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.
My Struggle: Book One by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and published by Archipelago Books
This post is written by Trevor Berrett who blogs at The Mookse and the Gripes, where readers from around the world are discussing all of the books from this year’s longlist in this forum. Definitely the best place to share your thoughts on this year’s longlist.
With My Struggle: Book One, Karl Ove Knausgaard began a six-volume (3,600 page) novel/autobiography in an attempt to exhaust everything at the age of forty. He knew it had to be long. He also knew he’d have to write it fast. So, at a rate of 5 to 20 pages per day, Knausgaard wrote these books over the course of about five years, moving at a headlong pace that purposefully outran any ideas of censorship or style. What makes such a long and seemingly self-indulgent experimental book worth reading and why should it win the Best Translated Book Award? Well, despite the fact that Knausgaard wrote at a breakneck pace, or perhaps because of this, the book is beautiful and direct as it weaves together thoughts and surroundings from various times in Knausgaard’s first four decades, all with immediacy. We get a strong sense of his urgency and are taken away. Knausgaard is working out his struggle, he’s opened it up for us to see, and by bringing us up close he allows us to feel the heat and energy or to stare in silence.
In the United Kingdom, the book was published as A Death in the Family, and indeed throughout the book we delve into death again and again. But it is about more than death. It’s about this life, about relationships, about the passage of time, about trying to find some kind of meaning in it all, about trying to be happy when everything seems to be going well but you still feel sad.
It does this by going through seemingly ordinary days in great detail. Often, the details and memories are banal. But even the banality of it all fits and is necessary for the book to have the effect it does. We do not see that which we see all the time, Knausgaard suggests. And most of the time it is in the banal that our lives are played out. That’s where we work out our feelings. This is shown well in the last 200 pages, around 70 of which are spent cleaning a home in preparation for the wake of Knausgaard’s despised father. How do we work through all of these conflicted feelings (he wanted his dad to die, “so why all these tears?”)? The answer: in the hours in which we clean, letting the thoughts come and go as they will.
In the end, this is a tremendously powerful and personal work of art. Yes, it is long and at times even tedious. Some of the detail is excessive and could be taken out. But I wouldn’t want it that way. To remove anything might disturb the balance, might make remove it even just a fraction of an inch. This is raw, and the struggle is beautiful. The tedium is meaningful—it may hold the most meaning of all: “Why should you live in a world without feeling its weight? Were we just images?”
A “walking” book, when I finished My Two Worlds I wrote, “It’s meandering (obviously), sometimes feels pointless (deliberately), and takes longer than one would expect to go a such a short distance (which works perfectly with the book’s plot).” It’s a slow-burner, but in the time since I finished it has only grown in my esteem. My Two Worlds is only just over 100 pages, but it took me some time to read because of the many layers and switch-backs not just in the global structure of the book but alaso in each sentence. The translation is a marvel. [. . .]
Q: What were some of the particular challenges of translating Chejfec’s work?
A: What sets Chejfec’s work apart from other fiction I’ve translated is the density and complexity of his sentences. There’s no coasting along; every sentence demands an intense scrutiny and a parsing through of meanings and possible translations. When I was working on My Two Worlds, I had to ask Sergio a million questions, to the point where a gloss on the book could be made from the Q&As in the emails that went back and forth
At the same, I noticed how crucial the “little” words were in qualifying the narrator’s ruminations, such as “I can’t be sure” or “anyhow” or “whatever,” the whole panoply of verbal stutters in English that express doubt or hesitation. Even these formulaic expressions needed to be sorted through and weighed in the English translation.
Q: Some of the pleasures?
A: The biggest one? That was when I reached a certain moment in the revision and could read long stretches of the novel as a novel, I mean, I could step back and enjoy the scenes as if it were any book I’d just picked up. You then flash back to an earlier stage when your draft was a mess, full of brackets around those phrases or sentences that resisted translation . . . So it was utterly gratifying in the end to feel myself being gripped by the story as would any other reader.
And throughout the project, it was a real joy to work with Sergio Chejfec. As I said, Sergio spent an enormous amount of time answering my questions, either in emails or in person. I don’t think he ever imagined his novel would be subject to the kind of microscopic scrutiny it underwent. I asked him once about what it was like to be translated and he said it was like a parable by Kafka; he had to offer his explanation to the Guardian of the Other Language so that the door would open. If that was the case, I loved my Kafkaesque role in this endeavor!
The response to My Two Worlds has been amazing. It’s the first translation I’ve done that’s made a perceptible ripple. Chad Post and the staff at Open Letter Books have done an exceptional job at getting the novel out there to the right readers, and it’s a thrill for me to read reviews or commentaries that quote from the translation itself.
Be sure and read the whole thing. And My Two Worlds. It really is a spectacular book . . .
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