7 January 16

This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by reader, writer, and BTBA judge P. T. Smith. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.

There have been books throughout the year that stand out because they astound on a general level, accomplish a number of things well. Others are memorable because they do one or two things incredibly well. In some cases, it’s as if the books are devoted to that one ambition, to that one possibility of literature. This seeking out of one specific bit of a book, whether it’s something in the structure, tone, style, or subject matter, etc. has a couple motivations. The most common one, unfortunately, is when a book isn’t very good, and I still want to engage with it. I have faith there must still be something interesting there, and I seek it out. When it’s found, not only does the reading experience turn more pleasurable, but help forms another way to think about writing. Less common, more worth spending time writing about, are the books that have the one fascinating aspect and do it so well that the reading becomes about that singular pleasure, even if others play in the background. And in the end, I just find this way of identifying a single stand out aspect of a book a way of entertaining myself and beginning conversations. So, here are some BTBA books from the latter category, of books memorable from one pleasure, rather than mundane books scarcely saved.

The first such experience in BTBA reading was Violette Leduc’s Thérèse and Isabelle (trans. Sophie Lewis). The story of a love affair, kept secret, between two girls at a boarding school, Thérèse and Isabelle is so hyper focused it is nearly overwhelming, which is exactly what Leduc portrays. It is unrelentingly physical: “My recollection of the two fingers grew sweeter, my swollen flesh began to recover, bubbles of love rose up. But Isabelle was there again, the fingers turned faster and faster. Where had this mounting wave come from? Smooth wrappings inside my knees. My heels were drugged, my visionary flesh was dreaming.” There is little to no time spent describing how or why these two are attracted to each other, because it is irrelevant. All that matters is the overpowering attraction, the desperate emotional desire that courses in their bodies.

With absolutely nothing in common with Thérèse and Isabelle, Christian Kracht’s Imperium (trans. Daniel Bowles) may have at its heart something to say about the blind following of ideals that led to the world wars, as the cover copy wants to emphasize, but that was not the compelling reason to read. Instead, the humor, the parody of historical adventure novels, is the source of pleasure. The hero is the joke, August Engelhardt, idealist, blind to his flaws and to the fact that other people aren’t the naïve waif he is. His faith is in coconuts, the purest food devised by God, and in nudity. Telling the story of Engelhardt’s travel to New Guinea, his life on an island there, and the failure of his attempt to found a society, the narrator celebrates and mocks sailing and adventure tales, all the while cynically undermining, knowing his utter failure is coming, the man it puts forth as a hero.

It’s through prose that makes the most minute details and observations into something affecting that Jean Echenoz’ story collection The Queen’s Caprice (trans. Linda Coverdale) finds its identity. The opening story, “Nelson,” is of that oftentimes epically depicted historical figure, Admiral Nelson, but this is not of battles and history being made. Instead, it is him visiting friends, their care for him, his adjustment to age and his loss of arm and eye. It is a simple, pleasing tale of him planting acorns so for them to grow into “trees whose trunks will serve to build the future royal fleet.” Only then can the grand scheme of history return through his death in battle. The title story is a roving description of a country landscape, leaving a writer’s hand to travel across the surrounding land, in details of hills and trees, all building to make a tiny moment with ants full of depth and insight. These stories are above all quiet. That quietness is the success of The Queen’s Caprice, parsing down even and abundance to the quietness scenes that can communicate the most.

Regina Ullmann’s The Country Road (trans. Kurt Beals) is a story collection that is completely of a time and space, yet a step outside of that, a skewed mirror image not quite real, but unsettled. The Dream of My Return (trans. Katherine Silver) is Horacio Castellanos’ distillation of paranoia, anxiety, and haunting guilt of a culture, of a time, into the daily life of a man who may in fact be utterly safe. This could go on, this way of reading and talking about books, the aspect that makes one memorable, makes it stand off from others, but these are the best of the bunch so far, though if I wrote this a week from now, Léon Bloy’s Disagreeable Tales (trans. Erik Butler) would probably make the cut for its triumph of the sinister.

18 December 15

Today’s Best Translated Book Award post is by Mark Haber of Brazos Bookstore. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.

Before encountering the massive, indispensable Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector, I was already a fan. I enjoyed The Hour of the Star and was jolted by the existential brilliance of The Passion of G.H. However, enjoying something and writing about it can often be mutually exclusive. You see, I’m in over my head. Lispector looms large in my mind, a giant, and to attempt writing about her work in any critical way will only expose my shortcomings. More than anything, I’m an enthusiast. I love books and authors not because I always understand them but often because I don’t. The beauty and strangeness of the language, the veil of mystery that hovers above the text—this is what I love most about literature. Did I fully understand Bolaño’s 2666? Or Adler’s Speedboat? Or Paul Metcalf’s Genoa? Of course not. Yet my love for them is powerful and authentic. My favorite books are the ones that demand to be revisited, that contain the ineffable, that bring a sense of wonder, even a blissful confusion. And so, being in waters too deep, I’ll simply list the reasons why you should (and you really should) read the Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector

1. She’s utterly, and without exception, a singular writer.

2. She doesn’t indulge the reader or suffer fools.

3. She writes sentences like: “The sun caught in the blinds quivered on the wall like a Portuguese guitar.”

4. The mythology which surrounds her is deserved.

5. Read as a whole, the Complete Stories is the entire breadth of a literary genius’ artistic life expressed in stories.

6. Like many New Directions books, it’s also an object of art. As such it’s something for guests to envy and/or covet. In this spirit, three copies should be acquired: one for the coffee table, one for the shelf with the other Latin American greats and one, of course, to read.

7. She mixes the domestic and the mythical seamlessly.

8. In her stories there exists no “known,” only the act of grasping and searching for the known.

9. She’s perhaps more enigmatic than even Franz Kafka or Fernando Pessoa.

10. There’s often a humdrum, domestic setting softly rearranged by a kind of ecstatic madness (of language, of character, or both).

11. The translation by Katrina Dodson is lucid and a feat of translated literature.

12. Her stories are dense with the mystery of being alive.

13. The story “One Hundred Years of Forgiveness” opens with: “If you’ve never stolen anything you won’t understand me. And if you’ve never stolen roses, then you can never understand me. I, when I was little, used to steal roses.”

14. Epiphanies aren’t cheap and her stories are replete with them.

15. She’s silly, obtuse, complex, irreverent, satirical and mournful often inside a single paragraph.

16. She will undoubtedly lead you to other Latin American greats like Machado de Assis or Silvina Ocampo or Liliana Heker. Trust me, there’s tons.

17. When she smacks against the confines of language, the reader witnesses her frustration and is all the richer for it.

18. She has more registers in a single story than many 500 page novels.

19. The interior world and the exterior world are given equal attention, often at the same time.

20. The story “Brasilia” is worth the price of admission.

21. Her writing is religious or mystical without trying to be; it simply is.

22. Lispector had no regard for the “rules” of writing and this disregard grants a freedom and vigor evident throughout the book.

23. She’s indulgent and pragmatic: she will digress on a whim and then smack the reader with the point that she’s making.

24. A morning of solitude, a cup of coffee or tea and her stories will bring unequivocal bliss.

25. She contains multitudes.

30 November 15

This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is from Tom Roberge from New Directions, Albertine Books, and the Three Percent Podcast. He’s not actually a BTBA judge, but since he’s helping run the whole process, he thought he’d weigh in and post as well. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.

Dear Chris,

I’m just back from seeing Houellebecq’s new cover, Submission, and am writing you to try to make sense of it. My first impression is that it’s asking the viewer to do a lot of work. And I’m not entirely sure it’s successful, commercially, to have taken this approach, but it has been taken and here we are.

The canvas is bleached white, the material left untreated. No gloss. No coating at all. The visual elements consist mostly—with one enigmatic exception—of black text, all in the same elegantly simplistic serif font employed with a few variations on style and formatting. SUBMISSION itself appears in all capital letters, centered horizontally (as is all of the text). It’s also the largest of the words on the canvas, sitting atop the others in an obvious position of primacy. Below this are the words A NOVEL, also in all caps, but so much smaller that it seems almost inessential, a presumed fact, perhaps, or, on the other hand, something no one particularly cares if the viewer incorporates into the overall message. On either side of these two words, stretching to the width of the word SUBMISSION, are thin black lines that serve to separate SUBMISSION from the text below. Bracketing A NOVEL in between these division lines only further enhances the impression that the proviso was included reluctantly. That said, I admit the possibility that rather than it being a bit player in the visual drama unfolding, it might be the most subtly important clue to understanding the assemblage, a nuanced sort of knowing nod, the artist saying, basically, “I know you know it’s a novel; no need to shout.” I’m unsure. Beneath the line is Michel Houellebecq’s name, centered, with his first and last names occupying their own lines. Michel is formatted slightly smaller than Houellebecq, the latter of which is in all caps while the former is not. It seems obvious that the artist wanted HOUELLEBECQ to be as large as possible within the decided-upon design, by which I mean that it couldn’t be wider than the word SUBMISSION above. The length of the name prevents an equivalent size, and so the result is that it’s smaller. Alas. My eyes, for what’s it worth, are consistently drawn to the tail on the capital Q at the end of HOUELLEBECQ. It seems, to me, to be somewhat ostentatious, as though the font was largely designed with great restraint, apart for a few flourishes, this Q included. Lacking any other tailed letters, this Q stands out and hints at a certain disassociative quality to the work. Below HOUELLEBECQ is another line, and beneath that, in nearly the same size font as A NOVEL above, is a line that reads AUTHOR OF, and below that, in a slightly larger although still quite small all-caps letters (the three words don’t span the width of the words SUBMISSION or HOUELLEBECQ) is a previous work’s title, THE ELEMENTARY PARTICLES. All of these elements, I should add, are debossed, which definitely made me smile to myself when I realized this fact. Submission, recession, blending in… there’s something playful happening here, and I appreciate it.

There is one remaining design element to mention, one that, even as I write, I’m still trying to make sense of. Stretching from the top of the frame to the bottom, edge to edge, is a thin red line. Writing that phrase (thin red line), made me, just now, think of the Terrance Malick film, which led me to the Internet for a few minutes of research on the possible origins and meaning of the term and, perhaps, I’d hoped, an indication to its visual manifestation here. (You see what I mean about asking the viewer to do a lot of work?) Wikipedia’s page on “Red Line (Phrase)” includes the following in its “Thin Red Line” subsection:

From British English, an entirely different figure of speech for an act of great courage against impossible order or thinly spread military unit holding firm against attack, a or the “thin red line”, originates from reports of a red-coated Scottish regiment at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War. A journalist described a “thin red streak tipped with a line of steel” with the appearance of the 93rd (Highland) Regiment and parts of the Turkish army as they stood before (and repelled) a vastly superior force of Russian cavalry. The reference soon became apocopated into the thin red line, and famously described by Rudyard Kipling in the poem “Tommy” as “the thin red line of ‘eroes [heroes].”

Is it safe to assume the artist’s intention was an allusion to this sort of militaristic framework? I mean, it’s never safe to assume such things, but we do it all the time. We’re incapable of refraining.

Having gotten these thoughts down in writing, I am still of the opinion that the cover shirks some of its responsibilities in terms of providing context or access points. But to be fair to the artist, a lot of that work has been done by the media, which has repeated Houellebecq’s name and the title and a brief (if perhaps inaccurate) summary of the work ad nauseam over the last year or so. Its fame precedes itself, as they say. And so the artist needs only to convey the bare essentials, to remind viewers of certain recent events, of discussions and articles and pictorial cues that may have already left a deep impression on the viewer. It’s communication via nudging. Everything else—the debossed text, the thin red line—is fun and games, a friendly wink to the cognoscenti.

I think I like it.

18 November 15

This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is from Amanda Nelson, managing editor of Book Riot. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.

I once heard a theory that the American South (where I live) has such a higher crime rate than the rest of the country because of the weather. That because it’s so hot and muggy and disgusting here for so much of the year, people are extra on-edge, extra cranky, extra mean and prone to lashing out. There’s so much that’s nonsensical and completely not based in fact about the idea, of course, but it stuck with me. Maybe that’s why I’m so obsessed with cold weather whodunits. What would make someone commit a violent crime in a place with such soothing, cool, dark weather? Where you could, instead of hurting someone, sit in a cozy sweater and drink a beer?

When the books started rolling in for the BTBA judging, I snatched up the Northern European murder mysteries first. It’s hard to write a noteworthy one after the success of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but that isn’t stopping anyone from trying. And while cold weather murder mysteries have a reputation for being very Which Pretty Young Girl Is Going To Be Murdered Next (hello, Dragon Tattoo influence), that hasn’t really been the case with this year’s crop:

Ice Queen by Nele Neuhaus, translated by Steven T. Murray

The body of a 92 year old Holocaust survivor is found in his home after he’s been shot, execution style. When his autopsy is performed, a blood marker tattoo for Hitler’s SS is found on his arm. Soon after, two similar murders of elderly people occur, and investigators realize all the victims are friends of one wealthy baroness who fled the second World War. Now she’s an elderly philanthropist and matriarch of her old family. The investigators follow the murderer’s trail back to the end of WWII and into Poland. The sleight-of-hand here is pretty heavy: you’re so focused on the obvious choice for the murderer that you don’t see the real one coming at all . . . to the point that you might feel a little cheated. But still an interesting read, especially for history buffs.

Reykjavik Nights by Arnaldur Indridason, translated by Victoria Cribb

The Inspector Erlendur series is famous already, and this prequel takes us back to a look at Erlendur as a newbie detective. This one also has a victim who isn’t a pretty dead girl (yay, let’s stop doing that altogether!) and is instead a homeless, alcoholic middle-aged man. Erlendur comes to recognize the man after he runs into him a few times while patrolling the city at night, and when he’s found dead, Erlendur is the only person who cares enough to find out if it was foul play. He chases his leads into the underbelly of Reykjavik to find out the truth. This one is a slow build: there’s no big car chases to speak of, no real glamour or ultra-violence. But that’s what I appreciated about it—it’s a good lazy Sunday book.

The Swimmer by Joakim Zander, translated by Elizabeth Clark Wessel

A political aide raised in the middle of nowhere in the Swedish archipelago by her grandparents (she’s an orphan) discovers a secret via an old lover. An aging, worn out spy who abandoned his newborn baby after watching her mother die in order to keep his cover wrestles with his past by doing laps all day in the swimming pool. When the political aide has to go on the run and the old spy finds out who she is (you can guess, surely), the two of them run for their lives across Europe. It’s a Bourne-style adventure without the amnesia, but with the thrills and political intrigue. This one is a dash of WHOdunit, with a sprinkling of whichCOUNTRYdunit, or whichCORPORATIONdunit. Thrillers are so often about what a spy’s life is like in the thick of it, it was refreshing to encounter one nearing the end of his tenure.

13 November 15

This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is from Heather Cleary, translator of Sergio Chejfec, Oliverio Girondo, professor at Sarah Lawrence, and co-founder of the Buenos Aires Review. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.

I’ve been planning for weeks to write about Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World, which got under my skin in a way few books do. It’s not just that it’s impossible to put down—in both Herrera’s Spanish and Lisa Dillman’s English, its language is a fever dream of mixed registers and literary allusions pulled perfectly taut across the story. This would probably be reason enough to add my voice to the chorus of praise for the novel, but it seems even more timely to talk about Signs now, less than a week after Donald Trump, the poster child for backward thinking about borders and the people who cross them, had another moment in the spotlight on Saturday Night Live. Less so because the novel tells the story of an fierce, unflappable young woman who makes the journey from what is recognizably (though not explicitly) Mexico into what is recognizably (though not explicitly) the USA in search of her missing brother—though it is indeed a compelling story—than because the novel offers a powerful, nuanced take on the negotiation of those contact zones in which not only nations, but also languages, traditions, and identities meet, complicate, and enrich one another.
We meet Makina—the protagonist of Signs Preceding the End of the World and, in the words of Francisco Goldman, the “heroine who redeems us all“—as she stands on a different, but even more intractable border: the one separating life from death. In fact, the very first words of the novel are the beautifully impossible “I’m dead,” exclaimed as the ground at her feet, weakened by centuries of rapacious silver extraction, caves in—swallowing a man as he crosses the street “and with him a car and a dog, all the oxygen around, and even the screams of passers-by.”

Makina, however, refuses to be among those “sent packing to the underworld” that day—she has a mission to carry out. Her mother has asked her to deliver a note to her brother, who went missing after getting conned into crossing the border in search of land supposedly left to their family. To accomplish this, she first needs to visit another underworld: the lairs of three local gangsters who will help her make it to the other side. From there she travels to the border, crosses the stygian river that separates the two lands with the aid of a taciturn gentleman named Chucho (hired by said gangsters to act as her guide), is shot by vigilantes but somehow manages to escape, and is nearly arrested as she homes in on her brother’s whereabouts.

If all this sounds fairly epic, that’s because it is: one of the things that make this work so much bigger than the breadth of its spine is the way Herrera weaves allusions to pre-Columbian and Western narrative traditions throughout. Given the nine chapters that lead to our heroine’s descent into “The Obsidian Place with no Windows or Holes for Smoke,” we can pick Dante out as one of Makina’s travel companions, and the ordeals she faces as she crosses the border—not to mention her almost inhuman physical and psychological resilience—clearly bear the mark of myth.

In addition to this contact and flow between cultures past and present, zones of linguistic contact are central to the novel. As the switchboard operator and de facto interpreter of the small town where she lives, Makina, is herself a model of these modes of exchange. Though she is able to speak “native tongue,” “latin tongue,” and the “new tongue” of those who have gone up North, she knows “how to keep quiet in all three, too.”

Among the few possessions she takes on her journey is a “latin-anglo dictionary,” despite the fact that “those things were by old men and for old men.” The world, however, is not revealed to her through the neat equivalences of the dictionary, but rather through moments of non-transference between languages, when one shines through the other like a beacon. Standing firmly astride another border, a frontier almost as carefully policed as the one separating Makina from the land that swallowed her brother, Herrera deftly takes on the social politics of a language that is recognizably (though not explicitly) Spanglish:

More than a midpoint between homegrown and anglo their tongue is a nebulous territory between what is dying out and what is not yet born . . . Makina senses in their tongue not a sudden absence but a shrewd metamorphosis, a self-defensive shift. They might be talking in perfect latin tongue and without warning begin to talk in perfect anglo tongue and keep it up like that, alternating between a thing that believes itself to be perfect and a thing that believes itself to be perfect, morphing back and forth between two beasts until out of carelessness or clear intent they suddenly stop switching tongues and start speaking that other one.

It is not just that this third tongue stands alongside the other two, its fluid definitions perpetually subject to change. What is so striking about Herrera’s description is that it is precisely from this unstable position at the border between two languages that this third one creates meaning more rich than either side alone could produce:

Using in one tongue the word for a thing in the other makes the attributes of both resound: if you say Give me fire when they say Give me a light, what is not to be learned about fire, light, and the act of giving? It is not another way of saying things: these are new things.

Makina’s gaze makes things new in just this way, especially for the North American reader of Dillman’s vibrant, limber translation. Supermarkets are “cornucopias where you could have more than everyone else or something different or a newer brand,” in which the “anglogaggle at the self-checkouts” purchases their goods and then seeks to “make amends for their momentary one-up by becoming wooden again so as not to offend anyone.” (“Anglogaggle“—a felicitous play on Herrera’s “gabacherío“—may well be one of the best words I’ve ever seen in print.) Baseball is a game the anglos play every week “to celebrate who they are” on “an immense green diamond rippling in its own reflection” set among “tens of thousands of folded black chairs, an obsidian mound barbed with flint, sharp and glimmering.”

Seeing the elements of a familiar world through the lens of an unfamiliar one makes the attributes of both resound, and what is not to be learned from this?

Though the exceedingly timely and nonetheless timeless Signs Preceding the End of the World does not hold back in evoking the violence and exploitation that haunts the passage across the US-Mexico border, Herrera was both sage and skilled enough to write a book that occupies this space in a way that, in its dizzying array of registers and allusions, refuses to be confined by the socio-political reality it depicts. In this virtuosic feat, he seems to have accomplished the impossible: he has offered a new and vital way of looking at a subject too often passed through the pulverizing mill of political rhetoric.

3 November 15

This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by Kate Garber, bookseller at 192 Books. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.

While many people assume that booksellers base their recommendations on “theme” or “setting” or other similarities of content, I think that the real trick is understanding which need or compulsion has been sated with a certain book, and then handing that book to others who have a similar desire they’d like to fulfill (be it hope, confusion, a desire to be disturbed or to be challenged, to feel set in a place—any place, not just the same country they just read about and loved—or to be drawn along by a story where they just can’t stop turning the page).

Sometimes I realize I’ve been playing a bookseller game with popular literary novels, in which (a) I don’t read a single line of the novel, and (b) I immediately forget both the jacket copy and any review I’ve ever read of it. Then I proceed to recommend the book to surprisingly correct people, knowing exactly why they’ll love it. This is possible thanks to the generosity of people who shop in bookstores, because they LOVE to talk about books.

Recently, or I guess for the past three years, I’ve been playing this game with Elena Ferrante. After finding so many satisfied readers of the Neapolitan Quartet,1 listening to which needs these books have fulfilled, and passing along the recommendation to others, I wanted to go deeper into this phenomenon and figure out not only why readers found them so gripping, but also what allowed so many readers to discover them in the first place (as my recommendations have been merely a drop in the bestselling bucket).

During the past two months, I’ve started asking everyone who buys one of the latter novels: How did you happen to pick up My Brilliant Friend in the first place?

Almost everyone I have talked to either received it from a friend, or bought it because (a) that one friend they really trust recommended it, or (b) multiple friends recommended it in a short period of time. So my new question was, Who are these friends? Who are our patient zeros and why did they buy it?

I remember that when the first of my coworkers picked it up, it was just after the James Wood review in the New Yorker a few years ago. From there, another coworker read it, and we’ve been recommending ever since. So we can conclude: Mr. Wood started one strain.

Another strain that led to our door came from a different bookseller. Buying the fourth novel at my shop, a customer said that she got My Brilliant Friend because she was at Terrace Books in Brooklyn looking for a copy of The Goldfinch, which wouldn’t be out in paperback for a couple more weeks. They told her to read the Ferrante in the meantime, she did, and is now a huge fan. Such perfect bookselling. Good work, Terrace.

Not to ignore Ferrante’s other novels (the short ones), a different introduction happened when I apparently recommended The Days of Abandonment (I don’t even remember!) and after reading that, a guy has read everything else of hers.

One regular customer at 192 Books bought a copy recently and blew through all four in a matter of weeks. I couldn’t remember whether we’d specifically recommended it, but apparently she was just in browsing and couldn’t figure out what she wanted, but had seen My Brilliant Friend on display at the shop for years on end, so she figured she would finally pick it up. This brings us to another issue: The reason she had avoided it for so long was . . . the cover. She has extremely good taste in fiction and couldn’t believe that this would be a great novel. (Decided afterwards that it certainly was.)

Rather than complain about the covers, I’ll just present a few responses. A huge number of people complain as they come up to the register, saying that it’s such a shame—and these are mostly the people who love the books. It’s only the wild force of critical and personal acclaim that caused them to read My Brilliant Friend despite the way it looked, and they would have picked it up sooner with a different jacket.

This does make it a bit difficult when recommending, as there’s often a level of disbelief. Someone was at the register, just about to purchase it, with a hesitation we didn’t understand, and she finally asked: “Is it like a really good cheesy Lifetime movie?” Noooo, ignore the covers! And she looked relieved.

A customer was buying the fourth book and said that her best friend’s husband gave My Brilliant Friend to his wife, and several of her friends. She loves them, and when I said I haven’t read them yet but am looking forward to it, she said, “Ignore the covers! It’s really not all melodrama like it looks!”

(Disclaimer: there was one customer who told me that she picked it up at Spoonbill & Sugartown because she liked the look of them, the packaging. And a few people did mention that it was the quotation, “Imagine if Jane Austen got angry . . .” on The Story of a New Name that first interested them.)

Another funny hesitation (among those who keep up with the book world) is the following: “I don’t know, I mean I tried to read the Knausgaard books and couldn’t get into them . . .” “. . . ????”, I say. Such a weird but understandable conflation. Besides the game of Are you a Ferrante or a Knausgaard?, some people think of them as similar, just because four books in a series came out during the same years, and the same people were talking about them.

But back to the idea of melodrama: my non-scientific survey concludes that this is precisely how many Italian readers view The Neapolitan Quartet. Comments include:

“It’s like chick lit.”

“She’s not a real writer.” (Not like Alberto Moravia, for example, whom this customer doesn’t particularly like, but thinks is a Real Writer.) She believes that the reason Americans like her so much is that there’s all this stuff in the New Yorker and New York Times saying she’s so great, so everyone believes them.

Regardless of the question of Objective Quality, there’s certainly something to be said for these American responses I often hear:

  • A lot of my friends were reading the quartet and “they just had ‘that gleam’ when they talked about them.”
  • My mother read them and “she didn’t come up for air.”
  • They’re amazing, and although everyone talks about them as having great plot, the point isn’t just the story of the friendship, that’s just the device that let’s her get into deeper issues of politics and feminism and all sorts of serious topics.
  • Elena Ferrante is “the master of the run-on sentence” and although a lot of people say she’s all about the plot it’s really “her language.”

So, in conclusion, the main point I’d make is that The Neapolitan Quartet is thriving because they are loved, they are forced upon friends based on that love, and the critics may have started something but they certainly didn’t create it. A love that makes books featuring covers that most people don’t understand turn into bestsellers at many independent bookstores is a beautiful affront to tenets of publicity and marketing, as all the tricks of the trade will make for great initial sales, but won’t turn into a long-lasting flood like this.

Of course I don’t know which side I’ll take, now that I’m finally going to read them. Either way, I love people who love Elena Ferrante. And I will continue to recommend the Quartet to many people who “just want a really good book.”

1 Quickly wanted to mention that all of the books in the Neapolitan Quartet are translated by Ann Goldstein.

23 October 15

Today’s Best Translated Book Award post is by Mark Haber of Brazos Bookstore. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.

The front cover of Wolfgang Hilbig’s The Sleep of the Righteous boasts an enormous column of black smoke rising into the sky. This cover is not only fitting, it’s ideal. Ash, smoke, dust, fog, everything a reader might expect to find from an author plumbing the depths of life in communist East Germany abounds in these mesmerizing tales.

For readers of Thomas Bernhard or Laszlo Kraznhorkai, or even Kafka, the settings are familiar; dark, ashen, bleak landscapes. Blocks of dimly-lit apartment houses line the streets; unemployment, illness and futility flourish. It’s a world where the only occupations which exist are seemingly set in boiler rooms and factories, day-long shifts carting ash to large simmering pits on the outskirts of town.

Describing the neighborhood of his childhood, a character writes:

Between the sidewalks was but a straight track of sand, perhaps once light, now since times unknown black-gray, as though in proof that a mix of many colors ultimately yields darkness. Coal dust and ash had blackened it to the pith, and then had come the reddish mass of crushed brick, the rubble from bombed-out houses that was used to even the surface. After each rain you gazed into a bed of murky, vicious mud; in the dry spells of summer the street was an endless reservoir of dust that advanced all the way into stairwells and seemed to glow in the midday sun; it covered barefoot boy’s skin up to the thighs with the black bloom of inviolability.

Happiness and peace are not options for these characters; paranoia and sickness are guaranteed and little else. Yet for all the gloom and despair the glow of Hilbig’s writing illuminates the hidden shadows and obscured corners of this bleak existence. A stunning translation by Isabel Fargo Cole only confirms the immense talent and depth of Hilbig, one of the most awarded German writers of his time.

Born in 1941, Hilbig’s generation lived divided lives: growing up in the world of communism for the first half and the liberated freedom of the West for the second. Hilbig was always a thorn in the sides of the authorities however, writing exactly what he saw with his own eyes and consequently he was able to move (exiled perhaps) to West Germany years before the wall came down. English-language readers now have the good fortune to read this brilliant author whose stories range from seeing an East-German village through childhood recollections to the day-to-day drudgery of a boiler room. Darkness thrives in these stories no doubt, however there is an affectionate, almost mythic quality to these locations; one sees it’s not so much a place Hilbig is describing as a time—ineffable, inscrutable childhood. Like East Germany, it is the place one can never return to.

The final story, “The Dark Man,” swells with paranoia and dark humor. It begins with a disembodied voice seemingly prank-calling the narrator, who insists that they meet, Only as the story progresses—criss-crossing between Mannheim, Leipzig, Frankfurt, amidst insomnia, sickness and sleeping pills—does the narrator realize the caller is an ex-Stasi official who years earlier had spied on him. A dark comedy, a snapshot of an unhappy marriage and an indictment of the German secret service follows. In other hands this may have been messy or imprecise, but the story is rigorous and focused, thanks in large part to the strength of the translation. Isabel Fargo Cole’s translation is so compelling in fact that the title story reads almost like a prose-poem:

The dark divests us of our qualities. Though we breath more greedily, struggling for life, for some fleeting web of substance from the darkness . . . it is the darkness that forms a mute block above us: intangible matter our breathes cannot lighten . . .

One reads these stories and realizes they’re in the hands of an immense talent. There’s a reason Laszlo Kraznhorkai wrote the introduction to this incredible collection, a reason Hilbig is considered the greatest prose writer to emerge from the former East Germany. I’ve mentioned other authors to give a sense of context and aesthetics, however the reader uninitiated to the likes of Thomas Bernhard or Bohumil Hrabal will enjoy the power of these stories on the strength of the writing alone.

It might be generational or simply coincidence, but three of the books I’ve read on this year’s BTBA list have been story collections authored by writer’s whose lives were ostensibly split in half by history. Brief Loves that Live Forever by Andreï Makine and Calligraphy Lesson by Mikhail Shishkin were writers that both grew up with Soviet communism and witnessed its collapse. Like Hilbig, all three saw the systems they were indoctrinated into fall apart. Similarly, all three collections are tinged by nostalgia and regret, awash with meditations on worlds gone by. Having read these books in a short period of time has only reminded me that our fates and destinies are tied inexorably to forces larger than ourselves. Read as autobiography or fiction, The Sleep of the Righteous will linger in the reader’s mind for a long time to come. It is literature of the first order.

24 September 15

It’s taken longer than it should to announce this—blame my disorganization, all the other events that have been going on, etc.—but we’re finally ready to unveil this year’s jury for the Best Translated Book Award prize for poetry.

Before listing the judges, I just want to remind you to check this page for weekly updates related to the Best Translated Book Award, and to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Thank you very much.

Now, here are your five judges:

Jarrod Annis is a writer and bookseller living in Brooklyn, NY. He works as manger and small press buyer at Greenlight Bookstore, and previously served as an associate editor at Ugly Duckling Presse. His work has appeared in Coldfront, Greetings, and Poems By Sunday.

Katrine Øgaard Jensen is a journalist, writer, and translator from the Danish. A former editor-in-chief of Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, she is now blog editor at the international literary journal Asymptote. Her translation of Ursula Andkjær Olsen’s award-winning poetry collection Third-Millennium Heart is forthcoming from Broken Dimanche Press in 2016.

Tess Lewis is a writer and translator from French and German. Her translations include works by Peter Handke, Alois Hotschnig, Melinda Nadj Abonji, Pascal Bruckner, Anselm Kiefer, and Jean-Luc Benoziglio. She has been awarded translation grants from PEN USA and PEN UK, an NEA Translation Fellowship, a Max Geilinger Translation Grant for her translation of the Swiss poet Philippe Jaccottet, the ACFNY Translation Prize for her translation of the Austrian poet and writer Maja Haderlap, and most recently a Guggenheim Fellowship to translate the Swiss writer, Ludwig Hohl. Her essays and reviews have appeared a number of journals and newspapers including The New Criterion, The Hudson Review, World Literature Today, The Wall Street Journal, The American Scholar, and Bookforum.

Becka Mara McKay earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of Washington and an MFA in literary translation from the University of Iowa, where she also received a PhD in comparative literature. Her first book of poems, A Meteorologist in the Promised Land, was published by Shearsman Books in 2010. She has published three translations of fiction from the Hebrew: Laundry (Autumn Hill Books, 2008), Blue Has No South (Clockroot, 2010), and Lunar Savings Time (Clockroot, 2011). Her poems and translations have appeared in American Letters & Commentary, ACM, Third Coast, The Iowa Review, Hotel Amerika, Rhino, Natural Bridge, Rattapallax, and elsewhere.

Deborah Smith is publisher and editor at TILTED AXIS, a not-for-profit UK press focusing on diverse, contemporary world literature. She translates from Korean, including Han Kang’s The Vegetarian and Human Acts (both Portobello UK, Crown US), is perilously close to finishing a PhD at SOAS, and tweets as @londonkoreanist.

So, if you’re a publisher of poetry in translation and want to submit your work for consideration for this years award, all you have to do is mail a copy to everyone on this handy address label. (Or, if you want to submit them electronically, use this one which has everyone’s email address.) Please submit these books ASAP, or before December 31st. Any work of poetry published in translation for the first time ever between January 1, 2015 and December 31, 2015 is eligible. If you have any questions, contact me at chad.post[at]rochester [dot] edu.

The longlist for the poetry (and fiction) awards will be announced on March 29, 2016, with the longlist coming on April 26, 2016, and the winners at BEA on May 11, 2016.

For the past few years, Amazon Literary Partnerships has been sponsoring the award, providing $20,000 in cash prizes for both fiction and poetry, $5,000 of which goes to the winning poet and $5,000 to the winning poetry translator. (And the same goes for the winning fiction author and translator.)

24 September 15

This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is from Stacey Knecht and is basically a follow-up to her first post. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.

I translate Hrabal. We work as a team. We talk, laugh, argue, yell, sing, curse, philosophize, guzzle beer, discuss life and cats and the occasional dog. I’ve shamelessly professed my love for him, which fortunately hasn’t interfered with our working relationship. Sometimes he reminds me that he’s been dead for nearly two decades, but that doesn’t stop me from trying to plumb the depths of his writing, to figure out what it is that makes me follow him to Prague, year after year. I went back again this past August armed with his collection of short stories, Mr. Kafka and Other Tales From the Time of the Cult (1965), one of four Czech contenders for the BTBA 2016, in an astonishing, two-fisted translation by Paul Wilson.

Reading Hrabal on location is intoxicating. There is “Magic Prague,” with its Baroque angels and misty alleyways, and the raunchy, sweat-stained, beer-bellied, smoke-and-burnt-sugar Prague, where tourists rarely venture. It’s the combination of the two that give the city her poignance, and to see only her obvious beauty is to miss out on the rest. Hrabal saw it all. Wilson, in his Afterword—which I’m tempted to include here in its entirety, it’s so good—sheds light:

The stories in this collection represent the early results of Hrabal’s discovery of what he came to call “total realism,” the realization that the ordinary events of everyday life can be as magical as surrealism, and that straightforward accounts of people at work and in conversation can reveal more about who they are and the world they live in than attempts to portray their inner lives.

A number of the stories in Mr. Kafka and Other Tales From the Time of the Cult are set in the Kladno steel mills, about sixteen miles from Prague, where Hrabal himself worked as a “volunteer” laborer from 1949 to 1954, along with “judges and lawyers, poets and philosophy professors, policemen, army officers, tradesmen and small businessmen, [all] uprooted from their former lives by the Communist regime as part of a program called ‘Putting 77,000 to Work,’ during which tens of thousands were plucked from their jobs and sent to mines, factories, and collective farms to perform unfamiliar work in harsh and dangerous conditions, alongside regular workers, party hacks, criminals, and political prisoners.” (Wilson)

Much has changed in the Czech Republic since Hrabal wrote this book, yet there are still those who remember. I met an elderly woman one afternoon, sitting on a bench in Stromovka Park, fanning herself with a piece of cardboard in the 90-degree heat. She noticed what I was reading and said, “Ah, Hrabal. He was not a happy man, it was not a happy time. You cannot imagine what it was like to live back then, unless you lived it.” Hrabal lived it, and turned it to gold:

At the Poldi steelworks, hopeless people hold their muddied hopes aloft. Life, strangely enough, is constantly being reinvented and loved, even though the fruits of a tinfoil brain will be crumpled images and a trampled torso will ooze misery. And yet, it is still a beautiful thing when a man abandons dinner menus and calculating machines and his family and goes off to follow a beautiful star. Life is still magnificent as long as one maintains the illusion that a whole world can be conjured from a tiny patch of earth. With a hundred days left in my stint as a volunteer laborer, I buy a yellow folding ruler and snip off a centimeter a day. When the final piece slips from my fingers, I will pass through the neck of a bottle on my way to another adventure in another place.

But beautiful Poldi is also a volunteer worker’s scream that makes mincemeat of all signs and slogans, three and a half crowns per hundred grams, because you return to the depths of your brain where you study the bill to see what it is you’ve bought and why you’ve paid so much, since the man who turns his hand to fruitful labor is saved forever, because life is fidelity to the beauty exploding all around us, even, at times, at the cost of our own lives.

14 September 15

This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is from Tom Roberge from New Directions, Albertine Books, and the Three Percent Podcast. He’s not actually a BTBA judge, but since he’s helping run the whole process, he thought he’d weigh in and post as well. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.

“Comparisons are odorous”
—Dogberry, Much Ado about Nothing

So it’s my turn. I’m not judging this year’s BTBA (my role at New Directions disqualifies me), but I’m helping with the process, doing my best to herd the cats and keep the trains running on time. (And mix metaphors, apparently.) But this doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions on certain books, so I’m taking the opportunity to express one such opinion on one of this year’s eligible titles: Anne Garréta’s Sphinx, translated by Emma Ramadan and published earlier this year by Deep Vellum. Other opinions about this mesmerizing book, should you care to read them, can be found, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. Among many other places. And an excerpt can be found on the Believer’s blog.

Booksellers are constantly being asked, by customers, for recommendations, and the default follow-up, if a customer offers no starting point of their own, is to ask what else they liked recently. This encourages, of course, comparisons, even if they aren’t made overtly. On our podcast I’ve repeated a quote one of the former publishers of New Directions (Griselda Ohannessian) was fond of repeating, presumably in response to our distributor’s request for “comp titles” to help them sell the books into stores: “Comparisons are odious.” I do, in theory at least, agree with this sentiment, if only because I subscribe to the belief that each work of art should stand on its own, should succeed or fail of its own accord, not on its “similarities” to anything else. But it’s impossible not to do it. It’s humans’ way of making sense of new experiences. Which brings me to Sphinx, and the book I’ve shelved it next to in my mind (not in reality; I believe I speak for the vast majority of booksellers when I say that books belong in alphabetical order, in clearly identified sections).

When discussing a book like Sphinx, for booksellers and others in the literary world, there’s a sort of compare-by-numbers process that invariably sets in. It’s inevitable (and often encouraged, by sales reps and customers alike), and I don’t exclude myself from this tendency. Garréta is French; she’s a Feminist; and she’s a member of Oulipo, so we all feel compelled to put her in the company of Monique Wittig, Simone de Beauvoir, Georges Perec, maybe even Virginie Despentes or Violette Leduc. And chances are that if you like books by those writers, you will enjoy Sphinx. But after reading the book in a crazed frenzy (pick it up—you’ll see what I mean), the first book that came to my mind was not by a French author, feminist, or member of Oulipo.

It was Queer, by William S. Burroughs. Written sometime in the early ’50s but put aside by the author himself (because he was bored with it) and his publisher (because of its content and the stricter obscenity laws of the times) until finally being published in 1985, it’s a story of pursuit. Whereas its companion novel—Junky—was about the pursuit of heroin and that kind of high, Queer is about the pursuit of carnal bliss, a very different but equally addictive kind of high. In Queer, we follow Lee, a stand-in for Burroughs, whose thoughts we see via third-person narration, to Mexico, where he meets and becomes increasingly obsessed with Allerton. The majority of the book revolves around Lee’s largely unrequited fixation on Allerton. Lee is often disparaging and morose, but his dogged pursuit grants him a few precious, if fleeting, moments of joy, even hope. Evocative of the argot of drug addiction, the style draws the reader into an enveloping cloud of apprehension and despair, offsetting it with instances of striking, haunting clarity.

Garréta’s unnamed narrator, a seminary student turned DJ, also becomes infatuated with someone, a dancer known as A***, early on in the course of the story. And yet to compare what then unfolds (and how, in terms of story-telling) in Sphinx to that in Queer is indeed an odious comparison. Like all of Burroughs’s writing, Queer is gritty and disheveled, the beauty found in the mess itself, in the enjambment of disparate and unflinching insights into the human condition. Sphinx, on the other hand, is more poetically beautiful, a breathtaking portrait of obsession and pursuit described with such pervasive lucidity, such self-awareness, such lyrical resonance, that the story often feels like a spectral presence.

Take, for example, these passages, in a short chapter devoted to the narrator’s description of A*** on stage in a night club, the Apocryphe:

Never until then had I longed to see A*** dance on stage. When A*** danced in the Apocryphe, I didn’t have to share the pleasure I took in watching: I was allowed to imagine that the dance was dedicated entirely to me, without the crowd being there to prove me wrong. Watching this body moving uninhibited, this body that wasn’t mine in any way, I reveled in the uniqueness and the exclusivity of my gaze.

[. . .]

When I entered the dressing room, I found A*** immobile as if in prayer or confession, legs bent, forearms fixed on a high barstool supporting A***’s entire body weight. Hands dangling, wrists slack, gaze abandoned and lost in the emptiness, then focusing on me as I entered and following me to where I sat down opposite. It was like the disdainful pose of the sphinx (or the image I had of it then), the same sharp aesthetic. I thought this to myself and, laughing, affectionately let slip, “my sphinx”—as if I had said “my love.” We remained face-to-face, our bodies as if petrified. A terror silted up in my throat; the desire I had felt welling up in me at the sight of those distant movements on the stage had been suspended. I could do nothing but adore. Those eyes, so black, fixed on me, subjected me to an unbearable torture.

This is raw, unfiltered adoration and lust, expressed in a style that is both poetic and quotidian, and as a result this is as affecting an account of a basic human experience as you’re going to find. The narrator’s interpretations and impressions of the world are both personal and universal, timeless and ephemeral. The composite insights, and their relationship to the affair and its presentaion, threaten to upend the reader’s entire concept of desire and love. This is why we read, right? Right.

Both are novels of pure, unadulterated, all-consuming obsession. A form of psychological addiction that infects the mind like a drug. A desire—a need—so unbounded and palpable that life before the object of desire is rendered meaningless, or at least preliminary, a trial run for the real thing. Inhabiting these narrators’ mind space is intoxicating, pure and simple. And I can’t think of a better reason to read, which is perhaps why, now, when recommending Sphinx to customers, I say, merely: “Trust me; it’s amazing.”