Monica Carter is a freelance critic.
This week as I takeover the BTBA blog and I finally get the opportunity to do something I have been longing to do – highlight some of the incredible publishers the are committed to producing quality literature in translation. Each day, I will tip my hat to a small press that has grown with the Best Translated Book Award, which began in 2007. There are no specific requirements except that these publishers continued to refine their identities, remain loyal to their mission statements and produce great works each year for Americans to discover, read and discuss.
Since the alphabet begins with “A” and I have never been shy about my love for them, I will begin with Archipelago Books. Run by the elegant Jill Schoolman and a small staff, Archipelago is celebrating its tenth year in publishing this October. I could explain exactly what they are about, but they say it best in this excerpt:
Archipelago Books is a not-for-profit press devoted to publishing excellent translations of classic and contemporary world literature. In our first decade, we have brought out over ninety books from more than twenty-five languages.
Artistic exchange between cultures is a crucial aspect of global understanding. It has never been more important for voices from around the world to be heard in this country—our place in the world depends upon it. Sadly, less than three percent of new literature published in the United States originates outside the Anglosphere. By publishing diverse and innovative literary translations we are doing what we can to change this lamentable circumstance and to broaden the American literary landscape.
We are always striving to find literary voices that simply would never be heard in the U.S. without Archipelago. While our efforts, especially those of our translators and authors, have been recognized by numerous literary awards, the sort of recognition we seek is for those largely unknown and forgotten locales—the Spanish Basque Country, the Chukchi lands of Siberia, the scrublands of South Africa, war-torn Lebanon—and the writing that allows our readers to see these places through the eyes of the people who live there.
Not that I don’t think the above sentiment is lovely, but the reason I fell in love with Archipelago was a little reddish-orange covered number entitled, The Waitress Was New, by Dominique Fabre, translated by Jordan Stump. A slim, whisper of a book that speaks to aging, solitude and the need for human contact, it feels like a philosophy primer for the meaning of life. A short read with a long tail impact.
Any book after that I spied with the tiny cluster of islands on the spine went immediately into my hands. I was obsessed.
Then came Georg Letham:Physician and Murderer by Ernst Weiss, translated by Joel Rotenberg. A compelling, creepy read about a murderer who still wants to use his talents to contribute to humanity (check my review here. My site is under construction, by the way) in this original tale of a man’s own struggle between good and evil.
Seeming able to choose classics and contemporary fiction and poetry with equal expertise, Archipelago steadily built a long list of premiere literature in translation from well-chosen locations that represented lands and peoples with deep traditions not known outside of that area. Along the way, Achipelago picked up numerous prizes and garnered more attention from the media. Then they virtually hit gold. This gold, otherwise known as the “Norwegian Marcel Proust”, is Karl Ove Knausgaard. I don’t know whether or not Archipelago had the foresight of Knausgaard’s success because the fact is they would have picked up Knausgaard for the quality anyway. What sets Archipelago apart from most publishers is not only their impeccable taste, their faith in their writers and their translators, but it is this magical element – they have faith in readers out there, in you and me. I don’t know about you but I feel underestimated by most American media, including publishers, and I appreciate that someone doesn’t assume I will run screaming from the bookstore because a book is over 300 pages.
Archipelago Books, this love letter is to you. You have made my life better through reading, through your sophistication and through your loyalty. You’ve even made my bookshelves prettier. Don’t go changing, I love you just they way you are.Tweet
As a weekend send-off, I thought I’d round off this week’s entries in the Month of a Thousand Forests with a bit from one of my favorite books of recent times — Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya.
You hopefully know this by now, but if you order A Thousand Forests in One Acorn from the Open Letter site before the end of September, use the code FORESTS and you’ll get it for only $15.
It seems to me that these pages reflect the absurdity and ridiculousness of desire, and also the complexity of the human psyche, never really content with what it has. I like the correspondence between the earthquake and the anxiety of the character. I also chose this chapter because I greatly enjoyed writing it.
My dead are present in the majority of my books, sometimes quite veiled, sometimes less so. My father died when I was thirteen and since then, every now and then, death rings its bells again: friends and cousins murdered in the flower of life, the beloved elderly who die old. It seems that I write not so much to conjure death but to settle scores with her, to pay her for my dead, and also to settle scores with the murderers. The influence of Faulkner is permanent, but for me it is easy to speak literarily with Onetti, for reasons of language, and because he is the Latin American writer I most admire, although he himself said once, with a wink of modesty, that one should not read his work but rather that of Faulkner. Still, recently I have not conversed much with dead writers; instead I have returned to thinkers addicted to the aphorism, like Cioran, Nietzsche, Canetti, Schopenhauer. Perhaps as I get older and I begin to descend the opposite slope I am looking for another type of conversation, more concise and profound. In practical terms, I turn to Sophocles when I am blocked: only he is able to unblock me.
Lying in the bed, the recently possessed body snoring beside me, I was taken by surprise by an idea, an idea that suddenly blinded me, the idea that hell is the mind not the flesh, I became aware of this at that moment, the idea that hell resided in my agitated mind—distraught—and not in the sweating flesh, for in no other way could I explain the fact that there I was in my bed in my apartment in the Engels Building, unable to enjoy the splendor of Fátima’s milky-white skin, a skin that in other circumstances would have delighted all my senses, but whose proximity had now plunged me into a state of such dire agitation that I would have given anything for her not to be there, for nothing to have happened between us, for everything to have been just one more of my fantasies. But no, I told myself as I tossed and turned in bed without being able to fall asleep, with anguish gnawing away at the mouth of my stomach, no, that body I had so strongly desired had only made me understand the vulnerability of pleasure, its fragile and crumbling nature, I reproached myself, unable to find a comfortable position that would allow me to fall asleep or even relax, my gaze fixed on the windows whose curtains I had not closed completely and through which midnight and its suspicious sounds entered; that body so desired by everybody had suddenly lost its charm when just one hour before she had asked me point blank if I’d rather she suck it or masturbate me, a question that didn’t make any sense considering the fact that we had been kissing and touching each other passionately for only three minutes—a few seconds more, a few seconds less—on the couch in my apartment, and what should have followed, after she already had my member in her hand and I had my middle finger inside her pussy, was to get totally undressed and lick each other all over until we consummated the act of love, instead of her posing that indecent and inappropriate question as to whether I preferred a blow job or a hand job, as if that whole preamble of confessions, caresses, and kisses that had begun in that beer joint Tustepito as evening was falling had been only a ruse to bring on the moment when she could ask me what I preferred, a hand job or a blow job, something I’d expect from a shrewd prostitute showing her price list to a horny client rather than this Spanish beauty whom, according to me, I had seduced with my charm. Who knows what expression she saw on my face, but she immediately explained in no uncertain terms that she didn’t plan on fucking me—damn it!—that she had a boyfriend whom she loved very much and who would arrive in the country the next morning, a boyfriend she would never be unfaithful to, even though at that very moment she held my member in her hand and was offering to let me choose if she would jerk me off or suck it, she repeated, instead of getting naked and giving herself to me as logic would dictate. I told her to suck it, because it wouldn’t have been a good idea to remain aroused and with my balls bursting, such a strain causes pain and makes walking difficult, even though the magical moment had already passed, that instant when the magic of possession rises resplendent had gone to the dogs the moment she asked that indecent question, more typical of a professional than a girl who’s been seduced, I thought as I contemplated her with my member in her mouth, sucking, with agitated and slightly arrhythmic movements, which made me worried I would sustain an injury, perhaps the scratch of a canine, so I suggested she calm down, take it more gently, resting my hands on her head, not concentrating too much on the pleasure she was supposedly giving me but rather attempting to figure out what difference it would make as she was reaffirming her fidelity to her boyfriend, who would arrive the following morning and whom I had just found out about, if she had given me a blow job or been penetrated, a difference that was frankly difficult for me to discern, much more so when she tried to talk without taking my member out of her mouth, saying something like “ca-cu-ca-ci,” and looking at me worriedly and without diminishing the flurry of her movements she mumbled over and over again in a guttural way “ca-cu-ca-ci,” with such concern in her eyes, until I told her that I couldn’t understand what she was saying, that she should take my member out of her mouth before talking, which she did immediately and then she clearly repeated what before I had heard only as “ca-cu-ca-ci,” which in fact was the question, “Are you happy?”
(Translated by Katherine Silver)Tweet
This book literally just arrived in our office, which is perfect, since I’m taking off in 15 minutes to go camping and will definitely bring this with me.
If you don’t already know Julio Cortázar’s work, run to the nearest bookstore and buy Hopscotch and 62: A Model Kit. After that, you will, like everyone else who’s been indoctrinated into the World of Cortázar, seek out every last thing that he wrote, and cherish all of his books. (One hidden gem worth checking out is Autonauts of the Cosmoroute, which Archipelago brought out a few years back.)
Anyway, this particular book is a mash-up of literature and comics that seems particularly Cortázar-esque. On his way home from the Second Russell Tribunal (which was dedicated to investigating human rights violations in Latin American countries), Cortázar read issue #201 of Fantomas: The Elegant Menace which contains a cameo by Julio Cortázar!
Out of this, he wrote this book, which contains parts of the original comic book along with a text that ends up exploring human rights abuses and the other evils of multinational corporations and political regimes.
This came out in Spanish in 1975, but has never before been translated into English. Semiotext(e) did a great job with this, and I can’t wait to get the tent set up so that I can dive in . . .
The first author in today’s Month of a Thousand Forests entry is Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio, who has a couple books available already in English, both translated by superstar Margaret Jull Costa.
What’s most interesting about his work—at least to me—is his obsession with words, grammar, precise writing. Valerie explains this a bit in his bio, then touches on it in the interview. He seems like the sort of author that a lot of professors could use in an advanced Spanish class . . .
And remember, if you order A Thousand Forests in One Acorn from the Open Letter site and use the code FORESTS, you’ll get it for only $15.
Of course, after his incursion into the world of fiction writing, [Ferlosio] rejected “the grotesque imposture of the literati,” and dedicated the years that followed to the study of grammar. Seized by this passion, Sánchez Ferlosio would spend those years in a “graphomaniacal furor” in absolute silence in terms of publishing. As he once said, “I don’t write with the immediate need to publish. I always say that I know how to knit, but I don’t know how to make a sweater.”
For reasons of mental health (grammar is tremendously obsessive), he returned to the publishing world (that doesn’t publish) in 1974 with Las semanas del jardín (a title inspired by the novel that Cervantes never managed to write). The years that followed, he dedicated to his work as an essayist and in 1986 he returned to writing fiction with El testimonio de Yarfoz.
The largest part of his most recent work has centered around essays with titles like Vendrán más años malos y nos harán más ciegos, a collection of reflections and aphorisms that won him Premio Nacional de Ensayo and Premio Ciudad de Barcelona. Like a dyed-in-the-wool bellicose intellectual, he has freely proclaimed a total lack of influence from contemporary literature, similarly his complete repudiation of television, sports, and publicity. His darts have struck such figures as Ortega y Gasset, Julián Marías, Karl Popper, and García Lorca.
His agent, Carmen Balcells, once said of him that he has written two or three hundred times as many pages as he has published. Though the number is, perhaps, exaggerated, there is no doubt that Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio is an author as irrepressible as he is indispensable. With your permission . . .
Critics have said that you are “the twentieth century author with the greatest lexical richness and that you use the language with the greatest precision and meticulousness. That the breadth of your narrative register does not cease to amaze, from fantasy to the objectivity of El Jarama.” All told, this precision has an impressionistic poetic and a symbolic strength. The fantastical world of prince Nébride comes to seem even more real than reality itself. In the beginning was the word. Could Yarfoz and prince Nébride be a sort of fantastical Don Quixote and Sancho Panza? Prince Nébride seems to be a character of uncertain destiny.
The greatest lexical richness is false because what I have are prohibitions—self-prohibitions—and not a very broad vocabulary. For example, I can’t say “efectuar.” I never use the verb efectuar or the verb realizar. I always say “hacer” and I was greatly annoyed when I discovered that the verb efectuar was already in use in the sixteenth century. I am precise and meticulous in terms of description, but it’s not richness of vocabulary. Sometimes I have a predilection for antiquated words—some—very few, but that’s another story.
I don’t now how to apply personality and fate to these characters, but they aren’t characters of personality. They are characters of fate because they are part of a plot; here, for example, they are going into exile. They have personalities like everyone, but the manifestation of their personalities is not part of the plot. They have almost no personality, but they do have fate; things happen to them, they do things. So the previous comparison of Yarfoz and prince Nébride, because they are on horseback, is absolutely ridiculous, in the first place because Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are definitely characters of personality and all of Quixote is the manifestation of their personalities. Besides, mounts—the donkey and the horse—are subject to sumptuary norms of the time in which Quixote was written, perhaps they were in decline, but up until then the mount you rode was symbolic of your social status. It was prohibited for a peasant like Sancho Panza to ride a horse. Maybe already in the seventeenth century some peasants did because there were so many bandits who rode horses around the end of the sixteenth century and at the beginning of the seventeenth, but before then horses were status symbols, and the “nobleman” Alonso Quijano the Good had to ride a horse, as the word caballero (horseman) indicates. This is emphasized by, although I do not know until when, the fact that the mule was the mount of the clergy. The clerics rode mules, the caballeros rode horses, and peasants rode donkeys.
Apart from the escorts provided by the king, our expedition was made up of ten horses: Nébride rode one, his wife Táiz another, on another rode Sorfos, and on a horse he had just been given by Mirigalla, rode Sebsidio; Fosco, the carpenter, and Anarino, his wife, rode their own horses, each carrying one of their children; on another rode Chano, Táiz’s lady-in-waiting, on another Quiarces, the Atánida of Ebna, who had come along as the head of the household; on another was Nerigreo, the agronomist, and, finally, on the last horse, rode Vandren and myself; then came eight cargo mules and a mule driver, lent us by Mirigalla, who would return with the mule train. Only Fosco’s children and Vandren were without their own mount, and the horse the king had gifted Sebsidio was far and away the best.
XXIX. The “Path of the Iscobascos” is described in the Grágidos as a passageway carved out of living rock, but we would never have been able to imagine the monumental construction we would encounter that morning. We had only traveled a distance of eight hundred horses—not along the path leading to the cliffs, but on a path running perpendicular to that one, heading west, through the lush coolness of cedars and yews—when turning to the south we saw the path start gradually to drop underground, as if burrowing into the rock. We descended to a point where the walls of rock flanking the path closed in a vault over our heads, forming an underground tunnel. My sense of direction led me to believe that the mouth of the tunnel was perpendicular to the line of cliffs such that, if it continued in a straight line, inevitably there would be a light at the other end. But this was not the case; instead it continued to drop, maintaining the same angle, through the heart of the living rock, banking slowly to the right. It got so dark that our guide lit a torch, by which light I saw the great craftsmanship of the stone carvers, no hollows or protuberances, and I could see a channel, about a foot wide and a foot deep along the right hand wall, coursing with clear, fast-moving water. Soon, however, a light appeared and the tunnel opened into a room with a circumference of at least two-hundred-and-fifty horses, positioned parallel to the vertical face of the precipice that we had encountered days before. The tunnel was the entryway to a ramp cut into the stone wall of the Meseged, forming a sort of lateral groove, so that not only the floor was stone, but the right-hand wall and the ceiling were stone as well; on the left, it was open to the air, but a thick stone parapet came up to a safe height. It was a kind of overlook cut into the wall but always descending, almost rectilinear, with only a few protrusions and recessions in the hard stone wall. The channel of water still coursed rapidly to our right. Soon we saw that at a distance of approximately one-hundred-and-fifty horses the ramp seemed to dead-end against a wall, on a landing that was either wider than the path, or cut deeper into the rock; but when we came up to the wall, we saw that at the landing another tunnel opened into the rock; this second tunnel also curved, but not as sharply as the first one, delving into the rock, and always descending, inscribing first three quarters of a helicoid to a point where, turning back on itself, it rotated a final quarter of a circle, arriving parallel to the cliff face once again, giving way to another ramp, identical to the first, but the inverse of it because now the stone was on our left and the emptiness on our right. Seeing this, we understood, in essential terms, what the so-called “Path of Iscobascos” was: if we had been able to look down at it from the plain, we would have seen a succession of zigzagging ramps cut into the stone, mysteriously connected at the ends by tunnels that penetrated the heart of the rock, always descending, inverting and dropping to the next ramp, emerging parallel to the cliff face thanks to the doubling back or inverse curvature of the last quarter of a circle. In the end, the totality was not structurally different from a great spiral staircase, but one that had been pressed flat, except at its extremes, against a single plane. The guide told us that the landings at the ends of the ramps, along with the square recesses that appeared here and there, greater in number all the time approaching the center, were pullouts for carts that crossed paths while descending and ascending, for resting mules, fixing malfunctions, or any other eventuality. Before long we saw water tanks, troughs, and even small gardens, jutting out over the luminous abyss. In places where the rock seemed unstable, the parapet extended in columns to the bridge that formed the ceiling, all of it carved out of living rock, not a single fabricated feature. Our admiration for that prodigious construction increased at each new ramp: I even thought I saw the melancholy dissipate in Nébride’s eyes, replaced by a glow of joy for the past and excitement for great public works.
(Translated by Will Vanderhyden)Tweet
Had it not been for translators and their work, much of the world’s most important literature would only have been accessible to readers with specialized skills in foreign languages. Furthermore, without translations and the people who wrote them, a country would have been deprived of the contrasts, reflections and inspirations from other literatures that are so essential to the life and spirit of its national literature. Nonetheless, translators are severely underexposed in a country’s literary history.
This obvious but often glossed-over fact has now lead the Danish Association of Translators (DOF) to the initiative of making an online encyclopedia of Danish translators. In order to avoid the complete historical effacement of translators in the slipstream between cultural anonymity and linguistic transparency, between mere bibliography and pure theory, the online database will present men and women who have enabled Danish readers (and Danish writers) to engage with other literatures from near and far – the men and women who have actively conducted the exchanges that allow Danish literature to breathe.
This initiative is intended to work on several levels, both as a frame of reference for the history of translation in Denmark and as a qualification of translation criticism. The individual entries will present a translator and his or her bibliography and literary career. They will also contain details of the individual translator’s linguistic background, technical methods, apparent strategies, particular challenges and literary merits in a critical perspective, etc. The encyclopedia will be continually expanded.
TranslatorWiki! WikiTranslatorium? Whatever funny name you could come up with, this would be an interesting way of making visible the people who make visible the books we read from around the world.Tweet
All I have to say before we get to Vince’s review is that “Killybegs” sounds like something one might yell after a pint too many at some local bar. There’s something about the word that just makes it sound a little manic, a little on the edge. Which, if you look at Google pictures of the sleepy-looking fishing town town, appears to be completely not accurate. But . . . KILLYBEGS!
On to Vince’s review:
The central concern of Sorj Chalandon’s novel Return to Killybegs appears to be explaining how a person of staunch political activism can be lead to betray his cause, his country, his people. Truth be told, the real theme of the book is the importance and artifice of myths and legends. In this sense, the novel’s plot, loosely based on the infamous case of IRA leader turned informer Dennis Donaldson, serves to do more than artfully convey the manner in which a zealot becomes a traitor; the book details the manner in which we construct ourselves and the ease in which such façades are eroded.
I won’t go into the (pardon the euphemism) complicated history of Northern Ireland, but a quick study will inform the neophyte reader about Sinn Féin and the Troubles, giving them proper (though not necessary) background to enjoy Chalandon’s book. But no reader should consider Return to Killybegs a thorough study of the conflict in Northern Ireland, though in a sense this may be the ideal book to see beyond the history. Often such novels are marketed as windows into a world most readers would fear to actually visit, and we can thank Chalandon for his time as a reporter in Belfast, time that lent the novel proper verisimilitude. While in Belfast, Chalandon befriended Dennis Donaldson, and this relationship has spawned a novel that compresses nearly a century of Irish history into a few hundred quick-moving pages. This accomplishment might be possible in a strict biography, though the result would inevitably swing toward objective distillation of events. But in the fictional account of Tyrone Meehan, the protagonist of Return to Killybegs, the reader is offered a more probing view of the much-maligned traitor. One wonders if the real-life Donaldson is as sympathetic a character as Meehan. And sympathetic he is, allowing the reader to shelve the conflict that often arises when reading history: how do we pity a loathed historical figure?
For the rest of the review, go here.
(KILLYBEEEEEEEEEGGGSSSS . . . !)Tweet
Up next in our ongoing Month of a Thousand Forests series. is Esther Tusquets, author of Stranded, The Same Sea as Every Summer, and Love Is a Solitary Game, to name a few of her titles that are available in English translation.
Below you’ll find an excerpt from the interview with her, and a bit from her story, “Summer Orchestra.”
It’s also worth noting that Esther Tusquets’s brother and sister-in-law founded Tusquets Editores, and she used to run the publishing house Lumen. These are some of the most important Spanish publishing houses of the past century, and being a publishing nerd, I think it’s really cool that we were able to include her here.
As with all the other posts in this series, if you order A Thousand Forests in One Acorn from the Open Letter site and use the code FORESTS, you’ll get it for only $15.
Social criticism lies behind many of the plot lines in your stories and novels. But you also often shift between registers and styles, and your texts range from the most experimental to autobiographical stories that display a great sense of humor. What comes first the style or the plot?
I think social criticism does lie behind my novels. It is the fundamental theme in “Summer Orchestra.” I have never considered myself a leftwing radical, but I remember always feeling uncomfortable living in such an obviously unjust system.
As far as changes in style and theme with my writing, I don’t think they are very obvious. I feel, on the contrary, like I am always writing the same novel.
I don’t think I change much between register, style, thematic. For good or ill, I consider myself a monothematic and reiterative writer. Someone once said that, yes there are writers that always write the same novel, Esther Tusquets was always writing the same page. The only notable change is the tendency to greater simplicity.
The ludic element—an important element that has nothing to do with jest or making jokes—is a personal choice in life and in literature. To me it seems indispensable.
Summer was already well advanced—more than halfway through August—when it was decided to begin renovating the smaller dining room of the hotel and move the children, together with their governesses and their nursemaids and their mademoiselles, into the grown-ups’ dining room. Throughout the whole of July and the first two weeks of August the children had formed a wild, unruly and increasingly uncontrollable gang that invaded the beaches, raced through the village on bikes with their bells ringing madly, prowled with restless curiosity around the stalls at the fair, or slipped—suddenly surreptitious, silent, almost invisible—into secret places amongst the reeds. Year after year they built the huts that housed their rarest treasures and where they initiated each other into marvelous, secret, and endlessly renewed transgressions (smoking their first cigarettes, often communal, crumpled and slightly damp; getting enmeshed in poker games played with a ruthlessness that would have astonished the grown-ups—games so intense and hard-fought that the participants often preferred to play on rather than go down to the beach—and venturing into other stranger and more ambiguous games, which Sara associated obscurely with the world of grown-ups and the forbidden, and to which, during that summer, she had reacted with both fascination and shame, eager to be a spectator but very reluctant to take part. She—possibly alone amongst all the girls—had been astute or cautious enough when playing forfeits and lucky enough at cards to get through those days without once having to let anyone kiss her on the mouth or touch her breasts or take her knickers down), transgressions which were doubly intoxicating because they were the culmination of that parenthesis of temporary freedom provided by the summer and would be unthinkable once they were all back in the winter environment of schools and city apartments.
But within a matter of two or three days the summer community had broken up and with it the band of children, some being transported inland to spend what was left of their holidays in the mountains or in the country, most of them going home to prepare for the September resits. And Sara had stayed on as the one female straggler amongst the decimated gang of boys (Mama and Mademoiselle had promised consolingly that, at the end of August, her four or five best friends would be allowed to come up for her birthday) but the atmosphere had changed, it had grown suddenly tense and unpleasant, the general mood of irritability and discontent aggravated perhaps by the frequent rain and the shared feeling that all that remained now of summer were a few unseasonable, grubby remnants. One thing was certain, the boys’ pastimes has grown rougher and Sara had simply had enough of them, of their fights, their games, their practical jokes, their rude words and their crude humour, had had enough of them spying on her through the window when she was changing her clothes, of them upending her boat, of having three or four of them corner her amongst the reeds. That was why she was so pleased about the change of dining room: there, at least during mealtimes, the boys would be forced to behave like civilized beings. And they must have had the same idea, for they protested and grumbled long and loud, complaining that, now there were so few of them and the rain deprived them not only of many morning at the beach but also of almost every afternoon previously spent among the reeds, it really was the end to be expected now to sit up straight at table without fidgeting, barely saying a word, eating everything that was put in front of them, being required to peel oranges with a knife and fork and, to crown it all, wear a jacket and tie to go into supper.
But Sara was radiant and so excited on the first night that she changed her dress three times before going down—opting in the end for a high-necked, full-skirted organdie dress that left her arms bare and which her mother did not much approve of, saying that it made her look older than her years and was inappropriate for a girl who had not yet turned twelve—and then caught up her long, straight, fair hair with a silk ribbon. What most excited Sara that first night was the prospect of getting a good look at the adult world, until then only glimpsed or guessed at, since during the long winters the children’s lives were confined to school, walks with Mademoiselle, and the playroom. There was hardly any contact between children and parents during the summer either—not this year nor in any previous year. (Sara had overheard Mademoiselle making a comment to one of the chambermaids about the delights and charms of the family holiday, at which they had both laughed, only to fall silent the moment they realized she was listening, and the whole episode had filled Sara with a terrible rage.) For the fact was that while the grown-ups slept on, the children would get up, have breakfast, do their homework or play table tennis and be coming back from the beach just as their parents would be finishing breakfast and lazily preparing themselves for a swim; and when the grow-ups were going into the big dining room for lunch, the children would already be off somewhere, pedaling down the road on their bikes or queuing at the rifle range at the fair. It was only occasionally, when Sara—quite deliberately—walked past the door of one of the lounges or the library, that she would catch sight of her mother sitting, blonde and evanescent, amongst the curling cigarette smoke. She would feel touched and proud to see her here, so delicate and fragile, so elegant and beautiful, like a fairy or a princess hovering ethereally above the real world (the most magical of fairies, the most regal of princesses, Sara had thought as a child, and in a way still thought), and for a moment her mother would stop playing cards or chatting to her friends to wave a greeting, call her over to give her a kiss, or pick out a liqueur chocolate from the box someone had just given her. At other times her father would come over to the children’s table and ask Mademoiselle if they were behaving themselves, if they did their homework every day, if they were enjoying the summer. And, of course, they did coincide at church on Sundays because there was only one mass held in the village and the grown-ups had to get up early—relatively speaking—but even then they would arrive late and sit in the pews at the back, near the door. Although they did wait for the children on the way out to give them a kiss and some money to spend on an ice-cream or at the rifle range.
(Translated by Margaret Jull Costa)Tweet
Electric Literature has a lengthy piece by Scott Cheshire on “plotless novels” that a lot of Three Percent readers would probably appreciate. Especially Max Frisch fans. The article is worth reading in its entirety, and excerpting it doesn’t do it justice, but here are a few paragraphs to draw you in:
Sort of how space travel well beyond the stratosphere is still determined by our limits within it, Poetics set the rules novelists play against. For modern readers, the beginning, the middle, the end of a story no longer need be in that order, or even look familiar—but they are there. Telos, “the end,” meaning, remains central. It’s the way toward meaning, and the place of meaning, for writer, reader, and character. Lately, I’ve been giving lots of thought to why, in recent years, a particular kind of novel, what I think of as the “not knowing” novel, so resonates with me. Why am I attracted? Why are others palpably not? And why, it seems, are these novels attracted to me? People keep pressing them into my hands. Just a few months ago I was given by a friend, insistently, Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, because I simply had to read it, and I would absolutely love it, etc. My friend was right. Lots of white space, no clear “plot,” it read like a narrator thinking out loud, unaware I could hear every word. The reading experience was intimate, felt almost invasive on my part, like eavesdropping. It also felt familiar. I mean this as compliment. It sort of looked like Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights (also recommended by a friend), and reminded me, in parts, of Shelia Heti’s How Should a Person Be? Most of all, it brought to mind one of my favorite books: Montauk by Max Frisch. All of these books are intimate, and share a near shapeless close-to-the-bone rawness you don’t find very often in novels. But they also read like writers in search of self-knowledge, in search of meaning. They are books that do not yet “know.” [. . .]
Perhaps my attraction toward books that read like a writer “not knowing” comes from my religious fundamentalist rearing, a rebellious response, because it seems the longer I am away from the church—this also being a significant difference, I was raised in family of Jehovah’s Witnesses—for over twenty years now, the more radical becomes my taste in books. I do know the first time I encountered a writer poking up his head, out of the text, not because he “knew” (the essence of meta-fiction, really) but because he did not: it was thrilling. It was Kurt Vonnegut, in Slaughterhouse-Five, calling out, but not in name—“That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book”—once again disrupting the wonderfully melancholy contraption of that book’s plot, and sounding like a bewildered ghost trying to find his way home. Apparently, I liked this sort of thing. But why?
And so I revisited three books especially meaningful to me, not only in my reading and writing history, but during my extrication from the church — The Names by Don DeLillo, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson, and, of course, Montauk by Max Frisch. I re-read them, in that order, in order of discovery, to try and determine what it is and was about these books that remains so important to me. It was an experience increasingly intense and personal. If you can imagine a book as the lens through which a writer eyed the world, in search of meaning, The Names read like peering through a telescope, and Gilead a handheld magnifying glass. Reading Montauk, on the other hand, often felt like spying from the dark side of a two-way mirror. Telos was omnipresent. The search for meaning suffused every page. And that search belonged to Max the narrator, surely, but also Max the author, and somehow it was also mine. [. . .]
Max Frisch is best known for his 1954 “debut” novel I’m Not Stiller, generally considered a masterpiece of 20th century German literature. It’s certainly the book of his most read in America, and it’s a brilliant comic novel obsessed with identity. Famously, the first line shouts: “I’m not Stiller!” Thou doth protest too much, we think, and the remaining 375 pages consist of one Mr. Jim White, imprisoned, claiming a case of mistaken identity; that he is not Mr. Stiller. The rest of the world, an ex-wife, co-workers, etc., insist that he is. In fact, all of Frisch’s work is identity-obsessed—from his actual debut published some sixteen years earlier, dismissed (a bit unfairly, I think) by Frisch as juvenilia, An Answer From the Silence, on through his three fascinating Tagebuchs (daybooks, or diaries), and the novels, Homo Faber, Gantenbein, Man in the Holocene, Bluebeard, and the sort of unclassifiable and magnificent Montauk. The plot of Montauk (translated by Geoffrey Skelton) is simple: a brief love affair between a man in his seventies and a much younger woman, it lasts but a single weekend. But if I may use Hemingway’s metaphor, that’s just the tip of a large and life-sized iceberg. Montauk is really about memory. In fact the opening lines that place us specifically in space and time — “A sign promising a view across the island: OVERLOOK. It was he who suggested stopping here;” and from page two: “MONTAUK / an Indian name applied to the Northern point of Long Island, one hundred and twenty miles from Manhattan. He could also name the date: 5/11/74” — belie the real plot and setting. To be more precise, Montauk is about an older man sitting at his desk, with pen and paper, trying to write the story of a love affair, but failing, ever falling away in memory. Or as Sven Birkerts puts it, Montauk is a “book of retrospect, yes, but not of passive retrospect.” The older man is Frisch himself. Although it’s not until after six pages of relatively straightforward third person storytelling that his “I” makes a jarring entrance.
We tried to reissue Montauk years ago, but that all fell through. Sounds like it’s time to try again!
And while you’re waiting for your used copy of Montauk to arrive, you should read Scott’s debut novel, High As the Horses’ Bridles, which came out from Henry Holt a couple months ago.
I’m going to start off today’s Month of a Thousand Forests entries with Carlos Fuentes—one of the greatest writers of all time.
When I was at Dalkey Archive, we reprinted a few of his novels, including Where the Air Is Clear and Terra Nostra, which is excerpted below. I don’t love all of Fuentes’s books, but those two are damn near perfect. And complicated as shit. Terra Nostra is the opposite of a “beach book.” And it is all-consuming and amazing.
I’m using these bits from his ATFIOA interview mostly because I like what he says about writing about your home country (or not) and all the stuff he did for the younger generation of writers.
Again, order A Thousand Forests in One Acorn now from the Open Letter site with the code FORESTS, and you’ll get it for only $15.
Your life has brought you to live in many different countries and have to communicate in many different languages. How has that affected you as a writer?
I was very privileged in having that kind of childhood, living in Mexico and then in Chile and Argentina—so it was very broad. But I was also anchored in a very nationalist period of Mexican writing, when literature was considered national, and writers had to be national. I remember when Alfonso Reyes, our great polygraphist, was attacked by these nationalistic minions saying “you talk about Greece, why don’t you talk about Mexico?” And it demonstrated that he also talked about Mexico, but that they hadn’t read him. Now that has evaporated, it is no longer consequential. The younger generation of Mexican writers can write about Germany or Russia or whatever they feel with no obligation to the Mexican nation. But let’s go beyond that, I think what you have are writers, you have Günter Grass, Nadine Gordimer, you have Juan Goytisolo or Philip Roth, who happen to write in this or that language or have this or that nationality but who are no longer simply a part of a nationalistic canon. Thankfully, because it was very limiting and noxious I think. So I take pride in myself that, because of my upbringing, I was outside of that kind of nationalistic feeling. I got battered for it when I began writing, they said “Oh, he doesn’t write about Mexico, he writes about witches and silly things” and then I wrote a very Mexican novel, the La región más transparente, and they said “Oh he only writes about Mexico because he doesn’t know about anything else.” What you learn with life is that you don’t bother about what people say, you write for yourself and for your grandmothers wherever they are and don’t worry a bit about the public’s criticism. I feel extremely independent in that sense and very linked to friends of mine who are also writers and who are writers beyond their nationality and often their politics sometimes. I still admire Borges as a writer, for example.
You have been very generous to the younger generations, often providing means and refuge from when you were living in Paris through today.
Literature doesn’t belong to anyone. We belong to a tradition. I think there’s a very straight relationship between creation and tradition. You create in order to prolong the tradition and the tradition gives you the tools for the new creation. So that always puts you in a line with previous authors and coming authors. I think it may be egotistical in helping so many young authors because without them where would I be? I know so many figures who, because of their isolation, have disappeared and I really have a great admiration for many young writers and give them a hand if I can. In Paris in 1960 there were only four Mexican authors published, Mariano Azuela, Los de abajo, Octavio Paz, El laberinto de la solidad, Juan Rulfo, Pedro Páramo and myself. I went to the Paris bookfair two years ago, where Mexico was the guest of honor, and there were 42 Mexican authors published in France, and that doesn’t include authors from the rest of Latin America. There are some 500 interesting writers in Latin America now, which is extraordinary. So what happened? First, we won independence from Spain so we had to cut everything that seemed Spanish. We had to imitate Europe and the United States, so we had a lot of realism, a lot of naturalism, a lot of Mexican nanas floating around. Then many events happened; there was Borges, I think Borges was very, very important in saying you could write whatever you want. Anything that comes into your head, literature is open. Many people don’t realize that he is a descendent of Machado de Assis. And then there was Carpentier and Lezama Lima and Onetti, who was very important, and then the younger writers Cortázar, García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, and myself. So the whole spectrum opened and each generation provided ten or twelve new writers. Besides, we felt we had the obligation to say what had not been said. Novels were prohibited by the Spanish crown during the time of the colonies, no novels were written. Then we had this imitative literature during the nineteenth century. So we had a lot of things to say that had not been said. We said it, so now the younger generation doesn’t have that obligation and they write about what is happening today. You cannot classify them, you cannot say this is the subject matter, this is what they are representing. They are representing the variety of contemporary Latin American culture. Pablo Neruda told me that we all have an obligation to our peoples, we go around with the Mexican or the Chilean people on our backs and we must write for them because they have no other voice. Today that isn’t true anymore. There is press, there is congress, there are political parties, there are unions, so now if you speak publicly it is because you want to, and not because you are obliged to do it. And you respect those people who don’t speak in public. So it is a much more modern and creative setup where you are not constrained by dogma or by allegiances that are alien to literature.
They left Spalato before the anticipated time. Three times Ludovico had returned alone to the beach; each time he found there, unerased, the gypsy’s footprints. They traveled to Venice, a city where stone and water retain no trace of footsteps. In that place of mirages there is room for no phantom but time, and its traces are imperceptible; the lagoon would disappear without stone to reflect it and the stone without water in which to be reflected. Against this enchantment there is little the transitory bodies of men—solid or spectral, it is the same—can do. All Venice is a phantom: it issues no entry permits to other phantoms. There no one would recognize them as such, and so they would cease to be. No phantom exposes itself to such risk.
They found lodging in the ample solitudes of the island of La Giudecca; Ludovico felt reassured, being near the Hebraic traditions he had studied so thoroughly in Toledo, even though not sharing all their beliefs. The coins Celestina had sent by hand of the monk Simón had been exhausted in the last voyage; Ludovico inquired in the neighborhoods of the ancient Jewry where many refugees from Spain and Portugal had found asylum, as he now did, whether anyone had need of a translator; laughing, everyone recommended he cross the broad Vigano canal, disembark at San Basilio, walk along the estuaries of the shipwrights and sugar merchants, continue past the workshops of the waxworkers, cross the Ponte Foscarini, and ask for the house of a certain Maestro Valerio Camillo, between the River of San Barnaba and the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine, for it was widely known that no one in Venice had accumulated a greater number of ancient manuscripts than the said Dominie, whose windows even were blocked with parchments; at times papers fell into the street, where children made little boats of them and floated them in the canals, and great was the uproar when the meager, stuttering Maestro ran out to rescue the priceless documents, shouting at the top of his voice whether it were the destiny of Quintilian and Pliny the Elder to be soaked in canals and serve as a diversion for brainless little brats.
Ludovico found the described house without difficulty, but its doors and windows prevented the passage of either light or human; the residence of Donno Valerio Camillo was a paper fortress, mountains, walls, pillars and piles of exposed documents, folio piled upon folio, yellowed, teetering, held upright thanks only to the counterpressure of other stacks of paper.
Ludovico circled the building, looking for the house’s garden. And, in fact, beside a small sotto portico facing the vast Campo Santa Margherita, extended a narrow iron railing worked in a series of three recurring heads: wolf, lion, and dog; fragrant vines trailed from the walls, and in the dark little garden stood an extremely thin man, the meagerness of his body disguised by the ample folds of a long, draped tunic, but the angularity of his face emphasized by a black hood—similar to those worn by executioners—that hid his head and ears, revealing only an eagle-like profile; he was occupied in training several ferocious mastiffs; he held a long stick on which were impaled pieces of raw meat; he teased the dogs, dangling it above their heads; the barking dogs leaped to snatch the prize, but at every leap the man placed his arm between the raw meat and the beasts’ fangs, miraculously barely escaping being wounded; each time, with amazing swiftness, the frail, hooded Donno pulled back the arm grazed by the dogs, and stuttered: “Very well, very well, Biondino, Preziosa, very well, Pocogarbato, my flesh is the more savory, you know how I trust you, do not fail me, for at the hour of my death I shall be in no condition to discipline you.”
Then he threw another piece of meat to the mastiffs and watched with delight as they devoured it, fighting among themselves to seize the best portions. When he saw Ludovico standing in the entrance to the garden, he rudely demanded whether he had so little interest in his life that he had to pry into the lives of others. Ludovico asked his pardon and explained that the motive for his visit was not gratuitous curiosity but the need for employment. He showed him a letter signed by the ancient of the Synagogue of the Passing, and after reading it Donno Valerio Camillo said: “Very well, very well, Monsignore Ludovicus. Although it would take many lifetimes to classify and translate the papers I have accumulated throughout my lifetime, we can do some small part, we can begin. Consider yourself employed—with two conditions. The first is that you never laugh at my stuttering. I shall explain the reason this once: my capacity for reading is infinitely superior to my capacity for speaking; I employ so much time reading that at times I completely forget how to speak; in any case, I read so rapidly that in compensation I trip and stumble as I speak. My thoughts are swifter than my words.”
“And the second condition?”
The Maestro threw another scrap of meat to the mastiffs. “That if I die during the period of your service, you must be responsible to see that they not bury my body in holy ground, or throw it into the waters of this pestilent city, but instead lay my naked body here in my garden and loose the dogs to devour me. I have trained them to do this. They will be my tomb. There is none better or more honorable: matter to matter. I but follow the wise counsel of Cicero. If in spite of everything I am someday resurrected in my former body, it will not have been without first giving every digestive opportunity to the divine matter of the world.”
(Translated by Margaret Sayers Peden)Tweet
I don’t know the answer to that, and neither does Hephzibah Anderson, writing for the BBC, but she does summarize some of the arguments related to publishing literature in translation, and gives up heaps of praise to Pushkin Press, along with Open Letter, Words Without Borders, and a few others.
Some call it the two per cent problem, others the three per cent problem. It depends on which set of statistics you use and, as with most statistics, there’s ample room to quibble. But what they all point to is this: English-language publishers have a lamentable track record when it comes to translating great stories from elsewhere in the world.
Surely enough, in the recent flurry of ‘autumn highlight’ lists issued on both side of the Atlantic, scarcely more than one or two titles in translation made the cut. Haruki Murakami’s forthcoming tale of a loner spurned by his friends, Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, snagged a spot on plenty, and Publishers Weekly gamely flagged The Three-Body Problem, a futuristic escapade by China’s top sci-fi writer, Cixin Liu. But the other new books crowding the limelight at this frenetic point in the publishing calendar were almost uniformly by English-language authors: Hilary Mantel, Ian McEwan, Peter Carey, Colm Tóibín, Martin Amis, Margaret Atwood, Sarah Waters, Richard Ford…
Literature – fiction especially – offers a crucial window into the lives of others, promoting empathy and understanding in a way that travelling somewhere rarely does. By not translating more widely, publishers are denying us greater exposure to one of reading’s most vital functions. [. . .]
Adam Freudenheim, publisher of Pushkin Press, agrees that there are justifiable reasons why English-language publishers publish less in translation than their overseas colleagues, but insists that the balance is still out of kilter. At Pushkin, which he took over 2012, he’s been trying to change that. While other publishers take on the occasional book in translation, hoping for a hit in the vein of the Stieg Larsson trilogy or Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, 90% of Pushkin’s titles were originally written in languages ranging from Arabic and Icelandic to Hebrew and Greek.
Their London office is a mini Tower of Babel, with German, French, Italian and Russian all spoken fluently. This means that not only are Freudenheim’s staff reading books that originate in those languages, they’re also reading works translated into French from Japanese, say, or reading Hungarian novels in German. It’s a great boon to their scouting operation and most publishers, he acknowledges, do not have such expertise to draw on.
Worth checking out the article, and hopefully the BBC will follow its own lead and start promoting more literature in translation . . .Tweet
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. . .
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One hundred years have passed since the start of World War I and it is difficult to believe that there are still novels, considered classics in their own countries, that have never been published in English. Perhaps it was the. . .