16 November 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Things are a bit rough for Chad the morning after the Open Letter gala, but he powers through and talks about this new phase of Rodoreda’s stories. He and Brian break down some of the more challenging of her stories, including “Noctural” and “The Bath,” and talk about what does and doesn’t work in creating an authentic voice, and how to behave on airplanes.

Both Selected Stories and Death in Spring are available through the Open Letter website, and if you use 2MONTH at checkout, you’ll get 20% off.

Feel free to comment on this episode—or on the book in general—either on this post, or at the official GoodReads Group.

Follow Open Letter, Chad Post, Brian Wood, and for more thoughts and information about upcoming guests.

And you can find all the Two Month Review posts by clicking here. And be sure to leave us a review on iTunes!

The music for this season of Two Month Review is Montseny by Els Surfing Sirles.



14 November 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Coming up on this Thursday’s Two Month Review podcast Brian and I go it alone and talk about six Rodoreda stories: “The Beginning,” “Nocturnal,” “The Red Blouse,” “The Fate of Lisa Sperling,” “The Bath,” and “On the Train.” On that podcast, we bumble around talking about “Nocturnal,” so I thought I’d try and rectify that here.

If you prefer, you can also download this post as a PDF document.

As always, you can get Selected Stories and Death in Spring for 20% from our website by using the code 2MONTH. It’s also available at better bookstores everywhere.

And be sure to join the Goodreads group and subscribe to the Three Percent Podcast on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.



This week, I’m going to try something different. Rather than talk about some general themes, or how to break apart Rodoreda’s stories by tracing particular motifs, I’m going to, in basically real time, try and figure out the first story in this collection that absolutely baffled me—“Nocturnal.”

We already recorded this week’s podcast, on which we talked a bit about this story, but I don’t think that we really got into it enough, or solved it, whatever that actually means. Although in retrospect, maybe “solved” is the right term. This is a strange story that seems to have some hidden layers of meaning, some larger significance that isn’t exactly clear on first read. So here I am. Going back through it line-by-line, trying to puzzle this out. (And probably failing and saying dumb shit along the way, but at least let’s hope that it’s somewhat entertaining shit.)

I can’t figure out when exactly “Nocturnal” was written, but given that it was part of Vint-i-dos contes (1957), and features German soldiers and a French setting, it likely draws from Rodoreda’s experiences living outside of Paris in 1939, but was probably written a few years later, when she’s living in Switzerland and starting to publish again. I’m not sure that this means anything, except that perhaps, given our familiarity with World War II, we, as readers, are tempted to read into this a degree of realism that might not actually be present.

Let’s go back to the beginning though—the Germans will come when they come.

A plaintive moan filled the room. It continued for a while before suddenly dying, as if it had passed through the walls. It sounded like a whimper from a wounded animal that had not yet lost any blood or energy. The dense silence again invaded everything. A moment later a body moved beneath the sheets as if, rather than a moan, the mysterious echo of a moan had awoken him from a deep sleep. The meowing of a cat on the stairs rose in tone and volume, becoming sharp and urgent. Another moan silenced the cat. A shadow jumped out of the bed, followed by an arpeggio of springs. The sound of bare feet on the floor, two or three coughs, a switch being flipped, and the room was flooded with light.

Just your normal, cheery Rodoreda story! As we find out in the next paragraph, the moan coming from the body under the sheets is from a pregnant woman who is going into labor, but, also, doesn’t seem to be doing very well.

A tired voice rose from beneath the sheets: “First put some water on to boil, then go knock on the druggist’s door and ask if he’ll let you phone the doctor.” She looks so pale, the man thought to himself. He had never seen her so pale, with such sunken eyes. On the stairs the cat resumed, his meows filled with desire.

What’s up with this cat? It’s initially meowing in a “sharp and urgent” manner and now meows “filled with desire.” Is this some sort of signal? An animalistic representation of the birthing process? A random detail to add veracity to the setting? (I assume France is mostly feral cats and Amélie, but I might be wrong about that.)



Right here, while trying to follow his wife’s instructions, our protagonist (a former geography teacher living in exile from Barcelona) thinks his go-to phrase for the first time: Order, order, order. This is somewhat explained a page later when we find out that he’s working on a book called The Terrible Consequences of Truth (which would make a good title for this collection):

The original title of the book was The Terrible Consequences of the Desire to be Truthful. But then he had decided on the other. Truth as the dissolution of all human relations. Truth as the negation of all authentic values. Salvation achieved through systematic deception, applied with a radical spirit, could be transformed into truth. Man could become truthful by means of a lie, in a way that was more real than sincerity. These somewhat confusing ideas nevertheless possessed a coherence: “Order, order, order.” His rather verbose study had led to another, entitled “Toward Freedom by Means of Dissimulation.” I simulate ergo I am free. This was the point of departure for his thesis. “Order, order, order.”

On one simple level, this could be taken as a radical defense of fiction as a whole. The truth, great, that will ruin everything. But a system of simulations and lies? That’s more freeing and, in the end, closer to the truth. How this idea—planted here, at the beginning of the story—plays out is yet to be seen. But this tension between order and simulation will surely be important.

One other early note: The writer’s wife is having her fourth child. At a more advanced age. The situation of the other three also feels like a clue to unpacking this story:

It was almost as if the three children in his life were holding him back. One in Madrid, a member of Franco’s Falange party; another a left-wing exile in Mexico; the third—a daughter—in Reggio, seduced by an Italian officer. My interior contradictions expressed in the flesh, he often thought. The last child now eighteen and the fourth about to be born.

So, a fascist, a leftist, and one married to an officer (all walk into a bar?). Which represent his “interior contradictions”? Trying to tie these two ideas together: His children are all creating narratives for politics and life that are based in lies, with the intention of creating order, order, order. Maybe.

To try and save his wife, the writer leaves the unlit house (“To save electricity the light hadn’t been turned on since the war began.”) and stumbles into a drunk sleeping in the hallway (“This wasn’t the first night that a drunk had slept on the hard floor in the entrance hall; it was a common occurrence in this working-class neighborhood.”). Once he gets outside, we have our first appearance of the German soldiers and the brothel down the way.

The street was dark. On the other side, seven or eight houses further up, a red light attracted his attention. A stealthy shadow was visible as it crossed beneath the light and disappeared into the doorway. “A German?” For the last few nights, groups of two or three German soldiers had walked down the street, their boots resonating on the pavement, attracted by the light despite the sign on the door that read “Verboten.”



This bit clarifies, for certain, that we’re in World War II, that the city is occupied by German soldiers, and that, like Chekhov’s gun, the house with the red light will play a significant role in our story. And then we get those cats again:

At the top of the stairs two cats started a furious fight. They hissed and growled furiously, no doubt all tooth-and-claw and arched backs. Suddenly, one of the cats, mad with fury, its eyes lit, brushed against his legs and crossed the street. It frightened him.

Brian pointed this out on the podcast, but the repetition of “furious/furiously/fury” is curious. So the cat was meowing “urgently,” then “filled with desire,” and is now “furious.” Still not sure what to make of this, except that it doesn’t bode well.

The druggist was close by. He heard the sound of steps and ducked back inside his building, closing the door slightly for fear that his light-colored pajamas would give him away. For an instant he saw the outline of a coat beneath the red light. Then it disappeared. He thought he heard a scream and returned to reality. He had to move, had to knock. Cautiously he went out, as the cat slipped back inside between his legs, fast as a curse.

Definitely does not bode well. These few lines are a great example of what Rodoreda does so well. By combining a bunch of elements (druggist, pajamas giving him away, solider, red light, scream, cat) in such a rapid fashion, she provides the reader with a clear sense of the character’s inner state. And leaves you unsettled. Nothing good is going to happen tonight. And it’s probably that damn cat’s fault.

Anyway, he knocks on the door, but the phone’s been out since morning (another Rodoreda theme is highlighting all the things disrupted by war, such as phones, running water, etc.), so he heads back to his room, unsure of what to do. On the way, he passes the “fuming cat.” (Is the cat a representative of his inner state? Urgent when his wife goes into labor, excited by having a child, furious when he sees the shit world they’re giving birth into, fuming when his attempt to get help is thwarted?)

Back in his room, some neighbors have gathered, and are trying to help out his wife, who looks “terribly pale.” Given the news that the phone is out, they come up with a plan—one that we’ve been leading to all along:

The group of women deliberated in a low voice. The lady from downstairs found a solution, “As far as I know there’s only one other telephone in the neighborhood.” “Whose?” asked the woman from next door. “The one at Number Fourteen.” “Number Fourteen” was the name all the neighbors in the building used for the house with the red light. “Hurry!” “You have to change your clothes.” “Only the trousers.” A spasm of pain rocked the bed. She’s so pale, so pale. Almost without realizing, he found himself behind the folding screen, thinking: Order, order. An energetic hand passed him the clothes he needed. Once again: stairs, dark, obstacle, splendid night.

The next paragraph initially seems a bit unnecessary. All we’re really doing is moving the man from his wife’s bedside to the whorehouse. But in this section, we get a really sharp summary of who this man is, and what his history is prior to entering the house with the red light.

He starts by confessing that he’s never been to a place like that, but that he’s heard tales from the “bolder lads.” This leads to a moment of self-pity about his autonomy in life.

He had lived a lot through the lives of others. Too much. Sometimes this surrogacy produced in him a certain sadness that was pasty, cosmic, rough-hewn. No one cares about me. If I have a problem, I’ll have to solve it by myself. I’m like an abandoned soul in a wasteland. Life had passed him by, just beyond his reach. Like a river, he had captured the sounds, the commotion, had recognized the dangers, but he had remained on the shore. When he had thrown himself into the stream, inexpert as he was, it was to follow others. Simply a matter of contagion, as if he had caught typhoid fever. The current had dragged him to France, where he had been discarded like a dead branch. He had married young so he could work calmly, feel himself strong through his child, so he wouldn’t lose himself completely.

This parallels his “order, order, order” mantra. He’s a follower who stands on the side. Who does what is necessary to “work calmly” and avoid “losing himself completely.” This is reinforced in the next couple lines in which he confesses that years ago a woman nearly led him to sin.

A more experienced girl could have really derailed him, but this one, with all her charm, had only managed to trouble his spirit for a few months and prompt a spate of sleepless nights, a brief interruption of his moral serenity. The experience had left him with a tremendous attraction to crime novels and blue blouses.

That last line is perfect.

So we have a man who, for all his writings about lies and the terrible consequences of the truth, is pretty fucking moral. Especially for a Rodoreda character. Never cheated on his wife, never went to a whorehouse, is out in the middle of the night ducking behind corners to avoid German soldiers, all to help his wife. Order, order, order. And a cat.



And then, he enters the house with the red light. Shit is about to get weird. Although initially, everything is rather subdued, almost anticlimactic. (Well, except for the military march he can hear coming from one of the rooms.)

He found himself in a narrow hall with doors on either side. The military march was coming from the second door on the right. A whiff of perfume distracted him. “Lilac,” he thought. Had it not been for the music, the house would have seemed deserted, like a house recently abandoned in a village filled with the threat of an enemy. He continued along the hall till at the end he reached a comfortable sitting room. Over the sofa, in a gilded frame, presided the portrait of a gentleman. Quite Proustian, with a wing collar, gardenia in his buttonhole, romantic mustache. The gentleman was staring pensively at the door. He must be the founder. There were no shiny, golden pillows or lace curtains with pink bows, no trace of the diabolical chiaroscuro that he had always imagined. All together it had a rather grave air, a bit like the waiting room of an austere, provincial lung specialist.

That’s not so bad! One other note: I think these are our first flower references. The lilac perfume and the gardenia in the buttonhole. The fact that the perfume is “distracting” puts it closer to the idea of sin, whereas the gardenia points to importance, given that he assumes the man in the picture is the founder of the whorehouse. (“Proustian” feels like some sort of foreshadowing.)

After failing to flag down a passing woman to find a phone, the music changes and a German soldier appears before him with some booze.

He stood up. A stout German soldier in shirtsleeves, with gray hair and a tanned face, stopped in front of him. He was carrying a bottle of cognac under his arm and an empty champagne glass in his hand. He clicked his heels. He clearly had some difficulty keeping his balance. For a moment they stood without moving. The soldier looked at him with gentle eyes. A secret flow of sympathy seemed to emerge from deep within the soldier’s intense gaze, almost like a balmy breeze. With a resolute gesture, the soldier had him sit down and filled the glass.

A few toasts and another phone failure later, our protagonist is reaching a sort of moral crossroads:

He realized he had to make a decision, that it was urgent to find a phone, make the call, wake up the doctor, beg, intimidate. A gentle warmth had settled in his cheeks and began spreading insidiously through his body. It must have slipped into the obscure region of his will, changing some delicate mechanism within him. He felt a slight tingling in his legs and arms, a deep sense of well-being in his heart. With a brisk gesture he emptied another glass. How many years had it been since he had tasted cognac? Six? Seven?

You know what he’s not doing here? Repeating “order, order, order.” Everything has gone sideways. The German soldier with the great booze (cognac during wartime!) is tempting him into another life. One of alcohol, prostitutes, a sense of “well-being in his heart.” This is not good.

The soldier opened his round eyes, nodded his head in agreement and refilled the glass. He raised it to his lips, but a violent hiccup stopped him. Order, ooooorder. A string of hiccups followed.

Spoke too soon! His phrase is back, but, well, disordered. Again, not good. Not good at all for our man who used to stand on the side, living life through others and never really diving into the river.

They returned to their drinking with looks of complicity. The soldier asked, “Franzose?” He hesitated before responding, “Barcelona.” “Spanier?” “Oui.” They burst out laughing at the same time. “Rotspanier?” “Yes.” They laughed louder and resumed drinking.

So, this “Rotspanier” thing. Initially, I just thought that was a slam, like “rotten Spaniard?,” which works, but it may also be “Red Spaniard,” referring more specifically to the actions of the radical left in Spain who, after the military coup in 1936, wrecked shit all over, especially targeting landowners, Catholic priests, etc. The fact that he replies “yes,” is disconcerting.

Another soldier entered the room. He was barefoot; they hadn’t heard him. The seated soldier cried out, “Spanier,” and passed the bottle to the newcomer. The painting showed two gentlemen with gardenias in their buttonholes and wing collars. The frame slowly split in two, but then the figures reassembled, as if brought together by a stubborn desire for unity.

This painting showing two gentlemen confused me unnecessarily the first time I read it. He’s drunk. He’s seeing double. He’s trying to keep it together, but failing.

After a few more soldiers enter the room, they all start singing:

Ich hatt’ einen Kameraden,
einen bessern find’st du nit [. . .]

Eine Kugel kam geflogen
gilt es mir, oder gilt es dir?

This is “The Good Comrade,” a German Armed Forces song that’s been around since the 1800s and, according to Wikipedia, isn’t affiliated with a particular faction and has been translated into dozens of languages. It’s about a comrade who dies in battle, and the two section that are used here are “I once had a comrade / you will find none better” and “a bullet came flying / is it meant for me or is it for you?”

From there, our protagonist gets more and more wasted:

The painting now held three gentlemen, or four. All with gardenias in their buttonholes. Occasionally one was superimposed on the other, perhaps filled with the hurried wish to share confidences, but then they separated in a disorderly fashion, surrounded by gold. At one point it was possible to make out six or seven of them. A whirlwind.

And then starts reciting part of Dante’s Inferno, which can be translated as:

Nor fondness for my son, nor reverence
Of my old father, nor return of love,
That should have crown’d Penelope with joy,
Could overcome in me the zeal I had
To’ explore the world, and search the ways of life,
Man’s evil and his virtue.

This seems to be the crux of the story. Instead of maintaining order, getting the doctor, helping his wife and being at the birth of his child, he’s tempted by the dissolution of the German soldiers and cognac. Suddenly nothing can stop him from exploring all of life, including man’s evil. He is in the damn river, vaguely remembering his wife at all. (“A bouquet for the pregnant senyora, shut in her room! Carpe diem.”)

And then the police arrive.

A bottle flew through the air. Order, or . . . der. The gendarme beside him dragged one of the soldiers toward the hall. He ran after the gendarme and grabbed him by the belt. “Cochon! Vous cochon!” “Was?” A heavy blow from the gendarme’s fist sent him crashing against the wall. He was alone, helpless, seated on the floor, the whole side of his face in pain.

Does he really grab the gendarme and call him a pig? That’s a bad idea. But to be honest, the French goes a bit crazy here . . . at least if you’re relying on Google Translate to make sense of everything.

His whole body was aflame. The air must be coming from the clouds, from the stars. He vomited. “Voyons,” shouted a woman who looked ruffled, her nose bleeding. “Bande d’acrobates!”

“Band of acrobats”? What is that all about?

He passed the door to his building, without seeing her. At the corner they loaded him onto a truck. With a tremendous din, everything disappeared forever, down the street, enveloped by silence and the night.

And that’s the end. The end of everything?

*




After all of that, I feel like I have a better handle on the plot of this story, and see immediately where I went wrong (by missing the multiplying people in the portrait as his drunkenness), but I’m still not sure of the why of this story.

If it’s supposed to be a more moral story—a man obsessed with order who is tempted by the dark side, dives headlong into the “river of life” and things go very wrong—it’s not overly powerful or convincing. Other stories of Rodoreda’s about men making bad choices work better, in part because his decision to start drinking just passes by and is immediately followed by insanely destructive consequences.

But maybe there’s something in that idea of why he takes the first drink. The fact that it’s a German soldier and he’s living in exile, in danger, puts him in a situation in which his autonomy is compromised. This does circle back to the earlier comment about his children representing his internal contradictions through their attachment to various political parties. Maybe the moral of this story isn’t “seizing the day can fuck you,” but “don’t get involved in politics.” Is that the lie that becomes the truth? That can set man free? But maybe freedom is just a slippery slope ending in a truck driving down the road, never to return.

The way this progresses is a bit dreamlike as well. “Nocturnal” as a title sort of hints in that direction, as does the almost carnivalesque nature of the German soldiers, the wine, the champagne and it’s gold bubbles, even the arrival of the police.

And although this is close third-person and not a first-person narration, it is one of the few stories that’s tight in on a male protagonist. That’s another reason why it intrigued me initially, and I wonder if this wasn’t an experiment in trying to depict the moral dangers men can face.

In the end, I’m not sure how well this story works. It’s a strange piece that shifts from domesticity to something weirder, and doesn’t really do justice in capturing the writer’s character. It’s maybe most interesting in the way that it evades creating a simplistic moral choice—“should I help my wife or screw around in the brothel?”—by constructing a night that feels out of control, in which everything cascades in a way that’s not entirely terrifying, but ends in the worst possible way.

I’m curious what others have to say about this—regular readers and professors. But really, the question that still nags at me: what happened to the cat?

9 November 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week, Mark Haber of Brazos Bookstore and the Best Translated Book Award committee joins Chad and Brian to talk about the next seven stories in Mercè Rodoreda’s collection. Although they touch on a number of them, a lot of time is spent focusing on “Carnival” and the literary antecedents to Rodoreda.

Both Selected Stories and Death in Spring are available through the Open Letter website, and if you use 2MONTH at checkout, you’ll get 20% off.

Feel free to comment on this episode—or on the book in general—either on this post, or at the official GoodReads Group.

Follow Open Letter, Chad Post, Brian Wood, and for more thoughts and information about upcoming guests. And follow Mark Haber to learn more about contemporary literature and bookselling.

And you can find all the Two Month Review posts by clicking here. And be sure to leave us a review on iTunes!

The music for this season of Two Month Review is Montseny by Els Surfing Sirles.



6 November 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Coming up on this Thursday’s Two Month Review podcast Brian and I talk about the next seven stories in Selected Stories by Mercè Rodoreda (with special guest Mark Haber!): “Afternoon at the Cinema,” “Ice Cream,” “Carnival,” “Engaged,” “In a Whisper,” “Departure,” and “Friday, June 8.” On Thursday’s podcast, we’ll get into more specifics about some of these stories, but in advance, you can get some initial insights below, especially about “Carnival.”

If you prefer, you can also download this post as a PDF document.

As always, you can get Selected Stories and Death in Spring for 20% from our website by using the code 2MONTH. It’s also available at better bookstores everywhere.

And be sure to join the Goodreads group and subscribe to the Three Percent Podcast on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Last week, I spent a lot of time on “The Mirror,” which was my favorite story of the six we read for that podcast. This week, I want to focus exclusively on what makes “Carnival”—now one of my favorite stories ever—work so well.

Before getting into the more structural mapping of motifs in this story, and how it links back to everything discussed before, I want to take a second to just talk about the emotional power of this piece.

In brief, “Carnival” is the story of a young boy and a young woman who meet coincidentally outside of a Carnival party. The boy is awkward, poor, has bad skin, is very alone, and is wearing a tailor’s costume that initially baffles the young woman. By contrast, she is lovely, more cosmopolitan (she tells him she’s leaving Barcelona for Paris in a couple of days, and then from there to Nice), more worldly (she initially claims to be having an affair with the host of the party), more vibrant. A sort of proto-manic pixie dream girl.

Stuck in the light rain, unable to get a taxi, they decide to walk home together. A number of things happen along the way: she convinces him to scale a fence and steal her some flowers, he falls for her quirky charm and beauty, they’re accosted by two thieves, they share secrets, they hold hands. We’ll discuss the sort of twist to all of this in more detail below, but on the surface, knowing these details, most readers would assume that this is a stereotypical story of young, burgeoning love. A love that’s initiated by a coincidence; a love that grows quickly over the course of a near magical night together.

That’s not what this story is, and that’s not what happens.

Although all of those cues are there, the story undercuts itself at the end, reversing in the most powerful of fashions, including these absolutely heartbreaking lines:

Carnival had ended. The wind and rain had helped it die. We too have died a bit, he thought, or the ghosts we have left along the way. No one would be able to see them at the top of Avinguda del Tibidabo, with the pastries and champagne, by the gate with the perfume of the false gardenias, at the door where they had sheltered during the rain. It was all far away, indistinct, a bit absurd, as if it had never happened.

“Will you give me your address in France?”

“I don’t even know it yet.”

She, however, would never again remember that night. The sound of the train taking her away would erase the last vestiges of it. But he . . . he would never find another girl like her, with that smile, that hair. From time to time he would see her blurred outline standing in front of him, her image evoked by a certain perfume, a sigh of leaves, a swarm of ghostly stars at the back of the sky, a silence that suddenly manifests itself.


I don’t know why, exactly, but this story was like a punch to my soul. It’s heartbreaking how the hope of that night, a night that is filled with such charm and promise, is just another moment that will be washed away by time and disinterest.

There’s more to what makes this story so emotionally charged, but we’ll get to that at the very end . . . For now, I just want to say that I read this just before falling asleep and having an absolutely terrible dream that was clearly related to “Carnival.” This story lodged in my subconscious, and thinking about it days later, I’m still overwhelmed by a feeling of sadness and nostalgia. To me, this is a viscerally emotional story, one which serves as a blueprint for how Rodoreda’s different motifs and techniques can come together to create something incredibly powerful.

*


Last year, I read (and then wrote about) Franco Moretti’s Distant Reading. This book is a collection of the inconoclastic literary critic’s essays, ranging from his core concept of “distant reading” (looking at larger literary trends instead of closely reading a single text) to ways in which you can incorporate quantitative analysis into literary criticism. One essay from here, “The End of the Beginning,” keeps coming to mind as I try and think about how to summarize and analyze Rodoreda’s stories as a whole.

Feel free to read that earlier article for a longer description of and response to Moretti’s ideas, but in short, in this piece he describes a graduate seminar he taught in which he and his students analyze a huge range of detective stories written around the same time as some of the most popular Sherlock Holmes stories. Their analysis started from selecting a “unit of analysis”—in this case the presence or absence of “clues”—and then seeing how that unit was treated in the various stories under consideration. Out of this they created a sort of tree-like diagram built from subdivision after subdivision. In other words, they separated all the stories into those with clues and those without. Then separated out the ones with clues that were “necessary,” then those that were both necessary and “visible,” and so on and forth. What they found in the end was that all of the stories that fit these categories were written by Arthur Conan Doyle, and that these were some of his most popular and well-liked pieces. One hypothesis as to why Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are still read today, whereas his contemporaries really aren’t, is that he stumbled onto this way of presenting “clues” that greatly appealed to readers. Then ideas of market acceleration and all of that set in, but that’s a subject for an entirely different article. (Actually, it’s the subject of the article referenced above.)

Anyway, I’m not about to choose a single “unit of analysis” and create a map of Rodoreda’s stories and those of her contemporaries, but I do think there is something to the way in which certain “units” in her writing are found over and again in her most lasting, important stories.

*


In last week’s Two Month Review post, I identified a few of these motifs. Namely, the presence of “tropisms,” of garden imagery representing the state of a romantic relationship, shifts in the time of the narration, and fragments reflecting the character’s inner state. All of these elements were found in “The Mirror,” and all are found within “Carnival” . . . along with one more that I think will add something crucial to our evaluation of the rest of the stories in this collection.

Garden Imagery

In the stories we discussed last week, flowers, or garden imagery in general, tended to draw characters to a more primeval time, often pointing toward the healthiness of a relationship, or the desire for some sort of human connection. These images function differently in different stories, but some sort of wildlife is present in all of Rodoreda’s best stories.

One of the key scenes in “Carnival” is when the girl asks the boy to get her some gardenias. He hops a fence, steals some flowers, gets barked at by a dog, and ends up ripping his costume. In a bit of foreshadowing, they then have this conversation:

“I still haven’t looked at the gardenias, or thanked you.”

She gently removed a flower from the handkerchief, but as she was about to smell it, she said with a surprise, “What kind of flowers did you pick?”

“The ones by the tree.”

“These aren’t gardenias. They have no scent at all.”

She glanced at the unfamiliar flower with an obvious expression of disappointment.

“Don’t give it another thought. If you don’t like them, toss them away.”

Without realizing, he’d used the familiar “tu.” He liked her, standing there absorbed in thought.


And then they try and figure out what the non-gardenias are:

“[. . .] What if they were begonias?”

“They’re smaller. I mean larger. I mean gardenias are smaller.”

“Maybe they’re stunted begonias.”

“They’re probably camellias.” Both had started playing the game.

“Camellias? No, I’d recognize a camellia anywhere. These, I can assure you, are mysterious flowers. Flowers that bloom on the night of Carnival.”


No need to point out that there are other things that can bloom on the night of Carnival, but I still will.

And what happens to those flowers? This is the bit that ties this story most directly back into last week’s accounting of various Rodoreda motifs.

She bit her lips. She felt bad that she’d lost the flowers. She would have kept one in a book till it was dry as paper, had lost its perfume—it wasn’t even a gardenia—and when she stumbled across it in the future, it would have always evoked the color of night, the sound of the wind, her eighteen years, the years she felt she had lost as soon as she had gained them.


There’s this great thing in Rodoreda where future memories, soon-to-be nostalgia, is created in the present moment on the page. I love that. As an old, this hits home a lot more now than it did when I first read these pieces.

Tropisms

These moments are sprinkled throughout the story, so I’ll just choose a couple examples here to show that these same inner emotional states are present in “Carnival.”

“[. . .] You know, perhaps it’s only when you’re young that you wish so desperately that now would last, that nothing we have would ever end. We wish it even more when what we have now seems the best thing possible.”


Or:

“I don’t see a thing.”

“That means you’ll have a long life,” she said with a touch of disdain. “People who see seven colors die the following day. Today I’ve seen five. Wait, let me try again, see if it changes.”

The boy felt depressed, as if having a long life was a true sign of mediocrity. The girl held her breath, still submerged in her experiment.


There are others, but to get on with it, here’s a segue to the next point:

“Why are you so worried?”

He couldn’t stand the silence any longer and began speaking with a serious voice.

“It’s not that I’m worried. It’s something much worse. I wanted to make this evening . . . I don’t know how to explain . . . a night like this! I wanted a memory, something I could cling to, keep for the future. Because I will never take any trips, or write poetry.”


Dissonance Between Reality and Desire

This is the “unit of analysis” or “motif” or whatever you’d like to call it that I’d like to add to the list above. It’s present in “The Mirror” in the way that the narrator thinks back on her night with Roger and contrasts that with her actual marriage. This disconnect is doubled up on by the conversation with the doctor about sweets, and the denial of that conversation later on in the story. But it’s here in “Carnival” that she really plays this to great emotional heights.

If you haven’t read this story yet and don’t want to lose any of its punch, close this tab, grab your copy of Selected Stories, and come back in a half-hour.

Okay.

Let’s start with the young girl. Here’s her initial explanation for why she’s leaving the party.

“The owner of the house,” the girl began explaining, “is . . . I guess I should confess—after all, we’re friends. He’s my lover. He’s the one I’m going to Paris with. He has to go on business, so we have an opportunity. His wife was at the dance. She’s rarely at home, travels all the time. Since she was there, I decided to leave. The situation was really tense, especially for me of course. I left without saying good-bye to anyone, and now I’m guessing he’s searching for me all through the house and garden. But if he wanted me to stay, why didn’t he lock his wife up in the dark room. For one night . . . I don’t want to give the impression she’s nasty. She’s very nice, dresses really well, knows how to be welcoming. I’d say she’s una gran senyora, a real lady. But I have the feeling that when she climbs in bed, covers her face with cream . . . He doesn’t love her any more; he likes me. As we danced he told me, ‘You’re the most charming girl at the party; you’re like a flower.’ And a little while later he said, ‘I’ll love you eternally’ or something like that.”


She also pauses for a moment along their walk because of a health issue:

“Nothing, my heart. I was just dizzy all of a sudden.”

He looked at her in alarm, not knowing what to say, whether he should hold her, let her go. She sighed deeply and ran her hand across her forehead.

“I’m all right now, it’s starting to pass. I have a weak heart. It must be the kind of life I lead.”

“What does your family say about it?”

“It doesn’t seem to worry them.”

“You should lead a healthier life. Fresh air, exercise, get to bed early.”

“I know the story: lots of fish and vegetables.”

“No,” he responded, a bit disconcerted. “That’s not what I mean. I mean to love more honestly.”

“And die of boredom. No thanks. I decided long ago the kind of life I wanted. I plan only to pick the flowers, as my concierge would put it,” she said, lowering her voice and shooting him a quick, amused look.


Let’s turn to the boy’s backstory for a second. After telling her that he’s dressed as Louis XV’s tailor, and immediately before she has her heart spell, he gives her a bit of info about his life and dreams.

“When I finish my studies, I’ll travel. I want to know the world. I’ll leave without a penny in my pocket. Maybe I’ll get myself hired as a stoker. Poets here all tend to die in bed surrounded by family, and the newspaper prints their dying words, describing the force of their last breath, the whole bit. I want to die alone, with my boots on, face down, an arrow in my back.”


Given how long this already is, I’m going to skip over the scene where they’re mugged, where the boy tries to stand up for himself and is immediately brushed aside, where the young girl momentarily goes off with the two muggers in a semi-flirtatious manner, but this is where the dream of the night—of having a lover who is taking you to Paris, of being a young poet who will live a life of adventure, of a night that will mysteriously bloom into something life-changing—all of it, comes crashing down.

Back to an earlier quote, but this time using the whole thing.

“It’s not that I’m worried. It’s something much worse. I wanted to make this evening . . . I don’t know how to explain . . . a night like this! I wanted a memory, something I could cling to, keep for the future. Because I will never take any trips, or write poetry. And it’s not true that I study. I used to, now I work. I have a younger brother and I’m head of the household. So, now you know it all. You also know what a bad impression I’ve made. I’ve made a fool of myself.”

She was filled with a deep sadness. It was as if a secret reserve of anguish had melted in the bottom of his chest, risen to his throat, and turned yet again into pain. [. . .]

He must think I’ll always laugh at him when I remember this night, those men, laughing at him always, till the end of time.


And, while we’re at it, let’s pour on the sadness and suffering:

“Me too. I’d been saving my money for three months so I could rent this costume, not even catching the tram, and I live in Gràcia but work on Carrer de la Princesa. When my father was alive we had everything we needed. One day he went to bed feeling very ill and never got up. What little we had disappeared with his illness and the funeral. It was really hard for me. I had to give up everything I enjoyed, all my plans. Everything. We were really alone, and I was the oldest child. I had to make a real show of pretense, so as not to add to my mother’s grief. It’s kind of ridiculous that I’m explaining all this, complaining. It shows a poor spirit. My life would make a great dime novel. Here I’d been saving for three months, thinking I’d have fun with my friends, but as soon as I saw myself in this costume, I was embarrassed. I did go out with my friends, but they were all with their girlfriends; and after we’d been in the park up on Tibidabo for a while, they disappeared without my realizing. I walked for a long time, I sat for a while on a bench by the funicular . . . but that’s not true. It’s painful to tell the truth. I went up Tibidabo because a friend of mine works in a restaurant there, and he told me to stop by and see him. He gave me the pastries we ate. I sat on the park bench, thinking how terribly boring life was, and gazed at the night, the lights of the city below me, till I was tired.”


Even within this confession there’s that little moment where he explains why he was up at Tibidabo and then immediately admits that that reason is a lie! This is that dissonance between inner desires and outer reality that really ramps up the emotion in Rodoreda’s early stories. And in case you thought the boy was the only one spinning tales . . .

“You know what? It’s not true that I have a lover. I’ve never loved anyone. All my brother’s friends that liked me a little, I found them . . . I don’t know how to explain it. It’s difficult to say the things the way we think them or feel them. I mean, all the boys who have liked me up till now left me indifferent. It’s probably that I don’t like young men and older men scare me a bit. Sometimes I’m convinced that I’m suffering from some strange illness, because I feel good all alone in my room, with my books, my thoughts. I know my thoughts aren’t particularly lofty; I’m not trying to sound grand. I don’t really know why I ran way from the party. I went with my brother and his fiancée. I shouldn’t say it, but I don’t like that my brother’s engaged. We were best friends. No brother and sister ever got along better. Nor is it true that I have a heart condition. Sometimes I can feel it beating fast and it’s because . . . I’ll never find a substitute for my brother, someone who can be what my brother was to me.”

He felt a sadness rising from deep within him. He’d have given his life to be able to replace her brother. [. . .]

She sighed deeply, affected by the insidious magic of the hour and the night. “I won’t marry for love or merely to serve my own interest. Or maybe I’ll marry for both these reasons. I’ll have an orderly house filled with jars and jars of marmalade and summer preserves made for winter and large wardrobes with neatly folded clothes. If I have children, they’ll have what I’ve had: heat in winter and the broad sea in summer.”


How it All Ends

You can find those other elements mentioned above in this story. Slight shifts in perspective and time that add complexity to the story, moments in which fragmentary prose reflects the inner thoughts of the characters, etc. They’re all there. In fact, I’d argue that these motifs are there in all of her great stories, and this is a great story.

Having come all that way though, through Moretti and various “units” that combine to make a larger, more powerful whole, let’s end where we began, at the end of this journey, where things just . . . end.

Carnival had ended. The wind and rain had helped it die. We too have died a bit, he thought, or the ghosts we have left along the way. No one would be able to see them at the top of Avinguda del Tibidabo, with the pastries and champagne, by the gate with the perfume of the false gardenias, at the door where they had sheltered during the rain. It was all far away, indistinct, a bit absurd, as if it had never happened.

“Will you give me your address in France?”

“I don’t even know it yet.”

She, however, would never again remember that night. The sound of the train taking her away would erase the last vestiges of it. But he . . . he would never find another girl like her, with that smile, that hair. From time to time he would see her blurred outline standing in front of him, her image evoked by a certain perfume, a sigh of leaves, a swarm of ghostly stars at the back of the sky, a silence that suddenly manifests itself.


That’s not exactly the end, there are a couple more beats, but I’ll leave those for you to enjoy for yourself.

2 November 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week, Chad and Brian dive into the first six stories in Mercè Rodoreda’s Selected Stories and call up Quim Monzó, arguably the most important contemporary Catalan author, to talk about the precision and emotionality in her work. They also talk about Catalan literature as a whole, A Thousand Morons, Catalan independence, and much more. An incredibly fun and funny episode, this one really lays the groundwork for approaching Rodoreda’s stories.

Both Selected Stories and Death in Spring are available through the Open Letter website, and if you use 2MONTH at checkout, you’ll get 20% off.

Feel free to comment on this episode—or on the book in general—either on this post, or at the official GoodReads Group.

Follow Open Letter, Chad Post, Brian Wood, and for more thoughts and information about upcoming guests. And follow Quim Monzó to learn more about his writings and the case for Catalan independence.

And you can find all the Two Month Review posts by clicking here. And be sure to leave us a review on iTunes!

The music for this season of Two Month Review is Montseny by Els Surfing Sirles.

30 October 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Coming up on this Thursday’s Two Month Review podcast Brian and I talk about the first six stories in Mercè Rodoreda’s Selected Stories : “Blood,” “Threaded Needle,” “Summer,” “Guinea Fowls,” “The Mirror,” and “Happiness.” Which is only the first 50 pages, yet is as emotionally intense as almost any set of stories you can name. To give you a bit more insight into these stories, and to get you prepared for Thursday’s podcast, I’m going to summarize a few things I noticed in rereading these, and dig in a bit more into my favorite story of the bunch.

If you prefer, you can also download this post as a PDF document.

As always, you can get Selected Stories and Death in Spring for 20% from our website by using the code 2MONTH. It’s also available at better bookstores everywhere.

And be sure to join the Goodreads group and subscribe to the Three Percent Podcast on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.



1) I Want to Reread Nathalie Sarraute.

I think I’ve brought her up on both of our podcasts—and inevitably will a dozen more times—but the first author who comes to mind when reading these early stories has to be Nathalie Sarraute.

Frequently grouped in with Robbe-Grillet, Duras, Pinget, Simon, and the rest of the “Nouveau Roman,” Sarraute was one of the most interesting French writers of the mid-twentieth century. And although she was instrumental in paving the way for this group’s relationship to the possibilities for the novel, her work isn’t as staunchly cerebral as the rest of these writers. Not that her books aren’t incredibly intelligent and experimental in style and form, but the first handful—Tropisms, Portrait of a Man Unknown, Martereau, and The Planetarium—revolve around the idea of depicting “tropisms,” a imprecise feeling or set of feelings that arise within a given person or character in response to the outside environment. Here—The Guardian does a better job of explaining this:

The term “tropism” she had taken from biology, where it names the reactive, almost imperceptible movements that living organisms make, towards or away from whatever impinges on them. Sarraute’s are tropisms with a human face, the buried, never quite conscious to-ings and fro-ings of the psyche that accompany all social contact, which she turns pitilessly yet very gracefully into words as she delves into the unspoken and quite often unspeakable root-system of polite conversation. Politeness is shown cruelly up in Sarraute, as the mask for aggression on the part of some and for a corresponding anxiety on the part of others. She is the unforgiving zoologist of our dissembling species, as observed in the habitat she shared with it, of “civilised” Paris.

Or, in her own words, tropisms are “interior movements that precede and prepare our words and actions, at the limits of our consciousness.” And from an interview in the Paris Review

I knew it seemed impossible to me to write in the traditional forms. They seemed to have no access to what we experienced. If we en- closed that in characters, personalities, a plot, we were overlooking everything that our senses were perceiving, which is what interested me. One had to take hold of the instant, by enlarging it, developing it. That’s what I tried to do in Tropisms.

I’m in Poland, sans my copy of Tropisms, but I think this example from a Full Stop review of Saurrate’s short book can link this idea with Rodoreda:

“Well, then! How are you?” He would dare to do that. “Well, then! How do you feel?” he would dare to say that to her – and then he would wait. She should speak, make a move, show her real self, let it come out, let it finally explode – that wouldn’t frighten him. But he would never have the strength to do this. So he was obliged to check it as long as possible, to keep it from coming out, from spurting from her, curb it in her, at any cost, no matter what.

So, turning to Rodoreda’s stories, here’s a bit from “Blood”:

But then I started to agonize. If I hadn’t seen them together, maybe the strange change in me would never have happened. I began to feel like I was a nuisance to my husband; something was different, and without wanting to, I started to distance myself from him. [. . .] Obsessions of mine, I know. Because you see, when a woman stops being a woman, her head fills with obsessions.

From “Summer”:

His wife turned over. She was small and weak. She had been very sick three or four years ago and looked the worse for it. She tired easily and coughed all winter. The doctor said it wasn’t anything serious. All of a sudden, she sighed. A brief sigh, just enough to show she was alive. He was filled with grief. Yes, a deep grief, without really knowing why.

One last one, from “Guinea Fowls”:

Quimet started sobbing uncontrollably. He wept loudly, his mouth open, his eyes all wrinkled from being closed so tight.

“What’s the matter? Did someone hit you? What is it?”

He shook his head after each question, but couldn’t stop crying. All his grief, all his pent-up pain, came pouring out. When the trauma began to pass, his chest still shaking from the last of his sobs, he announced, as if he had suddenly grown older:

“I’m terribly sad.”



2) No Surprise She Wrote a Novel Called Garden By the Sea

I have no grand statements about how to interpret all the garden imagery in these stories, but I just want to draw attention to it now, since it might be interesting to track across both this collection and Death in Spring.

“Blood” opens with the narrator talking about how her husband used to plant dahlias in a particular basket, and the climax of this story involves her husband playing a trick on her (or just has a vivid dream) in which there’s a woman sneaking around their garden. And, tying this back into the first observation, the story ends with this paragraph:

“Dahlias have never grown in this basket again. Sometimes, when the weeds grow high, I pull them up, and move the earth around so it won’t look bad, and if I see dahlias at the florist, a kind of dizziness sweeps over me and I feel like vomiting. Forgive me.”

Things are a bit more complicated in “Summer,” although flowers once again draw the characters into the past, this time also symbolizing some primal desires and the vitality of life (or lack thereof). This story is narrated by the husband, who goes into a bit of a revery on his balcony after getting into a bit of a debate with his wife about their son’s safety:

The scent of flowers reached him from the gardens below. He could see them all from the balcony. The palm tree at the Codinas’ spread its dusty fans in the thick air. The darkest tree of all was a medlar, old and tall, with a smooth, knotless trunk and leaves so stiff they looked like cardboard. He wiped the sweat from his forehead and neck. A mosquito buzzed furiously around him. What if by magic he suddenly found himself in the woods . . . If he could only spend the night in the woods . . . Life, after all . . . This is the only good thing there is in life. Just this. The night. A girl. Just this. And even then it’s so terrible, as if you were suffering or dying. For a girl like that you could do anything. “Carme, Carme.” Why does a beautiful girl always have an ugly girlfriend?

And then, after his son gets back home, right before he’s overcome by “grief” looking at his recently-ill wife, he thinks, “He knew both of them were thinking about the unwatered carnations.”

Near the opening of “Guinea Fowls,” Quimet, the young boy who will end the story “terribly sad” after helping slaughter some poultry, has a chance to take a different path:

The garbage was piled up in front of him, at the edge of the sidewalk. As he munched calmly on the bread, he poked through the pile and discovered a bouquet of wilted flowers, a dark, still fresh carnation, cabbage and lettuce leaves, leek stems, and a few squashed tomatoes full of shiny white seeds. He was tempted to pick up the seeds and put them in the empty matchbox in his pocket; he could plant them in a flowerpot and put it on the balcony. But he was feeling lazy after the sleepless night.

I’ll write more about “The Mirror” later, but in the present of this story, the narrator’s daughter-in-law and grandson are working in the garden. More unsettling though—if we link gardens up with interior life, healthy relationships, etc.—we get this passage about the narrator:

She wanted to be alone, to rest. Her room was her world, filled with secrets, with pictures of people that not even her son or daughter-in-law knew. As she entered, the mirror on the wardrobe reflected the mysterious-looking green garden, barely visible behind the slats on the partially lowered blinds, a dreamlike landscape.

“Happiness” includes another example of the link between a garden (or nature generally) and a more serene, positive relationship:

Quick, quick, she thought. If only the clock could be turned back, back to a previous moment. Back to the little house last year by the sea. The sky, water, palm trees, the fiery red of the sun reflected at sunset on the glass of the balcony. Blooming jasmine gripping the balcony. And the clouds, the waves, the wind that furiously blew the windows closed . . . It was all in her heart.



3) The Complexing of Form

This post is already thesis length, so I’ll try and keep this section to just a couple of paragraphs. Mostly, I just want to point out that, for anyone who’s read War, So Much War or Death in Spring, these first stories might come as a bit of a shock. They’re so direct! So straightforward! A different side of Rodoreda.

And this is all true. These early pieces are working within an aesthetic that’s not as baroque or symbolic as her later works. They’re still absolutely amazing in their precision, emotional power, and depiction of her character’s inner lives. But in terms of form and structure, we’re going to see an immense amount of growth over the next two months.

That growth is even evident in these first six stories. We talk about “Blood” a bit on the podcast this week, so I won’t say too much here, but this framing device seems acts as a sort of unlocking mechanism, a simple way for Rodoreda to give herself permission to tell this story of a marriage failing and a woman leaving. In “Threaded Needle,” internal fantasies start to appear, fantasies that run counter to what is portrayed in “real life” and add a lot of emotional dimensions to these characters. The same thing is seen in “Happiness,” when the narrator goes through a whole internal journey in which she dreams of leaving her husband, and imagines what her life would be like if she went through with it. Finally, “Summer” has a nice interlude about the woods (see above) that’s one of the earliest examples of how Rodoreda juxtaposes unexplained images that are both fragmentary and open to interpretation. This will definitely show up later, and is one of the most incredible ways in which she complicates her texts and transforms them from simple stories into something more universal and multifaceted.

The story where these techniques really come together (at least in this artificial grouping of six pieces) is in “The Mirror”—my personal favorite of this bunch.



“The Mirror”

This is the story in which Rodoreda levels up. The primary elements of what makes this story work so well—melodrama related to a bad marriage, internal feelings straining to be expressive, events from the past couched in slightly obscure ways—can be found in the other stories as well, just not quite as compressed.

This is the same passage I mention on the (forthcoming) podcast, but it’s also a great place to start:

Beneath the lilac-filled vases lay purple stars; lots of tiny flowers had fallen. Roger was getting dressed. His initials, R.G., were embroidered on the left side of his shirt. I too needed to get dressed, but I lingered, afraid that the most insignificant gesture would shatter that mirror of sad, fragile happiness. As if my dismay could make the afternoon last for years and years. When we went down to the street, we stopped beneath a streetlight and shook hands, as if we were simply friends, and said good-bye. Yet coming down the stairs, we had stopped to kiss on each step. When I was alone again, I thought, “We’ll never see each other again as we have today.” I looked around for something to call my own: the light from the streetlamp, the purple sky, a window with a light. Then I started walking. And later? The dance, Agata, the child, my marriage.

So many great things about this paragraph! Tying this into all that came above, we have “lilac-filled vases” that are shedding their flowers. We have the “mirror of sad, fragile happiness” that’s ready to shatter. We have the honest, depressing thought that comes as soon as she’s alone. But most notably to me, we have a series of fragments that punctuate the real plot of this story and drive home the narrator’s sadness tinged with anger. “And later? The dance, Agata, the child, my marriage.” Just typing that leaves me with a sense of longing and nostalgia for what could’ve been.

I don’t want to spoil this story completely for anyone who hasn’t read it yet, but it works through two plots running in parallel. In the present, the narrator goes to the doctor who gives her some advice about treating her diabetes by avoiding sweets. She then buys a bag of cookies and goes to her son’s house, where she lies about seeing the doctor and watches her grandson dig up the garden. There is a simmering contempt there, especially toward her son. (I’ll leave the why for you to figure out.)

Then there’s the story of the past, of two men, a too-brief romance, a tormented marriage, and a death. This too I’ll let you find out about as you read, but I want to end with one other example of the reason why I think her writing took a leap with this story. This muddled representation of the narrator’s internal life works so well because it’s slightly confusing to process, yet reeks of emotion.

“Why won’t you dance with me?”

Jaume Mas, her husband, had entered her life in that manner: timidly, as she gazed at Roger, remembering that afternoon. She was filled with the terrible wish to scream. Jaume had entered her life too late, but it was at the precise moment when she was losing her bearings. Are you tired? She was gazing at her fan, the mother-of-pearl ribs, the silk tassel. She had had a mauve dress with a lilac posy at the waist made for her. She had it made with Roger’s words in mind. We’ve begun to love each other beneath the sign of the lilacs. You could see clumps of lilacs in the park, and branches of them stood in vases around the room. On that afternoon. If Roger comes near, he’ll see the landscape on my fan, tender apple green with a peach-colored sky. But he didn’t approach. I don’t think he even saw me, and I wanted to scream.

“You don’t want to dance?”

I felt sorry for him, a sudden sadness, as if I had just been shown a condemned man.

Till next week . . .

26 October 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Brian Wood is BACK. Complete with a poem he wrote in his time away from the Two Month Review . . . In the introduction to season three, Chad and Brian talk about Catalan literature (briefly), Mercè Rodoreda’s career and comps, possible approaches to discussing Rodoreda’s stories, and more. As noted “elsewhere,”: this season will start with Mercè Rodoreda’s Selected Stories followed by one of her novels, Death in Spring.

Both of these books are available through the Open Letter website, and if you use 2MONTH at checkout, you’ll get 20% off.

Feel free to comment on this episode—or on the book in general—either on this post, or at the official GoodReads Group.

Follow Open Letter, Chad Post, Brian Wood, and for more thoughts and information about upcoming guests.

And you can find all the Two Month Review posts by clicking here. And be sure to leave us a review on iTunes!

The music for this season of Two Month Review is Montseny by Els Surfing Sirles.



23 October 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

If you prefer, you can also download this post as a PDF document.

As you hopefully already know, the third season of the Two Month Review podcast will be dedicated to Mercè Rodoreda. Since most of her books are relatively slim (a.k.a., of readable length unlike the beasts that we’ve worked through in seasons one and two), we decided to do two of her books: Selected Stories and Death in Spring. You can get 20% off of both of these by using the code 2MONTH at checkout on the Open Letter site. (BTW, this link is good forever, so feel free to use it to buy any of the books featured in the Two Month Review.)

We’ll be starting in on her actual work next week, with author Quim Monzó joining our November 2nd podcast to talk about first six stories from Selected Stories (pages 1-50). But before you get started on reading this, I thought I’d post a short overview of Rodoreda’s life and works for anyone who isn’t already familiar with, arguably, one of the greatest Catalan writers ever.



Patriots Stand Erect!

Her Life

Admittedly, I’ve spent many more hours reading Rodoreda’s books than studying her biography, so this is really just a basic overview pulled from a few different sources. In pulling this together though, I was reminded of just how great it would be for someone to write a new biography of her and her work. Something like what Ben Moser did for Lispector. Hmm . . . Anyway . . .

Basics: Rodoreda was born in Barcelona in 1908 and passed away in Girona, Spain in 1983 at the age of 74. She got married young—at only 20—to her uncle, who happened to be fourteen years older than her. They had one child together, a son named Jordi.

She was working for the Catalan Government when the Spanish Civil War started, and fled the country shortly after the war ended. This isn’t the place for a history lesson on the Spanish Civil War (which, again, not an expert on), but suffice it say that when Franco won, things didn’t go so well for Catalans. After the Nationalist troops run roughshod over the region, destroying, looting, wrecking everything in sight, Catalonia lost its autonomy, and its language and flag were explicitly banned. And don’t forget the destruction of all Catalan newspapers along with the burning of banned books! These prohibitions lasted throughout the Franco regime, and are an unsettling basis for why things are so messy today, in 2017, in Catalonia.

When she left Barcelona, Rodoreda first lived in Paris (a setting for a number of her early stories) and then, well, World War II happened and the Germans arrived. According to the bio on the Fundació Mercè Rodoreda site, “when the Germans arrived, she had to flee on foot, facing horrifying sights, particularly the burning of Orleans.” (We’ll be reading “Orléans, Three Kilometers” in just a few weeks.)

It was in Switzerland that she started publishing again, and since it’s really her works that we’re interested in, let’s leave her bio here, after pointing out that there is a Catalan prize for short stories named in her honor, and that she was named as a Member of Honour to the Association of Catalan Writers.



Select Works

To put the two books we’ll be reading into the context of her career, here’s a rundown of some of her most famous books.

Aloma (1938): Of the early novels that she wrote, Aloma is the only one that she didn’t end up rejecting. This hasn’t been translated into English, although we have considered it in the past. It’s a short novel in the vein of Time of the Doves and Camilla Street, both of which are detailed below.

Vint-i-dos contes (1958): Twenty years, a civil war, and two major changes of scenery later, Rodoreda finally published another book. This time it’s a collection of stories—twenty-two to be exact. Twenty of these ended up in our Selected Stories, along with seven from Semblava de seda i alters contes (1978; “It Seemed Like Silk and Other Stories”) and three from My Christina and Other Stories (which was published in full by Graywolf in the 1980s). In other words, this collection is more or less what we’ll be talking about for the next month.

La plaça del Diamant (1962): This is Rodoreda’s most famous and popular novel. It’s the second most translated book from the Catalan (behind Albert Sánchez Piñol’s La pell freda or Cold Skin, which, whatever), and is oftentimes held up as one of the three or four most important works of Catalan writing. In fact, back in 2009, Jessica Lange performed the entire book as a single monologue for the Catalan Days festival that took place in New York.

A realistic novel that employs some stream of consciousness techniques, La plaça del Diamant is about a single woman’s life, the complications of marriage and motherhood, love and its deterioration, and the impact of the civil war. It’s a beautiful book that features a woman developing her own singular viewpoint and understanding of the world, and is both empowering and emotionally intense. It’s very much in keeping with the tone and nature of the early stories, and is incredibly well crafted. Anyone who likes Lispector, Ferrante, Sarraute, etc., will love this novel. Without question.

Before moving on from here, it’s worth noting that this has been translated twice. The Time of the Doves (translated by David Rosenthal) came out from Graywolf in 1986 and is still available here in the U.S. This is a semi-controversial translation, since the title has little to do with the original (which is just the name of a plaza in Barcelona—one that now features the statue pictured below), and the “doves” of the title are generally referred to as “pigeons,” a nitpicky thing that creates a totally different tone in English. (Can you imagine naming a book, “In the Time of the Pigeons”?) There is a more recent translation from Peter Bush and Virago entitled In Diamond Square. I would love for Open Letter to publish this version in the U.S. But alas.

El carrer de les camèlies (1966): This is Camellia Street, which we will be reprinting next year. It’s the story of a woman raised by nuns after the Spanish Civil War who becomes a prostitute. In terms of literary technique and emotional power, this novel fits in perfectly with the early stories and La plaça del Diamant.

Jardí vora el mar (1967): Another forthcoming Open Letter book, Garden By the Sea is told from the point of view of a male gardener who relates the goings on at the house where he works. Although it was published after La plaça del Diamant and El carrer de les camèlies, Rodoreda started working on it before those two novels and claimed that it was what allowed her to find the way to write those other books.

Mirall Trencat (1974): Translated as A Broken Mirror, this was the first Rodoreda novel I read, and god damn! That reading led to all of our Rodoreda publications, which led to a great deal of success for Open Letter, which lead to this new podcast featuring her work. Such is life. A relatively short novel, it relates a family’s dissolution over three generations, and is told in three distinct styles: part one is very naturalistic; the second uses a lot of high modernist techniques; and the final part is incredibly fragmented, ending in little poetic gems and no singular narrative. Although it may seem simple, the way form reflects content is absolutely masterful and reminds me of António Lobo Antunes and other more experimental writers. If this book ever goes out of print (if you’re reading this University of Nebraska Press, just let it go!) we’re going to reissue it immediately.

Quanta, quanta guerra . . . (1980): War, So Much War! This was the last book published in Rodoreda’s lifetime, and we brought it out in English a couple years ago. It’s a phenomenal book about a young boy wandering a war-torn landscape. Much more surreal and strange than La plaça del Diamant, a lot more in keeping with A Broken Mirror and Death in Spring.

La mort i la primavera (1986): Published a few years after her death, Death in Spring is, in the eyes of some readers and critics, the true high point of Rodoreda’s career. She worked on this for years and, as we’ll see, it’s a book that’s rife with symbolism and open to be interpreted as a representation of Spain under Franco, of the natural order of life, death, rebirth, and all sorts of things. Hold tight—come December, this book is going to blow your mind.



Other Resources

If you’re looking for more information about Rodoreda, a good place to start is the aforementioned Fundació Mercè Rodoreda. Their mission is to oversee her works and papers, maintain a library of all her works and translations of those works, promote her legacy, and offer grants to support research into her writing.

One of the most famous pieces about Rodoreda ever has to be this one (original Spanish) by Gabriel García Márquez. Here’s the opening:

While in a Barcelona bookstore last week, inquired about Merce Rodoreda, and y told me that she had died the previous month. The news caused me great sad-first, for the much-deserved admiration I have for her books and, second, for the unwarranted fact that the news of her death had not been publicized outside Spain with due coverage and honors. Apparently, few people outside Catalonia know just who this invisible woman was who wrote some wonderful and enduring novels in a splendid Catalan rarely found in contemporary literature. One such work, La Placa del Diamant (1963; Eng. The Time of the Doves, 1980), is, in my opinion, the most beautiful to have been published in Spain following the Spanish civil war.


(I have no idea why there are so many weird typos and snafus in this text, “great sad” being the most comical. Rather than edit this, I’ll just leave it as is, since the logic is still present despite the odd language.)

Fun fact! This appeared in the forerunner to World Literature Today.

I haven’t dug too much into the scholarly work that’s been done on Rodoreda in the States, but Kathleen McNerney has edited two volumes about her work, Voices and Visions: The Works of Mercè Rodoreda, and The Garden Across the Border: Mercè Rodoreda’s Fiction.

There are tons of reviews out there about her novels, including a bunch from the past year that include War, So Much War, but two notable ones that relate to this season of the podcast have to be: Jesmyn Ward’s You Must Read This piece on Death in Spring for NPR, and Paul Kerschen’s piece in the Quarterly Conversation, Mercè Rodoreda and the Style of Innocence, which covers the Selected Stories, Death in Spring, A Broken Mirror, and The Time of the Doves.

Tune in on Thursday for a bit more information, and then next week we’ll dive into the first six stories!

17 October 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

After an impassioned pitch for why you should support Open Letter’s annual campaign, Chad and Tom talk about ALTA, about how best to promote international literature to common readers, about the moral argument for reading translations, about Tim Parks and this article on Han Kang’s Human Acts, and about how baseball is broken and breaking Chad’s will to live. Enjoy!

One other note: The next season of the Two Month Review will kick off on Thursday, October 26th with an episode introducing Mercè Rodoreda and the two books of hers that will be featured this season: Selected Stories and Death in Spring. Both are avaialble for 20% off by using the code 2MONTH at checkout. The full schedule of episodes is available here.

This week’s music is Two Thousand and Seventeen (the same number of minutes in game five of the the Cubs-Nationals series) by Four Tet.

As always, feel free to send any and all comments or questions to: threepercentpodcast@gmail.com. Also, if there are articles you’d like us to read and analyze (or just make fun of), send those along as well.

And if you like the podcast, tell a friend and rate us or leave a review on iTunes!

If you don’t already subscribe to the Three Percent Podcast you can find us on iTunes, Stitcher, and other places. Or you can always subscribe by adding our feed directly into your favorite podcast app: http://threepercent.libsyn.com/rss



4 October 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The voting is in and . . . Well, The Physics of Sorrow and Maidenhair ended up with the most votes. That said, we’re not going to do those books next. Instead, since we haven’t featured any books by women yet—and since Catalan is undergoing some serious shit right now—we’re going to start by doing two books by Mercè Rodoreda: Selected Stories and then Death in Spring. And then we’ll do Physics of Sorrow. In fact, for the Physics season, we’ll do a live recording in New York with Georgi Gospodinov himself! So, stay tuned.



Here’s the schedule for the third season of the Two Month Review, the “Rodoreda and Catalan Independence” season:

October 26: Introduction to Mercè Rodoreda

November 2: Selected Stories: “Blood,” “Threaded Needle,” “Summer,” “Guinea Fowls,” “The Mirror,” and “Happiness” (pages 1-50)

November 9: Selected Stories: “Afternoon at the Cinema,” “Ice Cream,” “Carnival,” “Engaged,” “In a Whisper,” “Departure,” “Friday, June 8” (51-102)

November 16: Selected Stories: “The Beginning,” “Nocturnal,” “The Red Blouse,” “The Fate of Lisa Sperling,” “The Bath,” and “On the Train” (103-143)

November 23: Selected Stories: “Before I Die,” “Ada Liz,” “On a Dark Night,” “Night and Fog,” and “Orléans, Three Kilometers” (144-207)

November 30: Selected Stories: “The Thousand Franc Bill,” “Paralysis,” “It Seemed Like Silk,” “The Salamander,” “Love,” and “White Geranium” (208-255)

December 7: Death in Spring Part One (1-27)

December 14: Death in Spring Part Two (28-68)

December 21: Death in Spring Part Three (69-118)

December 28: Death in Spring Part Four (119-150)

And then we’ll kick off 2018 with Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow and will follow up with Mikhail Shiskin’s Maidenhair, Dubravka Ugresic’s Fox, and Rodrigo Fresán’s The Bottom of the Sky.

Get the books now and join the Goodreads group to join in the discussion! And, of course, subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.

31 March 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Mark Haber, BTBA judge and bookseller at Brazos Bookstore. We will be running two of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



War, So Much War by Mercè Rodoreda, translated from the Catalan by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent (Spain, Open Letter)

My first (and possibly strongest) argument why War, So Much War should win the Best Translated Book Award is that Mercè Rodoreda is symbolic of the importance of translated literature. The Catalan language—a language banished under the Franco regime and during the bulk of Rodoreda’s writing career—is today spoken by a mere nine million people. That may seem like a lot but, comparatively, it’s only the size of a large city, say Mexico City or New York. It is a language that has survived against the odds. Rodoreda was an author who wrote in a prohibited language and almost exclusively in exile. Imagine leaving your home and writing in a language Franco had called the language of dogs. And yet the book. The book. How often do you read a book and feel that it’s essential? That it always existed and you just had to find it?

War, So Much War seduces with its apparent simplicity until the reader realizes something rather brilliant and rare is taking place. It has one foot in the world of the living and another in a fever dream. The premise is simple: a young boy runs away from home during the Spanish Civil War (although the name of the war is never mentioned). The chapters are short and the novel is episodic. The world of war, its strange and surreal cruelty, is seen through the eyes of the boy as he tramps through the countryside. Strangers come in and out of focus, some longer than others. I read War, So Much War just after finishing Don Quixote and the similarities are hard to ignore: it’s a pastoral and episodic novel. Each tiny chapter moves the story forward by small increments. The tones are very different of course but the similarities are pronounced.

Translated by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent the language of the novel is never less than stunning. A passage where the young protagonist listens to an old man imprisoned in an empty castle is especially memorable. The old man rambles as the boy listens:

Observe and admire the perfect order of stars, the passing of time with its retinue of seasons: the gates of summer, the gates of winter. Observe the waves, attend to the grandeur of the winds that the angels blow from the four corners of the pulsating heavens. The lightning that streaks everything with fire, the crawling thunder . . . I adored rosy cheeks, turgid buttocks, honey-sweet breasts, dawn-colored thighs, snow-white, nacreous feet . . . Books that impart wisdom, blazing sunsets from my windows, the pearly light of the night star. My life had been a perfect jewel, a diamond. What are my broken bones but a way of binding me to the realm of memories, to everything I once had and still retain because it dwells in the darkest recesses of my heart?


For a book with War in the title (twice!) there is very little war. War is present, but often in the distance or on the periphery. Instinctively the reader knows bad and violent things are taking place nearby, perhaps over the next hill or in the neighboring valley, but the violence is mostly off-screen. The effects of war, however, the way war changes how people live in, feel and perceive the world, especially children, is omnipotent. This is another reason why War, So Much War is so relevant and universal. War and its ravaging effects are, unfortunately, timeless. Though written toward the end of her life, in 1980, the novel, like all great novels, feels immune to trends.

I could say a lot more about this novel. How customers who have purchased War, So Much War have returned to Brazos Bookstore to not only thank us for the recommendation but to ask: ‘what other books do you have by her?’ How I think a posthumous Nobel Prize she should be awarded to Rodoreda. How the Book Group is reading The Time of the Doves in May and I couldn’t be more excited. Her titles are not only selling well but being talked about in, of all places, Houston, Texas. And in the year 2016. Yes, the mere fact that this brilliant writer and her amazing book is being discussed in 2016 for its literary merit, its translation and its timelessness is a cause for celebration. Mercè Rodoreda is the writer I never knew I needed until I’d read her.

23 December 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Rather than devolve into posting clickbait featuring cats, penguins, hedgehogs, corgis, and books, like other BuzzHole sites, I’m going hard for the rest of the week, starting with seven books by women in translation.

The gender disparity in terms of women in translation has been fairly well documented—see the Women in Translation tumblr and all of the work Meytal Radzinski has been doing—but it’s worth reiterating some of the primary numbers.

Using our own Translation Database, I calculated that between 2008 and 2014 only 26.6% of all the works of fiction and poetry published in translation were written by women. That’s pretty damn appalling.

I still might be missing some 2015 titles, but at this moment, I have logged in 552 original works of fiction and poetry in translation, 165 written by women. I don’t think this is a reason to celebrate, but at 29.9%, that is a slight uptick over the average . . .

Leaving off all of the books by women that I included on my previous lists (post listing all lists is forthcoming), and ones that I’m planning on including in the future (this will never end!), here are seven books by women from 2015 that are worth reading.

Rock, Paper, Scissors by Naja Marie Aidt, translated from the Danish by K. E. Semmel (Open Letter)

Given that this is the first Open Letter book I’ve included on these lists, I hope everyone reading this can acknowledge that I’m doing my best to include as many different presses, writers, translators as possible, and not just promoting the mind-blowingly amazing books that we’ve been bringing out.

This is Naja’s first novel and her second book to be translated into English. (The first, Baboon, translated by Denise Newman, won the PEN Translation Prize last year.) It’s a book I considered including on the “noir” list that’s forthcoming, but with all the competition for that—do you have any idea how many crime titles are published every year?—I thought it would make more sense to include her here.

Rock, Paper, Scissors centers around Thomas, a stationery-store owner whose dad dies in prison. Going through some of his belongings, Thomas discovers a mysterious package that could radically change his family’s fortunes. But as the book develops, more and more awful things start happening to him . . .

You can find out more about Naja by reading this interview with Mieke Chew in Bomb.

_The Weight of Things _ by Marianne Fritz, translated from the Germany by Adrian Nathan West (Dorothy Project)

(What’s below appeared verbatim in an earlier post, but I have nothing new to add.)

This may well be the most intriguing jacket copy I’ve read in a while.

The Weight of Things is the first book, and the first translated book, and possibly the only translatable book by Austrian writer Marianne Fritz (1948–2007). For after winning acclaim with this novel—awarded the Robert Walser Prize in 1978—she embarked on a 10,000-page literary project called “The Fortress,” creating over her lifetime elaborate, colorful diagrams and typescripts so complicated that her publisher had to print them straight from her original documents. A project as brilliant as it is ambitious and as bizarre as it is brilliant, it earned her cult status, comparisons to James Joyce no less than Henry Darger, and admirers including Elfriede Jelinek and W. G. Sebald.

My knee-jerk reaction when I see something referred to as “untranslatable” is to cry Nonsense! and bust out all sort of practical versus theoretical reasons why everything’s translatable, just maybe not in the way the speaker has in mind.

But then I Googled Marianne Fritz’s later works and found this:

Yep. That. Amazing.

The Mountain and the Wall by Alisa Ganieva, translated from the Russian by Carol Apollonio (Deep Vellum)

We have a full review of this forthcoming, so I won’t say too much here. Basically this is a genre-bending novel about what happens when rumors spread that the Russian government is going to erect a wall to block off the Caucasus republics from the rest of the country. (Shades of Trump!) It’s also one of the only (the only?) book from Dagestan to be published in English translation.

Not too many months ago, I listened to the audiobook recording of Masha Gessen’s The Brothers about the Boston Bombers. It also involves a lot about Dagestan and I totally fell in love with the way the reader pronounced “Makhachkala.” Weirdly, that got me interested in this book . . . Sometimes the way we find things to read is so random.

Hot Sur by Laura Restrepo, translated from the Spanish by Ernest Mestre-Reed (AmazonCrossing)

I just got a copy of this and hope to read it over the holiday break. (Although I’ll probably spend most of my vacation reading out 2016 titles and prepping for my world lit class . . . sigh. There’s just not enough time for pleasure reading anymore.) Anyway, Restrepo is one of those “AmazonCrossing coups” that I’ve mentioned in past articles and interviews. Sure, a lot of what Amazon does are genre books, romances, thrillers, etc., but they also do a handful of big name literary authors who have been overlooked by more established publishers. Such as Restrepo.

You might remember Restrepo from last summer’s Women’s World Cup of Literature where her novel, Delirium, lost in the semifinals to Alina Bronsky’s The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine.

Hot Sur is a more recent novel that sounds dark and edgy:

María Paz is a young Latin American woman who, like many others, has come to America chasing a dream. When she is accused of murdering her husband and sentenced to life behind bars, she must struggle to keep hope alive as she works to prove her innocence. But the dangers of prison are not her only obstacles: gaining freedom would mean facing an even greater horror lying in wait outside the prison gates, one that will stop at nothing to get her back.

This is one of those titles that I have a feeling certain booksellers would be rallying around had it come out from someone else. Which makes me feel bad for the book.

War, So Much War by Mercè Rodoreda, translated from the Catalan by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent (Open Letter)

This book made Jeff VanderMeer’s list of his favorite books of 2015 and since I can’t resist the idea of having lists inside of lists (inside of lists inside of . . . ), I’m just going to quote from his write up:

War, So Much War, the latest translation of her work following volumes of short stories and the darkly sublime novel Death in Spring, is a phantasmagorical journey through a landscape of war. People disappear into the sea. Cat men made out of broken parts try to make their way in the world. A kind of anti-picturesque episodic adventure, the novel makes sense of war through the nonreal, makes us understand that in the worst circumstances the surreal is the every-day as well as the place people escape to because there is nowhere else to hide.

This book has been getting some great year-end play from booksellers and other critics. As one of my all-time favorite writers, I couldn’t be happier. Go Rodoreda! (Now if only I could find a way to learn more about Catalan culture . . . like by attending the Barcelona-Arsenal Champions League match in mid-March at Camp Nou . . . Maybe I should start a “gofundme” for this! “Send me to see some fútbol, I’ll bring back some Catalan lit!”)

The Big Green Tent by Ludmila Ulitskaya, translated from the Russian by Bela Shayevich (FSG)

I really like when Jonathan Sturgeon is given the space to write longer pieces about books for Flavorwire. He’s a very insightful, thoughtful, well-read critic, as can be evidenced in this piece about Ulitskaya’s latest:

Because the novel is flat and fast, it’s difficult to describe the next several hundred pages. I’d rather given you an example of how it reads. But first I will say that it does not just dutifully work out the fates of our three young men, their sexualities, marriages, educations, occupations, travels, interpersonal struggles, and deaths; rather, it undutifully resolves these things. The plot meanders. The narrator ice skates along the novel’s surface. And as the book expands, it does become a big (green) tent, one that deals the fates of assorted minor characters, of what the narrator bafflingly calls “C-list extras.” The problem, though, is that any extra would be thrilled to be on the C-list; accordingly, the novel’s minor characters are always clambering in the limelight. (“Vera Samuilovna was crazy about endocrinology,” for instance.) Sometimes they ruin the shot.

Still, the book is often a joy to read. It is, if you will, crack. (Reminder: crack is bad for you.) But at least it is book crack and not TV crack. By this I do not mean that books are better than TV, although this is something I do believe. (I write about books.) What I mean is that The Big Green Tent, unlike some other big works of realism published this year, does not rely too much on TV tropes. Instead, it wins the reader’s attention with narrative art and (sometimes) ingenious language.

I considered including this in my spring class, but asking students to read a 570-page book in a week is begging for a student rebellion.

The Country Road by Regina Ullmann, translated from the German by Kurt Beals (New Directions)

I don’t remember seeing a lot of coverage for this book when it first came out, which is both strange and disappointing. Her writing is weird in that way that a lot of literary readers and reviewers seem to enjoy. Robert Musil called her a “genius.” There are blurbs on the book jacket by Rainer Maria Rilke, Thomas Mann, and Hermann Hesse. Kurt Beals won a PEN Heim Translation Award for this. And here’s the opening of the title story:

Summer, but a younger summer than this one; the summer back then was no more than my equal in years. True, I still wasn’t happy, not happy to my core, but I had to be int he way that everyone is. The sun set me ablaze. It grazed on the green knoll where I sat, a knoll with an almost sacred form, where I had taken refuge from the dust of the country road. Because I was weary. I was weary because I was alone. This long country road before and behind me . . . The bends that it made around this knoll, the poplars—even heaven itself could not relieve it of its bleakness. I was ill at ease, because just a short way into my walk, this road had already dragged me into its misery and squalor. It was an uncanny country road. An all-knowing road. A road reserved for those who had been, in some way, left alone.

*

So go forth and read women in translation!

22 October 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I really, really want to air my massive grievances with Actes Sud and the French Publishers Agency over how poorly—and, in my opinion, unprofessionally—they handled the sales of U.S. rights to Mathias Ènard’s latest novel.

In fact, I just deleted a huge long post describing how I know it’s equally unprofessional to tweet mean things at my “colleagues,” even if those “colleagues” deceived me (and others) and treated me disrespectfully and told me that they wouldn’t sell Open Letter the rights to the new Mathias Ènard book because they needed a different press, the “right publishing house” for a work “that’s this important.” Which implies: Ènard’s earlier books aren’t that important?

It went on and on about how I was instrumental in finding Ènard a UK publisher following years of failure on the part of Actes Sud and the French Publishers Agency, but fuck little Open Letter! (Also, how is the UK press [Fitzcarraldo] still the “right publisher” for the new book, and we’re not? Can someone explain this?)1

This deleted post also went into excruciating detail about the emotional aspects of publishing—how much you put into every book, how the only reason anyone smart stays in this business is for the joy of loving the product you put out and helping connect readers to great literature. About how many times all of the players in this shitty little drama have come to me asking for favors, asking for advice, asking for data, for help, for me to take time out of my day to benefit them. And then . . . They won’t even give me a proper explanation as to why they fucked Open Letter right out of one of our foundational authors.

The post ended with me puking violent curses all over the place, lamenting over ever getting involved with French authors at all, threatening to quit publishing altogether because books don’t matter and it isn’t worth being treated like this by your “friends.” It ended with proclamations about how my new policy was to only helping people if they hire me as a consultant, and that from now on the Translation Database would be behind a paywall, data available for a commission.

It was an ugly, dumb pity party of the most therapeutic degree. (Which is probably why I started this blog way back when—cheap therapy for dealing with this industry and its egos and awfulness.)

I know we got royally fucked and unfortunately, it will take ages before I forgive the people involved. Anyone remember this?: Why Publishing Is a Thankless, Frustrating Business I haven’t forgiven that agent and laughed manically at his latest newsletter detailing all the recent sales for Grunberg books, none of which are to English publishers.

But now this is all done and I can finally move on. Tomorrow is another day. We still have a better list than at least half of the publishers out there. I’ll stand by the fact that we do more for international authors and translators than any other press there is. And even if it’s scoffed at, or underappreciated, or ignored, or ridiculed, I’m still think it’s important and will continue helping as many people in the field as I can, even when they don’t return the favor.

Besides, we still (for the time being at least) have the rights to Zone, Ènard’s masterpiece.

*

On the upside, even though Actes Sud doesn’t think we’re good enough for “important” books, we publish a few of these Mercè Rodoreda, who is every bit as good as Ènard. And whose latest book, War, So Much War is excerpted in the latest Harper’s!

A large sack suspended from a tree was swinging back and forth, and from it emerged the head of a man with a straight, taut rope behind it. His face was white, his tongue black, his lips purple. By the tree, just beneath the hanged man’s feet, was a rock; I climbed on it and cut the rope. The hanged man crashed to the ground and hit his head, frightening me so much that I was sure I had killed him instead of saving him. He was young, with black hair and bushy eyebrows. Just as I was thinking that he had surrendered his soul to God, he opened one eye and immediately closed it again. He hadn’t the strength to hold my gaze. After a while he sat up halfway, and I helped him as he struggled to climb out of the sack. He snapped at me angrily, in a husky voice that seemed to come from beyond the grave: Why did you cut the rope?

For a long time, who’s to say how long, he struggled to breathe. Give me some water. . . . I’m suffocating.

To celebrate the fact that we still publish some of the best authors on the planet (no matter what some silly little French press in Arles has to say about it), until the end of the month, we’ll be selling this Rodoreda book for $10 through our website. Just use the code HARPERS at checkout.

1 There are real facts to this story that make it more than just a “Chad lost the rights to a book he wanted and he’s pissed” sort of post. Untrue implications made to various presses. A friend poaching one of our most beloved writers—the writer that, in many ways, put us on the map. Actes Sud’s insincere and lame email to me from this morning. The possibility that they just used us—and all the money and time we’ve invested in Ènard—just to get a starting offer to bring to other presses. That they were never going to sell this to us and offered it to us under false pretenses. I understand losing authors to truly big presses offering really huge advances, but everyone involved in this story has made it clear as possible that this wasn’t that—it was a personal choice that we were “second rate.” Which is exactly why I’m pissed. That and the fact that people don’t talk honestly anymore. There’s no place for passion, Chad, publishing is a business. Get over it! But is it really “just” a business? Should it be? Don’t I deserve respect for all the work I’ve done for international literature?

9 October 12 | Chad W. Post |

Amid all the ALTA excitement (I’ll post some sort of roundup later today—I’m still recovering), this post about what John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats went up on Fader, and contains a ton of really great statements about Open Letter and international lit in general:

Before that, I read Can Xue’s Vertical Motion from Open Letter Books—they’re a translation house in Rochester. Over half of what I read is literature in translation; it’s a real passion for me. The Can Xue book is incredible—short stories that I’d call “surrealist,” but it’s a kind of clear-eyed surrealism, as if dreams had invaded the physical world. The stories slip from simple descriptions or accounts of life into strange scenes of unreality that nobody in the stories is really surprised by. Except for the title story, which is a beautiful narrative about creatures who live under the earth and find the surface. [. . .]

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Merce Rodoreda, who I got turned onto by Open Letter a few years ago when they published Death in Spring. It was amazing, so I read the collected short stories, which were good but not as good; and then I read A Broken Mirror, which is just a shatteringly great book about the brief rise and slow decay of a family. One of the best books I’ve ever read. It is a total mystery to me why she isn’t widely worshipped; along with Willa Cather, she’s on my list of authors whose works I intend to have read all of before I die. Tremendous, tremendous writer.


I second ALL OF THIS. Especially the bit about A Broken Mirror_—that book is the one that turned me onto Rodoreda and led to our publishing _Death in Spring and the stories.

It’s pretty awesome to see someone of John Darnielle’s stature praise us, and although it doesn’t mean nearly as much, I HIGHLY recommend the new Mountain Goats album, Transcendental Youth. Maybe we’ll use a clip from this on the next podcast . . .





6 September 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

There’s been a lot of talk about the revival of interest in long-form non-fiction thanks to the Internet and apps and what not. There’s longform.org, givemesomethingtoread.com, and, more to the electronic point, Kindle Singles.

Now, you could argue that this isn’t really a revival, but rather an embracing of a distribution system for journalism more in line with our times than the printing of magazines or newspaper or books on current affairs.

Regardless, in our Age of Apps, it seems like this revived interest could expand to short stories as well. Rather than buying a journal with a ton of short stories (many of which you probably won’t like), or reading the New Yorker, single-story delivery systems are kind of perfect. Witness the astounding success of One Story.

All of this is a long ramble to introducing Storyville, an iEverything app that provides a new story every week from around the world. It’s a very pretty app, and perfect for giving you something new to read on a regular basis that is interesting, enjoyable, and substantial (but not overwhelming).

One self-serving reason I’m mentioning this now is because Merce Rodoreda’s “Guinea Fowls” (available in her Selected Stories) is this week’s featured story.

Translator Martha Tennent provided a very interesting introduction to this story, which you can read here.

As a translator, I search for a concept of style that will help formulate a strategy for rendering the work into English. It is always difficult to translate from Catalan, for we lack in English a sense of the literary and cultural traditions that have produced Catalan literature, something that does not occur, for example, with French. When translating Rodoreda’s last, posthumous novel, Death in Spring—a surrealist novel that depicts a mythical world where ritual violence is part of the village’s daily life—I sought analogies in English that would help the Anglophone reader interpret the text. I found inspiration in Angela Carter’s Gothic tales and in the rich vocabulary and nature images of D.H. Lawrence. I developed a lexicon based on these writers and attempted to insert expressions garnered from these parallel genres in the English literary tradition at strategic points in my translation.

I worked in a similar fashion when translating the collection of short stories by Rodoreda. Her short narratives reflect at times a Virginia Woolf type of stream of consciousness, but more often a dramatic realism, even a laconic minimalism, seen in the styles of Hemingway or Raymond Carver, writers who helped me develop a style for the story “Guinea Fowl,” where the stark realism of a brutal market scene is glimpsed through the eyes of a young boy. The precision of observation and ear for capturing the rhythm of the spoken language that Mercè Rodoreda shows in much of her writing is clearly evident in “Guinea Fowl.”

Click here to download the Storyville app and to read Rodoreda’s awesome story . . . .

(One last digression: It’s amazing that last week Rodoreda’s Death in Spring was on NPR, and this week her story is being featured in Storyville. She was an incredible figure and I’m really glad Open Letter has been able to make her work available to a much wider group of readers. And hopefully this sort of “Rodoreda rediscovery” will go on for years and years and years.)

2 September 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over at NPR, Jesmyn Ward has a really nice write-up of Merce Rodoreda’s Death in Spring:

When a friend gave me Merce Rodoreda’s Death in Spring, he told me it would blow my mind. Ten pages in, I doubted his claim.

The book begins when the narrator, a 14-year-old boy from a small mountain village, slips into a cold, sometimes savage river to escape a bee. His swim is interspersed with descriptions of his isolated community, with its pink painted homes and wisteria vines that “over the years, upwrenched houses.”

Rodoreda’s prose, even in translation, is bold and beautiful, but structured into short chapters and flashbacks. The effect is impressionistic, truncated and frustrating. I couldn’t orient myself in the narrative.

And then I surrendered.

Sure, I’m 125% biased, but Death in Spring is damn amazing. Rodoreda is one of the greats of the twentieth century. This novel, Time of the Doves, her Selected Fiction are all incredible.

But I’m going to digress for a moment and hate all over the NPR commenters on this post.

When this first went up, three separate people wrote in to complain that there was no “SPOILER ALERT”:

It would be really good if you posted a SPOILER ALERT. I unwittingly read something about the novel that probably should have been read only in the novel. I continued to read, thinking that would be the last spoiler, but it wasn’t. I only got past learning that his father was killed in a very unusual way when it appeared I was going to get more details from the book. I doubt you can do a rewrite but can you post a spoiler alert~? :o] Thanks~!

OK, so now, there is a “SPOILER ALERT” warning at the top of the page, but seriously, WTF? Some readers can be so god damn annoying. Yeah, the narrator’s dad dies, “in a very unusual way.” On page 15. And even if you only read books for the simple plot points (hey—you should check out this John Locke guy, he’s probably right up your alley), then wouldn’t it really be spoiled if you knew the unusual way in which he was killed? Whatever. These people piss me off.

And I know that’s wrong, and I should feel guilty about it, but they reduce books to the most basic of components and try and strangle actual conversation about literature because if you happen to mention anything, you’ve “ruined the surprise.” GAARRRRGGGGHHHH!

28 June 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

As some people have noticed, our new Winter 2010 catalog is now available and listed on the Open Letter website..

Totally biased, but I think this is one of our strongest seasons yet, what with Zone, the new Bragi Olafsson novel, the first of a million or so Juan Jose Saer books (one of my absolute favorites! If you can’t wait for our book, check out The Event from Serpent’s Tail—absolutely incredible), and our first poetry title . . . You can download a pdf of the catalog by clicking the link above, but here are links to each of the books, along with their respective copy:



The Sixty-Five Years of Washington by Juan Jose Saer. Translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph (Argentina)

It’s October 1960, say, or 1961, in a seaside Argentinian city named Santa Fe, and The Mathematician—wealthy, elegant, educated, dressed from head to toe in white—is just back from a grand tour of Europe. He’s on his way to drop off a press release about the trip to the papers when he runs into Ángel Leto, a relative newcomer to Rosario who does some accounting, but who this morning has decided to wander the town rather than go to work.

One day soon, The Mathematician will disappear into exile after his wife’s assassination, and Leto will vanish into the guerrilla underground, clutching his suicide pill like a talisman. But for now, they settle into a long conversation about the events of Washington Noriega’s sixty-fifth birthday—a party neither of them attended.

Saer’s The Sixty-Five Years of Washington is simultaneously a brilliant comedy about memory, narrative, time, and death and a moving narrative about the lost generations of an Argentina that was perpetually on the verge of collapse.




Zone by Mathias Enard. Translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell. (France)

Francis Servain Mirkovic, a French-born Croat who has been working for the French Intelligence Services for fifteen years, is traveling by train from Milan to Rome. He’s carrying a briefcase whose contents he’s selling to a representative from the Vatican; the briefcase contains a wealth of information about the violent history of the Zone—the lands of the Mediterranean basin, Spain, Algeria, Lebanon, Italy, that have become Mirkovic’s specialty.

Over the course of a single night, Mirkovic visits the sites of these tragedies in his memory and recalls the damage that his own participation in that violence—as a soldier fighting for Croatia during the Balkan Wars—has wreaked in his own life. Mirkovic hopes that this night will be his last in the Zone, that this journey will expiate his sins, and that he can disappear with Sashka, the only woman he hasn’t abandoned, forever . . .

One of the truly original books of the decade—and written as a single, hypnotic, propulsive, physically irresistible sentence—Mathias Énard’s Zone provides an extraordinary and panoramic view of the turmoil that has long deviled the shores of the Mediterranean.




The Selected Stories of Merce Rodoreda. Translated from the Catalan by Martha Tennent. (Catalonia)

Collected here are thirty-one of Mercè Rodoreda’s most moving and challenging stories, presented in chronological order of their publication from three of Rodoreda’s most beloved short story collections: Twenty-Two Stories, It Seemed Like Silk and Other Stories, and My Christina and Other Stories. These stories capture Rodoreda’s full range of expression, from quiet literary realism to fragmentary impressionism to dark symbolism. Few writers have captured so clearly, or explored so deeply, the lives of women who are stuck somewhere between senseless modernity and suffocating tradition—Rodoreda’s “women are notable for their almost pathological lack of volition, but also for their acute sensitivity, a nearly painful awareness of beauty” (Natasha Wimmer).




The Ambassador by Bragi Olafsson. Translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith. (Iceland)

Sturla Jón Jónsson, the fifty-something building superintendent and sometimes poet, has been invited to a poetry festival in Vilnius, Lithuania, appointed, as he sees it, as the official representative of the people of Iceland to the field of poetry. His latest poetry collection, published on the eve of his trip to Vilnius, is about to cause some controversy in his home country—Sturla is publicly accused of having stolen the poems from his long-dead cousin, Jónas.

Then there’s Sturla’s new overcoat, the first expensive item of clothing he has ever purchased, which causes him no end of trouble. And the article he wrote for a literary journal, which points out the stupidity of literary festivals and declares the end of his career as a poet. Sturla has a lot to deal with, and that’s not counting his estranged wife and their five children, nor the increasingly bizarre experiences and characters he’s forced to confront at the festival in Vilnius . . .

Bragi Ólafsson’s The Ambassador is a quirky novel that’s filled with insightful and wry observations about aging, family, love, and the mysteries of the hazelnut.




Lodgings by Andrzej Sosnowski. Translated from the Polish by Benjamin Paloff. (Poland)

Lodgings is the first representative selection of Sosnowski’s work available in English. Spanning his entire career, from the publication of Life in Korea in 1992 to his newest poems, this is a book whose approach to language, literature, and the representation of experience is simultaneously resonant and strange—a cocktail party where lowlifes and sophisticates hobnob with French theorists and British glam rockers, unsettling us with the hard accuracy of their pronouncements.

One of the foremost Polish poets of his generation, Andrzej Sosnowski’s work demonstrates a dazzling range of influences and echoes, from Ronald Firbank and Raymond Roussel to John Ashbery and Elizabeth Bishop. Also an influential editor and critic, he has received most of the literary honors available to poets in Poland, including the prestigious Silesius Prize.

1 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

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.



Death in Spring by Merce Rodoreda. Translated from the Catalan by Martha Tennent. (Spain, Open Letter)

The other day, I had a really interesting conversation with David Del Vecchio and Lewis Manalo of Idlewild Books about covers for literature in translation. All the BTBA longlist titles are on display at Idlewild (rock on!) and it’s really interesting to take these all in at once.

One of the things David pointed out was just how dark all these books were. (Sidenote: I REALLY HOPE that one day he’ll write a long piece for us about all of his cover observations—all of us publishers could learn a ton from listening to a bookseller like David. I mean, we’ve seen Sessalee at B&N influence the look of more commercial fiction—pictures of hair anyone?—so it’s only cool that a hip, indie bookstore could help shape the look of translated titles.) I hadn’t really thought about the look of all these titles together—see, I don’t judge a book by its . . . actually, yes I do, we all do—but seriously, look at The Ninth, The Skating Rink, Confessions of Noa Weber, and, cough, Death in Spring, and the impression you get is that all of these books are bleak, dark, somewhat depressing, etc.

Personally, I think the Death in Spring cover kicks some serious design ass, but I can see how someone looking at a tree made of various bones might get the impression that the book is a bit morbid . . . But well, you know, in contrast to some of the other BTBA titles that might misrepresent (Memories of the Future looks awful mechanistic for such an insanely funny book), this one is pretty spot-fucking-on. The book opens with the narrator’s father trying to bury himself in a tree in order to avoid the village’s traditional death ritual . . . His attempt fails in brutal, disturbing fashion:

They started to shout. They shouted at my father who had little remaining breath and was clearly near his end. He was still alive, but only his own death kept him alive. They dragged him from the tree, laid him on the ground, and began beating him. The last blows made no sound. Don’t kill him, shouted the cement man. The mortar trough, filled with rose-colored cement, lay at his feet. Don’t kill him before he has been filled. They pried his mouth partially open, and the cement man began to fill it. First with watery cement so it would slide far down inside him, then with thick cement. When he was well cemented, they stood him up and put him back inside the tree. They replaced the cross and left to prepare the Festa.

Welcome to Merce Rodoreda’s nightmare world.

To fans of her earlier works—especially The Time of the Doves, this is shocking and totally unexpected. But it does sort of fit an evolution of Rodoreda’s work. Doves is a more conventional story of a woman’s loves and losses during the time of the Spanish Civil War. It’s gorgeous and lush, and has something in common with Virginia Woolf’s writing. But then there’s A Broken Mirror, which chronicles the dissolution of a family in three distinct sections, each written with a different tone and sensibility, starting with a more Victorian feel, then turning modernist, and ending with a very fractured, post-modern section. And then comes Death in Spring.

Death in Spring is a very surreal, violent (even houses are “upwrenched”) novel that traces the life of a young boy, through whose eyes we witness the terrifying and incomprehensible rituals that shape life in the village. In addition to the cement-pouring ritual (which is freaky) and the burying people inside of trees bit, there’s also the annual “trip down the river,” in which one unlucky person has to float through the river running under the village to clear out any rocks blocking the water’s passage . . .

The book can be interpreted in several ways—as a metaphor for life under Franco, as a creepy bildungsroman, so on—but one constant is the beauty of Rodoreda’s prose, especially as she struggles to convey something that’s almost beyond words. (To be honest: I’m stealing some of the comments Erica Mena made about this book and all of the times “language fails” in the book.) Personally, I think this is one of the most important books Open Letter has published so far. I can envision scholars and readers debating this a hundred years from now—and studying Martha Tennent’s inventive translation.

So I’ll leave off with another passage that’s beautifully sad:

When they pulled the boy from the river, he was dead; they returned him to the river. Those who died in the water were returned to the water. The river carried them away and nothing was ever known of them again. But at night, at the spot where the bodies were thrown into the water, a shadow could be seen. Not every night. Not today or tomorrow, but on certain nights a shadow trembled. They said the shadow of the dead returned to the place where the man was born. They said that to die was to merge with the shadow. That summer, the shadow of the boy was clearly distinguishable. It was unmistakably him because he had been separated from one of his arms, and the shadow had but one arm. Struggling against the current, the shadow—which was only will, not body or voice—attempted to slip beneath the village. And as the shadow struggled, the prisoner neighed.

25 September 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Natasha Wimmer has an interesting piece on Catalan author Merce Rodoreda. It’s great introduction to Rodoreda—considered to be one of the greatest Catalan authors of all time—even if Wimmer does prefer The Time of the Doves (available from Graywolf) to Death in Spring (which we brought out last year and was masterfully translated by Martha Tennent).

I can’t remember the first time I read Mercè Rodoreda’s The Time of the Doves. It might have been when I was 13, living with my family in the high-rise suburbs of Madrid. It might have been when I was 17, back in Madrid with my mother for a few weeks in a sweltering rented room. Or it might have been when I was 19, on my own in the city, sharing an apartment near the train station with four South American girls. In any case, I read it in Spanish, under the title La plaza del diamante (the original Catalan title is La plaça del diamant). And I read it at about the same time as I read Nada, by Carmen Laforet. These were the first serious books I read in Spanish, and I’ve never forgotten them.

Certainly, few books have been as gorgeously sad. On a personal list of misery-inducing favorites including Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea and Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, The Time of the Doves ranks near the top. Set in Barcelona around the time of the Spanish Civil War, it’s tragic simply as a function of its setting, but Rodoreda plumbs a sadness that reaches beyond historic circumstances, a sadness born of helplessness, an almost voluptuous vulnerability. This condition will be familiar to readers of Rhys’s novels, to which Rodoreda’s novels bear a certain resemblance. Rodoreda’s women are notable for their almost pathological lack of volition, but also for their acute sensitivity, a nearly painful awareness of beauty. [. . .]

For those who’ve only read The Time of the Doves, Death in Spring will come as a surprise. In it, Rodoreda works in an entirely different register, heavily symbolic and fable-like. Signs of this tendency are visible in a number of her short stories, some of which are collected in My Christina and Other Stories. In this collection, Rodoreda’s full range of expression is on display, from the almost banal realism of a later novel, A Broken Mirror, through the exquisite impressionism of The Time of the Doves and Camellia Street, to the garish symbolism of Death in Spring. In Rodoreda’s more symbolic fictions, nature comes to the fore and humans mimic animals or morph into them, as in the short story “The Salamander,” in which a woman who sleeps with a married man is burned to death and turns into a salamander, returning to live under her lover’s bed.

The use of symbolism is a form of sublimation, in the same way that the ruthless elision and economy of Rodoreda’s writing in The Time of the Doves is a form of sublimation. In both cases, Rodoreda heightens and transforms the brutal reality of existence in a world of endless war. The artfulness of the latter method, however, stands in contrast to the often garbled mythmaking of some of the short stories and Death in Spring. Like “The Salamander,” Death in Spring is set in a village that’s part medieval, part contemporary and part infernal. A river runs beneath it, through a rocky passage, and every year one man must swim it to make sure the village isn’t about to be washed away. Most emerge near death, their faces torn by the rocks, but even this is benign compared with the village’s rituals of death, in which living villagers are stuffed full of pink cement and entombed upright in trees.

You can read the whole article here and when you’re inspired to purchase all of Rodoreda’s books, you can do so via Brazos Bookstore’s online catalog by clicking here.

23 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Jeff Waxman from The Front Table was kind enough to let me write a pretty long piece on Merce Rodoreda’s Death in Spring, a book that I absolutely love. Rodoreda’s something special, and the book (which is paper-over-board—get it while it’s hot!) has one of the most intricate, fitting, and cool covers we’ve published so far.

Aside from the exposure to excellent works of literature from all over the world, the best thing about my work with literature in translation is the editorial trips to Spain, to France, to Estonia, to German, to Argentina—and I’m surprised more people don’t become translators or publishers for this alone. I first heard of Mercè Rodoreda—arguably the most influential Catalan author of the twentieth century—during such an editorial trip to Barcelona a few years back that was organized by the brilliant and hip Ramon Llull Institut and consisted of four days of meetings with editors, publishers, critics, and Catalan authors.

Catalan culture is in a bit of a tricky position. A completely different language from Castilian (what we commonly refer to as “Spanish”), Catalan was strongly discouraged during the Franco regime, and a number of Catalan artists—Rodoreda included—went into exile during this time. After Franco’s death in 1975, there’s been resurgence in interest in the Catalan language and in Catalan culture as a whole. Catalonia—located in the northeast part of Spain, bordering France and including Barcelona—has taken pride in reclaiming its literary and artistic heritage, and promoting its unique society to the rest of the world. On the literary end of things, the selection of Catalonia as the Guest of Honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2007 (the first region—in contrast to country—to be honored as such), really helped raise the awareness of Catalan literature among editors, writers, and reviewers around the world.

That said, Quim Monzo’s self-referential opening speech at the book fair (Monzo is another Catalan author I learned about during this trip and that Open Letter will be publishing) is honest to a point of self-deprecation about the worldwide interest in Catalan literature:

“Won’t reading the names of all these writers (most of whom are unknown to the literary world that circulates in Frankfurt) just be tedious for the audience at the opening ceremony who will have to listen to so many unfamiliar names? Won’t they be looking at their watches and thinking, “What a bore!”? And so he decides he won’t mention any names (even though, in fact, he has already mentioned them in the very process of describing his doubts as to whether he should mention them or not). What’s more, he’s read that at the Frankfurt Book Fair there will be an exhibition that explains all this. Although—to be frank—how many of the persons who attend this inaugural event will later visit this exhibition with any more interest than a merely official show of etiquette? Let us be frank and optimistic: very few.”

So where does Mercè Rodoreda fit into all this?

Click here for the rest.

26 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This was a great week for Open Letter books, with three of our recent releases getting some nice coverage:

First up was Hannah Manshel’s review of Death in Spring for The Front Table:

In English for the first time in Martha Tennent’s translation, Death in Spring is about a society that finds highly elaborate ways to elude the inevitable and to conquer time. Its means are slow and insidious, ritualistic and bizarre, always teetering on the line between the real and the magical. Its members, obsessed with imprisoning themselves, pour concrete into the mouths of the dead to keep their souls from escaping. Every spring, they paint the houses pink and it’s unclear whether anyone remembers why. Though the novel is propelled forward by a linear narrative, it is its characters’ evasion of this diachrony that is most captivating. The book is driven by linguistic and thematic repetition, like a prose sestina in which the end words could be symbols or simply icons, aesthetic trends or markers that unfold and elaborate the path of the narrative. We see wisteria and bees, horses and butterflies, souls and prisoners weave in and out of the text, each time reappearing with a new relevance, a new level of meaning.

Christopher Byrd’s review of Jerzy Pilch’s The Mighty Angel in the B&N Review is also pretty fantastic:

From the opening paragraph — in which the protagonist awakens to discover a couple of Mafiosi in his room who have taken it upon themselves to act as literary agents for a female poet — to the closing paragraphs that flick away the tragic arc that’s usually prefabricated for books in the end-of-the-bottle genre, Pilch teases out plenty of LOL moments from desultory situations. All told, The Mighty Angel furnishes enough Schadenfreude to stylishly blacken just about any comedic sensibility.

Becky Ferreira at L Magazine agrees:

Pilch’s prose is masterful, and the bulk of The Mighty Angel evokes the same numb, floating sensation as a bottle of oadkowa Gorzka. But it’s not until Jerzy haphazardly reveals facts of his grandfather’s life that the naked grotesquerie of alcoholism pierces through the book’s often casual and flippant wit. Though the final chapters posit a chance at redemption, it remains unclear whether Jerzy is breaking the cycle, or just trading in one vice for another. To Pilch’s credit, both of Jerzy’s possible paths seem unfortunate and equally likely.

And finally, Michael Orthofer is the first to weigh in on Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s Rupert (he gave it a B+):

What’s riveting about Rupert’s account is his self-assuredness. Yes, he often speaks of ‘Rupert’ in the third person, an abstraction he’s removed from — but then Rupert is, after all, the ultimate ‘I am camera’. It’s a fascinating split-personality on display here — and some . . . perversely fine writing. [. . .] Cleverly, artfully done, Rupert: A Confession is no pleasant read, but an oddly seductive one. Well worthwhile.

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

Catalan Days — a month-long festival celebrating the arts, food, and literature of Catalonia and the Balearic Islands — really got underway on Saturday with a performance by Jessica Lange of Merce Rodoreda’s The Time of the Doves.

This event was arranged in part to celebrate our release of Death in Spring, Rodoreda’s final novel, which she spent decades on, and which was left unfinished. (Well, sort of. The book ends the only way it can—the “unfinished” nature of the manuscript seems to be more editing-based than plot-based.) Martha Tennent was on hand to introduce her translation of Death in Spring and Rodoreda in general. Martha’s a great translator and in fact, she translated the abridged version of Time of the Doves that Jessica Lange performed. (The novel is actually La Placa del Diamante and the “doves” in the title are actually pigeons—stinky, smelly pigeons—which is how Martha translated it. That said, “The Time of the Pigeons” isn’t really a selling title . . .)

Jessica Lange was pretty amazing. Her reading of the novel lasted almost two hours, encapsulating the whole book, from the narrator’s memories of the festival where she met her future husband (he convinces her to leave her fiance for him), through their early years as a married couple and her fairly submissive role in the relationship, to the Civil War years when Quimet goes off to fight and Natalia almost kills her children to end their suffering, through the marriage of her daughter. (Not to give too much away. Although it’s not like the plot of this book is really what matters. Rodoreda’s beautiful prose and compelling characters are the real draws.)

The book can be pretty intense, and when Jessica Lange broke into tears on stage, she really ramped up the emotional content of the novel and had everyone sucked into Rodoreda’s world. Everyone I talked to afterward was stunned by just how incredible the performance was, but what’s really amazing—and what is the definition of “professional”—is the fact that she received the translation of the script on Wednesday . . .

Rodoreda was a remarkable writers, and as I said in my brief intro about why Open Letter decided to publish this book, she can easily be categorized as one of the great women writers—in the same league as Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, etc.—but that’s actually somewhat limiting. The Time of the Doves, A Broken Mirror, and Death in Spring are three of the greatest novels of the twentieth century and demonstrate the evolution of Rodoreda’s aesthetic and writing style. She never repeated herself, and although there are certain similarities between Time of the Doves and Death in Spring, her artistic ambitions are quite different—almost amazingly so. This constant search for a new way to tell a story is why she’s not just a great woman writer, or one of the best contemporary novels, but one of the all-time Great Writers.

7 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

On Friday, finished copies of Merce Rodoreda’s Death in Spring arrived at our office (along with the equally gorgeous and well-written The Mighty Angel by Jerzy Pilch), and since the PEN World Voices events for Jan Kjaerstad and for Merce Rodoreda are right around the corner, we thought we’d make a special offer to anyone interested in reading these books prior to the PEN events.

So, for the rest of the month, you can get both The Conqueror and Death in Spring for the one low price of $22. Just click here for details.

(The Rodoreda event is also part of Catalan Days, a special celebration of Catalan performing and media arts, literature, and gastronomy taking place in NY from April 15th to May 20th.)

7 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Last Thursday was “Open Letter Day” at the Harvard Crimson, as the university daily newspaper covered three new Open Letter books: The Mighty Angel by Jerzy Pilch, Death in Spring by Merce Rodoreda, and Landscape in Concrete by Jakov Lind. (Typically, these links would be to our Indie Bookstore of the Month, but Shaman Drum’s online catalog doesn’t have listings for these three titles . . . )

Will Fletcher’s review of The Mighty Angel really captures the humor and horror of this book:

he modern literary tradition—in particular, the Lost Generation writers and their contemporaries—has done something curious in romanticizing the throes of alcoholism. Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald were all raging alcoholics and filled their novels with characters who acted likewise. But never before, and rarely today, does a novelist confront addiction so intimately and personally as Jerzy Pilch in his recently translated novel, The Mighty Angel.

It’s unclear for whom the narrative is intended. As the narrator, Jerzy speaks to himself, speaks to his lover, speaks to himself again (this time sober), speaks to the girl in the yellow dress, and—it seems—speaks to us as well. In his own words, he is “writing about you and [he’s] writing about [himself] not only to show that true alcoholic prose does not end in death; it ends in life, and who knows how life will end.” His ambivalence towards alcohol abuse—and, for that matter, toward any direction for his life in general—composes the novel’s substance. This ambiguity forces Jerzy to face a constant struggle: “. . . therapists are striving to bring reality to the point of sobriety, whereas I’m striving to bring reality to the point of literature, and at a certain moment our paths inevitably diverge.”

And Jenny Lee’s praise of Landscape in Concrete is spot-on:

The dreamlike quality of the novel emanates from Lind’s ability to create sparse but symbolic landscapes and to fill them with characters whose simple exteriors incapsulate deeper historical echoes. Of course, the enchanting essence of the story is much more akin to that of the original Grimm stories than their doe-eyed Disney counterparts (it revolves around shocking wartime occurrences) but Lind’s gift for eccentric descriptions of characters and events transforms the more gruesome and explicit scenes into something strangely pallatable. Lind’s descriptions endow the starved, inhuman, and ruthless characters of the war with unreal qualities that make the whole narrative easier to digest.

Unfortunately, you can’t always go three-for-three, and in this case, it was Death in Spring that fell a bit short of Keshava Guha’s expectations:

While reading Death in Spring, Mercè Rodoreda’s final work, it is easy to forget how unlikely the publication of the book is. In Francisco Franco’s anti-Catalan Spain, Rodoreda faced not only suppression and exile but the extinction of her native language. Under Franco, Catalan’s very existence was threatened, banned outright in the public sphere and severely curtailed in the private sphere. In this context, while translations of Spanish language novels achieved worldwide fame and renown in the 1970s and 1980s, Catalan writers remained obscure, even after Franco’s death in 1975, when the ban on Catalan was lifted. With her translation of Death in Spring, Martha Tennent hopes to begin to redress this historic injustice.

How deeply unfortunate, then, that the novel itself cannot live up to the promise of a hidden classic. A brief work of only 150 pages, told in dense four-page episodes, Death in Spring creates a world at once strange and familiar: a nameless town characterized by brutal, gratuitous violence and the prevalence of the bizarre, narrated through an unusual set of eyes—those of a teenage boy. Rodoreda’s narrator is a remarkably dispassionate protagonist, remarking in turns on the macabre and the surreal with unflinching ambivalence.

Nevertheless, here’s one more instance of how the Harvard Crimson is one of the absolute best college newspapers out there. Good taste aside, how many other college papers review three literary titles in one day?

31 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Death in Spring by Merce Rodoreda is probably our biggest book of the spring. I was planning on giving away a few copies of the galley, but the response from reviewers was so overwhelming that we quite literally ran out (we don’t even have a copy in our archive) and even had to send out a few unbound copies.

This novel—which has never before appeared in English—was published posthumously, and has since gone on to become a contemporary classic.

Rodoreda herself is considered to be one of the greatest Catalan writers of all time, and the works of hers that have been previously translated into English—The Time of the Doves, A Broken Mirror, etc.—have strong cult followings. In fact, last summer Leonard Lopate had Sandra Cisneros on his show to talk about Rodoreda.

Well, Death in Spring won’t be available for a few more weeks, but it’s already generating some excitement. Publishers Weekly recently reviewed it, referring to the novel as “marvelously disturbing” (it is!) and praising Martha Tennent’s translation: “The plot, though anemic, has its share of increasingly perverse twists, and the intense lyricism of Rodoreda’s language, captured here by Tennent’s gorgeous translation, makes her grotesque vision intoxicating and haunting.”

Even more exciting than a positive early review is this event on May 2nd that the Ramon Llull Insitut organized, and which stars Jessica Lange:

Saturday, May 2, 8 pm
Death in Spring and The Time of the Doves – Merce Rodoreda
Baryshnikov Arts Center, 450 West 37th Street

The Time of the Doves is the most acclaimed novel by one of Catalonia’s best-loved writers, Mercè Rodoreda (1908-1983), a master when it comes to explain a story with powerful vividness. Before the reading, Martha Tennent and Chad Post will present the latest novel by Mercè Rodoreda to be translated into English: Death in Spring. Read by Jessica Lange. Directed by Joan Ollé

Admission is free
Reservations are required
212-279-4200 / www.ticketcentral.com

Cosponsored by Institut Ramon Llull and Open Letter

(Still can’t believe I get to go onstage just before Jessica Lange . . .)

Looks like Ticket Central just posted the reservation page for this event, so click here for tickets. Based on the number of queries I’ve already received, I suspect tickets are going to go fast . . .

And you can preorder the book from us directly by clicking here. (Unfortunately, since this isn’t available yet, it’s not listed in either our March or April featured Indie stores. But I’m sure if you call your local independent they will reserve/order you a copy.) Or you could subscribe to Open Letter by clicking the box below.

3 December 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The new issue of Words Without Borders is now online, and is entitled “The Home Front”:

This month we’re reporting on the war at home, with international dispatches on domestic conflicts. Here homeland security is both threatened and maintained, as couples tie the knot but long to cut the cord, and double lives are singled out. From Norwegian train stations to Greek port towns, in Armenian saga and Mayan myth, households are besieged but also defended as the family turns on its nuclear power. Kjell Askildsen, Constance Delaunay, Juan Forn, Espido Freire, Lena Kitsopoulou, Hagop Oshagan, Miguel Angel Oxlaj Cúmez, Mercè Rodoreda, Astrid Roemer, and Olga Tokarczuk keep the home fires burning (or burning down the house).

As usual, there are a number of great pieces included, such as the Rodoreda stories (Summer and Happiness) and the review of Suzane Adam’s Laundry, which was translated by Becka Mara McKay and published by Autumn Hill Books.

4 April 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

Barcelona is celebrating the centenary of the birth of Mercè Rodoreda, author of well-known works like La Plaça del Diamant (The Time of the Doves) and Mirall Trencat (Broken Mirror), with a programme of events that does not focus on the writer we all know but on her less well-known works.

As culture councillor Jordi Martí explained, “the centenary programme the city is launching will show a writer far removed from the stereotypes and provide an opportunity to learn more about her.”

15 February 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The new issue of eXchanges, the online literary translation journal from the University of Iowa is now available online.

Few interesting pieces included in this issue, especially Martha Tennent’s translation of Merce Rodoreda’s On the Train, a short story from Twenty-Two Stories, in which “we overhear one side of a conversation, that of an elderly woman returning to Barcelona after the Civil War.”

Rodoreda’s a fascinating figure, and considered to be one of Catalan’s greatest writers. She passed away in 1983, and a few of her titles are available in English. Graywolf Press has published The Time of the Doves, and Camilla Street, and University of Nebraska brought out A Broken Mirror, which we reviewed here. It’s more than a year off in the future, but we will be bringing out her surreal last novel, Death and Springtime.

14 August 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Following on the Catalan theme, our latest review is of Mercè Rodoreda’s A Broken Mirror, which is available from University of Nebraska Press as part of the European Women Writers Series.

14 August 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Although most of Mercè Rodeoreda’s novels have been translated and published in English, and although she’s become one of—if not the—most important Catalan writers of the twentieth century, it still feels like her work is greatly overlooked in this country. Which is a shame, since her writing is fantastic, and would greatly appeal to readers of Virginia Woolf and the like.

Along with The Time of the Doves, A Broken Mirror was the Rodoreda novel most recommended to me during a recent visit to Barcelona, and with good reason. This novel is a sweeping family saga, covering three generations, and a slew of important historical events, including the Spanish Civil War. In terms of the plot, the book is interesting enough, containing all necessary soap opera aspects, such as illegitimate children, incest, hidden secrets, financial scheming, and the like, all told in a very compelling way, drawing the reader into the world built around Teresa Goday, a pretty, young woman who marries a wealthy old man. Her children and grandchildren populate the novel and infuse it with memorable characters, conflicts, and events, one of the most remarkable being the haunting chapter in which one of the children drowns.

In contrast to most family epics, this book is only a couple hundred pages, as Rodoreda foregoes lengthy expository passages in favor of a more direct writing style that gets to the heart of the matter in a way that’s not entirely dissimilar from the writings of Nathalie Sarraute and Marguerite Duras. And it’s the stylistic advancements Rodoreda makes as the narrative develops that is most impressive about this book.

Split into three distinct parts, the family’s disintegration runs in parallel to the style in which it’s written, moving from a time/style of Victorian-like elegance, to a more modernist period, before concluding in a more fragmented, postmodern style. This development is strikingly evident in comparing the opening of the book with its conclusion.

As previously mentioned, it opens with an air of elegance:

Vicenc helped Senyor Nicolau Roviera into the carriage. “Yes, Sir, as you wish.” Then he helped Senyora Teresa. They always did it that way: first he, then she, because it took two of them to help Senyor Nicolau out again. It was a difficult maneuver, and he needed a lot of attention.

The end has a different feel entirely:

A few days later other shadows came to cut down the trees and to raze the house. Soon they saw by the trunk of the chestnut tree a disgusting rat, with a head that had been gnawed on, surrounded by a bunch of greenish flies.

In my opinion, the best novels are the ones that develop in complicated and interesting ways, challenging the reader’s expectations. Rodoreda’s book does just that. This novel is a true artistic accomplishment, and at the risk of writing in jacket-copy speak, I have to say that this is a true modern classic that deserves a much wider audience.

A Broken Mirror
by Mercè Rodoreda
translated from the Catalan by Josep Miquel Sobrer
University of Nebraska Press
218 pp., $24.95 (pb)

....
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