Lori Feathers is a freelance critic and Vice President of the Board of Deep Vellum Publishing.
Baboon – Naja Marie Aidt, translated from the Danish by Denise Newman, Denmark
Two Lines Press
Baboon should win this year’s Best Translated Book Award because page-for-page it offers more surprises and excitement than any other book in the BTBA. Aidt writes like a sexed-up Flannery O’Connor. Her stories are fresh, daring and almost always unpredictable. Like O’Connor Aidt places her characters in ordinary situations and beneath the patina of comfortable domesticity we find, to our delight, the perverse and disturbing.
Along with plots that astonish, Aidt keeps readers off balance by using gender-neutral pronouns to deliberately obscure characters’ relationships to each other and defy our expectations as to how they will interact — most often in ways that are a great deal nastier than we can imagine.
But it is with her descriptions of the inconsequential that the most lasting impressions are created: a baby’s green, lollipop-stained mouth; an uncooked chicken, the habitual manner in which a woman moves her hand, the fat, falling flakes inside a child’s snow globe. The mundane becomes extraordinary when it succumbs to the scrutiny of Aidt’s perceptive eye:
I like watching people. And this woman is remarkable. She’s nearly bald. Her head must’ve been shaved fairly recently because there’s just a fine dark shadow of hair. She drinks carefully out of a small glass, something strong, maybe cognac, or whiskey, I can’t tell from here. There’s something about her that reminds me of a young animal, perhaps a deer, the same watchful nervousness. She’s wearing a suit that’s both elegant and a little too large. It’s grayish-green, brownish, like mud and dried grass. I have a sudden urge to touch her neck. A flood of images runs through my head: I think about the canvas sacks, about my childhood, about the soldiers’ uniforms, and my mother, who, much later, is standing in front of our house outside of Leipzig. It’s plastered with thick mortar and has that color so common for East German houses: grayish-green, brownish. My mother is smiling. She’s wearing a red dress.
To read Baboon is to bear witness to the unraveling of otherwise complacent lives; an unsettling experience made all the more so in the short story format, which withholds the context necessary for the reader to anticipate what will happen next. And this is a large part of the fun. But Aidt also asks us to consider whether, like us, her characters are justified in being caught off-guard or if, as one character puts it, …she’s spent far too many years down in the dark, where all that’s revealed is a fraction of what there is.Tweet
This week, Tom and Chad talk about some of the new translations that they’ve read (or are looking forward to reading) and are most excited about. Along the way are the expected digressions (including an explanation of how editing and rights work when a U.S. publisher and a U.K. publisher separately publish the same translation), and, of course, the episode wouldn’t be complete without their famous “Raves & Raves” segment (nope, not a typo. Everyone thought they were on rave duty this week, so it’s a double dose of happy!).
This week’s music is What I Want from the new album Policy by Will Butler.
And you can email us with complaints and comments at email@example.com
Winter Mythologies and Abbotts – Pierre Michon, Translated from the French by Ann Jefferson, France
Yale University Press
Winter Mythologies and Abbots was one of the first books I read as a BTBA judge, and it registered with me positively at the time. I didn’t expect it to stay with me so long, though, and slowly percolate its way to the upper reaches of my list of favorites.
The book was a originally a pair of books before translator Ann Jefferson and publisher Yale University Press got hold of them. The two parts are perfectly complementary in their new single volume, each a set of short fictions about obscure historical figures in Ireland and France. These monks and saints exist today as barely more than footnotes in ancient texts, but Pierre Michon treats their lives with the same significance as historians do kings and queens. More to the point, he bestows upon them the same level of attention that Tolstoy gives to Anna Karenina or Dickens to David Copperfield. Not that Michon is anything like as exhaustive as those authors were, but his feelings seem as intense. His imagination has made his characters real again.
It’s a further measure of his skills that they seem so despite how odd they remain. They are people whose lives are dedicated to faith and tradition, who see only the barest glimmers of rational enlightenment on the very distant horizon, and their motivations are often alien to modern eyes. Unlike most such characters in historical fiction, however, they’re not designed to allow self-congratulatory dismissal by contemporary readers. Their worldview is as complex and confused as ours, and paints as convincing a picture of medieval and pre-medieval times as I can imagine.
You’ll have to take my word for it when I say that the tack Michon’s taken here with his subject and his setting is not at all one to which I’m naturally sympathetic. Neither do I tend to favor fiction without some bravura to its prose, and that’s not WM&A’s style. It’s a quiet, modest work of carefully selected detail and incident that insinuates itself into the reader’s mind. I promise that this is not a recipe that guarantees notice by a BTBA judge who’s surveying half a thousand books in half a year, but it worked like magic in this case. I can’t recommend Winter Mythologies and Abbots highly enough.Tweet
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay – Elena Ferrante, Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, Italy
Elena Ferrante is everywhere now. Yet, I remember when she was obscure, when she wrote dark, suffocating first person narratives about women coming undone. She laboriously outlines, emotion by emotion, the protagonist’s shunning of a traditional female role, whether it is wife or mother or both, in favor of her own desires. In Days of Abandonment and The Lost Daughter, we are stuck in the protagonist’s mind while she struggles to reckon with her own betrayal of tradition and patriarchy. I felt these intense novels were mine from the beginning – sordid, angry and unknown. Then came My Brilliant Friend, the first novel in Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, and the literati was roused from their stateside slumber to take notice of a book about an Italian female friendship between two girls Elena and Lila.
After My Brilliant Friend, came The Story with No Name which solidified Ferrante’s status as an international writer and the first time she was recognized by the Best Translated Book Award (2014). This year, Ferrante and Ann Goldstein, her faithful translator with whom she has been paired with for all seven of her works, make the list again for Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. It opens with Elena in her mid-sixties, walking with Lila, when a boy finds a body in the bushes that Lila identifies as their childhood friend, Gigliola. From there Ferrante takes us back in time to the 1960s and the long 1970s of Italy, to the poverty-stricken neighborhoods of Naples, the middle-class restaurants and homes of Florence and the university classrooms where Marxist rhetoric echoes through the halls, giving hope to the students and the local workers that change will come.
Things have changed for both Elena and Lila. Lila is no longer under the thumb of Stefano Carracci, but living in a rundown apartment with a boy she grew up with, Enzo Scanno, and working at a sausage factory. Elena has graduated from university, published a well-received novel and is fiancée to a young professor from Florence. When Elena returns to Naples from Pisa, she comments on the city and it’s deterioration:
Lodged in my memory were dark streets full of dangers, unregulated traffic, broken pavements, giant puddles. The clogged sewers splattered, dribbled over. Lavas of water and sewage and garbage and bacteria spilled into the sea from the hills that were burdened with new, fragile structures, or eroded the world from below. People died of carelessness, of corruption, of abuse, and yet, in every round of voting, gave their enthusiastic approval to the politicians who made their life unbearable. As soon as I got off the train, I moved cautiously in the places where I had grown up, always careful to speak in dialect, as if to indicate I am on of yours, don’t hurt me.
Elena views Lila as an extension of the city and when she first encounters her after a long while, she notes that Lila is “even thinner, even paler, her eyes were red, the sides of her nose were cracked, her long hands were scarred by cuts.” Lila is her touchstone but also her constant reminder of where she came from and that no matter the education or distance, she can never escape it. The control of the Camorra, the violence, the dialect and the oppression of women follow Elena to Florence no matter how much she tries to distance herself and her family from her neighborhood. Her bond with Lila drags her back into the fray, through pleas from Lila but also through Elena’s own necessity to measure up to her, to gain her approval. Yes, this friendship is symbiosis at its most brutal, honest, humiliating and twisted.
What Ferrante, and in turn Goldstein, both do so deftly is ensconce you into the narrative voice and the pace of the novel from the beginning. Even if one hasn’t read the first two of the series, the emotional investment is set forth on page one and instead of feeling that you have missed something, at book’s end the only urge will be to run out to buy the first two. Each page adds layer upon layer so that the friendship between Elena and Lila becomes inextricable from the Godfatheresque battle between the communists and the fascists for control, the struggle between Elena’s role as wife and mother versus that of writer, the role of patriarchy in defining everything that women are or have been, and the ubiquity of violence in their neighborhood and how it even manifests itself through the dialect.
Through all of this, Lila remains the intelligent dropout who is detached and hard, relying on Elena for vicarious success. Elena lives as if she were living partly for Lila, thinking always of Lila’s reaction, of her approval or rejection. Their fidelity to one another feeds itself off their competition and it isn’t till Elena’s husband, Pietro, finally meets Lila and explains to Elena her relationship with Lila:
Pietro shook his head energetically, he explained, surprisingly, that Lila had seemed to him the worst person. He said that she wasn’t at all my friend, that she hated me, that she was extraordinarily intelligent, that she was very fascinating, but her intelligence had been put to bad use—it was the evil intelligence that sows discord and hates life—and her fascination was the more intolerable, the fascination that enslaves and drives a person to ruin.
Yet if Elena didn’t have Lila, she wouldn’t have tried to become what Lila couldn’t.
As with her other novels, Ferrante’s writing does make this seem effortless. It wouldn’t seem that way if weren’t for Goldstein’s translation. Speaking of symbiotic, Goldstein has such a feel for rhythm of Ferrante’s prose that we don’t miss a beat in her cadence. Goldstein also recognizes the directness of Ferrante’s style without becoming melodramatic or heavy-handed. Although the is brutality in the dialect, nothing ever stops or stultifies you because Goldstein has which notes she can strike that will keep the narrative harmonious. Ferrante is lucky to have the loyalty of Goldstein!
Besides all the accolades given to her writing, her skill and her consistency, the media still can’t quite believe in her existence. Ferrante is reclusive. Yet because she doesn’t show herself in public and because she can write violent scenes, some have actually contended that she is a man. What woman could possibly write of violence and brutality so openly? There is nothing that makes me angrier than when mostly male critics doubting the art of a woman. If Mailer was allowed to write sex scenes than Ferrante can write violence. Putting the obvious reasons of craft and success aside of both writer and translator, what other author in the longlist has been accused of being a man because she writes so well?Tweet
La Grande – Juan Jose Saer, translated by from the Spanish by Steve Dolph, Argentina,
Open Letter Books
Juan Jose Saer was a towering figure in Argentine literature. Over the course of his decades-long career he carved out his very own Argentina, a lovely provincial city named Santa Fe and its environs. He also developed his very own literary style, something that deals with the trappings of genre and that leads to very engaging plots and stories—plus unforgettable characters—yet that is also highly, highly philosophical and experimental, in the way of other Argentine greats like Julio Cortázar and Ricardo Piglia.
As with the work of William Faulker and Roberto Bolaño, you can think of Saer’s fiction as all of a piece. There are things that link most of Saer’s great novels—places, people, themes—and La Grande is very much the summation of a career. It is the biggest, longest, most complex novel he produced, and it brings many of his principle characters all back together. It was the last thing Saer ever wrote, a book he didn’t quite finish before he died at a young 67 from lung cancer in 2005, but that feels very complete in the state it reaches us.
This introduction may make it sound like you need to be versed in Saer to approach La Grande, but this is not the case. The book is self-contained and utterly satisfying and complete on its own terms. What is it about? Well, it is about the good life, the very material pleasures and joys that we must remember to always make time for on this Earth. It is also a deeply philosophical work about who we are and what we are doing here, although Saer is never jargon-y or butchering or even so much as dull when he gets into philosophy. It’s also about the literary avant-garde, about seductions and affairs between men and women, about marriage and getting a second chance at life and love.
In other words, it’s a novel written by a master novelist who has lived a very rich life and is prepared to put it all down on paper one last time. Thanks to Open Letter we will continue to receive many more installments of Saer for years to come, so there will be many, many more chances for him to win the Best Translated Book Award, but La Grande should really be the one that gives him the honor. It’s just a simply great book, something that will live with you for a week or two as you read it, and then a thing that you will then recall fondly forever after you’ve finished it. It makes you feel more alive to read it, and it makes you want to enjoy life, whether you do that by consuming a fine wine, chorizo, and carnal pleasures (as do Saer’s characters) or whether you prefer other of the world’s delights. Once you’ve had your fill of earthly pleasures, La Grande then instructs you in how to contemplate it all, to give your life that spiritual, philosophical outlook it also needs to have. It also happens to have one of literature’s great last lines (it may be a good thing that Saer never got to complete this work), and it really does feel like a book that gives us our best shot at understanding just what life is and how we should live it.
So, really, there are many worthy books on the BTBA longlist, and this year it feels like there are many more titles in the running than usual, but La Grande really deserves it. It should win.Tweet
Michael Orthofer runs the Complete Review – a book review site with a focus on international fiction – and its Literary Saloon weblog.
The Author and Me – Éric Chevillard, translated from the French by Jordan Stump, France
Dalkey Archive Press
Obviously, two-time, back-to-back winner László Krasznahorkai has made the biggest splash at the Best Translated Book Award in recent years, but several other authors have also proven to be more than one-hit wonders. So, for example, former winner (2011, for The True Deceiver) Tove Jansson features on this year’s longlist, as do shortlisted authors from recent years such as Elena Ferrante (2014), Edouard Levé (2013), and Jean Echenoz (2012). One more name that keeps cropping up is that of Éric Chevillard: his Demolishing Nisard was longlisted in 2012, and a year later Prehistoric Times was shortlisted. So is 2015 the year Chevillard goes all the way, on the back of Jordan Stump‘s translation of his novel, The Author and Me?
A book-length rant by a character who is served cauliflower gratin rather than the trout amandine he was expecting – okay, perhaps it doesn’t sound like the most promising material. And yet … what more could one ask for?
Sure, the author admits, in a footnote well into the book, that maybe he’s taking things a bit far:
(R)eally, a whole book against cauliflower gratin, what a ridiculous conceit, it’s not credible, not for a second
No, the reader will surely prefer to see all this as an allegory, and will struggle to decipher it: that cauliflower gratin can only be a metaphor for the good old-fashioned novel still stewing in the kitchens of our literature.
Yet there’s more to The Author and Me, too: as the title suggests, this is a novel that also plays some games with questions of the relationship between author and subject. In his Foreword, Chevillard insists he’s out to prove his autonomy-as-author – to show that he’s the one in charge and differentiate himself from a protagonist who, he insists, isn’t just a mouthpiece-cum-alter ego. Just to make things clear, he intrudes in the story-proper – in footnotes explaining his position. Wanting to assert autonomy, and authorial authority – and to show he’s the better man (“The author’s mind is more spirited, bolder, and even more sensitive”, he claims, for example, just to be clear …) – he struggles to differentiate himself from his character. Eventually, he feels he has to put his foot(note) down more firmly, asserting himself in a secondary story (suggested title: My Ant) – a forty-page excursion (all in that single footnote) following … an ant. (No worries, the cauliflower gratin/trout amandine mix-up hasn’t been forgotten: it crops up here as well.)
Oh, and for those who prefer their novels with a bit of a more conventional arc of drama and suspense, The Author and Me also offers … murder! (Some readers may, indeed, wonder, as the narrator rants and rants endlessly along, at what point the Mademoiselle who is his silent, long-suffering audience reaches the breaking point and reaches across the table to start throttling him – or perhaps suspect Chevillard-as-author will assert final authority by doing in his wordy creation himself … but Chevillard follows convention only so far (not very; not very, at all) so there’s some surprise here, too. (Indeed, as he hopefully notes in his final footnote: “He trusts that this twist will leave his reader agape, and, why not, stammering Wha…wha…”.)
The Author and Me is a fairly slim (146-page) albeit occasionally dense (certainly literally so, in that footnote-story-section, some forty pages of fine print …) novel that builds a tour de force on its simple premises – cauliflower vs. trout; author vs. protagonist. Chevillard has considerable fun while he’s at it – and so then does the reader – and shows incredible dexterity in what he does with his story. It’s challenging – in no small part because Chevillard refuses to give in to convention(s) – to put up with cauliflower gratin! – but rewardingly so.
Jordan Stump has been engaged with Éric Chevillard’s writing for many years: the first of Chevillard’s books he translated was The Crab Nebula, in 1997; The Author and Me is the fourth. With its stylistic range and playfulness, Chevillard’s writing, more than most, is surely not something either translator or reader can easily get comfortable with – a 1997 reviewThe Crab Nebula, in The New York Times Book Review by Liam Callanan noting:
“‘Translation is entirely mysterious,’ Ursula K. Le Guin once remarked, and so is Eric Chevillard’s brief novel — his first to be translated into English. The mystery stems not from any conflict between the English text (by Jordan Stump and Eleanor Hardin) and the original French, but more from the translation from thought to page.”
The translation-challenges posed by The Author and Me are different, but no less demanding, and Stump has captured Chevillard’s tone and registers (and the humor to it all) expertly.
Multilayered, though-provoking – and very funny – The Author and Me is a rich work, indeed deserving of serious consideration for Best Translated Book Award honors.Tweet
Annelise Finegan Wasmoen is an editor and a literary translator. She is pursuing a PhD in Comparative Literature at Washington University in St. Louis.
Daniel Medin teaches at the American University of Paris, where he helps direct the Center for Writers and Translators and is Associate Series Editor of The Cahiers Series.
The Last Lover – Can Xue, Translated from the Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen, China
Yale University Press
1. How did you discover Can Xue’s fiction? What led you to want to translate this book?
Prosaically enough, I discovered Can Xue’s writing in the same place that so many others have, in a classroom. I doubt there’s a survey of modern Chinese literature that doesn’t include her short story “Hut on the Mountain.” It was immediately clear she was working at a level of experimentation that was on a different plane than her contemporaries, pushing the boundaries of fiction toward something else entirely.
With The Last Lover, it was less a matter of being led to translate the book than leaping at the opportunity to do so. I met Can Xue through Jonathan Brent, then editorial director of Yale University Press, where I worked as an assistant editor in 2007–08; he shared a sample chapter of my translation with the author and the rest went smoothly enough. What kept me translating was the incredible intricacy of the text: the novel yields new insights even after a dozen readings.
2. Anything that a new reader of Can Xue should know before diving in?
When you asked me to speak with your Contemporary World Literature class earlier this spring, one of the students asked the perfect question: is it better to try to make sense of The Last Lover while reading it, or to wait until the end? Wait to the end, if you can. Can Xue’s style of writing tends to resist immediate attempts at sense-making, but to read her fiction carefully, especially in the longer form of a novel, is to realize that there are intricate patterns and motifs woven through the text.
To the extent that there is an overarching narrative, The Last Lover begins in the West and by its end several characters have journeyed to the East, whether in dreams or in person. The primary setting is an unspecified Country A, which some readers have taken to indicate a generalized Occident, and others to be an image of America. But it’s America in the sense of Kafka’s Amerika, where the Statue of Liberty holds a sword. You can see how this might be a sort of commentary. The characters have names drawn from many different languages and cultures, with reversals of first and last names as well. The novel features three central couples—Joe and Maria (who have a son, Daniel), Vincent and Lisa, Reagan and Ida—with each chapter focusing on one of these figures.
A self-reflexive theme of reading follows the character Joe, who fails to separate the world of fiction from the world that surrounds him. Here’s a passage from the book about Joe’s reading:
The next day Joe took off from work. He began reading a book with only one page. The book was clothbound, with a drawing of a tall pine tree on the cover. Inside there was a single thick sheet of paper. This sheet could be unfolded to the length of the desk. The picture on the cover appeared to be of an anthill. The periphery of the anthill was densely written over with a miniature text, visible only under a magnifying glass. And once Joe looked with the glass, he discovered that he didn’t recognize a single word.
Then the book starts flapping around the room, then the room starts shaking, then there is an invasion of doves, etc.
The theme of love, too, pervades the novel, although in many ways The Last Lover explores how people are constantly moving away from each other through space and time, both real and imagined. As the distance between the book’s central couples increases, their communication deepens. These forms of communication from afar seem to echo the novel’s central parable about reading.
Finally, there is an interpolation of national history, namely the recurring reference to the 1930s Long March. Although technically the Long March was a very long tactical retreat, it allowed for the consolidation of the Communist Party at Yan’an; it began as a historical event and became a myth of national origins. Within the novel, several of the characters undergo an inner long march, which takes place in the middle of the night, in a not-quite-dream-state, and is associated with the characters Lisa and Maria. Luding Bridge, the site of a central battle during the Long March, also appears at several key moments.
Of course it’s up to the reader to parse and process these various elements—the journey from West to East, the theme of love and communication at a distance, the personal long march—but I hope that outlining them in this way might give hope to someone approaching Can Xue’s fiction for the first time.
For a reader who prefers a naturalizing or domesticating style, the translation might be difficult. Can Xue refers to her writing as having an inner mechanism, which sounds mysterious, but there is an associative logic that runs through all of her fiction. Since it was important to follow this associative logic that relates certain words or images to each other, I chose a translation style that kept as much consistency as possible, retaining correlations instead of attempting to achieve a natural flow. This was in the service of leaving the reader in English with the same interpretative leeway as the reader of the original, which is a risky sort of thing. This was the first novel I translated, and in other translations I’ve gone in the other direction, but this specific text seemed to call for an extreme level of fidelity: translate everything; explain nothing.
For example, in the fourth chapter, there is a “so-called greenhouse,” a large empty room with small windows and dim lighting. There are earthen bowls arrayed on the ground with coarse sand and seeds in them. The gardener holds a seed and says, “Look, it’s already burst open, but the shoots inside can’t get out. All the seeds here are in the same condition. The flowers open inside of dreams. … the seeds still keep this shape, neither sprouting nor decaying.” The flowers that bloom from these seeds appear at other places in the novel: the character Lisa looks at a tapestry and “there floated up in her mind the red sun of an early morning in the gambling city, where sprouting seeds, exhausted from a long night of breaking through, struggled out.” There is a family whose rosebushes bloom year-round, become electrified, and are uprooted by the son, whom his father has dreamed of as a body with a rose for its head. These examples are scattered across the book, available for excavation, but might be lost in the translation if any of the individual elements were disrupted: the bowls, the seeds, the flowers.
3. The Last Lover is the second novel by Can Xue to appear in English. Unlike Five Spice Street, which appeared in English in 2009 but actually dates to 1988, it’s a fairly recent work (2005). How would you distinguish her recent books from the earlier ones? In what ways has her writing changed over the course of her career?
Can Xue is perhaps best known for her mastery of the short story: condensed meditations on a single theme, an expanded metaphor, an unnerving turn of events, a strange interaction. In recent years she has been undertaking more novel-length projects, which, remarkably, maintain the same sort of intensity but at an exponential degree of complexity. To me, it seems that the experiments with longer forms mark a key development in her approach to writing.
4. Could you point out one of your favorite passages in The Last Lover, and tell us what you like about (translating) it?
Definitely the last chapter. Toward the end of the novel (spoilers), the character Joe disappears into the world of his stories and his wife discovers this world embodied in a forest of books. As I mentioned before, much of the novel treats of separation. Here, there is a moment of joy in rediscovering family bonds, worked across the literalized metaphor of the forest of books.
That night Maria went to the study because she couldn’t sleep. Although she hadn’t turned on the light, she could see that Joe’s bookcases had turned into a dark forest of books. The books had grown large, one book set next to another vertically on the floor, the pages of the books opening and closing.
Maria touched the enormous book pages with a shaking finger. She touched one after another of the letters protruding from the pages, and those letters jumped slightly, giving off electricity. Suddenly she comprehended the book’s meaning. The book told of an ancient, deserted beach. Someone climbed onto the bank from the sea. Sea birds cried ominously in the air. “That man is Joe,” Maria spoke quietly. Then her finger touched the word “Joe.” “Joe, is it you?” she asked.
Over several decades of uninterrupted reading, her Joe had created this forest. And he hadn’t removed her from it. Once she entered, she blended into this place. In the su su rustling sound made by the pages, a world of writing appeared in her mind. She realized that for many years everything she’d woven was this writing. So familiar, so pleasing—was this happiness? She began to walk from one book to another. Dry leaves made noise under her feet; her feet touched a few small stones; she even heard the song of a nightingale. It was inside the pages of the largest book, singing and then pausing.
There was a dim light in the forest of books, but when Maria looked up she couldn’t see the sky. Was there even a sky? There were grass, stones, a path, and she heard water flowing from a spring. But the air was filled with the fine smell of old books. This was Joe’s story. This story belonged to her, forever. Maria’s heart was full of gratitude. She pricked her ears, awaiting the nightingale’s singing again.
She waited till it sang, but it wasn’t one call, it was many, many calls. One rising as another fell.
The very close of the novel turns quite dark again, ending on an intensely powerful image.Tweet
Madeleine LaRue is Associate Editor and Director of Publicity of Music & Literature.
Things Look Different in the Light and Other Stories – Merdardo Fraile, Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa, Spain
For most of us, Things Look Different in the Light arrived late in the game. My own copy wasn’t delivered until after I’d already sent in my longlist picks. But I’m grateful that it’s on the longlist now, because this collection of stories has turned out to be so delightful.
In a year of many excellent short stories — and many Spanish-speaking male writers — Medardo Fraile holds his own. Ali Smith writes in her introduction that “generosity runs through Fraile’s writing like electricity, or like light and flowers do, but always in the knowledge that flowers wilt and light is a matter of darkness.” Light is indeed a key word in Fraile’s work. Most of his stories describe entirely ordinary events — a man attends a party, two women grow old, a sign painter makes a mistake — but Fraile casts a light that makes them suddenly surprising, touching, or insightful.
One of my favorite stories is “Child’s Play,” in which two ageing sisters try to ward off the approach of blindness and death by filling their apartment with light. They gradually extend their chandelier until it takes up almost the entire living room, its arms touching the walls and nearly reaching the floor. “In the evening,” Fraile writes, it was a veritable forest of glinting crystals, a bag of light, a labyrinth, a hanging city. It had to be secured to the ceiling by five chains when it reached its prime, its peak, when Flora and Martita were old, too old, and sat beneath the chandelier like two transparent raisins filled with light.
Fraile’s writing is often like this: filled with strings of marvelous metaphors, gentle humor, and light. He’s sympathetic to his characters, even or especially when they’re faintly ridiculous, and this generosity protects his stories from falling into sentimentality.
Fraile’s light touch does not, however, preclude him from addressing serious or sorrowful themes. In the story “Reparation,” a couple is robbed of their fortune while travelling by train. A few years later, the wife dies, and her grieving husband decides to become a beggar, living on charity until he has received reparations for his loss. “What one person robs another person begs,” he reasons. “Wherever there are thieves there must be beggars.”
Fraile died quite recently, in 2013. Though he was recognized throughout his life as one of Spain’s greatest writers, Things Look Different in the Light is his first publication in English. Anglophone readers too often have to wait for wonderful books; I’m glad we no longer have to wait for Fraile. Margaret Jull Costa has outdone herself with this beautiful translation; the Best Translated Book Award prize would be fitting recognition of her work, as well of the many hours of reading pleasure this book has brought me and others.Tweet
Faces in the Crowd – Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney, Mexico
Coffee House Press
Early in Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd, she offers an explanation — of sorts — for the format of her book, a format that exists if not in service of her style, than alongside it, a fellow-traveler on the book’s quest.
Novels need a sustained breath. That’s what novelists want. No one knows exactly what it means but they all say: a sustained breath. I have a baby and a boy. They don’t let me breathe. Everything I write is—has to be—in short bursts. I’m short of breath.
This is a stand-alone paragraph, in its entirety, set apart from its predecessor and successor by several line breaks. And so the book unfolds in a series of observations and stories contained in paragraphs that more often that not relate to each other, but not always, much like the way the human mind functions. Its both trite and lazy to assert that this fracturing of ideas is a grotesque symptom of contemporary society, that we’re all beset by so many forms of media, by so many voices and concerns and assaults on our attention that we’re incapable of focusing on any one thought for more than a few minutes. And it’s especially trite and lazy because it presumes that people in different times and places were passive lumps of clay for whom the notion of multi-tasking, even intellectually if not physically, was an outright impossibility. It also smacks of nostalgia. All of which I say in order to say what I what to say about this book: it is all things. The structure and style, the jumping back and forth between past and present, accomplishes something mesmerizing: it paints a truly believable and empathetic and insightful portrait of life. It grabs hold of and dissects and analyzes life in all of its multifaceted glory and misery and whatever falls in between. But do not allow yourself to believe that this is a novel merely about contemporary life. No. It’s a novel about life. Full stop.
As fractured as I’m perhaps suggesting this book is, I want to make it clear the book as a whole doesn’t feel the slightest bit fractured. The paragraphs, as the book progresses, talk to each other. Stories from the narrator’s youth in New York unfold in between observations and stories of her current situation, mostly the detailed descriptions of her domestic life and how it informs not only her writing, but her ever-evolving outlook on the world at large. At one point she tells the story of Ezra Pound stripping down a poem from pages and pages of lines to what would eventually become “In a Station of the Metro.” It’s touching and literarily charming (I am a total sucker for anything related to Pound) and offers what might qualify as a manifesto in the context of this book: the idea that adornment or imparted symbolism or anything along those lines should be excised without mercy, so as to get to the heart of the thing. She follows through on her manifesto by not overpopulating the book, by keeping the narrative trajectories fairly straightforward. The result is that the important characters, the important places, have space to assert themselves, to become well-rounded and memorable. This idea also allows for stories to be revisited and re-positioned as new memories are injected into the narrative, creating, in the end, a story that has itself morphed over the course of the book, a story that comments on itself, saying, it seems: this is life; no more, no less.* * *
The following is taken from another brilliant book, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, in which she, too recognizes the inherent beauty in the quotidian. And I’m including it here in support of my argument on behalf of this book because, well, because why not.
The pleasure of abiding. The pleasure of insistence, of persistence. The pleasure of obligation, the pleasure of dependency. The pleasures of ordinary devotion. The pleasure of recognizing that one may have to undergo the same realizations, write the same notes in the margins, return to the same themes in one’s work, relearn the same emotional truths, write the same book over and over again—not because one is stupid or obstinate or incapable of change, but because such revisitations constitute a life.
In the first sentence of this post, I mentioned the book’s quest. Here’s the thing: although there is a quest, there is no quest to or for any specific thing. No objective, no overarching morality, no ambition beyond the one that’s sitting front and center: a masterful demonstration that life and art are—or at least can be, and should be more often than they are allowed to be—quests without destinations, without endgames.
It’s no easy feat to do this with such captivating ease, and that’s why I believe this book should win.Tweet
Jón Gnarr is an actor, punk rocker, comedian, and author who created the satirical “Best Party” in Iceland and, against all odds, rose to become major of Reykjavík. He is one of the world’s most colorful politicians, and this is your chance to meet the man who has both enthralled and often flummoxed the media with his achievements and outlandish attitude. This new book explores the obstacles Jón overcame during a time in his life when he was originally diagnosed with “mental retardation” due to dyslexia, learning difficulties, and ADHD.
We have the pleasure of hosting a Reading the World Conversation Series event with Jón and Lytton at 6 p.m. tonight, at the College Town Barnes & Noble. The event is free and open to the public, and is going to be AMAZING!
Here’s the beginning of Patrick’s review:
The opening of Jón Gnarr’s novel/memoir The Indian is a playful bit of extravagant ego, telling the traditional story of creation, where the “Let there be light!” moment is also the moment of his birth on January 2nd, 1967. Then comes sly awareness of the flow from preconsciousness to consciousness, “Murmuring becomes speech and words. Everything gradually clarifies, taking on a fantastic light. You get on intimate terms with your existence.” It is his life story, so why not make God’s creation of the universe culminate with him? This stylistic turn is Gnarr’s immediate signal to reiterate his author’s note: this is both a memoir and a novel. It will tell a truthful story of his life, but the only way to do that, with faulty memories, with absence of memories, is through literature.
As readers, we should interpret it as we do fiction: creatively, poetically, without leaving behind the emotions and the struggles, even the lessons learned, that biography offers. The Indian has everything that people want from mainstream literature: emotions, plot, likeable characters, lessons learned, personal growth, yet it is so much better—the emotions and characters more complex, the writing skillful. This is the type of book that readers deserve, both those who read widely and those who read four or five “popular” books a year.
After the opening, Gnarr leaves that ego aside for a couple chapters to tell us about his family, his parents, his significantly older siblings, his grandparents. He summarizes their lives, tells how they came to live in a suburb of Reykjavík. The Indian will be his life, his story, and he lives it in a private, isolated world, but Gnarr cares for the lives around him.
For the rest of the review, go here.Tweet
The opening of Jón Gnarr’s novel/memoir The Indian is a playful bit of extravagant ego, telling the traditional story of creation, where the “Let there be light!” moment is also the moment of his birth on January 2nd, 1967. Then. . .
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