15 June 10 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments [2]

Sorry for the vulgarities, but I just found out from both Suzy Staubach at the University of Connecticut Bookstore and from Publishers Weekly that the Brown University Bookstore is laying off scads of employees, including Peter Sevenair, the senior buyer who has been there for 31 years and is one of the most respected bookstore people in the business.

Rumor has it that the store will essentially be run by one part-time employee—good luck with that!

Oh, and in a further move of cost-cutting genius, the store will no longer carry books, but instead will specialize in selling quirky t-shirts with slogans about how “green Brown is” and about how there is no “Brown-style offense” in basketball, because, well, unlike Princeton, Brown isn’t an “athlete’s” school. In addition to t-shirts, iPads, and bumper stickers, they plan on selling bobbleheads of various administrators1.

1 This rumor is unsubstantiated.

15 June 10 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

Last week I was on the Wisconsin Public Radio show Here On Earth to make some international literature summer reading recommendations. We weren’t able to cover the full list of books I came up with, so I thought I’d post about them one-by-one over the next couple weeks with additional info, why these titles sound appealing to me, etc., etc. Click here for the complete list of posts.

“The Literary Conference”:http://www.ndpublishing.com/books/AiraLiteraryConference.html by Cesar Aira. Translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver. (Argentina, New Directions)

Another post, another project to catch up on . . .

Unfortunately, I haven’t gotten a copy of this book yet, so this is truly a “looking forward to reading this summer” sort of preview post. I have read all of Aira’s other books to make their way into English, generally liking each new title even more than the last. And based on what I’ve heard about The Literary Conference, I have pretty high expectations, especially after Ghosts, which New Directions brought out last year, and which quickly became a cult favorite and was a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award. (To be honest, it was a couple of votes away from winning . . .)

The Literary Conference is the fifth Aira book to make its way into English, and may be the most anticipated by everyone—not just me. The plot synopsis is absolutely wild: a translator who has fallen on hard times solves a puzzle, finds a pirate treasure, and decides to use his new found wealth to take over the world by cloning Carlos Fuentes.

As expected, Michael Orthofer has already reviewed this at the Complete Review, giving it a B+ (solid!) and having this to say:

What’s particularly striking about The Literary Conference is the relatively matter-of-fact tone and straightforward narration. César’s account is precise and conventional, the events he describes often downright mundane. Yet the novella is full of the fantastical, inserting the very unusual (that Fuentes-cloning experiment goes really, really wrong, for one thing) in the very everyday.

The Literary Conference constantly keeps the reader guessing: Aira leads down one path, only to radically upset his premises and change route (or, arguably, to take things to their logical conclusion — though it’s not a readily recognizable and familiar logic . . .), while almost all the while maintaining his straightforward tone.

The Literary Conference is one of those books that truly is unlike anything most readers are likely to have encountered (even if they’ve read a few other works by Aira). César makes a point of emphasizing uniqueness; The Literary Conference certainly stands out among most works of fiction, its mix of convention and peculiarity particularly striking.

Another interesting review — from another member of the 2011 BTBA fiction committee — is this one by Scott Esposito in which he elaborates on one of the key passages in Ghosts to try and articulate Aira’s unique aesthetic:

At the very centre of Ghosts is one of Aira’s customary philosophical digressions, a 10-pager that ranges from architecture to the indigenous rite of gift-giving known as “potlatch” to the space of imagination in dreams. The point of this digression seems to be to examine the thought at the core of the book — how art can be both “made” and “unmade” at once — and at one point Aira laments that with most arts there is an insurmountable gulf between the idea and the artefact. However, Aira points out one important exception: “And yet it is possible to imagine an art in which the limitations of reality would be minimised, in which the made and the unmade would be indistinct, an art that would be instantaneously real, without ghosts. And perhaps that art exists, under the name of literature.”

Without attempting a rigorous reading of Ghosts, it seems fair to say that here Aira is elaborating his own theory of literature, as well as suggesting why he keeps his stories perpetually on the threshold of signification, forever forestalling an actual conclusion. He strives to embody that point in between the made and the unmade — to go back and revise would be to risk pulling his writing from this amorphous phase of creation. Instead he constantly runs forward, leaving behind works still burning with their formative fires.

Aira is one of the most interesting, unique Argentine authors writing today, and all of his books are definitely worth checking out.

15 June 10 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

Another post, another approaching deadline . . .

Modeled in part after the amazing Ledig House program in Omi, NY, Sangam House is a relatively new residency program in India based around the belief that

assembling writers from various cultural backgrounds broadens the scope of each individual’s work. Exposure to regional and national trends in literature, to multiple political and economic obstacles and varied social and cultural milieus enhances each writer’s understanding of his/her work, as well as his/her own notions of identity and home.

The incredibly well-connected and always busy DW Gibson helps run both of these residencies, and he recently sent me a call for applications for the upcoming residency season that I thought some of you might be interested in. I’ve never been to Sangam House (though I’d love to go), but if it’s anything at all like Ledig House, it’s sure to be amazing.

You can download the word file linked to above to get all the details about applying for the 2010-2011 residencies, but here are the basics:

The Sangam House Writer’s Residency Program invites approximately 15-20 writers to live and work in community with each other. There will be two segments for the upcoming program.

The first half of the residency will take place from November 6, 2010-December 7, 2010 at Adishakti property outside Pondicherry, on the east coast of southern India. The second segment of the residency will take place from January 5, 2011- February 16, 2011 at the Nrityagram property outside of Bangalore.

Lodging (single rooms) and food will be provided free of charge. Each writer is responsible for travel costs to and from Pondicherry. However, travel funds and bursaries are available through various cultural organizations.

Residencies are structured in 2-10 week intervals, determined by individual needs. We recommend a residence period of no less than 2 weeks for each writer. Of the invited writers, half come from the South Asian subcontinent (India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Bhutan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka) and half from other countries around the world. Sangam House is open to writers in all languages and disciplines.

To apply you need to submit two letters of recommendation, a copy of a previously published book (or 25-page sample), and a one-page statement about what you plan on doing during your stay.

Deadline is June 30th. (More than two weeks from now! Plenty of time . . .)

14 June 10 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

Another day, another post that should’ve been written weeks ago . . . (In case you haven’t noticed, today is themed. And this extends beyond the blog to responding to dozens of e-mails I should’ve responded to way back when.)

Last month, the Susan Sontag Foundation announced that Benjamin Mier-Cruz won the 2010 award for his proposed translation of Modernist Missives of Elmer Diktonius, a collection of letters and poetry from the Finnish-Swedish avant-garde writer. Here’s the bio cribbed from the Susan Sontag site:

The letters originate during the Finnish Civil War in 1918, when Diktonius was just 22 years old, and conclude with his final correspondences in 1951. The exchanges reveal the private conflicts and travels of a vanguardist of literary expressionism. In the true spirit of modernism, Diktonius sought a new literature that reconciled antiquated art forms with the psyche of a changing Europe; one that represented and provoked revolt against political and economic establishments. [. . .]

Born in Helsinki in 1896, Diktonius, also a composer and fluent in Finnish, fervently sought to abandon the rigid structures of traditional rhythm in verse. He promoted literary expressionism in Finland by giving voice to man’s internal consciousness and social unrest as it came into modernity and confronted new technology. Diktonius’ poetry demonstrates his visionary aspirations for literature, the working-class, and the fate of his native Finland. His swaying political views can be seen throughout his writing, which ended in 1951. Diktonius died in 1961.

(For more info on Diktonius, I recommend checking out this page at the insanely complete “Books and Writers” site.)

And re: the translator:

Benjamin Mier-Cruz is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in Scandinavian Languages and Literatures at UC Berkeley. He received his B.A. in German Language and Literature from Arizona State University and completed his M.A. at UC Berkeley.

In case you’re not award of this award, it was launched a few years back as a way of encouraging translators under the age of 30 to continue in the profession. It’s a brilliant award and comes with a $5,000 cash prize. Past winners can be found here.

This year’s honorable mention went to Salka Gudmundsdottir for her proposed translation of Icelandic author Steinar Bragi’s Rafflesíublómiò (or “The Rafflesia Flower”). Having met Steinar and read some short excerpts of his work, I’m really interested in finding out more about this project . . .

14 June 10 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

Another day, another announcement about a cool event taking place in the immediate future . . .

Tomorrow at 7pm at El Beit on Bedford and North 8th in Williamsburg, Josh Cohen (the author of the critically acclaimed Witz) will be leading a discussion about “Jakov Lind, absurdist literature, war, and Jewish writing about WWII and Europe.”

Josh is a bright guy, so I’m sure this will be really interesting. And Lind was an amazingly eccentric writer. We’ve published two of his books — Ergo and Landscape in Concrete — and NYRB brought out Soul of Wood.

We’ve posted Lind’s bio on here probably a half-dozen times, but it’s so interesting and strange that it’s worth restating. From the NYRB site:

Jakov Lind (1927-2007) was born Heinz Jakov Landwirth into an educated Jewish family in Vienna. After the 1938 Anschluss, Lind and one of his sisters were sent for safety to Holland, from where they were join their parents in Palestine; this proved impossible, and following the occupation of Holland, Lind, who was already fluent in Dutch, had no choice but to go into hiding. Taking the name of Jan Gerrit Overbeek—”sailing under a false self,” as he would later describe it—he worked on a barge traveling up and down the Rhine. When the Allies began to bomb the industrial cities of the Rhine, Lind/Overbeek moved to Germany, where he was employed by a Nazi government ministry in Berlin. The end of the war allowed Lind to join his family in Palestine, but it was not long before he returned to Europe, studying drama in Vienna and, in 1954, settling in London, where he began work on the stories that were published in 1962 as Soul of Wood. Lind’s other books in German include the novels Landscape in Concrete and Ergo and, in English, four volumes of autobiography, two novels, and numerous stories. Lind was also a playwright and film director, as well as a talented visual artist. In a eulogy delivered at Lind’s funeral, Anthony Rudolf described Lind as “A coyote, a trickster…. A wicked smile played around his mouth, while witty aphorisms and deep insights tripped off his lips. He emanated inner strength—and an electric intelligence that we all wanted to emulate.”

Another interesting thing about Lind is how much he looked like Georges Perec in certain pictures.

Anyway, this event sounds brilliant, and if I lived in New York, or if the high speed rail from Buffalo to NYC was completed (ha!), I’d totally be there.

31 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Here’s a message from Monica Carter of Salonica and Skylight Books—our featured indie store of the month—about some interesting upcoming events.

One of the trademarks of Skylight Books is the ability to recognize and promote the literary greats of our time. Ten years ago, Skylight Books not only participated in the Harry Potter phenomenon with a midnight release party, but was the originator of the Thomas Pynchon Against the Day midnight release party. The tradition continues at Skylight Books with our dedication to celebrating the literary talents of today with our second Thomas Pynchon Midnight Release Party for his new novel, Inherent Vice, on August 4. Along with Pynchon, we will be hosting not one but two parties for Infinite Summer (not a footnote of a party, a PARTY!), the effort of bibliophiles from around the world to read Infinite Jest over the summer of 2009. William T. Vollman has been a perennial bestseller at our store and also a staff favorite which is why we are the only independent bookstore in Los Angeles to host an event for his new book of photographs, Imperial. These events are indicative of Skylight Books’ commitment to fostering cultural vivacity in our own community as well as the global literary community.

31 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Today’s Publishing Perspectives includes an editorial that I wrote about the “state of translations” in America attempting to explain the dip in the number of translations coming out this year:

For years, people have speculated that the number of literary works in translation being published in the United States has been in decline. I say “speculate,” because the publishing industry — which is notoriously poor at market research and data gathering — didn’t really keep track of how many translations were being published here, instead relying almost entirely on wistful memories of days gone by and other equally questionable anecdotal evidence. Two years ago, I started a “Translation Database” at the Web site ThreePercent.com to finally quantify what’s going on with literature in translation, and although data for 2009 is still coming in, it looks like there will be a bit of a drop off this year — of as much as 10%.

On one hand, this is pretty easy to explain: it’s because of the economy. But in my opinion, we’re talking about two different economic problems causing this. Book sales are down, which really hurts commercial presses and makes them less likely to publish “expensive” books like translations. And at the same time, nonprofits and university presses (which publish the bulk of translations already), are struggling to find funding, what with foundations losing a lot of their endowments in the stock market, and individual donors struggling as well.

It’s a crappy situation, and unless a few rainmakers appear, 2010 will most likely see a further drop in translations being published in America . . . Just a little happy note to kick off your Friday . . .

30 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Thanks to Bud Parr for posting this amazing video featuring Attila Bartis, whose Tranquility won the 2009 Best Translated Book Award. The footage is mostly taken from a conversation between Brian Evenson and Bartis that took place at Idlewild Books that took a couple months ago.

Very cool. Very, very cool.

30 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Nigel Beale—whose interviews are always really interesting—recently posted a great discussion with Ha Jin about his recent book, The Writer as Migrant, which was recently released by University of Chicago Press and sounds pretty good:

Ha Jin’s journey raises rich and fascinating questions about language, migration, and the place of literature in a rapidly globalizing world—questions that take center stage in “The Writer as Migrant,” his first work of nonfiction. Consisting of three interconnected essays, this book sets Ha Jin’s own work and life alongside those of other literary exiles, creating a conversation across cultures and between eras. He employs the cases of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Chinese novelist Lin Yutang to illustrate the obligation a writer feels to the land of his birth, while Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov—who, like Ha Jin, adopted English for their writing—are enlisted to explore a migrant author’s conscious choice of a literary language. A final essay draws on V. S. Naipaul and Milan Kundera to consider the ways in which our era of perpetual change forces a migrant writer to reconceptualize the very idea of home. Throughout, Jin brings other celebrated writers into the conversation as well, including W. G. Sebald, C. P. Cavafy, and Salman Rushdie—refracting and refining the very idea of a literature of migration.

30 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Oh boy, this should be fun. Over the next 10 days, Green Apple Books will be posting short-format, tongue-in-cheek (and maybe a bit over-the-top) videos pitting the Book against The Kindle. Here’s the first one:

29 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

From the Finnish Institute in London (via Nordic Voices):

The Finnish Institute in London and FILI – Finnish Literature Exchange are pleased to announce a translation competition to source new talent in translating fiction from Finnish to English. You do not have to be a language professional; eligible participants include everyone from novices to experienced translators. What you do need is a passion for language, a good understanding of Finnish and a talent for writing in English.

bq.The translation competition is part of the Finnish Institute’s programme of activities aiming at increasing the number of Finnish books entering the British literary market. We invite you to translate, from Finnish to English, Maritta Lintunen’s piece “Piinaviikko” from her collection of short prose entitled Ovisilmä (WSOY, 2006).

Entering the competition is easy. Just download the text and the entry form, translate the text by 31 August 2009, and send both to us (as .doc, .rtf or .pdf). There is no entry fee.

Click here for a pdf of “Piinaviikko” and click here to download the official entry form.

29 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Over at World Books, Bill Marx has a very thoughtful review of two Swiss horror books: The Vampire of Ropraz, by Jacques Chessex, translated by W. Donald Wilson and published by Bitter Lemon (a Best Translated Book nominee) and The Black Spider, by Jeremias Gotthelf, translated by H. M. Waidson and published by Oneworld Classics.

The spanking new The Vampire of Ropraz asserts that, when faced with irrational violence, the forces of ignorance and fear predominate. The classic The Black Spider (which was first published in 1842; this is a reprint of the 1958 English edition) revolves around a reneged deal with the Devil, who wants, but doesn’t get, an unbaptized child as payment for his services. The betrayal unleashes the title monster, who can be stopped by goodness, if it is free of moral corruption and hypocrisy. The latter turns out to be a tall order. But at least there’s some Paradise around to counterbalance Gotthelf’s Hell.

Interestingly, both of these books root their avenging vision of mayhem in the brutal mistreatment of children. Gotthelf appears to wish for a God “Who would avenge Himself terribly for all the injustice that is done to poor children who cannot defend themselves.” In a strange way, the Devil is doing the Lord’s work by punishing the sadists among the low- and upper classes.

I was pleasantly surprised by The Vampire of Ropraz, and although The Black Spider doesn’t sound like my sort of book, it does come with a ringing endorsement by Thomas Mann, who claimed it is “like almost no other piece of world literature.”

28 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The new Murakami book — 1Q84 — is now available in Japan, and this review at Neojaponisme is the first comprehensive take on the book that I’ve come across. Long review for a long book that sounds pretty intriguing (if not in need of a bit of editing):

1Q84 sprawls 1055 pages in the hardback version and chronicles a large portion of Japanese history in passing, but the main narrative concerns just a handful of characters over a six-month period in 1984. Murakami uses his favorite device to frame the novel – alternating storylines with separate protagonists that become more closely linked as the plot thickens. These protagonists are Aomame, a fitness and martial arts instructor in Tokyo who grew up in a fictional missionary group called the Shōninkai (証人会, literally “Association of Witnesses”), and Kawana Tengo, a prep school math instructor and aspiring writer who has never met his mother. [. . .]

First, something is rotten in Tokyo in 1984. Numerous intrigues are described as usankusai (胡散臭い): fishy, shady or suspicious. An editor conspires to ghost-write a novel and have it win the Akutagawa Prize, Japan’s most prestigious award for up and coming writers. A secret religious cult (loosely based on radical movements of the ’60s and religious cults like Aum Shinrikyo) plots some terrible evil in its Yamanashi Prefecture compound. A wealthy, landed woman wages a covert war on misogyny. The world undergoes abrupt, strange, and highly specific changes, and that trip to the dark side of the moon is more literal than you might expect.

These schemes draw in our protagonists like whirlpools, bringing in another key theme: hikareru (惹かれる) (to be drawn in) and related words make frequent appearances. Tengo is convinced to play ghost writer by his editor Komatsu, but he also admits to being equally drawn in by the book itself, which is titled “Kūki sanagi” 『空気さなぎ』(”The Air Chrysalis”) and written by the quiet 17-year-old storyteller Fukada Eriko. Aomame is recruited by the unnamed wealthy lady and drawn into her conspiracy. [. . .]

As Aomame and Tengo get closer and closer, their connection is revealed, and they seem to be fighting for similar objectives. The ending Murakami provides suggests that one of the characters might become “the egg” cracked on “the wall” of the system he referred to in his acceptance speech for the Jerusalem Prize earlier this year, while the other may battle on and try to recover the past. By no measure is the action complete within the 1055 pages of these two volumes; the way things are resolved points to the final line of Anton Chekhov’s “The Lady With the Little Dog,” a tale of two lovers who finally resolve to elope at the end of the story: “…it was clear to both of them that the end was still far, far off, and that the most complicated and difficult part was just beginning.” [. . .]

Parts of 1Q84 rival Murakami’s best writing. The tale of Tengo’s father, who tried his luck as a settler in Manchuria before returning to Japan to work as a collection man for NHK; Tengo’s married girlfriend’s ominous dream she relates to him in bed at the end of Book 1 (remarkably similar in style and feel to boku’s dream in “The Twins and the Sunken Continent”); and a story within the story about a town run completely by cats from a book that Tengo reads, are three notable examples. But overall, the book feels long, inconsistent, and occasionally repetitive. Over the course of 1,000 pages, characters and themes both float in and out of the narrative, many of them seemingly forgotten by the end of Book 2. Religious cults are discussed in depth in Book 1 only to be left out of Book 2. Tengo’s father is an important part of the whole book, but it is unclear how his past is connected to the rest of the book. Ebisuno-sensei, Fukaeri’s foster father, has most of his action offstage, and we never even meet Azami, Fukaeri’s foster sister. Most of the book is spent going over the past of the characters, so much so that plot discussion more extensive than that given above would start to reveal some of the only development in the novel’s present — plot that Murakami made no secret of trying to keep a secret in the run up to the publishing date.

28 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

The new issue of PW, has a lengthy article by Richard Nash about his new venture (in collaboration with Dedi Felman), which is called Cursor:

After months of work, with Dedi’s help I outlined my vision for a new venture at this year’s BookExpo America. Then called Round Table, now tentatively called Cursor, it represents a new, “social” approach to publishing. To call Cursor “niche” or another “independent” publishing enterprise would be a poor approximation, because those terms fail to capture the organic gurgle of culture at the heart of the venture, the exchange of insight and opinion, the flow of memes and the creation of culture in real time that is now enabled by the Internet.

My business plan is now out with investors—I will spare you the P&L numbers and just offer the broad strokes. Cursor will establish a portfolio of self-reinforcing online membership communities. To start, this includes Red Lemonade, a pop-lit-alt-cult operation, and charmQuark, a sci-fi/fantasy community.

The business will focus on developing the value of the reading and writing ecosystem, including the growth of markets for established authors, as well as engaging readers and supporting emerging writers. Each community will have a publishing imprint, which will make money from authors’ books, sold as digital downloads, conventional print and limited artisanal editions—and will offer authors all the benefits of a digital platform: faster time to market, faster accounting cycles, faster payments to authors. But the greatest opportunity is in the community itself. Each will have tiers of membership, including paid memberships that will offer exclusive access to tools and services, such as rich text editors for members to upload their own writing, peer-to-peer writing groups, recommendation engines, access to established authors online and in person, and editorial or marketing assistance. Members can get both peer-based feedback and professional feedback.

Other revenue opportunities include the provision of electronic distribution services to other publishers; fee-based or revenue-share software modules, especially for online writing workshops or seminars for publishers, literary journals, teaching programs; fee-based linking of writers to suppliers of publishing services, including traditional publishers and agents; corporate sponsorships and site advertising; and events and speaking fees. Yes, I envisage Cursor obtaining a larger basket of rights than is the industry standard, but that will be in exchange for shorter exclusive licensing periods. Our contracts will be limited to three-year terms with an option to renew.

The Cursor business model seeks to unite all the various existing revenues in the writing-reading ecosystem, from offering services to aspiring writers far more cheaply than most vendors to finding more ways to get more money to authors faster. It also will create highly sensitive feedback loops that will tell each community’s staff what tools and features users want, what books users think the imprint should be publishing, how the imprint could publish better.

It’ll be interesting to see what this looks like once it launches, and how it evolves. And I’m sure we’ll be writing more about the implications of this business model in the future. One thing that strikes me about Richard’s idea—and this definitely comes through in talking to him about publishing and the future of the book business—is that he has a strong interest in the social aspect of reading and believes that the primary value of publishing houses is their ability to connect writers and readers (through marketing, through distribution chains).

That’s not to undervalue the editorial knowledge present in publishing houses, but he tends to shy away from a publisher as a creator of a particular editorial vision. Or at least as the only player creating a particular editorial vision:

An indie press’s distinctive voice is a profoundly collective thing, set by its authors, its fans, its casual readers. The publisher’s role, my role and the role of the staff are to be conduits, advocates, enablers, to serve the readers and writers—to be the grease. Toward the end of my Soft Skull tenure, however, it occurred to me that we’ve all—indie and corporate—fallen victim to the notion of ourselves as gatekeepers. Perhaps that is to compensate for, well, the lack of other compensation. But in the past couple of years, sustaining the gatekeeper mentality has been hard as the pressure has grown from within and without.

This does seem to be a new model for publishing—one that might not replace all existing models, but will definitely complement them. As to whether it will “save” publishing, Richard has a nice bit about that idea:

Cursor is not designed to “save publishing,” but simply to offer the kind of services that readers and writers, established and emerging, want and the Internet enables. I believe especially strongly that the model must be viable in a world where the effective price of digital content falls to zero, and paper becomes like vinyl records or fine art prints. After all, the world is littered with things that people won’t buy at the prices their producers want to charge—like, say, the contents of remainder bins.

28 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over at Salonica, Monica Carter posted a very comprehensive, incredibly useful guide to online resources for information about Eastern European literature. Definitely worth exploring.

27 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The new issue of The New Yorker has a really interesting piece by print-advocate Nicholson Baker about the Kindle. It’s worth reading the whole article—I haven’t read a review of the Kindle quite like this one—but here are a few of the highlights:

It came, via UPS, in a big cardboard box. Inside the box were some puffy clear bladders of plastic, a packing slip with “$359” on it, and another cardboard box. This one said, in spare, lowercase type, “kindle.” On the side of the box was a plastic strip inlaid into the cardboard, which you were meant to pull to tear the package cleanly open. On it were the words “Once upon a time.” I pulled and opened.

Inside was another box, fancier than the first. Black cardboard was printed with a swarm of glossy black letters, and in the middle was, again, the word “kindle.” There was another pull strip on the side, which again said, “Once upon a time.” I’d entered some nesting Italo Calvino folktale world of packaging. (Calvino’s Italian folktales aren’t yet available at the Kindle Store, by the way.) I pulled again and opened. [. . .]

The problem was not that the screen was in black-and-white; if it had really been black-and-white, that would have been fine. The problem was that the screen was gray. And it wasn’t just gray; it was a greenish, sickly gray. A postmortem gray. The resizable typeface, Monotype Caecilia, appeared as a darker gray. Dark gray on paler greenish gray was the palette of the Amazon Kindle.

Baker’s bit about the graphics—both in terms of illustrated books (like cook books) and papers is particularly relevant . . . and funny:

One more expensive example. The Kindle edition of “Selected Nuclear Materials and Engineering Systems,” an e-book for people who design nuclear power plants, sells for more than eight thousand dollars. Figure 2 is an elaborate chart of a reaction scheme, with many call-outs and chemical equations. It’s totally illegible. “You Save: $1,607.80 (20%),” the Kindle page says. “I’m not going to buy this book until the price comes down,” one stern Amazoner wrote.

And the information about Vizplex (“the trade name of the layered substance that makes up the Kindle’s display) is very interesting as well.

I haven’t tried reading a book on a Kindle or iPhone, but Baker seems to prefer the latter, even though it is a high resolution, backlit reading experience (compared to the “reflective” eInk, which apparently has some issues when you read it outside in the sun):

In print, “The Lincoln Lawyer” swept me up. At night, I switched over to the e-book version on the iPod ($7.99 from the Kindle Store), so that I could carry on in the dark. I began swiping the tiny iPod pages faster and faster.

Then, out of a sense of duty, I forced myself to read the book on the physical Kindle 2. It was like going from a Mini Cooper to a white 1982 Impala with blown shocks.

Although at that point the text itself takes over:

But never mind: at that point, I was locked into the plot and it didn’t matter. Poof, the Kindle disappeared, just as Jeff Bezos had promised it would. I began walking up and down the driveway, reading in the sun. Three distant lawnmowers were going. Someone wearing a salmon-colored shirt was spraying a hose across the street. But I was in the courtroom, listening to the murderer testify. I felt the primitive clawing pressure of wanting to know how things turned out.

27 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The twenty-four title longlist for the 2009 Man Asian Literary Prize was announced last week and is listed in full below. The press release has bio information for all of the authors, but not a lot of info on their books.

(Just as Michael Orthofer has his bit about how this award isn’t Asian enough I have my standard complaint that the best way of increasing awareness and appreciation for these “unpublished works of Asian fiction in English” is to include excerpts on the website.)

Anyway, here’s the list:

  • Gopilal Acharya, With a Stone in My Heart
  • Omair Ahmad, Jimmy the Terrorist
  • Siddharth Chowdhury, Day Scholar
  • Kishwar Desai, Witness the Night
  • Samuel Ferrer, The Last Gods of Indochine
  • Eric Gamalinda, The Descartes Highlands
  • Ram Govardhan, Rough with the Smooth
  • Kanishka Gupta, History of Hate
  • Kameroon Rasheed Ismeer, Memoirs of a Terrorist
  • Ratika Kapur, Overwinter
  • Mariam Karim, The Bereavement of Agnes Desmoulins
  • Sriram Karri, The Autobiography of a Mad Nation
  • Nitasha Kaul, Residue
  • R. Zamora Linmark, Leche
  • Mario I. Miclat, Secrets of the Eighteen Mansions
  • Clarissa V. Militante, Different Countries
  • Varuna Mohite, Omigod
  • Dipika Mukherjee, Thunder Demons
  • Hena Pillai, Blackland
  • Roan Ching-Yueh, Lin Xiu-Tzi and her Family
  • Edgar Calabia Samar, Eight Muses of the Fall
  • K. Srilata, Table for Four
  • Su Tong, The Boat to Redemption
  • Oyungerel Tsedevdamba, Shadow of the Red Star

The shortlist will be announced in October, and the winner on Monday, November 16th.

27 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Following on last week’s post about the benefits (or in the eyes of Kim Heijdenrijk, the non-benefits) of a Fixed Book Price Agreement, I found this article by Stacy Mitchell about the shift in book sales from B&N and Borders to Costco, Target, Wal-Mart, etc.

It’s a pretty interesting piece about the impact of selling media (books, CDs) as loss-leaders. Not necessarily rocket science: big box stores sell books at a loss, take over huge chunk of the marketplace (they now have a 30% market share—which is as large as B&N/Borders), then, once competition is sufficiently weakened and damaged, they cut the number of books they sell, raise prices, and go on their merry way selling toasters and whatnot. (And returning massive amounts of the books they do carry. I’ve heard from a few sources that Costco’s return rate is in the 60% range. Which means that if you’re lucky enough to have a book that Costco wants to carry, you’re guaranteed to lose a ton of money. Fantastic!)

The section of this essay that I found most interesting—and which relates to the whole FBPA issue—is the bit about predatory pricing:

Selling goods below cost in order to drive competitors out of business — a strategy Wal-Mart first employed against small-town drugstores in the Midwest in the 1980s and now uses for nationwide assaults on entire product categories — is technically illegal. But U.S. antitrust enforcers have taken a very lax attitude toward predatory pricing and other antitrust violations ever since the Reagan Administration.

The consequence is an economy where power is so concentrated that it undermines the free market itself and threatens our individual liberty within it. Bullied and financially squeezed by mega-retailers, manufacturers have little choice but to focus on producing a narrow range of products that suit these companies’ needs, while cutting support for competing retailers and eliminating investment in new products, writers, and artists.

This is the sort of thing that the FBPA is trying to prevent . . . And since we’re pretty far afield here (I swear, the next post will actually be about translation and books), ti seems only fitting to include the video of Douglas Rushkoff’s appearance on the Colbert Report. Douglas’s book — Life Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take it Back — is a very interesting examination of the role corporations have played in our history and have shaped so much of our world. Very interesting book, and very entertaining interview with Colbert:

The Colbert ReportMon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Douglas Rushkoff
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorMark Sanford
24 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Abu Dhabi-based The National has one of the first reviews of Bolano’s The Skating Rink, which is coming out from New Directions later this year.

Giles Harvey’s raview spends a lot of time on Borges and Poe, detective fiction, and the creation of the reader of detective fiction, which is all quite interesting, and ties in nicely to this particular novel.

Like Death and the Compass, Bolaño’s latest novel to be translated into English (and his first to be published in the Spanish-speaking world, back in 1993), The Skating Rink is, at least in part, a parody of detective fiction – or, strictly speaking, of crime fiction, the meaner, sexier, more violent love child of the detective story and 20th-century America. The Skating Rink lavishes on the reader many of the pleasures typically associated with that genre – suspense, intrigue, the exhilarating spectacle of moral decay – while making it quite clear that such pleasures are by no means the full extent of what it has to offer; it fondles and flaunts its own artifice, using it to explore chaos, reality, experience.

There has been a murder in the small resort town of Z on the Costa Brava. Three men – all ardent, wayward, headstrong, although in other respects quite dissimilar – appear to be implicated in the crime. These men share between themselves the task of telling the book’s story, each narrating brief chapters in turn.

Sounds interesting, and the novel’s meandering opening line (“The first time I saw him, it was int he Calle Bucareli, in Mexico City, that is, back in the vague shifty territory of our adolescence, the province of hardened poets, on a night of heavy fog, which slowed the traffic and prompted conversations about that odd phenomenon, so rare in Mexico City at night, at least as far as I can remember.”) is delicious, but it’s this closing paragraph that sold me:

In Bolaño there is no such poise, burnish or masterful cerebration. Instead people are always flubbing their lines and missing their cues. In fact, there aren’t even any actual detectives in The Skating Rink. Morán, the reader of crime fiction, gets to play at detection: it’s he who finds the body and then, rather inadvertently, discovers who’s responsible. But the revelation reveals hardly anything. It just inaugurates another mystery. And then the book ends, less crime novel than shaggy dog story.

And now I know how I’m spending my weekend.

24 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Generally speaking, I’m a fan of the “fixed book price agreement” that’s in place in a number of countries around the world. (At least 18, according to Wikipedia, aka America’s Best Source of Information.) I’ve mentioned a few times in posts here on Three Percent, always emphasizing the way that it slightly levels the playing field by preventing massive corporations from offering discounts on shitty best-selling books that are so deep that no independent store can possibly compete.

Harry Potter is the ultimate example of this. Several major retailers (ya’ll know who they are, and they know as well) essentially sold Harry Potter at a loss in order to increase the number of sales and customers. (I remember when I was at Quail Ridge Books, it was cheaper for us to buy copies of HP from Costco—god help us all—than it was to purchase them directly from Scholastic.)

One of the main arguments for the fixed book price—which, if I haven’t made this clear, is a law that ensures the same book is sold at the same price at all outlets—is that it allows smaller stores to carry a more diverse stock. It sort of hampers the blockbuster model and, in theory at least, promotes a more healthy book culture in which presses can publish poetry and survive, and bookstores aren’t overrun with stacks of shitty popular books.

All that said, I was pretty surprised to come across this essay by Kim Heijdenrijk about why the fixed book price agreement (of FBPA) is damaging to independent stores.

Living in a country that prides itself on its insane laws protecting free economic principles, I probably shouldn’t comment on how well (or poorly) the FBPA actually works. But wtf, it’s America, I’m writing for a blog, etc. So, here’s Kim’s main arguments, and my socialist cautionary counter-arguments.

It was then that I learned how much is earned on a book. Or better said: how little. And this particular shop got quite a big margin, since it is so large and well known. I was shocked. When speaking to my boss about it, he merely said: “Why do you think we also have a music store, a coffee shop and an office supply store?”. Point taken. It is almost impossible to survive on the sales of books alone. Even with a relatively big margin.

This particular Dutch bookstore is very fortunate. A success story if you will. But only because of the business strategy they chose. Books as a core business, other products to stay afloat. How many independent booksellers are in the position to do this? How do you get people to buy at your shop instead of the big chains that are on every high street? The obvious – if not the only – way is to do what supermarkets do. Have a sale. Lower the prices of particular products, in this case particular books. A very good idea, if the Fixed Book Price Agreement did not forbid it.

OK, yes, price is one factor on which a business traditionally differentiates itself, but really? As stated in paragraph one, the margin for books is pretty much shit. So a sale will only effectively improve your long-term business if the people you attract through temporarily lowering prices are converted into loyal customers. And unfortunately, that’s pretty unlikely. The second an independent store starts offering a discount, a chain store will offer a larger one. And if the tacit assumption is that customers are “rational economic agents” (this is a bullshit pro-capitalist belief, but I’m going to let it ride for now) that make decisions primarily because of price, they’ll end up shopping at the indie store’s competitors.

Now the idea behind the FBPA. The idea is that bookshops make the most money on bestsellers. These books, like Harry Potter or the Da Vinci Code, cost little effort to sell. And hardly any advertising money for the bookseller, because these books get enough exposure. Without the fixed book price, a bookshop could offer these books at competitive prices to lure readers into their shops. With the fixed prices, the booksellers loose [sic] this advantage.

Wait a second here . . . So, you have a handful of mega-bestsellers, books that you don’t have to do much of anything to sell by the gaggle, books that you could sell at regular retail price and no one blinks—these are the books you want to sell at a discount? In an industry in which breaking even is a pretty significant accomplishment, this seems like a bad decision. Bookstore owners cherish the time when they actually made money on books like Harry Potter instead of fighting to breakeven, or having to expend a ton of rhetorical energy to convince customers to pay the extra $2 and buy the book from an independent so that that store can continue to serve its local community. Overall, this point seems massively misguided.

The publishers want the bookstores to promote lesser known – more specialized – books instead of the ‘high flyers’. They want to create ‘bibliodiversity’, as is stated in a paper by the International Publishers Association. To make sure that the shop owners practice this innovative word, the publishers offer a guaranteed/larger margin on the bestsellers. This way everybody wins. The publisher knows that the ‘big’ books will sell anyway and therefore they can give a good profit margin to the bookseller. The bookseller should be able to fund the promotion of the ‘small’ books because of this. And they live happily ever after . . .

Exactly.

The so called ‘benefits’ for these little shops can only be viewed as ludicrous. The fixed book price would protect them from the competition of supermarkets in their area that sell books at bargain prices. For this reason the independent bookseller in less convenient places would have a better chance of survival. I would advise the creator of this benefit to pick up an economy book. [Again, sic] The buyer of books in the supermarket is, of course, an entirely different person than the one purchasing a book in a bookshop. The books available at supermarkets are there for the impulse buyer. A person who does not read a lot and heard from a friend that he should read a certain book.

Veering off for a minute into socio-economics (and a totally different topic), I’m pretty much against books being sold in supermarkets. Not only is the selection totally weak, but Wal*Mart/Sam’s Club/Costco detract from the public perception of the bookstore as a unique, worthwhile business. Books in supermarkets are pure commodities, no different than frozen peas. There will always be a specialized group of bookstore lovers who would rather shop for real literature in a real bookstore, yet there’s a growing number of people who believe literature equals the latest Jodi Picoult book on sale for 25% off right next to the super-sized tub of KitKat bars. (I believe they call themselves “Pi-Cultists.”) Yeah, that’s what the world needs now.

One thing Kim doesn’t bring up are the other ways independent bookstores could differentiate themselves in lieu of discounts. The shopping/browsing experience is influenced by space, by design, by customer service. Independent stores tend to be more community-focused and customer-oriented than their corporate equivalents, and also tend to know a lot about actual books that they can recommend to their clientele. There are many more value-added aspects a store could emphasize than price. Trying to fight Goliath by knocking $1 off the list price is a slippery slope to utter bankruptcy.

24 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over at the Tin House blog (which is relatively new and very solid), South African author Michiel Heyns has an interesting essay about creativity and translation:

I have just sent off the first draft of a translation of a 130,000-word novel, Etienne van Heerden’s 30 Nagte in Amsterdam (30 Nights in Amsterdam). By chance, on the same day, I receive a Call for Papers from the University of Swansea in the UK for a conference on “The Author-Translator in the European Literary Tradition.” The call for papers kicks off with the following paragraph:

The recent ‘creative turn’ in translation studies has challenged notions of translation as a derivative and uncreative activity which is inferior to ‘original’ writing. Commentators have drawn attention to the creative processes involved in the translation of texts, and suggested a rethinking of translation as a form of creative writing. Hence there is growing critical and theoretical interest in translations undertaken by literary authors.

The topic interests me, because I have published four novels and three literary translations (not counting this latest, as yet unpublished one), and I have from time to time asked myself, in an informal sort of way, about “the creative processes involved in the translation of texts”: is it in fact “a form of creative writing”? And if so, how does it differ from the more traditional kind?

Writing this, it occurs to me that the word “recreate” encapsulates the problem: for if it means simply rendering the work in another language, then it’s more a question of transliteration or transposition than creation; but if it means “re-create” as in creating anew, then one is stressing the creative contribution of the translator: the translation, then, carries the stamp of the translator as unmistakably as the original carries the stamp of the author.

But of course translation is also, inescapably, a second-order activity, derived very directly from the creation of the author. If the translation is a creative act, it is yet unlike the writing of a novel in that it does not require that most difficult of creative feats, which is to create from nothing. A novelist creates and peoples a world; a translator reports back on that world to people who wouldn’t otherwise have access to that world.

I like his take on this (although the bit about author’s craving a “faithful rendering” when their books are translated feels a bit reductive), and his novel, The Children’s Day looks really interesting as well.

23 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Our latest review is of Ninni Holmqvist’s The Unit, which was translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy and published by Other Press.

Pretty interesting book (at least for the first two-thirds) about a future Sweden where those who are unwed and childless at the age of 50 have to live the rest of their lives in a Reserve Bank Unit:

Broadly speaking, Ninni Holmqvist’s debut novel fits into the tradition of dystopian literature. In the Sweden she describes, a law has been passed that women at the age of 50 (and men at the age of 60) who have no living children or spouses are deemed “dispensable” and sent to live at a Reserve Bank Unit for the rest of their lives. While in “the Unit,” the “dispensables” participate in experiments (psychological and physical) and donate various organs (kidneys, corneas, etc.) to the “useful” members of society, up until the day that they make their “final donation.” In other words, these freeloaders are essentially harvested for the benefit of those who are contributing more to society.

In depicting a dystopia, Holmqvist faces the almost intractable problem of making sure that this future seems believable, seems connected to our present, yet sets forth a new set of rules for how human behavior is governed. The best books in this tradition are the ones that depict a future that seems so potentially possible that the reader doesn’t ask too many questions. Holmqvist isn’t perfect with this, but she does provide a sort of “live your life alone, spend the end of it giving back to society” mantra that sort of makes sense. (And may make more sense in Scandinavia?) It’s implied on occasion that economics and general consumption are behind the creation of this system — if you’re not breeding and increasing society’s consumption, you’re dispensable — which is uber-creepy.

Aside from the suspension of belief necessary to accept the creation of the Units, this book is actually incredibly straight-forward — essentially just a love story in a weird context.

Click here for the full review.

23 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Broadly speaking, Ninni Holmqvist’s debut novel fits into the tradition of dystopian literature. In the Sweden she describes, a law has been passed that women at the age of 50 (and men at the age of 60) who have no living children or spouses are deemed “dispensable” and sent to live at a Reserve Bank Unit for the rest of their lives. While in “the Unit,” the “dispensables” participate in experiments (psychological and physical) and donate various organs (kidneys, corneas, etc.) to the “useful” members of society, up until the day that they make their “final donation.” In other words, these freeloaders are essentially harvested for the benefit of those who are contributing more to society.

In depicting a dystopia, Holmqvist faces the almost intractable problem of making sure that this future seems believable, seems connected to our present, yet sets forth a new set of rules for how human behavior is governed. The best books in this tradition are the ones that depict a future that seems so potentially possible that the reader doesn’t ask too many questions. Holmqvist isn’t perfect with this, but she does provide a sort of “live your life alone, spend the end of it giving back to society” mantra that sort of makes sense. (And may make more sense in Scandinavia?) It’s implied on occasion that economics and general consumption are behind the creation of this system — if you’re not breeding and increasing society’s consumption, you’re dispensable — which is uber-creepy.

Aside from the suspension of belief necessary to accept the creation of the Units, this book is actually incredibly straight-forward — essentially just a love story in a weird context.

The entire novel is narrated by Dorrit Weger, opening with her arrival at the Second Reserve Bank Unit on her fiftieth birthday and her depiction of a seemingly innocuous, yet invasive world:

It was more comfortable than I could have imagined. A room of my own with a bathroom, or rather an apartment of my own, because there were two rooms: a bedroom and a living room with a kitchenette. It was light and spacious, furnished in a modern style and tastefully decorated in muted colors. True, the tiniest nook or cranny was monitored by cameras, and I would soon realize there were hidden microphones there too. But the cameras weren’t hidden.

Aside from a quick surface tour of the Unit and its enormous Winter Garden, its very popular library (“It’s because there are so many intellectuals here. [. . .] People who read books tend to be dispensable. Extremely.”), the restaurants, the general rules (you don’t have to work, just be ready for organ donation or assignment to an experiment), and a few harrowing stories of experiments gone awry, Holmqvist doesn’t dwell on the inner workings of this creepy institute, instead focusing on the relationships between Dorrit and the other “dispensables.”

Early on in the novel, Dorrit — who was a professional writer before entering the Unit — meets fellow writer Johannes, and the two of them hit it off and become romantically involved. They spend most of their time together, getting into a comfortable routine, and wishing they had met in the “real world” so that they could’ve been spared the Unit.

Along the way, Dorrit becomes pregnant and runs into one of the strict and disturbing aspects of life as a dispensable: since she’s already entered the Unit, she can either have the fetus transferred to a “useful” person, or bring it to term and give it up for adoption. Already pissed that her desire to raise the baby with Johannes is being thwarted, she’s dealt a crushing blow when she finds out that Johannes has just undergone his final donation . . .

Up to this point, the novel works pretty well. It’s not as creepy as it could be, and it’s pretty conventional. Nevertheless, it’s entertaining (great for a plane ride), reads very well (thanks to Marlaine Delargy’s translation), and is pretty compelling. But after Dorrit finds out she’s pregnant and Johannes dies, character motivations get all out of whack and the narrative runs out of steam.

The main turning point is a scene in which a nurse with a birthmark gives Dorrit a key card and the necessary password to allow her to escape. Why?

“I presume that you, like other dispensable individuals, have already lost everything once. And now it’s happening to you again. And I feel . . . well, I can’t just stand and watch. Yes, you are dispensable, and no doubt could have avoided that situation if you had just made enough off an effort. But you’re also a human being.”

In the context of the book — this is the first time the character is introduced, and there are many smaller opportunities for a sympathetic staff member to alleviate some of their guilt and help out a dispensable — this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But what’s kind of cool, is Holmqvist’s attempt to work around the key card question and other problems that this raises . . . By the end of the novel, it’s clear that Dorrit is the supposed author, and that this book will be read by the staff of the Unit. So:

I am not the kind of person who betrays a trust. For example, in this story I have not revealed the true circumstances under which I received the key card. Neither of the two nurses who met me when I raced into the surgical department that day has a birthmark. Nor was it either of those two who gave me the key card, and the conversation with the person who did give me the card did not in fact take place in the break room where I sat and waited as I gazed out at the snow-covered park with the pond and the ducks, but in a completely different room in a completely different part of the unit, and at another time. And the code is actually not 98 44 at all.

By the very end of the novel, Dorrit has used the key card to escape, but the decisions she makes once outside are also a bit perplexing, but are probably supposed to serve as the “big question” that the reader can ponder after closing the book. . . .

Overall, this isn’t a bad novel. It’s quick, entertaining, and enjoyable. But it fails to rise above its common elements to become something truly remarkable.

23 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

BBC One’s Art in Troubled Times: A New Deal for Art aired yesterday and sounds pretty fascinating:

The Great Depression and the Second World War changed what was expected of the arts; Alan Yentob asks if this recession could see the next transformation.

Artist Chuck Close talks about the New Deal in America in the 30s, when the government paid artists to work, while actor Simon Callow tells how thrilled actors were to feel their work mattered.

And dealer Kenny Schachter explains how, in a perverse way, he feels this recession is the best thing that has happened to the art world in ten years.

It’s also available online for free . . . as long as you’re in the UK. So everyone overseas—hope you enjoy, and let me know if there’s anything interesting in here. (And by “let me know,” I mean, I wouldn’t be disappointed to suddenly find a torrent for this program . . . )

22 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Our most recent release—which shipped to subscribers last week—is Elsa Morante’s Aracoeli, her last novel, and by far her darkest. Below you’ll find the excellent introduction Robert Boyers wrote for our reissue of this book.

Thirty years ago, Elsa Morante seemed to many American writers and critics a major novelist. She had recently become famous with the publication of History: A Novel, a notoriously vast and tumultuous work, and yet clearly one of the most compelling accounts of the Second World War to come out of Europe. In the New York City of the late 1970s, literary intellectuals frequently debated the virtues of Morante’s overheated prose, and even critics who found her novels eminently resistible conceded that, at her best, she was a writer to be reckoned with. American and British editions of her books came festooned with the praise of her peers, and she was often grouped with other leading Italian writers of the war and post-war period. The recent biography by Lily Tuck—the first devoted to Morante in any language—studies her affiliations and makes clear that she was always, in her own country, an embattled figure, and it comes as little surprise to learn that the writer who could be savage in her responses to the work of her own closest friends might also find her own work subjected to savage attack, even by a confidante and admirer like the writer-filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini. A volatile and notoriously unpredictable character, subject to infatuations and bitter resentments of the sort she anatomized in her fiction, Morante produced novels marked by ambivalences fiercely, even desperately evoked.

Well before the appearance of History in 1974, Morante stirred attention with an enormous, badly flawed first novel entitled House of Liars (1951). But she made a much more significant mark with her second novel, Arturo’s Island, which won the 1957 Strega Prize as the best novel of the year in Italy. It is, in its way, a characteristic performance, vehement, implacable, indiscreet in its rage to uncover emotions that are raw and disturbing. Like many American readers, I came to the novel twenty years after its initial appearance, when History: A Novel had made Morante famous, but I heard in it then, and hear in it now, the early expression of a voice at once febrile and unbearably poignant, a voice that would again resonate in Morante’s final novel, Aracoeli (1982), now bravely reissued in a new edition. In both of these novels readers are asked, again and again, to absorb complex shocks of feeling, to attend closely to the painful probing of psychic wounds. These are not, we feel, novels for the faint of heart. The vagrant, occasional evocations of health or joy in such works seem fleeting, often delusional, the stuff of childish infatuation or naïve optimism. Everywhere in these novels we are made to anticipate iniquity and betrayal. Morante was a writer—so we feel— who worked from an intolerable burden of hurt and dispossession, who mistrusted her own inclinations to pleasure and self-approval.

In Arturo’s Island, the note of loss and disillusionment is persistent. Throughout there are references to “my heart’s impossible longings” and “an obscure, violated law.” Arturo himself often feels “like a criminal” who is inexorably “swept along by a terrible cyclone” he is helpless to resist. For all the moments of tenderness or reprieve Morante allows, the coloration of the work is dark, “rage and astonishment” always about to erupt, just as we might well say of Aracoeli, where the accent of self-loathing is even stronger, the sense that nothing can be done to alter anything even more emphatic.

Unlike Arturo’s Island, Aracoeli was not well received in Italy, and most of the reviews in the United States were frankly dismissive and uncomprehending. Perhaps this had much to do with the fact that Aracoeli was a complete departure from History, a work much more varied in its devices and more generous in its sympathies. More probably, Aracoeli was resisted because it opened up a devastated psychological landscape without the slightest intimation of a redemptive prospect. Of course the novel had its loyal adherents, though this reader can only marvel at those—like Stephen Spender—who were pleased to call it “a wonderful book,” or others—like Harold Brodkey—who thought it “fascinating,” hardly the epithets that recommend themselves for a work that is frequently appalling and saturated in self-loathing. The remorseless disinfatuation of the prose in Aracoeli is propelled, sustained, by what can sometimes seem an autonomous dynamism, the rhetoric of “amputation” and “pollution” the essential motor that drives the narrative.

Of course, a work shaped and controlled by an obsessive outlook and a corresponding rhetoric may come to seem monotonous. That is the risk Morante deliberately invites in Aracoeli. Emanuele, its first person narrator, knows that nothing he will tell us can alter or relieve his distress, which can border on the pathological. From the first, what he calls “my little happy life” is consigned, irrevocably, to the past, to a brief, never completely forgotten period of early childhood when things could seem innocent and he could think himself lovable. Almost at once he alludes to the “nameless malady” that would determine the course of his life, and soon the language of the novel is taken over by terms like “irreparable” and “malignancy.” Everything seems determined by a fate that “follows its own logic . . . sure and constant.” “To live,” the narrator contends, “means to experience separation,” where separation entails the loss of love and of a secure identity. Derided—so he believes—by virtually everyone he meets, the narrator of this novel imagines, “when I happen to find myself in a crowd,” that he is “marked out for lynching,” condemned for obscure, inarticulable reasons by the “overwhelming judgment of the Collective,” whatever that may mean.

To be sure, reasons are provided to account for the desperate unhappiness of the 43-year-old narrator, who recounts the trajectory of his life as if it were, in every important respect, at an end. He had been loved by his beautiful, erratic mother Aracoeli, and soon found himself rejected, his mother in the grip of an obscure sexual mania. The father, emotionally distant, reticent, unavailable, could offer nothing in the way of solace. Encouraged by his peers to find refuge in the company of women, Emanuele found himself impotent, inadequate, his consequent compulsive homoerotic excursions similarly dispiriting. Reasons, to be sure. Though Emanuele attempted, without conviction, “to emerge” from the constrictions of his own nature, he labored always in the shadow of “an old fable” in which “an immortal tailor . . . at night goes into the bedrooms of certain mortals he has selected. On them, as they sleep, he sews an invisible shirt, woven with the threads of their destiny.” Emanuele is one of the chosen, who can never tear off the shirt into which he has been sewn.

Can this sense of fatality serve as a sufficient reason to account for the life of such a person? In many ways it is the most compelling of the reasons Morante provides. Throughout the novel the narrator is at pains to insist upon the mystery of things. People are ceaselessly imprisoned by “secrets” they themselves cannot understand. We feel, all of us apparently, or so Morante’s narrator believes, that we are obscurely possessed by a “knowledge” we can never fully fathom. There are powers that enchant us, block our path to change or protest. For each hidden truth we sense but cannot penetrate there is an “ancient law” that decrees the limits of our understanding.

No doubt there are readers who will feel offended by the very suggestion of such a schema. They will say that an adult worthy of our attention over the course of a long novel cannot be made to submit so entirely to anything so nebulous as ancient laws, nor, for that matter, to the unfathomable laws of his own fixed nature. And yet Morante makes her Emanuele an extraordinarily compelling and believable character, whose sense of fatality is oddly suggestive of intimations to which every adult is, in varying degrees, susceptible. Susan Sontag noted, in a late essay, that “characters in a novel have intensely legible fates,” and it is the legible fate of Emanuele to be in the thrall of his own fanatic idea of fatedness, in a way that incapacitates him for healthy development. Is he therefore a one-dimensional figure? Say, rather, as Sontag says of novelists who “perform their necessary ethical work,” that Morante exercises her “right to a stipulated shrinking of the world as it really is” without ever allowing us to forget that the shrinking is the work of a mind, Emanuele’s, that is preternaturally inconsolable. More to the point, perhaps, Morante’s character, though alarmingly single-minded, is yet also open to vagrant impressions he knows not how to harness. There is nothing programmatic in Morante’s novel, no suggestion that the author participates in Emanuele’s fanaticism or offers it as a reliable statement about the laws to which the rest of us are immutably committed.

The ethical vision that underwrites Morante’s novel is discernible—again, in Sontag’s terms—in the “felt intensity” and “completeness” of her portraiture. These qualities demand, so we feel, that we honor her protagonist and care for him, in spite of the appalling, stubborn tenacity of his pessimism. Crucial in making this possible is Morante’s insistence that her Emanuele fitfully regress to dreams and memories of his lost childhood, which are conjured with an affecting immediacy. Just so, a few peripheral characters are permitted to surface and develop without being wholly subordinated to the incessant toils of the narrator’s disposition. Even the mother, Aracoeli herself, though subjected to a merciless dissection and a hideous fate, is permitted now and again to seem irresistibly vital and, for much of the novel, promising. In spite of the dark, downward drift of the narrative, Morante can allow us “a nostalgia of the senses,” in the grip of which the long dead Aracoeli is evoked in “her real, bodily voice, with its tender savor of throat and saliva,” and the son can feel again “on my palate the sensation of her skin, which smelled of fresh plum.”

Such delicacies and transports are, to be sure, rather infrequent in Aracoeli, and yet they do establish a necessary tension that works quietly against the grain of the narrator’s dark fanaticism. In this novel, Morante had the nerve—what George Steiner once called “the indispensable tactlessness”—to immerse her reader in an imagination that would necessarily seem sour and unlovely. But her own inveterate feeling for tenderness and beauty is also unmistakable, as unmistakable as her desire to get to the bottom of something she wishes with all her heart to encompass. There remains, as a residue of our encounter with a novel that is never less than troubling, an impression of a strangeness fully confronted but never fully understood.

—Robert Boyers

21 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

Entertainment Weekly just started a book blog entitled Shelf Life. And thank the gods, so far there’s only one post on Twilight.

21 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

It would be cool to visually share one’s own recommendations of world literature like Richard Whitehead does in The National.

His recommendations are interesting, but it’s too bad he doesn’t include more books from more places . . .

21 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [3]

Yesterday afternoon, Barnes & Noble sent a strong message to Amazon that it’s not about to give up the ghost, no matter how many Kindle accessory ads show up in the New York subway. As reported at Digital Daily, B&N has launched a 700,000 title ebook store (there are only 300,000 titles available for the Kindle, but more on that in a second) that is compatible with the iPhone, Blackberry, PC/Mac desktop, and the much anticipated Plastic Logic eReader.

So now Amazon has the Kindle, Borders has some sort of deal with Sony, and B&N has Plastic Logic . . . things are about to get a lot more interesting in the world of ebooks. Especially in terms of price points for devices and ebooks . . .

There are a few strange things about this announcement by B&N that jumped out at me. First off is this quote from the President of BN.com:

“Today marks the first phase of our digital strategy, which is rooted in the belief that readers should have access to the books in their digital library from any device, from anywhere, at any time,” said William J. Lynch, President of BN.com. “As America’s #1 bookstore and newsstand, our goal at Barnes & Noble is to build a service that revolves around the customer, enabling them to have access to hundreds of thousands of titles and read on their smartphone, PC, and many other existing and future devices. We want to make eBooks simple, accessible, affordable and convenient for everyone.”

As John Paczkowski pointed out in the aforementioned article, by “any device,” he actually means “any device except the Sony eReader, the Kindle, and any soon to be announced Apple device.” What pisses me off about this “business strategy” (don’t even get me started) is how short-sighted all these companies are being. From what I’ve heard in talking to some of the major publishers, ebook sales make up a miniscule portion of overall revenues. Like 3% small. Now rather than try and create a demand in readers for ebooks by working with a universal format (a la mp3s, which play on tons and tons of devices) and then profiting off of the creation of the best ebook store, or best ereader, everyone’s trying to create their own proprietary format to get you, as a customer, locked into their particular system. The existence of its proprietary format is one of the reasons there’s been so many cranky articles about the Kindle and the fact that you don’t really “own” the ebooks you buy, that, like in the case of Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm (irony well noted), they can just vanish from your device . . . But instead of putting the reader’s desires first, corporate bookseller/publishers once again demonstrate their contempt for their customers and their inability to rationally analyze what’s happened in the recent past to the music (not to mention TV and movie) industry . . .

Secondly, this 700,000 title number is pretty sketchy. From the B&N press release:

More than a half-million public domain books from Google, which can be downloaded for free. Readers can discover and explore this rich treasure trove, including everything from classic works by well-known writers to long-forgotten and obscure titles that are historically much harder to access.

So how many titles are actually for sale on the B&N ebook site? Oh, that’s right—approximately 200,000. Which is less than two-thirds of what Amazon has available for the Kindle. But please, don’t let me stand in the way of your “math” and hype—you’re right, your device is bigger, your site is the “World’s Largest eBookstore,” etc. Unfortunately, after downloading the B&N ereading program, I couldn’t find a single book I wanted to buy . . .

(Of course, I probably shouldn’t post this until after my sales call with B&N tomorrow morning . . . )

Over at ZDNet, there’s a really interesting chart at the bottom of their article on this announcement listing all the parts, players, and possible entrants of the “Device Value Chain,” “Platform,” and “Content Value Chain.” Very interesting . . .

20 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

That I didn’t realize New Directions has a blog. Not terribly active, but still, today’s post about Borges’s history with ND is pretty interesting. To provide some context for this quote: earlier in the summer ND held a contest to see if anyone could identify the first publication of Borges by ND. Answer: Two stories (“Investigations on the Death of Herbert Quian” and “The Circular Ruins”) appeared in New Directions in Prose and Poetry 11. And here’s a bit more info from translator Donald Yates:

“This early appearance of Borges’s fiction was the result of James Laughlin’s recognition of Borges’s importance, and no doubt influenced his decision to offer a contract when the manuscript of Labyrinths came across his desk — after it had been rejected by other publishers, including Barney Rosset at Grove Press, who immediately rushed ahead with a translation — by Anthony Kerrigan, et al., — of Borges’s Ficciones — immediately after Borges shared with Samuel Beckett the First International Editors in 1961.

“In a sense, I think it helped in Borges’ critical reception here. A lot of reviewers sat up and paid attention when two Borges collections came across their desk and often (New York Times, e.g.) both were reviewed together. If I had it all to do over again, since we had access to all of Borges’s prose published through 1960, I would have also included `El sur,’ `El aleph.’ and as you point out, `Herbert Quain.’”

“I was properly scolded by my friend Anthony Boucher, who reviewed mystery fiction for the NYTBR, for leaving out that story that touched on a subject close to both our hearts — detective literature. He, by the way, did the first translation ever of a Borges tale in English: `The Garden of Forking Paths,’ which appeared in the August, 1948, issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. In early 1963, Time magazine selected Labyrinths as one of the top ten fiction titles published in 1962. And in 2008 The Authors Society of London named Labyrinths as one of 50 outstanding English-language translations of the previous 50 years.” –Donald Yates

Hopefully ND keeps this up. That place must be a treasure trove of interesting literary anecdotes.

20 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I’ve written in the past about the $9.99 ebook and my belief that supply and demand is the most important factor in arriving at this price point. Over in Slate, Jack Schafer argues that a side-effect of publishers trying to increase ebook prices (because they’re afraid that a cheap ebook will cannibalize the expensive hardcover market, cutting into their already diminishing profit margins), will be a huge rise in piracy:

What has kept illegal e-books from taking off? First, all the electronic reading gadgets on the market are subpar, if you ask me, making the reading of books, newspapers, magazines, and even cereal boxes painful. The resolution is poor. The fonts are crap. The navigation is chunky. Not since the eight-track player has modern technology produced such a heap of garbage. If you’re looking for the reason e-books constitute just 1 percent or 2 percent of all book sales, stop the search. Second, the hassle factor is too great. Only a student or a deadbeat with a lot of time on his hands is going to want to search the Web and scour the torrents for, say, a free, bootlegged copy of A.J. Liebling’s The Telephone Booth Indian. It’s as tedious as fishing! Third, not all bootlegged e-books are created equal. On finally finding that free book you so desire, you may find yourself wishing you had purchased the legal edition: Your bootleg may be filled with typographical errors, thanks to the slipshod application of optical character-recognition software. If a nicely produced Kindle version of The Telephone Booth Indian that doesn’t have to be monkeyed around with can be easily nabbed for $9.99, which it can, why bother breaking the law to obtain an inferior edition for display on a rotten device? It’s like using an acetylene torch to loot a kid’s piggy bank. [. . .]

So far, few consumers think books should be free—a fact that I attribute to the klugy Kindle and its affordable Amazon store. I conducted an informal census of friends and associates who read lots of books, and I found none who partake of the bootlegged variety. But that could change in a matter of months if the book industry insists on 1) jacking up the price of e-books and 2) withholding potential best-sellers from the e-book market. Cool devices that make electronic reading painless are just around the corner, and the e-book market is about to explode. If publishers insist on pushing prices too high and curbing availability, consumers could rebel—as they did with the sharing of MP3s—and normalize the trafficking of infringing e-books.

20 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the weekend Bob Stein at the Institute for the Future of the Book blogged about the video below, calling it “the most exciting vision of the book of the future since Apple’s Knowledge Navigator in 1987,” and point out that “interestingly, the film also includes an elegant solution to the question of how (at least during this transitional period) bookstores might participate in the sales of ebooks. note this idea is more practical in Europe where Amazon and other online retailers are not allowed to compete on price.”

By the way, the video is entirely in French:

20 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Although I’m personally not a reader of Scandinavian crime fiction (unless you can somehow count Jan Kjaerstad’s trilogy in that group, which is closer to a leap than a stretch), I find the debate between Nathaniel Rich and Larissa Kyzer about why these books are so popular pretty fascinating.

First off, here’s the core of Rich’s explanation, which he articulated in this Slate review of the new Stieg Larsson book:

What distinguishes these books is not some element of Nordic grimness but their evocation of an almost sublime tranquility. When a crime occurs, it is shocking exactly because it disrupts a world that, at least to an American reader, seems utopian in its peacefulness, happiness, and orderliness. There is a good reason why Mankell’s corpses tend to turn up in serene, bucolic settings—on a country farm, on a bobbing raft, in a secluded meadow, or in the middle of a snow-covered field: A dark bloodstain in a field of pure, white snow is far creepier than a body ditched in a trash-littered alley.

Well, Kyzer takes great exception to that in her L Magazine piece:

One need only skim recent headlines from mainland Scandinavia (Denmark, Norway, and Sweden) to ascertain that the famed tranquility of the Nordic welfare state has begun to face some dramatic challenges. For instance: each of these countries has seen a marked increase in immigration in the last few decades, an influx which has challenged the homogeneity of the local populations, and more often than not, created quite an existential crisis for societies which have for so long been able to claim a fundamental sameness in traditions, language, and cultural outlook.

She then goes on to offer a different explanation:

It’s then more accurate to say that Scandinavian crime novels are not set apart from similar traditions simply because of the consistent contrast between peaceful settings and “the tawdriness of the crimes,” but rather, that the genre is unique because it tends to hold its society up to itself and take an unflinchingly honest stock of its failures. So often, these are novels of conscience and reflection. Novels which, in their own small way, take responsibility for a social system which makes earnest promises of inclusion and protection, but continues to fail so many of its constituents.

Both are rather interesting articles, and I’m sure many others will weigh in on this as well . . .

20 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

A few months ago we posted about the University of Texas Press’s decision to relaunch its Latin American literature in translation series. (And at some point soon we’ll have a full review of the first new title in the series, And Let the Earth Tremble at its Centers by Gonzalo Celorio.)

Well on Friday I found out that Texas Tech University Press is taking over The Americas series, which Irene Vilar launched at the University of Wisconsin some years ago. Irene is a successful author in her own right (The Ladies’ Gallery was translated by Gregory Rabassa to critical acclaim and her new memoir, Impossible Motherhood, will be out from Other Press later this year), and has put together a killer advisory board and is relaunching the series with a number of interesting titles.

Up first is David Toscana’s The Last Reader (translated from the Spanish by Asa Zatz), which releases in October and sounds interesting:

In tiny Icamole, an almost deserted village in Mexico’s desert north, the librarian, Lucio, is also the village’s only reader. Though it has not rained for a year in Icamole, when Lucio’s son Remigio draws the body of a thirteen-year-old girl from his well, floodgates open on dark possibility. Strangely enamored of the dead girl’s beauty and fearing implication, Remigio turns desperately to his father. Persuading his son to bury the body, Lucio baptizes the girl Babette, after the heroine of a favorite novel. Is Lucio the keeper of too many stories? As police begin to investigate, has he lost his footing? Or do revelation and resolution lie with other characters and plots from his library? Toscana displays brilliant mastery of the novel—in all its elements—as Lucio keeps every last reader guessing.

Other forthcoming novels in the series include Breathing, In Dust by Tim Z. Hernandez, Symphony in White by Brazilian author Adriana Lisboa (and translated by Sarah Green), and Chango, the Baddest Dude by Colombian author Manuel Zapata Olivella (and translated by Jonathan Tittler). All of these sound really interesting—especially the Lisboa. She was selected by the organizers of the Bogota World Book Capital as one of the thirty-nine highest-profile Latin American writers under the age of thirty-nine, and she also won the Jose Saramago Fiction Prize for Symphony in White.

More importantly, it’s great to see this series coming back to life, and to see Texas continue to be one of the hotspots for translation.

17 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

The first twelve winners of the European Union Prize for Literature were announced earlier this week with the aim of bringing increased attention to the contemporary European literature.

This is a bit of an odd prize—each year an award is given to one author from 11 or 12 of the various EU countries. The list of countries for 2009 are listed below, and 2010 will honor writers from Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Finland, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Romania, Slovenia and Spain, with 2011 featuring Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Greece, Iceland, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Malta, Serbia, The Netherlands, Turkey and United Kingdom.

The winners are selected by qualified juries set up in each of the respective countries, and the winning authors have to have published between 2 and 5 works of fiction, with the winning book coming out within the past five years. (Got it?)

Anyway, thanks to EU funding, these books should be translated into a number of languages . . . maybe even English. Which would be great. There’s not a lot of info about the actual books available on the EU Prize website . . . If anyone out there is interested in reviewing any of these for Three Percent, please let me know (chad.post at rochester dot edu). It would be cool to provide some additional information about each of these books, instead of simply listing them . . . But for now, here are your first twelve recipients of the European Union Prize for Literature:

AUSTRIA
Paulus Hochgatterer for Die Sü be des Lebens (The Sweetness of Life). Published by Paul Zsolnay Verlag and in English by MacLehose Press.

CROATIA
Mila Pavicevic for Djevojčica od leda i druge bajke (Ice Girl and Other Fairy-tales). Published by Naklada Bošković.

FRANCE
Emmanuelle Pagano for Les Adolescents troglodytes. Published by Editions P.O.L.

HUNGARY
Szécsi Noémi for Kommunista Monte Cristo (Communist Monte Cristo). Published by Tericum.

IRELAND
Karen Gillece for Longshore Drift. Published by Hachette.

ITALY
Daniele Del Giudice for Orizzonte mobile (Movable Horizon). Published by Giulio Einaudi.

LITHUANIA
Laura Sintija Černiauskaitė for Kvėpavimas į marmurą (Breathing into Marble). Published by Alma Littera.

NORWAY
Carl Frode Tiller for Innsirkling (Encirclement). Published by Aschehoug. (Funny—here’s a post about Tiller from Frankfurt a few years ago.)

POLAND
Jacek Dukaj for LÓD (ICE). Published by Wydawnictwo Literackie.

PORTUGAL
Dulce Maria Cardoso for Os Meus Sentimentos. Published by Asa Editores.

SLOVAKIA
Pavol Rankov for Stalo sa prvého septembra (alebo inokedy) (It Happened on September the First (or whenever)). Published by Kalligram.

SWEDEN
Helena Henschen for I skuggan av ett brott (The Shadow of a Crime). Published by Brombergs.

17 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Jose Manuel Prieto’s Rex is one of my favorite books so far from 2009, and Esther Allen is one of my favorite translation people. Which is why I’m thrilled that CAT just made available this series of audio clips from a discussion between Prieto and Allen from earlier this year.

17 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

From this month’s featured independent bookstore:

Skylight Books turns it up a notch in July and August with Hot Summer Nights extending their hours till Midnight on Fridays and Saturdays for the rest of the summer. Located in a busy, walking-friendly neighborhood of Los Feliz and accentuated beautiful California weather, Hot Summer Nights is definitely the independent bookstore to visit. Skylight is bringing in dj’s, showing movies, featuring live music, and offering discounts on books featured in the weekly theme. Late night Twitter and Facebook contests get everyone involved even if they aren’t there to enjoy the sweet treats and libations!

Which sounds like a great time. And like something other stores could be doing as well . . . When I worked at Schuler Books & Music in Grand Rapids, MI, I was always amazed by how many people would come out on a Friday or Saturday night just to browse, talk, drink coffee, etc. The store really was a destination . . . makes me wish Rochester still had a cool independent . . .

16 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our reviews section is a piece by Timothy Jourdan on Annie Ernaux’s The Possession, which is translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis and recently published by Seven Stories.

Here’s the start of the review:

Over the past decade, Seven Stories has brought out a number of Annie Ernaux titles, including A Man’s Place, A Woman’s Story, and A Simple Passion to great critical acclaim. The Possession, which was originally published in France in 2002, is the most recent title of hers to be beautifully rendered in English by Anna Moschovakis (who also translated Georges Simenon’s _The Engagement).

This is a very slim novel, a precise, almost objective depiction of a woman’s jealousy post-love affair, when after breaking up with her boyfriend of the past six years, she finds out that he’s moving in with another woman.

“This woman filled my head, my chest, and my gut; she was always with me, she took control of my emotions. At the same time, her omnipresence gave my life a new intensity. It produced stirrings that I had never felt before, released a kind of energy, powers of imagination I didn’t know I had; it held me in a state of constant, feverish activity.

“I was, in both senses of the word, possessed.”

Click here for the full review.

16 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the past decade, Seven Stories has brought out a number of Annie Ernaux titles, including A Man’s Place, A Woman’s Story, and A Simple Passion to great critical acclaim. The Possession, which was originally published in France in 2002, is the most recent title of hers to be beautifully rendered in English by Anna Moschovakis (who also translated Georges Simenon’s _The Engagement).

This is a very slim novel, a precise, almost objective depiction of a woman’s jealousy post-love affair, when after breaking up with her boyfriend of the past six years, she finds out that he’s moving in with another woman.

This woman filled my head, my chest, and my gut; she was always with me, she took control of my emotions. At the same time, her omnipresence gave my life a new intensity. It produced stirrings that I had never felt before, released a kind of energy, powers of imagination I didn’t know I had; it held me in a state of constant, feverish activity.

I was, in both senses of the word, possessed.

The narrator—whose voice is so clear, so telling, that it’s hard not to believe that this book isn’t based on experiences that Ernaux suffered through—then proceeds to provide a step-by-step depiction of the onset of jealousy and the way it can consume one’s life. One of the most poignant moments—for anyone who’s had a spouse cheat on them—is also quoted on the back of the book:

The strangest thing about jealousy is that it can populate an entire city—the whole world—with a person you may never have met.

Having lived through a similar situation, I can say with certainty that Ernaux nails a lot of the strange, contradictory desires that come up when trying to process this sort of consuming jealous. Such as her quest for knowledge about the “other woman” (“I absolutely had to know her name, her age, her profession, her address. I discovered that these details by which society defines a person’s identity, which we so easily dismiss as irrelevant to truly knowing someone, are in fact essential.”), and the reaction against all that this other person embodies (“I discovered that I hated all female professors—though I myself had been one, and many of my friends still were.”), to a desire to reclaim the past (“When I wasn’t preoccupied with the other woman, I fell prey to the attacks of an outside world bent on reminding me of our common past, which now felt to me like an irremediable loss.”).

The Possession is a very rational portrait of how a person falls prey to the “green-eyed monster” and how jealous can become all-consuming passion (or possession). But it’s also about the end of jealousy. About how life moves on and people—most people—put their lives back together and stop Googling this other woman/man every day.

Although brief, this is a surprisingly complete book. My one reservation is that it can be a bit clinical at times. It’s a retrospective look at jealousy, and as such, loses a bit of its emotional power by too objectively examining the distress and unhinged nature of someone coping with a situation such as this. Nevertheless, it’s definitely worth reading.

14 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

OK, I fell a bit behind on updating our Indie Bookstore of the Month. And I wasn’t able to do all that I wanted to do for The Booksmith. But now that things in my life are calming down, I’m ready to get back into this, and as a result, for the rest of July and all of August we will be be featuring Skylight Books in Los Angeles.

Skylight is an interesting store. It’s one of the few independents that recently expanded, it has a cool tree growing inside, Kerry Slattery, Charles Hauther, and Monica Carter are all fantastic booksellers. (As are the rest of the staff, I’m sure—these are just the three I know.)

So barring another catastrophe, there will be several more posts about Skylight over the next six weeks or so.

14 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Yesterday’s Publishing Perspectives (which you should really subscribe to if you haven’t already—it is that consistently good) had an interesting piece about a digital distribution company for ebooks that is being set up by Planeta, Random House Mondadori, and Santillana (the three biggest publishers in Spain). Here’s more from Emily Williams’s article:

This initiative will go hand in hand with a major marketing effort starting with a splashy launch of e-books and e-readers this holiday season through at least one major retailer. They have set a goal of having every frontlist title able to be published simultaneously in both print and ebook form by mid 2011. [. . .]

In negotiations with the Association of Spanish Literary Agencies (ADAL), the publishers have agreed to price ebooks at 80% of a printed books cover price, with a standard 25% royalty rate. Booksellers will be offered a maximum discount of 50%. The two groups hope to sign an agreement soon.

Although the Carmen Balcells Agency isn’t too keen on this 25% royalty rate (they want 40%!! Not sure if they realize yet that although they have a stellar list of authors, this means absolutely nothing if there are no publishers in business to publish said authors’ books. Agents!), this seems pretty civilized and like the Big Three actually thought this all through.

What’s really interesting to me is this 80% of printed retail. In a completely free market, I still believe that supply and demand will bring the amount readers are willing to pay much closer to $9.99 than 80% of a typical hardcover. But, like in a number of countries, Spain operates under a fixed price law that determines what price books are sold to the public. In other words, there is no discounting, which greatly changes the retailing landscape.

This “long tail effect” has not yet had much of an impact on the Spanish book market, which has not embraced online book retailing to the same extent as other countries. Spain reliance on fixed book prices has kept away powerful online discounters like Amazon.com. This gives publishers much more leeway to experiment with pricing on their own terms, and will also determine how Spanish ebooks will be sold internationally. In most cases Spanish publishers control the worldwide Spanish language rights to the books they publish (both native and translated authors) and will be able to sell their ebooks to consumers anywhere in the world. However, because of price controls those purchases will have to go through Spanish booksellers or other sites that respect the terms set by the Spanish market. This would likely exclude Amazon, who will not only be unable to sell books in Spain, but will not have access to the vast majority of Spanish language titles for either the US or Latin American market.

Anne-Solange Noble of Gallimard is a huge proponent of this law, and was asking me at BEA about why we don’t do this in America. (Short answer: propose something anti-free market like this and you’ll be tarred and feathered as a Communist.) Her argument is that the fixed price law has helped keep independent bookstores in business, and allowed publishers to continue to publish poetry and other sorts of books that typically don’t sell all that well.

Personally, I am in favor of something like this, because it would level the playing field in a potentially interesting way. Part of the problem with the book industry is the fact that every outlet has raced toward the middle, and the same books are being promoted at all the stores at the same time. With certain exceptions (the City Lights, McNally Jacksons, Seminary Co-ops of the world), most stores strive to be the same as every other store. You can get the same book anywhere—even online. So for your average reader, price becomes the only distinguishing factor between B&N, Amazon, or Idlewild. If the ability to set your own prices were removed, it would be a lot easier (or tougher, depending on your point of view) to highlight the value-added components of these outlets.

Putting all that rhetoric aside for a second, the other reason I think this is such an important story is the line about Spanish publishers being able to sell their books all over the world. When I was in Buenos Aires last year, this “Spanish world rights” issue really caught my attention. Since the largest Spanish language publishers are in Spain, and since they tend to buy world Spanish rights to the books they publish, a reader in Argentina has to pay an exorbitant amount for a book imported from Spain. Ebooks solve this dilemma, eliminating all of the shipping costs, etc., and, if the device is cheap/good enough, could revolutionize the Spanish market around the world.

14 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

CALQUE has an excellent piece by translator Vincent Kling on the recent death of Austrian writer Gert Jonke. Kling’s piece and the five short pieces he translated are all worth reading, but here are a few highlights:

Parody is alive and well: a rough parallel from the 2008 election in the United States is found in the considerable part Tina Fay played on Saturday Night Live in focusing opposition to Sarah Palin – rough because Jonke was a master at making political points without such direct reference. In one of his last plays, for instance, a character laments that the national assembly has sold all the air space over the country to a monopolistic advertising agency, which will erect huge banners to blot out the sun, moon, stars, the birds in flight, and the wind. Too buffoonishly over the top? Not when people in Vienna recall that the tower of the cathedral and other landmarks were long draped by scaffolding over which advertisements for insurance companies were hung and that one firm has in fact recently been granted exclusive legal rights to all the billboards in the city. [. . .]

Ordered perceptions are a sometime thing anyway. “Hyperbole 1,” from a series of snapshots or vignettes in drama form called Insektarium, is one of several studies by Jonke showing the social origins of perception and memory. That process forms the basis of his Geometric Regional Novel. If the difference between how the human eye and the insect eye perceive their surroundings is a marvel of nature, it might be even more miraculous to ponder how different the outside world can appear to any two human observers. The man and the woman are watching the same circus performance but placing opposite meanings on the same phenomena. Even as the show is taking place, not after it, the observers are “distorting” reality by negotiating an understanding of what they’re seeing and then storing those “distortions” in their memory. [. . .]

“The Projector” is thus a shorter, funnier, but not less powerful version of stories like George Perec’s W or The Memory of Childhood, Doron Rabinovici’s The Search for M., or W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, right down to the realization that restoring memory, or being provided one in the first place, starts the process of resolution almost regardless of how dreadful the events were. Not knowing what one intuits is worse, because the horror is present in sublimated but damaging form, unavailable for processing. The spotless mind does not experience eternal sunshine, to cite another film about memory, for it isn’t spotless; its blankness is already a taint. Nor is the conferring or denying of memory unconnected here with rewarding or punishing consumer behavior; the owner of the movie theater reserves the right to make the audience happy or miserable based purely on payment, so the tensions of capitalist structures, always present in Jonke and always reduced to their logical absurdities, make up another theme.

Jonke was an amazing author, and thanks to Dalkey Archive and Ariadne Books, a number of titles are now available (or will be shortly), all of which can be ordered from Skylight Books by clicking here.

13 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Following up on my earlier post about Benjamin Moser’s forthcoming Lispector biography, Why This World, I want to correct some information about her available titles.

In addition to all the New Directions ones I listed on the original post, Family Ties is also available from the University of Texas Press, and this fall, the UK based Haus Publishing will be reissuing The Apple in the Dark with a new introduction by Moser.

(Haus is one of the coolest presses I’ve come across recently. Found out about them at the London Book Fair thanks to their connection with American University of Cairo Press. And the fact that they do amazing work. More on them in a separate post . . .)

(And granted, I’m not very old, but once, one of my interns was reading Family Ties and I made a joke about Michael J. Fox and the TV show. As it turns out, my befuddled intern wasn’t born until after the show had gone off the air.)

10 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Back a few weeks ago when The Guardian was running its series of short stories from Eastern Europe, I mentioned our forthcoming anthology, The Wall in My Head: Words and Images from the Fall of the Iron Curtain, which releases on November 9th, marking the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Well, to build up to the launch of this very cool book (just wait until you see the layout and all the images), we’ve set up a special blog that, over the course of the next few months, will feature articles from a variety of translators, authors, and journalists, images both from the book and ones that we couldn’t fit in, maps of the area at the time, and a “this day in 1989” feature.

Here’s a bit from Rohan’s initial post explaining a bit more about the book itself:

The Wall in My Head dwells extensively; humorously, poignantly, quirkily, on different views of the fall of the Iron Curtain—that of the generation of writers that witnessed it and often, had played a role in bringing it down, and more recently, the generation that inherited a memory of the Cold War and who write in the shadow of its monuments of division.

We hope that the publication of this book will prompt discussion about the events of ’89 and their relevance to today’s world, one in which the prospect of change has once again assumed a vital importance. To encourage this exchange of ideas, we have asked a variety of people; writers, translators, scholars, and witnesses to the events of those last years of the Cold War, to blog for us for the next several months. Their dispatches will range from discussions of the contents of the book to observations about current events and important anniversaries, as well as posts on the art, photography and film of the last years of the Cold War. I hope you’ll follow along, and that you’ll join in with your comments, as well as your own recollections, observations and news about this important anniversary.

And seriously, if you have anything you’d like to contribute—be it a personal essay, picture, or whatever—please let me know at chad.post at rochester dot edu.

There’s also a great post by Oana Sanziana Marian about Dan Sociu’s Urbancholia, which is excerpted in the book, and is looking for an American publisher. (Hint, hint.)

In addition to the articles, this is the perfect place to pre-order the book . . . and it is pretty spectacular. Here’s the complete table of contents:

Introduction by Keith Gessen

From The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera (Translated by Linda Asher)

From Paris Lost by Wladimir Kaminer (Translated by Liesl Schillinger)

From Omon Ra by Victor Pelevin (Translated by Andrew Bromfield)

“Petition” by Mihály Kornis (Translated by Ivan Sanders)

From Moving House by Paweł Huelle (Translated by Michael Kandel)

“Nabokov in Brasov” by Mircea Cărtărescu (Translated by Julian Semlian)

From Waltz for K by Dmitri Savitski (Translated by Kingsley Shorter)

“On Eugen Jebeleanu” by Matthew Zapruder

Poems from Secret Weapon by Eugen Jebeleanu (Translated by Matthew Zapruder)

From Imperium by Ryszard Kapuściński (Translated by Klara Glowczewska)

From The Tower by Uwe Tellkamp (Translated by Annie Janusch)

“My Grandmother the Censor” by Masha Gessen

From The Wall Jumper by Peter Schneider (Translated by Leigh Hafrey)

“Farewell to the Queue” by Vladimir Sorokin (Translated by Jamey Gambrell)

“Tower of Song: How the Plastic People of the Universe Helped to Shape the Velvet Revolution” by Paul Wilson

“The Revenge” by Annett Gröschner (Translated by Ingrid Lansford)

“The Souvenirs of Communism” by Dubravka Ugrešić (Translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać)

“The Road to Bornholm” by Durs Grünbein (Translated by Ingrid Lansford)

“Regardless of the Cost: Reflections on Péter Esterházy’s Revised Edition“ by Judith Sollosy

“Author’s Preface to Revised Edition“ by Péter Esterházy (Translated by Judith Sollosy)

From Mandarins by Stanislav Komárek (Translated by Melvyn Clarke)

“Brother and Sister” by Christhard Läpple (Translated by Steven Rendall)

“Faraway, So Gross” by Dorota Masłowska (Translated by Benjamin Paloff)

From Urbancholia by Dan Sociu (Translated by Oana Sanziana Marian)

“That Fear” by Andrjez Stasiuk (Translated by Michael Kandel)

“Speech at the Opening Session of the 13th German Bundestag” by Stefan Heym (Translated by John K. Cox)

“The Life and Times of a Soviet Capitalist” by Irakli Iosebashvili

“The War Within” by Maxim Trudolubov (Translated by Alexei Bayer)

“Any Beach But This” by David Zábranský (Translated by Robert Russell)

“The Noble School” by Muharem Bazdulj (Translated by John K. Cox)

You can also pre-order simply by clicking on the image below.

10 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Very interesting interview with Susan Bernofsky (“widely considered to be one of the best English translators of German literature today,” who has translated Robert Walser, Jenny Erpenbeck, and Yoko Tawada, among others) in The Brooklyn Rail.

Theoretically, this interview is supposed to be about her forthcoming translation of The Tanners (releasing from New Directions this fall, and yes, another BTB2010 nominee), but it gets really interesting (it’s always interesting, but you know) when she starts talking more generally about translation, language, and culture:

Rail: In an introductory note to Yoko Tawada’s The Naked Eye, you say that as she wrote the book certain sentences occurred to her in German and others in Japanese, so that she eventually wound up writing two versions of the same book. Do you have a sense of why this happened?

Bernofsky: Yoko Tawada’s very interested in the way our lives look the moment you start talking about them in a foreign language. And she’s right—words and experiences in different cultural contexts tend to have a different weight, different implications, and so walking on the border between two cultures as she does means constantly being confronted with one’s own experience as the experience of an other. I think that’s fascinating, and it’s very true to my own experience of living in Germany and traveling to yet other countries. I wish I could read The Naked Eye in Japanese to see how it differs from the German version I read, but I don’t speak a word of Japanese. I hope someone translates it into English someday.

Rail: You’ve written a lot about translation, often drawing connections between current translation theory and ideas in Romantic philosophy. How are the two related?

Bernofsky: The German Romantic translation theorists—above all Friedrich Schleiermacher, but also Wilhelm von Humboldt and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe—were deeply concerned with the connection between a language and a nation or people, and so to them translating in such a way as to respect and preserve the cultural characteristics of the language you’re translating from is an important first step in getting to know another culture and its people in a respectful way. A lot of translation theorists and cultural critics today are interested in the dichotomy between translation as assimilation and as an avenue for approaching the foreign with genuine openness and curiosity.

And for all Walser fans out there who are waiting for a solid biography:

Rail: How difficult has it been to write a biography of Walser, considering not very much is known about his life?

Bernofsky: My book about Walser is a book of gaps, and not only because I still have quite a way to go before arriving at a finished draft. I’ve been thinking about and planning this book for several years now, and it’s getting written in little thematic chunks. The fact remains that there are vast stretches of Walser’s life about which very little is known, periods when we don’t have much of his correspondence and no one else is talking much about what he was up to—particularly in the nineteen-teens. But I’m fascinated by the overlaps between his fiction and his life, the way he actually lived out some of the themes that interested him. He really did attend a training school for servants, for example, though it bears very little resemblance to the school depicted in Jakob von Gunten. And then he went to work as an assistant butler in a castle in Silesia, which he didn’t write about until many years later, in the story “Tobold (II),” which I translated for Masquerade. I don’t think he was doing research for his writing when he took that job. I think he really was interested in the possibility of supporting himself with such a position. He didn’t want anyone at the castle to know he was a published author, either. He had his publisher write to him only using plain envelopes without the firm’s insignia, which would have blown his cover. I’m not sure he was such a good servant either, if the account of this episode he wrote in fictional form years later is any indication.

9 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Very interesting speech from Richard Nash on the future of publishing and the need for publishers and readers to be more connected:

(Some Twitterer mentioned that Richard seemed a bit like Tom Cruise in Magnolia . . . I can see that.)

9 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The second issue of The Critical Flame is now available online, including a review of J.M.G. Le Clezio’s Desert by Scott Esposito:

Desert was acclaimed as Le Clézio’s “breakout” novel by the Swedish Academy, but the book’s mass appeal can be difficult to see at first — it is not the easiest read to get into. It starts with a gathering of thousands of Moroccans around the famous sheik Ma el Aïnine, a man who led an anti-colonial jihad in the first quarter of the 20th century and succeeded in deposing the Sultan before being turned back by the French military. Although we are introduced to certain characters in this opening scene, Le Clézio’s vantage is so wide that we never attain any degree of intimacy with anyone, and it is clear that what most interests Le Clézio is painting a portrait of this incredible accumulation of human beings and the environment in which they wait. Notably, in this opening section Le Clézio never once directly mentions the broader historical forces in which these people are caught up, or even the reason for which they will march. Though Desert is informed by those turn-of-the-century maladies, colonialism and warfare, it is not about either of these topics in the least. Le Clézio only cares for the lived experience of people caught up in these forces, and he does not dilute their lives with recourse to philosophical or historical abstraction. His panorama is powerful for its sense of humanity amassing in religious conviction from out of the wide and empty desert, but those looking to fiction for vivid characters and a strong sense of plot might be put off by these first fifty pages. [. . .]

All that is to say that Desert is not a page-turner, a fact most evident in the Lalla sections. As befits a book attempting to articulate a non-Western sensibility, Desert moves to a rhythm of its own, and those not willing to embrace the book on its own terms will likely find it dull. But those readers who are able to open their mind will find a rich portrayal of a distant way of life and a writer who is working quite hard to find a language with which to convey it.

9 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

PW offers up some encouraging news about the book business on Wall St.:

Led by a remarkable rebound by book retailers, the Publishers Weekly Stock Index jumped 23.9% in the first six months of 2009, easily beating the Dow Jones Industrial Average, which declined 3.7% in the January through June period.

That’s great, although also a bit heartbreaking . . . Back at the beginning of the year, shortly after Borders hit its stock low of $.40, I talked a lot of smack about investing a small amount of money, convinced that there was no way this would stay below a $1.00. Well, as of June 30 the price is $3.68 . . . I was one bit of confidence away from making around $8,000 for every $1,000 invested . . . the best laid plans . . .

Not that the meteoric rise in the Borders stock price has to stop there: just wait until they launch a U.S. version of Happily Ever After, their bookish online dating site. . . .

9 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

From today’s Publishing Perspectives piece by Moser about the origins of his project (Why This World) and all that he went through to research this elusive figure:

Maybe because the project began with such élan, I found myself undaunted by the many obstacles that were thrown at me. Neither the cuisine of rural Ukraine, where Clarice, the daughter of Jewish refugees was born; nor the rush-hour traffic in Recife, where she grew up; nor the zealous guardians of the archives of Bern, where she lived as the wife of a Brazilian diplomat, could dissuade me from my task.

I pored over thousands of pages of master’s theses from obscure universities; I learned Yiddish in order to read family memoirs. Time and again, I tugged out an abusively overused credit card: to buy books, including, ultimately, more copies of her rare first novel, Near to the Wild Heart, than are in all the libraries in the United States put together; to chase down some elusive materials in a suburban house in Manchester; to pay a visit to a man in Paris who may or may not have been her lover (he wasn’t); to put myself on yet another fourteen-hour economy flight in order to spend long days speaking to often-reluctant witnesses.

I got called an anti-Semite and an Ugly American; I also got to spend afternoons with loving Jewish grandmothers who made me tea and sent their maids to my hotel with homemade soup when I came down with the flu. I got to eat pizza with a woman in Kiev who had just returned from Chernobyl and who casually laid her Geiger counter on the table as she was digging through her purse in search of her cigarettes.

9 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I agree with Michael Orthofer, the interaction between super-agent Andrew Wylie and super-awesome Playboy editor Amy Grace Loyd over the first-serial rights to Nabokov’s The Original of Laura is a bit gross.

From the New York Observer:

It was an inspired method, the flowers serving as a reference to Nabokov’s 1969 novel Ada, or Ardor, which was excerpted in Playboy—thus a reminder for Mr. Wylie of the magazine’s long and treasured association with the author. “It was part of my pitch to Andrew that Nabokov really liked publishing with Playboy, and how devoted Hef is to Nabokov and his legacy,” Ms. Loyd said.

Mr. Wylie was initially unresponsive.

“I would get nice notes back from him, but he really wouldn’t give me anything,” said Ms. Loyd, who’d curated a special feature marking the 50th anniversary of Nabokov’s Lolita as part of her tryout for the job.

Of course, Wylie tried to place this with The New Yorker, which apparently wasn’t all that interested.

So, the super-agent (once referred to as “The Greediest Man at Frankfurt”) came crawling back on his knees with some insane demands.

There were a few sticking points in the negotiation, chiefly the fact that Mr. Wylie wanted Ms. Loyd to give an offer on the book without first reading a page of it.

Who does that? Oh, nevermind, don’t answer that. I’m just glad Amy got her piece . . . and hopefully a long, long shower.

7 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

Thanks to everyone who pointed out how I screwed up the links to the latest versions of the 2008 and 2009 translation databases . . . Everything should be fixed now.

And if you don’t feel like revisiting the original post, here are the correct links:

2008 Translations

2009 Translations

Sorry it’s taken so long to correct—been a bit preoccupied of late, but things are quickly getting back to normal around here . . .

7 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

One of the fall books that I’m really looking forward to is Benjamin Moser’s biography of Clarice Lispector entitled Why This World, which, according to the back jacket, is “based on previously unknown manuscripts, numerous interviews, and years of research on three continents.”

Moser replaced the late John Leonard as the author of Harper’s “New Books” column, and is also a contributor to New York Review of Books. (And his mom runs Brazos Bookstore—a future featured indie bookstore.)

Lispector was born in the Ukraine, but grew up in Brazil and wrote all of her works in Portuguese. Most of her books are available from New Directions, including The Hour of the Star, Selected Cronicas, and Soulstorm. (University of Texas did Apple in the Dark a number of years ago, but it’s currently out-of-print.)

She was a fascinating writer, and her life sounds equally intriguing. I’m hoping to write a full review of this bio in the not-too-distant future, but here’s a bit from the beginning about the mysterious, beautiful Clarice Lispector:

In this void of information a whole mythology sprang up. Reading accounts of her at different points in her life, one can hardly believe they concern the same person. The points of disagreement were not trivial. “Clarice Lispector” was once thought to be a pseudonym, and her original name was not known until after her death. Where exactly she was born and how old she was were also unclear. Her nationality was questioned and the identity of her native language was obscure. One authority will testify that she was right-wing and another will hint that she was a Communist. One will insist that she was a pious Catholic, though she was actually a Jew. Rumor will sometimes have it that she was a lesbian, though at one point rumor also had it that she was, in fact, a man.

What makes this tangle of contradictions so odd is that Clarice Lispector is not a hazy figure known from shreds of antique papyrus. She has been dead hardly thirty years. Many people survive who knew her well. She was prominent virtually from adolescence, her life was extensively documented in the press, and she left behind an extensive correspondence. Still, few great modern artists are quite as fundamentally unfamiliar. How can a person who lived in a large Western city in the middle of the twentieth century, who gave interviews, lived in high-rise apartments, and traveled by air, remain so enigmatic?

1 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

I know things have been pretty quiet around here of late—I’ve been out of the office and am detail with some personal issues, so I might not be posting as much as usual for the next couple weeks—but since July 1st is such a great day for spreadsheets, I thought I’d post updated versions of the 2008 and 2009 translation databases.

As always, these spreadsheets contain info on never-before-translated works of fiction and poetry distributed in the U.S. (I left off anything that’s been published in English translation before, even if the earlier version was censored, corrupt, etc. Just trying to focus on what new titles are being made available to English readers.)

The numbers shift a bit over time, with books being delayed from 2008 to 2009, new titles being uncovered, etc. But although I’m not sure these are 100% accurate, I know we’re damn close. (That said, if you see anything missing, please let me know: chad.post at rochester dot edu.)

So, some comparisons:

In 2008, there were 362 translations published in the States (282 works of fiction, 80 works of poetry). That number is down significantly in 2009 (although the data is incomplete) to 299 total translations (249 works of fiction, 50 poetry collections).

Assuming I have all the books from Jan – June, the numbers are a bit closer: 195 books published in 2008 through June, 173 (down 11%) in 2009. (I have a feeling that I’m missing some poetry and small press titles and will check a lot of websites this month and post another update in the near future.)

In terms of languages translated, the top five for both years are remarkably similar, with only French and Spanish switching places:

2008
French 59 books, 16.30% of total
Spanish 48, 13.26%
German 32, 8.84%
Arabic 28, 7.73%
Japanese 23, 6.35%

2009
Spanish 48 books, 16.05% of total
French 43, 14.38%
German 27, 9.03%
Arabic 17, 5.69%
Japanese 17, 5.69%

In terms of publishers (and this is where I think I need to do additional research), in 2008, 141 different presses did at least one book in translation, and in 2009, I’ve only identified 108 so far.

There’s more that can get teased out of these spreadsheets, and hopefully with the next update 2009 will be much closer to last year . . .

26 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our review section is a piece on Juan Filloy’s Op Oloop, which was translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman and is forthcoming from Dalkey Archive Press.

Pretty interesting book from a very interesting author:

The first time I heard of Juan Filloy was during an editorial trip to Germany, organized by the German Book Office and including a day of “speed dating” with other publishers. It was at one of my first “dates” that I met the very hip editors from Tropen Verlag who, after finding out that I worked at Dalkey Archive, the publisher of David Markson’s best works, suggested that instead of doing any of the German authors they might recommend, the one author that Dalkey absolutely had to publish was the Argentine writer Juan Filloy, especially his Op Oloop.

Before even getting to his actual novels, there’s a lot Filloy had going for him:

  • He lived in three centuries—born in the nineteenth, and passing away in 2000 at the age of 106;

  • Julio Cortazar loved him, references his Caterva in chapter 108 of Hopscotch;

  • Freud was a fan of Op Oloop, which led to a personal correspondence between the two;

  • Filloy was a lover of palindromes and wrote over 6,000;

  • and, not to be overlooked, almost all fifty-plus of his novels and collections of poems have seven-letter titles. (Op Oloop, Caterva, Vil y Vil, so on and so forth.)

Who wouldn’t want to publish someone like this? And thankfully, six years later, Op Oloop is finally available to English readers.

Click here for the rest of the review.

26 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The first time I heard of Juan Filloy was during an editorial trip to Germany, organized by the German Book Office and including a day of “speed dating” with other publishers. It was at one of my first “dates” that I met the very hip editors from Tropen Verlag who, after finding out that I worked at Dalkey Archive, the publisher of David Markson’s best works, suggested that instead of doing any of the German authors they might recommend, the one author that Dalkey absolutely had to publish was the Argentine writer Juan Filloy, especially his Op Oloop.

Before even getting to his actual novels, there’s a lot Filloy had going for him:

  • He lived in three centuries—born in the nineteenth, and passing away in 2000 at the age of 106;
  • Julio Cortazar loved him, and references his Caterva in chapter 108 of Hopscotch;
  • Filloy was a lover of palindromes and wrote over 6,000;
  • and, not to be overlooked, almost all fifty-plus of his novels and collections of poems have seven-letter titles. (Op Oloop, Caterva, Vil y Vil, so on and so forth.)

Who wouldn’t want to publish someone like this? And thankfully, six years later, Op Oloop is finally available to English readers. (Hopefully it won’t take another six years for Caterva to come out.)

The plot of Op Oloop is pretty simple: it chronicles the final day and night in the life of its titular character, Op Oloop, a Finnish transplant in Buenos Aires who is recently engaged to Franziska, the Finnish consul’s niece. As he likes to state, Op Oloop is a “man of method,” a statistician who lives his life in a very orderly, pre-arranged way.

Thus, Op Oloop was convinced yet again that it was simply impossible for him to act contrary to his nature. “SUNDAY: WRITING, BETWEEN 7:00 AND 10:00 A.M.” That was the rule. When life is as ordered as a mathematical equation, you can’t just skip a digit whenever you feel like it. Op Oloop was entirely incapable of any impromptu act that might violate the pre-established norms of his routine; even such a trivial, graphical set such as addressing an envelope he’d already begun while still within the allotted time.

It’s clear from the start that Op Oloop isn’t all there—his speech to the employees at his local spa about the need to unite on tipping and form a “Gratuity International” is proof enough—but on this particular day, things go from bad to worse, as Op’s “method” is thwarted and he can’t regain his sense of order.

Filloy’s protagonist is a step beyond eccentric, and Lisa Dillman’s ability to capture his peculiar speech, wordplay, and insanity is quite impressive. This is especially true in the lengthy section detailing Op Oloop’s special dinner with his friends (in preparation for him to sleep with his 1,000th prostitute—a situation that doesn’t go according to plan and is the final nail that breaks Op’s mind). This dinner is the section of the book that seems most Cortazar-like (Hopscotch is filthy with groups of characters bantering and making statements about Argentina and its people), although Filloy’s not quite as tight and witty and fluid as Cortazar (who is?).

“In Hollywood, everyone knows the caloric value of everything. Just as they all aspire unanimously to stardom, they’re all equally fanatical about being tres mince rather than overweight. Truly, there’s a veritable obsession with fat. Dieting forces them all to undertake endless calculations and combinations. All portions are measured on a basis of one-hundred-calorie units. For example, one hundred calories equals: a tablespoon of honey, or two mandarin oranges, or four dates, or twenty asparagus tips, or a quarter-inch thick steak measuring five inches long and two and a half inches wide . . .”

“So you must’ve gone round with tape measures, eyedroppers, and scales . . .”

“It’s not a joke. You know, I’ve noticed that Argentines in general tend to be quite sarcastic, yet they’re entirely lacking in humor deep down. They make fun of everything in particular, and yet as a nation are all unanimously dull. It’s truly incongruous!”

As the novel lurches from scene to scene, Filloy creates an interesting account of one man’s mental breakdown. With the exception of what happens at the whorehouse, most of the underlying motivations for his breakdown are mysterious, summed up by the idea that he’s “method personified.” A more conventional book would delve into this issue, maybe explain how the hell he ended up with Franziska in the first place, etc., etc., but this isn’t a conventional book. It’s a more daring, playful novel, that, while not perfect, is one of the most fun novels I’ve read this year. I only wish the graph of Op Oloop’s day that’s in the Spanish edition was also included in this galley.

24 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our review section is a piece by Lara Ericson (one of our summer interns) on Hans Eichner’s Kahn & Engelmann, which was published earlier this year by Biblioasis in Canada (Windsor to be more specific), and translated from the German by Jean M. Snook.

Biblioasis is one of the most interesting young presses in Canada, and will definitely be getting a lot of great attention this fall when they release Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Dance with Snakes. But they’ve been doing some interesting works in translation for some time now, and this novel, although maybe not perfect, is pretty interesting:

Hans Eichner’s first novel (and last—he passed away earlier this year), originally published in 2000 in Austria, was released in English last month, directly after the eminent German scholar’s death. Kahn & Engelmann opens with a joke: a traveling joke and a Jewish joke.

“In the summer of 1938, a Jewish refugee is going for a walk on Carmel Beach . . . Twenty metres out from shore, a man is fighting against the waves and yelling for help in Hebrew. The refugee stops to listen, takes his jacket off, folds it neatly (one should never act too hastily); and while taking off his tie and shoes as well, before jumping into the sea to help the yelling man, he exclaims indignantly: ‘What a fool! Hebrew he has learned. Swimming he should have learned!’”

Though jokes are used throughout the novel, the placement of this particular joke emphasizes the centrality of travel (often forced travel) to the Jewish identity—a theme expanded throughout the novel, in the story of Peter Engelmann’s own life (he lives, at various times, in Vienna, Hungary, Belgium, England, Australia, Canada, and Israel) and that of the Austro-Hungarian Jews from whom he is descended. The question Peter poses at the beginning of the novel of “How did I get here?” is especially relevant to anyone of Jewish heritage and leads Peter to trace the experiences, and travels, of the Austro-Hungarian Jews through the last hundred years.

In the course of the novel, he tells three basic stories: the first is of his own life and recent experiences living in Haifa, Israel in the late-twentieth century; another starts in 1880 and tells his family story starting with his great-grandmother Sidonie; and the third tells the broader history of Austro-Hungarian Jews.

Click here to read the rest of Lara’s review.

24 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Hans Eichner’s first novel (and last—he passed away earlier this year), originally published in 2000 in Austria, was released in English last month, directly after the eminent German scholar’s death. Kahn & Engelmann opens with a joke: a traveling joke and a Jewish joke.

In the summer of 1938, a Jewish refugee is going for a walk on Carmel Beach . . . Twenty metres out from shore, a man is fighting against the waves and yelling for help in Hebrew. The refugee stops to listen, takes his jacket off, folds it neatly (one should never act too hastily); and while taking off his tie and shoes as well, before jumping into the sea to help the yelling man, he exclaims indignantly: “What a fool! Hebrew he has learned. Swimming he should have learned!”

Though jokes are used throughout the novel, the placement of this particular joke emphasizes the centrality of travel (often forced travel) to the Jewish identity—a theme expanded throughout the novel, in the story of Peter Engelmann’s own life (he lives, at various times, in Vienna, Hungary, Belgium, England, Australia, Canada, and Israel) and that of the Austro-Hungarian Jews from whom he is descended. The question Peter poses at the beginning of the novel of “How did I get here?” is especially relevant to anyone of Jewish heritage and leads Peter to trace the experiences, and travels, of the Austro-Hungarian Jews through the last hundred years.

In the course of the novel, he tells three basic stories: the first is of his own life and recent experiences living in Haifa, Israel in the late-twentieth century; another starts in 1880 and tells his family story starting with his great-grandmother Sidonie; and the third tells the broader history of Austro-Hungarian Jews.

The novel primarily follows Peter’s family as his great-grandparents Sidonie and Josef Kahn move from rural Hungary to Vienna in order to improve their children’s opportunities, but also includes the stories of the Kahn children and grandchildren, their business enterprises and their interactions with one another. One of the central storylines is the series of battles (which end tragically) between Jëno Kahn and Peter’s father, Sándor Engelmann, over their clothing firm Kahn & Engelmann (for which the novel is named).

Peter’s narrative jumps around in time, allowing him to tell whatever story he feels is necessary to explain something, or to move on when he simply gets bored with the current topic. While this stream of consciousness style is very authentic, it makes the reading experience choppy and confusing at times, especially with so many characters, years, and plotlines in the novel.

This novel struggles to be both an accurate, historical account of the Austro-Hungarian Jews and a compelling novel. It succeeds at the former attempt, but isn’t quite as successful in the latter. Eichner paints a clear picture both of the rural Jewish life, and of that in Vienna around the turn of the century. The broad scale on which the story is told, both in terms of time span and quantity of characters, adds to the richness of the novel as a story of Jewish history. In addition to the story of the Kahn family, a great deal of historical explanation is given to the various struggles which befall the Kahn family along with the greater Jewish community. These additions are very informative but occasionally bog down the flow of the novel.

The appeal the novel holds in regards to the Kahns’ specific story is more limited. Partly because of the broad scale of the novel, many of the stories become repetitive or tiresome, such the detailed description of the family’s complicated business dealings. As part of this storyline, Peter copies a large number of letters—and detailed financial transactions—written between his father and Jëno during their long battle. If the intention were to present a complete family history, this kind of detail might be more relevant, but in the context of this particular novel, these prolonged discussions are tiring. Other parts of the novel are frankly, quite bizarre and disposable. In particular, Peter’s stories about his later life and his brief marriage add nothing and seem out of character with the rest of the novel.

This said, some aspects of the family history (such as the family’s arrival to and initial struggle in Vienna) are extremely compelling. Also noteworthy are Peter’s reflections on his involvement in World War II. He is sent to an internment camp in Australia for the majority of the war, where he receives an excellent education. At one point, he is presented with the opportunity to fight in the war on the side of the Allies and declines. This decision haunts him throughout the rest of his life. This apathy is the result of what he describes as his “autism”: his inattentiveness to important issues and current events. He later decides to repent for this apathy by moving to Israel and becoming a part of the Jewish struggle there.

Perhaps the highlight of the novel for me is the many jokes and legends from the Jewish community, which Eichner uses as an introduction to a story about the Kahns or to illustrate an aspect of Jewish culture.

“You all know that ani lo jodea means “I don’t know.” Once upon a time there was a shetl in Russia where the Jews lived well, and one day the governor came and said: “The Tsar has decreed that you all have to leave.” But since the governor was a learned man who also knew a lot about Jewish things and was proud of this knowledge, the rabbi was able to persuade him to let it depend on the outcome of a competition: the governor and a representative of the shetl would ask each other questions. The first who couldn’t answer the question has his head cut off. If it was the Jew, then the Jews had to leave; if it was the governor, he got his head cut off, and the Jews could stay. Fair enough—but who was supposed to risk his life by going up against the learned man? . . . Only the shammes said he was willing to try . . . On the agreed upon day, the governor came to the market square . . . When the governor saw that his opponent was the shammes, he laughed and said: “In that case, you may ask the first question.” “Governor,” said the shammes, “what does ani lo jodea mean?” “I don’t know,” said the governor, and the executioner cut his head off.”

Not only are these jokes entertaining, but they truly do provide a window into the experiences and attitudes of the Jewish people. As the novel demonstrates, these stories are repeated around the dinner table to spread both history and values. Eichner’s novel is particularly successful at collecting a number of these stories and illustrating their centrality in the culture.

Although Kahn & Engelmann is not clearly intended to be autobiographical, a large number of events in Eichner’s early life seem to match up with those of Peter Engelmann, from their birth in Vienna, to their internment in Australia, and finally to their professorship in Canada. Eichner was recognized throughout his life as a prominent German scholar, and the novel confirms that. Kahn & Engelmann is a remarkable achievement in recreating a vibrant Jewish community lost to the past. As someone unfamiliar with the Austro-Hungarian Jews, the perspectives given are fascinating and informative. Unfortunately, Hans Eichner’s ambitions exceed his abilities, resulting in an intriguing, yet flawed, novel.

24 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The past few years has seen a bit of a Witold Gombrowicz renaissance. Yale University Press has published Danuta Borchardt’s retranslations1 of Cosmos and Ferdydurke, Archipelago published Bill Johnston’s translation of Bacacay, and Dalkey Archive reissued A Kind of Testament. And coming in November from Grove is Danuta Borchardt’s new translation of Pornografia, a Gombrowicz novel I haven’t read, but that sounds pretty damn good:

In the midst of the German occupation, two aging intellectuals travel to a farm in the countryside, looking for a respite from the claustrophobic scene in Warsaw. They quickly grow bored of their bucolic surroundings—that is, until they become hypnotized by a pair of country youths who have grown up alongside each other. The older men are determined to orchestrate a tryst between the two teenagers, but they are soon distracted by a string of violent developments, culminating in an order from the Polish underground movement: the men at the farm must assassinate a rogue resistance captain who has sought refuge there. The erotic games are put on hold—until the two dissolute intellectuals find a way to involve their pawns in the murderous plot.

Gombrowicz was one of the best (Ferdydurke is an absolute must read), and it’s great to see so many of his books available again, especially now that they’re translated from the original Polish . . . Here’s the opening paragraph of Pornografia to get a taste of his style:

I’ll tell you about yet another adventure of mine, probably one of the most disastrous. At the time—the year was 1943—I was living in what was once Poland and what was once Warsaw, at the rock-bottom of an accomplished fact. Silence. The thinned-out bunch of companions and friends from the former cafes—the Zodiac, the Ziemianska, the Ipsu—would gather in an apartment on Krucza Street and there, drinking, we tried hard to go on as artists, writers, and thinkers . . . picking up our old, earlier conversations and disputes about art. . . . Hey, hey, hey, to this day I see us sitting or lying around in thick cigarette smoke, this one somewhat skeleton-like, that one scarred, and all shouting, screaming. So this one was shouting: God, another: art, a third: the nation, a fourth: the proletariat, and so we debated furiously, and it went on and on—God, art, nation, proletariat—but one day a middle-aged guy turned up, dark and lean, with an aquiline nose and, observing all due formality, he introduced himself to everyone individually. After which he hardly spoke.

If you’re intrigued, you can preorder the book from Booksmith by clicking here.

And now I’ll sit back and watch people searching for “polish porno” flock to our site for some serious disappointment . . .

1 Actually, Danuta Borchardt’s translations are the first from the original Polish edition—earlier editions were translated from the French versions.

23 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Jeff Waxman from The Front Table was kind enough to let me write a pretty long piece on Merce Rodoreda’s Death in Spring, a book that I absolutely love. Rodoreda’s something special, and the book (which is paper-over-board—get it while it’s hot!) has one of the most intricate, fitting, and cool covers we’ve published so far.

Aside from the exposure to excellent works of literature from all over the world, the best thing about my work with literature in translation is the editorial trips to Spain, to France, to Estonia, to German, to Argentina—and I’m surprised more people don’t become translators or publishers for this alone. I first heard of Mercè Rodoreda—arguably the most influential Catalan author of the twentieth century—during such an editorial trip to Barcelona a few years back that was organized by the brilliant and hip Ramon Llull Institut and consisted of four days of meetings with editors, publishers, critics, and Catalan authors.

Catalan culture is in a bit of a tricky position. A completely different language from Castilian (what we commonly refer to as “Spanish”), Catalan was strongly discouraged during the Franco regime, and a number of Catalan artists—Rodoreda included—went into exile during this time. After Franco’s death in 1975, there’s been resurgence in interest in the Catalan language and in Catalan culture as a whole. Catalonia—located in the northeast part of Spain, bordering France and including Barcelona—has taken pride in reclaiming its literary and artistic heritage, and promoting its unique society to the rest of the world. On the literary end of things, the selection of Catalonia as the Guest of Honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2007 (the first region—in contrast to country—to be honored as such), really helped raise the awareness of Catalan literature among editors, writers, and reviewers around the world.

That said, Quim Monzo’s self-referential opening speech at the book fair (Monzo is another Catalan author I learned about during this trip and that Open Letter will be publishing) is honest to a point of self-deprecation about the worldwide interest in Catalan literature:

“Won’t reading the names of all these writers (most of whom are unknown to the literary world that circulates in Frankfurt) just be tedious for the audience at the opening ceremony who will have to listen to so many unfamiliar names? Won’t they be looking at their watches and thinking, “What a bore!”? And so he decides he won’t mention any names (even though, in fact, he has already mentioned them in the very process of describing his doubts as to whether he should mention them or not). What’s more, he’s read that at the Frankfurt Book Fair there will be an exhibition that explains all this. Although—to be frank—how many of the persons who attend this inaugural event will later visit this exhibition with any more interest than a merely official show of etiquette? Let us be frank and optimistic: very few.”

So where does Mercè Rodoreda fit into all this?

Click here for the rest.

23 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As mentioned last week, China is the Guest of Honor at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, and to prepare for this, four journalists from the FBF have headed over to Peking on a “journey of literary discovery.” (Which I believe means listening to a lot of speeches about China’s book industry and traveling around to various stores, publishers, etc.)

Ed Nawotka (of Publishing Perspectives and PW) is one of the journalists, and will be posting a series of stories all week about the literary scene in China.

Not too much online yet, but there is a post about how many Kindles he saw on the plane (and the lack of good travel books available for the Kindle) and one about the Joyful O2Sun Bookstore.

As the week progresses, I’m sure this will get more and more interesting. Definitely worth checking in on, and I’ll be sure to post about any really interesting pieces.

23 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The third part of Jan Kjaerstad’s “Wergeland Trilogy” (The Seducer, The Conqueror and The Discoverer) was recently released in the UK (our edition comes out in September), and Paul Binding wrote a really nice overview of the book for The Independent:

The Discoverer completes the trilogy to which Norwegian writer Jan Kjaerstad’s The Seducer and The Conqueror belong: an enormously ambitious undertaking about an enormously ambitious man – and, beyond him, about ambition itself and humanity’s ambiguous need for it. The matter of all three novels – which contain overlaps, revisitings, and some mind-bending contradictions, with each account plausible – is laid out baldly in the first novel’s first chapter, “The Big Bang”. Jonas Wergeland, who “has risen to heights of fame which very few, if any, Norwegians have ever come close to attaining”, returns from the World’s Fair in Seville (1992), to his house in Grorud, the Oslo borough in which he grew up. And there, on his living-room floor, he finds his wife, Margrete Boeck, venereologist and mother of his daughter, shot dead.

Wergeland is charged with the murder, found guilty, partly through testimony from his own clergyman brother, Daniel, and receives a custodial sentence. None of the novels proceeds linearly, nor is there one consistent narrator. The Conqueror, after the first book’s tributes to his boundless imagination and sexual inventiveness, presents a far more troubled and troubling Jonas. It makes us pretty sure he must have dispatched the woman he so loved. But in The Discoverer we come – via Jonas himself and his devoted daughter, Kristin – to a different conclusion that exonerates this pre-eminent Norwegian, whose main failing may have been precisely that pre-eminence.

But have we reached the truth of the affair? Is this third book the final version? By no means, the author told me recently. Like Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, his trilogy asserts relativity. In one sense only is The Discoverer final: Kjaerstad will write no sequel. [. . .]

The voyage that The Discoverer will impel, thanks to Barbara J Haveland’s lively, fluid and at times sparkling translation, is a return one, to the beginning of the whole trilogy – a work so ample in its riches that further discoveries are inevitable.

22 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [7]

My first article for Publishing Perspectives went live this morning and is all about the advantages (and disadvantages) of the paper-over-board format.

I have a visceral hatred for dust jackets – I strip them off, I crinkle them, I lose them. So in 2007, when in the process of launching Open Letter (a new publishing house at the University of Rochester dedicated to international literature), we had to decide whether we wanted to do our books as paperbacks, traditional hardcovers, or some third, more unique design, like “paper-over-board.”

Basically, paper-over-board books are hardcovers without a dust jacket. But not those musty, dowdy books you might find in an abandoned corner of a library . . . Printing technologies have come a long way, and now paper-over-board books can be as vibrant and attractive as any paperback, and printed in the same trade size as well.

This format is pretty common among European presses: Proa Editions in Barcelona produces a gorgeous line of paper-over-board books, as does Wydawnictwo W.A.B. in Warsaw, another Polish publisher, Swiat Ksiazki, and Karolinum Press in Prague (which also uses some of the most buttery paper I’ve ever stroked).

It’s not very common in the United States though. Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events” books are paper-over-board, and for adult fiction, HarperCollins USA published both Toby Barlow’s Sharp Teeth and Dubravka Ugresic’s The Ministry of Pain as paper-over-board titles, but those are the rare exceptions. (One independent bookseller who’s a big fan of this format showed a copy of one of Open Letter’s books to sales rep from a major distributor, who then replied, “Well, it looks pretty European” in a way that was probably pejorative.)

Marketing was the primary motivating factor in our decision making process. Our paper-over-board books would definitely stand out in the bookstore and would be very classy (or so we thought). And we also thought (although as you’ll see below this gets a bit complicated) that readers would appreciate being able to get a nice looking, durable hardcover at a very reasonable price.

Unfortunately, as is explained at the end of the piece, this format can be a bit baffling to customers and bookstores alike, falling in between the traditional hardcover market and paperback buyers. And since our mission really is to reach as many readers as possible with our books—and since we think we’ll be able to reach more with paperbacks—we’ve decided to do all paperbacks for the next season. This isn’t saying that we won’t go back to paper-over-board at some point (man, I really do love that format), but for the sake of our authors, we’re at least going to try this out.

Read the entire piece (please—I worked long and hard on this), by clicking here, and while you’re at the site, be sure to sign up to receive the daily articles from Publishing Perspectives.

22 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Infinite Summer officially kicks off this week, with participants reading and discussing the first 63 pages of David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece, Infinite Jest.

Covering approximately 75 pages a week (the entire reading schedule can be found here) , this group will read one of the longest novels of our generation by September 21st. For anyone who hasn’t read this book, this looks to be a fantastic way of experiencing the book, with great commentaries by other interesting writers, and a host of other people enjoying it with you . . .

I’m personally interested in seeing how this plays out. Online reading groups have been a mixed bag, with the Golden Notebook Project getting most everything right and representing the most successful model to date.

Infinite Summer is a bit more traditional, with different commentators leading the group through the reading and trying to encourage comments along the way.

But it’s also one of the first online reading groups I’ve seen that’s incorporating a lot of social media possibilities and allowing for a very de-centered approach to the traditional reading club. For instance, this roundup post links to a separate blog detailing one reader’s reading of IJ, a site where you can download an IJ reading schedule bookmark, a site called Infinite Zombies that is part reading group part Fight Club, a Flickr pool, a Twittered version of IJ, and a site archiving the ongoing conversation of two IJ readers. This is reading group as controlled chaos, or social networking event.

With the popularity of DFW (and his sudden, tragic end), I can imagine that all of these sites will attract a lot of followers, and it will be really interesting to see what sort of long-term effect this has. IJ is one of those books that a lot of people own, but haven’t necessarily read, so who knows if this will be a bigger boost to sales or literary awareness. Regardless, it should be an interesting phenomenon to watch unfold, and short of reading all Open Letter books published to date, this is a damn good way to spend your summer.

22 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

From Newsweek:

Among the dozens of people arrested overnight in Tehran was Newsweek reporter Maziar Bahari, who has covered Iran for the magazine for over a decade. Bahari was home asleep at 7 a.m. when several security officers showed up at his Tehran apartment. According to his mother, who lives with the 41-year-old reporter and documentary filmmaker, the men did not identify themselves. They seized Bahari’s laptop and several videotapes. Assuring her that he would be their guest, they then left with Bahari. He has not been heard from since.

In a statement, Newsweek magazine has strongly condemned the detention of Bahari and called for him to be released immediately. Bahari is a dual Canadian-Iranian citizen. According to the statement, “His coverage of Iran, for NEWSWEEK and other outlets, has always been fair and nuanced, and has given full weight to all sides of the issues. He has always worked well with different administrations in Tehran, including the current one.”

Bahari was on The Daily Show last week, and is also the editor of Transit Tehran, (Garnet Publishing) an anthology of essays and picture-stories about Tehran by “city-insiders, rappers, artists, writers and photojournalists.”

22 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Farhad Manjoo’s recent piece in Slate offers a unique take on one of the advantages newspapers have over the Kindle—the ability to convey information through design elements:

Every newspaper you’ve ever read was put together by someone with an opinion about which of the day’s stories was most important. Newspapers convey these opinions through universal, easy-to-understand design conventions—they put important stories on front pages, with the most important ones going higher on the page and getting more space and bigger headlines. You can pick up any page of the paper and—just by reading headlines, subheads, and photo captions—quickly get the gist of several news items. Even when you do choose to read a story, you don’t have to read the whole thing. Since it takes no time to switch from one story to another, you can read just a few paragraphs and then go on to something else.

For instance, look at page A25 of the national edition of Thursday’s Times, which contains four stories: a big piece on the Obama administration’s decision to fire a federal inspector general; a smaller story on the administration’s plan to replace members of the White House bioethics panel; a piece about asbestos contamination in Libby, Mont.; and a small wire-service story about Sen. Roland Burris’ inconsequential meeting with an Illinois state prosecutor. A newspaper skimmer can get through this page in less than two minutes. The IG and bioethics stories are obviously the most important, so you dip into those for about 45 seconds each. Then you spend about 15 seconds on the asbestos story, followed by five seconds on the Burris item, which is just five paragraphs long. Going like this, you can easily get through the whole A section in less than a half hour.

Getting through these same stories on the Kindle is much harder and more tedious. First, they’re out of order. When I scrolled through Thursday’s national section on my Kindle, the shortest and least newsworthy of these pieces—the Burris story—came first. Worse, because the Kindle gives every story the same headline font, the list item doesn’t clue you in to the story’s slightness. The only way to know if a story merits your attention is to click on it. But clicking is time-consuming—the Kindle takes a half-second or so to switch between a section list and a story, and another half-second to switch back. This sounds nearly instant, but it’s not; the delay is just long enough to change the way you read the news. Now, instead of skimming, you find yourself reading the newspaper as you would a book—when you find a story, you stick with it until the end. You trade breadth for depth: In 30 minutes of reading the Kindle, you get further into a lot fewer stories.

Of course, the fact that you can actually subscribe to the paper for $9 to $15 per month through the Kindle DX (in contrast to the $770/year it cost to subscribe to the print version of the Times) is a pretty appealing counterargument . . . Still, this is an interesting moment of interplay between technology, design, and the transmission of information.

22 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The final installment in The Guardian‘s_ Stories from a New Europe series is This Part of Town Is No Place for Old-Timers by Czech author Jachym Topol. David Short translated this piece about a Czech writer remembering life before 1989, his father’s failure as a writer and dissident, and how the post-wall society is filled with crappy chain restaurants and other ways to lure in tourists:

Now don’t start drowning in nostalgia, I tell myself. It must be better here now than it was back then. In those days, the barracks across the street with the red star on the front was where Soviet soldiers used to take their meals. The Soviets with their tanks and rockets held their Czech gubernium on a tight rein, and with it one-sixth of the world, and that was horrendous; while this globalised tat – well, it’s Freedom. The God-awful tackiness of city centres is evidence of the freedom to travel, I reassure myself. It’s the same here as in Florence, Kyoto or Lisbon. People want to be alike, since difference breeds only misunderstanding and violence. And it’s hardly overstating it to say that that year, 1989, when Eastern Europe rose in revolt, we shot straight out of Orwell into Huxley. But which is better?

In the end, this was definitely my favorite of the six stories in the series. And unlike some of the other writers featured by The Guardian, if you’re interested in reading more Topol, his novel City Sister Silver is available from Catbird Press, and Gargling with Tar is currently being translated by David Short.

Probably more than any of the five pieces, this story would fit perfectly in The Wall in My Head an anthology of stories, essays, and images that we’re publishing on November 9th, to mark the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Words Without Borders (specifically Rohan Kamicheril and Sal Robinson) put together this fantastic collection, which includes pieces by Peter Schneider, Ryszard Kapuściński, Vladimir Sorokin and Victor Pelevin and new work from Péter Esterházy, Andrzej Stasiuk, Muharem Bazdulj, Maxim Trudolubov, Dorota Masłowska, Uwe Tellkamp, Dan Sociu, David Zábranský, Christhard Läpple, and a host of others.

You can preorder the title directly from us by clicking the link above, or you can order it from The Booksmith, our store of the month, by clicking here. Or, for the biggest savings, you could just take out an Open Letter subscription and receive the next six OL books for $65. (Or the next 12 for $120—just click the image below for more details.)

19 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Our latest review is of The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker, translated from the Dutch by David Colmer, and published earlier this year by Archipelago Books. Larissa Kyzer—who has reviewed a number of books for us—wrote this piece, which makes the book sound both quiet and compelling:

Penetrating, beautifully sparse, and eerie in its stillness, Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin tells the story of Helmer van Wonderen, an aging farmer whose life has been characterized by passivity, inaction, and a profound sense of isolation. Having begrudgingly taken over the family dairy farm after the accidental death of his twin brother Henk, Helmer finds himself, after 55 years, suddenly and unexpectedly the master of his own life—if only he knew what to do with it.

For years, Helmer has been “doing things by halves,” living the life that was intended for his brother, a monotonous existence at the beck and call of his tyrannical father. As the story opens, however, Helmer has moved his father, close to death, to a bedroom upstairs, an act of self-assertion that pushes him to reassess his past and the decisions—or lack thereof—that have left him stagnated and alone. “Why did I let it all happen like this?,” he wonders. “I could have said ‘no’ to Father and ‘do it yourself’ or just ‘sell up.’”

But while Helmer may not be satisfied with the life that he has accepted for himself, it is a routine that if not fulfilling, is at least familiar. “I’ve milked the cows, day after day,” he reflects.

Click here for the entire review.

19 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Penetrating, beautifully sparse, and eerie in its stillness, Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin tells the story of Helmer van Wonderen, an aging farmer whose life has been characterized by passivity, inaction, and a profound sense of isolation. Having begrudgingly taken over the family dairy farm after the accidental death of his twin brother Henk, Helmer finds himself, after 55 years, suddenly and unexpectedly the master of his own life—if only he knew what to do with it.

For years, Helmer has been “doing things by halves,” living the life that was intended for his brother, a monotonous existence at the beck and call of his tyrannical father. As the story opens, however, Helmer has moved his father, close to death, to a bedroom upstairs, an act of self-assertion that pushes him to reassess his past and the decisions—or lack thereof—that have left him stagnated and alone. “Why did I let it all happen like this?,” he wonders. “I could have said ‘no’ to Father and ‘do it yourself’ or just ‘sell up.’”

But while Helmer may not be satisfied with the life that he has accepted for himself, it is a routine that if not fulfilling, is at least familiar. “I’ve milked the cows, day after day,” he reflects.

In a way, I curse them, the cows, but they’re also warm and serene when you lean your forehead on their flanks to attach the teat cups. There is nothing as calming, as protected, as a shed full of cows on a winter’s evening. Day in, day out, summer, autumn, winter, spring.

In the absence of any truly meaningful, reciprocative human relationships, Helmer has forged quiet connections with his animals. He finds solace in the ritual of milking his cows, keeps two identical donkeys as pets, and almost drowns himself trying to save a sheep mired in an irrigation ditch. And it is through natural imagery such as this—swallows sleeping on telephone lines, a hooded crow alighting outside the kitchen window, ducks swimming in a pond—that Bakker (a former linguist who has since become a gardener) is able to not only reveal more of his taciturn protagonist’s interiority, but also bring the narrative to a kind of gentle compromise between what should have been and what simply is.

On an unexpected trip to Denmark—his first holiday “in thirty-seven years of milking day and night“—Helmer walks down to a beach at sunset. “The beach is deserted,” he says.

There are no hooded crows in the sky and even the busy grey sandpipers are missing. . . I am the only one for miles around making any noise . . . I know I have to get up. I know the maze of paths and unpaved roads in the shade of the pines, birches and maples will already be dark. But I stay sitting calmly, I am alone.

By the novel’s close, Helmer has found some measure of peace and acceptance in his quiet life—even in his solitude.

19 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the past couple days, I’ve received two interesting press releases from the Frankfurt Book Fair worth sharing.

First off, it was announced earlier this week that Finland will be the 2014 Guest of Honor. From the press release:

Finland is known for its literary export of children’s books – for example, Tove Jansson’s “Finn Family Moomintroll” – and of mystery novels, including authors like Pentti Kirstilä, Matti Y. Joensuu, Outi Pakkanen or Taavi Soininvaara. Authors like Kari Hotakainen, Anja Snellmann or Arto Paasilinna have also managed to make the leap into the international publishing world – their most important works are also available in German translation.

For more information about Finnish literature, I highly recommend checking our the online journal Books from Finland. We’ve written about this before, but honestly, this is the best place to find samples, read reviews of Finnish works, etc. Also, although it’s not exclusively Finnish, the blog Nordic Voices in Translation is a fantastic source for information and sample translations. (Especially sample translations.)

For more information about China, this year’s Guest of Honor, the Frankfurt Book Fair put together this very handy overview of the Chinese book market, which includes a brief survey of the development of Chinese contemporary literature and a review of the development of Chinese literature in 21st century.

*

And on a slightly different note, the application information for the international bookseller’s program is now available. I personally think this sounds really interesting:

The international programme provides foreign booksellers with an insight into the functions and structures of the German book trade, enabling them to efficiently organise their import and sales of German books. The programme promotes dialogue with other booksellers, German publishers and wholesalers and helps participants to create their own network.

In addition to the attendance at the Frankfurt Book Fair and visits to German publishing companies the programme includes an introduction to the German book market, one day of work experience in a bookshop, two visits to wholesalers as well as cultural activities.

All visits will be supported by presentations given during the seminar. Participants will be able to report about their home countries’ book markets. Time is allowed for indepth exchanges of experience between participants, speakers and organisers.

Application deadline is July 15th, and all the necessary info can be found at the link above.

19 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Today’s installment in “The Guardian‘s” week of Eastern European stories is Mustafa by Nikolai Grozni. By far the funniest piece of the week, “Mustafa” centers around a funereal gone awry:

In any event, questioning the authenticity of my grandmother’s body at her funeral was not the proper thing to do. Then again, I had been away from Eastern Europe for ten years. I had a good excuse to act inappropriately. So, I walked over to the two gypsies and asked them where they’d found the body. I thought it a perfect question: I didn’t challenge their right to choose which body we should bury at my grandmother’s funeral, and I certainly didn’t threaten to disrupt the funeral ceremony, already in progress. Just a casual question, an offhand remark, as it were. Nothing serious. Where did you guys find this body?

“You don’t think that’s her nose?” countered the younger one. “Mustafa, you tell him.”

“My friend,” said Mustafa, blinking very slowly, “this is definitely your grandmother’s nose. I’ve been around. I know what a nose looks like.”

“But you don’t even know my grandmother,” I objected, trying not to raise my voice.

“You should listen to what this man says,” the younger gypsy advised me. “He’s been in the piano delivery business for thirty years. He can tell a Zimerman from a Bosendorf from a hundred meters with his eyes closed, and with the wind blowing in the opposite direction.”

“I think I know this guy,” said Mustafa, pointing at me. “Didn’t we deliver a Petroff to your house fifteen years ago? A good lower register, somewhat tinny as the notes get higher?”

“Probably you did,” I conceded. “You must have.”

“What do you know,” said Mustafa, raising his hands toward the sky. “Now I come to deliver your grandmother.”

19 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

A River & A Sound is a brand new online magazine published in association with the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University that grew out of a one-of-a-kind, literary entertainment program designed to make literary events more exciting.

You can check out the rest of the magazine at the link above, but the piece that caught my eye was K.E. Semmel’s translation of Phosphorescence by Danish author Simon Fruelund. (I think this is a week of short stories, what with the Guardian pieces and now this . . .)

We have a few Fruelund works on submission, and they’re pretty interesting. Not all are quite as straightforward, almost Hemingway-esque, as this particular story. In fact, the more recent work has a bit more of a David Markson tinge to it . . . Anyway, this piece is worth checking out, and I know that A River & A Sound is planning on running more works in translation in the future, and is looking for submissions . . .

19 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This past weekend, Adam Thirlwell (author of the novel Politics and The Delighted States, which is all about translation) wrote a really nice tribute in The Guardian to late translator Barbara Wright (who would’ve loved to have received a fan letter from Adam—and most likely would’ve sent him a cool postcard in return):

About a month ago, I was in an airport and I picked up a newspaper and discovered an obituary of Barbara Wright, who had died, aged 93. And for a moment, in my displaced state, I remembered a random word – Howcanaystinksotho – and, oddly, felt about to cry.

Maybe this seems strange. It requires some explanation.

I don’t have many heroes. I certainly don’t have many heroes I would ever want to meet. But I had always wanted to meet Barbara Wright. Once, I contemplated the idea of sending her a fan letter. But, I thought, surely Barbara Wright – the translator of Sarraute, Robbe-Grillet, Jarry and, especially, of Raymond Queneau – wouldn’t want to be bothered with fan letters? Or wouldn’t even be still alive? And there, in a random airport, it turned out that I could have done, and therefore should have done. [. . .]

I thought about all this, in my airport, because I was thinking about Wright, and her miraculous translations of the French novelist Raymond Queneau. In an essay on Queneau, she mentions one aspect of his novelistic project, which dated from a holiday he spent in Greece in 1932, where he noted the huge discrepancy between modern spoken Greek and classical Greek, and realised that modern French was hopelessly in thrall to the conventions of the 16th and 17th centuries. His emphasis on language as a game was an attempt, like Joyce’s, to desophisticate language. So that, for instance, there is what Wright called “his logosymphysis” – his depiction of spoken words run together, like the first word of Zazie in the Metro: “Doukipudonktan?” – which stands for: “D’ou qu’ils puent donc tant?”, meaning “How come they stink so, though?” Which she rendered like this: “Howcanaystinksotho”.

Barbara Wright really was one of the best.

18 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest entry in The Guardian‘s series of short stories about the transformations of Eastern Europe post-1989 is Stelian Tanase’s Zgaiba, translated from the Romanian by Jean Harris. (Who runs the Observer Translation Project, which is the best source online for information about Romanian literature.)

So far, this is probably my favorite story in The Guardian series. Like the Clemens Meyer piece, it focuses on a dog:

Zgaiba died Wednesday at 17:26 – his head smashed in. A car travelling at a high speed killed him in the middle of the street. The sound of the blow kept ringing in Vivi’s brain. The driver never stopped. He must have heard a thud under the body of the car, there under the right front wheel. He floored the accelerator, and remoteness swallowed him. Vivi lost track of the car at the end of the street. Tsak tsak tsak: He went on shooting the images reflexively. That was the thing. Horrified. Zgaiba. Images on the sidewalk. The dog didn’t drop right away. He was hurled a metre along the curb. He didn’t bark. He didn’t yelp. He didn’t let out a sound. Time stood still. It took Vivi a moment to come back to his senses. Zgaiba: images on the pavement – his eyes fogged over; his big eyes, stunned. In a state of shock. His tail lowered, his ears pricked. Vivi went on looking at the dog’s coffee-coloured spine there among the iron spears of the fence. Tsak, tsak, tsak. Zgaiba had started heading back to the gate that had let him out earlier. He had crossed the street. He had nearly slipped into the courtyard. He gazed into the familiar place without understanding what hit him. From dying to collapse, the whole scene lasted an instant. Right before Vivi’s eyes.

Vivi had been taking a cigarette break. Between smokes, he went on snapping pictures of Zgaiba, who he’d spotted down in the street. His favourite character. He had hundreds of clichéd snaps of the dog. Vivi himself was up in the attic at the time. He was looking at the cold weather, the cornices across the street. He’d been developing yesterday’s pix for an hour. Failures, without éclat, flops, dumb mistakes: he had spoiled ten rolls of film. Irritated, tired, Vivi had picked up the camera and started taking pictures of Zgaiba bumming around the area – it relaxed him, tsak, tsak, tsak – when the car had appeared. A shiny black body. With headlights on. Evening hadn’t fallen yet. There was a dirty ashen light. Overcast sky. It’ll snow, Vivi had told himself earlier, with his elbows on the sill. The blow to the brain flashed into being – unforeseeably – after that.

Stelian Tanase’s Auntie Varvara’s Clients came out from Spuyten Duyvil press a few years back, which sounds interesting, but is retailing on Amazon for $40? Bit cheaper to check out this special issue of the Observer Translation Project that is dedicated to Tanase and contains an except from the novel Dark Bodies.

17 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

The National Endowment for the Arts just announced some of the highlights from its 2008 “Survey of Public Participation in the Arts,” and the results, well, aren’t very encouraging. Here are just some of the gloomy findings:

There are persistent patterns of decline in participation for most art forms. Nearly 35 percent of U.S. adults – or an estimated 78 million – attended an art museum or an arts performance in the 2008 survey period, compared with about 40 percent in 1982, 1992, and 2002.

Aging audiences are a long-term trend. Performing arts attendees are increasingly older than the average U.S. adult (45). The aging of the baby boom generation does not appear to account for the overall increase in age.

Audiences for jazz and classical music are substantially older than before. In 1982, jazz concerts drew the youngest adult audience (median age 29). In the 2008 survey, the median age of jazz concert-goers was 46 – a 17-year increase. Since 1982, young adult (18-24) attendance rates for jazz and classical music have declined the most, compared with other art forms.

College-educated audiences (including those with advanced degrees and certifications), have curbed their attendance in nearly all art forms.

The one bright spot (maybe not necessarily for a book publisher, but still, arts participation is arts participation) is the findings about the internet:

About 70 percent of U.S. adults went online for any purpose in 2008 survey, and of those adults, nearly 40 percent used the Internet to view, listen to, download, or post artworks or performances.

Thirty percent of adults who use the Internet, download, watch, or listen to music, theater, or dance performances online at least once a week. More than 20 percent of Internet-using adults view paintings, sculpture, or photography at least once a week.

At least the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior approved a bill setting the FY2010 NEA budget at $170 million—an increase of $15 million over the current budget. Of course, this is still $6 million lower than the 1992 high water mark of $176 million . . . which would actually be $270 million in 2009 dollars.

17 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Today’s installment in The Guardian‘s series of short stories from Eastern Europe is ‘Something Is Burning Outside’ by Laszlo Krasznahorkai.

Krasznahorkai, whose Melancholy of Resistance and War & War are both amazing and both in print from New Directions (with Satan Tango forthcoming . . . sometime), is one of Hungary’s most important, and stylistically interesting, contemporary writers.

This story—which is set at an artists’ retreat—is different in tone than the two translated novels, but is compelling in the way that all of Krasznahorkai’s fiction is compelling. And Ottilie Mulzet’s translation reads well. Here’s the opening:

Saint Anna Lake is a dead lake formed inside a crater, lying at an elevation of around 950 metres, and of a nearly astonishingly regular circular form. It is filled with rainwater: the only fish to live in it is the catfish. The bears, if they come to drink, use different paths from the humans when they saunter down from the pine-clad forests. There is a section on the further side, less frequently visited, which consists of a flat, swampy marshland: today, a path of wooden planks meanders across the marsh. It is called the Moss Lake. As for the water, rumour has it that it never freezes over; in the middle, it is always warm. The crater has been dead for millennia, as have the waters of the lake. For the most part, a great silence weighs upon the land.

It is ideal, as one of the organizers remarked to the first-day arrivals as he showed them around – ideal for reflection, as well as for refreshing strolls, which no one forgot, taking good advantage of the proximity of the camp to the highest mountain, known as the Thousand-Metre Peak; thus in both directions – up to the top of the peak, down from the peak! – the foot traffic was fairly dense: dense, but in no way did that signify that even more feverish efforts were not taking place simultaneously in the camp below; time, as was its wont, wore on, and ever more feverishly, as the creative ideas, originally conceived for this site, took shape and in imagination reached their final form; everyone by then having already settled into their allotted space, subsequently furnished and fixed up by their own hands, most obtaining a private room in the main building, but there were also those who withdrew into a log hut, or a shed long since fallen into disuse; three moved up into the enormous attic of the house that served as the camp’s focal point, each one partitioning off separate spaces for themselves – and this, by the way, was the one great necessity for all: to be alone while working; everyone demanded tranquillity, undisturbed and untroubled, and that was how they set to their work, and that was just how the days passed, largely in work, with a smaller share allotted to walks, a pleasant dip in the lake, the meals and the evening sound of singing around the campfire, accompanied by home-made fruit brandy.

16 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Not sure when the last time the words “good news” and “Detroit” were used in the same sentence, but according to the Detroit Free Press, the Erb Family Foundation of Birmingham has recently announced $1.6 million in grants to 35 local arts organizations, “ranging from $100,000 to the Detroit Institute of Arts to $10,000 to grass-roots groups like the Rackham Symphony Choir.”

The $100-million foundation (with the money coming from the lumber business) is still in its first year, and has already given away $3.5 million to “nurture what its calls environmentally healthy and culturally vibrant communities in metro Detroit.”

This obviously isn’t going to fix Detroit’s woes—what could?—but it is an interesting step in the right direction. And maybe by helping foster a creative community, Detroit can start reshaping itself . . .

And although that sounds super unlikely, Razia Iqbal of the BBC provides a bit of factual hope:

Recent research from the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (Nesta) suggests that the cultural sector will grow by 4% between 2009 and 2013 – double the estimate for the rest of the economy.

There are parts of this sector which are clearly feeling the effects of the recession, such as architecture and advertising. But others, like the video games industry, are burgeoning. [. . .]

I’ve been talking to Lord Puttnam about this and he is a passionate advocate of investing in the creative industries. He thinks they are where young people want to work and argues that the government dismisses their potential at its peril. This goes to the heart of an argument that historically presents the arts community as whingeing luvvies. In fact, the reality is that the creative industries will by 2013 employ 1.3 million people and the wealth generated by these industries could reach £85 billion. It is the economic case for the arts that those in the creative industries need to make.

16 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This is a couple weeks old now, but star translator Susan Bernofsky wrote an excellent article for the Wall Street Journal about the immense popularity of the German version of the Donald Duck comic book:

Comics featuring Donald are available at most German newsstands and the national weekly “Micky Maus”—which features the titular mouse, Goofy and, most prominently, Donald Duck—sells an average of 250,000 copies each week, outselling even “Superman.” A lavish 8,000-page German Donald Duck collector’s edition has just come out, and despite the nearly $1,900 price tag, the publisher, Egmont Horizont, says the edition of 3,333 copies is almost completely sold out. Last month the fan group D.O.N.A.L.D (the German acronym stands for “German Organization for Non-commercial Followers of Pure Donaldism”), hosted its 32nd annual congress at the Museum of Natural History in Stuttgart, with trivia and trinkets galore, along with lectures devoted to “nephew studies” and Duckburg’s solar system.

“Donald is so popular because almost everyone can identify with him,” says Christian Pfeiler, president of D.O.N.A.L.D. “He has strengths and weaknesses, he lacks polish but is also very cultured and well-read.” But much of the appeal of the hapless, happy-go-lucky duck lies in the translations. Donald quotes from German literature, speaks in grammatically complex sentences and is prone to philosophical musings, while the stories often take a more political tone than their American counterparts.

Disney—not necessarily known for allowing much creative freedom with its properties—actually did something right for once, allowing translator Dr. Erika Fuchs to create a version of Donald Duck that’s a bit more complex than the American one, and that has truly become a cult figure in Germany.

Dr. Fuchs’s Donald was no ordinary comic creation. He was a bird of arts and letters, and many Germans credit him with having initiated them into the language of the literary classics. The German comics are peppered with fancy quotations. In one story Donald’s nephews steal famous lines from Friedrich Schiller’s play “William Tell”; Donald garbles a classic Schiller poem, “The Bell,” in another. Other lines are straight out of Goethe, Hölderlin and even Wagner (whose words are put in the mouth of a singing cat). The great books later sounded like old friends when readers encountered them at school. As the German Donald points out, “Reading is educational! We learn so much from the works of our poets and thinkers.”

Bernofsky points out two different ways in which Fuchs has created a radically different version of Donald Ducks: through altered speech patterns (especially alliteration), and by adding more political depth to the stories.

In terms of alliteration, she uses this example from “Lifeguard Daze”:

In the English comic, he says: “I’d do anything to break this monotony!” The über-gloomy German version: “How dull, dismal and deathly sad! I’d do anything to make something happen.”

What’s really interesting though is the difference between the German version of “The Golden Helmet” and the American one:

Take, for example, the classic Duck tale “The Golden Helmet,” a story about the search for a lost Viking helmet that entitles its wearer to claim ownership of America. In Dr. Fuchs’s rendition, Donald, his nephews and a museum curator race against a sinister figure who claims the helmet as his birthright without any proof—but each person who comes into contact with the helmet gets a “cold glitter” in his eyes, infected by the “bacteria of power,” and soon declares his intention to “seize power” and exert his “claim to rule.” Dr. Fuchs uses language that in German (“die Macht ergreifen”; “Herrscheranspruch”) strongly recalls standard phrases used to describe Hitler’s ascent to power.

The original English says nothing about glittering eyes or power but merely notes, “As the minutes drag past, a change comes over the tired curator.” Even the helmet itself, which in German Donald describes as a masterpiece of “Teutonic goldsmithery,” is anything but nationalistic in English: “Boys, isn’t this helmet a beauty?” is all he says. In an interview, Dr. Fuchs said she hoped that a child who “sees what power can do to people and how crazy it makes them” would be less susceptible to its siren song in later life.

This is one of the most direct examples of how much power a translator can have in presenting a text to a new readership. And in this particular case, the effects have been long lasting and dramatic. Right from the start, Donald Duck went from being a comic for kids to something more:

Micky Maus became popular entertainment among a newly politicized generation who saw the comics as illustrations of the classic Marxist class struggle. A nationally distributed newsletter put out by left-leaning high school students in 1969 described Dagobert (Scrooge) as the “prototype of the monocapitalist,” Donald as a member of the proletariat, and Tick, Trick and Track as “socialist youth” well on their way to becoming “proper Communists.” Even Frankfurt School philosopher Max Horkheimer admitted to enjoying reading Donald Duck comics before bed.

Susan Bernofsky was also on the BBC’s World Update the other day to talk about this, but unfortunately the link is no longer working today and I can’t find an archive . . .

16 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

The second installment in The Guardian‘s series of short stories from Eastern Europe is ‘Chocolate’ by Michal Olszewski.

Olszewski is a young (b. 1977) Polish writer who works in Krakow for the daily paper, Gazeta Wyborcza. The story—which is wonderfully translated by recent “Found in Translation” award winner Antonia Lloyd-Jones—is about a young man shoplifting in a German supermarket. More contained and stylistically straight that the Clemens Meyer story from yesterday, this story also has a bit of a twist at the end. . .

There are a number of nice things about this Guardian series, but on a very basic level, it’s cool to see a daily newspaper publishing international fiction. I wonder when that last happened in the States . . .

15 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education has a really interesting piece by Peter J. Dougherty—director of Princeton University Press—on the future of academic publishing. Rather than lament the slow, never-ending death of print, he takes a different approach:

And while university presses grapple with the economic and technological challenges now affecting how we publish our books — the subject of a thousand and one AAUP conference sessions, e-mail-list debates, and news articles — discussion of what we publish seems to have taken a back seat. And understandably so. Why obsess about content if books as we know them are about to become obsolete in favor of some yet-to-evolve form? Has creative destruction spelled the end of books?

He argues that scholarly publishing has two distinct advantages over its competitors: 1) “books remain the most effective technology for organizing and presenting sustained arguments” and 2) “university presses specialize in publishing books containing hard ideas.”

From there he proceeds to lay out four components of a “content revolution” that would progress in parallel to the ongoing “delivery revolution”:

First, include on our lists more titles from the burgeoning professional disciplines: engineering, law, medicine, architecture, business, the graphic arts, and the information sciences. Those fields are driving the growth of our host universities while redefining the limits of culture in new and exciting ways.

Second, become much more purposeful and assertive in publishing books that define whole fields, including important advanced textbooks. University-press editors would add depth and ballast to their lists by looking for that next great advanced text in our traditional fields, such as social theory, comparative literature, or art history, as well as in emerging fields. That kind of publishing is often dismissed as cookie cutter, but it’s not.

Third, publish more books for worldwide readerships. As the globalization of knowledge continues apace, American university presses are positioned to engage readers in ways unimagined a generation ago. By infusing our lists with titles of international interest, we can better exploit the technologies that bring the world closer to us.

Fourth, work more closely with departments and centers within our host universities to adapt their work — sponsored lecture series, etc. — into books, monograph series, and other such initiatives. We should be planning our future lists strategically within our host universities in order to maximize the relative strengths of press and campus alike.

It’s a very interesting article that doesn’t necessarily address the larger financial issues that are dragging down university presses, but it is forward-thinking in terms of what sorts of things UPs should/could be publishing. But I can’t imagine many humanities scholars are going to like the suggestion to publish more books on “professional disciplines,” but his attempt to quell potential critics is interesting:

I am not suggesting that university presses should abandon or even reduce our commitment to traditional humanities fields. History, literature, art, politics, and philosophy form the core of university-press publishing, and always will. However, by integrating more technical subject matter into our publishing, we can add color and depth to our lists. The mere introduction of new ideas into the culture of university-press publishing would add vigor to our operations while inspiring in editors in the humanities and social sciences new exciting cross-disciplinary books. Books, better than any other literary form, can speak to the ever-widening chasms that define the modern, intellectually diverse research university. We should embrace the challenge.

15 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Well, at least in relation to Open Letter books . . . The new issue of Harper’s has two pieces on Open Letter titles: a long review by Robert Boyers of Woman of Rome: A Life of Elsa Morante by Lily Tuck and a shorter review of Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s Rupert in Benjamin Moser’s New Books column. (Both pieces are accessible online to subscribers only.)

Rupert: A Confession just released this week, but is available at better bookstores everywhere, and through our website. And I think Ben does a better job describing this book that I ever could. After comparing it to Camus’s The Stranger, he brilliantly sums up the novel’s protagonist:

His Rupert is a walker in the city who offers extended thoughts on the proper layout of public squares, methods for downloading and cataloging online pornography, men who wear comfy sweaters (“an arresting demonstration of farmerly freshness of the kind that . . . feels sorry for you because you’re too uptight and inhibited to dress properly”), and the type of woman who “wants to rove around Afghanistan on stolen horses and feel the auras of Tibetan scales with the energy paths of her vulva.”

You can read one of the funniest excerpts from the book here. (Warning: PDF format.) To celebrate the publication of this striking book and our first Harper’s review, we’re going to giveaway 10 copies. To enter into the drawing, simply e-mail me at chad.post at rochester dot edu with your full mailing address.

I’ll write more about Robert Boyers’s piece on Morante later in the month, after the copies of Morante’s Aracoeli are back from the printer. She’s an amazing writer and deserves a post of her own. Not to mention, Robert Boyers wrote the intro for our reissue, so we can include that as well . . . In the meantime though, you can read a sample of Aracoeli by clicking here. (Again, PDF format.)

15 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

To mark the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, all this week The Guardian will be running original short stories from a host of Eastern European writers. Up first is East German writer Clemens Meyer with Of Dogs and Horses, a short story from Die Nacht, Die Lichter (published by S. Fisher in German, but is still awaiting an English publisher).

The story itself is well done—especially the dark twist at the end . . . And Katy Derbyshire (of Love German Books) did an excellent job translating this.

Back during this year’s PEN World Voice Festival, I was a last minute moderator substitute for Zaia Alexander and interviewed Clemens Meyer. As part of the discussion, we each read a bit from this particular story. He read the opening in German, and then I read the ending in English—even the racetrack bits in my best horse announcer voices . . . Anyone who was there knows how dismal that was. Clemens, on the other hand, was bad-ass—possibly from his years of attending the races. In fact, he bought the very cool glasses he was wearing after a good day at the track . . .

Richard Lea sent me the complete list of authors/stories that will appear this week, and it’s pretty impressive. I’ll post about each one as it goes live, and although these two things aren’t exactly related, this Guardian project is a great complement to The Wall in My Head, the Words Without Borders anthology of fiction, essays, and images we’re publishing on November 9th to mark the same anniversary. More on that next week . . .

12 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The most recent addition to our review section is a piece by Daniela Hurezanu on Memory Glyphs: 3 Prose Poets from Romania, which was recently released in the U.S. by Twisted Spoon Press and is translated from the Romanian by Adam J. Sorkin with Radu Andriescu, Mircea Ivanescu, and Bogdan Stefanescu. Like all TSP books, the book itself is really elegant, and the contents aesthetically interesting.

In his preface, translator Adam Sorkin explains a bit about the collection:

First of all, the title of this anthology was lifted from the Radu Andriescu prose poem that closes the book, “The Aswan High Dam.”’ To me, the image suggests a major preoccupation of the prose poem, an esthetic amalgam as it were carved of blocks of words (as in the root of “glyph,” from the idea of cut or incised grooves or sacred symbols or script). In contrast to verse, the prose poem is a formless form, oxymoronic, with both lightness and heft, a chiseled, lapidary, elliptical poetry I have long admired. Not surprisingly then, the impetus for this anthology was my own, as was the choice of poets.

Daniela Hurezanu—who herself is a translator from both French and Romanian, and has even translated W.S. Merwin into French—wrote a fantastic review of this book that opens:

Of the three authors featured in the prose poem collection Memory Glyphs, beautifully translated from the Romanian by Adam Sorkin with Mircea Ivanescu, Bogdan Stefanescu and one of the poets (Radu Andriescu), only the latter is still alive. From the translator’s preface we find out that Cristian Popescu died when he was not even thirty-six “from a heart attack that was induced by his medication for schizophrenia and depression in potent mixture with vodka drinking.” Iustin Panta (pronounced Pantza) died at the same age as Popescu, in a car accident.

In Cristian Popescu’s prose poems, the author himself becomes a character—or so we assume, since we are dealing with someone called Cristi or Popescu. But he isn’t just any character; he is a figure in a family myth based on his own transfigured biography, in which the idyllic and the grotesque mingle in unexpected ways. I would say that, of the three authors, Popescu is the most untranslatable, not because of his language, but because of a certain Romanian sensibility, which is much harder to “translate” into English than words. For example, in “Advice from my mother,” he describes his mother who, after giving birth, felt crippled, and prepared to suckle her baby by powdering and rouging her breasts. She takes comfort, she says, “thinking that one day, someone will curse him [i.e., the baby] and tell him to stick himself back into his mother.” This is a slightly awkward translation of the most vulgar Romanian curse (“Go back into your mother’s c___!” or, in a more polite version, “Go back into your mother’s thing!”). In other words, Popescu’s image of his sentimental mother is done via the most obscene expression in the Romanian language. This union of some very contrary states—the sentimental and the utterly grotesque—which is natural for a Romanian, may not be for a native English-speaker.

Click here for the complete review.

12 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Of the three authors featured in the prose poem collection Memory Glyphs, beautifully translated from the Romanian by Adam Sorkin with Mircea Ivanescu, Bogdan Stefanescu and one of the poets (Radu Andriescu), only the latter is still alive. From the translator’s preface we find out that Cristian Popescu died when he was not even thirty-six “from a heart attack that was induced by his medication for schizophrenia and depression in potent mixture with vodka drinking.” Iustin Panta (pronounced Pantza) died at the same age as Popescu, in a car accident.

In Cristian Popescu’s prose poems, the author himself becomes a character—or so we assume, since we are dealing with someone called Cristi or Popescu. But he isn’t just any character; he is a figure in a family myth based on his own transfigured biography, in which the idyllic and the grotesque mingle in unexpected ways. I would say that, of the three authors, Popescu is the most untranslatable, not because of his language, but because of a certain Romanian sensibility, which is much harder to “translate” into English than words. For example, in “Advice from my mother,” he describes his mother who, after giving birth, felt crippled, and prepared to suckle her baby by powdering and rouging her breasts. She takes comfort, she says, “thinking that one day, someone will curse him [i.e., the baby] and tell him to stick himself back into his mother.” This is a slightly awkward translation of the most vulgar Romanian curse (“Go back into your mother’s c___!” or, in a more polite version, “Go back into your mother’s thing!”). In other words, Popescu’s image of his sentimental mother is done via the most obscene expression in the Romanian language. This union of some very contrary states—the sentimental and the utterly grotesque—which is natural for a Romanian, may not be for a native English-speaker.

Popescu’s self-mythologizing creates a sort of urban mythology grounded in self-mockery, a paradoxical world of antiheroes and sad clowns. Thus, “Anti-Portrait: A Psalm by Popescu” starts like this: “No, Lord. Neither more nor less, neither too much nor too little. And not quite Popescu.” Or, “Poetry”: “The earliest literary efforts of the poet Popescu date from the tender age of seven.” In the same poem we are told that Popescu wept so much in his youth that “they had to install a miniature urinal to collect the precious stones” that developed at the corners of his eyes.

Iustin Panta’s pieces are structurally unusual in that they combine verse poetry and prose within the space of the same poem. In the literal sense, the space of his poems is often enclosed—a room in which various objects come into focus—though several poems are about waiting for the train or the bus (one could write a treatise about Romanian poems revolving around the thorny topic of “public transportation”). Many of his poems refer to a “she” and are dialogues between “she” and the narrator. Of the three authors, Panta is probably the most cerebral, as his pieces are sometimes paradoxes or conundrums.

In “A Feminine Thought. A Feminine Thought?” pondering the difference between the breasts of a woman suckling a baby and her breasts laid bare otherwise, he concludes that the baby “continues” the breast and thus nullifies its voluptuousness. The woman is thus nullified too, proving to be “a fraud, a plagiarism,” like a fake painting one would examine under a magnifying glass. The infant is compared here to a magnifying glass revealing the breast’s “true nature,” so to speak, or rather the fact that its voluptuousness is really an illusion. But Panta goes on to challenge the true nature of this very thought by saying that this feminine thought, “seen through the magnifying glass! (itself, in turn, fake)” is also a falsehood.

Radu Andriescu’s prose poems are probably the most “poetic” in this collection in the sense that his style is more focused on its literariness and on artifice. Places and household objects are often the subject of his writings—a terrace, a stove, the wrought-iron winding stairs of his house, his neighborhood, whose depiction rivals that of a Turkish bazaar: the streets are crowded

with cardboard Poles and manic writers, with plumbers cloaked in a miasma of mercury vapors, with starched paunchy senators, with mutant garages turned into candy shops or fruit markets, their plaster hanging on spiderwebs . . . with decrepit geezers only thirty years old . . . apartment buildings nearly hidden by weeds and university dorms as dreary as a comb caked with dandruff . . . with stores soaked in cheap draft beer and artificially colored syrup masquerading as wine, both red and white, with Turkish delight and stale pretzels to bite, with nonfat yogurt, cellophane, bottles, foil, paper, with the flight of clouds, heaps of vacant days, whole wastelands of lost hours, a mixture of tar and cola, books and dust . . .

The sentence goes on for two and a half pages, a dazzling stylistic feat against what Andrei Codrescu once called “tight-ass minimalism.” Like Popescu, Andriescu too builds a mythologized universe replicating the real world in which he lives, and appears as a character in one of his poems. As I happened to read at the same time with this collection Peter Altenberg’s Telegrams of the Soul (Archipelago Books, 2005, translated from the German by Peter Wortsman), I realized that this objectification of the author is not infrequent in Eastern Europe. Altenberg too is a character in his own pieces: he is called Peter, he is a writer, and many of his scenes—often entirely in the form of dialogues—are sketches of everyday life.

Altenberg (1859-1919), a Viennese-Jewish writer whose admirers include Kafka, Musil and Mann, calls his pieces—which in this country are referred to as “prose poems”—“sketches.” His sources of inspiration are said to be the “feuilleton,” a lyrical form of journalistic prose that was popular at the turn of the twentieth century, and Baudelaire’s prose poems. “Sketch” was also a term used by Romanian writers (let’s not forget that until 1918, Transylvania, the Western part of Romania, was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire) in the early twentieth century. The master of the sketch was Ion Luca Caragiale (1852-1912) whose pieces were mostly dialogues (incidentally, Caragiale is the most famous Romanian playwright) written in a mood that would fall into the category of the absurd from a Western perspective (It is no accident that the French playwright of Romanian origin, Eugène Ionesco, was strongly influenced by Caragiale).

Paradoxically, although Romania is a very Francophile culture, and Romanian is the only Romance language in that part of the world, what we could call the “Romanian prose poem” is less influenced by the French tradition of the prose poem, its beginnings being closer to various forms of journalism (lyrical or satirical)—still practiced in Romania, where the most common profession among writers is that of journalist.

12 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Going through all my BEA catalogs, Rosa Chacel’s Dream of Reason (University of Nebraska Press, translated from the Spanish by Carol Maier) was one of the books that really caught my eye. And not just because it’s long (like 776-pages long), or because the author is compared to Joyce, Proust, and Woolf (isn’t every modernist writer compared to one of those three or Beckett and Kafka?). The Javier Marias quote on the back is definitely attention grabbing: “Rosa Chacel’s La sinrazon is one of the best, most original, and most daring novels of twentieth-century Spanish literature. . . . It is time that her importance in the history of world literature be recognized.” And based on the bits I’ve read from the galley that arrived this morning, this seems to be the case.

I’m not familiar with Rosa Chacel’s works, although Nebraska has published a couple of her other books—The Maravillas District and Memoirs of Leticia Valle—in the past. Her life sounds pretty interesting as well, but it’s her description of this book—and it’s “embryo” Estacion. Ida y vuelta—that really peaked my interest. (That and the fact that it’s pretty rare to come across a massive modernist text by a Spanish woman writer.)

From the intro she wrote for the third Spanish edition:

I did not, all those years ago, try to create a character who lacked direction or moral consistency—and who might seem quite modern today—I only tried to achieve the mental discourse of a man who sees himself, analyzes himself, and follows himself in his wandering—the subject’s sole characteristic, the urge to wander—through three phases, Estacion. Ida y vuelta.

An ambition or longing for form, then, became my supreme aesthetic motive, also, not separate from form, but also in the enumeration of appurtenances or conditions—also craft, the goal of doing something and doing it well, without taking into account what, at that time, was considered well done: to do this, confident that the work’s veracity, which has nothing to do with its verisimilitude, was solid, a condition that is usually—or was usually—demanded of the novel. Because it was a question of creating a novel, of following a man—not following him as an observer capable of undertaking a story; it had to be the man’s mind itself that followed after him, keeping at just the right distance for being able to judge him, not annexing him but joining him, that is, becoming imbued with the nuances of each phase.

And here are a couple intriguing quotes from the book itself. First, the opening from chapter 1:

A few words, seemingly quite trivial when spoken, over time have become identified with one of the climactic moments in my life. What I’m thinking about occurred during a period so frivolous I’m embarrassed to describe it; nevertheless, I must describe it.

That whole period is very distant now, but I remember it well, well enough to tell about it reliably, which is not at all unusual. People often remember past events in detail; the hard thing is to recall what you were like then while you’re recalling now, to summon, from experience, knowledge, and disillusion, an exact remembrance of not knowing, of innocence. That’s very difficult and that’s what I want to achieve, especially the recollection of innocence, because ignorance actually increases with knowledge—experience and disillusion make it much easier for us to ponder the extent of our ignorance. Innocence is not extensive, though: innocence either is or is not.

And now, skipping to the opening of Part Two:

Cross out, cross out, that was the first thing I thought of when I unearthed these notebooks after six years. Quite cunning, those two words: to cross out you have to pick up your pen again.

I’m rereading everything I wrote, and it seems awkward, inefficient, and positively useless for what I wanted: it clarifies nothing. So if it’s useless, why not toss it into the fireplace? I don’t know why, and I can’t find any reason not to do that; but the thing is, neither do I find enough momentum in myself to do it. I can think I should burn it, but I know my hand won’t move in the right direction; on the contrary, no sooner did the words “cross out” come craftily into my head than my fountain pen began to secrete its spidery web onto the page.

Dream of Reason won’t be available until October, but you can pre-order copies from The Booksmith by clicking here.

12 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Thanks to Literary License for drawing our attention to this piece by Bruce Sterling in Wired detailing eighteen challenges for contemporary literature.

This is a pretty broad set of challenges, ranging from some more content based questions (“Literature is language-based and national; contemporary society is globalizing and polyglot,” or “Contemporary literature not confronting issues of general urgency; dominant best-sellers are in former niche genres such as fantasies, romances and teen books”), to challenges of audience development (“Means of book promotion, distribution and retail destabilized,” or “Ink-on-paper manufacturing is an outmoded, toxic industry with steeply rising costs”).

Regardless, it’s a really interesting list that does point to many of the concerns and issues underlying our industry. Here are some of the others I think are most interesting:

Media conglomerates have poor business model; economically rationalized “culture industry” is actively hostile to vital aspects of humane culture.

Long tail balkanizes audiences, disrupts means of canon-building and fragments literary reputation.

Barriers to publication entry have crashed, enabling huge torrent of subliterary and/or nonliterary textual expression.

“Convergence culture” obliterating former distinctions between media; books becoming one minor aspect of huge tweet/ blog/ comics/ games / soundtrack/ television / cinema / ancillary-merchandise pro-fan franchises.

12 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As announced yesterday, Michael Thomas has won this year’s International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for his novel Man Gone Down (Grove).

Here’s the description from the Grove website:

A beautifully written, insightful, and devastating first novel, Man Gone Down is about a young black father of three in a biracial marriage trying to claim a piece of the American Dream he has bargained on since youth.

On the eve of the unnamed narrator’s thirty-fifth birthday, he finds himself broke, estranged from his white Boston Brahmin wife and three children, and living in the bedroom of a friend’s six-year-old child. He has four days to come up with the money to keep his family afloat, four days to try to make some sense of his life. He’s been getting by working
construction jobs though he’s known on the streets as “the professor,” as he was expected to make something out of his life.

Alternating between his past—as a child in inner-city Boston, he was bussed to the suburbs as part of the doomed attempts at integration in the 1970s—and the present in New York City where he is trying mightily to keep his children in private schools, we learn of his mother’s abuses, his father’s abandonment, raging alcoholism, and the best and worst intentions of a supposedly integrated America.

This is an extraordinary debut. It is a story of the American Dream gone awry, about what it’s like to feel preprogrammed to fail in life—and the urge to escape that sentence.

And from the jury:

“We never know his name. But the African-American protagonist of Michael Thomas’ masterful debut, Man Gone Down, will stay with readers for a long time. He lingers because this extraordinary novel comes to us from a writer of enthralling voice and startling insight. Tuned urgently to the way we live now, the winner of the International Dublin IMPAC Prize 2009 is a novel brilliant in its scope and energy, and deeply moving in its human warmth.”

The IMPAC is one of the richest literary awards in the world—Thomas will receive €100,000—and has brought a good deal of success and attention to recent winners, which include Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses, Rawi Hage’s De Niro’s Game, and Colm Tóibín’s The Master.

11 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

At least this post isn’t about a bookstore/publisher closing—instead it’s about the absolute grossness of corporations:

On Sunday, a Bookseller story by Victoria Gallagher reported that “sources” were saying “Penguin is believed to have signed an exclusive deal with W H Smith” bookstores to be “the sole supplier of foreign travel guides in its airports, motorway, railway and hospital shops.” The reported one-year contract would begin next week and mean that in the chain’s 450 Travel stores only travel guides from Penguin’s DK and Rough Guides lines would be available — nothing from Lonely Planet, Time Out, Berlitz, Frommer’s, Fodor’s, etc.

It’s not as if the deal wasn’t going to cost Penguin — Gallagher reports the company gave WHS a whopping 72% discount. Still, it’s a devastating blow to the competition, and probably worth it as such to Penguin: WHS is the only bookstore at airports controlled by BAA, the company that controls the UK’s busiest airports, including Heathrow, Gatwick, and Edinburgh. (from Moby Lives)

Thankfully a boycott has started, which is at least, well, something. This sort of anti-choice, anti-reader activity is total bullshit and a scary sign of the times. . . .

11 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I’m just chock full of good news today:

Arcade Publishing, the independent literary house founded by the late publishing legend Richard Seaver, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

A petition for relief was filed in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in the Southern District of New York on June 4 by Jeannette Seaver, the publisher’s widow and vice president of the company.

The couple founded Arcade in 1988. Its list of authors includes the renowned Mexican poet Octavio Paz and the Albanian writer Ismail Kadare, winner of the Man Booker Prize.

Mr. Seaver, who died in January at the age of 82, began his career at Grove Press, where he championed the work of Samuel Beckett and helped bring books by Henry Miller and Jean Genet to the United States. (Crain’s)

This is a bit unrelated, but Helmut Frielinghaus—Gunter Grass’s editor and the German-language translator of John Updike and others—was at the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Symposium on Tuesday and mentioned that over the past couple months a large number of smaller independent German houses had closed down. This is very distressing, especially since it felt like things had sort of stabilized . . . Scary to think that there could be more bookstore and publishing house closings in the near future . . .

11 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This is already old news, but last week Jessica Stockton Bagnulo announced she had signed the lease and Greenlight Bookstore now has an official address: 86 Fulton Street in Fort Greene. If all goes according to plan, the store will officially open in September.

It’s great to see this finally happen . . . For as long as I’ve known Jessica, she’s been working on her plan to open her own bookstore. She’s worked at a number of indie stores in New York, wrote extensive strategic plans (which even won her some cash), and thought this all through very, very carefully.

I have complete faith that Jessica will do everything right in terms of launching this store (like displaying a lot of Open Letter titles, right Jessica? Right?), and from what I’ve heard she nailed down the perfect location. Congrats to Jessica and be sure to check out the Greenlight Bookstore blog for further updates.

In stark contrast to Jessica’s wonderful news comes this statement from 3P favorite, Karl Pohrt:

On the advice of my accountant and my business manager, I am closing Shaman Drum Bookshop June 30. Despite a first rate staff, a fiercely loyal core of customers, a very decent landlord and my own commitment to the community of arts and letters in Ann Arbor, it is clear to me that the bookshop is not a sustainable business.

In spite of the downturn in the economy, Ann Arbor continues to be an excellent book town. There are wonderful independent stores here (Crazy Wisdom, Nicolas’s Books), fine specialty book stores (Vault of Midnight, Aunt Agatha’s) and great used bookshops (Dawn Treader, West Side Books, Motte & Bailey). They need your support.

Over a year ago we began a process to become a non-profit center for the literary arts. I am decoupling Shaman Drum Bookshop from the Great Lakes Literary Arts Center, which should simplify and streamline our IRS application. I will pursue this new venture after we close the store.

Shaman Drum Bookshop has been here for 29 years. We had 28 good years. Thank you for your support. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to be a bookseller in Ann Arbor.

-Karl Pohrt

We live in a world in which the community of Ann Arbor—Ann freaking Arbor, the home of one of the best universities in the country—can’t support an independent bookstore. As Karl wrote, it seems like a perfect storm of things went wrong to sink Shaman Drum, but still . . . If there’s one city in the Midwest that should have enough intelligent readers to support an indie store, it’s Ann Arbor. My faith has been shaken . . .

Karl’s a close friend, and I know that he’ll come out of this OK. Very interested to see what happens with the Great Lakes Literary Arts Center, but from now on, I know that every trip through Ann Arbor will be incomplete. . .

11 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Symposium (participants pictured above) took place earlier this week, and was one of the most interesting symposiums I’ve ever attended.

The Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Prize—which goes to the best translation from German published in the past year—was awarded to John Hargraves for his translation of Michael Kruger’s The Executor, and the symposium that took place the next day was very focused, very enlightening, and very exciting.

This year’s topic was “Interpretation and Translation,” and each of the panels addressed the idea of how personal interpretation of a work influences how the translator approaches it. This topic was especially interesting in relation to the panels of poetry translation, especially the opening one on lyric translation, which gave Pierre Joris a chance to talk about his careful—and extremely thoughtful—translation of Paul Celan’s “Todtnauberg.” (Which you can find on Celan’s Wikipedia page.) He claimed that because of the very nature of poetry, a translated poem must be more difficult than the original—to smooth it out and make a poem easier to understand is to fail as a translator.

Nick Hoff’s self-analysis of his decisions regarding his translation of Holderin’s poetry was very astute and fascinating, especially when he compared his translations to Michael Hamburger’s, detailing how Hoff’s interpretative bias towards musicality and emotive force lead to very different translations from Hamburger’s, which favor meter over everything else. Ross Benjamin—who translated Holderin’s Hyperion for Archipelago—also gave a great presentation about his decision-making process, and really made me want to read this novel.

I don’t think I was the only person in attendance who was blown away by Nick’s and Ross’s attention to detail and quality. The perceptiveness of these two young, very talented translators is a great sign for the future of German literature in translation.

The prose side of things was interesting as well. Breon Mitchell talked about the process of retranslating The Tin Drum and Krishna Winston talked about Grass’s translator meetings. In relation to My Century, Michael Henry Heim gave a wonderful speech about how to treat dialect in translation, addressing the many problems, the different traditions present in other cultures (for instance, French translators frequently translate English first names in to their French equivalent), and proposing that translators invent dialects.

All that said, it was a bit of a bittersweet occasion. For the past seven or eight years, Dr. Ruediger van den Boom has done a remarkable job putting on this prize ceremony and symposium. Unfortunately, he’s retiring from the Goethe Institut this summer and returning to Germany, leaving behind some (literally) big shoes to fill. Nevertheless, I believe the symposium will continue—it’s an extremely valuable opportunity for the best German translators in the country to discuss the ins-and-outs of the craft at a very high level. And to be able to hang out with people like Drenka Willen and Helmut Frielinghaus and hear these translators talk shop is something else . . .

8 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We’re a couple days behind, but this month’s featured bookstore is The Booksmith in San Francisco’s historic Haight Ashbury neighborhood. The store opened in 1976 by Gary Frank, who recently sold the store to Christin Evans and Praveen Madan.

The Booksmith has a long history of hosting great events, and looking at the upcoming schedule, this is definitely still the case. Tomorrow Douglas Rushkoff will be speaking about Life Inc., and more relevant to this website, on Thursday, June 25th, the next meeting of “Found in Translation,” The Booksmith’s reading group, will meet to discuss Yoko Tawada’s The Naked Eye.

Later this month we’ll post an interview with Julie Boyer (who is from Italy and started the Found in Translation book club) and some other special Booksmith features . . . But for now, all of the books referenced in our posts will link to The Booksmith’s online catalog, making it easy to purchase titles directy from one of California’s great indie bookstores.

8 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the past couple weeks, I’ve been gorging myself on Gunter Grass novels in preparation for the panel I’m moderating tomorrow with Krishna Winston (Crabwalk), Breon Mitchell (The Tin Drum), and Michael Henry Heim (My Century, Peeling the Onion)—arguably three of the best German-English translators working today. And Grass, having received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999, is arguably Germany’s most important post-War German writer.

(This event is part of the 2009 Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Symposium, the subject of which is “Interpretive Perspective and Translation.” The symposium is only open to translators, scholars, and the like, although German lit/translation enthusiasts are encouraged to contact Lisa Lux lux at chicago dot goethe dot org for more information.)

To celebrate the 50th Anniversary of The Tin Drum, the novel—which, to continue the trend started above, is arguably Grass’s greatest achievement—the novel is being published in new translations around the world. Not that the initial translations were always bad, but the book is a bit racy (and difficult), and a number of the original translations omitted lines, paragraphs, etc., or just didn’t quite capture the nuances of Grass’s unique style.

Breon Mitchell puts it best in his afterword to the new translation:

The most common question I was faced while working on this new Tin Drum was, “What was wrong with the old one?” This question reveals a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of literary translation. It is precisely the mark of a great work of art that it demands to be retranslated. What impels us toward new versions is not the weakness of existing translations, but the strength and richness of certain works of literature. The works that are never retranslated are those we only care to read once.

We translate great works because they deserve it—because the power and depth of the text can never be fully revealed by a single translation, however inspired. A translation is a reading, and every reading is necessarily personal, perhaps even idiosyncratic. Each new version offers, not a better reading, but a different one, one that foregrounds new aspects of the text, that sees it through new eyes, that makes it new.

More on Breon’s new translation in a minute. But following on last week’s extremely long series of posts on BEA, and my “confrontation” with Pantheon editor Erroll McDonald, I found this anecdote in Grass’s intro to the new translation a pretty inspiring picture of what publishing used to be like:

In the summer of 1959, I completed my first novel, The Tin Drum, in Paris. I had just corrected proofs and created an image for the dust jacket when a letter arrived from the legendary publisher Kurt Wolff in New York. Wolff, who had left Germany in the thirties, asked me to meet him at a hotel in Zurich. He strode up to me in the hotel lobby, a tall gentleman, with his wife and colleague Helen Wolff beside him.

“I’m thinking of publishing your book in America,” he said. “Do you think the American reader will understand it?” “I don’t think so,” I replied. “The setting is provincial, not even Danzig itself, but a suburb. The novel is filled with German dialect. And it concentrates solely on the provinces—” “Say no more, “ he broke in. “All great literature is rooted in the provincial. I’ll bring it out in America.”

I’ve only just started reading Breon’s new translation (I first read My Century, a brilliant novel of voices with one short chapter for each year of the twentieth century, with some chapters being political, some historical, and some just plain fun, and Crabwalk, which is also quite compelling, although a bit more novelistic in conventional ways), but from the opening statement (which is the same in both translations)—“Granted: I’m an inmate in a mental institution”—it’s a rather brilliant book.

And the translation is pretty dazzling, and does jazz up Ralph Manheim’s—at least in the instances Mitchell quotes in his afterward, such as this:

I also saw that activities such as thumb-twiddling, frowning, looking up and down, handshaking, making babies, counterfeiting, turning out the light, brushing teeth, shooting people, and changing diapers were being practiced all over the world, though not always with the same skill. (Manheim)

And I saw too that activities like thumb-twiddling, brow-wrinkling, head-nodding, hand-shaking, baby-making, coin-faking, light-dousing, tooth-brushing, man-killing, and diaper-changing were being engaged in all over the world, if not always with equal skill. (Mitchell)

Mitchell’s is more in keeping with Grass’s original text in terms of rhythm and “semantic effect.”

This isn’t to say that Manheim’s translation is bad—both Grass and Mitchell go out of their way to say what a great job Manheim did. But he was a young translator under some tight time constraints, and Grass’s novel isn’t easy for anyone.

And he didn’t have the benefit of one of Grass’s translator gatherings. For the past thirty years, every time Grass releases a new book, he arranges a meeting of his translators, spending three or four days going over the new text page by page, talking about major problems, explaining certain lines, answering questions, etc. I’m excited to hear from all three translators about this experience, especially Mitchell, since he recently spent a week with Grass in Gdansk going over The Tin Drum and even visiting places in the novel . . .

I’ll report back later this week about this panel and the symposium as a whole.

5 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

Follow these links for Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.

If you’ve read the first four parts of this post (or this piece I wrote a few months ago), you pretty much know where this is headed. After X years of keeping BEA confined to the “trade,” I think things have to open up to the public—whatever that might mean. It’s at times like this, when things are in flux and not necessarily going all that well, that we really need to experiment, to try something new . . .

In talking with Lance Fensterman (who runs BEA), I think we have somewhat similar ideas of what sorts of people should be allowed into the Expo, although we use somewhat different terminology. I love to say that we should open the show up to the public—that it should come to resemble a “Con” in which anyone with enough cash for the entrance fee can come in and mill around. Of course, since we are talking about books and not wildly popular TV shows, I think the group that would come would be pretty self-selecting. The collectors, the voracious readers, the book club members, the people who love literature would come—people who fit a lot of the categories of Lance’s redefined notion of “the trade.”

I think it’s pretty obvious what’s going on behind Lance’s rhetoric . . . the big commercial presses—who tend to spend the most money on the show and make BEA a bigger draw for everyone—ain’t very supportive of the idea of having the public be able to come to BEA. If it’s been written once on this blog, it’s been written a million times—publishers hate readers.

And what a muddy situation! This “public” made up of the same people who blog/tweet/recommend wandering around the halls . . . Where are their credentials?

That’s not to say that this idea doesn’t have it’s problems. One of the big issues is whether or not books would be available for sale. I mean, BEA is the American Booksellers Association’s big show, and I can’t imagine many indie bookstores would like to see the public buying books directly from publishers . . . And if the show did have some “professional” times in addition to “public” times, there would be some sort of switchover costs associated with removing galleys and whatnot and replacing them with books that could be sold. (Which is why redefining the word “trade” is a cleaner approach.)

But maybe there’s a still a way. . . . Hell, it’s been demonstrated (in certain studies) that giving away books actually increases sales. Maybe we don’t have to worry about sales at all—just create buzz with the public the same way we do with booksellers and reviewers.

Besides, it’s not like publishers were all that friendly with their galleys this year. I heard a couple of horror stories from NYC booksellers in which they tried to get a galley and were denied. Or couldn’t even get anyone from a publisher to talk to them. I can’t tell you how many complaints I heard (here we go again . . .) of publishers being extremely insular and only talking to one another.

Before getting more into the potential problems of opening up the show, there are other benefits than simply trying to generate excitement. For one, BEA would become a much better platform for discussing important issues. Booths and panels on the importance of independent bookstores would be really interesting and a great way to raise awareness among individual readers.

Or even better, why couldn’t BEA have a panel about e-books that includes a cultural critic, a publisher, an author, a reader? Create a space for real debate and discussion?

I know I’m repeating myself, but publishing is really, really shitty at doing market research. But what if you had a few thousand (ten thousand?) “regular readers” hanging out in one place where you could potentially interact, ask them questions, engage in some sort of feedback loop that would improve your business practices? This could be revolutionary . . .

Even getting back to the problem of selling (christ, what a phrase), there could be some sort of “bookseller tax” in which 10% of all sales go to the ABA or are redistributed to bookstores, or go to purchasing ads to support book review sections, or whatever. This seems like a problem that can be overcome . . . It’s been solved in Frankfurt. And in Buenos Aires. And Guadalajara. And almost every other country with a large book fair . . . And for everyone looking for ways of quantifying success, cash from sales and foot traffic from the public would definitely suffice.

Speaking of other international book fairs, these frequently seem to be a point of pride, a major event that everyone’s aware of, not just the handful of people in the industry. I mean, how many articles in the major papers were there about BEA this year? I’m willing to bet that there were five times as many in the Buenos Aires papers and magazines back in April during their book fair . . . a fair that’s open till 4am (seriously—4am) on a few nights to accommodate all the people who come and cultivate a true festival experience.

A BookExpo that’s about books, that’s connecting readers to books would seem so much more fulfilling. And I really don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way.

But what will really happen? Well, rumor has it that the university presses are pulling out fast and furious, which is absolutely terrible. Where else do you have the chance to see so many university press books on display? In a local box store? Not a chance . . . And I doubt big publishers would be willing to go for changes like the ones mentioned above. They’re still clinging to the old models and ignoring both common sense and solid theory. So we end with Lance fighting the good fight, trying to improve the space in which publishers can promote their wares, but settling for a much smaller fair that takes place mid-week so that publishing folks can bond with other publishing folks and wonder just what the fuck went wrong.

4 June 09 | Chad W. Post |

Follow these links for Part I, Part II, and Part III.

Over the past few years the debate between print and online reviewers has been one of the more contentious in all of the book business. Similar to publishing, this is an area where technology has outstripped the prevailing model, where with a couple bucks, a smart website name, some literary talent, and a bit of ambition, basically anyone can become a reputable commentator on books, participating in—and altering—the ongoing larger conversation about literary culture. (And you can even get Press access to BookExpo!)

Pair this quick, cheap, and easy growth with the precipitous decline in newpaper book reviews (not to mention magazines) and it’s easy to see why so many online vs. print barbs are exchanges on panels across the country every year. Personally, I think this all gets a bit stupid, but there are valid points on both sides. (No one likes losing their job to technological advances—hell, if e-books knell the death toll for print publishers, I’ll be the first to call for Luddites to unite.)

And the argument just won’t go away . . . See this year’s book reviewing panel (thanks again to Gwen at Literary License for a great write-up) that circled around separating “book reviewers” (generally print, representing authority) from “book recommenders” (internet dwellers, representing the pure democratic ideal). Even without having been there, I’m sure I could repeat most of the arguments from both sides (well, more from the one particular site that was more aptly represented), which are actually kind of interesting within the context of BookExpo, where desperate—and I do mean desperate—publishers were trying how to figure out how to mobilize the tweeting universe to promote their titles . . .

That’s really why I find this debate so silly . . . If the industry wasn’t fucked, there would presumably be enough space in the culture for long-form, independently edited print reviews, book news magazines, online literary mags, bloggers, social networking recommenders, etc., all of which would connect readers with books in different ways, with different levels of authority.

What’s really funny is that the most vital section of BEA was the Firebrand/NetGalley “blogger signing” area. No matter when I passed by there was always a small crowd of well read bloggers/readers chatting. And no surprise to anyone paying attention, HarperCollins and other big publishers came over asking bloggers how they could work together . . .

No offense to HC—er, rather, pox on everyone—but haven’t we been talking about figuring out how to work with bloggers to promote literature for the past five-plus years? But that’s the point—publishers and authors are still trying to figure out this landscape where the bastions of book reviewing are only capable of doing so much (even the NY Times is shedding pages), but where people still want to talk about books and are finding new ways of spreading the word.

So, going back to an earlier point, if the overall point of BEA is to “create buzz,” why would we want to keep any of these “book influencers” out? I mean, granted, at some point in time BEA was the perfect meeting ground for the best of the book review editors to wander the floor and find out what they should be reviewing in the floor. No offense to anyone (maybe “no offense” should be the title of Part V . . .), but that’s just not really the case anymore. Most reviewers who do come (unfortunately there’s not many that do—only one or two from the biggest publications) are there only on Friday morning, or come for the panel they’re on and jet. Saturday and Sunday aren’t the best days for getting your hot new galley in the hands of a traditional book reviewer . . . yet, the money for the galleys, booth, trip, etc., has already been spent.

Lance Fensterman (who, if I haven’t said it already, did a kick-ass job with the show, as did the rest of his team . . . none of this is meant to reflect on them . . . they do all that they can to put on the best show they can for the rest of us—it’s the rest of us that sort of screw up their intentions) always uses the example that technically the number one reviewer on Amazon.com isn’t considered part of the “trade” and therefore isn’t allowed into BookExpo. I’d bet my last free PGW drink that dozens upon dozens of presses would love to get their books into the hands of these top Amazon/LibraryThing/GoodReads reviewers . . . But this sort of exclusion is exactly what notions of “authority” tend to lead to—there’s no “authority” without an “in” and an “out.”

OK, so publishers have ceded some control to iUniverse, self-publishers and the like, and reviewers have done the same with bloggers, online magazines, etc. So who really makes up the book “trade”?

Some people will always reject this notion, but the traditional ideas of what constitutes “trade” are totally demolished. . . . But this—I think—is a good thing. Say what you will about book blogs or the like, but there’s a reason HC is trying to figure out how to get books into these people’s hands. In contrast to the often grumpy, Eyeore-like traditional publishing folks (shit, isn’t this series simply four days of complaining?), the blogging, twittering, book loving, word-of-mouth spreading general readers actually get excited about books. About meeting authors and receiving a galley. It’s refreshing to talk to readers who aren’t totally jaded . . .

Tomorrow I’ll get more into what I think BEA could really look like, but my core belief is that BookExpo could—no, should—be an event that generates excitement about all facets of the book industry. That fans of New Directions storm the floor to find out what books are coming out in the next few months. That college kids who are intrigued by the publishing world can start to see what it is, who the players are, how a book gets launched. That readers, regular book buying readers, can get a glimpse behind the curtain and see where the book magic happens.

That’s all a bit over the top, I know, but seriously, book culture (of this sort) in this country needs a real injection of life, and if there was a vibrancy about BEA in the way there is about ComicCon or other fan shows like that, we all might be in a better place. And increased buzz, increased excitement, necessarily leads to increased awareness—of books, publishers, authors, goings on. Even, perhaps, of bookstores and the issues surrounding book culture . . . but more on that tomorrow.

4 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Liao Yiwu is the author of “The Corpse Walkers: Real Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up.” On June 4, 1989, Liao composed a poem, “Massacre,” that condemned the government’s brutal crackdown on the student pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square. He distributed underground and for which he was arrested and sentenced to four years in prison. The following, which profiles one of Liao’s inmates, is taken from his prison memoir, “Testimonial.”

Wei Yang is a native of Dujiangyan in China’s southwestern province of Sichuan. His head looks disproportionately large and he speaks with a thick accent as if he had a disproportionately large tongue. While in jail, he seldom talked and was anti-social. Beneath that loner’s appearance, he possessed the agility of a squirrel, smart and alert. He moved swiftly and mysteriously.

Yang came from a poor family. Before his arrest in 1989, he was in his teens, attending a local vocational school. Like most self-absorbed teenagers, he seldom paid any attention to politics or current affairs. However, the massacre in Tiananmen Square on June 4 outraged him and turned him into an activist. Out of the blue, he fabricated an organization called “The China Democratic Alliance,” claiming that CDA was a longstanding pro-democracy organization overseas. Yang designed and printed a dozen CDA posters, urging people in Sichauan to stand up against the brutal regime, avenge the death of innocent students in Beijing and overthrow the central government. He boldly pasted the posters prominently at public venues. To add authenticity to his creation, he even made up a name at the bottom of the poster—“the Sichuan branch of the China Democratic Alliance.” The sudden appearance of those counterrevolutionary posters with explicit anti-government messages shocked authorities in Sichuan. Local officials escalated the case into a top national emergency and requested assistance from both the provincial and central governments. Top experts gathered in Sichuan to share information and conduct joint investigations. More than one hundred policemen were mobilized and ordered to solve the case quickly before “this counterrevolutionary organization” could create more damage.

Yang was quick on his feet. Upon hearing that police were on his trail, he picked up two big albums of stamps and ran. He remained on the lam for half a year, wandering around in ten different southern metropolises. “I started collecting stamps as a child,” he said to me after he got caught and landed in my cell. “Each time I arrived at a city, I would hang out at the stamp market for a couple of hours. The money I got from stamp transaction would last me for a few days.”

Yang’s case, which alarmed the central government and gained national notoriety, remained unresolved for months. When the real culprit was finally caught, the fatigued police were shocked, disappointed and depressed to see the “menacing” counter-revolutionary that they had pursued for half a year was merely an innocent looking teenager with a pair of big round eyes. What made them feel more insulted was the fact that Yang had no overseas connection, as he had claimed in the poster. He had no clue as to what a democratic alliance meant. When asked to cough up the names of the key members of the CDA in Sichuan, he admitted: “I, myself, hold the titles of chairman, deputy chairman, publicity manager and secretary.”

The public security bureau and the court staff realized that they had been duped. Out of anger, they had him beaten up and thrown into a detention center. Several days later, indictment papers came. Then, they put him on trial. “I took lots of mental notes and was prepared to engage in a debate with the judge about the student movement in Tianamen,” Yang recollected. “They didn’t take me to a courtroom. Instead, I was led into a small office. The paper with the verdict had already been prepared and lay on a desk. Once I walked in, the judge picked up the paper, handed it to me and told me to move my ass out of the way. When I refused to leave, he grabbed a document folder with both hands and began to hit me hard on the head. Then he yelled: ‘Get the hell out of here.’”

The judge charged him with counterrevolutionary demagoguery and sentenced him to three years in jail.

He was barely twenty years old. Initially, the authorities put him in charge of a warehouse for the prison factory. While nobody was looking, he slipped notes into the goat skin gloves that prisoner had produced for export. On the notes, he reminded people that the products were made in prison and urged customers to boycott the manufacturer. As a consequence, the merchandize, valued at about two million yuan (US$300,000), was returned from Hong Kong. The prison authorities launched an investigation and easily uncovered the hidden traitor. In retaliation, the prison guards hung him upside down from the ceiling for several days.

Subsequently, they assigned Yang to clean the factory workshops. He buddied up with a convicted murderer from Henan province, who was over six feet tall. Yang followed him everywhere. The two constantly got into quarrels. When that happened, Yang would tilt his head backward and stare at his companion with anger. He resembled more like a tiny mouse protesting against a big evil cat.

One time, all the political prisoners staged a hunger strike, but the guards enticed the common criminals to sabotage the efforts. The political prisoners found themselves surrounded by a group of hostile convicted criminals, which far outnumbered them. The big cat from Henan spotted Yang, the mouse, swooped on him with his big claws and then grabbed him by the collar of his shirt. Yang was swung high up in the air, his legs kicking like an astronaut inside a space shuttle. The big cat still wouldn’t let him down. People from both camps burst out laughing. For many years, the scene haunted me and kept occurring in my dreams. I would see him being held up in the air by an invisible hand, struggling to get down. When I woke up, I would always find my own legs kicking.

In the spring of 1993, Yang served out his sentence and was allowed to go home. He became a laborer, pedaling a tricycle to transport beer for small restaurants along the Yangtse River. Once he had earned enough money to take care of his basic needs, he became restless. He traversed the country twice. He was a true friend. While in Guizhou, he encountered a former inmate and brought him back to Sichuan. Yang offered his place to that friend for a long time. One day, my phone rang. I picked it up and nobody was there. As I was puzzling over the anonymous phone call, my door bell rang. It was Yang—he had just called me on his cell phone outside.

Yang looked weary and his face was covered with dirt. It turned out that he had just gotten off a long ride on a slow train from the coastal city of Shenzhen. He had come directly from the train station to pay tribute. “I’ve gotten gifts for you. These gifts have been smuggled in from Hong Kong. Two copies of Beijing Spring, a popular magazine published by dissident writers in the West and a book, _The Disasters of China’s Leftists._” Then, Yang flashed a 100 Hong Kong dollar bill with Queen Elizabeth’s head printed on it in front of my eyes: “Have you seen it before?”

My eyes sparkled at the sight of money. I examined and squeezed the one hundred dollar bill, feigning great interest. Then, I complimented him sarcastically: “You are very much in tune with the mood of this country, money, money, money.” His face blushed, looking like a Red Delicious apple.

Later, I was told that Yang had decided to reform himself, shutting himself away and reading banned books on promoting democracy in China. He also developed a passion for Chinese and foreign detective stories. Yang made tremendous progress both in his possession of knowledge and gadgets – he was well versed in Chinese politics and equipped himself with a beeper, a fax machine and cell phone.

Inspired by ideas from the many detective novels he had read, he launched an underground pro-democracy movement and learned how to contend with his enemies. After undertaking hundreds of scientific experiments, he acquired a new skill for writing secret notes with a special ink. The notes will remain invisible until you soak the paper in clear water for a few minutes (This special ink, mentioned in several revolutionary novels, was said to be invented by the subversive underground Chinese Communists who engaged in activities to sabotage the ruling Nationalist government in the 1940s).

Somehow, Yang managed to get connected with a dissident at a human rights organization in the US and communicated with him regularly. He enlisted my help in obtaining letters from imprisoned political dissidents and disseminated their information to the international community. We were both caught and locked behind bars for more than twenty days. The latest arrest made Yang more paranoid. “The police are omnipresent, like the bugs in your stomach. You feel their presence when you eat, and when you fart and shit.”

He further improved his spying techniques and always complained that other dissidents wouldn’t be able to appreciate his efforts. One time, while visiting me at home, he bypassed me to present a pot of flowers to my father, who wasso touched that he carefully tended the flowers, giving it water and fertilizer. Little did I know that a secret note was hidden at the bottom of the pot. It was a letter to warn me of a possible police search. Two months later, after Yang mentioned the letter, I dashed over to the pot and dug up the note. It was mainly decomposed with a couple of worms squirming over it.

If the “Chinese Democratic Alliance” was a mere figment of his imagination in 1989, he made it reality eight years later. When dissident Wang Youcai and his friends established the “China Democratic Party” in the summer of 1998, Yang and his friends responded and formed the Sichuan branch. Police soon got wind of their political endeavors. Two leading members, Liu Xianbin and She Wanbao were arrested and immediately sentenced to ten years behind bars. Yang also found himself surrounded by plainclothes police who were stationed outside his apartment. He felt like a turtle in a vat. Calmly, Yang stepped out of his apartment, carrying a bucket of ashes downstairs and pretended to dump garbage. As police closed in on him, he tossed the bucket in the air. The dust blinded his captors and Yang ran away.

Like a nervous deer chased by a predator, Yang went up north, attempted to cross over to Russia through Jiamusi city, but that failed miserably. He had no alternative but returned to Sichuan, staying at different places and playing hide and seek with police. Not long afterward, he forged an identity card and joined a tour group for Thailand. Immediately upon arriving in Bangkok, he claimed to be horny and insisted on visiting the red light district. He got into a taxi and recklessly directed the driver to the American Embassy in Thailand. Sweaty and stinky, he stepped into the American territory and cried like a baby. He said he had finally tasted freedom.

In the winter of 1998, I received a fax from Yang, saying that he had been kicked out of the American Embassy and found himself on the streets. Since Thailand is well-known for its Buddhist charity, I later heard tales of Yang being picked up by a group of monks. He earned a living as a temple cleaner. Out of sympathy and friendship, I contacted friends in the West, seeking assistance for Yang. Political asylum turned out to be more complicated than I had expected.

Four years later, the dissident friend at the US-based human rights organization informed me that Yang’s political asylum status had been confirmed and he would soon be transferred to a United Nations refugee camp. He would be given US$200 per month to cover his housing and food. “The money can barely feed his stomach,” says the friend. “But it’s better than nothing. I’m trying to locate a country that will accept him, but it’s very difficult. We have to jump all sorts of hurdles. He has to do a lot to prove himself.”

I felt so bad for Yang, but knowing his past ingenuity, I knew that he would somehow survive.

One day in July of 2004, a writer friend invited me out for tea and shared with me the news that Yang had arrived in Canada.

“He has a new phone now and tried to call you many times and said he couldn’t get through?” said my friend.

“Really? I’m sure he will call again,” I said.

(Special thanks to Wen Huang for sending us this translation of Liao Yiwu’s piece. Very appropriate for today, the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, or June Fourth Incident.)

3 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

A few weeks back we mentioned the then upcoming symposium at the University of Michigan on the “future of reading.” Well, the amazing Karl Pohrt was able to attend and wrote this comprehensive piece on the somewhat bleak gathering.

Bookishness: The New Fate of Reading in the Digital Age is the title of a symposium held today at the University of Michigan.

New Fate of Reading? Uh-oh . . .

The event announcement features an illustration of books rendered as if they are a flock of birds flying above the reach of a group of young people standing in an open field. The image is ambiguous. Are the books flying toward the people or away from them? Are people greeting the arrival of the books or are they ecstatically waving goodbye? In both instances I fear it’s the later. This might be due to my anxiety about the precarious economics of the culture of books these days. Or perhaps it’s just my bad attitude, something that surfaces now and then despite years spent practicing hardcore zazen.

The text accompanying the picture poses some key questions: What new literacies are generated in the digital era? What happens to the cultural practices associated with the traditional book? How are institutions responding to this new situation? Bookstores are specifically mentioned, along with libraries, publishers, and newspapers. And finally, moving from the descriptive to the prescriptive: How ought they _(to) respond?_ This is what I’m really interested in. What is to be done?

The symposium, sponsored by the Michigan Quarterly Review and the Rackham Graduate School, is held in Angell Hall on the U of M’s central campus, and is divided into two sessions. MQR editor Jonathan Freedman tells us the morning panel, New Reading Practices and Literacies in a Digital Age, is devoted to questions of theory and history. The afternoon sessions will examine new institutions.

The program kicks off with a talk entitled “The Aesthetic of Bookishness in Twenty-first Century Literature.” Jessica Pressman, who teaches at Yale, informs us that the role of the book will change—has changed—from an essential format to one medium among many. She says the recent talk about the death of the book is a literary response to the perceived threats of the digital age. The theme of the death of the book has become a source of inspiration for writers, despite the fact that literature was never about information delivery. Book bound content is now associated with the literary.

She cites The Raw Shark Texts, by Steven Hall, as an example of a new literary form in which the novel itself exists as a character.

“_Shark Texts_ begins with the main character reading himself back to life from near death,” she says.

Pressman describes an aesthetic of bookishness in which books are viewed as a haven from the increasingly threatening digital age. This position is most certainly retro because “we now live in a world in which the text no longer exists just on the page.”

Within the bookish aesthetic, bookstores (“spaces for bound books”) are like sanctuaries or churches. They provide a safe location from which readers can network with each other and critique the digital culture. For bookish folk, bookstores are “shields against the shark.”

Frankly, I never thought of bookshops as lairs of a bound-book Ancien Regime, but I take her point.

“The book is a reading machine and data mutates across discourse networks,” she tells us, channeling William Gibson or William S. Burroughs.

Obviously the practice of reading and the bookish experience have changed in the digital age. Nostalgia for the world of print doesn’t cut it anymore in our multi-modal world.

Click here for the complete article.

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3 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Our latest review is Monica Carter’s piece on Francoise Sagan’s That Mad Ache, recently published by Basic Books and translated from the French by Douglas Hofstadter.

Monica — who works at Skylight Books and runs the excellent Salonica — isn’t especially keen on this novel, or, to be more specific, she’s not too keen on the 100-page essay by Hofstadter — “Translator, Trader” — that’s included in the volume (and although I remember loving Godel, Escher, Bach, this is cringe-worthy):

The essay is divided into small sections with wink, wink headings like, “Poetic Lie-Sense” and “Good Gravy-Americanisms Galore” that cheapen the role of the translator and the reader. There is a distinct feeling that Hofstadter woefully underestimates the intelligence of the reader by delivering abstract ideas of translation and semiotics chopped into bite-size ideas veiled by poorly chosen puns and a cutesy font. Yes, even the font selection gets page time in this essay and after stating that Baskerville is “pedestrian,” the reader is forced to look at headings presented in a gaudy font. And why this essay is divided into so many sections becomes a mystery. Finding a segue between topics would lend much more credibility to the author as well as avoiding breaking the aesthetic flow with a cloyingly scripted heading.

There is a distinct goal on Hofstadter’s part throughout the essay to not be boring – in the writing of the essay, in his choices of translation, and yes, even the font. The reader is given several metaphors to better understand what type of translator Hofstadter is and why he makes the choices he does. The metaphor that Hofstadter relies on the most is “Translator as Dog-on-a-Leash”.

“Whenever I am translating something that someone else carefully wrote, I feel like an unleashed dog taking a walk with its master through a forest or a huge park. It’s a marvelously joyous feeling, a subtle blend of freedom and security. I run around on my own, but despite all my seeming freedom, I am in truth always invisibly tethered to my master and the unpredictable pathways that my master chooses to take.”

He also uses the metaphor of temperature, that translator’s styles fall somewhere on a tic of a thermometer between hot and cold. He considers himself a “hot” translator, meaning that he likes to take quite a few liberties with the original text to make it more interesting. The problem this presents of course is that his idea of what is “hot” is subjective and could be construed as not adhering to the authorial vision. For instance, he makes a comparison between his translation of a passage to Robert Westhoff’s translation (Westhoff was Sagan’s lover):

“In Chapter 13, Lucile is replying with indignation to a question Antoine has asked her. She thinks the answer is self-evident, and where Sagan has her say, “Bien entendu” (meaning literally “of course”), Westhoff has her say, “Of course.” That’s fair enough. My first inclination, however, was to go much further than this—namely, “Well, what do you think—is the Pope Catholic?” Once again, though, some little voice inside me protested, for two reasons. One is that what Lucile actually said in French was much shorter and simpler than this sarcastic retort, and the other is that the rhetorical question “Is the Pope Catholic?” might sound too American. I don’t quite know why that would be, since popes and Catholics are hardly limited to America, but perhaps there’s a down-home American sense of humor lurking inside that remark, and perhaps it’s that hidden flavor that sounds a bit un-French. In any case, none of my friends who read this phrase thought it belonged in Lucile’s mouth, and so I threw it out and settle for just, “Well, what do you think?”, and as I did so, my translation temperature fell from 100° to 75°.”

Click here for the complete review.

3 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Françoise Sagan rocketed to international fame with her debut novel Bonjour, Tristesse. After failing her baccalaureate, she wrote this novel when she was eighteen years old and it became the novel that all her other works would be measured against. It has the trademark French style, lean and sober, with philosophical undertones. The quintessential coming-of-age story focuses on 17-year-old Cécile, a young woman struggling with her need to attract men her father’s age, the relationship with her playboy father and the shallow lifestyle that they both lead. Typical of Sagan’s novels, we are presented with the examined lives of the disenchanted bourgeoisie. In Douglas Hofstadter’s retranslation of Sagan’s That Mad Ache (published as La Chamade in France and the U.S., originally), this theme once again presents itself as an integral part of Sagan’s psychological novel.

Instead of a teenage Cécile, we are introduced to a thirty-year-old Lucile who is living with fifty-year old real estate tycoon, Charles. She meets the young, attractive Antoine, a poor yet principled man working for a French publishing company. Antoine is also thirty and also dating someone older, Diane, a forty-five year old socialite. Lucile and Antoine meet at one of the many dinner parties that both of them are required to go to because of whom they are dating. Of course, there is an immediate attraction between them over a shared joke, but also a kindred sense that they are both interlopers in the rich lives of their partners:

She burst out laughing, and as she did so, both Diane and Charles looked over at the two of them. Diane and Charles had been placed next to each other, at the far end of the table, looking directly towards their protégés —thirty-year old children who refused to act like grown-ups. Lucile cut her laugh short: after all, she was making nothing of her life, and there was no one that she loved. What a joke! If she hadn’t by nature been so full of joie de vivre, she would have killed herself.

That last line is vintage Sagan and, in many cases, her dark humor saves this novel from becoming too frivolous. From the onset, Lucile lives a life of privilege and is able to wake up every morning and do whatever she feels like. Reading about someone who has everything isn’t that intriguing. Luckily, we are introduced to the sacrifice that Lucile must make in order to have this lifestyle. She lives with the truth that her love for Charles is not a passionate love, but is more of a tender fondness for the man he is and what he gives her. He loves her unconditionally, which is how a parent loves a child. With Antoine, there is passion and consequences, there is a risk—it has conditions. As a reader, we need this conflict to keep us engaged. Otherwise, we are left with a sense of vapidity that Sagan exploits in the bourgeoisie. And once Lucile decides to leave Charles and live with Antoine, there is a looming sense of tension between the two:

Sometimes he would cast a furtive, questioning glance at her. Her laziness, her incredible ability to do nothing at all and never to think about her future, her remarkable capacity for finding happiness in a long series of empty, inactive, indistinguishable days—all this struck him at times as outrageous, even verging on the repulsive. He knew very well that she loved him and that, for that reason, she wasn’t going to grow tired of him any sooner than he would of her, but his intuition told him that what he was now seeing of her lifestyle was representative of her deeper essence, and he realized that it was only thanks to their mutual physical passion that he was able to put up with her perpetual stagnation. He often felt as if he had discovered a mysterious beast, an unheard-of plant, a mandrake. But whenever he felt this way, he would draw near to her on the bed, slide in between the sheets, never growing tired of their wild abandon, of their mingled sweat, of their torrid exhaustion, and in this way he would rediscover for himself, and in the clearest possible manner, that she was, after all, not a beast but a woman.

The novel gets really interesting when Lucile succumbs to Antoine’s pressure to get a job. Because of Sagan’s psychological musings through character, Lucile engages us as a three-dimensional character, not simply a base, materialistic woman. In the end, that may be what she decides to be, but not until she goes through some serious self-reflection. Also it is important to consider that this was written in the sixties which puts Lucile in a historical context when feminism was just a groundswell. A woman who was single, unemployed and childless did not have the same stigma that it does today. Lucile realizes during her lunch hour that even though she may be in love, it does not mean she is happy:

That day, she had had it, and when she arrived at her usual brasserie at one o’clock, she ordered a cocktail form the surprised waiter (she never ordered drinks), and then another. She had a dossier to study and she riffled through it for a couple of minutes before closing it with a yawn. She was quite aware that they had suggested that she should write a few lines on the topic and that if they liked what she wrote, it might well be published. All well and good, but today isn’t the day for it. Nor was today the day for obediently trotting back to that gray office right after lunch and returning to the cute little role she had been playing of Active Young Woman in front of other people who would be playing their grandiose little roles of Thinkers, or else Men of Action. They were all lousy roles, or at the very least it was a lousy play. Or then again, if Antoine was right and this play that she was acting in was a perfectly respectable and useful play, well then, her role in it was poorly written, or else it had been written for somebody else. Antoine was simply wrong—this was now crystal-clear to her in the glaring light of her two cocktails, for alcohol at times shines pitiless sharp spotlights on life, and right now it was revealing to her the thousands of little lies that she had been telling herself day after day in effort to convince herself that she was happy. But in fact she was unhappy, and life was unfair.

Funny how a job can make life seem unfair, but such is Lucile. She discovers her limits that we have seen all along. In the end, each character remains who they are—at least more certain of who they are. This novel is not as good as Sagan’s debut, but it does have its charm. Ultimately, it is a romantic novel that seems somewhat dated and trivial at times but it also imparts a sense of nostalgia that carries us through the superficiality.

And even though this novel may not be that remarkable on its own, Basic Books came up with the brilliant idea of pairing That Mad Ache with an essay about translation by the translator by Douglas Hofstadter. Translator, Trader is a hundred page account of Hofstadter’s journey through translating Sagan’s novel and frequently comparing his translation with the original that was done by Sagan’s husband, Robert Westhoff. Enamored by this idea as I am, Hofstadter’s essay is a disappointment. Translation is such a complex issue, and an engaging one, that it serves well to have an afterword of this type for those interested in the process of translation. However, those of us who are interested in reading more about the translator’s personal experience with a work from conception to finish won’t find Hofstadter’s oversimplified, folksy approach worthwhile.

The essay is divided into small sections with wink, wink headings like, “Poetic Lie-Sense” and “Good Gravy-Americanisms Galore” that cheapen the role of the translator and the reader. There is a distinct feeling that Hofstadter woefully underestimates the intelligence of the reader by delivering abstract ideas of translation and semiotics chopped into bite-sized ideas that are veiled by poorly chosen puns and a cutesy font. Yes, even the font selection gets page time in this essay and after stating that Baskerville is “pedestrian,” the reader is forced to look at headings presented in a gaudy font. And why this essay is divided into so many sections becomes a mystery. Finding a segué between topics would lend much more credibility to the author, as well as avoiding breaking the aesthetic flow with a cloyingly scripted heading.

There is a distinct goal on Hofstadter’s part throughout the essay to not be boring – in the writing of the essay, in his choices of translation, and yes, even the font. The reader is given several metaphors to better understand what type of translator Hofstadter is and why he makes the choices he does. The metaphor that Hofstadter relies on the most is “Translator as Dog-on-a-Leash”.

Whenever I am translating something that someone else carefully wrote, I feel like an unleashed dog taking a walk with its master through a forest or a huge park. It’s a marvelously joyous feeling, a subtle blend of freedom and security. I run around on my own, but despite all my seeming freedom, I am in truth always invisibly tethered to my master and the unpredictable pathways that my master chooses to take.

He also uses the metaphor of temperature, that translator’s styles fall somewhere on a tic of a thermometer between hot and cold. He considers himself a “hot” translator, meaning that he likes to take quite a few liberties with the original text to make it more interesting. The problem this presents of course is that his idea of what is “hot” is subjective and could be construed as not adhering to the authorial vision. For instance, he makes a comparison between his translation of a passage to Robert Westhoff’s translation (Westhoff was Sagan’s lover):

In Chapter 13, Lucile is replying with indignation to a question Antoine has asked her. She thinks the answer is self-evident, and where Sagan has her say, “Bien entendu” (meaning literally “of course”), Westhoff has her say, “Of course.” That’s fair enough. My first inclination, however, was to go much further than this—namely, “Well, what do you think—is the Pope Catholic?” Once again, though, some little voice inside me protested, for two reasons. One is that what Lucile actually said in French was much shorter and simpler than this sarcastic retort, and the other is that the rhetorical question “Is the Pope Catholic?” might sound too American. I don’t quite know why that would be, since popes and Catholics are hardly limited to America, but perhaps there’s a down-home American sense of humor lurking inside that remark, and perhaps it’s that hidden flavor that sounds a bit un-French. In any case, none of my friends who read this phrase thought it belonged in Lucile’s mouth, and so I threw it out and settle for just, “Well, what do you think?”, and as I did so, my translation temperature fell from 100° to 75°.

Hofstadter relinquishes his degrees to a more appeasing temperature for readers, but it seems evident to me that Lucile would never use that phrase. I am even more confounded that he seems confused as to its American-ness. It’s not a question of him turning the heat down on his translation, but the fact that he thinks that is “hot.” Any novelist tries to avoid clichés, even in dialogue, and imagining that this is even in the realm of liberal translation is befuddling. Sagan didn’t use an equivalent French idiom, so why would Hofstadter? And therein lies the difference in schools of translation and begs the question “How faithful is the translator to the text?”

Then there is the matter of Hofstadter comparing his translation to the original by Robert Westhoff. Hofstadter states in the beginning of the essay that he didn’t want to read the translation until he was finished with his translation because he didn’t want it to “contaminate” his version. I admire this noble tenet of the profession of translation. But in the end, Hofstadter compares his translation to Westhoff’s and comes out with the self-approving conclusion that his is better than the original, or at least “hotter.” Although as a reader, I felt that the more restrained style of Westhoff was closer to Sagan’s style and also closer to the French sensibility in fiction. Even while I was reading the novel, there were phrases that I questioned as because they seemed inordinate in comparison to Sagan’s style. Phrases like “rolling in dough” or “you’re no Rocker-boy” felt jarring and unfaithful to the text.

Although the essay is thought-provoking and interesting to read, it is not completely satisfying and it leaves the reader questioning the translator’s efforts as opposed to regaling them. This is not to say that it not worthwhile either, but one hundred pages given to a translator is unheard of, and Hofstadter could have easily edited to fifty pages to tighten up the message. One last final note about the translation—there are several phrases he chooses to keep in French and this is indicated through italics. In one passage, he italicizes the word “brasserie” which is not only insulting, but also blatant. Although most readers may not speak French, I find it difficult to imagine them not ever encountering the word or at minimum being able to gather that from the context of the sentence.

This is a valiant effort by Sagan and Hofstadter, but ultimately it falls short of its own goal and readers expectations.

3 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

Follow these links for Part I and Part II.

Over the past few years, the book industry has become much flatter, allowing many, many more people to enter into the business. For instance, the advent of self-publishing allows almost anyone to become an author and make their book available for sale. Blogs turn your voracious reader into a book reviewer almost overnight. And thanks to print on demand and e-technologies, the bar to entering the publishing market is much lower than it was back a couple decades ago.

Bookstores are one of the few areas of the industry that are still cost-prohibitive. You can’t compete with Amazon by creating an online store, and a physical location and all those physical books requires a huge cash outlay.

This fundamental change has upwrenched the industry in several ways though. The distribution chain for books still heavily favors the corporate publishers with solid nationwide distribution and long-term beneficial arrangements with major review sources and the chain bookstores.

One reason I think the “editors buzz panel” is silly is because it’s simply a chance for a few corporations to present the titles they’re going to be pimping hard over the next few months anyway. It’s not like you’re not already going to be hearing about these books—that decision was made way ahead of time by the marketing staff, or even by the editor who shelled out a million bucks for a particular book. The buzz panel gives the illusion of choice and participation. Booksellers can feel like they were in on the ground floor, but really? A book coming out from one of the big presses with a mammoth marketing budget (including tens of thousands being spent at B&N, the direct physical competitor to the indie booksellers attending this buzz panel) will be given all the necessary backing to take off. Sure, an indie store could decide to not carry it (but again, really? they want to stay in business by stocking books that are selling, and books getting a lot of attention and publishing push, tend to sell) or at least not recommend it, but the forces of publishing buzz are much bigger than a two-hour panel in which a hundred bookstores find out about the fall’s big titles.

That digression aside, BEA is one potentially great opportunity for smaller presses to reach readers they normally wouldn’t reach. This point hearkens back to the attendance criteria, but in a slightly different way. The corporate presses still have the best, biggest, and most noticeable places on the floor (unless HMH and Macmillan, which took out meeting rooms instead), but nevertheless, there is the opportunity at BEA for the indie presses (like those with PGW or Consortium), the micropresses, and the self-published to meet potential readers and promoters. It’s not often that the buyer at a store in Montana will take a call from a tiny press that they’ve never heard of, but at BEA, there is the chance that this same bookseller will wander by the tiny press booth, notice an interesting looking book, strike up a conversation, stock that title, and handsell a few dozen copies.

One of the problems (and oh god, are there a lot of problems) with the current structure of the book industry is the fact that a traditional press can not survive making connections like this that will help sell a few hundred extra copies of a book. It’s one of the reasons that during the Arab-U.S. Editors Panel Erroll McDonald from Pantheon was so adamant about translations failing in the U.S.

As you can see from Gwen’s recap (the above link), during this panel about the obstacles and opportunities in exchanging works between Arab and U.S. publishers, McDonald took the very old corporate view that translations can’t be successful in the U.S. because America is “breathtakingly provincial” and that international lit is ghettoized in the stores, in the media, etc. Therefore, no one buys it, Pantheon doesn’t make enough money to keep the overlords happy, and we ignore the rest of the world to produce and promote our own crappy books.

This is one of those topics that gets me all hyped up and jittery, so I’ll try and save most of my rant for a longer, more complete post, but basically, I think McDonald’s presentation was predicated on two questionable tenets that are worth examining.

First of all, the definition of “success” is, and probably will be for the foreseeable future, based on the mega-sales level that can be achieved by Dan Brown or Stephen King, or whomever. A book isn’t successful unless it’s selling tens of thousands of copies. Sales = success. Or more specifically, sales large enough to sustain an outdated and dying business model = success. Fuck. That. Thanks to changes in the industry, new presses are starting up with sustainable business models premised on sales in the 2,000 – 5,000 range. Of course, these presses aren’t going to make anyone a millionaire, but they are presses that will be successful in creating a diverse, vibrant book culture. You could shun this as “spiritual success,” but going back to the mediocrity point, only a few people are going to get rich in the book world, so you have to do something that will make you feel good about your life.

And besides, coming from a major press like Pantheon, this “translations cost too much to publish” argument is total bullshit. I can’t say for certain, but I suspect that Pantheon offers $100,000 advances on a routine basis. And yet, don’t want to do a translation because they’d have to pay a translator $10,000. . . . Which, yes, it’s an “additional cost,” unless you acknowledge that the rights to the best works of international literature are available for much, much less than $100,000. In any given year, 80% of all translations are published by small presses—none of which offer anywhere near $100,000 for the rights. So Pantheon could do these books and be “successful”—they just don’t want to.

(The moment of the panel that really pissed me off was McDonald’s claim that an editor won’t just read an Arab book and decide to publish it. He/she will only do it once it’s been successfully published in Germany, in France, in Spain, etc., etc. Once it’s a known quantity then you can do it. Of course, he hedged in answering whether an editor does the same thing when evaluating the work of a debut American novelist . . . Dude also insisted there are no presses in America doing only literature in translation, so whatever.)

Secondly, and maybe more importantly, I think he’s conflating the words “isolated” and “provincial” to create a self-fulfilling situation. Americans may or may not be provincial when it comes to reading foreign fiction (recent successes of 2666 and The Elegance of the Hedgehog would argue that they’re not), but they’re definitely isolated from the rest of the world’s book culture. As anyone who’s read this blog more than once knows, there are very few books in translation published in America on a yearly basis. We live in a culturally isolated world. I’m just not willing to believe that this is due to our inherent fear of international literature . . . If I was subjected to as many invasive ads, reviews, interviews, etc., etc., for Munif’s Cities of Salt as I am for Angels and Demons, I might well have read this book. The business model that dominates publishing (although there are things on the edges that successfully run counter to this) is the blockbuster idea that pours immense resources into promoting the most accessible works, shaping public consciousness to make money and then claiming that the books people never even heard about (because the press never spent a second figuring out how to let people know about them) didn’t sell because people don’t like those sorts of books.

This flattening is even more evident when it comes to reviewers and the old print vs. online kerfuffle. But more on that issue—and its relation to voracious readers and readers in general—in part IV.

2 June 09 | Chad W. Post |

Part I of this BEA-roundup can be found here.

Attendance (and foot traffic on the floor) tends to become the primary evaluative criteria. And the show was crowded on Friday. (Although Saturday afternoon was a bit bleak, and on Sunday, it was damn near post-apocalyptic.) But one interesting thing—and I’m sure Lance will correct me if I’m wrong—in past years, when you went into the show, your badge was scanned, providing some sort of count of people at the fair. This year? No badge scanning at all . . . as long as your badge was visible, you could walk in. Even if it was an outdated one from BEA 2007 . . .

But yes, OK, the fair was crowded on Friday. But to play the cynic, it seemed to me like the majority of people on the floor on Friday were other publishing people. Assistant publicists, editors, marketing folks, etc. People who a) never come back over the weekend, because that’s their “free time” and b) people who tend not to actually buy books. (It’s absolutely true that in this industry—which is totally filled with examples of financial mediocrity and failure—that one of the great benefits is the free books. This is an industry of passion, with the drug of choice available for free at almost all times . . . ) So next year, when the show is on Wednesday through Friday, the floor will be super-crowded with people who are probably not the best target market.

(There was a rumor—denied by BEA staff—that the aisles were closer together this year, which created the impression that the show was more crowded than it was. Not kidding that several conversations revolved around trying to remember just how far apart the booths used to be . . .)

Historically, the show was good for connecting smaller publishers to booksellers they typically didn’t meet with during the year. But thanks to the success of the Winter Institute and the fact that anyone can reach anyone these days (via phone, fax, e-mail, or tweet), it doesn’t seem like booksellers feel that this is a “necessary” show to attend. And in the future, this number will likely decrease, since it’s hard for most booksellers and librarians to take off three days (or more) during the work week . . .

Big Book(s) are often the one and only aspect of BEA that the mainstream media writes about. What are the big books for the fall? Why aren’t there any big books this year? Why can’t we figure out which books are going to be big? More than any other, this topic emphasizes the “buzz” factor of BEA. The logic goes: if you take out the right size stand, come up with the coolest gimmick, and deliver a great product to the appropriate tastemakers, you can do enough marketing at BEA to ensure a book “takes off” when it “launches” in the fall. (Why are all industry metaphors based on rockets?)

Regardless if whether there’s a clear cut “big book” or not (last year, I claimed that 2666 was the book of BEA), there’s at least a lot of chatter about upcoming titles from established authors. This year I didn’t hear much of that at all. Everyone was too busy talking about foot traffic and the fact that neither the New Yorker nor the New York Review of Books threw parties this year. . .

Complaints really might be the backbone of BEA. I mentioned this in passing earlier, but if you stop to think about it, the book world—from publishers to booksellers to authors to journalists to distributors—is filled with mediocrity and failure. Not in terms of the people or product (although in terms of the 400,000 books published last year, there really is a lot of that), but in terms of financial success. If I told the kids at business school that they could get into an industry where everyone is underpaid and more than 80% of all the businesses are two fuck-ups away from bankruptcy, and that the average profit margin is under 5%, their heads would explode. But that’s what it is. Most people get into this business out of their love for books—definitely not because they think books are the quickest way to living large with lots of bling. Which is actually cool. One could argue that book people are the best people to work/talk/drink with, and that the strength of the book community outweighs all financial opportunities passed up by entering this field.

That said, the fact that the book business is a neverending struggle leads to immense amounts of bitching. And BEA is the ultimate cathartic release that escalate quickly into realms of self-reflexive, meta-bitching. Here’s a typical conversation:

A: So how are you doing?

B: Good. Well, you know, we’re hanging in there.

A: Not out of business yet.

B: Yeah, well, not yet. You know, zero growth is the new OK.

A: Same for us. Just trying to make it by. Times are tough. This industry is totally broken. Just look around . . .

B: And what do you think of the show?

A: Kind of sucks, no? I mean, where are the booksellers and reviewers? This place is a ghost town.

B: Yeah, and our booth placement sucks too. We’re behind f’ing Harlequin.

A: F-that. They need to make this show better. Get more people here.

B: And where are the galleys this year? If there’s no free books, there’s no point to this show.

A: You coming back next year?

B: Of course, of course. Haven’t missed a show in fifteen years . . .

Trust me, we need this. . . . OK, two sections left . . .

2 June 09 | Chad W. Post |

If there’s one thing publishing people like more than complaining about how bad business is, it’s analyzing whether or not BookExpo America was successful. Which isn’t easy to determine . . . Lance Fensterman (who runs the show for Reed Exhibitions) has pointed out before how difficult it is to quantify the show’s success, since the goal of the show is to “create buzz.” (If a press hands out 3,000 galleys to booksellers and librarians, and only find 1,200 in the trash bins afterward, was the show a success?)

So how does one evaluate this show? I think this is a pretty important topic, since the show is in flux—next year it’s moving to mid-week (an idea I loathe, but more on that later), you should see the bleak picture I took of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s “meeting room,” which took the place of their normal booth on the floor—and needs to evolve to a) avoid a spectacular collapse similar to BookExpo Canada, and b) provide an experience that obviously impacts future book sales.

But back to evaluating the show. For anyone who hasn’t been there, BEA is a clusterfuck of reasons for attending and things being offered. For the booksellers, there are educational panels, there are author breakfasts and lunches, there are presses out on the floor that your store might not have heard of. There are also other panels for the industry as a whole, like “Twitter for Dummies,” or the Editor’s Buzz Panel. This year there was a “Global Market Focus” on the Arab World, with panels and off-site cultural events.

Then there is the exhibition floor itself, which is really the focal point of the Expo. This is where publishers big and small take out booths of varying sizes, from the mammoth Abu Dhabi International Book Fair palace to Random House’s postage-stamp sized embarrassment. Self-published authors are pushing their titles into the hands of anyone with a press badge (thanks again for that copy of From Veils to Thongs ), gimmicks abound, and everyone gets trained into staring at everyone else’s chests and waists, searching out namebadges instead of making eyecontact with the person you’re speaking to. (It takes days to break oneself of this weird, ADD-inducing habit.)

And at the end of the day, the booksellers go to dinners and bookseller parties, the publishers go to publisher parties, and we all get home much too late, much too drunk.

(Just want to insert here, that this book wonderland is only accessible to “members of the trade.” Reviewers, booksellers, librarians, book manufacturers, authors, etc. Granted this is pretty wide—I’m a reviewer! and who isn’t an author—but still, there are hoops to jump through to prove that you belong.)

This isn’t to say that BEA isn’t fun or useful. Before breaking this down any further, it’s worth pointing out that the show is essentially a platform for book business people to interact with one another in a myriad of ways. And that is always accomplished. There are so many people I see only at BEA, people that I love talking with, catching up with, exchanging ideas with, and if for nothing else, the fair is extremely useful for that. (Thanks to the implosion of BEC, I was able to meet a lot more cool Canadian publishing people, like Daniel from Biblioasis, Alana from Coach House, and Tara from Key Porter. )

But this all costs money. Lots and lots of money. Money to take out a booth, and to pay for each chair in the booth. To pay for a badge (well, for most people—I actually had three waiting for me, including one for Chad Post of Rochester University, Cleveland), and to pay for overpriced bottles of water. And flying, staying, and eating in New York isn’t cheap—especially when you consider that the bulk of publishers and booksellers and librarians populating this show are surviving on 0-1% annual profit margins. (Not exaggerating. The new tagline for the book industry: “Zero growth is the new, ‘We’re doing great!’”) So to justify all this expense, they need to get something out of the show . . . and what that something is, and whether or not BEA is supplying it in the best possible way is at the heart of all the “was the show good for you?” discussions.

Since this is getting Biblically long, I’ll stop here and pick up some of the evaluative measures in part two.

1 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Late last week, Bookforum launched their new website, which has all of the great features of the previous one (the daily round up blog, articles from the print version, etc.), but has also added a couple of cool things, like a daily review section and a syllabi section containing lists of recommendations within a particular category.

I actually have a Beyond Bolano syllabus up there right now featuring Latin American/Spanish writers worth picking up post-2666.

All the syllabi are interesting: Ed Park’s on Comic Novels, Mark Sarvas’s on Literary Losers, David O’Neill’s on Emily Dickinson, Rachel Aviv on Schizophrenic Memoirs, Lisa Darms on Walking, and Devin McKinney on Supernatural Nonfiction.

I’m a sucker for these sorts of lists to begin with (especially from smart, interesting readers like the ones above), and can’t wait to see what else gets added. . .

(I’ll write more about this in a BEA round-up, but I did discover a new genre over the weekend that needs some fleshing out—“historical religious speculative fiction.” Not kidding. I can’t find the promo page at this moment, but it was a self-published title about how a Jewish woman named Esther spreads a new philosophy of life, starting a spiritual revolution that prevents the Holocaust and the ensuing nuclear war . . . which is where this book must be pretty damn daring and complicated to explain how to avoid a nuclear tragedy that never actually happened . . . Ah, BEA!)

28 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In his novel A Mind at Peace, Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar asks if it’s possible for a culture that is tied so closely and intimately to its past to survive in a trying time of change. The novel begins in Istanbul the morning of the declaration of World War II and ends with the same announcement, framing the story while we learn about several characters whose lives are marked by events that test their existence and define what it is to be human. A Mind at Peace centers on the life of a man named Mümtaz whose life is surrounded by these characters in a deeply moving portrait as he grows from a child to a young man.

Tanpınar’s novel is set up in four parts, each titled as a character in the novel: İhsan, Nuran, Suad, Mümtaz. The sections of İhsan and Mümtaz act as end plates where the story takes place in the present, holding the past that Nuran and Suad represent.

In Part I, we learn about Mümtaz, the people in his life, and his feelings toward humanity. After the loss of his mother and father when Mümtaz is a child, he goes to live with İhsan, his paternal cousin. İhsan acts as both father and mentor to Mümtaz, sending him to school in France for two years and later on his return, continuing his education under İhsan’s instruction, nurturing his intellectual life in literature, history, and social events. This teaching becomes a backbone for Mümtaz, learning about his self-identity as a Turk in a time when the Ottoman Empire is facing dissolution. The novel continues with historical references and the music and poetry of Turks, which is recited or sung at social gatherings and within the characters, but most significantly within Mümtaz.

A central moment in Mümtaz’s life takes place in Part II when he meets Nuran on a passage over the Bosphorus. In this section, we learn about Nuran and the relationship that ensues between her and Mümtaz. For Mümtaz, this is a moment in his life when “he acknowledged for the first time how sentimental he let himself be.” Mümtaz knew Nuran’s story, her husband’s infidelity, her unhappiness, and Mümtaz, “through a compassion that rose up within him, promised to bring her happiness, for as long as he lived.” Tanpınar’s master storytelling shows two people at the beginning of their relationship, the way they carry themselves physically and emotionally in shyness and in eagerness:

The Music of Silence existed in both, rising to their faces from deep within, and Nuran, frantic to suppress it, appeared more crestfallen than she actually was, while in contrast, Mümtaz, yearning to mask the shyness of his character, forced himself to be bolder and more carefree.

Through this relationship, Mümtaz discovers himself and learns more about his history through the music of Istanbul. A song that plays throughout the novel, “Song in Mahur” is Nuran’s family heirloom. When Mümtaz hears this song from Nuran it is through her singing that Mümtaz feels himself more connected with his past. The relationship between Mümtaz and Nuran becomes one in which their conversation dwells mainly on the current issues of modernization and the importance of keeping their history in mind. Mümtaz believes that to know their history is to know Istanbul, therefore, “if we don’t truly know Istanbul, we can never hope to find ourselves.” As Mümtaz further explains:

Our attachments to the past are also part of these social realities, because those attachments constitute one of the manifest forms our life has taken, and this persists into the present as well as the future.

Their self-identity is tied to the country they are from, but since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, modernization is taking over the country and the natives are trying to adapt to the new. When Mümtaz does a task like furnishing his and Nuran’s apartment, he notices how every sofa shop contains furniture of every “sort and style,” displaying Istanbul’s “changing standards of taste and lifestyle.”

As the music is sung and remembered throughout the novel, it seems it is the only thing that remains within the natives, as a remembrance of their history and their identity. Nuran feels differently, however, “growing tired of Mümtaz’s life and thoughts. The anxiety that he’d been confined to an absolute idea, to an orbit of sterility that took him outside of existence gnawed at him like a worm. It represented a vein of decay that would only grow with time.”

It is expected that this love between Mümtaz and Nuran be put into question: “At times, he attributed their state of satiety and lunacy to the exuberance induced by Ottoman music.” Mümtaz is continually questioning his love with Nuran, and his idea of her is something within his imagination that he ties to their culture. When Mümtaz is faced with reality, he finds himself distraught by humanity. In Part III, Suad enters. A former lover of Nuran’s and ailing from a liver disease, he writes Nuran a letter, expressing his discontent without Nuran in his life. It is Suad’s entrance into the story when Mümtaz feels humanity is harmful. This letter runs through Mümtaz’s memory and leaves him wondering and soon expecting the demise of his relationship with Nuran. Mümtaz sees humankind as “the enemy of contentment [that] struck wherever happiness appeared or made its presence felt.” For Mümtaz, it is hard to be happy in a world that is changing, a world in which the contingencies of life seem to prevent complete happiness. “Humanity couldn’t be fully content; this was impossible. What with thought, settling accounts, and anxiety. Especially anxiety. Humans are creatures of anxiety and fear.” Suad tests Mümtaz, a man of constant worry who lives within his thoughts and his ideas on history and change, and his ability to hold on to Nuran, while the current times move closer to modernization and Mümtaz is forced to question his own life. At one point he comes to this realization, realizing that his loss of his parents at an early age had “instilled the tendency to think and feel this way, to consider everything he cherished as far away,” a distance which makes it impossible for him to hold on to Nuran in the present.

In Part VI, we learn how Mümtaz has slowly been adjusting to several changes, his own belief on humanism changing, but one wonders if this new thought is for the good or better of Mümtaz’s own existence. What we believe about humanism is put into question as we see the change in Mümtaz, and here Tanpınar plucks at our inner selves, expressing what we are either incapable of expressing or are too fearful to admit. Tanpınar’s beautifully descriptive narrative expresses what is at the center of a human being, and what the human spirit strives to attain.

28 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our review section is a piece by Emily Shannon on Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar’s A Mind at Peace, which was translated from the Turkish by Erdag Göknar, published by Archipelago Books late last year, and most famously given as a gift to President Obama by Deniz Baykal, a member of the Turkish parliment.

Emily—a former intern at Open Letter—opens her review:

In his novel A Mind at Peace, Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar asks if it’s possible for a culture that is tied so closely and intimately to its past to survive in a trying time of change. The novel begins in Istanbul the morning of the declaration of World War II and ends with the same announcement, framing the story while we learn about several characters whose lives are marked by events that test their existence and define what it is to be human. A Mind at Peace centers on the life of a man named Mümtaz whose life is surrounded by these characters in a deeply moving portrait as he grows from a child to a young man.

Tanpınar’s novel is set up in four parts, each titled as a character in the novel: İhsan, Nuran, Suad, Mümtaz. The sections of İhsan and Mümtaz act as end plates where the story takes place in the present, holding the past that Nuran and Suad represent.

Click here for the complete review.

28 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Announced earlier this week, this year’s Rossica Translation Prize was awarded to Amanda Love Darragh for her translation of Iramifications by Maria Galina.

The prize of £5,000 is split between the translator and publisher—which in this instance is the admirable Glas, one of the finest publishers of contemporary Russian literature—and is given to the finest English translation of a Russian work published within the past two years.

This year Academia Rossica also instituted a Young Translators prize worth £300, and awarded to James Rann . . . for, something. (It’s not listed on the website, and besides, the award is for the translation of “a passage of contemporary Russian literature,” not the complete work. Which is cool—the real point is to encourage younger translators.)

Click here for more information about Academia Rossica, a London-based organization creating a better cultural exchange between Russia and the West.

27 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Last night the French-American Foundation and Gould Foundation held their annual translation prize ceremony, honoring Jody Gladding & Elizabeth Deshays in the fiction category for their translation of Small Lives by Pierre Michon (Archipelago) and Matthew Cobb & Malcolm Debevoise in nonfiction for their translation of Life Explained by Michel Morange (Yale University Press)

As Thomas Bishop pointed out in his opening remarks, it’s interesting that both winners were translated by a pair of translators. Not that this is necessarily good or bad, just interesting. He also gave a shout out to American university presses as one of the admirable publishing segments of the book business trying to do a lot of literature in translation.

Of the finalists for the nonfiction category, four of the five titles were published by university presses (the exception being Camus’s Notebooks that came out from Ivan R. Dee). The fiction category had a different make-up, but three of the six finalists were from independent presses (Archipelago, Europa Editions, and New York Review Books).

The event—which took place at the Century Association—was very well attended (standing room only!), filled with all the editors, agents, translators, and other cultural peoples involved in international lit. (Especially French literature. One of the cool things the FAF did, which I’ve never seen before, is hand out a printed list of all RSVPs, so attendees could see who else was supposedly there and seek them out . . . Actually sort of helpful for a reception of this sort, where you’re only one or two connections away from everyone else . . .

27 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

It doesn’t officially launch until June 1st, but Publishing Perspectives the new daily newsletter from the Frankfurt Book Fair, and run by Ed Nawotka and Hannah Johnson is off to a pretty solid start. It’s kind of a “literary VeryShortList,” featuring one interesting, well-developed story each day and some additional bonus information online.

The first week included a piece about Eva Gabrielsson, Stieg Larsson’s long-time partner, who, thanks to Swedish inheritance laws, doesn’t get a dime (er, krona) from Larsson’s sales. (She is writing a book about her experiences though.)

There was also a piece about the Greenest Book Possible, and one about the new Etisalat Award for Arab Children’s Literature, giving $270,000 to the best Arab children’s book of the year.

I can hardly be objective about reviewing this—I’m good friends with both Hannah and Ed, and really like their sensibilities—but I honestly believe that this is a perfect addition to the existing newsletters (like PW Daily, Shelf Awareness, Publishers Lunch) and publishing news sites (like GalleyCat, Literary Saloon) that are out there. It’s a fantastic approach—I’ve written this elsewhere, but one-item newsletters are the thing right now—and provides a great, um, perspective on the publishing industry.

27 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Last night the French-American Foundation and Gould Foundation held their annual translation prize ceremony, honoring Jody Gladding & Elizabeth Deshays in the fiction category for their translation of Small Lives by Pierre Michon (Archipelago) and Matthew Cobb & Malcolm Debevoise in nonfiction for their translation of Life Explained by Michel Morange (Yale University Press)

As Thomas Bishop pointed out in his opening remarks, it’s interesting that both winners were translated by a pair of translators. Not that this is necessarily good or bad, just interesting. He also gave a shout out to American university presses as one of the admirable publishing segments of the book business trying to do a lot of literature in translation.

Of the finalists for the nonfiction category, four of the five titles were published by university presses (the exception being Camus’s Notebooks that came out from Ivan R. Dee). The fiction category had a different make-up, but three of the six finalists were from independent presses (Archipelago, Europa Editions, and New York Review Books).

The event—which took place at the Century Association—was very well attended (standing room only!), filled with all the editors, agents, translators, and other cultural peoples involved in international lit. (Especially French literature. One of the cool things the FAF did, which I’ve never seen before, is hand out a printed list of all RSVPs, so attendees could see who else was supposedly there and seek them out . . . Actually sort of helpful for a reception of this sort, where you’re only one or two connections away from everyone else . . .

26 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I don’t think I received a press release about this, but the 2009 Susan Sontag Prize for Translation has been awarded to Roanne Sharp for her proposed translation of La Mayor by Juan Jose Saer. Which is fantastic—we’re actually publishing three Saer books over the next few years, but not this one. . . . At least not yet.

The award is given to a young (under the age of 30) literary translation for a proposed project. Each year the prize focuses on a different language (last year it was German), and following the announcement, the translator is “employed” for a four-month period to complete the project. (This is one I can’t wait to read . . . )

In addition to Roanne Sharp, there were two honorable mentions this year:

  • Rosemary Peele for her proposed translation of Viaje olvidado and Autobiografía de Irene by Silvina Ocampo

and

  • Emily Toder for her proposed translation of Tres poemas y una merced (o cuatro poemas desplazados) by Sergio Chejfec. (Another author we’re going to be publishing . . .)

Congrats to Roanne Sharp at the runner-ups, and I’ll be sure to make an announcement about submitting work for the 2010 award as soon as the info is available.

26 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This was a great week for Open Letter books, with three of our recent releases getting some nice coverage:

First up was Hannah Manshel’s review of Death in Spring for The Front Table:

In English for the first time in Martha Tennent’s translation, Death in Spring is about a society that finds highly elaborate ways to elude the inevitable and to conquer time. Its means are slow and insidious, ritualistic and bizarre, always teetering on the line between the real and the magical. Its members, obsessed with imprisoning themselves, pour concrete into the mouths of the dead to keep their souls from escaping. Every spring, they paint the houses pink and it’s unclear whether anyone remembers why. Though the novel is propelled forward by a linear narrative, it is its characters’ evasion of this diachrony that is most captivating. The book is driven by linguistic and thematic repetition, like a prose sestina in which the end words could be symbols or simply icons, aesthetic trends or markers that unfold and elaborate the path of the narrative. We see wisteria and bees, horses and butterflies, souls and prisoners weave in and out of the text, each time reappearing with a new relevance, a new level of meaning.

Christopher Byrd’s review of Jerzy Pilch’s The Mighty Angel in the B&N Review is also pretty fantastic:

From the opening paragraph — in which the protagonist awakens to discover a couple of Mafiosi in his room who have taken it upon themselves to act as literary agents for a female poet — to the closing paragraphs that flick away the tragic arc that’s usually prefabricated for books in the end-of-the-bottle genre, Pilch teases out plenty of LOL moments from desultory situations. All told, The Mighty Angel furnishes enough Schadenfreude to stylishly blacken just about any comedic sensibility.

Becky Ferreira at L Magazine agrees:

Pilch’s prose is masterful, and the bulk of The Mighty Angel evokes the same numb, floating sensation as a bottle of oadkowa Gorzka. But it’s not until Jerzy haphazardly reveals facts of his grandfather’s life that the naked grotesquerie of alcoholism pierces through the book’s often casual and flippant wit. Though the final chapters posit a chance at redemption, it remains unclear whether Jerzy is breaking the cycle, or just trading in one vice for another. To Pilch’s credit, both of Jerzy’s possible paths seem unfortunate and equally likely.

And finally, Michael Orthofer is the first to weigh in on Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s Rupert (he gave it a B+):

What’s riveting about Rupert’s account is his self-assuredness. Yes, he often speaks of ‘Rupert’ in the third person, an abstraction he’s removed from — but then Rupert is, after all, the ultimate ‘I am camera’. It’s a fascinating split-personality on display here — and some . . . perversely fine writing. [. . .] Cleverly, artfully done, Rupert: A Confession is no pleasant read, but an oddly seductive one. Well worthwhile.

22 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next few days, we’re going to highlight a few of the goings on at this year’s BookExpo America, the parties, the panels, etc. I thought I’d start out by highlighting the two events taking place next Friday and Saturday featuring the Arab world, this year’s Global Market Forum focus. Both of these events are open to the public, and are definitely worth checking out.

The Thousand and One Nights
7:00PM, Friday, May 29
Goethe Institute New York Wyoming Building, 5 East 3rd Street

Muhsin Al-Musawi presents his new book, Amal Al-Jubouri reads Arabic and European remixes of “The Thousand and One Nights” (English/German/Arabic) organized by the Berlin-based cultural association west-östlicher diwanh.

New Eyes on the Arab World—Breaking Down Barriers of Fear and Prejudice
7:00PM, Saturday, May 30
The New York Public Library, 42nd Street

Peter Theroux, Raja Alem, Tom McDonough, Muhammed Al Mur & Joe Sacco with Sulaiman Al Hattlan, moderator

Five writers, Arab and American, who have taken innovative approaches to portraying the Arab World to an American audience discuss the challenges they have faced and the successes they have achieved in breaking down the barriers of fear and prejudice through their work. Whether through travelogue, memoir, graphic novel, children’s literature or translation, these writers have widened the lens and sharpened the focus of American readers’ view, setting a new precedent for sensitivity, creativity and insight in literature about the Arab World.

21 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Those of you who subscribe to our newsletter or are members of our Facebook group already received this, but for those who haven’t, here’s this week’s newsletter, which also serves as the kickoff for our first ever fundraising campaign.

Hi—

There was such a great response to last week’s giveaway of Jerzy Pilch’s The Mighty Angel that we’re definitely going to do this on a regular basis . . . Copies of the book (and congratulatory e-mails) went out to the winners yesterday—for everyone else, copies are available at better bookstores everywhere, or via our website. (And yes, the book is even prettier in real life . . .)

This week, we’d like to do two things:

First off, I’d also like to officially kick off our first $10 fundraising campaign. As a nonprofit press (that does a lot of non-revenue generating activity like the Best Translated Book Award, Three Percent, and, well, publishing translations), we have to rely on grants and individual donations to keep doing what we’re doing—making great works of world literature available to readers like you (and me).

Obviously, the more money raised via this campaign, the more we’ll be able to offer, but seeing as this is our first ever online fundraising effort, the real goal is to demonstrate a broad base of support for Open Letter and Three Percent. So, although we’re more than happy to accept gifts of any level, we’re only asking for $10. It’s an affordable amount that adds up to a very significant total, and any show of support for what we do can’t be overestimated.

To contribute—and I really hope you will—simply take two minutes to fill out the online form here.

Second, our new fall/winter 2009 catalog is now available online) with lots of interesting books that I’ll be featuring on Three Percent in the near future and giving away through this newsletter.

Thanks in advance, and next week we’ll be back to our regularly scheduled newsletter. (Unless no one contributes. Kidding, kidding.)

Best,

Chad

21 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Haven’t found the full list online yet, but apparently the longlist for this year’s NIKE Literary Award (the most prestigious literary award in Poland) have been announced. I’ll post an update when I find the full list, but for now, I can say that both Bambino by Inga Iwasiow and Poland Marches On by our own Jerzy Pilch are on the longlist.

And both titles are published by Swiat Ksiazki, who notified me and sent along sample translations . . .

Here’s the info on Jerzy Pilch’s book (which sounds a bit mental, and a bit like The Master and Margarita):

The protagonist – the writer’s alter-ego – has just turned fifty-two. This compulsive seducer decides to find himself a woman on his birthday. She should be different from all his lovers to date. And there have been more than a few … Just when it seems as though his search is all in vain, he gets a text message from the Devil Incarnate himself, inviting him to a ball. Legends are circulating about this party: an out-of-this-world orgy, the Rolling Stones are to be singing, and they’re keeping a zombie in the cellars of the castle… But this is just a small taste of what really is going on there! Our protagonist accidentally finds out that the local residents are planning to attack the estate that day. And this is just the start of a wild, dream-like tale.

And a short excerpt:

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Spirit of Storytelling, Amen. On the eve of my fifty-second birthday I decided that the following day I would meet a new woman. This thought had been rattling around in my brain for a long time, but it had only gradually been assuming its definitive key.

I was not undertaking a frivolity; this was neither a game not a wager. I was not giving myself an easy task—my serious and ambitious intention was, within the next twenty-four hours, to meet, get to know, and seduce an intelligent, slim girl just shy of thirty years old and at least six feet in height.

I wanted to offer myself an intensive birthday present and I wanted to test whether I could afford to offer myself an intensive birthday present. On the surface I was in good shape, but I felt that the monster dwelling inside of me was beginning to die. People still regarded me as a rogue, but in essence I was relying on reputation alone. Appearances to the contrary, cynicism was never my strong suit; the irony and instrumental nature of my stories about women had once served to conceal the wrongs I did them. Now, I used the remnants of cynicism, the remains of irony and a show of instrumentalism to mask my despair and my longing.

And a bit about Iwasiow’s Bambino

Bambino is a story about people and a place, or rather places. One of them is the Bambino snack bar, where the four main characters meet. Another is the whole of Szczecin and the surrounding area, a city that has been badly churned up by history, to which people from various parts of Poland made their way after the war. We follow the fortunes of the four heroes from before the war up to 1980. Marysia was born into a large family in the south-eastern borderlands (now Ukraine). After the war, she and her entire family were repatriated to Poland, where they were given a home in a Pomeranian village. She was the only one who managed to get away to the city, where she became a nurse. There she met Janek (and married him), a bastard from a village near Poznań who was abandoned by his mother and later tried to get his own back for years of humiliation by choosing to work for the security service, which ultimately led to the collapse of their marriage. Anna comes from Gorlice, which she left to escape an overly strict mother and a stepfather who didn’t care about her. She had a hard time finishing her studies, and got married late in life, purely for practical reasons, to a merchant navy captain who is older than her. Ula is a German by origin, and is the only one of the main characters to have been born in Szczecin. Because of the war, she almost entirely lost contact with her family, which meant that she has stayed in the city, trying to live like an ordinary Pole. Her not very ardent relationship with Stefan, a Jew who survived the Holocaust and the only man she has ever wanted to be with, was cut cruelly short by history, as Stefan was forced to leave the country in 1968.

And excerpt:

MARIA, BORN 1940

Maria carries it inside her, I swear. An image of the journey, but not only. Something that happened in the course of it. Something left far behind her. Like all the others, she has this something inside her, the threads run together, the genes, they intersect, various things can arise from this combination, and I want to find out who they are – perhaps it is actually my story, but it could just as well be not mine or anyone else’s. I want to rummage in the pictures, carbon copies and waste paper. There’s nothing to hold on to, no album, no diary, no central concept, apart from need. There are just disconnected stories instead, whatever someone has made up about himself. About the person he is. And a life, quite simply, his or whoever’s, past and continuing. That’s all we have on the subject. Centrifugal motion, stealing up from behind, the same thing but with no prospect of the same thing. The mother of all such lost illusions – that’s Maria.

I’m starting with Maria, because her name attracts me. All women are called EveMaria. This one all the more so, as if she were made out of her name straight off from the start, more than Eve, naturally, less marked out, or chosen from the crowd, but then no one ever promised her that. No one did, in naming the girl, yet that’s just what she longs for, to be designated. Thoughtlessly giving a girl that name is a way of tempting and inviting fate. It means she is marked out for sure, but let us not forget that Maria is a common name in this situation. It is sure to be the name of every third heroine whose life began in the circumstances that interest me, the ones I regard as a part of the image of the journey. Quite simply, our grannies often had that name. I’ve got nothing to be proud of, because we’ll see what happens to those names and to them further on. They were only brought here in 1957. They were brought here. They were brought by train, but first someone gave permission, issued documents and stamped their decision on them. First came their and those people’s hesitation, the decision was just about to be made, but then the hand was withdrawn, the circle turned, and they went on standing by the same fence. Until that final moment. And it wasn’t at all funny or heroic in those – of course, nowadays we say “cattle” trucks.

21 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As you may remember, Hungarian lit dominated last year’s Best Translated Book Award with three titles on the longlist, including Attila Bartis’s Tranquility, the eventual winner.

Not sure that’s ever going to happen again, but the literary buzz around Ferenc Barnas’s The Ninth proves that Hungarian lit really does have a wealth of riches.

Jeff Waxman — managing editor of The Front Table and bookseller at 57th St. — wrote a review of the novel:

Set in Communist Hungary, Barnás’s novel is the story of a nine-year-old child, the ninth child of Hungarian Catholics eking out a miserable living in the small northern town of Pomáz. Bordering on the stream-of-conscious, The Ninth deals with life under the soft Communist rule of the late 1960’s, but from the point of view of a child with no basis for comparison. The picture we gain from our young narrator is uncomplicated by subtlety, politics, morality, and without the self-conscious morbidity and sexuality found in so many adult narrators. He’s an observer.

A lack of morbidity hardly means a lack of misery. Here, it’s unconscious, but this child is also disturbingly, accurately, affectless—too often in literature, we attribute too much to the too young. Our pathetic unnamed protagonist observes the realities of his own family’s survival, of his father’s obsessive small-time industry, his mother’s fervent religiosity, the difficulties of his siblings, and the cruelties and indignities of life in poverty: His mother and oldest siblings go to factory jobs early in the morning and return late at night; his father wakes the “Little Ones” early to do their part in preparing rosaries and other knickknacks for sale to churches; several of them suffer from some inability to speak or read well and some combination of headaches and faintness; and, of course, he’s preoccupied with having that eternal symbol of well-being, the full belly.

Click here for the full piece.

21 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

English-language readers have been enthusiastic about the excellent, albeit sinister, works of fiction by Hungarian writers like Nobel-Winner Imre Kertész, Best Translated Book Award Winner Attila Bartis, and the wonderful Péter Esterházy. We’ve been enthusiastic about being disturbed and moved, subjected to nightmare scenes and violent sex, and, ultimately, awed by the mastery these writers—and others—have over language, such mastery that it transcends the language itself and becomes apparent even in translation. Though by most accounts Ferenc Barnás is of the same dark mold, his novel, The Ninth, translated by Paul Olchváry, is a testament to the still-unplumbed depths of contemporary Hungarian literature, and a departure from the alienated fever dreams and horrors to which we’ve grown so accustomed to reading.

Set in Communist Hungary, Barnás’s novel is the story of a nine-year-old child, the ninth child of Hungarian Catholics eking out a miserable living in the small northern town of Pomáz. Bordering on the stream-of-conscious, The Ninth deals with life under the soft Communist rule of the late 1960’s, but from the point of view of a child with no basis for comparison. The picture we gain from our young narrator is uncomplicated by subtlety, politics, morality, and without the self-conscious morbidity and sexuality found in so many adult narrators. He’s an observer.

A lack of morbidity hardly means a lack of misery. Here, it’s unconscious, but this child is also disturbingly, accurately, affectless—too often in literature, we attribute too much to the too young. Our pathetic unnamed protagonist observes the realities of his own family’s survival, of his father’s obsessive small-time industry, his mother’s fervent religiosity, the difficulties of his siblings, and the cruelties and indignities of life in poverty: His mother and oldest siblings go to factory jobs early in the morning and return late at night; his father wakes the “Little Ones” early to do their part in preparing rosaries and other knickknacks for sale to churches; several of them suffer from some inability to speak or read well and some combination of headaches and faintness; and, of course, he’s preoccupied with having that eternal symbol of well-being, the full belly:

During the first break of the day I go to the john out in the schoolyard . . . That’s where I inspect my belly, too, but only if I’m alone. I pull up my shirt, let loose my muscles, and check to see how much my belly sticks out. In the morning it sticks out a lot.

But his lack of affect! This boy has urges—sometimes he steals—and he observes, but he never experiences anger, only a cold acceptance of his lot in life, of the kicks and shoves of his classmates:

. . . Molnár was waiting by the movie theatre. At first I thought he wanted to do the same thing, but I was wrong: he only beat me up . . . I didn’t really feel the blows, maybe because the whole time I was thinking I’d been through this before . . .

At nine years of age, Barnas’s character already knows about survival and necessity. When he and some of his brothers begin working as altar boys during local funerals, he notes, “The more people who die in our village, the better for us.” Though he’s reasonably well cared for, he’s poor and well-informed about the realities of life. His father is instructive and poverty itself teaches lessons that children can learn quickly. This book is not one that will make waves. It doesn’t startle or shock, doesn’t attack the reader or soothe him. This book is notable for the stunning restraint shown, the artfulness with which Barnás and Olchváry approached such a delicate task, the translation of child’s voice. And it’s notable, too, for its quiet success.

20 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Millions has an interesting post about the forthcoming Haruki Murakami book. Apparently, after details about Kafka on the Shore leaked out, Murakami “insisted that his fans be allowed to approach the new book with no preconceptions,” so info on the new novel is pretty scarce. The title is 1Q84, it will release on May 29th, and it will be published in two volumes. (Murakami has referred to it as “his most ambitious work to date and a ‘real doorstop.’ “)

I’m not as much as a Murakami fanatic as some people (although I really like Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World), but the strange title and complete lack of concrete information has me pretty intrigued about this novel. And I love the speculation—it’s like interpreting clues from Lost!:

One popular theory claims the book is inspired by George Orwell’s dystopian classic Nineteen Eighty-Four (the number nine in Japanese is pronounced like the English letter Q, thus in Japanese 1984 and 1Q84 have the same pronunciation). Another finds inspiration for the title in the novella The True Story of Ah Q, by Chinese novelist Lu Xun, an early 20th century writer and intellectual.

The latter opinion has been fueled by the comments of a prominent Tokyo University professor Shozo Fujii, who argues that Lu Xun is one of Murakami’s primary influences. The 1 in the book’s title, he argues, should be read as the personal pronoun I. In other words, I am Q. What the 84 might stand for is unclear. Fujii’s analysis of Murakami’s work breaks with the commonly held view of Murakami’s influences, primarily Western writers and literary heavyweights like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dostoyevsky (a view confirmed by Murakami himself). Nevertheless, Fujii’s theory about 1Q84‘s meaning has developed a large following online, and has been bolstered by his close readings of Chinese literary themes in Murakami’s early novels, Hear the Wind Sing and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

I’m sure this will be available in English in 2012 or so, although probably in an abridged format . . .

20 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

A few of Juan Marse’s books are available in the UK, but all the U.S. versions appear to be out of print. Which is a shame—based on the report below, The Fallen sounds spectacular:

Official Censorship Report of 1973 on Si te dicen que cai (The Fallen)

SECOND REPORT
Author: Juan Marse
Title: Si te dicen que cai [The Fallen]

REPORT
Does it attack the Dogman? YES. Pages 277-27
Franco’s Regime or its institutions? YES. Pages 252-274-291-309
The Catholic Church or its ministers? YES. Pages 17-21-75-155-178-202
The morals? YES. Pages 177-178-225-292-304-305-335
Those who collaborate with or have collaborated with the regime? YES.

REPORT AND OTHER OBSERVATIONS:

We consider this novel to be simply impossible to sanction. We have marked insults to the yoke and arrows [Falangist symbols], which are referred to as “the black spider” on pages 17-21-75-155-178-202-252-274-291-309. Scenes of torture by the Civil Guard or by Falangists on pages 177-178-225-292-304-305-335. Inadmissible allusions to the Civil Guard on pages 277-278. Obscenities and pornographic scenes on pages 19-21-25-26-27-28-29. Political scenes on 29-80 and grave irreverence on 107.

But even once all that is taken out, the novel is still pure garbage. It is the story of some boys in the period after the Civil War who live in deplorable conditions, they end up becoming Commie gunmen, stick-up artists, and then dying . . . all that mixed with whores, faggots, people of ill repute . . . Perhaps it is very realistic but it gives a very distorted, almost calumnious image of post-war Spain. Even if we just blacked out every reference to jerking off and hand-job whores in the movie theaters we’d be left with less than half the novel.

Therefore, we recommend its REJECTION

Madrid, October 20th, 1973

Reader No, 6

The specific reference to “hand-job whores in the movie theaters” is classic—and makes a perfect blurb for the book . . . (Thanks to the Gloria and the Carmen Balcells Agency for letting us run this.)

19 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [3]

In the third of today’s three Canadian-centric posts, I thought I’d highlight this interview Nigel Beale did recently with John Metcalf, a Canadian book critic and fiction editor at Biblioasis.

The focus of the interview is on “negative reviewing,” and I have to admit, Metcalf’s defense of critical criticism and his various attacks (especially on M.G. Vassanji — more on him in a minute) are pretty over-the-top and hysterical. Makes me want to read more Canadian book criticism . . .

Vassanji’s writing really pisses Metcalf off . . . especially the fact that Vassanji won the Giller prize twice, and that a “member of the illiterate society” would assume that if he won the Giller and Alice Munro did as well, their books must be of equal value. He goes on to explain that his hatred of Vassanji’s writing isn’t just “his opinion” that if you read one paragraph of Vassanji you can tell that he can’t “handle the English language.”

So, here goes. Here’s the opening of the Giller Prize winning The In-Between World of Vikram Lall (longer sample here):

My name is Vikram Lall. I have the distinction of having been numbered one of Africa’s most corrupt men, a cheat of monstrous and reptilian cunning. To me has been attributed the emptying of a large part of my troubled country’s treasury in recent years. I head my country’s List of Shame. These and other descriptions actually flatter my intelligence, if not my moral sensibility. But I do not intend here to defend myself or even seek redemption through confession; I simply crave to tell my story. In this clement retreat to which I have withdrawn myself, away from the torrid current temper of my country, I find myself with all the time and seclusion I may ever need for my purpose. I have even come upon a small revelation — and as I proceed daily to recall and reflect, and lay out on the page, it is with an increasing conviction of its truth, that if more of us told our stories to each other, where I come from, we would be a far happier and less nervous people.

“I have the the distinction of having” and “to me has been attributed” are both a bit awkward, although it’s possible that this is intentionally stilted, and that it’s only this particular character who speaks in strange ways . . . But I doubt it.

To end on a positive note, Metcalf claims that the only Canadian novel from the past fifteen years that has meant anything to him at all is Mordecai Richler’s St. Urbain’s Horseman, which, well, isn’t available here in America . . . But every single Vassanji book is . . .

19 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

To celebrate Gallimard Montreal as our featured bookstore of the month I interviewed both Saskia Deluy and Julien Lefort about the store, Quebec literature and publishers, the future of indie bookselling, etc.

Chad W. Post: Could you tell me a bit about the history of Gallimard Montreal? When it was founded, it’s location in Montreal, etc.

Saskia Deluy: It was founded in Montreal in 1989, that is, the bookstore itself, the office for Gallimard-Distribution already existed in the same building on St. Laurent—one of the oldest and most important streets in Montréal. It was very much the project of the the man who was, and still is, the CEO of Gallimard Limitée in Québec, Rolf Puls. He opened this bookshop and has helped and supported it ever since.

CWP: Does Gallimard Montreal have a specific mission? How would you categorize the selection of books in the store?

SD: In the beginning the bookshop was supposed to keep at least one copy of every available book published by Gallimard (which was quite an impossible mission, and soon forgotten . . .). Besides, it was selling books by French and French Canadian publishers like any other bookstore, with a specialization in social sciences, literature and poetry. The specific mission was and is still to be a display for Gallimard in Québec and to promote their books.

CWP: How did you personally get involved in bookselling?

Julien Lefort: I’m a literature student. I started to work in bookstores to get a discount on books! It’s been 4 years now.

SD:I started at Gallimard almost 15 years ago, with the bit of experience I got by working for my father’s bookstore in Paris in the eighties (I studied Classical Archeology in Amsterdam but couldn’t find a job in Montréal).

CWP: In my short time in Montreal, I didn’t really notice any big box chain stores. Are the chains (like Indigo/Chapters) a huge competitor for independent stores? Is Amazon.ca?

JL: The French-speaking and English-speaking (reading) markets are very different. Indigo and Chapter take a lot of place in the English market. For the French market, two big chains (Renaud-Bray and Archambault) control at least 50% of the market. But a few indie stores are surviving in Montreal and Quebec. Amazon is, like everywhere else in the world, a huge competitor.

CWP: In America, indie booksellers have been dying off for years, and it doesn’t look like this trend is going to reverse anytime soon. Are Canadian stores facing the same problems?

SD: For the moment they survive, although with great difficulties, because they offer different books and the knowledge and competence that are almost totally unavailable in big stores. As long as readers prefer speaking to a human being for advice and sharing we have a small chance to survive, but it is getting more and more difficult, and the e-book will not help of course.

CWP: How would you describe the publishing scene in Quebec?

JL: Mostly one big publishing group (Groupe Ville-Marie) that takes care of mass literature (historic novels, cook books, psycho-pop). There are also a few mid-size non-specialized publishing houses (Boréal, Leméac) with mainstream authors. Finally, there are dozens of small specialized publishing houses (Le Quartanier and Le Noroit for poetry, Liber and Lux for non-fiction). They all receive subsidies from governments (local, provincial, federal). The sales are usually pretty low (around 500), except for a few bestsellers every year.

CWP: For Americans interested in finding out more about Quebecois publishing, which presses should they check out?

Boréal: mainstream novels and classics

Le Quartanier: experimental poetry, poetry, fiction and non-fiction

Héliotrope: young and hip novels and design books

Les Allusifs: foreign literature

Liber: non fiction, philosophy, social sciences.

CWP: This is always a tough question, but what are your top ten Quebecois (or Canadian in general) authors/books?

          Julien:

Hubert Aquin: complete work

Anne Hébert: Les chambres de bois

Paul-Marie Lapointe: Écritures

Réjean Ducharme: L’hiver de force

          Saskia:

Réjean Ducharme: L’hiver de force

Marie-Claire Blais: complete work

Hervé Bouchard: Mailloux, histoires de novembre et de juin

Catherine Mavrikakis: Le ciel de Bay City

CWP: I would suspect that in Quebec, and Canada as a whole, literature in translation is valued more highly than it is in the States. Do you think that’s accurate? Are readers especially interested in buying works in translation from your store?

JL: I don’t think it’s accurate . . . unfortunately. The bestsellers are mostly French-Canadian books (it’s a very “protectionist” market) and American books (Da Vinci Code, etc.. . .). But every year, there are a few foreign books that are selling well (usually, it’s a French best seller, Goncourt Prize . . .) (J.)

SD: As far as English books are concerned, a lot of people read English here, and English books are often cheaper and faster available of course!

CWP: Are e-books becoming popular with Canadian readers?

SD: We talk a lot about it and a few weeks ago I attended a symposium organized by the ALQ (Association des Libraires du Québec) about the future of our profession, where the different speakers all insisted upon a quick reaction from the book world here. For the time being there are no French e-books, but of course they will be here soon, and they improve with great speed. We are still looking for a way to keep bookstores in the market, by selling e-books, by working closer with editors and writers, by developing other partnerships etc. . . . As some French editors like Gallimard are already preparing their e-books, we talked about storage here in Montréal for Canadian e-books and are very much aware that Amazon and Google are moving fast.

CWP: What do you see as the future of the indie bookstore? Will the model have to evolve to be able to compete against other entertainment options (video games, internet, etc.) and/or e-books?

JL: I think that indie bookstores that carry rare books (philosophy, foreign literature) can survive against Amazon more easily.

SD: I am not worried about video-games and the internet as competing entertainment, I believe there will always be readers for good books—it is a different market. But I do worry about the e-book explosion. We will have to adapt to a new market, where a lot of books will be cheaper and easier to purchase as e-books. We will sell fewer books, get more specialized, and count on the specificity of small indie bookstores as mentioned above. I think there always will be a market for paper books (how often were they buried in the past?), but this market is going to get very small and even more competitive than it already is. All in all, I see a black cloud coming . . .

19 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

(This post could be subtitled, “The Beginning of a Canadian Bender . . .” but more on that over the next couple days.)

One of the most exciting Canadian presses that I’ve come across in recent times is Biblioasis, in part because of their International Translation series, and in part because of Joshua Glenn and Mark Kingwell’s The Idler’s Glossary.

The third book in the Biblioasis International Translation series is Hans Eichner’s Kahn & Engelmann, which is releasing this week and has been getting some good advance press, including this great review from Library Journal:

Narrated by Peter Engelmann, a middle-aged veterinarian working in Haifa, this work is at once the story of a family and a memorial to Viennese Jews. The narrative, the stream-of-consciousness recollections of a man caught between the need to remember and the desire to forget, opens in both 1980 and 1880 and chronicles the Kahn family’s move from rural Hungary to Vienna, the narrator’s 1938 flight to Belgium and eventual settlement in Israel, and all the family drama in between. The result is a moving book full of humor and humanity.

Eichner led a pretty interesting life, fleeing Austria at the start of WWII, being shipped off to Australia where he studied mathematics, Latin, and English literature, and eventually settling in Canada, where he was the chair of German Studies at the University of Toronto. Unfortunately, he passed away last month at the age of 87. Kahn & Engelmann is his first novel, and it was published in Germany in 2000 and translated into English by Jean M. Snook (who also translated Gert Jonke’s Homage to Czerny: Studies for a Virtuoso Technique).

And the opening of his novel is pretty entertaining:

In the summer of 1938, a Jewish refugee is going for a walk on Carmel Beach (Is he from Cologne? from Berlin? from Vienna? It doesn’t matter). Twenty metres out from shore, a man is fighting against the waves and yelling for help in Hebrew. The refugees stops to listen, takes his jacket off, folds it neatly (one should never act too hastily); and while taking off his tie and shoes as well, before jumping into the sea to help the yelling man, he exclaims indignantly: “What a fool! Hebrew he has learned. Swimming he should have learned!”

That’s a travelling joke. It was told much the same way in 1789 in Mainz, when the first emigres arrived there and went for walks along the Rhine in their elegant clothes. But precisely because it is a travelling joke, it is also a Jewish joke; for who has travelled (or, as is mostly the case, has fled) more often than the Jews?

We’re planning on running a full review of this title in the not-too-distant future, and it might be a German Book Office “book of the month” at some point as well. In the meantime, here’s a longer excerpt from the book and here’s a book trailer.

18 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Like a slew of other litblogs, Three Percent is now available for the Kindle.

Of course, you can still read it for free here (or via your RSS reader), but this is one more option for accessing our site . . .

18 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Scott Esposito at Conversational Reading has a wonderfully detailed write up of the Center for the Art of Translation Event that took place last week where Karen Emmerich read from the work of four of her favorite Greek authors.

You should really read Scott’s complete write-up, but here’s are the brief highlights of the four authors:

Emmerich started the event by reading from the text I’d Like, [by Amanda Michalopoulou] which was awarded the NEA’s International Literature Prize. I have seen I’d Like variously described as a novel in stories, a collection of linked stories, a fictional biography, or the shards of a novel yet to form itself.

I’d Like was one of my favorite books from the 2009 Best Translated Book longlist and hopefully someone (possibly Open Letter) will bring out more of Michalopoulou’s work.

The second writer Emmerich presented was the poet Eleni Vakalo. [. . .] Emmerich read from a book of Vakalo’s that is one of a collection of nine books called The Other Side of Things, written between 1954 and 1994. Emmerich described this work as as one continuous poem with titles interspersed and called these 9 books, which she is currently translating, a 15-year project.

The third of the four authors presented Tuesday afternoon was Ersi Sotiropoulos, an avant-garde Greek writer born in 1953. Emmerich first discussed the odd case of her book Zigzag Through the Bitter-Orange Trees, which was censored as pornographic and removed from school libraries in Greece. Emmerich considered this to be a sexist gesture, as she noted that one of the most celebrated works in the Greek postwar period, Megas Anatolikos (Great Eastern by Andreas Embirikos), is a completely filthy work that consists of the transatlantic journey of what Embirikos calls a “hedonistic vessel.”

The final author that Emmerich read from was the Greek poet Miltos Sachtouris, whose collection Poems (published by Archipelago Books) was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award in 2007.

Might be because it’s Monday, but this event strikes me as a sort of perfect storm of international literature . . . You have a incredibly talented translator giving English readers recommendations of four modern Greek writers that have been published in translation at an event organized by one of the premiere translation organizations in the country and reported on by one of the best international literature blogs . . .

18 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I believe that The Naked Eye (translated by Susan Bernofsky from the German and published by New Directions) is the fourth of Yoko Tawada’s works to make their way into English. Kodandsha did The Bridegroom Was a Dog back in 1998 (this was translated just from the Japanese), and New Directions did Where Europe Begins in 2002 (originally written in both German and Japanese) and also brought out Facing the Bridge in 2007.

Monica Carter—curator of Salonica World Lit and the literary journal E.Lire, and bookseller at Skylight Books in L.A.—wrote this review of her latest book, which is centered around the movies of Catherine Deneuve, and doesn’t sound quite as good as Tawada’s earlier works.

This is how Anh Nguyet the protagonist of The Naked Eye describes her world of escapism through the movies, and only Catherine Deneuve movies to be exact. Although I myself have an affinity for the beautiful icon of French cinema myself, it is nothing compared to our young Vietnamese narrator who seems only to experience and understand life through the world of Deneuve’s oeuvre. Tawada takes us through Anh’s story in thirteen chapters, each titled after a different Deneuve movie. And it’s not just about Deneuve, her movies serve as vehicle for all the other things that seem to be happening in novel—escapism, allegorical references to communism, kidnapping, subjugation, sexual ambiguity and a fair amount of resigned desperation.

All of this seems like the ideal makings for an engaging and original read, and at times, it is. But what plagues this novel from the beginning is the lack of emotional engagement by the narrator. Anh, who is still in high school and the best in her school at speaking Russian, is handpicked to attend the International Youth Conference in Berlin to deliver a paper she wrote in Russian entitled, “Vietnam as a Victim of American Imperialism.” Within the first ten pages she is kidnapped by a German student who plies her with vodka and then takes to his apartment in Bochum, which is six hours away from Berlin. Anh says that she wants to go home, but Jörg, her captor, tells her she is pregnant with his child. They become lovers and she waits in his apartment all day long for him to come home. She writes a letter to her family saying she has been offered a scholarship and that is why she is not coming home. What is strange is that there is no sense of urgency for Anh to get home. Finally, she learns one night on a double date with Jörg that there is a train that stops in Bochum on its way to Moscow. She finds the train and ends up in Paris where she spends the next six years of her life.

For the complete review, click here.

18 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

My cinema was a “Ma,” she wrapped me in her mucous membranes. She shielded me from the sun, from the force of visibility. Life was being played out on the screen, a life before death. People fought there, or else slept together. They cried and sweated, and the screen remained dry. The cinema, its stage, had no depth, but it did have its own light source.

This is how Anh Nguyet the protagonist of The Naked Eye describes her world of escapism through the movies, and only Catherine Deneuve movies to be exact. Although I myself have an affinity for the beautiful icon of French cinema myself, it is nothing compared to our young Vietnamese narrator who seems only to experience and understand life through the world of Deneuve’s oeuvre. Tawada takes us through Anh’s story in thirteen chapters, each titled after a different Deneuve movie. And it’s not just about Deneuve, her movies serve as vehicle for all the other things that seem to be happening in novel—escapism, allegorical references to communism, kidnapping, subjugation, sexual ambiguity and a fair amount of resigned desperation.

All of this seems like the ideal makings for an engaging and original read, and at times, it is. But what plagues this novel from the beginning is the lack of emotional engagement by the narrator. Anh, who is still in high school and the best in her school at speaking Russian, is handpicked to attend the International Youth Conference in Berlin to deliver a paper she wrote in Russian entitled, “Vietnam as a Victim of American Imperialism.” Within the first ten pages she is kidnapped by a German student who plies her with vodka and then takes to his apartment in Bochum, which is six hours away from Berlin. Anh says that she wants to go home, but Jörg, her captor, tells her she is pregnant with his child. They become lovers and she waits in his apartment all day long for him to come home. She writes a letter to her family saying she has been offered a scholarship and that is why she is not coming home. What is strange is that there is no sense of urgency for Anh to get home. Finally, she learns one night on a double date with Jörg that there is a train that stops in Bochum on its way to Moscow. She finds the train and ends up in Paris where she spends the next six years of her life.

She meets a blond prostitute, Marie, in the chapter entitled, “Zig Zig.” She has a brief sexual encounter with her but they end up living together. Anh spends her days reading old issues of Ecran magazine looking for anything relating to Catherine Deneuve. She has no job and does not go out in the sunlight. She merely survives with Marie:

Marie was not an abductor, she was my protector. She protected me by ignoring me. She acted as if she were unable to see me, or as if I were a wildflower that just happened to be growing in her garden. If only I’d been able to exchange a few words with her. I couldn’t understand her language, and she even seemed to be withholding it from me.

Clearly, there is desire on Anh’s part to communicate, but she never makes that commitment. She wanders the streets and goes to Catherine Deneuve movies. Once while she is line, a fellow Vietnamese woman that she met on the train to Paris recognizes her. Anh is ‘mesmerized’ by her melodic way of talking and decides to go stay with Ai Van and her French, much older husband, Jean. She leaves Marie without a word and stays on the couch of the couple. She watches them come and go and goes to the movies. Exasperated by Anh’s lack of initiative, Ai Van tells her there is a job available with a Chinese doctor that will use her skin for cosmetic experiments. Anh obliges without a struggle and Tawada compares this to Deneuve’s vampire role in Hunger. Other than the comparison and the synopsis of the plot by Tawada, the parallels of Anh and Deneuve’s movies are not drawn well enough. It becomes merely a plot synopsis of each movie and less and less about Anh. Maybe this is intentional, but it is disturbing as well. I felt, as a reader, that I was waiting for a reaction from Anh—to life, her situation, her loss. But she drifts and the only thing Tawada gives us is a rundown of Deneuve’s movies, as if Anh is struggling with cinematic autism. Although this does add to the power of Anh’s escapism, it doesn’t give us much more. As if we are constantly seeing someone in the throes of addiction, but never seeking help.

Towards the end, we do see Anh show frustration with her inability to live any life outside of Catherine Deneuve’s various screen roles:

“Get out of here!” I say to the cinematographic currents trying to carry me off with it. Leave me alone. I don’t want to be carried off. But it was difficult to maintain a distance from the images. They swept me away with them, wanting to drown me. Why was I, a free human being, not allowed to turn off the images when I wished or a t least correct them? I wished to experience boredom, for this I would at least entail the individual freedom not to take part. If I fell asleep in my seat, the film would have been better for me. I had to remain awake, though, to wait for you.

Anh has the ability to recognize her obsession, but this is towards the end of the novel and the reader gets no hints of her self-awareness before this. Even despite her obsession, she manages to befriend a man, Charles, who introduces her to a Vietnamese emigré, Tuong Linh. Tuong Linh is a surgeon. Anh ends up living with him even though she is in love with Charles. Tuong Linh insists that she go to language school but she avoids his inquiries whenever the topic is mentioned. But in order to do this he decides to marry her so she can get a visa. She obtains a fake passport from one of Tuong Linh’s friends and is arrested. Tuong Linh is well on his way to Thailand, with no idea of Anh’s arrest. When she is released, she ends up at Marie’s apartment and almost doesn’t recognize her because Marie had aged so much in six years. Which brings us to Les voleurs which star Catherine Deneuve as another character named Marie who is now a middle-aged professor having a lesbian affair with one of her students. She stays with Marie, again in poverty, and ends up through circuitous ties, with Jörg. She returns to Bochum and lives with Jörg. But she is back to where she was in the beginning of the novel. The last chapter is entitled, “Dancer in the Dark,” and is a plot synopsis of the movie which leaves the reader wondering too much about what Anh ever really wanted and where if anywhere, she will go to find herself.

One of the things I did find most interesting about Tawada’s novel is the appearance of communism and the sense of government as mother. From the onset, Anh is devoutly Communist. And throughout there are running themes of class division, the cinema being compared to her motherland as protector and a dialogue and metaphors about liberty and freedom. Anh adheres to the concepts of Communism in her beliefs, but becomes totally oblivious to the present day changes that Communism has endured and its weakening grasp on the world.

I wanted very much to love this novel, but ultimately had too many unanswered questions were presented to the reader and like Anh felt like I was watching a narrator act like she was in a book, but never fully present. And one note on the translation—parts of the novel were written in German and parts were written in Japanese and then translated by Tawada into both languages. The extremely capable Susan Bernofsky translated it from the German. When I encountered phrases that seemed out of character for Anh or sudden strong phrases that were an anomaly to her narrative voice, I wasn’t sure whose translation that fell on or if that was an authorial choice. Regardless, it was jarring and it interrupted the generally low key and fluid narrative.

I hope we can read more of Tawada’s work in the future because it is so intriguing—ones without such a narrow conceit. I have watched as many Catherine Deneuve movies as possible and felt that if I hadn’t, I don’t know where I would’ve been as a reader approaching this novel? Too much rests on the magic of Catherine Deneuve and not enough on the author. As the French say, “Quel dommage!”

15 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our review section is Jessica Cobb’s review of Francois Begaudeau’s The Class, which is one of the few examples I can think of where the movie has been getting much more praise than the novel. (See this Complete Review review.)

The Class is a novel about the everyday life of a Paris public school literature teacher who thinks that his current position is a bit useless. The teacher who narrates this book paints not only a picture of his depressing life but of those other educators who are in the same position. Through weighty dialogue, Begaudeau also highlights the struggles that come along with placing a mixture of cultural backgrounds in a single room to learn basic concepts of French literature. The outcome of this situation and overall message of the book seems to be that sometimes teaching can be less than rewarding when you are placed with a rowdy crowd of kids.

The middle-aged narrator comes across as angry, impatient man unwilling to go out of his way to capture the much needed attention of these adolescent teens. His interaction with these ninth graders is less than intolerable and seems more of an obligation than a passion to inspire. At times his behavior even comes into question.

Click here for the full review.

15 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Class is a novel about the everyday life of a Paris public school literature teacher who thinks that his current position is a bit useless. The teacher who narrates this book paints not only a picture of his depressing life but of those other educators who are in the same position. Through weighty dialogue, Begaudeau also highlights the struggles that come along with placing a mixture of cultural backgrounds in a single room to learn basic concepts of French literature. The outcome of this situation and overall message of the book seems to be that sometimes teaching can be less than rewarding when you are placed with a rowdy crowd of kids.

The middle-aged narrator comes across as angry, impatient man unwilling to go out of his way to capture the much needed attention of these adolescent teens. His interaction with these ninth graders is less than intolerable and seems more of an obligation than a passion to inspire. At times his behavior even comes into question.

“M’sieur you see how he shoved me?”

“I don’t care.”

The novel is one long string of fight after fight from the students and complaint after complaint from the faculty. The chapters are interchangeable, going from classroom scene to faculty lounge and back. This setup flows, but sometimes it can take a few paragraphs to understand what the complaint or complication (because it has to be one of the two) is for a particular chapter.

Begaudeau does a remarkable job getting the point across that the life of a teacher can be very hectic and unruly at times. However, there is a lack of characterization among both the faculty and the students, which causes everyone to blend together into a huge blob of chaos. Begaudeau might have done this on purpose to help further the point that the narrator has no passion for teaching “The Class” and no sympathy for the whiny staff. This lack of character description makes it very difficult to identify with the teacher, who is just a blurred vision of annoyance. And on the other side of the equation, it’s hard to understand the struggles of these teenagers without being able to connect with them in some way. Or even identify them—oftentimes the focus is more on a clothing detail than anything substantive or permanent about the students:

Frida now had long hair and red letters spelling GLAMOUR appliquéd on her black T-shirt.

Which goes to show how little the narrator cares about his students.

The so-named sat down, a glaring welt in the middle of his forehead.

The ending, possibly the most “happening” scene from the book, is a bit confusing for a couple reasons. There is a soccer game going on outside and one of the literature teacher’s “9-A’s” comes to tell him that they have been disqualified from the game. The teacher’s attention automatically zero’s in on the soccer game, with a play by play description, and just when you think that this is the point where he will defend these kids and let down his guard; the end. You leave the novel the same way you entered it; confused1.

1 This novel was put on the big screen in 2008 and even played at the opening night of the New York Film Festival. It was the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award nominee and seems to fill the it the gaping holes in the novel. Michael Dargis from the New York Times says that it’s “an artful, intelligent movie about modern French identity and attempts to transform those bodies into citizens . . .” The struggle that comes about when you place so many characters into one book is learning how to express identities and knowing how to connect the reader with the characters. The movie makes those connections and allows the audience to paint the whole picture, furthering their understanding of The Class.

15 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Carrie Olivia Adams just announced a new online tool that could be of great use to authors/publicists/translators interested in finding places to present their work:

I am excited to announce a new updatable, searchable Wiki for curated reading series and independent bookstores eager to host events throughout the country (and hopefully abroad). Myself, as both poet and poetry editor, I have been frustrated with the lack of an electronic resource or directory for finding such series and bookstores, so I decided to take matters into my own hands.

The wiki—which more curators need to add to—can be found here. Although our authors don’t tour that frequently or extensively, this would be a huge help in just being able to identify potential outlets . . .

15 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Every summer, in honor of the Helen and Kurt Wolff Prize, the Goethe-Institut in Chicago also hosts the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Symposium. This year’s symposium is Interpretive Perspective and Translation and should be really interesting.

I’m moderating a panel with Krishna Winston, Breon Mitchell, and Michael Henry Heim on Gunther Grass, so I actually have the complete schedule of talks and events (not currently available online).

In addition to the Grass event, there’s a panel on “Lyric Translation,” one on “Letters Translation,” and one with Ross Benjamin and Nick Hoff on Holderlin.

This symposium isn’t open to the public, but translators, scholars, students of literary translation and enthusiasts are encouraged to apply by contacting Lisa Lux at lux at chicago dot goethe dot org.

15 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The finalists for this year’s Caine Prize for African Writing (given to a short story from an African writer published in English) were announced earlier this week. Here are the five shortlisted pieces, with links to pdf versions of some of the stories:

  • Mamle Kabu (Ghana) The End of Skill from Dreams, Miracles and Jazz published by Picador Africa, Johannesburg 2008
  • Parselelo Kantai (Kenya) “You Wreck Her” from the St Petersburg Review, 2008
  • Alistair Morgan (South Africa) Icebergs from The Paris Review no. 183, 2008
  • EC Osondu (Nigeria) Waiting from Guernicamag.com, October 2008
14 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For anyone who’s not a subscriber to the Open Letter newsletter, here’s this week’s entry. (You can sign up by entering your e-mail into the box on the upper right hand side of the Open Letter homepage.)

This week’s Open Letter update is pretty simple and straightforward. To celebrate the release of Jerzy Pilch’s The Mighty Angel, we’re giving away ten copies of the finished book to our newsletter subscribers, Three Percent readers, and members for our Facebook group.

You can register for the giveaway by simply e-mailing me at chad.post@rochester.edu with “Pilch” in the subject line and your name and complete mailing address in the body of the e-mail.

The Mighty Angel is a wonderful book about an alcoholic Polish writer named Jerzy who goes in and out of the alco ward over and over, always feeling that some woman will help him clean up his life, but always ending up back at The Mighty Angel in no time. It’s a touching novel, but also one infused with a great sense of humor (i.e., chapter 4the one about plagiarizing alcoholic autobiographies), much like Pilch’s other books. (We’re currently considering another title of his for publication: A Thousand Peaceful Cities, which features Mr. Trabaone of the most brilliant unhinged characters I’ve come across in some time.)

To whet your appetite, attached below is a small sample (a longer, different excerpt is available online).

Enjoy!

Chapter 12: All the Washing Machines in the World

The eternally postponed notion of repairing my old washing machine or buying a new one eventually perished of its own accord, to a large extent independently of my foibles. In my life I’ve drunk away a vast amount of money, I’ve spent a fortune on vodka, but the reprehensible moment of drinking away a sum set aside for the repair of my washing machine has never occurred. I make this confession not with pride in my heart but with a sense of abasement. For the fact that I never drank away a sum of money set aside for the repair of my washing machine arises from the fact that I never set aside any sum of money for the repair of my washing machine in the first place. Before I ever managed to set aside a particular sum for the repair of the washing machine, I drank it away along with all the other sums of money not yet set aside for any special purpose. I drank away the money before I’d had time to set it aside for something else; therefore I can say, seemingly contradicting myself (yet only seemingly, for in the former case there was only a small quantifier, while in this case there is a large one), I can say then that in fact I did drink away the money for the repair of the washing machine. I drank away the money for a whole series of repairs, I drank away the money for all possible repairs. What am I saying, repairs? I drank away the money for an entire new washing machine, I drank away a whole series of new washing machines, I drank away a thousand new washing machines, I drank away a million new automatic washing machines, I drank away a billion state-of-the-art washing machines. I drank away all the washing machines in the world.

What kind of soul does a man have when he knows he has drunk away all the washing machines in the world? My answer is this: He has a winged soul, and his mind spins like the rotating drum in the final stages of the spin cycle. When you sense upon your heart the burden of a thousand drunk-away washing machines, it is unbearable. But when you lift your tormented gaze and see flocks of white-winged washing machines soaring across the watery heavens like squadrons of papal helicopters, you understand that you have been given more than others. You have been given an uncommon gift, and if you manage to survive, if you do not perish beforehand, you can begin a voyage in search of all the lost washing machines, and evenyes indeedin search of all lost objects in general.

14 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

Just got word that the winner of this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize is Evelio Rosero for The Armies, which was translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean.

It’s available in the UK from Quercus (but not in the U.S. . . . or at least not yet) (Correction: It’s coming out from New Directions in September), and here’s all the info from their site about the book, author and translator:

In the village of San José in the remote mountains of Colombia, retired teacher Ismael spends his days gathering oranges in the sunshine and spying on his neighbour as she sunbathes naked in her orchard. It is a languid existence, pierced by his wife’s scolding, which induces in him the furtive guilt of an aging voyeur. Out walking one day, Ismael and his wife lose sight of each other. The old man is fearful, for San José has random kidnappings in its past, but reassured by others who have seen her in the village. Soon, though, more people begin to go missing, and gradually bursts of gunfire can be heard in the distance. As the attacks grow steadily more brutal, Ismael finds himself caught in the crossfire; an old man battered by a reality he no longer understands. This is a novel with no easy solutions, in which no-one is spared, no-one is protected.

Evelio Rosero studied Social Communication in the Externado University of Colombia. In 2006 he was awarded the Tusquets National Prize for Literature in Colombia for his novel The Armies.

Anne McLean has translated the novels of, among others, Javier Cercas, Julio Cortázar, Ignacio Padilla and Tomás Eloy Martínez. Her translation of Javier Cercas’ Soldiers of Salamis won the 2004 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Premio Valle Inclan.

Congrats to Evelio Rosero and Anne McLean!

14 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I’ll highlight all of the books in here one by one over the next week, but for anyone who can’t wait, you’ll find descriptions, author and translator info, and most importantly, samples from each of the books in the pdf version of the catalog.

Obviously biased, but this is a great list, with Jakov Lind’s wondrously bizarre Ergo, Macedonio Fernandez’s The Museum of Eterna’s Novel (The First Good Novel), an anthology with Words Without Borders, Jorge Volpi’s Season of Ash, and the first complete translation of Ilf & Petrov’s The Golden Calf.

Enjoy!

14 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

As pointed out at Moby Lives yesterday marked the 93rd year after the death of Sholem Aleichem. (No, I don’t think 93 has any real numerological significance, but anniversaries are a nice reason for writing about someone’s work/life. And this does happen to be the 150th year after Aleichem’s birth . . . )

Most well known for his Tevye stories, which served as the basis for the musical The Fiddler on the Roof, Aleichem was one of the great comic Jewish writers of modern times and led an interesting life (from Moby Lives):

Born Solomon Rabinowitz in 1859, the son of a merchant in the Ukrainian village of Pereyaslav, he wrote his first book at fourteen: a dictionary of Yiddish curses overheard at home. Despite jobs teaching Russian and writing for Hebrew newspapers, it was his writings in Yiddish—humorous stories about village life—that brought him fame. Using the Yiddish greeting (“Peace unto you”) as his pseudonym, he published 40 volumes of stories and plays, single-handedly creating a literature for what had been primarily a spoken language. Pogroms forced Aleichem to flee Russia in 1905, eventually landing him in New York City, his fame undiminished. When Aleichem was introduced to Mark Twain as “the Yiddish Mark Twain,” Twain interrupted to call himself the “American Sholom Aleichem.” Upon Aleichem’s death in 1916, 100,000 mourners flooded the streets of Manhattan for his funeral. His will, however, asked friends to remember him by an annual reading of one of his funny stories. “Let my name be recalled in laughter,” Aleichem wrote, “or not at all.”

Recently, Melville House reissued Stempenyu: A Jewish Romance, which was the first of Aleichem’s books to be translated into English, and supposedly it the story that inspired Fiddler on the Roof.

For those interested, Tevye the Dairyman and Motl the Cantor’s Son was recently reissued by Penguin Classics in a new translation by Aliza Shevrin.

And Viking also brought out the first complete translation (also by Aliza Shevrin) of Wandering Stars, a late novel of Aleichem’s about the world of Yiddish theater. Tony Kushner wrote an excellent foreword to this book that really makes me want to carve out the time to read it (or at least have someone review it in full for the site . . . if anyone’s interested, e-mail me at chad.post at rochester dot edu).

The reader of Wandering Stars can, if this is the kind of thing the reader likes to do, catalog its imperfections, of which there are enough to keep any literary scorekeeper busy and happy. Time lurches wildly in Aleichem’s novel, and the narrative along with it. The opinionated, distractible narrator, when he’s doing his job, rather than taking a rest while allowing letters written by the characters do the storytelling, seems less interested in his two protagonists than in the fantastical secondary cast that surrounds them. And who can blame him? The secondary characters are magnificent, men and women cooked up out of wit, terror, panic, hunger, chutzpah, pathos, and spleen (especially spleen), effortfully and arduously cooked — peeled, chopped, boiled, or fried — rather than dreamed up or imagined.

That this is a knotty, knobby, odd novel of fits and starts and sudden jolts is possibly due to its serialized newsprint origins and its lateness in Sholem Aleichem’s writing life; or possibly conventional wisdom and Reb Mendalle Mocher Sephorim are right about him, and Aleichem is found at his best in his short stories and occasional pieces. We might thus consign his novel to culture’s remainder table, unless we consider how appropriate its strangeness is to its subject. Though like many other, more perfect novels, Wandering Stars is about love, it’s about love between Jews who work in the theater. So it should be strange and imperfect. Theater is almost never perfect; its imperfections, its incompleteness and its tawdriness, are among the principal sources of its power. And do I need to tell you that life for Jews isn’t perfect? I don’t.

14 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

It’s been a while since I last wrote about the Salzburg Global Seminar on Translation, but just today the final summary and recommendations was released and mailed out to a number of “shareholders.”

Click here for a pdf version of the final report, which includes recommendations in four areas:

  • How is it possible to influence the publishing world?
  • How can we make the case for public and private sector funding?
  • What is the role of literary translation in the educational process?
  • What can translators and their associations do to promote literary translation?

Susanna Seidl-Fox, Michelle Gross, and Daniel Hahn did a fantastic job putting this all together and distributing it to all the right people. It was a very interesting experience (I’m sure my fellow morons—long story, but you know who you are—would agree) that will hopefully have a lasting impact on the perception, production, and promotion of literature in translations.

13 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our review section is a piece on Gamal al-Ghitani’s The Zafarani Files. Al-Ghitani has a couple other books available in English translation from the American University of Cairo Press, including Pyramid Texts and The Mahfouz Dialogs. Based on the strength of this particular novel, I have the others on order . . .

All these reservations were washed away the second I opened this up on the flight home, and became enthralled in a very modern, very sophisticated story about life in Zafarani Alley, where a mental Sheikh wreaks havoc with the inhabitants in an attempt to better the world . . . by casting a spell of impotence over the alley.

The novel consists of a number of “Files” written by an unknown observer who is chronicling all the goings on in Zafarani. In the opening one, we’re introduced to each of the main characters, one-by-one, slowly knitting together a vision of the neighborhood as a whole.

First up is Usta Abdu Murad, a driver for the Cairo Transit Authority, who is married to a former dancer. Usta’s visit to Sheikh Atiya about a little problem he’s having sets in motion the novel’s primary plot:

“The Usta spoke quickly and, just as his wife had instructed, came straight to the point, saying that his marital life was in jeopardy, that his home was falling apart, and that he didn’t know what to do. He was no longer able to fulfill his conjugal duties, and this had already lasted a week. When he was engaged to be married, but before signing the contract, his fiancee, as she then was, had asked him specifically, “Can you water the soil, daily?” Refusing to believe his nod of affirmation, she had tested him thoroughly. For many years, apart from the days of her period, he had not ceased. She would fall ill and lose weight if he failed to mount her each and every day. This passing of a dry, unproductive week had been terrible, especially since his condition was showing no signs of improvement. He was getting so tense and his nerves were so bad that he now thought twice about going home.”

Click here for the whole review.

13 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I picked this book up at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, the day after attending the Sheikh Zayed Book Awards, where Gamal al-Ghitani (aka Jamal Al Ghitani) won the award for Literature.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, based on the description of al-Ghitani’s work given at the event and on the above linked page:

This year the Literature Prize is awarded for a work that ventures the ancient history of Egypt in effort to revive the myths and stories through the use of sufistic parables. [. . .] The book is the 6th volume of Dafater Al- Tadween, and encompasses the spiritual journey of the writer paralleled with an actual travel he assumes from the Pyramid Plateau to the Southern parts of Egypt.

It doesn’t help—and this is literally my only complaint about the book—that American University of Cairo’s design is what it is. The look of the novel is OK, but just OK—the pages are a bit too white and heavy, the cover image not quite as attractive as it could be, the whole package feeling just a bit out of step with time . . .

All these reservations were washed away the second I opened this up on the flight home, and became enthralled in a very modern, very sophisticated story about life in Zafarani Alley, where a mental Sheikh wreaks havoc with the inhabitants in an attempt to better the world . . . by casting a spell of impotence over the alley.

The novel consists of a number of “Files” written by an unknown observer who is chronicling all the goings on in Zafarani. In the opening one, we’re introduced to each of the main characters, one-by-one, slowly knitting together a vision of the neighborhood as a whole.

First up is Usta Abdu Murad, a driver for the Cairo Transit Authority, who is married to a former dancer. Usta’s visit to Sheikh Atiya about a little problem he’s having sets in motion the novel’s primary plot:

The Usta spoke quickly and, just as his wife had instructed, came straight to the point, saying that his marital life was in jeopardy, that his home was falling apart, and that he didn’t know what to do. He was no longer able to fulfill his conjugal duties, and this had already lasted a week. When he was engaged to be married, but before signing the contract, his fiancee, as she then was, had asked him specifically, “Can you water the soil, daily?” Refusing to believe his nod of affirmation, she had tested him thoroughly. For many years, apart from the days of her period, he had not ceased. She would fall ill and lose weight if he failed to mount her each and every day. This passing of a dry, unproductive week had been terrible, especially since his condition was showing no signs of improvement. He was getting so tense and his nerves were so bad that he now thought twice about going home.

As it turns out, all of the male characters we’re introduced to—with all their vital stats, including “Name,” “Occupation,” “Place of Birth,” “Current Address,” “Distinguishing Marks,” and “Marital Status and Some Relevant Developments”—are impotent. And at a special gathering, the sheikh explains that it’s all due to a curse he’s put on the people of Zafarani that has three parts:

  • Any male whose feet touched the ground of Zafarani would be impaired.

  • Any child born from now on in Zafarani would be, a priori, a loser.

  • Any Zafarani woman who slept with any man, anywhere in the world, would make him impotent, without regard to nationality or religion.

He said that he had excluded one Zafarani man and one Zafarani woman for his own secret reasons, and that he would never reveal their names.

As the novel progresses, the sheikh dictates other rules to follow, including when and what everyone would eat for breakfast, when everyone had to be in bed, etc. And the “Files” that make up the book start becoming more political, incorporating reports from Egyptian authorities about the “Zafarani situation.” Since no one can enter without becoming impotent—and no one wants that—what’s actually going on in the neighborhood is a bit mysterious. The sheikh eventually puts forth some statements about the “situation” and how this is the first step in his plan to better society. And when this curse starts spreading throughout the world . . .

Al-Ghitani (and by extension the translator Farouk Abdel Wahab) strikes a perfect tone in the book, weaving together numerous compelling stories about the inhabitants of Zafarani alley in a often joyful way, creating an overarching narrative about power that can be interpreted in several ways—or simply enjoyed as a great work of literature.

13 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

From the Library of Congress (via The Elegant Variation):

On April 23, 2009, a federal district court in the southern Russian province of Dagestan issued an unprecedented ruling, ordering a journalist of a local newspaper to pay compensation in an amount equal to US$1,000 to a writer who did not like a review of his book published in the newspaper. The plaintiff, an author whose work of fiction was reviewed in the publication’s book review section, sued the reviewer, claiming that the author and his family had experienced severe mental suffering and that his professional reputation was damaged as a result of the review. The writer stated that after reading the book review, he experienced chest pains, headache, and elevated blood pressure. He demanded to be compensated in the amount of US$150,000. Both parties were dissatisfied with the court ruling and expressed their intention to appeal.

Maybe publishers can get on this as well. . . . Start suing papers for crappy reviews, or even suing them for not reviewing the book! My health (and our financial stability, I might add) has been severely hampered by all the reviews I’m counting on that have yet to appear . . .

13 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

It still has to be approved by Congress, but Rocco Landesman has been appointed to serve as the next chairman of the NEA, a post most recently held by poet Dana Gioia.

I’m not much of a theatre-goer, so Landesman is new to me. Based on the info in the New York Times article, he sounds like a lot of fun:

Mr. Landesman, who would fill the post vacated by Dana Gioia, is expected to lobby hard for more arts money. But he is not famous for his skills as an administrator or diplomat. Rather, he is known for his energy, intellect and irreverent — and occasionally sharp-elbowed — candor.

In 2000, for example, he caused a stir by accusing nonprofit theaters of being too much like their commercial counterparts. And, as a producer of “The Producers,” Mr. Landesman created the controversial $480 premium ticket to combat scalpers.

And I love Tony Kushner’s over the top comment:

“It’s potentially the best news the arts community in the United States has had since the birth of Walt Whitman,” said the playwright Tony Kushner. “He’s an absolutely brilliant and brave and perfect choice for the job.”

Now let’s just hope that he keeps (or increases) the core funding for nonprofit publishing, audience development, and translation in place . . . Gioia created a lot of new literary initiatives that, although most didn’t directly fund publishers or writers, funneled a lot of endowment money into the “literature” category. I have to admit that I’m sort of worried about a discipline backlash, with literature money being redirected towards other arts . . . which is a chairman’s prerogative, but for the sake of nonprofit literature, hopefully the core funding available for presses like Open Letter remains unchanged. (This is probably a needless fear.)

13 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Just when you thought the Times had figured out how to correctly pair writers with appropriate topics . . . Kidding—the Times will never get that straight. Here’s some clips from today’s review of Lost‘s season finale:

[. . .] the producers of “Lost,” who have devoted the show’s fourth and penultimate season (which ends on Wednesday) to the more mind-bendingly nonsensical dimensions of its sci-fi-ness.

Uh, that would be the “fifth and penultimate season.” And a quick trip to Wikipedia or ABC.com could verify that fact. (I’m way more lenient with the Washington Times claiming a book was translated from Syrian than with the NY Times fucking up a simple pop culture reference. When you’re the “paper of record” you ought to be able to count.)

I don’t want to get into a long-winded defense of Lost — there are other things to complain about than this wildly off-the-mark review, which uses the word “limned” (! — is this Kakutani in disguise?) and seems to be written by someone pretty unfamiliar with the show.

(One last Lost comment: Will Leitch’s bit on Jack Shephard in his weekly Ten Humans of the Week column is way better: “Jack is just a drunk surgeon with daddy issues and a serious case of inflated self-importance, and the great joke about his character is that everyone keeps blindly following him into disaster even though his decisions are always, always wrong. Well, the big gimmick for the final episode is that Jack is trying to detonate a hydrogen bomb on the island, with the idea that it will change history and allow the original flight that crashed on the island to land as was initially scheduled. This is a terrible, awful, hilariously stupid idea — he is trying set off a hydrogen bomb!”)

In other Times goings on, this article by Motoko Rich on e-book piracy has attracted a lot of responses from the blogosphere, including posts from Moby Lives and Book Square, pointing out how incredibly late to the game the Times is with this “news.”

Rather than dump on the Times for being out of touch, I think it’s more interesting to look at all the infuriating, yet typical (and infuriating because they are typical), responses from publishers and mainstream authors about online book piracy.

First we get Ursula Le Guin getting all pissed off (“Why do they think they can violate my copyright and get away with it?”), followed by Hachette’s Sisyphean tactic of endless legal action (“Our legal department is spending an ever-increasing time policing sites where copyrighted material is being presented”), then Stephen King trying to be above it all, but instead taking pot shots at bloggers internet users (“The question is, how much time and energy do I want to spend chasing these guys” [. . .] “And to what end? My sense is that most of them live in basements floored with carpeting remnants, living on Funions and discount beer”), and ending with Harlan Ellison’s out and out threat (“If you put your hand in my pocket, you’ll drag back six inches of bloody stump.”)

And buried amid all this sky is falling outrage from people who haven’t learned a damn thing from the movie or music industries, Motoko throws in a few moments of sanity:

“If iTunes started three years earlier, I’m not sure how big Napster and the subsequent piratical environments would have been, because people would have been in the habit of legitimately purchasing at pricing that wasn’t considered pernicious,” said Richard Sarnoff, a chairman of Bertelsmann, which owns Random House, the world’s largest publisher of consumer titles.

Huh, who would’ve thunk?

And more to the point for non-mainstream writers:

Others view digital piracy as a way for new readers to discover writers. Cory Doctorow, a novelist whose young adult novel “Little Brother” spent seven weeks on the New York Times children’s chapter books best-seller list last year, offers free electronic versions of his books on the same day they are published in hardcover. He believes free versions, even unauthorized ones, entice new readers.

“I really feel like my problem isn’t piracy,” Mr. Doctorow said. “It’s obscurity.”

Speaking of which, Cory wrote a post at BoingBoing yesterday about a recent study on the impact of free online book releases on print version sales. From the Bloggasm’s coverage of the report from John Hilton, a doctoral candidate in Instructional Psychology and Technology at Brigham Young University:

On March 4 of this year, Random House announced that it would release five books for free through its science fiction portal, all of which came in downloadable PDF files (among other formats). Hilton recorded the before and after book sales and found that “one of the five books has had zero sales in 2009. So no sales before or after the free version. But the other four books all saw significant sales increases after the free versions were released. In total, combined sales of the five books were up 11%. Together they sold 4,633 copies the 8 weeks prior to being released free and 5,155 copies the eight weeks after being released.”

There are more factors that muddy these results, and the e-releases that Tor did resulted in fewer sales for 20 of 24 titles, but based on these results, it’s clear that the impact of free e-versions of books (or even pirated versions) is much more complicated than most industry insiders and mainstream authors would have you believe.

12 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

My friend Wen Huang — translator of Liao Yiwu’s The Corpse Walker and Xianhui Yang’s Woman from Shanghai — contacted me this morning about the article below that Liao Yiwu wrote in remembrance of the one year anniversary of the devastating Beichuan earthquake.

As referenced in passing in the piece below, Liao Yiwu is a poet and novelist, who spent four years in jail after publishing “Massacre,” an epic poem condemning the killings in Tiananmen Square. His book, The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up, came out from Pantheon last April to great acclaim.

On May 12, 2008, a major earthquake struck Beichuan in Sichuan province, about 80 kilometers from where I live. It’s hard to believe that a full year has passed.

I don’t know if the dead are resting in peace, but those who survived continue to be tormented by the memory of death. Recently, there have been a lot of stories circulating on the internet about an increase in suicide rates in the disaster area. A widely reported case involved a 33-year-old resident in Beichuan who had lost his wife and son in the earthquake. He used to be an outgoing optimist, but on New Year’s Eve he was found in a pool of blood with his wrist slit. Luckily, his relatives discovered early and got him to the hospital in Mianyang city where the doctor was able to rescue him.

A Chinese psychologist categorized this incident as an example of “impulsive suicide” triggered by Chinese holidays. The doctor said that every festival or anniversary has the potential to cause an insurmountable amount of stress for survivors. That reminds me of two lines from a well-known Chinese poem: “A stranger in a foreign land I cast, I miss my family on festival days.”

Each time a disaster hits China, we all become refugees and strangers in our own land. The famines of 1959 and 1962 left thirty million dead. The Cultural Revolution caused the deaths of between two and seven million people. The devastating earthquake in Tangshan claimed the lives of 240,000 . . . We survivors struggle on, living meaningless lives like pigs and dogs. In the Mao era, the Party used to call on people to “wipe clean the blood stains on your face, bury the bodies of your comrades and move on . . .” According to Western standards of mental health, almost every Chinese person is suffering from some mental illness—such as post-traumatic stress disorder. We are all the descendants or contemporaries of various man-made and natural catastrophes.

I was caught in the middle of the earthquake one month after my book Corpse Walker was released in the United States. I rushed out of my house and survived. Suddenly, I found myself the center of attention from friends and the media. I talked non-stop about my experience and expressed my frustration and inability to help. Then, some friends overseas reminded me of my duty as a writer: “You need to go to the epicenter and record real history. The misfortune of a country is the fortune of historians. This is an opportunity and mission from heaven.” They were right. I felt like transforming myself from a lazy dog into a mechanical one. I dragged my girlfriend along and sniffed around the debris for months, interviewing survivors and listening to their stories. I kept what I had seen and heard in a journal every day. As summer turned into winter, I finally had the opportunity to compile my journal into a book called The Big Earthquake. [. . . ]

Read More...

12 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Daniel E. Pritchard has just launched The Critical Flame, a promising new online journal of book reviews and criticism with a goal of engaging with literature in a serious way:

A life of constant education is a life lived well, and the heart of our continued education is a public discourse that is free from small-minded influence, sanitation for the sake of weak wills, and cowardly censorship. With that in mind, we at The Critical Flame seek to clear a space in this wilderness that is the internet for articulate discussion and learned debate. We will make our convictions vulnerable to scrutiny, put aside our petty egotism, and engage with literature honestly, openly. Education is not only the facts and opinions conveyed, but also the manner in which we engage with the work at hand. We strive to be accurate, well-researched, and insightful, and to ensure that our reviews and criticism are tempered by mutual respect and, always, an unyielding respect for the work itself. (from the editor’s note)

12 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

A few weeks ago we posted a brief interview that Jason Boog of GalleyCat conducted with Douglas Rushkoff about conglomerates and the media. This interview tied into Rushkoff’s latest book — Life Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take It Back — which is a fantastic critique of the rise of corporations and the negative influence the principles underlying corporations have had on virtually every aspect of our life.

We’re planning on running an interview with Douglas about the book and about corporations and publishing (irony #1: Life Inc is coming out in June from Random House) in the not-too-distant future, but since this is such a fantastic, important book, I thought I’d point out the book’s special website and “Life Inc The Movie,” which hits on some of the major points of the book. (It’s kind of like a videobook! )

The book releases on June 2nd, but is available for preorder from, well, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Borders. (Irony #2.)

One of the interesting examples Douglas uses in this video is the bit about the restaurant Comfort and the owner’s inability to secure a bank loan for expansion. When this happened, he came up with the idea of “Comfort Dollars” through which, for every $100 invested, you received $120 Comfort Dollars to spend at the restaurant, thereby helping this local business to expand, and receiving a 20% return on investment . . . This isn’t unlike our subscription model through which for every $120 “investment,” you receive approx. $180 worth of Open Letter books . . . From our perspective, it’s great to know that X number of units of a new book are going directly to readers the second the book comes back from the printer, and for readers, you’re receiving $1.50 worth of books for every $1 spend . . .

12 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The “Bookishness: The New Fate of Reading in the Digital Age” conference taking place at the University of Michigan on Friday, May 15th looks pretty amazing. There are two main panels: one on “New Reading Practices and Literacies in a Digital Age” and one on “New Institutions for the Digital Age.” Sam Tanenhaus of the New York Times Book Review is on the second—very curious to hear what he has to say about this topic.

Karl Pohrt of Shaman Drum (also know as “our man in Ann Arbor”) is planning on attending, and might write something up for us.

12 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

It was recently announced that Antonia Lloyd-Jones has received this year’s Found in Translation Award for her translation of Pawel Huelle’s The Last Supper. (Which is available in the UK from Serpent’s Tail, and has a U.S. pub date of December 1, 2009.)

Huelle is a big name in Polish literature, and although a number of his books have been translated into English, it seems that he’s much more popular in the UK than the U.S. Which is unfortunate—this novel sounds pretty interesting:

The story of The Last Supper is set in Gdansk and centres on a single day in the near future, when twelve men have been invited by their mutual friend, an artist, to model at a photographic session for a modern version of The Last Supper. The histories of the twelve men are revealed through their thoughts on the day: their wayward behaviour is a reflection of the role of the Church in Polish society today. The reunion is disturbed as a wave of terrorist bombs paralyses the city, creating upheaval and a sense of unease.

Antonia Lloyd-Jones is one of the best Polish to English translators working today, and has translated other Pawel Huelle titles (including Castorp), along wiht works by Olga Tokarczuk, Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz, Ryszard Kapuscinski, and Wojciech Tochman.

The Found in Translation prize was established last year by the Polish Book Institute, Polish Cultural Institutes in London and New York, and W.A.B. Publishers. Its goal is to honor the best translation from Polish into English published within the past year by giving the translator PLN 10,000 (ca $3,000) and a three-month scholarship.

11 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

If things go right, I think we’ll be running five reviews this week—which definitely makes up for the one we skipped last week.

Up first is Yu Hua’s Brothers, a very long novel, very ambitious novel about two boys growing up in China during the period of the Cultural Revolution and the economic boom that followed.

The novel opens with a frame story of Baldy Li, Liu Town’s most successful businessman, sitting on a gold-plated toilet seat, dreaming of spending “twenty million U.S. dollars to purchase a ride on a Russian Federation space shuttle for a tour of outer space.” He begins reminiscing about his now-deceased brother Song Gang, and about the time when, as a young boy, Baldy Li peeked under the partition in the public toilet and saw five women’s butts, including the butt of Lin Hong, the most desired woman in Liu Town.

From that point on, the novel advances in a linear fashion, describing how Baldy Li figures out how to sell his description of Lin Hong’s bottom to various townsmen for bowls of noodles, of how Baldy’s mother remarried and Song Gang comes into Baldy’s life, of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, and of how Baldy Li goes on to become one of the richest people in China, capable of spending millions on a trip to space.

Along the way, there are endless reverses of fortune—Song Gang ends up marrying Lin Hong, Baldy Li’s grand schemes bankrupt him and lead him to collecting trash—and numerous side stories that give this novel a sort of Dickensian quality, allowing Yu Hua to really sketch out Chinese society both during and after Mao. The epic scope of the novel, along with Hua’s ability to shift from warm humor to sheer horror in the same sentence, are the real high points of this book. It’s easy to get sucked into Hua’s world, even when the reader knows exactly what’s going to happen next, which is true a good deal of the time.

Click here to read the full review.

11 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As detailed in the profile of Yu Hua in the New York Times Magazine, he’s considered to be one of China’s most important contemporary writers. In fact, two of his novels — To Live and Chronicle of a Blood Merchant — were honored in China as two of the most influential books of the last decade. But neither of those titles (both of which are available in English translation) are anywhere near as ambitious and over-stuffed as Brothers, which is one reason why the Times Magazine piece stated that this “may also prove to be China’s first successful export of literary fiction.”

Although I don’t think things quite worked out that way, it’s easy to see why one might think that this novel would take off. It’s a conventional family saga that tells the life stories of Song Gang and Baldy Li, two step-brothers who live through the Cultural Revolution and into China’s economic boom years.

The novel opens with a frame story of Baldy Li, Liu Town’s most successful businessman, sitting on a gold-plated toilet seat, dreaming of spending “twenty million U.S. dollars to purchase a ride on a Russian Federation space shuttle for a tour of outer space.” He begins reminiscing about his now-deceased brother Song Gang, and about the time when, as a young boy, Baldy Li peeked under the partition in the public toilet and saw five women’s butts, including the butt of Lin Hong, the most desired woman in Liu Town.

From that point on, the novel advances in a linear fashion, describing how Baldy Li figures out how to sell his description of Lin Hong’s bottom to various townsmen for bowls of noodles, of how Baldy’s mother remarried and Song Gang comes into Baldy’s life, of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, and of how Baldy Li goes on to become one of the richest people in China, capable of spending millions on a trip to space.

Along the way, there are endless reverses of fortune—Song Gang ends up marrying Lin Hong, Baldy Li’s grand schemes bankrupt him and lead him to collecting trash—and numerous side stories that give this novel a sort of Dickensian quality, allowing Yu Hua to really sketch out Chinese society both during and after Mao. The epic scope of the novel, along with Hua’s ability to shift from warm humor to sheer horror in the same sentence, are the real high points of this book. It’s easy to get sucked into Hua’s world, even when the reader knows exactly what’s going to happen next, which is true a good deal of the time.

The first half of the book (it was published in China in two volumes) is the strongest section, taking place primarily during the Cultural Revolution and providing some brilliantly disturbing scenes, that occasionally make this a heart-wrenching read. For example, Sun Wei is a slightly older boy who endlessly picks on the two brothers, and is the son of the man who leads the charge in killing Song Gang’s father (Baldy Li’s step-father). Sun Wei’s father then becomes the target of the townspeople (no one was safe during the Cultural Revolution) and is forced to wear a duncecap and make a public confession. After the townspeople decided that long hair is “bourgeois,” they decide to forcibly cut Sun Wei’s luxurious hair:

The razor blade in the red-armbander’s hand was slashing through Sun Wei’s hair and neck like a machete. Between the red-armbander’s downward trhusts and Sun Wei’s struggles, the razor blade slashed deeply into Sun Wei’s neck. Blood gushed all over the blade, but the red-armbander still slashed, ultimately slicking through the jugular vein.

Baldy Li witnessed the horrific scene as blood spurted in a two-yard-long arc like a fountain. The faces of the red-armbanders were sprayed with blood; shocked, they all leapt back like springs. Whe Sun Wei’s father rushed over and saw that his son’s neck was spurting blood, he pleaded with the group to spare his boy. As he knelt on the blood-drenched ground his cap fell off, but this time he didn’t retrieve it. Instead he cradled his son in his arms as Sun Wei’s head flopped over like a doll’s. He screamed his son’s name, but there was no response. With a look of terror he asked the crowd, “Is my son dead?”

No one answered. The red-armbanders responsible for Sun Wei’s death were all mopping the blood from their faces and looking about in a panic, struck dumb by what had just happened.

Yu Hua’s prose (or at least his prose as rendered in Eileen Cheng-yin Chow and Carlos Rojas’s translation) is so direct and clear that it’s very easy to envision all of the scenes from his novel. This is a very descriptive book, reading in a way that’s cinematic to a fault. That really diminishes the impact of the novel—it’s not a monumental work of literature, instead it’s simply a long, textured story.

Another problem with this book is how acceptable the actions of the characters are, especially Song Gang and Baldy Li, who are almost too perfect to be believed. Even when they’re doing something that the reader might disagree with, they’re acting in a reasonable, forgivable manner. The above excerpt points to this flaw: after the reader suffers through page upon page of abuse brought upon Song Gang’s father by Sun Wei’s dad, this sudden reversal (and the deaths of Sun Wei and his father) recasts his in a much more sympathetic light. And with the lack of internal descriptions, the characters move like ciphers across the page, allowing the author to manipulate the reader’s emotions and interests.

On one level, Brothers is a perfectly enjoyable book to spend a dozen hours reading. It’s engrossing and funny (like the bit with Baldy Li humping the telephone poles and wooden benches), with a well-constructed plot. Based on the all the pre-release buzz and claims of its literary greatness, I was expecting something more—something groundbreaking and unique. Instead, this is more or less a John Irving novel set in China. Which is fine—but not the “literary masterpiece” I was hoping for.

11 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Although the fiction buyer at Barnes & Noble had her doubts about 2009 being the “Year of Jakov Lind,” this year really does represent the best chance this overlooked, peculiar Austrian writer has of being rediscovered. Over the course of the next few months, three Lind titles will be reissued: Landscape in Concrete (available now), Ergo (also from Open Letter), and Soul of Wood (from NYRB).

We’ve been joking around the office for some time about creating a “Peculiar Dudes” t-shirt, since we seem to have so many of them on our list—Macedonio Fernandez, Ilf & Petrov, Ricardas Gavelis . . . But Lind’s biography might be the most bizarre of them all.

He was born Heinz Jakov Landwirth in Vienna in 1927 and was sent to Holland as part of the Kindertransport in 1939. To survive WWII, he assumed a pseudonym, pretended to be a Dutch merchant, and spent the war in Nazi Germany, working on barges and transporting messages . . . Post-War, he assumed the name “Jakov Lind” and started writing novels—strange, compelling, unique novels, such as Landscape in Concrete.

We just sent our Fall/Winter catalog to the printer, and I’ll preview Ergo and the other forthcoming titles over the next few weeks, but the main impetus for this post is the wonderful review by Karen Vanuska that Open Letters Monthly ran of Landscape in their new issue:

While Gunter Grass and Ursula Hegi chose dwarfs to tell their stories of Germany during World War II, Lind chose a giant for Landscape in Concrete – this is six-foot-two, three hundred pound Gauthier Bachmann. And in fate’s typical twist (or perhaps it’s just a case of Lind channeling that inner trickster of his), Bachmann is a giant with a miniature mind.

Bachmann is much more eloquent than other enfeebled narrators like Faulkner’s oft-cited Benjy; he’s not mentally retarded, though he shares the naiveté of the brain damaged. He is instead a victim of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; his brain is trying to protect him by keeping at bay the human degradation and mutilation he’s witnessed as a sergeant in the German army. The battle at Voroshenko, where Bachmann’s entire unit literally drowned in mud, especially haunts him [. . .]

Twisted humor is the engine that drives this plot. Additionally, Lind’s portrayal of Bachman is so accomplished that the reader does not feel tempted to laugh at Bachmann, only the crazy and sad things his does. Instead of throwing the characters into Voroshenko-type battles, as you’d expect in World War II novels, Lind makes the violence quite personal. Everyone has axes to grind that have little to do with the politics of wartime Germany and everything to do with vendettas. [. . .]

Yet a strain of raucous humor runs through Landscape in Concrete, sparing readers from drowning in the muck of war, affected by the story, but not consumed by it – an excellent vantage to ponder and reflect.

The whole review is worth checking out—as is the intro to our edition, this pdf excerpt, this overview piece by Sasha Weiss, and his forthcoming two titles.

11 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

One of the several mammoth translations released this year that’s on my “to read for the Best Translated Book Award” shelf—along with The Kindly Ones, News of the Empire, The Loop, Brothers, etc.—is Rafik Schami’s The Dark Side of Love. Clocking in at over 850 pages, Interlink Publishing deserves some recognition simply for being brave enough to publish something like this.

Claire Hopley’s review in the Washington Times makes it sound pretty interesting:

Novels from Syria rarely come our way, and novels from the Syrian emigre community of Europe are scarcely more frequent, so Rafik Schami’s “The Dark Side of Love,” first published in Germany where it was a best-seller, comes with preoccupations that are new to most of us.

Its form, however, is a lot like those 19th-century novels that trace their hero’s plight for hundreds of pages, 853 pages in this case. “Loose, baggy monsters” was Henry James’ description of classic English novels. Readers of “The Dark Side of Love” will often feel they are grappling with just such a monster – one that seems to ramble off, even get away, at times.

The novel is framed as a detective tale in which Inspector Barudi seeks to discover the murderer of an important, and, as it turns out, sadistic secret service agent. But Barudi soon fades into the background as the novel focuses on Farid Mushtak and the love of his life, Rana Shahin, before finally coming together as a history of Syria in the middle decades of the 20th century. It’s a history that is rivetingly full of incident, awash in despair, yet not without dignity as exemplified by Farid.

What’s funny—was pointed out by the Literary Saloon’s Michael Orthofer—is the claim that this book was “Translated from the Syrian by Anthea Bell,” which is clearly wrong. We all make mistakes (I’m sure there are a minimum of three typos or grammatical errors in this post along), and I’m sure WT will have this corrected on their website in the very near future. But for the record, Schami moved to Germany in 1971 and this novel was first published in German in 2004. And Anthea Bell just happens to be one of the most respected translators working today, and is most well known for her translation of the French Asterix comics and her translation of W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz. And although she does translate from German, French, Polish, and Danish, she doesn’t actually translate from “Syrian.”

8 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As announced on the NEA site yesterday, Copper Canyon will receive $117,000 to support the translation, publication, and promotion, of a bilingual anthology of Chinese poets born after 1945.

This publication is part of the International Literary Exchanges, which started in 2006 and are a joint partnership between the NEA and a foreign government. In addition to this volume (which is due out in spring 2011), the General Administration of Press and Publication in China will publish a companion volume featuring contemporary U.S. poets.

In terms of Copper Canyon’s anthology:

[It] will be edited by award-winning poet and editor Qingping Wang, who also will write the introduction to the volume. The anthology will be co-translated by noted Chinese literature scholars and translators Howard Goldblatt and his wife, Sylvia Li-chun Lin, who jointly received the American Translators Association Translation of the Year award in 1999 for their translation of Notes of a Desolate Man by Taiwanese novelist Chu T’ienwen.

Congrats to Copper Canyon, and this should be an interesting publication. It’s a nice chunk of change, which ensures that the contributors and translators will be properly compensated, and that there will be plenty of money for marketing and promoting the anthology. I dream of getting something like this someday so that we can do all that we want to do for one of our books, without having to cut corners because of costs and budgets and whatever.

7 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

It’s been a couple months since the last Translation Database update, and quite a few titles have been added in the meantime. And a few from 2008 were shifted to 2009, etc., etc. So, the current totals are:

2008: 363 books (283 fiction, 80 poetry)
2009: 235 books (196 fiction, 39 poetry)

Looking at this breakdown by month, I think 2009 is pretty accurate through August. If that’s the case, and the end of 2009 is similar to 2008, I think we’ll end up with around 340 translations in 2009—a substantial decrease. (Hopefully I’m wrong, and hopefully I’m missing some 2009 titles. Next month’s post-BEA update should be a much stronger indication of how the year will break down.)

In terms of publishers, American University of Cairo Press, Dalkey Archive, Europa are still at the top, along with New Directions, which has tripled it’s new translation output from 2008 to 2009. (Open Letter will jump up as well if I ever get around to adding our fall titles to the database.)

What’s most surprising though is the slight shift in the most translated languages. Here’s the stats for 2008:

French 59 titles, 16.25% of all translations
Spanish 49, 13.50%
German 33, 9.09%
Arabic 28, 7.71%
Japanese 23, 6.34%

So the top five languages account for 192 of the 363 books published in 2008, or approx. 53%.

For 2009, the same top five languages are there, but the order is slightly different:

Spanish 40 titles, 17.02% of all translations
French 35, 14.89%
German 21, 8.94%
Arabic 16, 6.81%
Japanese 12, 5.11%

That amounts to 124 of the recorded 235 translations, or approx. 53%.

It’s almost spooky how similar the years are in terms of the top five languages as a percentage of the total (53% in both 2008 and 2009), and that the only shift is Spanish taking over the top spot from French.

Because of the amount of time that it takes to acquire a book, commission a translation, and then bring it out, it’s impossible for this to be the case, but I’d like to think that Roberto Bolano (and Horacio Castellanos Moya) are somehow responsible for this surging interest in Spanish-language literature.

7 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Corridor of Dreams, which is the May issue of Words Without Borders, is now available online and focuses on contemporary Japanese literature. From translator and guest editor Allison Powell’s introduction:

Over the past several decades, a steady stream of fascinating writers from Japan have appeared in English, including two Nobel prize winners, Yasunari Kawabata and Kenzaburo Oe, as well as the now wildly popular Haruki Murakami. It may seem, however, that in recent years the stream has slowed to a trickle. Therefore, it has been my pleasure to act as guest editor for the Japan issue of Words Without Borders, and to have the opportunity to introduce new writing and new authors to WWB‘s audience.

The Japanese authors and works assembled here are not necessarily unified by any particular theme. I set out to showcase the robust variety of contemporary Japanese fiction, and I think these writers demonstrate just that, brilliantly. Most of the authors featured here have been writing for years and have well-established audiences in Japan. They have all been recognized with various literary awards and accolades, yet very little of their work has been published anywhere in English.

The point about how Japanese translations into English have “slowed to a trickle,” is absolutely true, although thanks to the Japanese Literature Publishing Project and Vertical, the situation is much better than it would be.

According to the Translation Database in 2008, 23 Japanese works made their way into English; so far in 2009, only 12. But of these 35 titles, 15 were published by Vertical—a press exclusively devoted to publishing Japanese literature, especially in the horror and thriller categories—and another 7 (at least) were funded by the JLPP—a program by which texts are selected, translated, and then offered to publishers. And if anyone publishes a JLPP book, the JLPP buys back a certain number of copies to send to libraries around the world.

Remove the JLPP influence and Vertical’s mandate, and you end up with only 13 Japanese titles coming out over the past two years. (Something similar happens to Arabic literature when you look beyond what the American University of Cairo Press is doing.)

Some of the fiction pieces included in this issue are: an excerpt from Sogil Yan’s Corridor of Dreams (translated by Linda Hoaglund), an excerpt from Kaho Nakayama’s Sentimental Education (translated by Allison Powell), and an excerpt from Hiromi Kawakami’s Manazuru (translated by Michael Emmerich).

And speaking of Michael Emmerich, he also has a short essay in this issue entitled “Beyond Between: Translation, Ghosts, Metaphors,” which opens with an bit about the meaning of the word “translation”:

In order for “translation” to have any meaning at all, it must be translatable into other languages; but the moment it is translated, it is swept up in a system of differentiations different from the one in which it is enmeshed in English—indeed, it doesn’t even have to be translated, because the word itself implies its own connectedness to these other systems of differentiation. Translation must be viewed as a node within which all the ideas of translation in all the languages there ever have been or could ever be might potentially congregate, intersect, mingle.

On top of all this, there are also reviews of Takashi Hiraide’s For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut (winner of the 2009 Best Translated Book Award for Poetry) and Satoshi Azuchi’s Supermarket: A Novel (which is a JLPP book).

Very solid issue . . .

6 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As the focus of this year’s Global Market Forum at BookExpo, the Arab publishing world will be highlighted through a series of panels and cultural event kicking off the morning of Friday, May 29th with a ribbon cutting by Lance Fensterman and His Excellency M. Amr Moussa, General Secretary of the Arab League.

All of the events sound interesting—and I’m not just saying that because I’m participating in one. Here’s the schedule for all of Friday’s events:

9:30am: Arab-US Editors Talk About the Exchange of Literature and its Impact on Their Cultures

11:00am: Up Close: Childrens’ Books in the Arab Market

2:00pm: Logistical Considerations for Arab Book Markets: Distribution, Imports and Exports

3:30pm: Copyright in the Arab World—Legal Status, Concerns, and Best Practices

4:30pm: Arab Match-Making Session

Copyright and distribution are huge issues in the Arab World, and the opening discussion about the exchange of literature (which is the panel I’m participating on) and the closing “match-making” session should give interested U.S. publishers a chance to find out how to do business with publishers from this region.

In addition to these educational/business panels, there will be two cultural events taking place on Friday and Saturday night:

On Friday at 7pm at the Goethe Institute Wyoming Building (5 E. 3rd St.): “New York Meets Baghdad” with Amal Al-Jubouri and Muhsin Al-Musawi on “Scheherazades’s Sisters”

On Satuday at 7pm at the New York Public Library: “New Eyes on the Arab World—Breaking Down Barriers of Fear and Prejudice” featuring Peter Theroux, Raja Alem, Tom McDonough, Muhammed Al Mur & Joe Sacco with Sulaiman Al Hattlan, moderator

6 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

To promote Valeria’s Last Stand, debut novelist Marc Fitten isn’t just going on a normal author tour—instead he’s decided to stop at 100 independent bookstores across the country. He’ll be documenting all his stops on his blog, giving the rest of us a chance to find out about some of the best indie stores across the country. Not sure how long he plans on touring, but so far he’s hit four store in five days . . . (via GalleyCat)

6 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Granted, there are still dozens of indie stores in the U.S. to feature as the bookstore of the month, but there are two good reasons why we chose to feature Gallimard Montreal for the month of May: 1) May is World in Translation Month, so it seemed fitting to feature a store from one of the most translation-centric province/states in North America, and 2) I recently visited this store and was absolutely blown away.

I hesitate to make such a grand statement (well, not really), but this is what an indie store should be. This store shelves French translations of classics from all over the world, all shelved by region. Just from looking around, you can tell that this is a store that values its editorial selections. There are titles there that probably only sell one copy a year, but that totally impress perceptive customers. The displays are beautiful, the store is very neat and clean, the staff is very well read . . . and this is the place where I found the first novel (I think) to be written about my home town: Le ciel de Bay City by Catherine Mavrikakis. So I guess there are three reasons to feature this store . . .

Since May is a bit more subdued than recent months, I’m hoping to have a few features on Quebec literature and publishing, and hopefully an interview with one of the employees of Gallimard Montreal.

5 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Following up on the earlier post on Indian publishing at the ADIBF and LBF, it seems like as good a time as ever to post this interview with Rakesh Kumar of Blaft Publications that I conducted a few months back when I was researching the article on Indian publishing that I wrote for the Frankfurt Book Fair newsletter.

Akshay Pathak of the German Book Office New Delhi was the person who introduced me to Blaft as one of the most exciting new publishing ventures in India. Blaft Publications (supposedly named as such because that’s the sound a 20kg weight makes when dropped on a pomegranate) is a relatively new house that specializes in publishing an interesting range of Tamil texts translated into English. The first Blaft book was a collection of Tamil Pulp Fiction which quickly sold out its first printing and is available outside of India through Amazon.com.

Chad W. Post: What prompted you and your two partners to start Blaft?

Rakesh Kumar: It kind of started with the first book, The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction. Tamil pulp novels have these wild-looking covers on them . . . photoshopped images of Christina Aguilera with vampire fangs, or people getting eaten alive by giant kittens (we included a selection of cover art in the book). My Tamil is pretty lousy but I can read well enough to make out the titles, which are typically things like “Super Horror Bumper Detective Novel”. I’m a night owl and I kept finding myself standing at the tea kadai at four o’clock in the morning with a cigarette and a coffee in my hand looking at these covers thinking What the Fuck, I absolutely have to know what’s in these things. Our friend Pritham [Chakravarthy, translator] had been a big Tamil pulp afficionado in her youth, and she enthusiastically launched into the process of selection and translation, and travelling around with me to sign everybody up.

In the process, we just realized there were a lot of books like that, books we’d like to see on the shelves of bookstores that we weren’t seeing. So we decided to start a company to make the books ourselves and put them there.

None of the three partners, Rashmi, Kaveri and myself, read any language fluently other than English. My excuse is, I’m only half-Indian and was raised in California; my wife Rashmi is Tamilian, but was mostly raised in the Hindi-speaking North; Kaveri is a Sindhi who was raised in the Tamil-speaking South. There are more and more Indians with mixed-up backgrounds like ours all the time, who default to reading English. Also, I think a lot of English-speaking Indians are finally getting over the colonial hangover and getting more interested in what’s going on in the regional language literatures.

CWP: How long have you been around, and what editorial plans do you have for the future?

RK: We launched with our first three books in May 2008; the Tamil Pulp Fiction book, Zero Degree, and a book of drawings by a local artist named Natesh. We came out with a fourth in July, a book of short stories by Kuzhali Manickavel (she writes in English), and we have at least two more coming out before the end of the year: a book of Tamil folktales, and a translation of a Hindi pulp novel.

We want to do more pulp translations from different Indian regional languages, and also try to bring out some graphic novels. I would love to bring out some good science writing, especially on environment and ecology, subjects which don’t get nearly enough attention here.

CWP: Distribution is a huge issue/problem for small American presses—how are your books distributed in India and abroad?

RK: It’s a big problem here too, though we don’t have the kind of chain-bookstore monopolies you have in the US. We were lucky to get picked up by a major distributor . . . they are not so great about paying on time, though.

CWP: The decision to publish Tamil works in English translation sounds very odd and daring to a foreigner, especially one living in a country that publishes less than 400 works of literature in translation every year. Is this common in India? What are the reasons behind this decision?

RK: I’m not aware of figures, but yes, there are lots of Indian presses publishing translations—mostly into English or from English (I have read several articles recently lamenting the lack of translation between Indian languages). I suppose it’s natural since we’re a much more linguistically diverse society with a lot of polyglots. There’s actually an amazing variety of stuff translated into Tamil and Malayalam, especially; I got shocked on my first trip into a Tamil bookstore, they had Hans Christian Andersen, Isaac Asimov, Charles Bukowski, Kerouac, Calvino, Marquez, you name it. As for the translations to English, some of it is government-sponsored, like the Sahitya Akademi publications.

There are a couple of problems with what’s out there, as I see it; there is a tendency to focus on the most “respectable,” “literary” stuff, which is also the hardest to translate and often comes across kind of boring in English. Also, I think many Indian presses don’t put enough emphasis on careful editing.

CWP: What is your impression of the Indian book market at this time? Things are horrible—almost catastrophically so—in America, but it sounds like the situation in India is very, very different.

We’re all completely new to the business so we don’t have much to compare with. It seems to be thriving!

CWP: Outside of India, the Indian authors that are most well-known are the writers who originally write in English and frequently live abroad, such as Rushdie, Ghosh, Mistry, etc. For someone promoting Tamil writers, how do you feel about this situation? Do you feel like writers working in Tamil (or any other Indian language) are at a disadvantage and more often overlooked than their English-writing counterparts?

RK: Well unfortunately when outsiders think of “Indian writing” it is the names that you mentioned—Rushdie / Ghosh / Mistry—that come to mind. But what is the majority of India reading? Books written in regional languages. Just going by the numbers, these authors—and I don’t just mean Tamil authors, but Hindi / Marathi / Malayalam / Bengali etc.—sell in hundreds of thousands. Yet, these books are not even considered when one talks about contemporary Indian writing. But are they at a disadvantage? I don’t think so. They have such a huge readership and loyal following. But yes, it is disheartening to see that this writing is not given the importance, acknowledgment and recognition it deserves. And we hope to change that.

5 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As pointed out at the Literary Saloon, the new issue of the Literary Review at The Hindu has a couple of articles about India’s presence at the recent London and Abu Dhabi book fairs.

It’s interesting how different these two articles are—the one on the ADIBF is more focused on India’s entrance into the Arab book market, whereas the one on the LBF takes a look at the book market in India.

Starting with Urvashi Butalia’s conclusions about the ADIBF:

Never slow to sense when a market is ready to open up, many Western publishers are already making a place for themselves in the Arab world. It’s rumoured that Penguin is soon scheduled to launch a Penguin Arabia — on the model of and perhaps inspired by Penguin India — Bloomsbury already has an overseas office in Qatar, Mills and Boon are big in the Arab world, and others are standing at the sidelines and waiting.

Nor have Indians been slow to sense a growing market. DeeCee publishers of Kerala have a large setup in Dubai that caters to the considerable Malayali population in the Gulf. Young Indian entrepreneurs have set up distribution agencies that cater to universities and schools, Jamia Milia Islamia in Delhi has put in place a translation programme whereby 25 titles from India will be translated into Arabic and five vice versa — and this is only a beginning — and Panther, a publisher of high quality medical DVDs is listed as one of their star attractions by one of the leading Gulf distributors, Kasha, who are based in Jordan.

Clearly, things are changing in the world of Arab writing and publishing. Like India, Arab countries provide one of the potentially most exciting markets of the world, and perhaps the day is not far off when Arab writers will start crowding the numbers of Booker prize winners in the way that Indians have begun to do.

This really echoes the sense that I came away with as well. Despite its distribution problems, the Arab world is a burgeoning market and a lot of publishers are figuring out how to best benefit from this.

Which is actually pretty similar to how the rest of the world looks at India’s book market as well, as Janhavi Acharekar’s piece on the London Book Fair makes clear:

A few years ago, at one of the panel discussions held during the Kitab festival in Mumbai, Antara Dev Sen was questioned about the coming of age of Indian literature. Her astute reply was that it was really the Indian economy that had come of age and the spotlight was therefore on everything Indian, including literature. That India had always had an excellent and ancient tradition of writing but the world had only zoomed in on it with the country’s booming stock market. [. . .]

To the West, India is the only English language book market with a potential for growth. But what did the Book Fair spell for India? For one, it showcased its new writing, poetry and fiction in translation, children’s writing and non-fiction to the world. “In the West, we continue to associate Indian writing with Amitav Ghosh and Arundhati Roy. It’s nice to learn about contemporary writers who haven’t yet found a readership here,” confessed a member of the audience. The concerns of the fair had to do with emerging literary trends in India seen — as Chief Editor and Publisher of HarperCollins India, V.K. Karthika, points out — in the interview of her and bestselling author Chetan Bhagat on BBC World Service Radio. “The fact that they chose to interview an author associated with popular fiction is telling,” she remarks. Literary agent Jayapriya Vasudevan, founder of Jacaranda Press, supports the view. “Popular Indian writing is being read now as opposed to just literary fiction 10 years ago. An unknown author has every chance of selling today,” she says. Vasudevan ought to know. Jacaranda, India’s first literary agency, represents new publishing house Blaft known for its quirky books and translations of Tamil and Hindi pulp fiction, which have elicited much interest at the fair. [. . .]

However, the fair also displayed the differences in literary concerns and trends between the East and the West. While the latter spoke of creative and life-writing courses, ‘enhanced’ e-books and technological innovations such as the Espresso book machine that prints books on demand, in-store, India was still concerned with widening its reach in the print arena. “E-books are not likely to play a big role in India at least for the next decade or so,” says Karthika. Our only association with other media was the talk on literature in cinema that included on its panel Javed Akhtar, Rachel Dwyer and Prasoon Joshi, among others. A sign, perhaps, that Indian literature has yet to truly come of age.

5 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The new issue of Rain Taxi has a really nice review by Alex Starace of Ricardas Gavelis’s Vilnius Poker:

As Vilnius Poker begins, the main character, Vytautus Vargalys, has to go to work just like any other citizen in 1970s Lithuania—no matter that he is plagued by sustained paranoia, psychotic visions and flashbacks from nine years spent in a Soviet labor camp. Vargalys gets in a trolley car and rides through the hellish husk of a city that is Soviet-occupied Vilnius. He arrives at the library (where he directs a project that the Moscow higher-ups have told him he must not complete) and sits at his desk with his phone unplugged and his head in his hands. At ten o’clock, one of his assistants pops her head into his office: it’s time for a coffee break. If this seems like a bland beginning to a novel, it’s not. Vargalys’s visions infuse these mundane events with the following: he is almost murdered by a limousine; he becomes terrified because of some supposedly disappearing-and-reappearing pigeons; he shrinks from the seductive glare of a real-life Circe; and he discusses the existence of Them, the evil entities against whom he is fighting. And this is just in the first eight pages. [. . .]

A novel 200 pages slimmer might better bring home the point that Vilnius, Lithuania, was the “Ass of the Universe” in the 1970s. Regardless, readers who are fascinated by Eastern Bloc literature, by the psychology of occupation and by the absurd Catch-22s of bureaucracy will enjoy Vilnius Poker. There’s a lot here: passion, madmen, crushed hope, a stinking city and the stench of human rubble. All of which makes it worth the extra pages.

5 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Jessica Cobb (whose internship at Open Letter just ended) has added a review of Iqbal Al-Qazwini’s Zubaida’s Window, which came out last year from The Feminist Press, translated by Azza El Kholy and Amira Nowaira.

According to The Feminist Press, this novel the first in English by an Iraqi to focus on the 2003 invasion. Sounds like a very interesting book, in part because Al-Qazwini has led such an interesting life:

Iqbal Al-Qazwini, author of Zubaida’s Window, writes a story that reflects a life of her own. She now lives in East Berlin and is an Iraqi Exile herself, which brings a heightened creditability to the first novel that she has written. As an active member of the Iraqi Women’s League, the largest Arabic Women’s Rights Organization, she was sent to East Berlin as a representative and found herself unable to return to her homeland when Saddam Hussein became President in 1979. She is acclaimed on her writing that mostly revolves around women and gender issues, human rights, child labor and intercultural exchanges. In 1993, Al-Qazwini was elected to the International PEN World Association of Writers, followed by the publishing of her first novel, Zubaida’s Window.

Al-Qazwini’s novel is a dramatic account of a young woman, Zubaida, who has fled her country and is currently residing in East Berlin where she finds it nearly impossible to discover anything comparable to her own land. Every smell, every sight, every noise seems to separate German culture from her own. Her decision to flee her country was based not only on the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, but on the war that she claims began “tens of years ago”. Zubaida claims that the downfall of Iraq began when King Faisal II was assassinated back in the days of the Monarchy. It was in the year of 1958 that Iraq overthrew the Monarchy and converted to a Republic. Zubaida reflects on “the good old days” and often times, on her feeling of belonging to a united family that she left at home in Al-Adhamiya, the area of Baghdad where she grew up. She now struggles to communicate with her family and has become obsessive over the location of her brother, an Iraqi soldier. Through madness and rage, we see images of the first Ba’thi Coup in 1963, which deposed of Republican President Adbel Qassem, the second Ba’thi Coup, named the “White Revolution,” which started 35 years of oppressive Ba’thi rule, and most central, the war between Iraq and Iran, from 1980-1988. Throughout the novel, Zubaida, the main character, fights her history, physically, mentally and emotionally, to figure out why it has come to what it is; destructed and chaotic.

Click here for the full review.

5 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Iqbal Al-Qazwini, author of Zubaida’s Window, writes a story that reflects a life of her own. She now lives in East Berlin and is an Iraqi Exile herself, which brings a heightened creditability to the first novel that she has written. As an active member of the Iraqi Women’s League, the largest Arabic Women’s Rights Organization, she was sent to East Berlin as a representative and found herself unable to return to her homeland when Saddam Hussein became President in 1979. She is acclaimed on her writing that mostly revolves around women and gender issues, human rights, child labor and intercultural exchanges. In 1993, Al-Qazwini was elected to the International PEN World Association of Writers, followed by the publishing of her first novel, Zubaida’s Window.

Al-Qazwini’s novel is a dramatic account of a young woman, Zubaida, who has fled her country and is currently residing in East Berlin where she finds it nearly impossible to discover anything comparable to her own land. Every smell, every sight, every noise seems to separate German culture from her own. Her decision to flee her country was based not only on the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, but on the war that she claims began “tens of years ago”. Zubaida claims that the downfall of Iraq began when King Faisal II was assassinated back in the days of the Monarchy. It was in the year of 1958 that Iraq overthrew the Monarchy and converted to a Republic. Zubaida reflects on “the good old days” and often times, on her feeling of belonging to a united family that she left at home in Al-Adhamiya, the area of Baghdad where she grew up. She now struggles to communicate with her family and has become obsessive over the location of her brother, an Iraqi soldier. Through madness and rage, we see images of the first Ba’thi Coup in 1963, which deposed of Republican President Adbel Qassem, the second Ba’thi Coup, named the “White Revolution,” which started 35 years of oppressive Ba’thi rule, and most central, the war between Iraq and Iran, from 1980-1988. Throughout the novel, Zubaida, the main character, fights her history, physically, mentally and emotionally, to figure out why it has come to what it is; destructed and chaotic.

The imagery found in this novel is quite remarkable. As Zubaida, the main character, is continuously haunted on a daily basis, through daydreams, flashbacks and asides, she always snaps back to reality with the intoxication she receives from the images through the screen of her television set.

The country is burning in front of her now, and she doesn’t know the extent of the invisible flames. The screen exposes a limited blaze, but she knows that the fire outside the frame of the screen is greater. These are flames beyond Baghdad, extending to her room, kitchen, balcony, and moving on to the world.

Along with the intensified, singled out imagery, the explosiveness of the past and present recollections that Zubaida experiences, closely connects to the explosiveness and tragedy of every event that has led Iraq to its current situation. A downfall of this novel is that it is too descriptive with the mellow dramatic accounts of Zubaida’s present conditions. The stereotypical female is one who over dramatizes her feelings and is over emotional, which further limits her strength because reality is too hard for her to handle. Without a doubt, this novel demands expression and feeling, just not so overbearing.

It’s no surprise that Zubaida’s Window is part of the Feminist Press’s prestigious series of “Women Writing in the Middle East.” Joining Al-Qazwini on this list are some heavy hitters, including Assia Djebar, Huda Shaarawi, Alia Mamdouh and Shahrnush Parsipur. Zubaida’s Window is a notable addition to this series, a series that is one of the best sources for information about Middle Eastern women novelists avialable to English readers.

4 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Thankfully, Paul Verhaeghen just posted the opening statement he gave at the “Writers as Translators” panel that he was during the PEN World Voices Festival. All of the opening statements from the panelists were really interesting, but this one stood out to me:

Allow me to open with a simple statement of fact.
We do not know what planet writers come from, but we do know the precise place of origin of their translators: They all, without exception, hail from the planet Tralfamadore.

Allow me to elaborate.

But before I do that, I’d like to take you on a trip to Upstate New York first.
There’s a Zen Buddhist Center there that I once visited with a friend who was so much into that kind of thing he had his head shaved and took vows, or whatever they call it. The head monk of the Center was a nice Jewish lady with a decidedly military haircut; she went by a Japanese name. If you wanted to speak to her, you needed to prostrate before her, thrice. You didn’t call it a talk either, you called it doing dokusan. In the meditation hall, we bowed before a small imported statue of the Buddha, my friend and his companions slipped into black robes — the nice Jewish lady’s was a gold-embroidered monstrosity that was all sleeves and pleats — we all bowed some more, sat down cross-legged on Japanese cushions, and then we chanted – in no language known to man.

“What on earth was that?” I inquired about the chanting.

Turns out the chant was an ancient pronouncement of the Buddha’s, originally delivered in the Pali language, but written down in Sanskrit, then translated and transliterated into Chinese, picked up about 1,200 years ago by some Japanese monks who brought it to their island, where it is chanted using the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese characters. It is this American approximation of the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese version that is chanted in Zen groups across the continent.

Everything, my patient friend explained – the robes, the funny names, the bows, the lotus position, the chanting – was to make sure that no essential part of the teachings got lost in translation. We do not know, after all, what can be safely changed, and what needs to stay exactly so.

Still intrigued by the sound of twenty or so earnest Americans chanting Japanese mispronunciations of Chinese phonetic attempts at Sanskrit that should have been Pali, I asked: “And what is that that you chant?”

“It’s the Heart Sutra”, he replied. “You know, the one that states that Emptiness is Form, and Form is Emptiness?”

When I remarked that this was a rather elaborate but quite splendid way to get this simple point across, his smile suddenly seemed somewhat strained.

Click here for the entire article. And click here to order Omega Minor.

4 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Looking back on World Voices, I realized that there are two things that I would’ve liked more of: opportunities to talk informally with the authors and a better system for being able to buy their books.

I don’t think I’m alone in this either. The authors are the reason so many people attend the festival, and being rushed out of the auditorium immediately after each event is a bit of a damper of the “festive” nature of World Voices. And ever since PEN got away from having a local independent store (like McNally Jackson or 192 Books) in charge of selling titles at the events, the whole book buying side of things has gone to shit. (Sorry Mobile Libris. I’m a fan of what you do, but the book selection was spotty at best and pretty damn disorganized.)

So, I have a proposal to Caro and PEN for next year: the creation of an Authors’ Salon that can serve as a central hub for this increasingly decentralized festival and serve as a place where the public can mingle with the talent and buy their books.

What I envision is a restaurant or hotel lobby that would be accessible basically all day and night, where authors could come and go as they please, and readers would have an opportunity to ask a follow-up question to a particular discussion, or simply get their book signed. And since this would be a central meeting point, a bookstore could have all of the works of all of the authors on display at all times, providing a real opportunity for readers to browse what’s available and actually buy books. (That’s sort of the point, right? Getting readers interested in these authors?)

Additionally, organizations and publishers participating/sponsoring the festival could display brochures, catalogs, and other info in this same space, something that could help further cultivate an audience for international literature and the authors participating in the festival.

I’m willing to guarantee that this would be an extremely popular space, and would generate a lot of commerce through sales of booze and books. And these international authors, who travel all the way here just to speak on an hour-and-a-half long panel would have the opportunity (if they want) to meet with readers and expand their American following. And publishers (well, the smart ones) would be all over the chance to further promote their books and programs, both to the writers who are visiting and to a public interested in these sorts of books. It’s a win-win-win.

It’s not that I think PEN World Voices is doing anything wrong, but I think something like this would really take the festival to the next level and truly serve the audience of readers, writers, and publishers, who look to this as an opportunity to come together and truly celebrate the diversity of writers from around the world.

Well, that’s my two cents . . .

4 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Catalan Days — a month-long festival celebrating the arts, food, and literature of Catalonia and the Balearic Islands — really got underway on Saturday with a performance by Jessica Lange of Merce Rodoreda’s The Time of the Doves.

This event was arranged in part to celebrate our release of Death in Spring, Rodoreda’s final novel, which she spent decades on, and which was left unfinished. (Well, sort of. The book ends the only way it can—the “unfinished” nature of the manuscript seems to be more editing-based than plot-based.) Martha Tennent was on hand to introduce her translation of Death in Spring and Rodoreda in general. Martha’s a great translator and in fact, she translated the abridged version of Time of the Doves that Jessica Lange performed. (The novel is actually La Placa del Diamante and the “doves” in the title are actually pigeons—stinky, smelly pigeons—which is how Martha translated it. That said, “The Time of the Pigeons” isn’t really a selling title . . .)

Jessica Lange was pretty amazing. Her reading of the novel lasted almost two hours, encapsulating the whole book, from the narrator’s memories of the festival where she met her future husband (he convinces her to leave her fiance for him), through their early years as a married couple and her fairly submissive role in the relationship, to the Civil War years when Quimet goes off to fight and Natalia almost kills her children to end their suffering, through the marriage of her daughter. (Not to give too much away. Although it’s not like the plot of this book is really what matters. Rodoreda’s beautiful prose and compelling characters are the real draws.)

The book can be pretty intense, and when Jessica Lange broke into tears on stage, she really ramped up the emotional content of the novel and had everyone sucked into Rodoreda’s world. Everyone I talked to afterward was stunned by just how incredible the performance was, but what’s really amazing—and what is the definition of “professional”—is the fact that she received the translation of the script on Wednesday . . .

Rodoreda was a remarkable writers, and as I said in my brief intro about why Open Letter decided to publish this book, she can easily be categorized as one of the great women writers—in the same league as Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, etc.—but that’s actually somewhat limiting. The Time of the Doves, A Broken Mirror, and Death in Spring are three of the greatest novels of the twentieth century and demonstrate the evolution of Rodoreda’s aesthetic and writing style. She never repeated herself, and although there are certain similarities between Time of the Doves and Death in Spring, her artistic ambitions are quite different—almost amazingly so. This constant search for a new way to tell a story is why she’s not just a great woman writer, or one of the best contemporary novels, but one of the all-time Great Writers.

4 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The fifth annual PEN World Voices Festival ended on Sunday, and based on the attendance at the few events I went to, it was pretty successful. I wasn’t able to attend as many panels as I would’ve liked, which is sort of a plus and minus for the festival—there’s a lot to choose from and you really do need to choose.

This might sound biased, but the two events that I found the most interesting were the two that Jan Kjaerstad was on: “Where Truth Lies” and “Faith & Fiction.”

Aside from Jan’s presence, the one thing in common between these panels was the fact that both were actual roundtable discussions, rather than panels where each participant presents some prepared remarks. From talking with some other attendees, I’m not the only one who prefers the actual discussion panels to the serial presentation one. No matter how good the guests are, when they each read their prepared remarks, there’s a tendency for the speakers to become compartmentalized, with little interaction between the various viewpoints. And besides, with rare exception (like Paul Verhaeghen’s wonderfully imaginative and funny speech), these opening remarks tend to be a bit dry and don’t lead to the sort of debate and disagreement that can make a panel fun to watch.

The Where Truth Lies featured Jan, Horacio Castellanos Moya, Marlon James, and Roxana Robinson. Noreen Tomassi of the Mercantile Library did a wonderful job moderating, keeping the discussion relevant and interesting, and creating some tensions that fueled the debate.

One of the most interesting divisions—to me anyway—was the huge difference between Jan’s belief that “form is greatly underrated” and that it’s the novelist’s job to make things strange and provide readers with a new way of seeing. With only a limited number of “masterplots” (a point that a couple panelists disagreed with, which was sort of odd, especially since the dissenters used examples that sort of proved that there are limited archetypes but that the difference is in the details, something that no one would dispute), the novelist has to “make things new” and can utilize form to accomplish this.

Roxana Robinson—whose aesthetic ideas ran so counter to mine that I’ll never ever read her books or her New Yorker stories—completely disagreed, arguing that a writer is just there to write, not to think of the audience of changing someone’s way of seeing or anything at all like that. She also made a comment about a recent Joyce Carol Oates interview in which JCO referred to tragedy as the highest art form, which is what she personally aspires to in her work. (Someone in the audience thankfully called bullshit on this, pointing out that JCO’s work—and Robinson’s by extension—isn’t actually tragic, just glum.)

This kind of schism is what makes for an interesting discussion, and in this case it really seemed to present two different literary approaches—writing to entertain and tell a story versus writing to create art.

There wasn’t such an obvious split in the Faith & Fiction, panel but Albert Mobilio—who is consistently one of the festival’s best moderators—did a masterful job sustaining a really interesting discussion about fiction and religion that featured Jan, Ben Anastas, Nadeem Aslam, and Brian Evenson. All of the panelists were fantastic, each having his particular viewpoint and responding thoughtfully to one another to create a truly interesting discussion.

Not to mention the panel awesomely opened with Albert quoting James Wood—something to the effect that novelists are skeptics, but novels act religiously—and Jan immediately stating that James Wood is a overrated . . .

A lot of the events were recorded and will be available on PEN’s podcast page in the near future. And for more information about particular events, be sure to check out the World Voices Blogs page, which has write-ups on nearly all of the panels and readings.

30 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This was the question that Leon Neyfakh from the New York Observer asked a few people at the recent PEN Foundation annual gala. The answers aren’t all that provocative or surprising: Edmund White points out how most panels are “an exercise of competing egos rather than an effort to communicate or focus on the topic” and Daniel Menaker (whose Titlepage.tv project seems to have gone into permanent hibernation) offers up the excuse that most authors aren’t good at interacting with the public.

The one comment that I completely agree with is from Rhonda Sherman (organizer of the New Yorker Festival): ““In general, it’s not a party unless there’s blood on the floor. There needs to be tension on a panel. You need to have some disagreement. If everyone agrees on the panel, it’s a total snooze-a-thon.”

Every panel needs a contrarian to really foster a discussion. Otherwise it’s easy for these events to devolve into a series of disconnected, individual presentation.

30 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As mentioned on Conversational Reading, the new issue of Hermano Cerdo is now available.

Included in this issue are articles on Juan Jose Millas’s El Mundo, on Sergio Chejfec’s Los incompletos y Mis dos mundos, and on Daniel Sada’s Casi nunca, which will be published by Graywolf.

30 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

With Catalan Days quickly approaching (the festival kicks off on Saturday with the Merce Rodoreda/Jessica Lange event at the Baryshnikov Arts Center) this seems like an appropriate time to mention Black Beach and Other Plays a collection of three works of contemporary Catalan drama by Jordi Coca, Joan Casas, and Lluisa Cunille, (and translated by Richard Thomson, Peter Bush, and Laura McGloughlin) published in English translation by Parthian Book (distributed in the U.S. by Dufour Editions).

I can’t imagine many works of Catalan drama are available in English translation, so this is a pretty unique publication. And the opening intro by Jordi Coca that provides a very interesting overview of the “minor renaissance” Catalan theatre is currently experiencing.

According to Coca, the big turning point came in 1976 with the availability of public funding for theatre. Prior to that there was a pretty diverse, exciting theatre scene, but it was primarily done “from the perspective of resistance” to the Franco regime, and was performed by “semi-professional companies.”

In the 1980s, the public funding let to the creation of numerous theatres, including the Drama Centre of Catalonia and the National Theatre of Catalonia. All of these outlets have lead to the vitality of the current scene, but according to Coca, the popularity of Catalan theatre comes with a price:

Such is the present state of play. Programming for public theatre is very conservative, very close to the interests of the commercial stage, and proceeds without any risk-taking from an aesthetic, dramatic or ideological point of view. We are therefore waiting for a new generation of English-style angry young men or women able to shake up today’s complacent and optimistic bourgeois outlook.

Nevertheless it would be wrong not to acknowledge that the consolidation of audiences and adaptation of programming policy to more conservative, insipid sensibilities has led to an increase in ticket sales and an increase in the strictly economic level of theatre business.

But that brings us to the three playwrights featured in this collection: Lluisa Cunille (“The Sale”), whose work is “rooted in Pinter;” Joan Casas (“Naked”), in whose work “the place where his characters find themselves is an abstract space subordinate to the interplay of ambiguities of time that form part of the project,” and Jordi Coca, whose “Black Beach” is “driven by a wish to rework the myth of Antigone.”

29 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

There is so much wrong with Philip Jones’s “English writers outperform rivals” post on The Bookseller.com, that I’m not even sure where to start . . .

I’ll get to the actual content of the article in a minute, but first off, what is up with this title? Since when did English writers have “rivals”? Is there some sort of secret literary tournament going on that I’m not aware of? If so, I hope there’s at least some good smack talk going on: “Take that, Spain! We will dominate you and your florid prose, fine wine, and beautiful beaches once again with our English wit and neo-realistic family dramas.”

Granted, there is a Writers Football League (apparently dominated by the Hungarians), but in this case, Jones is actually talking about international bestseller lists. Over the past year, Rudiger Wischenbart has been tracking bestseller lists in France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and the UK to analyze trends in translation flows and popularity. Through the information he gathered, one can see how Steig Larsson’s books traveled through Europe, or how Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog (a huge success here), only made the bestseller lists in France, Germany, and Spain during the past twelve months.

What’s really interesting, and what Rudiger opens his report with, is the fact that English books don’t top, or even dominate this “mega-bestseller list:”

Analyzing bestselling fiction authors and their books’ performance in seven major European book markets over the past 12 months (April 2008 through March 2009, Top 10 in France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and the UK) presents a stunning landscape of probably unrivalled inner cultural diversity, yet under strictly European colours – and with books written in English representing only a surprisingly small island in comparison to other European languages.

The top 40 writers divide into 13 writing in English, and 27 writing in other – European – languages, with Swedish (8), French (6) as the strongest, beating Dutch and German (each 4), Italian (3), Spanish (2), and Brazilian Portuguese (1).

Before finding out about this report, I would’ve assumed that 25-30 of the writers on the list would’ve been writing in English . . . Both Americans and Brits are champions at exporting out titles around the world, selling rights to dozens of countries, and invading the overall cultural landscape. So to find out that less than half of the bestselling authors wrote originally in English (including authors from India, UK, and America, three rather large countries) was pretty surprising to me.

But look what Philip Jones does with these same statistics:

English writers continue to outperform their rivals across Europe, according to an analysis of the top 10 international fiction bestsellers published by book trade magazines, including The Bookseller, Germany’s Buchreport, and France’s Livres Hebdo, over the past 12 months.

“Continue to outperform their rivals.” Classy.

I know better than to expect anything more from a trade magazine, but a bit of analysis about these findings, such as the “One Country Block Buster Phenomenon”1 would be a lot more interesting than some chest-thumping, pro-English, totally banal statements.

1 From the study: “Close scrutiny of the analyzed data show ever more telling results. Of the top 40 writers, 25 made their (heavy) splash in just one country. In return, only 2 English and 10 non-English writers could make it to the top of bestseller lists in 3 or even more countries with translations of their books. (In fact most of these local block buster titles had been translated into other languages, but were not successful to the point of getting into the top segment of the charts.) This illustrates to what extend book markets are still centred on a predominantly domestic readership.”

29 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, translated from the German by Michael Hoffmann and published by Melville House earlier this year, has been receiving a ton of good attention, such as this review in the New Yorker and this bit for the daily Very Short List e-mail.

Never before published in English, this novel is a perfect example of what we miss (or almost miss) by living in a book culture that translates so little.

Monica Carter—who works at Skylight Books and runs the always excellent Salonica World Lit website—penned this glowing review, which begins with a bit about Fallada’s crazy life:

Hans Fallada, née Rudolph Ditzen, led a tumultuous, short life, producing several great works even under the crushing hand of the Nazi Regime. Fallada’s own life, itself worthy of several novels, was plagued by drugs, alcohol, stints in sanatoriums, and most importantly, artistic integrity as a writer. At eighteen, he entered into a suicide pact with his friend while they were at college. Disguised as a duel, it passed miserably with Fallada killing his friend and shooting himself in the chest, an event that he survived. This suicide pact resulted from their growing attraction to one another and mutual desire to avoid besmirching their family’s names. He dropped out of college and began a career path working in agriculture. As he worked on farms, Fallada continued to write and depend heavily on drugs. He managed to publish two novels to no great acclaim. After two separate prison terms for embezzling from his employers, he landed a clerk position with his publisher and, after a disastrous financial time, is asked to reduce his salary. Fallada declined, instead asking to have his advance parsed out in five installments during which time he penned the bestseller Little Man, What Now? This success saved not only Fallada, but also the publishing house itself from financial ruin. Fallada attempted to buy a house in the environs of the city, but the owner accused him of being an anti-Nazi conspirator. Through his new connections, he escaped punishment yet decided to remain in Germany. The ensuing years consisted of periods of drying up, stays in psychiatric hospitals, novels that contained no political content, and a tenuous relationship with the Nazi regime. The Nazis censored and promoted his work with equal fervor and their typical unpredictability. Upon release from a Nazi insane asylum he was confined to during the end of the war, a friend gave him a Gestapo file of a couple that resisted the Nazis by writing postcards filled with anti-Nazi sentiment and dropping them anonymously at various locations throughout Berlin. At first this didn’t strike Fallada as all that interesting, although after being urged by friends to write another novel with a political bent, he penned Every Man Dies Alone in 24 days. Fallada died days before its publication in 1947.

For the rest of the review, click here.

29 April 09 | Chad W. Post |

Hans Fallada, née Rudolph Ditzen, led a tumultuous, short life, producing several great works even under the crushing hand of the Nazi Regime. Fallada’s own life, itself worthy of several novels, was plagued by drugs, alcohol, stints in sanatoriums, and most importantly, artistic integrity as a writer. At eighteen, he entered into a suicide pact with his friend while they were at college. Disguised as a duel, it passed miserably with Fallada killing his friend and shooting himself in the chest, an event that he survived. This suicide pact resulted from their growing attraction to one another and mutual desire to avoid besmirching their family’s names. He dropped out of college and began a career path working in agriculture. As he worked on farms, Fallada continued to write and depend heavily on drugs. He managed to publish two novels to no great acclaim. After two separate prison terms for embezzling from his employers, he landed a clerk position with his publisher and, after a disastrous financial time, is asked to reduce his salary. Fallada declined, instead asking to have his advance parsed out in five installments during which time he penned the bestseller Little Man, What Now? This success saved not only Fallada, but also the publishing house itself from financial ruin. Fallada attempted to buy a house in the environs of the city, but the owner accused him of being an anti-Nazi conspirator. Through his new connections, he escaped punishment yet decided to remain in Germany. The ensuing years consisted of periods of drying up, stays in psychiatric hospitals, novels that contained no political content, and a tenuous relationship with the Nazi regime. The Nazis censored and promoted his work with equal fervor and their typical unpredictability. Upon release from a Nazi insane asylum he was confined to during the end of the war, a friend gave him a Gestapo file of a couple that resisted the Nazis by writing postcards filled with anti-Nazi sentiment and dropping them anonymously at various locations throughout Berlin. At first this didn’t strike Fallada as all that interesting, although after being urged by friends to write another novel with a political bent, he penned Every Man Dies Alone in 24 days. Fallada died days before its publication in 1947.

When entering into any type of discussion about Every Man Dies Alone, it is necessary to outline Fallada’s personal and historical context so that the reader can understand the full impact of this work and why it is so monumental. By no means was Fallada a dissident. Nor was he a supporter. Because he held his artistic journey above all else, he did what he had to do to stay alive and stay in Germany during the reign of the Fürher. Fallada himself might not be considered a hero, but his final novel leaves an indelible impression of how ordinary people resisted a dictatorship of evil through acts of courage that, however meager, would most likely bring them death.

Otto and Anna Quangel, based on the real life couple of Otto and Elise Hampel, are simple people who live in an average apartment building on Jablonski Strasse in Berlin during World War II. They are middle-aged, poor German citizens who aren’t politically involved or astute, and approve of the Nazi regime without the knowledge to know better. But once their son, Ottochen is killed at the front, they begin a three-year campaign of resistance through anti-Nazi propaganda postcards that Otto and Anna drop at apartment and business buildings throughout the city. Each Sunday, Otto painstakingly writes in his childlike hand one postcard to be delivered that week. With each passing week, Otto’s newfound ethics become more dangerous. Each week he evades arrest he is empowered, growing more confident that the Gestapo would never suspect a quiet, older factory supervisor with limited education:

“Some,” Quangel resumes, “will hand the card in right away, to the block warden or the police-anything to be rid of it! But even that doesn’t matter: whether it’s shown to the Party or not, whether to an official or a policeman, they all will read the card, and it will have some effect on them. Even if the only effect is to remind them that there is still resistance out there, that not everyone thinks like the Führer…”

“No,” she says. “Not everyone. Not us.”

“And there will be more of us, Anna. We will make more. We will inspire other people to write their own postcards. In the end, scores of people, hundred, will be sitting down and writing cards like us, we will depose the Führer, end the war…”

He stops, alarmed by his own words, these dreams that so late in life have come to haunt his heart.

The Quangels quietly go about their business making and distributing their anti-regime propaganda while their neighbors and friends slowly become entangled in the small evils that war perpetuates. Even in the Quangels building, paranoia and tension run high. The Party loving Persickes whose alcoholic father is a card-carrying member of the Party live there. But the most menacing threat that he has produced is his son, Baldur Persicke, member of the Hitler Youth with a penchant for power.

There’s also Frau Rosenthal whose husband was taken away to a concentration camp and she is left as an old women to protect herself from the Nazis, especially the Persickes.

There’s the retired Judge who attempts to hide Frau Rosenthal in his apartment after hers is broken into and ransacked.

There’s Emil Borkhausen, the whiny good-for-nothing who lives in the back of the building with a prostitute and her children.

And of course, Ottochen’s girlfriend, Trudel Baumann figures prominently in the story as she later is pulled in for questioning due to her association with the Quangels.

We meet Enno and Eva Kluge, a married couple who no longer love each other or even live together. Enno is a womanizing freeloader and Eva Kluge is a post woman who eventually wants to retire and move to the country, thinking she will be farther away from the Nazis and their impact.

Progressing through the novel, Inspector Escherich, who refers to the postcard dropper as ‘Hobgoblin’, becomes an integral part in the Nazi machine and finding the Quangels.

In fact, the novel contains many “minor characters,” but when dealing in extremes such as life and death, none of these characters are truly minor. Each character’s actions have consequences that lead to the demise of themselves or others. Nothing goes unpunished. That is what is so powerful about this book. It gives us a picture of what life was like day to day for the ordinary people of Berlin. With Fallada, we are not given the war through key players and depictions of historical atrocities; we are given the war as if seen through a peephole with a telescope. The magnification of evil in the mundane is the view Fallada gives us. These are the “little people” striving to make a life as death hovers all around them. Otto himself, working in a factory that makes coffins, can only silently witness the horrors that occur:

But sometimes out of that dullness a terrifying rage would explode like the time a worker had fed his arm into the saw and screamed, “I wish Hitler would drop dead! And he will! Just as I am sawing off my arm!”

They had a job pulling that lunatic out of the machinery, and of course nothing had been heard of him since.

And Fallada makes us see that just because you are in the Party, that doesn’t mean that you are offered protection from threats, death, or punishment. Fear is the basis on which the Gestapo operates and the rules of conduct are arbitrary. Escherich follows the work of the Quangels for two year developing theories and narrowing down where the Hobgoblin might live, what his profile might be. But one day he makes a tiny misstep and he is no different that a Nazi traitor and thrown into prison for his ineptitude:

Every joint hurt him, and then it was out of his clothes and into the striped zebra suit, and the shameless redistribution of his possessions among the SS guards. All amid continual kicks and punches, and threats…

Oh yes, Inspector Escherich had seen it all many times in the past few years, and seen nothing surprising or reprehensible in any of it, because that was how you dealt with criminals. Naturally. But the fact that he, Detective Inspector Escherich, was now ranked among these criminals and stripped of all rights, that was something he couldn’t get into his head. He hadn’t broken the law. All he had done was make the suggestion that a case be passed along, a case on which his superiors had had not one useful idea between them. It would all be cleared up—they would have to get him out. They couldn’t do without him! And until that time, he had to maintain his dignity, show no fear, not even show pain.

The severity of the punishment and treatment one would receive if any official or citizen construed the tiniest slight against Hitler and his regime became part of the collective consciousness. Anything but obedience was not accepted. And what becomes so clear throughout the novel is that Hitler and the SS took on the role of God and doled out death as they saw fit. Death no longer became something far in the future, but lurked steps in front of you or behind you.

Fallada’s narrative tone is not depressive or somber, surprisingly. The novel reads like a thriller with a well-developed detachment that allows the reader moments of reprieve from the subject matter. But Fallada does not shield us from reality or death itself. What he does do is give a courageous and elegant face to the characters that decide to take their own life as an act of freedom and defiance. Although in today’s world, suicide isn’t considered brave, in Every Man Dies Alone we are shown that when one is faced with the inevitability of torture and death at the hands of another, the only way to be in control of your destiny is to stand up to the ignorance of evil with your own freedom and your own life.

28 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [3]

That was the name of the panel that I moderated at this year’s London Book Fair, and which featured Abby Blachly of LibraryThing, Lance Fensterman of Reed Exhibitions (in particular, BookExpo America and New York Comic Con), Bob Stein of the Institute for the Future of the Book, and Mark Thwaite of ReadySteadyBook.com, the Book Depository, and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

By design, this panel was more about new methods and ideas about marketing, and about the evolving relationship between publishers and their readers, rather than about how to market a particular book. That said, a lot of the discussion—and the particular ideas presented—centered around more “niche” books and how to find a particular audience for these sorts of books via the internet, LibraryThing, etc.

Rather than recap the whole event (not that my memory of what happened last Monday is all that clear anyway), here are a few of the bigger points that came out of this:

  • Mark Thwaite emphasized the importance of publishers having a good website. Not one that’s a confusing mess like this. Or this. This seems super obvious, but the most successful publisher sites are clear, easy to navigate, have individual pages for each book (so that bloggers can link to them, right HMH?), and provide additional content about books and authors.
  • If you’re going to include a blog, publishers should keep a few things in mind: 1) you have to keep blogging on a regular basis, rather than just putting up a couple posts and forgetting about it; 2) linking to other blogs and having other blogs link to you, which ties into the even more crucial point 3) which is to not treat a blog like a place to make hard-sells. All of this can be summed up by thinking of a blog as part of a ongoing conversation—not a place for a publisher to make repeated hard sells.
  • Which was a sentiment echoed by Abby about publishers on LibraryThing. Publishers frequently open accounts on LT, add all of their own books to their library, and then give each one 5 stars. Not effective at all. Everyone can smell a self-promoter, and this sort of thing turns real participants off. That said, editors who have their personal libraries on LT and legitimately participate in conversations, forums, etc., are welcomed into the community, and end up naturally sharing information about their publishing house and its books. Readers outside of the industry think publishing is sexy and love to meet editors—just not editors who begin messages with: “Hi, it was great meeting you the other day. I have a new book I think you would like to purchase.” Read Buying In by Rob Walker for more info on this sort of “marketing.” It really is the new paradigm and anyone trying to use social networks for hard sells is going to run into problems.
  • The Early Reviewers program is f’ing effective at putting books into the hands of the right reader. LT uses a complicated algorithm to match books with people who might be interested in that particular title. For instance, if a publisher is offering up free copies of a book on the Berlin Wall, someone who only have romance titles in their library won’t win the drawing.
  • Although he considered it a bit of a failure (the women participating weren’t keen on the book), Bob Stein’s Golden Notebook Project did lead to some interesting findings. The Institute knew this going in, but one thing that I found really interesting is the finding that by putting the “comments” section right next to the post/original text (in contrast to putting comments at the bottom of the page, like below . . .) readers are much more likely to respond and the conversation develops rather quickly. Very curious how the physical layout so greatly impacts the overall conversation and experience.
  • Lance already wrote a long post about this, but in his opinion, trade shows are dead. He doesn’t mean that the LBF and BEA are about to vanish, but that the very idea of what constitutes “trade” needs to shift. Things are in a bad way when a book critic who writes a dozen reviews a year is allowed to attend the industry’s one and only trade show, but the top reviewer on Amazon, who writes more than 100 reviews a year, isn’t allowed access. The boundary between “trade” and “non-trade” is very blurry these days, and rather than try and restrict access to BookExpo, Lance believes (and I second this wholeheartedly) that the show needs to be opened up to include the enthusiasts who can be as effective in promoting literature as a traditional critic. For the publishing industry to really thrive, we need both of these groups coming to BEA and getting excited about future offerings. Forward-thinking publishers who realize that a passionate reader is your greatest ally no matter where she/he works already know this—it’s just the stodgy corporations who are strangling the show’s potential.

Overall, this was one of the best London Book Fair panels I’ve ever been on. Great presentations and wonderful questions from the audience. And hopefully we came up with some interesting ideas that are of some benefit to publishers large and small.

28 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Thanks—in a somewhat roundabout way—to Arts Council England funding, I had the chance to meet with Eric Abrahamsen and Nikki Harman from Paper Republic at the London Book Fair. Paper Republic is one of the best online sources for information about Chinese literature, especially thanks to resources such as their lists of books to (re)translated.

A relatively new feature, the site now offers three short lists: Five Books in Need of Retranslation,, Five Best Untranslated Books of the Past Five Years, and Five Best Untranslated Books of the Past Fifty Years.

They’re still in the process of adding information about each of these fifteen books and authors, and, in some cases, even making sample translations available. You can visit the links above to see the complete lists, but here are a couple titles that caught my eye:

  • Truth and Variations by Li Er: “Equal parts literary achievement and editorial tour de force, Hua Qiang (Truth and Variations) is comprised of faux-historical documents, invented archival materials and pseudo-interviews spanning the Communist Revolution, Cultural Revolution and present day.” (From the Best Five Books from the Past Fifty Years.)
  • Happy by Jia Pingwa: Not described on Paper Republic, but Nicky Harman’s very promising sample translation appeared in The Guardian some time back. (The Five Best Untranslated Books of the Past Five Years.)
28 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Although I’m going to miss receiving hard copies of Books from Finland, in the end, I think the move to make the magazine an online only publication is a really smart one.

The site officially launched last Monday, at the start of the London Book Fair, marking the end of a long transition from being a quarterly print publication to a more sleek, savvy, and expandable website. The site’s content mimics that of the print publication—there are reviews of new Finnish books, prose excerpts, articles, and information on a slew of Finnish authors.

But by putting these same articles into a blog format, Books from Finland have greatly re-energized their publication. Thanks to a well designed RSS feed page readers can subscribe to any or all sections of the site and receive all updated material either in their RSS reader of choice or as an e-newsletter.

This seems like a very simple change, but I think it’s going to do wonders for the magazine. Anyone who’s visited my office has seen my impressive (re: toppling over) stack of cultural magazines from around the world. I love all of these publications—the ones from Lithuania and Poland are particularly well-done and attractive—but at the same time, I never get to these as fast as I’d like. Especially when my Google Reader is feeding me 300+ new posts a day from a hundred or so literary sites . . . It’s easy to lament our ADD culture, but if you accept that this isn’t going to change anytime soon, it’s probably better to give interested readers new material every few days in a way that is in keeping with how they tend to access and process new information. In addition to saving the Finnish Literary Exchange some money on printing and shipping, this will likely increase the readership for the magazine—and that is the point, right? Hopefully other literary orgs around the world will follow suit . . .

27 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

Montreal’s 11th annual Blue Metropolis (or rather, Metropolis Bleu) took place this last weekend, featuring a huge number of international writers, events, readings, and languages. According to an article in the Montreal Gazette, the Metropolis Bleu Festival was the “world’s first multilingual literary festival.” When it started, events were in French and English, and now they take place in French, English, Spanish, Arabic, Farsi, Italian, and Urdu.

Unfortunately, thanks to my insane travel schedule, I didn’t really have the time/energy to go to any of the main events. I did participate in the “Forum International des Editeurs” though, which was designed to introduce editors from around the world to Quebecois literature and publishing houses.

This forum—which included probably 80 editors, publishing houses, translators, arts administrators, etc.—wasn’t necessarily the best designed gathering I’ve ever attended. It was much too short to really get a sense of the Quebecois publishing scene, and since the “speed dating” section was cut so short, I only had the chance to “date” one other publisher. (Which, as it happens, was probably one of Montreal publishers most relevant to what Open Letter is doing, but still.) Nevertheless, there were a few interesting things that came out of this.

One thing that fascinated me (and here we go with the business of publishing thing again) was how the Francophone and Anglophone publishing scenes in Canada developed completely independent of one another. With few exceptions, publishers publish in either French or English, and depending on which, they use a completely different set of distributors, bookstores, etc. They even belong to different publishers associations (which, of course, are in communication with each other, but are run separately) and the granting mechanisms for foreign publishers interested in translating Canadian/Quebecois books are independent of one another.

It was also interesting to find out that publishing in Canada didn’t really start until the 1960s and 70s. A lot of authors, such as Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje, were involved in the founding of these first publishing houses, many of which still exist today. In some ways this might be due to special protections afforded by the Canadian government to prevent the American publishing industry from taking over. Linda Leith (the organizer of this event and Artistic Director of the Blue Metropolis Foundation) mentioned these protections, which I believe include special government funding for Canadian publishers and other economic benefits. (I’d love to know more about what these “protections” are—if anyone knows, please feel free to leave a comment.)

I hate to say this, but one of the best things about the Forum proper was Erica, our witty interpreter. The event was a bit chaotic, but she did a great job keeping us Anglophiles in the loop and interjecting her own amusing comments. Another fantastic person I had the chance to spend a lot of time with was Alexandre Sanchez, who handles foreign rights for Les Allusifs, one of the coolest of the Quebec publishers and one of the most international.

Alexandre gave me a nice walking tour of Montreal—I finally saw the really hip areas!—and took me to Librairie Gallimard, a spectacular bookshop on Boulevard Saint-Laurent, which used to symbolize the divide between French and English speakers in Montreal, with the French living to the East and the Anglos to the West.

We may well feature Librairie Gallimard as an “Indie Bookstore of the Month” in the not too distant future, so more on the actual store later. In terms of books, they had a very nice selection of titles from both French and Quebecois publishers, including any number of Quebecois writers who have yet to make their way into America. Such as Catherine Mavrikakis whose Le Ciel de Bay City is a finaliste for the Le Prix des libraires du Quebec this year. What really caught my eye about this book though is that I grew up in the smelly little town (thanks Madonna!) of Bay City, Michigan where this novel is set . . . So, to answer the unasked question, yes, we’re definitely publishing it in translation. Mainly to find out how it’s actually possible to write a novel about life in Bay City . . .

27 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The entire plot of Ghosts, Cesar Aira’s third novel to be translated into English and published by New Directions, is encapsulated in this story told over New Year’s Eve dinner:

Patri thought for a moment before speaking: I remember a story by Oscar Wilde, about a princess who was bored in her palace, bored with her parents, the king and queen, bored with the ministers, the generals, the chamberlains, and the jesters, whose jokes she knew by heart. One day a delegation of ghosts appeared to invite her to a party they were giving on New Year’s Eve, and their descriptions of this party, which included the disguises they would wear and the music to be played by the ghost orchestra, were so seductive, and she was so bored, that without a second thought that night she threw herself from the castle’s highest tower, so that she could die and go to the party. The others pondered the moral. So the story doesn’t say what happened at the party? asked Carmen Larrain. No. That’s where it stops.

The teenager Patri shares this story shortly before midnight, and shortly before having to decide whether she should follow in the footsteps of the princess, or stay in this world and resist the temptation of the ghosts inhabiting the building where she lives.

Taking place over the course of New Year’s Eve, this novel is set in an unfinished, soon-to-be swanky high-rise in Buenos Aires, where a number of Chilean construction workers (including Patri’s family) both work and live. The novel opens beautifully, taking the reader through a variety of perspectives, from the earlier morning visits of the future inhabitants to check in on how things are going, to the mind of the architect, to Patri’s cousin who gets all the workers their lunch, to Patri’s mom, before settling in on Patri herself. This extended intro is almost like a supernatural flight, a way of passing through all the layers of the building and the class divisions of the people involved with it. And beyond setting up the plot and players, it also gives Aira a chance to show off his skills.

Aira—who is immensely popular in his home Argentina, and is the author of dozens of novels cherished by thousands of portenos who just don’t get why he hasn’t exactly taken off in the States yet—is a remarkably skilled and varied writer. How I Became a Nun, which ND published in 2007, is rather surreal, angular, and disjointed. An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter came out in English in 2006 and is more historical and detached than either of the other two titles. The scope of Aira’s imagination and skills are quite incredible—if unlabled, it would be rather difficult to surmise that these three books were written by the same person.

That said, the one intangible constant across the three is Aira’s complete control and mastery of language. His writing is always graceful, especially when setting a particular scene, be it the Argentine pampas, as in An Episode, or a oppressively hot day on a construction site in Buenos Aires.

A construction site that is an interesting nexus of both construction workers and ghosts—ghosts that peek in on the family around siesta time, silently, not disturbing anyone. These are rather playful ghosts (rather than sinister), which are taken for granted and casually discussed by the living inhabitants.

That said, there is something sinister about the ghosts—at least in the opinion of Patri’s mother who quips about the princess’s imminent disappointment when she arrives at the afterlife only to find out that all “ghosts are gay.” A comment that builds on Elisa’s earlier conversation with her adolescent daughter about the “ ‘real men’ who were destined to make them happy” and points to a deeper reading of this charming ghost story as a twisted sort of sexual coming-of-age narrative. One that hinges on Patri’s potentially deadly decision—either she chooses a “real man,” or a neutered death.

Not that this novel can be reduced so simply. The numerous architectural references (including a long dream sequence about building and the unbuilt) are more theoretical and reflect back on novel-making as a craft, and how these “word-structures” can convey meaning:

An example might clarify the point, though only in an analogical mode: imagine one of those people who don’t think, a man whose only activity is reading novels, which for him is a purely pleasurable activity, and requires not the slightest intellectual effort; it’s simply a matter of letting the pleasure of reading carry him along. Suddenly, some gesture or sentence, not to speak of a “thought,” reveals that he is a philosopher in spite of himself. Where did he get that knowledge? From pleasure? From novels? An absurd supposition, given his reading material (if he read Thomas Mann, at least, it might be a different story). Knowledge comes through the novels, of course, but not really from them.

Of Aira’s novels to make their way into English, this is the one with the best chance of finding its audience. The tone of this novel perfectly melds with the plot and underlying ambitions, and it’s an incredibly enjoyable book that can be read during a nice summer afternoon. All of Aira’s books are pretty short, but this is deceptive—there’s a lot of joy and thought packed into this slender volume. I’m not sure Americans will ever appreciate the diversity of his books or the precision of his prose as much as Argentinean readers do (Roberto Bolano: “Once you have started to read Aira, you don’t want to stop”), but this is a novel with a lot of appeal, which will hopefully expand his overall English readership.

27 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

OK, after ten days of book fairs and festivals in three countries, I’m finally back in Rochester . . . for the time being. The PEN World Voices Festival kicks off today in New York, and after our event here in Rochester on Thursday—a Reading and Conversation with Norwegian author Jan Kjaerstad (The Conqueror, The Discoverer) and Mark Binelli (Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die!)—I’ll be heading down to New York for the last couple days of panels, readings, etc.

Assuming I don’t come down with the swine flu tomorrow (how do viruses spread? Via people who travel from London to Rochester to Montreal to Rochester . . . ), I’ve got a lot of posts for this week, including a number about the London Book Fair and the Blue Metropolis Festival, and a few about new books that arrived while I was gone.

20 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Our latest review is of Rex by Jose Manuel Prieto, translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen and published this month by Grove. This is the second book of Prieto’s that Grove has published—Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire came out a few years ago—and hopefully isn’t the last.

As you can probably tell from my review, this is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

It a more perfect world, I would have enough time to read this book at least one more time before even attempting to write this review. Rex is a novel that’s filthy with references to other novels, plays, essays, TV shows, works of art, etc. Even from the opening line—“I’ve been reading it for years, the one Book”—the reader is forced to start paying attention and deciphering the web of references that make up this novel. (Which is why it’s great that Grove decided to include an “Author’s Note” at the back of the finished edition detailing some of the allusions made in the work—more on that in a bit.)

As mentioned above, the novel opens with a somewhat obsessed opening paragraph all about Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past:

“I’ve been reading it for year, the one Book. Over and over without stopping. Beginning again whenever I reach the final description of the vast party, the inaugural ball, returning immediately to the first words, when he’s dozing off in the house in Combray and dreams of stopping time in its tracks, solidifying it. I’ve opened it at random in ship terminals (Helsinki), English pubs, Istanbul cafes. Each and every time, without fail, I’ve been stunned by the intelligence, the penetration, the unique capacity to perceive things that escape every other writer.”

Click here for the full review.

Rex
20 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

It a more perfect world, I would have enough time to read this book at least one more time before even attempting to write this review. Rex is a novel that’s filthy with references to other novels, plays, essays, TV shows, works of art, etc. Even from the opening line—“I’ve been reading it for years, the one Book”—the reader is forced to start paying attention and deciphering the web of references that make up this novel. (Which is why it’s great that Grove decided to include an “Author’s Note” at the back of the finished edition detailing some of the allusions made in the work—more on that in a bit.)

As mentioned above, the novel opens with a somewhat obsessed opening paragraph all about Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past:

I’ve been reading it for year, the one Book. Over and over without stopping. Beginning again whenever I reach the final description of the vast party, the inaugural ball, returning immediately to the first words, when he’s dozing off in the house in Combray and dreams of stopping time in its tracks, solidifying it. I’ve opened it at random in ship terminals (Helsinki), English pubs, Istanbul cafes. Each and every time, without fail, I’ve been stunned by the intelligence, the penetration, the unique capacity to perceive things that escape every other writer.

Proust’s masterpiece is more than just a book (or even “Book”) to J., the young Cuban narrator of this novel. He’s recently been hired by a somewhat mysterious Russian couple living in southern Spain to tutor their son, Petya, and to teach him Spanish. Having bluffed his way into the cushy position (which is desirable if for no other reason than to be close to the boy’s seductive mother), J.‘s plan is to use the Book as the sole teaching instrument, for what isn’t contained in this book?

I am concerned, he announced, with the infinite cunning and unction of Norpois (in the Writer); I am concerned, I fear that your manner of teaching, an education such as the one you propose, based on a single book, may not be the correct or appropriate one. So distorted an education, its vortex resting upon a single book, cannot, by all rights, amount to much. [. . .]

And yet all I did in the first class was talk about the Book, and in the second I talked only about the Book, and in the third read aloud selected passages from the Book. That drew him closer.

And if nothing else, J. does seem to draw the young boy closer. Rex is a series of twelve “commentaries,” in which J. is speaking to Petya, telling the story of what’s happened to his parents, what’s really been going on. Not that J. explains what’s really been going on in a straightforward fashion, instead this thoroughly unreliable narrator who is always going on and on about the Book and the Commentator (Jorge Luis Borges), the Writer (who is different people throughout the novel) in a way that can be both pedantic and naive all at once. Or, as Prieto explains in his “Author’s Note”:

It is not by chance, either, that Petya is the listener and sole recipient of the story; the whole tone of the book derives from that fact. Rex returns to the free fabulations of childhood, and the tales of Psellus, the tutor, are an amalgamation of all the books he read as a youth or a child, out of which he improvises for Petya a highly adorned story of his parents’ life, a story that otherwise, told in some other way, might have been sordid and terrible.

Plot-wise, things get interesting in this book when J. comes home from a night of dancing and finds a couple blue diamonds in the front lawn. He pockets and hides these for the time being, later finding out that these are a couple of the fake diamonds manufactured by the young boy’s father Vasily, who supposedly ripped off the Russian mafia with these fakes.

At first glance this might seem a bit far-fetched, but translator Esther Allen—who did a marvelous job with this novel, which must’ve presented innumerable difficulties—directed me to an article entitled The New Diamond Age that appeared in Wired magazine a half-dozen years ago and is all about a couple diamond producers who were perfecting a technique to create diamonds and preparing to chip away at De Beers’s stranglehold on the diamond market.

And if this sounds a bit familiar, it might be thanks to The Lemoine Affair by Marcel Proust, a pastiche about Lemoine, a real Frenchman who, in the early 1900s, conned De Beers out of a lot of money by convincing them he had discovered a cheap and easy way to create diamonds from coal.

In Rex, this diamond con leads to a paranoid existence, in which Vasily and his gorgeous wife struggle to figure out a way to be safe—to escape permanently from the threat of the Russian mafia, many of whom vacation in this same Spanish town.

Due to his attraction to Nelly—which presents one of the odder aspects of this book, since J. has no issue with telling her son about how sexually appealing she is to him, how he wants to run away with her, etc., all of which adds to J.‘s peculiar voice and instability—J. gets involved in a grand scheme to pull one big scam and link Vasily to the Russian czars.

Returning to the original point, this wild plot is embedded within a heap of literary references and touchpoints, at times obfuscating what’s going on, but also elevating this work into a sort of game, which, to be honest, left me feeling like I had missed something, a special clue that would eliminate some of the uncertainties in J.‘s story (is he crazy? dangerous? a pawn?), that would make this all make sense.

Not that this is a criticism—far from it. Rex is one of the more stunning achievements from a contemporary author that I’ve read in the past couple years. The novel revels in its literary web of references, in a way that brings to mind the work of Vladimir Nabokov. Prieto isn’t quite as smooth or cocksure as Nabokov was (at least not yet—Prieto has a lot of books ahead of him), but he is working within that same vein, which is rather unusual in today’s commercially obsessed world.

What’s also interesting is that this novel is the last volume in a trilogy that includes Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia (not translated into English) and Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire (published by Grove in 2000). In his author’s note Prieto sets forth a bit of what he’s up to with these books:

With all three novels, I’ve tried to go beyond the realism commonly associated with the autobiographical novel (which all three are), yet not toward magic or magical realism, but rather toward science and a kind of magico-scientific realism, if such a thing is possible.

Prieto is successful in this regard, and hopefully his first book will make it into English in the near future—this trilogy looks like a great start to a long career.

20 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

So right before leaving for the London Book Fair (and Free the Word! festival), I talked to a class at the University of Rochester about e-books, print on demand, and the digital future of publishing. Of course, during this discussion the Espresso Book Machine came up, and I made everyone watch this video, which we posted back when Three Percent was in its infancy.

Well, by complete coincidence, this past Thursday, Blackwell unveiled the Espresso Book Machine 2.0 at their Charing Cross Road store—which I just happened to be in yesterday.

According to the Webwire article about this event, the catalog for EBM 2.0 is greatly expanded:

It is the first bookshop installation of its kind within the UK, allowing any book to be selected from an inexhaustible network of titles and prints on demand in just 3 minutes from a digital file onsite, online at www.blackwell.co.uk, or uploaded in person from CDs or flash drives.

And, as you can see above, it’s still a beast of a machine, but not nearly the Frankenstein-like creature featured in the video we posted back in 2007. Nevertheless, my belief is still that looking toward the future e-books will end up being much more popular than this machine. The fact that you can download a book anywhere, without having to visit a specific location, is still a huge advantage. Especially after you feel the quality of the EBM production . . .

When I was talking to the media class, I claimed that print-on-demand production quality wasn’t that much different than your crappy trade paperback. Well, that’s not exactly true. The books they had on display at Blackwell were pretty cheap—poor cover stock, stiff paper, etc. The quality actually wasn’t that much different than the first p.o.d. titles from back in the late-90s. (When I was there, some guy came in and was asking the EBM operators about the crappy quality, so I’m not the only person who thinks this.)

And in case you can’t remember who’s behind the EBM and On Demand Books, you can find dozens of copies of his own book on display in front of the machine.

20 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The second annual Free the Word! festival has been a great success, due in no small part to the work of Sarah Sanders, Caroline McCormick, Sharmilla Beezmohun, and everyone else from International PEN who helped organize and run these events.

I was able to attend three of the discussions, all of which took place in the “Underglobe” stage at Shakespeare’s Globe. Unfortunately, I missed the opening event, which featured Nadine Gordimer and took place on the main stage, which is modeled after the original Globe, including a huge space for the audience to stand and watch the performance and an outdoor stage. (Of course, Thursday night wasn’t the best of all nights for an outdoor reading, but nevertheless, I heard that it went really well.)

All three events I attended—“Telling Secret Lives,” “Hell on Earth,” and “International Futures”—were very well attended, and quite interesting. I believe all of these events were recorded and will be available on the International PEN website at some point, and if you have the chance they’re definitely worth checking out.

Since this festival is inspired by PEN America’s World Voices Festival (coming up next week), it’s hard not to compare the two. In many respects they’re very similar—high quality authors, very well-organized events, lots of attendees—but there are a few noticeable differences.

For one, the questions from the audience here in the UK were much more logical and contained than the ones in New York. Maybe it’s a British thing (Brits speak so formally in contrast to us Americans, with complicated sentence structures and all the necessary words articulated in such a precise order), but there weren’t any crazies (no offense to New Yorkers) who stood up and rambled on and on without actually asking a question—something that inevitably happens at every World Voices event.

Also, in terms of the audience (I swear these two points aren’t related) there weren’t nearly as many publishing people at the Free the Word! events as there are at World Voices. Which is curious . . . Seems like at World Voices, a good portion of the attendees are editors, marketing folks, people from the various consulates, etc. Which helps fill the auditoriums, but also indicates that the publishers are very invested in the festival and help bring out more people to the events. And since in America publishing and parties go together, there are more receptions in the evening, and maybe a more festive mood in general.

Not to say that one festival is better than the other—it’s just interesting to see how the two organizations run these events differently. Here the events seemed shorter and were a bit more spontaneous. Which is something that I really appreciated, since I think the very staged panels in which each author reads a pre-written paper/story for 15 minutes without interacting or responding to his/her fellow panelists are the weakest of all literary events. At Free the Word! all the prepared readings were very short (in the five minute range—and really five minutes) leaving much more time for conversation, questions, etc.

I think this festival is going to continue to grow over the next few years and become an even more critical part of the international book scene here in London. Hopefully next year more international publishers will come to the London Book Fair a few days early to support their authors and participate in this perfect lead-in event . . .

Another thing that’s really cool is how International PEN is exporting the Free the Word! brand and structure to other PEN centers around the world to put on their own festivals. Up next, Austria PEN will host a four-day Free the Word! festival in Lenz later this fall. Having these festivals all over the globe is a very cool idea, and should help increase the flow and exchange of ideas between cultures.

15 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Readers of English, thank your gods: the breadth of Ernesto Cardenal’s amazing poetic career is now available for your consumption thanks to New Directions and the recently published Pluriverse. Spanning fifty-six years, the book presents Cardenal in all his guises: revolutionary, spiritualist, chronicler of man’s inhumanity to man, chilling visionary, and cosmic quasi-historian. The poems in this collection are often long, deceptively assessable, and quite dazzling.

They told me you were in love with another man
and then I went off to my room
and I wrote that article against the government
that landed me in jail.

When I first encountered the above four lines—the eighth section of Cardenal’s long poem “Epigrams”—I was sure I was reading a Latin American writer concerned, a la Neruda, with love and political strife in equal measure. I was right, but little did I know of the complete depth of Cardenal; little did I know that this poem, which is wonderful, was not necessarily a perfect synecdoche of the poet/priest/activist’s total abilities. “Epigrams” is early Cardenal, written in a period of reaction against Somoza in Nicaragua. Though its deep political leanings manifest before long, the poet as sad bastard makes an appearance first:

This will be my revenge
that one day you’ll hold in your hands the book of a famous poet
and you’ll read these lines that the author wrote for you
and you won’t even know it.

Reading the poem alongside the more famous “Zero Hour,” one can see the development beginning in Cardenal from romantic young poet to mature writer documenting injustice:

     . . . the United Fruit Company
with its revolutions for the acquisition of concessions
and exemptions of millions in import duties
and export duties, revisions of old concessions
and grants for new exploitations,
violations of contracts, violations
of the Constitution

“Zero Hour” remains one of the most striking examples of the poet as witness. The artful translation by Donald Walsh (one of seven translators contributing to this collection) captures the horror and history permeating throughout Cardenal’s long, unsettling poem:

Oh, to be able to sleep in your own bed tonight
without the fear of being pulled out of bed and taken out of your house,
the fear of knocks at the door or doorbells ringing in the night!

Pluriverse jumps from these early works to contemplative, spiritual poems that fuse Cardenal’s socio-political concerns with his religious vocation—“In respect of riches, just or unjust, / of goods be they ill-gotten or well-gotten: / All riches are unjust.” (from “Unrighteous Mammon (Luke 16:9))—sorrowful meditations, such as his “Prayer for Marilyn Monroe” and the nightmarish vision of his classic “Apocalypse,” a poem that seems all the more prophetic when read today:

And the angel gave me a check drawn on the National City Bank
and said unto me: Go thou cash this check
but no bank would for all the banks were bankrupt
Skyscrapers were as though they had never been
A million simultaneous fires yet not one firefighter
nor a phone to summon an ambulance nor were there any ambulances
nor was there enough plasma in all the world
                                to help the injured of a single city”

Cardenal always keeps his eye fixed firmly to his subject, even when bouncing from place to place, as in his “Trip to New York,” a poem that offers North Americans a look at a foreigner’s view of our rampant capitalism:

                      . . . And I look
at the deep canyon, the sunken gorge of buildings
where the hidden persuaders hide behind their windows
          selling automobiles of True Happiness, canned Relief (for 30¢)
                ** The Coca-Cola Company**
we cut through the canyon of windows and trillions of dollars

A seller of old books in the Village in love with my shirt
              my cotton peasant shirt from Nicaragua
he asks me who designed it.

Reading Pluriverse from cover to cover is, in effect, charting Cardenal from his beginnings to his current, Cosmic Canticle era writings—poems that chart the progression of the universe, the Earth, and the individual all at once. The new poems in Pluriverse strive to balance all of creation on the tip of the poet’s pen, fusing a connection between man and the cosmos:

Our cycle follows the star cycle:
stars are born, grow, die; our cycle is short
            — theirs too.
They seem stable
but like us they’re slowly dying.

If the universe is expanding
from which center is it expanding?
Or is every point the center?
So then the center of the universe
is also our galaxy,
is also our planet
(and the girl who once was for me).

The cosmic/mythical quality of these new works matches the storied life of their author. Cardenal, at age eighty-four, after political opposition, after serving as ambassador for the Sandinistas, after forming the Our Lady of Solentiname commune, after being publicly admonished by Pope John Paul II, after being harassed by the current incarnation of the Sandinistas, has earned the right to look not only backward but beyond, into the furthest regions of space. His findings match the remarkable quality of his past poetry. This is essential reading.

15 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Registration is open for next month’s European Book Club, in which Italy is the focus country, and the title being discussed is Stefano Benni’s Margherita Dolce Vita, which was translated by Anthony Shugaar and published by Europa Editions.

Stefano Benni’s enormously popular and distinctive mix of the absurd and the satirical has made him one of Italy’s best-loved novelists. This is his twelfth bestselling book of fiction. Fifteen-year-old Margherita lives with her eccentric family on the outskirts of town, a semi-urban wilderness peopled by gypsies, illegal immigrants, and no end of bizarre characters: a reassuring and fertile playground for an imaginative little girl like Margherita. But one day, a gigantic, black cube shows up next door. Her new neighbors have arrived, and they’re destined to ruin everything.

Over at the Europa Editions website, there’s a recap of an event with Benni and author Jonathan Coe, which includes this bit on Benni’s influences:

Coe spoke of his appreciation of Benni’s comedy in Margherita Dolce Vita. In its criticism of mindless consumerism it reminded him of the comedy of Jacques Tati in the films Playtime and Mon Oncle. Reacting, Benni said he admired Tati, but for him a much greater influence was Dario Fo.

Benni described how writing Margherita Dolce Vita came about; he met young girls who found it difficult to be non conformist at school, which led him to reflect on how life must be these days for an intelligent young girl.

The Europa Editions site also has a video of Benni reading in Italian.

There are two Book Club sessions: you can register for the one on May 11th at 6pm at the Istituto Italiano di Cultura (686 Park Avenue, between 68th and 69th Streets) by e-mailing italy.nyc [at] europeanbookclub [dot] org, and you can register for the May 19th one taking place at 7pm in the Central Library at Grand Army Plaza, Brooklyn by e-mailing eurobook [at] brooklynpubliclibrary [dot] org

15 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

I’m hoping to get to Tahar Ben Jelloun’s Leaving Tangier in the near future, but in the meantime, Moroccan Board has a nice review of the novel, and an interesting interview.

Q. You write in French but your books have been translated into many languages. What do you see as the challenges of publishing your work in translation? What is the relationship between author and translator when re-creating a text in another language?

Writing in a language that is not my mother tongue occasionally produces phrases or even turns of thought which are unusual in French. Some of my translators, particularly those from Nordic countries, often ask me to make clear how my characters are related. Others, like the Japanese, ask me to translate some Arabic words or specify the location of certain geographical places. In general, those familiar with North Africa and the Mediterranean do not ask me many questions. The only translation I can read and correct is the Arabic, when it is not one pirated by Syrian publishers. [. . .]

Q. Edward Said argued that literature and criticism from the West about the East creates false impressions of Arab and Eastern countries and reinforces a divide between the cultures. Do you agree with this? Where do you feel you are within this divide? What cultural concerns do you feel your work addresses?

He is right. The view that the West imposed on the Arab world has always been one of superiority, resulting in colonization. However, there have been very talented Orientalists, honest people like Jacques Berque, Maxime Rodinson, Louis Massignon, etc. They tried to talk about the Arab world from the inside. They spoke Arabic and were acquainted with the basic texts of the language. Today we are witnessing a vision based on prejudice and mediocrity. Arab culture is devalued, poorly understood, even ignored. This is because of political problems and nondemocratic leaders, and then also because of the oil that has distorted the true meanings of this civilization.

15 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Yesterday it was announced that Moody’s has downgraded Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s rating, which sounds sort of familiar . . . probably because they did the same thing last December.

This isn’t good news for the Education Media & Publishing Group—which is incorporated in the Cayman Islands and owns HMH—but rather than pick on HMH for its mishandling of Drenka Willen’s retirement, or for telling the media about their freeze on acquisitions, I’d rather just point out the frightening statistic that triggered this downgrading:

Moody’s maintains that HMH remains vulnerable to state and local spending in the United States on so-called basal and supplemental K-12 (twelfth grade) educational publications. It says those categories posted a 22.8pc decline in sales in January 2009. (from Independent.ie)

A 22.8% decline in sales in one month is pretty severe, especially when talking about educational publications. Book sales overall were flat in January, although they did plunge in February (like all other retail sales) by more than 10%.

On the positive side of things, Cees Nooteboom—one of Drenka’s authors—has been getting some good buzz for Nomad’s Hotel, such as this write-up in Flavorpill’s Daily Dose. And Filip Florian—another HMH author whose Little Fingers sounds pretty interesting, and is under review—will be the feature author at the Observer Translation Project next month.

14 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

The British equivalent to the PEN World Voices Festival, the Free the Word! festival kicks off on Thursday night with a discussion on the main stage of Shakespeare’s Globe featuring Nadine Gordimer, Tariq Ali, Samir El-youssef and Tahmima Anam.

Put on by International PEN, the festival runs through Sunday and features a number of great events with authors (and translators) from all over the world. (You can download a pdf version of the complete brochure by clicking here.)

Thanks to the fact that this takes place just before the London Book Fair (wouldn’t World Voices make a great public addition to BookExpo? Just saying, just saying . . .) I’ll be able to attend a few of these events and will do my best to blog about them. Here are some of the panels that caught my eye:

Telling Secret Lives on Friday, April 17th at 7:30pm

Azar Nafisi (author of Reading Lolita in Tehran) will participate, as will Lee Stringer, but I’m most interested to hear from Wen Huang, who translated Liao Yiwu’s The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up. He also translated Woman from Shanghai: Tales of Survival from a Chinese Labor Camp Yang Xianhui, a series of fictionalized interviews with female survivors of the Gansu “reeducation” camp.1


Hell on Earth on Saturday, April 18th at 6:00pm

Lydia Cacho, Christian Jungersen and Carolin Emcke will discuss their recent works, each of which is concerned with human rights and presents information that is hard to listen to and impossible to ignore.


International Futures on Saturday, April 18th at 7:45pm

From the Free the Word! website: A sold-out event last year, ‘International Futures’ is back to celebrate the eminent writers of tomorrow. Kamila Shamsie, the acclaimed author of numerous novels including her latest, Burnt Shadows, talks on the subject of heaven and earth with some of the brightest contemporary international voices whose work already heralds stellar international futures: Bertrand Besigye (Norway), Petina Gappah (Zimbabwe) and Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih (India).

Should be a fantastic festival, filled with interesting events (many of which aren’t listed here). And on a basic level, it’s great to see the PEN World Voices idea spreading to another part of the world, creating new opportunities for readers to hear about international literature.

1 While it’s on my mind, c’mon Random House, how hard is it to include Wen’s name in your online catalog and on the Amazon entries for these two books? Pretty shameful considering the fact that Wen is doing most of the publicity for these titles . . .

14 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Last week, Jessica Stockton Bagnulo, Jenn Northington, Stephanie Anderson, and other independent booksellers started a conversation about the benefits of eARCs—electronic versions of the Advance Reading Copies all publishers send out to reviewers, booksellers, bloggers, etc.

My complete post about this can be found here, but the main impulse behind this idea is that a) ARCs are expensive and wasteful, and b) for booksellers (or reviewers) who receive 50+ books a week, an e-reader makes a lot more sense than hauling around all these titles. (For someone who likes to ride his bike to work, I’ll attest to the fact that these galleys can seem heavier than frickin’ gold at times.)

Over at GalleyCat, Jeff breaks down the galley costs for commercial publishers to demonstrate that a one-time investment could save them millions:

Let’s face it, all the major publishers are pretty much sending their galleys out to the same reviewers year after year. That’s why, if the reviewers’ offices are anything like mine, they have a good stack of 100-150 books coming in every week (no exaggeration) from every major, mini-major and independent publisher.

This is where the “saving the $1.5 million a year” comes in to play. If all the publishers are sending their galleys to the same 1000 reviewers, why don’t they send everyone an eReader.

“But (gasp) Jeff, that would cost too much money!”

Would it? Would it, really?

Let’s examine the costs:

1000 reviewers
x $3/galley
x $1/ U.P.S. mailing cost
x 375 titles/year
_______________________
$1.5 million /year

That’s $1.5 million a year the average major publisher is spending printing and mailing out to the same 1000 reviewers every year.

Now, let’s examine how much it would cost to mail each reviewer all a Kindle, including shipping costs.

1000 reviewers
x $400 /Kindle
x $0 / galley
x $0 / U.P.S. galley mailing costs
x 375 titles/year
_______________________
$400,000

That’s $400,000 the first year and not one penny more year after year.

This doesn’t even take into account the fact that the $400,000 could be split by any number of publishers or publisher associations, thus saving even more than the $1.1 million in the first year.

I hate to play the pessimist, but I’m sure that until the big publishers figure out a DRM scheme that they’re happy with (sounds like 2001 all over again), they’re not going to want to go ahead with this sort of idea.

And although I have my concerns about how the rise of e-books will play out in the marketplace, I do think that in an industry where shipping companies are the only ones that ever seem to make any money, something like this makes a great deal of sense.

14 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over at Bookslut, this week’s “Indie Heartthrob Interview” is with Catherine Bohne, a great drinker of wine (from personal experience), a wonderful person for late night conversations (ditto), and owner of the Community Bookstore in Park Slope (which has a great display of NYRB, Archipelago, and New Directions titles right by the front counter, and a great garden out back).

Catherine’s an very interesting person, and she’s gone through a lot with her store. As she mentioned in the interview, she purchased the store a month before 9/11. And in the days that followed 9/11, the store was transformed into a true community center where people gathered to get information and share their pain and experiences.

So it’s not that surprising that when the store really fell on hard times, a group of loyal customers stepped forward to form an investment group that recapitalized the store, created a working business plan, and pulled the store up to the level it’s at now. (As an example of Catherine’s creativity and fun personality, she once told me that when the store was really having a hard time paying its bills, she started stocking only the largest of large books — Infinite Jest, all of Dickens, etc. — to make the shelves look more crowded than they actually were.)

Anyway, the interview is interesting, and I think Catherine’s answer for how she got involved in the bookstore is similar to that of many other booksellers:

WHY did I start working in the bookstore? When I discovered the bookstore, in my early 20’s, it was the sole (it seems to me now) haven from the terrors of trying to figure out how to live and be a grownup—life was hard and scary, expensive and confusing, and I seemed to find myself in one situation after another that I’d thought I wanted but didn’t really suit me at all…the bookstore was simply the one place that felt calm and sane, peaceful and welcoming. I applied for the weekend job on a whim, got it, and just never left. Whenever other opportunities would come up I’d find that if I was honest, I’d really rather live in the world of the bookstore, and so although it sometimes seemed irresponsible (or at least quixotic) I just stayed and stayed—moving into positions of increasing authority seemed to happen naturally. And now I own it!

And in terms of the future for independent bookstores, here’s Catherine’s vision:

Based on a survey we did two years ago, we realized that even our most loyal customers probably only do about 20% of their shopping here—that’s actually really encouraging, as it means that if we can get people to shift just 5% of their buying habits to us, we’ll be doing terrifically! So the next year is going to be about reaching out to people—finding creative ways to let new people know we’re here, and making it more and more tempting for people to shop here!

Finally, it seems to me that the role of the bookstore in the future will inevitably continue to change. As more and more information is available electronically, I think the role of the bricks and mortar bookstore will shift to being more of a wondertrove of beautiful objects, and that the importance of intelligent, helpful, entertaining(!) staff will increase. The “experience” aspect of shopping will come to the fore, so we’ve been working to fix up the store physically (we’re just finishing renovating our back room, with a brand new kitchen where we’ll give away tea and fine coffee). I believe that looking after employees is terribly important—we’ve just gotten health insurance for the first time in years (yay—Brooklyn Health Works!). We’re also gradually moving into stocking more unusual, beautiful things—we really want to create a great chap book section, for example, to concentrate on selling things that you want to hold in your hands and look at, as well injest mentally. On the whole, I’m looking forward to this—sounds a lot more fun than selling, say, test prep books!

13 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Following up on last week’s post about Clemente Palma, I thought I’d point out the World SF News Blog, which is the only site I know of where you can see posts about The French on Mars, a hundred year retrospective on French stories about Martians, or a three-part post about South African Speculative Fiction, or a link to a roundup of Danish Science Fiction written between 2004 and 2007.

For anyone interested in science fiction from around the world, you’ll find a lot of information on this blog.

(And thanks to everyone who passed along information about Clemente Palma. Malignant Tales, his one story collection translated into English, arrived via interlibrary loan this morning . . .)

13 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Paper Cuts wrote about this last week, but I think it’s cool enough to repeat . . . Last week, during a visit to Turkey, Pres. Obama was presented with a copy of A Mind at Peace by Ahmet Hamd Tanpinar, which was recently translated into English by Erdag Göknar and published by Archipelago Books.

From Paper Cuts:

According to a spokesman for Archipelago Books, which recently published the first English translation of Tanpinar’s novel, the leader of the Republican People’s Party, Deniz Baykal, told the president: “So you just don’t just understand Turkey through your ties with the governing and opposition parties in parliament, I’m presenting you with these two works of literature. In these books you will find the nuances of our culture and identity.”

“I’ll be sure to read them,” Obama replied.

We’re planning on posting a review of A Mind at Peace later this month, and it’s a title that will likely pop up in the longlist discussions for the 2010 Best Translated Book Award . . .

10 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

Although he’s considered to be the first Peruvian science fiction writer, there’s precious little information about Clemente Palma available in English. That said, what is out there is extremely intriguing . . . and seems almost made up. Or like he’s an entry from Bolano’s Nazi Literature in the Americas . . .

One of Palma’s short story collections was translated into English, but it’s his “sci-fi masterpiece” XYZ that really sounds interesting. From the little I could find online — mainly from this academic bookXYZ is about a guy who clones miniature versions of famous movie stars, which then melt after four months. He moves to a strange, remote island to perfect his cloning process (so the movies stars are full-size), and falls in love with the clone of Jeannette MacDonald. Their romance is interrupted when a mysterious yacht loaded with machine guns shows up and tries to invade the workshop. Turns out that MGM caught wind of the island and wanted to cash in on these cloned movie stars. Apparently the book ends with the clones meeting their real-life counterparts (and then melting) and the mad scientist killing himself after denouncing the movie studio for fucking with his experiment.

This could be total shlock, but it also sounds kind of fun in an unhinged sort of way . . . At another site (which also makes the Bolano connection) I found a bit about how Palma has been accused of being a racist, in part for XYZ, but also for his story “La ultima rubia” which “is set in a future in which all races have blended (and speak Esperanto,) and the protagonist sets on an insane quest to find a blonde woman so that he can make gold.”

Seems like the perfect sort of book to pop up on Lost . . . Is anyone reading this familiar with Palma?

10 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

The newest addition to Three Percent is our “Translation Events Calendar,” which is over to the right, beneath the featured Indie Bookstore of the Month. The purpose of this calendar is to highlight translation related events (readings from international authors, roundtables featuring translators, etc.) from across the country.

The next five upcoming events are listed on every page, but if you click here you can see all upcoming events in a nice, monthly calendar format.

As it says on the actual page, if you have an event that should be listed, please e-mail the details to E.J. Van Lanen (e.j.vanlanen at rochester dot edu).

10 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our review section is a look at Gods and Soldiers, an anthology of contemporary African writing edited by Rob Spillman.

Jessica Cobb—a current intern at Open Letter—wrote this review, which begins:

This anthology of both fiction and non-fiction features thirty pieces from a wide variety of African writers from across the continent—from the West, Sub-Saharan, North, East, and ending in the Southern Regions. Editor Rob Spillman (the editor of Tin House) claims in his introduction that “this anthology is intended as a snapshot of recent writing as seen through the lens of one editor, after consulting with many, many editors, writers, scholars, critics, and everyday passionate readers.” He also speaks to the point that this anthology covers themes reflected in recent history, including anti-colonialism, the struggle of Western influences, the rise of women’s voices, the personal and national influence of domestic and imported religions and lastly, what it means to be an independent-minded African in a globalized world. This literary spider web offers not just a perception of African culture, it opens the gate to the concepts of heritage, history and the continuing struggle of a prideful people. Which is quite unique considering how few African works are published in America.

Click here for the rest.

9 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [6]

Putting aside the environmental, financial, and promotional advantages to sending eARCs to independent booksellers, the one paragraph of Jessica Stockton Bagnulo’s post that troubled me was this:

I think for a lot of booksellers right now, the idea of an e-reader provokes growls of hostility because it’s associated with the Kindle, which is a proprietary platform sold and administered by Amazon, our primary competitor. We indies can’t sell ebooks for the Kindle, so if readers buy a Kindle it means, on some level, lost sales for us. But the Kindle is not the only e-reader, nor even necessarily the best! The Sony Reader, the iPhone, the Google phone, and other electronic devices can also be used to read ebooks — and those platforms are wide open for ebook sales from indie bookstores, provided our ecommerce technology is up to par.

Just as we have to educate our customers (and ourselves) that Amazon is not the only option for buying online, we’ll have to make some efforts to make sure those who want to read ebooks know that they have options besides the Kindle, and that they can still “read indie while reading e” (feel free to steal that tagline). And ebook-reading booksellers are the perfect group to start spreading that word, to make sure that we can make ebooks a part of our business model rather than just more competition.

This all sounds good, but I’ve yet to see a realistic, functional business plan for an independent bookstore that incorporates the selling of e-books. Or even beyond that, a plan that even accounts for the attrition of book sales due to an increase in ebook popularity.

Independent bookstores run on such a small margin that if sales of e-books reach a certain level, I think bookstores are going to have to go through a transformation to stay in business, but I honestly can’t figure out what the end result of this transformation would look like.

The “bundling” idea—which Bob Miller of HarperStudio—is one that’s been talked about a lot. Basically, a reader could buy a book from a store, and then for an additional $2-$5 get a code to download the e-version of that same book.

Personally I doubt that I would ever do this, but some people might, and it’s not a bad way of incorporating bookstores into the equation.

That said, I think it’s foolish to overlook the draw of immediacy that e-books/readers will have over the mass readership in America. Americans are pretty impulsive people, and the idea that a book (or album, or whatever) could come up in conversation, and within one minute — without even leaving your barstool — you could purchase and download that book/album/movie is like crack to most of us.

If e-books do become a preferred way or reading — due to price, availability, the coolness of the e-reading gadget, etc. — then why would you ever go into a bookstore? To browse the physical books that you’ll then download through your e-reader for half the price? That’s not a viable bookstore business model.

Some people have also floated the idea of indie bookstores selling e-versions through their website, which, in my opinion, is beyond impractical. Most indie stores have very rudimentary e-commerce sites, despite the fact that people have been selling things online for decades . . . That’s probably not going to change if these same stores start selling e-books for download through their sites.

Sure, one can pretend that loyal customers will still purchase a download through their local store because they love it so much, but a) most customers aren’t loyal and b) unless that purchase can happen immediately and wirelessly (a la buying a book with a Kindle), it’s just simply not going to work.

Besides, a viable business model for e-reader creators is to include a “e-store” that’s wirelessly linked to the reader itself, allowing users a seamless interface between wanting a book and purchasing it, and Amazon/Sony gets to keep the profit from sales of the reader and sales of the book. Win-win . . . for everyone but bookstores.

I know that even if e-book sales expand, physical books will still exist. It’s not that which worries me. It’s the idea that with enough book sales turning electronic and occurring outside of bookstore, the miniscule margins keeping booksellers afloat will vanish . . .

So, maybe I’m missing something. Or maybe someone out there has a brilliant concept of what bookstores will look like in an e-reading future. Either way, feel free to e-mail (chad.post at rochester dot edu) or post your comments below. And I’m sure I’ll write more about this topic later . . .

9 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I don’t want to get in the habit of posting too many job openings, but in this economy, I’m sure there are a lot of qualified people out there looking for positions just like this:

Free Word
DIRECTOR

A groundbreaking new centre for literature, literacy and free expression, Free Word, will open in June 2009. Based in a landmark building, the previous Guardian Newsroom, 60 Farringdon Road, London, this innovative and collaborative international centre will promote the power of the written and spoken word. It will bring together ten organizations operating inside the building and have links with associates and partners nationally and internationally.

We are seeking a Director with charisma, strong leadership, communication and creative thinking skills together with a passion for the vision of Free Word. Proven experience of managing people, partnerships and collaborations are essential as are competence in budgeting and financial management and a flair for PR. Experience of fundraising will be an advantage.

Salary: between £55,000 and £60,000 depending on experience. Flexible working hours considered.

For further information about this post and Free Word, please email penny@dramatic-solutions.co.uk

Please send your application as a covering letter with reference to the job description, C.V. and two referees by email to Ursula Owen umo@ursulaowen.com. We will not contact your referees without your permission.

Closing date for applications 4pm Wednesday 15 April 2009. Interviews to be held in London end of April 2009.

Previous applicants need not apply.

9 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I have to visit a graduate seminar later today to talk about e-books and the future of the publishing industry, so the impact e-books will have (or rather, are having) on publishing structures (like indie bookstores) has been very much on my mind the past few days, so finding Jessica Stockton Bagnulo’s post about recent discussions among smart indie booksellers about e-readers was absolutely perfect.

Jessica’s main focus in her post is on replacing traditonal print advanced reading copies with e-version—something that makes a lot of logistical sense to me. The unit cost for printing galleys is more than the unit cost for the finished book, and (for small presses at least) it’s quite an expense to print and mail even just 250 ARCs of a book. Not to mention that these 250 copies have a pretty weak reach. A huge proportion go to reviewers who never review the book anyway, with only a handful ending up with enthusiastic booksellers.

And from a bookseller’s perspective, not having to receive and carry around tons of heavy books makes a lot of sense:

Here’s the next most important issue: E-readers make sense for people who read in massive quantities. Many of our sales reps are already reading on Sony readers, and it makes sense for booksellers too. We’ll all most likely still be reading plenty of pbooks (that’s print, or “real” books), but since it’s in our job description to read widely and quickly, carrying around many on one device makes sense.

This sentiment is echoed in Jenn Northington’s modest proposal, in which she presents this idea:

my initial idea was pretty basic: publishers provide a small group of booksellers, who they already send loads of arcs to, with an e-reader. then, they make those ARCs available as, say, pdfs to download. the bookseller, in exchange for the e-reader, agrees to read x number of ARCs from those publishers per season.

Which also sounds reasonable, especially if the upfront costs were split by a number of groups: a consortium of publishers (big and small), the American Bookselling Association, Sony (I doubt Amazon would be a welcome partner in this, and Apple is too full of itself to see any gain from engaging with booksellers in this way), and possibly the bookstores themselves (like $10/reader to demonstrate a commitment to the project).

Jenn lists a ton of the pros and cons to this idea, with “increased access to ARCs for booksellers” being the pro that’s most appealing to me.

There are a number of other indie booksellers writing about this same idea, including Stephanie Anderson from WORD, Rich Rennicks of Malaprop’s, Arsen Kashkashian of Boulder Bookstore, and Patrick from Vroman’s.

And just for the record, NetGalley was designed as an interface for publishers to distribute e-galleys to reviewers and booksellers and other “professional readers.” From what I’ve heard (I have yet to use the service), it’s pretty solid, the only problem being that there’s a per galley charge to publishers, something that indie e-ARC idea wouldn’t necessarily include. And NetGalley (at least for now) only allows you to read the books on your personal computer, which works against the inherent transportability of a physical book or an e-reader.

Anyway, I think the eARC idea is a complete winner, and I really hope this moves beyond the conceptual stage . . . I’d be happy to send 1,000 eARCs of Open Letter books to booksellers across the country.

I think the bigger problem for a press like ours is to try and get booksellers to pick up our books when a Corporate Rep is visiting these same booksellers every few weeks, telling them about THE NEXT BIG THING from Conglomerate X that will be EVERYWHERE next week and that ALL the customers will be talking about. (Sorry—maybe I should start a unnecessary CAPS blog.) But that’s the case now, and by distributing way more e-versions of a book, there’s a much better chance that some bookseller will “pick up” one of our eARCs and get excited about it. (I think that’s a necessary quote.) Although this is one of my big concerns for our e-book future—whether or not e-books in general will make it easier for small presses like ours to directly reach readers/reviewers/booksellers, or if the old systems will dominate even more than they do now thanks to their money and their extensive infrastructures, making it even more difficult than ever to break through the marketplace noise than it is now. More on that in Part II . . .

7 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The most recent addition to our review section is Jenna Furman’s piece on Suzane Adam’s Laundry, a recent release from Autumn Hill Books translated by Becka Mara McKay.

Jenna is an intern with Open Letter, a former intern for literary agent Meredith Bernstein, and an incredibly good proofreader.

Her review opens:

Suzane Adam is an renowned author in Israel and received the Kugel Prize in 2006 for her novel, Janis’s Mother. Adam’s first novel, Laundry, her first novel to be translated from Hebrew into English, is a novel that captivates from the first page with a mysterious narrator and even more elusive plot.

The novel begins en media res with a narrative that hints towards a tragic event that has occurred and the confusion and concern that it has caused to those observing its aftermath. The structure of the novel progresses into a story told from the beginning, a story that will explain the recent tragic event, which is both the novel’s opening and its conclusion, but begins when the main character is a five-year-old with curious violet eyes. The narrative itself is clear and seems almost effortless in its moving pace and mesmerizing plot, a seamlessness which the reader may contribute to both Adam and her translator, Becka Mara McKay.

Click here for the rest.

7 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For years, Granta has had some amazing employees (like Matt Weiland) and published some interesting things, but with the recent hiring of both John Freeman and Emily Cook for the American office, the magazine has quickly come back onto my radar . . .

And in addition to hiring good literary folk, Granta‘s online initiatives are pretty cool, including the new series highlighting important contemporary poets, which includes a new poem from Nobel Prize winner Wislawa Szymborska.

7 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Although universities are supposed to be “recession proof” (something we’re all finding out isn’t quite true in relation to this particular recession—again, thanks investment bankers!), university presses obviously aren’t. University presses face a lot of the same challenges as trade publishers, as library budgets shrink, new technologies ripple through the industry, etc., all leading to big losses (something that the major corporate houses haven’t experienced yet) and a lot of job losses.

Granted, even in the best of times, the university publishing model seems totally unhinged. (See the recap in Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s Believer piece about his first trip to the MLA convention. Just search for the paragraph beginning: “Vicious cycle” doesn’t even begin to describe it.)

Even Cambridge University Press, which The Guardian reminds us is the “oldest continually operating book publisher in the world” is looking at cutting some 150 position, due in part to a switch from lithographic to digital production. . . . Which is a change that’s probably well overdue, but whatever. Even with this reduction in staff CUP is looking at some pretty brutal numbers:

“We needed to take action because we saw losses of £2m annually for the next three years. We estimate that if we reduce the number of redundancies to 60 it would mean ongoing annual losses of £300,000 which we can tolerate for the time being, but it’s not as though we are free from the technological writing which is on the wall,” says Davison.

Stateside, the most recent university press struggles to make the news are at the University of New Mexico Press, where three employees were let go at the end of March and it was announced that the press’s warehousing and fulfillment operations were going to be outsourced. (Which is also happening at the University of Nebraska Press.) This isn’t that unusual, but the layoffs generated a lot of controversy when the fired employees released their own press release about the situation putting some of the financial blame on the press’s director, Luther Wilson. According to the press release:

Mr. Wilson’s fiscally damaging acquisitions and misuse of press funds as one source of the press’s financial problems. Mr. Wilson has spent thousands of dollars so far this fiscal year on author lunches and just issued a $6,000 advance to a longtime friend for a children’s book proposal.

The University of New Mexico defended its decision by pointing to the balance sheet. According to vice provost Wynn Goering, the press is facing “a projected operating deficit of $690,000 by June 30.”

These are scary times for all, and I wonder which other university presses are going to run into significant financial problems like these. And, more importantly, if there’s anyone out there who’s going to come up with a new business model—maybe one that doesn’t rely primarily library sales, that incorporates e-books, etc.—that will define the twenty-first century scholarly press.

7 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

On Friday, finished copies of Merce Rodoreda’s Death in Spring arrived at our office (along with the equally gorgeous and well-written The Mighty Angel by Jerzy Pilch), and since the PEN World Voices events for Jan Kjaerstad and for Merce Rodoreda are right around the corner, we thought we’d make a special offer to anyone interested in reading these books prior to the PEN events.

So, for the rest of the month, you can get both The Conqueror and Death in Spring for the one low price of $22. Just click here for details.

(The Rodoreda event is also part of Catalan Days, a special celebration of Catalan performing and media arts, literature, and gastronomy taking place in NY from April 15th to May 20th.)

7 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This event is not to be missed . . . On Thursday, April 9th at 7pm, Attila Bartis—author of Tranquility, which won this year’s Best Translated Book Award—will be appearing at Idlewild Books (12 West 19th St., NY) with author and translator Brian Evenson.

You can find our overview of Tranquility by clicking here, and here’s a blurb Evenson gave for the book: “Reading like the bastard child of Thomas Bernhard and Elfriede Jelinek, Tranquility is political and personal suffering distilled perfectly and transformed into dark, viscid beauty. It is among the most haunted, most honest, and most human novels I have ever read.”

According to Jill Schoolman, they’re going to try and videotape this conversation so that all of us living outside of NY will have a chance to see this incredible event . . . I’ll post an update as soon as this becomes available online.

7 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

One of the biggest books this spring—at least in terms of general coverage and growing hype—has to be Hans Fallada’s rediscovered masterpiece, Every Man Dies Alone.

It’s based on a true story of a working class couple living in Berlin during WWII who launch a “simple, clandestine resistance campaign that soon has an enraged Gestapo on their trail, and a world of terrified neighbors and cynical snitches ready to turn them in.”

The novel’s been receiving heaps of praise, including a very positive review in the New York Times Book Review that opens: “A signal literary event of 2009 has occurred.”

I should save this for my upcoming PRI post, but The World recently did a segment on The Kindly Ones and Every Man Dies Alone that included a brief conversation with Ulrich Ditzen, Fallada’s son.

All of this build-up is just to let you know that the German Book Office in New York is giving away five free copies of the beautifully produced hardcover. To get one, just e-mail Hannah Johnson at johnson at gbo dot org.

(And if you want to get future announcements from the GBO, be sure to join their Facebook Group.

7 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Last Thursday was “Open Letter Day” at the Harvard Crimson, as the university daily newspaper covered three new Open Letter books: The Mighty Angel by Jerzy Pilch, Death in Spring by Merce Rodoreda, and Landscape in Concrete by Jakov Lind. (Typically, these links would be to our Indie Bookstore of the Month, but Shaman Drum’s online catalog doesn’t have listings for these three titles . . . )

Will Fletcher’s review of The Mighty Angel really captures the humor and horror of this book:

he modern literary tradition—in particular, the Lost Generation writers and their contemporaries—has done something curious in romanticizing the throes of alcoholism. Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald were all raging alcoholics and filled their novels with characters who acted likewise. But never before, and rarely today, does a novelist confront addiction so intimately and personally as Jerzy Pilch in his recently translated novel, The Mighty Angel.

It’s unclear for whom the narrative is intended. As the narrator, Jerzy speaks to himself, speaks to his lover, speaks to himself again (this time sober), speaks to the girl in the yellow dress, and—it seems—speaks to us as well. In his own words, he is “writing about you and [he’s] writing about [himself] not only to show that true alcoholic prose does not end in death; it ends in life, and who knows how life will end.” His ambivalence towards alcohol abuse—and, for that matter, toward any direction for his life in general—composes the novel’s substance. This ambiguity forces Jerzy to face a constant struggle: “. . . therapists are striving to bring reality to the point of sobriety, whereas I’m striving to bring reality to the point of literature, and at a certain moment our paths inevitably diverge.”

And Jenny Lee’s praise of Landscape in Concrete is spot-on:

The dreamlike quality of the novel emanates from Lind’s ability to create sparse but symbolic landscapes and to fill them with characters whose simple exteriors incapsulate deeper historical echoes. Of course, the enchanting essence of the story is much more akin to that of the original Grimm stories than their doe-eyed Disney counterparts (it revolves around shocking wartime occurrences) but Lind’s gift for eccentric descriptions of characters and events transforms the more gruesome and explicit scenes into something strangely pallatable. Lind’s descriptions endow the starved, inhuman, and ruthless characters of the war with unreal qualities that make the whole narrative easier to digest.

Unfortunately, you can’t always go three-for-three, and in this case, it was Death in Spring that fell a bit short of Keshava Guha’s expectations:

While reading Death in Spring, Mercè Rodoreda’s final work, it is easy to forget how unlikely the publication of the book is. In Francisco Franco’s anti-Catalan Spain, Rodoreda faced not only suppression and exile but the extinction of her native language. Under Franco, Catalan’s very existence was threatened, banned outright in the public sphere and severely curtailed in the private sphere. In this context, while translations of Spanish language novels achieved worldwide fame and renown in the 1970s and 1980s, Catalan writers remained obscure, even after Franco’s death in 1975, when the ban on Catalan was lifted. With her translation of Death in Spring, Martha Tennent hopes to begin to redress this historic injustice.

How deeply unfortunate, then, that the novel itself cannot live up to the promise of a hidden classic. A brief work of only 150 pages, told in dense four-page episodes, Death in Spring creates a world at once strange and familiar: a nameless town characterized by brutal, gratuitous violence and the prevalence of the bizarre, narrated through an unusual set of eyes—those of a teenage boy. Rodoreda’s narrator is a remarkably dispassionate protagonist, remarking in turns on the macabre and the surreal with unflinching ambivalence.

Nevertheless, here’s one more instance of how the Harvard Crimson is one of the absolute best college newspapers out there. Good taste aside, how many other college papers review three literary titles in one day?

6 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

It’s not available online, but the new issue of Stop Smiling — the third annual 20 interviews issue — contains the last ever interview given by Roberto Bolano.

And interviews with some other interesting people as well, like Enrique Vila-Matas, Jonathan Lethem, Paul Auster, and Stephen Malkmus, although I’m sure the Bolano interview will be cause enough for a lot of people to go out and buy this. . . .

6 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As stated in the opening editorial of the new issue, Pratilipi is celebrating its first anniversary.

A bilingual quarterly, Pratilipi is one of the best online magazines featuring contemporary Indian authors. They cram a lot into each issue (see this issue’s table of contents and staggering list of contributors), with a wide range of pieces, from Ashwani Kumar’s piece on Experiencing India’s So Called 26/11 (this issue’s focus is “violence”) to a fragment of Krishna Baldev Vaid’s A Broken Mirror (sorry—pun is all theirs) to and interview with Minakshi Thakur from HarperCollins India about HC’s new line of books published in Hindi.

This interview is pretty interesting, especially in terms of what Minakshi has to say about the Hindi market:

The one big gap we identified was that most books in traditional Hindi publishing is not produced keeping the reader in mind. Also there is hardly any culture of editing there. The books are poorly produced. They look uninspiring. The big challenge for us was to unlearn certain things we swear by in English publishing and learn things about the Hindi reader afresh.

We had to understand things like – given a choice your reader would borrow books and read than buy them. The buying capacity needed to be understood. Competing with the Hindi market price points would pose a huge problem as we were aiming at the same quality as Harper’s English titles. [. . .]

About the big Hindi publishers like Rajkamal, Vani and Gyanpeeth I would say there is a lot to learn from them and much more not to borrow or learn from them. On the one hand we should be thankful that whatever we have read so far in Hindi – all the great authors and their lovely books – is because they have been there. On the other what we cannot tow their line on is state govt. subsidies and library orders. We cannot go that way or do books solely for that. We will produce books for the discerning audience; we shall produce books to create an interface between the writer and his/her readers. Again it is going to be very difficult and daunting and a slow process. We cannot claim that Harper Hindi will become huge or pose a threat to any of the big old Hindi concerns in two years’ time. It won’t. Also we don’t have the time to play rivals. There are better things one can invest their time in. The attitude has to be right and a lot of experiment in the market would be required to find a breakthrough. The Hindi market needs a definite facelift. We must break away in certain ways and give the reader something in a way that hasn’t been tried before and most importantly at the price they can afford.

It’ll be interesting to see how this all plays out. In the article I wrote for the Frankfurt Book Fair about Indian Publishing I focused a lot on what impact the big multinationals will have on Indian publishing.

It’s great that HC is publishing Hindi translations of authors like Doris Lessing, but I have to admit, that for all the good corporate publishers might bring about in terms of distribution channels and general professionalization of the industry, I’m a bit wary of corporate execs talking about giving any market a “facelift,” especially in the same paragraph in which they say that they have to change the market because they can’t do books solely for “government subsides and library orders.” (Although I have to admit, the translation of that sentence is a bit wonky and confusing.)

So, like I said above, it will be interesting to see what happens to the Indian book market over the next few years . . .

6 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Back on April 5, 1999, the Complete Review published its first review, giving Nicholson Baker’s The Everlasting Story of Nory a “C” for being “too cute for its own good.” Well, 2,250 reviews and ten years later and CR is still going strong.

Michael Orthofer has a nice write up about his first decade running the site, and his desire to do even more:

The mix of books covered at the complete review remains eclectic (mostly my fault/taste), and while best-known for coverage of translated (and, occasionally, not-yet-translated) fiction, I’m more or less satisfied with the range of books covered. I’d always like to cover more — far more — but the logistics are too daunting. (The grand irony of the site for me also always remains that since it takes up so much of my time I actually read less than I otherwise might.)

He’s already averaging 225 reviews a year—for one person that’s absolutely amazing. And yes, it really is just one person:

After all these years I also figure it is time to abandon my hopes of creating an independent institutional identity for the complete review. I’ve always tried to stay in the background (and would, of course, prefer disappearing completely unrecognized behind the scenes, an entirely anonymous puppet-master), but despite my best efforts to de-personalize the site it has become futile to avoid the obvious: complete review, c’est moi. Not that it’s always been that way, not absolutely entirely, but by now I figure some ninety-five per cent of the reviews, and near as much of the weblog-content can be ascribed to me, and all of it in recent times, and so I might as well do away with any pretense of there being anything more to the complete review than me for now. (There’s always hope that the complete review-as-institution concept can be revived, but between my ‘vision’ for the site, and my taskmaster-skills … don’t count on it.) Hence one minor change: posts and reviews will now be signed ‘M.A.Orthofer’, as I might as well lay claim to (and accept blame for) them.

Congrats to Michael and best of luck for the next ten years.

3 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Our latest review is of Guillermo Rosales’s The Halfway House, which is coming out from New Directions next month.

Rosales was a Cuban exile who was misdiagnosed as a schizophrenic and ended up committing suicide. Before taking his own life, he destroyed most of his writings, leaving behind only two works: The Halfway House and El Juego de la Viola, which is also forthcoming from New Directions.

Jeff Waxman (who works at 57th St. Books and edits The Front Table) wrote this review, which begins:

The first of Cuban author Guillermo Rosales’s novels to be translated into English, The Halfway House is not a story that we’re accustomed to. This is the anti-success story, one in which hope is choked out by failure and abandonment; this is the greater, sicker part of the immigration narrative. The Halfway House is without spiritual redemption, but somewhere in this hopeless mess lies some kind of beauty.

In his excellent introduction, José Manuel Prieto asserts that this book is Dantean. Indeed, this book is a shot of light through the darkness of human misery and William Figueras is our Virgil, our narrator. This novel tells Figueras’s story, following him from his first day in a boarding home to a day just like it three years later. Figueras comes to the halfway house as a last resort, a place to go when his relatives have disowned him and “nothing more can be done.” Though he begins his time in the halfway house as a victim—his portable television is stolen moments after he arrives—Figueras participates in the suffering of his fellow residents, beating and abusing them, stealing from them, and being complicit in their sexual abuse. The fact that they’re effectively unaware of their own misery and unused to anything else doesn’t matter; Figueras knows what he’s doing and he’s as much a devil as he is a guide, and as much a sinner as he is a lover.

Click here for the full review.

3 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

The first of Cuban author Guillermo Rosales’s novels to be translated into English, The Halfway House is not a story that we’re accustomed to. This is the anti-success story, one in which hope is choked out by failure and abandonment; this is the greater, sicker part of the immigration narrative. The Halfway House is without spiritual redemption, but somewhere in this hopeless mess lies some kind of beauty.

In his excellent introduction, José Manuel Prieto asserts that this book is Dantean. Indeed, this book is a shot of light through the darkness of human misery and William Figueras is our Virgil, our narrator. This novel tells Figueras’s story, following him from his first day in a boarding home to a day just like it three years later. Figueras comes to the halfway house as a last resort, a place to go when his relatives have disowned him and “nothing more can be done.” Though he begins his time in the halfway house as a victim—his portable television is stolen moments after he arrives—Figueras participates in the suffering of his fellow residents, beating and abusing them, stealing from them, and being complicit in their sexual abuse. The fact that they’re effectively unaware of their own misery and unused to anything else doesn’t matter; Figueras knows what he’s doing and he’s as much a devil as he is a guide, and as much a sinner as he is a lover.

His love appears in the guise of another resident, the angelic Frances. Her innocence is merely her lack of agency: she wants to die, but lacks the will to kill herself. With Figueras, she finds hope again and, in middle-age, he seems finally to find purpose, a glimmer of hope—before she is taken from him and he returns again to the undirected tableau of human suffering that makes up the majority of this work.

But what, or who, is Figueras? In a home populated by various shades, by caricatures of piss-soaked humanity, he’s the only honest-to-goodness person, but what kind of person? In one moment, late in the book, Figueras is a saint: As I pass Pepe, the older of the two retards, I take his bald head in my hands and kiss it; earlier, he’s a monster: I look at him, disgusted. His forehead is bleeding. Upon seeing this, I feel a strange pleasure. I grab the towel, twist it, and whip his frail chest; a bit later, he’s a lover: ‘Oh Frances,’ I say, kissing her sweetly on the mouth; William Figueras is all of these things because he’s a man, a twisted reflection of the shadowy characters around him with the painful gift of consciousness. This is how Rosales works.

Reading this book, such a variety of flavors wash over the tongue—a rawness, sour shocks of bile, of mold and neglect, of sweat and urine. Almost tangible, these sensations. Amid this crudity of emotion and circumstance, there’s no real limiting of language. We experience the book through a narrator who never strikes one as mad—mad only in that he stays in this place—but who instead seems too urbane for the setting, too cultured for his own reality. This, it seems to me, is a perennial problem as literary men and women attempt narratives of a cruder sort, narratives that lend themselves more to wet expression than to any belletristic goal. And many authors fail for this reason. They fail to convey this rough reality without poetry—or worse, their protagonists are written as thoughtful autodidacts simply to blur the line between the voice of the character and that of the author. With Rosales, however, there’s no artifice and no mistake; he’s imbued Figueras with an intellectual past-life that belongs to both men:

. . . by the age of fifteen I had read the great Proust, Hesse, Joyce, Miller, Mann. . . . I finished writing a novel in Cuba that told a love story. . . .The novel was never published and my love story was never known by the public at large. The government’s literary specialists said my novel was morose, pornographic, and also irreverent, because it dealt harshly with the Communist Party. After that I went crazy. . . .and I stopped writing.

This book does not pretend to be great literature—it doesn’t have the lofty goals that one imagines in Bolaño, Borges, or Zambra. Though it has high-minded, socially relevant themes, it doesn’t seem to have any purpose beyond the expoasition of pain. It’s too ugly not to be beautiful and too ugly to have been written for the sake of beauty. This novella is a painful trip into the mind of a man for whom the world is real, but somehow incoherent and unfeeling. Figueras, our educated and erudite narrator never goes crazy—the world around him does. Maybe he stopped writing—and here I cannot separate the author and his character—the storytelling went on and in the internal narrative that this book represents, Figueras expresses himself with more grace, poetry and reason than a crazy man ever could.

3 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Richard Lea has a great audio interview with Alain Mabanckou about Broken Glass, his second novel to be published in English. (Although apparently only in the UK for now. Soft Skull did African Psycho a couple years ago, but I haven’t seen a listing for the new book yet.)

The Guardian also posted a positive review of Broken Glass some time back:

Mabanckou knows his French literature (he teaches that subject at UCLA). Broken Glass is a whistlestop tour of French literature and civilisation, and if you don’t know your Marivaux, your Chateaubriand, your ENAs and Weston shoes you’ll miss a lot of the gags (“a quarrel of Brest”, anyone?) – but don’t worry, there are still plenty left.

It’s not just French writers who make an appearance. That arch navel-gazer Holden Caulfield (or someone claiming to be him) has a walk-on part, and Broken Glass ends “we’ll meet again, in the other world, Holden, we’ll have a drink together . . . I’ll tell you what they do with the poor little ducks in cold countries during winter time.”

Although its cultural and intertextual musings could fuel innumerable doctorates, the real meat of Broken Glass is its comic brio, and Mabanckou’s jokes work the whole spectrum of humour.

3 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

OK, so this isn’t exactly translation related, but hell, it’s Friday and I think this just became my new favorite blog. When living in Normal, IL, I was obsessed for a time with misused quotation marks. And trust me, Normal is filthy with unnecessary quotes . . . like the headline in The Pantagraph (the local, oddly named newspaper): Local Priest “Upset” About Pope’s Death. (Not kidding.)

Anyway, over at Unnecessary Quotes (or The “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotes) for some awesome signs, such as this one:

(Thanks to Literary Lotus for pointing out this awesome blog.)

3 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Based on the response to their online walking tour of NY indies, The Millions are taking this idea physical and have organized a real walking tour of independent bookstores in New York. (Or at least six of them.)

On Saturday, May 2nd at 11am, participants will meet at Three Lives (154 W. 10th at Waverly Place) and go from there to Housing Works, McNally Jackson, Bluestockings, Book Court, and Freebird Books & Goods.

According to the post, this tour will last between three and four hours, and will cover about 4.5 miles. You don’t need to RSVP to participate, but if you e-mail themillionsbookstoretour at gmail dot com, they’ll be able to alert you if there are any changes, or if the tour is rained out.

2 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The 2009 Shortlist for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award was announced earlier today. And here are your eight finalists (is there any rhyme and/or reason to this figure? or the enormously long longlist?):

  • Ravel by Jean Echenoz, translated from the original French by LInda Coverdale
  • The Burnt-Out Town of Miracles by Roy Jacobsen, translated from the original Norwegian by Don Shaw and Don Bartlett
  • Man Gone Down by Michael Thomas
2 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I remember when the Modern Library first published Iraj Pezeshkzad’s My Uncle Napoleon a few years, but this review by Bryn Haworth makes it sound really interesting. (When Byrn writes about the book itself. The stuff about today’s Iran is good, but this novel sound intriguing to me for other, more literary reasons.)

The beauty of My Uncle Napoleon is that it is blissfully funny. Though it has the slapstick mayhem of many Egyptian comedies, it is more than pure farce. And although it has debts to European literature – My Uncle is very much like Don Quixote, or Sterne’s Uncle Toby (he even has his own Corporal Trim) – it is not a plagiarizing tribute to the classic comic novel. This is a book that manages to create memorable and believable characters while shamelessly sending them up, loading them with catchphrases and putting them in bizarre situations. Behind all its tomfoolery lie the serious issues of love, sexuality and, most importantly, paranoia on a grand scale. [. . .]

This principle is also behind My Uncle’s adoration of Napoleon himself, a martyr to the cowardly back-stabbing English. He quotes Napoleon at the slightest opportunity, often absurdly, as when he says that ‘great men are the children of danger’ and manages to imply that he himself is childish. In an undistinguished career as a member of the gendarmerie, My Uncle has done little more than sort out some minor criminals, but in his imagination – stoked by the narrator’s father who seeks revenge on the old fool – these become the famous battles of Kazerun and Mamasani, the details of which he retells and elaborates at every opportunity. [. . .]

Any good farce has a complex plot of mounting absurdities, and I won’t attempt to describe them here. The fun has a lot to do with their chaotic silliness and the hypocrisies that are revealed. Since the characters all live in houses around a garden, they are constantly awat=re of each other’s existences. Uncle Napoleon is able to control the flow of water to the others, and he uses this ultimate weapon against the narrator’s father. (Even this little ruse has a prescient quality as the supply of water becomes a political issue in the Middle East.)

The entire piece is definitely worth reading—as is the rest of Open Letters Monthly

2 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

But maybe Borders wishes it was . . . From PW

A series of one-time charges and lower sales lead to a loss from continuing operations of $184.7 million at Borders Group for the year ended January 31 compared to a loss of $19.9 million in the previous year. Total revenue declined 8.9%, to $3.27 billion. Sales fell 9.4% at the company’s superstores in the year, to $2.65 billion, and declined 14.7% at Waldenbook Specialty Retail, to $480.0 million. Comp sales were down 10.8% at the superstores for the full year, with book comps off 8.2% and non-book sales down 16.1%. Walden comps were off 5.1%.

As a result, Borders stock soared from $.63 to $1.05, which is precisely why I don’t understand the stock market. Here’s a one-liner from Forbes explaining why Borders was a “big mover” on Wall St. yesterday:

The operator of more than 900 book stores will cut its costs by another $120 million and it expects sales to keep sliding in 2009.

Huh.

2 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over at Entre Los Espacios, Rose Mary Salum is continuing her line-up of bad-ass interviews. Last month she talked with a slew of editors at translation literary journals (such as Absinthe and Calque), and today she has a nice interview with Annie Janusch from Two Lines.

And tying in to the previous post about editing translations:

What would seem to be the essential editorial challenge when working with translations?

Since translation editors aren’t in a position to, say, recommend revising a particular passage so that it moves the narrative along differently, the editorial focus is on honing and crafting the language, maintaining consistency in voice, style, or intangibles like “spirit.” When I read a draft of a translation of a story, I read it as closely as I would a poem, pausing over every word and weighing every choice. This can lead to endless questioning.

2 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Nordic Voices is an interesting addition to the lit blog world. Run by three British literary translators (who combined translate from Finnish, Swedish, Russian, and Estonian), the goal of the blog is to bring more attention to Nordic literature (beyond the thrillers) and related translation issues. The site is still relatively new, but the early posts are really interesting, well thought out, and unique.

One post that caught my eye was an excerpt from Eric Dickens’s translation of Thomas Warburton’s memoirs about translating. (According to Warburton, he’s translated more than 30,000 pages from Finnish and English into Swedish.) Warburton uses his translations of novelist Mika Waltari as a launching point to get into a greater translation/editing issue and a description of a certain type of editorial assistant:

Waltari used to claim that he had a tendency to write too much and be unable to excise things from the text. He said that he was therefore grateful for any suggestions for abridgements from his translators and editors, and would nearly always accept them completely. All his later voluminous novels have thus been abridged by about five, six or an even higher percent each.

This kind of editing is, no doubt, more common than you would believe, and there are many foreign authors who are not even aware that something has happened to their books in translation. Similar, if not worse, things have happened with our books when published abroad, when we have managed to check up.

Obviously, such a practice is completely unacceptable and comes quite close to an arrogation of the rights of the author. But the law is vague on that score and tends to allow changes that do not alter the artistic merit or aim of a work. [. . .]

One of these [types of editorial assistants] is – or was, as the variant has surely vanished by now – what you could term the normaliser. He was a proponent of the theory that all books should sound as if they had been written in the target language, Swedish in this case, and why not make it the Swedish of Stockholm, just for good measure. That’s his problem. But such an editor will then go on to think that it becomes pretty unpleasant for the reader to come across rare or difficult words and expressions, however Swedish they may be. These words have to be simplified and aligned. Here, the fact that the original author may have wanted to express himself in an unusual way, even in a convoluted or stilted manner, is no excuse. You have to explain what he really means. – This problem area is adjacent to another: have you the right to improve the text, however tempting this may be, without consulting the author? No, you haven’t.

Not sure that I agree that “the normaliser” really has vanished from the publishing scene, but I agree that translations should contains some “strange” phrasings . . .

1 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

The Barnes & Noble Review continues to impress me by covering books/movies/CDs that aren’t best-sellers, such as Christopher Byrd’s piece on Vilnius Poker:

While reading Ricardas Gavelis’s Vilnius Poker, a line from Joyce’s Ulysses surfaced in my memory, “Stephen bent forward and peered at the mirror held out to him, cleft by a crooked crack, hair on end.” On at least six occasions, Gavelis (1950-2002) name-checks the Irish Zeus who commemorated the capital of his homeland by besieging it with the distorting optics of his prose. What Joyce did for Dublin, Gavelis has in mind to do for the capital of Lithuania: chide it, gossip about it, and bore it into the memory of those who may never visit it.

I know there are a million reasons why this would be a logistical nightmare and would never actually happen, but something clean, elegant, and weekly, like the B&N Review would be a perfect addition to the IndieBound program. The monthly Indie Next List is fine, but rather than providing bookseller blurbs about a dozen books each month, a weekly e-publication with five 250-word reviews (could even be in sections: a mystery, a children’s/YA book, a small press title, a nonfiction book, etc.) that could then be “pushed” out to readers via a blog would—in my opinion—be even more effective for bringing attention to smart booksellers and the unique books that they love.

Just my two cents . . . I really wrote this post because I think Christopher Byrd’s review is great, and he has a slightly different take on the novel than the other people who have written about it.

1 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We don’t usually post job opportunities on the blog (maybe because there aren’t that many translation related job openings out there?), but this sounds really interesting:

The Center for the Art of Translation seeks a Director of Marketing with publishing experience to take the lead in promoting its programs and publications in the Bay Area and beyond. The Center is a non-profit organization promoting cultural understanding through translation; we have programs in publishing and education as well as an event series. The Director of Marketing will oversee general marketing efforts, publication promotion, the organization’s website, and media relations. He or she will be responsible for creating, driving, and managing new marketing strategies in support of the organization’s goals to increase readership, increase numbers of students served by our educational programs, and expand event attendance through traditional and new media methods.

The position is currently a part-time role with a minimum of 24 hours per week. Schedule and hours will fall during the standard business hours of the Center. A generous vacation package and insurance stipend are offered upon completion of a three-month probationary period. This position reports to the Executive Director.

To apply, please send resume, cover letter and three writing samples (press releases, tip sheets, or other copy) to centerresume@yahoo.com, addressed to:

Paula Larink
Executive Director

31 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As you can see on the right side of the page, our featured indie bookstore for the month of April is Shaman Drum Bookshop in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Karl Pohrt and I are good friends (he’s actually on the advisory committee for Open Letter as well), and worked together to help launch the Reading the World program.

Although Karl and his store have been mentioned on Three Percent dozens of times, I really wanted to specially feature Shaman Drum this month to bring attention to a few different things, both good and frightening.

First off, as you may have heard, Shaman Drum has run into a bit of trouble. Back in February, Karl wrote a letter to the Ann Arbor Chronicle detailing the plight of the store and the fact that textbook sales were down $510,000 from the previous year and that the store might not survive.

After a trip to Nicaragua, he wrote a second letter saying that he would do all he could to keep the bookstore going.

During that trip he met Ernesto Cardenal, whose Pluriverse came out earlier this year from New Directions. Cardenal is going to be in Ann Arbor later this month, and we’re planning on running info and interviews from that event here on Three Percent.

Also in terms of good news, not everyone knows about this yet, but it looks like instead of a traditional Reading the World program this year, we’ll instead be having a RTW party at Idlewild Books in NYC on Thursday, May 28th in honor of Karl. Soo Jin and Declan from New Directions have been working on this, and I’ll make a special post with all the details in the near future. We’re hoping to have someone interview Karl about his life in bookselling, and we’re also planning on having a raffle to benefit Shaman Drum, RTW, and Idlewild.

In addition to linking all book titles to Shaman Drum’s online catalog, we’re hoping to post more information about the store, its history, employees, etc. Since this is one of “those stores” that people remember fondly for years and years, if any of you have any stories about S.D. that you’d like to share, please e-mail them to chad.post at rochester dot edu, or simply post them in the comments below.

31 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Death in Spring by Merce Rodoreda is probably our biggest book of the spring. I was planning on giving away a few copies of the galley, but the response from reviewers was so overwhelming that we quite literally ran out (we don’t even have a copy in our archive) and even had to send out a few unbound copies.

This novel—which has never before appeared in English—was published posthumously, and has since gone on to become a contemporary classic.

Rodoreda herself is considered to be one of the greatest Catalan writers of all time, and the works of hers that have been previously translated into English—The Time of the Doves, A Broken Mirror, etc.—have strong cult followings. In fact, last summer Leonard Lopate had Sandra Cisneros on his show to talk about Rodoreda.

Well, Death in Spring won’t be available for a few more weeks, but it’s already generating some excitement. Publishers Weekly recently reviewed it, referring to the novel as “marvelously disturbing” (it is!) and praising Martha Tennent’s translation: “The plot, though anemic, has its share of increasingly perverse twists, and the intense lyricism of Rodoreda’s language, captured here by Tennent’s gorgeous translation, makes her grotesque vision intoxicating and haunting.”

Even more exciting than a positive early review is this event on May 2nd that the Ramon Llull Insitut organized, and which stars Jessica Lange:

Saturday, May 2, 8 pm
Death in Spring and The Time of the Doves – Merce Rodoreda
Baryshnikov Arts Center, 450 West 37th Street

The Time of the Doves is the most acclaimed novel by one of Catalonia’s best-loved writers, Mercè Rodoreda (1908-1983), a master when it comes to explain a story with powerful vividness. Before the reading, Martha Tennent and Chad Post will present the latest novel by Mercè Rodoreda to be translated into English: Death in Spring. Read by Jessica Lange. Directed by Joan Ollé

Admission is free
Reservations are required
212-279-4200 / www.ticketcentral.com

Cosponsored by Institut Ramon Llull and Open Letter

(Still can’t believe I get to go onstage just before Jessica Lange . . .)

Looks like Ticket Central just posted the reservation page for this event, so click here for tickets. Based on the number of queries I’ve already received, I suspect tickets are going to go fast . . .

And you can preorder the book from us directly by clicking here. (Unfortunately, since this isn’t available yet, it’s not listed in either our March or April featured Indie stores. But I’m sure if you call your local independent they will reserve/order you a copy.) Or you could subscribe to Open Letter by clicking the box below.

30 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

I can’t remember ever buying a book based on a blurb, but even if I wasn’t already a Thomas Bernhard fan, I’d buy his Meine Preise immediately if this blurb were on the cover:

“The asshole Thomas Bernhard—and I say this even though I dislike speaking ill of the dead—the asshole Thomas Bernhard, it’s fairly certain to say, only wrote a single good book. This book appears only now, even though he already wrote it in 1980, and it demonstrates what an asshole he was.”—Maxim Biller, Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung

More information about the review—and the book itself—can be found at Literary Saloon.

30 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As you probably noticed, we underwent a pretty significant redesign over the weekend. E.J. could explain this a lot better than I can, but basically, over the past two years, we’ve come to use the site is a slightly different way than initially conceived. When launched, we had no idea Three Percent would come to host the only Translation Database tracking U.S. publications, or the Best Translated Book Award. And even our most recent idea of a monthly bookstore feature was getting a bit lost in the old design . . .

So E.J. came up with what you see here. The big difference is the top menu which now has links to Open Letter Books, the Best Translated Book Award, the Translation Database, and the Translation Studies program at the University of Rochester. (The other striking change is that it’s no longer orange.)

Some things are still in progress—especially the column on the far right, which currently has “links.” Soon (this week?) that will become the “featured bookstore of the month” column, and will also contain a calendar of nationwide translation related events . . .

But in the meantime, if you have any comments, suggestions, etc., please e-mail them to me (chad.post at rochester dot edu) or to E.J. (e.j.vanlanen at rochester dot edu).

E.J.: Definitely let me know if anything isn’t working properly on your end. There are a lot of moving parts, and I’m sure to have missed a bunch of things.

30 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Monica Carter’s piece on Mr Dick or The Tenth Book is the latest addition to our review section.

In addition to checking our Monica’s review, I’d also recommend checking out her recently redesigned web publication Salonica World Lit. Included in this redesign—which looks great—is an announcement about E. Lire an online literary journal she’s launching that will include translated works of fiction, poetry, essays, and literary criticism. Click the link above for more details.

Mr Dick is French bookseller Jean-Pierre Ohl’s debut novel and was released by Dedalus Books earlier this year. Translated from the French by Christine Donougher, the book has received some nice attention in the UK, including this interview with the author.

Monica’s review confirms that this is an interesting book worth checking out:

Jean-Pierre Ohl has written a novel that is at once a curious and adept mix of homage to Charles Dickens, send-up of literary scholarship, and mystery. Generally, I’m leery of books based on literary figures or borrowing heavily from a previous book to bolster a premise, but Mr. Ohl, a bookseller from Bordeaux, France, manages to rise above the common pitfalls of not only a first novel, but of other devices used when one exploits a classic text. Mr Dick or the Tenth Book is inspiring and challenging with its eclectic mix of narrators—François Daumal, the down-trodden boy turned seemingly failed scholar who is obsessed with Dickens, Évariste Borel whose journal tells of his time spent with Dickens during his final days, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s account of a séance where Wilkie Collins and Robert Louis Stevenson are present to contact the spirit of Dickens himself—that keep us guessing even when we are not sure what we are guessing about. . . .

Click here for the rest of the review.

27 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Jean-Pierre Ohl has written a novel that is at once a curious and adept mix of homage to Charles Dickens, send-up of literary scholarship, and mystery. . .

Read More...

27 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [3]

Since today is such a lovely, warm, sunny day, I thought I’d spend most of the morning finally updating the translation database and seeing how 2009 is shaping up compared to 2008.

First off, click here for the 2008 translation spreadsheet, and click here for the 2009 one. As in the past, I’ve only been keeping track of original translations of fiction and poetry that are available for sale in the United States. Re-translations and reprints are both excluded from this database.

These spreadsheets contain a lot of information broken down ina number of ways, including by publisher, by country, by language, by month, etc.

The 2009 data is still coming in, so comparing totals isn’t all that telling. But just as a frame of reference, in 2008 there were 361 works of fiction and poetry published in translation, and so far I’ve identified 196 coming out in 2009.

Looking at this month-by-month is a bit more telling. The 2009 database numbers drop off dramatically after May, so I’m going to assume that there are a number of books coming out in June-Dec that I haven’t come across yet.

Through May, in 2008 159 works in translation were published; in 2009 that number is down to 143. (Again, disclaimer, I could be missing some titles—if you know of any, e-mail me at chad.post at rochester dot edu.) That’s a pretty significant 10% drop. Hopefully things will even out over the year, but in a recession, I suspect a lot of publishers looking to cut costs aren’t all that thrilled with paying a translator on top of the regular book costs. (Not that Random House didn’t just make $185.5 million before taxes and interest in 2008. But that is a “down year.”)

Looking at the breakdown by language, in 2008 the top five languages translated into English were: French, Spanish, German, Arabic, and Japanese, in that order. This year’s breakdown is slightly different, with Spanish coming in on top and French, German, Arabic, and Japanese right behind.

So far in 2009, I’ve found translations coming out from 81 different publishers, which gives me hope that these numbers could suddenly jump—last year 139 different publishers did at least one work of fiction or poetry in translation.

It’s still too early to draw any grand conclusions, but it is interesting to see what’s coming out from where and by whom, and to discover titles that haven’t gotten much attention.

27 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over at Galley Cat Jason Boog posted a two-minute video with Douglas Rushkoff (whose new book Life Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take It Back is at the very top of my galley reading stack) about media conglomerates.

Not necessarily anything that hasn’t been said before, but I love the line about corporations being “an interface between shareholders and banks,” and that the music (and by extension, publishing) business has “removed the competence from their industry.”

BTW, Life, which comes out in June is published by Random House.

26 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

This post by Bruce Humes highlighting all the bits cut out of the Chinese translation of a recent Newsweek profile of author Yu Hua (Brothers) is fascinating:

Yu, a former dentist with the charm of a salesman and an unassuming nature that have earned him comparisons to a peasant, has avoided the censorship of Chinese authorities in part by never writing about the Tiananmen Square massacre. In fact, he is surprised that the West remains so fascinated by the brutal suppression of student democracy demonstrators in 1989. “Chinese people aren’t really concerned with it anymore,” he says with a laugh. “The younger generation doesn’t know about it because no one has told them. The intellectuals don’t care because things are good now.”

Brothers begins in a much more desolate era. Early in the novel, the Cultural Revolution descends on their town, known as Liu. Gangs of Red Guards patrol the city searching for counterrevolutionaries, “wielding kitchen cleavers and axes, until the electrical poles, the wutong trees, the walls, and the streets were all splattered with blood,” writes Yu. At times, Song Gang and Baldy Li are so poor that all they to swallow is their own saliva. The death of their mother, Li Lan, in the late 1970s marks the end of the Mao years and China’s revolutionary frenzy. “The dead had departed; the living remained,” Yu writes.

In the second half of the novel, Baldy Li and Song Gang separate, each striving to get rich. Baldy Li concocts a number of dishonest, unethical moneymaking schemes to turn him into the richest man in town. In one, the National Virgin Beauty Competition, originally titled the Hymen Olympic Games, 3,000 women compete for the title. But few are actually virgins and many sleep with the judges. Baldy Li awards first and third place to two of the contestants he beds–underscoring China’s rampant corruption. Meanwhile, Song Gang lacks the ruthlessness that Baldy Li wields to suceed in cash-obsessed modern China.

26 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over at the always interesting Front Table, editor Jeremy Davies has a nice piece about the forthcoming release of Jacques Roubaud’s The Loop, (click to pre-order from Seminary Co-op) the second “branch” in his “Great Fire of London cycle.”

At some point I’d become aware that The Great Fire of London is, in fact, the title given to a cycle of interrelated books, not simply to a single novel—as Proust’s is called À la recherche du temps perdu, or Powell’s is A Dance to the Music of Time, or Dorothy Richardson’s is Pilgrimage. The book published as The Great Fire of London is a single volume in this series, and in context is more accurately called by its proper name, “Destruction.” The Loop, which comes out this April in its first English translation, is “branch two” of Great Fire. Where “Destruction” is Roubaud seeking to force an ordering system over his despair as a conscious alternative to putting an end to his life, in the wake of his wife Alix’s death from illness and a brother’s suicide, The Loop is very much about memory itself, its cyclical nature, its untrustworthiness. For all its concern with darkness, it’s a sunnier branch than “Destruction”—spring has arrived!—since it doesn’t take up the same binary as the earlier book (that is, writing or death).

Still, the golden childhood days that Roubaud describes in The Loop were lived out during the German Occupation, with one parent and one grandparent actively participating in the French Resistance—so the basic tenuousness of life, the fragility of happiness, is never far from our narrator’s mind. What is it, then, about these books—haunted by death, failure, loss, recursion—that so appeals to me?

Firstly, they are funny, charming—effortless and overwhelming all at once. They are not quite novels, not quite memoirs (more precisely, to use Roubaud’s own formulation, they are “not-not” novels . . . that is, they are whatever strange animal we’re left with after a double negative [because, using the logic of the books, a double negation doesn’t necessarily give you the same positive you left behind after adding that initial “not” . . .]). Roubaud is, I think, “our” Proust—though their projects are very different—in that they both employ the form of the novel (explicitly in Proust’s case, circumspectly in Roubaud’s) to examine their memories, and draw conclusions about human life and memory in general.

Roubaud’s going to be in New York next week to participate in Oulipo in New York, a series of events highlighting the work of several Oulipo writers, including Ian Monk and Marcel Benabou.

26 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

As announced to members of the German Book Office Facebook Group yesterday, the GBO is giving away a few copies of their recent Book Club pick, Therapy by Sebastian Fitzek.

Here’s the PW review:

Starred Review. Extreme grief permeates Fitzek’s brilliant psychological thriller, a bestseller in his native Germany. When TV psychiatrist Viktor Larenz’s 12-year-old daughter, Josy, who suffers from a number of unexplainable illnesses, vanishes without a trace from her doctor’s office, Larenz’s subsequent search for even the smallest clue to the girl’s disappearance costs him his career and marriage. Four years later, Larenz has retreated to an isolated, storm-prone island, where he’s visited by children’s novelist Anna Glass, a schizophrenic who believes the characters she creates become real. One of those characters bears a striking resemblance to Josy and may have the answer to what happened to her. Unbalanced by his mourning, Larenz emerges as an unreliable but sympathetic character. Is he really losing his mind or is he being gaslighted? Undertones of gothic suspense imbue an unpredictable plot that will remind many of Shutter Island and A Beautiful Mind.

You can click the title above to order the book from Harvard Book Store (our featured bookstore this month), or e-mail Hannah Johnson at johnson at gbo dot org to try and win a free copy . . .

The next GBO Book Pick is Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, which we’ll be covering in much greater detail in the near future. In the meantime, you can find out more by visiting (and joining) the GBO Facebook Group.

25 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As officially announced at Bacacay, (the official blog of the Polish Cultural Institute in New York) Jerzy Pilch’s The Mighty Angel has been selected as the September title for the European Book Club.

It’s an honor to have one of our titles selected for this program, especially since this is the first time the Polish Cultural Institute is participating. (And it’s super-cool that the book club discussion will be taking place in the Solas Bar . . . )

If you’re not familiar with the European Book Club, here’s a nice write-up that Bill posted at Bacacay:

Founded in 2008, the European Book Club is a collaboration between a handful of New York-city based European cultural institute: the Austrian Cultural Forum, the Czech Center, the French Institute Alliance Française, the Goethe-Institut, the Istituto Italiano di Cultura, the Polish Cultural Institute, and the Instituto Cervantes. Each month, a different participating institute hosts a book club meeting, which is then “mirrored” at the Brooklyn Public Library later the same month—a measure just introduced due to the overwhelming popularity of the Book Club last year and the fact that so many people had to be turned away. So, for instance, Jachým Topol’s classic City Sister Silver will be discussed tonight at the Czech Center, and the mirror session will take place tomorrow night in Brooklyn. Next month, Muriel Barbery’s acclaimed novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog will be hosted by the French Institute Alliance Française on April 13, and reproduced in Brooklyn on April 21. We’ll be holding our session in September at Solas Bar (appropriately enough), in the same second storey room of this fine East Village establishment where the St. Mark’s Bookshop reading series takes place. If you’ll be in New York then, make sure to check back here or at http://www.europeanbookclub.org sometime around the middle of August for information on how to sign up. Registration for the French session next month is already open.

25 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments



E.J. mentioned this earlier, but now that we actually have a physical issue in hand, I thought I’d add a bit of information.

As noted in the earlier post, this issue of Zoetrope: All-Story is dedicated to contemporary Latin American writers. All of the writers included in this issue are under 40 (born post-One Hundred Years of Solitude) and the vast majority have never been published in English translation.

From the introduction by Daniel Alarcon and Diego Trelles Paz:

The view of Latin American letters, at least in the United States, has sorely needed an update for quite some time. Magical realism has been one of Latin America’s most profitable exports for many years, operating as the prevailing commercial literary mode long after outliving its usefulness. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solidtude (1967) and Love in the Time of Cholera (1985), two books we would describe—without exaggeration—as perfect, served as precursors to an unfortunate string of imitatons, novels that combined a little magic, a little folklore, and a few miraculous recipes in entirely predictable formulas, creating an exotic, unrealistic, and ultimately damaging vision of Latin America. Perhaps the most dispiriting consequence of this stylistic hegemony is that so many other worthy writers have received less attention than they deserve. Giants like Jorge Luis Borges and Mario Vargas Llosa are widely celebrated, though not widely read in English—to say nothing of Juan Carlos Onetti, Juan Rulfo, Clarice Lispector, Julio Cortazar, or Manuel Puig. In this context, the recent canonization of Roberto Bolano in the United States and around the world is a truly welcome development, which we hope will lead to greater interest in not-yet-famous and emerging Latin American writers.

To that end, they included a diverse list of authors from a range of countries, including: Carolina Sanin (Colombia), Ronaldo Menendez (Cuba), Ines Bortagaray (Uruguay), Rodrigo Hasbun (Bolivia), Alejandro Zambra (Chile), the late Aura Estrada (Mexico), Slavko Zupcic (Venezuela), and several others.

A quick word about the design: Zoetrope is always beautiful, but this time they outdid themselves. The paper so supple, and I really like the inclusion of the original Spanish version of the stories in the back on blue-tinted paper. Filmmaker Guillermo del Toro was the guest designer and interspersed throughout the issue are wonderful full-color sketches from his notebook.

You can order a copy (and find out more about this issue) by visiting the Zoetrope: All-Story website.

And as pointed out in the comments section by Daniel Olivas there’s a great interview with Daniel Alarcon over at La Bloga.

24 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This post originally appeared at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair blog.

One of the most admirable aspects of the UAE is how much money is spent on cultural activities. The Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture & Heritage does a remarkable job funding events (such as the book fair) and helping to cultivate the apperception and production of art in the region.

In relation to the book fair, this philanthropic drive manifests itself in a number of ways, especially in the funding of translations.There are two main translation funders in the region: Kalima (based in Abu Dhabi) and the Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation (based in Dubai).

Kalima was established just a few years ago by the aforementioned Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture & Heritage to implement the vision of H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, with the goal of reviving translation within the Arab world. Kalima’s core program is to translate 100 books a year into Arabic from a variety of disciplines, including history, science, and literature.

The plan is that every year Kalima will announce 100 titles that it wants to support. They then identify the translator, work at obtaining rights, and find the right Arab publisher to work with to assure the translated title reaches an appropriate audience.

The Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation has a similar mission of improving the number and quality of translations into Arabic, but approaches the situation in a slightly different fashion. Tarjem is their main translation program, and has an even more ambitious goal that Kalima, in that they want to sponsor 365 titles a year. (In other words, a translation a day!) Rather than identify the works to translate and involve themselves in the publishing project directly, Tarjem accepts applications from publishers and for the most worthy projects the foundation purchases 1,500 copies to distribute to libraries and schools throughout the Arab world.

In addition to this publishing program, the foundation runs the Turjuman program, designed to improve and encourage translation in the Arab world by providing training courses for translators and scholarships that provide translators with the opportunity to pursue a master’s degree in translation. There are other programs as well, including “Cultural Dialogue” programs with a variety of countries, a “Book in a Capsule” program that provides hurried readers with 20-page summary versions of prominent business books, and the Dubai International Children’s Book Fair.

The activities of Literature Across Frontiers is a great complement to these two foundations. LAF represents approximately twenty cultural organizations from across Europe that provide translation subsidies to publishers interested in translating their works. In addition, these organizations frequently produce pamphlets and other promotional materials to spread the word about their literature. Alexandra Buchler of LAF came to the fair to make more Arab publishers aware of these programs in the hope that there will be an increase in translations into Arabic from the “smaller languages” of Europe, such as Catalan, Finnish, or Latvian. Her overall goal is to help create networks between European publishers and Arabic ones, in hopes of developing relationships that lead to greater cultural exchanges.

Unfortunately there aren’t a lot of Finnish to Arabic translators out there (for example–this is true with a ton of countries), so LAF is also trying to create partnerships to support the development and training of translators.

Finally, Next Page is also at the fair to spread the word about “Encounters,” a program of the foundation to encourage translation and exchange between Arabic and the languages of Eastern Europe. Through this program they hope to establish better relationships between publishers in the two regions and supply translation subsidies to publishers of both areas. (A very logical and great complement to what LAF is doing.)

In addition to subsidies, Next Page produces some fantastically informative reports. Ina Doublekova gave me a copy of a recent study on “Translations of Books from Arabic in Four East European Countries after 1989,” which is really fascinating. According to the opening summary, over the last decade the average number of titles translated from Arabic into Bulgarian, Hungarian, Polish, and Serbia, is between 0 and 3 titles per year. (The entire study is available online at http://www.npage.org.) Hopefully thanks to Next Page—and its energetic and brilliant director Yana Genova—this situation will improve greatly over the next few years.

Overall, it’s very encouraging to uncover so many organizations all working to improve the flow of books both into and out of Arabic. It’s my belief that publishing across borders makes the world a better place–and right now there’s not enough publishing of this sort in the world.a

24 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This post originally appeared at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair blog.

After spending a week in Abu Dhabi talking with Arabic publishers, looking at Arabic stands, I’m personally very interested in reading a few contemporary Arabic works. As most everybody knows, translation ain’t a specialty of American/UK publishers, so unfortunately outside of a handful of Mahfouz titles and Munif’s Cities of Salt, it’s unlikely you’ll find many other books on the shelves of your local bookstores.

That said, there are a few good sources and publications (which your bookstores should be able to order for you at least) that are worth checking out:

American University of Cairo Press is probably the cream of the crop. They publish upwards of 100 titles a year about the Middle East, ranging from academic books to general novels. Their three big categories are “Islamic Art & Architecture,” “Middle East Studies,” and “Modern Arabic Literature in Translation.” As more of a fiction reader than anything else, I picked up a copy of Gamal al-Ghitani’s The Zafarani Files, which was published just after it was announced that al-Ghitani won this year’s Sheikh Zayed’s Book Award for Fiction. (Instead of an overview or teaser about the book, I’ll just say that a full review will be available on the Three Percent website in the not too distant future.)

Saqi Books. The Alsaqi Bookshop is the UK’s largest bookshop specializing in Middle Eastern titles. And in addition to selling, they also publish books about the Middle East. Saqi Books publishes a wide range of titles from a number of languages and countries, and across a number of categories, including history, biography, culture & society, literature, philosophy & religion, and food & drink. Their “short stories by ___ women” series is a great introduction to writing from around the world. And in terms of the Middle East, Afsaneh: Short Stories by Iranian Women looks quite good.

In a Fertile Desert: Modern Writing from the United Arab Emirates was specially published for the ADIBF by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage. Featuring twenty stories by UAE writers, this is the first collection of Emirati short fiction to be published. As mentioned on the flap copy, fiction writing is a very new genre for UAE writers, having traditionally worked within the poetry tradition. Selected and translated by Denys Johnson-Davies–one of the best Arabic translators working today–this book in a fantastic introduction to the literature of the region.

24 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This post originally appeared at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair blog.

One of the liveliest and interesting professional programs of the week was “How Did You Do It?” a special Women in Publishing Business Lunch that focused on innovative marketing strategies implemented by two independent presses.

Rana Idress of Dar al Adab (founded in Lebanon in 1953) opened the session by talking about the censorship challenges she faces as the publisher of “controversial” titles. Many of her books have been banned in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere for the political views, sex scenes, and religious content included in her titles. Having one’s books banned is a pretty substantial challenge to overcome in order to get your books in hands of readers. And this is a very serious issue resulting in a host of complications: one of their authors had copies of his own books confiscated at a Saudi airport (this led to the Lebanese government seizing all of the copies, which were then promptly released because “it’s only sex”); Dar al Adab has problems being allowed to present their books at certain book fairs, or frequently end up with the smallest of the small booths; and a lot of their titles aren’t available in bookstores.

Rana put forth four concepts that have helped them be very successful over the years: creating trust among readers in what they publish, participate in as many book fairs as possible (in order to sell directly to the public), actively campaign against censorship by making explicit what books have been banned where and for what reasons, and actively engaging with enthusiastic and politically engaged booksellers who might sell your books in the back alley (so to speak).

These sort of “reader-centric” practices were echoed in Urvashi Butalia’s presentation. Urvashi is co-founder and publisher of Zubaan Books in New Delhi, the first feminist publishing company in India. And furthermore, she is the founder of the Indian chapter of Women in Publishing. In contrast to Rana, Urvashi doesn’t face many censorship problems, but she does have a hard time distributing her books (a common theme among Indian and Arabic publishers) and has implemented a number of “reader-centric” activities to help her titles to find more readers.

A great story she told was about Know Your Body a guide written by village women to present information about the female body. (Quick side story: When the authors were putting this book together and showing it around, they got a lot of complaints regarding the illustration of the naked female body included in the book. Villagers said that this drawing “wasn’t realistic” because you never saw naked women. To get around this, the women designed a “pop-up” sort of construction featuring a clothed woman–and clothed man–and a tab with which you could “flip up” their clothes and see what’s underneath.) These women brought the book to Zubaan and asked them to publish it. They did, and the women authors went out to a number of villages to present the book to other women who might be interested. Before it was even available, Zubaan had sold out its first printing, and now over 60,000 copies have been sold, and not one of those copies was sold through a bookstore.

Zubaan is also very active online and via Facebook, and has established a “Words of Women” monthly reading and conversation series featuring a different woman author each month–sometimes the speaker is published by Zubaan, sometimes she’s from another publisher. All of these activities have led to the situation in which a number of enthusiastic readers go into Indian bookstores to pester the booksellers about when the next Zubaan title will be available. These fans are buying books not based on the book or the review or anything else, but on the fact that they know what to expect from Zubaan.

Kitab is trying to help facilitate the creation of a Women in Publishing chapter in the Arab world (although they can’t put the whole thing together themselves). Urvashi described some of the activities of the Indian chapter, which has monthly meetings in which to exchange information or listen to a guest speaker, and an annual party sponsored by two women who own both a bookstore and hotel chain. Based on her presentation it’s clear that the WIP chapters are extremely useful, and a great opportunity to create a network of publishing women who can share information about how to publish/market outside of the mainstream.

24 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This post originally appeared at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair blog.

To celebrate Beirut being the UNESCO World Book Capital 2009, the Hay Festival has created Beirut39, a three-day festival celebrating 39 of the best Arab writers under the age of 39.

Nominations for the 39 will come from publishers, literary critics, and members of the public (visit www.beirut39.com for more details on how to vote), and the final list will be selected by four famous authors: Abdo Wazen (poet and cultur editor of Al-Hayat), Hoda Barakat (author of The Tiller of Waters), Maher Jarrer (Palestinian critic and professor at the American University of Beirut), and Elias Khoury (playwright, essayist, journalist, and prizewinning novelist of Gate of the Sun and Yalo, among other titles).

The final 39 names will be announced in September of this year, and the Beirut39 festival will take place March 4th through 7th, 2010. Approximately 50 events will take place over this period and throughout the city of Beirut, focusing on a wide range of literary topics.

To further promote these “39 under 39″ an anthology of short stories will be produced in Arabic, English, and Spanish editions and promoted throughout the world.

Current partners in the Beirut39 project include Beirut UNESCO World Capital of the Book Committee, Banipal, The British Council, Lebanon, and Metaform X.

24 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This post originally appeared at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair blog.

One of the most interesting panels I’ve attended here at the book fair was the “Business Potentials of Digital Publishing” seminar that took place this afternoon. This is a topic that I’m personally really interested in, and following a few disparaging comments about e-books in the Arab Market Overview session, I couldn’t wait to hear about what kind of digital projects are going on in this region, and what Arab publishers thought of the brave new e-world.

Dalia M. Ibrahim of Nahdet Misr Publishing & Printing in Egypt–which happens to be the Arabic publishers of the Harry Potter books–put forth a strong presentation about the need for e-content, and more importantly, the need to create and distribute this content in a smart fashion. It’s easy to recognize the potential of e-books and other forms of online content, but as Dalia has experienced at Nahdet Misr, where over they past six years they’ve spent a lot on e-projects without receiving a return on investment, there are a lot of obstacles that have to be overcome to make this a viable model.

The way that Dalia and Ramy presented internet use in the Arab world was pretty interesting. According to both of them, although internet use increased by 1000% between 2000 and 2007, only 10% of the searches by Arab users were for “meaningful” information. (Obviously this is a bit of a value judgement, but they compared searching for information about a potential health problem as meaningful versus chatting and IMing as meaningless.) A corollary to this situation is that there is a lack of worthwhile content available online in Arabic. According to Ramy, “unlike the west, there aren’t even very many personal webpages.”

This situation can be seen as a great opportunity, and Dalia called on Arab publishers to invest in the future and start creating e-content so that their future market share will be that much greater. With a lack of immediate economical incentives, she also called for governments and NGOs to supply funding to publishers to allow for the creation of culturally valuable e-content.

Ronald Schild–who works with Libreka! (exclamation point theirs)–provided a slick, well-organized, effective overview of the potentials of the e-book market, providing a case against allowing Amazon and Google to dominate the marketplace, and instead arguing for a more open market with several modes of distribution. He also offered some “best practices” to publishers entering the e-world, including the need to stop piracy, the need to offer your whole catalog as e-books instead of just the best-sellers, the need to leave behind the insanities of DRM, and the need for publishers to “be fast.”

All of this is very interesting, and actually offers one potential solution to the distibution difficulties existing in the Arab world: Instead of trying to figure out how to deliver books from one country to another continent and sell them at a reasonable price, why not just work towards developing e-books, which can be downloaded from anywhere at a (potentially) cheaper price?

Another technology-related solution that’s come up a few times is the idea of decentralized short run printing. Basically, the idea is that there could be ”book centers” in every Arab country equipped with similar short run digital printing equipment. So to avoid shipping costs under this model, a book published by an Egyptian publisher, let’s say, would be digitally sent to the book centers where there is a market for the book (different countries have different censorship standards) and then printed in quanties of 50, or 300, or whatever is needed. (The number that keeps getting bandied about is that the average book sells around 1,500 copies throughout the Arab world.)

Unfortunately, there were only a few Arabic publishers who attended this whole session, but everyone who did was very engaged and excited to talk about all the opportunities that e-publishing presents. And according to Ramy, this is another market that foreign publishers could participate in, and which could serve a way to increase the interactions between Arabic publishers and the rest of the world.

24 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This post originally appeared at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair blog.

As mentioned earlier, in addition to copyright and piracy issues, the other main emphasis at the ADIBF is educational publishing. To this end, the fair organized a two-day “Education Chapter Conference” to provide publishers and educators with information about the changes and projects going on within the education sector.

Yesterday, Dr. Robert Thompson, head of special projects at the Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC) gave a presentation about all the various reform projects going on in Abu Dhabi related to curriculum change, teaching methods, and the creation (and restocking) of libraries.

All of these inititatives sound really promising, and are great opportunities for publishers, especially those publishing content-appropriate books in English. One of the key problems facing students entering the university–where classes are taught in English–is their command of the English language. In an attempt to address this, the ADEC is working with publishers to provide better resources to teachers, incluiding teacher training and better English and Arabic source materials. (I believe inititative like this is what brought Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation into existence.)

Another interesting–although also pretty depressing–part of his presentation was about the library situation in the region. When the ADEC went around to visit local libraries, they found loads of empty shelves, that is, in the libraries that weren’t locked up. To rehab this situation, ADEC is trying to fix 300-500 school libraries, restocking the shelves (with an average of 18-20 books per student!), making the library more accessible to the community, and including resources forr parents to help with the education process.

Another fantastic program to promote education and reading among young children (and which explains the heaps of excited kids wandering the halls of the fair) is the voucher program. Every year, His Highness Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahayn, who gives 4 million UAE Dirham (approx. $1.08 million USD) to local schools and colleges to provide vouchers to students to use on educational books at the fair.

The Educational Chapter wrapped up today with a number of presentations (the conference ran from 9am to 4:30pm), including “Looking to the Future: Developing Effective and Resourceful Learners” by Roy Leighton and “Q&A: The Neuroscience of Learning” by Dr. Andrew Curran, but it sounds like this will be a part of the ADIBF again in the future.

23 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This post originally appeared at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair blog.

One of the larger topics at the ADIBF is the professionalization of the Arab publishing world. As I’ve mentioned earlier, there is no pan-Arab distribution system, there’s a good deal of piracy and copyright infringement, etc. The “Spotlight on Rights” program (see related post) and accompanying seminar on how to buy and sell rights is just one example of the way in which the Book Fair is serving as a place to sell books, find out about books, and learn more about the industry as a whole.

Thankfully, the desire to further professionalize the field won’t end with the closing of the ADIBF. In fact, there are three exciting initiatives presented at the fair that will build on this idea: the establishment of the UAE Publishers Association, a special publisher training seminar in June, and the International Publishers Association Copyright Symposium in Abu Dhabi next year.

The UAE Publishers Association was officially announced earlier this month, and presented at the swanky Gourmand party that took place last night, featuring delicious food, muzak versions of pop hits from the 80s, and occasional dancing. The UAEPA will be headquartered in Sharjah and work to represent UAE publishers both domestically and abroad and help to develop the industry as a whole.

Also presented last night was the IPA Copyright Symposium Abu Dhabi, which will take place from February 28th – March 1st in Abu Dhabi. Sponsored by Kitab, the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture & Heritage, the International Publishers Association, and the Arab Publishers Association, the symposium will, in the words of IPA Secretary General Jens Bammel, be a “unique opportunity to discuss international copyright policy and practice as well as network and find new business contacts.”

On top of both of these initiatives, in June, the Akademie des Deutschen Buchhandels will launch a series of four seminars to train publishing professionals. The Akademie–which is based in Munich–will provide information about editing, marketing, distribution, and management. Sessions include some theoretical information, but mostly these are very hands on seminars, with case studies, and tons of practical information.

Of the four seminars that will take place in 2009, two of them are aimed at CEOs and the other two will be for senior level employees. All of these events are sponsored by Kitab, the Goethe Institut, and the Foreign Office of Germany, and seven fellowships will be offered for each session, covering the cost of the flight and hotel.

23 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This post originally appeared at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair blog.

Earlier today Ursula Holpp took our group of journalists on a quick tour of the fair, introducing us to some of the most influential and interesting Arab book market representatives. After spending even just a couple hours walking around, trying to figure out what particular publishers are up to. It’s easy to identify the cookbooks and books for kids, but others? Could be history, memoir, novels, poetry, philosophy . . . without knowing Arabic it’s more than a bit tricky and a bit daunting.

Anyway, Ursula did a fantastic job exposing us to a range of publishers and distributors–from the publisher of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight to very literary presses to the Al Mutanabbi Bookshop, which is a fascinating outfit.

First off, for European/U.S. readers reading this, the idea of a “bookshop” in the Arab world is a bit different than how we use the term. From talking to Dawood Salabbai of Al Mutanabbi, it became clear that a “bookshop” was also a distributor, a book fair exhibitor, a wholesaler of sorts, and an actual book shop.

Al Mutanabbi is one of the largest bookshops in the Arab world, with sales in three continents and sixty countries. In addition to traveling to book festivals all over the world, Al Mutanabbi also has nineteen physical stores throughout the Gulf. (The home office is in Dubai.)

Educational books (for all ages, from the very young to the university folks) represent Al Mutanabbi’s primary business, along with medical books, and computer titles. One thing that’s interesting is that almost all of the titles are English imports, something that Dawood had a lot of strong opinions about. Rather than seeing English as an “invasive species” (a somewhat common view as English seems to be spoken virtually everywhere and hundreds of other languages are dying out), he sees it as a real unifier, or even as the mission behind his business. By helping people to learn English–through educational books, and other useful titles–he’s opening up the world, and providing people with a way in which to interact across boundaries and cultures.

Mona Henning of Dar Al-Muna had a somewhat different viewpoint. As a native Arabic speaker, she claimed that “knowing your mother tongue is always a treasure.” Her goal in launching Dar Al-Muna was to translate Scandinavian books (especially Swedish titles, since that’s where she lives and the publishing house is based, and children’s books) into Arabic, and make sure that the culture of this “small country” was represented and available to Arabic readers instead of the standard English/German/French titles.

Some of her publications include Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking and Where the Wild Things Are. (To digress for a moment: in publishing Pippi Longstocking, Mona didn’t edit or change anything, and hasn’t run into any censorship or sales problems. However, when the book was first published in Germany, Pippi no longer carried a ”pistol” but rather a ”water gun.”) These titles are sold in a number of Arabic countries, through book fairs (she echoed the common complaint that there is no distribution system to make the books available throughout the Arab world), but most of the sales are to the 300,000+ Arab speakers living in Scandinavia along with a variety of libraries, schools, etc. And to provide an idea of the sales levels, for most books she prints around 3,000 copies, but with Pippi she’s sold over 35,000 copies to date.

One of her new experiments is the Arabic publication of the international Swedish superstar Henning Mankell (who will be at the ADIBF later in the week). Unlike the U.S., UK, and I suspect the rest of Europe, where Scandinavian crime fiction is the hot thing in translation, the Arabic world has yet to be exposed to crime fiction in general. This may sound like a slam dunk of a publishing idea (as does Twilight, but that’s a different post), but one thing that both Dawood Salabbai and Mona Henning both commented on was the lack of reading for pleasure in the Arab world. (Actually, a number of people mentioned this, and it seems intricately related to the presence of a ton of educational publishers, distributors, etc. displaying at the fair.)

Asked how sales for Mankell’s first two titles were going, she said that these had only been out for a couple weeks, and to “ask her next year.”

23 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This post originally appeared at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair blog.

Bachar Chebaro, general manager of Arab Scientific Publishers and Secretary General of the Arab Publishers Association, kicked off this year’s professional program with his presentation on “News from the Arab Book Market.” As a member of the younger generation that’s unfamiliar with the history of the Arab book market, this was invaluable, providing a very interesting overview of the state of publishing in the Arab world.

There were a few major themes that Chebaro drew on throughout his speech: that Lebanon and Egypt were the two “publishing hubs” of the Arab world, that distribution (especially across borders) is a huge problem, and that copyright infringement is another massive problem (and is related to the aforementioned distribution difficulties).

Unfortunately, there aren’t any reliable statistics about publishing in the Arab world. ISBNs haven’t been assigned properly, books haven’t been sent to a central recording office, etc., and as a result all figures are approximate and inexact. That said, Chebaro used data from neewlafurat.com (the largest Arab online bookstore) to compare production among a number of countries and across a few subjects.

In terms of production by country, Lebanon and Egypt were the two leaders, with Lebanon producing 3,121, 4,165, and 3,330 books over the years of 2006, 2007, and 2008, and Egyptian publishers bringing out 3,016, 2,960, and 2,310 titles over that same period. (In contract, Syria brought out 889, 886, and 1,170 books during that same three-year time period.) The importance of Lebanese and Egyptian publishers is even more evident if you look at the recent shortlist for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Although the six finalists hail from Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Tunisia, five of the titles were published by Lebanese publishers and the sixth by an Egyptian house.

According to Chebaro, the influence of Egyptian and Lebanese publishers can be attributed to the more advanced distribution systems in both countries. There is no “mega-distribution” system in the Arab world, so getting books across borders and into other countries can be quite difficult. Addressing this is one of the main priorities of the Arab Publishers Association, and could go a long way in cultivating a larger audience for some of these works (Chebaro lamented the fact that the print run for most Arab books is between 2,000 and 3,000 copies for the whole Arab world and its 340 million plus inhabitants) and in solving some of the region’s piracy issues. The way Chebaro described it, in place of an international distribution system, there exists a network to pirate best-selling books and academic texts, bringing these titles to other parts of the Arab world sans copyright agreements.

This is a big issue for the Arabic publishing world, and in fact, at last year’s ADIBF, a number of publishers weren’t allowed to exhibit because of known instances of copyright infringement. The number turned away this year is apparently much lower (due in part to past rejectees opting not to reapply), and to encourage a greater awareness of copyright issues, this year there’s a special “Focus on Rights” session and a $1,000 subsidy offered to publishers who negotiate and purchase rights at the fair. (More on this tomorrow.)

Going back to figures for a moment, in terms of publishing categories, there were 7,230, 7,080, and 5,910 books written originally in Arabic and published across the Arab world in 2006, 2007, and 2008 respectively. In comparison, there were 1,480, 1,880, and 1,650 works translated into Arabic came out over that same time period.

In terms of translation, the subsidy programs from the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation and Kalima that are responsible for at least some of these titles published in translation. According to Chebaro, most translation are academic, techincal, and scientific works, but there is a more recent movement to publish novels, children’s books, philosophical works, and current affairs titles. Of course, Chebaro pointed out that translation should go both ways, both into and out of Arabic, but that typically there are more translations into Arabic than out of it.

Overall it seems that in spite of the problems, there’s a great opportunity in the Arab world. There is a strong interest in continuing to translate more foreign works into Arabic, and there are a lot of interesting books to be uncovered. And as the distribution system continues to develop (maybe e-books could play a role in this?), the book market should continue to expand.

23 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This post originally appeared at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair blog.

After twenty-some-odd hours of travel (including a twelve-hour flight in a seat with a busted entertainment center that kept restarting and restarting as if it was possessed), I’m here in Abu Dhabi, at the Book Fair, waiting for the opening ceremony. Along with Ed Nawotka, I’ll be blogging all week about the goings-on here at the fair, including posts about the two big literary awards celebrated during the fair (Ed will be posting about yesterday’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction ceremony shortly), the various educational programs, facts and figures about the Arabic book market, etc.

This year’s fair is the largest to date, with 637 exhibitors from 52 different countries—a substantial increase from last year’s fair, which featured 482 exhibitors from 42 countries. Some of the countries represented for the first time include Australia, Korea, Italy, and Austria. As a result, the overall exhibition space increased by 14%.

I haven’t had much of a chance to walk around the fair, but the convention center—like much of Abu Dhabi—is quite impressive with a cavernous entrance hallway and clean, well-organized booths. More to come after the opening ceremony.

23 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

After a sentimental farewell drink atop the Crowne Plaza Hotel, I left Abu Dhabi Sunday morning at 2 am. Twenty-two hours later I was back here in Rochester, a bit exhausted, but utterly enthralled in Gamal al-Ghitani’s The Zafarani Files.

Anyway, rather than pretend that I can be coherent on the blog today (that said, Rob Walker—the NY Times Magazine “Consumed” columnist and author of Buying In—videoconferenced into my intern’s publishing class this morning and I’m moderating a translation panel in one hour, so I’m going to have to at least feign coherence for a bit longer), I’m instead going to repost my pieces from the ADIBF blog. Tomorrow I’ll get back on track, recap the fair, finish my Salzburg posts, etc., etc.

19 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The new issue of the Frankfurt Book Fair is now available online, and includes:

19 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This is pretty cool:

Inspired by live translation slams that proved to be audience favorites at the Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival, and again at PEN World Voices, PEN’s online Translation Slam aims to showcase the art of translation by juxtaposing in a public forum two “competing” translations of a single work.

For the inaugural installment, we asked translators to test their linguistic mettle on 暮色, a poem by Chinese writer Xi Chuan.

As you can see by comparing the two examples, there’s more than one way to skin a poem. Here’s the opening stanza of both:

Lucas Klein version:

Twilight

in the vast expanses of a nation
the twilight is just as vast
lamp after lamp lights up
and twilight spreads out like the autumn

and

Wang Ping & Johann Hauser-Ulrich version:

Dusk

In a vast country
Dusk, too, is vast
Lamps light up one by one
Dusk spreads like autumn

Be sure to visit the site to log your own reactions about these two translations.

19 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]
18 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

What’s interesting to me about the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair is how it manages to address a number of different constituencies in a variety of ways. Whenever I attend a book fair, I always end up placing it into some imaginary book fair constellation: BEA is for booksellers and publishers, London is all about rights, Frankfurt is rights too, but also cosplay kids and too much time in hotel bars, Guadalajara is all about the crowds of readers, and Buenos Aires is about being open to the public till 4 a.m.

But Abu Dhabi—which has been around for a couple decades, but only in 2007 created a partnership with the Frankfurt book fair—is in a situation where it has to provide a service to publishers looking to buy and sell rights, it has to cater to the public, and it has to work to professionalize the Arab publishing community. To accomplish this, the mornings are packed with trade activities, seminars, etc., and the evenings are devoted to the cultural programming, including appearances by authors, piano recitals, etc.

Which is cool, and seems to be working pretty well. Granted, the first day was very quiet, but today was crowded—with kids, with general readers—and buzzing like your typical book fair.

Obviously I’m here to write about the goings on at the fair, the special programs, the announcements, etc., but as a publisher I also appreciate the chance to learn a bit more about the Arab book market. Which publishers do what, how the distribution market works (or doesn’t), etc. (Here’s a post about a tour the journalists took around the book fair.)

Related to the post about the Salzburg Seminar and various publishing markets, one thing that’s clear is that the Arabic book scene is totally different than both Europe and the U.S.

Even to speak of the “Arab publishing scene” is a bit of a paradox. Sure, Arabic publishers buy rights to sell the books throughout the Arabic-speaking world, but there’s no systematic distribution system to make these books available in all of the 20+ Arabic-speaking countries. Instead, publishers distribute locally, and travel internationally to book festivals to hawk their wares.

And then there’s the whole problem of pleasure reading. According to basically everyone, although there are some great Arabic literary works, the general populous doesn’t really read for fun. So there are a ton of educational presses (and distributors/booksellers) that are displaying books here (more on that on the ADIBF blog tomorrow), and the publishers of Henning Mankell and Twilight are cautious about projecting how many copies they’ll be able to sell.

But more than that, there’s a sort of “free-for-all” mentality—or at least there has been. Copyright infringement is pretty ingrained into the system, and apparently there are a great number of publishers who completely ignore the idea of copyright, reprinting best-selling books that aren’t available in their country (part of the distribution problem), or simply figuring that they can just publish whatever they’d like. Which led, last year, to a number of publishers being denied the right to exhibit at the fair. It’s also led to the creation of the “Spotlight on Rights.” In order to encourage a greater understanding of rights related issues, there was a special seminar about copyright this afternoon, and a special granting program whereby publishers negotiating a rights purchase can receive a $1,000 grant. (There was one publisher who signed on 10 books thanks to this program.)

So in contrast to my over-simplified representation that in the American/U.K. market for translations the biggest problem is the lack of production, and that in the European market the biggest point of discussion is the working conditions of the translator, one could add the Arab market and their problem with acquiring rights in the first place . . .

There are a lot of translation figures thrown around at the book fair (including one statement that Spain translated more books in one year than the Arab world had in the past 1,000), but based on the conversations I’ve had and what I’ve seen, there is a healthy number of titles making their way into Arabic every year. A couple foundations are really making a difference with this, helping subsidize (and in one case, select) the titles that are published in translation.

So although I’d love to find the next great Arabic novel while I’m here, I think this really is just a first step, a chance to start building a network, figure out which presses to pay attention to, etc.

In the meantime, I’m just enjoying the general program . . . So far, every night has featured some great evening events, beginning with the International Prize for Arabic Fiction award ceremony on Monday, which I referred to in passing earlier as the first dry publishing party I ever attended. It was an interesting event—and fantastic award that really does help bring more international attention to Arabic literature—although my personal favorite moment was Yousef Ziedan’s hours long answer to Ed Nawotka’s question about how his writing was influenced by the time he worked for the Alexandria Library.

Last night, we had the opportunity to attend a special “Taste of Literature” event at the uber-swanky garden (complete with pond and mini-waterfall) at the Hilton. Featuring three international chefs—Chef Wan, KC Walberg, and Yvan Cadiou—the food was excellent (as was the wine—wine!), although the 80s Ameri-pop muzak (and the dancing that accompanied it) was maybe a bit off the mark. (Seriously, hearing “Everything I Do, I Do it For You” and Dirty Dancing‘s “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” brought back a lot of 8th grade dance memories. And wtf? How do these songs end up—in muzak version no less—in the United Arab Emirates? Of course, at dinner, when the Filipino trio performing in the restaurant dropped a little George Michael at our table, I came to truly understand the implications of globalization.)

Tonight though . . . Visiting the Emirates Palace is something else. It’s a pretty showy place that initially reminded me of Vegas, but like, a bit more real, but that nevertheless is a gigantic, impressive structure. And the ceremony for the Sheikh Zayed Book Awards (or Sheikh Zayed’s Book Awards), which is one of the richest literary awards in the world, were very cool. Slickly produced montage videos, an orchestra, a gorgeous auditorium, all added up to a memorable event. Seven awards were handed out, including Dr. Sa’ad Abdulaziz Maslouh for Translation, Jamal Al Ghitani for Literature, and Dar Al Masriah Al Lubnaniah for Best Publishing and Distribution House. Unfortunately both Children’s Literature and Best Technology in the Field of Culture were withheld this year because “the advisory council decided the nominations received this year have not fulfilled the necessary criteria.” Maybe next year . . .

18 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As I mentioned earlier I’m in Abu Dhabi, writing a blog for the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair blog. It’s all going pretty well—I have a few posts up, a few more interesting ones on the way—but since trips like this generate a lot of thoughts, comments, and ideas, and since the book fair blog probably isn’t the right place to share my opinions (not to imply that my opinions are negative, just that they’re more like inappropriate) I thought I’d post a few things here about the trip as a whole.

First off, the other journalists on this trip are amazing. And hilarious, smart, interesting, and incredibly fun to be around. (Even at the dry parties. . . . The first dry publishing parties I’ve ever attended.) Just to give a quick rundown: Hannah Davies from The Bookseller is blogging about the fair on their website. She’ll be writing a longer piece later, as will Maria de Cos Villanueva from Spain’s Delibros. Ed Nawotka’s writing from the ADIBF blog as well, and possibly for a few other places as well. And Anne Eckert—who works for the Frankfurt Book Fair and arranged the whole journalist program—is here as well.

To set the scene for the ADIBF, the day before it started Anne arranged for a visit to the Cultural Foundation where we heard a bit about the history and culture of Abu Dhabi. Admittedly, I probably should’ve known more about the UAE before coming, but it was fascinating to see the model of Abu Dhabi in 1966 when there was only one brick building and a lot of hut-like structures. It’s completely different now, filthy with skyscrapers everywhere you look, and other wildly ambitious structures, like the final design for the place where the fair is taking place. And that’s not to mention Saadiyat Island. And for as much as the Emirates Palace sort of reminded us of Las Vegas, it was still pretty damn impressive. (Although according to some there could’ve been much more gold . . . )

Speaking of gold, one of the interesting things I learned here was that Dubai (which I haven’t visited yet, but which Abu Dhabi folks seem to treat as a sort of UAE aberration, a city totally off the rails with growth, and not nearly as oil rich as Abu Dhabi) used to be a hub for gold smuggling. Like airplanes full of gold, smuggling. The place where you could buy a special coat with all sorts of hidden pockets . . .

Another interesting aspect of UAE life are the camel beauty pageants. (And camel racing, but that doesn’t come with such a bizarre picture.)

There are some obvious cultural (and weather-related) differences between the Arab world and the U.S., but nevertheless the first thing I saw getting off the place was a Burger King. (Which was almost the last part of the UAE I saw, since the guards freaked out about my rain damaged passport and warned me not to try and come back before getting a new one.)

This is kind of a tough place to describe. Some parts of the city are totally over-the-top, others are just city-like, and few are so especially unique that they merit specific mention. Nevertheless, it’s still a cool place to visit, and the fair has been pretty enlightening.

17 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For anyone interested, Ed Nawotka and I will be posting about the Abu Dhabi Book Fair at the fair’s official blog. We’ll have pictures, stories, and funny anecdotes all week . . .

14 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Things might be a little slow here at Three Percent this week. I’m going to be in Abu Dhabi attending—and writing about—the book fair. I’m not sure where exactly my articles/reports will appear, but as soon as I have the link, I’ll post it here.

As a mini-preview of things to come, after I get back, I’ll finish my series of posts on the Salzburg Global Seminar about translation. Also, we have a number of book reviews in the offing, including one for Rex by Jose Manuel Prieto, which is probably my current frontrunner for the 2010 Best Translated Book Award. (Although there’s a lot of time left and a lot of books on my “to read” shelf . . . )

This deserves its own post, but on March 23rd, we’re hosting a roundtable on “The Politics of Translation” here at the University of Rochester. The event starts at 5pm in the Plutzik Library (in the Special Collections & Rare Books section of Rush Rhees) and will feature Kathleen McNerney (author of a book on Merce Rodoreda, whose Death in Spring we’ll be bringing out in May), Suzanne Jill Levine (translator of Manuel Puig, G. Cabrera Infante and others) and Amanda Hopkinson (also translated a number of contemporary Latin American writers, and is the director of the British Centre for Literary Translation). Should be a really interesting discussion . . .

14 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

To complement all the review coverage that Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones has been receiving, Ron Hogan from Beatrice, has posted a piece by Charlotte Mandell about translating this controversial novel:

People talk about ‘free translation’—and they usually mean something that I’d judge sloppy or pretentious. For me, my real freedom as a translator is to follow strictly, alertly, joyfully, the moves and rhythms of the original text. I want the reader to know exactly what the author thought—and when he thought it. That means I want the translation to present ideas, images, events in as close as humanly possible to the order in which those ideas, images, events occur in the original. I want the reader to hear the author think.

And to do that, I have chosen to translate right from the start of the text: I do not read ahead. I don’t read the book before I translate it. I don’t want to know what it means before I go through the actual formation of its meaning word by word. In that way, I not only try to keep the reader in mind (so that if I come to a puzzling passage I can guess the reader will be puzzled too, and I’ll try to find the best words to make the passage clear), but I also have the tremendous experience of, so to speak, accompanying the author in the act of composition. I follow at his pace, and go through his discoveries. [. . .]

As Littell pointed out in an interview, we have heard the victim’s story over and over. Now we need to hear the perpetrator. We need to try and figure out his motives, his excuses. And what a perpetrator Max is—his keen aesthetic sense constantly lures us into his mind. And then again and again we have to make our own choices, our own abstentions. What a moral workout the book puts the reader through—and that is a large part of its greatness, and my own satisfaction in what could otherwise have been a horror show. This is not the One Good Nazi of the sentimental (and to me disgusting) movies. This is the Evil Nazi, and we are in him for a thousand pages, and have to make our own way out. No consolations, no forgivenesses. I think about Paul Celan’s famous question, and realize we have to become the ones who witness the witness.

The whole piece is definitely worth reading, especially since Charlotte knows this book on such an intimate level.

14 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Since Mexico is the guest of honor at the Salon du Livre 2009, Le Monde has a piece by Carlos Fuentes about five Mexican authors/books he thinks should be more well known.

The list includes works by Ignacio Padilla (Shadow without a Name is a really cool book), Pedro Angel Palou (not translated into English), Cristina Rivera Garza (_No One Will See Me Cry_ is available from Curbstone), Xavier Velasco (also not translated into English), and Jorge Volpi (In Search of Klingsor came out from Simon & Schuster a few years ago, and we’ll be publishing Season of Ash this September).

Interesting list, although it’s sort of depressing how few books have been published in English from these Fuentes-endorsed writers . . . Hopefully that will change soon.

14 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Jessa Crispin (the woman behind Bookslut) wrote a great reivew of Marguerite Duras’s The Sailor from Gibraltar) for NPR:

But this is a novel by the cerebral French writer and filmmaker Marguerite Duras, so nothing much happens at all. And it’s all the more thrilling because of it. There are long philosophical conversations about love and obsession and identity, and characters stare out at the sea for what seems like hours. A woman’s mussed hair says volumes about her inner turmoil, and there is no conclusion to speak of. It’s not a book to rush through. It’s a book to be savored while drinking cognac and smoking pretentious cigarettes. [. . .]

“One’s always more or less looking for something,” Duras writes in Gibraltar, “for something to arise in the world and come toward you.” Whether that’s a lost love or a reason not to go home again, Duras captures the longing that infects her ‘haracters — and all of us from time to time — with elegant prose and a story that will set you blissfully adrift.

Absolutely. And in addition to the review, NPR has an excerpt from the book as well.

13 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In my opinion, Jan Kjaerstad’s The Conqueror is one of the best books we brought out in our first season. Compelling and engaging, with a brilliant over-arching structure, it’s a novel that’s very literary and very readable, and one that we were really hoping would take off. (Especially since this is part of a trilogy, and we’re bringing out the final part in the fall.)

Well, although there haven’t been a ton of reviews (yet), we’ve been getting a lot of comments from readers and booksellers about this book.

Karl Pohrt from Shaman Drum called me a while back to tell me how impressed he was with this novel. And since then, I’ve heard that one bookseller wrote a staff pick about how The Conqueror forced him to rewrite his “desert island” list. And just today we received a postcard from another New York store about how The Conqueror was a “amazing and wonderful reading experience.”

Back a couple months ago, we gave away a few galleys of this book. And earlier this week I heard from one winner about how effing good this book is . . .

It is the second part of a trilogy—the first part is The Seducer, which came out from Overlook a couple years ago—but the books really do stand alone. If you’d like to know more about the first volume, Michael Orthofer has a really comprehensive review at Complete Review.

I’m mentioning all this now, because we’re in the process of preparing Jan’s U.S. tour. He will be in New York for PEN World Voices, and in Rochester (with Mark Binelli, author of Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die!), and possibly a few other places as well. I’ll post all the details as soon as they’re finalized.

In the meantime, PEN America has an excerpt available online as part of their 2009 Translation Feature page, which is worth checking out in its own right.

13 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Thanks to Literary Saloon for bringing this to our attention. Over at Paper Republic there’s an ongoing discussion of the recent New York Times review by Jess Row of Yu Hua’s Brothers.

It all starts when Bruce Humes raises a few questions about the review:

—-Does Jess Row know Chinese? This is never clarified, yet it is implied throughout that he does. (“reading Brothers in English can be a daunting, sometimes vexing and deeply confusing experience. Partly this has to do with the difficulty of finding an English equivalent for Yu Hua’s extremely direct and graphic Chinese.”) I would certainly like to know, because the ability to compare the two versions would offer a deeper understanding of the book, and empower the critic to offer an informed opinion about the quality of the translation. [. . .]

—-“Does this mean Brothers is untranslatable?” asks Row. It strikes me that there are an awful lot of weird or cutting-edge books out there that have been translated from the French or the Russian, etc. Why is it that when the book in question is Chinese, the first question that pops to mind is whether it can be meaningfully rendered in a European language? Just how “mysterious” is 21st century China to the West, and who is creating, or even manipulating, this perception? If the translation of Chinese literature were carried out by the superb translators and editors who brought Tolstoy and Proust and Kawabata into our lives, would China still seem so “mysterious”?

What ensues in the comments section is exactly what should occur more often in our culture. The responses—which you should really read, it’s a fascinating discussion of translation, how to review a translation, etc.—include a post from Eileen Chow (one of the translators of Brothers) and a reaction from Jess Row himself.

Expanding from an editorial decision to replace a reference to Lin Daiyu with the phrase “a sentimental heroine” the discussion broadens to cover how Chinese literature is presented and what readers/editors expect from a novel. According to Jess Row:

You write, “Are most readers looking for the familiar, or an affirmation of the reality they know, when they read a novel? And have we come to expect authors to “acknowledge” us when they spin a yarn about their own society?” That is exactly my point: I think, unfortunately, that Anglophone readers and editors do look for the familiar and avoid the unfamiliar or seemingly “obscure” (like, say, “Lin Daiyu”?), and that’s what limits the accessibility of this novel, no matter how well it’s translated.

I have to agree that editors and reviewers tend to underestimate readers. Changes like this are perplexing to me. I mean, we all know how to use the internet to get any minute piece of information we want. It took me all of 3 seconds to find the Wiki page explaining “Lin Daiyu”’ for anyone who isn’t familiar with the character. Maybe there are people out there who quit reading when they encounter a word/event/character they’re not already familiar with, but I’d like to think that number is declining. One of the pleasures of reading is encountering new ideas/words/historical contexts, which you can often figure out by the context, or a two second internet search on your iPhone.

12 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Just announced: Roberto Bolano’s 2666 has won the 2008 National Book Critic Circle Award for Fiction. It’s always great to see a translation win a NBCC. (I might be mistaken, but I think the last book to do it was Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl back a few years ago.)

Last month, Marcela Valdes wrote a profile of 2666 for the NBCC blog:

We will never know what ending Roberto Bolaño would have placed at the finale of his extraordinary novel 2666. Though he worked furiously on the book during the last years of his life, he died in Barcelona in 2003, before he could ever complete it.

Assuming, that is, that the supposed sixth part is bunk. . . .

But seriously, 2666 is a brilliant, demanding, deserving novel, and Marcela does a great job summing it up:

It begins with the passion four literary critics feel for the novels of a mysterious author named Benno von Archimboldi and ends with the tender attachment that Archimboldi himself feels for his younger sister. In between lie perhaps the most harrowing 284 pages in modern literature: a tour of the fictional town of Santa Teresa, Mexico, that includes clinical descriptions of 108 murders, all of them of women and girls. [. . .]

Bolaño’s novel is a carefully researched indictment of the circumstances that led to this war and to the murder of more than 400 women and girls in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. It is also, however, more than a book about Mexico. By casting his narrative net so widely—over Nazi soldiers and sympathizers, over Mexican cops and narcos, over Black Panthers and American sheriffs, over lonely detectives and writers, over Romanians and Argentines and Frenchmen—Bolaño assembles arguments for a sexy, apocalyptic vision of history. One that recognizes the constant presence of brutality and impunity, and love and courage in our world.

Congrats to FSG, Natasha Wimmer, Lorin Stein, and everyone else involved in the publication and promotion of this epic novel.

12 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Following on last week’s post with some pictures, here’s the video (thanks, Monica!) from the 2009 BTB Award ceremony at which Francisco Goldman told a great story about translating Gabriel Garcia Marquez for Playboy, and I managed to give the wrong award to Barbara Epler.

12 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

It’s great when one of my favorite stores wins PW‘s Bookseller of the Year award:

Founded in 1978 in Louisville, Ky., by Carol Besse and Michael Boggs, Carmichael’s is still owned by the couple and employs seven other full-time employees plus 13 part-timers. The Besse-Boggs team owns two stores in Louisville, the 976-sq.-ft. store on Louisville’s Bardstown Road and the 1,521-sq.-ft store on Frankfort Avenue. Both stores are located in historic buildings and reflect the tastes of the owners. Carmichael’s has been in touch enough with its customers that over the past 10 years sales have doubled and profits tripled.

12 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The new issue of Bookforum is now available online, and, as always, has some interesting pieces about some interesting works of international literature, including:

  • William Giraldi’s review of Aharon Appelfeld’s Laish: “Being labeled a Holocaust writer might indeed irritate Appelfeld, but no living novelist—not Wiesel, not Amos Oz—better chronicles the spiritual vacuum and extreme disorientation that ensued in the aftermath of Auschwitz.”
  • John Freeman’s review of Impac Prize winner Tahar Ben Jelloun’s Leaving Tangier:Leaving Tangier would read like a blunt political instrument for such sentiments were Ben Jelloun not such a wonderfully specific writer.”
  • Thomas Israel Hopkin’s critique of Albert Sánchez Piñol’s Pandora in the Congo: “Some British reviewers have judged the novel to be postmodern, satiric, and anti-imperialist, but the Garvey/not-Garvey gimmick is more like listening to a protracted joke told by the bastard offspring of Jules Verne and the Eric Idle character Mr. Smoke-Too-Much. It’s not funny. It is, rather, sort of maddening. If I’ve completely missed something clever here, I’d be delighted to learn what it is.”
  • Matthew Ladd’s piece on Abdourahman A. Waberi’s In the United States of Africa: “f there is a sharp glimmer of the absurd in Waberi’s premise, it suits his satire as well as the absurdity of the Lilliputians did Swift’s or that of Pangloss did Voltaire’s. The satirists of the eighteenth century are in fact Waberi’s most evident formal predecessors; his short chapters open with such archaic and mellifluous titles as “‘In which the author gives a brief account of the origins of our prosperity and the reasons why the Caucasians were thrown onto the paths of exile.’ “
  • and, Irene Gammel’s look at Ghérasim Luca’s The Passive Vampire: “Praised by Gilles Deleuze as ‘a great poet among the greatest,’ Luca is well served here not only by Krzysztof Fijałkowski’s faithful translation but also by the elegant introduction, which provides fascinating biographical details and deftly situates the book ‘as a missing piece in the history of international surrealism.’ “ (Gwen Dawson also recently reviewed this book at Literary License, giving it a solid four stars.)

Of course, there are many more good articles in this new issue worth checking out, all of which are available here.

(And just to note—links from the titles above go to Harvard Book Store’s online ordering system. Unfortunately a few of the titles aren’t currently in stock, but I’m sure they can get the book pretty quickly . . .)

11 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

In the Guardian, Hirsh Sawhney has a piece about how independent publishers of the world are going to save literature:

Could literary culture really be breathing its last? Should readers and writers be running for cover? Of course not. But what, then, will save literature from economic disaster? Simple: independent publishing. Yes, independents – the ones who struggle to sell enough books to make payroll – will ensure that engaging, challenging books continue to be produced and consumed. It’s they who’ll safeguard literature through the dark economic days ahead. [. . .]

In an ironic twist of our times, however, these perpetually struggling entrepreneurs might just be able to weather the current financial crisis better than their behemoth corporate cousins. Why? They’re used to constantly innovating to generate revenue and to conducting the business of literature on a tight budget. They don’t expect unreasonable profit margins from good books. And when you’re independently owned, you’re somewhat insulated from the machinations of the market.

All this is true, and beyond weathering the current economic storm, independents play a vital role in book culture, publishing those titles that might not be profitable enough for a big house to do, but that are important nonetheless. And thanks to the nature of the beast, historically, it’s been a lot of indie presses that publish the more subversive, challenging books that shake up how we think about art, politics, life. Books that would appeal to college students who are out looking for something that’s not necessarily sanctioned by their professors or parents . . . Isn’t that what college is all about?

Well, apparently the days of college students reading cult novels that are flying under the collective media radar are long gone. From the “Washington Post“:

Forty years later, on today’s college campuses, you’re more likely to hear a werewolf howl than Allen Ginsberg, and Nin’s transgressive sexuality has been replaced by the fervent chastity of Bella Swan, the teenage heroine of Stephenie Meyer’s modern gothic “Twilight” series. It’s as though somebody stole Abbie Hoffman’s book — and a whole generation of radical lit along with it.

Last year Meyer sold more books than any other author — 22 million — and those copies weren’t all bought by middle-schoolers. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the best-selling titles on college campuses are mostly about hunky vampires or Barack Obama. Recently, Meyer and the president held six of the 10 top spots. In January, the most subversive book on the college bestseller list was “Our Dumb World,” a collection of gags from the Onion. The top title that month was “The Tales of Beedle the Bard” by J.K. Rowling. College kids’ favorite nonfiction book was Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers,” about what makes successful individuals. And the only title that stakes a claim as a real novel for adults was Khaled Hosseini’s “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” the choice of a million splendid book clubs.

Maybe I’m getting old, but I have to admit that I find this pretty disturbing. And some of the explanations for these reading habits are equally cringe-worthy:

Professor Eric Williamson — a card-carrying liberal in full tweed glory — argues that “the entire culture has become narcotized.” An English teacher at the University of Texas-Pan American, he places the blame for students’ dim reading squarely on the unfettered expansion of capitalism. “I have stood before classes,” he tells me, “and seen the students snicker when I said that Melville died poor because he couldn’t sell books. ‘Then why are we reading him if he wasn’t popular?’ “ Today’s graduate students were born when Ronald Reagan was elected, and their literary values, he claims, reflect our market economy. “There is nary a student in the classroom — and this goes for English majors, too — who wouldn’t pronounce Stephen King a better author than Donald Barthelme or William Vollmann. The students do not have any shame about reading inferior texts.”

How wonderful. I’m done for today . . .

11 March 09 | Chad W. Post |

Recently, I happened to be on the same flight as super-translator Michael Henry Heim (who literally speaks more than a dozen languages). We got to talking about books (naturally) and about what we were currently reading, and as it turns out, we had both brought along Can Xue titles for our trip. He was reading Blue Light in the Sky & Other Stories (from New Directions) and I was reading Five Spice Street (just out from Yale University Press).

What Michael noticed when I gave him my copy of the book and press release (the reason I’m mentioning him at all in this review), is that the quote on the press release was an unedited version of the opening paragraph of the novel.

Since there are very few reviews that focus on the translation (other than to say it was “smooth” or “occasionally clunky”), I thought I’d take a moment to point out the great editing job Yale did on this opening paragraph and what a difference this can make.

So, from the unedited version on the press release:

When it comes to Madam X’s age, here on Five Spice Street opinions differ: there’s no way to decide who’s right. There must be at least twenty-eight points of view, because at the oldest, she’s about fifty (for now, let’s fix it at fifty); at the youngest, she’s twenty-two.

There are a few instances in this paragraph in which the reader is forced to reorder the sentence in order to understand it. Like with the placement of “opinions differ” in the first sentence, and “because at the oldest” (what’s the oldest? the points of view?) in the second. Fixing these sorts of knotty sentences is what one does when editing a translation—even if you don’t know the source language.

Here’s the first paragraph as it appears in the finished book:

When it comes to Madam X’s age, opinions differ here on Five Spice Street. One person’s guess is as good as another’s. There are at least twenty-eight points of view. At one extreme, she’s about fifty (for now, let’s fix it at fifty); at the other, she’s twenty-two.

For a book like this—essentially a surrealistic romp that obeys its own internal logic—it’s important that the writing is clear and direct. In short, the “plot” of Five Spice Street is that Madame X and Mr. Q have had an affair, and everyone on Five Spice Street has their own opinions about it. About how old Madame X, about whether Mr. Q is attractive, about whether Madame X is conducting strange rituals in her bedroom at night, about how the affair started, etc. It’s a novel of voices that constantly contradict one another and that—instead of advancing a linear plot—sort of over-stuff the book with details and speculations and unrelated anecdotes.

This is a very chaotic novel, which isn’t to say that it’s not interesting. Can Xue has a way with images, and the occasionally dashes of humor are great. Five Spice Street is a truly unique novel—in the style in which it’s written and in its overall aesthetic.

It’s also a novel that’s best approached in small doses. Taken as a series of individual scenes, or mini-tales, it’s a pretty compelling read. But with the constant shifting of events, of details, of every possible “fact” presented in the novel (everything seems possible, nothing seems true) creates a sense of constant flux that may or may not really add up to anything in the end.

Blue Light in the Sky & Other Stories contains an afterword in which Can Xue explains—kind of—what she’s up to in her writing. And although this was specifically written for Blue Light, I think it applies rather nicely to Five Spice Street as well:

The particular characterists of my stories have now been acknowledged. Nevertheless, when someone asks me directly, “What is really going on in your stories? How do you write them?,” I’m profoundly afraid of being misunderstood, so all I can say is, “I don’t know.” From any earthly perspective, in truth I do not know. When I write, I intentionally erase any knowledge from my mind.

I believe in the grandness of the original power. The only thing I can do is to devoutly, bring it into play in a manmade, blind atmosphere. Thus, I can break loose from the fetters of platitudes and conventionas, and allow the mighty logos to melt into the omnipresent suggestions that inspire and urge me to keep going ahead. I don’t know what I will write tomorrow, or even in the next few minutes. Nor do I know what is most related to the “inspiration” that has produced my works in an unending stream for more than two decades. But I know one thing with certainty: no matter what hardships I face, I must preserve the spiritual quality of my life. For if I were to lose it, I would lose my entire foundation. [. . .]

Some people say that my stories aren’t useful: they can’t change anything, nor do people understand them. As time goes by, I’ve become increasingly confident about this. First, the production of twenty years’ worth of stories has changed me to the core. I’ve spoken of this above. Next, from my reading experience, this kind of story, which indeed isn’t very “useful,” that not all people can read—for those few very sensitive readers, there is a decisive impact. Perhaps this wasn’t at all the writer’s original intent. I think what this kind of story must change is the soul instead of something superficial. There will always be some readers who will respond—those readers who are especially interested in the strengthening force of art and exploring the soul. With its unusual style, this kind of story will communicate with those readers, stimulating them and calling to them, spurring them on to join in the exploration of the soul.

Kudos to Yale University Press for launching the Margellos World Republic of Letters Series and for including in it such a wonderfully strange, unconventional novel. This bodes really well for the series as a whole.

Order from Harvard Book Store.

11 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Our latest review is of Can Xue’s Five Spice Street (click here to order from Harvard Book Store; click here for the review), which was recently released by Yale University Press as part of the Margellos World Republic of Letters Series.

Before getting into the review itself, I want to mention that Can Xue and Isabel Allende are appearing together at the 92nd St. Y on April 13th at 9:00pm. And that this might be the most unlikely pairing of authors I’ve ever seen. (If you read my review, you’ll probably know what I mean.)

Here’s the opening to the review:

Recently, I happened to be on the same flight as super-translator Michael Henry Heim (who literally speaks more than a dozen languages). We got to talking about books (naturally) and about what we were currently reading, and as it turns out, we had both brought along Can Xue titles for our trip. He was reading Blue Light in the Sky & Other Stories (from New Directions) and I was reading Five Spice Street (just out from Yale University Press).

What Michael noticed when I gave him my copy of the book and press release (the reason I’m mentioning him at all in this review), is that the quote on the press release was an unedited version of the opening paragraph of the novel.

Since there are very few reviews that focus on the translation (other than to say it was “smooth” or “occasionally clunky”), I thought I’d take a moment to point out the great editing job Yale did on this opening paragraph and what a difference this can make.

So, from the unedited version on the press release:

“When it comes to Madam X’s age, here on Five Spice Street opinions differ: there’s no way to decide who’s right. There must be at least twenty-eight points of view, because at the oldest, she’s about fifty (for now, let’s fix it at fifty); at the youngest, she’s twenty-two.”

(For the rest—including the edited version of that paragraph—click here.)

11 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Polish Cultural Institute in New York recently launched Bacacay, a new blog with info on Polish literature for English-language readers, translators, reviewers, publishers, and so on.

Even though the site is brand new, Bill Martin has done a great job putting together some really interesting, informative posts, such as this one about the Polish nominations for the European Union Literary Prize. (Speaking of which, we should have a separate post about this prize, which just started this year and will honor a contemporary author from each of twelve countries. More on the specifics soon . . .)

It’s interesting to see the list of Polish nominations for the prize, especially since this info doesn’t appear to be available on EU Literary Prize website. Unfortunately, as Bill points out, only one of the twelve Polish nominations is a woman . . .

10 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The rumor’s been floating out there for the past few months that the recent issue of Calque is also the final issue. As Steve and Brandon write on the Calque website this is “both true and not strictly accurate.”

It’s true that the current format of the magazine is going to end, but Calque will live on:

1.All of the critical functions of our journal, the book reviews, essays, interviews, and whatever else, will be moved to our website, which will continue to host stories and poems, etc. The website will therefore function more or less as a blog. This development is sure to please Adam Sorkin, who’s always called it a blog. Hi, Adam!

2.Starting this summer, we will commence publication of chapbooks, with trade paperbacks to follow not long after. We figure on doing one of each the first year, then ramping that up to the point where we’ll be doing five or six chapbooks and one or two trade books every year.

For a longer explanation, and more info about their future plans, be sure to check out the complete post.

10 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

OK, so the finalists for the 2009 Indies Choice Awards have been announced. The awards—voted on by American Booksellers Association members, with the winners announced at BookExpo—cover seven categories: Best Indie Buzz Book (fiction), Best Conversation Starter (nonfiction), Best Author Discovery (debut), Best New Picture Book, Best YA Buzz Book, Most Engaging Author, and the Picture Book Hall of Fame.

The two categories that I’m most interested in are the Indie Buzz Book for works of fiction and the Best Author Discovery for best debut. Here are your finalists:

Best Indie Buzz Book (Fiction)

Best Author Discovery (Debut)

We’re big fans of independent bookstores (all the above links go to the Harvard Book Store, which we’ve decided to support this month), and I think it’s great that there’s a set of book awards given out by independent booksellers. This isn’t exactly the indie list I was hoping for (I like my bookseller reading tastes to be more eclectic, less corporate), but at least there’s one translation: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which was translated from the Swedish by Reg Keeland.

10 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over at MediumAtLarge, Lance Fensterman has started a short series of posts entitled “Who Is BEA?” on what BookExpo America is and how it should evolve.

Ultimately I believe the event’s success is measured by the demand and buzz publishers create for their book(s) and how meaningfully they impact the people that impact book sales in our market. Did the publisher put themselves in a position to create more buzz for it’s books by participating in BEA than if they’d stayed home watched 30 Rock and ate potato chips?

If that is indeed the ultimate test of BEA’s value to publishers – “making” books – then how will the show continue to hone it’s offerings and identity to foster that? I offer a few broad themes that BEA needs to continue to evolve to, embrace and execute:

  • Touch the books and meet the authors
  • All the shows a stage
  • Think outside the light box
  • Create new media buzz (but where?)
  • Influence the influencers (From Part I)

In the second post, he looks more specifically at the first three points, which all focus (more or less) on the presence of authors at the fair and the interaction between these authors and booksellers, librarians, members of the media, etc. For example:

Think Outside The Light Box – Stages built by BEA to highlight authors is more a stop along the way than a final destination towards a more engaging and media friendly event. Ultimately, the big booths themselves need to be questioned and reexamined. BEA is working with a few key exhibitors to fundamentally alter the way they approach exhibiting at BEA. I give the example of the Marvel booth at New York Comic Con or San Diego Comic-Con. The booth is a wide open space surrounded by large hanging banners (for promotion and a clear delineation of where the “booth” is), signing stations along the edge for creators to interact with fans, a PA system, some flat screens running promos and the days schedule and a stage where interviews and creator talks take place. The booth is jammed. Always. Marvel understands that they, their sales catalog or the staffers are not what people are there to see. They are there to meet the writers, the artists and to see what is new and hot – how better to do that in real life instead of in a flyer or a catalog. They put there most important assets forward – the creators and there products. We need to work with BEA exhibitors to think out side the light box (the author book jacket blown up and put inside a lighted box hanging from the booth) and put the authors up front whenever relevant.

Overall, it seems like Lance is pushing for BEA to be more “interactive” (for lack of a better term). Less passive (“Hi, would you like a catalog?”) and more active in terms of creating buzz via actual interactions between actual people.

Part III should be available online on Wednesday. And if you’re interested, here’s my take on BEA and its evolution.

10 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Big day for Roberto Bolano fans (and the Wylie Agency) . . . according to the Guardian, two more Bolano novels have been discovered among his papers. Oh, and a sixth part (!?!) to 2666.

Two new novels by the Chilean author Roberto Bolaño have reportedly been found in Spain among papers he left behind after his death. The previously unseen manuscripts were entitled Diorama and The Troubles of the Real Police Officer, reported La Vanguardia.

The newspaper said the documents also included what is believed to be a sixth section of Bolaño’s epic five-part novel 2666.

I have to admit that reading this I half-cringed . . . I really hope that these aren’t abandoned projects that Bolano didn’t necessarily want to publish.

9 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

Continuing my series of posts about the Salzburg Global Seminar on Translation (earlier posts available here) I wanted to share the most depressing study about translation I’ve ever heard about—the CEATL Survey of Translator Working Conditions.

CEATL—the Conseil Européen des Associations de Traducteurs Littéraires—decided in 2007 to do a survey of literary translators’ income across Europe, combining information from various member associations, and working out a way in which data from different countries with different situations can be compared.

Anyone interested in the methodology of this survey should take a look at the opening section of the report—a lot of thought and care went into producing this study. I’m just going to skip to the really depressing parts . . .

To determine the average amount paid to a professional translator, they standardized all fees in various countries to the amount paid per 1,800 keystrokes. Then, using data from various translators’ organizations they decided that the average professional translator working full-time could translate 1,056 pages of 1,800 keystrokes per year. Then multiplying that figure by the rates paid in various countries (they include minimum, average, and maximum amounts), they calculated the average income for a professional translator. (Note: the study also includes money earned via royalties, collecting societies, and grants.)

On page 56 of the survey, you will find the minimum, average, and maximum levels for average annual income, average gross income (minus 25% for business expenses), and average net income (minus additional 15% for social security/tax).

Even without a context, these numbers are disturbing. Using the average level of average net income, here’s what a full-time professional translator can expect to make in a variety of countries (all in euros):

Catalonia: 8,290
Croatia: 5,920
Czech Republic: 3,200
Germany: 12,530
Ireland: 28,725
Netherlands: 14,370
Norway: 20,260
Switzerland: 17,705
UK: 23,360

In isolation, these numbers look pretty bad. But looking at how these figures measure up against the average gross income in the “manufacturing and service sectors” is horrifying. Using the same countries as listed above, below is listed the percentage of a translator’s annual earnings compared to the average manufacturing/service employee:

Catalonia: 65%
Croatia: 77%
Czech Republic: 53%
Germany: 44%
Ireland: 71%
Netherlands: 61%
Norway: 62%
Switzerland: 52%
UK: 72%

Granted, in a few instances (Catalonia, Croatia, Greece, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain), the maximum amount earned by a professional translator exceeds the average amount earned by someone in the manufacturing and service sector, but only a very few professional translators are able to command that sort of pay rate.

One of the other very interesting things about this survey are the charts comparing practices in various European countries. There’s information about standard rates recommended by translators’ associations, information about rates agreed upon with publishers (only a few select countries have reached agreements of this sort), information about recommended royalty rates, and information on health, pension, and income tax rates.

Obviously, since this was a European study, there’s no information on full-time translators in the U.S., but I’m pretty sure the numbers are equally shocking. (As Damion Searls pointed out in a comment last week, the most an average translator could expect to earn is in the $28,000 range, which I suspect is 80% or less than the average American manufacturing/service worker earns.)

So this is obviously a problem. Why would someone become a literary translator, knowing full well that it will be a struggle to find publishers willing to publish the books you want to translate, and even if you do find steady work that you enjoy, you’ll be earning less than a good proportion of your friends.

In the European countries where full-time professional translators do exist, there is (or should be) a very lively discussion about workers’ rights, about how translators are providing a clear service that publishers are benefiting from (see sales levels for Harry Potter, Twilight, etc.) and should be duly compensated. I suspect that in a lot of these countries the transaltors’ associations push for minimum fee agreements with publishers, better health care options (in countries without universal health care), etc.

American translators deserve the same benefits, but I think the situation is a bit murkier here. First off, since we’re such a die-hard capitalist country, there never will be an agreed to “minimum rate” because that could be considered price-fixing. So translators have to try and function within a free market in which there is little demand for translators, and a much larger supply of adequate translators.

(I’m of the mind that publishers should only use really good, really talented translators who deserve a higher rate of pay, but for the sake of argument, this post is only looking at this situation from a purely corporate point of view in which cost takes precedent over art.)

If I understand supply-demand economics right, what would happen is that there’s a solid number of potential translators for any job, so the publisher can find someone willing to agree to its (unfavorable) terms. Over time, because of this situation, the supply of translators will dry up, changing the power structure slightly, although publishers could easily regain control by further cutting back on the number of translations being published.

This is one reason that I think it’s important for the industry to focus both on promoting the translations that do make their way in English, and work to increase the number of titles that are published in translation. By reaching a critical mass that could support a healthy number of professional full-time translators, this situation could improve.

(Here’s where I start espousing my quasi-socialist beliefs.) This is one reason why translations need to be better subsidized. In my opinion, it would be best if the federal/state/foreign government (or private donor/foundation) better subsidized both the production and promotion of international literature. This could take the form of paying translators directly (anyone with a contract could get an few thousand dollars in addition to the amount paid the translator by the publishing house) and/or providing grant monies to publishers/organizations enacting marketing efforts directed at increasing the audience for literature in translation. (It’s probably not advisable to enact a marketing strategy that only targets international literature, but there are ways—like PEN World Voices—of doing something that impacts the audience for translations.) By somehow increasing the reader demand for international, literary works, the above scenario can be altered, and there would be a greater possibility that more professional full-time translators could survive in America.

All of these sentiments run counter to the beliefs of the Chicago school of economics (which dominate economics departments across the country, regardless of any negative impact of their theories on the real world ), but for the benefit of our literary culture, I think something needs to be done to ensure a place for translators to live and work. I have more to say about this in terms of translation and the academy (where a good percentage of translators exist), but I think it’s also important for now to recognize the need of book culture for full-time, professional literary translators.

9 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

This is horrible news. From the Alma Books Bloggerel:

John Calder called me this afternoon to give me the sad news of Barbara Wright’s death last night, after complications from a hip operation. Barbara was one of the greatest and most influential translators from the French, and was almost as instrumental as John in making available the works of some of the greatest authors of twentieth-century French literature, such as Queneau and Sarraute.

Before she moved from her house on Frognal, and before I left Dalkey Archive, I used to go and have dinner with Barbara Wright every time I was in London. I swear, I could’ve listened to her talk for hours about how she became a translator, about James Laughlin, about John Calder, about the first time she met Beckett . . . Thankfully, I still have a few of the postcards she used to send me along with a special “Tolling Elves 5” brochure that was printed in honor of Raymond Queneau’s centenary and features samples from a few of Barbara’s translations of his work. (Speaking of which, her story about how she invented a few of the pieces in Exercises in Style while translating the book is another classic story . . .)

She was one of the all time great translators, and also one of the kindest people I ever met. She will be greatly missed.

9 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Observer Translation Project is a relatively new website featuring news, reviews, and samples from and about Romanian authors. From the About Us page:

We highlight a “pilot” author each month. This is the place to learn about Romanian writers, find updates on Romanian writing abroad, read CV’s, take a look at covers published in countries around the globe, check out the bibliographies, dip into author photos, search our steadily growing archive, and discover essays that put Romanian writing in context. Look for single author fiction issues every month, with free-wheeling updates in between. OTP translates into English, Dutch French, German, Italian, Spanish and Polish, with room for guest languages on board.

And this month’s feature author is Ştefan Agopian, whose work is described as follows:

Agopian’s novels and short fiction build a world in which the real illuminates the imaginary and where the opposite is equally true. It’s no accident that the most frequently heard remark in Agopian’s world—“I don’t know; I imagine“—reverberates on political, historical and metaphysical plane. In Agopian-land, the denizens of a place much like 19th Century Romania inhabit a zone recognizable to Western readers as a desperate Wonderland where Borges and Pynchon would feel at home. In this mind-space anyone is free to conclude that “even if the facts aren’t true, that really has no importance.”

Overall, there’s a healthy amount of information available on this site, including samples from a host of authors, a list of forthcoming translations from the Romanian, synopses of a number of Romanian books, and reviews/essays.

Definitely worth checking out, both for the features listed above and for the blog, which tracks information about Romanian literature.

9 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I just found out last week that the Harvard Book Store selected The Conqueror by Jan Kjaerstad as part of its Select Seventy program. As implied by the name, this program consists of seventy books selected by booksellers and buyers—all of which are sold at a 20% discount for the month.

Seeing any of our books on a “staff recommends” table gets me really excited, but this particular program gave me an idea . . . Since Three Percent is very much in favor of the continued survival of independent bookstores, each month we’re going to pick one and link to its online ordering system for all of the titles we feature/review on the site. And as the instigator of the idea, this month we’re going to focus on the Harvard Book Store.

And continuing with Open Letter titles for a second, we’ve gotten a lot of great coverage for our books recently, including a very positive reviews of Vilnius Poker by Ricardas Gavelis in both the Harvard Crimson and Literary License.

From the Harvard Crimson:

This ambitious endeavor is admirably achieved. Gavelis’ writing is a paragon of surrealist creativity and an intensely interesting read, filled with effortlessly intelligent prose and a wryly macabre voice.

And from Literary License:

Vilnius Poker is dense with ideas, literary allusions, historic events, mythological references, symbolism, and linguistic and philosophical theories. It invites and rewards careful study. Elizabeth Novickas’s nimble translation delivers the stylistic diversity that must have been intended by Gavelis. Just as beautiful and brutal elements coexist in the narrative, the prose is alternately poetic and crude.

Also, one of the best reviews of Fonseca’s The Taker and Other Stories recently came out in the London Review of Books. Daniel Soar’s review is incredibly thoughtful and complete, dealing with the violence in Fonseca’s stories in a very intelligent fashion. Here’s a short quote:

In Brazil, which since the 1970s has seen more urban violence than any other country in the world, no writer has dealt with the subject more plainly than Rubem Fonseca. In 1976 his bestselling short story collection Feliz Ano Novo (“Happy New Year”) was censored by a court acting for the military government. Five of the stories were banned, and the ban on the title story wasn’t revoked until 1989. [. . .]

The judges in the censorship case argued that the story might lead the average Brazilian astray. That would be a wholly ludicrous statement if applied to a piece of fiction written, say, in France, but “Feliz Ano novo” is precisely about what it claims is the average Brazilian; and it’s this claim that’s subversive, not the violence.

And just so it’s clear, all three of these books are currently in stock at the Harvard Book Store, and can be ordered online . . .

6 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

It feels like the award party for the 2009 Best Translated Book Award took place ages ago, and although we posted about the two winners (Hiraide’s For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut and Bartis’s Tranquility), we never actually put up any photos of the event . . . Monica Carter actually recorded the entire ceremony, and we’re hoping to have that online at some point in the near future as well. But for now, here are a few images from the event:

This is from the start of the ceremony, and gives a sense of how many people came out for the party. You can also sort of see how cool the Melville House space is.

That’s Barbara Epler from New Directions accepting the award for Hiraide’s book.

And this is Jill Schoolman from Archipelago accepting Bartis’s award.

If we ever get the video of the event online, you’ll be able to see me totally screw up and hang the wrong set of awards to Barbara . . .

On a related publicity note, the most recent issue of Time Out Budapest there’s an article about the award and the fact that three Hungarian books made the fiction longlist. I can’t find the article online, but I love the pdf version I have, both because Gwen Jones did such a great job writing this and because the pull quote that’s blown up in the middle of the article is: “The title, naturally, refers to the everyday shit and horror of the world.”

6 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I fixed the original post already, but in writing about Anuvela, I mistakenly said that this collective was made up of seven women—it’s actually six women and one man. What’s worse is that Robert Falco Miramontes was one of the translators who worked on the Ken Follett translation that I mentioned . . .

5 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Hungarian Literature Online has a really nice interview with Tim Wilkinson, who is probably best known as Imre Kertesz’s new translator.

But for all publishers out there, Tim’s translated a lot more than Kertesz. In fact, he has a whole host of translations sitting in his desk waiting for a publisher . . .

Which authors would you like to translate and why, if you had the time?

I often translate just for my own pleasure, independent of whether I’ve been commissioned or not by a publisher. If I manage to “sell” one of these translations later on, then all the merrier, but there’s usually no guarantee that this will ever happen. Consequently, I’ve done translations of works—usually one or two—written by ten to twelve different authors, but these manuscripts are still slumbering in the depths of my desk drawer. There is also a list of authors I haven’t translated yet, but would if I only had the time. Among them are István Szilágyi, László Végel, György Spiró and Dezső Tandori, whom I’ve lately included. Ádám Bodor and Péter Lengyel are also on this list, but I know others are already translating them.

And speaking of Kertesz:

In your opinion, what results in a bad translation? And what, do you think, really makes a translation come alive?

When reading a translation or any other piece of writing, it’s extremely obvious if a solid knowledge or understanding of the language just isn’t there. I wrote about this when Imre Kertész received the Nobel Prize. The first English translation of Kaddish for an Unborn Child was painfully bad and fully deserved my criticism that the child, in this case, was actually stillborn. There was hardly a decent sentence in the entire translation—true, Kertész does use rather lengthy sentences in this novel, but that is no excuse. The translation of Fatelessness was barely any better. (In this translation, for example, nine chapters were made into eleven, and I’m talking about the most basic level!) Last year there was an obviously young, American critic writing for an Internet journal who accused me of committing sacrilege, as if I had sent the Rosenberg couple to the electric chair. But if some person (or persons) does not possess a sufficient knowledge of either Hungarian or English, is this something that should remain unmentioned in a critique of the translation?

Unfortunately, there is a long list of English “translators” who really aren’t a great help to Hungarian literature. What makes a translation good? That’s obvious: exactly the opposite of everything I’ve already mentioned. Knowledge, understanding, the right kind of style… these are all very important. In a nutshell, if someone has never learned to write in good, polished English—his or her native language—then this someone will never be a good translator. It’s as simple as that.

5 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

He may have resigned from Soft Skull, but as evidenced in a recent post, at his personal blog—always a source of great erudition and entertainment—Richard Nash still has a lot to say about the business of publishing, the so-called “death of the book,” etc.:

People, the book will live on with the publishing business!!! That is not really what is changing, and to the extent that it might be, it will only be because the writers and the readers want it to.

The book isn’t in trouble, it’s that everyone who takes some of the money that a consumer pays for an author’s content need to re-justify their share and not assume that because they used to get that % they still in fact deserve that %. And I sense too many people hiding behind the notion that this has something to do with grandiose cultural notions about the life and death of the book rather than more quotidian concerns about the vision and competence of individuals populating this business.

On one extreme, booksellers, wholesalers, sales reps, publicists, editors, and agents could all fail to make a good case for a piece of the action; another extreme is that they all succeed in making that case. Unsurprisingly, I think it will likely be somewhere in the middle—some intermediaries are likely to be necessary, others not. I firmly believe that people with the talent to persuasively communicate the merits of cultural content are going to do immensely well in the future (and, depending on their inclinations, immense could mean lots money, or lots high-brow authority, or both, or something else immense entirely) and I suspect that people who are now publishers’ sales reps, and indie booksellers, and publicists, and so forth will number amongst those.

Who exactly, and structured in which way, that’s what remains to be seen. But the book is fine. Focus on connect writers and readers and you won’t have to ask for whom the bell is tolling.

Right on. The problems the industry is going through at the moment isn’t due to the product itself (the book), but with the model.

5 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over at Conversational Reading, Scott Esposito is trying out an online book club experiment. Over the next month he will be reading Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks along with two friends—Sacha Arnold and John Lingan—and discussing the book online.

Hopefully this will generate an interesting conversation and will pull in some other readers along the way. (I’m tempted to join in, but I have thousands of manuscript pages and submissions waiting to be read . . .)

In case you’re interested in participating, here’s a bit of Scott’s intro to Buddenbrooks:

It was Mann’s first novel, published in 1901 when he was 26, and it charts (as called out in the book’s subtitle) the decline over multiple generations of the titular Buddenbrooks clan. Although I’ve never seen substantiation of this, it is commonly said that Mann, who received the Nobel prize in 1929, was awarded the Nobel for Buddenbrooks.

Although Mann would later take up 20th-century Germany in major works like Doctor Faustus and The Magic Mountain, Buddenbrooks is basically his statement on the lands that would become Germany during the 19th century. Although the book remains centered on the Buddenbrooks’, Mann does reach out broadly to include a wide cross-section of the society they inhabited. The exact location of the Buddenbrooks family mansion, and cheif theater of the novel, is never explicitly stated, but it is generally understood to be the northern German city of Lübec. Mann is said to have conducted detailed research into life int he 19th century to realistically depict the Buddenbrooks’ daily lives.

5 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Information about the fourth year of French Voices was announced yesterday.

As stated on the above website, the goal of French Voices is to ensure that contemporary French works (both fiction and non) are published in English translation. To that end, each year, between seven and twelve titles are selected to be part of the program. The translators receive $6,000 and the books are “branded” as part of the “French Voices series.” (For example, Waberi’s In the United States of Africa, which I reviewed a couple weeks ago, is part of this series and sports the French Voices logo on the cover.)

A committee of French and American professionals choose the books for the series, and recommendations can be made by literary agents, publishers, editors, and translators . . . All you have to do is fill out this application and send in some basic documents (sample translation, translator CV, etc.) by March 31st.

Always curious to see what gets selected (Echenoz’s Ravel, Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehot, and Laurrent’s Do Not Touch are some recent winners), and I have my fingers crossed for Mathias Enard’s Zone . . .

4 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [4]

Continuing my random recollections of last week’s Salzburg Global Seminar on Translation in a Global Culture, I thought that today I’d write about Anuvela, a really interesting “translation collective” that I learned about at the seminar.

In brief, Anuvela is a collective of seven translators (six women and one man) who work together to produce translations into Spanish of best-selling English works. (For example, one recent project Ana Alcaina talked about was Anuvela’s translation of Ken Follett’s World Without End.) This is a pretty interesting work model: they negotiate the contract as a group, they split up the text itself, they use a Google doc spreadsheet to share info about how they’re translating particular terms, and they share the financial benefits and copyright recognition. (It’s worth noting that for each group translation, the person designated as the manager and contact person is responsible for working with the publisher and making sure the end product is consistent and smooth.)

As demonstrated in yesterday’s post about translation statistics, books written in English dominate the global marketplace, especially in West European countries such as Spain. Which is why the idea of Anuvela works. As an American translator, can you imagine being in a situation where your skills are in such demand that you have to form a collective to take on all the work being made available to you?

This presentation was one of the moments during the seminar that we started to see all the different bifurcations that separated both the participants and the various markets we represented.

Although Bolano’s 2666 has sold tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of copies, and although The Kindly Ones (as described in today’s Times article by Motoko Rich) is primed to do the same, best-selling translations are a real anomaly in America. Which is completely the opposite in other countries throughout the world where translations of Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo dominate the bestseller lists.

This difference played a significant role in shaping the conversation of the small work group that I was a part of. We were assigned to talk about “how to influence publishers”—an interesting topic, and one that has a variety of answers depending on which market you’re looking at.

Here in America (or even in the English-speaking world in general), we tend to focus on the severe lack of translations being done these days. So our response to such a topic is to try and find ways to get publishers to do more books. But in Europe, the issue isn’t necessarily the production numbers (although there could always be more translations among non-English languages), but on the work conditions of the translator.

I’ll write more about this tomorrow, but CEATL studied pay rates for translators across Europe and found that in almost every single country, full-time translators earn less than your average manufacturing or service worker. Usually in the range of 80-85% of what these workers make. Which is incredibly disturbing and discouraging—what is the future of translation when you’re better off learning to drive a truck than learning the art of translation?

But this divide between the situation in the English-speaking market and the European market (not to mention the Arabic market, African market, Asian market, etc.) is only one of the divides that molded our general conversations. Sticking with markets for a second, the other rhetorical/philosophical divide that I picked up on was the difference between leaving translation to the marketplace and the nonprofit tendency.

I think I’d need a few blog posts to really work out all the intricacies of this, but when talking about literature—especially literature in translation—we tend to look to marketplace successes (like the Bolano or The Elegance of the Hedgehog) as inspirational models, while at the same time, employing the rhetoric of the nonprofit and the need for most translations to be subsidized in some way.

Restricting this to America and the UK, it’s easy to think that in the post-_2666_ world, more commercial presses will be willing to “take a chance” on a translation, since it’s been proven that American readers will buy a really long, really complicated book in translation. Yet at the same time, a lot of discussion and programs center around the need for translation subsidies, since the additional cost of the translation is a deterrents to a lot of publishing houses. But are these $3,000-$7,000 grants that much of an incentive to a place like FSG or Random House? (Again, Harper paid almost $1 million for the rights to The Kindly Ones, and I highly doubt that the possibility of getting a grant for the translation was what convinced them to make the offer.)

So in this bifurcation, we have commercial presses that are totally beholden to the marketplace, and to impact them—to cause them to a) publish more translations and b) to do a more consistent and better job at promoting these books—the market itself has to change. There has to be more readers for literature in translation. But, as Harold Augenbraum pointed out in his recent Reading Ahead post, the question is larger than that. It’s not that we need to cultivate readers for literary translations, we need to cultivate more readers for literature as a whole.

Putting aside the commercial market for a minute, we know that the independents and nonprofits and university presses are publishing 80%+ of all works of literature in translation. And for these presses, that $3,000-$7,000 grant makes a world of difference. Although these presses are also subject to the whims of the marketplace (at least on some level), the stakes aren’t nearly as high, and they can survive on some grant money and sales of 3,000-5,000 copies. This isn’t to say that these presses don’t want to sell 75,000 copies, but the imbalance of the marketplace (except in a few instances, these presses don’t have the means to be distributed to all bookstores and WalMart stores like Harper or Penguin or whomever) makes it extremely unlikely that sales like that will ever happen.

But for all sorts of obvious reasons, the big commercial successes are the books that dominate the media, are stacked up on bookstore tables (again with The Kindly Ones — why doesn’t Stan Hynds order a “stackable quantity” of one of our translations? I’m not convinced that there’s something intrinsically more “readable” or “appealing” or whatever in a literary translation coming from Harper as one from Open Letter—this is a function of the marketplace not of the quality of the work itself), that will sell googles of copies and will serve as the template for how to “successfully publish” a work in translation. Meaning that the bulk of publishers doing literature—and literature in translation—should emulate this model?

I really don’t have a clear point here (sorry to both of you who are still reading this), but it seems to me that when we talk about translation (or literature) we’re looking at one big, messy picture of the market, one that’s filled with compromises. (Translators do some schlock to pay for the right to translate a book they love, publishers do some more commercial titles to make up for the literary ones that won’t sell, etc.) So in trying to come up with recommendations on how to “influence publishers” or maybe how to influence the publishing landscape as a whole, it seems worthwhile to consider whether we want to push the indie/nonprofit/university presses into a more commercial model (grants to help them market and distribute their books to better “compete” with the commercial presses) or ignore the conventional marketplace entirely and look for new systems of support and audience development that will allow publishers to survive by doing literary translations without holding them to the same standards as more commercial presses.

Anyway, looking at it in this way, it seems next to impossible that we were able to come up with any suggestions/recommendations for how to influence publishers. But we did, and I’ll share some of our ideas later this week . . .

4 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [3]

Lots of interesting pieces in the new issue of Words Without Borders, which focuses on Greece this month.

I have to admit that I haven’t heard of many of these writers (although the pieces by Thanassis Valtinos, Margarita Karapanou, and Ioanna Karystiani look particularly interesting), I am familiar with both Karen Emmerich, who translated a number of these pieces for this issue. Karen’s a great translator (her translation of Amanda Michalopoulou’s I’d Like was on the 2009 Best Translated Book Fiction Longlist), and in addition to translating a few pieces for this issue, she also guest edited it and wrote an introductory essay — Modern Greek Literature, Inside (and) Out:

The handful of pieces included in this issue represent only a small sample of recent Greek prose dealing with emigration and immigration, and with the challenges they pose to national, cultural, and ethnic identity. The selection is also, by design, rather eclectic, in style and form, and in the particular ways in which these works engage the issues I have been outlining. I have brought together texts about Greeks living abroad and texts about foreigners living in Greece; the selection as a whole deals with migration on a number of socio-economic levels and in a variety of historical situations. Many of the pieces included already juxtapose the figures of the emigrant and the immigrant in an attempt to make sense of the experiences of the cultural “other” by way of analogy; by presenting these writings as a group, I hope to further enable that work of empathetic comparison.

And just to put this in context—according to our translation database, four Greek books came out in the U.S. last year (in addition to the Michalopoulou, Green Integer did a collection of poetry by Nikos Engonopoulos, Etruscan Press published Alexis Stamatis’s American Fugue, and Parmenides did Pythagorean Crimes by Tefcros Michaelides) and only two titles (poetry collections by C. P. Cavafy and Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke) are on the list for 2009 . . .

4 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As reported at the L.A. Times‘s Culture Monster the NEA has already posted information about how to apply for some of the $50 million awarded to the agency as part of the recent stimulus package.

According to the site:

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provides $50 million to be distributed in direct grants to fund arts projects and activities which preserve jobs in the non-profit arts sector threatened by declines in philanthropic and other support during the current economic downturn. Forty percent of such funds will be distributed to State arts agencies and regional arts organizations and 60 percent of the funds will be competitively awarded to nonprofit organizations that meet the eligibility criteria being established for this program.

Individual organizations looking to apply have to act fast—the deadline is April 2nd. These grants are “for projects that focus on the preservation of jobs in the arts,” and the projects are limited to:

Salary support, full or partial, for one or more positions that are critical to an organization’s artistic mission and that are in jeopardy or have been eliminated as a result of the current economic climate; and/or

Fees for previously engaged artists and/or contractual personnel to maintain or expand the period during which such persons would be engaged.

Full details on how to apply can be found here.

4 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I believe this was announced a few weeks back, but yesterday I received some information about the newly launched Austrian Translation Prize:

The Austrian Cultural Forum New York is pleased to announce the Austrian Cultural Forum Translation Prize, aimed at the promotion of intercultural exchange between the Republic of Austria and the United States. This initiative will support translators of contemporary Austrian Literature into English with a grant of €3000.

Applications are evaluated by a transatlantic advisory board, comprised of Andreas Stadler (Director, ACFNY), Martin Rauchbauer (Deputy Director, ACFNY), Riky Stock (German Book Office, New York), Fatima Naqvi (Rutgers University), Michael Orthofer (The Literary Saloon), and Daniela Strigl (University of Vienna).

And in terms of logistics, a pdf version of the application form can be found by clicking here.

Although it’s not a huge number, I was pleasantly surprised when I looked at our translation database and found that seven Austrian works made their way into the U.S. last year. (Of course, three of these are from Ariadne Books, which only publishes Austrian literature.) For 2009, we’ve already identified four titles . . . That said, hopefully this special prize will encourage some other publishers to pick up a few Austrian books.

(Since we only track new and original translations, the three Jakov Lind titles being reprinted this year — Landscape in Concrete, Ergo, and Soul of Wood — aren’t included in these numbers. Lind was one of Austria’s greatest — and strangest! — writers, and we’ll have a lot more info about him in the near future.)

3 March 09 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

For anyone who’s not a subscriber, the new issue of CALQUE Magazine is now available for purchase. (You can also find some interesting supplementary online material via that link.)

Rumors about CALQUE have been circulating of late, and according to Steve and Brandon, this will be the final issue of the magazine. But CALQUE isn’t going away completely—instead, they’re planning on starting to publish books (mostly poetry in translation) later this year.

In the meantime, we have a special CALQUE feature—below you’ll find audio files of their recent reading in celebration of the release of Issue #5. Enjoy!

Part One: Jennifer Hayashida reading her translation of Swedish poet Fredrik Nyberg.








Part Two: Brandon Holmquest reading Infrarealists.








Part Three: Sandra Newman reading Celan and some of her own work.








3 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Our latest review is of Vladimir Sorokin’s The Queue, which came out from New York Review Books last fall. NYRB has also published Sorokin’s Ice, and have plans to do a few of his other titles as well. That, plus FSG’s publication of A Day in the Life of an Oprichnik might lead to a Sorokin moment . . . One that doesn’t involve his books being flushed down a mock toilet. . . .

Margarita Shalina from St. Mark’s Bookshop wrote this review, which opens:

Each act of transgression, no matter how nominal or extreme expands the margins of ongoing discourse. Sorokin specializes in such acts. The Queue, his first novel, was originally published in the mid 1980s by French publisher Syntaxe. It is a postmodern snapshot of a surreal bygone era destined for collapse, cursed to the privations of the economic crash of the 1990s where a system of ration cards will be implemented, only to be reborn from the ash like a bright red phoenix of pseudo-capitalism caged by a land of murdered journalists, a market flooded by counterfeit Chinese goods.

However, that is the present. The past of The Queue is oddly innocent as Russia is seemingly cursed to forever lose and regain its innocence much like Prometheus and his liver. Why is it innocent? Because it has never been clear to anyone what the citizens of the Soviet Union actually thought of the Soviet Union. Somewhere along the line, the citizens understood what they had lost but they all still agreed that by forfeiting their basic rights, they would be taken care of. With conformity came the security of jobs, healthcare, homes, education, maybe even a Volga. Now, in the aftermath of collapse, sentimentality is wide spread, surfacing among the generations that vividly remember the oddities of the Soviet Union, akin to some mass hysteria or Stockholm Syndrome acting itself out as we love our torturer but only after he has left the room. [For the rest, click here.

3 March 09 | Chad W. Post |

Each act of transgression, no matter how nominal or extreme expands the margins of ongoing discourse. Sorokin specializes in such acts. The Queue, his first novel, was originally published in the mid 1980s by French publisher Syntaxe. . .

Read More...

3 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This started a while ago, but Rose Mary Salum of Entre los espacios has been interviewing a number of translation journals/magazines about issues of readership, editing, etc., with pretty interesting results.

Each question is a separate post, so here are links to the four already online, along with a quote from one of the responses. (Just for the record, editors from CALQUE, Absinthe, Words Without Borders, Tameme, One Edit, No Man’s Land, and CipherJournal are being interviewed.)

Question #1 is about the perceived lack of interest in international literature among English readers.

Brandon Holmquest from CALQUE: I’m not sure if I agree with the idea that readers are disinclined to read things from other countries. There are a hell of a lot of people in this country who are not readers, and a great many who read things like genre fiction. It does the publisher of serious literature, translated or not, no good to consider these people as readers. A record label that puts out hip-hop records cares about hip-hop fans, people who hate music and rock fans can take of themselves.

Question #2: What would seem to be the essential editorial challenge when working with translations?

Tim Adkins from One Edit: Make it interesting.

Question #3: Is expression in one language completely transmittable into another language?

Dwayne Hayes from Absinthe: I’m not sure the thoughts in our own heads are completely transmittable in our own language! That said, translation stands on its own as a literary work and is definitely capable of transmitting the heart of the text.

Question #4: Should the question be more about how much of a culture we try to transmit and how much we intervene, when working with our journals?

Samantha Schnee from Words Without Borders: The mission statement of WWB sums this up nicely: Words Without Borders opens doors to international exchange through translation, publication, and promotion of the world’s best writing. WWB publishes selected prose and poetry on the web and in print anthologies (the next one to focus on the Islamic world), stages special events that connect foreign writers to the general public and media, develops materials for high school teachers to use foreign literature in classrooms, and continues to build an unparalleled online resource center for contemporary global writing.

Not sure if there are more questions to come, but what’s available so far provides an interesting look into these diverse translation journals—all of which are worth checking out in their own right.

3 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

One of the interesting people I met at the Salzburg Seminar last week was Ruediger Wischenbart, who now runs a consulting firm, analyzes the global publishing market, and is working with Three Percent favorite Lance Fensterman on developing the program for the Arab World to be Guest of Honor at this year’s BEA.

Admittedly this sounds a bit dorky, but I was thrilled to find out that Ruediger was going to share his report on global translation statistics, complete with line graphs and percentage breakdowns. (He even ended up showing some of us his Access database for tracking European bestsellers, which was super-cool, and much more advanced than anything I’ve been able to put together . . . In comparison, our translation database looks like a crayon drawing.)

Ruediger spent a lot of time researching translation statistics and flows of books across languages, and as a result, wrote a Diversity Report, a draft of which is available in full at the link above.

In this study, Ruediger looks at two different translation statistics from 1979-2006: translations out of a particular language, and translations into a particular country. There’s a ton of information in this report—way too much to summarize here—but there were a couple of points/statistics that caught my eye and that I think are worth pointing out.

First of all, there’s no real surprise in terms of which languages are most often translated—looking at the global market, books originally written in English represent approx. 60% of all translations around the world. This number has increased dramatically over the past quarter century, rising from just over 50% of all translations in 1979 to almost 64% in 1999. When you look at the graph in the report, it’s almost shocking to see the English line rise and rise while all the other languages remain muddled at the bottom of the chart, fluctuating slightly, but not nearly as dramatically as English . . .

It’s also not that surprising, but the second and third most translated languages are French and German, respectively. Put together, these three top languages represent around 80% of all the translations published globally. The next five most translated languages are (in descending order): Italian, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, Dutch. And taken as a whole, the top 8 languages account for 90% of all translations. (It’s like a wealth pyramid!)

There’s a special section of the report on Central European languages, which is really interesting as well, and it’s from that research that Ruediger uncovered a very interesting correlation: aside from a select handful major political occurrences (e.g., fall of the Berlin Wall) the only identifiable event that directly impacts the translation statistics is when a country is the Guest of Honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair. As you can see in his report, translation numbers for both Hungarian and Polish jumped when the two countries were chosen to be Guests of Honor (in 1999 and 2000, respectively) and translation levels from those languages are still higher than what they were pre-Frankfurt Book Fair.

The “translation into” section of the report is fascinating as well, looking specifically at trends in Germany, France, Poland, and the Czech Republic. Of course, translations from English into German, Polish, Czech, etc., dominate (usually around the 70% mark, although in the Czech Republic, translations from English only make up about 50% of the total), but when English is removed from the graph, it’s interesting to see how other languages have modulated over time. (Looking at Germany for instance, there’s been a slow but steady decline of translations from French into German over the past twenty-five years.)

There’s a lot more that can be gleaned from this report, but I’ll leave off with an interesting quote from the conclusion section about the leading country in terms of translations:

Solid indications have it that France has recently overtaken Germany as the world’s number one haven for translations. This change of guards has been reported in French trade media, but hardly anywhere esle. This however needs to be put in a perspective as China is catching up and has reached at least the group of the top 3.

France shows a remarkable continuity of growth as a nation of translation – and hence of welcoming literatures and books from abroad. More in depth analysis would be required to better understand the effects of both a very continuous cultural policy and a self confident industry, a development characterized by huge structural change among the largest companies, and strong medium sized or independent publishing ventures looking out for new perspectives, plus with significant new entrants recently.

2 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Seems to me like The Quarterly Conversation is getting better and better with every issue . . . The most recent one (which just went online over the weekend) has some great cover features, including a piece from the editors On the Demise of Publishing, Reading, and Everything Else, a (aforementioned) review of Mathias Enard’s Zone, and An Intro to E-Lit, which references University of Rochester grad N. Katherine Hayles’s most recent book, Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary.

In addition to these longer pieces, there are a ton of reviews of books in translation in this issue. Here’s a sampling:

Phew. A very impressive list of titles . . . There aren’t many review sources out there (in print or online) that are doing such a comprehensive job of reviewing such a wide range of international literature. This issue is definitely worth checking out, as are a number of the titles under review.

2 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

These two books arrived a couple weeks ago and are nearing the top of my reading list:

Every Man Dies Alone is one of three Hans Fallada books Melville House is bringing out this season. (The Drinker and Little Man, What Now? being the other two.) A mammoth book (although written in only twenty-four days!), Every Man Dies Alone is based on the true story of a working-class couple that resisted the Nazis. This is Melville House’s lead title for the spring, a book that they’ve been pushing as a sort of German Suite Francaise and lost masterpiece. Based on the relative success of his other novels — Little Man, What Now? was even made into a movie — it’s surprising this book wasn’t translated into English before now. A great find for Dennis and Valerie, and every indication points to this book taking off. And the production