4 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Following up on last week’s post about the Guardian‘s New Europe Series, this morning they ran the pieces about Poland, including What They’re Reading in Poland, which focuses on an Open Letter author:

However, the literary mainstream is made up of authors who follow Witold Gombrowicz, who teaches distance from those models of Polish identity. Janusz Rudnicki, Marcin Swietlicki, Michał Witkowski and Jerzy Pilch are writers who find their own ironic ways of dealing with our literary tradition. The most important writer of this group is Pilch – not only because of his novels, but also because of his position as the country’s leading columnist. In view of the vanishing significance of literary criticism, which is now found only in niche magazines, and – I must admit with a heavy heart – the claustrophobia that affects newspapers’ cultural pages, Pilch is considered an authority on literature.

Dorota Masłowska owes him a lot. Her White and Red was the most important debut to appear in the first 20 years after independence. It is seemingly a realist novel about the dregs of society, but in fact the broken language of its heroes, full of references to pop culture and different subcultures, perfectly reflects the chaotic consciousness of all Poles living through those days of political and social transformation. Her second novel, The Queen’s Peacock, won the Nike, Poland’s most important literary award. It’s worth stressing here that awards are another substitute for literary criticism, though this is by no means an exclusively Polish phenomenon. The list of Nike laureates gives quite a reliable insight into the most important trends and names in Polish literature. Take poetry, which competes on equal terms with novels and essays for the title of the best book of the year. It is significant that the last two Nobel prizes for literature won by Poles went to poets: Czesław Miłosz (1981) and Wisława Szymborska (1996).

There’s also a nice bit in here about Reportage:

This genre-busting nature of Polish reportage is also the source of many misunderstandings. When a biography of Poland’s most eminent reporter (and the best-known Polish writer worldwide), Ryszard Kapuscinski, came out last year (Kapuscinski Non-fiction by Artur Domosławski), it provoked many arguments, including about the reporter’s competence. To what degree should a reporter be just a witness, and to what degree an author who includes his or her own outlook, interpretations and literary style? Where does journalism (non-fiction) end, and literary fiction begin? This dispute remains unsettled, just like many other arguments provoked by Domosławski’s book, such as the controversy over the attitudes that journalists and writers adopted during the communist years, or the extent to which a biographer can explore the personal life of his or her subject.

Regardless of the gravity of the charges against the so-called Polish School of Reportage, of which Kapuscinski was the most prominent representative, it is in good condition. Though it is ever rarer in the Polish press, it transfers relatively well to books. Successors of Kapuscinski – Mariusz Szczygieł, Jacek Hugo-Bader, Wojciech Tochman – appear near the top of the bestseller lists, and their works have been translated into all of the major European languages. So reportage is still a Polish speciality, although reporters tend now to wander the world and through history in their search for interesting subjects. Szczygieł devoted his book Gottland (winner of the 2009 European Book prize) to the conflicting attitudes that Czechs adopt towards communism; Hugo-Bader has travelled through a drink-sodden post-Soviet Russia (White Heat); while Tochman has analysed the consequences of the genocide in Rwanda (We Will Portray Death Today). Young writers are following their lead: in Murderer from the Apricot City, Witold Szabłowski reports on the cultural clashes and conflicts that divide contemporary Turkey as it attempts to join the European Union.

It’s interesting and encouraging that a decent number of Polish books are being translated into English and published in the U.S. According to our Translation Database (update coming later this week—promise), 23 works of Polish fiction and poetry have come out here since January 2009. That’s not bad given Poland’s size. And this number doesn’t include all the works of reportage that have come out over that period. (Such as Tochman’s Like Eating a Stone: Surviving the Past in Bosnia.)

Of course, I think Pilch is one of the best. (BTW, we just received the translation of My First Suicide & Other Stories, due out in 2012.) Additionally, I’d personally recommend Olga Tokarczuk’s Primeval and Other Times and Wiesław Myśliwski’s Stone Upon Stone, both of which are brilliant and sweepingly ambitious in their own way.

30 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Guardian is one of my favorite newspapers for any number of reasons, but I particularly like their series and their overall international focus.

For instance, earlier this month they launched their New Europe Series, which features an in-depth look at four European countries: Germany, France, Spain, and Poland. (The Poland page will be available next week.)

Each section features tons of pieces about the focus country, mostly in the political, economic, and social bent, but most pertinent to this blog, there’s also a lot of literary coverage.

For years, the Guardian has been running a “World Literature Tour,” but according to Richard Lea’s intro to the new Germany focus, technology and the internets rocked the archives, decimating all the comments people wrote about the literature of Finland, Turkey, Germany, etc., etc.

So now they’re kicking this off with a new system. Instead of having a space for comments, there’s now a form where you can make a recommendation, which is fed into a very readable, very browseable spreadsheet. (I have to admit that having tried—on several occasions—to slug through the hundred of comments for any particular country, that I’m very jacked about this new method.)

And although it can still be a bit overwhelming, the results are pretty cool. Here are the spreadsheets for Germany, and for France. (Doesn’t look like the Spain one is up yet.)

Richard Lea’s overviews are all worth checking out as well, so here are links to the pieces on Germany, France, and Spain. And don’t forget to log in your own recommendations at the bottom of these pages. (Like maybe all your favorite Open Letter titles?)

As if this weren’t enough, as part of this series there are also “What They’re Reaidng In XXX” for each of the respective countries:

In Spain:

Meanwhile, the publishing engine continues its unstoppable course. Long ago, a few large publishing companies, such as Santillana, Planeta and Mondadori, took control of the lion’s share of the market. However, despite the steamrolling presence of these companies, not only do small publishers survive but new ones keep popping up and – even in this recession-ridden 2011 – it is these small players who manage to keep alive the embers of independence and surprise: Periférica, Libros del Asteroide, Páginas de Espuma, Minúscula and Nórdica, to name but a few distinguished examples.

Talking of new arrivals, one has to mention Juan Marsé‘s new book Caligrafía de los sueños (Lumen), an introspective inquiry into the Barcelona of the post-war period. Marsé is a master of the art of covering the same territory a thousand times and always making it seem new. The author of unforgettable portraits of a Spain facing a very uncertain future, such as Ronda del Guinardó, Si te dicen que caí and Rabos de lagartija, returns to familiar material: everything is sad in Marsé, a sadness that also includes meanness, humour and, of course, memory. His legions of followers are delighted as always.

b. But in Spain, right now, the most awaited book of the year is undoubtedly Javier Marías’s new novel, Los enamoramientos (Alfaguara). The eternal Spanish Nobel prize candidate and the author of what have already become contemporary classics, such as Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me and A Heart So White, has handed over to the printers a spine-chilling story about the highs and lows of our miserable lives. Marías is always Marías, and his arrival in the bookshops is always the publishing event of the season. [. . .]

Looking a little further back, Anatomía de un instante (Mondadori) by Javier Cercas is one of those essay/fiction books that is so linked to a real – and brutal – event that it not only managed to hypnotise Spanish readers at the time of its well-publicised launch many months ago, but still manages to do so now. The recent commemorations of the 30th anniversary of the attempted coup d‘état by a group of military officers, on 23 February 1981 (the real pretext for this work of literary pseudo-fiction), has helped to maintain interest in Cercas’s book. He is undoubtedly one of the most interesting authors on the young literary scene in Spain, besides being an especially lucid and sharp columnist.

The Germany piece is kind of funny. It’s kind of a downer, focusing either on books that were derided by critics, or that sold really poorly:

More challenging fare was provided by Melinda Nadj Abonji. Her novel Tauben fliegen auf (“Falcons without Falconers”), a family drama about Yugoslavian immigrants in Switzerland, won the 2010 German Book Prize, Germany’s answer to the Booker. But unlike previous winners by authors such as Katharina Hacker, Julia Franck and Uwe Tellkamp – all reliable suppliers of highly marketable light novels for a moderately demanding reading public – Abonji’s novel was a commercial disaster, just reaching number 50 on the bestseller list shortly before Christmas.

New books by Günter Grass and Christa Wolf reminded us that there were once such things as great German writers. Gruppe 47 (Group 47), a literary association that influenced an entire era and encompassed the country’s best authors, disbanded long ago. Which author under 60 could play that role today? Thomas Lehr, perhaps, whose September. Fata Morgana is a linguistic tour de force set in the aftermath of 9/11 and is both celebrated and controversial. Pedantic critics derided it for not having a single punctuation mark (despite the full stop in the title), as if punctuation has anything to do with literature.

The piece on French literature doesn’t have too many recommendations, but does have some info on the French publishing scene (and French controversies):

To understand what literary life in France is like, imagine a pond. A pond that’s getting smaller and smaller, with just as many fish in it, so that the water is getting more and more crowded. You can guess what happens: each one has less and less space to evolve, to find food, and even to develop the energy required to discuss ideas. Sales of books continue to be weak in 2011, after a particularly flat year for publishers and bookshops. Apart from the usual juggernauts, such as titles from the bestselling authors Mark Lévy and Amélie Nothomb, and more sporadic successes such as the latest novel from Michel Houellebecq (winner of the Prix Goncourt in November last year), most novels and essays struggle to make any money. [. . .]

This polarisation is reflected in the way the press talks about books. In newspapers the space devoted to literature is now relatively stable after a dramatic decline over the past 10 years. As a result, critics struggle to cover the full range of books produced, caught between the need to talk about what everyone else is talking about, the need to explore types of literature that almost no one is talking about and the wish to get themselves talked about by taking up increasingly clear-cut positions.

In these circumstances, what happens to the discussion of ideas? It is still alive with regard to the big questions that run through society (political, religious, social, historical, and so on). According to the philosopher and novelist Bernard-Henri Lévy, the French situation is unusual in that, instead of being permanently fixed, “intellectual groups re-form around each issue like iron filings around a magnet”, a situation which has become more marked in the last 20 years. In January 2011 the “affaire Céline” shook the cultural world. The writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline, who wrote some truly great books and also some violently anti-semitic tracts, was included in the calendar of national commemorations, to mark the 50th anniversary of his death. His presence in this official brochure provoked such a furore that the minister of culture eventually backed down and removed Céline.

There’s tons more worth checking out here, including a review of Thomas Pletzinger’s Funeral for a Dog and an article on the 100 Years of Gallimard. It’s very easy to spend a morning (or a month) looking through all of this. Especially once all the Polish stuff is up . . .

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