Aside from every stupid Buzzfeed list ever, the number one link I’ve seen on my social media networks over the past few days has been to the new Words Without Borders issue. On the one hand, this is a testament to the amazingness of WWB; on the other, it illustrates that the vast majority of my friends are book nerds who like a little constraint with their writing.
This month we’re showcasing the sparkling innovations in form and literature produced by the members of the Oulipo. The Paris-based literary collective explores how literature might arise from structures, rules, and constraints, working within restrictions—alphabetical, narrative, rhythmic, metric—to set genres and language loose. Ian Monk’s tour of an apartment building maintains a strict numeric unity in lines and words. Olivier Salon travels through a gradually dwindling alphabet. Michèle Métail claims a chain of possessives, and Anne F. Garréta offers a rogue reading of Proust. In playing with poetic forms, Jacques Bens finds sonnets easy as pi, and Jacques Jouet extends the sestina. And François Caradec’s aphorisms offer less than meets the eye. Guest editor and translator Daniel Levin Becker provides a useful key to the considerations at play in both French and English versions. Join us in marveling at the verbal gymnastics of the writers, and at the dazzling ingenuity of the translators.
To regular readers of Three Percent, it’s clear that anything Oulipo would appeal to us—even more so if Daniel Levin Becker is involved. We’ve run a mini-dissertation on the Oulipo to tie into the publication of his book, Many Subtle Channels, and we also had him on a podcast to talk about the same thing. And with so many great Oulipians involved, this is guaranteed to be one of WWB’s great issues.
Sticking with DLB for a moment, and to give anyone who’s not already brain-deep in Oulipianism a bit more of a context, here’s an excerpt from the introduction to this issue:
As the prevailing image used by book reviewers to praise literary translations is that of transparency—limpid, pellucid, crystalline—it seems clear, so to speak, how ready we are to think of language as a window onto meaning. Whatever difficulties a translator may have encountered in carrying that meaning over into a new syntactic, lexical, and cultural idiom, we tend to expect his or her fingerprints to be wiped away by the time the text arrives before us, and for the resulting view to be more or less the same as the view enjoyed by the native reader. For better and occasionally for worse, we tend to be correct.
The Oulipo—ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or workshop for potential literature, a Paris-based literary collective dedicated to exploring how literature might arise from structures, rules, and constraints borrowed from linguistics or mathematics or parlor games—presents an uncommonly acute challenge to that expectation. To write an Oulipian text is both to draw a picture and to solve a puzzle, and more often than not these two missions blur together to the point where it becomes impossible to discern where the language ends and the meaning, such as it is, begins.
So, as you might imagine, things get doubly complex when a second language comes into play. Each language is a system unto itself, with its own rules and cheat codes, its own alliances and enmities and tunnels and trapdoors—and since exploiting all of these is the very essence of Oulipian methodology, since language is not only the raw material of an Oulipian experiment but also its demonstrandum, we might ask what, in this context, translational transparency even means. What happens when, to bedevil McLuhan, the window is the view?
The selections in this issue are an attempt to hint, by demonstration, at the range of potential answers to those questions.
Exactly. Now go check it all out.
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.
Upstaged by Jacques Jouet, translated by Leland de la Durantaye (which sounds like an Oulipian pseduonym)
Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press
Why This Book Should Win: Oulipians have the most fun.
Today’s post is written by John Smieska, MPAS PA-C, whom I met when working at Schuler Books & Music approximately 29 years ago.
When you read any text produced by a member of the Oulipo group, there is an invitation to read with an awareness of the construction, an alertness in the background of the experience. Oulipo is an exclusive challenge-society, a think-tank that seeks to generate narrative constraints; these constraints spur the private literary ambitions of its members, and subvert the aesthetic traditions of narrative and language. Some works of this group are front-loaded, with the constraint or device announced in tandem with the debut of the text—this allows the act of reading to be textured with an editorial or fact-checker’s spectatorship. In other works, like Upstaged, the constraint is not made explicit, which allows the act of reading to be infused with a cryptographic undercurrent, a puzzler’s inquiry.
Upstaged by Jacques Jouet, to my best reckoning, is about a theatre and its doubles. (Indeed, there is some vulnerability in publicly proposing a solution to any puzzle that may or may not be absolutely correct.) The narrative folds around pairs; it splits and replicates like a feral blastomere, or like a work of dialectic origami. The narrator is the director’s assistant (herself, the self described factotum/factota of the playwright/director) during a routine performance of a play that becomes unsuspectingly vitalized when an unknown performer, known as “the Usurper,” invades the zona pellucida of a principle actor’s dressing room, and in the tender moments before his entrance, binds him naked to a chair and proceeds to hijack his role. (This all occurs in the national theatre of a Republic that is a double of the real—as much as politics are fictions used to organize, compel, and interpret events.) The play is a political play about a leader who disguises himself in order to mingle with the citizens, but who, while soliciting prostitutes (the doubles of intimacy?), encounters his estranged brother who was once united in a common cause, but has now split to lead the rebel faction.
The Usurper disrupts the timing (the seconds?), the delivery and finally the plot—which forces improvisations and the continued splitting and shifting of roles. At the end of the second act (rescued from chaos by the improvisational skill of the second prostitute) the Principle actor is released from his bondage, and the Usurper has disappeared (along with the second prostitute who may or may not have been in her dressing room). The show must go on, and the troupe must coalesce, and take new roles, the director and assistant even take to the stage as actors, to salvage the third act. The resulting performance yields a unique, inspired and resonant plot, favorably reviewed as a new and burgeoning aesthetic by one of the two present critics.
To hold even this key (although it may be a false one), even in a very general retelling, the plot hums and pops, restrained from your knowledge, with new hidden doubles and splits, I restrict from you an active but private hive of details, a mania of inquiries we might well discuss and connect. (Are the teller and voyeur split? Is the voyeur split into the role as cameraman/camerawoman? Is the inverse of the riddle gametogenesis? Are we, as readers, part of the double structure? Are we the double of the rat pulled across the boards by invisible strings? Does speculating the value of the structure make us the double of the critic? Etc. etc. ) This is a plot where even the title bestowed to express one’s singularity and uniqueness is split into halpax or unicum depending on who crowns you with it.
I recommend this book as an adventure, an adventure whose calling intensifies in recollection as much as it does in reading. It is an adventure into the aesthetics of Oulipo and it is a treasure map into the theatre of its doubles.
Now that the University of Rochester’s mail services is back from break, I’m swimming in a sea of books, catalogs, and mailed in donations from our annual campaign. (Well, OK, maybe not swimming in a sea of donations, but thanks to all of you who did donate. And if you haven’t donated, you can by clicking here.)
One of the more interesting catalogs that arrived over break was the new Spring/Summer 2011 catalog from Dalkey Archive. There are a $%^&load of translations in here, from a number of different languages and countries. With the total number of original translations plummeting in 2010 (more on that later this week when I finally finish updating the Translation Database), I’m sure that Dalkey will be one of the top producers of translated literature.
As alluded to in the earlier post about Hotel Europa, Dalkey has traditionally supported its authors by publishing (and reissuing) several of their works, rather than dumping them if sales for a particular title aren’t all that impressive. This is very admirable, and this catalog features books from a number of “classic” Dalkey authors. (Can’t find these titles on the Dalkey site, otherwise I’d link to them. And all quotes are from the catalog):
In Exiled from Almost Everywhere, Juan Goytisolo’s perverse mutant protagonist—the Parisian “Monster of Le Sentier”—is blown up by an extremist bomber and finds himself in the cyberspace of the Thereafter with an infinite collection of computer monitors.
Dark Desires is the author’s autobiographical fantasia on the ten years she spent living in New York City. Valenzuela has called this book her “apocryphal autobiography,” and in it she says very little about her work as a writer, about the city itself, or even about literature.
In a city not quite of any particular era, a distant and calculating man named Lenz Buchmann works as a surgeon, treating his patients as little more than equations to be solved: life and death no more than results to be worked through without the least compassion.
There are also a number of interesting sounding “new voices”:
Talismano is a novelistic exploration of writing seen as a hallucinatory journey through half-remembered, half-imagined cities—in particularly, the city of Tunis, both as it is now, and as it once was.
An unassuming, unambitious man named Motti, who owns a dog named Laika, has a good friend named Menachem. Motti and Menachem drink beer together every week, and Motti spends the rest of his time daydreaming an imaginary love story for himself and his neighbor, Ariella. Motti is the very picture of inertia, until, one night, a drunk Menachem, driving home from a bar with Motti, runs over a woman and kills her.
They’re also doing a couple Japanese Literature Publishing Project titles (Plainsong by Kazushi Hosaka and The Shadow of a Blue Cat by Naoyuki Li), and, what may the be the most exciting announcement, they’re brining out Mark Polizzotti’s new translation of Raymond Roussel’s Impressions of Africa.
I’m sure we’ll end up covering a number of these on the site, and as I peruse more catalogs, I’ll post other “Spring/Summer 2011 Preview” posts . . .
The last five days of the eleventh-century Icelandic politician, writer of sagas, and famous murder victim Snorri Sturleleson (the Norwegian spelling, Snorre, is preserved in the book) make up Thorvald Steen’s most recently translated historical fiction, The Little Horse. Murdered. . .
We all know Paris, or at least we think we know it. The Eiffel Tower. The Latin Quarter. The Champs-Élysées. The touristy stuff. In Dominique Fabre’s novel, Guys Like Me, we’re shown a different side of Paris: a gray, decaying. . .
One hundred pages into Birth of a Bridge, the prize-winning novel from French writer Maylis de Kerangal, the narrator describes how starting in November, birds come to nest in the wetlands of the fictional city of Coca, California, for three. . .
At 30, the Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli is already gathering her rosebuds. Faces in the Crowd, her poised debut novel, was published by Coffee House Press, along with her Brodsky-infused essay collection, Sidewalks. The essays stand as a theoretical map. . .
Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia (narrated by Julio Cortázar) is, not disappointingly, as wild a book as its title suggests. It is a half-novella half-graphic novel story about . . . what, exactly? A European tribunal, Latin. . .
Marie NDiaye has created a tiny, psychological masterpiece with her Self-Portrait in Green. In it she explores how our private fears and insecurities can distort what we believe to be real and can cause us to sabotage our intimate relationships.. . .
Reading a genre book—whether fantasy, science fiction, crime, thriller, etc.—which begins to seem excessively, stereotypically bad, I have to make sure to ask myself: is this parodying the flaws of the genre? Usually, this questioning takes its time coming. In. . .