16 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Jacob M. Appel on Louis Paul Boon’s My Little War, which is translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent and available from Dalkey Archive Press.

Jacob M. Appel is a physician in New York City and the author of more than two hundred published short stories. His prose has been short-listed for the Pushcart Prize, Best American Short Stories and the O. Henry Award on multiple occasions. Jacob’s paternal
grandfather, Leo Appel, came to the United States as a refugee from Antwerp, Belgium, in 1938, and Jacob remains deeply engaged in Dutch and Flemish culture. Click here for more information.

Dalkey’s published a few Louis Paul Boon books, including Chapel Road (which is AMAZING) and Summer in Termuren (more amazing). He’s tragically overlooked by American readers, which really sucks, since these two books are on par with pretty much all other mammoth classics of twentieth-century literature. (This sounds hyperbolic, BUT IT’S NOT.)

Here’s the opening of Jacob’s review of My Little War:

The period between Flemish author Louis Paul Boon’s birth in 1912 and the publication of his post-modern masterpiece Mijn kleine oorlog (My Little War) in 1947 saw Belgium ravaged by some of the worst wartime carnage that the European continent had experienced in centuries. Even as Hitler’s advancing wehrmacht sent 25% of the Belgian population fleeing over the French border, memories remained fresh of the brutal German occupation of 1914—including its defining atrocity, the sacking of Leuven, during which the city’s library of 300,000 medieval books was burned and the entire populace expelled. So to post-war Flemish readers, Boon’s peculiarly brilliant novel appeared in the wake of two large wars, challenging a literary orthodoxy that tried to make sense of these conflagrations.

Mijn kleine oorlog is decidedly not an anti-war novel—at least, not in the sense of Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front or Zweig’s The Case of Sergeant Grischa or Rolland’s Clérambault, the sort of predecessors to which Boon is likely referring to when he writes to question the archetypal “great writer” who rises up to present the world with “his Book About the Great War—with capital letters.” Instead, the volume might be described as an anti-anti-war novel . . . if it even is a novel at all. A better description yet might be an anti-anti-war sketchbook. For what Boon has done in thirty-three brief vignettes is collect snippets of overheard conversations, press reports, unsubstantiated rumors and “personal” experiences to generate a montage of the highly subjective experience of one ordinary laborer-turned-POW-turned-writer during the Second World War. Yet even the volume’s subjectively is overtly orchestrated; this is not Virginia Woolf or James Joyce trying to capture the subtle workings of the human mind, but rather an author reminding the reader that he is feigning to do so. In one noteworthy example, after referring to multiple characters as “what’s-his-name” and “what’s-her-name,” Boon suddenly pretends to have recalled one of their names: “What’s her name came too,” he writes. “What was her name again the one who was hit in the head with something the other day and died, who used to get so furious and denounce us as pro-German when we said the war would last five years . . . it was Mrs. Lammens!” Of course, the reader recognizes that Boon has not achieved this recollection in the moment. Rather, Boon uses this device to mock his modernist forebears and to remind the reader of his own pretenses.

Click here to read the complete essay.

16 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The period between Flemish author Louis Paul Boon’s birth in 1912 and the publication of his post-modern masterpiece Mijn kleine oorlog (My Little War) in 1947 saw Belgium ravaged by some of the worst wartime carnage that the European continent had experienced in centuries. Even as Hitler’s advancing wehrmacht sent 25% of the Belgian population fleeing over the French border, memories remained fresh of the brutal German occupation of 1914—including its defining atrocity, the sacking of Leuven, during which the city’s library of 300,000 medieval books was burned and the entire populace expelled. So to post-war Flemish readers, Boon’s peculiarly brilliant novel appeared in the wake of two large wars, challenging a literary orthodoxy that tried to make sense of these conflagrations.

Mijn kleine oorlog is decidedly not an anti-war novel—at least, not in the sense of Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front or Zweig’s The Case of Sergeant Grischa or Rolland’s Clérambault, the sort of predecessors to which Boon is likely referring to when he writes to question the archetypal “great writer” who rises up to present the world with “his Book About the Great War—with capital letters.” Instead, the volume might be described as an anti-anti-war novel . . . if it even is a novel at all. A better description yet might be an anti-anti-war sketchbook. For what Boon has done in thirty-three brief vignettes is collect snippets of overheard conversations, press reports, unsubstantiated rumors and “personal” experiences to generate a montage of the highly subjective experience of one ordinary laborer-turned-POW-turned-writer during the Second World War. Yet even the volume’s subjectively is overtly orchestrated; this is not Virginia Woolf or James Joyce trying to capture the subtle workings of the human mind, but rather an author reminding the reader that he is feigning to do so. In one noteworthy example, after referring to multiple characters as “what’s-his-name” and “what’s-her-name,” Boon suddenly pretends to have recalled one of their names: “What’s her name came too,” he writes. “What was her name again the one who was hit in the head with something the other day and died, who used to get so furious and denounce us as pro-German when we said the war would last five years . . . it was Mrs. Lammens!” Of course, the reader recognizes that Boon has not achieved this recollection in the moment. Rather, Boon uses this device to mock his modernist forebears and to remind the reader of his own pretenses.

In Boon’s fictional universe, which occupies only a few small streets in a Belgian village, everything is true because nothing is true. For instance, Boon describes a fellow soldier pausing during a retreat through an abandoned dairy, with German gunners close on his heels, to rescue a goldfish from an overturned bowl. When Boon questions this “what’s-his-name,” the infantryman replies, “Imagine you lived in that dairy, and got back after you’d run away, wouldn’t you be glad to see that your goldfish were still alive? Well?” Lest we read too much into this tale of minor heroism, several sentences later, Boon announces: “Actually, I made those goldfish up, that’s what stories are for.” He then begins his next vignette with the caveat: “But this isn’t made up . . .” Who can really say? For an author who writes, “there’s never any need to cook up any fantasy; the truth is fantastic enough,” no moment in Mijn kleine oorlog is ever definitively truth or definitively fantasy. Even the identification of the narrator, Boontje, with the author remains intentionally unclear. Boon writes that “If I’ve usually said ‘I’ in this book, it was just a way of presenting things, what I really meant was ‘you’—you, you poor man, exploited, scorned, spat upon, pacified with empty promises, who didn’t have the courage to stand up for yourself . . .” In the current age of Thomas Pynchon and “truthiness,” we may take this approach for granted. To Boon’s Flemish audience of 1947, blurring the lines between Truth and fiction in this speciously cavalier manner may have touched too close to home, and initial sales were disappointing. After all, as depicted by Boon, many Flemings played both sides during the occupation; distinguish the heroes of the Belgian Resistance from the collaborators and Black Shirts remains an unfinished process to this day.

Critic Annie van den Oever has catalogued Boon’s early influences, most notably Franz Kafka and the Femish poet and nationalist Paul van Ostaijen. According to van den Oever, Boon “saw himself as a link in a chain” of what she terms the “grotesque literary tradition”—those early twentieth century writers who broke open “the traditionally monologic novel.” Thanks to Anne Visser and the Dalkey Archive, we have a translation of Annie van den Oever’s seminal 2007 biography of Boon, Het leven zelf (Life Itself), which holds forth the promise of revealing this link to English-speaking audiences. Paul Vincent’s translation, which follows the more popular Dutch second edition, is as clear and funny and nuanced as the original, and does an impressive job of conveying many of the text’s linguistic jokes and puns into English.

Despite its complex literary agenda—or possibly on account of it—My Little War also stands out as a deeply moving, often unsettling work of fiction. Boon clearly recognizes that an author cannot challenge his readers’ ideas unless he also engages their emotions. His motley crew of what’s-his-names, including “the very good and very amusing and very ugly Albertine Spaens” and the cigar-smoking turncoat shoe manufacturer Swaem and the tragic Canadian girl with a harelip, are drawn with such precision that one feels one can recognize one’s own acquaintances in his depictions. In fact, Boon reflects near the end of the volume, “There are 36 people who think they’re What’s-his-name, and eleven gentlemen who give this particular writer angry looks whenever they walk by because they recognize themselves in Mr. Swaem—although he had only a symbolic Mr. Swaem in mind.” There lies the magic of Boon’s technique: His falsehoods are more convincing than the truths of traditional fiction.

In a section entitled “Self-Defense,” Boon muses: “I’d like to suggest to my publisher that he set up an ‘Everyone Write their Own Little War’ contest—“First prize a pipe!” (Note the allusion to Magritte’s La trahison des images.) To a significant degree, we now live in that world today: Anyone can—and many authors do—write their “own little war” narratives for the Internet. One can easily imagine Boon looking down upon us, smoking his own pipe and grinning.

12 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Paul Vincent is one of the top Dutch-English translators working today, so it’s both deserved and unexpected that he won this year’s Vondel Translation Prize. From the press release:

The jury for the Vondel Translation Prize 2011 has awarded the prize to Paul Vincent for My Little War, his English translation of Louis Paul Boon’s Mijn kleine oorlog. The jury consisted of critic Paul Binding (Times Literary Supplement) and translators Ina Rilke and Sam Garrett. The runner-up is David Colmer for The Portrait, his translation of Specht en zoon by Willem Jan Otten.

My Little War was published in the United States in 2010 by Dalkey Archive Press, and is the first English translation of Louis Paul Boon’s 1947 novel. The translation was financially supported by the Flemish Literature Fund. [. . .]

The Vondel Translation Prize is a biennial award for the best book translation into British or American English of a Dutch-language work of literature or cultural history. The award was established by the Society of Authors and is funded by the Dutch Foundation for Literature and the Flemish Literature Fund. The winner receives a prize of € 5000.

I have yet to read My Little War, but Chapel Road and Summer in Termuren are two of my favorite books of all time. Both novels (which are connected) are linguistically wild, engaging, hilarious works. Visit his Dalkey Archive page now for more info and to buy them all . . .

24 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [4]

One of the best unexpected results of putting together the translation databases is being able to put together an awesome reading list of forthcoming translations. (Or, to put it in a slightly more negative light: to know about way more interesting books than I’ll ever have time to read.)

The spring is a perfect example. As the reading for the 2010 Best Translated Book Award is winding down, I’m getting jacked about 2011 . . . Just look at this list of titles coming out in January – March 2010. (Don’t even get me started on April – June . . . my “to read” bookshelf is already overflowing.) Links below go to the Idlewild Books catalog, since Idlewild is our Indie Store of the Month. (And by “month” I mean the rest of December and all of January.)

January

Georg Letham, Physician and Murderer by Ernst Weiss (excerpt)
translated from the German by Joel Rotenberg
published by Archipelago Books

Archipelago books tend to deliver, and this sounds really intriguing. Thomas Mann gave this a killer blurb: “easily one of the most interesting books I have come across in years.” It’s the story of a scientist-hero who has killed his wife and is deported to a remote island where he “seeks redemption in science.” It was written around the same time as The Man without Qualities and The Sleepwalkers and has that same sort of middle-European, ambitious vibe.

My Little War by Louis Paul Boon
translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent
published by Dalkey Archive Press

I’m a huge Boon fan, especially of Chapel Road and Summer in Termuren, and it’s great to see more of his work making it into English. This was a first novel, an account of World War II told through “overheard conversations, newspaper articles, manifestos, and other sights and noises of daily life.” Boon had an amazing gift for language, for capturing the dirty reality and comic charms of daily life and creating something bigger and more meaningful. It’ll be very interesting to see what he created out of these materials.

Monsieur Pain by Roberto Bolano
translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews
published by New Directions

This next year promises to be yet another big year for Roberto Bolano with three books of his coming out from New Directions: Monseiur Pain, Antwerp and The Return. This novel—which we’ll be reviewing in the very near future—is about Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo, a mesmerist, two mysterious gentlemen, a bribe, and guilt. With Bolano you can rest assured that it’s at least worth the price of admission.

February

Baba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugresic
translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursac, Celia Hawkesworth, and Mark Thompson
published by Grove

Dubravka’s one of my all-time favorite writers (which is one of the reasons why her collection of essays, Nobody’s Home, was the first book published by Open Letter) and this looks like an awesome follow-up to her last work of fiction, The Ministry of Pain. This novel is part of the “Myths” series, retelling the story of Baba Yaga who, according to Russian myth, “is a witch who lives in a house built on chicken legs and kidnaps small children.” We posted about this book a while back and included a bit of the opening chapter. This may well be the book that I’m most excited about for 2010 . . .

Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico by Javier Marias
translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen
published by New Directions

I know next to nothing about this book aside from the fact that a) it’s published by New Directions (definite plus), b) it’s by Javier Marias (another plus), and c) it’s translated by Esther Allen (three pluses and I’m sold?). That and this description, which is the very definition of “selling copy”: “In this classic Marias story, Elvis and his entourage abandon their translator in a seedy cantina full of enraged criminals.”

The Museum of Eterna’s Novel (The First Good Novel) by Macedonio Fernandez (excerpt)
translated from the Spanish by Margaret Schwartz
published by Open Letter

Yeah, OK, I’m including one of our own books on this list—but seriously, I waiting almost five years to be able to read this and truly believe it’s one of the great books of the twentieth century. It opens with over fifty prologues! It’s in the meta-vein of At Swim-Two-Birds! It’s written by Borges’s mentor! It’s subtitled “The First Good Novel”! (And was a companion to Macedonio’s Adriana Buenos Aires (The Last Bad Novel)!) What more do you need to know?

March

Obabakoak by Bernardo Atxaga
translated from the Basque by Margaret Jull Costa
published by Graywolf Press

Atxaga’s The Accordionist’s Son came out from Graywolf earlier this year and got some good attention. Obabakoak is a collection of stories centered around the village of Obaba, and sounds really intriguing: “A tinge of darkness mingles with moments of wry humor in this dazzling collage of fables, town gossip, diary excerpts, and literary theory, all held together by Bernardo Atxaga’s distinctive and tenderly ironic voice.” Here’s a link to an audio file from PEN America of Atxaga reading Three Pieces about the Basque Language.

Changeling by Kenzaburo Oe
translated from the Japanese by Deborah Boliver Boehm
published by Grove

Kudos to Grove for having such a great winter/spring line-up—and for publishing two of the books I’m most looking forward to in 2010. We already have a review of this novel on hand, but with the pub date so far in the future, we’re going to hold onto it for at least a few weeks before posting. The review is very positive, and this story of a man traveling from Japan to Berlin to try to understand what drove his brother-in-law to commit suicide sounds incredibly intriguing.

Wolf among Wolves by Hans Fallada
translated from the German by Philip Owens
published by Melville House

This comes on the heels of Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, which did very well for Melville House. Another massive book (736 pages!), it sounds great: “a sprawling saga of the collapse of a culture—its economy and government—and the common man’s struggle to survive it all. Set in Weimar Germany soon after Germany’s catastrophic loss of World War I, the story follows a young gambler who loses all in Berlin, then flees the chaotic city, where worthless money and shortages are causing pandemonium. Once in the countryside, however, he finds a defeated German army that has deamped there to foment insurrection. Somehow, amidst it all, he finds romance—it’s The Year of Living Dangerously in a European setting.”

That’s it for now . . . More recommendations to come in a few months.

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