7 November 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This post is being written under extreme jet lag. Last Saturday I flew out to attend the Sharjah International Book Fair (the slogan for which is “A Book for Every Person,” which is not to be confused with Dubai’s Film Festival slogan, “A Movie for Every Person”) and then, yesterday, flew for approximately 200 hours to attend this season’s Consortium Sales Conference. I have no idea what day it is, much less what time. So, expect some insanity below. Like, even more than usual.

Which is kind of in keeping with the part of the United Arab Emirates where I just was. For anyone who doesn’t know, Sharjah is basically a twenty-minute drive from Dubai, which is an hour or so from Abu Dhabi. This is a part of the world that doesn’t understand the concept of “right-sized.” This is particularly true in Dubai, where the Burj Khalifa makes the rest of the skyscrapers in the world look like dollhouse toys.

This building, which I think looks like something a Fantastic Four cosmic villain would crash into our planet, is next to the largest “mall” ever. (I think. I am in Minneapolis right now though, where the Mall of America people have something to say about that.) Mall is in quotes because a shopping mall shouldn’t have a 10 million gallon aquarium and an olympic-sized hockey rink and an amusement park and a massive dancing fountain. According to Wikipedia (The Worlds Finest Source of Accurate Information ™), over 750,000 people visit the mall every week. That’s fucked.

Unlike my other trips to the UAE, this time I planned ahead and booked a trip to the top of the Burj Khalifa. That’s basically what big buildings are there for, right?—to go up to the top and repeat over and over, “Wow! Look how far I can see! I’m so high!! This is totally cray!”

The most interesting part of the “At the Top” experience are these cool digital cameras that allow you to look out over Dubai and, with the click of a button, see what it looks like at night, in the day, and “historically.” The historical setting is fascinating because, spoiler alert!, all it shows you is fucking sand. Miles and miles of sand. A flat, barren desert. The gigantic lagoon adjacent to the Burj Khalifa? Completely manmade. I searched and searched and finally found a historical group of tiny houses that has now been replaced by three ginormous buildings. That’s Dubai in a nutshell—a futuristic metropolis dropped onto a formerly sterile landscape. It’s also worth keeping in mind that the UAE didn’t exist until 1972. It’s barely older than I am.

There are dozens of great pieces that have been written about the bizarre nature of Dubai. (And about the horrible way immigrants are treated there. More on that below.) But what interests me is why this all came about. At risk of sounding completely ignorant, which I am, Dubai and Abu Dhabi seem almost non-Arab when compared to the other Arabic countries in the world. I know Sheik Zayed was the force behind the creation of the UAE and, I think, a lot of these mega-projects, but why? Why did everyone decide to scrap the existing ways of life, the traditional Arab nation, and choose to make something that’s almost a parody of itself. (When I was in the Dubai Mall with Janis Oga of the Latvian Literature Center, we couldn’t decide if this was the greatest thing ever or the end of the world. It’s both.)

Along those same lines, how do the other Arab nations react to the UAE sheiks? Granted, Sheik Abu Dhabi and Sheik Dubai have tons and tons of oil, thus power and money, and Sheik Sharjah has the biggest book fair!, but do these other leaders really consult them on larger Arab world issues? Or are they just dismissed for the constant catering to ex-pats, allowing them to get wasted, sing karaoke in hotel bars, and display styles of clothing that are “inappropriate” in most surrounding countries, like Kuwait and Qatar.

It just seems so weird to me that this city just popped up out of seemingly nowhere and doesn’t really fit. I tried to find a book about this (and about the construction of the Burj Khalifa) when I was in the World’s Largest Bookstore in the Dubai Mall, but I came up empty. Someone needs to write this book. I want those stories, that context. I’ll bet it would be fascinating.

Indigo by Clemens Setz, translated from the Germany by Ross Benjamin (W.W. Norton)

I’m almost done reading this, and will definitely write a full review in the upcoming weeks. It’s a strange book about “Indigo Children,” kids who make everyone within a 12-foot radius physically sick. Parents get headaches, rashes, nosebleeds, and this before the kids are teenagers! Structurally, it’s also really interesting, with two time lines and two narrators: Clemens Setz, a former teacher who lost his job working with I-Children and is now researching the phenomenon, and Robert Tätzel, a “burnt-out” Indigo who knew Setz and struggles to keep his shit together. There’re a lot of ideas at play here, which is probably why Pynchon is referenced in the jacket copy. (Although unlike Pynchon’s books, Indigo really isn’t that funny.) Definitely worth checking out. I think there will be a lot of reviews for this in the next few weeks.

End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (New Directions)

A new Erpenbeck is always cause for celebration, and this one sounds like one of her best. It’s basically five books in one, each leading to the death of an unnamed female protagonist. Repetition and difference! Also, Susan Bernofsky. Another book that’s a must and which will be talked about a lot in the next month.

My least favorite panel at the Sharjah Book Fair was “Show Me the Money! New Business Models for Digital and Digital Book Business.” First off, that phrase. So stupid. And, as you can predict, none of the people on here—all brilliant, all great in their own way—said anything specific about any new business models. Instead, they collectively came in second for working in the most trite cliches into one presentation. “Print and e will always co-exist!” “You have to digitize and monetize your source material!” “The future is digital!” AAARRGGHHH!

(BTW, John Ingram—“I prefer win-win solutions to win-lose,” “I own failure and share success”—won the “Most Cliches per Minute” contest. His talk was some Guiness World Records style shit.)

The one “idea” that was proposed as a digital business model was based on an app that’s popular in Brussels. Apparently, when you get on the subway, you can click this app, tell it the length of your journey, like 30 minutes or an hour, and it will “provide the user with the appropriate amount of content.” First off, that really is how these people talk. “Content” and “users” and “digital environment.” Based on those phrases, I assume this “content” is literally just a string of nouns and random adjectives. Fuck art, we just need thirty minutes of text! Gross. But really, this idea is idiotic. Are people really too stupid to figure out what to read if they want to finish in thirty minutes? Is that even an important issue to anyone anywhere? That’s what fucking bookmarks are for. And magazines. “Users would love a content distribution system whereby they could get short pieces on a variety of topics that they could read while being transported.” “Holy shit! You’re a genius! Let’s build an app and call it ‘Magazine.’” Fuck everything.

The Cold Centre by Inka Parei, translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire (Seagull Books)

One other thing that struck me during that panel was the way in which agents talk about “authors” instead of “books.” The agent on this panel brought it up a number of times in a number of different ways. The idea that a new book will help a reader (or “book user”) discover an author. That the industry must find business models that will allow authors to feed their family. Which raised a fundamental question to me: How many people really deserve to have a full-time career as a writer? Does the world need a million “writers” who produce a book every couple of years from the time they are 20 until they die?

I’m not arguing against professional novelists, but to be honest, most talented writers will produce 3 to 5 great books over their lifetime. If those books are successful, and the novelist can live off of that success, great. But publishing/the marketplace doesn’t owe them a lifetime of royalties just because they wrote one decent book. I might be too jet lagged to make my point clearly, but I think it’s a strange way of looking at the world. Authors have periods of creativity and it’s not terrible for them to have to have a second job teaching or doing something else. (Especially once their piece has been said and they start repeating themselves. Or if their last name is Franzen.)

Also, if we really believe this, that there should be hundreds of thousands of professional novelists, then we should adopt a more European model in which writers are actually supported by the government. We should set aside significant amounts of money (think the NEA times ten or more) to support the creation of culture. With a few exceptions—James Patterson, J. K. Rowling, Danielle Steel—the market is much more book-centric than author-centric.

Just Call Me Superhero by Alina Bronsky, translated from the German by Tim Mohr (Europa Editions)

Last night I was going on and on about starting a publishing/bookselling war. That it’s ridiculous for Open Letter to be all, “well, it’s cool that Bookstore X can’t carry our books because they only have room for James Patterson and Penguin classics.” Or that Book Review Y doesn’t have space for our translations because they have to review the two that FSG came out with this year. That’s bullshit. You never hear a Hollywood producer say something like, “Well, at least people are seeing movies!” (Thanks to Caroline Casey for that joke.)

I think our books are better for the world than a lot of the books that are out there. I want to fight for our books and get them into the hands of as many readers as possible. And if this is somewhat of a zero-sum game (only so much shelf space, only so many reviews a year) then we should be fighting for our books to be included. Street of Thieves is a million times better than that Harry Quebert book. Yet that got all kinds of (mostly negative) reviews and has sold 20,000 copies via supermarkets. Fuck that shit. All that space should be given to the best books, not the ones with the largest marketing budget. Every time you sell or review John Grisham, a LOL Cat dies.

Traces by Gamal Al-Ghitani, translated from the Arabic by Nadar Uthman (Bloomsbury Qatar)

Finally, Bloomsbury Qatar books are coming out in the U.S.! Maybe. They’re not listed on Amazon, or B&N, or the Bloomsbury website, so this might not be out for a while. As soon as it is though, I’m going to get a copy. I LOVED The Zafarani Files and would love to publish a paperback version. (Supposedly University of Cairo Press has one in the works, but I haven’t seen an official listing yet.) Al-Ghitani is one of the most interesting modern Arabic authors I’ve read and I hope more of his books are translated. (And stocked, sold, reviewed, and read.)

Random Sharjah Jokes, Part I:

My favorite drink from last week was the “Sharjito.” It’s just like a mojito, but without alcohol. Refreshing and you can still wake up in the morning!

When I was in Dubai for the night, I found a hotel bar showing Arsenal’s Champions League game. (This is my superpower: finding sports bars in random cities.) Anyway, right next door was a bar where a live band was performing. As I went over there to check it out, I remembered the time I was in Abu Dhabi with Ed Nawotka and saw a live band perform “Zombie” by the Cranberries over and over again. It was like a one-hit wonder band of one-hit wonder songs. (Sorry sole Cranberry fan out there, but really.) Anyway, I walked into this Dubai bar, went to get a drink, and thought, “hmm, this baseline sounds really familiar,” just as the band started screaming “ZOMMMBIEE! ZAH-AHM-BEEEE!!!” What the fuck, UAE? This song wasn’t even that popular back in 1994. They followed this up with “Wiggle” (not even kidding) and then a reprise of “Zombie.” So inexplicable.

Beirut, Beirut by Sonallah Ibrahim, translated from the Arabic by Chip Rossetti (Bloomsbury Qatar)

One of the strangest parts of my Sharjah experience was the apples. Every time I left my hotel room, someone would come in and leave a plate of three apples in Saran Wrap along with a knife, fork, and plate. This happened over and over again for no apparent reason. And because this is how I am, I made it my mission to eat every last apple. There’s nothing like eating three apples in a row right before bed. The UAE is a crazy place.

Random Sharjah jokes, Part II:

This isn’t so much a joke as a disturbing experience. On the cab ride to Dubai, a sports car cut us off, pissing off my cabbie, “Fuck you rich man!” He then explained how all cabs are tagged in the UAE, and if you go a mile over the speed limit, or cut someone off, or do anything wrong at all, you are fined. In the four years he’d been there since moving from Pakistan, he’d accumulated 23,000 dirham in fines. (Like $7,000.) He works 14-hour days and can’t save any money. But the Petrol People race their Ferraris and cut us off and overall hold down the immigrant working class. This is some serious shit and is very much the dark side of this part of the world. He also told me about a fellow cabbie who, while swerving to avoid a car, injured the wrist of a passenger. He lost his passport for three months and was fined some huge amount of money. When he got the passport back, he tried to fly home and was denied at the airport because his fine hadn’t been settled. Literally indentured servitude, and such an insidious way of keeping the lower classes down.

I had to buy a notebook in Sharjah, and found this amazingly soft, really cool one that has all sorts of great facts on the back of it, like how to determine the volume of a cone and what a scalene triangle is. It also has useful symbols, including greater than (>), maps to (->), and symmetric difference (∆). I know that ∆ is “alt-j” thanks to the band, but I have no recollection of ever learning about “symmetric difference.” Apparently, it’s the non-overlapping part of a Venn Diagram. This is amazing and I want to figure out how to use it in a conversation.

By Night the Mountain Burns by Juan Tomás Ávila, translated from the Spanish by Laurel Jethro Soutar (And Other Stories)

On the flight to Sharjah, I read all of Carrere’s Limonov, and sat next to a really friendly Pakistani couple who were very curious about this book that I couldn’t put down. I explained what it was about, how crazy Limonov’s life was, all the various stages of his life, etc. The response? “No one’s going to read that. It’s too academic. I like to read too. Right now I’m reading Your Atomic Self. It’s about how we’re all made of atoms. Changes your perspective. But when I read, I read a paragraph and then like to sit back and think about it. I don’t know about this book of yours.”

This is why publishing can be a bit discouraging at times.

Street of Thieves by Mathias Enard, translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell (Open Letter)

The follow-up to Zone is finally available! And, unlike Zone, it includes a plethora of periods!

This book is really spectacular as it traces the young adulthood of a Moroccan boy who is kicked out of his family for fooling around with his cousin. He eventually gets to Spain where things don’t go much better for him, culminating in a really intense ending. The best thing about this novel is the encroaching sense of dread that builds throughout the narrative. You know things are just going to get worse, that something big is going to happen, but you’re never sure what or how or exactly why. It’s a great feeling and it takes a master to create such a suggestive atmosphere.

Self-Portrait in Green by Marie NDiaye, translated from the French by Jordan Stump (Two Lines Press)

This. “Asked to write a memoir, [NDiaye] turned in this paranoid fantasia of rising floodwaters, walking corpses, eerie depictions of her very own parents, and the incessant reappearance of women in green.”

Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano, translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti (Yale University Press)

Yale really got lucky with this book. Although Godine has a few Modiano books in print, I suspect that this trilogy, which contains some of Modiano’s most beloved novels, will sell amazingly well. If the Nobel Prize is good for one thing, it’s that it usually brings a lot of sales revenue to relatively small presses. Over the past few years, New Directions, University of Nebraska, Serpent’s Tail, Seagull Books, and Godine have all benefitted by having published that year’s Nobel Prize winner. And then all the pundits complain that they’ve never heard of these authors, probably because they’re too busy reading and writing about the trendy, of-the-moment books instead of the best ones. Great job, media! If there’s one moment every year that makes it clear that the U.S. book culture is out of joint with the rest of the world, it’s the announcement of the Nobel Prize.

4 December 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Most of today’s content is brought you by Scott Esposito and Daniel Medin and the spectacular new issue of Quarterly Conversation, which, as always, features a lot of great international lit related content. Generally, when a new issue comes out, I post a summary piece linking off to all of the various articles of interest. In retrospect, that doesn’t give this publication near the attention it deserves. So I’m going to split this summary up over a few posts so that I can quote a longer bit from the more interesting articles. Again, click here to skip ahead and read the entire issue.

One of the best parts of this issue are all of the interviews with international writers and translators. First up is Mieke Chew’s interview with Jenny Erpenbeck:

Mieke Chew: In a review of Visitation, Alfred Hickling said that your novel had attempted to compress the trauma of the 20th century into a single address. To start then, a big question: how has history affected your writing?

Jenny Erpenbeck: I think I always start with a very personal issue. Then, once I start to look at it closely, it becomes historical. Things become historical, just by looking at how they came about. It’s not that I start with the idea of telling a “historic” story. I think history infects the lives, the very private lives, of people, so you cannot remove something from history, even if you just want to tell a story. It gets in here and there. I think that this was what happened when I started to write Visitation. I started with my own story about the house, and then I saw that there were so many stories involved. Stories that occurred long before I came to the place that I write about. All of a sudden I was in the middle of the German history without having thought about it. [. . .]

MC: Do you read your translations?

JE: From time to time. For instance, here in Adelaide I had to do a reading. I don’t read my translated books from the beginning to the end. I am kind of afraid of that. I can’t explain why but it’s strange to read your book in someone else’s words. But every time I have read it, or have had to read it for an audience, I did feel that it was really my book. It was perfectly done. Sometimes her translation is so perfect that I don’t even know the vocabulary she has used. Once I asked someone about a word and he said, “This word exists, but it is a very delicate word.” This I liked a lot because she really thought about what words to use, as it is the same for me in German. I love to use old, almost forgotten words because they can express so much more than the daily used words—and I think she does the same for English.

MC: I think you might have similar reading taste as well. I have read that you admire the work of Robert Walser?

JE: He is one of the greatest. He is very good.

MC: What is it about Walser?

JE: He writes very slowly. One of my favourite pieces is The Walk. He is just walking, maybe for one hour or so. He has the whole world in this walk. He describes all the places where he stops for this or that reason. He has to go to the bank to see to his money affairs, then he sees a young girl and wonders about her, whether she will be a great singer or not. Step-by-step he opens up a whole world. The storyteller himself is not always a perfect person: sometimes he’s mean or afraid of something, he has doubts, preferences or aversions. Sometimes it gets almost surreal, but it’s just a walk. Walser is very exact, and he goes into great detail. He’s not fast: he’s just a slow walker.

Another interview—one of particular interest to me, since we publish Season of Ash—is by Diego Azurdia and Carlos Fonseca with Mexican author Jorge Volpi.

Diego Azurdia and Carlos Fonseca: In your Trilogy of the Twentieth Century there seems to be a short-circuit between historical events—the Second World War, May of 1968, the fall of the Berlin Wall—and literature. How do you think literature works on history? How does history work on literature?

Jorge Volpi: First of all, literature and history are absolutely linked. The narrative of history is already in some sense literature. That is to say, history has been understood in the past centuries as a scientific discipline, as a constant reference to concrete facts, constantly relying on documents as its source. Thus, one could say that literature has the capacity to fill in the gaps that these documents leave behind. Literature uses imagination as its tool for analyzing the historical processes. [. . .]

DA and CF: Both El fin de la locura (The End of Madness) and No será la tierra , seem to be narratives that tell of the disappearance of a utopic horizon. The theme returns, in your more recent El Jardín Devastado (The Garden Destroyed). What do you think is the place of utopia today? Has it merely disappeared, or do you believe that, as in your novels, we live under its shadow?

JV: We are accustomed to understanding utopia in these extreme terms, which have to do with the imposition of a truth. The utopia understood merely as some model of behavior, which exists already in Plato’s Republic, disappeared in the 20th century, becoming in turn some sort of recipe that those in power decided had to be the only truth possible. This produced the inevitable link between utopia and totalitarianism, and in the long run it discredited not only totalitarianism but also utopia. And yes, during the second part of the 20th century there was a nostalgia for utopia. While in general it was seen that the utopias generated monsters—totalitarian regimes—there was still a nostalgia for utopias that could really lead to a better society, more just, that was really the origin of utopia as such. In our age I believe that we are living in an epoch not so much of disenchantment, discontent, or nostalgia but in an epoch that is attempting to rearticulate utopia again in its original sense, merely as a model that is not sought by force. Above all, the utopia of a better society, more just, more egalitarian, should still be the hope of most of us, but we must not interpret it as the only and absolute truth. [. . .]

DA and CF: In recent statements you have declared Roberto Bolaño to be the last Latin American writer. What does this mean?

JV: Certainly there is some provocation to this statement, a small boutade like the ones Bolaño loved so much, but there is also something true to it. Bolaño seems to me to be the last writer that really felt part of a Latin American tradition, the last writer that responded with a knowledge of those models. Not only did he have a battle with the Latin American Boom but with all of the Latin American tradition—in particular with Borges and Cortázar—but that extends back to the 19th century. His was a profoundly political literature that aspired to be Latin American in a way different from that of the Boom, but that was still Latin American. I believe that this tradition stops with Bolaño. After him, my generation and the subsequent generations, I don’t see any authors that really feel part of the Latin American tradition, or that might be responding to these models. They seem to respond to more global models. There is no knowledge of a strong Latin American identity. This is the central theme of this book [El Insomnio de Bolívar] that has won the Casa de las Americas Award. Latin American literature seems to dissolve as a unity, and it is only possible to understand it as a collage of fragments that no longer form, as in the times of the Latin American Boom, a cathedral. Now, writers in the distinct countries of Latin American feel part of their own nationality, and maybe what they are beginning to form are models whose paradigm would no longer be a giant edifice, a cathedral, for example, a Latin American temple, but rather holograms. That is to say, little fragments that contain information that is Latin American, almost in an unconscious fashion, but that above all respond to an individual will and that are no longer a matter of identity.

7 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.

All posts in this series can be found here. Today’s entry is from Katy Derbyshire, translator from German and curator of Love German Books. And the book she loves is Visitation.

Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated by Susan Bernofsky

Language: German
Country: Germany
Publisher: New Directions
Pages: 150

Why It Should Win: Susan Bernofsky; in a sense, the main character is a house; Susan Bernofsky; the translation of the title (Heimsuchung).

Visitation, quite plainly, should win the BTBA because it’s a babe of a book, written by a thinking reader’s babe of an author and put into English by thinking reader’s babe of a translator. I’m allowed to say that; I’m a woman.

That may not be enough for you—although lord knows it should be, because it’s not just that men get much more review coverage, it also just happens to be more often men who win these literary and translation prizes, so my facetious argument is actually striking a blow for feminism. But in the interest of fairness, I shall provide a few more details.

Jenny Erpenbeck is an opera director who writes stunning novels. You might want to read that sentence twice because it’s so awesome. She once pretended to be 17 and went back to high school to research a book. Her mother was a highly respected translator from Arabic. And I’ve met her and she’s gorgeous.

Susan Bernofsky is a translator, scholar, writer and blogger. She teaches translation and creative writing and has written a biography of Robert Walser, who she also happens to translate. She’s co-curating the Festival Neues Literatur in NYC as we speak. And I’ve met her and she’s gorgeous. I was totally intimidated at first but then realized she’s not only one of the most impressive translator babes ever (and believe me, there’s a lot of tough competition on that front), she’s also actually really nice.

Just a quick recap here: we have two women both utterly devoted to and excellent at what they do. If that’s not worth a prize I don’t know what is. But you may be one of those people who thinks it’s books and not people that deserve prizes. In that case, you’ll want to know something about the book these two über-babes have been generous enough to give us, I suppose.

It’s a structure you may be familiar with: the house as the element uniting a series of narratives, as in Alaa-al-Aswany’s Yacoubian Building, Elif Shafak’s Flea Palace, and Nicole Krauss’s latest. Only Erpenbeck takes a very thorough chronological approach, going right back to the formation of the land itself, the previous owners of the plot, the house’s architect, and so on to its demolition some time after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Because the house is not far outside of Berlin, and so a witness to all that twentieth-century German history.

What I particularly adore about the novel is that it doesn’t focus solely on the Nazi era. But that’s a personal thing; I can only assume everyone else in the English-speaking world is utterly fascinated by Nazis, judging by the number of books dealing with them, either written in English or translated. So don’t worry, there are some Nazis and some murdered Jews and some collaborators in amongst all the other beautifully sketched characters. And to get to Susan Bernofsky’s excellent work, each section is written in a different style, gorgeously rendered in English as in German.

In other words, this is a novel with brains, brawn and beauty—it’s basically a babe of a book. If the BTBA were Miss World, Visitation would win the swimsuit competition and then turn down the main prize because she had to work on actually forging world peace once she’d completed her Ph.D.

7 December 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Phillip Witte on Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky and published earlier this year by New Directions.

Phillip Witte was an intern for Open Letter way back in the day, and also had a summer internship at New Directions. He’s a great reader, was a fantastic intern, and is one of those young people who gives me hope about the future of literary publishing. (Honestly.) Last I heard he was working at The Strand, although he may be looking for another publishing gig . . .

Anyway, Susan Bernofsky is awesome, and we’ve sang her praises any number of times on this blog. She’s told me repetitively about just how good this particular book is, and I feel like a horrible reader for not having found time to read it yet. (But soon! I can see this making the BTBA longlist, which is the perfect opportunity to set aside a few days to enjoy this.)

This is Jenny Erpenbeck’s third book to be published in translation by New Directions, the others being The Book of Words and The Old Child & Other Stories. I can’t begin to guess how many times I’ve heard great things about her books—in particular Visitation.

Anyway, on to Phil’s review:

Jenny Erpenbeck has already received a great deal of well-deserved critical acclaim in the wake of her third novel, Visitation (New Directions, translated by Susan Bernofsky), which Vogue has called “a remarkable achievement.” Such a response (especially coming from the mainstream, one is tempted to say) is very exciting for the cause of literary translation, and particularly in this case given the book’s unconventional tactics.

The novel eschews convention in many ways, foremost among them being that its central character is a place—on a lakeshore, a collection of adjacent properties, a summer getaway, a garden, a paradise. It is based on an actual place in Brandenburg, Germany, where Erpenbeck’s family had a summer home for the latter part of the 20th century. In her recent interview with Vogue, Erpenbeck explains how she arrived at the present work: It began as an effort to retain something of the lost childhood home (a desire we can all relate to, especially those of us who have only recently fled the nest). As it progressed, however, Erpenbeck widened the novel’s attention from her own relationship with the house to the house itself as a locus of the lives, stories, comings and goings of its many inhabitants over the twentieth century.

Twelve of these inhabitants drift in and out of the book; unnamed for the most part, they are of all ages, and they come from all different sides of Germany’s many different conflicts of the long century. The original Jewish owners of the house emigrate before the Nazi threat in the 30s. A Nazi architect renovates the house, delighting his young wife’s whims with a hidden closet and a metal bird affixed to the balcony railing. During the Russian advance at the end of World War II, a Russian officer takes up brief residence in the architect’s bedroom, unaware of the architect’s wife hidden in the secret closet. After the war, the architect is forced into exile for illegally doing business with the West, and is replaced by a communist writer and her family, returning from their own Siberian exile. In the nineties, a young married couple who enjoy sailing on the lake briefly occupy the toolshed as subtenants.

Click here to read the full piece.

7 December 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Jenny Erpenbeck has already received a great deal of well-deserved critical acclaim in the wake of her third novel, Visitation (New Directions, translated by Susan Bernofsky), which Vogue has called “a remarkable achievement.” Such a response (especially coming from the mainstream, one is tempted to say) is very exciting for the cause of literary translation, and particularly in this case given the book’s unconventional tactics.

The novel eschews convention in many ways, foremost among them being that its central character is a place—on a lakeshore, a collection of adjacent properties, a summer getaway, a garden, a paradise. It is based on an actual place in Brandenburg, Germany, where Erpenbeck’s family had a summer home for the latter part of the 20th century. In her recent interview with Vogue, Erpenbeck explains how she arrived at the present work: It began as an effort to retain something of the lost childhood home (a desire we can all relate to, especially those of us who have only recently fled the nest). As it progressed, however, Erpenbeck widened the novel’s attention from her own relationship with the house to the house itself as a locus of the lives, stories, comings and goings of its many inhabitants over the twentieth century.

Twelve of these inhabitants drift in and out of the book; unnamed for the most part, they are of all ages, and they come from all different sides of Germany’s many different conflicts of the long century. The original Jewish owners of the house emigrate before the Nazi threat in the 30s. A Nazi architect renovates the house, delighting his young wife’s whims with a hidden closet and a metal bird affixed to the balcony railing. During the Russian advance at the end of World War II, a Russian officer takes up brief residence in the architect’s bedroom, unaware of the architect’s wife hidden in the secret closet. After the war, the architect is forced into exile for illegally doing business with the West, and is replaced by a communist writer and her family, returning from their own Siberian exile. In the nineties, a young married couple who enjoy sailing on the lake briefly occupy the toolshed as subtenants.

The only person who remains quietly in the background throughout the book is the gardener, constantly performing the same rituals of planting, pruning, beekeeping and harvesting. Erpenbeck’s scrupulous repetition in describing these actions, laced with minute changes, enacts the cycle of seasons and years in which everything stays more or less the same even as everything decays and is renewed. Erpenbeck’s prose in Susan Bernofsky’s translation tends toward luxurious run-on sentences that nevertheless must end. The gardener does eventually disappear, but the villagers continue to tell fantastic stories about him.

The novel is divided into short chapters, each devoted to a brief moment of these lives and the lives of their neighbors and children. In shimmering prose full of radical juxtaposition, minute descriptions of daily routines are tightly interwoven with rhapsodic fits of reminiscence. Fragments of speech unassigned to any particular speaker echo like ghosts in an empty house. The immediate concerns of these people are as various as their backgrounds; what unites them is the place, the garden and the house, which most of them badly want but can’t quite allow themselves to call home.

The word itself, home—where and what it is, how we manage to find it, keep it, lose it, and find it again—seems ultimately what is most at issue for Erpenbeck. Unable to hold on to her childhood home in actuality, Erpenbeck sought to do so in writing; far from answering the problem, Visitation seems to complicate it in the most beautiful fashion. The word visitation may indicate Bernofksy’s take on the problem, taking into account the original title Heimsuchung, which also translates as “home searching.”

Perhaps in this search we really only make nothing more than visits to various places. Yet we keep looking, maybe because the idea, the word home itself, keeps drawing us on. In one early chapter, “The Cloth Manufacturer,” Erpenbeck lets home resound among achingly familiar scenes of quiet family life in the countryside:

Arthur says to him, Ludwig, his son: let me take a turn, and he picks up the spade himself and tosses the earth back into the hole all around the root ball. Ludwig places his arm around Anna, his future wife, and the two of them look at the broad, glittering surface of the lake. Home. Why does everyone like looking at the water so much, Doris asks. I don’t know, Anna replies. Doris says, maybe because there’s so much empty sky above a lake, because everyone likes to see nothing sometimes. You can let go now, Arthur says to Doris.

This is the Jewish family, the original owners, forced to flee by the threat of the Nazis. In a later chapter, “The Writer,” a communist family has returned from an exile imposed by the same threat. The chapter is sprinkled with a similar recurring phrase:

This doctor wasn’t even born yet when she returned to Germany. He has traveled to Japan with one or the other government delegation, to Egypt, to Cuba. I a-m g-o-i-n-g h-o-m-e. Down in the kitchen the cook is making the plates clatter, the gardener is sitting on the threshold to his room, on the meadow her granddaughter and the boy next door are spraying each other with water. . . .

The recurring phrase, “I a-m g-o-i-n-g h-o-m-e”, represents a fragment typed out at the tail end of the writer’s current work-in-progress. Living in the house, enjoying the garden, sitting to dinner with her whole family: these are not home; she hasn’t gotten there, wherever it is, yet; she is still “going.” And the fact that the repeated phrase is spelled out with dashes reminds us that it is typed: it unifies the act of heimsuchung with the act of writing, as the author set out to do. Unlike the sentence, it does not necessarily have an end—which is just as well, because Visitation is well worth reading again.

16 November 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Just a reminder that the New Literature from Europe festival kicks off tonight with an event at McNally Jackson at 7pm.

This year’s festival is called “Haunting the Present,” and here’s a brief intro from the site:

Today’s Europe is a fascinating convergence of old and new, with high speed trains roaring past thousand-year-old towns. The past and present are never far away from each other, and this year’s New Literature from Europe festival explores this proximity by presenting some of the most powerful recent works of fiction by eight of the most important contemporary European authors. In Haunting the Present, the festival’s seventh annual series, the overriding theme is the continued sway of history on contemporary life. Readers will witness the changes over a century in one house in Bucharest and in another house on a lake outside Berlin as its residents flee each successive regime. They will be transported from the mythical Polish village of Primeval to a small, bucolic French town shortly after World War II, and beyond.

In this year’s New Literature from Europe, eight cultural institutes have teamed up to present a series of discussions and readings featuring eight critically acclaimed European writers: Philippe Claudel (France), Kirmen Uribe (Spain), Jenny Erpenbeck (Germany), Gerhard Roth (Austria), Radka Denemarková (Czech Republic), Olga Tokarczuk (Poland), Gabriela Adameşteanu (Romania), and Antonia Arslan (Italy). Moderators will include distinguished writer André Aciman, chair of Comparative Literature and director of the Writers’ Institute at the CUNY Graduate Center and Susan Bernofsky, Guest Professor of Creative Writing and Literary Translation at Queens College (CUNY).

That’s a pretty sweet lineup of authors and translators, and the four events that make up this festival all sound well-crafted and interesting. Here’s a bit of info on all the goings on:

Haunting the Present: A Reading with Eight European Writers
Tuesday, November 16th, 7pm
McNally Jackson

Translating the Past that Haunts the Present: A Lecture with Jenny Erpenbeck and Philippe Claudel
Wednesday, November 17th, 3-5pm
CUNY Grad Center

Haunting the Present: A Conversation with the Authors
Wednesday, November 17th, 6:30 pm & 7:45 pm
Center for Fiction

Eight European Voices: Reading and Reception
Thursday, November 18th, 7pm
The Czech Center

8 September 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Love German Books is rocking my world today . . . In addition to the German Book Prize roundup we wrote about earlier, Katy also has an interview with Susan Bernofsky about her translation of Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation, a novel that sounds really curious . . . Here’s the description from the New Directions website:

A house on the forested bank of a Brandenburg lake outside Berlin (once belonging to Erpenbeck’s grandparents) is the focus of this compact, beautiful novel. Encompassing over one hundred years of German history, from the nineteenth century to the Weimar Republic, from World War II to the Socialist German Democratic Republic, and finally reunification and its aftermath, Visitation offers the life stories of twelve individuals who over the decades seek to make their home in this one magical little house. The novel breaks into the everyday life of the house and shimmers through it, while relating the passions and fates of its inhabitants. Elegant and poetic, Visitation forms a literary mosaic of the last century, tearing open wounds and offering moments of reconciliation, with its drama and its exquisite evocation of a landscape no political upheaval can truly change.

Katy’s interview is really interesting (in part because she’s a translator and asks good questions, in part because Susan is great at giving interviews), such as this story about translating Erpenbeck’s The Book of Words:

Jenny is wonderful to work with. She’s very generous about answering questions and giving feedback when I’m not sure how to handle one of her many untranslatables – for example in The Book of Words I wound up having to make up a whole little passage about lilies and lilies-of-the-valley to replace her play on Näglein (little nails) in the dialect sense of Nelken (carnations), and it was very helpful to be able to talk it through with her.

Actually we had a little incident in that same book – she didn’t think to tell me that she had cobbled together an entire word-collage page based on her own translations of lines from American pop songs circa 1978 – thank goodness I noticed one of them, and then my editor Declan Spring noticed a lot more, and then Jenny sent me a list of all the songs she’d used. It would have been nuts if all those titles had wound up as back-translations from her (sometimes rather idiosyncratic) German renderings. But now she’s taken to compiling, for each book, a list of all the questions her translators ask her – then she sends the list around to the other translators, just as a FYI. Now that’s an exemplary author.

And for those interested in Susan’s upcoming projects:

KD: Do you follow contemporary German writing? Is there a writer or a book you’d love to translate but haven’t yet had the chance?

SB: Yes, I do, in part by reading your blog! And there are a lot of really interesting writers who haven’t been translated yet. Right now I’m rooting for Wolfgang Herrndorf (I love his stories in Jenseits des Van Allen-Gürtels). And I really wanted to translate Gerhard Falkner’s short novel Bruno, but I couldn’t find a publisher who wanted to commit to the project.

KD: What are you working on right now?

I’ve been translating a beautiful book of poems by Uljana Wolf, Falsche Freunde/False Friends (they’re prose poems that play with letters of the alphabet). We just found out that Ugly Duckling Presse in Brooklyn is going to publish it, which is wonderful news. Next after that will be a 19th century horror story for New York Review Books: The Black Spider by Jeremias Gotthelf. I can’t wait! It’s one of the most frightening stories I’ve ever read, and also one of the most beautiful.

Finally, for those of you in the Rochester area, Susan is going to be here on September 23rd to talk with Barbara Epler, the publisher of New Directions. They’ll be primarily talking about Robert Walser, though I’m sure the conversation will spill over into other translations, including the Erpenbeck books Susan’s done for ND.

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

Following up on last week’s post about the various summer/fall 2010 previews that came out from The Millions and elsewhere, I thought that over the next few days, we’d highlight some forthcoming titles that sound pretty interesting to me. Sure I’m missing things and whatnot, so feel free to overload the comments section with recommendations. And click here to see all translation preview posts.

Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (Germany, New Directions)

From an interview with superstar translator Susan Bernofsky:

I’m just finishing up a new Jenny Erpenbeck novel for New Directions, Visitation, a book whose main character is a house. It’s a fascinating story, a sort of concise chronicle or saga that takes us through all the various upheavals of twentieth-century German history—but rather than being different generations of a single family, the characters in the book come from various families that overlap with and replace one another—sometimes peacefully, sometimes not. It’s a compelling, mysterious book, and I’m stunned by how skillfully Erpenbeck weaves the strands of the various stories together. There’s one passage in which she writes about children playing in a garden, and after a certain point you realize that some of these children are literally in the garden of the house while others are many thousands of miles away, in exile after their families were forced to flee—in the storytelling she turns the narration of a historical moment into a sort of outward explosion in space.

Sold!

Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris by Georges Perec, translated from the French by Marc Lowenthal (France, Wakefield Press)

Wakefield Press doesn’t receive nearly as much play as it deserves. Marc Lowenthal (translator, publisher, etc.) is producing some fascinatingly strange books in absolutely gorgeous editions. (I highly recommend The Young Girl’s Handbook of Good Manners which is one of the raunchiest, funniest books I’ve ever read. And by raunchy I mean there’s some really sick shit in there.) And Perec! One of the all time bests. And this small book is perfectly Perec-ian: for three days he records everything he sees as part of a “quest of the ‘infraordinary’: the humdrum, the nonevent, the everyday—‘what happens,’ as he put it, ‘when nothing happens.’”

Sleepwalker by Margarita Karapanou, translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich (Greece, Clockroot)

No matter what, I’d include this book on the list simply because I think Karen Emmerich is amazing and Clockroot extremely daring and interesting. But check this quote:

“God was tired . . . He looked down at his earth and what it had become . . . His people had betrayed him . . . Thus it was that he decided to send a new god to earth, a god people would recognize and worship from the start—a god made in their image, a god they deserved . . . He clutched his stomach, leaned over the earth, and vomited.”

Yep. And here’s an excerpt from Clockroot, and one from Words Without Borders.

The Woman with the Bouquet by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, translated from the French by Alison Anderson (France, Europa Editions)

This is the second Schmitt book to come out from Europa — the other being The Most Beautiful Book in the World — and both story collections sound pretty intriguing. But the real reason I wanted to mention this book is because it is fourth translation of Alison Anderson’s coming out this year. She’s like the C.C. Sebathia of literary translation!

The Clash of Images by Abdelfattah Kilito, translated from the French by Robyn Creswell (Morocco, New Directions)

This sounds very cool. It’s described as a “sweet, Borgesian mix of bildungsroman memoir, family history, short-story collection, fable, and literary criticism.” It also has a great cover, a brilliant quote from Elias Khoury (“We normally speak of writing as an adventure, but Kilito dares his reader to travel with him, on a quest to override the boundaries between reality and fiction, between literary criticism and storytelling”), and Creswell won a PEN Translation Award for this.

The Elephant’s Journey by Jose Saramago, translated by Margaret Jull Costa (Portugal, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

With Saramago passing away just a few weeks ago, it’s a good time to look over his career. I haven’t read many of the recent titles, but back in the day, I really liked Blindness, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, The Stone Raft, Blindness, and Balthasar and Blimunda, which is the book The Elephant’s Journey most calls to mind.

In 1551, King Joao III of Portugal gave Archduke Maximilian an unusual wedding present: an elephant named Solomon. The elephant’s journey from Lisbon to Vienna was witnessed and remarked upon by scholars, historians, and ordinary people. Out of this material, José Saramago has spun a novel already heralded as “a triumph of language, imagination, and humor” (El País).

The Wrong Blood by Manuel de Lope, translated from the Spanish by John Cullen (Spain, Other Press)

A couple months back, I met with some of the editors at Other Press, and they all raved about this book. Manuel de Lope has a solid reputation in Spain, and this is his first book to be published in English. All I’ve been able to read so far is the opening sentence, but this (along with the jacket copy and Katie’s recommendation) has me pretty intrigued:

It was the month of May, or the month of June, in any case summer was near, and within only a few weeks the war would break out, although nobody knew this at the time, and those who had premonitions couldn’t go so far as to believe them, because fear rejects what the intuition accepts, and they wouldn’t have been able to convince anybody anyway.

11 January 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The fiftieth issue of The Believer is out and has a couple of pieces on international fiction.

The review of Havana Noir from Akashic Books is available online in full, and ends with a decent enough recommendation: “In Havana Noir, better than half the stories are truly gripping, and all of them resuscitate a dark Havana that seethes beneath the idealized island of our imagination.”

Unfortunately the review of Victor Segalen’s Steles is not, but the available excerpt captures what’s so intriguing about Segalen:

When Victor Segalen first printed Stèles in Beijing in 1912, the Republic of China had just been formed, ending two millennia of dynastic rule. When he expanded and republished the book in Paris in 1914, the Western powers were on the verge of successive world wars that would effectively end their colonial system of governance. Five years later, Segalen was dead at the age of forty-one, from either suicide or a severe foot injury suffered while taking a walk in the woods.

So when Segalen refers to “the crumbling unsteadiness of the Empire,” it’s not entirely clear to which sovereignty he’s referring, a situation made even more confusing by the fact that he was a European living in China who wrote sections of Stèles in the voice of an imaginary emperor. If this is history as an allegory for the psyche, then Segalen—unlike many writers, adventurers, and hippies before and since—didn’t go to the East to find himself. Rather, he was committed to “the intoxicating eddies of the great river Diversity,” along with a desire to saturate himself in Chinese culture.

Finally, there’s a review of Jenny Erpenbeck’s The Book of Words that has a great opening: “The Book of Words is a sinisterly lyrical novel.”

....
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