For whatever reason, PEN World Voices doesn’t have this event listed on their event calendar (at least not clearly), so let this post serve as the official announcement of the event, and a personal invitation from me to all of you to come out, celebrate the winners, and get drunk in the street.
First, the specifics: The Best Translated Book Award Ceremony will take place at 5:30 at the Washington Mews. For those who haven’t been there, this is a private gated street just north of Washington Square Park between Fifth Ave. and University Place. It is here.
This event is part of The Literary Mews, a new component to the PEN World Voices Festival that was organized by the amazing people at CLMP.
PEN reimagines the New York City street festival as an open air indie book fair. Nestled among the cobblestone streets of NYU’s storied Washington Mews, this day-long “festival within the Festival” will feature writers’ workshops in the morning and readings in the afternoon. Browse the tables where literary magazines and independent presses proffer the work of up-and-coming writers, wander the streets and cross borders as the doors to NYU’s International Houses are opened, or stop to take in busking musicians or a puppet show. Together with Le Pain Quotidien, the Mini-Fair will remind you that literature is our daily bread. A must-attend for any lover of literature.
The full sic list of events taking place as part of this can be found here.
Our event will take place as part of the Outdoor Indie Book Fair and will start with a discussion between me, Esther Allen, and Jill McCoy about spreading the love for literature in translation and, more specifically, the Finnegan’s List. After that, two representatives from the BTBA poetry and fiction committees will announce this year’s winners.
I have no idea who won and will be in the dark until that exact moment, so that. If I have time, I’ll post some crazy odds for the winners tomorrow morning and give you my irrational reasons why the books will or won’t win.
Following this announcement, I believe there is supposed to be a party in the street thanks to the Germans and the French. So please come down to this. Indie presses will be hawking their wares from noon onwards, which is worth checking out on its own.
So, I’ll see you Friday, right? RIGHT?
So, as with years past, Publishing Perspectives asked me to write up something about this year’s PEN World Voices Festival. I did so, but unlike years past, I wasn’t as effusively complimentary . . . I feel bad criticizing PEN WV because the festival has been such a huge boon for book culture over the years and because it was thanks to WV that Umberto Eco and Salman Rushdie spoke here in Rochester back in 2008.
That said, no one can rest on their laurels, and after the past couple festivals, I think it’s worth taking a more critical look so that the festival can move forward and reach its full potential.
Here’s a bit of my piece:
Goals of the Festival
Before I start explaining what I think would make for an Ideal World Voices (IWV), it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on what a festival like this is trying to accomplish. According to the “Letter from PEN” at the front of the program, “we seek to present the best of national and international literature and by doing so we adamantly focus on reinforcing the importance of the premise that freedom of expression is the foundation of meaningful existence and the essence of brave and great art.”
OK. That’s great grant writing speak. Seriously. I’d drain my life savings to fund “brave and great art” that gets at the “foundation of meaningful existence.” (Although the line about focusing “on reinforcing the importance of the premise” is pretty weak.) But this program isn’t written for the National Endowment for the Arts . . . or at least it shouldn’t be.
In my vision of the IWV, the festival would set out to accomplish a few things that I think are central to preserving and enhancing a healthy literary culture in America:
1. Raise the profile of international literature and translation, thus expanding the horizons of readers and fostering an international dialogue about art and writing.
2. Get books in the hands of new readers, because without readers none of this means anything, and sales will help expand the reach of the festival as a whole, thus encouraging more publishers, readers, and foundations to support it.
3. Focus on the average reader, NOT the members of the publishing industry who already are overwhelmed by book events and rarely actually buy anything.
4. Be entertaining, otherwise you’re just shoving medicine down the throats of the unwilling.
5. Offer something unique, something you can’t pull off anywhere else in the world.
To me, those things seem totally obvious, and like they were part of the original WV DNA. Perhaps it’s all a bit lofty to think that a festival can help improve book culture. I just don’t see the point of not trying to do this. And not to take grant-speak too seriously, but I don’t think anyone walked away from this year’s festival suddenly aware that “freedom of expression” is important. Readers don’t want to be preached at — they want to enjoy themselves and find out about interesting things.
Click here to read it all, including my recommendations on how to make this a better festival.
Tom and I were on fire during this week’s podcast, talking about the PEN World Voices Festival and some interesting questions we were asked in an interview for the Picador Book Room Tumblr. While talking about PEN WV, what is learned about a location from reading a book set there, what’s lost and/or gained in translation, we (meaning mostly me) tear into a number of things.Read More...
As an extension of the PEN World Voices Festival, in the three days following the NY-based part of the Festival, 13 authors presented their works in 12 cities, including in Rochester, NY.
We were lucky enough to have Najat El Hachmi (The Last Patriarch), Carsten Jensen (We, the Drowned), and Marcelo Figueras (Kamchatka) all come to Writers & Books to read from their work and answer a few questions late-night talk show style. Here’s the video:
I was going to wait until our manifesto was available online (PEN said it’d be up by last Monday . . . maybe I’m missing something?), but I’ll just jump ahead and tell a quick story or two about this panel that took place last Thursday.
As part of PEN World Voice’s first “Working Day,” Anna Moschovakis of Ugly Duckling Presse, DW Gibson of Mischief + Mayhem, David-Dephy Gogibedashvili, Sergio Chejfec, Eugene Ostashevsky, Jon Fine from Amazon.com, and myself all got together to talk about the forthcoming/ongoing “publishing revolution.” Our conversation was expertly guided by Joshua Furst, who can’t be praised enough for mostly keeping us on track and helping create our manifesto.
Just to provide a bit of background, the “Working Day” panels were limited to only PEN Members and were designed to address a particular issue and issue a Manifesto/Plan of Action.
So, our charge was to write the manifesto for the publishing revolution. Which is as quixotic as it gets.
Nevertheless, the panel was really interesting and evolved into a conversation about
who owns the Internet the role of publishers now and in the future. I’m oversimplifying here (it was a fascinating, wide-ranging conversation that could’ve gone on for an additional 3 hours), but we ended up focusing on the role of the publisher as curator and as entity that helps connect readers with the right book out of the infinite number of books that will soon be available. (Very oversimplified.)
We talked a lot about the role of the Internet, not just as a conduit for distribution and publication, but as a place for developing communities of authors and readers. Richard Nash was quoted and alluded to.
What’s funny-awesome is that upon leaving, Sergio Chejfec (whose My Two Worlds is coming out in August) wandered over to the Housing Works Bookshop. He was browsing around, heard some guy talking to a woman about this book, this really cool book, this book he’s been carrying around all week, this book that she has to read, this book called My Two Worlds by Sergio Chejfec . . . Sergio walked over, introduced himself, and they ended up talking for a while. And to continue the series of circular circumstances, as it turns out, this reader is one of Josh Furst’s students . . . Such a nice ending to our mostly digital conversation. Something things happen in meatspace. Sometimes readers find writers in a totally coincidental fashion . . .
As mentioned on last week’s podcast, and further elaborated on in this week’s one (BTW, you can subscribe to the Three Percent podcast at iTunes), Vladimir Sorokin was one of the authors I was most interested in seeing at the PEN World Voices Festival.
Way back when, I read his short, early novel The Queue in a Readers International edition, and at the time I found it pretty charming and inventive. The entire book is a play-like narrative about an endless number of people waiting in line to buy . . . something. They have no idea what’s for sale, how many will be available, or anything else. But they feel obliged to wait and find out. Out of this sort of dry, Soviet setting, an absurd, Beckett-like story develops in which people fall in love, leave the line, return to line, recite their number in line, stay in line for days . . . In short, a fun, entertaining little book.
Over the ensuing years, Sorokin’s reputation as the contemporary Russian author worth paying attention to has grown in leaps and bounds, mostly due to the portrayal of his books as shocking, offensive, aggressively anti-govermental, all the stuff that we (Americans, literary readers, seekers of the new) tend to gravitate towards.
When Ice came out from NYRB the other year, it was a pretty hotly anticipated book, although in the end, the reviews were fairly mixed, possibly due to its mostly non-political bent. (I’d also blame the fact that this was only the middle part of a trilogy. The book can stand alone by itself, but I think it will benefit from the larger scope of the trilogy.)
So this spring, when both FSG brought out Day of the Oprichnik and NYRB published the complete Ice Trilogy and Sorokin was selected to attend the World Voices Festival, it felt like his time had really come. Add to that this feature in the New York Times and it seemed like this was going to be Sorokin’s coming-out party. His real launch into the American literary scene.
It’ll be interesting to see how this all plays out . . . Day of Oprichnik is interesting, but not exactly what most American’s are looking for. I’m reading The Ice Trilogy
now, and find it more intriguing, but it’s also a complicated book for readers to get a handle on, since there are things about the cult that are simple and good-hearted, and things that are creepy as shit.
But before getting to that, I want to say that I wish the conversation between Keith Gessen of N+1 and Sorokin would’ve gone a bit smoother. Not that it was a bad event, but with Sorokin’s need to be translated and his meticulous, thoughtful, halting style of speaking, the conversation got a bit bogged down and Keith wasn’t really able to get to all the points he had obviously planned on. There was a lot of time spent talking about the beginning of his career, especially about Norma, in which the first 100 pages contain scene after domestic scene in which all the characters end up eating a little package of shit . . . They also talked about the literary underground and The Queue, but most of the new works were left out when time ran out . . .
Hopefully Gessen and Sorokin will do a written conversation at some point. Keith’s a very perceptive reader, and I think he would be able to frame Sorokin’s importance in a very meaningful way that would really help draw people to his works.
Although it was a bit disturbing—because the book is a bit disturbing—I think the performance of Ice worked a bit better. This event took place an hour after the conversation, and much of the audience was the same as at the first event. It was directed by Kornel Mundruczo from Hungary and took place in the Old Gymnasium. Setting wasn’t ideal—the actor and actresses read from a table on the same level as the seats, so for short people like me, we weren’t able to see all that much—nevertheless, it was very well-done, especially considering that their first rehearsal was on Tuesday . . .
Not to give away everything, but Ice (and the trilogy as a whole) is about a cult that aims to “awaken the hearts” of the 23,000 chosen people. They believe that once your heart is awoken, you can understand all the “heart words” and that once all 23,000 members are found, the world will be transformed into something beautiful and hippy and stuff.
All sounds pretty good, right? Well . . . the way they determine whether you’re “chosen” or not is by pounding the shit out of your chest with a hammer containing a piece of the ice meteor left by the Tunguska event. If you heart speaks its true name, then you’re saved! If not, you die. Creepy, no? And all the chosen people have blond hair and blue eyes, naturally.
The coolest moment of the performance was at the end, when the cult’s workings have been revealed and they’re expanding their search for the 23,000. At that moment, a screen dropped down and the best faux informercial I’ve ever seen was projected on it. The ad was for the ICE Machine, which looked like a rubber s&m sort of chestplate with a chunk of ice over your sternum, which, when plugged in, would repeatedly pound you and awaken your heart. It was perfectly spot-on in the way it kept cutting away to an image of the ICE Machine floating against a black background, available for only $230 by calling 23-23-223-23-23 . . .
As intended, this performance got me psyched to read the whole trilogy, so expect a formal review at Three Percent in the next few weeks . . .
As reported by the New York Post, for this year’s PEN World Voices Festival, Salman Rushdie selected 10 “American Classics” that will be placed in each of the visiting writer’s rooms.
Which I suppose is nice . . . Although it seems like there would’ve been a way to make this book selection a bit more diverse . . . I mean, it is the World Voices Festival after all . . . And it’s not like the rest of the world isn’t already flooded with American Classics (and Not-So Classics) . . . And if there’s one thing we’re not lacking in the world, it’s people recommending American books . . . I should withhold judgement until I see the list, but my cynical self is assuming that these 10 books will not surprise and impress any of the guests . . . Would be more interesting if each author picked out 10 books from their country that were then disseminated throughout the rooms . . . Sure, some of these would only be available in German or French or Spanish or whatever, but that sort of exchange seems to be sort of the overall point of the festival . . .
We’ll give this more coverage as the time grows closer, but for now, here are a few of the highlights from each of the days of the festival. (I’m just picking ones that jump out at me—there are many, many more worth checking out, and many, many more that we’ll highlight over the next month.)
For Ralph Waldo Emerson the public intellectual was the preserver of the past’s great ideas. For Edward Said, his or her mission was to advance human freedom through political engagement. Both believed the thinker’s interaction with a larger audience was vital. What has become of the public intellectual’s role in these modern times? Attend tonight’s event and you will find out.
(Would attend any and everything Michael Silverblatt participates in. And I’m dying to meet Hervé Le Tellier.)
In this magnificent book left unfinished at his death, David Foster Wallace anatomizes contemporary American sadness and boredom by investigating its Internal Revenue System. The result: a hilarious, truthful, and embittered vision of late-model capitalism and its discontents.
(Silverblatt again. And DFW. And The Pale King, which I am anxiously anticipating. And Rick Moody, who isn’t the first author who comes to mind when I think of DFW, but is interesting in his own right.)
The critic’s voice indelibly shapes the works we read. But in an age when readers are rapidly migrating to Twitter book clubs, literary web sites, and Amazon reader reviews, how will the critic continue to lead literary conversations? Join a conversation about the new power of the book review and the emergence of a unique reader experience in the age of the digital revolution.
(This is right in my sweet spot of interests. If we weren’t hosting an event in Rochester that same day, I’d definitely be there.)
Thursday features a number of “Working Day” events, which are open only to PEN Members, Festival authors, heads of cultural agencies, and press. If you fit one of these categories (I believe all passionate readers should qualify as press . . .), you can RSVP for any events by e-mailsing jessica [at] pen.org.
Authors today are fighting corporate censorship, homogeneity, and formulaic plotlines by defecting from big publishers to go D.I.Y. In the digital age, publishing has undergone a metamorphosis. With breakthroughs in e-books and print-on-demand, distribution is readily available to more individuals and organizations. This working session will examine how these changes affect the relationship between publisher and author, literature’s impact on culture, community building between readers, writers, publishers, and booksellers—and how these roles are now merging. Panelists include members of the Mischief + Mayhem publishing collective, “the book industry’s new danger brigade” (The New York Observer) and Open Letter Books.
(Do you know how long I’ve waiting to be on a panel with the word “revolution” in the title? I’m pretty sure this is a high school dream come true.)
And for all of you who don’t fit into the above “Working Day” categories, here’s another cool event to attend:
Ever been on a literary safari? Explore Westbeth Center for the Arts Housing, the city’s oldest and largest artist community located in the heart of the bohemian West Village. With a map in hand, wander the hallways of this former industrial building, which was repurposed by renowned architect Richard Meier into 383 living and working lofts, and attend live readings in the homes of Westbeth residents by Festival participants.
(This sounds pretty fascinating, and like a truly unique PEN WV event.)
Imagine you are invited to a great global book swap and have to bring just one beloved book originally written in a foreign tongue: what would it be? Join five eminent writers who have trotted the globe and lived everywhere from Ireland to India, Latvia to Sudan, for a reading and a talk about the works of translation that enriched and changed their lives.
(This should be extremely interesting.)
One of the world’s most beautiful romance languages, Catalan, has a rich literary trove, unknown to most of the English-speaking world. A discussion of seminal 20th-century works, such as Llorenc Villalonga’s The Doll’s Room and Josep Pla’s The Gray Notebook, led by renowned Catalan literary historians and translators, will show you a treasure of literature you’ll wish you’d found sooner.
Established writers and translators such as David Grossman and Susan Bernofsky go up against relative newcomers such as Julia Franck and Edward Gauvin in this contest naming the Best Translated Books from 2010. Sponsored by the Three Percent web site, this event will name the winners in both the fiction and poetry categories, with $5,000 cash prizes (underwritten by Amazon.com) going to the winning authors and translators. Hosted by Chad W. Post, and featuring a range of top translators and literary enthusiasts, this program will highlight great works of world literature now available to English readers.
(Jon Fine from Amazon.com will also be there, and I’ll update everyone soon on other authors/translators who will be participating . . . )
Revel in the spectacular story-telling of the celebrated anthology Best European Fiction. For 2011, editor Aleksandar Hemon and preface writer Colum McCann return to continue their discussion of European literature today, followed by readings and discussions with contributors from Moldova, Norway, and Slovenia.
(This was a really interesting event last year, and is sure to be so again.)
Korea with Young-ha Kim and Bruce Fulton;
Japan with Joshua Beckman, Rebecca Brown, Hiromi Kawakami, Minoru Ozawa, and Motoyuki Shibata; and,
Pakistan with Hasina Gul, and Fahmida Riaz; moderated by Waqas Khwaja.
Vladimir Sorokin, considered by many to be the next Roberto Bolaño, is one of Russia’s most accomplished and well-regarded novelists and dramatists. English translations of his masterpieces, Ice Trilogy and Day of the Oprichnik: A Novel, arrive in bookstores this year. Listen to Sorokin discuss his work with young literary star Keith Gessen, editor-in-chief of the celebrated journal n+1.
(Keith is a great speaker/translator/moderator/writer/magazine publishers so I’m sure this will be an hour and a half of brilliant fun. Especially since Sorokin is such a controversial Russian writer. Both the Ice Trilogy and Day of the Oprichnik are just coming out, and I’m looking forward to finding the time to read both.)
As in previous editions of the festival, Instituto Cervantes hosts a panel on the state of affairs in contemporary Spanish-language fiction. A distinguished group of novelists from both sides of the Atlantic will examine the situation of Latin American, Spanish, and Catalan literature, looking into the complex relationships among these rich traditions today. With the participation of Marcelo Figueras (Argentina), Enrique Serna (Mexico), and Teresa Solana and Manuel de Lope (Spain). Moderated by Eduardo Lago, novelist and executive director of the Cervantes Institute.
(I heart Spanish literature. As can be discerned from our endless Spanish literature coverage—Granta’s “22 Days of Awesome”—and by the number of Spanish authors Open Letter is publishing.)
Enjoy an afternoon of poetry readings with Brooklyn-based publisher Ugly Duckling Presse. Four handmade poetry broadsides featuring the poets’ work will be available for free along the length of the High Line. Presented in partnership by Friends of the High Line and the Ugly Duckling Presse.
(Go Ugly Duckling Presse!)
PEN Translation Committee Chair Susan Bernofsky teams up with intellectual property attorney Erach Screwvala to discuss intellectual property issues in literary translations and their implications for both the business and the artistic sides of the translator’s work. They are joined by three prominent translator-authors from Poland, the Czech Republic/Spain and Israel who will report on the status of the ownership of artistic works internationally, and reflect on the culture of translation in their respective countries.
(This very well could turn out to be the most interesting event of the festival.)
Been a few months since the energetic and charming Caro Llewellyn announced her departure from PEN, where she was the director of the World Voices Festival. Well, at long last, PEN has named a replacement:
PEN American Center, the largest branch of the world’s oldest literary and human rights organization, named László Jakab Orsós Director of the World Voices Festival and Public Programs. Orsós comes to PEN from the Hungarian Cultural Center, where, as its Director, he launched Extremely Hungary, a series of public events celebrating Hungarian culture. Orsós is also an accomplished journalist and screenwriter.
I’ve heard a bit about what Orsos wants to do with the festival, and it sounds very exciting and promising. And we all know the best PEN WV parties were the Hungarian ones . . . Not that publishing people are concerned with cool DJs, fun dance parties, beautiful people, and free Hungarian wine. Not. At. All.
But seriously, this is great for PEN and the festival. Can’t wait to see what changes he makes.
Following up on this post, here’s the excerpt from Quim Monzo’s Gasoline that’s going to be read at the April 26th “Celebration of Open Letter” event.
In terms of set-up: Heribert is supposed to be preparing for a massive two-gallery show of new work. Instead, he couldn’t care less about painting. Or his mistress. Or even what’s going on with his wife . . .
He lines up all the blank canvases he has in the studio and examines them. What if he showed just that: white canvases, without the slightest trace of a human hand? It’s been done. Minimalism. And anyway, if he signs them he will have placed a few strokes of his own. He could not sign them. Someone must have done that, too. Is there anything original left to do? Even halfheartedly filling up all the walls of an exhibition isn’t new. Do you really have to do something new? Why? What is more important, to be honest or to be original? Out of honesty, people often refused to be original. And out of honesty people often fall silent rather than open their mouths only to hear their own voices. Will he be able to tell when he opens his mouth and nothing interesting comes out?
Helena’s voice floats up to him:
“I’m leaving. See you later.”
It seems to him that, in the past, she would always tell him where she was going when she left, to the gallery or to do this or that, or to see this or that person. Or maybe she had never done anything of the sort, and now he just imagined she had. He hears the front door close. He puts on his jacket, and as he goes down the stairs he tries to calculate how many times he’s done that this year. On the table next to the door there are two brochures: one from Chevrolet and another from Ford.
This time he has no trouble spotting her. She’s standing in front of the windows of a shoe store. Heribert hangs back by a telephone booth and watches her out of the corner of his eye. There’s a drunk hanging onto a mailbox, and a girl (dressed like an old-fashioned secretary) is trying to mail a big stack of letters (and looking afraid that the drunk may attack her). The phone in the phone booth rings. Heribert looks at Helena, who’s still looking at shoes, but has gone on to another window. He’s afraid the constant ringing of the phone no one is answering will make her turn around. He goes into the booth, picks up the receiver, and says hello. On the other end, he doesn’t hear a thing: no breathing, no click to indicate the call has been cut off. The line was totally dead. He hangs up and turns around. Helena is walking down the street. “All this,” he thinks, “just to see her go shopping or to the gallery . . .” Helena signals, and a taxi jumps three lanes and stops right in front of her. Heribert has to stop another one, quickly, but feels ridiculous lifting his arm to f lag it down. He will feel even more ridiculous, once inside, when he has to say, like in the movies, “Follow that car.” He remembers one where a taxi driver is thrilled when they ask him to follow another car, saying that he had been waiting all his long working life for that moment, like in the movies.
When he is in the cab and says it, the driver looks at him in the rearview mirror, gives a short laugh, and starts to talk. He talks nonstop the whole time, recklessly passing the other cars. Once, when Helena’s driver jumps a red light, Heribert’s steps on the gas and (between two lanes of traffic, almost scraping the cars on either side) shoots forward and crosses the street on the red just as a Cadillac Seville coming from the left makes the turn. They make such headway that, by the next red light, Heribert’s taxi is directly behind Helena’s. Heribert hides behind the driver’s head. If they keep up this pace, he thinks, soon they’ll take the lead, leaving the other car in their wake, turning this into the most original chase in history, in which they precede the pursued car instead of following it. They
go across the bridge.
Fifteen minutes later, Helena’s taxi stops on a wide, solitary avenue, lined with houses.
“Park across the street, a little farther down.”
Having to come up with such stratagems exhausts him. The driver says something under his breath and smiles. Looking out the back window, Heribert watches as Helena gets out of the cab and goes into one of the houses.
A couple of children are playing with an enormous ball in one of the yards. Heribert tries unsuccessfully to figure out what they’re playing: sometimes it looks like soccer, then like baseball, then a minute later like handball. Then they laugh and take a rest, leaning on the fence. Once, he thinks they look at him, whisper about him, and laugh again.
He sits on the curb, and since he’s getting bored, he starts doing things. First he counts the seconds that elapse between one particularly loud shout from one of the kids and the first car to go down the street (another taxi): 634. Then he counts the minutes until the next car (a Mercury Cougar) goes by: 18. He adds the 634 seconds and the 18 minutes: 652. He finds it interesting to add up dissimilar things. In school they said you couldn’t add apples and oranges. If he adds the 652 to the 2 kids playing in the yard, he gets 654 seconds, minutes, and kids. He counts the cars parked on that stretch of street: 17. Added to the previous 654 that makes
671 seconds, minutes, kids, and cars on that stretch of street. He thinks of adding in the 4 stoplights, the two garbage cans he can see, the fire hydrants, the potholes. If he could add up all objects, all feelings, all ideas, all creatures, add them all up together, everything would be so simple. How easy it would be to face any situation, get out of any labyrinth, form a fairly accurate image of the world; the world (for example) would be exactly 78,345,321,834,042,751,539 things. If he could just diagram this feeling of perplexity! But how? Turning the canvas into a blackboard and writing down all those figures seems idiotic to him. And the mere thought of coming up with a more elaborate way to depict that morass wears him
He lets himself fall back. It feels wet. He looks at the white sky. It’s cold out. He thinks it’s strange that the two children are playing outside on such a cold day. He thinks, “If I start to imagine that the sky is empty, I’ll fall upwards, I’ll fall into the clouds.”
After a wait that seems interminable, Helena appears arm in arm with a tall man, with brown hair and a broad mouth, wearing a very long, gray raincoat and glasses with apple green, almost fluorescent, frames.
Thinking that he has to get up to follow them, he lies down again and keeps trying to convince himself that gravity will suck him up into the sky, but he doesn’t quite manage to believe it. When Helena and her escort catch a cab at the corner, he gets up, brushes off his pants, and starts walking home.
Not a lot going on in terms of publishing news today, so I thought I’d take a break from the usual posts about ebooks, Zen wisdom, and disturbing novels to bring you a bit of information about Catalan author Quim Monzo, whose Gasoline recently arrived from the printer. (If you’re an Open Letter subscriber, I’m working on the special letter right now, and you should get your copy by the end of next week. Or so.)
Quim is considered to be one of the greatest Catalan authors of his generation. He’s most well known in Europe for his short stories (three of which — Mr. Beneset, Honesty, and I Have Nothing to Wear — appeared in Words Without Borders), but in the States, the only book that’s currently available is the fantastically comic (and ultimately tragic) novel The Enormity of the Tragedy, which was actually one of the first books I ever reviewed for Three Percent.
When Catalonia was the Guest of Honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair a few years back, it was Monzo who gave the opening statement. The link to the full pdf of his speech is broken, but here’s a funny, self-referential and self-deprecating bit that I copied out into an earlier post:
Won’t reading the names of all these writers (most of whom are unknown to the literary world that circulates in Frankfurt) just be tedious for the audience at the opening ceremony who will have to listen to so many unfamiliar names? Won’t they be looking at their watches and thinking, “What a bore!”? And so he decides he won’t mention any names (even though, in fact, he has already mentioned them in the very process of describing his doubts as to whether he should mention them or not). What’s more, he’s read that at the Frankfurt Book Fair there will be an exhibition that explains all this. Although—to be frank—how many of the persons who attend this inaugural event will later visit this exhibition with any more interest than a merely official show of etiquette? Let us be frank and optimistic: very few. Even if this is a Book Fair, where the least-known authors ought to be the ones who would most pique the reading appetite of those who were interested in discovering literary gems and not simply following the commercial drumbeat of what is in vogue at the time.
Monzo will be appearing in three events at this year’s PEN World Voices festival, including the New York Stories event on Thursday, April 29th, In Conversation with Robert Coover, on Friday, April 30th, and a roundtable on The Essay on Saturday, May 1st.
He was going to appear here in Rochester on Monday, April 26th, but schedules became complicated and he won’t be able to make it. (I will interview Quim and his translator, Mary Ann Newman during the Festival for an upcoming Reading the World podcast episode.)
Not to cram too much info into one post, but our April 26th event has morphed into a Celebration of Open Letter at which ten different readers (U of R folks, interns, fans) will read 3-5 minute segments from ten different Open Letter titles—including Quim Monzo’s Gasoline. I’ll post the section that’s going to be read separately . . .
Congrats to Sofi Oksanen, author of Purge, for winning the 2010 Nordic Prize. From the press release:
Finnish-Estonian author Sofi Oksanen has won this year’s Nordic Council Literature Prize for her novel Puhdistus (Purge). The prize is worth 47,000 euros.
Oksanen’s third novel, Purge, tells the story of one family through the tragic experiences of its women. Purge was first born as a play staged with great success at the Finnish National Theatre in 2007.
The prize jury said that in her novel Oksanen combined historical subject matter of the occupation of Estonia by the Soviet Union with a modern global problem, human trafficking in the Baltic Sea area.
Oksanen also won the prestigious Finlandia prize in 2008 and the Runeberg Prize for literature last year for the book.
Oksanen will be at this year’s PEN World Voices Festival and I’m hoping to have a chance to interview her for the Reading the World Podcast. (Speaking of which, anyone want to co-host a few PEN World Voices interviews with me?)
To mark the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, all this week The Guardian will be running original short stories from a host of Eastern European writers. Up first is East German writer Clemens Meyer with Of Dogs and Horses, a short story from Die Nacht, Die Lichter (published by S. Fisher in German, but is still awaiting an English publisher).
The story itself is well done—especially the dark twist at the end . . . And Katy Derbyshire (of Love German Books) did an excellent job translating this.
Back during this year’s PEN World Voice Festival, I was a last minute moderator substitute for Zaia Alexander and interviewed Clemens Meyer. As part of the discussion, we each read a bit from this particular story. He read the opening in German, and then I read the ending in English—even the racetrack bits in my best horse announcer voices . . . Anyone who was there knows how dismal that was. Clemens, on the other hand, was bad-ass—possibly from his years of attending the races. In fact, he bought the very cool glasses he was wearing after a good day at the track . . .
Richard Lea sent me the complete list of authors/stories that will appear this week, and it’s pretty impressive. I’ll post about each one as it goes live, and although these two things aren’t exactly related, this Guardian project is a great complement to The Wall in My Head, the Words Without Borders anthology of fiction, essays, and images we’re publishing on November 9th to mark the same anniversary. More on that next week . . .
Thankfully, Paul Verhaeghen just posted the opening statement he gave at the “Writers as Translators” panel that he was during the PEN World Voices Festival. All of the opening statements from the panelists were really interesting, but this one stood out to me:
Allow me to open with a simple statement of fact.
We do not know what planet writers come from, but we do know the precise place of origin of their translators: They all, without exception, hail from the planet Tralfamadore.
Allow me to elaborate.
But before I do that, I’d like to take you on a trip to Upstate New York first.
There’s a Zen Buddhist Center there that I once visited with a friend who was so much into that kind of thing he had his head shaved and took vows, or whatever they call it. The head monk of the Center was a nice Jewish lady with a decidedly military haircut; she went by a Japanese name. If you wanted to speak to her, you needed to prostrate before her, thrice. You didn’t call it a talk either, you called it doing dokusan. In the meditation hall, we bowed before a small imported statue of the Buddha, my friend and his companions slipped into black robes — the nice Jewish lady’s was a gold-embroidered monstrosity that was all sleeves and pleats — we all bowed some more, sat down cross-legged on Japanese cushions, and then we chanted – in no language known to man.
“What on earth was that?” I inquired about the chanting.
Turns out the chant was an ancient pronouncement of the Buddha’s, originally delivered in the Pali language, but written down in Sanskrit, then translated and transliterated into Chinese, picked up about 1,200 years ago by some Japanese monks who brought it to their island, where it is chanted using the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese characters. It is this American approximation of the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese version that is chanted in Zen groups across the continent.
Everything, my patient friend explained – the robes, the funny names, the bows, the lotus position, the chanting – was to make sure that no essential part of the teachings got lost in translation. We do not know, after all, what can be safely changed, and what needs to stay exactly so.
Still intrigued by the sound of twenty or so earnest Americans chanting Japanese mispronunciations of Chinese phonetic attempts at Sanskrit that should have been Pali, I asked: “And what is that that you chant?”
“It’s the Heart Sutra”, he replied. “You know, the one that states that Emptiness is Form, and Form is Emptiness?”
When I remarked that this was a rather elaborate but quite splendid way to get this simple point across, his smile suddenly seemed somewhat strained.
Looking back on World Voices, I realized that there are two things that I would’ve liked more of: opportunities to talk informally with the authors and a better system for being able to buy their books.
I don’t think I’m alone in this either. The authors are the reason so many people attend the festival, and being rushed out of the auditorium immediately after each event is a bit of a damper of the “festive” nature of World Voices. And ever since PEN got away from having a local independent store (like McNally Jackson or 192 Books) in charge of selling titles at the events, the whole book buying side of things has gone to shit. (Sorry Mobile Libris. I’m a fan of what you do, but the book selection was spotty at best and pretty damn disorganized.)
So, I have a proposal to Caro and PEN for next year: the creation of an Authors’ Salon that can serve as a central hub for this increasingly decentralized festival and serve as a place where the public can mingle with the talent and buy their books.
What I envision is a restaurant or hotel lobby that would be accessible basically all day and night, where authors could come and go as they please, and readers would have an opportunity to ask a follow-up question to a particular discussion, or simply get their book signed. And since this would be a central meeting point, a bookstore could have all of the works of all of the authors on display at all times, providing a real opportunity for readers to browse what’s available and actually buy books. (That’s sort of the point, right? Getting readers interested in these authors?)
Additionally, organizations and publishers participating/sponsoring the festival could display brochures, catalogs, and other info in this same space, something that could help further cultivate an audience for international literature and the authors participating in the festival.
I’m willing to guarantee that this would be an extremely popular space, and would generate a lot of commerce through sales of booze and books. And these international authors, who travel all the way here just to speak on an hour-and-a-half long panel would have the opportunity (if they want) to meet with readers and expand their American following. And publishers (well, the smart ones) would be all over the chance to further promote their books and programs, both to the writers who are visiting and to a public interested in these sorts of books. It’s a win-win-win.
It’s not that I think PEN World Voices is doing anything wrong, but I think something like this would really take the festival to the next level and truly serve the audience of readers, writers, and publishers, who look to this as an opportunity to come together and truly celebrate the diversity of writers from around the world.
Well, that’s my two cents . . .
The fifth annual PEN World Voices Festival ended on Sunday, and based on the attendance at the few events I went to, it was pretty successful. I wasn’t able to attend as many panels as I would’ve liked, which is sort of a plus and minus for the festival—there’s a lot to choose from and you really do need to choose.
This might sound biased, but the two events that I found the most interesting were the two that Jan Kjaerstad was on: “Where Truth Lies” and “Faith & Fiction.”
Aside from Jan’s presence, the one thing in common between these panels was the fact that both were actual roundtable discussions, rather than panels where each participant presents some prepared remarks. From talking with some other attendees, I’m not the only one who prefers the actual discussion panels to the serial presentation one. No matter how good the guests are, when they each read their prepared remarks, there’s a tendency for the speakers to become compartmentalized, with little interaction between the various viewpoints. And besides, with rare exception (like Paul Verhaeghen’s wonderfully imaginative and funny speech), these opening remarks tend to be a bit dry and don’t lead to the sort of debate and disagreement that can make a panel fun to watch.
The Where Truth Lies featured Jan, Horacio Castellanos Moya, Marlon James, and Roxana Robinson. Noreen Tomassi of the Mercantile Library did a wonderful job moderating, keeping the discussion relevant and interesting, and creating some tensions that fueled the debate.
One of the most interesting divisions—to me anyway—was the huge difference between Jan’s belief that “form is greatly underrated” and that it’s the novelist’s job to make things strange and provide readers with a new way of seeing. With only a limited number of “masterplots” (a point that a couple panelists disagreed with, which was sort of odd, especially since the dissenters used examples that sort of proved that there are limited archetypes but that the difference is in the details, something that no one would dispute), the novelist has to “make things new” and can utilize form to accomplish this.
Roxana Robinson—whose aesthetic ideas ran so counter to mine that I’ll never ever read her books or her New Yorker stories—completely disagreed, arguing that a writer is just there to write, not to think of the audience of changing someone’s way of seeing or anything at all like that. She also made a comment about a recent Joyce Carol Oates interview in which JCO referred to tragedy as the highest art form, which is what she personally aspires to in her work. (Someone in the audience thankfully called bullshit on this, pointing out that JCO’s work—and Robinson’s by extension—isn’t actually tragic, just glum.)
This kind of schism is what makes for an interesting discussion, and in this case it really seemed to present two different literary approaches—writing to entertain and tell a story versus writing to create art.
There wasn’t such an obvious split in the Faith & Fiction, panel but Albert Mobilio—who is consistently one of the festival’s best moderators—did a masterful job sustaining a really interesting discussion about fiction and religion that featured Jan, Ben Anastas, Nadeem Aslam, and Brian Evenson. All of the panelists were fantastic, each having his particular viewpoint and responding thoughtfully to one another to create a truly interesting discussion.
Not to mention the panel awesomely opened with Albert quoting James Wood—something to the effect that novelists are skeptics, but novels act religiously—and Jan immediately stating that James Wood is a overrated . . .
A lot of the events were recorded and will be available on PEN’s podcast page in the near future. And for more information about particular events, be sure to check out the World Voices Blogs page, which has write-ups on nearly all of the panels and readings.
On Friday, finished copies of Merce Rodoreda’s Death in Spring arrived at our office (along with the equally gorgeous and well-written The Mighty Angel by Jerzy Pilch), and since the PEN World Voices events for Jan Kjaerstad and for Merce Rodoreda are right around the corner, we thought we’d make a special offer to anyone interested in reading these books prior to the PEN events.
So, for the rest of the month, you can get both The Conqueror and Death in Spring for the one low price of $22. Just click here for details.
(The Rodoreda event is also part of Catalan Days, a special celebration of Catalan performing and media arts, literature, and gastronomy taking place in NY from April 15th to May 20th.)
Over at the PEN website they’ve announced the full schedule for this year’s World Voices festival. It’s hard to believe, but this year they’re celebrating the 5th anniversary of the festival. After the first one, I wondered if they’d ever be able to pull it off again—it’s an incredible amount of work, and they do it all with a handful of staff and an army of volunteers—but they really have turned it into a world-class event and it gets better every year.
If you wanted to meet one of our authors, you can see Jan Kjaerstad at a few events. He’ll be sharing the stage with Bernardo Atxaga, Michael Ondaatje, Antonio Tabucchi, Colm Tóibín, and Rick Moody, to name a few.
Well, I didn’t make it to as many PEN events as I had hoped to on Saturday—there are so, so many, and with things starting right after one another it’s really kind of tricky—but the ones I attended were amazing.
It actually was an “all German” sort of day . . . First off was a conversation between Ingo Schulze and Eliot Weinberger. Eliot constantly amazes. He’s a fantastic writer and translator, overall brilliant person, and one of the best panelist/interviewers I’ve ever seen. He’s slightly contrarian on panels—which honestly helps foster the conversation—and in these conversations he walks through a writer’s life in the perfect way that keeps the audience interested and explores many of the facets of the author’s work.
Ingo Schulze is an interesting guy, and his new 800-page novel sounds really interesting. (And if Daniel Kehlmann’s statement is true that American reviewers thought his book was too short, this should do really well . . . And in case it’s not coming through, I’m joking. Americans love big books, but love short books even more.)
One of the best lines ever came out of that panel. Schulze said something about translation being impossible, and Eliot replied, “sure you can say translation is impossible, but so is love, and that doesn’t stop people from falling in love every day.”
The Robert Walser event that afternoon though was honestly the best PEN World Voices event I’ve ever been to. It was simple, intelligent, work-based, and populated with the perfect participants and audience. Started with Michel Kruger talking a bit about Walser’s life and work, his influence on Kafka, his micrographs. Then the wonderful Susan Bernofsky talked a little about the Walser translations she’s done, and read from both The Assistant and the forthcoming The Tanners. Deborah Eisenberg then read a few sections from the remarkable Jakob Von Gunten (which would make an awesome Lost book), and was followed by Jeffrey Eugenides brilliant reading of “Trousers.” (Which I wish I could link to via Google Books. . . It’s part of the Selected Stories that NYRB did a few years back, and it worth every penny.) Wayne Kostenbaum also read a few of the really funny short pieces. (I’ve mainly read the novels, but based on this event, it seems to me that Walser really excels in this short form. Sharp, constructively-destructive, incredibly hilarious.)
What was most interesting though was the fact that the Q&A section didn’t go awry. As Umberto Eco said the other day, it’s statistically proven that when there’s a crowd of more than 50, only the mad ask questions. . . . Somehow, at this particular event, the questions asked were appropriate and thoughtful, and generated interesting conversation among the participants. That’s really unusual. Extremely. (I remember suggesting once that there should be a “disconnect button” on stage so that the moderator could shut down the audience mic as soon as shit went haywire. . . . ) This was one of those events where something special happened and everyone in the audience walked away amazed. In fact, they sold out of Walser books at the stand outside the event . . .
That evening the Germans and Hungarians both represented with really fun parties. The one at the Deutchs Haus was a bit frat-esque, but incredibly loud and fun, and packed with all the major players in international lit. (It was great to finally meet Francine Prose in person, and Eugenides was incredibly nice to talk with.) The Hungarians had mediocre wine (a unfortunate staple of their events!) but a great crowd and compelling, abstract music. Overall, it was one of the best days of the festival’s four year history.
The complete schedule for this year’s PEN World Voices Festival is now available online. Taking place from April 29th through May 4th, the festival includes almost 80 events and over 170 participants.
Funny to think that this has only been around for four years . . . It’s quickly become the festival to attend, filled with fantastic events, readings, discussions, and parties.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll be highlighting various events, and will definitely blog about all the May 2nd-4th events. It’s almost too overwhelming to try and cover in one post . . .
As some of you may have noticed, there’s been an overwhelming response to the Umberto Eco/Salman Rushdie event taking place here on May 1st from 6-8pm. In fact, we had over 1,000 people register to attend in the first five days after this was announced—completely selling out the UR Alumni and Advancement auditorium . . .
Since there are still a lot of people interested in attending—especially UR staff, faculty, and students—we’ve made special arrangements to simulcast the event in Hubble Auditorium in Hutchinson Hall.
This too is free and open to the public, and once again, you have to register online (by clicking the banner at the top of this page or clicking here). And I strongly encourage anyone interested in attending in doing this asap. The auditorium seats 500, but based on how fast we sold out the first auditorium, I wouldn’t be surprised if this fills up as well . . .
If you have any questions/concerns please e-mail me at chad.post at rochester dot edu.
We’ve been planning this for the past few months (basically ever since the NYSCA sponsorted Facing Pages retreat last October), but we’re really pleased to finally be able to publicly announce that on May 1st, Open Letter will be hosting a PEN World Voices event here in Rochester featuring Umberto Eco and Salman Rushdie.
This event—the first official PEN World Voices Festival event to take place outside of New York City—will take place from 6-8pm at the University of Rochester Advancement and Alumni Center, 300 E. River Road.
The event is free and open to the public, but we do have a limited number of seats, so all attendees must register via the link below. Simply click through, fill out the necessary info and print your confirmation page, which you’ll need to bring the night of the event.
I don’t think I really need to explain who Salman Rushdie and Umberto Eco are, but if you’re interested, more info about each are available on this press release.
In terms of Rushdie, what I’m most excited about is this new edition of Shame, which is a Rushdie novel I haven’t read, but one that was recommended to me by both Edwin Frank of NYRB and Joanna Scott. Also, his new book— The Enchantress of Florence —will be out in June, was recently excerpted in the New Yorker and discussed at N+1
Umberto Eco—who may well give his reading in Italian, which I think would be really cool—has a very impressive website with information about all his books, interviews, articles about his work, etc. I’m very interested in reading his latest book Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism, which Publishers Weekly describes as such: “He delves deeply into such subjects as Mideastern and European politics, myth, prejudice, globalization, The Da Vinci Code, magical thinking, rhetoric, religion, intelligent design and Harry Potter.” An excerpt is available online from Harcourt.
Personally, I’m really excited to be involved in such a great event, with such great authors, and I have to thank Caro Llewellyn from PEN for making this all possible.
This festivals may be one of the inspirations for the PEN World Voices Festival, but I wish the ILB folks would learn from PEN and make audio/video files of the events available through their website. PEN’s archive of events is a really valuable and interesting resource and truly helps reach readers who don’t happen to live in NYC. Or Berlin.
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