Carlos Labbé was one of Granta’s The Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists, and has quickly become a Name to Know in the world literature sphere. Both Carlos and translator Will Vanderhyden, along with Andrés Numan, will be at the University of Rochester April 22nd for a Reading the World Conversation Series event. (If you’re in town then, definitely, definitely join us!)
Incidentally, Will (a.k.a. Willsconsin) and J.T. (who wrote the following review) were cohorts in the University of Rochester’s MA in Literary Translation Studies program, and not only brought to the table their skills as translators, but also brought amazing projects to the press (Open Letter will also be bringing out Labbé’s Locuela in a few years, in Will’s translation, and Antoine Volodine’s Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven in J.T.‘s translation next year).
Enough UROC and Open Letter promotion—all you really need to know is that if you’re a literary nerd boy or girl, Labbé’s work will be right up your alley. Here’s the beginning of J.T.‘s review:
Carlos Labbé’s Navidad & Matanza is the story of two missing children and the journalist trying to find them. Actually. it’s the story of a group of scientists who are working on a top-secret project, and pass the time by collectively writing a novel about two missing children and the journalist trying to find them. Actually, it’s about a group of friends playing a “novel game” in which they write a story via email based on the movements of pieces on a game board. Actually, it’s all three, equally true and untrue at the same time. The narrator is a scientist codenamed Domingo, except when it’s the conman Boris Real, except when it’s the alleged kidnapping victim Bruno Vivar, except when it’s the novelist, Labbé himself . . .
The book is a compelling work of meta-fiction, and is rife with recurring images and motifs, such as theremins, Mormonism, and Edgar Lee Masters. These all form an intricate web to ensnare the reader in a synaptic echo chamber, where everything is connected but the reasons for the connections are never made entirely clear. The chapters of the novel are labeled 1-100, but most of the chapters are missing (the novel clocks in at just over 90 pages), implying that not everything has been or is going to be revealed. This withholding of information is also present in the internal monologues or thought processes of the handful of characters—not even the people who could best answer our questions, as readers, are going to give us a break and reveal (or explain) everything that’s going on.
For the rest of the review, go here.Tweet
Why should Humphrey Davies’ translation of Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq Leg Over Leg (Vol. 1) win this year’s Best Translated Book Award? Well, simply put: because it is awesome.
Let’s begin with the full title: Leg over Leg or The Turtle in the Tree concerning The Fāriyāq, What Manner of Creature Might He Be otherwise entitled Days, Months, and Years spent in Critical Examination of The Arabs and Their Non-Arab Peers. Which is already pretty awesome (and, let’s face it, a bit more intriguing than Textile, Commentary, or Tirza…).
Mind you, a lot of books on the longlist impress, in a variety of ways. There are some truly great pieces of literature, great translations, great books among them, works that we’ll be talking about and reading for years to come. And yet even in this lofty company, Leg Over Leg is a standout.
Given that eight of the twenty-five authors with works on the longlist are deceased, Leg Over Leg is hardly the only belatedly-brought-into English work – but, originally published in Arabic in 1855, it is the oldest book in the running. In purely literary-historical terms, it’s probably also safe to say that it’s the most significant. As Rebecca C. Johnson writes in her foreword, this work is: “acknowledged as one of the most distinguished works of the nineteenth century and an inaugural text of Arabic modernity”. In that case: What took so long? you might wonder. (I did, but I wonder that about a lot of books….) Well, there hasn’t been much more than a drip of translation of Arabic literature into English over the decades – increasing now to perhaps a trickle – and Leg Over Leg doesn’t fit with the general conceptions most publishers and readers might have of Arabic fiction.
That’s already one reason why this book should win the BTBA: it blows our (pre-)conceptions of Arabic literature out of the water. It certainly did mine. Sure, I’ve made my way through Naguib Mahfouz and Elias Khoury, and a variety of the translations of Arabic novels from the past decades, but I never managed to get much of a sense of anything earlier than, say, Tawfiq al-Hakim. Sure, there’s always the Arabian Nights, but that stands so distant and apart from everything else that it feels entirely separate. Arabic fiction – in translation – always seemed to be twentieth (generally later- twentieth) and twenty-first century fiction, much of it strongly shaped by so-called Western influences. And then I pick this up and get an electrifying jolt, finding a mid-nineteenth century literary work that is as radical and inventive as any modern novel. I thought I had a decent sense of modern Arabic literature, and suddenly I found myself exposed to a whole new layer underlying it all, throwing a whole new light on all of it.
Before I read Leg Over Leg I would have suspected any nineteenth-century work of Arabic fiction to be…well, let’s be honest: kind of conservative and stale. But Leg Over Leg turns out to probably be the most exuberant and formally inventive text on the entire BTBA longlist.
Leg Over Leg is an autobiographical novel, centered on the life of the author’s alter ego, ‘the Fāriyāq’. An eighty-chapter work, it is divided into four books – and it is the first of these that is BTBA-longlisted; Leg Over Leg is, remarkably, one of four multi-volume works of which an individual volume has been longlisted this year (the others being the books by Cărtărescu, Ferrante, and Knausgaard). Even though volumes three and four of Leg Over Leg will only be published later this year, the first volume stands up superbly on its own. While the young Fāriyāq’s life-story is the framework for the narrative, al-Shidyaq feels entirely comfortable taking it completely off the rails at times, too. There are stories within the stories here, and metafictional games. Above all, the text engages with language, in everything from its use of rhyme and poetry to dictionary-like lists and glossaries. Throughout, al-Shidyaq revels in the possibilities of language and expression. And ‘ribald’ doesn’t do justice to the extensive sexual-(word)play found here (yes, Leg Over Leg is definitely not conservative).
The BTBA is a translation prize, and so we naturally focus on the quality of the translation, too. And here we have yet another reason why Leg Over Leg should win: Humphrey Davies’ translation is a stunner. No doubt, one reason why Leg Over Leg hasn’t been translated previously is because it can seem untranslatable. There is a lot of wordplay here, from the use of rhymes within passages to what amount to lists of word-definitions – and even beyond that, the multifaceted text is daunting. Every text brings with it translation-challenges, but few of the longlisted titles presented anywhere near as many as this one does – and yet Davies handled them exceptionally well. The reader gets a sense of much of what al-Shidyaq is trying to do, and especially what he is trying to say and demonstrate about language; equally importantly, the humor – and there’s a lot of it – comes across: in English, too, Leg Over Leg is a very funny book.
One of the amazing things about this year’s BTBA longlist is that the 25 titles were published by 23 different publishers. There are many who specialize in literature in translation, and it’s always nice to see them get some recognition – and it’s nice to see the publishers of Leg Over Leg get the recognition too: by itself it’s not really good enough a reason why this book should win the BTBA, but it doesn’t hurt. Leg Over Leg is one of the first volumes in NYU Press’ new Library of Arabic Literature, devoted to publishing: “key works of classical and premodern Arabic literature”. Many of the BTBA-longlisted publishers also have admirable missions, but there’s no doubt that this is a worthy, important, and long overdue one.
Yet one more reason why this book should win is how the Library of Arabic Literature-volumes are published: in bilingual editions. Quite a few of the BTBA poetry contenders are usually bilingual editions, but bilingual fiction titles are a rarity. Admittedly, most of us (including me) can’t make or do much with the Arabic text facing the English on each page, but aside from aesthetic appreciation I think it does give a better sense of the text as a whole. In particular, one can at least get a sense of some of the repetition, as well as the original presentation of the text; given its complexities, any additional clues are welcome.
Finally, yet another reason why this book should win the BTBA is because it deserves the attention. Even though this book was published many months ago it has barely received any notice. Possibly the ‘serious’ periodicals like the Times Literary Supplement are waiting for the full four-volume set to be available before they tackle it, possibly it sits uneasily between ‘scholarly’ (it looks so serious in it’s plain cover; there are thirty pages of endnotes; it’s from a university press; it’s bilingual) and popular (it should be popular!), but it’s still astonishing and baffling that a publication of this significance, and of a book that’s just plain this good, hasn’t received the glowing attention it deserves. (I do note, however, that several of the BTBA longlisted books have received minimal review attention – notably Commentary, Red Grass, and Sleet.)
So look: it’s hard not think of Leg Over Leg as the most important translation in the running for the BTBA. It’s an amazing work of literature. It’s an incredible translation. It’s a beautiful edition (bilingual, helpfully annotated). And it’s just a whole lot of fun to read. So I’m not so much wondering why it should win the BTBA as: how can it not?
See also my review of Leg Over Leg, as well as interviews with translator Humphrey Davies by Sal Robinson at Moby Lives (An “absquiliferous” interview with Humphrey Davies, Arabic translator) and M.Lynx Qualey at Arabic Literature (in English) (Humphrey Davies on Climbing Translation’s Mt. Everest).Tweet
All “translator recognition” issues and talk aside (as a translator myself, but also as someone working in publishing, I have my own particular set of views on how this issue should be approached), our friends over at Typographical Era have put together a five-part list highlighting (with photo proof) that the twenty-five amazing novels that made the fiction longlist were indeed translated, and by people nonetheless—people with FACES (most of them)!
As TypoEra’s Aaron Westerman writes:
A novel in its original form might be great, but let’s face it, without the loving attention of a skilled translator it could end up destroyed when it arrives in its English version. The Best Translated Book Award isn’t just about the authors, it’s about the translators who take their work and make it accessible to an even greater audience as well. To drive that point home, the award’s $10,000 cash prize is split equally between the winning author and the translator of his or her book.
Judge Daniel Medin hands over the reins to Madeleine LaRue, Social Media Manager for Music and Literature.
If, on the one hand, the BTBA aims to bring attention to a neglected work of international fiction, then I’m afraid Seiobo There Below is a poor candidate. Neither the book nor its author, László Krasznahorkai, suffers from a lack of attention; on the contrary, Krasznahorkai is increasingly hailed as one of the most masterful writers of our time. His 1985 work Satantango won the BTBA last year, and generated such excitement that any subsequent book of his was all but guaranteed a place on this year’s shortlist. But if, on the other hand, we wish to use the BTBA to indicate that we have recognized great literature — and I mean truly great, of the kind we all secretly yearn for and yet find so few examples of — then there is no choice but Seiobo There Below.
It is better than Satantango. It is better than nearly everything.
Krasznahorkai, like Beckett, writes like a pilgrim whose temple has been destroyed, who owns nothing but the bruises on his feet. To our astonishment, he shows us that the concerns we thought we had left behind — how to make art as an offering and a plea to the gods, for example — are in fact terribly modern. As we journey through the seventeen chapters of Seiobo There Below — each of which displays remarkable erudition, pathos, and humor — we come to understand the urgency of our spiritual predicament, the poverty and despair that we have chosen and that is beyond our power to undo.
But even there at the edge of the apocalypse, Krasznahorkai offers us two beaten pearls of hope. The first is that the goddess herself, Seiobo, does indeed come down to earth, not to an individual, but to a performance, where everyone is together; the Buddha, too, appears in a crowded room. We are worth very little, but we are not always alone. The second is the very book in our hands, this beautiful text that is itself a kind of prayer, straining toward its breaking point as it reaches for something beyond itself.
Seiobo There Below would have presented challenges to the most skilled of translators, and even under Ottilie Mulzet’s expert hand, the novel barely fits in English — but this is only because it barely fits in language at all. Seiobo There Below is certainly one of the most unwieldy and important books of our young century; its success or failure to win literary prizes will do nothing to change that. But there is not a prize we could offer of which it would be unworthy.Tweet
The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Emily Davis on Zbinden’s Progress by Christoph Simon, translated by Donal McLaughlin (and with an introduction by Barbara Trapido), recently out from And Other Stories.
Due to some schedule hiccups (prep for AWP, AWP, post-AWP) and other interference (Scranton, PA, tinkering with the Web World in a manner that made the site inaccessible from outside University networks for the past two days), we finally kick back into our regular schedule of reviews and review posts. Not much more to say on that subject, so just take a look at And Other Stories’s covers—they’re fun! And we like the And Other people (People?, capital P?) in general, so that, too.
“Walking” novels seem to be something authors go back to again and again, reaching as far back (and probably farther) as Jane Austen (yes I did just go there), using it as a tactic to drive dialogue, narrative, etc. Open Letter’s own Sergio Chejfec uses walking frequently in his prose as a wonderful narrative device. What strikes me as fascinating is the many ways in which walking is put down on paper—no two authors seem to approach or apply the action quite the same way, rendering very different and delightful results. Here’s a part of Emily’s review (which I know for a fact she wrote, inspired, after taking a walk. FULL CIRCLE.):
The narrative style of Zbinden’s Progress is a sort of monodialogue: it’s not quite a monologue, though Zbinden’s is the only voice we hear. Nor is it a dialogue exactly, though Zbinden occasionally asks Kâzim a question and we can infer, from Zbinden’s side, that Kâzim both answers Zbinden’s questions and asks him some of his own. Zbinden is constantly interrupting himself to greet and have short conversations with all the other residents and caretakers he meets on his way down the stairs, but again, even though there are pauses to indicate the other people’s responses and we can more or less infer what they’ve said based on Zbinden’s replies, the only words on the page are the ones Zbinden speaks.
In a way, the narrative form mimics a walk: walking can be a social activity, and you might interact with any number of people (or animals, or trees, or buildings, if that’s more your style) along the way, but at its heart, walking is a highly individual experience, in that the impressions left by the walk, although they may be influenced by others, are ultimately the walker’s own.
Walking—and to be more specific, going for a walk—strikes me as a very human activity. We might go for a stroll around the neighborhood or a hike through the woods; our ancestors may have trekked across a continent as pioneers on the Oregon Trail or in much earlier migrations as hunter-gatherers. Walking is one of the simplest, most ancient ways of interacting with and exploring the world we live in, and as humans in an increasingly indoor and insular world, we might do well to take Zbinden’s advice and take the time to get to know the world outside.
For the full review, mosey on over here.Tweet
Elizabeth Harris’s translations from Italian include Mario Rigoni Stern’s novel Giacomo’s Seasons (Autumn Hill Books) and Giulio Mozzi’s story collection, This Is the Garden (Open Letter Books). She has won a 2013 Translation Prize from the Italian Ministry of Foreign Culture (Rome) for Rigoni Stern’s Giacomo’s Seasons, a Banff International Centre Translation Residency, and a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Prize from the PEN American Center for Antonio Tabucchi’s Tristano Dies“:http://archipelagobooks.org/book/tristano-dies-a-life/ (forthcoming with Archipelago Books). She teaches creative writing (fiction) at the University of North Dakota.
With the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature going to Alice Munro and George Saunders’ nonstop prizes for his recent collection (his latest, the £40,000 Folio Prize—the equivalent of $67,000), we might say that the short story in English is having a very good year. Likewise, in the selections for the Best Translated Book Award, we’ve seen some remarkable story collections, and I think Stig Dagerman’s Sleet (David Godine Publisher), in Steven Hartman’s beautiful translation, tops the list. This is not a collection pretending to be a novel, not a series of linked short stories. It’s just a collection, one beautiful story after the other. Dagerman may not be famous in the US (yet), but he was the darling of Sweden, a prolific post-WWII fiction writer and journalist, whose collected articles on the aftermath of war in Germany, German Autumn, were considered a brilliant examination, according to Hartman, of the “very nature of human suffering and the moral complexities of justice.” Dagerman’s suicide in 1954 at the age of thirty-one was considered a national tragedy.
Dagerman has been compared to literary giants like Anton Chekhov and James Joyce. Alice McDermott, in her preface to Sleet, ties Dagerman to Joyce, especially, with his “ability to depict the intractable loneliness of childhood, but time and again…[Dagerman] tempers this loneliness with brief gestures of hope, connectedness….There are tears in these stories, for sure, cruelties, eruptions of violence, but none of this is offered without pity…” There is humor here, too, often mixed with sorrow, and there are the beautiful, beautiful details that create the vivid worlds of Dagerman’s stories, the rural and urban, working-class Sweden of the 1940s and 50s.
The title story, “Sleet,” is a fine example of the power of Dagerman’s short fiction. It is a beautifully crafted story, subtle in structure, and told from the point of view of a child as so many of these stories are, with a narrator whose voice—in no small part due to Hartman’s translation skills—is remarkably vivid. Here is an example of the charming, vibrant voice of the story, from the opening paragraph, as the narrator tells us:
So here we are, sitting in the barn, cutting the tops off big muddy carrots. If you want to, it’s easy to pretend other things, like how it’s not really carrots that are losing their heads but something totally different, like kids at school that you don’t like, or even vicious animals.
And when I think of how they know all over America—all over that incredibly big America, on the other side of the Atlantic—how Arne Berg in Mjuksund, Sweden, hasn’t ever seen his daddy, then I can’t help it. Suddenly I don’t see the green carrot tops anymore and the tears drop slowly down the chaff-cutter.
There isn’t a story in the collection that doesn’t have this same level of detail and character development, this same level of artistry. Equally impressive is the stylistic variety here. Every story’s voice is decidedly different, the points of view and tones vary from the distant, chilling, rhythmical third-person voice of “To Kill a Child” (the most famous story of the collection and also placed perfectly, our first taste of this author is this little masterpiece); to the intimate and heartbreaking third-person voice of the story of a shared secret between mother and son, “The Surprise”; to the first-person plural voice of impoverished farm children in “The Stockholm Car” (there is a single narrator, but he barely exists, blurs into the impoverished in general, the unnoticed); to the extremely colloquial, brutal, self-destructive first-person voice of the final novella-length “Where’s My Icelandic Sweater?”
In reading these stories, I was perhaps struck most by this stylistic variety: there are great short story writers—Flannery O’Connor, for example—whose books you must set aside for a time before their stories begin to bleed together. Not so with Dagerman. He’s simply a master of the form—and Hartman, too, must be considered a master, for he is the one who recognized what was there in the originals and then created all these nuances of voice and character and style in the English.
For you to get a taste of Hartman’s work on voice in the stories—his work at creating these voices—let me just show you a passage from the dark ending of “To Kill a Child.” This classic story, originally commissioned by the National Society for Road Safety in order to promote safe driving, was to become, as Hartman points out in his translator’s note to the collection, one of the greatest of Swedish short stories, as Dagerman, the consummate artist, took this “redressing of a particular social problem as the starting point rather than as an end in itself and out of these mundane materials created a poignant tale of choice, chance, and human loss that rises to the highest levels of art, literary balance, and philosophical concision.”
Here is the rough, literal version of the final lines of the story:
For it is not true that time heals all wounds. Time does not heal a killed child’s wounds and it heals very badly the pain of a mother who forgot to buy sugar and sends her child across the road to borrow and just as poorly does it heal the angst/anxiety of a once happy man who killed it.
For the one who has killed a child does not go to sea. The one who has killed a child drives slowly home in silence and beside him he has a mute woman with her hand bandaged and in all the villages they pass, they do not see a single happy person. All shadows are very dark and when they separate it is still in silence and the man who killed the child knows that this silence is his enemy and that he will need years of his life to defeat it by screaming that it was not his fault. But he knows this is a lie and in his night’s dreams he instead will wish to get a single minute of his life back in order to make this one minute different.
But so mercilessly is life against the one who has killed the child that everything afterwards is too late.
Because it’s not true that time heals all wounds. Time does not heal the wounds of a dead child, and it heals very poorly the pain of a mother who forgot to buy sugar and who sent her child across the road to borrow some. And it heals just as poorly the anguish of a once cheerful man who has killed a child.
Because the man who has killed a child does not go to the sea. The man who has killed a child drives home slowly, in silence. And beside him sits a mute woman with a bandaged hand. And as they drive back through the villages, they do not see even one friendly face—all shadows, everywhere, are very dark. And when they part, it is in the deepest silence. And the man who has killed a child knows that this silence is his enemy, and that he will need years of his life to conquer it by crying out that it wasn’t his fault. But he also knows that this is a lie. And in the fitful dreams of his nights he will try instead to gain back just a single minute of his life, to somehow make that single minute different.
But life is so merciless to the man who has killed a child that everything afterward is too late.
And Hartman, along with his skills in bringing Dagerman into English, has played another very significant role in creating this book: he’s the one who selected the stories and put them together as a collection. As Hartman told me, he arranged the stories roughly according to the age of the protagonist as well as according to what he sees as a “thematic arc” to the book and according to “atmosphere and stylistic variation, which has a certain ebb and flow throughout the collection.” There is also, he points out, a general split between rural stories and those set largely in working-class Stockholm. Hartman speaks to the thematic unity of the work, how all the stories are “to some extent about the death of childhood, whether literally” as tied to child protagonists or “psychically/spiritually among the other adults in the same story.” Hartman goes on to say:
The (often premature) death of childhood is evident in different ways in the collection, sometimes in painful glimpses of emotional trauma…sometimes in exposing the tyranny of circumstance and situation…. Even in the case of a couple of stories that may seem less obviously to fit this mold, “Men of Character” and “Icelandic Sweater,” the adult characters have to let go—however imperfectly, belatedly, and unwillingly—to childlike illusions that can no longer be sustained in worlds hostile or indifferent to their needs.
Dagerman and Hartman’s Sleet is an extremely strong story collection at a time when story collections in English seem to be increasingly respected. A collection has never won The Best Translated Book Award. Maybe that’s about to change.Tweet
This week’s podcast is EPIC. With a minimum of digressions, we review every single book on the 2014 Best Translated Book Award Fiction Longlist, providing descriptions, some commentary on its chances of winning, other remarks about the titles we’ve read, etc. This may be a really long episode, but it’s also one of the most informative ones we’ve done, and I’m willing to guarantee that you come away wanting to buy and read and least two of the books we talk about.
This week’s music is Ashes & Embers by The Casket Girls. This album, True Love Kills the Fairy Tale, is a frontrunner to make my 2014 list of albums. (Only 9 more months until we do our yearly roundups!)
I’ve read three volumes of My Struggle so far, and I’m almost certain that I like Vol 2 the best. I hate comparisons of My Struggle to Proust because they always end up being purely superficial, but I’m going to make another superficial comparison for reasons that I hope will be evident: I kind of liken this volume to the second volume of Proust. Nine out of ten people adore Within a Budding Grove the most of all volumes of Proust because it’s the love volume. Proust is using all of his talents to describe love at its most rapturous and incandescent phase, and he’s processing it through his own memory, which of course makes it even more romantic and memorable. Not to mention, love stories tend to make for great narratives, another thing that makes the second volume of Proust much easier to read and more memorable than other volumes. There’s a certain sort of immediacy there that’s hard to match with any other kind of story.
Even though I would never compare Knausgaard’s prose or aims, or well, just about anything he does, to Proust—I’m not trying to be judgmental or elitist or say one is better than the other, I’m just saying that they’re not very similar except superficially—I think the deal with Vol 2 of My Struggle is much the same. After all, the subtitle is “A Man in Love.” This is the story of Knausgaard falling in love with his wife, and, well, it’s quite amazing. Knausgaard’s description of being carried away by a romance must be experienced! It alone makes the book stand out from the rest of the pack for me.
But in addition to that, the structure of Vol 2 is intricate and fascinating. It’s all structured around a lavish dinner that Knausgaard and his wife are throwing for a couple of friends. It’s one of those incredibly long, alcohol-sodden dinners, so it just goes on and on, and Knausgaard comes back to it throughout the volume as a touchstone of sorts. Interspersed with the dinner are the stories that bring him to this moment: falling in love with his wife, the arrival of the couple’s children, Knausgaard’s maturation as an adult and his sometimes-difficult emergence as a father, and, of course, his evolution from a promising-but-under-achieving writer experiencing a very serious dry spell to the man who eventually has the idea for My Struggle. In addition to all that, Knausgaard strings out for the length of the entire volume this utterly hilarious and tabloid-level fascinating story of his neighbor from hell, this Russian whore who plays incredibly abrasive techno “music” in the middle of the night and with whom he and his wife have this on-and-off feud for months. That last is such perfect Knausgaard: the ultimate sort of fascinating anecdote that that bottom-feeding reader in all of us just loves to hear, and the sort of an anecdote that Knausgaard tells like nobody else can. (Oh, and on that subject, the section where Knausgaard’s wife gives birth to their first child is simply AMAZING; it is long and drawn out and excruciating and simply shows realist writing at its very, very best. I think I almost fainted.)
And just one last thing: it’s in this volume that Knausgaard’s (best? closest? only real?) friend Geir comes into his own as an intellectual foil for our author. We learn about Geir’s book about boxing, which in turn becomes a way for Knausgaard to explain Geir’s ideas about masculinity, which then contrast with Knausgaard’s most spectacularly. This all leads up to one of my favorite moments in the entire first three volumes, where Knausgaard and Geir have this lengthy conversation in a bar sort of about the state of freedom and personal potential in the prototypical modern Western society. It’s this absolutely nuanced, complex treatment of the question that reaches back to the volume of Dostoevsky that Knausgaard reads throughout Vol 2 (and which, in my opinion, shows Dostoevsky as much more the intellectual and stylistic forebear to My Struggle than Proust).Yes, all this is found in Volume 2! It’s really a remarkable book. I know that people have very legitimate critiques of My Struggle, and I do sympathize with and even share those critiques to varying extents. But my gut feeling is that when it’s all said and done, Vol 2 might just turn out to be the best of the volumes, the one that shows the project to be a work of genius. So, it may well be the best chance to give this project the Best Translated Book Award. All this, then, I think, makes for a possibly compelling case for why this book should take the BTBA this year against some admittedly stiff competition. Tweet
Consider this: You are a woman living in France during the 1920s and 1930s. You hold the highest teaching awarded in France. In your early thirties, you are in love with a man a decade or so younger than you. It is a deep and passionate love. You become sick with tuberculosis. Your lover distances himself from you. On the train to the sanatorium, you read a letter he has sent you to inform you that a) he is getting married and b) the “love” he has for you has turned into “friendship.” While grieving this loss and fighting the disease that has plagued you, you write a monologue, an epistle, a rumination, a theory, a response to the letter and to the relationship. An editor reads it and wants to publish it. A respected scholar is asked to write a foreword. On your deathbed, between narcotic haziness and lucidity, the foreword is read to you. Feeling that the work is what you want it to be, days later at the age of 34, you peacefully pass away letting go of love and pain. You work is admired by prominent intellectuals of the time such as Paul Valery and René Crevel. Never having received it’s due in the canon of feminist literature, some eighty years later it is finally and masterfully translated by Christine Schwartz Hartley and Anna Moschovakis. At last, it is nominated for an award.
If that isn’t reason enough to merit the Best Translated Book Award, I’m not sure what is.
Commentary by Marcelle Sauvegeot enjoyed much resurgence in France but never gained notice until translated into English recently and published by Ugly Ducking Presse. This work is not to be categorized; it is a letter of admission, a monologue to those who love, an intimate philosophical inquiry into a woman’s mind and emotions. From early on, Sauvegeot cops to her feminine nature, but with an unflinching and objective eye, she does not excuse it:
“If only I could have begun the scene again to kiss that face and say: ‘I will not betray you.’ But things do not begin again; and I must not have uttered that sentence, for I don’t know how to speak at the right moment or with the appropriate tone. I am too easily overcome by emotion, and harden myself to avoid giving in to it. How can one convey the full sense of turmoil produce by an emotion at the exact moment it occurs?”
There are other feminist contemporaries who broached the emotional stranglehold of love and the way it changes when relationships change, specifically I am thinking H.D. (Hilda Doolittle, mentioned in the Introduction by Jennifer Moxley) and Djuna Barnes. But Commentary is more immediate and accessible than H.D.’s Kora and Ka and more intimate and analytical than Barnes’s Nightwood. No woman had written on love in such a direct and nuanced manner before this and while it is woman’s story of how an affair ends, it is masculine in its observation:
“Some ballads begin as your letter does: ‘You, whom I’ve loved so much…’ This past tense, with the present still resounding so close, is as sad as the ends of parties, when the lights are turned off and you remain alone, watching the couples go off into the dark streets. It’s over: nothing else is to be expected, and yet you stay there indefinitely, knowing that nothing more will happen. You have notes like a guitar’s; at times, like a chorus that repeats: ‘I could not have given you happiness.’ It’s an old song from long ago, like a dried flower…Does the past become an old thing so quickly?”
Who hasn’t been there? There is nostalgia and analysis present, but not a mawkish sentimentality. It’s not that she is writing like a man, but that she manages to dissect herself and the affair acknowledging her onus for loving the weaknesses of her lover as strongly as she condemns them.
Commentary isn’t a sweeping epic, not intricately plotted, nor is it full of literary devices, yet it is unique in form and so well written that the reader gathers all the necessary information from what Sauvageot conveys. It is a well-intended lament, a response to a call, short and powerful, written by a dying woman who only wanted to understand why love fails.Tweet
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