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.

14 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

CALQUE has an excellent piece by translator Vincent Kling on the recent death of Austrian writer Gert Jonke. Kling’s piece and the five short pieces he translated are all worth reading, but here are a few highlights:

Parody is alive and well: a rough parallel from the 2008 election in the United States is found in the considerable part Tina Fay played on Saturday Night Live in focusing opposition to Sarah Palin – rough because Jonke was a master at making political points without such direct reference. In one of his last plays, for instance, a character laments that the national assembly has sold all the air space over the country to a monopolistic advertising agency, which will erect huge banners to blot out the sun, moon, stars, the birds in flight, and the wind. Too buffoonishly over the top? Not when people in Vienna recall that the tower of the cathedral and other landmarks were long draped by scaffolding over which advertisements for insurance companies were hung and that one firm has in fact recently been granted exclusive legal rights to all the billboards in the city. [. . .]

Ordered perceptions are a sometime thing anyway. “Hyperbole 1,” from a series of snapshots or vignettes in drama form called Insektarium, is one of several studies by Jonke showing the social origins of perception and memory. That process forms the basis of his Geometric Regional Novel. If the difference between how the human eye and the insect eye perceive their surroundings is a marvel of nature, it might be even more miraculous to ponder how different the outside world can appear to any two human observers. The man and the woman are watching the same circus performance but placing opposite meanings on the same phenomena. Even as the show is taking place, not after it, the observers are “distorting” reality by negotiating an understanding of what they’re seeing and then storing those “distortions” in their memory. [. . .]

“The Projector” is thus a shorter, funnier, but not less powerful version of stories like George Perec’s W or The Memory of Childhood, Doron Rabinovici’s The Search for M., or W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, right down to the realization that restoring memory, or being provided one in the first place, starts the process of resolution almost regardless of how dreadful the events were. Not knowing what one intuits is worse, because the horror is present in sublimated but damaging form, unavailable for processing. The spotless mind does not experience eternal sunshine, to cite another film about memory, for it isn’t spotless; its blankness is already a taint. Nor is the conferring or denying of memory unconnected here with rewarding or punishing consumer behavior; the owner of the movie theater reserves the right to make the audience happy or miserable based purely on payment, so the tensions of capitalist structures, always present in Jonke and always reduced to their logical absurdities, make up another theme.

Jonke was an amazing author, and thanks to Dalkey Archive and Ariadne Books, a number of titles are now available (or will be shortly), all of which can be ordered from Skylight Books by clicking here.

12 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We’re into the home stretch now . . . For the next two weeks we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.



Homage to Czerny: Studies in Virtuoso Technique by Gert Jonke, translated from the German by Jean M. Snook. (Austria, Dalkey Archive)

Homage to Czerny: Studies in Virtuoso Technique is the second Jonke book that Dalkey has published, the first being the insanely comic Geometric Regional Novel. And if you like these, there’s even more Jonke on the horizon. In 2009, Ariadne Press is bringing out Blinding Moment: Four Pieces about Composers and Dalkey is doing another (can’t find the title right now) next fall.

This particular novel consists of two linked novellas. The first is “The Presence of Memory” and centers around an annual party thrown by Anton Diabelli and his sister Johanna. But in contrast to past parties, the one this year is going to be different . . . er, exactly the same:

What’s your brother doing? I asked

He’s comparing the photos he took of last year’s party, Johanna answered, with the positions of things as they have been laid out for this evening.

Why?

So there aren’t any mistakes.

What mistakes?

Everything should be exactly as it was at last year’s party, answered the photographer’s sister. [. . .]

What’s going to take place here this evening, said Johanna, is not supposed to be one of our usual summer parties, but rather an exact reflection, no, much more than a reflection: a REPETITION OF THE PARTY that we had last year on the same day at the same time.

It’s supposed to be exactly the same party again, added Diabelli.

Filled with strange conversations, and a nice twist at the end, “The Presence of Memory” is a cute story, made up of some nice, funny moments.

In my opinion, the stronger of the two novellas is the latter, “Gradus Ad Parnassum,” which is about two brothers—both formerly promising composers—stuck in the attic of the conservatory they attended with 111 dusty pianos.

The narrator was a very promising composer, whose career was derailed by his alcohol dependence, and who’s going through withdrawal while they’re trapped in the attic. His brother was a very promising student, except that he had a problem moving his fourth finger independently of the third or fifth, “and it’s this ability that ensures that you can play a scale or an arpeggio exactly evenly in every respect.” He addressed this problem—and failed in addressing it—in a very Jonke-ian way:

I remember that before we took our final examinations in music my brother had screwed a completely useless gadget around his fingers and soon after maintained that he couldn’t move his fingers at all anymore.

Eventually they’re rescued from the attic and the “mystery” of the 111 pianos is unveiled, leading to a pretty absurd predicament.

The main reason I wanted to cover Jonke’s book today though is because he passed away last week and Vincent Kling, one of Jonke’s friends and translators, wrote a nice piece about him:

“. . . because you keep on dreaming your dream about flying and open our eyes to a freedom that might not really exist but that we couldn’t live without.” This tribute to Gert Jonke was spoken by the artistic director of the Burgtheater in Vienna in conferring a significant theater prize last October. By then, the cancer that ended Jonke’s life on January 4 had visibly marked him. Americans can recall the sorrow over David Foster Wallace’s death to feel a similar loss. Wallace died unexpectedly, Jonke by stages the public saw, for he did not cut back on his appearances and was planning on making his debut as an actor later this month. But both writers had exceptional talent, versatility and virtuosity, and clarity within complexity. Decent men, too, people agree—Jonke was never known to say a bad word about anyone, focusing on his craft and ignoring hype and buzz. [. . .]

Jonke was the first recipient of the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in 1977 and later he won almost every prize, distinction, award, grant, and honor imaginable, but there wasn’t a whiff of competitiveness about him. While others postured and strutted and pontificated at awards ceremonies in his honor, he would get up and rhapsodize a half-impromptu acceptance speech richer and more satisfying than any item on the select menu. He never pretended to take awards for granted, and it was clear he was having a grand old time. He told me how happy he was to see his work better known, and he was especially taken with Italian and French renderings of his novels. Translators who came to pay their respects usually left feeling as if they were the main event.

It’s a sad loss for literature, and I’m especially glad that Homage made the long list—it’s a small way of honoring his literary achievements and bringing some additional attention to his work.

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