It’s always interesting to read a translator’s commentary on his or her translation process. For me personally, hearing how other translators think and work only adds to my personal work and experience, alternately showing me approaches or tactics that don’t work for me and showing me approaches and tactics that I’m not alone in using or obsessing over. The below interview between Liz Kelley and translator Kareem James Abu-Zeid came to us in lieu of a review, as Liz and Kareem are friends as well as colleagues in the world of Arabic literature. I won’t write too much more so as not to steal any thunder from Liz’s own intro to the interview, but one of my favorite parts is Kareem’s thoughts regarding “faithfulness to a text“—which, I might add, are backed up by the thoughts and reactions of the author, Najwan Darwish, himself.
The interview also includes a few poems from the collection—all translated by Abu-Zeid—for your reading intrigue. And if you like what you see, make sure to pick up the entire collection here.
Translation, A Reciprocal Process
Earlier this month I spoke to Kareem James Abu-Zeid, the translator of Nothing More to Lose, a collection of poems by Najwan Darwish published in the New York Review Books poetry series. Darwish is a celebrated and well-renowned poet whose poems have been translated into at least fifteen languages. Trained as a lawyer, Darwish has also worked as an editor, cultural critic, and has been active in arts organizations in Palestine and the Arab world. In addition to translating this book of poetry by Darwish, Abu-Zeid has translated several novels from Arabic, by authors such as Rabee Jaber and Tayel Eltayeb, as well as a poetry collection by Dunya Mikhail.
During our conversation, Kareem shared with me his translation process, which was quite collaborative with the poet. He discussed his implicit rule for translating (“If it sounds translated, I’ve done it wrong”), the way that the back-and-forth of the translation process was productive and beneficial not only for the English poems but even, in some cases, for the Arabic, and why he finds translating poetry more fun than translating prose. We discussed the mechanics of selecting poems and the puzzle of organizing them into a cohesive collection. The book takes its name from its first poem, which is not only beautifully translated here, but also encapsulates the nuance and complexity of the collection as a whole.
Nothing More to Lose
Lay your head on my chest and listen
to the layers of ruins
behind the madrasah of Saladin
hear the houses sliced open
in the village of Lifta
hear the wrecked mill, the lessons and reading
on the mosque’s ground floor
hear the balcony lights
go out for the very last time
on the heights of Wadi Salib
hear the crowds drag their feet
and hear them returning
hear the bodies as they’re thrown, listen
to their breathing on the bed
of the Sea of Galilee
listen like a fish
in a lake guarded by an angel
hear the tales of the villagers, embroidered
like kaffiyehs in the poems
hear the singers growing old
hear their ageless voices
hear the women of Nazareth
as they cross the meadow
hear the camel driver
who never stops tormenting me
and let us, together, remember
then let us, together forget
all that we have heard
Lay your head on my chest:
I’m listening to the dirt
I’m listening to the grass
as it splits through my skin . . .
We lost our heads in love
and have nothing more to lose
Liz Kelley: I’ve heard you say that the translation process with Najwan Darwish was collaborative. Could you describe the translation process for these poems? How involved was he?
Kareem Abu-Zeid: What I usually start with, and I think a lot of translators do this, is trying to understand everything going on in the poem, to get the bare meaning on the page.
That obviously involves asking Najwan a lot of questions, depending on the poem; sometimes it’s very straightforward. But then, once that first step has been taken, once I feel like I know everything going on in the poem—it doesn’t mean I actually do—but once I have the impression that I do, I will try to create a poem in English out of it.
In that first stage, I as the translator often go quite free, in order to make it as poetic as possible in English. My main rule in translating, that really, in some ways trumps all other rules, is that if it sounds like it was translated, I’ve done it wrong.
I think that’s a big problem especially with Arabic, a lot of the stuff sounds translated, and you can tell that the translators are sticking to the word order in the Arabic, the way the expressions are formed in Arabic, even grammatical constructions that don’t work the same way in English.
So I’d produce a text that was often quite free, then I’d send it back to Najwan, and that would usually begin a bit of a back and forth. Maybe he’d ask me: “Why did you translate this like this?” or he’d say: “This is too free” or “Actually, this isn’t what I meant to say here, you’ve gotten this wrong.” Through that back and forth, eventually we’d come to something we were both really happy with.
I’m lucky with Najwan in that he’s done some translating himself, and for him the main thing is not mirroring every word of the Arabic in English. For him, the main concern is for it to be poetry in English. If that means that a little bit of the literal meaning of the Arabic is sacrificed, then that’s what happens.
Also, I think his poetry allows for a certain freedom within the translation, which is really nice. There’s a lot of room for it. There are some poets who are bit more direct. With Najwan, his poetry lent itself quite well to that type of process.
LK: Do you have any examples of what that process, the back and forth, looks like? Any particular poems from this collection?
KAZ: This is hard because it gets into the nitty-gritty stuff of language. What tends to happen in the back and forth is that my translation winds up getting closer to the Arabic, usually.
One other thing, with regard to collaboration: Najwan usually doesn’t publish his poems in books in Arabic. He’s had a couple books come out, but he often publishes in magazines, journals and stuff, and a lot of the poems that made it into this book were fairly recent ones. One of the cool things about translating him is that I feel like his poetry seems to get better over time. Some of his poems from 10 or 15 years ago, when he was just starting to write, were a bit more direct, and even a bit angrier. The newer ones, I find to be much more powerful and more interesting.
I was translating texts that he hadn’t really published yet in Arabic even. Or if he had it was in journals, not in book form. One tends to think of the poem as fixed when it is in a book. Occasionally, through our work, he would change the Arabic. It didn’t happen all that often, but it happened in a few instances, where the Arabic would be changed slightly after the back and forth about the English translation. So that was kind of neat to see that, too.
In that respect, there is a lack of editing that happens in the Arabic speaking world. It’s much more pronounced with novels, you get a lot of novels that have this potential to be something amazing, and they turn into something mediocre or good, but not amazing, because no editor in the English sense of the word has been there to say: this part is weak, cut this 40 pages, etc., etc.
That’s been good in that with some of the poems, the translation process almost worked as an editing process as well. That was with a few of them, not too many. It was satisfying to me because I see, much more with novels than with poetry, I see the great potential that has been wasted. Even with some of the best novelists of the Arabic-speaking world, I think if they had an editor go through this, someone who does this professionally, you could have had something amazing. You could really be at 100% in terms of quality—whatever that means—and instead you’re left with 70%.
LK: I find that process to be super fascinating, for translation to be a reflective reading process, to provide that growth for the original and translation. Could you say a few more words about that?
KAZ: Najwan, of all the Arab writers I’ve translated, is the one least in need of an editor, he knows how to do it himself, because he’s an editor himself. With him, much less so than any of the other projects I’ve worked on, he doesn’t actually need it. But, what’s great is that because he’s an editor, he’s open to it if something comes up. He’ll even give me a text, and say, “I’m not sure about this one,” or “I’m not sure this one really works.” Occasionally, you have the texts that work great in Arabic, and I can’t get them to go in English.
Since this was a selected poems collection, there was an advantage there in that I could let go of those texts. They didn’t have to go in the book if they didn’t work.
LK: Could you tell me a bit more about the genesis of this collection? How did you choose the poems?
KAZ: I’d been translating Najwan’s stuff for several years: first for a poetry festival in San Francisco, then for a literary festival in Holland, just here and there, then for a couple journals once we had a relationship. Then, I read some of the poems at a literary translator’s residency in Banff where we did a couple of informal reading nights. I wasn’t working on this project there; I was working on a novel by Rabee Jaber. But, we did a few informal reading nights where we were supposed to read whatever we wanted, not necessarily what we were working on there. And I read some poems of Najwan’s that I had translated. One of the editors of NYRB (Jeffrey Yang) was there, because he’s also a poet and some of his poetry was being translated into German. So he was there and he said, “We’ve got this poetry series that we’re doing, I think this would be good for the series.” I was excited about that prospect because I am trying not to translate, or translate less, for specialized presses that work just on Arabic.
NYRB have only had a few books come out with this series, major European poets, an Indian poet, all in translation and very high quality. I think the last one that came out before Najwan’s was by Pierre Riverdy, and it was a big collection of poems by him. So that’s where the idea for a selected poems collection came out. Even though the book is not called “Selected Poems,” that’s what it is. Many books in the series are selected poems and don’t have a title, just the name of the poet. We decided to give this one a title because we thought “Nothing more to lose” kind of encapsulated the collection. That was actually a poem that Najwan wrote after much of the book was done, and then that one came and we were like “Oh, we have a title for the book now.”
LK: Tell me a bit more about “Nothing More to Lose”? Was it a new poem? How did you choose it as the title?
KAZ: It’s funny because I think sometimes Najwan doesn’t even know which of his poems are stronger and weaker. As soon as I read it, I knew it would be very close to the beginning of the book, if not the first poem. And then we wound up making it the title poem! When Najwan and I talked about having a title for the book—did we even want a title for the book?— “Nothing More to Lose” was the only one that really stuck. We threw a couple things out, but there wasn’t really even another candidate. It was either that or there wasn’t going to be a title for the book.
That was one of my favorites, because with “Nothing More to Lose,” you think it’s a collection all about loss, which makes sense in the Palestinian context, and that’s true. But then when you actually read that poem, the end is very different and it’s a little big ambiguous. The end is this, almost a moment of love. So that was another reason I liked that as the title poem, because you think it’s going to be one thing and then when you actually read the poem, it’s more complex than that. . . .
I have to say, it was fun. I’d never done a selected poems collection before. Getting to order the poems was fun. It was something I’d never done before. How do you order poems in a collection? What makes sense? What doesn’t?
LK: Was this a conversation you had with Najwan?
KAZ: The ordering of them? No, Najwan, chimed in after I had established the order, and then I shifted a few things around. I guess it was a conversation I had with him, but only after I had come up with a preliminary order. Then we did this back and forth thing that was almost like working on a translation.
I tried to vary it up. It was actually kind of fun: the whole book was printed out, and I laid them out on the floor of my house. I could see all the poems together, and kept shuffling them around. It was kind of like a puzzle. I tried to keep it varied. And I wanted to frontload, at least the first 15-20 pages to be what I considered the strongest in the collection. And then of course you want to end with a very strong poem, and that sort of stuff. There are certain themes and motifs that recur. I almost categorized the poems according to those themes, and then for the most part made sure I didn’t have five poems right after another all dealing with, for instance, the Christ image. Or some of his earlier poems are more about resistance in a literal, military sense, and I didn’t want all of those to be together, either. It didn’t really make sense doing it chronologically, because I thought most of his stronger poems were more recent ones, from 2007/2008 on. I didn’t want all the prose poems together either. There’re a few prose poems in that book, and some of them are quite long. It was just kind of keeping the variety in there.
LK: You mentioned that in some cases, the back and forth resulted in a change to the Arabic? Can you give an example of that?
KAZ: In the first poem, there was something that we changed in the second to last stanza, “Lay your head on my chest” was the same “I’m listening to the dirt / I’m listening to the grass / as it splits through my skin” I don’t remember exactly what it was in the Arabic, but I know those two lines changed. All the changes were minor. It wasn’t like rewriting the whole poem; but that image was slightly better or slightly more powerful this way. There was grass involved, but it wasn’t splitting through the skin, it was doing something else. But it was interesting because when I translated, that was the image I saw, grass coming up through this corpse, so I put it there. It was an unintentional effect of the Arabic, and then Najwan decided to make the unintentional effect slightly more intentional. I kind of saw the potential in the Arabic and brought it out in the English, and he said “Oh, ok, that wasn’t quite what I meant, but let’s keep that” and then he made some slight modification to bring out that part of the image a bit more clearly. So in a way it might have been a misreading of the Arabic.
LK: But a rich and rewarding misreading! . . . Are there poems that you’re particularly proud of? That you think were particularly strong, or particularly clever, fun to translate?
KAZ: I front-loaded the ones that were my favorites, for the most parts, some are scattered around the rest of the book. The first 15 or 20 were my favorites. I really love “Jerusalem II,” it begins: “When I leave you I turn to stone, /and when I come back to you I turn to stone.” I really liked that a lot. I’m proud of that one because it stayed fairly close to the Arabic, and more than many of my other translations, there was a very clear rhythm in the Arabic and I captured a very close equivalent to that rhythm in the English. And that doesn’t often happen in English. The Arabic was almost iambic at times, and I was able to keep that. The lines in that one—usually I’ll gravitate toward shorter lines—but in that one I kept the longer lines.
It kind of went against many of the things I usually do when translating, such as shorten lines. But Arabic is a very compact language, in many ways, and English will most of the time need more words. This means that the English translations very often have more lines than the Arabic. With Najwan, that’s not always the case, but it is often the case. With other poets even more so. . . .
I have to say I was also really happy with the first one, “Nothing More to Lose,” partly because you don’t really need the notes. Obviously there are notes in the back that explain specific references, so in that one there’s Wadi Salib, there’s madrasah of Saladin, there’s the village of Lifta, which are all very specific references. The village of Lifta is a weird case where a whole village was, for whatever reason, left standing. They didn’t raze it. And yet nobody can live there. It’s a very, very specific reference that for a Palestinian has a very clear resonance, it might be the only example of something like that happening in the Arab world. And then you have Wadi Salib, where you have a similar thing; it’s a neighborhood in Haifa, where again the Israelis for whatever reason didn’t destroy these houses, they cemented them shut. So you have these weird cement boxes just standing there, almost as a memorial.
There’re notes in the back about all this, but what I liked about “Nothing More to Lose,” is that I think it still works in English even without those references. The context of the poem tells you about those even if you don’t see the notes. And that’s rare where you don’t need the references. You don’t trip over it in English. So I was really happy with that one because that’s one of the really hard things about Najwan’s book in particular is that there’s a lot of very specific references, and that’s why we put the notes in the back. And yet I think even the references that are specific to Arab culture, those poems still work without the reader necessarily knowing what that reference is. All of those cases made me happy, but I think it worked particularly well with the title poem.
LK: Its interesting to hear you talk about “Jerusalem II,” that one of the things that’s strong and successful about it is that it sticks close to the Arabic and recaptures the rhythm of the Arabic and the number of lines is at parity with the English. But your earlier comments were about a “freer” or looser translation style about sounding poetic in English.
KAZ: I don’t want to go free, but usually, literal translation sounds really, really bad. The last two months, in my work as I freelance editor, I’ve done two projects where I’ve edited a translation that someone has done from the Arabic, but the whole thing, I’m not even really looking at the Arabic, it’s just turning a very literal translation into something that reads a bit better in English. It’s very rare that you can stick that close and keep it sounding poetic and fluid and not sound like a translated text, where you don’t get the sense that “oh, this doesn’t sound quite right.” There’s a lot of that, in my opinion, in Arabic novels translated into English, and a lot of the poetry. The few big anthologies that have come out, they’re great for academics, they mirror the Arabic lines, but they don’t read poetically. But they’re at university presses. In my opinion, most of them are not poetry in English. The academic project is wonderful and great, but if that’s how we translate Arabic into English, then the only people who are going to read these translations are people who are already interested in the Arabic-speaking world, or are academics. I’m trying to break that mold a little bit as a translator, in whatever way I can.
It’s a disservice to the original poetry. People are trying to stay close and be faithful, but I think you end up with these unreadable, or very flat translations that aren’t poetic, where the Arabic was poetic. Poetry is a set of effects, in addition to meaning. It irks me a lot when I see these amazing poets who just get flattened out in English, and it’s usually by accident. It comes from a good place, that’s the thing. The desire is to be faithful to the text, to keep the line breaks the same. But the conventions are totally different in Arabic poetry and English, even in the modern era, so you can’t do that. I don’t think it is possible to keep it the same and have it be an accurate translation.
LK: How do you deal with rhythm and meter?
KAZ: As close as I can keep it to the Arabic, I do. But the problem is you often can’t. This [Jerusalem II] was a very rhythmic poem by Najwan. Not all of his poems have that rhythm. In terms of rhythm, there’s almost a set meter in this one, which he usually doesn’t do. . . . In general in translation, rhythm is one of the hardest things to carry over. When you do carry it over, it’s usually not the same rhythm that was in the original. It usually can’t be because meter works very differently in Arabic than in English.
But “Jerusalem II,” reading it out loud, that one in particular works. It was lucky because it was one of the earlier poems I translated by him, and I had a chance to read it at a few different places in English and Arabic. That process helped me tweak the translation for the book. Reading it out loud in Arabic and then in English and really helped. That’s not all that often the case, when I think about some of the other poems. That’s a poem that, more than others, is meant to be read out loud, rather than a text to be read. Maybe that’s why the cadence was so important there. All poetry is written to be read out loud, but there’s a difference between “Jerusalem II,” and then say, there’s a short poem called “In praise of the Family.” You don’t need to read that one aloud. Whereas some of them, you do. I think also, that one has a lot of repetition, and the repetition, the sonority is very powerful when it’s read out loud.
LK: I really enjoyed reading the collection, and it has been wonderful hearing about the process of translating and putting together this collection. Any last thoughts?
KAZ: I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done, so far. When I started translating Arabic literature, it was with poetry. I switched to prose and this reminded me how fun it is to do poetry. Especially since I have no real professional reason to translate. Doing novels isn’t paying the bills; it’s something I just do for the joy of it. But this, I think I’ll do more poetry now. This was a fun one to translate, where I really loved to translate it. It’s more fun to translate poetry than prose.
LK: Why is that? Why is it more fun to translate poetry?
KAZ: You can be a bit freer—no, why is it more fun to translate? I feel like with poetry you can . . . I spend longer on each word. I spend a lot more time per word on poetry than in a novel. You can’t pore over a novel in quite the same way you can with a book of poetry. And I do feel that translating poetry, there’s a little bit more room for “freedom” in the translation process. The emphasis is at least as much on sound and rhythm as it is on meaning. It’s not that that isn’t there in novels, but the balance of power is a little bit more on meaning in a novel. Very concrete and specific things are happening and those things need to be conveyed, relatively accurately, so that the reader isn’t confused, or else the novel is no longer effective. It’s more just about that balance of where the energy is going.
When I leave you I turn to stone
and when I come back I turn to stone
I name you Medusa
I name you the older sister of Sodom and Gomorrah
you the baptismal basin that burned Rome
The murdered hum their poems on the hills
and the rebels reproach the tellers of their stories
while I leave the sea behind and come back
to you, come back
by this small river that flows in your despair
I hear the reciters of the Quran and the shrouders of corpses
I hear the dust of the condolers
I am not yet thirty, but you buried me, time and again
and each time, for your sake
I emerge from the earth
So let those who sing your praises go to hell
those who sell souvenirs of your pain
all those who are standing with me, now, in the picture
I name you Medusa
I name you the older sister of Sodom and Gomorrah
you the baptismal basin that still burns
When I leave you I turn to stone
When I come back I turn to stone
Sleeping in Gaza
Fado, I’ll sleep like people do
when shells are falling
and the sky is torn like living flesh
I’ll dream, then, like people do
when shells are falling:
I’ll dream of betrayals
I’ll wake at noon and ask the radio
the questions people ask of it:
Is the shelling over?
How many were killed?
But my tragedy, Fado,
is that there are two types of people:
those who cast their suffering and sins into the streets so they can sleep
and those who collect the people’s suffering and sins
mold them into crosses, and parade them
through the streets of Babylon and Gaza and Beirut
all the while crying
Are there any more to come?
Are there any more to come?
Two years ago I walked through the streets
of Dahieh, in southern Beirut
and dragged a cross
as large as the wrecked buildings
But who today will lift a cross
from the back of a weary man in Jerusalem?
The earth is three nails
and mercy a hammer:
Strike with the planes
Are there any more to come?
Liz Kelley has a PhD in Anthropology from the University of California Berkeley, with a concentration in linguistic anthropology and translation studies. Her interest and studies specialize in Arabic literatures.
If you’re looking for some post-WWII-themed, summer reading with disturbing imagery that would blow Jane Yolen and her time-traveling YA hit out of the shark-infested waters (don’t ask about the sharks), this book should be on your list. The rich, blood-red cover treatment, the title, the grisly things Peter (of the Burlington Writers Workshop) mentions in his review . . . It’s enough to make you literally grimace and wonder how many episodes of Keeping up with the Kardashians you can self-medicate with to make the entire world go away but still not land yourself in the camp of comatose self-loathing. Basically, if you want a visceral and historical heebie-jeebie fest, this is it.
And yes: Kardashians and WWII. You saw that combination here first, folks.
Anyway, here’s a part of Peter’s review—and enjoy the weekend!:
The Skin is Malaparte’s description of this moral plague. He writes about a character of the same name who accompanies a band of Pollyannaish American soldiers as they go about Naples acting as both conquerors and liberators. He bears witness to the variety of horrors that come at the end of a long war: starvation, slavery, casual murder, careless disposal of the dead, and the caustic nature with which the rich feed upon the poor (both literally and metaphorically), to name a few.
But these atrocities are merely a symptom of, or coexist with, the moral plague. Malaparte bemoans the easy way Neapolitans bend to the wishes of their American conquerors. “It was enough that a child should put into its mouth a candy offered to it by an American soldier, and its innocent soul would be corrupted.” The Neapolitans are too willing to trade national identity, pride, and dignity, just to get along with the new powers that be.
The Americans, for their part, approach this horrid landscape as if they weren’t at least partially responsible, and so they become the target of Malaparte’s most acidic sarcasm. The Americans of The Skin remain ignorant of Neapolitan culture. One American repeatedly speaks French to Malaparte and others, suggesting that, to him, all cultures other than his own are more or less the same. The Americans take what they can from the country they’ve razed with bombs and tanks, all the while holding themselves blameless. It rings true.
For the rest of the review, go here.Tweet
Brandy is a new contributor to our band of reviewers, and is currently finishing an Honors BA degree in English Language and Literature in St. Catharines, Ontario.
Here’s the beginning of her review:
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” quantity and degree of attention. What is also unsurprising—and slightly depressing—is the rather gossipy nature of the comment and controversy surrounding Labé’s work, both past and present. Her contemporaries, we are told, spread rumours that she was a courtesan, albeit one with discerning taste in her clientele. In recent years, one Renaissance scholar has claimed that Labé’s poetry was actually written by a group of men, and that Labé herself never even existed. The life of a female writer, it seems, comes with some interesting occupational hazards.
Regardless of what she was or wasn’t, Labé herself is proudly conscious of her femininity in her work, and Love Sonnets & Elegies offers some rewarding insights into a pioneering female mind. In her dedicatory epistle to Clémence de Bourges, Labé expresses her desire to see women “surpass or equal men not only in beauty but in learning & worthiness,” and her poetry contains nods toward a community of presumably like-minded women, whom she addresses with a charming spirit of familiarity in “Sonnet 24” (“Don’t reproach me, ladies, for having loved”) and in “Elegy I,” in which she pleads, “Join in my sorrows, / Ladies, when you read of my regrets. / Some day, I may do the same for you.” Such disarming intimacy is hard to resist.
For the rest of the review, go here.Tweet
Now that the World Cup of Literature is officially over, with Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile taking home the prize, it’s time to get back to writing normal blog posts, starting with this much overdue “preview” of forthcoming July translations.
My initial plan with this post was to write it “live blog” style from Las Vegas where I was last month for the American Library Association conference. Unfortunately, many things got in the way of that, starting with the $14.95/day wifi costs in my hotel (Open Letter saves its money to spend on translators, not to allow me to make dumb jokes!), not to mention the 9am kickoff for the World Cup games, and the alcohol that I drank (see insane Eiffel Tower drink below).
So, instead, I’m going to try and work some of my observations into the write-ups below. But, unlike the music industry, which hasn’t brought out much of anything good this month, publishers are dropping some awesome stuff this summer. Bitov, Robbe-Grillet, Volodine, Haas, Can Xue . . . There are some legit overviews below to go with the usual assortment of random crap.
But to set the scene a bit: Way back when, before BEA locked itself into being in Jacob Javits’s glass house for a decade (or whatever), the show was supposed to take place in Las Vegas. Given the nonsensical nature of BEA and its parties, I couldn’t wait for this show. Booksellers AND strippers??! Lowly publicity assistants blowing their per diem at the craps table?? More drunken beardos than the streets of Brooklyn after a Pavement concert! SIGN ME UP.
Unfortunately, that BEA got moved to the Western West Side and was like every other BEA: A bit unfocused, a bit depressing, and a bit self-congratulatory.
Fast-forward a bunch of years, and now, when I’m too old to fully rock out anymore of course, I finally get to attend a convention in Vegas. One with fellow nerdy book people! Heading into it, I figured this was going to be great, and that I was going to lead at least a dozen librarians into nights of bad decision making.
Just to pause for a moment though, these are the people who attend ALA:
And those are the librarians from Austin. So, yeah. Vegas. Librarians. Books, booze, and gambling. Free flowing liquor. Temps above 110. My never-ending depression. What could possibly go wrong?
The Last Lover by Can Xue, translated from the Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen (Yale University Press)
Can Xue has to be the female Chinese author with the most books translated into English. She’s been published by Henry Holt, Northwestern, Open Letter, Yale, and has appeared in a number of issues of Conjunctions. Part of this is because she’s a fucking brilliant and strange writer, part of this is due to her natural charm. I finally had a chance to meet her in person last fall at the Reykjavik International Literary Festival (see our interview) and immediately signed on another of her novels, Frontier. This isn’t much of a secret, really, but publishers like to work with people they like. I’ll happily sign on a book that’s an 8 out of 10 instead of a book that’s a 10 out of 10 if the author/translator is someone that I really respect and like working with.
Which is why certain people won’t ever translate anything for Open Letter. Ever.
And I’ll bet you were expecting the “last lover” to lead to some sort of joke about escorts and Vegas and librarians . . .
Rachel by Andrei Gelasimov, translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz (Amazon Crossing)
This is the fourth of Gelasimov’s books that Amazon Crossing has published, three of which (including this one) are on sale for $1.99 right now. Say what you will about pricing, Hachette, and the decline of modern civilization, this is worth taking advantage of if for no other reason than the fact that Marian translated the books. She’s one of the most amazing translators we’ve got, and if she loves an author—like she does with Gelasimov—everyone should pay attention.
A Sentimental Novel by Alain Robbe-Grillet, translated from the French by D.E. Brooke (Dalkey Archive Press)
In Vegas, I stayed in Bally’s hotel, which is attached to the Paris hotel. Or rather, Le Paris hotel. For those of you who haven’t been to Vegas, consider yourselves lucky. The Paris hotel includes a huge replica of the Eiffel Tower, which you can go up in on the “Le Eiffel Tower Adventure,” the tickets for which can be purchased next to “Le Bar,” which is across the way from “Le Toilettes” by “Le Sports Book.” I’m not even fucking with you—all the signs in this hotel have “Le” appended to them. Ninety percent of the time, these make no sense—shouldn’t it be “Les Toilettes”?—and the other one-hundred and ten percent of the time this is stupid as shit. It’s like the worst simulacrum ever.
On the upside, they do sell the “Le Eiffel Daiquiri,” a two-foot tall Eiffel Tower “glass” filled with 10-12 shots of rum. All for $16.95! Well, $16.95 and most of your better judgement.
Come, Sweet Death! by Wolf Haas, translated from the German by Annie Janusch (Melville House)
The U.S. vs. Germany World Cup match took place the first morning that I was in Vegas. I had talked a lot of shit to Nick from NYRB about getting up super early, finding a crazy bar to watch it in, etc., etc., but at 8am when my alarm went off, I thought I’d rather just stay in bed and avoid all the American Outlaws. One problem: no matter where I looked, I couldn’t find the remote for my TV. Not on the TV stand, not in any of the drawers, not on top of the armoire, not under the bed, nowhere. So I rushed out, basically ran across to the one sports bar I already had scoped out, and ordered a coffee. Surprisingly, they did have coffee, but no coffee mugs . . . Instead, they served me a pint of coffee with a little sleeve so that I wouldn’t burn the shit out of my hand. A pint of coffee.
This was one of my favorite Vegas experiences though, since I was seated between two dudes who chain smoked the entire game while playing video poker and downing screwdrivers. They had clearly been there all night, and were holding on to shreds of dignity and hope. Neither of them won jack, and one guy’s friends never came to collect him from wherever they had been partying all night.
I did end up partaking in the $2 beer specials, which was probably the reason I fell asleep at the hotel pool a few hours later and woke up as red as I’ve ever been in my life . . . I’m still peeling . . . Once you turn 40, a 9am beer is the equivalent of twelve evening drinks. This is a life lesson for all you youngsters: Enjoy your wake’n‘drink days before your body starts to hate you.
Symmetry Teacher by Andrei Bitov, translated from the Russian by Polly Gannon (FSG)
Of all the books on this list, this is the one that I’m most excited to read. I loved Bitov’s Pushkin House (which Dalkey reissued a number of years back), and Michael Orthofer gave this one an A-. Based on the description—that this is an “echo book” of a book that Bitov once read and foggily remembers, but that leads him to create a series of self-reflexive, nested stories—it sounds like a fun, complicated game of a novel. And Orthofer really sells it with this:
The different stories that make up the novel are not so much unfinished or incomplete, but rather part of an overlapping continuity that probably can best be compared to an Escher loop (or loops of Escher loops . . .): not neatly nested, à la Calvino, or adhering to some similar determined Oulipian schemes, but rather capriciously folding back on themselves across time and space, the author’s guiding hand in the frame but handing off responsibility in his layers of authorial invention, attributing a great deal to A. Tired-Boffin, who in turn credits Urbino Vanoski. etc. [. . .]
The Symmetry Teacher is about books and reading and writing that transcend the actual set text — literary echoes that arise and exist separately from what is in a fixed, written state. This is a novel where, typically, a character enthuses about his vivid memory of a particular scene — but admits he no longer can find it.
Poetics of Wonder: Passage to Mogador by Alberto Ruy Sanchez, translated from the Spanish by Rhonda Buchanan (White Pine)
Alberto Ruy Sanchez is included in our new anthology, A Thousand Forests in One Acorn, which may well be the most beautiful book we’ve ever published. Edelweiss does the design no favors, but you should click that link to see how amazing this is, and to request a digital reading copy. (Although you really should just buy the real thing.)
I’m sure most people already knew this, but Vegas has a monorail, which, every single time I saw it referenced, reminded me of this Simpson’s epidode:
Why this song isn’t playing continuously on every monorail platform is a failure on Vegas’s part.
Writers by Antoine Volodine, translated from the French by Katina Rogers (Dalkey Archive)
To prepare for our upcoming pre-sales call, I just started reading all the Open Letter titles scheduled to come out in 2015 between April-August. Antoine Volodine’s Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven (which, according to at least a few reviewers, is far superior to Writers), Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow, Naja Marie Aidt’s Rock, Paper, Scissors, Juan José Saer’s The One Before . . . Obviously, I love the books we publish, but this is that period of time when the dyssynchrony of being in the book world are the most apparent. We got the rights to Physics of Sorrow back in September of 2012, and no one else will be able to read this before the end of the year. But I read (or rather, reread) the first 50 pages last night, and I want everyone I know to have access to this right fricking now. It’s one of the best things I’ve read all year. But by the time I can mail it out to people, I’ll be reading the book coming out in January 2016 and my desire to talk Physics with other book people will be somewhat dulled. And by the time ordinary readers (compared to booksellers and reviewers who will receive advanced reading copies) get their hands on this, we’ll be reading excerpts and signing on books for 2017.
I’m not sure I have a real point here, just that books and music are most of my life, and it’s a weird experience when you remember that huge portions of your “life” are spent reading in a social void of sorts. That and: you all must read Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven and The Physics of Sorrow. As soon as they come out. And then email/tweet/text me.
Crow Blue by Adriana Lisboa, translated from the Portuguese by Alison Entrekin (Bloomsbury)
I just want to point out that this book is listed on the Bloomsbury website as part of Bloomsbury Circus. What the fuck is that, you ask?
Bloomsbury Circus is a place of fine writing from all over the world. There are exciting debuts and brilliant new work from such established writers as Patrick McGrath, Lucy Ellmann, Alice McDermott and Tobias Hill. Like any good circus, it is a list that is not frightened to take risks, while always being entertaining.
So, by “all over the world,” they mean Britain, Scotland, and America? Maybe those are the “three rings” of this “circus”? Bloomsbury, your metaphor sucks. “Bloomsbury Circus” sounds like the publisher of kids books about acrobats and fucking clowns.
Matiushin Case by Oleg Pavlov, translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield (And Other Stories)
I think it’s pretty ironic that & Other Stories which has the URL “stories.com” is a bag/accessories/shoes/lingerie shop. Why “stories”?
Mr. Gwyn by Alessandro Baricco, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (McSweeney’s Books)
I haven’t made fun of Flavorwire’s list in a while, but this one on the 35 Writers Who Run the Literary Internet deserves to be laughed at. When I clicked on this, I was hoping for some conspiracy theory shit linking an unknown writer to media leaks about how Amazon burns 13 Hachette books a day as part of some corporate ritual, or something interesting like that. Instead, it’s a list of writers with the most Twitter followers. Because Twitter equals the Internet and having the most followers is equivalent to “running it.”
(Except for Zadie Smith! “She’s one of the few big-name writers who has managed to develop a huge Internet presence without even seeming to spend much time online.” In other words, she’s a writer that people really like. How does she even fit in under the “Runs the Literary Internet” rubric? According to the description, what she “runs” is her own writing. Whatever.)
I know—and respect—some of the people on this list, others make me want to scratch my eyes out when I hear them speak on panels, most I don’t “follow” and, to be honest, don’t feel like I’m missing anything . . . Also, I know Flavorwire exists to create log-rolling lists as clickbait and to get the “listed” people to retweet the lists, generating more clicks and ensuring that these people (the listed) can end up on be on more lists and everyone can all end up at the same over-priced Brooklyn speakeasy drinking PBRs and old fashioneds. So this isn’t anything personal against anyone involved—everyone is awesome.
That said, I love this comment: “Dear Flavorwire, America is not the world, for Chrissakes.” Having fallen for way too many Flavorwire headline teases, I can assure you that, in the eyes of Flavorwire, America and Karl Ove Knausgaard ARE the world.
Secondly, the pictures of the women screaming with their mouths open? Is this a new meme? It’s very unsettling.
Also, the only good thing about the World Cup being over is that Teju Cole will no longer be tweeting about it. I know he’s got a million and one fans who will “rise as one” to annihilate me, but to be honest, I think his World Cup tweets were the worst. So self-absorbed and pedantic and boring. Kaija’s #WorldCupTaunting bits were edgier, funnier, and much more entertaining than things like “Guillermo ‘CTRL S’ Ochoa.”
Nothing was as bad as the #thetimeofthegame “idea.” Just check this out:
What’s funniest to me is that he took a screen cap of his own Twitter feed as his #thetimeofthegame entry. Twitter is like a Bloomsbury Circus of crap.
(Also, I know that these rants are why Open Letter books never make Flavorwire’s lists, for which I apologize to all our authors and translators. My jokes about things that suck shouldn’t represent Open Letter, but I’m afraid that some people take it that way.)
Guantanamo by Frank Smith, translated from the French by Vanessa Place (Les Figues)
I feel like explaining what I specifically didn’t like about Las Vegas will come off as a string of clichés . . . but that might be due to the fact that there’s no real separation from the depiction of Vegas in movies and TV shows—its excesses and bright lights and frenetic nature—and what it’s really like. The whole strip area is set up as one huge experiment in behavioral economics designed to get people to spend too much money and make terrible decisions. Every hotel is connected to every other hotel by way of thirteen areas stuffed with gamble machines. It’s all flashing and no straight path is actually straight. In between, the Paris and Bally hotels, you walk down a “hallway” that veers this way and that, coming out into a room of slots and tables and no idea which way to turn. This disorientation—a key behind shopping malls—facilitates the spending of money. The fact that there is no sense of time—it could be noon or five am—adds to this, and quickly turns a few drinks into an all-night bender involving $17 drinks with 12 shots of rum. That’s why hotel staff keeps asking “are you OK?” in that tone that implies that you might well need medical attention but just don’t realize it yet.
Vegas wants you to walk that fine line between “drunk enough to spend ten times what I was planning on” and “alcohol poisoning.” We were in a bar where you could order a kilo of cavier for $7,200. A kilo. Who the fuck says, “could I get a kilo of cavier please?” Someone who just won big at the blackjack table. Who believes this is “free money” and that the best way to get value out of this free money is to blow it in one big huge, story-creating sort of way: “Dude, I won ten grand at a poker tournament and bought Cristal and a kilo of cavier and hit up the strip joint and puked in the Bellagio fountain. It was fucking epic!”
Thing is, maybe Vegas is right. Maybe a life of books and music is totally overrated. (And that’s one more thing: culture really doesn’t seem to exist in Vegas. I’m sure it does, out in the city, in pockets, outside of the Stratosphere and the High Roller and everything else that sucks, but when you think Vegas, you think Celine and Britney and Carrot Top — Carrot Top! — none of which are interesting or novel or worth dropping $100 to see.) Vegas represents a cultural black hole where anything goes, where you can escape your normal shitty life and believe for a time that you’re a VIP, that you could win millions by betting on black, that the next drink will make you attractive. It’s supposed to be a place of ultimate freedom, but those freedoms seem, to me, as a cynical depressed bastard, to only involve cheap sex, all the drinking, and the highly unlikely dream of easy money.
Invisible Love by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, translated from the French by Howard Curtis (Europa Editions)
I went to two “parties” during ALA: one about “gaming and cosplay,” the other sponsored by Central Recovery Press.
No one was cosplayed up for the gaming one, and apparently, in the library world, “gaming” means “board games.” As in, twenty librarians were sitting around a well-lit room playing board games. And no, there were no drinks. I lasted less than 30 seconds. Even BEA does better than that.
Central Recovery is a very admirable press dedicated to helping people overcome their addictions. Their party was out at Vegas City Hall, which is so much more interesting than the strip. It also seems like it’s in the middle of nowhere, past the “Gambling Supplies Warehouse” and just out of sight from Circus, Circus. A special shuttle bus had to bring us there, since walking that far—even from the last monorail stop—would basically leave you dehydrated and dead. Good thing the Central Recovery party had all the Coke you could desire! (I was expecting coffee and donuts, but alas.) Anyway, aside from the fact that I’m not in AA and prefer parties with beers, this set up would’ve been totally fine if I hadn’t have overheard someone say “the speeches will start in about 15 minutes” just as the bus, the only link to civilization, pulled away. I can live without wine, but living through multiple speeches—or a poetry reading lasting more than 10 minutes—is tough . . .
Nevertheless I survived, regained my non-sobriety at the Peppermill, and made it back from Vegas with my mind only slightly broken . . .Tweet
After a wild World Cup of Literature ride, what better way to wind down or frustrations or victorious cries than to talk about them (or bite each other over them)? And because I lack the attention span to get all existential and tie the title of Conversations to something deep and meaningful—and because I happen to have a bit more self dignity than usual today: just look at the brightly colored word bubbles bleeding into each other. Aren’t you mesmerized?
Anyway, here’s the beginning of Tiffany’s review:
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 uniquely bogus set of facts that feels as realistic as waking up each morning and going to work, despite their fantastical and unrealistic qualities.
The protagonist opens the work by telling us that he entertains himself by remembering the daily conversations he has had with his friends. Each night, he relives those conversations while drifting off to sleep. His life goal is focused on engaging in a level of conversation that is “consistently high” to the point of obsession, leaving the reader truly concerned for his mental health.
Once the protagonist’s world is established, Aira dives into a conversation between the protagonist and his friend about a movie shown on television. The ones “they show on cable channels without commercial interruptions” prevents the viewer time to run to the restroom or kitchen, resulting in voids in the story lines which are imperative to the plot of the forgettable film. From here, the protagonist has a debate over the film starring a poor man with a Rolex watch. The protagonist’s position is that the Rolex is an atrocity to the realism of the film, while the friend argues that this is merely a minor point to be ignored. The friend posits that the protagonist should just suspend reality. Of course, this is an impossibility to the protagonist since conversations and their accuracy are of the utmost importance to him.
For the rest of the piece, go here.Tweet
Our thirty-first match of the first ever World Cup of Literature features two amazing books written in Spanish: one by a revered, now dead author, the other by a young upstart; one by a man, one by a woman; one from Chile, the other from Mexico; one focused on a singular narrative voice, the other featuring a few storylines that mingle and merge; both published by high-minded, well-respected independent presses (New Directions and Coffee House).
Rather than go on about these books, or the competition itself, I’ll just say that we’re probably going to replicate this for the Women’s World Cup next summer, but featuring only women writers. So stay tuned!
But for now, let’s get it on: Bolaño vs. Luiselli!
George Carroll: Mexico
Yedlin, Green, James, Neymar, Besler. I’m going with youth. The future of the sport. The future of literature. Put me in the Luiselli column.
Chad W. Post: Mexico
Because Bolaño would’ve won in 2002, 2006, 2010, will likely win this match, and has already received enough accolades. Because Luiselli is living. Because more people need to read Faces in the Crowd and Sidewalks. And because I have a neurotic love for looking forward and supporting the things that I’m in love with now. Bolaño was one of the greatest authors ever, but I read all these books a while back and am currently in love with Luiselli’s writing.
Nick Long: Mexico
And here we’ve come to a neo-classical World Cup final between the old guard and the fresh-faced promise of the future. A masterpiece by an author dead for over a decade to which the announcers lovingly refer to as “the corpse of Roberto Bolaño” trots out onto to the field to delirious frenzy by the fans—By Night in Chile deserves all the acclaim it’s received. But nothing in the World Cup is ever guaranteed except controversy. And Faces in the Crowd is a more than worthy opponent for this final. Despite restless politicking (isn’t FIFA all about politics and corruption anyway?) and thinly veined satire about the corruption, BNiC kept missing chance after chance. FitC knocked in its sole chance in the match to win in a shocking upset, closing out an era.
Hal Hlavinka: Chile
Mauro Javier Cardenas: Chile
Tom Roberge: Chile
Scott Esposito: Chile
Stephen Sparks: Chile
By Night in Chile was my introduction to Bolano: I read it on a long flight and, after finishing in mid-air, I reread it immediately. Luiselli is very good: Faces in the Crowd might be the best novel I’ve read this year, but I wouldn’t class it in the same category as BNiC.
Rhea Lyons: Chile
Jeff Waxman: Chile
Jeffrey Zuckerman: Mexico
I don’t understand why anybody’s even bothering to ask me for an unbiased opinion. I interviewed Valeria Luiselli and then wrote an extended profile for the LA Review of Books about how her life and her work have merged into each other, and how wonderful both are. I have voted against Bolaño every single round, and this last one is no exception. Valeria Luiselli’s just so much better. This one goes to “a dense, porous novel. Like a baby’s heart.”
James Crossley: Chile
I really liked Faces in the Crowd and urge more people to read it. Remember when Ben Lerner got all that attention for Leaving the Atocha Station? Luiselli’s book is in some ways similar, but loads better. It’s one of the best books to come out this year, in fact. But By Night in Chile is one of the best books of this millennium. Bolaño should win the 2014 Cup, but I have a feeling I’ll be rooting for Luiselli four years from now.
P.T. Smith: Chile
By Night in Chile and Faces in the Crowd are a similar length, both books that I eye and think “If I time it right, I can finish this in a sitting.” By Night in Chile, with compelling, prose that pushes on and on, I read in one. Faces in the Crowd, fragmented, yet creative, and bringing those fractures together, took three. I cherish those one-sitting readings, and so want novels that aren’t structured to give me reasons to leave. Faces in the Crowd was my discovery of the tournament, and I’ll read Luiselli again, but By Night was a sitting I remember years later, and Faces seems less likely to do the same.
Chris Schaefer: Chile
Laura Radosh: Mexico
Stephen’s right, Faces isn’t in the same class as BNiC, but Luiselli shouldn’t go down like Brazil. Another vote for the future of literature.
Hannah Chute: Mexico
Bolaño is “one of the greats.” But hell, we all knew that before we started this competition. I’m pretty sure the whole point of this project was to highlight interesting, contemporary world literature, and Bolaño winning this isn’t going to help anyone. Faces in the Crowd is a fantastic book; everyone should go out right now to buy it, read it, and cherish the fuck out of it.
Ryan Ries: Chile
There’s an inescapable ad on a local radio station in which the hysterical business owner insists that using his service is “the biggest no-brainer in the history of mankind”. This isn’t quite at that level, but, c’mon.
Trevor Berrett: Chile
Elianna Kan: Chile
Bolaño, nearly no contest, for his unflinching vitality and for passages like this one:
. . . and life went on and on and on, like a necklace of rice grains, on each grain of which a landscape had been painted, tiny grains and microscopic landscapes, and I knew that everyone was putting that necklace on and wearing it, but no one had the patience or the strength or the courage to take it off and look at it closely and decipher each landscape grain by grain, partly because to do so required the vision of a lynx or an eagle, and partly because the landscapes usually turned out to contain unpleasant surprises like coffins, makeshift cemeteries, ghost towns, the void and the horror, the smallness of being and its ridiculous will, people watching television, people going to football matches, boredom navigating the Chilean imagination like an enormous aircraft carrier. And that’s the truth. We were bored. We intellectuals. Because you can’t read all day and all night. You can’t write all day and all night. Splendid isolation has never been our style . . .
Will Evans: Mexico
My vote for the final goes to Faces in the Crowd. This is the voice of a master in training. The voice of an author finding herself, creating herself as she goes along. The themes are universal, the text as intertext, the narrative voice is distinct, the exploration of motherhood is profound, and when it comes down to it I just liked reading it more than By Night in Chile, which I also loved, but for different ways. Maybe it was the strength of translator Christina MacSweeney lifting Luiselli to heights in English hard to fathom. And maybe because I want to crush the patriarchy. Even when the odds are stacked against little old Mexico’s team, the shock team in the final, Luiselli’s novel is strong enough to carry the Mexican people the way El Tri couldn’t quite manage this year, though they gave it everything they had and inspired me and millions more in the process. They say Mexico’s national team is the most popular national team in the USA, and Luiselli is soon to be everybody’s favorite author in the USA too. She is amazing, Faces in the Crowd is brilliant. Props to Coffee House for publishing Luiselli!!!!!!
Kaija Straumanis: Mexico
Copy paste anything I’ve said in the past being pro-Mexico and insert it here. I also agree with what Will says above, and not only because of his mustache. ¡VIVA MEXICO! (Or not. Bolaño-loving jerks.)
Lance Edmonds: Chile
Shaun Randol: Chile
Having refereed Chile’s killer first match and silently cheered them on since, I gotta go with fan loyalty on this one.
Chi Chi Chi! Le Le Le! Viva Chile!
Katrine Jensen: Chile
I’ve helped carry Luiselli’s excellent Faces in The Crowd to a well-deserved spot in the finals; but a wise man I know once wrote on Facebook, “Bolaño always wins,” and to this I must say yes. Yes he does.
Lori Feathers: Mexico
Faces in the Crowd and By Night in Chile are both smart and provocative. But simply put, Faces in the Crowd is a more interesting read.
Florian Duijsens: Chile
What a great surprise, this final battle. I’d imagined it would be a clash of legends, dead authors whose cult has only grown as their posthumous vaults have been methodically cleared these past few years. Ironic, then, that Luiselli’s is a book about ghosts, about seeing literary ghosts and becoming them. Faces in the Crowd is a stunning juggling act of truths and fictions, but ultimately the ghost stories collected in By Night in Chile (also not a very hefty book) weighed heavier on me.
And there you have it: Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile wins the 2014 World Cup of Literature in a rout. Buy it, read it, and enjoy it!
Yesterday’s semifinal—which saw Roberto Bolaño secure a place in the WCL Championship with By Night in Chile —is a tough one to top, but I think we did it. Today’s match features upstart Valeria Luiselli from Mexico, whose first novel, Faces in the Crowd, is up against David Foster Wallace and his posthumous book, The Pale King.
Luiselli got to this match by sliding past the Croatian representative Dubravka Ugresic and her Baba Yaga Laid an Egg 3-2, running rampant over Australia and Murnane’s Barley Patch by a score of 3-0, and cruising past Uruguay and Mario Benedetti’s The Rest Is Jungle 7-0.
DFW started with a tough matchup against Portugal’s Gonçalo Tavares and his novel Jerusalem, but prevailed 3-2. He then took down Belgium’s The Misfortunates by Dimitry Verhulst by a score of 3-1, and just got by France’s Michel Houellebecq and The Map and the Territory, 4-3.
Although DFW is a household name, this one could go either way . . .
Scott Esposito: Mexico
An actual book has to beat some notes hewn together by an editor. So Faces takes it.
Chad W. Post: Mexico
I love DFW, but I think Luiselli deserves a spot in the finals with her incredibly well crafted Faces in the Crowd.
Lance Edmonds: USA
Before the tournament started, I thought Your Face Tomorrow was a lock for the finals. I guess that’s why you play the games.
Tom Roberge: USA
I’m just going to plagiarize myself. “The volume of perspectives in the book, the scope of humanness in these characters, is Wallace’s point: that as interesting as war orphans or autodidact artists or amoral professors are, so are paper pushers, if not for the details of their lives then for the substance of them, for the way they cope with a boredom that is as much a part of modern Western life as sex, war, or free trade. And then borrow a famous blurb for DeLillo’s Underworld, from Michael Ondatje, which I think applies here just as aptly: “The book is an aria and a wolf-whistle of our half century. It contains multitudes.”
Lori Feathers: USA
Faces is a smart book with an interesting structure of doubling back on itself. “Horizontal vertigo,” a phrase that Luiselli uses, is a good description of that structure. But somehow I still felt distanced from the characters’ (or is it really just one character’s?) descent into crazy because the book is over-constructed—like seeing more nails sticking out of a wooden frame than are needed. I didn’t feel trapped in a mad mind like, for instance, reading The Yellow Wallpaper, and that made the narrative less compelling than it could have been.
Laura Radosh: Mexico
After forcing myself to finish Infinite Jest only to find out the joke was on the reader I was sure that another DFW tome would be no match for Faces in the Crowd. But after page 6 of Pale King, I was hooked. That is some fancy footwork. Goal for USA!
But although I appreciate the fact that editor Michael Pietsch resisted cutting out dozens of pages just because his author could no longer object, DFW gets a yellow card for wasting time. Besides, the USA never makes it to the finals in the real World Cup.
Mexico evens the scores for that pretty little book in the last minute of extra time and gets a dramatic win on penalties.
Will Evans: USA
Dude this is cancer-inducing stress. I love Valeria; Faces in the Crowd is great. But I have to vote for DFW. Faces in the Crowd is like a hello to the world from a brilliant new author, the process of an artist finding her voice; and her voice, the only female voice left in the tournament, one of precious few in the entire World Cup of Literature, scored the opening goal for Mexico against the weak American backline (all hype?!), but the Americans pressed, they’d been honed to a veteran’s precision and quickly countered. The Pale King is the final goodbye for a legend, a fully realized literary idea, a narrative voice that is as powerful as it is precise (which one can’t often say of 550-page “unfinished” final novels). These two books slugged it out for the remainder of the game, and it was in DFW’s philosophical musings on the state of twenty-first-century existence that the game winner was scored. Faces in the Crowd packs a punch far greater than its 150 pages, and I would peg Luiselli’s next novel as the odds-on favorite to reach the finals of the 2018 World Cup of Literature, she has many, many, many more World Cups of Literature ahead of her, and this is the last hurrah for DFW, and he makes it to the final by the skin of his teeth. RIP.
Ryan Ries: USA
Mexico is certainly the Cinderella story of this tournament, earning a berth in the semifinals against three world-renowned (and, incidentally, dead) literary powerhouses. And, for the most part, its success is justified: Faces in the Crowd is a spare, punchy little book, impressive in construction and economy, but the reader can’t escape the feeling that you’ve read this all before somewhere (shades of Bolaño, Aira, and, to a lesser extent, Moya, to name a few fellow WCOL competitors). The Pale King isn’t without flaws, but it’s an original, mature, occasionally brilliant work, and it wins the match going away.
P.T. Smith: USA
Faces in the Crowd is a wonderful debut, the discovery of the World Cup of Literature for me, but Pale King scores an early goal with bizarre powers (mind-reading, talking baby, ghosts) of many of its characters without a detachment from reality. Page by page, Faces in the Crowd is more entertaining, rewarding, and rush after rush to the goal is eventually rewarded with an equalizer. The heights of Pale King reach a greater lever though, the tie is preserved and we go to PKs. There, the focus, to attention to detail and ability to accomplish repetitive tasks without fault, serves Pale King and takes it to victory.
Katrine Øgaard Jensen: Mexico
It’s not that Pale King isn’t interesting. It’s not that the book’s Pulitzer nomination isn’t interesting. It’s just . . . I’m recommending Faces In The Crowd to everyone I know. Maybe it’s because that book is more interesting.
Mauro Javier Cardenas: Mexico
Is it because I am not Caucasian American that I don’t light candles to Saint DFW? Probably not. I enjoyed Good Old Neon, parts of Pale King. I can never make it pass page 100 of Infinite Jest due to extreme boredom though. Que le vamos a hacer. Viva Mexico, carajo!
Kaija Straumanis: Mexico
A year or so ago, I was watching TV and wound up seeing a game played by UANL Tigres, a professional Mexican football club. Their uniforms were bright yellow, emblazoned with the logo of their sponsor, which I read as: BANANAMEX. It seemed appropriate. I then spent the next 60 minutes or so shouting “GO BANANA!” and things like “GET ANOTHER BANANA GOAL!” at the television, before I realized that the logo on their banana-yellow jerseys actually read “BANAMEX.” Which is a bank. Not a tropical fruit. Regardless, that night, UANL Tigres became my default favorite soccer team. They aren’t particularly good, they have absolutely nothing to do with bananas, but they have spirit, and they play with heart.
I’m one of the people who was left depressed after Mexico’s loss in the Real World Cup last week. I don’t want to go into the obnoxiousness of statements on how a team “deserves” to win—but Mexico deserved to have a fair ending to that game. And in our World Cup of Literature, where there are no champion floppers and no tasteless fans chanting “Vir-gin! Vir-gin! Vir-gin!” at the indifferent and unaware refs on the flatscreens overhead, Mexico actually gets a fair chance to represent itself and fight for its place in the finals, and for Faces in the Crowd to even win it all. Admittedly, I haven’t read The Pale King, though I want to, and I know I’ll probably like the book—I just don’t want to leave my favorite in the gathering dust and pick up a new team in the final stretch. Everyone’s entitled to their bias, and I’m going with mine. Mexico all the way!
Elianna Kan: Mexico
While I tip my hat to DFW for his literary project and though I understand the tremendous undertaking that was the posthumous publication of Pale King, the novel simply does not stand up to his other work and is merely a more garbled, fragmented, inconsistent exploration of the same deeply depressing themes. For the sheer power of these themes and his exploration of them, Team USA earns a couple goals, but for the lack of a consistently impressive narrative framework and for what feels like a lazier deployment of those themes in this as opposed to his previous works, the win goes to team Mexico for never waking me from the dream, for at least making a consistent and lyrical effort to construct the dream with whatever tools were at Luiselli’s disposal.
Upset! And with that, we have an all-Spanish-language final pitting Chile’s Roberto Bolaño and By Night in Chile against Mexico’s Valeria Luiselli and her Faces in the Crowd.
The winner will be announced at 11am on Monday, July 14th.
After 28 matches we’ve finally made it to the World Cup of Literature semifinals, and are only a few days away from crowning the first ever WCL Champion. (If only we had a giant papier-mâché trophy for the winner . . .)
Before that though, we have two semifinal matches that are as intriguing as anything to date, starting with a face-off between two of the most beloved authors of recent times: Robert Bolaño and W.G. Sebald.
Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile (Chile) made it to this point by beating the Netherlands and Koch’s The Dinner by a score of 3-0, taking out Brazil’s Buarque and Budapest by a score of 3-1, and then upending Italy’s great hope, Elena Ferrante and The Days of Abandonment 4-2.
W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz (Germany) got here by wrecking Ghana and Kojo Laing’s Search Sweet Country 5-1, sliding past Algeria and Leïla Marouane’s The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris by a score of 1-0, and knocking out Bosnia and Saša Stanišic’s How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone 4-3.
This is a match that no one really wanted to judge—both books are brilliant and deserve all the accolades they’ve ever received.
That said, this is a competition and only one can move on to the Championship . . .
Shaun Randol: Germany
Both By Night in Chile and Austerlitz have the protagonist confronting demons from a real political past. Amoral authoritarian rulers, institutions, and systems are indicted with barely contained bitterness and rage. And both authors—Bolano and Sebald—mix fact and fiction to get the point across. The teams go into overtime, not even the prose distinguishes one team over the other. In the end, the deployment of photography in the fictional musing gives Austerlitz the artistic edge.
George Carroll: Chile
James Crossley: Germany
Sebald’s roll through the tournament—he earned the highest percentage victories from the fans in the first and second rounds—finally slows down. He’s up against a fantastic book, and this matchup feels more like a final than I think the final will. But in the end, I don’t think Chile earns the win. Things might have played out differently with 2666 or The Savage Detectives in the mix, but By Night in Chile just isn’t Bolano’s best novel. Austerlitz is probably Sebald’s, though, and it gets the nod from me.
Hannah Chute: Chile
Trevor Berrett: Germany
If you forced me to name my two personal “most important” literary discoveries of the last decade, I’m pretty sure they’d be Bolaño and Sebald. I’m not alone in my esteem; both were awarded posthumous National Book Critics Circle Awards. Putting these two books together like this shows some fascinating overlapping themes, and everyone should read each. Now to decide which of their “life histories” should progress: Sebald’s. Bolaño’s architecture is destroyed by corruption and pigeon droppings; Sebald’s is erased by time, which I find more terrifying.
Stephen Sparks: Chile
How the fuck is someone supposed to choose either Bolano or Sebald? Since either one of these books could easily defeat the winner of the other bracket, I’m casting my vote in the same way I decide who to root for in the actual world cup: root for the poorer country.
Nick During: Chile
I’m often a terrible fan. Sometimes I’ll start a game rooting for one team, but then change my mind several times during the course of the 90 minutes. My soccer-watching friends get very frustrated and angry at me, but I feel this fickleness and indecision is part of human nature. Urrutia Laccroix would be like that too if he was a real person.
Jeffrey Zuckerman: Germany
As I reread Austerlitz and By Night in Chile, a phrase by Alexander Pope kept echoing through my thoughts: “Homer makes us hearers, and Virgil leaves us readers.” It was an apt way to describe the divide between Sebald and Bolaño: while the latter submerges me into words and worlds, the former opens up words to their strange resonances, and opens up the world in which we live to its full brilliance. As I closed By Night in Chile, it settled into my mind as a mere story, albeit better-told than most. But walking out of my apartment after Austerlitz was a shock; every building and tree and passerby burst at the seams with unexpectedly visible significance.
Rhea Lyons: Chile
I like trippy, dark and reflective more than bleak, atmospheric and reflective.
Florian Duijsens: Chile
Two stunning books, both about characters trying to make sense of their past, both obsessed with arcane factoids and architecture, both consumed by a survivor’s guilt, yet Bolaño’s story of self-deception is the more visceral of the two. While Austerlitz haunts Sebald’s book in beautiful spectral form, it’s Father Urrutia Lacroix who has haunted me in the years since I first read By Night in Chile, and it’s the dying priest’s voice that ultimately gives Chile’s representative the edge over Germany’s otherwise more than worthy opponent.
Chris Schaefer: Germany
This is one of those match-ups that really should have occurred in the final and not in the semi-final: Sebald vs. Bolaño, Germany vs. Chile, an architectural historian’s sifting of past trauma vs. a dying priest’s feverish thoughts about literature in a dictatorship. Both books have digressive styles, a blending of fact and fiction, and an overly casual disdain for paragraph breaks. It’s a fight to a draw, but Sebald’s Austerlitz wins on penalties.
Jeff Waxman: Chile
It never occurred to me that this late in the game, in the games, that I would have to cast a vote for a book I actually liked. And against a book I liked. But I’m calling this one for Bolaño for two reasons: the sheer aggressive drive of this particular narrative and because I drank four margaritas last night while explaining to a friend why Bolaño is good.
Chile, guys. Fucking Chile.
Hal Hlavinka: Chile
And with that, Bolaño moves on. Convincingly. We’ll find out tomorrow who he’ll be up against in the final.
On this week’s podcast, Chad and Tom preview the semifinals of the World Cup of Literature (both suspect Chile will meet the US in the Championship), and then discuss The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair and this New Yorker piece about its limited U.S. success. Also, the Penguin Cup is stupid.
In relation to the rants and raves portion of the podcast, here are three videos from the Estonian sketch comedy troupe that Chad praised.
First, here’s one about how much it sucks to be Estonian:
And the “Knight Rider” one that he mentioned:
More can be found at this YouTube channel.
And in keeping with the Estonian-themed “rave,” this week’s music is Zaha Hadid from Deserts.
Be sure and write us at email@example.com with any suggestions, criticisms, etc.
And with Germany’s defeat of BiH the semifinals for the World Cup of Literature are all set.
You can download a PDF version here.
Here’s a bit of a breakdown on these two match ups:
By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews
Originally published in 2000—making it just barely eligible for our competition—By Night in Chile is best described by Richard Eder of the New York Times as “a 130-page rant—part confession, part justification, part delirium—by a dying man, representative of an intellectual class that the author depicts as alternately tugging its leash and licking it.”
Bolaño is one of the authors that literary hipsters love most, although many seem to prefer 2666 or The Savage Detectives. By Night in Chile is more condensed and precise though (and more about Chile the country Bolaño chose to represent in this competition), and that might help him out against Sebald’s longer, more erudite Austerlitz.
Also worth pointing out that Columbia University Press is brining out Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe by Chris Andrews later this month.
Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald, translated from the German by Anthea Bell
Austerlitz came out in German in 2001, literally a month before Sebald’s tragic passing. It went on to win the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction in 2001 and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2002. And for her translation, Anthea Bell received the 2002 Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize. That’s a lot of prize winning.
Sebald is renowned for his particular style, which combines fact with fiction, images with text, and often revolves around ideas of memory, history, and decay. Here’s a bit from a review of Austerlitz in the Observer:
Sebald describes a universe which is peculiar but recognisable, the way experience of the world can be shaped by a strongly academic and historical intelligence. I can’t really comprehend his prose style, so distinctive in the length of his sentences and the slight archaism of manner, the monotony of its cadences probably due to the fact that it was originally written in German and then translated. But I would strongly recommend anyone who has not experienced his writing to do so, because it succeeds in communicating issues of great importance concerning time, memory and human experience.
Of the remaining four books, Austerlitz is probably the betting man’s favorite.
Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney
The only living author still in the competition, Luiselli also comes to the competition with the most recently published book—Faces in the Crowd came out in 2011, and was published in the U.S. by Coffee House Press (along with Luiselli’s essay collection _Sidewalks__ earlier this year.
It’s received some great literary praise, mostly for its unique structure and interweaving of various viewpoints, all of which keep readers on their proverbial toes, having to figure out who’s writing and what is (or isn’t) “true.” From the L.A. Times:
Faces in the Crowd is itself a highly original work of many parts—but one that does, in its own unique way, add up to a satisfying “whole.” At the heart of this engaging and often hauntingly strange novel is a wildly original character: Luiselli’s protagonist lies to her boss, commits literary fraud and assorted acts of adultery, all while raising a baby and a toddler son.
Or maybe she doesn’t do all those things — we can’t be certain, since it’s clear Luiselli’s protagonist isn’t just an unreliable employee and spouse, she’s also an unreliable narrator.
DFW is a formidable opponent, but the fact that Faces is a truly finished book, and that this is a first novel (instead of a posthumous one), might help her through to the finals.
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace
By now, I suspect everyone knows the story behind The Pale King: In 2008, after DFW committed suicide, editor Michael Pietsch pieced together the unfinished novel and writings that DFW left behind and produced The Pale King. A novel about boredom and the IRS—the only government agency designed to make money, therefore one that should be efficient in modern corporate ways—The Pale King was widely praised, including by World Cup of Literature judge Tom Roberge, in this review for Deadspin. Over at New York, Garth Risk Hallberg also nailed it:
Under the hood, though, what’s remarkable about The Pale King is its congruity with Wallace’s earlier ambitions. Recent generations of Americans have, with a few notable exceptions, been allergic to what used to be called “the novel of ideas.” Information we love, and the more the better. Memes? By all means. But inquiries into ontology and ethics and epistemology we’ve mostly ceded to the science-fiction, self-help, and Malcolm Gladwell sections of the bookstore. A philosophy-grad-school dropout, Wallace meant to reclaim them. _Infinite Jest_ discovered in its unlikely milieu of child prodigies and recovering addicts less a source of status details than a window onto (in Wallace’s words) “what it is to be a fucking human being.” And The Pale King treats its central subject—boredom itself—not as a texture (as in Fernando Pessoa), or a symptom (as in Thomas Mann), or an attitude (as in Bret Easton Ellis), but as the leading edge of truths we’re desperate to avoid. It is the mirror beneath entertainment’s smiley mask, and The Pale King aims to do for it what Moby-Dick did for the whale.
David Foster Wallace was one of the greatest writers of the second half of the twentieth century (or the twentieth century as a whole? or of all time?), but the phrase “unfinished novel” will likely discount this in the minds of some judges, so maybe the mighty American isn’t as unbeatable as he seems at first glance.
That’s it. Stay tuned to find out who’s going through to Monday’s Championship.Tweet
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