This morning, the Guardian: ran an interesting piece recapping a session on the “global novel” at the Jaipur Festival—a session that got a bit heated when Xiaolu Guo called out, well, contemporary American writing1:
“Our reading habit has been stolen and changed” said Guo. “For example I think Asian literature is much less narrative . . . but our reading habit is more Anglo-Saxon, more American . . . Nowadays all this narrative [literature is] very similar, it’s so realism, so story-telling driven . . . so all the poetry, all the alternative things, have been pushed away by mainstream society.”
“I love your work, Jonathan,” she told Franzen,2 “but in a way you are smeared by English American literature . . . I think certain American literature is overrated, massively overrated, and I really hate to read them,” she said.
Two cheers for Xiaolu Guo! I read a lot of books—written in English and from abroad—and find overrated shit from all over the globe. But percentage-wise—and this is a trick of reading in translation, since most of the really awful stuff stays in its own language—American books probably have the highest ratio of dreck to gold. There’s this whole “stylelessness” writing that’s invaded American prose, thanks to MFA programs? to the commercialization of publishing? to J-Franz? to lazy readers? to the competition of Breaking Bad and Archer? and it’s a bit of a bummer.
But that’s not my rant. I do agree with Guo in a lot of ways, and abhor the way mainstream culture hypes the shallowest of art works for reasons that are uninteresting to me personally. But we have a choice not to read/engage with this.3
The Pulitzer-winning Indian/American Jhumpa Lahiri also laid into America’s literary culture, saying that it was “shameful the lack of translation, the lack of energy put into translation in the American market”. “It is embarrassing, to me, and I think just getting out of America for a little while makes you much more conscious of that,” said Lahiri, who currently lives in Italy and has not read anything in English for the last two years.
OK, here is the seed of my rant. Lahiri’s totally right on one hand—especially with her statement about how the Italian paper listed 7 American books in their “Best of 2013” list, and how that’s something that will never happen in the U.S.—but “lack of energy put into translation” strikes a little close to home.
I’ve been on about the number of books published in translation in America since the inception of this blog, and I do feel like the number could and should be higher. There are only so many books you get to read in your lifetime—and even fewer that have a life-changing impact on you—and for those books to remain locked off from readers . . . Also, this was the promise of the Internet—everything available from everywhere at any time—and the backbone of the long tail theory.
But let’s put that aside. As of now, I’ve identified 484 works of previously untranslated works of fiction and poetry that came out in 2013, and although this is a very modest number—how many of these have Lahiri or Franzen read? And shit, I know a lot of people who have put in a LOT of time and energy and whatever into translating, publishing, and promoting these 484 works. And I’ll bet like 5 of them were invited to Jaipur, and, and this is speculation, that these panelists know next to no details about the vibrancy of the translation scene in America. They know one thing—the number of translated books per year is paltry—and then use this to categorize the entirety of translation publishing in the U.S.
I don’t know any of these panelists personally—except for J-Franz, who I met at an event for the NEA where he publicly made fun of Dalkey Archive and the work I was doing there—but my suspicion is that, like with the generalization behind the “American fiction is massively overrated” comment, they’re all thinking and talking about mainstream publishing. The Big Five, Four, Two, whatever it is. Of those 484 books I mentioned above, Random House published 14 titles and Penguin 16. The largest publishing company in the world—responsible for 25% of the English books produced yearly throughout the world—accounted for just over 6% of all the translations published in America last year.
That’s pretty shitty for The world’s first truly global trade book publishing company.
So here’s my overall point: If you’re lamenting the lack of translations in America, you should start looking for them. There could always be more, but ENERGETIC people like myself are brining attention to hundreds a year, and you could easily familiarize yourself with what’s available—and maybe find a great book in the process—and with who’s doing what and what it is their doing with a simple Google search.
I’m all for popular authors sounding off on issues like this, but I’m kind of sick of them using the platform to lament something they’re only tangentially involved with. Use the Jaipur festival to sing the praises of Archipelago Books or Melville House or Restless Books. Talk about the recent increases in quality fiction from Russia and Brazil. Speak in specifics—this is the Age of Information and all that you need to know to make an intelligent comment on the translation situation is at your fingertips.4
1 I think this statement needs a lot of qualifiers. A sentiment that sort of ties into the rest of my rant. There are a ton, absolute TON, of lazy, bad, realist, mainstream, boring, shitty, Franzen-esque writers writing in English. And some others—a much smaller percentage to be sure, if only for the reason that qualifying something as “great” means that it’s in the top XX%—are writing really interesting, strange books. (A mere 340 pages into Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, I’d put her in that second camp.) But we all know the process and situation that Guo is talking about.
2 I hope she guffawed internally when she said this.
3 Sort of. There are commercial forces at work that draw in young, talented writers with promises of unlimited Petrón cocktails and trips to exotic literary conferences like in, well, Jaipur. In today’s publishing landscape, you can choose to write whatever you want and find a way to get it out to the public—via self-publishing, ebook only deals, any thousand micropresses out there—but the money still tends to flow down from the coffers of the Penguin Random Amazon Times.
4 Somehow I managed not to attack all my usual suspects in this rant. So, for good measure: Just saying something like “the only translation I’ve heard of recently is Bolaño’s 2666, so obviously there’s a problem” is like relying on Flavorwire to give you all the info you need on contemporary writing. BOOM. POST OUT.
From The Guardian:
James Joyce’s Ulysses has topped poll after poll to be named the greatest novel of the 20th century, but according to Paulo Coelho, the book is “a twit”. [. . .]
Writers go wrong, according to Coelho, when they focus on form, not content. “Today writers want to impress other writers,” he told the paper. “One of the books that caused great harm was James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is pure style. There is nothing there. Stripped down, Ulysses is a twit.”
Here are just a few of the things that are wrong with these statements:
1) I’m willing to go out on a limb here and claim that Ulysses has had, oh, approximately 0% impact on the writing of the vast majority of today’s popular/influential English writers—J-Franz, Richard Ford, 90% of MFA graduates, most all Oprah book club authors, etc. etc.
2) Can a book even be a “twit”? That’s confusing. The other day I was on a rant that NBC should get crabs, but even I realized the absurdity of that statement. Hey, Paulo—Ulysses is a book. It is fiction. It is not a living breathing thing.
3) And “twit”??? Who even says that?
4) THIS sort of “I APPEAL TO EVERYONE” crap is what I think is ruining contemporary literature.
Speaking to Brazilian newspaper Folha de S Paulo, Coelho said the reason for his own popularity was that he is “a modern writer, despite what the critics say”. This doesn’t mean his books are experimental, he added – rather, “I’m modern because I make the difficult seem easy, and so I can communicate with the whole world.”
Nothing like a bit of stupid to get me back into the swing of this blogging thing . . . .
This may be thanks to Bolano and his massive appeal, but it seems (to me at least), like Spanish literature is going through a sort of a “Second Boom.” Not so much in terms of a shared aesthetic, but in terms of having captured the imaginations of American publishers. In addition to standards like Javier Marias and Fernando del Paso, over the past few years works from Evelio Rosero, Alejandro Zambra, Eloy Urroz, Jorge Volpi, Cesar Aira, Santiago Roncagliolo, Carlos Gamerro, Sergio Chejfec, and Enrique Vila-Matas have been published in English translation, and have received both great critical attention and a decent-sized readership.
And that’s just in the fiction world . . . Additionally, there have been a number of collections of poetry published, along with Granta’s “Best of the Young Spanish-Language Novelists” issue and the forthcoming The Future Is Not Ours anthology.
All of this is a brief (and rather vague) prelude to talking about Juan Gabriel Vasquez, the author of The Informers and the more recently publishing The Secret History of Costaguana. I’ve had Secret History on my shelf for months, but haven’t had a chance to get to it yet. Well, after exchanging a few emails with Jeremy Osner (who runs this blog) about this book, I think it’s about to move up my “to read” pile . . .
I keep wondering why we do it: why would an adult devote his time, his mental energies, his moral intelligence to reading about things that never happened to people who never existed; how could this activity be so important, so vital, that this person would voluntarily withdraw from real life to carry it out. I’ve come across a few answers over the years, some of them in conversations with other addicted readers, but mostly in books here and there along the way. And indeed, the most recent of these books is truly marvelous: The Naïve and Sentimental Novelist consists of six essays in which Orhan Pamuk seeks to answer one crucial question: What happens to us when we read (and write) novels? This book is the most illuminating, most stimulating, most abundant examination of this difficult topic that I’ve read in years. I can do no less than to offer this urgent call to readers.
“I have learned by experience that there are many ways to read a novel,” says Pamuk. “We read sometimes logically, sometimes with our eyes, sometimes with our imagination, sometimes with a small part of our mind, sometimes the way we want to, sometimes the way the book wants us to, and sometimes with every fiber of our being.” In other words: there are no two identical readers of the same novel; not even two identical readings. And this fact, which seems so obvious, is what can explain the effects, the intimate, unpredictable effects the novel can have on us. What are these effects? Pamuk says we read the way we drive a car, pressing the pedals and shifting gears while watching the signals and traffic and the landscape around us: our intellect moves in a thousand and one directions in every instant. With part of our mind we do the simplest thing: follow the story. But readers of “serious” novels are doing something more: are looking constantly for the secret center of the novel, for that revelation the novel seeks to bring to light, which cannot be summarized, which can only be expressed just as the novel expresses it. Sábato was once asked what he meant to say in On Heroes and Tombs. Sábato replied, “If I could have said it any other way, I would never have written the book.”
(I think it’s fitting that I’m posting this today, since that bit above loosely ties into the Very Professional Podcast that we’re posting later today.)
Going back to the book itself, here’s Jeremy’s summary:
The Secret History of Costaguana (2011) is Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s second novel to be translated into English, following 2009’s The Informers. It is a captivating book, the very best kind of historical novel: Vásquez has researched meticulously a corner of history that may be unfamiliar to many readers (as it was to me); he draws connections between that corner and the broader currents of world history and the history of literature; and he does so playfully, inquisitively, accepting none of the strands of historical narrative as immutable fact.
Vásquez’ chosen topic is the first attempt to build a canal in the Panamanian province of Colombia, in the 1880’s. One of the people who was in that corner of the world during those years was Joseph Conrad, a key literary influence for Vásquez, who used his observations of Colombia as the basis for his novel Nostromo, set in the fictional country of Costaguana. Vásquez’ narrator Juan Altamirano crosses paths with Conrad in Colombia, and again many years later in London, and he sets his own South American voice up in opposition to the colonial voice of Conrad.
And so we get a beautifully-drawn picture of Colombia and Panama during a critical point in their history, and in the history of their relationship with the US; and interlaced into this picture we get the novelist’s statement of his influences and his literary education. (For more of the latter, be sure to read Vásquez excellent essay on literary influence, Misconceptions Surrounding Gabriel García Márquez.) Vásquez’ powerful, enchanting prose finds an able translator in Anne McLean.
But of all this, one of the coolest bits from Vasquez in this quote that Jeremy found in his book chat at The Guardian: “I have a tendency to trust translators, mainly because nobody does it for the money.”
Over at The Guardian, Robert McCrum has a pretty interesting piece about how the publication of a number of high profile international works has “contributed to a new appreciation of the art of the good translation.”
Through the power of global media, there is more than ever before a market for literature in translation where the default language for such translations will be British or American English. Such versions may sometimes bear as much resemblance to the original as the wrong side of a Turkish carpet, but that hardly seems to lessen their appeal.
Lately in the US the appetite for “foreign fiction” – Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy or Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 – has sponsored a trend that has inspired new audiences for international literary superstars such as Umberto Eco, Roberto Bolaño and Péter Nádas. Perhaps not since the 1980s, when the novels of Milan Kundera, Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa became international bestsellers, has there been such a drive to bring fiction in translation into the literary marketplace. [. . .]
New editions of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu have pushed overworked translators – a shy breed – into the spotlight. David Bellos, whose new book, Is That A Fish In Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything was published this autumn, observes that, in Japan for instance, “translators are rock stars” with their own book of celebrity gossip, The Lives of the Translators 101.
The surge in this global audience for new fiction has been driven by the complex interaction of the IT revolution and the antics of literary promotions such as the Orange Prize and Man Booker hyping their brands through social media.
That last point is an interesting observation, although I’m not sure how accurate it really is. All the authors mentioned above are “name brands” complete with large followings (with maybe the exception of Bellos, although among translation folks, he’s pretty much the bomb). This reminds me of the Radiohead “pay what you will” experiment for In Rainbows. Supposedly, this was very successful in terms of awareness and earnings, but that’s probably due not so much because of the new model, but because it was fricking Radiohead.
Still, it’s interesting to see these books promoted and hyped, and if it paves the way for readers to take a chance on other works of international literature, then good.
McCrum’s article then goes off into discussing the prevalence of English throughout the world, Google Translate, and other interesting language-related observations. Definitely worth checking out . . . And here’s to hoping that next December he’ll be writing a piece entitled: “2012: The Year of Small Presses Named Open Letter.”
Not sure if the infamous French author is still missing or not, but his last novel, The Map and the Territory, just came out in the UK (it’s due out here in January) and the Guardian has a really enthusiastic write-up:
Michel Houellebecq’s new novel The Map and the Territory opens with an artist at work on a painting called Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst Dividing Up the Art Market. It is a realistic portrait of the two famous artists in conversation, based on their photographs in the media, and although the novel’s fictional artist character Jed Martin can capture Hirst quite easily with his brutish British arrogance, he can’t really get a visual grasp of Koons. In his despair at being unable to portray this “Mormon pornographer”, he destroys the canvas.
The painting’s analysis of the art market is pursued later in the book, however. When Martin himself becomes rich, his dealer points out that now he would be in a position to exhibit that work – before, it might have seemed like sour grapes. The painting was meant to record the moment when Hirst replaced Koons as the number one selling contemporary artist in the world. This marked the triumph – according to Houellebecq’s novel – of death and morbid fear over pornography and pleasure.
Those who come to Houellebecq’s novel for a satire on the contemporary art world will find more than they bargained for. This is the brilliant and controversial French writer’s most intellectually ambitious book. The way it portrays the contemporary art world is both deadpan and subtle. On one level, Houellebecq makes it plain he is not claiming anything like an accurate reportage of the art scene: the career of Jed Martin is shaped by the patronage of Michelin, a gloriously surreal idea that does not really bear any resemblance to the art world – the target here is, rather, France and Frenchness.
Can’t wait . . . Maybe Knopf will actually send us a galley of this one. (Still waiting for 1Q84 . . . )
Kind of in conjunction with the release of Daniel Stein, Interpreter, the Guardian has a longish piece on Ulitskaya that focuses on her more dissident side, especially in relation to Mikhail Khodorkovsky: Articles, Dialogues, Interviews, a collection of her letters with jailed billionaire Khodorkovsky:
[Ulitskaya] was the first woman to win the Russian equivalent of the Booker prize and, more recently, has attracted both controversy and acclaim for publishing her correspondence with the jailed billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky. This week, she will be talking at the Foreign Policy Centre in London about personal and political freedom in Russia, examining what it is to be an artist in a state run by Vladimir Putin, a man not known for his tolerance of free speech or respect for human rights.
“I’m not afraid,” Ulitskaya insists, speaking through a translator. “Compared to the Stalinist era, our government now is a pussycat with soft paws … Having said that, I believe that Khodorkovsky is in jail because the whole society was so scared that no one stood up for his defence. There were threats: the court was afraid, the witnesses, the judge, because no one had the courage to speak up and that saddens me. That loss of dignity frustrates me because our society had only just started overcoming its fear after so many years of oppressive rule. The Russian people have once again started to be gripped by fear.”
Khodorkovsky, the former head of oil giant Yukos and once Russia’s richest man, was jailed for eight years in 2005 along with his business partner after being found guilty of embezzling more than £16.3bn worth of oil from his own company and laundering the proceeds. Khodorkovsky’s lawyers maintain that the charges are absurd and based on a failure to understand normal business practices. Their client, they argue, is a political prisoner and a symbol of a corrupt Russian judicial system – a view supported by Ulitskaya. “I’m absolutely convinced that all of the allegations were absurd,” she says. “It started from tax evasion, then got blown out of proportion. The next allegation was theft, which is completely absurd because you can’t steal from yourself.” [. . .]
Ulitskaya began writing to the imprisoned oligarch in 2008, addressing her letters to him in the Soviet-era labour camp in eastern Siberia where he was incarcerated. The correspondence lasted for a little under a year and their letters covered everything from personal backgrounds to political motivations. At first, Ulitskaya did not expect to find they had much in common. The child of two scientists, she had grown up in Moscow with an innate mistrust for authority after both her grandfathers were imprisoned by Stalin’s regime. By contrast, Khodorkovsky’s parents worked in a Soviet-era factory and, as a boy, he was a faithful member of the Komsomol, the youth wing of the Communist party. As an adult, he rose to become one of Boris Yeltsin’s most trusted advisers. But gradually, she learned to respect him.
“I was travelling round Russia a lot and I would constantly come across different traces of his charitable work,” Ulitskaya says. “He spent a lot of money on education, setting up children’s homes, giving schools the latest computer equipment. My support for Khodorkovsky primarily lies in how much money he spent on charitable enterprises.
“In Russia, there is a drastic gap between rich and poor, to the extent that I feel the country is on the brink of civil war. The salary of a civil servant can be hundreds of thousands less than that of a businessman. It causes huge irritation, especially when people show off their wealth, with all their furs and bling. I hope that the next generation will be educated more to spend their money wisely and charitably. And, for me, the first person to realise he should act like this was Khodorkovsky.”
In prison, she says, the businessman “has undergone enormous growth as a person and I really admire the way he has conducted himself during the last few years, despite the torment he and his family have been through. He is an outstanding individual.” [. . .]
Given her outspoken nature, Ulitskaya could be forgiven for feeling uneasy in her homeland or fearing for her family – she lives in Moscow with her husband, an artist, and has two grown-up sons. But she insists she feels “completely free” and dismisses Putin as “a joke”. [. . .]
“My perception of Putin as an individual is that he is quite juvenile, not very mature, and all the pictures we have of him from state television are of Putin climbing Everest or fighting a tiger or extinguishing a fire. It’s just a kind of joke, these macho games.
“But if I want to judge Vladimir Putin as a politician, these are my criticisms: our country is in an atrocious condition. Schools and hospitals are underfunded, our pensioners are on the brink of poverty and the condition of our army is shocking. Our soldiers are underfed and live in unsanitary conditions.”
Click here to read the complete interview.
Following up on last week’s post about the Guardian‘s New Europe Series, this morning they ran the pieces about Poland, including What They’re Reading in Poland, which focuses on an Open Letter author:
However, the literary mainstream is made up of authors who follow Witold Gombrowicz, who teaches distance from those models of Polish identity. Janusz Rudnicki, Marcin Swietlicki, Michał Witkowski and Jerzy Pilch are writers who find their own ironic ways of dealing with our literary tradition. The most important writer of this group is Pilch – not only because of his novels, but also because of his position as the country’s leading columnist. In view of the vanishing significance of literary criticism, which is now found only in niche magazines, and – I must admit with a heavy heart – the claustrophobia that affects newspapers’ cultural pages, Pilch is considered an authority on literature.
Dorota Masłowska owes him a lot. Her White and Red was the most important debut to appear in the first 20 years after independence. It is seemingly a realist novel about the dregs of society, but in fact the broken language of its heroes, full of references to pop culture and different subcultures, perfectly reflects the chaotic consciousness of all Poles living through those days of political and social transformation. Her second novel, The Queen’s Peacock, won the Nike, Poland’s most important literary award. It’s worth stressing here that awards are another substitute for literary criticism, though this is by no means an exclusively Polish phenomenon. The list of Nike laureates gives quite a reliable insight into the most important trends and names in Polish literature. Take poetry, which competes on equal terms with novels and essays for the title of the best book of the year. It is significant that the last two Nobel prizes for literature won by Poles went to poets: Czesław Miłosz (1981) and Wisława Szymborska (1996).
There’s also a nice bit in here about Reportage:
This genre-busting nature of Polish reportage is also the source of many misunderstandings. When a biography of Poland’s most eminent reporter (and the best-known Polish writer worldwide), Ryszard Kapuscinski, came out last year (Kapuscinski Non-fiction by Artur Domosławski), it provoked many arguments, including about the reporter’s competence. To what degree should a reporter be just a witness, and to what degree an author who includes his or her own outlook, interpretations and literary style? Where does journalism (non-fiction) end, and literary fiction begin? This dispute remains unsettled, just like many other arguments provoked by Domosławski’s book, such as the controversy over the attitudes that journalists and writers adopted during the communist years, or the extent to which a biographer can explore the personal life of his or her subject.
Regardless of the gravity of the charges against the so-called Polish School of Reportage, of which Kapuscinski was the most prominent representative, it is in good condition. Though it is ever rarer in the Polish press, it transfers relatively well to books. Successors of Kapuscinski – Mariusz Szczygieł, Jacek Hugo-Bader, Wojciech Tochman – appear near the top of the bestseller lists, and their works have been translated into all of the major European languages. So reportage is still a Polish speciality, although reporters tend now to wander the world and through history in their search for interesting subjects. Szczygieł devoted his book Gottland (winner of the 2009 European Book prize) to the conflicting attitudes that Czechs adopt towards communism; Hugo-Bader has travelled through a drink-sodden post-Soviet Russia (White Heat); while Tochman has analysed the consequences of the genocide in Rwanda (We Will Portray Death Today). Young writers are following their lead: in Murderer from the Apricot City, Witold Szabłowski reports on the cultural clashes and conflicts that divide contemporary Turkey as it attempts to join the European Union.
It’s interesting and encouraging that a decent number of Polish books are being translated into English and published in the U.S. According to our Translation Database (update coming later this week—promise), 23 works of Polish fiction and poetry have come out here since January 2009. That’s not bad given Poland’s size. And this number doesn’t include all the works of reportage that have come out over that period. (Such as Tochman’s Like Eating a Stone: Surviving the Past in Bosnia.)
Of course, I think Pilch is one of the best. (BTW, we just received the translation of My First Suicide & Other Stories, due out in 2012.) Additionally, I’d personally recommend Olga Tokarczuk’s Primeval and Other Times and Wiesław Myśliwski’s Stone Upon Stone, both of which are brilliant and sweepingly ambitious in their own way.
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.)
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:
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 . . .
Maya Jaggi from The Guardian has a really interesting long piece on Gunter Grass’s The Box, which comes out next week (both in the UK and U.S.). (And which sounds fantastic . . . Hopefully HMH will send a copy to us for review . . .):
The second volume of his fictive autobiography, The Box, is published by Harvill Secker next week, in an English translation by Krishna Winston. It forms part of a trilogy that took him seven years. Its third part, Grimms’ Words, which combines memoir with the story of the Grimms’ dictionary, came out in Germany in August.
While Peeling the Onion covered his youth – up to publication of The Tin Drum, aged 23 – The Box, he says, is the “familial part: how my children experienced this father, whose head was always floating in his fiction.”
Each volume has an “autobiographical bent” but a “fictional form”. He changed the names of the children he has with “four strong women” – four from his first marriage, two daughters with two women he lived with between his marriages, and two stepsons with Ute – and now has 17 grandchildren. “I’ve always been surrounded by children – never bothered by their noise.” Women, he chuckles, may have been more disturbing to his work, yet for 30 years he has lived with “an independent woman who accepts this form of loneliness I need, and who would actually mind if I stopped writing.”
The “box” is an Agfa camera with magical properties, which survived wartime firestorms to capture not only memories but things to come. Like the diminutive Oskar’s tin drum, it is a metaphor for his art. Grass sees it as a “fairytale to explain to children how fiction works in my mind. Our minds aren’t bound by a chronological corset. When thinking and dreaming, past, present and future are mixed up. That’s also possible for a writer.” His children witness how, later in life, he had to work through the stuff he’d experienced when he was “a boy in shorts”. Grass feels a renewed urgency to sift the rubble of what happened, “slowly, deliberately and in broad daylight”, as the generations who lived it dwindle. “It’s an endless story,” he says. “The inordinate crime of the ‘final solution’ still can’t be explained.”
Although it hasn’t been covered in the U.S. papers (at least to the best of my knowledge), Argentine author Rodolfo Fogwill passed away at the end of last month. He published a ton of stuff in Argentina—around 20 books—but only one—Malvinas Requiem—has been published in English translation. Typical situation, but this really blows. Malvinas Requiem is a really incredible book . . . Didn’t get much play here in the States (again, typical; again, really blows), but you can read my review of it here.
Anyway, the Guardian has a great piece on Fogwill written by Nick Caistor, who, along with Amanda Hopkinson, translated Los Pichiciegos into English. Whole obituary is worth checking out, but here are a few awesome highlights. (Which will likely make at least some of you want to read more about Fogwill):
Loud-mouthed, provocative, often downright rude, the writer Rodolfo Fogwill was a legendary figure in recent Argentinian literature. Fogwill, who has died aged 69, from pulmonary emphysema, probably exacerbated by his inveterate chain-smoking, quarrelled with everybody, was intolerant of any writing or behaviour that in his view smacked of political correctness or pretension, and yet wrote some of the most resonant short stories and novels in Argentina of the past 30 years.
The story surrounding the way he wrote one of his most important novels, Los Pichiciegos (1983), is typical. The book was a protest at the horror of the war fought between Britain and Argentina over the Malvinas/Falkland islands in the South Atlantic, and at the stupidity of war in general. Fogwill claimed to have written the book in six days during June 1982, while the war was still going on, keeping himself going with vast amounts of cocaine and whisky. [. . .]
Born in Bernal, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, Fogwill tried to convince me his surname was English, claiming he had ancestors in Fox Hill, in Sussex. An only child, he studied medicine and sociology at the University of Buenos Aires. He began teaching there, but fell foul of the military regime that took power in 1966. “I was sacked for being a communist, the worst insult imaginable for the Trotskyist I was at the time.”
This reversal took him into the world of advertising, where, he claimed, he made and lost several fortunes. His work again caused him problems during the military dictatorship at the end of the 1970s, when the authorities accused him of sending a subliminal message to a banned leftwing group in a TV commercial he had produced. The authorities closed his bank accounts and arrested him for “economic subversion”. Thrown into jail, he could not pay his debts, and so eventually was tried for fraud.
Which led him to become a writer! And a brilliant one at that.
His pronouncements on literature were always trenchant: “To write seems to me easier than trying to avoid the feeling of meaninglessness that not writing brings”; or “Literature doesn’t tell stories, but ways to tell stories”.
I can’t figure out why Malvinas Requiem isn’t listed on the Serpent’s Tail site . . . I think it’s still in print (came out like two years ago, so one would hope), and it’s definitely worth checking out.
Robert McCrum—one of my favorite UK book critics, due in part to his interest in all things international—has a really interesting looking book coming out this May. Entitled Globish, it will be available in the UK from Penguin, and from W.W. Norton in the U.S. (although god help me to find this on the Norton website), and focuses on “How the English Language Became the World’s Language.”
When it comes to all things literary, this sort of idea—that English takes over, almost like a virus—creeps me out. But McCrum has a very interesting post at The Guardian about his book and its core ideas:
What is Globish? For me, it’s not just linguistic, and it all began in 2005. In September that year, Jyllands Posten (the Jutland Post), a culturally influential Danish newspaper, published a sequence of satirical cartoons poking fun at the prophet Muhammad, which provoked riots in which 139 people died. Possibly the most bizarre response to the affair, which surfaced again in January 2010 with an assault on the home of the artist, Kurt Westergaard, was a protest by Muslim fundamentalists outside the Danish embassy in London. Chanting in English, the protesters carried placards with slogans such as “Vikings Beware!”, “Butcher Those Who Mock Islam”, “Freedom of Expression Go to Hell” and (my favourite) “Down with Free Speech”.
This collision of the Koran with Monty Python, or perhaps of the OED with the Islamic Jihad, was the moment at which I began to reflect on the dramatic shift in global self-expression (I didn’t have a word for it then) that was now asserting itself in this crisis, through a world united by the internet. What more surreal – and telling – commentary on the anglicisation of the modern world could there be than a demonstration by devout Muslims, in London, exploiting an old English freedom, and expressing it in the English language, to demand the curbing of the libertarian tradition that actually legitimised their protest?
Then, in 2007, still puzzling over the phenomenon of British and American English as an evolving lingua franca, I came across an article in the International Herald Tribune about French-speaking retired IBM executive Jean-Paul Nerriere, who not only described English and its international deployment as “the worldwide dialect of the third millennium” but also gave it a name.
In a posting in Japan in the 1990s, Nerriere made an important observation. He noticed that, in meetings, non-native English speakers were communicating far more successfully with their Korean and Japanese clients than British or US executives, for whom English was the mother tongue. Standard English was all very well for Anglophone societies, but out there in the wider world, a non-native “decaffeinated English”, declared Nerriere, was becoming the new global phenomenon. In a moment of inspiration, he christened it “Globish”. [. . .]
So here’s the sales pitch. Globish is not about the making of a 1500-word vocabulary, but about the way in which Indians, Chinese and many Africans are now turning to English as a liberating and modernising phenomenon (last year, the government of francophone Rwanda not only applied to join the British Commonwealth but also declared English to be the official language of the country).
At the same time, as well as exploring a decisive new chapter in international communications, Globish begins to identify the viral nature of this lingua franca, the qualities of the English language and its culture that make it so contagious, adaptable, populist and even subversive. It describes a process that echoes contemporary experience: a socio-cultural dynamic that is bottom-up, not top-down. That’s the guiding intuition of Globish, and I’m hoping that my account of it in 2010 will strike a chord with you.
It’s true that in my travels I benefit from the so-called “rise of Globish,” since I can now communicate—in rudimentary terms at times, but still—with people wherever I go. At the same time, I have some old-school fears about how this could influence the way we think: about each other, about language, about art. Very interested to see what McCrum has to say about all this. . . .
In addition to Selcuk Altan’s Turkish lit list, The Guardian also posted a top ten list of books about the Berlin Wall.
Suzanne Munshower’s list—which is presented in a narrative format with interesting details about each of the books—actually overlaps a bit with The Wall in My Head the book about the Berlin Wall that we’re bringing out on November 9th. Specifically, she mentions both Peter Schneider and Wladimir Kaminer, who both have pieces in WIMH:
Some stayed, some left, some died trying. And Peter Schneider’s The Wall Jumper tells their stories in what might be the best Wall fiction ever written. Living in the west of this metropolis, the narrator confesses, “I could orient myself better in New York than in the half-city just a little over three miles from my apartment.” Written in 1982, with the end nowhere in sight, this is a riveting portrait of a city and a people trapped by mental as well as physical walls. [. . .]
Finally, there are two post-Wall books that shouldn’t be missed: The File by Guardian columnist Timothy Garton Ash and Russian Disco by Wladimir Kaminer.
When Garton Ash returned to Berlin 15 years after living there and requested his Stasi binder, it was passed to him with the words: “You have a very interesting file.” Thereby hangs a tale, and we join him in disinterring the entries, skipping between his former life as a research student and later confrontations with the friends and colleagues who had once informed on him.
Shortly before Garton Ash revisited Berlin, Kaminer arrived, emigrating from Russia to later become Berlin’s most famous DJ and then a best-selling author. His gently sardonic Russian Disco is a collection of wry sketches best summed up by its subtitle, Tales of Everyday Madness on the Streets of Berlin. This East Berlin is closest to the trendy but still edgy east side of the city as it exists today.
If you’d like to see the entire text of Wall in My Head, just click here.-
The final installment in The Guardian‘s_ Stories from a New Europe series is This Part of Town Is No Place for Old-Timers by Czech author Jachym Topol. David Short translated this piece about a Czech writer remembering life before 1989, his father’s failure as a writer and dissident, and how the post-wall society is filled with crappy chain restaurants and other ways to lure in tourists:
Now don’t start drowning in nostalgia, I tell myself. It must be better here now than it was back then. In those days, the barracks across the street with the red star on the front was where Soviet soldiers used to take their meals. The Soviets with their tanks and rockets held their Czech gubernium on a tight rein, and with it one-sixth of the world, and that was horrendous; while this globalised tat – well, it’s Freedom. The God-awful tackiness of city centres is evidence of the freedom to travel, I reassure myself. It’s the same here as in Florence, Kyoto or Lisbon. People want to be alike, since difference breeds only misunderstanding and violence. And it’s hardly overstating it to say that that year, 1989, when Eastern Europe rose in revolt, we shot straight out of Orwell into Huxley. But which is better?
In the end, this was definitely my favorite of the six stories in the series. And unlike some of the other writers featured by The Guardian, if you’re interested in reading more Topol, his novel City Sister Silver is available from Catbird Press, and Gargling with Tar is currently being translated by David Short.
Probably more than any of the five pieces, this story would fit perfectly in The Wall in My Head an anthology of stories, essays, and images that we’re publishing on November 9th, to mark the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Words Without Borders (specifically Rohan Kamicheril and Sal Robinson) put together this fantastic collection, which includes pieces by Peter Schneider, Ryszard Kapuściński, Vladimir Sorokin and Victor Pelevin and new work from Péter Esterházy, Andrzej Stasiuk, Muharem Bazdulj, Maxim Trudolubov, Dorota Masłowska, Uwe Tellkamp, Dan Sociu, David Zábranský, Christhard Läpple, and a host of others.
You can preorder the title directly from us by clicking the link above, or you can order it from The Booksmith, our store of the month, by clicking here. Or, for the biggest savings, you could just take out an Open Letter subscription and receive the next six OL books for $65. (Or the next 12 for $120—just click the image below for more details.)
Today’s installment in “The Guardian‘s” week of Eastern European stories is Mustafa by Nikolai Grozni. By far the funniest piece of the week, “Mustafa” centers around a funereal gone awry:
In any event, questioning the authenticity of my grandmother’s body at her funeral was not the proper thing to do. Then again, I had been away from Eastern Europe for ten years. I had a good excuse to act inappropriately. So, I walked over to the two gypsies and asked them where they’d found the body. I thought it a perfect question: I didn’t challenge their right to choose which body we should bury at my grandmother’s funeral, and I certainly didn’t threaten to disrupt the funeral ceremony, already in progress. Just a casual question, an offhand remark, as it were. Nothing serious. Where did you guys find this body?
“You don’t think that’s her nose?” countered the younger one. “Mustafa, you tell him.”
“My friend,” said Mustafa, blinking very slowly, “this is definitely your grandmother’s nose. I’ve been around. I know what a nose looks like.”
“But you don’t even know my grandmother,” I objected, trying not to raise my voice.
“You should listen to what this man says,” the younger gypsy advised me. “He’s been in the piano delivery business for thirty years. He can tell a Zimerman from a Bosendorf from a hundred meters with his eyes closed, and with the wind blowing in the opposite direction.”
“I think I know this guy,” said Mustafa, pointing at me. “Didn’t we deliver a Petroff to your house fifteen years ago? A good lower register, somewhat tinny as the notes get higher?”
“Probably you did,” I conceded. “You must have.”
“What do you know,” said Mustafa, raising his hands toward the sky. “Now I come to deliver your grandmother.”
The latest entry in The Guardian‘s series of short stories about the transformations of Eastern Europe post-1989 is Stelian Tanase’s Zgaiba, translated from the Romanian by Jean Harris. (Who runs the Observer Translation Project, which is the best source online for information about Romanian literature.)
So far, this is probably my favorite story in The Guardian series. Like the Clemens Meyer piece, it focuses on a dog:
Zgaiba died Wednesday at 17:26 – his head smashed in. A car travelling at a high speed killed him in the middle of the street. The sound of the blow kept ringing in Vivi’s brain. The driver never stopped. He must have heard a thud under the body of the car, there under the right front wheel. He floored the accelerator, and remoteness swallowed him. Vivi lost track of the car at the end of the street. Tsak tsak tsak: He went on shooting the images reflexively. That was the thing. Horrified. Zgaiba. Images on the sidewalk. The dog didn’t drop right away. He was hurled a metre along the curb. He didn’t bark. He didn’t yelp. He didn’t let out a sound. Time stood still. It took Vivi a moment to come back to his senses. Zgaiba: images on the pavement – his eyes fogged over; his big eyes, stunned. In a state of shock. His tail lowered, his ears pricked. Vivi went on looking at the dog’s coffee-coloured spine there among the iron spears of the fence. Tsak, tsak, tsak. Zgaiba had started heading back to the gate that had let him out earlier. He had crossed the street. He had nearly slipped into the courtyard. He gazed into the familiar place without understanding what hit him. From dying to collapse, the whole scene lasted an instant. Right before Vivi’s eyes.
Vivi had been taking a cigarette break. Between smokes, he went on snapping pictures of Zgaiba, who he’d spotted down in the street. His favourite character. He had hundreds of clichéd snaps of the dog. Vivi himself was up in the attic at the time. He was looking at the cold weather, the cornices across the street. He’d been developing yesterday’s pix for an hour. Failures, without éclat, flops, dumb mistakes: he had spoiled ten rolls of film. Irritated, tired, Vivi had picked up the camera and started taking pictures of Zgaiba bumming around the area – it relaxed him, tsak, tsak, tsak – when the car had appeared. A shiny black body. With headlights on. Evening hadn’t fallen yet. There was a dirty ashen light. Overcast sky. It’ll snow, Vivi had told himself earlier, with his elbows on the sill. The blow to the brain flashed into being – unforeseeably – after that.
Stelian Tanase’s Auntie Varvara’s Clients came out from Spuyten Duyvil press a few years back, which sounds interesting, but is retailing on Amazon for $40? Bit cheaper to check out this special issue of the Observer Translation Project that is dedicated to Tanase and contains an except from the novel Dark Bodies.
Today’s installment in The Guardian‘s series of short stories from Eastern Europe is ‘Something Is Burning Outside’ by Laszlo Krasznahorkai.
Krasznahorkai, whose Melancholy of Resistance and War & War are both amazing and both in print from New Directions (with Satan Tango forthcoming . . . sometime), is one of Hungary’s most important, and stylistically interesting, contemporary writers.
This story—which is set at an artists’ retreat—is different in tone than the two translated novels, but is compelling in the way that all of Krasznahorkai’s fiction is compelling. And Ottilie Mulzet’s translation reads well. Here’s the opening:
Saint Anna Lake is a dead lake formed inside a crater, lying at an elevation of around 950 metres, and of a nearly astonishingly regular circular form. It is filled with rainwater: the only fish to live in it is the catfish. The bears, if they come to drink, use different paths from the humans when they saunter down from the pine-clad forests. There is a section on the further side, less frequently visited, which consists of a flat, swampy marshland: today, a path of wooden planks meanders across the marsh. It is called the Moss Lake. As for the water, rumour has it that it never freezes over; in the middle, it is always warm. The crater has been dead for millennia, as have the waters of the lake. For the most part, a great silence weighs upon the land.
It is ideal, as one of the organizers remarked to the first-day arrivals as he showed them around – ideal for reflection, as well as for refreshing strolls, which no one forgot, taking good advantage of the proximity of the camp to the highest mountain, known as the Thousand-Metre Peak; thus in both directions – up to the top of the peak, down from the peak! – the foot traffic was fairly dense: dense, but in no way did that signify that even more feverish efforts were not taking place simultaneously in the camp below; time, as was its wont, wore on, and ever more feverishly, as the creative ideas, originally conceived for this site, took shape and in imagination reached their final form; everyone by then having already settled into their allotted space, subsequently furnished and fixed up by their own hands, most obtaining a private room in the main building, but there were also those who withdrew into a log hut, or a shed long since fallen into disuse; three moved up into the enormous attic of the house that served as the camp’s focal point, each one partitioning off separate spaces for themselves – and this, by the way, was the one great necessity for all: to be alone while working; everyone demanded tranquillity, undisturbed and untroubled, and that was how they set to their work, and that was just how the days passed, largely in work, with a smaller share allotted to walks, a pleasant dip in the lake, the meals and the evening sound of singing around the campfire, accompanied by home-made fruit brandy.
Olszewski is a young (b. 1977) Polish writer who works in Krakow for the daily paper, Gazeta Wyborcza. The story—which is wonderfully translated by recent “Found in Translation” award winner Antonia Lloyd-Jones—is about a young man shoplifting in a German supermarket. More contained and stylistically straight that the Clemens Meyer story from yesterday, this story also has a bit of a twist at the end. . .
There are a number of nice things about this Guardian series, but on a very basic level, it’s cool to see a daily newspaper publishing international fiction. I wonder when that last happened in the States . . .
To mark the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, all this week The Guardian will be running original short stories from a host of Eastern European writers. Up first is East German writer Clemens Meyer with Of Dogs and Horses, a short story from Die Nacht, Die Lichter (published by S. Fisher in German, but is still awaiting an English publisher).
The story itself is well done—especially the dark twist at the end . . . And Katy Derbyshire (of Love German Books) did an excellent job translating this.
Back during this year’s PEN World Voice Festival, I was a last minute moderator substitute for Zaia Alexander and interviewed Clemens Meyer. As part of the discussion, we each read a bit from this particular story. He read the opening in German, and then I read the ending in English—even the racetrack bits in my best horse announcer voices . . . Anyone who was there knows how dismal that was. Clemens, on the other hand, was bad-ass—possibly from his years of attending the races. In fact, he bought the very cool glasses he was wearing after a good day at the track . . .
Richard Lea sent me the complete list of authors/stories that will appear this week, and it’s pretty impressive. I’ll post about each one as it goes live, and although these two things aren’t exactly related, this Guardian project is a great complement to The Wall in My Head, the Words Without Borders anthology of fiction, essays, and images we’re publishing on November 9th to mark the same anniversary. More on that next week . . .
Richard Lea has a great audio interview with Alain Mabanckou about Broken Glass, his second novel to be published in English. (Although apparently only in the UK for now. Soft Skull did African Psycho a couple years ago, but I haven’t seen a listing for the new book yet.)
The Guardian also posted a positive review of Broken Glass some time back:
Mabanckou knows his French literature (he teaches that subject at UCLA). Broken Glass is a whistlestop tour of French literature and civilisation, and if you don’t know your Marivaux, your Chateaubriand, your ENAs and Weston shoes you’ll miss a lot of the gags (“a quarrel of Brest”, anyone?) – but don’t worry, there are still plenty left.
It’s not just French writers who make an appearance. That arch navel-gazer Holden Caulfield (or someone claiming to be him) has a walk-on part, and Broken Glass ends “we’ll meet again, in the other world, Holden, we’ll have a drink together . . . I’ll tell you what they do with the poor little ducks in cold countries during winter time.”
Although its cultural and intertextual musings could fuel innumerable doctorates, the real meat of Broken Glass is its comic brio, and Mabanckou’s jokes work the whole spectrum of humour.
In the Guardian, Hirsh Sawhney has a piece about how independent publishers of the world are going to save literature:
Could literary culture really be breathing its last? Should readers and writers be running for cover? Of course not. But what, then, will save literature from economic disaster? Simple: independent publishing. Yes, independents – the ones who struggle to sell enough books to make payroll – will ensure that engaging, challenging books continue to be produced and consumed. It’s they who’ll safeguard literature through the dark economic days ahead. [. . .]
In an ironic twist of our times, however, these perpetually struggling entrepreneurs might just be able to weather the current financial crisis better than their behemoth corporate cousins. Why? They’re used to constantly innovating to generate revenue and to conducting the business of literature on a tight budget. They don’t expect unreasonable profit margins from good books. And when you’re independently owned, you’re somewhat insulated from the machinations of the market.
All this is true, and beyond weathering the current economic storm, independents play a vital role in book culture, publishing those titles that might not be profitable enough for a big house to do, but that are important nonetheless. And thanks to the nature of the beast, historically, it’s been a lot of indie presses that publish the more subversive, challenging books that shake up how we think about art, politics, life. Books that would appeal to college students who are out looking for something that’s not necessarily sanctioned by their professors or parents . . . Isn’t that what college is all about?
Well, apparently the days of college students reading cult novels that are flying under the collective media radar are long gone. From the “Washington Post“:
Forty years later, on today’s college campuses, you’re more likely to hear a werewolf howl than Allen Ginsberg, and Nin’s transgressive sexuality has been replaced by the fervent chastity of Bella Swan, the teenage heroine of Stephenie Meyer’s modern gothic “Twilight” series. It’s as though somebody stole Abbie Hoffman’s book — and a whole generation of radical lit along with it.
Last year Meyer sold more books than any other author — 22 million — and those copies weren’t all bought by middle-schoolers. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the best-selling titles on college campuses are mostly about hunky vampires or Barack Obama. Recently, Meyer and the president held six of the 10 top spots. In January, the most subversive book on the college bestseller list was “Our Dumb World,” a collection of gags from the Onion. The top title that month was “The Tales of Beedle the Bard” by J.K. Rowling. College kids’ favorite nonfiction book was Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers,” about what makes successful individuals. And the only title that stakes a claim as a real novel for adults was Khaled Hosseini’s “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” the choice of a million splendid book clubs.
Maybe I’m getting old, but I have to admit that I find this pretty disturbing. And some of the explanations for these reading habits are equally cringe-worthy:
Professor Eric Williamson — a card-carrying liberal in full tweed glory — argues that “the entire culture has become narcotized.” An English teacher at the University of Texas-Pan American, he places the blame for students’ dim reading squarely on the unfettered expansion of capitalism. “I have stood before classes,” he tells me, “and seen the students snicker when I said that Melville died poor because he couldn’t sell books. ‘Then why are we reading him if he wasn’t popular?’ “ Today’s graduate students were born when Ronald Reagan was elected, and their literary values, he claims, reflect our market economy. “There is nary a student in the classroom — and this goes for English majors, too — who wouldn’t pronounce Stephen King a better author than Donald Barthelme or William Vollmann. The students do not have any shame about reading inferior texts.”
How wonderful. I’m done for today . . .
We just got Ohl’s Mr Dick or The Tenth Book in for review, and after reading this piece in The Guardian I’m pretty sure we’ll be covering it in the near future.
Monsieur Dick, Ohl’s first novel, came out in France four years ago and has won three literary prizes. The English translation has just been published by Dedalus as Mr Dick. “How do you think that title will be received in Britain?” the author asks me, understanding all too well the potential snigger factor. Mr Dick is a character from David Copperfield and Ohl’s book is in many ways a homage to Dickens. It is the story of two young Frenchmen whose lives are consumed by their obsession with Dickens’s life and books and in particular his final, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. It’s a playful and highly literary detective story, like a Gallic mélange of Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes and AS Byatt’s Possession. [. . .]
The one aspect of British life that Ohl doesn’t appreciate, however, is the current state of the nation’s bookshops. “Things are bad in France,” he admits. “It’s difficult for independent booksellers here. But in Britain, the situation is catastrophic.”
Before lunch, I visit the bookshop where Ohl works, Librairie Georges, in Talence, near Bordeaux. It is not, as I expected, an old-fashioned, cave-like place, with books stacked in high, random piles all over the floor; indeed, it looks superficially like many modern bookshops. It is large, well lit and has a cafe at the front. Dig a little deeper, though, and the differences are obvious.
For a start, Ohl, who runs the literature section, has a considerable influence over which books (and how many copies of each) his shop buys in and displays. He chooses them not on the basis of how much the publishers pay him for shelf space (as is the case with certain UK chains) but by actually reading them.
Throughout the shop, you can see books labelled with paper of three different colours: green for “recommended”, orange for “highly recommended” and purple for “coup de coeur” – the books that have most thrilled or moved or made the bookshop’s workers laugh. Ohl and his four assistants also give regular “literary breakfasts”, where readers come to drink coffee and eat croissants and listen while the booksellers tell them about the best books they have read in the past few months. The morning I was there, 30 people turned up – male and female, young and old – and listened for two hours, many asking questions and taking notes. Unfortunately, this is not the kind of thing you’re likely to see in Waterstone’s or Borders these days.
Or in many U.S. bookstores . . . A literary brunch at an indie store (or public library) where readers could get staff recommendations and talk about new books would be frickin’ fantastic . . .
In anticipation of announcing the fiction longlist for the “Best Translated Book of 2008” on Thursday, here are a couple other “year end” lists worth checking out.
I don’t remember The Guardian using this format for its year end lists in the past, but then again, I have a hard time remembering things from last week. Regardless, this format of having authors, politicians, etc., write a couple lines about their favorite book of the year works really well. This is the same format that TLS uses every year, although the complete list from The Guardian is available online, whereas TLS only has a sampling . . .
Nevertheless, there are some good entries, including two from William Boyd (one in each paper), and this one from Doris Lessing in the TLS:
Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night (Yale). As a boy Alberto Manguel used to read to blind Borges at a time when Buenos Aires was a nest of poets and storytellers and love of literature. He dreamt of becoming a librarian, and in his mind were the great exemplary libraries of Alexandria, Pergamon and Carnegie, whose librarians got so many letters of thanks from writers and scholars. There were long years before he achieved his own library. In the fifteenth century a barn, at other times a temple to Dionysus, a Christian Church. The library had different characters at night and in the day. In the dark were the glittering books. One book calls to another, unexpectedly creating alliances across different cultures and centuries. Manguel muses over the possibilities of classification using Chinese and Arabic thought, but for me the image that stayed is of a hand reaching out to a book but being deflected, attracted by remembering the weight and balance of it and perhaps, “If time flows endlessly, as the mysterious connection between my books suggests, repeating its themes and discoveries through the centuries, then every misdeed, even treason, every evil act will eventually find its true consequences. After the story has stopped just beyond the story of my library, Carthage will rise again from the strewn Roman salt. Don Juan will confront the anguish of Dona Elvira. Brutus will look again on Caesar’s ghost, and every torturer will have to beg his victims’ pardon in order to complete time’s inevitable circle”. This is a book full of pleasurable memories – full of happiness.
I always say that I’m going to check in regularly with the Guardian World Literature Tour, then completely fail. Hopefully this month things will be different as they “head off” to Portugal.
Early on, the authors recommended are pretty well known—Jose Saramago, Antonio Lobo Antunes, and Eca de Queiros—but hopefully some new names will emerge in the comments section. Based on the quality of these three authors, I’m sure that there are other great Portuguese writers out there . . .
From Charlotte Higgins’s piece in The Guardian about shopping in her local Borders:
Walk in and you are bombarded with the visual cacophony of three-for-two offers, TV chefs and Parky’s biography. Of course they have a wide selection of books, but the place is such a jungle – Aldi is surely more of a pleasure to visit, and I don’t say much there – that locating what you want is a nightmare, and as for an enjoyable browse, forget it.
I headed upstairs and tried to find the CDs. A staff member, appealed to, said, candidly, “Our music selection is terrible.” No go, then. I tried for the book, edging my way towards the relevant section, where the shelves were full of misshelved volumes and a mess. It wasn’t there. I talked to the staff member again (who gets full points for being pleasant). He found the book on the computer, where it registered as “in stock”, but he couldn’t locate it on the shelves. He told me that the system did not necessarily reflect reality. Bookplates – well, forget it. The assisant I spoke to didn’t know what the word meant.
She contrasts this with the store she used to shop at:
Then there was, close to work, another indy, called Metropolitan Books. Phil Griffiths, the fantastic owner, didn’t always have what I wanted, but he was a delight to chat to and knew precisely what he was talking about. Even if you had to wait a couple of days for an order to come in, you’d always leave Met Books feeling like your day had become rather better, not worse. Phil closed down earlier this year – a black day.
Which leaves me with no independent local book shops and wondering how capitalism has not winnowed out such obviously unsatisfactory stores as Waterstone’s and Borders.
Over at the Guardian John Freeman steps to the plate as the latest American critic to try and defend the international quality of our writers from accusations of “insularity.”
He looks to the quality of the fiction shortlist for the National Book Award, pointing out that this year’s list is littered with international interests and backgrounds. Such as Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project (misspelled earlier because of Frankfurt—it’s always Frankfurt), Rachel Kushner’s Telex from Cuba, and Salvatore Scibona’s Halldor Laxness-influenced novel The End.
All that’s fine, good, and true, but maybe John has it flipped. It’s not that the NBA shortlist is a snapshot of American literature as a whole, demonstrating the general international flavor of our authors, but that the best American works, the ones deserving of the NBA, are the ones written by authors steeped in other cultures, literatures, and backgrounds . . .
From The Guardian blog post by Michael Caine about the recent (or not so) surge in reprinting “lost classics”:
Take a closer look at this recent publishing wheeze, and it soon reduces to digging out the obscurer works of not-so-obscure writers. If you listen carefully you’ll notice something that sounds distinctly like the bottom of a barrel being scraped, but the key to it all is that a Name can be marketed. Take a look at some recent covers from Hesperus. Each one makes it tastefully but absolutely clear that their authors are familiar to you – Bronte, Dickens, Shelley – even though the titles are not. It’s only a short step in cover design to a volume with JONATHAN SWIFT emblazoned in gold across the front. TOM CLANCY, eat your heart out.
Little commercial courage is required to publish everything Jack Kerouac ever wrote as a “modern classic”, but it’s harder to give Jane Collier’s An Essay on the Art of Ingeniously Tormenting another chance. (For this point to stand up, you need to say “Jane who?” some time around now.) Without succumbing to obscurity for obscurity’s sake, I think the novels of Robert Bage should be out there, in WH Smith, discovering new readers. And so should the plays of Hannah Cowley. And the curious works of Brigid Brophy. But how would those names look embossed in gold?
All that said, I still think NYRB (and others) have done a fantastic job in uncovering more obscure writers in addition to the “names.” And it’s still great to have more obscure books by known authors available. W
Over at the Guardian books blog, Karla Starr has a piece about the cost of books in Argentina:
Then it occurred to me that it’s all down to purchasing power. Take Harry Potter – as plenty did both in Argentina and the UK. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows sells for 108 pesos, which corresponds to the £17.99 list price in the UK – though you can find it for a tenner online. But the average income in the UK is £30,000, while in Argentina it’s only the same number of pesos. So buying a copy of the latest Harry Potter costs an Argentine 3% of their yearly earnings. Over in the UK it’s the price of a few cups of coffee. [. . .]
I’ve seen photography books here for 900 pesos. Maybe £150 might seem a little steep for one book even in London, but think of the real cost to an Argentine. Can you imagine paying £900 for a book?
OK, so those are some damn expensive cups of coffee to add up to £17.99 (that’s a mere $35 in weakened U.S. money), but Karla is on to something that I encountered on my recent visit to Buenos Aries, although what I heard about was a bit more complicated and involved the meta-structure of how books flow between countries and cultures.
I’m still not sure I fully understand what happened to Argentina’s economy (the words “got seriously fucked over” come to mind), but when I was on my recent editor’s trip, we met a ton of presses that had started up in recent years, a few of which talked about how the devaluation in 2002 lowered the entrance bar to starting a publishing house. Regardless of the economic explanations, there are a number of cool small presses (like Entropia) that have popped up in Buenos Aires. And these books—to the best of my knowledge—are generally affordable.
On the other hand, books from Spain, from the U.S., from the UK are astronomically expensive in relation to one’s net income. As Karla mentions, the prices aren’t necessarily marked up, but they remain stable across cultures, whereas the net income of the average citizen is much lower. (Using her example, I remember seeing a Philip Roth book for sale for 45 peso, which is about $15, and seems reasonable until you realize that Argentine salaries are not three times the equivalent of their American equivalents.)
An added complication is the way in which Spanish rights are sold. Generally, when Seix-Barral, or Random House Mondadori, or another large Spanish-based publisher brings out a title they have “World Spanish rights.” There is no splitting of the Spanish-language rights—the Seix-Barral edition is the one that is imported and sold in Argentina. Because of this situation, the price isn’t readjusted for the Argentine economy, and these books are prohibitively expensive.
When Rodrigo Orihuela of the Buenos Aires Herald gave me a brief overview of this situation, the first thing that came to mind was the way in which ebooks could correct this situation. As Richard Nash recently told me, I’m “radically ambivalent” about the role of ebooks in the future of publishing, but in a specific case like Argentina, I see huge benefits of publishers making titles available at a fraction of the current cost for a print version (such as 15 pesos for the Roth book instead of 45), thus making their books more readily available to an incredibly literary and hungry market. Of course, the cost of the eReader (which may or may not be necessary) could restrict this market, but still, this seems like an opportunity for publishers to use technology to cultivate a larger readership. And although I’m not positive, I’ll bet that there are a number of other South American countries in a similar situation to Argentina whose reading public would greatly benefit from reasonably priced ebooks.
Michael Orthofer from Complete Review is responsible for getting me interested in Amelie Nothomb. He’s reviewed twelve of her books, grading all of them between a B and an A. (Most are in the A or A- range, with Loving Sabotage—published by New Directions—receiving an A+.)
Unfortunately, despite this praise, Nothomb has been overlooked in America, and in fact, her last few books have only been published in the UK and not in the U.S.
And to add to that—this interview, which is in one of the UK’s largest and most respected papers, doesn’t seem to be tied to a recently released or forthcoming title . . . I feel like I must be missing something: why would a newspaper interview a literary author (especially one from Belgium) without some pressing cause? Those Brits and their literary coverage . . .
The interview itself is pretty fascinating, starting with the autobiographical elements in her work (and the way this is limited):
Fear and Loathing, awarded the Académie Française prize in 1999 and skilfully filmed by Alain Corneau in 2003, tells the story of the year she spent working for a big Japanese corporation, following Amelie-san’s catastrophic encounters with the company’s hierarchy. The Character of Rain, first published in 2000, reimagines the author’s early years in Japan, charting her transformation from an unresponsive piece of living matter to the beloved focus of the household. Ni d’Eve ni d’Adam, which won the Prix de Flore at the end of last year, returns to the same period of her life as Fear and Loathing, but this time tells the story of her love affair with a young Japanese man. [. . .]
Nothomb’s autobiographical fiction is further constrained in time, dealing only with her life before the publication in 1992 of her sensational debut, Hygiene de l’Assassin (The Assassin’s Purity). Since then she has gone on to become a fixture of the French literary calendar, publishing one bestseller a year, as regular as clockwork. This formidable track record has gained her legions of adoring fans, and an army of envious detractors, but her success has yet to find its way into her fiction. Her literary digestion is very slow, she explains, and her life after the age of 25 “doesn’t inspire me”.
And if you think a “bestseller a year” is impressive, that’s nothing:
Sixteen published novels represent only a fraction of her prodigious output, however. Nothomb declares herself to be in the middle of her 64th manuscript, having reached a rhythm where she completes three or four manuscripts a year, publishing only those which she feels comfortable sharing with others.
She’s the Joyce Carol Oates of Belgium! (Although with fewer annual publications, of course.)
I also got a kick out of her refusal to read for The Guardian books podcast:
Confident, witty and courteous with a quick intelligence, a keen sense of humour, and the assurance brought by continued success, it is all the more puzzling that Nothomb should be unwilling to do a brief reading. She modestly suggests that she isn’t gifted as an actress, and cites the difference in literary cultures between England and France, where writers seldom perform their work in public. But the real reason for her refusal is a question of identity. Her literary voice is so vibrant, so baritonal that on first meeting, her light, airy speaking voice comes as something of a surprise. It’s a curious mismatch of which she is only too aware. If she was to read her own work, she says, she would betray it.
This interview has convinced me to go pick up some of her other works (and to have Open Letter check out a few of the untranslated ones) after 2666, Senselessness, etc., etc.
This morning, I received a couple interesting e-mails regarding the ACE funding cuts that we’ve been talking about for the past couple weeks. As most everyone has heard, a number of independent publishers—including Dedalus and Arcadia, two presses that do a lot of work in translations—have had the funding they receive from the Arts Council England either slashed or cut entirely.
Well, Centerprise Literature is another to add to the list. According to this message, all of their funding is being withdrawn as of April 1st.
A cut to funding could mean:
- the end to delivery of courses for writers at every level of their
development here at Centerprise;
After reading about all of these organizations losing funding, it would only be natural to assume that the ACE must’ve had it’s funding cut as well . . . Not so according to Joan Smith’s op-ed piece in The Guardian:
It takes a particular kind of ineptitude to announce a £50m increase in funding to the arts and set just about everyone in the arts world against you. This feat has been achieved by Arts Council England, which has been inundated with letters, petitions and threats of legal action from supporters of the small theatres, orchestras and independent publishers whose existence is now in doubt. [. . .]
It’s all in the name, apparently, of “the reclamation of excellence from its historic elitist undertones”.
That means trouble for such hopelessly elite venues as the Bush Theatre in west London, not to mention small publishers such as Dedalus and Arcadia, who stubbornly insist on exposing English-speaking readers to work by foreigners. [. . .]
Believe me, there is no other way for such writers to get published in this country. The dreadful state of mainstream publishing is an open secret; profit and celebrity are what drives the industry, and marketing departments don’t see either in a promising young Polish or Croatian novelist. Earlier this week, one of the country’s most distinguished publishers told me he had snapped up a Swedish crime novel, which has been a runaway best-seller in Scandinavia, after it was turned down by just about every mainstream house in London.
This kind of risk-taking is almost unknown in commercial publishing these days.
I have nothing to add. As I said before, I can’t imagine the pressure and difficulties of being on any Arts Council and making funding decisions about so many worthy organizations, but nevertheless, this kind of radical shake-up and fall-out seems pretty easy to avoid.
This past Sunday, the Guardian ran a very troubling article about a publishing crackdown in Iran:
After the 1979 Islamic revolution, the government imposed strict rules on book publishing. Since then, the Ministry of Culture has been charged to vet all books before publication, mainly for erotic and religious transgressions. All books, including fiction, are required to conform to Islamic law. [. . .]
A new regime of censorship began when Ahmadinejad took office. The cultural ministry imposed rules requiring renewed permits for previously published books. As a result, many books have been deemed unsuitable for publication or reprinting.
Some of these books include Dostoevsky’s The Gambler, William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and some books by Virginia Woolf and Marguerite Duras.
In addition, Mahmoud Dowlatabadi—whose Missing Soluch was reviewed here last week—is refusing to publish:
“They [the governmental authorities] have not only made the publishers stop working, but also have put writers in a situation in which they have no inclination to write,” says Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, author of the Persian 10-volume bestseller Kelydar, who refuses to give his next book to a publisher as a protest against the government’s clampdown.
The situation sounds pretty scary in fact, with authors being imprisoned, lengthy delays in getting books approved by the Ministry, etc. In a way, this article is everything one fears in terms of government intervention.
There is one glimmer of hope at the end for all technophiles:
Reza Ghassemi, an important Iranian novelist based in France, recently published his new novel, The Abracadabra Murmured by Lambs, on the internet in a free ebook PDF format instead of facing government censorship and the formal permission procedure. His enovel has been reviewed and welcomed by the huge Iranian blog community much more warmly than if it had been published on paper.
From The Guardian post about singer and songwriter Lily Allen being named a judge for the Orange Prize:
Well, fair enough. We will let this one pass. But only because Ms Allen has demonstrated that she has a way with words. Leaving that aside, we note that this is part of an inexorable trend: that in order for any literary event to be validated, a celebrity has to be involved. And the further away from the literary world, the better.
The nadir of this trend came with the announcement of the panel for the 2001 Whitbread prize, which included: Matthew Pinsent, the Olympic gold-medalist oarsman; Penny Smith, a breakfast TV presenter; Clare Balding, a former jockey and presenter of the BBC’s racing coverage; and Alan Davies, the comedian.
We are now approaching the time when the only people allowed, or paid, to offer any supposedly meaningful aesthetic opinions on anything are those who have achieved fame in some other area. For otherwise how are the common folk to be enticed into the literary world?
Sounds like the section in Thank You for Not Reading when Dubravka Ugresic’s advises aspiring writers to first become star soccer players, then start writing books. The process of getting published is a lot easier that way, and you’ll sell far more copies . . .
In James Buchan’s review of Paul Celan’s Snow Part/Schneepart and Other Poems he asks just this:
Is there any purpose to translating poetry? A poem does not contain information of importance, like a signpost or a warning notice. If you do not understand what Sereni meant when he wrote “è la mia / sola musica e mi basta” or Propertius “sunt aliquid manes” or, come to that, Yeats “I must lie down where all the ladders start”, nothing so very dreadful will happen to you.
Which is bound to upset some people.
Well, today, Carol Rumens responds in her Guardian blog.
So why translate? My first answer is that poetry in translation simply adds to the sum total of human pleasure obtainable through a single language. It opens up new language worlds within our own tongues, as every good poem does. It revitalises our daily, cliche-haunted vocabulary. It disturbs our assumptions, jolts us with rhythms flatter or stronger than we’re used to. It extends us in the way real travelling does, giving us new sounds, sights and smells. Every unique poetry village sharpens us to life.
Fair enough. And I especially agree with this sentiment:
Some people would disagree, saying poetry in translation is the wrong side of the tapestry – it just can’t be done. But they are talking about replication, not translation. It is perfectly true that you will never get a replica of the original – nor would you wish to. The way it works, when translator and original are in tune, is that a third poem is created. It is the child of two parents and simply couldn’t exist without them.
This month (October I guess . . . seems like the Brits are jumping the gun a bit), the Guardian World Literature Tour will be talking about Spain.
So far, the recommendations are pretty straightforward—lot of love for Cela, Javier Marias, Juan Marse, Ramon Lllull, and Juan Goytisolo “if you like sheer weirdness.”
America has always had one of the lowest literacy rates in the western world. The former book review editor of the LA Times, Steve Wasserman put it bluntly. “Reading has always been a minority taste in America,” he said, “and that’s OK.” But I think what we’re seeing now is something new which has to do with how a culture operates when all values become subservient to that of making money – when reading is not supported either from on top and from below.
I like Freeman’s take—and the aggressive way he points out the flaws in the overall system.
At the same time, the industries which support reading have been ground up and fed through the increasing corporatisation of American life. Book publishers and newspapers have been bought up by giant conglomerates. Publishers, once mildly profitable, have been forced to keep up with blockbuster driven media; newspapers, once wildly profitable, have been used as cash cows. And now that the media companies are done with these newspapers, those same owners are cutting back on all forms of news, including book pages.
This is something I completely agree with. To go a bit further, the rush for sales, for money, for readers, is, in my opinion, resulting in the production of a lot of craptastic books. Books I’m happy no one is reading. Great literature is out there, but you have to wade through mountains of shit to find it, and if people who don’t read a lot get caught up in the shit, I can’t imagine why they’d want to continue spending their time reading. TV is way more entertaining. . .
OK, I’ll get off my soapbox and let Freeman point out some of the good things going on:
In fairness, some attempts are being made to counteract these trends. The National Endowment of the Arts has started up a program called The Big Read, which turns entire cities into book clubs. Online sites and journals like The Complete Review and the new and improved Bookforum have started up to counteract the loss of book coverage in the media. On television, shows like the Colbert Report and the Daily Show dedicate half of their entire program to conversation with an author. And Dave Eggers has turned his McSweeney’s journal into an empire of generosity, starting up drop-in tutoring centers like 826 NYC and 826 Seattle. Visit one of these and it’s hard to doubt the lure of reading and writing.
After a bit of chiding this morning, we’re back with the Guardian love.
A week of celebrations of the 60th anniversary of independence in both India and Pakistan has whetted our appetite, and we’ve seized the controls to head for a one-off two-country special edition.
As usual, we’d like recommendations for novels, plays, poetry and even non-fiction that enlightens or inspires. Perhaps we’ve all heard of Salman Rushdie, or Vikram Seth, but where’s the best place to start? Midnight’s Children? The Satanic Verses? A Suitable Boy? And where are the gems from authors who are less well-known, or whose work is not yet translated?
For the past few years I’ve been totally enamored with The Guardian, especially for its books coverage and blogs. Then today, Stuart Walton has to take everything down a notch with his odd public service announcement for writers everywhere.
Eloise Millar’s compendium of great literary cocktails raises the interesting question of whether intoxicants can ever be an aid to the writing process. Some may claim that the creative juices only start flowing after a certain critical level of saturation has been reached. Can this be so, or are we looking only at another of the ways we find to sublimate our requirement for altered states?
The answer after the jump.Read More...
Continuing its series of articles on Indian and Pakistani independence, The Guardian has a piece today by Kamila Shamsie on Pakistani literature, looking at the reasons why Indian lit took off, while Pakistani is yet to receive its due recognition.
There is no denying the significance of years of military rule and censorship – and vastly different population sizes – in the different trajectories of the Pakistani and Indian novel but, as with all things subcontinental, there is also a cricket metaphor lurking: ‘the fast bowler effect’ as Mohsin Hamid puts it. From the 1980s until now, India has produced a steady stream of deadly fast bowlers – not because of anything genetic or temperamental particular to it, but because great success leads to emulation, just as every cricket-playing boy grew up wanting to be Sarfaraz or Imran, Wasim or Waqar. The importance of pairs is key – a single bowler or writer is exceptional; double the number and people start spotting a trend of which they can be a part. While India’s writers were attracting the attention of readers and marketing departments, and being an Indian novelist became a viable way of earning a living, Pakistan continued to think gloomily that, in novels as in tourism, the world was far more interested in India. One Pakistani writer might slip through the cracks here and there, but received wisdom had it that our ‘Midnight’s Children moment’ would never come.
Thankfully, she does include a list of interesting authors/books to check out:
Uzma Aslam Khan’s Trespassing (shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ prize, Eurasia region); Nadeem Aslam’s Maps for Lost Lovers (shortlisted for the IMPAC award), Mohsin Hamid’s Mothsmoke (winner of a Betty Trask award). Last year, the inaugural list of Penguin’s new imprint Fig Tree included Moni Mohsin’s The End of Innocence – and already one of the most keenly anticipated literary debuts of 2008 is Mohommed Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes. The short story form is well served, meanwhile, by Aamer Hussain, whose fifth collection Insomnia was published earlier this year, and Imad Rehman whose I Dream of Microwaves has yet to find a home in the UK but was published to critical acclaim in the US.
Maria Misra’s blog at The Guardian today completes our Indian Lit trifecta.
The English language itself is the focus of this piece:
Nationalists saw English as one of the chains that bound India to servitude and hoped that once the Raj was sent packing its language would quickly follow.
The success of Indian English literature has provoked mixed reactions. Amongst its practitioners there has been much backbiting. Some accuse others of spurning the “true” forms of Indian literary prose – the exquisite fragment, the intense short story – for the alien, but lucrative and sometimes flabby flamboyance of magic realism. In India itself a full-blown backlash grew in the form of the “nativist” or Desivad movement. Strong in western India, this school exhorted writers to embrace their own Bhasha (local) language and eschew even translation.
Obviously, Indian literature written in English is here to stay, and Misra ends with an uplifting, though unlikely thought about the side-effect of this writing:
It may also, along the way, make western readers more curious about the literature that lies behind it, and provoke publishers to commission some translations of the superb vernacular writing of 20th century India.
Nice to see The Guardian branching out and choosing Siddhartha Deb write on Indian Literature. As Scott Esposito at Conversational Reading points out, within the past couple months, the New York Review of Books, Harper’s, and the New Yorker have all had articles by Pankaj Mishra on new books from India.
This month the Guardian World Literature Tour focuses on Ireland. Here’s their summary of how the tour works:
And, as it’s been a while since the tour last stopped by, here’s a quick reminder of how it works. It goes like this: every few weeks we post asking for suggestions of the best books and authors from a particular country, as well as nominations for the country we should visit next. Ideally we’d like fiction written by native authors which is available in translation (or which you think ought to be) – but nominations of books set in the country in question that provide a flavour of the place, or good history or travel books, are also welcome.
It’s an interesting forum to learn about new authors and books from various countries, and can get quite lively. (For instance, in one day there are already 107 comments on Irish lit . . .)
This is actually the second incarnation of the World Tour, info on the first (which included “stops” in Iceland, Brazil, Japan, Turkey, Canada, Czech Republic, Poland, and Finland) can be found here. Info on the “newly relaunched” version is available here and includes New Zealand and Nigeria.
Sure, some of the forums get bogged down in talking about the famous writers/books we all already know, but still, this is a cool thing for a paper to do. Another reason why The Guardian outshines all American papers . . .
The Guardian has an article about the recently announced shortlist for the New Writing Ventures awards.
The New Writing Ventures awards, launched two years ago by Booktrust and the New Writing Partnership, are open to all previously unpublished writers of fiction, non-fiction and poetry and are intended to help nurture emerging talent beyond the usual round of prize ceremonies and cheque-cashing. In addition to the prize money, the winner and runners-up in each category receive a “bespoke development plan” provided by Arts Council England, which includes workshops, online mentoring from the Literary Consultancy, introductions to agents and professional advice.
What’s really curious is that out of the nine writers nominated in three categories—fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry—eight of them are women.
“It is a really exciting shortlist,” adds Gribble. “We have a Pakistani poet who is over 50, a young Muslim playwright, novelists from North Yorkshire and west London … It’s a really interesting mixture and they all have strong stories behind what they are doing in addition to the high quality of their writing. I have no doubt that these people will be snapped up very quickly.”
Before you dismiss this as a contest for perennial writing club writers, take note that two winners from 2005—Nicholas Hogg in fiction, and Liz Diamond in creative nonfiction—are being published by Canongate and Picador. Not bad.
The winners of the NWV awards will be announced on Tuesday September 11.
Rather than blogging the crap out of Harry Potter (a la the Chicago Tribune—just check their last 10 posts), the Guardian has an interesting post on Blaise Cendrars, whose Moravagine was reprinted by—yep, again—NYRB a few years back.
Fascinating and strange, it’s great to see that someone in the world of mainstream newspapers is drawing attention to his work.
I feel like I really should read Anna Kavan if for no other reason than that she legally changed her name to one of her characters.
I’ve heard from others that Ice is the best place to start. Too bad Peter Owen’s U.S. distribution is total rubbish and cheap paperback editions of his books cost about $20.
In today’s Guardian, Richard Lea has an article on Javier Cercas, one of Spain’s most renowned contemporary writers.
I like the interview, because rather than focusing on the details of Cercas’s life (a la Terry Gross), he focuses on the details of the “Javier Cercas” found in Cercas’s novels. (Confused yet?)
Cercas devised this strategy while writing a series of experimental columns for the Spanish newspaper, El Pais, which continues to this day. ‘I began to write some weird stuff in El Pais, using the ‘I’,’ he says, ‘and then I became aware that this ‘I’ was fictional, even in a newspaper. They were experimental, crazy columns, and I began to write in a different way, that some people describe as ‘self-fiction’.
Reminds me a bit of Javier Marias’s All Souls and it’s “sequel” Dark Back of Time, which is my favorite of Marias’s books. (I haven’t finished the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy yet though.) A similar technique drives the books of Vila-Matas, but I’ve already said enough about him for one day.
The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .