Sarah Gerard is a writer who used to work at McNally Jackson Books, but recently took a job at BOMB Magazine. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Bookforum, the Paris Review Daily, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Slice Magazine, and other publications. Her new book, “Things I Told My Mother,” can be purchased here. She holds an MFA from The New School and lives in Brooklyn.
A few of the BTBA judges have talked about how honored they are to be part of this process. I am also, but I want to be clear about one thing: it’s a lot of work.
The above is my tiny home office. It’s located in a small alcove in the hallway between my kitchen and my bathroom, in the studio apartment I share with my husband. The picture is in no way representative of the way my office looks every day. What I mean is this: recently, I left McNally Jackson Books, where I’d been a bookseller for three years, in order to join the team at BOMB Magazine, a publication that consistently pays homage to the art of translation. Because it would be difficult to inform every publisher of my address change, I still receive BTBA submissions at McNally Jackson, and have to return there every few days to pick up my mail. Each time, I find anywhere between two and ten new titles on the hold shelf for me, and add them to these stacks.
Meanwhile, new emails are coming in all the time from publishers; PDFs of books, eBooks, .mobi books. The judges are racing to keep up. And the list is always growing. Here are some of my recent favorites.
The African Shore by Rodrigo Rey Rosa (trans. Jeffrey Gray)
I mentioned BOMB Magazine. The current issue, #125, features a truly excellent conversation between Rodrigo Rey Rosa and Francisco Goldman. Rey Rosa was a protégé of Paul Bowles, who translated many of his books. It was under Bowles’s tutelage that Rey Rosa discovered his passion for writing, and it was Bowles who initially recognized Rey Rosa’s talent. Rey Rosa later returned to his home of Guatemala, where most of his books are set, and where he currently lives. But The African Shore is set in Tangier, a textured, mystical place full of almost noir-like intrigue. The possibility of violence hums on the outside of two stories held together by colonialism and the life of a snowy owl. Of the book, Francisco Goldman asks
FG: A propos of The African Shore, were there any special challenges for you in setting a novel in Tangier instead of Guatemala? Did you still consider yourself to be an outsider or a foreigner in relation to Tangier, or did you consider it home?
RRR: I wrote it in 1998. I dared to write the book when I realized that the Tangier that Bowles had written about—or better yet, created—had changed so much that it was no longer the same city. Only the wind remained… I lived there, and partially in New York, from ’82 to ’92, and spent summers in Tangier until 2001. When I started writing the novella, I could sense that I would never live in Morocco again. The book became a sort of farewell. But I never thought of Tangier as a home. I’ve never been at peace at home—but in Tangier I often was.
Regarding Jeffrey Gray’s translation, all I can say is that the book reads like a vivid dream seen through an opium haze, and sentence-by-sentence, is beautiful. I admit that I haven’t read Bowles’s translations, but am inspired now to seek them out and compare styles.
Sleet by Stig Dagerman (trans. Steven Hartman)
Two of Stig Dagerman’s books are up for the award this year: Sleet, a short story collection, and Burnt Child, a novel that I am now, after reading Sleet, very excited to begin. I admit, I had never heard of Stig Dagerman, but was intrigued by Sleet_’s introduction by Alice McDermott, blurbs from Graham Greene and Siri Hustvedt, and my general love of David R. Godine’s Verba Mundi series. As it turns out, Dagerman was a prolific writer in Sweden, who in his time was compared to everyone from Faulkner to Kafka to Camus. While most of the stories in _Sleet are a mote less philosophical than any of these writers’ works, I would be remiss if I didn’t strongly recommend the first and last stories, “To Kill a Child” and “Where Is My Icelandic Sweater?” (Laugh at the second title – it’s fine.) “To Kill a Child” had me hooked immediately and was promisingly quick and devastating, and “Where Is My Icelandic Sweater?”, a nearly novella-length work, had me reduced to a tear-soaked pile of loss and bereavement, and memories of my grandfather. Dagerman’s writing is personal and unsettling, hewing closely to characters being made to undergo humiliation and loss in an environment – mid-century Sweden – that’s almost too quaint for comfort. I would happily read this collection a second and even a third time.
Her Not All Her by Elfriede Jelinek (trans. Damion Searls)
This was one of the last books I staff picked as a bookseller at McNally Jackson:
The irony of a writer (Robert Walser) trying desperately to craft his own identity, only to succeed tragically at channeling through his words the voices of others. Jelinek captures Walser’s sad humor, his loneliness, and the eventual silence (silencing or death) of a voice that spoke through so many other voices. By way of madness? Genius? Damion Searls’s translation captures beautifully the skill of both writers: Jelinek’s performance and her ode to Walser.
I read this entire book in one mad, intensely satisfying, Homerically victorious sitting. I felt compelled despite its many (gorgeous, thrilling) challenges, to reach the end. Added to which, the book itself is lovely to look at – true objecthood achieved, Sylph Editions.
Here I should recall my last BTBA post, wherein I discussed Christa Wolf’s book City of Angels, which is also up for the award this year, and is also translated by Damion Searls. As it happens, Searls also – a trifecta of cool – translated Robert Walser’s A Schoolboy’s Diary, which is up for the award this year, too, and which author figures centrally into this Jelinek book we’re talking about currently – making a complete Searls circle, if you will.
Red Grass by Boris Vian (trans. Paul Knobloch)
I’m currently reading this book and am already completely blown away by it. While I’m not sure I can do it justice here, being that I’m still in the middle of it, I can already say that Vian’s (and Knobloch’s) sentences are some of the most lively I’ve ever read, and that the allegorical nature of the story rivals Kafka and Wells in its grace and complexity. It’s not exactly science fiction, but neither is it exactly Surreal. It’s something entirely its own – no other writer has done what Vian’s done here.
A couple weeks ago, a copy of Stig Dagerman’s Sleet (translated by Steven Hartman) arrived at our offices. To be honest, I’d never heard of Dagerman, but the attractive cover (I am a fan of Godine’s new Verba Mundi designs) and a very nice email from the book’s publicist kept this on my desk as a book to look into.
Of course, the planning for and execution of the Frankfurt Book Fair has stymied any attempts to actually read this (or much of anything aside from Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge, which is awesome), but after hearing about this upcoming PEN event in honor of Dagerman, I’m very intrigued.
[More event info below, but just to get the facts out there: This will take place Tuesday, October 22nd at the Scandinavia House (58 Park Ave., New York, NY 10016) starting at 6:30.]
First off, in terms of Dagerman himself, he was a very productive writer and journalist whose life was cut short when he committed suicide at the age of 31 in 1954. A number of his works have made it into English, including four in recent years: German Autumn (a collection of articles), A Burnt Child, Island of the Doomed (which sounds intense and insane and which I’m ordering right now),1 and the aforementioned Sleet.
Sleet, a collection of twelve stories “unified by a central theme: the death of innocence,” includes an intro by Alice McDermott that gives a good sense of his writing:
I confess that this was not what I expected to find from this tragic Swedish writer when I opened German Autumn, the first of his works that I borrowed from his daughter. I expected darkness. Angst. The void. Hopelessness. But what I found instead was an account of human suffering unbiased by politics or nationalism, hatred or revenge. An account of human suffering given with both a novelist’s eye (“A big bare room with a cement floor and a window that has been almost entirely bricked up. A solitary bulb hangs from the ceiling and shines unmercifully on three air-raid-shelter beds, a stove reeking with sour wood, a small woman with a chalk-white face stirring a pot on the stove, a small boy lying on the bed and staring up apathetically at the light,”) and a moral vision that managed to maintain, “respect for the individual even when the individual has forfeited our sympathy and compassion . . . the capacity to react in the face of suffering whether that suffering may be deserved or undeserved.”
Going back to the PEN event—the real reason for this post—here’s a bit more info about what’s going to take place next Tuesday:
Novelist Siri Hustvedt, translator Steven Hartman, Professor of English at Mid-Sweden University, and PEN Translation Committee Chair Susan Bernofsky read and discuss Stig Dagerman’s writings with moderator Ann Kjellberg, editor of Little Star.
The author’s daughter, Lo Dagerman, will introduce a short documentary, Our Need for Consolation, based on Dagerman’s classic essay and featuring actor Stellan Skarsgård.
Sounds really interesting, and I want to personally thank Sue Ramin from Godine and Lo Dagerman for bringing Dagerman’s work to my attention. Now, if only I could stop traveling and editing . . .
1 Seriously, check this out:
In the summer of 1946, while secluded in August Strindberg’s small cabin in the Stockholm archipelago, Stig Dagerman wrote Island of the Doomed. This novel was unlike any other yet seen in Sweden and would establish him as the country’s brightest literary star. To this day it is a singular work of fiction—a haunting tale that oscillates around seven castaways as they await their inevitable death on a desert island populated by blind gulls and hordes of iguanas. At the center of the island is a poisonous lagoon, where a strange fish swims in circles and devours anything in its path. As we are taken into the lives of each castaway, it becomes clear that Dagerman’s true subject is the nature of horror itself.
Island of the Doomed is a chilling profile of terror and guilt and a stunning exploration—written under the shadow of the Nuremberg Trials—of the anxieties of a generation in the postwar nuclear age.
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .
It took reading 44 pages of Intervenir/Intervene before I began to get a sense of what Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez were up to. Recurring throughout these 44 pages—throughout the entire book—are shovels, shovel smacks to the face, lobelias—aha!. . .
As presaged by its title, contradiction is the theme of Peter Stamm’s novel, All Days Are Night. Gillian, a well-known television personality, remains unknowable to herself. And Hubert, a frustrated artist and Gillian’s lover, creates art through the process of. . .