La Grande – Juan Jose Saer, translated by from the Spanish by Steve Dolph, Argentina,
Open Letter Books
Juan Jose Saer was a towering figure in Argentine literature. Over the course of his decades-long career he carved out his very own Argentina, a lovely provincial city named Santa Fe and its environs. He also developed his very own literary style, something that deals with the trappings of genre and that leads to very engaging plots and stories—plus unforgettable characters—yet that is also highly, highly philosophical and experimental, in the way of other Argentine greats like Julio Cortázar and Ricardo Piglia.
As with the work of William Faulker and Roberto Bolaño, you can think of Saer’s fiction as all of a piece. There are things that link most of Saer’s great novels—places, people, themes—and La Grande is very much the summation of a career. It is the biggest, longest, most complex novel he produced, and it brings many of his principle characters all back together. It was the last thing Saer ever wrote, a book he didn’t quite finish before he died at a young 67 from lung cancer in 2005, but that feels very complete in the state it reaches us.
This introduction may make it sound like you need to be versed in Saer to approach La Grande, but this is not the case. The book is self-contained and utterly satisfying and complete on its own terms. What is it about? Well, it is about the good life, the very material pleasures and joys that we must remember to always make time for on this Earth. It is also a deeply philosophical work about who we are and what we are doing here, although Saer is never jargon-y or butchering or even so much as dull when he gets into philosophy. It’s also about the literary avant-garde, about seductions and affairs between men and women, about marriage and getting a second chance at life and love.
In other words, it’s a novel written by a master novelist who has lived a very rich life and is prepared to put it all down on paper one last time. Thanks to Open Letter we will continue to receive many more installments of Saer for years to come, so there will be many, many more chances for him to win the Best Translated Book Award, but La Grande should really be the one that gives him the honor. It’s just a simply great book, something that will live with you for a week or two as you read it, and then a thing that you will then recall fondly forever after you’ve finished it. It makes you feel more alive to read it, and it makes you want to enjoy life, whether you do that by consuming a fine wine, chorizo, and carnal pleasures (as do Saer’s characters) or whether you prefer other of the world’s delights. Once you’ve had your fill of earthly pleasures, La Grande then instructs you in how to contemplate it all, to give your life that spiritual, philosophical outlook it also needs to have. It also happens to have one of literature’s great last lines (it may be a good thing that Saer never got to complete this work), and it really does feel like a book that gives us our best shot at understanding just what life is and how we should live it.
So, really, there are many worthy books on the BTBA longlist, and this year it feels like there are many more titles in the running than usual, but La Grande really deserves it. It should win.
As we work our way through the 500-some new translations released in 2014, I’m going to repost on a few books that have stood out for me so far. This list is not exhaustive at all, and it is incredibly subjective, so, disclaimers. But for what it’s worth, here it is.
Paris by Marcos Giralt Torrente (translated by Margaret Jull Costa)
It’s like Giralt had a direct line into the skull of Javier Marías—and, yes, this first novel from one of Spain’s biggest authors can stand up to that kind of comparison (plus, look who translated it). But Giralt is no Marías clone. Though his style is clearly indebted in this book, the concerns and narration are wholly Giralt’s. Very few authors could write a debut novel this good.
La Grande by Juan Jose Saer (translated by Steve Dolph)
From debut to swan song: La Grande was what one of Argentina’s greatest postwar authors was working on when he died in 2005. He got close enough to finishing it that I think we can consider it a complete work. It’s huge, ambitious, and very successful.
Ready to Burst by Frankétienne (translated by Kaiama L. Glover)
As publisher Jill Schoolman put it, Frankétienne is a force of nature. A poet and author with dozens of works to his name, he is also an artist, musician, and activist. In this slim book he (among other things) articulates his aesthetic of spirialism. It looks to be an amazing read.
Bombay Stories by Saadat Hasan Manto (translated by Matt Reeck)
Manto gets name-checked a lot as the greatest Urdu short story writer of the 20th century. After having read a few of the stories in this book, I can believe that.
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein)
Just as Knausgaard’s moment seems to be fading, Elena Ferrante is heating up in the U.S. media. And with good reason.
Melancholy II by Jon Fosse (translated by Eric Dickens)
Jon Fosse’s original Melancholy was a damn good read. So, of course, I’m hoping that Dalkey manages to live up to its Nov. 11 release date so that we can consider this for the award.
Suspended Sentences: Three Novellas by Patrick Modiano (translated by Mark Polizzotti)
I have to hand it to the Nobel committee—they usually end up picking writers that I find pretty interesting. I’ve never read Modiano and am eager to give this one a look. Plus, Yale has been doing astonishing work with its Margellos series, so the fact that they were on to this before the Prize is a good indication.
Over the past few days, a few great reviews for Open Letter authors popped up online, all of which are worth sharing and reading.
As a book of drinking, endless binges of drinking, and of constant comedy, The Last Days of My Mother is a perfect book to drink to, reminding you of the shame that follows the pleasure, but comfortably letting you know that you aren’t drowning like the protagonists. In the opening pages, Sölvi Björn Sigurðsson’s two protagonists, Mother/Eva and son/Trooper, do not have the same self-censorship that most of us have, and their adventure is all the better for it. Neither seems to manage happiness, but with Eva dying, Trooper sets himself the goal “to make Mother happy during the last days of her life.” [. . .]
Their efforts only resemble plans because for the vast majority of the novel, they are in varying stages of drinking, drunk, very drunk, stoned, and planning their next drink. Throughout it all, there is dark, brutal comedy, hysterically playful comedy, and immediate switches to the serious, the poignant, without pain from whiplash. The emotional, the ongoing sadness of loss, of dead hopes, isn’t a contradiction to humor; instead they exist together, and the closer they come, the less Eve and Trooper struggle. Comedy, with all its nuances, is sometimes impossible to communicate between two people who speak the same language, so translator Helga Soffía Einarsdóttir keeping it so alive proves great skill. Last Days is a book funny enough that my housemates laughed at my laughter while otherwise quietly reading, without reading a word.
Drinking novels are familiar, death of a family member novels are familiar, dark comedies, familiar, but Last Days brings something new: a mother and son with absolutely zero boundaries between each other.
The Last Lover is not an easy read. But it is incandescent and engrossing if you are okay with losing your sense of self for a few hours. Here is how I experienced it.
Hour one: I sit in a coffee shop with a paperback copy and a cup of ginger tea. The prose is dense, peculiar. The characters are given to sudden declarations.
Hour two: I am astonished to realize that I have only read less than fifty pages.
Hour three: My head hurts. I feel like I have been translating. I have stopped tweeting.
Hour four: I succumb to the book. I let it carry me. My cup is empty. I do not question anything that happens in the novel: wolfish faces; floating couples; inexplicable transformations; the motif of heads separating from bodies and hovering there, as if still connected. Nor do I question the characters’ reactions, who take all of these surreal developments gamely, as they must, as we accept the eerie faces we sometimes see in the periphery of our vision.
Hour five: I sit up and feel as though I have emerged from dreaming. I look around myself surreptitiously, suspicious that the world has flipped over while I was reading. It seems impossible that I could crawl so deep within this novel and have everything remain the same. I feel betrayed. There is a scene in The Last Lover in which the characters enter a gambling city, which is both under- and aboveground. The tunnels underground are full of smoke, which all the residents of the gambling city are used to breathing. Where is my smoke? Where are my slot machines?
And over at “Numero Cinq,“http://numerocinqmagazine.com/2014/08/04/the-decomposition-of-continuous-movement-review-of-juan-jose-saers-la-grande-richard-farrell/ Richard Farell writes up Juan José Saer’s La Grande, translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph:
Consider hospitality. Imagine, say, a cookout, on a Sunday afternoon, with old friends gathered around a pool deck. Meat sizzles on the grill. It is autumn, but a last gasp of summer heats the day and warms the water. The party’s host, Willi Gutiérrez—a screenwriter, a sophisticated man of letters—has been living abroad in Europe for the last thirty years and has recently returned to his native Argentina. Decades have passed since many of the guests assembled here have broken bread together. The convivial atmosphere of the party crackles with laughter, with clanging wine glasses, and with stories. But just beneath that welcoming surface hides a mystery, swirling down like a river, faster and deeper as the party courses above. This mystery is one of ontology, of the deep, mystical, convoluted experience that is life, with all its secrets, its intrigue, its tragedies and its triumphs. At the very bottom, on the murky river floor where memory resides, where so much has been lost to time—betrayals, desires, the forgotten war, love, passions—here we find the source material for Juan José Saer’s La Grande. Saer reassembles the fragments. He reconstructs experience through memory, where nothing is ever quite what it appears, and yet where everything that appears is luminescent, like gold flakes panned from the silt, polished, crafted and forged into a ring.
In La Grande, Saer masterfully creates a fictional world at once brimming with life, detail, and imagery. Recursive themes appear, connect, and eventually assemble into a story. For nearly 500 pages, La Grande patterns many different but deeply connected narratives across those thirty years, two continents and dozens of characters. The novel opens as Gutierréz leads Nula on a walk along the Parana River, toward a café in the countryside. Saer always evokes place through movement and memory, and as they walk, the young wine merchant becomes mesmerized by his older friend, who has reentered this world—abandoned for thirty years—as if no time has passed at all. Nula wants to understand Gutiérrez. Who is he? Why did he leave? Why has he returned? Saer may not directly answer these questions, but they constitute the main impulse of the novel. [. . .]
Flannery O’Connor once remarked that a good story resists paraphrase. La Grande isn’t about parties, wine sales, sex or even ultimately about Argentine history. And yet it contains all of these and so much more. The experience, the joy, of reading this book comes from an appreciation of Saer’s ability to keep these various pieces in motion. Saer-as-maestro teases apart story lines, only to carefully reconnect them hundreds of pages later, so that, by novel’s end, when the various actors have gathered at the party in Gutiérrez’s home, “even the things that are familiar to us are unfamiliar, if only because we’ve allowed ourselves to forget the mysterious things about them.” The mundane becomes strange, significant, filled with meaning, so that each story, each character, each plot step even, appears consequential. Nothing is ever wasted.
Juan José Saer was one of the greatest
Spanish-language writers of the past hundred years. When he passed away in 2005, he was working on La Grande, a novel that brings together a number of characters from his earlier works in an exploration and ends with one of the greatest final lines in literature: “With the rain came the fall, and with the fall, the time of the wine.” (You can read a longer excerpt of Steve Dolph’s translation by clicking here.)
If you’ve read Saer before, you’re undoubtedly dying to get your hands on this; if you’ve never read him, this, despite being his last book, is a fantastic place to start.
To help everyone out, we’re giving away 15 copies through GoodReads. All the info on entering is below—just make sure you do it before March 24th.
And if you’d rather just forgo the whole “entering a drawing” aspect, you can just preorder the book via your favorite bookselling outlet, or via our website.
Steve Dolph’s translation of Juan Jose Saer’s massive La Grande won’t be available until next spring, but for those of you who can’t wait to sample what may well be his magnum opus, you can check out Two Lines for a long sample:
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