George Carroll is the World Literature Editor of Shelf Awareness and an independent publishers’ representative based in the Pacific Northwest.
My day job is publishers’ representative, which is a snottier way of saying “traveling book salesman.” I present thousands (low thousands) of books twice a year to book buyers who work for independent bookstores. The key in keeping things moving along in an appointment with a bookseller is to use book shorthand. No waxing on. Nothing purple. Why is much more important than What. And, definitely, most importantly, using one word rather than ten. When I start to write something that quacks like a review, I freeze, which hopefully explains the brevity of the few BTBA blogs I’ve been asked to bang in. It’s not laziness; it’s a cultural thing.
Readers who were totally pissed off/depressed by the final Kurt Wallander book The Troubled Man, will find Henning Mankell’s An Event in Autumn, translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson, a reprieve, a bit of fresh air. The novella, written for a crime book promotion, immediately precedes The Troubled Man. The plot involves a skeletal hand that pokes its way out of the garden at a house Wallander considers buying.
If that sounds familiar, it’s the first episode of the third season of the BBC Wallander series. Wallander’s daughter Linda gets a nod in the book, a character that plays a much larger role in the Swedish Wallander series that came from BBC4. It reads quick, YA-sized print and includes the moment in which Wallander comes closest to joining the Choir Triumphant.
Jorn Lier Horst has won the Glass Key, Martin Beck Award, Golden Revolver, and Norwegian Booksellers Prize for his William Wisting mystery series. Two books are eligible for the 2015 BTBA award Closed for Winter and The Hunting Dogs, both translated from the Norwegian by Anne Bruce.
The main character, William Wisting, is the Chief Inspector in the Criminal Investigation Department of the Larvik Police. Who could write the character better than Jorn Lier Horst who – wait for it – is Chief Inspector in the Criminal Investigation Department of the Larvik Police.
Nice father-daughter crime-solving duo but unlike police agent Linda Wallander, Line Wisting is a journalist. I have to say the subplot in Closed for Winter is really stupid because it hits you in the head 100 pages before Wisting gets it. Both books have twists and turns in stoppage time that work well, but much more impressed with The Hunting Dogs.
There are five Pascal Garnier books eligible for this year’s award, of which I received and read but the one, How’s the Pain?, translated from the French by Emily Boyce. A pest exterminator who’s dying fast needs to hire a driver to help him finish one last job. And yes, of course, “pests” is more inclusive than rats and cockroaches. I’ve got a fever and the only prescription is more Garnier.
I recently read Mathias Enard’s (translated by Charlotte Mandell)Street of Thieves (longlist, longlist?) and the main character is an avid reader of French noir, particularly Jean Patrick Manchette. New to me, but I’m late for all kinds of parties. In The Mad and the Bad, translated from the French by Donald Nicholson-Smith, hitman Thompson is hired to off a couple of innocents who go on the run. Great jacket copy, NYRB: “Thompson pursues. Bullets Fly. Bodies Accumulate.” If I were trolling for an action movie, I’d option The Mad and the Bad in a Hollywood minute.
And just like that, school’s back in session.
Having students back on campus brings up so many complicated feelings. Annoyance being the first and more obvious. It’s super irritating that from one day to the next it becomes infinitely more difficult to find a parking place for you bike, that you have to wait in line at Starbucks and listen to awkward exchanges from freshman who are still trying out different personalities and trying to define themselves—mostly through failure (“Hey, Jenny, have you seen where the Bio Med building is?” “Not yet.” “It’s hella over that way.” “You say ‘hella’?” “Yeah. Sometimes I say ‘wicked cool’ as well.”), that a whole new range of job-related functions start up again (I finished and posted my syllabus early yesterday evening), that work schedules become more rigid and sneaking away for happy hour is nearly impossible.
Labor Day usually seems like such a depressing holiday for that very reason. Hell yeah—Labor Day! All the times of summer irresponsibility are over! Back to school and back to work! Grill me a hot dog and gimme a beer! It’s like the ultimate capitalist backhanded compliment-slash-fuck you.
It might be due to all the travel I did this summer—and random multi-day bike rides possibly because of my advancing age, or the Simpsons marathon I’ve been bingeing on, but I’m sort of excited about the “regular schedule” aspect the new school year brings about.
The season premier of The League is on Wednesday. I’m drafting in a fantasy football league tonight. All the big books/albums are coming out now—David Mitchell, alt-J, even Haruki Murakami. The St. Louis Cardinals are in first place. A lot more people are wearing unbroken-in clothes. The hallways at the university are as clean as old, rundown shit can be. My daughter just bought four thousand new three-subject notebooks. Every year, these same things happen.
I think it might be a bit of nostalgia creeping in, but for the first time in ages, all of this seems more comforting than depressing—like the words “autumn sweater.” So rather than lament the end of beach days and bike rides and staying up all night, I’m going to try and embrace the routine for once.
Including getting over-excited about all the new books that are coming out over the next few months.
A Little Lumpen Novelita by Roberto Bolano, translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer (New Directions)
Let’s start here with the latest (and last? well, probably not . . .) Bolaño book. Mostly I just want to remind everyone that Tom Roberge and I will be discussing this on the September 26th edition of the Three Percent Podcast. We’re hoping to more of these “book club” episodes and would love to hear from all of you about what you thought of the book, questions you might have, etc. So please email us at email@example.com.
“Into the War”: by Italo Calvino, translated from the Italian by Martin McLaughlin (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Remember when every post about a Houghton Mifflin book opened with a slew of insults against their insufferably bad website? Well, apparently I’ve grown up a bit, but not enough to refrain from pointing out that their company website is still a hopeless pile of shit. How bad is it exactly? This is their “Author Detail Page” for Italo Calvino. If a website was flammable, I’d light it on fire.
Last month, Peter Mendelsund—the designer of all the new Calvino covers—published his first book, What We See When We Read, a fully-illustrated meditation on the relationship between reading and internal visualization. It’s not as weighty as I would’ve personally liked, but it’s thought provoking and deserves a wide audience. He also gets bonus points for including a quote from Gilbert Sorrentino slamming John Updike.
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions)
This is the third of the “Neapolitan Novels,” and for a limited time, you can buy the ebook versions of the first two—My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name—for only $2.99. Just visit your favorite ebook retailer and go crazy.
Running a bit counter to my “regular schedule” joy above, I kind of appreciate the fact that I’ve waited so long to start Ferrante’s trilogy, so that I can binge on it now without having to wait a year for the next installment. It’s kind of stupid to make this comparison, but Netflix has totally fucked up our consumption habits in relation to series. Although most books still slump along at a reasonable pace, with new titles coming out every year or more, we’ve come to expect TV seasons to be available all at once, or, as is the case with a lot of people I know, we just wait until the whole season has played itself out and then binge watch everything over a weekend. It’s lunacy, but fits with the everythingnowallatonce mentality of the twenty-first century.
Books don’t work all that well with this sort of binge behavior, although FSG’s experiment with Jeff VanderMeer’s “Southern Reach Trilogy”—publishing all three books in the same year, the first in March, second in May, third in September—demonstrates a willingness on the part of traditional publishers to try and take advantage of our inclinations.
Front Seat Passenger by Pascal Garnier, translated from the French by Jane Aitken (Gallic Books)
It occurs to me that publishing—at least in my little corner of it—has a sort of four-season cycle: Summer is vacations and half-day Fridays; Fall is conventions, Frankfurt, and being overwhelmed in advance of holiday sales; Winter is bookstores and publishers making bank before falling into a deep depression of either grant writing (if you’re a nonprofit) or bemoaning the lack of walk-in customers; Spring is when you prepare the lies for the rest of the year, bragging it all up at BookExpo America and sales conference. Then, Summer Fridays and hoping to see someone reading one of your books on the beach.
Nowhere People by Paulo Scott, translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn (And Other Stories)
After reading the first 40 pages of this, I decided that I have to use it in my spring class on “World Literature and Transaltion.” I can usually include six to eight new translations in this class, but so far the only two I’ve decided on are Seiobo There Below and Nowhere People. Seiobo since it won last year’s Best Translated Book Award, obviously. Nowhere People is kind of perfect since it’s Brazilian and, in the first 40 pages alone, features a host of “translation” issues: it opens in Porto Alegre, rather than Rio of São Paolo; two magazines are referenced that Americans probably have never heard of, Trip and DUNDUM, the latter of which comes up in this sentence, “what girl from the interior would be sitting blithely reading DUNDUM in this place, the absolute domain of middle-aged men?” which raises a few questions; the main character picks up a Guarani Indian from the side of the road, opening up discussions about Brazilian culture and racisms; and there are a few Britishisms, such as “he goes back to the main road, takes the correct turning.” Not to mention, the book is really intriguing and Daniel Hahn is fucking brilliant. Now I just have to convince him to Skype with my class . . .
I Called Him Necktie by Milena Michiko Flašar, translated from the German by Sheila Dickie (New Vessel Press)
I’m not a fan of the title of this book—there’s something too YA about it, as if it’s going to contain the adventures of a quirky girl who calls herself Princess Frog and whose best friend committed suicide, which is why her group of unlikely cohorts called him “necktie”—but it got a ton of love at the Consortium sales conference, and New Vessel has stellar taste, so I’m 100% sure the content outweighs my weird title prejudice. Also interesting that it’s a book set in Japan written by a woman born to an Austrian father and Japanese mother who writes in German.
A Thousand Forests in One Acorn by Valerie Miles, translated from the Spanish by a number of great translators (Open Letter)
One of the most beautiful—and weighty—books we’ve ever published. And one that you’re going to be hearing about every single day this month until you finally buy a copy. (Just do it now! You won’t regret it.) Since our daily posts from the book will do a much better job of explaining this than I ever can, I want to use this opportunity to point out that this is the third title we’ve published that has “thousand” in the title. That’s called cornering the market.
Also, we started working on this book over two years ago. The editing process was intense, and every single person involved in this—Will Vanderhyden for all his editorial work, all the various interns who put up with the paperwork and word-by-word proofing I assigned them, Nate for his killer design, the Spain-USA for their support and for setting up all the upcoming events—deserves a special shout-out. Every hour that we put into is worth it, and I’m sure that everyone who ends up buying, reading, and teaching this, will totally agree.
Birth of a Bridge by Maylis de Kerangal, translated from French by Jessica Moore (Talonbooks)
This reminds me a bit of Tom’s rant from last week’s Three Percent Podcast episode about Salton Sea and humans fucking up nature by trying to build something like a lake:
Told on a sweeping scale reminiscent of classic American adventure films, this Médicis Prize–winning novel chronicles the lives of these workers, who represent a microcosm of not just mythic California, but of humanity as a whole. Their collective effort to complete the megaproject recounts one of the oldest of human dramas, to domesticate—and to radically transform—our world through built form, with all the dramatic tension it brings: a threatened strike, an environmental dispute, sabotage, accidents, career moves, and love affairs . . . Here generations and social classes cease to exist, and everyone and everything converges toward the bridge as metaphor, a cross-cultural impression of America today.
(Or it’s totally different.)
Rain over Madrid by Andres Barba, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman (Hispabooks Publishing)
Hispabooks just keeps on crushing it. I have to say, for all my deep-rooted cynicism, this is a great time for indie presses. Hispabooks, Deep Vellum, New Vessel, Restless all launched within the past couple years. With those four presses alone, an average reader has enough material to last all year.
Digression: The other week I was hanging out with my parents and they were talking about how my cousin was “so rich” that he bought his own house in Chippewa Falls, WI. Which, after a bit of Wikipediaing led to all of us coining the term “Wisconsin Rich.” Sure, this was mostly a joke, but in a way, it’s also a powerful concept—being a certain level of “rich” that allows you to live comfortably. We don’t all need to be “Silicon Valley Rich.” I’m happy being “University Rich,” and as such, can continue spending more time trying to pass along knowledge than trying to hustle up some additional bling. (Or whatever the kids say.) So, in a way, even though the whole 3% thing is shitty and myopic and pretty pathetic, we are “Translation Rich” when it comes to reading. All of you could read only translations all year long and you’ll never run out of good material. That’s reassuring in a way.
In terms of Barba, he was one of Granta’s best young writers and is someone Lisa Dillman (who is lovely and talented) has been talking up for years. I believe Hispabooks is doing a number of his works, which is even better, since this collection of four short stories is likely to leave readers wanting more.
Victus: The Fall of Barcelona by Albert Sánchez Piñol, translated from the Catalan by WHO KNOWS (Rupert Murdoch Sucks)
Fuck you, HarperCollins. Just fuck. You.
First of all, thanks for not sending the review copy of this that I asked for. Really appreciate that. Then again, given both reviews you’ve received for this book, obviously you don’t need anyone else to champion it.
Secondly, Piñol obviously didn’t write this in English, but you would never know that given HarperCollins’s website, a website that might have just set the bar for the worst corporate website ever. (Houghton Mifflin can rejoice!) Not only is there no info about the translator—which, fine, you don’t want to put it on the book because American readers are stupid and either a) will be more likely to buy this if they think Piñol is a traditional Texas name, or b) just don’t deserve that information, because fuck ‘em that’s why—but when you click “enlarge cover image” you get that placeholder pictured above. Con-fucking-grats at being the worst at marketing your own books!
Amazon fighting book publishers for higher margins. Result might be cheaper books, but end of all remaining book shops. Monopoly for Amazon— Rupert Murdoch (@rupertmurdoch) August 22, 2014
That’s a fine sentiment, but coming from Rupert Murdoch, it just sounds ridiculous. Just a reminder, this is the same Rupert Murdoch who owns Fox News, and whose employees were involved in a “phone-hacking and police-bribery scandal.“http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/News_International_phone_hacking_scandal We live in a world in which people retweet Rupert Murdoch because he’s “standing up for the little guy.” The world is nonsense.
Welcome back to my monthly ramble about forthcoming works of literature in translations, which, as always, is punctuated by jokes, rants, and whatever else comes to mind.
Even more so than usual, I’m really excited about this month’s offerings—and I actually have some things to say about the books themselves!—so my usual intro will be a bit shorter (and less angry) than usual.
That said, I do have something serious that I’d like to talk about: retranslations. Specifically, what books from the last decade will be retranslated 50-60 years from now.
Way back when, I was on a panel at the London Book Fair with John Sturrock shortly after his retranslation of the “Sodom and Gomorrah” section of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time had come out. At some point during the conversation, he mentioned the accepted adage that every great work of international literature has to be retranslated every 50 years or so.
I’ve never heard a great explanation of why a translation “ages” faster than the original, but this belief—that a translation is somehow less “lasting” than the book itself—has been repeated by dozens of great writers and translators and, for whatever mysterious reason, seems to be true.
The cynical side of me would argue that the need for retranslations is tied to the financial windfall that comes from the “DEFINITIVE TRANSLATION!” marketing copy that accompanies these books. Especially since the books that tend to be retranslated are the ones with the largest classroom sales . . . Well, except maybe War & Peace, which would make most undergrads cry, but Random House still made bank off of that.
On a less cynical note, there is something to the idea that a translation can be “refreshed” every so often. That, for whatever strange mental reason, the changes to the way language is used in the target language make certain translations feel very dated. Which makes no sense when you think about it—outdated slang in the original is given a pass, but in the translation it seems glaring—but it happens.
From a translator’s perspective, a retranslation must be a fun challenge: How do you distinguish your Thoman Mann, Cervantes, Lispector, Tolstoy from the versions that came before? I feel like most translators who retranslate classics tend to have a specific reason for working on a given book. Something about the earlier versions doesn’t gibe with their interpretation or idea of how the book should be rendered. (This makes for great afterwords, such as Breon Mitchell’s fantastic one for his translation of Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum.)
Point being, retranslations happen. Classic texts are “made new” for new generations of readers all the time, and each generation of readers has “their” Dostoyevsky/Cervantes/etc. And there’s no reason to believe that this will stop anytime soon. (Back to Cynical Chad: If a publisher can make money on a retranslation of a popular book, they will.)
Which raises the question: Fifty years from now, which works of contemporary international literature will be retranslated?
I have a hard time thinking about this for some reason . . . My assumptions are that books that continue to sell in decent quantities (or could, given a “definitive” new translation), that have reached a certain level of “critical acclaim,” and that have some sort of theoretical justification for why they’d need a retranslation (for example, a book that was incomplete at the time of publication or whatever) will be ones that publishers will consider retranslating.
So projecting oneself 50 years into the future, which books might fit these criteria?
I’m interested to hear what everyone else has to say, but the first authors that come to mind are Bolaño, Knausgaard, and . . . I’m at a loss. Even with those two, I can’t imagine retranslating either. Especially not a Natasha Wimmer translation! But I have the same reaction to every author I think of (David Grossman? Mo Yan? Mikhail Shishkin?), but yet, I know this is going to happen to some book that I revere. It’s an interesting mind experiment though . . . if our goal is to bring out books that people will be reading in 2114, then essentially we’re trying to publish books that will inspire future generations of translators to work on them . . .
I think all of Knausgaard’s death stuff from the first volume of My Struggle is starting to get to me . . . on to the May books!
My Struggle: Book Three by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (Archipelago Books)
Speaking of Karl Ove . . . On Friday, at the PEN World Voice “Literary Mews with CLMP” event, I had a chance to talk briefly with Eliot Weinberger about Knausgaard. Can’t remember how this came up, but he pointed out that My Struggle may well be the worst thing to ever happen to MFA program, because students will be tempted to imitate Knausgaard somewhat self-indulgent autobiographical style: “Hey, my life is as boring as his is!” As Eliot pointed out, there is a 100-page section about getting beer for a New Year’s Eve party . . .
Which is all absolutely true—I do not envy creative writing instructors—but, I think perceptive readers really could learn a lot about structure and form from Knausgaard. The reason his books work (and granted, I’m only at page 300-and-something in the first volume, so take this with a grain of ignorance) is partially due to his sentence writing, and mostly due to the way his digressions are organized and the grand shifts of the narrative. That 100-page bit on getting beer for the party is a perfect counterpoint to his father’s filthy drunken death. And within each of the parts, the way in which the narrative shifts from present moment (the writing of My Struggle, more or less) to the past (e.g., death of his father), to a pertinent moment in the more distant past (e.g., his adoration for his brother, which he unspools while considering whether he should propose having the funeral in their grandmother’s totally wrecked house) works like a musical score, almost like a fugue.
Young writers should pay attention less to the content—“I can chronicle every second of my life as well!”—and more to Knausgaard’s real art.
Harlequin’s Millions by Bohumil Hrabal, translated from the Czech by Stacey Knecht (Archipelago Books)
This year is the 100th anniversary of Hrabal’s birth, which is why Archipelago has a number of great events lined up for this book. (Unfortunately, I’ll be in town for exactly none of them.) If you have a chance to check out any of the events in Brooklyn or Boston, I’m sure they’ll be quite entertaining . . . just like Hrabal’s prose.
Harlequin’s Millions is actually the next book that I’m going to start reading, once all my grades are in. I went on a Hrabal bender probably ten years ago, and haven’t read anything since . . . So I’m really looking forward to getting into this and into Rambling On: An Apprentice’s Guide to the Gift of the Gab.
Papers in the Wind by Eduardo Sacheri, translated from the Spanish by Mara Faye Lethem (Other Press)
So how about that all-Madrid Champions League final? Although Real Madrid looks like the best side in all of Europe right now, I’m really hoping that Atlético Madrid pull this out. After decades of Barça and Real Madrid dominance, it’s exciting to see a new team breakthrough—one that spent less than half of what those superpowered clubs did on wages.
Actually, I’m willing to bet that Ronaldo spent more on beauty products in the past year than Atlético did on its entire team.
(I’m sure Will Evans and George Carroll could see that joke coming a mile away.)
Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Coffee House)
Luiselli actually has two books coming out this month—this novel and Sidewalks, a collection of personal essays. Both of these books sound really interesting (I love the idea of Faces in the Crowd being told in four different times by two different narrators), as does Luiselli’s life in general: born in Mexico City, raised in South Africa, author of a novella in installments for workers in a juice factory . . . But here, just watch this:
Why I Killed My Best Friend by Amanda Michalopoulou, translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich (Open Letter)
I’ll explain this in more detail in a later post, but my World Literature & Translation class selected this book as the “Best Translated Book of Our Class.” I had them read eight contemporary translations and then argue about which one is the best and why. Some classes focus on the translation challenges, other on the general enjoyability of the book itself, others on trying to raise the profile of a certain literary scene that might otherwise be overlooked . . . It’s kind of a perfect way for being able to bring up a ton of different issues related to literature.
WIKMBF has been getting a lot of attention recently. It was on Flavorwire’s Must-Read Books for May, and featured on _Music & Literature. Since I’m clearly biased in favor of this novel, I’m going to let Jennifer Kurdyla explain why you should read it:
Much like the exquisitely rendered friendship of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy, set during a similar time period in Italy, here is a portrait of what it means to use and be used by the people you love most, to see the best and worst of yourself in a face not your own. And it’s a sign of incredible maturity and wisdom for this fine, prolific, and audacious young writer to fearlessly embrace the challenge of brining that uncomfortable internal conflict to the page. She reminds us how it feels to be, as Maria is, knocked down by “a wild animal [that] charges into the room . . . before I know what’s hit me,” and to meet the gaze of “an eye glaring fiercely” at us when that eye is, perhaps, our own.
How’s the Pain? by Pascal Garnier, translated from the French by Emily Boyce (Gallic Books)
This past weekend, I took my kids to a cabin in the Adirondacks where we all experienced the Adirondack Extreme Adventure Ropes Course. Actually, to be honest, I didn’t make it to the “Extreme” course . . . although I was somehow able to balance, climb, zip line, and swing through the five main ropes courses. This was my first ropes course experience, and it was fucking incredible. Zip lines are kind of the best thing ever. I want to travel to work by zip line. And to swing over a river 100-feet off the ground is the closest I’ll ever come to feeling like a superhero . . . That said, this experience also reinforced just how out of shape I am these days. There was one section that involved crawling through three hoops while on a tightrope wire . . . I could barely lift my leg over the ring . . . It’s like that Louis C.K. bit about how the hardest part of his day is putting on his socks. Getting old and chubby is not fun. On the bright side, two days later I can actually lift my arms again!
A Man: Klaus Klump by Gonçalo Tavares, translated from the Portuguese by Rhett McNeil (Dalkey Archive Press)
That cover reminds me a bit of Tao Lin’s Taipei, although a lot less shiny. Given this post on Caustic Cover Critic the finished cover may be entirely different. And seriously, what’s going on with the four books listed on that blog? The original listed covers—the ones with the large images and the bibliographic info on the left—are totally fine. Nothing mind blowing, but respectable. Elegant. The new ones? OUCH. I just don’t get it at all. Also, you can now order all your books through Dalkey’s website using your Amazon account?!? I can’t imagine independent bookstores—or Barnes & Noble—are pleased about that.
Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones, translated from the Italian by Clarissa Botsford (And Other Stories)
On the flipside, I really love And Other Stories’s covers. I also like the way in which the first batch all had one particular look—a lot of angles, “X’s” like on the cover above—and the second batch fits together—lots of circles, like with this book. These are books that, even if I don’t have time to read them, I must own. As a complete set. That’s powerful in terms of marketing and branding, and is one—of many—things that And Other Stories has done right in launching their press.
Ludwig’s Room by Alois Hotschnig, translated from the German by Tess Lewis (Seagull Books)
Seagull is also at the far end of the design spectrum—their catalogs are legendary in their opulence, and their books are well-crafted and always quite attractive. Tess Lewis was a judge for the BTBA a couple years back, and it’s great to see that she has a book eligible for next year’s award. And of (quite loose) category of “World War II” books, this one—about a man who comes to realize the disturbing lengths his great-uncle’s village went to in order to protect the people who worked in a nearby prison camp—seems pretty unsettling.
Fear: A Novel of World War I by Gabriel Chevallier, translated from the French by Malcolm Imrie (NYRB)
I’m personally not big on war books, but this bit of Chevallier’s bio caught my eye:
He began writing Fear in 1925 but did not publish it until 1930, a year after his first novel, Durand: voyageur de commerce, was released. Fear was suppressed during World War II and not made available again until 1951.
Books that are suppressed are the most intriguing books . . .
OK that’s it for May. Hope you find a couple of things on here worth checking out.
The other night I finally got around to watching Room 237, which, if you haven’t heard of it already, is a documentary about people obsessed with Kubrick’s The Shining and their various, often wacky, theories about what’s really going on in the movie. It’s absolutely fascinating, and not necessarily because of the interpretations. Sure, the one about how The Shining is Kubrick’s attempt to admit to having filmed the Apollo space landing is incredible—“he changed the room number from 217 to 237 because the moon is 237,000 miles from Earth!”—and the ones analyzing the “magic window” and Danny’s three trips on his Big Wheel around the hotel are compelling and provocative, but the real joy of this movie is simply listening to how people make sense of things.
Talking about “high art” as “high art” is always a dicey prospect, so I’ll dive right in: to me, real “art” fucks with your mind and expectations and forces you to see new patterns, to try and analyze what it is that’s happening, since what’s happening isn’t at all what you’re used to. This goes beyond content and plot and character, and is more about the form and style of a particular book/movie/piece of music. Great art feels “new” and leaves the impression that there’s some pattern just beneath the surface . . . (Which is maybe why I love Pynchon and The Crying of Lot 49 so much?)
To me, that’s what’s going on in Room 237. I don’t give a shit about the theories themselves—some are more believable than others—but the way in which the obsessives puzzle things out is simply incredible. That’s the real joy of this movie—having the chance to see how someone else’s mind works when they’re presented with an object that doesn’t quite fit preconceived ideas. (Which is why I think Kubrick’s assistant totally missed the point when he said, “There are ideas espoused in Room 237 that I know to be total balderdash.” No shit! and/or DUH.)
This kind of experience—of analyzing, of feeling like “there was something going on that I wasn’t seeing . . . yet”—can only happen when a creator (or team of creators) creates something and then hands it over to the public.
By contrast, check this post on Mashable about self-publishing and the modern advantages of serializing your work (in contrast to writing a full novel and then giving it to readers):
Allen Lau, CEO and cofounder of Wattpad, credits [Abigail] Gibbs’ choice to serialize [The Dark Heroine, which sold for six-figures to HarperCollins after they examined her sales on the Wattpad self-publishing platform] as “one of the key factors of her success.” With the traditional publishing method, he explains, it can often take two or three years before a book lands in readers’ hands, but serialization short-circuits that. “As soon as you finish that first chapter, you can post it [online] and start to generate a fan base, start to generate excitement.” [. . .]
The opportunity for readers and writers to directly connect marks a real shift from the established relationship between the two typical publishing parties.
“The readers don’t just read the story in a read-only mode; they participate in the content creation process,” says Lau. “Some of the comments can absolutely influence the storyline. This type of collaborative content creation and crowd participation simply and structurally doesn’t exist in the traditional system.”
Thanks to the class I teach in the spring semester—and the fact I make my students give presentations on some of my favorite authors, tying them into one another, creating a network of influences and influencees—I’ve been thinking a lot about “literary movements” and how there doesn’t seem to be the same drive to articulate new forms of storytelling as there was in the twentieth century . . . except maybe in terms of digital things.
It seems that digital believers—by which I mean the people who articulate reasons why digital forms of creation and distribution will help them make bank, and those who feel like writers should take full advantage of the possibilities of digital to make a truly multimedia text—are the vanguard of new narrative forms. Which, I have to say, leaves me feeling empty.
I don’t care so much about the technocrats who look to everything digital to find “disruptions” to “legacy publishers” so that they can find a new way to make lots of money and get themselves a smidgen closer to the 1% . . . I’m just not one of those people. I wish I could afford child care and an endless supply of wine, but I can’t, and I’m happy spending all my disposable income on graphic novels and cable packages that allow me to watch soccer matches. I personally don’t feel a drive to have more than that.
It’s the aesthetic techies who frighten me. “People Powered Publishing”? Books that are crafted based on feedback? I’m all for more interactions between authors and publishers and readers, but this reeks of giving people a variation on what they want. (I just looked at the comments for a random Wattpad story and they’re way worse than I expected. My favorite is “everything repeat the samr chapter. my part favorite is whatever school, whatever class.”) Although I read my fair share of books that are simply entertaining and not “artistic,” I hope that future writers will continue to produce things—like 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining and whatever—that upend my expectations and make me feel like I’m missing something . . .
The Panda Theory and A26 by Pascal Garnier, translated from the French by Gallic Books and Melanie Florence (Gallic Books)
I finished The Panda Theory last week, and am now ready to go on a Garnier bender. Which is fortuitous, since Gallic Books is bringing out four of his books in U.S. this year. I could explain what I liked about this novel, but really, I think this bit from Garnier about why he became a writer should do it:
That’s when the wife and baby came along. All around me, the faithful companions I’d met along the way were nestling back into their kennels, burying their dreams and delusions like bones to gnaw at in years to come when they were old and toothless. Rebelling against such mass surrender, I threw myself into rock and roll—and landed with a resounding thud. I was no better at being a pop star than I was at being a dad. Still, it was writing my pitiful ditties that gave me a taste for words. Deep down, I harboured a wild dream of writing something longer, something like a book. But my limited vocabulary, terrible spelling and hopeless grammar seemed like insurmountable obstacles. So I got divorced, remarried, dabbled in design for women’s magazines, took on odd jobs, got up to the occasional bit of mischief. In short, I was killing time, frittering my life away. The boredom of my childhood numbed me once again with the sweetness of a drug. I was thirty-five.
“But my limited vocabulary, terrible spelling and hopeless grammar seemed like insurmountable obstacles. So I got divorced . . .” It’s an indisputable fact that divorce improves two parts of your life, one of which is your creativity.
Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos, translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey (FSG)
I really want to like Villalobos. He’s young, he’s Latin American, he includes bits about alien abductions in his books . . . But there’s just nothing there in my opinion. This novel, and Down the Rabbit Hole, are technically fine, but they don’t create new patterns . . . instead they feel a bit pandering. A bit thin.
Actually, and I write this despite knowing that so many people I respect love his works, I feel like the “rage” that Neel Mukherjee writes about in the intro to this novel rings a bit false. As a reader, I find the rage of Villalobos’s characters to be of the “look, I’m raging, and I’m funny, look at me!” sort. Toothless.
Miruna, A Tale by Bogdan Suceava, translated from the Romanian by Alistair Ian Blyth (Twisted Spoon Press)
I just received this in the mail the other week, and I have two things to say about it: Bogdan did his Ph.D. in math at Michigan State University around the same time I was there (although I did no Ph.D., and my idea of being good at math is schooling my daughter on long division), and thus he’s automatically the greatest Romanian author of all time (Go Spartans! Just please god go further in the tournament than Syracuse, because, fuck Syracuse); and secondly, Twisted Spoon Press is the most underrated press in the world dedicated to producing high-quality works of international literature. Also, fuck Syracuse. More on that below.
Efina by Noëlle Revaz, translated from the Swiss French by David and Nicole Ball (Seagull Books)
Revaz’s With the Animals was longlisted for the BTBA the other year, which is why I personally was so excited to find out that Seagull was bringing out another of her books. With the Animals was one of the most incredibly misogynist books I’ve ever read. There is no way that sentence comes out right. If you read the link above, you’ll know what I mean, but in short, With the Animals focuses on a narrator who is pure shit. Total woman-despising asshole. Whose literary voice is incredible. Efina promises letters from two characters who write “often to express their intense dislike of each other”! I can’t wait; people who believe you should only enjoy novels if you like the characters should run and hide.
Severina by Rodrigo Rey Rosa, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews (Yale University Press)
Willsconsin has translated a bunch of Rodrigo Rey Rosa stuff, and the fact that Will is into him has me convinced that I should read this. Plus, covers of girls in bookstores are an automatic yes for me.
Corpse Exhibition: And Other Stories of Iraq by Hassan Blasim, translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright (Penguin)
Last week, Jonathan Wright settled his case with Random House regarding his translation of Alaa Al Aswany’s The Automobile Club of Europe, which Al Aswany deemed shitty for the most insane of reasons. I have a student from Yemen in my classes this year, and he was BLOWN AWAY by Al Aswany’s bullshit (my word) reasons for claiming Jonathan Wright shouldn’t translate his books. Thing is, as a publisher, every time you’re all “authors are the worst! They make this job so fucking intolerable!” a translator will jump up and want a terrible author photo on the cover of a poetry book.
Stories by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, translated from the Portuguese by Rhett McNeil (Dalkey Archive)
Even if I’ve written it here before, it’s worth repeating a million times: JOAQUIM MARIA MACHADO DE ASSIS is the greatest name to pronounce aloud ever. If you add a faux-Portuguese accent. Which may sound a bit sinister. But friendly sinister. I spent a week in Brazil repeating Machado de Assis’s name to everyone I met. It’s a wonderful icebreaker.
Encyclopedia of Good Reasons by Monica Cantieni, translated from the German by Donal McLaughlin (Seagull Books)
This weekend, I took my kids to see the Lego Movie. (Or however you italicize that. Seriously: trademarks are confusing to me when they become commercial pieces of art.) It was pretty awesome (I’ve never seen my son smile like that, which is so happy making), but what was equally awesome was hearing a “dorky” (your words, not mine!) high school boy say this in line behind me:
I know we’re seeing the Lego Movie, but Vampire Academy? A movie with hot high school girls AND vampires? It has ALL the things I think about.
The Good Life Elsewhere by Vladimir Lorchenkov, translated from the Russian by Ross Ufberg (New Vessel Press)
Moldova! The first book I’ve ever seen from Moldova!
Aaron’s Leap by Magdalena Platzova, translated from the Czech by Craig Cravens (Bellevue Literary Press)
Bellevue Literary Press reminds me of Erika Goldman which reminds me of her friend Dubrakva Ugresic, whose Europe in Sepia you should all be buying and reading. Dubrakva is awesome and witty and poignant and a genius; Erika is awesome and quick-witted and fucking brilliant. Just buy both books: If Erika chose to publish it, you know it’s amazing.
Also, she’s not a Syracuse University fan (I think?) (and is it the University of Syracuse? I get confused about second-rate programs. BASH.), which means she automatically knows more about college basketball than half of upstate New York and more than 90% of everyone in Rochester. Sorry, Otter Lodge (the “pub” where I watched the Syracuse-Duke game and was “informed” by multiple people that Duke University is in Chapel Hill. Which is it most definitely not), your bar sucks, and we will roll your indoor soccer team again.
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