Another month, another preview that’s late. This month caught me a bit by surprise though—how is it possible that the new academic year starts in three weeks? It just doesn’t seem right.
So in the spirit of “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” essays, I thought I’d kick off this month’s list of books with some info and pics from the insane 176-mile bike ride I made to Niagara Falls and back.
I’ve been talking about doing this for years now, and friends were always intrigued to do it with me. You can ride all the way to Buffalo along the Erie Canal, it’s pleasant, there are a bunch of small towns along the way, our plan was to go slow, take the whole day, then get picked up and driven back to Rochester. Unfortunately, for one reason or anther, none of this ever panned out.
Last month, after going on numerous 20 and 30 and 40 mile bike rides, I felt like I had to give it a try. Ever since the crushing shittiness of this past winter—during which it seemed like no one ever left their house except to go to work and watch their tears freeze—I’ve been in a bit of a funk. Why not try and break out of this with an epically long bike ride? One that will leave me mentally and physically exhausted, with no energy to mull over the meaninglessness of everything?
I’m going to include a few anecdotes below, but surprisingly, nothing at all went wrong. I made it all 88 miles to a shitty hotel in Niagara Falls that I had found online, and then, the next day, I turned around and rode all the way back to Rochester, and I didn’t even die! (Mostly, my wrists just hurt from the constant vibrations of riding on an unpaved path for 14+ hours.)
Mentally, this was kind of brutal though. If you’ve never been to the Erie Canal, it looks basically like this:
Which is beautiful, but for seven straight hours? Over that period of time, while you’re doing one repetitive motion, pumping continuously, it becomes pretty monotonous, like pounding a Zen koan through your soul. It was like Extreme Meditation Yoga Ultimate Supreme. Sure, there are towns to break up the never-ending green, but these “towns” are pretty much all like Gasport, where the population is “just right”:
In my mind, before going on this journey, I figured every little town along the way would have a quaint little diner, complete with killer pie and coffee. This is absolutely not true. Instead, every town consists of a convenience store/video rental store/titty mag place run by likely meth heads. There is nothing quaint about buying overpriced Gatorade from toothless people.
Nevertheless, it was an awesome experience, one that I want to replicate next summer, but this time going east toward Syracuse.
That’s what I did over my summer “vacation.” Now onto the books!
Leg over Leg: Volumes 3 & 4 by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies (Library of Arabic Literature)
The incredible Leg over Leg has been featured on Three Percent before and the release of the final two volumes is an event to people in the know.
Just to give you a sense of why this book is so compelling and weird, Volume 3 opens with a bit about the troubles of mankind:
Are they not enough, the troubles to which men are subject by way of misery and care, effort and wear, toil and disease, hardship and dis-ease, of deprivation and lucklessness, despair and unhappiness? Men are carried to nausea and craving, born in pain and suffereing, nursed to their mothers’ detriment, weaned to their imperilment. They crawl only to stumble, climb only to tumble, walk only to lag, labor only to flag, find themselves unemployed only by hunger’s pangs to be destroyed.
This goes on for a couple paragraphs, resolving with “In addition, some are born afflicted with (among the various defects and diseases)” which is followed by a list of defects that’s 14 pages long and includes things like: “ “sa’ar, ‘smallness of the head’,” “_qan’asah, ‘extreme shortness of the neck, as in one with a hunchback’,” and “hawas, ‘a touch of insanity.’” This is all brilliant.
Susan Sontag: A Biography by Daniel Schreiber, translated from the German by David Dollenmayer (Northwestern University Press)
I’m including this on here for two very different reasons: 1) I’m sure it’s an interesting book, but I’m waiting for Ben Moser’s Sontag bio to come out, and 2) as part of a special research project I’m working on for the Publishing Task Force at the Italian Trade Agency, I’ve started collecting information on nonfiction works in translation. It’s not quite ready to be shared yet, but I’m getting there. So expect more nonfiction to pop up in these monthly previews . . .
The Last Days of My Mother by Sölvi Björn Sigurdsson, translated from the Icelandic by Helga Soffia Einarsdottir (Open Letter)
Rather than explain to you why I like this book, I’ll let PW do it for me:
The setup: Hermann’s girlfriend of seven years leaves him for a French dentist, then his native Iceland’s banking system goes belly-up, and finally his 63-year-old mother, Eva, is diagnosed with a rare and terminal cancer. The punch line: a bitterly laugh-out-loud novel of Nordic misery. Spurred by his mother’s impending expiration date, the duo set out for the Netherlands, chasing the last-ditch hope of an unlicensed miracle drug called Ukrain offered by the Low Countries clinic. In fact, his mother’s miracle drug of choice is alcohol, not to get “drunk” but rather to be pleasantly “pompette.” The novel follows the pair’s groggy adventures as they attend a Nazi ball, smoke hash, and befriend an eclectic cross-section of Amsterdam characters. Eva has strong opinions: Milan Kundera is the most beautiful man alive, the “smartest use of an airline ticket was to buy something light that gained weight the further north you went,” and more alcohol is the “best remedy for the sad syndrome others liked to refer to as a hangover.” But Hermann accepts it all, having vowed that his abiding mission is “to make Mother happy during the last days of her life.” As his mother’s illness takes its inevitable course, Hermann gains a deeper appreciation for the pleasures and purpose of life. Sigurðsson’s novel successfully straddles the line between impious gallows humor and a heartfelt depiction of a son’s love for his mother.
The Diary of the Fall by Michel Laub, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa (Other Press)
There’s no doubt that the international reader is always an insecure, worried reader, like some supine hysteric on a couch. I mean, I know nothing of the language in which this story called ‘Animals’ was written. Or also I do not know where precisely Porto Alegre is – where this story by Michel Laub begins. It does make, I’m just saying, a reader anxious. I have to assume that it’s Brazil. And yet also I think it’s possible in some bronco way not to care about these ethical problems and instead just attend to what’s right there.
So this story looks like a list of the animals that the novelist-narrator’s owned throughout his life, but really this list is therefore a pretext for a miniature autobiography and yet, really, to redescribe it one final time, this autobiography is a pretext for defining a life in one particular way: as a systematic process of loss. And this is moving, no question, but the thing I really love about this story is how it manages its matryoshka feat – to be at once a free floating meditation, leaping like some street cat from wall to wall, while also going deeper and deeper into a single theme.
This was one of my favorite stories in the Granta issue, so it’s exciting to see a full book of his available in English.
It’s impossible for me to reference Other Press and not mention how devastating Paul Kozlowski’s (aka PK) passing was. Moby Lives has a great piece about PK—who was going to be working for Melville House!—that gets at what an amazing person he was, and what an amazing book person. Reading the World wouldn’t have existed had it not been for PK and Karl Pohrt, and now we’ve lost both of them. They were both the best, and both played a big role in my involvement with the book world. I still recall various parts of conversations I had with both of them (one of the last times I saw PK he was giving Kaija advice on how to pitch High Tide), and when I was in Ann Arbor last week, I would’ve given anything to spend the day in Shaman Drum shooting the shit. I miss them both.
On a funnier note: Which is more embarrassing, the fact that Neymar posted a photo to Instagram of himself recovering in Ibiza with Paris Hilton (who should only be known for her spot-on cameo on The OC in which she name-checked Thomas Pynchon), or that Drake is considered the unofficial celebrity ambassador for the Toronto Raptors and got them fined for “recruiting” Kevin Durant? Sports gossip is dumb.
The Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami, translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel (Knopf)
As was announced a couple months ago, first editions of this will come with stickers designed by Japanese artists. Yes, stickers. So you can pretend you’re in high school, decorating your Trapper Keeper. Well, it is Murakami, the most beloved young adult author in the world, so maybe this does make sense.
In other perplexing news . . . BuzzFeed got another $50 million in venture capital funding earlier this week to help expand their list-making abilities. Whatever. That is what it is, and considering that the company is valued at $850 million, it makes sense. But this is the part that got me:
BuzzFeed will also expand its video unit, henceforth known as BuzzFeed Motion Pictures. The unit recently moved onto a 45,000-square-foot lot in Hollywood — not bad for a site sometimes stereotyped as a home for cat videos. (from CNN Money)
BuzzFeed Motion Pictures? It’s an easy joke to make, but I really do hope that their “movies” consist of nothing but cute animals and “The 29 Most Minnesotan Things Ever.”
Globetrotter by David Albahari, translated from the Serbian by Ellen Elias-Bursac (Yale University Press)
Albahari is a stunningly good writer, and both Leeches and Gotz & Meyer are worth checking out. This one sounds like it’s going to be equally as interesting, plus, Banff!:
Narrated in a single uninterrupted paragraph, the novel takes place in the late 1990s at the Banff Art Centre in the Canadian Rockies. Three men—a painter from Saskatchewan and the narrator of the tale, a writer from Serbia, and a man whose traveling Croatian grandfather long ago jotted his name in a local museum’s guest book—become acquainted, then attached, then fatally entangled. On a climactic mountain hike that seethes with jealousy, desire, shame, and guilt, each man must engage in a final struggle. Albahari seizes his reader’s attention and never yields it in this remarkable, gripping tale.
F by Daniel Kehlmann, translated from the Germany by Carol Brown Janeway (Knopf)
Wow, this cover SUCKS. The original one, from Rowohlt is a million times better:
Also, congrats to Carol Brown Janeway on being the 2014 recipient of the Ottaway Award for the Promotion of International Literature From the press release:
Carol Brown Janeway has been a leading advocate for literature in translation during her long career at Alfred A. Knopf. The list of international writers she has published includes such luminaries as Patrick Süskind, José Donoso, Yukio Mishima, Elsa Morante, Ivan Klíma, Robert Musil, and Nobel laureates Imre Kertész, Heinrich Böll, and Thomas Mann. She is the translator of seminal works by Bernhard Schlink (The Reader), Thomas Bernhard (My Prizes), Ferdinand von Schirach (Crime), Sándor Márai (Embers), Margriet de Moor (The Storm), and Daniel Kehlmann (Measuring the World), among others.
“Works”: by Edouard Levé, translated from the French by Jan Steyn (Dalkey Archive)
This is one of those conceptual books that’s a book of concepts. A list of 533 “works conceived of but not realized by its author,” it’s reminds one of the Oulipo, maybe of a more concrete counterpoint to Benabou’s Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books. Leve, who died tragically young, has developed a pretty solid cult following, and like Suicide and Autoportrait, this unique book is likely to do really well.
“Moon in a Dead Eye”: by Pascal Garnier, translated from the French by Emily Boyce (Gallic Books)
Moon in a Dead Eye is one of six= Garnier books that Gallic is bringing out. In a way, this reminds me of NYRB and their Simenon program—curious and prolific author who has an extensive backlist to mine and promote.
This one sounds particularly intriguing, because gypsies!
See you next month!Tweet
The new issue of the Buenos Aires Review is now online, and features the following:
BAR#2 features new fiction by Liliana Colanzi (Bolivia) and Thibault de Montaigu (France), as well as poetry by PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award-winning Ishion Hutchinson (Jamaica). Reviews and essays by Sam Rutter, Ernesto Hernández Busto and Stanley Bill and a walk through the Bibliothèque nationale de France with Victoria Liendo.
The piece from this that jumped out at me is Samuel Rutter’s The Internet as Novel, which is about Open Letter author Carlos Labbe’s latest novel, Piezas secretas contra el mundo.
A recent interview in El País identified Carlos Labbé (Santiago de Chile, 1977) as a writer at the forefront of a generation returning to the complex relationship between avant-garde literature and political engagement. In keeping with this characterization, Labbé’s latest novel, Piezas secretas contra el mundo, published in March by Editorial Periférica is an ambitious declaration of principles for a new understanding of the novel in the twenty-first century.
Those familiar with Labbé’s growing and challenging body of work, beginning with the hypertext novel Pentagonal, will recognise in this latest novel some of the tropes the author continues to address. There is a particularly textual nature to the worlds Labbé creates, where the acts of reading and writing form an essential part of the fabric of reality in which his protagonists exist. The increasingly political edge to the author’s prose manifests itself in this novel through its ecological themes, which have come to include the status of indigenous cultures in Chile. Labbé’s prose, full of surprisingly juxtaposed registers and genres, matches its form to its content and embroils the reader in the fusion of these competing elements in order to construct a meaningful, overarching narrative.
Presented in the form of a “choose your own adventure” novel, it is the reader and not the author who actively constructs the narrative of Piezas secretas. There are obvious affinities here with Cortázar’s Rayuela, which celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this year, but while Cortázar gave the reader a roadmap and left the ludic structure of his novel outside the narrative, Labbé’s work begins with a gnomic prologue that immediately involves the reader and layers the metafictional instructions inside the story, often providing the reader with several options for movement within its pages. As such, the experience of reading Piezas secretas is disruptive and alluring at the same time – as the reader constantly moves back and forth through the pages, it is impossible to know exactly how deep into the narrative one is at any given point. Considering the mechanics of Labbé’s prose is like pulling the case off a desktop computer and watching it tick—there is a constant hum of activity, with bulbs blinking in the darkness and a mass of plugs and wires leading in all directions, and just like the virtual memory of a computer, Labbé manages to give his narrative more scope than appears possible in a conventional 220 page novel.
Yes. Yes and more yes.
For those who can’t read Spanish, you should check out Labbe’s Navidad & Matanza And we’ll be bringing out another of his novels, Loquela, next fall.Tweet
The Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference (which should’ve been named “Translation Loaf”) is a great new initiative that was conceived of and implemented by Jennifer Grotz, poet, translator, assistant director of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and Open Letter’s poetry editor, and one that a lot of you will probably want to attend.
The Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference is an annual, week-long conference based on the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference model that’s designed to provide training and community to beginning as well as experienced literary translators. A natural complement to two of Middlebury College’s signature programs—the Writers’ Conference and the renowned Middlebury Language Schools—this conference aims to strengthen the visibility and access to high quality literary translations in the United States and to acknowledge that translators require the same training and skills as writers.
2015 DATES AND LOCATION
Monday, June 1—Sunday, June 7, 2015. The conference will take place at the Bread Loaf Campus of the Middlebury College in Ripton, Vermont.
Anyone who’s been to Middlebury can back me up on this: that’s one of the most beautiful places in the country. It’s worth the price of admission to spend a week in that gorgeous atmosphere, where cell phones don’t get service, where the air smells like nature, and where there will be dozens of the best translators in the world.
The conference will incorporate the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference model of small, focused, genre-based workshops coupled with lectures and classes focusing on the art of literary translation. Workshops will be limited to ten participants so that each manuscript will receive individual attention and careful critique. All participants will also meet individually with their workshop leader to amplify and refine what was said in the workshop itself.
This week-long conference of workshops, classes, lectures, readings, and discussions is for translators who want to improve their literary craft; for students mastering a foreign language and wanting to begin acquiring skills in the art of translation; for teachers interested in bringing the practice of literary translation into their classrooms; and for anyone wanting to learn more about and participate in the ever-growing community of literary translators.
Now, here’s the real selling point—the faculty.
Acclaimed and award-winning translators Susan Bernofsky, Maureen Freeley, Jennifer Grotz, Bill Johnston, and Don Share will constitute the faculty in this inaugural year of the conference. In addition to their literary accomplishments, each faculty member has been specifically chosen for his or her skill at guiding developing translators in a given genre.
Information about applying and the cost ($2,000) can be found on the Translation Loaf website. I’ll definitely be there talking to people about publishing their translations and working with editors, and hopefully I’ll see a lot of you there as well!Tweet
Over the past few days, a few great reviews for Open Letter authors popped up online, all of which are worth sharing and reading.
As a book of drinking, endless binges of drinking, and of constant comedy, The Last Days of My Mother is a perfect book to drink to, reminding you of the shame that follows the pleasure, but comfortably letting you know that you aren’t drowning like the protagonists. In the opening pages, Sölvi Björn Sigurðsson’s two protagonists, Mother/Eva and son/Trooper, do not have the same self-censorship that most of us have, and their adventure is all the better for it. Neither seems to manage happiness, but with Eva dying, Trooper sets himself the goal “to make Mother happy during the last days of her life.” [. . .]
Their efforts only resemble plans because for the vast majority of the novel, they are in varying stages of drinking, drunk, very drunk, stoned, and planning their next drink. Throughout it all, there is dark, brutal comedy, hysterically playful comedy, and immediate switches to the serious, the poignant, without pain from whiplash. The emotional, the ongoing sadness of loss, of dead hopes, isn’t a contradiction to humor; instead they exist together, and the closer they come, the less Eve and Trooper struggle. Comedy, with all its nuances, is sometimes impossible to communicate between two people who speak the same language, so translator Helga Soffía Einarsdóttir keeping it so alive proves great skill. Last Days is a book funny enough that my housemates laughed at my laughter while otherwise quietly reading, without reading a word.
Drinking novels are familiar, death of a family member novels are familiar, dark comedies, familiar, but Last Days brings something new: a mother and son with absolutely zero boundaries between each other.
The Last Lover is not an easy read. But it is incandescent and engrossing if you are okay with losing your sense of self for a few hours. Here is how I experienced it.
Hour one: I sit in a coffee shop with a paperback copy and a cup of ginger tea. The prose is dense, peculiar. The characters are given to sudden declarations.
Hour two: I am astonished to realize that I have only read less than fifty pages.
Hour three: My head hurts. I feel like I have been translating. I have stopped tweeting.
Hour four: I succumb to the book. I let it carry me. My cup is empty. I do not question anything that happens in the novel: wolfish faces; floating couples; inexplicable transformations; the motif of heads separating from bodies and hovering there, as if still connected. Nor do I question the characters’ reactions, who take all of these surreal developments gamely, as they must, as we accept the eerie faces we sometimes see in the periphery of our vision.
Hour five: I sit up and feel as though I have emerged from dreaming. I look around myself surreptitiously, suspicious that the world has flipped over while I was reading. It seems impossible that I could crawl so deep within this novel and have everything remain the same. I feel betrayed. There is a scene in The Last Lover in which the characters enter a gambling city, which is both under- and aboveground. The tunnels underground are full of smoke, which all the residents of the gambling city are used to breathing. Where is my smoke? Where are my slot machines?
And over at “Numero Cinq,“http://numerocinqmagazine.com/2014/08/04/the-decomposition-of-continuous-movement-review-of-juan-jose-saers-la-grande-richard-farrell/ Richard Farell writes up Juan José Saer’s La Grande, translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph:
Consider hospitality. Imagine, say, a cookout, on a Sunday afternoon, with old friends gathered around a pool deck. Meat sizzles on the grill. It is autumn, but a last gasp of summer heats the day and warms the water. The party’s host, Willi Gutiérrez—a screenwriter, a sophisticated man of letters—has been living abroad in Europe for the last thirty years and has recently returned to his native Argentina. Decades have passed since many of the guests assembled here have broken bread together. The convivial atmosphere of the party crackles with laughter, with clanging wine glasses, and with stories. But just beneath that welcoming surface hides a mystery, swirling down like a river, faster and deeper as the party courses above. This mystery is one of ontology, of the deep, mystical, convoluted experience that is life, with all its secrets, its intrigue, its tragedies and its triumphs. At the very bottom, on the murky river floor where memory resides, where so much has been lost to time—betrayals, desires, the forgotten war, love, passions—here we find the source material for Juan José Saer’s La Grande. Saer reassembles the fragments. He reconstructs experience through memory, where nothing is ever quite what it appears, and yet where everything that appears is luminescent, like gold flakes panned from the silt, polished, crafted and forged into a ring.
In La Grande, Saer masterfully creates a fictional world at once brimming with life, detail, and imagery. Recursive themes appear, connect, and eventually assemble into a story. For nearly 500 pages, La Grande patterns many different but deeply connected narratives across those thirty years, two continents and dozens of characters. The novel opens as Gutierréz leads Nula on a walk along the Parana River, toward a café in the countryside. Saer always evokes place through movement and memory, and as they walk, the young wine merchant becomes mesmerized by his older friend, who has reentered this world—abandoned for thirty years—as if no time has passed at all. Nula wants to understand Gutiérrez. Who is he? Why did he leave? Why has he returned? Saer may not directly answer these questions, but they constitute the main impulse of the novel. [. . .]
Flannery O’Connor once remarked that a good story resists paraphrase. La Grande isn’t about parties, wine sales, sex or even ultimately about Argentine history. And yet it contains all of these and so much more. The experience, the joy, of reading this book comes from an appreciation of Saer’s ability to keep these various pieces in motion. Saer-as-maestro teases apart story lines, only to carefully reconnect them hundreds of pages later, so that, by novel’s end, when the various actors have gathered at the party in Gutiérrez’s home, “even the things that are familiar to us are unfamiliar, if only because we’ve allowed ourselves to forget the mysterious things about them.” The mundane becomes strange, significant, filled with meaning, so that each story, each character, each plot step even, appears consequential. Nothing is ever wasted.
English PEN’s “World Bookshelf” blog has a fantastic piece by Ottilie Mulzet on the complexities of translating László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo there Below, which won the both of them last year’s Best Translated Book Award.
The whole article is worth reading, but here are a few really interesting key points:
As you may have gathered, the amount of ground that Seiobo covers and the level of erudition displayed by the author are both formidable. This collage in my head of all the fragments of material acquired while translating it is, by necessity, enticingly eclectic and incomplete. Some of my discoveries were like poignant codas, scattered hints embedded in the real world, perhaps only to be found by a more assiduous reader. But, of course, it’s the translator who should always be the most assiduous reader of all.
The question of the writer’s voice when translating is crucial, and when translating a writer such as Krasznahorkai, it is even more so. The narrative voice in Seiobo first overwhelms the reader, then proceeds to harangue, mystify, and baffle. This voice carries the weight of so much fateful knowledge that the reader is not so informed by it as infected by the weight of all the human episteme. For all its encyclopaedic awareness, however, the voice is elusive, endlessly shifting between an anonymous narrator, anonymous protagonists, and objects themselves. I wondered at times if this torrent of words, seemingly drawing us nearer to these objects, was actually functioning as a kind of protective screen for the Divine – the principle of the Sacred – which is represented by the goddess Seiobo and by visitations of Andrei Rublev’s angels in the book, to cite just two examples. A torrent of words as a shield from the irrevocable crassness and damage of our secular world.
Both in interviews and in the book, the author uses a Hungarian verb that is hard to translate, elles, which consists of the main verb les with the addition of the verbal prefix el-. Les means to lie in wait for something (usually not with the best of intentions) but with the prefix el-, the verb is glossed as ‘to observe secretly and closely.’ The Magyar Értelmező Kis Szótár dictionary gives these definitions: ‘1. to learn something from somebody by observing, whilst remaining unobserved. 2. to happen upon something: He ~ my secret.’
This is not the time or place to embark upon a rapturous appreciation of Hungarian dictionaries, but the very existence of such a verb in Hungarian, expressing such a complex notion in a mere two syllables, is striking. Perhaps an even greater sphere of complexity resides in this one word than in the phenomena of the medieval workshop or the Asian master-apprenticeship, both of which are brought to light in the book. No, this is not just any sort of observation, but a ‘secret’ observation: the kind that does not encumber its object with the knowledge of being observed. Observation and perception are perhaps the most crucial elements in Seiobo. The wealth of material absorbed to make writing this book possible, and Krasznahorkai’s observations on the process of observation itself, suggest that it is the most fundamental aspect of acquiring skill. That, coupled with the grinding reality of the immense distances the author must have had to travel to witness all the experiences and facts that are communicated in this book, is perhaps a powerful rebuttal of the global ‘cyber-brain’ that is the Internet, which has otherwise become a universal mental prosthesis.
Read this, then read Seiobo.Tweet
The latest addition to our Reviews section is a piece by Simon Collinson on Autobiography of a Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, translated by Joanne Turnbull and Nikolai Formozov), and published by New York Review Books.
Simon is a bookseller and freelance reviewer based in Adelaide, Australia, and has written reviews various outlets, including the Australian Book Review.
Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky—in addition to having one of the coolest and most Z-heavy names I’ve ever seen—and his Autobiography have been hitting a lot of the right button’s lately: in June, it was announced that Autobiography of a Corpse won the 2014 Read Russia Prize, and just a few weeks ago it was announced that the book won the 2014 PEN Translation Prize. Congratulations again to everyone involved! And for everyone else . . . what more recommendation could you really need?
Here’s the beginning of Simon’s review:
One of the greatest services—or disservices, depending on your viewpoint—Bertrand Russell ever performed for popular philosophy was humanizing its biggest thinkers in his History. No longer were they Platonic ideals, the clean-shaven exemplars of the kind of homely truisms that might’ve been found in commonplace books: they had become eccentrics, weirdos, freaks. This was a transformation Russell’s readers might have felt privileged to witness. Then again, they might have been horrified.
Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky has done something similar with ideas, both those belonging to Russell’s eccentrics and those roaming about in other fields. Written between 1922 and 1939, the short stories collected in Autobiography of a Corpse wriggle into the liminal spaces between fiction, reality, and the world of ideas: in fact, there’s even a story called “The Collector of Cracks.”
Krzhizhanovsky is fundamentally concerned with how fiction and reality influence each other, and even though his work might reference a who’s who of modern and classical philosophy—Kant, Leibniz, Descartes, Hegel, Spinoza, Fichte, Berkeley—he’s anything but convinced of their ideas’ verity.
For the rest of the review, go here.Tweet
A gorgeously unique, fully illustrated exploration into the phenomenology of reading—how we visualize images from reading works of literature, from one of our very best book jacket designers, himself a passionate reader.
What do we see when we read? Did Tolstoy really describe Anna Karenina? Did Melville ever really tell us what, exactly, Ishmael looked like? The collection of fragmented images on a page—a graceful ear there, a stray curl, a hat positioned just so—and other clues and signifiers helps us to create an image of a character. But in fact our sense that we know a character intimately has little to do with our ability to concretely picture our beloved—or reviled—literary figures. In this remarkable work of nonfiction, Knopf’s Associate Art Director Peter Mendelsund combines his profession, as an award-winning designer; his first career, as a classically trained pianist; and his first love, literature—he considers himself first and foremost as a reader—into what is sure to be one of the most provocative and unusual investigations into how we understand the act of reading.
I can’t wait to get my hands on this, and I’m sure I’ll write something up about it after I have a chance to read it, but the part of the New Yorker interview that I really wanted to share is this part about the forthcoming new editions of Calvino’s books:
You’re in the middle of repackaging the work of the Italian writer Italo Calvino. Can you tell me how that project came to you?
A year or so ago I received an e-mail from Giovanna Calvino, who is Calvino’s daughter, and she said that she had read, in an interview I gave somewhere, that I loved her father’s work, that she was working with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to repackage the backlist, and would I be interested in doing it? I can’t tell you what a shock it was to have the name Calvino in my inbox. Obviously I jumped at the chance to work on these. So then I did what I always do when designing a backlist series: I started to reread all of the books. This is, by far, the most fun part of these kinds of projects—the reacquainting oneself with not just some of the work but all of it. But finding images that could represent all of these books, and make them work as a series, is a particularly tricky problem, because there are three distinct stages to Calvino’s writing: a realist phase, a fantastical phase, and a kind of semiotic or metafictional phase. So it was a challenge, but a really fun one.
I’d been working on my monograph, “Cover,” which is primarily photos of my book covers, and I wondered if it would be meta, in a way very appropriate for Calvino, if each of his books featured a photo of a book on it. The first idea that came to me was completely absurdist in a way that I imagine Calvino would have loved—to photograph each of the old editions of Calvino and frame them, so that you’d have a sort of catalogue of old Calvino books. Then it occurred to me: If we’re going to take photos of Calvino books, wouldn’t it be better if we made Calvino books that don’t exist? The next stage was designing imaginary Calvino books. “The Path to the Spider’s Nest” was going to be a kind of young-adult pulp book; “The Baron in the Trees” an old, eighteenth-century-style Italian cloth-wrapped, foil-stamped book; “Cosmicomics” a comic book. I could make them not just books but written artifacts of various kinds—“Six Memos for the Next Millennium” could be literally memos. We would make one copy of each book and photograph it for each cover. I don’t normally collaborate, but there’s a wonderful designer, Oliver Munday, who is also interested in Calvino, and we worked together on this project.
What came next?
At the beginning of “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller,” the narrator is addressing the reader in the second person, and he tells you that you see the steam from a locomotive go over the opening paragraph of the book. I loved the idea of the text itself interacting with specific imagery, and I thought maybe it would be interesting if I actually set the opening paragraph of each book on the cover, with an illustration intermingling with it. “The Baron in the Trees” would have the branches weaving through the words.
But somehow I worried that they wouldn’t sell the book properly—that they might be too visually busy to be viscerally affecting. So I started thinking about doing illustrations of abstract shapes that by themselves don’t necessarily have a ton of meaning, and on each one drawing a line or two that would add to that meaning, or bring it into focus. I made a tree-like thing that was just a blob, then inserted a little sword into it, like a sword a child might draw, which becomes a tree trunk. This seemed to work. I made some more of them. They have a kind of Calder-like feeling. I like their seeming naïveté.
And these were chosen for the finished covers, correct?
Yes, but in the middle of that I had this crazy revelation of how I thought these books should be, a kind of bolt from the blue, while I was on the subway. I just had this crystalline vision of the whole series. The covers would be all type, and each one would have a description of an imaginary book jacket on it, each one written by a different author. We would get a bunch of great writers I know who are huge Calvino fans to write them. The jackets would be ekphrastic. Everything would have to be imagined by the reader. No actual imagery on the covers. Robin Desser, an editor here at Knopf, said it was the most Calvino-esque idea she’d ever heard.
In the end I showed Giovanna all three ideas—the photographs, the illustrations, and the ekphrastic direction—and she liked them, and her mother, Calvino’s widow, agreed to the all-type direction. But then there were some objections that they would be hard to see as thumbnails on Amazon. I think honestly the publisher was looking for something a little poppier and user-friendly. In the end I was happy enough with any of these directions that it didn’t really matter to me, though I still think that the all-type thing was one of those once-in-a-lifetime ideas. The only thing that would have made it better would have been to have Calvino himself write those descriptions. But I’m happy with the finals, and I think they will really stand out on a shelf.
Calvino is an all-time favorite of mine, and these reissues are a perfect opportunity to reread him and write up a bunch of stuff for Three Percent . . . The first three books — Into the War, Collection of Sand, and The Complete Cosmicomics — come out this fall, and we’ll post more info about them then.Tweet
The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Vincent Francone on A Musical Hell by Alejandra Pizarnik, translated by Yvette Siegert and published by New Directions as part of their Poetry Pamphlet series.
Here’s the beginning of Vince’s review:
The best way to review Alejandra Pizarnik’s slim collection, A Musical Hell, published by New Directions as part of their Poetry Pamphlet series, is to begin by stating that it is poetry with a capital P: serious, dense, and, some might say, difficult. Take from that what you will, but I’m going to follow an idea from Julio Cortázar who, in a letter to Pizarnik (reprinted as a preface to this collection), wrote: “You’ve heard of this reviewing method where you page through a book and cite various verses and passages, then make some comment to praise or shoot it down? I don’t care for this sort of thing.” Okay, point taken, Sr. Cortázar. I’m going to avoid that kind of review this time and try to capture instead the impression of Pizarnik’s art, a truly foolish endeavor on my part but here goes:
bq, The poems are not formal, though they are earnest, surreal, indebted to artistic traditions that broke with tradition, which was quite a thing in 1971 (when the poems were first published in their native Spanish) I am sure, but in 2014 I must admit that the effect is diminished. Poets have been liberated by the likes of Pizarnik and her forbearers Vallejo, Lorca, Desnos—really most post Victorians you can think of. Subsequently, it seems that the most radical thing to do in the 21st century is to turn away from this sort of free verse.
For the rest of the review, go here.Tweet
Although it wasn’t all that long ago that László Krasznahorkai and Elisa Biagini won the Best Translated Book Award, but it’s already time to look ahead to the 2015 iteration—the first step of which is announcing the new group of judges.
Similar to years past, the fiction panel will consist of nine members, and five for poetry.
The fiction group consists of: George Carroll (Northwest Publishers’ Representative, Shelf Awareness), Monica Carter (Salonica), James Crossley (Island Books), Scott Esposito (Center for the Art of Translation, Conversational Reading), Jeremy Garber (Powells), Katrine Øgaard Jensen (Asymptote), Madeleine LaRue (Music & Literature), Daniel Medin (American University of Paris, Cahiers Series), and Michael Orthofer (Complete Review).
Poetry is made up of: Biswamit Dwibedy (poet), Bill Martin (translator, co-founder of The Bridge), Dawn Lundy Martin (poet), Erica Mena-Landry (poet, translator, managing director of ALTA) and Stefan Tobler (And Other Stories and translator).
For all publishers/authors/translators out there who want their book(s) to be entered into the BTBA, all you have to do is send a copy to each one of the judges (and one to me so that we can log it). You can send either a physical copy OR a PDF/ebook. Just make sure you send it before December 31, 2014.
Any work that’s available in the United States for the first time ever (no retranslations, new editions, etc.) that’s published between January 1, 2014 and December 31, 2014 is eligible. (Even if you don’t send in a copy, but your chances of winning increase exponentially by letting more judges read your work.)
In terms of dates, the longlists—25 fiction works, 10 poetry—will be announced on March 2nd, with the finalists—10 fiction, 5 poetry—on April 13th. The winners will be announced on April 27th and we’ll have a celebration in New York City on May 1st.
More info soon!Tweet
The American Literary Translators Association, which is finally really trying to get its shit together in terms of its public and web presence, just announced the 15-title longlist for this year’s National Translation Award.
If you haven’t heard of the NTA, here’s all the necessary info: this is the sixteenth year the award is being given out; in contrast to the BTBA, it’s the “only national award for translated fiction, poetry, and literary nonfiction that includes a rigorous examination of the source text and its relation to the finished English work”; the finalist judges are Barbara Epler (Publisher, New Directions), Elaine Katzenberger (Publisher, City Lights), and Jessica Cohen (renowned translator from the Hebrew); the winning translator will receive $5,000; and the finalists will be announced in October, with the winner being announced at the ALTA conference in Milwaukee from November 12-15.
Here’s the full longlist!
Poems of Consummation by Vicente Aleixandre
Translated from the Spanish by Stephen Kessler
(Black Widow Press)
Cavafy: Complete Plus by C.P. Cavafy
Translated from the Greek by George Economou
The Dark by Sergio Chejfec
Translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary
(Open Letter Books)
Theme of Farewell and After-Poems by Milo de Angelis
Translated from the Italian
by Susan Stewart & Patrizio Ceccagnoli
(The University of Chicago Press)
Life’s Good, Brother by Nazim Hikmet
Translated from the Turkish by Mutlu Konuk Blasing
(Persea Books, Inc.)
Distant Lands: An Anthology of Poets who Don’t Exist by Agnieszka Kuciak
Translated from the Polish by Karen Kovacik
(White Pine Press)
A Treatise on Shelling Beans by Wiesław Myśliwski
Translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston
Between Friends by Amos Oz
Translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
The Girl with the Golden Parasol by Uday Prakash
Translated from the Hindi by Jason Gruenbaum
(Yale Univeristy Press)
The African Shore by Rodrigo Rey Rosa
Translated from the Spanish by Jeffrey Gray
(Yale University Press)
Four Elemental Bodies by Claude Royet-Journoud
Translated from the French by Keith Waldrop
Light and Dark: A Novel by Natsume Soseki
Translated from the Japanese by John Nathan
(Columbia University Press)
Crossings by Habib Tengour
Translated from the French by Marilyn Hacker
(The Post-Apollo Press)
An Invitation For Me to Think by Alexander Vvedensky
Translated from the Russian by Eugene Ostashevsky & Matvei Yankelevich
(New York Review Books)
A Schoolboy’s Diary by Robert Walser
Translated from the German by Damion Searls
(New York Review Books)
The publisher’s blurb for Oleg Pavlov’s The Matiushin Case promises the prospective reader “a Crime and Punishment for today,” the sort of comparison that is almost always guaranteed to do a disservice to both the legendary dead and the ambitious. . .
One hundred years have passed since the start of World War I and it is difficult to believe that there are still novels, considered classics in their own countries, that have never been published in English. Perhaps it was the. . .
In the London of Hédi Kaddour’s Little Grey Lies, translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan, peace has settled, but the tensions, fears, and anger of the Great War remain, even if tucked away behind stories and lies. Directly ahead, as those. . .
One of the greatest services—or disservices, depending on your viewpoint—Bertrand Russell ever performed for popular philosophy was humanizing its biggest thinkers in his History. No longer were they Platonic ideals, the clean-shaven exemplars of the kind of homely truisms that. . .
The best way to review Alejandra Pizarnik’s slim collection, A Musical Hell, published by New Directions as part of their Poetry Pamphlet series, is to begin by stating that it is poetry with a capital P: serious, dense, and, some. . .
Upon completing Albertine Sarrazin’s Astragal I was left to wonder why it ever fell from print. Aside from the location, Astragal could pass as the great American novel. Its edginess and rawness capture the angst and desires we all had. . .
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“I preferred the war to the plague,” writes Curzio Malaparte in his 1949 novel, The Skin. He speaks of World War II and the destruction it has wrought on Italy, the city of Naples in particular. But the plague he. . .
With the steady rise of feminist scholarship and criticism in recent decades, it is little wonder that the work of Louise Labé should be attracting, as Richard Sieburth tells us in the Afterword to his translation, a “wide and thriving”. . .
In Conversations, we find ourselves again in the protagonist’s conscious and subconscious, which is mostly likely that of Mr. César Aira and consistent with prototypical Aira style. This style never fails because each time Aira is able to develop a. . .