The Beijing Book Fair kicks off this week, and The Netherlands is this year’s Country of Honor. In order to celebrate this, the always industrious Dutch have put together Open Landscape-Open Book a pretty sizable program to promote Dutch literature.
Although the Netherlands is the guest of honour this year, we have always felt most welcome in China. In the past few years, a great many Dutch titles have been translated into Chinese. Vice versa, attention for China and Chinese literature is growing in the Netherlands. The fact that we can present ourselves as the host country this year is largely due to the good relations that have been built up in recent times. The numerous contacts have made us aware of what is important, valuable and beautiful in the view of Chinese people.
The programme we present is rich and diverse, and embraces disciplines such as literature (which is self-evident), visual art, design, architecture and comic strips. A major part of the authors’ programme will take place in the auditorium of the Dutch Pavilion. On Fair days, a continuous programme of book presentations, discussions, workshops, meetings with school classes, interviews and lectures will take place. Encounters between Dutch and Chinese writers will form a central feature of the programme. All the Dutch authors attending have recently had work translated into Chinese. [. . .]
Simultaneously with the Fair in Beijing, we shall also devote attention to Chinese literature at one of the most important literary events in the Netherlands, Manuscripta. In this context, Chinese writers will be invited to the Netherlands and a part of our programme in Beijing will also be shown live in the Netherlands.
The Open Landscape-Open Book website is pretty interesting, even if you don’t read Dutch and aren’t at the Beijing Book Fair. For instance, there’s this list of Dutch titles recommended for translation and a series of blog posts from Dutch Foundation for Literature representatives, participating authors, and rights agents, such as Michele Hutchison (who also translated Rupert into English):
The Chinese publishers I have met during the course of my career, the few who have made it to London, Frankfurt or Amsterdam, have all come across as pleasant, shy and polite people. They have invariably brought gifts: chopstick sets, handmade paper notebooks, fans, good luck hangers. At the end of the meeting they take your picture. There is a good chance you’ll never see them today.
Thinking back to those the chopstick sets yesterday afternoon, it occurred to me a copy of our rights guide (albeit in Chinese) wouldn’t really cut it as a gift. But what would? [. . .]
In terms of concrete stuff, I’m not sure what the Netherlands has to offer China that isn’t illegal to import, foodstuff and bulbs, sexy magnets, bongs or clogs. Meanwhile China is responsible for more than half of the world’s clothing and shoe production, immense quantities of paper, and zillions of plastic toys. And that’s what everyone I’ve talked to about China these past weeks has mentioned: scale. The population of Beijing is 30 million. A two-week tourist trip to the city doesn’t even make a dent on what there is to see there.
The Chinese publishers I met in the past seemed to think more in terms of Europe – European science, European thought, European literature – than being specifically interested in the Netherlands (or England, or Germany…). The titles they have bought from us have reflected this: witness the hotly fought contest for Bram Kemper’s Painting, Power & Patronage, a book on the Italian Renaissance published in English in 1992. Three publishers offered!
Putting together the rights guide involved setting aside everything learned in Frankfurt. Forget hype, rights sales, bestsellerdom, forget typically Dutch landscapes. Think academic authority, science, culture, think knowledge base, content and classical literature. While we have nothing concrete to offer the Chinese, our thought and traditions have some value. This value is not necessarily financial though. My experience of selling books to the Chinese has taught me that to expect advances from 500 to 1,000 euros, print runs of a couple of thousand copies and no royalties or royalty statements. This puts it on a par with countries like the Czech Republic. At present we’re talking author management not profit.
Probably just me, but I think it’s interesting to witness this sort of cultural exchange—one that doesn’t involve English . . .
Well, at least in relation to Open Letter books . . . The new issue of Harper’s has two pieces on Open Letter titles: a long review by Robert Boyers of Woman of Rome: A Life of Elsa Morante by Lily Tuck and a shorter review of Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s Rupert in Benjamin Moser’s New Books column. (Both pieces are accessible online to subscribers only.)
Rupert: A Confession just released this week, but is available at better bookstores everywhere, and through our website. And I think Ben does a better job describing this book that I ever could. After comparing it to Camus’s The Stranger, he brilliantly sums up the novel’s protagonist:
His Rupert is a walker in the city who offers extended thoughts on the proper layout of public squares, methods for downloading and cataloging online pornography, men who wear comfy sweaters (“an arresting demonstration of farmerly freshness of the kind that . . . feels sorry for you because you’re too uptight and inhibited to dress properly”), and the type of woman who “wants to rove around Afghanistan on stolen horses and feel the auras of Tibetan scales with the energy paths of her vulva.”
You can read one of the funniest excerpts from the book here. (Warning: PDF format.) To celebrate the publication of this striking book and our first Harper’s review, we’re going to giveaway 10 copies. To enter into the drawing, simply e-mail me at chad.post at rochester dot edu with your full mailing address.
I’ll write more about Robert Boyers’s piece on Morante later in the month, after the copies of Morante’s Aracoeli are back from the printer. She’s an amazing writer and deserves a post of her own. Not to mention, Robert Boyers wrote the intro for our reissue, so we can include that as well . . . In the meantime though, you can read a sample of Aracoeli by clicking here. (Again, PDF format.)
This was a great week for Open Letter books, with three of our recent releases getting some nice coverage:
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.
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.
Info about the first three books from the spring 2009 Open Letter list can be found here. Today we’re covering our June title, Rupert: A Confession by Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer.
The premise of this book is that Rupert has been accused of a terrible crime (which isn’t revealed in full until the very end) and has to defend himself. His defense—or imagined defense—is a very lively, hilarious affair, that relies more on rhetorical tricks than facts to get him off the hook.
As a novel, Rupert is more emotionally complicated than it first appears. As you can see in the attached excerpt, Rupert has a very vibrant voice—one that draws the reader in almost immediately. Along the way though, it becomes crystal clear that Rupert is way unhinged and probably quite dangerous. Reconciling these two points of view is tricky, especially since the book is very compelling, and as the final “reveal” of the crime itself and Rupert’s relation to it starts to come clear, it’s like watching a train wreck . . .
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer seems like quite a character. And one of the reasons I wanted to write this today is because he’s now mired in yet another controversy.
According to the translator of this novel—Michele Hutchison, who, in addition to translating, works for the Dutch publisher De Arbeiderspers—told me that for the back cover of his Collected Poems, Ilja wanted to include a naked photo of himself. That’s all fine and good, but Ilja was on the longlist to be next year’s Poet Laureate . . . up until news of this naked photo broke. He was recently kicked out of the competition and the infamous photo has created quite a bit of media buzz.
And here I thought the Netherlands were supposed to be so liberal and open-minded . . .
Reading a translation when it first comes in is always a fascinating, exciting experience. Frequently we acquire books based on a sample translation, a reader’s report, and conversations/recommendations from trusted readers and translators. Although this system—for all its baroque qualities—works quite well, you never know exactly what it is you’re getting until the book actually arrives. Thankfully, in many cases, you receive wonderful surprises, like what we got when Michele Hutchison delivered her translation of Rupert, A Confession by Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer.
A Dutch writer, Rupert is Pfeijffer’s first novel. It was published in 2002 and won the Anton Wachter prize for a debut novel. As noted on his website, Pfeijffer is the only Dutch author to have won major debut prizes for both poetry and prose.
As referred to in the title, this book is a confession by Rupert about a crime he’s committed. In explaining his crime and the surrounding circumstances, he rambles, he entertains, he cloaks his vileness in humor. It’s a strange and captivating book, one in which you’re pulled in by Rupert’s wit, yet occasionally get a glimpse of how fucked up his mind is, and it’s sections like this one that made us decide to publish this novel next June:
The most important thing really is that the true insult shows creativity and is not a random collection of the tried and tested excrement and sexual organs. And just as the best style is quotable, the best insult has an aphoristic quality that does not just insult the victim but also, as an ultimate humiliation, renders him superfluous, so that the brio of the formulation of the insult outlasts the name of the victim. The renowned critic, Woulter Parr, was a master in this. The last paragraph of his review of one of K. Horvath’s plays engraved itself in my memory after a single reading: “This is no play to be lightly shoved aside, but one that deserves to be thrown with great force. The stage set was lovely but the actors kept standing in front of it. It was a performance in which all of the actors clearly and intelligibly articulated their lines, alas. Kitty Becker, in the lead, exploited the whole range of emotions from A to B. One would have to have a heart of stone not to watch her suicide at the end of the play without bursting out laughing. I never forget a face but in the case of Kitty Becker I’m happy to make an exception. Giving Hands is the type of play that gives failure a bad name. The only original idea about art ever to come from Ms Horvath’s pen had to do with her superiority as a writer in relation to writers greater than she. First God created the idiots. That was just practice – afterward he created Ms Horvath. It was an act of mercy that God allowed Mr Habold Sicx and Ms Horvath to marry thus making two people unhappy instead of four.” You don’t need to see the explanatory hand gestures or Ms. Horvath to be fully convinced by this.
Everything is always easier on paper, that is true – and I realize that now with every gasp of my confession as I stand here before you without the aid of the written word – but the ad hoc insult without an audience, man to man in the street, ought to respect the same principles. One often assumes one should be able to get straight to the point for that, and that’s a talent you either have or you don’t. This is only partly true. To insult without any thinking time is an art, and up to a certain point, one can learn any art. It’s the same with the lethal martial arts I have become familiar with. A person who isn’t intimidated by one’s opponent’s display, and who regards every lunge as a weakening of the opponent’s defense, won’t have difficulty finding chinks in his armor. And as long as you operate with confidence in your refinement and superiority, the most creative counter attacks will occur to you just like that. He who, in an unguarded moment, finds himself in a risky situation and cannot come up with a reply, can rely on three simple heuristic principles. The first guideline is the principle of contamination. One can say: “Jazz is music for imbeciles.” One can also say: “Jazz is torture.” But it is better to say: “Jazz was invented as torture for imbeciles.” The second hold is the principle of inversion. Destroy your enemy by turning what he says around, or compliment him on his weaknesses and present your criticism as a compliment; the way Baudelaire said of Wagner: “I like Wagner, but I prefer the music that a cat makes when it is being hung by its tail from the window and is clinging to the sill with its claws.” Another fine example is the compliment Will Rogers gave to the German people: “I must say one thing in favor of the Germans: they are always willing to give other people’s land away.” The so-called better than-inversion is extremely fruitful. People tend to saying things like, “it tastes better than it looks” or “he is smarter than he appears,” even without malicious intent. The reversal of both poles of comparison can produce very pleasing insults, like Mark Twain’s about Wagner: “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.” The third principle is usually defined as an aprosdoketon and relates to the unexpected shift, to the sting in the tail. “Wagner’s music has its beautiful moments,” Rossini said, “and its awful half hours.” An even subtler example is offered in Clifton Fadiman’s characterization of German nature: “The German spirit has the talent to make no mistakes except for the very largest.” These three principles should offer enough support that you’ll never be faced with a lack of inspiration and they’ll enable the production of an appropriate and civilized insult at any time.
Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .
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