The January 2011 issue of Words Without Borders is now available, and has a number of really interesting pieces. This issue’s theme is “The Work Force,” which is elaborated on in the little intro to the issue:
Whether loathed or loved, work provides both livelihood and identity; and in times of economic depression and shrinking labor markets, jobs assume even greater importance, determining both personal and political stability. Whether reinventing themselves in a new economy or sticking it out in an old one, the characters here demonstrate the variety of the international work force.
Here’s a list of the pieces that most caught my eye:
The blue building was empty, the name of the factory had been changed, and tough shit for the men and women who had been tossed out—“report to the occupational reclassification department,” which wouldn’t reclassify many people. (I’m writing in March 2004: this reclassification task, which began fifteen months ago, was finished three months ago and still no statistics are available.)
Layoffs continue, and if we’re talking about businesses—their holy name, “business“— that employ less than fifty people, the layoffs are not even accounted for. At Fameck, the blue building is still there, looking sharp with its white gate, while the condition of cars parked in town attest to everyone else’s general health: not so great. But the serious cracks running across the surface of the old world today do not readily reveal the reasons that make them apparent.
(Translated from the French by Alison Dundy and by Emmanuelle Ertel)
The hundred people who work at the Tutto Colore clothing factory have hardly noticed me. I could have been an actor, but here I’m invisible, like an extra. I’d like to think that I’m a spy with a good cover but the truth is that I’m a guy who works in a warehouse; and I have been for a month, for ten hours per day. In the course of these four weeks at work I have repeated a handful of phrases that seldom vary: “Yes, Sir. No, Sir. I’ll do it right now.” I’ve learned to move around the second floor, where I’m stationed, with the agility of a sailfish.
Every day I warehouse garments on metal shelves that look like the skeleton of a space shuttle. I also take inventory of T-shirts and sweatsuits on a long table like the ones in high-school cafeterias and I take orders from my boss—a neurotic man who won’t let me and my coworkers listen to music—with Benedictine humility. On the other floors in the factory, people knit their brows less. They relax, listening to rancheras, merengues, ballads. We work without a sound track. If we could mumble along to any song, whatever it would be, I’m certain of two things: 1. The men I work with would stop obsessively discussing how to keep their women happy and 2. I wouldn’t keep picking my life apart as if it were a Rubik’s cube.
(Translated from the Spanish by Samantha Schnee)
The recent announcement of Shakespeare and Company’s “Paris Literary Prize,” to be awarded to the best novella by an unpublished writer, set me thinking about my inspiration to go into publishing: Shakespeare and Company’s founder Sylvia Beach. (Like many teenagers with literary aspirations, I spent an intense few months working for the bookshop’s current owner, George Whitman.) Beach’s Paris bookshop and lending library was more than just a space where writers could meet and find inspiration; it became a publishing house as well when Sylvia stepped into the breach to produce the first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Sadly, without a mother in Princeton to whom I could cable “Opening bookshop in Paris. Please send money,” I was forced to take a more conventional route into publishing: I got a job as an editorial assistant at Chatto & Windus, an imprint of Random House UK. And given that I was unexcitingly conventional, it was initially hard to see how I could inspire writers to want to work with me. I couldn’t give them an exotic bookshop to hang out in, or—at that point—sign up their novels and trumpet them to influential friends in the media. The only thing of value I had to offer, I decided, was my willingness to read their books closely and carefully, and to make suggestions about how those books might be improved. Thus began my attempt to teach myself to be a good editor.
Notebook # 1. Monday, October 2.
I’ve already been back three days. I returned to Djibouti for professional reasons, not to feast at the table of nostalgia or reopen old wounds. I’m twenty-nine, and I’ve just signed a contract with a North American company; my remuneration will be substantial. I must hand in the results of my investigation, which cannot fail to satisfy its gargantuan appetite: a complete file, with notes, maps, sketches, and snapshots, to be delivered to the Denver office ASAP. I have just under a week to wrap up the whole thing. I will be paid in Canadian dollars transferred to my account, based in Montreal—like me. After that, I am no longer covered by the company. It will be at my own expense. At my own risk, their legal counsel Ariel Klein repeated to me, frowning with his one long eyebrow, as bushy as Frida Kahlo’s. He wished me good luck, turned on his heel and walked away. I headed to the airport with my little trapper’s suitcase.
So here I am on assignment in the land of my birth, the land that would not or could not keep me. I have no talent for sadness, I admit. I don’t like good-byes or returns; I hate all emotional demonstrations. The past interests me less than the future and my time is very precious. It has the color of a greenback. In the world I come from, time doesn’t stretch out before you into the mist. Time is money. And money makes the world go round. Money is the stock market, with its flows of pixels, algorithms, figures, commodities, manufactured goods, rating indexes, ideas, sounds, images or simulation models that pop up on screens the world over. It is the life force of the universe, it’s about killing the competition and grabbing the coveted market.
(Translated from the French by David and Nicole Ball)
At nine a.m. the few people standing around on the subway platform are watching the news on the screens provided by the Barcelona Channel. The trains comply scrupulously with the minimum-service laws. They are running half-empty and many seats are unoccupied, which would be unthinkable at this time of day any other day, when occupancy approaches that of sardines in a can.
In front of the Goya Theater, at the top of Joaquín Costa, there are fewer whores than usual. Perhaps in keeping with the minimum-service notice. The overwhelming majority of shops are closed: from supermarkets to cosmetics stores, including bakeries and auto-repair shops. On Sepúlveda a charcuterie uses the old ploy of keeping the metal gates half-open, so that if a client shows up they can serve him, but if a picketer shows up they appear to be closed. In contrast, the local bar is open, which even the strikers are grateful for. “You’re very brave,” one of them says to the owner of the establishment, as he drinks his beer. “It’s not about bravery. If we don’t work, we don’t eat.” On the sidewalks lie piles of uncollected garbage in enormous black bags, some of them split open. A beggar pisses on one of them, and when he’s finished he lies back down on his piece of cardboard.
(Translated from the Catalan by Mary Ann Newman)
As always, it’s worth checking out the whole issue . . . including the so-so review of Zone.
Following up on this post, here’s the excerpt from Quim Monzo’s Gasoline that’s going to be read at the April 26th “Celebration of Open Letter” event.
In terms of set-up: Heribert is supposed to be preparing for a massive two-gallery show of new work. Instead, he couldn’t care less about painting. Or his mistress. Or even what’s going on with his wife . . .
He lines up all the blank canvases he has in the studio and examines them. What if he showed just that: white canvases, without the slightest trace of a human hand? It’s been done. Minimalism. And anyway, if he signs them he will have placed a few strokes of his own. He could not sign them. Someone must have done that, too. Is there anything original left to do? Even halfheartedly filling up all the walls of an exhibition isn’t new. Do you really have to do something new? Why? What is more important, to be honest or to be original? Out of honesty, people often refused to be original. And out of honesty people often fall silent rather than open their mouths only to hear their own voices. Will he be able to tell when he opens his mouth and nothing interesting comes out?
Helena’s voice floats up to him:
“I’m leaving. See you later.”
It seems to him that, in the past, she would always tell him where she was going when she left, to the gallery or to do this or that, or to see this or that person. Or maybe she had never done anything of the sort, and now he just imagined she had. He hears the front door close. He puts on his jacket, and as he goes down the stairs he tries to calculate how many times he’s done that this year. On the table next to the door there are two brochures: one from Chevrolet and another from Ford.
This time he has no trouble spotting her. She’s standing in front of the windows of a shoe store. Heribert hangs back by a telephone booth and watches her out of the corner of his eye. There’s a drunk hanging onto a mailbox, and a girl (dressed like an old-fashioned secretary) is trying to mail a big stack of letters (and looking afraid that the drunk may attack her). The phone in the phone booth rings. Heribert looks at Helena, who’s still looking at shoes, but has gone on to another window. He’s afraid the constant ringing of the phone no one is answering will make her turn around. He goes into the booth, picks up the receiver, and says hello. On the other end, he doesn’t hear a thing: no breathing, no click to indicate the call has been cut off. The line was totally dead. He hangs up and turns around. Helena is walking down the street. “All this,” he thinks, “just to see her go shopping or to the gallery . . .” Helena signals, and a taxi jumps three lanes and stops right in front of her. Heribert has to stop another one, quickly, but feels ridiculous lifting his arm to f lag it down. He will feel even more ridiculous, once inside, when he has to say, like in the movies, “Follow that car.” He remembers one where a taxi driver is thrilled when they ask him to follow another car, saying that he had been waiting all his long working life for that moment, like in the movies.
When he is in the cab and says it, the driver looks at him in the rearview mirror, gives a short laugh, and starts to talk. He talks nonstop the whole time, recklessly passing the other cars. Once, when Helena’s driver jumps a red light, Heribert’s steps on the gas and (between two lanes of traffic, almost scraping the cars on either side) shoots forward and crosses the street on the red just as a Cadillac Seville coming from the left makes the turn. They make such headway that, by the next red light, Heribert’s taxi is directly behind Helena’s. Heribert hides behind the driver’s head. If they keep up this pace, he thinks, soon they’ll take the lead, leaving the other car in their wake, turning this into the most original chase in history, in which they precede the pursued car instead of following it. They
go across the bridge.
Fifteen minutes later, Helena’s taxi stops on a wide, solitary avenue, lined with houses.
“Park across the street, a little farther down.”
Having to come up with such stratagems exhausts him. The driver says something under his breath and smiles. Looking out the back window, Heribert watches as Helena gets out of the cab and goes into one of the houses.
A couple of children are playing with an enormous ball in one of the yards. Heribert tries unsuccessfully to figure out what they’re playing: sometimes it looks like soccer, then like baseball, then a minute later like handball. Then they laugh and take a rest, leaning on the fence. Once, he thinks they look at him, whisper about him, and laugh again.
He sits on the curb, and since he’s getting bored, he starts doing things. First he counts the seconds that elapse between one particularly loud shout from one of the kids and the first car to go down the street (another taxi): 634. Then he counts the minutes until the next car (a Mercury Cougar) goes by: 18. He adds the 634 seconds and the 18 minutes: 652. He finds it interesting to add up dissimilar things. In school they said you couldn’t add apples and oranges. If he adds the 652 to the 2 kids playing in the yard, he gets 654 seconds, minutes, and kids. He counts the cars parked on that stretch of street: 17. Added to the previous 654 that makes
671 seconds, minutes, kids, and cars on that stretch of street. He thinks of adding in the 4 stoplights, the two garbage cans he can see, the fire hydrants, the potholes. If he could add up all objects, all feelings, all ideas, all creatures, add them all up together, everything would be so simple. How easy it would be to face any situation, get out of any labyrinth, form a fairly accurate image of the world; the world (for example) would be exactly 78,345,321,834,042,751,539 things. If he could just diagram this feeling of perplexity! But how? Turning the canvas into a blackboard and writing down all those figures seems idiotic to him. And the mere thought of coming up with a more elaborate way to depict that morass wears him
He lets himself fall back. It feels wet. He looks at the white sky. It’s cold out. He thinks it’s strange that the two children are playing outside on such a cold day. He thinks, “If I start to imagine that the sky is empty, I’ll fall upwards, I’ll fall into the clouds.”
After a wait that seems interminable, Helena appears arm in arm with a tall man, with brown hair and a broad mouth, wearing a very long, gray raincoat and glasses with apple green, almost fluorescent, frames.
Thinking that he has to get up to follow them, he lies down again and keeps trying to convince himself that gravity will suck him up into the sky, but he doesn’t quite manage to believe it. When Helena and her escort catch a cab at the corner, he gets up, brushes off his pants, and starts walking home.
Not a lot going on in terms of publishing news today, so I thought I’d take a break from the usual posts about ebooks, Zen wisdom, and disturbing novels to bring you a bit of information about Catalan author Quim Monzo, whose Gasoline recently arrived from the printer. (If you’re an Open Letter subscriber, I’m working on the special letter right now, and you should get your copy by the end of next week. Or so.)
Quim is considered to be one of the greatest Catalan authors of his generation. He’s most well known in Europe for his short stories (three of which — Mr. Beneset, Honesty, and I Have Nothing to Wear — appeared in Words Without Borders), but in the States, the only book that’s currently available is the fantastically comic (and ultimately tragic) novel The Enormity of the Tragedy, which was actually one of the first books I ever reviewed for Three Percent.
When Catalonia was the Guest of Honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair a few years back, it was Monzo who gave the opening statement. The link to the full pdf of his speech is broken, but here’s a funny, self-referential and self-deprecating bit that I copied out into an earlier post:
Won’t reading the names of all these writers (most of whom are unknown to the literary world that circulates in Frankfurt) just be tedious for the audience at the opening ceremony who will have to listen to so many unfamiliar names? Won’t they be looking at their watches and thinking, “What a bore!”? And so he decides he won’t mention any names (even though, in fact, he has already mentioned them in the very process of describing his doubts as to whether he should mention them or not). What’s more, he’s read that at the Frankfurt Book Fair there will be an exhibition that explains all this. Although—to be frank—how many of the persons who attend this inaugural event will later visit this exhibition with any more interest than a merely official show of etiquette? Let us be frank and optimistic: very few. Even if this is a Book Fair, where the least-known authors ought to be the ones who would most pique the reading appetite of those who were interested in discovering literary gems and not simply following the commercial drumbeat of what is in vogue at the time.
Monzo will be appearing in three events at this year’s PEN World Voices festival, including the New York Stories event on Thursday, April 29th, In Conversation with Robert Coover, on Friday, April 30th, and a roundtable on The Essay on Saturday, May 1st.
He was going to appear here in Rochester on Monday, April 26th, but schedules became complicated and he won’t be able to make it. (I will interview Quim and his translator, Mary Ann Newman during the Festival for an upcoming Reading the World podcast episode.)
Not to cram too much info into one post, but our April 26th event has morphed into a Celebration of Open Letter at which ten different readers (U of R folks, interns, fans) will read 3-5 minute segments from ten different Open Letter titles—including Quim Monzo’s Gasoline. I’ll post the section that’s going to be read separately . . .
They’ve just announced the official line-up for this year’s PEN World Voices Festival. If you want the whole run-down, click here.
One of our authors, Quim Monzó, is attending this year. And in addition to the event he’s doing here in Rochester with his translator Mary Ann Newman on April 26th, he’s got several events lined up in New York as well: on the 29th with Colm Tóibín, Roxanna Robinson, and Darryl Pinckney; on the 30th with Robert Coover; and on May 1st with Peter Schneider and Jean-Philippe Toussaint. Mary Ann Newman will also be discussing Quim’s work at the National Book Critics Circle Conversation on the April 30th.
Click here for more details on Quim’s events on the PEN World Voices website.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to spend a few hours figuring out which events (besides Quim’s, of course) I’m going to attend. Hope to see you there!
Only seems appropriate that just before Christmas we should announce our summer list of titles . . . You can click here to download a pdf version of the new catalog (which contains excerpts from all the books), or, for those of you who are anti-pdf, the list below has the basic information for the next five Open Letter titles.
All of these titles will be available through better bookstores everywhere and through the Open Letter website. Additionally, you can subscribe and receive a year’s worth of books (10 in total) for $100 (free shipping!). Or get a six-month subscription (5 books) for only $60 (again, with free shipping).
Here are the titles from one of our best lists yet:
For the first time in his life, Heribert Juliá is unable to paint. On the eve of an important gallery exhibition, for which he’s created nothing, he’s bored with life: he falls asleep while making love with his mistress, wanders from bar to bar, drinking whatever comes to his attention first, and meets the evidence of his wife Helena’s infidelity with complete indifference. Humbert Herrera, an up-and-coming artist who can’t stop creating, picks up the threads of Heribert’s life, taking his wife, replacing him at the gallery, and pursuing his former mistress. Heribert is finally undone by a massive sculpture, while Humbert is planning the sculpture to end sculpture, the poem to end poetry, and the film to end film, all while mounting three simultaneous shows.
A fun-house mirror through which he examines the creative process, the life and loves of artists, and the New York art scene, Gasoline confirms Quim Monzó as the foremost Catalan writer of his generation.
A comic gem, Jerzy Pilch’s A Thousand Peaceful Cities takes place in 1963, in the latter days of the Polish post-Stalinist “thaw.” The narrator, Jerzyk (“little Jerzy”), is a teenager who is keenly interested in his father, a retired postal administrator, and his father’s closest friend, Mr. Traba, a failed Lutheran clergyman, alcoholic, would-be Polish insurrectionist, and one of the wildest literary characters since Laurence Sterne’s Uncle Toby. One drunken afternoon, Mr. Traba and the narrator’s nameless father decide to take charge of their lives and do one final good turn for humanity: travel to distant Warsaw and assassinate the de facto Polish head of state, First Secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party, Władysław Gomułka—assassinating Mao Tse-tung, after all, would be impractical. And they decide to involve Jerzyk in their scheme . . .
The Private Lives of Trees tells the story of a single night: a young professor of literature named Julián is reading to his step-daughter Daniela and nervously waiting for his wife Verónica to return from her art class. Each night, Julián has been improvising a story about trees to tell Daniela before she goes to sleep—and each Sunday he works on a novel about a man tending to his bonsai—but something about this night is different. As Julián becomes increasing concerned that Verónica won’t return, he reflects on their life together in minute detail, and imagines what Daniela—at twenty, at twenty-five, at thirty years old, without a mother—will think of his novel.
Perhaps even more daring and dizzying than Zambra’s magical Bonsai, The Private Lives of Trees demands to be read in a single sitting, and it casts a spell that will bring you back to it again and again.
Nobody knows exactly what happened in the small town of Klausen, or rather, everyone knows: a bomb went off on the autobahn, or at a shack near the autobahn, or someone was shooting at the town from a bridge; it all stems from a fight over measuring noise pollution on the town square, or it was the work of eco-terrorists, or Italians. And while nobody knows who or what to blame—although they’re certainly uneasy about the Moroccan and Albanian immigrants who are squatting in an abandoned castle—they all suspect that Josef Gasser, who spent several years away from Klausen, in Berlin, is behind it all. Only one thing is clear: Klausen was now a crime scene.
In Klausen, Andreas Maier has taken Thomas Bernhard’s method—the nested indirect speech, the repetition, the endless paragraph—and pointed it at an entire town. A town where one confusion leads to the next, where everyone is living in a fog of rumor, but where everyone claims to know exactly what’s going on, even if they’ve changed their story several times.
Two scientists, Reitz Steyn and Ben Maritz, find themselves in a “transit camp for those temporarily and permanently unfit for battle” during the Boer War. Captured on suspicion of desertion and treason—during a trek across an unchanging desert of bushes, rocks, and ant hills to help transport a fellow-soldier, who has suffered debilitating shell-shock, to his mother—they are forced to await the judgment of a General Bergh, unsure whether they are to be conscripted into Bergh’s commando, allowed to continue their mission, or executed for treason. As the weeks pass, and the men’s despair at ever returning to their families reaches its peak, they are sent on a bizarre mission . . .
A South African Heart of Darkness, Ingrid Winterbach’s To Hell with Cronjé is a poetic exploration of friendship and camaraderie, an eerie reflection on the futility of war, and a thought-provoking re-examination of the founding moments of the South African nation.
As a special preview, coming up in the fall 2010 are: Mathias Énard’s Zone, Juan José Saer’s Glosa, Bragi Ólafsson’s The Ambassadors, and a couple more titles we’re still working on. More information as soon as we have it . . .
One of the greatest services—or disservices, depending on your viewpoint—Bertrand Russell ever performed for popular philosophy was humanizing its biggest thinkers in his History. No longer were they Platonic ideals, the clean-shaven exemplars of the kind of homely truisms that. . .
The best way to review Alejandra Pizarnik’s slim collection, A Musical Hell, published by New Directions as part of their Poetry Pamphlet series, is to begin by stating that it is poetry with a capital P: serious, dense, and, some. . .
Upon completing Albertine Sarrazin’s Astragal I was left to wonder why it ever fell from print. Aside from the location, Astragal could pass as the great American novel. Its edginess and rawness capture the angst and desires we all had. . .
When my eyes first crossed the back cover of Fabio Genovesi’s novel Live Bait, I was caught by a blurb nestled between accolades, a few words from a reviewer for La Repubblica stating that the novel was, however magically, “[b]eyond. . .
“I preferred the war to the plague,” writes Curzio Malaparte in his 1949 novel, The Skin. He speaks of World War II and the destruction it has wrought on Italy, the city of Naples in particular. But the plague he. . .
With the steady rise of feminist scholarship and criticism in recent decades, it is little wonder that the work of Louise Labé should be attracting, as Richard Sieburth tells us in the Afterword to his translation, a “wide and thriving”. . .
In Conversations, we find ourselves again in the protagonist’s conscious and subconscious, which is mostly likely that of Mr. César Aira and consistent with prototypical Aira style. This style never fails because each time Aira is able to develop a. . .