14 April 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Twenty-four hours from now the 2014 BTBA finalists will be announced—will In the Night of Time be on the list? Below are my reasons why it should be.

In the Night of Time by Antonio Muñoz Molina, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

In the Night of Time is a huge book. Six-hundred and forty-one pages of very mannered, wandering prose depicting the general chaos of the Spanish Civil War, and the personal chaos that architect Ignacio Abel undergoes during the war’s buildup. It’s more of an emotional book than a political one, with most of the “action” revolving around Ignacio’s love affair with a young American, and the harm this causes to his wife and family.

That’s all fine, but reason number one that I think this book should win the BTBA is for the way in which it depicts the terrifying ambiguity of the start of a war. Throughout the first 400+ pages of the novel, war is always on the horizon. Franco’s Fascists are nearby, moving toward Madrid, gathering support from the general populous fed up with the Republican Party. Molina’s presentation of the way in which the newspapers are completely unreliable at this time—several characters point out how the advances and retreats never quite add up—and that most people don’t think anything will come of the revolutionary uprisings around the country, is kind of terrifying. And then everyone starts carrying guns, “just in case” . . .

The sense of loss portrayed at the end of the book, once Ignacio is in America, working at a small liberal college and war has officially broken out, is incredibly powerful and saddening. I’ve always been interested in the Spanish Civil War and its craziness, and this novel reinforced my desire to learn more about the various nuances of the conflict.

But sticking with this novel, and why it should win, there are two more things that I want to point out. First, the prose itself. As I read this, I was frequently reminded of Javier Marias. Going back to an adjective from above, Molina’s writing is very “mannered.” Which is true of Marias as well. But where Marias tends to circle around and around a particular thought or action, Molina has a bit more forward motion.

He didn’t pretend. It was easy for him to talk to Adela and his children and not feel the sting of imposture or betrayal. What happened in his secret life didn’t interfere with this one but transferred to it some of its sunlit plenitude. And he didn’t care too much about the ominous prospect of immersion in the celebrations of his in-laws, usually as suffocating for him as the air in the places where the lived, heavy with dust from draperies, rugs, faux heraldic tapestries, smells of fried food and garlic, ecclesiastical colognes, liniments for the pains of rheumatism, sweaty scapulars. A sharp awareness of the other, invisible world to which he could return soon made more tolerable the painstaking ugliness of the one where he now found himself and where, in spit of the passage of years, he’d never stopped being a stranger, an intruder.

Also, this is translated by Edith Grossman, one of the most important translators ever. Her contributions to world literature—both in terms of her translations, like her Don Quixote from a few years back, and in terms of her own writing, like Why Translation Matters—deserve to win all of the awards.

Finally, from a reader enjoyment perspective, I finished this book in just over a week. Every chapter—each of which almost stand alone and little set-pieces advancing a couple parts of the overall story in a way that defies traditional, linear storytelling—was compelling and brought me right back into the world of this haunted man, on the run from the self-destruction of his homeland, where his betrayed wife and abandoned children are maybe still alive, and kept me reading. This is a shit argument, I know, but the fact that Molina’s writing has the power to keep me reading is some sort of internal proof that this is a damn good book—one deserving of the BTBA.

24 September 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Dan Vitale on Amos Oz’s Between Friends, from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and which incidentally comes out today.

Dan is a contributing reviewer of ours who is making his first appearance in a while on Three Percent—and with a piece on an author I understand to be one of his favorites. Dan also wrote for us about Amos Oz’s Scenes from Village Life.

Here’s an excerpt from Dan’s review:

hroughout his career—in fact from his very first book, Where the Jackals Howl (1965)—the renowned Israeli writer Amos Oz has set much of his fiction on the kibbutz, collective communities he portrays as bastions of social cohesion and stultifying conformity in equal measure. In his latest book, which like Where the Jackals Howl is a collection of eight short stories, the scales feel tipped toward the latter: to judge from Between Friends, if you set out to create a society plagued by gossip and spite, you could hardly do better than to establish a kibbutz.

Most of the protagonists of these linked stories about the fictitious, roughly 1950s-era Kibbutz Yekhat are in one way or another victims of peer pressure or ideological rigidity: Zvi and Luna, quiet, middle-aged platonic friends, are the subject of leering talk in the dining hall; Moshe, 16, a kind of foster member of the kibbutz, is treated harshly for wanting to visit his father, who is hospitalized off site; Martin, a shoemaker with emphysema, is pressured by the kibbutz leadership to quit his job because of his poor health.

For the rest of the review, go here.

24 September 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Throughout his career—in fact from his very first book, Where the Jackals Howl (1965)—the renowned Israeli writer Amos Oz has set much of his fiction on the kibbutz, collective communities he portrays as bastions of social cohesion and stultifying conformity in equal measure. In his latest book, which like Where the Jackals Howl is a collection of eight short stories, the scales feel tipped toward the latter: to judge from Between Friends, if you set out to create a society plagued by gossip and spite, you could hardly do better than to establish a kibbutz.

Most of the protagonists of these linked stories about the fictitious, roughly 1950s-era Kibbutz Yekhat are in one way or another victims of peer pressure or ideological rigidity: Zvi and Luna, quiet, middle-aged platonic friends, are the subject of leering talk in the dining hall; Moshe, 16, a kind of foster member of the kibbutz, is treated harshly for wanting to visit his father, who is hospitalized off site; Martin, a shoemaker with emphysema, is pressured by the kibbutz leadership to quit his job because of his poor health. Nina, another character plagued by rumors (she has recently left her husband), explains the community’s intolerance this way:

In ten or twenty years. . . . the kibbutz will be a much more relaxed place. Now, all the springs are tightly coiled and the entire machine is still shaking from the strain. The old-timers are actually religious people who left their old religion for a new one that’s just as full of sins and transgressions, prohibitions and strict rules. They haven’t stopped being true believers; they’ve simply exchanged one belief system for another. Marx is their Talmud. The general meeting is the synagogue and David Dagan is their rabbi.

Dagan, about 50, a history teacher at the kibbutz school and one of the community’s founders, figures as a villain of sorts throughout the book, most pointedly in the title story. The fiercest of the Marxists, he is also self-serving and a notorious womanizer. In “Between Friends” he is living with a former student, 17-year-old Edna, daughter of one of his oldest acquaintances. He acts not the slightest bit concerned about how this situation is affecting his old “friend.”

As the irony of that word suggests, Oz appears to be arguing that, whatever communal spirit a kibbutz fosters, it is usually unlikely ever to privilege emotional connections over societal ones. One character reflects: “[M]ost people seem to need more warmth and affection than others are capable of giving, and none of the kibbutz committees will ever be able to cover that deficit between supply and demand.”

Within these strictures, Oz’s characters live “lives of quiet desperation” (to borrow Thoreau’s memorable formulation). The stories frequently end on notes of irresolution, paralysis, or failure, with protagonists hesitating on the verge of accepting, without further complaint, their own inability to improve their circumstances. Nowhere is this truer than in “At Night,” the most understated and emotionally powerful of the stories, in which Yoav, the kibbutz secretary, nurses an inexpressible passion for Nina. Alone before dawn and on guard duty, Yoav contemplates a bleak future, “feeling that something was almost becoming clear to him, but what that something was, he didn’t know.”

Accordingly, the book’s style, like that of another of Oz’s linked collections, Scenes from Village Life (2011), is extremely spare, at times approaching the simplicity and clarity of Chekhov. At other times, this spareness can seem more an oversight than a deliberate effect, undercutting a story’s strength. But these weaker moments are rare.
The story that most richly depicts the conflict between kibbutz life and individual freedom is “Deir Ajloun.” Yotam and his widowed mother, Henia, are awaiting a vote by the kibbutz leadership on Yotam’s wish to travel to Italy, ostensibly to start college early, although Yotam himself wants mainly to escape the suffocation he feels in the kibbutz. Early in the story, after a run-in over the upcoming vote with a jealous coworker in the kibbutz kitchen, Henia thinks:

People don’t love each other anymore. At first, when the kibbutz was founded, we were all a family. True, even then there were rifts, but we were close. Every evening we’d get together and sing rousing songs and nostalgic ballads till the small hours. Afterward, we went to sleep in tents, and if anyone talked in their sleep, we all heard them. These days, everyone lives in a separate apartment and we’re at each other’s throats. On the kibbutz today, if you’re standing on your feet, everyone is just waiting for you to fall, and if you fall . . . they all rush to help you up.

There is something both chilling and heartening about that final clause, suggesting as it does both hypocrisy and a modicum of compassion. Oz doesn’t hint at whether he intends it as blame or praise; of course, it’s both.

10 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Kathryn Longenbach on Umberto Eco’s Inventing the Enemy, which is translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon and is available from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Kathryn Longenbach is a rising senior at Hamilton College. She is
pursuing a double major in English and art history. Kathryn spent the
past semester studying in Italy and is now an intern here at Open
Letter. This is Kathryn’s first review for threepercent.

Here’s part of her review:

Umberto Eco introduces Inventing the Enemy as a compilation of “occasional writings” (xi); indeed, the essays in this collection were written intermittently throughout the past decade and expound upon a vast array of subject matters. Several of the essays were originally presented as lectures at various gatherings (ranging from film festivals to scholarly conferences) while others first appeared as articles in an assortment of Italian publications. Certain pieces are actually assemblages of multiple works: “Hugo, Hélas!: The Poetics of Excess” combines three of Eco’s past lectures and writings. This variety of sources generates the diverse themes of these essays, which range from a study of the various uses (both physical and symbolic) of fire to an inspection of current issues such as censorship and abortion; Eco gives the sense that there is no topic too provocative or too trivial.

Inventing the Enemy acquires its title from the initial essay in the collection. Here, Eco develops a theme of his earlier novel, The Prague Cemetery, by demonstrating how the existence of an enemy is crucial to a nation’s success—so crucial, in fact, that if an enemy does not exist, a nation must create one. Such a target may well be an outsider, but people can apply the term “enemy” even to an insider who conducts himself differently than those around him (as evidence, Eco cites several examples such as the Church’s persecution of heretics). Eco maintains that this creation of an adversary is unavoidable:

Click here to read the entire review.

10 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

Umberto Eco introduces Inventing the Enemy as a compilation of “occasional writings” (xi); indeed, the essays in this collection were written intermittently throughout the past decade and expound upon a vast array of subject matters. Several of the essays were originally presented as lectures at various gatherings (ranging from film festivals to scholarly conferences) while others first appeared as articles in an assortment of Italian publications. Certain pieces are actually assemblages of multiple works: “Hugo, Hélas!: The Poetics of Excess” combines three of Eco’s past lectures and writings. This variety of sources generates the diverse themes of these essays, which range from a study of the various uses (both physical and symbolic) of fire to an inspection of current issues such as censorship and abortion; Eco gives the sense that there is no topic too provocative or too trivial.

Inventing the Enemy acquires its title from the initial essay in the collection. Here, Eco develops a theme of his earlier novel, The Prague Cemetery, by demonstrating how the existence of an enemy is crucial to a nation’s success—so crucial, in fact, that if an enemy does not exist, a nation must create one. Such a target may well be an outsider, but people can apply the term “enemy” even to an insider who conducts himself differently than those around him (as evidence, Eco cites several examples such as the Church’s persecution of heretics). Eco maintains that this creation of an adversary is unavoidable:

It seems we cannot manage without an enemy. The figure of the enemy cannot be abolished from the processes of civilization. The need is second nature even to a mild man of peace. In his case the image of the enemy is simply shifted from a human object to a natural or social force that in some way threatens us and has to be defeated. (17)

While such discrimination against a person or a belief often amounts to tragedy, Eco maintains the necessity of the enemy through the end of this essay. He asserts that the existence of an enemy creates a sense of community and nationalism that is essential to a country, one of the more provocative claims that Eco makes about society as a whole.

In several of the succeeding essays, Eco moves away from modern society and heads into a more mystifying realm. The piece “Absolute and Relative” explores various philosophies relating to the concepts introduced in the title. While Eco explains theories regarding the absolute and the relative, however, he simultaneously demonstrates how neither term can be exactly comprehended. He explains that, if an absolute exists, “it is neither imaginable nor attainable” (43) and is therefore outside the realm of human understanding. He also maintains that “different people mean different things when they talk about relativism,” (37) suggesting the concept cannot possess a single definition. The reader is left without the satisfaction of solving the mysteries of the absolute and the relative; however, the process of exploring these concepts is entirely fulfilling in its own right.

The subsequent essay, “The Beauty of the Flame,” focuses on a more tangible concept—fire. It is almost immediately clear, however, that to Eco fire is no less mystifying than the absolute and the relative: “As well as a physical phenomenon, [fire] becomes a symbol, and like all symbols is ambiguous, polysemic, evoking different meanings according to the circumstances” (46). Moreover, the “meanings” of fire tend to contradict one another. Fire can help sustain life, but can also destroy it. It can represent the divinity of God and his Kingdom, but also has a prominent place in the depiction of Hell. By demonstrating how fire possesses such vastly conflicting traits, Eco enriches a seemingly comprehensible subject with intriguing mystery.

A later essay in Inventing the Enemy, “No Embryos in Paradise,” moves away from this elusiveness, yet remains particularly provocative. In this piece, Eco examines St. Thomas Aquinas’s theories regarding embryos and their souls (or lack thereof). Eco maintains that he is not taking a stance on any issues such as abortion or stem cells; rather, this essay serves solely to examine Thomas’s beliefs. In short, he maintains that an embryo is not endowed with a rational soul at the moment of conception:

Thomas has a very biological view about the formation of the fetus. God introduces the soul only when the fetus acquires, stage by stage, first a vegetative soul and then a sensitive soul. Only at that point, in a body already formed, is the rational soul created…therefore the embryo only has a sensitive soul. (90)

Eco goes on to explain Thomas’s various defenses of this view. In addition, he addresses how this belief would affect other topics in Christian doctrine, such original sin and resurrection. Thomas’s views, though formulated hundreds of years ago, add to the fascinating pool of opinions regarding the soul of an unborn child that are a significant cause of international debate in the modern world.
While several subsequent essays in Inventing the Enemy also touch on current controversies (“Censorship and Silence” discusses various means of restricting the media while “Thoughts on WikiLeaks” touches on the WikiLeaks scandal), Eco uses various others to explore the world of literature. “Hugo, Hélas!: The Poetics of Excess” discusses the characteristics of Victor Hugo’s writing. Eco surveys the author’s various works, demonstrating how Hugo takes features seen throughout the Romantic movement—“the temptation and fascination of sin” and the “passage from the depths of poverty to the magnificence of the court” (106) among others—and exaggerates everything to create his touted “poetics of excess.” Eco’s essays “Fermented Delights” and “Ulysses: That’s All We Needed…” also focus on literature: the former delves into the works of Piero Camporesi while the latter discusses reviews of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses.

There are several other essays in this collection, each with its own characteristics and merits. The great range in subject matter could put Inventing the Enemy in danger of seeming overly sporadic; however, the pieces complement each other in subtle ways, making them each seem to be part of the larger whole. These occasional writings serve as a window into the singularity of a fascinating mind at work.

30 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

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

Leeches by David Albahari, translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac

Language: Serbian

Country: Serbia
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Why This Book Should Win: For seven reasons.

Today’s post is by Vincent Francone, a regular contributor to Three Percent, and an author, reviewer, and reader for TriQuarterly Online.

My original intention was to write 25 reasons why Leeches by David Albahari should win the Best Translated Book Award. Though it is a damn good book, I could not think of 25 reasons. Numerology plays a part in the strange, gripping story, so I decided to take 2 and 5 and combine them into 7. So I give you 7 reasons why Leeches by David Albahari should win the Best Translated book Award:

1. Because everyone loves a 309 page paragraph.

(Seriously, despite the absence of paragraph breaks, the prose is fluid, breathless, and engaging. Albahari’s story flows from event to event not turning back onto itself, as in the novels of Bernhard, but pushing forward and moving the story of one man’s descent into the surreal underworld of anti-Semitism and conspiracy further away from reality, taking the reader along the many twists and turns.)

2. Because Ryan Gosling made anti-Semitism sexy.

(As mentioned above, the plot of Leeches revolves around anti-Semitism. The narrator witnesses a seemingly random event—a woman getting slapped—and from that moment becomes embroiled in conspiracies both real and imagined, largely dealing with the opposition to Serbia’s Jews, all while the neighboring cities swell with the nationalism that would erode Yugoslavia. By focusing on a different aspect of ethic, um, pride other than the Serbian campaign of the 1990s, Albahari creates a story that seems larger than the war itself. I am not one to look at the author’s biography as a means of understanding a work of fiction, but knowing that Albahari is of Jewish descent allows one to analyze Leeches, and its focus on anti-Semitism, as a synecdoche for the horror of ultra-nationalist politics.

As for the Ryan Gosling reference, well . . . he’s everywhere these days, and very much one of the top Googled public figures. So maybe his performance in The Believer will somehow rub off on Albahari’s novel, garnering the book some additional attention. [And while I’m at it, I’d like a billion dollars.])

3. Because Dan Brown proved conspiracies = $.

(The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons got people reading. I have not read these books [the movies sufficed] but I assume the reason for their popularity rests in the conspiracies Brown weaves over the course of several pages. Assuming I am correct, Leeches ought to make bank. There are many conspiracies and interconnections that boggle both the narrator and the reader. And, like that damn Da Vinci book, there are strange symbols. Well, one really—a triangle and some circles. When the narrator tracks down an old friend to assist with the decoding, the answers are not the illuminating sort, but rather answers that only raise more questions. Sorry to keep harping on poor Dan Brown, but unlike his pot boilers, the conspiracies, Kabbalist mysteries, numerological and symbolist deconstructions do not shed much light. The technique is less about immediate rewards and more about creating a tone of uncertainty and fear.)

4. Because a Serb has not won in some time.

(They’re due.)

5. Because there’s dope.

(The narrator of Leeches smokes a lot of hash and marijuana, leading readers to wonder about his reliability. The idea of the unreliable narrator is nothing new, but Albahari’s narrator begins to appear particularly unreliable as he sees signs everywhere, often after consuming a large amount of weed. The reader cannot help but wonder about the state of the narrator’s mind. Sure, there are validations of his increasing paranoia, but even these very chilling events are tinged with a sort of skepticism that comes from other characters [the narrator’s best friend appears rather blasé about it all] as well as the story itself, which is rather outrageous. Maybe the paranoia is justified? Sure, there are very real reasons why the narrator ought to fear for his well-being [threatening graffiti, angry letters, a late night beating] but as the reader walks in his shoes one can’t help but ask: is some of this just drug-induced paranoia?)

6. Because the violent break-up of Yugoslavia has not gotten enough fictional representation.

(This can be debated, of course, but to this reader the events of the 1990s Yugoslav Wars don’t get enough attention. Or, I should say, they may get plenty of attention—I am sure there are scores of novels and poems on this subject that I do not know of—but these books don’t seem to land on the BTBA list. Nothing against the great writers of the French language, but don’t we think it’s time to look at another side of Europe?

Anyway, this book, as stated above, is not the In the Land of Blood and Honey realist portrait of life during wartime that one might expect. Rather, the fractured reality that consumes the narrator seems to best mirror the reality of such unimaginable atrocities. The events of Leeches take place one town over from the real war, yet the characters don’t seem concerned—they are too busy getting high and falling into Kabbalist rabbit holes. From this skewed [lack of?] vantage point, Albahari constructs his compelling story, one that may not directly focus on Serb aggression and nationalism but, nonetheless, is informed by the events of the 1990s.)

7. Because I say so.

(Nothing more to add. Just give Leeches the award.)

26 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

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

Scenes from Village Life by Amos Oz translated by Nicholas de Lange

Language: Hebrew

Country: Israel 

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Why This Book Should Win: Haunting stories told with precision prose.

Today’s post is by Suzanne Zweizig, a poet/editor/translator living in Washington D.C.

Things get weird quickly in Amos Oz’s collection of linked stories, Scenes from Village Life. From the first story, Oz turns the “creepy” knob so gradually yet inevitably upward from beginning to end that what starts off as a fairly pleasant setting (the Israel version of “Tuscany!,” one character gushes) with seemingly innocuous characters ends up in a place so taboo that it disquiets and dissettles for the rest of the collection. One cannot help but turn the pages of subsequent stories under a combined sense of fascination and doom, not knowing quite where one will end up in such an author’s hands. I would not be a spoiler by saying that it usually s in a psychologically very uncomfortable space.

The thing is, many of these characters, like us, didn’t mean to go where they end up. Arieh Zelnik, in the first story, meant to tell the stranger on his porch that his “visit was now over.” Instead he tells him to wait outside and then makes no objection as the stranger follows him inside. Same with Yossi Sasson, in “Lost,” who visits the house of a famous, but now-deceased, author in the village, hoping to persuade his widow to sell the house. When the author’s young daughter answers the door and says that her mother is not home, Yossi makes up his mind “to thank her, take my leave, and come back another day.” Instead, “his feet followed her into the house of their own accord.” We don’t know exactly where Yossi’s feet are going to take him, but having already accompanied several of Oz’s characters as they are pushed (pulled?) ahead by some strange compulsion, we know, as much as any horror film audience does, to squirm and shout at Yossi to turn back. Indeed, he should have.

But there is no going backwards in these stories. There is only going ahead, towards the compulsion, driven on by some desire to know. To know what? Oz is enough of a story-teller, and a wise enough soul, not to let us off the hook of the question. This book is full of lost people, searching, and futile explorations: an aunt for her nephew who never arrives on the bus; the town mayor for his wife who disappears one Sabbath eve leaving only a cryptic note “Don’t worry about me”; the high school English teacher for the source of the strange nocturnal digging sound beneath her house. These searches take place with flashlight in hand, as night has arrived or is falling, or in locked or underground spaces that are usually “off limits” in a normal, well-lit world.

As universal and elemental as these psychological tales are, however, one cannot read this book without seeing it, at least to some degree, in the context of the “situation,” a comparison that Oz, with his consummate skill and subtlety, both suggests and does not belabor. Set in a small fictional town of Tel Ilan (a la Sherman Anderson’s Winnesborg, Ohio) in the north of Israel, these stories play out in a backdrop that is peppered with references to Israel’s history. Its characters wander incessantly along the town’s “Founder Street,” and “Memorial Garden” and the village’s famous deceased author wrote voluminous novels about the Holocaust that several characters, including his daughter, confess (almost heretically) to neither liking nor reading.

The book is rife with intergenerational tension, and aged parents are neither wholly beloved nor revered. In “Digging,” the longest story of the collection, and, dare I say its set piece (when I heard Oz read from this collection last spring, he chose this story), Oz creates a strange domestic triangle between a middle-age widow, her a cantankerous, almost-senile elderly father—a former Minister in the Knesset who harrumphs around, despising everyone, predicting gloom, lashing out alternately at Mickey the vet whom he fears has designs on his daughter and his former colleagues who betrayed his party’s ideals—and an Arab student who lives in one of the outbuildings doing chores in exchange for his board and taking notes for a comparative study “about you” (Israelis) and “about us” (Arabs). “Our unhappiness is partly our fault and partly your fault. But your unhappiness comes from your soul,” the student says, when pressed by the father to summarize the findings of his research.

There is much to ponder in these stories and Oz, while providing much suggestive layering, never makes a false step into allegory or heavy symbolism. Throughout the collection, his prose is spot-on: masterful, able to create a vivid character with a few spare lines and translated beautifully by his long-time translator Nicholas de Lange. The stories are slim, spare, taking you to places you never meant to go, but won’t be able to stop thinking about.

15 February 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Monica Carter on Umberto Eco’s latest novel, The Prague Cemetery, which is translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon and available from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Monica is one of our contributing reviewers, is a writer in her own right, and runs Salonica World Lit.

Here’s the opening of her review:

Umberto Eco, author of Foucault’s Pendulum and The Name of the Rose, is a writer of veritable talent. Eco compels readers by focusing his twisted microscope on our pasts to observe the brutality of human nature in different eras of history. The Prague Cemetery follows the characteristic Eco style with histrionic digressive back-stories that uncover the insidious havoc of fear and power and their effects on society.

The Prague Cemetery takes the Anti-Semitic atmosphere in ninteenth century Europe and guides us through every convoluted, demonic detail of how it spread. Eco catalogs the foundation for the European culture of Anti-Semitism through a motley cast of characters, labyrinthine cloak and dagger religious plots and a morbid touch of black humor. Although this is amusing, it can be trying for the reader. This is because Eco employs three narrators, each with their own special font, to tell a story that at times feel like a game of literary slapstick.

It begins with Simoni Simonini (ahem), an aging master of forgery who wants to tell us a story in hope of himself figuring out where it all went wrong. Soon the reader realizes that Simoni Simonini is also our second narrator, Abbé Dalla Piccola, and these alter egos communicate through Simonini’s diary entries. They live in the same house and when Simonini becomes the Abbé, he dress in a cassock and roams the streets of Paris only to return to their apartment and fall asleep. When he awakes, he has no idea that he has inhabited the personality of the Abbé. Perhaps this reveals a bit too much about my own comedic foundations, but whenever I hear of a man dressing in a cassock, a series of scenes from the early Woody Allen movies oscillates in my mind. The third narrator is in third person and more objective, but nonetheless entertaining.

Click here to read the entire piece.

15 February 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Umberto Eco, author of Foucault’s Pendulum and The Name of the Rose, is a writer of veritable talent. Eco compels readers by focusing his twisted microscope on our pasts to observe the brutality of human nature in different eras of history. The Prague Cemetery follows the characteristic Eco style with histrionic digressive back-stories that uncover the insidious havoc of fear and power and their effects on society.

The Prague Cemetery takes the Anti-Semitic atmosphere in ninteenth century Europe and guides us through every convoluted, demonic detail of how it spread. Eco catalogs the foundation for the European culture of Anti-Semitism through a motley cast of characters, labyrinthine cloak and dagger religious plots and a morbid touch of black humor. Although this is amusing, it can be trying for the reader. This is because Eco employs three narrators, each with their own special font, to tell a story that at times feel like a game of literary slapstick.

It begins with Simoni Simonini (ahem), an aging master of forgery who wants to tell us a story in hope of himself figuring out where it all went wrong. Soon the reader realizes that Simoni Simonini is also our second narrator, Abbé Dalla Piccola, and these alter egos communicate through Simonini’s diary entries. They live in the same house and when Simonini becomes the Abbé, he dress in a cassock and roams the streets of Paris only to return to their apartment and fall asleep. When he awakes, he has no idea that he has inhabited the personality of the Abbé. Perhaps this reveals a bit too much about my own comedic foundations, but whenever I hear of a man dressing in a cassock, a series of scenes from the early Woody Allen movies oscillates in my mind. The third narrator is in third person and more objective, but nonetheless entertaining.

As soon as we parse out who is telling the story when, Eco reveals an invented a document, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” which appeared in the early 1900’s as the minutes of a secret meeting in the Prague Cemetery to outline how the Jews were going to take over the world. Along with Simonini’s hatred of everyone—Freemasons, Jacobeans, Jesuits—he is fueled by an unabashed paranoia and hatred of Jews. He spends his entire life as the bumbling traitor, loyal to only those who plan to stop the Jews, haphazardly killing people he just did business with to cover up his own mistakes.

Along the way, we are treated to appearances from famous characters in history related to this document including Eugenie Sue, Maurice Joly and Alexander Dumas that add to the legitimacy of the story as well as infusing it with a bit more accessibility.

The difficulty in reading The Prague Cemetery is that there really isn’t any single character for the reader to latch onto for the ride. They are all horrible, which gives testimony to Eco’s gift as a writer—making the unlikable narrators engaging enough for us to not care that they are unlikable, but we don’t spend enough time with any of them to establish a sense of trust with the writer. The reader wants to know who is truly telling the story. In this case, it feels like the narrators are mere decoys for the real character which is the ubiquitous Anti-Semitism.

It’s a novel of conspiracy theories and awful people who do awful things. By showing us the foibles and failings of the Simonini/Abbé, it’s easier to keep reading because Eco let’s us see through the first person points-of-view the insanity of their hatred and the nature of denial, which is manifested through the split personality of Simonini and the Abbé.

The Prague Cemetery is vintage Eco. The problem is, as masterful as it is, it’s not as enjoyable as his former works. Readers will be impressed by his exhaustive research, his imaginative take on structure and the purpose of the novel—to expose Anti-Semitism. But in the end, when it’s all read, you’ll be happy that it’s over, that you have rid yourself of your stay with Simonini and the Abbé. And like exposing a conspiracy of hatred, there’s a sense of relief and right alongside that relief, is the awareness that doesn’t necessarily mean we are the better for it. Eco leaves us with that same feeling and the urge to cleanse ourselves from our own sullied pasts.

17 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our “Reviews Section”: is a piece by contributing reviewer Monica Carter on David Albahari’s Leeches, which came out last year from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt1 in Ellen Elias-Bursac’s translation.

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

David Albahari ia one of the lucky few Serbian writers who has had a number of his books translated into English. I first discovered him through Northwestern University Press some years back, after they had published Bait and Words Are Something Else. Götz and Meyer is a masterpiece, and a book I wish I could’ve published, and Leeches, as you’ll see in Monica’s review, is an ambitious, complicated, interesting work.

Here’s the opening to Monica’s review:

For his follow-up to Götz and Meyer, Serbian David Albahari plunges forward in time to Belgrade, 1998. Another war is going on, although the nameless narrator is not directly involved, he becomes increasingly aware of the proximity of the Serbian-Yugoslavian war. Yet, instead of writing about those events, he chooses to write incendiary pieces about Anti-Semitism in a weekly column for local paper, Minut. This obsession with Anti-Semitism begins with an incident along the Danube: he witnesses a woman being slapped by a man.

He is drawn to follow her, but doesn’t find her. He continues his search day after day, until he responds to a message in the personals section that he believes was written by the mysterious woman. Instead, he is given manuscript of a book, The Well, by an old man in the same spot where the woman was slapped. After taking the envelope, he waits to read until later that evening. The first sentence reads, “A dream uninterpreted is like a letter unread.” From there, it leap frogs from historical narrative to a history of dreams to a variety of Kabbalistic exercises. He then digresses into a life devoted to finding the woman as well as figuring out the message of The Well.

He eventually finds the woman, Margareta, and becomes involved in some type of mystical relationship with her. His preoccupation with Anti-Semitism grows from its mention in the manuscript. He realizes, after searching the city for the circles and triangles and their symbolism in connection with mathematics and Kabbalah, with each time he that opens the manuscript, it changes. Throughout his process of figuring out the manuscript, he meets several people who are key characters to the novel as well as solving his mystery put forth by The Well. Meanwhile, as his essays become more provocative about Anti-Semitism, he receives threats, has human feces left at his doorstep and is kidnapped. Ultimately, he equates the struggle for identity of Jews with his own struggle for identity as a Serb.

To read the full review, simply click here.

1 Yes, it’s time for the routine “Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s website sucks” post. I feel like I’ve already screeded all the screed I can screed about this screedy-ass site. So instead, I’m just going to post a question to HMH’s higher ups or anyone who works on their website. Starting here, at the main home page, can you walk me through all the clicks needed to find the book page for Leeches? Explain in full in the comments section below. (As an added incentive, the first person to accomplish this wins a free Open Letter book. Ok . . . go!)

17 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

“Memory is the greatest liar.” – Leeches, David Albahari

For his follow-up to Götz and Meyer, Serbian David Albahari plunges forward in time to Belgrade, 1998. Another war is going on, although the nameless narrator is not directly involved, he becomes increasingly aware of the proximity of the Serbian-Yugoslavian war. Yet, instead of writing about those events, he chooses to write incendiary pieces about Anti-Semitism in a weekly column for local paper, Minut. This obsession with Anti-Semitism begins with an incident along the Danube: he witnesses a woman being slapped by a man.

He is drawn to follow her, but doesn’t find her. He continues his search day after day, until he responds to a message in the personals section that he believes was written by the mysterious woman. Instead, he is given manuscript of a book, The Well, by an old man in the same spot where the woman was slapped. After taking the envelope, he waits to read until later that evening. The first sentence reads, “A dream uninterpreted is like a letter unread.” From there, it leap frogs from historical narrative to a history of dreams to a variety of Kabbalistic exercises. He then digresses into a life devoted to finding the woman as well as figuring out the message of The Well.

He eventually finds the woman, Margareta, and becomes involved in some type of mystical relationship with her. His preoccupation with Anti-Semitism grows from its mention in the manuscript. He realizes, after searching the city for the circles and triangles and their symbolism in connection with mathematics and Kabbalah, with each time he that opens the manuscript, it changes. Throughout his process of figuring out the manuscript, he meets several people who are key characters to the novel as well as solving his mystery put forth by The Well. Meanwhile, as his essays become more provocative about Anti-Semitism, he receives threats, has human feces left at his doorstep and is kidnapped. Ultimately, he equates the struggle for identity of Jews with his own struggle for identity as a Serb.

In terms of symbolism, there is so much going on it is difficult to dismiss any of the symbols. The apple makes several appearances, along with the color yellow, the eponymous leeches, numbers, shapes, and even words and language:

Sometimes so many words are on the floor that I have to lift my feet high as I cross this sparsely furnished room from end to end. One of these days, it occurred to me, I might slip on a squashed word, fall, and lie there, buried under the detritus of language, an no one would find me until we started to decompose, the words and I, one corpse next to the others.

Not to mention the exploration of Kabbalah and Judaism. Along with the interpretation of symbols, are the ideas and images presented in his dreams, which illicit even more thought because it is delivered to him in a surreal consciousness of his dream state.

What makes all this seem less daunting is Albahari’s narrative style and the conversations he has about the incidents with his friend, Marko. Because the story is told in a conversational, quotidian style, the fact that it is a 300-page paragraph actually enhances the continuity of the tale. The pot-fueled discussions with his friend Marko add humor and a stability that serves as a touchstone for the narrator and also the reader.

Despite the focus on the Kabbalah, Judaism, numbers, shapes, words and conspiracy theories, the novel is about the loyalty to identity when another force attempts to erase it from history, the malleable use of memory and to the ever-changing aspect of language, as illustrated here:

The Belgrade Hebrew scholar Eugen Verber first elaborated on the notion of the manuscript as a living organism, which, as I just said, said Margareta, the interpreters and translators had already ascertained. According to Verber, the author of the manuscript had based the text on the Kabbalistic techinique of bringing to live nonliving matter, hence creating a golem, which had been modified in such a way that the text itself came alive, was designed to be self-sustaining but not also physically mobile. In other words, the manuscript was not a bizarre ambulatory creature, but it did possess the capability of refashioning itself, as if it were searching for the most apt structure for its meaning.

Although there are some parts of the novel that could seem too technical or informational about mathematics or the Kabbalah, Albahari manages by the ardent nature of his style to keep us locked into the story. Albahari is an inventive and exhaustive writer, not only looking at the story but what lies pulsing beneath the symbolism of the words used to tell the story. His analysis of images and signposts doesn’t scratch the surface, but scrapes the floor, walls and corners until there is nothing left for us to imagine. A read of originality, Leeches triumphs in helping the reader to see that what we know and how we know can change at any moment. And then again.

24 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our “Book Reviews” section is a piece by Dan Vitale on Amos Oz’s Scenes from Village Life, which is translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange and just came out from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Dan Vitale is one of our contributing reviewers, and as such, has written a number of great reviews for us.

Amos Oz has a number of books available in English translation, including Rhyming Life & Death, which came out just a couple years ago. He’s won tons of prizes, including the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, the Israel Prize, the Prince of Asturias Award for Literature, and the Goethe Prize, among others. He’s very involved in politics, and for all these reasons, is an annual favorite for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Here’s the opening of Dan’s review:

Seven of the eight pieces—one hesitates to call them stories—in Amos Oz’s Scenes from Village Life take place in the fictional Israeli village of Tel Ilan. More than a century old, the village began by supporting farms, orchards, and vineyards but has now become something of an upscale tourist attraction:

“Many of the inhabitants still farmed, with the help of foreign laborers who lived in huts in the farmyards. But some had leased out their land and made a living by letting rooms, by running art galleries or fashion boutiques or by working outside the village. Two gourmet restaurants had opened in the middle of the village, and there was also the winery and a shop selling tropical fish. One local entrepreneur had started manufacturing reproduction antique furniture. On weekends, of course, the village filled with visitors who came to eat or to hunt for a bargain. But every Friday afternoon its streets emptied as the residents rested behind closed shutters.”

The book presents glimpses into the small and insignificant lives being led behind those shutters. In keeping with the Chekhovian echo of the book’s title, Oz tends to focus on the mundane passions that occasionally flare up and, more often, flicker out in the hearts of the village residents.

Click here to read the entire piece.

24 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Seven of the eight pieces—one hesitates to call them stories—in Amos Oz’s Scenes from Village Life take place in the fictional Israeli village of Tel Ilan. More than a century old, the village began by supporting farms, orchards, and vineyards but has now become something of an upscale tourist attraction:

“Many of the inhabitants still farmed, with the help of foreign laborers who lived in huts in the farmyards. But some had leased out their land and made a living by letting rooms, by running art galleries or fashion boutiques or by working outside the village. Two gourmet restaurants had opened in the middle of the village, and there was also the winery and a shop selling tropical fish. One local entrepreneur had started manufacturing reproduction antique furniture. On weekends, of course, the village filled with visitors who came to eat or to hunt for a bargain. But every Friday afternoon its streets emptied as the residents rested behind closed shutters.”

The book presents glimpses into the small and insignificant lives being led behind those shutters. In keeping with the Chekhovian echo of the book’s title, Oz tends to focus on the mundane passions that occasionally flare up and, more often, flicker out in the hearts of the village residents. There is, for example, Gili Steiner, a childless doctor who pines for a visit from her nephew; or Pesach Kedem, a bitter, aged former Knesset member who lives with his widowed daughter and their Arab student boarder, and who imagines he hears digging under the house at night. There is Yossi Sasson, the real estate agent who plans to buy, raze, and replace with a pricy villa the ramshackle house of a dead Holocaust novelist, but who falls for the temptations of the novelist’s granddaughter; and teenaged Kobi Ezra, son of the village grocer, who conceives what he believes to be an unrequited love for Ada Dvash, the 30-year-old divorcée who runs both the village’s often empty post office and its small lending library.

Oz begins each piece straightforwardly, but rather than—as in the typical short story—concluding it with the satisfying sense of a mystery solved or a musical composition that ends on just the right note, he more often introduces a sudden twist that jolts the piece in an unexpected direction and suggests that the deepest mysteries are those that exist within human beings, ones that can rarely if ever be truly understood, let alone resolved.

Take “Heirs,” the book’s opening piece, in which Arieh Zelnik is interrupted at home by Wolff Maftsir, a lawyer who claims an obscure kinship with the Zelnik family and offers, conspiratorially, to assist Arieh in getting his elderly mother to relinquish ownership of the house Arieh shares with her. Although repeatedly rebuffed by Arieh, Maftsir nevertheless gains access to the bedroom where the mother is napping, and the piece ends with this curious bit of business:

[Maftsir] bent over and kissed her twice, a long kiss on either cheek, and then kissed her again on the forehead. The old lady opened her cloudy eyes, drew a skeletal hand from under the blanket and stroked Wolff Maftsir’s head, murmuring something or other and pulling his head toward her with both hands. In response, he bent closer, took off his shoes, kissed her toothless mouth and lay down at her side, pulling at the blanket to cover them both. . . .

Arieh Zelnik hesitated for a moment or two, and looked out of the open window at a tumbledown farm shed and a dusty cypress tree up which an orange bougainvillea climbed with flaming fingers. Walking around the double bed, he closed the shutters and the window and drew the curtains, and as he did so he unbuttoned his shirt, then undid his belt, removed his shoes, undressed and got into bed next to his old mother.

This could be taken as a hallucinatory portrayal of the irresistible predatoriness of lawyers, but instead it seems more pleasurable to take it at face value in all its bizarrerie. Not every piece in Scenes from Village Life is quite this strange, but the general rule still holds: Oz convinces us to accept his characters just as they are, not asking us to fathom their depths but simply to marvel at their complexity. Even when the eighth and final piece wrenches us suddenly from Tel Ilan into a scene set in a primitive, possibly post-apocalyptic society—a shift that arguably makes the entire book replicate the quirky structure of most of the individual pieces within it—Oz’s respect for human mystery stays with us and richly rewards our attention.

15 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Fr. Grant Barber on Cain, the latest Jose Saramago novel, available from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in Margaret Jull Costa’s translation.

Grant Barber is a regular reviewer for Three Percent, a keen bibliophile, and an Episcopal priest living on the south shore of Boston. That last biographical fact is one of the reasons his review of Cain is so interesting. (That and the fact that Grant is a very good reader.)

Here’s the opening of the review:

I keep coming back to that basic question, “Why do people tell stories, and others pay attention?” Answers range from creating entertainment (Patterson or Siddons), to engaging in reflections of human nature by a writer such as Conrad or Greene, to intellectual play in novels by Barbary or Murdoch. Some novels can be polemical: Upton Sinclair, Dalton Trumbo; others tell stories to subvert the very nature of what it means to tell stories . . . Celine, Stein. In creating such an incomplete taxonomy I know I run the risk of reducing real literature to caricature; sustaining, elegant, yearning works do more than one thing well. Saramago’s last novel, published here in the English speaking world after his death, raises this fundamental question, “why does he tell this story?”

Cain is a Saramago novel that takes his oft-used “what if” set-up—what if people stopped dying within a geographic region (Death with Interruptions), or what if everyone in a town became blind (Blindness)—and asks, what if cain (Saramago doesn’t capitalize names in this book) were able to tell his story? This is cain of cain and abel, the first two children of adam and eve, the first murderer and victim. Clearly Saramago has a concern for mythos and storytelling; he invokes lilith, by legend adam’s first wife who didn’t work out so well, the breeder of demons. Saramago taps into the archetype of the man cursed to not die but wander eternally. And Saramago uses time travel. cain is unstuck from linear time and jumps from key incidences in ahistorical order, from mt. sinai to abraham just about to sacrifice his son, to noah . . . with stops in there to the story of job, the destruction of sodom and gomorrah. It is this last narrative device which seems both necessary for Saramago’s purposes and which leaves at least this reader with the opinion that Saramago has left behind story telling for a flat polemic.

Some familiar post-modern tricks are going on. In talking about cain—not Cain—or god rather than God could Saramago be signaling that he considers the characters in his book not worthy of being known as proper people, that they are drained of real identity, with their status as fictional characters thus underscored? Perhaps. This is one of several issues that make the role of storytelling wobble . . . does Saramago want to let his writing speak forcefully, or is he undercutting himself unintentionally, “but this is after all, just an artifice?” Then consider the vagaries of time travel literature. The novel ends with cain on board noah’s ark; cain systematically kills all the women by heaving them overboard: no women left who can repopulate the earth. So then, no abraham, moses, job and so forth? But wait, he has already encountered abraham, moses and job. This would leave cain as the only one with complete knowledge, of what could have been, a stand in for god or author.

Click here to read the entire review.

15 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I keep coming back to that basic question, “Why do people tell stories, and others pay attention?” Answers range from creating entertainment (Patterson or Siddons), to engaging in reflections of human nature by a writer such as Conrad or Greene, to intellectual play in novels by Barbary or Murdoch. Some novels can be polemical: Upton Sinclair, Dalton Trumbo; others tell stories to subvert the very nature of what it means to tell stories . . . Celine, Stein. In creating such an incomplete taxonomy I know I run the risk of reducing real literature to caricature; sustaining, elegant, yearning works do more than one thing well. Saramago’s last novel, published here in the English speaking world after his death, raises this fundamental question, “why does he tell this story?”

Cain is a Saramago novel that takes his oft-used “what if” set-up—what if people stopped dying within a geographic region (Death with Interruptions), or what if everyone in a town became blind (Blindness)—and asks, what if cain (Saramago doesn’t capitalize names in this book) were able to tell his story? This is cain of cain and abel, the first two children of adam and eve, the first murderer and victim. Clearly Saramago has a concern for mythos and storytelling; he invokes lilith, by legend adam’s first wife who didn’t work out so well, the breeder of demons. Saramago taps into the archetype of the man cursed to not die but wander eternally. And Saramago uses time travel. cain is unstuck from linear time and jumps from key incidences in ahistorical order, from mt. sinai to abraham just about to sacrifice his son, to noah . . . with stops in there to the story of job, the destruction of sodom and gomorrah. It is this last narrative device which seems both necessary for Saramago’s purposes and which leaves at least this reader with the opinion that Saramago has left behind story telling for a flat polemic.

Some familiar post-modern tricks are going on. In talking about cain—not Cain—or god rather than God could Saramago be signaling that he considers the characters in his book not worthy of being known as proper people, that they are drained of real identity, with their status as fictional characters thus underscored? Perhaps. This is one of several issues that make the role of storytelling wobble . . . does Saramago want to let his writing speak forcefully, or is he undercutting himself unintentionally, “but this is after all, just an artifice?” Then consider the vagaries of time travel literature. The novel ends with cain on board noah’s ark; cain systematically kills all the women by heaving them overboard: no women left who can repopulate the earth. So then, no abraham, moses, job and so forth? But wait, he has already encountered abraham, moses and job. This would leave cain as the only one with complete knowledge, of what could have been, a stand in for god or author.

I’ll grant that Cain has flashes of funny stuff in it. In Genesis after Adam and Eve are evicted from the Garden they have children who go off to marry people who live elsewhere; no getting around that. So Saramago casts that idea, in all its implications of “hunh?,” using his style of long run-on sentences held together by commas. In Cain adam and eve are speaking in a back and forth with the angel guarding the entrance to the garden:

They sat down on the ground and discovered that the angel azael wasn’t one to beat about the bush, You are not the only human beings on earth, he began, Not the only ones, exclaimed adam, astonished . . .

. . . Then eve asked, if other human beings already exist, why did the lord make us, As you know the ways of the lord are mysterious, but, as far as I can make out, you were an experiment, Us, an experiment, exclaimed adam, an experiment to prove what, Since I do not know for certain, I cannot tell you, but the lord must have his reasons for keeping silent on the matter . . .

Another amusing bit is when god changes appearance from the first congenial companion at the start of adam and eve’s existence to formal, three-tiered crowned fellow, described so clearly that Saramago must have this sort of image in mind:

Saramago was a communist and atheist. He was a harsh critic of the predominant Roman Catholic church of his day, place, and time. An earlier novel, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, was published not long before he was awarded the Nobel Literature Prize—much protested by the Vatican. That novel, with a somewhat lighter touch than Cain, casts “scandalous” aspersions on who Jesus was by imaginatively exploring his life outside of the scripturally accounted-for years. That such ground has been well trammeled already takes away from the sense of naughty audacity; see forays into such territory by Pullman and Frey, whose books landed with something of critical thud. Where other reviews of Cain have gone astray is in portraying Cain as also anti-Christian; it is not. Instead it is much more anti-Jewish-foundational-text.

Time travel allows cain to witness horrible events reported in the Hebrew scriptures teased out in all of the stories’ troubling implications. One example suffices: cain speaks with abraham after abraham had bargained with god not to destroy sodom and gomorrah if a few righteous men were found living there; apparently abraham failed. After the destruction is complete, cain points out to abraham that there must have been many, many innocent children who also died. abraham then puts his head in his hands in sickened despair.

cain and Saramago are correct: there would have been many innocent children who would have died. That is, assuming you take the story as historical reportage. Whatever the point of the story was in its original telling—by my best lights it is a condemnation of those who break the laws of hospitality (not a condemnation of homosexuality)—the key is the heroes, the protagonists. Think any action film: the hero goes about battling the villains, cars crash in chase scenes into other drivers and pedestrians who are maimed and killed, or warrior combatants with no name or back-story falling left and right around the antagonists. They are throw-away props for the story.

So I come back around to my initial question: what are stories for? Saramago repeatedly uses those of Hebrew scriptures to cast them as literally true in all of their gory, disturbing implications, to show god as evil. If you grant that these stories were not recorded as if by an on-site video camera would capture, then they are instead participating in myth making written by people over a thousand years after the ostensible events. This is storytelling to find identity and truth for a people. The Hebrews who were writing down these stories were doing so after having been repeatedly, brutally conquered by Babylonians, Assyrians, and Persians . . . as they would have themselves done if they had the economic and military power. Their reasoning goes as it does for all conquered people wishing to retain identity and self-respect, “we are a chosen, unique people.” Every tribe, religion and nation has such tales.

Religion gets used as a scapegoat for the evil things done in its name. Behind the parade of horrors performed in the name of the holy is an impulse common to human behavior. The Khmer Rouge did what they did in the name of right political thought; ditto Stalin. Humans are capable of doing things that are sublime—the arts, selfless sacrifice for others—as well as the most vile.

Literature used polemically to skewer religion, or anything for that matter, can sound brittle. Saramago’s writing here comes down to, in my evaluation, the same sort of strident tone as found in any other fundamentalist writings, religious, political or scientific (Dawkins, Harris et al.). Saramago might be aiming for the tradition of Rabelais; I find this book to be closer kin to LaHaye. I’ll take my religion, and my literature, with ample room for ambiguity, gray areas, room to explore and ponder, permission to find where I and the holy might find one another. I follow Jesus, and he mostly spoke in parables.

Now, if you really want some funny, satirical writing that takes on religious matters, try Stanley Elkin’s The Living End. The protagonist is condemned to hell because God hears his first thought on entering heaven: “it looks like a theme park.” My signed, first edition of this novella has pride of place wherever I move.

15 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Lily Ye on this week’s RTN title The Days of the King by Filip Florian. This was translated from the Romanian by Alistair Ian Blyth and will be coming out from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt next month.

See this post for more info on Florian, and click here for an extended preview of The Days of Kings.

Here’s the opening of Lily’s review:

The Days of the King is a slim volume of dense and full worlds and sentences. The basic plot concerns the dentist Joseph Strauss of Berlin who is called to relocate to Bucharest in order to serve as dentist to captain of dragoons Karl of Hohenzollern who is about to become the prince of the United Principalities of Europe. But the most remarkable thing about this novel is author Filip Florian’s churning prose that moves along at a rapid clip through his use of listless yet list-like sentences that amazingly find no shortage of commas to join their innumerable clauses. Take this single sentence for example, as the dentist Strauss talks to his cat Siegfried on the train to Romania:

“Herr Strauss, who in the middle of the previous winter, in January on the eighth day of the month, had turned thirty, was saying all kinds of things, he was not telling a story, he was no longer chirring away meaninglessly, he was merely saying that he wanted to get out of a rut, that there was a whole host of titties in the world, in any case many more than eleven, that everything was numbingly monotonous, that beer and schnapps were good, but wine is not to be sniffed at, that every town is full to bursting with stripy, spotted, black and white, gray, yellow, plump or lean, squint-eyed, and lame cats, cats of every shape and size, that a fire that robs you of mother and sister goes on roasting your heart forever, it dries you and smokes you like pastrami, that there comes an hour, all of a sudden, when nothing binds you to anyone anymore, that beyond an empire, three mountain ranges, and boundless plains it is possible to be born again, that to be dentist to a king is not the same as draining the pus from the mouth of a captain of dragoons, that a wife means children, that a new country is a new place, and a new place is a new opportunity, that games of whist can be played anywhere at all, that the present looks like a lump of shit and that the future might, with the mercy of God, look better, that a wife means a mother, that a young tomcat has seed enough to fill the earth with kittens, that beyond an empire, three mountain ranges, and a boundless plain there might not be a heaven, but nor can it be hell, that geese saved Rome, that the land where they are headed is called Romania and that there will likely be plenty of goose liver there to fry with slices of apple, black pepper, and onion, that a wife is a sister, that no road is without return, and that a wife means a woman, not just any woman, but one who comes out of an angel’s or a devil’s egg.”

The very next sentence is “And so on and so forth” as if there could possibly be anything more to talk about to your cat.

Click here to read the full review.

15 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Days of the King is a slim volume of dense and full worlds and sentences. The basic plot concerns the dentist Joseph Strauss of Berlin who is called to relocate to Bucharest in order to serve as dentist to captain of dragoons Karl of Hohenzollern who is about to become the prince of the United Principalities of Europe. But the most remarkable thing about this novel is author Filip Florian’s churning prose that moves along at a rapid clip through his use of listless yet list-like sentences that amazingly find no shortage of commas to join their innumerable clauses. Take this single sentence for example, as the dentist Strauss talks to his cat Siegfried on the train to Romania:

Herr Strauss, who in the middle of the previous winter, in January on the eighth day of the month, had turned thirty, was saying all kinds of things, he was not telling a story, he was no longer chirring away meaninglessly, he was merely saying that he wanted to get out of a rut, that there was a whole host of titties in the world, in any case many more than eleven, that everything was numbingly monotonous, that beer and schnapps were good, but wine is not to be sniffed at, that every town is full to bursting with stripy, spotted, black and white, gray, yellow, plump or lean, squint-eyed, and lame cats, cats of every shape and size, that a fire that robs you of mother and sister goes on roasting your heart forever, it dries you and smokes you like pastrami, that there comes an hour, all of a sudden, when nothing binds you to anyone anymore, that beyond an empire, three mountain ranges, and boundless plains it is possible to be born again, that to be dentist to a king is not the same as draining the pus from the mouth of a captain of dragoons, that a wife means children, that a new country is a new place, and a new place is a new opportunity, that games of whist can be played anywhere at all, that the present looks like a lump of shit and that the future might, with the mercy of God, look better, that a wife means a mother, that a young tomcat has seed enough to fill the earth with kittens, that beyond an empire, three mountain ranges, and a boundless plain there might not be a heaven, but nor can it be hell, that geese saved Rome, that the land where they are headed is called Romania and that there will likely be plenty of goose liver there to fry with slices of apple, black pepper, and onion, that a wife is a sister, that no road is without return, and that a wife means a woman, not just any woman, but one who comes out of an angel’s or a devil’s egg.

The very next sentence is “And so on and so forth” as if there could possibly be anything more to talk about to your cat.

But Florian’s sentences are analogous with the way his novel twists and turns through its various moods and subjects. Foremost, the amount of history in this book is astonishing, with seemingly all the political machinations concerning Romania of the late nineteenth century packed into dense passages throughout the book. For those, like me, who may be slightly less than enthused to encounter so much political background in the course of their reading, Florian’s rapid-fire prose is both a help and a hindrance as it moves the reader quickly through these sections, but can make it easy to get lost amid all the commas. (There is a helpful guide to Romanian political and religious history in the back of the book.) But set against these passages Florian also includes the poetic writings of Siegfried the cat, who passionately inscribes his missives into the backs of upholstered armchairs with his claws:

From that huge belly, my love, know thou, fifteen kittens will emerge, her belly has swollen to the size of a barrel or a sack of lentils. I awake before down and I wait, I keep watch, the miracle might happen at any time, from beneath the quilt there wafts soft breathing, sleep will not be denied, the kittens lie curled up they stir and they grow, yet another night vanishes without them emerging, yet another day arrives on tiptoes, I divine it, soon the coffee will be boiling in the pot, the dogs will be barking outside, [. . .]

All of this—the thoughts of Joseph Strauss as he heads to a new life in Romania, the political climate with which the former captain of dragoons and now Prince must face, and even the mystery of human birth to a cat—all presented in Florian’s rambling prose, conveys an overwhelming confrontation with information, that distressing phenomenon that comes about with the dislocation which begins this story, that is forced upon the dentist, the king, and the cat. What seem like intensive history lessons may bore at times, but they also arouse sympathy for the prince. It is true that Florian demands an obliging and enduring reader, but he has created a book that contains the worlds of thought for those readers who are willing to confront them.

18 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by K.E. Semmel on Carsten Jensen’s We, the Drowned, now available from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in Charlotte Barslund and Emma Ryder’s translation from the Danish.

Jensen’s book has been getting a lot of good attention—especially from booksellers—but another reason we really wanted to run a review of this is because he’s going to be here in Rochester on May 2nd as part of the PEN World Voices Festival, where he’ll read at Writers & Books along with Marcelo Figueras and Najat El Hachmi. We’ll post more info about this in the next few days.

K.E. Semmel is the Publications & Communications Manager of The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD. He’s the recipient of translation grants from the Danish Arts Council, and his translations of the work of Danish authors Simon Fruelund, Pia Tafdrup, and Jytte Borberg have been published or are forthcoming in numerous literary journals. His translation of Karin Fossum’s The Caller will release in the UK this July.

Here’s the opening of his review:

We who are alive in the age of the eBook may not be used to reading 675 page sea adventure tales. When we think of such novels—at least here on these shores—we probably think of James Fenimore Cooper and Herman Melville, venerable writers who penned some of the most enduring American classics of the genre. Though Denmark is one of the greatest seafaring nations in the history of the world, we typically don’t think of Danes when we think of the literature of the sea. Carsten Jensen’s fabulous first novel, We, the Drowned, should change that.

For three decades, Jensen has been one of the finest commentators in Denmark, distilling meaning out of everything, from political events to world developments, in his newspaper columns. With his deft touch, ordinary stones dazzle with sharp, brilliant light. Back when we still lived in Denmark, I eagerly anticipated the arrival of Politiken just so I could read his column. Over the years, many of these short pieces have been collected into books (and two of those titles have been translated into English).

But in We, the Drowned, Jensen gives us the big story. The inhabitants of the town of Marstal, on the island of Æro, have been seafarers for generations. They live and die by the code of the sea. Jensen writes in the communal first person plural, with its distinctive and authoritative “we” lending a familiar sense of intimacy, and starts his story in the year 1848. Like the docent in a fine museum, he then leads us through the next 100 years in Marstal’s history. That history is extraordinarily rich, and includes Denmark’s Three Years’ War (1848-51) with the Germans, two world wars, the rise of late capitalism and concomitant descent of the very life-blood of Marstallers’ lives, the sailing industry, and finally the ascendency of globalization (though the “g” word is not used).

Whew. That’s sure a lot.

Click here to read the full review.

18 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

We who are alive in the age of the eBook may not be used to reading 675 page sea adventure tales. When we think of such novels—at least here on these shores—we probably think of James Fenimore Cooper and Herman Melville, venerable writers who penned some of the most enduring American classics of the genre. Though Denmark is one of the greatest seafaring nations in the history of the world, we typically don’t think of Danes when we think of the literature of the sea. Carsten Jensen’s fabulous first novel, We, the Drowned, should change that.

For three decades, Jensen has been one of the finest commentators in Denmark, distilling meaning out of everything, from political events to world developments, in his newspaper columns. With his deft touch, ordinary stones dazzle with sharp, brilliant light. Back when we still lived in Denmark, I eagerly anticipated the arrival of Politiken just so I could read his column. Over the years, many of these short pieces have been collected into books (and two of those titles have been translated into English).

But in We, the Drowned, Jensen gives us the big story. The inhabitants of the town of Marstal, on the island of Æro, have been seafarers for generations. They live and die by the code of the sea. Jensen writes in the communal first person plural, with its distinctive and authoritative “we” lending a familiar sense of intimacy, and starts his story in the year 1848. Like the docent in a fine museum, he then leads us through the next 100 years in Marstal’s history. That history is extraordinarily rich, and includes Denmark’s Three Years’ War (1848-51) with the Germans, two world wars, the rise of late capitalism and concomitant descent of the very life-blood of Marstallers’ lives, the sailing industry, and finally the ascendency of globalization (though the “g” word is not used).

Whew. That’s sure a lot.

And yet, though We, the Drowned explores a wide range of territory, it’s actually compact in the way only Jensen can make it. A lot of ground, and yes, water, is covered. But Jensen builds an impressive edifice out of the Marstallers’ lives. What happened to them, we could say, happened to all of us.

Though there’s a large ensemble cast, the narrative circles around several key characters. First, there’s Laurids Madsen, a sailor with near superhuman powers. On the very first page of the novel he’s blasted into the air when his ship explodes at the end of a losing battle against the Germans, but he survives. Returning to Marstal, his status exulted by his near-death experience, he’s revered. Eventually, however, he sours of life in Marstal. He signs on to another ship and never returns. Then the narrative shifts to one of his sons, Albert—who even as a boy resembled his father—and he takes up the seemingly hopeless cause of finding the man who deserted him. In Albert’s narrative we meet a host of strange but delightful characters: the brutal schoolteacher Isager and his whip (who teaches hardness but not much else); first mate O’Connor who’s even more brutal than Isager; the con man Anthony Fox and the dastardly Jack Lewis who gives Albert a shrunken head he claims is that of James Cook. Midway through all this, as if to personalize Albert’s search for his father, the point of view shifts to first person singular:

I signed on for Singapore and from there to Van Dieman’s Land, to Hobart Town, the last port where my father had been seen. But it wasn’t just his final port: it was everyone’s dead end—and if it wasn’t yours, it soon would be, if you didn’t get yourself out in time. Picture the workhouse in Marstal: that’s what Hobart was like.

In literature as in life, finding a runaway father often leads to disappointment. Such is the case here for Albert Madsen (though for readers the high seas quest is rife with adventure). Before long—and returning home to first person plural—Albert is an old man serving as a father figure to a young boy, Knud Erik Friis, and as a reluctant lover to the boy’s widowed mother, Klara. When Albert dies—literally frozen to death in his father’s lucky boots—he bequeaths his fortune to Klara. And so begins the final stage of this book, with Klara and Knud Erik front and center.

Klara, a woman who lost her husband when his ship went down, wants to punish the sea for all the damage it has inflicted on Marstallers’ lives—particularly the town’s women. Ironically, she wants to use Albert’s fortune, built on the waves of the oceans, to end Marstal’s dependency on sailing. She visits a powerful businessman in Copenhagen named Markussen and tells him of her plan. He responds:

“Have you heard of Xerxes, king of Persia?” he finally asked. “Xerxes got it into his head to punish the sea because a sudden storm arose and destroyed his fleet before a decisive battle against the Greeks. His method was somewhat unusual. He had the sea whipped with iron chains. I’d say, Mrs. Friis, that you’re a modern-day successor to Xerxes” [. . .] “I hope you understand that your plans will have fatal consequences for your little town.”

She understands that only too well. But does her plan succeed? Well, I won’t give it away. You can decide for yourself.

All told, We, the Drowned is a tour de force, a colossus, that gives Americans an opportunity to witness the gears of a great writer at work, turning the ordinary into the extraordinary. Richly translated by Charlotte Barslund and Emma Ryder so that obscure nautical terms like “ketch,” “old luggers,” “cutters,” “fore-and-aft schooner” flow naturally in translation. Sentence after sentence is strung together like bright bulbs of light. In his first work of fiction, Carsten Jensen creates characters with whom readers can empathize, and even the lowliest among them have real, identifiable motives behind their actions. This novel may be big and heavy, but it’s worth every single page.

23 December 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [4]

Over the years, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s website has been a go-to for jokes about the disconnect between the publishing industry and how the Internet works. I really don’t think I can come up with enough insults about the total disfunction of HMH’s website. Basically, it looks like something an MBA put together after waking up from a wet dream about working for Deloitte.

So, I was shocked—_shocked_—to learn about the HMH Literature in Translation site where some mysterious, smart, savvy, informed, and engaged person(s) are posting interesting links to literature in translation stories/events/works/etc. Granted, a number of posts are semi-self-promotional, but not all, and given the overall corporate smackdown you get visiting the HMH’s primary site, this self-promotion is more than tolerable.

Although of course, I chose the day to write about this in which the lead post is a list of 9 “books for voracious readers,” which are all HMH titles, and only one of which is in translation . . . but . . . well . . . yeah . . . at least the list doesn’t include Freedom?

Aside from the interesting posts, one of the best features of this blog are the links to HMH’s forthcoming Literature in Translation titles, such as this one for spring 2011. (And I’ll triple-dog dare you to find this list on the main site in less than 10 minutes. OK, go! . . . I win.)

Which actually brings me to my second point of praise: I can’t wait to read Leeches by David Albahari, translated from the Serbian by Ellen Elias-Bursac. I was at Dalkey hen Random UK brought out his Gotz and Meyer, and tried to make an offer on it. Unfortunately, Harcourt (this was the pre-HMH days) beat us to it with alacrity and cash and has taken over as his U.S. publisher. Which is great (his books are available everywhere) and not-so-great (not to be an asshole, but HMH doesn’t do great publicity work for it’s translations—Piece of Evidence #1, the lack of promotion for the 50th Anniversary retranslation of Grass’s The Tin Drum).

Regardless, this book sounds fantastic (especially if you skip the Foucault’s Pendulum reference):

The place is Serbia, the time is the late 1990s. Our protagonist, a single man, writes a regular op-ed column for a Belgrade newspaper and spends the rest of his time with his best friend, smoking pot and talking about sex, politics, and life in general. One day on the shore of the Danube he spots a man slapping a beautiful woman. Intrigued, he follows the woman into the tangled streets of the city until he loses sight of her. A few days later he receives a mysterious manuscript whose contents seem to mutate each time he opens it. To decipher the manuscript—a collection of fragments on the Kabbalah and the history of the Jews of Zemun and Belgrade—he contacts an old schoolmate, now an eccentric mathematician, and a group of men from the Jewish community.

As the narrator delves deeper into arcane topics, he begins to see signs of anti-Semitism, past and present, throughout the city and he feels impelled to denounce it. But his increasingly passionate columns erupt in a scandal culminating in murder. Following in the footsteps of Foucault’s Pendulum, Leeches is a cerebral adventure into the underground worlds of secret societies and conspiracy theories.

Unless I’m missing something in my skimming, this is a one-paragraph book, which makes me giddy (and scares the crap out of Dan Brownophiles). Here’s the opening:

Now, six years after the fact, I realize things might have gone differently, but back then, on Sunday, March 8, 1998, when it all began, it was impossible to imagine any other way for events to unfold. Also perhaps I made no effort to imagine something different, believed I had no choice, no choice at all, but was instead looking at the inevitable, which I could not have influenced even if I had wanted to. It no longer matters, because what was happening, whether I chose it or not, became destiny, which nothing will ever be able to change. The apple drops from the tree, red and firm, and is nearly hidden in the dense grass, but the ants, snails, and wasps find their way to it, and in the end nothing is left of the apple; the grass will right itself in time. I must be mentioning an apple now because that Sunday, six years ago, I left the house holding an apple, not a red one, true, but yellow, which I later ate, all of it, even the seeds and the stem. To be fair, I didn’t actually eat the stem, I held it between my teeth for a time, mashing and nibbling at it slowly, until it finally came apart. I always took a walk on Sundays along the Danube, no matter what the weather, in rain or the blustering Kosava winds. Not even the snow stopped me. It wasn’t snowing that day though, nor was there much of a wind blowing: the clouds tumbled across the sky, the sun gleamed from time to time, then slipped again behind a cloud; all in all, it was an ordinary, though chilly, March day.

Sadly, this isn’t available until April 28, 2011 (thank god and Sal for sending me an advance reading copy), but word on the street has it that Albahari might be at the PEN World Voices Festival, which would be a perfect tie in.

And going back to the LiT Blog and it’s recommendations, the one translation on this list is _The Collected Novels of Jose Saramago, a $36 ebook bringing together all 12 Saramago novels (and one novella) HMH has published so far.

I’m not as big of a fan of Saramago as I am a fan of Antonio Lobo Antunes (which I’m grouping together because of the Portuguese thing—they’re actually pretty distant in terms of style and subject), but this is a pretty awesome bargain. Which brings up two points:

1) These sort of collected works omnibuses work a lot better as ebooks than as print editions. I capital-L Love B.S. Johnson, but I’ve never cracked open the omnibus I own of his work. Nor the variety of other “collected works” titles I own. OK, so two happen to be Jane Austen and E.M. Forster, but even if these were of authors I really liked, I still can’t envision myself lugging something like that around. Sure, I’d love to collect more Library of America books, but that’s mostly for collecting, and less for reading. But with e-omnibuses, some of the obvious problems go away. For example, it doesn’t matter how big the book is, you just have to click on a link in the Table of Contents to go directly to that particular title. This could be a cool side-effect of the e-readingrevolution (e-readolution?) and a great way to reintroduce authors with huge backlists. Which brings me to point two:

2) According to the conventional wisdom of most commercial publishers, this price point it totally insane. Going back to Library of America for a minute, they’ve done three Philip K. Dick collections, each containing four PKD novels. Individually these retail for $35. Together you can buy them for $110. Sure, LoA’s quality is pretty nice, and the company isn’t really underwritten by bookish-like-objects that sell but hardly qualify as literature. (And barely as books.) But I suspect that other major publishers would be tempted to break up the Saramago collection into 2-3 multi-novel sets for $36 a piece. But 12 novels for $36? Even in terms of e-book savings, this is a bit crazy . . . at first glance.

Thanks to the pricing class I just finished (and a conversation with a friend at HMH), I think I get why this is what it is. For all the Nobel Prize winningness of Saramago, he has a relatively small devoted audience who buys every book, and a insane number of general readers who buy Blindness and maybe one other title, which turns out to be a bit less reader-friendly than Blindness and features references to a poet invented by Fernando Pessoa or contains blasphemous statements about Jesus Christ’s childhood. So, you have a core of fans buying everything, and a larger set spending $30 on two titles. (Or $16 if they shop Amazon.) So if you can get this massive group of Blindness lovers to both use ebooks (doesn’t everyone? /sigh) and buy into this 12-book package, you make an additional $6 (plus all the non-printing, storing, distribution costs associated with selling a print version). And then maybe they read The Stone Raft and buy a copy as a gift, and so on and forth.

Anyway, go HMH. Keep on publishing good books, and welcome to the online world of the 21st Century.

28 April 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

OK, so longtime readers of Three Percent have probably noticed that I make fun of HMH a lot. Mainly because their website is a total pile of shit, and also because of how they treated Drenka Willen. (Seriously, even though the situation was rectified—thanks to the support of Saramago, Grass, etc.—someone’s going to burn in hell for that little move.) And to be honest, there’s a lot more to poke fun at, like the way Moody’s withdrew their credit rating, etc., etc.

But! There are awesome people who work at HMH—Drenka, Andrea Schultz, Sal Robinson, Ron Hogan, Jenna Johnson, others I’m sure I’m forgetting—and I just got their new catalog, which has way more international works that I ever would’ve expected. Granted, a lot of these are big-name, long-time HMH authors, but still, to lead off the catalog with two translations back-to-back is pretty bold for a press that’s also publishing Perfect One-Dish Dinners and Philip Roth’s new novel.

Maybe I’m just easily impressed, or maybe it’s because I’m (surprisingly) in a really cheery mood this morning, but, well, I just want to make up for (some) of the (occasionally) unfair criticisms I’ve lobbed at HMH.1 Y’all are doing good work. And as a way of trying to make up for this, here’s a list of all of HMH’s forthcoming international works:

The Elephant’s Journey by Jose Saramago, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa.

In 1551, King Joao III of Portugal gave Archduke Maximilian an unusual wedding present: an elephant named Solomon. The elephant’s journey from Lisbon to Vienna was witnessed and remarked upon by scholars, historians, and ordinary people. Out of this material, José Saramago has spun a novel already heralded as “a triumph of language, imagination, and humor” (El País).

Here by Wislawa Szymborska, translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak.

A new book of poems by Wislawa Szymborska is a rare and exciting event. When Here was published in Poland, reviewers marveled, “How is it that she keeps getting better?” These twenty-seven poems, as rendered by prize-winning translators Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak, are among her greatest ever. Whether writing about her teenage self, microscopic creatures, or the upsides to living on Earth, she remains a virtuoso of form, line, and thought.

The Box by Gunter Grass, translated from the German by Krishna Winston.

(This is the book I’m most excited about.)

In an audacious literary experiment, Günter Grass writes in the voices of his eight children as they record memories of their childhoods, of growing up, of their father, who was always at work on a new book, always at the margins of their lives. Memories contradictory, critical, loving, accusatory—they piece together an intimate picture of this most public of men. To say nothing of Marie, Grass’s assistant, a family friend of many years, perhaps even a lover, whose snapshots taken with an old-fashioned Agfa box camera provide the author with ideas for his work. But her images offer much more. They reveal a truth beyond the ordinary detail of life, depict the future, tell what might have been, grant the wishes in visual form of those photographed. The children speculate on the nature of this magic: was the enchanted camera a source of inspiration for their father? Did it represent the power of art itself? Was it the eye of God?

We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen, translated from the Danish by Charlotte Barslund with Emma Ryder.

Carsten Jensen’s debut novel has taken the world by storm. Already hailed in Europe as an instant classic, We, the Drowned is the story of the port town of Marstal, whose inhabitants have sailed the world’s oceans aboard freight ships for centuries. Spanning over a hundred years, from the mid-nineteenth century to the end of the Second World War, and from the barren rocks of Newfoundland to the lush plantations of Samoa, from the roughest bars in Tasmania, to the frozen coasts of northern Russia, We, the Drowned spins a magnificent tale of love, war, and adventure, a tale of the men who go to sea and the women they leave behind.

Your Republic Is Calling You by Young-ha Kim, translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim.

Spanning the course of one day, Your Republic Is Calling You is an emotionally taut, psychologically astute, haunting novel that reveals the depth of one particularly gripping family secret and the way in which we sometimes never really know the people we love. Confronting moral questions on small and large scales, it mines the political and cultural transformations that have transformed South Korea since the 1980s. A lament for the fate of a certain kind of man and a certain kind of manhood, it is ultimately a searing study of the long and insidious effects of dividing a nation in two.

Solo by Rana Dasgupta.

(Not a translation, but international in scope and background, and it sounds interesting. Although I have to say that I’m not entirely buying David Mitchell + Alexander Hemon, but if that’s accurate, well then, this must be awesome.)

With an imaginative audacity and lyrical brilliance that puts him in the company of David Mitchell and Alexander Hemon, Rana Dasgupta paints a portrait of a century though the story of a hundred-year-old blind Bulgarian man in a first novel that announces the arrival of an exhilarating new voice in fiction.

In the first movement of Solo we meet Ulrich, the son of a railroad engineer, who has two great passions: the violin and chemistry. Denied the first by his father, he leaves for the Berlin of Einstein and Fritz Haber to study the latter. His studies are cut short when his father’s fortune evaporates, and he must return to Sofia to look after his parents. He never leaves Bulgaria again. Except in his daydreams—and it is those dreams we enter in the volatile second half of the book. In a radical leap from past to present, from life lived to life imagined, Dasgupta follows Ulrich’s fantasy children, born of communism but making their way into a post-communist world of celebrity and violence.

1 Apologies aside, your website still sucks.

9 October 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We’re really not trying to kick Amos Oz while he’s down, but in addition to not winning the Nobel Prize for Literature yesterday (there had been rampant speculation, and he was the odds-on favorite for a while), it sounds like his new novel is as messy as the new Houghton Mifflin Harcourt website1 . . . At least according to our reviewer Dan Vitale whose piece on Rhyming Life & Death is the latest addition to our Review section.

Here’s the opening:

The short novel is a form in which writers typically exercise great control over their material, accepting the abbreviated length as a kind of challenge, working within that limitation to craft a tight, jewel-like story in which all the elements of the piece—plot, tone, imagery—work together to create a unified artistic effect similar to that of a short story. (Think Heart of Darkness, Death in Venice, The Metamorphosis, or The Old Man and the Sea.) This is decidedly not the case with Rhyming Life and Death, Amos Oz’s latest work of fiction to be published in the U.S. in translation.

There is no doubt that Oz, one of Israel’s most prominent writers, is a master. For four decades he has been producing powerful and moving novels such as Elsewhere, Perhaps (1966; translated 1973) and Fima (1993); he is also the author of A Tale of Love and Darkness (2002; translated 2004), an extraordinarily beautiful memoir of his childhood in Jerusalem. But Rhyming Life & Death is quite simply a mess. For such a brief work it is annoyingly loose and undisciplined, and its overall artistic effect borders on incoherence.

Click here for the rest.

1 There are so many cool people I know at HMH that I feel bad always ragging on their web shenanigans. But damn, someone there must have a clue as to how the Internets function. I’ll walk you step-by-step through my most recent experience. For this review, I wanted to include a link to HMH’s page about Rhyming Life & Death. This is something we always do in order to give publishers some attention and provide readers with another source of information. And why not? Every publisher has a website nowadays, right? So I type “Houghton Mifflin Harcourt” into Google and am lead here. WTF am I supposed to do now? My obvious choices are: “At Home,” “At School,” “Around the World,” “Recent News” . . . behind which one of these will I find info about Amos Oz? Since I’m sort of kind of “at home,” I click there and find this, which, at first glance, is about a) Best Sellers (not the Oz book), b) Reference & Professional (shouldn’t this be in “At School” or maybe “At Work”?), and c) Learn @ Home (which really merges that whole “Home” vs. “School” divide on the main menu). Info on all the HMH trade titles for sale in your local bookstore? . . . Well, if you read carefully enough, you’ll find the link beneath “Best Sellers,” which is fucking illogical and pretty deceitful. What’s particularly aggravating about this is the fact that this is at least the fourth different HMH site I’ve tried to use in the past two years and every version has been pure suck. Look, I know you’re bankrupt and all, but please, pay a teenager $50 to show you how people actually use websites. Or just get off the Web.

9 October 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The short novel is a form in which writers typically exercise great control over their material, accepting the abbreviated length as a kind of challenge, working within that limitation to craft a tight, jewel-like story in which all the elements of the piece—plot, tone, imagery—work together to create a unified artistic effect similar to that of a short story. (Think Heart of Darkness, Death in Venice, The Metamorphosis, or The Old Man and the Sea.) This is decidedly not the case with Rhyming Life & Death, Amos Oz’s latest work of fiction to be published in the U.S. in translation.

There is no doubt that Oz, one of Israel’s most prominent writers, is a master. For four decades he has been producing powerful and moving novels such as Elsewhere, Perhaps (1966; translated 1973) and Fima (1993); he is also the author of A Tale of Love and Darkness (2002; translated 2004), an extraordinarily beautiful memoir of his childhood in Jerusalem. But Rhyming Life & Death is quite simply a mess. For such a brief work it is annoyingly loose and undisciplined, and its overall artistic effect borders on incoherence.

The story takes place in Tel Aviv in the early 1980s. A famous Israeli writer in his forties—referred to only as the Author—has been invited to a cultural center to participate in a literary evening devoted to his work. His question-and-answer session with the audience is the last part of the program, preceded by a critic’s lecture and a professional reader’s recital of excerpts from one of the Author’s books.

Before arriving at the cultural center, the Author stops at a café, and we get our first chance to see his creative mind in action. He has barely communicated his order to the waitress before he has begun to speculate about her, and has soon mentally concocted an entire fictional history of her life. Far from this being an idle fancy of his, it turns out to be the Author’s primary way of seeing the world. Almost immediately we get similar speculative portraits of two other café customers, and then, at the cultural center, additional portraits of several audience members as well as the critic and the center’s director. In each case, the Author assigns the person a fictional name, even when it would be reasonable to expect (as with the critic and the director) that the Author would know the person’s real name.

After the program, the Author initiates a conversation with the professional reader, whose (apparently real) name is Rochele Reznik. He escorts her home, then wanders the streets in the company of his various thoughts and imaginings; later he returns to Rochele’s apartment and attempts to seduce her. Afterward, he wanders the streets again, thinking more thoughts, imagining more scenarios about the lives of the people he has met this evening. And that’s essentially it.

Which would be fine if the Author’s speculations, memories, and aesthetic theories were unique or compelling. But for the most part they seem banal, as when, for example, he imagines one of the audience members (whom he names Arnold Bartok) meditating on the supposedly symbiotic relationship between life and death:

One might say, he argues, that life and death came into the world together, as a dialectical pair whose members are indissolubly interdependent: say life and you’ve said death as well. And vice versa. The day life appeared on Earth, death appeared with it.

But this is a completely false supposition, Arnold Bartok reasons. For millions of years trillions of organisms flourished on Earth without any of them ever experiencing death. . . . Only in the present age, when a different form of reproduction, sexual reproduction, appeared, did ageing and death occur.

In only one instance do the Author’s thoughts rise above the predictable to take on a haunting, touching quality, when the Author debates with himself about the ultimate value of the fiction writer’s task:

He is covered in shame and confusion because he observes [his subjects] all from a distance, from the wings, as if they all exist only for him to make use of in his books. And with the shame comes a profound sadness that he is always an outsider, unable to touch or be touched . . . .

To write about things that exist, to try to capture a color or smell or sound in words, is a little like playing Schubert when Schubert is sitting in the hall, and perhaps sniggering in the darkness.

Even so, one can’t help feeling that these sentences would be more at home in an essay (such as those that appear in Oz’s wonderful 1999 collection of literary criticism, The Story Begins).

But the deeper problem with Rhyming Life & Death is illustrated by Oz’s handling of the Author’s return to Rochele’s apartment. At the start of this sequence, each new step in the narrative is introduced with words like “maybe,” “perhaps,” or “but there is another possibility”—as if the sequence were not really unfolding in time but were only another of the Author’s speculations. Nevertheless, actual narrative choices are being made: Oz inexplicably drops the qualifiers as suddenly as he’d introduced them; the sequence does after all unfold in a definitive manner; it contains actions and reactions; certain things transpire while others do not. Oz is trying to have it both ways, but the rules of fiction virtually forbid this. Because if the sequence is speculative, then nothing would prevent the entire novel from being speculative: not just everything the Author imagines about the lives of those around him but the visits to the café and the cultural center—the initial events from which the rest of the novel springs—and even the existence of the Author himself.

Of course, nothing in fiction is “real,” but in order to make any sense fiction has to posit itself as real or else call explicit attention to its artifice. But Rhyming Life & Death does neither. Instead, the text just hangs in a void, leaving no firm ground on which to engage with it. Rather than being an artist’s exploration of the “shame and confusion” of indulging in idle fancy, the work itself becomes an idle fancy. Even a narrative about the basic falseness of narrative could be made to feel true in the hands of a careful writer, but in this short, self-canceling novel Oz has abdicated the artist’s responsibility of shaping his text and making it signify something. Art doesn’t get much more incoherent.

26 August 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is a piece by Dan Vitale on A. B. Yehoshua’s Friendly Fire.

In addition to reviewing for Three Percent (he recently reviewed Aharon Appelfeld’s Laish for us), Dan is a writer, editor, and book reviewer.

Yehoshua is considered to be one of the greatest Israeli writers of his generation, and over the past couple decades, Harcourt has made a number of his books available in English translation, including Mr. Mani, Five Seasons, Open Heart, and A Woman in Jerusalem.

Here’s the opening of Dan’s review of Friendly Fire:

The subtitle of A. B. Yehoshua’s Friendly Fire is A Duet, but its most distinguishing characteristic is the dissonance between its two voices. In the novel’s series of brief alternating sections we are shuttled between the perspectives of a gently controlling husband, Amotz Ya’ari, an engineer; and his increasingly distracted wife Daniela, a schoolteacher. On the morning after the first night of Hanukkah, Amotz takes Daniela to the Tel Aviv airport to board a flight to Nairobi, the layover stop on her way to Morogoro, Tanzania, to visit her brother-in-law Yirmiyahu, the widowed husband of her sister Shuli, who died a year before.

bq Instead of returning to Israel after Shuli’s death and the more recent termination of his job as chargé d’affaires of the Israeli economic mission in Dar es Salaam, Yirmiyahu has fled to an area southwest of Morogoro for a new job with an anthropological research team. Disgusted with his home country, Yirmiyahu is still bitterly mourning another death: that of his son Eyal, an Israeli soldier killed on the West Bank seven years before by friendly fire, just before the start of the second intifada.

Click here for the full review.

26 August 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The subtitle of A. B. Yehoshua’s Friendly Fire is A Duet, but its most distinguishing characteristic is the dissonance between its two voices. In the novel’s series of brief alternating sections we are shuttled between the perspectives of a gently controlling husband, Amotz Ya’ari, an engineer; and his increasingly distracted wife Daniela, a schoolteacher. On the morning after the first night of Hanukkah, Amotz takes Daniela to the Tel Aviv airport to board a flight to Nairobi, the layover stop on her way to Morogoro, Tanzania, to visit her brother-in-law Yirmiyahu, the widowed husband of her sister Shuli, who died a year before.

Instead of returning to Israel after Shuli’s death and the more recent termination of his job as chargé d’affaires of the Israeli economic mission in Dar es Salaam, Yirmiyahu has fled to an area southwest of Morogoro for a new job with an anthropological research team. Disgusted with his home country, Yirmiyahu is still bitterly mourning another death: that of his son Eyal, an Israeli soldier killed on the West Bank seven years before by friendly fire, just before the start of the second intifada.

The purpose of Daniela’s unprecedented solo journey (she is rarely separated from Amotz and relies on him to handle most of the day-to-day details of life) is to rekindle, with Yirmiyahu’s help, her mourning of Shuli, the gradual fading of which, she believes, is the cause of her recent absentmindedness:

it’s not consolation she wants. On the contrary, she is looking for precise words, forgotten facts—or maybe new ones—that will inflame her pain and grief . . . and crack open the crust of forgetfulness that has begun to envelop her.

Amotz, who has stayed behind so as not to intrude on his wife’s mission, has business of his own to conduct: as the head of an elevator-design firm, he must discover the source of a flaw in a newly constructed apartment building that on windy days is causing the elevator shaft to wail and howl, emitting “a growl of stifled fury that at certain floors shifts into mournful sobbing.” Throughout the novel’s seven chapters—one for each of the remaining nights of Hanukkah—Amotz will attempt to solve this problem while also contending with the numerous grievances and emergencies of his family: his ailing father, founder of the firm; his estranged daughter; his son Moran, currently in military custody for shirking reserve duty; his temperamental daughter-in-law Efrat; and Efrat and Moran’s two anxious, high-strung young children.

Meanwhile, Daniela is quickly seduced by the quiet rhythms and bleak beauty of life in her brother-in-law’s new home at the anthropologists’ base camp. She spends relatively little time with Yirmiyahu, befriending the elderly groundskeeper, several members of the anthropological team, and, most affectingly, Sijjin Kuang, the stately Sudanese infirmary nurse who also works as Yirmiyahu’s driver and is thus frequently called upon to convey Daniela to and from various locations. Sijjin Kuang, who has survived the unspeakably violent civil war of the southern Sudan, is an animist who worships (in Daniela’s words) “spirits” and “winds”; she becomes a source of quiet strength and comfort to Daniela in the face of Yirmiyahu’s fierce disdain for his fellow Israelis, which he is sometimes not above taking out on his sister-in-law.

The novel operates in two parallel registers with little in common: ironic comedy in Israel, solemn melancholy in Tanzania. Yehoshua expertly captures and subtly contrasts the richness of Amotz’s busy week in Tel Aviv with the stark poetry of the landscape around Morogoro. What’s more, he is a genius at conjuring living, breathing characters out of just a few lines of dialogue and a brief physical description. And there is plenty of room in each half of the narrative for short, memorable digressions. In Israel, for example, we get a tour of the military training camp in Karkur where Moran has been placed under detention; in Tanzania, through the thoughts and observations of Daniela and Yirmiyahu, we are treated to an analysis of some instructive linguistic contrasts between the Hebrew and King James versions of the Old Testament.

But as Friendly Fire progresses and then begins to wind down, the drawbacks of its dual structure become more apparent. While it takes most of the novel’s length for Amotz to eventually confront and subdue the “uninvited spirits” trapped in the elevator shaft, Daniela’s longed-for epiphany about her dead sister arrives too abruptly, and too early in her portion of the story, to make much of an impact on the reader. Instead, she becomes a nearly passive sounding board for Yirmiyahu’s rage toward the Israeli government’s prosecution of its continual war with the Palestinians, and the lengthy (if fascinating) objections he raises against the Biblical book of his namesake, the angry prophet Jeremiah.

(Incidentally, it’s unusual to fault a Yehoshua novel for poor design. Among his many other works in English translation, each one vibrant and rewarding in unique ways, are several distinguished by their structural elegance, including the genuine 20th-century masterpiece Mr. Mani, a book so architecturally daring and intricate that it defies quick summary here.)

Most disappointing of all, when Amotz and Daniela come back together at novel’s end, their reunion feels hurried and strained. Neither seems to show much real interest in the other’s adventures, despite the fact that each has had tender thoughts about the other during the week-long separation. Nor has the significance of the novel’s setting during Hanukkah ever really been established or elaborated upon. Instead, as husband and wife prepare to light the candles on the final night of the holiday, we are left with a feeling of regret over too many possibilities unexplored, too many potential echoes unexpressed, two intriguing, interwoven melodies adding up to less than the sum of their parts.

15 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Yesterday it was announced that Moody’s has downgraded Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s rating, which sounds sort of familiar . . . probably because they did the same thing last December.

This isn’t good news for the Education Media & Publishing Group—which is incorporated in the Cayman Islands and owns HMH—but rather than pick on HMH for its mishandling of Drenka Willen’s retirement, or for telling the media about their freeze on acquisitions, I’d rather just point out the frightening statistic that triggered this downgrading:

Moody’s maintains that HMH remains vulnerable to state and local spending in the United States on so-called basal and supplemental K-12 (twelfth grade) educational publications. It says those categories posted a 22.8pc decline in sales in January 2009. (from Independent.ie)

A 22.8% decline in sales in one month is pretty severe, especially when talking about educational publications. Book sales overall were flat in January, although they did plunge in February (like all other retail sales) by more than 10%.

On the positive side of things, Cees Nooteboom—one of Drenka’s authors—has been getting some good buzz for Nomad’s Hotel, such as this write-up in Flavorpill’s Daily Dose. And Filip Florian—another HMH author whose Little Fingers sounds pretty interesting, and is under review—will be the feature author at the Observer Translation Project next month.

7 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

From the New York Observer:

Drenka Willen was just one of many individuals—including one woman seven months pregnant and another on maternity leave—to be hastily laid off last month from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt amid budget cuts. She is, however, the only one among them whom the severely troubled company’s CEO, Tony Lucki, has since asked to please come back. [. . .]

Ms. Willen, now 79, edited an improbable number of Nobel Prize winners over the course of her career, and accumulated a startling list of foreign luminaries that included Günter Grass, Umberto Eco, José Saramago, Amos Oz and Wislawa Szymborska.

Mr. Grass was apparently moved to tell Mr. Lucki exactly what a big mistake he had made by asking Ms. Willen to leave. According to several sources, Mr. Grass drafted a letter asking for an explanation, and had something like eight of the authors in Ms. Willen’s stable—Mr. Eco, Mr. Saramago and Ms. Szymborska among them—sign it in solidarity.

Though it’s unclear what role Mr. Grass’s letter had in Mr. Lucki’s decision to offer Ms. Willen her job back—Mr. Lucki did not respond to requests for an interview, and HMH publicity director Lori Glazer would not comment beyond confirming that Ms. Willen had returned to work—it is said to have been delivered about a week after Becky Saletan, who had just announced her resignation as Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s publisher, visited her at home in Soho on the day now known as “Black Wednesday” to inform her of her firing.

I have to say that this is pretty amazing. I’ve never heard of something like this happening, and although Lucki won’t speak about it, I’m willing to bet that Grass’s letter had a wee bit of an impact on his “rethinking” of the situation . . . (Or maybe thinking for the first time about the situation and the impending loss of some of the greatest writers of the past century.)

I also like the fact that Drenka will “spend the next several months working from her home to tie up loose ends in preparation for a proper retirement.” Yeah, HMH fired a legend who was about to retire. Glad someone developed a conscience there and are letting Drenka leave on her own terms, after seeing her books (especially the retranslation of Grass’s Tin Drum) through to completion.

31 December 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

For the next several weeks we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.



Death with Interruptions by Jose Saramago, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa. (Portugal, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Jose Saramago is the third Nobel Prize winner (along with Imre Kertesz and Halldor Laxness) to make the Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, and his latest novel, Death with Interruptions, is the perfect book to write about on New Year’s Eve:

The following day, no one died. This fact, being absolutely contrary to life’s rules, provoked enormous and, in the circumstances, perfectly justifiable anxiety in people’s minds, for we have only to consider that in the entire forty volumes of universal history there is no mention, not even one exemplary case, of such a phenomenon ever having occurred, for a whole day to go by, with its generous allowance of twenty-four hours, diurnal and nocturnal, matutinal and vespertine, without one death from an illness, a fatal fall, or a successful suicide, not one, not a single one. Not even from a car accident, so frequent on festive occasions, when blithe irresponsibility and an excess of alcohol jockey for position on the roads to decide who will reach death first. New year’s eve had failed to leave behind it the usual calamitous trail of fatalities, as if old atropos with her great bared teeth had decided to put aside her shears for a day.

Saramago’s most notable novels—_Blindness_, The Stone Raft, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ—are all “what if?” stories. What if everyone suddenly went blind? What if the Iberian Peninsula broke off from Europe? Or, in this case, what if people suddenly stopped dying? What would happen to society? Would the prospect of eternal life for all really be a good thing?

The systematic and imaginative way in which Saramago explores all the various ramifications of these “what if” situations is what makes his novels so much fun. For instance, if no one dies, than there’s no need for funeral parlors, causing the whole industry to have to retool. On the other hand, hospitals and nursing homes are suddenly overrun with people on the brink of death, but who can’t die. And how the mafia gets involved in all of this—whenever there’s a money-making opportunity, the mafia, or “maphia” as they call themselves in this novel, is there—is both ingenious and raises some interesting ethical questions for Saramago to play with.

Just the other day, Goodloe Byron wrote an essay on Saramago for Ed Champion’s Reluctant Habits that focuses on Death with Interruptions and does a great job describing the second half of this novel:

But thankfully, death returns! She is classically personified, coming to us with skull, scythe, and all, a contrast to the modern view of death as a biological process. Now the story happens again, localized to a single character: an unsung cellist whom death is unable to kill. Suddenly, the story focuses and takes on the tone of an old school romance, and interestingly shares some traits with romantic obsession narratives such as Marc Behm’s Eye of the Beholder. It is a Da Capo al Fine move, repeating the central premise of the book but altering environmental physics from the purely positive world of his later phase, into the classical fables that characterized his first. Though something along this lines was hinted at in Seeing, to my mind, this is a transition radical enough to be considered entirely new for Saramago, and it presents us with the skeleton key to the book. This time, Death is amazed by her own impotence in the face of the human being, who remains ignorant of her, a nice reversal of the working order. This goes to the core of what Saramago’s all about, recalling the distinction between the human will (the mortal, individual spirit that dies with or before us) and soul (the eternal part of man removed from its human excess) that he explored in Baltasar and Blimunda. Instead of judging humanity by what is naturally effective (a la Deng Xiaoping), Saramago is suggesting that we should judge nature by what is morally affective (which, for Saramago, is grassroots Marxism).

What’s always surprised me is just how popular Saramago’s books are despite the fact that they embody almost all of the elements that supposedly drive readers away from translated literature: long paragraphs with idiosyncratic punctuation, dialogue that isn’t set off by quotation marks or anything else, occasional moments in which the narrator breaks the “fourth wall” and addresses the reader directly. In a recent Guardian article Margaret Jull Costa—who has done an amazing job of rendering Saramago in English—describes his unique writing style and its connection to traditional Portuguese literature:

With Risen from the Ground, about three generations of an Alentejo peasant family, he began the great novels of the 80s, and invented his distinctive style of “continuous flow” with sparse punctuation. His English translator Margaret Jull Costa says his “seamless narrative voice” is meant to sound like speech. He orchestrates sounds and pauses. She also likens him to the 19th-century realist novelist Eça de Queiroz, “in a tradition of mocking Portugal, making fun of it”.

Granted, winning the Nobel Prize helped bring a lot of attention and readers to Saramago, but I think the warmth of his voice and the unique way that his fairytale-esque novels read as if they could be oral histories, that has made him one of today’s most widely read international authors.

4 December 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

On the same day that we try and celebrate literature in translation, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (still trying to bring their website into the 1990s) fired Drenka Willen one of the most influential editors of international literature of the past half-century. She’s responsible for Harcourt’s string of great foreign authors, like Gunter Grass and Jose Saramago and Italo Calvino and on and on.

Sure, I haven’t finished my MBA and don’t understand “business,” but I think this is a blindly stupid decision. I can’t imagine many of Drenka’s living authors—Umberto Eco, Saramago, etc.—will be all that thrilled to publish their future works with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. And why did Houghton Mifflin buy Harcourt in the first place? One would hope that the world-class caliber of authors Drenka had acquired and cultivated was one of the reasons . . .

It’s clear that HMH is in turmoil, and based on these recent decisions (freezing acquisitions, firing top editors, complete fail on digital initiatives) I feel pretty safe in saying that HMH is not a publisher I’ll be paying any attention to in the future.

On a happier note, here’s a nice profile that PW did back in 2002.

25 November 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Yesterday afternoon, Publishers Weekly sent out an e-mail alert regarding Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s decision to “temporarily” (their quotes, not mine) pause acquisitions. Which doesn’t sound very good:

Josef Blumenfeld, v-p of communications for HMH, confirmed that the publisher has “temporarily stopped acquiring manuscripts” across its trade and reference divisions. The directive was given verbally to a handful of executives and, according to Blumenfeld, is “not a permanent change.” Blumenfeld, who hedged on when the ban might be lifted, said that the right project could still go to the editorial review board. He also maintained that the the decision is less about taking drastic measures than conducting good business.

Wonder if any other companies will follow suit . . .

*

In contrast, yesterday our bid for Mathias Enard’s Zone was accepted by Actes Sud. A 500-page, single-sentence French novel, Zone has been getting a lot of great attention. Translator and author Christophe Claro said it’s the novel of the decade and it recently won the Prix Decembre. Brian Evenson e-mailed me recently about how impressive this novel is, but it was this quote from Conversational Reading that set the ball in motion for us:

Zone is considered by some to be the most ambitious novel to be published in France this year. Proust, Celine, Joyce and The Iliad are mentioned as the inspirations behind it. According to the editor’s description at amazon.fr the novel features such characters as Genet, Pound, Burroughs, Cervantes, Hannibal, and Napoleon.

That quote and this excellent excerpt that Charlotte Mandell (who will be translating the whole book) did for Fiction France.

Right now, we’e looking at a summer 2010 pub date . . .

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