28 April 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is a piece by P.T. Smith on Towards the One & Only Metaphor by Miklós Szentkuthy, translated by Tim Wilkinson, and out from Contra Mundum Press.

Patrick is a regular reviewer of ours by now, and a huge, massive, supportive fan of all literature in translation.

Here’s the beginning of his review:

It is an unusual thing to see a press specifically focus on a single author, but that is what Contra Mundum Press has done with Hungarian author Miklós Szentkuthy, and if Towards the One & Only Metaphor is any basis to judge the rest of his work, the decision is one to be celebrated. Though one of those novels (this term used here in its most all-encompassing definition) that is “not for everyone” and one that is unabashedly difficult, it is also inviting and at its highest points gorgeous, thrilling, and plainly new, even if it was originally published in 1935. Szentkuthy makes it clear throughout the work that he is aware of the challenge he is asking readers to undertake with him, and more than once expresses an attitude not of the confidence and bullying that authors like Nabokov or Joyce hold dear, but instead a reassurance that a reader doesn’t need understanding firmly embedded in concrete for every passage—at one point Szentkuthy admits he is “too lazy” to define a concept, moves on with the sense of a definition, letting implied understanding between writer and reader hold the course.

Called “nearly-unclassifiable” and “something of a manifesto” by the jacket copy, Towards the One & Only Metaphor is made up of 122 numbered sections. They run a wild gamut that includes philosophical musings, theological rumination, aesthetic riffs, historical fictions, seeming diary entries, contemporary vignettes, and, because why not, a few lists. Ideas, historical persons, phrases, and images reoccur and link sections, Szentkuthy becomes suddenly enamored with an idea or a strategy, holds it for a while, and then drops it, having exhausted its engine and come to the end of the path. All of this works for the reader willing to dive in deep, find their sources of joy or connection, and when lost in a section, patiently move forward with Szentkuthy to find their next bright spot.

That sense of moving with Szentkuthy runs throughout the work and is an essential bit of surrender that the reader needs to make. Rarely has a single word in a title, “towards,” seemed so apt to both the author’s aims and the reader’s path to grasping those aims, and enjoying the way. Towards the One & Only Metaphor is a paced novel, moving in and out of various rhythms, but always having one. Szentkuthy does not force you along, his are not waves that drown you if you are unable to float with them, but gentler waves that leave you behind if you don’t find the current, or send you down an offshoot tributary, lost. This control of movement is true from the numbered sections through to word-to-word connections. Often, it seems better to read a sentence, enjoy the sounds and pace, but not comprehend totally, and move on to the next, rather than hold up the ongoing towards. When you are fully in sync, in understanding, in rhythm, the book comes to life and that is when the most glorious moments are encountered. When lost, unclear, one can give up and float down the gentle river with him, or hit the shore and walk back not a sentence or two, but a paragraph or more, to get back in the water and find both clarity and the movement. For an author to bring diverse influences, tones, and styles into a single towards is a wonder, and we are fortunate that translator Tim Wilkinson has the same sense, and grateful to the wisdom of Contra Mundum to not only commit to Szentkuthy as an author, but to Wilkinson as his translator.

For the rest of his piece, head here

28 April 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

It is an unusual thing to see a press specifically focus on a single author, but that is what Contra Mundum Press has done with Hungarian author Miklós Szentkuthy, and if Towards the One & Only Metaphor is any basis to judge the rest of his work, the decision is one to be celebrated. Though one of those novels (this term used here in its most all-encompassing definition) that is “not for everyone” and one that is unabashedly difficult, it is also inviting and at its highest points gorgeous, thrilling, and plainly new, even if it was originally published in 1935. Szentkuthy makes it clear throughout the work that he is aware of the challenge he is asking readers to undertake with him, and more than once expresses an attitude not of the confidence and bullying that authors like Nabokov or Joyce hold dear, but instead a reassurance that a reader doesn’t need understanding firmly embedded in concrete for every passage—at one point Szentkuthy admits he is “too lazy” to define a concept, moves on with the sense of a definition, letting implied understanding between writer and reader hold the course.

Called “nearly-unclassifiable” and “something of a manifesto” by the jacket copy, Towards the One & Only Metaphor is made up of 122 numbered sections. They run a wild gamut that includes philosophical musings, theological rumination, aesthetic riffs, historical fictions, seeming diary entries, contemporary vignettes, and, because why not, a few lists. Ideas, historical persons, phrases, and images reoccur and link sections, Szentkuthy becomes suddenly enamored with an idea or a strategy, holds it for a while, and then drops it, having exhausted its engine and come to the end of the path. All of this works for the reader willing to dive in deep, find their sources of joy or connection, and when lost in a section, patiently move forward with Szentkuthy to find their next bright spot.

That sense of moving with Szentkuthy runs throughout the work and is an essential bit of surrender that the reader needs to make. Rarely has a single word in a title, “towards,” seemed so apt to both the author’s aims and the reader’s path to grasping those aims, and enjoying the way. Towards the One & Only Metaphor is a paced novel, moving in and out of various rhythms, but always having one. Szentkuthy does not force you along, his are not waves that drown you if you are unable to float with them, but gentler waves that leave you behind if you don’t find the current, or send you down an offshoot tributary, lost. This control of movement is true from the numbered sections through to word-to-word connections. Often, it seems better to read a sentence, enjoy the sounds and pace, but not comprehend totally, and move on to the next, rather than hold up the ongoing towards. When you are fully in sync, in understanding, in rhythm, the book comes to life and that is when the most glorious moments are encountered. When lost, unclear, one can give up and float down the gentle river with him, or hit the shore and walk back not a sentence or two, but a paragraph or more, to get back in the water and find both clarity and the movement. For an author to bring diverse influences, tones, and styles into a single towards is a wonder, and we are fortunate that translator Tim Wilkinson has the same sense, and grateful to the wisdom of Contra Mundum to not only commit to Szentkuthy as an author, but to Wilkinson as his translator.

As sentences weave their way through multiple clauses, filled with repeated dashes and colons, sound and visual aesthetic speed ahead of sense, and after you take a moment to catch your breath, sense and sudden clarity settle on you. Bizarre, seeming off-kilter descriptions blend senses of sight, sound, and feeling: “Drawings cool one: if I look up at the optical mosaic of trees, the sharpness of a million contours is cooling.” In the space after a colon, a drawing becomes like living trees, moving outlines of leaves and branches above you, and the visual cools you. Then, the whole image comes forth, the physical cool of a nap in the shade of a tree is handed off by the representation of trees.

Word combinations you can’t expect, like “tree boughs in grey moldy-patinated velvet,” come through without a hitch. He creates similes that require two insights, finding new visions of both X and Y instead of using X to understand Y. Szentkuthy has the power to describe a cliché such as love at first sight so wonderfully, and so casually, that it hardly registers as the something so familiar. In the lack of weight a cliché carries, space expands. It is in these new spaces he becomes ecstatic, and we along with him: “Every parallel, refrain, and repetition excites me: the rings of ripples on lakes, the escaped powers of ovals on branches, of acacias, fence laths, etc.”

Between and throughout the heights of his prose, Szentkuthy’s concerns, thinking, and style are complex, but he wants to open pathways for his writing to follow, and for those pathways to reach the reader too. One of the ways he opens the book to the reader is the same way a house opens to the world: lights on, windows with open blinds and cracked to the breeze. At times the windows are opened subtly, other times pointedly, as when he begins a section, “The perennial problems of any journal-like work:” and what follows the colon is a shared questioning of his project.

Through one of those windows, he shows us one of the oddest and utterly compelling definitions of and argument for experimental writing. Szentkuthy compares the idea of “rational, self-analytical” experiments with the experiment that is the natural world: “Biology is so explicitly an experimental domain that no distinction is made between a ‘final result’ and an undecided, exploratory trial.” In Towards the One & Only Metaphor, and the best experimental writing, there is no place for that distinction either—both are brought into the home.

These open windows are not only a stylistic habit or approach, Szentkuthy is keenly aware of their use, and attached to them. It isn’t a metafictional trick though, not an emphasis on self-awareness, not deconstructing the writing process. In a one-sentence section, he ends with the conclusion that “metaphors are the tadpole of reason.” At some point past metaphor, where reason is clearly outlined, something is lost, so the aim becomes to create a cloud of tadpoles, let some stay as the tiniest tadpoles but let others grow, sprout their little frog arms and become plump tadpoles, ready to drop their tails and hop on land, and abandon them before they become frogs. These glimpses inside the house let us see all of the tadpoles as they break from their eggs.

The tadpoles matter precisely because of their free movement in the current. Towards the One & Only Metaphor is also a book full of contradictions and shifts around them. Szentkuthy describes things using opposing terms, trots out two things he may believe but which must eliminate each other for one to become conviction, and vacillates between self-loathing and praise. By writing in that place before reason, opposites don’t eliminate each other; one does not need to override the other as the reasonable conclusion. The aim here is also not a yin-yang companionship, but to move back and forth between opposites, quickly, beautifully, consciously, and with each move from one to the other, to bring them closer to Szentkuthy’s repeated “one & only.” When those tadpoles are at their liveliest, full ideas that sound like nonsense but hold more sense than shear rationality could stand come forth: “What is destiny if it is not the mysteriously close impossibility of the mysteriously close possibility.”

As philosophically inclined, as high art as Szentkuthy reaches, it would be a mistake to not see how he regularly returns to the ground without ever losing his composure. Oftentimes passages are intensely personal, looking at his own life, his own ways of acting, but he also turns outward to the mundane world. That turning outward is best expressed by Szentkuthy himself, as “an enigmatic human synthesis of absolute gospel truth and absolutely bestial fury.” He questions what kind of just church allows certain funerals to be more important than others, and he rages against the “idealization of ‘work’” in a way that coherently, with passion and humor, expresses ideas and realities that led to Occupy Wall Street: money as “the thousand and one ethical masks of fraud” and the conviction that “businessmen are the most sentimental, puerile-spirited people in the world: ten-year-old girls display more cynicism and realism than these ‘leaders.’” His humor is darkly funny, but utterly serious, and it is worth remembering that the beliefs of Occupy Wall Street are not new, and shouldn’t weaken, in fact need to gain strength, and that fresh strength can be found in Hungarian writers from the 1930s only just now being translated into English.

Szentkuthy reaches little in the way of answers in Towards the One & Only Metaphor, but for him, it isn’t about finding them, because he is “not a person enquiring about the secret of the world but the fact of the world’s big, universal questions.” Just the fact that there are those questions, that there are movements against life, against addressing these questions, that is his concern. At one point he defines sainthood as “continual smashing, active taking notice” and while it’s unlikely he meant to call himself a saint, by his own definition he is, and even in the moments of beautiful stillness, his writing is a protest against the world, but a protest that allows him the yes he desires, allows him to be the flower he idealizes, and to, if only for a moment, be “the simplest blue being in the Sun.” With Towards the One & Only Metaphor, we too can face the reality of those questions, rage against the adversary, and be that simple blue being.

21 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.

Fiasco by Imre Kertesz, translated by Tim Wilkinson

Language: Hungarian
Country: Hungary
Publisher: Melville House

Why This Book Should Win: Because I introduced Tim Wilkinson to Dennis and Valerie of Melville House outside of the London Review of Books bookstores years ago, and as a result, they published a number of his Kertesz translations. It would be sort of perfect if Wilkinson then won this award . . .

Today’s post is by Christopher Willard, who is the author of Sundre and Garbage Head. He lives in Calgary and teaches at the Alberta College of Art + Design.

A man who Kertesz calls the “old boy” muses on the writing and subsequent publisher’s rejection of his early novel as he tries to locate a subject for his next novel. Kertész is most likely recalling an attempt to publish his first novel Fatelessness, based upon his deportation to Auschwitz when he was fourteen years old. In allowing fiction to revive facts, Kertész sets up a dense and masterful analogy: a book detailing one’s experiences may arbitrarily be rejected as lifeless and a person may be rendered lifeless by the whims of a totalitarian authority. This raises the thematic questions Kertész’s old boy struggles with, if one cannot control one’s fate or death, if ultimately death is situated closer to absurdity than rationale, what justifies living, what justifies writing about living? The attempt to answer the questions satisfactorily meets with utter failure. This is the fiasco. Kertész writes, “There was one thing that, perhaps I did not think of: we are never capable of interpreting for ourselves.”

The first third of the book is written in sort of call and response structure reminiscent of Beckett as evidenced in Krapp’s Last Tape. Kertész reflects (and reflects upon) the present and past through series of parenthetical statements. This makes for enjoyably dense reading but one imagines the enormity of the translator’s task in capturing both the accuracy and flow of such writing. For example regarding the old boy’s age, Kertész writes:

In all probability it would be simplest just to say how old he was (if we were not averse to such exceedingly dubious specifics, changing as they do from year to year, day to day, even minute to minute) (and who knows how many years, days and minutes our story will arch) (or what twists and turns that span may span) (as a result of which we might suddenly find ourselves in a situation where we may no longer be able to vouch for our rash assertions).

This ageless old boy exists, and not particularly by his own choosing. His burden seems to be the entire package: life, living, history, remembering, writing, the old novel, the next novel, the novel that makes up the remaining two-thirds of the book. The old boy began writing not to be a writer but to understand an unalterable past, and consequentially he involuntarily became a writer who now feels obliged to continue writing even though the he is aware that the writing makes living no easier, the living makes writing no easier, and the past book makes the future book no easier. Kertész seems to suggest the old boy suffers a Sisyphean punishment imposed by arbitrary alignment of coincidences and the conscious decision to continue; we suspect that man is Kertész.

15 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Asymptote Journal just posted their April 2011 fiction section featuring four interesting works in translation.

I first found out about this, because they included an excerpt from Ingrid Winterbach’s The Book of Happenstance, which we’re bringing out in June. The excerpt is fantastic, naturally, but the care and design that’s gone into this web feature is equally impressive. In addition to the excerpt itself, the righthand column contains a number of cool extras, including a link to read the piece in the original Afrikaans, or to hear Ingrid read it in Afrikaans. There’s also a note from the translators (Ingrid and Dick Winterbach). Obsessed with translation issues as I am, I think their comments are really interesting:

An important motif in the novel The Book of Happenstance is the loss of words in Afrikaans – the countless words that have fallen into disuse for a variety of reasons. The protagonist is a lexicographer, who collaborates with an etymologist in cataloguing these obsolete words. The novel accordingly foregrounds language: it focuses on unusual words, word play, the etymology of words, free association. This foregrounding of language poses very specific difficulties for the translator. It requires an attention to language akin to that needed for the translation of poetry.

These disused words occur frequently in the text (sometimes running for paragraphs on end). What is interesting for an Afrikaans reader, however – familiar with the current status of a word – could very well be wearisome to the foreign language reader, unnecessarily and frustratingly slowing down the narrative. The challenge was to retain as many of the words as possible – but still make them as captivating as possible for the foreign reader.

Also included in this issue of Asymptote:

An excerpt from Imre Kertesz’s Fiasco which is translated by Tim Wilkinson and has a very striking opening:

Your manuscript has been assessed by our firm’s readers. On the basis of their unanimous opinion we are unable to undertake publication of your novel.

We consider that your way of giving artistic expression to the material of your experiences does not come off, whereas the subject itself is horrific and shocking. The fact that it nevertheless fails to become a shattering experience for the reader hinges primarily to the main protagonist’s, to put it mildly, odd reactions. While we find it understandable that the adolescent main protagonist does not immediately grasp what is happening around him (the call-up for forced labour, compulsory wearing of the yellow star, etc.), we think it inexplicable why, on arrival at the concentration camp, he sees the bald-shaven prisoners as “suspect.” More passages in bad taste follow: “Their faces did not exactly inspire confidence either: jug ears, prominent noses, sunken, beady eyes with a crafty gleam. Quite like Jews in every respect.”

It is also incredible that the spectacle of the crematoria arouses in him feelings of “a sense of a certain joke, a kind of student jape,” as he knows he is in an extermination camp and his being a Jew is sufficient reason for him to be killed. His behaviour, his gauche comments repel and offend the reader, who can only be annoyed on reading the novel’s ending, since the behaviour the main protagonist has displayed hitherto, his lack of compassion, gives him no ground to dispense moral judgements, call others to account (e.g. the reproaches he makes to the Jewish family living in the same building). We must also say something about the style. For the most part your sentences are clumsy, couched in a tortuous form, and sadly there are all too many phrases like “…on the whole…,” “naturally enough,” and “besides which …”

We are therefore returning the manuscript to you. Regards.

There’s also a section of Liu Zhenyun’s Cell Phone, which is described by translator Howard Goldblatt:

Cell Phone began as a joint project between Liu Zhenyun, one of the country’s most respected novelists, and Feng Xiaogang, creator of the cinematic blockbuster and China’s most successful director of mainstream films. The co-written script for the movie spawned the novel, both of which appeared at the end of 2003. While observing friends at a party kept busy answering cell phones, Liu noted the camouflage and pretenses employed in many of the conversations, which seemed to hold deep secrets, and he sensed that these instruments of ubiquitous communication could be a double-edged sword, capable of linking practical utility to moral expedience. That is the core issue of Liu’s novel, whose light-hearted, often comical tone lays a thin veil over the author’s evocation of the cost of technology’s incursion into urban life and the concomitant loss of privacy, already in short supply in Chinese society.

Finally, there’s also a piece from Torgny Lindgren’s The Tree and a special feature from translators Erika Sigvardsdotter and Bradley L. Garrett on Lindgren’s work:

The insular village surrounded by oceans of billowing needle trees is one of the recurring themes in Lindgren’s writing. In The Tree, this conceptual image is crucial. Isolated in time and space, the village comes to stand for the paradoxical pairing of insular, uncultivated narrow-mindedness and refined, perfected, material and social culture where everyone and everything knows its place and function. It is a seemingly eternal place, of great beauty and cultural depth, yet always on the brink of annihilation.

Asymptote is quickly establishing itself as one of the most interesting—and best designed—translation websites out there. Keep up the good (and beautiful!) work.

5 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Hungarian Literature Online has a really nice interview with Tim Wilkinson, who is probably best known as Imre Kertesz’s new translator.

But for all publishers out there, Tim’s translated a lot more than Kertesz. In fact, he has a whole host of translations sitting in his desk waiting for a publisher . . .

Which authors would you like to translate and why, if you had the time?

I often translate just for my own pleasure, independent of whether I’ve been commissioned or not by a publisher. If I manage to “sell” one of these translations later on, then all the merrier, but there’s usually no guarantee that this will ever happen. Consequently, I’ve done translations of works—usually one or two—written by ten to twelve different authors, but these manuscripts are still slumbering in the depths of my desk drawer. There is also a list of authors I haven’t translated yet, but would if I only had the time. Among them are István Szilágyi, László Végel, György Spiró and Dezső Tandori, whom I’ve lately included. Ádám Bodor and Péter Lengyel are also on this list, but I know others are already translating them.

And speaking of Kertesz:

In your opinion, what results in a bad translation? And what, do you think, really makes a translation come alive?

When reading a translation or any other piece of writing, it’s extremely obvious if a solid knowledge or understanding of the language just isn’t there. I wrote about this when Imre Kertész received the Nobel Prize. The first English translation of Kaddish for an Unborn Child was painfully bad and fully deserved my criticism that the child, in this case, was actually stillborn. There was hardly a decent sentence in the entire translation—true, Kertész does use rather lengthy sentences in this novel, but that is no excuse. The translation of Fatelessness was barely any better. (In this translation, for example, nine chapters were made into eleven, and I’m talking about the most basic level!) Last year there was an obviously young, American critic writing for an Internet journal who accused me of committing sacrilege, as if I had sent the Rosenberg couple to the electric chair. But if some person (or persons) does not possess a sufficient knowledge of either Hungarian or English, is this something that should remain unmentioned in a critique of the translation?

Unfortunately, there is a long list of English “translators” who really aren’t a great help to Hungarian literature. What makes a translation good? That’s obvious: exactly the opposite of everything I’ve already mentioned. Knowledge, understanding, the right kind of style… these are all very important. In a nutshell, if someone has never learned to write in good, polished English—his or her native language—then this someone will never be a good translator. It’s as simple as that.

2 January 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Hungarian Literature Online has a great article by Tim Wilkinson on the short prose of Nobel-winner Imre Kertesz.

Wilkinson has translated several Kertesz books, including Fatelessness, Kaddish for an Unborn Child, Liquidation, Detective Story, The Pathseeker: Searching for Traces, and The Union Jack, or The British Standard. (The last three are coming out in 2008—Knopf is bringing out Detective Story this month and Melville House is doing Pathseeker and The Union Jack later this year.)

The article is quite interesting, providing a great overview of Kertesz’s work and tying it into Beckett:

Galley-Boat Log indicates that Kertész was aware of Beckett’s work (despite official disapproval of it on the part of the Soviet bloc’s cultural tsars). Malone Dies evidently made a profound impression, because one can find several references to this in 1987. In mid-year he quotes: “I began again, to try and live . . . But little by little with a different aim, no longer in order to succeed, but in order to fail”; then, at the very end of that year, “I was born grave as others syphilitic,” and ”. . . he who has waited long enough will wait for ever. And there comes the hour when nothing more can happen and nobody more can come and all is ended but the waiting that knows itself in vain. Perhaps he had come to that.” There is another explicit reference to Malone Dies in Kaddish for an Unborn Child (“I began again, to try and live . . . But little by little with a different aim, no longer in order to succeed, but in order to fail”), and possibly also to Molloy (“It was a larch tree. It is the only tree I can identify with certainty…”), but maybe the most poignant is: “We have got rid of our rights” (Waiting for Godot). There are other references, such as the epigraph to Liquidation, which is again from Molloy: “Then I went back into the house and wrote, It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining.”

Sara Kramer from NYRB told me 2008 was going to be the “Year of the Hungarians,” and after reading this—and realizing Kertesz has three books coming out this year—I’m starting to believe her . . .

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