I like the fact that the BTBA has a strong track record for picking not only the massive, monumental doorstoppers that tend to garner the lion’s share of award attention but also the slim, sleek books that are often much richer and better-constructed. The best possible example is our first award, in which we gave the svelte Tranquility by Attila Bartis the nod over the imposing 2666 from, of course, Roberto Bolaño. 2011 saw us pick the slender The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson (beating out sizable finalists Hocus Bogus by Romain Gary, Agaat by Marlene Van Niekerk, and Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer by Ernst Weiss). But we’ve also gone for the bulky books: in 2013 we gave it to the sizable Satantango by Laszlo Krasznahorkai, and in 2012 is was Wiesław Myśliwski’s epic Stone Upon Stone.
So, in that spirit, here’s my discussion of some of the more sizable books that I both think are strong contenders for the award, and that I think should be left out.
Blinding by Mircea Cartarescu.
This is, quite simply, one of the most amazing books I’ve read this year. Cartarescu is one of the few authors I’ve read that could legitimately claim the legacy of Thomas Pynchon (now that Pynchon is writing parodies of himself). I’ll have lots more to say about it in an upcoming review at The Kenyon Review, but for now, here are links to a review and interview at The Quarterly Conversation. Read it.
My Struggle: Book Two by Karl Ove Knausgaard
I have a feeling that when it’s all said and done, this will be many people’s favorite volume of the My Struggle sextet. It’s subtitled “A Man In Love,” and that’s just what it is: the story of Knausgaard falling in love with the woman who is now his wife. There are so many passionate, ecstatic moments in here that anyone who has ever been in love will recognize, wrought extraordinarily well by Knausgaard. Plus, the book also has: his on and off feud with his crazy neighbor, who might be a prostitute; why he hates interviews; and the story of the incident in which he turned his face into a bloody mess with a razor blade.
Leg over Leg, Volume 1 and 2 by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq
This is billed as the Arabic world’s answer to Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne. Apparently it begins with a lengthy list of synonyms for various parts of the male and female genitalia.
Seiobo There Below by Laszlo Krasznahorkai
If the Nobel committee would ever give their award to a writer like Krasznahorkai, this would be the book they would give it to him for. An inquiry into what humanity needs spirituality that is unlike anything I have ever read. Grand in scope, accomplishment, virtuosity. Grand, grand, grand. Read my review in Wednesday’s Washington Post.
Where Tigers Are at Home by Jean-Marie Blas de Robles
Reviews have made this book sound extremely diverse and remarkably achieved. Could either be incredible or too big for its own good.
A Treatise on Shelling Beans by Wiesław Myśliwski
Okay, the title of this book is not awesome. But it is by the author of Stone Upon Stone, a book that seemingly everybody loves (I did enjoy it). And it is reputed to be even more of a masterpiece than that one.
City of Angels or, The Overcoat of Dr. Freud by Christa Wolf
An autobiographical look at ‘90s Los Angeles interspersed with memories of the Eastern Bloc where she re-discovers that she was actually a Stasi agent? Might just be crazy enough to work.
In the Night of Time by Antonio Munoz Molina
Billed as the War and Peace of the Spanish Civil War. Muñoz Molina is certainly one of Spain’s pre-eminent authors, but I’ve already read War and Peace.
Altai by Wu Ming
I’m tossing this on because “Wu Ming” is an awesome name and it’s a pseudonym for a collective of Italian writers. How cool is that? Apparently not cool enough to make something more than middlebrow Dan Brown. The collective’s previous book, Q, was a massive hit: I hope this book makes Verso boatloads of money so they can keep publishing Badiou and Ranciere.
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.
Following up on last week’s post about the Guardian‘s New Europe Series, this morning they ran the pieces about Poland, including What They’re Reading in Poland, which focuses on an Open Letter author:
However, the literary mainstream is made up of authors who follow Witold Gombrowicz, who teaches distance from those models of Polish identity. Janusz Rudnicki, Marcin Swietlicki, Michał Witkowski and Jerzy Pilch are writers who find their own ironic ways of dealing with our literary tradition. The most important writer of this group is Pilch – not only because of his novels, but also because of his position as the country’s leading columnist. In view of the vanishing significance of literary criticism, which is now found only in niche magazines, and – I must admit with a heavy heart – the claustrophobia that affects newspapers’ cultural pages, Pilch is considered an authority on literature.
Dorota Masłowska owes him a lot. Her White and Red was the most important debut to appear in the first 20 years after independence. It is seemingly a realist novel about the dregs of society, but in fact the broken language of its heroes, full of references to pop culture and different subcultures, perfectly reflects the chaotic consciousness of all Poles living through those days of political and social transformation. Her second novel, The Queen’s Peacock, won the Nike, Poland’s most important literary award. It’s worth stressing here that awards are another substitute for literary criticism, though this is by no means an exclusively Polish phenomenon. The list of Nike laureates gives quite a reliable insight into the most important trends and names in Polish literature. Take poetry, which competes on equal terms with novels and essays for the title of the best book of the year. It is significant that the last two Nobel prizes for literature won by Poles went to poets: Czesław Miłosz (1981) and Wisława Szymborska (1996).
There’s also a nice bit in here about Reportage:
This genre-busting nature of Polish reportage is also the source of many misunderstandings. When a biography of Poland’s most eminent reporter (and the best-known Polish writer worldwide), Ryszard Kapuscinski, came out last year (Kapuscinski Non-fiction by Artur Domosławski), it provoked many arguments, including about the reporter’s competence. To what degree should a reporter be just a witness, and to what degree an author who includes his or her own outlook, interpretations and literary style? Where does journalism (non-fiction) end, and literary fiction begin? This dispute remains unsettled, just like many other arguments provoked by Domosławski’s book, such as the controversy over the attitudes that journalists and writers adopted during the communist years, or the extent to which a biographer can explore the personal life of his or her subject.
Regardless of the gravity of the charges against the so-called Polish School of Reportage, of which Kapuscinski was the most prominent representative, it is in good condition. Though it is ever rarer in the Polish press, it transfers relatively well to books. Successors of Kapuscinski – Mariusz Szczygieł, Jacek Hugo-Bader, Wojciech Tochman – appear near the top of the bestseller lists, and their works have been translated into all of the major European languages. So reportage is still a Polish speciality, although reporters tend now to wander the world and through history in their search for interesting subjects. Szczygieł devoted his book Gottland (winner of the 2009 European Book prize) to the conflicting attitudes that Czechs adopt towards communism; Hugo-Bader has travelled through a drink-sodden post-Soviet Russia (White Heat); while Tochman has analysed the consequences of the genocide in Rwanda (We Will Portray Death Today). Young writers are following their lead: in Murderer from the Apricot City, Witold Szabłowski reports on the cultural clashes and conflicts that divide contemporary Turkey as it attempts to join the European Union.
It’s interesting and encouraging that a decent number of Polish books are being translated into English and published in the U.S. According to our Translation Database (update coming later this week—promise), 23 works of Polish fiction and poetry have come out here since January 2009. That’s not bad given Poland’s size. And this number doesn’t include all the works of reportage that have come out over that period. (Such as Tochman’s Like Eating a Stone: Surviving the Past in Bosnia.)
Of course, I think Pilch is one of the best. (BTW, we just received the translation of My First Suicide & Other Stories, due out in 2012.) Additionally, I’d personally recommend Olga Tokarczuk’s Primeval and Other Times and Wiesław Myśliwski’s Stone Upon Stone, both of which are brilliant and sweepingly ambitious in their own way.
Absinthe 14 arrived in yesterday’s mail, and is loaded with interesting authors and pieces, including:
Myśliwski’s grand epic in the rural tradition—a profound and irreverent stream of memory cutting through the rich and varied terrain of one man’s connection to the land, to his family and community, to women, to tradition, to God, to death, and to what it means to be alive. Wise and impetuous, plain-spoken and compassionate Szymek, recalls his youth in their village, his time as a guerrilla soldier, as a wedding official, barber, policeman, lover, drinker, and caretaker for his invalid brother. Filled with interwoven stories and voices, by turns hilarious and moving, Szymek’s narrative exudes the profound wisdom of one who has suffered, yet who loves life to the very core.
They select some man, sufficiently experiment with him and only then identify him as the object of the experiment. They slip him hidden meanings of his multisense expressions which, for them, are univocal. They let him deal with it for years. What they tie in a knot through definition in a moment, he is forced to spend years untying through conscientious interpretation. In the meantime, their definitions are petrified solid. His interpretations appear, as if they were made of butter and deliberately throw them on his head, so that they could laugh at these babbles.
For those who wish to gain a closer knowledge of the peculiarities of the Balkan mindset, a reading of this text, which has the value of an emblem of national identity, is, I might say, obligatory. Of course, we are dealing with a “Balkanism” that has been filtered through the work of Huysmans and Edgar Allen Poe, captured in a hypnotic narrative whose density of meanings has led literary theorist Matei Calinescu to compare it with Borges’ El Aleph. It is an unusual narrative, whose effects are those of an addictive literary drug.
There’s also a piece by Thomas E. Kennedy called “A Visit to Hunger 120 Years Later,” and book reviews of The Other City by Mchal Ajvaz (reviewed by Jeff Waxman) and When a Poet Sees a Chestnut Tree by Jean-Pierre Rosnay (reviewed by John Taylor).
As mentioned above, the Absinthe site for issue 14 is still coming together, but you can order the issue by clicking here.
For the past 140 years, Anna Karenina has been loved by millions of readers all over the world. It’s easy to see why: the novel’s two main plots revolve around characters who are just trying to find happiness through love.. . .
Linn Ullmann’s The Cold Song, her fifth novel, is built much like the house about which its story orbits: Mailund, a stately white mansion set in the Norwegian countryside a few hours drive from Oslo. The house, nestled into the. . .
Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other. . .
In Joris-Karl Hyusmans’s most popular novel, À rebours (Against Nature or Against the Grain, depending on the which translated edition you’re reading), there is a famous scene where the protagonist, the decadent Jean des Esseintes, starts setting gemstones on the. . .
There are books that can only wisely be recommended to specific types of readers, where it is easy to know who the respective book won’t appeal to, and Kristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water is one these. What makes this neither. . .
Imagine the most baroque excesses of Goethe, Shakespeare, and Poe, blended together and poured into a single book: That is The Nightwatches of Bonaventura. Ophelia and Hamlet fall in love in a madhouse, suicidal young men deliver mournful and heartfelt. . .
In 1899, Maurice Ravel wrote “Pavane pour une infante défunte” (“Pavane for a Dead Princess”) for solo piano (a decade later, he published an orchestral version). The piece wasn’t written for a particular person; Ravel simply wanted to compose a. . .