16 May 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Heath Mayhew on The Oasis of Now: Selected Poems by Sohrab Sepehri, translated by Kazim Ali and Mohammad Jafar Mahallati, published by BOA Editions.

Heath is not only a loyal Open Letter subscriber, but has also previously reviewed for Three Percent. And to tote Open Letter things a bit more, one of the translators of this beautiful collection of poetry is Kazim Ali, who was one of the translators of Marguerite Duras’s L’amour, which Open Letter published last year. Also, BOA Editions is another local Rochester, NY publisher, and operated by great people. So this is really like one big group hug—that you’re all welcome to join!

Here’s the beginning of Heath’s review:

I have wanted to read Persian poetry ever since having heard so many good things about it from my Palestinian friend. Sohrab Sepehri’s collection, The Oasis of Now: Selected Poems, however, sounded quite new-agey—as if the poetry was canned lyricism awash in love, peace, and overly sensual descriptions of nature—and this worried me. I feared that Sepehri’s poetry would surely turn me off to anything Persian for a long time. Even when I started to read the first lines of the opening poem, “Water’s Footfall” (the title already felt like a distasteful personification), I felt depressed to have been selected to read the book. Very quickly, however, I began to shed my misgivings.

While Sepehri is not especially well known in the West, he is one of the five most popular Persian poets of the modern Persian poetry movement known as “New Poetry” (the other four being Nima Yushij, who is considered the father of modern Persian poetry, Ahmad Shamloo, Mehdi Akhavan-Sales, and Forough Farrokhzad; “New Poetry” is most notably characterized as having no meter or rhyme, which is a break from traditional Persian poetry). Sepehri was not even particularly popular in his own time—this has, however, changed since then. Philosopher Soursh Dabbagh explains, “Inclinations towards more abstract thoughts subjected him to criticism by his contemporary literary critics such as Shamloo, [Rezi] Barahani, and [Dariush] Ashoori.” Recently, Sepehri has become an emblem of justice and peace. During the 2009 Iranian election protests, the closing lines of his poem, and title of this collection, “The Oasis of Now”, were used on signs and banners and stitched into people’s clothing. They read, “If you look for me, / come soft and quietly, lest you crack the glass heart / that cups my loneliness.”

For the rest of the review, go here.

16 May 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

I have wanted to read Persian poetry ever since having heard so many good things about it from my Palestinian friend. Sohrab Sepehri’s collection, The Oasis of Now: Selected Poems, however, sounded quite new-agey—as if the poetry was canned lyricism awash in love, peace, and overly sensual descriptions of nature—and this worried me. I feared that Sepehri’s poetry would surely turn me off to anything Persian for a long time. Even when I started to read the first lines of the opening poem, “Water’s Footfall” (the title already felt like a distasteful personification), I felt depressed to have been selected to read the book. Very quickly, however, I began to shed my misgivings.

While Sepehri is not especially well known in the West, he is one of the five most popular Persian poets of the modern Persian poetry movement known as “New Poetry” (the other four being Nima Yushij, who is considered the father of modern Persian poetry, Ahmad Shamloo, Mehdi Akhavan-Sales, and Forough Farrokhzad; “New Poetry” is most notably characterized as having no meter or rhyme, which is a break from traditional Persian poetry). Sepehri was not even particularly popular in his own time—this has, however, changed since then. Philosopher Soursh Dabbagh explains, “Inclinations towards more abstract thoughts subjected him to criticism by his contemporary literary critics such as Shamloo, [Rezi] Barahani, and [Dariush] Ashoori.” Recently, Sepehri has become an emblem of justice and peace. During the 2009 Iranian election protests, the closing lines of his poem, and title of this collection, “The Oasis of Now”, were used on signs and banners and stitched into people’s clothing. They read, “If you look for me, / come soft and quietly, lest you crack the glass heart / that cups my loneliness.”

From Kazim Ali’s introduction, we learn that Sepehri was influenced not only by his home religion, Shi’a and Sufism, but also by Buddhism and Hinduism, which he explored later in life. He was interested in “ordinary things, discarded things, with the spiritual and divine,” and this view is reflected throughout the poems in this collection. We get a heavy dose of such themes particularly in the aforementioned opening poem, “Water’s Footfalls”, which reflects on the death of his father, and how one wanders the world with such grief. As one would expect, the poem is dense and heavy, but Sepehri creates (or observes) pockets light, “Like a breeze, my Ka’aba drifts from orchard to orchard, town to / town.”

What surprised me most about this collection is the sensuality of the language, and the abstraction of everyday imagery. Sepehri has a way of morphing language to imply a deeper, fresher meaning. This seems obvious to the well-indoctrinated poetry reader, but when one expects cheesiness, and instead gets heart, one discovers treasure. That moment came, still in the opening poem, when he grafts the two most used themes of poetry, love and nature, and given the nature of the poem, the image rises right before the reader’s eyes: “I understand the language of ripe berries bursting in the mouth of the / climaxing lovers.” This line, itself a sort of climax, marries our everyday senses and that of nature flawlessly.

It helps to know that Sepehri was trained as a painter, and particularly that he was considered one of Iran’s foremost modern painters. As already shown, Sepehri infuses his poetry with a painterly eye, even if they are not always as lush as “Water’s Footfalls.” In “The Sound of an Encounter,” a poem that appears in the second section (of three sections), he finds the color and light, when as a boy, he is sent out to get pomegranates and quinces:
bq. The orchard’s long hours of worry glittered in the shadow of each fruit. / Some unknown thing shone among the quinces. / The pomegranates spread their dark red across the country of the pious. / Any thoughts I had about the people around me vanished / before the gleaming ripeness of oranges.

The translation of the text did not leave images or metaphors hanging indecipherably on the page; nor did they leave the reader alienated by complete foreignness. If a moment of cultural material arose, an endnote accompanied it. While the book appears for a moment’s instance to be bilingual, the truth is that each section is divided by a single page from one of Sepehri’s poems in Persian.

I felt the need to slow down after reading these pieces, so much so that I just wanted to walk around my apartment, look at things, without expectations, certain that if I waited long enough something beautiful would emerge out of its ordinariness. And what if we looked at the objects or emotions we find mundane, or cheesy, or over sentimental, or pastiche; what could we learn from them? What would we see? That’s the question Sepehri’s poetry taught me.

28 April 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As you already know, the winner of this year’s BTBA for poetry is The Guest in the Wood by Elisa Biagnini, translated from the Italian by Diana Thow, Sarah Stickney, and Eugene Ostashevsky, and published by Chelsea Editions. Below is a statement from the judges about the collection, along with some notes about the two runners up.

From the poetry jury:

In Elisa Biagini’s eerie interiors, nothing is quite what it seems. “Peeled hands” become tapestries, teeth are “white and dry like kneecaps,” a woman irons as a way of “stopping decomposition / by joining collar points.” What at first glance might seem like straight-forward lyrics of domesticity or celebrations of the ordinary, turn quickly violent and grotesque. Female selves are not dissolved, martyr-style, for their loved ones, but cut-up into pieces, a butchery that is sensuously and surreally chronicled: “My body is a bag of fluids,” “I see myself in pieces in the supermarket.” Reading Biagini we realize how frequently we do, in actuality, leave traces of our bodies with, in, and upon the ones we love: “you smile at your seed in me / (you’ve just eaten your lipstick) / and if I draw my face near / I see a wisp of my hair / in your gloves.” “The guest” of Biagini’s title shifts viscerally, now a growing embryo, now the familiar fairytale innocents in the forbidding wood, now language itself, whose “words [are] glowworms in / this my / dark.” Reading this collection, our own worlds, our own homes, our own narratives, our own words are illuminated in their already existing strangeness. That Biagini’s haunting, disturbing, brilliant, and beautiful poems retain this power and immediacy—above all this passion—in their English translations is a testament to the work of her translators: Diana Thow, Sarah Strickney, and Eugene Ostashevsky.

The first runner-up, Four Elemental Bodies by Claude Royet-Journoud is translated from the French by Keith Waldrop, and published by Burning Deck, a press that almost always has at least one title on the list of BTBA poetry finalists. This is the second volume of Royet-Journoud’s to come out from Burning Deck, and contains four volumes: Reversal, The Notion of Obstacle, Objects Contain the Infinite, and Natures Indivisible.

Here’s a bit more about his from the Burning Deck website:

Claude Royet-Journoud is one of the most important contemporary French poets whose one-line manifesto: “Shall we escape analogy” marked a revolutionary turn away from Surrealism and its lush imagery. His spare, “neutral” language, stripped of devices like metaphor, assonance, alliteration has had a great influence on recent French poetry.

Poetry judge Bill Martin wrote The Oasis of Now up earlier today, and since his piece is so comprehensive and interesting, I’ll just let him speak for this runner-up:

Something that Dabashi hints at and another scholar, Massud Farzan, addressed forty years ago as crucial to Sepehri’s work is, in addition to the influence on it of Buddhism, its connection to Sufi apophatic theology, the “via negativa . . . the cleansing of the heart’s and mind’s mirror of its dust and grime.” This mystical affiliation informs the frame that Ali and Mahallati give his work in the introduction to the book, and also affirms the fantasy I had in reading him of an affinity with Tomaž Šalamun, another poetic descendent of Rumi. (I imagined a genealogy involving other poets on the American scene, too: Whitman, Dickinson, Rilke, Trakl, Lorine Niedecker, Robert Lax, Gary Snyder, Fanny Howe; but none seemed so closely related.) Like Šalamun’s poetry, Sepehri’s cleaves and coheres at odd angles to the Anglophone avant-garde. But while Šalamun refracts sense paratactically and with scintillating speed, Sepehri is much slower, tellurian, more liable to syntax, haunting, his epiphanies so figurative and deliberate they often come across as platitudes. Yet the experience of reading him is more robust, ample, and structured than it may appear at first sight:

Beyond the poplars
sweet innocence beckons.

I paused by the stand of bamboo to listen as the wind susurrated through.
Who was speaking to me?

A lizard slid into the water. I walked on.

Hayfield, cucumber patch, rose bush, oblivion . . .

At the stream I doffed my sandals to dangle my feet in the water.
How alive I am,
how green like the garden.
So what if sadness creeps down the mountain slope?
Who is that hiding behind the trees?
Only a water buffalo grazing.

Like most of the poems in The Oasis of Now, this one, “Golestaneh,” reads like a rehearsal of reverse apperception, with the “human position” of the subject reconceived in relation to nature through repeated gestures—questions, reappraisals, simple descriptions, epiphanies—a repertoire of moderated ecstasy. This poetic redirection of the subject toward nature, or as Jonathan Skinner has put it, this “turning of the poem out of doors” and the “extending and developing” in these poems of the “perception of the natural world,” that signals the potential inspiration of Sepehri’s work for ecopoetics. This is not a book that immediately announces itself as avant-garde or new, it does not brandish its modernism, and does not in fact seem so easily commodifiable, but the more time one spends with it, the more it astonishes and yields.

28 April 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We’re only hours away from announcing the two winners of this year’s BTBA awards, but it’s never too late to promote one of the finalists. The piece below was written by BTBA poetry judge, Bill Martin.

The Oasis of Now by Sorab Sepehri, translated from the Persian by Kazim Ali and Mohammad Jafar Mahallati (Iran; BOA Editions)

One of the books that surprised and impressed me most from this year’s BTBA poetry submissions was Sohrab Sepehri’s The Oasis of Now, translated by the American poet Kazim Ali and the Iranian scholar of religion Mohammad Jafar Mahallati. Like most readers of English, I was unfamiliar with the work, because like most Persian-language writers, Sepehri—who was born in 1928, lived most of his life during the reign of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and died in 1980, a few months after the revolution—is practically unknown in Anglophony. But something of his poetics, I’ve since discovered, has long been available “in translation” in the films of Sepehri’s countryman Abbas Kiarostami, a staple of film festivals and world cinema courses. The muted colors and rustic life-world, simple narration and gentle irony of Kiarostami’s first international success, Where is the Friend’s Home? (1987), for instance, can be understood not only as opening a view onto everyday life in Iran—which was my primary takeaway when I saw it many years ago—but as enacting a philosophy that the filmmaker and the poet shared (the film’s title is a line in one of Sepehri’s canonical poems, “The Address,” which is included in this book). According to Hamid Dabashi, who has written at length about this connection, Kiarostami’s faith in immediate observation and the “fictive lucidity of the real” can be attributed to the influence of Sepehri’s poetry (and probably of his painting as well—he was equally well known in his lifetime as a visual artist).

Historically American readers have tended to understand literature from politically repressive countries unaffiliated with the United States mainly in terms of its political value, without reflecting on the ways in which our own reading practices are ideologically determined or inflected. What this may mean for literary translation and the place of world literature, of translated poetry, of a book like this, in the US, is a question at the back of my mind in reading it. Sepehri’s work does not ask to be understood “politically”—by contrast with other poets of his generation like Farough Farrokhzad and Ahmad Shamlu—because his domain is the lyric subject’s engagement with nature and his mode is highly deflective even in its insistence on a kind of affective immediacy. Nevertheless, this poetic itself has come to be understood in political terms. Dabashi puts it in a nutshell: “Sohrab Sepehri cut through the thick politicization of his age to grasp a primal moment of wonder in the world.” And this may also be a key factor in his translatability. Although Kiarostami’s Iran of the eighties, a fundamentalist theocracy hobbled by a war instigated by its (then US-backed) neighbor Iraq, was far different from the country Sepehri lived in a decade and more earlier (when he was criticized for not taking a stand against the abuses of the—then US-backed—Pahlavi regime), their mutual embrace of the primacy of perception may have provided existential coherence in a time and place disorganized by political ideology. Is that coherence available to us, English-language readers, disorganized (or organized—you choose!) as we are by capitalism? Can “primal moment of wonder in the world” ever be anything other than a commodity for us market segments? And what would it mean for this poetry to win a prize endowed by a megacorporation as part of its brand positioning? (A lot of money, that’s what!)

Well, there are universal values, and translation is possible. Something that Dabashi hints at and another scholar, Massud Farzan, addressed forty years ago as crucial to Sepehri’s work is, in addition to the influence on it of Buddhism, its connection to Sufi apophatic theology, the “via negativa . . . the cleansing of the heart’s and mind’s mirror of its dust and grime.” This mystical affiliation informs the frame that Ali and Mahallati give his work in the introduction to the book, and also affirms the fantasy I had in reading him of an affinity with Tomaž Šalamun, another poetic descendent of Rumi. (I imagined a genealogy involving other poets on the American scene, too: Whitman, Dickinson, Rilke, Trakl, Lorine Niedecker, Robert Lax, Gary Snyder, Fanny Howe; but none seemed so closely related.) Like Šalamun’s poetry, Sepehri’s cleaves and coheres at odd angles to the Anglophone avant-garde. But while Šalamun refracts sense paratactically and with scintillating speed, Sepehri is much slower, tellurian, more liable to syntax, haunting, his epiphanies so figurative and deliberate they often come across as platitudes. Yet the experience of reading him is more robust, ample, and structured than it may appear at first sight:

Beyond the poplars
sweet innocence beckons.

I paused by the stand of bamboo to listen as the wind susurrated through.
Who was speaking to me?

A lizard slid into the water. I walked on.

Hayfield, cucumber patch, rose bush, oblivion . . .

At the stream I doffed my sandals to dangle my feet in the water.
How alive I am,
how green like the garden.
So what if sadness creeps down the mountain slope?
Who is that hiding behind the trees?
Only a water buffalo grazing.

Like most of the poems in The Oasis of Now, this one, “Golestaneh,” reads like a rehearsal of reverse apperception, with the “human position” of the subject reconceived in relation to nature through repeated gestures—questions, reappraisals, simple descriptions, epiphanies—a repertoire of moderated ecstasy. This poetic redirection of the subject toward nature, or as Jonathan Skinner has put it, this “turning of the poem out of doors” and the “extending and developing” in these poems of the “perception of the natural world,” that signals the potential inspiration of Sepehri’s work for ecopoetics. This is not a book that immediately announces itself as avant-garde or new, it does not brandish its modernism, and does not in fact seem so easily commodifiable, but the more time one spends with it, the more it astonishes and yields.

* * *

The Oasis of Now is made up of three sections of Sepehri’s poetry from the mid-1960s, the high point of his career, which followed on his encounter with Buddhism and coincided with extensive travel in China and Japan, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. It begins with the long poem “Water’s Footfall” (Ṣedā-ye pā-ye āb, 1965), which Omnidawn published as a bilingual chapbook in 2011; the midsection comprises the 25 poems of the book “A Measure of Green” (Ḥajm-e sabz, 1968), which as Houman Sarshar points out, in his excellent Encyclopaedia Iranica entry on Sepehri, was written between 1962 and 1967 and “comprises virtually all of Sepehri’s best-known and most anthologized works” (a translation of this book by David L. Martin was published in 1988); and it wraps up with another long poem, “The Traveler” (Mosāfer, 1966). Sepehri’s collected works, “Eight Books” (Hašt ketāb, 1978), included everything already published along with a previously unpublished series of poems, Mā hič, mā negāh—a title that is basically untranslatable but means something like “We are nothing but looking,” as Kazim Ali says in the interview below. Sarshar also points to the influence on this final phase of Sepehri’s poetry of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Nature,” and to the echo in this title of Emerson’s line: “I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing, I see all.” Hopefully English-language readers will be able to read more of Sepehri’s remarkable and important work very soon.

* * *

I was curious to hear more about the translation of Sepehri’s work in preparation for writing these ruminations, so I conducted a brief interview with Kazim Ali over Skype last week. Here it is:

WM: How did you come to Sohrab Sepehri’s poetry?

KA: My father, in around 2002–2003, was working in Iran on an international hydroelectric dam project, which is what he does. And he asked me what I would like him to bring back as a gift. I said I’d love to read some Iranian poets. So he brought back some volumes of poetry that had been translated into English from Farsi, but published in Iran in a very basic translation. I didn’t think too much of it, although I recognized that there was a mystical aspect that was appealing to me, in terms of the work that I do myself. It wasn’t until a while later that my partner, Marco, who is a photographer, needed text for a project he was working on, and took the book off the shelf and read this couplet out loud to me, which as I later learned is an iconic Sepehri couplet: “I am a Muslim, the rose is my qibla.” I thought it was actually very beautiful, and I often thought of that line and quoted it and other lines from the same passage later on. But I didn’t think about doing a translation of Sepehri’s poetry until several years later when Poets’ House and City Lore, two institutions in New York City, held their “Poetries of the Islamic World” event [in May 2011].

In preparation for that event, I felt like, even though they had invited me as an American Muslim poet, I wanted to bring something from the Muslim world. Particularly because the Cold War against Iran has not only been a political Cold War, but has had a cultural impact as well, in terms of its cultural isolation. So I thought I would bring some Iranian poets to the attention of the American audience. Because, as you know, it is a very ancient and storied literary culture, I mean it’s incredible, the literature of Iran and literature in Farsi, the classics, everything. And not just literary culture, but visual culture and music, all of it. I was thinking of what has happened with the cultural damage and fallout from the Iraq invasion, and the horror of something like that happening again. So there was a political motivation for me. I really wanted to get something of Iranian literature to American readers so they that they can better understand what this country is about.

Luckily for me, I have a colleague here at Oberlin, Jafar Mahallati, a wonderful scholar in the Religion Department, who is very interested in Iranian poetry. I asked him if he would be interested to tackle this with me, and we sat down and did it. I had the old, bad translation to work from, and he and I would sit together and he would recite the Farsi to me, and we would talk through the poem and all the different nuances. You know, with Sepehri there are so many different layers of meaning, oftentimes we would be very confused by the images and metaphors he was using and have to tease out the multiple layers. He uses lots of images of birds and plants and stuff like that. And Jafar would say something like, “Well, you know, the interesting thing about this plant is that it only blooms in the nighttime, so Sepehri is saying such and such by using it.” So we would spend an hour on a page of poetry, just talking through it. And then I would go and create it as an English poem. And then I would send them to him and he would say, “This is great,” or “this image is not exactly right,” that sort of thing. We did the whole book like that together. The final part, “The Traveler,” I did mostly on my own. But he did go through it, so it was a collaboration from beginning to end.

WM: The book you got from your father, from Iran, was that a single volume of Sepehri’s work, or was it his work in an anthology?

KA: It was two books of his in one: the long poem “Water’s Footfall” and another book which we’ve translated as “A Measure of Green.” And there was another volume as well, which we’re working on now, which had two more books of Sepehri’s in it. One of them is “The Traveler,” which went into The Oasis of Now; and the other is a book with a title that is very hard to translate, but means something like “We are nothing but the looking” or “Our life itself is an observation.” It’s like Emily Dickinson’s line “As all the Heavens were a Bell, and Being, but an Ear.” But with Sepehri, being is a looking. We don’t know how we’re going to translate the title. This is the problem when working on Sepehri, it’s all very esoteric and metaphysical and philosophical.

Sepehri had six collections of poetry that he published in his lifetime, and then included two sections of new poetry in his collected works, Eight Books. We’re just working our way through it. We’d like to finish his body of work, but it’s going to be a long project.

WM: You mention Dickinson. Another poet I thought of when reading the book was Rilke, in terms of a kind of embodied metaphysics in Sepehri’s poetry. And I thought of the way American poetry was saturated with Rilke in the 1980s, and also of the presence here of a poet like Tomaž Šalamun, and this made me wonder why Sepehri isn’t more available in English, and where you see Sepehri’s home on the American poetry scene.

KA: There are actually other recent English versions of Sepehri out there. Sholeh Wolpe, who has published translations of Farough Farrokhzad both here and in England, has done some of his work. Kaveh Bassiri and Jean Valentine did a handful of his poems together. The poet Robin Magowan has also done some. So some individual poems have been translated by different people here and there, but yes, The Oasis of Now and the Omnidawn chapbook are the only full books available here. I feel very personally connected to Sepehri’s work, as a poet who is invested in the metaphysical stuff, and someone who is steeped in the religious tradition as well. Sepehri was an iconoclast in a sense, he wasn’t part of the Muslim orthodoxy. That line “I am a Muslim, the rose is my qibla,” is an ironic line, in a way, but I feel there is a deep sincerity under the skin of irony. Sepehri often plays fast and loose with literal meanings and metaphorical meanings, flirting with the ordinary and quotidian and turning it into a mythical condition. Working with a native speaker has allowed me to really get underneath the skin of those lines and find a universality in them.

As for finding a home for his work on the American scene, one of the criticisms that we’ve gotten so far, in a review in American Poetry Review, was that I made Sepehri sound too American, or something like that. But there is something about the postmodern American lyric that’s very close to the classical poetics of disjunction that exists in Farsi and Arabic poetry. You know Adonis, the Syrian poet? He wrote an interesting piece on modernism in the Arab world, where he said that, “Our modernist moment in Arab literature happened in 700 A.D.” What happened to British and American literature in modernism in the 20th century was already happening in the Arab world in the 700s. So their classical literature is like our postmodern literature. The ghazal and all these other forms, which are centered around the notion of disjunction, came out in 1700–1800 over there; and their contemporary lyric has a lot of affinities with what’s happening now in contemporary American literature. So as far as Sepehri sounding American, I can see that.

WM: Is there anything else about Sepehri, about the book, that you would want people to know, in terms of framing it, its reception in English?

KA: Sepehri is one of the major figures of 20th century Iranian literature. Like a Whitman or Robert Frost. You know how “the road less travelled” is a line from Frost—the same thing goes for Sepehri. People quote him in everyday life situations. When we were preparing the introduction, we discovered that a newspaper in Afghanistan had just used a line of his for the headline of an article on religious intolerance—it was the line that goes “We have to rinse our eyes clear of habit so we can actually see”—and it was unattributed because everyone knows it. Sepehri is a great window into a certain type of contemporary, progressive Iranian thought. Which people here don’t think exists. So I’m really glad that the book got out there. I’m very grateful to BOA. I mean, they rushed it; they took the book in February and published it in October. So I’m really grateful to them for seeing the importance of the book and getting it out there, and I’m grateful to every organization that’s promoting it, because I think it’s very important to engage with literature from this part of the world now.

19 July 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over at the Fiction Writers Review, Jennifer Solheim has posted a great interview with the two translators of Duras’s L’Amour, which just pubbed this past Tuesday.

You can read the whole thing here, but here are a few highlights.

Jennifer Solheim: In your beautiful introduction, Kazim, you write, “_L’Amour_, never before translated into English, is at the heart of a constellation of texts, both verbal and visual, by Marguerite Duras, sometimes called the India Cycle.” So what is the story behind the translation of L’Amour? Why now? Did you approach Open Letter Books, or did they approach you? Why hasn’t it been translated previously?

Kazim Ali: I was a Duras lover, very enamored of her prose style, which seemed even more powerful in her middle-period (1965 – 1984, roughly) when she started recycling plots throughout her books. I happened upon L’Amour in a Paris bookstore and found it immediately charming and powerful—in fact, kind of a classic example of this spare disembodied style that she was cultivating. It almost reads like a treatment for a film, so it makes complete sense to me that after writing this book she more or less abandoned fiction for film. During the thirteen years that followed she did write four short prose narratives—the most well known of these is The Malady of Death—but essentially did not write another novel until The Lover.

I can’t say why no one had attempted a translation yet. It is a very experimental prose style and a very experimental novel in that not much really happens. Yet it has been written about by countless critics, all of whom were doing their own translations of the small excerpts they wished to discuss. I had approached a couple of different publishers, but this is a quirky book, even for Duras, who is quirky all on her own. Open Letter was very excited and enthusiastic about the book. They are doing a wonderful job and are devoted completely to literature in translation. They have another Duras book in their catalog (The Sailor from Gibraltar) and signed us up almost immediately.

JS: Since L’Amour is a centerpiece of the India Cycle, did the English translations of the other works in the cycle inform you? Were there stylistic or other elements in the translations that you decided you wanted to preserve or eschew?

KA: During the translation process I read every other translation I could find. Duras does sound a certain way in English through the excellent work of Barbara Bray. The few other Duras translations that exist have a different sense. Bray did an odd thing, which is that she did not “Anglicize” the syntax very much, so the sentences still have that sometimes ornate overdone word order of a French sentence. In L’Amour Duras writes very simply, very plainly. So I found an inspiration in Gertrude Stein’s English. But unlike Stein, Duras is in love with the comma—her sentences can just keep going and going. So it took a draft or two to get the hang of the rhythme du sens, so to speak. Which—eventually—seemed really important and related to the constant sound of waves that permeates life at the ocean; meaning the sentence structure and grammar was part of the meaning—it couldn’t be changed.

Read the rest here.

15 July 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For all of you who are excited about L’Amour, the never-before-translated Marguerite Duras book that we’re publishing this week, you can check out a sizable excerpt over at Guernica.

Night.

The beach and the sea are in darkness.

A dog passes, going toward the sea wall.

No one walks on the boardwalk, but, on the benches lining it, people sit. They relax. Are silent. Separated from one another. They do not speak.

The traveler passes. He walks slowly, he goes in the same direction as the dog.

He stops. Returns. He seems to be out for a walk. He starts off again.

His face is no longer visible.

The sea is calm. No wind.

The traveler returns. The dog does not return. The sea begins to rise, it seems. Its sounds getting closer. Muffled thudding coming from the river’s many mouths. Somber sky.

And as a special bonus, here’s a bit of Sharon Willis’s afterword:

L’Amour forgets. Of course, this is a novel about forgetting—and memory. But its narrative presents itself as dispossessed of the very memory that runs through it in the form of recycled figures and images that recall two of Duras’s previous novels, The Ravishing of Lol V. Stein (1964) and The Vice Consul (1965). Sometimes known as the “India cycle,” this extended text, relayed across three books, performs its own forgetfulness, and imposes a frustrating—even terrifying—amnesia on the reader. But to read L’Amour apart from the earlier novels presents another problem, this time more epistemological: without the trans-textual memory that structures and binds these three narratives into one prolonged text, how does L’Amour become legible?

Reducing characters to figures as residues, remnants, and fragments, this book produces a textual relay that becomes its own internal memory and that dissolves its narrative frame, substituting its memory of the previous texts for the reader’s own, implanting memories in us. But like the dead dog on the beach to which L’Amour returns with unsettingly frequency—as if this corpse structures the narrative space—these are figures in the course of deterioration. Memory is erasing itself. The dead dog, mentioned once in The Ravishing, reappears repeatedly in L’Amour. Around this dreadful site/sight, a hole in sense, circulate the unnamed residues of characters that the reader “remembers” from previous texts. Remembering here means fleshing out these haunting ghosts—worn to nubs, “sanded down,” to cite the translators—transposed from The Ravishing and The Vice Consul: Lol V. Stein, her fiancé, Michael Richardson, and Jacques Hold, the narrator who tells their story while he gradually enters into it.

But instead of grinding to exhaustion in its obsessive return to these figures, this novel relaunches them—translates them—into film, the medium that will preoccupy Duras in the coming years. Haunted by its shape-shifting textual ghosts (in French revenants; literally, one’s coming back), L’Amour also anticipates a cycle of films marked by these same narrative remnants and traces: La Femme du Gange (1972), India Song (1974), and Son nom de Venise dans Calcutta désert (1976). Situated at the join between the prose cycle and the cinematic one, L’Amour produces a site of translation, a space where everything keeps turning into something else. Hence this text’s fascination with liminal or threshold spaces: dawn, dusk, the crepuscular. We might even see this space as the place where we can watch this extended novel turning into cinema.

L’Amour is a theater of translation, in which the ongoing conflict between eye and ear, image and speech, stillness and passage, present and past, endlessly mutates. This sense of ceaseless mutation coheres with the persistent boundary failures, between texts, between genres, between textual spaces and between the characters who uneasily inhabit them, that mark Duras’s work in general, and that emerge within _L’Amour_’s narrative unfolding, troubling its ability even to begin and to end.

L’Amour is available at better bookstores everywhere, or can be ordered from Open Letter “directly.” (And at a really nice discount . . .)

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