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 . . .
Richard Lea has a great audio interview with Alain Mabanckou about Broken Glass, his second novel to be published in English. (Although apparently only in the UK for now. Soft Skull did African Psycho a couple years ago, but I haven’t seen a listing for the new book yet.)
The Guardian also posted a positive review of Broken Glass some time back:
Mabanckou knows his French literature (he teaches that subject at UCLA). Broken Glass is a whistlestop tour of French literature and civilisation, and if you don’t know your Marivaux, your Chateaubriand, your ENAs and Weston shoes you’ll miss a lot of the gags (“a quarrel of Brest”, anyone?) – but don’t worry, there are still plenty left.
It’s not just French writers who make an appearance. That arch navel-gazer Holden Caulfield (or someone claiming to be him) has a walk-on part, and Broken Glass ends “we’ll meet again, in the other world, Holden, we’ll have a drink together . . . I’ll tell you what they do with the poor little ducks in cold countries during winter time.”
Although its cultural and intertextual musings could fuel innumerable doctorates, the real meat of Broken Glass is its comic brio, and Mabanckou’s jokes work the whole spectrum of humour.
Michael Orthofer from Complete Review is responsible for getting me interested in Amelie Nothomb. He’s reviewed twelve of her books, grading all of them between a B and an A. (Most are in the A or A- range, with Loving Sabotage—published by New Directions—receiving an A+.)
Unfortunately, despite this praise, Nothomb has been overlooked in America, and in fact, her last few books have only been published in the UK and not in the U.S.
And to add to that—this interview, which is in one of the UK’s largest and most respected papers, doesn’t seem to be tied to a recently released or forthcoming title . . . I feel like I must be missing something: why would a newspaper interview a literary author (especially one from Belgium) without some pressing cause? Those Brits and their literary coverage . . .
The interview itself is pretty fascinating, starting with the autobiographical elements in her work (and the way this is limited):
Fear and Loathing, awarded the Académie Française prize in 1999 and skilfully filmed by Alain Corneau in 2003, tells the story of the year she spent working for a big Japanese corporation, following Amelie-san’s catastrophic encounters with the company’s hierarchy. The Character of Rain, first published in 2000, reimagines the author’s early years in Japan, charting her transformation from an unresponsive piece of living matter to the beloved focus of the household. Ni d’Eve ni d’Adam, which won the Prix de Flore at the end of last year, returns to the same period of her life as Fear and Loathing, but this time tells the story of her love affair with a young Japanese man. [. . .]
Nothomb’s autobiographical fiction is further constrained in time, dealing only with her life before the publication in 1992 of her sensational debut, Hygiene de l’Assassin (The Assassin’s Purity). Since then she has gone on to become a fixture of the French literary calendar, publishing one bestseller a year, as regular as clockwork. This formidable track record has gained her legions of adoring fans, and an army of envious detractors, but her success has yet to find its way into her fiction. Her literary digestion is very slow, she explains, and her life after the age of 25 “doesn’t inspire me”.
And if you think a “bestseller a year” is impressive, that’s nothing:
Sixteen published novels represent only a fraction of her prodigious output, however. Nothomb declares herself to be in the middle of her 64th manuscript, having reached a rhythm where she completes three or four manuscripts a year, publishing only those which she feels comfortable sharing with others.
She’s the Joyce Carol Oates of Belgium! (Although with fewer annual publications, of course.)
I also got a kick out of her refusal to read for The Guardian books podcast:
Confident, witty and courteous with a quick intelligence, a keen sense of humour, and the assurance brought by continued success, it is all the more puzzling that Nothomb should be unwilling to do a brief reading. She modestly suggests that she isn’t gifted as an actress, and cites the difference in literary cultures between England and France, where writers seldom perform their work in public. But the real reason for her refusal is a question of identity. Her literary voice is so vibrant, so baritonal that on first meeting, her light, airy speaking voice comes as something of a surprise. It’s a curious mismatch of which she is only too aware. If she was to read her own work, she says, she would betray it.
This interview has convinced me to go pick up some of her other works (and to have Open Letter check out a few of the untranslated ones) after 2666, Senselessness, etc., etc.
The world’s most populous nation, the world’s biggest consumer of raw materials, and now the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, China strides irresistibly towards its economic and political destiny. But as Beijing prepares for its Olympic extravaganza this summer, the cultural life of the 1.3 billion people who live and work in this economic superpower remains a closed book to many in the west – their bestselling authors unfamiliar, their most exciting writers untranslated.
We’ve done some thinking about China—it’s a huge oversight to miss out on publishing a book from a country of 1.5 billion people—but, based on the article, the publishing industry there sounds even more complicated that Japan’s, which is almost indescribable.
This is at least partly because of the unique constitution of the Chinese publishing industry. “Officially, publishing is still an activity reserved to the state. So unlike, say, printing or bookselling, no private or foreign direct participation is allowed,” explains Richardson. There are some 570 state publishing houses, which until recently were insulated from the vicissitudes of the market. “Now they are ‘cultural enterprises’, are expected to become financially independent and are allowed to compete in each others’ patches.”
As always in China, Richardson continues, “things are more complicated than they would appear at an official level”. Alongside the state houses are “cultural studios”, private publishers that supply creative input for the state houses (which is legal), or simply buy ISBNs and publish themselves (which is not). “Meanwhile foreign publishers also cannot participate directly, but all the major international publishing companies have some form of representation in China and many have worked out forms of co-operation with Chinese partners that get under the wire.”
We won’t give up, but it’s an uphill battle—and that’s not considering all the other hurdles in making something like this happen. China is the guest of honor at Frankfurt in 2009 (It’s sad to say we’ll be waiting this long to find a book from China to publish. I hope it’s not the case.) and we’ll definitely find a book (or two or three) at the fair.
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