27 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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



Memories of the Future by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. Translated from the Russian by Joanne Turnbull. (Russia, New York Review Books)

Since today is the day Apple revolutionizes the future of book publishing and saves us all releases their new overly-slick device, and with Lost only six days and a handful of hours away, it seems like the perfect day to write about a fantastical story collection that includes a lengthy piece on time travel.

This is one of those books that must drive a certain B&N buyer (and a dozen sales reps) absolutely insane. All the book world prejudices come into play: 1) short story collections don’t sell, 2) dead authors don’t sell, 3) who gives a shit about Soviet Russia?, 4) could be cross-shelved in either sci-fi or literature, and 5) how do you pronounce “Krzhizhanovsky”? (The last one is actually serious . . . Can anyone give me a phonetic? Marian? Anyone?)

To be completely honest, I was only able to read a few stories from this before it was selected to the longlist. But after finishing it last night, I’m extremely glad that it made the cut and that I had the chance to fall into Krzhizhanovsky’s meta-fictional, Borgesian sort of world.

According to the bio info in the book, it sounds like Sigizmund lived a pretty interesting life . . . Born in 1887, he died in 1950 and it wasn’t until 1989 that a collection of his fictions could be published. The censors killed the first few possible publications since his writings didn’t portray the new Soviet state “in a positive light” and then WWII got in the way.

Although the pieces are quite as avant as Kharms, the strange sense of humor and the self-reflexiveness of the book remind me of the OBERIU. With a little bit of Calvino thrown in for good measure.

The book opens with a surreal story named “Quadraturin” after a strange substance that you can apply to the walls, floor, and ceiling of your apartment to make it bigger. And bigger. And bigger. Until the vastness of the apartment is much more problematic than its original confined nature.

“The Bookmark” further evidences Krzhizhanovsky’s obsession with the impossible or surreal—this story includes a bit with a guy telling a story about how the Eiffel Tower just gets up and walks away—but also introduces a metafictional element that really caught my imagination and runs through a number of the other stories:

“You see,” the sharp-featured man burst out. “It hooked you. How? You haven’t read it?” he glanced back over his shoulder. “No? Well then. The idea: to debunk all the bunk of which life is made. The plot: a writer, at work on a novel, discovers a character missing. The character has slipped out from under his pen. Work comes to a halt. One day, the writer happens to look in on a literary reading and is stunned to find himself face-to-face with his character. The character tries to run out the door. But the writer—I think this is how it goes—grabs him by the shoulder and elbow, like this, and says: ‘Listen, just between us, you’re not a person, you’re a . . . ‘ They end by agreeing not to spoil things for each other anymore and to devote themselves wholeheartedly to their common cause: the novel. The author introduces his character to an individual essential to the plot’s development. This individual then introduces the character to a charming woman with whom he falls head over heels in love. The remaining chapters of this novel withing a novel quickly begin to go awry and askew, like lines typed on a sheet that has popped out from under the bar. The author, upon receiving no new material from his love-besotted character, insists he break with the woman. The character tries to dodge, to play for time. At his wits’ end, the author demands (this over the telephone) immediate submission to his pen or else . . . But the character simply hangs up. The End.”

Granted, this sort of meta-twist might have been ballsy in 1927, but in today’s meta-infested world, fictional games like this are only as interesting as the uniqueness of the ideas they convey. Like this lengthy speech that the eccentric idea-man Saul Straight gives in “Someone Else’s Theme” when talking to a book critic:

“Didn’t one of your confrers, the most outspoken of them, I’m thinking of Hennequin, wasn’t he so incautious as to admit that ‘a work of fiction affects only those whom it portrays’? Open La Critique scientifique: that’s literally what it says. But a work of fiction recounts the life of its characters. If one were to allow a character into life without a ticket, so to speak, if one were to give him the bookcase key and the right to knock on existence’s door, then that character would be forced during his sojourn among us—about this there can be no doubt—to devote himself to criticism, and criticism alone. Why? Simply because he of us all is the one most concerned with his own fate, because he must hid his nonexistence, a nonexistence that, you must agree, is more inconvenient even than being of noble birth. And so a creature less real than the ink with which he writes takes up self-criticism in a desperate attempt to prove his alibi with respect to the book: I was never there, he says, I was an artistic failure, the author couldn’t make readers believe in me as a type in there, in the book, because I’m not a type and not in the book, rather I, like all of you, dear readers, am out here among you, this side of the bookcase door, and I write books myself, real books, like a real person. True, when the critic is making a fair copy of this tirade, he always changes ‘I’ to ‘we’ (‘As we wrote in our article’—‘We are glad to report’): all this is perfectly natural and explainable—a creature with a poor sense of identity had best avoid the first-person singular. At any rate, the characters populating books, like us, the people populating our planet, are either believers or atheists. Clearly. What I’m trying to say,” Straight wen on excitedly (the critic couldn’t get a word in), “is that not all characters turn into critics (if that were to happen, we’d all be done for!). No, the ones who become critics are the ones who deny their author’s existence—they’re the book’s atheists. They don’t wish to be invented by some inventor and so take revenge the only way they know how: by trying to prove that it’s not the author who invents the characters, it’s the characters who invent the author. You’ll say I stole that from Feuerbach: I don’t deny the critic’s erudition, I only deny his existence.”

These kind of cerebral games can be traced throughout the stories in this book, but rather than go on and on, I’d rather point out that the title story (or more of a novella), “Memories of the Future” is absolutely brilliant. And reading it when I did, it played right into my current Lost obsession. Basically it’s the story of a young boy who decides he wants to make a “timecutter” so that he can skip ahead into the future . . . or go into the past. He’s a Faraday-like character, and his ideas about the “shape of time” and the idea of making time “dance in a circle” are great, but so is this bit about time and essence (last long quote, I promise):

A quarter of an hour after the first aphorism an outside observer might have acquainted himself with the theory of time’s cuts as set forth in the batting eyes of the lady from across the river.

As applied to love, the theory went like this: memory, “unrolling its long scroll,” may, like a reel of film, be edited. One may cut bits out of both time and the reel and dispense with the longueurs. Thus if one were to make cuts between a woman’s first meetign with her first lover and her first meeting with her second, her third, and so on, that is, if one were to leave what was purest, most sincere, and deeply embedded in memory, the film reel onto which we had transposed this series of spliced-together first meetings would show us the woman—with the speed of a roulette ball skipping from number to number—whirling from embrace to embrace and aging before our eyes. To a lawyer, of course, this would recall the article in the Criminal Code dealing with mass violence. Try editing the superfluous out of anything at all, leaving only what is essential, and you’ll see that it won’t be to your . . .

Overall, and simply put, this book kicks ass and if you like anything above, run out and buy it immediately.

16 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I’m a big fan of year-end lists. Especially year-end lists that include Open Letter titles . . . But seriously, the International Reads for the Holidays feature that Bill Marx put together for PRI’s World Books is a very solid, quirky, highly literary collection of great titles from 2009.

Bill is a panelists for this year’s Best Translated Book Award for Fiction, which I believe is why he goes on about “old” books and “new” retranslations in his openind statements. (We’ve had ongoing discussions about which titles qualify for the award, which we set up to honor new voices, new books that had never before been available to English readers. Although point taken re: ham fisted crap translations and the way the media tends to ignore new, complete translations of old books. But still . . .)

Anyway, here’s Bill’s fiction list:

  • Memories of the Future by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. Translated by Joanne Turnbull. (NYRB Classics) A Russian writer whose morbidly satiric imagination forms the wild (missing) link between the futuristic dream tales of Edgar Allan Poe and the postwar scientific nightmares of Stanislaw Lem.
  • Your Face Tomorrow Volume Three: Poison, Shadow and Farewell by Javier Marías. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa. (New Directions) The final installment in Marías’s super spy novel extraordinaire, a final playing out, to the point of demonic exhaustion, of the last century’s obsession with double agents, secret codes, voyeurism, and betrayal.
  • The End of Everything by David Bergelson. Translated by Joseph Sherman. (Yale University Press) First published in 1913, Bergelson’s prophetic novel makes use of a surprisingly nervy minimalism to tell the tale of a beautiful woman from a privileged background whose life is shattered by a marriage of convenience – a searching diagnosis of the anxious hollowness at the center of Jewish life during the turn-of-the-century.
  • Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto. Translated by David Slavitt. (Harvard University Press) An at times intentionally zany new version of one of the literary high points of the Italian Renaissance, an epic crowded with jousting men and monsters that influenced Spencer’s “Faerie Queen,” that Shakespeare lifted a plot from, and that Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges admired.
  • The Salt Smugglers by Gerard de Nerval. Translated by Richard Sieburth. (Archipelago Books) This volume is the rib-tickling oddity of the year: the first translation into English of an experimental novel that, back in 1850, appeared in a French newspaper masquerading as reportage.
  • The Golden Calf by Ilya Ilf & Evgeny Petrov. Translated by Konstantin Gurevich and Helen Anderson. (Open Letter) A satire of political and economic corruption in 1920s Russia whose delicious blend of the daffy and the acidic resonates today.

Visit the original article for the complete descriptions and his nonfiction list.

And while I’m writing about World Books, I want to mention (again) how impressive this program is. Over the past month, pieces have appeared on Horacio Castellanos Moya, Carl Gustav Jung’s Red Book, the passing of Chinese translator Yang Xianyi, Jake Adelstein’s Tokyo Vice, and the Best European Fiction anthology that Dalkey put out.

As part of the coverage of the Dalkey anthology, there’s also an interview with the volume’s “editor,” Alexander Hemon. Personally, I have a lot of issues with this book, why it was put together, and the way Dalkey’s marketing materials try and use “European” as a substitute for “World,” but regardless, this interview with Hemon is pretty interesting:

World Books: Are the writers in the anthology examples of authors who shape their fiction to address a global audience? Are there first class writers in Europe whose work resists adequate translation?

Hemon: Dan Brown (a cynical emotional manipulator) shapes his fiction to address a global audience. Great writers have integrity and sovereignty; they write what they write out of some kind of inner need, in pursuit of knowledge that is available only in literature. Rilke (whose work could also be accused of being removed from ordinary experience) believed that great art can only come out of necessity. I’m sure that there are writers in Europe who have yet to be translated or translated adequately–every great writer needs a great translator– but I do not believe that there is untranslatable literature. Robert Frost said that poetry is what is lost in translation, Joseph Brodsky said that poetry is what is gained in translation. I would go with Brodsky.

....
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