10 December 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Phillip Koyoumjian on Stig Dagerman’s A Burnt Child, from Zephyr Press.

Phillip is a Rochester native with a background in European history and literature. He has an MS In Library and Information Science from the University of Illinois and is looking forward to beginning a PhD in Modern European History next fall.

Based on Phillip’s review, the book’s cover, and hell, even the title, this novel sounds kind of unnerving and creepy, but also quite awesome. Which, based on reactions to Dagerman’s Island of the Doomed, which our Book Clüb will be discussing this Thursday (and which I sadly forgot to read, but also really really want to read), it’s wholly fitting to Dagerman’s style. All manner of crazy things seem to go on, but fueled by the most basic and natural human emotions and reactions…

Anyway, here’s the beginning of Phillip’s review:

The recent reissuing of several of Stig Dagerman’s novels by University of Minnesota Press has rekindled interest in his works, which have until now been little-known outside Sweden. Just twenty-four when he wrote A Burnt Child (here newly translated by Benjamin Mier-Cruz) in the summer of 1948, Dagerman was regarded at that time as one of Sweden’s most talented “Fyrtiotalisterna,” a handful of men of letters whose writings evoked the ennui that followed the Second World War. He produced plays, poetry, short stories, journalism, and novels before depression eventually deprived him of the will to write; he ended his own life not long after his thirty-first birthday. A Burnt Child, his penultimate novel, is a haunting expression of the angst many European intellectuals felt during this period.

Twenty-year-old philosophy student Bengt Lundin (whose name plays on the original Swedish title, Bränt barn) is confronted with his mother’s death and his father’s looming marriage to his mistress. Bengt struggles with anger toward his father and conflicting emotions toward his volatile late mother and unstable fiancée. Unforeseen by the myopic and arrogant Bengt is his burgeoning infatuation with his father’s mistress. Her femininity and sensuality are qualities his mother did not possess and his plain fiancée avoids, and Bengt allows his obsession with her to consume his life. While scornful of his father’s betrayal of his mother, and his mother’s betrayal of Bengt through her own affair, he betrays his own father and fiancée with Gun. After he realizes that he cannot make Gun love him exclusively, he succumbs to jealousy and attempts suicide. He eventually reconciles himself (to some degree) with reality, although he does not abandon his increasingly oedipal love for Gun.

For the rest of the review, go here.

10 December 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The recent reissuing of several of Stig Dagerman’s novels by University of Minnesota Press has rekindled interest in his works, which have until now been little-known outside Sweden. Just twenty-four when he wrote A Burnt Child (here newly translated by Benjamin Mier-Cruz) in the summer of 1948, Dagerman was regarded at that time as one of Sweden’s most talented “Fyrtiotalisterna,” a handful of men of letters whose writings evoked the ennui that followed the Second World War. He produced plays, poetry, short stories, journalism, and novels before depression eventually deprived him of the will to write; he ended his own life not long after his thirty-first birthday. A Burnt Child, his penultimate novel, is a haunting expression of the angst many European intellectuals felt during this period.

Twenty-year-old philosophy student Bengt Lundin (whose name plays on the original Swedish title, Bränt barn) is confronted with his mother’s death and his father’s looming marriage to his mistress. Bengt struggles with anger toward his father and conflicting emotions toward his volatile late mother and unstable fiancée.

Bengt’s deceptive and arrogant character is developed by chapters narrating events alternating with letters written by Bengt to himself and to other characters. These letters show his youthful vanity and sophomoric thinking: “I think that the more theoretical knowledge you obtain, the more multifarious and kaleidoscopic your view becomes of the reality that lurks behind concepts.” Multifarious and kaleidoscopic, no; fractured and scattered, yes. When contrasted with the actual events described in the narrative, Bengt’s “analysis” of what he and the people around him do appears merely as a specious rationalization for his own moral failings; he possesses much theoretical knowledge, but no understanding of human nature. His reliance on his naïve intellect leads him directly, and half-knowingly, into committing the very act he claims to despise his father for.

Compounded with (and partly a cause of) Bengt’s deceptiveness and intellectual immaturity is his oedipal relationship with Gun, his father’s mistress/fiancée and later wife. Gun possesses all the qualities Bengt’s mother did not: beauty, youthfulness (if not youth), sensuality. Indeed, she wears the red dress and high heels his mother refused to wear because she believed herself too old to wear such things. “Her name is Gun Berg. That name is much too young for such an old woman,” he observes (his mother’s name was Alma).

While scornful of his father’s betrayal of his mother, and his mother’s betrayal of Bengt through her own affair, he betrays his own father and fiancée with Gun. After he realizes that he cannot make Gun love him exclusively, he succumbs to jealousy and attempts suicide. He eventually reconciles himself (to some degree) with reality, although he does not abandon his increasingly oedipal love for Gun. By the end of the novel, he calls her Mama as they hold each other in a lovers’ embrace.

Dagerman’s style (in the narrative chapters) is best described by Graham Greene: “Instead of emotive phrases, he uses a choice of facts, like bricks, to construct an emotion.” Like a film, Dagerman’s prose illustrates a scene in a way that evokes a mood. (Indeed, film plays a role in the novel: Gun works in a cinema, and it is here that Bengt first meets her.) Here are Bengt and his father at a restaurant after his mother’s funeral, just after Bengt realizes his father had committed adultery:

They walk to the private room together. It’s almost dark now, but the flame will continue to burn for a little while longer. The son is walking behind the father, but once inside he sits on the opposite side of the table. He wants to look him in the eye. He wants to see whether his eyes are afraid. But the father doesn’t look at him. The father is standing next to the deceased’s cold chair and looks down at the empty plate. But it’s no longer empty. The bill is on the mother’s plate.

This visual style is where Dagerman is at his best. At times his prose can lapse into distracting and tedious philosophizing, especially toward the end of the book. Fortunately, this detracts little from his usually terse, evocative prose.

A Burnt Child is an excellent portrayal of the clash between a young man’s reason and his heart. By contrasting third-person narrative with Bengt’s letters, Dagerman skillfully illustrates Bengt’s failure to conquer human frailty with reason. The highly descriptive, yet concise, prose joins the psychological exploration to evoke the despondency Dagerman and others felt after the incomprehensible destruction of war.

27 April 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the course of this week, we will be highlighting all 6 BTBA Poetry Finalists one by one, building up to next Friday’s announcement of the winners. All of these are written by the BTBA poetry judges under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win.” You can find the whole series by clicking here. Stay tuned for more information about the May 3rd ceremony.

Transfer Fat by Aase Berg, translated from the Swedish by Johannes Göransson, and published by Ugly Duckling Presse.

Jennifer Kronovet is the author of the poetry collection Awayward, which was selected by Jean Valentine for the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize. She is the co-founder of Circumference: Poetry in Translation.

Why this book should win: It amazingly makes English feel like a new language with visceral power.

I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that almost everyone reading this review here is interested in foreign languages. Although some books in translation may try to hide the very fact that they are translated, many of us turn to books in translation because they are that—a twisty relationship, a multi-dimensional trip, a dynamically charged confluence, language within language within language. Part of the engaging pleasure of reading contemporary Swedish poet Aase Berg’s Transfer Fat, translated by Johannes Göransson, is that one feels as though one is reading in a foreign language, and yet, has access to understanding the words as themselves.

Transfer Fat makes a world and puts us inside it to hear its language, to be subject to its laws and materiality, to be a citizen called upon to act and be acted upon. Articles are removed, new compounds words are made, and commands are given, and so this language feels like a paradigmatic example of itself, essential and new as it subverts expected idioms and means multi-directionally. This language is both highly prepositional and highly visceral; we are in relation and on top of relations and at relationships. With what? Whale fat, breast-gristle, hare-milk, glasswater, a fatcatatonic election promise, Hal, the hare Cosmos, and more nouns that seem pure thing and pure metaphor, Swedish and of my Midwestern backyard, political and inborn. These contrasts are productively disorienting. One learns to see this new language (am I beginning to think in it?) as one capable of bringing the body and the body politic together, and the body and the mind that charges it.

The first poem begins:

Cut the keel
in harebrood pool
cut fin in fat
fishtailborn

Right away the speaker asks us to perform a violence (as translators are often accused of doing) and in that violence, a new word is made, fishtailborn, and perhaps this new word is us, now composed of parts, of language severed and re-glued. After a large space on the page the poem continues:

Keep fat
let fat wait
keep time
let time go
let time rock calmly in hare
let fat build core in hare
in the hare Cosmos
time is shell

If we follow the speaker’s suggestions, follow the new language happening, we end up with a new feeling for how time works, a new metaphysics. The manipulations of language in the book never feel coy or like play for playing’s sake. Rather, through the thick scrim of foreigness, language is amplified as being viscerally of the body and of time, capable of leading us to bold ideas if we follow its permutations.

In the translator’s note, Göransson, a poet in English and native speaker of Swedish, writes that Forsla fett is “an ambient space where the Swedish language goes through all kinds of permutations: words, connotations, meanings letters are put into flux, combining and recombining continually.” Göransson notes that Berg brings parts of English-language texts into her poems which further “deforms the Swedish language.” Thus, the book is its materiality, is the way it moves in language, or rather, moves languages out of themselves. How does one translate such a text, when carrying over only the “meaning” of the words would be to lose almost everything? Göransson takes risks. He challenges and deforms English. He moves into the world of Forsla fett and practices the processes it demands on English, cutting and recreating, melting together and splicing, transferring and fattening and thinning, and we are left with the fat and the muscle of meaning, new language we can work with, that works on us.

26 June 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

The latest review to our Reviews Section is a piece by Tim Nassau on Tomas Tranströmer’s The Deleted World, which is available from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

This book promises to be an interesting read. Take a look at Tim’s review to see why:

Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer’s winning the Nobel Prize brought to light a rare bit of translation gossip: that there’s bad blood between a few of his translators. And as there should be—a lot of people suddenly want to buy Tranströmer’s poetry; of the five plus out there, which book are you going to get? The Deleted World, Scottish poet Robin Robertson’s “versions” of Tranströmer’s poems (Robertson doesn’t like to call them “translations”), is the controversial one. Its first American publication at the end of last year, half a decade after it originally appeared from Enitharmon Press in Britain, drew new attention to the paper war abroad. In the introduction to the slim volume of fifteen poems from across Tranströmer’s career, Robertson makes it clear, “The free versions in The Deleted World were never intended as literal translations.” Not free enough for some. As David Orr chronicled in March in the New York Times Book Review, Robin Fulton, also a Scottish poet-translator of Tranströmer, and who does speak Swedish, “accused Robertson (who doesn’t speak Swedish) of borrowing from his more faithful versions while inserting superfluous bits of Robertson’s own creation — in essence, creating poems that are neither accurate translations nor interesting departures.” Robertson has barbs of his own: in reference to other Tranströmer collections, he dubs Samuel Charter’s Baltics a “good reading” and Robert Bly’s The Half-Finished Heaven “a strong American selection,” while Fulton’s Collected Poems is a delightfully back-handed “useful.” Good for a gloss, but get your poetry elsewhere.

Click here to read the entire review.

26 June 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer’s winning the Nobel Prize brought to light a rare bit of translation gossip: that there’s bad blood between a few of his translators. And as there should be—a lot of people suddenly want to buy Tranströmer’s poetry; of the five plus out there, which book are you going to get? The Deleted World, Scottish poet Robin Robertson’s “versions” of Tranströmer’s poems (Robertson doesn’t like to call them “translations”), is the controversial one. Its first American publication at the end of last year, half a decade after it originally appeared from Enitharmon Press in Britain, drew new attention to the paper war abroad. In the introduction to the slim volume of fifteen poems from across Tranströmer’s career, Robertson makes it clear, “The free versions in The Deleted World were never intended as literal translations.” Not free enough for some. As David Orr chronicled in March in the New York Times Book Review, Robin Fulton, also a Scottish poet-translator of Tranströmer, and who does speak Swedish, “accused Robertson (who doesn’t speak Swedish) of borrowing from his more faithful versions while inserting superfluous bits of Robertson’s own creation — in essence, creating poems that are neither accurate translations nor interesting departures.” Robertson has barbs of his own: in reference to other Tranströmer collections, he dubs Samuel Charter’s Baltics a “good reading” and Robert Bly’s The Half-Finished Heaven “a strong American selection,” while Fulton’s Collected Poems is a delightfully back-handed “useful.” Good for a gloss, but get your poetry elsewhere.

Whenever a translator feels compelled to present their work as something just a little bit different, as not quite a translation, but as an imitation, or a version, or whatever else they can come up with (“Englished” for “translated” is a favorite), my instinct is to cry bullshit. There is rarely something original enough to justify setting oneself apart from other translators and, intended or not, it smacks of apologetics: a way of excusing any potential infidelities as part of the game. When you actually read the poems, it’s clear why debating the merits of the different translations in terms of relative faithfulness is pointless. Compare these two versions of “The Couple,” originally published in 1962. The first is by Robin Fulton, which we know to be the sober, literal rendition:

They switch off the light and its white shade
glimmers for a moment before dissolving
like a tablet in a glass of darkness. Then up.
The hotel walls rise into the black sky.

The movements of love have settled, and they sleep
but their most secret thoughts meet as when
two colors meet and flow into each other
on the wet paper of a schoolboy’s painting.

It is dark and silent. But the town has pulled closer
tonight. With quenched windows. The houses have approached.
They stand close up in a throng, waiting,
a crowd whose faces have no expressions.

The second, from Robin Robertson, we expect to run roughshod over those lines:

They turn out the lamplight, and its white globe
glimmers for a moment: an aspirin rising and falling
then dissolving in a glass of darkness. Around them,
the hotel walls slide like a back-drop up into the night sky.

Love’s drama has died down, and they’re sleeping now,
but their dreams will meet as colours meet
and bleed into each other
in the dampened pages of a child’s painting-book.

All around is dark, and silent. The city has drawn in,
extinguishing its windows. The houses have approached.
They crowed in close, attentive:
this audience of cancelled faces.

Robertson adds “like a back-drop” in the fourth line, and there is certainly a good case for its not being there, but everything else can be unambiguously found in the Fulton. Robertson isn’t offering anything more new than re-configurations and re-thinkings of what’s already there — which is to say he’s translating. “The town has pulled closer together,” “The city has drawn in.” Word-for-word, one of those might be more accurate to the Swedish, but they nonetheless say the same thing. The question is which says it better.

I would make the case for Robertson here. His translation propels the reader through, where the Fulton in some parts seems to need a breath after every word (“glimmers for a moment before dissolving / like a tablet in a glass of water”). Where Robertson would seem to violate the syntax and exact words of the original, we find justification in the Fulton, such as the problems of “a crowd whose faces have no expressions” (is “whose” the word to use here? does the crowd have faces or is it a crowd of faces? does each face have no expression or no expressions?) which “this audience of cancelled faces” circumvents, though we do wonder what was wrong with “expressionless faces.” Robertson is certainly not blameless, but past reviews have focused on his occasional admittedly superfluous additions (Orr cites his simile “like the mess of a knife-fight” as the most egregious example, since it is absolutely without basis in the Swedish), without giving equal weight to the majority of the time when his changes are perfectly permissible and frequently elegant, adding rhythm to the jerks and offering up Tranströmer’s images in language that flows like water rather than dripping like ice. In a later poem, “The sun scorches. The plane flies low / throwing a shadow in the form of a large cross rushing forward on the ground” becomes “The sun is scorching. The plane comes in low, / throwing a shadow in the shape of a giant cross, rushing over the ground.”

Others cite this as precisely what’s wrong with Robertson’s Tranströmer, that the poems are too poetic, not strange enough. Such an effect may precisely be the hardest to produce: “Sick of those who come with words,” writes Tranströmer through Robertson, “words but no language.”

4 April 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next week highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Montecore by Jonas Hassen Khermiri, translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles

Language: Swedish

Country: Sweden/Tunisia
Publisher: Knopf

Why This Book Should Win: It has more heart than any other book on the list, it was translated from a slang dialect called “Rinkeby Swedish,” and confronts racism head-on as a huge problem in Swedish society. [Ed Note: And Jonas has amazing hair.]

Today’s post is by Matthew Jakubowski, a writer and literary journalist who’s written for Bookforum, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, The Quarterly Conversation, Barrelhouse, and BOMB. He lives in West Philadelphia.

Some people may view this book as a sort of lightweight on the longlist, something thrown in to balance out against heavy hitters like Amos Oz and Edouard Leve, among others.

But I think you only have to take a look at the photo that ran with my review of this book in The National to get a sense of how Khemiri has taken serious topics—intense racism (a real-life sniper who targeted immigrants around Stockholm), abandonment by a parent, despair over one’s direction in life—and done the hard work of finding a playful and uplifting way to write about these things, using rigorous technique on both the word level and in terms of overall structure.

Khemiri’s father is Tunisian, his mother is Swedish, and they raised him near Rinkeby, a suburb about five miles outside Stockholm. A 1998 New York Times article offers this snapshot of the place: “More than 50 per cent of Rinkeby’s residents live on full government benefits, and the town has become stigmatised in Sweden as a haven for welfare cheats and a centre of criminal activity. Ill-spoken Swedish is known throughout the country as ‘Rinkeby Swedish,’ used by urban toughs and middle-class youths eager for a little street credibility.”

Translator Rachel Willson-Broyles has turned this language into English full of playful malapropisms, missing words, and broken syntax that is a reflection of the characters’ struggles, not just fun with word-games.

The book is posed as something done reluctantly, a story that had to be dragged out of its author by the sheer exuberance of Kadir, an old friend of the author’s father, or someone pretending to be Kadir who knows quite a lot about Khemiri’s father—enough to make his son interested to learn something new about the man he’s been estranged from for many years.

From here, we get letters and emails between Kadir and Khemiri, as they pass the narrative mic back and forth. The meat of the story is how hard life was for Khemiri’s father as a Tunisian living in Sweden, and the effects racism had on his family’s life.

We’re shown how strong the anti-immigrant movement in Sweden was in the 1990s, culminating with a sniper who terrorized the public. Khemiri’s Dad is quickly run into the ground by depression and hopelessness after his photography studio is burned down.

Kadir would prefer to gloss over all this and tell a happy story instead. “Your father staked everything on relocating his address to Sweden. All for his love for your mother. Never forget that, Jonas.”

Khemiri offers up a few happy scenes of family life, but can’t minimize “the rage that you can feel for a country that’s stolen your dad.” As a teenager, he identifies proudly as “blatte,” listens to gangster rap, and calls his Dad’s attempts to assimilate the acts of “an Uncle Tom black.” Later, adrift and fighting alcoholism, Khemiri’s Dad abandons his family for nearly two years. “Then you say good-by to the understanding and hi to the hate and start to be ashamed when someone asks about your dad,” Khemiri writes. His father returns but it’s too late to patch things up with his wife. “Dads try to say sorry in a bunch of different languages and layer French declarations of love on Arabic nicknames on Swedish forgive me’s but Moms won’t let herself be calmed in any language.”

Montecore offers a serious commentary on Swedish society and it’s to Khemiri’s great credit that he’s able to turn so many painful elements into an enlightening portrait of immigrant life near Stockholm and a deeply compassionate portrait of his father.

6 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

And this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature goes to Tomas Transtromer.

From the “Guardian:”:

Praised by the judges for “his condensed translucent images” which give us “fresh access to reality”, Tranströmer’s surreal explorations of the inner world and its relation to the jagged landscape of his native country have been translated into 50 languages.

Born in Stockholm in 1931, Tranströmer studied at the University of Stockholm and worked as a psychologist at an institution for young offenders. His first collection of poetry, 17 Dikter (17 Poems, was published in 1954, while he was still at college. Collections including Hemligheter på vägen (1958) and Klangar och spår (1966) reflected on his travels in the Balkans, Spain and Africa, while the poems in Östersjöar (1974) examine the troubled history of the Baltic region through the conflict between sea and land.

He suffered a stroke in 1990 which affected his ability to talk, but has continued to write, with his collection Sorgegondolen going on to sell 30,000 copies on its pubilcation in 1996. At a recent appearance in London, his words were read by others, while the poet, who is a keen amateur musician, contributed by playing pieces specially composed for him to play on the piano with only his left hand.

Tranströmer has described his poems as “meeting places,” where dark and light, interior and exterior collide to give a sudden connection with the world, history or ourselves. According to the poet, “The language marches in step with the executioners. Therefore we must get a new language.”

Of course, seeing that Transtromer is Swedish, a lot of critics are going to get their hackles up, such as this line that opens the same Guardian article: “The Swedish Academy has responded to accusations of insularity over recent years by awarding the 2011 Nobel prize for literature to one of their own.” Snarky!

I don’t actually think this is very controversial at all, but others do . . .

Anyway, congrats to Transtormer and to New Directions, Green Integer, Graywolf, Ecco, and his other publishers. And speaking of ND, the podcast going up tomorrow is a special discussion about the Nobel Prize, with the first half recorded yesterday before the announcement, and the second half today. So Tom can share the excitement of the ND office . . .

19 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over at the B&N Review, Matthew Battles (Harvard University’s rare books librarian and author of Library: An Unquiet History, Widener: Biography of a Library, along with other articles) has a long, interesting piece on Tove Jansson. He talks a bit about the recently released Fair Play, but I really like this bit about BTBA winning title The True Deceiver:

Rarely have fiction’s ubiquitous and essential challenges been more forcibly evoked than in Jansson’s short novel The True Deceiver. The novel opens in a coastal village besieged by snow—“this steady snow piling up against doors and windows and weighing down roofs and never stopping even for an hour. Paths filled with snow as quickly as they were shovelled out . . . People woke up late because there was no longer any morning.” Katri Kling, the novel’s fierce, embittered, and sharply intelligent anti-heroine, is fixated on the sumptuously empty house of local celebrity Anna Aemelin, an illustrator of children’s books whose art consists of mesmerizingly detailed paintings of forest underbrush populated by plump, downy bunnies. The yellow-eyed Katri lives above the shop where keeps the books—and whose shopkeeper torments her with his presumptuous longing—and takes care of her slow brother Mats and a large, nameless dog. “It’s unnatural not giving your dog a name,” the villagers mutter; “all dogs should have names.” But Katri refuses to name the dog out of a kind of wild and scrupulous honesty: “Dogs are mute and obedient,” she reflects, “but they have watched us and know us and can smell how pitiful we are.

“People idealise their animals, and at the same time they patronisingly overlook a dog’s natural life—biting fleas, burying bones, rolling in garbage, barking up an empty tree all night… But what do they do themselves? Bury stuff that will rot in secret and then dig it up and bury it again and rant and rave under empty trees! No. My dog and I despise them.”

All but allergic to the kind of white lies most people use to get through their days, Katri has become a midwife of hard truths, both relied upon and reviled by her neighbors. Children chant “witch” when they see her, but late at night their parents call upon her cruel insight. (“Why do you go to her?” one villager asks a neighbor. “Yes, she puts your business to rights, but you no longer trust anyone when you come back. You’re different.” Katri sets about winning her way into Anna Aemelin’s life by showing her how people take advantage of her and one another through the never-ending succession of tiny, self-deceiving frauds. But as Anna falls under the spell of veracity, Katri begins to learn that even her scruples can add up to untruth. In their encounter with love, art, and lying, both the artist and the truth-teller undergo a kind of quietly cataclysmic domestication. Even the dog gets a name.

1 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Julianna Romanazzi on the punctuation-confused “There Are Things I Want You to Know” About Stieg and Me by Eva Gabrielsson, translated by Linda Coverdale and published by Seven Stories.

Julianna’s been posting here for the past few months during her summer internship. She’s currently studying at Hobart & William Smith, and likes to tango.

This book isn’t exactly the sort of book we usually review here, but the whole Stieg Larsson phenomenon sure is something. And Eva Gabrielsson’s situation is pretty interesting. (See this Publishing Perspectives piece for more info about the boo.)

The book itself is meant to be a “biography“—take that as you will—of the late author’s long time partner Eva Gabrielsson, whom he met at age nineteen (she was eighteen), and stayed with for over 30 years. Eva chronicles the ups and downs of their life together, the different political movements and counter movements the couple was involved in, the roots and creation of the Millennium Trilogy, and their reasons for avoiding marriage. The last part of the book is also devoted to Eva’s loss of control over Stieg’s legacy and the downward spiral of his estate.

Gabrielsson writes “This book . . . I wish I hadn’t had to write it. It talks about Stieg, and our life together, but also about my life without him.” Reviews call the book “poignant,” “romantic,” and “touching”; and it is. There are moments of great accomplishment and personal danger mixed with the little everyday couples’ rituals that keep a relationship alive. But there is, of course, another tension.

The book admits early on, in both a foreword by Marie-Francoise Colombani and in the first chapter, that Eva is “today fighting to obtain control over Larsson’s literary estate.” An estate that is according to some sources worth $15 million dollars or more (over 97 million Swedish kronos), the sixth largest estate attributed to a dead celebrity after Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, JRR Tolkien, Charles Schulz, and John Lennon. But that is not to say that the book does not have its moments of emotion and poignancy.

Click here to read the entire review.

1 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I will admit, right off the bat, that I have never read anything by Stieg Larsson. Not a word, not a page, not even the back of a book cover. Yes, I am aware of the existence of the Millennium Trilogy, with the movies and the books and the commercials and whatnot, and I have perhaps eavesdropped on a few hushed, excited conversations; I am aware of the franchise that is approaching a kind of cultural phenomenon and of its rising popularity. But I haven’t read a word of it.
Really.

And now that I have established my unbiased-ly biased position, I have some things to say about Eva Garbrielsson’s “There Are things I want you to know” About Stieg Larsson and Me.

The book itself is meant to be a “biography“—take that as you will—of the late author’s long time partner Eva Gabrielsson, whom he met at age nineteen (she was eighteen), and stayed with for over 30 years. Eva chronicles the ups and downs of their life together, the different political movements and counter movements the couple was involved in, the roots and creation of the Millennium Trilogy, and their reasons for avoiding marriage. The last part of the book is also devoted to Eva’s loss of control over Stieg’s legacy and the downward spiral of his estate.

Gabrielsson writes “This book . . . I wish I hadn’t had to write it. It talks about Stieg, and our life together, but also about my life without him.” Reviews call the book “poignant,” “romantic,” and “touching”; and it is. There are moments of great accomplishment and personal danger mixed with the little everyday couples’ rituals that keep a relationship alive. But there is, of course, another tension.

The book admits early on, in both a foreword by Marie-Francoise Colombani and in the first chapter, that Eva is “today fighting to obtain control over Larsson’s literary estate.” An estate that is according to some sources worth $15 million dollars or more (over 97 million Swedish kronos), the sixth largest estate attributed to a dead celebrity after Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, JRR Tolkien, Charles Schulz, and John Lennon. But that is not to say that the book does not have its moments of emotion and poignancy.

I was an animal acting on instinct—a protective measure that kept anyone harmful to me a t a distance. I went through life like a zombie. Every morning I woke up in tears, although my nights were dreamless. Absolute darkness. The animal in me was restless and kept me constantly in motion. I did a lot of walking, but never alone, because I no longer dared to go out on my own. Not recognizing the woman I’d become, I had no idea what she might be capable of doing, to myself or to the people I might meet. Like a hunted beast, I fed only on little things picked up in passing: dates, nuts, fruits.

All the while Erland kept saying that he didn’t want any part of Stieg’s estate.

While the potential for gold digging and a character assassination of the Larsson family is there it is, as Eva promises, not the focus of the book. Short chapters further break down into vignettes on the couple’s life together and their experiences both political and personal, snapshots of 32 years, including the daily threats and phone calls from extremist groups retaliating against Stieg’s investigative journalism writing. Within this the writing is at some times fantastically picturesque and on point and at others of absolutely no relevance.

The writing itself has a kind of choppy, almost stilted quality. For someone who apparently spent many years translating magazine articles as well as doing editorial work, Eva’s work is somewhat unpolished and, in a few spots, clearly unedited. Whether this is due to a flat out refusal to make any changes, as some rumors have suggested, or simply Eva’s style, it is for the reader to decide.

And I suppose, in the act of reviewing this, that if I were a more suspicious person I would note that her writing becomes more fluid, coherent, and lyrical—and readable—in the second half of the book where she focuses on the creation of the Trilogy and her eventual loss of control over the Stieg Larsson estate. But that might be my small inner cynic talking.

However, it must be said that never in the book does Eva Gabrielsson write of a time when she asked for control of the estate’s money, only its intellectual property rights to protect, as she says, Stieg’s vision and his work’s integrity. Nor does she ask for money outright to continue her crusade, although a short chapter is devoted to her website supporteva.com, which has stopped taking donations as of January 10, 2011.

Bottom line, while “There Are things I want you to know” About Stieg Larsson and Me is no Millennium Trilogy novel (I am guessing) it will be an interesting read for book fans and people who are interested in Stieg Larsson’s life. Information is included on the backgrounds of the series’ characters and the real life inspiration for the plots, places, and names as well as some information on the unpublished fourth novel. If the book is perhaps not a great piece of writing, it is at least an intriguing read.

9 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This past weekend, the recording of the BTBA awards ceremony popped up on YouTube, so here you go . . . Be sure and wait for (or fast-forward to) Thomas Teal’s acceptance speech—it’s a wonderful, perfect way to end this year’s BTBA.

P.S. I love how the still for this video features me bending awkwardly to pick up my beer. Thanks, PEN/YouTube!

7 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Larissa Kyzer on Tove Jansson’s Fair Play, which was translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal and officially comes out from NYRB Classics next Tuesday. (Or in NCAA time: The day of the “first” round of the tournament, which for once, could be cool. And yes, I know telling time by a sporting tournament is a sign of some sort of disorder . . . )

NYRB has been slowly issuing Tove Jansson’s ‘adult’ books over the past few years, starting with The Summer Book followed by The True Deceiver, which made the 2011 BTBA fiction longlist. (Click here for the special write-up.)

I’ve been meaning to find time to read Jansson’s books for a while now, and every review we post makes me more and more interested. Maybe after basketball . . . But seriously, she sounds fascinating, especially as one of the few Swedish-speaking Finns who have made their way into English . . .

Larissa is one of our top reviewers generally—but not always—writing about Scandinavian lit. She’s a great writer, and this review is no exception:

“There is no silence like sitting in a fog at sea and listening,” writes Tove Jansson in her newly-translated story collection Fair Play. “Large boats can loom up suddenly, and you don’t hear the bow water in time to start your motor and get out of the way.” Stuck waiting out a dense, chilling fog in a row boat somewhere between the coast of a small Finnish island and Estonia, Jansson’s aging companions, Jonna and Mari, fall into an old argument about their mothers—one had an annoying predilection for painstakingly buttered crispbread; the other was an incorrigible cheat at poker. Their conversation is short—discreetly hurtful in the way that one only can be after years of intimacy. But before the fog lifts, Jonna and Mari have come to an understanding, if not a full reconciliation. “Suddenly the sea was open and blue and they found themselves a long way out toward Estonia,” Jansson writes. “They came back to the island from a totally new direction, and it didn’t look the same.”

This episode is not only emblematic of Jonna and Mari’s time-tested relationship, it also reveals Jansson at her paradoxical best. Her prose is sparing and exquisitely clear. And at first, her stories and characters appear to be simple and straightforward. But once you’ve immersed yourself in a Jansson story, you realize that there is a great complexity simmering under the surface of her work—a whole life that exists, but is not made readily accessible to the reader. As Ali Smith puts it in her excellent introduction to Fair Play, Jansson writes “in a language so tightly edited that its clarity makes for mysterious transparency.”

Click here to read the full review.

7 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

“There is no silence like sitting in a fog at sea and listening,” writes Tove Jansson in her newly-translated story collection Fair Play. “Large boats can loom up suddenly, and you don’t hear the bow water in time to start your motor and get out of the way.” Stuck waiting out a dense, chilling fog in a row boat somewhere between the coast of a small Finnish island and Estonia, Jansson’s aging companions, Jonna and Mari, fall into an old argument about their mothers—one had an annoying predilection for painstakingly buttered crispbread; the other was an incorrigible cheat at poker. Their conversation is short—discreetly hurtful in the way that one only can be after years of intimacy. But before the fog lifts, Jonna and Mari have come to an understanding, if not a full reconciliation. “Suddenly the sea was open and blue and they found themselves a long way out toward Estonia,” Jansson writes. “They came back to the island from a totally new direction, and it didn’t look the same.”

This episode is not only emblematic of Jonna and Mari’s time-tested relationship, it also reveals Jansson at her paradoxical best. Her prose is sparing and exquisitely clear. And at first, her stories and characters appear to be simple and straightforward. But once you’ve immersed yourself in a Jansson story, you realize that there is a great complexity simmering under the surface of her work—a whole life that exists, but is not made readily accessible to the reader. As Ali Smith puts it in her excellent introduction to Fair Play, Jansson writes “in a language so tightly edited that its clarity makes for mysterious transparency.”

Tove Jansson is most often recognized as a children’s author and illustrator—the visionary behind those delightful marshmallow hippos called “Moomins.” Her adult novels, which she didn’t begin publishing until she was nearly 60, have until recently remained very much in the shadow of the Moomin legacy. Fair Play is the most recent of Jansson’s ‘adult’ novels that New York Review Books has brought into English translation, following last year’s True Deceiver and 2008’s The Summer Book. The collection picks up two of the major thematic elements that run through each of its predecessors, namely the relationship between two women, explored against the back drop of a remote, idyllic setting. (True Deceiver was set in a snow-bound mountain village; The Summer Book on a small island in the Finnish gulf.) And as with the previous NYRB titles, Fair Play also draws on autobiographical inspiration: in this case, Jansson’s lifelong relationship with her partner, a Finnish artist and scholar named Tuulikki Pietilä, with whom she lived for the better part of 40 years.

Each chapter in Fair Play serves as a snapshot, a brief window into the relationship between the frank and opinionated Jonna and the reserved and introspective Mari. Their day-to-day lives are quiet and happily mundane: they watch Fassbinder movies instead of going to dinner at a friend’s in the evening (with all its “pointless chatter about inessentials”). They re-hang pictures. They travel frequently, though their points of destination are often less than glamorous. On one trip through the American southwest, they spend a few nights at a local bar in Phoenix, Arizona; while in Corsica, one of their main destinations is a cemetery. They bicker frequently, and aren’t above childish jealousy or the occasional resentment. But mostly, they work, comfortable enough with the constancy of the other’s presence and support to spend the majority of their days writing and painting alone.

In “Videomania,” we’re told that Jonna and Mari “. . . lived at opposite ends of a large apartment building near the harbor, and between their studios lay the attic, an impersonal no-man’s-land of tall corridors with locked plank doors on either side.”

Mari liked wandering across the attic; it drew a necessary, neutral interval between their domains . . . They never asked, “Were you able to work today?” Maybe they had, twenty or thirty years earlier, but they’d gradually learned not to. There are empty spaces that must be respected—those often long periods when a person can’t see the pictures or find the words and needs to be left alone.

It’s in the couple’s companionable solitude that Jansson defines her ethos of artistic creation, a deeply felt belief about the importance of maintaining one’s personal life without sacrificing her creative work, and the substantial space that is required to successfully balance both spheres.

Despite the quietude of Fair Play, it is nevertheless a work of remarkable courage. Jansson’s is not the flashy sort of artistic boldness that proclaims itself by way of constant transparency and self-revelation. Rather, she is brave enough to occasionally withhold information, to provide confidential glimpses into her characters’ lives, while still maintaining a distance from them—a sort of respectful privacy. She doesn’t outline the women’s romantic lives—we don’t find them in bed together, or even see them embrace. Jonna and Mari don’t articulate their love for each other directly, although they certainly reflect on their feelings internally.

Fair Play is after all, a book about separation and space as much as it is about intimacy. “We need distance,” Jonna tells Mari, “it’s essential.” The reader is allowed a closeness to these remarkable women, but in the end, their relationship is like any one in real life: private and fully known only to those who are within it.

14 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.

Click here for all past and future posts.

The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson, translated by Thomas Teal

Language: Swedish
Country: Finland
Publisher: New York Review Books
Pages: 208

Why This Book Should Win: Big favorite among booksellers; has been gathering buzz for over a year; that whole writes in Swedish but lives in Finland thing; one of NYRB’s most notable recent rediscoveries (NYRB also publishes her Fair Play and Summer Book.

Today’s post is from Kenny Brechner of DDG Booksellers in Maine.

Objectivity, like high fructose corn syrup and polyester suits, is very much out of fashion. The triumph of relativism is such that objectivity is considered now more an historical curiosity than a concept to be applied seriously. We do know, however, that the following statement, “True Deceiver should win The Best Translated Book Award for 2011,” is an objective fact. How can we be certain of that? Let us consider the matter objectively. From the standpoint of this award _True Deceiver was certainly reborn into English with a silver spoon in its mouth, for the concept of being a true deceiver lies at the very heart of translation itself. A successful translation cannot help but be the epitome of true deception, a consistent application of perspective which transforms a complex object from one shape to another. Jansson’s portrait of the corrosive effect of deception on the integrity of personal identity is compelling and unsettling to the nines. It grabs the reader with that most potent force of all: strong identification with a character in the thrall of a subtly corrupting evil. Its perfection as a work of translated fiction is plain to see in the power of its inversions, a portrait of deception and instability which yields truth and focus. These are matters of opinion you say? Hardly, for True Deceiver steps firmly away from any subjective accounting of its worth in its unique willingness and ability to speak directly on its own behalf, using only quotations from its pages, to anyone who questions it. The proof of these matters is to be found directly in the interview below.

KB: Do you feel that this BTBA will be conducted fairly?

True Deceiver: “You know nothing about Fair Play!”

KB: Perhaps not, but how can the awards committee reach truth?

True Deceiver: “The truth needs to be hammered in with iron spikes, but no one can drive nails into a mattress.”

KB: I see. Perhaps you’re right and the committee will need to take a firm line. Now do you feel that Tomas Teal handled his translation of you properly, considering how taut the prose is?

True Deceiver: “Cluttering the ground with Flowery Rabbits would have been unthinkable”.

KB: I see. Now if you had a word for a judge what would it be?

True Deceiver: “He must understand how hard I try, all the time, to put everything I do to a strict test—every act, every word I choose instead of a different word.”

KB: Is there any other objective data that would make the selection of any book other than yourself as the BTBA winner a danger to the future well being of the human enterprise?

True Deceiver: “I’ve given security where there was no security, no direction, Nothing. I provide safety!”

KB: I really appreciate your willingness to go on record and clarify these points. The stakes are terrifying.

True Deceiver: “I can assure you that you needn’t be nervous, there’s no cause for alarm.”

KB: I guess there’s nothing else to be said on the matter!

True Deceiver: “We’ve done what matters most.”

KB: Well I certainly hope so, for all human interconnection involves translation, and without an exploration of its dark possibilities we should all be much the poorer. And, if you don’t mind my saying so, you really add something vital to the whole of Tove Jansson’s sublime body of work. After all the Moomins may demonstrate the delightful exercise of freedom, but your pages reveal both the cost and the means of losing it.

True Deceiver: “Thank you for calling.”

5 October 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The call for submissions for the 2010 Susan Sontag Prize for Translation was posted last week, and this year the focus is on translations from Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, and Icelandic.

This prize was launched two years ago to encourage the development of young literary translators. Applicants must be under the age of 30 on the date the prize is announced (in this case May 14, 2010) and if selected, they are expected to be able to complete their translation by October 2010.

Every year the Foundation chooses a different language/region to highlight: in 2008 it was German, and last year was Spanish. Personally, following my trip to Iceland and the grand success of Jan Kjerstad’s books, I’m very interested to see how this year’s award turns out. (Coincidentally, of the winner and two honorable mentions named in 2009, we’re publishing both Juan Jose Saer and Sergio Chejfec, although we have yet to sign on either Roanna Sharp’s or Emily Toder’s translations.)

Applications are due by February 13th, 2010, which gives interested translators a decent amount of time to get all the necessary materials together . . .

23 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Our latest review is of Ninni Holmqvist’s The Unit, which was translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy and published by Other Press.

Pretty interesting book (at least for the first two-thirds) about a future Sweden where those who are unwed and childless at the age of 50 have to live the rest of their lives in a Reserve Bank Unit:

Broadly speaking, Ninni Holmqvist’s debut novel fits into the tradition of dystopian literature. In the Sweden she describes, a law has been passed that women at the age of 50 (and men at the age of 60) who have no living children or spouses are deemed “dispensable” and sent to live at a Reserve Bank Unit for the rest of their lives. While in “the Unit,” the “dispensables” participate in experiments (psychological and physical) and donate various organs (kidneys, corneas, etc.) to the “useful” members of society, up until the day that they make their “final donation.” In other words, these freeloaders are essentially harvested for the benefit of those who are contributing more to society.

In depicting a dystopia, Holmqvist faces the almost intractable problem of making sure that this future seems believable, seems connected to our present, yet sets forth a new set of rules for how human behavior is governed. The best books in this tradition are the ones that depict a future that seems so potentially possible that the reader doesn’t ask too many questions. Holmqvist isn’t perfect with this, but she does provide a sort of “live your life alone, spend the end of it giving back to society” mantra that sort of makes sense. (And may make more sense in Scandinavia?) It’s implied on occasion that economics and general consumption are behind the creation of this system — if you’re not breeding and increasing society’s consumption, you’re dispensable — which is uber-creepy.

Aside from the suspension of belief necessary to accept the creation of the Units, this book is actually incredibly straight-forward — essentially just a love story in a weird context.

Click here for the full review.

23 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Broadly speaking, Ninni Holmqvist’s debut novel fits into the tradition of dystopian literature. In the Sweden she describes, a law has been passed that women at the age of 50 (and men at the age of 60) who have no living children or spouses are deemed “dispensable” and sent to live at a Reserve Bank Unit for the rest of their lives. While in “the Unit,” the “dispensables” participate in experiments (psychological and physical) and donate various organs (kidneys, corneas, etc.) to the “useful” members of society, up until the day that they make their “final donation.” In other words, these freeloaders are essentially harvested for the benefit of those who are contributing more to society.

In depicting a dystopia, Holmqvist faces the almost intractable problem of making sure that this future seems believable, seems connected to our present, yet sets forth a new set of rules for how human behavior is governed. The best books in this tradition are the ones that depict a future that seems so potentially possible that the reader doesn’t ask too many questions. Holmqvist isn’t perfect with this, but she does provide a sort of “live your life alone, spend the end of it giving back to society” mantra that sort of makes sense. (And may make more sense in Scandinavia?) It’s implied on occasion that economics and general consumption are behind the creation of this system — if you’re not breeding and increasing society’s consumption, you’re dispensable — which is uber-creepy.

Aside from the suspension of belief necessary to accept the creation of the Units, this book is actually incredibly straight-forward — essentially just a love story in a weird context.

The entire novel is narrated by Dorrit Weger, opening with her arrival at the Second Reserve Bank Unit on her fiftieth birthday and her depiction of a seemingly innocuous, yet invasive world:

It was more comfortable than I could have imagined. A room of my own with a bathroom, or rather an apartment of my own, because there were two rooms: a bedroom and a living room with a kitchenette. It was light and spacious, furnished in a modern style and tastefully decorated in muted colors. True, the tiniest nook or cranny was monitored by cameras, and I would soon realize there were hidden microphones there too. But the cameras weren’t hidden.

Aside from a quick surface tour of the Unit and its enormous Winter Garden, its very popular library (“It’s because there are so many intellectuals here. [. . .] People who read books tend to be dispensable. Extremely.”), the restaurants, the general rules (you don’t have to work, just be ready for organ donation or assignment to an experiment), and a few harrowing stories of experiments gone awry, Holmqvist doesn’t dwell on the inner workings of this creepy institute, instead focusing on the relationships between Dorrit and the other “dispensables.”

Early on in the novel, Dorrit — who was a professional writer before entering the Unit — meets fellow writer Johannes, and the two of them hit it off and become romantically involved. They spend most of their time together, getting into a comfortable routine, and wishing they had met in the “real world” so that they could’ve been spared the Unit.

Along the way, Dorrit becomes pregnant and runs into one of the strict and disturbing aspects of life as a dispensable: since she’s already entered the Unit, she can either have the fetus transferred to a “useful” person, or bring it to term and give it up for adoption. Already pissed that her desire to raise the baby with Johannes is being thwarted, she’s dealt a crushing blow when she finds out that Johannes has just undergone his final donation . . .

Up to this point, the novel works pretty well. It’s not as creepy as it could be, and it’s pretty conventional. Nevertheless, it’s entertaining (great for a plane ride), reads very well (thanks to Marlaine Delargy’s translation), and is pretty compelling. But after Dorrit finds out she’s pregnant and Johannes dies, character motivations get all out of whack and the narrative runs out of steam.

The main turning point is a scene in which a nurse with a birthmark gives Dorrit a key card and the necessary password to allow her to escape. Why?

“I presume that you, like other dispensable individuals, have already lost everything once. And now it’s happening to you again. And I feel . . . well, I can’t just stand and watch. Yes, you are dispensable, and no doubt could have avoided that situation if you had just made enough off an effort. But you’re also a human being.”

In the context of the book — this is the first time the character is introduced, and there are many smaller opportunities for a sympathetic staff member to alleviate some of their guilt and help out a dispensable — this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But what’s kind of cool, is Holmqvist’s attempt to work around the key card question and other problems that this raises . . . By the end of the novel, it’s clear that Dorrit is the supposed author, and that this book will be read by the staff of the Unit. So:

I am not the kind of person who betrays a trust. For example, in this story I have not revealed the true circumstances under which I received the key card. Neither of the two nurses who met me when I raced into the surgical department that day has a birthmark. Nor was it either of those two who gave me the key card, and the conversation with the person who did give me the card did not in fact take place in the break room where I sat and waited as I gazed out at the snow-covered park with the pond and the ducks, but in a completely different room in a completely different part of the unit, and at another time. And the code is actually not 98 44 at all.

By the very end of the novel, Dorrit has used the key card to escape, but the decisions she makes once outside are also a bit perplexing, but are probably supposed to serve as the “big question” that the reader can ponder after closing the book. . . .

Overall, this isn’t a bad novel. It’s quick, entertaining, and enjoyable. But it fails to rise above its common elements to become something truly remarkable.

20 September 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I feel like I’m pretty knowledgeable about international authors, but I have to admit that I’ve never heard of Swedish author Klas Östergren, whose latest novel is reviewed in today’s New York Sun:

Klas Östergren is hailed as one of Sweden’s most important living writers. Swedish critics have compared his writing to that of Paul Auster and Haruki Murakami, whose influences are clearly felt in Mr. Östergren’s fourth novel, Gentlemen (MacAdam/Cage, 375 pages, $25), an elegantly written work of metafiction.

The book sounds really interesting—the story of three artists during the years of 1948 to 1978. Sounds funny, light, and kind of wild, until things take a slightly darker turn.

It is not until three-fifths through the novel that the brothers’ ideals collide with reality, and the book, hitherto an episodic, plotless account, is plunged into its most sustained and gripping action. For about 50 pages, Gentlemen becomes a political thriller as Leo unravels a dark secret in Sweden’s history involving the Third Reich. Although he endeavors to bring the story to light, the powers that be stymie him, driving him first to a mental institution, and then to the bottle.

....
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