18 April 18 | Orisa Santiago Morrice | Comments

Last week, Chad and Brian (welded at the hip) were joined by “Stiliana Milkova”:https://www.oberlin.edu/stiliana-milkova of Oberlin College’s department of comparative literature to discuss the final moments of Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow. While we learned that Chad doesn’t like Elena Ferrante, and Brian was betrayed by an old community of writers, and Stiliana used to study the poetics of erotic Eastern European poetry, they addressed the importance of quantum physics to the book. This post will highlight some specific moments where Gospodinov discusses these theories in this section in preparation for the conclusionary post next week.

The Place of Quantum Physics

It’s fitting that The Physics of Sorrow is ending with a lesson in quantum dynamics. While the previous section—Global Autumn—started the discussion of possibilities, as Gospodinov continued to rewrite earlier themes in a more transparent way, the entire book has been rooted in the complexity of what is seen and what isn’t—ideas at the heart of quantum physics.

Gospodinov established this relationship between light and time through the Minotaur as a thematic anchor. He highlighted the importance between the dark labyrinth that the Minotaur wandered and the moment of his death as Theseus drags him into the light to be gutted. Additionally, children were hidden to keep them safe, whether those safe places were the stomachs of their parents, barns or basements. Time capsules, whether buried deep in the earth or shot into the dark of space, contained a moment frozen in time for those who would crack them open and look upon their contents. And, building upon time capsules, memories—now in the form of stories—could be saved in the light. In these shelters, hidden away from light, people and objects were safe from the gazes of others and, were safe, as we come to learn in this section, from certainty.

And issues of possibility and certainty are at the forefront throughout this last section (and the Epilogue). In “Quanta of Equivocation” Gospodinov provides a set of key ideas to read the rest of this section—and arguably the rest of the book. The first explains a basic principle of quantum physics.

According to the Copenhagen interpretation, as early as the 1920s quanta act like particles only when we observe them. The rest of the time, hidden from our gaze, they are part of a scattered and supposedly disinterested wave, in which we don’t know exactly what’s going on. Everything there is possible, unforeseeable and variable. But once they sense we’re watching them, they instantaneously start acting as we expect them to, orderly and logically.

And the other statement on the nature on how what we don’t see behaves.

The world behind our backs is some kind of undefined quantum soup, says a Stanford physicist—but the second you turn around, it freezes into reality. I like that definition and never turn around too abruptly.

And, finally, a statement on the nature of possibility regarding the two previous rules.

That which has not been told, just like that which has not happened—because they’re of the same order—possesses all possibilities, countless variations on how they could happen or be told.

Gospodinov has constructed reality within The Physics of Sorrow that relies on being witnessed. Things that light shine on—things that are seen—are then seen are set, while things left in the dark are timeless and uncertain. While next week I’ll approach these transformations between uncertainty and certainty in more detail, this idea is evident in the contrast between the Prologue and the Epilogue.

Burnt at Both Ends

I’m drawn to a familiar mindscape from March when we first dove into this piece for the Two Month Review. I was frantically flipping through the pages trying to construct a suitable sample to have something large, unwieldy, but vaguely accurate to say about the piece in the introductory blog post. I noted the shifting voices, the short sections, the diagrams, and lists and started to drown—in a good way— with the many directions that Gospodinov was guiding us through my own interpretation of the novel. I walked away—from the sampling—feeling something I’ve only said about a few projects: a book didn’t suit the content and form of the book.

Originally, I described something along the lines of a hallucinatory nightmare in a sensory deprivation tank—a description I feel (and hope) Gospodinov would appreciate—as a way to better experience The Physics of Sorrow, something haunting yet phenomenologically exhaustive. But as the novel ends and I meet that brilliant clash of red and yellow and flip the cover back over to that broken Minotaur, I need to return to my beginning recant some of my original comments.

Alongside the most arrogant interpretation to my original comments, Gospodinov accepts, acknowledges, and addresses the limitations of a book for the novel, and this acceptance is rooted in his decisions on how the piece ends. We see this through the end mirroring the start. If you’d recall, the prologue to The Physics of Sorrow opened up with a series of short profiles on births and lifetimes—some clearly human, others not, and a few left with very little to identify.

On closing, Gospodinov returns us to these entities at their moment of death, which breaks the sense of infinite possibilities that this section has explored through the discussion of quantum physics and developing alternate takes on so much. This cap to the book closes the chances of this going on forever but still reaffirms the obsession that Gospodinov has expressed towards collecting memories, collecting fragments, and exploring possibilities.

11 April 18 | Orisa Santiago Morrice | Comments

Last week, Chad and Brian were joined by Rachel S. Cordasco of Speculative Fiction in Translation as they discussed Part VII, “Global Autumn,” of Georgi Gospodinov’s Physics of Sorrow. This section hits us from too many angles, from the relatable hilarity of having a phobia of being asked “how are you?” to trying to address what brings an author to write. Through this post we’ll try to connect this section to the longer spiral that Gospodinov is drawing out as we slowly approach its end.

Redefining: Last Lengths of the Spiral

As we approach the end of the piece we meet a singularity of ideas as elements we’ve encountered start to collapse upon themselves. Collapse shouldn’t read as a pejorative but as the experience of a reader approaching the end of a world that an author has built for them. The collapse exists solely in our experience as readers as the hot white expanse of the final blank pages is soon upon us. But while all novels—at least the good ones that try to end—come to an end, The Physics of Sorrow, with it’s unique form and approach to its content, makes the fact that it will end significant.

If my obsession with spirals has illuminated anything its that Gospodinov has created a form in The Physics of Sorrow that allows it to continue as long as there are pages to carry it. As long as light shines upon ideas, people, cities, and the transformation of these elements over time The Physics of Sorrow is a constant longing for an empty expanse. With each page, each story, and each section, we learn more and more on the complexity of this work as Gospodinov drags us from across realities and redefines the ideas that we’ve become accustomed to with each leap. And even so close to the end, there’s still more to learn about the universes we’ve inhabited and the rules that guide them.

Alleys, Corridors, Cities, Labyrinths

This section, as the spiral dictates, expresses another re-imagining of a previously established idea and provides further insight into the rules of The Physics of Sorrow. “Labyrinth and Choice” guides us through this. At its simplest, it describes narrator Gospodinov traversing the heart of Paris, and as he loses his place and starts to panic and regret every decision he makes he works towards the ideological core of the labyrinth in this work.

The time when I stood between two streets, wondering which one to go down. Both of them would have led me to the place I was looking for. Incidentally, there was nothing particularly unusual about the streets in and of themselves. The problem was, as always, no matter which one I chose, I would lose the other one.

What follows is Gospodinov’s attempt to experience both paths, but, as he’s already speculated about choosing one path, as one attempts to navigate both there will always be one collection of decisions untouched. He directly addresses the impossibility of this through the science of quantum physics, writing, “I could only have been satisfied in that quantum physics experiment that shows how a particle also acts like a wave, passing through two openings at once.”

The spiral of this work is formed by Gospodinov—again either narrator or author—attempting to have gone down multiple paths. Of course, this still means that there are numerous paths that we, as readers, cannot experience, as his decision to go down one path locks us away from experiencing another. With that futility considered, as we read through The Physics of Sorrow and continually encounter new approaches, interpretations, and constructions of the same ideas, Gospodinov has almost given us the closest to a quantum experience that we as readers can through a novel. That process is almost laid out here:

I headed down one of them, the street to the right, but I was thinking about the other one the whole time. And with every step, I kept repeating to myself that I had made the wrong choice. I hadn’t gone even a third of the way before I stopped decisively (oh, that decisive gesture of indecisiveness) and turned down an alley toward the other street. Of course, hesitation seized me with the first couple steps and again after a few meters, I practically ran down the next alley to the first street. And then again, seized by hesitation—back to the other one, then back to the first. To this day I don’t know whether with that zigzag I gained both streets or lost them both.

But while the narrator may have lost access to one path, the author and reader haven’t. Through each encounter with a repeated idea, we’re gaining yet another path each time. The form of this novel, that originally came to me as a spiral as I read through reinterpretations of the same idea, now feels like a span of spirals across dimensions—each arc being drawn from various quantum paths into one spiral with a clear start and end through its physical form in a book.

With this in mind, we see how author Gospodinov layers our encounters with his constants—the minotaurs, myth, loss, and abandonment, and, in this case, even labyrinths—yet varies them as we experience multiple paths. With this stylistic strategy he’s given us a quantum building of his own work.

In particular this piece redefines the labyrinth.

The most oppressive thing about the labyrinth is that you are constantly being forced to choose. It isn’t the lack of an exit, but the abundance of “exits” that is so disorienting. Of course, the city is the most obvious labyrinth.

We’re left to unravel our sense of cities and labyrinths that Gospodinov constructed for us in previous stories—in previous sections—as he’s given us yet another quantum path to explore. We’ve encountered numerous cities throughout this work, as a whole, and now, with only one section left, we have yet another way to approach them. And labyrinths aren’t the only idea in this section revisited in this quantum way.

The Doctor’s Humorous Diagnosis

Throughout The Physics of Sorrow we’ve encountered moments where Gospodinov attempts to understand the nature of his afflictions. His family recognized the physical manifestation of his embedding, with his body stiffening and his eyes resting lazily on objects in the room. He’s even gone to medical professionals, finally receiving a diagnosis for his condition—a name both the narrator and I can no longer accurately recall. As the narrator aged, his closeness with the condition that almost single-handedly defined our experience with the book diminished as well. With the timely death of this element—which if drawn out for too long could have survived as a gimmick in a weaker piece—we’re left with the natural reading experience dictated by Gospodinov, as either author or narrator.

This section provides another moment with doctors and diagnoses. With this instance in “Advice from the Nineteenth Century” Gospodinov has been diagnosed with stagnant bile.

Your bile is stagnant, you see sorrow in everything, you are drenched in melancholy, my friend the doctor said.

Isn’t melancholy something from previous centuries? Isn’t there some vaccine against it yet, hasn’t medicine taken care of it yet? I ask.

There’s never been as much melancholy as there is today, the doctor said with a throaty laugh. They just don’t advertise it. It’s not marketable, melancholy doesn’t sell [. . .]

Greek medicine—which experienced a resurgence of popularity across Europe in later centuries—had a “humor” based approach to health. The four humors—blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm—determined the physical and emotional wellbeing of an individual and shifted between stagnancy, excitement, abundance, scarcity, and so on. In this case, the doctor’s diagnosis of stagnant bile and melancholy likely reflects a problem with Gospodinov’s black bile. But while issues with black bile can lead to melancholy—and The Physics of Sorrow easily contains a deep sadness that Gospodinov negotiates—yellow bile is responsible for more manic, or choleric, behaviors.

While Gospodinov may be consumed by melancholy to a degree, a build-up of yellow bile accounts for this work being in front of us at this point. The effort to build a time capsule, to create lists, to buy stories from strangers, and similar behaviors reflect a tenacity within himself to not allow the darkness of the world to wash over him, but rather gets him up at the right time of the day to slip on waders and dredge.

But getting back to the point, I’ll recommend something to you that you’ll say is straight out of the nineteenth century: travel, stir up your blood, give your eyes new sights, go south[.]

And Gospodinov has taken this advice to heart throughout this work. Travelling takes many forms for Gospodinov as traverses a geographic world while buying up stories and recording his own experiences in thoughtful narratives like “Howl” in this section. But he also explores an ideological globe as he combs through philosophies throughout space and time and gleans conclusions—read ‘remedies’—to what ails him and the world at large. Through this, we see yet another balance between the humours: narrator Gospodinov with both an energy to explore and record the world but who also affected by its contents—just not enough to be fully consumed.

And this section is like many others that developed a psychological profile for narrator Gospodinov. Early on we learned of embedding as a purely magical ability, only to have a psychological and neurological capacity developed to understand it. And as he aged, and his ability to embed was compromised, he found new ways to satisfy this cornerstone of himself through collecting stories. And now, as the spiral continues to wind, we’re provided with yet another way to understand narrator Gospodinov—we’re provided with yet another path to go down.

Lists of the Apocalypse

And even in the light—or rather the darkness of the end, the lists that Gospodinov has constructed gain a new understanding with another approach. We’ve seen lists throughout the piece, from erotic experiences in Communist Bulgaria to collections of consumed children in myth, but they gained an additional importance through the “Time Bomb [. . .]” section of The Physics of Sorrow where they served as condensed inventories in the event of annihilation.

If you recall, I noted a confluence of form and content in the blog post for that particular section as the The Physics of Sorrow, which contained fragments of larger things, took the form of a time capsule which sought to protect the contents of one time for another. As we learned of narrator Gospodinov’s time growing up with a threat of nuclear annihilation, seeing The Physics of Sorrow as a time capsule seemed practically rooted in the idea that Gospodinov, both as narrator and author, was attempting to collect and save things for a physical sense of a destruction wrought from something like nuclear war. Thusly, the lists throughout the piece possessed an additional importance. And with yet another approach in this section, their importance continues to grow.

In “Lists and Oblivion” we come to understand annihilation by different terms.

I rush to write everything down, to gather it up in my notebook, just as they rush to bring in the lambs before the thunderstorm whips up. My memory for names and faces is fading ever more quickly. That’s the most likely explanation. That’s how my father’s illness was at the end. Somebody with a big eraser came and started rubbing everything out, moving backward. First, you forget what happened yesterday, the most distant, out-of-the-way stuff is the last to go. In this sense, you always die in your childhood.

I’m writing this section with my heart racing as I go over this short narrative again. Gospodinov started us with this idea. “There is only childhood and death,” and now the epigraphy reaches far from those early pages for our narrator’s father, and narrator Gospodinov fears that this will also be his fate. As an isolated experience, this collapse as the pages run thin is very well upon us. In an expanded sense, the apocalypse that these lists are constructed and saved for is not entirely physical, but also mythic: erasure in an experiential sense. He continues:

My worst nightmare is that one day I will be standing just like that at some airport, the planes will land and take off, but I won’t be able to remember where I’m going. And worse yet, I’ll have forgotten the place I should return to. And there won’t be anyone to recognize me and bring me back home.

And with this speculation these lists serve as guideposts for the post-apocalyptic Gospodinov—now a time capsule to let him return to places and times lost to dementia or Alzheimer’s.

Gospodinov, the Reader

I had a longer section written for this blog post that I scrapped—foolishly, in retrospect—regarding the detail in the subjective accounts in both “Global Autumn”—this full section of the book—and throughout the novel as a whole. It addressed, hastily, the relationship between narrator Gospodinov and the nature of his very personal narratives. While his ability to embed started to diminish, I started to feel like the short, heavily detailed narratives—like “Howl” in this section—provided a window for a reader to embed in the memories of the narrator.

I quickly scrapped the idea because it felt too obvious: readers perform a similar embedding through the act of reading the experiences of others, which is further aided by a writer’s skill. But I was still marked with in interest due to the detail of these pieces and their ability to draw on multiple time periods and multiple philosophical tracks—the conflation of these elements guiding an individual to a very specific time with ideological, phenomenological, and geographic queues. Following the discussion of lists with narrator Gospodinov, my heart is wrenched by these implications, and I’m left wondering: in the time capsule of The Physics of Sorrow, are these hyper-subjective moments here for Gospodinov to return to following the possibility of annihilation?

Whatever the answer, the end is near.

3 April 18 | Orisa Santiago Morrice | Comments

This week for the Two Month Review of Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow we’re looking at section six, “The Story Buyer,” which greets us with an up-front discussion of Gospodinov’s writing process along with more beautiful prose throughout a series of the darkest and most human stories in this collection yet. During last week’s podcast, Chad and Brian were joined by Angela Rodel, translator of The Physics of Sorrow and general Bulgarian translator extraordinaire. This post will be a little bit short at the outset due to an irritating cold, but will get an expansion by next week to explore some of her insights.

The Nature of Writing

This section provides a moment of soberish reflection from Gospodinov as he discusses the nature of his craft. When we discussed Part IV.—Time Bomb (To be Opened After the End of the World)—I noted a confluence between content and form, as Gospodinov discussed time capsules in great detail. There it became clear that the formal qualities of The Physics of Sorrow mirrored the content of this specific discussion. Without entering the realm of meta commentary, Gospodinov lays many of the stylistic approaches to his work bare. But here in Part V.—The Story Buyer—we’re met with a more blunt author-to-reader discussion on the writing process: particularly the “purchasing” of stories. Formally The Physics of Sorrow is built in a way that allows for drastic shifts in tone, including moments of meta-commentary from Gospodinov.

During “The Story Buyer” Gospodinov explains the nature of this story buying:

In the past I could implant, now I’m forced to buy. I could introduce myself this way, too: I’m a person who buys up the past. [. . .] I go around buying up the past wholesale. Call me what you want, find me a name. Those who own land are called “landholders,” I’m a timeholder, a holder of others’ time, the owner of others’ stories and pasts. I’m an honest buyer, I never try to undercut the price. I only buy up private pasts, the pasts of specific people. Once they tried to sell me the past of a whole nation, but I turned it down[. . .] What’s in it for me? Thanks to an earlier illness and to the purchased stories, I could now move through the corridors of various times. I could have the childhood of everyone I had bought one from, I could possess their wives and their sorrows. I could pile them up in the Noah’s Boxes in that basement.

Here we have a blurring between a blunt address to readers regarding his writing process with an explanation that is still rooted within the metaphysical abilities established within The Physics of Sorrow. It’s clear that writers draw upon a variety of sources for their work—if you can recall Ernest Hemingway’s expanded epigraphy on the many people and places that he chose to exclude from his memoir—but these purchases allow narrator Gospodinov another opportunity to experience the embedding that he’s lost in adulthood. He also connects this process to many of the ideas of The Physics of Sorrow. The relationship between time and light is apparent here as the process of “timeholding” is related to bringing these stories to light through purchasing them. If he didn’t purchase them, they would remain in the darkness of a labyrinth. Additionally, he also draws back to the time capsule curating—the “Noah’s Boxes”—from Part IV.

The harrowing opening with “The Baby Carrier,” which highlights more of Gospodinov’s prosodic strength, ends with specific address from the author himself on his buying process:

I bought this story in late October, near the Greek border. When I offered her money, the woman looked at me in astonishment. She couldn’t figure out what exactly I was paying her for. I’ve got nothing to sell you, she said, plus I’m not gonna have any more kids. I replied that I had just bought her story. I’m not sure she understood. She took the money and turned it over in her hands, as if expecting me to ask for it back, then turned around, took a few steps, squatted down, and burst out sobbing. I thought to myself that only now had she begun to sell her children. When she started telling about them. Without a story, it was all nothing but business.

Telling stories is part of Judgment Day, because it makes people understand. But what the point of understanding is remains unclear. I put these stories in the box, too.

While I’m not sold on the truth of such a purchase actually happening to this degree, the idea behind collecting stories to transpose through prose and disseminate through publishing stands out as an accurate reflection of the writing profession. As I suggested earlier, a successful writing process is far more social than many of the old tropes of writers hunched over typewriters drunk and inspired. I think specifically to the popular image of Hemingway, but as was suggested through the expanded epigraph his work is drawn from the lives of those around him and the places he visited.

Even during the podcast last week, Brian discussed moments where people pitched (questionable) ideas for works to them. These are things they wouldn’t want to ‘buy’ in Gospodinov’s model. But, often enough, writers come across valuable works to ‘purchase’ throughout their lives, and this section layers its stories as a collection of curated purchases, mediated by sobered commentary on the act.

Furthermore, from this excerpt, we see another allusion to the time capsule curating from Part IV. Gospodinov writes, “[telling] stories is part of Judgment Day, because it makes people understand.” The blurring of writer and narrator Gospodinov leads to a complicated and bittersweet writing process. Purchasing and writing these stories allows satisfies this collective Gospodinov who is trying to relive the empathetic embedding that he’s lost with time, but also allows him to prepare the time capsule of The Physics of Sorrow for an impending apocalypse.

This discussion of story buying culminates in “The Story Seller” and “…And his Story,” where Gospodinov meets Salman Rushdie at a wedding. After some brilliant speculation from Gospodinov on the existence of celebrities, he and Rushdie have the following exchange:

I finally managed to get a word in. Writers are never innocent. They’re as thieving as magpies. Still, it’s important who steals from you.
But no, I gave him the story as a gift.
Well, then we’ll wait and see.
If you’d like, I could tell it to you, too.
I am curious. But you do understand that it is already sold.
Didn’t you say it was given as a gift?
Yes, that’s right . . . given, sold. We didn’t sign a contract. If you really like it, you just need to work out with him who’s going to use it. I’ll sell it . . . in exchange for two large Four Roses.
So, for eight roses, I laughed . . . Deal. (That’s how I met the story seller.) And after the first bouquet of roses landed on the table, the story began.

Again, while the bartering and bargaining compromises my full faith in the story, there is still a lot here regarding the writing process. The stories don’t just come from ‘civilians,’ but the sale or trade of them is complicated when another writer is involved. That being said, I appreciate how fair the interaction is portrayed, despite the difference in popular acclaim between the two authors. “…And His Story” then tells this story with a degree of commentary from Gospodinov, almost like he was sitting at his desk, writing it out, going over notes, and criticizing each line as he puts it to the page. But this pair of stories continues to highlight the important social nature of writing.

In retrospect, so much of this piece speaks to the social qualities of the writing process. Despite my focus on the confluence of form and content with the time capsule model, The Physics of Sorrow is a collection of narratives from multiple perspectives—this has been a guiding idea from the outset in the Epigraphy and Prologue. But through this section we get a stronger sense of Gospodinov’s intent with this project. Through the hyper empathy of embedding, or the later financial exchange of buying stories, Gospodinov has made it his goal to collect stories by any means necessary.

29 March 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week, translator Angela Rodel joins Chad and Brian to talk about The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov, the recent surge in Bulgarian literature in translation, point of view issues in writing, Bulgarian folk music, what makes a translation work, and much more. Then Chad and Brian banter about “The Story Buyer,” the giving away of ideas for novels, and the next title to be featured on the Two Month Review!

There is an unedited version of the second half of this podcast available on YouTube. that contains a longer discussion of the future of the project and what other titles could be included. And be sure to come by next TUESDAY, April 3rd at 9pm to talk with Chad, Brian, and special guest Rachel Cordasco. They’ll be discussing “Global Autumn,” the saddest places in the world, Eastern European humor, and more.

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 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 March 18 | Orisa Santiago Morrice | Comments

Last week, Chad, Brian, and special guest Tom Flynn had a particularly boisterous discussion of Part V of The Physics of Sorrow that was as insightful towards the literature at hand as much as it was to learn sick burns for your friends with weak March Madness brackets. But between the trash talk and discussion of oysters, there were a few insights that I wanted to carry forward into this week’s expanded post. At some point, Tom mentioned that Gospodinov has trained his reader by this point in the novel to know how to get through it and that idea stuck with me. This week, we’ll be looking at how well trained we are as Gospodinov feeds us the myth, again, but with a twist, yet again.

“And there’s the switch. The tiniest of switches”

Throughout last week’s Two Month Review blog post (and my raving scribbles through my copy of the book and my personal notebook) I expressed an interest in understanding The Physics of Sorrow as a spiral. I’ve been tempted at times to call the sections circular, or at least calling our experience of going from section to section circular, but it’s not entirely cyclical, where it would run over the same subject matter or stories. The circle doesn’t fit because we aren’t getting the same experiences in each section—we’re not just dealing with a slight variation on the played out Epic of Gilgamesh. The spiral form accounts for the overlapping subject matter—embedding, Minotaur, labyrinth, children, abandonment, etc.—with a developing narrative that lacks narrative repetition. So while we keep encountering these themes, we keep encountering them in different positions, at different times, in different ways, with different people. The spiral form also accounts for the philosophical treatises that we’re met with in each section that further complicate the myths and ideas at the heart of The Physics of Sorrow. “The Green Box” continues as a testament to the spiral.

The section opens with “The Ear of the Labyrinth,” which beautifully reimagines a tragedy that took place in the town of Tafalla, Spain—an agricultural town known for their meat industry, I’d like to add. Along our spiral, the piece opens with an article describing an incident during 2010, when a bull, during a bullfight, leapt into the audience and injured 40 before it was eventually shot. While the opening is written in a standard journalistic style, Gospodinov embeds into the bull’s memory:

“[. . .] it turned out to be one of those exceptional events that launched me back into that forgotten “embedding” . . . Something I haven’t experienced in years.

As we learned in the previous section, embedding—the condition that escapes me as much as it escaped Gospodinov—became harder to experience with age. But as we learn now, particular things, like this event, drag him into memories again. And there’s more discussion of embedding within this section, but it’s not exactly what we’re used to. Through some of these stories, he performs some proxy embedding, where he deeply imagines the experiences of other creatures.

In “Through a Lamb’s Ear” he speculates about Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea being told from the perspective from a fish, twisting the classic line from the book to:

A marlin can be destroyed but not defeated.

Additionally, he includes a short and sweet snippet of dialog between two unidentified entities, who discuss history through plants:

“The history of the world can be written from the viewpoint of a cat, an orchid, or a pebble. Or lamb’s ear.”
“What’s lamb’s ear?”
“A plant.”
“And do you think we would figure in a history of the world written by lamb’s ear?”
“I don’t know. Do you think lamb’s ear figures in the history of the world written by people?”

This piece introduces us to what embedding could look like to an older Gospodinov reflecting on his lost ability and applying it to new situations. Before we would have gotten an expansive account of the marlin, and its life, and the battle with Santiago. Instead, we have a reserved reflection on speculation on such a possibility. But we do get another clear moment of embedding in “The Green Box,” aside from the bull looking for his ancestral mother.

With “The Minotaur’s Dream” readers experience, well, a first-person account of a Minotaur’s dream. In his dream, the Minotaur has become a fully human child:

I dream that I’m beautiful. Not exactly beautiful, but inconspicuous. That’s what it means to be beautiful, to be like everyone else. My head feels light. My eyes are on the front of my face. I have a nose, rather than nostrils. I have human skin, thin human skin. I walk down the street and no one notices me. Now that’s happiness—no one noticing me. It’s a happy dream.

And the Minotaur spends much of his day going throughout town, interacting delicately with townsfolk, if noticed at all. This all changes as night falls. As darkness consumes the sky, the Minotaur is slowly dragged back to his reality:

I can feel my jaw elongating, my skull growing heavy and hard, but I don’t want to hurt him. Thankfully the dream is coming to an end, since the situation is getting pretty desperate. That’s the moment in which dreams tear apart.

And with that he’s returned to the darkness of his labyrinth. This entire piece was written in the first person, just as previous moments of embedding. Only, here, Gospodinov has left us with no clue to how he was able to enter the dream, as he did in earlier embedding, especially considering the absence of consistent embedding as an adult.

Some Twists on the Labyrinth

Returning to the opening story for a moment takes us, yet again, through the Labyrinth that we’re familiar with from the other sections. As we follow Gospodinov’s embedding into the bull in Tafalla:

An amphitheater, of course, is a labyrinth. One of the most commonly found circular labyrinths, made of concentric circles intersected by transverse corridors.

It’s certainly a space that I wouldn’t consider labyrinthine at first thought, as I’m first dragged back to the intense lighting that floods event spaces like these. But, just as the bull here, my mind recedes for a moment: walking from the parking lot to the amphitheatre (stadium in my particular memory, but I feel the comparison is sustained), or being the sole member of your group that has to use the bathroom or procure concessions in the middle of an important inning, and you’re left to wander the halls alone—lights flickering alongside all other dramatic effects—turning corners that seem like you just passed them, perpetually. And just like that, trained well by the reading, as Tom noted during the podcast, I’m following Gospodinov as he transforms my familiar to his. Through each modification of the myth, we’ve learned to be complicit through each modification, agreeing to suspend our disbelief because everything is written so tightly and we’re inundated with variations to the point of accepting change—and sorrow—as the new normal. So for us, the readers, the amphitheater is now a labyrinth—a prison.

And this space transforms the bull, according to Gospodinov, as:

The bull lifted its gaze and recognized the Labyrinth—the ancestral home of his great-grandfather, the Minotaur. And since animals have no sense of time (just as children do not), the Bull saw his ancestral home and recognized the Minotaur within himself.

But this transformation of a space into a labyrinth occurs, with a twist, later in the section, as Gospodinov and his wife are expecting a child. “The End of the Minotaurs” stands as a beautiful reinterpretation of the myth we’ve gotten so accustomed to as readers:

Someone’s walking around inside me. Someone’s gotten lost in my belly. That’s what she said one winter afternoon, as we were sitting quietly in the room, trying to hear the snow piling up outside. It sounded beautiful and timeless. Lying back in the rocking chair, she had opened up Ancient Greek Myths and Legends and placed the book on top of the protruding oval of her belly, like a roof.

But as Gospodinov starts to ruminate of this reality, something strikes him. He starts to align the elements of his myths onto his life and is startled by the results:

That which was roaming around inside was not the Minotaur, but rather that which would kill him. Let’s call it “Theseus” for the sake of clarity. The umbilical cord is there inside like Ariadne’s thread. So then where is the Minotaur? The answer lay in the anxiousness of the inquiry. The Minotaur was me. Let’s turn that phrase around, so I can’t hide in its tail end. I was the Minotaur. Theseus—he, she, it (the gender doesn’t matter) – was coming to kill me with all the innocence of predestination. There was nowhere to hide, I could only meekly await his arrival.

Of course, Gospodinov, and his family, have all served as the minotaurs at particular points in their history—all trapped in their labyrinths, and subject to their own horrors—but now the labyrinth was a living person, his wife nevertheless, and in a kind of liberation (or new subjugation) his own flesh and blood is to be the hero in this new version of the myth. After all the time that Gospodinov spent locked in various labyrinths as the horrible Minotaur, he was now to face the hero that would slay him.

And it is this point that the bull in Tafalla leaps into the stands, people running in terror as he seeks his mother and his murderer, or at least a variant of him—the same point when Gospodinov looks into his vision of the future, sees the faces, and accepts the terms. But this angle of the myth is not the last that he twists in this section of the spiral.

Death by Another Face

The story in Tafalla hits us with another divergence from the typical narrative of the Minotaur in the Labyrinth. We already have a bull, we have a crowd for an audience, and, in this iteration, we have a faceless killer where there has typically been the blessed, handsome hero Theseus. Gospodinov writes:

But the myth is repeatable and the death of the Minotaur has to happen again. [. . .] Death catches up with him right when he seems to have caught sight of a familiar shoulder and locks of hair hurrying away. It’s the first time they kill him that way. From a distance. Without a sword or a spear. Without seeing his killer’s face.

Gospodinov has taken a myth, made it more tragic by humanizing the ‘monster’ and, now, goes a step further by taking the myth and truly making it modern by having this contemporary Theseus kill the enthralled minotaur at a distance, with a rifle, without the two coming face to face.

But this faceless murder of those deemed animals is the truly modern face of slaughter, and Gospodinov addresses this voraciously. “Without a Face” creates a history to address the transition from face-to-face to faceless murders, starting with several mythic slayings and ending with the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

As an aside—from a craft standpoint—it’s important to note that many of these sections bleed into one another, like we’ve found a corner of the labyrinth that we handed guided our hands over before, or another length of the spiral that veers off at a slightly sharper angle than before—whatever metaphor you prefer. “The Ear of the Amphitheatre” ended, as mentioned above, “Without seeing his killer’s face[,]” while “Without a Face” ends with “No animal would do that[,]” in reference to an animal’s moral inability to commit faceless murder. Often enough, it’s difficult to name pieces, but this process and sequence of titling sections off of pertinent content from a previous section allows Gospodinov freedom to address a myriad of topics while still sustaining the individuality of the sections, and still connecting them beyond their order in the mostly static medium of a physical book. Well done, Georgi.

The next section is aptly titled “No Animal Would Do That” and catalogs, statistically and philosophically, the advent of modern day meat production. This slaughter is further used to introduce the cross-generational vegetarianism is Gospodinov’s family in “A Tale of the Vegetarian Man-Eater” and “On the Eating of Flesh.” This approach to vegetarianism and mass murder is fresh to us at this point in the book, as we’ve only had glancing mentions to either, whether the moment where public defender Gospodinov reminded us that bulls are herbivores or the massive die-offs of birds, bats, and bees, respectively.

So as we make our way through The Physics of Sorrow we continue to see Gospodinov’s plan unfold. We start the see the cohesion with the disjointed pieces, and the ability for an age old myth to continue to be refreshed, and for his skill to re-approach topics from a dizzying amount of angles. At this point, we’re more than halfway through the piece. As much as I want to suggest that we have a sense of what is going to come next, I can only comfortably predict on the direction we’re headed—everything else is up to myth.

20 March 18 | Orisa Santiago Morrice | Comments

Last week, Chad, Brian, special guest Patrick Smith, and an insightful YouTube commentator discussed part IV of Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow. This section, in many ways, brought us full circle to the nature of Gospodinov’s work by introducing us to the cultural phenomena of the time capsule, and the circumstances that drive people to bury stuff they like in the ground. Through this investigation, Gospodinov sheds light into what this book is about and what he accomplishes with the short, broken pieces that make it up.

Mazes and Spirals

Through these last couple of weeks, through all the wonderful guests and discussions and through the beautifully prose of The Physics of Sorrow, we’ve had the pleasure of unravelling a dark and complex piece. From the second week and onward it feels like each conversation ends with someone saying something along the lines of “we’re returning to so much” and “we’re getting deeper into this.”

As much as Gospodinov and his work are involved in the labyrinth as a historic and emotional metaphor, the spiral finds a place in understanding both the work and our discussion of it as readers. I will elaborate on this as the post winds on.

The Core of the Spiral

The first section of the Two Month Review, which included the Epigraphy, Prologue, and “The Bread of Sorrow,” set up the themes that Gospodinov revisits in the subsequent sections—this thought something I’ve already written in previous blog posts. These recurring elements include abandonment, the minotaur, the labyrinth, life in communist Bulgaria, the mythic, fathers, darkness, basements, and the like. Obviously, well-crafted books do this: build and return to themes. But Gospodinov treats his themes like he treats his family, and his imagination: he treats them like characters that are born, develop, and are perpetually at risk of losing everything and dying. These themes are more a part of the cast and less an abstraction that is built by the behavior of his human characters—not excluding Asterius with my use of “human.”

The second section, “Against an Abandonment: The Case of M,” presented us with public defender Gospodinov and his defense for the minotaur. This section developed our understanding of Gospodinov’s obsession with myth, particular the rich history and his own speculations on the myth of the Minotaur and its relationship to his own family and upbringing.

The third section, “The Yellow House,” returned us to stories of Gospodinov and his family in Bulgaria, and, again, routed us through the themes and characters established in the previous two sections. It is important to note that beyond this coiling of each section, Gospodinov adds more events, and friends, and family members but does so, frequently, through the established themes.

This fourth section, “Time Bomb (To be Opened After the End of the World),” has Gospodinov laying his plans bare and creates a confluence between the content of the book, the themes, characters, places, and discussions, with the form that Gospodinov has created, the short and somewhat related pieces within larger sections. We see, again, the themes at play with people and moments in his life. He returns us to his grandfather, introduces us to a school-aged, rebelliously insightful Gospodinov, shows us more facets to his stylistic abilities, and all around the intense discussion of time capsules. And as he works his way from time capsules on fridges, or time capsules launched into space, or buried into the ground, and as he spirals again around the elements that are important to The Physics of Sorrow it starts to become clear that, put simply, this book is a time capsule.

Along the Loops

This week’s section opens with “The Aging of an Empath” where Gospodinov discusses the eventual loss of his ability to embed, a side effect of aging, and, I’d add, an overexposure to humanity. Most importantly, he describes that his habit of hoarding objects is an attempt to counteract the loss of his Obsessive Empathetic-Somatic Syndrome, or “radical empathetic-somatic syndrome” as he (mis)remembers.

And this isn’t the first time that Gospodinov has described collecting objects, but this provides further insight into why he does. Collecting starts in “First Aid Kit for After the End of the World,” which lushly describes a young version of himself slowly preparing a kit, of sorts, to survive a nuclear attack, with goods and kind words included. And this pattern of collecting repeats.

He writes about how he hoards apocalypse-inspired headlines, mentions Mengele’s personal journals, the disks that the Voyager and Pioneer spacecrafts carried to give extraterrestrial life a glimpse into the glory of mankind via a recording of Jimmy Carter’s voice. He also writes about time capsules throughout the world, and a need to map the location of all of them, the need for a literary time capsule of all genres and trends, and the possible dangers of future humanoids stumbling upon our time capsules.

These acts of collecting are rooted in fear, from Gospodinov’s survival kit to NASA’s strange experiment, and are attempts to ameliorate said fears. Beautifully, this section—this entire work, rather, is engaging in this process. Through “First Aid Kit[. . .],” in the light of Gospodinov losing his embedding, we see him fracture his older self from his younger self, writing on his younger self as distinct person—almost writing as though there is a death that has separated these two individuals. And in response to this fear of further loss, Gospodinov has taken to collect and preserve moments. He collects newspaper headlines and discusses massive beehive death, and birds dropping from the sky. And even the popularity of time capsules mirrors fears of nuclear annihilation or apocalypse by another means. The time capsule ameliorates our fears as even if we are wiped from the face of the the earth, the collection of materials sustains our existence deep beneath the earth, or in space, or on the page.

That said, we can read all books as being time capsules of sorts—these obscure collections of thoughts and images that contain an interpretation of a past time for a future time—sure. But from the exchange between Chad, Brian, and Patrick, I’m convinced to separate The Physics of Sorrow from the over encompassing speculation of “books are time capsules” to the more accurate “The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov is a time capsule.” This idea was set up beautifully by a comment from Patrick, when he said, paraphrased, “the brokenness of the form is built for destruction.” Chad followed up by adding that missing a section—I’d argue referring to either the larger section of the books or the smaller units within each section—is ok (obviously read the whole thing, it’s good). The Physics of Sorrow is this greater vessel of smaller fragments, all related in some way yet distinct enough on their own, and—better yet—crafted with this comprehension of a bleak, possibly apocalyptic, future.

The Pioneer and Voyager disks contained fragments of mankind at a certain temporal locus, just as the Westinghouse Time Capsules, and the time capsule from the young Gospodinov’s school in Pleven. And The Physics of Sorrow is doing just what these time capsules are. Each fragment of each section standing on it’s own with its own commentary with its relationship to the characters and themes. The themes are sustained not by just one piece, but by many, just as the many characters come and go through the sections. Hypothetically, should the capsule crack, and most of the contents be destroyed (should you rip out a chunk of the book), the individual fragments elaborate on another so often, that missing one doesn’t destroy a reader’s ability to understand what Gospodinov accomplishes throughout the whole of The Physics of Sorrow. The minotaurs, the labyrinth, Bulgaria, Communism, abandonment, World War—all these elements repeat and deepen from fragment to fragment to create a sustained understanding of the book itself considering the threat of mass destruction.

Gospodinov’s Arc

This confluence of form and content that I’ve been speaking to is the most blunt with the paired sections of “Noah Complex” and “New Realism.” “Noah Complex” suggests that a encyclopedic time capsule of writing should be created including:

[. . .] monologue through Socratic dialogue to epos in hexameter, from fairytales through treatises to lists. From high antiquity to slaughterhouse instructions. Everything can be gathered up and transported in such a book.

This would contain writing from all times, and different styles and authors. And after all his tongue-in-cheek commentary on time capsules, each entry dripping with a quiet criticism of the futility, he writes in this section:

Only the book is eternal, only its covers shall rise above the waves, only the beasts inside, between its pages swarming with life, will survive. And when they see the new land, they will go forth and multiply [. . .] And what is written shall be made flesh and blood and shall be brought to life in all its perfection. And “the lion” shall become a lion, “the horse” will whinny like a horse, “the crow” will fly from the page with an ugly croak . . . And the Minotaur will come out into the light of day.

Adopting a sort of mystic prose, he places his faith in the book to be a suitable vessel for realities, relying on the readers imagination—a proxy for his own experienced embedding—to bring the worlds contained in this Noachian encyclopedia to life (as corny as it sounds), to change the animals, in quotes, into animals in flesh. I even feel a nod to his own work as he imagines the Minotaur out in the light.

Gospodinov gives us just that in this following section “New Realism,” where he drops us into a beautifully written realist narrative. Defined as “a faithful representation of reality” or “verisimilitude,” this section speaks to just that, as Gospodinov shifts styles yet again to make a point. I don’t even really know where to draw from to give the “best” example of his writing—the whole narrative speaks to that. It’s important to note that many of the authors from his Epigraphy were realists in their national literatures, and, relatedly the epigraphs from Flaubert and St. Augustine speak to the ability to embed and being able to suspend the fleeting moment as so that it may be experienced, at the very least, a second time.

This is the moment of union for this work, as a whole, between its form and content. Gospodinov, considering a singular death at one end and apocalypse at the other, collects a series of fragments to hopefully survive and be reopened. With his wit, he might even fear what the results may be, as we see in “Future Number 73,” where future humanoids find his Communist Youth Brigade inductee letter create a yearly bloodletting. I must say, I’m curious what a society of people who worship the ‘doctrine’ of “New Realism” would accomplish.

And Back Again Through the Spiral

This confluence of form and content, while emphasized in this section has been going on the entire time and I believe we can assume it will continue. Obviously, we can look at each section as these collections of ephemera, something to understand Bulgarian history following the death of the 2015 version of Georgi Gospodinov, but, specifically, there are sections throughout the book that mirror his time capsule form.

In the Prologue we saw that collection of entities, all seemingly alone if not interrelated by their isolation. In “The Bread of Sorrow” sections like “Trophy Words,” which documented the Hungarian words that his grandfather kept through national shifts and relocations, “Crumbling Language” and “G,” which both highlighted Gospodinov’s own adventures with language acquisition, and “A Short Catalogue of Abandonments,” which listed cases of abandonment from various myths around the world.

“Against an Abandonment: The Case of M” had the “Dossier” and “Myth and Game,” which were lengthy collections of (mis)representations of the Minotaur, while “Child-Unfriendly” and “Devoured Children in Greek Mythology (An Incomplete Catalogue)” both list injustices against children, in and out of myth.

“The Yellow House” featured a series of these catalogs, from “A Catalogue of Collections,” to “From a Catalogue of Important Erotic Scenes” to the various collections of accounts from the 1980s.

But this most recent section brings all these to the surface and discusses them head-on. And this is where I return to the spiral. A participant in the chat from last week’s podcast, one gabbiano117, wrote:

This really is the perfect book for reading and rereading again and again. The way it retreats and advances and circles and gets lost in itself again and again and again.

Gospodinov is writing something that coils upon itself, but also builds. He started the piece by explaining how his world works, and from that point provided examples that affirm his construction. And as we go onto the next section, I’m excited to see how else the spiral will progress, and how what form the Minotaur takes in another place and time.

13 March 18 | Orisa Santiago Morrice |

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.

6 March 18 | Orisa Santiago Morrice |

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.

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.

20 February 18 | Orisa Santiago Morrice |

Throughout this season of the Two Month Review, Santiago Morrice will be writing weekly pieces about the section of the book discussed on the previous week’s podcast. These will likely go a bit more in depth into the style and content of the novel itself, nicely complementing the podcasts.

On last week’s podcast, Chad and Kaija talked a bit about how Open Letter came to publish The Physics of Sorrow, its general success, their personal relationships to the book, and how to correctly say “Georgi” and “Gospodinov,” but I thought I’d give you a bit more background into his work, and this novel in particular.

Georgi Gospodinov is one of the most translated Bulgarian authors of the late twentieth century. He has written award winning works in a variety of genres. His earliest poetry collection, Lapidarium (1992, Modus Stoi͡a︡nov), named after the archaic Roman word for stonecraft galleries, won the Bulgarian National Debut Prize. He then published two other poetry collections, Letters to Gaustin (2003) and Ballads and Maladies (2007). Many of these poems have been anthologized within European collections. He’s also served as an editor for I’ve Lived Socialism: 171 Personal Stories (2006) and Book of Socialism (2006), collections of reflective pieces on life in Bulgaria. And Other Stories (2001; translated to English in 2007 by Zornitza Hristova and Magdalena Levy, Northwestern University Press), Gospodinov’s first formal collection of short stories, was longlisted for the 2007 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award for its English translation. From this particular collection, the short story “Blind Vaysha” was adapted as an animated short by director Theodore Ushev, which was nominated for Best Animated short at the 89th Academy Awards. His first full-length novel, A Natural Novel (1999; translated to English in 2005 by Zornita Hristrova, Dalkey Archive Press), was well received globally.

Stylistically, Gospodinov abandons long and cohesive narration for series of short, fractured, yet interrelated stories. He utilizes these stylistic choices to address a calm doom that pervades life, and he frequently comments on the influence of the Communist politics on everyday Bulgarian life.

And these themes continue in new permutations in the text at hand, The Physics of Sorrow, which, like so many of Gospodinov’s titles, lives up to its name. Originally published in 2011, this work has been translated into seventeen languages, including to English by Angela Rodel in 2011 through the Open Letter Press. It has won numerous awards across Europe, and was a critical and commercial success in Bulgaria.

At is simplest and most concrete the The Physics of Sorrow is a receptacle of the experiences, memories, and imagination. Through a process of “embedding” primary narrator Georgi Gospodinov can enter and experience the memories of others. Through this process he experiences the memories of others both as they occurred and as someone encountering a history he did not personally understand.

Gospodinov’s writing remains clear from the most concrete to the most metaphysical of moments. At times the piece feels like a memoir highlighting the emotional mechanisms of people surviving the horrors of war, then smoothly shifts into pages of contemporary scientific methodologies or anthropological observations on cultural customs, which then shift into the blunt reflections of an author towards the craft of their own work, which then transforms into another form for another topic or another landscape—these shifts sometimes occurring all within the span of a page. At each shift Gospodinov maintains a clear vision and approach to the work at hand and carries the reader gracefully through the chaos of memory. As you will come to learn The Physics of Sorrow lives up to its name. As a meticulous exploration of the world at large, Georgi Gospodinov’s work challenges conventional understandings of memory and truth, fracturing one into the other and providing a detailed, scientific account to the mechanisms by which this process of breaking occurs. As a collection of deep dives, The Physics of Sorrow constructs experience where gods, the unborn, invertebrates, children, minotaurs cows, mothers, soldiers, time capsules, and the perpetually misplaced each have a perspective and a stake in what can be known.

The translator, Angela Rodel, lives and works in Bulgaria as a translator for contemporary Bulgarian writers. She received her B.A. from Yale and her M.A. from Yale in Linguistics. Angela Rodel received an NEA translation grant for her work on this book and provides her expertise with Bulgarian translations to bring Gospodinov’s genius to English audiences. For the last decade, she’s worked to translate the most celebrated Bulgarian literature for English audiences and has worked on dozens of translations, cementing her position as an authority on Bulgarian to English Translation. Among all these translations, she’s received awards for her translation of The Physics of Sorrow, including the National Book Center’s 2015 Peroto Prize for translation from Bulgarian and 2016 American Association of Teachers of Slavic and Eastern European Languages (AATSEEL) Prize for Best Book of Literary Translation.

Due to the Communist government following World War II, modern Bulgarian literature was relegated to government control for much of the twenty-first century. At this, we can look at Dimitar Dimov’s Tobacco (1951) as an exemplary work of Communist-controlled Bulgarian literature and Dimitar Talev’s The Iron Oil Lamp (1952) for Bulgarian authorship at large. But as Communist control lessened towards the end of the 20th century, and authors experienced newfound freedoms, the scope and variety of literature blossomed. As you prepare to dive into Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow, or as a follow up or compliment to the book, two works that really help define the modern state of Bulgarian literature are Ivailo Petrov’s Wolf Hunt (1986), translated by Angela Rodel, and and Hristo Karastoyanov’s The Same Night Awaits Us All (2014). Thanks to the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation and translators like Angela Rodel, interested readers have access to far more Bulgarian books now than they did just a few years ago.

29 March 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This is the first entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, which will highlight each of the 35 “longlisted”: titles for this year’s Best Translated Book Awards. Tom Roberge of Albertine Books wrote this piece.

The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov, translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel (Bulgaria, Open Letter)

The nature of these “Why This Book Should Win” pieces is that they, by virtue of the various writers’ particular fondness for whatever book they’re arguing on behalf of, are, in their conception and execution, capable of taking almost any form. They are not reviews; that’s been done. They aren’t critical examinations; that’s for another time and place. And they aren’t the sort of recommendations people like me (booksellers, publicists) make on a daily basis because those tend towards the succinct, which is not a problem, per se, but which means that a lot of the gritty beauty of a book is summarized in ways that, in the service of making one’s case before the target loses interest in a tangle of plot.

Which is all a way of saying that I’m going to try to make my case for Georgi Gospodinov’s novel The Physics of Sorrow, translated from the Bulgarian by Angel Rodel and published by this site’s beneficent overlord (I kid, I kid) Open Letter, in my own damn way. By which I mean I’m going to try to sway you by using a few related passages of the text itself to demonstrate just how insanely beautiful and captivating this book is.

First, a bit of summarization, since it is, I’d argue inseparable from the overall scope and style of the book, which functions on several levels at all times, and which jumps around in time and space in a way that intentionally disorients and then immediately reorients the reader (something that I’d further argue is itself a grand metaphor and commentary on the plot and subject matter, but I don’t have time or, quite frankly, the intellectual dexterity to tackle that notion). The story sprawls across a century of wars and miseries and inter-war miseries that dominated Eastern Europe until recently and, of course, that have left their indelible marks in myriad ways. The narrator, we might as well explain at the outset, possessed, as a child, a certain ability to leap into the buried memories of other people (and creatures, as you’ll see below . . . ). Though given a scientific explanation and name (empathetic-somatic syndrome), it seems to be an invention of the writer, albeit one that yields an abundance of material as the narrator pieces together his family’s history, which passes through two real wars, the cold war, and finally the end of Soviet rule, a period itself full constantly shifting attitudes and socio/economic realities. But this is not in any way a novel that wallows in historical gravitas. The historical aspects of the book are present in the way historical incidents are present in DeLillo’s best novels: as un-ignorable facts of life, monoliths casting massive shadows.

Now, in addition to these time-out-of-joint retellings of his family’s history (think Slaughterhouse Five), the narrator dives into the enduring depths of Greek mythology in order to draw lessons, to find solace amid the chaos, and to lend the history itself a new context. More specifically, the myth of the Minotaur is examined and revisited throughout, the story expanding and developing greater nuance with each visit. So what does this mean in practice? Consider this passage, which I’ve chosen from an early mention of the myth that I believe helps establish the book’s unique mise en scène:

I never forgave Ariadne for betraying her brother. How could you give a ball of string to the one who would kill your unfortunate, abandoned brother, driven beastly by the darkness? Some heart- throb from Athens shows up, turns her head—how hard could that be, some provincial, big-city girl, that’s exactly what she is, a hay- seed and a city girl at the same time, she’s never left the rooms of her father’s palace, which is simply a more luxurious labyrinth.

Dana returns to the mill all alone in the darkness and rescues her brother, while Ariadne makes sure that her own brother’s murderer doesn’t lose his way. I hate you, Ariadne.

In the children’s edition of Ancient Greek Myths, I drew two bull’s horns on Ariadne’s head in pen.

To clarify, Ariadne is the Minotaur’s sister, and Dana is the narrator’s grandfather’s sister, who had to retrieve her younger brother after he’d been simply forgotten when the family had visited the mill to sell a load of flour. The mother, for what it’s worth, very nearly left him there; such was the desperation of the time.

Then, not a handful of pages later, we get this, without introduction:

The slugs slowly drag themselves across the newspaper, without letting go of it. Several are timidly clinging together, body to body. My grandfather grabs one with two fingers, closes his eyes, opens his mouth and slowly places the slug inside, close to his throat. He swallows. My stomach turns. I’m afraid for Grandpa. And I want to be able to do as he does. My grandfather has an ulcer. The slugs are his living medicine. They go in, make their way through the esophagus and stop in the soft cave of the stomach, leaving their slimy trail there, which forms something like a protective film on top, a thin medicinal layer that seals off the wound…

This is then followed, after a section break, with a version of the action as told from the slug’s point of view, which, of course, the narrator can access:

A huge hand lifts me up and sets me at the opening of a red, warm and moist cave. It is not unpleasant, even if a bit frightening. The red thing I have been placed on constantly twitches, slightly bucking and rising, which forces me to crawl farther in toward the only available corridor. At the entrance there is a soft barrier, it isn’t difficult to overcome. It’s as if it opens on its own, in any case it reacts when I touch it. Now there’s the tunnel, dark and soft, which I sink into, horns forward, like a slow bull. I leave a trail behind me to mark the way back. I feel safer with it…

The juxtaposition of the slug’s trail in the grandfather’s stomach and the string left for Theseus by Ariadne is, in my opinion, breathtakingly brilliant and beautiful and something that I cannot possibly expound upon any further; it speaks for itself. And this is but one example of the sort of genius on display in The Physics of Sorrow, which is why I think this book should win.

11 May 15 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is a piece by Izidora Angel on The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov, translated by Angela Rodel and out last month from Open Letter Books.

This book—and call it a shameless plug all you want—is by far one of the best books I’ve read in the last year, and has been on my personal Best Books of 2015 list since I first read it over a year ago. I can’t say enough or put the proper words to what the reading experience was like, but this is a phenomenal work, and if you’re not able to fit the entire book into your schedules, you should at least read one of the many excerpts posted across several online journals, including Little Star Weekly, which ran a three-part excerpt of Physics over the course of March and April. Really, really, truly, I can not get enough of this book.

Izidora Angel is a Bulgarian-born writer and translator living in Chicago. She is at work on translating the multi-award winning “The Same Night Await Us All: Diary of a Novel,” by Hristo Karastoyanov, from Bulgarian into English. She was just recently in Rochester as part of a three-week residency for Bulgarian translators, sponsored by the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation. Here’s a snippet of her review:

Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow was an immediate best-seller when it was published in his native Bulgaria in 2011, which is no small feat considering best-seller lists in the country are almost always dominated not by indigenous literature, but by a slightly schizophrenic gathering of translated literature of varying merit. To give an example, fellow best-selling books in fiction that year included The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Şafak (2010), and The Bastard of Istanbul (2007) by the same author, as well as, perhaps, the inevitable: Fifty Shades of Grey (2011). This points to the Bulgarian reader’s eclectic taste: the Dumas, Dostoevsky, and Remarque of her childhood paving the way for an enduring historical and intellectual thirst followed by mired fascination with an exotic, far-away America via its spiritual junk food.

As a writer, Gospodinov travels freely—physically and metaphysically—attempting to grasp the national fascination with chujbina or “foreign country,” along with the necessity of revisiting another quite foreign thing: your own childhood. The metaphor he utilizes in The Physics of Sorrow for doing the latter is a child Minotaur, necessary perhaps only for the natural resistance of Bulgarians for self-introspection.

In his native country, Gospodinov (whose last name essentially means “Sir,” giving him an innately superior status) is a literary star, celebrated for many reasons, one of which is his translation into over twenty languages. This kind of success doesn’t come without detractors. He has received death threats for essays he’s written and many decry what they perceive to be the contrived mass-hysteria that follows the release of his books in Bulgaria. But Gospodinov’s writing speaks for itself; it is effortlessly relatable and that, in turn, translates.

For the rest of the review, go here.

11 May 15 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

“Your bile is stagnant, you see sorrow in everything, you are drenched in melancholy,” my friend the doctor said.
bq. “Isn’t melancholy something from previous centuries? Isn’t some vaccine against it yet, hasn’t medicine taken care of it yet?” I ask.

Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow was an immediate best-seller when it was published in his native Bulgaria in 2011, which is no small feat considering best-seller lists in the country are almost always dominated not by indigenous literature, but by a slightly schizophrenic gathering of translated literature of varying merit. To give an example, fellow best-selling books in fiction that year included The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Şafak (2010), and The Bastard of Istanbul (2007) by the same author, as well as, perhaps, the inevitable: Fifty Shades of Grey (2011). This points to the Bulgarian reader’s eclectic taste: the Dumas, Dostoevsky, and Remarque of her childhood paving the way for an enduring historical and intellectual thirst followed by mired fascination with an exotic, far-away America via its spiritual junk food.

As a writer, Gospodinov travels freely—physically and metaphysically—attempting to grasp the national fascination with chujbina or “foreign country,” along with the necessity of revisiting another quite foreign thing: your own childhood. The metaphor he utilizes in The Physics of Sorrow for doing the latter is a child Minotaur, necessary perhaps only for the natural resistance of Bulgarians for self-introspection.

In his native country, Gospodinov (whose last name essentially means “Sir,” giving him an innately superior status) is a literary star, celebrated for many reasons, one of which is his translation into over twenty languages. This kind of success doesn’t come without detractors. He has received death threats for essays he’s written and many decry what they perceive to be the contrived mass-hysteria that follows the release of his books in Bulgaria. But Gospodinov’s writing speaks for itself; it is effortlessly relatable and that, in turn, translates.

If the author’s Natural Novel (2005) was a novel of beginnings, then The Physics of Sorrow can be read as a query into the riddle of beginnings and endings; a narratively deconstructed account of life that is part metaphor, part memoir, part metaphysical labyrinth. It’s filled with episodic Bulgarian vignettes, contemplations on the meaning of alienation and memory, and cautious optimism about the collective conscience and the power of imagining the world anew.

Physics is gently human and not showy, masterful in its simplicity yet laugh-out-loud funny. Consider the author recalling attending a writer’s open-casket funeral:

“While alive, he had hay fever. Now he was lying there, piled with flowers, looking as if he would start sneezing any minute. An orchid was sticking its tip right up his nose. But clearly he was already cured.”

The image of the handful of unofficial mistresses (there is an official one, too) also in attendance and in the corner, with their ice-blue hair, is perhaps familiar to anyone who grew up in 1980s Bulgaria. But the humor, the absurdity of the scene, is universal despite the specificity of the locale.

The novel’s translation, for which Angela Rodel was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, renders Gospodinov’s poetic writing faithfully and elegantly into English, and, like the work from which it is interpreted, it is injected with gentle optimism. At one point, the author recalls hearing a story from a friend, Miriam, who, for a time, lives with a Buddhist. The Buddhist attempts to instill in her the notion that life is sacred and not to be disrupted. In this case, it means she cannot lay a finger on an ever-increasing swarm of cockroaches that invades their apartment. In Bulgarian, Gospodinov writes that Miriam accepts this roachy existence for an entire year because she is in love and she is, therefore, turpeliva, the direct translation of the word being “patient” or “uncomplaining” or “enduring.” But Rodel takes it a step further and goes for “magnanimous.” Humor is again a crucial component at the end of the episode: after the magnanimity wears off, Miriam grabs the roach spray, and to the devastation of the Buddhist—curiously, out to work at that precise moment—commits “genocide.” But the Buddhist too falls off his sanctimonious horse: he’s already taken another lover.

If stories like the cockroach saga revel in a sort of geographic haziness, the melancholy of socialist reality making frequent, subtly heartbreaking stops puts the geography immediately into focus. There are the images of the englassed balconies turned into kitchens that adorn every apartment building—that attempt to squeeze the most out of your allotted square footage; the starving years, when instead of eating, Gospodinov and his girlfriend read a cook book; the electricity regime in the ’90s (think two hours on, two hours off); the stretches without hot water (an old Bulgarian joke has Electricity and Water running into each other at the entrance of an apartment building. “After you,” says Electricity, “I’m only here for an hour.” “No, after you, I insist,” says Water, “I’m only going to the first floor.”).

For those coming of age in newly democratic Bulgaria, the promise of something better, something new often came and went. Writes Gospodinov, “Back in the day, everybody was always saying: it’s too late for us, but lets hope the kids will live a different life. The mantra of late socialism. I now realize that it was my turn to utter the same line.”

But the book does not suffer from a martyr complex. Its multi-generational appeal exists precisely because it can make fun of itself without fatal insult.

Says Hristo Karastoyanov, a fellow writer also from the city of Yambol (and whose book, The Same Night Awaits Us All: Diary of a Novel, I’m currently translating): “Last summer in Bulgaria, the president did a one-day, country-wide public reading initiative. I was asked to help organize the Yambol event in the square, and the whole day had an air of contrivance, except for one thing: A girl, no more than 14 years old, got up to read a page from her favorite book. And it was a page from The Physics of Sorrow.” No one told her to read that, she had chosen it, and to me, it said a lot.”

With the English translation of “Physics entering the world, Gospodinov is now in the position of being able to push Bulgarian literature if not to the forefront, then at least meaningfully forward. His appeal is genuine, infectiously transcending boundaries both physical and figurative.

2 April 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Back when I was in junior high, my best friend and I would spend hours and hours playing Double Dribble on his Nintendo. (Fun fact! This game was called “Exciting Basket” in Japan.) I might be 100% wrong, but I’m pretty sure this was the first basketball game for the Nintendo. And man, was it ever low rent. Keep in mind, this was decades before things like “player likeness” or “realistic gameplay” became buzzwords. I mean, the fact that it sort of looked like the big square blobs took jump shots was pretty impressive. (This was in that period where Nintendo games had exploitable flaws, like getting your left fielder stuck in the wall so that the game would have to be forfeited. I did that every time my brother was about to beat me . . . Because forfeits don’t count!) Just look at this “action”:

Anyway, my friend and I were obsessed with Double Dribble, and basketball, and sports, and the NCAA tournament. We would create endless “brackets”—sometimes real, sometimes invented out of “seasons” we would play against each other—and then play out the whole tournament over the course of a sleepover fueled by endless amounts of pop and popcorn.

The thing that I remember most about these nights though is that I never won a game. Actually, I take that back. I distinctly remember playing out one particular bracket—all 63 games—and winning exactly one game. And I only won that when my boxy blob hit a half-court shot at the buzzer to win by a point. I sucked at that game.

Or, maybe more to the point, my friend was just better than me at all sports competitions. Nerf basketball, Techmo Bowl, sandlot baseball, sprinting, tennis, etc. This used to piss me off to no end. Losing sucks. But losing here and there, or half the time, or even two-thirds of the time, can be totally OK. Can help you cherish those victories. But losing 99.9% of all competitions? Fuck that.

Quitting games, giving up once I got down, trying not to try, acting like it all didn’t matter—these were all the strategies I employed, unsuccessfully, to hide the fact that I really hated losing. Instead, I’d just pout off, go to my room and read books. Everyone’s a winner when you read!

Although there are many other reasons to be jealous of my old friend—he’s actually published a book, I’m sure he makes at least twice as much as I do, he owns his own house, he lives in a nicer city than Rochester—the thing that still gets to me is that feeling of desperation when we were playing Double Dribble and I just wanted one single victory.

Over the years, my childish anger has become adult anger and I hate a whole slew of things instead of just some dumb Nintendo game. For example, I now hate Mario Kart and its cheating ways. And gross corporate ways of thinking. And Jonathan Franzen’s writing.

But I still hate losing. Which is why I get especially testy around book award season. I’m pretty sure that every single year I’ve predicted that this would be the time than an Open Letter Book would win a national award. I mean, we’ve been doing this for seven years, we publish books that people have praised and referred to as “extremely important,” we know all of the judges of these awards personally and they seem sympathetic to our aesthetic . . . but, then, nothing. And not just nothing—which is to be expected, since if there’s one rule in life it’s that no matter how good a book is, there’s one out there that’s even better—but our books never even make the list of finalists. Actually, we never even make the longlist.

There are three major national awards for literature in translation: the Best Translated Book Award (which I’m ignoring here because we administer it, putting it in a slightly different, less completely objective, category), the National Translation Award, and the PEN Translation Prize.

I was going to try and break this down statistically, look at which presses have been represented on which award lists, which languages are favored, etc., etc., but unfortunately, I can’t find anything about the NTA 2013 longlists or finalists, so screw it. I can say that we did have one book on the “2014 longlist“https://literarytranslators.wordpress.com/2014-awards/2014-nta-award/nta-longlist/ (The Dark by Sergio Chejfec, translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary), but nothing on the shortlist. (I believe Chejfec’s My Two Worlds, which was translated by Margaret Carson, did make a shortlist back in 2012?, but of course I can’t find that anywhere now that I’m looking.)

In terms of PEN’s Translation Prize, this is only the second year that they’ve included a longlist stage in their announcements, but so far, we’re 0-for-2. And we didn’t have any titles on any of the shortlists prior to that. So, we’re likely 0-for-7. Meanwhile, all of our colleagues—Archipelago, Two Lines, NYRB, Deep Vellum, New Directions, Yale University Press—have been honored with at least one selection. (The real winner is Will Evans who has published one book, and that one book won the Typographical Era Translation Award AND is longlisted for the PEN Translation Prize. Yahoo! Go Texas and Deep Vellum!)

There are some damn fine books on these lists, and the winners have been consistently amazing across the board. Which is a testament to how many excellent translations are coming out these days. We’re living in a golden age. I’m always following these awards, reading the books I think have a chance at winning, making mental predictions, etc. It’s fun to follow, even if we don’t have a horse in the race.

And to be honest, I’m never quite sure why this bugs me, or why I take it so personally. It’s not like I wrote or translated any of the books. Although, that said, I do see the consistent shunning—on all the lists, not just the award ones—as some sort of judgement of my editorial tastes and selection process. And I’m always curious if our books would sell better and win a lot more awards if, say, Archipelago published them. Is there an Open Letter stigma? And if so, isn’t it mostly a Chad Post stigma? I’ve pissed off my fair share of people by having strident opinions and making stupid jokes, so I wouldn’t be surprised if our books got shafted just because of my proximity to them. I’m also 100% sure that if we were based in any major city—one with a legit indie bookstore and some form of books coverage—we would be doing much better. For all of its good points, and despite all of the nationally respected writers and translators living in the area, Rochester kind of sucks at books.

Regardless, the whole thing reminds me of Double Dribble and how I’m a sore, petty loser. That said, I’m sure that by book 150, one of our titles will have sunk a half-court shot and won us a slot in the Final Four! (Sorry—that metaphor is jacked.)

On to the April books!

Desert Sorrows by Tayseer Al-Sboul, translated from the Arabic by Nesreen Akhtarkhavari (Michigan State University Press)

It’s really spectacular that Michigan State University Press has committed to doing more works of literature in translation, mostly from Africa and the Middle East. Readers deserve access to more works from these parts of the world, and it’s perfect that a university press is stepping up and helping bring these voices to English readers.

Of course, I say this both because this is the first work by a Jordanian poet to come out since 2009, and because I am a Michigan State alum.

On that note, I hope MSU kicks the shit out of Duke on Saturday night. Duke wins all the time—the world will in no way be improved by a Duke victory. But if MSU wins? That’s a huge number of people whose lives just got incrementally happier.

By contrast, when Duke wins, their fans just cackle maniacally, go back to counting their gold coins like Scrooge McDuck, and run ads about how Order Has Been Restored. They don’t need any more victories in life.

(Obviously kidding. People who know me know that I’m a Duke fan—as long they’re not playing MSU. I love ACC basketball and the Duke-UNC rivalry and all of it. That said, Go Spartans!)

Jacob the Mutant by Mario Bellatin, translated from the Spanish by Jacob Steinberg (Phoneme Books)

This is Mario Bellatin:

And if that doesn’t convince you to read his books, maybe the fact that he’s Valeria Luiselli’s mentor will. (He appears several times in her new book.) In fact, the two of them will be reading together at the ALTA conference in Tucson this October.

I have yet to read this Bellatin—a copy of it should be on its way to us—but I really like Flores and Beauty Salon. He’s a strange, brilliant writer. And it’s so good that Phoneme is making a number of his books available.

The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov, translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel (Open Letter)

This is one of our big 2015 books. Gospodinov’s Natural Novel is a cult book, beloved by many of my favorite booksellers and readers. And The Physics of Sorrow_—his follow-up novel—is bigger, more mature, and even more amazing. Whereas in _Natural Novel he structured everything around the idea of a fly’s eye, Physics uses the myth of the Minotaur and the labyrinth to convey a family’s history. It’s bold and fascinating, and a book that’s already receiving some decent Twitter love.

Apocalypse Baby by Virginie Despentes , translated from the French by Sian Reynolds (Feminist Press)

Tom and I are planning on talking about this book (“a raucous road trip in which two mismatched private investigators—the Hyena, a mysterious and ruthless vigilante, and Lucie, an apathetic and resentful slacker—cruise the streets of Paris and Barcelona in search of a missing girl”) on the Three Percent podcast. The plan is to talk about this on May 12th, so if you want to join in and read along, get a copy of this now, and send any and all questions and comments to threepercentpodcast@gmail.com.

Sphinx by Anne Garréta, translated from the French by Emma Ramadan (Deep Vellum); The Art of Flight by Sergio Pitol, translated from the Spanish by George Henson (Deep Vellum)

These two books perfectly represent the importance of Will Evans and Deep Vellum.

Although Anne Garréta has been writing for decades (Sphinx was originally published in France in 1986), and although everyone loves the Oulipo, this is the first book by the first female member of the Oulipo to be published in English translation. It’s a book in which . . . Actually, following the lead taken by Daniel Levin Becker in his introduction, I’m not going to point out the Oulipian constraint. It’s better for you to read the book and figure it out . . .

Sergio Pitol is another author who has been completely overlooked. He’s written a dozen or so works, including the “Trilogy of Memory,” of which, this is the first volume. He won the Cervantes Prize in 2005, and in the words of Álvaro Enrigue, Pitol is “not just our best living storyteller, he is also the strongest renovator of our literature.” Yet the only thing of his to appear in English is “By Night in Bukhara,” which is included in A Thousand Forests in One Acorn. It’s time that Pitol has his moment.

With this start—Boullosa, Garréta, Pitol, Gnarr, and Shishkin—Deep Vellum is both making a statement and filling in some gaps for those of us obsessed with world literature. It’s only a matter of time before Deep Vellum is as well regarded and beloved as the Archipelagos and Dalkeys of the world.

Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes and I Refuse, both by Per Petterson, both translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (Graywolf)

Speaking of presses that are held in extremely high regard, the transformation of Graywolf from plucky Minneapolis-based nonprofit into publishing power house has been incredible to watch. Just think for a second about how they had four finalists for various National Book Critics Circle Awards this year, including three in the Criticism category. That’s the same number that FSG had, and one more than W.W. Norton. And I think that part of it stems from the success of Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses.

That book—along with The Elegance of the Hedgehog_—was the first literary translation to hit the _NY Times best-seller list in ages. It was a huge boon for Graywolf and brought a lot of attention from people who may not otherwise have been paying attention. With that success they started getting “bigger” authors, more reviews, more critical attention, more sales (I suspect), and have become one of the most respected and admired presses in the country.

Just to drive this point home, I got all excited the other day when the Open Letter Twitter account hit 10,000 followers. Just for shits and giggles, I checked out some other presses to see where we stand in comparison. We’re basically the same as Dalkey Archive, but Coffee House (another Minneapolis press taking over the world) has 37,300 and Graywolf has 235,000. 235,000 followers! That’s incredible!

Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell (AmazonCrossing)

This may well be the best literary book that AmazonCrossing has published to date. Bae Suah is about to become the favorite writer of every member of the “literati.” She is like a female version of Sebald, but with more emotion, a sharper writing style, and a storehouse of incredible works that will be coming out over the next few years. And she’s going to blow people’s minds.

I reviewed this book for the forthcoming issue of list: Books from Korea, and will post about that when it goes live. In short, this 60-page novel (that is a packed with as much detail and character development as most 300-page books) blends the mundane and the strange in the most evocative manner, focusing on a young woman who works a boring administrative university job, has an awkward experience trying to visit her “boyfriend” in the army, receives a couple strange calls from a lecturer on criminal sociology, and gets involved in some S&M tinged sex games.

I can’t recommend Bae Suah highly enough, and by the time her fourth and fifth books come out, everyone’s going to be talking about her as one of the great women writers of our century. Get on the bandwagon now.

A26 by Pascal Garnier, translated from the French by Melanie Florence (Gallic Books)

At some point this summer, I’m going to go on a Ganier and Simenon bender. Thanks to Gallic and Penguin, there are a number of titles available from both authors—all of which are quick, dark, noirish reads that would be perfect for a day at the beach. (The beach is on my mind, since it’s actually 60+ degrees here today, making it the first Rochester day above freezing since last August. Approximately.)

To be honest, I’m sort of surprised that Garnier isn’t one of Tom Roberge’s authors. (I’m not sure he’s actually read Garnier yet.) This sort of book—featuring a ramshackle house that Yolanda hasn’t left since 1945, and where her brother, dying of a terminal illness, turns “murderous”—sounds right up his alley. Maybe this could be another Three Percent Podcast Book Club book? Goes in line with the Manchette from last month . . .

The Queen’s Caprice by Jean Echenoz, translated from the French by Linda Coverdale (New Press)

Echenoz is such an interesting writer for the way that he’s evolved over the course of his career. The early books—_Cherokee_, Chopin’s Move, Big Blondes, _Double Jeopary_—are fun works of French noir. Or “noir.” In these novels he toys with the genre in entertaining ways, creating a great blend of “mystery” and humor.

Then there’s the “Eccentric Genius Suite,” which includes Running, Ravel, and Lightning and is a set of fictional biographies of strange dudes, like Tesla and Ravel. It’s wonderful, and a few steps removed from the early stuff.

And now, after being published for decades, we’re finally treated to a collection of Echenoz’s short fictions, which are set all over the world, and explore a number of different literary styles and modes.

Coincidentally, my class talked with Mark Polizzotti the other week, and he mentioned a new Echenoz book that’s sort of a return to the humorous-noir of old. Can’t wait to read that one as well!

Life Embitters by Josep Pla, translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush (Archipelago)

I know that most people are excited about the four volume of Knausgaard’s My Struggle that Archipelago is bringing out this month, but the last thing the world needs now is another list of books suggesting you read his magnum opus. (Although, as best I can gather from this New Yorker article, Knausgaard or Ferrante? if you’re not knee-deep in Karl Ove’s issues, you’re engrossed in Ferrante’s Neapolitan literary soap opera.)

Pla is definitely worth checking out though. He’s one of Catalonia’s greatest authors, mostly known for The Gray Notebook, which NYRB brought out last year. This collection of stories is his first work of pure fiction to be available in English.

The Buddha’s Return by Gaito Gazdanov, translated from the Russian by Bryan Karetnyk (Pushkin Press)

What I know about Gazdanov, and why I’m including this book here, can be summarized in this anecdote: When I was in Estonia last summer, Sjón was there as well, along with Gesche Ipsen from Pushkin. Sjón had just read Gazdanov’s first book, The Spectre of Alexander Wolf and was raving about how strange and wonderful it was and how he wanted more Gazdanov books to come out. Well, here we go.

Fairy Tales by Robert Walser, translated from the German by Daniele Pantano and James Reidel (New Directions)

There’s no way to improve on ND’s jacket copy, so, this:

Fairy Tales gathers the unconventional verse dramolettes by the Swiss writer Robert Walser. Narrated in Walser’s inimitable, playful language, these theatrical pieces overturn traditional notions of the fairy tale, transforming the Brothers Grimm into metatheater, even metareflections.

Snow White forgives the evil queen for trying to kill her. Cinderella doubts her prince and enjoys being hated by her stepsisters; The Fairy Tale itself is a character who encourages her to stay within the confines of the story. Sleeping Beauty, the royal family, and its retainers are not happy about being woken up their sleep by an absurd, unpretentious Walser-like hero. Mary and Joseph are taken aback by what lies in store for their baby Jesus.

1 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over at GoodReads, we’re giving away 20 copies of Angel Igov’s A Short Tale of Shame, co-winner of the 2012 Contemporary Bulgarian Writers Contest.

After deciding to take a semester off their studies to think about future plans, long-time friends Maya, Sirma, and Spartacus decide to hitchhike to the sea. Boril Krustev, former rock star and middle-aged widower who is driving aimlessly to outrun his grief, picks them up and accompanies them on their journey. It doesn’t take them long to figure out they’re connected to each other by more than their need to travel—specifically through Boril’s daughter, whose actions damaged each of the characters in this novel.

Co-winner of the Contemporary Bulgarian Writers Contest, A Short Tale of Shame marks the arrival of a new talent in Bulgarian literature with a novel about the need to come to terms with the shame and guilt we all harbor.

Click below to enter the contest!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

A Short Tale of Shame by Angel Igov

A Short Tale of Shame

by Angel Igov

Giveaway ends March 15, 2013.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter to win

15 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Tom and I will record our “official” 2013 preview podcast tomorrow, so you can look forward to that, but as a way of upping the number of books we can talk about on the blog, I’d like to start a weekly “preview” column. Something that may not always be that serious, yet will at least give some space to recently released or forthcoming titles. I’m sure that this will evolve over the next X number of weeks, so please cut me some slack on these first few . . .

Sandalwood Death by Mo Yan. Translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt. University of Oklahoma/Chinese Literature Today. $24.95

Jonathan Stalling of Chinese Literature Today — which really probably definitely shouldn’t be abbreviated as “CLT” . . and yes, I am 12 — spent a good 10-15 minutes of MLA explaining to me why this book was so awesome. I forget all the plot details, but I do remember the bit about an executioner taking someone apart over a series of pages . . . So, to go along with the almost nauseating amounts of meat mastication in Pow!, readers coming to Mo Yan post-Nobel Prize also have the option to read about the “gruesome ‘sandalwood punishment,’ whose purpose, as in crucifixions, is to keep the condemned individual alive in mind-numbing pain as long as possible.”

I have to say, the more I read about Mo Yan’s books, the more I dig him . . . And I’m really looking forward to reading this before teaching Pow! in my Translation & World Literature class this spring.

Generally, I’m not a huge fan of book trailers, but I have to admit, the one that CLT did for this is really pretty elegant and cool in an anime sort of way.

I have more to post about Chinese Literature Today, but I’ll save that for later. For anyone interested in checking this out, here’s a link to a sample of the novel.

The Eleven by Pierre Michon. Translated from the French by Jody Gladding and Elizabeth Deshays. Archipelago Books. $18.

The only thing I know about Pierre Michon is that one of his earlier novels, Small Lives, which is also published by Archipelago, is loved by basically everyone.

For a while I was creating a playlist on Spotify of songs with numbers in them. Things like “Water” by Poster Children, or “Slow Show” by The National, or “Airplane Rider” by Air Miami (a personal favorite), or “Universal Speech” by The Go! Team, or whatever. I’m not sure why, but there’s something about people yelling out numbers (or referencing a particular age, as in The National song) that does it for me. It’s one of my “secret cues” that cause me to almost always love a song. (That and hand clapping. And sing-along choruses.)

I don’t think that same thing works for me with book titles. But Fifty Shades of Gray? Maybe this is some sort of subconscious tic . . . (Like A Thousand Morons! Or A Thousand Peaceful Cities.)

18% Gray by Zachary Karabashliev. Translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel. Open Letter Books. $15.95

A few months back, Zack called Nate and I to talk a bit about plans for his book and marketing and all that. In the course of the conversation, he told us about his elderly friend who was anxious to get a copy of his book.

“She called me the other day and said she’s seen it on the table at the bookstore and was really excited for me. I told her that it couldn’t possibly be my book. That my book hadn’t been printed. But she was convinced. ‘No, no, it was your book, Zack. And it’s pretty dirty!’ Only then I realized she was talking about Fifty Shades . . . “

All books containing a number and the color “gray” are the same! If only we could somehow use this to our advantage . . . Should’ve included that choker necktie on the cover.

That said, Zack’s book does have a spot of banging in it. It’s more of a nostalgic, romantic book than an erotic one, but there is something sexy about a good number of the scenes. Especially the conversations between the protagonist and his now-missing wife that take place while he’s photographing her . . .

So yes, if your sister/mother/grandmother/aunt is done with that other series, recommend 18% Gray to them. Besides, Zack is WAY hotter than E.L. James. (Although he might not be quite as loaded.)

5 December 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As promised last week, here’s a bit more information on 18% Gray, one of this year’s Bulgarian Contemporary Novel contest’s co-winners.

18% Gray is a sort of non-linear road novel. In the present, Zack is traveling to the East Coast trying to sell off the huge bag of marijuana that has come into his possession. Parallel to this storyline is a set of flashbacks detailing his obsessive romance with the now disappeared Stella. The plot shifts from present-day California to Eastern Europe in the nineties; it runs through anti-communist student rallies, and continues with the young couple’s exodus to America.

This paragraph from the synopsis also grabbed me:

Driving to New York, equipped with an old Nikon and bunch of expired black and white film rolls, Zack starts photographing an America we rarely see. Faces, roads, buildings, nature—everything caught on his film is raw and genuine. Zack captures America as if noticing it for the first time; as if he has never learned how to take pictures. Zack photographs America the way America no longer is—real.

Here’s an excerpt of the excerpt. The full book will be available to reviewers and booksellers by next summer, and will officially drop in November 2012:

She’s been gone nine mornings.

The blinds in the bedroom are shut tight, but the day still finds a way to get in, and with a roar – the garbage truck. That means it’s Wednesday. That means it’s eight-fifteen. Is there a noisier noise than the noise of a garbage truck at eight-fifteen?

I crawl out of bed, stagger to the living room, and flop down on the couch. The cool leather doesn’t help me fall back to sleep, and the garbage truck rumbles closer. I get up, push aside one of the blinds, a bright ray burns my face. I focus my powers and attempt to dismember the roaring green monster with a gaze. The effort only succeeds in waking me up completely.


7 June 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

It would be hard to overstate all the amazing things the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation for Creative Writing (and Elizabeth herself) has done for contemporary Bulgarian writers. Sure, there’s the Sozopol Fiction Seminars, but they also organized a special day of panels on Literary Diplomacy to take place in Sofia, helped bring publishers and Bulgarian writers & translators together, sponsor the Dyankov Translation Award for the most outstanding translation from English into Bulgarian, and now have helped launch the Contemporary Bulgarian Writers website to help promote Bulgarian writers abroad.

For publishers, these sorts of sites are invaluable. Aside from random meetings at the Frankfurt Book Fair, or personal connections developed slowly and one-by-one over the years, it can be extremely hard for editors to find out about contemporary literature from countries such as Bulgaria. (And by “countries such as Bulgaria” I mean ones that don’t have an active governmental organization like the Finnish Literature Exchange, German Book Office, French Cultural Services, Japanese Literature Publishing Project, etc., promoting their contemporary writers to the rest of the world.) Beyond identifying new writers to check out, a site like this helps provide a bit of context for any submissions that an editor does happen to receive. I mean, there are only a handful of Bulgarian novels that have ever been published in English, so it’s hard to understand the tradition and evolution of Bulgarian literature.

Seriously—anyone interested in Bulgarian (or simply international) literature should check this out. I’m sure that it’ll expand greatly over the next year, but the site already features maybe two dozen writers (and a handful of Bulgarian-to-English translators), and has biographical info, excerpts, critical reviews, contact information for all of them.

One author worth looking at is Zachary Karabashliev, whose first novel won the Book of the Year Award from the Vick Foundation and was chosen as one of the 100 Most Loved Books of All Time by Bulgarians, and his first collection of short stories won the Book of the Year Award from Helikon. He’s a very funny guy, and his stories are quite sharp.

In terms of translators, Angela Rodel deserves some special attention. She translated all of the pieces by the Bulgarian writers at the Sozopol Seminars AND she just was awarded a PEN Translation Fund Award for Georgi Tenev’s Holy Light, which sounds pretty interesting:

Alloying political sci-fi with striking eroticism, the stories in Holy Light depict a world of endless, wearying revolution and apocalypse, where bodies have succumbed to a sinister bio-politics of relentless cruelty and perversion. “In first class they offered easy emancipation, perhaps even electrocution, but he was traveling economy class where they wouldn’t even serve him food.” (No publisher)

(I was actually on a panel with both Georgi and Angela—both very smart, very interesting people.)

By the way, if I haven’t said this in a while, all fiction writers should apply to the Sozopol Fiction Seminars . . .

The Odyssey
The Odyssey by Homer
Reviewed by Peter Constantine

Now goddess, child of Zeus,
tell the old story for our modern times.

–(The Odyssey, Book I, line 10. Emily Wilson)

In literary translation of works from other eras, there are always two basic tasks that a translator needs. . .

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I Remember Nightfall
I Remember Nightfall by Marosa di Giorgio
Reviewed by Talia Franks

I Remember Nightfall by Marosa di Giorgio (trans. From the Spanish by Jeannine Marie Pitas) is a bilingual poetry volume in four parts, consisting of the poems “The History of Violets,” “Magnolia,” “The War of the Orchards,” and “The Native. . .

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Joyce y las gallinas
Joyce y las gallinas by Anna Ballbona
Reviewed by Brendan Riley

This review was originally published as a report on the book at New Spanish Books, and has been reprinted here with permission of the reviewer. The book was originally published in the Catalan by Anagrama as Joyce i les. . .

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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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