only interact with other people living in similar situations, some better off, some worse off. But they’re average on another level as well: they are not targets of Nazi “cleansing.” Instead they are the people for whom Hitler’s war is being fought. In return for this crusade, all the Nazis ask for is unquestioned loyalty and total devotion to the war effort.

Littell’s Nazi officer is a cruel, despicable man. He represents the entire Nazi regime, and The Kindly Ones is meant to give readers a glimpse inside the minds of men who killed millions mercilessly, all for the sake of an appallingly horrific ideal. Fallada, however, set out to portray life among the non-Jewish, non-military Germans during the war, and what he reveals is a terrorizing existence. Otto and Anna had been, before their son was killed in combat, as close to politically apathetic as it was possible to be in Nazi Germany. They hated the war and they hated Hitler, but they believed they were powerless to do anything, so they spent all of their time either at work or at home, avoiding contact with anyone but each other as much as possible. They were absolutely terrified, and Fallada shows why this is by following various other characters as they navigate the tense society.

A family of zealous former Nazi youths spies on its neighbors, robs an elderly Jewish woman, and generally causes trouble for anyone it believes is disloyal or insufficiently loyal. A lazy, lecherous man tips off officials for the money. On the other side there are people like Otto and Anna who want nothing more than to keep to themselves, including an elderly doctor who allows the aforementioned elderly Jewish woman to take refuge in his apartment, along with a postal worker who brazenly quits the Nazi party—despite the fact that it means she’ll be essentially unable to work again—when she realizes what her soldier son has been up to. The Berlin that emerges is one of constant terror. The Nazis have used terror to force average citizens to spy on each other, to exploit each other, to cast suspicion on each other. Fear of being wrongly accused, arrested, and punished or killed drives many people inside, both literally and figuratively. They race to work and race home, and talk to no one. And once home, they barely talk to each other, keeping all thoughts to themselves. It takes Otto and Anna several days to even talk about the death of their son. In such conditions, every action against the state, every slightly critical word or insincere gesture of loyalty, is magnified to superlative levels, and the consequences can be life-altering to say the least.

As I read, the book I thought of the most was Camus’ The Plague, his extended allegory on German-occupied France during the same time period that Fallada’s book takes place. Both books are about finding ways to get through individual days and about fighting back against ubiquitous terror. The doctor in The Plague fights back steadily but cautiously, despite pleas from his neighbors, one of whom gets through the days by perpetually re-drafting the opening sentence of a novel. Otto and Anna fight back, as well, but their battle isn’t as successful, except in one very crucial, personal regard: it engendered hope, it offered a vision of a different life. There is no happy ending here. Instead this is an invaluable portrait of a time and place that we should all make every effort to understand as much as possible.

2 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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



The Weather Fifteen Years Ago by Wolf Haas. Translated from the German by Stephanie Gilardi and Thomas S. Hansen. (Austria, Ariadne)

Wolf Haas’s The Weather Fifteen Years Ago has the dual distinction of being the most obscure title on this year’s Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist and also the most formally experimental. Although before you run away and hide, I should say right now and here that this is also one of the most readable and engaging titles on the longlist—despite its formalist tendencies.

Which, given Haas’s background, makes a bit of sense. Haas is most famous in Austria for his “Detective Brenner” crime novels that “present the exploits of a cantankerous ex-cop plagued by migraines” (according to Thomas S. Hansen’s afterword). The Weather Fifteen Years Ago, originally published in German in 2006, may be his first non-thriller, but the way in which the reader pieces together the plot from the five-day long interview between Wolf Haas and an anonymous female book reviewer, functions sort of like a mystery.

In the novel The Weather Fifteen Years Ago, Wolf Haas is being interviewed about a book he wrote with the same title that is more or less a prolonged story of unrequited love. The novel inside the novel revolves around one Vittorio Kowalski, who appears on a game show to show off his ability to remember what the weather was like in a particular small village in the Austrian Alps every day for the past fifteen years. In and of itself, this is a pretty remarkable, but the Haas of the novel knows that there’s something more to the story . . . Why would a man memorize the weather every day for some podunk town where his family once vacationed? (A: A girl. It’s always a girl.)

From this seemingly innocent, yet oddly compelling story, a whole world unfolds, one that’s both intricate in terms of its plot (there’s a lot more to this little summer love than one initially expects) and in terms of how the interviewer talks with (fictional) Haas about the way the (imaginary) book is written.

I know that sounds confusing, but here’s the opening page just to give you a sense of how easy it is to fall into this book and how many levels this works on:

BOOK REVIEW: Mr. Haas, I’ve been going back and forth for a long time about where I should start.

WOLF HAAS: So have I.

BOOK REVIEW: Unlike you, though, I don’t want to start at the end. Actually—

WOLF HAAS: Strictly speaking, I don’t start at the end either. I start with the first kiss.

BOOK REVIEW: But in a way that’s the whole point of the story you’re telling. Or, the way I see it, the goal toward which everything moves. Speaking strictly chronologically, it belongs at the end of the story. Your hero has been working toward this kiss for fifteen years, and in the end he finally gets it, but you don’t describe this scene at the end. Instead, you prefer to put it right at the opening.

WOLF HAAS: There were actually a few openings I liked better. My problem wasn’t so much the beginning, or how I should start, but where to put the kiss. You can’t just stick it at the end, where it belongs, so to speak. But that would be intolerable. When someone has been waiting for, or as you say, working toward, a kiss for fifteen years, and hten he finally gets it, how are you supposed to describe that?

BOOK REVIEW: While I was reading, I wondered if you were declaring war on the reviewer by moving the conclusion to the first page.

WOLF HAAS: That would have been pushing it too far.

This infamous kiss—described so precisely, clinically in Haas’s imaginary book—is what the Book Reviewer and (fictional) Haas then build to in their interview, and by the time you as a reader actually get there, the weight of the moment is incredible . . .

It’s a lot of fun to puzzle out the various plot points of the imaginary book under discussion, and I’d be interested in hearing from other readers as to whether they think the imaginary book is supposed to be all that well written. The Book Reviewer seems to have a lot of respect for it, and for (fictional) Haas’s writing, but at the same time, there are scenes she describes that seem interminably dry:

BOOK REVIEW: When you read this passage, it’s almost maddening how you describe the wedding guests in such a detailed way. Here, of all places, when all you want to know is if, and how, Vittorio Kowalski escapes, you lose yourself in the artistry of describing Anni’s wedding dress. When it first appeared three days ago, Anni called the color “vanilla.”

WOLF HAAS: Three days and seven hours ago, yes.

BOOK REVIEW: And now it says it was by no means vanilla. And then there follow some digressions about vanilla ice cream at the swimming pool and you even give the price of a scoop of vanilla ice cream at that time.

That’s what makes this book a lot of fun: to imagine the imaginary literary work behind all these allusions and discussions. And (the real) Haas does a marvelous job of making this feel like a genuine conversation. Sure, belief is suspended when you consider the idea of a book reviewer spending five days talking to an author about a single book (not to mention the implausibility of just how precisely she seems to know the book . . .), but still, the conversation flows and as the book progresses, it gets more and more engaging. The “metafictional” frame never distracts from the story. And speaking of the “metafictional” element, I’ll end with a long quote from Hansen’s afterword about this:

All metafiction confronts readers with clearly playful literary experiences. Haas chooses to do more than interrupt a plot line with meta-narrative or digression; he presents the whole narrative in this form. The result produces some intriguing puzzles to engage readers in constructing their own interpretations and even alternative story lines. The often argumentative conversation between the fictional author and the interviewer, in which they disagree about interpretation and even plot, establishes the unreliability of any narrative point of view. “Haas” claims to tell Vittorio Kowalski’s quest for love, and in doing so, he betrays an identification with his character so close that at one point the third person and first person pronouns merge: the narrator’s “he” (describing Kowalski) slips into “I.” To add to this shifting point of view, the time levels in the tale are also porous. The narrated sequence of events does not unfold chronologically but emerges according to the associative vagaries of interviewer and author—and both comment on this fact. Time is almost an exercise in praeteritio, which is driven by disclaimers like “we won’t mention the fact that . . .” or “I’ve cut a certain passage.” These strategies themselves generate new content and propel the reader through various associative digressions toward the dramatic climax.

Definitely worth reading.

11 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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



The Tanners by Robert Walser. Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky. (Switzerland, New Directions)

Thanks to New York Review Books, University of Nebraska Press, and New Directions, Robert Walser is experiencing something of a renaissance. Jakob von Gunten was one of the first books NYRB brought out, and a couple years later they did a volume of selected stories. Around the same time, UNP published The Robber. And in addition to The Tanners, ND recently brought out Susan Bernofsky’s translation of The Assistant, and next year will be doing some of his “Microscripts.” (If you’re not familiar with the “microscripts,” it’s a pretty fascinating subject for another post, but in the meantime, here’s a picture of one of his almost indecipherable microscript pages.)

What’s especially nice is the amount of attention these publications have been getting. One of the best PEN World Voices events I ever attended was a special tribute to Robert Walser featuring Michael Kruger, Deborah Eisenberg, Jeffrey Eugenides, Wayne Koestenbaum, and Susan Bernofsky. It was almost magical—Kruger gave a great introduction, and each of the other panelists read an excerpt from Walser’s oeuvre. (Recordings of all of these should be on the PEN America website, but for some reason, most of the links are broken . . . The only one currently available is Jeffrey Eugenides’s reading of “Trousers.”)

In terms of print coverage, although it’s almost a decade old now, J.M. Coetzee’s The Genius of Robert Walser article in the New York Review of Books is fantastic, and more recently, Benjamin Kunkel wrote a great piece for the _New Yorker.

Kunkel’s piece gets right at the heart of what makes Walser’s books so damn good and so damn addicting—the idiosyncratic voice of his characters:

The incredible shrinking writer is a major twentieth-century prose artist who, for all that the modern world seems to have passed him by, fulfills the modern criterion: he sounds like nobody else.

In Walser’s case, this means that he achieved a remarkable tone, in which perfect assurance and perfect ambiguity combine. His narrators are all ostensibly humble, courteous, and cheerful; the puzzle lies in deciding where they are speaking in earnest and where ironically.

A perfect example of this can be found in Monica Carter’s review of The Tanners when she quotes Simon’s farewell speech from the bookstore that he briefly worked at:

“You have disappointed me. Don’t look so astonished, there’s nothing to be done about it. I shall quit your place of business this very day and ask that you pay me my wages. Please, let me finish. I know perfectly well what I want. During the past week I’ve come to realize that the entire book trade is nothing less than ghastly if it must entail standing at one’s desk from early morning till late at night while out of doors the gentlest winter sun is gleaming, and forces one to scrunch one’s back, since the desk is far too small given my stature, writing like some accursed happenstance copyist and performing work unsuitable for a mind such as my own, I am capable of performing quite different tasks, esteemed sir, than the ones entrusted to me here. I’d expected to be able to sell books in your shop, wait on elegant individuals, bow and bid adieu to the customers when they’re ready to depart. What’s more, I’d imagined I might be allowed to peer into the mysterious universe of the book trade and glimpse the world’s features in the visage and operation of your enterprise. But I experienced nothing of the sort.”

A semi-autobiographical novel, Simon is Walser’s stand-in: a young man without a clear purpose drifting from job to meaningless job, pontificating, convincing bosses to hire him without any personal recommendations (“To me, the most appropriate thing would be if you didn’t make inquiries at all! Whom would you ask, and what purpose would it serve!”), before moving on after being disappointed by one thing or another.

Even though Simon might be the most charming in all of his oddness, all of the characters in The Tanners are pretty wonderful. They tend to speak in paragraphs that allow their strange paths of thought to twist, turn, and entertain.

One of the wonderful things about Walser’s writing (I believe Sebald mentions this in his introduction, but I’ll be damned if I can find it now), is how it sort of erases itself as it goes. How as a reader, every page, every paragraph is charming and charged with meaning, only to sort of dissolve, become more foggy, less specific, the minute you put the book down.

Echoing the Kunkel quote from above, there’s no one else who writes like Walser did. He’s a special case, and this novel is one of the most well-crafted and immediately enjoyable books on the fiction longlist.

I think I’ll close this off with one of my favorite quotes from the novel. It’s from the very end, but really, this is a book that’s more mood than plot, so I’m really not giving away much of anything:

“No,” she said, “you won’t sink. If such a think were to happen, what a shame it would be—a shame for you. You must never again condemn yourself so criminally, so sinfully. You respect yourself too little, and others too much. I wish to shield you against judging yourself so harshly. Do you know what it is you need? You need things to go well for you again for a little while. You must learn to whisper into an ear and reciprocate expressions of tenderness. Otherwise you’ll become too delicate. I shall teach you; I wish to teach you all the things you’re lacking. Come with me. We shall go out into the winter night. Into the blustery forest. There’s so much I must say to you. Do you know that I’m your poor, happy prisoner? Not another word, not one word more. Just come—”

8 October 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Wow. Michael Orthofer was right and Romanian-German author Herta Mueller has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. From the Associated Press:

Romanian-born German writer Herta Mueller won the 2009 Nobel Prize in literature Thursday, honored for work that “with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed,” the Swedish Academy said.

The 56-year-old author, who emigrated to Germany from then-communist Romania in 1987, made her debut in 1982 with a collection of short stories titled “Niederungen,” or “Lowlands” in English, which was promptly censored by her government. [. . .]

In 1987 she emigrated to Germany with her husband two years before dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was toppled from power amid the widening communist collapse across eastern Europe.

Mueller’s parents were members of the German-speaking minority in Romania and father served in the Waffen SS during World War II.

After the war ended, many German Romanians were deported to the Soviet Union in 1945, including her mother, who spent five years in a work camp in what is now Ukraine.

I’m sure Entertainment Weekly won’t be the only publication to run a “Herta who? These books sound depressingly complex” sort of article, but rather than revisit that sinkpit of an argument1 (thankfully this year there was no controversial statement from Horace Engdahl to really piss off the U.S. literati), I thought I’d just post the PW/_LJ_ reviews of all of her books that have been translated into English. I remember reading about The Land of Green Plums when it came out, but admittedly, I never got around to reading it . . .

Nadirs (translated by Sieglinde Lug, published by University of Nebraska Press)

Mueller, who won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for The Land of Green Plums, is considered one of the most gifted contemporary German-language writers, a claim this newly translated collection of stories would seem to prove. Once again, Mueller takes us back to Communist Romania. But unlike her previous work, Nadirs is a very personal book, as much about Mueller’s own family sagas as it is about the inescapable scars of communism. Perhaps the most pertinent word to describe this dainty collection is contradiction—the narratives portray what is real and undeniable in a surreal and almost absurd way, yet the seemingly unadorned storytelling demands the maximum concentration from the reader. Originally published in German ten years ago, this book was well worth the wait; it is an important achievement in contemporary Eastern European literature. (Library Journal)


The Passport (translated by Martin Chalmers, published by Serpent’s Tail)

This English-language debut by a Romanian-born West Berliner is remarkable for its stylistic purity. Muller’s angry tale of an ethnic German anxious to emigrate from his stultifying Romanian village is relayed in deceptively straightforward sentences (“Katharina had sold her winter coat for ten slices of bread. Her stomach was a hedgehog. Every day Katharina picked a bunch of grass. The grass soup was warm and good”) that pile up in striking patterns (later, “the second snow came. . . . The hedgehog stabbed”). Intently focused prose animates the parochial town with its corrupt power brokers, gamey folk songs and a tree reputed to have eaten its own apples, as well as the problematic relations among the central character, his embittered wife and their nubile daughter, who, like her mother before her during the war, is forced to grant sexual favors to men of privilege. (Publishers Weekly)


Traveling on One Leg (translated by Valentina Glajar and Andre LeFevere, published by Northwestern University Press)

For some, the pain of exile is too great even to be named. So it is for Irene, the 35-year-old protagonist of this slender but intense novel. In the 1980s, Irene has emigrated to West Germany from an unnamed Eastern bloc country to escape political persecution. Adrift in Berlin, living first in a refugee hostel and then in an anonymous apartment complex, Irene struggles to maintain her sanity while caught in an ambiguously romantic quadrangle with three men. First there is Franz, a student a decade her junior; then there is his friend Stefan, a sociologist; last is Stefan’s friend Thomas, a gay man in perpetual emotional crisis. But Irene’s largest preoccupation is with herself, and the novel presents a knife-sharp portrait of her acute isolation and uprootedness. Irene’s anxiety as she faces her adoptive homeland’s hectoring refugee bureaucracy, her unsentimental observation of Berlin street life and her rigorously controlled homesickness is depicted in spare prose that is never less than striking. The reader with a distaste for indirection, or for the kind of heroine who considers children “eerie because they’re still growing,” will find this novel slow going. But those patient enough to pick out the plot line amid the poetry will be rewarded with a small trove of unforgettable images. (Publishers Weekly)


The Land of Green Plums (translated by Michael Hofmann, published by Northwestern University Press)

Five Romanian youths under the Ceausescu regime are the focus of this moving depiction of the struggle to become adults who keep “eyes wide open and tightly shut at the same time.” Through the suicide of a mutual friend, the unnamed narrator—a young woman studying to become a translator—meets a trio of young men with whom she shares a subjugated political and philosophic rebelliousness. The jobs the state assigns them after graduation pull each to a different quadrant of the country, and this, as well as the narrator’s new friendship with the daughter of a prominent Party member, strains their relations. The group manages to maintain its closeness anyway, through coded letters bearing strands of the sender’s hair as a tamper-warning. As the friends begin to lose their jobs and grow weary of being followed, threatened and pulled in for semi-regular interrogations, each one thinks increasingly about escape. Terrifyingly, the narrator finds herself changing into a stranger: “someone who keeps company with misery, to make sure it stays put.” Making her American debut, Muller is well-served by the workmanlike translation; though her lyrical writing falters badly at times (such as the baffling, repeated metaphor that gives the book its title), it also soars to rarefied heights. Most importantly, few books have conveyed with such clarity the convergence of terror and boredom under totalitarianism.


The Appointment (translated by Philip Boehm and Michael Hulse, published by Metropolitan)

The hardships and humiliations of Communist Romania are on display in this taut novel by the winner of the European Literature Prize (Müller, author of the well-received Land of Green Plums, emigrated to Berlin after being persecuted by the Romanian secret police). The narrator, an unnamed young dress-factory worker of the post-WWII generation, has been summoned for questioning by the secret police; she has been caught sewing notes into men’s suits destined for Italy, with the desperate message “marry me” along with her address. Accused of prostitution in the workplace (and told she is lucky the charge is not treason), she loses her job, and her life becomes subject to the whims of Major Albu, who summons her for random interrogation sessions. Her major preoccupation is holding on to her sanity. This is a nearly impossible feat in a society where opportunity is limited, trust is a commodity as scarce as decent food or shoe leather, and even sinister Party henchmen are shown to be trapped in a ridiculous charade. As she travels to a questioning session, the woman spools out the tale of her past: her attempt to achieve independence after a first marriage, only to hastily fall into a second one with Paul, an alcoholic who fashions illegal television antennas for the black market; and her friendship with the beautiful and doomed Lilli, a fellow factory worker. The sharp generational divide following the war and the dreadful ways in which people learn to cope with the Communist regime are threaded throughout as are some lighter moments, shaky though they may be. Appropriately disorienting and tightly wound, this perfectly controlled narrative offers a chilling picture of human adaptation and survival under oppression.

One last “I-will-beat-the-horse-dead” comment: Of the five books of Mueller’s available in English, four of them are published by university or independent presses. That sounds about right. And might be one of the reasons American publishers/media get all pissed about American authors not receiving the award—the money is flowing into the pockets of the small guys for once.

1 Or at least not revisit it too much: Really, why do Americans want the obvious American writers to always win? Isn’t this like rooting for the Yankees? What fun is it when UNC wins the NCAA tournament every other year? None at all. Fuck that noise. It’s much cooler when an “obscure” (by American standards at least) author is given such a great honor and has her/his books launched into bookstores across the country and into the hands of readers everywhere. It’s like Stephen Curry bringing Davidson to the brink of History. Besides, this isn’t a popularity contest—it’s an honor bestowed on a talented writer. Just let the patriotism go and use this award as a chance to find out about writers you don’t already know. (All that aside, my money’s on Thomas Ruggles Pynchon for 2010.)

7 October 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over at the New Directions blog there’s a fascinating interview with translator Susan Bernofsky (one of my favorite translators) on Robert Walser (one of my favorite authors). Number of interesting comments on the process and art of translation, but this bit about Walser’s Microscripts was what caught my eye:

GD: This spring, New Directions will publish Robert Walser’s Microscripts, a collection of writing on scraps of paper and written in a miniature German script. Could you describe this project? How did it come to be translated? Can you read Robert Walser’s original handwriting?

SB: This project came about as a co-production with Christine Burgin Gallery after Burgin fell in love with Walser’s miniature manuscripts (both the sheets of paper and the handwriting that covers them are unbelievably small) and decided to put together an exhibition of them in New York, due to open in the spring of 2010. The volume Microscripts will serve as a catalogue for the exhibition—it will contain a number of high-resolution facsimiles of Walser’s beautiful manuscripts—and at the same time is a collection of stories from his late work. These stories remind me of Beethoven’s late string quartets: by the time Walser writes them, he’s become such a master storyteller that he starts playing drastically with narrative form and convention, producing truly wacky texts that are both startling in their proto-postmodernism and deeply moving in their reflection of the difficult circumstances under which they were written. Leaving aside the difficulty of the stories as texts, the handwriting they were written in was so tiny that when these manuscripts were first discovered after Walser’s death in 1956 they were thought to have been written in secret code. In fact they were written in a now-antiquated form of German handwriting shrunken down to a height of between one and two millimeters. What’s more, Walser wrote them in pencil, and his pencil was not always sharp. Two scholars in Zurich devoted 12 years to deciphering six volumes’ worth of these texts, and for one of those years (1987-88) I had the privilege of working in the next room on what would become my first book of Walser translations (Masquerade and Other Stories).

After running a review of The Tanners last week, I started reading the book myself and instantly re-fell in love with Walser’s style and quirky sense of humor. I can’t repeat enough how everyone should read this book, and as an attempt to sway any doubters out there, here’s the opening paragraph in all its hilarious glory:

One morning a young, boyish man walked into a bookshop and asked to be introduced to the proprietor. His request was granted. The bookseller, an old man of quite venerable appearance, gave a sharp glance at the one standing rather shyly before him and instructed him to speak. “I want to become a bookseller,” said the youthful novice, “I yearn to become one, and I don’t know what might prevent me from carrying out my intentions. I’ve always imagined the trade in books must be an enchanting activity, and I cannot understand why I should still be forced to pine away outside of this fine, lovely occupation. For you see, sir, standing here before you, I find myself extraordinarily well suited for selling books in your shop, and selling as many as you could possibly wish me to. I’m a born salesman: chivalrous, fleet-footed, courteous, quick, brusque, decisive, calculating, attentive, honest—and yet not so foolishly honest as I might appear. I am capable of lowering prices when a poor devil of a student is standing before me, and of elevating them as a favor to those wealthy individuals who, as I can’t help noticing, sometimes don’t know what to do with all their money. Although I’m still young, I believe myself in possession of a certain knowledge of human nature—besides which, I love people, of every variety, so I would never employ my insight into their characters in the service of swindling—and I am equally determined never to harm your esteemed business through any exaggerated solicitousness toward certain underfinanced poor devils. In a word: My love of humankind will be agreeably balanced with mercantile rationality on the scales of salesmanship, a rationality which in fact bears equal weight and appears to me just as necessary for life as a soul filled with love: I shall practice a most lovely moderation, please be assured of this in advance—”

And it just keeps getting better, as Simon dismisses the request for personal references (“To me, the most appropriate thing would be if you didn’t make inquiries at all! Whom would you ask, and what purpose could it serve?”) and quits just a few pages later (“During the past week I’ve come to realize that the entire book trade is nothing less than ghastly . . .”).

30 September 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is a piece by Monica Carter on Robert Walser’s The Tanners, which was recently released by New Directions in Susan Bernofsky’s translation. (This is overly personal, but this review is a confluence of four of my favorite people, publishers, and authors. Monica + Susan + Walser + New Directions = Good Shit.)

Monica’s been reviewing for us for a while. She’s on the Best Translated Book Award fiction committee, and she runs Salonica World Lit while also working at Skylight Books.

As is mentioned on the jacket copy of The Tanners, this is one of the year’s most anticipated books (at least among the literati, or everyone not currently reading Dan Brown) and was chosen by Time Out New York as its Top Summer Fiction Pick of 2009 and by the Village Voice as “a contender for Funniest Book of the Year.”

Based on the opening of Monica’s review, it sounds like both statements are absolutely true:

In the most recent translation of Swiss writer Robert Walser’s work, The Tanners, we are reminded once again why Kafka and Musil were fans—his wit. And like everything in Walser’s writing, it is nuanced and subtle. Instead giving us our melodrama straight with no chaser, he blends it with irony, insouciance and imagination so that it doesn’t make us wince when gulp it down; instead, it smoothly sates our desire for a good story and leaves us wanting more. The Tanners, written in 1907, is the semi-autobiographical tale of the five children—four boys and one girl—of the Tanner family: Klaus, Kaspar, Simon, Hedwig, and a son who resides in a mental institution and merits only a mention in the book. Walser focuses the book around Simon, the young, aimless brother who is a bizarre combination of arrogance, self-entitlement, humility, humor, and love for all of mankind. It’s the words of Simon that at once bold and entertaining. His honesty woos the reader until you become smitten and want to hear anything that he has to say. He simply does not care what he is supposed to do as a young man in society; he cares only for his own happiness that he expresses slyly to the owner of a bookshop:

“You have disappointed me. Don’t look so astonished, there’s nothing to be done about it. I shall quit your place of business this very day and ask that you pay me my wages. Please, let me finish. I know perfectly well what I want. During the past week I’ve come to realize that the entire book trade is nothing less than ghastly if it must entail standing at one’s desk from early morning till late at night while out of doors the gentlest winter sun is gleaming, and forces one to scrunch one’s back, since the desk is far too small given my stature, writing like some accursed happenstance copyist and performing work unsuitable for a mind such as my own, I am capable of performing quite different tasks, esteemed sir, than the ones entrusted to me here. I’d expected to be able to sell books in your shop, wait on elegant individuals, bow and bid adieu to the customers when they’re ready to depart. What’s more, I’d imagined I might be allowed to peer into the mysterious universe of the book trade and glimpse the world’s features in the visage and operation of your enterprise. But I experienced nothing of the sort.”

Click here for the full review.

30 September 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In the most recent translation of Swiss writer Robert Walser’s work, The Tanners, we are reminded once again why Kafka and Musil were fans—his wit. And like everything in Walser’s writing, it is nuanced and subtle. Instead giving us our melodrama straight with no chaser, he blends it with irony, insouciance and imagination so that it doesn’t make us wince when gulp it down; instead, it smoothly sates our desire for a good story and leaves us wanting more. The Tanners, written in 1907, is the semi-autobiographical tale of the five children—four boys and one girl—of the Tanner family: Klaus, Kaspar, Simon, Hedwig, and a son who resides in a mental institution and merits only a mention in the book. Walser focuses the book around Simon, the young, aimless brother who is a bizarre combination of arrogance, self-entitlement, humility, humor, and love for all of mankind. It’s the words of Simon that at once bold and entertaining. His honesty woos the reader until you become smitten and want to hear anything that he has to say. He simply does not care what he is supposed to do as a young man in society; he cares only for his own happiness that he expresses slyly to the owner of a bookshop:

You have disappointed me. Don’t look so astonished, there’s nothing to be done about it. I shall quit your place of business this very day and ask that you pay me my wages. Please, let me finish. I know perfectly well what I want. During the past week I’ve come to realize that the entire book trade is nothing less than ghastly if it must entail standing at one’s desk from early morning till late at night while out of doors the gentlest winter sun is gleaming, and forces one to scrunch one’s back, since the desk is far too small given my stature, writing like some accursed happenstance copyist and performing work unsuitable for a mind such as my own, I am capable of performing quite different tasks, esteemed sir, than the ones entrusted to me here. I’d expected to be able to sell books in your shop, wait on elegant individuals, bow and bid adieu to the customers when they’re ready to depart. What’s more, I’d imagined I might be allowed to peer into the mysterious universe of the book trade and glimpse the world’s features in the visage and operation of your enterprise. But I experienced nothing of the sort.

And this is when it becomes impossible to avoid falling in love with Simon, Walser’s cocky romantic bohemian. Seemingly each member of the Tanner family represents an element of society: Klaus, the staid older brother who ensconces himself in a respectful position in academia; Hedwig, the hardworking and generous country teacher who enjoys the simplicities of rural life; Kaspar, the tortured artist who’s vulnerability leave women swooning; Emil, the institutionalized man who had everything the world could offer except sanity; and Simon, the rebellious dreamer who shuns the shackles of modern society. Walser himself shuttled from job to job like Simon and also had mental illness, like the eldest Tanner brother, spending the last 27 years of his life in a mental institution. The Walser family had a long and distinct line of mental illness beginning with Walser’s mother and spreading throughout the family. Though all the members were highly functional, Robert seemed to be the most productive while institutionalized, turning out story after story and developing his “mikrogramme” style of pencil writing that took years for editors to decipher. Regardless of the heavy tone of his personal life, there is a lightness that prevails when his characters confront the existential and practical issues of living life. Simon represents the perfect antidote to personal tragedy and inner demon for Walser. Simon addresses a man in a bar who begins telling the story of Emil without knowing that Simon is his brother. At the end of the story, Simon gracefully responds about the role of insanity in his family:

No, it cannot possibly run in the family. I shall deny this as long as I live. It’s simply misfortune. It can’t have been the women. You’re quite right when you say it wasn’t them. Must these poor women always be at fault when men succumb to misfortune? Why don’t we think a bit more simply about it? Can it not lie in a person’s character, and therefore in the soul? Look, if you will, how I am moving my hand just now: Like this, and in the soul! That’s where it lies. A human being feels something, and when he acts in such-and-such a way, and then collides with various walls and uneven spots, just like that. People are always so quick to think of horrific genetic inheritances and the like. And what cowardice and lack of reverence to insist on holding his parents and his parents’ parents responsible for his misfortune. This shows a lack of both propriety and courage, not to mention the most unseemly soft-heartedness! When misfortune crashes down upon your head, it’s just that you’ve provided all that was needed for fate to produce a misfortune. Do you know what my brother was to me, to me and Kaspar, my older brother, to us younger ones? He taught us on our shared walks to have a sense for the beautiful and the noble, at a time when we were still the most wretched rascals whose only interest was getting up to trick. From his eyes we imbibed the fire that filled them when he spoke to us of art. Can you imagine what a splendid time that was, how ambitious—in the boldest, most beautiful sense of the word—our quest for understanding? Let’s drink one more bottle together, I’m buying, yes that’s right, even though I’m just an unemployed ne’er-do-well.

Simon is a dichotomy—enamored by and ultimately indifferent to humanity. He approaches everyone with patience and tolerance. He exits the situation when he bores of it, but always with a lighthearted diplomacy. Off goes this bohemian, not a goal in sight, welcoming any situation that he stumbles upon with a pleasant air of hope. By the end of the novel, Walser’s style has mesmerized you with his interesting twist on the mundane and the abstract, and you will find it difficult to rouse yourself from his view of the world that captures a time and an essence.

He is a modernist in a true sense and it is a small wonder he is just now coming back in fashion. Thanks to the folks at New Directions as well as to the excellent and fluid translation by Susan Bernofsky, we can delve into his story effortlessly. Be thankful like Kafka and Musil that Walser existed and live to tell about it.2

24 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our review section is a piece by Lara Ericson (one of our summer interns) on Hans Eichner’s Kahn & Engelmann, which was published earlier this year by Biblioasis in Canada (Windsor to be more specific), and translated from the German by Jean M. Snook.

Biblioasis is one of the most interesting young presses in Canada, and will definitely be getting a lot of great attention this fall when they release Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Dance with Snakes. But they’ve been doing some interesting works in translation for some time now, and this novel, although maybe not perfect, is pretty interesting:

Hans Eichner’s first novel (and last—he passed away earlier this year), originally published in 2000 in Austria, was released in English last month, directly after the eminent German scholar’s death. Kahn & Engelmann opens with a joke: a traveling joke and a Jewish joke.

“In the summer of 1938, a Jewish refugee is going for a walk on Carmel Beach . . . Twenty metres out from shore, a man is fighting against the waves and yelling for help in Hebrew. The refugee stops to listen, takes his jacket off, folds it neatly (one should never act too hastily); and while taking off his tie and shoes as well, before jumping into the sea to help the yelling man, he exclaims indignantly: ‘What a fool! Hebrew he has learned. Swimming he should have learned!’”

Though jokes are used throughout the novel, the placement of this particular joke emphasizes the centrality of travel (often forced travel) to the Jewish identity—a theme expanded throughout the novel, in the story of Peter Engelmann’s own life (he lives, at various times, in Vienna, Hungary, Belgium, England, Australia, Canada, and Israel) and that of the Austro-Hungarian Jews from whom he is descended. The question Peter poses at the beginning of the novel of “How did I get here?” is especially relevant to anyone of Jewish heritage and leads Peter to trace the experiences, and travels, of the Austro-Hungarian Jews through the last hundred years.

In the course of the novel, he tells three basic stories: the first is of his own life and recent experiences living in Haifa, Israel in the late-twentieth century; another starts in 1880 and tells his family story starting with his great-grandmother Sidonie; and the third tells the broader history of Austro-Hungarian Jews.

Click here to read the rest of Lara’s review.

24 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Hans Eichner’s first novel (and last—he passed away earlier this year), originally published in 2000 in Austria, was released in English last month, directly after the eminent German scholar’s death. Kahn & Engelmann opens with a joke: a traveling joke and a Jewish joke.

In the summer of 1938, a Jewish refugee is going for a walk on Carmel Beach . . . Twenty metres out from shore, a man is fighting against the waves and yelling for help in Hebrew. The refugee stops to listen, takes his jacket off, folds it neatly (one should never act too hastily); and while taking off his tie and shoes as well, before jumping into the sea to help the yelling man, he exclaims indignantly: “What a fool! Hebrew he has learned. Swimming he should have learned!”

Though jokes are used throughout the novel, the placement of this particular joke emphasizes the centrality of travel (often forced travel) to the Jewish identity—a theme expanded throughout the novel, in the story of Peter Engelmann’s own life (he lives, at various times, in Vienna, Hungary, Belgium, England, Australia, Canada, and Israel) and that of the Austro-Hungarian Jews from whom he is descended. The question Peter poses at the beginning of the novel of “How did I get here?” is especially relevant to anyone of Jewish heritage and leads Peter to trace the experiences, and travels, of the Austro-Hungarian Jews through the last hundred years.

In the course of the novel, he tells three basic stories: the first is of his own life and recent experiences living in Haifa, Israel in the late-twentieth century; another starts in 1880 and tells his family story starting with his great-grandmother Sidonie; and the third tells the broader history of Austro-Hungarian Jews.

The novel primarily follows Peter’s family as his great-grandparents Sidonie and Josef Kahn move from rural Hungary to Vienna in order to improve their children’s opportunities, but also includes the stories of the Kahn children and grandchildren, their business enterprises and their interactions with one another. One of the central storylines is the series of battles (which end tragically) between Jëno Kahn and Peter’s father, Sándor Engelmann, over their clothing firm Kahn & Engelmann (for which the novel is named).

Peter’s narrative jumps around in time, allowing him to tell whatever story he feels is necessary to explain something, or to move on when he simply gets bored with the current topic. While this stream of consciousness style is very authentic, it makes the reading experience choppy and confusing at times, especially with so many characters, years, and plotlines in the novel.

This novel struggles to be both an accurate, historical account of the Austro-Hungarian Jews and a compelling novel. It succeeds at the former attempt, but isn’t quite as successful in the latter. Eichner paints a clear picture both of the rural Jewish life, and of that in Vienna around the turn of the century. The broad scale on which the story is told, both in terms of time span and quantity of characters, adds to the richness of the novel as a story of Jewish history. In addition to the story of the Kahn family, a great deal of historical explanation is given to the various struggles which befall the Kahn family along with the greater Jewish community. These additions are very informative but occasionally bog down the flow of the novel.

The appeal the novel holds in regards to the Kahns’ specific story is more limited. Partly because of the broad scale of the novel, many of the stories become repetitive or tiresome, such the detailed description of the family’s complicated business dealings. As part of this storyline, Peter copies a large number of letters—and detailed financial transactions—written between his father and Jëno during their long battle. If the intention were to present a complete family history, this kind of detail might be more relevant, but in the context of this particular novel, these prolonged discussions are tiring. Other parts of the novel are frankly, quite bizarre and disposable. In particular, Peter’s stories about his later life and his brief marriage add nothing and seem out of character with the rest of the novel.

This said, some aspects of the family history (such as the family’s arrival to and initial struggle in Vienna) are extremely compelling. Also noteworthy are Peter’s reflections on his involvement in World War II. He is sent to an internment camp in Australia for the majority of the war, where he receives an excellent education. At one point, he is presented with the opportunity to fight in the war on the side of the Allies and declines. This decision haunts him throughout the rest of his life. This apathy is the result of what he describes as his “autism”: his inattentiveness to important issues and current events. He later decides to repent for this apathy by moving to Israel and becoming a part of the Jewish struggle there.

Perhaps the highlight of the novel for me is the many jokes and legends from the Jewish community, which Eichner uses as an introduction to a story about the Kahns or to illustrate an aspect of Jewish culture.

“You all know that ani lo jodea means “I don’t know.” Once upon a time there was a shetl in Russia where the Jews lived well, and one day the governor came and said: “The Tsar has decreed that you all have to leave.” But since the governor was a learned man who also knew a lot about Jewish things and was proud of this knowledge, the rabbi was able to persuade him to let it depend on the outcome of a competition: the governor and a representative of the shetl would ask each other questions. The first who couldn’t answer the question has his head cut off. If it was the Jew, then the Jews had to leave; if it was the governor, he got his head cut off, and the Jews could stay. Fair enough—but who was supposed to risk his life by going up against the learned man? . . . Only the shammes said he was willing to try . . . On the agreed upon day, the governor came to the market square . . . When the governor saw that his opponent was the shammes, he laughed and said: “In that case, you may ask the first question.” “Governor,” said the shammes, “what does ani lo jodea mean?” “I don’t know,” said the governor, and the executioner cut his head off.”

Not only are these jokes entertaining, but they truly do provide a window into the experiences and attitudes of the Jewish people. As the novel demonstrates, these stories are repeated around the dinner table to spread both history and values. Eichner’s novel is particularly successful at collecting a number of these stories and illustrating their centrality in the culture.

Although Kahn & Engelmann is not clearly intended to be autobiographical, a large number of events in Eichner’s early life seem to match up with those of Peter Engelmann, from their birth in Vienna, to their internment in Australia, and finally to their professorship in Canada. Eichner was recognized throughout his life as a prominent German scholar, and the novel confirms that. Kahn & Engelmann is a remarkable achievement in recreating a vibrant Jewish community lost to the past. As someone unfamiliar with the Austro-Hungarian Jews, the perspectives given are fascinating and informative. Unfortunately, Hans Eichner’s ambitions exceed his abilities, resulting in an intriguing, yet flawed, novel.

8 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the past couple weeks, I’ve been gorging myself on Gunter Grass novels in preparation for the panel I’m moderating tomorrow with Krishna Winston (Crabwalk), Breon Mitchell (The Tin Drum), and Michael Henry Heim (My Century, Peeling the Onion)—arguably three of the best German-English translators working today. And Grass, having received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999, is arguably Germany’s most important post-War German writer.

(This event is part of the 2009 Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Symposium, the subject of which is “Interpretive Perspective and Translation.” The symposium is only open to translators, scholars, and the like, although German lit/translation enthusiasts are encouraged to contact Lisa Lux lux at chicago dot goethe dot org for more information.)

To celebrate the 50th Anniversary of The Tin Drum, the novel—which, to continue the trend started above, is arguably Grass’s greatest achievement—the novel is being published in new translations around the world. Not that the initial translations were always bad, but the book is a bit racy (and difficult), and a number of the original translations omitted lines, paragraphs, etc., or just didn’t quite capture the nuances of Grass’s unique style.

Breon Mitchell puts it best in his afterword to the new translation:

The most common question I was faced while working on this new Tin Drum was, “What was wrong with the old one?” This question reveals a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of literary translation. It is precisely the mark of a great work of art that it demands to be retranslated. What impels us toward new versions is not the weakness of existing translations, but the strength and richness of certain works of literature. The works that are never retranslated are those we only care to read once.

We translate great works because they deserve it—because the power and depth of the text can never be fully revealed by a single translation, however inspired. A translation is a reading, and every reading is necessarily personal, perhaps even idiosyncratic. Each new version offers, not a better reading, but a different one, one that foregrounds new aspects of the text, that sees it through new eyes, that makes it new.

More on Breon’s new translation in a minute. But following on last week’s extremely long series of posts on BEA, and my “confrontation” with Pantheon editor Erroll McDonald, I found this anecdote in Grass’s intro to the new translation a pretty inspiring picture of what publishing used to be like:

In the summer of 1959, I completed my first novel, The Tin Drum, in Paris. I had just corrected proofs and created an image for the dust jacket when a letter arrived from the legendary publisher Kurt Wolff in New York. Wolff, who had left Germany in the thirties, asked me to meet him at a hotel in Zurich. He strode up to me in the hotel lobby, a tall gentleman, with his wife and colleague Helen Wolff beside him.

“I’m thinking of publishing your book in America,” he said. “Do you think the American reader will understand it?” “I don’t think so,” I replied. “The setting is provincial, not even Danzig itself, but a suburb. The novel is filled with German dialect. And it concentrates solely on the provinces—” “Say no more, “ he broke in. “All great literature is rooted in the provincial. I’ll bring it out in America.”

I’ve only just started reading Breon’s new translation (I first read My Century, a brilliant novel of voices with one short chapter for each year of the twentieth century, with some chapters being political, some historical, and some just plain fun, and Crabwalk, which is also quite compelling, although a bit more novelistic in conventional ways), but from the opening statement (which is the same in both translations)—“Granted: I’m an inmate in a mental institution”—it’s a rather brilliant book.

And the translation is pretty dazzling, and does jazz up Ralph Manheim’s—at least in the instances Mitchell quotes in his afterward, such as this:

I also saw that activities such as thumb-twiddling, frowning, looking up and down, handshaking, making babies, counterfeiting, turning out the light, brushing teeth, shooting people, and changing diapers were being practiced all over the world, though not always with the same skill. (Manheim)

And I saw too that activities like thumb-twiddling, brow-wrinkling, head-nodding, hand-shaking, baby-making, coin-faking, light-dousing, tooth-brushing, man-killing, and diaper-changing were being engaged in all over the world, if not always with equal skill. (Mitchell)

Mitchell’s is more in keeping with Grass’s original text in terms of rhythm and “semantic effect.”

This isn’t to say that Manheim’s translation is bad—both Grass and Mitchell go out of their way to say what a great job Manheim did. But he was a young translator under some tight time constraints, and Grass’s novel isn’t easy for anyone.

And he didn’t have the benefit of one of Grass’s translator gatherings. For the past thirty years, every time Grass releases a new book, he arranges a meeting of his translators, spending three or four days going over the new text page by page, talking about major problems, explaining certain lines, answering questions, etc. I’m excited to hear from all three translators about this experience, especially Mitchell, since he recently spent a week with Grass in Gdansk going over The Tin Drum and even visiting places in the novel . . .

I’ll report back later this week about this panel and the symposium as a whole.

19 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

(This post could be subtitled, “The Beginning of a Canadian Bender . . .” but more on that over the next couple days.)

One of the most exciting Canadian presses that I’ve come across in recent times is Biblioasis, in part because of their International Translation series, and in part because of Joshua Glenn and Mark Kingwell’s The Idler’s Glossary.

The third book in the Biblioasis International Translation series is Hans Eichner’s Kahn & Engelmann, which is releasing this week and has been getting some good advance press, including this great review from Library Journal:

Narrated by Peter Engelmann, a middle-aged veterinarian working in Haifa, this work is at once the story of a family and a memorial to Viennese Jews. The narrative, the stream-of-consciousness recollections of a man caught between the need to remember and the desire to forget, opens in both 1980 and 1880 and chronicles the Kahn family’s move from rural Hungary to Vienna, the narrator’s 1938 flight to Belgium and eventual settlement in Israel, and all the family drama in between. The result is a moving book full of humor and humanity.

Eichner led a pretty interesting life, fleeing Austria at the start of WWII, being shipped off to Australia where he studied mathematics, Latin, and English literature, and eventually settling in Canada, where he was the chair of German Studies at the University of Toronto. Unfortunately, he passed away last month at the age of 87. Kahn & Engelmann is his first novel, and it was published in Germany in 2000 and translated into English by Jean M. Snook (who also translated Gert Jonke’s Homage to Czerny: Studies for a Virtuoso Technique).

And the opening of his novel is pretty entertaining:

In the summer of 1938, a Jewish refugee is going for a walk on Carmel Beach (Is he from Cologne? from Berlin? from Vienna? It doesn’t matter). Twenty metres out from shore, a man is fighting against the waves and yelling for help in Hebrew. The refugees stops to listen, takes his jacket off, folds it neatly (one should never act too hastily); and while taking off his tie and shoes as well, before jumping into the sea to help the yelling man, he exclaims indignantly: “What a fool! Hebrew he has learned. Swimming he should have learned!”

That’s a travelling joke. It was told much the same way in 1789 in Mainz, when the first emigres arrived there and went for walks along the Rhine in their elegant clothes. But precisely because it is a travelling joke, it is also a Jewish joke; for who has travelled (or, as is mostly the case, has fled) more often than the Jews?

We’re planning on running a full review of this title in the not-too-distant future, and it might be a German Book Office “book of the month” at some point as well. In the meantime, here’s a longer excerpt from the book and here’s a book trailer.

18 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

My cinema was a “Ma,” she wrapped me in her mucous membranes. She shielded me from the sun, from the force of visibility. Life was being played out on the screen, a life before death. People fought there, or else slept together. They cried and sweated, and the screen remained dry. The cinema, its stage, had no depth, but it did have its own light source.

This is how Anh Nguyet the protagonist of The Naked Eye describes her world of escapism through the movies, and only Catherine Deneuve movies to be exact. Although I myself have an affinity for the beautiful icon of French cinema myself, it is nothing compared to our young Vietnamese narrator who seems only to experience and understand life through the world of Deneuve’s oeuvre. Tawada takes us through Anh’s story in thirteen chapters, each titled after a different Deneuve movie. And it’s not just about Deneuve, her movies serve as vehicle for all the other things that seem to be happening in novel—escapism, allegorical references to communism, kidnapping, subjugation, sexual ambiguity and a fair amount of resigned desperation.

All of this seems like the ideal makings for an engaging and original read, and at times, it is. But what plagues this novel from the beginning is the lack of emotional engagement by the narrator. Anh, who is still in high school and the best in her school at speaking Russian, is handpicked to attend the International Youth Conference in Berlin to deliver a paper she wrote in Russian entitled, “Vietnam as a Victim of American Imperialism.” Within the first ten pages she is kidnapped by a German student who plies her with vodka and then takes to his apartment in Bochum, which is six hours away from Berlin. Anh says that she wants to go home, but Jörg, her captor, tells her she is pregnant with his child. They become lovers and she waits in his apartment all day long for him to come home. She writes a letter to her family saying she has been offered a scholarship and that is why she is not coming home. What is strange is that there is no sense of urgency for Anh to get home. Finally, she learns one night on a double date with Jörg that there is a train that stops in Bochum on its way to Moscow. She finds the train and ends up in Paris where she spends the next six years of her life.

She meets a blond prostitute, Marie, in the chapter entitled, “Zig Zig.” She has a brief sexual encounter with her but they end up living together. Anh spends her days reading old issues of Ecran magazine looking for anything relating to Catherine Deneuve. She has no job and does not go out in the sunlight. She merely survives with Marie:

Marie was not an abductor, she was my protector. She protected me by ignoring me. She acted as if she were unable to see me, or as if I were a wildflower that just happened to be growing in her garden. If only I’d been able to exchange a few words with her. I couldn’t understand her language, and she even seemed to be withholding it from me.

Clearly, there is desire on Anh’s part to communicate, but she never makes that commitment. She wanders the streets and goes to Catherine Deneuve movies. Once while she is line, a fellow Vietnamese woman that she met on the train to Paris recognizes her. Anh is ‘mesmerized’ by her melodic way of talking and decides to go stay with Ai Van and her French, much older husband, Jean. She leaves Marie without a word and stays on the couch of the couple. She watches them come and go and goes to the movies. Exasperated by Anh’s lack of initiative, Ai Van tells her there is a job available with a Chinese doctor that will use her skin for cosmetic experiments. Anh obliges without a struggle and Tawada compares this to Deneuve’s vampire role in Hunger. Other than the comparison and the synopsis of the plot by Tawada, the parallels of Anh and Deneuve’s movies are not drawn well enough. It becomes merely a plot synopsis of each movie and less and less about Anh. Maybe this is intentional, but it is disturbing as well. I felt, as a reader, that I was waiting for a reaction from Anh—to life, her situation, her loss. But she drifts and the only thing Tawada gives us is a rundown of Deneuve’s movies, as if Anh is struggling with cinematic autism. Although this does add to the power of Anh’s escapism, it doesn’t give us much more. As if we are constantly seeing someone in the throes of addiction, but never seeking help.

Towards the end, we do see Anh show frustration with her inability to live any life outside of Catherine Deneuve’s various screen roles:

“Get out of here!” I say to the cinematographic currents trying to carry me off with it. Leave me alone. I don’t want to be carried off. But it was difficult to maintain a distance from the images. They swept me away with them, wanting to drown me. Why was I, a free human being, not allowed to turn off the images when I wished or a t least correct them? I wished to experience boredom, for this I would at least entail the individual freedom not to take part. If I fell asleep in my seat, the film would have been better for me. I had to remain awake, though, to wait for you.

Anh has the ability to recognize her obsession, but this is towards the end of the novel and the reader gets no hints of her self-awareness before this. Even despite her obsession, she manages to befriend a man, Charles, who introduces her to a Vietnamese emigré, Tuong Linh. Tuong Linh is a surgeon. Anh ends up living with him even though she is in love with Charles. Tuong Linh insists that she go to language school but she avoids his inquiries whenever the topic is mentioned. But in order to do this he decides to marry her so she can get a visa. She obtains a fake passport from one of Tuong Linh’s friends and is arrested. Tuong Linh is well on his way to Thailand, with no idea of Anh’s arrest. When she is released, she ends up at Marie’s apartment and almost doesn’t recognize her because Marie had aged so much in six years. Which brings us to Les voleurs which star Catherine Deneuve as another character named Marie who is now a middle-aged professor having a lesbian affair with one of her students. She stays with Marie, again in poverty, and ends up through circuitous ties, with Jörg. She returns to Bochum and lives with Jörg. But she is back to where she was in the beginning of the novel. The last chapter is entitled, “Dancer in the Dark,” and is a plot synopsis of the movie which leaves the reader wondering too much about what Anh ever really wanted and where if anywhere, she will go to find herself.

One of the things I did find most interesting about Tawada’s novel is the appearance of communism and the sense of government as mother. From the onset, Anh is devoutly Communist. And throughout there are running themes of class division, the cinema being compared to her motherland as protector and a dialogue and metaphors about liberty and freedom. Anh adheres to the concepts of Communism in her beliefs, but becomes totally oblivious to the present day changes that Communism has endured and its weakening grasp on the world.

I wanted very much to love this novel, but ultimately had too many unanswered questions were presented to the reader and like Anh felt like I was watching a narrator act like she was in a book, but never fully present. And one note on the translation—parts of the novel were written in German and parts were written in Japanese and then translated by Tawada into both languages. The extremely capable Susan Bernofsky translated it from the German. When I encountered phrases that seemed out of character for Anh or sudden strong phrases that were an anomaly to her narrative voice, I wasn’t sure whose translation that fell on or if that was an authorial choice. Regardless, it was jarring and it interrupted the generally low key and fluid narrative.

I hope we can read more of Tawada’s work in the future because it is so intriguing—ones without such a narrow conceit. I have watched as many Catherine Deneuve movies as possible and felt that if I hadn’t, I don’t know where I would’ve been as a reader approaching this novel? Too much rests on the magic of Catherine Deneuve and not enough on the author. As the French say, “Quel dommage!”

2 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

These two books arrived a couple weeks ago and are nearing the top of my reading list:

Every Man Dies Alone is one of three Hans Fallada books Melville House is bringing out this season. (The Drinker and Little Man, What Now? being the other two.) A mammoth book (although written in only twenty-four days!), Every Man Dies Alone is based on the true story of a working-class couple that resisted the Nazis. This is Melville House’s lead title for the spring, a book that they’ve been pushing as a sort of German Suite Francaise and lost masterpiece. Based on the relative success of his other novels — Little Man, What Now? was even made into a movie — it’s surprising this book wasn’t translated into English before now. A great find for Dennis and Valerie, and every indication points to this book taking off. And the production on this book is phenomenal: the end papers feature full color maps of Berlin, and included with the afterword are all the historical documents related to the “true story behind the novel.”

Gert Jonke’s Homage to Czerny made the 2009 Best Translated Book Fiction Longlist, which is one reason I’m very interested to read his Blinding Moment, which just came out from Ariadne Books. Ariadne Books is pretty press that specializes in Austrian literature. (In addition to Jonke’s book, I’m very excited about Kathrin Roggla’s we never sleep, which is due out later this spring.) Jonke’s book is a collection of four pieces—“The Head of George Frederick Handel,” “Catalogue d’oiseaux,” “Gentle Rage, or The Ear Machinist: A Theater Sonata,” and “Blinding Moment: A Novella.” According to the copy, he “takes the works of four composers (plus a universally loved saint) as the starting points of profound but often hilarious explorations of human struggle and triumph, of spiritual yearning and fulfillment.” In addition to Jonke’s pieces, Vincent Kling’s translator’s afterword looks really interesting. It’s a pretty substantial piece that places this book within the context of Jonke’s entire career.

Hopefully we’ll have full reviews of both of these titles online within the next month or so.

13 June 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

Following up on yesterday’s post about the Helen and Kurt Wolff Symposium I thought I’d pass along the list of works (and publishers) that Denis Scheck recommended in his presentation on contemporary German literature.

Denis Scheck is one of Germany’s most respected critics, and has both a radio and a TV show about books. He’s also a translator and a literary editor. (He used to have a line of books that in some way related to the sea—which included books such as David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again for the title essay about a cruise ship (which is one of the funniest pieces I’ve ever read)—and is now starting a line of food-related books.)

Here’s the recommendations he gave us:

  • Publisher/Poet to look out for: Daniela Seel, Kookbooks

I want to personally second this. Daniela was at the symposium, so I got to know her a bit, and she’s an incredible person. Her poetry was beautiful (although I don’t understand a word of German, I was still blown away by the poems she read in the original) and her publishing house is incredibly interesting. She gave a speech about Kookbooks and how it came out of an artistic movement that included a record label, various visual art projects, etc., all under the label of “Kook.” The books themselves are gorgeous—very high quality, all designed with a similar sort of abstract and eye-catching artwork—and relatively inexpensive. (Because she has almost no overhead—and no employees—she’s able to keep the prices under 20 euro, which is pretty amazing for hardcovers of this quality.) The titles are fairly experimental, and the list features a lot of younger authors who she’s trying to grow with the press. Definitely worth checking out.

  • 3 excellent German graphic novels/Comics:

Isabel Kreitz: Der 35. Mai. Als Comic. (Dressler Verlag)
Anke Feuchtenberger/Kathrin de Vries: Die Hure H wirft den Handschuh (Reprodukt Verlag)
Volker Reiche: Strizz (FAZ)

There was a bit of discussion about graphic novels (especially since this is so hot in the States these days), which is why Denis recommended the three above titles.

  • Felicitas Hoppe, Iwein Löwenritter (S. Fischer)

Hoppe was actually in the States for the PEN World Voices festival a few years back. She’s someone who comes up time and again in glowing terms, yet none of her titles have been translated into English . . . This title is a children’s book.

  • Brigitte Kronauer: Die Kleider der Frauen (Reclam)
  • Antje Ravic Strubel: Gebrauchsanweisung Schweden (Piper)
  • Dieter Kühn: Gesamtwerk, aktuell: Gertrud Kolmar Leben und Werk (S. Fischer)

The book of Kuhn’s that sounds most interesting to me is one he wrote years ago that relates 29 imaginary biographies of Napoleon.

  • Arno Geiger: Es geht uns gut (Hanser)
  • Judith Schalansky: Blau steht dir nicht (Mare)
  • Heinrich Steinfest: Mariaschwarz Gebrauchsanweisung Österreich (Piper)
  • Karen Duve: Taxi (Eichborn)
  • Feridun Zaimoglu: Liebesbrand & Leyla (Kiepenheuer & Witsch)

This is the author that the three women who won the Susan Sontag Translation Prize are working on. The book they’re translated (yes, it is a collaborative translation) is Koppstoff: Kanaka Sprak vom Rande der Gesellschaft, which consists of 26 fictionalized voices of Turkish women in Germany. They read a section of this at the symposium that enthralled everyone. (It helps that this came at the end of the day and was a very energetic, flowing rant filled with vular language and slang. It had an amazing rhythm, and I think all of the publishers in the room were very enthused . . . )

  • Marcel Bayer: Kaltenburg Suhrkamp
  • Thomas Hettche: Fahrtenbuch 1993-2007 Kiepenheuer & Witsch
16 October 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I met Peter Zilahy at the Canongate party referenced in this article . . . He may well have thought I was some sort of stalker—his flowing locks are pretty remarkable though, and make it easy to pick him out of a crowd.

I first encountered his work in the (now defunct?) pages of Orient Express, which was edited and published by Fiona Sampson. His writing is quite inventive and remarkable, and it’s exciting to know that Last Window Giraffe will be out in February.

Anyway, he covered the bookfair for Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and if you can read German, I’m sure you’ll find this interesting. Reading between the lines of the almost completely incompetent Google Translation, it seems that his main focus is on the business side of things . . . which is only fitting, since Frankfurt is the nerve center of creating book buzz and big advances.

At the book fair is not about what is the best book, but what sells best. The European culture has long decided that it is not just a book, this would contradict the spirit of Frankfurt. (Google Translation, which is why the last sentence is a bit wonky.)

As a university-supported, nonprofit press, our perspective is a bit different, as we hunt down the best books that are out there, paying less attention to the sales potential than to the quality of the book itself. And being open to books from around the globe, we were able to find literally hundreds of outstanding sounding titles to look into.

One of the most interesting comments in this vein came from Petra Hardt of Suhrkamp. We were talking about two authors—Ralf Rothmann and Andreas Maier. She said that if we wanted to sell more than 1,000 copies, we should go with Rothmann; less than 1,000, Maier. Probably not the best business sense, but this made Maier sound more attractive . . .

4 September 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I just found out about this (literally), but for any undergrad or graduate translators from German under the age of 30, here’s some info on the 2008 Susan Sontag Prize for Translation.

This $5,000 prize will commission a work of literary translation by a university undergraduate or graduate student under the age of 30. The translation must be written from German into English, and must be a work of contemporary fiction by a living German writer. The translation must fall under the category of fiction or letters. The student will propose his or her own translation project; acceptable proposals include a novella, a play, a collection of short stories or poems, or a collection of letters that have literary import. The project should be manageable for a five-month period of work; the commission will be granted in May 2008, and the translation must be completed by October 2008.

Visit the Susan Sontag site for more info. (BTW: I assume the January 30, 2007 deadline is just a typo.)

And feel contact me if you think Open Letter might be interested in your project . . .

....
Miruna, a Tale
Miruna, a Tale by Bogdan Suceavă
Reviewed by Alta Ifland

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To call Kjell Askildsen’s style sparse or terse would be to understate just how far he pushes his prose. Almost nothing is explained, elaborated on. In simple sentences, events occur, words are exchanged, narrators have brief thoughts. As often as. . .

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Letter from an Unknown Woman and Other Stories by Stefan Zweig
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

After a mysterious woman confesses to an author simply known as “R” that she has loved him since she was a teenager, she offers the following explanation: “There is nothing on earth like the love of a child that passes. . .

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