John Keene is the author of Annotations, and Counternarratives, both published by New Directions, as well as several other works, including the poetry collection Seismosis, with artist Christopher Stackhouse, and a translation of Brazilian author Hilda Hilst’s novel Letters from a Seducer.
Daniel Medin teaches at the American University of Paris, where he helps direct the Center for Writers and Translators and is Associate Series Editor of The Cahiers Series.
Letters from a Seducer – Hilda Hilst, Translated by John Keene
Daniel Medin: How did you discover Hilda Hilst’s writing? What led you to want to translate this book?
John Keene: My first real encounters with Hilst’s writing are a decidedly 21st century phenomenon. I had seen her name mentioned several times in various critical texts, and finally did an online search for her work about a decade ago. What I found and dove into was the old Angelfire website, still live, that Yuri Vieira dos Santos set up for her in 1999, and launched from her Casa do Sol. It was via that site, which features links to many of her works, photos, and lists of translations, that I was able to immerse myself in Hilst’s world. I only wish serendipity had led me to it before she passed away in 2004, so that I could have contacted her to let her know how deep my enthusiasm for her work was and is, just based on what I found there. After learning that although passages of her work had been translated into English, none of her books had, I immediately wanted to do so (I often have delusions of being the one to translate this writer or other’s work into English to introduce her or him to Anglophone readers), and fortuity again intervened when Rachel Gontijo Araújo invited me first to write the introduction to her collaborative translation with Nathanaël of The Obscene Madame D, and then to translate the deeply challenging but exhilarating Letters from a Seducer.
DM: Letters from a Seducer is a part of Hilst’s famous “pornographic tetralogy.” How are these works different from what she was had been doing before? What distinguishes Letters from the others?
JK: Let me begin by saying that all of Hilst’s prose fiction is experimental, from her initial fiction text, Fluxo-Floema (1970), on, and is informed by her prior primary focus as a poet and a playwright. (She continued writing poetry throughout her life, I should note.) Her earliest poetry, published in the 1950s, is fairly conventional, but by the 1960s you can detect subversive notes, experiments with earlier Lusophone (and Iberian) forms, etc., so that when she began writing prose, it was hardly surprising that she would not follow the standard route. Yet I think it’s fair to say that her fiction is distinctive even from parallel experiments that were happening in Brazilian literature at the time, as a comparison between her texts of the 1970s and those of her close friend, Lygia Fagundes Telles, one of the major fiction writers of Brazil and in the Portuguese language, will suggest. While a book like The Obscene Madame D (1982) does overtly treat sexual themes, in the “porno-chic” works, as she called them, she more openly and directly uses and plays with pornographic language and discourse, and the works themselves turn in part on themes that might be considered pornographic, except that Hilst’s artistry, irony and wit transform them into something quite different. Letters (1991) is the second novel and masterpiece of the four texts; one of them, Contos d’Escarnio: Textos Grotescos (1990) is a collection of stories; Bufólicas (1992) comprises poems; and O Caderno Rosa de Lory Lamby, or Lory Licky’s Pink Notebook (1990), as I think the brilliant translator Adam Morris dubbed it, is an extremely ludic, graphic precursor to Letters written in the voice of a child. (And possibly not publishable in the US, despite its relentless humor.) With Letters, Hilst reaches the pinnacle of the tetralogy and, I think, her art, fusing all the strands that have come before into a profound text about writing, living, sex, human mortality, and so on. It is also quite funny; she never sheds her humor, even at some of the most outrageous moments in the text, which is one of the things I really appreciate about her work.
DM: Could you point out one of your favorite passages, and tell us what you like about (translating) it?
JK: To anyone who has heard me expound on this passage before, my apologies, but towards the beginning of the “Of Other Hollows” section, there’s a passage where Stamatius (Tíu) is meditating, as he’s won’t to do, about what he should be up to instead of agonizing of his writing and his life, as practical Eulália is off keeping things together for them, and Hilst writes:
E deveria ter procurado os cocos e os palmitos. Mas fico a escrever com este único toco e quando acabar o toco troco um coco por outro toco de lápis lá na venda do Boi (tem esse nome porque um boi passou certa vez por ali e peidou grosso). Vendem cachaça pagoça maria-mole carne-seca latas de massa. Então deveria ter ido a cata dos cocos, dos palmitos, e não fui. Continuo dizendo o que não queria. Minhas unhas. Curtinhas e imundas. E as dos pés?… que bom estão limpas.
And I should have looked for coconuts and palm hearts. But I’m here writing with this lone stump and when I stop I’ll swap a coconut for another pencil stub over there at the Ox shop (so named because an ox passed through there once and let out a huge fart). They sell cachaça peanut fudge maria-mole dried meat tin cans of sauce. But I should have gone to gather up coconuts, palm hearts, and I didn’t. I keep talking about what I don’t want. My fingernails. Tiny and filthy. And my toenails? good to say, they are clean.
JK: This is an excellent question. I wrote or began several of the Brazil-related stories before translating Hilst, but I did draft and complete one—“Anthropophagy,” about the great Brazilian Modernist poet Mário de Andrade toward the end of his life, during his short stint in Rio de Janeiro—after finishing the translation. When I reread, sometimes aloud, the galleys after New Directions President and Editor-in-chief sent them to me, I could hear my poetry and music asserting itself in the prose. This is a tendency of mine, but I also think Hilst’s work played a role. It is probably most evident in a story called “Cold,” about the great minstrel performer, composer, actor, director, and impresario Bob Cole. In the story, which is about a musician who cannot get music out of his head to the point that it drives him to the mental brink, I have text boxes with snippets of his lyrics, and I also collage in lyrics into the main body of the text. This was all quite deliberate. The prose at certain points breaks into music; it isn’t just lyrical, though. There are moments, I realized during a reading at Kean University the other day, where the music of the words themselves takes material form, sounding almost like drumming or hip hop, and I have to admit I was a little startled, because I had written the story and could hear it in my head, and had even read it before an audience last spring at the University of Montana, but this time, I was quite aware of what I’d done, under, I am willing to admit, the influence and sign of Hilst. That is just one example, and I’m sure there are more. Like other great authors, she shows in her work that anything is possible, if you can pull it off. That also was something I took to heart when finishing Counternarratives.
The preface to Letters of a Seducer was published in the 2014 Translation Issue of The White Review; you can read it here.
Can Xue: The Last Lover, trans. from Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen, Yale/Margellos
The strangest and by far most original work I read this summer was Can Xue’s The Last Lover. How refreshing it is to encounter fiction that so resolutely disregards conventions of character and plot! The protagonists of this book do not develop—they transform, as do their relationships to one another, from one scene to the next. And they do so unpredictably, in ways that surprise and delight. As in much of Can Xue’s fiction, the prose is comic and disturbing at one and the same time. John Darnielle had Vertical Motion in mind when he pointed to the “grammar of dreams” that underpins that volume of stories: “situations in which a general meowing sound throughout a hospital provokes not the question ‘what’s going on?’ but instead ‘where are the catmen hiding?’” A similar grammar is present in The Last Lover, her most ambitious—and perhaps most radical—novel to date.
Faris al-Shidyaq: Leg over Leg volume 3, trans. from Arabic by Humphrey Davies, NYU
I wrote about the charms of this novel last winter, when the first two volumes were eligible for the prize. It should come as no surprise that the other two are now contenders as well. This chapter from volume three appeared in the 2014 translation issue of London’s The White Review. It’s preceded by a concise introduction by Humphrey Davies, whose translation of Shidyaq remains among the most gymnastic and resourceful amongst this year’s competition.
Elena Ferrante: Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, trans. from Italian by Ann Goldstein, Europa
There’s no denying the force of Ferrante’s writing. I discovered volume 2 of the Neapolitan Novels last spring when it made our longlist. (Such are the privileges of judging for BTBA; you have to read the 25 titles selected to this list, and thereby profit directly from the enthusiasms of others.) I devoured it whole, then did the same to The Story of a New Name. Ferrante inspires that rare thing, rarer still among contemporary writers: the compulsion to read everything she’s ever published. Like its predecessors, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay bristles with intelligence and is executed with startling clarity. And like the other books in this series, it is all-absorbing. Here’s Ariel Starling in a recent review for The Quarterly Conversation: “Subtle as the plot may be, it would do the work a grave disservice not to note that Ferrante is, in her own way, a master of suspense. Reading these novels, one becomes so immersed in the world of the characters that even an offhand comment from a minor acquaintance can (and often does) carry the force of revelation—the books are nearly impossible to put down.”
Hilda Hilst: With My Dog Eyes, trans. from Portuguese by Adam Morris, Melville House
I’ve already posted on Letters from a Seducer which had been scheduled for 2013 release but entered the world on the wrong side of January 1. Goes without saying that this title and its extraordinary translation by John Keene has not weakened in the slightest since my initial encounter. Hilst deserves to be in the mix when winter arrives and we begin to draft lists. The question then is likely to be: which horse to back? The answer’s not immediately obvious, to the great credit of Hilst’s translators and editors. With My Dog Eyes was as exhilarating to read as the Letter and The Obscene Madame D. Hilst has been blessed with a generation of astute translators who are now introducing her work to an Anglophone readership. With My Dog Eyes struck me as the most aphoristic of the three novels. It begins unforgettably: “God? A surface of ice anchored to laughter.” Adam Levy wrote a canny essay for Music & Literature about this year’s eligible Hilst titles; read it here.
I’ve little doubt concerning the importance of the above works for their respective languages. Those without Chinese or Italian or Portuguese have Annelise Finegan Wasmoen, Ann Goldstein, and Adam Morris to thank for ensuring that their greatness has been preserved in the face of formidable challenges. I’d like to mention briefly the names of a few more translators whose work has impressed over these first few months of reading. They succeed at communicating the vitality of the voices translated, but also for their accomplished prose in English. They are, in no particular order, Jason Grunebaum from the Hindi of The Walls of Delhi by Uday Prakash; Daniel Hahn from the Portuguese (Brazil) of Nowhere People by Paolo Scott; Chris Andrews from the Spanish (Guatemala) of Severina by Rodrigo Rey Rosa; and Karen Emmerich from the Greek of Why I Killed My Best Friend by Amanda Michalopoulou, whose passages about the bewilderments of adolescent sexuality rank—alongside volume three of My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard—among the funniest things I’ve encountered so far.
Every semester I tell my publishing students about the time I was walking around BEA with Jerome Kramer and he pointed out how the whole fair was “filled with failure.” Mostly I want to shock and break them—every good professor needs to upend his/her student’s expectations and their latent belief that they “know a lot of things”—but it’s also a statement that I stand by.
Pretend you’re a writer. Or rather, someone who wants to be a writer. You spend years working on your novel (or worse—collection of poems) and then spend three times that amount of time trying to find an agent willing to send this around to a bunch of editors who read approximately five pages (this is actually what happens, sorry) before deciding that your years of labor aren’t “good enough” (a.k.a. “potentially profit-making”) to be published. Even if you do find a publisher, unless you wrote the next Fifty Shades, you’ll end up selling less than 2,000 copies. Most likely, you’ll end up self-publishing your work through Amazon and 1/10 of your 400 Facebook friends will buy the $.99 ebook version. Congrats!
Or pretend you’re a publisher. You wade through hundreds of awful manuscripts every year and find 10-12 that you actually like. Along the way, you respond to approximately 1,000 emails from authors and agents harassing you for answers, questioning your judgement, making you wish that worked in a job that actually made money. Finally, the book you love, that you edited with all the best intentions, that you promoted to all your favorite Brooklyn tastemakers comes out . . . and no one talks about it. It sells 2,000 copies. Such a great book! And fuck, man . . .
Let’s say you’re a translator. You do samples on spec. You get someone to finally publish the book that you have always wanted to work on. You and your editor exchange five emails. The book comes out without your name on the cover. Reviewers praise the author’s style without mentioning you. The book sells 2,000. Because you only earn 1% of the list price on ever sale, you never earn back your $2,500 advance. (Which was what you received for a year of work.)
Booksellers don’t have it any better. You have to cater. You might have your own opinions on what books are great, and which ones you would rather not ever have to sell. But the customer is always right. Amazon killed your mojo. Ebooks are bitching up your profit margins. And instead of buying the extremely well-written, well-translated Dutch book you love, everyone is chuffing off with Freedom. The book you staff-picked and put in every customer’s hands sold 6 copies at your store. And you still earn just a smidgen above minimum wage.
I wouldn’t want to be a reviewer at a major publication. All the courting must make you want to puke. “No really, this is her breakout book. It’s got relatable characters, unexpected twists, and a midget! Can I buy you a drink?” And then you have to review the “big” books: Franzen, Eggers, etc., etc. Books that are fine, but which don’t make the world a better place. Life-changing, challenging books “aren’t of interest” to your demographics . . . So you pretend to give a shit about the latest debut author from Bushwick who “realistically” portrays her generation, knowing all the while that this whole thing is a fucking scam: that the only reason this book is being printed is because Ms. Bushwick used to write for the most-popular of popular blogs . . . And everyone hates you for not reviewing the much better book that only sold 2,000 copies . . .
There really is no logical reason to be in the book business. Kids would rather play with their iPhones than read a book, you’ll never earn as much as you’re worth, and even when you feel like you’re doing something good for the world, a minimum of 25 people are right there ready to complain and tell you how much you suck at life.
Case Study Number One. I have no idea why no one reviewed Dubravka Ugresic’s Europe in Sepia. Her last book was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award. I sent the new one to everyone. All the reviewers and booksellers were excited. It’s as good as Karaoke Culture and more timely. And yet? . . . Not enough. Every time I see that book on the shelf I feel like I let her down. I failed.
Case Study Number Two. We just finished editing one of our biggest books for the fall. As always, Kaija went through it, sent her edits to the translator (something that only a few presses do!), appreciated the translator’s kind response, inputted the changes, and proofed the book. Then, said translator emailed me to explain that, because Kaija switched three “as if I were” constructions to “like I was,” she was “concerned” and wondered if English was Kaija’s native language. (This translator also claimed Kaija wasn’t a “professional translator,” which is just untrue.) If I didn’t love the author, I would sabotage this book. Or just not publish it at all. Attacking my employees is crossing the line. Nevertheless, I feel like a failure because I can’t actually tell this person how pissed off I am—or how absolutely wrong they are—without seeming petty. Or anti-translator. And no matter how much I’ve done for translators over the past 15 years (just because I love international literature, I’m not a translator myself), I still get shit like this because I hired an editor who actually edits. FAILURE!
Case Study Number Three. The Best Translated Book Awards are up for the International Book Industry Excellence Awards presented by the London Book Fair and the UK Publishers Association. The other two finalists in the International Literary Translation Initiative category are Penguin India and Shanghai 99, two of the largest companies in the world. Two of the largest companies in India and China up against an idea originating from some guy who works in an office in the slowly imploding Rochester, NY . . . Guess who’s not going to be at the awards ceremony? The University of Rochester “doesn’t have $2,000” to send me to an awards ceremony with the publishing industry’s best and brightest. (Tuition plus room and board for the 2014-15 school year is $60,000.) Apparently, “they” don’t want to take advantage of the public relations opportunity or reward one of their employees for CREATING AN AWARD THAT’S A FINALIST FOR AN INTERNATIONAL AWARD. No money for failures?
It’s almost impossible to work in this industry and not feel like you’re being gamed on some cosmic level. The pay is moderate in comparison to other professions, and the hate mail way outnumbers the messages of appreciation. Great books never sell as well as they should. No one cares if you spent your weekend answering emails and reading hundreds of pages from a book that you don’t love, but want to promote in some way. (This is why all publishers are in New York. Not only because it’s the center of all media, but because if you work in books you can get invited to a bunch of scenester parties each weekend. And free booze and the company of other simpatico book people makes it all that much easier to swallow.)
I guess my point is as cheesy as it could be: Why don’t we all just calm the fuck down? It’s not like anyone’s intentionally trying to fuck anyone over—the game is just rigged. If the NPR reviewer doesn’t talk about how mindblowing your translation is, it’s not because he hates you; if an editor makes some suggestions to your book, it’s because they respect you and want your translation to be the best translation possible; if a bookstore can’t sell your book, it’s not because it’s bad, it’s because most people all want to read the same thing and that thing is banal; if Flavorwire won’t review your books, it’s because they receive . . . or, well, actually, that one’s because you, Chad W. Post, made fun of Jason Diamond on Twitter, and TWITTER NEVER FORGETS.
I didn’t have time to read shit this past month, so the April Previews are mostly of books I want to read, and I’ve highlighted them with stupid jokes. Enjoy my failures.
Talking to Ourselves by Andrés Neuman, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia (FSG)
This is, hands down, the best book I’ve read this year. It’s depressing as fuck, but so well written with its three voices and three timelines. I can’t wait to talk to my students about this novel, and am even more excited that Andrés will be in Rochester on April 22nd for an event with Carlos Labbé (see below). That will likely be one of the best Reading the World Conversation Series events ever, and will be followed by an epic afterparty.
Navidad & Matanza by Carlos Labbé, translated from the Spanish by Will Vanderhyden (Open Letter)
If there’s one thing that the Internet has utterly ruined, it’s April Fools Day. Instead of spending months coming up with interesting, convoluted pranks to pull on family members and enemies, this “holiday” now consists of posting random lies online and seeing who’s willing to retweet it. Granted, NPR’s prank was pretty ingenious, but for every joke of this kind there’s a Flavorwire 10 Must-Read Books for April, which I didn’t even realize was an April Fools joke until I noticed that neither Talking to Ourselves nor Navidad & Matanza are on there. YOU GOT ME, FLAVORWIRE!
Nine Rabbits by Virginia Zaharieva, translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel (Black Balloon)
This Tuesday is the second annual Bulgarian Fiction Event at 192 Books in Manhattan. Kaija Straumanis will be representing Open Letter and talking with Virginia Zaharieva and Albena Stambolova about Nine Rabbits and Everything Happens As it Does. These are the only two novels by Bulgarian women available in English translation. Everyone participating in #ReadWomen2014 should be there.
And anyone participating in #ReadWomen2014 might also be interested in knowing that on Thursday, April 10th, Viriginia and Albena will be up in Rochester and will join Danish author Iben Mondrup and translator Kerri Pierce for a panel on “Women in Translation.”
Viviane by Julia Deck, translated from the French by Linda Coverdale (New Press)
Last night, trying to find some crappy TV to entertain me after Kentucky’s last-second win, I came across Amish Mafia. This is an absolutely terrible show—you must watch it!
Now, I’m sure this is common knowledge, but this “Pennsylvania German” language that the Amish speak is totally insane. It’s just a bunch of German words—pronounced as if you’re absolutely wasted—put into an English syntax. This is the least threatening language a “mafioso” could use.
And speaking of these “Amish mafiosos,” they sure do have a hankering for sledgehammers. In the episode I watched, anytime shit went wrong, one of the “toughs” would attack with a sledgehammer. I kept wanting this to devolve into the “Gun Fever” episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia featuring Mac trying to prove to Charlie that he could defeat a gunman with a samurai sword. “What if I zig-zagged like this?” BANG BANG BANG. Sledgehammers are stupid.
Finally, from what I could figure out, the “Amish Godfather” is a schlubby dude named Levi whose main criminal activity was SELLING BEER. Beer? That’s like the lemonade of mafia activities, buddy. Get yourself some hookers and a point-shaving scandal and we’ll talk.
Radio by Tõnu Õnnepalu, translated from the Estonian by Adam Cullen (Dalkey Archive)
Is that a concealed nipple on the cover of this book?
This summer, I’m going to be skipping BookExpo America this year to attend HeadRead, Estonia’s annual literary festival. I haven’t been to Talliinn in almost a decade, and this is a perfect opportunity to return, with Sjón, Ben Okri, John Banville, A.S. Byatt, Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, and many more authors on the docket. So if you’re looking for a reason to visit the Baltic States . . .
A Fairy Tale by Jonas T. Bengtsson, translated from the Danish by Charlotte Barslund (Other Press)
Recently, my ex-wife signed my kids up for a weekend “Kids CrossFit” class at someplace called “BoomTown.” I’m not a big fan of the crossfit cult (more on cults below!), but whatever, the kids love it because they get to run around and throw balls at walls and swing on hanging rings and pretend that they’re bad ass. So when I had them last weekend, I took them myself, and may well have stumbled upon some underground revolutionary party of Rochester.
The crossfit “gym” was just a small room tucked behind a half-abandoned strip mall. (I know, I know, what in Rochester isn’t half-abandoned?) If the tires waiting to be flipped weren’t enough to prove you were in the right place, there was a sales counter selling all sorts of gear with “CROSSFIT” written all over it. Because if you crossfit but don’t tell the world in every way possible that you’re a crossfitter, you’re just not doing it right.
All of the walls were scratched over with people’s names, as if this were one huge bathroom featuring the worst graffiti ever: “MUSCLE CLUB 2014! JENNI! ALEX! SHAUN!” I have the feeling that if you graduated from high school you’re not allowed to join.
The weirdest part had to be all of the kegs and beer for sale. Who crossfits and then does a keg stand?
Wait, no, check that, the weirdest part had to be this sign:
Yes, that is an axe and a AK-47. Thanks, but I’ll take my exercise without the advertisement for deadly weapons.
Pybrac by Pierre Louÿs, translated from the French by Geoffrey Longnecker (Wakefield Press)
A new translation from the author of The Young Girl’s Handbook of Good Manners! If by chance you haven’t see the Handbook, it’s the filthiest book I’ve ever read in my life. It’s not something you should give your niece. Ever.
And Pybrac, a collection of Louÿs’s poems, is equally as “erotic.” I just spent way too long trying to find a verse that I can quote on here that won’t get me in too much trouble, and this was the safest thing I came across:
I do not like to see the immortal mother
Jerk her son off in bed, get him stiff as a tree
Then encunt him and say: “Now fuck me, you duffer!
You don’t have to ask twice, just stick it to me.”
Wakefield Press is the most daring publisher of the present moment. And their books are amazing—not just for the sheer vulgarity, but for the quality, range, and uniqueness or all that they bring out. Kudos.
With My Dog-Eyes by Hilda Hilst, translated from the Portuguese by Adam Morris (Melville House)
I love Hilda Hilst, and feel like she’s the frontrunner for the 2015 BTBA. Multiple books, loved by everyone literary . . . this may be her year. Also, she was from Brazil and Brazil is hosting the World Cup this year. That’s a clear advantage.
Sankya by Zakhar Prilepin, translated from the Russian by Jeff Parker (DISQUIET)
We have a review of this book posting in the next few days. And any book that comes recommended from both Bromance Will and Jeff Parker HAS to be good.
So, this “Happy” song? It can fuck itself. Total propaganda. Most people, unfortunately, aren’t happy. Why? Incredible wealth disparity, the fact that douches like Sean Hannity hate anyone who can think, winter is never going away ever, it seems like earthquakes are about to rip apart half the hemisphere—a million reasons.
But this song is all about feeling good. Take a old timey musical arrangement—one our brains all recognize and feel is “safe”—add nonsensical lyrics and create a trend. That way you have a swarm of people ready to berate the handful of people who fail to get the message and aren’t quite sure if they should be clapping their hands because they “feel happy.” Also, what the fuck?
Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
Because I’m happy
“If you feel like a room without a roof”? My seven-year-old son thinks this is a bullshit lyric. What does that even mean? A house has a roof, a room has a ceiling. “A room without a ceiling” makes more sense. And “If you feel like happiness is the truth”? These lyrics make no sense at all, and every time you sing along, a G.W. Bush supporter gets his wings.
Selected Stories by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, translated from the Portuguese by Rhett McNeil (Dalkey Archive)
I love Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, and Brazil, and football. Also, I met Rhett McNeil at Penn State before it became “Sandusky State” and for those reasons you should buy this book.
Last week I finished reading/listening to Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief, and I really hope this sold more than 2,000 copies. It’s an amazing book—I bought the audiobook of Wright’s Looming Tower because of how good this is—and something everyone should read. Not because Scientology is awful—it is, and man am I never watching a Tom Cruise movie again, because, asshole—but because this book lays out the way power structures work in a way that’s incredibly useful. Scientology is even weirder than the Amish. I mean, I get the Amish—just not their mafia—but Scientology? What’s the point? It’s clear that the “church” has a handful of hippie ideals, but the claim that this is bettering the planet is totally batshit given the preponderance of evidence in this book. Yet, Tommy Davis, the Church’s spokesperson, had this to say:
The real question is who would produce the kind of material we produce and do the kind of things we do, set up the organizational structure that we set up? [. . .] Or what kind of man, like L. Ron Hubbard, would spend an entire lifetime researching, putting together the kind of material, suffer all the trials and tribulations and go through all the things he went through in his life . . . or even with the things that we, as individuals, have to go through, as part of the new religion? Work seven days a week, three hundred sixty-five days a year, fourteen-, fifteen-, eighteen-hour days sometimes, out of sheer total complete dedication to our faith. And do it all, for what? As some sort of sham? Just to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes? [. . .] It’s ridiculous. Nobody works that hard to cheat people. Nobody gets that little sleep to screw over their fellow man.”
That comes after 348 carefully documented pages of abuses and should-be-illegal-if-they-aren’t-already behaviors. I mean, shit, the FBI was going to raid Scientology because of human trafficking violations involving slavery. That’s not good.
Also, the only published book I’ve ever burnt was Dianetics. It took forever. That book is way too thick to catch on fire. Should’ve used more lighter fluid. I suppose I failed.
The new issue of The White Review is incredibly stacked. There’s an interview with Vladimir Sorokin. A piece by Enrique Vila-Matas. Poems by Gerður Kristný. Art by Mark Mulroney (we used to drink together and go to Rochester Red Wings games!).
But if that’s not enough, or, if you’re too cheap to spend the £14.99 (UK) / £18.99 (Rest of World) (which, to be honest, is pretty steep given the awful exchange rate . . . I could buy a hundred sandwiches for the cost of a subscription), you should definitely check out all the free online content.
Here are a few highlights:
I don’t need Bookish’s algorithm to state that if you check out all of those samples, you’ll find at least one book that you’ll want to read.
Next Tuesday, March 5th, at 10 am(ish), we will be unveiling this year’s BTBA Fiction Longlist. This year’s judges—click here for the complete list—did a spectacular job selecting the 25 best works of fiction in translation published last year.
In contrast to years past, this time I recommended that the nine judges agree on 16 titles, then each pick one “wild card”—a book that they personally love, but that didn’t make the list selected by the group. My hope—which seems to have worked—was to diversify the group of finalists a bit, allowing books that didn’t get quite as much play to get some attention.
That said, looking over the complete list of fiction titles, there are a few books that I thought for sure would be on there, but aren’t. So, over the next five days I’m going to highlight some of them. This isn’t to say that I disagree with the list of finalists—I think it’s pretty spectacular, and damn, is narrowing it down to 25 books a difficult task—just that I think there are a few other titles that deserve some sort of honorable mention. And besides, for those of you playing along at home, this list of non-BTBA books might give you some clues as to what did make it . . .
The Obscene Madame D by Hilda Hilst, translated from the Portuguese by Nathanaël in collaboration with Rachel Gontijo Araujo (Nightboat Books)
I wish I could write a review of this book. I read it a few weeks ago along with Água Viva by Hilst’s friend and compatriot Clarice Lispector, and was struck by a) how well these two books go together, and b) how no one writes like Lispector and Hilst wrote. These are books that blow apart the nature of fiction and how to represent consciousness, and do so in a way that is mesmerizingly strange and beautiful.
But I’m really not sure how to write about Hilst . . . This book is basically about a widowed woman who lives under the stairs in her house, has masks hanging in her window, and tries to scare all the kids by yelling crazy shit at them. And if that’s not enough to get you interested, just check out this wild prose:
look Hillé the face of God
look at the abyss and see
I don’t see anything
lean over a bit more
only fog and depth
that’s it. adore HIM. Condense mist and fathom and fashion a face. Res facta, calm down.
And let’s see now which sentences are appropriate to speak when I open the window to the society of the neighborhood:
your rotten asses
your unimaginable pestilence
mouths stinking of phlegm and stupidity
enormous behinds waiting their turn. for what? to shit into saucepans
armpits of excrement
wormhole in hollow teeth
the pig’s woody
The Obscene Madame D is 57 pages of that: a mess of beauty and obscenity describing life and god and death and sex. It’s like Celine filtered through the mind of a bipolar woman.
So how do you even approach or explain this? What is Hilst up to?
Well, over at Triple Canopy you can read “Crassus Agonicus,” a shorter piece of Hilst’s, which also features a really interesting introduction:
In 1990, the Brazilian author Hilda Hilst—a prolific writer of experimental poems, plays, and fiction, beloved by initiates and completely unknown to the broader public—declared herself fed up with the punishing obscurity of high art and started writing smut for money and fame. Really filthy stuff, like a pornographic memoir narrated by a nine-year-old girl. The literary critics, those few but loyal readers, were left baffled and betrayed. “I think money delicious,” Hilst explained, chain-smoking her way through interviews that accompanied the celebrity with which she was instantly rewarded. She said the idea came to her after witnessing the international success of The Blue Bicycle, a hugely popular erotic French novel—Fifty Shades of Gray for the 1980s. She figured she could make a buck the same way.
Or, at least, that’s one of the versions of events that Hilst slyly propagated. In fact, the bizarre series of obscene books she wrote in the early ’90s—three novels and one collection of poetry—is far from possessing broad popular appeal; the stunt brought Hilst more recognition as a personality than as a writer, and she never got to taste much money. The second installment, Contos d’escárnio / Textos grotescos—here excerpted under the title “Crassus Agonicus,” in English-language translation for the first time—has more in common with the work of Ariana Reines and Helen DeWitt than that of E. L. James. Disguising a work of art as a trashy potboiler is a special sort of perversity for an author, and Hilst’s forcefully, grotesquely avant-garde novels are as devious as they are unsavory. What they do best is not titillate but muddy the customary distinctions between pornography and art, between the pulpy best seller and the literary novel.
In this regard, Hilst’s Obscene Tetralogy, as it became known, was an affront to the vulgar demands of the mass market and likewise to the values of the surprisingly prudish Brazilian literary scene. “Crassus Agonicus” in particular is a “fuck you” to both kinds of readers, but also a veiled love letter—a contradictory expression befitting the great passion Hilst felt for the audience she courted. As she insisted: “I wanted to be consumed before I died.” And by breeding her own style of transgressive, erotic literature with the seedier conventions of pornography (bestiality, infantile sexuality, and incest), she succeeded in making something so controversial it could not be ignored.
Anyway, The Obscene Madame D is definitely worth checking out (not to mention, purchasing this book will help Nightboat—a really quality small press), even though it didn’t make this year’s BTBA longlist.
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