19 March 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Tomb Song by Julián Herbert, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Graywolf Press)

Moment Number One

“Technique, my boy,” says a voice in my head. “Shuffle the technique.”

To hell with it: in her youth, Mamá was a beautiful half-breed Indian who had five husbands: a fabled pimp, a police officer riddled with bullet holes, a splendid goodfella, a suicidal musician, and a pathetic Humphrey Bogart impersonator. PERIOD.


The 2018 translation that’s the occasion for this post is Tomb Song by Julián Herbert, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney and published by Graywolf Press. But to be honest, this is mostly just going to be banter. Or whatever you call banter that only involves one person and is written instead of spoken.

But we’ll start with a bit about Tomb Song, one of the better works of international literature to come out so far in 2018. It’s referred to as “An Incandescent U.S. Debut” on the press release, which normally would land it on my “do not read” list, but I like the cover. And suspect this is a potential finalist for the National Book Award in Translation (more on that below).

Categorized as “fiction,” it’s a book in which Julián Herbert writes about Julián Herbert writing about the death of his mother from leukemia. (And the death of his father as well.) It resides in that Ben Lerner, or Karl Ove Knausgaard, or maybe Geoff Dyer realm of being a “nonfiction novel,” in which truth and literary technique come together and create something else.

From a recent interview in the Paris Review:

To me, this is a novel. A nonfictional novel, most of the time, though there are some fictional elements. But the protagonist—my mother, Guadalupe—was real. She was a prostitute, and she died of leukemia. Why does it matter if the particular events around her happened in this world or not?

I think novels are novels because of technique, not because the content is made up. I wrote Tomb Song using a novelist’s tools—prolepsis and analepsis, digression, a plot twist that lasts three decades, plenty of characters. It’s always been strange to me that some Spanish-language critics insist that Tomb Song is a memoir and that my other book, The House of the Pain of Others, is a novel. To me, that book is a mix of reportage and narrative history. But honestly, I don’t lose sleep over this. I’ve always written between genres.


Moment Number Two

We’re always hearing about what a headache the frontier is for the United States because of the drug trafficking. No one mentions how dangerous the United States frontier is for Mexicans because of the trafficking of arms. And, when the subject does come up, the neighboring attorney general points out: “It’s not the same thing: the drugs are of illegal origin, the arms aren’t.” As if there was a majestic logic in considering that in comparison with the destructive power of a marijuana joint, an AK-47 is just a child’s toy.


Earlier this week, the National Book Awards announced all the specific details about applying for this year’s awards—including all the info on the recently re-established National Book Award for Translation.

Back when it was announced that the National Book Foundation was bringing this back, I wrote a long post about how great it was that Lisa Lucas (and her predecessor at the foundation, Harold Augenbraum, two of the most energetic, concerned people in the book world) made this happen, while also wringing my hands over what this would do to other existent translation awards (the BTBAs in particular, which will be greatly overshadowed), and who exactly would able to afford to apply. (We also did a podcast that touched on this, which has been getting a lot of downloads.)

My primary concern was about all the backend fees for books that are finalists. From that first article:

All publishers submitting books for the National Book Awards must agree to:

Contribute $3,000 toward a promotional campaign if a submitted book becomes a Finalist ($750 for presses with income of under $10 million).

Inform authors of submitted books that, if selected as Finalists, they must be present at the National Book Awards Ceremony and at related events in New York City.

Inform authors that the Finalists Reading will be held at The New School on Tuesday, November 13, 2018.

Inform authors that the National Book Awards Ceremony will be held at Cipriani Wall Street on Wednesday, November 14, 2018.

Cover all travel and accommodation costs for Finalists and provide them with a seat at the Awards Ceremony.

Purchase from the National Book Foundation, when appropriate, medallions to be affixed to the covers of Longlist, Finalist, and Winning books. The Foundation also will license the medallion image artwork for reproduction on the covers of Finalist and Winning books.

For presses that are doing well for themselves—Graywolf, New Directions, Europa—this is likely to be less of a concern. (And for other nonprofits with functioning boards, they could probably raise the money if it was a big issue.) But for a lot of other presses, these extra thousands could be prohibitive, leading to questions of who this award is really for.

BUT! When the actual details came out, almost all of those extra fees were eliminated for translation presses. From the updated National Book Award website:

Contribute toward a promotional campaign if a submitted book becomes a Finalist. For presses with income of $10 million or above, a contribution of $3,000; under $10 million, a contribution of $750; and for presses with income under $1 million, the fee is waived. (So this went from $750 to $0.)

Inform authors that the National Book Awards Ceremony will be held at Cipriani Wall Street on Wednesday, November 14, 2018. If the publisher attends, it is the expectation that they will provide a seat for their Finalist (discounted tickets are available for small, nonprofit, and/or university presses) (Still not sure what the cost actually is, but the fact that we don’t all have to pay Big Five rates is reassuring.)

Cover all travel and accommodation costs for Finalists (the Foundation will provide travel support for Finalists in the Translated Literature category). (Even if the NBF only covers part of this, it’s still a big help.)

So there you go! Even though a Twitter conversation established that Lisa Lucas never read anything I ever wrote on the subject, and was only aware of the BookRiot piece (which is basically a 1:1 rewrite of everything I said), I’d like to think that maybe Three Percent did a bit of good by remarking on all of this and making the economics of translation publishing a bit more transparent.

(Which is bullshit. The only time anyone reads or responds to any of these posts is when they’re offended. A near weekly occurrence, and something that’s really getting me down and making it hard to fully enjoy writing these. This is how self-censorship happens. Although, to be honest, since it seems that no one actually reads these, I should feel way more liberated!)


Moment Number Three

This last point must refer to me. I prefer to imagine Mamá—drunk and sniveling—singing to the sham lights of La Habana than to see her as I do today: bald, silent, yellow, breathing with greater difficulty than a chick raffled off at a charity event. For over a week now, my mother has been, biochemically speaking, incapable of crying. The ideology of pain is the most fraudulent of all. It would be more honest to say that, since she fell ill with leukemia, my mother’s political thought can be expressed only through a microscope.


As much as I like this book, there are a few instances where I think the voice wavers. This isn’t to detract from Christina MacSweeney’s work at all—as a whole, this is quite good—but there are a few choices that I’d be curious to know the back story on. This one, “breathing with greater difficulty than a chick raffled off at a charity event” is simply a question of meaning. I’ve never heard that phrase in my life and am unsure if it means a “chicken”? or a derogatory term for a woman? When I Google the phrase, all that comes back are references to Tomb Song. I’m just curious.


Moment Numbers Four and Five

“If you want to move in with that frigging bitch, fine: do it. But she’ll make your life hell. And you’re abandoning me, the person who’s taken so much shit to get you this far. If you’ve already made up your mind, go ahead. But you’re not my son anymore, you bastard, you’re nothing but a mad dog.”


In my family, it’s fine to utter any kind of curse (frigging, bastard, screw, idiot), but obscenities (prick, ass, fart, whore-monger) are prohibited. Although it’s a bit late in the day for me to offer a clear explanation of the difference between the two categories, I can easily intuit which new words belong in one hemisphere and which in the other. The universal term my siblings and I employ to substitute impolite expressions is This.


The first time “frigging” came up, I was immediately reminded of this bit from an interview MacSweeney gave about Daniel Saldaña París’s Among Strange Victims:

With Among Strange Victims, I started the process in British English and then, when Coffee House Press decided to publish it, I had to rethink certain passages. I remember that the expletive “bloody” (my translation of pinche) was considered too British when it came to editing, and there was a suggestion of replacing it with “damn.” But the problem was, I’d already used “damn” in other contexts, and wanted something more specific for that very Mexican term. Anyway, after a great deal of thought, I decided on “frigging,” which seems to fit neatly between the two cultures: Daniel liked it too.

Really curious to know if that’s the same situation here. I personally have never heard anyone say
“frigging” before, and would never think of it as a substitute for any swear. It does help maintain the confusion between the categories of “curses” and “obscenities” (bastard and screw are allowed but fart isn’t?), but it stands out to me, especially when his mother says it, and against the larger backdrop of characters who say “fucking” and do a lot of cocaine and opioids.

If there really isn’t a satisfactory match for pinche (assuming that’s the original in this book as it was in Among Strange Victims), it would be bold—and cool—to just leave it. I wouldn’t be surprised if a significant number of readers had come across pinche before, or could at least glean it’s swear-status from context. Which brings me to my last translation-related observation/question:


Moment Number Six

(Scrawneebly is a word Mónica and I invented to refer to cowards: a mixture of scrawny and feeble. We stand facing each other, arms akimbo, in superhero pose, and recite in unison, “And did you really think I was scrawneebly?”)


I’m all for neologisms—and hate autocorrect for making word inventions difficult to circulate—but this feels a bit too forced to me. The Spanish neologism MacSweeney is working out is “ñañenque,” which, obviously, doesn’t have an easy English solution. In both Spanish and English, the terms components are explained, so it’s possible that this could’ve been another instance where one could leave it in Spanish and use the following line as a chance to make it clear that this is a translation and that there is a distance between languages. “Ñañeque is a word Mónica and I invented to refer to cowards: a mixture of spanish word (scrawny) and other spanish word (feeble).”

Again, not that there’s anything wrong with MacSweeney’s solution. It just stood out to me, and I’m again curious about the thought process and other possibilities.


Moment Number Seven

We occasionally had breakfast with other Latin American poets, who seemed deeply self-satisfied with their own genius. [. . .] The best poets were, naturally, from Cuba and Chile. But when it came to conversation, nothing doing: they would have had to send them over with built-in subtitles.


Going back to the NBA for Translation and the great job Lisa Lucas has done with this (which only builds on what she’s done for the foundation as a whole since taking over for Harold Augenbraum) is in her choice of judges for the award. The five judges this year are: Harold Augenbraum (former head of the National Book Foundation, translator from Spanish), Karen Maeda Allman (Elliott Bay Book Company), Sinan Antoon (The Corpse Washer, which he translated into English himself), Susan Bernofsky (translator from German), and Álvaro Enrigue (Sudden Death). That’s a good mix of very qualified and generous people.

Since it’s never too early to speculate, based on my pre-existing knowledge of these judges and the eligible books, here are five that I expect to see on the longlist:

Emissary by Yoko Tawada, translated from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani (New Directions) (I’m assuming this is eligible even though Bernofsky translates Tawada’s German works)

Armand V or T Singer by Dag Solstad, translated from the Norwegian by Steven T. Murray and Tiina Nunnally, respectively (New Directions)

My Struggle: Book Six by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Martin Aiken (Archipelago Books)

Tomb Song by Julián Herbert, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Graywolf Press)

Blue Self-Portrait by Noemi Lefebvre, translated from the French by Sophie Lewis (Transit Books)

One question: Is it OK to lobby for your own books? Given how small the translation world is, I know four of the five of the people on this committee, which makes me uncomfortable. I’m desperate for our books—and our website, and Open Letter as a whole, and myself personally—to get some national respect, to be considered to be “cool” or “necessary,” but prefer that it happens because people read the work itself and respond to quality. As you surely know, I suck at generating favorable vibes for myself or our press and its programs. It’s a curse I struggle with all the time in ways that I don’t want to share, and that you wouldn’t want to experience. But if I were a good publisher, maybe I could do that extra bit of Oscar-esque soft-diplomacy that creates a warm context within which these judges would more likely appreciate our submissions . . .

There are four books of ours that I think deserve to be longlisted: Fox by Dubravka Ugresic, The Bottom of the Sky by Rodrigo Fresán, Her Mother’s Mother’s Mother and Her Daughters by Maria José Silveira, and The Endless Summer by Madame Nielsen. If one of those makes the longlist, I’ll be ecstatic.


Moment Number Eight

As a child, I wanted to be a scientist or a doctor. A man in a white coat. But all too soon I discovered my lack of aptitude: it took me years to accept the roundness of the earth. In public, I faked it.


The other day, I came across this headline from the Chicago Review of Books: “You’ve Never Read a Novel Like Empty Set.” That’s some solid Internet hyperbole! I made a joke on Twitter about how this sounds like a BuzzFeed headline, but that didn’t go over well (as per usual), in part because most people favor exaggerated positivity over learned accuracy—especially in headlines. (Even the title of the L.A. Times review of this book brushes up against that: “Mexican novelist Julián Herbert’s ‘Tomb Song’ marks him as one of the most innovative prose stylists of our time.”)

(BTW, the review that went along with the Chicago Review of Books headline is totally reasonable, and Empty Set is totally reasonable as a book as well. It’s not Joyce or anything—which that headline implies—but it’s good.)

So what I decided is that I should go back and change all of my previous posts to reflect this sort of “clickbait” mentality. Hell, I wrote an article once about how no one reads articles, they just glance at the headline, who’s tweeting it, and then click “heart” and/or “reshare.” It’s a complete inefficiency to write long, voice-driven posts that shoot for nuance and call-backs and embedded jokes, but I’d get way way more readers if these posts have BuzzFeed-inspired titles like: “9 Moments That Make ‘Tomb Song’ the Frontrunner for the National Book Award in Translation,” or “How ‘Empty Set’ Revolutionized the Marketing of Translations,” or “10 Paths to Obscure Books That Will Make You Say ‘Wow’,” or “Readers Born in the 1970s Will Recognize These Vargas Llosa Classics,” or “15 Ways Books About Chess Can Rewire Your Brain—And Make You Smarter!”

That’s the new Three Percent policy: sell-out when you can. Rochester is lonely enough, there’s no honor in spending four hours a weekend writing shit that no one ever clicks on.


Moment Number Nine

All of a sudden Émil Cioran’s little books on antipersonal development for adolescents come to mind. The one, for example, in which insomnia reveals to him the most profound sense of the trouble with existence: it impelled him toward unlimited spite: walking to the shoreline and throwing stones at some poor seagulls. Jeez, what a punk.


This is something I’ll get into more next week, but I wanted to mention it here since it’s on my mind.

A lot of Book Twitter was talking about this profile in the Guardian of Will Self, in particular, this bit:

You’re not awfully optimistic about the future of the novel, are you?

I think the novel is absolutely doomed to become a marginal cultural form, along with easel painting and the classical symphony. And that’s already happened. I’ve been publishing since 1990, so I’ve seen it happen in my writing lifetime. It’s impossible to think of a novel that’s been a water-cooler moment in England, or in Britain, since Trainspotting, probably.

It’s frequently said that that’s partly because narrative has migrated to box sets. Is there any truth in that?

The relationship between the novel and film in the 20th century was like the relationship between Rome and Greece. Film depended upon the novel, at least in its infancy and youth. The problem is that now that film itself is being Balkanised – carved up, streamed, loaded on to DVDs, watched on people’s phones – it no longer needs its grease, it no longer needs the novel lying behind it. It’s a disaster for the novel, actually – I think the novel is in freefall.

All of the reactions I saw were of the “It’s hypocritical to say the contemporary novel is doomed and not read any contemporary novels!” line. I might be completely off-base, but I thought Self was getting at something different. There are questions about narrative approaches within contemporary novels—and whether good TV is more narratively innovative than, say, a Franzen novel—but I think there’s also the question of the relevance of the novel within culture. It’s really hard to think of a novel that generated the same amount of discussion about non-book industry people as several Netflix shows. And that doesn’t seem to be going away. The centrality of the novel to culture has definitely evolved since 1990—and not in a particularly positive way.

More on that next week . . . Along with some thoughts about Lispector’s The Chandelier.

15 March 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week, Patrick Smith joined Chad and Brian to talk about time capsules and their potential danger, nostalgia and the urge to collect, aliens, Chernobyl, and more. It was a very fun part of the book to discuss, and the three of them made the most of it, really digging into how The Physics of Sorrow is constructed, while also entertaining listeners who might not have read the book. (Bonus: March Madness tips from Brian and former TMR guest Tom Roberge.)

If you want to see this conversation (instead of listening to the podcast), you can view it all here on YouTube. And be sure to come by next Monday, March 19th at 9pm to hangout with Brian, Chad, and special guest Tom Flynn from Volumes Bookcafe. In addition to talking about Part V (pgs 151-178), they’ll be happy to chat about any section of the book (or anything, really), for those who drop in.

As always, The Physics of Sorrow (and all the previous Two Month Review titles) is available for 20% off through our website. Just use the code 2MONTH at checkout.

Feel free to comment on this episode—or on the book in general—either on this post, or at the official GoodReads Group.

Follow Open Letter, Chad Post, and Brian Wood, for more thoughts and information about upcoming guests. And you can follow P. T. Smith for thoughts about literature, the New England Patriots, and more.

And you can find all the Two Month Review posts by clicking here. And be sure to leave us a review on iTunes!

The music for this season of Two Month Review is Stars and Babies by Splendor and Misery, featuring Georgi’s translator, Angela Rodel!

14 March 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter by Matei Calinescu, translated from the Romanian by Adriana Calinescu and Breon Mitchell (New York Review Books)

When I first started reading The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter by Matei Calinescu, translated from the Romanian by Adriana Calinescu and Breon Mitchell (published by New York Review Books), I had the sense that I had read this book before. Or not this book exactly, but a different novel, or novels, that employed a similar technique of letting an idiosyncratic character’s bizarre—yet compelling and logical in their quirks—ideas run free in a way in which an overarching plot is tossed aside in favor of a series of semi-philosophical sketches.

From “On the Realm of Stupidity”:

No wonder then that Lichter sees modern civilization as a vast extension of the Realm of Stupidity. Intelligence is obsessed with that which is fundamental, original, structural, essential. One recognizes intelligent individuals by their fascination with the elementary and the simple. Their efforts within the spiritual order are integrative: they seek the basic principle, or—to put it metaphorically—the ideal key to all the mysteries of the world. Aspiring towards totality and uniqueness is not stupidity’s ambitions. Its strength lies in its ability to placidly accept any theory, even an erroneous one, as long as it offers a viable starting point towards the practical results. A parasite plagiarizing the pure core of intelligence, sapping its vigor, stupidity forever fortifies and perfects itself, sprawling like a vast and dangerous stain on the consciousness of humanity. For stupidity is vain (the vanity of “efficiency”), sure of itself, economical, has wide-spreading technological tentacles and is shrewdly and ferociously aggressive. Stupidity wills itself to be “universally human.” Since the domain of stupidity is progress itself, Zacharias Lichter naturally concludes that true intelligence evolves within a vicious circle, forever fantasizing escape yet forever falling back into the realization that all efforts at escape are futile.

I still can’t quite put my finger on the other book(s) I’ve read like this. Cortázar’s Cronopios and Famas comes to mind, but that’s not focused on a single individual. There’s something of Stefan Themerson here as well, maybe Tom Harris? Or part of Ergo by Jakov Lind? I feel like there’s a voice just outside of my active memory that is just like this book . . . The best I can come up with right now is Mahu, or, The Material by Robert Pinget. Here’s a bit from “Stilts”:

Supposing I wore stilts? It would change everything. When you went out for your coffee in the morning you’d put on your coat or something longer to hide your feet, and the pieces of wood would show underneath. The grocer’s wife would say, “There goes spindleshanks for his morning drink, it must be nine o’clock.” I’d cross the road without waiting for the green light, the cars would stop at the sight of a man on stilts and you might get your newspaper for nothing, at first anyway.

Anyway, The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter is a great bathroom book. Most of the chapters are 3-4 pages long, and require a burst of concentration to immerse oneself in the particulars of this prose style and really tease out the humor and linguistic calisthenics. Don’t read this in one long sitting—it’s a book that’s best enjoyed as little bites, almost like a short story collection, but with a singular mindset, the madness of which takes over the whole book and infuses it with an off-kilter joy accessible to the patient . . . and the clued-in.


Nothing is original, but it’s terribly unoriginal to point out that the phrase “not for everyone” is dumb. Yet, clearly, a book with such baroque sentences and high-minded style—evidenced in chapter titles like “The Crime of ‘Analysis’,” “The Revelations of Begging” (a brilliant piece), and “Eulogy of the Question”—isn’t going to be the next Barnes & Noble Book Club selection. But nothing appeals to everyone, which is why that phrase is so ridiculous. Some books apply to more people than others, but not even Harry Potter is for everyone. (Quiddich sucks. There, I said it.)

What I’m curious about is which books prepare you to like a book like this. If you are what you read, and the books you imprinted on are Twilight, Slaughterhouse-Five, and The Lime Works, is that enough? Or will this book seem utterly incomprehensible, or, maybe not incomprehensible, but a waste of time? This book nagged at me because my shitty memory wouldn’t call forth all the books I’ve read in this general tradition. That’s a totally different experience than for someone who has never seen writing like this in their life and struggles to understand how exactly this fits within the category of “novel” that they’ve built up inside of their mind.

The opposite formulation of the “not for everyone” statement is to clearly define who would be into a particular book: “This novel is for fans of Pinget, Themerson, and Jouet.” Which circumscribes a readership of approximately fourteen people.

On the other hand, if you name-check the authors everyone has heard of—“this is for those readers interested in Cortázar, Kundera, and Rushdie”—you’re not only full of shit, but you’re about as useful as an Amazon algorithm.

That’s a lie. Amazon’s algorithmic recommendations can be damn interesting. Like with this book, which, I’ll look up right now on Amazon and . . . uh. That’s not what I expected. I should’ve done that search before starting this paragraph and finding out that, aside from other NYRB titles, the “Customers Also Bought” listings include Jenny Erpenbeck, Mathias Énard, and Lúcio Cardoso—all really good authors!, none of which really relate to this book. (Unless you’re looking for titles that fit into the category of “literary,” which is almost as bad as the category I’m going to discuss below.)


Given that I’m on my third day of new-baby-rest (yes, my son was born this week, which means these posts are likely to get wackier and ever more erratic, although possibly more hopeful?), I feel totally OK with making this questionably-informed statement: recommendations from academics tend to look backward, those from booksellers look sideways.

I used to think a lot about “discoverability” and recommendation algorithms. If you find the tag “future of reading” on this blog, you’ll hit upon a treasure trove of detailed breakdowns of “new” book recommendation sites, like BookLamp, Small Demons, Bookish 1.0 (or 2.0? Does it even matter?), GoodReads, etc. I still spend at least one class period every semester going over all of these mostly defunct sites, digging into the rationale for why everyone wanted to create online recommendation sites (it’s crucial to get the right book to people at the right time and we all live online, so that’s where you can make the connections) and the variety of theoretical ways by which these sites created their recommendation algorithms (by starting with the book and matching elements in the text to preferences; by starting with groups of readers and assuming similiar readers like similar books).

Nowadays, I’m not sure that I care all that much. I don’t feel like these sites are a viable strategy for publishers to connect their books with potential readers because a) they don’t exist anymore and b) no one cares. Aside from GoodReads users, I’m not sure there’s a significant subset of readers who use a particular algorithm-driven website to figure out what book to read next.

(A site I never use.)

Last week in my “World Literature & Translation” class, I had a couple grad students give presentations on Adam Thirlwell’s The Delighted States: A Book of Novels, Romances, & Their Unknown Translators, Containing Ten Languages, Set on Four Continents, & Accompanied by . . . Illustrations, & a Variety of Helpful Indexes, a book that I unabashedly love. Adam usually gets an email from me every spring about how much god damn fun it is talking about his book in class. He’s in that relatively small group of authors who I would love to get wasted with and shoot the shit about books. To be honest, I think of The Delighted States and It’s Long Subtitle less as a book and more as a textual eavesdropping in on the smartest guy you know drinking Guinness at a dive bar and getting way too into literary ideas. “The whole of literature can be explained through a tricycle.” (An hour of stories about Proust falling down, the three-wheel theory of literature, triangles and linguistics in translation, and how cool is Hrabal?) “And then when the tricycle appears in [insert obscure work by Eastern European writers] you can see the whole of history of writing as play. You know?” “Fuck yes, Adam. Fuck. Yes.”

The joy I had reading this book for the first time—and reading various sections over and again—wasn’t exactly the same as what my students experienced. Here were their general reactions: 1) this book is all over the place and hard to follow, 2) “I’ve never read the authors Thirlwell mentions.” “Which ones, specifically?” “Flaubert, Proust, Borges, Hrabal, Gombrowicz, Laurence Sterne, Nabokov, Ulysses . . .” “. . .” “So it was kind of ridiculous.” “. . . “, and 3) how does any of this relate to the books we’re reading for class?1

I’ve gone through a variety of emotions as I worked my way through these responses, but the main one I keep coming back to is the one that would get the most “thumbs up” on Facebook: why would anyone admit, in a literature class, to not knowing some of the most influential writers of the past hundred-plus years?

Stepping back from my existential dismay, I can cycle through some of the more legitimate reasons: there’s not much value in knowing about books that the masses don’t talk about, no one has read much at nineteen, the Canon is thankfully now canons, and it’s not like they’re aware of classic films, TV shows, albums, or other art works either. These are kids!

At the end of every semester I take myself to task for all of my fuck-ups. I read the student evaluations and get neurotic thinking about the ways in which Open Letter stress bled into my teaching. I replay too many class conversations in which I wish I was just smarter. I obsess over my shortcomings as a hopefully decent (question mark?) publisher and reader who generally functions outside of academia and teaches from particular world experiences—those of bookselling, publishing, and reading, not deep academic research. From September to May, I actively try and teach students how to write for readers who aren’t PhD holders or candidates, from May to September, I question myself and think I’m just stupid. Then I remember that there are very few people in the world—in academia and outside of it—who have read so broadly and voraciously in world literature. And I think that’s valuable? At least for making connections and recommendations?

As an outsider, I need to focus more on the positives that I can bring to these classes, on how every session is another chance to turn young readers on to particular authors and literary traditions (and the field of nonprofit publishing as a whole). Instead of assuming that they’ve read Flaubert and Sterne and Hrabal in other classes I should use the contemporary books that we read as ways to hook them on those writers from the past who bent and expanded ideas of the novel. Authors whose works I assumed would be passed down generation to generation, but might not.2

All these anxieties lead me to one central question: how do young readers find out about world literature? And not just the most established authors—Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Cervantes, etc.—but the second, or third level of interesting international authors. Those like Bernhard, Sarraute, Céline, even. Authors who PhD candidates might end up reading, but that the general public rarely comes in contact with.

If you study English, with rare exception, your literature classes tend to focus on writers who write in English. I can’t remember reading many translated texts in my undergrad studies. At least not in class. I read Madame Bovary and The Counterfeiters and Death on the Installment Plan over summer break.

There’s a similar situation if you’re studying a given language. The vast majority of classes in the Modern Languages & Cultures department at the U of R are about a particular aspect of a particular culture. “The Invention of Spanish America: From Colonial Subjects to Global Citizens” or “The Films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder.” They look back to the established (or newly established) creators with a lot of academic clout and secondary materials. This is super valuable, and helps illuminate how to read, how to think, how to process. But, for someone interested in International Literature as a grand sweeping idea, each of these classes provides only a part of the picture.

I used to assume that the best opportunity for students to be introduced to world literature and all its various threads—like the Oulipo or Nouveau Roman—from all over the world—when else will you have the time to read a few books from Korea, India, Argentina, and the Czech Republic?—would be through the classroom. But I’m not sure that’s the case. For a reader to truly immerse themselves in the traditions and voices of the world, they need some other sources of recommendations. And not the online algorithms that feel both incomplete and tilted to a certain group of titles. Or literary listicles that might provide a path for looking into a particular topic or grouping of authors, but tend to be too thin to prove valuable.

This is where we tend to look toward booksellers. If a typical academic reads deeply on a focused group of authors or topics, booksellers read (or are at least aware of) a huge swath of what’s being written. They have to in order to be successful at their jobs, even if your average book buyer doesn’t care about personal recommendations and is content browsing in solitude and interacting with employees only when they need to be clerked.

There is a constraint on booksellers as well: for the most part they have to promote recently published books or ones about to come out. Going hard on a handsell of a book that came out fifteen years ago and sold modestly is a losing bet. (Books are both products of capitalist and aesthetic economies.) So, you go sideways. If someone likes Ben Lerner and Knausgaard, you stretch to Ali Smith and Dubravka Ugresic. All those authors have newly shelved titles. As a result, a curious young reader will get another view into the literary scene for world literature from good indie stories, but it’s still just another piece of the picture.


So how does a young reader come across Robert Pinget in 2018? From French class? Unlikely. “Robert Pinget Syllabus” = 0 results on Google. It’s hard to envision teaching Pinget when you could teach Beckett, or someone more relevant to contemporary research. (“Marguerite Duras Syllabus” = 24,000 matches. And “Robbe-Grillet Syllabus” = 14,600 results.) Does that mean that Pinget should be dismissed? Oh, god, I hope not. But I get it—he’s complicated and not for everyone.

And on the flipside, how many bookstores in the U.S. stock Pinget’s titles? Ten? It’s hard to imagine the precursors to The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter being discoverable at all. That’s odd. We have two very different systems: “Commerce” that loves sales, critical accolades, and popular appeal, and “Academia” that loves critical acceptance, secondary material, and teachability. Given this, what do you think the results are for “Roberto Bolaño Syllabus”? A million?

Alas, it’s 8,900. Lots of bookseller love; not encough critical material.

There’s something to be said about publisher branding and the online literary communities that help to keep conversations about these authors and books going. Just this past week, I saw a string of tweets from someone at AWP who bounced from Dorothy Publications to Coffee House, who recommended they go check out Archipelago, which ended up leading them to Open Letter. A wonderful world of literature is out there, if you get put on the path to find it. But there’s a larger question that’s nagging at me: Without having discovered this larger literary context, what would you possibly make of a book like The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter? And what should we be doing to make sure that these gems from the past keep finding new audiences? Those books that may not sell enough to keep a Big Five publisher interested enough to keep them in print, but are valuable contributions to literary thought and culture?

I have no good answers, but hopefully that’s a direction that this series can pick up again in the future. For now: Go read this book. And Mahu. And other weird shit that isn’t readily available or necessarily discussed in the classroom. Find your own reading path to the more obscure. Just because something isn’t the most popular doesn’t mean that it won’t blow your mind.


1 I’m exaggerating for effect, but not really. A few students had heard of some of the authors mentioned, but they hadn’t read any of the titles. And these are really bright students! All great readers with very interesting viewpoints. But they’ve never come across these literary figures or their writings.

2 Granted, there’s no way Flaubert is going to fade from public—or academic—consciousness, but it’s weird/disconcerting when none of the students in a class have ever read Madame Bovary.

13 March 18 | Orisa Santiago Morrice | Comments

On this week’s Two Month Review blog post, we’re exploring Part III: “The Yellow House” from Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow. As was unanimous from the conversation between Chad, Brian, and Nick last week, this is where the magic of the book and the skill of Gospodinov as a writer truly start to shine. And I couldn’t agree more. The whimsy, darkness, and craftsmanship of this section confirms my suspicion that Gospodinov has been preparing us for these depths through the earlier sections. Now that we’re familiar with the physics of his world—the embedding, the mythic undertones, the complex Bulgarian landscape—he can drag us further into the ephemera that matter.

The Craft of Gospodinov

Through “The Yellow House” we’re looking at—well—everything. Each of the short stories within provide flashes at the truth that Gospodinov is writing to unpack. And by the time I reached the end of this section, I felt fully immersed. When the chapter finished, I automatically ventured further as I felt fully prepared by Gospodinov to do so. I mean it when I say that this section left me blank, breathless. The book has done much to cement it’s sense of playfulness and wonder through its unconventional structure and mythic, pseudo-scientific content, and the rules of how this world works. But through this part we now see Gospodinov shine for his prose and its ability to draw a reader into its self-contained world.

The Personal Mythic

It is with this vigorous attention to prose that, throughout “The Yellow House,” Gospodinov returns to what he established in previous sections, such as the powerful orbit of the minotaur, and its relationship to abandonment and his life in Bulgaria. The opening piece is easily one of the strongest. At its most basic, it’s a short work of mystery, with a little bit of Gothic spice here and there with the otherworldly properties and suspense. The second paragraph reads like it could have been pulled from an early American horror serial:

One evening, passing by there, I heard a chilling howl. There was something excessive and inhuman in that howling or bellowing, something from the mazes of the night Ooooooooohhh . . . That endless Oooohh dug tunnels in the silence of the early November evening.

And there we are, drawn in to this strange space where nothing is truly certain, and it’s here that we find our protagonist, the young Gospodinov. This story continues as such, with him traversing the dark countryside outside of this deserted insane asylum, attempting to speculate what—or who— is howling—or possibly mooing—from its depths, and, later, trying to figure out what his father was doing there. This arc continues in “My Brother, the Minotaur,” where the nature of the mystery turns from halls of the asylum with their peeling paint to the halls of his own mind, as he attempts to deduce what—or who—was calling out to him from the center of that labyrinth. And his imagination runs wild. He first speculates that:

That inhuman howl really was inhuman, and it wasn’t Ooooh, but Moooo. And it came from a half-man, half-bull locked up in there. (I’d already seen one such boy in my grandfather’s hidden memory.) [. . .]

And from here he’s left, haunted about his fate and his relationship to the Minotaur (Asterius, is that you?), as he suspects that he and the minotaur are brothers through numerous imaginative acrobatics.

The Diagnosis

In this section we even return to embedding. This time, we have a diagnosis for this bizarre ability: pathological empathy or obsessive empathetic-somatic syndrome (which, as far as we can tell author Gospodinov has created for this piece specifically). This condition is marked, neurologically, by some kind of hyperactivity in the same regions of the brain that allow for empathy, but, for people like Georgi, it becomes too strong of a feeling and places the brain in a trance-like state while the victim fully constructs, or possibly invades, the memory or imagination of another.

There’s even a kind of somatic confirmation of this, which is seen following an MRI:

The picture hadn’t come out. Maybe it was due to the machine, it was old, after all. Actually, this was the first time something like this had happened to them, absolutely nothing could be seen, just a dark-black plate. This didn’t come as a surprise to me. I know nothing can be seen, because inside is darkness, an unilluminable, centuries-deep darkness. My skull is a cave. I didn’t tell them that, of course.

The Myth of the Gospodinovs

We’re also met with numerous short and sweet stories about our young narrator and his family where the mythic is drawn upon to contextualize the experiences of him and his family. In “Nippers,” the theme of abandonment is intersected once again by Greek myths, while in “Mother Bean” the children are told to avoid playing in the gardens or the mothers of vegetables will go after them. It’s here that a young Georgi beautifully remarks, “Everything had a mother, only we didn’t. We had grandmothers.”

A Brief and Wondrous History of Bulgaria

A bulk of “The Yellow House” has Gospodinov recounting life in Communist Bulgaria. We’re given lectures on Bulgaria through sections like “A Private History of the 1980s,” and “An Official History of the 1980s,” which highlight Georgi’s own role in the deaths of numerous Soviet Union leaders (and the relationship of that to his love life). Amongst these are series of catalogs, such as the “Catalog of Collections,” which details Gospodinov’s obsession with collected abandoned things, to the two-part “The Sexual Questions” and “From a Catalog Of Important Erotic Scenes,” which highlight the humor that pervades Gospodinov’s storytelling—no matter how grim the discussion.

All We Are is Dust in the Wind

The section I wanted to focus on the most was “The Metaphysics of Dust,” nestled in the first third of “The Yellow House.” It describes in full beautiful sensory detail—almost spiritually so—a return to a nostalgic place. The piece opens:

I’ve fallen asleep on the windowsill. I wake up from the sun shining through the dirty glass, a warm afternoon sun. Still in that no man’s land between sleep and afternoon, before I return to myself, I sense that soaring and lightness, the whole weightlessness of a child’s body. Waking up, I age within seconds. Crippling pain seizes my lower back, my leg is stiff. The light in early September, the first fallen leaves outside, the worry that someone may have passed by on the street and seen me.

We’re met with lush descriptions that bounce between the senses and accomplish a lot—with very little—to create a sense of immersion. While we’re beautifully drawn into this scene, Gospodinov starts to layer this prosodic depth with some of the ‘physics’ that’s he’s guided us to throughout the piece—in this case the relationship between light and time that he introduced in the previous section, “Against an Abandonment: The Case of M.” He’s already performing routines that we’re familiar with, such as the warping of perception, but as he’s worked so hard for us to understanding how his world works he’s now able to fully engage with more artistic prose. He continues:

I climb down from the window carefully, unfolding my body, instead of simply jumping down. The room, lit up by the autumn sun, has come alive. One ray passes right through the massive glass ashtray on the table, breaking the light down into its constituent colors. Even the long-dead, mummified fly next to it looks exquisite and sparkles like a forgotten earring [. . .] The Brownian motion of the dust specks in the ray of light . . . The first mundane proof of atomism and quantum physics, we are made of specks of dust. And perhaps the whole room, the afternoon and my very self, with my awkward three-dimensionality are being merely projected [. . .]

Just as we were first drawn to his perspective, which seems to be a timeless narrator pulled between his youth and age and he’s filled with both whimsy and stiff joints at the same time, we’re now being dispersed into the universe with the dust and drifts throughout the room and the light that pours in through the windows. And as we’re already familiar with, Gospodinov returns to his own whimsical, emotional physics with more feeling—more depth. The piece moves into a collection of moments, something we see in different forms throughout “The Yellow House,” and the manner in which these moments are built further obstructs our ability to sense time at this moment—as readers—as we almost see the narrator stretch himself across space and time within the confines of this room:

I recalled the darkness, the scent of Pine-Sol, the whirring of the machine. Everything in the movie theater was made from that darkness and a single beam of light. The headless horseman arrived along the beam, as did the great Rocky Mountains, the Grand Canyon; horses and Indians, whooping Sioux tribes, geometrical Roman legions, and ragged Gypsy caravans headed for the heavens kicked up dust along it, Lollobrigida and Loren came down that beam, along with Bardot, Alain Delon and his eternal rival Belmondo [. . .] I would turn my back on the screen and peer into the beam coming from the little window at the back of the theater. It swarmed with chaotically dancing particles. [. . .] I watched the specks of dust and tried to guess which would turn into lips, an eye, a horse’s hoof or Lollobrigida’s breasts, which flashed by for an instant in one scene . . .

Gospodinov pulls the readers across a span of ephemera, as he warned us through his epigraphy, and while the prose here is as beautiful as the rest of the section, he has also given us an outline of what we are to expect throughout the section, right down to the feelings, actors, and archetypes. And, mystically, he tells us that there’s more, more that he can’t tell us directly, through the use of ellipses. We can speculate here, as these could be the lapses in his own memory, or a daring moment where the narrator can’t tell us something that is pulled back to his memory of the movie theatre. While I’m focusing on these opening paragraphs, clumsily pulling the enter short here, I could easily draw from any moment of this short piece, and such a homogeneity of wonder throughout this section attests to Gospodinov’s clear vision that I first wrote two in the introductory post weeks ago.

I return to some of the sentiments that the gentlemen shared during the podcast last week. In “The Yellow House” Gospodinov shows us what he was capable of. During one of the previous discussions, one participant—I believe Brian—noted that there wasn’t necessarily something pulling them through the piece. They were reading it, they were enjoying it, but—to paraphrase—the magic of the piece wasn’t sustaining the reading experience.

And I would agree with that commentary. While the work was interesting, and challenging, it felt like Gospodinov might not have been leading us anywhere concrete. There were so many disparate sections, with loose narration, followed by the formal shifting in Part II, and these changes forced me, as a reader, into anywhere from discomfort—anxiety at worst—to a disinterest towards what would come next. But what arrived through Part III was a strong return to what we know. Instead of shifting expectations once more with formal manipulation, Gospodinov was able strengthen the themes of the previous sections with a stunning attention to prose. And, in retrospect, the structure of the previous sections was needed to draw a reader to enough of a familiarity with the work as to give Gospodinov free reign to give us his best.

8 March 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments

To up the Bay Area sports content, we invited Nick Buzanski of Book Culture to come on and talk about one of his favorite sections of Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow. They talk about community and storytelling, seeing movies in person, Gospodinov’s humor and beautiful writing, Gaustine’s wild ideas, sexy books subterraneously shared, and crappy 90s music.

If you want to see this conversation (instead of listening to the podcast), you can view it all here on YouTube. And be sure to come by next Monday, March 12th at 9pm to hangout with Brian, Chad, and special guest Patrick Smith. In addition to talking about Part IV (pgs 119-150), they’ll be happy to answer any and all questions in the chat.

As always, The Physics of Sorrow (and all the previous Two Month Review titles) is available for 20% off through our website. Just use the code 2MONTH at checkout.

Feel free to comment on this episode—or on the book in general—either on this post, or at the official GoodReads Group.

Follow Open Letter, Chad Post, and Brian Wood, for more thoughts and information about upcoming guests. And you can follow Nick Buzanski on Twitter for baseball talk an more, and be sure to check out the videos he made for Green Apple Books.

And you can find all the Two Month Review posts by clicking here. And be sure to leave us a review on iTunes!

The music for this season of Two Month Review is Stars and Babies by Splendor and Misery, featuring Georgi’s translator, Angela Rodel!

6 March 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Given the length of yesterday’s post, I’m just going to jump right into things, starting with this handmade Excel spreadsheet showing the three-year rolling average of the total number of translations published in the first quarter (January-March) of every year since 2008.

That’s not the most illuminating line graph the world has seen, but it should put things into perspective. For months I’ve been pointing out that the number of translations coming out in 2018 is way down from past years. For 2018, we have logged in 104 titles for January through March, whereas we had info on 153 titles in 2017 and 149 in 2016.

That said, when you look at this over a three-year period to give the numbers a bit of perspective, we’re at the same level that we were at in 2016, which is higher than every year prior. In other words, we’re coming off of two years with historically high output (well, “historically,” given that we only have eleven years of data) of literature in translation, so there’s bound to be a bit of regression. I’m still concerned, but not alarmed. Maybe. At least not tonight. Not about that, anyway.

Instead, let’s look at another chart. This one is a chart of the LTD (life-to-date) Nielsen BookScan numbers for all twenty-four works of fiction in translation that came out in January 2018. (We’ll get into the accuracy of BookScan numbers below, but this visual is pretty striking regardless.)

(The x-axis is for each title published in January 2018.)

Anyone want to guess which title is way over there at the left, screwing up all the optics? Anyone? The Perfect Nanny! It has 27,399 scanned copies as of the time of writing. For the moment, I’ll eliminate this book just so that this graph is actually useful to look at.

There we go! There’s a chart that’s somewhat legible! Again, any guesses as to what’s over at the far left? Pyramid of Mud by Andrea Camilleri (4,461) followed by Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi (2,689).

Worth noting: All three of the top-selling books are published by Penguin. In fourth place is Beneath the Mountain by Luca D’Andrea, published by HarperCollins, and the only other book to scan over 1,000.

Let’s dig deeper into that for a minute. Here’s a pie chart of the number of translations that came out in January from the Big Five and their subsidiaries (Penguin, HarperCollins, FSG, Atria) compared to those from everyone else (including Europa, Archipelago, NYRB, Dalkey Archive, Open Letter, New Vessel, etc.):

And here’s a chart with the breakdown of sales between Big Five and the others:

Well that’s . . . something. Huh. Shit. How about if we remove sales of The Perfect Nanny?

That looks slightly more hopeful for those of us not working in corporate publishing? Maybe?

This data is by no means surprising. Corporate publishers have much better representation in bookstores, dedicated sales reps, legit marketing budgets, so many employees working on any given book, more respect from reviewers, etc. I know some editors from these presses love to say that their books sell better because “we don’t market these books as translations!” or “we just focus on readers and good books!” and a dozen other trite statements that are half-true and half-based in a dismissal of the economic disparities in the publishing world.

So, there are two ways forward with the data for the next part of this post, and I’m going to do both and then work it all out at the end. The numbers might get a bit messy here, but bear with me—it’s not like we’re talking about tOPS+ or z-swing% or anything like that.

First off, BookScan. These numbers are for physical books only and are collected from about 75% of bookselling outlets. This includes B&N and Amazon, but a lot of smaller stores aren’t signed up for the program. And it doesn’t include in-house sales. I feel like it captures more sales for commercial titles than for small press ones, since we rely on individual subscriptions and sales through small, quirky locations. Regardless, for the sake of this piece, I’m going to assume these numbers are 75% of all print sales.

Then, to make the rest of this work, I’m going to assume that every ebook sold 20% of what the hardcover did. Cool? I know this is way underestimating the ebook sales for AmazonCrossing, but it’s not like this is anything more than a reasonable estimate to prove one really depressing point.

OK, so in my little spreadsheet, I divided the BookScan numbers by .75 to get them to “more accurate” levels, multiplied that by .2 to get an ebook sales estimate, and multiplied each by the appropriate price to get an estimate of total sales revenue. Then I multiplied that number by 50% to account for the average discount to booksellers/Amazon/Costco/B&N/individual web sales. Now I have a fairly reasonable idea of how much these January 2018 titles have generated so far.

Before I get into these numbers—including mean, median, standard deviation, and more!—I want to point out that I know these books will sell more copies over the ensuing months. And every so often we’ll check in with them and see what’s changed. By the end of the year, we should have a decent sense of how these particular editions did. We’ll probably be able to pick out some sleeper hits, some titles that will crush in backlist, and some total flops. But aside from The Perfect Nanny, Frankenstein in Baghdad, and that Camilleri book (someone I’ve never read, never will), I doubt these numbers will dramatically change. Books that don’t take off in the first month or so, usually don’t do so well in the long run. Unless you do something special for them to try and get things moving (see the Two Month Review, special discounts, etc.).

At this moment, here are the numbers I came up with for BookScan+ (using reported numbers as 75% of total) plus estimated ebook sales (20% of BookScan+) :

Average Sales for a Jan 2018 Translation: 2,560

Not bad! But that includes two outliers—The Perfect Nanny at 43,838 and Congo Inc. at 0. Let’s cut them because that’s skewing our already very small sample:

Average Sales w/o Top and Bottom: 800

Oh fuck.

Average Sales for Big Five Title: 7,404
Average Sales for Other Title: 147

Well, OK then. But mean is boring. If these were all from the same press, then maybe it would make sense, but it’s probably smarter to look at the median and the standard deviation from the mean. (In other words, what book is in the middle, away from the extremely good and extremely bad; and how much variation does there tend to be with these sales, are you likely to sell somewhere between 500-5,000 or 500-600?)

Median for All Books: 210
Median for Big Five: 1,629
Median for Others: 46


Standard Deviation for All Books: 8,945 (Which is nonsense. It’s 1,714 when you get rid of The Perfect Nanny.)
Standard Deviation for Big Five: 14,919
Standard Deviation for Others: 189

So, in other words, if this data is representative of the whole (spoiler: still a small sample, although the general trends are probably true), then 67% of Big Five translations will sell between 5,775 and 9,033 copies. And for the translations coming from smaller presses? Most will sell between 0 and 193. That’s really bad.

Just to back this up, here are some non-AmazonCrossing books that scanned less than 150 physical copies: Theory of Shadows (FSG), Temple of the Scapegoat (ND), Mademoiselle Bambu (Wakefield), The Same Night Awaits Us All (Open Letter), Animal Gazer (New Vessel), Transit Comet Eclipse (Dalkey Archive), and Sonka (Dalkey Archive).

Again, these books will sell more copies going forward, but how many exactly? Three times the numbers we have right now? So, like 400? Does that make you feel better?

Before I just puddle out in a mess of anxiety and despair, let’s get some cash numbers out there and try and make this as positive as possible and see what happens. (Again, I’ll be coming back to these January books every few months—and maybe some others—in hopes of getting a clear picture of the revenue side of publishing translations. Which will probably explain why the number of translations being published is bottoming out. But by the end of 2018, we’ll have some new strategies? Hope for the future? A list of suicide cults to join?) Let’s take the revenue numbers I came up with and multiply them by six. I don’t know that the estimated sales I’ve come up with tonight will go up by 600% over the next ten months, but I don’t know that they won’t. So let’s all dream!

So, multiplying these sales figures by six and then by 50% to account for discounts to booksellers (I’m sure most everyone knows this, but we don’t get the full list price when we sell a book, the bookstore needs to get their cut as well), we get these figures:

Average Income for Non-Big Five Presses: $7,881.53
Median Income for Non-Big Five Presses: $1,849.97
Standard Deviation for Non-Big Five Presses: $10,628.76

Well that’s not as hopeful as I was hoping it would be. And that doesn’t event take into account that 26%+ of this income is paid to your distributor. Include that payment, and the average translation (from Jan 2018, which, whatever, if you want to believe it’s a whole lot better, than go for it—delusions are nice) generates about $6,000 in income. Which has to pay for printing, book rights, design, editorial, marketing, and the translator.

There are two main points to be made here:

1) If you’re a translation-only press and don’t have other income, you are fucked. New Directions has a massive backlist and a lot of American writers (Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Tennessee Williams) to both balance out the sales of these books, and to give them the credibility to help their translations get more traction than those from other presses. No one else can be New Directions. And Europa has Ferrante. And crime books, which are at the higher end of this sales spectrum. (There’s a future article to be written about overall publishing strategies. Tip #1: Only publish translations that UK presses have successfully published. See: A lot of Archipelago, New Directions, and Transit Books books.) As optimistic as I used to be about a revolution of international literature and how small presses can make it work (that was back when people actually liked me, not like how it is today, when life is so lonely and filled with defensive despair), I don’t think you can just do only translations and get by—unless you have significant nonprofit support. Duh and or obviously, I know, but still, it sucks that the boom of presses opening up the American literary scene to international literature lasted about a decade. Mostly because the economics of publishing are fucked and the audiences just aren’t there. (Will Evans of Deep Vellum and I went through about a million BookScan data points one afternoon and came up with a lot of sticky facts that I’ll share in another post. They’re not that encouraging.)

2) Translators deserve more money; yet translators getting more money will kill all translations. On some level this is all a zero-sum game. I sympathize with translators treating every job equally—it takes the same amount of time to translate a 300-page book for a small press as it does for a commercial house—but that doesn’t change the fact that the small presses are at a severe sales disadvantage. What’s likely to happen over the next five years—if we don’t have an open and honest conversation about money and strategy—is that most of these smaller presses doing a lot of translations will go away. The New Directions and Europas and Graywolfs of the world will survive—they have money from a lot of other books and donors—but the next rung down will have to either replace some translations with money-making titles (re: commercial titles written by American authors) or go out of business. The more professionalized the industry becomes, the fewer jobs there will be for translators. Or, there will be well-paid translators working for Penguin Random House, and the publishers who want to do great books but can’t pay translators $200/1,000 words (~$18,750 for a 300-page title) will find young, uninformed, inexperienced translators to do the work for them. (Another article idea! How strong of a correlation is there between translator reputation and sales, especially if you account for brand strength and author reputation? As much as the translation community talks about “reading every book translated by X,” once you take away the editorial strength of the publisher choosing to publish X’s translations, this impact is probably pretty low.)

Are you depressed? I’m bummed AF. And this is another article that’s too long to read. So let’s leave my other calculations and apocalyptic prognostications for future (equally depressing) posts, and let’s make some comments about some of the interesting books that are coming out this month, but which I probably won’t have time to read. (For now I’ll skip the four I’m planning on reading, since they’ll get their own posts.)

Encircling 2: Origins by Carl Frode Tiller, translated from the Norwegian by Barbara Haveland (Graywolf)

I was hoping to read Encircling 1 and this sequel this month, but that’s not going to happen. Maybe for Encircling 3: Carl Frode in New York. I’ve actually read a huge chunk of the first volume of this when a different translator had been commissioned to translate it for the UK press that originally published these books. (See above note about doing translations that having already been published in the UK.) Why do Norwegians love their Identity Trilogies? This isn’t that far removed from the Jan Kjærstad books that Overlook and Open Letter published: The Seducer, The Conquerer, and The Discoverer.

Neapolitan Chronicles by Anna Maria Ortese, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (New Vessel)

This book should be subtitled “Ferrante, Ferrante, Ferrante!” Translated by Ferrante’s translator, with a blurb by Ferrante, it “helped inspire” Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, and was edited by Calvino. (OK, the last part is both unrelated to Ferrante and more interesting to me.) To cut the jokes, it sounds pretty interesting, and if you’re in the area, I recommend going to see Giovanna Calvino (Italo’s daughter) do an event for this on 3/14 at Hofstra University. I was on a panel with Giovanna once and was 100% starstruck.

Go by Kazuki Kaneshiro, translated from the Japanese by Takami Nieda (AmazonCrossing)

I used to love playing Go. (And loved the movie Go. I’ll bet that doesn’t hold up at all.) Had a special fancy board and everything. I never played enough to cotton on to any legit strategies, but it was intriguing to me because—at the time—there was no way to play online against a computer. I have deep nostalgia for games that you play with your hands on a physical board.

I have no idea what this book is about, but I suspect it’s a love story. About two people who meet in the championship match at their local high-school Go tournament. One of them throws the game by blowing a sente to get the other one to give eyes. They run away together with hopes of starting a family, until one of them starts going blind. Initially they think the blindness is caused by too much Go—those stone can wreck your vision—but then they discover that it’s cancer (always cancer) and that they’re totally fucked seeing that Go professionals have pretty shitty health insurance. So they rob a bank. Using strategies from Go. J-Law plays one of the leads in the Hollywood version.

Banthology: Stories from Banned Nations edited by Sarah Cleave, translated from the Arabic by multiple translators (Deep Vellum)

Again: Comma Press, based in the UK, originated this book. (Open Letter needs to stop creating jobs and paying translators and just jumping on this bandwagon. It would make researching books so much easier, and we would be able to cut expenses by not paying translators nearly as much . . .)

There was a Twitter hubbub after LiteraryHub featured this book, which will hopefully drive sales. Also, Frontier by Can Xue made Emily Temple’s annual post of “If Books Had the National Book Awards Oscars.” That’s cool! And I suspect this is 100% due to Porochista Khakpour writing the intro. Thank you, Porochista!

Unsurprisingly, I don’t care about this article at all. But I do want to point out that my analysis of one-star reviews is way better than this. Then again, we’re up to different goals in our articles: I want to pretend I’m writing interesting analysis, and The LitHub is just punching those clicks. (And tracking like 5,000 times more than I am. By my Excel calculations, they gets 400,000 visits a month, and I get 50, with a median of “Why Bother” and a standard deviation of “Nerd.”)

Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals by J. R. Pick, translated from the Czech by Alex Zucker (Karolinium Press)

I hope this is a children’s book about caring for guinea pigs.

Mere Chances by Veronika Simoniti, translated from the Slovenian by Nada Groselj (Dalkey Archive)

We’ve covered so many Dalkey Archive titles lately. And haven’t even made fun of ______ in the most recent issue of ________! (If you’ve ever worked at Barbara’s you probably know what I’m implying.) Dalkey has created a plethora of models for how to survive while doing new books that don’t sell for shit. (They have two books on the <100 BookScan sales list above AND they don't do ebooks, because . . . who knows why.) There are schemes legit and sketch in the Dalkey repertoire, but you kind of have to respect them regardless. John made it to the end. Top-notch writers and translators work for them. They never go to ALTA and yet everyone there would rather be published by Dalkey than Open Letter. (We always go, because . . . befriending translators is good for business? [It's not.]) Actually, come to think of it, they don't do any of the bullshit that other presses put themselves through. In so many ways, they won this game. Maybe I've been asking the wrong questions all year . . . Next month: A deep dive in to Dalkey Archive.

6 March 18 | Orisa Santiago Morrice | Comments

This week we’re following up from Chad, Brian, special guest Caitlin Baker (University Book Store in Seattle), and their discussion of Part II of Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow, “Against an Abandonment: The Case of M.” Here, Gospodinov throws us for another loop, as we move from the halls of memory for the courtroom. Here, our newest favorite public defender offers his best pro bono work for Asterius, the Minotaur of Crete. Drawing on depictions of Asterius from historians, poets, artists, and video game designers, Gospodinov, argues that this bull-headed man has been wrongly painted as a monster. Oh, also—very related—there’s an awful lot about children being eaten.

Mythic Degrees of Libel

The construction of this section, as Chad pointed out during the podcast, is strange when considering a more conventional novel. The first section of the piece, “The Bread of Sorrow,” despite being composed of short, formally disconnected sections, was bound together by the narrator’s ability to embed himself in the memories of those around him. Whether he jumped from his great grandfather’s memories, to the memories of a slug being shoved in a wound for the restorative properties of its mucous, to his own experience living in a basement as an ant god, or some other entity of another importance, the reader is carefully guided through sensory leaps sustained by a common focal point via the narrator.

“Against an Abandonment: The Case of M.” (which interestingly enough follows “Dad, What’s a Minotaur?” the last subsection of Part I) challenges readers yet again by forcing them into a mythic courtroom, where Gospodinov, newly appointed public defender, makes a case against the public representation and subsequent treatment of Asterius (the name given to him by Pasiphae, his mother), Minotaur of Minos. What develops here still draws upon the previous. We return to the minotaur as a mythic core, we return to a young Gospodinov and his family, and we return to discussions of dark basements and abandonment through children. With these root subjects in mind, Gospodinov has changed the shape of the piece. Where we previously had short narratives we now have arguments, historical accounts, character testimonies, and the like. Gospodinov presents his case to the Honorable Mr. Minos who is pulled from the underworld to serve as the judge in this case.

George Frederick Watts. The Minotaur. 1895. Oil on Canvas. Wikimedia Commons.

His defense of Asterius begins with a simple, but early argument generated by the narrator’s grandfather, who wrote:

The Minotaur is not guilty. He is a boy locked up in a basement. He is frightened. They have abandoned him. I, the minotaur.

From here, Gospodinov does his best to build his grandfather’s case by outlining the historical misrepresentation of Asterius and clearly outlining who is at fault.

They have Abandoned Asterius

Gospodinov draws on numerous historians, both real and constructed, to provide testimony to the misrepresentation of Asterius. Ovid’s descriptions paint him as a “double-natured shame” and a “disgrace from his abode.” He draws on Seneca, who did his best to smear the reputations of both Asterius and his mother. Additionally, Dante “The Inferno” Alighieri, placed Asterius as a guardian and torturer on the seventh circle of hell—the circle of violence—while, in the same stroke of his quill placed King Minos in the second circle—the circle of lust—which is just slightly closer to God’s love. Virgil, who approached Asterius with the same ‘neutral’ language as Apollodorus, is not free of guilt as Gospodinov highlights that this kind of neutrality is still soaked in revulsion, as Virgil described Asterius as the “result of unnatural relations.”

And beyond these literary misrepresentations of Asterius, visual arts were often inspired by the disgust of these authors and saw such revulsion to its inevitable end. Gospodinov notes the obsession in visual art with Asterius’ death, noting a series of frescoes that depict the moment when Theseus has Asterius by the horn, and ready to kill it. And we’ve been led to experience a deep satisfaction, thanks to depictions like these and ideologies spread by the aforementioned authors. This profound pleasure of killing one who we have marked as guilty and inhuman is continued into the 20th and 21st centuries with three-dimensional representations of Asterius in video games, Gospodinov argues.

While World of Warcraft, where the Minotaur-inspired “Tauren” race stood as a politically nearsighted parallel for Indigenous American people (often nomadic, driven from their home lands by brutal conquerors, ‘noble savages’), God of War provided a moment for the player to experience that Thesian satisfaction. As I, through god-killer Kratos, grabbed them by the horns and thrust my sword into their hearts, dragging the blade throat-ward, I giggled with glee as I was rewarded with healing magics and extra experience points for performing the most brutal possible takedown of Asterius’ kind.

Gospodinov, I turn to you, as guilty as many of these writers and artists and designers. And Asterius, I look into your large, dark eyes, and I am deeply sorry.

Asterius is a boy locked in a Basement. He is frightened.

But while he is hidden away in the labyrinth, and branded as a sin, Asterius is nothing more than the result of generations of guilt and sin before him. But, additionally, he is forced to bare the weight that his forefathers refused to. Pasiphae’s lust for Poseidon’s white bull was the direct result of King Minos’ obstruction of a direct order from the god of the sea. Additionally, he received the white bull after asking for a blessing as so that he could overpower his brothers for control of Crete. Furthermore, the Athenian youths that were sent as a sacrifice to Crete were the result of an age old conflict where the Athenians killed the son of another Cretan king—who then went on the decimate Athens. Asterius serves as nothing more of a vessel to be filled with the sins of the men before him, as this small list of transgressions could go on for eons in the imagination of the right historian.

Gospodinov also traces the history of the Trojan computer virus, from the Trojan war horse, to Daedalus, master inventor of the Aegean Sea. He points to the Daedalan Cow—the cow-shaped contraption that allowed Pasiphae to copulate with Poseidon’s white bull. But while Asterius is branded an unnatural beast, a veritable unnatural union is a fake cow, that in the words elder Augustine:

[. . .] Fly and ram, tulip and oak do not copulate.

The mistake made was not by Asterius, but by Daedalus, the architect of this unnatural creation, and King Minos, for defying Poseidon—we can keep peeling the layers of history back, finding transgression behind slaughter, behind greed, and so on. Yet, we are called to cheer as Asterius is dragged lifeless from his prison, time and time again, into the light of day.

Asterius is not Guilty

And from this deep dive into Asterius and his monstrous historicization, Gospodinov looks then to all the children of greek myth, and their absence. He points out that throughout myth, children are eaten, in what can be almost seen as a tradition. “Where there is Time, there is light,” he states, and with this reasoning the only safe place for children to hide is in the dark, as did Asterius, as did narrator Gospodinov, and his father, and his grandfather, and so on. In many ways, Gospodinov took the position of public defender for the shamed Asterius to bring to light the sins that children are forced to bear—and how they carry the weight of the generations before them.

Francisco Goya. Saturn Devouring his Son 1819. Oil on Canvas. Wikimedia Commons.

I was at first confused when I encountered these details of children being devoured throughout Greek myth. Gospodinov starts at the earliest where the titan Chronos consumed the godly children of his that would eventually burst from his body and subjugate him, and his kind.

Even our beloved narrator, at a point, was threatened to be devoured. He writes of a particularly titanic aunt:

I had an aunt who always threatened to eat me up every time she came to visit. Huge and hulking, a distant offshoot of the Titan’s line, she would stand in front of me, spread wide her enormous arms with their rapaciously painted nails, bare her teeth malevolently, two silver caps sparkling, and would slowly step toward me with a deep growl coming from her belly. I would curl up into a ball, screaming, while she shook with laughter. She didn’t have any children, she must have devoured them.

But this doesn’t exist as an isolated occurrence within his family alone. He also recalls the experience of a friend, describing a photograph:

It’s an ordinary baking pan, large, with indelible traces of endless use. The rice has been washed and lightly steamed, amid the white—little balls of black pepper. You can clearly see that the stove has been switched on, the oven door is open, and two hands are carrying the tray toward it. There’s just one unusual detail—that’s no chicken or turkey on top of the rice, but a baby, naked and alive. I almost said raw. It’s lying on its back, its arms and legs in the air. It is clearly only a few days old and weighs no more than a middling turkey.

And as clarified by our round table, the traces of these mythic situations still linger today, as adults still talk about how sweet their children are and threaten to eat their toes during playtime. All this darkness, and devouring of children, leads us back to Gospodinov’s core myth: Asterius in the labyrinth.

There, in that damned place, while the entirety of history brands him a monster, and artists make iteration after iteration of his death hoping to get as close as possible to their audiences experiencing it firsthand, he exists as nothing more than a child. Thrown into the timeless darkness and fed children—as only adults could think that makes sense (bulls are herbivores, Gospodinov reminds us. Only following his final moments is he allowed to be brought to the light. In a state of timelessness he is maintained, until he is made example of for the wrong reason to the wrong audience.

Before I end this post, I want you to take one more look at the painting I shared above: Asterius, with either Ariadne’s twine or his own bindings in hand, mouth slightly ajar, out in bright daylight looking over the ocean as the wind blows through the soft tufts of his fur—contemplating the infinity of a well-lit day.

Asterius is all abandoned children, vessels of the sins of their forefathers, forced into the dark, twisted, and consumed when needed.

5 March 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Before I get into the meat of this post—which is basically just a bunch of quotes and a handful of observations—I wanted to check back in on something from an earlier essay.

Back in January, I wrote about Leïla Slimani’s The Perfect Nanny and basically assumed that it would be a best-seller. (There was also a lot of stuff about one-star reviews and how divided opinions about a popular book only fuels its sales.) Well, after a few weeks out in the world, I don’t think it’s actually made a best-seller list . . . yet.

That’s not to say that the book isn’t doing well. According to Nieslen BookScan—which people claim represents something like 75-80% of overall sales1—the numbers for The Perfect Nanny are at 27,399, with 2,427 sales just last week.

I don’t want to waste half of tomorrow’s post now, but to put this in perspective, Frankenstein in Baghdad—which I also wrote about and thought would be a huge deal—has “only” sold 2,689, with 326 last week. Still very good! We only have a couple books over our ten-year history that are above that, and I’m certain you can guess what they are. I’m going to write more in depth about this in my March Preview, so I’ll save the details, but will leave off by saying that 27,399 is like 27 times more than what most literary translations tend to sell.

Although it may not be an official bestseller (yet), at $16 a pop, those nearly 28,000 sales generated $438,384 in revenue, which, if you apply a 50% discount on sales to Costco/Amazon/independents (a number that might actually be too low) that’s about $219,000. (Again, no spoilers, but that’s a lot more than what a normal literary translation earns. Especially for presses that have two key employees and no where near the marketing resources. $219,000 would be half—or more—of these presses annual budgets. We live in different spheres.)

Is that what Penguin Random House was hoping for though? I kind of doubt it. It’ll be curious to see if they sign on the Slimani collection of stories and personal essays that was just presented to me by a new literary agent . . .


Aslı Erdoğan is an incredible woman and important author. Over the past few years she’s been featured in a ton of publications, including this feature in the New York Times written shortly after she got out of prison.

She was arrested and charged with supporting terrorism, not because of her novels but as a result of her affiliation, as an adviser, with a newspaper linked to the Kurdish movement that has since been shut down. She still faces a trial that could land her back in prison, and with that hanging over her, she has been living with her mother, sleeping late, not writing much and dealing with the new fame that her case has brought.

According to Wikipedia, she was the Turkish representative of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee from 1998 to 2000. She also worked at CERN as a particle physicist. Her novel The City in Crimson Cloak about a Turkish woman in dire straits in Rio de Janeiro was published in 2007 by Soft Skull. (I remember reading this, and liking it, but that’s about it. The passage of time sucks.)

Here’s how she describes her own writing in that same New York Times profile:

She describes her writing as “sublime language plus crude metaphors” that has had only a limited appeal in Turkey, where readers tend to flock to realistic works steeped in Ottoman history or nostalgia, like the books of Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel-winning novelist.

“There’s nothing realistic in my books,” she said. “I am a difficult writer.”


I want to pause here for a second and call out this piece by Will Self that recently appeared on Lit Hub. I’m sure this surprises exactly no one, but I think this is my favorite LitHub post of recent times.

Nowadays, millions of people—at least notionally—are educated to graduate levels, and one would’ve expected this to inculcate them with a positive zest for challenging prose—but this doesn’t seem to be the case. When I get going in this vein, my 16-year-old son says: “Face it, Dad, you’re just an old man shaking your fist at the cloud.” Yet I don’t regard myself as opposed to the new media technologies in any way at all—nor do I view them as “bad,” let alone as cultural panopathogens. I’ve no doubt that human intelligence will continue to be pretty much the same as it has heretofore—but the particular form of intelligence associated with book-learning (and all that this entails) is undoubtedly on the wane, with the “extended mind” of the smart phone increasingly replacing our own memories, and the hive-mindedness of the web usurping our notions of the canonical. I shan’t belabor the point, but it’s worth thinking about the impact of the so-called tyranny of film on contemporary cinema: the length of shots have become shorter and shorter, while the editing technique of cross-cutting between them in order to compel viewers’ attention has become ubiquitous. Arguably, this is similar to the concentration in the literary realm on “page-turners” with characters that are “relatable”—both narrative mediums are looking for ways to make their consumers’ experience more facile.

Yep. Totally on board. Props to Literary Hub for publishing this! (And this is a good reminder that I really need to get to Shark and Phone.)

Self’s general view jibes with my old-man outlook on life and literature, where books that are “challenging” because they force you to think different are ignored, labeled as “not for everyone,” and fiscally dismissed in favor of books with “relatable characters” that you don’t have to think too hard to read.

I get palpably excited thinking about books that are “difficult,” titles that require attention and puzzling out. Books that employ language and techniques that defy the expected, the familiar—those are my jam.

For all these reasons, The Stone Building and Other Place, Erdoğan’s latest book to appear in English, seemed like it would be right up my alley. And I think, under different circumstances, in a different time and place, with a different set of eyes and internal questions, I really would like this. Lots of other people do. As happy as I am to champion Erdoğan as a human being and activist, the language in this book really didn’t work for me.2

Instead of being intrigued and sucked into a politically charged world of words, I was left questioning everything that I was reading, trying to figure out whether it was the original or the translation that wasn’t working for me, or if it was just me. (Probably the last one.)

First admissions first: I read a portion of this book when it was being pitched to publishers. I knew of Erdoğan from The City in Crimson Cloak, but received the submission before her arrest, before the New York Times article, before any of that. Not that it would’ve changed my opinion per se, but it would’ve created a much different context in which to read this book.

Here’s the opening of that sample:

The facts are obvious, contradictory, blunt… He likes to speak loud. I leave the facts, stacked like huge stones, for those who busy themselves with grave matters. I’m only interested in the murmur among them. Indistinct, addictive…Searching through heaps of stones, I’m after a handful of truths – or what used to be called so—these days it doesn’t have a name. After a flash of light, if I could delve deeper and deeper and manage to reach the bottom and return—I’m after the handful of sand, the song of the sand that slips through my fingers. “Those who speak of the shadow, speak the truth.” Truth speaks through shadows. Today, I will talk about the stone building, which language shies away from. Gives it a wide berth. Looks at it behind the words. It was built long before I was born. If we don’t count the basement, it is five stories tall. There is a staircase at its entrance.

Everyone’s first draft needs work. If there’s a thesis to this post, that’s it. That and that a great translation generally has a great editor to go along with a great author and great translator. It takes a team to make a great book. Or whatever other cliche you’d like to throw in there.

That said, this sample has a number of indicators that it would be a lot of work. That’s not necessarily bad, but without getting into gory specifics, I just want to say that for a tiny press that’s already punching above its weight, signing on a translation that’s going to require all the editing hours is a dangerous idea. Sometimes you get a winner, most times you fall behind schedule and see your sales slump. Not to mention, for as stat-centric and economics-informed as I am, I am also aware that there is such a thing as office morale. A really frustrating book/author/translator can totally fuck up the vibe. To put it in real talk.

Casting aside all the formatting quirks that drive me crazy (re: ellipses and em-dashes), here are a few questions that jump out at me:

1. How does the “He” who likes to “speak loud” (is that accurate? does that mean that he’s a loud talker or someone imposing his viewpoint?) relate to the sentences before and after?

2. “Stacked like huge stones, for those who busy themselves with grave matters” might unintentionally imply grave markers. Is that intentional?

3. “I’m only interested in the murmur among them.” Is the “them” the stones, the facts, or something else? This murmur contrasts with “speak loud,” which I suppose is nice, if the pronouns were more logically consistent.

4. Next sentence has an agreement problem “after a handful of truths . . . these days it doesn’t have a name.”

5. I can’t make sense of “After a flash of light, if I could delve deeper and deeper and manage to reach the bottom and return—I’m after the handful of sand, the song of the sand that slips through my fingers.” The “after a flash of light” seems disconnected from the rest of the sentence, mostly because of the “if” that follows it. What is the “song of the sand”?

6. Skipping ahead, the first sentence from the next paragraph is “One must write with flesh, with the naked, vulnerable flesh under the skin.” And I’m out.

(This is more or less how one of our weekly translation workshops—which we refer to as “Plüb” for reasons I’ll only explain in person—tends to go. Lots of questions for the translator to either explain away or think about during revisions. A live-action reader-response experience of the text.)

The translations that win me over are the ones that have a sort of confidence. The prose is assured in its word choices, syntax, voice. It could all be bullshit, but it’s bullshit that I, as a reader, can believe in. Every draft has its problems. Every book has a sentence or two that you stumble over. But if you’re reading a book where every sentence raises a new question? That’s not pleasant. Once your trust has eroded, even the most basic of sentences feels like it’s possibly not quite right. The voice goes all wobbly. Everything feels forced and stilted. The book stops working.


We’re going to come back to this paragraph at the end, but first, let’s visit Words Without Borders and raise some more uncomfortable questions and observations.3

Back in 2005, Words Without Borders published a translation of Erdoğan’s story “Wooden Birds,” and in 2008 they ran “The Prisoner.” Both of these are included in The Stone Building and Other Stories, but these versions were translated by different translators.

I discovered these right around the time that I decided that I was going to read The Stone Building for this series of articles. I didn’t read them until after I had finished reading this City Lights translation, but after I finished the new book—and the original sample—I felt like I had to go back and see how these compared.

Here’s the first paragraph of the WWB version of “The Prisoner”:

She woke up long before the alarm. As though wanting to make sure the night was over, she blinked for a while in the dawn. She’d slept a total of three hours, but the night, full of tossing and turning, and full of realistic dreams, dreams far more painful than reality, had seemed to last forever. An endless waiting…4

Here’s the City Lights version:

She woke up long before the alarm went off. As if checking to make sure the night was over, she opened and closed her eyes a few times in the humid, pre-dawn twilight. She had slept for a total of three hours, and the night — full of tossing and turning, and dreams burdened with an intense realism, much more painful than reality itself — had felt like it dragged on endlessly. A sense of waiting with no beginning and no end . . .

Comparing translations is a dangerous game—you always want parts of one and not the other. “Blinking” over “opened and closed her eyes a few times,” especially if you’re adding “humid.” But “dragged on endlessly” is much more alive on the page (in a cliched way, granted) than “seemed to last forever.” And is “went off” even necessary in relation to the alarm going off? “She woke up long before the alarm” is probably enough. Although that decision must be made in relation to the rest of the paragraph. What is the voice? What is the style? Is she the type to say that her dreams were “burdened with an intense realism” or is she more of a “my dreams were more painful than reality” sort of character?

Regardless, the first sentence of the next paragraph was the one that lost me: Neither “For hours she had lain like a chained ghost with her knees pulled up to her belly, afraid to move, pricking up her ears at the slightest noise” or “For hours, she’d lain like a chained ghost, ears pricking up at the slightest sound, afraid to budge, knees bent to her chest” did enough to overcome the incongruity (for me) of a “chained ghost.”

Let’s move on.

Here’s the opening of the Words Without Borders version of “Wooden Birds,” by far my favorite piece in The Stone Buildings and Other Places:

The door of the room was opened suddenly and a redhead burst in. Dijana’s voice, breathless and impatient, was heard. “Come on now, Felicita! Shall we be waiting for you all day? Get that big arse of yours out of bed. You’re dead inside, woman, dead.”

The door was shut as quickly as it was opened; the antiseptic smell of the hospital corridor, Dijana’s shrill voice and superficial but hurtful mocking remained outside.

Filiz, whom the lung patients called “Felicita” (“happiness”), was in reality an extremely pessimistic, reserved, and embittered person.

Dijana is so British. Not just “arse” but “shall we be waiting.” At least it’s a consistent voice though. I can envision a redheaded Brit talking like that. I’m not sure about “superficial but hurtful mocking.” Seems like it’s explaining too much to the reader.

Here’s the City Lights version:

The door opened suddenly, and a bright red head peeked in. Dijana’s breathless, impatient voice rang out:

“Hurry up, Felicita! Do we have to wait for you all day? Get your fat ass out of that bed. I swear, you’re like the walking dead!”

The door closed as quickly as it had opened, shutting out the hospital corridor’s smell of disinfectant, Dijana’s shrill voice, and her offhand, stinging sarcasm.

Filiz, of “Felicita” as she was called with distinct irony by the lung patients — was an extremely gloomy, withdrawn, and wounded person.

Again, so much to mix and match. The City Lights version, though occasionally too explanatory in these more realistic stories, does a better job with the actions in this section. The “door opened suddenly” is condensed and functional. “The door closed as quickly as it had opened” is another plus, and one that I want to pause on for a second.

Active verbs are always a problem with the young translators I work with. They’re much more likely to initially opt for “the door was closed” instead of “the door closed.” Scratch it up to a quirk of languages, of English, of trying to capture every word. Regardless, it’s the sort of thing that sets translators apart. It’s also something that I suspect City Lights edited into this translation.

Dijana’s voice in the City Lights version isn’t quite as distinctive as the WWB one, but it’s fine. Although given the seemingly omnipresent show, I would avoid phrases like “walking dead,” but that’s just me. “Hurry up, Felicita” is a bit nondescript as well, but in this case, I’m willing to go along with the idea that Dijana’s voice will be developed later in the story. If this was being Plübbed, it would’ve received only a few comments. Reading it, it feels workshopped already.5


All of these little paragraphs seem totally fine and readable, I know. Although they each tend to fall apart near their respective ends, these are the highlights of the book. The more the reader has to hold onto, the better. Because when Erdoğan’s writing gets more abstract, questions about the voice of the translation overwhelm the reading experience and detract from the book’s overall power.

“The Stone Building” is what I really want to talk about. If it weren’t for the jacket copy, which told me that “these tales culminate in a soaring novella whose ‘stone building’ echoes with a chorus of voices of those held captive within its walls,” I would have had almost no idea what this half of the book is all about.

(Worth noting that this is reiterated in the World Literature Today review that states:

The titular work, “The Stone Building,” is the longest story in the collection and probably the most representative of the writer’s use of magical realism. While the protagonist, A., reappears in these chapters as a character who has suffered torture and imprisonment, it is the impressions, the ambience, that define these intertwining stories. Particularly, the theme of betrayal and symbols like the wind and the presence of labyrinths and cyclical time give the story its distinctive dreamlike tone.

OK. Sure. The connection between her use of “magical realism” [sorry, had to gag] and the rest of that paragraph is tenuous at best.)

Back to my general theme: People will love “The Stone Building.” Because I was already questioning the text itself, these lines left me confused and somewhat irritated:

I will now defer my laughter and take you to the stone building.

Defer my laughter. Defer it.

I loved somebody once. He left his eyes with me. Since he had no one else to leave them with. Love.

There’s an overblown tone to this piece that probably won’t come through in these snippets, but which is exhausting to read. The closest comparison I can think of is an undergrad’s journal entries that they write while high. Every line is dripping with meaning.

Then, I recognized your voice, my own voice coming from you. How strange! What frightened me most was that you might cry, beg, collapse. You did none of these. As if death were some kind of literary gesture—an overly dramatic ending held in reserve. But you stood fast, in the middle of a sentence whose dawn would never arrive.

But wait. That’s not the paragraph in the final book.


Admission #2: Not only did I read the sample of “The Stone Building,” but I also read the galley version. Which isn’t the same as the finished version (which, of course, I also read). The fact that the “uncorrected proof” aka galley aka ARC is different from the final, printed, official version is totally normal, and, in this case, wonderfully illuminating.

Here’s that same passage in the finished copy:

Then, I recognized your voice, my own voice coming from you. How strange! What frightened me most was that you might cry, beg, collapse. You did none of these. As if death were some kind of overly dramatic end — a literary device kept on reserve for me. But you stood fast, suspended in the middle of a sentence where the dawn never arrives.

Note 1: Remember that tossaway comment above about young translators needing to make their verbs more active? See: “whose dawn would never arrive” versus “where the dawn never arrives.” That’s so editorial.

Note 2: The flip-flopping of “literary” and “dramatic” is interesting. I don’t know that it solves the core problem of this bit for me (what is a literary device kept on reserve? Where is it kept? Why is it on reserve?), but it is trying to do something.6


Let’s go back to the beginning paragraph. Remember the sample of “The Stone Building”? It’s up above if you want to look, but here’s the published version.

The facts are obvious, contradictory, coarse . . . And blaring.

The “he likes to speak loud” line has been replaced by “and blaring.” Which clearly refers back to the facts and sets up something concrete and alarming. So much better.

I leave the facts, like a mound of giant stones, to those who busy themselves with important matters.

By getting rid of “grave matters” the graveyard aspect of this is gone. That solves a certain number of questions for me as a reader.

What interests me is the murmur among them. Indistinct, obsessive . . . Digging through the rock pile of facts, I’m after a handful of truths — or what used to be called that, these days it doesn’t have a name.

I like that in this version we have “rock pile of facts” versus “heaps of stones,” which is ambiguous and nondescript. But what about that “flash of light, if”??

Lured on by a flickering light, what if I were to dive deeper and deeper, if I could reach the bottom and make it back — I’m after a handful of sand, the song of the sand that slips through my fingers and disappears.

Well, that clarified a lot. Even the song of the sand! By simply adding “and disappears” to that sentence, the song of the sand goes from some weird mythical thing that exists on its own to the song of the sand that slips through my fingers and disappears. Emphasizing “sand that slips” instead of “song of sand” is a huge advancement.


I have no idea what this book is. I don’t think it lives up to the hype, but I think abstracted writing should do more and be better. In the end, it’s a book by and for academics. Although you should probably buy it because Erdoğan is cool as shit. And so is City Lights. And their editors.


1 The percentage depends on how embarrassing the reported number is. I think BookScan captures about 10% of our overall sales.

2 I’m very uncomfortable criticizing this book. The idea of criticizing it makes me extremely anxious. Criticism itself is in a weird place right now. But really, does my opinion mean anything at all? No! Given Erdoğan’s status, it will get the review attention it needs to appeal to a decent set of readers. Will it Scan 27,000 copies? Most probably absolutely unlikely not. But more than 1,000? Sure! Not that sales are everything, but because I mentioned it at the beginning, it seems relevant.

3 Still so uncomfortable! I set out writing this with the goal of walking readers through the decision-making process I go through when I start reading a translation—especially a sample—because I thought it might explain something about how translations are received by perceptive readers. The sort of readers who don’t take any prose—originally written in English or translated into it—at face value, but interrogate the text as they go. But that’s an approach that relies upon using a text that I don’t really like. Which feels mean and I don’t want to be mean about this book. It’s just . . . keep reading.

4 Here’s how you do ellipses: . . . Like that. Not… This… Looks so low rent. Like you’re reading a zine from 1990 laid out in WordPerfect.

5 Knowing me, I would’ve recommended this: “The door closed as quickly as it had opened, shutting out the hospital corridor’s smell of disinfectant, Dijana’s shrill voice, her stinging sarcasm.” I like to speed things up in texts like this that tend to dilly-dally and get caught up in a web of unnecessary words.

6 I don’t want to bash this book, but I also want to say that I didn’t find this half as interesting as academics might make it out to be. I love weird prose, but this was so tiresome. And baffling. The geography of the scenes is all over the place and the abstract nature of the writing ends up being more confusing than provocative. I’m sure a number of people will tell me what I’m missing, but in the end, I think this book is more interesting in theory than in its prose. Erdoğan = amazing; “The Stone Building” is . . . words.

1 March 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Caitlin Baker of the University Book Store in Seattle joined Chad and Brian to talk about this very short section of Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow. Mostly they talk about the constant conflicts between kids and their parent in myths. And eating children. But it’s not as gruesome as all that! Mostly they have a good time hanging out and talking about the Minotaur and how he’s been portrayed both in myths and pop culture.

If you want to see this conversation (instead of listening to the podcast), you can view it all here on YouTube. And be sure to come by next Monday, March 5th at 9pm to hangout with Brian, Chad, and special guest Nick Buzanski. In addition to talking about Part III (pgs 73-118), they’ll be happy to answer any and all questions in the chat.

As always, The Physics of Sorrow (and all the previous Two Month Review titles) is available for 20% off through our website. Just use the code 2MONTH at checkout.

Feel free to comment on this episode—or on the book in general—either on this post, or at the official GoodReads Group.

Follow Open Letter, Chad Post, and Brian Wood, for more thoughts and information about upcoming guests. And you can follow Caitlin Baker for great book recommendations and more!

And you can find all the Two Month Review posts by clicking here. And be sure to leave us a review on iTunes!

The music for this season of Two Month Review is Stars and Babies by Splendor and Misery, featuring Georgi’s translator, Angela Rodel!

27 February 18 | Orisa Santiago Morrice | Comments

This week we will be looking at the opening section of Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow. If you didn’t already, you can catch the conversation between Chad Post, Tom Roberge, and Brian Wood on this section of the book at Three Percent or on YouTube for the unedited, behind the scenes full audio-visual experience (check out this link if you want to see a panicked Chad Post trapped alone in the gaze of the internet for a couple minutes). This post explores the epigraphy, which establishes an interesting approach to the book, and the Prologue, which introduces us to characters we’ll be encountering. You can find my previous Two Month Review post introducing Georgi Gospodinov and his work here .

The Epigraphy: How to read The Physics of Sorrow (or, Ugh! Borges again!?)

I am drawn to the moment in last week’s conversation when the three of them discussed the epigraphy of The Physics of the Sorrow. Tom storms the center of the exchange and states, roughly, “I have to be honest [. . .] after a while I just don’t care,” in regards to the listing of quotes, and exclaims, with his charming sarcastic self “‘oh a Borges quote, oooh!” And as an avid reader and writer, and frequent participant (read: wallflower) of literary discussions, I understand where Tom is coming from. Borges, despite his clear influence and well earned titanic presence in contemporary literature gets his name dropped a tad too often at cocktail parties, awkward first dates, and, especially, discussions of books that aren’t his. But despite Tom’s understandable outrage, Borges still fits perfectly within Gospodinov’s meaningful epigraphy.

But let’s follow the string back a few paces, so to speak, since Borges isn’t the the center of our discussion, and glean the full collection of epigraphs that open The Physics of Sorrow. I’ve broken up the epigraphs into three subsections. The first spans the first three epigraphs and creates a sense of how Gospodinov’s world in The Physics of Sorrow works—its physics, you could say. The second, which spans the fourth to the seventh epigraphs, catalogs the building blocks of the stories. The third and final section, dictated by the last two epigraphs, allows readers a moment to question what activity they are about to engage in and reminds them of their opportunity to find truth or resign themselves from it as they wander into this particular labyrinth.

The First Span: Pessoa, Gaustine, and Borges

Fernando Pessoa, author of the first quote on the list, is a renowned heavyweight of the Portuguese literary scene of the late 19th to early 20th centuries. This epigraph is drawn from a long poem called “Ulysses,” where Pessoa explicates the Homeric figure’s place in the founding and resulting traditions of Portugal (Lisbon, originally Lisboa, derived from the Portugese variant of Ulysses: Ulissippo). This glance into the expanded excerpt deepens the relationship between Pessoa, Gospodinov, and myth:

Myth is the nought that means all.
The very sun that opens up the sky
Is a bright and silent myth-
The dead embodiment of God
Alive and naked.

Pessoa’s opening stanza familiarizes the reader with the relationship of myth to human history, suggesting that if you peel away enough from any story, or any understanding of a given event, or any cultural practice, you’re left with something mythic at the core. This idea resonates strongly with The Physics of Sorrow, as Chad, Tom, and Brian peeled back the layers during their discussion and kept finding a Minotaur, a myth of sin and abandonment, and its labyrinth. These dark myths are the very essence that illuminates the world that we see, and are a priority to Gospodinov..

The next epigraph is from the noteworthy, seminal, perpetually poignant, well-known Gaustine. If you haven’t heard of him, then you’re clearly just not in the know, whether you’re talking about the mysterious seventeenth-century writer, or the good friend of narrator Gospodinov. From his Selected Biographies:

There is only childhood and death. And nothing in between…

This observation cements what readers can expect from The Physics of Sorrow by building upon Pessoa’s claim. If Pessoa’s epigraph created the first rule of how Gospodinov’s world functions, Gaustine generates the next rule: while myth is everything, there is only childhood and death and nothing in between. The world as we know it is mythic, and those myths are of children and the dead—these themes clearly developed in The Physics of Sorrow. And these themes complement the work at hand, mirroring priorities in Gospodinov’s writing.

But Gaustine isn’t real and is crafted by Gospodinov himself. This prestidigitation fits within the epigraphy as both Pessoa and Borges frequently blurred the line between fact and fiction through working under pseudonyms (or heteronyms, as specified by Pessoa) or generating quotations credited to authors of their own creation (which Borges utilized frequently).

There was a great moment during last week’s conversation when Chad admitted to making up some old Greek dudes to get a point across. Brian then admitted to generating some quick and sloppy Bible verses for his work. I’ve even crafted an imaginary phenomenologist, one Dr. Austra, who initially came to me in a dream as he led me to his tombstone to find his notebook which I raided for some ramblings in my long form fiction. This tradition of imagination and trickery lives on.

The last epigraph in this span is from Borges and fairly straightforward in regards to the themes of the epigraphy and the construction of Gospodinov’s world in The Physics of Sorrow. As with Pessoa’s epigraph, looking at the entirety of the excerpt aids in understanding its importance. This excerpt was the opening from the poem “1964.” The first full half of the poem is as follows:

The world has lost its magic. They have left you.
You no longer share the clear moon
nor the slow gardens. Now there is
no moon that isn’t a mirror to the past,

Solitary crystal, anguished sun.
Goodbye to the mutual hands and the temples
that brought love closer. Today all you have
is the faithful memory and the deserted days.

Nobody loses (you repeat vainly)
Except what they don’t have
and never had, but it is not enough to be valiant

For to learn the art of forgetting
a symbol, a rose, rips you apart
and a guitar can kill you.

We are met with clear cues from the expanded excerpt that strengthen its place in this span of the epigraphy. Through Borges, we understand the world at large: the world is no longer magical; we have been abandoned. These ideas are further built upon from select moments of the larger excerpt. From the opening line we’ve already highlighted, to the last syntactic unit of the second stanza,

[. . .] Today all you have
is the faithful memory and the deserted days [. . .]

to the entirety of the third stanza,

Nobody loses (you repeat vainly)
Except what they don’t have
and never had [. . .]

to the last whole stanza,

For to learn the art of forgetting
a symbol, a rose, rips you apart
and a guitar can kill you [. . .]

each of these statements deepen the importance of memory and loss through forgetfulness and abandonment that Gospodinov is constructing through the epigraphy and into the rest of the book. The next span explains that memory plays a critical role in Gospodinov’s exploration. The individual pieces of the greater work directly address loss frequently, especially in the form of abandonment.

We started the epigraphy with everything being mythic, to the point where we struggle to identify it directly. Then we understood that there is only childhood and death, further expanding what we can discuss by returning so-called adults to an state of innocence, loss of innocence, and perpetual wonder while they careen to their eventual demise. And finally, we come to learn that while myth may be the core of our behaviors and traditions, the world itself is not magical (at least not anymore), and we are abandoned, left aimlessly to our devices. Gospodinov slowly familiarizes us to the mechanisms of his work by drawing on these mythic, myth-obsessed authors—who, in the cases of Pessoa and Borges, frequently toyed with authorship, and, through their epigraphs, show us a cold a mythic world that Gospodinov has built his own writing within. In the case of Gaustine, the imagined literary phantom of Gospodinov, he shares his sentiments of how the world functions.

The Second Span: “memory and desire”

This span of epigraphs effectively introduces us to the basic units of The Physics of Sorrow and how Gospodinov will succeed at convincing us that this is how his world works.

The first comes from Saint Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions, Book X. St. Augustine was a North African Christian theologian from the fifth century, and his selection supports the ideas building throughout the epigraphy:

I will soar, then, beyond this power of my nature also, still rising by degrees toward him who made me. And I enter the fields and spacious halls of memory, where are stored as treasures the countless images that have been brought into them from all manner of things by the senses. There, in the memory, is likewise stored what we cogitate, either by enlarging or reducing our perceptions, or by altering one way or another those things which the senses have made contact with; and everything else that has been entrusted to it and stored up in it, which oblivion has not yet swallowed up and buried.

The removed portions are important, particularly St. Augustine’s explanation of how perceptions can be enlarged or reduced or otherwise altered to better explore these halls of memories. As we’ll later engage with both the prologue and “The Bread of Sorrow”, the crux of this work relies on the narrator’s ability to place himself in the memories of others while these others may not even be human. St. Augustine calls out for a similar ability to expand beyond the limitations his human senses and, religiously speaking, perceive the glory of God in the world around him. Furthermore, that last section,

[. . .] everything else that has been entrusted to it and stored up in it, which oblivion has not yet swallowed up and buried [. . .]

establishes an idea that we’ll return to shortly within another epigraph and further explains what the world of The Physics of Sorrow is made of. This adherence to memory and experience is key to Gospodinov.

While slightly out of order, I want to jump to the sixth epigraph due to it’s thematic relevance to Saint Augustine’s epigraph (bear with me). Gustave Flaubert, a French author and aesthete from his national realist literary movement, provides the next insight into The Physics of Sorrow by mirroring Gospodinov’s approach to memory by expanding St. Augustine’s ideas. The Temptation of Saint Anthony is a play that retells the spiritual temptations that its titular character encounters as he crosses the desert sands of Egypt. After surviving yet another harrowing encounter with a demon, or some other threatening creature, Anthony exclaims:

O bliss! bliss! I have seen the birth of life; I have seen the beginning of motion. The blood beats so strongly in my veins that it seems about to burst them. I feel a longing to fly, to swim, the bark, to bellow, to howl. I would like to have wings, a tortoise shell, a rind, to blow out smoke, to wear a trunk, to twist my body, to spread myself everywhere, to be in everything, to emanate with odors, to grow like plants, to flow like water…to penetrate every atom, to descend to the very depths of matter—to be matter.

In this moment of severe dehydration, St. Anthony fractures his perception beyond the limitations of his humanity. By invoking this, and building upon St. Augustine, Gospodinov hints to his readers that his narratives aren’t bound to a particular species, existence, or lack thereof, in his exploration of abandonment. Whatever entity he needs to embody to make the point, he will, just to get it right.

The next in this span is from our beloved, mysterious Gaustine, from his timeless The Forsaken Ones. This excerpt capitalizes on what we’re looking at throughout The Physics of Sorrow, and builds upon what fills both St. Augustine and St. Anthony with such wonder.

Only the fleeting and ephemeral are worth recording.

This particular epigraph builds on the previous ones from St. Augustine and Flaubert by elucidating that The Physics of Sorrow exists as a repository of memories, which are the “fleeting and ephemeral” to St. Augustine and that “which oblivion has not yet swallowed up and buried” to Flaubert. Gaustine explains how easily memory is lost. Gospodinov is driven to recover memories; the book is a collection of these fleeting moments captured through Gospodinov’s ability to embed himself in memories.

The last epigraph of this second span is by American modernist heavyweight T.S. Eliot. Taken from his (overly) anthologized The Waste Land, Gospodinov tastefully draws upon a short and broken moment from the piece to further build on the nature of these contents—actually maintaining the formal qualities from its original position onto the epigraph.

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

From this expanded excerpt we see that this mix of memory and desire follows the dissonance created between the changing seasons and our own shifting emotional states. Again we’re guided to understand that we will be experiencing Georgi’s desire for wholeness, or at least context, mitigated by explorations of his and others’ memories. The narrator’s exploration of the memories of those around him to better understand his own life is addressed through this.

Gospodinov has prepared us for the range of perspectives that we’ll come to encounter once we enter the prologue and “The Bread of Sorrow.” He isn’t concerned with building a straightforward narrative limited by human sensory perception, but simply tries to access, experience and collect these memories. Despite the cold world that the first three epigraphs in the section built, these last four epigraphs highlight just how brilliant and varied the world can be—even as these recollections test the nature of the believable. This will be important as we enter the third span of epigraphs and dive into the prologue.

The Third and Final Span: Reality and Fiction at Play

This last span is a commentary and final preparation for readers and how we can consider our engagement with the book. As the first span established the rules of this lonely world, and the second highlighted the building blocks of it through ephemera and ranges of experience, this last set of epigraphs asks us to question to nature of our experience as readers with the book. As I removed in an earlier draft of my previous blog post, my experience, so far, with The Physics of Sorrow, makes me almost feel like a book doesn’t do it justice. I initially described my experience of reading it as a dip in a lukewarm pool, something akin to a sensory deprivation tank where you’re floating, salted, quiet until you’re bombarded by the far reaches of your own mind in a blur of memory and imagination (said better by Eliot’s epigraph, possibly).

The first, again by the beloved Gaustine, picks at the general nature of the novel:

Purebred genres don’t interest me much. The novel is no Aryan.

Appropriately, this piece is far from a purebred genre. Literary types from around the world and across times have supported their racket by perpetually picking and prodding enough times to designate appropriate categories for books to fall within, something that can be clearly labeled in the corner of a bookstore or in the halls of a library. Lest we forget, obsessions with categorization ring a tad too closely to the politics of eugenics that terrorized the Western world from the mid 19th century to the present day, or call, generally, to an affinity for fascist governments to categorize and document their citizens. These are relationships that Gospodinov understands all too well.

Gaustine is concerned with these potentially dangerous associations and seeks to liberate the novel from them. The “novel” as we know it today is made up elements dug up and stapled together from corners of history and brought to life by an artistic imagination like Gaustine’s or Gospodinov’s, and, as such, asks his readers to suspend expectations of how a book, and its contents, function and how it can be categorized and to simply experience the contents of a book as an extension of their author’s imaginations—no matter how varied and fractured it may be.

And finally, turning to possibly the least imaginative writer of the 20th century, Gospodinov ends his epigraphy with a simple statement for the reader, and what I consider a beautiful transition into the prologue. This epigraph is drawn from from Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, a memoir posthumously published. As with the other epigraphs, looking at the excisions has consistently strengthened the meaning and effectiveness of these epigraphs and their relationship to The Physics of Sorrow. The excerpt in question is from the preface:

For reasons sufficient to the writer, many places, people, observations and impressions have been left out of this book. Some were secrets and some were known by everyone and everyone has written about them and will doubtless write more.

There is no mention of the Stade Anastasie where the boxers served as waiters at the tables set out under the trees and the ring was in the garden. Nor of training with Larry Gains, nor the great twenty-round fights at the Cirque d’Hiver. Nor of such good friends as Charlie Sweeney, Bill Bird and Mike Strater, nor of André Masson and Miro. There is no mention of our voyages to the Black Forest or of our one-day explorations of the forests that we loved around Paris. It would be fine if all these were in this book but we will have to do without them for now.

If the reader prefers, this book may be regarded as fiction. But there is always the chance that such a book of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact.

Despite the reflective, ‘autobiographical’ nature of A Moveable Feast, the weight generated by the labelling of ‘memoir,’ and the promises that such a literary form can make to its readers, Hemingway is already acknowledging that the truth has been altered within the pages, even in the form of events not being recollected. We are already working with the imagination and subjectivity of a human being, further bringing into to question the authority of this work to properly represent these moments. Hemingway recognizes the futility of pushing something forward as truth, and simply leaves it up to the readers. But he doesn’t fully surrender to the futility of pushing a collection of memories in front of distant, unkind readers. With the last sentence of the preface,

But there is always the chance that such a book of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact.

Hemingway places his faith in the value of fiction to strengthen the reality of the author. As the last of the epigraphs, Gospodinov poses the same option to the readers of The Physics of Truth —for them to take the work as they want to.

The Prologue: Who are these People; What are these Things?

As I turned the page from the epigraphy and gazed upon this short collections of selves, I flipped my legal pad over, pulled a page from the back, and started jotting down notes on who these people—no, that’s not accurate enough—who these entities were. This isn’t to say that I never delved into texts with genealogies or other convoluted relationships between generations of characters (Not Martin, think Faulkner), but this is to say that this is the first time I felt a need to keep track of who, or what, these entities were. I went from one paragraph to the next, taking down the important information, anxious by my potential lack of ability to find them as the text further unfolded.

The Boys of War

Some of these profiles point to people that we’ll come to identify, through the first section, as members of narrator Gospodinov’s family. These profiles follow a similar structure established by the first, and longest.

I was born at the end of August 1913 as a human being of the male sex. I don’t know the exact date. They waited a few days to see whether I would survive and then put me down in the registry. That’s what they did with everyone. Summer work was winding down, they still had to harvest this and that from the fields, the cow had calved, they were fussing over her. The Great War was about to start. I sweated through it right alongside all the other childhood illnesses, chicken pox, measles, and so on.

This description of a child born during wartime, into poverty and general uncertainty becomes a common circumstance as we progress into the prologue and eventually the work itself, and focus on myth and abandonment.

The next of these similar profiles gives us a window into Gospodinov’s presence in this work—it’s wonderful how he teases the reader and hides himself within the work like this.

I was born on January 1, 1968, as a human being of the male sex. I remember all of 1968 in detail from beginning to end. I don’t remember anything of the year we’re in now. I don’t even know its number.

Despite presumably being the stand-in for author Georgi Gospodinov, he establishes himself as only one of many voices that contribute to the discussion at hand and despite his sole place as a memory jumper in the work, as we’ll come to discuss, he prepares the reader for the multiplicity that pervades the work.

The next of these profiles strengthens the building themes of political instability via war and abandonment.

I was born on September 6, 1944, as a human being of the male sex. Wartime. A week later my father left for the front. My mother’s milk dried up. A childless auntie wanted to take me in and raise me, but they wouldn’t give me up. I cried whole nights from hunger. They gave me bread dipped in wine as a pacifier.

Another boy born during wartime, into hardship, into uncertainty, into shifting familial and political circumstances. We will come to learn through the first section that this is Gospodinov’s father, but simply mediated by his circumstances, and not represented by his eventual personhood. And these profiles, and this section as a whole, foreshadows a unique aspect of narrator Gospodinov’s embedding ability, where he experiences these moments from the lives of those close to him: time shatters in this process. As you’ll find in the “The Bread of Sorrow,” narrator Gospodinov and his unborn whole family through time watch in horror as their great grandfather is abandoned as a boy:

[. . .] Yet another long minute goes by. I imagine how in that min-
ute the faces of the unborn look on, holding their breath. There
they are, craning their necks through the fence of time, my father,
my aunt, my other aunt, there’s my brother, there’s me, there’s my
daughter, standing on tiptoes. Their, our appearance over the years
depends on that minute and on the young woman’s silence. I wonder
whether she suspects how many things are being decided now?

These profiles both are and aren’t timeless, and these people—these entities, are both rooted at certain points and times but also freed from them as narrator Gospodinov embeds himself in their memories. This is clear through author Gospodinov’s own profile where we clearly remembers the year that he was born, presumably through embedding himself in the memories of his parents, yet has a difficult remembering the current year, whenever that may be. This is key to reading The Physics of Sorrow and yet is elucidated in the first pages. Thank you, Georgi.

While these stand as the more tangible of the profiles, I am not trying to diminish their importance. In this navigation of the prologue, we are simply beginning to understand the range of voices that Gospodinov engages with in his exploration of sorrow.

And You Are?

The rest of these profiles beautifully stretch the imagination of the reader before they enter the body, proper, of the text. With that, we’re introduced to one of the more challenging profiles to decipher, but possibly one of the easiest to accept.

I was born two hours before dawn like a fruit fly. I’ll die this evening after sundown.

From my own reading of this work I haven’t yet encountered this entity in the texts. There comes a moment when a young narrator Gospodinov becomes a God to the ants in his parent’s basement apartment, or just basement—no fruit flies yet. But due to Gospodinov’s own meticulous approach to his writing, not limited to his construction of authors and works, I have my eyes peeled for this fruit fly entity, whether or not it actually is a fruit fly when we encounter it.

The fourth profile throws us for a loop, as we’re introduced to, possibly, the anthropomorphization of a concept, or a guiding elemental or scientific force.

I have always been born. I still remember the beginning of the Ice Age and the end of the Cold War. The sight of the dying dinosaurs (in both epochs) is one of the most unbearable things I have seen.

Is this God? Is this evolution? Is it revolution? We don’t know yet, but the possibilities promise a shifting, exploratory quality to the work at hand. And it gets even crazier in the next section. We aren’t dealing with an individual man, or an idea, but the unborn, and consciousness in the void that is aware of it’s entry point! What a privilege.

I remember being born as a rose bush, a partridge, as ginkgo biloba, a snail, a cloud in June (that memory is brief), a purple autumnal crocus near Halensee, an early-blooming cherry frozen by a late April snow, as snow freezing a hoodwinked cherry tree…

Here I am drawn violently back to St. Augustine and Flaubert and their joint yearning for a broader range of experiences. Was this a series of plants sitting next to each other, despite their differing seasons and geographies? Was I to imaging a plant that could change into another? Was there not really a plant at all? What mattered is that this plant felt, and could recollect. I am rendered to a body of questions by this point, but I know that as I read forward, I’m looking for plants and open to hear what they say.

Finally, my favorite of the profiles, the collective act of being from all of them joined in a grammatically challegening statement, and possibly the shortest sentence in the book.

We am.

I am drawn to the repetition of the prologue. In one reading of this section I considered a room, Alcoholics Anonymous modeled, where each of these entities went in a circle sharing who they were before delving into the emotional phantoms that haunted them—one permutation of what I imagined this book being. In my second, third, and fifth readings I imagined these voices all coming from one mouth of an amorphous being home to all these experiences—something akin to the horrific Judeo-Christian winged wheel-angels. But despite these two anticipations, I felt that from this starting position, Gospodinov was telling me to keep an eye out for the disparate, lost entities who, while disconnected by space and time, are connected by loss and abandonment as these forces are the guiding principles of his mythic world that he’s slowly making sense of.

Some Final Thoughts before we Lose Ourselves

At this point, I had no sense of how the novel would unfold—I had yet to read much into Gospodinov aside from some light Wikipedia scratches. I wasn’t sure if I was going to experience an evolution—were we going to start at the fruit fly, or the ever-shifting plants, and find ourselves in World War I? Were we the collective consciousness that then diffuses into all these, arguably, sentient beings. I was piqued, to say the least, and so I brought myself to attention and prepared myself.

I suggest that before you pick up this book and continue reading through it that you center yourself in loss. Think about a time when you were forgotten, whether you realized right away and burst into tears at that very moment, or if it snuck up on your decades later while you’re chopping vegetables for a dinner for two that you ended up eating by yourself by the end of the night. Despite the ever shifting tones, and moods, and places that Gospodinov guides you through, whether the stories make you laugh, or cry, or confuse you, focus on loss, focus on abandonment. Ultimately, from this point in the book, Gospodinov restructures the notion of abandonment and loss, not by stripping it of the pain that pervades the experience but by, in every sense of the word, broadening our imaginations to how we can understand it.

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Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World
Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World by Ella Frances Sanders
Reviewed by Kaija Straumanis

Hello and greetings in the 2017 holiday season!

For those of you still looking for something to gift a friend or family member this winter season, or if you’re on the lookout for something to gift in the. . .

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The Size of the World
The Size of the World by Branko Anđić
Reviewed by Jaimie Lau

Three generations of men—a storyteller, his father and his son—encompass this book’s world. . . . it is a world of historical confusion, illusion, and hope of three generations of Belgraders.

The first and last sentences of the first. . .

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Island of Point Nemo
Island of Point Nemo by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès
Reviewed by Katherine Rucker

The Island of Point Nemo is a novel tour by plane, train, automobile, blimp, horse, and submarine through a world that I can only hope is what Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès’s psyche looks like, giant squids and all.

What. . .

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The Truce
The Truce by Mario Benedetti
Reviewed by Adrianne Aron

Mario Benedetti (1920-2009), Uruguay’s most beloved writer, was a man who loved to bend the rules. He gave his haikus as many syllables as fit his mood, and wrote a play divided into sections instead of acts. In his country,. . .

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I Am a Season That Does Not Exist in the World
I Am a Season That Does Not Exist in the World by Kim Kyung Ju
Reviewed by Jacob Rogers

Kim Kyung Ju’s I Am a Season That Does Not Exist in the World, translated from the Korean by Jake Levine, is a wonderful absurdist poetry collection. It’s a mix of verse and prose poems, or even poems in the. . .

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Kingdom Cons
Kingdom Cons by Yuri Herrera
Reviewed by Sarah Booker

Yuri Herrera is overwhelming in the way that he sucks readers into his worlds, transporting them to a borderland that is at once mythical in its construction and powerfully recognizable as a reflection of its modern-day counterpart. Kingdom Cons, originally. . .

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The Invented Part
The Invented Part by Rodrigo Fresán
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

Imagine reading a work that suddenly and very accurately calls out you, the reader, for not providing your full attention to the act of reading. Imagine how embarrassing it is when you, the reader, believe that you are engrossed in. . .

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A Simple Story: The Last Malambo
A Simple Story: The Last Malambo by Leila Guerriero
Reviewed by Emilee Brecht

Leila Guerriero’s A Simple Story: The Last Malambo chronicles the unique ferocity of a national dance competition in Argentina. The dance, called the malambo, pushes the physical and mental limits of male competitors striving to become champions of not only. . .

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