15 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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._

Click here for all past and future posts.

Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer by Ernst Weiss, translated by Joel Rotenberg

Language: German
Country: Moravia
Publisher: Archipelago
Pages: 560

Why This Book Should Win: Again with the Mad Scientist!; Archipelago titles are always contenders; the novel is long, engrossing, gothic, and classic.

Today’s entry is from Bill Marx, who is a BTB judge, editor of Arts Fuse, and runs PRI’s The World: World Books. He also teaches at BU.

You wouldn’t know it from the myopic reviews, at least the ones that I have read, but Georg Letham is one of the greatest horror novels of the 20th century. (Probably the greatest—name the contenders.) Not horror in the adolescent Stephen King/H.P. Lovecraft mode of rampaging monsters, but in the scientific romance genre, a modernist version of the Gothic mythopoetic imagination found in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, and H. G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau. It sits proudly with those wonderful books, daring to go to hallucinogenic extremes when linking the sadistic depths of the scientific mentality with the amorality of modern life.

Because it was published in 1931 by a Czech-Jewish writer and deals with a “mad” homicidal doctor (a bacteriologist), who wants to benefit a mankind he feels nothing for, the critical tendency has been to see the story as a expose of the fascist mentality, which it is, and as a Freudian nightmare, which it isn’t. Or that is the least interesting reading of this jaw-dropper of a book, as exemplified by the dreary Nation piece that reduces Weiss’s fascinating narrative into a mirror of the process of psychoanalysis.

Weiss’s vision in Georg Letham is not rote Freudian; it is firmly in the social critique/ apocalyptic Darwinian mode. “Can man triumph over nature?” asks Georg. “Never. He, man, is only an experiment on the part of nature, the terrible.” Thus evolution (or God) may be experimenting with pitiless objectivity on us, generating humans out of animals. And the terrible is woven into everything we think and do: the predominate metaphor in the novel—repeated to the point of saturation—is the degrading/violent transformation of humans into animals (rats and frogs dominate) and animals into humans (a “feminist” retelling of Adam and Eve stars two rats in a pit and ends with the female gobbling up the male). Tossed into prison for killing his wife (because she nauseates him), Georg ends up looking for a cure for Yellow fever in the tropics (fire), with a memorable flashback to his brutal father fighting an army of rats during a hellish expedition to the North Pole (ice).

Some warnings before tackling Georg Letham—its structure is lumpy, little more than a series of set pieces that are of novella length. And if you have an abnormal fear of rats and love dogs you will have a very hard time, though the victims dish out some payback to their not-so-fittest tormentors. Adventurous readers with stout temperaments will find this gruesome diagnosis of modernity worthy of Nietzsche (“herd mentality”) and sociologist Max Weber. The latter summed up Georg’s dissociated type perfectly: “specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart,” though as an unreliable narrator Georg is self-consciously (and poignantly) aware of his lack of humanity. Weber also refers to civilized men as souls trapped in “the polar night of icy darkness.” Georg Letham is a demanding but magnificent deep freeze of a novel, classic horror served zero to the bone.

24 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [4]

One of the best unexpected results of putting together the translation databases is being able to put together an awesome reading list of forthcoming translations. (Or, to put it in a slightly more negative light: to know about way more interesting books than I’ll ever have time to read.)

The spring is a perfect example. As the reading for the 2010 Best Translated Book Award is winding down, I’m getting jacked about 2011 . . . Just look at this list of titles coming out in January – March 2010. (Don’t even get me started on April – June . . . my “to read” bookshelf is already overflowing.) Links below go to the Idlewild Books catalog, since Idlewild is our Indie Store of the Month. (And by “month” I mean the rest of December and all of January.)

January

Georg Letham, Physician and Murderer by Ernst Weiss (excerpt)
translated from the German by Joel Rotenberg
published by Archipelago Books

Archipelago books tend to deliver, and this sounds really intriguing. Thomas Mann gave this a killer blurb: “easily one of the most interesting books I have come across in years.” It’s the story of a scientist-hero who has killed his wife and is deported to a remote island where he “seeks redemption in science.” It was written around the same time as The Man without Qualities and The Sleepwalkers and has that same sort of middle-European, ambitious vibe.

My Little War by Louis Paul Boon
translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent
published by Dalkey Archive Press

I’m a huge Boon fan, especially of Chapel Road and Summer in Termuren, and it’s great to see more of his work making it into English. This was a first novel, an account of World War II told through “overheard conversations, newspaper articles, manifestos, and other sights and noises of daily life.” Boon had an amazing gift for language, for capturing the dirty reality and comic charms of daily life and creating something bigger and more meaningful. It’ll be very interesting to see what he created out of these materials.

Monsieur Pain by Roberto Bolano
translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews
published by New Directions

This next year promises to be yet another big year for Roberto Bolano with three books of his coming out from New Directions: Monseiur Pain, Antwerp and The Return. This novel—which we’ll be reviewing in the very near future—is about Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo, a mesmerist, two mysterious gentlemen, a bribe, and guilt. With Bolano you can rest assured that it’s at least worth the price of admission.

February

Baba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugresic
translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursac, Celia Hawkesworth, and Mark Thompson
published by Grove

Dubravka’s one of my all-time favorite writers (which is one of the reasons why her collection of essays, Nobody’s Home, was the first book published by Open Letter) and this looks like an awesome follow-up to her last work of fiction, The Ministry of Pain. This novel is part of the “Myths” series, retelling the story of Baba Yaga who, according to Russian myth, “is a witch who lives in a house built on chicken legs and kidnaps small children.” We posted about this book a while back and included a bit of the opening chapter. This may well be the book that I’m most excited about for 2010 . . .

Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico by Javier Marias
translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen
published by New Directions

I know next to nothing about this book aside from the fact that a) it’s published by New Directions (definite plus), b) it’s by Javier Marias (another plus), and c) it’s translated by Esther Allen (three pluses and I’m sold?). That and this description, which is the very definition of “selling copy”: “In this classic Marias story, Elvis and his entourage abandon their translator in a seedy cantina full of enraged criminals.”

The Museum of Eterna’s Novel (The First Good Novel) by Macedonio Fernandez (excerpt)
translated from the Spanish by Margaret Schwartz
published by Open Letter

Yeah, OK, I’m including one of our own books on this list—but seriously, I waiting almost five years to be able to read this and truly believe it’s one of the great books of the twentieth century. It opens with over fifty prologues! It’s in the meta-vein of At Swim-Two-Birds! It’s written by Borges’s mentor! It’s subtitled “The First Good Novel”! (And was a companion to Macedonio’s Adriana Buenos Aires (The Last Bad Novel)!) What more do you need to know?

March

Obabakoak by Bernardo Atxaga
translated from the Basque by Margaret Jull Costa
published by Graywolf Press

Atxaga’s The Accordionist’s Son came out from Graywolf earlier this year and got some good attention. Obabakoak is a collection of stories centered around the village of Obaba, and sounds really intriguing: “A tinge of darkness mingles with moments of wry humor in this dazzling collage of fables, town gossip, diary excerpts, and literary theory, all held together by Bernardo Atxaga’s distinctive and tenderly ironic voice.” Here’s a link to an audio file from PEN America of Atxaga reading Three Pieces about the Basque Language.

Changeling by Kenzaburo Oe
translated from the Japanese by Deborah Boliver Boehm
published by Grove

Kudos to Grove for having such a great winter/spring line-up—and for publishing two of the books I’m most looking forward to in 2010. We already have a review of this novel on hand, but with the pub date so far in the future, we’re going to hold onto it for at least a few weeks before posting. The review is very positive, and this story of a man traveling from Japan to Berlin to try to understand what drove his brother-in-law to commit suicide sounds incredibly intriguing.

Wolf among Wolves by Hans Fallada
translated from the German by Philip Owens
published by Melville House

This comes on the heels of Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, which did very well for Melville House. Another massive book (736 pages!), it sounds great: “a sprawling saga of the collapse of a culture—its economy and government—and the common man’s struggle to survive it all. Set in Weimar Germany soon after Germany’s catastrophic loss of World War I, the story follows a young gambler who loses all in Berlin, then flees the chaotic city, where worthless money and shortages are causing pandemonium. Once in the countryside, however, he finds a defeated German army that has deamped there to foment insurrection. Somehow, amidst it all, he finds romance—it’s The Year of Living Dangerously in a European setting.”

That’s it for now . . . More recommendations to come in a few months.

22 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We’re into the home stretch now . . . For the next two days we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.



The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig, translated from the German by Joel Rotenberg. (Austria, New York Review Books)

The Post-Office Girl is the second NYRB title on the fiction longlist (the other being Unforgiving Years) and the third Zweig title that they’ve published. The other two are Beware of Pity, which was the only novel Zweig published during his lifetime, and a new translation of Chess Story, which was sent to his publisher just before Zweig committed suicide.

Before the rise of Nazism, Zweig was an incredibly popular writer well known both for his novels and for his biographies. But as a Austrian Jew, he fled Austria for London, then lived in the United States and Brazil. It was in Petropolis that he and his wife committed joint suicide, stating “I think it better to conclude in good time and in erect bearing a life in which intellectual labour meant the purest joy and personal freedom the highest good on Earth.”

Edwin Frank’s monthly erudite letter about a recent NYRB book is by far my favorite publisher newsletter, and the month he wrote about The Post-Office Girl was no exception. (If you’re interested in receiving the NYRB newsletter, you can sign up here.)

Thanks to translator Joel Rotenberg, The Post-Office Girl is at last available in English. It’s no less striking than Beware of Pity and Chess Story, the two other Zweigs we’ve published, but it couldn’t be more different. It’s a book that should change how people think about Stefan Zweig.

The Post-Office Girl is fastpaced and hardboiled—as if Zweig, normally the most mannerly of writers, had fortified himself with some stiff shots of Dashiell Hammett. It’s the story of Christine, a nice girl from a poor provincial family who gets a taste of the good life only to have it snatched away; and of Ferdinand, an unemployed World War I veteran and ex-POW with whom she then links up. It’s a story, you could say, of two essentially respectable middle-class souls who wake up to find themselves miscast as outcasts, but what it’s really about, beyond economic and psychological collapse, is social death. Set during the period of devastating hyper-inflation that followed Austria’s defeat in 1918, Zweig’s novel depicts a country grotesquely divided between the rich and poor, so much so that it has effectively reverted to a state of nature. Christine and Ferdinand and Austria have been hollowed out (even if the country is still decked out in the pomp, circumstance, and pointless bureaucratic regulations of its bygone imperial heyday). They exist in a Hobbesian state of terminal desperation from which—the discovery arrives with mounting horror and excitement—the only hope of escape or redemption lies in violence.

What’s especially interesting about this publication is that the book never came out during Zweig’s life. It was written during the 30s, appeared to be finished, but was left untitled and wasn’t published until 1982. There’s no clear reason why he didn’t publish this during his lifetime. (although Edwin has a hunch)

The first part of the book really does read like a fairy tale, as poor, diligent Christine is whisked away to spend some time with her very wealthy aunt and uncle. A sort of Cinderella story in which Christine gets to see a side of life she wasn’t even aware of, as when she first arrives to her room at the hotel:

The boy opens a door in the middle of the corrido, flourishes his cap, and steps aside. This must be her room. Christine goes in. But on the threshold she stops short, as though she were in the wrong place. Because with all the will in the world, the postal official from Klein-Reifling, accustomed to shabby surroundings, can’t just flick a switch are really believe that this room is for her, this extravagantly scaled, exquisitely bright, colorfully wallpapered room, with open French doors like crystalline floodgates, the light cascading through.

But like all fairy tales, the clock strikes midnight and she has to go back home. As Jeff Waxman explains in his review, this is when the book changes dramatically:

The vacation came to an abrupt end. As dreams do. Fräulein Christiane von Boolen was revealed to be, merely, Christine Hoeflehner and, in shame and anger, she returned to Klein-Reifling, to the small town she came from. With her mother dead and her memories of her time at the resort too vivid, Christine cannot sink back into her own life. This is the real meat of the story; this is the bitter Part Two. A spectre of discontent is introduced in Christine Hoeflehner and Zweig provides it a mate, Ferdinand Farrner. In Ferdinand, Christine finds a kindred spirit, an awareness of the unfairness of life. Together, they come to a precipice familiar to the poor. They can no longer stand. They jump.

Posthumous publishing decisions are always open to criticism (see The Nation review, or any of the comments about the decision to publish 2666 in one volume instead of five separate books), but nevertheless, this is a great book, quite different from his other works, and definitely worth reading.

27 May 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

In their usual classy-as-hell manner, New York Review Books delivered a real gem last month in the 2008 Reading the World selection THE POST-OFFICE GIRL, by Stefan Zweig and translated by Joel Rotenberg. Zweig’s posthumously published book is bitter, brutal, and everything I love about post-war literature while still retaining some of the sweet softness of, say, A LITTLE PRINCESS by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The book is aptly billed as one which “lays bare the private life of capitalism”—it also exposes the meaninglessness and triviality of life and class while remaining firmly realistic.

The title character is Christine Hoeflehner, a mere shade of postal official in a province outside Vienna who, in her miserable innocence, knows neither pleasure nor joy. Until, of course, she does. Ms. Hoeflehner is a survivor of the first World War, but only in the sense that she is still living. The Great War took the family business and, in fact, much of the family. She is old before her time and her mother an invalid and her charge. As for many, misery became the constant. Zweig writes:

The war has in fact ended. But poverty has not. It has only ducked beneath the barrage of ordinances, crawled foxily behind the paper ramparts of war loans and banknotes with their ink still wet. Now it’s creeping back out, hollow-eyed, broad-muzzled, hungry, and bold, and eating what’s left in the gutters of the war. An entire winter of denominations and zeroes snows down from the sky…every thousand melts in your hand.

Imagine taking a young woman from that bleak picture, a woman who has always worked and never known luxury or rest and whisking her away to a palace—The Palace Hotel—it’s like something from a fairy tale. For Christine Hoeflehner, the fairy tale came true. Her wealthy aunt and uncle lavish her with all kinds of lovely foods and clothes. There and then, her name changes. She becomes Fräulein Christiane von Boolen, a glamorous doppelganger to her former self, a sort of gaudy butterfly entranced by the life of society and by the attentions of young men unscarred by the great tragedies of life. Zweig writes:

But how could she think, when would she think? She has no time to herself. No sooner does she appear in the lounge than someone from the merry band is there to drag her along somewhere—on a drive or a photo excursion, to play games, chat, dance; there’s always a shout of welcome, and then it’s bedlam. The pageant of idle busyness goes on all day. There’s no end of games played, things to smoke, nibble on, laugh at, and she falls into the whirl without resistance when any of the young fellows shouts for Fräulein von Boolen…

Perhaps it is odd that I mentioned that children’s classic, A LITTLE PRINCESS. No, it’s not odd—in Ms. Hoeflehner there is such a simple appreciation of luxury goods, an intimate affection for all the pleasures of wealth. She is childlike in the way she takes in pleasure, perhaps selfish, but blamelessly so. For all his criticism of the wealthy, it must be noted that Zweig doesn’t condemn wealth or luxury. His characters love comfort as we all love comfort and who, honestly, can deny its charms? As before, this “lays bare the private life of capitalism,” it doesn’t attack it, but reveal it. The novel doesn’t make moral claims; Zweig doesn’t judge the way people live their lives, merely contrasts them, makes glaringly obvious the inequalities—without assigning blame.

The vacation came to an abrupt end. As dreams do. Fräulein Christiane von Boolen was revealed to be, merely, Christine Hoeflehner and, in shame and anger, she returned to Klein-Reifling, to the small town she came from. With her mother dead and her memories of her time at the resort too vivid, Christine cannot sink back into her own life. This is the real meat of the story; this is the bitter Part Two. A spectre of discontent is introduced in Christine Hoeflehner and Zweig provides it a mate, Ferdinand Farrner. In Ferdinand, Christine finds a kindred spirit, an awareness of the unfairness of life. Together, they come to a precipice familiar to the poor. They can no longer stand. They jump.

When one reads a book of this range, it is impossible not to stare hard at the author who crafted these words, who built—or rebuilt—this world of extremes, of pleasure and deprivation. There’s a disturbing autobiographical element. Even for someone only vaguely aware of Zweig’s life, his personal history seems obscenely connected to his characters, as though he had already lived out several possible lives through his books. Toward the end of World War II, having achieved safety in Brazil, Zweig and his wife killed themselves— out of despair for European civilization. His suicide was the suicide of Europe, his death was the death of humanism. Zweig was a well-known pacifist and an adored writer. His forfeit was a recognition of his failed hope and we can mourn him, but not too long or too strong. Such a man as Zweig was too sincere to invent anything as improbable as a happy ending. His characters chose life, almost arbitrarily, and after all, there isn’t that much difference.

THE POST-OFFICE GIRL
by Stefan Zweig
Translated from the German by Joel Rotenberg
New York Review Books
257 pgs, $14.00

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