10 March 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Last weekend, over 14,000 writers, publishers, agents, translators, reviewers, professors, and readers swarmed the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle for the annual Associated Writing Programs conference—four days of heavy drinking, pot-chocolate (it’s legal in Washington!), endless craft panels, a bustling exhibition hall, and the most awesomely awkward dance parties ever.

Put a huge number of book people in any one place and shit is bound to get weird. And when a huge percentage of these book people are young, struggling writers? Weird plus neurotic. Good thing Bubble Man was at the entrance to greet everyone with some love.

Over the past decade, AWP has grown to be one of the largest and most important book events of the year. No longer just a place where mediocre poetry is belted out to the accompaniment of crushing depression and a strummed guitar, AWP is a crucial sales outlet for a lot of presses. (Especially poetry presses, who, due to the decline of other outlets and the increase in AWP attendance will sell $3,000+ worth of books over the weekend.)

Personally, I think this was the best AWP I’ve ever attended. We broke all our sales records—thanks to a few superfans who bought books and brought friends over to buy all the rest of the books—had a great time with local friends George Carroll, Jay Weaver, Don Mee Choi, and Owen Rowe, enjoyed all the Elliot Bay Book Company experiences, danced a lot too much, and threw an epic (and soon to be annual) Open Letter Happy Hour.

That said, this blog isn’t really about happiness and stability . . . So, here are a few observations and jokes to give you a better sense of AWP and to lead into this month’s translation highlights.

1) Someone really needs to do a book entitled The Hats and Beards of AWP. AWP is like Williamsburg on steroids. There can never be enough beard and skinny jeans! Also, George Carroll’s lovely wife kept referring to AWP—usually pronounced as three distinct letters, “a,” “w,” “p”—as a single word: “Awwwp.” Which is a way cooler way to say its name, and which led to the conference-long game of trying to identify the “Wizard of AWP.”

2) What the hell is this, and what is it advertising?

3) Please stop with the endless poetry readings. I know everyone that’s part of an MFA program wants a chance to read their work out loud, but some of the events are 4+ hours long. That’s just insane and mind-numbing. Especially given the fact that more than half of the poets read with the same annoying cadence. I went to one poetry reading, and left after texting this imitation to a few friends:

And then. I read.
Read a poem.
Poem of poem.
I believe. AWP is. Is. Is.
A place. Pleasant place.
AWP IS. It is.
It is a place of performance.
Performance place.
We. We perform.
AWP. AWP performs.
Me. Me. Writing.
Me. Poetry
AWP. Me.

4) Why does everyone come home from AWP with a wicked, neverending cold? Are writers inherently dirty and germ filled? CLEAN YOURSELVES NEXT YEAR. My sinuses can’t take this shit.

5) Every night from 10-midnight, there is an AWP dance party. And yes, it is filled with as much awkward as you’re envisioning. Thankfully, there is free beer and wine for the first hour, and the DJ specializes in playing Rap for White Girls (e.g., Nelly’s “Ride with Me”), so by around 11, there’s a lot of normally self-conscious people on the dance floor moving in ways that sort of resembles dancing. In other words, it’s totally awesome. (Somewhere there exists a video of me and Scott Esposito dancing to Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.”) It’s non-judgmental—because, well, look around—truly all-ages, and a pretty fun release after 10 hours of bad poetry and the worst indoor lighting imaginable.

But this year, the Saturday night dance party was a bit of a train wreck. It all started off with one douchebag lonely hipster doing a methodical hip thrust in the middle of the dance floor. Wearing only a wife beater and more hair grease than Cristiano Ronaldo. I’m not sure if he thought he was being ironic, or simply performing some sort of desperate mating call, but he managed to piss off most everyone there. And then, because “hipsters” of this sort just can’t embarrass themselves enough, he actually got on stage, had a friend join him, and even lost the wife beater . . . before someone official threw him off—an unsavory 45 minutes later. We spend most of the night hoping, for his sake, that he was tripping balls—even though that wouldn’t change the fact that he was the worst person there ever. And because this image is scarred on my brain forever, I figured I’d share it with all of you. You’re welcome!

OK, now on to this month’s interesting translations!

Trans-Atlantyk: An Alternate Translation by Witold Gombrowicz, translated from the Polish by Danuta Borchardt (Yale University Press)

I love Gombrowicz, but have never gotten around to reading this book about a penniless Polish writer who escapes the Nazis and moves to Argentina—much like Gombrowicz himself. When I was in Argentina a few years back though, we were taken on a literary walking tour and if memory serves, we went by the bar where Witold used to hang out and rant about how much Borges sucked. Apparently he had a thing against JLB, and liked to tell EVERYONE about it.

One evening, a friend challenged him on this by asking what Borges stories Gombrowicz had read. His very Polish response: “None! Why would I ever waste my time reading that crap?”

God I love Polish writers.

Killing the Second Dog by Marek Hlasko, translated from the Polish by Tomasz Mirkowicz (New Vessel)

Sticking with that same theme, I would read anything written by this guy who, according to the New Vessel website, was considered to be the “Polish James Dean.”

Add to that picture the fact that this book is about two Polish con men trying to swindle an American widow, and I’m completely sold.

Stone Tablets by Wojciech Zukrowski, translated from the Polish by Stephanie Kraft (Paul Dry Books)

A few months back, I found out that basically all of my ancestors on both sides of my family are from the area surrounding Gdańsk/Danzig. More specifically, my dad’s side is made up of Pomeranians and my mom’s is all Kashubians. This is one reason why I got into The Tin Drum right from the start—one of the main characters in the opening section is a Kashubian arsonist. Fire AND Poland! (Actually, taking this character as representative for larger Kashubian characteristics explains a lot about my personality.) Anyway, later on in the novel, there’s a great speech by Oskar’s Kashubian grandmother:

“That’s Kashubes for you, little Oskar. Always getting hit on the head. But you are going where things are better now, and leaving old Granny behind. Because Kahsubes don’t move around a lot, they always stay put, and hold their head still for others to whack, because we ain’t really Polish and we ain’t really German, and Kashubes ain’t good enough for Germans or Pollacks. They want everything cut and dried.”

Also, Stone Tablets is about a Hungarian diplomat in India during the Hungarian Uprising. But let’s be honest—I’m mostly including it here because the author is Polish.

Rambling On: An Apprentice’s Guide to the Gift of the Gab by Bohumil Hrabal, translated from the Czech by David Short (Karolinum Press)

Sticking with Eastern Europe . . . There are two Bohumil Hrabal books coming out this spring: Rambling On this month, and Harlequin’s Millions in May. If you haven’t read Hrabal, you absolutely must. Too Loud a Solitude, Dancing Lessons for the Advanced of Age, I Served the King of England, these are all fantastic novels that embody Hrabal’s idiosyncratic style that is joyful, conversational, and instantly engaging. Here’s Adam Thirlwell’s description of it from his wonderful The Delighted States:

In Czech, there is a word for Hrabal’s style. This word is Hrabalovština. Hrabalovština is a comic display of vocabulary, of headlong words and invented syntax—it is a system which is forever trying to put off its own demise. But Hrabal’s own word for his style was palavering, and palavering is a much more useful and precise concept for this style, this new invention in the art of the novel. Palavering is an art, and it is committed to deferral, to a comic refusal to be polite, and stop talking. It is, according to Hrabal, “my defense against politics, my policy in fact.” And this word policy is important. It shows how considered and meditated was Hrabal’s apparently natural style. Because the truest poetry is also the most feigning. Against the direction and drive of ideas, Hrabal offer the more vulgar luxuries of digression, and of free association.

Hopefully this collection of short stories and Harlequin’s Millions—and other celebrations and articles related to the centennial of Hrabal’s birth—will help spawn a new group of Hrabal fans . . .

I Remember You by Yrsa Sigurdardottir, translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton (Minotaur)

Here’s a bit from the opening of the review of this novel in the Independent:

Leaving aside the literary merits of I Remember You, residents of Iceland were thoroughly terrified by the book—but, ironically, for its jacket, featuring a pair of intensely staring eyes that (for some reason) deeply disturbed—and even obsessed—many Icelanders, and occasioned a slew of complaints.

Why didn’t Minotaur use this cover instead of that crap up there? And why can’t I find an image of this? I want to know how intensely these eyes are staring!

Speaking of Iceland, I really wish I could go to the Secret Solstice Music Festival in June. Scratch that. I wish I could just move to Iceland and spend the rest of my days tending bar and floating in the Blue Lagoon.

Also, one other random thing: Unless I’m missing something, there are only three books by women coming out in translation this month. That’s embarrassing.

A Curse on Dostoevsky by Atiq Rahimi, translated from the French by Polly McLean (Other Press)

This novel—the fourth to be made available in English from Afghani writer Rahimi—sounds really fun:

Rassoul remembers reading Crime and Punishment as a student of Russian literature in Leningrad, so when, with axe in hand, he kills the wealthy old lady who prostitutes his beloved Sophia, he thinks twice before taking her money or killing the woman whose voice he hears from another room. He wishes only to expiate his crime and be rightfully punished. Out of principle, he gives himself up to the police. But his country, after years of civil war, has fallen into chaos. In Kabul there is only violence, absurdity, and deafness, and Rassoul’s desperate attempt to be heard turns into a farce.

Given how Other Press has been killing it lately, I won’t be surprised if we’re talking about this next year as a potential BTBA 2015 longlist title . . .

Decoded Olivia by Mai Jia, translated from the Chinese by Olivia Milburn (FSG)

We never seem to receive galleys for the “fun” books in translation that presses bring out. A tragic, complicated novel about World War II survivors? Perfect for Post. A thriller about code-breaking and an autistic math genius? Seems more Flavorwire that Three Percent. Shit! I want code breaking! I like math!

But seriously, although I’m sure this isn’t as interesting as the jacket copy makes it out be, it does sound like a good escape from the “heavier” stuff that I feel like I’ve been reading this year. Actually, right now, to balance the more traditionally “literary” stuff I’ve been reading (and will be reading after the BTBA longlist announcement), I’ve been reading Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic. I’m not quite halfway done, but I’m really enjoying it . . . It’s very entertaining, and although I’ve never seen the movie Stalker or the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. video games, both of these things make sense. I also have things to say about the “meaningfulness” of “entertaining” books, but I think I’ll save that for next month.

On Leave by Daniel Anselme, translated from the French by David Bellos (Faber and Faber)

By contrast, On Leave is a bit more serious . . . One of the few novels about the French-Algerian War, On Leave is a book about three soldiers who, on a 10-day break from the fighting, realize that they don’t really fit into society anymore. It was published during the conflict (in 1957; the war ended in 1962), and was read by almost no one. This truly is a lost classic, and kudos to David Bellos for translated it and Faber and Faber for publishing it.

Also, extra-thanks to the Faber publicity department for using a blurb from Paul Doyle’s Three Percent review on the press release. I’ll never forget the first time Grove pulled a blurb from one of my reviews, and I still get giddy when Three Percent pops up in places like this.

Falling Out of Time by David Grossman, translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen (Knopf)

Of all Grossman’s books, this is the one that sounds the most intriguing to me, mostly for it’s genre-bending nature:

In Falling Out of Time, David Grossman has created a genre-defying drama––part play, part prose, pure poetry––to tell the story of bereaved parents setting out to reach their lost children. It begins in a small village, in a kitchen, where a man announces to his wife that he is leaving, embarking on a journey in search of their dead son. The man––called simply Walking Man––paces in ever-widening circles around the town. One after another, all manner of townsfolk fall into step with him (the Net-Mender, the Midwife, the Elderly Math Teacher, even the Duke), each enduring his or her own loss. The walkers raise questions of grief and bereavement: Can death be overcome by an intensity of speech or memory? Is it possible, even for a fleeting moment, to call to the dead and free them from their death? Grossman’s answer to such questions is a hymn to these characters, who ultimately find solace and hope in their communal act of breaching death’s hermetic separateness. For the reader, the solace is in their clamorous vitality, and in the gift of Grossman’s storytelling––a realm where loss is not merely an absence but a life force of its own.

That’s all for this month. Check back in on Tuesday, March 11th to find out which books made the longlist for the 2014 BTBA in Fiction. And April is LOADED with great translations, including one of the best Open Letter books of 2014 . . .

15 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a review by Jennifer Marquart of Witold Gombrowicz’s Pornografia in Danuta Borchardt’s new translation, which is available from Grove Press.

Jennifer Marquart has contributed to Three Percent in the past and is an aspiring German translator and recent University of Rochester graduate.

Witold Gombrowicz is one of the best writers of the twentieth century, and is most well known for Ferdydurke. One of my favorite (apocryphal) anecdotes about Gombrowicz is about how one day in Buenos Aires he was ranting about Borges to his friends (the two authors didn’t really get along), and one of them interrupted to ask if he had ever even read Borges. “Pfft. Why would I waste my time reading that crap?”

On a more serious note, a number of Gombrowicz books have been either retranslated or reissued over the past few years, including: Ferdydurke, Cosmos (hardcover from Yale is OP, paperback from Grove due out in September), Polish Memories, Bacacay, and A Kind of Testament. All are worth reading . . .

Here’s the opening of Jennifer’s review:

Darkly humorous, witty and terrifying, Witold Gombrowicz’s Pornographia translated for the first time into English out of the original Polish by Danuta Borchardt, captures the tense and surreal lives of two men looking for an escape from city life in 1943 Warsaw. The narrator, Witold Gombrowicz, and his companion, Fryderyk, leave the city and stay with Hipolit, his wife Maria and their daughter Henia and the farmhand Karol. It doesn’t take long for the men to grow bored of the quiet country life, causing them to devise intricate plans to get Karol and Henia to sleep together. They set up meetings and prod the teenagers with questions of sexual attraction to one another. These simple games escalate to a masterfully choreographed play, aimed at breaking-up Henia and her fiancé. Part joke and part perverse desire, Gombrowicz and Fryderyk’s plans take a bizarre turn following the murder of Henia’s future mother-in-law. Hidden notes, hostages, murder-conspiracies and the ultimate manipulation of youth, love and a detached thirst for power are now in play.

The immediate reaction to the title of this novel conjures images of sex, however the book deals with sexual desire in a round about way. It isn’t the actual act of sex that is pornographic, but its entanglement with power, domination, desire and obsession. Fryderyk and Gombrowicz believe themselves to be in control, but there are a few moments where the reader catches a glimpse of shifts in power, such as the scene where Karol, Henia and the two men are conversing outside.

Click here to read the full review.

15 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Darkly humorous, witty and terrifying, Witold Gombrowicz’s Pornographia translated for the first time into English out of the original Polish by Danuta Borchardt, captures the tense and surreal lives of two men looking for an escape from city life in 1943 Warsaw. The narrator, Witold Gombrowicz, and his companion, Fryderyk, leave the city and stay with Hipolit, his wife Maria and their daughter Henia and the farmhand Karol. It doesn’t take long for the men to grow bored of the quiet country life, causing them to devise intricate plans to get Karol and Henia to sleep together. They set up meetings and prod the teenagers with questions of sexual attraction to one another. These simple games escalate to a masterfully choreographed play, aimed at breaking-up Henia and her fiancé. Part joke and part perverse desire, Gombrowicz and Fryderyk’s plans take a bizarre turn following the murder of Henia’s future mother-in-law. Hidden notes, hostages, murder-conspiracies and the ultimate manipulation of youth, love and a detached thirst for power are now in play.

The immediate reaction to the title of this novel conjures images of sex, however the book deals with sexual desire in a round about way. It isn’t the actual act of sex that is pornographic, but its entanglement with power, domination, desire and obsession. Fryderyk and Gombrowicz believe themselves to be in control, but there are a few moments where the reader catches a glimpse of shifts in power, such as the scene where Karol, Henia and the two men are conversing outside:

Karol kept rocking, his legs spread apart, she raised her leg to scratch her calf—but his shoe, resting just on the heel, rose, made a half-turn, and squashed the earthworm…just at one end, just as much as the reach of his foot allowed, because he didn’t feel like lifting his heel from the ground, the rest of the worm’s thorax began to stiffen and squirm, which he watched with interest. This would not have been any more important than a fly’s throes of death on a flytrap or a moth’s within the glass of a lamp—if Fryderyk’s gaze, glassy, had not sucked itself onto that earthworm, extracting its suffering to the full. One could imagine that he would be indignant, but in truth there was nothing within him but penetration into torture, draining the chalice to the last drop. He hunted it, sucked it, caught it, took it in and—numb and mute, caught in the claws of pain—he was unable to move. Karol looked at him out of the corner of his eye but did not finish off the earthworm, he saw Fryderyk’s horror as sheer hysterics . . .

Henia’s shoe moved forward and she crushed the worm.
But only from the opposite end, with great precision, saving the central part so that it could continue to squirm and twist.

All of it—was insignificant . . . as far as the crushing of a worm can be trivial and insignificant.

The memory of the worm-crushing resurfaces later in the narrative as Fryderyk’s obsession with his own perverse games intensifies. This excerpt exemplifies the delicate balance between controllers and controlled, through the narrative and Gombrowicz’s language constructions. Just as mundane events can represent something greater, so can the linguistic construction of the text. In trying to preserve the dream-like and often stilted world Gombrowicz narrates, Borchardt makes very liberal use of ellipses. In this scene, Gombrowicz has grown anxious over the trip he is going to take with Fryderyk:

Travel there? The two of us? I was beset by misgivings, difficult to express, about the two of us traveling . . . because to take him there with me, to the countryside, so that he could continue his game, well . . . And his body, that body so…”peculiar”? . . . To travel with him and ignore his untiring “silently-shouting impropriety”? . . . To burden myself with someone so ” compromised and, as a result, so compromising”? . . .

In the previous English translation (from the French) the ellipses are present, but the word choice in Borchardt’s translation accentuates the text’s repetitiveness bringing the sense of anxiety to a new level of confusion and internal anguish. In the Alastair Hamilton translation this excerpt reads:

Should we go? Both of us? I had fearful doubts about the journey . . . What take him so that he could continue his game don there, in the country? . . . And his body which was so…so specific? Travel with him regardless of his “obvious but hidden indecency?” . . . Look after somebody so “compromised” and therefore so “compromising” . . .

Borchardt’s disturbances in the flow of the work may seem off-setting in the context of this review, but coupled with the rhythmic repetition of words and phrases throughout the text she brings forward the nuances of Gombrowicz’s masterful prose. In this isolated psycho-thriller, where anxiety runs high within a small group of people cut off from the terrors around them, obsession and terror still rule.

24 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The past few years has seen a bit of a Witold Gombrowicz renaissance. Yale University Press has published Danuta Borchardt’s retranslations1 of Cosmos and Ferdydurke, Archipelago published Bill Johnston’s translation of Bacacay, and Dalkey Archive reissued A Kind of Testament. And coming in November from Grove is Danuta Borchardt’s new translation of Pornografia, a Gombrowicz novel I haven’t read, but that sounds pretty damn good:

In the midst of the German occupation, two aging intellectuals travel to a farm in the countryside, looking for a respite from the claustrophobic scene in Warsaw. They quickly grow bored of their bucolic surroundings—that is, until they become hypnotized by a pair of country youths who have grown up alongside each other. The older men are determined to orchestrate a tryst between the two teenagers, but they are soon distracted by a string of violent developments, culminating in an order from the Polish underground movement: the men at the farm must assassinate a rogue resistance captain who has sought refuge there. The erotic games are put on hold—until the two dissolute intellectuals find a way to involve their pawns in the murderous plot.

Gombrowicz was one of the best (Ferdydurke is an absolute must read), and it’s great to see so many of his books available again, especially now that they’re translated from the original Polish . . . Here’s the opening paragraph of Pornografia to get a taste of his style:

I’ll tell you about yet another adventure of mine, probably one of the most disastrous. At the time—the year was 1943—I was living in what was once Poland and what was once Warsaw, at the rock-bottom of an accomplished fact. Silence. The thinned-out bunch of companions and friends from the former cafes—the Zodiac, the Ziemianska, the Ipsu—would gather in an apartment on Krucza Street and there, drinking, we tried hard to go on as artists, writers, and thinkers . . . picking up our old, earlier conversations and disputes about art. . . . Hey, hey, hey, to this day I see us sitting or lying around in thick cigarette smoke, this one somewhat skeleton-like, that one scarred, and all shouting, screaming. So this one was shouting: God, another: art, a third: the nation, a fourth: the proletariat, and so we debated furiously, and it went on and on—God, art, nation, proletariat—but one day a middle-aged guy turned up, dark and lean, with an aquiline nose and, observing all due formality, he introduced himself to everyone individually. After which he hardly spoke.

If you’re intrigued, you can preorder the book from Booksmith by clicking here.

And now I’ll sit back and watch people searching for “polish porno” flock to our site for some serious disappointment . . .

1 Actually, Danuta Borchardt’s translations are the first from the original Polish edition—earlier editions were translated from the French versions.

10 August 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Another CONTEXT 20 article worth pointing out is Michael Pinker’s Reading Witold Gombrowicz. As mentioned earlier, I’m a big fan and think everyone should read at least Ferdydurke. And Pinker’s article provides a great introduction:

Gombrowicz’s art envisages the tyranny of what he calls form. In his view, obeying the dictates of form is central to the human condition, ordering our relations with the world and ourselves. What others make of us—what we make of them—the form with which we invest them—determines our character in the world around us. As a result, the world is ambivalent, dualistic, experienced as an unnerving tension between the antinomies Gombrowicz regards as underlying all human activity: immaturity and maturity, superiority and inferiority, beauty and ugliness, and so on. Instead of age and maturity holding sway over youth and immaturity, the latter are really what the former desire—witness our fascination with, and efforts to prolong, youth. Compelled by this desire to recall youthful energy, innocence, and childish naivety, maturity defers to immaturity and, despite appearances, is defeated by it.

It also appears that Dalkey is reprinting Gombrowicz’s A Kind of Testament this fall.

6 August 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This is a total cheerleader post, but I don’t think it’s possible to sing the praises of Gombrowicz enough. Which is why it’s nice to see such a thoughtful piece by Bud Parr on Bacacay. And I totally agree with Bud’s sentiment that if Gombrowicz had written in English and had a name that’s easier to pronounce and spell, he would be as popular and well-known as Poe, Wilde, etc.

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