As with years past, we’re going to spend the next five weeks highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.
Click here for all past and future posts in this series.
Zone by Mathias Enard, translated by Charlotte Mandell
Publisher: Open Letter Books
Why This Book Should Win: It’s a 517-page one-sentence novel. (Kind of.) How many other 517-page one-sentence novels have you ever heard of? That’s the kind of monumental project that should be rewarded.
Like with My Two Worlds, this Open Letter title has a pretty fun backstory. I heard about this via a review online and a quote from Claro claiming that it was “the novel of the decade, if not of the century.” (Realizing now that I’m sort of a sucker for respectable authors using that “X is the X of this [long time period]” mode of recommendation. Hmm.)
Anyway, based on a review, a hyperbolic blurb, and a relatively short sample (which erroneously ended with a period, but the less said about that the better), we made an offer on the book right before the Frankfurt Book Fair. Of course, the French publisher was hoping for a bidding war (they always are) and some Exorbitant Big Press Advance (who isn’t?), so they held our offer in check. Aannnddd then the economy collapsed and the Jonathan Littell book underperformed and the idea of a 517-page one-sentence novel sounded like a Bad Business Decision.
Which was awesome for us. Rights secured, we told Publishers Weekly who ran this as a notable Frankfurt acquisition, which led to the Chicago Tribune running this piece, cautiously titled: “The Longest Literary Sentence,” and which contained the dumbest quote (or at least one of the ten dumbest?) I’ve ever given:
But is the record-setter gibberish? Not at all, says Post.
“It’s told from inside this guy’s mind as he takes a train trip,” he says. “It has a lot of commas.”
Lot of . . . Jesus. Well, it does have commas by the truckful, and semicolons, em-dashes, and a whole slew of non-period punctuation. (Except the hyphellipses. If only . . .)
Anyway, that all happened well in advance of publishing the book. And in terms of the book itself, this truly is Epic Literature. It’s about the violence in the latter part of the twentieth century and is narrated by a former information agent who has decided to give it all up and is on a 517-kilometer long train ride to hand over all his secrets to the Vatican. During the train ride he has a little time to think, about his wartime experiences, about info gathering, about women he’s been with, about, well, basically everything. He also reads a book while he’s on the train, which serves as the sort of clinamen to this whole “one-sentence” thing.
But speaking of that—I may have praised it above, using this unique trait as a reason why this book deserves the BTBA, but in a way, I wish we never had to talk about it. Zone is not a gimmick. It is a fully realized, amazingly ambitious novel. As you read it and fall into Francis Servain Mirkovic’s mind, you witness an author going for it all, like authors never seem to do anymore . . . which is really why this book deserves the award.
Here’s what Stephen Burn said about it in the New York Times:
Near midnight on a Friday in April 1854, Gustave Flaubert wrote one of his many letters to Louise Colet. Flaubert had spent days hidden away in his Croisset retreat, researching theories of clubfoot and discarding pages from the manuscript of “Madame Bovary,” and he told Colet that he had come to the conclusion that “the books from which entire literatures have flowed, like Homer, Rabelais, are encyclopedias of their time. They knew everything.” This conception — the novel that knows everything — would come to obsess Europe’s modernist writers, who dreamed that a narrative of infinite detail and esoteric knowledge could blur the boundaries between traditional genres, with fiction shading into nonfiction, poetry bleeding into history.
At other times and in other places, similar ambitions can be found, but it is a specifically modernist legacy that obsesses the French writer Mathias Énard in his novel “Zone.” Like Flaubert and James Joyce, Énard seems to have found a model for his omnivorous novel in the Homeric epic, while Ezra Pound’s ghost also haunts “Zone.” Énard describes Pound’s “Cantos” as “magical,” and it seems significant that in a canto beginning with an invocation to “poor old Homer,” Pound reflects on a voice “weaving an endless sentence,” because in “Zone” — aside from three excerpts from an imagined Palestinian fiction — Énard takes up the challenge of writing an endless sentence by including only one period in his long novel. This ambitious gamble won Énard considerable praise in France, and now, with Charlotte Mandell’s lucid translation, readers of English can evaluate his text and larger mythic framework.
But don’t take our collective words for it, check out this sample to get a sense of this amazing novel.
Or just watch this:
Zone has been getting a lot of attention recently, such as this review in the New York Times and in the recent issue of N+1. (I also found a copy on display at the Bay City Public Library—my hometown library—and someone had actually checked it out!)
One of the first reviews of Zone actually appeared in the Quarterly Conversation last year (or maybe even in 2009 . . ), and to celebrate the launch of the English-language version, Scott Esposito interviewed translator Charlotte Mandell:
Scott Esposito: According to the information on your website, you’ve translated some 28 books since 2001, including The Kindly Ones, which is nearly 1,000 pages. How long were you working on Zone, and how did it compare, in terms of difficulty, rate of progress, etc to other books you’ve translated?
Charlotte Mandell: Good grief! I thought that was a mistake when I read it–28 books in 10 years does seem like a lot . . . It took me about 6 months to translate Zone, and then a few more months to revise it. I’ve almost always worked under pressing deadlines, so I’m used to working fast, and once I’d started translating Zone it was honestly very hard to stop. For one thing, there are no obvious resting places, since there are no periods! So I had to mark out ahead of time where I would stop for the day, so that I didn’t overdo it. It was really a joy translating Zone, since it felt like a long prose poem in which I could give myself free rein.
SE: Funny that you mention that. I felt that unstoppability while reading (and others have told me they did too), and it seems it works the same for translating the book. Like you, I had to tell myself to slow down, and one way to do it was to look up just a fraction of the references in this book. There are tons! At the end of the day, the book feels like a cross between a postmodern novel of information and a modernist stream of conscious novel, maybe something William Gaddis would have come up with. How do you classify it, and do you see any novels in the French landscape that resemble or contextualize it?
CM: I suppose the first book that comes to mind as a sort of precursor to Zone is Michel Butor’s La Modification (published in English as Second Thoughts1). It too is about a man on a train journey, and it’s narrated solely in the second person. The entire narration revolves around the narrator’s thoughts and memories, and nothing actually “happens” in the book (except that the narrator changes his mind—hence the title—by the end of the book).
You’re right, there are a lot of references, and I think all the books mentioned in Zone influence Enard’s narrative in subtle but meaningful ways: Tsirkas’ Drifting Cities; William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch; Pound’s Cantos; Finnegans Wake; Apollinaire’s Zone; Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night; and especially Malaparte’s masterful Kaputt, one of the most underappreciated (and well-written) war novels I can think of, narrated from the point of view of the losing side.
In terms of the contemporary French literary landscape, I think Zone shares a lot of similarities with The Kindly Ones: in fact I can think of no other French novel today that mentions Bardèche, Brasillach, and Burroughs!–though I think it was Edgar Rice Burroughs in The Kindly Ones . . . Both narrators are fascists (a recovering fascist in the case of Zone, but a fascist nonetheless), and both are consumed by their respective wars. Also, both The Kindly Ones and Zone incorporate dreams, fantasies, and memories into the narrative in interesting ways–the boundaries between fantasy and reality are often blurred.
I think Enard and Claro also have some things in common, in the risks they take in terms of narration and style. Claro’s recent Madman Bovary comes to mind, if only for its narrative inventiveness, and for its way of portraying a narrator consumed by a book (the way _Zone_’s narrator is consumed by a briefcase). I heard that Enard and Claro traveled around Europe once performing a magic show–I’m not sure if I dreamt that, but it sounds very apt!
The other four questions are even more interesting, and definitely worth checking out . . .
1 Actually, I believe the American edition was A Change of Heart. Just a footnote for those interested in reading this very interesting Butor book . . . though maybe not as interesting as Passing Time.
I feel like this is a week of individual themed days . . . Yesterday was all Japanese literature and Michael Emmerich, today is all Zone . . .
Publishers Weekly‘s Indie Press Sleepers list for the fall came out yesterday, featuring twenty titles from independent presses that may be slightly less hyped than Franzen’s Freedom, but have a real shot at “breaking out,” capturing the imagination and interest of the reading public, and selling thousands of copies thanks to great indie stores, solid reviews, word-of-mouth, etc.
These lists are always fascinating, especially when they include one of our titles (the only translation included on the list . . . at least the one in the magazine. There are 20 additional titles featured online, including Laurence Cossé‘s A Novel Bookstore, translated from the French by Alison Anderson and published by Europa Editions):
Zone by Mathias Énard, trans. from the French by Charlotte Mandell (Open Letter)
This 517-page novel, winner of the Prix du Livre Inter and the Prix Decembre, has an unusual conceit; it’s told in a single sentence. Francis Servain Mirkovic, a French-born Croat, travels by train from Milan to Rome with a briefcase, whose contents he’s selling to a representative from the Vatican. It contains information about the violent history of the Zone—lands of the Mediterranean basin: Spain, Algeria, Lebanon, Italy. Over the course of a single night Mirkovic visits the sites of the tragedies of these lands in his memory and recalls how his own participation in that violence has wrecked his life. Author and translator Christophe Claro acclaims it as “the novel of the decade, if not the century.”
Not to jinx anything, but there is a lot of momentum for this book, so, fingers crossed . . . (I actually have a dream that one day I’ll see someone on the subway reading one of our titles, and I have some hope that it’ll be Zone.)
On a less self-promotional note, here are some other interesting titles from the list:
The Instructions by Adam Levin (McSweeney’s)
This massive 1,026-page debut novel covers four days in the life of 10-year-old Gurion Maccabee, a potential Messiah and accused terrorist, possibly both, who was ejected from three Jewish day schools. “This is wonderful in a quirky way,” says Sheryl Cotleur, at Book Passage, who is considering it for her Buyers Bookmark Club. “I see a great future for this author and really hope this book catches on. I’ll do my part!”
The Report by Jessica Francis Kane (Graywolf)
During WWII, tube stations across London have been converted into bomb shelters; immigrants and East Enders alike sleep on the tracks and wait. But on March 3, 1943, as the crowd hurries down the staircase, something goes wrong, and 173 people lose their lives. When the neighborhood demands an inquiry, the job falls to a young magistrate, who is forced to revisit his decision decades later. “The Report is a stealthy, quiet page-turner that understands there is as much tension in reckoning a disaster as there is in the disaster itself,” says Elizabeth McCracken.
Extraordinary Renditions by Andrew Ervin (Coffee House Press)
“Through the eyes of three outsiders, Extraordinary Renditions takes the reader deep into the heart of Budapest, both its past and present,” says Stewart O’Nan. “The whole city is here, the banks of the Danube brimming with history, intrigue, art, food, drink, and most important of all, music. His characters may be lost—even the one native is a foreigner—but Andrew Ervin is a sharp-eyed, sure-handed guide.”
Richard Yates by Tao Lin (Melville House)
This could be Lin’s breakout book. Although the title of this novel comes from the real-life writer Richard Yates, it has little to do with him. Instead, it tracks the relationship between a young writer in his 20s and his 16-year-old lover. Clancy Martin calls Lin “a Kafka for the iPhone generation. . . . [He] may well be the most important writer under 30 working today.”
I only found out about this recently, but I’m really impressed with Art Works, the blog of the National Endowment for the Arts. Great way to highlight works of art, artists, and artistic organizations—and the interviews are remarkably perceptive.
The most recent addition is this interview with translator Charlotte Mandell, which focuses on her translation of Mathias Enard’s Zone, the somewhat infamous 517-page, one-sentence novel that we’ll be bringing out in December. (And which will be excerpted in the next issue of N+1.) Zone is absolutely amazing (see this excerpt), and Charlotte’s translation (which was awarded a NEA Translation Fellowship) is equally brilliant.
Anyway, here are a few excerpts from the interview:
NEA: Zone offers a unique challenge with its one-sentence format. Why did you decide to take on this translation?
MANDELL: There’s nothing else like it out there! Especially not in French. One of my favorite novels is Joyce’s Ulysses, and Zone reminds me a little of that, and a little of another of my favorites, Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, with some Apollinaire and Burroughs and Pound thrown in for good measure. Translating a 500-page sentence combines the creativity of translating poetry with the challenge of translating difficult prose. Zone is narrated on a train, and it has the rhythmic, slightly lulling feeling of being on a train, but it also has a sense of urgency and inevitability in French that I wanted to recreate in English. I loved the continuity and flow of the text, and I really loved the experience of translating it—I was always mid-sentence, no matter where I stopped for the day! I never read ahead when I translate, so I was always wondering what was going to happen next in the story. Translating Zone was one of the most enjoyable translation experiences I’ve ever had. [. . .]
NEA: How is the work of the translator and the writer similar; how is it different?
MANDELL: That’s such a good question! No one has ever asked me that before. All translators have to be writers, since we’re basically re-creating the text in another language, and in order for it to be convincing and authentic-sounding the translator has to be a good writer. Conversely, all writers are really translators too, since they’re translating their thoughts and ideas into words on the page. While I think it’s true that all texts lose something in the translation, I think they also gain something in being rendered in a different language: take Baudelaire’s translations of Poe, for instance, which sound so much better in French than the original poems, or Beckett’s translations of his own work, which are masterpieces of English.
Translating is different from writing in that the translator has the text already ready to hand; our task is to recreate that same text in our own language, just as the writer’s task was to create that text in his/her own language. The translator’s challenge is to make sure the translation never sounds like “translationese”—like something that has been translated from another language. It should sound as original and new in the translation as it did in the original.
In some ways, the books we publish are like having children—the newest one always smells the best, is the most EXCITING THING EVER, and is that much more aesthetically refined, er, more adorable, or whatever. But seriously, when I read our titles for the final proof, I frequently fall in love all over again, getting all exciting about sections I want to talk about with my friends, which, well, isn’t quite possible in the traditional sense, seeing that I’m reading books that haven’t been published yet . . . Which is why this whole blogging thing is fricking awesome.
Zone is due out in December, but has already been written about by the Chicago Tribune (an article that also featured the dumbest quote I’ve ever given a reporter) and in The Quarterly Conversation. Yes, this book is kinda sorta a 517-page sentence, but that’s not really the point. This book is fucking good. It’s aesthetically daring, ambition, important, artistic, impressive, erudite, and a host of other words that could be capitalized.
Anyway, here’s a spectacular bit I came across last night. Not that you need a lot of set-up, but Francis Servain Mirkovic, who fought for the Croatians in the Yugoslav war, is on a train headed to Rome to sell a briefcase of info he’s gathered over his years as part of the French Intelligence Service. Enjoy!
the landscape of the Po plain is very dark also, little fireflies of farms and factories are disturbing ghosts, in Venice at the Santa Lucia station I had wondered for a while about going back to Paris, another night train was going south at around the same time, headed for Sicily, terminus Syracuse, a journey of almost twenty-four hours, I should have taken it, if there had been someone on the platform to guide me, a demiurge, or an oracle I would have taken the train to Syracuse to settle on the rocky island on the slopes of Etna home of Hephaestus the lame, who often sprinkles lava onto the peasants and Mafiosi taking cover in the countryside, maybe it’s because of that volcano that Malcolm Lowry settled in Taormina in 1954, in that village that looks so pretty it seems fake, he had written Under the Volcano ten years earlier, maybe it was his wife Margerie who chose the destination, a change of air, Lowry the drunkard had definite need for a change of air, he joined the contingent of Anglo-Saxons who peopled the Zone, Joyce, Durrell, Hemingway, Pound the fascist and Burroughs the visionary, Malcolm didn’t let go of his bottle as he watched the swordfish gleam in the Bay of Naxos, he got drunk morning to night with a serious steadfastness, their little flower-covered house is too beautiful for him, he says, it’s all too beautiful, too brilliant, too luminous, he can’t manage to write, not even a letter, his eyes dazzled by the too-blue Mediterranean, Margerie is happy, she goes for walks all day long, she visits the archeological sites, the steep inlets, she returns home to find Malcolm drunk, drunk and desperate, holding a copy of Ulysses or Finnegans Wake that he can’t manage to read, even drink doesn’t console him, the pages of his notebooks remain desperately blank, life remains empty, Margerie, fed up, decides to lock up all the alcohol in the house, so Lowry goes out to stroll through the little streets, he climbs up to the ruins of the Greek amphitheater and watches the spectacle of the stars on the sea beyond the stage wall, he feels a powerful hatred, he wants to drink, he wants to drink, everything is closed, he almost knocks on the first house he sees to beg for a glass of grappa, one drink, to drink one drink, anything, he goes back home, he’ll try to break open the hutch where his wife has locked up the liquor, he works away at the little wooden door, nothing to be done, he’s too drunk already, he can’t manage it, it’s her fault, it’s his wife’s fault, Margerie’s who’s sleeping after being stupefied by sleeping pills, she’ll give him the key, she’ll pay, Margerie who’s pumping all the talent out of him, who’s preventing him from writing, Lowry goes into the bedroom, his wife is stretched out on her back, her eyes closed, Malcolm goes over to her to touch her, he’s standing up, he’s thirsty, with an infinite thirst, an infinite rage, he stammers out insults, she doesn’t wake up, he feels as if he’s shouting though, the bitch is sleeping and he’s dying of thirst, she’ll see, he puts his hands around her neck, his thumbs against her Adam’s apple and he squeezes, Margerie instantly opens her eyes, she fights Lowry, presses harder and harder, he squeezes, he squeezes the carotids and the trachea, he’ll kill her, the more he squeezes the weaker he feels, he looks at Margerie’s eyes rolling in terror, her arms thumping him weakly, he is strangling Margerie and he’s the one who is out of breath, the harder he presses the more he observes his wife’s face becoming purplish-blue the more he feels sick, he doesn’t loosen his grip, despite her pummeling him with her fists and knees, he’s the one he’s in the process of killing, it’s no longer Margerie’s neck he has in his hands but his own, his own face as in a mirror, he is asphyxiated, he is asphyxiating himself, his fingers let go, his fingers let go little by little and he collapses on the floor, unconscious, while Margerie tries to cry and get her breath, in the saffron-yellow dawn that’s showing through the Persian blinds: in Sicily deadly island Lowry and his wife lived eight months of hell under the shadow of their second volcano, every other day the villagers were obliged to carry Malcolm home on their back, when the fishermen discovered him, at dawn, collapsed in a street, conquered by the steep slope and by sleep, in the end maybe I did well not to take the train to Syracuse, who would I have strangled in the Sicilian night, grappling with the bottle and my savagery—my father, whenever, as a child, I broke something or mistreated Leda my sister, always said to me you’re a savage, and my mother intervened then to chide him, no your son isn’t a savage, he’s your son, and now a little closer to the end of a world I wonder if the great thin man my pater wasn’t right, as the train is approaching Reggio capital of Emilia with the gentle name, I am a savage, brutal and coarse, who despite all the civilized threads that all the books I’ve read have clothed me in remains a wild primitive capable of slitting an innocent person’s throat of strangling a female and eating with my hands,
Totally biased, but I think this is one of our strongest seasons yet, what with Zone, the new Bragi Olafsson novel, the first of a million or so Juan Jose Saer books (one of my absolute favorites! If you can’t wait for our book, check out The Event from Serpent’s Tail—absolutely incredible), and our first poetry title . . . You can download a pdf of the catalog by clicking the link above, but here are links to each of the books, along with their respective copy:
The Sixty-Five Years of Washington by Juan Jose Saer. Translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph (Argentina)
It’s October 1960, say, or 1961, in a seaside Argentinian city named Santa Fe, and The Mathematician—wealthy, elegant, educated, dressed from head to toe in white—is just back from a grand tour of Europe. He’s on his way to drop off a press release about the trip to the papers when he runs into Ángel Leto, a relative newcomer to Rosario who does some accounting, but who this morning has decided to wander the town rather than go to work.
One day soon, The Mathematician will disappear into exile after his wife’s assassination, and Leto will vanish into the guerrilla underground, clutching his suicide pill like a talisman. But for now, they settle into a long conversation about the events of Washington Noriega’s sixty-fifth birthday—a party neither of them attended.
Saer’s The Sixty-Five Years of Washington is simultaneously a brilliant comedy about memory, narrative, time, and death and a moving narrative about the lost generations of an Argentina that was perpetually on the verge of collapse.
Zone by Mathias Enard. Translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell. (France)
Francis Servain Mirkovic, a French-born Croat who has been working for the French Intelligence Services for fifteen years, is traveling by train from Milan to Rome. He’s carrying a briefcase whose contents he’s selling to a representative from the Vatican; the briefcase contains a wealth of information about the violent history of the Zone—the lands of the Mediterranean basin, Spain, Algeria, Lebanon, Italy, that have become Mirkovic’s specialty.
Over the course of a single night, Mirkovic visits the sites of these tragedies in his memory and recalls the damage that his own participation in that violence—as a soldier fighting for Croatia during the Balkan Wars—has wreaked in his own life. Mirkovic hopes that this night will be his last in the Zone, that this journey will expiate his sins, and that he can disappear with Sashka, the only woman he hasn’t abandoned, forever . . .
One of the truly original books of the decade—and written as a single, hypnotic, propulsive, physically irresistible sentence—Mathias Énard’s Zone provides an extraordinary and panoramic view of the turmoil that has long deviled the shores of the Mediterranean.
The Selected Stories of Merce Rodoreda. Translated from the Catalan by Martha Tennent. (Catalonia)
Collected here are thirty-one of Mercè Rodoreda’s most moving and challenging stories, presented in chronological order of their publication from three of Rodoreda’s most beloved short story collections: Twenty-Two Stories, It Seemed Like Silk and Other Stories, and My Christina and Other Stories. These stories capture Rodoreda’s full range of expression, from quiet literary realism to fragmentary impressionism to dark symbolism. Few writers have captured so clearly, or explored so deeply, the lives of women who are stuck somewhere between senseless modernity and suffocating tradition—Rodoreda’s “women are notable for their almost pathological lack of volition, but also for their acute sensitivity, a nearly painful awareness of beauty” (Natasha Wimmer).
The Ambassador by Bragi Olafsson. Translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith. (Iceland)
Sturla Jón Jónsson, the fifty-something building superintendent and sometimes poet, has been invited to a poetry festival in Vilnius, Lithuania, appointed, as he sees it, as the official representative of the people of Iceland to the field of poetry. His latest poetry collection, published on the eve of his trip to Vilnius, is about to cause some controversy in his home country—Sturla is publicly accused of having stolen the poems from his long-dead cousin, Jónas.
Then there’s Sturla’s new overcoat, the first expensive item of clothing he has ever purchased, which causes him no end of trouble. And the article he wrote for a literary journal, which points out the stupidity of literary festivals and declares the end of his career as a poet. Sturla has a lot to deal with, and that’s not counting his estranged wife and their five children, nor the increasingly bizarre experiences and characters he’s forced to confront at the festival in Vilnius . . .
Bragi Ólafsson’s The Ambassador is a quirky novel that’s filled with insightful and wry observations about aging, family, love, and the mysteries of the hazelnut.
Lodgings by Andrzej Sosnowski. Translated from the Polish by Benjamin Paloff. (Poland)
Lodgings is the first representative selection of Sosnowski’s work available in English. Spanning his entire career, from the publication of Life in Korea in 1992 to his newest poems, this is a book whose approach to language, literature, and the representation of experience is simultaneously resonant and strange—a cocktail party where lowlifes and sophisticates hobnob with French theorists and British glam rockers, unsettling us with the hard accuracy of their pronouncements.
One of the foremost Polish poets of his generation, Andrzej Sosnowski’s work demonstrates a dazzling range of influences and echoes, from Ronald Firbank and Raymond Roussel to John Ashbery and Elizabeth Bishop. Also an influential editor and critic, he has received most of the literary honors available to poets in Poland, including the prestigious Silesius Prize.
French Voices is a program that started a few years ago as a way of promoting contemporary French fiction and non-fiction. The goal is to select ten works a year that were published since the year 2000 that represent “new trends in fiction and under-represented perspectives or points of view in non-fiction works” and support these books with a $6,000 translation grant.
Here are the lists of recipients from 2006, 2007, and 2008. Interestingly, a few of these titles have wound up on the Best Translated Book Award longlists, including In the United States of Africa, by Abdourahman Waberi.
Anyway, we received notice yesterday that Mathias Enard’s Zone has been selected as one of this year’s grantees! This is very exciting, and helps ensure that the book will get some extra attention. And that it will include an interesting introduction . . .
Here’s the rest of the recipients with the original French publisher and date of original publication:
Not sure if there are American publishers already lined up for these—except for the Toussaint, which is already available from Dalkey Archive as Running Away.
Video is now up from our Reading the World Conversation Series event with the acclaimed French-to-English translator Charlotte Mandell. It’s in seven parts, and there’s interesting stuff throughout—with parts 1-3 comprising the reading and parts 4-7 comprising the questions/answer portion (conducted with aplomb by our own senior editor, E.J. Van Lanen).
About the event:
Oct. 6 2009 – The French translator of Balzac, Proust, Flaubert, and others reads from her new translation of Mathias Énard’s Zone (forthcoming from Open Letter) and takes questions about literary translation. Zone has already been called “The novel of the decade, if not of the century” (Christophe Claro). In short, it is a 517-page, one-sentence novel about a spy, a train ride, a briefcase, and the pervasive violence of the twentieth century.
Charlotte Mandell is one of the great French-to-English translators, and has translated such prominent works as: The Girl with the Golden Eyes by Honoré de Balzac, The Book to Come by Maurice Blanchot, A Simple Heart by Gustave Flaubert, The Horla by Guy de Maupassant, Listening by Jean-Luc Nancy, and The Lemoine Affair by Marcel Proust.
(This event is hosted by Open Letter and University of Rochester Arts & Sciences. It is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts.)
Last week we posted about a new story of Mathias Énard’s that appeared in Le Monde. Énard, as you may already know, is the author of Zone, a critically acclaimed, award-winning 517-page one-sentence novel that we’ll be bringing out next year. Well, in the meantime, superstar translator—and recent NEA translation fellowship recipient—Charlotte Mandell translated “Migration,” the story that appeared in Le Monde and which you’ll find below. Enjoy!
This story comes from the Jebel al-Arab, the black volcanic mountain that stretches, in southern Syria, between the towns of Shahba and Salkhad. A mysterious, wild massif, dotted with ancient ruins and inhabited by the Druze, who in years gone by have been described as just as mysterious and wild as their rocky hills. In the winter, snow is frequent, and villages in the center of the region can be isolated for days on end. Electricity is uncommon there and telephones usually absent. This afternoon, around five o’clock, when the engineer Mohsen climbs into his Toyota pickup to go back to town, it is already pitch black out. Snowdrifts outline white piles against the low houses and walls; the basalt horizon makes the darkness even more opaque. The leafless apple orchards look alive, like fields of hanged men in the glow of the headlights.
The engineer Mohsen has as his only company a thermos of tea, a cassette of Amr Diab songs on his car radio, and the shrill cries of jackals. The engineer Mohsen is not afraid. The engineer Mohsen knows this country well, he comes here often to check or repair the capricious little generator that supplies the region with electricity. He knows the crisp smell of snow mixed with the odor of fuel oil spreading from aluminum chimneys and he is well acquainted with the silence, the immense silence of this car-less region that the constant yelps of the jackals only deepen. The engineer Mohsen knows that it will take almost an hour to cover the forty kilometers that separate him from town, following the narrow, poorly plowed roads where paving is infrequent. The engineer Mohsen knows that he will not meet a single car, apart maybe from a motorcycle or a delivery vehicle jolting along driven by a mustachioed man wrapped in a red keffieh. The engineer Mohsen takes his time. He waits patiently for the engine (and in consequence the car’s interior) to warm up, drinking a glass of tea. A freezing wind has started to blow. It will be better lower down. The engineer Mohsen shifts into first and begins his descent.
It’s as he is leaving the second village that he glimpses her. The girl (how old could she be? Twelve, who knows?) seems to be signaling to him, standing on the side of the road, in a coat the color of dirty snow. The engineer Mohsen is surprised. He stops and opens the passenger door. The girl leaps into the doorway and settles on the seat, trembling. She has a pretty face. She asks in a somewhat timid voice if the engineer Mohsen would have the kindness to drive her to the next village. The engineer Mohsen is a man from town, he replies yes, of course, without asking any questions, and starts up again. What could a child possibly be doing, out alone at this hour in such cold? True, it is winter, it’s still early. But it’s dark out and freezing. Still. The little girl remains silent, she seems to be scrutinizing the darkness, hypnotized by the light of the headlights. She is absolutely motionless, one hand resting flat on her thigh.
The engineer Mohsen turns up the music. In the half-light of the car, he has the impression that the beautiful profile of his passenger is glowing with a bluish light that seems to be oozing from her temple, streaming down her cheek, onto her neck. As if she were sweating. Or melting. The engineer Mohsen glances at the little hand calmly resting on her jeans. Despite the darkness, he thinks he can see drops pearling up on the surface of the white skin, sliding down her pants onto the seat.
The engineer Mohsen accelerates. The engineer Mohsen lowers the heat and opens the window a crack, without really knowing why; he looks straight in front of him at the road and the last curves separating him from the village where she (he doesn’t know what to call her) will get out. The wind stings his eyes, unless it’s emotion and fear; the tape has stopped and he can hear clearly, now, the regular plop plop plop of little drops on the floor resounding like a big clock despite the noise of the engine. He attacks a bend a little too quickly and is forced to cling to the steering wheel with all his strength so the Toyota doesn’t hit a low wall. The girl hasn’t budged an inch; the centrifugal force and the braking have just flung a little of that weird sweat onto the engineer Mohsen who is overwhelmed with a shudder of terror and almost cries out in surprise upon discovering that this liquid is icy, as icy as the expression on the face of his cold passenger and the heap of snow into which, after having skidded for several yards, the pickup has gotten embedded. The child has remained impassive; all that has happened is that a few drops of water (the engineer Mohsen is convinced now that it is water) have splattered the windshield. The engine has stalled. The first houses of the village are nearby. The child opens the door. She thanks the engineer Mohsen for dropping her off and gets out. The engineer Mohsen notices the moist halo that the girl has left on her seat and, perhaps because he is an electrician and because electricity has trouble admitting the existence of ghosts, or perhaps on the contrary because he is a Druze and hence used to strange phenomena, the engineer Mohsen shouts “Wait!”, leans quickly over the gearbox and manages at the last minute to grab his passenger’s left hand; he feels intense cold between his fingers, a wet cold, then, without a crack, as the girl is already disappearing into the night, he finds he is holding a child’s arm, a useless arm of ice that he drops onto the seat. Without knowing how, he gets out of the car and plops down in the snow. The engineer Mohsen’s scream sounds like the panic-stricken shrieking of a jackal.
When the engineer Mohsen has pulled himself together and returned to his truck, the arm has disappeared. Either it has melted, or it never existed. Only the wetness of the cloth tends to make the engineer Mohsen incline to the first explanation.
All around, the village is silent, the chimneys gently spewing the thick smoke of oil-fired stoves.
The next morning, after a night spent trying to find sleep, stupefying himself with arak, the engineer Mohsen is on the whole relieved to learn from the newspaper that a twelve-year-old child died at around five o’clock in the village of X, from pneumonia. On the other hand, he’s terrified by the next news item, which reveals that at the same instant, or almost, a little girl was born a few kilometers lower down: this birth would no doubt not have attracted the attention of either the journalists or the engineer Mohsen if the baby, a rare thing, hadn’t been born with only one arm.
The National Endowment for the Arts just announced its 2010 winners of the Literature Fellowships for Translation Projects. And there’s a few Open Letter connections this year.
First, Charlotte Mandell won a grant to translate Mathias Enard’s Zone (“The narrative unfolds during a train journey from Milan to Rome, and interweaves the narrator’s experiences in the war in Yugoslavia with other stories of war — from the Trojan War to World War II to present-day clashes.”), which we’ll be publishing next year.
And two Open Letter alumna won this year too: Ellen Elias-Bursac, who translated Nobody’s Home for us, won a grant to translate the first modern Croatian novel; and Martha Tennent, who translated Death in Spring, won a grant to translate some of Mercè Rodoreda’s short stories.
Congratulations to everyone who won. (And now to send off some emails! Oh Martha…)
Mathias Enard’s Zone, which Open Letter is proud to be publishing next May, has won Le prix du Livre Inter 2009. The prize is awarded by France Inter, which is a public radio station in France (their podcasts are great if you’re trying to learn French!). It’s a unique prize: France Inter invites 24 listeners (among them students, illustrators, microbiology researchers, and former police captains from all over France) to serve as judges for the prize, and they’re helped along by an author. So it really is a “people’s prize”, but one in which the listeners serve as a jury, not just as one of thousands of voters.
If you want to know more about the history of the prize, and this year’s shortlist, click here.
So here’s the French press release, which I’ve done my best to render in English below (take it easy on me, I’m learning):
Le prix du Livre Inter 2009 a été attribué à “Zone” de Mathias Enard (éditions Actes Sud), une prouesse stylistique qui repose sur un longmonologue évoquant les guerres du bassin méditerranéen et des Balkans, aannoncé lundi France Inter.
Le jury du Livre Inter, composé de 24 auditeurs et présidé par l‘écrivain Marc Dugain (auteur notamment de “La chambre des officiers”), a élu Mathias Enard au troisième tour du scrutin, précise la radio publique dans un communiqué.
Troisième roman de Mathias Enard, “Zone” a été déjà récompensé par le prix Décembre 2008.
L’ouvrage est un “roman ferroviaire” construit sur un monologue de 500 pages composé d’une seule phrase entrecoupée de chapitres qui sont, eux, ponctués classiquement, explique France Inter.
Dans un train de nuit pour Rome, un ancien espion et ancien militaire fait défiler ses souvenirs de la zone où il exerça ses activités, le pourtour dela Méditerranée: guerres balkaniques, violences en Algérie, guerres du Proche-Orient…
Né en 1972 à Niort, Mathias Enard enseigne actuellement l’arabe à l’université de Barcelone. Son premier roman, “La perfection du tir”, paru en 2003 chez Actes Sud, a reçu le prix des Cinq continents de la francophonie. Il a ensuite publié “Remonter l’Orénoque” (Actes Sud) en 2005, puis un essai, “Bréviaire des artificiers” (Verticales) en 2007. Il anime plusieurs revues culturelles dont la revue “Inculte”. Mathias Enard a été pensionnaire de la Villa Médicis à Rome en 2005-2006.
The prix du Livre Inter 2009 was awarded to Zone by Mathias Enard (published by Actes Sud), a stylistic feat that relies on a long monologue to evoke the wars of the Mediterranean basin and the Balkans, France Inter announced Monday.
Livre Inter’s jury, which is composed of 24 listeners and is presided over by Marc Dugain (author of “Le chambre des officiers”), selected Mathias Enard after three rounds of voting, according to a press release from the station.
Enard’s third novel, Zone has already received the prix de Décembre 2008.
A ‘train novel’, the book consists of a 500 page monologue, composed as a single sentence, that is interrupted by chapters that are traditionally punctuated, explains France Inter.
On a night train to Rome, a retired spy and soldier reveals his memories of the places where he plied his trade, the perimeter of the Mediterranean: Balkan wars, violence in Algeria, wars in the near-East…
Born in 1972 in Niort, Mathias Enard teaches Arabic at the University of Barcelona. His first novel, “La perfection du tir”, was published by Actes Sud in 2003 and won the prix des Cinq continents de la francophonie. He followed this with “Remonter l’Orenoque in 2005, and with an essay, “Bréviaire des artificiers” in 2007. He has also published numerous cultural reviews in the journal “Inculte”. Mathias Enard was a resident of the Villa Médicis in Rome in 2005-2006.
If you have a little French, this video is pretty cool. It shows the final tallying of the votes that ended up with Zone winning, and then ‘by a miracle of transport’, Énard shows up an hour later to thank everyone for selecting his book. It’s not often that you get to see the inside of this process.
This video is of the announcement of the prize on France Inter:
We’re publishing Mathias Énard’s Zone next year, and I couldn’t be more excited. There’s a review of it up now at The Quarterly Conversation, and while it’s not a wholly positive review, the review just makes me happier to be publishing it. Zone is definitely an Open Letter book:
Zone doesn’t seduce so much as it makes its reader uncomfortable and sets her mind to work. In Human Smoke, Nicholson Baker wrote an alternative history of World War II that led the reader to disturbing what-ifs. Énard too writes an alternative history of his zone: through the mind of Francis Servain, he makes us see what we tend to forget and, sometimes, what lies ahead. Zone is history of literature as well as history of the Mediterranean, although there is no lesson or philosophy behind all this. It’s an admission of human failure. In spite of the book’s many weaknesses it is a powerful read, a novel for the ages, because what is inside will probably never be out of date and will always somewhat enlighten the reader’s view of the times she lives in. (It remains to be seen whether it will work on an American reader, one likely much less familiar with most of what happens in the Mediterranean zone.) Francis is sure his journey is toward the end of the world, and Zone is an end of the world novel that knows precisely that this is actually not the end of the world. This might very well be the crudest joke, the most gruesome story narrated here by Mathias Énard: it is not over.
Our own Charlotte Mandell (she’s doing Zone for us) is interviewed on Maitresse:
The translator Charlotte Mandell did the heavy lifting for two of the more exciting imports from France: this year’s The Kindly Ones, by Jonathan Littell, and next year’s Zone, by Mathias Enard. Mandell, who lives in Upstate New York, is also the virtuoso translator behind Proust’s The Lemoine Affair, a collection of literary parodies of writers like Balzac, Flaubert, the Goncourt Brothers, and Saint-Simon.
M: Were there any particular challenges to translating The Kindly Ones? What about Zone?
With The Kindly Ones, the main challenge was the time constraint: I was working against a deadline, so I had to finish the translation in about nine months. That’s not a lot of time for a thousand-page novel! In way, though, that very urgency worked for me, since I just had to dive into it and try to inhabit Max’s voice, and I could put all other projects aside for those nine months. With Zone, the challenge is to reproduce the style of the narrator’s stream-of-consciousness: the novel is written around one long sentence, and I need to keep the reader’s undivided attention in English in the same way that the French does – it’s a sort of breathless, urgent, spontaneous, but also deeply erudite style that works wonderfully well in the original. I hope I can maintain that momentum in English – when you’re reading it you feel as if you’re on the train with the narrator, being pulled inexorably toward some unknown goal.
Thanks to Michael, for pointing out that Zone made Lire‘s 20 best books of 2008 list. According to my pidgin French, they say that it “possesses a scope that is rare in the French novel” and that it’s “difficult, but great.”
PW also noted our acquisition:
What’s in a period? That might be the question Chad Post, at Open Letter Press, was asking himself when he acquired the French novel Zone. The book, about a traveler making his way to Rome via train, is a study in, among other things, grammatical experimentation; it unfolds over 500 pages, in a single sentence. Open Letter, which submitted a bid for the book shortly after the Frankfurt Book Fair, is planning to publish the book Stateside in 2010; the title is published in France by Actes Sud and was written by Mathias Enard. Charlotte Mandell (who just finished The Kindly Ones) is doing the translation.
Unfortunately, my French isn’t up to it yet (I’m working on it!), so I’m anxiously awaiting—along with the rest of you, I hope—Charlotte Mandell’s translation.
Yesterday afternoon, Publishers Weekly sent out an e-mail alert regarding Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s decision to “temporarily” (their quotes, not mine) pause acquisitions. Which doesn’t sound very good:
Josef Blumenfeld, v-p of communications for HMH, confirmed that the publisher has “temporarily stopped acquiring manuscripts” across its trade and reference divisions. The directive was given verbally to a handful of executives and, according to Blumenfeld, is “not a permanent change.” Blumenfeld, who hedged on when the ban might be lifted, said that the right project could still go to the editorial review board. He also maintained that the the decision is less about taking drastic measures than conducting good business.
Wonder if any other companies will follow suit . . .
In contrast, yesterday our bid for Mathias Enard’s Zone was accepted by Actes Sud. A 500-page, single-sentence French novel, Zone has been getting a lot of great attention. Translator and author Christophe Claro said it’s the novel of the decade and it recently won the Prix Decembre. Brian Evenson e-mailed me recently about how impressive this novel is, but it was this quote from Conversational Reading that set the ball in motion for us:
Zone is considered by some to be the most ambitious novel to be published in France this year. Proust, Celine, Joyce and The Iliad are mentioned as the inspirations behind it. According to the editor’s description at amazon.fr the novel features such characters as Genet, Pound, Burroughs, Cervantes, Hannibal, and Napoleon.
That quote and this excellent excerpt that Charlotte Mandell (who will be translating the whole book) did for Fiction France.
Right now, we’e looking at a summer 2010 pub date . . .
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