Bruce Wolmer: I’m tempted to begin by asking the question interviewers on French TV like to pose: “Gregor von Rezzori, _qui êtes-vous?_”—Who are you? Which is immediately funny considering that the enigmas and paradoxes—and humor—of identity is a central concern of your work. But one wouldn’t know that reading the reviews, where you’re almost inevitably conflated with the first-person narrator.
Gregor von Rezzori: Absolutely. This is such an old discussion: To what extent are books autobiographic? It’s ridiculous. As Flaubert famously said, Mme. Bovary c’est moi. You can’t eliminate yourself totally unless you’re Shakespeare.
BW: That goes against the grain of much contemporary opinion and practice, which claims to be getting down to the truth of the author rather than the truth of the fiction.
GvR: The Death of My Brother Abel is narrated by a writer. The narrator, the “I”—and funnily enough he is less my own person than any other first person in any of my other books—the narrator in The Death of My Brother Abel is a totally fictitious character. But, of course, nowadays people have little curiosity about examining such complexities. There is this desire of authenticity and transparency which connects with the curious contemporary belief that everybody is, or should be, an artist.
I must tell you that when I was young I never had the faintest idea that I should ever become a writer. I studied mining engineering, of all things. I came to writing by accident at a rather ripe age. I never thought of really having the urge to express myself, but obviously I had it in some way or other. But without ever having heard the phrase, I had to find my identity. That’s one of those dreadful verbal expressions. A phrase like that becomes fashionable and then becomes a slogan and becomes really a program for people’s lives. Every young man or girl nowadays ponders about his or her identity without even realizing what it is. My identity is “I”. It takes a long time to learn that that much celebrated “I” is never lost, but never really found either.
Anyway, in my case I was having a period in my life in which I didn’t have anything else to do—this was before the war—so one day I sat down and wrote a story. Somebody got hold of it and sent it to a publisher. They instantly wanted me to write another one, which I did. Because I thought, my God, this is a very agreeable way of earning money. How wrong I was I found out later. But by then it was too late.
BW: A disagreeable way of not earning much money.
GvR: Yes, yes. Somebody with a little bit more intelligence doing the same amount of work, you’ll become an Onassis. Well, who needs that? But it’s in real disproportion. Then when I realized what crap I had been writing, you see, I sat down, and just then the war came. I was fortunate—I didn’t actually have to be a soldier exactly. I was born in Bukovina, Rumania. Before Rumania went into the war it was given to the Russians so I was already more or less a Russian although I still had a Rumanian passport and was living in Vienna at that time. When Bohemia was taken by the Russians I went to our ambassador in Berlin, who was a friend of the family, and I said, “What shall I do, what am I supposed to do?” He said, “Well, you are supposed to go home and find a new identity because you don’t exist. And then you’ll die from Mr. Hitler because within a short time you shall have to join in those struggles. I can’t prolong your passport. How long is it still valid?” I said. “For a year.” He said, “Keep quiet.” Which I did. It lasted for three more years during the war. I had my share of bombing and all that, but in the meantime I had the opportunity to really fill the unbelievable gaps in my knowledge by reading. I must tell you that I read very slowly and I need months to finish a real masterpiece, for example one of Broch’s novels. [. . .]
BW: What has been Nabokov’s influence on you?
GvR: Well, there were many other influences first. I didn’t read Nabokov until late. But when I had started to write Abel in its first version, I got Nabokov’s Pale Fire in my hand and instantly put my pen down because I found that there was the book I wanted to write already in the best possible form. Then I collaborated on the translation of Lolita into German, and I became aware that I shall never achieve the almost medieval craft of Nabokov’s to link fiction with literary allusion and write a book on many layers—of which one is a direct and fictitiously concrete reality, and behind there is the other reality, the literary reality of all the allusions, all the relations of literature with other literature. At the same time that it’s discouraging, it’s very challenging.
BW: Other influences?
GvR: Everything influences you as a writer, whatever you read. I believe there isn’t any such thing as a bad book, because you take out of any book something by which you learn, even if you throw it away. Then there are writers who encourage me immensely and writers whom I admire so much that I put down my pen and say, “I can’t write.” For instance, I can’t read ten lines of Robert Musil and keep on writing, I stop for a week at least. Even Joyce. He discourages me totally. But then there are others who encourage me. Thomas Mann with his sort of schoolboyish sense of humor challenges me to get a little subtler. Ironic. And so on.
GvR: Well, yes. Not consciously, but the violence. In literature, particularly at that period, a certain barbarism is necessary. Also for the sake of honesty. You can’t be suave and God knows what in a time like ours. Also there is in him an urge for iconoclastic action which was also very much an aspect of German Expressionism after the First World War.
You can read the entire interview here.
Following on last week’s serialization of Margaret Schwartz’s introduction to Macedonio Fernandez’s The Museum of Eterna’s Novel (The First Good Novel), here’s an interview that she did with Meredith Keller, one of our current interns.
Meredith Keller: I know you spent your Fulbright year studying Macedonio Fernandez’s life and work, but how did you first come across him?
Margaret Schwartz: I first encountered Macedonio in a lovely phrase from Borges: “What will die with me when I die? What fragile, pathetic form will the world lose? The voice of Macedonio Fernandez, the image of a roan horse in the vacant lot at Serrano and Charcas, a bar of sulphur in the drawer of a mahogany desk?” I have always been fascinated by the idea of traces—small, seemingly insignificant tokens that mysteriously open on to hidden worlds. That’s what the name Macedonio Fernandez was for me. I was moved enough by the passage to look him up, started reading him, and that was it for me. I remember the first time I walked by the corner of Serrano and Charcas, too—there’s a gas station there, now.
MK: Aside from those studying Argentine literature (or working at Open Letter), I don’t think many American readers are familiar with Macedonio. How is he perceived in Argentina?
MS: I’d say that Macedonio is considered a folk hero more than a literary giant. Everybody knows him, but only the academics and literary folk have actually read him. Popularly, however, he’s sometimes viewed with more affection than Borges, who is often considered a snob or a tourist attraction. In academic and literary circles, where people do read and respect him a great deal, he’s often viewed as a kind of postmodern visionary. There are lots of books in Spanish about his prescience on topics as diverse as postcolonialism, deconstruction, and Lacanian psychoanalysis. There is also a group of young people, hipsters I guess, who run an “Anarchist Archive” in San Telmo and they have some Macedonio first editions.
I think if you’re down there as an American and you’re interested in Macedonio, people treat you really well, because he’s not so well known outside of Argentina. They feel really honored and excited that you’ve taken the time to discover someone that they feel is deeply intertwined with their national values and the peculiarity of what makes them Argentines. And that’s across social strata. The first time I was in Buenos Aires I stayed at a kind of ladies boarding house, and the women I met there were all really working class and not very educated. But they seriously framed a copy of the letter of permission I got from Macedonio’s granddaughter, Maite Obieta, that I was going to use for the Fulbright application, because they were so emotional about my work. Strange, but true, I swear!
MK: Museum must’ve been a particularly difficult book to translate. Was there a theoretical (or maybe procedural?) approach that you used for this project?
MS: The key to my process in this case is the hours and hours I spent in Macedonio’s archive, reading his handwritten manuscripts, notebooks, and diaries. Almost all of Macedonio’s books were published posthumously, which means he never got a chance to decide what order things should be in, and what things should get cut and what things should stay. That biographical fact, plus the spiraling, open-ended nature of his prose and the ideas he’s trying to express about consciousness, make reading him (and translation is in some ways a very special kind of reading) into a sort of detective work. You work with clues—with traces, like I said before. And you have to go with your hunches. In my case, those hours spent reading accumulated in my subconscious to make a kind of Macedonian murmur. It took a long time to hear—but there’s an earnestness and melancholy about him, despite all his irony and silliness. Once I realized that, I found I had a voice for him, and I had the confidence to translate him without trying to be ridiculously faithful to his insane syntax.
As for theoretical approaches—is it cliché at this point to talk about Benjamin? Though I don’t buy the idea of a shared linguistic essence, his ideas about translation resonate with my process for The Museum of Eterna’s Novel. As a translator, you have to believe there’s something there, that you can pull out of the source language and sort of embed in the target language. I’d hesitate to call it a truth or an essence, but it’s something. So when I was translating Macedonio I would kind of put my ear to the tracks, metaphorically speaking, and listen for what he might sound like in English. Maybe that’s why when I do readings of Macedonio I sometimes end up sounding like my old Jewish relatives.
MK: Which leads nicely into my next question: Do you have any favorite sentences from the book?
MS: Sigh! There are so many good ones. When I read Thirlwell’s preface I was struck by some of the passages he quoted. I was like, “Wait, did I translate that? It’s beautiful!” You get very close to things when you’re working on a book. So I’ll pick the one that a friend picked: “All the statues that saddened the plazas were evicted, and in their place grew the best roses.”
MK: I know this if your first book-length translation to be published, but are there other Spanish writers you’ve worked on? Ones that are maybe easier to translate than Macedonio? It’s hard to imagine anyone starting off with such a complex novel . . .
MS: I have actually mostly translated Macedonio. [blush.] I was working on another of his books, called The Newcomer’s Papers, when I met Chad from Open Letter, and we started working on _Museum of Eterna’s Novel_—which I had also translated parts of, but wasn’t actively working on at the time. Macedonio is what made me want to do literary translation.
I did also translate an issue of Popular Communication, which is an academic journal in Media Studies (I’m an assistant professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University). That was a really rewarding experience, because so much work in our field is global, but it doesn’t get circulated as it should because all of our major journals are in English. So I really salute Popular Communication for that—it’s much rarer in academia than you’d think.
But the experience of doing that translation—well, everything seems so much easier after Macedonio! But it was also interesting to find that one still struggles with voice—how to make it sound like an academic article would in English, with the same kind of diction, the same kind of authoritative register. It was fun.
MK: In your introduction to the novel, you cite Scalabrini Ortíz’s statement that Macedonio was Buenos Aires’s only authentic philosopher, and elaborate that “He’s an archetype, a kind of distillation of what it is to think like an Argentine, of the particular poetics and mournful solitude of the South.” Is there something unique about the way Argentina/Macedonio thinks?
MS: Argentina has typically viewed itself as kind of unique in Latin America—a sort of different breed. Which is why if you talk to people from other parts of that region they’ll often say that Argentines are snobs! But historically, Argentina developed as a nation in a far corner of the Spanish empire, during the colonial period. The land is mostly flat, with lots and lots of plains—the pampas—and so it developed as a ranching country, much like the American west. It had a very small population of immigrants, and its indigenous population was mostly nomadic—not like the big civilizations of Peru and Mexico. So if you put together those factors—the small population, the quickly decimated native people, and the huge expanses of land—you get a certain individualism, and a certain sense of isolation. The archetypal Argentine is the gaucho—a man who works as a ranch hand and as a mercenary, who travels with the herd and who sells his knife or his tracking skills to the highest bidder. Romantically he’s often pictured with his mate and his guitar, alone on the prairie, much like our cowboys.
Now Macedonio, of course, was no kind of cowboy. But he came from a very old family, one that traced its roots back to the earliest colonial times. He was Argentine, through and through, in a nation that identifies itself, much as the U.S. does, as built on immigration. And he was a highly original thinker who believed in the uniqueness of the Argentine people. His writing is full of witty references to life in Buenos Aires, and to little details of everyday life that have a very distinct Argentine flair to them: mate, a strong tea drunk from a gourd; empanadas, alfajores, whistling tea kettles and chilly winter patios and lost buttons and dimly lit street corners. His writing, but more properly his persona, which he cultivated in life and which Borges amplified after his death, exemplifies the kind of courteous, self-effacing, idealistic yet melancholy feeling that is part of the romanticism in Argentine literature about those empty, lonely, vast expanses to the south.
MK: Anyone who’s ever tried to translate literature knows that it takes more than fluency, a solid grasp of grammar, and a good dictionary—the true challenge and key to a successful translation is rendering the poetics and refined artistry of the original prose in the target language. You describe Macedonio’s prose as “baroque” and “complicated and ornate,” where the “diction is antiquated if not necessarily high-register.” How did you go about conveying these characteristics in English?
MS: I tried to keep the register high, even absurdist, without tangling the syntax too much. I remember insisting that the verb “to redact” not be changed to the simpler “to write,” for that reason. There’s something of the old-timey soap box salesman in Macedonio—there are no cars or carts in his world, only conveyances, contraptions. He also reminds me of a silent film comedian, like Harold Lloyd or Charlie Chaplin: there are a lot of exaggerated, winking asides and grandiose yet absurd gestures, a lot of madcap, Keystone-Cops-esque sequences. So where I could, I let run on sentences run on. I tried to find a way to keep all that loopiness, even when sometimes I had to straighten out the syntax or cut a long sentence up.
MK: Do you have any recommendations or advice for aspiring literary translators?
MS: OK well this will sound very goofy, but it’s true: Translate what you love! I worked for ten years on this, and I never hoped to get it published. Then one day I met Chad at a conference and he asked me what I was working on. I said, “Oh, you won’t have heard of him, he’s this Argentine avant-gardist . . .” and he said, “I’ve been trying to get the rights to that book for the past five years.” Suddenly I had a press that really believed in translation and an editor who loved the project. It was perfect. You’re not going to make a million being a literary translator, so why not let your passion guide you? You’ll be happier, and you’ll attract people who care about the project the same way you do. It’s a win-win!
Well, hopefully. It might take another day to get back in the swing of things, but I am back and will be writing a couple reviews this week, featuring July’s store of the month, etc., etc. (And finally replying to e-mails, in case you’re waiting for a response . . .)
Green Apple is a damn cool store, and their “Book of the Month Videos” are a pretty innovative and fun. Here’s the most recent one for Werner Herzog’s Conquest of the Useless: Reflections on the Making of Fitzcarraldo:
Chad Post (who you may know as the guy who wrote all the words above and below this post) was recently interviewed by Nigel Beale for his literary podcast. It’s a candid 28 minutes—covering the state of literature in translation, the American publishing landscape, Open Letter, and etc.—so take a look.
(Also, you can check the rest of Nigel’s offerings here.)
It’s not available online, but the new issue of Stop Smiling — the third annual 20 interviews issue — contains the last ever interview given by Roberto Bolano.
And interviews with some other interesting people as well, like Enrique Vila-Matas, Jonathan Lethem, Paul Auster, and Stephen Malkmus, although I’m sure the Bolano interview will be cause enough for a lot of people to go out and buy this. . . .
We conducted this interview a few months ago, but thought we’d run it in its entirety today, since his book is now available and will be shipping to bookstores in the very near future.
Bragi Ólafsson was born in Reykjavik, and may be most well known for playing bass in The Sugarcubes, Björk’s first band. After recording three albums and touring the world, he quit making music and turned to writing. He is the author of several books of poetry and short stories, and four novels, including Time Off, which was nominated for the Icelandic Literature Prize in 1999 (as was The Pets), and Party Games, for which Bragi received the DV Cultural Prize in 2004. His most recent novel— The Ambassador (which Open Letter will publish in late 2009)—was a finalist for the 2008 Nordic Literature Prize and received the Icelandic Bookseller’s Award as best novel of the year.
The Pets is now available in Janice Balfour’s translation (978-1-934824-01-6; $14.95) will be the first book of his to appear in English.
Bragi was kind enough to answer some questions about his work and life over e-mail.
Open Letter: As a writer, you started out writing poetry and have even done some playwriting. How did that transition—from poet to playwright to novelist—take place? Have you continued writing poetry, or have you shifted your focus exclusively to the novel?
Bragi Ólafsson: My first literary idols were poets, so it seemed obvious to write poetry. I wrote my first texts when I was 13 or 14 years old. These poets I read were mostly Icelandic, and through them and their translations of European and American poets I came into contact with “foreign” literature, and started appreciating a lot of modernist prose and playwriting. The writer who has probably influenced me the most, and served as the biggest encouragement, is Harold Pinter. But as I knew that I would never be able to write plays as good as his, I decided to concentrate on poetry, and eventually prose. However I’ve written some radio plays for the State Radio, and one play for the City Theater. And now I’ve been commissioned to write a play for the National Theater. After I published my first novel I’ve gradually stopped writing poetry; somehow I have become intimidated by its form. I think I have realized that the novel is the form that suits me the best.
OL: You translate as well, right? How did that come about?
BO: I have translated some poems and Paul Auster’s City of Glass. The reason why I translated Auster’s book is that my publisher asked me to do it. I don’t consider myself as a translator. But I have great respect for Paul Auster, he has written some excellent books, and edited a very good anthology of Twentieth Century French Poetry. A person who likes Max Jacob doesn’t have to worry about anything.
OL: Turning to _The Pets_—one of the most striking things about the book is the fact that for most of the novel, the main character, and main narrator, Emil is trapped under his bed. Was this a restriction you set out for yourself at the beginning of the novel, or did it occur naturally during the writing process?
BO: After an English friend of mine told me of a rather unfortunate incident he had with a guinea-pig, cement and a water-hose, I wanted to write a story about a person who is assigned to take care of a few pet animals. I had some difficulty in finding the correct form and tone for the story, but one day when I was sitting in my living room, looking at the open window with a steaming hot coffee in front of me, I started to imagine some unwanted person coming through the window and me hiding under the bed, and all of a sudden that very idea and the story about the pets came together. Thus the method of telling the story existed from the start. But that the main character is trapped under his bed is not really a restriction, on the contrary it’s very helpful for the imagination of the person writing the story. In fact I would like to write more novels from that point of view, I feel comfortable under a bed, it’s probably something from childhood.
OL: A series of “the view from under the bed” books would be fantastic. . . . Personally, as the book went along, I got more and more anxious about how Emil was going to get out and how the situation would be resolved. (Being an ex-smoker, the few references to how long it had been since his last cigarette gave me vicarious nic fits.) I guess that’s what I would see as the main constraint—how is this going to end? And without giving much away, I have to admit that I was pleased and shocked by how the story was resolved. When did you know how the novel would end the way that it does?
BO: I’ve had lots of comments on how the novel ends. While many readers find it very frustrating, even feel betrayed, other readers think it is the proper ending to a story like this. One reader came up to me and told me that the ending of The Pets was the second best ending he had read in a book. I was of course very flattered to hear that, especially because this reader seemed like a “normal” person, not a literature student. And when I asked him what was the best ending he had read, the answer was: For Whom the Bell Tolls! It made my day.
I had not decided how The Pets was going to end when I started the book, and I think that decision came rather late in the writing process. I had tried two or three different endings but always felt I was betraying myself and the story by not letting it end the way it does. I think it’s a good thing when an ending of a book gives the reader the permission to decide for himself what has really been going on in the story and what will happen after he has read the last page.
But talking about strange or disturbing endings; there’s a book called The Golden Egg by a Dutch writer, Tim Krabbé. It was made into a very good film called Spoorloos, by a Dutch film director, and the ending of that film is probably one of the most unpleasant, and at the same time one of the most exhilarating, endings in film history. But then the same director remade the film for Hollywood, and what happened? The new film, which was called The Vanishing, got a happy ending, so that American movie-goers wouldn’t be too troubled by what they had seen.
OL: Returning to your earlier response for a second—I really can’t believe the guinea pig story is true! For me, that scene encapsulates what I really like about your book—it’s very funny, and at the same time slightly disturbing. Are there any authors/books that influenced your style and sense of humor?
BO: Yes, the guinea pig story is true. I didn’t see it happen myself but I’ve been in the backyard where it happened!
I try to avoid naming authors which I think have influenced my way of writing – because I don’t really know who have – but I very much like the humor and precision in Gogol, Chekhov and Pinter, and the novels of Evelyn Waugh, Italo Svevo, Thomas Bernhard and Saul Bellow, just to name a few very different authors. And the brilliant humor of Halldor Laxness, and another Icelandic writer, Thorbergur Thordarson, is very important for Icelandic writers and artists. But I’m no less influenced by films. Films like Playtime by Tati, La grande bouffe my Marco Ferreri and Mulholland Drive by David Lynch have some comic moments that I think about almost every day; scenes that are very shallow and profound at the same time. For example the scene in Lynch’s film about the meeting in the boardroom; it’s worth hundreds of books, it’s total genius (if that word means anything).
OL: On top of everything else, you also run the fantastically named publishing company, Bad Taste, in Iceland. Could you tell me a little bit about how it got started and what you publish?
BO: Before my friends and I formed The Sugarcubes we started the company Bad Taste. The Sugarcubes were actually formed in order to finance the publishing company, which it then did for five or six years. Bad Taste has been the leading independent record company in Iceland for 20 years, although we have never made any money out of it, only lost a lot of it. (Two years ago The Sugarcubes reformed for just one night to save Bad Taste from bankruptcy. And we succeeded.) We not only publish popular music but also modern Icelandic music and jazz, and historical recordings. Then we publish some books as well. My first book of poetry was published by Bad Taste in 1986, and two years ago I started a series of little books, called The Bad Taste Booklets, containing poetry, both translated and original, and prose.
OL: When I visited Icelandic publishers, I was fascinated by the idea that most of the works of fiction published in Iceland all come out during the same month—something that would never happen in America. What kind of challenges/opportunities does this pose for a publisher?
BO: Some traditions are good, but this old tradition of only publishing books in October and November is not one of them. The Icelandic reading public sees literature as Christmas presents, and if your book doesn’t catch any attention as such, it won’t sell any copies. Because of this the publishers behave like total barbarians in the five or six weeks before Christmas, they advertise like madmen on television and in the papers, and the books are mainly sold in the supermarkets. It’s not a very civilized situation. And the obligation on writers, to finish their books in time for the so-called Book Flood, is not good for literature’s sakes, obviously it sometimes results in half-finished books. And a writer that publishes a half-finished book is stuck with it for the rest of his (half-finished) life. And it’s a problem not only facing the writers but also the critics, as they have to read and review dozens of books in the space of some five or six weeks. I may not sound too happy about this – and I am not – but still, this hysterical book-craze in November and December is of course a lot of fun too, especially when you don’t have a book out yourself and can watch the other writers suffering.
OL: Are you working on a new book?
BO: Yes, I’m working on a novel which is related to my last novel, The Ambassador. This one has the working title The Screenplay, and tells the story of two men in their late sixties (a film director, educated in Czechoslovakia, who has never made a film after he finished his studies, and a playwright and a translator who has never actually had a play produced) who suddenly, with the help of an old acquaintance, a rich pharmacist, get the opportunity to write and produce a film of their own. But at the start of the novel one of the two guys, who’s called Örn Featherby, gets the news that his recently dead English father, who lived in Hull and whom he hadn’t had contact with in thirty years, has left him in his will a great collection of shoes, almost two hundred pairs that should fit his son. Örn decides to collect his inheritance, but because he has a bad fear of flying he has to travel by sea, and he and his friend, whose name is Jón Magnússon, go on a trawler to Hull, with the intention of using the time on board to work on their screenplay. The story is told by Jón Magnússon’s ex sister-in-law, who is also indirectly a character in the novel, so we follow the adventures of Jón and Örn Featherby through the eyes of a woman.
(Does this make sense? The novel itself probably doesn’t make any sense at all, but the description of it should . . .)
Selected Works by Bragi Ólafsson
Hvildardagar (Days Off, a novel), publ. Bjartur 1999
Gaeludyrin (The Pets, a novel), publ. Bjartur 2001 (in English, Danish, German and Spanish translation)
Samkvaemisleikir (Party Games, a novel), publ. Bjartur 2004
Sendiherrann (The Ambassador, a novel), publ. Mal og Menning 2006
Dragsugur (Draught), publ. Bad Taste Ltd 1986
Fjorar Linur og Titill (Four lines and a title), publ. Bad Taste Ltd 2006
Groid Hverfi (A Solid Neighbourhood), a radio play broadcasted by the State Radio in May 2003 (in English translation).
Belgiska Kongo (Belgian Congo), a stage play which has been performed at The Municipal Theatre in Reykjavík since May 2004.
Interview copyrighted © Open Letter, 2008
“Rambling Jack—what’s that?”
“A novel. Novella, I guess.”
“Yeah, it looks short. What is it, a hundred pages?”
“Sorta. It’s a duel language book, so really, only about… 50 pages total.”
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