A Greater Music is the first in a line of steady and much-anticipated releases by Bae Suah from key indie presses (this one published by Open Letter). Building off of the interest of 2016 Best Translated Book Award longlist nominee Nowhere to Be Found, Bae Suah is back, this time with Deborah Smith, translator of the Man Booker Prize winner_ The Vegetarian_ and founder of Titled Axis, a UK-based press dedicated to publishing new works in translation.
In the book’s opening chapters, the narrator—who remains unnamed—falls into an icy river in the suburbs of Berlin. A Korean writer and student living in Germany, she begins to look back over the years, blurring lines between past and present as she examines her relationship with Joachim, her on-and-off, working class boyfriend, and M, her German tutor, a refined and enigmatic young. . .
The dislocation of individuals from the countries of their birth has long been a common theme in contemporary literature. These two short novels recently translated into English appear firmly rooted in this tradition of ex-pat literature, but their authors eschew the romanticism found in earlier works. In Revulsion, Eguardo Vega has returned home after living 18 years in Montreal, to attend the funeral of his mother and collect his inheritance. The unnamed narrator of Cabo De Gata leaves his home in Berlin for the warmth of the coast. Both narrators struggle with their new surroundings. Neither experiences personal epiphanies, neither finds love and salvation in exotic climates. Instead, both find that they cannot escape themselves, just as the Egyptian poet C. P. Cavafy early last century, “There’s no new land, my friend, no / New sea; for the city will. . .
In Melancholy, Hungarian author, critic, and art theorist László Földényi presents a panorama of more than two thousand years of Western historical and cultural perspectives on the human condition known as melancholia. In nine chapters, Földényi contrasts the hero worship and mystery cults of the ancient Greeks, the Hippocratic theory of bodily humors and the medieval astrology of fateful planets, the Renaissance preeminence of the individual and the Romantic inclination toward oblivion, the heartsickness of lover and beloved, the mental and neurological illnesses defined by modern medical science, and the personal dread of “real things passing” or the end of temporary existential illusion in the permanence of loss and death.
Heavy stuff—as one might expect from a title like Melancholy.
Yet readers looking for insight into their own or others’ feelings have often been drawn to such works.. . .
Pascal Quignard’s __The Hatred of Music_ is the densest, most arcane, most complex book I’ve read in ages. It’s also a book that covers a topic so basic, so universal—almost primordial—that just about any reader will be perversely thrilled by the intersections Quignard unearths between the mind and the world of sound. And that topic is just that: sound. How all manner of sounds constitute music, how some predate music and how our perception of sound—our history with it—affects our appreciation of music.
The nonfiction book is divided into what Quignard terms 10 treatises, but it often reads like a collection of connected fragments from the author’s journal. Entries are separated by a small bullet point, and the book feels in sections like a prose poem, or really, at times a riddle. As The New Yorker has noted, Quignard. . .
In Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Flaubert attempted to highlight the ordinary, tired, and often crass nature of common expressions by italicising them within the text. When Charles, Emma Bovary’s mediocre husband, expresses himself in a manner akin to that of a million other colourless men before him, Flaubert uses italics to lift the expression up from the page in order to highlight the character’s paucity of creative expression. Here, Flaubert acknowledges, is a very boring man. And thus: Emma begins to dream of a life better lived.
Jovanka Živanović’s novella, Fragile Travelers, also contains a dreamer. Her name is Emilija, or Ema, which is surely not a coincidence. In her waking life she is a high-school teacher. In her dreams she is much more: philosophical, introspective, able to fly, carrying a serpent baby in her womb. Dream things. And. . .
Eliot Weinberger takes big strides across literary history in his genuinely breathtaking short work, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, tracking translations of a short ancient Chinese poem from the publication of Ezra Pound’s Cathay in 1915 to Gary Snyder’s translations in the late ’70s. This new edition from New Directions Publishing includes an addition Weinberger wrote this past year, covering more recent efforts by sinologists in the twenty-first century in English, French, and German.
The poem in question is Wang Wei’s “Deer Park,” written sometime in the 700s CE. For reference, here is Gary Snyder’s translation, which fittingly is the last of the original 19 ways:
no one to be seen.
human sounds and echoes.
enters the dark woods;
on the green moss, above.
Weinberger makes short work of. . .
Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to take a form of writing known for its discipline, its strict forms, rhymes, and meanings suggested through language and render it into a second tongue. It’s inevitable that something will be lost in the process of translation. Prose might survive such a transformation (it may even benefit from it), but poetry is wounded each time it’s translated. I don’t speak Italian, but I know for sure that I’m missing something when I read Dante in English.
Perhaps this is why so much of the poetry in translation I come across seems to fall into the free verse, avant-garde category.. . .
The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high level of commitment and talent to pull that off. But I’m going to be very honest here: I’ve never thought that book was as good as the story of how it was written. No disrespect to Perec; his book is astounding, but I’ll likely remember the craft long after I’ve forgotten the story.
The Subsidiary could have easily become a book where the form is more impressive than the content. The author, Matías Celedón, composed the book using a set of office stamps purchased at a library sale in Santiago, Chile. The stamps allow for moveable type, though. . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his customary ethical tangles and astute mulling over human behavior. At its most fluid, the reader drifts through the familiar density and detours in something like an intrigued torpor.
The focal point is the uneasy marriage of Eduardo Muriel and Beatriz Noguera. Juan de Vere, the narrator, is looking back on the period when, in his first job as an assistant to Eduardo, a well-known film director, he lived in the former maid’s quarters of the couple’s apartment. He was drawn to them, they relied on him, and this configuration made him a privileged voyeur. Provoked by rambling conversations with. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in the first person by Kogito Choko, a septuagenarian writer with published works including The Silent Cry and The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away. If those titles sound familiar to you, it’s because those actually are real-life titles by Oe, The Day He Himself in particular being a part of the collection Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness.
As a matter of fact, Death by Water is in many ways a direct response to The Day He Himself, and few pages go by without it being mentioned. The reason? Death by Water is essentially the story of. . .