25 July 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

When my eyes first crossed the back cover of Fabio Genovesi’s novel Live Bait, I was caught by a blurb nestled between accolades, a few words from a reviewer for La Repubblica stating that the novel was, however magically, “[b]eyond any cliché.”

Generally, I’m a suspicious reader; big claims scare me off. Having never watched a Fellini film and with only Calvino and Pavese as literary signposts, I entered the novel (guided by veteran translator Michael F. Moore) with a healthy amount of skepticism. Just a few chapters in, however, I knew that even if Genovesi hadn’t managed to overcome cliché, he had indeed created an electric book, a book that stirs, and one that you can’t help living—and living with—along the way. It’s fair to say that Genovesi’s English debut touches all the right spots and echoes back just enough universalized Weltschmerz to leave the reader cringing over mistakes they too once made. And, for that, you’re in it until the end.

Live Bait launches with a memory, as things usually do: a fused snapshot, a spark of what was circling through a narrative live wire. Yet for our antihero Fiorenzo Marelli, it is a recollection that continues on, as some would put it, in phantomlike form; he has already lost part of himself (literally) before he hits that strange, dazed, and oddly jaded limbo called high school. This first brush with emptiness has cleared the way for the Italian metalhead’s Bildungsroman to creep into being, made evident as he so casually philosophizes in the novel’s first episode: “Because real emptiness isn’t finding nothing. It’s finding nothing where there’s supposed to be something.” And not so strangely, it is just this emptiness that continues to occupy his life; it is a nebulous hollow that, like the ditches where he finds respite while fishing for bottom feeders, belies a host of other organisms underneath. Now, maybe I’m mixing my reviewer metaphors here. Even so, I’d also hedge a bet that it is by crafting just this eddy of images floating in and out of view that Genovesi grasps onto our “real” world.

The novel rightly begins with a nineteen-year-old Fiorenzo, handless, rehearsing with his band Metal Devastation. He has recently lost his mother and has become increasingly estranged from his father. Fiorenzo’s a smart kid—just let him tell you—although he refuses to continue on as society expects. School, work, all of it can wait. When his father offers to put up a talented outsider from the bicycling team he coaches, Fiorenzo hastily retreats; sensing the aloof new youngster a threat to his throne, he moves into their family bait shop to live among the worms. Cue the soft shuffling of little grubby insects for some novelistic ambience. We hear him muse in his bed for a while: “And there I was, lying down on sacks of amaretto-and-cherry flavored ground bait, thinking this was the sound you heard in the coffin.” He’ll keep that little tidbit for later to write some awful lyrics about his melancholy experience.

Days go by, but Fiorenzo doesn’t budge. His town, Muglione, seems to be rotting. He is cast into a net of familial and social backwash and, feeling the routine ennui that accompanies small-town life, sets about to become famous—it’s what he deserves of course, having spent years as a social outcast—along with his band mates. This includes one chubby guy who, as Fiorenzo relays, believes that, “T-Shirts are the cages of the system.” Their debut at a local festival is on the horizon. But things don’t go as planned. No one is listening. In fact, they’re booed off stage. He isn’t ready. The world is shit. He is ready. Ready for something. He’s angry. Maybe he has the right to be. There is some really rich teenage angst to be mined here, and Genovesi accomplishes it better than Salinger, in my humble opinion. Fiorenzo may sense that things are “phony,” but at least he knows how to take a cosmic joke.

And the saga wouldn’t be complete without a beautiful woman to set off the story, and it just so happens that this woman, believing Italian men to be little boys gone bald, is just curious enough—and perhaps I’m being generous here—to let Fiorenzo in. Her name is Tiziana Cosci: witty, intelligent, a girl with great tits but still plagued with the same stifling insecurity that so many thirty-somethings in quarter-life crisis have yet to shake off. Those sighs of relief—you survived your teenage years!—that you let out while reading passages fervidly narrated by Fiorenzo now get caught in your throat. The anxiety, the shame, the offhand words imprinted on your tongue all still exist; now you’re just better at hiding it. But that’s where the real story begins, where the two fronts of weakness and doubt and curiosity collide: two bodies, strange, new in that I’d do anything to just touch your skin teenage kind-of-way, enter a half-finished tango to the grunts of old Italian men.

I’m not sure if I’m being nostalgic or not—strangely enough, I too had a 19-year-old metalhead boyfriend who is strikingly like the protagonist—but the only word that I’ll allow myself to describe Fiorenzo is “tender,” perhaps because that word also appears on the back cover. I say tender knowing that tenderness is a condition laced with a smattering of other emotions and conditions that we tend to shed with age: a tender narcissism, a tender cruelty, a tender misfit-hood, a tender awkward few fingers not reaching their mark in bed. And this tenderness is also always physical for Fiorenzo, from his phantom limb to the first amorous caresses that he shares with Tiziana. I closed the book a few times in embarrassment for our man on the ground, who, knowing his limits, spells out the delicate situation quite concretely: “Listen, I don’t know how to put it inside, but I can recognize a carp bite a mile away.”

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a cluster of minor characters that animate the book, types that all those stuck in a languishing little town might recognize. My favorite is a certain Mazinger, who, outfitted in ridiculous hand-me-ups from a fashion-slave grandson, hangs around every corner speaking “like a Japanese robot.” We first encounter him in the bait shop, telling Fiorenzo, “YOUR—DAD—IS—A—SHIT.” Mazinger is part of an elderly troop calling themselves the “Muglione Guardians.” These old men must fight off the gangs of Romanians and other Eastern Europeans who have found their way into the grand village of Muglione, although these Romanian gangsters are not really gangsters, nor are they Romanian. Then there’s Mirko, the little champ set to win back Muglione’s honor. Gripped by those tender years of adolescence, he’s a kid who just wants to fit in and who winds up carrying Fiorenzo’s biggest secret. Put all of these folks together in Genovesi’s world and you’re stuck to the book like glue.

Underneath the jocular weavings of Fiorenzo and his crew, some real tensions—and by real I aim to underscore the tangible anxieties that inevitably work their way into conversation when speaking about the economic situation in Europe at present—poke through. Muglione comes to represent a fierce attachment to tradition that is quickly dying with its elderly brigades. The only things that seem to be prospering are the shops and other business ventures run by immigrants, and anyone who has spent time in Europe knows that the politics around this new class of workers is on the tip of every tongue.

As for the translation, it hits head on. And it is just this kind of book that demands a kind of lived translation—with all of its dialogue and code-switching between generations and genre—in order to keep up with the curious humor that runs right through. I’m hesitant to mention any points where I stumbled in my own reading, not only because I’m not familiar with the source text, but also because I think that Moore has captured so much of what pulled at my heart in his playful rendering. But perhaps as a note for future readers (of which I hope there will be many), I’ll mention that there are a few points where you’re not sure if it’s a teenager or his father speaking. It’s hard for me at twenty-five to read the word “prick” where the word “dick” seems called for; again, I’m drawing on my ex-metal head’s vocabulary. I also learned a new word—“suck-ass”—that I’ll be employing more often. Friends beware.

En fin, Live Bait won’t change your life. But it will open you up. It will open up that part of you that you’ve been trying to cover with dirt and paper in your attempt at adulthood. It’s not mawkish. There’s no grand plan. And there’s some cliché. But most of all, there is tenderness, and I would read the novel again just to feel that bit of warmth emanating from its pages.

28 April 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As you already know, the winner of this year’s BTBA for fiction is Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai, and translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet. Below is a short piece by the BTBA fiction jury explaining the reasons behind their selection and pointing out two runners-up.

We are very pleased to award the 2013 Best Translated Book Award for fiction to Seiobo There Below by Laszlo Krasznahorkai, translated by Ottilie Mulzet. Fans of the award will no doubt note that this is the second year in a row that it has been given to Krazsnahorkai, with last year’s honors going to his first novel, Satantango, translated by George Szirtes. This fact was taken into account by the judges, as was our desire to honor writing from a wide range of geographies, cultures, and languages, and these are all things that we hope will be continued to be accounted for going forward. But in the end one thing was clear: out of a shortlist of ten contenders that did not lack for ambition, Seiobo There Below truly overwhelmed us with its range—this is a book that discusses in minute detail locations from all around the globe, including Japan, Spain, Italy, and Greece, as well as delving into the consciousnesses and practices of individuals from across 2,000 years of human history. The book also takes bold steps forward in terms of how we think of the form of the novel, and our expectation of how a novel works and what it can attempt to do. In its scope, its depth, and its amazing precision, we found Seiobo There Below to be a work of rare genius. We were likewise very enthusiastic about Mulzet’s translation, which is astonishing for its beauty and its technical skill. In this book of nearly 500 pages, filled with sentences that range on for pages at a time, as well as all sorts of specialized jargon and obscure details, Mulzet doesn’t hit a false note, a truly amazing accomplishment. We must give due congratulations to her great work, as well as register our appreciation to her editors at New Directions, who surely must share in the credit.

As much as we admire Seiobo There Below, it was not an easy decision to elevate this book above our two runners-up, and there was much in-depth discussion and passionate arguments in favor of all three finalists. Although there can only be one winner, it is important to us to honor the range of styles, geographies, languages, and cultures that made it so challenging to select the 2013 honoree. Thus we offer these words of praise for our two runners-up:

We found Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s short novel The African Shore, masterfully translated by Jeffrey Gray, to be almost the perfect counterpoint to Seiobo There Below. In its sonnet-like perfection, even a single out-of-place word would have marred this novel’s hypnotizing effect, so due praise must be given to Rey Rosa and Gray for presenting us with this seamless, engrossing story. We also admired the strange logic by which Rey Rosa’s book functions, telling two parallel narratives that are connected by that strange symbolic creature, the owl. The African Shore felt very much to us like a story that only Rey Rosa could have told, a small, perfectly cut jewel that we can stare into endlessly. It is emblematic of the very rich exchange between Rey Rosa’s native Guatemala and the Morocco in which he lived for a decade, and its minimalist aesthetic points us toward an interesting new direction for Latin American literature to follow in the new century.

We were equally enamored of Minae Mizumura’s work in adapting Emily Brontë’s Gothic classic Wuthering Heights to contemporary Japan, translated most spectacularly by Juliet Winters Carpenter. As the novel continues to evolve as an art form, it is essential that it take stock of its legacy and find ways to rejuvenate its classics. Mizumura does not only this but also interrogates the idea of the “true novel“—the Western novel in the tradition of Flaubert, Dickens, et al.—against the traditional Japanese novel. As have many great Japanese writers before her, she reaches into the rich intersection between East and West to create something distinctly Japanese yet global in scope, a satisfying investigation of individual characters, the landscape of her nation, and various novelistic traditions. This wonderful novel marks the entry of a major talent into the English language, and we are proud to honor Mizumura’s long overdue arrival.

28 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Tiffany Nichols on A Fairy Tale by Jonas T. Bengtsson, translated by Charlotte Barslund and out from Other Press.

This is Bengtsson’s third novel, though his first published in English—the book is actually already available from House of Anansi Press in Canada, but they’ve teamed up with the wonderful Other Press to bring the book even further in its English Travels.

Here’s the beginning of Tiffany’s review:

It is destined that we will all become our parents. Some try to avoid it while others embrace the metamorphosis. Either way, it never fails— children eventually become their parents. A Fairy Tale is a psychological novel told through day-to-day activities that appear mostly normal from the narrator’s point of view and explores this exact phenomenon.

bq The novel is told in two parts: life with a runaway yet resourceful father through the eyes of his son, a child less than 10 years of age, and then the life of that son who, as an adult, attempts to avoid becoming this father through detachment from his former life. The novel follows this unnamed father and son on a journey through Denmark, mostly in Copenhagen. At first glance the pair’s numerous relocations seem innocuous, but when a closer look is taken, the reader will notice strange aspects of this transient family situation. Most apparent being the descriptions of the living conditions of the father-son pair and the mature aspects of life to which the father exposes the son, but never the relationship between the two.

After numerous rebellious actions are taken by the father to sabotage any semblance of stability, the father-son relationship is effectively destroyed when the father attempts to assassinate a well-regarded politician of the common people of Denmark. This action leads to a separation of father and son, and marks the end of the first half of the novel with no fuss, akin to the closing of a store by merely flipping the “open” sign to “closed.”

For the rest of the review, go here.

28 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

It is destined that we will all become our parents. Some try to avoid it while others embrace the metamorphosis. Either way, it never fails— children eventually become their parents. A Fairy Tale is a psychological novel told through day-to-day activities that appear mostly normal from the narrator’s point of view and explores this exact phenomenon.

The novel is told in two parts: life with a runaway yet resourceful father through the eyes of his son, a child less than 10 years of age, and then the life of that son who, as an adult, attempts to avoid becoming this father through detachment from his former life. The novel follows this unnamed father and son on a journey through Denmark, mostly in Copenhagen. At first glance the pair’s numerous relocations seem innocuous, but when a closer look is taken, the reader will notice strange aspects of this transient family situation. Most apparent being the descriptions of the living conditions of the father-son pair and the mature aspects of life to which the father exposes the son, but never the relationship between the two.

After numerous rebellious actions are taken by the father to sabotage any semblance of stability, the father-son relationship is effectively destroyed when the father attempts to assassinate a well-regarded politician of the common people of Denmark. This action leads to a separation of father and son, and marks the end of the first half of the novel with no fuss, akin to the closing of a store by merely flipping the “open” sign to “closed.”

In the second half of A Fairy Tale, the son is placed with his estranged mother and the father falls from the prose as if he never existed. After several socially awkward attempts to find inclusion within a non-transient society, the son reemerges under a fake identity (now Turkish instead of Danish), plants roots, and finds love. However, this arrangement is impermanent since, to bring us full circle, we all inevitably become our parents.

A Fairy Tale is addictive in the way it slowly progresses while preventing the reader from moving to another novel. It’s probably the strength of the father-son relationship with the combination of questionable life decisions on behalf of the father. As Javier Marías posed in The Infatuations, it is not necessarily the plot, but rather the experience the reader has while progressing through the plot that should be the focus of a novel. However, once the novel is completed, all we hold in our memories is that simple plot. A Fairy Tale is a direct example of this proposition.

The novel is also compelling for showing the dark side of seemingly normally things—the city of Copenhagen, theater shows, gardening—and its showing of the bright side of things that are normally seen in their darkest light—strip clubs, shoplifting, and mental institutions. The work is also carefully paced by short chapters and controlled prose that almost makes this nomadic anti-socialized life as normal as a cup of coffee with the newspaper every morning.

This is a worthy introduction of Jonas T. Bengtsson to the English audience. Those drawn to Updike’s Rabbit Series and who have traveled to Denmark and Sweden and appreciate the European collective society will gravitate to A Fairy Tale because it has the underlying rebellious spirit that does not often bubble to the surface in such a collective environment.

8 August 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

If you’re one of those people who habitually skim the prologue to a book, Minae Mizumura’s _A True Novel_—her third novel and the winner of the Yomiuri Literature Prize in Japan in 2002—might not appear to be for you. That is to say, the prologue takes up at least a third of the first volume of the book, and it’s pretty important for understanding the circumstances in which the story that makes up this “true novel” takes place, in addition to sorting out what, exactly, a “true novel” is. Luckily for you, O prologue skippers of the world, there is nothing dry or uninteresting about the first 165 pages of this book, which introduces the protagonist, Taro Azuma, as Mizumura knew him when she lived in America during her teens. In fact, if you were somehow unaware of the name of the author when you came into the reading the book, you might not realize that the entire thing wasn’t a fictional account from an outsider to establish what happened during the gaps in the main story. I actually forgot a couple of times that I was reading a prologue at all.

The main function of the prologue here is to both set up the circumstances which led to this novel being written, and to sort out for the reader what exactly a “true novel” is. On the outside, it seems like it might be an oxymoron: because a novel is fictional, it surely can’t be “true,” right? Or maybe the title refers more to the fact that the novel is an example of the “true” form that a novel should take. It turns out that in this case, “true” is a combination of the story’s basis in reality and its following in the pattern of Western classics: authentic, “true” novels. Mizumura takes a few pages to explain the history of the “true” and “I-novels” and it makes no sense fragmented, so all I’m going to say is read the damn prologue, or else flounder in confusion. Your choice.

What I can excerpt is a bit on Mizumura’s thought process as she considered making a novel out of the story told to her by Yusuke Kato about a man Mizumura knew as a teenager:

It was when I finally began to write about Taro Azuma that I came up against an obstacle I had not foreseen. What I had taken to be a gift from heaven was, I gradually found out, not all that simple. The further I progressed, the more insistent that problem became: how to take “a story just like a novel” and turn it into a novel in Japanese.

. . .

The story I was told on that stormy night was merely one of many love stories already told a thousand times. Why turn it into yet another novel? There was only one answer I could think of: it recalled the translated Western novels I had encountered as a girl, especially one that never failed to make a disturbing impression on me every time I read it: a literary classic set on the wild Yorkshire moors and written more than a hundred and fifty years ago by the English-woman E.B… What I set out to do was thus close to rewriting a Western novel in Japanese.

So here we finally come up against the thing that the back cover of this book does not want anyone to forget: this novel is “a remaking of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, set in postwar Japan.” I’m hesitant to agree with that statement entirely. While the plot of the story does seem to mimic, in some places, that of Wuthering Heights, with all the main characters represented (the outsider, the housekeeper, the poor abused boy, the rich girl he loves, etc.), the fact that the story is real kind of discounts it, in my mind at least, from being a “re-making” of anything—in addition to many obvious changes, including “new” characters, who shift the progression of the plot away from Brontë’s classic. Mizumura herself states that, although the story seemed to fit that pattern to begin with, as she was writing she saw it take its own, unique shape. But perhaps I’m just splitting hairs. At any rate, I was pleased to discover that I enjoyed A True Novel immensely (much more than I enjoyed Wuthering Heights, in point of fact). I accredit the gap in my enjoyment between the two books to several things, but in particular that, whereas Wuthering Heights is a romance novel, and pretty much only that, A True Novel is the story of so much more—family rivalry, economic turmoil, loss, and the growing modernization of a country coming into the 20th century at full throttle.

And really, all comparisons to Wuthering Heights aside, the stark sense of reality in this book informed both by the genuineness of the general plot and the expertly-done character development plants the story—and the characters in it—firmly on the ground. No one would ever be tricked into believing this is a biography or a non-fiction book, but the skill with which Mizumura fleshes out people who she’s only ever “met” through second and third hand accounts is staggering and wonderful. Everything is cleanly situated in space and time, localized to the latter half of the 20th century in Japan and giving the reader a view into the ever-shifting lives of the “better families” who were forced to make adjustments in their every-day lives due to post-war policies, but held on fiercely to the societal prejudices that allowed them to maintain their social, if not their monetary, superiority. With the added black-and-white photographs illustrating various places and things mentioned in the text, you’ll never lose touch with where or when the story is, and you’ll begin to absorb the feeling of the mourning in which the older generations are for the cultural past swept away in the current of modernity.

The plot is triple-layered: the outside is the story of Yusuke Kato’s brief interactions with the Saegusa family, Taro Azuma, and Fumiko Tsuchiya one summer week when he was vacationing with a friend. The next layer is Fumiko’s retelling—to Yuksue—of the things she witnessed during her acquaintance with the Saegusa, Shigemitsu, Utagawa, and Azuma families. The innermost layer of the plot is the history of the Saegusa, Shigemitsu, and Utagawa families, as told by the Shigemitsu’s maid to Fumiko when Fumiko was in the Utagawa family’s service. Each layer of the plot is nested inside the other to create a fully expanded story, from before the beginning to after the end. Each of the narrators brings a part of the story into being, although not necessarily in order, to create a fully satisfying novel that entirely lacks the tug of lethargy that is always a risk in books this long. Every word is important here, every page brings something new, something that the reader is eager to know, and that makes this novel an easy read, despite its length. Juliet Winters Carpenter and Ann Sherif have created a translation that is smooth, evocative, and modern, while maintaining the air of affectation that surrounds the central families.

So, for those of you who slept through Brit. Lit. II (don’t worry, I don’t know who you are—I was half-asleep, myself), hate romance novels, or are just generally afraid of long books, fear not. Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel is reader-friendly, engaging, and, while similar in places to Wuthering Heights, far longer, much more interesting, and (I’ll argue, to the distress of English literature teachers everywhere) more important in the conclusions (or lack there of) it ultimately draws. A True Novel is a simultaneously expansive and private insight into the struggle between traditional Japanese values and incoming Western conventions, monetary wealth and spiritual value, and status and love—a work of literature not to be missed.

8 August 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Hannah Vose on A True Novel by Minae Mizumura, from Other Press.

To go against the grain of prologues and intros (more on that from This Hannah in a bit), here’s the beginning of her review:

If you’re one of those people who habitually skim the prologue to a book, Minae Mizumura’s _A True Novel_—her third novel and the winner of the Yomiuri Literature Prize in Japan in 2002—might not appear to be for you. That is to say, the prologue takes up at least a third of the first volume of the book, and it’s pretty important for understanding the circumstances in which the story that makes up this “true novel” takes place, in addition to sorting out what, exactly, a “true novel” is. Luckily for you, O prologue skippers of the world, there is nothing dry or uninteresting about the first 165 pages of this book, which introduces the protagonist, Taro Azuma, as Mizumura knew him when she lived in America during her teens. In fact, if you were somehow unaware of the name of the author when you came into the reading the book, you might not realize that the entire thing wasn’t a fictional account from an outsider to establish what happened during the gaps in the main story. I actually forgot a couple of times that I was reading a prologue at all.

The main function of the prologue here is to both set up the circumstances which led to this novel being written, and to sort out for the reader what exactly a “true novel” is. On the outside, it seems like it might be an oxymoron: because a novel is fictional, it surely can’t be “true,” right? Or maybe the title refers more to the fact that the novel is an example of the “true” form that a novel should take. It turns out that in this case, “true” is a combination of the story’s basis in reality and its following in the pattern of Western classics: authentic, “true” novels. Mizumura takes a few pages to explain the history of the “true” and “I-novels” and it makes no sense fragmented, so all I’m going to say is read the damn prologue, or else flounder in confusion. Your choice.

Like that little prologue? For the rest of the review, go here

29 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Grant Barber on the mammoth Where Tigers Are at Home by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès, which is translated from the French by Mike Mitchell and published by Other Press.

Grant Barber is a regular reviewer for Three Percent, a keen bibliophile, and an Episcopal priest living on the south shore of Boston.

I’ve been interested in this book literally for years, having first heard of it on a trip to France in 2009, and am very excited that this is finally available. (And hopefully I’ll have some time this summer to read it . . .)

Here’s a bit of Grant’s review:

French author—philosopher, poet, novelist—de Roblès writes something approaching the Great (Latin) American Novel, about Brazilian characters, one of whom is steeped in the life of the seventeenth century polymath (but almost always erroneous) Jesuit Athanasius Kircher. Eleazard von Wogau, a French journalist lives in a dilapidated mansion in a town being overtaken by the Amazon vegetation, with his housekeeper Soledad: all of this at first seeming like Garcia Marquez-like clichéd Latin American tropes, but subverted in short order. He is a character at the center of a fragmented family and the various narratives that radiate out into seven different directions, each a quest of varying and dubious goals, but all of it conveyed with seriousness, more often with dark humor.

Eleazard is translating the hagiography of Kircher written by his amanuensis and acolyte Fr. Caspar Scott; each chapter of this novel opens with an account from Schott’s biography, and most chapters end with Eleazard’s journal reflections which reflect his own feelings but also reach into Wittgenstein and other modern philosophers (in a style reminiscent of Markson actually).

His ex-wife Elaine is a university paleontologist who travels in the company of other scientists upriver through a jungle inhabited by smugglers and indigenous tribes. They want to find the origin site for fossils of which a few samples have been tantalizingly brought back by a previous scientist; he had been given them by a tribal shaman.

In a passage that describes all the quests of the novel, Elaine recalls one of Eleazard’s rants:

bq.” Sending a missionary to convert the Chinese or a cosmonaut to the moon is exactly the same thing: it derives from the desire to govern the world, to confine it within the limits of doctrinaire knowledge that each time presents itself as definitive. However improbable it might have appeared, Francis Xavier went to Asia and really did convert thousands of Chinese; the American, Armstrong—a soldier by the way, if you see what I’m getting at—trampled the old lunar myth underfoot, but what do these two actions give us, apart from themselves? They don’t teach us anything, since all the do is confirm something we already knew, namely that the Chinese are convertible and the moon tramplable.”

Click here to read the entire review.

29 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

French author—philosopher, poet, novelist—de Roblès writes something approaching the Great (Latin) American Novel, about Brazilian characters, one of whom is steeped in the life of the seventeenth century polymath (but almost always erroneous) Jesuit Athanasius Kircher. Eleazard von Wogau, a French journalist lives in a dilapidated mansion in a town being overtaken by the Amazon vegetation, with his housekeeper Soledad: all of this at first seeming like Garcia Marquez-like clichéd Latin American tropes, but subverted in short order. He is a character at the center of a fragmented family and the various narratives that radiate out into seven different directions, each a quest of varying and dubious goals, but all of it conveyed with seriousness, more often with dark humor.

Eleazard is translating the hagiography of Kircher written by his amanuensis and acolyte Fr. Caspar Scott; each chapter of this novel opens with an account from Schott’s biography, and most chapters end with Eleazard’s journal reflections which reflect his own feelings but also reach into Wittgenstein and other modern philosophers (in a style reminiscent of Markson actually).

His ex-wife Elaine is a university paleontologist who travels in the company of other scientists upriver through a jungle inhabited by smugglers and indigenous tribes. They want to find the origin site for fossils of which a few samples have been tantalizingly brought back by a previous scientist; he had been given them by a tribal shaman.

In a passage that describes all the quests of the novel, Elaine recalls one of Eleazard’s rants:

Sending a missionary to convert the Chinese or a cosmonaut to the moon is exactly the same thing: it derives from the desire to govern the world, to confine it within the limits of doctrinaire knowledge that each time presents itself as definitive. However improbable it might have appeared, Francis Xavier went to Asia and really did convert thousands of Chinese; the American, Armstrong—a soldier by the way, if you see what I’m getting at—trampled the old lunar myth underfoot, but what do these two actions give us, apart from themselves? They don’t teach us anything, since all the do is confirm something we already knew, namely that the Chinese are convertible and the moon tramplable.

The reader is not too optimistic about the outcomes for each story line, even when coming to care for the fate of the characters who de Roblès portrays in sympathetic terms, save for some unambiguously nasty people.

One of Elaine’s companions is a graduate student named Mauro, son of an overreaching, ambitious state governor and his alienated wife. Governor Moreira seeks a land deal to lure foreign investors, and he uses increasingly violent means to disposes from the land the poor who stand in his way. Eleazard meets and briefly socializes with the governor and wife. Eleazard is accompanied by Lordena, an Italian woman who is one of the few guests staying in the town inn, and who begins a relationship with him while hiding her bleak health prognosis. Her quest will lead eventually to a Santeria ceremony to seek healing.

Eleazard’s daughter Moema is a sometime college student who relies on dad’s money to fund drug binges for her and her lover Thais, and a young male professor whom the two women drag to an isolated fishing town for variations of sexual pairings and encounters with fishermen/smugglers. Moema will seek some real meaning through idealized human relationships and to herself; but she takes direction, for example, from a billboard she’s seen: “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” The reader is not inspired to confidence about Moema’s new resolutions.

The elite, powerful, and educated—the governor, Eleazard and Elaine, Lordena, Kircher and Scott in their own day and time—are counterbalanced by ten-year-old Nathan, a crippled beggar who lives in a favella with his uncle Ze. All the characters have at most only two degrees of separation from one another by the end of the novel. Ze and Nathan are on a collision course with Moema and the governor.

Also offering contrast are a shaman and his tribe who have been isolated for centuries, but who possess the memory of a Jesuit missionary from the eighteenth century who brought with him one of Kircher’s many books. They are the erstwhile rescuers of Elaine and her party. The tribe is on a quest of its own, to return to some ur-existence, in part guided by the Jesuit’s teaching distorted and parroted through generations of shamans.

Still, the story of Kircher takes up what seems a full half of the novel over against all of the contemporary Brazilian stories of Eleazard, et al. Kircher is a real figure from European history. Varyingly regarded as a last scientific holdover from a medieval natural scientific approach and a quintessential Counter-Reformation thinker, Kircher has become a subject for contemporary rediscovery. A Man of Misconceptions by John Glassie (Riverhead, 2012) is one of the recent explorations of Kircher’s fascinatingly weird genius, captured by de Roblès, as Kircher gets almost everything wrong, from medical treatments, to his quest to identify the pre-Babel language of humanity, to natural phenomena. In one comical scene a dismayed Schott describes Kircher as he insists on drawing closer and closer to an erupting volcano’s opening:

The heat was almost unbearable and we were finding it difficult to breathe when dozens of crawling things suddenly started to pour through our refuge: all sorts of snakes, salamanders, scorpions and spiders scuttled between our legs for a few moments that seemed close to an eternity to me. Flabbergasted by this phenomenon, we did not think of using our equipment to collect some specimens. Kircher, who had observed the process with his usual concentration, immediately drew the most unusual of these creatures in his notebook. “As you see, Caspar,” he said when he had finished, “we have not wasted our time coming here. Now we know from the evidence of our own eyes that certain creatures are born of the fire itself, just as flies are engendered by manure & worms by putrefaction. Those there had been created practically before our very eyes . . .”

De Roblès makes this long novel readable by his control over pacing, with subject headings within each chapter linking to specific story lines. No one story goes on so long that the reader loses the thread of the others. Many of the quests lead to transcendent-seeming moments with de Roblès using effective, incantatory language to carry along the reader. The 32 shortish chapters, plus prologue and afterward, would seem to beg for one of those dramatis personae lists that authors of complex novels sometimes provide; not needed here.

Having said that, I’ll also admit that I bogged down about 1/3 of the way in. I’m the sort of reader who has finished some longer books after two or three attempts (Moby-Dick, Gravity’s Rainbow), never attempted any of those long Victorian novels, passed through the long-Russian novel phase in late high school years never looking back, and I still haven’t completed Ulysses (sorry Prof. Davis), nor Gaddis’ Recognitions or JR, no matter how many new copies with attractive new covers I’ve bought.

So I set this book aside for over a week. In order to write the promised review I returned to the novel when I decided I would try the last 100 pages just to find out how matters resolved. Clearly the plots had too many turns for this to work, so plan B was to skim the in-between parts. Be darned if it didn’t hook me instead. This novel is a quite satisfying read, one of best novels I suspect that will appear in English, in the original or translation, in 2013. The endings of the various quests draw in story lines closer and closer, characters previously separate eventually move into relationships with one another. If a new reader begins to doubt the worth of the effort, bogged down in some intellectual digression, this reassurance: the Prologue starts with a Eleazard distracted by a parrot named Heidegger (!): “‘Man’s swelling his pointed dick! Squaaak! Man’s swelling his pointed dick!’”

1 February 13 | Chad W. Post |

Back in 2003, Other Press—one of the most interesting independent presses out there—brought out a book about Walt Disney entitled The Perfect American by Peter Stephan Jungk and translated from the Germany by Michael Hofmann.

I remember hearing about this book from my friend Blake Radcliffe (which, I still maintain, would be a fantastic porn star name . . . Blake Radcliffe and Lexy Spry . . .) when he worked at Other Press. It sounds pretty interesting—the novel focuses on the last few months of crazy Walt Disney’s crazy Walt Disney life (his delusions of immortality, EPCOT as Utopia, etc.) from the point of view of Wilhelm Dantine, a cartoonist who worked for Disney on Sleeping Beauty.

Unfortunately, I never got around to reading this (sorry Blake!), but I’m planning on getting to it soon, since Other Press just brought out a paperback edition to celebrate the new Philip Glass opera version that just premiered in Madrid.

From the New York Times:

Peter Stephan Jungk’s novel The Perfect American is a surreal, meditative, episodic account of the last days of Walt Disney.

It seems at first glance to be an ideal source for an opera by Philip Glass, whose surreal, meditative, episodic explorations of the lives of famous men — always men — have formed the bulk of his prodigious operatic output. [. . .]

At the fourth performance on Wednesday, the subtle, moody score, at war between its propulsive and serene impulses, felt more than equal in quality to the festive occasion. While criticisms of Mr. Glass’s music as cookie-cutter have always been misguided, The Perfect American finds him in especially unpredictable form, experimenting with sonorities, textures and pacing.

Led by the Glass veteran Dennis Russell Davies with careful attention to both its underlying pulse and its twists of temperament, the opera opens with an ominous, low murmur punctuated by sharp, syncopated percussion snaps. The sound gradually expands through the orchestra and warms into something that, under Mr. Davies, has more gentle swing than the relentless forward motion generally associated with Mr. Glass.

The music often seems devised to trail off, to run out of steam as it expresses Disney’s struggle with the cancer from which he died in 1966 at 65. But there is nothing exhausted about its inventiveness. Simultaneously eclectic and cohesive, the score incorporates strange, fractured brass fanfares out of Janacek’s Makropulos Case and lilting, seductive rhythms that feel almost foxtrotty, like a misty echo of the 1930s.

Here’s a promo video from Teatro Real:

Too bad I’m not planning a trip to Madrid any time soon . . . At least I can read the book.

And since I LOVE Rework: Philip Glass Remixed album that just came out, and SUPER LOVE Dan Deacon, here’s his contribution, “Alight Spiral Snip.”

14 September 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Quantum Sarah on Peter Stamm’s new collection of stories, We’re Flying, which came out from Other Press in Michael Hofmann’s translation earlier this year.

Peter Stamm has a number of books available in English translation, including Seven Years, which was on last year’s Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist.

Quantum Sarah was a spectacular summer intern who is not back in school, but will likely be reviewing for us again in the not-too-distant future. Here’s the opening of her review:

In his new collection We’re Flying, Swiss author Peter Stamm weaves together a multitude of perspectives with the ghostly fiber of loss. This fascinating set of short stories centers around the general theme of the “human condition”—joy and sadness, birth and death, couples and families, work and school. However, a generous majority of these tales unfold against a subconscious background of grief, whether real or imagined: the widow that learns posthumously of her husband’s affair; the toddler abandoned by his parents at preschool; the frustrated artist. Yet the book isn’t a blurred mess of sympathy; rather, it’s a sharp analysis of life’s chronic pain and beauty. Precise, disquieting, and high-impact, Stamm’s new collection slices away surface tissue to reveal the downright messiness of human life

Stamm’s stories are surprisingly fleshed-out with minimum verbage. Like the artist in one of his stories, Stamm writes surgically: “You paint what you see with the maximum of precision, but you don’t care about the precision of the depiction . . . What counts is decisiveness.” His characters are quickly but sharply sketched; his story-world is modeled on the one at hand, but as though seen through a microscope, with fine-grained crystals of detail. Stamm shows, instead of tells—in “Sweet Dreams,” a newly-cohabiting girl reflects on the meaning of family while imagining an old black-and-white photo of relatives.

Click here to read the entire review.

14 September 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In his new collection We’re Flying, Swiss author Peter Stamm weaves together a multitude of perspectives with the ghostly fiber of loss. This fascinating set of short stories centers around the general theme of the “human condition”—joy and sadness, birth and death, couples and families, work and school. However, a generous majority of these tales unfold against a subconscious background of grief, whether real or imagined: the widow that learns posthumously of her husband’s affair; the toddler abandoned by his parents at preschool; the frustrated artist. Yet the book isn’t a blurred mess of sympathy; rather, it’s a sharp analysis of life’s chronic pain and beauty. Precise, disquieting, and high-impact, Stamm’s new collection slices away surface tissue to reveal the downright messiness of human life

Stamm’s stories are surprisingly fleshed-out with minimum verbage. Like the artist in one of his stories, Stamm writes surgically: “You paint what you see with the maximum of precision, but you don’t care about the precision of the depiction . . . What counts is decisiveness.” His characters are quickly but sharply sketched; his story-world is modeled on the one at hand, but as though seen through a microscope, with fine-grained crystals of detail. Stamm shows, instead of tells—in “Sweet Dreams,” a newly-cohabiting girl reflects on the meaning of family while imagining an old black-and-white photo of relatives:

Lara could see the pictures, big family get-togethers in a garden in the north of Italy, pictures full of people she didn’t know, even her mother didn’t know some of the names. Thereafter the family had fallen apart . . . When Lara had visited Italy with her parents, there hadn’t been any more big reunions, only visits in darkened homes with old people who smelled funny and served dry cookies and big plastic bottles of lukewarm Fanta.

Rather than directly stating Lara’s isolation in her new romance, Stamm instead gives us vivid objects to evoke the feeling: a faded photograph. Dry cookies and lukewarm Fanta. Old people whose homes are lonely and “funny”-smelling. Later on, we get “a barely used coffee machine that Laura found on eBay, a chest for their shoes, a whole stack of yellow bath towels that were on offer”—objects that carry a false connotation of stability, but which are really as destructible and transient as her new relationship.

There’s an uncanny equanimity and composure in Stamm’s voice as he makes us privy to frequent scenes of psychological pain. When Angelika brings home a forgotten child from her daycare job, her boyfriend Benno is both warm and insensitive: he plays with the child, making droning noises like an airplane—“We’re flying!” he yells—but later begins to unbutton her blouse in front of the boy. “I’m not going to let that runt spoil my fun,” he snarls, engrossed in a cop show. After the boy’s parents come to pick him up, Angelika is confronted with the reality of Benno’s revealed selfishness and lack of care. “She freed herself and said she would have a quick shower too. She locked the bathroom but didn’t undress. When Benno knocked on the door, she was still sitting on the toilet, with her face in her hands.”

Heavy, shocking endings like these cap off many of Stamm’s stories, but not all of them are as tragic. In “Seven Sleepers,” a lonely vegetable farmer finds his first love; in “The Suitcase,” an elderly man surreptitiously slips a suitcase beneath his dying wife’s hospital bed with her necessary items—and a bar of chocolate.

We’re Flying is eerily readable—perhaps due to how much of ourselves we recognize in his characters. In a varied and colorful array of stories, Stamm manages to portray human life as the emotional mishmash that it really is, full of misery and beauty, full of falling and flying.

3 August 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Hilary Wermers on Peter Hoeg’s The Elephant Keepers’ Children, which is translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken. The Elephant Keepers’ Children will be released from Other Press on October 23, 2012.

Hilary Wermers is a senior at the University of Rochester, majoring in English and Women’s Studies. Her book reviews have also appeared in The Bloomsbury Review. She hails from Denver, Colorado. This summer, you can find her sprawled in a lawn chair next to the pool, book in hand. This is her first review for threepercent.

Here’s part of her review:

Peter Hoeg, Danish author best known for Smilla’s Sense of Snow, has created a fictional world in his new work, The Elephant Keeper’s Children, which not only entices readers to return to it again and again, but also encourages us to examine our reality. The story takes place partly on the fictional island of Fino and partly in Hoeg’s fictional realization of Copenhagen. Peter, our charming fourteen-year-old narrator, tells of the adventures of himself, his older siblings Hans and Title, and their dog Basker leading up to the “Grand Synod”, a religious conference of improbable size and importance. Peter’s parents are mysteriously involved in the Synod; he and his siblings are on a mission to save their parents from themselves.

The title seems somewhat ambiguous until Hoeg reveals the definition and importance of “elephant keepers.” They are present throughout the story and a force to be reckoned with. Like the definition of elephant keepers, much of this novel is revealed at exactly the most satisfying moment, at the point when readers (or this reader, at least) begin to become frustrated with our lack of insight into Hoeg’s complex world. This delayed effect made me think of Peter as a thoughtful host, who brings up business or unpleasantness only when his guests are comfortably seated with a cup of tea in hand. Needless to say, I felt a great deal of affection for Peter by the time I turned the final page.

Click here to read the entire review.

3 August 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

Peter Hoeg, Danish author best known for Smilla’s Sense of Snow, has created a fictional world in his new work, The Elephant Keeper’s Children, which not only entices readers to return to it again and again, but also encourages us to examine our reality. The story takes place partly on the fictional island of Fino and partly in Hoeg’s fictional realization of Copenhagen. Peter, our charming fourteen-year-old narrator, tells of the adventures of himself, his older siblings Hans and Title, and their dog Basker leading up to the “Grand Synod”, a religious conference of improbable size and importance. Peter’s parents are mysteriously involved in the Synod; he and his siblings are on a mission to save their parents from themselves.

The title seems somewhat ambiguous until Hoeg reveals the definition and importance of “elephant keepers.” They are present throughout the story and a force to be reckoned with. Like the definition of elephant keepers, much of this novel is revealed at exactly the most satisfying moment, at the point when readers (or this reader, at least) begin to become frustrated with our lack of insight into Hoeg’s complex world. This delayed effect made me think of Peter as a thoughtful host, who brings up business or unpleasantness only when his guests are comfortably seated with a cup of tea in hand. Needless to say, I felt a great deal of affection for Peter by the time I turned the final page.

Much of the joy of this book comes from the intimacy formed by Peter’s narration and the extent to which we, the readers, become invested in the outcome of his adventures. Peter shares his fears, his hopes, and his myriad of insights with us:

If we’d had more time, and if I’d been less shaken, I would have asked her for concrete examples of who exactly had ever changed the course of their lives in seven minutes, but now Tilte takes me by the arm and draws me over to the open window.

Other than Peter’s family, The Elephant Keeper’s Children is populated by a whole cast of wacky characters. Leonora Ticklepalate is a Buddhist nun who performs phone sex to pay the bills. Count Rickardt Three Lions is a close family friend, drug addict, and proprietor of the Fino drug rehabilitation facility. Alexander Flounderblood is the head of the Fino school district and Peter’s sworn enemy.

This book manages to be both highly entertaining and seriously thought provoking. I must also mention the flawless translation, which allows us to step into the streets of Copenhagen and to enjoy Hoeg’s play with words. Peter regales us with tales of his hilarious misdeeds on one page and delves into the true nature of spirituality on the next. I closed this book feeling wiser. I want to reopen this book when I am feeling lonely to find company among friends.

22 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

The latest review to our Reviews Section is a piece by Aleksandra Fazlipour on Riikka Pulkkinen’s True, which is available from Other Press.

Riikka Pulkkinen studied literature and philosophy at the University of Helsinki. Her debut novel, The Border, sparked international interest when it was published in 2006. Her second novel, True, will mark her English debut. Riikka Pulkkinen received the Kaarle Prize in February 2007 and the Laila Hirvisaari Prize in May 2007.

Here is part of the review:

Elsa is dying of cancer. Her husband Martti, a successful artist, and her ambitious daughter Eleonoora, who is a renowned surgeon, are struggling to cope with the impending loss. In spite of their immense, largely independent professional success, neither Martti nor Eleonoora are able to comprehend life without Elsa. A commanding presence who held her family together prior to her illness, Elsa, a famous psychologist, aims to do just that during her last few weeks, electing to stay at home instead of in hospice care. Eleonoora’s daughter Anna decides to care for Elsa in the aftermath of the dissolution of a relationship. Anna is very deeply depressed, not because she misses the man (she is living with a man who she does love), but because she began to think of the man’s child as her own. Caring for her grandmother seems like the perfect distraction. However, Anna finds herself more immersed in the psychological drama that silently shaped her mother’s childhood and mirrors her own life in strange and unexpected ways. True, by Riikka Pulkkinen, is less about a family’s struggle with cancer, and more about the mind’s ability to create false memories and a family’s ability to restructure in the face of loss, and how sometimes it’s hard to recover from the same loss twice.

Click here to read the entire review.

22 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

Elsa is dying of cancer. Her husband Martti, a successful artist, and her ambitious daughter Eleonoora, who is a renowned surgeon, are struggling to cope with the impending loss. In spite of their immense, largely independent professional success, neither Martti nor Eleonoora are able to comprehend life without Elsa. A commanding presence who held her family together prior to her illness, Elsa, a famous psychologist, aims to do just that during her last few weeks, electing to stay at home instead of in hospice care. Eleonoora’s daughter Anna decides to care for Elsa in the aftermath of the dissolution of a relationship. Anna is very deeply depressed, not because she misses the man (she is living with a man who she does love), but because she began to think of the man’s child as her own. Caring for her grandmother seems like the perfect distraction. However, Anna finds herself more immersed in the psychological drama that silently shaped her mother’s childhood and mirrors her own life in strange and unexpected ways. True, by Riikka Pulkkinen, is less about a family’s struggle with cancer, and more about the mind’s ability to create false memories and a family’s ability to restructure in the face of loss, and how sometimes it’s hard to recover from the same loss twice.

One afternoon when Anna is drinking wine and having a picnic with her grandmother, they decide to play dress-up. Anna appears wearing a beautiful party dress she found in the attic. This drudges up a slew of old, unpleasant memories for Elsa. Elsa begins to tell Anna about Martti’s affair with Eleonoora’s nanny Eeva, who the dress belonged to. Two storylines begin to unfold: the family coping with Elsa’s impending death and Anna coping with her breakup and her inability to visit with her ex-boyfriend’s young daughter, and Anna’s identification with Eeva, who suffered from similar feelings after her relationship with Martti was cut short by Elsa discovering about it. Anna begins to invent Eeva’s life in her own mind, and it soon becomes difficult to divorce Anna’s feelings and creations from her own memories.

We soon find out that Eleonoora’s mind is playing tricks on her as well. Elsa, a successful psychologist, travels a lot during Eleonoora’s early childhood, and many of her early memories of her mother are not in fact Elsa but instead are Eeva, but Eleonoora has no way of remembering this: she was too young at the time, and Elsa has reinforced her false memories by providing false information. The lines have blurred between Eeva the mistress and nanny and Elsa the biological mother, creating one woman who raised her: Mom. The day trips she took with Eeva and Martti while Elsa was away on business have firmly established Eleonoora’s memories of her mother, although it is not actually her mother. The following passage, narrated by Eeva, illustrates one false memory in particular:

Later she [Eleonoora] remembers this boating trip, although she remembers nothing else from the whole summer. She builds memories from the words of others, but she tells her own daughter about this trip, as if it’s a precious thing—the nicest part was Mom and Dad and I went out in the boat to the island. Mom usually rowed, but Dad did sometimes. The sun was a friendly fire in the sky, it felt like the world had always been nothing but light and water and melted Fazer chocolate in a blue wrapper and I could lick it off the foil to my heart’s content.

Eleonoora has unknowingly been shaped during her childhood by Elsa, who was able to gather her daughter’s fragmented memories and reform them into a singular mother. However, this uses Eleonoora’s difficulty coping with Elsa’s death, after already having become estranged with Eeva, as a means to explore the bonds between mother and daughter, and how easily they can be altered by providing inaccurate information during the formative years. Eleonoora was confronted by the loss of the second half of her maternal figure, which shows how sometimes the mind and the heart falsely establish memories as coping mechanisms, seeking to avoid the pain of loss that Eeva and Anna ultimately shared by becoming estranged from individuals they grew to love. However, because Elsa protected her daughter (and by extension Martti) from this first crucial loss, Eleonoora is unequipped for the more significant loss of her real mother—which is really where the story begins.

24 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next three weeks highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Seven Years by Peter Stamm, translated by Michael Hofmann

Language: German
Country: Switzerland
Publisher: Other Press

Why this book should win: Dismantled relationships FTW!

Today’s post is by Tom Flynn, bookseller and events coordinator at Seminary Co-Op in Chicago.

Let’s get this bit out of the way first: Peter Stamm’s Seven Years is not a terribly pleasant novel. The characters—particularly the narrator, Alexander—are deeply flawed people who probably would have done better in their fictional lives had they never encountered one or another or, after meeting, run in opposite directions. But it is also an engrossing read with direct, clear prose that engages and eggs the reader on.

Alexander is a German architecture student who, at the end of his final year of school, becomes involved with a Polish woman, Ivona, whom he does not much like. She does not engage him intellectually, he finds her unattractive, and he feels her to be beneath him socially. Yet he finds himself unable to stop seeing her. While this is going on, he begins a relationship with a fellow student, Sonia, who possesses an ambition and drive completely absent from Alex. Sonia and Alex marry and open a firm but after several years (the seven year itch that the title can, perhaps, be understood to reference) of marriage Ivona reappears in his life and he takes up with her once again. The effect of this affair eventually lays bare the weakness of his and Sonia’s relationship, which, despite its solid presentation at the beginning of the novel, is doomed to crumble around them.

Architecture and its various metaphors prove an apt vehicle for exploring Sonia, Alex, and Ivona’s movement through life. Sonia wishes to build socially conscious structures that work toward the creation and fulfillment of an ideal human. She has very firm ideas on the type of life she and Alex ought to lead: their work, home, and family life are all clearly laid out. Alex, for his part, finds himself happiest designing buildings he can never build, nor wants to construct; he would rather explore space on the page than express it in the world what with all the compromises that accompany such efforts. He allows others to determine the shape and course of his life, effectively drifting from one event to the next. And Ivona is simply a dweller, moving from one small, unpleasant residence to the next with little regard for how much smaller the physical space she inhabits becomes along the way. Instead, she carves out a world within that houses her love—her mania, really—for Alex and Alex alone.

Much of the drama in the novel feels, well, anti-climatic. A sense of the inevitable pervades the novel. Alex is by no means a passionate character, nor is he anyone—in fiction or life—for whom one should feel much pity. The events of the novel plays out as they do because of his own inertia, his willingness to meander in whatever direction circumstances take him. He builds a life with Sonia because it’s what she wants and it seems he should want her. He returns to Ivona time and again not because he wants to, but because she is always reaching out to him, no matter how he treats her. Inertia is his natural state and by novel’s end his inability to act has yielded the life he sees laid out before him.

Really, I could go on at much greater length about Seven Years. There’s just something about the characters and Stamm’s understanding of human nature that causes the myriad issues the novel raises to jut out in my mind. Truly excellent novels—which in my estimation Seven Years is—worm their way into the reader’s mind, giving them something to gnaw on. The excellent novel also possesses a life of its own and, to turn the phrase somewhat, gnaws on the reader, too. Or creates an itch that the reader can’t help but scratch.

22 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s Read This Next title is Alberto Moravia’s Two Friends, which is forthcoming from Other Press, and which Acacia O’Connor reviewed for us.

Translated from the Italian by Marina Harss, Two Friends is a collection of three posthumously discovered Moravia novellas. You can read a sample here.

And here’s part of Acacia’s review. (If you’re not familiar with Acacia, she’s working on her MA in literary translation here at the University of Rochester with a focus on contemporary Italian literature.)

Moravia is a huge figure in Italian literature and culture: he began his career as a journalist (not unlike his Sergio character in Two Friends) and editor, founding literary journals Oggi and Caratteri. His first novel, Gli Indifferenti (Time of Indifference) is perhaps still his best known, though other novels, including Il Conformista (The Conformist) and Il Deprezzo (Contempt), are well-known in their film iterations under the direction of Bernardo Bertolucci and Jean-Luc Godard. His work, which dealt with the contemporary crises of belief and issues of social alienation, consistently suffered censorship under the fascist regime. Later, he won the pretigious Strega Prize (as did his wife, Elsa Morante). In the years before his death, he entered politics, serving in the European Parliament.

Knowing a bit about Moravia’s background, especially the bit about his novels being seized under Mussolini, makes Two Friends all the more interesting. Because as much as these drafts are about the relationship between Sergio and his friend Maurizio, they are also about the relationship between the individual and the fraught political environment. In these unfinished stories, Moravia draws out the respective anxieties of two young men from different backgrounds and shows us their responses to communism and the war. Rather than a history book version of events and attitudes, Moravia tells you the story of a young man whose ideals and politics are mixed up in his local and personal dramas—much like my/our big ideals and small dramas are comingled today.

The drafts of these three piecemeal novellas were discovered in 1996 in Moravia’s basement in Rome. Because the author famously destroyed all his draft materials after completing a book, scholars and those at the Fondo Moravia have naturally been very interested in these pages. What you read in this newly translated text is an organized guestimate pieced together from disordered pages discovered in a ratty suitcase, but they are extremely readable.

You can read the entire review by clicking here.

22 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

One of the beautiful things about translation, to my mind, is that it polemicizes the easy notion of the complete and whole work of art, of the perfect and sacred original. Translation is a subjective reading, a series of choices made by an individual with their own background, experience and politics. It’s a common adage that “all communication is translation.” This goes, too, for creative arts, as Michael Cunningham pointed out in an essay he wrote last fall: “Here’s a secret. Many novelists, if they are pressed and if they are being honest, will admit that the finished book is a rather rough translation of the book they’d intended to write.”

I love Cunningham’s essay, in which he confesses that his books are not the transcendent pieces of genius he imagined them to be in his mind. I think of his words often regarding translation and find myself referring to them now again in regards to the recently translated work Two Friends, a series of unpublished novella drafts by the great Italian writer Alberto Moravia. Two Friends is an excellent example of the construction and progression that takes place in writing as well as in translation.

Moravia is a huge figure in Italian literature and culture: he began his career as a journalist (not unlike his Sergio character in Two Friends) and editor, founding literary journals Oggi and Caratteri. His first novel, Gli Indifferenti (Time of Indifference) is perhaps still his best known, though other novels, including Il Conformista (The Conformist) and Il Deprezzo (Contempt), are well-known in their film iterations under the direction of Bernardo Bertolucci and Jean-Luc Godard. His work, which dealt with the contemporary crises of belief and issues of social alienation, consistently suffered censorship under the fascist regime. Later, he won the pretigious Strega Prize (as did his wife, Elsa Morante). In the years before his death, he entered politics, serving in the European Parliament.

Knowing a bit about Moravia’s background, especially the bit about his novels being seized under Mussolini, makes Two Friends all the more interesting. Because as much as these drafts are about the relationship between Sergio and his friend Maurizio, they are also about the relationship between the individual and the fraught political environment. In these unfinished stories, Moravia draws out the respective anxieties of two young men from different backgrounds and shows us their responses to communism and the war. Rather than a history book version of events and attitudes, Moravia tells you the story of a young man whose ideals and politics are mixed up in his local and personal dramas—much like my/our big ideals and small dramas are comingled today.

The drafts of these three piecemeal novellas were discovered in 1996 in Moravia’s basement in Rome. Because the author famously destroyed all his draft materials after completing a book, scholars and those at the Fondo Moravia have naturally been very interested in these pages. What you read in this newly translated text is an organized guestimate pieced together from disordered pages discovered in a ratty suitcase, but they are extremely readable.

What I found most interesting about these three drafts are the differences between them and the progression (if progression is the right word) from the first to the third. The first centers largely around the boyhood tension and rivalry that exists between Sergio, who is from a working class family, and his friend Maurizio, who is of the decidedly more bourgeoisie set. Sergio struggles with his sense of duty and his disapproval of Maurizio who appears not to care about the politics surrounding the war.

The second has Sergio and Maurizio substantially unaltered, character-wise, but engaged in a much more plot-driven conflict: Sergio is obsessed with getting Maurizio to “convert” and join the communist party and goes so far as to offer his girlfriend, Lalla, in exchange. The conversation about sexual exclusivity (or not) and political loyalty through the addition of Lalla makes the second a much richer story.

Only in the third, however, did I feel like I heard Sergio clearly, as the perspective switches from third to first person. There’s an increased focus on the relationship between Sergio and Nella (neé Lalla) that deftly complicates Sergio’s communist fervor. Is Sergio so insistent that Maurizio become a communist because he believes so much in the cause? Or because of an unrelenting feeling of inferiority to the well-heeled Maurizio? Or because of a desire to control him, and Nella? Over the course of the pages Moravia brings out Sergio’s destructive investment and not at all disinterest in communism and shows how his politics are a mask for his insecurities and cruelties.

Two Friends gives a rare glimpse into a writers process. While the characters of Sergio and Maurizio (and the nebulous Nella/Lalla character) remain, their motives and circumstances change. By the third draft, Moravia is creating new tensions that subtly bring out concepts that are more bluntly apparent in earlier pages. The writing is unpolished and straightforward, but these pages give us a rare treat: observing the process of a writer “translating” his ideas into a story, to varying levels of success.

20 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s Read This Next title is Two Friends by Alberto Moravia, a posthumously published set of related novellas that’s translated from the Italian by Marina Harss and forthcoming from Other Press.

The extended preview is available now and we’ll be posting a review and interview later this week.

I remember hearing about this when it came out in Italy and being very intrigued. As mentioned in the description below, these three novellas all start from a similar premise, but are completely different in execution and tone. Even though I don’t think it was intended as such, it’s an interesting experiment that shows off Moravia’s range and development as a writer.

Here’s the description from Other Press:

In this set of novellas, a few facts are constant. Sergio is a young intellectual, poor and proud of his new membership in the Communist Party. Maurizio is handsome, rich, successful with women, and morally ambiguous. Sergio’s young, sensual lover becomes collateral damage in the struggle between these two men. All three of these unfinished stories, found packed in a suitcase after Alberto Moravia’s death, share this narrative premise. But from there, each story unfolds in a unique way. The first patiently explores the slow unfurling of Sergio’s resentment toward Maurizio. The second reveals the calculated bargain Maurizio offers in exchange for his conversion to Sergio’s beloved Communism. And the third switches dramatically to the first person, laying bare Sergio’s conflicted soul.

Anyone interested in literature will relish the opportunity to watch Moravia at work, tinkering with his story and working at it from three unique perspectives.

Click here to read the preview online, and check back later for the interview and other additional materials.

10 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I’ll post about this again as the time grows closer, but I wanted to announce that on Monday, May 2nd, Herve Le Tellier, Amelie Nothomb, and Carsten Jensen will be here in Rochester for our annual PEN World Voices event. For this year’s event, we’ve partnered with the admirable Writers & Books who will both host and help promote the events.

I’m particularly excited about this, since I’ve heard nothing but great things about Carsten Jensen (see this WSJ review), Amelie Nothomb’s latest is on the BTBA fiction longlist, and Herve Le Tellier is an author I’m very excited to start reading.

Last time we posted about Herve Le Tellier it was in reaction to the high prices of a couple of his books. To update this: Yesterday a fellow Dalkey-fan pointed out that both of Le Tellier’s Dalkey titles (A Thousand Pearls (For a Thousand Pennies) and The Sextine Chapel, both translated by Ian Monk) are now listed at $14.95.

Which is absolutely fantastic, since Le Tellier sounds like an amazing writer of the Harry Mathews variety, see this description of The Sextine Chapel (emphasis on the “sex” in “sextine”):

The delightful and daring entertainment by French author Hervé Le Tellier is a series of short, intimately interconnected stories making up a lively user’s manual to pleasure, relating the various liaisons of couples from Anna and Ben to Yolande and Zach (taking in Chloe and Xavier along the way, as well as twenty others, as you may have guessed), until the crisscrossing of their lives and partners makes up a pattern as intricate as the fresco on the ceiling of a chapel . . . Harkening back to another playful book on an intimate subject— Harry Mathews’s Singular Pleasures1—Hervé Le Tellier’s The Sextine Chapel celebrates the wonderful, often random, often excruciating possibilities of sexual intimacy, with something here for just about everyone—and their wife, husband, lover, or passing fancy.

Unfortunately, these two titles aren’t available until the summer, but Other Press recently released to Le Tellier books: Enough about Love and The Intervention of a Good Man

Going back to the Mathews comparison, if The Sextine Chapel is like Singular Pleasures, Enough about Love brings to mind (without having read it) Mathews’s Cigarettes. (Which is one of the greatest books ever written.) Full review forthcoming . . .

The Intervention of a Good Man happens to be the first ebook I’ve ever purchased and plan on reading. It’s a 50 page novella that’s only available as an ebook—and only costs $0.99. Bit of an experiment on Other Press’s part (I don’t think they’ve done anything quite like this before), and will hopefully expose Le Tellier to a wider range of readers . . .

With four books coming out in the next twelve months, it seems reasonably possible that we’ll be talking about Le Tellier next year at this time in relation to the 2012 BTBA . . .

1 For years, I’ve believed that Singular Pleasures—a book of short pieces all about masturbation—was the perfect Valentine’s Day book.

4 January 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [6]

So, in addition to the interesting books I found in going through Dalkey’s catalog, I also came across a couple of odd listings that I thought I’d share in hopes that someone out there can explain this to me . . .

One of the reasons I go through all catalogs is to add all the new titles to our Translation Database. (Which is a pain in the ass, but does give me the opportunity to keep up with what books are coming out from all the other publishers out there.) Anyway, when I hit Herve Le Tellier’s The Sextine Chapel, my database alerted me to the fact that this was a “duplicate entry.” This isn’t all that unusual. Publishers occasionally have to delay titles, and sometimes end up relisting them in the next catalog. So no big deal.

BUT, in double-checking the info on The Sextine Chapel, the price has jumped from $12.95 (which is what it was listed at when it had a April 2010 pub date) to $34.95. (!!) Almost a 300% increase . . .

Adding to the weirdness is a listing on the same page for Herve Le Tellier’s A Thousand Pearls (for a Thousand Pennies), which is also due out in July 2011 and is retailing for $39.95.

It’s not like either of these are long books or special editions. According to all the available info, these are plain old paperbacks, that are 104 pages and 200 pages respectively. So, what’s going on here?

Speculation Point #1: This is the same price point Dalkey uses for its “Scholarly Series,” for which academics pay a $XX subvention (around $5,000) to have the books published by Dalkey. (See here for all the info.) These titles are done in very short runs (100 copies or so) and sold almost exclusively to university libraries.

So, are these translations part of the Scholarly Series? Is translator Ian Monk subsidizing these? That seems awfully weird, since they are “delightful and daring entertainments” that seem as geared towards the general public as anything else in Dalkey’s catalog.

And to add to the mystery, yesterday I also came across the Publishers Weekly review of Herve Le Tellier’s Enough about Love, which is translated from the French by Adriana Hunter and coming out from Other Press next month. This book lists for a reasonable $14.95 (it’s 240 pages), and sounds pretty entertaining. (From the Other Press copy: “Love at first sight is still possible for those into their forties and long-married. But when you have already mapped out a life path, a passionate affair can come at a high price. For our four characters, their lives are unexpectedly turned upside down by the deliciously inconvenient arrival of love. “)

Speculation Point #2: At $34.95 and $39.95, the two Le Tellier books from Dalkey will not be available in any bookstore in America. (Except maybe one or two truly Dalkey-devoted ones, but, well, you know what I mean.) Readers interested in Le Tellier will most likely just buy Enough about Love, which is great for Other Press, less so for the two Dalkey titles.

Speculation Point #3: The ebook versions of the Dalkey titles are listed for $14.95. Is Dalkey trying to promote a primarily ebook future for translations? Seems weird, since Dalkey isn’t the most wired of publishers.

Does anyone know what’s going on here? I’m mainly interested in this from a publishing decision perspective, since it seems to run counter to all that Dalkey has, and does, stand for of providing access to international works of literature.

But I’m also interested because it seems like there’s some sort of intriguing story to be told. This switch from a $12.95 to (the unsellable) $34.95 feels like some sort of punishment or retaliation or something. But where is this punishment directed? At Ian Monk? Le Tellier? The agent/French publisher? And what will this accomplish?

I’m totally confused and intrigued, and plan on speculating wildly (in my own head) if I don’t get the full story . . . If anyone has any leads, please e-mail (chad.post [at] rochester [dot] edu) or post them in the comments section below.

8 December 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

About seven years ago, when I was working at Dalkey and prepping the marketing plan for Bulgarian author Georgi Gospodinov’s Natural Novel, I came up with a bit of a crazy idea. (Yeah, surprising, I know.) This remarkable books—a moving, fragmented portrait of one man’s dealing with divorce1 that’s funny, a bit meta, and charming through and through—was the only Bulgarian novel I could find in any sort of Google search.

So I decided to tell everyone that it was the first Bulgarian novel to ever be translated into English and published in America. That’s worthy of a New York Times profile piece, right? “First Bulgarian Novel to Reach American Readers.” Shit, that was Oprah sort of golden.

Well, dreams of hundreds of thousands of sales became simply hundreds of sales, but this little claim did make its way into Publishers Weekly, and aside from one aggressive letter from a publisher claiming that he had published “a number” of Bulgarian collections of poetry, no one had refused my “First Bulgarian Novel in English” claim.

But how could this possibly be true? Sure, it’s Bulgaria. Not a huge country, granted, but, you know, it’s not Malta. Seemed like somehow, someone would’ve come across something, and brought it into English. But maybe not . . .

As I came to find out later (in Bulgaria, on a trip to the Sozopol Fiction Workshops, thanks to the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation), one of the reasons for this possible lack was the late development of the novel in Bulgaria. For ages there had been Bulgarian poets, but novelists are a relatively new phenomenon. Which led to a weird (compared to the U.S. anyway) situation in which most books published by Bulgarian publishers are in translation. Not necessarily because Bulgarian readers are fascinated with world literature, but because there just aren’t enough Bulgarian books being written to sustain larger houses.

Things are obviously changing, and based on my short visit, and on judging the contemporary Bulgarian novel contest, there’s a lot of great Bulgarian stuff out there waiting to be translated into English.

But going back to my original story, approximately one year after making this little announcement, I received a photocopied page from a “Dictionary of World Literature” that a bookseller from Madison, WI found at a garage sale. This dictionary, which I think was published in the early 1950s, was a guide to the literatures of the world, and under the heading of “Bulgaria” there was one novel. Ivan Vazov’s Under the Yoke, which was originally written in 1888 and was translated into English in 1912.

*

Seven (or so) years later, there are a number of Bulgarian works that have been translated and published in English. And looking at the Translation Database, there are three recent titles worth taking a look at:



  • Zift by Vladislav Todorov, translated from the Bulgarian by Joseph Benatov (Paul Dry Books)

I swear to god that after I finish Olga Tokarczuk’s Primeval and Other Times (which is an amazing novel) I’m going to read and review Zift. Based on this description, it sounds fantastic:

December 21, 1963: Having served 20 years for a murder he didn’t commit, “Moth” exits Central Sofia Prison anticipating his first night of freedom. Instead he steps into a new and alien world—the nightmarish totalitarianism of Communist Bulgaria. In his first hours of freedom he traverses the map of a diabolical city, full of decaying neighborhoods, gloomy streets, and a bizarre parade of characters.

A novel of grave wit, Zift unfolds in the course of a single, frenetic night, offering a fast-paced, ghoulish, even grotesque—but also enchanting—tour of shadowy, socialist Sofia. To achieve his depiction of totalitarian absurdity, Vladislav Todorov combines the methods of hardboiled American crime fiction and film noir with socialist symbols and communist ideological clichés.

And seeing that Rochester is the fourth most obscene city in the U.S. thanks in part to this blog (or, probably not, but give me my moment of obscene glory, please), I might as well explain what Zift means:

zift n. 1. black mineral pitch, bitumen, asphalt; used as bonding material for road surfacing and, in the past, as streetwise chewing gum. 2. Slang. shit. [Turkish, form Arabic]

You can read an except of Zift by clicking on this pdf.




  • Isaac’s Torah by Angel Wagenstein, translated from the Bulgarian by Elizabeth Frank and Deliana Simeonova (Other Press)

Just from the title, author’s name, and description, I wouldn’t have guessed this was translated from Bulgarian, but there you go. Here’s what Other Press has to say:

This novel is the saga in five parts of Isaac Jacob Blumenfeld, who grows up in Kolodetz, a small town near Lvov, which, when he’s a boy, belongs to the Hapsburg Empire, but which subsequently belongs to Poland, Soviet Russia, Germany, and then Russia again. Isaac survives the absurdity and horror of Eastern Europe during the 20th century by pretending to be a fool. If this is an old Jewish art, then Isaac is a consummate artist. He plays the fool all his life, from his boyhood in Kolodetz shetl to the time when he is an accused war criminal in a Gulag in Siberia.

Inseparable from Isaac’s life and story are the Yiddish jokes and fables of Kolodetz. These and the counsel of his dear friend, the rabbi and chair of the atheist club in Kolodetz, Shmuel Ben David, sustain Isaac through two world wars, three concentration camps, and five motherlands. The book puts on record, with full art, what is perhaps the central story of the last one hundred years. It is a wise book.

They also have a slick-as-money “look inside” feature where you can read the first 20+ pages. Worth checking out, especially since Other Press also published Wagenstein’s Farewell, Shanghai




  • Unreal Estate by Lyubomir Nikolov, translated by Miroslav Nikolov (Carnegie Mellon University Press)

Unfortunately, the Carnegie Mellon website doesn’t seem to have a page for this book, or any additional information at all (shame!), so instead, I’ll just quote this description from Flipkart, which is also where the title of this post comes from:

In Unreal Estate, the much-anticipated follow-up to the internationally acclaimed Pagan (Carnegie Mellon University Press 1992), Lyubomir Nikolov has made the Balkans a permanent feature of the American literary landscape. Blending rich Bulgarian folk song traditions with Old World intellectual skepticism and American grit, Nikolov dares to venture where few others have gone. Miroslav Nikolovas bold translations make the poems more accessible than ever. Emerging from years of obscurity, Lyubomir Nikolov strikes again.

And with that, I’m off till tomorrow when I’ll post a bunch of info and samples from Milen Ruskov’s Thrown into Nature.

1 In the time-honored Three Percent tradition of TMI, it’s fitting that I’m writing about this today seeing that I was finally, officially divorced yesterday afternoon. Yay! Or yay? Or whatever.

1 November 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Erika Howard on Manuel de Lope’s The Wrong Blood, which was translated from the Spanish by John Cullen and available from Other Press.

Manuel de Lope has published fourteen books in his native Spain, but this is the first of his works to be translated into English. Based on the reviews of The Wrong Blood that I’ve read, hopefully this won’t be his last. Even the NY Times gave it (and translator John Cullen) some love in this past Sunday’s Book Review:

This absorbing novel — the first from the distinguished Spanish author to be translated into English — is full of mild sensations. Mild humor (bacalao soaked for dinner in the toilet tank) gives way to mild horror (a woman bends over another’s baby with “the posture of certain all-consuming insects”), which in turn yields to mild philosophizing (on the “admiration that denizens of the rural world feel for folding things”). At times, the mildness turns to provocation, as when the main character, a simple yet baffling woman named María Antonia Etxarri, watches a troop of soldiers and has “a feeling that one of those soldiers, if not more than one, was going to rape her.” The placidity with which she faces this prospect is galvanic. But de Lope’s languid sentences, artfully translated by John Cullen, continue to unfurl, and you find yourself sinking back into the narrative as if it were quicksand.

Erika Howard is interning with Open Letter this semester, and this is her first book review . . . Here’s how it opens:

When you imagine a typical “war novel,” what do you think of? Most people would answer bloody battlefields and brother-against-brother dramatics, lack of supplies and bleak outlooks. However, The Wrong Blood is undeniably a novel that is centered around war, and yet these things are only minimally addressed. Instead, de Lope’s novel focuses on the impact of war on civilians—those not directly engaged in fighting, or (generally) in any of the more violent aspects of it, but affected nonetheless. Specifically, it focuses on two women, and how their lives were changed and intertwined through a course of events set in motion by the war.

One of these women is Isabel Cruces, an upper-class woman who marries Captain Julen Herráiz. Her husband is sent off to war, and she is widowed not long after. Her tragedy is directly connected to Maria Antonia Extarri, the daughter of a former inn keeper, who is abandoned as a teenager when her parents flee the war and their home. Maria is raped when soldiers take refuge at her family’s inn, and, through a series of events (both emotional and physical), she eventually ends up as a maid to Isabel. From the beginning, there is an acknowledgement of an odd bond between the two women, but no explanation as to why for the better part of the book. Manuel de Lope does manage to keep it in the front of the reader’s mind, however, referencing it off and on, clearly but without overdoing it, as in this passage . . .

To read that passage and the rest of the review, simply click here.

1 November 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

When you imagine a typical “war novel,” what do you think of? Most people would answer bloody battlefields and brother-against-brother dramatics, lack of supplies and bleak outlooks. However, The Wrong Blood is undeniably a novel that is centered around war, and yet these things are only minimally addressed. Instead, de Lope’s novel focuses on the impact of war on civilians—those not directly engaged in fighting, or (generally) in any of the more violent aspects of it, but affected nonetheless. Specifically, it focuses on two women, and how their lives were changed and intertwined through a course of events set in motion by the war.

One of these women is Isabel Cruces, an upper-class woman who marries Captain Julen Herráiz. Her husband is sent off to war, and she is widowed not long after. Her tragedy is directly connected to Maria Antonia Extarri, the daughter of a former inn keeper, who is abandoned as a teenager when her parents flee the war and their home. Maria is raped when soldiers take refuge at her family’s inn, and, through a series of events (both emotional and physical), she eventually ends up as a maid to Isabel. From the beginning, there is an acknowledgement of an odd bond between the two women, but no explanation as to why for the better part of the book. Manuel de Lope does manage to keep it in the front of the reader’s mind, however, referencing it off and on, clearly but without overdoing it, as in this passage:

However, anyone familiar with the two locales—that is, the Extarri inn at the crossroads and the Las Cruces villa in Hondarribia—could have told that one of the two had pervaded the other through the subtle introduction of symbols and emblems that assuredly were not limited to the buffalo head and the china chamber pot. Knowing eyes would have detected Maria Antonia’s influence in the house after the Senora’s death and the expropriation and destruction of the inn. Thus her universe now extended beyond the kitchen, where she spent so much of her time, and her room, which had always been the servant’s quarters.

The story of these two women is told in drips and drabbles, more in flashback and hints dropped by the crippled doctor who lives next door, probably the only one (or at the very least, one of the few living) who knows the secret that bonds Maria and Isabel. Thus the connections that are intricately laid can be difficult to trace unless you stop and focus on them. Perhaps this is a side effect of a few too many connections; perhaps it’s the simple fact that some of these connections were announced fairly early in the novel. Either way, by the end of the story it takes a moment to recall exactly why everything was connected.

However, even with the momentary confusion that happens once or twice, the good outweighs the bad. Manuel de Lope constructs a story about war that seems relatable, even though the (very large) majority of readers will never face a scenario like this. The emotions are true, and the setting rarely strays to a far-off battlefield, or really anywhere too difficult for an average reader to imagine. The storyline might be a little far-fetched, a little too coincidental to be believable, but on the whole the novel stays true to itself, and keeps you engaged. The Wrong Blood is definitely worth the time and attention it requires.

14 July 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Following up on last week’s post about the various summer/fall 2010 previews that came out from The Millions and elsewhere, I thought that over the next few days, we’d highlight some forthcoming titles that sound pretty interesting to me. Sure I’m missing things and whatnot, so feel free to overload the comments section with recommendations. And click here to see all translation preview posts.

I Curse the River of Time“: by Per Petterson, translated from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund (Norway, Graywolf Press)

Along with all the Bolano and Larsson books, this is probably one of the most anticipated works in translation coming out this year. Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses was an incredible success for Graywolf, and hopefully I Curse the River of Time will be as well. This is already available in the UK, and the reviews seem to be pretty positive, including this one in the Guardian, in which Rachel Cusk calls the book “a work of blackest tragicomedy, a novel as cold and scintillating and desolate as the northern winter landscapes that are its setting.” It centers around late-30-something Arvid Jansen, whose life appears to be tottering, so he goes to visit his mother in Denmark. This paragraph makes the book sound really interesting to me:

On the ferry he is paranoid and unstable; he punches a man he believes to be menacing him, only to discover later that this man is a childhood friend who was trying to greet him. He falls off a jetty and soaks the only clothes he has brought with him. He takes it into his head to chop down a tree his mother has always complained of in front of the cottage, thinking it will please her. He hangs around her, needy and clinging, when it is apparent that she wants to be left alone; and worse still, apparent that she is disappointed in him, in the failure of his marriage and in his underachievement generally.

Stella by Siegfried Lenz, translated from the Germany by Anthea Bell (Germany, Other Press)

This is just the first of several interesting translations that Other Press will be bringing out over the next few months. Stella is a student-teacher love story, although according to the jacket copy, “there is nothing salacious about their relationship, nor is it just a case of a crush between teacher and student.” The novel starts at the end, at Stella’s funeral, and the praise for Lenz’s “Heminway-esque” style is intriguing.

The Insufferable Gaucho by Roberto Bolano, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews (Chile, New Directions)

Another Bolano! Another collection of short stories! I can’t find the ND page for this book, but here’s a link to what I assume is the title story that appeared in the New Yorker a few years back. Opening sentence is so Bolano: “In the opinion of those who knew him well, Héctor Pereda had two outstanding virtues: he was a caring and affectionate father and an irreproachable lawyer with a record of honesty, in a time and place that were hardly conducive to such rectitude.”

A Novel Bookstore“: by Laurence Cosse, translated from the French by Alison Anderson (France, Europa Editions)

I’ll just let Europa describe this book-related mystery:

Ivan, a one-time world traveler, and Francesca, a ravishing Italian heiress, are the owners of a bookstore that is anything but ordinary. Rebelling against the business of bestsellers and in search of an ideal place where their literary dreams can come true, Ivan and Francesca open a store where the passion for literature is given free reign. Tucked away in a corner of Paris, the store offers its clientele a selection of literary masterpieces chosen by a top-secret committee of likeminded literary connoisseurs. To their amazement, after only a few months, the little dream store proves a success. And that is precisely when their troubles begin. At first, both owners shrug off the anonymous threats that come their way and the venomous comments concerning their store circulating on the Internet, but when three members of the supposedly secret committee are attacked, they decide to call the police. One by one, the pieces of this puzzle fall ominously into place, as it becomes increasingly evident that Ivan and Francesca’s dreams will be answered with pettiness, envy and violence.

Am I a Redundant Human Being? by Mela Hartwig, translated from the German by Kerri Pierce (Austria, Dalkey Archive)

And from the possible wacky to the quite probably depressing . . . I remember hearing about this book on an editorial trip to Vienna I took back when I was working at Dalkey Archive. Sounded like a pretty intense novel, and if I remember right (I probably don’t) the Austrian publisher compared Hartwig to Virginia Woolf. The novel centers around Aloisia Schmidt, a secretary whose life is utterly boring and mundane. From Dalkey: “In one final, guilt-ridden, masturbatory, self-obsessed confession, Aloisia indulges her masochistic tendencies to the fullest, putting her entire life on trial, and trying, through telling her story (a story, she assures us, that’s ‘so laughably mundane’ it’s really no story at all), to transform an ordinary life into something extraordinary.”

Aurorarama by Jean-Christophe Valtat (France, Melville House)

OK, I’m sort of cheating here—Valtat wrote this book in English—but whatever. Valtat sounds really interesting to me, so I’m breaking my own rule. This is Valtat’s second book to come out this year. Just a few weeks ago, FSG published 03, a novel about a man’s memories of a retarded girl he used to see every day and started obsessing over. What’s particularly cool about this book is the way it came into English (from Conversational Reading):

Former FSG editor Lorin Stein discovered this writer when he was browsing in a bookshop in Paris. The author of three previous books, Valtat had never before been translated into English. 03 was first published by Gallimard in 2005 and was not on submission to anyone in the U.S. or the U.K., so it took a chance encounter in a bookshop to bring this novel to an American readership.

That’s the kind of coincidental story that makes publishing awesome.

Aurorarama is set in 1908 in the Arctic city of “New Venice”:

But as the city prepares for spring, it feels more like qaartsiluni—“the time when something is about to explode in the dark.” Local “poletics” are wracked by tensions with the Eskimos circling the city, with suffragette riots led by an underground music star, with drug round-ups by the secret police force known as the Gentlemen of the Night. An ominous black airship hovers over the city, and the Gentlemen are hunting for the author of a radical pamphlet calling for revolt.

All sounds very wild, and very cool.

Klausen by Andreas Maier, translated from the German by Kenneth Northcott (Germany, Open Letter)

And now for the obligatory Open Letter title . . . Maier’s a very interesting writer, somewhere between Saramago and Bernhard. Klausen is a very well-constructed novel bringing together a collection of muddled, often contradictory voices to explain what happened (or didn’t happen) in a small German town. Reading this is quite an experience: the narrative flows from character to character, from event to discussion what really happened at that event, all building in a masterful way to a gripping conclusion involving a bomb. Or a shooting. Or something involving Italians. This may sound daunting or confusing, but it’s really not. It’s a great ride that hysterically portrays the sometimes insane workings of a close-knit community where everyone has an opinion (the right one!) about everything.

23 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Our latest review is of Ninni Holmqvist’s The Unit, which was translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy and published by Other Press.

Pretty interesting book (at least for the first two-thirds) about a future Sweden where those who are unwed and childless at the age of 50 have to live the rest of their lives in a Reserve Bank Unit:

Broadly speaking, Ninni Holmqvist’s debut novel fits into the tradition of dystopian literature. In the Sweden she describes, a law has been passed that women at the age of 50 (and men at the age of 60) who have no living children or spouses are deemed “dispensable” and sent to live at a Reserve Bank Unit for the rest of their lives. While in “the Unit,” the “dispensables” participate in experiments (psychological and physical) and donate various organs (kidneys, corneas, etc.) to the “useful” members of society, up until the day that they make their “final donation.” In other words, these freeloaders are essentially harvested for the benefit of those who are contributing more to society.

In depicting a dystopia, Holmqvist faces the almost intractable problem of making sure that this future seems believable, seems connected to our present, yet sets forth a new set of rules for how human behavior is governed. The best books in this tradition are the ones that depict a future that seems so potentially possible that the reader doesn’t ask too many questions. Holmqvist isn’t perfect with this, but she does provide a sort of “live your life alone, spend the end of it giving back to society” mantra that sort of makes sense. (And may make more sense in Scandinavia?) It’s implied on occasion that economics and general consumption are behind the creation of this system — if you’re not breeding and increasing society’s consumption, you’re dispensable — which is uber-creepy.

Aside from the suspension of belief necessary to accept the creation of the Units, this book is actually incredibly straight-forward — essentially just a love story in a weird context.

Click here for the full review.

23 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Broadly speaking, Ninni Holmqvist’s debut novel fits into the tradition of dystopian literature. In the Sweden she describes, a law has been passed that women at the age of 50 (and men at the age of 60) who have no living children or spouses are deemed “dispensable” and sent to live at a Reserve Bank Unit for the rest of their lives. While in “the Unit,” the “dispensables” participate in experiments (psychological and physical) and donate various organs (kidneys, corneas, etc.) to the “useful” members of society, up until the day that they make their “final donation.” In other words, these freeloaders are essentially harvested for the benefit of those who are contributing more to society.

In depicting a dystopia, Holmqvist faces the almost intractable problem of making sure that this future seems believable, seems connected to our present, yet sets forth a new set of rules for how human behavior is governed. The best books in this tradition are the ones that depict a future that seems so potentially possible that the reader doesn’t ask too many questions. Holmqvist isn’t perfect with this, but she does provide a sort of “live your life alone, spend the end of it giving back to society” mantra that sort of makes sense. (And may make more sense in Scandinavia?) It’s implied on occasion that economics and general consumption are behind the creation of this system — if you’re not breeding and increasing society’s consumption, you’re dispensable — which is uber-creepy.

Aside from the suspension of belief necessary to accept the creation of the Units, this book is actually incredibly straight-forward — essentially just a love story in a weird context.

The entire novel is narrated by Dorrit Weger, opening with her arrival at the Second Reserve Bank Unit on her fiftieth birthday and her depiction of a seemingly innocuous, yet invasive world:

It was more comfortable than I could have imagined. A room of my own with a bathroom, or rather an apartment of my own, because there were two rooms: a bedroom and a living room with a kitchenette. It was light and spacious, furnished in a modern style and tastefully decorated in muted colors. True, the tiniest nook or cranny was monitored by cameras, and I would soon realize there were hidden microphones there too. But the cameras weren’t hidden.

Aside from a quick surface tour of the Unit and its enormous Winter Garden, its very popular library (“It’s because there are so many intellectuals here. [. . .] People who read books tend to be dispensable. Extremely.”), the restaurants, the general rules (you don’t have to work, just be ready for organ donation or assignment to an experiment), and a few harrowing stories of experiments gone awry, Holmqvist doesn’t dwell on the inner workings of this creepy institute, instead focusing on the relationships between Dorrit and the other “dispensables.”

Early on in the novel, Dorrit — who was a professional writer before entering the Unit — meets fellow writer Johannes, and the two of them hit it off and become romantically involved. They spend most of their time together, getting into a comfortable routine, and wishing they had met in the “real world” so that they could’ve been spared the Unit.

Along the way, Dorrit becomes pregnant and runs into one of the strict and disturbing aspects of life as a dispensable: since she’s already entered the Unit, she can either have the fetus transferred to a “useful” person, or bring it to term and give it up for adoption. Already pissed that her desire to raise the baby with Johannes is being thwarted, she’s dealt a crushing blow when she finds out that Johannes has just undergone his final donation . . .

Up to this point, the novel works pretty well. It’s not as creepy as it could be, and it’s pretty conventional. Nevertheless, it’s entertaining (great for a plane ride), reads very well (thanks to Marlaine Delargy’s translation), and is pretty compelling. But after Dorrit finds out she’s pregnant and Johannes dies, character motivations get all out of whack and the narrative runs out of steam.

The main turning point is a scene in which a nurse with a birthmark gives Dorrit a key card and the necessary password to allow her to escape. Why?

“I presume that you, like other dispensable individuals, have already lost everything once. And now it’s happening to you again. And I feel . . . well, I can’t just stand and watch. Yes, you are dispensable, and no doubt could have avoided that situation if you had just made enough off an effort. But you’re also a human being.”

In the context of the book — this is the first time the character is introduced, and there are many smaller opportunities for a sympathetic staff member to alleviate some of their guilt and help out a dispensable — this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But what’s kind of cool, is Holmqvist’s attempt to work around the key card question and other problems that this raises . . . By the end of the novel, it’s clear that Dorrit is the supposed author, and that this book will be read by the staff of the Unit. So:

I am not the kind of person who betrays a trust. For example, in this story I have not revealed the true circumstances under which I received the key card. Neither of the two nurses who met me when I raced into the surgical department that day has a birthmark. Nor was it either of those two who gave me the key card, and the conversation with the person who did give me the card did not in fact take place in the break room where I sat and waited as I gazed out at the snow-covered park with the pond and the ducks, but in a completely different room in a completely different part of the unit, and at another time. And the code is actually not 98 44 at all.

By the very end of the novel, Dorrit has used the key card to escape, but the decisions she makes once outside are also a bit perplexing, but are probably supposed to serve as the “big question” that the reader can ponder after closing the book. . . .

Overall, this isn’t a bad novel. It’s quick, entertaining, and enjoyable. But it fails to rise above its common elements to become something truly remarkable.

29 August 08 | Chad W. Post |

Bulgarian filmmaker Angel Wagenstein is the author of three novels, the first of which is Isaac’s Torah, originally published in Bulgarian in 2000 and now available for the first time in English from Handsel Books in a brilliant translation by Elizabeth Frank and Deliana Simeonova. A good indicator that a book is a significant achievement is the sheer volume of conversation topics to which it can give rise in literary analysis; that said, it is difficult to know where to begin. So, with shameless unoriginality, I will begin with the cover.

This book features something which was once common (think of the earliest novels: Tom Jones, for instance) but has fallen out of use in novel-writing: a cover-page tagline: “Isaac’s Torah: A novel, concerning the life of Isaac Jacob Blumenfeld through two world wars, three concentration camps and five motherlands.” No more accurate and concise description of the novel can be given. Here we are given the setting in history and the protagonist’s condition, as well as a hint, suggested in that epic-scale term, “five motherlands,” of the turbulent scope of the story within.

To me, concentration camps were the first words to jump out at me and I’ll admit, I had some initial apprehension about tackling a heavy piece of Holocaust literature. But my worry was immediately dissuaded by the narrator Isaac Blumenfeld’s sense of humor; author Angel Wagenstein’s uncanny ability to portray, in vivid prose, the voice of a rambling reminiscent telling his story over a coffee on a Sunday afternoon; and of course, translators Elizabeth Frank and Deliana Simeonova’s success in transferring intact that voice across the language gap. And in book 4, I was relieved of guilt, as the narrator gives a nod to my apprehension:

And now, please, save me from the memory, heavy as a hundred-ton cast-iron mold, and allow me not to describe to you the hell in which we ended up! . . . In short, save me, please, because of the requirement for the completeness of plot . . . from repeating to you things that are already painfully familiar to you, and that you are already maybe even fed up with.

In this way Isaac Blumenfeld excuses his circumvention of the horrible weight of the Holocaust in the awesome, epic narrative of his life. But to return to the tagline, there are two other, equally-weighted subjects to the matter of this book: the two World Wars and the five motherlands. Blumenfeld’s trip and tumble through these wars, camps and countries forms the body of a seamless narrative, laced with humor, tragedy, wit and wisdom.

Of humor, there is no shortage, despite the equal-quantity dosage of tragedy. As Wagenstein notes in his Acknowledgements, “through [Jewish jokes and anecdotes] my people have turned laughter into a defensive shield, and a source of courage and self-esteem through the most tragic moments of their existence!” Blumenfeld himself maintains a sense of humor even in the face of almost certain death, such as in this passage from book 4, in which he is so far avoiding persecution by pretending to be Polish:

The whole business was about some big boss of theirs who’d been shot in the streets of Warsaw, and now they were looking for a hundred Poles as hostages. You know how it goes: if the assassins do not surrender themselves the hundred Poles will be shot in legal and fully understandable retribution. Now, I ask you . . . what was better—to remain a Pole or admit I was a Jew? . . . In the one case, as well as in the other, I’d end up, as the saying goes, pushing up daisies, but I personally preferred to be a Polish Jew—a sweeper in the New York subway.

And throughout the novel, Blumenfeld compares, with ironic wit, real-life atrocities, all-too-human insanities, and plain misfortune, to a wealth of little fables, jokes, and anecdotes.

The thing I find most intriguing about this book is its construction by the author, Wagenstein, as almost the work of another “author,” Blumenfeld. As Wagenstein points out in the passage he has included “Instead of a Foreword,” the work “is nothing more than a conscientious transcription of another’s memories and reflections,” which fact makes him, in a sense, a translator himself, not between languages, but from oral narrative to page. The careful balance of digression, rambling, and non sequitur—the trappings of the oral narrative—against elegant, discursive prose constructions is impressive. While reducing his tangible presence in the overall picture, Wagenstein provides a fine glaze of craft as the vessel in which the narrative is delivered from the storyteller to the reader.

Angel Wagenstein’s novel is an important monument to the lives of those who suffered the horrors of the two World Wars and all those wars’ extenuations, but rather than a lamentation of Blumenfeld’s, and the Jewish people’s, loss, it is a celebration of his and their lives. As uplifting as it is tragic, Isaac’s Torah is a great contribution to the literature of the period, the Wars, and the Holocaust, and to world literature as a whole.

25 September 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In Small Worlds, Warren Motte categorizes Christian Oster as a “minimalist,” placing him in a group with other young French writers such as Jean Echenoz, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Marie Redonnet, and Eric Chevillard, who “exploit the principle of formal economy in their writing.” Each does so it his/her own way, yet there is something that similar in their approach—a terseness in their writing that tends to put a greater emphasis on the mindset of the characters (especially the protagonist) than on the description of the plot, setting, etc. The Unforeseen fits squarely in this tradition, complete with all the typical charms and frustrations.

The plot of the novel is hardly worth mentioning, but here it is: an unnamed narrator is on a trip with his girlfriend, Laure, to attend a birthday party. On their way, Laure gets sick. (“It is my fault: I always have a cold, they inevitably catch it. Once they have recovered, they always leave me . . . and I am left with my own cold.”) She shacks up in a hotel to recover, and sends the narrator on his way to the birthday party. Unforeseen events ensue, such as attending someone else’s birthday party in a sick, drunken haze.

What drives this narrative though isn’t the plot points—or the quasi-surprising ending—but the way in which the narrator processes these events. Nothing is ever really thought through, and his selfish nature is both irritating (to the reader and those around him) and his main charm:

“And, anyway, I’m not waiting for anything or anyone,” she told me, “the only thing in you that holds me, the only thing with you that holds me, well, the only thing in me with you that holds me,” she clarified, “that gets me hooked, I mean, that makes me feel good, if you like, is your selfishness, and I can’t get involved with your selfishness, I don’t really have the time. I’m sorry.”

How the narrator processes events, how he thinks about the world, is the primary charm of minimalist books like this one. Unfortunately, in contrast to Toussaint’s Television or anything by Echenoz, or even Oster’s earlier book A Cleaning Woman, this novel falls flat. The narrator is like Larry David without the funny. Or a less neurotic Woody Allen.

Adriana Hunter’s translation is adequate, but there are some wonky lines that don’t do the book any favors. The translation of a book so dependent on tone and word choice needs to be almost flawless.

That said, this novel may not be a masterpiece, but it is worth checking out. It’s a nice diversion and a pleasant example of one trend in contemporary French fiction.

The Unforeseen
by Christian Oster
translated from the French by Adriana Hunter
Other Press
$13.95 (pb), 257 pgs.

6 August 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The August 6th set of Publisher Weekly fiction reviews are now online and feature a couple of interesting books in translation.

The first is Cries in the Drizzle (which sounds like a translated title) by Yu Hua “depicts a family’s life in the Zhejiang province of Maoist China during the 1970s.” According to PW, “The narrative flits between time and space to create the landscape of Sun Guanglin’s youth [. . .] Though the fractured structure has its disjointed moments, Barr’s translation perfectly captures the ebb and flow of a community on the brink of change.”

Personally, I’m more interested in the review of Christian Oster’s The Unforeseen, the review of which ends with this intriguing statement:

The result is a love story deeply informed by Beckett (complete with the narrator acquiring a limp like that of Molloy‘s title character), where swells of feeling are tracked in sneezes as involuntary as love itself.

I thought A Cleaning Woman was an excellent book—and movie (and not just because I have a crush on the leading actress)—and can’t wait to read this new title. Good to see that someone is still publishing quirky, funny French writers. There are a slew referenced in Warren Motte’s excellent Fables of the Novel, although only a handful of the books he writes about have made it into English.

24 July 07 | Chad W. Post |

Thanks to Michael Orthofer for finding this article about Moravia’s centenary and his, um, declining appeal.

in recent years the Roman novelist seems to have lost his claim to the title of most important Italian story-teller of the late 20th century, which had been attributed to him for almost 50 years. What is the reason for Moravia’s decline in the pantheon of contemporary Italian literature? Il VELINO put that question to a number of literary experts.

As Orthofer points out, the results of this survey are as inconclusive as can be expected, but I like the little cultural jabs that come through in some of these statements, like:

“That richly deserved fame that he won while he was alive is inevitably going to fade away. [. . .] I greatly doubt whether Moravia can be a model again, because his intellectual approach, I believe, is one that is unlikely to return to fashion.”

“Moravia’s fiction is an oeuvre containing a basic, radical pessimism. This negative aspect makes it more difficult for people to absorb it today.”

Intellectual, negative writers (a la Celine, a la Bernhard) apparently don’t last. Great.

Moravia wrote a ton of books, and a number are available in English, including Contempt and Boredom, and the recently translated Conjugal Love, which Other Press brought out, and which was part of Reading the World this year.

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