Monica Carter is a freelance critic whose nonfiction has appeared in publications including Black Clock, World Literature Today, and Foreword Reviews. She curates Salonica World Lit, which is a virtual journal dedicated to international literature and culture.
There’s little I like better than small, unique books that can fit into my back pocket. This years BTBA considerations bring tantalizing prospects that contain elements of narrative architecture which intrigue or surprise. It takes courage for an author to take the nuts and bolts of fiction to create a structure familiar enough to the reader but, yet, altogether original. Just as courageous is the translator who sees that architectural construct and recreates it with identical effect using different tools. Here are a few authors and translators who have dared to so and succeeded.
French born Roger Lewinter is the epitome of esoteric. His fiction isn’t immediately accessible – there is an adjustment period when reading his fiction. While most authors use time and space as the foundation of a linear narrative, Lewinter uses time and space to build mini structures within each sentence, crafting concentric sentences the spiral to a fine point. With Lewinter, beginning a sentence is an entryway to a maze that guides you through a labyrinthine use of time that ends back at the beginning. He is at his most intricate in The Attraction of Things, a fictional treatise on the magnetism of things and how we are inexplicably drawn to them without knowing why. His sentences can last pages, filled with clauses, stories, references and narrative ephemera, as evident in the following sentence where the narrator declines an invitation from a friend and delves into the history of a mutual acquaintance:
At the time, connection by means of cross-invasion, where the question of knowing who is who ceases to be relevant – because one becomes the other, completed through him – , was, I though, of no interest to me; while I had prepared myself for it by studying , for a year and a half, through an arbitrary choice that I couldn’t really explain to myself, since it vaguely annoyed me, The Man without Qualities, by Musil, the theme of which is the approach, by a novice, of this state; and when I had taken on the task of translating the Fränger into French, I discovered that it had been translated into English by precisely those who would afterward translate The Man without Qualities; while twelve years later, in 1976 – after having translated, in 1969, a first collection by Groddeck, and indentified, in 1974, through the objective and apparently fortuitous sequence of the translations, a convergence between the redistribution of sexual roles that implicated the Groddeckian understanding of sickness and, in Bosch’s work as interpreted by Fränger, the disintegration of the body, which the spirit, through Adamite eroticism, masters even its transports -, I discovered that an American psychoanalyst, Grotjahn, in The Voice of the Symbol, published in1972, had already drawn a connection, through reading Fränger, between Bosch and Groddeck; when in June 1963, with Geneviève Serreau, during the course of dinner in the kitchen, the conversation naturally turned to The Man without Qualities, I note how much I preferred Tonka, a novella that, in sixty pages, incomparably condenses that which remains vague in the two thousand pages of the novel; not learning until October 1981, after her death, that what had struck Geneviève Serreau in 1954, leading her to work for twenty years for Les Lettres Nouvelles, was her reading Tonka, which Les Lettres Nouvelles had just published I translation; and while I didn’t succeed Jean-Francois in her maid’s room, I recommended to Geneviève Serreau, in September 1963, that Fränger, about which, inexplicably, Jean-Francois had spoken to her; and, equally captivated by this book, she had it accepted for publication by Les Lettres Nouvelles; with a patience that I didn’t understand was intended for me, orienting me then in the space from which, through her gaze, radiated the highest pitch of divine madness.
As intellectual as Lewinter’s style may be, and perhaps intimidating, it leads to moments of poignancy that are luminous, most notably in the short story “Nameless”, found in Story of Solitude. Preceded by two pieces – one a micro fiction about his encounters with a household spider and one, a short story about his dedication to two camellia plants – that seamlessly and oddly set up the yearning and evanescence of a chance encounter with a young man who works at a market he frequents:
… “I’ll mark the price” –, had captivated me by their intonation – in April, at the first book that I had bought from him – he was just starting out at the flea market –, his face had made me look at this fly and the way his jeans fell to his sneakers; from that time on avoiding paying him attention –; thus bewitched by sweetness – although – I realized – the possession burning within me proceeded from the trance that I was in to write, the one nourishing the other to the point where, soon, I was uncertain which would prevail – , particularly since, one Wednesday in September, he had read me – passing by his stand without stopping, I had looked back, not knowing that his gaze had followed me pensively – , responding to my greeting from then on with this conscious candor that, in his voice, had gripped me; his coquetry – sporting at each market another T-shirt – lemon, pistachio, raspberry, lavender, plum –, before stripping his chest bare in the sun, the adolescent suppleness of his body, which made life stay a moment on his most fragile grace, troubling –, in contradiction to the solitude in which he seemed to move, ending in subjugating me; thus finally going to the flea market to subject myself his fascination – antagonist of the book, in which I sought, by grasping my mechanism of ascendency, to exorcise the passions that were binding me to my body, so that in its void something unknown might arise – as one plays Russian roulette, the admission magnetized by his approach wanting to escape me; while now, when I realized that I had left him there, the sweetness he inexorably aroused in me froze, from the evidence that something inconceivable had come to pass at the moment when, in front of the density of his body in its unbearable splendor, I’d drawn back;
The sentence continues to even a more lovely emotional depths, but in this example Lewinter’s uncanny gift for dissecting the abstract and unspoken aspects of attraction and self-awareness raises fiction to a higher level. To this point, Rachel Careau is to be commended for her recreation of Lewinter’s vertiginous prose. I am excited by her translation that serves as a diaphanous scrim for Lewinter’s ornate narrative architecture.
The Weight of Things by Marianne Fritz, translation and afterword by Adrian Nathan West (Dorothy, a publishing project)
Just under 130 pages, The Weight of Things is weighty itself, in theme and tone. Fritz, an Austrian novelist, had a cult following and instant critical acclaim with the publication of The Weight of Things, her debut novel. The novel feels both as a step backward in time – it deals with the horrors of WWII – and a step forward because its structure isn’t linear but fragmented and impressionistic producing a singularly innovative style. There are moments in the novel where the reader is displaced, disoriented, looking for some type of structural anchor. But to think this is a weakness or a stylistic flaw undermines the effect of the novel. Tonally, Fritz creates an overwhelming sense of foreboding that proves haunting; the horrific isn’t plainly laid out in all its grotesqueness but constructed in a spectral-like fashion that permeates every scene. Although the scenes aren’t linear, Fritz draws us a tragedy of WWII featuring a two soldiers – Rudolph and Wilhelm, a young, unstable mother of two, Berta, and her shrew of a sister, Wilhemine. There is perspicacity and searing satirical commentary that pops up to ground the novel in the quotidian that Fritz does skillfully in this section “Berta Greets Wilhlem; Does Berta Schrei Have a Visitor?” set in a mental hospital:
By now Head Nurse Gotaharda had left Ward 66 to the visitor and his secrets, and Wise Little Mother watch Wilhelm and Berta closely from the corner of her eye. Scarcely ten minutes had gone by since the Wound of Life had made its treacherous entrance into the Wise Little Mother’s realm. It was that whore of a Head Nurse, who threw herself into the arms of anyone who came her way, who had befouled their corner of eternity, and weighed upon the Wise Little Mother now, a heavy burden. The old woman resolved to alert Berta to the evil forces around her.
“You must reflect on what is happening here, Berta dear. Reflect and be careful. Life is a wound, and this wound…this wound is slow to heal.”
The novel though structurally may feel vague, but it enhances darkness of the themes – madness, motherhood, war, and society – for a lasting emotional impact. Again, translating something demands a translator who truly understands all that the novel encompasses in order to render even something similar in the translation. Mr. West honors Fritz by regenerating her singular voice. Besides Fritz, the Dorothy Project is putting out some fantastic work by women, including another tiny wonder and recent biblio-crush, Nathalie Léger’s Suite for Barbara Loden.
The Cathedral of Mist by Paul Willems, translated by Edward Gauvin (Wakefield Press)
Wakefield Press has become of my favorite presses out there because they consistently put high quality, unique works that make you feel like you’ve just scored something magical and timeless when you read one of their publications. By far, The Cathedral of Mist is going to be one of those works that I will read from time after time, always being inspired by something new within its pages. Williems, a Franco-Belgian fantasist, work is a collection of prose and two essays – on both reading and writing. I couldn’t help but think, after reading The Cathedral of Mist, that Willems had applied Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space and On Poetic Reverie and Imagination to perfection. His Elysian stories transport you to realities so vivid, even knowing they don’t exist, feel otherwise.
Willems voice is humorous, light, hopefully resigned to his imagination, and this combination infuses his pieces with a touching nostalgia. I can’t help but be in awe of Edward Gauvin’s translation (he has many fine translations…) that captures Willems’s essence. Whether it’s a story about a man is visiting a count where he ends up sleeping, with the count’s permission, the Countess in a bed outdoors surrounded by a Finnish forest or traveling through he Balkan Mountains with a German ethnologist accompanied by a shepherd who wears a “the flute of Orpheus on his belt,” Willems is charming. From the beginning of each story, Willems pulls you immediately into his voice and imagination, demonstrated beautifully by the opening paragraph of “The Palace of Emptiness”:
Victor lived like a kite, which is to say, tethered. Storms – he had frolicked on them until the age of twenty-five – strained without ever breaking the string that tied him to childhood. He finished his schooling as an architect, married Micheline, and never knew a moment’s vertigo.
His lyrical, celestial imagination is best displayed in the titular story about an architect who, tired of granite, builds a cathedral made out of mist. Through his description, we only wish we could visit a place as enchanting:
The great nave was worthy of admiration. One hundred and fifty-four columns of mist flowed slowly, upward, meeting in seven keystones. There the capor condensed into droplets of water that fell one by one, at random. The goldsmith Wolfers had sculpted admirable irises to catch them on the ground. The deep blue blossoms bristled with slender steel fillets that each drop of water moved to a sustained song. This music, which the fashion of the day deemed “violet,” replaced the bells the architect V. had not been able to hang in the steeple of mist. But instead of taking wing like the sound of bells, this sound could be heard only by visitors, and traveled to a place very deep inside them. Like harness bells on that little horse pulling a sleigh through the night we bear within it glided toward that farthest part of ourselves beyond which music dies in sweet agony.”
These works deserve a readership and undoubtedly will have significant ones, although they may be a bit off kilter for the mainstream reader. No mistaking their craftiness or that each author and translator are able architects building something new and original with the elements of fiction.
In Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Flaubert attempted to highlight the ordinary, tired, and often crass nature of common expressions by italicising them within the text. When Charles, Emma Bovary’s mediocre husband, expresses himself in a manner akin to that of. . .
Eliot Weinberger takes big strides across literary history in his genuinely breathtaking short work, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, tracking translations of a short ancient Chinese poem from the publication of Ezra Pound’s Cathay in 1915 to Gary. . .
Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .
The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .