Can Xue: The Last Lover, trans. from Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen, Yale/Margellos
The strangest and by far most original work I read this summer was Can Xue’s The Last Lover. How refreshing it is to encounter fiction that so resolutely disregards conventions of character and plot! The protagonists of this book do not develop—they transform, as do their relationships to one another, from one scene to the next. And they do so unpredictably, in ways that surprise and delight. As in much of Can Xue’s fiction, the prose is comic and disturbing at one and the same time. John Darnielle had Vertical Motion in mind when he pointed to the “grammar of dreams” that underpins that volume of stories: “situations in which a general meowing sound throughout a hospital provokes not the question ‘what’s going on?’ but instead ‘where are the catmen hiding?’” A similar grammar is present in The Last Lover, her most ambitious—and perhaps most radical—novel to date.
Faris al-Shidyaq: Leg over Leg volume 3, trans. from Arabic by Humphrey Davies, NYU
I wrote about the charms of this novel last winter, when the first two volumes were eligible for the prize. It should come as no surprise that the other two are now contenders as well. This chapter from volume three appeared in the 2014 translation issue of London’s The White Review. It’s preceded by a concise introduction by Humphrey Davies, whose translation of Shidyaq remains among the most gymnastic and resourceful amongst this year’s competition.
Elena Ferrante: Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, trans. from Italian by Ann Goldstein, Europa
There’s no denying the force of Ferrante’s writing. I discovered volume 2 of the Neapolitan Novels last spring when it made our longlist. (Such are the privileges of judging for BTBA; you have to read the 25 titles selected to this list, and thereby profit directly from the enthusiasms of others.) I devoured it whole, then did the same to The Story of a New Name. Ferrante inspires that rare thing, rarer still among contemporary writers: the compulsion to read everything she’s ever published. Like its predecessors, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay bristles with intelligence and is executed with startling clarity. And like the other books in this series, it is all-absorbing. Here’s Ariel Starling in a recent review for The Quarterly Conversation: “Subtle as the plot may be, it would do the work a grave disservice not to note that Ferrante is, in her own way, a master of suspense. Reading these novels, one becomes so immersed in the world of the characters that even an offhand comment from a minor acquaintance can (and often does) carry the force of revelation—the books are nearly impossible to put down.”
Hilda Hilst: With My Dog Eyes, trans. from Portuguese by Adam Morris, Melville House
I’ve already posted on Letters from a Seducer which had been scheduled for 2013 release but entered the world on the wrong side of January 1. Goes without saying that this title and its extraordinary translation by John Keene has not weakened in the slightest since my initial encounter. Hilst deserves to be in the mix when winter arrives and we begin to draft lists. The question then is likely to be: which horse to back? The answer’s not immediately obvious, to the great credit of Hilst’s translators and editors. With My Dog Eyes was as exhilarating to read as the Letter and The Obscene Madame D. Hilst has been blessed with a generation of astute translators who are now introducing her work to an Anglophone readership. With My Dog Eyes struck me as the most aphoristic of the three novels. It begins unforgettably: “God? A surface of ice anchored to laughter.” Adam Levy wrote a canny essay for Music & Literature about this year’s eligible Hilst titles; read it here.
I’ve little doubt concerning the importance of the above works for their respective languages. Those without Chinese or Italian or Portuguese have Annelise Finegan Wasmoen, Ann Goldstein, and Adam Morris to thank for ensuring that their greatness has been preserved in the face of formidable challenges. I’d like to mention briefly the names of a few more translators whose work has impressed over these first few months of reading. They succeed at communicating the vitality of the voices translated, but also for their accomplished prose in English. They are, in no particular order, Jason Grunebaum from the Hindi of The Walls of Delhi by Uday Prakash; Daniel Hahn from the Portuguese (Brazil) of Nowhere People by Paolo Scott; Chris Andrews from the Spanish (Guatemala) of Severina by Rodrigo Rey Rosa; and Karen Emmerich from the Greek of Why I Killed My Best Friend by Amanda Michalopoulou, whose passages about the bewilderments of adolescent sexuality rank—alongside volume three of My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard—among the funniest things I’ve encountered so far.
Another month, another preview that’s late. This month caught me a bit by surprise though—how is it possible that the new academic year starts in three weeks? It just doesn’t seem right.
So in the spirit of “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” essays, I thought I’d kick off this month’s list of books with some info and pics from the insane 176-mile bike ride I made to Niagara Falls and back.
I’ve been talking about doing this for years now, and friends were always intrigued to do it with me. You can ride all the way to Buffalo along the Erie Canal, it’s pleasant, there are a bunch of small towns along the way, our plan was to go slow, take the whole day, then get picked up and driven back to Rochester. Unfortunately, for one reason or anther, none of this ever panned out.
Last month, after going on numerous 20 and 30 and 40 mile bike rides, I felt like I had to give it a try. Ever since the crushing shittiness of this past winter—during which it seemed like no one ever left their house except to go to work and watch their tears freeze—I’ve been in a bit of a funk. Why not try and break out of this with an epically long bike ride? One that will leave me mentally and physically exhausted, with no energy to mull over the meaninglessness of everything?
I’m going to include a few anecdotes below, but surprisingly, nothing at all went wrong. I made it all 88 miles to a shitty hotel in Niagara Falls that I had found online, and then, the next day, I turned around and rode all the way back to Rochester, and I didn’t even die! (Mostly, my wrists just hurt from the constant vibrations of riding on an unpaved path for 14+ hours.)
Mentally, this was kind of brutal though. If you’ve never been to the Erie Canal, it looks basically like this:
Which is beautiful, but for seven straight hours? Over that period of time, while you’re doing one repetitive motion, pumping continuously, it becomes pretty monotonous, like pounding a Zen koan through your soul. It was like Extreme Meditation Yoga Ultimate Supreme. Sure, there are towns to break up the never-ending green, but these “towns” are pretty much all like Gasport, where the population is “just right”:
In my mind, before going on this journey, I figured every little town along the way would have a quaint little diner, complete with killer pie and coffee. This is absolutely not true. Instead, every town consists of a convenience store/video rental store/titty mag place run by likely meth heads. There is nothing quaint about buying overpriced Gatorade from toothless people.
Nevertheless, it was an awesome experience, one that I want to replicate next summer, but this time going east toward Syracuse.
That’s what I did over my summer “vacation.” Now onto the books!
Leg over Leg: Volumes 3 & 4 by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies (Library of Arabic Literature)
The incredible Leg over Leg has been featured on Three Percent before and the release of the final two volumes is an event to people in the know.
Just to give you a sense of why this book is so compelling and weird, Volume 3 opens with a bit about the troubles of mankind:
Are they not enough, the troubles to which men are subject by way of misery and care, effort and wear, toil and disease, hardship and dis-ease, of deprivation and lucklessness, despair and unhappiness? Men are carried to nausea and craving, born in pain and suffereing, nursed to their mothers’ detriment, weaned to their imperilment. They crawl only to stumble, climb only to tumble, walk only to lag, labor only to flag, find themselves unemployed only by hunger’s pangs to be destroyed.
This goes on for a couple paragraphs, resolving with “In addition, some are born afflicted with (among the various defects and diseases)” which is followed by a list of defects that’s 14 pages long and includes things like: “ “sa’ar, ‘smallness of the head’,” “_qan’asah, ‘extreme shortness of the neck, as in one with a hunchback’,” and “hawas, ‘a touch of insanity.’” This is all brilliant.
Susan Sontag: A Biography by Daniel Schreiber, translated from the German by David Dollenmayer (Northwestern University Press)
I’m including this on here for two very different reasons: 1) I’m sure it’s an interesting book, but I’m waiting for Ben Moser’s Sontag bio to come out, and 2) as part of a special research project I’m working on for the Publishing Task Force at the Italian Trade Agency, I’ve started collecting information on nonfiction works in translation. It’s not quite ready to be shared yet, but I’m getting there. So expect more nonfiction to pop up in these monthly previews . . .
The Last Days of My Mother by Sölvi Björn Sigurdsson, translated from the Icelandic by Helga Soffia Einarsdottir (Open Letter)
Rather than explain to you why I like this book, I’ll let PW do it for me:
The setup: Hermann’s girlfriend of seven years leaves him for a French dentist, then his native Iceland’s banking system goes belly-up, and finally his 63-year-old mother, Eva, is diagnosed with a rare and terminal cancer. The punch line: a bitterly laugh-out-loud novel of Nordic misery. Spurred by his mother’s impending expiration date, the duo set out for the Netherlands, chasing the last-ditch hope of an unlicensed miracle drug called Ukrain offered by the Low Countries clinic. In fact, his mother’s miracle drug of choice is alcohol, not to get “drunk” but rather to be pleasantly “pompette.” The novel follows the pair’s groggy adventures as they attend a Nazi ball, smoke hash, and befriend an eclectic cross-section of Amsterdam characters. Eva has strong opinions: Milan Kundera is the most beautiful man alive, the “smartest use of an airline ticket was to buy something light that gained weight the further north you went,” and more alcohol is the “best remedy for the sad syndrome others liked to refer to as a hangover.” But Hermann accepts it all, having vowed that his abiding mission is “to make Mother happy during the last days of her life.” As his mother’s illness takes its inevitable course, Hermann gains a deeper appreciation for the pleasures and purpose of life. Sigurðsson’s novel successfully straddles the line between impious gallows humor and a heartfelt depiction of a son’s love for his mother.
The Diary of the Fall by Michel Laub, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa (Other Press)
There’s no doubt that the international reader is always an insecure, worried reader, like some supine hysteric on a couch. I mean, I know nothing of the language in which this story called ‘Animals’ was written. Or also I do not know where precisely Porto Alegre is – where this story by Michel Laub begins. It does make, I’m just saying, a reader anxious. I have to assume that it’s Brazil. And yet also I think it’s possible in some bronco way not to care about these ethical problems and instead just attend to what’s right there.
So this story looks like a list of the animals that the novelist-narrator’s owned throughout his life, but really this list is therefore a pretext for a miniature autobiography and yet, really, to redescribe it one final time, this autobiography is a pretext for defining a life in one particular way: as a systematic process of loss. And this is moving, no question, but the thing I really love about this story is how it manages its matryoshka feat – to be at once a free floating meditation, leaping like some street cat from wall to wall, while also going deeper and deeper into a single theme.
This was one of my favorite stories in the Granta issue, so it’s exciting to see a full book of his available in English.
It’s impossible for me to reference Other Press and not mention how devastating Paul Kozlowski’s (aka PK) passing was. Moby Lives has a great piece about PK—who was going to be working for Melville House!—that gets at what an amazing person he was, and what an amazing book person. Reading the World wouldn’t have existed had it not been for PK and Karl Pohrt, and now we’ve lost both of them. They were both the best, and both played a big role in my involvement with the book world. I still recall various parts of conversations I had with both of them (one of the last times I saw PK he was giving Kaija advice on how to pitch High Tide), and when I was in Ann Arbor last week, I would’ve given anything to spend the day in Shaman Drum shooting the shit. I miss them both.
On a funnier note: Which is more embarrassing, the fact that Neymar posted a photo to Instagram of himself recovering in Ibiza with Paris Hilton (who should only be known for her spot-on cameo on The OC in which she name-checked Thomas Pynchon), or that Drake is considered the unofficial celebrity ambassador for the Toronto Raptors and got them fined for “recruiting” Kevin Durant? Sports gossip is dumb.
The Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami, translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel (Knopf)
As was announced a couple months ago, first editions of this will come with stickers designed by Japanese artists. Yes, stickers. So you can pretend you’re in high school, decorating your Trapper Keeper. Well, it is Murakami, the most beloved young adult author in the world, so maybe this does make sense.
In other perplexing news . . . BuzzFeed got another $50 million in venture capital funding earlier this week to help expand their list-making abilities. Whatever. That is what it is, and considering that the company is valued at $850 million, it makes sense. But this is the part that got me:
BuzzFeed will also expand its video unit, henceforth known as BuzzFeed Motion Pictures. The unit recently moved onto a 45,000-square-foot lot in Hollywood — not bad for a site sometimes stereotyped as a home for cat videos. (from CNN Money)
BuzzFeed Motion Pictures? It’s an easy joke to make, but I really do hope that their “movies” consist of nothing but cute animals and “The 29 Most Minnesotan Things Ever.”
Globetrotter by David Albahari, translated from the Serbian by Ellen Elias-Bursac (Yale University Press)
Albahari is a stunningly good writer, and both Leeches and Gotz & Meyer are worth checking out. This one sounds like it’s going to be equally as interesting, plus, Banff!:
Narrated in a single uninterrupted paragraph, the novel takes place in the late 1990s at the Banff Art Centre in the Canadian Rockies. Three men—a painter from Saskatchewan and the narrator of the tale, a writer from Serbia, and a man whose traveling Croatian grandfather long ago jotted his name in a local museum’s guest book—become acquainted, then attached, then fatally entangled. On a climactic mountain hike that seethes with jealousy, desire, shame, and guilt, each man must engage in a final struggle. Albahari seizes his reader’s attention and never yields it in this remarkable, gripping tale.
F by Daniel Kehlmann, translated from the Germany by Carol Brown Janeway (Knopf)
Wow, this cover SUCKS. The original one, from Rowohlt is a million times better:
Also, congrats to Carol Brown Janeway on being the 2014 recipient of the Ottaway Award for the Promotion of International Literature From the press release:
Carol Brown Janeway has been a leading advocate for literature in translation during her long career at Alfred A. Knopf. The list of international writers she has published includes such luminaries as Patrick Süskind, José Donoso, Yukio Mishima, Elsa Morante, Ivan Klíma, Robert Musil, and Nobel laureates Imre Kertész, Heinrich Böll, and Thomas Mann. She is the translator of seminal works by Bernhard Schlink (The Reader), Thomas Bernhard (My Prizes), Ferdinand von Schirach (Crime), Sándor Márai (Embers), Margriet de Moor (The Storm), and Daniel Kehlmann (Measuring the World), among others.
“Works”: by Edouard Levé, translated from the French by Jan Steyn (Dalkey Archive)
This is one of those conceptual books that’s a book of concepts. A list of 533 “works conceived of but not realized by its author,” it’s reminds one of the Oulipo, maybe of a more concrete counterpoint to Benabou’s Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books. Leve, who died tragically young, has developed a pretty solid cult following, and like Suicide and Autoportrait, this unique book is likely to do really well.
“Moon in a Dead Eye”: by Pascal Garnier, translated from the French by Emily Boyce (Gallic Books)
Moon in a Dead Eye is one of six= Garnier books that Gallic is bringing out. In a way, this reminds me of NYRB and their Simenon program—curious and prolific author who has an extensive backlist to mine and promote.
This one sounds particularly intriguing, because gypsies!
See you next month!
June started a few days ago, which means that my rambling monthly overview of forthcoming translations is overdue. It also means that World Cup 2014 is about to start, which means that for the next month my brain will be as filled with soccer tactics and outcomes as literary ideas . . .
But sticking with the now: For the past two weeks, I’ve been on editorial trips to Estonia and Latvia. So rather than write up a post about forthcoming translations and a separate one about all the interesting stuff I’ve learned about in the Baltics, I thought I would “skin two bears with one trap” (from what I understand, this is the Estonian equivalent of “kill two birds with one stone,” but a bit larger and darker . . . ) and merge my monthly overview with a bunch of observations and comments.
Since Estonia’s HeadRead Literary Festival and the Estonian Literature Centre were the main impetus behind this trip—they arranged for my flight over and back, all the accommodations, tons of great meetings with authors and other literary figures, etc.—I want to take a paragraph and just give some random shout-outs.
First off, Ilvi Liive and Kerti Tergem are two of the best people you could hire as representatives for your country’s literature. Always professional, super smart, incredibly helpful . . . Estonian literature wouldn’t be where it is today without those two. (And don’t laugh—I can name a half-dozen books that would win a couple rounds in the World Cup of Literature . . . if only Estonia’s actual football team wasn’t such shit.)
Also, the two translators who joined us—Matthew Hyde and Adam Cullen—are bloody brilliant and another reason I think we’re going to have access to more Estonian lit over the next few years. Adam recently translated Tõnu Õnnepalu’s Radio for Dalkey Archive, and is currently working on a mammoth book by Mihkel Mutt that should be out in late 2015.
Adam deserves another special shout-out for hanging out so much. He’s a great guy, with fantastic stories, and I really appreciated all the time he took showing me around, explaining things, drinking maybe too much with me at the amazing NoKu . . .
Same goes for Kaisa Kaer, who is probably best well known as the Estonian translator of the Harry Potter books. (See this entry in the Estonian Wikipedia.) She was there for the late nights at NoKu, but also showed me the part of Tallinn where Stalker was filmed. (Which is especially surreal during this white night period when it gets light way, way too early in the morning.)
Finally: All the other publishers on the trip—Gesche from Pushkin Press, Philip Gwyn Jones from Scribe, Frédéric Martin from Tripode, Artur from Piper, and Job from Prometheus—were all fantastic. I could write paragraphs about all the great things about each editors and his/her respective press . . .
I’ll get into some actual Estonian literature below, but for now, I just wanted to thank everyone who made this possible. OK, onto the books and the random shit.
La Grande by Juan José Saer, translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph (Open Letter Books)
This is the third Saer book that we’re bringing out—we already have two more signed on though, so don’t worry—and it may well be the best. It is “grande,” yet a perfect introduction to Saer’s world, with characters from other books making an appearance, all the normal Saer themes being explored, and a shitload of wine being sold and consumed. It also was his final novel and feels a bit like a summing up. Great summer beach read!
For it’s size, Tallinn surely is a grand city. (See what I did there? Sorry, but after hearing foreign, unintelligible—to me at least—languages for the past couple weeks, my brain is responding with terrible puns [the other day I got into an elevator made by “Schindler” which quickly became “Schindler’s Lift”] and cheesy segues.) The Old City is such an interesting collection of very old buildings that are pretty well preserved . . . If ever there’s a city that deserves to be referred to as looking like a “fairy tale,” this one is it.
And while we were there, it was bustling with activity—the aforementioned HeadRead festival with its dozens of authors, a mini-festival of jazz music (which played very loudly over the opening ceremony of the HeadRead), and Olde Towne Days (I assume the “e“s are all supposed to be there), which was mostly people dressing up in Olde-Timey garb and doing crazy shit at the Town Hall, like playing horns out the windows and yelling “VIVA! VIVA!”
Leg over Leg, Volume 3 & 4 by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies (NYU Library of Arabic Literature)
One of the funniest parts of the Tallinn trip had to be our meals at Pegasus. Pegasus is a huge, beautiful restaurant that’s part of the Estonian Writers’ Union building. It’s a really great place, and one that was always completely empty when our group arrived for lunch. Without fail, the waitress would come up to the table and explain that due to “how busy the kitchen was” they had a limited menu today, and instead of the twenty or so delicious-sounding things on their menu, we’d have to choose between two starters, two entrees, and one dessert, and we must order everything right away, up front. None of this made any sense, but it made for a fun guessing game . . . “Do you think we’ll be able to get the chicken soup today?” “Nope, just the raw salad and the cheese plate.” “OH, ESTONIA!!!!!!”
The Iceland by Sakutaro Hagiwara, translated from the Japanese by Hiroaki Sato (New Directions)
This was my first experience with the “White Nights” that impact most of Northern Europe. (And places like Iceland, which this book has fuck-all to do with.) That, mixed with the jet lag I’ve started to suffer in my oldering age, is really messing me up. It’s just disorienting to have the sun “set” at 10:30-11:00 at night, after which it will be “dark” for approximately two hours before the pre-dawn and official 4 am sunrise. Instead of curing my seasonal affective disorder (fuck you, winter!), it’s sort of driving me insane. I’ve been waking up most nights at 4:30 and having a hell of a time falling back asleep. But beyond that, my internal evening clock—where you can tell that you’ve been drinking long enough, it’s probably right around midnight given that the sun set a couple hours ago—is totally useless. I love these countries, but I don’t think I could live here . . . Not only would I never sleep in the summer, but the winters of no light would wreck my soul. You are all a strong people, which brings me to my next random observation . . .
Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret by Ondjaki, translated from the Portuguese by Stephen Henighan (Biblioasis)
Here in Riga, Latvia (which, contrary to Upstate New York beliefs is pronounced “Ree-ga,” not “RYE-ga”), we’re staying at a place on Lāčplēša iela (street). “Lāčplēsis” is the name of the most famous Latvian hero, a “bear-slayer” who “kills a bear by ripping its jaws apart with his hands.” According to Kaija—our resident Latvian and expert on bear slaying—a better translation of “Lāčplēsis” is “bear-ripper,” “the one who rips bears.” Although that didn’t work out so well against the Big Bear of Mother Russia, it’s best not to fuck with Latvians . . .
Plus, the bags Biblioasis gave out at BEA say “Ten Years of Fucking Amazing Books.” For that reason alone you should buy and read this.
Thirst by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, translated from the Persian by Martin E. Weir (Melville House Books)
This entry is a three-parter: First off, I really loved Dowlatabadi’s Missing Soluch. And although I was less into The Colonel, which got a ton of critical acclaim, I can’t wait to get my hands on this novel about the Iran-Iraq conflict and a journalist asked to fabricate a story to demoralize Iranian soldiers. One interesting note: Dowlatabadi has also written a 10-volume, 3,000-page saga about a Kurdish family. Melville should do this and bill him as the Iranian Knausgaard.
Speaking of thirst (again, apologize for my awful segues), the topic of alcoholism came up a number of times in our meetings with Estonian writers. It was most bluntly—and bleakly—presented in the talk with Peeter Sauter. He was reluctant to talk directly about the novel his was “pitching,” so instead he told us a bunch of stories about his life, other writers, Estonia in general. But then things took a turn . . . “When I got divorced, I got mad. I went around town attacking women . . . drunk. I knew this was a bad thing.” Amid the boozing and depression, he met a woman, and they started a relationship. Around that time, Peeter’s twenty-something son came to live with him. Then, suddenly, soul-crushingly, died of a heart attack. Peeter’s new book is about that.
And speaking of alcoholism, if you haven’t been watching Legit, the Jim Jeffries vehicle on FXX, you must. Not only is it a very funny show—a lot of it is laugh till you hurt funny in that way that mixes situational comedy with the sharp perceptions of a stand-up comedian at the top of his game—but over the course of its two seasons, it’s gotten real. It always had an undercurrent of emotional intensity—one of the main characters has MD and is paralyzed—but the second season is a heart-wrenching (to the point I can barely watch) depiction of alcoholism and how much it can ruin your life. Calling something “dark” is totally cliched, but that’s the best word for Legit. It’s a show that hurts in all of the best ways and way more people should be watching it.
Conversations by Cesar Aira, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (New Directions)
Although I’m only halfway through it, I’m pretty sure I’ve talked more about Tõnu Õnnepalu’s Radio with people than any other book I’ve read in the past couple years. Part of it is due to the fact that I’m reading it at the exact perfect time—it’s all about Estonia and Livonian history and culture, and I keep running into things referenced in the book—but there’s something to the narrator’s voice that makes this an incredibly easy book to get into and inhabit. Basically, it’s one man’s recounting of his relationship with a famous Estonian singer. Not necessarily a sexual relationship—he’s gay, she’s married—but there is a sort of sorting out on his behalf of how a woman like this, one from humble Estonian origins but converted into an East European diva, is wedded to his own self-perceptions, especially as an Estonian who’s been living in the great metropolis of Paris. It’s a brilliant book and a great entryway to Baltic literature.
The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair by Joël Dicker, translated from the French by Sam Taylor (Penguin)
Given the fact that this novel has received some truly mixed reviews, and sounds to me like a pop book constructed of well-worn elements of a different age, this seems like the perfect place to talk about music in Eastern Europe. One of my long-running jokes is that Bon Jovi (and Guns ‘n’ Roses) exist only for Eastern European radio stations. This is a harsh truth: traditionally, the pop stations in this part of the world play some really trashy American crap. The 80s never left the Soviet Bloc!
I’ve been pleasantly surprised in our visits to the local cafes here in Riga. For the most part they all have been playing indie rock circa 2012—Foster the People, Grimes, Dirty Projectors—which is both a relief and a disappointment. (We’ve heard some Latvian rock, but mostly stuff that’s more classic.) That said, on the drive home from Open Letter author Inga Ābele’s gorgeous estate we heard “Two Princes” by the Spin Doctors. That’s more like it, Latvija!
(Of course, the Spin Doctors played the largest festival in Rochester last year . . . Because Rochester, NY is basically Eastern Europe—always twenty years behind the time. BOOM.)
Tonight we are going to Ala, a great bar with amazing live culture beer, to listen to folk songs and karaoke. I already know how this ends.
Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett (Random House)
Inga Ābele lives in one of the most relaxing, amazing estates I’ve ever been privileged to visit. I say “estate,” because there’s a very gorgeous modern house surrounded by three other barns and guest houses, including one that was built like a thousand years ago or something. Plus, they have a sauna next to a little pond and are only a short walk through the woods to a spring with pure, cool water. There are ostriches nearby. And peacocks. And a billion mosquitos.
While walking to the springs I stopped to read a bunch of the little signposts printed in English. Most all of them were about local flora and fauna—including some very rare ants that creeped me out—and were written in janky almost-English. “It is for the sprouting times!” Also, every single one ended with the phrase “PLANT IS SOMEWHAT POISONOUS!” in ALL-CAPS and bold.
I have so many questions about this . . . First off, the pictures on these signs made exactly none of these plant recognizable, and based on where the signs were posted, you may well have been trekking through the “SOMEWHAT POISONOUS” plant just to read about how it may poison you. Also, “somewhat”? The hell does that indicate? Like rashy poisonous or eat-it-and-die poisonous? And poisonous to what and/or whom? Birds? People? SO MANY QUESTIONS, LATVIAN SIGN WRITER!
The Antiquarian by Gustavo Faveron Patriau, translated from the Spanish by Joseph Mulligan (Black Cat)
I talked about this book on an upcoming podcast and it really might be the summer title that I’m most looking forward to. It’s also an appropriate title under which to include the story of the Riga Cat House.
The real story of this cat can be found on Wikipedia with a simple search, but I want to relay Kaija’s slightly embellished version (further embellished by me).
Way back in the middle ages of Latvia—aka the early 1900s—two businessmen got in a huge fight. One lied to the other, the other corrupted the first one’s daughter, there were more lawsuits more complicated than those found in Bleak House, both businessmen wanted the other totally destroyed—it was like a cold war of the merchant class. As a final effort to irritate Businessman A, the other businessman, knowing how much Businessman A hated the “filthy” cats that populate the Old Town of Riga, put a statue of a pissed off, about to poop cat on top of one of his turrets and aimed the cat’s asshole right at the other businessman’s window. This was like nails scratching on a chalkboard. Businessman A went totally insane, petitioning the city council to make Businessman B turn the asshole away from his window . . . “It’s just a cat!” “It’s a cat that wants to poop on me and suck out my soul! Filthy cats!” Eventually, Businessman A’s house burnt down, he died, and, out of a crippling karmic fear, Businessman B turned the cat around so it could shit on his own house, then he went and hid in the countryside and was never heard from again.
Now they sell shirts and coffee mugs and reproductions of the pooping cat. And as legend has it, if you drink Black Balsam (a regional herbal liquor that’s both kind of gross and kind of amazing, and which loosely translates as “Witches Brew”) under a full moon out of a pooping cat shot glass, you can control the mind of the Russian nearest to you. So, that. Rock on, Livonia!
That’s it for now. Enjoy June with all its sun, soccer, and books!
Daniel Medin teaches at the American University of Paris, where he helps direct the Center for Writers and Translators, is an editor of The Cahiers Series ,and co-hosts the podcast entitled That Other Word. He has authored a study of Franz Kafka in the work of three international writers (Northwestern University Press, 2010) and curated the second volume of Music and Literature magazine (Krasznanorkai/Tarr/Neumann). He advises several journals on literature in translation.
This seems a timely moment to announce the forthcoming appearance of a translation issue I’ve edited for The White Review. For those unfamiliar, TWR is a London-based journal of art and literature that publishes print (quarterly) and online (monthly) editions. In addition to supporting new writers, the editors make it a point to highlight literature in translation. Recent numbers have included contributions by Dubravka Ugrešić, Vladimir Sorokin, Enrique Vila-Matas, and Javiar Marías, to name but a few.
I spent this past autumn selecting material for the issue, which is slated to go live early next month. Not surprisingly, there was significant overlap with my readings for the BTBA. Here are a few examples:
One’s by the late great Hella S. Haasse, whose gem, The Black Lake, I cited in a previous post. I’ve found the lack of attention devoted to this novel baffling. It is a beautiful little book, conceived and executed with intelligence and grace. The translator, Ina Rilke, ranks among the very best working from Dutch today. You’ve probably come across her work at one point or another by now: Rilke was behind the classic Eline Vere by Louis Couperus, which Archipelago brought out back in 2010; she’s translated multiple titles by W.F. Hermans and Cees Noteboom; and she’s currently at work on Max Havelaar by Multatuli for NYRB Classics. (There’s a full overview of her activity, along with a lovely snapshot of Rilke with Haasse, here.) We’ll print the striking first pages of The Black Lake in The White Review. If your experience of them in any way resembles mine, then you’ll find yourself unable to stop.
I’m delighted that we can include an excerpt from the third volume of Faris al-Shidyaq’s Leg over Leg. The publication of volumes 1 and 2 earlier this year by NYU Press’s Library of Arabic Literature was a moment of glory for literature in translation. Expect plenty of hot sauce in this excerpt—that, and no shortage of ingenious linguistic dexterity on the part of translator Humphrey Davies. For an in-depth take on volume 1, have a look at this review by Michael Orthofer. I share his excitement entirely, and am certain that others will as well once given a taste of al-Shidyaq’s writing.
Occasionally, a work of brilliance will make it possible for a virtuosic translator to outdo, line for line, a great deal of what’s recently appeared in her target language. In 2012, the English of George Szirtes for Satantango’s Hungarian struck me as superior to the sentences of most novels written that year in English. The same’s true of John Keene’s version of Letters from a Seducer by Hilda Hilst. Scheduled to appear this month, it was perhaps my most unforgettable reading experience of 2013. I’m terribly eager to read more Hilst now—and impatient to get my hands on Keene’s Annotations too.
I was glad I could include an excerpt from Orly Castel-Bloom’s acutely funny—and correspondingly painful—Textile. Castel-Bloom writes uncanny narratives that depict, with sensitivity but very little mercy, contemporary Israeli society. First published in 2006, this unpredictable and frequently grotesque novel is unlike most other Israeli fiction that I’ve encountered; it’s as close to Gogol as Hebrew can get. Translated by the eminent recipient of 2010’s BTBA, Dalya Bilu.
I’d like to devote a bit more space to two titles that have survived months of BTBA reading on my own personal shortlist. The first is Stig Sæterbakken’s Through the Night, whose emotional resonance brought me to tears. I found it the bravest, perhaps even riskiest of the novels in competition. (I was also surprised to discover, in its weaknesses as in its strengths, unlikely affinities with The Devil’s Workshop by Jáchym Topol.) Here’s the beginning of a review by Taylor Davis-Van Atta that will appear soon at Asymptote:
In an essay completed not long before his death last year, Stig Sæterbakken wrote: “How strong would our passions be, separated from our fear of dying? We want to live, sure. But we want to die as well. We want to be torn apart. We want to drown in the wonders of ecstasy.” Both the craft of this passage—a single rhetorical question opens a rich vein of content—as well as its sentiment seem to me to epitomize something of both Sæterbakken’s personal philosophy and his artistic ambition. As with all of his writing, the question posed by the Sæterbakken is simple, but deceptively so, situated as it is at an existential crux. And, as with all of his writing, it cannot be ignored nor easily grappled with. Sæterbakken seemingly holds no fear himself when examining the heart of his own experience, swiftly identifying a terrible and unavoidable paradox, an impossibility that nonetheless must be negotiated and further explored. His prose, which so often conveys the mandatory ugliness and pain of existence, yet which is always charged with beauty and great tenderness, is itself infused with paradox. The author of endlessly interesting novels and essays, Sæterbakken is an indispensable artist, one who must be reckoned with and one whose day in the Anglophone world is, I believe, shortly at hand.
Through the Night, Sæterbakken’s last published novel, centers around Karl Meyer, a middle-aged man who, prompted by the sudden suicide of his teenage son, Ole-Jakob, is forced to confront his past disgraces and contemplate his complicity in Ole-Jakob’s death, all while enduring overwhelming feelings of grief. The novel, which almost reads as two separate works, opens in the immediate aftermath of Ole-Jakob’s suicide, with Karl’s wife, Eva, having just lodged an ax in the screen of the family television set. The act is a statement of protest (Karl has been binge-watching since their son’s funeral), but it could almost be interpreted as a telegraphed message from Sæterbakken to his reader regarding what is to come: there will be no further distraction from the situation at hand, however terrifying and all-consuming it becomes. Indeed, the novel quickly delves into Karl’s past through a series of short vignettes in which Karl sets about tracing the history of his life’s two defining love affairs—with Eva and with another woman, Mona, for whom he had recently, if temporarily, left his family.
Issue 5 of Taylor’s Music & Literature, which will publish in spring 2015, will be devoted to Sæterbakken, Chinese novelist Can Xue, and Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. You can order your subscription, and explore numerous reviews and features, here.
Stig Sæterbakken makes a brief appearance in the introduction to the below interview of Mircea Cărtărescu. As director of the Lillehammer Festival, Sæterbakken was instrumental in bringing the Romanian novelist to Norway. There, Cărtărescu spoke with Audun Lindholm, the editor-in-chief of Vagant, Norway’s most prestigious literary magazine. (Before he embarked upon My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgård directed the same journal.) The latest issue of The Quarterly Conversation includes a long conversation between Lindholm and Cărtărescu about the Blinding trilogy. Below, a few questions and answers concerning the volume that has just appeared in English—The Left Wing— thanks to Archipelago Books.
AL: You call the child a bricoleur—could the same be said of the novel’s author?
MC: Yes. Generally, I begin with something ordinary and realistic, something I know well, and then, step by step, the logic of the text takes over. I never know what I’m about to write on the next page, I have no plan, I don’t know where I’m headed. I take advantage of the fact that I write quite slowly: because I write by hand, I have plenty of time to think at the same time. The most important thing is the texture of the individual page—it takes precedence over the story or the characters or the larger structure. Writing by hand creates an intimate relationship with the white sheet of paper, almost functioning like a mirror. When the writing turns out really well, it is as if I saw the final text in front of me, I simply erased the white of the paper that hides it. I have the impression that most prose writers start with a strong impression or a clear image in mind, gradually expanding on it and constructing a whole. I, on the other hand, aim at a writing process that consists of a series of such impressions. And I must admit that when I read other novels, even the most realistic among them, my attention is drawn to these very moments, to certain pages and specific formulations.
AL: “You do not describe the past by writing about old things, but by writing about the haze that exists between yourself and the past,” we read early on in Blinding: The Left Wing. And later: “I was always afraid to go to sleep. Where would my being go to during all those hours?”
MC: Yes, I think that the best pages of Blinding are not those that are realistic but those that are phantasmal, oneiric. The earliest memories we have, from the age of two, three, or four, mainly resemble dreams. We may recall buildings, landscapes, and people, and we have the feeling that they must have been real—otherwise we could not have seen them in such vivid detail. The same is true of some of our dreams. I have strong memories of particular dreams I’ve had, outrageous and disturbing dreams. I envision dreams, memories, and reality like a Möbius strip whose sides are indistinguishable from one another. I try to avoid changing historical facts and instead fill the gaps in my memory with fantasies. When information is hard to come by, I let my pen do the work.
To read the interview in its entirety—or a review of the novel published in the same issue—visit the Winter 2014 number of The Quarterly Conversation.
Thanks to a Three Percent fan who sends me periodic updates on titles I’ve left out of the translation database, I just found out about Humphrey Davies’s first-ever English translation on of Leg over Leg by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq.
Originally published in 1855, this sounds like the sort of crazy, language-centric, unconventional type of book that I would love:
Leg over Leg is the semi-autobiographical account of Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, a pivotal figure in the intellectual and literary history of the modern Arab world. His adventures and misadventures provided him with opportunities for wide-ranging digressions on the intellectual and social issues of his time, including the ignorance and corruption of the Lebanese religious and secular establishments, women’s rights, the manners and customs of Europeans and Middle Easterners, and the differences between European and Arabic literature. In Leg over Leg, al-Shidyaq also celebrates the beauty of the Arabic language.
Akin to Sterne and Rabelais in his satirical outlook and technical inventiveness, al-Shidyaq produced in Leg Over Leg an unprecedented sui generis work. It was initially widely condemned for its attacks on authority, its skepticism, and its “obscenity,” and later editions were often abridged. This is the very first English transaltion of the work and reproduces the original edition, published under the author’s supervision in 1855.
It’s quite possible that this jacket copy is pure exaggeration and that the book totally sucks, but my god does this sound like the sort of thing a bunch of my readerly friends (Scott Esposito, Stephen Sparks, M.A. Orthofer, etc., etc.) would know about and have reviewed. Unfortunately, all a quick Google turned up was this listing for an event that took place in 2011.
That’s a pretty sad commentary on something.
One big stumbling block is that the publisher, the Library of Arabic Literature, which I just found out about approximately 3 minutes before starting to write this post, is selling Leg over Leg in two volumes for $40 EACH. I’m no scholar, but $80 for an obscure Arabic work of literature from the nineteeth century is probably pricing yourself out of the market. (That said, the sales rank on Amazon is #624,733, which is better than some books I’ve seen.)
Also, this cover:
Why such a shitty marketing/pricing job? Well, all it takes is a click on the “About” tab to get all the answers:
Supported by a grant from the New York University Abu Dhabi Institute, and established in partnership with NYU Press, the Library of Arabic Literature aims to publish key works of classical and premodern Arabic literature in parallel-text format with the original Arabic and English translation on facing pages, edited and translated by distinguished scholars of Arabic and Islamic studies. The Library of Arabic Literature includes texts from the pre-Islamic era to the cusp of the modern period, and will encompass a wide range of genres, including poetry, poetics, fiction, religion, philosophy, law, science, history and historiography.
In other words, no one who cares about reaching a general reading public. Awesome.
Maybe this book is as unique and interesting as it sounds. Maybe one day a reader-oriented press will publish a classy trade paperback version. Or maybe years will go by and English readers will still never have heard about this and will assume all Arabic literature is 1001 Nights and Aladdin.
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