As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch._
My Father’s Book by Urs Widmer, translated from the German by Donal McLaughlin and published by Seagull Books
This piece is by translator, critic, and BTBA judge, Tess Lewis.
Urs Widmer, woefully underappreciated in the English-speaking world, is one of Switzerland’s most prominent and prolific writers. And My Father’s Book is one of Widmer’s very best. A fictionalized biography of his own father, Walter Widmer, this novel is by turns heart-wrenching and laugh-out loud funny. Heady, intellectual passages alternate with slap-stick comedy in this exploration of how much we can know even those closest to us.
The narrator’s father, Karl Widmer, is an unworldly, intellectually voracious man whose fiery temper is balanced by his essential good nature and extreme absent-mindedness. He lives primarily through the great works of French literature he translates—Stendhal, Flaubert, Rabelais, Balzac, and Diderot, whom he treasures above all others—and dies in his fifties of a heart ailment exacerbated by a life of chain-smoking. Karl is an inveterate idealist who venerates the Encyclopédistes and the rationalism of the dix-huitième. He becomes a Communist for a time, but is too impolitic for the Party. What he loves, he loves ardently. He only occasionally registers the fact that his beloved wife’s tendency to withdraw is a sign of unhappiness, and always too late.
According to tradition in Karl’s remote ancestral mountain village, on his twelfth birthday he was given a book for him to record each day’s events throughout his life. On the day after his father dies, the narrator learns to his horror that his mother had already disposed of Karl’s book along with mountains of manuscripts and unpaid bills. The narrator, who had only glanced through it the night before, resolves to rewrite his father’s book, now in the readers’ hands. Widmer not only recalls the events and circumstances of Karl’s life, he is able to render a sense of the man’s internal life by quoting imagined passages from the imaginary book.
As the Germans advance through Europe, Karl, until now unfit for service, is called up along “with a few other oldish men with weak hearts” to protect Basel from the Wehrmacht. In the barracks at night Karl dutifully makes his daily entries in which mundane events alternate with vivid meditations on things literary.
‘19.5.40 Letter from Clara,’ my father wrote, once he’d saved the quill from the hobnailed boots of a comrade racing to the toilet. ‘Kitchen duty for insubordination (the corporal asked me—it was to do with the dismantled gunlock I wasn’t able to put together again—whether I thought he was stupid and I said yes). The Germans still aren’t here yet. General mobilization nonetheless. —In the ancien régime, ladies vaginae could speak too. Not just their mouths. Often the gentlemen would sit with their countesses and ducal lovers, having tea, and chatting to one another about an especially good bon mot of Madame de Pompadour or the Pope’s last bull, while, simultaneously, from beneath their skirts—many-layered mountains of material—came a chattering and sniggering, the sense of which they didn’t quite catch. At any rate, there was almost constant chat from down there. The many different materials muffled the voices, but people sometimes thought they would hear their names, without knowing what the braying laughter beneath all the other skirts was all about. —The light! The light of the dix-huitième, you don’t get light like that nowadays.
My Father’s Book is a boisterous, expansive novel, an encapsulation of twentieth century Swiss life through an idiosyncratic and highly concentrating prism. This sense of breadth comes not only from the contrast of Karl’s engagement in politics and his ludicrous stint as a soldier with his wife’s extreme introversion, but also from his appetite for life and the arts, which Widmer evokes beautifully. The sheer artistry of the writing in this novel alone would be deserving of the Best Translated Book Award, but in addition Donal McLaughlin’s translation is pitch-perfect, capturing the various registers and tonalities of Widmer’s prose and, most difficult of all, the many shades of his humor.
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. . .
Fiston Mwanza Mujila is an award-winning author, born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who now, at 33, lives in Austria. From what I could find, much of his work is influenced by the Congo’s battle for independence and its. . .
Twenty-One Days of a Neurasthenic is not a novel in the traditional sense. Rather, it is a collection of vignettes recorded by journalist Georges Vasseur in his diary during a month spent in the Pyrenées Mountains to treat his nervous. . .
Founded in 1960 by such creative pioneers as George Perec, Raymond Queneau and Italo Calvino, the Oulipo, shorthand for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, came about in when a group of writers and mathematicians sought constraints to find new structures and. . .
There’s little to say about a series of prose poems that willfully refuse to identify pronoun antecedents. Or perhaps there are a million things. The poems in Morse, My Deaf Friend— the chapbook by Miloš Djurdjević published by Ugly Duckling. . .
The Crimson Thread of Abandon is the first collection of short fiction available in English by the prolific Japanese writer and all-around avant-garde trickster Terayama Shūji, who died in 1983 at the age of 47. This collection would be important. . .
Last year, NYRB Classics introduced English-language readers to Catalan writer Josep Pla with Peter Bush’s translation of The Gray Notebook. In that book, Pla wrote about life in Spain during an influenza outbreak soon after World War I, when. . .
“Your bile is stagnant, you see sorrow in everything, you are drenched in melancholy,” my friend the doctor said.
bq. “Isn’t melancholy something from previous centuries? Isn’t some vaccine against it yet, hasn’t medicine taken care of it yet?” I. . .
What to make of Vano and Niko, the English translation of Erlom Akhvlediani’s work of the same name, as well as the two other short books that comprise a sort of trilogy? Quick searches will inform the curious reader that. . .