As noted on the Dalkey Archive website, Norwegian author Stig Sæterbakken took his own life this past Tuesday.
Sæterbakken was the author of the novels Incubus, The New Testament, Siamese, Self-Control, and Sauermugg (the latter three constituting the “S-trilogy”), and two collections of essays, Aesthetic Bliss and The Evil Eye.
Siamese was published by Dalkey a couple years back in Stokes Schwartz’s translation. It was reviewed in the New York Times by fellow Dalkey author Jim Krusoe (whose Iceland is most hysterical), who had this to say:
First published in 1997, “Siamese” is Saeterbakken’s third novel and the first of his “S” trilogy (because they all start with the letter S), and while the level of barrenness here is fairly stupendous, it seems also to be earned. Edwin, the co-narrator and the former director of an old-age home, has himself come to the end of his life. He is blind, paralyzed, incontinent, self-centered and stuffed with unpleasant opinions that he’s only too happy to share with us and with his wife, Sweetie, the other narrator.
Seated in a chair in a dark room of his apartment on an island of Orbit gum wrappers and dried gum (chewing Orbit is the one pleasure he has left other than torturing his wife), Edwin fulminates and decays. Sweetie comes and goes. There is rumored to be a servant. The building’s superintendent arrives at the start of the book to replace a fluorescent bulb (he also fixes the light in the fridge, gratis, and adjusts the freezer setting). He will return at the end to become a lodger. In between is the struggle between Edwin, fixed like a stone in his chair, and the fluid, ridiculously accommodating Sweetie. Each defines the other.
In other words, we are traveling here though the bleakest territory of Beckett, the haunted compulsions of Thomas Bernhard, the desperation of Saeterbakken’s countryman Knut Hamsun. But missing are Beckett’s closely reasoned wit, Bernhard’s rigor, even Hamsun’s frantic grasping. Instead, Saeterbakken holds up for our edification a nasty and petulant individual who never was all that much fun in the first place.
As it turns out, Kerri Pierce, a recent Rochester transplant and fellow Plübian who has translated five books for Dalkey, including Assisted Living by Nikanor Teratologen, which contains an afterword by Sæterbakken. Since Kerri was a friend of his, I asked her to write something up for us about his passing:
When I got the news that Stig Sæterbakken had committeed suicide, my first thought was—the world is a less interesting place. Although I never met Stig personally, I worked with him on a number of projects. He wrote the Foreword and Afterword to two works I had the joy of translating, Tor Ulvens Replacement and Nikanor Teratologen’s Assisted Living respectively. He was always ready to help if I had a question about a word or phrase and I, in turn, had occasion to help him when he needed someone to proofread a text in English. Over time, I came to consider him a colleague and a friend, as well as a brilliant writer in his own right. It’s strange to think that his last e-mail to me will be left unreturned.
This is horrible news. From the Alma Books Bloggerel:
John Calder called me this afternoon to give me the sad news of Barbara Wright’s death last night, after complications from a hip operation. Barbara was one of the greatest and most influential translators from the French, and was almost as instrumental as John in making available the works of some of the greatest authors of twentieth-century French literature, such as Queneau and Sarraute.
Before she moved from her house on Frognal, and before I left Dalkey Archive, I used to go and have dinner with Barbara Wright every time I was in London. I swear, I could’ve listened to her talk for hours about how she became a translator, about James Laughlin, about John Calder, about the first time she met Beckett . . . Thankfully, I still have a few of the postcards she used to send me along with a special “Tolling Elves 5” brochure that was printed in honor of Raymond Queneau’s centenary and features samples from a few of Barbara’s translations of his work. (Speaking of which, her story about how she invented a few of the pieces in Exercises in Style while translating the book is another classic story . . .)
She was one of the all time great translators, and also one of the kindest people I ever met. She will be greatly missed.
I think I read the Rabbit books at too young an age to ever fully appreciate John Updike’s work. But once I started working at Dalkey, the thing I did appreciate was his amazing literary taste. Over and again we would be reprinting a somewhat obscure author, like Robert Pinget, and in searching for reviews and quotes about the book, we’d turn up a lengthy New Yorker essay by Updike about this great literary find. (It’s cool that there was a time when critics could write long glowing pieces about international authors virtually unknown to the American public. But that’s a subject for a different post.)
If for nothing else, Updike will be missed for his stature as a true “man of letters.” There are many people like that left in the world.
The New York Times has a great overview of his life and work.
One of the legends of publishing, Richard Seaver died from a heart attack on Tuesday. The New York Times has a very nice obituary that highlights his stint at Grove Press, and a bit about what he did at Arcade over the past twenty years.
For the past 20 years, Mr. Seaver and his wife ran Arcade Publishing, which has endured to become one of the most prominent independent publishers left in the United States, specializing in works by far-flung and underexposed authors from all over the world. But the mission of Arcade, to publish new voices that seemingly flout the wisdom of the marketplace, was one that Mr. Seaver began pursuing decades earlier. [. . .]
During Mr. Seaver’s dozen years at Grove — he eventually became its editor in chief — it mounted many similar challenges to decency statutes, publishing literary but taboo-challenging works like Henry Miller’s autobiographical sex odysseys, Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn; Burroughs’s semi-surreal travelogue of a homosexual junkie, Naked Lunch; and Hubert Selby’s novel Last Exit to Brooklyn, which dealt unflinchingly with drugs, homosexuality and rape. In 1965 Grove published a translation of The Story of O, a 1954 French novel about a woman who gives away her body in slavery to a man.
He also translated more than 50 books from the French, including works by Marguerite Duras.
The Times also included this nice bit from Seaver’s recently complete memoir:
In a recently completed memoir, Mr. Seaver recalled the great literary moment of his youth. It was 1952, he was 25 and he had just finished reading two novels, Molloy and Malone Dies, which he deemed to be masterpieces. He wanted to say so.
“How do you write a meaningful comment on such rich, complex, still undiscovered work, without making a critical fool of yourself?” he wrote. “So make a fool of yourself.”
“Out, damned modesty,” he added. “If conviction means anything, then write from the heart. Slightly less tentatively, I wrote: ‘Samuel Beckett, an Irish writer long established in France, has recently published two novels which, although they defy all commentary, merit the attention of anyone interested in this century’s literature.’ ”
Reclusive writer Inger Christensen who “built experimental poems, essays and novels around systematized and mathematical structures” passed away at the age of 73.
One of the books of 2009 that I’m most looking forward to is her novel Azorno, which New Directions is bringing out this summer. But after reading the quote above (from a skeletal AP obit) I think I’m also going to check out some of her poetry collections, especially Alphabet and Butterfly Valley: A Requiem, both of which are also available from ND.
I had the chance to meet Gert Jonke in Vienna a few years back. I was there with Dalkey publisher John O’Brien, looking for Austrian writers to publish in English. (One of the titles we heard about was A Fucking Masterpiece, which, according to the reading report we got, actually wasn’t, but it’s still one of the ballsiest titles I’ve ever come across.) Dalkey published Jonke’s Geometric Regional Novel back in the 80s a fantastic and imaginative book that contains one of the funniest faux-bureaucratic questionnaires to ever appear in print, and John was always looking for other Jonke books to publish.
One of my favorite moments with Gert was when I asked if he’d be willing to come to the U.S. for a reading tour. He politely declined, saying he wasn’t really interested in coming to the States because there’s no where you can smoke in this country. And he wasn’t sure if Red Bull would be as accessible here as it is in Austria . . .
If any English-language obituaries are published, I’ll update this post and link to them below.
As has already been written up everywhere, Alexander Solzhenitsyn died on Sunday, supposedly after a stroke.
Solzhenitsyn is most well known for One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (which was part of the first ever Reading the World promotion) and the Gulag Archipelago trilogy.
Russia Today has a nice overview video on Solzhenitsyn’s life:
Hugo Claus, one of Belgium’s most respected writers, passed away yesterday, reportedly of euthanasia.
Claus produced some 200 works during his career but was best known for his classic, The Sorrow of Belgium—a scathing attack on social injustice, stifling family relationships and Roman Catholic repression in his native Flanders in northern Belgium. [. . .]
Often writing out of anger and guilt, Claus relied on pitiless realism in his work.
“I am a person who is unhappy with things as they stand. We cannot accept the world as it is. Each day we should wake up foaming at the mouth because of the injustice of things,” he said in a magazine interview more than a decade ago. [. . .]
Throughout his life, Claus was a reluctant Belgian despite the increasing adulation at home as one of the prime men of letters in the Dutch language. But he said being from Belgium — the laughingstock of the French and Dutch alike — was a great advantage to his writing since he never was restrained by any sense of grandeur.
In addition to Sorrow of Belgium (which is available from Overlook) , a few of his other titles are available in English translation, and Archipelago has plans to bring out Amazement in a translation by Michael Henry Heim.
Alain Robbe-Grillet passed away yesterday at the age of 85. A major force in twentieth-century French literature, here’s part of the obit in “The Guardian“:
He was the most prominent of France’s “new novelists,” a group that emerged in the mid-1950s and whose experimental works tossed aside traditional literary conventions like plot and character development, narrative and chronology, chapters and punctuation. Others included Claude Simon, Michel Butor and Nathalie Sarraute. [. . .]
Read by high school and college students the world over, he enjoyed an international reputation based on the success of his early works.
The Literary Saloon has information about all the early obituaries, and some information about how his passing relates to the current problems of the Académie française.
From the Guardian:
The writer Francisco Umbral, who has died of pneumonia aged 72, was the angry man of Spanish letters. Born in Madrid, he was brought up in the provincial Castilian city of Valladolid. Following the tradition of several generations of aspirant writers, and most particularly his beloved Ramón María del Valle-Inclán, he arrived back in Madrid in 1961 to take the capital by storm with the force of his personality linked to the power of his pen. Unlike most, he succeeded.
He once stormed out of a television panel because no one was discussing his book, and he published an entire book attacking his maestro and friend Camilo José Cela after Cela’s death.
Travesía de Madrid (Madrid Crossing, 1966) was his first novel. His verbal fireworks were already in place. Umbral rejected 1950s’ social realism. He was not interested in telling a story, but in writing beautiful prose. Uninterested in plot or psychology of characters, he expressed his own vitality, views and feelings. “An aesthete to his bones,” said Delibes.
As mentioned in the Complete Review, translator from the Japanese Edward Seidensticker passed away at the age of 86.
From the obit in The Asahi Shimbun:
The professor emeritus at Columbia University in New York translated dozens of Japanese works, but he is perhaps best known for completing a full-length English translation of “Genji Monogatari” (The Tale of Genji) in 1975. It took him about 15 years to finish the classic written by Murasaki Shikibu in the Heian Period (794-1185).
Seidensticker also translated more than 100 contemporary literary works, such as “Yukiguni” (Snow Country) and “Senbazuru” (Thousand Cranes) by Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata, and “Sasame Yuki” (The Makioka Sisters) and “Tade Kuu Mushi” (Some Prefer Nettles) by Junichiro Tanizaki.
A leading writer of Urdu fiction, Qurratulain Hyder died at the age of 80. Along with her short stories, she was the author of 12 novels.
From the BBC:
The theme of many of Hyder’s books was the pain caused by the partition of the Indian subcontinent.
Her best known novel is the epic Aag ka dariya (River of Fire) – a massive historical tale that moves between the fourth century BC to the modern day.
The book, originally written in Urdu, was later translated into English by the author herself.
River of Fire is available in the States from New Directions. It didn’t receive a ton of attention, but the reviews it got were quite decent.
Via The Guardian:
Luigi Meneghello, who has died aged 85, was one of the most interesting, and according to some critics, the best contemporary Italian writer.
And here’s a bit about his writing:
The fascist convictions of his teens disintegrated quickly and Meneghello, who had been called up for military service, joined the resistance in 1943 as the Italian state collapsed, setting up a partisan group under the aegis of the liberal socialist and anti-fascist Partito d’Azione. He gives a striking account of this period in a work of high literary value, I piccoli maestri (1964) – in English, The Outlaws (1967) – one of the few non-rhetorical, and therefore all the more effective, memoirs of the Italian resistance, which is true in every detail. [. . .]
Meneghello’s first book was Libera nos a malo (1963), an extraordinary accomplishment which remains one of the most important Italian works of the last five decades. The title page calls it a novel (romanzo) but it belongs to no traditional genre and is simultaneously an autobiography, an essay about the life and culture of his village, and a reflection on literature, language and thought.
Nazik al-Mala’ika who has died aged 83 was one of the most influential Arab poets of the 20th century. Her life and work reflected the history of her native Iraq – idealism, hope, disappointment, exile, depression. Like others of her generation she was influenced by English poetry and pioneered the breakaway from the formalistic classical modes of poetry that had prevailed in Arabic poetry for more than 1,000 years.
Michelangelo Antonioni, the Italian director who made the film adaptation of Cortazar’s Blow-Up along with may other critically acclaimed films passed away at his home Monday evening.
From the New York Times
George Tabori, an internationally known Hungarian-born playwright whose work sounded the depths of the refugee experience, a condition with which he was intimately familiar, died on Monday at his home in Berlin. He was 93.
Russian poet and artist Dmitri Prigov died on Monday at the age of 66.
Prigov was an interesting character. In 2005 he claimed to have written 36,000 poems, and was known for writing verse on cans. His literature was considered subversive, and as a result, the K.G.B. took him away to a psychiatric hospital. Thankfully his stay there was relatively brief due to protests from prominent writers.
Some of his poems are available in English translation in In the Grip of Strange Thoughts: Poetry for a New Era edited by J. Kates.
“The small stone plaza was floating in the midday heat. The Christ of Elqui, kneeling on the ground, his gaze thrown back on high, the part in his hair dark under the Atacaman sun—he felt himself falling into an ecstasy.. . .
This slender, uncanny volume—the second, best-selling collection of stories by Russian author Ludmilla Petrushevskaya to appear in the U.S.—has already received considerable, well-deserved praise from many critics and high profile publications. Its seventeen short tales, averaging ten pages each, are. . .
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,. . .
The Whispering Muse, one of three books by Icelandic writer Sjón just published in North America, is nothing if not inventive. Stories within stories, shifting narration, leaps in time, and characters who transform from men to birds and back again—you’ve. . .
Luis Negrón’s debut collection Mundo Cruel is a journey through Puerto Rico’s gay world. Published in 2010, the book is already in its fifth Spanish edition. Here in the U.S., the collection has been published by Seven Stories Press and. . .
To have watched from one of your patios
the ancient stars
from the bank of shadow to have watched
the scattered lights
my ignorance has learned no names for
nor their places in constellations
to have heard the ring of. . .
When Icelandic author Andri Snær Magnason first published LoveStar, his darkly comic parable of corporate power and media influence run amok, the world was in a very different place. (This was back before both Facebook and Twitter, if you can. . .