24 August 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In this episode—covering Tómas Jónsson’s fourth composition book—a number of the themes of the overall novel are put on display: Tómas’s relationship to his body, the way he tries to create a narrative for himself, possible injustices he’s suffered during his life, the way his lodgers are like an army, and more. And there’s no one better to help parse these elements than author and critic Scott Esposito. He joins Chad and Lytton for an episode that may be a bit long, but is stuffed full of insight about this Icelandic masterpiece.

Also discussed in this episode is Scott’s interview with Lytton for Conversational Reading.

Feel free to comment on this episode—or on the book in general—either on this post, or at the official GoodReads Group.

Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller is available at better bookstores everywhere, and you can also order it directly from Open Letter, where you can get 20% off by entering 2MONTH in the discount field at checkout.

Follow Open Letter, Chad Post, Lytton Smith, and for more thoughts and information about upcoming guests.

You can follow Scott Esposito on Twitter and Instagram, or at Conversational Reading. And you can get his latest book, The Doubles, from Civil Coping Mechanisms.

And you can find all the Two Month Review posts by clicking here. Please rate us on iTunes and/or leave a review!

The music for this season of Two Month Review is Long Year by The Anchoress.

21 August 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

On this week’s Two Month Review podcast, we’ll be discussing the IV composition book (pages 32-68) from Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller. As a bit of preparation, below you’ll find some initial thoughts, observations, and quotes.

You can also download this post as a PDF document.

As always, you can get Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller for 20% off from our website by using the code 2MONTH. It’s also available at better bookstores everywhere.

And be sure to join the Goodreads group and subscribe to the Two Month Review Podcast on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.

On last week’s podcast, I mentioned that I wanted to try and pay attention to the patterns in Tómas Jónsson’s thoughts, try and puzzle out the internal logic to his peculiar stream-of-consciousness. This isn’t exactly the easiest thing to do—how do you not just get swept up in the torrents of prose?—but there was on extended bit in this composition book that does illuminate some of the inner workings of Tómas’s mind. (This is all from one paragraph that begins on page 35 and ends on 38.)

In any case, I managed to wake rested and refreshed after a deep sleep as the clock rang Sunday in. I was in no hurry to dress. I needed to wake, yawn, put in my teeth, release the piss from my penis, lie back under the covers, drink from my half-thermos, and lie still on my back, my hands at my sides on top of the comforter, which swells with air and feathers, take out my teeth, doze for five minutes, wake for another five, turn again to sleep, and wake in five minute intervals. [. . .] Sleeping is not respected except for where there are sick people or the decrepit or those about to die. Before you die, you must be properly asleep. Preferable to die in your sleep. Hospitals usually turn off the lights at ten o’clock at night. I need my sleep dearly. But I would rather die than be frozen inside a retirement home. Once you get to my age, an orderly lifestyle is the surest defense against the force which fills graves. A long time ago I had to give up coffee with dinner. That was a great struggle. Almost impossible. Coffee in the evening, sitting in the comfort and privacy of a divan corner with the chair’s seat clamped between my knees, the thermos within reach on the ground, morsels of letters on the back of the chair and the cup steady in the seat’s depression, alone in your company, my puss, that was my life’s true purpose, my diversion. [. . .] But you remember nothing of this. Feline instinct has little memory. Words spoken to cats in confidence are not used later in retaliation. The absence of coffee in the evenings. Life became empty and my environment impoverished in quality. So it ends. There comes a time you have to give up evening coffee and everything of quality in the world. [. . .] No one can know me in my sleep (except my dreams). I do not need to get to work until half past eight. Until that time, when it is time to prepare for my departure, I potter about in my room, tidying up around me. I am washed and brushed. I have cleaned the sleep from my face, my scrotum, and my hands with a washcloth. I brush the bad taste of sleep from my mouth with a toothbrush. I blow the sleep from my nose with a tissue. I wipe sleep from my eyes by closing them, rolling them five times in the sun’s direction then counterclockwise the same number of times. I never feel comfortable until I have scraped off my stubble. The day begins as soon as the night’s clamminess has left my flesh, the mind ready to start earning money. Dressed, I drink my morning coffee, of which I will also be robbed before long. Once in a retirement home, you get dishwater mix instead. I am prepared for the worst. I face it with the calm and tranquility of my early days. O yes. [. . .] Complete anarchy reigns in the other parts of the apartment. The kids buzz around their parents’ heads, and objects buzz around the heads of both the kids and the parents. Blind, I could go to my closet, stretch out my hand, touch the key, turn it into a semicircle in the lock, open the door, and reach for the green pencil in a jacket’s breast pocket; I could do other tricks like this. Orderliness has come in handy now that I am blind and decrepit. I leave the house as soon as my internal organizing and planning voice says: Tómas, everything is in its ideal place within your room. Even my thoughts sit in an organized series within my cerebral cortex.

Yes, yes, that’s an incredibly long passage. And there’s so much more that I could pull out or point to! But in that bit above, we get a really good overview of the drift of Tómas’s thoughts: he wakes up and wants to put his self/clothes/thoughts into order, since orderliness is a prized attribute in his mind, and at the same time, the idea of sleep (and the Great Sleep) reminds him of his aging, of losing his evening coffee (and soon the morning cup as well), and that everything is working against him, that his life (due to his lodgers and his body’s natural entropy) is falling apart.

This idea—that there are meta-structures behind his thought patterns revealing his character—fits in well with all the references to orderliness and structure in this composition book. But at the same time, as much as he prizes these qualities, the novel itself, the “bestseller” describing his life, is so miasmic, so chaotic, that all these claims to order feel totally specious. Yet, probably aren’t?

I’m still working toward a more complete understanding of how any one of these composition books is structured as a whole, but in this particular case, we have a few mentions or motifs that play off one another and give this chapter a fairly circular structure. For example, Lóa is mentioned twice—at the beginning in reference to being raped, and at the end, when she’s taking the trash out of the bank. The above quoted section about getting ready for work and the way that Tómas organizes his mind and life is a nice complement to the bit near the end about the bank, in which he’s either passed over for a promotion because he can’t keep up with technology (“Faced with the complex electrical accounting machine, I shattered like a thermos. Here in my solitude I have demanded my brain reveal what my supervisors said. Everything is beautifully ordered, but where is the corpse.”), or because life is just unfair. There’re also two invented stories in the book, one a biography, one a sort of parody of a country folk tale. And there’s the relationship between Tómas and his body and his body in relation to women.


In case you haven’t noticed, Tómas talks about his body a lot. So many bodily functions! Not only peeing—which, I feel like he doesn’t take a piss that he doesn’t also feel obliged to write into his composition books—but also references to his oxygen tank, his size, even his daily washroom routine (see above). All you have as you approach the end is your body. And in this particular section, the idea of the body takes on an even greater significance:

I had a body the body is dressed on its exterior in skin under the skin there is flesh on the skin there is hair      I touch my body           I have a body      inside it: bones and entrails      But I could find no memories inside the body. I had never thought that my travels were entrusted with memories. I was told that as age increases and the flesh softens, drowsy memories awaken in the mind. That is not my experience.        for me, nostalgia awakens in the flesh

And then:

Maybe I’m too fat to be able to remember anything for more than a moment. The outer surface of my body is too far away from my soul. Aristotle probably came to this same conclusion after he grew older and fatter.

At the same time that Tómas is happy to talk about his pissing and flesh, he has a strong dislike for even allusions to sex. Like with that opening scene—which keeps being referenced, making me think that a lot of this book is taking place around this one single moment—in which he hears his lodgers getting busy in the hallway, which pisses him off. Not only are they having sex right outside his door, but they have the lights on (!), and end up ruining the cloth hook used to hang up his overcoat (!!). Not to mention that sex leads to children, and do we really have to talk about the disruptive nature of children in an apartment?

This aversion to that particular bodily function bleeds over into Tómas’s uneasy relationship to women as a whole. There’s the aforementioned allusion to Lóa being raped (a central scene to come),
followed by recounting the weird—and very inappropriate—pranks that are played on Gerður.

His thoughts about Gerður are particularly complicated in this section. At times, he describes her in fairly sexualized ways:

She perches one ass cheek on the desk’s edge beside me, dangles a foot, her thickened thighs vibrating and jarring at her old, rusty, arthritic groin. I momentarily become a street urchin       her legs have no fat

And then, after running through some of her flaws, refers to her as good wife material . . . sort of:

However flawed Miss Gerður is known to be—and she is certainly a very flawed person—she is still excellently qualified in her areas. As a wife, she would certainly stand in good stead running the apartment, keeping it hygienic and clean: she would brush dust from the baseboards daily, wash the kitchen down after every meal, open a window when she fries, go into all the corners with a floor cloth, clean the cobwebs from all the crannies, and wash her underwear nightly—but surely would neglect me, forgetting to tighten my oxygen mask at the right time.

And although his mind constantly swerves in her direction when he thinks of romance or having a family or whatever, he ends his thoughts on her in this chapter pretty harshly:

She shuffles bundles and stretches a band quick around them. The whole time I was as a joker and mockingbird; a jolly companionship. Our Tómas is becoming a comic, I make people think about me. I watch her behavior and gestures which are nothing because Miss Gerður as a woman has been pasteurized. From now on, I will only write badly of her.

(At times reading this is like reading some of the old notebooks I find that my kids have written in. My daughter one day: “Aidan is a brat and a jerk and gets away with everything.” Then, 24 hours later: “I love my brother and I’m going to write a nice thing about him in here every day and then give it to him as a present.” The next page is torn out. The end.)


All this is great, but really, the part that I love the best is his rant about ghostwriters and biographies:

No chance, then, that I’ll be able to commission a ghostwriter to write a bestseller in my name in time for the christmas market—I will have to write it myself—the way those others did, Schiaparelli the fashion queen, Rockefeller, and old Kalli, the lumpfish king. These are the labors of rich people in this country who do nothing for the arts, when they plead their existence, the publishers and the royalties there on the table to support writers, who do not need to focus on anything but spelling.

And then, after writing a bit of a faux biography of “old Kalli, the lumpfish king,” he drops in this amazing breakdown of those sorts of books that read like something from one of the writer’s guides that Fresán mocked in The Invented Part:

20% places and the names of people; 2% trials, peril at sea, and amazing rescues; 19% scenic descriptions scattered throughout the book’s chapters; 3% poetic sex, which runs together with the poetry of the scenic descriptions (in bestsellers it’s traditional to save sex for near the end of each chapter, so that the reader feels his brain has been mentally masturbated prior to reading the next section the next night. What’s literature but mental masturbation for the emotions?); 7% reflections and conversations with intelligent animals the character has acquired as friends; 11% food and conditions on ships (comparisons of past and present); 15% forebodings and dreams (dream women, Kalli is far too healthy to get dream pussy at sea); 7% Kalli the lumpfish king himself, the creation of this character who is, of course, “driven by powerful contrasts” as the academics term it. A “lively final surge and conflict at the culmination.” This is important stuff.

Alongside this though, there’s an absurd play that he writes for the “Icelandic Opera” followed by a sort of parody of a folk tale about a man who falls for a farmhand, which ends with three people sleeping in a bed feet-to-head and having to avoid getting toes in the crotch or the nose. What do we do with this?

Bit of a spoiler, but in the next few sections there are more of these literary inventions. And, although this is a bit obvious or almost trite to say, I see these as attempts on Tómas’s part to find the right form through which to tell his story. He’s looking for a pathway to writing a bestseller, which could take the form of a biography, or an opera, or a countryside tale in the fashion of Laxness. I don’t know that it’s necessarily that explicit, but this is something to sort of track over the next few composition books.


Finally, I want to end by saying how funny this book is. But that it’s a weird sort of humor in the vein of Samuel Beckett. Sure, there are straight up funny bits (see above bit about literature as masturbation for the emotions, or the story of what happens to the CEO in Switzerland after he loses the 20 million and has to have his blood completely replaced), but a lot of the humor comes from the vacillations of ironic distance between Tómas’s situation and his verbosity.

Here you have a old man, unable to get out of bed or wash himself, who is pissed about people in the hallway banging with the lights on, getting all worked up internally and on the page, but who can’t really do anything. Someone who praises himself with a Gatsby-esque list of how ordered his thoughts are throughout the day, but who loses his job because he can’t work an adding machine. And sometimes he covers up the squalor of his present moment with memories and rants against the new, weak Icelanders, but at other times, everything breaks down, collapsing into a true representation of the present, in which he’s just a man who wanted to be great but is now about to die alone, bringing out all the pathos of a more conventional epic.

And in some ways, this humor is most present when you go back to the book. In the present moment, reading it, I’ve found myself focused mostly on trying to figure out the whats and whys. Is this what’s really happening? But the second I get on the podcast with Lytton and start talking through what I just read, all the humor comes to the surface.

18 August 17 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

As many of you may have noticed already, August is widely considered Women in Translation Month (look for the #WITMonth hashtag basically anywhere). Since Open Letter has published its fair share of baller women authors over the past ten years, we thought we’d take a few posts to highlight a handful of our all-time favorite representatives, including Marguerite Duras, Mercè Rodoreda, and Dubravka Ugresic, among others.

Next month, our friends at Politics & Prose Bookstore will feature Can Xue’s Frontier in its International Literature book group. Can Xue has long been one of Open Letter’s favorite authors—not just because of the books she writes, but also because of her incredibly intelligent self-analysis and approach to writing, and her approach to literature, theory, life, and, really, just the world around us (one of my personal favorites was a discussion she and I had during a car ride to Niagara falls, where she went into her theories on how there are two kinds of cats: Light Cats and Dark Cats). She has an incredible mind, and it has been nothing short of a pleasure to publish her and get to know her better over the years.

In this our second #WITmonth throwback, we are, of course, highlighting the great Can Xue. We’ve published two of her books over the years, but it feels like we’ve done more (and word on the grapevine is we’re lining a third one up). Both Vertical Motion and Frontier are books to get lost in and wander through, books to let be books, and texts that demand to be permitted to just happen.

Book One: Vertical Motion

Open Letter and Read This Next get excited for the upcoming release of Vertical Motion. “Plants that grow underground, blind beaked underground creatures, cotton candy that can be summoned from thin air—all of Xue’s stories challenge what you think you know, what you think you should know, and what you think you can know.”

Two of Can Xue’s translators, the wonderful duo of Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping, are interviewed by Read This Next about translating Can Xue.

A Three Percent review of Vertical Motion says of Can Xue’s approach, “Xue destabilizes the very idea of familiarity, upends what the reader believes is knowable, by stripping away the expository that we have come to expect.”

The Quarterly Conversation reviews Vertical Motion.

That time author and The Mountain Goats frontman John Darnielle publicly shared his love for Can Xue (and Mercè Rodoreda!). “The Can Xue book is incredible—short stories that I’d call “surrealist,” but it’s a kind of clear-eyed surrealism, as if dreams had invaded the physical world. The stories slip from simple descriptions or accounts of life into strange scenes of unreality that nobody in the stories is really surprised by.”

Open Letter director Chad W. Post and Can Xue talk at the Reykjavik International Literary Festival about, well, Can Xue.

It’s not our title, but we’re still stinkin’ proud! Can Xue’s The Last Lover wins the 2015 BTBA for Fiction!

World Literature Today and Publishers Weekly both run a review on Vertical Motion. From PW: “. . . Xue captures the wonder of the natural world and then, with great assurance, steps beyond into something entirely.”

Book Two: Frontier

Kirkus Reviews kicks off our Frontier times with a starred review! “Odd, atmospheric, and enchanting: a story in which, disbelief duly suspended, one savors improbabilities along with haunting images and is left wanting more.”

Author Porochista Khakpour interviews Can Xue for Words Without Borders.

NPR Books jumps on the Frontier train as well, publishing a review by Amal Eh-Mohtar that praises the book and the translation, saying “Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping’s translation is that species of wonderful that makes you forget you’re reading a translation until they see fit to remind you.”

One of our biggest joys was when Can Xue was profiled by the New Yorker. “Can Xue has likened her writing to the pioneering dance of the choreographer Isadora Duncan—a comparison that captures, in “Frontier,” the fresh, unexpected ways in which one moment flows into the next.”

Music & Literature and Numero Cinq also review Frontier. “As an accomplished and mature work with a truly engaging cast of characters, set in a community perched on the borders of everyday reality and whatever lies beyond, Frontier contains a world well worth exploring. However strangely disconcerting it can feel to surrender to the psychic geography of Can Xue’s fictional landscape, if you remember that your own dream-logic may well your best guide, the journey can be endlessly rewarding and entertaining.”

Stay tuned for more #WITmonth throwbacks!

17 August 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week, Ph.D. candidate Anastasia Nikolis joins Chad and Lytton to talk about the real meat of Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller—chamber pot usage! They also discuss the way our grumpy narrator’s mind works, the way he finds beauty in ambiguity, how Lytton translated a very specific word game, and a couple cues to help keep track of “when” particular sections are taking place. A lively and learned episode—just like the novel itself.

Feel free to comment on this episode—or on the book in general—either on this post, or at the official GoodReads Group.

Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller is available at better bookstores everywhere, and you can also order it directly from Open Letter, where you can get 20% off by entering 2MONTH in the discount field at checkout.

Follow Open Letter, Chad Post, Lytton Smith, and for more thoughts and information about upcoming guests. And listen to Anastasia’s poetry podcast, Black Box Poetry, to hear more of her thoughts about writing and literature.

And you can find all the Two Month Review posts by clicking here. Please rate us on iTunes and/or leave a review!

The music for this season of Two Month Review is Long Year by The Anchoress.

16 August 17 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Emilee Brecht on A Simple Story: The Last Malambo by Leila Guerriero, published by New Directions.

Emilee was a summer intern at Open Letter this summer, and will have had a huge hand in compiling a special anthology you’ll hear more about soon… Emilee is also a BA candidate in American and British Literature at the University of Rochester.

Here’s the beginning of Emilee’s review:

Leila Guerriero’s A Simple Story: The Last Malambo chronicles the unique ferocity of a national dance competition in Argentina. The dance, called the malambo, pushes the physical and mental limits of male competitors striving to become champions of not only the historical craft of the dance, but for their families and communities.

During the author’s investigation, she is drawn to the uniquely enduring spirit of a competitor named Rodolfo González Alcántara. Her reports combine her awe and fascination for the dance with the raw observation of physical movements and events, making the novel a powerful observation of human willpower and strength. Guerriero’s reporting combined with the prose of a fiction novel creates a story that captivates its reader with ease.

For the rest of the review, go here.

16 August 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

OK, I’m supposed to be packing for my summer vacation right now, so this is going to be a lot shorter than it otherwise would be. But! I just updated the Translation Databases! Not just the spreadsheets for 2016 and 2017, but every spreadsheet I’ve ever run. There’s up to date info on 2008-2018 AND new spreadsheet with the complete listing of every work of fiction and poetry that I have logged into the database.1

I had to change the format a bit on this page, so nothing is as pretty as it could be, but have fun downloading all of this and pouring over the data. And letting me know what’s missing.

While I updated everything, I created a series of charts tracking all sorts of data about the most popular languages, countries, publishers, etc., etc. I would post some of that here, but I’m actually going to save it for a series of articles that will likely appear elsewhere and will include a lot more analysis.

But, since it’s Women in Translation Month, and since I posted some info about this already, I thought I’d share two charts.

First up is a chart with the percentage of books in translation written by men, women, or both (“both” indicating mixed gender writing teams and/or anthologies) over the period of 2008-2018. And yes, this is for the writer in the original language. The author who created the primary work.

Never really gets that close, unfortunately. In 2016 there’s a 30.01% difference between books originally written by men (63.82%) and those written by women (33.81%), but of the ten years tracked, there’s a 40%+ gap between these percentages for five of them. (The worst is 2008 in which 74.11% of the translations published were originally written by men and only 23.43% were originally written by women.)

In terms of raw numbers—and including all the updates sent in after my last post—there were 1,417 books written by women over this ten year period versus 3,351 by men. In terms of overall percentages, 28.97% were by women, 68.50% by men. This could be much closer to equal.

Then there’s the question of translators. In this case, women fare much much better.

See how those two lines converge in 2017? That’s because, as of this moment, women have translated 248 of the books published this year, and men have translated 249. So close! And a nice little bit of news for Women in Translation Month. Yes, there are still more men from around the world having their works translated into English, but more and more translation jobs are going to women.

There’s a lot more to say, but it’s late on Tuesday and I still need to pack . . . See you in a week or so!

1 Poetry. Fiction. First time ever published in translation. No reprints. No new editions. Available in America. 2008 onwards. Cool? Cool.

15 August 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

To celebrate the official pub date for Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès’s Island of Point Nemo, you’ll find an interview below between the translator, Hannah Chute (who received a Banff Translation Fellowship to work on this book) and the author himself. You can get the book now either through our website, or from better bookstores everywhere.

A stolen diamond and three right feet, wearing shoes of a non-existent brand, that wash ashore in Scotland set into motion the first plot of Island of Point Nemo, a rollicking Jules Verne-like adventure narrative that crosses continents and oceans, involves multilingual codes, a world-famous villain, and three eccentrically loopy detectives.

Running parallel is the story of B@bil Books, an e-reader factory in France filled with its own set of colorful characters, including the impotent Dieumercie and his randy wife, who will stop at nothing—including a suspect ritual involving bees—to fix his “problem,” and their abusive boss Wang-li Wong, obsessed with carrier pigeons and spying on his employees.

With the humor of a Jasper Fforde novel, and the structure of a Haruki Murakami one, Island of Point Nemo is a literary puzzle and grand testament to the power of storytelling—even in our digital age.

Hannah Chute: I’d like to begin at the beginning. Island of Point Nemo has so many interweaving elements, so I have been wondering what the actual inception of the novel was. Did you begin with B@bil Books? With the Ananke diamond and the steampunk universe of Martial Canterel and Shylock Holmes?

Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès I generally spend a long time preparing a very detailed plan before starting to write, so the weaving of the stories was set well in advance. This book has a spiral structure where the chapters are connected vertically and linearly, like the chambers of a nautilus shell. In the same way, I spent several months doing a kind of preliminary “casting,” drawing many of my characters and some important settings, to develop a sort of graphic “story board” whose pages–hanging on lines stretched out in several rows–ended up covering almost all of the walls of the place where I live.

HC: And how did you write the book? Did you write the chapters in the order they’re in now, or did you jump around following the storylines or different characters?

JB: After this I started writing my chapters in the order in which they were published. As early as Chapter VII, though, I realized that I needed the story of the Ananke diamond in its entirety in order to work out the connections and capillary action that I wanted to set up with the world of B@bil Books. So from that point I wrote all the adventures of Martial Canterel and his crew before returning to Arnaud Méneste and the e-reader assembly plant.

HC: Several of the more far-fetched-sounding plot points in the Ananke storyline are actually drawn from real-life inspirations. I’m thinking, for example, of the Jumping Frenchmen of Maine disorder, the Skoptsy religious sect, Point Nemo itself, etc. Did you go out looking to incorporate elements like these that would perhaps sound made-up to readers who are not already familiar with them?

JB: Yes, this is the very game of fiction. Fantasy can only work using elements that are drawn, at least in part, from reality. It is the choosing and sticking-together of these elements that makes it possible to invent new stories. As in all my novels, every detail is “true”—even the most improbable depravities and the elephant catapults! It is the assembling of these details that is “fictitious” and which forms the universe of my novel.

HC: The interplay of technology and reading is strongly present in both the B@bil Books world and the Ananke world within the novel. Within the steampunk universe of Canterel and Holmes, it gradually becomes clear that physical, printed books are a thing of the past and that they have been entirely replaced by ebooks. And the factory in the “real” world is of course an e-reader factory. Its management doesn’t even seem to think that the books on these e-readers will ever be read. As Monsieur Wang believes, “The digital library was just a modern variation on the sin of pride, the sin of upstarts anxious to show of their prosperity, surrounding themselves with flashy books—even just empty bindings—that they had never read and never would read.”

Is this meant to be an omen of how a future like the one shown in the Ananke storyline could come to be? What effect do you think technology has on our desire to read and our reading itself?

JB: Island of Point Nemo is a double dystopia. One of the goals of this type of fiction is to warn the reader by pushing to their limits the dangerous aspects of a society devoted to monopolization and consumption. Same with religious and ideological dogmas. The question is how to renew our way of living in the world in such a way that man no longer sees himself as “master and possessor of nature.”

Technology, as we know, has no sign; it is neither good nor bad in and of itself. It all depends on the values that govern its use. Focusing on spectacle–the consumption of televised or digital images at the expense of reading time–creates a mental passivity in our method of accessing information. It is not impossible that this laziness gradually alienates us from the effort that reading requires, and eventually leads to a profound transformation of our relationship with writing.

As for books themselves, I agree with Jean-Claude Carrière and Umberto Eco: “The book is like the spoon, the hammer, the wheel, or scissors. Once invented, it cannot be improved.”

HC: Arnaud Méneste draws on newspaper clippings and the literature that he and his now-comatose wife have read, trying to put together a novel so great that it will wake her from her long slumber. How much does your writing philosophy resemble Méneste’s? Do you believe literature can save people?

JB: Literature–some books, in any case–has the power to change our view of the world, and thus to interact with reality. This is the power of imagination, of creative freedom. To say something is always to start to make it exist a little. It is in this sense also that “every name is an omen.”

As I recount in this novel, it was through reading Les Misérables and The Count of Monte Cristo that the cigar makers of Cuba were convinced of the merits of rising up against social injustice, to the point of engaging in revolution. I do not believe in any “salvation,” but rather in this shift in focus that allows our lives to move in a new direction at one point or another.

HC: And is reality, as Méneste says, “a subservient mirror of what has already happened in novels”? When he reads the chapters of his novel to the factory workers at B@bil Books, is he changing them, or are they changing him?

JB: I do not think there is a reality apart from the perception we have of it. That is to say, reality and fiction are inextricably intertwined in my mind, to the point that reality can sometimes be considered a lesser variant or bad copy of fiction. When Méneste calls on our memory as readers to construct his novel, he unconsciously creates an extremely powerful reaction, an alchemy capable of upsetting the world order, connecting parallel universes, inverting reality and fiction. It is this transmutation that is at work in both him and his wife, as well as in all those who attend his readings.

HC: I ran across a reader review of the book online in which the reader complained that the novel would have been great for children if it weren’t for all the sex and violence. In the U.S. in particular, I think there is a certain idea that adventure stories (such as those written by Jules Verne, Alexandre Dumas, and Victor Hugo) are just “fun” stories for kids, and that they can’t be serious literature. Why do you think this trope exists? Is there a difference between “real” literature and “popular” literature?

JB: There are different literary genres—popular novels, detective fiction, science fiction, fantasy, etc.—and none of them is “inferior” to the others, but only those texts that do not leave the reader unscathed belong to literature. I make no distinction between these books, whatever their genre, and others. And these others can be captivating and successful, and give me great pleasure in reading them, but I know as I read them that they are “outside of literature.”

“The supreme effort of the writer as of the artist,” writes Marcel Proust, “is partially to lift the veil of ugliness and insignificance which leaves us without curiosity about the world. So he tells us [. . .] look! Learn to see! And at that moment he disappears.”

A book belongs to literature when it succeeds in this unveiling that makes visible, with reverence and the approximation of chiaroscuro, the complex beauty of things. Through an original perspective of reality (not its servile representation), the “literary” work leaves me by myself, free to measure my being against this unexpected opening. My view of the world is thus enlarged by the vision of another, and I am enriched, because the world is enriched by my reading.

The literary event, when it occurs, flows through novels, aphorisms, poems, essays, and any other form of writing. I have not gained more knowledge from reading On the Genealogy of Morality, De rerum natura, or A Short History of Decay than from Gargantua, Anabasis, Last Exit to Brooklyn, or The Magic Mountain: with each I learned to see better for myself; each of these readings changed my worldview, and so helped me become what I am.

HC: There are monsters of many kinds in Island of Point Nemo. The monsters in the Ananke storyline are more viscerally horrifying (for example, the deep-sea creatures that the crew of the ship Black Orpheus encounters as they near Point Nemo, or worse the foul murderer the Noh Straddler). But thinking of the sex-starved and desperate Carmen Bonacieux, the cold and cruel Monsieur Wang, or the pitiful but grotesque Marthe, some of the characters in the “real world” seem more monstrous still. What makes a real monster?

JB: According to its Latin etymology, monstrosity is a wonder, an aberration that one points at, unable to find the right words to name it. A departure from the norm that makes us aware of a border between “normal” and “abnormal.” This frontier has kept evolving over the centuries, and fortunately physical deformities are no longer exhibited at fairs or Barnum circuses. Moral deformities, however, continue to cause problems. What terrifies us today is less the disgrace of the body than that of the spirit. As Gerard Amiel points out, “man’s lack of spirit and his total plasticity open him to all possibilities, including the worst. Anyone, under these conditions, can become a tormentor. What fascinates us today is no longer the exceptional nature of monstrosity, but its banality. The humanization of monsters gradually forces us to recognize the monstrosity of man. We tried to drive the monstrous to the edges of humanity, then to eliminate it, but it found refuge in us.”

My interest in monsters is part of this questioning of human nature. The “real monsters” are individuals who for one reason or another—pathological disorder, extreme faith in a divinity or ideology, voluntary conditioning, etc.—no longer possess the minimum of empathy with others that would prevent them from being torturers, or just from deliberately harming others. “Winter is coming,” the refrain of Games of Thrones, refers to this internal monstrosity that constantly threatens us, more than an external danger that we should protect ourselves from.

HC: The characters of Island of Point Nemo range all across the globe, as you yourself have done during your life. Considering all the traveling you’ve done and the number of places you’ve lived, do you consider yourself a French writer? An international writer?

JB: By my native language, I am obviously a French writer, but this does not prevent me from feeling connected to the rest of the planet. Hence the importance, to me, of this American translation.

HC: What is next for you? You’ve mentioned that you are planning to write a series of novels to expand on themes from the stories in your collection La Mémoire de riz. Is your latest novel, Dans l’épaisseur de la chair, a part of this?

JB: The twenty-two short stories of La Mémoire de riz play with the symbolism of the major arcana of the Tarot of Marseilles. Each of my books since then has been, to some degree, part of this initial context. This is a way of considering and exploring the general coherence that I perceive in my work, without clearly distinguishing it. Dans l’épaisseur de la chair follows this constraint: it contains several characters already present in La Mémoire de riz. I am unlikely to succeed, but ideally—for aesthetic reasons—I would like to leave behind twenty-two volumes of a novelistic mosaic from which perhaps would emerge something like a single compendium of the world.

14 August 17 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

As many of you may have noticed already, August is widely considered Women in Translation Month (look for the #WITMonth hashtag basically anywhere). Since Open Letter has published its fair share of baller women authors over the past ten years, we thought we’d take a few posts to highlight a handful of our all-time favorite representatives, including Marguerite Duras, Mercè Rodoreda, and Dubravka Ugresic, among others.

As many of you also may know, Open Letter is gearing up to celebrate its 10th anniversary next year (WHOO! OPEN LETTER FOREVER! FOREVER AND EVER! OPEN LETTER DOT COM!)—and to mark our tenth anniversary we’ll be publishing not one, but TWO new titles in 2018 by Dubravka Ugresic—the first author Open Letter ever published. Dubravka is one of the greatest of the greats (most recently she’s the 2016 recipient of the Neustadt Prize), and we’re beyond thrilled to continue publishing and working with her. If you’ve read any of her books, you know why we love her and her work so much; if you’re a Ugresic virgin, now is as good a time as any to get started on her oeuvre.

For our throwbacks, we’ve decided to do is fish through our archives and bring back some author-related interviews, reviews, and general crush-posts. Even though this is just skimming off one layer of our Ugresic archives, this was no clean and simple feat, as there was a lot of reformatting and unglitching to do with older posts since the server “update” a year or so ago, but what better time to spring clean than, well, summer?

Since we’ve published a total of three of Dubravka’s books, our throwback arsenal for her is pretty damn extensive. We hope you enjoy browsing our history as much as we enjoyed dusting it off!

Book One: Nobody’s Home

Dubravka in The Telegraph. Wherein we kick off our Dubravkafest almost 10 years ago with a Telegraph sneak peek of one of the pieces in Nobody’s Home.

The Guardian runs a profile on Dubravka and her work.

Bookforum reviews Nobody’s Home and gets what Ugresic is about. “The notion that a literary text must bear the burden of identification tags is, for Ugresic, an affront; it entails tacit approval of the idea that “the field of literature is nothing more than a realm of geopolitics.”

Dubravka goes on the Leonard Lopate show with Breyten Breytenbach.

Dubravka’s Nobody’s Home keeps smashing with reviews, including at Literary License and BoingBoing: “. . . this collection of essays puts her on par with Zizek or Baudrillard for observation and critique – and maybe a cut above for courage to speak the truth. There’s something decidedly female about this writing as well, which exposes a bit of the bias of the rest of post-modernism.”

One of Dubravka’s marvelous translators, Ellen Elias-Bursac, shares her thoughts on Nobody’s Home.

More reviews for Nobody’s Home in Booklit and Front Table “She is a world traveler, an exile of her homeland, but no matter what has changed politically and culturally, there is always that longing of émigrés for the familiarity of the native.”

Book Two: Karaoke Culture

That time we got excited about our second Ugresic book, Karaoke Culture.

The Paris Review posts an excerpt from _Karaoke_—the memorable showdown with the hotel minibar. (Which The Millions liked so much they posted about and linked to it!)

In one Three Percent review, a student intern calls Karaoke Culture a book “well in control of itself and in control of its reader, utterly convincing and entertaining.”

Kirkus Reviews posts an interview by Jessa Crispin of Bookslut with Dubravka.

The New Republic runs an article in which Ruth Franklin” refers to Karaoke as one of the five books she wished she’d reviewed.

A review from By the Firelight aptly analyzes Karaoke Culture by beginning: “To even write this review is to participate in the Karaoke Culture the Dubravka Ugresic criticizes.”

Carolyn Kellogg of the L.A. Times gives a great review of Karaoke Culture, stating “Karaoke Culture is an essential investigation of our times.”

That time Karaoke Culture was a finalist for the NBCC Award for Criticism!.

Book Three: Europe in Sepia

Our third Ugresic book, Europe in Sepia, hits the ground running”. World Literature Today says of the collection: “. . . these acerbic, angry essays lay bare what shapes our world and ourselves: envy, greed, and the forces they unleash—anarchy and revolution.”

Full Stop posts a hugely insightful review of Europe in Sepia, stating. “[Ugresic’s] interested, rather, in talking about the particularity of now as it scrambles out of the past and lurches towards the future—unpredictable, nonlinear, but worth observing with whatever amount of critical distance an author can access. Ugresic is interested in the committed losers, whose narratives might take on unfamiliar shapes, without so many peaks and valleys. She is invested in traveling the winding, bumpy back roads of the excluded.”

The Millions reviews Europe and gives a shout-out to all the fellow losers. “Ugrešić’s writing is unified by her sharp wit, cunning mind, absurdist sensibility, and its fragmentation. Her “patchwork” fiction is littered with references to Kafka and Isaac Babel and interspersed with patterns and recipes and articles from women’s magazines. Ugrešić’s essays are just as fragmented, with her mind racing the hyperkinectic speed of her travels, it seems.”

Music & Literature joins in on the Europe fun with its review. which recognizes in her a dark humor but straight-shooting realism that’s hard to not admire: “Ugrešić is always the first to subvert her own glamour. Indeed, she has distinguished herself throughout her thirty-year career by refusing to accept the romance, by staring down nostalgia until it splinters apart like her former homeland.”

The Complete Review says of Ugresic’s Europe “She captures modern rootlessness particularly well—a rootlessness that extends beyond the mere geographic and linguistic, to other aspects of identity. . .”

The Mookse and the Gripes says of Europe “. . . an excellent collection in which Ugresic finds herself, by virtue of living long enough, in the “brighter future.”

Stay tuned for more of our Open Letter #WITMonth throwbacks!

14 August 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

On this week’s Two Month Review podcast, we’ll be discussing the Biography, first composition book, second book, and third composition book (pages 1-31) from Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller. As a bit of preparation, below you’ll find some initial thoughts, observations, and quotes.

You can also download this post as a PDF document.

As always, you can get Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller for 20% off from our website by using the code 2MONTH. It’s also available at better bookstores everywhere.

And be sure to join the Goodreads group and subscribe to the Two Month Review Podcast on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.

This initial post is probably going to be straightforward and short, but I think it’s worthwhile getting things started by trying to lay out the most basic elements of this book—like who’s talking, and when is this taking place—while also starting to hone in on Guðbergur’s unique sense of humor.

Let’s start with a bit of a simplified timeline for these four sections based out of quotes from the book:

I think it would be easiest to begin this way, this First Book, and move without further delay right to the kernel of the matter, thus: during the first years of World War II, I took some lodgers into my apartment, Sveinn and Katrín, a married couple with five children: Stína, who died; Dóri, their son; an infant boy; and a small cat, Títa,           he naps soft and warm against me as I write and has come back, together with Anna and Magnús and Dóri           I think they’re all grown up and moreover there’s a new addition to the crowd, Hermann, I hear them call him,           cursed forever is the day they returned,           and the musician, who rented the small bedroom on the other side of the partition, i.e. this bedroom where I now live, after he moved into the other bedroom, which is much smaller.

And then a bit later in that same section:

I have been forced to take ignorant people into my property’s square footage           but are there any laws against lawlessness           who makes laws dictating that apartments cannot stand empty and unoccupied in the struggle over housing           am I bound to be a sacrifice to the homeless and improvident, me who is almost blind, deaf, enfeebled [. . .] my mistake from the start consists in being frugal, from deciding to own whyever I did so and Sveinn and Katrín gave notice and left the apartment standing empty for a while           the option was to welcome Magnús and Anna following their relationship with Katrín and Sveinn and Anna is a distant relative of mine, both on the side of the great Bergsætts, the chief family of this country, descended from the kings of Norway at the time of the Settlement, all the kings and queens and princes and princesses on the way to inherit a country a family with joint ownerships it is split into entrepreneurs and intellectuals

In other words, due to Icelandic law (I assume, although can’t find reference to this on the Internet), Tómas Jónsson was forced to take lodgers into his apartment. First off, during World War II, Sveinn and Katrín lived with him. Then, they left, and for a time he was alone. After that (starting in the 1950s and running through the 60s?) Magnús and Anna came to live with him, Anna being a distant relative who also agreed to take care of him in his bedridden state. There’s also a musician, who will become a major character later in the novel.

As you can tell from the very start, the chronology in this book is jumbled. (Total understatement.) Which is why keeping track of these names—and when they lived with Tómas—can be really helpful. Sveinn and Katrín were first, Magnús and Anna came later. This won’t always be a key to deciphering things, but it is a definite help at the start.


Who is Tómas Jónsson?

What we know so far is that he is—at least in the most current now—an old, nearly blind (see all the bits about the government provided guide dogs), bedridden man who needs Anna’s help.

yes: according to the terms of the lease it is Anna’s duty to come three times per day at a minimum and change me though she does not come when needed most so it dries on me all by itself and what does Anna do then but turn her nose up and fuss over the strong odor in the room

He’s also someone who refers to himself on several occasions as being “frugal.” Which is a quality that shows up a lot in Laxness’s Independent People as well. (I’m reading that in conjunction with my reread of this, so I can’t help but see parallels and divergences.) And even when he’s not talking about his “General Thrift” money envelope (oh man, does he remind me of my mom), he’s demonstrating his fiscal conservativeness in other, more rant-like ways:

Clearly someone was wasting electricity late into the depth of night. After this incident, I set myself this rule: to take out the fuses from the board each evening. Before I went to bed I made sure to check that the lights everywhere were extinguished. The electricity bill was enough of a burden on me already, sparing as I was with light. And I dropped into the lease conditions some new clauses about light-times in the apartment (I was idiotic enough to include light and heat in the rent): on weekdays in all the shady months, lights must be turned off after 11:30 p.m.; moreover, the housework must stop by then and the apartment must be silent, with the exception of weekends, when the light-time is extended by one hour. And a clause about the use of lights around the major festivals: a) A week before the big festivals, christmas and Easter, the rules that apply on weekends will be observed (to allow for baking and the consumption of baked goods); b) On christmas eve, according to ancient traditions, the lights shall stay on, but the tenant shall replace their bulbs, ones with a smaller wattage. Instead of conventional bulbs, only 15-candle bulbs are allowed. In a chandelier with more than four arms, there must only be two bulbs. All wall sconces and standing lamps must be extinguished. Special provisions for light over the summer months: the homeowner reserves the right to remove all the fuses from the fuse box, other than the one labeled kitchen, and store them in his own room. Final clause: should a situation arise in which someone needs light after the lawfully-approved light time, he must have a flashlight available so he can go in and out of the house. Non-negotiable clause: The use of oil- or candlelight is strictly prohibited because of the risk of fire. Exemption from these regulatory clauses: If a student is in the apartment, he shall be authorized to have a night lamp on, provided the landlord is notified in advance of the bulb size and how long the student intends to read into the night.

Reykjavík, 13. January 1943.
Tómas Jónsson.

(Going back to the first point about the “when” of this novel, the incident he refers to seems to be the first one related in the book, in which he hears some somewhat sexual sounds in the hallway and can see a light through his keyhole. He makes reference to Katrín later, which would fit with the idea that in 1943, after this “incident” in which light was wasted, he made these amendments to the lease.)

Frugal. In poor health. Nearly blind. Basically alone in the world. And yet, also someone who is rather learned. See this bit about naming the new guide dogs:

Tómas, as you know, we have gained a foreign import license from the necessary parties regarding a new shipment of dogs arriving after the New Year. So we have an opportunity to choose appropriately symbolic names for them. And it popped into mind, because the union of shop stewards has heard you’re outstandingly accomplished in many fields—didn’t you teach final exams outside school?—whether such a learned man as you might advise us. We were thinking of choosing dog names from famous dogs from history, or names that refer to the dimming of the sight. We already have, as you know, dogs with names like Trygg, Höðr, Oðin, Heimdallr. These are extremely popular. Höður was blind. Oðin one-eyed. Heimdallr had ears instead of eyes. I had to hold myself back from christening dogs after famous dogs in the movies: Rin Tin Tin and Lassie, although I know that this would prove amiable to most sponsors. Do you have any ideas for names?

And he also has this really great paragraph in which he touches on the impact major works have had on history and ideas of the self:

nothing is left but chaos           not since the great conquest of Gibraltar has the world been safe           after On the Origin of Species I am not explicitly created in the image of god           after the publication of Das Kapital the proprietary rights to my apartment are cast in doubt           undoubtedly I do not sleep the innocent sleep of a child following the publication of The Interpretation of Dreams even dreams are not innocent anymore nothing is innocent           the damned nineteenth century woke us up from innocence


And along with Tómas’s learnedness comes his edge. His ranting style, that takes off from one idea and runs scattershot (should be a mixed metaphor, but it also makes a ton of sense in the context of this book) until trailing off in a moment of repose and/or senility. (Footnote! This book reminds me of House Mother Normal by B. S. Johnson in its representation of the inner workings of a senile mind. I’ll try and get into that more next week.)

Here follows a short list of the main risks that beset the small population of the icelandic nation from 1939 up until the Marshall Plan:

a) Gymnastics softens the bellies of young men and makes them work-shy; b) bicycle saddles destroy young virgins—“the priority being that every husband enjoys his wife on their wedding night; for girls, bicycles are no different than promiscuity”; c) the extension of school-going nourishes debility in people and hardens the mouths of adolescents (Enemy No. 1, Brynjólf Bjarnason, K. fl.); d) Contraceptives, “which are nothing but the assassination of fine upstanding citizens who are alive and fertile in the seed of those who desire nothing more than to see the creation of The One” in the fullness of time (Enemy No. 1, Katrín Thoroddsen, K. fl.); away with sheaths from the breast pockets of all men’s jackets! A prophylactic-free land! All such new products in the stores amount to the end of the world, the plucking and eradication of the icelandic family. Merchants and shady dealers contribute to this I) with brilliantine, which renders Icelanders as bald as foreigners; II) burning people’s stomachs with mustard and ketchup; III) increasing everyone’s belching and wind by means of vegetables; IV) killing tourists in tents with canned poison in canned food; V) hollowing out the insides of people’s heads via radio; VI) importing sexually transmitted diseases and sexual promiscuity with open foreign underwear, “which must be carefully boiled in a high strength alkali soap before wear;” VII) increasing appendicitis by importing overpriced raisins with pits in them; destroying women’s brains with imports of high heels (2000000 blows daily to the spinal cord and cerebellum); all this that makes one’s wife indifferent to housework and child-rearing.

OK, that one’s funny, but maybe not the best example of the wandering off of thought and sense. Here’s something that gets a bit closer to what I’m talking about:

I cannot think of anything that lets toxins into the blood through the nervous system but something that brings peace and quiet and balance and beauty ABOVE ALL BEAUTY while I pray to the reaper to come or else the messenger with the guide dog and bell collar           they reckon they can teach me to place all my faith in a dog and later care for my belongings with kind intentions they are planning to save those who will never be saved forever improvident who know nothing but foul language and create so much trouble that everything must revolve around the invalids or else the whole community will become invalids and then how will money be taken from Tómas Jónsson

And my favorite line—maybe of all time:

I could punch the friendliness of these voices right in the mouth


Over the next couple months, Tómas’s situation and feelings about his lodgers, family, nation, will be expanded upon greatly. But for now, at least you have a bit of a setting in which to let his words spill forth. And don’t focus too much on trying to make everything fit, or understanding every single line. His writings in these notebooks are sporadic and represent his momentary thoughts and urges. They’re not written to be a coherent narrative or novel, but as a sort of last ditch chance to understand himself and his world. As such, it’s fragmented, contradictory, and, at times, steeped in either his private history, or that of Iceland. Keep reading and listening to the podcast though, and the book will definitely open up to you.

10 August 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

And with this episode, we launch the second season of the Two Month Review! Over a ten-week period, we will be breaking down Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller by Guðbergur Bergsson, helping explain and explore what makes this book (often referred to as “Iceland’s Ulysses”) so influential and interesting. This season translator, poet, and professor Lytton Smith will join Chad Post to talk about the book, along with a variety of guests, including a number of booksellers, critics, and readers. The full reading schedule can be found here, but in this particular episode, Lytton and Chad provide some background information about the book, Bergsson’s career, and Icelandic literature as a whole. They’re joined this week by Brian Wood, who, as usual, is entertaining and funny while also asking really important questions that help provide a context for approaching this novel.

Feel free to comment on this episode—or on the book in general—either on this post, or at the official GoodReads Group.

Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller is available at better bookstores everywhere, and you can also order it directly from Open Letter, where you can get 20% off by entering 2MONTH in the discount field at checkout.

Follow Open Letter, Chad Post, Lytton Smith, and Brian Wood, and for more thoughts and information about upcoming guests.

And you can find all Two Month Review posts by clicking here. Please rate us on iTunes and/or leave a review!

The music for this season of Two Month Review is Long Year by The Anchoress.

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