It’s in Part III of Many Subtle Channels that Levin Becker turns to the “So What” question, the influence and value of the Oulipo in the wider world of writing. Harry Mathews once told me that the Oulipo had never been “theorized” and he hoped it never would be; I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. An example of what I think Mathews had in mind was the 2005 “noulipo” conference in Los Angeles, where several presenters used the language of critical theory to protest the Oulipo’s lack of a public political stance—as though the Oulipians only built labyrinths, and did not also escape from them. Many Subtle Channels glances at this and other academic and critical views of the Oulipo, such as that of Gérard Genette, who got them entirely wrong when he summarized them as “a game of chance.” It’s not Levin Becker’s purpose to write an academic book—thank god!—but as with oulipian writing itself, it would be good to have a bibliography or a reader’s guide to the best examples of respectful and intelligent critical writing on the group.1
In the critical view, oulipian writing is often minimized as the creation of works under formal constraint. Perec’s e-less La Disparition (A Void) may be a compelling concept, but once you know the trick even it loses much of its luster. In this way, Oulipo Light tends toward in-jokes in textual form and the conceptual work which Marjorie Perloff and Matvei Yankelevich have recently debated. But the authors of such work don’t claim that it represents an unforeseen aesthetic summit. Rather, what Oulipian formal constraint allows is a kind of exhaustion of form, by pursuing it so doggedly that the unseen details of reality and narrativity come to the surface simply because everything else is off the table. Perec was a master at this, in his investigations of the “infraordinary” most accessible in English in the collections Thoughts of Sorts and Species of Spaces. This is also where Oulipian creation must come to terms with the tension between inserting itself into recognized genres and creating new generative forms. The more recognizable, the more easily a work may gain readership and popularity; the more sui generis, the more chance it will be successful as original literary creation. Does the Oulipo want to fit in, or stick out?
Out of the living members, only Jacques Jouet makes his living as an author. Even among the “Olympian Oulipians,” Queneau and Calvino worked as editors for publishing houses, Perec was an archivist, Roubaud a professor of mathematics, and so on. Several members (including Levin Becker himself) were coopted, at least in part, because they had studied the Oulipo per se—shades of the cover artist who joins the original band.” The Bourges workshop attracts people not able to devote their full professional selves to oulipian work; the kind of work that results is sometimes a kind of fanfiction and necessarily mostly Oulipo Light. So where in this is the serious literary purpose, the lasting contribution to culture?
The key lies in reading, not writing. As Levin Becker points out, those members who studied the Oulipo before becoming members learned to read “oulipianly” before they learned to write that way. But this is not the anoulipism of the founders; this has much more to do with Barthes’ notion of “readerly writing.” As explicated by Tom La Farge, readerly writing engages the reader as a creative collaborator. For the writer, “the process of composition is . . . an experience of reading,” and the reader in turn becomes “an active participant in the composition process.” The oulipian reader, like the oulipian writer, is always re-reading, re-creating, re-membering. Levin Becker claims this “creative reading”—in effect, writing in reverse—“is no less noble, no less rewarding, no less potentially spectacular, than creative writing.”
In practice all oulipian work goes through two creative phases: first, the writer sets himself a problem which he then solves (he creates a labyrinth, then escapes from it); second, the reader presented with the text is challenged, explicitly or implicitly, to reconstruct the terms of its creation. The second phase exposes the greatest philosophical divide within the Oulipo, between those (like Jouet) who see the “scaffolding” as part of the substance of the work it was used to create and who thus explain the constraints used, and those (like Mathews) who prefer to play their cards close to their chests. Jouet wants the reader to appreciate his skill directly; Mathews wants the reader to experience the frustration and pull of unsatisfied curiosity. But for both, the point is to bracket the constraint outside the reader’s experience and let the work itself come to the foreground.
In other words, the Oulipian work is not intended to be a puzzle. In fact, when it is taken too far, creative reading works against the text; it can become the kind of over-interpretation called conspiratorial or paranoid or “defensive” reading—what the characters in Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum do, to their great regret. If a reader thinks there is a puzzle to be solved in the work, he will read it into the work, like the viewer of a Hitchcock film who takes the MacGuffin as the Holy Grail.
But the Oulipian work does invite a responsible level of creative reading. This openness to the reader, the invitation to interpretation, is the “generosity” which Levin Becker identifies in a recent essay on one of Mathews’ apparently minor works; unusually for a Mathews work, Selected Declarations of Dependence wears its scaffolding on its sleeve, as it were. In Many Subtle Channels Levin Becker argues that, in this sense of generosity and openness (which goes back to the group’s origins), oulipian potential is not just a tool for writers, let alone writers who are members of the Oulipo—and that people who mistake the Oulipo as some kind of exclusive club are missing the point. Oulipo is a way of reading the world. An appreciation of the Oulipo can be a kind of badge of collective trust in the power of reading—a trust that the work (and the world) does hold a meaning, even if it’s never found.
At first the Oulipo was going to be called “SeLitEx,” Seminar on Experimental Literature, highlighting its mathematical and scientific basis. The Oulipo is still experimental in two significant ways. Its work takes the form of proposing and then demonstrating a theorem (the viability of a particular form or procedure); the demonstration is published as a volume of the Bibliothèque Oulipienne. And an oulipian experiment, like a scientific one, may fail; after all, it is only potential, not a certainty. If such stark terms make it hard to understand the evident appeal of the group, consider its experiments instead as a formal rule-bound game: a close cousin to scientific experimentation, offering the same possibility of freedom within constraint. That’s the sense in which Oulipo Light can be a literary and linguistic diversion for the reader, like a good crossword puzzle. (Perec was also a master crossword constructor.) The group’s “heavier” work equally invites the reader to experience the power and the necessity of experimenting with language and meaning.
The Oulipo has even turned its own history into an ongoing game, one that is ever more tightly constrained. Starting from Perec’s story “The Winter Journey”—the very text which first introduced Levin Becker to the Oulipo—the members of the group have constructed more than a dozen alternate versions, interpolated tales, and newly-unveiled conspiracies. The original story, like the Oulipo itself, was written into the interstices of literary history; each new addition writes itself into the spaces between what came before. Levin Becker writes, “It’s about anticipatory plagiarism as it really manifests itself in collaborative creation.” As the group thinks its way out of the constraints of history, the story and its sequels have become a kind of origin myth. The Oulipo is reading its own literary history in reverse—and reading in reverse is, of course, writing.
Perhaps it would be more relevant to characterize Oulipians not as “rats who build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape” but as “rats who escape from the labyrinth they have built.” François Le Lionnais was a prisoner of war in Nazi concentration camps; Georges Perec lost his family to the Holocaust; Oskar Pastior spent five years in the Soviet Gulag. One founding member said that “in the world we live in, we are beholden to all manner of terrible constraints—mental, physical, societal—with death the only way out of the labyrinth. The least we can do is mark off a little section where we get to choose the constraints we are mastered by, where we decide which direction to take.” Oulipian writing is a literature of potential, a demonstration of the potential of literature—not just something that’s “possibly literature” (and possibly not). It’s not only about language, but also about story, form, and life. It is, in Levin Becker’s words, an invitation “to live your life craftily.” Here is a new sense for the phrase “escapist reading”: reading (and thinking) under constraint, under the sign of the Oulipo, offers the reader the opportunity—and the challenge—of discovering his or her own freedom.
1 Levin Becker quotes from at least three excellent articles, though without the bibliographical detail that would allow a reader to find them. They are: Chris Andrews, “Constraint and Convention: The Formalism of the Oulipo,” Neophilologus 87 (2003): 223-232; Leland de la Durantaye, “The Cratylic Impulse: Constraint and Work in the Works and Constraints of OuLiPo,” Literary Imagination 7.1 (2005): 121-134; and Jacques Jouet, “With (and Without) Constraints,” _SubStance 96 (2001): 4-16.
Following up on Monday’s post, here’s the second part of Matt Rowe’s essay on Daniel Levin Becker’s Many Subtle Channels.
Part II of Many Subtle Channels is an entertaining survey of the group’s origins and its chief personalities. Levin Becker recounts the exploits of many literary pranksters, some of them told only in the group’s archives in the Arsenal branch of the Bibliothéque Nationale de France, others in obscure French volumes not yet translated. He has a novelist’s knack for dense description; here’s Hervé Le Tellier:
But Le Tellier isn’t quite the prankster he seems to be, nor is he as mean as very funny people sometimes seem. His books, which run the gamut from quick-and-dirty pastiche to lofty academic discourse, barely conceal a sentimentality both poignant and endearing; in person he has a magnetism that’s all brooding humor and sniperlike wit, and you get the sense that for him keeping the room in thrall is second nature, not because it’s fun but because it’s emotionally necessary. He is forever late, distracted, shabbily put together, despite all of which there is an ineffable seductive quality about him. (He also has this tic where every third blink or so is a veritable flutter of eyelashes, which probably helps a little.)
Indeed, this middle section might be Levin Becker’s contribution to “the unwritten, collective, and necessarily unfinishable novel that [Roubaud] believes the Oulipo to be.” It was, after all, written by an Oulipian—although that doesn’t necessarily mean that it was written according to an oulipian constraint. As good as these stories are, they make the reader long to read full and proper biographies, or a more comprehensive history.
Levin Becker is good on the history of the group—some of his archive work must have rubbed off. For the first time I’ve read a coherent telling of the Oulipo’s relation to the Collège de ’Pataphysique (to the extent that anything ’pataphysical can be coherent). The explanation of the role of Bourbaki—not as direct a connection, but a clear source of inspiration—is less satisfactory. This is certainly because the people behind Nicholas Bourbaki, a joint pseudonym for a group of mathematicians who restructured mathematics around set theory and changed the way math is taught in France, were 1) mathematicians and 2) serious in their intention, at least considerably more so than the Oulipo, let alone ’Pataphysics. Levin Becker is no mathematician and Many Subtle Channels doesn’t attempt to explain more than basic combinatorics. Some of the constraints could be fairly easily dispatched with a diagram, such as the eodermdrome described in a text-only footnote. (This site gives a good explanation, with diagrams.) But there are no diagrams or photographs or equations in Many Subtle Channels, just words. One wonders whether that was one of Levin Becker’s constraints in writing the book, and if so whether it was chosen by the author or imposed by his publisher.
Mathematics was more central to the Oulipo’s early work. Now, more and more, the mathematicians work in the background as the writings and performances of the group and its members take center stage. Most of the early Oulipians did not create significant bodies of written work; the group concentrated on anoulipism, finding predecessors and explicating theories. Only after nearly a decade did the group “go public,” expanding to include Roubaud, Perec, Calvino, and Mathews and publishing an ongoing series of anthologies under the name Oulipo rather than those of the individual authors. Preserving and refining the definition of the Oulipo itself became one of the group’s purposes. This is also the point where the group’s focus turned from analysis to synthesis, from found potential to created potential. Now the Oulipo “brand” overshadows many of its members’ individual identities.
While Levin Becker describes those personalities well, what Many Subtle Channels lacks are detailed examples of their work. If the Oulipo is such fun, then show us, don’t just tell. For example, he mentions in a footnote that Harry Mathews’ variations on Hamlet’s soliloquy are a “delightful introduction” to the group’s work—but then quotes only three out of thirty-five variations and doesn’t say where the rest can be found. (They’re in The State of Constraint, the 128-page anthology which makes up one-third of McSweeney’s issue 22.) Many other curious works are more complex than could be shown or explained in a page or two (though the descriptions alone of Anne Garréta’s work have convinced me to read it)—but Levin Becker could at least point us to what has been translated and published.
There isn’t a proper English-language Oulipo anthology, one that simply delights readers with the group’s playful products rather than intimidating them with the scaffolding used to produce it. Harry Mathews and Alastair Brotchie’s Oulipo Compendium, as wonderful as it is, contains more biography, history, and theory than examples. Warren Motte’s Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature collects mostly early anoulipism, essays and descriptions rather than samples of synthoulipism. The 1995 volume Oulipo Laboratory is out of print, and the 2001 collection Winter Journeys (of which more later) is a limited edition. The State of Constraint (the McSweeney’s collection) focuses on recent work and thus omits Perec, Queneau, and Calvino, the names most likely to attract someone to the Oulipo. Many Subtle Channels could be greatly improved by the simple addition of a listing of key works or recommended anthologies: a bibliography of further reading. To rectify this, I can point you to Stephanie Sobelle’s list at Bookforum, Scott Esposito’s at Conversational Reading, and the combination anthology/homage that appeared as a feature in the web journal Drunken Boat.
Levin Becker doesn’t even give the address of the Oulipo’s official website, Oulipo.net. Yes, it’s in French—but of the examples included quite a few, such as the punning band name “Grosses bises style nage indienne,” require some understanding of French to really get the joke. The book should focus on either introducing and explaining the Oulipo to English-only readers, or welcoming those already converted to a more intimate view; alas, it can’t do both. There’s actually a huge number of Oulipian works available in English translation, in addition to those by Mathews, Monk, and others written in English. Harry Mathews is on the board of Dalkey Archive Press, and they publish his works as well as many by Roubaud, Queneau, and Jouet. Perec, mostly translated by David Bellos, is mostly published by David R. Godine; other works by Queneau are at New Directions and NYRB Classics. These are all small, independent presses. As befits the only member with a major literary reputation before/outside of the Oulipo, translations of Calvino are published by Harcourt and Pantheon, imprints of “Big Six” firms. In a recent interview Levin Becker says he’s presently translating Perec’s La Boutique obscure, a dream journal, so his omission of some basic pointers to translations is curious.
Many Subtle Channels actually does a better job of pointing out oulipian works by non-members, like Gilbert Sorrentino’s novels, Christian Bök’s Eunoia, Doug Nufer’s Negativeland and Never Again, Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions, and Tom La Farge’s work with the Brooklyn-based Writhing Society. There is a nice if brief section on Oulipo’s most apparent “plagiarist by anticipation,” Raymond Roussel; nearly all of Harry Mathews’ work could be said to be in dialogue with Roussel, and Oulipo has also laid claim to him in the form of a biography by François Caradec, translated by Ian Monk. Lewis Carroll comes in for a nod, and Júlio Cortázar was apparently almost invited to be a member several times. Several other famous writers have taken a benevolent interest in the Oulipo, including Umberto Eco, Martin Gardner, and Douglas Hofstadter—which has certainly boosted attention and readership, but their work is mostly Oulipo Light, just playing language games. But Levin Becker leaves out some para-oulipian work I would consider serious and essential, like Paul Griffiths’ Let Me Tell You, a novella written in the voice of Hamlet’s Ophelia—literally her voice, using only those words she speaks in the play. Haryette Mullens’ Sleeping with the Dictionary was inspired by oulipian techniques. Jorge Luis Borges and Stanisław Lem and Milorad Pavić and Osman Lins should probably be on any list of Oulipo contemporaries who neglected to actually become members. David Mitchell’s novels experiment with structure more visibly than anything since If on a winter’s night a traveler, and César Aira’s “flight forward” procedure has been a tremendously productive constraint for him. But, because they didn’t or don’t live in Paris or work in French or expect to enjoy the company of its members at monthly drunken dinners, these writers are not officially part of the Oulipo.
There are any number of offshoots of the Oulipo idea—from OuMuPo for music and OuPeinPo for painting to OuWiPo for Wikipedia and OuTyPo for typography. Most are more closely associated with the Collège de ’Pataphysique than with Oulipo itself, and in any case they have little of the cultural traction of the mothership. An exception may be OuBaPo, which works with comics (bandes désinées); its founder Étienne Lécroart was coopted into the Oulipo proper after Many Subtle Channels went to press. But OuBaPo-America and its founder Matt Madden, whose 99 Ways to Tell A Story brilliantly adapts the structure of Queneau’s Exercises in Style to the comic form, gets only a side note.
The Oulipo is French; there’s almost no mention of its thriving Italian counterpart, the OpLePo. In critical and academic circles, no matter how respected Calvino’s earlier work, his oulipian “Paris period” is seen as “not the real Calvino.” The Oplepo was founded in 1990, after Calvino’s death, and while it cannot counteract the general Italian critical disdain, it does vindicate oulipian techniques in the work of writers such as Ermanno Cavazzoni and Paolo Albani while gaining respectability through the (willing) cooptation of established names like Eduardo Sanguineti and Piergiorgio Odifreddi. I’m particularly sensitive to the slighting of Calvino and Oplepo because I’m an Italian translator, and Calvino’s oulipian masterpiece If on a winter’s night a traveler (as translated by William Weaver) was my introduction to both Italian literature and Oulipo. Slighting the Italian coverage in Many Subtle Channels, Levin Becker seems to repeat the insult, though that certainly can’t have been his intention. It’s more likely that he just doesn’t read Italian.
Levin Becker gets closest to including some fully-worked-out examples of oulipian procedure in his chapter on attending the Oulipo’s summer workshop at Bourges. Still, they’re mostly described—told, not shown—and they’re examples of writing exercises, not published work. The Bourges workshop and much of “Oulipo Light” are primarily concerned with poetry. Poetry can be short, quick to write, and it provides an unintimidating frame for the display of metrical, rhyme, or other sound-related constraints. But while poetry draws fans to readings and performances, the big market for book publishers is in prose. Oulipian prose constraints typically work on a much larger scale, one that is harder to excerpt, explain, and anthologize. For instance, Jouet’s Fins offers 216 different endings (that’s 6^3, which should put you in mind of the six-centric sestina). Roubaud’s huge ‘the great fire of London’ is a seven-book project which Levin Becker describes as being “in a pseudo-autobiographical style filled with digressions and interpolations and bifurcations”—but he doesn’t explain the procedural constraint, similar to Aira’s “flight forward,” which forces the writing into these fractal contortions. It’s as though he doubts that what he calls “the absence of legerdemain, the transparency of thought” in Roubaud could possibly itself be his primary constraint.
In all, this middle historical and biographical section is excellent. Its chief frustration, other than the lack of recommendations for further reading, is that it makes us feel the lack of proper biographies of all these fascinating individuals, readable histories of ’Pataphysics and Bourbaki, and translations of all the Oulipo treasures still inaccessible to those who don’t read French—not to mention republication in French for those who don’t have a generous budget for hunting down the obscure original printings.
As you may have noticed I’m a big fan of Daniel Levin Becker’s Many Subtle Channels a book about the Oulipo and potential literature. Which is why I asked Matt Rowe to review this for us. Well, he did. But in epic, multi-part style. (Matt Rowe is a true Three Percenter in that regard.) Today I’m posting Part I (and then jumping on a plane to St. Louis) and will get the next two parts up ASAP. Enjoy!
Daniel Levin Becker, Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature (Harvard University Press, 2012)
Many Subtle Channels is the first book in English for a popular audience on the Paris-based group of writers known as the Oulipo. For a few of you, that description will be enough for you to know you need to read it; for others, it’s all you need to know to dismiss it out of hand. But to dismiss the Oulipo would be to miss one of the most original and powerful of recent approaches to thinking about literature, creativity, and thinking itself. Certainly the members of the Oulipo and the works they create are fascinating in themselves, but properly understanding the Oulipo could also change the way you think about your own writing and reading. If Daniel Levin Becker’s book doesn’t fully explore every one of the Oulipo’s “many subtle channels”—an impossible task for a single book—it’s nonetheless an excellent place to start.
What is the Oulipo? Spelling out the acronym “Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle” and translating it doesn’t help much: What is a “workshop for potential literature”? “Potential literature,” Levin Becker explains, “is both the things that literature could be and the things that could be literature.” That potential is expressed in the form of rules or constraints for writing. The Oulipo is thus usually described as a group of writers who follow formal or procedural constraints—often, but not always, mathematical in origin—to create their work. The most notorious examples are George Perec’s novel without the letter e, translated by Gilbert Adair as A Void, and Raymond Queneau’s slim book of One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems. The group’s only official definition is “rats who build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape,” though Levin Becker also describes it as “a sort of literary supper club,” because for more than fifty years the Oulipo has met monthly in Paris to eat, drink, and talk about writing.
The bulk of Many Subtle Channels answers the What question, though sometimes in a bare informational sense, with a survey of the Oulipo’s history and present practice. The Oulipo was founded in 1960 by writer/editor Raymond Queneau (Président-Fondateur) and mathematician/polymath François Le Lionnais (Frésident-Pondateur). It now counts thirty-nine members, of whom seventeen are dead and thus excused from attendance at meetings, and one imaginary. Many of its most famous members are excused: Queneau himself, Italo Calvino, Georges Perec, Oskar Pastior, and—certainly famous, though not as an Oulipian—Marcel Duchamp. But Harry Mathews, Jacques Roubaud, Jacques Jouet, Marcel Bénabou, and Hervé Le Tellier are alive and working.
Daniel Levin Becker is himself the youngest member, having been coopted in 2009. The first third of Many Subtle Channels recounts his experience of discovering, meeting, and finally joining this strange group. Levin Becker first encountered the Oulipo as a Yale student, when George Perec’s story “The Winter Journey” was assigned in his French class. After college, he was awarded a Fulbright fellowship to go to France with a (he admits) ill-defined project to study the Oulipo. He soon found himself put to work as the group’s “slave,” organizing its archives; only after he had left France did he learn that he had been elected to membership himself. He invites us to “think of the Oulipo . . . as a search party for those of us who don’t know what we’re looking for.” You can’t call in that kind of search party: if you ask to be a member of the Oulipo, you are permanently ineligible. When I met Levin Becker in April 2009, he was still a little shell-shocked by his recent election. He’s since become the reviews editor of The Believer, but cannot regularly participate in Oulipo meetings for the practical reason that he lives in San Francisco, not Paris. This personal story is interesting primarily as a frame for the rest of the text; as Levin Becker accumulates a more substantial body of work, presumably much of it oulipian in nature, his story may take on greater resonance.
Levin Becker really hits his stride in the final two chapters of Many Subtle Channels, where he turns from the What question to So What. The key to understanding the Oulipo is the distinction dating back to the group’s earliest days between anoulipism, or oulipian reading/discovery, and synthoulipism, or oulipian writing/invention. They are closely related, and as François Le Lionnais wrote in the group’s First Manifesto, there are “many subtle channels” between them.
Anoulipism is where the group applies its idea of “plagiarism by anticipation,” the Oulipo’s way of claiming the allegiance of its literary forbears. It is by no means a serious accusation of intellectual theft, rather just a playful claim of affinity. Constrained writing has a long history, from medieval acrostics, sonnets, and sestinas, through the puzzles of Edgar Allan Poe and Lewis Carroll, to Raymond Roussel’s espionage-worthy writing procedures. The Oulipo identifies its precursors both to promote the further exploration of their techniques and to promote itself by association.
Synthoulipism is the development of new constraints and the production of works which follow them. Oulipian writing has expanded from its earlier focus on formal constraints on the finished product to now include procedural constraints on the act of writing itself; it also encompasses both transformative constraints and procedures (which build on existing works) and generative ones. Here there is a tension between the original goal of contributing to posterity by expanding the repertoire of writing in general and crowd-pleasing linguistic acrobatics which call for public performance (“Oulipo Light” according to some within the group). In France and to a growing extent elsewhere, Oulipo has become a brand name.
The Oulipo’s work is now pervaded by a tension between performance and permanence. Officially the group’s work is all about the potential, about discovering and documenting the constraints, not the work they may be used to generate, “but at the end of the day the people who invent or find or resurrect them are the ones who get to use them first, and thus the ones most likely to reap their rewards.” Between the reach of anticipatory plagiarism and the power of the Oulipo brand, it starts to sound like a game that’s amusing chiefly to those playing it, while everyone else gets taken for suckers—and in that light it’s easy to understand why someone might misunderstand and dismiss the group. Many Subtle Channels is an attempt to explain the Oulipo’s legitimate importance, though its narrative structure foregrounds the attempt rather than the answer, however provisional, that it finally achieves.
[Part II Coming Soon]
I first met Matt Rowe when he attended his first ALTA conference a few years back as an ALTA fellow. Matt’s an interesting guy with, at expense of making a fool of my memory, an interesting history, having started his career in computers, working for, among other companies, Microsoft. Then he abandoned that all (well, sort of, he’s still involved heavily in fonts) for Indiana University and the study of translation. He translates from the Italian, gave a great presentation on the “Translator as Fiction” panel (which is a great example of what is so cool about ALTA: a whole, chatty panel about the appearance of translators in fiction and how they were portrayed), and is now living out Port Townsend way batting around a book idea about puzzles (can’t say more here lest someone steal his incredible idea) and obsessing over the Oulipo. (There are many worse movements you could obsess over.)
Very recently, like over the weekend type recently, Matt took the step to make himself more visible, launching Local Character a blog that combines his interests in contemporary world fiction, typeface design and typography, voice, community, travel, cognitive science, eccentrics, oddballs, and misunderstood geniuses, and puzzles. In his own words:
Since I’m a translator, writer, and editor, my major focus will be on fiction, translation, and book publishing worldwide. A number of other excellent blogs and web journals already focus on these topics; I’ll play nicely and support them as I work to develop my own niche, but Local Character will definitely range into areas those resources don’t touch. Exactly what “Local Character” ends up meaning will depend on your encouragement, responses, and participation.
As Local Character (both company and website) develops, this blog will continue to be its center. Here I will review books (and occasional work in other media), report and comment on news and developments, and link to other sources, both web and print. Over the next few months, I’ll fill out the links and the rest of the site design, mostly silently as I figure out what works and what doesn’t.
Really looking forward to following the development of Local Character . . . and now onto the questions:
Favorite Word from Any Language: Chiaroscuro
A very literary word that’s also fun to say: kee-ahr-uh-skyoor-oh.
Best Translation You’ve Done to Date: “Inviti Superflui” by Dino Buzzati, which became “Unwanted Invitations” in my version
Unfortunately, I can’t tell if Matt’s translation of this prose poem has been published or not . . . Regardless, Buzzati is a really interesting author, and Godine recently reissued The Tartar Steppe (“Often likened to Kafka’s The Castle, The Tartar Steppe is both a scathing critique of military life and a meditation on the human thirst for glory”) and NYRB brought out Poem Strip which sounds awesome. (“Featuring the Ashen Princess, the Line Inspector, trainloads of Devils, Trudy, Valentina, and the Talking Jacket, Poem Strip — a pathbreaking graphic novel from the 1960s — is a dark and alluring investigation into mysteries of love, lust, sex, and death by Dino Buzzati, a master of the Italian avant-garde.”)
What Book Needs to Be Published in English Translation: Fata Morgana by Gianni Celati
I’m not familiar with Celati, but after reading the brief Wikipedia entry—his first book included an intro by Italo Calvino! he translated Swift, Twain, and Celine into Italian!—I’m hoping Matt has a sample he can send our way . . .
Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .
The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .