Literature in translation often comes with a certain pedigree. In this little corner of the world, with so few books making it into this comforting nook, it is often those of the highest quality that cross through, and attention is paid to these books. Put out by presses more focused on quality than profit, it is a definition of quality as challenging literature, beautiful prose, new directions for the novel—and that’s all wonderful. But sometimes, other quality is overlooked. We know that Scandinavian crime novels can be counted on to make it into translation, but horror, science fiction, fantasy, comedy? They seem to be more rare, and for someone who reads as all over the map as possible (both the map of nations and the metaphorical map of literature types), it can be disappointing. Then comes along something like The. . .
Alessandro Baricco’s Mr. Gwyn is a set of two loosely interlinked novellas that play with narrative and the construction of character. Ably translated by Ann Goldstein, Mr. Gwyn plays some subtle metafictional games as Baricco delves into what it means not just to write, but to create representations of ourselves. Is narrative a story, or a portrait, or both? It is a question Baricco delightfully plays with, with intriguing results that can be quite sensual.
In the title novella, a writer, Jasper Gwyn, after publishing only three novels publicly announces in the Guardian that he is never going to write another book. The reason? It “no longer suited him.” His publisher and friend try to no avail to have him change his mind. Gwyn is unwilling to go back on what he’s said and refuses to write another book. However, he. . .
I must admit upfront that I went into reading Saadat Hasan Manto’s Bombay Stories almost entirely blind. I have not read Salman Rushdie. I have read, perhaps, two short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri. I might shamefully add that I really only remember the barest details of Gandhi’s life and deeds. I can say, in the humblest of humblebrags, that I did read Intizar Husain’s Basti, a book I certainly might not have if not for its inclusion on the “2013 Best Translated Book Award longlist”:http://www.rochester.edu/College/translation/threepercent/index.php?id=6532. That book, more than anything, made me somewhat—an emphatically underlined, italicized, all-caps, incorrectly-used quotation marked “SOMEWHAT”—more educated of the events surrounding India and Pakistan’s violent schism in the 1940s.
But perhaps you are on equally unfamiliar terrain. Or perhaps not: maybe you were one of the many who read Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, which would. . .
Throughout his work The Gray Notebook, Josep Pla mentions many different authors, some of whom have inspired him to pick up a pen. One of them is Marcel Proust. Even though Pla normally prefers nonfiction, he lauds the French novelist as “the greatest realist writer of all time.”
Proust resolves the childish oversimplification of the realism of his time by bringing to the foreground, with unique insight and a fabulous means of expression, a reality that is infinitely richer in sensuous and spiritual elements. It is very likely that great writers are significant in that they function as a kind of crossroads – in their ability to overcome contradictions that human petty-mindedness had transformed into rigid structures. I think it is evident that Proust banished from his literary horizons petty, low-ceilinged, reductive realism. On the one hand, he is much more. . .
On that September 11th I had a conversation with a professor friend who was teaching a creative writing class that evening. He questioned, “What can I possibly teach when all of this has happened?” While the dismay and grief were his reference, the question touches on a matter much deeper: what is art’s purpose? Either it is an indulgence, lacking gravitas—the wasted calories of dessert after a nutritious meal, good tasting but not essential—or art is a vital part of the human experience in good and hard times. This collection of landays—an oral tradition of women’s poetry in Afghanistan, with prescribed form but subtlety of subject matter—brings full-circle that conversation 13 years ago. This collection testifies in deep and important ways how art is inextricably part of life. These poems, historical and culturally central to Afghanis, can address timeless matters. . .
In a story of two emotionally distant people, Japanese author Takashi Hiraide expertly evokes powerful feelings of love, loss, and friendship in his novel The Guest Cat. The life of the unnamed narrator and his wife, both writers, is calm and simple until the appearance of their neighbors’ cat, Chibi. Warmth and caring slowly seep into their relationship, with each other and with Chibi, due to the cat’s appearance. Gradually their lives change in subtle yet impactful ways. Finding out they have to leave their home coincides with an abrupt end to Chibi’s visits, and suddenly their newly established lifestyle is in disarray. The narrator describes his life experiences, relationships, and surroundings with simple clarity and beautiful awareness. At one point, as an attempted distraction from loss, the narrator immerses himself in a book on geometry and his reflection on. . .
I have wanted to read Persian poetry ever since having heard so many good things about it from my Palestinian friend. Sohrab Sepehri’s collection, The Oasis of Now: Selected Poems, however, sounded quite new-agey—as if the poetry was canned lyricism awash in love, peace, and overly sensual descriptions of nature—and this worried me. I feared that Sepehri’s poetry would surely turn me off to anything Persian for a long time. Even when I started to read the first lines of the opening poem, “Water’s Footfall” (the title already felt like a distasteful personification), I felt depressed to have been selected to read the book. Very quickly, however, I began to shed my misgivings.
While Sepehri is not especially well known in the West, he is one of the five most popular Persian poets of the modern Persian poetry movement known as. . .
“I am honored to have ushered Mario Bellatin’s biography of the great Shiki Nagaoka, a writer and artist almost entirely unknown to English-language readers, into English for the first time, and it is my hope that this new translation begins to redress his under-acknowledgement as a major influence on contemporary world literature. Bellatin’s highly stylized study is the most important work on the author to appear since Pablo Soler Frost’s 1986 monograph, Possible Interpretation of [untranslatable symbol], notable for its pedantry, perhaps best evidenced by the average (mean) tally of semicolons per page: 47.”
This is how translator David Shook begins his preface to Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction. However, Nagaoka never existed; Shook is just going along with a joke which, according to a New York Times article, originated at a writer’s conference years ago. When asked about his. . .
We have all observed and appreciated art. However, when we experience art, it is generally in a bubble of our own experiences and preferences. More often than not, we may know the artist only in name and that he or she is noteworthy leading to the required appreciation. It is rare that we have knowledge of how the artists’ life experiences led to their ultimate creations and masterpieces. We know nothing of the subjects, the driving forces that resulted in the creation of the piece, nor the inner turmoil the artists endured to create their works.
Masters and Servants by Pierre Michon is an incredibly special literary work in that it truly does bring art to life. The work consists of five short stories focusing on the subjects of masterpieces and the artists’ relationships with the subjects of those pieces. Michon’s. . .
It is an unusual thing to see a press specifically focus on a single author, but that is what Contra Mundum Press has done with Hungarian author Miklós Szentkuthy, and if Towards the One & Only Metaphor is any basis to judge the rest of his work, the decision is one to be celebrated. Though one of those novels (this term used here in its most all-encompassing definition) that is “not for everyone” and one that is unabashedly difficult, it is also inviting and at its highest points gorgeous, thrilling, and plainly new, even if it was originally published in 1935. Szentkuthy makes it clear throughout the work that he is aware of the challenge he is asking readers to undertake with him, and more than once expresses an attitude not of the confidence and bullying that authors like Nabokov. . .