9 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

From Contemporary Russian writer Aleksandr Skorobogatov comes some sad news about Northwestern University Press’s “Writings from an Unbound Europe” Series:

The end of a publishing era

RIP – Writings from an Unbound Europe

The editors of Northwestern University Press have decided to end the run of Writings from an Unbound Europe, the only more or less comprehensive book series devoted to translated contemporary literature from the former communist countries of Eastern/Central Europe. The final title in the series, the novel Sailing Against the Wind (Vastutuulelaev) by the Estonian Jaan Kross (1920-2007) will appear in a translation by Eric Dickens some time in 2012. With that title Unbound Europe will have published 61 books since its inception in 1993. Among the highlights of what has been published over this twenty-year period are the first English-language editions of David Albahari, Ferenc Barnas, Petra Hůlová, Drago Jančar, Anzhelina Polonskaya, and Goce Smilevski. By far the best selling title in the series is Death and the Dervish (Drviš i smrt) by the Bosnian writer Meša Selimović (1910-1982), which has sold close to 6000 copies since it appeared in 1996. In recent years, however, changes in book-buying habits and diminished interest in Eastern/Central Europe in the English speaking world have led to significantly lower sales, even for masterpieces by such major writers as Borislav Pekić and Bohumil Hrabal. I would like to thank the series co-editors Clare Cavanagh, Michael Henry Heim, Roman Koropeckyj, and Ilya Kutik as well as several generations of Northwestern University Press editors and directors for their work on this project. Most of the books published in the series remain in print and will continue to be available on the Northwestern University Press backlist.

Andrew Wachtel
General Editor

So many favorites were included in this series: Dubravka Ugresic, David Albahari, Georgi Gospodinov, Bohumil Hrabal, on and on and on. Sad day for Eastern/Central European literature in translation. Hopefully some press will pick up the slack . . . hopefully. But if a series like this can’t exist in a university setting, well . . . Ugh. And no offense to the great people working at NUP, but without this series, you drop (in my opinion, at least) from the first-tier of university presses (Columbia, Harvard, Yale, etc.) to something lower. I don’t want to name any titles, or make my point at the expense of any hard working authors, but your new catalog seems very vanilla when you remove the translations. Just another set of books to get lost in just another set of bookshelves . . .

24 January 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Dan Vitale on Bohumil Hrabal’s Vita Nuova, which is translated from the Czech by Tony Liman and available from Northwestern University Press.

Dan Vitale is a regular contributor to Three Percent—a program sponsored in party through a grant from NYSCA—and has written a number of thoughtful, interesting reviews for us.

Bohumil Hrabal is one of the all-time great writers. Closely Watched Trains, I Served the King of England, Too Loud a Solitude, all absolutely spectacular. It’s great that Northwestern has been publishing this “autobiographical trilogy,” which sounds both playful and captivating. The lack of commas and periods in this volume brings to mind the one-sentence Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, which is effing brilliant and will soon be available from NYRB.

Anyway, here’s a bit about Vita Nuova:

Vita Nuova is the second volume in a trilogy of autobiographical novels based on Bohumil Hrabal’s courtship of and marriage to Eliška Plevová (nicknamed Pipsi) and the first decade or so of his fame as one of Czechoslovakia’s most beloved writers. Originally published in samizdat in Prague in 1986, not long before Plevová’s death, and then in Toronto by Josef Škvorecký’s Czech-language 68 Publishers, the trilogy plays fast and loose with the concepts of both autobiography and the novel, reflecting each in a kind of narrative funhouse mirror: the books are narrated not by Hrabal nor a fictional stand-in but by Pipsi. That is, they are an act of creative ventriloquism by a novelist imagining that his wife had written three memoirs about their life together.

The first volume, In-House Weddings (translated, like Vita Nuova, by Tony Liman and available from Northwestern), is set during the late 1950s in the Prague district of Libeň, and covers the relatively short period between the couple’s first meeting in the courtyard of the building where Hrabal lives alone in a small flat, and their eventual wedding celebration in the same courtyard. Vita Nuova, which covers the first several years of the marriage, picks up the story shortly thereafter but with a sudden, startling change in Pipsi’s narrative voice, perhaps to reflect the “new life” indicated by the novel’s title. (The Italian is an homage to La Vita Nuova, Dante’s collection of annotated poems about courtly love, but the content of Hrabal’s book seems otherwise unconnected to Dante’s.) The relatively conventional paragraphs of In-House Weddings, though frequently made up of long and sometimes comma-spliced sentences, have given way to a series of pages-long paragraphs whose sentences, oddly, lack commas and periods but not initial capitals (although questions and exclamations are properly end-punctuated). A preface to the book acknowledges a stylistic debt to Molly Bloom’s stream-of-consciousness soliloquy in James Joyce’s Ulysses, but (at least in translation) Hrabal’s prose is less disciplined and poetic than Joyce’s. After a chapter or two, the reader learns to rely on the capitals as the primary sign that one sentence has ended and another has begun, and the absence of periods becomes only the memory of an odd quirk that is never fully justified by the narrative.

Marriage has seemingly changed not just Pipsi’s writing style but her personality. In the first volume, she is strong but also forgiving and somewhat naïve. Ethnically German, hailing from a well-to-do family in the Czech region of Moravia, a survivor of racially-motivated persecution and forced labor during World War II, and most recently having been abandoned by an unfaithful fiancé, Pipsi is enamored of Hrabal and mostly indulgent toward his vices of procrastination and drink (though also quietly dismayed by them). In Vita Nuova she has suddenly become much flintier and more opinionated, much more open in her displeasures and dissatisfactions; as with the change in prose style, it is difficult to tell if Hrabal intends the contrast deliberately or has not exercised enough care in presenting the complexities of Pipsi’s character. At times we seem meant to pity her; at others she seems as extravagantly fuming a witness to her husband’s hapless misadventures as Margaret Dumont’s characters were to Groucho Marx’s shenanigans.

Click here to read the full review.

24 January 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Vita Nuova is the second volume in a trilogy of autobiographical novels based on Bohumil Hrabal’s courtship of and marriage to Eliška Plevová (nicknamed Pipsi) and the first decade or so of his fame as one of Czechoslovakia’s most beloved writers. Originally published in samizdat in Prague in 1986, not long before Plevová’s death, and then in Toronto by Josef Škvorecký’s Czech-language 68 Publishers, the trilogy plays fast and loose with the concepts of both autobiography and the novel, reflecting each in a kind of narrative funhouse mirror: the books are narrated not by Hrabal nor a fictional stand-in but by Pipsi. That is, they are an act of creative ventriloquism by a novelist imagining that his wife had written three memoirs about their life together.

The first volume, In-House Weddings (translated, like Vita Nuova, by Tony Liman and available from Northwestern), is set during the late 1950s in the Prague district of Libeň, and covers the relatively short period between the couple’s first meeting in the courtyard of the building where Hrabal lives alone in a small flat, and their eventual wedding celebration in the same courtyard. Vita Nuova, which covers the first several years of the marriage, picks up the story shortly thereafter but with a sudden, startling change in Pipsi’s narrative voice, perhaps to reflect the “new life” indicated by the novel’s title. (The Italian is an homage to La Vita Nuova, Dante’s collection of annotated poems about courtly love, but the content of Hrabal’s book seems otherwise unconnected to Dante’s.) The relatively conventional paragraphs of In-House Weddings, though frequently made up of long and sometimes comma-spliced sentences, have given way to a series of pages-long paragraphs whose sentences, oddly, lack commas and periods but not initial capitals (although questions and exclamations are properly end-punctuated). A preface to the book acknowledges a stylistic debt to Molly Bloom’s stream-of-consciousness soliloquy in James Joyce’s Ulysses, but (at least in translation) Hrabal’s prose is less disciplined and poetic than Joyce’s. After a chapter or two, the reader learns to rely on the capitals as the primary sign that one sentence has ended and another has begun, and the absence of periods becomes only the memory of an odd quirk that is never fully justified by the narrative.

Marriage has seemingly changed not just Pipsi’s writing style but her personality. In the first volume, she is strong but also forgiving and somewhat naïve. Ethnically German, hailing from a well-to-do family in the Czech region of Moravia, a survivor of racially-motivated persecution and forced labor during World War II, and most recently having been abandoned by an unfaithful fiancé, Pipsi is enamored of Hrabal and mostly indulgent toward his vices of procrastination and drink (though also quietly dismayed by them). In Vita Nuova she has suddenly become much flintier and more opinionated, much more open in her displeasures and dissatisfactions; as with the change in prose style, it is difficult to tell if Hrabal intends the contrast deliberately or has not exercised enough care in presenting the complexities of Pipsi’s character. At times we seem meant to pity her; at others she seems as extravagantly fuming a witness to her husband’s hapless misadventures as Margaret Dumont’s characters were to Groucho Marx’s shenanigans.

There are many misadventures here, most of them of a domestic nature. The most entertaining involve Hrabal’s attempts at home improvement, aided by his diminutive friend Pepíček Sviatek. Even seen through Pipsi’s judgmental eyes, a slapstick scene in which Hrabal and Pepíček take apart and clean a soot-clogged stovepipe is a match for anything in a Laurel and Hardy short.

But sometimes Pipsi cannot contain herself, and lets fly with an outburst that would have been unimaginable coming from her in volume 1:

And now [Hrabal’s love-struck artist friend] Vladimir took the near-empty buckets and spun them in the air and whisked the last of the tar against the wall and then he cried out and collapsed in a heap and just lay there moaning like he’d fallen off a cliff And [Vladimir’s lover] Tekla leaned over him and clasped her hands and covered her eyes and my husband took a long draft from the pitcher and then passed it to Jirka and as they drank their eyes never left Vladimir who now sat up and raised that beautiful head of his and then he got to his feet and ran straight at the tar-wet wall onto which he’d poured out his very soul and he struck it headfirst but that wasn’t enough for him so he began to head-butt the wall like a ram and rivulets of blood flowed down around his eyes and Vladimir stood there and drove his head into the wall again and again and Tekla ran into the hallway and into the kitchen in tears implored Jirka and my husband to help and when they ran in Vladimir was already collapsed at the foot of the wall [. . .] unconscious and Jirka and my husband lifted his limp body and carried it into the hallway and Jirka brought a pail of water and knelt down and gently washed Vladimir’s face and his forehead . . . And that was all I could stand and I screamed at Tekla at the top of my lungs . . . Are you crazy you’re all out of your minds! For God’s sake what kind of crap are you trying to pull? And I turned on my husband and yelled in his face And you! How can you stand by and watch your friend like this!

For the most part, however, Pipsi takes a sympathetic view of her husband and his travails, especially when it comes to his writing. (Hrabal at this time had published only a book of poems, and was working intermittently on the stories that would later appear in the collection Pearls of the Deep.) She offers on more than one occasion to support them both on the income from her job as a server in a hotel restaurant so that he can quit his own job at a paper-recycling plant and concentrate full-time on his writing, but he consistently refuses. Still, even at her most generous, Pipsi is forced to treat the childlike Hrabal with something like tough love, though leavened with genuine concern and affection for his idler’s ways:

In vain I told my husband to drop everything to forget about going to work to concentrate on his writing in vain I told him to let me worry about the money but I guess my husband wasn’t quite ready yet for the solitude for the grit required to confront himself every day and work on his own writing [. . .] my husband got into this habit of settling down to write just before I got home from work he hammered away at the [typewriter] and when I came home he pretended to just be hitting his stride but oh well he’d have to pack it in now that I was home and pack it in he did because I had just about enough already I was sick of the standard excuse that he couldn’t write when I was at home [. . .] it was the same old tired excuse that I always countered with . . . Forget the job I’ll look after you . . . And my husband always pretended not to hear and when I laughed and stared him down he always averted his eyes and for the rest of the night wouldn’t utter a word [. . .] but with those oft-repeated words of mine I forced him to withstand that look to withstand and comprehend the full import of those words . . . Forget the job I’ll look after you . . . and somehow those words gave me strength I looked at my own reflection in the mirror and what I saw was a woman a waitress a cashier a fair woman who’d been brought back from the brink by her husband and now that I offered to look after him he was terrified that perhaps I was right perhaps he didn’t have the stuff to be alone to get down to writing all those things he went on about to others . . .

Although the Hrabal portrayed in Vita Nuova bears very little hint of his future status in Czech literature (this transformation will likely be described in the third volume of the trilogy, Vacant Lots, due out later this year from Northwestern in Liman’s translation), Hrabal the author of Pipsi’s “memoirs,” looking back on himself from the vantage of a quarter-century, has masterminded a ferocious and fascinating tangle of narrative perspectives. Toward the end of the book, we get this from Pipsi:

he was scared of mirrors he never wanted to look into a mirror but ultimately he always convinced himself that perhaps his face had improved that maybe he wasn’t as badly off as what he just saw in the mirror And then he looked at himself again at first just a guilty little glance and then he zeroed in and stared and as usual was alarmed by what he saw . . . How did he see himself?

It’s a good question: just whose opinions of Hrabal are we getting here? Hrabal the character’s? Hrabal the author’s? Or Pipsi the narrator’s? It’s impossible to know for sure. Whatever the answer, Vita Nuova gives us the opportunity to peer into Hrabal’s funhouse mirror, deep within which, without a doubt, is a grateful tribute to a long-suffering but loving spouse.

11 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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



The Ninth by Ferenc Barnás. Translated from the Hungarian by Paul Olchváry. (Hungary, Northwestern University Press)

Below is a guest post from Bill Marx, one of this year’s fiction judges and the man behind PRI’s World Books. We’ll run another guest post of his later this weekend.

A brilliantly unconventional look at life in a small village outside of Budapest in the late 1960s, Ferenc Barnás’s marvelous novel The Ninth comes off as an inventively dour, sardonically humorous version of Huckleberry Finn, except that the book’s nine-year-old narrator can’t light out for the territories once he begins to understand the duplicities of home, society and morality. His indigence is too overwhelming, his family situation too absurd (he has nine siblings) and the soft authoritarianism of the government too robustly restrictive.

What’s more, Barnás gives his observant child hero an additional handicap – a disability that makes it difficult for him to speak and to read. Thus book’s central metaphor works itself out with grim logic: in surroundings this resolutely repressive, everything of value—creativity, morality, truth, and humanity—is bottled up inside, pressurized. What sort of steam could escape the Communist stopper? The answer suggests why Barnás’s third novel, which he admits is autobiographical, takes the form it does—a child’s frank, fanciful, and anarchistic view of moral survival amid repression.



Yet Barnás doesn’t revel in the gloom, an admirable artistry of refusal that turns away from predictable opportunities for extremism to nurture an indirection and subtlety that only deepens the factual surrealism of the situation and the time. The ninth child lives in a poverty-stricken, secretive Catholic family that scrapes along by selling rosaries and religious gewgaws condemned by the Communist government. The boy’s domestic and school life is marked by starvation, overcrowding (the ten children sleep in three beds), overwork and abuse. His father is tyrannical and short-tempered; his mother is kind but passive. In the course of the book the family’s exhausting focus, under the father’s stern command, is to earn enough money to move into a larger house.

Barnás conveys the environment’s barbarism through ironic humor (“One afternoon, when for some reason I wasn’t in the mood to mutilate frogs out in the yard with the others . . .”) and memories of violence that are kept off-stage (“the other day our father gave us twenty lashes on our soles for being late, he used the iron’s chord but it was better than watching klaro get it . . .”). Catholicism serves as a rich satiric source of meager solace, wry hypocrisy, and amusingly secular observations, such as the peculiar but understandable satisfactions the inarticulate kid finds in serving as an altar boy: “It’s so good to see people shut their eyes while sticking their tongues above the tray! Nowhere else could I see so many different sorts of tongues; lots of them are quivering, and some are colored stranger than I ever would have thought.”

It is this agile emphasis on homey detail rather than trauma and despair that has led the book’s too few reviewers to dwell on Barnás’s admirable modesty and nuance. For me, The Ninth is all the more provocative because it depicts, through a nimble exploration of a child’s stream-of-consciousness, the vicissitudes of his imagination, and the tee-tottering state of his soul amid the village’s sickening perfidy, corruption, and stupidity. When the kid steals money from his teacher and spends his ill-gotten gains on cakes and candies for his classmates the idea is not to stage a pint-sized crime and punishment.

Barnás wants us watch his narrator shape the parameters of the self he will become, dramatizing whether the child will absorb the guilt and spiritual poverty around him or become an individual by embracing the possibility of change, by speaking the self-incriminating truth. Memorably, his confession seems to burst out of him, against his will: “Everything becomes even hotter inside me as something begins surging up into my chest, something sure to gush into my mouth in no time: the saliva is already sour in my throat, as at other times. ‘It was me,’ I say.” What looks like a modest tale of growing up becomes a far more ambitious examination of the formation of an ethical consciousness, almost out of thin air, in an authoritarian state built on lies and coercion.

Barnás’s nine-year-old narrator is a brave construct, an unconsciously sophisticated consciousness that filters life’s hardships and decisions through a startling innocence, an amoral earnestness. The character’s emotional life is weirdly attenuated, his thoughts often taking on a gnomic vagueness redolent of post-modern philosophy: “It must count a lot, what we assume on account of what, and what we imagine we hear in what; at least that’s what the last month taught me.” Translator Paul Olchváry skillfully captures the novel’s fascinating blend of arch artificiality, sharp-eyed realism, and antic fantasy, all at the service of depicting the inner life of the marginal among us.

21 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As you may remember, Hungarian lit dominated last year’s Best Translated Book Award with three titles on the longlist, including Attila Bartis’s Tranquility, the eventual winner.

Not sure that’s ever going to happen again, but the literary buzz around Ferenc Barnas’s The Ninth proves that Hungarian lit really does have a wealth of riches.

Jeff Waxman — managing editor of The Front Table and bookseller at 57th St. — wrote a review of the novel:

Set in Communist Hungary, Barnás’s novel is the story of a nine-year-old child, the ninth child of Hungarian Catholics eking out a miserable living in the small northern town of Pomáz. Bordering on the stream-of-conscious, The Ninth deals with life under the soft Communist rule of the late 1960’s, but from the point of view of a child with no basis for comparison. The picture we gain from our young narrator is uncomplicated by subtlety, politics, morality, and without the self-conscious morbidity and sexuality found in so many adult narrators. He’s an observer.

A lack of morbidity hardly means a lack of misery. Here, it’s unconscious, but this child is also disturbingly, accurately, affectless—too often in literature, we attribute too much to the too young. Our pathetic unnamed protagonist observes the realities of his own family’s survival, of his father’s obsessive small-time industry, his mother’s fervent religiosity, the difficulties of his siblings, and the cruelties and indignities of life in poverty: His mother and oldest siblings go to factory jobs early in the morning and return late at night; his father wakes the “Little Ones” early to do their part in preparing rosaries and other knickknacks for sale to churches; several of them suffer from some inability to speak or read well and some combination of headaches and faintness; and, of course, he’s preoccupied with having that eternal symbol of well-being, the full belly.

Click here for the full piece.

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

English-language readers have been enthusiastic about the excellent, albeit sinister, works of fiction by Hungarian writers like Nobel-Winner Imre Kertész, Best Translated Book Award Winner Attila Bartis, and the wonderful Péter Esterházy. We’ve been enthusiastic about being disturbed and moved, subjected to nightmare scenes and violent sex, and, ultimately, awed by the mastery these writers—and others—have over language, such mastery that it transcends the language itself and becomes apparent even in translation. Though by most accounts Ferenc Barnás is of the same dark mold, his novel, The Ninth, translated by Paul Olchváry, is a testament to the still-unplumbed depths of contemporary Hungarian literature, and a departure from the alienated fever dreams and horrors to which we’ve grown so accustomed to reading.

Set in Communist Hungary, Barnás’s novel is the story of a nine-year-old child, the ninth child of Hungarian Catholics eking out a miserable living in the small northern town of Pomáz. Bordering on the stream-of-conscious, The Ninth deals with life under the soft Communist rule of the late 1960’s, but from the point of view of a child with no basis for comparison. The picture we gain from our young narrator is uncomplicated by subtlety, politics, morality, and without the self-conscious morbidity and sexuality found in so many adult narrators. He’s an observer.

A lack of morbidity hardly means a lack of misery. Here, it’s unconscious, but this child is also disturbingly, accurately, affectless—too often in literature, we attribute too much to the too young. Our pathetic unnamed protagonist observes the realities of his own family’s survival, of his father’s obsessive small-time industry, his mother’s fervent religiosity, the difficulties of his siblings, and the cruelties and indignities of life in poverty: His mother and oldest siblings go to factory jobs early in the morning and return late at night; his father wakes the “Little Ones” early to do their part in preparing rosaries and other knickknacks for sale to churches; several of them suffer from some inability to speak or read well and some combination of headaches and faintness; and, of course, he’s preoccupied with having that eternal symbol of well-being, the full belly:

During the first break of the day I go to the john out in the schoolyard . . . That’s where I inspect my belly, too, but only if I’m alone. I pull up my shirt, let loose my muscles, and check to see how much my belly sticks out. In the morning it sticks out a lot.

But his lack of affect! This boy has urges—sometimes he steals—and he observes, but he never experiences anger, only a cold acceptance of his lot in life, of the kicks and shoves of his classmates:

. . . Molnár was waiting by the movie theatre. At first I thought he wanted to do the same thing, but I was wrong: he only beat me up . . . I didn’t really feel the blows, maybe because the whole time I was thinking I’d been through this before . . .

At nine years of age, Barnas’s character already knows about survival and necessity. When he and some of his brothers begin working as altar boys during local funerals, he notes, “The more people who die in our village, the better for us.” Though he’s reasonably well cared for, he’s poor and well-informed about the realities of life. His father is instructive and poverty itself teaches lessons that children can learn quickly. This book is not one that will make waves. It doesn’t startle or shock, doesn’t attack the reader or soothe him. This book is notable for the stunning restraint shown, the artfulness with which Barnás and Olchváry approached such a delicate task, the translation of child’s voice. And it’s notable, too, for its quiet success.

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