Thanks to a blown out tire, which forced me to spend most of last Friday riding in a tow truck and sitting in a tire shop, I didn’t have a chance to write my weekly Weekend Reading post.1 So this week, I’m going to triple up on the normal post and write about the three books I hope to spend the next four days reading.
First up is Wiesław Myśliwski’s A Treatise on Shelling Beans, which is translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston and published by Archipelago Books. In case you don’t remember, Bill’s translation of Myśliwski’s Stone Upon Stone won the Best Translated Book Award in 2012, so I’ve been looking forward to this for a couple years.
And to be honest, I’ve been reading it for the last week. In many ways, it’s similar to Stone Upon Stone—a long, looping monologue detailing the crazy adventures of one person’s life, very plain language, intricate narrative structure—but also a bit different in the way that narrator isn’t quite as self-mythologizing as the guy from Stone Upon Stone, and the general setting (in a part of Poland completely destroyed in WWII). Regardless, it’s an excellent book, and one that I’m definitely going to finish tonight or tomorrow, and will be reviewing in full next week.
Next up is a book I should’ve read years ago: The Girl with the Golden Parasol by Uday Prakash, translated from the Hindi by Jason Grunebaum, and available from Yale University Press. Jason is a good friend, and one of the funniest people I know, which is one reason it’s inexcusable that I’ve had this on my “to read” shelf for so many months.
The main reason I’m picking it up now though is thanks to Jason’s essay “Choosing an English for Hindi” from the invaluable collection, In Translation, which was put together by Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky.
In this essay, Jason invents two possible readers for this novel—Krishna, who lives in South Delhi, is a polyglot who is comfortable reading and speaking in Hindi, English, and Panjabi; and Kris, an English-reader born in Detroit and living in Chicago who has lots of South Asian friends and has attended bhangra dance parties. The crux of Jason’s piece is on whether he should translate The Girl with the Golden Parasol for Krishna (and the potentially huge audience of Indians who would be comfortable reading this book in English), or for Kris (and the much smaller number of American counterparts who might buy this), and what falls out from that particular decision.
Leaving certain words from the Hindi in the English translation won’t be the only difference in strategy if I translate for Krishna. I might also decide to write in a more South Asianized English. I might use an idiomatic phrase like, “I am just coming,” confident that Krishna would take this to mean what in American English would translate as, “I’ll be right back.” Sometimes Uday’s characters use English words in their Hindi or even speak in complete English sentences, like when the protagonist, Rahul, bursts into tears, and his friend implores him (and this is the Hindi), “Don’t be senti, Rahul!” “Senti” comes from the word “sentimental,” and here means an excessive public display of emotion: when someone loses it, can’t keep a grip on himself, fails to keep a grip on himself or hold it together. Krishna would know what “senti” means, and I could leave this, and many other instances of English-in-the-Hindi, as is.
There are several more interesting examples, but you’ll just have to buy, borrow, or steal In Translation to find out what they are.
And the last book I’d like to get to this weekend: The Only Happy Ending for a Love Story Is an Accident by J. P. Cuenca, translated by Elizabeth Lowe, and available from Tagus Press.
First off, this is a Brazilian book, and if you’ve been following this blog at all the past few months, you’ve probably heard about my Brazil obsession. (Which will culminate in our publication of Rafael Cardoso’s The Chronicle of the Murdered House in Margaret Jull Costa’s translation a few years from now.) As a result, I’ve been reading bunches of Brazilian books, but mostly by author’s I’d already heard of. By contrast, I hadn’t heard of J. P. Cuenca until reading “Before the Fall” in Granta’s special young Brazilian authors issue.
It’s also really intriguing that the setting for this book is Tokyo, in the near future, and featuring a mad poet whose hobby is spying on his son. I’ve read the first few chapters in this book, and can confirm that the jack copy is pretty much on target:
In poetic and imaginative language, Cuenca subtly interweaves reality and fiction, creating a dreamlike world whose palpable characters, including a silicone doll,2 leave a lasting impression. Written like a crime novel, full of odd events and reminiscent of Haruki Murakami’s work,3 this disturbing, kaleidoscopic story of voyeurism and perversion draws the reader in from the very first page.
What I really like about this book though is the title. Such a great title. And the fact that it’s from Tagus Press, a relatively new venture specializing in lusophone writing.
Anyway, that’s it for this week—see you after the break!
1 OK, yes, I know this is only “weekly” in my mind, but I do have every intention of making this a more regular feature. Also, to follow up on the last one of these posts—the one about Viviane by Julia Deck—I have to tell you that Viviane turned out to be amazing. So amazing that I’m going to be teaching it in my class next semester, and highly recommend it to everyone.
2 If I had written this copy, I would’ve referred to Yoshiko as a “silicone sex doll.” I’m not sure how accurate that is, but from the first page: “I could not be anything else because I have this body, and I only have this body, I am this body. And the purpose of this body is just one thing: to serve Mr. Okuda.”
3 But better.
Like most people in publishing—or most readers I know—I have approximately a hundred million books on my “to read” shelves. Which in no way stops me from buying more and more books, or, in this case, setting aside everything I “should” be reading to check out a book that won’t be available until April of next year.
The sort of cryptic, yet promising opening of the jacket copy first caught my attention:
Viviane is both an engrossing murder mystery and a gripping exploration of madness, a narrative that tests the shifting boundaries of language and the self. For inspiration, author Julia Deck read the work of Samuel Beckett, because, as she says, “he positions himself within chaos and gives it coherence.”
But it’s this line from the second paragraph that convinced me that I should read this right now:
You are not entirely sure, but it seems to you that four or five hours ago, you did something that you shouldn’t have.
Writing in the second-person is tough to pull off, but that sentence is basically perfect.
Aside from that, I don’t know too much more about this book. It’s published by Minuit—which is surprising, since they don’t often publish debut novels—and will be coming out New Press next year in Linda Coverdale’s translation. And it was nominated for the Prix Femina, the Prix France Inter, and the Prix du Premier Roman, three of France’s ten thousand literary awards.
Also of importance: This is a slim 149 pages, which is the perfect length for me to read tonight, seeing that most of the rest of my weekend will be consumed with baseball watching . . . I’ll let you know on Monday if it’s as good as Wacha’s postseason.
If you’re looking for a book to read this weekend, one worth checking out is Boris Kachka’s Hothouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America’s Most Celebrated Publishing House, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Coincidentally, my copy is supposed to arrive today, AND, more relevantly, Publishing Perspectives has a nice write-up about this in today’s issue.
For 35 years, Roger Straus would swagger into the Frankfurt Book Fair, going through the neo-Baroque gates of the Festhall, wearing his bespoke wide-pinstriped suits and an ascot, a mixture of high-born privilege and gruff John Wayne attitude. Straus had founded the great American literary press Farrar, Straus and Giroux and made himself into the sailor-mouthed prince of New York publishing. Straus’ triumphant return every year to Frankfurt was an event in its own right. He was known as the King of the Book Fair.
At Straus’ side was Peggy Miller, his longtime secretary, gatekeeper, and confidant. For Straus, Frankfurt was five days of hard-driving deals, trading bawdy publishing gossip and going to parties in his chauffeured Mercedes with his friends and admirers from the major European publishing houses, including Siegfried Unseld of Germany’s Suhrkamp Verlag and Matthew Evans of Britain’s Faber and Faber.
Straus forms the ribald center of Boris Kachka’s new book Hothouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America’s Most Celebrated Publishing House, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (Simon and Schuster), an in-depth look at the creation and ascendancy of FSG in the New York book world and its championing foreign novelists, Nobel laureates and great literature and poetry, from Susan Sontag to Edmund Wilson, to Tom Wolfe and Jonathan Franzen.
I suspect that most people reading this are already familiar with FSG, but here’s a brief overview of the time period that Boris most focuses on:
From the founding of the press in the late 1940s, Straus turned his attention to Europe, buying translation rights for great Italian and French writers like Carlo Levi, Alberto Moravia and Marguerite Yourcenar at bargain rates. Straus also developed a reputation as a hard bargainer, and as publisher was known for his low salaries for his staff and paltry advances for his authors. The “Straus discount” became shorthand for low pay for rewarding work by both editors and writers.
The heyday of FSG started when Straus hired Robert Giroux, an extremely talented editor who was being mistreated at Harcourt Brace, where the publisher had blocked Giroux’s purchase of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Where Straus was a wealthy and flamboyant publisher who loved his extravagant publishing lunches with writers and agents, Giroux was a self-made editor who had come from a poor French-Canadian Catholic family. Giroux ate the same lunch everyday — a turkey sandwich and Jello at his desk for the four decades he worked at FSG. Giroux championed such writers as Flannery O’Connor and Bernard Malamud.
And even if you’re not in publishing this book should appeal to you—and not just for all the sordid sex scandals:
Hothouse is great fun to read, with much inside baseball information about the publishing industry, with stories like Roger Straus saving Edmund Wilson from jail and the IRS in the early 1960s by buying Wilson’s gossipy diaries and by “prepaying” Wilson’s advance money to payoff IRS debts. There is also much about the mechanics of building a great American press from scratch and FSG’s survival during times of anemic profit margins.
S&S’s promotion of Hothouse plays on the publishing industry appeal of the book. In a pre-pub mailer sent to 5,000 industry professionals, the copy said, “DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT ASKING US FOR A FREE COPY.”
Kachka’s book, however, should hit a larger audience outside of New York publishing because it is a rip-roaring tale of American intellectual culture after the war, and how this culture changed as independent publishing houses were sucked up by corporations and when writers like Philip Roth and Ian Frazier realized they were worth more money for their books.
Since I just finished plowing through the fantastic La Grande by Juan Jose Saer, I’m hoping to unwind this weekend with a little insider baseball FSG gossipy fun.
I hate to admit it, but a few years ago, when Archipelago first sent me a copy of Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin, I assumed that it was a book that I was probably never going to read. I mean, it’s a book about a farmer. A quiet book about a farmer. An introspective aging farmer taking care of his invalid father. From the jacket copy:
Ostensibly a novel about the countryside, The Twin ultimately poses difficult questions about solitude and the possibility of taking life into one’s own hands. It chronicles a way of life that has resisted modernity, a world culturally apart yet laden with familiar longing.
Nothing about this seems like the sort of jagged, crazy, confusing, challenging books that I generally find myself drawn to.
But man was I wrong about this one.
I did end up reading it, and recommended it for the Best Translated Book Award shortlist. And damn, is it a spectacular book. Everything’s so understated in here, but never boring. Here’s what “I wrote about it back in 2010:”:
[I] started reading one night and literally couldn’t put this down. There’s something mesmerizing in Bakker’s prose, in the way he slowly builds the sense of isolation and duty that rules Helmer’s life. Unveiling secrets small and large in very precise, stark language. Lyrical in an understated way.
Now, although Bakker didn’t win the BTBA that year, he did end up winning the IMPAC, which helped give this book a significant boost and practically ensured that his other books would eventually make their way into English.
Which brings us to Ten White Geese, which comes out from Penguin on the 26th. I received a copy of this just a few days ago, and haven’t had a chance to start it, but unlike my reaction back in 2009, this time I’m certain that I’ll read this.
Especially since John Siciliano hand wrote me a note stating that this was “perhaps my favorite of all the novels I’ve published.” That’s some high praise from a very trustworthy source.
Once again, the set-up sounds quiet and introspective. According to the copy, it’s a novel “haunted by the spirit of Emily Dickinson” and takes place in rural Wales. On a farm. With geese. And cows, dogs, badgers, etc. But in contrast to The Twin, this sounds a bit more mysterious and tinged with danger.
On the farm she finds ten geese. One by one they disappear. Who is this woman? Will her husband manage to find her? The young man who stays the night: Why won’t he leave? And the vanishing geese?
Back in 2003, Other Press—one of the most interesting independent presses out there—brought out a book about Walt Disney entitled The Perfect American by Peter Stephan Jungk and translated from the Germany by Michael Hofmann.
I remember hearing about this book from my friend Blake Radcliffe (which, I still maintain, would be a fantastic porn star name . . . Blake Radcliffe and Lexy Spry . . .) when he worked at Other Press. It sounds pretty interesting—the novel focuses on the last few months of crazy Walt Disney’s crazy Walt Disney life (his delusions of immortality, EPCOT as Utopia, etc.) from the point of view of Wilhelm Dantine, a cartoonist who worked for Disney on Sleeping Beauty.
Unfortunately, I never got around to reading this (sorry Blake!), but I’m planning on getting to it soon, since Other Press just brought out a paperback edition to celebrate the new Philip Glass opera version that just premiered in Madrid.
From the New York Times:
Peter Stephan Jungk’s novel The Perfect American is a surreal, meditative, episodic account of the last days of Walt Disney.
It seems at first glance to be an ideal source for an opera by Philip Glass, whose surreal, meditative, episodic explorations of the lives of famous men — always men — have formed the bulk of his prodigious operatic output. [. . .]
At the fourth performance on Wednesday, the subtle, moody score, at war between its propulsive and serene impulses, felt more than equal in quality to the festive occasion. While criticisms of Mr. Glass’s music as cookie-cutter have always been misguided, The Perfect American finds him in especially unpredictable form, experimenting with sonorities, textures and pacing.
Led by the Glass veteran Dennis Russell Davies with careful attention to both its underlying pulse and its twists of temperament, the opera opens with an ominous, low murmur punctuated by sharp, syncopated percussion snaps. The sound gradually expands through the orchestra and warms into something that, under Mr. Davies, has more gentle swing than the relentless forward motion generally associated with Mr. Glass.
The music often seems devised to trail off, to run out of steam as it expresses Disney’s struggle with the cancer from which he died in 1966 at 65. But there is nothing exhausted about its inventiveness. Simultaneously eclectic and cohesive, the score incorporates strange, fractured brass fanfares out of Janacek’s Makropulos Case and lilting, seductive rhythms that feel almost foxtrotty, like a misty echo of the 1930s.
Here’s a promo video from Teatro Real:
Too bad I’m not planning a trip to Madrid any time soon . . . At least I can read the book.
And since I LOVE Rework: Philip Glass Remixed album that just came out, and SUPER LOVE Dan Deacon, here’s his contribution, “Alight Spiral Snip.”
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