17 September 14 | Monica Carter | Comments

Monica Carter is a freelance critic.

As I continue on keyboard jacking the BTBA blog this week, I continue also to give praise to some of the publishers who started roughly around the time the award began and have grown right along side us. After A for Archipelago comes E for Europa Editions – the sleek and suave playboy of international literature. Europa puts out the kind of books The Most Interesting Man in the World would read. On one hand, they are gritty with their notorious list of European Noir titles; on the other hand, they are the penultimate cultivated dinner guests with authors like Jane Gardam, Steve Erickson and Elena Ferrante. Granted, they are not solely a publisher of literature in translation, but international literature is their aim as state in their mission statement below:

With offices in New York and London, Europa Editions is an independent publisher of quality fiction. The company was founded in 2005 by Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola Ferri, who are also the owners and publishers of the Italian press, Edizioni E/O. The idea behind the creation of Europa Editions was to capitalize on Edizioni E/O’s deep roots in European publishing to bring fresh international voices to the American and British markets and to provide quality editions that had a distinct look and consistently high level of editorial standards. The Europa catalog is eclectic, reflecting the founders’ belief that dialogue between nations and cultures is of vital importance and that this exchange is facilitated by literature chosen not only for its ability to entertain and fascinate, but also to inform and enlighten.

What book got me first? The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante. Then it was Ferrante’s Lost Daughter. I couldn’t be happier to see that Ferrante is gathering the respect and praise she is receiving currently, but as with many readers who discovered a great writer early on in their career we can’t help but wonder what took everybody so long. I have recently been emailing with one of my fellow judges and he had just finished Ferrante’s newest, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and he said that he thought it was better than the last one and that she was “the real deal.” “Of course!” I wanted to scream. Not because everybody should know of her greatness by now, but because her novels are so brutally candid about womanhood, motherhood, friendship between women, and she writes about women have that society at large considers taboo. Even though her first few novels are slim, each one infused by a different singular, suffocating voice, the Neapolitan novels are thick and cast with a Shakespearean set of characters. The pairing of Ferrante and her translator, Ann Goldstein, has given Europa a literary powerhouse that pleases both critics and readers.


Besides Ferrante, they stole my wanna-be-a- drunken-sailor heart with dedication to European Noir. Originally, Europa called it “Mediterranean Noir” but they are expanding which is wise because if there is one thing that is not getting enough attention in the publishing world, it is global noir. I am serious about this. Although there are the City noir titles by Akashic which are good, they are akin to a sample platter of authors of noir. With Europa, you get the feast. My first noir writer I encountered through Europa was Jean-Claude Izzo. He fulfilled my drunken sailor dream and then some. I read his Marseilles Trilogy in a weekend and quickly tore through The Lost Sailors and A Sun for the Dying. Again, the same translator throughout Izzo’s work, the talented Howard Curtis is that invisible presence that makes it all work as a good translator should.

Besides Ferrante and their growing list of European Noir, I can’t help but mention their artwork. They have great covers. Having worked in bookstores, there’s no better way to attract attention to a book than a really stunning cover facing out. Europa covers are easy to spot and quite diverse. I am a huge enthusiast of cover art and Europa has accomplished a difficult task by developing it’s own identity but also making each cover original and individual.

Well, Europa Editions, you’re on my dance card. I love you for your jet setting style. I love you because you would be equally comfortable drinking a forty out of paper bag or a bottle of Dom at the Ritz. You always look good even though I am never sure what to expect when I turn the page. But that’s what makes me love you, you brilliant fool.

15 September 14 | Monica Carter | Comments

Monica Carter is a freelance critic.

This week as I takeover the BTBA blog and I finally get the opportunity to do something I have been longing to do – highlight some of the incredible publishers the are committed to producing quality literature in translation. Each day, I will tip my hat to a small press that has grown with the Best Translated Book Award, which began in 2007. There are no specific requirements except that these publishers continued to refine their identities, remain loyal to their mission statements and produce great works each year for Americans to discover, read and discuss.

Since the alphabet begins with “A” and I have never been shy about my love for them, I will begin with Archipelago Books. Run by the elegant Jill Schoolman and a small staff, Archipelago is celebrating its tenth year in publishing this October. I could explain exactly what they are about, but they say it best in this excerpt:

Archipelago Books is a not-for-profit press devoted to publishing excellent translations of classic and contemporary world literature. In our first decade, we have brought out over ninety books from more than twenty-five languages.

Artistic exchange between cultures is a crucial aspect of global understanding. It has never been more important for voices from around the world to be heard in this country—our place in the world depends upon it. Sadly, less than three percent of new literature published in the United States originates outside the Anglosphere. By publishing diverse and innovative literary translations we are doing what we can to change this lamentable circumstance and to broaden the American literary landscape.

We are always striving to find literary voices that simply would never be heard in the U.S. without Archipelago. While our efforts, especially those of our translators and authors, have been recognized by numerous literary awards, the sort of recognition we seek is for those largely unknown and forgotten locales—the Spanish Basque Country, the Chukchi lands of Siberia, the scrublands of South Africa, war-torn Lebanon—and the writing that allows our readers to see these places through the eyes of the people who live there.

Not that I don’t think the above sentiment is lovely, but the reason I fell in love with Archipelago was a little reddish-orange covered number entitled, The Waitress Was New, by Dominique Fabre, translated by Jordan Stump. A slim, whisper of a book that speaks to aging, solitude and the need for human contact, it feels like a philosophy primer for the meaning of life. A short read with a long tail impact.

Any book after that I spied with the tiny cluster of islands on the spine went immediately into my hands. I was obsessed.

Then came Georg Letham:Physician and Murderer by Ernst Weiss, translated by Joel Rotenberg. A compelling, creepy read about a murderer who still wants to use his talents to contribute to humanity (check my review here. My site is under construction, by the way) in this original tale of a man’s own struggle between good and evil.

Seeming able to choose classics and contemporary fiction and poetry with equal expertise, Archipelago steadily built a long list of premiere literature in translation from well-chosen locations that represented lands and peoples with deep traditions not known outside of that area. Along the way, Achipelago picked up numerous prizes and garnered more attention from the media. Then they virtually hit gold. This gold, otherwise known as the “Norwegian Marcel Proust”, is Karl Ove Knausgaard. I don’t know whether or not Archipelago had the foresight of Knausgaard’s success because the fact is they would have picked up Knausgaard for the quality anyway. What sets Archipelago apart from most publishers is not only their impeccable taste, their faith in their writers and their translators, but it is this magical element – they have faith in readers out there, in you and me. I don’t know about you but I feel underestimated by most American media, including publishers, and I appreciate that someone doesn’t assume I will run screaming from the bookstore because a book is over 300 pages.

Archipelago Books, this love letter is to you. You have made my life better through reading, through your sophistication and through your loyalty. You’ve even made my bookshelves prettier. Don’t go changing, I love you just they way you are.

6 September 13 | Monica Carter | Comments

Monica Carter, one of the ten judges for the Best Translated Book Awards and curator of Salonica, gives her thoughts on some of the books she’s read so far this year.

School is back in swing, a war with Syria looms and the new iPhone 5s is about to take over the world. Yet, let’s not forget the simple joys in life. Like books. More specifically, books in translation. Even more specifically than that, this year’s books in translation. As we begin the slow rev to the Best Translated Book Awards short list, the judges have decided to voice their comments, appraisals, frustrations, and declarations of love for the fiction entries along the way. As a judge, I can attest to the fact that even though I know a book may not be the strongest contender for the long or short list, I still can fall madly, deeply and begrudgingly in intellectual lust with it.

This brings me to my impressions of a few of the entries I’ve read so far that have made me think, intrigued me or challenged me to understand why the novel is so compelling even though the main character thoroughly disgusts me. The first novel I want to recommend is Marc Auge’s No Fixed Abode: Ethnofiction.

Ethnofiction blends truth and fiction (doesn’t all fiction?) that asks the reader to not necessarily identify with the main characters in the novel, but rather to reflect on the conditions in which she exists. This is a genre that began in film and is making it’s way into the literary vernacular, especially in France and England. Also known as docufiction or ethnography, it aims to take the viewer or reader into the world of a marginalized part of society and present that reality through the eyes of a main character. In Auge’s slim novel,translated by Chris Turner, he chooses to focus on homelessness through the life of the main character, Henri. Divorce, retired and struggling financially besides receiving a small pension, he sells all his belongings, gives up his studio apartment and moves into his Mercedes(pretty posh for a homeless guy).

Through diary entries, we learn of his nomadic life around his neighborhood: where he moves in car to avoid tickets, the cafe he visits to sit during the day and evening, and his homeless colleague who lives on the pavement near his parking space. As he gradually disengages from society and responsibility, the loneliness and alienation from mainstream society become contrastingly overwhelming but comfortable. At the end of the novel, he is forced to make a choice about whether he will decide to participate in society as he once had or to continue as homeless. What makes this so engaging is that even though we are drawn into the desperation of homelessness and our dismissal of the homeless, we still identify with the main character because it so well written.

I really enjoyed this book because as quick it was to read, Henri stuck with as well as the questions Auge raised. As far as the narrator, I couldn’t help but be reminded of another favorite of mine, The Waitress Was New about a lonely unemployed bartender on the outskirts of Paris. The same honest and touching voice. It also had elements of Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, which is a memoir, but began as a piece of investigative reporting and doesn’t feel to far off from ethnofiction.

The second novel I’d recommend is another short one, but no less intriguing. Scissors by Stephane Michaka is actually almost three times as long as No Fixed Abode, but reads just as quickly.

Michaka recreates the last ten years of Raymond Carver’s life through alternating voices – Douglas, his editor (okay, Gordon Lish), Marianne, his ex-wife and Joanne, his new poetess-lover and his own. There are fictionalized excerpts of Carver stories that add to the believability of this imagined decade. The fraught relationship between Douglas and Ray eventually leads to a power struggle between who is actually responsible for Carver’s success. No doubt they are inextricable. What makes this books so strong is that essentially Michaka gets to the kernel of the creative process from beginning to end including the pitfalls of alcoholism, passivity, ego and the trials of those who support a creative personality. The book feels very American because the subject is Carver whose stamp on the minimalist style pushed it to the front of acceptable literary styles. This American feel is due equally to the writer and the translator, John Cullen. Carver, like any artist American or not, struggled and at the end we see it not as Raymond Carver struggling, but the possible battles that lie in waiting for any creative pursuit.

The last novel is from a new ebook publisher that I’m really excited about, Frisch and Co.. Among other their new titles is Under This Terrible Sun by Carlos Busqued, translated by Megan McDowell, a brutal, downbeat novel full of weed, violence, carcasses and squid.

Part me of thinks, “I know, don’t ask,” but the other part of me(I guess it’s the sick part) couldn’t put down this stoner tale of criminality. Cetarti is a pot-smoking loser nearing forty, who is unemployed and running out of money. And like it always does, trouble starts with a phone call. He finds out that his mother and older brother were shot by her married boyfriend who then shot himself. He drives from Cordoba to Lapachito where the remains of his mother and brother are and is met by Duarte, a smarmy, aged, pot-smoking friend of Molina, Cetarti’s mother’s lover. Duarte offers a deal to Cetarti to collect on insurance. Cetarti is quick to agree since he has no emotional attachment to his mother or brother and is in need of money. A bit later we are introduced to a second narrator, Danielito, the son of Molina’s ex-wife. Danielito is young and also a heavy duty pot-smoker. He is the minion of Duarte who turns out to be a violent kidnapper. Through a weed haze, we learn of each character’s fascinations including giant squid, dancing elephants, disgusting fetish porn and model airplanes. Despite all that, I was drawn in by the duality of each character and bizarre loyalties each one rationalizes. Even though it’s difficult to believe anything gets done with all the 420 going on, there is a streamlined plot that pushes this forward in a really powerful way.

It’s about time I return to more entries for this year’s award, but it’s reading very well so far. Don’t just take my word for it, grab one the titles above and see for yourself. Stay tuned for posts from all our judges!

6 April 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.

Awakening to the Great Sleep War by Gert Jonke, translated from the French by Jean M. Snook, and published by Dalkey Archive Press

This piece is by writer, BTBA judge, and runner of Salonica World Lit, Monica Carter.

I will confess that I have a strong predilection for the works of the late Austrian writer Gert Jonke. The opportunity to wax on about his gifts in an open forum led me into dangerous territory: do I unabashedly demand that Awakening to the Great Sleep War win the Best Translated Book Award solely on my enthusiasm or do I try to pragmatically and logically lay out the novel’s superior strengths based on a unbiased literary perspective? I know I should do the latter. But the problem is that his gifts are so unique and particular that his work really defies logic. If you are the type of reader that can wholly surrender your logic and reason to the absurd and surreal fictional worlds Jonke creates, then you will end up loving him as I do and eschewing attempts at critical pragmatism and decorum. You, too, will rant like a literary lunatic when anyone questions his originality or place in the canon of world literature.

Awakening to the Great Sleep War does not have a traditional plot or narrative. None of Jonke’s works are known for their adherence to the basic tenets of story. He is no Robert McKee. In “normal” Jonke works, a character is introduced into an abstract world that can lead the reader in endless philosophical and metaphysical offshoots that give the reader pause to discover their own imagination. In this novel, Burgmüller is the character through which we experience the surreal experience of time, space, love and the city. An “acoustical decorator,” he begins the novel by trying to teach the telemones how to sleep since they have held up buildings for so long, surely they must be tired. As ridiculous as this may sound, Jonke somehow manages to impart a sense of empathy on the reader for an inanimate object and the job of architecture in general. When discovers that the building with the telemones is gone one day, Burgmüller considers the possibilities before he arrives the conclusion that his efforts could have been useful:

Or had they, in his absence, learned how to sleep after all-had they gotten tired at last, as sleepy as petrified darkness pulled in toward the center of the earth when the trap doors to the planet’s cellar began to open?

That’s a reason this novel should win in my opinion. How many authors can pull that off?

Never fear, traditionalists; there is a love story amongst the surreal renderings of our dear Jonke. There are two love stories of the classic sort—man loves woman, she leaves; man loves another woman, she too leaves. Then there is the lesser-known love story between a woman and a housefly named Elvira. But regardless of who loves whom, the love is as poetic and mournful as any other love story, as Jonke displays in Burgmüller’s girlfriend’s plea to love the housefly as she does:

But the most important thing at present, she continued, was to give Elvira a chance to rest, not to frighten her in any way, above all not to make an unnecessary noise, you know, people talk much too loudly, as she was now noticing, and if he would please just put himself in the position of the housefly; just imagine, she explained, if that huge building over there across the way suddenly started a conversation with the church tower behind it, can you imagine how loud their words would sound to you, you would thin the tall building or the church yelling at you, or that they were screaming at each other, do you understand what I mean, and when we talk with each other, it must seem about that loud to Elvira, in future we have to talk much more quietly, better yet, whisper, do you understand, nothing above a whisper!

Burgmüller loves this woman and feels he must love Elvira as much to prove his love for her. It’s one thing to explore the love relationship between a woman and a housefly, but to do it with a blend of humor and poignancy is rarely done in adult literature and done successfully. Through the rest of the novel, Jonke examines the vicissitudes of love with another doomed love affair. Burgmüller falls for a writer who views her typewriter as a “reality-producing projector.” Within one paragraph, the invisible line between reality and art as a reflection of reality is woven into her struggle as an artist to perfectly represent reality and how this struggle affects their relationship:

Unflustered, she crouched at her typewriter, into which she transmitted her tapped signals as usual long into the night, continuing to work on her world, in which her eyes now became a compass rose torn by its own magnetic needle, cut up by the letters of a white-hot cuneiform script, yes, a cuneiform script of the harbor cities that reproduced themselves incisively upon all the coasts with their power-saw boats, in the service of an endless alphabet, like a science without proofs, until the morning flickered like fire from the towers, all of which crossed her lips as usual, whispered in a low voice, while she was sitting at her typewriter as if at a steamship propelled by sewing machines, floating, drifting downstream in the room, midstream in her description, from which he could now hear something about cats with heads like ants, and palm trees with crayfish living in their branches, but that could also have had to do with an entirely different chapter of her story that had crushed on ahead, considering her work tempo he never know how far ahead of him she was at any given time.

Jonke tackles the philosophical questions of literature and art and how the artist struggles between the importance of the word and the importance of what the word represents. Can anyone ever really love in a reality like that? These are questions not often asked to the reader, but nonetheless are always present in the relationship between the writer and the reader. No other novel on the long list challenges us in this way.

A novice translator could easily have mishandled all of Jonke’s absurd, surreal concepts and themes, but Ms. Snook understands the nuance in Jonke’s text to convey the aims of his novel. With a traditional narrative and story structure, it is easier to be more loyal to the text and more literal. In this case, the translator must also understand the abstract concepts and how to put those conceptual ideas in play without sacrificing the wit of Jonke’s style. Thus, this seems one of the most challenging efforts as far as translation is concerned because the translation must carry through thematically as opposed to carrying the story through a conventional structure. Each word holds more weight so that the subtext is present. To have such intimate knowledge of the writer’s work as well as the language clearly makes this novel the strongest translation on the list.

Finally, there is the simple fact that Jonke’s lyrical language paired with his post-modern themes makes for a the most distinctive voice among the top twenty-five books. He was a novelist ahead of his time that created a body of work so magical, original and insightful it would be a disservice to not give the award to Awakening to the Great Sleep War. No other novel on the list is as creative. No other novel on the list offers itself as the masterpiece of the writer’s entire body of work nor solidly establishes that writer as a prominent voice in the history of their country’s literary heritage. Then again, I am in love with Jonke and always will be. And that is lOve with a capital O which is as close to Jonkean love as one can get.

3 April 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next week highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas, translated by Anne McLean

Language: Spanish

Country: Spain
Publisher: New Directions

Why This Book Should Win: Vila-Matas is most definitely one of the best writers working today. His games with form and structure are unparalleled. And this ironic gem of a book includes Marguerite Duras as a character.

Today’s post is by Monica Carter, BTBA judge, writer, reader of French, and runner of Salonica World Lit. She currently lives in Los Angeles.

Never Any End to Paris is a novel for anyone who has wanted to live in Paris, wanted to be a writer, went to Paris and failed its promise and offerings, tried to be a writer and failed its promise and offerings, loved Paris, hated Paris, loved Hemingway, hated Hemingway, wanted to live the life of A Moveable Feast but decades later, loved Marguerite Duras, hated Marguerite Duras, loved the idea of living in a writer’s garret, wanted to runaway to Paris to become a writer, or more specifically, a reincarnation of Hemingway himself and finally, this is a novel for everyone who likes novels. I am emphatically telling you it is virtually impossible to dislike this novel. Told from the point of view of a novelist about to give a lecture, it is clear that the “novelist” is thin scrim for the author. When the novelist was young, he spent two years in Paris trying to write a novel, The Lettered Assassin, while living in Marguerite Duras’s garret. He has returned to the city of Paris many years later as a successful writer, wondering through his old haunts with his wife and reminiscing about the unhappy years he spent failing his dream while running around Paris with the likes of Duras, Barthes, and Perec.

But what is at the core of this novel is the myth of Hemingway. Whenever someone dreams of being a writer, it’s inevitable that they will discover Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and begin plotting a way to while their days away in some Parisian café penning the next great novel. Our narrator is no exception and even takes it a step further by convincing himself that he looks like Hemingway, despite the protestations of others and the humiliation of being kicked out of a Hemingway look-a-like contest in a Key West bar. The beauty and tragedy of Hemingway was that he created a mythic image of himself as author—a man who runs with bulls and hunts wild animals, lives a life of adventure and daring, with barely enough time to dash off brilliant novels and short stories reeking of courage and masculinity—that was destined to snuff out Hemingway the man. Since this mythic image of Hemingway has been immortalized, it has hurdled through time capturing the dreams and imaginations of any would-be writer. This ideological literary behemoth refuses to jump the shark despite the mocking undertow for its cartoonish he-man extremes perfectly reflected in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris.

Writers don’t want to surrender this image go because it encapsulates a life lived as art, for art. This is why Never Any End to Paris is so brilliant. It’s a rebuttal to Mr. Hemingway in the form of a failed homage. Vila-Matas delivers in sophisticated prose, an ironic tale of trying to live the dream and being disappointed by it, with hilarious aplomb tempered by gloomy flourishes. In the end of his two-year journey, he concludes he is just a man who will find his own way through his life as a writer and it will never equal the life Hemingway created of himself as a writer. And thanks to Anne McLean’s integrity and dedication to Vita-Matas’s tone, there is no loss of his wit or self-deprecating style. This is a novel for all novelists and told as well as any tale Papa told. It is a love letter and a Dear John letter to Hemingway and should win for its creativity, honesty and courage to fail at living a dream.

15 February 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Monica Carter on Umberto Eco’s latest novel, The Prague Cemetery, which is translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon and available from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Monica is one of our contributing reviewers, is a writer in her own right, and runs Salonica World Lit.

Here’s the opening of her review:

Umberto Eco, author of Foucault’s Pendulum and The Name of the Rose, is a writer of veritable talent. Eco compels readers by focusing his twisted microscope on our pasts to observe the brutality of human nature in different eras of history. The Prague Cemetery follows the characteristic Eco style with histrionic digressive back-stories that uncover the insidious havoc of fear and power and their effects on society.

The Prague Cemetery takes the Anti-Semitic atmosphere in ninteenth century Europe and guides us through every convoluted, demonic detail of how it spread. Eco catalogs the foundation for the European culture of Anti-Semitism through a motley cast of characters, labyrinthine cloak and dagger religious plots and a morbid touch of black humor. Although this is amusing, it can be trying for the reader. This is because Eco employs three narrators, each with their own special font, to tell a story that at times feel like a game of literary slapstick.

It begins with Simoni Simonini (ahem), an aging master of forgery who wants to tell us a story in hope of himself figuring out where it all went wrong. Soon the reader realizes that Simoni Simonini is also our second narrator, Abbé Dalla Piccola, and these alter egos communicate through Simonini’s diary entries. They live in the same house and when Simonini becomes the Abbé, he dress in a cassock and roams the streets of Paris only to return to their apartment and fall asleep. When he awakes, he has no idea that he has inhabited the personality of the Abbé. Perhaps this reveals a bit too much about my own comedic foundations, but whenever I hear of a man dressing in a cassock, a series of scenes from the early Woody Allen movies oscillates in my mind. The third narrator is in third person and more objective, but nonetheless entertaining.

Click here to read the entire piece.

15 February 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Umberto Eco, author of Foucault’s Pendulum and The Name of the Rose, is a writer of veritable talent. Eco compels readers by focusing his twisted microscope on our pasts to observe the brutality of human nature in different eras of history. The Prague Cemetery follows the characteristic Eco style with histrionic digressive back-stories that uncover the insidious havoc of fear and power and their effects on society.

The Prague Cemetery takes the Anti-Semitic atmosphere in ninteenth century Europe and guides us through every convoluted, demonic detail of how it spread. Eco catalogs the foundation for the European culture of Anti-Semitism through a motley cast of characters, labyrinthine cloak and dagger religious plots and a morbid touch of black humor. Although this is amusing, it can be trying for the reader. This is because Eco employs three narrators, each with their own special font, to tell a story that at times feel like a game of literary slapstick.

It begins with Simoni Simonini (ahem), an aging master of forgery who wants to tell us a story in hope of himself figuring out where it all went wrong. Soon the reader realizes that Simoni Simonini is also our second narrator, Abbé Dalla Piccola, and these alter egos communicate through Simonini’s diary entries. They live in the same house and when Simonini becomes the Abbé, he dress in a cassock and roams the streets of Paris only to return to their apartment and fall asleep. When he awakes, he has no idea that he has inhabited the personality of the Abbé. Perhaps this reveals a bit too much about my own comedic foundations, but whenever I hear of a man dressing in a cassock, a series of scenes from the early Woody Allen movies oscillates in my mind. The third narrator is in third person and more objective, but nonetheless entertaining.

As soon as we parse out who is telling the story when, Eco reveals an invented a document, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” which appeared in the early 1900’s as the minutes of a secret meeting in the Prague Cemetery to outline how the Jews were going to take over the world. Along with Simonini’s hatred of everyone—Freemasons, Jacobeans, Jesuits—he is fueled by an unabashed paranoia and hatred of Jews. He spends his entire life as the bumbling traitor, loyal to only those who plan to stop the Jews, haphazardly killing people he just did business with to cover up his own mistakes.

Along the way, we are treated to appearances from famous characters in history related to this document including Eugenie Sue, Maurice Joly and Alexander Dumas that add to the legitimacy of the story as well as infusing it with a bit more accessibility.

The difficulty in reading The Prague Cemetery is that there really isn’t any single character for the reader to latch onto for the ride. They are all horrible, which gives testimony to Eco’s gift as a writer—making the unlikable narrators engaging enough for us to not care that they are unlikable, but we don’t spend enough time with any of them to establish a sense of trust with the writer. The reader wants to know who is truly telling the story. In this case, it feels like the narrators are mere decoys for the real character which is the ubiquitous Anti-Semitism.

It’s a novel of conspiracy theories and awful people who do awful things. By showing us the foibles and failings of the Simonini/Abbé, it’s easier to keep reading because Eco let’s us see through the first person points-of-view the insanity of their hatred and the nature of denial, which is manifested through the split personality of Simonini and the Abbé.

The Prague Cemetery is vintage Eco. The problem is, as masterful as it is, it’s not as enjoyable as his former works. Readers will be impressed by his exhaustive research, his imaginative take on structure and the purpose of the novel—to expose Anti-Semitism. But in the end, when it’s all read, you’ll be happy that it’s over, that you have rid yourself of your stay with Simonini and the Abbé. And like exposing a conspiracy of hatred, there’s a sense of relief and right alongside that relief, is the awareness that doesn’t necessarily mean we are the better for it. Eco leaves us with that same feeling and the urge to cleanse ourselves from our own sullied pasts.

17 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our “Reviews Section”: is a piece by contributing reviewer Monica Carter on David Albahari’s Leeches, which came out last year from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt1 in Ellen Elias-Bursac’s translation.

Monica Carter is a regular reviewer for Three Percent. She also runs Salonica World Lit and, as part of her participation in the Mark Program, has been blogging for PEN Center USA.

David Albahari ia one of the lucky few Serbian writers who has had a number of his books translated into English. I first discovered him through Northwestern University Press some years back, after they had published Bait and Words Are Something Else. Götz and Meyer is a masterpiece, and a book I wish I could’ve published, and Leeches, as you’ll see in Monica’s review, is an ambitious, complicated, interesting work.

Here’s the opening to Monica’s review:

For his follow-up to Götz and Meyer, Serbian David Albahari plunges forward in time to Belgrade, 1998. Another war is going on, although the nameless narrator is not directly involved, he becomes increasingly aware of the proximity of the Serbian-Yugoslavian war. Yet, instead of writing about those events, he chooses to write incendiary pieces about Anti-Semitism in a weekly column for local paper, Minut. This obsession with Anti-Semitism begins with an incident along the Danube: he witnesses a woman being slapped by a man.

He is drawn to follow her, but doesn’t find her. He continues his search day after day, until he responds to a message in the personals section that he believes was written by the mysterious woman. Instead, he is given manuscript of a book, The Well, by an old man in the same spot where the woman was slapped. After taking the envelope, he waits to read until later that evening. The first sentence reads, “A dream uninterpreted is like a letter unread.” From there, it leap frogs from historical narrative to a history of dreams to a variety of Kabbalistic exercises. He then digresses into a life devoted to finding the woman as well as figuring out the message of The Well.

He eventually finds the woman, Margareta, and becomes involved in some type of mystical relationship with her. His preoccupation with Anti-Semitism grows from its mention in the manuscript. He realizes, after searching the city for the circles and triangles and their symbolism in connection with mathematics and Kabbalah, with each time he that opens the manuscript, it changes. Throughout his process of figuring out the manuscript, he meets several people who are key characters to the novel as well as solving his mystery put forth by The Well. Meanwhile, as his essays become more provocative about Anti-Semitism, he receives threats, has human feces left at his doorstep and is kidnapped. Ultimately, he equates the struggle for identity of Jews with his own struggle for identity as a Serb.

To read the full review, simply click here.

1 Yes, it’s time for the routine “Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s website sucks” post. I feel like I’ve already screeded all the screed I can screed about this screedy-ass site. So instead, I’m just going to post a question to HMH’s higher ups or anyone who works on their website. Starting here, at the main home page, can you walk me through all the clicks needed to find the book page for Leeches? Explain in full in the comments section below. (As an added incentive, the first person to accomplish this wins a free Open Letter book. Ok . . . go!)

17 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

“Memory is the greatest liar.” – Leeches, David Albahari

For his follow-up to Götz and Meyer, Serbian David Albahari plunges forward in time to Belgrade, 1998. Another war is going on, although the nameless narrator is not directly involved, he becomes increasingly aware of the proximity of the Serbian-Yugoslavian war. Yet, instead of writing about those events, he chooses to write incendiary pieces about Anti-Semitism in a weekly column for local paper, Minut. This obsession with Anti-Semitism begins with an incident along the Danube: he witnesses a woman being slapped by a man.

He is drawn to follow her, but doesn’t find her. He continues his search day after day, until he responds to a message in the personals section that he believes was written by the mysterious woman. Instead, he is given manuscript of a book, The Well, by an old man in the same spot where the woman was slapped. After taking the envelope, he waits to read until later that evening. The first sentence reads, “A dream uninterpreted is like a letter unread.” From there, it leap frogs from historical narrative to a history of dreams to a variety of Kabbalistic exercises. He then digresses into a life devoted to finding the woman as well as figuring out the message of The Well.

He eventually finds the woman, Margareta, and becomes involved in some type of mystical relationship with her. His preoccupation with Anti-Semitism grows from its mention in the manuscript. He realizes, after searching the city for the circles and triangles and their symbolism in connection with mathematics and Kabbalah, with each time he that opens the manuscript, it changes. Throughout his process of figuring out the manuscript, he meets several people who are key characters to the novel as well as solving his mystery put forth by The Well. Meanwhile, as his essays become more provocative about Anti-Semitism, he receives threats, has human feces left at his doorstep and is kidnapped. Ultimately, he equates the struggle for identity of Jews with his own struggle for identity as a Serb.

In terms of symbolism, there is so much going on it is difficult to dismiss any of the symbols. The apple makes several appearances, along with the color yellow, the eponymous leeches, numbers, shapes, and even words and language:

Sometimes so many words are on the floor that I have to lift my feet high as I cross this sparsely furnished room from end to end. One of these days, it occurred to me, I might slip on a squashed word, fall, and lie there, buried under the detritus of language, an no one would find me until we started to decompose, the words and I, one corpse next to the others.

Not to mention the exploration of Kabbalah and Judaism. Along with the interpretation of symbols, are the ideas and images presented in his dreams, which illicit even more thought because it is delivered to him in a surreal consciousness of his dream state.

What makes all this seem less daunting is Albahari’s narrative style and the conversations he has about the incidents with his friend, Marko. Because the story is told in a conversational, quotidian style, the fact that it is a 300-page paragraph actually enhances the continuity of the tale. The pot-fueled discussions with his friend Marko add humor and a stability that serves as a touchstone for the narrator and also the reader.

Despite the focus on the Kabbalah, Judaism, numbers, shapes, words and conspiracy theories, the novel is about the loyalty to identity when another force attempts to erase it from history, the malleable use of memory and to the ever-changing aspect of language, as illustrated here:

The Belgrade Hebrew scholar Eugen Verber first elaborated on the notion of the manuscript as a living organism, which, as I just said, said Margareta, the interpreters and translators had already ascertained. According to Verber, the author of the manuscript had based the text on the Kabbalistic techinique of bringing to live nonliving matter, hence creating a golem, which had been modified in such a way that the text itself came alive, was designed to be self-sustaining but not also physically mobile. In other words, the manuscript was not a bizarre ambulatory creature, but it did possess the capability of refashioning itself, as if it were searching for the most apt structure for its meaning.

Although there are some parts of the novel that could seem too technical or informational about mathematics or the Kabbalah, Albahari manages by the ardent nature of his style to keep us locked into the story. Albahari is an inventive and exhaustive writer, not only looking at the story but what lies pulsing beneath the symbolism of the words used to tell the story. His analysis of images and signposts doesn’t scratch the surface, but scrapes the floor, walls and corners until there is nothing left for us to imagine. A read of originality, Leeches triumphs in helping the reader to see that what we know and how we know can change at any moment. And then again.

10 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Book Reviews section is a piece by Monica Carter on Inka Parei’s The Shadow-Boxing Woman, which is available from Seagull Books and translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire.

Monica Carter is a regular reviewer for Three Percent. She also runs Salonica World Lit and, as part of her participation in the Mark Program, has been blogging for PEN Center USA.

Katy Derbyshire runs the fantastic Love German Books blog and is becoming one of Seagull’s go-to translators. (She’s done a number of books, but I can’t find a list online. Perhaps because Katy’s too modest to post her accomplishments on her website . . .)

Seagull Books is mystifyingly awesome. They seemed to come from out of nowhere and are doing amazing work. They’ve published works by Max Frisch and Thomas Bernhard and Tzevtan Todorov and Imre Kertesz and Abdourahman Waberi and Ivan Vladisclavic. They run a publishing school in India. They are helping to get the incredible Cahiers Series distributed in the U.S. And their “catalog” is the most amazing printed object I own. I can’t reproduce the incredible quality of this online, but maybe these two mediocre pictures will give you a sense.



Here’s the opening of Monica’s review:

Fiction post-Berlin Wall (and I am referring to immediately post-Berlin Wall) is rarely told in the way that Inka Parei has done in The Shadow-Boxing Woman. The prose imitates the dark, crumbling and ravaged atmosphere of East Berlin as well as the psychological state of the narrator, aptly named Hell. Parei sets out to write a post-modern novel about a post-era Germany. The Shadow-Boxing Woman delves deep into the wreckage of East Berlin, both physically and emotionally, by examining the minutest of details, the myopia of Hell’s world, and how fearful she is of exploring the world that just opened around her.

With Parei’s frugal and brutal prose, the reader immediately sees the rotting, barren buildings and neighborhoods, the poverty of her life, and an overwhelming sense that Hell is a forgotten human being. The abandoned apartment building she lives in with one other neighbor is disgusting: “The paint is hideous. Emitting a matt sheen and almost impossible to remove it, it resembles the excrement the German Shepherds deposit on the pavements here, fed on rust-coloured lumps of pre-processed food.” The only person determined enough to stay here in this building is her neighbor, Dunkel. Dunkel and Hell don’t speak much to each other, but when Dunkel suddenly leaves, Hell feels unstable and desperate to find her.

This relationship sets up the crime novel dynamic, although it is conveyed so subtly the reader never feels as if they are a classic “crime novel.” It seems more of a awkward love story, which it is not.

Click here to read the entire review.

10 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Fiction post-Berlin Wall (and I am referring to immediately post-Berlin Wall) is rarely told in the way that Inka Parei has done in The Shadow-Boxing Woman. The prose imitates the dark, crumbling and ravaged atmosphere of East Berlin as well as the psychological state of the narrator, aptly named Hell. Parei sets out to write a post-modern novel about a post-era Germany. The Shadow-Boxing Woman delves deep into the wreckage of East Berlin, both physically and emotionally, by examining the minutest of details, the myopia of Hell’s world, and how fearful she is of exploring the world that just opened around her.

With Parei’s frugal and brutal prose, the reader immediately sees the rotting, barren buildings and neighborhoods, the poverty of her life, and an overwhelming sense that Hell is a forgotten human being. The abandoned apartment building she lives in with one other neighbor is disgusting: “The paint is hideous. Emitting a matt sheen and almost impossible to remove it, it resembles the excrement the German Shepherds deposit on the pavements here, fed on rust-coloured lumps of pre-processed food.” The only person determined enough to stay here in this building is her neighbor, Dunkel. Dunkel and Hell don’t speak much to each other, but when Dunkel suddenly leaves, Hell feels unstable and desperate to find her.

This relationship sets up the crime novel dynamic, although it is conveyed so subtly the reader never feels as if they are a classic “crime novel.” It seems more of a awkward love story, which it is not. Because Hell, whose name means light, and Dunkel, whose name means dark, appear tacitly bound together “because like her and me are ten a penny in this city.” Yet, throughout the novel, we don’t get much sense of why Hell feels they are so inextricably connected. Part of this is due to Parei’s avoidance of emotional introspection, but also a lack of detail about Hell’s life until that point, and what constitutes her life throughout the novel. We have a very vague of idea of how she has money to support herself, what her likes and dislikes are, and what her motivations are. Hell’s behavior is primal, almost dog-like; trying to find Dunkel is her only goal, as if Dunkel were her lost owner.

Then there’s Hell’s love of martial arts which allows her seriously injure people in a swift movement. We witness Hell’s sense of justice when she watches two thugs threaten the owner of the café she frequents:

I pull the knife out of the ham and hold it into the bain-marie. Then I bend over the blond man and open his windpipe, an inch-long incision just below his Adam’s apple. I turn to the landlord, still clutching his son in his arms. Behind his ear is the silver ballpoint pen. I pull it out, unscrew it, remove the cartridge and the rear part, dip the front end in hot water, bend back over the blond man and insert the point of the tube into the cut. Five seconds of fear he might die. Then at last a sucking and whistling, suck and more whistling. He’s breathing with the trembling of the tube that I’ve stuck into his throat.

For a young woman, this is an unusual show of bravery, skill and detachment. Not to mention, Hell smokes a pipe. These masculine qualities highlight Hell’s acute sense of survival amidst the decay of her surroundings as well as her own life. But, when Hell’s falls in love with a sympathetic bank robber who had a fling with Dunkel recently, it is difficult to understand why, except that it might keep her connected to Dunkel in some way.

In the end, Hell and Dunkel reunite, the two polar opposites, paralleling the reunification of Germany, to form a whole that that one half cannot exist without the other. Dunkel returns refreshed, happy and with new clothes, to rescue the fearful and downtrodden Hell. Equal parts mystery and love story, what thematically is the most prominent is that sense of rescue. All the characters in this novel either rescue or are seeking to be rescued so that someone else can do for them what they cannot. Each discovers a way to prevail against mauer im kopf (the wall in the head).

With the odd tenor of this novel, Katy Derbyshire does a valiant job in keeping with Parei’s impersonal tone and slight prose. Because the prose is so minimal, it is more important that the translator find the closest nuance and meaning. Derbyshire does this with unwavering loyalty to the Parei’s words and tone without losing any of the novel’s impact.

Overall, The Shadow-Boxing Woman is a striking novel with a post-modern approach to events in the past. In small, profound ways, Hell, Dunkel and even East Berlin rise from the ruins towards a better future. It is not sentimental, at times almost feeling apocalyptic, but it is homage to our ability to move forward with our scars of human destruction merely reminders of what we overcame.

28 November 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Monica Carter on Nawal El Saadawi’s Zeina, which is available from Saqi Books in Amira Nowaira’s translation.

Monica is one of our contributing reviewers, and runs the wonderful Saloncia World Literature. She lives in L.A., and you can read all of her Three Percent reviews by clicking here.

As Monica alludes to in her review, El Saadawi is an incredibly important figure (see her Wikipedia entry) who is not just a writer, but also a psychiatrist and activist. She’s been jailed for her views, and fled to the U.S. at one point to avoid harassment and political prosecution. She’s taught at Duke University and the University of Washington in Seattle, and is probably most well known among English readers for her novel Woman at Point Zero.

Monica’s not completely sold on this new novel, and it sounds like it runs into some of the trappings that come with writing an explicitly political novel.

Here’s the opening of her review:

In terms of contemporary Egyptian history, there is no doubt of Nawal El Saadawi’s positive impact on the rights of women in Egyptian society as well as her impact on the human rights movement in general. She has been imprisoned for her beliefs and forced to flee her country due to threats from Islamists. As an accomplished medical doctor and a high profile political figure in Egypt, not only has she cast a light on the various forms of oppression plaguing Egyptian women, but also her reach can be felt worldwide in terms of establishing the basic tenets for feminism. Throughout the years, she has written works ranging from stories to memoir with significant success.

In her latest work, Zeina, El Saadawi weaves her beliefs into a story of two women, Bodour and Zeina, who are forced to confront the patriarchal oppression of the society in different ways. Though this is a noble aim, the danger with writing novels that are tethered so strongly to a belief is that the story usually suffers. This is the case with El Saadawai’s novel.

Bodour is a prominent literary critic imprisoned in an unhappy marriage. But before her marriage, during her university years, she fell in love with a political activist, Nessim. After a night of illicit passion, Nessim is taken away as a political prisoner and later Bodour discovers that she is pregnant; she has the baby and abandons it. The child, named Zeina Bint Zeinat, is destined to live life on the streets. Bodour marries Zakariak al-Khartiti, an ambitious journalist. Zakariah and Bodour establish successful careers and they give birth to a daughter, Mageeda. As life would have it, Zeina and Mageeda attend the same school and become best friends. Mageeda grows up to be a literary critic like her mother and Zeina grows up to be a famous singer and entertainer. Meanwhile, Bodour continues working on her novel, The Stolen Novel, which is really her attempt at self-understanding. The novel, strangely enough, is stolen. This novel comes to a close when Zeina ultimately becomes a symbol for the people during the revolution in Cairo and Bodour attempts to live the life she truly wants to live.

Click here to read the full piece.

28 November 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In terms of contemporary Egyptian history, there is no doubt of Nawal El Saadawi’s positive impact on the rights of women in Egyptian society as well as her impact on the human rights movement in general. She has been imprisoned for her beliefs and forced to flee her country due to threats from Islamists. As an accomplished medical doctor and a high profile political figure in Egypt, not only has she cast a light on the various forms of oppression plaguing Egyptian women, but also her reach can be felt worldwide in terms of establishing the basic tenets for feminism. Throughout the years, she has written works ranging from stories to memoir with significant success.

In her latest work, Zeina, El Saadawi weaves her beliefs into a story of two women, Bodour and Zeina, who are forced to confront the patriarchal oppression of the society in different ways. Though this is a noble aim, the danger with writing novels that are tethered so strongly to a belief is that the story usually suffers. This is the case with El Saadawai’s novel.

Bodour is a prominent literary critic imprisoned in an unhappy marriage. But before her marriage, during her university years, she fell in love with a political activist, Nessim. After a night of illicit passion, Nessim is taken away as a political prisoner and later Bodour discovers that she is pregnant; she has the baby and abandons it. The child, named Zeina Bint Zeinat, is destined to live life on the streets. Bodour marries Zakariak al-Khartiti, an ambitious journalist. Zakariah and Bodour establish successful careers and they give birth to a daughter, Mageeda. As life would have it, Zeina and Mageeda attend the same school and become best friends. Mageeda grows up to be a literary critic like her mother and Zeina grows up to be a famous singer and entertainer. Meanwhile, Bodour continues working on her novel, The Stolen Novel, which is really her attempt at self-understanding. The novel, strangely enough, is stolen. This novel comes to a close when Zeina ultimately becomes a symbol for the people during the revolution in Cairo and Bodour attempts to live the life she truly wants to live.

The fact that El Saadawi chooses journalism, literary criticism and entertainment as the professions for her characters seems no mistake. It is difficult to escape the cult of media in our current society and it’s control over our perceptions. Oddly enough, the disdain that El Saadawi shows for literary critics is the profession she gives to two of the female characters in the novel. Mageeda hates the cache of her family name as well as her profession, which she considers “parasitic on real literature and art, like tapeworms living off the human body.” El Saadawai also gives Mageeda and Bodour short and thickset bodies and harangues the reader with their disgust and shame at their body shapes throughout the novel. The happiest character in the book, Zeina, is tall and slender and, as the entertainer, she captivates audiences wherever she goes. Although Zeina doesn’t give much thought to her appearance nor does she attempt make it more than what it is, her plain and simple appearance defies the expectation that to make herself up to be an object of beauty for men. Perhaps trying to impart upon the reader the depth and breadth of male influence on body image of women, El Saadawi aims to present Bodour’s and Mageeda’s self-loathing as a representation of the damage done. Yet she stops short of either character exploring this idea or overcoming it.

Along with the hatred of their own bodies, El Saadawi examines the effects of genital mutilation as a manifestation of society’s hatred of women’s bodies. Bodour suffered genital mutilation at an early age and “since the day she was born, she had been repressed and oppressed.” Bodour experiences shame at her own sexual feelings as well as resentment towards her husband who seeks physical satisfaction from prostitutes. Since the patriarchal society in Egypt teaches women to be shy and submissive to their husbands, disgraced by their own sexuality, the culture inherently builds a dynamic of infidelity into the institution of marriage. Clearly, Bodour and Zakariah al-Khartiti are an unhappy couple, but both are painted with such broad strokes, al-Khartiti is loathsome and Bodour falls into a role of victimization. Without the nuances of a complex relationship, it’s difficult to empathize with Bodour besides the obvious oppression she experiences due to her culture.

In the end, there is a sense of resolution, of hope, but the means of each character’s journey to get there is murky. The main character of Bodour’s novel—Badreya—is the person Bodour really longs to be. The narrative jumps frequently between Bodour and Mageeda’s childhood memories and the present day and since parts of the novel are told through dreams and scenes, determining storylines is a arduous task.

Also, even though Zeina’s name is the title of the novel, she is the character who El Saadawi treats almost as a goddess who manages to withstand rape and molestation without much thought and floats in and out of scenes as a dancing, singing phantom. As an adult, Zeina is not married nor does she fall prey to the overtures of forceful men. Her talent has freed her from the oppression that most women face on a daily basis.

As for the translation itself, one wonders the extent of the challenge and about the role of the translator. There are many repetitive descriptions, passages and clichéd phrases and it would need a bit of restraint to not alter the words of the author. Irrespective of the skill of Amira Nowaira as a translator, El Saadawi’s prose doesn’t lend itself well to highlight her competences.

With all the contributions that El Saadawi has made to her country and to the rights of women, her novelistic efforts is one of her many accomplished pursuits. The goal of Zeina is to raise the awareness of the unfair treatment of women in society. Although her novel may not represent her tireless devotion to the equality of women and the end of their oppression, her life does and that is enough.

3 November 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Book Review section is a piece by Monica Carter on Daniel Kehlmann’s latest novel, Fame, which is available from Pantheon in Carol Brown Janeway’s translation from the German.

Monica Carter is a regular contributor to Three Percent, and a member of the Best Translated Book Award fiction panel. She lives in Los Angeles and runs Salonica World Lit.

I really want to thank Monica for writing this and articulating part of the reason why I’m not a big Kehlmann fan. Not to give away too much of the review—you really should read it—but this paragraph is perfect:

What is frustrating is that Kehlmann invents a concept and instead of delving into the characters, it feels as if he just stuck a plot and some semi-developed characters around it. So, yes, these stories are creative, but are they worthwhile? Perhaps if he weren’t so seemingly impressed with his own ability to mock the world in which we live, mock his own participation and mock the reader, it would feel less of a one-noter and more like a nuanced orchestral piece.

Click here to read the entire piece. (Which isn’t as negative as it may seem from that example.)

3 November 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Daniel Kehlmann’s new book of short stories, Fame, might also be entitled The Price of Fame. Celebrated, at the age of 31, for his novel Measuring the World, Kehlmann’s latest book of episodes—ahem—short stories focuses on the murky delineation between the technologies that help us live our lives and actually living our own lives. I presume that the fodder these technologies provide is going to usher in a new movement in literature whether we like it or not. Although these stories are peppered with irony, surrealism and humor, they may have been more developed had the author been unknown or, at least, lesser known.

Meta-fiction gets fair play in much of the stories; Kehlmann refers to himself as the author who can change her destiny towards the end of his most powerful story, “Rosalie Goes Off to Die.” There’s also “A Contribution to the Debate,” in which a computer geek runs into a famous author, Leo Richter, and attempts to find a way into his stories:

I had to talk to him. That was it: talk to him, admit everything exactly the way it happened, the way I’ve just told you now. Didn’t matter what he did next, he wouldn’t be able to resist it, because it was the real story. My entry into fiction. Right now, at breakfast.

The geek is infatuated with Lara Gaspard, a character in Richter’s novels. In this same story, Kehlmann employs a techno-chat room style of prose with truncated sentences and abbreviated thoughts. And even though through most of the story this style enhances the pathos of the narrator, there are times when it becomes lazy writing:

Then both of us silent for a time. He smoked, I smoked and the rain did its raining thing.

On the surface, this is an entertaining collection of Kehlmann’s inventive takes on modern culture: because of a cell phone number mix-up, man is thought to be somebody else, an actor takes to impersonating himself at night only to have his identity stolen by another impersonator of him, a writer takes the place of another writer at a conference and she is lead into a spiraling descent. The writer—Leo Richter—and the actor—Ralf Tanner—show up in some form in many of the stories. But the interlinking people and objects in these stories becomes predictable and leave the reader a bit bored, like listening to a comic pound a joke into the ground. He wrings the concept of identity in the modern world to the last drop.

What is frustrating is that Kehlmann invents a concept and instead of delving into the characters, it feels as if he just stuck a plot and some semi-developed characters around it. So, yes, these stories are creative, but are they worthwhile? Perhaps if he weren’t so seemingly impressed with his own ability to mock the world in which we live, mock his own participation and mock the reader, it would feel less of a one-noter and more like a nuanced orchestral piece.

Carol Brown Janeway, who also translated Measuring the World, does an adequate job with the translation. There are times when prose feels outdated or uneven, but it is not enough to distract the reader. To her credit, translating a story written in the style of a chatroom is a challenge and she impresses with her skill.

Fame is a book of episodic stories for the moment and for our ever-present social networking culture; however, one wishes that Kehlmann might have taken advantage of this opportunity to create stories that last longer than a simple episode. With our increasing dependence on modern technology, Kehlmann delivers a status update to be read, laughed about, and then forgotten.

26 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

France’s Emmanuel Carrère, filmmaker, novelist and biographer, attempts to hit fate below the belt in his latest effort, Lives Other Than My Own. Difficult to classify—it could be memoir, it could be fiction, it could be a treatise on compassion—Lives Other Than My Own presents stories of grief about people the author knows. We’re not talking about typical down-on-your-luck stories either; we are talking gut wrenching and life-altering stories of grief brought on by the cruelty of fate. Under the guide of Carrère’s nuanced prose, simultaneously journalistic and emotionally astute, you will journey through this book only to rise up out of your chair shaking your fists and screaming towards the heavens, “Why, fate, why?” by the turn of the last page.

Carrere opens this book with the tragedy of the tsunami that hit Sri Lanka in 2004. On vacation with his wife and their two boys in Sri Lanka, the hotel they are staying at is untouched by the disaster. Yet a couple, Jérôme and Delphine, they have befriended during their trip loses their four-year-old daughter, Juliette. As devastating as the summary of this loss sounds, Carrère’s style brings us to the edge of this loss to witness the irrefutable void of mourning:

A few dozen yards from us, in another bungalow, Jérôme and Delphine must be lying down as well, wide awake. He has taken her in his arms, or is that impossible for them as well? It’s the first night. The night of the day their daughter died. This morning she was alive, she woke up, she came to play in their bed, called them Mama and Papa, she was laughing, she was warm, she was the loveliest and warmest and sweetest thing on earth, and now she’s dead. She will always be dead.

While he lays forth the catastrophic circumstances of the tsunami, he questions his own ability to love and whether he has the strength to withstand grief and loss of this magnitude. Focusing mainly on the wake of disaster, these personal questions bring immediacy to the reader as to how we would react in these situations. As self-important as this may seem—chronicling the grief of someone else as an impetus for creativity and personal reflection—the reader can’t help but empathize with Carrère as a witness but also respect his compassion for his subjects as he does in this somber passage:

There we are, neat and clean, untouched, while around us cluster the lepers, poisoned by radiation, shipwrecked souls reduced to a savage state. Only yesterday evening they were like us and we like them, but something happened to them and not us, so now we belong to two separate branches of humanity.

After Carrère returns home from Sri Lanka, they are met with their own loss. Carrère’s wife, Hélène, loses her younger sister, also named Juliette, to cancer. Juliette leaves behind a dedicated, sweet and earthy husband and her three young daughters, the youngest only fifteen months. Through interviews with Patrice and Juliette’s friend and business colleague, Étienne, Carrère constructs the life of an ambitious, intelligent woman who was loved for her determination and fairness. What becomes most compelling about this story of loss is that it focuses mostly on Étienne, a fellow judge of Juliette’s, who was automatically drawn to her because of their physical handicaps. Etienne lost a leg and Juliette was unable to walk without crutches because of an earlier treatment of radiation that damaged the nerves in her spine.

It is clear that Carrère respects, and is somewhat mystified by, the strength and love Etienne and Patrice have for Juliette. Again, he questions his devotion to Hélène but realizes that after seeing Patrice lose the woman he had married, Carrère wants to grow old with Hélène. The story of Juliette’s cancer is brutal and takes up most of the book’s length. It does digress into the details of her work as a judge who protects clients from creditors but I am not convinced it is a necessary addition. It undermines the contemplative and somber tone set in the beginning by Carrère and takes it into the drier arena of legal mechanics.

Obviously, Carrère wants to highlight the seemingly limitless value of human connection with these two lives other than his own. The exploration of grief, shock and survival dominate the narrative while Carrère flounders for his own sense of worthiness as a person capable of offering emotional support and sustenance. He brings to light that none us truly know our limits until we have to face the death of our loved ones or our own mortality. This includes an emotional mortality that plagues some from the beginning which he purports that this emotional turmoil can develop into a life force of its own, namely cancer:

. . . but I do believe that certain people have been damaged at their core almost from the beginning and cannot, despite their courage and best efforts, really live. I also believe that one of the ways in which life, which wants to live, works its way through such people can be in disease, and not just any disease: cancer. That’s why I am so stunned by people who claim that we are free, that happiness can be decided, that it’s a moral choice. For these cheerleaders, sadness is in bad taste, depression a sign of laziness, melancholy a sin. Yes, it is a sin, even a mortal sin, but some people are born sinners, born damned, and all their courage and best efforts will not set them free.

There is a profundity and truth to many of the conclusions he draws from bearing witness to the pain of others. There is also a sense of self-exploration that deepens from his proximity to all this mourning.

As Carrère delves into grief head first, the reader has no chance to turn back. What doesn’t work for the reader is not the onslaught of damage and survival, but that the stories do not feel connected. It’s as if they should be two different books or tied together in a way that doesn’t come across so tonally different. Perhaps this was his goal in highlighting how loss can be different. There is the soul-numbing shock of sudden death as in Jérôme and Delphine’s case, or the grinding misery of a gradual loss as in Juliette’s case. The tonal shifts are so abrupt that the reader can’t help but feel they are reading two different books. Once we meet Étienne, we are taken into the world and history of someone who is still living, whose job inhabits part of Juliette’s story and whose presence is lively and vivid, almost a distraction from the loss of Juliette.

This is a powerful book filled with honest and beautiful passages that showcase Carrère’s abstract gift as a writer. Lives are disjointed, but the job of the writer is not to replicate life as is, but present a seamless version that appears as is. Rightly, he reminds us that loss takes the person away, but the survivor still carries them around in their own way and in a way that will metamorphose as they grow in life. And as Carrère points out in this apt quote from Céline, “The worst defeat in everything is to forget, and especially what did you in.”

26 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Monica Carter on this week’s Read This Next title, Lives Other Than My Own by Emmanuel Carrere, which is translated from the French by Linda Coverdale and forthcoming from Metropolitan Books.

Monica Carter is a contributing reviewer to Three Percent, and a member of the Best Translated Book Award fiction panel. She lives in Los Angeles where she used to work at the wonderful Skylight Books and is now concentrating on her writing.

Here’s the opening of her review:

France’s Emmanuel Carrère, filmmaker, novelist and biographer, attempts to hit fate below the belt in his latest effort, Lives Other Than My Own. Difficult to classify—it could be memoir, it could be fiction, it could be a treatise on compassion—Lives Other Than My Own presents stories of grief about people the author knows. We’re not talking about typical down-on-your-luck stories either; we are talking gut wrenching and life-altering stories of grief brought on by the cruelty of fate. Under the guide of Carrère’s nuanced prose, simultaneously journalistic and emotionally astute, you will journey through this book only to rise up out of your chair shaking your fists and screaming towards the heavens, “Why, fate, why?” by the turn of the last page.

Carrere opens this book with the tragedy of the tsunami that hit Sri Lanka in 2004. On vacation with his wife and their two boys in Sri Lanka, the hotel they are staying at is untouched by the disaster. Yet a couple, Jérôme and Delphine, they have befriended during their trip loses their four-year-old daughter, Juliette. As devastating as the summary of this loss sounds, Carrère’s style brings us to the edge of this loss to witness the irrefutable void of mourning:

“A few dozen yards from us, in another bungalow, Jérôme and Delphine must be lying down as well, wide awake. He has taken her in his arms, or is that impossible for them as well? It’s the first night. The night of the day their daughter died. This morning she was alive, she woke up, she came to play in their bed, called them Mama and Papa, she was laughing, she was warm, she was the loveliest and warmest and sweetest thing on earth, and now she’s dead. She will always be dead.”

Click here to read the entire piece. And click here to read an extended preview of Lives Other Than My Own.

4 January 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Monica Carter on Dumitru Tsepeneag’s Hotel Europa, which was recently published by Dalkey Archive Press in Patrick Camiller’s translation from the Romanian.

Dalkey has published several Tsepeneag novels, including the wonderfully complex Vain Art of the Fugue, and the less than amazing Pigeon Post and The Necessary Marriage. It’s nice to see Dalkey keeping on with Tsepeneag (as with a lot of the authors that are part of their “canon”—more on that in a later post), although based on Monica’s review, it doesn’t sound like this is one of Tsepeneag’s best works.

Before getting to the review, I should mention that Monica is a contributing reviewer for us (special thanks to the New York State Council on the Arts for supporting this program) as well as a member of the Best Translated Book Award fiction committee. She also runs Salonica, a “virtual salon dedicated to promoting international literature.”

Here’s the opening of her take on Hotel Europa:

After reading any of Dumitru Tsepeneag’s works, the one foregone conclusion that a reader understands is that he is undoubtedly a writer of remarkable innovation and skill. This is evident in his work Vain Art of the Fugue and Pigeon Post, both highly original yet very different. In Hotel Europa, his latest novel, we are overcome by both, fooled by both, lulled by both and ultimately fatigued by both. It’s as if he’s fighting with his own originality and nobody wins. With Hotel Europa Tsepeneag returns to the theme of Pigeon Post in which the character is the author who is trying to write a novel. At turns comic, Pigeon Post flitted between two fictional worlds that the author presents to the reader. In Hotel Europa, the combining of the author and narrator creates a two-headed literary monster. It is impossible to choose between the two because they castrate each other, leaving the reader frustrated that there was no winner. The novel is laced with autobiographical elements and also a surreal intertextuality: he tells a story, tells his own story, comments on both and knots both together so it is impossible at times to tell whose story it is. And there may be legitimacy to the claim that “life in a Communist country does much to mask the individual.” Although this is not solely a historical novel, the historical events are handled in a realistic and direct manner, infused with a keen sensitivity.

So here we are presented with the story of a Romanian writer working a novel about Romanian students adapting to life after the collapse of the Ceausescu regime. This seems fertile ground for Tsepeneag because in 1975, Tsepeneag, who was living in France at the time, had his citizenship revoked by Ceausescu. After being exiled, Tsepeneag chose to remain in France and soon began writing in both French and Romanian. The Communist regime clearly impacted the author who infuses the whole novel, successfully, with blatant paranoia. This may also be why France figures prominently and is presented with a bit more benevolence than Romania. In the novel, his wife, Marianne is a Francaise who challenges him and also worries about him. Then the author-narrator escapes to Brittany so that he can work on his novel uninterrupted as if France provides a nurturing matriarchal presence.

Click here to read the full piece.

4 January 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

After reading any of Dumitru Tsepeneag’s works, the one foregone conclusion that a reader understands is that he is undoubtedly a writer of remarkable innovation and skill. This is evident in his work Vain Art of the Fugue and Pigeon Post, both highly original yet very different. In Hotel Europa, his latest novel, we are overcome by both, fooled by both, lulled by both and ultimately fatigued by both. It’s as if he’s fighting with his own originality and nobody wins. With Hotel Europa Tsepeneag returns to the theme of Pigeon Post in which the character is the author who is trying to write a novel. At turns comic, Pigeon Post flitted between two fictional worlds that the author presents to the reader. In Hotel Europa, the combining of the author and narrator creates a two-headed literary monster. It is impossible to choose between the two because they castrate each other, leaving the reader frustrated that there was no winner. The novel is laced with autobiographical elements and also a surreal intertextuality: he tells a story, tells his own story, comments on both and knots both together so it is impossible at times to tell whose story it is. And there may be legitimacy to the claim that “life in a Communist country does much to mask the individual.” Although this is not solely a historical novel, the historical events are handled in a realistic and direct manner, infused with a keen sensitivity.

So here we are presented with the story of a Romanian writer working a novel about Romanian students adapting to life after the collapse of the Ceausescu regime. This seems fertile ground for Tsepeneag because in 1975, Tsepeneag, who was living in France at the time, had his citizenship revoked by Ceausescu. After being exiled, Tsepeneag chose to remain in France and soon began writing in both French and Romanian. The Communist regime clearly impacted the author who infuses the whole novel, successfully, with blatant paranoia. This may also be why France figures prominently and is presented with a bit more benevolence than Romania. In the novel, his wife, Marianne is a Francaise who challenges him and also worries about him. Then the author-narrator escapes to Brittany so that he can work on his novel uninterrupted as if France provides a nurturing matriarchal presence.

The novel that the author is writing focuses primarily on Ion and his various friends. Ion is a Romanian student living and reacting to the turmoil that Romania undergoes in the late eighties who, naturally, questions the world around him with all the mistrust youth can muster:

Ion knew there were all kinds of rumors about the events in Timisoara, but he was not very trusting by nature he told himself that general alarmism and excitement of those days did not yet justify speaking of what might, pompously, be called a “revolution.” “A heap of mashed potato doesn’t just explode all of a sudden!” he like to repeat to anyone who would listen.

. . . Maybe Mihai is already there, in one of the groups discussing Timisoara and the tens of thousands killed.

This is immediately followed by Tsepeneag’s intrusive narrator who comments on what he just wrote:

Even the Paris papers, and especially French television, were quite alarmist: they quoted figures that now seem off the wall, but at the time, in the heat of the moment, we’d all lost our critical faculties. Logical thinking only served to make the horrors more plausible. The climax came when the TV news showed pictures of bodies dug up in Timisoara: the abnormally pale infant on its mother’s sallow belly, the corpses, all sewn up with wire, or so it seemed to me . . . Really harrowing.

It’s true that Marianne, more Cartesian than the general run of the French journalists, was skeptical from the beginning.

But the conceit of author as intrusive narrator doesn’t quite work here. As soon as the reader becomes involved in any way with the story of Ion, he is pulled out by the real life events of the author. This could be done to pitch-perfect effect if there was more delineation between the fiction of that the author is creating and the fiction that the narrator is creating. It becomes bothersome because there is nowhere for the reader to ground herself, except by planting one foot in each world hoping that one will prove solid and real, the story in which she should be invested. One could surely draw parallels between this disjointed dream/nightmare effect of the narrative with the political upheaval in Romania and much of Eastern Europe during that era. But it doesn’t come through clearly enough and that struggle gets lost in the overpowering oscillation between author and narrator. And although this may be the point, at some point the reader has to be indulged, not merely the writer’s creativity.

When Tsepeneag allows the narrator to become philosophical about the story he is writing, it is in one way a relief to the reader because we glimpse a bit of what he is trying to do, but simultaneously distracting and wishing the book were either a novel or a writing guide, not both:

Maybe I should give Ion a little lecture about the function of the narrator, the mysterious intermediary between myself and him, between him and the reader, that voice which fills (or whose task it is to fill) the acoustic space of the novel, and without which you might think that nothing could exist. No, he’s not the author. The author is like the Holy Spirit: full of ideas but invisible, inaudible. He pulls all the strings, it’s true, but whose strings? I mean, he needs characters even if they are miserable puppets . . . And all those creatures, who aren’t human beings—that’s why they’re called characters!—need a voice in order to exist, in order to express themselves. That’s what the narrator is: a voice! A voice that seeps through all the interstices of an unstable, evanescent construction built out of words and meanings. As in a dream, the narrator’s voice cannot be located; it gives the feeling that it can burst out anywhere—unreal and ubiquitous. Of course, from time to time we seem to hear the voice of the characters. But that’s an illusion. In reality, it’s just the narrator: he dubs in all parts, not only their speech but also their thoughts. Concealed somewhere among the props, he’s the one who thinks aloud.

This provides an explanation to what he is doing, but unfortunately, it takes almost five hundred pages to let this idea play out. And aren’t readers of fiction cognizant of this fact going in it? I respect the idea of presenting both worlds created by the writer as being funneled through the narrator who is undeniably, the writer. The reality is that this novel is too splintered and although we may get his point, we don’t enjoy it. It becomes a convoluted fiction of what a writer is. At times, I was enamored with his prose and his everyman meets highbrow style is accessible. At other times, I was so frustrated with his melding of worlds and his obsession with delivering this to the reader with realizing that it was working against itself. Sometimes a writer has to abandon his own creative designs for the sake of the work, not in spite of it.

26 October 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Monica Carter on Eshkol Nevo’s Homesick, translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston and published earlier this year by Dalkey Archive.

Monica is a regular contributor to Three Percent, and runs her own excellent website, Salonica.

Eshkol Nevo’s book is the first (?) in Dalkey’s Hebrew Literature Series. (I think. The Dalkey site is a bitch to navigate.) Monica makes it sound really interesting, and if you want more info on Nevo and Homesick, visit the author page, scroll down, and
watch the video interview/presentation. (Dead horse beating as always, but it would be a lot easier if, like with most other videos on the internet, I could embed that interview right here. But ah well.)

Here’s the opening of Monica’s review:

Eshkol Nevo has plumbed the emotional depths of the word “homesick” and come up with gratifying homage to the feeling of longing. As a member of the new guard of Israeli writers, Homesick is Nevo’s first translation into English. And what a fine choice it is to introduce English-speaking readers to Hebrew culture and literature. What many of us know about Israel is what we read in the media as well as what we watch on television—lots of discord and bloodshed, the constant search for peace. This book avoids any political message, instead focusing on the lives of the characters that are searching for their own version of peace.

A stratum of stories and viewpoints, Homesick delves into the tensions between loss and compromise, discontent and hope, self-perception and desire during the year of 1995 when Rabin was assassinated. It begins with Amir and Noa, a young student couple who are moving into an apartment in a house owned by the Zakian family. The house is in the area known as Castel, situated between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Nevo follows the lives of everyone in the house—Sima and Moshe Zakian, a young couple with two small children and Moshe’s parents, Avram and Gina. Added to this intimate variety of viewpoints are the young boy next door, Yotam, and his parents whose family just suffered the loss of their son, Gidi, to the war in Lebanon. There is also Saddiq, a construction worker, who lived in the Zakian house many years ago and frequent epistolary appearances from Amir’s friend, Modi. This may seem like a cavalcade of characters that could be overwhelming but it is tempered by Nevo’s short, incisive entries in each character’s voice. What’s even more impressive is that Nevo alternates these voices between first and third person to help the reader immediately identify the character. Focusing mostly on the interiority of the characters allows us to oscillate between voices and viewpoints while we learn the subtleties of each character’s psyche.

Click here to read the full review.

26 October 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Eshkol Nevo has plumbed the emotional depths of the word “homesick” and come up with gratifying homage to the feeling of longing. As a member of the new guard of Israeli writers, Homesick is Nevo’s first translation into English. And what a fine choice it is to introduce English-speaking readers to Hebrew culture and literature. What many of us know about Israel is what we read in the media as well as what we watch on television—lots of discord and bloodshed, the constant search for peace. This book avoids any political message, instead focusing on the lives of the characters that are searching for their own version of peace.

A stratum of stories and viewpoints, Homesick delves into the tensions between loss and compromise, discontent and hope, self-perception and desire during the year of 1995 when Rabin was assassinated. It begins with Amir and Noa, a young student couple who are moving into an apartment in a house owned by the Zakian family. The house is in the area known as Castel, situated between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Nevo follows the lives of everyone in the house—Sima and Moshe Zakian, a young couple with two small children and Moshe’s parents, Avram and Gina. Added to this intimate variety of viewpoints are the young boy next door, Yotam, and his parents whose family just suffered the loss of their son, Gidi, to the war in Lebanon. There is also Saddiq, a construction worker, who lived in the Zakian house many years ago and frequent epistolary appearances from Amir’s friend, Modi. This may seem like a cavalcade of characters that could be overwhelming but it is tempered by Nevo’s short, incisive entries in each character’s voice. What’s even more impressive is that Nevo alternates these voices between first and third person to help the reader immediately identify the character. Focusing mostly on the interiority of the characters allows us to oscillate between voices and viewpoints while we learn the subtleties of each character’s psyche.

Amir and Noa power the novel with the intense yet fragile nature of their relationship. Amir, a student in psychology and Noa, a photography student, vacillate between maintaining a simpatico relationship and wanting the freedom of being alone. This feeling of malaise in the relationship leads to Amir’s developing relationship with Sima, the attractive mother next door. Sima is struggling with her husband, Moshe, over religion which is their major bone of contention. Yotam, whose parents are literally cordoned off from each other by their own grief, also befriend Amir. Noa grows closer with Sima because even though they are both twenty-six years old, Noa finds the notion of settling down in as a couple constraining and looks to Sima for guidance. And among all these alliances, they are merely vying for their own version of an inner sanctum that they can call home. All characters reach the point in whatever type love they are experiencing—love of country, physical love, spiritual love, familial love—of wanting to abandon their situations in favor of living a life without the pain caused by loving someone else. This allure of leaving is shown exquisitely in this passage where Amir is waiting for Noa and irritated by having to wait for her, contemplates exiting the relationship:

If she doesn’t come in the next five minutes—I ‘m going alone. She just has to have all those scenes, so there’ll be a little tension, a little drama, otherwise she can’t create, right? Look who’s talking, Mister I’m-Out-of-Here. What was that supposed to be last night? You’re sitting in the living room, all cosy and comfy, eating soup—what could be more wintry than that?—and you start with those prickly thoughts. What happened, things started feeling homey and you got scared? Addicted, that’s what you are. Addicted to change. You pretend that all you want is four walls, a home, and then, the minute it happens, you start planning your getaway. Wait, hold on a second, maybe I’m putting the wrong spin on things. Maybe I really do need to get away for a couple of days, to breathe the air of solitude. But how? I sink without her, revert to being a spectator, a moaner, a masturbator, and when she comes home, my whole body reaches out for her and I want to devour her, to peel and eat her, then listen to her stories with all those little details only she sees. But that’s not actually a contradiction, not at all, she can be fantastic and still suffocate you with that dissatisfaction of hers that bubbles over on to you too. Oh come on, what are you, a symbol of serenity? A logo for shanti? Get serious, don’t put it all on her. But it’s a fact that before we moved in together, it was different. Before you moved in together? It was a lie, a pretence sprinkled with enough bits of truth to make it work, and now—now you want to close the boot on her.

Abandonment appears again as a theme with Yotam, the ten-year-old neighbor boy, who simultaneously feels abandoned and yearns to abandon when he finds a rotting house to hide in:

Inside, there were two rusty cans, a pile of coals and a smell, like someone had done a poo. And there was a mattress that looked new and a long shirt that only had one sleeve. It’s really kind of nice here, I thought. There’s no fridge or TV, but there aren’t any gigantic pictures of someone who’s dead or memorial candles with a smell that makes you feel sick and parent who don’t talk to each other. And not having a roof isn’t so bad either. Winter’s over already and it won’t rain any more. So who needs a roof? Just the opposite. A house without a roof is cool, like the car David’s brother has with the convertible top, the once we once rode in to a class party. You can sleep on the mattress at night and see all the stars, the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper, and the Milky Way that has no milk. Yes, I said out loud so it would be harder to change my mind later, I’ll stay here until night-time. And if it’s nice, maybe I’ll stay here for ever. No one cares anyway. They even forgot my birthday. I could disappear for a year now and they wouldn’t even notice. Just the opposite. They’d be glad.

This longing to belong, to be loved, pulses through the narratives leaving the reader feel sympathy for every character. Nevo establishes the rules of alienation for each character as the quick pacing pulls us along. The shifting voices and point-of-views coupled with the direct and intimate prose feel like we are dive-bombing into their emotions. Ultimately, each character discovers that their meaning of home can change. And that they can change. This is what makes this novel feel hopeful and redemptive. We all struggle to come to terms with who we think we are and how our self-perception can be so differ greatly when you enter into relationships that always involve some type of sacrifice.

There is a bomb scare, which couldn’t be avoided by Nevo and rightly so, but it grabs the focus for a moment and then evanesces into yesterday’s news without hijacking the novel or making it a centerpiece for manipulated drama. It brushes up against the lives of the characters, shows that it is a part of their existence, but doesn’t force the reader into a political corner. There are also moments of levity, but this was the one misstep of Nevo’s that seems distracting. The humorous scenes border on farcical, like a network sitcom offering the outlandish as plausible. In particular, there is a scene with Avram who is suffereing from hallucinations and believes that the construction worker, Saddiq, is his long lost dead son, Nissan. Saddiq finagles his way into Avram and Gina’s home to claim the house his family owned before the Zakians and in search of a family heirloom buried within one of the walls. The police arrive and hilarity supposedly ensues. This detracted from the beautiful and heartrending tone of the novel. This is a small indiscretion considering the scope and craftsmanship of the novel.

Homesick is a novel that engages on all levels and satisfies with its depth and style. Sondra Silverston’s translation is impressive. Well-written and translated well, this novel is a fitting introduction to the literature of Israel. Not often enough are we given such an accessible and universal look into lives of characters that seem a world away but want exactly what we want—people and places that we can call home.

30 August 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Monica Carter on Rieko Matsuura’s The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P., which was translated from the Japanese by Michael Emmerich and published by Kodansha International.

We’ve already mentioned this book on Three Percent several times, including in this JLPP interview with Michael Emmerich, and more interestingly, in relation to this piece he wrote for CALQUE and the “ensuing debate/exchange it provoked.“http://www.rochester.edu/College/translation/threepercent/index.php?id=1171

As if those pieces weren’t enough to get one intrigued, this is a book about a woman who wakes up with a penis growing out of her big toe and runs off to joint a “traveling performance show with other sexual misfits.” Sounds pretty crazy and fun, no? Well, unfortunately, Monica wasn’t as enamored with it as she had hoped to be:

In fiction, there are dangers—dangers for the writer and dangers for the reader. In Rieko Matsuura’s The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P., we have an unhealthy combination of both. When the writer takes a risk, the reader is either going to take that risk with the writer without question or stay with the idea of the risk long enough to get rewarded. I stayed with her throughout the whole book, but I didn’t feel rewarded for doing so. This may seem difficult to fathom considering the premise: a young woman wakes up one morning with a penis growing out of her big toe. Sounds easy enough, right?

Unless, of course, the issue becomes so convoluted with intellectual musings that character development and story land a distant second to the premise. The reader has to willingly suspend disbelief when something unrealistic occurs. But if the author continually taps on the window of our dream world, it’s difficult to drown in the author’s own conceit. I wanted to like this novel and, as a reader, I wanted it to pay off. But Matsuura makes this difficult for herself and the reader. Matsuura introduces us to Kazumi Mano, a twenty-two year old who is a supremely naïve, young waif of passivity. She is passive about her job, how she is treated by her boyfriend and by her friends. But she wakes up one morning with a penis growing out of her big toe and this is when she begins to question society’s beliefs and assignations about gender and sexuality. She leaves her boyfriend who is so freaked out he tries to cut off her toe-penis during an argument, joins a traveling performance show with other sexual misfits and discovers the joy of having a penis (even though it is coming out of her big toe).

Monica does love the translation though . . . To read the full piece, click here.

30 August 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In fiction, there are dangers—dangers for the writer and dangers for the reader. In Rieko Matsuura’s The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P., we have an unhealthy combination of both. When the writer takes a risk, the reader is either going to take that risk with the writer without question or stay with the idea of the risk long enough to get rewarded. I stayed with her throughout the whole book, but I didn’t feel rewarded for doing so. This may seem difficult to fathom considering the premise: a young woman wakes up one morning with a penis growing out of her big toe. Sounds easy enough, right?

Unless, of course, the issue becomes so convoluted with intellectual musings that character development and story land a distant second to the premise. The reader has to willingly suspend disbelief when something unrealistic occurs. But if the author continually taps on the window of our dream world, it’s difficult to drown in the author’s own conceit. I wanted to like this novel and, as a reader, I wanted it to pay off. But Matsuura makes this difficult for herself and the reader. Matsuura introduces us to Kazumi Mano, a twenty-two year old who is a supremely naïve, young waif of passivity. She is passive about her job, how she is treated by her boyfriend and by her friends. But she wakes up one morning with a penis growing out of her big toe and this is when she begins to question society’s beliefs and assignations about gender and sexuality. She leaves her boyfriend who is so freaked out he tries to cut off her toe-penis during an argument, joins a traveling performance show with other sexual misfits and discovers the joy of having a penis (even though it is coming out of her big toe).

Not only does Kazumi appear naïve, but perhaps a bit daft. For instance, when she questions her boyfriend, Masao, about being homophobic, her ruminations sound much more authorial than an authentic voice of a innocent twenty-year old whom just discovered that she had a penis:

Come to think of is, was the fact that Masao had sex with women proof that he wasn’t a faggot? He thought penises were dirty and he didn’t like the idea of sex with men, but he felt no qualms about sticking his dirty penis into my mouth at the same time that he emotionally felt closer to men than women. He was so confused, his emotional life so riddled with contradictions, he couldn’t possibly be normal! . . . But then who was I to talk? I had a penis.

Exactly. The main character does have a penis and this it what it takes for her to recognize someone else “riddled with contradictions” because apparently, she hadn’t noticed any of his contradictions in the three prior years that they had dated. This is what makes the main character inconsistent and then, unbelievable. Throughout the book, Kazumi is sickened and frightened by the idea of lesbianism, finding the idea of sticking her toe-penis in a vagina “gross.” Later, she experiments with a woman after she leaves her current boyfriend, Shunji, and finds that perhaps it isn’t as disgusting as she thought it was, but still not convinced that lesbianism or any other relationship is worth it:

Then he began preaching: “Forget this lesbian stuff! Nothing ever comes from two women getting together. I guess it can’t be helped if a woman is too ugly to attract a man—that’s a reason to turn lesbian. But you’re cute. Don’t you think that you should just stay with this Shunji kid here?”

I hardly knew what to make of these bizarre statements. True, maybe nothing came from two women getting together, but nothing came from a man and a woman getting together either—nothing but babies. Or did he know something I didn’t know? I had no idea whether or not there women who turned to homosexual love because men wouldn’t have anything to do with them, and I couldn’t help wondering what led Utagawa to believe there were. And what made him think he could be so arrogant as to decree, even if he wasn’t explicit about it, that women who could attract men were better off in heterosexual relationships—that they should mold their sexual proclivities to the needs of men, rather than stay attuned to their own desires?

Again, this sort of interior monologue runs contrary to Kazumi’s alleged innocence. Also, I get nervous as a reader when the author has the character asking questions. Matsuura has Kazumi asking questions in her mind frequently and it wears on the reader because it’s a lazy way of developing character. The reader is smart enough to ask those questions without the character doing it. So, this kind of intellectualizing does nothing for the reader in terms of believability of Kazumi as an innocent or even as a fully developed person.

Ultimately, the characters in this novel are thinly veiled stereotypes of what sexuality is. They give method to the intellectualization of gender and sexuality, but no meaning or passion. Matsuura intellectualizes the hell out of any attraction or passion so that by the end of the novel, the idea of sex of any kind seems joyless. More time spent on investing in the characters would have made me care, made me believe in Kazumi and her “apprenticeship.” As grating as this novel is, I found the translation above the material and hoped at some point, the writing would match the translation. Instead, I felt relieved that I was rid of her and her sexual musings and wished someone more fun would have grown a toe-penis.

2 July 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Monica Carter on Herta Müller’s The Passport, which was translated from the German by Martin Chalmers and rapidly reprinted by Serpent’s Tail last fall when she won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Monica Carter is one of our top reviewers and a great champion of world literature. She’s on the fiction committee for the Best Translated Book Award, works at Skylight Books in L.A., and runs the always fascinating Salonica web site.

Here’s the opening of her review:

No one quite captures the alienation of the dispossessed like Herta Müller. The Romanian-born German Nobel Laureate delves deeply into the subconscious of people suffering from the emotional and political ramifications of living life under a communist dictatorship and gives us characters whose only hope is to find a way out. Having lived through the Ceausescu dictatorship, Müller’s ability to convey the confining limits of village life under Communism is unique and unparalleled. The Passport is a shuddersome and compelling work comprised of image-laden depictions of the repressed desolation and understated anguish of the town’s inhabitants. The central protagonist, Windisch, is the town miller who wants nothing more than to escape to West Berlin with his wife and grown daughter.

Through the short, nonlinear stories, or more aptly, histories, Müller infuses the narrative with symbolism, dream sequences and superstitions. The apple tree, used as a fear-inducing specter, could represent the Communist regime devouring the freedoms of those who live by its rule:

“In the morning night watchman didn’t lie down to sleep. He went to the village mayor. He told him that the apple tree behind the church ate its own apples. The mayor laughed. The night watchman could hear fear behind the laughter. Little hammers of life were beating in the mayor’s head.”

Click here to read the full review.

And that’s it! Have a great weekend—see you back here on Tuesday!

2 July 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

No one quite captures the alienation of the dispossessed like Herta Müller. The Romanian-born German Nobel Laureate delves deeply into the subconscious of people suffering from the emotional and political ramifications of living life under a communist dictatorship and gives us characters whose only hope is to find a way out. Having lived through the Ceausescu dictatorship, Müller’s ability to convey the confining limits of village life under Communism is unique and unparalleled. The Passport is a shuddersome and compelling work comprised of image-laden depictions of the repressed desolation and understated anguish of the town’s inhabitants. The central protagonist, Windisch, is the town miller who wants nothing more than to escape to West Berlin with his wife and grown daughter.

Through the short, nonlinear stories, or more aptly, histories, Müller infuses the narrative with symbolism, dream sequences and superstitions. The apple tree, used as a fear-inducing specter, could represent the Communist regime devouring the freedoms of those who live by its rule:

In the morning night watchman didn’t lie down to sleep. He went to the village mayor. He told him that the apple tree behind the church ate its own apples. The mayor laughed. The night watchman could hear fear behind the laughter. Little hammers of life were beating in the mayor’s head.

This is the typical eerie passage from Müller. As her terse and poetic style provides a haunting rhythm and distance, the dour reality of town life coupled with the characters’ desires to become part of the West sets an ominous tone the builds as the novel progresses. Nature itself is portrayed as a character, and its different elements make repeated appearances that are both fanciful and surreal:

“The owls have no peace, and the water has no peace,” says Windisch. “If it dies, another owl will come to the village. A stupid young owl that doesn’t know anything. It will sit on anyone’s roof.”

The night watchman looks up at the moon. “The young people will die again,” he says. Windisch sees that the air just in front of him belongs to the night watchman. His voice manages a tired sentence “Then it will be like war again,” he says.

Throughout the novel, Windisch is a sad and anxious character. A miller without money or much else searches to obtain passports from a local for himself and his family. Unable to achieve this, he endures a bleak existence not only without respect from his wife, but also resigned to her bouts of vitriol. Their freedom rests on their daughter’s sexual favors with the village militiaman and priest. This knowledge, as horrific as it is, seems like the only way out of their plodding existence that is surrounded by death and time.

Müller allows the reader no sense of redemption, constructing the same hopelessness created by a totalitarian government. Our Windisch rides through the town on his bicycle and through his eyes, everyday objects morph into phantoms that disturbs the reader. Müller is a master of a direct and breviloquent prose that heightens the harsh realities of Windisch’s life and the lives of all those imprisoned by Communist rule in Romania. Perhaps not her best work, but a startling novella that limns a world of heartbreak and obsession and the tragedy of desperation it can create.

22 June 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Review Section is a piece by Monica Carter on the Selected Prose of Heinrich von Kleist, which was translated from the German by Peter Wortsman and published by Archipelago Books.

Monica Carter is a very steady reviewer for us, who also serves on the fiction panel for the Best Translated Book award, runs the fabulous site Salonica and works at Skylight Books in L.A.

Always strange to say things like this about mega-famous authors who influenced writers like Kafka and Mann, but it seems like Kleist is undergoing a sort of moment—at least as regards American publishers and readers. In addition to this wonderful collection, Melville House reissued the Martin Greenberg translation of Michael Kohlhaas a few years back as part of their stunning Art of the Novella series.

Here’s the opening of Monica’s extremely positive review:

For as little known as he is, for as long ago as he lived and for a short a time as he was alive, it’s amazing the amount of impacting work German short story writer, poet, dramatist, and essayist Heinrich von Kleist produced during his life time. Born in 1777 and dead of suicide in 1811, Kleist suffered the bane of many famous writers—ridiculed and dismissed during his lifetime but respected and revered once time passed and history decided he was a worthy entry in the annals of literature. Today his plays are considered classic stalwarts of the German theatrical canon and his prose is known to have heavily influenced Kafka and Mann. And once again, the English speaking contingent of world literature can thank Archipelago Books for bring his varied and masterful work to our attention.

The Selected Prose of Heinrich von Kleist is a collection of superbly crafted stories and essays that span cultures and centuries but deftly exposes the universality of human tragedy. Although at first glance the language may feel dated and melodramatic, it is deceptive to label him as a writer with an antiquated style that was only relevant to his era. His style is distinct and was also considered so at the time, and what becomes more evident to the reader as she moves through this collection of prose is that the complexity of his language serves as a respite for the reader from the tension created by the intricate plotting. Once the reader settles into his prose, the language laden sentences that seemingly turn themselves inside out mesmerize us into a leisurely pace that is comforting in its cadence.

Click here to read the full review.

22 June 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For as little known as he is, for as long ago as he lived and for a short a time as he was alive, it’s amazing the amount of impacting work German short story writer, poet, dramatist, and essayist Heinrich von Kleist produced during his life time. Born in 1777 and dead of suicide in 1811, Kleist suffered the bane of many famous writers—ridiculed and dismissed during his lifetime but respected and revered once time passed and history decided he was a worthy entry in the annals of literature. Today his plays are considered classic stalwarts of the German theatrical canon and his prose is known to have heavily influenced Kafka and Mann. And once again, the English speaking contingent of world literature can thank Archipelago Books for bring his varied and masterful work to our attention.

The Selected Prose of Heinrich von Kleist is a collection of superbly crafted stories and essays that span cultures and centuries but deftly exposes the universality of human tragedy. Although at first glance the language may feel dated and melodramatic, it is deceptive to label him as a writer with an antiquated style that was only relevant to his era. His style is distinct and was also considered so at the time, and what becomes more evident to the reader as she moves through this collection of prose is that the complexity of his language serves as a respite for the reader from the tension created by the intricate plotting. Once the reader settles into his prose, the language laden sentences that seemingly turn themselves inside out mesmerize us into a leisurely pace that is comforting in its cadence.

But what drives the narrative are the perfect marriage of character and plot. From the beginning of each story, we know what will happen to these characters, yet still we read on because Kleist gives the illusion that hope is just after the turn of the page. A slight altering of a worn maxim can cover Kleist’s characters and their travails—destiny hath no fury like a fate scorned. And scorned they are.

There are the cursed lovers in “The Earthquake in Chile” and “The Betrothal of Santo Domingo,” the mysterious and plagued fortunes in “Saint Cecilia and The Power of Music (A Legend)” and “The Marquise of O . . .” and the ugly side of revenge in “Michael Kohlhaas.” “Michael Kohlhaas” is more of a novella and is the mainstay of the collection. It chronicles the path of a horse trader, Michael Kohlhaas, who is wronged by a local junker and spends the rest of his life seeking vengeance. Of course he loses everything in the process, but Kleist draws this out in a believable manner.

What’s also dazzling about this collection are the topics: unexplained pregnancy, biracial love affairs, and mental disorder. Sign me up. Perhaps the contentious nature of these stories caused hostility toward Kleist during his lifetime, but his unwavering commitment to truth makes his work seem more contemporary and more courageous considering the social mores of the time. His characters are the antecedents to what later became the classic character types in German literature. This innovativeness paired with his fast-paced plotting make him a necessary read for the consummate short story reader or writer.

Finally, the collection closes with two ruminative essays on meditation and art: “On the Gradual Formulation of Thoughts While Speaking” and “On the Theater of Marionettes” are light and astute pieces that display his process of self-reflection. After the intensity of the short stories that precede these essays, their presence and tone gives a welcome insight into the artist himself.

The Selected Prose of Heinrich von Kleist is a work that surprises, unsettles and engages. His language drowns you and the unfortunate fate of his characters enduring the relentless blows of an unforgiving plot keep you tense. These are classic tales from a talented writer whose work refuses to let literature or history to look away.

16 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We did it! Here’s the final featured title from this year’s Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



Desert by J.M.G. Le Clézio. Translated from the French by C. Dickson. (France, David R. Godine)

Below is a guest post from Monica Carter, a member of the BTBA fiction committee, bookseller at Skylight, and curator of Salonica. Thanks again for all your help covering the longlist titles!

Desert by Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio is a perfect example of why Le Clézio won the Nobel in 2008, even though he was little known in the United States—sprawling, place specific narratives that bring to life the histories of cultures we do not know and that the world is quickly forgetting. One thing not to expect when you read Desert is a fast-paced narrative that immediately transplants you into another place and time. It does take you to another place, but in a slow, slightly repetitive pace that moves like the Earth’s rotation. A pace that you know is happening but subtly enough that you don’t notice.

The novel begins with the story of Nour, fourteen year old boy who is part of a North African people, the Taureg, more commonly referred to as the “blue men” because of the sky blue robes that they wear to honor the father of their people. In 1909, the French Colonialists are forcing the blue men out of their native land and into an aimless horrifying journey through the desert, led by their frail spiritual leader, Ma al-Aïnine. From the onset of the novel, there is the presence of an unnamed character, which is the Earth itself and all it’s natural elements. Throughout the novel, we learn Nour has a family—parents, sisters and brothers—and we learn of his staid character, his generous and loyal nature. But mostly he is the observer, the eyes we see through as we watch this Berber tribe lose their land, their leader and their hope to ward off the superior warring efforts of the Christians. Although, it’s the Earth that is just as prominent in the narrative being equal parts friend and enemy, and becoming a major character that only has allegiance to itself. The Earth shows no favoritism. She provides food and water to sustain them yet also tortures them with unrelenting rugged terrains and a scorching sun that dehydrates and destroys. Nour observes the toll of the journey and the effect of the elements on his people:

Standing by the side of the trail, he saw them walking slowly past, hardly lifting their legs, heavy with weariness. They had emaciated gray faces, eyes shiny with fever. Their lips were bleeding; their hands and chests were marked with wounds where the clotted blood had mixed with golden particles of dust. The sun beat down on them as it did on the red stones of the path, and they received a real beating. The women had no shoes, and their bare feet were burned form the sand and eaten away wit the salt. But the most painful thing about them, the most disquieting thing that made pity rise in Nour’s breast, was their silence. Not one of them spoke or sang. No one cried or moaned.

The close third person point-of-view by Le Clézio makes it difficult for us to not feel the effects of the sun, the scorching ground under our feet, the utter exhaustion that Nour and his people must endure. To combat complete fatigue of the reader, he introduces Lalla, a young girl living in the slums of Tangier as a descendant of the blue men. This is where nature becomes cleansing, vivifying and spiritual. Lalla does not go to school. She does not read or write. Instead she wonders her countryside jumping dunes, laying on the white sand and running along with the wind, breathing in its rhythm and essence. She lets the sun edify her, erasing her hunger and loneliness, inhaling it as if it were the source of life itself. She befriends flies and wasps, recognizing their role in the cycle of life and she finds comfort and solitude in the sea and the freedom it offers.

But the voice is still murmuring, still fluttering inside of Lalla’s body. It is only the voice of the wind, the voice of the sea, of the sand, voice of the light that dazzles and numbs people’s willpower. It comes at the same time as the stranger’s gaze, it shatters and uproots everything on earth that resists it. The in goes farther out, toward the horizon, gets lost out at sea on the mighty waves, it carries the clouds and the sand toward the rocky coasts on the other side of the sea, toward the vast deltas where the smokestacks of the refineries are burning.

Lalla lives with her Aunt Aamma. Lalla’s parent died when she was young and what she knows of them is through Aamma. Lalla has friends like the shepherd boy, the Hartani, who does not speak and the fisherman, Naman, who regales her stories of all the places where he has traveled. There is al-Ser, which stands for the Secret, a spirit she visits in the middle of the desert who fills her with an overwhelming sense of well-being and becomes her spiritual guide. After an attempt by her aunt to arrange a marriage for her, Lalla leaves with the Hartani to escape her destiny. The Hartani and Lalla become separated and Lalla ends ups months later in Marseilles, where her aunt has already situated herself in one of the immigrant tenement housing projects. Lalla finds work and befriends a gypsy teenager, Radicz, who steals for a living. She is thrust in the eye of the public as the ethnic model, Hawa, after a photographer spots her in a café and she becomes his muse. She goes through life like the wind, without a true purpose, flowing in any direction that pulls her. But the freedom and solitude that nature offers her are the only real things that compel her to thrive. Eventually she returns to Tangier to give birth to the son of the Hartani in the vast landscape of Morocco with its promise of peace and independence.

Le Clézio facilely creates the symbiotic relationship between the Taureg and nature. Lalla and Nour listen to the earth for answers, sustenance and portents. The wind, the sun and the sea do not control their lives, but they pulse within their blood and live within their hearts. This is what Le Clézio gives to the global readership, a perspective of a people that roamed the desert in search of their own land and their own traditions. But the hunger for power slowly wipes clean the slate of ethnic diversity. Desert is Le Clézio’s effort to give voice to the people who spoke through their journeys and through their respect for nature and through their silence, he makes hear how much they deserve a place on this Earth.

1 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Because it snowed today in Rochester, I’m going to post again about the Guadalajara Book Fair. Mainly, I want to apologize for doing crap research before linking to Hermano Cerdo’s coverage of the fair . . . Their coverage is excellent, and Hermano Cerdo deserves tons of traffic, but there are some others also writing about the Fair—even in English! (Helps that the Guest of Honor this year is Los Angeles.)

Anyway, Daniel Hernandez is down there and is writing it up for Intersections. In addition to his post about the Ozomatli performance, he also previewed all the goings on:

I travel on Saturday to Guadalajara, where the big International Book Fair opens with a special guest of honor this year, the city of Los Angeles. From the fair’s official site:

“A natural bridge between Mexican and American culture, Los Angeles is also a city that has been able to acquire a unique identity relating to cultural production, the trademark that distinguishes its delegation, comprised of around 50 authors, 20 academics, 14 artists and theater companies. The program also includes 7 visual arts exhibitions and a film series presenting classic and contemporary films designed to showcase the diverse perspectives on its urban landscape, its culture and people.”

True enough, there’s going to be so much going on I won’t know where to begin.

Both “Phantom Sightings” and “Vexing” are on view at Guadalajara museums. L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa will be in town, and so will L.A. Weekly food critic Jonathan Gold, and the Zócalo crew. One panel will have Gregory Rodriguez moderating the question of how Mexican Americans see Mexico.

The Jalisco edition of La Jornada breaks down the Encuentro Chicano, an ambitious two-day program that focuses on Mexican American arts and letters, organized by the Centro Universitario de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades at the University of Guadalajara. I am excited to be moderating a panel with Luis Rodriguez, Maria Amparo Escandon, Jose Luis Valenzuela, and Ruben Martinez. Come check it out if you’re in town.

And one of our all time favorite blogs is Monica Carter’s Salonica World Lit where she too is covering the book fair and finding some interesting publishers:

Because I am focused on broadening the inventory for the bookstore that I work at, Skylight Books, I was drawn to many of the Mexican and Latin American publishers. My new favorite is Almadia which is a little press that started in 2005 in the Oaxaca city. Great covers and great authors. I spoke briefly with one of their directors today and they are not yet distributed in the United States. But he said possibly next year. They have great authors including Francisco Hinojosa, Jorge Volpi and Camille de Toledo. Also deserving of some attention is Tumbona Ediciones with their nostalgic, retro pin-up style website with a twist of sexy, who puts out a cool series call Versus, which are essays from well-known writers against pretty much any form of ideology. Jonathan Lethem takes on originality and Laura Kipnis takes on love. I became completely enamored with Sexto Piso for their graphic novel version of Proust’s Swann’s Way.

30 September 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is a piece by Monica Carter on Robert Walser’s The Tanners, which was recently released by New Directions in Susan Bernofsky’s translation. (This is overly personal, but this review is a confluence of four of my favorite people, publishers, and authors. Monica + Susan + Walser + New Directions = Good Shit.)

Monica’s been reviewing for us for a while. She’s on the Best Translated Book Award fiction committee, and she runs Salonica World Lit while also working at Skylight Books.

As is mentioned on the jacket copy of The Tanners, this is one of the year’s most anticipated books (at least among the literati, or everyone not currently reading Dan Brown) and was chosen by Time Out New York as its Top Summer Fiction Pick of 2009 and by the Village Voice as “a contender for Funniest Book of the Year.”

Based on the opening of Monica’s review, it sounds like both statements are absolutely true:

In the most recent translation of Swiss writer Robert Walser’s work, The Tanners, we are reminded once again why Kafka and Musil were fans—his wit. And like everything in Walser’s writing, it is nuanced and subtle. Instead giving us our melodrama straight with no chaser, he blends it with irony, insouciance and imagination so that it doesn’t make us wince when gulp it down; instead, it smoothly sates our desire for a good story and leaves us wanting more. The Tanners, written in 1907, is the semi-autobiographical tale of the five children—four boys and one girl—of the Tanner family: Klaus, Kaspar, Simon, Hedwig, and a son who resides in a mental institution and merits only a mention in the book. Walser focuses the book around Simon, the young, aimless brother who is a bizarre combination of arrogance, self-entitlement, humility, humor, and love for all of mankind. It’s the words of Simon that at once bold and entertaining. His honesty woos the reader until you become smitten and want to hear anything that he has to say. He simply does not care what he is supposed to do as a young man in society; he cares only for his own happiness that he expresses slyly to the owner of a bookshop:

“You have disappointed me. Don’t look so astonished, there’s nothing to be done about it. I shall quit your place of business this very day and ask that you pay me my wages. Please, let me finish. I know perfectly well what I want. During the past week I’ve come to realize that the entire book trade is nothing less than ghastly if it must entail standing at one’s desk from early morning till late at night while out of doors the gentlest winter sun is gleaming, and forces one to scrunch one’s back, since the desk is far too small given my stature, writing like some accursed happenstance copyist and performing work unsuitable for a mind such as my own, I am capable of performing quite different tasks, esteemed sir, than the ones entrusted to me here. I’d expected to be able to sell books in your shop, wait on elegant individuals, bow and bid adieu to the customers when they’re ready to depart. What’s more, I’d imagined I might be allowed to peer into the mysterious universe of the book trade and glimpse the world’s features in the visage and operation of your enterprise. But I experienced nothing of the sort.”

Click here for the full review.

30 September 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In the most recent translation of Swiss writer Robert Walser’s work, The Tanners, we are reminded once again why Kafka and Musil were fans—his wit. And like everything in Walser’s writing, it is nuanced and subtle. Instead giving us our melodrama straight with no chaser, he blends it with irony, insouciance and imagination so that it doesn’t make us wince when gulp it down; instead, it smoothly sates our desire for a good story and leaves us wanting more. The Tanners, written in 1907, is the semi-autobiographical tale of the five children—four boys and one girl—of the Tanner family: Klaus, Kaspar, Simon, Hedwig, and a son who resides in a mental institution and merits only a mention in the book. Walser focuses the book around Simon, the young, aimless brother who is a bizarre combination of arrogance, self-entitlement, humility, humor, and love for all of mankind. It’s the words of Simon that at once bold and entertaining. His honesty woos the reader until you become smitten and want to hear anything that he has to say. He simply does not care what he is supposed to do as a young man in society; he cares only for his own happiness that he expresses slyly to the owner of a bookshop:

You have disappointed me. Don’t look so astonished, there’s nothing to be done about it. I shall quit your place of business this very day and ask that you pay me my wages. Please, let me finish. I know perfectly well what I want. During the past week I’ve come to realize that the entire book trade is nothing less than ghastly if it must entail standing at one’s desk from early morning till late at night while out of doors the gentlest winter sun is gleaming, and forces one to scrunch one’s back, since the desk is far too small given my stature, writing like some accursed happenstance copyist and performing work unsuitable for a mind such as my own, I am capable of performing quite different tasks, esteemed sir, than the ones entrusted to me here. I’d expected to be able to sell books in your shop, wait on elegant individuals, bow and bid adieu to the customers when they’re ready to depart. What’s more, I’d imagined I might be allowed to peer into the mysterious universe of the book trade and glimpse the world’s features in the visage and operation of your enterprise. But I experienced nothing of the sort.

And this is when it becomes impossible to avoid falling in love with Simon, Walser’s cocky romantic bohemian. Seemingly each member of the Tanner family represents an element of society: Klaus, the staid older brother who ensconces himself in a respectful position in academia; Hedwig, the hardworking and generous country teacher who enjoys the simplicities of rural life; Kaspar, the tortured artist who’s vulnerability leave women swooning; Emil, the institutionalized man who had everything the world could offer except sanity; and Simon, the rebellious dreamer who shuns the shackles of modern society. Walser himself shuttled from job to job like Simon and also had mental illness, like the eldest Tanner brother, spending the last 27 years of his life in a mental institution. The Walser family had a long and distinct line of mental illness beginning with Walser’s mother and spreading throughout the family. Though all the members were highly functional, Robert seemed to be the most productive while institutionalized, turning out story after story and developing his “mikrogramme” style of pencil writing that took years for editors to decipher. Regardless of the heavy tone of his personal life, there is a lightness that prevails when his characters confront the existential and practical issues of living life. Simon represents the perfect antidote to personal tragedy and inner demon for Walser. Simon addresses a man in a bar who begins telling the story of Emil without knowing that Simon is his brother. At the end of the story, Simon gracefully responds about the role of insanity in his family:

No, it cannot possibly run in the family. I shall deny this as long as I live. It’s simply misfortune. It can’t have been the women. You’re quite right when you say it wasn’t them. Must these poor women always be at fault when men succumb to misfortune? Why don’t we think a bit more simply about it? Can it not lie in a person’s character, and therefore in the soul? Look, if you will, how I am moving my hand just now: Like this, and in the soul! That’s where it lies. A human being feels something, and when he acts in such-and-such a way, and then collides with various walls and uneven spots, just like that. People are always so quick to think of horrific genetic inheritances and the like. And what cowardice and lack of reverence to insist on holding his parents and his parents’ parents responsible for his misfortune. This shows a lack of both propriety and courage, not to mention the most unseemly soft-heartedness! When misfortune crashes down upon your head, it’s just that you’ve provided all that was needed for fate to produce a misfortune. Do you know what my brother was to me, to me and Kaspar, my older brother, to us younger ones? He taught us on our shared walks to have a sense for the beautiful and the noble, at a time when we were still the most wretched rascals whose only interest was getting up to trick. From his eyes we imbibed the fire that filled them when he spoke to us of art. Can you imagine what a splendid time that was, how ambitious—in the boldest, most beautiful sense of the word—our quest for understanding? Let’s drink one more bottle together, I’m buying, yes that’s right, even though I’m just an unemployed ne’er-do-well.

Simon is a dichotomy—enamored by and ultimately indifferent to humanity. He approaches everyone with patience and tolerance. He exits the situation when he bores of it, but always with a lighthearted diplomacy. Off goes this bohemian, not a goal in sight, welcoming any situation that he stumbles upon with a pleasant air of hope. By the end of the novel, Walser’s style has mesmerized you with his interesting twist on the mundane and the abstract, and you will find it difficult to rouse yourself from his view of the world that captures a time and an essence.

He is a modernist in a true sense and it is a small wonder he is just now coming back in fashion. Thanks to the folks at New Directions as well as to the excellent and fluid translation by Susan Bernofsky, we can delve into his story effortlessly. Be thankful like Kafka and Musil that Walser existed and live to tell about it.2

28 August 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Monica Carter on Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Normance, which was translated by Marlon Jones and published earlier this year by Dalkey Archive Press.

Monica is one of our long-time reviewers and runs the always excellent Salonica World Lit website. She also works at Skylight Books whose tagline (“What a neighborhood bookstore should be . . .) equals awesome. Skylight is also our “featured bookseller of the month summer” and recently redesigned their website. (It looks great! And the book search database works a lot better now. Although it sucks that you can’t click on the author’s name anymore to get a full list of her/his titles. Yeah, I know, I shouldn’t gripe in the middle of this post, but it’s Friday.)

As many of you know, I used to work at Dalkey, and after leaving, there have been pointed comments from both sides. Well, in the spirit of something, I want to recommend that any Facebook users become fans of the Dalkey page. It’s just too sad to see them sitting there with 29 fans . . . And while I’m at it, Open Letter has both a group and a fan page. Well, after looking at these more carefully, we’ve decided that the fan page is the better option, and as a result, we’re going to be posting much more frequently there. So if you’re not already a fan (or if you’re only part of our “group,” which has hundreds of more members), please “fan” us by clicking here.

OK, back to literature . . .

Céline’s Death on the Installment Plan is one of my all-time favorite books, and Normance seems to have a bit of the same unhinged, manic energy. Here’s the opening of Monica’s review:

When a reader, and I mean a true reader looking for guts, the unexpected and the challenging, encounters Céline, she knows that her literary fate is forever changed. Gather your beatniks, your cynics, your semi-autobiographers and toss in a dirty handful of John Kennedy Toole and this might give an idea of what reading Céline is like. Céline’s misanthropy is sobering and hilarious, best rendered in Journey to the End of the Night and Death on the Installment Plan, and is also a reaction to war, to unabashed nationalism and unquestioned authoritarianism. In Normance, the doctor turned writer returns to the theme of war, giving us unrelenting and dizzying account of the Allied bombing of Paris from April 21-22, 1944.

For this reason, this not an easy book to read, even for the Céline fan. And to translate it is even more challenging, but the task is easily handled b Marlon Jones, who also delivers an introduction that serves as a valuable companion to the book. Céline can be an obstacle in any language, but when the translation is this good, it justifies our efforts to attempt to read and understand his work.

He doesn’t separate much between the narrator, Louis/Ferdinand, and himself. And the reader doesn’t need to know if there is a difference once she is incessantly bombarded by the tommy-gun narrative that delivers blow after blow of loaded phrases broken up only by ellipses and exclamation points. Stuck in a building with his girlfriend, Arlette/Lili(again the blurring of fiction and reality), and the other tenants, he focuses on his lost cat Berbert and Jules, the hunchback artist he accuses of seducing his girlfriend and conducting the bombing:

“We’ll talk about Jules’s wizardry later! . . . criminal wizardry! directing all the bombs toward us! From way up in the sky! From La Fourche Valley! From the right, from the left! But he doesn’t get swept away himself! The hurricane doesn’t carry him off! it respects him! the sweetheart! doesn’t get his head chopped of by the propeller! doesn’t flip over with his canes, plunge into the bushes . . . onto the grill! Oof! he catches himself every time! a big gust . . . he’s spinning! vrrrr! he rolls to the other edge!”

Click here for the full review.

28 August 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

When a reader, and I mean a true reader looking for guts, the unexpected and the challenging, encounters Céline, she knows that her literary fate is forever changed. Gather your beatniks, your cynics, your semi-autobiographers and toss in a dirty handful of John Kennedy Toole and this might give an idea of what reading Céline is like. Céline’s misanthropy is sobering and hilarious, best rendered in Journey to the End of the Night and Death on the Installment Plan, and is also a reaction to war, to unabashed nationalism and unquestioned authoritarianism. In Normance, the doctor turned writer returns to the theme of war, giving us unrelenting and dizzying account of the Allied bombing of Paris from April 21-22, 1944.

For this reason, this not an easy book to read, even for the Céline fan. And to translate it is even more challenging, but the task is easily handled b Marlon Jones, who also delivers an introduction that serves as a valuable companion to the book. Céline can be an obstacle in any language, but when the translation is this good, it justifies our efforts to attempt to read and understand his work.

He doesn’t separate much between the narrator, Louis/Ferdinand, and himself. And the reader doesn’t need to know if there is a difference once she is incessantly bombarded by the tommy-gun narrative that delivers blow after blow of loaded phrases broken up only by ellipses and exclamation points. Stuck in a building with his girlfriend, Arlette/Lili(again the blurring of fiction and reality), and the other tenants, he focuses on his lost cat Bébert and Jules, the hunchback artist he accuses of seducing his girlfriend and conducting the bombing:

We’ll talk about Jules’s wizardry later! . . . criminal wizardry! directing all the bombs toward us! From way up in the sky! From La Fourche Valley! From the right, from the left! But he doesn’t get swept away himself! The hurricane doesn’t carry him off! it respects him! the sweetheart! doesn’t get his head chopped of by the propeller! doesn’t flip over with his canes, plunge into the bushes . . . onto the grill! Oof! he catches himself every time! a big gust . . . he’s spinning! vrrrr! he rolls to the other edge!

Amongst all the narrative shrapnel and the suffocating prose, we are forced to conjure up the horror of war, the imaginings of how destruction tastes and smells what it feels like. There is no other option and that is Céline’s redemption. Just as if you unwillingly placed in the middle of a battle zone, you beg Céline to stop, to change, to quit pounding away at the repetitive circle of the same scene we are forced as readers to walk in, hoping for any chance to escape. But he is unrepentant. He spares no acrimony for himself, his characters and especially his readers:

I’ll accept all your criticisms, your insults, but only as long as you’re not one of those book-borrowing, cadging, and then re-lending types! plague of humankind! If you got your claws on this book by the “let me just borrow it for a while and I’ll give it back” method, you can just keep quiet . . . naturally, by today’s standards, you’re quite right to do it this way! . . . you can say books should be stolen rather than bought without anyone batting an eye . . . it’s even sort of a matter of honor to never buy a book . . . not one person in twenty who’s read your work actually paid for it! pretty sad, eh? if we’re talking about ham, you think one slice can feed twenty people? or that forty asses can cram into on seat at the movies? . . . smile and say hi, poor plundered scribbler! although what’s worst of all is their utter contempt for your work after they got it for free! . . . the way they trash your writing, loathe it, use it to wipe their asses, don’t understand a fucking thing, run off to sell whatever’s left on the riverbanks . . . you’ll say, but there’s a solution! just drown all the loaners! And borrowers with them! imagine, letting the people who actually pay for my goods get screwed . . . fine! the grocer expects you to heckle him a little over the herring . . . but try to rip him off? call the police! . . . isn’t it horrible that I have to babble and clown for nothing? me, who’s paid out so much himself! . . . just the thought of being robbed makes me go pale, I start suffocating worse than I did in the ogre’s fists! . . . my blood, heart, nerves coagulate . . . worse than Delphine! . . . some guy comes up and asks, “Can I borrow that?” I lose consciousness! . . . and then this! look! this philosophy! . . . you can have it! hey there, you squandering slut of a muse, enough’s enough!

This is the type of vitriolic and sarcastic rant that abuts against another, with anger ebbing only when Céline needs to catch his breath. The immediacy of this narrative holds value for it’s literary ingenuity and witness to World War II, but it also reminds us of our own recent catastrophes in the United States, from September 11 to Hurricane Katrina. Destruction is cruel and pitiless and inescapable.

But as you read the last sentence, two competing but equally powerful feelings will converge within you—relief and anger. You have survived the Céline’s literary blitz . . . and be thankful that you weren’t really there.

31 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Here’s a message from Monica Carter of Salonica and Skylight Books—our featured indie store of the month—about some interesting upcoming events.

One of the trademarks of Skylight Books is the ability to recognize and promote the literary greats of our time. Ten years ago, Skylight Books not only participated in the Harry Potter phenomenon with a midnight release party, but was the originator of the Thomas Pynchon Against the Day midnight release party. The tradition continues at Skylight Books with our dedication to celebrating the literary talents of today with our second Thomas Pynchon Midnight Release Party for his new novel, Inherent Vice, on August 4. Along with Pynchon, we will be hosting not one but two parties for Infinite Summer (not a footnote of a party, a PARTY!), the effort of bibliophiles from around the world to read Infinite Jest over the summer of 2009. William T. Vollman has been a perennial bestseller at our store and also a staff favorite which is why we are the only independent bookstore in Los Angeles to host an event for his new book of photographs, Imperial. These events are indicative of Skylight Books’ commitment to fostering cultural vivacity in our own community as well as the global literary community.

28 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over at Salonica, Monica Carter posted a very comprehensive, incredibly useful guide to online resources for information about Eastern European literature. Definitely worth exploring.

3 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Our latest review is Monica Carter’s piece on Francoise Sagan’s That Mad Ache, recently published by Basic Books and translated from the French by Douglas Hofstadter.

Monica — who works at Skylight Books and runs the excellent Salonica — isn’t especially keen on this novel, or, to be more specific, she’s not too keen on the 100-page essay by Hofstadter — “Translator, Trader” — that’s included in the volume (and although I remember loving Godel, Escher, Bach, this is cringe-worthy):

The essay is divided into small sections with wink, wink headings like, “Poetic Lie-Sense” and “Good Gravy-Americanisms Galore” that cheapen the role of the translator and the reader. There is a distinct feeling that Hofstadter woefully underestimates the intelligence of the reader by delivering abstract ideas of translation and semiotics chopped into bite-size ideas veiled by poorly chosen puns and a cutesy font. Yes, even the font selection gets page time in this essay and after stating that Baskerville is “pedestrian,” the reader is forced to look at headings presented in a gaudy font. And why this essay is divided into so many sections becomes a mystery. Finding a segue between topics would lend much more credibility to the author as well as avoiding breaking the aesthetic flow with a cloyingly scripted heading.

There is a distinct goal on Hofstadter’s part throughout the essay to not be boring – in the writing of the essay, in his choices of translation, and yes, even the font. The reader is given several metaphors to better understand what type of translator Hofstadter is and why he makes the choices he does. The metaphor that Hofstadter relies on the most is “Translator as Dog-on-a-Leash”.

“Whenever I am translating something that someone else carefully wrote, I feel like an unleashed dog taking a walk with its master through a forest or a huge park. It’s a marvelously joyous feeling, a subtle blend of freedom and security. I run around on my own, but despite all my seeming freedom, I am in truth always invisibly tethered to my master and the unpredictable pathways that my master chooses to take.”

He also uses the metaphor of temperature, that translator’s styles fall somewhere on a tic of a thermometer between hot and cold. He considers himself a “hot” translator, meaning that he likes to take quite a few liberties with the original text to make it more interesting. The problem this presents of course is that his idea of what is “hot” is subjective and could be construed as not adhering to the authorial vision. For instance, he makes a comparison between his translation of a passage to Robert Westhoff’s translation (Westhoff was Sagan’s lover):

“In Chapter 13, Lucile is replying with indignation to a question Antoine has asked her. She thinks the answer is self-evident, and where Sagan has her say, “Bien entendu” (meaning literally “of course”), Westhoff has her say, “Of course.” That’s fair enough. My first inclination, however, was to go much further than this—namely, “Well, what do you think—is the Pope Catholic?” Once again, though, some little voice inside me protested, for two reasons. One is that what Lucile actually said in French was much shorter and simpler than this sarcastic retort, and the other is that the rhetorical question “Is the Pope Catholic?” might sound too American. I don’t quite know why that would be, since popes and Catholics are hardly limited to America, but perhaps there’s a down-home American sense of humor lurking inside that remark, and perhaps it’s that hidden flavor that sounds a bit un-French. In any case, none of my friends who read this phrase thought it belonged in Lucile’s mouth, and so I threw it out and settle for just, “Well, what do you think?”, and as I did so, my translation temperature fell from 100° to 75°.”

Click here for the complete review.

3 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Françoise Sagan rocketed to international fame with her debut novel Bonjour, Tristesse. After failing her baccalaureate, she wrote this novel when she was eighteen years old and it became the novel that all her other works would be measured against. It has the trademark French style, lean and sober, with philosophical undertones. The quintessential coming-of-age story focuses on 17-year-old Cécile, a young woman struggling with her need to attract men her father’s age, the relationship with her playboy father and the shallow lifestyle that they both lead. Typical of Sagan’s novels, we are presented with the examined lives of the disenchanted bourgeoisie. In Douglas Hofstadter’s retranslation of Sagan’s That Mad Ache (published as La Chamade in France and the U.S., originally), this theme once again presents itself as an integral part of Sagan’s psychological novel.

Instead of a teenage Cécile, we are introduced to a thirty-year-old Lucile who is living with fifty-year old real estate tycoon, Charles. She meets the young, attractive Antoine, a poor yet principled man working for a French publishing company. Antoine is also thirty and also dating someone older, Diane, a forty-five year old socialite. Lucile and Antoine meet at one of the many dinner parties that both of them are required to go to because of whom they are dating. Of course, there is an immediate attraction between them over a shared joke, but also a kindred sense that they are both interlopers in the rich lives of their partners:

She burst out laughing, and as she did so, both Diane and Charles looked over at the two of them. Diane and Charles had been placed next to each other, at the far end of the table, looking directly towards their protégés —thirty-year old children who refused to act like grown-ups. Lucile cut her laugh short: after all, she was making nothing of her life, and there was no one that she loved. What a joke! If she hadn’t by nature been so full of joie de vivre, she would have killed herself.

That last line is vintage Sagan and, in many cases, her dark humor saves this novel from becoming too frivolous. From the onset, Lucile lives a life of privilege and is able to wake up every morning and do whatever she feels like. Reading about someone who has everything isn’t that intriguing. Luckily, we are introduced to the sacrifice that Lucile must make in order to have this lifestyle. She lives with the truth that her love for Charles is not a passionate love, but is more of a tender fondness for the man he is and what he gives her. He loves her unconditionally, which is how a parent loves a child. With Antoine, there is passion and consequences, there is a risk—it has conditions. As a reader, we need this conflict to keep us engaged. Otherwise, we are left with a sense of vapidity that Sagan exploits in the bourgeoisie. And once Lucile decides to leave Charles and live with Antoine, there is a looming sense of tension between the two:

Sometimes he would cast a furtive, questioning glance at her. Her laziness, her incredible ability to do nothing at all and never to think about her future, her remarkable capacity for finding happiness in a long series of empty, inactive, indistinguishable days—all this struck him at times as outrageous, even verging on the repulsive. He knew very well that she loved him and that, for that reason, she wasn’t going to grow tired of him any sooner than he would of her, but his intuition told him that what he was now seeing of her lifestyle was representative of her deeper essence, and he realized that it was only thanks to their mutual physical passion that he was able to put up with her perpetual stagnation. He often felt as if he had discovered a mysterious beast, an unheard-of plant, a mandrake. But whenever he felt this way, he would draw near to her on the bed, slide in between the sheets, never growing tired of their wild abandon, of their mingled sweat, of their torrid exhaustion, and in this way he would rediscover for himself, and in the clearest possible manner, that she was, after all, not a beast but a woman.

The novel gets really interesting when Lucile succumbs to Antoine’s pressure to get a job. Because of Sagan’s psychological musings through character, Lucile engages us as a three-dimensional character, not simply a base, materialistic woman. In the end, that may be what she decides to be, but not until she goes through some serious self-reflection. Also it is important to consider that this was written in the sixties which puts Lucile in a historical context when feminism was just a groundswell. A woman who was single, unemployed and childless did not have the same stigma that it does today. Lucile realizes during her lunch hour that even though she may be in love, it does not mean she is happy:

That day, she had had it, and when she arrived at her usual brasserie at one o’clock, she ordered a cocktail form the surprised waiter (she never ordered drinks), and then another. She had a dossier to study and she riffled through it for a couple of minutes before closing it with a yawn. She was quite aware that they had suggested that she should write a few lines on the topic and that if they liked what she wrote, it might well be published. All well and good, but today isn’t the day for it. Nor was today the day for obediently trotting back to that gray office right after lunch and returning to the cute little role she had been playing of Active Young Woman in front of other people who would be playing their grandiose little roles of Thinkers, or else Men of Action. They were all lousy roles, or at the very least it was a lousy play. Or then again, if Antoine was right and this play that she was acting in was a perfectly respectable and useful play, well then, her role in it was poorly written, or else it had been written for somebody else. Antoine was simply wrong—this was now crystal-clear to her in the glaring light of her two cocktails, for alcohol at times shines pitiless sharp spotlights on life, and right now it was revealing to her the thousands of little lies that she had been telling herself day after day in effort to convince herself that she was happy. But in fact she was unhappy, and life was unfair.

Funny how a job can make life seem unfair, but such is Lucile. She discovers her limits that we have seen all along. In the end, each character remains who they are—at least more certain of who they are. This novel is not as good as Sagan’s debut, but it does have its charm. Ultimately, it is a romantic novel that seems somewhat dated and trivial at times but it also imparts a sense of nostalgia that carries us through the superficiality.

And even though this novel may not be that remarkable on its own, Basic Books came up with the brilliant idea of pairing That Mad Ache with an essay about translation by the translator by Douglas Hofstadter. Translator, Trader is a hundred page account of Hofstadter’s journey through translating Sagan’s novel and frequently comparing his translation with the original that was done by Sagan’s husband, Robert Westhoff. Enamored by this idea as I am, Hofstadter’s essay is a disappointment. Translation is such a complex issue, and an engaging one, that it serves well to have an afterword of this type for those interested in the process of translation. However, those of us who are interested in reading more about the translator’s personal experience with a work from conception to finish won’t find Hofstadter’s oversimplified, folksy approach worthwhile.

The essay is divided into small sections with wink, wink headings like, “Poetic Lie-Sense” and “Good Gravy-Americanisms Galore” that cheapen the role of the translator and the reader. There is a distinct feeling that Hofstadter woefully underestimates the intelligence of the reader by delivering abstract ideas of translation and semiotics chopped into bite-sized ideas that are veiled by poorly chosen puns and a cutesy font. Yes, even the font selection gets page time in this essay and after stating that Baskerville is “pedestrian,” the reader is forced to look at headings presented in a gaudy font. And why this essay is divided into so many sections becomes a mystery. Finding a segué between topics would lend much more credibility to the author, as well as avoiding breaking the aesthetic flow with a cloyingly scripted heading.

There is a distinct goal on Hofstadter’s part throughout the essay to not be boring – in the writing of the essay, in his choices of translation, and yes, even the font. The reader is given several metaphors to better understand what type of translator Hofstadter is and why he makes the choices he does. The metaphor that Hofstadter relies on the most is “Translator as Dog-on-a-Leash”.

Whenever I am translating something that someone else carefully wrote, I feel like an unleashed dog taking a walk with its master through a forest or a huge park. It’s a marvelously joyous feeling, a subtle blend of freedom and security. I run around on my own, but despite all my seeming freedom, I am in truth always invisibly tethered to my master and the unpredictable pathways that my master chooses to take.

He also uses the metaphor of temperature, that translator’s styles fall somewhere on a tic of a thermometer between hot and cold. He considers himself a “hot” translator, meaning that he likes to take quite a few liberties with the original text to make it more interesting. The problem this presents of course is that his idea of what is “hot” is subjective and could be construed as not adhering to the authorial vision. For instance, he makes a comparison between his translation of a passage to Robert Westhoff’s translation (Westhoff was Sagan’s lover):

In Chapter 13, Lucile is replying with indignation to a question Antoine has asked her. She thinks the answer is self-evident, and where Sagan has her say, “Bien entendu” (meaning literally “of course”), Westhoff has her say, “Of course.” That’s fair enough. My first inclination, however, was to go much further than this—namely, “Well, what do you think—is the Pope Catholic?” Once again, though, some little voice inside me protested, for two reasons. One is that what Lucile actually said in French was much shorter and simpler than this sarcastic retort, and the other is that the rhetorical question “Is the Pope Catholic?” might sound too American. I don’t quite know why that would be, since popes and Catholics are hardly limited to America, but perhaps there’s a down-home American sense of humor lurking inside that remark, and perhaps it’s that hidden flavor that sounds a bit un-French. In any case, none of my friends who read this phrase thought it belonged in Lucile’s mouth, and so I threw it out and settle for just, “Well, what do you think?”, and as I did so, my translation temperature fell from 100° to 75°.

Hofstadter relinquishes his degrees to a more appeasing temperature for readers, but it seems evident to me that Lucile would never use that phrase. I am even more confounded that he seems confused as to its American-ness. It’s not a question of him turning the heat down on his translation, but the fact that he thinks that is “hot.” Any novelist tries to avoid clichés, even in dialogue, and imagining that this is even in the realm of liberal translation is befuddling. Sagan didn’t use an equivalent French idiom, so why would Hofstadter? And therein lies the difference in schools of translation and begs the question “How faithful is the translator to the text?”

Then there is the matter of Hofstadter comparing his translation to the original by Robert Westhoff. Hofstadter states in the beginning of the essay that he didn’t want to read the translation until he was finished with his translation because he didn’t want it to “contaminate” his version. I admire this noble tenet of the profession of translation. But in the end, Hofstadter compares his translation to Westhoff’s and comes out with the self-approving conclusion that his is better than the original, or at least “hotter.” Although as a reader, I felt that the more restrained style of Westhoff was closer to Sagan’s style and also closer to the French sensibility in fiction. Even while I was reading the novel, there were phrases that I questioned as because they seemed inordinate in comparison to Sagan’s style. Phrases like “rolling in dough” or “you’re no Rocker-boy” felt jarring and unfaithful to the text.

Although the essay is thought-provoking and interesting to read, it is not completely satisfying and it leaves the reader questioning the translator’s efforts as opposed to regaling them. This is not to say that it not worthwhile either, but one hundred pages given to a translator is unheard of, and Hofstadter could have easily edited to fifty pages to tighten up the message. One last final note about the translation—there are several phrases he chooses to keep in French and this is indicated through italics. In one passage, he italicizes the word “brasserie” which is not only insulting, but also blatant. Although most readers may not speak French, I find it difficult to imagine them not ever encountering the word or at minimum being able to gather that from the context of the sentence.

This is a valiant effort by Sagan and Hofstadter, but ultimately it falls short of its own goal and readers expectations.

18 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I believe that The Naked Eye (translated by Susan Bernofsky from the German and published by New Directions) is the fourth of Yoko Tawada’s works to make their way into English. Kodandsha did The Bridegroom Was a Dog back in 1998 (this was translated just from the Japanese), and New Directions did Where Europe Begins in 2002 (originally written in both German and Japanese) and also brought out Facing the Bridge in 2007.

Monica Carter—curator of Salonica World Lit and the literary journal E.Lire, and bookseller at Skylight Books in L.A.—wrote this review of her latest book, which is centered around the movies of Catherine Deneuve, and doesn’t sound quite as good as Tawada’s earlier works.

This is how Anh Nguyet the protagonist of The Naked Eye describes her world of escapism through the movies, and only Catherine Deneuve movies to be exact. Although I myself have an affinity for the beautiful icon of French cinema myself, it is nothing compared to our young Vietnamese narrator who seems only to experience and understand life through the world of Deneuve’s oeuvre. Tawada takes us through Anh’s story in thirteen chapters, each titled after a different Deneuve movie. And it’s not just about Deneuve, her movies serve as vehicle for all the other things that seem to be happening in novel—escapism, allegorical references to communism, kidnapping, subjugation, sexual ambiguity and a fair amount of resigned desperation.

All of this seems like the ideal makings for an engaging and original read, and at times, it is. But what plagues this novel from the beginning is the lack of emotional engagement by the narrator. Anh, who is still in high school and the best in her school at speaking Russian, is handpicked to attend the International Youth Conference in Berlin to deliver a paper she wrote in Russian entitled, “Vietnam as a Victim of American Imperialism.” Within the first ten pages she is kidnapped by a German student who plies her with vodka and then takes to his apartment in Bochum, which is six hours away from Berlin. Anh says that she wants to go home, but Jörg, her captor, tells her she is pregnant with his child. They become lovers and she waits in his apartment all day long for him to come home. She writes a letter to her family saying she has been offered a scholarship and that is why she is not coming home. What is strange is that there is no sense of urgency for Anh to get home. Finally, she learns one night on a double date with Jörg that there is a train that stops in Bochum on its way to Moscow. She finds the train and ends up in Paris where she spends the next six years of her life.

For the complete review, click here.

18 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

My cinema was a “Ma,” she wrapped me in her mucous membranes. She shielded me from the sun, from the force of visibility. Life was being played out on the screen, a life before death. People fought there, or else slept together. They cried and sweated, and the screen remained dry. The cinema, its stage, had no depth, but it did have its own light source.

This is how Anh Nguyet the protagonist of The Naked Eye describes her world of escapism through the movies, and only Catherine Deneuve movies to be exact. Although I myself have an affinity for the beautiful icon of French cinema myself, it is nothing compared to our young Vietnamese narrator who seems only to experience and understand life through the world of Deneuve’s oeuvre. Tawada takes us through Anh’s story in thirteen chapters, each titled after a different Deneuve movie. And it’s not just about Deneuve, her movies serve as vehicle for all the other things that seem to be happening in novel—escapism, allegorical references to communism, kidnapping, subjugation, sexual ambiguity and a fair amount of resigned desperation.

All of this seems like the ideal makings for an engaging and original read, and at times, it is. But what plagues this novel from the beginning is the lack of emotional engagement by the narrator. Anh, who is still in high school and the best in her school at speaking Russian, is handpicked to attend the International Youth Conference in Berlin to deliver a paper she wrote in Russian entitled, “Vietnam as a Victim of American Imperialism.” Within the first ten pages she is kidnapped by a German student who plies her with vodka and then takes to his apartment in Bochum, which is six hours away from Berlin. Anh says that she wants to go home, but Jörg, her captor, tells her she is pregnant with his child. They become lovers and she waits in his apartment all day long for him to come home. She writes a letter to her family saying she has been offered a scholarship and that is why she is not coming home. What is strange is that there is no sense of urgency for Anh to get home. Finally, she learns one night on a double date with Jörg that there is a train that stops in Bochum on its way to Moscow. She finds the train and ends up in Paris where she spends the next six years of her life.

She meets a blond prostitute, Marie, in the chapter entitled, “Zig Zig.” She has a brief sexual encounter with her but they end up living together. Anh spends her days reading old issues of Ecran magazine looking for anything relating to Catherine Deneuve. She has no job and does not go out in the sunlight. She merely survives with Marie:

Marie was not an abductor, she was my protector. She protected me by ignoring me. She acted as if she were unable to see me, or as if I were a wildflower that just happened to be growing in her garden. If only I’d been able to exchange a few words with her. I couldn’t understand her language, and she even seemed to be withholding it from me.

Clearly, there is desire on Anh’s part to communicate, but she never makes that commitment. She wanders the streets and goes to Catherine Deneuve movies. Once while she is line, a fellow Vietnamese woman that she met on the train to Paris recognizes her. Anh is ‘mesmerized’ by her melodic way of talking and decides to go stay with Ai Van and her French, much older husband, Jean. She leaves Marie without a word and stays on the couch of the couple. She watches them come and go and goes to the movies. Exasperated by Anh’s lack of initiative, Ai Van tells her there is a job available with a Chinese doctor that will use her skin for cosmetic experiments. Anh obliges without a struggle and Tawada compares this to Deneuve’s vampire role in Hunger. Other than the comparison and the synopsis of the plot by Tawada, the parallels of Anh and Deneuve’s movies are not drawn well enough. It becomes merely a plot synopsis of each movie and less and less about Anh. Maybe this is intentional, but it is disturbing as well. I felt, as a reader, that I was waiting for a reaction from Anh—to life, her situation, her loss. But she drifts and the only thing Tawada gives us is a rundown of Deneuve’s movies, as if Anh is struggling with cinematic autism. Although this does add to the power of Anh’s escapism, it doesn’t give us much more. As if we are constantly seeing someone in the throes of addiction, but never seeking help.

Towards the end, we do see Anh show frustration with her inability to live any life outside of Catherine Deneuve’s various screen roles:

“Get out of here!” I say to the cinematographic currents trying to carry me off with it. Leave me alone. I don’t want to be carried off. But it was difficult to maintain a distance from the images. They swept me away with them, wanting to drown me. Why was I, a free human being, not allowed to turn off the images when I wished or a t least correct them? I wished to experience boredom, for this I would at least entail the individual freedom not to take part. If I fell asleep in my seat, the film would have been better for me. I had to remain awake, though, to wait for you.

Anh has the ability to recognize her obsession, but this is towards the end of the novel and the reader gets no hints of her self-awareness before this. Even despite her obsession, she manages to befriend a man, Charles, who introduces her to a Vietnamese emigré, Tuong Linh. Tuong Linh is a surgeon. Anh ends up living with him even though she is in love with Charles. Tuong Linh insists that she go to language school but she avoids his inquiries whenever the topic is mentioned. But in order to do this he decides to marry her so she can get a visa. She obtains a fake passport from one of Tuong Linh’s friends and is arrested. Tuong Linh is well on his way to Thailand, with no idea of Anh’s arrest. When she is released, she ends up at Marie’s apartment and almost doesn’t recognize her because Marie had aged so much in six years. Which brings us to Les voleurs which star Catherine Deneuve as another character named Marie who is now a middle-aged professor having a lesbian affair with one of her students. She stays with Marie, again in poverty, and ends up through circuitous ties, with Jörg. She returns to Bochum and lives with Jörg. But she is back to where she was in the beginning of the novel. The last chapter is entitled, “Dancer in the Dark,” and is a plot synopsis of the movie which leaves the reader wondering too much about what Anh ever really wanted and where if anywhere, she will go to find herself.

One of the things I did find most interesting about Tawada’s novel is the appearance of communism and the sense of government as mother. From the onset, Anh is devoutly Communist. And throughout there are running themes of class division, the cinema being compared to her motherland as protector and a dialogue and metaphors about liberty and freedom. Anh adheres to the concepts of Communism in her beliefs, but becomes totally oblivious to the present day changes that Communism has endured and its weakening grasp on the world.

I wanted very much to love this novel, but ultimately had too many unanswered questions were presented to the reader and like Anh felt like I was watching a narrator act like she was in a book, but never fully present. And one note on the translation—parts of the novel were written in German and parts were written in Japanese and then translated by Tawada into both languages. The extremely capable Susan Bernofsky translated it from the German. When I encountered phrases that seemed out of character for Anh or sudden strong phrases that were an anomaly to her narrative voice, I wasn’t sure whose translation that fell on or if that was an authorial choice. Regardless, it was jarring and it interrupted the generally low key and fluid narrative.

I hope we can read more of Tawada’s work in the future because it is so intriguing—ones without such a narrow conceit. I have watched as many Catherine Deneuve movies as possible and felt that if I hadn’t, I don’t know where I would’ve been as a reader approaching this novel? Too much rests on the magic of Catherine Deneuve and not enough on the author. As the French say, “Quel dommage!”

29 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, translated from the German by Michael Hoffmann and published by Melville House earlier this year, has been receiving a ton of good attention, such as this review in the New Yorker and this bit for the daily Very Short List e-mail.

Never before published in English, this novel is a perfect example of what we miss (or almost miss) by living in a book culture that translates so little.

Monica Carter—who works at Skylight Books and runs the always excellent Salonica World Lit website—penned this glowing review, which begins with a bit about Fallada’s crazy life:

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

For the rest of the review, click here.

29 April 09 | Chad W. Post |

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

30 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Monica Carter’s piece on Mr Dick or The Tenth Book is the latest addition to our review section.

In addition to checking our Monica’s review, I’d also recommend checking out her recently redesigned web publication Salonica World Lit. Included in this redesign—which looks great—is an announcement about E. Lire an online literary journal she’s launching that will include translated works of fiction, poetry, essays, and literary criticism. Click the link above for more details.

Mr Dick is French bookseller Jean-Pierre Ohl’s debut novel and was released by Dedalus Books earlier this year. Translated from the French by Christine Donougher, the book has received some nice attention in the UK, including this interview with the author.

Monica’s review confirms that this is an interesting book worth checking out:

Jean-Pierre Ohl has written a novel that is at once a curious and adept mix of homage to Charles Dickens, send-up of literary scholarship, and mystery. Generally, I’m leery of books based on literary figures or borrowing heavily from a previous book to bolster a premise, but Mr. Ohl, a bookseller from Bordeaux, France, manages to rise above the common pitfalls of not only a first novel, but of other devices used when one exploits a classic text. Mr Dick or the Tenth Book is inspiring and challenging with its eclectic mix of narrators—François Daumal, the down-trodden boy turned seemingly failed scholar who is obsessed with Dickens, Évariste Borel whose journal tells of his time spent with Dickens during his final days, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s account of a séance where Wilkie Collins and Robert Louis Stevenson are present to contact the spirit of Dickens himself—that keep us guessing even when we are not sure what we are guessing about. . . .

Click here for the rest of the review.

27 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Jean-Pierre Ohl has written a novel that is at once a curious and adept mix of homage to Charles Dickens, send-up of literary scholarship, and mystery. . .

Read More...

20 February 09 | Chad W. Post |

Olivier Pauvert’s Noir — his first and only novel to date — brings nihilism, amorality, and fascism to a dystopian nightmare that manages to make the city of Paris seem less than pleasurable, and even downright frightening. . .

Read More...

13 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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



The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, translated from the French by Alison Anderson. (France, Europa Editions)

Based in part on choice editorial selections and in part on savvy marketing, Europa Editions has a knack for building huge audiences for their translations. And the independent stores love them. Love them so much in fact that Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog landed on the independent booksellers bestseller list.

Doesn’t hurt that this book has been getting reviewed everywhere.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a very approachable, engaging book featuring two bookishly intelligent characters: Renée Michel, an aging concierge who hides her intellectual pursuits from all of the residents of the swanky apartment building where she works, and Paloma Josse, a precocious twelve-year-old who has decided to kill herself.

In alternating chapters, Barbery (and by extension, her excellent translator Alison Anderson, who does a marvelous job capturing the voices of these characters) gives life to these two characters, allowing the reader to be fully immersed into the character’s head and various psychological issues. This sample is a good example of the tone, and subject of the book.

Monica Carter reviewed this for us, and touches on this novel’s wide appeal:

Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, her sophomore effort after a well-received debut Une Gourmandaise (The Craving), is the perfect introductory foray into those neophytes who consider the world of translated fiction intimidating. It is erudite while being accessible, intellectual as well as sweet, stylistic without pandering to the reader. And all this would seemingly make for a perfect novel that has not only sold well in Barbery’s native France, but also will sell well here in the United States. If you are looking for prototypes of “commercial novel,” look no further than this. [. . .]

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is written in an educated, sophisticated yet casual style with philosophical permeations throughout the novel. The philosophical presence is not inherent in either of the narrator’s points-of-view, as in many French novels, but it is used as more of a literary accessory for both Renée and Paloma—something to demonstrate an element of their character. Because it is a commercial novel, the lack of philosophical depth is overshadowed by Barbery’s statement on French society and the novel’s sentimentality. Ultimately, the reader connects with Renée and wants her to be valued and loved by an intellectual compatriot and the reader also wants her to recognize her self-worth regardless of her station in life.

In addition to the sample I linked to above, the Europa page for this book also includes a short interview with Barbery:

Your concierge, on the other hand, is an expert on Tolstoy, but also on philosophy. And even the teenaged Paloma, in her own way, expresses a propensity for abstract speculation.

MB: I followed a long, boring course of studies in philosophy. I expected it to help me understand better that which surrounds me: but it didn’t work out that way. Literature has taught me more. I was interested in exploring the bearing philosophy could really have on one’s life, and how. I wanted to illuminate this process. That’s where the desire to anchor philosophy to a story, a work of fiction, was born: to give it more meaning, make it more physically real, and render it, perhaps, even entertaining.

In this novel, erudite citations are side by side with references to comic books or the movies, and not just art house movies but commercial blockbusters.

MB: Like my characters, I ask myself: what do I like, what moves me? A good novel, of course, but also the brilliant manga of Taniguchi. Or a film made well and made purely for entertainment. Why deny oneself these things? I am not afraid of eclecticism.

9 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

It’s an all-Hungarian, all-Karinthy day . . .

Our latest review (already referenced in my earlier post) is of Ferenc Karinthy’s Metropole.

Monica Carter—who runs Salonica World Lit, sells books at Skylight in L.A., and is on the Best Translated Book Award committee—wrote the review of this Kafka-esque tale of a linguist stuck in a country where he doesn’t understand the language and can’t figure out how to escape.

Reading Ferenc Karinthy’s Metropole is like being lost in someone else’s nightmare where there are no exits. Karinthy creates an existential version of hell, stunning the reader not by blatant displays of horrifying circumstances, but by a gradual series of small failures that defeat and degrade the narrator and the reader. The narrator, Budai, takes the wrong door at the transit lounge and instead of going to Helsinki for a linguistics conference his final destination is an unknown city with an unknown language, an unknown nightmare.

Karinthy gives us no reprieve from the beginning. Budai is dropped off at an overcrowded hotel where, after he realizes he is not in Helsinki, decides that he will stay there until the next morning when he can go to the airport to catch a flight to Helsinki. And that’s when the never-ending lines begin. We wait with Budai in a long line until he finally reaches the ticket counter. After attempts to communicate with the receptionist in several languages—French, English, Finnish, Russian and German—he receives a room key after sacrificing his passport. And to another line we go with Budai, this time for the elevator. He spots a sign on the wall, written in the native language, that he attempts to find an identifying factor between this language and others—Cyrillic, Arabic, Chinese and Latin, but without any success. [Click here for the rest.]

9 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Reading Ferenc Karinthy’s Metropole is like being lost in someone else’s nightmare where there are no exits. Karinthy creates an existential version of hell, stunning the reader not by blatant displays of horrifying circumstances, but by a gradual series of small failures that defeat and degrade the narrator and the reader. . .

Read More...

2 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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



I’d Like by Amanda Michalopoulou, translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich. (Greece, Dalkey Archive)

For me, this collection of linked stories (or collection of unwritten novels? or metafictional labyrinth?) has been the most pleasant surprise on the Best Translated Book fiction longlist so far.

Back a few years ago, when I was working at Dalkey Archive, I wrote the grant application that got this book a decent amount of funding from the NEA and Greek Government as part of the “International Literary Exchange” program that Dana Gioia of the NEA had put together. Anyway, at that time, Ana Lucic had found out about Amanda Michalopoulou and was able to give me a reader’s report and a short sample of the book to help with writing the grant. (In case you’re wondering, it’s great fun writing grants about books you haven’t read in their entirety. On one hand, providing details about why a book is grant-worthy becomes a bit more tricky, but it’s easier to believe that a book is “one of the most important works of the time” without any contradictory literal evidence.)

The sample that I remember reading is the story “What Will You Do Next?” in which a character and his author have a conversation on the phone. It’s a very playful, and very well done story, that got me excited about the book as a whole. (And btw, Karen Emmerich’s translation was incredibly well done. The Emmerich family is a wee bit talented.) But I left Dalkey before the finished translation arrived and over the winter break, finally had a chance to read this book and see just how imaginative, captivating, and complex it is.

When I read “linked stories” in jacket copy, I assume that some of the same characters appear from one story to the next. A baker in story one becomes the protagonist of story four, etc. But I’d Like is a bit more complicated than that. In her own words, Michalopoulou tried “to write stories that would read like versions of an unwritten novel. Or, better, to write the biography of those stories as well as their fictional writer.”

The result is somewhat reminiscent of Nicholas Mosley’s Impossible Object in which a character in one story seems to the be author of a few others, but each time the reader feels she’s figured it all out, the line between fiction and reality jumps once again, and you’re left wondering just how these gem-like stories really fit together.

I’m probably making this sound more confusing than it is . . . Part of Michalopoulou’s triumph is the way in which each story can be read and thoroughly enjoyed independent of the others, but the motifs littered throughout the book help create a sort of grand mosaic when taken as a whole. And it’s through these recurring lines and scenes—the older sister who dies in a car accident, the mom who is tragically injured, the idea that rain only exists inside us and we see it externally when it’s “raining for enough people,” the red beret, etc.—that the reader starts to see a knotted metafictional pattern emerge.

Monica Carter (curator of Salonica World Lit) reviewed this for us a few months back and called for publishers to bring out more of Michalopoulou’s work . . . More recently, Monica interviewed Michalopoulou for Context that touches on the “recurring motif” aspect of the book (and other things):

MC: It’s interesting that you felt you need to strengthen the presence of the red beret. I loved its appearance throughout I’d Like. I also felt that there was a definite drive to communicate certain ideas and themes, as though these stories were a form of release. Were you conscious of that, or was it more of an exploration of each character?

AM: It was both. Characters are the vehicles of ideas, but they have to work as characters. If not, you’re writing theory, not literature. The idea behind the characters in this book is that family can be a mechanism of oppression. I guess all my characters feel very clearly that they are obeying other people’s wishes. Writing can be a true act of disobedience, so the desire the younger sister has to write these stories down is a step towards salvation. I believe that writing can and should do that: save characters who are suffering, and, possibly, their author as well.

2 December 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We just posted a review by Monica Carter of Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Europa Editions), translated from the French by Alison Anderson.

Monica works at Skylight Books in Los Angeles, and runs the phenomenal blog Salonica — Exploit. Explore. Examine., which is dedicated to international literature. She recently visited Paris, and has a series of posts reviewing Parisian books (including Toussaint’s The Bathroom, Fabre’s The Waitress Was New, Bouillier’s The Mystery Guest, and Queneau’s _The Last Days). Definitely worth checking out on a daily basis. . . .

Well, in terms of the review of Barbery’s novel, here’s the opening of Monica’s review:

Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, her sophomore effort after a well-received debut Une Gourmandaise (The Craving), is the perfect introductory foray into those neophytes who consider the world of translated fiction intimidating. It is erudite while being accessible, intellectual as well as sweet, stylistic without pandering to the reader. And all this would seemingly make for a perfect novel that has not only sold well in Barbery’s native France, but also will sell well here in the United States. If you are looking for prototypes of “commercial novel,” look no further than this. [Click here for the rest.]

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

Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, her sophomore effort after a well-received debut Une Gourmandaise (The Craving), is the perfect introductory foray into those neophytes who consider the world of translated fiction intimidating. It is erudite while being accessible, intellectual as well as sweet, stylistic without pandering to the reader. And all this would seemingly make for a perfect novel that has not only sold well in Barbery’s native France, but also will sell well here in the United States. If you are looking for prototypes of “commercial novel,” look no further than this.

Barbery introduces not one, but two narrators that are both extremely intelligent and coincidentally reside in the same building at 7, rue de Grenelle (that’s the Left Bank, for those of you not in the Parisian geographical know). First we meet Renée Michel, the fifty-four self-described unattractive but autodidactic concierge who hides her intelligence from the privileged and oblivious tenants of her building. Then we meet Paloma Josse, a precocious twelve-year-old genius who lives with her family on the second floor and despises their wealth and petty distractions of upper-class French society. Driven to fatalism by her inane family and their motives as rich buffoons, and also by the idea of her dismal future which is due only to “all this good fortune and all this wealth,” Paloma decides that the only thing to do on her thirteenth birthday is kill herself and set fire to the apartment which her family loves so dearly. Quite a dour outlook for a twelve year-old who is “supersmart and gifted in her studies and different from everyone else.” So we have alternating über-intelligent narrators that are disregarded by the preoccupied wealthy inhabitants of the building. But Barbery has the narrators present themselves as stereotypes, so as to not be suspected of fulfilling any expectations, as we witness early on in the novel with Renée:

Because I am rarely friendly—though always polite—I am not liked, but am tolerated nonetheless: I correspond so very well to what social prejudice has collectively construed to be a typical French concierge that I am one of the multiple cogs that make the great universal illusion turn, the illusion according to which life has a meaning that can be easily deciphered. And since it has been written somewhere that concierges are old, ugly and sour, so it has been branded in fiery letters on the pediment of that same imbecilic firmament that the aforementioned concierges have rather large dithering cats who sleep all day on cushions that have been covered in crochet cases.

And similarly with Paloma:

Well, the fact is I am very intelligent. Exceptionally intelligent, in fact. Even now, if you look at children my age, there’s an abyss. And since I don’t really want to stand out, and since intelligence is very highly rated in my family—an exceptionally gifted child would never have a moment’s peace—I try to scale back my performance at school, but even so I always come first. You might think that to pretend to be simply of average intelligence when you are twelve years old like me and have the level of a senior college is easy. Well, not at all. It really takes an effort to appear stupider than you are.

And while Renée and Paloma try to appear as French stereotypes, what becomes the most stereotypical is Barbery’s flat, broad representation of “the rich” whose presence is merely to provide an unlikeable nemesis for our two narrators. Perhaps it is necessary to understand the nuances of Parisian classism, but the self-consumed wealthy elitist is known in all societies and gives us a hollow, stock cliché that isn’t quite believable. It serves Renée’s character better than Paloma’s—precisely because there is a class difference, which is deftly handled when Renée remembers her husband’s passing:

Lucien’s illness didn’t strike anyone as being worthy of interest. To reach people it must seem that the hoi polloi—perhaps because their lives are more rarified, deprived of the oxygen of money and savoir-faire—experience human emotions with less intensity and greater indifference. Since we were concierges, it was given that death, for us, must be a matter of course, whereas for our privileged neighbors it carried all the weight of injustice and drama. The death of a concierge leaves a slight indentation on everyday life, belongs to a biological certainty that has nothing tragic about it and, for the apartment owners who encountered him everyday in the stairs or at the door to our loge, Lucien was a nonentity who was merely returning to a nothingness from which he had never emerged, a creature who, because he had lived only half a life, with neither luxury or artifice, must at the moment of his death have felt no more than a shudder of revolt.

Whereas with Paloma doesn’t appreciate her parents, which makes her seem as vacuous and narcissistic as, ahem, a stereotypical rich person:

My parents are rich, my family is rich and my sister and I are, therefore, as good as rich. My father is a parliamentarian and before that he was a minister: no doubt he’ll end up in the top spot, emptying out the wine cellar of the residence at the Hôtel de Lassay. As for my mother…Well, my mother isn’t exactly a genius but she is educated. She has a Ph.D. in literature. She writes her dinner invitations without mistakes and spends her time bombarding us with literary references . . .

We find Paloma less likeable and sustentative than Renée, making her role as narrator underdeveloped, which also renders the narrative uneven. Paloma does give us some glimpses of wit and depth with her notebook divided into two parts entitled Profound Thoughts and Journal of the Movement of the World. Even so, the reader does get the sense she enjoys normal adolescent interests like Manga. But the novel truly belongs to Renée who reads Husserl, loves American blockbusters, the Japanese director Ozu, and her best friend, the maid Manuela. We learn of Renée’s insecurities about class difference and her fear of presenting herself as a smart, well-read person with provocative and valid opinions.

What disrupts the complacent musings of Paloma and Madame Michel is the death of a resident and the arrival of a new tenant, Kakuro Ozu. Enter the Eastern panacea for our narrators’ philosophical despair and loathing of Western wealth and social prejudices.

Finally, someone besides the reader to recognize Renée’s intellectual value and Paloma’s mental acuity and to satisfy both of their Japanese fixations. This is where the novel turns a bit mawkish and predictable. We like what Kakuro represents—a nice, intelligent person who seeks out other nice, intelligent people—and that he presents himself as person who actually likes Renée despite his own wealth and her lack of it. And for Paloma, Kakuro becomes what her parents cannot, a positive role model with money.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is written in an educated, sophisticated yet casual style with philosophical permeations throughout the novel. The philosophical presence is not inherent in either of the narrator’s points-of-view, as in many French novels, but it is used as more of a literary accessory for both Renée and Paloma—something to demonstrate an element of their character. Because it is a commercial novel, the lack of philosophical depth is overshadowed by Barbery’s statement on French society and the novel’s sentimentality. Ultimately, the reader connects with Renée and wants her to be valued and loved by an intellectual compatriot and the reader also wants her to recognize her self-worth regardless of her station in life.

There is a surprise towards the end that is done well by Barbery. Oddly, this denouement has the perfect amount of nostalgia, avoiding a saccharine and worn ending. Alison Anderson’s translation is capable, though quite literal. Having achieved “commercial success” makes this a fun and engaging read and the perfect introduction to the world of modern translated literature.

24 October 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Our latest review is of Pierre Michon’s Small Lives, which was recently published by Archipelago Books.

Frequent reviewer Monica Carter wrote this piece, which opens:

One of the signs of a great book is that the reader feels like she is reading a great book. From the very first sentence, she knows a question has been answered, a new world has been discovered, an intellectual delicacy has been offered up to savor and more than likely, her life of reading will never be the same. It has been changed by the indelible mark of book that our memory will not let escape. She senses that she is reading literature as it is intended to be. In Small Lives by French author Pierre Michon, not only are we aware that we are reading great literature, but we have the privilege to accompany him on this journey in which he discovers the voice and style that make this an outstanding work of depth, substance and originality.

Click here for the rest.

24 October 08 | Chad W. Post |

One of the signs of a great book is that the reader feels like she is reading a great book. From the very first sentence, she knows a question has been answered, a new world has been discovered, an intellectual delicacy has been offered up to savor and more than likely, her life of reading will never be the same. It has been changed by the indelible mark of book that our memory will not let escape. She senses that she is reading literature as it is intended to be. In Small Lives by French author Pierre Michon, not only are we aware that we are reading great literature, but we have the privilege to accompany him on this journey in which he discovers the voice and style that make this an outstanding work of depth, substance and originality.

France has long recognized the talents of Mr. Michon and his lyrical style—he has been awarded many of France’s top literature prizes for his works including the Prix Décembre, Grand Prix SGDL de literature, the Prix Louis Guilloux, and the Prix de la Ville de Paris. Similar to the recent Nobel Prize winning Le Clézio, Michon is regarded as one of France’s best contemporary authors. Yet, no matter how many prizes he has garnered in his literary career, nothing takes away from the poetic, dense prose that expose the nuances of French rural life in this framework of eight short stories in which Michon illuminates the hazy shadows of humanity.

These stories are imbued with a sense of loss, the bittersweet schism between what is and what could have been, a constant search for the roots of identity in a family history, and the reassurance of place. Like in the first story, “The Life of Andre Dufourneau,” in which the young boy as writer looks at a worn picture of Andre Dufourneau, the adventurous son from long ago who never returned:

Come now, admit it, he really resembles a writer. There is a portrait of a young Faulkner, a small man like him, in which I recognize the same haughty yet drowsy air, the eyes heavy but with an ominous, but flashing gravity, and under the ink-black moustache formerly used to hide the coarseness of the lip, alive like the din silenced by the spoken word, the same bitter mouth that prefers to smile. He moves away from the deck, stretches out on his berth, and there he writes the thousand novels out of which the future is made and which the future unmakes; he is living the fullest days of his life. The clock of rolling waves disguises the hours, time passes and place changes, Dufourneau is as alive as the stuff of his dreams; he has been dead a long time; I am not yet abandoning his shadow.

And although Michon follows the lives of people from the small village of Creuse, they don’t live simple lives nor are they simple people. Michon gives us the simultaneous struggle of emotions deftly and with the clarity of an epiphany. In “The Lives of Eugène and Clara,” we feel the guilt and shame of a grandson who attempts to rise above instinct when he meets with his grandfather whom he does not truly love:

Though, at the time, when I saw him, that was not what I thought; his illuminated sorry face—more broken than King Lear’s than clown’s, drunken old soldier, all shame drowned—his big red nose, his hands just as big and red, the incredible folds in his doggy eyelids, his croaking voice, all made me want to laugh—the laugh of the nervous child, which is a way of reversing the tragedy, of denying the unease. I reproached myself for that secret desire. To look dubiously, even ironically, upon “someone I should have loved,” to harbor that improper thought: “my grandfather is very ugly,” seemed to me a fault of the most serious nature; without a doubt, the faculty for such impious speculations belonged to “monsters,” and to them alone; was I, therefore, a monster? Immediately, I promised myself to love him better; and with that promise—the internal drama in which one plays all the roles is the emotional leaven of the so-called tender years—waves of affection for the poor old fellow washed over me again. My eyes misted with the sweet tears of atonement, and I would have liked to follow through the manifest acts of kindness; I do not know if I dared to do so at the time.

The mistrust of parents, grandparents and elders is a theme that presents itself in each story, sometimes prominently, sometimes faintly. Michon’s father disappeared when he was young and it is no wonder that, as a reader, we feel the parental figures are distant and austere, people to leave behind. Later, the act of “writing” becomes the ultimate father figure that is manipulative and unforgiving, leaving the narrator lonely and wandering, hoping to be assuaged by the figurative fatherly savior known as “Writing” in “The Life of Georges Bandy”:

This naïveté had its reverse side of twisted greed; I wanted the martyr’s wounds and his salvation, the saint’s vision, but I also wanted the crook and miter that impose silence, the Episcopal word that drowns even the word of kings. If Writing was given to me, I thought, it would give me everything. Dulled by this belief, absent in the absence of my God, I sank deeper each day into impotence and anger, those two jaws of the vise that holds in its grip the howling demand.
bq. And, turn the screw redoubling the grip, necessary sidekick and voyeur of the infernal tortures, doubt arrives in its turn, wresting me from the torment of my vain belief to inflict an even darker agony, saying to me, “If Writing is given to you, it will give you nothing.”

It is no wonder that one of the two translators is a poet—his prose reads like verse and the translation is honors his style. It is difficult to point out specific passages that typify Michon’s rich imagery or the way he paints the poetry of human nature because there are just too many. The writing is layered and poignant and it is where we find the complex in simplicity and the beauty in loss. Michon has allowed us to see this in lives that are no smaller than our own.

27 August 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments [4]

Yesterday’s post about how to dismiss translations caused a good deal of discussion in the comments section, ranging from Monica’s question about whether other cultures have this same authenticity/accuracy/I-can’t-judge-without-knowing-the-original language issues (I doubt it, but would love to hear from international readers about this) to Paul Verhaeghen’s spot-on critique about how all culture is translation and that these issues don’t come up in regard to music or visual arts.

There’s also a comment from Dan Green (the inspiration behind the initial post) reiterating that in addition to wanting more translations, he also wants more informed critics writing about these books (I totally agree). He also responded to part of my argument about treating the book as a book rather than questioning it’s accuracy, etc.:

“If you don’t think a part of a translation is up to snuff, point out what you don’t like about it.”

But how am I to know what’s not up to snuff in the translation itself if I don’t have the ability to judge it against the original?

(I do want to point out one thing here—I think Paul Verhaeghen’s amazing Omega Minor is a book that Dan can review, since Verhaeghen wrote it in Flemish, but also translated it into English. That said, the Dalkey version is not exactly the same as the original . . . )

My belief is that you simply have to treat the book as it is. A translation isn’t the same as the original, and can be/should be evaluated on its own terms. If a sentence is poorly written, or a chapter overly muddy, it’s a moot point to debate if this was the fault of the translator or author. It’s part of the book as it exists in translation and can be criticized as such.

The real reason I’m writing this today though is because his comment reminded me of a response Michael Emmerich gave in a recent interview in Calque. The interviewer asked, “what distinguishes a good translation from a poor one?”

The reader. This sounds like another dodge, I know. But that’s the best answer. Unless we’re talking about a particular translation, and considering it in relation to the context within which it came into being, trying to determine how well it meets the needs it was designed to meet. [. . .] We tend to assume, for instance, that readers who are able to compare a translation with the work that inspired it are best equipped—are perhaps the only ones equipped—to judge its merits. And yet translations aren’t designed to meet the needs of readers who . . . I can’t think how to say this without slipping into tautology . . . who don’t need a translation.

To tell the truth, I suspect that readers who can compare translations and originals actually tend to be worse judges of the quality of a translation than people who are unable to read the original. [. . .]

Of course, readers who can access both the original and the translation are able to find obvious mistakes, and that’s something only they can do, and that can be important. But surely that’s not what we mean when we ask what distinguishes good translations from bad? We’re interested in something that runs deeper, I would hope—not something so superficial that any old multilingual reader can come along and point it out after a hasty comparison of the two texts. [. . .]

19 August 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Our latest review is of Amanda Michalopoulou’s I’d Like, a collection of intertwined short stories translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich that was part of this year’s Reading the World program.

The review is by Monica Carter—bookseller at Sklyight Books and proprietor of Salonica World Lit.

19 August 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments [3]

A master of metafictional writing reminiscent of the French nouveau roman writers of the ’50s and in particular Marguerite Duras, Greece’s Amanda Michalopoulou invites us to view the world of one story presented through a prismatic lens of all its characters in I’d Like, a collection of thirteen gritty and poignant short stories.

I’d like . . . to know why there isn’t more of Amanda Michalopoulou’s work translated into English. Having just finished this collection, I am left with an unsated craving. The kind of craving that has a hope of being satisfied in the near future, but until then, I must content with “A Slight, Controlled Unease.” This is the title of the second short story in Michalopoulou’s collection, which focuses on a writer struggling with herself to write a short story:

The sun disappearing behind the clouds, the outdoor space heaters, the first drops of rain falling on the awning—they all heighten the impression that everything is happening both inside and out. In my heart and in the street. Why else would it start to rain just when I can no longer hold everything in? These parallels make me feel a slight, controlled unease.

And that’s what Michalopoulou accomplishes—showing us things, people and situations inside and out. In this story we see a writer lamenting her own ability as she reacts to passages she has just written. The next story, “Pointe,” begins with a passage the main character wrote in the second story and delivers to us the finished short story. This may seem confusing at first, rendering a sense of literary vertigo, but the nuance and precision of voice and character make the reader feel acclimated immediately. One story metamorphosizes into the next and it’s up to the reader to figure out how. Frankly, I like this kind of challenge. Micahlopoulou doesn’t underestimate the reader. Instead, she expects us to participate as a reader and make us aware of the relationship between writer and reader. As a reader, I always felt Michalopoulou was in control and totally aware of my presence, even winking at me in “Dad and Childhood” where the main character remembers going to a child psychologist who encourages her to read:

I like short stories best. They’re written on a more human scale. Novels seem like desperate attempts at control, and poems like attempts at grandeur. Essays I can write myself, if necessary.

Part of the allure of I’d Like is Michalopoulou’s ability to shift a character from a self-reflective nostalgia to the grittiness of the present. These characters have nowhere to hide whether in one story they are a lover and the next they are a sister and the next they are a mother. In the title story, “I’d Like,” the wife of a writer yearns to have the inspiration as a painter she once had:

Do you remember how insatiably I used to paint? I devoured the paper, chewed on my brushes. My feet never hurt in museums—I forgot they even existed. I could live for days on a single croissant; I believed that time and despair would never touch me. Can you tell me why art drives a person crazy when it promises so much? We should have known that things would end up here. In a room in the same hotel, twenty years later. The same rococo table, the blue checked bedspreads and the basket of apples from the management, with peels so many different shades of red they look painted? Why do people assume that art corrects the failings of life?

There is also the hypnotic repetition of objects, characters, places and phrases woven beautifully and poetically throughout the collection. The repetition of phrases in particular reminded me of a crown of sonnets where the last line of the sonnet becomes the first line of the next. Michalopoulou doesn’t adhere as strictly as that to any form, but the repetition gives this collection of short stories an interconnected yet amorphous feel as if all the characters are floating in the same pool skimming each other as they drift. The wife in the title story becomes the subject of discussion between two sisters, Stella and Christina, in “I’d Like (Orchestral Version).” Stella becomes the writer of “I’d Like” and the two women are the daughters of the wife in that story:

“You think I am an idiot? The wife who’s an awful painter is Mom. And the husband who walks like an elephant is Dad. Instead of him being in advertising, you made him a failed writer”

“What do you mean?”

“A childless middle-aged couple. If they hadn’t had us, they’d be dragging themselves along together just like that. Isn’t that what you were implying, Stella?”

There are many implications throughout I’d Like, but the reader should be forewarned to not take them seriously. Just when I thought I knew how the stories connected, I was proven wrong by the next one. Karen Emmerich’s translation superbly resonates with Michalopoulou’s intentions. Emmerich has won several awards for her translations and this should add to her list. I can only hope that she will be able to translate the innovative and lofty works of Amanda Michalopoulou in the future. Not only is the work itself deserving, but also we are deserving of reading such quality postmodern literature.

11 August 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

It’s always great to uncover (or be told about) great new literary blogs, and last week I found about a couple of really impressive ones.

The first is Salonica World Lit which bears the slogan “Exploit. Explore. Examine. A Blog Dedicated to International Literature.” This is done by Monica Carter of Skylight Books, and, as incorporated into the title, focuses on international lit.

Recently she’s written about Stefan Zweig Amok & Other Stories, about Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s Rashomon and Mandarins, and about Barcelona crime writer Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett. All the posts are well crafted, and with Monica’s bookstore connection and curiousity about world lit, this promises to be a great place to find out about new authors.

(This is kind of geeky, but I really like how her blog roll works. Rather than simply listing a bunch of blogs, it lists the title of the most recent post on each blog and allows the reader to click through and explore the literary blog world in a more connected and intuitive way. I don’t know if this is a common feature now or not—but this is the first time I’ve ever seen it and I think it’s pretty cool.)

Another great addition to the blog world is Beyond Hall 8 a blog sponsored by the Frankfurt Book Fair and serving as “a platform for discussion about book publishing from an international perspective and for an international audience.” The mission of this blog is incredibly impressive and with Thomas Minkus and Hannah Johnson involved, it’s destined for greatness. The posts about “Lookybook” (a site that provides free “previews” of children’s picture books) and the Australian Book Market are both really interesting. As a bit of statistics geek myself, I really dig the post about the Australian book market, and the fact that there are a ton of indie presses publishing in Australian that were uncounted in the last report from the Australia Bureau of Statistics . . . Nevertheless, it still shocks me to find out that there were only 851 works of adult fiction published there last year.

1 July 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Our latest review is of Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter. This is the third Ferrante book Europa has published. The first—The Days of Abandonment—is part of this year’s Reading the World program and helped launch Europa Editions a few years back.

This review is written by Monica Carter, who works at Skylight Books in Los Angeles—one of the best independent bookstores in the country. (And one of the few that’s expanding . . .) She’s very dedicated to promoting international voices and independent presses, and will be reviewing more for us in the near future.

1 July 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

“I’m an unnatural mother,” the protagonist, Leda, says of herself.

In this brave and searing novel by Elena Ferrante, The Lost Daughter explores the psyche of a woman who regrets having children. Leda is a modern Italian woman. She is divorced. She is an accomplished professor. And she is comfortable being alone. She decides to take herself on six-week vacation off the Ionian coast to prepare for the upcoming school year. She lounges on the beach, and almost immediately, she becomes obsessed with a young mother and her little daughter. Before we realize it, we are accompanying her on deep psychological self-examination of her life as a mother, and how perhaps she never wanted to be or never should have been.

“When my daughters had moved to Toronto, where their father had lived and worked for years, I was embarrassed and amazed to discover that I wasn’t upset; rather, I felt light, as if only then I had definitively brought them into the world.”

Because Ferrante writes this book in the first person, Leda’s thoughts, feelings and confessions have an immediacy that is disturbing and difficult, at times, to take. We learn that Leda hasn’t been a good mother, but we still want to understand her. Ferrante handles this expertly with her narrative abilities, never giving us less than the truth, no matter how much it makes us want to turn away. It is unsettling to read Leda’s memory of her reaction to her daughter cutting her finger as she tried to peel an orange:

“She was five and immediately in despair: the blood flowed, along with tears of disappointment. I was frightened, yelled at her: I couldn’t leave her alone for a moment, there was never time for myself. I felt that I was suffocating, it seemed to me that I was betraying myself. For long minutes I refused to kiss her wound, the kiss that makes the pain go away. I wanted to teach her that you don’t do that, it’s dangerous, only Mama does it, who is grownup. Mama.”

What makes Ferrante’s writing so compelling is that she does not compromise—no compromise for Leda’s analytical review of her motherhood, no compromise in emotional depth, and no compromise for the human condition. Although she deals with topics particular to women in this novel—as well as her first two novels, Troubling Love and Days of Abandonment—she avoids sentimentality and the common characteristics associated with feminine writing: refinement and sensitivity. The slightly masculine tone propels the narrative forward and lends credence to Leda’s unforgiving self-examination.

Leda’s journey parallels her developing relationship with the attractive young mother, Nina, who initially ignites Leda’s jealousy. Nina’s uncomplicated and pure love for her little daughter preoccupies Leda, and angers her as she realizes that she dislikes the little girl, “…that there was something off about the little girl, I don’t know what; a childish sadness, perhaps, or a silent illness.”

What is also striking about The Lost Daughter are the surprises that come from the characters behavior, not plot devices cleverly inserted to string us along. The characters are so well drawn, that we do not question their unpredictability, we merely accept it and want more. We see this best when the little girl loses her doll on the beach and Leda finds it, but keeps it without letting Nina know that she has her daughter’s doll. The child cries and screams, Nina and her family desperately search for the doll, and Leda watches this with detachment and we don’t find out until the end why she does this. The characters are intricate, their details revealed to us through Ferrante’s precision.

A major reason why the narrative flows so well is due to Ann Goldstein’s translation of Ferrante’s novel from Italian to English. Goldstein has translated all three of Ferrante’s novels flawlessly and with each effort she captures the nuances of the author’s style and intent. We forget that we are reading a translated work, which perhaps is the best indicator that we are in the capable hands of a masterful translator.

The Lost Daughter is a swift and mesmerizing work that reminds us of the darkness that resides in all of us and that the mistakes we make can serve as illuminations into our own psyche. We may not like what we find, but Ferrante shows us that it is in these moments that we know ourselves most intimately and that is reason enough.

The Lost Daughter
By Elena Ferrante
Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein
Europa Editions
125 pages, $14.95

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