16 July 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Chad W. Post on Trafalgar by Angélica Gorodischer, from Small Beer Press.

Here’s the beginning of Chad’s review:

The author of more than twenty works of science fiction—both story collections and novels—Angélica Gorodischer was first introduced to English readers in 2003 with Kalpa Imperial: The Greatest Empire That Never Was, a patchwork novel that uses a variety of writing styles—fairy tales, oral histories, and political commentaries, among others—to depict the rise and fall of a nameless empire. Although Trafalgar works in the opposite direction—this book is a collection of intertwined stories wherein Trafalgar, merchant to all parts of the universe, tells stories about a cornucopia of strange worlds that he visits in his travels—the same literary touchstones are there: Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick. And although Trafalgar fails to surpass the best works of its literary forebearers, it is a really charming book that highlights Gorodischer’s incredible world-building abilities.

Each chapter takes the form of someone (usually the narrator) listening to one of Trafalgar’s wild tales about some unique world or other while he pounds gallons of coffee and digresses all over the place. Like something dreamt up by Kilgore Trout, these worlds often have strange societal arrangements—like in “By the Light of the Chaste Electronic Moon,” which describes a civilization ruled by 1,000 women who retain their power in part by having sex only once a year, via a virtual reality creating machine—that illuminate something interesting about human nature.

For the rest of the review, go here.

16 July 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The author of more than twenty works of science fiction—both story collections and novels—Angélica Gorodischer was first introduced to English readers in 2003 with Kalpa Imperial: The Greatest Empire That Never Was, a patchwork novel that uses a variety of writing styles—fairy tales, oral histories, and political commentaries, among others—to depict the rise and fall of a nameless empire. Although Trafalgar works in the opposite direction—this book is a collection of intertwined stories wherein Trafalgar, merchant to all parts of the universe, tells stories about a cornucopia of strange worlds that he visits in his travels—the same literary touchstones are there: Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick. And although Trafalgar fails to surpass the best works of its literary forebearers, it is a really charming book that highlights Gorodischer’s incredible world-building abilities.

Each chapter takes the form of someone (usually the narrator) listening to one of Trafalgar’s wild tales about some unique world or other while he pounds gallons of coffee and digresses all over the place. Like something dreamt up by Kilgore Trout, these worlds often have strange societal arrangements—like in “By the Light of the Chaste Electronic Moon,” which describes a civilization ruled by 1,000 women who retain their power in part by having sex only once a year, via a virtual reality creating machine—that illuminate something interesting about human nature. For example, here’s a bit from “Mr. Chaos,” a story about a madman Trafalgar meets on one of his journeys:

“Aleiçarga. Almost the complete opposite: little sea and lots of green. Two itty-bitty seas at the poles and another larger one close to the equator. It rains a lot, the rest is fertile ground, and the cities are disgusting.”

“Big, dirty, with smoke and drugs and loudspeakers.”

“Not so fast. Small cities because they, and they’re not the only ones, seem to have figured out what we are just learning; very clean, without smoke, don’t even think about drugs, and a few loudspeakers but they’re not bothersome.”

“Then they’re quite nice. I don’t know why you say they’re disgusting.”

“They are too well organized.”

“So far as I know, that is not a defect.”

“You, being Madam Organization; but when a whole city and all of the cities and everything is like an enormous and efficient company presided over by a narrow gauge logic where the effects always follow the causes and the causes march along single file and the dodo birds don’t worry about anything nor are they surprised by anything and they slither along beside you faintly pleased, I—like any normal person—feel a great desire to kill someone or commit suicide.”

Although these stories do, in a way, build on one another and are all tied together at the very end, the real pleasure of this book is in mulling over the philosophical and social underpinnings of the various worlds Gorodischer/Trafalgar describe. They’re like little gems that are fun to think about, and, for the most part, are explained in an entertaining fashion given Trafalgar’s roundabout way of telling his stories, and the sort of interplay with his various interlocutors.

That said, this set-up—a collection of stories told exclusively through dialogues—presents a lot of translation challenges, some of which Amalia Gladhart solved admirably, and some of which bog down the text.

The thing is, for a dialogue-driven book to work right, the dialogue has to always sound right. If it’s clunky, awkward, or tonally inconsistent, the whole illusion falls apart and the narrative feels very strained and stilted. This can happen when the writer/translator choose uncommon slang (“you’re going to end up in the slammer“), or have stilted word combinations (“I hope you haven’t contracted an exquisite inclination for fragile youths with smooth skin and green eyes”), or wordplay that doesn’t necessarily carry over from one culture to another (“Fernando had a tic and opened and closed his eyes every five seconds. If he’d been one of the boys at the cafe, they’d have called him Neon Sign, bet on it”). On a more subtle level, the use of contractions—or the decision not to use them at certain points—helps to replicated the cadence and rhythms of speech on the written page.

In terms of the examples above, I think these oddities are a combination of Gorodischer’s desire to create a verbally quirky character, and Gladhart’s attempt to bring that quirkiness into English. Sometimes it works—especially when describing one of the imaginary worlds—other times it falls flat.

I had a much bigger problem with the high number of grammatically questionable, extremely knotty, sentences in this book. Here are a few quick examples:

It was the translation she had dreamt and that, upon waking, she had rushed to record she didn’t know why since she was still convinced it was nothing but a nightmare;

The only problem was that there was a performance only seldom;

Every time Fina goes to Salta to visit their daughter and the grandchildren, and fortunately she goes often enough that he does not fall completely silent, Cirito stop going to the Jockey Club and that is when a few friends of the kind who correctly interpret the signs go to the cold, dry house and play poker in the dining room.

But as I mentioned above, I don’t think you read this book for the prose style—it’s more for the playfulness of the ideas, the self-referential games (Kalpa Imperial is referenced in the final story), and the pleasure of seeing such a robust imagination at work.

It’ll be interesting to see if more of Gorodischer’s books come out in the future. Both Kalpa Imperial and Trafalgar are from the late-70s/early-80s, and I’m personally curious to see how her more recent titles measure up.

8 December 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s Read This Next title is Three Messages and a Warning: Contemporary Mexican Short Stories of the Fantastic, edited by Eduardo Jimenez Mayo and Chris N. Brown, with an introduction from Bruce Sterling. This will be officially available from Small Beer Press is bringing this out in late-January, but it can be preordered here.

Here’s the description from Small Beer’s website:

This huge anthology of more than thirty all-original Mexican science fiction and fantasy features ghost stories, supernatural folktales, alien incursions, and apocalyptic narratives, as well as science-based chronicles of highly unusual mental states in which the borders of fantasy and reality reach unprecedented levels of ambiguity. Stereotypes of Mexican identity are explored and transcended by the thoroughly cosmopolitan consciousnesses underlying these works. It is a landmark of contemporary North American fiction that deserves a wide readership.

And we actually ran a review of this by Sara Cohen back near Halloween. (Too fitting, no?) Here’s what she had to say about the two stories that you can read here.

“Photophobia,” by Mauricio Monteil Figueiras.

You can tell from the start that “Photophobia” is more sophisticated than most stories in this collection—the vocabulary is complex, the concept unquestionably cerebral. An apocalyptic narrative is told through stream-of-consciousness storytelling that cleverly distracts from the story’s premise until the ending begins to shed some light on the narrator’s purpose and motives. The tale stands out in this populist collection of stories like a sore thumb, but I’m glad it was included. Here is a typical (and excellent) sentence:

“Eternity, he thought, pocket apocalypses: man has not learned the lessons of history, he is still the ignorant student who recorded his confusion in the caves of Altamira—it’s just that the caves have become tabloids.”

“The Drop” by Claudia Guillén.

In “The Drop,” a depressed young woman refuses to leave her room, watching drops of water fall to the floor. Her mother (the stated villain of the piece) claims that if the dripping stops, her child will die. A visiting doctor learns about himself as he studies the girl. That’s it, the entire premise. But the story is well-told, the ending surprising, and it’s the kind of eerie tale that sticks with you.

Again, click here for the complete preview, and click here for Sara’s review. And then, if you like what you read, buy the book via Small Beer’s website.

All of the past RTN featured titles can be found here.

18 November 11 | Chad W. Post |

Edward Gauvin is simply awesome. I first met him when he was working at the French Publishers’ Agency. Actually, that’s not exactly accurate. I first corresponded with him when he was at the FPA, but I first met him in person when he was visiting Rochester. See? People do visit Rochester. Edward’s actually been up here twice (at least), including last fall when he was here to participate in a Reading the World Conversation Series roundtable with Michael Emmerich, Martha Tennent, and Marian Schwartz. (Click here to watch the video of the event—it really was one of the best RTWCS events to date.)

One of the things I really like about Edward is his broad literary interests. Sure, he’s well versed in the Oulipo, in all facets of “high art,” but he also knows a shitload about international science fiction and translates a lot of graphic novels for First Second Books. (Another reason to love Edward—and this isn’t an intentional attempt to bury the lead—is just how much he knows about international comics. It looks like I’m going to help put together a series of events at the next New York ComicCon related to international graphic novels, and along with Douglas Wolk and Laurel Maury, Edward’s one of my go-to people for info on who/what I should know about.)

Edward was also an ALTA fellow a few years back, and has since had a residency at the Ledig House and found a publisher for his first book-length prose translation (the beginning of which won him the fellowship . . . I think).

Anyway, to the questions:

Favorite Word in Any Language: “Indefferer” to be indifferent to as in “cela m’indiffere,” which is equivalent to “that leaves me cold.” “Thesauriser” (or “to amass”) comes a close second.

To amass something with complete indifference . . . sounds like b-school speak.

Best Translation You’ve Done to Date: has to be my labor of love to date and first book-length prose fiction translation: A Life on Paper, the selected stories of Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud

Small Beer Press will be publishing this in May, and more info can be found here. Before linking to some of the online excerpts, here’s the jacket copy, which is sure to get more than a few people interested:

In many ways, Châteaureynaud is France’s own Kurt Vonnegut, and his stories are as familiar as they are fantastic. A Life on Paper presents characters who struggle to communicate across the boundaries of the living and the dead, the past and the present, the real and the more-than-real. A young husband struggles with self-doubt and an ungainly set of angel wings in “Icarus Saved from the Skies,” even as his wife encourages him to embrace his transformation. In the title story, a father’s obsession with his daughter leads him to keep her life captured in 93,284 unchanging photographs. While Châteaureynaud’s stories examine the diffidence and cruelty we are sometimes capable of, they also highlight the humanity in the strangest of us and our deep appreciation for the mysterious.

Sounds like something we’ll definitely be looking at for the 2011 Best Translated Book Award . . .

But if you can’t wait until May, there are a couple Châteaureynaud pieces available online: Delaunay the Broker appeared in Words Without Borders, and The Only Mortal in the Brooklyn Rail.

Most Difficult Translation You’ve Ever Done: “The Red Loaf” by Pieyre de Mandiargues. He’s another mid-century fantastical writer. His Goncourt-winning novel The Margin was translated by Richard Howard (as were a number of others through Grove, and Boyars), and his sadistically decadent The Englishman in His Château was recently published by Dedalus Press, in their notable European fantasy line. None of his many short stories have yet appeared in English.

This is sort of a bonus question from Edward since most translators either answered the “best translation you’ve done” or “most difficult.” But what the hell, Mandiargues sounds pretty interesting as well . . .

What Book Needs to Be Published in Translation: the stories of Noel Devaulx

As Edward mentioned in an e-mail to me, there’s not a ton of info on Devaulx available online, but there is a more academic article by Mark Temmer entitled “Noel Devaulx: His Fantasies and Allegories” that has a nice provocative opening:

Noel Devaulx writes as much to be misunderstood as to be understood. The resolution of the paradox lies in the nature of irony, which displays ignorance or weakness to further its own ends. It must be confessed, however, that such stratagems do not always succeed; initial defeats may be too great or adversaries too dull. And lest so much subtlety go to waste, it seems worth while to renounce human encounters in favor of anonymous readers on whose part one may suppose intelligence and sympathy.

More relevant to this post is Edward’s write-up as part of the Quarterly Conversation Translate This Book! series:

Noël Devaulx is the secret master of the 20th century French fantastique. His prose has the shimmer of Mérimée and the seemliness of Flaubert; clearly, he keeps Nerval by his bedside, the better to read it by the light of a Baudelairean lunacy. In his hands, the Kunstmärchen—nine collections’ worth, over nine decades—is reinvented as the vessel of a personal metaphysics; evident in every one is his mandarin mastery of narration. Jean Paulhan, an early champion, famously called his hermetic, exquisite tales, oft-featured in the NRF, “parables without keys”: spellbinding, even when perfectly obscure, for the secret to his prose is promise. Some enticing deferral of revelation extends past his final lines, into silence. [. . .] Many of Devaulx’s tales are haunted by death and madness, but Sainte Barbegrise reads like a virgin spring, or a breeze from a summer kingdom. It belongs, for its humor, for its merry invention, for its skillful use of marvel, on a shelf with Little, Big, At-Swim-Two-Birds, or The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold.

Click here to read the rest of the posts in the “Making the Translator Visible” series.

31 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Sara Cohen about Three Messages and a Warning, an anthology of Mexican short stories of the fantastic, edited by Eduardo Jimenez Mayo and Chris Brown and forthcoming from Small Beer Press.

Sara “Number Four” Cohen was one of our summer interns, who attends the University of Rochester where she’s majoring in English and singing lots of showtunes.

She wasn’t a huge fan of this collection as a whole, but there were a number of pieces that she really enjoyed. Here’s the opening of her review, along with one example of the “Very Good” stories included:

If nothing else, Three Messages and a Warning proves that anthology editors hold far more power than the individual authors. The problem is not so much that Three Messages fails to offer any excellent Mexican “stories of the fantastic,” but that those tales are few and poorly placed within the book as a whole. For example, a number of above-average stories are clustered toward the end of the book, so that anyone prone to reading anthologies chronologically will be tempted to give up reading before they find gold.

If anything, it just seems like the people editing Three Messages forgot to pay attention—how else would a poem (and a mediocre poem at that) find its way into a book of short stories? How else would so many mediocre stories make the cut? Overall, the thirty-four “stories” in Three Messages provide a study in quantity over quality, a survey of Mexican literature that does little credit to Mexican authors. However, whether by purpose or chance, there are some diamonds in the rough, tales with original voices and surprising endings, the kind of stories you find yourself telling your friends about later. Rather than leaving you to sort through the entire collection (or skip it entirely) I’ll offer you what, in my opinion, are the highlights. The stories sort themselves into three categories:

Category One: The Very Good.

1. “The President without Organs” by Pepe Rojo.

In retrospect, this story captures exactly what I was hoping to find in Three Messages: an imaginative subject explored by an expert storyteller. The story unfolds through a series of press releases detailing the various surgeries the President undergoes in order to cure his increasingly bizarre illnesses, as well as mini-narratives about citizens reacting to the news. Witty and controversial, the story is a hilarious parody of the roles of citizens, government officials and the media in religious and political systems. Then again, I’m bound to love any story that contains a section that reads only, “NATIONAL TIME-OUT DAY.”

Click here to read the full review.

31 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

If nothing else, Three Messages and a Warning proves that anthology editors hold far more power than the individual authors. The problem is not so much that Three Messages fails to offer any excellent Mexican “stories of the fantastic,” but that those tales are few and poorly placed within the book as a whole. For example, a number of above-average stories are clustered toward the end of the book, so that anyone prone to reading anthologies chronologically will be tempted to give up reading before they find gold.

If anything, it just seems like the people editing Three Messages forgot to pay attention—how else would a poem (and a mediocre poem at that) find its way into a book of short stories? How else would so many mediocre stories make the cut? Overall, the thirty-four “stories” in Three Messages provide a study in quantity over quality, a survey of Mexican literature that does little credit to Mexican authors. However, whether by purpose or chance, there are some diamonds in the rough, tales with original voices and surprising endings, the kind of stories you find yourself telling your friends about later. Rather than leaving you to sort through the entire collection (or skip it entirely) I’ll offer you what, in my opinion, are the highlights. The stories sort themselves into three categories:

Category One: The Very Good.

1. “The President without Organs” by Pepe Rojo.

In retrospect, this story captures exactly what I was hoping to find in Three Messages: an imaginative subject explored by an expert storyteller. The story unfolds through a series of press releases detailing the various surgeries the President undergoes in order to cure his increasingly bizarre illnesses, as well as mini-narratives about citizens reacting to the news. Witty and controversial, the story is a hilarious parody of the roles of citizens, government officials and the media in religious and political systems. Then again, I’m bound to love any story that contains a section that reads only, “NATIONAL TIME-OUT DAY.”

2. “Photophobia,” by Mauricio Monteil Figueiras.

You can tell from the start that “Photophobia” is more sophisticated than most stories in this collection—the vocabulary is complex, the concept unquestionably cerebral. An apocalyptic narrative is told through stream-of-consciousness storytelling that cleverly distracts from the story’s premise until the ending begins to shed some light on the narrator’s purpose and motives. The tale stands out in this populist collection of stories like a sore thumb, but I’m glad it was included. Here is a typical (and excellent) sentence:

Eternity, he thought, pocket apocalypses: man has not learned the lessons of history, he is still the ignorant student who recorded his confusion in the caves of Altamira—it’s just that the caves have become tabloids.

3. “Nereid Future,” by Gabriela Damián Miravete.

Imagine a modern, Mexican version of Margaret Oliphant’s short story from 1869, The Library Window and you’ll arrive at “Nereid Future.” The story, told in the second person, is about a girl who falls in love with a long-dead author through his books. The narrative gets increasingly meta as the girl begins to believe that the author loves her back. Intertextuality and female identity earn the spotlight in this short story, which contains one of those perfect endings where you should have seen it coming from the start, but still catches you by surprise.

4. “The Drop” by Claudia Guillén.

In “The Drop,” a depressed young woman refuses to leave her room, watching drops of water fall to the floor. Her mother (the stated villain of the piece) claims that if the dripping stops, her child will die. A visiting doctor learns about himself as he studies the girl. That’s it, the entire premise. But the story is well-told, the ending surprising, and it’s the kind of eerie tale that sticks with you.

5. “Variations on a Theme by Coleridge,” by Alberto Chimal.

Three Messages includes plenty of short-short stories; this is my favorite example, a page-and-a-half-long gem. It begins, “I got a call. It was me, calling from a phone I lost the year before. I asked myself where I had found the phone. I answered myself that it was in such and such cafeteria that I couldn’t remember anymore.” The story gets increasingly meta and hilarious, drawing its premise from the capabilities of modern technology, its humor from repetition and its pathos from the ways we judge ourselves.

Other favorites: “Lions” by Bernardo Fernández, “Wittigenstein’s Umbrella” by Óscar de la Borbolla, “Mr. Strogoff” by Guillermo Samperio.

Category Two: The Mediocre.

Most of the book falls into this category: stories that build up but go nowhere (“The Guest”); stories that you swear you’ve read before (“Three Messages and a Warning in the Same E-mail”); stories with one original gimmick, a clever premise or punch line that amuses without earning long-term appreciation (“A Pile of Bland Desserts”, “Wolves”); even a few pieces that don’t fully cross the cultural divide (“The Nahual Offering”).

These are not awful stories. I enjoyed reading some of them. But when I forget they existed in a week or two, I won’t feel the loss.

Category Three: The Ugly.

In my opinion the worst of the collection (besides that very random poem, “Mannequin”) are the stories that are unbearably trite, the stories that fit a shallow American understanding of Mexican culture to a T. I’m speaking mostly of the first story in the collection, “Today, You Walk Along a Narrow Path,” a tale about Día de los Muertos with the most predictable “surprise” ending in the entire book. There are others that fit this category, of course . . . but the line between “mediocre” and “ugly” seems awfully thin in my mind, so I think I’ll let future readers sort out those stories on their own.

22 June 11 | Julianna Romanazzi | Comments

On June 20, 2011 Small Beer Press was delighted to announce their winners for their inaugural Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation “Award.”:http://tinyurl.com/3wpflje This year’s long-form award went to celebrated short story writer Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, author of the winning book A Life on Paper: Stories .

A Life on Paper: Stories , translated by Edward Gauvin and published by Small Beer Press, was also a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award. and is the author’s first book to be published in English, containing twenty-three stories and a foreword by Brian Evenson. Selections of these stories have been printed in Words Without Borders, Joyland, the Harvard Review, and Agni. The awards were given to the winners at the 2011 Eurocon in Stockholm.

The complete lists of winners and honorable mentions are:

Long Form Winner

A Life on Paper: Stories, Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, translated by Edward Gauvin (Small Beer Press). Original publication in French (1976¬-2005).

Long Form Honorable Mention

The Golden Age, Michal Ajvaz, translated by Andrew Oakland (Dalkey Archive Press). Original publication in Czech as Zlatý V?k (2001).

Short Form Winner

“Elegy for a Young Elk”, Hannu Rajaniemi, translated by Hannu Rajaniemi (Subterranean Online, Spring 2010). Original publication in Finnish (Portti, 2007).

Short Form Honorable Mention

“Wagtail”, Marketta Niemelä, translated by Liisa Rantalaiho (Usva International 2010, ed. Anne Leinonen). Original publication in Finnish as “Västäräkki” (Usva (The Mist), 2008).

For the full award announcement with commentary from the winners click here.

To see the Three Percent blog on the Best Translated Book Award click here.

For the Three Percent Review on A Life on Paper: Stories click here.

8 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Catherine Bailey on A Life on Paper: Stories by Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, translated from the French by Edward Gauvin, and available from Small Beer Press.

Catherine Bailey is an English grad student here at the University of Rochester. (Or maybe was . . . I think she just graduated. And if so, congrats!) She reviewed Alina Bronsky’s Broken Glass Park for us last fall.

Chateaureynaud’s A Life on Paper: Stories is absolutely brilliant. It was also a finalist for this year’s Best Translated Book Award and is translated by one of the coolest & smartest translators out there. Edward has quite a fanbase . . . If you listen carefully to the video of the BTBA Award Ceremony you will hear a screams of support from the audience when his name is read.

Here’s the opening of Catherine’s review:

In reading this marvelous selection of Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud’s short fiction, I could not help but reminisce about childhood nights spent huddled near a campfire, seated at the feet of an elder and listening, enraptured, to ghost stories. Like those master storytellers whose haunting tales were exaggerated by the play of their hands over the flame, Châteaureynaud makes expert thematic use of both light and shadow to reveal his fantastical realms of wonder and fear. His unassuming prose startles as it entrances, holding readers on the edge of elegantly rendered, fantastical dream-worlds while all at once alluding to their more nightmarish qualities. In the style of Kafka and Poe, Châteaureynaud makes the supernatural seem not only present, but ubiquitous, inclined to encroach at any moment on the humdrum lives of unsuspecting mortals. More sinister than fairy tales, yet not quite definable as horror stories, Châteaureynaud’s whimsical writings leave one unsettled and alert, appreciating anew the possibilities of the chilly night air while simultaneously feeling the urge to draw nearer to the fire—just in case.

There are no consequential clashes in Châteaureynaud’s stories, nor heroic exploits. These are Everyman stories, brushes of ordinary individuals with forces beyond their control and explanation. Protagonists may be shaken, inspired, perplexed, and disturbed by these encounters, but they are rarely surprised. This is one of the distinguishing and most enjoyable marks of Châteaureynaud’s prose—in a recurring device akin to magical realism, the author abruptly introduces a maverick element into an otherwise banal scenario, but the arrival of this supernatural intervention is accommodated by characters without much shock or disbelief. In “La Tête,” a doctor is visited by a patient who carries a still-cognizant talking head around in a sack. More

Click here to read the entire piece.

8 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In reading this marvelous selection of Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud’s short fiction, I could not help but reminisce about childhood nights spent huddled near a campfire, seated at the feet of an elder and listening, enraptured, to ghost stories. Like those master storytellers whose haunting tales were exaggerated by the play of their hands over the flame, Châteaureynaud makes expert thematic use of both light and shadow to reveal his fantastical realms of wonder and fear. His unassuming prose startles as it entrances, holding readers on the edge of elegantly rendered, fantastical dream-worlds while all at once alluding to their more nightmarish qualities. In the style of Kafka and Poe, Châteaureynaud makes the supernatural seem not only present, but ubiquitous, inclined to encroach at any moment on the humdrum lives of unsuspecting mortals. More sinister than fairy tales, yet not quite definable as horror stories, Châteaureynaud’s whimsical writings leave one unsettled and alert, appreciating anew the possibilities of the chilly night air while simultaneously feeling the urge to draw nearer to the fire—just in case.

There are no consequential clashes in Châteaureynaud’s stories, nor heroic exploits. These are Everyman stories, brushes of ordinary individuals with forces beyond their control and explanation. Protagonists may be shaken, inspired, perplexed, and disturbed by these encounters, but they are rarely surprised. This is one of the distinguishing and most enjoyable marks of Châteaureynaud’s prose—in a recurring device akin to magical realism, the author abruptly introduces a maverick element into an otherwise banal scenario, but the arrival of this supernatural intervention is accommodated by characters without much shock or disbelief. In “La Tête,” a doctor is visited by a patient who carries a still-cognizant talking head around in a sack. The physician’s reaction exemplifies Châteaureynaud’s approach to such bizarre events:

The free play of its functions . . . was considerably impaired. But the simple fact that these manifested themselves at all flew in the face of what the entire medical establishment took for granted. That said, I am a progressive and an optimist; if it’s proven tomorrow that babies will henceforth be born from their mothers’ ears, that’s where I’ll await them. The decapitated head spoke? So be it!

Châteaureynaud’s characters remain similarly unflappable under a whole host of remarkable and surreal circumstances. In “Icarus Saved from the Skies,” a man develops miniature feathered wings, but refuses any attempts at flight, much to the chagrin of his proud wife. In “The Only Mortal,” a tryst with a forest-dwelling seductress causes an indelible (and distressing) message to appear on a young soldier’s skin. In “The Guardicci Masterpiece,” a woman must compete with a crooning, reanimated adolescent mummy for her lover’s attention. The extraordinary crops up spontaneously in people’s lives, occasionally wreaking permanent alteration, but more often than not simply fading away just as unceremoniously as it came.

In other stories, magic is confined to the peripheries, seeming to exist solely in a single character’s perception of a tragic or painful situation. In these, Châteaureynaud compellingly plays with the fine line between imagination and delusion, with the power and isolation inherent to subjectivity, and with the endlessly creative narratives we weave for ourselves in order to better cope with loss. In a few cases, these boundaries completely break down; Châteaureynaud denies characters the chance to raise rosy justifications around their peculiar behaviors, and instead exposes them for what they are: absurd, unsettling, even mad. In the titular story, a man bereft at the death of his wife resolves to oppose “time’s acid tides” by photographing his daughter at systematic intervals. By the time she hits 20, he has catalogued over 93,200 images of her life, and not without doing considerable damage to the girl’s psychology. The border between fantasy and obsession in these stories is never fixed, and some of the humans in Châteaureynaud’s fiction rival his ghosts, goblins, and spooks in their ability to make a reader shiver.

Perhaps it is for that reason that some of the most successful stories in this collection—a sampling chosen from other 30 years of Châteaureynaud’s work—focus not on the mysteries of the supernatural, which the author never seeks to rationalize, but on the intricacies of his human subjects. Whether taken metaphorically or literally, the vignettes in which mystical interludes catalyze or coincide with poignant emotional development in lead protagonists are some of Châteaureynaud’s richest and most memorable.

Another interesting aspect of Châteaureynaud’s work is its flexibility with time and setting. In the 22 stories included in A Life on Paper: Stories, backdrops range from the medieval to the contemporary, with segments located in urban as well as remote country landscapes. Châteaureynaud moves easily between specific historical moments and more transcendent locales, demonstrating his ability to craft stories that are both timely and timeless. The context of World War II is of direct importance to “The Gulf of the Years,” for instance, while “Sweet Street” and “The Peacocks” could happen any time.

Châteaureynaud’s prose is even and smooth, so tranquil at times it is almost hypnotic. Edward Gauvin’s translation pays careful attention to switches in tone and dialect, maintaining the discrepancy between the author’s own voice and those of his more casual characters. In addition to the stories available here, Châteaureynaud has penned nearly one hundred more, as well as eleven novels, two for young adults. An established figure in France, and an active member of several organizations that recognize literary excellence, Châteaureynaud has already seen his work translated into fourteen other languages. A Life on Paper: Stories will certainly be a welcome addition to many English-speakers’ libraries.

14 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

With the announcement of the BTBA winners just a mere 15 days and 5-1/2 hours away, it seems like a good time to start reviewing the finalists.

First up is Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud’s A Life on Paper, which just received a very enthusiastic write-up over at The Mookse and the Gripes.

Before the Best Translated Book Award put Georges-Olivier Châteaureynard’s A Life on Paper on its longlist (and now it’s a finalist), I had never heard of this French author, despite his long career (not that this surprises me). I hope to get to know his work much better, though that will require a lot of work from translators. So far, from my slight research online, A Life on Paper (tr. from the French by Edward Gauvin, 2010) is the only work of his to find its way to English. Thanks to Small Beer Press for bringing this one to our attention, and hopefully Edward Gauvin is working on some of Châteaureynard’s novels.

A Life on Paperis a collection of more than twenty short stories compiled from several collections Châteaureynard has published over a thirty-year period. Most of the story are very short indeed. I can’t emphasize this enough: it was a delight to read one or two a day over a month. While writing this review I was often reading a passage to quote and found myself still reading after a few pages.

Categorizing Châteaureynaud seems futile. He’s called a fabulist, but I think this is too limiting; frankly, some of his stories seem to be written just for the fun of it, with no metaphorical intent whatsoever. I would say he’s like Kafka — the bizarre happens in an every-day setting and the characters keep acting like it’s completely sane — only his tone is quite different, reminding me more of Melville’s story-telling style. Well, there’s no reason to categorize him, and I hope some passages from his stories will give a better sense of whether you’d enjoy this collection.

He goes on to quote from a few of the stories, including the titular story, which opens with

The Siegling-Brunet collection no doubt constitutes the most extensive gathering of photographs devoted to a single person. Kathrin Laetitia Siegling was born in London on January 12, 1939. On April 14, 1960, she died in Amiens, where she had moved with her husband François Brunet. She lived, then, some 7,750 days, during which, at the rate of some dozen shots every twenty-four hours, her picture was taken 93,284 times. To the best of my knowledge, the negatives were never preserved, but the 93,284 prints were.

and ends up focusing on Kathrin’s obsessive father, who took all 93,284 pictures.

Châteaureynaud’s stories truly are a delight, and I really hope Edward Gauvin is translating more of his work . . .

....
Astragal
Astragal by Albertine Sarrazin
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

Upon completing Albertine Sarrazin’s Astragal I was left to wonder why it ever fell from print. Aside from the location, Astragal could pass as the great American novel. Its edginess and rawness capture the angst and desires we all had. . .

Read More >

Live Bait
Live Bait by Fabio Genovesi
Reviewed by Megan Berkobien

When my eyes first crossed the back cover of Fabio Genovesi’s novel Live Bait, I was caught by a blurb nestled between accolades, a few words from a reviewer for La Repubblica stating that the novel was, however magically, “[b]eyond. . .

Read More >

The Skin
The Skin by Curzio Malaparte
Reviewed by Peter Biello

“I preferred the war to the plague,” writes Curzio Malaparte in his 1949 novel, The Skin. He speaks of World War II and the destruction it has wrought on Italy, the city of Naples in particular. But the plague he. . .

Read More >

Love Sonnets & Elegies
Love Sonnets & Elegies by Louise Labé
Reviewed by Brandy Harrison

With the steady rise of feminist scholarship and criticism in recent decades, it is little wonder that the work of Louise Labé should be attracting, as Richard Sieburth tells us in the Afterword to his translation, a “wide and thriving”. . .

Read More >

Conversations
Conversations by César Aira
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

In Conversations, we find ourselves again in the protagonist’s conscious and subconscious, which is mostly likely that of Mr. César Aira and consistent with prototypical Aira style. This style never fails because each time Aira is able to develop a. . .

Read More >

Nothing Ever Happens
Nothing Ever Happens by José Ovejero
Reviewed by Juan Carlos Postigo

You are not ashamed of what you do, but of what they see you do. Without realizing it, life can be an accumulation of secrets that permeates every last minute of our routine . . .

The narrative history of. . .

Read More >

The Pendragon Legend
The Pendragon Legend by Antal Szerb
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

Literature in translation often comes with a certain pedigree. In this little corner of the world, with so few books making it into this comforting nook, it is often those of the highest quality that cross through, and attention is. . .

Read More >