28 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.

In Red by Magdalena Tulli, translated by Bill Johnston

Language: Polish

Country: Poland
Publisher: Archipelago Books

Why This Book Should Win: Bill Johnston really deserves to win this award. Especially as the only translator with two longlisted titles.

Today’s post is by Sean Bye, an amateur translator of Polish and Russian, and artistic co-director of the Invisible Theatre Company. He is a graduate of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, where he studied Polish language and literature. He is based in London.

Magdalena Tulli’s In Red tells the story of the tiny, fictional town of Stitchings, in an imaginary region of Poland under Swedish occupation, where it is winter all year round and the sun only rises for an hour or so around lunchtime. The book takes us from the start of the twentieth century through to about the 1930s, as Stitchings is first occupied by the Germans in World War I and then finally in an independent Poland.

In Red toys with the idea of a small town as a world unto itself where nothing ever changes, like the local textile factory, run by generations of identical fathers and sons, all named Sebastian Loom. The story of the book, to the extent that it has one, is of this equilibrium being interrupted. As the book winds its way through the history of Stitchings the town becomes literally unrecognizable, out of nowhere developing a balmy climate and a bustling port. Main characters are born and die practically without comment as the story moves from one character to the next, each of them with their own rich, almost standalone story and most of them coming to a grisly end. One story flows into another following a logic that seems at once natural and inscrutable. The sense of poetic drift is emphasized by the book’s magic realist style. Bullets circle the earth before killing, soldiers are marked for death by small strands of red string that drift from a young woman’s embroidery, and the weathercock on the town hall is tied with a tiny, silver string to a lucky star in the sky.

In Red is an intensely visual book, overflowing with rich images and picturesque tableaux that round out the portrait. The reader in the end is left with the feeling of having completed a grand epic in 158 pages, of knowing the town of Stitchings and its people inside and out, a town where the topography of people’s lives is as dark and labrythine as that of its streets. Nothing is ever entirely as it seems in Stitchings, and as the book draws to a close, the reader is left with the feeling that this book may not have been what we first thought it to be, either—a neat little turn that made me eager to come back to it. I read the book with the Polish original in one hand and Bill Johnston’s translation in the other—Johnston works wonders with Tulli’s knotty, complex prose. He is to be commended for bringing this little masterpiece to us in English in such consummate, effortless style.

2 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Following up on the Read This Next feature of Magdalena Tulli’s In Red, we now have now posted an interview with Polish translator Bill Johnston about this novel.

Bill is an amazing translator and reader, and this interview is filthy with interesting insights into both the translation process and Tulli’s work as a whole. HIGHLY RECOMMEND. Here’s an excerpt:

LY: So do you think in her progression towards a more traditional narrative style, she’s losing something, or do you think that this is actually highlighting the unusualness of her writing?

BJ: Well, to me Flaw is the first overtly personal book that she’s written. It’s about a square in a bourgeois area of an unnamed city where a streetcar runs around the square in a circle. Over the course of the single day, refugees start to emerge from the streetcar and gather in the square. The people living around the square don’t know what to do with them and end up herding the refugees onto the little lawn at the center of the square and telling them they have to stay there. And at one point, one pregnant woman gives birth on the square. The baby’s delivered, but in the confusion the baby goes missing. It just disappears. One of the recurring devices in the book is that Tulli says of a particular character, “it could be you, it could be me,” and basically says about this baby: “it could be me.” It was at that point that I realized how personal the book is for Tulli. Her mother was a Holocaust survivor, and I think there’s a degree of trauma that can be read into all of her writings, but especially Flaw. This is a book about how one deals with “the unwanted,” what Mike Davis calls “surplus humanity,” but it’s also a book about Tulli herself. This was the first time I had seen her overtly present in one of her own books, not hiding behind the mask of a rather sort of pedantic narrator, which she often draws on. I see that very much as a progression.

And has she lost anything? I think Dreams and Stones is a really beautiful book. It’s very much a book of ideas, but it’s also a book of poetry for me, a book of images of extraordinary vividness. But I don’t think she loses that. Her style is always incredibly precise. When you sit down and start to translate something, you really quickly start to see whether the prose has been put together carefully, and in Tulli’s case there’s an extraordinary precision in her choice of words, in the choice of sentence structure, in the exact positioning of perspective mediating between the writer and the narrator, in the characters and so on. And I think that follows through all of the books. When I’ve shown Tulli drafts of the translations, we’ve had very long discussions about very precise phrasing. In fact, she’s even changed some of the original phrases for the English translation. I’m always a little worried that somebody’s going to sit down and compare the two versions and say this is a bad translation. There are some differences between the Polish and the English, but that’s because Tulli decided she should have written it differently. She’s known for revising her own work a great deal, so with each of her books I’ve had to make sure that the version that I’m working with is in fact the most recent version. It’s a little scary when you’re getting into a translation and somebody says, “Oh by the way, this new revised version just came out . . .”

So she’s very much a stylist in the mode of Flaubert, very concerned about word choice, and punctuation and sentence structure and so on, and I think that’s something that remains throughout all four books.

LY: Do you think this makes the process of translating her more difficult, or more enjoyable?

BJ: Both, definitely. For me, as a translator, difficult is enjoyable. Usually. When it’s a good challenge. As a translator I love writers who are very precise and creative with language. Who are not just telling a story in a kind of workmanlike fashion, but really revel in the material with which they’re making their stories. Tulli is very much in that mode. She’s extremely difficult, so it’s a slow process, but a very rewarding one when it finally comes out. It helps to have translated her other three books, because even though each book has a particular narrative voice, there’s still kind of an authorial—I hesitate to use the word “spirit” because of Douglas Robinson—there’s an authorial kind of underlying voice or discourse that can be traced from one book to another. Not that it goes any faster, but maybe I feel a little more confidence. Also, having corresponded so much with Tulli, as I’m working I can hear her comments, saying It’s not that word it’s this word and Could we not do it this way? or Do we have to have to have this syntax? and I think that helps.

Read the whole thing here.

11 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In case you missed it, last Friday, as part of the RTN feature on Tulli’s In Red, we posted this interview with Polish translator Bill Johnston.

Here’s the opening:

Lily Ye: I should start off by saying that I’m not actually that familiar with the other works of Tulli, so I wanted to ask you where you thought In Red fell in her progress as an author, since I know you said that Dreams and Stones was more of a prose-poem, and then later on she moves into a more narrative structure, so where do you think In Red falls?

Bill Johnston: In Red is actually [her second novel], Dreams and Stones was the first and then there was In Red, and then the novel which is called, in English, Moving Parts, and then Flaw is the last one. Tulli and I actually disagree about Dreams and Stones. She still calls it a novel, and I tend to think of it as a prose poem, and you know, I think that would be an interesting argument or discussion in terms of genre. I think for me, a book which doesn’t really have any characters, like human characters, is hard to describe as a novel, it’s a book of ideas—I’m talking about Dreams and Stones—and it has a kind of a story arc which is kind of what she, I would imagine, is what she was thinking about when she described it as a novel. I mean, it also has a fundamental underlying conflict like you find in novels, or particularly dramatic works, but in Dreams and Stones it’s much more to do with the conflict of metaphors, is the city like a tree or is it like a machine? But it’s still very far from anything that we would think of in normal parlance as a novel.

I think with In Red she starts to adapt more elements from traditional novels, and do very interesting and very original things with them, but still we have people, we have people who say things, we have conversations, we have a plot, we have a setting, we have you know a lot of the traditional elements that even today are in most novels, in most books that are called novels. So In Red is kind of the first time that she does that, she has something we might call dialogue, she has these characters, she has a plot and so on. I think her third book, Moving Parts, is a little atypical. That’s the one that most people refer to when they talk about meta-fiction, which was one of your questions that we can talk about in a moment. That’s a book which is very difficult very complex, and I think in a sense she returns to the narrative formats in Flaw, and Flaw is the first of her books that has like a single story arc, that begins on the first page and ends on the last, over the course of a single day, but a lot happens there and you have some kind of unity of plot and place, and time and so on. I mean I guess one could argue that it almost plays out more like a Greek tragedy rather than any sort of novelistic piece. All of her books are really short, many people might consider them more novella length, but definitely Flaw has this single story, the feel of a novella or short novel, In Red is still sort of groping toward that.

You can see In Red has an interesting structure, it’s in three parts, and in each of the parts the central town of the, the setting is somehow different, in one it’s very cold in the other it’s very tropical and so you got these three almost sort of self-contained different takes on what goes on there, but they’re also related in terms of time, and there is an overall time arc that takes us through maybe through the, I don’t what it’s supposed to be, maybe the first half of the twentieth century or something like that. And not characters but relations between characters whether it’s master and servant or fathers and children and relations, they pass from one part of the book to another, so it’s a book which does have an overall unity of structure and has many more of the elements which one would think of as a novel.

I’ve been reading Proust recently, and I see strong echoes of that kind of writing in what she’s doing and obviously what she’s doing in In Red is not imitating the great realist and modernist novels, but she’s taking a lot of elements from them in order to, in a sense, highlight the unusualness of her own writing. But there are scenes, you in the scene where Natalie Zugoff kind of flounces off the train station expecting all the men around to pick up all of her, what is it, 15 suitcases and so on. That’s straight out of Proust, that scene. Clearly in terms of realism and in terms of the authorial voice she’s very different from those writers, she’s very much a writer of the early 21st century, it’s just interesting to see her folding in those more traditional elements, to point out what’s unusual.

Click here to read the full thing.

8 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Lily Ye on Magdalena Tulli’s In Red, this week’s Read This Next book, which is translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston and coming out in September from Archipelago Books.

Lily comes to us from the University of Chicago by way of Jeff Waxman’s glowing recommendation. Expect to see her name on Three Percent a lot over the next few months, since she’s managing the Read This Next project.

Here’s the opening of her review:

Stitchings, the town in which Magdalena Tulli’s In Red exclusively takes place, is one of those fictional locales which always has me wondering if there is some place in reality perhaps so-named that has been reimagined, or if it truly exists only as a fantastic realm in the author’s imagination. With a poor working knowledge of anything geographic in general, it would not have surprised me to find out that Tulli’s Stitchings did in fact exist—but it is largely due to the power this imaginary town wields in dictating the course of the novel’s many intertwining threads that contributes to a nagging feeling that there must be something corporeal to this place, for it to grip its chronicler so tightly.

The narration never shifts its focus from the town: every narrative move seems to be led by flow of time through this singular place. Characters and plots appear and disappear as their significance waxes and wanes in relation to the life of the town itself. You cannot choose a favorite protagonist, for as soon as you do, Stitchings may have already lost interest, or better yet, said protagonist may well die (as most quickly do), but having died, might yet also return (not uncommon as well). The love story, the war story, these are not narrative frameworks Tulli has time to dwell on, for Stitchings presses on without regard for a classic conflict-resolution arc. A single bullet can be fired which will continue to orbit the earth, completely ignored, until it reappears in the town thirty pages later, firmly lodging itself in a man’s chest.

Throughout the book however, like the most insidious of villains, Stitchings remains largely concealed in the background. As its own entity, the town is only brought into the foreground a few times where the audience is directly addressed in the manner of a travel or tourist agency.

Click here to read the full review.

8 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Stitchings, the town in which Magdalena Tulli’s In Red exclusively takes place, is one of those fictional locales which always has me wondering if there is some place in reality perhaps so-named that has been reimagined, or if it truly exists only as a fantastic realm in the author’s imagination. With a poor working knowledge of anything geographic in general, it would not have surprised me to find out that Tulli’s Stitchings did in fact exist—but it is largely due to the power this imaginary town wields in dictating the course of the novel’s many intertwining threads that contributes to a nagging feeling that there must be something corporeal to this place, for it to grip its chronicler so tightly.

The narration never shifts its focus from the town: every narrative move seems to be led by flow of time through this singular place. Characters and plots appear and disappear as their significance waxes and wanes in relation to the life of the town itself. You cannot choose a favorite protagonist, for as soon as you do, Stitchings may have already lost interest, or better yet, said protagonist may well die (as most quickly do), but having died, might yet also return (not uncommon as well). The love story, the war story, these are not narrative frameworks Tulli has time to dwell on, for Stitchings presses on without regard for a classic conflict-resolution arc. A single bullet can be fired which will continue to orbit the earth, completely ignored, until it reappears in the town thirty pages later, firmly lodging itself in a man’s chest.

Throughout the book however, like the most insidious of villains, Stitchings remains largely concealed in the background. As its own entity, the town is only brought into the foreground a few times where the audience is directly addressed in the manner of a travel or tourist agency.

The book begins:

Whoever has been everywhere and seen everything, last of all should pay a visit to Stitchings. Simply take a seat in a sleigh and, before being overcome by sleep, speed across a plain that’s as empty as a blank sheet of paper, boundless as life itself.

As the book continues, there is indeed a feeling of drifting off into sleep, and emerging in a dream of Tulli’s writing, filling the landscape before you. Her seemingly easy mastery of language assists in transitioning you from scene to scene without you ever having noticed. There is a poetry in her language that shifts from the figurative to the literal so seamlessly that it is easy to forget what is description and what is action:

For Guards Street took its shape from the sinuous melody of the taps played every evening on the bugle. The instrument’s golden sounds soared into the air and wafted over the roofs of the apartment houses. But on the far side of the market square they dropped at once with the labored flight of a stunned bird.

From one sentence or paragraph to the next, I often realized new surroundings with no recollection of how I got there—such is the fluidity of her writing. Of course, this sometimes made for a bit of confusion, but as I had the text in front of me, I could go back and re-trace my steps, but this very act is part of the trap of the town that Tulli has put together.

In this town, rings that seemed lost forever are found once again, a dead husband refuses to die so that his wife cannot remarry—nothing leaves Stitchings, it is its own microcosm. And so it is shocking when Natalie Zugoff, a singer brought for the town theatre, appears near the end of the book, when you are sure things must be wrapping up. Understanding the nature of the book, however, as forcefully compelled by the long life of an entire town, that we have such a late introduction to a merely human character becomes unsurprising. In a way, Tulli has made something of a difficult trap for herself as author by writing a town that refuses to be wrapped up.

As the book comes to a close, Tulli must return the narration to a direct address to the reader, for there is simply no other way to end the book. It is an authorial address to both the reader and the narrative voice of the novel:

If you wish to leave Stitchings, do not hesitate for a moment: you have to do it between the capital letter and the period, without clinging to any broken-off thought, without waiting for the final word.

....
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