5 April 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Between the announcement of the Best Translated Book Award longlists and the unveiling of the finalists, we will be covering all thirty-five titles in the Why This Book Should Win series. Enjoy learning about all the various titles selected by the fourteen fiction and poetry judges, and I hope you find a few to purchase and read!

The entry below is by George Henson, a translator of contemporary Latin American and Spanish prose, contributing editor for World Literature Today and Latin American Literature Today, and a lecturer at the University of Oklahoma.



Among Strange Victims by Daniel Saldaña París, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Mexico, Coffee House Press)

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Making the Shortlist: 72%

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Winning the BTBA: 16%

Nature, it is said, abhors a vacuum, as does publishing. The death of Roberto Bolaño, Latin America’s enfant terrible left such a vacuum.

Every agent, publisher, reviewer, bookseller, and even reader, has been searching far and wide, high and low, in every nook and cranny of Latin America for the next Bolaño, a new literary wunderkind that will fill the void created by Bolaño’s untimely death. In fact, the search for the next Bolaño has been a boon, providing American publishers, literary translators, booksellers, and readers a new crop of fresh, talented Latin American writers: Valeria Luiselli, Yuri Herrera, Alejandro Zambra, Samanta Schweblin, and Daniel Saldaña París, to name but a few.

Among the names that emerged as possible heirs to the Bolaño phenomenon is that of Andrés Neuman, whom Bolaño himself seemed to have anointed when he wrote that “the literature of the twenty-first century will belong to Neuman and a few of his blood brothers.” Then came the Hay Festival’s Bogotá 39 and Granta’s The Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists, a list—in book format—whittled down from 39 to 22.

It is worth noting that none of the names that appear on these lists appears on this year’s BTBA long list. To be fair, some were nominated, while others made the long list in years past. But, still, their absence from this year’s long list is telling. To borrow a Spanish idiom, “Brillan por su ausencia” [They shine by their absence]; in English, “They’re conspicuous by their absence.”

If such a list existed today, there is little doubt that the author of En medio de extrañas víctimas would make the cut. Just as there is no doubt that Coffee House Press, publisher of Among Strange Victims, the English translation, has attempted to anoint Saldaña as Bolaño’s heir apparent. Witness the novel’s logline: “Slackers meets Savage Detectives in this polyphonic ode to the pleasures of not measuring up.”

The novel’s title is taken from the epigraph—“On park benches, among strange victims, the poet and amputees come sit together,”—written by Arthur Cravan, the Swiss poet, pugilist and avant-gardist whose bohemian life—and a series of forged passports—took him from Switzerland to France to Spain to the United States and eventually to Mexico, where he died under strange circumstances in Mexico.

The novel revolves around Rodrigo, a young functionary, a “knowledge administrator,” a title he has invented for himself, who works in a museum, a slacker to borrow from Coffee House’s tagline, who’s content to go through life without making any decisions. Or what there is of his life.

My life is a repetition of one Saturday after another. What’s in between deserves another name. Sundays don’t count: they consist—I’m exaggerating here—of twenty-four wasted hours of which I will remember nothing the following day, and that following day, Monday, marks the beginning of the reign of inertia, whose only function is to carry me along smoothly, as if floating on a cloud of certainties, to the next Saturday. What’s more, on Saturday’s I masturbate twice.

To move the plot, Saldaña employs a common novelistic trope, mistaken identity, in which Cecilia, the museum director’s secretary, slips our young slacker a note saying, “I accept.” Thereafter, we learn that someone posing as our young protagonist proposed to Cecilia. To build a twenty-first-century novel around such a clichéd trope could have easily derailed, careening into pratfalls and platitudes. Saldaña, however, is too good a writer. That is not to say that there is not a thread of humor in this novel. Writing in Factor crítico, Goio Borge describes the humor this way:

[Saldaña’s] tools are a brilliant syntax, the ability to achieve recurring images of great force, a set of relationships among plot elements that go beyond a merely forced structured, and humor, a corrosive humor that never gives way to belly laughs, but continues to show itself in every phrase in the book, charged with a sardonic irony that offers readers no respite[.]

In 2015, I had the pleasure of translating an essay written by Daniel for Literary Hub, titled “Sergio Pitol: Mexico’s Total Writer,” to coincide with the publication of my translation of Pitol’s The Art of Flight. I say pleasure because Saldaña’s admiration for Pitol is equal to my own and because his prose was truly a joy to translate. Clean. Measured. Unsuperfluous. But also, because there is something uncannily Pitolean about this novel. And that is a very good thing.

Saldaña’s translator, Christina MacSweeney, is no stranger to BTBA readers. Her translations of Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd and The Story of My Teeth were finalists in 2015 and 2016, respectively. In an interview with Words Without Borders, MacSweeney was asked about being a British translator (MacSweeney received an MA in translation from the University of East Anglia) who translates Latin American Spanish into American English. Her answer:

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

At first read, MacSweeney’s rendering for pinche seems off. Admittedly, the thought that pinche might have been rendered as “bloody” was even more jarring. As a frequent translator of Mexican writers, I’m often called on to translate pinche. After further consideration, I decided I liked MacSweeney’s choice. There’s something refreshing about it. As all translators know, expletives and swear words present all kinds of challenges, having to do with many factors, dialect, geography, generation, context, tone, register, etc., not to mention pinche is multivalent. It can be used to express something that is negligible, defective, of poor quality, having little or no value, austere, and even unusually big. It can be used to express contempt, scorn, mockery, and even pity.

In the end, I like translators who teach me something about translation, who give me new solutions to old problems. MacSweeney is one of those translators. Her translation of Among Strange Victims is clean, measured, unsuperfluous, just as is Saldaña’s prose. Consider the following fragment:

The small office he had been designed was, indeed, full of pigeons. The birds lived in four cages piled one on top of the other, blocking the only external window. Velásquez explained that the office had belonged to an agronomist who, one fine day, had declared himself to be ill and never returned. His student had received the news with complete indifference, and no one had made any effort to discover his whereabouts. After a few months he had been dismissed, and the caretaker confessed that the agronomist had left him in charge of a number of pigeons.

MacSweeney’s translation achieves everything a translation should. And there’s something remarkable in that. Prize-worthy, in fact.

13 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Amanda Bullock, BTBA judge and director of public programs at Literary Arts, Portland. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Mexico, Coffee House Press)

Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth, translated by Christina MacSweeney, is the most inventive and invigorating book I have read this year and it the most deserving of the Best Translated Book Award. The Story of My Teeth is about stories and storytelling, about art and how we value objects, about influence, and about teeth. It manages to be intelligent and experimental without an ounce of pretension (something I could not say for some of the other books on the longlist). In her afterword, Luiselli describes the book as a “collective ‘novel-essay’ about the production of value and meaning in contemporary art and literature.”

Our narrator is the self-proclaimed “best auctioneer in the world,” Gustav Sánchez Sánchez, known as “Highway.” Highway is “a lover and collector of good stories, which is the only honest way of modifying the value of an object.” One of the most delightful sections is “The Hyperbolics,” in which Highway auctions off his own teeth, which he had removed in order to make room for Marilyn Monroe’s (well, allegedly Marilyn Monroe’s), spinning yarns about his teeth’s origins in the jaws of Plutarch, Virginia Woolf, G. K. Chesterton, and more of his philosophical heroes. He is demonstrating, he explains, that objects themselves have no value, but that we give them value and meaning through stories.

The book is about storytelling, yes, and another way to describe “storytelling” could be “making things up,” or “lying.” Highway is an unreliable narrator, sure, and in fact we meet a second narrator, Jacobo Voraigne, a little more than midway through the story, but Highway’s unshakeable confidence in himself and his style are irresistible. As we learn later from Voraigne, Highway is a self-made and self-mythologized man, a man who has written his own story.

The book is just the right amount of odd, making it playful where a lesser writer would be in danger of falling into pretentiousness or tweeness. Highway learns auctioneering from a Japanese man, “Master Oklahoma,” in Mexico City and furthers his studies in Missouri. He builds a huge house and a warehouse for all of his objects bought at auction on Calle Disneylandia. He buys Marilyn Monroe’s teeth and has them put into his own mouth. There is a truly disturbing scene that will haunt me forever involving clowns. Luiselli provides lanterns to the larger project at play. There is a lot of name-checking: Highway mentioned uncles including Juan Sánchez Baudrillard, Miguel Sánchez Foucault, Marcelo Sánchez Proust, Roberto Sánchez Walser, and Fredo Sánchez Dostoyevsky. Most of the seemingly strangest parts of the book are the parts that are real places (the Missouri Auction School, Calle Disneylandia, an art gallery attached to and funded by a juice factory) or people (El Perro) or events (the clowns are a real art installation, at the Jumex Gallery). Luiselli’s is an intelligent humor, but is actually smart and actually funny.

Although I would argue that the novel alone, outside of the origin story, is worthy of the prize, in fact, the collaboration throughout this book is, if anything, the clincher. The award is not the “Best Novel Originally Written in a Foreign Language,” or even “Best Novel.” It is specifically “Best Translated Book Award,” and both the author and the translator are recognized. I think that the final of the book’s seven sections, “The Chronologic,” (and the Afterword, in fact) is one of the strongest arguments for why it should win this award and not, as some would posit, a strike against the novel. The Chronologic was written by the translator, Christina MacSweeney, and is a narrative timeline of Highway’s (fictional) life alongside events directly relating to the people and places in the novel: the death of Foucault, the beginning of work on Mexico’s first Volkswagen plant, the birth of Doug Aitken. It’s an amazing footnote to this strange story and highlights the close work between Luiselli and MacSweeney. In the Afterword, Luiselli says that she prefers to think of the translations of her books as “versions,” as she is so involved in their journey into English and often much changes in the the process. This book in particular, written as a commission by the Jumex gallery and then in direct collaboration with the workers at the factory that funds the gallery, is so highly and intentionally participatory and open that it strikes at the very heart of translation.

The Story of My Teeth is a book about truth and fiction, a question I think is central to reading translated work. How does the reader know this is “true”? Can a translation ever be “true”? How do we know what was meant by the author? Who is telling the story? The novel is in many ways directly tied to the dilemma of translation itself, making it the perfect winner of the Best Translated Book Award.

End of argument.

22 December 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

It’s year-end donation time! As I’m sure you know, there are dozens of worthy publishing (or literary) enterprises out there deserving of your support. Over the next few days, I’ll try and highlight a few of them (including Open Letter), but wanted to start with Coffee House Press, since they have a really special year-end campaign going on.

To celebrate Chris Fischbach’s 20th year at CHP (20 years!), the board of directors is making a special $20,000 match for year-end donations. This is a significant gift, and one that Coffee House definitely deserves. So donate here and help them reach their goal!

I’m sure everyone reading this is aware of Coffee House (or at least Valeria Luiselli), but here’s a bit of a run down from their donation page:

Coffee House Press began as a small letterpress operation in 1972 and has grown into an internationally renowned nonprofit publisher of literary fiction, essay, poetry, and other work that doesn’t fit neatly into genre categories.

Through our Books in Action program and publications, we’ve become interdisciplinary collaborators and incubators for new work and audience experiences. Our vision for the future is one in which a publisher is a catalyst and connector.

Adventurous readers, arts enthusiasts, community builders, and risk takers—join us by making a tax-deductible donation today!

I love all the people at CHP and hope that all of you will go over and support them as well!

And while you’re there, check out their 2016 catalog. New Rikki Ducornet, new Cynan Jones, Daniel Saldaña Paris’s first novel to appear in English, a book on pretentiousness . . . Lot of great books to look forward to!

3 September 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Yesterday I posted a little summary on two great translators, so it’s only appropriate that today I post about three great pieces that have come out about three of my favorite presses over the past few days.

First up was this Vulture piece by Three Percent favorite Boris Kachka (BORIS!!) on Graywolf Press. There’s a lot of great things in this article about how the press has exploded over the past decade, going from a modest-sized nonprofit to one of the most notable and beloved presses in the country.

Graywolf has been winning for a while. Over the past few years, as publishing conglomerates merged, restructured, and grappled with Amazon, a midwestern press snuck in and found a genuinely new way forward for nonfiction. Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams entered the Times best-seller list at No. 11, while Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, a half-versified meditation on racism, stormed post-Ferguson America. Each has sold more than 60,000 copies, putting them in Graywolf’s all-time top five. Citizen just went back to press for a tenth time, putting it close to having 100,000 copies in print. That hardly puts Graywolf in league with Penguin Random House, but neither is it just a scrappy little press punching above its weight. It’s a scrappy little press that harnessed and to some extent generated a revolution in nonfiction, turning the previously unprepossessing genre of the “lyric essay” into a major cultural force. [. . .]

In 1999, McCrae won a $1 million grant by promising to take Graywolf to “yet another level.” A couple of years later, they raised another $1 million with a detailed capital plan: a grant for work in translation; a fund to increase author advances; a budget for travel to global book fairs; a New York city outpost; a “national council” of fund-raisers; and the Literary Nonfiction Prize that would launch Biss and Jamison. Just as important, Graywolf switched its distribution to prestigious Farrar, Straus and Giroux. “That signaled something,” says Jeff Shotts, Graywolf’s executive editor. “It put our books in the same conversation with Seamus Heaney.”

Graywolf reached its fund-raising goals, and just as McCrae was beginning to get impatient — “I remember thinking, Where’s the big hit?” — Graywolf’s initiatives came together to help create one: Per Petterson’s 2007 best-seller Out Stealing Horses. Acquired and promoted via Graywolf’s new global connections, listed beside giants in FSG’s catalogues, and hand-delivered on a visit to the New York Times, the Norwegian novel won the IMPAC Dublin award, scored a Times Book Review cover, and sold 70,000 copies in hardcover. Petterson has spurned corporate advances to remain with Graywolf ever since.

A million dollar grant! That’s one way to move up a level. (If any wealthy patrons are reading this, that’s exactly the sort of money Open Letter could use . . .)

*

Just down the road from Graywolf is Coffee House Press, another favorite of mine (EVERYONE SHOULD READ VALERIA LUISELLI), who was featured on Minnesota Public Radio yesterday:

“What we really do is connect readers and writers, and there’s a number of different ways we can do that. Publishing is a tool that we can use, but so are different kinds of programming,” said Chris Fishbach.

Coffee House, of course, still prints books. The small, independent press usually releases 18 titles in a year, including fiction, poetry and essays. But it has also started “putting writers in other contexts.”

Most people think of writers working alone at their desks, or speaking into a microphone at a reading, but Coffee House has created a residence program to put writers in new places, like libraries or even on a canoe.

Also, while we’re talking about fundraising, Coffee House is hosting a Housequake event on September 21st at the Fulton Tap Room in Minneapolis. And even if you can’t make it, you can buy an Unticket, which, for only $22.09 (weird fee rate) will get you “an exclusive chapbook of poems that you’ll be the first reader for—they’re all previously unpublished.” AND your money will go to support some of the best people in the nonprofit publishing world.

*

We haven’t done anything with #FerranteFever yet—although I have been talking about her rise to superstardom in my publishing class—but we probably will at some point. (I’m really behind on these books, having only read volume one.) In the meantime, you have to check out this article from the New York Times Style Magazine about Europa’s Objects of Desire:

Even if you haven’t heard of Europa Editions, you’ve probably heard of some of its hits. There’s Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog (more than a million copies sold); Jane Gardam’s Old Filth (now in its 20th printing); and Alexander Maksik’s You Deserve Nothing (so far, the biggest title by an American). Like any good branded product, the books have an instantly recognizable visual stamp: stiff paper covers edged with white borders that frame color-drenched matte backgrounds. According to Europa’s Australian-born editor in chief, Michael Reynolds, “When you see them all together, they draw you in like a bowl of candy.” [. . .]

But what really distinguishes Europa from other publishers of successful titles is that readers — and book buyers — see the house and its authors as equally relevant. Early in 2006, when Europa Editions had been in existence for less than a year, Toby Cox, the owner of Three Lives & Company bookstore in Manhattan’s West Village, noticed that customers were already coming in and asking “What’s new from Europa?” The press had succeeded in transforming spinach into chocolate — that is, in changing the idea of foreign fiction from “ ‘This is a translation’ to ‘This is a good story, well told,’ ” Cox says.

Of course, many eminent houses have published fine paperback fiction with éclat before Europa — notably, Penguin and Vintage — and Reynolds praises the “iconic imprints” New Directions, City Lights and Archipelago, which also specialize in writers from abroad. “I’m proud of the fact that we do work that is literary,” he says. “But I am even prouder of the fact we are doing works that are entertaining and pleasing.”

All three of these presses deserve praise like this on a regular basis. (Along with some others, such as New Directions, Archipelago, Deep Vellum, etc.) Congrats to all three! Now go out and read some of their books!

26 May 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

So, this year, for the first time ever, BookExpo America is sponsoring two panels highlighting forthcoming works of fiction: one featuring general fiction, the other focusing on crime and thrillers. (Naturally, I’m moderating the first one and Tom Roberge is doing the other.)

The one on general adult fiction will take place first on Thursday, May 28th, at 10:30am on the Eastside Stage. The Crime one will be on Friday, May 29th, at 10:30am on the Eastside Stage.

Any of you who happen to be attending BEA should definitely come check this out. As a pilot program, it’s very important that we have a decent number of people show up for the events, so that we can hopefully grow this more and more in the future.

To whet your interest, here’s a bit of a preview of the General Fiction panel (I’ll do crime separately), complete with booth numbers so that you can go snag galleys of the books that look most interesting to you:

BEA Selects Adult Fiction in Translation
Thursday, May 27th, 10:30am
Eastside Stage

Coach House Books (Booth 648) will present Guano by Louis Carmain, translated from the French by Rhonda Mullins.

Since this won’t be available for a while, I can’t find any information about this on Coach House’s site, but I was able to scrape this off of Google Translate:

This is a story of war and love. Now, as these two are often born of entertainment no – tense border, made smiles – to surprise us in the end to be all – dead, tears, surprises – there was virtually no grand departure thing.

Which . . . is intriguing . . . (Seriously though, Coach House does great work and I’m really glad they’ll be featured on this panel.)

Coffee House Press (Booth 642) will present Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney:

Highway is a late-in-life world traveller, yarn spinner, collector, and legendary auctioneer. His most precious possessions are the teeth of the ‘notorious infamous’ like Plato, Petrarch, and Virginia Woolf. Written in collaboration with the workers at a Jumex juice factory, Teeth is an elegant, witty, exhilarating romp through the industrial suburbs of Mexico City and Luiselli’s own literary influences.

(I actually just finished reading this and it’s wonderful.)

Graywolf Press (Booth 3064) will present A Woman Loved by Andreï Makine, translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan:

Catherine the Great’s life seems to have been made for the cinema—her rise to power, her reportedly countless love affairs and wild sexual escapades, the episodes of betrayal, revenge, and even murder—there’s no shortage of historical drama. But Oleg Erdmann, a young Russian filmmaker, seeks to discover and portray Catherine’s essential, emotional truth, her real life, beyond the rumors and facades. His first screenplay just barely makes it past the Soviet film board, and is assigned to a talented director, but the resulting film fails to avoid the usual clichés. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, as he struggles to find a place for himself in the new order, Oleg agrees to work with an old friend on a TV series that becomes a quick success—as well as increasingly lurid, a far cry from his original vision. He continues to seek the real Catherine elsewhere . . .

Makine is extremely well-known throughout the world (you may be familiar with Dreams of My Russian Summers, which enjoyed a great deal of success) and it’s great that he’s found a home at Graywolf for his new books.

Come out on Thursday morning to see Erin Kottke, Alana Wilcox, and Caroline Casey talk about all of these!

24 April 15 | Monica Carter | Comments

Tom Roberge is the Deputy Director of Albertine Books and Bookstore Liaison for New Directions.



Faces in the Crowd – Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney, Mexico
Coffee House Press

Early in Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd, she offers an explanation — of sorts — for the format of her book, a format that exists if not in service of her style, than alongside it, a fellow-traveler on the book’s quest.

Novels need a sustained breath. That’s what novelists want. No one knows exactly what it means but they all say: a sustained breath. I have a baby and a boy. They don’t let me breathe. Everything I write is—has to be—in short bursts. I’m short of breath.

This is a stand-alone paragraph, in its entirety, set apart from its predecessor and successor by several line breaks. And so the book unfolds in a series of observations and stories contained in paragraphs that more often that not relate to each other, but not always, much like the way the human mind functions. Its both trite and lazy to assert that this fracturing of ideas is a grotesque symptom of contemporary society, that we’re all beset by so many forms of media, by so many voices and concerns and assaults on our attention that we’re incapable of focusing on any one thought for more than a few minutes. And it’s especially trite and lazy because it presumes that people in different times and places were passive lumps of clay for whom the notion of multi-tasking, even intellectually if not physically, was an outright impossibility. It also smacks of nostalgia. All of which I say in order to say what I what to say about this book: it is all things. The structure and style, the jumping back and forth between past and present, accomplishes something mesmerizing: it paints a truly believable and empathetic and insightful portrait of life. It grabs hold of and dissects and analyzes life in all of its multifaceted glory and misery and whatever falls in between. But do not allow yourself to believe that this is a novel merely about contemporary life. No. It’s a novel about life. Full stop.

As fractured as I’m perhaps suggesting this book is, I want to make it clear the book as a whole doesn’t feel the slightest bit fractured. The paragraphs, as the book progresses, talk to each other. Stories from the narrator’s youth in New York unfold in between observations and stories of her current situation, mostly the detailed descriptions of her domestic life and how it informs not only her writing, but her ever-evolving outlook on the world at large. At one point she tells the story of Ezra Pound stripping down a poem from pages and pages of lines to what would eventually become “In a Station of the Metro.” It’s touching and literarily charming (I am a total sucker for anything related to Pound) and offers what might qualify as a manifesto in the context of this book: the idea that adornment or imparted symbolism or anything along those lines should be excised without mercy, so as to get to the heart of the thing. She follows through on her manifesto by not overpopulating the book, by keeping the narrative trajectories fairly straightforward. The result is that the important characters, the important places, have space to assert themselves, to become well-rounded and memorable. This idea also allows for stories to be revisited and re-positioned as new memories are injected into the narrative, creating, in the end, a story that has itself morphed over the course of the book, a story that comments on itself, saying, it seems: this is life; no more, no less.

* * *

The following is taken from another brilliant book, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, in which she, too recognizes the inherent beauty in the quotidian. And I’m including it here in support of my argument on behalf of this book because, well, because why not.

The pleasure of abiding. The pleasure of insistence, of persistence. The pleasure of obligation, the pleasure of dependency. The pleasures of ordinary devotion. The pleasure of recognizing that one may have to undergo the same realizations, write the same notes in the margins, return to the same themes in one’s work, relearn the same emotional truths, write the same book over and over again—not because one is stupid or obstinate or incapable of change, but because such revisitations constitute a life.

In the first sentence of this post, I mentioned the book’s quest. Here’s the thing: although there is a quest, there is no quest to or for any specific thing. No objective, no overarching morality, no ambition beyond the one that’s sitting front and center: a masterful demonstration that life and art are—or at least can be, and should be more often than they are allowed to be—quests without destinations, without endgames.

It’s no easy feat to do this with such captivating ease, and that’s why I believe this book should win.

19 February 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s podcast features a true roundtable discussion, with Tom and Chad being joined by Caroline Casey from Coffee House Press, Mark Haber and Jeremy Ellis from Brazos Bookstore, Stephen Sparks from Green Apple Books, and Danish author Naja Marie Aidt to discuss the American Booksellers Association “Winter Institute.” One of the funniest podcasts to date, they break down what Winter Institute is, why it’s so important for the future of bookselling, and what various publishers get out of attending. They also make fun of all the crappy crutch phrases you find in jacket copy.

Read More...

22 January 15 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

At 30, the Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli is already gathering her rosebuds. Faces in the Crowd, her poised debut novel, was published by Coffee House Press, along with her Brodsky-infused essay collection, Sidewalks. The essays stand as a theoretical map for this conceptually complex work of fiction, which comes in a petite, 144-page package. Ms. Luiselli was born in Mexico City, though her father’s diplomatic post brought them to countries like South Korea, South Africa, or India. She now lives in New York City.

Both books spend a great deal of time in subways and cemeteries asking philosophical questions, like what happens to language if you are disappearing? Why write to sustain life like Scheherazade in 1001 Nights? Why not write from death to life? Keeping in mind the Mexican rites on the Day of the Dead, when altars are built to the departed, it’s oddly appropriate that Ms. Luiselli should find in the New York subway a perfect setting for a classical “nekyia” rite, a descent into the underworld to ask ghosts about the future.

The title is taken from Ezra Pound’s fourteen-word Imagist poem titled “In a Station of the Metro”: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd / Petals on a wet, black bough.” The unnamed female character (hilariously catty, telling fibs and swiping things from friends) unreliably narrates Pound’s shock after seeing his friend, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, in a train station in Haarlem, a month after he died in a trench at Neuville St. Vaast. “The doors of the train car opened and he saw the face of his friend appear among the people.” Pound pruned the poem down to an essential image that was “as brief as his dead friend’s appearance, exactly as startling.” This image and this style inaugurate Ms. Luiselli’s novel, which breathes life into the famous Mexican poet and diplomat, Gilberto Owen, who died in Philadelphia half blind and in a delirium tremens, in 1952.

Faces in the Crowd is told in two voices, three cities, and four temporal planes. The narrator’s present, living in Mexico City with her husband and two children, simply named “the boy” and “baby,” sets the framework narrative. She is in the process of writing a novel about when she was a young Bohemian and assistant editor in New York, obsessed with the poetry of Gilberto Owen. Feeling displaced and alienated, she had found solace in his book of poems, Obras. Owen experienced the heyday of the Haarlem Renaissance, when Duke Ellington was swinging and García Lorca writing his famous “Poet in New York,” before the market crashed in 1929.

Fast forward again to the present in Mexico City, where our writer is struggling with motherhood, trying to take up the project she had left unfinished so long ago. Like Emily Dickinson, she is unable to leave her home. When she goes into baby’s room, she knows she’ll “catch my smell and shiver in her cot, because some secret place in her body is teaching her to demand part of what belongs to us both, the threads that sustain and separate us.” The children’s diapers and toys fill her writing space, they don’t let her breathe. A novel requires sustained breath but she is short of it, so everything she writes “is—has to be—in short bursts.” She will write “a silent novel, so as not to wake the children.”

Back when she still lived in New York, she had tried to convince the editor she worked for, Mr. White, to publish translations of Owen’s poems and drop his monomaniacal quest to find the next Bolaño. So she forged an original document with her artist friend Moby, and tried to pass her own translations off as if they were those of the Objectivist poet, Louis Zukovsky. Just before the books are sent off to print, she confesses to the hoax, losing her job and ruining the editor’s reputation in one fell swoop.

So she took to snooping around the building where Gilberto Owen had lived, and at one point sees someone she could have sworn looks just like him. She found a dead orange tree in a pot on the rooftop, which she stole and brought home. She wrote notes about him on post-its and stuck them to the dead branches, creating a tree of life. When the branches were teeming with her notes, she would “gather them up as they fell and write the story of Owen’s life in that same order.”

In Mexico, the notes are now stuck to her wall. Her son reads them. Her husband asks how many people she had sex with back then. They are the notes of a breathless mother with shadows under her eyes, and they begin to tell her own story, her writing diary, every day scenes, circumscribed by the moment, but yet holding a lingering element, a phonetic or symbolic thread that moves the story forward. “It all began in another city and another life,” she writes. “I would have liked to start the way Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast ends.” She remembers her pregnancies, when she was so large she used to drag herself “like a sea lion along the wood floor.” She will write “a dense, porous novel like a baby’s heart.”

She remembers reading in a Bellow book that the difference between being alive and dead is a matter of perspective; “the living look from the center outwards, the dead from the periphery to some sort of center.” So she now channels Owen’s voice, who narrates his own novel in the first person: “This is how it starts: it all happened in another city and another life. It was the summer of 1928.” And continues, “I would have liked to start the way Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up begins.” Instead of reality imposing itself on fiction, fiction begins to take on its own life, to breathe beneath the surface. “A horizontal novel, told vertically. A novel that has to be told from the outside in order to be read from within,” she writes. She’s sure she’s seen his face this time.

The Vorticist center of the novel comes when the parallel stories converge in time and space, two trains running on parallel tracks synchronize for a moment before breaking again to follow their own trajectories. She sees his face, he sees hers, and their phantasmagorical reflections in the windows superimpose. From that point on, they become like voices on the page, weightless, echoes over time, locked in a shadowy Möbius strip. “The ghost, it was obvious, was me,” she writes. “A vertical novel told horizontally. A story that has to be seen from below, like Manhattan from the subway.”

In a wink to Max Beerbohm’s “Enoch Soames,” in which the character travels to the future to see if his books have lasted over time, one of Jorge Luis Borges’s favorite stories, Owen recounts the next vision of the woman in the train. He can just make out the title of the book she’s reading; Obras. Owen writes notes for a novel “narrated in the first person, by a tree, a woman with a brown face and dark shadows under her eyes.” The novel closes with an earthquake.

When Granta published its Best of Young Spanish Language Novelists issue in 2010, Ms. Luiselli hadn’t yet published fiction or she might have been included. The novel is a stunning example of the type of writing that is currently coming out of Latin America: formal innovation, cosmopolitanism, and a renewed exploration of the twentieth century avant-garde.

Writing from death to life instead of from life to death allows risks; to dare, why not? Audacious, conceptually cutting edge, Faces in the Crowd is, among other things, an allegory for the writing process itself, how words as empty vessels take on significance in the hands of a talented writer. Words that shape mental holograms, breathe life into the inanimate; allow us to inhabit the spaces of our own lives. A modern carpe diem, or ubi sunt, the novel prompts the sort of strange disquiet conveyed by Emily Dickinson’s famous line; “I heard a fly buzz when I died.”

....
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