8 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Catherine Partin on Pierre Reverdy’s Pierre Reverdy, a collection of the poet’s works translated by various authors, edited by Mary Ann Caws, and out from New York Review Books.

Catherine is an avid reader with interests in French and Francophone literature, modernism, and critical theory, and is soon to graduate with an MA in Culture and Difference from Durham University. Here’s the beginning of her review:

To read a poem by Pierre Reverdy is to enter a world of dreamlike contradictions, surreal metaphors, and jarring juxtapositions. Marked by recurring themes of consciousness, time, distance, and memory, Reverdy’s work inhabits an otherworldly realm. As when viewing a cubist painting, it’s hard to maintain a sense of orientation—follow along a line toward its expected end and, surprise! the work takes an unexpected turn. In Pierre Reverdy, the New York Review Books presents an exemplary collection of Reverdy’s poems in new English translations. Translated by an impressive roster of respected Anglophone poets, among them Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Rexroth, and a dozen others, the works selected here are nevertheless unified by Reverdy’s distinct poetic voice and a propensity for jarring juxtaposition, creating dreamlike imagery painted with lucidity and yet tinged with the surreal.

Known for his associations with such figures as Guillaume Apollinaire, Tristan Tzara, and Andre Breton, Reverdy’s close ties to these and other founding members of the early twentieth-century avant-garde are not to be underestimated. Their influences upon Reverdy’s work, most notably manifest in his surreal imagery and unconventional form, are perhaps best illustrated by the book’s opening selection from Prose Poems. These works, square chunks of text consisting of syntactically normal sentences that nevertheless retain a semantic opacity and make for difficult, if not intriguing reading, doubtless contributing to Reverdy’s reputation as the quintessential cubist poet.

For the rest of the review, go here.

8 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

To read a poem by Pierre Reverdy is to enter a world of dreamlike contradictions, surreal metaphors, and jarring juxtapositions. Marked by recurring themes of consciousness, time, distance, and memory, Reverdy’s work inhabits an otherworldly realm. As when viewing a cubist painting, it’s hard to maintain a sense of orientation—follow along a line toward its expected end and, surprise! the work takes an unexpected turn. In Pierre Reverdy, the New York Review Books presents an exemplary collection of Reverdy’s poems in new English translations. Translated by an impressive roster of respected Anglophone poets, among them Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Rexroth, and a dozen others, the works selected here are nevertheless unified by Reverdy’s distinct poetic voice and a propensity for jarring juxtaposition, creating dreamlike imagery painted with lucidity and yet tinged with the surreal.

Known for his associations with such figures as Guillaume Apollinaire, Tristan Tzara, and Andre Breton, Reverdy’s close ties to these and other founding members of the early twentieth-century avant-garde are not to be underestimated. Their influences upon Reverdy’s work, most notably manifest in his surreal imagery and unconventional form, are perhaps best illustrated by the book’s opening selection from Prose Poems. These works, square chunks of text consisting of syntactically normal sentences that nevertheless retain a semantic opacity and make for difficult, if not intriguing reading, doubtless contributing to Reverdy’s reputation as the quintessential cubist poet. Apart from their experimental form and use of language, two pieces drawn from this collection published in 1915, “The Intruder” and “The Spirit Goes Out,” particularly resonate with the modern sense of rupture, disorientation, and loss of an old world order, precipitated by what was then known only as the Great War. “The Intruder” begins with the intrusion of a human figure “leading behind him a caravan in chaos” into a world of silence and shadow, sparking a pandemonium heralded by “songs and shrieks” of the new:

A most ancient world was whirling through our heads and we were awaiting the moment when everything would collapse . . . the skies were grey and filled with the howls of machines that cut through our malaise. Once out in the street, we regained our century . . . But that other night, from what era did they all descend upon us, those spirits . . . ?

Similarly, in “The Spirit Goes Out,” Reverdy captures, with striking symbolism, the death of grand narratives simultaneously dealt with by many of his contemporaries. Prefiguring Paul Valéry’s 1919 philosophical essay, “La Crise de l’esprit” on the decay of Western intellectual tradition, Reverdy’s poem paints a scenario in which one might read the speaker’s turning away from lifeless ancient texts toward the piercing light of the present as a nod to Plato’s allegory of the cave,

So many books! A temple whose thick walls were built with books. And inside, where I had entered, who knows how, I don’t know where, I was suffocating. The ceilings were gray with dust. Not a sound. And all these great ideas no longer move, they sleep, or are dead . . . With my fingernail, I clawed at the partition and, bit by bit, I made a hole in the wall on the right. It was a window and the sun that tried to blind me couldn’t keep me from looking out

The poem’s final lines suggest liberation from the symbolic and a return to the real signified by the juxtaposition of darkness and light, a frequently recurring theme throughout the works selected in this volume. From burning lamps to brilliant stars, clouds of dust and pitch-black nights, these of Reverdy’s works are replete with symbols of illumination as well as elements of obscurity. While the two are often paired to create a stark contrast, many of Reverdy’s poems share characteristics of a world dulled by impenetrable clouds. “A Lot of People,” (translated by John Ashbery) offers a characteristic glimpse into this shadowy realm:

Over there is only a black hole
      Beyond the gate a laughing head
And in dust the noise died away
      Cloud
      Chiaroscuro
          Stop breathing
All the birds are dead
          The sun has burst
Blood flows
In the water where his eyes were drowning

Building upon themes of darkness and light, Reverdy’s work is replete with eyes, windows, and mirrors—symbols associated with the Lacanian concept of the gaze. Many of Reverdy’s poems examine the act of looking itself, as if describing the experience of visual perception from a detached and objective viewpoint. For the speaker in “Nothing”:

The world is erased
    At the point where I will disappear
Everything is snuffed out

There is no longer even a place
For the words I will leave

Much of Reverdy’s work is permeated by a sense of self-observation reminiscent of lucid dreaming, as if the anonymous subject in poems including “That”, “False Portal or Portrait,” and “Inner Motion” is in fact the poetic persona speaking from beyond immediate experience. The mirror figures as a prominent symbol in many poems, offering a fixed portrait of perceived reality, “the oval holding my whole countenance frozen,” or, alternatively, appearing as a gaping portal to the unknown, “[sending] back no images” while “[n]ight lurk[s] in the background.” In “Body and Soul Superimposed,” it is “that icy black abyss ruled by a threatening void and an equally threatening silence: the likelihood of every possible laceration,”—a line that perfectly captures the overwhelming tone of Reverdy’s poetry, which would arguably make for interesting examination under a psychoanalytic lens.

The poems’ recurring references to light, gaze, and mirrors—as emblematic of the confrontational encounter leading to self-recognition—reveals the readily apparent influences of Cubism upon Reverdy’s work in ways that extend beyond stylistic considerations and touch upon contemporaneous issues of philosophy. Judging by the content as well as the formal structure of his writing, Reverdy clearly contributes to and shares in the avant-garde fascination with unconscious dream-states and unknown aspects of the human mind. By exploring the surface of objects and reflected images, Reverdy undermines the illusion of a cohesive self, revealing the fracturing and fluidity of identity. Yet Reverdy also transforms the “void” or “black abyss,”—always just on the verge of experience, hidden behind the glint of a mirror or below the surface of unfathomable depths—from a threatening state of breakdown, and into a promise of unveiled reality. In “Secret,” Reverdy writes, “after the anxiety of the tightest, straightest passage, we always find an oasis of calm and repose in the whiteness of the expanse, the silence.” The ambiguity with which Reverdy’s poems refer to emptiness and lack is perhaps best expressed by “Fate Founders,” which deals with themes of absence and presence, ultimately suggestive of the trace inscribed in and by writing:

And if everything I’ve seen has deceived me of reality
If there was nothing behind the canvas
but an empty hole
What reassures me a bit is that I can always stay on
       the sidelines
Hang on
And leave a faint memory on earth
A gesture of regret
A sour expression
       What I did best

What Reverdy himself did best is amply demonstrated by the translations contained in this book, which brilliantly convey the linguistic meaning and artistic spirit of the original texts. In accordance with the Cubist goal of restructuring experience at the surface level to express or gain insights into reality from multiple perspectives, Reverdy’s poetic language is both compellingly evocative and yet nonetheless oblique. Although most of the works presented in Pierre Reverdy are treated by a single Anglophone translator, three renditions of “Live Flesh” by Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Rexroth, and Lydia Davis offer brilliantly nuanced versions of the poem, each maintaining the integrity of Reverdy’s artistic vision while exposing the play of language and subtle variants in meaning that allow for slight divergences in translation. Unfortunately, “Live Flesh” is one of only a few to be featured in so many versions, and this is a shame, as it provides a fascinating example of the subjective nature of translation and interpretation of work as richly symbolic as Reverdy’s.
While the works collected in Pierre Reverdy show off the poet’s skill to its best and most characteristically modern effect, it comes as no surprise that the poems exhibited are dazzling, dreamlike, and surprisingly contemporary in feel. With these excellent translations now making Reverdy’s work accessible to an Anglophone audience, this book deserves attention from not only students and readers of French literature, but anyone with an interest in early twentieth-century avant-garde poetry.

25 July 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Hannah Chute on Amsterdam Stories by Nescio, from New York Review Books.

Hannah is one of two Hannahs interning at Open Letter this summer. We’re still working on a good nickname for her—for now, depending on the situation, we (read: I) have been referring to the Hannahs as “Hannah” and “Other Hannah.” (If yet another of our interns, Reagan, was also a Hannah, things would get messy. Other Other Hannah?)

Anyway, this relatively small volume of stories by Nescio sounds pretty cool, particularly the chronology of style behind it, and falls into the category of compact volumes from NYRB that I personally can’t wait to dive into—a fairly long list that (in no particular order) includes Robert Walser’s Berlin Stories.

Here’s the beginning of Hannah’s review:

Nescio, Koekebakker, J.H.F. Grönloh. Writing only in his spare time, he was known to most of the world as a respectable and prominent businessman, the director of the Holland-Bombay Trading Company: exactly the kind of man whom his early protagonists would scorn, and at whom his later protagonists would smile grimly, knowing that “respectability” is society’s code-word for “half-stifled misery.” Producing only a few short stories, he went largely unnoticed during his lifetime, only posthumously gaining a place in the canon of Dutch literature. Now, his poignant and subtly humorous Amsterdam Stories have finally been brought to an English-speaking audience by Damion Searls, an award-winning translator who works with German, Norwegian, French, and Dutch texts.

The nine stories and novellas of this collection, arranged in chronological order of their writing, come together to form a composite portrait of a single life — quite transparently a version of Nescio’s own. In his early stories, such as “The Freeloader” and “Young Titans,” the narrator is Koekebakker, who is idealistic, poor, and (mostly) happy, confident as he is “going to do _something_” with his life. A vague, beautiful something that animates him and his group of four like-minded friends. The narrator looks back on this youth with jaded wistfulness: “We were kids — but good kids . . . We’re much smarter now, so smart it’s pathetic.” But in spite of this cynicism, it is surprisingly easy to get caught up in the half-baked ideas and humorous antics of Koekebakker & Co. . . .

For the rest of the review, go here.

25 July 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Nescio, Koekebakker, J.H.F. Grönloh. Writing only in his spare time, he was known to most of the world as a respectable and prominent businessman, the director of the Holland-Bombay Trading Company: exactly the kind of man whom his early protagonists would scorn, and at whom his later protagonists would smile grimly, knowing that “respectability” is society’s code-word for “half-stifled misery.” Producing only a few short stories, he went largely unnoticed during his lifetime, only posthumously gaining a place in the canon of Dutch literature. Now, his poignant and subtly humorous Amsterdam Stories have finally been brought to an English-speaking audience by Damion Searls, an award-winning translator who works with German, Norwegian, French, and Dutch texts.

The nine stories and novellas of this collection, arranged in chronological order of their writing, come together to form a composite portrait of a single life — quite transparently a version of Nescio’s own. In his early stories, such as “The Freeloader” and “Young Titans,” the narrator is Koekebakker, who is idealistic, poor, and (mostly) happy, confident as he is “going to do something_” with his life. A vague, beautiful something that animates him and his group of four like-minded friends. The narrator looks back on this youth with jaded wistfulness: “We were kids — but good kids . . . We’re much smarter now, so smart it’s pathetic.” But in spite of this cynicism, it is surprisingly easy to get caught up in the half-baked ideas and humorous antics of Koekebakker & Co. They are a bit ridiculous, especially seen from the narrator’s half-bitter, half-indulgent viewpoint, but they are sincere, delightful, and recognizably _real. The exception of course is Japi, the exasperating but fascinating “freeloader” of the collection’s first story, who is more allegory than man. He observes, he sits, he walks. He borrows money, smokes other people’s cigars, and takes his friend’s cloak when they are walking in the rain. And, when the world catches up with him and tries to pin him down into a job, he quietly and almost cheerfully steps off a bridge. A simple (even silly) story, but Nescio pulls it off with grace and warmth.

By “Little Poet,” written when Nescio was thirty-five, the narrator begins to lose his wistful nature and takes a more openly mocking stance toward his protagonist, and possibly against poetry in general. He leaves Koekebakker and his group behind, moving on to a nameless, doomed young poet, whom he pokes fun at mercilessly. One of the conduits of this fun-poking is the God of the Netherlands, who can’t seem to understand why he bothers to keep creating poets, particularly the meek, boyish breed like the Little Poet in question:

Twice the God of the Netherlands shook his venerable head and twice his long venerable muttonchops slid back and forth across his vest.
bq. It didn’t add up. There must be a mistake somewhere. A poet with no hair, that was very strange. The God of the Netherlands hadn’t cared much for poets for thirty years. You could no longer tell what to make of them. Respectable or disrespectable? Impossible to say . . .

God sighed. He’d have to talk it over with a real poet tomorrow. Maybe Potgieter . . .

Look, there goes the little poet. A handsome young man, you have to admit: thin, with a nicely shaved boyish face except for a pair of flying buttresses in front of his years, and so suntanned. He greets someone, tilting his straw hat a fraction about his close-cut hair.

Bizarre—so little hair—but it definitely was a little poet because God couldn’t figure him out, or Potgieter either. And Professor Volmer wanted nothing to do with him.

At one point, the Little Poet is walking down the street when he sees a group of women sitting outside a cafe and prays silently, “Oh God . . . what if you performed a miracle now, what if all their clothes suddenly fell off?” The narrator hedges this oh-so-scandalous thought playfully, writing in an aside: “You and I, dear reader, never think such things. And my dear lady readers . . . Mercy me, perish the thought.”
In his later stories, his writing begins to take on a different character. By “Insula Dei,” written twenty-five years and two World Wars later, his tone is bitter, though not unsentimental: Nescio has become an old man who cannot understand how his life — the shining promise he saw in his youth — has blinked past him. His nostalgia is more morbid now, colored as it is by war, hunger, and age. Reminiscing with the narrator about their youth, his friend Flip laments: “Back then we died of consumption, not tuberculosis.” Nescio’s skill lies in his ability to make even this macabre thought a thing of beauty.

As the title suggests, this is, in a sense, also a “city book” after the fashion of Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale (New York) and Andrei Bely’s Petersburg (St. Petersburg). These authors live and breathe their cities, and these works draw their readers onto the streets, into their cafes and parks and back alleys. Nescio accomplishes this with beautiful subtleness; Amsterdam is never the focus of his tales, but remains an unobtrusive but constant and compelling presence.

All in all, Nescio’s stories — often tragic but always beautiful — linger in the mind. They do not seem to have been composed; rather, they unfold with the grace of inevitability. Their melancholy weight means that they are best consumed slowly, leaving time between the stories to allow them to settle and be absorbed. At only 155 pages, this slim volume has a quiet power to match that of the most sweeping of Great Novels.

16 May 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I think it was two summers ago that I was last in Chicago for the annual Goethe Institut Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Prize Extravaganza. (I love these gatherings. The award ceremony, the people involved with German literature, the panels, etc. It always seems to be a beautiful couple days weather-wise as well, which makes the whole series of events even cooler. Hopefully I can get invited back sometime . . .)

Anyway, at that last Extravaganza, Susan Bernofsky was telling me that she was translating the creepiest book that she’d ever worked on—something called The Black Spider. I suspect that most everyone reading this (not including Michael Orthofer, because Michael knows about everything) is unfamiliar with this classic of world literature, about which Thomas Mann claimed, “there is scarcely a work in world literature that I admire more.” That won’t be the case this fall.

Here’s the description from NYRB:

It is a sunny summer Sunday in a remote Swiss village, and a christening is being celebrated at a lovely old farmhouse. One of the guests notes an anomaly in the fabric of the venerable edifice: a blackened post that has been carefully built into a trim new window frame. Thereby hangs a tale, one that, as the wise old grandfather who has lived all his life in the house proceeds to tell it, takes one chilling turn after another, while his audience listens in appalled silence. Featuring a cruelly overbearing lord of the manor and the oppressed villagers who must render him service, an irreverent young woman who will stop at nothing, a mysterious stranger with a red beard and a green hat, and, last but not least, the black spider, the tale is as riveting and appalling today as when Jeremias Gotthelf set it down more than a hundred years ago. The Black Spider can be seen as a parable of evil in the heart or of evil at large in society (Thomas Mann saw it as foretelling the advent of Nazism), or as a vision, anticipating H. P. Lovecraft, of cosmic horror. There’s no question, in any case, that it is unforgettably creepy.

And although this has been translated into English in the past, it’s never been translated by Susan Bernofsky. So even if you are familiar with it, I’d still recommend checking out this version, since, Susan Bernofsky.

10 May 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Rachael Daum on Intizar Husain’s Basti, which is available from New York Review Books.

Each semester, Chad has students in both his Introduction to Publishing course and the World Literature in Translation course write book reviews as part of an assignment—we’ll be running these over the next weeks.

Rachael Daum (who is an accomplisher and recipient of all the things/fellowships, speaker of several languages, translator-in-training, and hails from England/Germany) was part of the internship and Intro to Publishing course this semester. Here’s a bit of her review:

The Urdu word “_basti_” refers to any space, intimate to worldly, and is often translated as “common place” or “a gathering place.” This book by Intizar Husain, who is widely regarded as one of the most important living Pakistani writers, traverses a number of cities, the connections between them, and the people who live in them. Within this slender book are a great number of dichotomous themes, most of them facing off with each other: tradition and innovation, Hinduism and Islam, India and Pakistan. But all of these revolve around a greater theme of change, mostly that which comes with war, and how the people involved must react to it—and possibly lose their humanity in doing so.

The book opens with Zakir as a child in India, which, at the time includes what would soon be Pakistan. He recalls growing up as a small Muslim boy alongside Hindu boys and girls. The calm of his childhood, however, is upset by an explanation of how Cain murders and buries of his brother Abel, with Zakir’s mother calling a curse on Cain’s blood, for “it was thinner than water!,” and a further discussion that Doomsday will come “when those who can speak fall silent, and shoelaces speak.” This particularly gloomy talk soon becomes appropriate in this context, however, as it clearly foreshadows the war that will rend India and Pakistan apart, and separate families and friends.

To read the rest of the review, go here.

10 May 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The Urdu word basti refers to any space, intimate to worldly, and is often translated as “common place” or “a gathering place.” This book by Intizar Husain, who is widely regarded as one of the most important living Pakistani writers, traverses a number of cities, the connections between them, and the people who live in them. Within this slender book are a great number of dichotomous themes, most of them facing off with each other: tradition and innovation, Hinduism and Islam, India and Pakistan. But all of these revolve around a greater theme of change, mostly that which comes with war, and how the people involved must react to it—and possibly lose their humanity in doing so.

The book opens with Zakir as a child in India, which, at the time includes what would soon be Pakistan. He recalls growing up as a small Muslim boy alongside Hindu boys and girls. The calm of his childhood, however, is upset by an explanation of how Cain murders and buries of his brother Abel, with Zakir’s mother cursing Cain’s blood, for “it was thinner than water!,” and a discussion that Doomsday will come “when those who can speak fall silent, and shoelaces speak.” This particularly gloomy talk soon becomes appropriate in this context, however, as it clearly foreshadows the war that will rend India and Pakistan apart, and separate families and friends.

It is interesting, and then sad, to observe how the role of religious conflict between Hindus and Muslims in India changes throughout Zakir’s life. This conflict is a common fact of life at the beginning of the novel—it’s a point of exasperation more than it is one of violence. For example, when the rainy season comes and soaks everything, the Hindu women sing night and day for the god Krishna to come and end the rainy season. Zakir’s mother, a Muslim woman, sighs over this, saying:

“Oh, these Hindu women won’t let us get a wink of sleep tonight! And on top of it the rain keeps coming down.”
“Bi Amma, this is the Janamashtami rain!” Auntie Sharifan elaborated: “Krishan-ji’s diapers are being washed.”
“Well, by now Krishan-ji’s diapers have been washed quite enough! The water is overflowing.”

The Hindu explanations of nature in terms of gods, and their terms of respect, “-ji,” and the like, flow easily from the Muslim women’s tongues. However, after the split of India and Pakistan, and the wars that follow, these cease, and the language in the text seems less colorful for it. The vibrancy of the references to Krishna and Vishnu seem dulled when replaced with the uniform allusions to Qu’ranic verses and the disciples Ali and Muhammed.

The majority of the novel concerns itself with Zakir’s position as a professor, caught in the war in Pakistan, while the woman he loved when they were children, Sabirah, is stuck in India. He escapes the war by losing himself in memory, and these passages are some of the most beautiful, particularly when he starts keeping a diary of the events of the war. In these entries, he remembers the plague that swept his town as a child, thus associating for the reader war with plague; he also tracks the confusion that comes with war. One of the most beautiful passages is Zakir realising that home, in war, means everything and nothing as the concept becomes more confused: “I can do nothing else for this city, but I can pray, and I do pray. In my mind is a prayer for Rupnagar, and its people as well, for I can no longer imagine Rupnagar apart from this city. Rupnagar and this city have merged together inside me, and become one town.” Here, the reader sees how in the desperation that comes with war, one must cope by surrendering what one knows as home and allow it to blend, pulling it closer, for the sake of being able to hope and pray for it. Zakir defies the inevitability of the destruction of Rupnagar, by stating, “No, the bomb shouldn’t fall on that neighbourhood. The house ought to stay safe, the whole house and the room which holds in trust the tears of my first night in Pakistan.” By blending the two places he regards as home, he can keep the former in some semblance of safety and wholeness in his mind.

The story of the novel—the chronicle of a Muslim man dealing with the loss of war-torn India and Pakistan—is good on its own, and the language is occasionally very beautiful, especially when the text loses itself in the storytelling of Muslim and Hindu myths, and as Zakir loses himself in them. However, for all the times that the language is elegant, there are instances of where wording seems awkward and there is a literalness that at times is detracting from the story. In her forward, translator Frances W. Pritchett explains that she has “not ‘transcreated’ the text or smoothed out its stylistic idiosyncrasies.” Spelling this out does not necessarily make the text easier for a non-Urdu speaker to read. One example hinges on the use of formality in spoken Urdu. Pritchett explains,

“. . . traditional Urdu is notable for its love of direct address and direct discourse. Speeches often begin with a form of address—sometimes a name or kinship term, or very commonly a vocative particle of some sort; while omitting or translating most, [Pritchett has] retained a few of the more vivid . . .”

The Urdu-speaking young man is very fond of addressing his fellow as “Yar!” This word is a term of comradeship, which is all well in itself, but, for the English-speaker, it calls to mind the cry of a bloodthirsty one-eyed pirate. Thus, the pages where the address is sprinkled throughout the text is almost comical. It’s possible to become quickly disenchanted with this frequency and form of address; in one two-page span, the term “yar” was used fourteen times. Here is a small sampling:

“Yar, that man seems a very suspicious character to me.”
“You’ve said something like this before.”
“But today I’m convinced of it.”
“Why?”
“Yar, anybody who makes a show of national feeling, I’ve begun to have doubts about.”
“Oh, let’s drop the subject, yar. I’ll tell you some news.”
“Really? All right.”
“Yar, today a letter came,” he said confidentially.

While this is the most extreme example of the proximity of the placement of this form of address, it can at times be distracting to an English reader. While Urdu is a more formalized language in which these forms of address and telling of proverbs is common, English is not—though that’s not to say there is anything wrong with presenting some foreignness in the translated text, There are schools of thought in translation theory stating that it is advantageous—if not beneficial—to have the reader work a little to understand a text.

Overall, this is a beautiful book that introduces the uninformed reader to a conflict that shook a whole subcontinent. It is strewn with beautiful language and references to cultures and religions the reader may be ignorant of. The novel is one for people who are interested in leaving their comfort zones and entering into a warzone, a place that was once a home, and learning what happens to those who stay, those who struggle with change. One can enjoy the lands traversed, be pulled in by the political struggle that is reminiscent, in some ways, of what the Western reader might associate with East and West Germany. And, in doing so, we can come to understand the meaning of basti, knowing, finally, that it is an international concept.

8 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.

Happy Moscow by Andrey Platonov, translated from the Russian by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler and others, including Olga Meerson, Jonathan Platt, Nadya Bourova, Angela Livingston, and Eric Naiman, and published by New York Review Books.

This piece is by BTBA judge Bill Marx, who also runs Arts Fuse, a great source for criticism and commentary on a range of art forms.

To my knowledge, none of Russian writer Andrey Platonov’s early science fiction novels have been translated into English. Robert Chandler, the writer’s fearless advocate and translator, once told me in conversation that they were minor efforts, though I would love to read them. To my mind, Happy Moscow reads at times like a marvelous anticipation of the futuristic excursions of Polish writer Stanislaw Lem. As in the latter’s acerbic novels, wry but demented visions of utopia and dystopia meet, mingle, and morph at the bloody crossroads of humanity and technology, language and gibberish, innocence and despoliation. As Eric Naiman writes in his introduction to an earlier version of the NYRB translation, “in both form and content this work captures the strange combination of enthusiasm and catastrophe that characterized Russia in the twentieth century.” Neither proclamations of unshakeable cheer nor prophecies of global meltdown are in short supply today: Platonov dramatizes the clash between Russian extremes of propaganda and reality to the point of cartoon absurdity. His deconstruction of reality-denying hubris remains provocative, still one step ahead of the postmodern pack.

Written between 1932 and 1936 and unpublished until 1991, Happy Moscow generates its characters (in particular Moscow Chestnova, the book’s sexy but sentimental and injury prone heroine) out of pure Stalinist kitsch, bloated visions of “immortal” vitality that from time to time crash into an increasingly degraded existence. Early on, the bold and beautiful parachutist Moscow finds herself plummeting helplessly to the ground:

She flew, her cheeks red and burning, and the air tore harshly at her body, as if it were not the wind of celestial space but a heavy dead substance—it was impossible to believe that the earth could be harder and still more merciless. “So, world, this is what you’re really like!”

Ah, the tragicomic exhilaration of the new Soviet woman falling toward the old, old ground.

Unsurprisingly Happy Moscow counterpoises its energetic (and amusing) rhetoric of ideological confidence with compelling images of excrescence and decay. Platonov’s humane ethos is articulated by a skeptical character as he is leaving a room filled with corpses that are being dissected in the scientific search for “the cistern of immortality”:

He was saddened by the sorrow and poverty of life, saddened that life is so helpless that it must almost uninterruptedly distract itself through illusion from an awareness of its own true situation. Even Sambikin was seeking illusions in his own thoughts and discoveries—he too was carried away by the complexity and great essence of the world in his imagination. But Sartorius could see that the world consisted primarily of destitute substance, which it was almost impossible to love but essential to understand.

Happy Moscow is a wild study in cosmic disillusionment, a diagnosis of linguistic, political, and metaphysical fiddle-faddle whose challenging use of broad caricature and stylistic instability will lead some readers to toss it into the bin of genre fiction, while others will dismiss it as a surreal doodle. But this book deserves to win because it is a sui generis masterwork, a satiric fantasia of unmistakable brilliance from one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, with ample collaborative evidence offered by the other pieces in this volume, particularly the story “The Moscow Violin.”

27 March 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._

Basti by Intizar Husain, translated from the Urdu by Frances W. Pritchett and published by NYRB Classics

This piece is by Korean translator Deborah Smith. You can follow her on Twitter at @londonkoreanist.

Intizar Husain, despite being widely regarded as the most significant living writer of Urdu fiction, is likely to have flown under the radar for most English-language readers prior to his recent nomination for the Man Booker International Prize. It’s particularly fortuitous, then, that the redoubtable team at NYRB Classics chose to issue Basti earlier this year, the only one of Husain’s five novels to have been published in English translation.

The novel opens with the narrator-protagonist Zakir as a child in the fictional town of Rupnagar, a place of harmony whose existence is predicated upon its timelessness and isolation from the outside world. As he grows up, Zakir forms an ambiguous yet touching attachment to his cousin Sabirah, from whom he is later separated when she chooses to remain behind in India post-partition. Zakir, now living in Lahore with his parents, is nominally a teacher of history but spends the majority of his time bickering with his friends in coffee houses as, outside, political slogans resound as the country descends into the madness of war. As Zakir’s narration comes to a close, the frequently-promised moment of revelation remains, as ever, tantalisingly just out of reach.

The fundamental disjunction between a semi-mythical past of harmonious tolerance and the all-too-present realities of political violence and the horrors of Partition is represented both structurally and linguistically in Basti, and refracted through the increasingly insular consciousness of its protagonist (particularly towards the latter stages of the novel, in which interior monologue plays an increasing role, blended with passages from what we are told is Zakir’s diary). Husain makes use of his vast knowledge of Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist traditions by quoting from their texts and alluding to their histories both classical and modern, weaving a shimmering tapestry of tone and register by turns lyrical, dreamy, prophetic, and fervid.

Frances W. Pritchett’s translation grapples admirably with a novel bursting with ambitious linguistic effects. The frequent repetition of the vocative yar, which Pritchett has chosen to retain, while initially jarring, becomes over the course of the novel an invaluable evocation of place for the reader, who is also, thanks to the sensitivity of the translator, not shut out from the subtle ways in which the characters’ various relationships are constructed and indicated in the original. That this visionary, modernist masterpiece is now made available in a translation which matches the ambition of the original is a truly impressive achievement.

29 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Lily Ye on this week’s Read This Next book, The Ermine in Czernopol by Gregor Von Rezzori. This novel is translated by Philip Boehm and forthcoming from New York Review Books.

This is the first book in the Von Rezzori trilogy, which also includes The Snows of Yesteryear and Memoirs of an Anti-Semite. All three titles are available from NYRB . . .

Here’s the opening of Lily’s review:

The Ermine of Czernopol is the first of Gregor von Rezzori’s semi-autobiographical novels about growing up in what was Austria-Hungary. In it, childhood is the conduit through which we must understand everything. The thing about a being a child is an unorthodox and oftentimes uncanny mode of perception, due to the foreign nature of those not yet fully socialized, coupled with a certain inability of expression. And this is an inevitable coupling as the very language that could do justice to children’s intuitions is only attainable through the very socialization that would dull these intuitions.

This is the conundrum that von Rezzori overcomes beautifully in Philip Boehm’s unabridged translation of The Ermine of Czernopol. In this memoir, we are treated to the un-opening of the world, its people and its countries, as understood by a group of children growing up in Czernopol, where there is a little bit of everything thrown together. The narrator speaks for his younger self, a young boy in this group of nigh inseparable siblings, as they eavesdrop upon the conversations of various adults, their primary source of information of the outside world. They listen to their frequent house guest, the prefect Herr Tarangolian, who gossips with authority; their tutor Herr Alexainu, who expounds on the nature of love; and countless others—all the while forming their own collective judgments and implications without fully comprehending what is being said. They dwell on the sounds of words and take delight in particular turns of phrase:

“The sayings we overheard, the whimsical sentences, the amazing word formations all burst into glowing colors when touched by the magical light of association [. . .]. It was like a star dropping from the sky if one of my siblings actually used in speech one of the words that had so excited us—for instance, when Tanya spoke of a leap of a great capacity—and if we were able to trace it back, not to the gymnastic exercises which Herr Alexainu had also described as a king of capacity, but to a name—in this case that of a certain Fraülein Kapralik. . . .”

To read the entire review, click here.

29 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Ermine of Czernopol is the first of Gregor von Rezzori’s semi-autobiographical novels about growing up in what was Austria-Hungary. In it, childhood is the conduit through which we must understand everything. The thing about a being a child is an unorthodox and oftentimes uncanny mode of perception, due to the foreign nature of those not yet fully socialized, coupled with a certain inability of expression. And this is an inevitable coupling as the very language that could do justice to children’s intuitions is only attainable through the very socialization that would dull these intuitions.

This is the conundrum that von Rezzori overcomes beautifully in Philip Boehm’s unabridged translation of The Ermine of Czernopol. In this memoir, we are treated to the un-opening of the world, its people and its countries, as understood by a group of children growing up in Czernopol, where there is a little bit of everything thrown together. The narrator speaks for his younger self, a young boy in this group of nigh inseparable siblings, as they eavesdrop upon the conversations of various adults, their primary source of information of the outside world. They listen to their frequent house guest, the prefect Herr Tarangolian, who gossips with authority; their tutor Herr Alexainu, who expounds on the nature of love; and countless others—all the while forming their own collective judgments and implications without fully comprehending what is being said. They dwell on the sounds of words and take delight in particular turns of phrase:

The sayings we overheard, the whimsical sentences, the amazing word formations all burst into glowing colors when touched by the magical light of association [. . .]. It was like a star dropping from the sky if one of my siblings actually used in speech one of the words that had so excited us—for instance, when Tanya spoke of a leap of a great capacity—and if we were able to trace it back, not to the gymnastic exercises which Herr Alexainu had also described as a king of capacity, but to a name—in this case that of a certain Fraülein Kapralik. Of course we had never laid eyes on her, but people said she gave Italian lessons. In any event, beyond our associations with capers and capricious—expressions our father liked to use in reference to us—her name called to mind a fun-loving woman from Capri. A similar wealth of associations opened up when a chance to overlap in pronunciation created by the miracle of fused meanings; for instance, when we heard the newly experienced word ektase—ecstasy—in the name of Năstase, which right away seemed to capture this young man’s tango-like essence.”

Von Rezzori does not condescend a child’s point of view with a child-like vocabulary, but rather uses his rather extensive supply of words with a precision and an ingenuity of combination that, stunningly, do not give a sense of some overly precious precocity but instead imbues in the reader with that sense of wonder and of first understanding that children experience but do not have power to express.

Perhaps the central figure in the text, as the object of the children’s greatest affection and curiosity is the Austrian officer Major Tildy, who they fall in love with immediately, without knowing almost anything about him. They spend the majority of the novel trying to hear more and more about him, as he defends the honor of his sister-in-law, a promiscuous woman from a wealthy family possessing a recognizable nose, and finds himself put away in a mental institution. Such is their infatuation that when they hear he is part German they spend an incredible amount of time speculating on the nature of Germans, and on the beauty of war. For them there is no such thing as a just war—there is just war. They understand the question only in terms of existence. When they are forced to grapple with their observations of Jewish discrimination within Czernopol, which culminates with a great riot in the streets, they understand not “that Jews are also people, but rather the reverse, that people are sometimes also Jews.” And so on, go the discoveries of this group of siblings, the unnoticed eavesdroppers in a city full of both turmoil and laughter.

For children find themselves in the unique position of alterity which still allows them access into realms of privileged knowledge, as it were, because they are not expected to understand the information that passes before their very eyes and ears. Von Rezzori seizes upon this privilege of youth and puts together an exquisitely recounted tale of childhood that contains not only the excitement and wonder of discovery, but also the cutting commentary and revelation that accompany such discovery when precisely expressed.

4 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As mentioned on last week’s podcast, and further elaborated on in this week’s one (BTW, you can subscribe to the Three Percent podcast at iTunes), Vladimir Sorokin was one of the authors I was most interested in seeing at the PEN World Voices Festival.

Way back when, I read his short, early novel The Queue in a Readers International edition, and at the time I found it pretty charming and inventive. The entire book is a play-like narrative about an endless number of people waiting in line to buy . . . something. They have no idea what’s for sale, how many will be available, or anything else. But they feel obliged to wait and find out. Out of this sort of dry, Soviet setting, an absurd, Beckett-like story develops in which people fall in love, leave the line, return to line, recite their number in line, stay in line for days . . . In short, a fun, entertaining little book.

Over the ensuing years, Sorokin’s reputation as the contemporary Russian author worth paying attention to has grown in leaps and bounds, mostly due to the portrayal of his books as shocking, offensive, aggressively anti-govermental, all the stuff that we (Americans, literary readers, seekers of the new) tend to gravitate towards.

When Ice came out from NYRB the other year, it was a pretty hotly anticipated book, although in the end, the reviews were fairly mixed, possibly due to its mostly non-political bent. (I’d also blame the fact that this was only the middle part of a trilogy. The book can stand alone by itself, but I think it will benefit from the larger scope of the trilogy.)

So this spring, when both FSG brought out Day of the Oprichnik and NYRB published the complete Ice Trilogy and Sorokin was selected to attend the World Voices Festival, it felt like his time had really come. Add to that this feature in the New York Times and it seemed like this was going to be Sorokin’s coming-out party. His real launch into the American literary scene.

It’ll be interesting to see how this all plays out . . . Day of Oprichnik is interesting, but not exactly what most American’s are looking for. I’m reading The Ice Trilogy
now, and find it more intriguing, but it’s also a complicated book for readers to get a handle on, since there are things about the cult that are simple and good-hearted, and things that are creepy as shit.

But before getting to that, I want to say that I wish the conversation between Keith Gessen of N+1 and Sorokin would’ve gone a bit smoother. Not that it was a bad event, but with Sorokin’s need to be translated and his meticulous, thoughtful, halting style of speaking, the conversation got a bit bogged down and Keith wasn’t really able to get to all the points he had obviously planned on. There was a lot of time spent talking about the beginning of his career, especially about Norma, in which the first 100 pages contain scene after domestic scene in which all the characters end up eating a little package of shit . . . They also talked about the literary underground and The Queue, but most of the new works were left out when time ran out . . .

Hopefully Gessen and Sorokin will do a written conversation at some point. Keith’s a very perceptive reader, and I think he would be able to frame Sorokin’s importance in a very meaningful way that would really help draw people to his works.

Although it was a bit disturbing—because the book is a bit disturbing—I think the performance of Ice worked a bit better. This event took place an hour after the conversation, and much of the audience was the same as at the first event. It was directed by Kornel Mundruczo from Hungary and took place in the Old Gymnasium. Setting wasn’t ideal—the actor and actresses read from a table on the same level as the seats, so for short people like me, we weren’t able to see all that much—nevertheless, it was very well-done, especially considering that their first rehearsal was on Tuesday . . .

Not to give away everything, but Ice (and the trilogy as a whole) is about a cult that aims to “awaken the hearts” of the 23,000 chosen people. They believe that once your heart is awoken, you can understand all the “heart words” and that once all 23,000 members are found, the world will be transformed into something beautiful and hippy and stuff.

All sounds pretty good, right? Well . . . the way they determine whether you’re “chosen” or not is by pounding the shit out of your chest with a hammer containing a piece of the ice meteor left by the Tunguska event. If you heart speaks its true name, then you’re saved! If not, you die. Creepy, no? And all the chosen people have blond hair and blue eyes, naturally.

The coolest moment of the performance was at the end, when the cult’s workings have been revealed and they’re expanding their search for the 23,000. At that moment, a screen dropped down and the best faux informercial I’ve ever seen was projected on it. The ad was for the ICE Machine, which looked like a rubber s&m sort of chestplate with a chunk of ice over your sternum, which, when plugged in, would repeatedly pound you and awaken your heart. It was perfectly spot-on in the way it kept cutting away to an image of the ICE Machine floating against a black background, available for only $230 by calling 23-23-223-23-23 . . .

As intended, this performance got me psyched to read the whole trilogy, so expect a formal review at Three Percent in the next few weeks . . .

16 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.

Click here for all past and future posts.

The Jokers by Albert Cossery, translated by Anna Moschovakis

Language: French
Country: Egypt
Publisher: New York Review Books
Pages: 160


A Splendid Conspiracy by Albert Cossery, translated by Alyson Waters

Language: French
Country: Egypt
Publisher: New Directions
Pages: 224

Why Cossery Should Win: One of the best discoveries of 2010; Cossery would’ve loved the Egyptian revolution; Cossery’s belief in idleness is awesome; Cossery’s belief in hedonism is awesome; both books are hilarious; he has 2-in-25 odds, which is twice as good as any other longlisted author

Today, Bill Marx of World Books and The Arts Fuse takes a look at both books by Albert Cossery that made the longlist.

Led by young people dreaming of freedom from authoritarian control, energized by plots and counterplots placed on Facebook and Twitter, the inspiring revolution in Egypt fits the resurrectionist fantasies of author Albert Cossery (1913-2008), though he would have preferred the liberating results be attained with less sacrifice and energy. His languid fiction treats subversion as a romp, a nervy comic game played against repression and routine. Given his delight in turning government puppets into clowns, Cossery would have reveled in how quickly Hosni Mubarak became a superannuated figure of farce.

Cossery left Egypt as a young man for Paris, where he hung out with Albert Camus and other French intellectuals while leading a life of hedonism (he estimated he had slept with over 2,000 women). His fiction financed his bohemian lifestyle and promulgated his relaxed anarchistic perspective—he was no lover of democracy but a libertine, an ironic satirist in the manner of Oscar Wilde who thought men salvageable as long as they didn’t bore. (Objects of desire, fear, and sentiment, women are irredeemable, at least in these two books.) The Jokers sums up the attributes of Cossery’s ideal male: “That he gives me a wonderful sense of plentitude, even when caught up in life’s trivalities. The breath of joy he conveys. That’s how you recognize the richness of a man’s love.” Think of a guy who exudes perpetual delight, especially when contemplating nihlistic destruction: the cocky panache of Cossery’s buddy-buddy vision of the world.

Both of the entertaining Cossery novels on the BTBA long list are masculine love stories in which young men who set out to undercut their clueless oppressors in Middle Eastern cities. For me, A Splendid Conspiracy, published in French in 1974, is the stronger of the two, perhaps because Cossery seems to be paying serious attention to his multi-layered faux-noirish tale of murder, political intrigue, and sexual perversity. The Jokers, which dates from 1963, deals with the same theme—a plucky, ultimately futile takedown of offical power—but provides sketchier, less exhilerating black comedy, though it has a nicely absurd payoff.

Also, given current concerns with terrorism, A Splendid Conspiracy presents an especially nervy parody of “revolutionary” violence. A police inspector in a small Egyptian town suspects a team of “radicals” are kidnapping and/or killing some of its most notable citizens. Of course, Cossery’s gang of sluggards, who mock everything but leisure and sex, are suspected to be the culprits. In one striking passage the ringleader of the laidback crew expresses sympathy for those dedicated to the decombustion of the status quo: “The tinest bomb that explodes somewhere should delight us, for behind the noise it makes when it explodes, even if barely audible, lies the laughter of a distant friend.” What price the joy of deconstruction? Cossery never asks.

14 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.

Click here for all past and future posts.

The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson, translated by Thomas Teal

Language: Swedish
Country: Finland
Publisher: New York Review Books
Pages: 208

Why This Book Should Win: Big favorite among booksellers; has been gathering buzz for over a year; that whole writes in Swedish but lives in Finland thing; one of NYRB’s most notable recent rediscoveries (NYRB also publishes her Fair Play and Summer Book.

Today’s post is from Kenny Brechner of DDG Booksellers in Maine.

Objectivity, like high fructose corn syrup and polyester suits, is very much out of fashion. The triumph of relativism is such that objectivity is considered now more an historical curiosity than a concept to be applied seriously. We do know, however, that the following statement, “True Deceiver should win The Best Translated Book Award for 2011,” is an objective fact. How can we be certain of that? Let us consider the matter objectively. From the standpoint of this award _True Deceiver was certainly reborn into English with a silver spoon in its mouth, for the concept of being a true deceiver lies at the very heart of translation itself. A successful translation cannot help but be the epitome of true deception, a consistent application of perspective which transforms a complex object from one shape to another. Jansson’s portrait of the corrosive effect of deception on the integrity of personal identity is compelling and unsettling to the nines. It grabs the reader with that most potent force of all: strong identification with a character in the thrall of a subtly corrupting evil. Its perfection as a work of translated fiction is plain to see in the power of its inversions, a portrait of deception and instability which yields truth and focus. These are matters of opinion you say? Hardly, for True Deceiver steps firmly away from any subjective accounting of its worth in its unique willingness and ability to speak directly on its own behalf, using only quotations from its pages, to anyone who questions it. The proof of these matters is to be found directly in the interview below.

KB: Do you feel that this BTBA will be conducted fairly?

True Deceiver: “You know nothing about Fair Play!”

KB: Perhaps not, but how can the awards committee reach truth?

True Deceiver: “The truth needs to be hammered in with iron spikes, but no one can drive nails into a mattress.”

KB: I see. Perhaps you’re right and the committee will need to take a firm line. Now do you feel that Tomas Teal handled his translation of you properly, considering how taut the prose is?

True Deceiver: “Cluttering the ground with Flowery Rabbits would have been unthinkable”.

KB: I see. Now if you had a word for a judge what would it be?

True Deceiver: “He must understand how hard I try, all the time, to put everything I do to a strict test—every act, every word I choose instead of a different word.”

KB: Is there any other objective data that would make the selection of any book other than yourself as the BTBA winner a danger to the future well being of the human enterprise?

True Deceiver: “I’ve given security where there was no security, no direction, Nothing. I provide safety!”

KB: I really appreciate your willingness to go on record and clarify these points. The stakes are terrifying.

True Deceiver: “I can assure you that you needn’t be nervous, there’s no cause for alarm.”

KB: I guess there’s nothing else to be said on the matter!

True Deceiver: “We’ve done what matters most.”

KB: Well I certainly hope so, for all human interconnection involves translation, and without an exploration of its dark possibilities we should all be much the poorer. And, if you don’t mind my saying so, you really add something vital to the whole of Tove Jansson’s sublime body of work. After all the Moomins may demonstrate the delightful exercise of freedom, but your pages reveal both the cost and the means of losing it.

True Deceiver: “Thank you for calling.”

23 November 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is something I wrote on Albert Cossery’s The Jokers, which was translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis and published by NYRB earlier this year.

For a long time I was planning a post called “Albert Cossery is $%^&ing Amazing,” after reading A Splendid Conspiracy and totally falling in love with Cossery’s style, sense of humor, etc.

I’ve told this story a few times already, but I think the “how” of how I came to read Cossery is an interesting 21st-century story about how books will be recommended in the future . . . Back at the beginning of the summer, I noticed that Tosh Berman from Book Soup in L.A. had given Cossery’s A Splendid Conspiracy 5 stars on GoodReads. Which made me take note, since a) I’d never heard of Cossery except in typing his books into the Translation Database and b) Tosh has great taste. (See TamTam Books, his publishing company, which publishes a ton of Boris Vian works.) So I added A Splendid Conspiracy to my “to read” bookshelf—something that was automatically posted on my Facebook wall.

A couple of days go back (like literally two), and Jeff Waxman of Seminary Co-op in Chicago gives Cossery’s The Jokers 5 stars on GoodReads. Since Jeff is a) also a great reader and b) part of the BTBA judging committee for fiction, I marked The Jokers as a book “to read,” which was automatically posted to my Facebook wall.

A half-hour later, I was watching my kids try and injure themselves jumping off of dirt ramps in the forest by my house, and decided to check my e-mail. There was a message notifying me that Brad Weslake—a professor at the University of Rochester and member of our editorial committee—had posted something on my Facebook wall. This something turned out to be a link to Cossery’s wiki page and a comment about how interesting he sounded. (And the wiki page is pretty intriguing, especially this bit: “In 60 years he only wrote eight novels, in accordance with his philosophy of life in which ‘laziness’ is not a vice but a form of contemplation and meditation. In his own words: ‘So much beauty in the world, so few eyes to see it.’)

Three times makes a trend, so I picked up my dirty, sweaty children and ran off to the local bookstore to buy a copy of A Splendid Conspiracy, which I read over the next three days and also gave a 5 star rating . . .

And to drive home the connectedness of this all, as of this morning, six GoodRead friends have either marked A Splendid Conspiracy as something they want to read or gave it a 5-star rating. And of non-friends who have read/rated this, there’s at least one who also gave it 5 stars and included the comment “Tosh: You were right.”

I don’t know what this all means, but in the class I teach to my interns, we’re talking about the future of book recommendations, about how we’ll find out about stuff when it’s all e-book this and that and there are no friendly indie stores where we can go to talk to over-educated, more-than-well-read booksellers willing to give us accurate, individualized suggestions. I’m not sure if the Facebook/LibraryThing/GoodReads networks can actually ever replicate this, but it’s interesting to talk about and see in action . . .

Anyway, here’s the opening of my review:

Albert Cossery is the best dead writer I’ve discovered this year. A few of his books were published in English translation back before I was born, but this year saw the publication of two never-before-translated Cossery novels — A Splendid Conspiracy, which was translated by Alyson Waters and published by New Directions, and The Jokers, translated by Anna Moschovakis and published by New York Review Books — both of which are great fun, centering around groups of Middle Eastern pranksters determined to overthrow the oppressively mundane nature of everyday life (and/or the oppressive government) through practical jokes, entitled laziness, and constant debauchery.

It wasn’t just in his novels that Cossery supported this sort of playboy lifestyle—he truly believed that laziness wasn’t a vice, but a way of meditating, of appreciating the beauty found in world. This is even exhibited in his output. Although writing eight novels over 60 years might be an accomplishment for you, me, and Jonathan Franzen, it’s not really all that impressive for most writers of the time. Especially when titles like The Jokers clock in at fewer than 150 pages. (Although these are a tight 150 pages, filled with interweaving perspectives, a tricksy plot based on trickery, lively characters, lots of debauching, and a good deal of wit.)

That said, of the two Cossery books that came out this year, A Splendid Conspiracy is probably the better one. It’s more autobiographical: the protagonist is a very Cossery-like character who returns to Egypt from studying abroad in Paris (where, instead of getting a degree in Chemical Engineering, he spent all his time getting wasted and trolling around in whorehouses) convinced that life in this small Egyptian town will be incredibly boring. To his surprise, he winds up falling in with a group of dandy troublemakers who are under suspicion by the authorities for the disappearance of a number of wealthy men.

In many ways, The Jokers comes from a similar place, where the overbearing authorities are pitted against a group of young and hip pranksters.

To read the full piece, simply click here.

23 November 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [3]

Albert Cossery is the best dead writer I’ve discovered this year. A few of his books were published in English translation back before I was born, but this year saw the publication of two never-before-translated Cossery novels — A Splendid Conspiracy, which was translated by Alyson Waters and published by New Directions, and The Jokers, translated by Anna Moschovakis and published by New York Review Books — both of which are great fun, centering around groups of Middle Eastern pranksters determined to overthrow the oppressively mundane nature of everyday life (and/or the oppressive government) through practical jokes, entitled laziness, and constant debauchery.

It wasn’t just in his novels that Cossery supported this sort of playboy lifestyle—he truly believed that laziness wasn’t a vice, but a way of meditating, of appreciating the beauty found in world. This is even exhibited in his output. Although writing eight novels over 60 years might be an accomplishment for you, me, and Jonathan Franzen, it’s not really all that impressive for most writers of the time. Especially when titles like The Jokers clock in at fewer than 150 pages. (Although these are a tight 150 pages, filled with interweaving perspectives, a tricksy plot based on trickery, lively characters, lots of debauching, and a good deal of wit.)

That said, of the two Cossery books that came out this year, A Splendid Conspiracy is probably the better one. It’s more autobiographical: the protagonist is a very Cossery-like character who returns to Egypt from studying abroad in Paris (where, instead of getting a degree in Chemical Engineering, he spent all his time getting wasted and trolling around in whorehouses) convinced that life in this small Egyptian town will be incredibly boring. To his surprise, he winds up falling in with a group of dandy troublemakers who are under suspicion by the authorities for the disappearance of a number of wealthy men.

In many ways, The Jokers comes from a similar place, where the overbearing authorities are pitted against a group of young and hip pranksters. One of the best parts of The Jokers is the opening set-piece in which a policeman, under orders to remove all homeless people from the streets, attacks a beggar who has seated himself outside of a bank. He begins with insults, moves onto kicking, goes a bit crazy, and ends up knocking the beggar over:

Bending over the old man, he grabbed him by his turban, shaking him with savage fury in an attempt to bring him back to life. This action was both rash and irreparable: as if by magic, the beggar’s head became detached from his neck and remained stuck to the turban, which the policeman continued to brandish in the air like a bloody trophy. [. . .] What had at first appeared to be a genuine flesh-and-blood beggar was in fact only a dummy, ably made up by a skilled artist, that had been left out in this respectable neighborhood precisely in order to provoke the police. [. . .] Far from calming the crowd, this discovery incited it to an opposite extreme: people began to snigger and sneer at the unfortunate cop, who stood there stunned.

And with that little prank, we’re off, leaving the dusty, baked streets behind to find Karim — the brains behind this prank — in bed with his latest “conquest.” (Whom he calls Zouzou, because he calls all of them Zouzou.) Karim wasn’t always so a joke bombing, Egyptian Yippie — as we come to find out, he spent some time in jail for his more violent revolutionary outbursts.

This philosophical conflict — do you defeat violence and oppression through more violence or jokes? — runs throughout the book, as in this somewhat pedantic and stilted debate between a joker and a more traditional revolutionary:

“Games,” [Heykal] said, looking pensive. “You’re right to talk about that. Because we’re all playing a game, aren’t we, Taher effendi? I profoundly regret that my game has given you offense and caused you trouble. But any man has the right to express his rebellion in his own way. Mine is what it is; at least it doesn’t harm the innocent.”

“How infantile!” Taher retorted disdainfully. “I don’t doubt your intelligence, Heykal effendi, not in the least. But excuse me if I tell you that you’re just having fun while people are suffering from oppression. Fun is no way to fight. Violence must be met with violence. And forget about innocence!”

It might be due to the time when this was originally written (1964), but these political diatribes are a bit of a blindspot for Cossery, coming off in stiff, naïve terms that aren’t a tenth as interesting as his more subtle depictions of the attraction his characters have for children and childlike activities. These bits really underscore the philosophical bent of the novel, such as when Karim waxes poetic about making and flying kites, or when co-conspirator Urfy starts a private school so that he wouldn’t have to spend all his time with those hideous adults:

What Urfy admired in children was, above all, their complete lack of ambition. They were content with their daily lot; they strove for nothing but the simple joys of being alive. But for how much longer? It passed quickly — childhood and the marvelous pointlessness of youth — an undeniable truth that filled Urfy with bitterness. These children would later become men. They would join the pack of wolves; they’d abandon their intransigent love of purity and lose themselves in the anonymous crowd of murderers.

Cossery’s strength is in constructing these characters out of minor quirks (Karim always calls them Zouzou, Heykal wears the same luxurious suit every day, Urfy’s anxiety about feeling bad for his insane mother, etc.) and weaving together these viewpoints into a cohesive, compelling plot. Even amid the various missteps (e.g., not detailing what’s written on the poster that brings about the governor’s downfall), it’s clear that Cossery’s most interested in the characters — the jokers of the title — and not necessarily on the jokes themselves, which is one reason this book still resonates today. It’s a rich work, and taken in combination with A Splendid Conspiracy establishes Cossery as one of the most interesting international authors — living or dead — to be published in America this year.

9 September 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Earlier this week, the NEA announced the recipients of this year’s Literature Translation Fellowships. To provide more info about the stellar group of people and projects the NEA is supporting, they’re going to be interviewing at least some of the authors for Art Works, their relatively new, and quite impressive blog.

First up is the stellar Esther Allen whose project sounds interesting and long-overdue:

NEA: Please briefly describe the project this grant will support. How do you choose the works you translate?

EA: I’m translating Zama, a 1956 novel by Argentine writer Antonio Di Benedetto, considered a great masterpiece in the Spanish-speaking world but never before translated into English. The project grew out of a trip to Argentina I made in 2005 at the invitation of the Fundación TyPA, which brings editors and translators from across the world to Buenos Aires for a whirlwind week-long literary boot camp each year. There I discovered that the Argentine writers who are known internationally are quite a different set of names from the ones everyone in Argentina is talking about. Antonio di Benedetto came up frequently in meetings with critics, writers, and editors, but I’d never heard of him before. I came home with a couple of his books and found them simultaneously intriguing and off-putting—I couldn’t quite enter into what he was doing. Edwin Frank, editor of New York Review Books Classics, went on the same trip a couple of years later, and he’s the one who brought Zama back. He asked me to have a look at it and see if it was worth doing—and I decided it was.

Quickly want to point out that the TyPA Editors’ Week is effing fantastic. I participated a few years ago—before we published Saer, before we published Macedonio—and absolutely loved it. (You can read all about it in excruciating personal detail by clicking here.) Came back with more knowledge of the Argentine literary scene—and tango, oh, yes, the beautiful tango—than I ever would’ve imagined. And yes, trips like these are one of the ways that publishers find titles to translate. And yes, I am now even more obsessed with Argentine literature . . . and the tango. In fact, I may well write a Publishing Perspectives piece about learning the tango at the Frankfurt Book Fair, but more on that project later . . .

Back to Esther and how much she totally rocks:

NEA: You’ve spoken of your work as “a kind of activism in defense of translation”—what do you mean by that?

EA: When I first started out as a translator in the early 1990s, it often felt as if it was the last thing in the world anyone should be idiotic enough to devote time to. There was a prevailing sense that translation, any translation, was some sort of shameful, lowbrow thing. Most publishers resisted doing translations—many were so out of practice they wouldn’t have been sure how to publish a translation even if they’d wanted to. Some academics were bringing out their translations under pseudonyms, to avoid the stigma of being a translator. It’s a wonder people kept doing it at all. There were a number of us at that point who started thinking about how to surmount those barriers and keep the conversation between literature written in English and the literature of the rest of the world going. I’ve been a reader of Borges from a very young age, and for Borges translation is the central literary activity; it was painful to see how belittled it had become in the English-speaking world. Now, twenty years later, our culture has certainly become far more receptive to translation. But it seems to be a cycle; American culture had previously been very receptive in the 60s and early 70s, and then moved back toward monolingual insularity. Eliot Weinberger has suggested that Americans become more interested in reading works from other languages when they are disenchanted with their own country—so perhaps these moments of increased attention to translation weren’t due to the work of “translation activists” but to misguided wars like those in Vietnam and Iraq. In any case, it’s clear that translation in the English-speaking world will continue to need defenders.

Esther is an amazing translation activist who accomplishes more in a year than most of us do in a lifetime. Anyway, read the complete interview for more insights into the process of translation, the balancing of the author’s voice and that of the translator’s, and the importance of what the NEA does. And I’ll re-post more of these interviews as they become available . . .

16 August 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I just received a copy of The Jokers last week, and as soon as I finish it I’m going to write my own appreciation of just how awesome Albert Cossery is. I can’t believe I never heard of this guy before this summer . . . His books are incredibly funny, smart, well-crafted—but more on that in a later post.

In the meantime, here’s David Ulin’s wonderful review of both Cossery books that came out this year: The Jokers (translated by Anna Moschovakis, published by NYRB) and A Splendid Conspiracy (translated by Alyson Waters, published by New Directions):

The Jokers is one of two Cossery novels newly translated into English; the other is A Splendid Conspiracy, from 1975. If these books are any indication, someone should get the rest of his writing — there are seven other titles — back into print. The Jokers is a small masterpiece, the story of a group of pranksters who conspire to bring down the governor of the unnamed city in which they live. They do this not by direct action or revolution but rather by a subtle subversion, initiating a campaign to overpraise the official so lavishly that his credibility is destroyed. “Has anyone ever known revolutionaries to attack a government with praise?” asks a young man named Heykal, the driving force behind the plan. Later, Cossery elaborates on the peculiar challenges of this quiet insurrection: “The governor was the sort of public figure who stumps even the cleverest caricaturists. What could they do that nature hadn’t already accomplished? Short and potbellied, with stubby legs, he had a squashed nose and huge bug eyes ready to pop out of their sockets. . . . But in fact the governor was only trying to show that in this city of chronic sleepers he was awake.”

Here, we see the delicate tension that defines Cossery’s vision, located somewhere between ironic derision and a very real sense of sedition. For all that Heykal and his friends Karim, Khaled Omar and Urfy (a teacher popular among his students because he “inculcated them with a single principle: to know that everything grown-ups told them was false and that they should ignore it”) claim to stand outside the ordinary push-and-pull of society, they clearly have a purpose and a point of view. What sets them apart is the knowledge that even if they succeed in overthrowing the governor, it won’t make any difference; they cannot derail “the eternal fraud.” Why do it, then? As a lark, in part, a remedy for boredom, but also as an existential statement, a protest at once pointed and absurd.

Were this all there is to The Jokers, it would be a vivid effort, a philosophical novel in the most essential sense. Yet the true measure of Cossery’s genius is how he finds room for real emotion, even among those who might purport to disdain the feelings he describes.

Cossery’s definitely worth checking out . . . I wouldn’t at all be surprised to find both of these books on the Best Translated Book Award longlist for this year . . . (Again, I’m not on the judging committee, so this is pure speculation.)

27 November 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

One of the most disorienting things about publishing is the time gap between when you first hear about a title and when it actually comes out. It’s really bad from the editing end of things—frequently you first encounter a book two-plus years before it’s published and on bookstore shelves.

Even as a pure consumer, this gap can be frustrating. For instance, in today’s mail, I got the new New York Review Books catalog. As a huge fan (aren’t we all?), I’m always exciting to see what they’re coming out with, and this catalog includes a few interesting books, none of which will be available until the middle of next year . . .

The two titles that most caught my eye are:

  • The Family Mashber by Der Nister, translated from the Yiddish by Leonard Wolf: compared to The Brothers Karamazov this is a “detailed an panoramic picture of an Eastern European town and its people, a social satire, a kabbalistic allegory, a brilliantly innovative fusion of modernist art and traditional storytelling, a tale of weird humor and mounting tragic power.” (May 2008.)
  • The Queue by Vladimir Sorokin, translated from the Russian by Sally Laird: This is a fantastic—and very funny—novel about thousands of citizens waiting in line for . . . something. The novel is entirely in dialogue (except for one expository passage if memory serves) and functions almost like a three-act play. I read this in the Readers International version years ago, and am really looking forward to reading it again next August when it comes out. . .
19 November 07 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

The Santa Cruz Sentinel writes a love letter to Edwin Frank and the New York Review of Books Classics series. We couldn’t agree more.

via complete review

24 September 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

To follow-up on last week’s post, the exchange between Gitta Honegger and Tim Parks about his article on Jelinek is now available at the NYRB website.

10 August 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Via A Different Stripe

Numéro, which bills itself as “the FREE Peoria area complete entertainment guide,” is featuring Adolfo Bioy Casares’s The Invention of Morel as its August book club selection.

Who knew that Peoria had entertainment? Or a book club? Or a book club capable of picking an awesome book? Generally, I though Peoria was a poor man’s Bloomington-Normal, but whatever, any place that encourages its residents to read Bioy Casares is OK by my standards.

For those unfamiliar with this gem, here’s a brief description:

An escapee is marooned on a formerly inhabited island. He believes he’s alone until he spots the presence of a group of vacationers, dressed in resort clothing from another time. But try as he might, they just won’t take notice of him.

This is a strange, compelling little book that resonates with all Lost fans . . . Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if this is what Jacob’s reading while rocking in his chair . . .

10 August 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

NYRB is having a special Summer Reading Sale and is selling 3-4 pack “collections” of their titles at up to 40% off.

With such a great backlist, all of the collections are interesting. My personal favorites are the “Parisian Life Collection,” the “Russian Writers Collection,” and the “Novels of War Collection.”

25 July 07 | Chad W. Post |

What is it with the books coverage in the NY Sun? Totally makes the daily Times look like a provincial rag . . .

Anyway, Benjamin Ivry has a review of Victor Segalen’s Steles, a collection of prose poems just out from Wesleyan University Press in today’s Sun.

I personally don’t know much about Segalen, except that his novel Rene Leys was recommended to me on several occasions. And was reissued not too long ago by the ubiquitous (at least on this blog) New York Review Books.

But back to the real matter—how is it that the Sun has such a kick-ass book review section? I’ve never actually seen anyone reading this on the subway . . . Anyone? Anyone?

....
In Times of Fading Light
In Times of Fading Light by Eugen Ruge
Reviewed by Phillip Koyoumjian

The historian John Lukacs observed, “Fictitious characters may represent characteristic tendencies and potentialities that existed in the past” and thus “may serve the historian under certain circumstances—when, for example, these are prototypical representations of certain contemporary realities.” Eugen Ruge’s In. . .

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The Antiquarian
The Antiquarian by Gustavo Faverón Patriau
Reviewed by P.T. Smith

Gustavo Faverón Patriau’s The Antiquarian, translated by Joseph Mulligan, is a genre-blending novel, a complete immersion that delves into a lesser-used niche of genre: horror, gothic, the weird. There are visual horrors, psychological ones, and dark corners with threats lurking.. . .

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Elsewhere
Elsewhere by Eliot Weingerber (ed.)
Reviewed by Grant Barber

What a wonderful, idiosyncratic book Weinberger has written. I say book, but the closest comparison I could make to other works being published right now are from Sylph Edition’s “Cahiers Series“—short pamphlet-like meditations by notable writers such as Ann Carson,. . .

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The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly
The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-mi Hwang
Reviewed by Chris Iacono

Early in Sun-mi Hwang’s novel The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly, the main character, a hen named Sprout, learns about sacrifice. After refusing to lay any more eggs for the farmer who owns her, she becomes “culled” and released. . .

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Sankya
Sankya by Zakhar Prilepin
Reviewed by Kseniya Melnik

When Sankya was published in Russia in 2006, it became a sensation. It won the Yasnaya Polyana Award (bestowed by direct descendants of Leo Tolstoy) and was shortlisted for the Russian Booker and the National Bestseller Award. Every member of. . .

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Stalin is Dead
Stalin is Dead by Rachel Shihor
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

Stalin is Dead by Rachel Shihor has been repeatedly described as kafkaesque, which strikes a chord in many individuals, causing them to run to the bookstore in the middle of the night to be consumed by surreal situations that no. . .

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Paradises
Paradises by Iosi Havilio
Reviewed by Andrea Reece

Paradises by cult Argentinian author Iosi Havilio is the continuation of his earlier novel, Open Door, and tells the story of our narrator, a young, unnamed Argentinian woman.

The very first sentence in Paradises echoes the opening of Camus’s The Outsider. . .

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