The size of a book shouldn’t really matter, not when judging whether or not it’s Best Translated Book Award-worthy, but one of the things that has struck me about this year’s batch of eligible titles is that page- if not quality-wise many of the pickings are slimmer than usual.
Mind you, I’m still reeling from 2011 and the memories of (lugging, not to mention reading) Péter Nádas’s 1133-pager Parallel Stories …. (I don’t even want to think about 2009 and Jonathan Littell’s … let’s say unfortunate near-1000 page The Kindly Ones.) So, yes, there’s something to be said for shorter books – beginning with the logistical advantages, of getting through them, as well as the quicker variety moving from one to the next allows for (getting bogged down in a 500-pager is very different (and more drawn-out-painful) than getting bogged down in a book of 100 pages …).
Last year’s shortlist had quite a few substantial books: if not quite the norm, there were a decent number of 400+ page books, including the winning title. Hell, 400 pages seemed almost unremarkable. Antonio Muñoz Molina’s In the Night of Time topped 600, and along the way there had been longer books too: Goliarda Sapienza’s The Art Of Joy was just short of 700 pages, France Daigle’s For Sure easily topped that.
Quite a few 2014 books make it into the 400 page range – including obvious contenders for at least the final award-stages (longlist, shortlist): this year’s Knausgaard (My Struggle: Book Three), just like last year’s; this year’s Ferrante (Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay), just like last year’s …. But there just don’t seem to be that many other bulky books. And there seem to be a lot of very slim ones.
True, we’re unlikely ever to have an entry as short as last year’s Her Not All Her — Elfriede Jelinek’s longlisted … well, it was barely a forty-page pamphlet. But the pile of top titles that come in at under a hundred pages is surprising.
Among my favorites this year has been Julio Cortázar’s (comic book-)inspired Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires (87 generously illustrated pages), which is about the most fun I’ve had reading any of these books this year. With cameos by Susan Sontag and Alberto Moravia this is … well, wild barely begins to describe it. But the writing (and translation, by David Kurnick) is sharp, and, despite being almost forty years old, it feels surprisingly topical and current.
Arno Camenisch’s The Alp (82 pages) is just one of what seems like dozens of Dalkey Archive Press entries in the 100-page-range (it’s not dozens, but there are quite a few). Here is an author who works in both German and Romansh (the fourth official language of Switzerland) – a challenge Donal McLaughlin seems quite up to here.
There’s a second Haruki Murakami book due out this year, too — The Strange Library, another book that counts as “heavily illustrated” and still doesn’t make it to a hundred pages. There’s a fairly new Murakami translator at work here too – one we haven’t read in the previous translations, Ted Goosen — and while it is a very small piece (and competes against the other Murakami in the running this year, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, translated by older Murakami-hand Philip Gabriel) can’t be discounted at this early stage.
Some good-looking short story collections come in under the century-mark — Kristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water and Kjell Askildsen’s Selected Stories among them – but I’m particularly surprised by the number of novels of this size. And by how many of them punch considerably above their weight: Hilda Hilst’s With My Dog Eyes is probably only sustainable over this length, while Jean Echenoz’s just over 100-page 1914 is a master-class in economical storytelling.
Others under 100 pages include the almost obligatory annual diminutive César Aira – Conversations this year (88 pages) – and Antonio Skármeta’s A Distant Father. Special mention has to go to Patrick Modiano’s Suspended Sentences, a volume we weren’t expecting until next year until he was named this year’s Nobel laureate, leading Yale University Press to push up the publication date: it consists of ‘Three Novellas’, filling just over 200 pages – but in France (and elsewhere) the slim volumes have also been published individually. Almost unfair for the Nobel laureate to get three chances to wow the judges in one go (and, helped along by translator Mark Polizzotti, who seems to have a really good feel for Modiano’s style, he certainly wowed this one).
So are there any fat chance-counterweights to these slim pickings? As I said, a couple of contenders make it into the 400 page range, but beyond that the choices are few and far between. Some thrillers and the like but from what I’ve seen so far, nothing that could make a serious dent (sorry, Zoran Drvenkar’s You may have an intriguing range of voices, but … yeah, sorry, no). The best 500+ pagers I’ve checked out so far are Leonardo Padura’s Trotsky novel, The Man Who Loved Dogs, which has the qualities that could put it on the longlist, and Albert Sánchez Piñol’s Victus, which also turns out to be a nice surprise. But they both do sag a bit under their weight – always the danger with the long ones.
The one I’m most curious about is one I haven’t seen yet: H.G. Adler’s The Wall (a reported 656 pages), the last in a trilogy that has impressed so far. This comes with some very good buzz, so I definitely see some potential here. Of course, I do have to see it before I can properly judge …..
We’re used to meaty books when it comes to fiction in translation, as if length were more proof of a book’s weighty worthiness. From the biggest Bolaños and recent BTBA winners Myśliwski and (2x) Krasznahorkai they never entirely shoved smaller works aside, but maybe had an easier time making more of a big impression. I wonder whether we’ll now see a shift towards some of this smaller work – looking even stronger this year than usual.Tweet
This post is being written under extreme jet lag. Last Saturday I flew out to attend the Sharjah International Book Fair (the slogan for which is “A Book for Every Person,” which is not to be confused with Dubai’s Film Festival slogan, “A Movie for Every Person”) and then, yesterday, flew for approximately 200 hours to attend this season’s Consortium Sales Conference. I have no idea what day it is, much less what time. So, expect some insanity below. Like, even more than usual.
Which is kind of in keeping with the part of the United Arab Emirates where I just was. For anyone who doesn’t know, Sharjah is basically a twenty-minute drive from Dubai, which is an hour or so from Abu Dhabi. This is a part of the world that doesn’t understand the concept of “right-sized.” This is particularly true in Dubai, where the Burj Khalifa makes the rest of the skyscrapers in the world look like dollhouse toys.
This building, which I think looks like something a Fantastic Four cosmic villain would crash into our planet, is next to the largest “mall” ever. (I think. I am in Minneapolis right now though, where the Mall of America people have something to say about that.) Mall is in quotes because a shopping mall shouldn’t have a 10 million gallon aquarium and an olympic-sized hockey rink and an amusement park and a massive dancing fountain. According to Wikipedia (The Worlds Finest Source of Accurate Information ™), over 750,000 people visit the mall every week. That’s fucked.
Unlike my other trips to the UAE, this time I planned ahead and booked a trip to the top of the Burj Khalifa. That’s basically what big buildings are there for, right?—to go up to the top and repeat over and over, “Wow! Look how far I can see! I’m so high!! This is totally cray!”
The most interesting part of the “At the Top” experience are these cool digital cameras that allow you to look out over Dubai and, with the click of a button, see what it looks like at night, in the day, and “historically.” The historical setting is fascinating because, spoiler alert!, all it shows you is fucking sand. Miles and miles of sand. A flat, barren desert. The gigantic lagoon adjacent to the Burj Khalifa? Completely manmade. I searched and searched and finally found a historical group of tiny houses that has now been replaced by three ginormous buildings. That’s Dubai in a nutshell—a futuristic metropolis dropped onto a formerly sterile landscape. It’s also worth keeping in mind that the UAE didn’t exist until 1972. It’s barely older than I am.
There are dozens of great pieces that have been written about the bizarre nature of Dubai. (And about the horrible way immigrants are treated there. More on that below.) But what interests me is why this all came about. At risk of sounding completely ignorant, which I am, Dubai and Abu Dhabi seem almost non-Arab when compared to the other Arabic countries in the world. I know Sheik Zayed was the force behind the creation of the UAE and, I think, a lot of these mega-projects, but why? Why did everyone decide to scrap the existing ways of life, the traditional Arab nation, and choose to make something that’s almost a parody of itself. (When I was in the Dubai Mall with Janis Oga of the Latvian Literature Center, we couldn’t decide if this was the greatest thing ever or the end of the world. It’s both.)
Along those same lines, how do the other Arab nations react to the UAE sheiks? Granted, Sheik Abu Dhabi and Sheik Dubai have tons and tons of oil, thus power and money, and Sheik Sharjah has the biggest book fair!, but do these other leaders really consult them on larger Arab world issues? Or are they just dismissed for the constant catering to ex-pats, allowing them to get wasted, sing karaoke in hotel bars, and display styles of clothing that are “inappropriate” in most surrounding countries, like Kuwait and Qatar.
It just seems so weird to me that this city just popped up out of seemingly nowhere and doesn’t really fit. I tried to find a book about this (and about the construction of the Burj Khalifa) when I was in the World’s Largest Bookstore in the Dubai Mall, but I came up empty. Someone needs to write this book. I want those stories, that context. I’ll bet it would be fascinating.
Indigo by Clemens Setz, translated from the Germany by Ross Benjamin (W.W. Norton)
I’m almost done reading this, and will definitely write a full review in the upcoming weeks. It’s a strange book about “Indigo Children,” kids who make everyone within a 12-foot radius physically sick. Parents get headaches, rashes, nosebleeds, and this before the kids are teenagers! Structurally, it’s also really interesting, with two time lines and two narrators: Clemens Setz, a former teacher who lost his job working with I-Children and is now researching the phenomenon, and Robert Tätzel, a “burnt-out” Indigo who knew Setz and struggles to keep his shit together. There’re a lot of ideas at play here, which is probably why Pynchon is referenced in the jacket copy. (Although unlike Pynchon’s books, Indigo really isn’t that funny.) Definitely worth checking out. I think there will be a lot of reviews for this in the next few weeks.
End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (New Directions)
A new Erpenbeck is always cause for celebration, and this one sounds like one of her best. It’s basically five books in one, each leading to the death of an unnamed female protagonist. Repetition and difference! Also, Susan Bernofsky. Another book that’s a must and which will be talked about a lot in the next month.
My least favorite panel at the Sharjah Book Fair was “Show Me the Money! New Business Models for Digital and Digital Book Business.” First off, that phrase. So stupid. And, as you can predict, none of the people on here—all brilliant, all great in their own way—said anything specific about any new business models. Instead, they collectively came in second for working in the most trite cliches into one presentation. “Print and e will always co-exist!” “You have to digitize and monetize your source material!” “The future is digital!” AAARRGGHHH!
(BTW, John Ingram—“I prefer win-win solutions to win-lose,” “I own failure and share success”—won the “Most Cliches per Minute” contest. His talk was some Guiness World Records style shit.)
The one “idea” that was proposed as a digital business model was based on an app that’s popular in Brussels. Apparently, when you get on the subway, you can click this app, tell it the length of your journey, like 30 minutes or an hour, and it will “provide the user with the appropriate amount of content.” First off, that really is how these people talk. “Content” and “users” and “digital environment.” Based on those phrases, I assume this “content” is literally just a string of nouns and random adjectives. Fuck art, we just need thirty minutes of text! Gross. But really, this idea is idiotic. Are people really too stupid to figure out what to read if they want to finish in thirty minutes? Is that even an important issue to anyone anywhere? That’s what fucking bookmarks are for. And magazines. “Users would love a content distribution system whereby they could get short pieces on a variety of topics that they could read while being transported.” “Holy shit! You’re a genius! Let’s build an app and call it ‘Magazine.’” Fuck everything.
The Cold Centre by Inka Parei, translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire (Seagull Books)
One other thing that struck me during that panel was the way in which agents talk about “authors” instead of “books.” The agent on this panel brought it up a number of times in a number of different ways. The idea that a new book will help a reader (or “book user”) discover an author. That the industry must find business models that will allow authors to feed their family. Which raised a fundamental question to me: How many people really deserve to have a full-time career as a writer? Does the world need a million “writers” who produce a book every couple of years from the time they are 20 until they die?
I’m not arguing against professional novelists, but to be honest, most talented writers will produce 3 to 5 great books over their lifetime. If those books are successful, and the novelist can live off of that success, great. But publishing/the marketplace doesn’t owe them a lifetime of royalties just because they wrote one decent book. I might be too jet lagged to make my point clearly, but I think it’s a strange way of looking at the world. Authors have periods of creativity and it’s not terrible for them to have to have a second job teaching or doing something else. (Especially once their piece has been said and they start repeating themselves. Or if their last name is Franzen.)
Also, if we really believe this, that there should be hundreds of thousands of professional novelists, then we should adopt a more European model in which writers are actually supported by the government. We should set aside significant amounts of money (think the NEA times ten or more) to support the creation of culture. With a few exceptions—James Patterson, J. K. Rowling, Danielle Steel—the market is much more book-centric than author-centric.
Just Call Me Superhero by Alina Bronsky, translated from the German by Tim Mohr (Europa Editions)
Last night I was going on and on about starting a publishing/bookselling war. That it’s ridiculous for Open Letter to be all, “well, it’s cool that Bookstore X can’t carry our books because they only have room for James Patterson and Penguin classics.” Or that Book Review Y doesn’t have space for our translations because they have to review the two that FSG came out with this year. That’s bullshit. You never hear a Hollywood producer say something like, “Well, at least people are seeing movies!” (Thanks to Caroline Casey for that joke.)
I think our books are better for the world than a lot of the books that are out there. I want to fight for our books and get them into the hands of as many readers as possible. And if this is somewhat of a zero-sum game (only so much shelf space, only so many reviews a year) then we should be fighting for our books to be included. Street of Thieves is a million times better than that Harry Quebert book. Yet that got all kinds of (mostly negative) reviews and has sold 20,000 copies via supermarkets. Fuck that shit. All that space should be given to the best books, not the ones with the largest marketing budget. Every time you sell or review John Grisham, a LOL Cat dies.
Traces by Gamal Al-Ghitani, translated from the Arabic by Nadar Uthman (Bloomsbury Qatar)
Finally, Bloomsbury Qatar books are coming out in the U.S.! Maybe. They’re not listed on Amazon, or B&N, or the Bloomsbury website, so this might not be out for a while. As soon as it is though, I’m going to get a copy. I LOVED The Zafarani Files and would love to publish a paperback version. (Supposedly University of Cairo Press has one in the works, but I haven’t seen an official listing yet.) Al-Ghitani is one of the most interesting modern Arabic authors I’ve read and I hope more of his books are translated. (And stocked, sold, reviewed, and read.)
Random Sharjah Jokes, Part I:
My favorite drink from last week was the “Sharjito.” It’s just like a mojito, but without alcohol. Refreshing and you can still wake up in the morning!
When I was in Dubai for the night, I found a hotel bar showing Arsenal’s Champions League game. (This is my superpower: finding sports bars in random cities.) Anyway, right next door was a bar where a live band was performing. As I went over there to check it out, I remembered the time I was in Abu Dhabi with Ed Nawotka and saw a live band perform “Zombie” by the Cranberries over and over again. It was like a one-hit wonder band of one-hit wonder songs. (Sorry sole Cranberry fan out there, but really.) Anyway, I walked into this Dubai bar, went to get a drink, and thought, “hmm, this baseline sounds really familiar,” just as the band started screaming “ZOMMMBIEE! ZAH-AHM-BEEEE!!!” What the fuck, UAE? This song wasn’t even that popular back in 1994. They followed this up with “Wiggle” (not even kidding) and then a reprise of “Zombie.” So inexplicable.
Beirut, Beirut by Sonallah Ibrahim, translated from the Arabic by Chip Rossetti (Bloomsbury Qatar)
One of the strangest parts of my Sharjah experience was the apples. Every time I left my hotel room, someone would come in and leave a plate of three apples in Saran Wrap along with a knife, fork, and plate. This happened over and over again for no apparent reason. And because this is how I am, I made it my mission to eat every last apple. There’s nothing like eating three apples in a row right before bed. The UAE is a crazy place.
Random Sharjah jokes, Part II:
This isn’t so much a joke as a disturbing experience. On the cab ride to Dubai, a sports car cut us off, pissing off my cabbie, “Fuck you rich man!” He then explained how all cabs are tagged in the UAE, and if you go a mile over the speed limit, or cut someone off, or do anything wrong at all, you are fined. In the four years he’d been there since moving from Pakistan, he’d accumulated 23,000 dirham in fines. (Like $7,000.) He works 14-hour days and can’t save any money. But the Petrol People race their Ferraris and cut us off and overall hold down the immigrant working class. This is some serious shit and is very much the dark side of this part of the world. He also told me about a fellow cabbie who, while swerving to avoid a car, injured the wrist of a passenger. He lost his passport for three months and was fined some huge amount of money. When he got the passport back, he tried to fly home and was denied at the airport because his fine hadn’t been settled. Literally indentured servitude, and such an insidious way of keeping the lower classes down.
I had to buy a notebook in Sharjah, and found this amazingly soft, really cool one that has all sorts of great facts on the back of it, like how to determine the volume of a cone and what a scalene triangle is. It also has useful symbols, including greater than (>), maps to (->), and symmetric difference (∆). I know that ∆ is “alt-j” thanks to the band, but I have no recollection of ever learning about “symmetric difference.” Apparently, it’s the non-overlapping part of a Venn Diagram. This is amazing and I want to figure out how to use it in a conversation.
By Night the Mountain Burns by Juan Tomás Ávila, translated from the Spanish by Laurel Jethro Soutar (And Other Stories)
On the flight to Sharjah, I read all of Carrere’s Limonov, and sat next to a really friendly Pakistani couple who were very curious about this book that I couldn’t put down. I explained what it was about, how crazy Limonov’s life was, all the various stages of his life, etc. The response? “No one’s going to read that. It’s too academic. I like to read too. Right now I’m reading Your Atomic Self. It’s about how we’re all made of atoms. Changes your perspective. But when I read, I read a paragraph and then like to sit back and think about it. I don’t know about this book of yours.”
This is why publishing can be a bit discouraging at times.
Street of Thieves by Mathias Enard, translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell (Open Letter)
The follow-up to Zone is finally available! And, unlike Zone, it includes a plethora of periods!
This book is really spectacular as it traces the young adulthood of a Moroccan boy who is kicked out of his family for fooling around with his cousin. He eventually gets to Spain where things don’t go much better for him, culminating in a really intense ending. The best thing about this novel is the encroaching sense of dread that builds throughout the narrative. You know things are just going to get worse, that something big is going to happen, but you’re never sure what or how or exactly why. It’s a great feeling and it takes a master to create such a suggestive atmosphere.
Self-Portrait in Green by Marie NDiaye, translated from the French by Jordan Stump (Two Lines Press)
This. “Asked to write a memoir, [NDiaye] turned in this paranoid fantasia of rising floodwaters, walking corpses, eerie depictions of her very own parents, and the incessant reappearance of women in green.”
Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano, translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti (Yale University Press)
Yale really got lucky with this book. Although Godine has a few Modiano books in print, I suspect that this trilogy, which contains some of Modiano’s most beloved novels, will sell amazingly well. If the Nobel Prize is good for one thing, it’s that it usually brings a lot of sales revenue to relatively small presses. Over the past few years, New Directions, University of Nebraska, Serpent’s Tail, Seagull Books, and Godine have all benefitted by having published that year’s Nobel Prize winner. And then all the pundits complain that they’ve never heard of these authors, probably because they’re too busy reading and writing about the trendy, of-the-moment books instead of the best ones. Great job, media! If there’s one moment every year that makes it clear that the U.S. book culture is out of joint with the rest of the world, it’s the announcement of the Nobel Prize.Tweet
George Carroll is the World Literature Editor of Shelf Awareness and an independent publishers’ representative based in the Pacific Northwest.
None of the San Francisco Giants spoke with pitcher Madison Bumgartner in the dugout before he took the mound in the ninth inning of the seventh game of the World Series except for a brief exchange with his catcher Buster Posey. Partly due to superstition and partly because Bumgartner was intensely focused, was in the zone.
I’m currently in The Best Translated Book Award reading zone. Please do not distract.
This is so, in my mind, with longlist and the BTBA.
There’s an ultra-secret password-protected, for-your-eyes-only spreadsheet that the BTBA judges use that lists the title, author, translator, publisher, language, and country for each of the 2015 submissions. There is a column for each judge to place her notes or remarks. (Don’t try to access the spreadsheet, publishers, it will self-destruct quicker than Jim Phelps’ MI instructions.)
Fortunately my spreadsheet column is at the beginning of that section, just to the right of Katrine Osgaard Jensen’s. She uses a letter code, which I’m pretty sure I’ve cracked. But I scroll right no further, for therein lies the use of longlist, the word that assigns power, the word which can strip power. “Longlist contender, must longlist, short of longlist, no longlist.” It can draw you in (I better read this) or repel (I better move on to something else).
I just have a list. Books move around like the stairways at Hogwarts. (Did I mention I just watched all of the Harry Potter movies?) Books that I read early in the process that I thought were really good, were really good, but they’re not as really good in comparison with the other really good books that I’ve now read.
That doesn’t mean that some of the books I’ve read don’t keep popping up a like a literary Whac-a-Mole. But will they make it to l-word? I don’t know.
Milena Michiko Flasar’s I Called Him Necktie, Pascal Garnier’s How’s the Pain, Eduardo Halfon’s Monastery, both Bohumil Hrabal titles Harlequin’s Millions and Ramblin’ On, Carlos Labbe’s Navidad & Matanza, Michel Laub’s Diary of the Fall, Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd, Scholastique Mukasonga’s Our Lady of the Nile, Andres Neuman’s Talking to Ourselves, Roderigo Rey Rosa’s Severina, Paulo Scott’s Nowhere People, Solvi Bjorn Sigurdsson’s The Last Days of My Mother, Goncalo Tavares’ A Man: Klaus Klump, Antoine Volodine’s Writers, Christa Wolf’s August.
All have much to love and I can do no better than to arrange them alphabetically.
Cesar Aira’s Conversations, Roberto Bolano’s A Little Lumpen Novelita, Hilda Hilst’s With My Dog-Eyes, Jorn Lier Horst’s The Hunting Dogs, Giulio Mozzi’s This is the Garden, Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, Audur Ava Olafsdottir’s Butterflies in November, Antonio Skarmeta’s A Distant Father, Juan Pablo Villalobos’ Quesdillas, Urs Widmer’s The Blue Soda Siphon.
Again, only alphabetical, all flawed in little ways, but solid nonetheless.
Predicting the longlist is a bit like handicapping horses: consistency, class, form, and pace. Books get boxed, parked out, shuffled back. Fortunately, I have miles to read before I sleep and need not place my bets until March.Tweet
For those who don’t know, it was announced this week that Volodine had been awarded the Prix Médicis for his latest book, Terminus radieux. The prize, which is awarded in November of each year, is a French literary award founded in 1958 by Gala Barbisan and Jean-Pierre Giraudoux. Congratulations to Volodine, whose works have been translated into English and published (or are forthcoming) by various presses, including University of Nebraska Press, Dalkey Archive, and Open Letter Books.
Here’s the beginning of Patrick’s review:
Antoine Volodine’s vast project (40 plus novels) of what he calls the post-exotic remains mostly untranslated, so for many of us, understanding it remains touched with mystery, whispers from those “who know,” and guesswork. That’s not to say that, were one to read every book by Volodine and his pseudonyms, his driving philosophy would then become fully clear. It may not be meant to.
His novels return to the post-apocalypse, to prisons, psychiatric hospitals, interrogations, and writers. They trod familiar ground, the same characters reappear, and images are like memories half-remembered. The writers he creates not only belong in his universe, but create their own projects that fit within his—it’s turtles all the way down. Yet in the reoccurrence, there is nuance, and his universe expands—the other reality of the post-exotic becomes more grounded.
The Volodine project, the pseudonyms, and the intertexual exchanges, are pushed to the forefront in responses to his work. But there are also more immediate pleasures, not dependant on his larger oeuvre. His work puts anonymous people in strange and engaging circumstances, and he lets the weirdness leave a reader to catch up, confused.
For the rest of the review, go here.Tweet
This week’s podcast covers four major topics: Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano, Michael Henry Heim and The Man Between, the upcoming ALTA Conference, and Atavist Books. And we barely talk about sports at all! But Tom does have a “rave” that includes a reference to this cover:
This week’s music is “Waste Your Time” from Ex Hex. (Mary Timony’s new band!)
As always, you can write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org with complaints, suggestions, ideas for future episodes, or your own rants and raves.
As always you can subscribe to the podcast in iTunes by clicking here. To subscribe with other podcast downloading software, such as Google’s Listen, copy the following link. And you can email us with complaints and comments at email@example.com
This should be titled “airplane reading,” since I’m taking off tomorrow morning for the Sharjah International Book Fair. (If you don’t know already, Sharjah is an emirate very near Dubai. It’s a lot less ostentatious than Dubai though—kind of—and has no booze. Which, yeah.)
Anyway, The Creator came in the other day, and immediately got the attention of everyone in the office. Wakefield Press is one of our favorites, mostly for the very strange, almost unclassifiable books that they do. This one is no exception:
Billed by its author—the pseudonymous Mynona (German for “anonymous” backward)—as “the most profound magical experiment since Nostradamus,” The Creator tells the tale of Gumprecht Weiss, an intellectual who has withdrawn from a life of libertinage to pursue his solitary philosophical ruminations. At first dreaming and then actually encountering an enticing young woman named Elvira, Weiss discovers that she has escaped the clutches of her uncle, the Baron, who has been using her as a guinea pig in his metaphysical experiments. But the Baron catches up with them and persuades Gumprecht and Elvira to come to his laboratory, to engage in an experiment to bridge the divide between waking consciousness and dream by entering a mirror engineered to bend and blend realities. Mynona’s philosophical fable was described by the legendary German publisher Kurt Wolff as “a station farther on the imaginative train of thought of Hoffmann, Villiers, Poe, etc.,” when it appeared in 1920, with illustrations by Alfred Kubin (included here).
The “most profound magical experiment since Nostradamus” is what sold it for me. This sounds so wild, and basically perfect for Halloween . . .
This is translated by Peter Wortsman (who has also translated Musil and Kleist for Archipelago Books), and contains the illustrations from Alfred Kubin.Tweet
This book was published in English in 2012, but considering the attention Ferrante has been getting for her work since then, this is a very appropriate “Better late than never” kind of review. I’ve yet to read anything of Ferrante’s, but am absolutely aching to after all the high praise and descriptions of her writing.
Acacia O’Connor is a first wave U of R MALTS alumna working from Italian into English. She works at Columbia University and shares a subway stop with Dr. Craig Spencer, the first Ebola patient in New York City. Instead of attending ALTA 2014, she thought it would be fun to run a marathon, at night, on the Las Vegas strip. (I was also with her at the opening night midnight-showing of the first part of the last Harry Potter movie. We did not dress up.)
Here’s the beginning of Acacia’s review:
It hasn’t quite neared the pitch of the waiting-in-line-at-midnight Harry Potter days, but in small bookstores and reading circles of New York City, an aura has attended the novelist Elena Ferrante and her works. One part curiosity (Who is she?), one part eager devotion (Where is she, I want to be her best friend!), enthusiasm over Ferrante was reignited when the third book in Ferrante’s Neapolitan novel series was published this month.
Her fans, reviewers, and interviewers don’t know who she is, where she is, whether her name is really Elena Ferrante, how much her books are drawn from her life or the lives of friends, family. Even her translator, the fantastic Ann Goldstein, has corresponded with her only sparingly. What is known is that her works have great, deep, broad feelings. Mammoth feelings. Feelings like a spiny barrier reef coating the entire bottom of the Mare di Napoli. And readers, it seems, are really into those feels.
I, too, was caught up. My Brilliant Friend evokes those familiar yet almost indescribable feelings about long friendships, adolescence, and home. You’re inextricably tied to a person, a place, but you hate how strong the connection is, how it drags you back in when you try to escape it; slowly it tears you apart.
That sounds melodramatic. In real life, we tend to downplay drama, shake off the pain. Feels are for Tumblr. But those moments of “suffering” (perhaps the most prevalent word in My Brilliant Friend) exist. When elementary school “best friends” were established and betrayed. When a very close friend goes off and gets married young. When someone you love moves smack dab across the country. Rarely do we find the tension, the dissatisfaction, or the fear created by the completely natural and expected changes in friendships articulated as clearly as we find it in these novels.
Ferrante captures the unnerving and beautiful elements of human relationships with vivid precision and dramatic seriousness. While the main character and narrator of My Brilliant Friend is Elena Greco, the true protagonist is the bond between Elena, called Lenu, and her childhood friend, Raffaela “Lila” Cerrullo. Elena and Lila are two children of a lively, dirty, poverty-stricken ghetto in Naples. Elena and Lila are best friends, but at times one or the other of them isn’t so sure of it. The friendship is dynamic, as much in flux as anything in their world—a world where adults grease the palms of Mafiosi, scream at one another, beat their children, and throw irons out of windows.
For the rest of the review, go here.Tweet
Can Xue: The Last Lover, trans. from Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen, Yale/Margellos
The strangest and by far most original work I read this summer was Can Xue’s The Last Lover. How refreshing it is to encounter fiction that so resolutely disregards conventions of character and plot! The protagonists of this book do not develop—they transform, as do their relationships to one another, from one scene to the next. And they do so unpredictably, in ways that surprise and delight. As in much of Can Xue’s fiction, the prose is comic and disturbing at one and the same time. John Darnielle had Vertical Motion in mind when he pointed to the “grammar of dreams” that underpins that volume of stories: “situations in which a general meowing sound throughout a hospital provokes not the question ‘what’s going on?’ but instead ‘where are the catmen hiding?’” A similar grammar is present in The Last Lover, her most ambitious—and perhaps most radical—novel to date.
Faris al-Shidyaq: Leg over Leg volume 3, trans. from Arabic by Humphrey Davies, NYU
I wrote about the charms of this novel last winter, when the first two volumes were eligible for the prize. It should come as no surprise that the other two are now contenders as well. This chapter from volume three appeared in the 2014 translation issue of London’s The White Review. It’s preceded by a concise introduction by Humphrey Davies, whose translation of Shidyaq remains among the most gymnastic and resourceful amongst this year’s competition.
Elena Ferrante: Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, trans. from Italian by Ann Goldstein, Europa
There’s no denying the force of Ferrante’s writing. I discovered volume 2 of the Neapolitan Novels last spring when it made our longlist. (Such are the privileges of judging for BTBA; you have to read the 25 titles selected to this list, and thereby profit directly from the enthusiasms of others.) I devoured it whole, then did the same to The Story of a New Name. Ferrante inspires that rare thing, rarer still among contemporary writers: the compulsion to read everything she’s ever published. Like its predecessors, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay bristles with intelligence and is executed with startling clarity. And like the other books in this series, it is all-absorbing. Here’s Ariel Starling in a recent review for The Quarterly Conversation: “Subtle as the plot may be, it would do the work a grave disservice not to note that Ferrante is, in her own way, a master of suspense. Reading these novels, one becomes so immersed in the world of the characters that even an offhand comment from a minor acquaintance can (and often does) carry the force of revelation—the books are nearly impossible to put down.”
Hilda Hilst: With My Dog Eyes, trans. from Portuguese by Adam Morris, Melville House
I’ve already posted on Letters from a Seducer which had been scheduled for 2013 release but entered the world on the wrong side of January 1. Goes without saying that this title and its extraordinary translation by John Keene has not weakened in the slightest since my initial encounter. Hilst deserves to be in the mix when winter arrives and we begin to draft lists. The question then is likely to be: which horse to back? The answer’s not immediately obvious, to the great credit of Hilst’s translators and editors. With My Dog Eyes was as exhilarating to read as the Letter and The Obscene Madame D. Hilst has been blessed with a generation of astute translators who are now introducing her work to an Anglophone readership. With My Dog Eyes struck me as the most aphoristic of the three novels. It begins unforgettably: “God? A surface of ice anchored to laughter.” Adam Levy wrote a canny essay for Music & Literature about this year’s eligible Hilst titles; read it here.
I’ve little doubt concerning the importance of the above works for their respective languages. Those without Chinese or Italian or Portuguese have Annelise Finegan Wasmoen, Ann Goldstein, and Adam Morris to thank for ensuring that their greatness has been preserved in the face of formidable challenges. I’d like to mention briefly the names of a few more translators whose work has impressed over these first few months of reading. They succeed at communicating the vitality of the voices translated, but also for their accomplished prose in English. They are, in no particular order, Jason Grunebaum from the Hindi of The Walls of Delhi by Uday Prakash; Daniel Hahn from the Portuguese (Brazil) of Nowhere People by Paolo Scott; Chris Andrews from the Spanish (Guatemala) of Severina by Rodrigo Rey Rosa; and Karen Emmerich from the Greek of Why I Killed My Best Friend by Amanda Michalopoulou, whose passages about the bewilderments of adolescent sexuality rank—alongside volume three of My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard—among the funniest things I’ve encountered so far.Tweet
Chris is a regular reviewer for Three Percent, and happens to be taking the next month off to participate in NaNoWriMo. We wish him endurance and good writing juju!
Here’s the beginning of Chris’s review:
From the late 1940s to the early 1950s, Egypt was going through a period of transition. The country’s people were growing unhappy with the corruption of power in the government, which had been under British rule for decades. The Egyptians’ performance at the 1948 Summer Olympics didn’t help bolster nationalism: of the 85 athletes who participated, only five won medals. Meanwhile, a group of Egyptian officers, including future Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, formed the Free Officers Movement. Originally organized to reinstate institutions removed by the government, the movement grew in strength—and ambition—during the Arab-Israeli War. By 1952, the officers not only overthrew King Farouk, but they ended the British occupation and established Egypt as a republic.
Egyptian writer Sonallah Ibrahim lived through the period leading to and following the revolution, and he has written about the effects it has had on his country. His first novel, That Smell (1966), was written 12 years after Nasser’s rise to power, and according to an article in the New Yorker, which called Ibrahim “Egypt’s oracular novelist,” anticipated Nasser’s fall: a year after it was published, the Israelis defeated Egypt during the Six-Day War and took control of the Sinai Peninsula. Ibrahim wrote That Smell after spending five years as a political prisoner; it was during that time when, according to an article in the National, he conceived the idea for Stealth, which was originally published in Egypt in 2007.
The period of history leading to the revolution forms the backdrop of Stealth; however, it isn’t so much a political novel as it is a coming-of-age story. The narrator is an 11-year-old boy who closely observes the actions of adults, including his father, Kahlil, a retired military officer, whom he lives with in a dirty, bug-infested apartment in Cairo. The boy spends a lot of time spying on his father, as well as his friends and acquaintances. If he’s not peeking through keyholes to spy on their private, intimate moments, then he eavesdrops on their conversations. In fact, he seems much more interested in the world of adults than other children, as he only seems to play with other children when he’s forced to.
For the rest of the review, go here.Tweet
By now you may be asking which BTBA-eligible books I’m most looking forward to reading. Probably not, but let’s pretend. Without further ado:
Baboon by Naja Marie Aidt (translated from Danish by Denise Newman) is a short story collection that’s the first of this author’s work to reach English, and it’s touted as “audacious writing that careens toward bizarre, yet utterly truthful, realizations.” What’s not to like about that? Aidt is originally from Greenland, which is another bonus, as reading her book would get me one step closer to my secret goal of reading something from every country on the globe. Yes, I know Greenland is technically not a country, but it looks so big on Mercator maps that I count it anyway.
Mario Bellatin, who I’ve read before and very much enjoyed, has a new book out from Siete Vientos that contains two separate works, Flowers and Mishima’s Illustrated Biography. The latter portion sounds like non-fiction that wouldn’t qualify for the BTBA, but Bellatin says that it describes “what happened to the writer after his head was cut off.” So yeah, made up. It’s a bilingual edition with the English side having been translated by Kolin Jordan, and it’s a gorgeous little product. Not that I’m judging it solely by its cover, but it does tend to jump out of the stack at me.
Another Spanish language book that carries high expectations is Adam Buenosayres by Argentinian Leopoldo Marechal, a novel so massive that it took two translators, Norman Cheadle and Sheila Ethier, to tackle it. It was first published in 1948 and was Marechal’s attempt to create an epic that would do for his native city what Dickens did for London and Joyce did for Dublin. Among other Latin American writers who were influenced by it was Julio Cortázar, which is more than enough for me to take an interest in it.
From Germany comes The Giraffe’s Neck, about a tightly-wound, aging biology teacher in a failing public school. It’s written by Judith Schalansky (and translated by Shaun Whiteside) who previously brought the fabulous Atlas of Remote Islands into the world.
Javier Cercas is yet another writer whose fiction is always on my to-read list, and the next book of his on my plate is Outlaws, a novel in which an adult lawyer reconnects with the rebellious political gangster who transfixed him during his youth in 1970s Spain. That it’s by Cercas is one thing, but it’s translated by Anne McLean, so I know it must be good.
We Are the Birds of the Coming Storm is by Lola Lafon, a French writer who’s new to me. Translated by David and Nicole Ball, it was the subject of an intriguing review in the web magazine Full Stop that was very positive while admitting the difficulty of describing or responding to it. Which is like catnip as far as I’m concerned.
Lastly, there are two books, both from Dalkey Archive Press and also by French writers, that engage in the kind of metafictional play that drives some people up a wall but makes them must-reads for me. The first is The Author and Me (translated by Jordan Stump), in which writer Eric Chevillard attempts an ultimate refutation of the notion that narrators, even ones who share the author’s name, are mouthpieces for his opinions. A quote: “If all cauliflower and even all memory of cauliflower were abruptly to vanish from the face of this earth—O miracle!—then, I swear, I would don mourning clothes of red and gold, with a pointy hat and a party whistle unrolling from my lips with every breath.” I’m right there with you, Eric. Sorry, “Eric.”
On the slightly more serious side there’s Antoine Volodine, who I think may be undertaking the most important fictional project of our time. Using various pseudonyms (including the Volodine name), he’s producing a body of work that comments on and indicts contemporary society from the vantage of an imagined, not-too-distant future. His fiction has been spottily available in English from various publishers, and it’s been hard for American readers to grasp its scope, but Writers, translated by Katina Rodgers, looks to provide a useful summary. The different stories in the book purport to come from several Volodine heteronyms, finally together between covers.
It’ll take me a while to finish all these, and by then I’m sure I’ll have a new list of favorites to supplant or supplement them. Stay tuned.Tweet
At 30, the Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli is already gathering her rosebuds. Faces in the Crowd, her poised debut novel, was published by Coffee House Press, along with her Brodsky-infused essay collection, Sidewalks. The essays stand as a theoretical map. . .
Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia (narrated by Julio Cortázar) is, not disappointingly, as wild a book as its title suggests. It is a half-novella half-graphic novel story about . . . what, exactly? A European tribunal, Latin. . .
Marie NDiaye has created a tiny, psychological masterpiece with her Self-Portrait in Green. In it she explores how our private fears and insecurities can distort what we believe to be real and can cause us to sabotage our intimate relationships.. . .
Reading a genre book—whether fantasy, science fiction, crime, thriller, etc.—which begins to seem excessively, stereotypically bad, I have to make sure to ask myself: is this parodying the flaws of the genre? Usually, this questioning takes its time coming. In. . .
The Sicilian Mafia has always been a rich subject for sensational crime fiction. The Godfather, Goodfellas, and The Sopranos worked the mob’s bloody corpses and family feuds to both entertainment and artistic value. Giuseppe di Piazza’s debut novel attempts this,. . .
Antoine Volodine’s vast project (40 plus novels) of what he calls the post-exotic remains mostly untranslated, so for many of us, understanding it remains touched with mystery, whispers from those “who know,” and guesswork. That’s not to say that, were. . .
It hasn’t quite neared the pitch of the waiting-in-line-at-midnight Harry Potter days, but in small bookstores and reading circles of New York City, an aura has attended the novelist Elena Ferrante and her works. One part curiosity (Who is she?),. . .
From the late 1940s to the early 1950s, Egypt was going through a period of transition. The country’s people were growing unhappy with the corruption of power in the government, which had been under British rule for decades. The Egyptians’. . .
Miruna is a novella written in the voice of an adult who remembers the summer he (then, seven) and his sister, Miruna (then, six) spent in the Evil Vale with their grandfather (sometimes referred to as “Grandfather,” other times as. . .
Kamal Jann by the Lebanese born author Dominique Eddé is a tale of familial and political intrigue, a murky stew of byzantine alliances, betrayals, and hostilities. It is a well-told story of revenge and, what’s more, a serious novel that. . .