Patience is a graduate of Princeton University, where she majored in comparative literature, focusing on translation. As her senior thesis, she translated a novel from the Italian, which won her the Robert Fagles Senior Thesis Prize. She hopes to spend more time in Italy in the near future.
Here’s the beginning of her review:
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, though with less success.
The Four Corners of Palermo is not a novel but a collection of four episodes. Each chapter takes the hero, a gritty young crime reporter, to a different quarter of the city, where he finds a new noir crime scene and a new Venus-like lover. In the first chapter, he pieces together the family drama behind a shootout in the streets. The second has him investigating car bombings, and the third chasing a father who kidnapped his own children. The fourth has him befriending a daughter whose father is found beheaded in a town square, and ultimately deciding not to publish what he learns.
Di Piazza’s sensational material and nostalgic memory of the 1980s make his stories pleasurable, though vapid. The book suffers for its episodic structure, which leaves little opportunity for the nameless reporter to make much of an impression on the reader, and even less opportunity for him to learn something. A cast of shallow, personality-free female characters surrounds a “Gary Stu” protagonist, who runs from fashion model to murder scene without a misstep. It is a fun noir romp told in cinematic jump-cut scenes, but not a gratifying novel.
For the rest of the review, go here.Tweet
Jeremy Garber is the events coordinator for Powell’s Books and also a freelance reviewer.
As the calendar draws to a close, annual lists of the year’s best books begin to proliferate. However subjective these literary lineups may be, it should come as no surprise to readers of translated fiction that titles originating from outside the English-speaking world are seldom included in these year-end roundups. The lack of astonishment that comes with seeing a dearth of translated books included on such lists is outweighed perhaps only by the frustration that a bevy of such remarkable books will never enjoy the attention they truly deserve.
Reviewers, critics, and editors are, of course, entitled to their own opinions, but charged as they are with shaping the readerly landscape and exposing their audiences to books they elseways would not likely discover on their own, it can be rather dispiriting, year in and year out, to see some of the world’s best fiction go neglected, ignored, and otherwise uncelebrated (hence the need for the Best Translated Book Award).
What is it about literature in translation that fails to attract its deserved share of both popular and critical acclaim? Theories abound – and have for some time. Are American readers simply not properly exposed to the breadth of titles available in English translation? Are they provincial and xenophobic? Are they sated by the wealth of domestic talent? Do they mistakenly presume books rendered from another language will be needlessly arduous and unrewarding?
Are publishers, bookshops, media, and reviewers equally culpable for the disproportionately low interest in international fiction? Does lack of review coverage keep the average reader from discovering an exceptional work from without our borders? Are the big houses unwilling to publish more works in translation – having seen disappointing or diminishing returns previously? Are booksellers, despite their often-tireless advocacy for the books they admire, unable to engender and maintain enough of a groundswell? Is lit in translation to be forever relegated to a niche market, comprising but a sliver of the publishing and bookselling world?
With over 500 works of fiction published in English translation in each of the past two years (about a 50% increase from 2010), it appears interest in such books is, in fact, growing. As ever more translation-centric publishers join the scene (whether for profit or not), the abundance of titles available to English readers from all over the world will surely increase – a veritable windfall for those with broad, open-minded tastes (and monolingual backgrounds). But how to make those books appeal to the larger American readership? For the success of every Larsson, Murakami, or Bolaño are scores of writers equally worthy of as ardent an audience. Perhaps an industry with creative output as its product will forever remain a fickle and unpredictable one. Perhaps the arbiters of taste and merit are slow to evolve.
Knowing that great books written in languages other than English often have a laborious road to the American bookshelf, an award that aims to recognize the best translated book in a given year has more to consider than what a first glance may reveal. Ought the award, all things considered, bestow the prize upon the most altogether worthy entrant (excellence in writing, translation, presentation, et al.)? What if the book in question is unlikely, given even the most robust accolades and promotion, to ever find appeal beyond academic circles or a very narrow general readership? Should the notion of how a book has done critically (or might do commercially) bear weight upon the decision? Do we trust that readers will, if given a hearty enough recommendation from a reliable source, take a chance on something that they would otherwise pass by?
Undeservedly or not, a single work in translation (at least for a reader not normally inclined to pick up such a book) may well be seen as a reflection of all works in translation. For a reading public that relies on reviews and best-of lists as much as bookseller recommendations and word-of-mouth encouragement from fellow readers, it is incumbent upon publishers, reviewers, and bookshops (and award juries, as well) that we champion deserved works and their authors – if international fiction is ever to gain a wider appeal.
While end-of-the year lists often feature the more obvious selections, there is an (increasing?) opportunity for the so-called also-rans to get their due. Blogs, social media, and other non-traditional outlets are constantly reshaping the literary landscape. Books which, even a decade ago, may not have had a chance to wend their way into the hands of readers now have an easier time doing so (although it remains prohibitively difficult for most). A good many of the books translated into English in any given year are very likely amongst the best in their native languages (as it is difficult to imagine mid-list international authors finding either a translator or publisher stateside), so a list of the year’s translated titles is already a quasi-best-of selection by default.
It’ll be a welcome (and exciting!) day for all those interested in great literature when the ever-popular “best books of the year” lists count even a quarter of their entries as those rendered from a foreign language. Readers, culture, and society alike will benefit greatly, confirming and reiterating the fact that exceptional works of art need not be confined by arbitrary borders or the limitations of tongue. No “best of” list could ever presume to have the definitive word on the extraordinary, but declining to include more works in translation does a disservice to all readers. Much as ecosystems thrive best with greater diversity (and suffer, conversely, wherever monoculture is present), we, too, will be all the richer for indulging the abundance of authorial voices which currently flourish.Tweet
This past weekend, I had the pleasure of heading down to NYC for the 2014 New Literature from Europe festival, which primarily took place at the slightly Escherian, but beautiful Austrian Cultural Forum NY building. Even if you don’t read beyond this point, let me just say that this was a great festival, short and sweet, but packed with great panels and authors, and for my part I want to thank the organizers as well for their efforts.
My main purpose was to go to support our Bulgarian contingent, in this case Georgi Tenev, author of Party Headquarters, forthcoming from Open Letter 2015 and translated by Angela Rodel. But it was also great to get down to New York, see some familiar faces, pick up conversations started at the last festival/trade show/conference, talk a little business in person, visit some of the bookstores that carry our titles, etc. (Oh, and also eat all the free charcuterie and sample various Hungarian and Romanian wines.) At times it’s smaller-scale festivals like these that are the best places for publishers and readers alike to come together and learn more about foreign cultures and their literatures, and to hear snippets of what will probably be some of the best pieces of literature you could ever come across.
Chad usually does posts like this, and he might do a massive, mind-blowing one once he gets back from his literal Trip around the World, but for now, you have me, and that’s that. I like traveling to NYC for the weekend, or for the week, be it for work or to indulge my mother’s joy of Amtrak travel, and of course, each time you visit NYC you’re bound to discover or wind up someplace you’ve never been before, intentionally or unintentionally. You’re also less likely to get lost in the process with each return, such as this trip, where I didn’t screw up once while in transit someplace. On the subway—I mean I didn’t screw up on the subway. In terms of walking, I inverted building numbers and location names more than once within the first eight hours of being back in the city and probably made some passersby wary of my recurring presence.
Before heading over to the opening event and reading, I made my way to the still relatively new Albertine, a 99.9% French-only bookstore (titles published in French originally, translations into French, French authors published into English) just down the street from MoMA. The bookstore is in no way convenient to just “pop by,” unless you’re in the area already or have multiple things to do in said area (like check out MoMA, or a sandwich shop nearby that I’m told sells their creations at half-price not long before closing up for the night to clear out that day’s stock. WHY HAVE I NOT BEEN TOLD OF THIS SANDWICH HEAVEN BEFORE.), but even that considered, it’s well worth the subway ride and walk—or bus, if you’re into above-ground public transportation. Nowhere will you find the selection of French literature and translations that Albertine carries, and nowhere, probably, will you see this many wall sconces (not my original observation, but I agree).
The main reading Friday night was held at the Austrian Cultural Forum, and featured authors Davide Longo (Italy), Nicol Ljubić (Germany), Susanne Scholl (Austria), János Háy (Hungary), Georgi Tenev (Bulgaria), Lucian Dan Teodorovici (Romania), Magdaléna Platzová (Czech Republic), and translator Philip Boehm (who read from his translation of Polish author Hanna Krall), with a great introduction by New Directions Publisher Barbara Epler. (Julia Deck [France] and Linda Coverdale did their portion of the reading back at Albertine.)
The readings were all wonderful and showcased a nice range of literary subject matter and, as you can tell from the paragraph above, a good range of countries represented. Also worth mentioning was Barbara’s introduction to the readings, in which she made a point to thank not only the authors for their work, but their translators as well, and those publishers (Open Letter Books among them) who continue to bring out literature in translation to enrich the literary world. Barbara had also prepared a double-sided printout that for everyone that had a huge (though not, as she apologized, fully comprehensive) list of publishers that do publish literature in translation, as well as literary magazines/journals, and even a handful of foreign literature centers that work to promote literature and its translation. This list was a pleasant and touching surprise, and hopefully informed those in attendance that there are more than just a few publishers in the United States and elsewhere working their asses off to bring readers amazing world literature, and publishers who want to keep bringing that literature to readers for decades to come. HOPEFULLY. More on this topic in a few paragraphs.
Saturday was a full day of panels, but started off with brunch at the Hospoda Bohemian Beer Hall, which is another cool venue (with delicious breakfast sausages) that I hope everyone is able to one day visit, be it for the restaurant, or for an event that would take place in the Czech Center’s upper floors. Make fun of us Eastern Europeans all you want for our love of Bon Jovi, our at times still outdated sneakers, but the one thing you can never take lightly (nor can we) is the sense of hospitality ever present when we welcome others into our spaces/homes. Which in the case of the Bohemian Beer Hall may be amplified by the cafeteria/beer garden-like interior and its brick walls, wood floors, and picnic-table seating.
While the full list of Saturday panels is available here, the one I do want to briefly touch on—and for a few reasons—is the final one, “Buried Secrets,” a “panel whose theme is untold truths hidden beneath the surface,” paneled by Magdaléna Platzová, Lucian Dan Teodorovici, and our very own Georgi Tenev, and moderated by Siri Hustvedt. Over the course of the panel and through questions asked by the audience after, we got to hear what authors from their countries these writers considered influential on their own works, as well as what it meant to write in a post-Soviet environment and how they thought what and how they wrote would be different had they not grown up or lived in such times and political situations. As someone who grew up reading and being taught about largely occupation-period and post-Soviet Latvian literature, I found the similarities interesting, both in terms of what writers are writing about, and how they see themselves or are perceived as writers in their countries. If I remember correctly, Lucian explained that he felt free and comfortable in Romania as a writer, because there was no pressure to write anything specific or anything that might be considered “great” since Romanians didn’t really read Romanian books anyway. Whereas I find that thought frightening, for him it was a built-in sense of security and release, as he considered he didn’t have any expectations to live up to and could just write what his heart desired to write.
Anyway, all of the authors presenting at this year’s festival are wildly intelligent people, with so much thought and process that goes into their writing, and proved to be equally wonderful to chat with afterward in a less on-the-spot setting. More information on all of them can be found at the Festival website here, and only three of the nine works represented have not found English-language publishers. Which brings me to my own version of a rant.
Before kicking off the panel, moderator Siri Hustvedt made a little plug for translated literature and the translators themselves, but then said something along the lines of “unless major publishers start publishing literature in translation, our lives/experiences as readers will be sorely lacking/start to deteriorate.”
Um . . . excuse me?
I want to give Hustvedt (whose latest novel was published, surprise surprise, by Simon & Schuster) the benefit of the doubt (also considering both she and her husband, Paul Auster, translate), that her wording or intent was, well, misworded or ill-communicated, but . . . It was hard not to feel a little offended at that sentiment, and not just because there she was, moderating a panel of authors at a weekend-long festival in part (and on some level) made largely possible by the work and efforts of not only indie/non-profit/small, but fiercely- and well-respected publishers of literary fiction in translation. Was the takeaway here that we should all sit around calmly while the Random Penguins of the world find some time between their Harry Potters and Jodi Picoults to publish the Jakov Linds/Marie NDiayes/Jenny Erpenbecks and save us all?
For once I had to outright agree with some of Chad’s rants about how unforgivable it is that small publishers are so frequently being belittled or crapped on, if even unintentionally, by people who seem to think that, “If it isn’t one of the Top 5 Houses publishing it, it doesn’t count.” Because every year, month, week, day, hour, second spent by people like us to help foster and bring brilliant world literature to a broader readership SHOULD count. It DOES count. And if you can’t see that it does, then you are part of the problem. If Murakami is your only go-to for contemporary literature in translation, then you are part of the problem. If you think that literature in translation “can only be saved” if taken under the wing of some goliath of a publisher, then you are part of the problem. If you are a reviewer at any of the “big” review outlets only reaching for the FSG/Penguin/HMH/etc. logo-stamped books in translation because you think that’s probably “safer,” then you are part of the problem. My god, are you ever part of the problem.
I want to look at a small facet of that problem—small, because there are so many ways to look at and approach this specific issue (like, next time someone asks you to recommend them a book, recommend a translation, in a tiny Pay It Forward act, because readers can be held equally responsible for promoting the books they love). But for now let’s go back to that list I mentioned Barbara Epler brought to her introduction. Keeping in mind her disclaimer that the list was not, unfortunately, comprehensive, there are eighty-six publishers of literary translations listed on the front side of her handout. Eighty-six. Yes, that list includes the FSG/Penguin/HMH/etc.-type publishers, but they are far outnumbered by the rest. And (again, benefit of the doubt) yet, we’re supposed to hedge all our bets, hopes, and dreams on these Major Presses to help save our literary lives from deterioration? The hell?! Alright, yes, I can buy into the fact that, much like small-press fans look for their beloved small-press logos and covers in store, readers who “stick” to the Major Presses probably do the same thing, to an extent. Maybe. But instead of taking a kind of misdirected angle of championing literature in translation via the graces of Major Presses, how about redirecting and supporting those presses that are already publishing literature in translation, have been doing so for years/decades and will continue to do so no matter what, and (financial aspects aside) without many of the probable obstacles or restrictions or aspirations of Major Presses (though it would be hilarious, our The Last Days of My Mother will likely never end up as a “20xx Box Office Smash Movie Time Hit of the Summer,” or as a 10-part miniseries on Fox or HBO—nor did we care about that when signing it on).
That said, it doesn’t make it easier that many of the mainstream sources that could potentially help these hard-working presses gain some additional recognition seem to always be dropping—or just never picking up—the ball. For example, in the New York Times “100 Notable Books of 2014” list, a mere eight out of 100 are translations (if I missed one, I apologize). And the number of times you see Knopf, Simon & Schuster, FSG, Scribner, Random House, etc., show up is basically the entire list. There are, of course, exceptions, and it’s good to see that. But come on! And the most notable books in translation include, what?: Murakami, Knausgaard, Ferrante. Not necessarily bad choices, but depressingly obvious ones.
Let’s move on to a similar, but slightly more tailored list: Book Riot’s A Great Big Guide To 2014’s Must-Read Books from Indie Presses. This list is far friendlier, as the title may indicate, toward indie presses and presses such as Open Letter that publish literature in translation. Except that Open Letter isn’t on there—which hurts, but not everyone can make every list. Or can they?
While Book Riot’s list is comprised of excellent titles (though, as someone pointed out on Facebook, only one translator is named—J.M. Coetzee, and probably only because of his Nobel Prize), I found it interesting that the list includes 41 presses (impressive), as well as multiple titles from each of these presses. Which makes me wonder about the presses not present on the list—did the list maker(s) really not like any of Open Letter’s books this year? Of Bellvue’s? New Vessel’s? Wakefield’s? Hispabooks’s? Does the list-maker even know of these and other presses left off the list? I guess “left off” is a strong phrase, but still. And hey, I’ve said it before, at least our friends at Biblioasis made the list this time around.
For some time now, I’ve been wondering why someone doesn’t make a year-end list that would include the largest number possible (or at least a healthy portion) of indie presses working with literature in translation, along with one book published by that press during the relevant year. It can’t be that hard, let’s say, to come up with a “50/50: Fifty Titles in Translation from Fifty Presses” list (DIBS that title is mine). So, Sunday, six hours into my eight-hour Amtrak trip back up to Rochester and with one free Buzzballz Tequila ‘rita in my system, I started one of my own, beginning with naming presses. Within a few minutes, I had almost forty presses publishing literature in translation written down, off the top of my exhausted, slightly buzzed head. “It’s like these listicle writers aren’t even trying,” I thought to myself. And then, “Oh, wait.”
Are they even trying? Maybe the downfall of these lists (and by downfall I mean “weaknesses perceived”) was that one person was trying to come up with all the information on his or her own. Maybe one person can’t feasibly read books from every press out there—though that doesn’t seem like a reasonable explanation. Out of the nearly forty presses I was able to name without looking at Barbara’s list for help, I can admit that I haven’t yet had the time or pleasure to read books published by a handful of them (for which I am sorry)—but the point is, I am aware of these presses and of what they have published.
It can be easily argued at this point that, as someone who now works in the publishing world, I have more daily access and exposure to these presses (see the stacks of review copies next to my desk for proof) and the authors they publish, and as a result a better working knowledge and awareness of them. Sure, fine. Yet, what about all the “indie press fans” all the indie presses and their authors get at AWP and MLA, and BookExpo, those readers who once read one Polish author translated into English and now Must Have All the Things that Are Polish Books in Translation? Those readers who, flabbergastingly, sometimes know more books than we do? People in the publishing world are not, clearly, the only ones aware of the other presses around them. What about all the Flavorwire and Buzzfeed and Book Riot listicles about year-end book lists that we all see slutted around our Facebook news feeds? What gives . . . ?
Among the many ways that literary translation and the publishers who bust balls can and should be lauded, supported, and promoted by the numerous sites that pride themselves on their monthly and year-end lists, it might be worth their time to consider—nay, START adding some parameters to these lists, such as, in the case of the 100-title list, “No publisher can appear more than twice,” which would already limit the list to 50 publishers minimum, and broaden that scope. Publishing houses play limitation games like this on a daily basis. (Open Letter, for one, is careful to keep its combined seasons for a given year well balanced in terms of author gender, country represented, book length, etc.) So, in the spirit of maintaining that translated literature doesn’t have to wait on Major Presses for anything: I’m going to take on my own challenge and put together our own Three Percent year-end book list: 50 translated titles from 50 presses. I bet I could even do it on two Tequila ‘ritas. (Do friends let friends drink and make lists?) And I bet it won’t even be that hard.Tweet
We’re back! And, actually, now that Tom has a more regular schedule at “Albertine”: we’re planning on recording a new episode every other week. More great
sports book talk!
This week’s episode centers around John O’Brien’s BookBrunch article, Don’t Blame the Readers for Lack of Interest in Translations. It’s a piece that understandably upset Tom’s French employers . . .
In relation to this episode’s “rave,” you have to watch this video:
This week’s music is When Christmas Comes by Los Campesinos!
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
It’s December. I still have a shit-ton of books left to read for the BTBA, and the very thought of writing a blogpost about my favorite contenders is giving me mild anxiety. But, as a Chuang Tzu once wrote (in David Hinton’s excellent translation), “small fear is fever and worry; great fear is vast and calm.”
The great fear, in this case, consists in creating a longlist from so many well-designed, well-written, and well-translated books. It’s so frightening that I’m actually okay with it. But here comes the small fear: my two cents about what’s good in the pile of submissions.
I can certainly reveal some of my favorite titles to you, such as Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd (trans. by Christina MacSweeney), Roberto Bolano’s A Little Lumpen Novelita (trans. by Natasha Wimmer), Scholastique Mukasonga’s Our Lady of the Nile (trans. by Melanie Mauthner), and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book Three (trans. by Don Bartlett), but since all of these titles have already been mentioned several times, I figured my blogging energy would be better spent on two Danish titles that have not yet come up as anybody’s favorites. I will allow my fellow judges the benefit of the doubt, and assume they have yet to read the books I’m about to highlight.
As a Dane, Naja Marie Aidt’s writing has been an inevitable part of my life. I grew up reading and analyzing her short stories in middle and high school classes, and I’ve remained fascinated by her fiction ever since. One of Aidt’s literary fortes is her depiction of distorted human relationships; sometimes conveyed explicitly through master-slave abuse, pedophilia, or snuff (Vandmærket, 1993), sometimes portrayed through subtle powerplay and deceit as a matter of routine (Tilgang, 1995). Aidt’s latest short story collection and first book in English, Baboon (Two Lines Press), is no exception:
“I slowly peeled the clothes off her, and she looked beautiful on the red Persian rug, in the warm light from the fire. She spread her legs. She looked at me with dark, sorrowful eyes. Your sister has a tighter cunt than you. I wonder whether you’re born that way, or if it’s just because she’s so young.” (From Bulbjerg)
These disturbing tales will potentially stay with you for years; they have certainly haunted me since 2006, when I first read the collection in Danish. Rereading Baboon in English was an immense pleasure, thanks to an incredible translation by Denise Newman who managed to capture the beauty of Aidt’s descriptive prose while maintaining a sense of urgency within the lines:
“Suddenly we found ourselves in the middle of an astonishing landscape: luminous, white sand dunes on all sides, wind swept, small trees twisting under the vast open sky. We gasped joyfully as though coming up for air after being under water too long. We stood there looking around, our eyes blinking after staring at the gravel road in the dark forest for so long. Even the smell was different here, salty and fresh, the sea had to be close by. But we lost our bearings long ago.”
Aidt’s talent for combining brutality and beauty is, in my opinion, nothing less than extraordinary.
Another Dane who deserves honorable mention in the BTBA is Dorthe Nors. Her short story collection Karate Chop (Graywolf Press/A Public Space) is a delightfully fast and punchy read, expertly rendered by translator Martin Aitken. Nors’ combination of light language and dark humor is captivating -not only within each individual story, but also in the way the stories complement each other. From the tragicomic self-proclaimed Buddhist, to the man who googles female killers when his wife is asleep, to the heron in Frederiksberg Gardens with mites living in its underfeathers:
“Last winter I saw one slouching on the back of a bench with its long, scrawny neck. Its feet were completely white and it barely even reacted when I walked past. The way the wind ruffled its neck feathers made me want to go back and sit down next to it. It was the way the suffering had to be drawn out like that, the way herons never really muster the enthusiasm. But I won’t touch birds, alive or dead.” (from “The Heron”)
Nors’ short story “The Heron” was the first Danish piece to be published in The New Yorker, and it truly does work well as the literary centerpiece of the perfectly unpredictable Karate Chop.Tweet
I don’t think this particular monthly write-up needs any real explanation—it really is a “cheesy Thanksgiving post,” complete with holiday cheer and unwanted gifts—so let’s just get into it. (Also, I think it’s going to be really long.)
Texas: The Great Theft by Carmen Boullosa, translated from the Spanish by Samantha Schnee (Deep Vellum)
Full disclosure: Bromance Will started Deep Vellum after spending a summer apprenticing at Open Letter and I’m serving on his board. THIS PLUG IS TRANSLATION PUBLISHING INCEST! (Pub-cest? Hmm . . . that sounds too drinky.)
But Bromance Will is one of people in the world I truly appreciate. He’s spirited, brilliant, indefatigable, scrappy! I love that Deep Vellum is showing up on all the best lists (Flavorwire’s 5 Small Presses Who Are Changing the Face of the Industry, Entropy’s Best of 2014: Presses) and that their first list is going to be distributed by Consortium. I love texting Bromance about obscure Danish authors, books we both want to read, and basketball. (Yes, Will went to Duke and is a Duke basketball fan.) It’s also amazing that he’s in Dallas and tearing it up. Outsiders, unite! He’s been featured in every Dallas publication ever—at least twice—and is helping light a spark in the Texas literary scene. The world is a better place because of him and Deep Vellum.
That all said, I mostly just love his moustache.
A few months ago, some friends were talking on Twitter about the publication of Texas: The Great Theft, Will’s first book, and they were joking about growing out their moustaches to celebrate. Well, I’ve never ever grown out shit, and although it probably looks ridiculous, I decided to join in—but beardo style.
That beard is for you, Bromance!
Also, I hope a million people buy this book and subscribe to Deep Vellum. Five years from now, Deep Vellum will be one of the major players in indie publishing. I’m sure of it. Just watch this video.
Learning Cyrillic by David Albahari, translated from the Serbian by Ellen Elias-Bursać (Dalkey Archive)
Although things have gotten very strained post-2007, I have to admit that I really value the time I spent at Dalkey Archive. Without John O’Brien there would be no Open Letter. I don’t agree with everything he does and says, but he built an amazing organization from scratch and has published some of the most important authors of the twentieth-century. Dalkey has seemingly been around forever, and it’s almost too easy to take them for advantage, but imagine a reading culture without these authors: Gilbert Sorrentino, Flann O’Brien, Harry Mathews, Marguerite Young, etc. etc. And the new books that Dalkey is doing—like their Korean Literature Series—is going to appear just as foundational in a dozen years.
This past week, the literary community lost Allan Kornblum founder of Toothpaste Press, better known as Coffee House. A loss like this is always sad, but it’s great to see Coffee House in such great shape, thanks to the work of Chris Fishbach. The way that great publishers inspire new generations of great publishers is reassuring about the future of book culture.
Also, David Albahari’s Götz & Meyer is an incredible novel, as is Leeches. I can only imagine that his stories, collected here in Learning Cyrillic, are equally captivating and obsessive. These all focus on immigrant life, something that writers from the former Yugoslavia excel at writing about. A definitely must read for December.
Butterflies in November by Audur Ava Olafsdottir, translated from the Icelandic by Brian FitzGibbon (Black Cat)
Everything about Iceland is amazing. We’ve gone on about that before, at length. But the thing I’m most excited about in terms of Iceland is going back next September for the Reykjavik International Literary Festival.
Not too long ago, I was reading David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks (which, aside from part 5, is incredible), and there’s a section about the Reykjavik Festival and visiting Halldor Laxness’s house. Everything about this was so specific that I assumed Mitchell had been there. So I texted the Festival’s director and found out that, no, he hadn’t ever been invited, but that he’d just confirmed that he’ll attend in 2015.
As it turns out, my 40th birthday is just a couple of weeks after the festival, and I’ve been secretly planning to take some wild “over the hill” party trip—and Iceland fits this perfectly. So if anyone wants to go hang out with David Mitchell, Teju Cole, all the greatest Icelandic writers—like Bragi Olafsson, Audur Ava Olafsdottir, Kristin Omarsdottir, Solvi Bjorn Sigurdsson, Sjon—AND rock out with me, you should come. Iceland is the most magical country in the world, and if you’ve never been, you’ll be absolutely stunned by how gorgeous the country and the people are.
USSR: Diary of a Perestroika Kid by Vladimir Kozlov, translated from the Russian by Andrea Gregovich (Fiction Advocate)
The other week I had the pleasure of meeting Andrea Gregovich during the “Editor Speed Dating” part of the American Literary Translators Conference. Over the past year or so, ALTA has gone through a ton of changes. Their president had to step down. The organization left the University of Texas at Dallas, where it had been for basically it’s entire thirty-seven year history. This led to Russell Valentino taking over and Erica Mena being appointed managing director. A consultant was hired. And now, although there’s a lot to do and a lot that could be done, the organization’s future seems as bright as ever.
The conference is the keystone of ALTA’s activities, and if you have any interest in translation—being a translator or publishing books in translation—you should come to the upcoming conferences in Tucson, San Francisco, New York, and Austin. I’m serving on the conference committee and helping with all of the programming—panels, workshops, roundtables and the like.
One of the new additions at this conference was the “Editor Speed Dating,” and I have to say, this went even better than I expected. When I first agreed to participate, I assumed it would be four hours of explaining why I haven’t replied to someone’s submission, or, why we’re just not interested. Instead, this was set up as three fifteen-minute meetings with three early-career translators, each of whom sent me two pages of a translation they’re working on along with two specific questions. (Questions about how to get something published were banned.)
Andrea met with me to talk about a story and novella collection she’s working on. In particular she wanted to know if there’s an optimal mix of novellas and short stories, since she’s picking pieces from a writer’s entire career. It was an interesting conversation, as were the other two that I had. And if anything I said even helped a little bit, then great. That’s what ALTA is really all about. Meeting colleagues who can help you out immediately and in the future. And in a field like this, that’s incredibly vital. I’m so glad that ALTA didn’t just keep its shit together during this transition period, but actually is in a position to do more, better.
My Mother-in-Law Drinks by Diego De Silva, translated from the Italian by Antony Shugaar (Europa Editions)
This book sounds fun . . . kind of like Thanksgiving mimosas!
It’s too bad that the jacket copy for this includes no information about the mother-in-law or her drinking patterns. Although maybe that’s the trick . . . Now I’m just projecting about this laid-back, finely preserved mother-in-law who gets a little loose with the liquor. I like it. This book is fantastic.
Also, Flavorwire should do a list of the best books featuring drunks. I would include The Last Days of My Mother on a list like that along with some of the other main go-tos.
The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami, translated from the Japanese by Ted Goossen (Knopf)
It’s sad that out of all the books on this list, I can already guarantee that this one—which is one of the weakest, most assuredly—will sell roundabout 10,000 times more copies than the rest combined. Haruki “The Young Adult Juggernaut” Murakami strikes again!
In terms of giving thanks, I also have to give a shout-out to Drew Magary for writing such entertaining columns and “hater’s guides” His weekly Jamboroo, which comes out every week during the NFL season and features a series of jokes, thoughtful commentary, and cutting observations, is the inspiration behind my writing these monthly overviews. But beyond that, his book on parenting, Someone Could Get Hurt, is brilliant and funny in that way that rings too true if you are also a parent. (Son using toothbrush on his penis? CHECK.) His piece on What Happens When a 35-year-old Man Retakes the SAT?, is filled with quotable bits, but the hater’s guides and “Why Your Team Sucks” series are the best. That’s where some of my favorite insults come from. Like, when he said about Buffalo, “there’s nothing to do there but eat and marry someone you don’t love.” BASH.
Captives by Norman Manea, translated from the Romanian by Jean Harris (New Directions)
I’m glad that New Directions and Yale keep putting out Manea books. Although I haven’t gotten to any of these yet, I know he’s someone I should read, and I’m thankful that when I finally do, there will be a plethora of titles to enable my bender. (A bender like what I’ve been on with David Peace, whose Red Riding Quartet was so much better than I thought possible, or the one I plan on going on with Muriel Spark.)
This novel of his sounds particularly up my alley given the shifting p.o.v. and other narrative devices Manea uses to articulate the crazy complications of life in Romania’s fascist/communist past:
Divided into interrelated sections—narrated in first-, second-, and third- person voices—Captives explores the social and psychological conditions of postwar Romania: a loss of identity, a complicated sense of guilt and trauma from having survived the fascist government during World War II, and the rise of communism.
Skylight by José Saramago, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Saramago is another author with enough books in print to justify a bender. If I’m counting right, he has eighteen titles available in translation—two-thirds of which came out in English after he won the Nobel Prize.
Skylight is funny to me since it was “lost” in a publisher’s office for decades, rediscovered, and finally published in 2011. Have you ever been in a publisher’s office? Holy shit is it disgusting. So much paper, so much correspondence, so many unread manuscripts and magazines and journals and cover letters. I’m surprised that we don’t hear of five to ten accidents a year featuring editors and the raccoons hiding in their paper empires. I’m thankful that no one ever comes to visit our office.
But on a more serious thank you note: I really want to thank Nathan Furl and Kaija Straumanis for working so hard at Open Letter. There’s not a lot of money—or glory—in nonprofit publishing, but both are incredibly committed to the press, and put up with a lot of shit in their jobs. Also, all our authors, translators, interns, and graduate students deserve some praise. They’re all spectacular people, and I’m especially impressed by all the students who have come through our program so far. Each and every one is more talented than I am, and that’s a pleasant sort of intimidating.
The Wall by H. G. Adler, translated from the Germany by Peter Filkins (Random House)
Growing up, I absolutely loved superhero comic books. I’m not sure why, exactly, although I think a lot of it was a sort of warped wish-fulfillment in which I fed my imagination with scenarios that I could later co-opt for my own personal superadventures.
Watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. now though, and absolutely loving it, I’ve realized what an impact comic book narrative structures have had on my life. The way that this show unfolds—which is sort of comic bookish, but only if run through a Stanislaw Lem novel—keeps me engaged week in and week out, with two-character scene following two-character scene playing ideas off one another in a sort of lock-step manichaeism. It’s interesting to see how the show had adopted various comic book tropes, but in ways that are much more twenty-first century, and which point to legit societal issues (like the idea that the world won’t be able to support humankind fifty years from now). It also fucks with the viewer’s beliefs on a regular basis, creating a noirish spy world in which the viewer can buy in and play along with the principle characters. I’m half-embarrassed to admit it, but thank god for this show. Without it, I’d have almost nothing to watch on a weekly basis. (And yes, I am one of those old school people who likes the wait between episodes, the anticipation, the joy in being caught up.)
The Shipwrecked: Contemporary Stories by Women from Iran by Fereshteh Nouraie-Simone, translated from the Persian by Sara Khalili (Feminist Press)
There are too many good books to read. Or at least books that I wish I had the time/mental energy to read. (Which is an actual issue for me these days. I have a bunch of samples I should be evaluating, and a number of books I want to review, but I’d rather read David Peace and A Naked Singularity and enjoy my evenings instead of stressing myself out trying to evaluate everything and come up with new synonyms for “really interesting.” Publishing is a full time job, and when I’m not reading for work at home, I’m checking my emails and pressuring myself about every facet of my job. That’s not healthy.) But I am thankful that there are way too many books. I fear a time when I have only my own words and ideas to entertain and stimulate me. That would be the worst! I’m so glad that every month I have more titles that I want to include on this list than I actually can.Tweet
Madeleine LaRue is Associate Editor and Director of Publicity of Music & Literature.
The news has been worse than usual this year, so I’ve been particularly thankful for books that make me laugh. Here are some of the funniest contenders – in what I’m sure is just a coincidence, they all take place in the 1980s and involve either children or Soviets or both.
Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos (translated by Rosalind Harvey) is narrated by a little boy named Orestes who lives in a very small, very poor town in Mexico. His father’s favorite activity is cursing the police, while his mother spends most of her time making quesadillas to feed Orestes and his numerous siblings (all similarly named after figures of Greek tragedy). When the family’s two youngest children, the twins Castor and Pollux, disappear, it sets off a chain of wild events that culminates with the appearance of some extraterrestrial visitors.
But before the aliens get involved, Orestes runs away to make his fortune, and so the book becomes a kind of sad, but hilarious, parody of a poor boy’s rags-to-riches story. Villalobos’ novel, originally titled Si viviéramos en un lugar normal (“If we lived somewhere normal”), criticizes a system of poverty and corruption that is, of course, not limited to Mexico, all while delivering lines so colorful and surprising that you can’t help but laugh.
Another tale narrated by a clever, resourceful, and chronically poor child, Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret by Ondjaki (translated by Stephen Henighan) moves the scene to Angola. The novel is populated by a cast of odd, lovable characters, including the eponymous Soviet, called Comrade Gudafterov by the children for his habit of greeting everyone with a solemn “Gudafter-noon,” no matter the time of day. Though there are moment in the plot when things seem to be getting dangerous, nothing really terrible actually happens, and we are left with an unusually vivid sense not only of the Angola of Ondjaki’s own childhood, but of the general texture of childhood itself. Stephen Henighan has done a particularly fine job conveying the range of Ondjaki’s style – the Soviet’s comically broken Portuguese and the narrator’s fleeting moments of poetry, for example, seem to arrive in English with equal ease.
Pushkin Hills by Sergei Dovlatov (translated by Katherine Dovlatov) is not narrated by a child. Rather, our hero is Soviet version of the superfluous man – poor, highly sensitive to literature, perpetually drunk, and somehow badly equipped for life. After a divorce and at the end of his rope, he arrives one summer at Pushkin’s country estate, looking for work as a tour guide. His ensuing adventures are punctuated by witty-one liners worthy of a vodka-soaked Oscar Wilde (“Are you good friends [with Mitrofanov]?” someone asks the narrator, who replies, “I’m good friends with his bad side.”), but overall, the novel owes more to Bulgakov, whose humor builds slowly, almost imperceptibly, until suddenly the entire situation is absurd. The book, like all my favorite Russian tales, is a tragicomedy, one of the saddest and funniest to appear this year.Tweet
I’ve been incredibly discouraged over the past few weeks about the place of Open Letter in book culture. Part of this discouragement comes from traveling for twenty of the past twenty-four days (to Sharjah, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, L.A., and DC), but also, Open Letter didn’t get a single book on this Flavorwire List of the 50 Best Independent Fiction and Poetry Books of 2014, (which, whatfuckingever, all lists are just lists, and this one is better than most, but I truly believe that at least one of our books was in the top 50), nor did we get a book on the never-ending, longer than Betty White’s career, longlist of books for this year’s IMPAC Prize (and yes, this “longlist” contains 149 fricking books, including one by Jodi Picoult!). (And don’t get me started on Rochester Business Journal’s “40 Under 40,” which I again, and for the final time, didn’t make. Then again if there’s one thing the city of Rochester doesn’t understand, it’s literature.)
So, on Friday night, when I got to Kramerbooks in DC for a “Rep Night” organized by Jeff Waxman of Other Press, and noticed that Kramerbooks didn’t stock a single Open Letter title, I was basically ready to just give up. Slinging books that no one in the world seems to care about is as thankless and pathetic as it can get.
(Although I want to make a critical, annoying point right here: No one is outraged that this store didn’t bring in even a single Open Letter title, even though I spent $500 and my weekend flying down, bringing them books, buying them pizza and beer. That’s insulting. And bad business. Yet, according to most everyone, that’s the bookstore’s choice. They don’t have to stock our books. But when Amazon doesn’t stock Hachette? That’s an attack on authors and book culture. It’s an understandable, yet weird double-standard. I wish Amazon didn’t carry Hachette or any of the Big Five. More space for Open Letter titles. Same thing goes for other bookstores. Get rid of the weeds so the good literature can grow!)
Despite all my misanthropic inclinations to skip the rep night and sit in my room drinking myself blind, I powered on, gave a half-entertaining presentation, and had a great time hanging out with a lot of DC booksellers and librarians. (I also found out why our books weren’t in Kramer’s, and I really hope our DC-area sales rep shows up to his next meeting with the store.)
Offsetting my gloom and pessimism—not just at this event, but basically all the time—is Jeff Waxman of Other Press. Jeff used to work at Seminary Co-op and has special ties to booksellers around the country. A major part of his job at Other Press is to serve as a bookstore liaison and get booksellers excited about his books, displaying them, reading them, recommending them, etc. And these “rep nights” are one of the ways that he’s able to mobilize a lot of booksellers (and publishers) to get the word out in a fun, engaging, special way.
I’m not sure how many of these Jeff has done, but I was able to participate in one in Chicago last January that was astronomically effective in getting Open Letter titles into Chicago stores. We already had a lot of fans there—at Unabridged, Seminary, Book Cellar, etc.—but being able to meet with these booksellers face-to-face makes a huge difference.
That’s a cliche of the highest order, but when you live in the sticks of Rochester, NY (the only city more removed from book culture in the U.S. is probably Toronto) and rely almost exclusively on communication through email and social media, talking to a bookseller personally is hugely important.
And for booksellers, this must be thrilling. In addition to beer and pizza, you get individual presentations from New York Review Books, Soho Press, Other Press, Melville House, Grove, Open Letter, and New Directions and copies of their forthcoming books. Even if the usual suspects will still outsell all Open Letter books at these various bookstores, at least now there’s a chance that our books will be stocked, that faces won’t be blank when our rep shows up and talks about this “small indie press specializing in international literature.”
So, thanks to Jeff Waxman for doing these, for helping engage booksellers around the country and for allowing my grumpy ass to participate in a couple of these. I hope that Other Press will continue to set these up throughout the country, and that Open Letter will be invited to participate in at least a few. As retro as it seems, this is the future of publisher-bookseller relations, and getting booksellers excited about a title is definitely worth the price of a few six-packs and a pizza.Tweet
For those of you in the Austin and Dallas, Texas, areas, you’re in for a literary treat this week. Valerie Miles will be in Austin tonight (Tuesday), November 18th, at Malvern Books, and in Dallas tomorrow (Wednesday), November 29th, at The Wild Detectives to chat about A Thousand Forests in One Acorn.
Malvern Books: Tuesday, November 18th @ 7 p.m.
The Wild Detectives: Wednesday, November 19th @ 7 p.m.
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
The last five days of the eleventh-century Icelandic politician, writer of sagas, and famous murder victim Snorri Sturleleson (the Norwegian spelling, Snorre, is preserved in the book) make up Thorvald Steen’s most recently translated historical fiction, The Little Horse. Murdered. . .
We all know Paris, or at least we think we know it. The Eiffel Tower. The Latin Quarter. The Champs-Élysées. The touristy stuff. In Dominique Fabre’s novel, Guys Like Me, we’re shown a different side of Paris: a gray, decaying. . .
One hundred pages into Birth of a Bridge, the prize-winning novel from French writer Maylis de Kerangal, the narrator describes how starting in November, birds come to nest in the wetlands of the fictional city of Coca, California, for three. . .
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?),. . .