7 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

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.

All posts in this series can be found here. Today’s entry is from Katy Derbyshire, translator from German and curator of Love German Books. And the book she loves is Visitation.

Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated by Susan Bernofsky

Language: German
Country: Germany
Publisher: New Directions
Pages: 150

Why It Should Win: Susan Bernofsky; in a sense, the main character is a house; Susan Bernofsky; the translation of the title (Heimsuchung).

Visitation, quite plainly, should win the BTBA because it’s a babe of a book, written by a thinking reader’s babe of an author and put into English by thinking reader’s babe of a translator. I’m allowed to say that; I’m a woman.

That may not be enough for you—although lord knows it should be, because it’s not just that men get much more review coverage, it also just happens to be more often men who win these literary and translation prizes, so my facetious argument is actually striking a blow for feminism. But in the interest of fairness, I shall provide a few more details.

Jenny Erpenbeck is an opera director who writes stunning novels. You might want to read that sentence twice because it’s so awesome. She once pretended to be 17 and went back to high school to research a book. Her mother was a highly respected translator from Arabic. And I’ve met her and she’s gorgeous.

Susan Bernofsky is a translator, scholar, writer and blogger. She teaches translation and creative writing and has written a biography of Robert Walser, who she also happens to translate. She’s co-curating the Festival Neues Literatur in NYC as we speak. And I’ve met her and she’s gorgeous. I was totally intimidated at first but then realized she’s not only one of the most impressive translator babes ever (and believe me, there’s a lot of tough competition on that front), she’s also actually really nice.

Just a quick recap here: we have two women both utterly devoted to and excellent at what they do. If that’s not worth a prize I don’t know what is. But you may be one of those people who thinks it’s books and not people that deserve prizes. In that case, you’ll want to know something about the book these two über-babes have been generous enough to give us, I suppose.

It’s a structure you may be familiar with: the house as the element uniting a series of narratives, as in Alaa-al-Aswany’s Yacoubian Building, Elif Shafak’s Flea Palace, and Nicole Krauss’s latest. Only Erpenbeck takes a very thorough chronological approach, going right back to the formation of the land itself, the previous owners of the plot, the house’s architect, and so on to its demolition some time after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Because the house is not far outside of Berlin, and so a witness to all that twentieth-century German history.

What I particularly adore about the novel is that it doesn’t focus solely on the Nazi era. But that’s a personal thing; I can only assume everyone else in the English-speaking world is utterly fascinated by Nazis, judging by the number of books dealing with them, either written in English or translated. So don’t worry, there are some Nazis and some murdered Jews and some collaborators in amongst all the other beautifully sketched characters. And to get to Susan Bernofsky’s excellent work, each section is written in a different style, gorgeously rendered in English as in German.

In other words, this is a novel with brains, brawn and beauty—it’s basically a babe of a book. If the BTBA were Miss World, Visitation would win the swimsuit competition and then turn down the main prize because she had to work on actually forging world peace once she’d completed her Ph.D.

7 December 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Phillip Witte on Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky and published earlier this year by New Directions.

Phillip Witte was an intern for Open Letter way back in the day, and also had a summer internship at New Directions. He’s a great reader, was a fantastic intern, and is one of those young people who gives me hope about the future of literary publishing. (Honestly.) Last I heard he was working at The Strand, although he may be looking for another publishing gig . . .

Anyway, Susan Bernofsky is awesome, and we’ve sang her praises any number of times on this blog. She’s told me repetitively about just how good this particular book is, and I feel like a horrible reader for not having found time to read it yet. (But soon! I can see this making the BTBA longlist, which is the perfect opportunity to set aside a few days to enjoy this.)

This is Jenny Erpenbeck’s third book to be published in translation by New Directions, the others being The Book of Words and The Old Child & Other Stories. I can’t begin to guess how many times I’ve heard great things about her books—in particular Visitation.

Anyway, on to Phil’s review:

Jenny Erpenbeck has already received a great deal of well-deserved critical acclaim in the wake of her third novel, Visitation (New Directions, translated by Susan Bernofsky), which Vogue has called “a remarkable achievement.” Such a response (especially coming from the mainstream, one is tempted to say) is very exciting for the cause of literary translation, and particularly in this case given the book’s unconventional tactics.

The novel eschews convention in many ways, foremost among them being that its central character is a place—on a lakeshore, a collection of adjacent properties, a summer getaway, a garden, a paradise. It is based on an actual place in Brandenburg, Germany, where Erpenbeck’s family had a summer home for the latter part of the 20th century. In her recent interview with Vogue, Erpenbeck explains how she arrived at the present work: It began as an effort to retain something of the lost childhood home (a desire we can all relate to, especially those of us who have only recently fled the nest). As it progressed, however, Erpenbeck widened the novel’s attention from her own relationship with the house to the house itself as a locus of the lives, stories, comings and goings of its many inhabitants over the twentieth century.

Twelve of these inhabitants drift in and out of the book; unnamed for the most part, they are of all ages, and they come from all different sides of Germany’s many different conflicts of the long century. The original Jewish owners of the house emigrate before the Nazi threat in the 30s. A Nazi architect renovates the house, delighting his young wife’s whims with a hidden closet and a metal bird affixed to the balcony railing. During the Russian advance at the end of World War II, a Russian officer takes up brief residence in the architect’s bedroom, unaware of the architect’s wife hidden in the secret closet. After the war, the architect is forced into exile for illegally doing business with the West, and is replaced by a communist writer and her family, returning from their own Siberian exile. In the nineties, a young married couple who enjoy sailing on the lake briefly occupy the toolshed as subtenants.

Click here to read the full piece.

7 December 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Jenny Erpenbeck has already received a great deal of well-deserved critical acclaim in the wake of her third novel, Visitation (New Directions, translated by Susan Bernofsky), which Vogue has called “a remarkable achievement.” Such a response (especially coming from the mainstream, one is tempted to say) is very exciting for the cause of literary translation, and particularly in this case given the book’s unconventional tactics.

The novel eschews convention in many ways, foremost among them being that its central character is a place—on a lakeshore, a collection of adjacent properties, a summer getaway, a garden, a paradise. It is based on an actual place in Brandenburg, Germany, where Erpenbeck’s family had a summer home for the latter part of the 20th century. In her recent interview with Vogue, Erpenbeck explains how she arrived at the present work: It began as an effort to retain something of the lost childhood home (a desire we can all relate to, especially those of us who have only recently fled the nest). As it progressed, however, Erpenbeck widened the novel’s attention from her own relationship with the house to the house itself as a locus of the lives, stories, comings and goings of its many inhabitants over the twentieth century.

Twelve of these inhabitants drift in and out of the book; unnamed for the most part, they are of all ages, and they come from all different sides of Germany’s many different conflicts of the long century. The original Jewish owners of the house emigrate before the Nazi threat in the 30s. A Nazi architect renovates the house, delighting his young wife’s whims with a hidden closet and a metal bird affixed to the balcony railing. During the Russian advance at the end of World War II, a Russian officer takes up brief residence in the architect’s bedroom, unaware of the architect’s wife hidden in the secret closet. After the war, the architect is forced into exile for illegally doing business with the West, and is replaced by a communist writer and her family, returning from their own Siberian exile. In the nineties, a young married couple who enjoy sailing on the lake briefly occupy the toolshed as subtenants.

The only person who remains quietly in the background throughout the book is the gardener, constantly performing the same rituals of planting, pruning, beekeeping and harvesting. Erpenbeck’s scrupulous repetition in describing these actions, laced with minute changes, enacts the cycle of seasons and years in which everything stays more or less the same even as everything decays and is renewed. Erpenbeck’s prose in Susan Bernofsky’s translation tends toward luxurious run-on sentences that nevertheless must end. The gardener does eventually disappear, but the villagers continue to tell fantastic stories about him.

The novel is divided into short chapters, each devoted to a brief moment of these lives and the lives of their neighbors and children. In shimmering prose full of radical juxtaposition, minute descriptions of daily routines are tightly interwoven with rhapsodic fits of reminiscence. Fragments of speech unassigned to any particular speaker echo like ghosts in an empty house. The immediate concerns of these people are as various as their backgrounds; what unites them is the place, the garden and the house, which most of them badly want but can’t quite allow themselves to call home.

The word itself, home—where and what it is, how we manage to find it, keep it, lose it, and find it again—seems ultimately what is most at issue for Erpenbeck. Unable to hold on to her childhood home in actuality, Erpenbeck sought to do so in writing; far from answering the problem, Visitation seems to complicate it in the most beautiful fashion. The word visitation may indicate Bernofksy’s take on the problem, taking into account the original title Heimsuchung, which also translates as “home searching.”

Perhaps in this search we really only make nothing more than visits to various places. Yet we keep looking, maybe because the idea, the word home itself, keeps drawing us on. In one early chapter, “The Cloth Manufacturer,” Erpenbeck lets home resound among achingly familiar scenes of quiet family life in the countryside:

Arthur says to him, Ludwig, his son: let me take a turn, and he picks up the spade himself and tosses the earth back into the hole all around the root ball. Ludwig places his arm around Anna, his future wife, and the two of them look at the broad, glittering surface of the lake. Home. Why does everyone like looking at the water so much, Doris asks. I don’t know, Anna replies. Doris says, maybe because there’s so much empty sky above a lake, because everyone likes to see nothing sometimes. You can let go now, Arthur says to Doris.

This is the Jewish family, the original owners, forced to flee by the threat of the Nazis. In a later chapter, “The Writer,” a communist family has returned from an exile imposed by the same threat. The chapter is sprinkled with a similar recurring phrase:

This doctor wasn’t even born yet when she returned to Germany. He has traveled to Japan with one or the other government delegation, to Egypt, to Cuba. I a-m g-o-i-n-g h-o-m-e. Down in the kitchen the cook is making the plates clatter, the gardener is sitting on the threshold to his room, on the meadow her granddaughter and the boy next door are spraying each other with water. . . .

The recurring phrase, “I a-m g-o-i-n-g h-o-m-e”, represents a fragment typed out at the tail end of the writer’s current work-in-progress. Living in the house, enjoying the garden, sitting to dinner with her whole family: these are not home; she hasn’t gotten there, wherever it is, yet; she is still “going.” And the fact that the repeated phrase is spelled out with dashes reminds us that it is typed: it unifies the act of heimsuchung with the act of writing, as the author set out to do. Unlike the sentence, it does not necessarily have an end—which is just as well, because Visitation is well worth reading again.

8 September 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Love German Books is rocking my world today . . . In addition to the German Book Prize roundup we wrote about earlier, Katy also has an interview with Susan Bernofsky about her translation of Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation, a novel that sounds really curious . . . Here’s the description from the New Directions website:

A house on the forested bank of a Brandenburg lake outside Berlin (once belonging to Erpenbeck’s grandparents) is the focus of this compact, beautiful novel. Encompassing over one hundred years of German history, from the nineteenth century to the Weimar Republic, from World War II to the Socialist German Democratic Republic, and finally reunification and its aftermath, Visitation offers the life stories of twelve individuals who over the decades seek to make their home in this one magical little house. The novel breaks into the everyday life of the house and shimmers through it, while relating the passions and fates of its inhabitants. Elegant and poetic, Visitation forms a literary mosaic of the last century, tearing open wounds and offering moments of reconciliation, with its drama and its exquisite evocation of a landscape no political upheaval can truly change.

Katy’s interview is really interesting (in part because she’s a translator and asks good questions, in part because Susan is great at giving interviews), such as this story about translating Erpenbeck’s The Book of Words:

Jenny is wonderful to work with. She’s very generous about answering questions and giving feedback when I’m not sure how to handle one of her many untranslatables – for example in The Book of Words I wound up having to make up a whole little passage about lilies and lilies-of-the-valley to replace her play on Näglein (little nails) in the dialect sense of Nelken (carnations), and it was very helpful to be able to talk it through with her.

Actually we had a little incident in that same book – she didn’t think to tell me that she had cobbled together an entire word-collage page based on her own translations of lines from American pop songs circa 1978 – thank goodness I noticed one of them, and then my editor Declan Spring noticed a lot more, and then Jenny sent me a list of all the songs she’d used. It would have been nuts if all those titles had wound up as back-translations from her (sometimes rather idiosyncratic) German renderings. But now she’s taken to compiling, for each book, a list of all the questions her translators ask her – then she sends the list around to the other translators, just as a FYI. Now that’s an exemplary author.

And for those interested in Susan’s upcoming projects:

KD: Do you follow contemporary German writing? Is there a writer or a book you’d love to translate but haven’t yet had the chance?

SB: Yes, I do, in part by reading your blog! And there are a lot of really interesting writers who haven’t been translated yet. Right now I’m rooting for Wolfgang Herrndorf (I love his stories in Jenseits des Van Allen-Gürtels). And I really wanted to translate Gerhard Falkner’s short novel Bruno, but I couldn’t find a publisher who wanted to commit to the project.

KD: What are you working on right now?

I’ve been translating a beautiful book of poems by Uljana Wolf, Falsche Freunde/False Friends (they’re prose poems that play with letters of the alphabet). We just found out that Ugly Duckling Presse in Brooklyn is going to publish it, which is wonderful news. Next after that will be a 19th century horror story for New York Review Books: The Black Spider by Jeremias Gotthelf. I can’t wait! It’s one of the most frightening stories I’ve ever read, and also one of the most beautiful.

Finally, for those of you in the Rochester area, Susan is going to be here on September 23rd to talk with Barbara Epler, the publisher of New Directions. They’ll be primarily talking about Robert Walser, though I’m sure the conversation will spill over into other translations, including the Erpenbeck books Susan’s done for ND.

....
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