As with years past, we’re going to spend the next three weeks highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.
Click here for all past and future posts in this series.
Fiasco by Imre Kertesz, translated by Tim Wilkinson
Publisher: Melville House
Why This Book Should Win: Because I introduced Tim Wilkinson to Dennis and Valerie of Melville House outside of the London Review of Books bookstores years ago, and as a result, they published a number of his Kertesz translations. It would be sort of perfect if Wilkinson then won this award . . .
Today’s post is by Christopher Willard, who is the author of Sundre and Garbage Head. He lives in Calgary and teaches at the Alberta College of Art + Design.
A man who Kertesz calls the “old boy” muses on the writing and subsequent publisher’s rejection of his early novel as he tries to locate a subject for his next novel. Kertész is most likely recalling an attempt to publish his first novel Fatelessness, based upon his deportation to Auschwitz when he was fourteen years old. In allowing fiction to revive facts, Kertész sets up a dense and masterful analogy: a book detailing one’s experiences may arbitrarily be rejected as lifeless and a person may be rendered lifeless by the whims of a totalitarian authority. This raises the thematic questions Kertész’s old boy struggles with, if one cannot control one’s fate or death, if ultimately death is situated closer to absurdity than rationale, what justifies living, what justifies writing about living? The attempt to answer the questions satisfactorily meets with utter failure. This is the fiasco. Kertész writes, “There was one thing that, perhaps I did not think of: we are never capable of interpreting for ourselves.”
The first third of the book is written in sort of call and response structure reminiscent of Beckett as evidenced in Krapp’s Last Tape. Kertész reflects (and reflects upon) the present and past through series of parenthetical statements. This makes for enjoyably dense reading but one imagines the enormity of the translator’s task in capturing both the accuracy and flow of such writing. For example regarding the old boy’s age, Kertész writes:
In all probability it would be simplest just to say how old he was (if we were not averse to such exceedingly dubious specifics, changing as they do from year to year, day to day, even minute to minute) (and who knows how many years, days and minutes our story will arch) (or what twists and turns that span may span) (as a result of which we might suddenly find ourselves in a situation where we may no longer be able to vouch for our rash assertions).
This ageless old boy exists, and not particularly by his own choosing. His burden seems to be the entire package: life, living, history, remembering, writing, the old novel, the next novel, the novel that makes up the remaining two-thirds of the book. The old boy began writing not to be a writer but to understand an unalterable past, and consequentially he involuntarily became a writer who now feels obliged to continue writing even though the he is aware that the writing makes living no easier, the living makes writing no easier, and the past book makes the future book no easier. Kertész seems to suggest the old boy suffers a Sisyphean punishment imposed by arbitrary alignment of coincidences and the conscious decision to continue; we suspect that man is Kertész.
I first found out about this, because they included an excerpt from Ingrid Winterbach’s The Book of Happenstance, which we’re bringing out in June. The excerpt is fantastic, naturally, but the care and design that’s gone into this web feature is equally impressive. In addition to the excerpt itself, the righthand column contains a number of cool extras, including a link to read the piece in the original Afrikaans, or to hear Ingrid read it in Afrikaans. There’s also a note from the translators (Ingrid and Dick Winterbach). Obsessed with translation issues as I am, I think their comments are really interesting:
An important motif in the novel The Book of Happenstance is the loss of words in Afrikaans – the countless words that have fallen into disuse for a variety of reasons. The protagonist is a lexicographer, who collaborates with an etymologist in cataloguing these obsolete words. The novel accordingly foregrounds language: it focuses on unusual words, word play, the etymology of words, free association. This foregrounding of language poses very specific difficulties for the translator. It requires an attention to language akin to that needed for the translation of poetry.
These disused words occur frequently in the text (sometimes running for paragraphs on end). What is interesting for an Afrikaans reader, however – familiar with the current status of a word – could very well be wearisome to the foreign language reader, unnecessarily and frustratingly slowing down the narrative. The challenge was to retain as many of the words as possible – but still make them as captivating as possible for the foreign reader.
Also included in this issue of Asymptote:An excerpt from Imre Kertesz’s Fiasco which is translated by Tim Wilkinson and has a very striking opening:
Your manuscript has been assessed by our firm’s readers. On the basis of their unanimous opinion we are unable to undertake publication of your novel.
We consider that your way of giving artistic expression to the material of your experiences does not come off, whereas the subject itself is horrific and shocking. The fact that it nevertheless fails to become a shattering experience for the reader hinges primarily to the main protagonist’s, to put it mildly, odd reactions. While we find it understandable that the adolescent main protagonist does not immediately grasp what is happening around him (the call-up for forced labour, compulsory wearing of the yellow star, etc.), we think it inexplicable why, on arrival at the concentration camp, he sees the bald-shaven prisoners as “suspect.” More passages in bad taste follow: “Their faces did not exactly inspire confidence either: jug ears, prominent noses, sunken, beady eyes with a crafty gleam. Quite like Jews in every respect.”
It is also incredible that the spectacle of the crematoria arouses in him feelings of “a sense of a certain joke, a kind of student jape,” as he knows he is in an extermination camp and his being a Jew is sufficient reason for him to be killed. His behaviour, his gauche comments repel and offend the reader, who can only be annoyed on reading the novel’s ending, since the behaviour the main protagonist has displayed hitherto, his lack of compassion, gives him no ground to dispense moral judgements, call others to account (e.g. the reproaches he makes to the Jewish family living in the same building). We must also say something about the style. For the most part your sentences are clumsy, couched in a tortuous form, and sadly there are all too many phrases like “…on the whole…,” “naturally enough,” and “besides which …”
We are therefore returning the manuscript to you. Regards.
There’s also a section of Liu Zhenyun’s Cell Phone, which is described by translator Howard Goldblatt:
Cell Phone began as a joint project between Liu Zhenyun, one of the country’s most respected novelists, and Feng Xiaogang, creator of the cinematic blockbuster and China’s most successful director of mainstream films. The co-written script for the movie spawned the novel, both of which appeared at the end of 2003. While observing friends at a party kept busy answering cell phones, Liu noted the camouflage and pretenses employed in many of the conversations, which seemed to hold deep secrets, and he sensed that these instruments of ubiquitous communication could be a double-edged sword, capable of linking practical utility to moral expedience. That is the core issue of Liu’s novel, whose light-hearted, often comical tone lays a thin veil over the author’s evocation of the cost of technology’s incursion into urban life and the concomitant loss of privacy, already in short supply in Chinese society.
The insular village surrounded by oceans of billowing needle trees is one of the recurring themes in Lindgren’s writing. In The Tree, this conceptual image is crucial. Isolated in time and space, the village comes to stand for the paradoxical pairing of insular, uncultivated narrow-mindedness and refined, perfected, material and social culture where everyone and everything knows its place and function. It is a seemingly eternal place, of great beauty and cultural depth, yet always on the brink of annihilation.
Asymptote is quickly establishing itself as one of the most interesting—and best designed—translation websites out there. Keep up the good (and beautiful!) work.
We’re into the home stretch now . . . Through next Friday 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.
Detective Story by Imre Kertesz, translated from the Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson. (Hungary, Knopf)
This is one of two Kertesz titles that could’ve made this year’s Best Translated Book fiction longlist, the other being The Pathseeker, which was released by Melville House shortly after Detective Story came out from Knopf. (Ironically, these two books were originally published in one volume in Hungary.)
I have to say that it’s pretty heartening when a Nobel Prize-winning author leaves
a big the biggest publisher for an indie press, and in a way it’s too bad that both books didn’t make our list.
Eurozine has a very informative essay by Tim Wilkinson about both of these books.
Detective Story is a novel set in Latin America and written by Anotonio Martens, a former member of the “Corps” (an organization like the KGB, SS, etc.) who has been jailed for his involvement in the murder of Federigo and Enrique Salinas. This novel is Martens’s chance to tell his side of the story and how this murder came about.
It’s a tight, interesting story that, as Michael Orthofer alludes to is greatly disturbing for its universality.
I don’t want to give away too much, but the real power of this book comes from the reader knowing that Federigo and Enrique are innocent, while reading a firsthand account of how the Corps formed their beliefs and what they decided to do about their suspicions.
Another disturbing aspect of this book is the casual way members of the Corps talked about torture devices. This section involves a statue on Marens’s colleague’s desk:
It consisted of a base on which stood two uprights ending in forks. Resting on the forks was a rod, which in turn supported a tiny human figure in such a way that it passed between the bent knees and the wrists handcuffed together behind the knees. A devastating contraption, no two ways about it. Diaz glowered at it.
“What on earth is that?” he asked.
“That? It’s a Boger swing,” Rodriguez responded with great affection.
“Boger?” Diaz fussed. “What do you mean, Boger?”
“That’s the name of the fellow who invented it,” Rodriguez explained. [. . .]
“This bit here”—Rodriguez traced a small circle over it with his finger—“is freed up. You can do with him what you will.” He looked up at Diaz and grinned. I might as well not have been there—which is just as well as I probably only would have stuttered. That reflects badly on a person. “Or else,” Rodriguez continued, “you can squat down here, by his mug, and ask him whatever you want to know.” [. . .]
“What in the blue blazes do you need it for?” [Diaz] inquired in a fatherly tone. “We’ve got every sort of plaything. All you have to do is press a button, and it switches on an electric current. That’s what they use the world over these days: clean and convenient. Isn’t that enough for you?”
Kertesz is one of three Nobel Prize winners on the longlist (Saramago and Laxness being the others), and his Nobel acceptance speech is available online and worth taking a look at. I’ll end here with an interesting, and somewhat relevant quote:
It is often said of me – some intend it as a compliment, others as a complaint – that I write about a single subject: the Holocaust. I have no quarrel with that. Why shouldn’t I accept, with certain qualifications, the place assigned to me on the shelves of libraries? Which writer today is not a writer of the Holocaust? One does not have to choose the Holocaust as one’s subject to detect the broken voice that has dominated modern European art for decades. I will go so far as to say that I know of no genuine work of art that does not reflect this break. It is as if, after a night of terrible dreams, one looked around the world, defeated, helpless.
The Kertesz is a really positive review of both The Pathseeker (out from Melville House) and Detective Story (out from Knopf) by Ruth Scurr.
This year Tim Wilkinson has produced translations of the two short novels Kertész published in a single volume in 1977: The Pathseeker and Detective Story. Taken together, these translations are a wonderful opportunity to deepen our understanding of Kertész. While neither book is explicitly about the Holocaust, both assert the autonomy of fiction in its shadow.
Scurr has good things to say about Wilkinson’s translation as well:
In explaining something of the weight and importance of Kertész’s subjects and creative achievements, it is hard to convey simultaneously the deftness and vivacity of his writing: his sheer joy in making something new with words. Tim Wilkinson must be deeply responsive to Kertész’s delight in language to convey it so pervasively in his translations.
William Deresiewicz’s piece on Zweig’s The Post-Office Girl is also quite interesting, even if it does raise some questions about the book itself.
Zweig nibbled at The Post-Office Girl for years. The NYRB press material claims that the novel was found completed after its author’s death, “awaiting only minor revisions,” but the afterword to the German edition describes a manuscript in considerable disarray. Given that Zweig chose his own time of death, and given that he had just finalized two other works and dispatched them to his publishers, it seems clear that he never managed to hammer the novel into a shape that satisfied him.
Nevertheless, the book sounds fantastic—a sentiment echoed in an upcoming review of it that we’ll be posting over the next few days.
By renouncing the pleasures of vicarious feeling, The Post-Office Girl achieves an immediacy otherwise unequaled in Zweig’s fiction. No frame narrator screens us from the title character, 28-year-old Christine Hoflehner, postal clerk in the sleepy Austrian village of Klein-Reifling. The year is 1926. Christine shares a dank attic with her rheumatic mother. Her youth has been stolen by the war, along with her father, her brother and her laugh. But into the gloom of her days a sudden light breaks—a telegram from her aunt Claire, gone to America years before and now come back a rich lady. Claire invites her niece to join her on holiday in Switzerland. [. . .]
All of this represents an immeasurable advance over Zweig’s other fiction. Instead of a single emotion intensively examined within a narrow social frame—a fair description even, as its title suggests, of Beware of Pity, though that work is considerably longer than The Post-Office Girl—Zweig gives us fully rounded lives rooted in a broad historical context. This, he is telling us, is what the war has done to people. This is what history has made of their bodies. This is the fate of a whole generation. The question of historical luck, and thus of the possibility of alternative lives or selves, is everywhere at issue.
In contrast to Joshua Cohen’s cranky review in Forward, the review of Kertesz’s Pathseeker in the New York Sun (which, at risk of beating a dead horse, has become the premiere daily newspaper for thoughtful reviews of international lit) is much more positive.
Slender though it is, The Pathseeker is a necessary addition to Mr. Kertész’s work in English, and should occasion thanks to both the novelist and his translator, Tim Wilkinson, who has rendered Mr. Kertész’s (famously difficult) Hungarian into a flowing, able English — as well as to Melville House’s fascinating “The Contemporary Art of the Novella” series, which rubric The Pathseeker falls under.
(I’m planning a long post on this, but the Melville House “Contemporary Art of the Novella” series is not just impressive, but fucking amazing. Much more to come on this . . .)
In terms of the book itself, this may not be the most “selling” of paragraphs, but it totally caught my interest:
Mr. Kertész’s prose, recursive and long-breathed, keeps pace with the circular, frustrated action of the plot. Anonymity, elliptical speech, a fluid, almost euphuistic beauty, and an obdurate refusal on Mr. Kertész’s part to concede to even the most usual desires of the reader: The Pathseeker might seem, in a summary treatment, like the colorless, belabored works produced by writers whose sole aim is to toy with narrative convention. But Mr. Kertész places its maddening, permanent, and eerie periphrasis in the highest possible service: moral witness. And precisely because Mr. Kertesz refuses to speak with full openness about the scenery, its history, and his protagonist’s deep and damaging relation to both, The Pathseeker avoids even the slightest tendency toward ethical didacticism, a great risk when writing about the Holocaust.
Joshua Cohen has a long review of both Kertesz books that have come out so far this year: Detective Story and The Pathseeker.
(Before going any further, I think it’s worth pointing out that Cohen rivals Three Percent fave Ben Lytal in the sheer number of literary translations he reviews.)
Cohen has mixed feelings about both books (but prefers The Pathseeker, calling it “the less surprising but ultimately more impressive fiction”), and about the quality of the translations.
But what I find most interesting is this:
I would like to say two words about the business and translation of books. One: Knopf — the American publishing house that has published more Nobel Prize-winner works than any other — has published Detective Story and is marketing it as a novel. And, Melville House — a small press based in Brooklyn — has published The Pathseeker as the debut of a series called “The Contemporary Art of the Novella.” It should be noted that in this instance, the novella is longer and more complex than the novel, which has been called what it’s not if only to help with its sales. Such are the hopes of multinational publishing. That Kertész has chosen to publish independently is laudable; Knopf was unwilling for reasons that were undoubtedly economic, or foolish.
There’s also a great quote from Kertesz about the first translations of his books (Fateless and Kaddish for a Child Not Born—is there a reason it’s not “for an Unborn Child”?) that were published by Northwestern some years back:
“I really tried to protest against the first translations, but I found complete rejection. The publisher was not willing to do new translations. It was a really bad feeling. It was as if you had a very sane character who has a rendezvous with the reader and the person who shows up is basically a real jerk, with a stammer, bad breath and a foul mouth.”
Benjamin Lytal reviews Imre Kertész’s Detective Story for the New York Sun:
“Detective Story” (1977) is another sort of tale altogether — except that, then again, it isn’t. Set in an unnamed Latin American country, the new novel, which was Mr. Kertész’s third in Hungarian, spins a deeply self-conscious web of psychological drama that should be familiar to any of Mr. Kertész’s readers. Like them, it is a very brief book, one that you could breeze through, if you wanted, without noticing its delicacy. As we learn from the opening chapter, “Detective Story” presents the testimony of a low-level intelligence agent, brought to justice now that the dictator he served has fallen. Antonio Martens presumably faces death for crimes against humanity, and most specifically for the deaths of Federigo and Enrique Salinas, father and son, two famous industrialists executed, without evidence, by Martens and his colleagues.
Bookslut reviews Imre Kertesz’s Detective Story:
As a chronicler of the Holocaust and its aftermath, Nobel Prize-winner Imre Kertesz allows no redemption and no transcendence. If you cry while reading Fatelessness or Kaddish for an Unborn Child, you’ll cry bitter, furious tears, but most likely, you won’t be able cry at all. A terrible white ball of impossibility will grow in your throat and pinch your mind and your soul. His approach to life after Auschwitz is closer to Primo Levi’s (whose poem “Kaddish” curses those who go about their daily lives without considering atrocity, and who portrays the Holocaust not as some historical aberration, but as the truth about humanity) than to Roberto Benigni’s (whose Life is Beautiful was the favorite movie of Pope John Paul II). Even when Kertesz isn’t writing about Auschwitz, he’s writing about Auschwitz.
Hungarian Literature Online has a great article by Tim Wilkinson on the short prose of Nobel-winner Imre Kertesz.
Wilkinson has translated several Kertesz books, including Fatelessness, Kaddish for an Unborn Child, Liquidation, Detective Story, The Pathseeker: Searching for Traces, and The Union Jack, or The British Standard. (The last three are coming out in 2008—Knopf is bringing out Detective Story this month and Melville House is doing Pathseeker and The Union Jack later this year.)
The article is quite interesting, providing a great overview of Kertesz’s work and tying it into Beckett:
Galley-Boat Log indicates that Kertész was aware of Beckett’s work (despite official disapproval of it on the part of the Soviet bloc’s cultural tsars). Malone Dies evidently made a profound impression, because one can find several references to this in 1987. In mid-year he quotes: “I began again, to try and live . . . But little by little with a different aim, no longer in order to succeed, but in order to fail”; then, at the very end of that year, “I was born grave as others syphilitic,” and ”. . . he who has waited long enough will wait for ever. And there comes the hour when nothing more can happen and nobody more can come and all is ended but the waiting that knows itself in vain. Perhaps he had come to that.” There is another explicit reference to Malone Dies in Kaddish for an Unborn Child (“I began again, to try and live . . . But little by little with a different aim, no longer in order to succeed, but in order to fail”), and possibly also to Molloy (“It was a larch tree. It is the only tree I can identify with certainty…”), but maybe the most poignant is: “We have got rid of our rights” (Waiting for Godot). There are other references, such as the epigraph to Liquidation, which is again from Molloy: “Then I went back into the house and wrote, It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining.”
Sara Kramer from NYRB told me 2008 was going to be the “Year of the Hungarians,” and after reading this—and realizing Kertesz has three books coming out this year—I’m starting to believe her . . .
César Aira dishes up an imaginative parable on how identity shapes our sense of belonging with Dinner, his latest release in English. Aira’s narrator (who, appropriately, remains nameless) is a self-pitying, bitter man—in his late fifties, living again with. . .
Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .
Even though the latest from Jean Echenoz is only a thin volume containing seven of what he calls “little literary objects,” it is packed with surprises. In these pieces, things happen below the surface, sometimes both literally and figuratively. As. . .
Who is this woman? This is the question that opens Xiao Bai’s French Concession, a novel of colonial-era Shanghai’s spies and revolutionaries, police and smugglers, who scoot between doorways, walk nonchalantly down avenues, smoke cigars in police bureaus, and lounge. . .
For the past 140 years, Anna Karenina has been loved by millions of readers all over the world. It’s easy to see why: the novel’s two main plots revolve around characters who are just trying to find happiness through love.. . .
Linn Ullmann’s The Cold Song, her fifth novel, is built much like the house about which its story orbits: Mailund, a stately white mansion set in the Norwegian countryside a few hours drive from Oslo. The house, nestled into the. . .
Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other. . .