12 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The most recent addition to our review section is a piece by Daniela Hurezanu on Memory Glyphs: 3 Prose Poets from Romania, which was recently released in the U.S. by Twisted Spoon Press and is translated from the Romanian by Adam J. Sorkin with Radu Andriescu, Mircea Ivanescu, and Bogdan Stefanescu. Like all TSP books, the book itself is really elegant, and the contents aesthetically interesting.

In his preface, translator Adam Sorkin explains a bit about the collection:

First of all, the title of this anthology was lifted from the Radu Andriescu prose poem that closes the book, “The Aswan High Dam.”’ To me, the image suggests a major preoccupation of the prose poem, an esthetic amalgam as it were carved of blocks of words (as in the root of “glyph,” from the idea of cut or incised grooves or sacred symbols or script). In contrast to verse, the prose poem is a formless form, oxymoronic, with both lightness and heft, a chiseled, lapidary, elliptical poetry I have long admired. Not surprisingly then, the impetus for this anthology was my own, as was the choice of poets.

Daniela Hurezanu—who herself is a translator from both French and Romanian, and has even translated W.S. Merwin into French—wrote a fantastic review of this book that opens:

Of the three authors featured in the prose poem collection Memory Glyphs, beautifully translated from the Romanian by Adam Sorkin with Mircea Ivanescu, Bogdan Stefanescu and one of the poets (Radu Andriescu), only the latter is still alive. From the translator’s preface we find out that Cristian Popescu died when he was not even thirty-six “from a heart attack that was induced by his medication for schizophrenia and depression in potent mixture with vodka drinking.” Iustin Panta (pronounced Pantza) died at the same age as Popescu, in a car accident.

In Cristian Popescu’s prose poems, the author himself becomes a character—or so we assume, since we are dealing with someone called Cristi or Popescu. But he isn’t just any character; he is a figure in a family myth based on his own transfigured biography, in which the idyllic and the grotesque mingle in unexpected ways. I would say that, of the three authors, Popescu is the most untranslatable, not because of his language, but because of a certain Romanian sensibility, which is much harder to “translate” into English than words. For example, in “Advice from my mother,” he describes his mother who, after giving birth, felt crippled, and prepared to suckle her baby by powdering and rouging her breasts. She takes comfort, she says, “thinking that one day, someone will curse him [i.e., the baby] and tell him to stick himself back into his mother.” This is a slightly awkward translation of the most vulgar Romanian curse (“Go back into your mother’s c___!” or, in a more polite version, “Go back into your mother’s thing!”). In other words, Popescu’s image of his sentimental mother is done via the most obscene expression in the Romanian language. This union of some very contrary states—the sentimental and the utterly grotesque—which is natural for a Romanian, may not be for a native English-speaker.

Click here for the complete review.

12 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Of the three authors featured in the prose poem collection Memory Glyphs, beautifully translated from the Romanian by Adam Sorkin with Mircea Ivanescu, Bogdan Stefanescu and one of the poets (Radu Andriescu), only the latter is still alive. From the translator’s preface we find out that Cristian Popescu died when he was not even thirty-six “from a heart attack that was induced by his medication for schizophrenia and depression in potent mixture with vodka drinking.” Iustin Panta (pronounced Pantza) died at the same age as Popescu, in a car accident.

In Cristian Popescu’s prose poems, the author himself becomes a character—or so we assume, since we are dealing with someone called Cristi or Popescu. But he isn’t just any character; he is a figure in a family myth based on his own transfigured biography, in which the idyllic and the grotesque mingle in unexpected ways. I would say that, of the three authors, Popescu is the most untranslatable, not because of his language, but because of a certain Romanian sensibility, which is much harder to “translate” into English than words. For example, in “Advice from my mother,” he describes his mother who, after giving birth, felt crippled, and prepared to suckle her baby by powdering and rouging her breasts. She takes comfort, she says, “thinking that one day, someone will curse him [i.e., the baby] and tell him to stick himself back into his mother.” This is a slightly awkward translation of the most vulgar Romanian curse (“Go back into your mother’s c___!” or, in a more polite version, “Go back into your mother’s thing!”). In other words, Popescu’s image of his sentimental mother is done via the most obscene expression in the Romanian language. This union of some very contrary states—the sentimental and the utterly grotesque—which is natural for a Romanian, may not be for a native English-speaker.

Popescu’s self-mythologizing creates a sort of urban mythology grounded in self-mockery, a paradoxical world of antiheroes and sad clowns. Thus, “Anti-Portrait: A Psalm by Popescu” starts like this: “No, Lord. Neither more nor less, neither too much nor too little. And not quite Popescu.” Or, “Poetry”: “The earliest literary efforts of the poet Popescu date from the tender age of seven.” In the same poem we are told that Popescu wept so much in his youth that “they had to install a miniature urinal to collect the precious stones” that developed at the corners of his eyes.

Iustin Panta’s pieces are structurally unusual in that they combine verse poetry and prose within the space of the same poem. In the literal sense, the space of his poems is often enclosed—a room in which various objects come into focus—though several poems are about waiting for the train or the bus (one could write a treatise about Romanian poems revolving around the thorny topic of “public transportation”). Many of his poems refer to a “she” and are dialogues between “she” and the narrator. Of the three authors, Panta is probably the most cerebral, as his pieces are sometimes paradoxes or conundrums.

In “A Feminine Thought. A Feminine Thought?” pondering the difference between the breasts of a woman suckling a baby and her breasts laid bare otherwise, he concludes that the baby “continues” the breast and thus nullifies its voluptuousness. The woman is thus nullified too, proving to be “a fraud, a plagiarism,” like a fake painting one would examine under a magnifying glass. The infant is compared here to a magnifying glass revealing the breast’s “true nature,” so to speak, or rather the fact that its voluptuousness is really an illusion. But Panta goes on to challenge the true nature of this very thought by saying that this feminine thought, “seen through the magnifying glass! (itself, in turn, fake)” is also a falsehood.

Radu Andriescu’s prose poems are probably the most “poetic” in this collection in the sense that his style is more focused on its literariness and on artifice. Places and household objects are often the subject of his writings—a terrace, a stove, the wrought-iron winding stairs of his house, his neighborhood, whose depiction rivals that of a Turkish bazaar: the streets are crowded

with cardboard Poles and manic writers, with plumbers cloaked in a miasma of mercury vapors, with starched paunchy senators, with mutant garages turned into candy shops or fruit markets, their plaster hanging on spiderwebs . . . with decrepit geezers only thirty years old . . . apartment buildings nearly hidden by weeds and university dorms as dreary as a comb caked with dandruff . . . with stores soaked in cheap draft beer and artificially colored syrup masquerading as wine, both red and white, with Turkish delight and stale pretzels to bite, with nonfat yogurt, cellophane, bottles, foil, paper, with the flight of clouds, heaps of vacant days, whole wastelands of lost hours, a mixture of tar and cola, books and dust . . .

The sentence goes on for two and a half pages, a dazzling stylistic feat against what Andrei Codrescu once called “tight-ass minimalism.” Like Popescu, Andriescu too builds a mythologized universe replicating the real world in which he lives, and appears as a character in one of his poems. As I happened to read at the same time with this collection Peter Altenberg’s Telegrams of the Soul (Archipelago Books, 2005, translated from the German by Peter Wortsman), I realized that this objectification of the author is not infrequent in Eastern Europe. Altenberg too is a character in his own pieces: he is called Peter, he is a writer, and many of his scenes—often entirely in the form of dialogues—are sketches of everyday life.

Altenberg (1859-1919), a Viennese-Jewish writer whose admirers include Kafka, Musil and Mann, calls his pieces—which in this country are referred to as “prose poems”—“sketches.” His sources of inspiration are said to be the “feuilleton,” a lyrical form of journalistic prose that was popular at the turn of the twentieth century, and Baudelaire’s prose poems. “Sketch” was also a term used by Romanian writers (let’s not forget that until 1918, Transylvania, the Western part of Romania, was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire) in the early twentieth century. The master of the sketch was Ion Luca Caragiale (1852-1912) whose pieces were mostly dialogues (incidentally, Caragiale is the most famous Romanian playwright) written in a mood that would fall into the category of the absurd from a Western perspective (It is no accident that the French playwright of Romanian origin, Eugène Ionesco, was strongly influenced by Caragiale).

Paradoxically, although Romania is a very Francophile culture, and Romanian is the only Romance language in that part of the world, what we could call the “Romanian prose poem” is less influenced by the French tradition of the prose poem, its beginnings being closer to various forms of journalism (lyrical or satirical)—still practiced in Romania, where the most common profession among writers is that of journalist.

30 October 08 | Chad W. Post |

It’s a banal thing to say, but Twisted Spoon Press is one of the most under-appreciated small publishers. For years—sixteen according to its website—TSP has been producing beautiful editions of books by Central and Eastern European authors. Some of the names on their list are “names”—Bohumil Hrabal, Ladislav Klima, Peter Nadas, and Franz Kafka—but most are unknown to English readers. (See Hermann Ungar, whose The Maimed is a marvelous, dark novel that should be more widely read.)

Emil Hakl is a perfect example of what TSP does best. A relatively young Czech author (b. 1958), Hakl is the author of two short story collections, three novels, and a volume of poetry. He’s also the co-founder of the Moderni analfabet [Modern Illiterates] writer’s group, and Of Kids & Parents is his first work to be translated into English.

It’s not surprising that this particular title is the first of Hakl’s to be translated. It won the Magnesia Litera Book of the Year prize in 2003 and was made into a feature film. Which also isn’t surprising given the cinematic—and traditional independent film—qualities of the novel.

Written almost entirely in dialogue, the novel takes place over one night as a 42-year-old man and his 71-year-old father go from bar to bar drinking, talking about airplanes, about women, about everything. The book is narrated by the son, although expository sections are few and far between.

There’s a scene towards the end that pretty much embodies the core drifting nature of the book. Honza Benes (the son) accidentally text messages a wrong number, but gets a pleasant, flirtatious response from a woman on the other end. After a series of texts, they decide to meet until Honza makes an inappropriate joke:

And out of sheer joy it was moving on somewhere, wherever that might have been, I sent her a joke: AT BREAK OF DAWN LITTLE MARIENKA WALKS INTO KITCHEN AND SEES NAKED MAN STANDING BY FRIDGE. MORNING, R U OUR NEW BABYSITTER? NO, SAYS GUY, IM YOUR NEW MOTHERFUCKER!

Things cool down, but they eventually meet, she turns out to be a pleasant woman in a strained marriage, they drink some wine, go their separate ways. After telling the story, Honza’s dad chimes in:

“It’s a bit sad in terms of reality, but it would make a fine short story.”

“Except there’s no climax whatsoever.”

“As with everything that actually happens! You only get a climax in films and stupid books . . . Reality only ends in tears, for goodness’ sake!”

“You’re just a terrible pessimist, that’s all,” I said and went to take a leak.

This is a novel without a climax, or, going a step further, a conversation without a plot. Which isn’t meant to be disparaging—it is a very well conceived novel that’s very comfortable. It’s easy to slide into the repartee between the father and son, and to enjoy their interactions as the move from bar to bar.

Occasionally though, the dialogue and voice seem a bit off. I was surprised to find out, maybe a third of the way through the book, that the son was 42 years old. His speech patterns and choice of words made me think that he was probably in his late-twenties, and his father in his mid-fifties. And at a few crucial points (like when Honza admits to fathering a kid twenty years ago), some of the responses are a bit too distant and disinterested to fit with the rest of the book.

None of these quibbles are damning though. Of Kids & Parents is a good, quick read, and Hakl is obviously a talented writer. I’m looking forward to checking out more of his work.

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

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

Read More >

Live Bait
Live Bait by Fabio Genovesi
Reviewed by Megan Berkobien

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

Read More >

The Skin
The Skin by Curzio Malaparte
Reviewed by Peter Biello

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

Read More >

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

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

Read More >

Conversations
Conversations by César Aira
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

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

Read More >

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

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

The narrative history of. . .

Read More >

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

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

Read More >