Following on the “earlier announcement”: about Albena Stambolova’s This Being How winning this year’s Bulgarian Writers Contest, here’s an excerpt from Olga Nikolova’s translation.
8. Fathers and Their Professions
Philip met Maria at a friend’s house. Although he never liked to admit it, he failed to notice her at first. She had been sitting in some part of the room, watching him. He had felt her gaze, although without being able to identify where it came from.
For a long time afterwards, he wondered why this creature stood there draped in black cloth, as if an extra in a busy film scene.
Philip was a pathologist and that caused him both annoyance and relief. He was the only one among his friends who could say in a word what he did for a living. For a twenty-seven-year-old man it made things easier. But when people curious about the nature of his work started asking questions, he was not good at explaining.
The voice in the receiver moved him so suddenly and profoundly that he nearly hung up. He couldn’t remember what they said to each other, just as later he couldn’t recall anything specific from conversations with Maria. He could remember situations in which her presence or her voice obliterated everything else.
No one could say no to this voice, which was now calling to him from the receiver. Why him and not someone else, he never understood. Here I am, Lord.
He proposed to her almost immediately, not knowing what he was doing. The one thing he did know was that he could not have done otherwise. She nodded, as if she had foreseen long ago that this was bound to happen.
Time seemed to be out of joint. The days were shamelessly short, the nights blended into one. Something was ripening in Philip; he could feel it in nervous spasms, but he ignored the signs. He was spinning with Maria in some kind of a whirlwind. He turned into a boomerang, always meekly landing at her feet, no matter what he thought, no matter what he did, and no matter who he went out with.
Before meeting Maria, he had been simply Philip, a doctor, a pathologist. He had been able to describe himself in a word.
After meeting Maria, his center of gravity was transposed out of his body and in the beginning this gave him strength. Strength that Maria absorbed.
9. The Hero’s Prize
There was no wedding. They only signed a marriage certificate. She never allowed him to see her passport. The civil servant could see it, but not her husband. He had no idea when she was born, or who her parents were or whether she had any siblings. Whenever he asked her about these things, she laughed, as if his questions were the most inappropriate thing in the world. He was surprised at how easily he could lie to his friends and his family when they asked the same questions. And he lied to himself, thinking that one day he would surely find out, as soon as Maria stopped playing this funny game. Then he forgot about it and remembered it again only when it was too late.
She did not simply give herself to him – she laid herself out like a gift, like an offering. He sank into her with the feeling that he had never experienced anything like this before. All thoughts and questions vanished. Maria became a world he inhabited. He knew he must have done things, at least he must have eaten food and drunk water. Later when the doctor asked him, he could not remember anything else, only that he had felt tireless and strong.
She stayed at home knitting sweaters. There was always something cooked to eat. Maria always had money and the food was always tasty. So tasty that after dinner, his only wish was to take her in his arms and bury his face in her long hair.
She became pregnant almost by magic. Philip was certain it had happened the very first time. If happiness meant being able to stop thinking, Philip was happy. Things just happened and he was part of the process.
The twins were born. A boy, Valentin, and a girl, Margarita. Philip could not remember ever having discussed what names to choose. It seemed like they were born with their names.
10. After the Fairy Tale’s End
Then Maria started to frighten him.
One night, he woke up and looked at his sleeping wife. He watched her for a long time. He was certain that she was not asleep. She lay perfectly still, as if absent from her body.
For the first time he wondered whether a human being had a beginning and an end. He could see her. Maria was sleeping naked, enveloped in her hair. Her breath was barely perceptible. No adjectives could describe her for him. He couldn’t say that she was kind, for example, or anything like that. This creature had simply appeared and in the face of this fact Philip was powerless. He was suddenly overtaken by despair. What were his or her feelings? Only star dust, dispersing.
Then he realized that Maria was staring at him. Perhaps everyone having just risen out of sleep had this look in their eyes. Maria’s look was evil. At last, something definite. Philip had come to know something and now he could see she didn’t like it. Her eyes stared unblinkingly, as if she had no eyelids.
He got up from the bed and left the room.
After this first onrush of fear, Philip tried to talk to his brother. What he heard was that Maria was breaking all accepted codes of behavior.
At first he could not understand what his brother meant. Gradually it dawned on him that he was being accused of disloyalty. Towards himself, towards his family, towards his friends. The sound of these trivial words, which he hadn’t heard pronounced for a while, unsettled him.
That same night, Maria refused to sleep with him, and he knew her refusal was going to last.
Philip tried to hide in his work. From then on, he often slept in the hospital, he worked night shifts and became better at his job. He was called more often for criminal cases. He discovered courtrooms.
But he also started drinking. And drinking brought back his ability to speak.
Albena Stambolova’s novel, This Being How, translated by Olga Nikolova, has been selected as the winner of the third iteration of the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation’s annual novel contest supporting Bulgarian literature.
Open Letter will be publishing this book in October 2013, making it the fourth Bulgarian title to be published by OL as a result of this award. Past winners include Milen Ruskov’s Thrown into Nature, Zachary Karabashliev’s 18% Gray, and the forthcoming A Short Tale of Shame by Angel Igov. All three of these novels were translated by superstar Angela Rodel.
(We’re also going to publish Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow, after which, we will have effectively have a monopoly on Bulgarian literature. BOOM.)
What’s particularly interesting about this year’s winner is that the translator Olga Nikolova was selected as the recipient of last year’s Bulgarian Fellowship Contest, and spent three weeks here in Rochester working on her translation of This Being How, learning about the American publishing scene, and enjoying the cougar-tastic vibes of Taylor’s, a local dance club. (Which, interestingly enough is run by Cuban author Jose Manuel Prieto’s brother.)
In terms of Albena Stambolova, she is a language specialist and a psychologist, with a MA from the University of Paris VII Jusseu and a PhD from Sofia University St Kliment Ohridski. This Being How (2002) is her debut novel, which has also been transalted into Polish. It was followed by Hop-Hop the Stars (2003), and An Adventure, To Pass the Time (2007). The author of numerous articles and translations, she is now working on a book about fairy tales and a collection of short stories.
I’ll post an excerpt from This Being How separately, but here’s a brief description of the book as a whole:
Boris, a young boy painfully uncomfortable around people, feels at ease with bees. The apian approach to life, admirable in its single-mindedness, makes human existence appear imperfect and burdensome. He falls in love with a girl who wears a pleated skirt. He never speaks to her but he feels her presence as a spatial relationship his body cannot avoid. She disappears one moonlit evening magically climbing the wall of a house. In the meantime, Philip, a 27-year-old pathologist meets Maria, a woman whose eyes, we are told, are like fog. Philip proposes to Maria as if driven by some mysterious compulsion. They marry and have children, the twins Valentin and Margarita . . . And the story continues, accumulating archetypal events and relationships, until, one Christmas Eve, the fates of all its seven protagonists become tied in one existential knot. Unlike more traditional narratives, the novel does not provide the reader with the pleasures of a classical denouement. No character reaches a higher moral ground, no relationship is resolved, no mystery is solved. Rather, as with many a musical composition, the reader is led through a high-spirited climax, a detailed love-making scene in a chapter appropriately called “Erotica,” and a tragic one, the death of the mother, Maria, whose evasive yet intense presence in the book has formed its center of gravity. For a Christmas tale, which the novel is in so many ways, the lesson is not obvious, and if any, it concerns mostly the impossibility of making the deep as immediately accessible as the shallow.
In its scalpel-worthy succinctness, and in its psychological astuteness, which enhances the fairy tale elements of the novel in unexpected ways, Stambolova’s style is quite unique. An openly allegorical assemblage of stories, written with a preference for simple structures, This Being How is both highly readable and profoundly meaningful.
And here’s a quote about that appeared in Kultura newspaper from Milena Kirova:
This Being How as the title suggests, is not a conventional narrative novel. Its plot is not smoothly interwoven into an easy-to-follow logical sequence. . . . The novel begins with a series of seemingly unrelated individual stories, which gradually collide, overlap and blend into a whole, building a complex, and yet astonishingly simple, picture of life’s paradoxically chaotic order.
The runners-up this year—samples from which will appear here on Three Percent and at the Contemporary Bulgarian Writers website—are:
Ivan Dimitrov’s “Life as a Missing Spoon”
Kristin Dimitrova’s “Sabazius”
Milen Ruskov’s “Little Encyclopaedia of Mysteries”
Momchil Nikolov’s “The Spherical Fish”
Neli Lishkova’s “The Unborn”
Stanislava Ivancheva’s “Fake Is a State of Mind”
Teodora Dimova’s “Mothers”
Vladimir Zarev “Ruin”
If any publishers are interested in taking a look at these, you should contact Milena Deleva (milena.deleva[at]gmail.com), and I’m sure she’d be willing to send you the samples. (Which are pretty substantial, BTW.)
And thanks again to the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation for making this all possible!
In addition to the Bulgarian Contemporary Novel contest, Open Letter and the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation also sponsor a special fellowship that allows for one Bulgarian translator to stay in Rochester for three weeks and learn about the American publishing scene and interact with the literary translation students at the University of Rochester.
This year’s recipient is Olga Nikolova, who got her Ph.D. in English and American Literature and Language from Harvard University and currently teaches English at the Université de La Rochelle, France.
The project that she applied with is Albena Stambolova’s This Is the Way It Happens, which Nikolova described in this way:
Boris, a young boy painfully uncomfortable around people, feels at ease with bees. The apian approach to life, admirable in its single-mindedness, makes human existence appear imperfect and burdensome. He falls in love with a girl who wears a pleated skirt. He never speaks to her, but he feels her presence as a spatial relationship his body cannot avoid. She disappears one moonlit evening, magically climbing the wall of a house. In the meantime, Philip, a 27-year-old pathologist meets Maria, a woman whose eyes, we are told, are like fog. Philip proposes to Maria as if driven by some mysterious compulsion. They marry and have children, the twins Valentin and Margarita. . . . And thus the story continues, accumulating archetypal events and relationships, until the fates of all its seven protagonists become tied in one existential knot. In its scalpel-worthy precision and succinctness, and in its psychological astuteness, Stambolova’s novel can be compared with Albert Camus’s L’Etranger. Yet, unlike the latter, This Is the Way It Happens is not a manifesto, nor a “philosophical novel.” As the author herself claims in her brief introduction, the book aims to be “the story of everyone,” and everyone’s story is a love story in which “one”, as a singular individual, plays the part assigned to him or her by chance. An openly allegorical assemblage of simple stories, This Is the Way It Happens is both highly readable and profoundly meaningful—the mark of a true masterpiece.
I’m personally looking forward to meeting and working with Olga, and hopefully after her fellowship, we’ll publish an excerpt from her translation. And thanks again to the Elizabeth Kosotova Foundation and the America for Bulgaria Foundation for making this all possible.
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