16 November 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece that I wrote about Wolf Haas’s Brenner and God, which is translated from the German by Annie Janusch and available from Melville House.

This is the first Brenner book to come out in English, but actually the seventh in the series. I believe that Melville House has rights to 2 or 4 more, so there will be more Brenner in the near future . . .

Also, if you’re interested, Tom Roberge and I spent a lot of time talking about this book on this week’s podcast.

Anyway, here’s the opening of my review:

Brenner and God_ is the first book in the “Brenner” series to come out in English, and only the second Wolf Haas title overall. The Weather Fifteen Years Ago came out from Ariadne Press a few years back and blew away the BTBA fiction committee—one reason why I was really excited to pick up this novel.

Unlike Weather, which is a postmodern, playful novel that’s one long interview between a female book reviewer and Wolf Haas, Brenner and God is a fairly straightforward detective novel. It centers around Brenner, a former detective who is now a chauffeur for a two-year-old girl whose father is a “Lion of Construction” responsible for building the controversial MegaLand, and whose mother runs an abortion clinic that is constantly besieged by protestors. So when Helena disappears from the back of Brenner’s car, he has dozens of suspects to investigate . . .

I don’t read a lot of detective novels, so I’m not sure exactly how to categorize this. Tom Roberge and I talked about on our most recent podcast—the difference between crime books that focus on the horrors of the criminal mind, and the ones that function more like a puzzle. In which case, Brenner and God fits more into the second category. There is some violence and gross killing, but the motives of those involved aren’t necessarily psychotic, per se. It’s more about business and politics and sex.

Click here to read the full review.

16 November 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Brenner and God is the first book in the “Brenner” series to come out in English, and only the second Wolf Haas title overall. The Weather Fifteen Years Ago came out from Ariadne Press a few years back and blew away the BTBA fiction committee—one reason why I was really excited to pick up this novel.

Unlike Weather, which is a postmodern, playful novel that’s one long interview between a female book reviewer and Wolf Haas, Brenner and God is a fairly straightforward detective novel. It centers around Brenner, a former detective who is now a chauffeur for a two-year-old girl whose father is a “Lion of Construction” responsible for building the controversial MegaLand, and whose mother runs an abortion clinic that is constantly besieged by protestors. So when Helena disappears from the back of Brenner’s car, he has dozens of suspects to investigate . . .

I don’t read a lot of detective novels, so I’m not sure exactly how to categorize this. Tom Roberge and I talked about on our most recent podcast—the difference between crime books that focus on the horrors of the criminal mind, and the ones that function more like a puzzle. In which case, Brenner and God fits more into the second category. There is some violence and gross killing, but the motives of those involved aren’t necessarily psychotic, per se. It’s more about business and politics and sex.

In that way, and in terms of the overall tone of the book, it most reminded me of early Echenoz (Cherokee, Double Jeopardy, Big Blondes) and Rubem Fonseca (High Art). (Although to be accurate, Fonesca writes about some totally fucked up characters, especially in our collection The Taker & Other Stories.)

Evaluating this as a detective novel, I found it really satisfying. A lot of “clues” are laid out, and everything unspools and fits together in a way that’s nicely paced and keeps the reader guessing right along with Brenner. It also includes a lot of the necessary tropes: a retired detective called back into service, a slew of dead bodies, clipped conversations, decent sleuthing, tense situations, a car chase, a kidnapping, a hot redhead, and some banging. It’s a very entertaining book to read, and I’m convinced that these books will gain a larger and larger following as more of the titles from the series become available.

Now, onto my issues.

One of the most notable features of this book is the narrator. Rather than being told from a first-person p.o.v. or from an omniscient, distanced p.o.v., the narrator in Brenner and God is also a sort of character—one who is maybe similar to Brenner, but has a distinct personality and is relating this story in a self-aware way that’s only somewhat successful:

My grandmother always used to say to me, when you die, they’re gonna give that mouth of yours its own funeral. So you see, a personal can change. Because today I am the epitome of silence. And it’d take something out of the ordinary to get me started. The days when everything used to set me off are over. Listen, why should every bloodbath wind up in my pint of beer? Like I’ve been saying for some time now, it’s up to the boys to take care of. My motto, as it were.

Personally, I prefer to look on the positive side of life these days. Not just Murder He Wrote all the time, and who-got-who with a bullet, a knife, and extension cord, or what all else I don’t know.

As a sort of companion through Brenner’s complicated affair, this narratorial voice works pretty well. It helps to create a sort of fun, almost jokey tone that elevates this from being a horrifying book about a child kidnapping into something that’s more literary, almost a reflexive look at what makes detective novels detective novels. (Which brings to mind Butor’s Passing Time, a truly amazing book that should definitely be reprinted by Dalkey or New Directions or Alma Books or Open Letter or someone.)

This narratorial technique also allows for shifts in scenes and perspectives in a way that feels more conversational than contrived—a line that a lot of detective books have to walk. It also allows for Haas to call attention to particular bits, either as a way of generating tension and readerly interest via heavy-handed foreshadowing (the constant references to the “five deaths” and how the city will be torn apart at the end of the book), or of distracting the reader from some other potentially useful detail.

My problem with the narratorial voice is pretty specific. First off, the sort of intentional heavy-handedness comes off as a bit condescending to me. I swear, the phrase “pay attention” appears at least 400 times every chapter1 and becomes the most irritating of authorial tics.

Pay attention: Natalie was the clinic’s psychologist, because a pregnancy’s never terminated without psychological counseling. [. . .]

Pay attention. Brenner was thinking to himself, _Milan will definitely know someone who can unlock Knoll’s phone for me, the sort of thing someone at a gas station knows. [. . .]

And I’ve got to say, Brenner had seldom been so right. Within just a few hours he would become all too conscious of just what little clue he truly had at that moment.

But for now, pay attention.

More befuddling are these two references to the reader (I assume):

My dear swan, Brenner hadn’t been in a funk like this in a long time. [. . .]

My dear swan, Knoll, the congressman, and the two bully-boys . . .

“Swan”?!? I assume I’m just not getting something here and am more than willing to own up to my ignorance. But still. It’s weird and disruptive to me as a reader.

There’s also a certain habit of Haas’s/Janusch’s of ending sentences with a comma (or “because”) followed by a clipped sort of explanation. This will make more sense in the examples below. At first, I thought this style was kind of cool, and very fitting for a detective book—there’s something stark about it, almost puzzle-like in how the “explanation” phrase fits into place. But by the end it felt more like a crutch than a technique. As if this was the only way the narrator could talk to convey his personality.

But Brenner’s shadower was bald in such an old-fashioned way, with a wreath of hair around his head, i.e., the worst kind in the rain, because the raindrops hammer way at the unprotected bald part, and regardless, wet hair. [. . .]

But now, either on account of the pills or the nonalcoholic beer or quite simply from age, or a rusty brain, or withering horomones—in all events, no line. [. . .]

Because one thing’s clear: when you’ve come as far as [SPOILER] has, you don’t waste any time coddling your witnesses, no, you mop them up like fly droppings because—no sentimentality.

Anyway, that’s probably a personal quirk that exposes more about my reading likes and dislikes than the book itself. And overall, I think this is really fun and will be greatly enjoyed by scads of readers. As a detective book, I think it’s really solid. As a work of translated fiction, I’d give it a 6.5 out of 10.

1 Slight exaggeration.

21 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next three weeks highlighting the rest of the 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.

Fiasco by Imre Kertesz, translated by Tim Wilkinson

Language: Hungarian
Country: Hungary
Publisher: Melville House

Why This Book Should Win: Because I introduced Tim Wilkinson to Dennis and Valerie of Melville House outside of the London Review of Books bookstores years ago, and as a result, they published a number of his Kertesz translations. It would be sort of perfect if Wilkinson then won this award . . .

Today’s post is by Christopher Willard, who is the author of Sundre and Garbage Head. He lives in Calgary and teaches at the Alberta College of Art + Design.

A man who Kertesz calls the “old boy” muses on the writing and subsequent publisher’s rejection of his early novel as he tries to locate a subject for his next novel. Kertész is most likely recalling an attempt to publish his first novel Fatelessness, based upon his deportation to Auschwitz when he was fourteen years old. In allowing fiction to revive facts, Kertész sets up a dense and masterful analogy: a book detailing one’s experiences may arbitrarily be rejected as lifeless and a person may be rendered lifeless by the whims of a totalitarian authority. This raises the thematic questions Kertész’s old boy struggles with, if one cannot control one’s fate or death, if ultimately death is situated closer to absurdity than rationale, what justifies living, what justifies writing about living? The attempt to answer the questions satisfactorily meets with utter failure. This is the fiasco. Kertész writes, “There was one thing that, perhaps I did not think of: we are never capable of interpreting for ourselves.”

The first third of the book is written in sort of call and response structure reminiscent of Beckett as evidenced in Krapp’s Last Tape. Kertész reflects (and reflects upon) the present and past through series of parenthetical statements. This makes for enjoyably dense reading but one imagines the enormity of the translator’s task in capturing both the accuracy and flow of such writing. For example regarding the old boy’s age, Kertész writes:

In all probability it would be simplest just to say how old he was (if we were not averse to such exceedingly dubious specifics, changing as they do from year to year, day to day, even minute to minute) (and who knows how many years, days and minutes our story will arch) (or what twists and turns that span may span) (as a result of which we might suddenly find ourselves in a situation where we may no longer be able to vouch for our rash assertions).

This ageless old boy exists, and not particularly by his own choosing. His burden seems to be the entire package: life, living, history, remembering, writing, the old novel, the next novel, the novel that makes up the remaining two-thirds of the book. The old boy began writing not to be a writer but to understand an unalterable past, and consequentially he involuntarily became a writer who now feels obliged to continue writing even though the he is aware that the writing makes living no easier, the living makes writing no easier, and the past book makes the future book no easier. Kertész seems to suggest the old boy suffers a Sisyphean punishment imposed by arbitrary alignment of coincidences and the conscious decision to continue; we suspect that man is Kertész.

3 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the break, I heard about two great publishing jobs that might interest some of you (and many of my students, former students, and colleagues).

First up, the phenomenal Melville House is hiring a publicist.

Duties include performing all aspects of book publicity, including: designing campaigns; writing press materials; securing coverage; managing pre-publication reviews and publicity; arranging and managing events and tours; maintaining social networking campaigns; daily blogging on our award-winning website; representing the company at events; and raising the company’s profile.

THIS IS NOT AN ENTRY LEVEL JOB. Salary in the mid- to upper-30s plus benefits.

Melville House runs so many amazing publicity campaigns . . . In fact, there might not be a more creative press out there. I can only imagine how much fun this job would be. Anyway, click the link above for the full details.

*

At the other end of the spectrum (and yes, I am getting a perverse pleasure out of this juxtaposition), Amazon.com is hiring a publicist to focus on their literary fiction and translations.

The successful candidate will be responsible for promoting Amazon Publishing’s literary fiction and books in translation. In addition to traditional title publicity and demonstrated expertise in the area of literary fiction, the successful candidate must have an eye for innovation: the Publicist will ideate and drive strategies for books to thrive in the digital age, discovering new ways to connect with readers, including engagement through social media and the blogging community.

The successful candidate should be motivated by a start-up culture and the challenge of building a new and exciting business while leveraging the possibilities of a new delivery platform. This role is based in New York City and will require periodic travel.

Core Job responsibilities: – Plan and execute publicity campaigns for a diverse list of books in order to drive sales – Write press materials; pitch and secure top national and local media, including print, broadcast and online outlets – Create and manage media lists and build strong relationships with key media – Collaborate with editorial and marketing teams in order to drive successful title launches

Again, click the link above for all the details.

31 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Melville House blog has a really interesting post about the future of Barnes & Noble that links off to this piece by Rick Aristotle Munarriz.

Barnes & Noble is coming off another dreadful quarter. Back out the Nook and its digital downloads and you’ll find that sales actually fell by 11% at its superstores and college bookstores. Unlike Amazon.com (AMZN), which is routinely profitable throughout the year, Barnes & Noble posted a wider-than-expected deficit.

Coming up short has been a recurring theme for Barnes & Noble. The struggling retailer has missed Wall Street’s profit targets in each of the past six quarters, with five of those periods resulting in larger-than-forecasted losses. Analysts see Barnes & Noble posting a loss for all of fiscal 2012. They see a return to profitability come fiscal 2013, but we’ve seen how the prognosticators have overshot the chain’s reality in the past.

We’re now heading into the seasonally potent part of the year for Barnes & Noble, but how many holiday shoppers do you really think will be crowding the registers when they know that books and gifts can be bought cheaper online? Besides, now that so many people own a Kindle — and to a lesser extent a Nook — why insult gift recipients with an actual hardcover book?

This isn’t necessarily all that surprising, and helps fuel my deep hope that the fall of Borders and the contraction B&N will lead to a rise in quirky, community-centric indie stores. That said, how fucked is it that Books-A-Million! (punctuation and strange capitalization all theirs) is expanding into 41 previous Borders locations, meaning that the Southern-based, fourth-rate chain will now be in 31 states, including Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, South Dakota, and Wisconsin where they’re opening their first stores.

I know it’s terribly snobby to say this—especially considering I’ve only been in a single BAM! in my life—but it would be terribly sad if the only book chain left standing was this Wal-Mart inspired mess of a organization. I think they should be boycotted on extraneous exclamation point alone. (Says the guy who includes an average of 3 exclamation points per text and loves Los Campesinos! for the same textual over-exuberance.)

11 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Although I tend to write these quite often, I somewhat hate doing the effusive “this author is so great!” thing. Not that the authors don’t deserve it, in fact, quite the opposite, but there’s something much more intellectually satisfying about writing a harsh diss. Virulent criticism, which is usually wedded in a small dislike of something that gets blown up to an extreme for a variety of reasons, such as humor, point driving, or posturing, makes you seem a lot smarter than you probably are. Noticing a flaw, or pointing out an inconsistency, or trashing an author’s otherwise stellar reputation, is impressive. You are a better reader than others because you pay attention to shortcomings and now how to contrast these with a nearly Platonic ideal of what a Great Book should be instead of simply reading for enjoyment while on the beach or in the bathroom, half-distracted by the anxieties of daily life.

By contrast, giving an author too much love—even if deserved, even if he/she is already well-respected internationally—makes you seem a bit foolish and simple, like a cheerleader or a lifelong Cubs fan.

Nevertheless, although I’ve only read two of his books—The Train Was on Time and The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum—I think Heinrich Böll is one o my new favorite authors.

I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to read Böll. Part of it is the war thing—almost all of his books are tied to World War II, which doesn’t get me off as much as it does others. Also doesn’t help that the dude wrote approximately 762 books, making it tricky to figure out where exactly to start.

Both of which are totally shitty reasons, especially now that I’ve read a couple of books and fallen under the charm of Böll’s prose, the crafty way he puts together his stories, his compelling characters, etc.

I’m going to write a full review of The Train Was on Time in the next couple weeks, but this novel—about Andreas, a young German soldier who, while boarding a train suddenly knows for certain that the war’s coming to a close and he’s going to die . . . soon—is incredibly tight and evocative. The writing is precise, complemented by a certain charm in the authorial voice that drew me in immediately.

Another stupid reason why I didn’t read Böll before now: the previously published editions weren’t 1/10,000th as attractive as the new “Essential Heinrich Böll” series from Melville House Publishing.

I don’t think there’s another press in America the World as good at branding themselves as Melville House.

First off, look at those covers—fucking beautiful. Simple, dreamy and geometric. Attractive. That’s something you’ll never really get with ebooks. Sure, it’s pretty simple to design a new 2” x 3” jpeg whenever you want, but there is a certain thrill that comes from collecting a set of newly reissued books from your favorite author. Not to mention, something like this helps push the books out in front of the eyes of readers again. Switching a jpg image on a website just kind of isn’t the same.

And then there’s the “Essential” part of their series. Suddenly the total number of books Böll’s written doesn’t really matter. There are eight (six pictured here, plus Irish Journal and What’s to Become of the Boy? Or, Something to Do with Books) books Melville has decided to reissue. Obviously, these are the ones worth reading. And I will. Book by book by book.

Adding introductions or afterwords to reprints is nothing new, but the line-up of people who wrote pieces for these reissues is pretty interesting. There’s William Vollmann, who is to afterwords what Harry Mathews is to book blurbs, and there’s Salman Rushdie, but there’s also Jess Crispin of Bookslut and Scott Esposito of Quarterly Conversation. Very cool, and very smart, since both of these writers are also well-known for helping promote great works of literature.

Anyway, all this is to say that I love Heinrich Böll, and you should too. (And to prove that yes, I am still alive, working on occasion, and reading. I know it’s been a slow Three Percent summer . . .)

Full reviews of all the books to come . . .

3 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Just got an email about this awesome offer from Melville House that I wanted to share for a few reasons.:

From the As-If-The-Cover-Didn’t-Tip-You-Off-Already department: Death and the Penguin by Andrei Kurkov is the perfect example of why the Melville House International Crime series is like no other: It’s political, it’s literary, it’s hilarious, it’s terrifying, and IT DOESN’T TAKE PLACE IN SCANDAVIA.1

To get the word out, for the next four days the ebook version of Death and the Penguin is on sale all over the interwebs for only $3.99.



To make this deal even sweeter if you buy it in the next 48 hours we’ll reimburse the complete cost of your purchase with a gift certificate to our website.

 All you have to do is buy the ebook, — we recommend from your local Independent Bookstore’s website — and email us your receipt —contact@mhpbooks.com.
 We’ll reply with a coupon.

 It’s that simple.

I might be jumping the gun here—currently, the book is stil $14.95 via the Indie Bound website, although the Amazon price is updated—but as soon as you can TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THIS DEAL.

I read this book a number of years ago when it came out from Harvill in the UK and thoroughly enjoyed it. We’re actually going to be featuring the sequel Penguin Lost as part of Read This Next, so you should start preparing now . . .

The idea of giving readers a $3.99 gift certificate is super-awesome as well. And if you look at Melville House’s website, it will take approximately .03 seconds to find something you want to buy.

Coincidentally, L Magazine released their “Best of Brooklyn” lists today, including one for Books & Media that includes this award:

Best Small-Press Branding

Melville House
How to trick attractive young people into buying reissues and literature in translation? Collect-‘em-all series of jacket-pocket sized titles with clean covers. Their Art of the Novella and Contemporary Art of the Novella now being imitated by New Directions’ Pearls series, the Dumbo publisher has moved into an International Crime line (shades of Europa Editions and, well, large-house trends) and started the Neversink Library for out-of-print classics (including slim, terse Simenons) not already rediscovered by NYRB Classics.

AGREE.

1 Yeah, we all make spelling mistakes. Especially when typing in ALL CAPS which, for some reason known only to Bill Gates and that Jobs guy, seems to circumvent most spellchecking programs. LIVING ON THE EDGE.2

2 Also interesting is that there are over 465,000 instances of SCANDAVIA on the interwebs. Including sites like this, where crazy people can ask batshit questions such as “What is the official language of Scandavia?” I LOVE THE WORLD WIDE WEB.

4 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Haven’t received the hard copy yet, but the online version of Melville House’s Summer Catalog is up, and, to be quite direct, kicks some international literary ass.

First off, there’s the new Banana Yoshimoto book The Lake, which is translated by Michael Emmerich. Here’s the line from the copy that sold me: “With its echoes of the infamous, real-life Aum Shinrikyo cult (the group that released poison gas in the Tokyo subway system), The Lake unfolds as the most powerful novel Banana Yoshimoto has written.

This catalog also marks the launch of the Neversink Library (which Michael Orthofer wrote about a couple weeks ago), which “champions books from around the world that have been overlooked, underappreciated, looked askance at, or foolishing ignored.” Word.

The first four titles in this series are:

The Train by Georges Simenon, translated from the French by Robert Baldick. You may know Simenon from the 40-or-so titles of his NYRB has published. Very interesting guy who wrote more than 200 novels . . . .

The Eternal Philistine by Odon Von Horvath, translated from the German by John G. Wagner. Not familiar with von Horvath, but a novel “about a young man who is a failed used car salesman,” and which is “highly stylized, and at times raucously funny” sounds intriguing.

After Midnight by Irmgard Keun, translated from the German by Anthea Bell. “A naive young girl finds her happy-go-lucky life impinged upon when the Fuhrer comes to town to make a speech.” OK.

The Late Lord Byron by Doris Langley Moore. Which is a biography of Byron. (I’ll pass on this one.)

There’s also the ever-expanding Melville International Crime series, which includes two of Andrey Kurkov’s “penguin” books: Penguin Lost and Death and the Penguin. I may be the only person in the world who isn’t charmed by these books (which I read a while back when Harvill brought them out). Probably one of my many faults . . .

Overall, this is pretty exciting and provides a few more titles to add to my growing list of titles I’d like to read (and that we’d like to review).

29 October 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [10]

As we announced last week, both here and at the American Literary Translators Association annual conference, Amazon.com is underwriting the 2011 Best Translated Book Awards to the tune of $25,000, allowing each winning translator and author receive a $5,000 cash prize. (And the leftover $5K will allow all of our 14 judges to attend the awards ceremony.)

Having started this award one morning when I was drunk on coffee and ambition, I was really proud and excited to be able to announce this. All I ever wanted to accomplish with this prize was to bring more recognition to excellent works of literature translated by excellent translators. And yes, I’ll take full credit and responsibility for getting and accepting the $25K from Amazon. Obviously I talked to all of our panelist about this before nailing everything down, but I brought the idea to Amazon, and in the end, it was my decision to do this.

Over the past few years I’ve dreamt of how to make the awards more well known, more respected, more institutionalized, and in my opinion, this prize money will do just that. More people will talk about the winners, heaping praise on the winning artists and hopefully helping get the titles into the hands of more readers. And I still think this was the ultimate best decision, even after obsessing over reading Dennis Loy Johnson’s diatribe about how Melville House will no longer participate in the BTBAs.

I don’t want to engage with Dennis’s core issue (Amazon is evil, therefore money given by Amazon is laced with evil1), since that will get us nowhere fast and detracts from the main point: that winning translators and authors will each receive $5,000 cash this year. Now, I don’t know all the specifics of Melville House translator contracts, but I’m willing to make a guess that $5,000 is equal to, or more than, the average translator gets paid for doing a book for Melville House. (I know it is for Open Letter at least.)

There are a couple things I do want to say in response to Dennis’s post and comments. First off, it’s actually not possible for Melville House to “withdraw from any future involvement” with the prize. We run the BTBAs like the National Book Critics Circle awards—publishers are encouraged to send eligible titles to the panelists, but panelists are also out buying, reading, and evaluating books on their own. We do this for the same reason that we don’t charge a submission fee—so that small presses that may not have the resources and infrastructure of a Random House can still be considered for the prize.

For example, last year at almost the eleventh hour for the voting, Michael Orthofer told all of us about The Weather Fifteen Years Ago by Wolf Haas. None of us had heard of this because Ariadne Press wasn’t aware of the award, or didn’t bother sending us copies, or whatever. But the book was one of the best eligible translations published in 2009, and we wanted everyone to know about it.

Point being, unless Melville House stops publishing literature in translation (which I don’t think is going to happen anytime soon), their titles will still be considered for the award. We won’t expect any review copies to be arriving on the doorsteps of our panelists anytime soon (although seeing that the majority are also reviewers, we might end up receiving more books than we expect), and if a Melville House title is chosen, we will offer the money to the winning author and translator. It’s up to them if they want to reject it or not. We’ll still promote the book, try and get people to read it, etc., etc.

And yes, as in years past, we will try and promote the crap out of these titles through independent bookstores. I worked for years in indie stores before getting into publishing and will always have a soft spot in my heart for what they do. I love the people in bookselling, the feeling of being in a bookstore, of browsing, of overhearing bookish conversations, of getting a recommendation from someone who’s more well-read than I am. Simply put, indie bookstores kick ass. And as was demonstrated with the now on hiatus Reading the World program, and the number of judges on our panels, indie stores are great supporters of international literature, and we (me, Open Letter, Three Percent, the BTBAs, society) would be lost without them.

Since oversharing is a hallmark of this blog, I do want to say that reading about Dennis’s post on dozens and dozens of blogs and tweets and whatever rocked my mind a little bit. As I said above, this was my decision, and the awards my baby, so I take any and all criticisms way more personally than maybe I should. Learning how best to run and promote this awards has been a process. We’re still experimenting with how best to announce the awards, with how to promote the winning titles. And we’ll keep experimenting. Undeniably, Amazon’s contribution will help us reach these goals, and I’m sorry that Dennis has chosen to try and undermine the awards in an attempt to make a political point. We’re going to continue doing what we’re doing, and doing all we can do to champion literature in translation.

OK, back to your regularly scheduled postings.

1 As a corollary to Dennis’s post, I wonder if he’s also withdrawing support from PEN America, the 92nd St. Y, and all of these other organizations that have received funding from Amazon.

27 May 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

If you’re in New York—for BEA, or simply because you live there—you should definitely come out to tonight’s party in honor of Alejandro Zambra, author of Bonsai (Melville House, finalist for 2009 Best Translated Book Award) and The Private Lives of Trees (Open Letter).

The event is at Melville House’s office in DUMBO (145 Plymouth St, at Pearl St) and starts at 7pm.

5 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next eleven days, we’ll be highlighting a book a day from the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada. Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann (Germany, Melville House)

Below is a guest post from Tom Roberge, an editor at Penguin, avid fan of international literature, and big lover of this book.

Last March was a strange time for novels dealing with Nazis. On the one hand Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones finally appeared in the US, and reactions on both ends of the critical spectrum were hyperbolic. The fictional memoir of a Nazi officer who details his role in scores of unspeakable atrocities that won two of France’s major literary awards, it was either heralded as a masterpiece or dismissed as utter garbage by American critics. I wanted nothing to do with it, not because I cringe at descriptions of violence and depravity—I generally gravitate towards them—but instead because I’d read so many reviews that accused Littell of a grievous fault: being a bad writer. Questionable morality I can handle; bad writing I cannot. To this day, the only person I’ve spoken to who’s read the book was a used bookseller at a flea market, and he claimed that it was the best book he’d ever read.

On the other hand was Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, which for some absurd reason had never been published in the U.S. since it was completed just before the author’s death in 1947. But thanks to Dennis Johnson at Melville House Books, this oversight has been addressed. At the heart of the story are Otto and Anna Quangel, a middle-aged German couple whose soldier son has died just before the book’s opening. At first simply stunned into near paralysis, they slowly emerge from their passivity and begin a quiet civil disobedience campaign by making and distributing anti-Nazi postcards. They imagine they’re sparking revolution, or at least sparking a conversation about a revolution, but the truth is that the cards are rarely seen by anyone other than citizen informants and their official contacts. Their efforts are not only largely fruitless, they’re also incredibly dangerous; as you can imagine, the Nazis didn’t look kindly on defiance.

What makes Every Man Dies Alone so remarkable is its portrait of what we’d now call “average” Germans during World War II. They’re average on one level because they’re blue collar employees living in modest conditions. They are also surrounded by and only interact with other people living in similar situations, some better off, some worse off. But they’re average on another level as well: they are not targets of Nazi “cleansing.” Instead they are the people for whom Hitler’s war is being fought. In return for this crusade, all the Nazis ask for is unquestioned loyalty and total devotion to the war effort.

Littell’s Nazi officer is a cruel, despicable man. He represents the entire Nazi regime, and The Kindly Ones is meant to give readers a glimpse inside the minds of men who killed millions mercilessly, all for the sake of an appallingly horrific ideal. Fallada, however, set out to portray life among the non-Jewish, non-military Germans during the war, and what he reveals is a terrorizing existence. Otto and Anna had been, before their son was killed in combat, as close to politically apathetic as it was possible to be in Nazi Germany. They hated the war and they hated Hitler, but they believed they were powerless to do anything, so they spent all of their time either at work or at home, avoiding contact with anyone but each other as much as possible. They were absolutely terrified, and Fallada shows why this is by following various other characters as they navigate the tense society.

A family of zealous former Nazi youths spies on its neighbors, robs an elderly Jewish woman, and generally causes trouble for anyone it believes is disloyal or insufficiently loyal. A lazy, lecherous man tips off officials for the money. On the other side there are people like Otto and Anna who want nothing more than to keep to themselves, including an elderly doctor who allows the aforementioned elderly Jewish woman to take refuge in his apartment, along with a postal worker who brazenly quits the Nazi party—despite the fact that it means she’ll be essentially unable to work again—when she realizes what her soldier son has been up to. The Berlin that emerges is one of constant terror. The Nazis have used terror to force average citizens to spy on each other, to exploit each other, to cast suspicion on each other. Fear of being wrongly accused, arrested, and punished or killed drives many people inside, both literally and figuratively. They race to work and race home, and talk to no one. And once home, they barely talk to each other, keeping all thoughts to themselves. It takes Otto and Anna several days to even talk about the death of their son. In such conditions, every action against the state, every slightly critical word or insincere gesture of loyalty, is magnified to superlative levels, and the consequences can be life-altering to say the least.

As I read, the book I thought of the most was Camus’ The Plague, his extended allegory on German-occupied France during the same time period that Fallada’s book takes place. Both books are about finding ways to get through individual days and about fighting back against ubiquitous terror. The doctor in The Plague fights back steadily but cautiously, despite pleas from his neighbors, one of whom gets through the days by perpetually re-drafting the opening sentence of a novel. Otto and Anna fight back, as well, but their battle isn’t as successful, except in one very crucial, personal regard: it engendered hope, it offered a vision of a different life. There is no happy ending here. Instead this is an invaluable portrait of a time and place that we should all make every effort to understand as much as possible.

18 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next four weeks, we’ll be highlighting a book a day from the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



The Confessions of Noa Weber by Gail Hareven. Translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu. (Israel, Melville House)

It’s hard to write an objective overview when it comes to books like this. I first heard about this via Jessa Crispin’s review for NPR, then coming across Michael Orthofer’s review at Complete Review, where he gave it an “A-.” (Anyone who follows Complete Review knows how rare anything above a B or B+ is . . . ) Completely intrigued but living through the beginnings of my divorce—a divorce that at the time I wasn’t totally in favor of—I picked this up over the summer despite my slight fear that a book about a woman’s obsessive love for a man who left her was maybe not the best thing for my state of mind.

Who knows if it was or wasn’t, but after the first handful of pages I was in love with Noa’s voice. As I mentioned in my review, this is one of those novels in which the voice and telling of the story far outstrips the plot of the actual book. At its most basic, The Confessions of Noa Weber is about a middle-aged writer who married a man out of convenience (to escape her military duty) and continues to love for the rest of her life despite the fact that he leaves her for Russia, for another woman, for a different life.

Noa goes on to become a very successful author of Nira Woolf detective novels, but never stops loving Alek. And this book is her gut-wrenchingly personal account of her obsession and her life as a whole. In our blog & Twitter-obsessed world, this book is perfectly suited for our times. It reads like a too-personal look into someone’s life, but one that is charming, honest, smart, self-critical, sarcastic, and absolutely captivating.

The temptation always exists to be flippant at your own expense in the marketplace of anecdotes and then to go around with your hat and collect the laughter. Everything’s a joke nowadays, everything’s a laugh, it’s the fashion. So that feeling seriously has become utterly and completely pathetic. A kind of social impropriety which only a real blockhead would be guilty of. You won’t usually catch me making this kind of faux pas, because I am a polite person, I have self-respect and I don’t want to cause embarrassment either. And since I’m such a classy gal, everything about me is classy too. In other words, in the framework of the anecdote and the shtick, the best thing about a good shtick is that like a hawker in the marketplace you can dish it out to people like a tasty morsel of yourself.

So I could sell you this wild shtick about how I got turned on by Alek, and how from the thing we had together I got pregnant, and how afterwards I got back into that whole scene again; and it’ll all be terribly flippant and witty, how I’ll laugh at her, and for a few moments perhaps I’ll even feel healed, because I’ll be really capable of laughing at “her,” who by then is already not completely me.

The truth is that emotional seriousness involves not a little stupidity. The stupidity lies in that toad-like inflation itself, as if vis-a-vis all the terribly painful and terribly important and terribly, terribly terrible things happening in the world, Noa Weber jumps up and croaks out loud: Listen, listen, look, look, I too have something terribly painful and terribly important to tell. Something about my tortured soul. Something about my delusions.

Once you start reading this book, it’s almost impossible to put down. Noa Weber is an amazing character—one that you could listen to forever. In fact, I know someone who refuses to finish the last five pages just so that it won’t be over . . .

Gail Hareven won the Sapir Prize for Literature for this novel, and although I have no idea what her other books are like (she’s the author of five other novels and three story collections), I really hope Melville House (or someone) will bring them out in Dalya Bilu’s translations. Even if they’re half as good as Noa Weber, they’d still be totally amazing.

7 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Last week we mentioned the MobyLives series on What Roberto Bolano Read, which is tied into their recent release: Roberto Bolano: The Last Interview & Other Conversations. Well, I fell a bit behind, so here’s some info on the two most recent posts:

From Antipoetry:

Roberto Bolaño once declared that Franz Kafka was the best writer of the twentieth century. He also said the same thing about Anton Chekhov. And Raymond Carver. So when he refers to Chile’s Nicanor Parra as “the best living Spanish language poet,” we have to take his word for it.

It is a well known part of the “Bolaño myth” that, even though his most heralded works are prose, Bolaño spent most of is formative years writing, reading, and living poetry. In fact, according to his last interview he considered himself a better poet than narrator because, he said, he was “less embarrassed” by his poetry. Among the many poets Bolaño fell in love with was Nicanor Parra.
Nicanor Parra has had enough of your nonsense.

Born in 1914, Parra, according to the standard biography, studied engineering at the University of Chile, physics at Brown University, and cosmology at Oxford, and spent many years as a teacher of mathematics and a professor of theoretical physics in Santiago. He published his first collection in 1938, and his major work Poemas Y Antipoemas in 1954. Much of Parra’s work resembles the later products of the American Beat poets.

In an essay Bolaño wrote called “Eight Seconds with Nicanor Parra,” he noted “I’m only sure about one thing regarding Nicanor Parra’s poetry in this new century: it will endure . . . along with the poetry of Borges, of Vallejo, of Cernuda and a few others.” In a veiled compliment, one Parra probably loved, Bolaño went on to write “But this, we have to say it, doesn’t matter too much.”

And from The Literature of Silence:

Roberto Bolaño is famously the author of two very long novels. The English edition of 2666 is 912 pages, The Savage Detectives, 672 pages. And though Bolaño died prematurely at age fifty, he produced more than 25 published volumes. A stash of unpublished manuscripts was discovered earlier this year. He was, simply, prolific.

But Bolaño was deeply interested in writers who chose not to produce or publish, as well as writers who were prematurely silenced. In an interview from 2005 in the Spanish literary journal Turia, Bolaño declared that “There are literary silences.” And he connected a number of his favorite authors to this notion.

“Kafka’s, for example, which is a silence that cannot be. When he asks that his papers be burned, Kafka is opting for silence, opting for a literary silence, all in a literary era. That is to say, he was completely moral. Kafka’s literature, aside from being the best work, the highest literary work of the 20th century, is of an extreme morality and of an extreme gentility, things that usually do not go together either.”

Another figure that Bolaño raised was Juan Rulfo, whose two books are among the most influential works of 20th century Mexican literature. After publishing the short story collection The Burning Plain (1953) and the novel Pedro Páramo (1955), Rulfo (who lived from 1917 to 1986) stopped publishing narrative fiction, despite the enormous critical success of the books. Both Faulkner and García Márquez admitted to having been influenced by his prose.

Rulfo’s silence, according to Bolaño, “is obedient to something so quotidian that explaining it is a waste of time. There are several versions: One told by Monterroso is that Rulfo had an uncle so-and-so who told him stories and when Rulfo was asked why he didn’t write anymore, his answer was that his uncle so-and-so had died. And I believe it too . . . Rulfo stopped writing because he had already written everything he wanted to write and because he sees himself incapable of writing anything better, he simply stops . . . After desert, what the hell are you going to eat?”

Click through to read the complete posts. And to get more info on The Last Interview. And if you haven’t read Pedro Paramo you must. It’s absolutely one of the best books of the past century.

3 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Melville House is simply amazing. The books, the Art of the Novellas series, the recently released Bolano interview book, their MobyLives blog, and their cool t-shirts.

And now, their ten day feature on What Bolano Read:

Over the next two weeks, we’ll be hosting “What Bolaño Read,” a series of posts by Tom McCartan charting the reading habits of Roberto Bolaño, the Chilean novelist, poet, and short story writer. Bolaño was a prolific writer, the author of numerous books, including 2666, The Savage Detectives, and By Night in Chile, but he was also a dedicated reader. The series celebrates the publication of Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview & Other Conversations, which is just out from Melville House. (And recently excerpted by the New York Times here.)

Today’s entry focuses on a 2003 interview Mónica Maristain did for Mexican Playboy in which she asked him about “the five books that marked his life”:

“In reality the five books are more like 5,000. I’ll mention these only as the tip of the spear: Don Quixote by Cervantes, Moby-Dick by Melville. The complete works of Borges, Hopscotch by Cortázar, A Confederacy of Dunces by Toole. I should also cite Nadja by Breton, the letters of Jacques Vaché. Anything Ubu by Jarry, Life: A User’s Manual by Perec. The Castle and The Trial by Kafka. Aphorisms by Lichtenberg. The Tractatus by Wittgenstein. The Invention of Morel by Bioy Casares. The Satyricon by Petronius. The History of Rome by Tito Livio. Pensées by Pascal.”

30 November 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I know I’m late to the game on this, but last month Melville House published Roberto Bolano: The Last Interview & Other Conversations featuring a conversation with journalist Monica Maristain—which turned out to be Bolano’s best—along with a collection of conversations with other Latin American reporters. (And there’s an introduction by Marcela Valdes, who wrote an amazing piece about him for The Nation back some months ago.)

The book is totally wish-listed for me, but in the meantime if you click here there’s a sample interview available online through Issuu. It’s actually a reprint of a conversation between Carmen Boullosa and Bolano (trans. by Margaret Carson) that appeared in BOMB back in 2002 entitled “Reading Is Always More Important than Writing.”

Carmen Boullosa: In Latin America, there are two literary traditions that the average reader tends to regard as antithetical, opposite—or frankly, antagonistic: the fantastic—Adolfo Bioy Casares, the best of Cortazar, and the realist—Vargas Llosa, Teresa de la Parra. [. . .] In my opinion, you reap the benefits of both: Your novels and narratives are inventions—the fantastic—and a sharp, critical reflection of reality—realist. [. . .] Do you object to this idea, or does it appeal to you? To be honest, I find it somewhat illuminating, but it also leaves me dissatisfied: The best, the greatest writers (including Bioy Casares and his anthithesis, Vargas Llosa) always draw from these two traditions. Yet from the standpoint of the English-speaking North, there’s a tendency to pigeonhole Latin American literature within only one tradition.

Roberto Bolano: I thought the realists came from the south (by that, I mean the countries in the Southern Cone), and writers of the fantastic came from the middle and northern parts of Latin America—if you pay attention to these compartmentalizations, which you should never, under any circumstances, take seriously. Twentieth century Latin American literature has followed the impulses of imitation and rejection, and may continue to do so for some time in the twenty-first century. As a general rule, human beings either imitate or reject the great monuments, never the small, nearly invisible treasures. We have few writers who have cultivated the fantastic in the strictest sense—perhaps none, because among other reasons, economic underdevelopment doesn’t allow subgenres to flourish. Underdevelopment only allows for great works of literature. Lesser works, in this monotonous or apocalyptic landscape, are an unattainable luxury. Of course, it doesn’t follow that our literature is full of great works—quite the contrary. At first the writer aspires to meet these expectations, but then reality—the same reality that has fostered these aspirations—works to stunt the final product. I think there are only two countries with an authentic literary tradition that have at times managed to escape this destiny—Argentina and Mexico. As to my writing, I don’t know what to say. I suppose it’s realist. I’d like to be a writer of the fantastic, like Philip K. Dick, although as time passes and I get older, Dick seems more and more realist to me. Deep down—and I think you’ll agree with me—the question doesn’t lie in the distinction of realist/fantastic but in languages and structures, in ways of seeing. I had no idea that you like Teresa de la Parra so much. When I was in Venezuela people spoke a lot about her. Of course, I’ve never read her.

18 September 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our review section is a review of Gail Hareven’s The Confessions of Noa Weber, which came out from Melville House Press earlier this year in Dalya Bilu’s stunning translation. (I didn’t mention her translation in the actual review, but wow, to capture this voice so convincingly, so compellingly, is quite a feat.)

I’m a big fan of this book, which, as happens to so many great books, was tragically under-reviewed when it came out this past April. (Although it was praised by Jessa Crispin at NPR and by Michael Orthofer at the Complete Review.)

Here’s the opening to my piece:

For years now, Melville House has been one of the most exciting independent presses out there. The political books they’ve done are fantastic, the Art of the Novella Series is arguably one of the most genius marketing/editorial publishing projects of the past decade, and the return of the Moby Lives blog (I still wear my “The whale is out there, man!” t-shirt every so often) is a brilliant addition to the current litblog scene. And on top of all that there’s the fine list of translations that they’ve been bringing out over the past few years. Alejandro Zambra’s Bonsai. Marcel Proust’s The Lemoine Affair. Miguel de Cervantes’s The Dialogue of the Dogs. More recently, the Hans Fallada rediscovery project, which includes Every Man Dies Alone (a Best Translated Book Award nominee), The Drinker, and Little Man, What Now? And if that wasn’t enough, along comes Gail Hareven’s searing, addictive novel The Confessions of Noa Weber, another nominee for the 2010 Best Translated Book Award.

I know this is going to totally undersell the novel (honestly, I’m not sure my reviewing skills are up to this painfully honest book anyway), but The Confessions of Noa Weber reads like the best possible personal blog ever written. It’s a personal account of mystery writer Noa Weber’s lifelong obsession with Alek, a man she marries out of convenience (to escape her military duty), has a child with, and loves her whole life even though they separate pretty early on, and he moves to Russia, where he eventually finds a more placid existence with another woman.

Click here for the full review.

18 September 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For years now, Melville House has been one of the most exciting independent presses out there. The political books they’ve done are fantastic, the Art of the Novella Series is arguably one of the most genius marketing/editorial publishing projects of the past decade, and the return of the Moby Lives blog (I still wear my “The whale is out there, man!” t-shirt every so often) is a brilliant addition to the current litblog scene. And on top of all that there’s the fine list of translations that they’ve been bringing out over the past few years. Alejandro Zambra’s Bonsai. Marcel Proust’s The Lemoine Affair. Miguel de Cervantes’s The Dialogue of the Dogs. More recently, the Hans Fallada rediscovery project, which includes Every Man Dies Alone (a Best Translated Book Award nominee), The Drinker, and Little Man, What Now? And if that wasn’t enough, along comes Gail Hareven’s searing, addictive novel The Confessions of Noa Weber, another nominee for the 2010 Best Translated Book Award.

I know this is going to totally undersell the novel (honestly, I’m not sure my reviewing skills are up to this painfully honest book anyway), but The Confessions of Noa Weber reads like the best possible personal blog ever written. It’s a personal account of mystery writer Noa Weber’s lifelong obsession with Alek, a man she marries out of convenience (to escape her military duty), has a child with, and loves her whole life even though they separate pretty early on, and he moves to Russia, where he eventually finds a more placid existence with another woman.

This is one of those books where the prose far out-strips the plot. Noa’s voice—so direct, so honest, so unabashed and sarcastic and pointed—is mesmerizing, drawing the reader in immediately:

The city of J lies at the top of the hills of J. That’s how I’d like to begin my story; at a calm distance, with a deep breath, in a panoramic shot focusing very slowly on a single street, and very slowly on a single house, “this is the house where I was born.” But you’d be making a fool of yourself if your J were Jerusalem, since every idiot knows about Jerusalem. And altogether it’s impossible to talk about Jerusalem any more. Impossible, that is to say, without “winding alleys” and “stone courtyards,” “caper bushes” and “Arab women in the market place.” And I have nothing to say about caper bushes and stone courtyards, nor do I have the faintest desire to flavor my story with the colorful patois of colorful Jerusalem characters, twirling their mustaches as they spin Oriental tales. [. . .]

It isn’t my personal problem as a writer. It isn’t my personal problem that a person who was born here can’t open with the words “I was born”—because so what? So you were born, good for you, you were born, okay, and then what? Because after “I was born” has to come an adventure story that will take the first person far, far away from his birthplace, and how far can you really get from here? To the Far East on the beaten track of the ex-warriors from the Golani Brigade? To Uman with the nutcases of the Bratslav Hassids to their rabbi’s grave? And however far you went you’d end up meeting someone who knew your cousin’s cousin. Not interesting. Not interesting at all.

As the novel progresses, Noa weaves together events from the past and present, filling out her life, from her time as a young pregnant woman to a very successful writer of feminist mystery novels, to an older woman who has never met any man who can replace her first love. An almost hypocritical situation given her politics, and one that generates self-criticism, but also this gorgeous “confession.”

There are very moving moments in this book, and it can be occasionally uncomfortable in the way that watching someone break down in a public forum (like a blog, like Facebook, like Twitter) can be a bit uncomfortable. But on the whole, this is a remarkable piece of literature. And the way Hareven chisels out the shape of Noa’s self makes me hope that her other works will also eventually make their way into English. Another amazing find by Melville House.

14 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

As pointed out at Moby Lives yesterday marked the 93rd year after the death of Sholem Aleichem. (No, I don’t think 93 has any real numerological significance, but anniversaries are a nice reason for writing about someone’s work/life. And this does happen to be the 150th year after Aleichem’s birth . . . )

Most well known for his Tevye stories, which served as the basis for the musical The Fiddler on the Roof, Aleichem was one of the great comic Jewish writers of modern times and led an interesting life (from Moby Lives):

Born Solomon Rabinowitz in 1859, the son of a merchant in the Ukrainian village of Pereyaslav, he wrote his first book at fourteen: a dictionary of Yiddish curses overheard at home. Despite jobs teaching Russian and writing for Hebrew newspapers, it was his writings in Yiddish—humorous stories about village life—that brought him fame. Using the Yiddish greeting (“Peace unto you”) as his pseudonym, he published 40 volumes of stories and plays, single-handedly creating a literature for what had been primarily a spoken language. Pogroms forced Aleichem to flee Russia in 1905, eventually landing him in New York City, his fame undiminished. When Aleichem was introduced to Mark Twain as “the Yiddish Mark Twain,” Twain interrupted to call himself the “American Sholom Aleichem.” Upon Aleichem’s death in 1916, 100,000 mourners flooded the streets of Manhattan for his funeral. His will, however, asked friends to remember him by an annual reading of one of his funny stories. “Let my name be recalled in laughter,” Aleichem wrote, “or not at all.”

Recently, Melville House reissued Stempenyu: A Jewish Romance, which was the first of Aleichem’s books to be translated into English, and supposedly it the story that inspired Fiddler on the Roof.

For those interested, Tevye the Dairyman and Motl the Cantor’s Son was recently reissued by Penguin Classics in a new translation by Aliza Shevrin.

And Viking also brought out the first complete translation (also by Aliza Shevrin) of Wandering Stars, a late novel of Aleichem’s about the world of Yiddish theater. Tony Kushner wrote an excellent foreword to this book that really makes me want to carve out the time to read it (or at least have someone review it in full for the site . . . if anyone’s interested, e-mail me at chad.post at rochester dot edu).

The reader of Wandering Stars can, if this is the kind of thing the reader likes to do, catalog its imperfections, of which there are enough to keep any literary scorekeeper busy and happy. Time lurches wildly in Aleichem’s novel, and the narrative along with it. The opinionated, distractible narrator, when he’s doing his job, rather than taking a rest while allowing letters written by the characters do the storytelling, seems less interested in his two protagonists than in the fantastical secondary cast that surrounds them. And who can blame him? The secondary characters are magnificent, men and women cooked up out of wit, terror, panic, hunger, chutzpah, pathos, and spleen (especially spleen), effortfully and arduously cooked — peeled, chopped, boiled, or fried — rather than dreamed up or imagined.

That this is a knotty, knobby, odd novel of fits and starts and sudden jolts is possibly due to its serialized newsprint origins and its lateness in Sholem Aleichem’s writing life; or possibly conventional wisdom and Reb Mendalle Mocher Sephorim are right about him, and Aleichem is found at his best in his short stories and occasional pieces. We might thus consign his novel to culture’s remainder table, unless we consider how appropriate its strangeness is to its subject. Though like many other, more perfect novels, Wandering Stars is about love, it’s about love between Jews who work in the theater. So it should be strange and imperfect. Theater is almost never perfect; its imperfections, its incompleteness and its tawdriness, are among the principal sources of its power. And do I need to tell you that life for Jews isn’t perfect? I don’t.

29 April 09 | Chad W. Post |

Hans Fallada, née Rudolph Ditzen, led a tumultuous, short life, producing several great works even under the crushing hand of the Nazi Regime. Fallada’s own life, itself worthy of several novels, was plagued by drugs, alcohol, stints in sanatoriums, and most importantly, artistic integrity as a writer. At eighteen, he entered into a suicide pact with his friend while they were at college. Disguised as a duel, it passed miserably with Fallada killing his friend and shooting himself in the chest, an event that he survived. This suicide pact resulted from their growing attraction to one another and mutual desire to avoid besmirching their family’s names. He dropped out of college and began a career path working in agriculture. As he worked on farms, Fallada continued to write and depend heavily on drugs. He managed to publish two novels to no great acclaim. After two separate prison terms for embezzling from his employers, he landed a clerk position with his publisher and, after a disastrous financial time, is asked to reduce his salary. Fallada declined, instead asking to have his advance parsed out in five installments during which time he penned the bestseller Little Man, What Now? This success saved not only Fallada, but also the publishing house itself from financial ruin. Fallada attempted to buy a house in the environs of the city, but the owner accused him of being an anti-Nazi conspirator. Through his new connections, he escaped punishment yet decided to remain in Germany. The ensuing years consisted of periods of drying up, stays in psychiatric hospitals, novels that contained no political content, and a tenuous relationship with the Nazi regime. The Nazis censored and promoted his work with equal fervor and their typical unpredictability. Upon release from a Nazi insane asylum he was confined to during the end of the war, a friend gave him a Gestapo file of a couple that resisted the Nazis by writing postcards filled with anti-Nazi sentiment and dropping them anonymously at various locations throughout Berlin. At first this didn’t strike Fallada as all that interesting, although after being urged by friends to write another novel with a political bent, he penned Every Man Dies Alone in 24 days. Fallada died days before its publication in 1947.

When entering into any type of discussion about Every Man Dies Alone, it is necessary to outline Fallada’s personal and historical context so that the reader can understand the full impact of this work and why it is so monumental. By no means was Fallada a dissident. Nor was he a supporter. Because he held his artistic journey above all else, he did what he had to do to stay alive and stay in Germany during the reign of the Fürher. Fallada himself might not be considered a hero, but his final novel leaves an indelible impression of how ordinary people resisted a dictatorship of evil through acts of courage that, however meager, would most likely bring them death.

Otto and Anna Quangel, based on the real life couple of Otto and Elise Hampel, are simple people who live in an average apartment building on Jablonski Strasse in Berlin during World War II. They are middle-aged, poor German citizens who aren’t politically involved or astute, and approve of the Nazi regime without the knowledge to know better. But once their son, Ottochen is killed at the front, they begin a three-year campaign of resistance through anti-Nazi propaganda postcards that Otto and Anna drop at apartment and business buildings throughout the city. Each Sunday, Otto painstakingly writes in his childlike hand one postcard to be delivered that week. With each passing week, Otto’s newfound ethics become more dangerous. Each week he evades arrest he is empowered, growing more confident that the Gestapo would never suspect a quiet, older factory supervisor with limited education:

“Some,” Quangel resumes, “will hand the card in right away, to the block warden or the police-anything to be rid of it! But even that doesn’t matter: whether it’s shown to the Party or not, whether to an official or a policeman, they all will read the card, and it will have some effect on them. Even if the only effect is to remind them that there is still resistance out there, that not everyone thinks like the Führer…”

“No,” she says. “Not everyone. Not us.”

“And there will be more of us, Anna. We will make more. We will inspire other people to write their own postcards. In the end, scores of people, hundred, will be sitting down and writing cards like us, we will depose the Führer, end the war…”

He stops, alarmed by his own words, these dreams that so late in life have come to haunt his heart.

The Quangels quietly go about their business making and distributing their anti-regime propaganda while their neighbors and friends slowly become entangled in the small evils that war perpetuates. Even in the Quangels building, paranoia and tension run high. The Party loving Persickes whose alcoholic father is a card-carrying member of the Party live there. But the most menacing threat that he has produced is his son, Baldur Persicke, member of the Hitler Youth with a penchant for power.

There’s also Frau Rosenthal whose husband was taken away to a concentration camp and she is left as an old women to protect herself from the Nazis, especially the Persickes.

There’s the retired Judge who attempts to hide Frau Rosenthal in his apartment after hers is broken into and ransacked.

There’s Emil Borkhausen, the whiny good-for-nothing who lives in the back of the building with a prostitute and her children.

And of course, Ottochen’s girlfriend, Trudel Baumann figures prominently in the story as she later is pulled in for questioning due to her association with the Quangels.

We meet Enno and Eva Kluge, a married couple who no longer love each other or even live together. Enno is a womanizing freeloader and Eva Kluge is a post woman who eventually wants to retire and move to the country, thinking she will be farther away from the Nazis and their impact.

Progressing through the novel, Inspector Escherich, who refers to the postcard dropper as ‘Hobgoblin’, becomes an integral part in the Nazi machine and finding the Quangels.

In fact, the novel contains many “minor characters,” but when dealing in extremes such as life and death, none of these characters are truly minor. Each character’s actions have consequences that lead to the demise of themselves or others. Nothing goes unpunished. That is what is so powerful about this book. It gives us a picture of what life was like day to day for the ordinary people of Berlin. With Fallada, we are not given the war through key players and depictions of historical atrocities; we are given the war as if seen through a peephole with a telescope. The magnification of evil in the mundane is the view Fallada gives us. These are the “little people” striving to make a life as death hovers all around them. Otto himself, working in a factory that makes coffins, can only silently witness the horrors that occur:

But sometimes out of that dullness a terrifying rage would explode like the time a worker had fed his arm into the saw and screamed, “I wish Hitler would drop dead! And he will! Just as I am sawing off my arm!”

They had a job pulling that lunatic out of the machinery, and of course nothing had been heard of him since.

And Fallada makes us see that just because you are in the Party, that doesn’t mean that you are offered protection from threats, death, or punishment. Fear is the basis on which the Gestapo operates and the rules of conduct are arbitrary. Escherich follows the work of the Quangels for two year developing theories and narrowing down where the Hobgoblin might live, what his profile might be. But one day he makes a tiny misstep and he is no different that a Nazi traitor and thrown into prison for his ineptitude:

Every joint hurt him, and then it was out of his clothes and into the striped zebra suit, and the shameless redistribution of his possessions among the SS guards. All amid continual kicks and punches, and threats…

Oh yes, Inspector Escherich had seen it all many times in the past few years, and seen nothing surprising or reprehensible in any of it, because that was how you dealt with criminals. Naturally. But the fact that he, Detective Inspector Escherich, was now ranked among these criminals and stripped of all rights, that was something he couldn’t get into his head. He hadn’t broken the law. All he had done was make the suggestion that a case be passed along, a case on which his superiors had had not one useful idea between them. It would all be cleared up—they would have to get him out. They couldn’t do without him! And until that time, he had to maintain his dignity, show no fear, not even show pain.

The severity of the punishment and treatment one would receive if any official or citizen construed the tiniest slight against Hitler and his regime became part of the collective consciousness. Anything but obedience was not accepted. And what becomes so clear throughout the novel is that Hitler and the SS took on the role of God and doled out death as they saw fit. Death no longer became something far in the future, but lurked steps in front of you or behind you.

Fallada’s narrative tone is not depressive or somber, surprisingly. The novel reads like a thriller with a well-developed detachment that allows the reader moments of reprieve from the subject matter. But Fallada does not shield us from reality or death itself. What he does do is give a courageous and elegant face to the characters that decide to take their own life as an act of freedom and defiance. Although in today’s world, suicide isn’t considered brave, in Every Man Dies Alone we are shown that when one is faced with the inevitability of torture and death at the hands of another, the only way to be in control of your destiny is to stand up to the ignorance of evil with your own freedom and your own life.

7 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

One of the biggest books this spring—at least in terms of general coverage and growing hype—has to be Hans Fallada’s rediscovered masterpiece, Every Man Dies Alone.

It’s based on a true story of a working class couple living in Berlin during WWII who launch a “simple, clandestine resistance campaign that soon has an enraged Gestapo on their trail, and a world of terrified neighbors and cynical snitches ready to turn them in.”

The novel’s been receiving heaps of praise, including a very positive review in the New York Times Book Review that opens: “A signal literary event of 2009 has occurred.”

I should save this for my upcoming PRI post, but The World recently did a segment on The Kindly Ones and Every Man Dies Alone that included a brief conversation with Ulrich Ditzen, Fallada’s son.

All of this build-up is just to let you know that the German Book Office in New York is giving away five free copies of the beautifully produced hardcover. To get one, just e-mail Hannah Johnson at johnson at gbo dot org.

(And if you want to get future announcements from the GBO, be sure to join their Facebook Group.

18 December 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We’re all about Melville House . . . in addition to the forthcoming post about Alejandro Zambra’s Bonsai, we also just posted this new review of Kevin Vennemann’s Close to Jedenew another book from Melville House’s Contemporary Art of the Novella Series.

This review was written by Douglas Carlsen, who is the director of Whitman College Bookstore and has been making his living from books in one way or another since 1970. He’s also an actor, director, poet, short story writer, and co-owner of Willowbend Farm.

His very thoughtful review begins:

“We do not breathe.”

So begins Kevin Vennemann’s Close to Jedenew. The story of an event. A day in July, 1941. A moment between evening and night. Between “what was” and “nothing remaining.” A survivor’s tale—of movement from the “we” to the “I.” A story of loss—“in the evening we sit, nine in number, at night we are six”—until no one but the narrator remains.

Living just outside the small farming community of Jedenew in eastern Poland, a Jewish family

“[sits] behind the house in the midsummer evening sun on the narrow wooden dock that leads out into the pond behind the house, [they] sit and lie and swim in the sun and sit together reading and drink the first and last summer punch of the year.”

The first and last summer punch. The last evening. The tale of a family’s personal Kristallnacht, and following holocaust, at the hands of longtime neighbors and friends—

“On this evening, this last evening, it is Antonina who says softly: They’re coming.” For hours the Jedenew farmers sit in the woods behind the house and drink and laugh and sing and play, and only after hours go by do we finally hear them coming out of the woods, singing at the top of their voices and marching over the ridge into the garden.

What happens in the twilight we are never told.

The rest can be found by clicking here.

18 December 08 | Chad W. Post |

“We do not breathe.”

So begins Kevin Vennemann’s Close to Jedenew. The story of an event. A day in July, 1941. A moment between evening and night. Between “what was” and “nothing remaining.” A survivor’s tale—of movement from the “we” to the “I.” A story of loss—“in the evening we sit, nine in number, at night we are six”—until no one but the narrator remains.

Living just outside the small farming community of Jedenew in eastern Poland, a Jewish family

[sits] behind the house in the midsummer evening sun on the narrow wooden dock that leads out into the pond behind the house, [they] sit and lie and swim in the sun and sit together reading and drink the first and last summer punch of the year.

The first and last summer punch. The last evening. The tale of a family’s personal Kristallnacht, and following holocaust, at the hands of longtime neighbors and friends—

“On this evening, this last evening, it is Antonina who says softly: They’re coming.” For hours the Jedenew farmers sit in the woods behind the house and drink and laugh and sing and play, and only after hours go by do we finally hear them coming out of the woods, singing at the top of their voices and marching over the ridge into the garden.

What happens in the twilight we are never told. Though at night,

we hear the Jedenew farmers singing and playing clarinet, accordion, as if they were standing directly beside us, and see their shadows, nineteen altogether, cut up in the shattered glass all over the floor, slowly passing by the window, we do not breathe.

As if struggling to recall, the narrator’s story of this event is interrupted by other stories, stories repeated so often as to be remembered clearly, but, which follows which is unknown, nor do we know how closely each follows each. Only the “we” and the “I.” Only the event, only Marek’s stories, only Father’s stories, only. Only Krystowczyk who leads the farmers to murder because he fears, because that which he has worked for is lost, because of the invasion of his country by both Germans and Russians, and because of the Jews. Because Antonina marries Marek, and bears his child. Because his pigs are killed by Father and Wasznar. Because Father, Marek, Anna, Antonina, Wasznar, Kacia, little Zygmunt, infant Julia, and the narrator are Jews.

Close to Jedenew is not an easy read—neither the narrator’s story nor Vennemann’s language in telling it.

Close to Jedenew is a story, itself shattered, in the aftermath of a family’s murder by friends and neighbors caught up in fear and anger and jealousy. A story, the language of which is, if not equally, perhaps more important than the story itself. Fragmented—as the windows smashed out by friends and neighbors, “the blue-white moonlight scattered on the kitchen floor”—the words appear and reappear, reflected by and upon each other again and again. Vennemann tells and retells the same few stories of times past, of events that happened—today, yesterday, and years ago—all contemporaneously, all in a single voice, a single point of view, only by way of that which the narrator has experienced. Only the things the narrator’s eyes have seen and the narrator’s ears have heard. When the “I” speaks it is someone else’s voice we hear, yet it is the narrator’s tongue that speaks—that speaks for the dead—that takes the then and makes it now. Deconstructed, reinvented, re-imagined. The shards and fragments rearranged and retold, reflecting and repeating in kaleidoscopic manner the thoughts and deeds of a life recalled—a life ended with the narrator’s own “I.” With the last line of the story echoing the first—with the final “we” gone, the “I” stands alone—from the first “we do not breathe” to the final “I do not breathe” we see the disintegration of both family and language.

The use of the “I” to name the narrator only occurs after she recognizes there is no one left but herself—after she is irrevocably alone.

Vennemann leaves the narrator unnamed—a young jewish girl in her early-teens—and shapes the story of her family’s destruction from the multiplicity of voices through hers. The voice that Vennemann uses however is modern, the language modern, and situated not only in a worldview informed by modern language, but by modern social, philosophic and cinematic conventions. The story relatively simple and not unknown to us, yet Vennemann forces us to deal with a language far more complex and for more frustrating in its structure and syntax than perhaps the story warrants.

Before she goes, we wait until the guard in the garden behind the house is alone and turns away from the ridge and from the woods, when she goes, Marek gazes silently after Antonina, gazes silently at the wall for a few minutes . . .

The first “she” is Anna (sister to Marek and the Narrator), the second, Antonina (wife to Marek). The first moment of “waiting” is after Marek and Antonina are dead, the second moment of “gazing” is during the winter, six months prior.

How he finds our farms close to Jedenew, three or four years ago Anna instead of Antonina now takes Zygmunt, scarcely one year old, on her arm every morning for weeks while we lie awake . . .

The first section of the sentence is the last of the narrator’s father’s tale, the last sections are the beginning of a separate tale regarding Antonina’s mother’s death. In each instance Vennemann switches from one story to the next with no indication of the switch until the end of the sentence, and this continues throughout the novella as a device, perhaps more clever than justified.

As well, the language of the story seems inextricably linked to the German language itself. And in translation, I wonder—is the idiosyncratic syntax of the German appropriately, and effectively addressed? Is there not some shift in the manner of time and tense, which to subtly understand, in German, is not apparent in English? Are we missing something, some nuance of language, that rather than leading to understanding is complicating it?

It is with questions like this I wish I had paid more attention during my German language and philosophy courses so that I might more confidently speak to them. But the narrative sits some sixty to seventy years previously. I play with possibilities, and wonder then at the state of the narrator today who might be influenced by such a worldview, who would be over eighty years of age if telling the tale today, and I wonder if dementia influences the story told? If the confusion in syntax, the breathless urgency and the world that was contained has been shattered by the mind as well as the years?

Vennemann has written a story that is both compelling and strangely off-putting, that insists we pay attention to both story and language equally, yet where story and language do not always support each other. The ability to explore a work of such complexity is enhanced by its brevity—the novella allowing/requiring multiple readings, and yet, though Vennemann’s Close to Jedenew asks for more readings it lays much in the path of such. Even after several readings, I am uncertain how I feel about this work. Vennemann strives for much, but I still do not know with a certainty that he has achieved that for which he has worked.

15 December 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

For the next several weeks we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.

The Lemoine Affair by Marcel Proust, translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell. (France, Melville House)

One of the reasons this award is so much fun is the fact that someone like Marcel Proust can be on the same list as someone like Celine Curiol. Although I have to admit, I had no idea that there was anything from Proust that hadn’t already made its way into English . . . especially nothing this interesting.

The Lemoine Affair is part of Melville House’s Art of the Novella series, a collection of classic novellas by classic authors, such as Joyce’s The Dead, Cervantes’s The Dialogue of the Dogs, Balzac’s The Girld with the Golden Eyes, and Melville’s Benito Cereno. (MHP also does an Art of the Contemporary Novella series, which will be featured later this month in relation to Zambra’s Bonsai.)

This novella is a very unique, very playful book. It was written shortly after the “Lemoine Scandal,” a scam explained by Proust in the “Author’s Note”:

The reader may have forgotten, since ten years have now passed, that [Henri] Lemoine, having falsely claimed to have discovered the secret of making diamonds and having received, because of this claim, more than a million francs from the President of De Beers, Sir Julius Werner, who then brought action against him, was afterwards condemned on July 6, 1909 to six years in prison. This legal affair, which, although insignificant, enthralled public opinion at the time, was selected one evening by me, entirely by chance, as the common theme for a few short pieces in which I would set out to imitate the style of a certain number of writers.

As a series of pastiches written around a central event, this isn’t your typical novella. And that’s one of the things that makes it so intriguing. As Charlotte says in the interview below (more in a second), it’s Proust doing Balzac, doing Flaubert, doing Saint-Simon!

In order to celebrate this novella’s inclusion on the Best Translated Book of the Year fiction longlist I interviewed Charlotte Mandell, who, in addition to translating this book has translated Balzac’s _The Girl with the Golden Eyes, Flaubert’s A Simple Heart, and most recently Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, along with many, many other titles:

Chad W. Post: When I first heard about The Lemoine Affair, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that there was something of Proust’s that hadn’t made its way into English. How did this project come about? Did you bring it up with Melville House, or did they contact you?

Charlotte Mandell: The Proust project was my idea—Dennis and Valerie had asked me for some French ideas for their novella series, so I came up with three: Balzac’s The Girl with the Golden Eyes (which has been translated a number of times, but not to my liking), Jules Verne’s The Castle in Transylvania (_Le Château des Carpathes_, which was translated as The Carpathian Castle a while ago but is now out of print), and Proust’s Pastiches. (I had already translated Flaubert’s A Simple Heart and Maupassant’s The Horla for Melville House.) My friend Mark Cohen had given me a copy of Pastiches et mélanges a year or so before that, and while I knew the Mélanges (a collection of essays on art and literature) had been translated and published as Against Sainte-Beuve, I couldn’t find any published translation of the Pastiches. Which is sort of shocking, considering what wonderful material it is—Proust writing as Flaubert and Balzac!—but then again, it is a difficult piece to translate, so maybe no one wanted to tackle it before.

CWP: It really does seem like a difficult book to translate—everything’s so precise, and to really work you have to capture the voice of a number of different authors. Is there anything in particular you did to prepare for this translation? Reread bits of Balzac and Saint-Simon?

CM: Any good text speaks for itself, so if a text is well-written, and its narrative voice is convincing, there really isn’t any need for the translator to do anything but stay true to the text. And since Proust is a master stylist, he imitates each author’s style so well that it needed no help from me. That said, I did do some research as I was translating the book: I read a bit in Saint-Simon’s memoirs. And since Proust put many of his own friends into the Saint-Simon chapter, and since these same friends would later figure as characters in Remembrance, I read several biographies of Proust (the most helpful of which were William Sansom’s Proust and His World; The World of Marcel Proust by André Maurois; and A Proust Souvenir by William Howard Adams, with period photographs by Paul Nadar).

CWP: Was there a section that was particularly tricky?

CM: The most difficult pastiche to translate was definitely the Saint-Simon chapter, because it blends obscure 18th century court intrigue with Proust’s own intricate style and Saint-Simon’s interminable sentences, and places Proust’s friends in the court of Louis XIV. Proust admired Saint-Simon as a writer; I think one of the reasons the Saint-Simon pastiche is the longest one is that Proust got a little carried away with it, and it began to sound more like Proust than like Saint-Simon (the long sentence describing Proust’s close friend Robert de Montesquiou, the Symbolist poet and one of the models for Charlus, on pp. 79-80 sounds like pure Proust at his best). Proust said he wrote the pastiches partly to purge these authors from his system, so that when he began his great work, A la recherche du temps perdu, his voice would be entirely his own. I think Saint-Simon was the hardest author for him to exorcise!

CWP: In the piece you wrote about the book, you mention that the pastiche was a popular exercise back in the 1890s. It’s a really fun form, one that would have interesting results in just about any day and age. Which other famous pastiches as compelling as this one? (I’m mostly just curious. It seems to me like something the Oulipo would revive . . . )

CM: Rabelais was the first author I know of to write pastiches—The Third Book of the Pantagruel features a lot of pastiches written in the style of authors of his day. Alexander Pope, who spent years translating (or sub-contracting) Homer, did our most famous pastiche of the epic form in The Rape of the Lock. Henry Fielding’s Shamela is a much shorter parody and pastiche of Samuel Richardson’s commercially successful but interminable Pamela. Mark Twain has the Duke do a hilarious Shakespearian pastiche in Huckleberry Finn. La Bruyère pastiched Montaigne, I think. Max Beerbohm parodies different literary styles (H.G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and many others) in A Christmas Garland. The French author Paul Reboux, in collaboration with his friend Charles Müller, wrote many volumes of pastiches, titled A la manière de . . .; Proust is pastiched in it, along with his friends Alphonse Daudet and Anna de Noailles, as well as Tolstoy, Arthur Conan Doyle, Sartre, Jean Jaurès, Mallarmé . . .

It’s interesting you mention Oulipo – Raymond Queneau’s wonderful Exercices de style is a form of pastiche, since it tells the same story in 99 different styles (Umberto Eco translated that into Italian). That work spawned a number of other pastiches: Stéphane Tufféry’s Le style, mode d’emploi, in which he pastiches Balzac, Hugo, Verne, and Flaubert, among others; Lucien d’Azay’s Nouveaux exercices de style, in which he pastiches Duras, Echenoz, and Le Clézio, to name just a few; and the Oulipian Hervé Le Tellier, who presents 100 different views of the Mona Lisa in his Joconde jusqu’à cent, then 100 more in Joconde sur votre indulgence.

CWP: For readers unfamiliar with French literary history, this book could seem a bit heady or daunting with all the references and whatnot. Personally, I found it really enjoyable and entertaining, even in the sections where Proust was imitating someone I hadn’t read. Is there anything you would tell a potential reader in advance to increase his/her pleasure when reading this?

CM: Relax! Don’t worry about not getting all the references—just sit back and let the text lead you where it will. I’ve never read Henri de Régnier, but I felt I knew him perfectly after reading Proust’s pastiche—and I laughed out loud as I was translating it. All those endless parallel constructions (it was not this, but that . . .), the redundant and outrageous use of symbolism (Hermes’ caduceus, mucus resembling a diamond) . . . The wonderful thing about Proust is his ability to capture a particular author’s style and encapsulate it in just a few pages, or in some cases (as in the heartbreakingly beautiful end of the Flaubert pastiche) in just a few sentences. The pretended diamond is a fitting subject in this case, since each pastiche is a brilliant artificial gem of insight and style, and each one stands out and sparkles on its own. (It’s interesting to compare a Proust pastiche to a Beerbohm pastiche: Beerbohm is obviously Beerbohm writing in the style of . . . , whereas Proust becomes that author so convincingly you can forget you’re reading Proust. I think that wonderful ability to see through the eyes of another author is one of the things that makes Proust so great: as we read A la recherché, each character is so real that we become the narrator interacting with these characters, so that by the end of the book we feel as if all these characters were intimate friends of ours, and the narrator’s life and thoughts were our own.)

CWP: We (Three Percent and Co.) recently released our “Best Translated Book of 2008” fiction longlist, which includes Proust’s The Lemoine Affair. Assuming you think this book deserves to be on the list, are there any other translations you read/worked on this year that you’d like to recommend?

CM: I’m really pleased The Lemoine Affair made your longlist! I think I had six translations published in 2008, but the Proust is my favorite by far, and the one I’m most proud of, since it’s never been translated before (to my knowledge). A few other books of interest: Peter Szendy’s Listen: A History of Our Ears, an impassioned and erudite musicological look at the history of listening and who exactly “owns” the rights to classical music, and Balzac’s weird tale The Girl with the Golden Eyes. Jean Paulhan’s On Poetry and Politics is worth taking a look at, since Paulhan is an important figure in French letters and these essays are appearing in English for the first time. Also Pierre Bayard’s Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong, in which Bayard argues that fictional characters have lives of their own (as in Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds or any of the Jasper Fforde novels), and are capable of doing things (including murder) without the author (or the author’s star detective) knowing it. Most beautiful of all perhaps is Jean-Luc Nancy’s The Fall of Sleep, which is coming out next year—an extraordinary instance of theory as lyricism.

CWP: What projects do you have lined up for the future? Are there any other gems like this that you’d love to work on but haven’t found a publisher for yet?

CM: The book I’m most excited about at the moment is Mathias Énard’s Zone, which you’ll be publishing! I think it’s the next Great Book, and I can’t wait to start work on it. As for other unpublished or out-of-print books, I’d love to translate Jules Verne’s Le secret de Wilhelm Störitz, about a mad scientist who turns a woman who spurns him invisible. I’d also like to translate Flaubert’s L’Éducation sentimentale someday, since I don’t know of any translations that do it justice.

18 November 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Our latest review is a piece I wrote about Benoit Duteurtre’s Customer Service (translated from the French by Bruce Benderson), which is part of Melville House Press’s fantastic Contemporary Art of the Novella series.

It’s a pretty funny book that a lot of people will be able to relate to:

The novella opens with the hapless narrator leaving his cell phone in a taxi. In his mind, this is an easy enough problem to solve—all he has to do is get a replacement phone and he’ll be on his way. For anyone who’s ever dealt with a cell phone company (i.e., everyone), it’s never that simple. As the narrator finds our, the new phone will cost four times as much as the original, and without his SIM card, he won’t be able to keep his phone number, and besides, his account doesn’t allow for a replacement phone—he’ll have to open a new account and pay for both until the original contract expires.

Refusing to give in to this insanity, he decides upon another approach—getting in touch with Leslie Delmare, Director of Customer Service, who had sent him a letter granting him “preferred customer” status, which must count for something, right?

“Once I’d arrived at this third level in the pyramid, however, I understood that I couldn’t climb any higher: The middle manager tried to dodge my request; then, seeing that I wouldn’t give up, explained to me in a patient voice that Leslie Delmare, in charge of customer service, didn’t exist. It was just a name invented for the signature. The only person who could take care of my problem was imaginary. This woman’s words threw me back, mind ricocheting, to all those powerless operators who couldn’t make the slightest decision but were forced just to repeat the phrases they’d been taught.” [Click here for the rest of the review.]

18 November 08 | Chad W. Post |

Benoit Duteurtre’s satiric novella, Customer Service, is a kind of modern quest narrative pitting a rational man against an omnipresent, almost Kafka-esque corporation too soulless to provide any genuine help to its customers when things go wrong.

The novella opens with the hapless narrator leaving his cell phone in a taxi. In his mind, this is an easy enough problem to solve—all he has to do is get a replacement phone and he’ll be on his way. For anyone who’s ever dealt with a cell phone company (i.e., everyone), it’s never that simple. As the narrator finds our, the new phone will cost four times as much as the original, and without his SIM card, he won’t be able to keep his phone number, and besides, his account doesn’t allow for a replacement phone—he’ll have to open a new account and pay for both until the original contract expires.

Refusing to give in to this insanity, he decides upon another approach—getting in touch with Leslie Delmare, Director of Customer Service, who had sent him a letter granting him “preferred customer” status, which must count for something, right?

Once I’d arrived at this third level in the pyramid, however, I understood that I couldn’t climb any higher: The middle manager tried to dodge my request; then, seeing that I wouldn’t give up, explained to me in a patient voice that Leslie Delmare, in charge of customer service, didn’t exist. It was just a name invented for the signature. The only person who could take care of my problem was imaginary. This woman’s words threw me back, mind ricocheting, to all those powerless operators who couldn’t make the slightest decision but were forced just to repeat the phrases they’d been taught.

Of course, this is just the first of our narrator’s modern difficulties. Following the cellphone debacle, he can’t withdraw money from his bank account while overseas, his computer insists on a mysterious password, and he receives a bill for unordered high-speed Internet service. And behind many of these travails is Leslie Delmare, who plays a key role in the conclusion of the narrator’s quest for justice. (Without giving anything away, things get a bit surreal toward the end, and depending on how you look at it, don’t end very well.)

Complaints about the pervasive insanity of today’s “customer service” departments—and jokes about these complaints—are nothing new. We’ve all seen Seinfeld, we’ve all gotten pissed off trying to explain something quite logical and reasonable to an employee who just doesn’t get it. We’re all baffled by charges on our phone bills.

A familiarity with the general content of Customer Service cuts both ways: it makes the novel feel old and a bit stale at the same time that it makes us identify and sympathize with the protagonist. We all hate the ridiculous nature of labyrinthine phone-trees and the idea taking a number to wait in line to hear that there’s “nothing that can be done.”

The thing that sets Customer Service apart from a typical water cooler rant is the not-so-subtle critique of our economic system that not only allows, but encourages baroque agreements and unhelpful, outsourced customer service employees.

Tainted as my brain was by these financial concerns, I saw right through this Machiavellian scheme. On the one hand, these companies lure the public with cut-rate prices, enticing offers, publicity brochures, rock-bottom fees, and months of free service (on a poster I’d even seen the offer of a cell phone for the price of a hamburger). On the other hand, once the consumer signs up, he must obey draconian rules and pay penalties if he commits the slightest infraction. Tied down by a year-long contract at minimum, he becomes a tool of the company, whose after-sale service is reduced to almost nothing, in order to ensure a high return. For the most minor complaint, the wait time is infinite and the billing for that waiting period itself contributes to increased profit. A naive person would have called it “not enough employees.” But the real mechanism is more cynical: waiting time had been transformed into an economic agent and source of profits.

In a way, the recent financial collapse—and the almost unfathomable greed that precipitated it—helps make this novella more relevant than ever. Duteurtre’s Marxist criticisms of the way the contemporary marketplace commodifies every possible thing, while eliminating as many employees (and thus costs) as possible at the expense of producing quality goods and services, are helpful reminders of what’s wrong with our world.

When I was a child, my father once told us about a friend of his, an executive in a large American company. Though still young, this man was already worn out, in bad physical and mental health, because each year he had to guarantee profits that were higher than those of the previous year. This bizarre rule generated an atmosphere of tension, leading inevitably to depression—far different from my father’s respectable position, which required him only to do his work and ensure the smooth functioning of a public institution. This story seemed strange and harsh to us, almost barbarous, like the description of a ruinous mental illness.

At times these bits can be a bit over-the-top, and the humor isn’t as fresh as it might have been when the book was first published in France (2003), but Customer Service is an entertaining book and yet another example of the great work Melville House is doing in their Art of the Contemporary Novella series. And if you like this book, Melville House also published Duteurtre’s The Little Girl and the Cigarette, which has, if nothing else, a fantastic “title-less” cover.

29 October 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Not the most common of connections, but that’s the angle that Bloomberg‘s Robert Hilferty takes in his review of Proust’s The Lemoine Affair:

A hundred years ago French novelist Marcel Proust (1871-1922) lost money in the stock market, too. And as he would in the epic In Search of Lost Time, he converted the stuff of life into art. [. . .]

Translated by the super-talented Charlotte Mandell, this is the first time The Lemoine Affair is available in English, and it’s part of Melville House’s Art of the Novella series. (Which has been getting a lot of play here the past few days.)

As described on the Melville House site, this novella is a series of pastiches in which Proust imitates the writing styles of other famous French authors, such as Flaubert and Balzac. Based on this alone, I still can’t believe this never came out in English before. And the story behind the novel just adds to my disbelief:

A Parisian engineer named Henri Lemoine claimed to have invented a method of manufacturing diamonds from coal. He convinced the London-based president of the De Beers diamond empire, Sir Julius Wernher, to underwrite the process. The executive invested about a million francs before the fraud emerged.

After De Beers stock plummeted because of the scandal, Lemoine bought shares expecting to profit when the stock recovered. The ruse was discovered and Wernher sued Lemoine, who was tried and imprisoned in 1908.

Proust had inherited De Beers stock from his parents and fretted that the scandal would erode his portfolio. At the same time, he was inspired by the literary potential of Lemoine’s intrigue and hit upon an ingenious way to retell it — that’s the true alchemy here.

Add this to the growing list of Melville House novellas we’ll be reviewing over the next few weeks . . .

18 April 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In contrast to Joshua Cohen’s cranky review in Forward, the review of Kertesz’s Pathseeker in the New York Sun (which, at risk of beating a dead horse, has become the premiere daily newspaper for thoughtful reviews of international lit) is much more positive.

Slender though it is, The Pathseeker is a necessary addition to Mr. Kertész’s work in English, and should occasion thanks to both the novelist and his translator, Tim Wilkinson, who has rendered Mr. Kertész’s (famously difficult) Hungarian into a flowing, able English — as well as to Melville House’s fascinating “The Contemporary Art of the Novella” series, which rubric The Pathseeker falls under.

(I’m planning a long post on this, but the Melville House “Contemporary Art of the Novella” series is not just impressive, but fucking amazing. Much more to come on this . . .)

In terms of the book itself, this may not be the most “selling” of paragraphs, but it totally caught my interest:

Mr. Kertész’s prose, recursive and long-breathed, keeps pace with the circular, frustrated action of the plot. Anonymity, elliptical speech, a fluid, almost euphuistic beauty, and an obdurate refusal on Mr. Kertész’s part to concede to even the most usual desires of the reader: The Pathseeker might seem, in a summary treatment, like the colorless, belabored works produced by writers whose sole aim is to toy with narrative convention. But Mr. Kertész places its maddening, permanent, and eerie periphrasis in the highest possible service: moral witness. And precisely because Mr. Kertesz refuses to speak with full openness about the scenery, its history, and his protagonist’s deep and damaging relation to both, The Pathseeker avoids even the slightest tendency toward ethical didacticism, a great risk when writing about the Holocaust.

10 January 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

There is a series of popular literature in Chile that you can still buy in used book fairs, which color-coded books according to World literature (beige), Spanish Literature (red), and Chilean Literature (brown). There was no Latin American literature. This conception of things made an impression on Alejandro Zambra, who says he is part of the last generation to grow up reading these books, for whom Chilean literature was brown, and Borges part of that nebulous “World literature.” This library makes an appearance in Zambra’s novel La vida privada de los arboles, when the main character reminisces about the small wealth the acquisition of these books meant for his middle class family in the 80’s, when books were hard to come by.

While I was in Chile last year looking for a translation project, I went to bookstores, met with editors and authors, and quizzed them all about important contemporary writers in Chile—Alejandro Zambra was the only author who showed up on everyone’s list. Zambra has published two novels with Anagrama, Bonzaí and La vida privada de los arboles, which he calls “sibling-books”, united by the central image of a man jealously, almost obsessively tending a bonsai tree. The image is a metaphor for the creation of literature, and is a good figure to accompany Zambra’s own carefully crafted, often surprising style. Zambra writes following Borges’ advice to “write as if summarizing a book that has already been written;” the result is a voice that is both detached and personal, cool and intense.

Bonzai has just been published in its entirety as part of the Latin American issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review, translated by Carolina de Robertis, and the same translation is set to be published by Melville House Press. The book is short, but its compass is broad, both in terms of the time spanned in the book and the emotional layers it accomplishes. The book follows Julio, who falls in love with Amelia. They share a consuming relationship and literary aspirations; they are disillusioned by both relationship and literature, and separate. Julio’s dreams of writing eventually turn into the goal of growing, shaping and tending a bonsai tree, because ‘“Caring for a bonsai is like writing,’ thinks Julio. ‘Writing is like caring for a bonsai.”’

Zambra’s second book, La vida privada de los arboles (The Private Lives of Trees) has not been published in English. This book is slightly longer and more intimate in its feel—we are brought deeper into the everyday tragedy of the main character, Julián. Julián is waiting for his wife, Verónica, to come home from her drawing class. This is the premise of the book, Julián’s ever more desperate waiting, the thoughts and memories that accompany his vigil: “the story goes on and Verónica hasn’t arrived, best to keep that in view, repeat it one and a thousand times: when she comes home the novel ends, the book continues until she comes home or until Julián is sure that she will never come home again.”

Of both books, Zambra says “I obeyed the simple desire to put forth images that seemed valid to me. Now I think that in writing those books I wanted to name the mediocre, non-novelistic lives of those of us who grew up reading red, beige, brown-colored books. Now I think that I wanted, perhaps, to speak of characters that don’t want or cannot be characters, maybe because they are Chilean. Maybe I wanted to speak of our poor vegetable past, of deception, of fragile new families; ultimately, of the life which is, as John Ashbery says, ‘a book that has been put down,’ and of death, the deaths of others and our own death.”

In my opinion, Zambra is the best of a generation of Chilean writers that has little or no unifying characteristic, a generation that is starting to experiment more than any other generation has in Chile. Zambra writes of Chilean novelists that “they, we, write from outside in, as if the novel were, really, the long echo of a suppressed poem. ” He makes no claims or attempts to be representative of his country or era, and in that lies the brightness of his writing: the simple endeavor to say something true along with the awareness of the relativity of that truth. Zambra’s “valid images” are delicate portraits are the everyday, and his books some of the most exciting of that recent category, Latin American literature.

Books by Alejandro Zambra:

Bonzai
96 pages, 9.50 €
978-84-339-7129-6
Anagrama

Translation from the Spanish by Carolina de Robertis forthcoming from Melville House

La vida privada de los arboles
128 pages, 12 €
978-84-339-7154-8
Anagrama

Not Yet Translated into English

4 January 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Despite the fact that Mahmoud Dowlatabadi is considered one of Iran’s greatest writers (according to his Wikipedia entry, “He wrote Kalidar novel which is one of the most important significant of Iranian culture.”), it seems like Missing Soluch slipped through the reviewing cracks when Melville House brought it out a few months ago. Ben Lytal of the New York Sun praised it, claiming that after The Savage Detectives and Out Stealing Horses this was the book from 2007 that he most wanted to recommend.

Maybe it’s because of the understated cover, or the deceptive length of the book, but along with a positive write-up in PW Lytal’s recommendation seems to be it. Which is really quite unfortunate, since this is a powerful and strangely compelling book.

I say “strangely compelling” because I’m having a hard time explaining why I was so engrossed in reading this. The story is pretty straightforward—the book opens with Mergan waking to find her husband Soluch missing. Apparently he’s just taken off, leaving her and their two sons (Abbas and Abrau) and their daughter (Hajer) to fend for themselves. He may have left to find work, or possibly to go to the city . . . this uncertainty is one of the undercurrents running throughout the book. That and the constant desire for various characters to try and find enough work to sustain them for the next day.

The village where Mergan and her family lives is a small, rural, remote place, where a small cadre of landowners are scheming to take over “God’s Land” (where the poorest of the poor farm) in order to raise pistachios. How this land is acquired, and the way this impacts and divides Mergan’s family makes up the major plot line of the book.

Although the translation is clunky at times, and characters occasionally speak in an oddly wooden fashion, there is something captivating in the deceptively simple prose.

As long as you still have your eyes, everything looks normal. But if somehow suddenly you’re blinded—say, by a hot iron or by a beast’s cold claw—all at once you can no longer see the fire int he fireplace that you had stoked for all your life. For the first time, you realize what you’ve given up, what a dear thing it is you’ve lost: Soluch.

Contrasting the more lyrical, metaphorical elements of the prose are unrelenting descriptions of violence: the two boys beating up another man in the village, Hajer’s soon-to-be husband nearly beating his wife to death after his mother is crushed by her collapsing house, Hajer’s disturbing first sexual encounter with her husband, Abrau attacking his mother with a tractor . . . the list goes on and on. (The scene in which an insane camel attacks Abbas will haunt me forever.)

Echoing Ben Lytal’s comment, I don’t know enough about Persian literature to place this within a particular tradition, but generally speaking it’s a pretty conventional, realistic novel. Dowlatabadi does capture the feel of the village, of it’s diverse inhabitants (the sections about Hajj Salem and his son Moslem are especially funny and energetic), and of the struggles these people face just trying to survive.

There are some flaws in the book—the pacing is slow at points, some of the speeches about the tractor and modernization of the farmlands are quite pedantic—but on the whole, it’s an interesting book that’s an interesting contrast to the more self-conscious, overly structured novels that came out last year.

Missing Soluch
by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi
Translated from the Persian by Kamran Rastegar
Melville House
507 pgs, $16.95

19 December 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

From Ben Lytal’s column in the New York Sun

But the book that, this year, I have most wanted to recommend is almost totally unknown. “Missing Soluch” (Melville House, 507 pages, $16.95) is Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s first novel translated into English, and it has hardly been reviewed at all. I’ve found references to Mr. Dowlatabadi in articles about Iranian censorship, but that’s all. “Missing Soluch” is an Iranian book, and I don’t know how to place it in that national literature. It has stayed with me because I don’t know where to leave it; it remains a question mark.

“Missing Soluch” is not a perfect book, but it makes a deep impression. It reads like an ancient thing. Its characters could not be called mythic or epic, but they inhabit a village in pre-revolutionary Iran that belongs to a genre other than that of the bourgeois novel. To see them come alive in Mr. Dowlatabadi’s book is to see how the novel works, and how reliable a medium it can be. His heroine, the stoic Mergan, would never guess that a novel is being written about her.

Does sound fascinating, and did make our best translations list.

1 August 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

On the heels of this morning’s post about Missing Soluch, I just found out that Melville House is having a special Summer Sale.. So now you can get Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s book for 30% off . . .

(Thanks to Ed Champion for calling this to our attention, and I too wonder if this has anything to do with the PGW/Consortium/Perseus debacle of recent times.)

1 August 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The only other place that I’ve come across a reference to Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s Missing Soluch was in the Literary Saloon where Orthofer commented on how it’s gotten basically no attention.

Thankfully, Ben Lytal of the New York Sun somewhat rectified the situation.

The book sounds pretty interesting in and of itself—according to Melville House, it’s “the first [Iranian novel] ever written in the everyday language of the Iranian people”—but what caught my eye was that the Association of American Publishers’ Freedom to Publish Committee “joined in launching this book to support the publication of voices censored by the State Department’s ban of books from the ‘Axis of Evil.’ “

As always, Melville House deserves praise for the political edge to their publishing mission, and I hope this sentiment catches on. More publishers out there should be out there discovering and promoting great books from “our” ideological enemies.

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