16 May 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I think it was two summers ago that I was last in Chicago for the annual Goethe Institut Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Prize Extravaganza. (I love these gatherings. The award ceremony, the people involved with German literature, the panels, etc. It always seems to be a beautiful couple days weather-wise as well, which makes the whole series of events even cooler. Hopefully I can get invited back sometime . . .)

Anyway, at that last Extravaganza, Susan Bernofsky was telling me that she was translating the creepiest book that she’d ever worked on—something called The Black Spider. I suspect that most everyone reading this (not including Michael Orthofer, because Michael knows about everything) is unfamiliar with this classic of world literature, about which Thomas Mann claimed, “there is scarcely a work in world literature that I admire more.” That won’t be the case this fall.

Here’s the description from NYRB:

It is a sunny summer Sunday in a remote Swiss village, and a christening is being celebrated at a lovely old farmhouse. One of the guests notes an anomaly in the fabric of the venerable edifice: a blackened post that has been carefully built into a trim new window frame. Thereby hangs a tale, one that, as the wise old grandfather who has lived all his life in the house proceeds to tell it, takes one chilling turn after another, while his audience listens in appalled silence. Featuring a cruelly overbearing lord of the manor and the oppressed villagers who must render him service, an irreverent young woman who will stop at nothing, a mysterious stranger with a red beard and a green hat, and, last but not least, the black spider, the tale is as riveting and appalling today as when Jeremias Gotthelf set it down more than a hundred years ago. The Black Spider can be seen as a parable of evil in the heart or of evil at large in society (Thomas Mann saw it as foretelling the advent of Nazism), or as a vision, anticipating H. P. Lovecraft, of cosmic horror. There’s no question, in any case, that it is unforgettably creepy.

And although this has been translated into English in the past, it’s never been translated by Susan Bernofsky. So even if you are familiar with it, I’d still recommend checking out this version, since, Susan Bernofsky.

3 April 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.

With the Animals by Noëlle Revaz, translated from the French by W. Donald Wilson

I wrote this one. Initially out of necessity—no one else snatched this one up—and a desire to read this “Céline-esque” novel, since I need a little more mud and anger in my life.

1. W. Donald Wilson’s introduction. Well, not specifically his introduction, which is fine in and of itself, but his articulation of the core problem in translating With the Animals:

In the original French, Paul [the narrator and protagonist of the novel, an uneducated farmer who smacks his wife around and can’t remember the names of his kids] lives in no specific place, nor does he use any particular form of speech or dialect: his idiom is an invented one. Of course many of the idiosyncrasies of his French are unavailable in English, such as his mangling of the more complex French negatives, his ease in inventing reflexive forms of verbs and his placement of adjectives before rather than after nouns (and vice versa). Also unavailable was his constant use of the impersonal pronoun “on,” used to create a greater impression of detachment and depersonalization than is allowed by its closes available English equivalent, “you.” I was therefore concerned to develop a voice that, while delivering that “slap in the face,” would not show any strained attempt to write incorrectly or distort the English language unnaturally, but would flow instead from Paul’s character and situation. Lacking any example or conventional usage to follow, Paul would have to improvise his language, resulting in a certain stylistic awkwardness. His word-order would be unconventional, reflecting the spontaneous order of his thoughts (for instance in the placement of adverbs or in stating the topic or subject of sentences first, as in Georges, he said). His use of conjunctions would be weak. Object pronouns would sometimes be omitted, and the definite article would sometimes occur where no article is normal in English. He would be uncertain of grammatical categories, confusing nouns, adjectives, and verbs. His grasp of verb forms, especially the verb ‘to be’ (as in there is + plural, or you/we/they was), and of pronouns would be unsure (as in me for I and them for those). Yet he would not use common dialect forms such as ain’t, and only occasionally employ double negatives.

In basic English, Paul don’t speak right. Which is really difficult to replicate . . . Seriously. Try writing incorrectly, yet coherently, for a paragraph. Then a page. Then 233. And as much as translation takes its cues from the original text, this is a massive act of creation on the part of Wilson.

2. This gambit of Wilson’s works. Right from the start, Paul’s voice is unique, strange, grammatically distorted, and, most important, interesting to read:

Before when I go out in the morning I’ve knocked back a good brimmer already and things fall together like straw. Till then I’ve a face like night on me and a garlic mouth and I can’t stand anyone wants to be coddled like a snot-nosed pup. Head under the tap and already I’m getting the machines out. Vulva, she’s still dragging round, she scrubs down in a corner and dries off in the kitchen.

3. Use of the term “brimmer.” I love neologisms and reappropriated words and slang that isn’t really slang because only a dozen people use it and none of them are Gawker. So “brimmer” is my new term for a full glass of “plum.” Sure, it’s 10:22 right now, but I CAN NOT WAIT to get home and fill some brimmers and knock them back.

4. Holy shitsnacks is this book offensive. All the Dalkey copy compares Revaz to Louis-Ferdinand Céline, which, sure, I suppose so. Personally, I think that comparison is a bit broad—Céline wrote angry, narrator Paul is angry; Céline was insulting, narrator Paul refers to his wife as “Vulva”; Céline used a ton of ellipses, Revaz wrote in an untraditional way. That said, I think Revaz is up to something different—for one, her book isn’t written in a semi-autobiographical voice—and to reduce her to being “Céline-esque” feels reductive. But anyway, the hate and disgust Paul has for his wife and the world—not to mention the litany of insults and physical beatings he unleashes on “Vulva”—is pretty staggering. This isn’t a character you cuddle up next to and “relate to.” I like that. That’s a difficult thing to do well, to sustain for a whole book. Here’s an example from a point when Paul’s wife is in the hospital having a tumor removed:

What can you say to her, Vulva, when you never think of her? Me, in the end I’ve forgotten she exists, and what difference to me if she goes off to the hospital to have her belly sliced open or her varicose veins shrunk: I don’t give a rat’s fart, it doesn’t squeeze a single big tear out of me nor get the snot-rag out of my shirt pocket, so she can stay away there till the next century if that’s what she’d rather. At least it counts as much for me she’s not around no more to give her jeremiahs after us and go complaining at us every time we open a bottle or go on a wee binge.

5. Because Dalkey has yet to win the BTBA. Granted, this is a reason that goes beyond the text itself, but considering that Dalkey publishes more literature in translation than other publisher in the United States, they’re bound to strike gold at some point. And this book is both brilliant in and of itself, but also presents—and solves—a really fundamental translation challenge. For all these reasons, With the Animals by the Swiss author Noëlle Revaz should win this year’s Best Translated Book Award.

14 September 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Quantum Sarah on Peter Stamm’s new collection of stories, We’re Flying, which came out from Other Press in Michael Hofmann’s translation earlier this year.

Peter Stamm has a number of books available in English translation, including Seven Years, which was on last year’s Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist.

Quantum Sarah was a spectacular summer intern who is not back in school, but will likely be reviewing for us again in the not-too-distant future. Here’s the opening of her review:

In his new collection We’re Flying, Swiss author Peter Stamm weaves together a multitude of perspectives with the ghostly fiber of loss. This fascinating set of short stories centers around the general theme of the “human condition”—joy and sadness, birth and death, couples and families, work and school. However, a generous majority of these tales unfold against a subconscious background of grief, whether real or imagined: the widow that learns posthumously of her husband’s affair; the toddler abandoned by his parents at preschool; the frustrated artist. Yet the book isn’t a blurred mess of sympathy; rather, it’s a sharp analysis of life’s chronic pain and beauty. Precise, disquieting, and high-impact, Stamm’s new collection slices away surface tissue to reveal the downright messiness of human life

Stamm’s stories are surprisingly fleshed-out with minimum verbage. Like the artist in one of his stories, Stamm writes surgically: “You paint what you see with the maximum of precision, but you don’t care about the precision of the depiction . . . What counts is decisiveness.” His characters are quickly but sharply sketched; his story-world is modeled on the one at hand, but as though seen through a microscope, with fine-grained crystals of detail. Stamm shows, instead of tells—in “Sweet Dreams,” a newly-cohabiting girl reflects on the meaning of family while imagining an old black-and-white photo of relatives.

Click here to read the entire review.

14 September 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In his new collection We’re Flying, Swiss author Peter Stamm weaves together a multitude of perspectives with the ghostly fiber of loss. This fascinating set of short stories centers around the general theme of the “human condition”—joy and sadness, birth and death, couples and families, work and school. However, a generous majority of these tales unfold against a subconscious background of grief, whether real or imagined: the widow that learns posthumously of her husband’s affair; the toddler abandoned by his parents at preschool; the frustrated artist. Yet the book isn’t a blurred mess of sympathy; rather, it’s a sharp analysis of life’s chronic pain and beauty. Precise, disquieting, and high-impact, Stamm’s new collection slices away surface tissue to reveal the downright messiness of human life

Stamm’s stories are surprisingly fleshed-out with minimum verbage. Like the artist in one of his stories, Stamm writes surgically: “You paint what you see with the maximum of precision, but you don’t care about the precision of the depiction . . . What counts is decisiveness.” His characters are quickly but sharply sketched; his story-world is modeled on the one at hand, but as though seen through a microscope, with fine-grained crystals of detail. Stamm shows, instead of tells—in “Sweet Dreams,” a newly-cohabiting girl reflects on the meaning of family while imagining an old black-and-white photo of relatives:

Lara could see the pictures, big family get-togethers in a garden in the north of Italy, pictures full of people she didn’t know, even her mother didn’t know some of the names. Thereafter the family had fallen apart . . . When Lara had visited Italy with her parents, there hadn’t been any more big reunions, only visits in darkened homes with old people who smelled funny and served dry cookies and big plastic bottles of lukewarm Fanta.

Rather than directly stating Lara’s isolation in her new romance, Stamm instead gives us vivid objects to evoke the feeling: a faded photograph. Dry cookies and lukewarm Fanta. Old people whose homes are lonely and “funny”-smelling. Later on, we get “a barely used coffee machine that Laura found on eBay, a chest for their shoes, a whole stack of yellow bath towels that were on offer”—objects that carry a false connotation of stability, but which are really as destructible and transient as her new relationship.

There’s an uncanny equanimity and composure in Stamm’s voice as he makes us privy to frequent scenes of psychological pain. When Angelika brings home a forgotten child from her daycare job, her boyfriend Benno is both warm and insensitive: he plays with the child, making droning noises like an airplane—“We’re flying!” he yells—but later begins to unbutton her blouse in front of the boy. “I’m not going to let that runt spoil my fun,” he snarls, engrossed in a cop show. After the boy’s parents come to pick him up, Angelika is confronted with the reality of Benno’s revealed selfishness and lack of care. “She freed herself and said she would have a quick shower too. She locked the bathroom but didn’t undress. When Benno knocked on the door, she was still sitting on the toilet, with her face in her hands.”

Heavy, shocking endings like these cap off many of Stamm’s stories, but not all of them are as tragic. In “Seven Sleepers,” a lonely vegetable farmer finds his first love; in “The Suitcase,” an elderly man surreptitiously slips a suitcase beneath his dying wife’s hospital bed with her necessary items—and a bar of chocolate.

We’re Flying is eerily readable—perhaps due to how much of ourselves we recognize in his characters. In a varied and colorful array of stories, Stamm manages to portray human life as the emotional mishmash that it really is, full of misery and beauty, full of falling and flying.

29 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Phillip Witte on Robert Walser’s The Walk, which comes out from New Directions next week, and was translated from the German by Christopher Middleton and Susan Bernofsky. (The joint translation set-up is explained in Phil’s review.)

Phil was an intern here way way back, and is now working at the Plutzik Foundation, where one of his tasks is to run the foundation’s blog, A Fistful of Words. If you’re not familiar with Hyam Plutzik, I highly recommend checking out this post that Phil wrote for The Paris Review. And while you’re reading Phil’s writing, be sure and check out his personal blog, Gloomy Grammar, where he recently wrote a post about another New Direction book, Antigonicks, Anne Carson’s rendition of Sophokles’s Antigone. (Since when did we start spelling “Sophocles” as “Sophokles”? This is disorienting. Not sure I approve. Although, “Cyklops” is a pretty rad spelling. Ikarus. Hmm.)

Here’s a bit from Phil’s review:

It’s time to say a bit more about Bernofsky’s preface, because most of what I focused on in my reading are themes to which she explicitly directs attention. She describes the unusual history of the book: Der Spaziergang was first published in 1917, but Walser revised and published it again a few years later. In 1955, Christopher Middleton translated the first version into English, unaware that a revised version existed. For the present edition, Bernofsky updated Middleton’s translation (“an English text I . . . greatly admire,” she calls it) according to Walser’s own revisions, which were significant at the level of sentence, but minor in terms of plot and theme. Bernofsky’s intention is “to give the English-language reader the opportunity to peer over Walser’s shoulder as he revises himself.”

In his revisions, Bernofsky suggests, Walser “minimiz[ed] the divide between the writing protagonist and the walking protagonist.” But the divide remains, at least at the beginning, and throughout the novel, though the two personalities merge, a metaphysical struggle persists between them. The two roles are introduced separately in the opening pages, as the narrator refers to himself in the third person as first one—“With a kind face, a bicycling town chemist cycles close by the walker”; and then the other—“The writer is nonetheless very humbly asked to be a bit careful to avoid jokes as well as other superfluousnesses.” (Happily, as the latter example shows, Walser didn’t leave all of his thickly layered ironies behind when he left Berlin. The Walk might be read, I think, as a tragicomedy of the tension between irony and sincerity as played out by the contenders, walker and writer.)

The walker and writer, being phases of the one narrator, exist in separate narrative times: the writer is presumably recording the experience of the walk only after having completed it. Gradually, the two activities become indistinguishable, occurring simultaneously: when he declares “I have two or three important commissions to execute, as well as several utterly insuperable arrangements to make,” is he referring to the errands of the walk, or the writing tasks presently before his pen? At another point, “with a bound I enter the charming situation in question,” it is not clear whether the bound is literally an energetic step or metaphorically setting out to describe the scene.

Click here to read the entire piece.

29 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For the narrator of Robert Walser’s The Walk, walking is the better part of writing. Shortly before declaring his arrival at “something like the peak” of this 90-page Pearl from New Directions (translated by Christopher Middleton and Susan Bernofsky—more on that in a second), Walser’s narrator delivers a brilliant defense of the writer’s habit of walking, which looks to too many observers like idleness but is, he declares, a vital part of his technique. “Do you realize that I am working obstinately and tenaciously with my brain,” he explains to a tax collector, “when I present the appearance of a simultaneously heedless and out-of-work, negligent, dreamy, idle pickpocket, lost out in the blue . . . ?” He goes on—and on; Walser did not write dialogue. His characters declaim, often through bizarre turns:

Mysterious there prowl at the walker’s heels all kinds of thoughts and notions, such as make him stand in his ardent and regardless tracks and listen, because, again and again confused by curious impressions, by spirit power, he suddenly has the bewitching feeling that he is sinking into the earth, for an abyss has opened before the dazzled, bewildered eyes of the thinker and poet. His head wants to fall off. His otherwise so lively arms and legs are as benumbed. Countryside and people, sounds and colors, faces and farms, clouds and sunlight swirl all around him like diagrams; he asks himself: ‘Where am I?’

Elsewhere in the speech the narrator lays out the argument that walking is his way to observe, experience the world, gather “reports” and scenes which will serve as fodder for his other occupation. The above paragraph is a good example of the rhetorical gusto that is frequent in Walser’s work, usually in the service of irony. In a preface, Bernofsky describes the “straight-faced and earnest” quality of this and other works of the later-period Walser, as a contrast to the “thickly layered ironies of the Berlin period that preceded it;” in The Walk, such bravado is actually part of the narrator’s personal conflict. Early in the story he declares, “On account of this haughty bearing, this domineering attitude, I shall soon, as will be learned, have to take myself to task.” But, despite his verbose and aggrandized tone, the writer and walker narrating The Walk is, the reader feels, sincere in his belief that one cannot write if one does not walk, and that the writing justifies the walking.

Unfortunately, a writer cannot be writing while he is walking, and vice versa. When he wants to take a break, to stop writing, what does he do? “Relax in brief respite,” says the narrator. “Writers who understand their profession at least a little take the same as easily as possible. From time to time they like to lay their pens aside a while.” The novel begins at the start of his walk: “I put my hat on my head, left my writing room, or room of phantoms, and ran down the stairs to hurry out into the street.” Writing and walking, however codependent, are to some extent irreconcilable pursuits. And one may have one’s preference: our narrator “loves to walk as well as he loves to write; the latter of course perhaps just a shade less than the former.” (The pun on “shade,” intended or not, seems to wink at the reader by alluding to the “phantoms” of the writing room. Whether or not a similar pun occurs here in the German I cannot say, but that need not matter for my enjoyment of it in the English I am reading. More, again, on this, in a moment.)

It’s time to say a bit more about Bernofsky’s preface, because most of what I focused on in my reading are themes to which she explicitly directs attention. She describes the unusual history of the book: Der Spaziergang was first published in 1917, but Walser revised and published it again a few years later. In 1955, Christopher Middleton translated the first version into English, unaware that a revised version existed. For the present edition, Bernofsky updated Middleton’s translation (“an English text I . . . greatly admire,” she calls it) according to Walser’s own revisions, which were significant at the level of sentence, but minor in terms of plot and theme. Bernofsky’s intention is “to give the English-language reader the opportunity to peer over Walser’s shoulder as he revises himself.”

In his revisions, Bernofsky suggests, Walser “minimiz[ed] the divide between the writing protagonist and the walking protagonist.” But the divide remains, at least at the beginning, and throughout the novel, though the two personalities merge, a metaphysical struggle persists between them. The two roles are introduced separately in the opening pages, as the narrator refers to himself in the third person as first one—“With a kind face, a bicycling town chemist cycles close by the walker”; and then the other—“The writer is nonetheless very humbly asked to be a bit careful to avoid jokes as well as other superfluousnesses.” (Happily, as the latter example shows, Walser didn’t leave all of his thickly layered ironies behind when he left Berlin. The Walk might be read, I think, as a tragicomedy of the tension between irony and sincerity as played out by the contenders, walker and writer.)

The walker and writer, being phases of the one narrator, exist in separate narrative times: the writer is presumably recording the experience of the walk only after having completed it. Gradually, the two activities become indistinguishable, occurring simultaneously: when he declares “I have two or three important commissions to execute, as well as several utterly insuperable arrangements to make,” is he referring to the errands of the walk, or the writing tasks presently before his pen? At another point, “with a bound I enter the charming situation in question,” it is not clear whether the bound is literally an energetic step or metaphorically setting out to describe the scene.

Would I have noticed and paid so much attention to these distinctions had I skipped the preface? Perhaps not. A preface or introduction offers context for the work about to be presented, which may or may not be helpful. My enjoyment of the book was no less for having read Bernofsky’s preface, my grasp of the philosophical and emotional complexity of the narrator no more certain (The Walk is, to be sure, a difficult book, for all of its 90 pages). But—less enjoyable, more certain, than what? I only read the novel and its preface in the one order. I leave it to the reader to decide whether or not to save the preface till afterwards. But I will also warn the reader that in detailing some of Walser’s revisions, Bernofksy spoils the ending of the book, the power of which is partly (not entirely) thanks to a delayed reveal. The spoiler doesn’t ruin the experience—I still read the book twice in one weekend, to my increasing pleasure and puzzlement—but it might have been omitted, or the Preface relocated to an Afterword.

There’s more to be said about this book as a translation and as a novel. Concerning the latter, Walser’s humor is unrelenting, which makes the inward-turning ending all the more poignantly sad. Among the narrator’s hilarious apostrophes to dogs, or to no one in particular concerning the heavenliness of children, there’s a weird scene in which the narrator is threatened with force-feeding by a matronly Frau Aebi. That this turns out to be Frau Aebi’s joke is, to me, actually more disturbing than the forcefeeding itself would have been, which reinforces my sense that Walser is deliberately experimenting with irony and sincerity.

As a translation, this may become an important book for the unusual case which the text presents. Depending on its reception by critics better qualified than I, perhaps it will help to advance or complicate the ongoing debate concerning reading and review practices for translated works. On May 3, Bernofsky contributed to a panel discussion on the very subject in the PEN World Voices Festival, in which she expressed her opinion that translations ought to be judged according to their success as a piece of writing in the target language, to an extent independent of the original. Her respect for Middleton’s text of The Walk, without which one imagines she would have retranslated the work entirely on her own, further demonstrates her position.

Lorin Stein, a translator and editor of the Paris Review, was also on the panel at PEN. He took the very different view that translators ought to be less visible and “minimize the damage” to the original which all translation must necessarily cause, perhaps in that it strips from the work its original sound. Stein also posited that translation adds an apparatus to a work, which publishers, editors, and translators ought to minimize (for instance, Stein insists on not printing his own name on the jacket of his published translations) in order to deliver the work and its author unadorned to the reader. Bernofsky’s preface, including the revision and translation history of The Walk, is an elaborate and complicated apparatus to be sure. But, to reiterate, the jury is out as to whether I think it enriched or detracted from my experience of the book. I’ve had one experience of The Walk for which I am very glad. Other readers will, I hope, have theirs.

27 April 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Heather Simon on Aglaja Veteranyi’s Why the Child Is Cooking in the Polenta, which is translated from the German by Vincent Kling and published by Dalkey Archive Press.

Heather Simon is another of Susan Bernofsky’s students who kindly offered to write a review for our website. And this is quite a review. It makes the book sound really interesting and strangely funny, but then, at the very end, the review takes a seriously dark turn.

Here’s the opening of her review:

Why the Child Is Cooking in the Polenta by Aglaja Veteranyi cartwheels through the childhood exploits of the unnamed daughter of circus performers: Romanian refugees caravanning through Europe with dreams of fame, fortune, and a big house with a swimming pool. Veteranyi’s (almost) memoir and literary debut is told from the point of view of an ungainly young girl who is constantly being shushed by authority. Her mother—who never lets anyone get a word in edgewise—makes a living dangling from her hair, and her father works as clown and amateur filmmaker, shooting home-style documentaries for the narrator to star in as a silent protagonist; her only line is ever “Help.”

Relaying events in the present tense, the first-person narrator carries the reader on her jagged journey through circus camps, crowded hotel rooms, a short stint at a Swiss boarding school, and finally the vaudeville stage—all before hitting puberty. The narrator has no say in the direction of her journey. She hates parading around with the circus, claiming, “The closing parade with fanfare music is almost as awful as when I had my appendix out. All the artistes stand in a row or a circle and wave. That’s so embarrassing.” To make matters worse, every day the narrator worries that her mother will die while performing. “I sleep late in the morning to shorten my fear, because if I get up early the fear will last until her performance begins,” she confesses.

But what can the narrator do to change her situation? Whom can she tell? She is forbidden from having friends—even speaking to someone without permission is “prohibited” because according to her mother other people might be dangerous or steal her family’s circus acts. On the rare occasion that the narrator does voice her opinion, she is either punished or ignored. Throughout the book, the narrator claims she wants to be an actress and make a lot of money. But when she gets an opportunity to perform on stage she laments, “I pictured happiness differently.” This is probably because her visions of being a glamorous actress didn’t involve nipple tassels. She also hadn’t considered that her modest earnings would spark an onslaught of monetary requests from distant aunts and ancient grandparents. What does the narrator really want? “. . . To be like the people out there. There they can all read and they know things; their souls are made of white flour.”

Click here to read the full review.

27 April 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Why the Child Is Cooking in the Polenta by Aglaja Veteranyi cartwheels through the childhood exploits of the unnamed daughter of circus performers: Romanian refugees caravanning through Europe with dreams of fame, fortune, and a big house with a swimming pool. Veteranyi’s (almost) memoir and literary debut is told from the point of view of an ungainly young girl who is constantly being shushed by authority. Her mother—who never lets anyone get a word in edgewise—makes a living dangling from her hair, and her father works as clown and amateur filmmaker, shooting home-style documentaries for the narrator to star in as a silent protagonist; her only line is ever “Help.”

Relaying events in the present tense, the first-person narrator carries the reader on her jagged journey through circus camps, crowded hotel rooms, a short stint at a Swiss boarding school, and finally the vaudeville stage—all before hitting puberty. The narrator has no say in the direction of her journey. She hates parading around with the circus, claiming, “The closing parade with fanfare music is almost as awful as when I had my appendix out. All the artistes stand in a row or a circle and wave. That’s so embarrassing.” To make matters worse, every day the narrator worries that her mother will die while performing. “I sleep late in the morning to shorten my fear, because if I get up early the fear will last until her performance begins,” she confesses.

But what can the narrator do to change her situation? Whom can she tell? She is forbidden from having friends—even speaking to someone without permission is “prohibited” because according to her mother other people might be dangerous or steal her family’s circus acts. On the rare occasion that the narrator does voice her opinion, she is either punished or ignored. Throughout the book, the narrator claims she wants to be an actress and make a lot of money. But when she gets an opportunity to perform on stage she laments, “I pictured happiness differently.” This is probably because her visions of being a glamorous actress didn’t involve nipple tassels. She also hadn’t considered that her modest earnings would spark an onslaught of monetary requests from distant aunts and ancient grandparents. What does the narrator really want? “. . . To be like the people out there. There they can all read and they know things; their souls are made of white flour.”

With days in constant motion, the only thing consistent in the narrator’s life are her fantasies about lounging poolside with Sophia Loren and the question she keeps asking about why an unknown child is cooking in the polenta. While the question of the child in the polenta is repeated throughout the book, her explanations evolve from darkly whimsical narratives, “When the grandmother’s outside, the polenta says to the child: I’m so alone, wouldn’t you like to play with me? And the child climbs into the pot,” to alarming capitalized outbursts like, “THE CHILD IS COOKING IN THE POLENTA BECAUSE ITS MOTHER JABBED SCISSORS INTO ITS FACE.”

The growing sense of despair in the narrator’s voice mirrors the increasingly hopeless state of her existence. Even when she has the opportunity to go to school briefly, between taunts from classmates and writing standards on a blackboard in the attic, all she comes out of it having learned is how different she is from everyone else. On the page the text physically appears as disconnected as she is. The first line of each paragraph is not indented; instead the lines that follow are. And paragraphs rarely ever exceed one or two sentences. Within this erratic layout, Veteranyi proliferates her world through a series of surreal reflections: “When the mother cries, there’s a flood in her belly, because the baby cries too.” Some pages consist of a single unexpected declaration like, “MY FATHER IS SHORT LIKE A CHAIR.” The empty space on the page leaves room for the reader to contemplate what has intentionally been left out. Other pages end abruptly on sudden notes of sadness: “If I get used to hell quickly, then maybe we can leave here pretty soon.” Veteranyi has endless ways to illustrate loneliness.

The narrator’s story largely correlates with actual events in Veteranyi’s life. Her writing is at times intentionally inaccessible, indicative of the child narrator whose wounds are too fresh to talk about. In this type of experimental literature, there is a fine line between genius and confusion. A line Vincent Kling, professor of German and contemporary literature at La Salle and seasoned translator, ignites as he fearlessly renders Veteranyi’s starry and sordid German in English. He preserves Veteranyi’s unsettling descriptions and outbursts, with statements like, “Backs grew all over my father’s body,” and “I want to be raped by two men at the same time,” both which serve to heighten the underlying presence of uncertainty and pain.

All in all Polenta displays the awkward beauty of a contortionist. In his afterword, “A Home in Language,” Kling connects the dots between Veteranyi’s life and her work, helping readers to make sense of her often obscure prose. He divulges that Veteranyi was multilingual yet remained illiterate until the age of seventeen. Glimpses like this help illuminate her disjointed style and eccentric use of language. According to Kling, there is little that distinguishes the narrator from Veteranyi. Perhaps the most significance difference is that the narrator gives up without fighting, whereas Veteranyi refused to accept defeat, arguing her way into acting school and defending the style of Polenta to dubious critics.

Polenta marks a personal triumph for the author. This success that makes it all the more heart wrenching to learn that in 2002, just a few years after publishing Polenta, Veteranyi took her own life. Proof, as Kling puts it that “literary expression is not always the reliably curative therapeutic act it is often considered.” Yet it was through the process of opening old wounds that Veterani was able to spin her tumultuous childhood into a single venomous cloud of cotton candy, making a home for herself in Swiss literature.

24 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next three weeks 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.

Seven Years by Peter Stamm, translated by Michael Hofmann

Language: German
Country: Switzerland
Publisher: Other Press

Why this book should win: Dismantled relationships FTW!

Today’s post is by Tom Flynn, bookseller and events coordinator at Seminary Co-Op in Chicago.

Let’s get this bit out of the way first: Peter Stamm’s Seven Years is not a terribly pleasant novel. The characters—particularly the narrator, Alexander—are deeply flawed people who probably would have done better in their fictional lives had they never encountered one or another or, after meeting, run in opposite directions. But it is also an engrossing read with direct, clear prose that engages and eggs the reader on.

Alexander is a German architecture student who, at the end of his final year of school, becomes involved with a Polish woman, Ivona, whom he does not much like. She does not engage him intellectually, he finds her unattractive, and he feels her to be beneath him socially. Yet he finds himself unable to stop seeing her. While this is going on, he begins a relationship with a fellow student, Sonia, who possesses an ambition and drive completely absent from Alex. Sonia and Alex marry and open a firm but after several years (the seven year itch that the title can, perhaps, be understood to reference) of marriage Ivona reappears in his life and he takes up with her once again. The effect of this affair eventually lays bare the weakness of his and Sonia’s relationship, which, despite its solid presentation at the beginning of the novel, is doomed to crumble around them.

Architecture and its various metaphors prove an apt vehicle for exploring Sonia, Alex, and Ivona’s movement through life. Sonia wishes to build socially conscious structures that work toward the creation and fulfillment of an ideal human. She has very firm ideas on the type of life she and Alex ought to lead: their work, home, and family life are all clearly laid out. Alex, for his part, finds himself happiest designing buildings he can never build, nor wants to construct; he would rather explore space on the page than express it in the world what with all the compromises that accompany such efforts. He allows others to determine the shape and course of his life, effectively drifting from one event to the next. And Ivona is simply a dweller, moving from one small, unpleasant residence to the next with little regard for how much smaller the physical space she inhabits becomes along the way. Instead, she carves out a world within that houses her love—her mania, really—for Alex and Alex alone.

Much of the drama in the novel feels, well, anti-climatic. A sense of the inevitable pervades the novel. Alex is by no means a passionate character, nor is he anyone—in fiction or life—for whom one should feel much pity. The events of the novel plays out as they do because of his own inertia, his willingness to meander in whatever direction circumstances take him. He builds a life with Sonia because it’s what she wants and it seems he should want her. He returns to Ivona time and again not because he wants to, but because she is always reaching out to him, no matter how he treats her. Inertia is his natural state and by novel’s end his inability to act has yielded the life he sees laid out before him.

Really, I could go on at much greater length about Seven Years. There’s just something about the characters and Stamm’s understanding of human nature that causes the myriad issues the novel raises to jut out in my mind. Truly excellent novels—which in my estimation Seven Years is—worm their way into the reader’s mind, giving them something to gnaw on. The excellent novel also possesses a life of its own and, to turn the phrase somewhat, gnaws on the reader, too. Or creates an itch that the reader can’t help but scratch.

30 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Ah, the storied Swiss Alps: snow capped mountains, fields of wild flowers, burbling streams of clean water, simple folks out doing what simple folks do in such settings. Take for example the flock of sheep accompanied by blond haired girl along a winding path. Especially of note is how she picks up a rock and wings it at errant sheep.

In this, his second novel, Frisch gives a modernist take on the heroic quest for meaning by the solitary man in nature. Balz Leuthold, 30 years old, is a sorely disappointed man. Seventeen years ago he had accompanied his older brother (himself 30, soon to be married) in these same mountains. He had vowed then not to settle for the ordinary, but instead achieve the extraordinary in . . . something.

You could still tell yourself: you’re only twenty, everything’s still possible. And how proud you are when everything was still possible! Later it was: twenty-five’s no age at all, and you like reading about people who had achieved nothing at twenty-five, which was something out of the ordinary, and those around them who did not believe that they had this or that achievement in them. True, you still didn’t know in what field your future achievements would lie, but in the meantime you wore ties and hats of a style that would never occur to a ordinary citizen, and even at times you were afraid you might be ridiculous . . . and worthless and worse than anyone else on earth, it was a painful thought but not without its comfort; at least it gave you the feeling that it made you a special person, perhaps a criminal, and it was only when you failed to achieve anything by way of misdeeds that others could not do equally well, that a new and more despairing fear set in that your extraordinary achievement might not happen.

Hipsters beware! As the Preacher says in Ecclesiastes, “nothing new under the sun.”

As the novel unfolds Balz is revealed as not such a total failure, except in his own eyes. He has a Ph.D., is ready to take on his new job of teaching (although in that system it sounds like he will teach school-aged children), and is engaged to a woman named Barbara.

After a trek he arrives at an inn at the base of some mountains, and the reader learns he intends to climb one by a route never achieved before, the North Ridge. (The helpful afterward by Peter von Mott explains that Frisch’s contemporary readers would have recognized this as the North Wall of the Eiger Mountain which many had failed to climb yet, with upcoming tries much in the news.) Balz spends a day or two at the inn during bad weather, strikes up a relationship with Irene, a woman who has come to the inn with a married couple. He makes a practice climb on another rock face, one which we hear has been only successfully climbed by a few; clearly he is fit and experienced, not as wholly delusional as the reader might have feared from earlier descriptions. When he reaches the top of this climb he stands in the silence in an anticlimactic moment, an achievement with no self-evident meaning.

Balz sets out to climb the North Ridge. Irene follows, and turns out to be no innocent lured by the dashing young man. His fiancé Barbara arrives at the inn after their departure, gets the picture, reveals that she actually doesn’t really love Balz (nor he her). Yet she goes to the camp where Irene has stayed, and they have an agreeable conversation; at nightfall Balz has not returned and a rescue party is sent out.

Balz does return, changed. It’s safe to say he won’t feel the need to achieve the spectacular anymore, and he does have an answer of sort for his living the rest of his life. No need to reveal what forms those developments take. To me the resolution seemed satisfying, “correct.”

This novel is 100 pages and a quick read in an evening. It’s an entertaining book to see in the context of modernism in general and Frisch’s overall works specifically. As the Afterward points out, the themes in this novel are ones Frisch returned to frequently. I had read Man in the Holocene in college, and lent it out never to be returned. It’s good to find a great writer who holds up.

22 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

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.

A Jew Must Die by Jacques Chessex, translated by W. Donald Wilson

Language: French
Country: Switzerland
Publisher: Bitter Lemon
Pages: 92

Why This Book Should Win: Second Chessex book to make the longlist in two years; Switzerland deserves some play; maybe the most accessible and gripping of the longlisted titles; people love WWII-related novels; title is one of the more disturbing of eligible books this year.

I wrote today’s post.

Michael Orthofer turned me on to Jacques Chessex last year when he recommended The Vampire of Ropraz for the BTBA longlist. I tend to avoid “those” sorts of books—the crime-related ones, the ones with vampires in the title, the books that sound like they could be gory. But Michael is a sharp reader, and I have to admit that Ropraz took me by surprise and totally won me over.

When Bitter Lemon sent along a copy of A Jew Must Die a few months back, I fell into my same old prejudices: the title is a bit off-putting, the cover a little less than appealing, it’s about World War II (sorry, but /yawn), there is a murder involving an iron bar, etc., etc.

But, once again, I totally sucked at evaluating the greatness of this book. Once the BTBA committee picked it for the longlist, I decided that I really should read it (I’m working my way through all 25 title, and will hopefully finish all of them before the winner is announced), and once again, I was captivated.

It only took an hour to read this novella, which is perfect, since this is essentially a written version of a Dateline episode set in 1942 . . . Seriously. Just listen to the voice over narration of a few key moments:

Arthur Bloch usually covers the short distance between Monbijoustrasse and the railway station on foot, stepping out to the rhythmic tap of his stick. He gets into the first train to La Broye, which reaches Payerne via Avenches. He likes this ninety-minute trip through the stretches of meadows and valleys still filled with mist in the early-morning light.

Arrival in Payerne at 6:18. Chestnuts in bloom, silken hills, bright weather, all the more beautiful since threatened from within and without. But Arthur Bloch is unaware of the danger. Arthur Bloch does not sense it.

Almost the whole book has this same sort of omniscient distancing that causes this to read like a news report. Which makes this even more compelling, and avoids a lot of the trappings of writing a book about a horrific Nazi crime. Characterization is spotty, so we don’t have to experience the cognitive dissonance of empathizing with a fucking monster. Bloch’s death is told in direct, unadorned facts, which both keep the narrative from becoming too melodramatic and create a very creepy vibe.

A Jew Must Die is a horrifying book about a horrifying crime committed by horrifying people. And for all the books about this sort of thing that have been written, this one manages to distill the horror into something direct that will remain in my memory for a long time.

17 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.

Microscripts by Robert Walser, translated by Susan Bernofsky

Language: German
Country: Switzerland
Publisher: New Directions/Christine Burgin
Pages: 160

Why This Book Should Win: Most beautifully designed book on the longlist; beyond being an interesting text, it has a fascinating backstory; Walser has been in the running for several years with The Assistant and The Tanners, but has yet to win; Susan Bernofsky (who has multiple titles on the longlist) is amazing and deserves to win.

Today, one of our BTBA judges looks at Robert Walser’s Microscripts.

This is not a book to simply be read. It is a collection of secrets, devised by the author, only to be initially dismissed as gibberish, sorted by a caretaker sometime later, taken in by an amateur who thought otherwise, transcribed into German by a team of two over a decade, then finally, expertly translated into English and re-ordered and edited in book form.

The stories and fragments are for the most part without titles, rendered in a defunct miniature script, never meant to meet the reader’s eyes. They rely upon a portrait before each translation begins, the first sentence sometimes dictating a makeshift title.

With Walser’s writing, there is a silent step back, a gathering of thoughts before each move is made, so as to disarm the unknown future. There is no pretense, no absolutes and little residue. Not much to grab onto in the form of a sure-footed narrative here, no plot-driven whirlwind tales or any reliance upon full-blown characters.

The rhythms of language and syntax devise paths of their own device. An image of a conversation that’s taking place forces your gaze upon a singular object. The entirety of a description ultimately pays tribute to the subject of the story. Walser’s words can leave you directionless. They carry you along, adrift in his language, unsure of both the author’s intention and your path upon reading his words.

I remember someone at New Directions telling me about the existence of the Microscripts while the English translation was still in the works. I had built up images in my head accordingly, filed them away, and waited for the true object to be revealed sometime later. Then I was given a sample facsimile of one of “texts” at a book fair. I was intrigued and puzzled, as one would be without the aid of a proper translation. I regarded the image simply as an objet d’art, putting the oversized loose sheet on the bookshelf and waited for an answer.

This volume of well-ordered scraps is anything but. The transparent design echoes the ordering of a puzzling archive, allowing the reader to flitter between image, original text and translation freely. An afterword by Walter Benjamin gives credence to his contemporary and provides needed context.

Ultimately, the book functions as an unintended collaborative artwork made by many, celebrating the work of an unrivalled master of the minuscule and perhaps, unintentionally functioning as a guide of how to unlock secrets slowly over time.

11 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next five weeks, we’ll be highlighting a book a day from the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



The Tanners by Robert Walser. Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky. (Switzerland, New Directions)

Thanks to New York Review Books, University of Nebraska Press, and New Directions, Robert Walser is experiencing something of a renaissance. Jakob von Gunten was one of the first books NYRB brought out, and a couple years later they did a volume of selected stories. Around the same time, UNP published The Robber. And in addition to The Tanners, ND recently brought out Susan Bernofsky’s translation of The Assistant, and next year will be doing some of his “Microscripts.” (If you’re not familiar with the “microscripts,” it’s a pretty fascinating subject for another post, but in the meantime, here’s a picture of one of his almost indecipherable microscript pages.)

What’s especially nice is the amount of attention these publications have been getting. One of the best PEN World Voices events I ever attended was a special tribute to Robert Walser featuring Michael Kruger, Deborah Eisenberg, Jeffrey Eugenides, Wayne Koestenbaum, and Susan Bernofsky. It was almost magical—Kruger gave a great introduction, and each of the other panelists read an excerpt from Walser’s oeuvre. (Recordings of all of these should be on the PEN America website, but for some reason, most of the links are broken . . . The only one currently available is Jeffrey Eugenides’s reading of “Trousers.”)

In terms of print coverage, although it’s almost a decade old now, J.M. Coetzee’s The Genius of Robert Walser article in the New York Review of Books is fantastic, and more recently, Benjamin Kunkel wrote a great piece for the _New Yorker.

Kunkel’s piece gets right at the heart of what makes Walser’s books so damn good and so damn addicting—the idiosyncratic voice of his characters:

The incredible shrinking writer is a major twentieth-century prose artist who, for all that the modern world seems to have passed him by, fulfills the modern criterion: he sounds like nobody else.

In Walser’s case, this means that he achieved a remarkable tone, in which perfect assurance and perfect ambiguity combine. His narrators are all ostensibly humble, courteous, and cheerful; the puzzle lies in deciding where they are speaking in earnest and where ironically.

A perfect example of this can be found in Monica Carter’s review of The Tanners when she quotes Simon’s farewell speech from the bookstore that he briefly worked at:

“You have disappointed me. Don’t look so astonished, there’s nothing to be done about it. I shall quit your place of business this very day and ask that you pay me my wages. Please, let me finish. I know perfectly well what I want. During the past week I’ve come to realize that the entire book trade is nothing less than ghastly if it must entail standing at one’s desk from early morning till late at night while out of doors the gentlest winter sun is gleaming, and forces one to scrunch one’s back, since the desk is far too small given my stature, writing like some accursed happenstance copyist and performing work unsuitable for a mind such as my own, I am capable of performing quite different tasks, esteemed sir, than the ones entrusted to me here. I’d expected to be able to sell books in your shop, wait on elegant individuals, bow and bid adieu to the customers when they’re ready to depart. What’s more, I’d imagined I might be allowed to peer into the mysterious universe of the book trade and glimpse the world’s features in the visage and operation of your enterprise. But I experienced nothing of the sort.”

A semi-autobiographical novel, Simon is Walser’s stand-in: a young man without a clear purpose drifting from job to meaningless job, pontificating, convincing bosses to hire him without any personal recommendations (“To me, the most appropriate thing would be if you didn’t make inquiries at all! Whom would you ask, and what purpose would it serve!”), before moving on after being disappointed by one thing or another.

Even though Simon might be the most charming in all of his oddness, all of the characters in The Tanners are pretty wonderful. They tend to speak in paragraphs that allow their strange paths of thought to twist, turn, and entertain.

One of the wonderful things about Walser’s writing (I believe Sebald mentions this in his introduction, but I’ll be damned if I can find it now), is how it sort of erases itself as it goes. How as a reader, every page, every paragraph is charming and charged with meaning, only to sort of dissolve, become more foggy, less specific, the minute you put the book down.

Echoing the Kunkel quote from above, there’s no one else who writes like Walser did. He’s a special case, and this novel is one of the most well-crafted and immediately enjoyable books on the fiction longlist.

I think I’ll close this off with one of my favorite quotes from the novel. It’s from the very end, but really, this is a book that’s more mood than plot, so I’m really not giving away much of anything:

“No,” she said, “you won’t sink. If such a think were to happen, what a shame it would be—a shame for you. You must never again condemn yourself so criminally, so sinfully. You respect yourself too little, and others too much. I wish to shield you against judging yourself so harshly. Do you know what it is you need? You need things to go well for you again for a little while. You must learn to whisper into an ear and reciprocate expressions of tenderness. Otherwise you’ll become too delicate. I shall teach you; I wish to teach you all the things you’re lacking. Come with me. We shall go out into the winter night. Into the blustery forest. There’s so much I must say to you. Do you know that I’m your poor, happy prisoner? Not another word, not one word more. Just come—”

30 September 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is a piece by Monica Carter on Robert Walser’s The Tanners, which was recently released by New Directions in Susan Bernofsky’s translation. (This is overly personal, but this review is a confluence of four of my favorite people, publishers, and authors. Monica + Susan + Walser + New Directions = Good Shit.)

Monica’s been reviewing for us for a while. She’s on the Best Translated Book Award fiction committee, and she runs Salonica World Lit while also working at Skylight Books.

As is mentioned on the jacket copy of The Tanners, this is one of the year’s most anticipated books (at least among the literati, or everyone not currently reading Dan Brown) and was chosen by Time Out New York as its Top Summer Fiction Pick of 2009 and by the Village Voice as “a contender for Funniest Book of the Year.”

Based on the opening of Monica’s review, it sounds like both statements are absolutely true:

In the most recent translation of Swiss writer Robert Walser’s work, The Tanners, we are reminded once again why Kafka and Musil were fans—his wit. And like everything in Walser’s writing, it is nuanced and subtle. Instead giving us our melodrama straight with no chaser, he blends it with irony, insouciance and imagination so that it doesn’t make us wince when gulp it down; instead, it smoothly sates our desire for a good story and leaves us wanting more. The Tanners, written in 1907, is the semi-autobiographical tale of the five children—four boys and one girl—of the Tanner family: Klaus, Kaspar, Simon, Hedwig, and a son who resides in a mental institution and merits only a mention in the book. Walser focuses the book around Simon, the young, aimless brother who is a bizarre combination of arrogance, self-entitlement, humility, humor, and love for all of mankind. It’s the words of Simon that at once bold and entertaining. His honesty woos the reader until you become smitten and want to hear anything that he has to say. He simply does not care what he is supposed to do as a young man in society; he cares only for his own happiness that he expresses slyly to the owner of a bookshop:

“You have disappointed me. Don’t look so astonished, there’s nothing to be done about it. I shall quit your place of business this very day and ask that you pay me my wages. Please, let me finish. I know perfectly well what I want. During the past week I’ve come to realize that the entire book trade is nothing less than ghastly if it must entail standing at one’s desk from early morning till late at night while out of doors the gentlest winter sun is gleaming, and forces one to scrunch one’s back, since the desk is far too small given my stature, writing like some accursed happenstance copyist and performing work unsuitable for a mind such as my own, I am capable of performing quite different tasks, esteemed sir, than the ones entrusted to me here. I’d expected to be able to sell books in your shop, wait on elegant individuals, bow and bid adieu to the customers when they’re ready to depart. What’s more, I’d imagined I might be allowed to peer into the mysterious universe of the book trade and glimpse the world’s features in the visage and operation of your enterprise. But I experienced nothing of the sort.”

Click here for the full review.

30 September 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In the most recent translation of Swiss writer Robert Walser’s work, The Tanners, we are reminded once again why Kafka and Musil were fans—his wit. And like everything in Walser’s writing, it is nuanced and subtle. Instead giving us our melodrama straight with no chaser, he blends it with irony, insouciance and imagination so that it doesn’t make us wince when gulp it down; instead, it smoothly sates our desire for a good story and leaves us wanting more. The Tanners, written in 1907, is the semi-autobiographical tale of the five children—four boys and one girl—of the Tanner family: Klaus, Kaspar, Simon, Hedwig, and a son who resides in a mental institution and merits only a mention in the book. Walser focuses the book around Simon, the young, aimless brother who is a bizarre combination of arrogance, self-entitlement, humility, humor, and love for all of mankind. It’s the words of Simon that at once bold and entertaining. His honesty woos the reader until you become smitten and want to hear anything that he has to say. He simply does not care what he is supposed to do as a young man in society; he cares only for his own happiness that he expresses slyly to the owner of a bookshop:

You have disappointed me. Don’t look so astonished, there’s nothing to be done about it. I shall quit your place of business this very day and ask that you pay me my wages. Please, let me finish. I know perfectly well what I want. During the past week I’ve come to realize that the entire book trade is nothing less than ghastly if it must entail standing at one’s desk from early morning till late at night while out of doors the gentlest winter sun is gleaming, and forces one to scrunch one’s back, since the desk is far too small given my stature, writing like some accursed happenstance copyist and performing work unsuitable for a mind such as my own, I am capable of performing quite different tasks, esteemed sir, than the ones entrusted to me here. I’d expected to be able to sell books in your shop, wait on elegant individuals, bow and bid adieu to the customers when they’re ready to depart. What’s more, I’d imagined I might be allowed to peer into the mysterious universe of the book trade and glimpse the world’s features in the visage and operation of your enterprise. But I experienced nothing of the sort.

And this is when it becomes impossible to avoid falling in love with Simon, Walser’s cocky romantic bohemian. Seemingly each member of the Tanner family represents an element of society: Klaus, the staid older brother who ensconces himself in a respectful position in academia; Hedwig, the hardworking and generous country teacher who enjoys the simplicities of rural life; Kaspar, the tortured artist who’s vulnerability leave women swooning; Emil, the institutionalized man who had everything the world could offer except sanity; and Simon, the rebellious dreamer who shuns the shackles of modern society. Walser himself shuttled from job to job like Simon and also had mental illness, like the eldest Tanner brother, spending the last 27 years of his life in a mental institution. The Walser family had a long and distinct line of mental illness beginning with Walser’s mother and spreading throughout the family. Though all the members were highly functional, Robert seemed to be the most productive while institutionalized, turning out story after story and developing his “mikrogramme” style of pencil writing that took years for editors to decipher. Regardless of the heavy tone of his personal life, there is a lightness that prevails when his characters confront the existential and practical issues of living life. Simon represents the perfect antidote to personal tragedy and inner demon for Walser. Simon addresses a man in a bar who begins telling the story of Emil without knowing that Simon is his brother. At the end of the story, Simon gracefully responds about the role of insanity in his family:

No, it cannot possibly run in the family. I shall deny this as long as I live. It’s simply misfortune. It can’t have been the women. You’re quite right when you say it wasn’t them. Must these poor women always be at fault when men succumb to misfortune? Why don’t we think a bit more simply about it? Can it not lie in a person’s character, and therefore in the soul? Look, if you will, how I am moving my hand just now: Like this, and in the soul! That’s where it lies. A human being feels something, and when he acts in such-and-such a way, and then collides with various walls and uneven spots, just like that. People are always so quick to think of horrific genetic inheritances and the like. And what cowardice and lack of reverence to insist on holding his parents and his parents’ parents responsible for his misfortune. This shows a lack of both propriety and courage, not to mention the most unseemly soft-heartedness! When misfortune crashes down upon your head, it’s just that you’ve provided all that was needed for fate to produce a misfortune. Do you know what my brother was to me, to me and Kaspar, my older brother, to us younger ones? He taught us on our shared walks to have a sense for the beautiful and the noble, at a time when we were still the most wretched rascals whose only interest was getting up to trick. From his eyes we imbibed the fire that filled them when he spoke to us of art. Can you imagine what a splendid time that was, how ambitious—in the boldest, most beautiful sense of the word—our quest for understanding? Let’s drink one more bottle together, I’m buying, yes that’s right, even though I’m just an unemployed ne’er-do-well.

Simon is a dichotomy—enamored by and ultimately indifferent to humanity. He approaches everyone with patience and tolerance. He exits the situation when he bores of it, but always with a lighthearted diplomacy. Off goes this bohemian, not a goal in sight, welcoming any situation that he stumbles upon with a pleasant air of hope. By the end of the novel, Walser’s style has mesmerized you with his interesting twist on the mundane and the abstract, and you will find it difficult to rouse yourself from his view of the world that captures a time and an essence.

He is a modernist in a true sense and it is a small wonder he is just now coming back in fashion. Thanks to the folks at New Directions as well as to the excellent and fluid translation by Susan Bernofsky, we can delve into his story effortlessly. Be thankful like Kafka and Musil that Walser existed and live to tell about it.2

29 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Over at World Books, Bill Marx has a very thoughtful review of two Swiss horror books: The Vampire of Ropraz, by Jacques Chessex, translated by W. Donald Wilson and published by Bitter Lemon (a Best Translated Book nominee) and The Black Spider, by Jeremias Gotthelf, translated by H. M. Waidson and published by Oneworld Classics.

The spanking new The Vampire of Ropraz asserts that, when faced with irrational violence, the forces of ignorance and fear predominate. The classic The Black Spider (which was first published in 1842; this is a reprint of the 1958 English edition) revolves around a reneged deal with the Devil, who wants, but doesn’t get, an unbaptized child as payment for his services. The betrayal unleashes the title monster, who can be stopped by goodness, if it is free of moral corruption and hypocrisy. The latter turns out to be a tall order. But at least there’s some Paradise around to counterbalance Gotthelf’s Hell.

Interestingly, both of these books root their avenging vision of mayhem in the brutal mistreatment of children. Gotthelf appears to wish for a God “Who would avenge Himself terribly for all the injustice that is done to poor children who cannot defend themselves.” In a strange way, the Devil is doing the Lord’s work by punishing the sadists among the low- and upper classes.

I was pleasantly surprised by The Vampire of Ropraz, and although The Black Spider doesn’t sound like my sort of book, it does come with a ringing endorsement by Thomas Mann, who claimed it is “like almost no other piece of world literature.”

14 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our review section is a piece on Jacques Chessex’s The Vampire of Ropraz, a curious little book from one of Switzerland’s most revered authors.

Here’s the opening of the review:

If it weren’t for Michael Orthofer of Complete Review, I don’t think I would’ve ever picked up this slender book. I don’t mind my vampires on TV (True Blood is a pretty decent show), but I tend to avoid them in literature. (No, I haven’t read Twilight and probably never will.)

But this isn’t a vampire book. Sure, it’s got the spooky cover and the sadistic crimes, but this novel isn’t about anyone sucking anyone’s blood. It’s about society and fear, and finding a way to explain and cope with things that are beyond normal comprehension.

The novel is set in Ropraz—“a land of wolves and neglect in the early twentieth century, poorly served by public transport”—where a young girl is dug up from her grave and mutilated. Newspapers seize on the sensational story, labeling the criminal who did this as the “Vampire of Ropraz,” and setting off a series of “sightings” and a hell of a lot of fear:

And click here for the full write up.

14 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

If it weren’t for Michael Orthofer of Complete Review, I don’t think I would’ve ever picked up this slender book. I don’t mind my vampires on TV (True Blood is a pretty decent show), but I tend to avoid them in literature. (No, I haven’t read Twilight and probably never will.)

But this isn’t a vampire book. Sure, it’s got the spooky cover and the sadistic crimes, but this novel isn’t about anyone sucking anyone’s blood. It’s about society and fear, and finding a way to explain and cope with things that are beyond normal comprehension.

The novel is set in Ropraz—“a land of wolves and neglect in the early twentieth century, poorly served by public transport”—where a young girl is dug up from her grave and mutilated. Newspapers seize on the sensational story, labeling the criminal who did this as the “Vampire of Ropraz,” and setting off a series of “sightings” and a hell of a lot of fear:

In the meantime, the Vampire is on the loose. He is reported in Vucherens, Ferlens and Montpreveyres, always appearing at night, evading the watch and the dogs, climbing on each occasion to the upper floor, where the daughter of the house or the maid sleeps.

“Look at the broken pane, that’s where he rested the ladder . . .”

“But he didn’t harm your daughter.”

“She woke up in time. She was dreaming, poor thing, and suddenly she started to scream. We barely had time to grab an axe and run upstairs.”

But the citizens aren’t just paranoid—more corpses are dug up and defiled. And the authorities have to find someone to pin all of these crimes on . . . And along comes Charles-Augustin Favez, suspicious enough, and recently caught “having relations” with a cow.

Chessex’s novel is based on a real-life story, which is why his sparse, direct, almost questioning prose style works so well, relating the fragments of what is known in a way that pits doubts about Favez’s guilt against the townspeople’s need for a criminal to be named.

Favez is released though—at least at first:

Favez is set free on Thursday the 9th of July. His release from prison provokes outrage. The Vampire of Ropraz is free! In vain the justice authorities defend themselves, citing the psychiatrist’s report, the expert witnesses from Basle and Zurich, the complete lack of proof regarding the three graveyard crimes and, above all, the decisive factor in the eyes of justice, the manifest inability of Favez to cut up or dissect any kind of flesh—animal flesh during the tests to which he had been subjected, or human flesh in the worst of cases. A vast, angry murmur sweeps through the countryside, and there are fears for the safety of the wrongly accused, considered a vampire by the public, fears of a lynching or a kidnapping followed by extreme abuse.

Aside from the mesmerizing way that Chessex lays out this little tale, it’s the final, speculative, surprising chapter that makes this novel worth reading. On one hand, where he leaves Favez is a bit over-the-top, but for whatever reason, it all sort of fits with this creepy sketch of a story. Worth checking out, and it will only take you about as long to read this as it would to watch an episode of Buffy.

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