25 July 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

When my eyes first crossed the back cover of Fabio Genovesi’s novel Live Bait, I was caught by a blurb nestled between accolades, a few words from a reviewer for La Repubblica stating that the novel was, however magically, “[b]eyond any cliché.”

Generally, I’m a suspicious reader; big claims scare me off. Having never watched a Fellini film and with only Calvino and Pavese as literary signposts, I entered the novel (guided by veteran translator Michael F. Moore) with a healthy amount of skepticism. Just a few chapters in, however, I knew that even if Genovesi hadn’t managed to overcome cliché, he had indeed created an electric book, a book that stirs, and one that you can’t help living—and living with—along the way. It’s fair to say that Genovesi’s English debut touches all the right spots and echoes back just enough universalized Weltschmerz to leave the reader cringing over mistakes they too once made. And, for that, you’re in it until the end.

Live Bait launches with a memory, as things usually do: a fused snapshot, a spark of what was circling through a narrative live wire. Yet for our antihero Fiorenzo Marelli, it is a recollection that continues on, as some would put it, in phantomlike form; he has already lost part of himself (literally) before he hits that strange, dazed, and oddly jaded limbo called high school. This first brush with emptiness has cleared the way for the Italian metalhead’s Bildungsroman to creep into being, made evident as he so casually philosophizes in the novel’s first episode: “Because real emptiness isn’t finding nothing. It’s finding nothing where there’s supposed to be something.” And not so strangely, it is just this emptiness that continues to occupy his life; it is a nebulous hollow that, like the ditches where he finds respite while fishing for bottom feeders, belies a host of other organisms underneath. Now, maybe I’m mixing my reviewer metaphors here. Even so, I’d also hedge a bet that it is by crafting just this eddy of images floating in and out of view that Genovesi grasps onto our “real” world.

The novel rightly begins with a nineteen-year-old Fiorenzo, handless, rehearsing with his band Metal Devastation. He has recently lost his mother and has become increasingly estranged from his father. Fiorenzo’s a smart kid—just let him tell you—although he refuses to continue on as society expects. School, work, all of it can wait. When his father offers to put up a talented outsider from the bicycling team he coaches, Fiorenzo hastily retreats; sensing the aloof new youngster a threat to his throne, he moves into their family bait shop to live among the worms. Cue the soft shuffling of little grubby insects for some novelistic ambience. We hear him muse in his bed for a while: “And there I was, lying down on sacks of amaretto-and-cherry flavored ground bait, thinking this was the sound you heard in the coffin.” He’ll keep that little tidbit for later to write some awful lyrics about his melancholy experience.

Days go by, but Fiorenzo doesn’t budge. His town, Muglione, seems to be rotting. He is cast into a net of familial and social backwash and, feeling the routine ennui that accompanies small-town life, sets about to become famous—it’s what he deserves of course, having spent years as a social outcast—along with his band mates. This includes one chubby guy who, as Fiorenzo relays, believes that, “T-Shirts are the cages of the system.” Their debut at a local festival is on the horizon. But things don’t go as planned. No one is listening. In fact, they’re booed off stage. He isn’t ready. The world is shit. He is ready. Ready for something. He’s angry. Maybe he has the right to be. There is some really rich teenage angst to be mined here, and Genovesi accomplishes it better than Salinger, in my humble opinion. Fiorenzo may sense that things are “phony,” but at least he knows how to take a cosmic joke.

And the saga wouldn’t be complete without a beautiful woman to set off the story, and it just so happens that this woman, believing Italian men to be little boys gone bald, is just curious enough—and perhaps I’m being generous here—to let Fiorenzo in. Her name is Tiziana Cosci: witty, intelligent, a girl with great tits but still plagued with the same stifling insecurity that so many thirty-somethings in quarter-life crisis have yet to shake off. Those sighs of relief—you survived your teenage years!—that you let out while reading passages fervidly narrated by Fiorenzo now get caught in your throat. The anxiety, the shame, the offhand words imprinted on your tongue all still exist; now you’re just better at hiding it. But that’s where the real story begins, where the two fronts of weakness and doubt and curiosity collide: two bodies, strange, new in that I’d do anything to just touch your skin teenage kind-of-way, enter a half-finished tango to the grunts of old Italian men.

I’m not sure if I’m being nostalgic or not—strangely enough, I too had a 19-year-old metalhead boyfriend who is strikingly like the protagonist—but the only word that I’ll allow myself to describe Fiorenzo is “tender,” perhaps because that word also appears on the back cover. I say tender knowing that tenderness is a condition laced with a smattering of other emotions and conditions that we tend to shed with age: a tender narcissism, a tender cruelty, a tender misfit-hood, a tender awkward few fingers not reaching their mark in bed. And this tenderness is also always physical for Fiorenzo, from his phantom limb to the first amorous caresses that he shares with Tiziana. I closed the book a few times in embarrassment for our man on the ground, who, knowing his limits, spells out the delicate situation quite concretely: “Listen, I don’t know how to put it inside, but I can recognize a carp bite a mile away.”

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a cluster of minor characters that animate the book, types that all those stuck in a languishing little town might recognize. My favorite is a certain Mazinger, who, outfitted in ridiculous hand-me-ups from a fashion-slave grandson, hangs around every corner speaking “like a Japanese robot.” We first encounter him in the bait shop, telling Fiorenzo, “YOUR—DAD—IS—A—SHIT.” Mazinger is part of an elderly troop calling themselves the “Muglione Guardians.” These old men must fight off the gangs of Romanians and other Eastern Europeans who have found their way into the grand village of Muglione, although these Romanian gangsters are not really gangsters, nor are they Romanian. Then there’s Mirko, the little champ set to win back Muglione’s honor. Gripped by those tender years of adolescence, he’s a kid who just wants to fit in and who winds up carrying Fiorenzo’s biggest secret. Put all of these folks together in Genovesi’s world and you’re stuck to the book like glue.

Underneath the jocular weavings of Fiorenzo and his crew, some real tensions—and by real I aim to underscore the tangible anxieties that inevitably work their way into conversation when speaking about the economic situation in Europe at present—poke through. Muglione comes to represent a fierce attachment to tradition that is quickly dying with its elderly brigades. The only things that seem to be prospering are the shops and other business ventures run by immigrants, and anyone who has spent time in Europe knows that the politics around this new class of workers is on the tip of every tongue.

As for the translation, it hits head on. And it is just this kind of book that demands a kind of lived translation—with all of its dialogue and code-switching between generations and genre—in order to keep up with the curious humor that runs right through. I’m hesitant to mention any points where I stumbled in my own reading, not only because I’m not familiar with the source text, but also because I think that Moore has captured so much of what pulled at my heart in his playful rendering. But perhaps as a note for future readers (of which I hope there will be many), I’ll mention that there are a few points where you’re not sure if it’s a teenager or his father speaking. It’s hard for me at twenty-five to read the word “prick” where the word “dick” seems called for; again, I’m drawing on my ex-metal head’s vocabulary. I also learned a new word—“suck-ass”—that I’ll be employing more often. Friends beware.

En fin, Live Bait won’t change your life. But it will open you up. It will open up that part of you that you’ve been trying to cover with dirt and paper in your attempt at adulthood. It’s not mawkish. There’s no grand plan. And there’s some cliché. But most of all, there is tenderness, and I would read the novel again just to feel that bit of warmth emanating from its pages.

18 July 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is a piece by Peter Biello on The Skin by Curzio Malaparte, translated by David Moore and out last year from New York Review Books.

If you’re looking for some post-WWII-themed, summer reading with disturbing imagery that would blow Jane Yolen and her time-traveling YA hit out of the shark-infested waters (don’t ask about the sharks), this book should be on your list. The rich, blood-red cover treatment, the title, the grisly things Peter (of the Burlington Writers Workshop) mentions in his review . . . It’s enough to make you literally grimace and wonder how many episodes of Keeping up with the Kardashians you can self-medicate with to make the entire world go away but still not land yourself in the camp of comatose self-loathing. Basically, if you want a visceral and historical heebie-jeebie fest, this is it.

And yes: Kardashians and WWII. You saw that combination here first, folks.

Anyway, here’s a part of Peter’s review—and enjoy the weekend!:

The Skin is Malaparte’s description of this moral plague. He writes about a character of the same name who accompanies a band of Pollyannaish American soldiers as they go about Naples acting as both conquerors and liberators. He bears witness to the variety of horrors that come at the end of a long war: starvation, slavery, casual murder, careless disposal of the dead, and the caustic nature with which the rich feed upon the poor (both literally and metaphorically), to name a few.

But these atrocities are merely a symptom of, or coexist with, the moral plague. Malaparte bemoans the easy way Neapolitans bend to the wishes of their American conquerors. “It was enough that a child should put into its mouth a candy offered to it by an American soldier, and its innocent soul would be corrupted.” The Neapolitans are too willing to trade national identity, pride, and dignity, just to get along with the new powers that be.

The Americans, for their part, approach this horrid landscape as if they weren’t at least partially responsible, and so they become the target of Malaparte’s most acidic sarcasm. The Americans of The Skin remain ignorant of Neapolitan culture. One American repeatedly speaks French to Malaparte and others, suggesting that, to him, all cultures other than his own are more or less the same. The Americans take what they can from the country they’ve razed with bombs and tanks, all the while holding themselves blameless. It rings true.

For the rest of the review, go here.

1 May 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In line with the brief video of László Krasznahorkai that we published a couple days ago, here’s a brief acceptance speech from the 2014 BTBA winner for poetry, Elisa Biagini:

28 April 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

László Krasznahorkai becomes the first repeat winner, and Elisa Biagini and her three translators take home the poetry award in this year’s Best Translated Book Award.

After much deliberation, Seiobo There Below, Krasznahorkai’s follow-up to last year’s BTBA winner, Satantango, won the 2014 BTBA for Fiction. Translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet and published by New Directions, the jury praised this novel for its breadth, stating “out of a shortlist of ten contenders that did not lack for ambition, Seiobo There Below truly overwhelmed us with its range—this is a book that discusses in minute detail locations from all around the globe, including Japan, Spain, Italy, and Greece, as well as delving into the consciousnesses and practices of individuals from across 2,000 years of human history.”

The jury also named two runners-up: The African Shore by Rodrigo Rey Rosa, translated from the Spanish by Jeffrey Gray and published by Yale University Press; and A True Novel by Minae Mizumura, translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter, and published by Other Press.

On the poetry side of things, this year’s winner is The Guest in the Wood by Elisa Biagini, translated from the Italian by Diana Thow, Sarah Stickney, and Eugene Ostashevsky, and published by Chelsea Editions.

According to the jury, “from the first, these surreal, understated poems create an uncanny physical space that is equally domestic, disturbing, and luminous, their airy structure leaving room for the reader-guest to receive their hospitality and offer something in return (the Italian ospite meaning both ‘guest’ and ‘host’). The poet’s and translators’ forceful language presses us to ‘attend and rediscover’ the quotidian and overdetermined realities of, as Angelina Oberdan explains in her introduction, ‘the self, the other, the body, and the private rituals of our lives.’”

The two poetry runners-up are Claude Royet-Journoud’s Four Elemental Bodies, translated from the French by Keith Waldrop, published by Burning Deck, and Sohrab Sepehri’s The Oasis of Now translated from the Persian by Kazim Ali and Mohammad Jafar Mahallati, and published by BOA Editions.

As in recent years, thanks to Amazon.com’s giving program, $20,000 in cash prizes will be awarded to the winning authors and translators.

Krasznahorkai is the first author—or translator—to win the prize more than once. His novel Satantango, translated by Georges Szirtes and also published by New Directions, won last spring. Seiobo There Below is the sixth of his works to appear in English, the others being Satantango, The Melancholy of Resistance, War and War, Animalinside, and The Bill.

The Guest in the Wood is the first collection of Elisa Biagini’s poetry to appear in English translation, despite her reputation in her home country of Italy. In addition to writing poetry in both Italian and English, Biagini is a translator herself, having translated Alicia Ostriker, Sharon Olds, Lucille Clifton, and others into Italian. She also edited an anthology of contemporary American poetry.

This is the seventh iteration of the Best Translated Book Awards, which launched at the University of Rochester in the winter of 2007. Over the past seven years, the prize has brought attention to hundreds of stellar works of literature in translation published by dozens of presses. Earlier this month, at the London Book Fair, the BTBA received the “International Literary Translation Initiative Prize” as part of the inaugural International Book Industry Excellence Awards.

To celebrate this year’s winners and the award itself, all supporters of international literature are invited to The Brooklyneer (220 West Houston, NYC) from 6pm-9pm on Friday, May 2nd for drinks and appetizers. This event is open to the public.

The nine judges who made up this year’s fiction committee are: George Carroll, West Coast sales rep; Monica Carter, Salonica; Scott Esposito, Conversational Reading and Center for the Art of Translation; Sarah Gerard, Bomb Magazine; Elizabeth Harris, translator; Daniel Medin, American University of Paris, Cahiers Series, Quarterly Conversation, and the White Review; Michael Orthofer, Complete Review; Stephen Sparks, Green Apple Books; and, Jenn Witte, Skylight Books.

And the five poets and translators who made up the poetry committee are: Stefania Heim, Bill Martin, Rebecca McKay, Daniele Pantano, and Anna Rosenwong.

23 April 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The second entry in the “Why This Book Should Win” series for this year’s BTBA Poetry Finalists is by judge Anna Rosenwong.

The Guest in the Wood by Elisa Biagini, translated from the Italian by Diana Thow, Sarah Stickney, and Eugene Ostashevsky (Italy; Chelsea Editions)

I love The Guest in the Wood. I didn’t expect to; it snuck up on me. I anticipated respecting the poems, appreciating the marvelous translations by Diana Thow, Sarah Stickney, and Eugene Ostashevsky, and the elegant volume from Chelsea Editions, but masterful translation and thoughtful publishing have been the rule in this competition. Dozens and dozens of brilliant translations have invited themselves into my home over the past months, but this book asked me in and wouldn’t let me leave.

I say it snuck up on me because, unlike many other remarkable submissions, The Guest in the Wood did not announce itself as exotic, exhaustive, avant-garde, genre-defying, or canonical. The Guest in the Wood is humbly subtitled, “A Selection of Poems 2004-2007,” and it was with no more warning than this that I ventured into the wood and became Biagini’s guest.

From the first, these surreal, understated poems create an uncanny physical space that is equally domestic, disturbing, and luminous, their airy structure leaving room for the reader-guest to receive their hospitality and offer something in return (the Italian ospite meaning both “guest” and “host”). The poet’s and translators’ forceful language presses us to “attend and rediscover” the quotidian and overdetermined realities of, as Angelina Oberdan explains in her introduction, “the self, the other, the body, and the private rituals of our lives.”

Born in 1970, Elisa Biagini is herself a translator of contemporary North American poetry, and part of my attraction to her work surely comes from a sense of the poems in translatorly conversation with influences such as Anne Carson, Emily Dickinson, and Adrienne Rich. Tellingly, The Guest in the Wood merges two of Biagini’s six collections, The Guest and Into the Wood, with the wood representing a very different kind of contained space than the home, one synonymous with fairy tale archetype and danger. With its evocation, Biagini’s homey interiors are revealed to be haunted, their spare restraint repeatedly performing domestic cleanliness and order in a perpetual struggle to manage threatening guests.

The plates are never left out
because otherwise the dead will come
and sop bread in the broth
carefully
so that a misplaced spoon won’t be noticed
the next morning.
You don’t want them counting the crumbs
reading your fortune in the leftovers
tasting your body
at night.

I’ve been thrilled to find that my fellow BTBA judges were likewise caught out and drawn in by this book’s unapologetically feminine sense of embodiment and urgency—Biagini’s sharp distortions of ironing boards and dirty dishes as compelling, political, and philosophical as any of the more obviously ambitious or grandiose works we read. The fact that this collection is Biagini’s first in English is a credit to Chelsea Editions for bucking the publishing preference for safety and known quantities, as well as testament to both the message of Three Percent and the importance of projects like the Best Translated Book Award. You should read this book. And it should win.

18 November 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our reviews section is a piece by George Carroll on two Maurizio de Giovanni books that Europa Editions recently released: Blood Curse and I Will Have Vengeance.

I’ve been hoping to cover more crime books on the site—mainly because there are so many, lots of people, including Tom Roberge, that love these sorts of novels, and because it’s a genre of fiction that I don’t read very often—and thankfully George Carroll agreed to try and review some of these for us.

The first ones he decided to write about are two of the five books by Maurizio de Giovanni that Europa Editions has published. He opens by comparing this series to those from two other famous crime writers:

There are curious similarities in three Italian mystery series, written by Maurizio de Giovanni, Andrea Camilleri, and Donna Leon.

They’re all police procedurals, and all set in Italy: Naples, Sicily, Venice.

The three protagonists are Commissarios: Luigi Ricciardi, Salvo Montalbano, and Guido Brunetti.

They all report to self-serving, social-climbing, ass-covering Questore buffoons: Angelo Garzo, Bonetti-Alderighi, and Patta

Each has a loyal, efficient, well-connected right-hand Sergente / Ispettore / Brigadier: Raffaele Maione, Giuseppe Fazio, Lorenzo Vianello.

And they all have testy, feisty relationships with their forensic pathologists: Doctors Modo, Pasquale, Rizzardi

But this is where most of those similarities end.

Click here to read the full thing.

18 November 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

There are curious similarities in three Italian mystery series, written by Maurizio de Giovanni, Andrea Camilleri, and Donna Leon.1

They’re all police procedurals, and all set in Italy: Naples, Sicily, Venice.

The three protagonists are Commissarios: Luigi Ricciardi, Salvo Montalbano, and Guido Brunetti.

They all report to self-serving, social-climbing, ass-covering Questore buffoons: Angelo Garzo, Bonetti-Alderighi, and Patta

Each has a loyal, efficient, well-connected right-hand Sergente / Ispettore / Brigadier: Raffaele Maione, Giuseppe Fazio, Lorenzo Vianello.

And they all have testy, feisty relationships with their forensic pathologists: Doctors Modo, Pasquale, Rizzardi

But this is where most of those similarities end.

De Giovanni’s Commissario Ricciardi novels are set in 1931 Fascist Italy whereas the other two series are contemporary.

Ricciardi has a neighbor, a muse, who he doesn’t meet until the second book in the series. Montalbano has a girlfriend who appears frequently at the beginning of the series but then gets more and more distant as the series progresses. Brunetti has a relatively happy marriage although his boss’ secretary is a bit of distraction.

Quite a few of Leon’s victims end up floating in canals. Oh, I hate floaters.2 Most of Camilleri’s novels have two incidents or two separate crimes that appear to be unrelated, but come together somewhere along the plotline. And de Giovanni’s Ricciardi has visions, which is the main thing setting this series apart from the others.

Ricciardi sees the last few seconds of the lives of victims’ violent deaths. Many of them lurk in the shadows and aren’t connected to the investigations. A child who fell from a third-story balcony (Can I go down and play?), a man in a barbershop bleeding from a razor cut to the neck (By God, I didn’t touch your wife! ). Gushing blood—there’s a lot of gushing blood.

His visions are a blessing and a curse. The upside is that even though the words the victims speak are enigmatic, they aid in resolution of the crimes. The downside is, well, life sucks when you’re sidestepping grotesque images of dead people all day. His solace comes in the evening when he sits in his room, watching his neighbor across the courtyard doing embroidery.

The tricky, and frustrating, device that de Giovanni uses is mixing up his character’s narratives. Most of the time he identifies who’s speaking or pondering or doing bad things. Other times he doesn’t, which creates red herrings and sends you down dead ends.

I Will Have Vengeance involves the death of an opera tenor, and Blood Curse, the death of an elderly fortune-teller and moneylender. Neither perpetrator is obvious or stereotypical. Both books, yes, read them, but in order.

De Giovanni is a very talented writer. He keeps enough hidden, layers his writing deep enough that the twists and turns come naturally. The books are dark enough to work in Europa’s World Noir series, which thanks to a very aggressive marketing campaign, were on feature tables in most independent bookstores over the summer.

1 Donna Leon has lived in Venice for 25 years, so I’m just going to call her Italian. I’ve lived in Seattle for 25 years and I don’t call myself a Pennsylvanian.

2 A great line and timely line by Coroner Dominic DaVinci in DaVinci’s Inquest.

11 September 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This month we’re giving away copies of Giulio Mozzi’s This Is the Garden, translated from the Italian by Elizabeth Harris and pubbing in January.

Although Mozzi’s stories have been excerpted in just about every magazine imaginable, this is the first full collection of his to be published in English. This Is the Garden won the 1993 Premio Mondello and astonished the Italian literary world for its commanding vision and the beauty of its prose. In the eight stories of this collection, we see a steady reworking of the idea of the world as a fallen Eden. Here, in Mozzi’s garden, quasi-allegorical characters seek knowledge of something beyond their shaken realities: they have all lost something and react by escaping, retreating from reality into a world, as Mozzi says, that is “fantastic, mystical, absurd.”

Or, in the words of Minna Proctor:

Gorgeously rooted in the best modernist tradition of writers like Italo Calvino and Antonio Tabucchi, Giulio Mozzi is among the most fiercely literary authors emerging from Italian literature today. These stories, which in so many different ways are about writing itself, are like rivers cutting through the northern Italian countryside—lush, limpid, exotic. Elizabeth Harris’s translation beautifully renders the noble grit of Mozzi’s distinctive voice.

If that doesn’t sell you on it, there’s also this bit of praise from Federico Fellini:

I read Giulio Mozzi’s first book with real enthusiasm. What struck me most was his everyday language. Even when his subjects rely on metaphor, his words are plain, and so turn mysterious.

Follow the link below to enter yourself in the GR drawing.


Goodreads Book Giveaway

This Is the Garden by Giulio Mozzi

This Is the Garden

by Giulio Mozzi

Giveaway ends September 30, 2013.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter to win


15 February 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Vincent Francone on Claudio Magris’s Blindly, which is translated from the Italian by Anne Milano Appel and published by Yale University Press as part of their Margellos World Republic of Letters Series.

Yale’s World Republic of Letters Series deserves a special shout-out for all the great work they’ve been doing. At it’s core, this is a really admirable undertaking:

The Cecile and Theodore Margellos World Republic of Letters series identifies works of cultural and artistic significance previously overlooked by translators and publishers, canonical works of literature and philosophy needing new translations, as well as important contemporary authors whose work has not yet been translated into English. The series is designed to bring to the English-speaking world leading poets, novelists, essayists, philosophers, and playwrights from Europe, Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, to stimulate international discourse and creative exchange.

Most importantly though, over the past few years they’ve published Edith Grossman (and some of her translations), Claudio Magris, Can Xue, Romain Gary/Emile Ajar, Witold Gombrowicz, Norman Manea, and Ranko Marinkovic, among others. (The forthcoming titles are some of the ones that I’m most looking forward to in 2013.)

Anyway, here’s the opening of Vincent’s review:

A few pages into Claudio Magris’s Blindly, the reader begins to ask the same question posed by the book’s jacket: “Who is the mysterious narrator of Blindly?” Who indeed. At times the narrator is Tore, an inmate in a mental health facility. Other times, the narration is handled by Jorgen Jorgenson, king of Iceland, adventurer, and participant in the colonization of Australia and exploration of Tasmania. And Dachau is thrown in, because, why not? Yeah, it’s that kind of book.

What kind of book? Adjectives pop up one after another, all adequate, none quite right. Experimental and modern (and even postmodern) are labels that have been used to describe the book, and sure, they work well enough although these terms have been bandied about so often that I fear they will not suffice. I am tempted to call it a dream—a very troubling one where stories serve as both balm and irritant.

The book is dense, multi-layered, polyphonic, and quite a challenge, though not without rewards. Despite the setting, the novel is really staged in the dialogue of Tore Cippico (or, sometimes, Cippico-Čipiko), inmate, adventurer, and prisoner. The distinction between all three is thin:

“It’s no accident that Dachau was established in 1898 as an institution for the feeble and mentally ill, idiots and cretinoids . . .”

Click here to read the entire review.

15 February 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

A few pages into Claudio Magris’s Blindly, the reader begins to ask the same question posed by the book’s jacket: “Who is the mysterious narrator of Blindly?” Who indeed. At times the narrator is Tore, an inmate in a mental health facility. Other times, the narration is handled by Jorgen Jorgenson, king of Iceland, adventurer, and participant in the colonization of Australia and exploration of Tasmania. And Dachau is thrown in, because, why not? Yeah, it’s that kind of book.

What kind of book? Adjectives pop up one after another, all adequate, none quite right. Experimental and modern (and even postmodern) are labels that have been used to describe the book, and sure, they work well enough although these terms have been bandied about so often that I fear they will not suffice. I am tempted to call it a dream—a very troubling one where stories serve as both balm and irritant.

The book is dense, multi-layered, polyphonic, and quite a challenge, though not without rewards. Despite the setting, the novel is really staged in the dialogue of Tore Cippico (or, sometimes, Cippico-Čipiko), inmate, adventurer, and prisoner. The distinction between all three is thin:

It’s no accident that Dachau was established in 1898 as an institution for the feeble and mentally ill, idiots and cretinoids . . .

Asylum, gulag; Potato, potahto.

The adventures of Jorgenson and the experiences at Dachau all come back to the real center of the book: Goli Otok. The only certainty of the novel is that Tore was one of the unfortunate Italians who travelled across the Adriatic to Yugoslavia to help Tito build communism, only to be imprisoned on the tiny island of Goli Otok once Tito fell out with Stalin. The gulag years inform much of the, er, action, forever a point of reference for our not-at-all reliable narrator. When a paragraph begins detailing Jorgenson’s adventures, there’s more than a good chance it’ll end with Goli Otok, blending the very separate events into one hell of a dense puree. The success of the book is in Magris’s excellent prose and Anne Milano Appel’s translation. It is easy to see how this could all result in an infuriating mess, but, despite some frustrating stretches, Magris’s writing is seductive, keeping the reading going without ever making it easy.

To be sure, non-linear books that abandon convention are nothing new. In this sense, the odd structure of Blindly, which no review can ignore, is less interesting than the ideas which inevitably spring to mind even while wading through its more laborious passages, most notable being the manner in which victims appropriate other stories in order to make sense of their own. If Tore is a madman, he is indeed a “pazzo lucido,” a lucid madman, one capable of recognizing the absurdity of his own fate in context with the inhumanity of history. Could this be Magris commenting on the usefulness or fiction? The importance of history and culture? Perhaps, but like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, one gets the sense that Tore is condemned to retell his story for the remainder of his days. Unlike the Mariner, Tore’s story is composed of many others, liberated from the constraints of experience. When Tore describes what he has read about Jorgeson in a book, he can’t help but critique his autobiographer, stealing the story for himself, becoming the Icelandic king. The appropriation tells us, and him, more about himself than any concentration camp narrative could. This, in a sense, is the usefulness of stories. We are never free from fictions, our or anyone’s, especially when it relates to some very real tragedies.

22 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Vincent Francone on the forthcoming novel The Story of My Purity, written by Francesco Pacifico, translated from the Italian by Stephen Twilley, and published by FSG.

The Story of My Purity is the first of Pacifico’s books to make its way into English. He’s also the author of Il caso Vittorio, 2005 Dopo Cristo (which he co-wrote as part of the Babette Factory_, and the wildly titled San Valentino. Come il marketing e la poesia hanno stravolto l’amore in Occidente, which Google helpfully translates as Valentine’s Day. Such as marketing and poetry have distorted the love in the West.

Here’s a bit of Vince’s review of The Story of My Purity:

The blurbs call it a comic novel in the tradition of Italo Svevo, and indeed echoes of Svevo are evident, as are echoes of Pirandello and Aldo Busi. Like these writers, Pacifico fixates on the Italian soul, tortured by Catholicism and lascivious desires. The hero of the book, Piero Rosini, is a pious husband in a sexless marriage, an editor for an ultra-conservative Catholic publishing house, and a former bohemian bent on maintaining his chastity even as he fantasizes about his sister-in-law’s breasts. His staid life is uprooted by the image of his sister-in-law dancing to Elvis, a seemingly innocent gesture that opens up buried desires. These desires lead him to abandon his life in favor of a libertine existence that his lingering faith will never allow him to enjoy.

Pacifico balances the frustrations of his protagonist with a collection of characters that range from anti-Semitic coworkers obsessed with a book revealing the Jewish origins of Pope John Paul II, a father who dismisses his son’s piety, and a gaggle of liberated females who challenge Piero’s resolve. The turns along Piero’s road take him deeper into the life of the sophisticated European libertine, yet each step forward is matched by a step back. As he journeys slightly closer to the precipice of sin, Piero creates an alter ego with which to live out his fantasies, though, as always, the foundation of religious faith proves unshakable.

As funny as all this is, and as much as the reader roots for the protagonist, Piero is not exactly a sympathetic character. Lacking true depth, he waltzes through people’s lives making promises he cannot keep. Early in the novel, Piero befriends an ambitious writer by promising publication that he is well aware will never come. Why lie to this poor sap? Well, because he represents something: the release of Piero’s obligations, a rebellion against the confines of his job, marriage, and religion. But Piero’s exodus out of his devout lifestyle is more like a tourist wandering through preapproved landmarks. In the end, the casual man about town is as trapped as ever, unaware of the events his meanderings have created.

Click here to read the full piece.

22 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I have long lamented the lack of literature translated from Italy, the country of my grandparents. The span between Dante and Umberto Eco is wide, populated with fine writers, though it seems few of them get translated, much less read. Thus, it was with great interest that I approached Francesco Pacifico’s novel, The Story of My Purity.

The blurbs call it a comic novel in the tradition of Italo Svevo, and indeed echoes of Svevo are evident, as are echoes of Pirandello and Aldo Busi. Like these writers, Pacifico fixates on the Italian soul, tortured by Catholicism and lascivious desires. The hero of the book, Piero Rosini, is a pious husband in a sexless marriage, an editor for an ultra-conservative Catholic publishing house, and a former bohemian bent on maintaining his chastity even as he fantasizes about his sister-in-law’s breasts. His staid life is uprooted by the image of his sister-in-law dancing to Elvis, a seemingly innocent gesture that opens up buried desires. These desires lead him to abandon his life in favor of a libertine existence that his lingering faith will never allow him to enjoy.

Pacifico balances the frustrations of his protagonist with a collection of characters that range from anti-Semitic coworkers obsessed with a book revealing the Jewish origins of Pope John Paul II, a father who dismisses his son’s piety, and a gaggle of liberated females who challenge Piero’s resolve. The turns along Piero’s road take him deeper into the life of the sophisticated European libertine, yet each step forward is matched by a step back. As he journeys slightly closer to the precipice of sin, Piero creates an alter ego with which to live out his fantasies, though, as always, the foundation of religious faith proves unshakable.

As funny as all this is, and as much as the reader roots for the protagonist, Piero is not exactly a sympathetic character. Lacking true depth, he waltzes through people’s lives making promises he cannot keep. Early in the novel, Piero befriends an ambitious writer by promising publication that he is well aware will never come. Why lie to this poor sap? Well, because he represents something: the release of Piero’s obligations, a rebellion against the confines of his job, marriage, and religion. But Piero’s exodus out of his devout lifestyle is more like a tourist wandering through preapproved landmarks. In the end, the casual man about town is as trapped as ever, unaware of the events his meanderings have created.

Pacifico does a good job creating a character that is devious, charming, and frustrating. The reader wants to scream at him through laughter. There are moments of joyful hilarity, interesting metaphors, and some damn fine writing over all. But behind it boils a tension that is impossible to ignore and the sense that the whole book will fall apart. That it doesn’t is worth noting; Pacifico is a skilled writer who reigns in the story just as Piero, intentionally or not, reigns in his desires, just when they seem about to explode. The final result will surely frustrate some readers (it’s a bit anti-climatic, though, considering Piero’s behavior, this is fitting), but the portrait of the devout Catholic, torn between lust and a religious dogma impossible to exercise from the soul, is fascinating.

23 July 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This post is from Kathryn Longenbach, another of our summer interns. (But one that I haven’t set up with her own account, which is why I’m posting on her behalf. As a fan of Italian literature, she wanted to write up something about this year’s Primo Strega award, which was announced recently.

Since 1947, the Premio Strega has been one of the most prestigious Italian literary awards. Every year, a jury (now containing 400 members) chooses five recently published works of fiction as finalists. From these finalists, the jury chooses one winner to receive the prize. After an incredibly close race, the 2012 Premio Strega was awarded to Alessandro Piperno’s Inseparabili, il fuoco dei ricordi (published by Mondadori). Emanuele Trevi’s Qualcosa di scritto (Ponte alle Grazie) finished as the runner up by a margin of merely two votes: Piperno’s work received 126 votes while Trevi’s received 124. Il silenzio dell’onda (Rizzoli), by Gianrico Carofiglio, came in a close third with 119 votes.

Here are short write-ups about all three finalists:




Alessandro Piperno’s Inseparabili, il fuoco dei ricordi, follows a pair of brothers, Filippo and Samuel Pontecorvo (also the protagonists of Piperno’s Persecuzione). Piperno describes the struggles of the Pontecorvo family as Filippo unexpectedly rises to fame while Samuel finds himself in the midst of various financial and emotional crises.




Emanuele Trevi’s Qualcosa di scritto tells the story of a young writer who finds work in the archives of Pier Paolo Pasolini (Italian writer, poet, and director). Throughout the novel, Trevi describes various events that lead to the inevitable withdrawal from an era of naïve adolescence and the initiation into a world full of secrets and mystery.




Il silenzio dell’onda by Gianrico Carofiglio, focuses on the life of an ex-undercover agent named Roberto Marias. He spent his life being forced to lie, cheat, and hide and is now living in the effects his corrupt past. Through interactions with various characters (notably his psychiatrist), however, Marias begins to set on a path towards redemption.

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.

6 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is joint review by Sarah Two and Quantum Sarah on Alessandro Baricco’s Emmaus, which is translated from the Italian by Mitch Ginsburg and is available from McSweeney’s.

Here is an excerpt from their review:

Alessandro Baricco’s latest novel, Emmaus, centers on the friendship of four working-class Catholic adolescents and their shared love for a tragic, sexual young woman named Andre. The plot of the novel follows the trajectory of a classic loss of innocence story, but Baricco immediately complicates this definition. What distinguishes Emmaus from other narratives of this archetype is its ambiguous stance in respect to Catholicism and sin. It would be a grievous oversimplification to say that the boys live in a world of repression and then find truth, or that they are innocent, pure souls in childhood and are subsequently corrupted in adolescence. To the contrary, Baricco distinctly avoids this simplistic dichotomy of good and evil: the narrator and his friends possess constant awareness of promiscuity and violence, but they don’t label it as such.

Click here to read their entire review.

6 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

Alessandro Baricco’s latest novel, Emmaus, centers on the friendship of four working-class Catholic adolescents and their shared love for a tragic, sexual young woman named Andre. The plot of the novel follows the trajectory of a classic loss of innocence story, but Baricco immediately complicates this definition. What distinguishes Emmaus from other narratives of this archetype is its ambiguous stance in respect to Catholicism and sin. It would be a grievous oversimplification to say that the boys live in a world of repression and then find truth, or that they are innocent, pure souls in childhood and are subsequently corrupted in adolescence. To the contrary, Baricco distinctly avoids this simplistic dichotomy of good and evil: the narrator and his friends possess constant awareness of promiscuity and violence, but they don’t label it as such. In the words of the narrator:

. . . we are ignorant of what scandal is, because we instinctively accept every possible deviation betrayed by those around us simply as an unexpected supplement to the protocol of normality. So, for example, when, in the darkness of the parish cinema, we felt the priest’s hand resting on the inside of our thigh, we weren’t angry but quickly deduced that evidently things were like that, priests put their hands there – it wasn’t something you needed to mention at home.

There’s a disturbingly dismissive tone in the narrator’s voice as he describes these deviant acts – these acts of molestation aren’t sinful or bad; rather, things are “like that,” and the boys simply accept it.

When the narrator’s best friend Luca first experiences a break with his childhood vision of the world, it is compared to traversing outside their homeland: “For the first time one of us pushed beyond the inherited borders, in the suspicion that there are no borders, in reality, no mother house untouched. . . From that land he looks at us, waiting for us to follow”. These “inherited borders,” once so immutable, quickly break down as the novel progresses. One by one, the four young men slip into the realm of tragedy – a world where priests molest children but also give the Eucharist, where mothers sleep with Confessors but also fiercely protect their young, where girlfriends will be virgins until they marry, yet submit to sexual touching under a blanket. But readers will struggle to link this shadowy world to the conventional notion of “sin.” The author presents us with a cast of morally mixed characters, whose deviant actions fail to receive the kind of denunciation you’d expect from an insular Catholic community.

Take, for example, “the Saint,” the most ostensibly pious of the four friends. He aims to join the priesthood, displaying a faith that’s beyond passionate in its dimensions: “That mother made us tell her that we prayed, while the Saint burned in prayer; and his legs had a way of kneeling that was like crashing, when we simply changed position—he fell to his knees”. The fervor with which the Saint prays is almost erotic – a quality that makes his faith appear close to his vice, like two sides of the same coin. Likewise, the narrator suggests that the Saint’s sinister tendencies are what propel his piety: “None of us have that sensitivity to evil, a kind of morbid, terrifying attraction – increasingly morbid, inevitably, because it is terrifying – as none of us have the same vocation as the Saint for goodness, sacrifice, meekness, which are the consequence of that terror”. Perversely, a disturbingly intimate familiarity with evil fuels the sanctity of characters like the Saint.

One of the more poignant elements of the novel was its meditation on faith. The Catholicism posited by this book, however, is hard to define – the priests try to teach the boys “that faith is a gift, which comes from on high and belongs to the world of mystery”. In other words, it is a holy and untouchable boon from God. Yet despite their respect for the Bible and their clergymen, the boys see their faith as derived from a different source: “From somewhere, and in an invisible way, our unhappy families passed on to us an immutable instinct to believe that life is an immense experience”. Conventional teachers of faith, such as priests, parents, or scriptures, lack the authority that you’d expect them to wield in this book; that power instead belongs to human instinct, which molds their particular religion and guides their actions. This frequently-iterated sense of humanism would seem to throw traditional Catholicism into question, an idea which is later echoed in the statement, “long before God, we believe in man – and this alone, in the beginning, is faith”. Faith isn’t a dry scripture or a fixed doctrine for the boys; it is something fluid, malleable, and organic, constantly remodeled to match the changing structure of their lives.

Emmaus is a painful and lyrical chronicle of adolescence, but the narrative voice is too cognizant, too reflective to belong to a young boy. The pensive tone implies a back-looking narrator, who possesses the objectivity and emotional detachment to explain to us, calmly and logically, the shock two boys experience when they find out that a parent is severely depressed:

. . . this gives an idea of how we’re made. We have a blind faith in our parents; what we see at home is the just, well-balanced way of things, the protocol of what we consider mental health. We adore our parents for that reason—they keep us sheltered from any anomaly. So the hypothesis doesn’t exist that they, first of all, can be an anomaly—an illness.

Yet what are we supposed to glean from the fact that the ostensibly adult narrator chooses to speak in the present tense whenever he comments on the general state of his adolescent life? Does he still have a blind faith in his parents, or is he merely inhabiting his youth linguistically as well as emotionally? This is another way in which Baricco complicates the simple architecture of a loss of innocence narrative; the voice of the boy, the adolescent, and the man are indistinguishable.

The narrator spends so much time grappling with philosophical and religious conundrums that we come to expect a reconciliation of these tensions, but this is in no way fulfilled. The book’s final pages are filled with just as much uncertainty as the middle. Finishing it feels like waking up from a dream, one full of would-be-contradictions that nonetheless make perfect sense according to the logic of the dream. Upon waking, all that’s left is the disarming question of whether or not this logic can apply successfully in the real world.

19 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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.

New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani, translated by Judith Landry

Language: Italian
Country: Italy
Publisher: Dedalus

Why This Book Should Win: Because Marani invented Europanto, a “mock international auxiliary language.”

Today’s post is written by the amazing Daniel Hahn, who is both a writer and translator AND a program director at the British Centre for Literary Translation. Once upon a time, we spent a week together at a palace in Salzburg, Austria.

It’s September 1943. A man is found close to death on the quayside at Trieste. He’s wearing a sailor’s jacket, tagged with the name Sampo Karjalainen. He is brought on-board a German hospital ship, the Tubingen, and revived by a kindly doctor. Dr Friari is a Finn, and recognises Sampo Karjalainen as a Finnish name; the man he is treating must, he assumes, be a compatriot. But when Sampo wakes up, he remembers nothing of who he is, and not a word of any language. Dr Friari arranges for him to be sent to Helsinki, where immersion in his land and his language might raise some spark that will help him recover whoever he used to be.

Marani’s book paints a picture of one man’s struggle against the isolation that comes from having no past, and having no language. Though he is made quite welcome by the people he meets, the Helsinki that Sampo comes to inhabit is a city in the midst of a war, under increasing attack from the Soviets. He has a few acquaintances but only one real friend, Olof Koskela, a radical, charismatic pastor who helps him learn the language and shares with him great tales from the Kalevala, Finland’s national epic, among them the tale of the creation of the magical artefact called the “Sampo.” But the book’s only warmth comes from Irma, a nurse. She takes him to her “memory tree,” a tree where she takes everyone who’s important to her, so that the place might be infused with happy memories that she can call upon whenever she needs them. Irma believes her friendship can help him; he, meanwhile, is repelled by the very idea of intimacy, and when she is posted away to Viipuri (Vyborg) he receives and studies her letters but never manages a reply.

The heart of Sampo’s experience, and everything that’s distinctive about the book, is found in his attempts to master his (new) native language—or, at least, to develop his own version of it. It’s a language with four infinitive forms, with fifteen cases (including the abessive, a case denoting absence), a language, says the Pastor, “which should only be sung”; which Sampo uses in his own way, with no sense of register, mixing Biblical language with vocabulary he has picked up in the bar. That thread of intense language acquisition, more than anything, is the unlikely genius of this book, and in particular Judith Landry’s translation; in the carefully tidied-up voice of a language-less first-person, it weaves syntactical reflections through one man’s most basic experience of trying to create an identity. The language is his only possibility of establishing connections to the outside world, seen always through a veil of half-understanding, bits of information to be picked at, turned around, examined exhaustingly until they make sense.

From his lessons with Pastor Koskela, his letters from Irma, his exposure to the world around him as he wanders the Helsinki streets in the uneasy daylight of a northern summer night-time, Sampo does in time construct a Finnish that allows him to communicate. Yes, mastery of language is at the root of power, that’s clear, and yet it is not enough, without an identity, without roots, without the certainty even of his own name. There is nothing easy and nothing obvious about New Finnish Grammar, a translated book about language, a story narrated by a man without an identity or a voice—a tremendously difficult thing to achieve, and here pulled off admirably.

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.

10 February 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Carley Parsons on Niccolo Ammaniti’s Me and You, which is translated from the Italian by Kylee Doust and available from Black Cat.

Carley Parsons was one of my interns last semester, and has previously interned at Syracuse University Press and Random House. She’s graduating this spring and hoping to find a job in publishing. (HINT.)

Black Cat has published three of Ammaniti’s novels, including I’ll Steal You Away, which was longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

Here’s the opening of Carley’s review:

Outcast for his seemingly baseless anger issues, fourteen-year-old Lorenzo Cumi lies to his worried mother about being invited on a ski trip with the ‘in-crowd’ in order to ease her concerns about him. After seeing how happy and relieved it makes her, Lorenzo can’t bring himself to tell her the truth—“I retreated in defeat, feeling like I had committed a murder.” Beginning with a twenty-four-year old Lorenzo unfolding a letter from his half-sister Olivia in a coffee-shop, the rest of the novella, gives a flashback account of how, ten years earlier, he took the opportunity provided by the lie to hide out in a neglected cellar attached to his family’s apartment building, where he is temporarily freed from the paranoid judgments of the adult world.

The teen-angst, adolescent narrative is not unchartered territory for Italian author Niccolò Ammaniti, whose past novels include I’m Not Scared, a coming-of-age and suspense hybrid narrative, translated into thirty-five languages, and As God Commands, which received Italy’s most prestigious literary award, the Premio Strega. Born in Rome in 1966 to a professor of developmental psychopathology, Ammaniti is often praised for his psychological lucidity and is known for exploring relationships between generation-gapped characters.

Click here to read the full review.

10 February 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Outcast for his seemingly baseless anger issues, fourteen-year-old Lorenzo Cumi lies to his worried mother about being invited on a ski trip with the ‘in-crowd’ in order to ease her concerns about him. After seeing how happy and relieved it makes her, Lorenzo can’t bring himself to tell her the truth—“I retreated in defeat, feeling like I had committed a murder.” Beginning with a twenty-four-year old Lorenzo unfolding a letter from his half-sister Olivia in a coffee-shop, the rest of the novella, gives a flashback account of how, ten years earlier, he took the opportunity provided by the lie to hide out in a neglected cellar attached to his family’s apartment building, where he is temporarily freed from the paranoid judgments of the adult world.

The teen-angst, adolescent narrative is not unchartered territory for Italian author Niccolò Ammaniti, whose past novels include I’m Not Scared, a coming-of-age and suspense hybrid narrative, translated into thirty-five languages, and As God Commands, which received Italy’s most prestigious literary award, the Premio Strega. Born in Rome in 1966 to a professor of developmental psychopathology, Ammaniti is often praised for his psychological lucidity and is known for exploring relationships between generation-gapped characters.

Me and You explores these themes surrounding the struggles of adolescence. The novel’s narrator, Lorenzo, must interact with misunderstanding parents and teachers, a dying grandmother, and his druggie, twenty-three-year old half sister Olivia, who unwelcomingly becomes his fellow cellar-dweller in her attempt to get clean. While the fast-paced narrative is compelling, the driving voice of the novel, in its often awkward and nonsensical structure, becomes a frustrating obstacle.

Lorenzo’s thoughts are often clunky and nonsensical, with verbose phrases like “The Dalmatian had begun barking at its owner because it wanted her to throw it a stick,” “In a trance I felt my legs as stiff as tree trunks walk me into class,” or “I yawned and in my pants and T-shirt went into the bathroom to brush my teeth.” These are particular stylistic problems that are most likely due to the quality of the translation. This leads to an overall failure of an effective narrative voice, as it ultimately creates a portrait that lacks surprise and nuance, where Lorenzo slips through the pages like a ghost – a virtually faceless figure easily interchanged with any “normal kid with problems,” a description of himself that he explicitly rejects. There is so much potential that lies within the setting itself, (the abandoned cellar), but even that fails to form a concrete image in the readerly imagination as it is denied the kind of attention it deserves, the description lasting for only a page of an unfocused catalog of objects, the most interesting being a blonde wig without a back story.

Unfortunately, I also fail to see where Ammaniti adds anything new to the all-too familiar teen-boy coming of age narrative. We see the testosterone when Lorenzo “pushed Giampolo Tinari off the wall,” and we watch him contend with his heterosexuality: “With one hand she covered her boob. And her legs looked like they were never ending. I shouldn’t even think about her. Olivia was fifty per cent my sister.” We are then shown the bonding of two unlikely outcasts as Lorenzo is given a crash course with reality when he discovers Olivia’s ugly addiction, a relationship that, alas, feels unnatural. While the narration aligns the reader with Lorenzo’s thoughts, we somehow escape from feeling in any way close to him, or even close to caring about him, for that matter. His self-reflective thoughts on his hyperbolic end-of-the-world problems work ironically to make him – the outcast – just like everyone else who has ever been fourteen. While it may be Ammaniti’s point about the mind of adolescence versus reality, I remained unaffected. By the time I was finally moved by the direction the narrative takes, around a page or so from the very end when the flashback comes back around to the present time, it was “too little, too late.”

4 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This past weekend, the NY Times Book Review included this interesting essay by Rachel Donadio about reading Alberto Moravia:

In its culture as in its politics, Italy lives under the shadow of Silvio Berlusconi. With his endless legal entanglements and sexual imbroglios and his colorful manner of governing (or not governing), it often feels as if the prime minister has taken all the oxygen out of the room, the airwaves, the entire republic. “How did we get here?” is the dominant — indeed often the only — topic of conversation in Italy today.

The novelist Alberto Moravia, a 20th-­century giant whose work is generally overlooked today, offers one key to unlocking the mystery. Born in 1907, Moravia came of age under Fascism — he belonged to a generation of writers, including Italo Calvino, Natalia Ginzburg, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Elsa Morante (Moravia’s first wife), who found global audiences after the Second World War. In his most important novel, “The Conformist” (1951), Moravia explored the complicated links between sex and politics in a nation of cynical opportunists. The formative moment in the life of the protagonist, Marcello Clerici, comes at age 13, when he shoots a defrocked priest who has tried to seduce him. True to the novel’s title, Clerici, whose name means “clergy,” later joins the Fascist Party more out of boredom than conviction. In addition to exploring the homoeroticism of power (a theme that later captivated Pasolini), Moravia’s novel also delved into a careerism and even nihilism that he identified just below the surface of Italian society, reaching far deeper than any ideology.

Moravia died in 1990, a many-laureled man of letters. Several years later, three unpublished novellas were found by chance in a suitcase in his Rome residence. The manuscripts, which offer variations on a love story set during World War II, were most likely written in the early 1950s, between “The Conformist” and “Contempt,” a brutal 1954 account of a disintegrating marriage. Now they have been published under the title Two Friends (Other Press, $18.95), in an excellent translation by Marina Harss, offering a fascinating glimpse of how Moravia’s writing evolved. In one particularly revealing moment, the mother of a middle-class Roman family cries, “For all I care, the English can win, or the Germans. . . . I just want someone to win so we can forget all this!” Reading this today, in the long twilight of the Berlusconi era, the line is almost haunting.

Moravia (and his first wife, Elsa Morante) are both fantastic writers, and it’s great the Other Press has brought out this recently discovered series of novellas. For those interested in taking a closer look, Two Friends was one of the first books included in Read This Next, so you check out a preview by clicking here, or you can read an interview with Marina Harss. We also have a full review of the book by Acacia O’Connor.

22 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s Read This Next title is Alberto Moravia’s Two Friends, which is forthcoming from Other Press, and which Acacia O’Connor reviewed for us.

Translated from the Italian by Marina Harss, Two Friends is a collection of three posthumously discovered Moravia novellas. You can read a sample here.

And here’s part of Acacia’s review. (If you’re not familiar with Acacia, she’s working on her MA in literary translation here at the University of Rochester with a focus on contemporary Italian literature.)

Moravia is a huge figure in Italian literature and culture: he began his career as a journalist (not unlike his Sergio character in Two Friends) and editor, founding literary journals Oggi and Caratteri. His first novel, Gli Indifferenti (Time of Indifference) is perhaps still his best known, though other novels, including Il Conformista (The Conformist) and Il Deprezzo (Contempt), are well-known in their film iterations under the direction of Bernardo Bertolucci and Jean-Luc Godard. His work, which dealt with the contemporary crises of belief and issues of social alienation, consistently suffered censorship under the fascist regime. Later, he won the pretigious Strega Prize (as did his wife, Elsa Morante). In the years before his death, he entered politics, serving in the European Parliament.

Knowing a bit about Moravia’s background, especially the bit about his novels being seized under Mussolini, makes Two Friends all the more interesting. Because as much as these drafts are about the relationship between Sergio and his friend Maurizio, they are also about the relationship between the individual and the fraught political environment. In these unfinished stories, Moravia draws out the respective anxieties of two young men from different backgrounds and shows us their responses to communism and the war. Rather than a history book version of events and attitudes, Moravia tells you the story of a young man whose ideals and politics are mixed up in his local and personal dramas—much like my/our big ideals and small dramas are comingled today.

The drafts of these three piecemeal novellas were discovered in 1996 in Moravia’s basement in Rome. Because the author famously destroyed all his draft materials after completing a book, scholars and those at the Fondo Moravia have naturally been very interested in these pages. What you read in this newly translated text is an organized guestimate pieced together from disordered pages discovered in a ratty suitcase, but they are extremely readable.

You can read the entire review by clicking here.

22 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

One of the beautiful things about translation, to my mind, is that it polemicizes the easy notion of the complete and whole work of art, of the perfect and sacred original. Translation is a subjective reading, a series of choices made by an individual with their own background, experience and politics. It’s a common adage that “all communication is translation.” This goes, too, for creative arts, as Michael Cunningham pointed out in an essay he wrote last fall: “Here’s a secret. Many novelists, if they are pressed and if they are being honest, will admit that the finished book is a rather rough translation of the book they’d intended to write.”

I love Cunningham’s essay, in which he confesses that his books are not the transcendent pieces of genius he imagined them to be in his mind. I think of his words often regarding translation and find myself referring to them now again in regards to the recently translated work Two Friends, a series of unpublished novella drafts by the great Italian writer Alberto Moravia. Two Friends is an excellent example of the construction and progression that takes place in writing as well as in translation.

Moravia is a huge figure in Italian literature and culture: he began his career as a journalist (not unlike his Sergio character in Two Friends) and editor, founding literary journals Oggi and Caratteri. His first novel, Gli Indifferenti (Time of Indifference) is perhaps still his best known, though other novels, including Il Conformista (The Conformist) and Il Deprezzo (Contempt), are well-known in their film iterations under the direction of Bernardo Bertolucci and Jean-Luc Godard. His work, which dealt with the contemporary crises of belief and issues of social alienation, consistently suffered censorship under the fascist regime. Later, he won the pretigious Strega Prize (as did his wife, Elsa Morante). In the years before his death, he entered politics, serving in the European Parliament.

Knowing a bit about Moravia’s background, especially the bit about his novels being seized under Mussolini, makes Two Friends all the more interesting. Because as much as these drafts are about the relationship between Sergio and his friend Maurizio, they are also about the relationship between the individual and the fraught political environment. In these unfinished stories, Moravia draws out the respective anxieties of two young men from different backgrounds and shows us their responses to communism and the war. Rather than a history book version of events and attitudes, Moravia tells you the story of a young man whose ideals and politics are mixed up in his local and personal dramas—much like my/our big ideals and small dramas are comingled today.

The drafts of these three piecemeal novellas were discovered in 1996 in Moravia’s basement in Rome. Because the author famously destroyed all his draft materials after completing a book, scholars and those at the Fondo Moravia have naturally been very interested in these pages. What you read in this newly translated text is an organized guestimate pieced together from disordered pages discovered in a ratty suitcase, but they are extremely readable.

What I found most interesting about these three drafts are the differences between them and the progression (if progression is the right word) from the first to the third. The first centers largely around the boyhood tension and rivalry that exists between Sergio, who is from a working class family, and his friend Maurizio, who is of the decidedly more bourgeoisie set. Sergio struggles with his sense of duty and his disapproval of Maurizio who appears not to care about the politics surrounding the war.

The second has Sergio and Maurizio substantially unaltered, character-wise, but engaged in a much more plot-driven conflict: Sergio is obsessed with getting Maurizio to “convert” and join the communist party and goes so far as to offer his girlfriend, Lalla, in exchange. The conversation about sexual exclusivity (or not) and political loyalty through the addition of Lalla makes the second a much richer story.

Only in the third, however, did I feel like I heard Sergio clearly, as the perspective switches from third to first person. There’s an increased focus on the relationship between Sergio and Nella (neé Lalla) that deftly complicates Sergio’s communist fervor. Is Sergio so insistent that Maurizio become a communist because he believes so much in the cause? Or because of an unrelenting feeling of inferiority to the well-heeled Maurizio? Or because of a desire to control him, and Nella? Over the course of the pages Moravia brings out Sergio’s destructive investment and not at all disinterest in communism and shows how his politics are a mask for his insecurities and cruelties.

Two Friends gives a rare glimpse into a writers process. While the characters of Sergio and Maurizio (and the nebulous Nella/Lalla character) remain, their motives and circumstances change. By the third draft, Moravia is creating new tensions that subtly bring out concepts that are more bluntly apparent in earlier pages. The writing is unpolished and straightforward, but these pages give us a rare treat: observing the process of a writer “translating” his ideas into a story, to varying levels of success.

21 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As part of this week’s Read This Next feature on Alberto Moravia’s Two Friends, we just posted an interview with translator Marina Harss conducted by U of R translation grad student (and fellow soccer fan) Acacia O’Connor.

Here’s an excerpt:

Acacia O’Connor: Two Friends is a unique text — it’s different segments of unfinished works by the great Italian writer Alberto Moravia, rather than an even nearly complete novel manuscript — how do these different segments work together in your mind? What sorts of challenges did this text, which at times misses segments etc., present to you as a translator?

Marina Harss: I think the challenge for me was the “unfinished” quality, sorting out the repetitions in the texts, dealing with spots where I knew that Moravia would have cleaned things up. How to be respectful to Moravia while also being completely faithful to the text. Also, I found that in dealing with three unfinished texts, it was more difficult to “get into the flow” and really get to know the characters, their past and their future. [. . .]

AO: What do you think Moravia, or any author like him really, would feel or think about having these manuscripts published? And translated into English?

MH: Honestly, I think he would probably be horrified. He burned his early drafts, and these only survived because they were in a pile of papers that was misplaced during a move. Clearly, he didn’t feel the book worked, since he abandoned it to write Il Disprezzo. But people who are interested in (and love) Moravia will get something out of these fragments, and in that sense it is a tribute to the writer.

Be sure and read the full interview, and tomorrow we’ll post Acacia’s review.

OK, I’m out. Our air conditioning shut down around noon today, so it’s approximately 135 degrees in my office and my brain is melting.

20 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s Read This Next title is Two Friends by Alberto Moravia, a posthumously published set of related novellas that’s translated from the Italian by Marina Harss and forthcoming from Other Press.

The extended preview is available now and we’ll be posting a review and interview later this week.

I remember hearing about this when it came out in Italy and being very intrigued. As mentioned in the description below, these three novellas all start from a similar premise, but are completely different in execution and tone. Even though I don’t think it was intended as such, it’s an interesting experiment that shows off Moravia’s range and development as a writer.

Here’s the description from Other Press:

In this set of novellas, a few facts are constant. Sergio is a young intellectual, poor and proud of his new membership in the Communist Party. Maurizio is handsome, rich, successful with women, and morally ambiguous. Sergio’s young, sensual lover becomes collateral damage in the struggle between these two men. All three of these unfinished stories, found packed in a suitcase after Alberto Moravia’s death, share this narrative premise. But from there, each story unfolds in a unique way. The first patiently explores the slow unfurling of Sergio’s resentment toward Maurizio. The second reveals the calculated bargain Maurizio offers in exchange for his conversion to Sergio’s beloved Communism. And the third switches dramatically to the first person, laying bare Sergio’s conflicted soul.

Anyone interested in literature will relish the opportunity to watch Moravia at work, tinkering with his story and working at it from three unique perspectives.

Click here to read the preview online, and check back later for the interview and other additional materials.

6 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Grant Barber on Stigmata, a new graphic novel from Fantagraphics by Lorenzo Mattotti and Claudio Piersanti, translated from the Italian by Kim Thompson.

Unless I’m totally forgetting something, this is the first review of a translated graphic novel that we’ve put up on our site. There’s no reason that we haven’t posted more graphic novel reviews, except that we’re way too busy trying to understand the workings and philosophical implications of Facebook commenting.

But seriously, Edward Gauvin is a great translator of graphic novels from the French (and a great translator overall), and there’s no reason we shouldn’t be covering more of these.

Anyway, the first one to be reviewed is Stigmata, and it’s perfect that Grant Barber, Episcopal priest living on the south shore of Boston, keen bibliophile, and frequent Three Percent reviewer, wrote this up. Here’s the opening of his review and an image:

The novel opens with a wordless picture of an overweight guy sitting up on the edge of his bed in the underwear he has slept in. Unshaven, with an untrimmed goatee and a mohawk that seems more born from the necessity of hair loss than style, the protagonist who speaks in first person—relating his tale—is clearly a man living on the margins of his society . . . revealed to be a 41-year-old alcoholic who is occasionally employed, living in a boarding house.

The book moves quickly to the dream vision he has had: called into the presence of a looming, cosmic, God-Child who promises the man that his suffering will soon be over, and that he is now to receive a sign of this promise—bleeding from a single wound in each palm without pain or infection. He rejects this ‘gift,’ which propels the protagonist out of his boarding house, where people have taken to leaving votive gifts of candles and flowers and requests for miracles. He tries first for a medical cure, which brings imposed psychiatric attention, then life as an ordinary person hiding his wounds unsuccessfully. He joins a circus, falls in love with a woman who accepts him for who he is, loses her in a flood. Eventually finds some rest and acceptance of his condition working in a convent, tending the dead for burial and the keeping up the cemetery.

Click here to read the full piece.

6 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I am an ambivalent reader of graphic novels. I’m of a generation that remembers when Superman was less muscled, and hadn’t yet died or been cloned. “Adult graphic novel” designated the rumored underground works about Fritz the cat. The amazing boom of the last couple decades of literary versions has led me to works such as Persepolis and Maus. Still, I’m not sure I have the critical equipment to get the most out of these works wedding image and text. Actually, it’s been the wordless versions of narratives (from the recently reissued Lynd Ward woodcut novels to Shaun Tan), which intrigue me most. Most graphic novels just read so darn fast.

Yet is there any other place on earth where word meets art in the context of religion/spirituality with greater heritage and pedigree than Italy? This Italian graphic novel has art by Mattotti and words by Piersanti from Bologna, who is a novelist and screenwriter.

The novel opens with a wordless picture of an overweight guy sitting up on the edge of his bed in the underwear he has slept in. Unshaven, with an untrimmed goatee and a mohawk that seems more born from the necessity of hair loss than style, the protagonist who speaks in first person—relating his tale—is clearly a man living on the margins of his society . . . revealed to be a 41-year-old alcoholic who is occasionally employed, living in a boarding house.

The book moves quickly to the dream vision he has had: called into the presence of a looming, cosmic, God-Child who promises the man that his suffering will soon be over, and that he is now to receive a sign of this promise—bleeding from a single wound in each palm without pain or infection. He rejects this ‘gift,’ which propels the protagonist out of his boarding house, where people have taken to leaving votive gifts of candles and flowers and requests for miracles. He tries first for a medical cure, which brings imposed psychiatric attention, then life as an ordinary person hiding his wounds unsuccessfully. He joins a circus, falls in love with a woman who accepts him for who he is, loses her in a flood. Eventually finds some rest and acceptance of his condition working in a convent, tending the dead for burial and the keeping up the cemetery.

His journey to acceptance involves some reading of hard-core medieval writings from saints who themselves had known the curse/blessing of God’s attention. Yet the reader gets the sense that this book is being written not for the person well-steeped in Christian faith, but instead is a modern-day exploration of ‘what-if,’ a fresh introduction to what an encounter with the Holy might be in our own day and time. If you know Fangraphics, you know they are not a religious publishing house; they would not be bringing out a book of dogma or evangelism.

For someone in the biz, this book is like cat-nip. Ah, the story of the one who did not ask to be chosen (OT figures such as Jeremiah, Job, Jonah), yet who by divine coercion encounters the holy and is transformed. Never mind that within the church-defined and controlled the stigmata has been given not to just hands, but feet and wounded side, and only to those holy enough to deserve the sign. This fellow is chosen, but he is not the figure of the exceptional.

For a reader who knows little or nothing about religious tradition outside the caricatures created through self-promoters of the strident and extreme, by those who abuse their faith and others under the cloak of religion, or by the media this story may very well intrigue, horrify, and maybe even move. It is not a doctrinaire work; it is a human one.

5 January 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I’ve been meaning to post this for a month now . . . At least there’s still some time before the March deadline:

THE 2011 SUSAN SONTAG PRIZE FOR TRANSLATION

$5,000 grant for a literary translation from Italian into English: PLEASE POST & DISTRIBUTE

PLEASE NOTE: The deadline is March 1, 2011.

This $5,000 grant will be awarded to a proposed work of literary translation from Italian into English and is open to anyone under the age of 30. The translation must fall under the category of fiction or letters, and the applicant will propose his or her own translation project. The project should be manageable for a five-month period of work, as the grant will be awarded in May 2011, and the translation must be completed by October 2011.

Acceptable proposals include a novella, a play, a collection of short stories or poems, or a collection of letters that have literary import. Preference will be given to works that have not been previously translated. (Previously translated works will be considered, however applicants should include an explanation for why they are proposing a new translation.) Applicants wishing to translate significantly longer works should contact the Foundation before sending in their applications so that supplementary materials can be included. The prizewinner will be notified on May 13, 2011 and results will be announced online at www.susansontag.org.

The recipient will be expected to participate in symposia on literary translation with established writers and translators, as well as public readings of their work once the translation has been completed.

Application Requirements (Please download the official application online..) All applications must include three copies of the following:

• Application Cover Sheet (available online)
• Personal Statement (2 pages maximum) explaining your interest and background in literature and the source language (Italian)
• Project proposal (2 pages maximum) outlining the work and describing its importance
• 5 page sample translation of the proposed work from the source language into English
• The same passage in the original language
• A bio-bibliography of the author (including information on previous translations of his or her work into English)
• One academic letter of recommendation
• Official transcript from your current or most recent academic institution

All applications must be submitted via regular mail to the Foundation address:

Susan Sontag Foundation
76 Franklin St. #3
NY, NY 10013

All application materials must be received by March 1, 2011.

The fine print: Applicants must be under the age of 30 on the date the prizewinner will be announced: May 13, 2011. By submitting work to the Susan Sontag Foundation, the applicant acknowledges the right of the Foundation to use the accepted work in its publications, on its website, and for educational and promotional purposes related to the Foundation. Please note that application materials cannot be returned to applicants.

15 December 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Acacia O’Connor on Valeria Parrella’s For Grace Received, which was published by Europa Editions last fall (which is approximately 7 catalogs in “Publishing Time”) in Antony Shugaar’s translation.

Acacia is one of the MALTS (Masters in Literary Translation Studies) students here at the University of Rochester. (For more info on our programs, click here.) She’s been interning for Open Letter all semester, during which time she came up with a couple killer marketing ideas, including an iPhone app that we need a developer for (it’s an anti-guinea pig game) and a really, really cool idea about reading groups, the physicality of books, and Benjamin Stein’s The Canvas.

She actually wrote this review for another class, for which she was supposed to write a review that really looked at the translation as a translation. Which makes this a really interesting piece.

They say “See Naples and die” (Vedi Napoli e poi mori). I once thought this meant that Naples, bordered on one side by a still-active volcano and the sparkling sea on the other, is so breathtaking that there’s no use searching for anything more beautiful. Not so, a southern Italian corrected me. In Naples you notice every little angle of life: Leopardi’s desert flower growing out of the Vesuvian hillside; sad-faced old women in babushkas living on the ground floors of bent and dirty alleys; desperate Senegalese immigrants scheming to pick the pockets of almost-as-desperate Neapolitan teenagers; the soaring song of the tarantella. After a few days in Naples, you’ve soaked in everything in its chaotic, dirty, beautiful honesty.

[. . .]

The collection consists of just four stories, but together they manage to touch on many of the major obstacles life in Naples—or anywhere else—presents. Okay, so there are some things that life does not thrust upon everybody: stabbings, mob bosses, stints in prison, adulterous affairs, drug trafficking, black market books, black market CDs. But in a certain sense these events are incidental. They are presented matter-of-factly, because for anyone familiar with a certain reality of Naples it truly is a matter of fact. Equally important to Parrella’s stories, however, are the emotional consequences for her characters, who sense the limitations of their lives and grapple with them. A copy shop boy in the story “Siddhartha” who once played guitar beautifully and could again, maybe, someday. The woman who despite having it all, longs for “The Imagined Friend.” They are conscious of Possibility and this awareness is painful.

The challenge Parrella’s work presents the translator is that it is idiomatic and makes use of the local dialect. The narration is conducted in a modern voice of Italian while dialogue makes frequent use of dialect. When I began reading Shugaar’s translation before having read the Italian, I wondered if the author had cut down using dialect in this second book of short stories. Well, yes and no. Neapolitan does appear less frequently, appearing via the use of mo’ (now/_adesso_) and ‘sto (this/_questo_), for example. Where it does appear, however, is practically invisible in translation, indicating that Shugaar has normalized the text, attempting to render it in a single English voice. Not only are they normalized, sometimes dialect phrases or casual comments do not always appear in a similarly casual voice in English, thus seeming overformalized.

Click here to read it all.

15 December 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

They say “See Naples and die” (Vedi Napoli e poi mori). I once thought this meant that Naples, bordered on one side by a still-active volcano and the sparkling sea on the other, is so breathtaking that there’s no use searching for anything more beautiful. Not so, a southern Italian corrected me. In Naples you notice every little angle of life: Leopardi’s desert flower growing out of the Vesuvian hillside; sad-faced old women in babushkas living on the ground floors of bent and dirty alleys; desperate Senegalese immigrants scheming to pick the pockets of almost-as-desperate Neapolitan teenagers; the soaring song of the tarantella. After a few days in Naples, you’ve soaked in everything in its chaotic, dirty, beautiful honesty.

On the copyright page of Valeria Parrella’s For Grace Received there is a note similar to that which is often shown before episodes of Law & Order. “This book is a work of fiction,” it warns. “The characters and events described in these stories are imaginary, but the social and environmental settings that produced them are, on the other hand, quite authentic.” The environment and society we’re dealing with, specifically, is that which you see before dying: Naples, the playground of the Gomorrah, a paradise of contraband. Taken more broadly, it is a profoundly human setting full of characters secretly nursing small hopes. Antony Shugaar’s translation brings us into the lives of these characters in Parrella’s English-language debut.

The collection consists of just four stories, but together they manage to touch on many of the major obstacles life in Naples—or anywhere else—presents. Okay, so there are some things that life does not thrust upon everybody: stabbings, mob bosses, stints in prison, adulterous affairs, drug trafficking, black market books, black market CDs. But in a certain sense these events are incidental. They are presented matter-of-factly, because for anyone familiar with a certain reality of Naples it truly is a matter of fact. Equally important to Parrella’s stories, however, are the emotional consequences for her characters, who sense the limitations of their lives and grapple with them. A copy shop boy in the story “Siddhartha” who once played guitar beautifully and could again, maybe, someday. The woman who despite having it all, longs for “The Imagined Friend.” They are conscious of Possibility and this awareness is painful.

The challenge Parrella’s work presents the translator is that it is idiomatic and makes use of the local dialect. The narration is conducted in a modern voice of Italian while dialogue makes frequent use of dialect. When I began reading Shugaar’s translation before having read the Italian, I wondered if the author had cut down using dialect in this second book of short stories. Well, yes and no. Neapolitan does appear less frequently, appearing via the use of mo’ (now/_adesso_) and ‘sto (this/_questo_), for example. Where it does appear, however, is practically invisible in translation, indicating that Shugaar has normalized the text, attempting to render it in a single English voice. Not only are they normalized, sometimes dialect phrases or casual comments do not always appear in a similarly casual voice in English, thus seeming overformalized:

“Eh”, dice lui, “vabbè, mo’ mandiamo a chiedere ‘sto controllo dei documenti, un’oretta e ce ne andiamo tutti quanti a casa. Per favore però, spegnete i cellulari”.

“Mannaggia”, dico io . . .

The treasury agent here is trying to sound non-chalant, like he has to inspect a copy shop but doesn’t necessarily want to. Vabbè could be alright/fine/whatever/OK, expressing “let’s just get this over with and we’ll all go home.” Here’s Shugaar’s:

“Mmm,” he replies, “well, let’s go ahead and request the document check, just an hour or so, and then we all go home. But, do me a favor please, and turn off your cell phones.”

“Rats,” I say . . .

First of all, what character not appearing on Sesame Street says “rats” these days? Mannaggia, so far as I have always thought of it, is damn or, at its most benign, darn. Secondly, the inspector has become somewhat more formal-sounding. In the Italian he does “request” a “document check,” but the vabbè, mo’ and ‘sto bookend the formality with a buddy-buddy feeling that doesn’t come through at all in the English. Shugaar makes some great choices for colloquial phrases without English equivalents. For example “bloody hell” for the exclamation “_che sangue_” retains both the swear and the blood.

Oddly, the awkward tenor of the dialogue in places is not due to remaining literal to the text. In fact, Shugaar makes choices throughout the novel to streamline the voice in English and make it sound fluid and colloquial. He sometimes adds or subtracts words, apparently for the sake of clarification. While a translator should approach the question of how literal s/he wishes to be on a phrase-by-phrase, or even a word-by-word basis, I frequently wondered why Shugaar would add words in one place when they were extraneous to comprehension and not add them in other awkward places. For example, a conversation about someone who shows up wearing a fur coat in the spring:

“Hello? We’re in the south of Italy. Think! Unless you’re stuck on an Alp, like you are, it’s springtime, next weekend I’m going to Procida . . .”

“Stuck on an Alp?” Just one? I consult the Italian.

“Pronto? Qui è il sud. Capisci? Fuori dall’alpe c’è la primavera, io il prossimo weekend vado a Procida.”

Okay, so it does say “outside the alp” singular rather than the Alps, which is indeed odd, but it also does not say he’s “stuck on it,” nor does it specify that the south is “of Italy.” One might say “we’re in the south of Italy” on the phone, but one might just as well say “This is the south,” which is closer to the source text and would capture the sassiness. Americans would understand the concept of the south being hot from our own geography. In conversation “_capisci_?” is used as we utilize “you know?” or “get/got it?” and in fact Shugaar does treat it this way in other places, leading me to wonder why he has the character call for thinking. If you’re going to totally invent being “stuck on” the mountain and add in “like you are,” why not pluralize Alps?

Is Shugaar trying to improve or clarify the text? Or is he “transmitting [that] feeling of foreigness to his readers” that Schleiermacher talks about in his essay “On the Different Methods of Translation”? With a text like For Grace Received, so full of contemporary idioms, the work of the translator is to absorb what a character says and spit it back out as if it were an average, modern person saying it in the target language. I think Shugaar would agree, but sometimes his choices come out like “rats!”—that is to say a little stale. A twenty-something copy boy in Naples who “_puzza a peste_” (smells really bad, literally like the plague) could say he “stinks to high heavens,” but would he? In America he would probably say he smelled like shit, or smelled terrible. If he says the paper in the copy shop “_fa schifo_,” it could mean the paper is “flimsy” but I would probably read it as “it sucks.”

For the most part, however, Parrella’s characters come through in all their honesty, impatience and vulnerability. They are all looking at holes in their lives, just as the main character of “F.G.R.,” the title story, looks down at a literal hole in her bathroom floor, pieces of plaster crumbling down into her downstairs neighbor’s tub. They catch glimpses at a more complete life, but it would take a lot of renovating to get them there. Perhaps this is an appropriate metaphor for translation: a hole waiting to be repaired. Once it is patched up and smoothed over, it will be an unscarred bathroom floor, but inevitably, before that is realized, some of the original plaster is going to crumble off around the edges.

9 September 10 | Chad W. Post |

The latest addition to our Reviews section is a piece by Acacia O’Connor on Paolo Mantegazza’s The Year 3000: A Dream, translated from the Italian by David Jacobson and published by the University of Nebraska Press.

Acacia O’Connor is one of the first group of students to enroll in the University of Rochester’s Master of Arts in Literary Translation program. She came here by way of a year in Italy, and also worked for a time at the Association of American Publishers. I’m sure this is the first of several reviews she’ll be writing for us . . . (I love when new groups of interns start working with the press. They’re all so interesting with such diverse interests, and they’re so earnest! So eager to learn and help out! So much different than all the jaded people working in the publishing industry.)

Anyway, this novel—a work of science-fiction originally published in 1897—sounds both dry and intriguing:

Have you ever seen renderings or book covers from the 1800s in which the artist attempts to envision and portray a future world? They always seem quaint compared to the contemporary world as it has been realized—proof that we are so limited in imagining the unknown that it will always take on shades of what we have in front of us today. Early science fiction is the same way, as we see in Paolo Mantegazza’s The Year 3000: A Dream translated in its entirety into English for the first time by Nicoletta Pireddu.

Mantegazza’s thirty-first century couple, Paolo and Maria, is making a global trek to obtain a marriage license and the right to “transmit life to future generations.” In one of their last stops in Andropolis, the global capitol, the pair go to the museum of natural history, which houses samples of all life forms as well as “possible people.” These “possible people” are scientist’s renderings of alien beings, and Paolo finds them hilarious:

“Oh, my dear Maria, how comical these planetary angels are, how grotesque, above all, how impossible! . . . We can imagine only anthropomorphic forms, and so, just as the ancient founders of theogonies could fashion their gods only by clothing them in human skin, so these odd creators of supermen were unable to go beyond the human and the animal world.”

Click here to read the full review.

9 September 10 | Chad W. Post |

Have you ever seen renderings or book covers from the 1800s in which the artist attempts to envision and portray a future world? They always seem quaint compared to the contemporary world as it has been realized—proof that we are so limited in imagining the unknown that it will always take on shades of what we have in front of us today. Early science fiction is the same way, as we see in Paolo Mantegazza’s The Year 3000: A Dream translated in its entirety into English for the first time by David Jacobson.

Mantegazza’s thirty-first century couple, Paolo and Maria, is making a global trek to obtain a marriage license and the right to “transmit life to future generations.” In one of their last stops in Andropolis, the global capitol, the pair go to the museum of natural history, which houses samples of all life forms as well as “possible people.” These “possible people” are scientist’s renderings of alien beings, and Paolo finds them hilarious:

“Oh, my dear Maria, how comical these planetary angels are, how grotesque, above all, how impossible! . . . We can imagine only anthropomorphic forms, and so, just as the ancient founders of theogonies could fashion their gods only by clothing them in human skin, so these odd creators of supermen were unable to go beyond the human and the animal world.”

This is one of several moments in which Mantegazza reveals he is aware of his own limitations and obsolescence as one making predictions about a utopic future world. Though he really needn’t, considering that many of his previsions about biology, medicine, global politics and communication weren’t far from the mark. Indeed, things such as the CAT scan, credit cards, EU, and the Internet are eerily similar to what we find in the United Planetary States. Needless to say, other details couldn’t be further from our reality one-hundred and thirteen years later, which both is and isn’t the point. The fun of reading the otherwise very dry 3000 is to imagine Mantegazza imagining us and re-imagining ourselves and our future 3000. Pireddu’s useful notes also help us locate ourselves in his time and mind.

Employing elements common to other science fiction writers of the time, such as Felix Bodin and Emile Souvestre, Mantegazza crafts his world to a greater purpose than simply making fantastic predictions. A physician, surgeon, naturalist, anthropologist and general jack-of-all-trades, Paolo Mantegazza combined his interest in science with his investment in political and moral questions of his day in his varied writings. He participated in the 5 Days Revolt for Italian independence in Milan at the age of 16 and later served as senator under the newly unified Regno d’Italia.

From the distance of this futuristic setting, Paolo, Maria and their guides can look back to the ancient world of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to criticize different aspects of society and culture. It’s a Swiftian move that gives his critiques of socialism, science, industry, religion, and especially the Aesthetic movement in art (it appears literally as a “black spot, a blot drawn over the last period of the nineteenth century” on the Art History map in Andropolis) a certain amount of distance.

In one chapter, Paolo and Maria visit the island of Ceylon, which is a sort of museum to past forms of governance. It becomes clear which forms the author feels don’t work, tyranny and socialism, for example. What is less clear is how this new peaceful, well-oiled United States of Earth really works and why. It appears that in their evolution humans have become less greedy, groping, and conniving. Mantegazza briefly attributes this to improvements in communication, which “brought men closer to one another, making hatred more difficult and war impossible.” If only twitter could save us.

What is evident, through presumptions such is these, is Mantegazza is optimistic about the future and especially about the role of science. In his future world humans all speak a universal language, there is universal suffrage, and improvements in medicine and infrastructure have made peoples lives infinitely more livable—people live to the ripe age of 70! Indeed, the greatest religion in this world is a cult to Hope. Even the stoic scientist Paolo can’t help but be moved when he and Maria visit the Temple of Hope in Andropolis. And while life with these evolved, efficient, almost naïve thirty-first century humans seems like it might get dull pretty quick, you don’t mind taking a quiet tour past the statues and beautiful fountains for a few pages.

11 August 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Grant Barber on Carmine Abate’s The Homecoming Party, translated from the Italian by Antony Shugaar and published by Europa Editions.

In his own words, Grant Barber is “an Episcopal priest living on the south shore of Boston and a keen bibliophile. Maybe by the time he retires his Spanish will be good enough to try his own translations of Latin American fiction.”

As Grant mentions in his review, Abate’s Between Two Seas is also available from Europa Editions, and was also translated by Antony Shugaar. (Antony is a member of the Europa Edition All Star Translator team. Along with Alison Anderson, I think he’s translated approximately 75 books for Europa this year. Crazy.)

Anyway, here’s the opening of Grant’s review:

This short novel (171 pages) continues Europa’s practice of bringing interesting contemporary fiction from writers of Europe. What commends this novel most is the author’s voice underlying the first person accounts of Marco, a 13 year old Albanian- Italian boy living in a small southern Italy town, and his father who is a migrant laborer in France. Tullio, the father, returns home for a succession of Christmas celebrations, which anchor the novel’s unfolding time. Carmine Abate must be well served by Antony Shugaar, the translator of this novel (and Abate’s novel Between Two Seas, also published by Europa): the story confidently unfolds at a steady, gentle pace, with some loops forwards and backwards as the reader pieces together all the events.

Click here to read the full review.

11 August 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

This short novel (171 pages) continues Europa’s practice of bringing interesting contemporary fiction from writers of Europe. What commends this novel most is the author’s voice underlying the first person accounts of Marco, a 13 year old Albanian- Italian boy living in a small southern Italy town, and his father who is a migrant laborer in France. Tullio, the father, returns home for a succession of Christmas celebrations, which anchor the novel’s unfolding time. Carmine Abate must be well served by Antony Shugaar, the translator of this novel (and Abate’s novel Between Two Seas, also published by Europa): the story confidently unfolds at a steady, gentle pace, with some loops forwards and backwards as the reader pieces together all the events.

Abate creates believable characters not just of Marco and Tullio, but also Marco’s teenaged half-sister Elisa (the daughter of Tullio and his first, deceased wife), Marco’s best friend and cousin Mario, as well as glimpses of Marco’s younger sister, mother, and grandmother. The remaining, significant character is a somewhat mysterious older man who becomes in separate encounters a love interest of Elisa, and an almost mythical male adult figure for Marco during a long absence of his father. In fact underneath the specific characters are recognizably archetypal people and events: the boy just coming into adolescence observing the young woman discovering her sexuality, a powerfully important but absent father, a faithful dog companion, descent into grave sickness and return to health with an altered awareness, passing time marked by religious/mythical annual events, the final crisis when the mysterious man transgresses too far into the lives of the family and Marco’s resultant action.

To Abate’s credit these motifs do not mean a too-predictable story. Rather, the narrative pace holds the reader’s attention and elicits an investment in what happens. Part of the appeal of the novel is the growing sense that we are in familiar territory, but with a fresh telling, a slice of life in all it particulars well drawn. This book is an easy night’s read, smooth, sophisticated, generous hearted.

22 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Our most recent release—which shipped to subscribers last week—is Elsa Morante’s Aracoeli, her last novel, and by far her darkest. Below you’ll find the excellent introduction Robert Boyers wrote for our reissue of this book.

Thirty years ago, Elsa Morante seemed to many American writers and critics a major novelist. She had recently become famous with the publication of History: A Novel, a notoriously vast and tumultuous work, and yet clearly one of the most compelling accounts of the Second World War to come out of Europe. In the New York City of the late 1970s, literary intellectuals frequently debated the virtues of Morante’s overheated prose, and even critics who found her novels eminently resistible conceded that, at her best, she was a writer to be reckoned with. American and British editions of her books came festooned with the praise of her peers, and she was often grouped with other leading Italian writers of the war and post-war period. The recent biography by Lily Tuck—the first devoted to Morante in any language—studies her affiliations and makes clear that she was always, in her own country, an embattled figure, and it comes as little surprise to learn that the writer who could be savage in her responses to the work of her own closest friends might also find her own work subjected to savage attack, even by a confidante and admirer like the writer-filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini. A volatile and notoriously unpredictable character, subject to infatuations and bitter resentments of the sort she anatomized in her fiction, Morante produced novels marked by ambivalences fiercely, even desperately evoked.

Well before the appearance of History in 1974, Morante stirred attention with an enormous, badly flawed first novel entitled House of Liars (1951). But she made a much more significant mark with her second novel, Arturo’s Island, which won the 1957 Strega Prize as the best novel of the year in Italy. It is, in its way, a characteristic performance, vehement, implacable, indiscreet in its rage to uncover emotions that are raw and disturbing. Like many American readers, I came to the novel twenty years after its initial appearance, when History: A Novel had made Morante famous, but I heard in it then, and hear in it now, the early expression of a voice at once febrile and unbearably poignant, a voice that would again resonate in Morante’s final novel, Aracoeli (1982), now bravely reissued in a new edition. In both of these novels readers are asked, again and again, to absorb complex shocks of feeling, to attend closely to the painful probing of psychic wounds. These are not, we feel, novels for the faint of heart. The vagrant, occasional evocations of health or joy in such works seem fleeting, often delusional, the stuff of childish infatuation or naïve optimism. Everywhere in these novels we are made to anticipate iniquity and betrayal. Morante was a writer—so we feel— who worked from an intolerable burden of hurt and dispossession, who mistrusted her own inclinations to pleasure and self-approval.

In Arturo’s Island, the note of loss and disillusionment is persistent. Throughout there are references to “my heart’s impossible longings” and “an obscure, violated law.” Arturo himself often feels “like a criminal” who is inexorably “swept along by a terrible cyclone” he is helpless to resist. For all the moments of tenderness or reprieve Morante allows, the coloration of the work is dark, “rage and astonishment” always about to erupt, just as we might well say of Aracoeli, where the accent of self-loathing is even stronger, the sense that nothing can be done to alter anything even more emphatic.

Unlike Arturo’s Island, Aracoeli was not well received in Italy, and most of the reviews in the United States were frankly dismissive and uncomprehending. Perhaps this had much to do with the fact that Aracoeli was a complete departure from History, a work much more varied in its devices and more generous in its sympathies. More probably, Aracoeli was resisted because it opened up a devastated psychological landscape without the slightest intimation of a redemptive prospect. Of course the novel had its loyal adherents, though this reader can only marvel at those—like Stephen Spender—who were pleased to call it “a wonderful book,” or others—like Harold Brodkey—who thought it “fascinating,” hardly the epithets that recommend themselves for a work that is frequently appalling and saturated in self-loathing. The remorseless disinfatuation of the prose in Aracoeli is propelled, sustained, by what can sometimes seem an autonomous dynamism, the rhetoric of “amputation” and “pollution” the essential motor that drives the narrative.

Of course, a work shaped and controlled by an obsessive outlook and a corresponding rhetoric may come to seem monotonous. That is the risk Morante deliberately invites in Aracoeli. Emanuele, its first person narrator, knows that nothing he will tell us can alter or relieve his distress, which can border on the pathological. From the first, what he calls “my little happy life” is consigned, irrevocably, to the past, to a brief, never completely forgotten period of early childhood when things could seem innocent and he could think himself lovable. Almost at once he alludes to the “nameless malady” that would determine the course of his life, and soon the language of the novel is taken over by terms like “irreparable” and “malignancy.” Everything seems determined by a fate that “follows its own logic . . . sure and constant.” “To live,” the narrator contends, “means to experience separation,” where separation entails the loss of love and of a secure identity. Derided—so he believes—by virtually everyone he meets, the narrator of this novel imagines, “when I happen to find myself in a crowd,” that he is “marked out for lynching,” condemned for obscure, inarticulable reasons by the “overwhelming judgment of the Collective,” whatever that may mean.

To be sure, reasons are provided to account for the desperate unhappiness of the 43-year-old narrator, who recounts the trajectory of his life as if it were, in every important respect, at an end. He had been loved by his beautiful, erratic mother Aracoeli, and soon found himself rejected, his mother in the grip of an obscure sexual mania. The father, emotionally distant, reticent, unavailable, could offer nothing in the way of solace. Encouraged by his peers to find refuge in the company of women, Emanuele found himself impotent, inadequate, his consequent compulsive homoerotic excursions similarly dispiriting. Reasons, to be sure. Though Emanuele attempted, without conviction, “to emerge” from the constrictions of his own nature, he labored always in the shadow of “an old fable” in which “an immortal tailor . . . at night goes into the bedrooms of certain mortals he has selected. On them, as they sleep, he sews an invisible shirt, woven with the threads of their destiny.” Emanuele is one of the chosen, who can never tear off the shirt into which he has been sewn.

Can this sense of fatality serve as a sufficient reason to account for the life of such a person? In many ways it is the most compelling of the reasons Morante provides. Throughout the novel the narrator is at pains to insist upon the mystery of things. People are ceaselessly imprisoned by “secrets” they themselves cannot understand. We feel, all of us apparently, or so Morante’s narrator believes, that we are obscurely possessed by a “knowledge” we can never fully fathom. There are powers that enchant us, block our path to change or protest. For each hidden truth we sense but cannot penetrate there is an “ancient law” that decrees the limits of our understanding.

No doubt there are readers who will feel offended by the very suggestion of such a schema. They will say that an adult worthy of our attention over the course of a long novel cannot be made to submit so entirely to anything so nebulous as ancient laws, nor, for that matter, to the unfathomable laws of his own fixed nature. And yet Morante makes her Emanuele an extraordinarily compelling and believable character, whose sense of fatality is oddly suggestive of intimations to which every adult is, in varying degrees, susceptible. Susan Sontag noted, in a late essay, that “characters in a novel have intensely legible fates,” and it is the legible fate of Emanuele to be in the thrall of his own fanatic idea of fatedness, in a way that incapacitates him for healthy development. Is he therefore a one-dimensional figure? Say, rather, as Sontag says of novelists who “perform their necessary ethical work,” that Morante exercises her “right to a stipulated shrinking of the world as it really is” without ever allowing us to forget that the shrinking is the work of a mind, Emanuele’s, that is preternaturally inconsolable. More to the point, perhaps, Morante’s character, though alarmingly single-minded, is yet also open to vagrant impressions he knows not how to harness. There is nothing programmatic in Morante’s novel, no suggestion that the author participates in Emanuele’s fanaticism or offers it as a reliable statement about the laws to which the rest of us are immutably committed.

The ethical vision that underwrites Morante’s novel is discernible—again, in Sontag’s terms—in the “felt intensity” and “completeness” of her portraiture. These qualities demand, so we feel, that we honor her protagonist and care for him, in spite of the appalling, stubborn tenacity of his pessimism. Crucial in making this possible is Morante’s insistence that her Emanuele fitfully regress to dreams and memories of his lost childhood, which are conjured with an affecting immediacy. Just so, a few peripheral characters are permitted to surface and develop without being wholly subordinated to the incessant toils of the narrator’s disposition. Even the mother, Aracoeli herself, though subjected to a merciless dissection and a hideous fate, is permitted now and again to seem irresistibly vital and, for much of the novel, promising. In spite of the dark, downward drift of the narrative, Morante can allow us “a nostalgia of the senses,” in the grip of which the long dead Aracoeli is evoked in “her real, bodily voice, with its tender savor of throat and saliva,” and the son can feel again “on my palate the sensation of her skin, which smelled of fresh plum.”

Such delicacies and transports are, to be sure, rather infrequent in Aracoeli, and yet they do establish a necessary tension that works quietly against the grain of the narrator’s dark fanaticism. In this novel, Morante had the nerve—what George Steiner once called “the indispensable tactlessness”—to immerse her reader in an imagination that would necessarily seem sour and unlovely. But her own inveterate feeling for tenderness and beauty is also unmistakable, as unmistakable as her desire to get to the bottom of something she wishes with all her heart to encompass. There remains, as a residue of our encounter with a novel that is never less than troubling, an impression of a strangeness fully confronted but never fully understood.

—Robert Boyers

15 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Registration is open for next month’s European Book Club, in which Italy is the focus country, and the title being discussed is Stefano Benni’s Margherita Dolce Vita, which was translated by Anthony Shugaar and published by Europa Editions.

Stefano Benni’s enormously popular and distinctive mix of the absurd and the satirical has made him one of Italy’s best-loved novelists. This is his twelfth bestselling book of fiction. Fifteen-year-old Margherita lives with her eccentric family on the outskirts of town, a semi-urban wilderness peopled by gypsies, illegal immigrants, and no end of bizarre characters: a reassuring and fertile playground for an imaginative little girl like Margherita. But one day, a gigantic, black cube shows up next door. Her new neighbors have arrived, and they’re destined to ruin everything.

Over at the Europa Editions website, there’s a recap of an event with Benni and author Jonathan Coe, which includes this bit on Benni’s influences:

Coe spoke of his appreciation of Benni’s comedy in Margherita Dolce Vita. In its criticism of mindless consumerism it reminded him of the comedy of Jacques Tati in the films Playtime and Mon Oncle. Reacting, Benni said he admired Tati, but for him a much greater influence was Dario Fo.

Benni described how writing Margherita Dolce Vita came about; he met young girls who found it difficult to be non conformist at school, which led him to reflect on how life must be these days for an intelligent young girl.

The Europa Editions site also has a video of Benni reading in Italian.

There are two Book Club sessions: you can register for the one on May 11th at 6pm at the Istituto Italiano di Cultura (686 Park Avenue, between 68th and 69th Streets) by e-mailing italy.nyc [at] europeanbookclub [dot] org, and you can register for the May 19th one taking place at 7pm in the Central Library at Grand Army Plaza, Brooklyn by e-mailing eurobook [at] brooklynpubliclibrary [dot] org

9 December 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

A couple weeks back I started unveiling the spring/summer Open Letter list . . . and then promptly got distracted by our Best Translated Book of 2008 award.

But now I’m back . . . We announced The Mighty Angel by Jerzy Pilch and Landscape in Concrete by Jakov Lind earlier, and today I’d like to write about our July 2009 title: Aracoeli by Elsa Morante.

Morante’s been getting a bit of play recently, thanks to Lily Tuck’s Woman of Rome: A Life of Elsa Morante that came out from HarperCollins earlier this year. And the attention is well deserved. Although History: A Novel has remained in print, Morante seems like an overlooked figure in twentieth-century Italian fiction. Her husband Alberto Moravia, has had a bit more success, thanks to the recent NYRB reissues of Boredom and Contempt, but a number of his books also remain out-of-print as well.

Aracoeli was Morante’s final novel and William Weaver’s English translation came out in 1985. A novel that, when first published, was regarded as a sort of departure for her—a much darker, disturbed book. According to the New York Times review: it would seem that Elsa Morante has turned against her innermost creative self and vision, her carefully nurtured private mythology, her special cult of the young and the innocent. This book reads as if she has surrendered to a blunt cynicism.”_

Personally, I think this is an incredibly well-crafted book. It has touches of Sebald in the way that the narrator—a middle-aged man who is filled with self-loathing, who works a dead-end job in publishing and is trying to recapture his mother’s past—creates a sort of landscape of memories. The date he starts his quest to “resurrect” his mother is All Saints’ Day in 1975, the same day of Pier Paolo Passolini’s murder, an interesting sidenote that many critics have pointed out. It’s a beautifully written book, and I feel that it’s cynicism is one of the reasons that it’s still quite powerful.

Lily Tuck’s bit on this novel is pretty illuminating and helps connect it with the rest of Morante’s oeuvre:

The first time I read Aracoeli, I found it almost pointlessly disturbing and shocking. On rereading it, I still found it disturbing and shocking, but I have also grown to admire it—perhaps because it is so dark and resists any attempt to classify it. In writing this novel, Morante may have knowingly sacrificed clarity and logic in order to express her vision of a chaotic world. Manuel’s bitter, self-revelatory journey into memory seems almost unjustifiably painful and unnecessary, as does Aracoeli’s transformation from virginal beauty to voracious sexual predator. Yet, at the same time, there is something almost inevitable if one regards Manuel as the last progression in a long chain of lost boys beginning wiht Arturo [Ed. Note: from Arturo’s Island an earlier work of Morante’s.] and continuing with Useppe. These are the boys who once, according to Morante, could save the world but now no longer can. The themes of maternity and identity too are rejected and abandoned, and at the novel’s end—never mind that one may not understand Aracoeli’s experience, her degradation and illness—one is left with the terrifying awareness that nothing matters any longer for the protagonist or, perhaps, for the writer as well.

Here’s an excerpt from an early part of the novel.

15 August 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The new issue of A Public Space arrived a couple days ago and, as always, is filled with interesting pieces.

I think it’s pretty cool that “All Foreigners Beep” from Dubravka Ugresic’s new collection Nobody’s Home leads off the issue, especially since this is one of the funniest pieces in the book.

And I really like the “Letter Home” in which Colleen Kinder “Defines Iceland” and includes one of my favorite things to tell people about Iceland:

Phone book: Listed by first names.

Why: The surname here is only a father’s tag. For example, Molly Kinder = Molly Drewsdottir (Drew’s daughter.) Bush = Georg Georgsson.

Recommended Reading: The phone book. Particularly if you are looking, say, for Americans living in Iceland. Amid the long columns of Injibjorgs and Gudmundurs, a Frank leaps right out.

Frank: A ninety-six-year-old American living in Iceland. Though when he boarded his military ship in 1941, Frank was told only the code name of his destination: “Blue Indigo.”

Also very cool is this issue’s focus on Italy that includes pieces by Antonio Tabucchi, Salvatore Niffoi, Dacia Maraini, and Erri de Luca, and interviews with Marcello Fois and Antonio Scurati. And the whole section begins with an intriguing intro by translator Will Schutt :

One of the most prominent genres of current Italian fiction, both popular and literary, is the giallo or mystery story. In the hands of literary writers, the giallo turns quirkily metaphysical and, at times, metafictional—keen on investigating essential mysteries of language and its bearing on identity. [. . .]

In the short fictions that follow, formal combinations of the straight-up mystery, the historical narrative, and the fantastic tale serve to magnify divisiveness, paradox and impenetrability, qualities emblematic of the culture’s spirit. Although none of the stories’ protagonists is a detective per se, each is engaged in some kind of detective work.

....
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Love Sonnets & Elegies by Louise Labé
Reviewed by Brandy Harrison

With the steady rise of feminist scholarship and criticism in recent decades, it is little wonder that the work of Louise Labé should be attracting, as Richard Sieburth tells us in the Afterword to his translation, a “wide and thriving”. . .

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Conversations
Conversations by César Aira
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

In Conversations, we find ourselves again in the protagonist’s conscious and subconscious, which is mostly likely that of Mr. César Aira and consistent with prototypical Aira style. This style never fails because each time Aira is able to develop a. . .

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Nothing Ever Happens
Nothing Ever Happens by José Ovejero
Reviewed by Juan Carlos Postigo

You are not ashamed of what you do, but of what they see you do. Without realizing it, life can be an accumulation of secrets that permeates every last minute of our routine . . .

The narrative history of. . .

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The Pendragon Legend
The Pendragon Legend by Antal Szerb
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

Literature in translation often comes with a certain pedigree. In this little corner of the world, with so few books making it into this comforting nook, it is often those of the highest quality that cross through, and attention is. . .

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