Following on the earlier post about Quarterly Conversation, here are excerpts from two interviews with translators that appear in the new issue, starting with Heather Cleary, the translator of two Open Letter books—The Planets and The Dark by Sergio Chejfec. This interview was conducted by Stephen Sparks, one of the members of this year’s BTBA Fiction Panel.
SS: You’ve written elsewhere that Chejfec’s prose “both deflects and draws the reader in,” which I’ve found to be a very apt characterization of his work. That indeterminacy or wavering—as if Chejfec is inviting the reader in while keeping his foot against the door—is one of the more compelling (if occasionally frustrating) aspects of his writing. How, then, do you as a translator find your way into the text?
HC: Yes, and I think this is particularly true of The Planets. Sergio wrote a beautiful essay a few years ago called “Simple Language, Name,” in which he talks about his development as a writer and the way his father’s difficulty learning Spanish late in life affected his own use of the language, driving him toward a certain stylistic opacity that he was only able to move away from over time. Then there’s the fact that so much of what’s going on in The Planets has to do with navigating the space between oneself and another, particularly when that other person exists in an entirely internalized form, that is, only as a memory. This is explored in the prose itself, which often gives the language an air of being borrowed, somehow unnatural. That said, The Planets is a beautiful book, as thorny as it can occasionally be, and an important one in that it approaches the themes of friendship, loss, and memory in an innovative, even startling way.
So, it was never really a question of whether I would try to make my way in . . . the how of it, I suppose, was through certain passages I found particularly moving, and which offered insight into the more abstract sections. For example, during one of the disjointed conversations M and the narrator have as boys, the narrator repeats something M has said as though it were his own thought, though he doesn’t even fully believe it. It’s such a simple moment, but that detail seemed so true and really crystallized the dynamic between the two boys for me; it also anticipates what comes later, as the narrator struggles to preserve M’s memory by keeping his voice alive, in some very surprising ways. There are many moments like this—the image of the narrator running around an entire city block so that he can have a second chance to acknowledge M’s mother when their paths unexpectedly cross; the guilt he feels at not having fully invoked M’s memory in conversation with a mutual friend. Those anchored the story for me, and lent depth and immediacy to the more abstract passages. [. . .]
SS: What is your translation process like? Do you have a particular passage that proved tricky, etc. that you’d like to discuss? I’m interested in some of the nitty-gritty of the act of translation here. How many dictionaries do you consult? How many drafts do you go through?
HC: It’s a little different with each project. I usually start with a period of pre-reading—going through the text to be translated once or twice, as well as other works by the writer, interviews when possible, sometimes criticism. Whatever might help me find my way into the narrative voice. Then there’s the actual translation part. I use the RAE (dictionary of the Real Academia Española) and the OED, and often ask search engines or kindly friends about how a word is used colloquially. This has been key with Sergio’s work, since he tends to slip in phrases that are just a shade off from typical constructions. I end up with a chaotic draft full of notes, and then revise. And revise, and revise. There’s generally a lot of snacking involved at this stage.
I can’t recall any one passage that proved particularly tricky (they all were, each in its own way), but I had to pay very close attention throughout to the tension between the narrator’s philosophical reflections and his reminiscences about his lost friend. It felt to me that there was something underneath that first kind of rumination; while obviously thematically relevant, they also felt like a means of withdrawing from the experience of remembering M and feeling that memory fade. The challenge was to get this across, balancing the concrete and the abstract within a single narrative voice in a way that suggested a deeper connection between the two, without letting them bleed together or pull the narrative apart at the seams (any more or less than they do in the Spanish, that is). It was a similar process with the other voices at work in the novel—in addition to the first-person narrative, M and his father intervene to tell a series of elliptical, grotesque stories about nomads and eyeballs and a wedding gone awry, and then there’s the meta-commentary that appears in italics, contesting the first-person narrative at times, corroborating it at others—though these were more clearly delineated.
Finally, there’s also an interview with Georges Szirtes conducted by Bethany Pope:
Bethany W. Pope: Which is more important to you, the literal word-for-word translation of the text or reconstructing the atmosphere of the piece?
George Szirtes: There is no such thing as a literal word-for-word translation, at least not one that will sound anything like literature. There is however a difference between that impossibility and the other, the full rendering of meaning in terms of atmosphere or anything else. In translating you are entering a world with rules and manners that have meanings (plural) for the native reader. You are trying to understand some aspect of those meanings and to transplant it into the receiving language using any means possible, which will include a degree of lexicographical fidelity as long as it works.
B.W.P: In your translation of Gyula Krúdy’s The Adventures of Sindbad I noticed that the atmosphere of the piece—that slightly humorous melancholy—had a lot in common with the tone and atmosphere of your own work, most recently found in your tweets about the ageless crustacean doctor and his lobsteresque paramour. How much influence does translation have on your own work?
G.S: Sindbad was a pleasure to translate because I felt I understood Krudy’s world as soon as I entered it. There may be a difference between the person who is primarily a translator and the one who is primarily a writer who translates. The two may overlap, and there are translators who become writers in the act of translating. For me it was a writerly recognition. Krudy’s Hungary was not my Hungary, not by a long chalk, but it was a real world, particularly in the minds of close friends. The humorous melancholy in Krudy is, as I discovered, an aspect of my own imagination, one that working on Sindbad brought to light. It is possible to hope that any engagement in translation will bring out some latent possibility in the writer-translator.
The Adventures of Sindbad was the second work of fiction I translated (the first was Anna Édes by Kosztolanyi) but by that time I had translated a good many poems and the verse-tragedy. Sindbad came along at the right time. I think my imagination was ready for it, ready, that is, to render it into English but also to feel it as a voice that might be adapted to my own. Most of my translations have been a kind of enrichment of voice. I have learned a great deal from them.
I should add that the longer poems I wrote as a result of my first 1984 visit, that constituted the backbone of the resulting book, The Photographer in Winter (1986) are not at all Sindbad like. They are darker, heavier, more cavernous things.
Remember, you can read the whole issue of Quarterly Conversation by clicking here.
Most of today’s content is brought you by Scott Esposito and Daniel Medin and the spectacular new issue of Quarterly Conversation, which, as always, features a lot of great international lit related content. Generally, when a new issue comes out, I post a summary piece linking off to all of the various articles of interest. In retrospect, that doesn’t give this publication near the attention it deserves. So I’m going to split this summary up over a few posts so that I can quote a longer bit from the more interesting articles. Again, click here to skip ahead and read the entire issue.
One of the best parts of this issue are all of the interviews with international writers and translators. First up is Mieke Chew’s interview with Jenny Erpenbeck:
Mieke Chew: In a review of Visitation, Alfred Hickling said that your novel had attempted to compress the trauma of the 20th century into a single address. To start then, a big question: how has history affected your writing?
Jenny Erpenbeck: I think I always start with a very personal issue. Then, once I start to look at it closely, it becomes historical. Things become historical, just by looking at how they came about. It’s not that I start with the idea of telling a “historic” story. I think history infects the lives, the very private lives, of people, so you cannot remove something from history, even if you just want to tell a story. It gets in here and there. I think that this was what happened when I started to write Visitation. I started with my own story about the house, and then I saw that there were so many stories involved. Stories that occurred long before I came to the place that I write about. All of a sudden I was in the middle of the German history without having thought about it. [. . .]
MC: Do you read your translations?
JE: From time to time. For instance, here in Adelaide I had to do a reading. I don’t read my translated books from the beginning to the end. I am kind of afraid of that. I can’t explain why but it’s strange to read your book in someone else’s words. But every time I have read it, or have had to read it for an audience, I did feel that it was really my book. It was perfectly done. Sometimes her translation is so perfect that I don’t even know the vocabulary she has used. Once I asked someone about a word and he said, “This word exists, but it is a very delicate word.” This I liked a lot because she really thought about what words to use, as it is the same for me in German. I love to use old, almost forgotten words because they can express so much more than the daily used words—and I think she does the same for English.
MC: I think you might have similar reading taste as well. I have read that you admire the work of Robert Walser?
JE: He is one of the greatest. He is very good.
MC: What is it about Walser?
JE: He writes very slowly. One of my favourite pieces is The Walk. He is just walking, maybe for one hour or so. He has the whole world in this walk. He describes all the places where he stops for this or that reason. He has to go to the bank to see to his money affairs, then he sees a young girl and wonders about her, whether she will be a great singer or not. Step-by-step he opens up a whole world. The storyteller himself is not always a perfect person: sometimes he’s mean or afraid of something, he has doubts, preferences or aversions. Sometimes it gets almost surreal, but it’s just a walk. Walser is very exact, and he goes into great detail. He’s not fast: he’s just a slow walker.
Another interview—one of particular interest to me, since we publish Season of Ash—is by Diego Azurdia and Carlos Fonseca with Mexican author Jorge Volpi.
Diego Azurdia and Carlos Fonseca: In your Trilogy of the Twentieth Century there seems to be a short-circuit between historical events—the Second World War, May of 1968, the fall of the Berlin Wall—and literature. How do you think literature works on history? How does history work on literature?
Jorge Volpi: First of all, literature and history are absolutely linked. The narrative of history is already in some sense literature. That is to say, history has been understood in the past centuries as a scientific discipline, as a constant reference to concrete facts, constantly relying on documents as its source. Thus, one could say that literature has the capacity to fill in the gaps that these documents leave behind. Literature uses imagination as its tool for analyzing the historical processes. [. . .]
DA and CF: Both El fin de la locura (The End of Madness) and No será la tierra , seem to be narratives that tell of the disappearance of a utopic horizon. The theme returns, in your more recent El Jardín Devastado (The Garden Destroyed). What do you think is the place of utopia today? Has it merely disappeared, or do you believe that, as in your novels, we live under its shadow?
JV: We are accustomed to understanding utopia in these extreme terms, which have to do with the imposition of a truth. The utopia understood merely as some model of behavior, which exists already in Plato’s Republic, disappeared in the 20th century, becoming in turn some sort of recipe that those in power decided had to be the only truth possible. This produced the inevitable link between utopia and totalitarianism, and in the long run it discredited not only totalitarianism but also utopia. And yes, during the second part of the 20th century there was a nostalgia for utopia. While in general it was seen that the utopias generated monsters—totalitarian regimes—there was still a nostalgia for utopias that could really lead to a better society, more just, that was really the origin of utopia as such. In our age I believe that we are living in an epoch not so much of disenchantment, discontent, or nostalgia but in an epoch that is attempting to rearticulate utopia again in its original sense, merely as a model that is not sought by force. Above all, the utopia of a better society, more just, more egalitarian, should still be the hope of most of us, but we must not interpret it as the only and absolute truth. [. . .]
DA and CF: In recent statements you have declared Roberto Bolaño to be the last Latin American writer. What does this mean?
JV: Certainly there is some provocation to this statement, a small boutade like the ones Bolaño loved so much, but there is also something true to it. Bolaño seems to me to be the last writer that really felt part of a Latin American tradition, the last writer that responded with a knowledge of those models. Not only did he have a battle with the Latin American Boom but with all of the Latin American tradition—in particular with Borges and Cortázar—but that extends back to the 19th century. His was a profoundly political literature that aspired to be Latin American in a way different from that of the Boom, but that was still Latin American. I believe that this tradition stops with Bolaño. After him, my generation and the subsequent generations, I don’t see any authors that really feel part of the Latin American tradition, or that might be responding to these models. They seem to respond to more global models. There is no knowledge of a strong Latin American identity. This is the central theme of this book [El Insomnio de Bolívar] that has won the Casa de las Americas Award. Latin American literature seems to dissolve as a unity, and it is only possible to understand it as a collage of fragments that no longer form, as in the times of the Latin American Boom, a cathedral. Now, writers in the distinct countries of Latin American feel part of their own nationality, and maybe what they are beginning to form are models whose paradigm would no longer be a giant edifice, a cathedral, for example, a Latin American temple, but rather holograms. That is to say, little fragments that contain information that is Latin American, almost in an unconscious fashion, but that above all respond to an individual will and that are no longer a matter of identity.
OK, granted, this came out a couple weeks ago, which is basically a million eons in Internet time, but the new(est) issue of the Quarterly Conversation is now online and is loaded with great translation-centric material. (And great reviews of Open Letter titles, and Open Letter favorites . . .)
Here are short highlights of some of the pieces I found most interesting:
“Winfried Georg Maximilian Sebald was already in his fiftieth year and his third decade of residence in East Anglia, when he began to write of the walk he had taken two years before in the Suffolk country to dispel, he tells us, the strange emptiness which had come to fill him suddenly. Ironically enough, however, the walk soon became distressing as he took in, with ever-growing uneasiness, the traces of destruction reaching far back into the past that locked his gaze wherever he turned. Such was his horror upon return, he would have us believe, that, in due course, he had to be rushed to a hospital in a state of near paralysis. But once there, what the body had lost, the mind gained, and before long it was soaring higher and higher with each tilt of the wings to view from above that Suffolk expanse, which, like the Borgesian Aleph, had now shrunk to a single spot, rightly so, devoid of all sensation.”
“For those of us following Vladislavić’s work, 2011 was a good year. It saw the release of three new works. The first is a collection of lost, abandoned, incomplete and incomplete-able stories, together with reflections on their failure to come into print, sandwiched around a central story that gives the collection its title—The Loss Library. The second is a fable, or a riddle, written from the phenomenological perspective of a character who is a word (but which word?) in a dictionary, published alongside 19 spectacular color illustrations in Sylph Editions’ Cahier series under the title, A Labour of Moles. And, of course, the third is Double Negative, a novel. Since the last novel with a continuous story by Vladislavić was his second—the 2001 masterpiece, The Restless Supermarket, the story of a retired proofreader setting about to “correct” the bewildering and rapidly changing world of post-Apartheid Johannesburg, written in a form that contains its own telling ‘errors‘—readers were especially excited about Double Negative. It was worth the wait.”
[The Loss Library is high on my list of books to read. I love Portrait with Keys.]
“Cited by The Independent as ‘the most important writer after Borges,’ he has also been described by his contemporary Ricardo Piglia as ‘one of the best writers today in any language.’ In his native Argentina he is counted among the pantheon of ‘writer’s writers’ who have left an indelible mark on the cultural landscape. English-language readers were introduced to Saer’s fiction by Margaret Jull Costa, who translated The Witness (originally El entenado) in 1990. The years that followed would see three more of Saer’s novels brought into English by Helen Lane: Nobody Nothing Never (1993), The Event (1995, originally La ocasión), and The Investigation (1999), all published by Serpent’s Tail. More recently, Open Letter Books released two more of Saer’s novels in Steve Dolph’s translation: The Sixty-Five Years of Washington (2010) and Scars (2011); a third title in the series is on the way. This recent crop is a tremendous addition, not only because it represents some of Saer’s most acclaimed work, but also because it broadens our perspective on his oeuvre, which is less a series of individual novels than an extended engagement with the different possibilities of a single, continuous narrative.
[Everyone in the world should read Saer—it may not make you a better person, but it will make you a better reader. And will cause you to start referring to everything awesome as being “madman.” For example, “Her body is madman.” Also, read Heather Cleary’s translation of Sergio Chejfec’s The Planets. That’s a good example of an insanely talented translator working on an insanely talented writer’s book.]
“The Autonomous Republic of Catalonia now holds up Mercè Rodoreda as a national treasure. Barcelona offers commemorative sculptures, libraries, gardens in her name; government-supported institutes sponsor conferences and translations; a yearlong festival marked her 2008 centennial. Her international champions include Gabriel García Márquez. Apart from two recent, welcome titles from Open Letter, her English catalog has drifted in and out of print. There is no question that Rodoreda is a uniquely difficult writer—not in her sentences, which are as clean as any in the century, but in the starkness of her emotional climate. Her subject, both in the earlier domestic books and the later irrealist ones, is the destructiveness of desire, the brutishness of power, the primacy of hunger and death. Her particular power and challenge lies in the style that she created to address them: a fearsomely pure deployment of words, empty of rhetoric, in which the bea uty of the world shines so clearly as to seem a kind of cruelty.”
[One of the best authors we’ve ever published. Hands down.]
“Authors of what’s called the New Spanish Short Story have had a great burst of creativity that began in the early 1980s and flowered during the 1990s and 2000s (the few stories that have been translated have been relegated to obscure editions unavailable in the United States). From the stories of the fantastic by Cristina Fernádez Cubas to the structural inventions of Hipólito G. Navarro and the surrealism of Ángel Zapata, Spanish short story writers have created an exciting and diverse body of work marked by its openness and dedication to pushing the boundaries of the form.”
“The idea of Clarice Lispector as fleeting, oddly unreliable, complicated, someone who could vanish is essential to her work and her reputation. In October, 1977, shortly before her death, she published the novella The Hour of the Star in which all her talents and eccentricities merged and folded in a densely self-conscious narrative dealing with the difficulty and odd pleasures of storytelling and then proceeding, when it could, to tell the story of Macabéa, a woman who, Lispector told an interviewer, ‘was so poor that all she ate were hot dogs.’ But she made clear that this was ‘not the story, though. The story is about a crushed innocence, about an anonymous misery.’”
“Barbara Epler: The whole Lispector re-launching began innocently enough: our plan had been to bring out a new edition of The Hour of the Star in the old Pontiero translation with an ardent Colm Tóibín preface. (With a backlist of our size—about 1,100 titles from 75 years of publishing—we are always trying to repackage classic backlist to reach more readers.) That was all we had planned, but then I met Ben. I’d very much admired his biography, so I have a drink with Ben when he’s in town, and he is amazingly persuasive, and I get on board the big project of four new translations with Penguin UK, for which he would serve as series editor. And suddenly, in a phone conversation a few months later about those four books, I mentioned I was going to press with our new edition of the old translation of The Hour of the Star with the Tóibín preface, and Ben came out of the bag at me.”
[All the Lispector! As a semi-recent convert to her work, this is like crack to me. Thanks, Scott Esposito for all the crack. Really.]
In terms of reviews, in this issue you can find pieces on Berlin Stories by Robert Walser; Zona by Geoff Dyer; The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am by Kjersti Skomsvold; The Letter Killers Club by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky; The Beautiful and the Damned by Siddhartha Deb; Passage of Tears by Abdourahman Waberi; Micrograms by Jorge Carrera Andrade; What’s to Become of the Boy? and The Collected Stories by Heinrich Böll; From the Mouth of the Whale by Sjón; and Autoportrait by Edouard Levé.
Whew. Seriously, this is almost too much goodness all in one issue . . . Enjoy!
This morning at Conversation Reading, Scott Esposito announced an exciting new project of his to publish long essays:
So here’s the deal: I’ve long made my love of long essays known around here. From books like Nicholson Baker’s U&I to Barthes’ S/Z to the work of Geoff Dyer, William H. Gass, Michael Martone, DH Lawrence, and plenty more, the long essay has a pretty awesome reputation as the place critics go when they’re ready to write in a more creative way.
And that goes a long way toward explaining why I’ve decided to start publishing long essays in the series “TQC Long Essays.” These are going to come in at around 20,000 words each–roughly 70 pages. In my opinion, that’s way too much for your average webpage, not quite enough for a printed book, but an ideal length for an ereader. For the series I’ll be bringing on people who I think have something to say, and we’ll be talking about the interesting authors and questions of contemporary literature.
These aren’t free. 20,000 words takes a lot of work to write, and I like to think it takes some skill and dedication to the critical craft to be able to write at that length and have it be worth the time. So, we’re starting this first ebook off at the modest price of $2.99, and we’ll see where it goes from there.
The long-form essay has become more and more popular in the ereader age, and this project fits that niche nicely. We’ll have more to say about these Long Essays as they come out, but for now, here’s Scott’s intro to the first one in the series:
I’d like to introduce the first in a new series of ebooks published under the auspices of The Quarterly Conversation. The book is called, Lady Chatterley’s Brother, with the rather chatty subtitle, Why Nicholson Baker Can’t Write About Sex, and Why Javier Marias Can. It is co-written by me and longtime Quarterly Conversation contributing editor Barrett Hathcock. It will be available to the public on Monday, October 17, exactly 2 weeks from today. [. . .]
The project got started when Barrett realized that House of Holes was going to be yet another sex book from Baker. He groaned, told me that Baker just doesn’t get good sex writing, and I asked him why. As we started talking, it struck me that Marias understood sex writing for precisely the reasons Baker didn’t. And we were off.
I mentioned the new issue of Quarterly Conversation a couple weeks back in relation to the long piece I have in there about Antonio Lobo Antunes, but never got around to making a post about all the other great stuff in this issue . . . So, here’s a list of excellent articles that are definitely worth checking out:
Petterson is one of those special international authors who has “broken through” over the past few years, thanks in large part to Graywolf and their success with Out Stealing Horses.
I love B. S. Johnson, and have put off reading The Unfortunates for a while, just so I have one final Johnson book to read on some day when I’m snowed in my apartment . . . which, this being Rochester and all, might happen next Monday.
Edward is a great translator (check out his Chateaureynaud collection), excellent (and wide) reader, great “guest blogger,” and all around fantastic person. Edward also has a translation From D’Outre-Belgique by Yves Wellens in this issue.
Here’s what QC has to say about this (a description that totally sold me):
Providence (2009) is Juan Francisco Ferré’s most ambitious novel, his longest and more complex fictional work to date. Written during one of his stays at Brown University, Providence, as much as Ferré’s previous books, is a deeply erotic, abrasively satirical, gargantuan fiction dealing with both contemporary American culture and Spanish literary tradition. But rather than focusing on cultural differences, Ferré investigates the common literary roots of the new global culture, producing a true “transatlantic” fiction—in some sense. Providence could be considered as much a Spanish novel about America as an American novel written in Spanish.
As always, there are a ton of great reviews in this issue, including Dan Green on Harold Bloom’s The Anatomy of Influence; Christiane Craig on Laszlo Krasznahorkai and Max Neumann’s AnimalInside; Hugo Browne-Anderson on Cesar Aira’s The Seamstress and the Wind; and David Auerbach on Mihail Sebastian’s The Accident; among others.
Definitely worth spending some time with this issue . . .
That’s the title of the extremely long article I wrote about Antonio Lobo Antunes for the new issue of Quarterly Conversation. (More on that issue later.)
If you’ve read this blog at all, you’ve probably come across one or more posts in which I wax poetic about the awesomeness of Antunes’s writing. (Here are a few samples: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 . . . ) In fact, the current Read This Next title is Antunes’s Splendor of Portugal, and if you visit that link, you can read an extended preview of the book, and an interview with translator Rhett McNeil.
Anyway, back to the Quarterly Conversation article . . . This primarily focuses on three novels by Antunes — The Land at the End of the World, Fado Alexandrino, and The Splendor of Portugal — and a range of reasons why you should read him. Here’s part of the opening:
I first discovered Antunes over a decade ago, when I was asked to review The Natural Order of Things, the fourth of six novels of his published by Grove Press. Reading it was like discovering that once-in-a-lifetime band whose music just sounds right straight away. As if the patterns were constructed precisely for you to hear them. It was at once familiar and new and exciting. A whole new way of constructing art—one that was smart and jarring, both on the surface and at the level of deeper emotions.
Immediately hooked, I went back and read Act of the Damned and An Explanation of the Birds and begged to be able to review each new title of his as it was released—to date, eleven have made their way into English, a remarkable number for a “difficult” Portuguese author whose books probably don’t sell all that well. (To put this in perspective, Nobel Prize winner and fellow countryman Jose Saramago has thirteen novels available in English translation.)
Publishing is a profession of people and individual taste, and Antunes has been in great hands in the U.S., having been backed by Morgan Entrekin (Grove), Bob Weil (W.W. Norton), and John O’Brien (Dalkey Archive). He’s also received a wealth of critical praise, from a New Yorker profile—“One of the most skillful psychological portraitist writing anywhere”—to numerous New York Times reviews. He’s been compared to Faulkner, Dos Passos, García Márquez, Céline, Cormac McCarthy, Malcolm Lowry, Proust, Woolf, Canetti, Gogol, Camus, Cortazar, and Nabokov. The real challenge for reviewers is coming up with a new Master of World Literature Antunes hasn’t been compared to.
But what does all this praise mean? That’s one hell of a mad amalgam of influences, and it gives a basis for the sense of familiarity and newness that I experienced when I first encountered his work. It also makes you appreciate that, with such a thorough connection to the literary history of the twentieth century, Antunes is greatly underappreciated. Which, to be completely honest, sort of makes sense. His books truly do embody everything Americans are supposedly afraid of: most of his novels focus around a war and a coup unfamiliar to many readers; the books aren’t very uplifting; they can be difficult to piece together. In thinking about this article, I’ve set myself the task of trying to convince an imaginary reader why he/she should invest his/her mental energy and time into this particular quasi-obscure, complicated novelist . . .
Click here to read the entire piece.
The new issue of the Quarterly Conversation went live recently and is definitely worth checking out. Every issue of the QC is great, but holy crap is this issue STUFFED with interesting pieces. Here’s a list of some of the essays and reviews that worth checking out:
“Bernhard’s novels move from the present to the past. There is an action, usually a suicide, that has happened before the novel begins. In The Loser it is the suicide of Wertheimer; in The Lime Works it is Konrad’s apparent brutal murder of his wife; in Woodcutters it is the suicide of the ‘movement-teacher’ Joana; in Wittgenstein’s Nephew it is the death of Paul Wittgenstein; and in Concrete it is the continuing inability of Rudolf to write his treatise on Mendelssohn Bartholdy. By the time these novels have begun, all of these actions have already happened. What remains to Bernhard’s characters is to make some sort of sense of these actions, to provide a justification for the suicide, to explain their writers’ block, to seek out from all their relations with society, with history, with their own minds that have made this action somehow necessary or inevitable. They seek causes and try to discover in everything the logic that is dictating events. The main characters are generally both uniquely qualified and supremely unqualified to undertake these investigations.”
“Amanda Michalopoulou: There are writers who make you want to go back into writing. Karapanou makes you want to go back into living your life. She also belongs to this rare community of writers who work beyond influence; they are on their own. When I was in my twenties I tried to imitate my favorite writers, but with Karapanou it never worked. Her voice was so unique and what I wished for was just to listen to her voice. Her atmosphere influenced some of my stories but at that young age I always felt that I failed to create an atmosphere as extraordinary and magical as hers. As she doesn’t belong to a group of writers, her influence within Greek literature is difficult to be measured. I am afraid Greek literature looks always for ethnic characteristics, for more ‘Greekness’ and Karapanou goes beyond Greekness. She is not at all interested in that stuff. Her Hydra is primarily a psychological landscape.”
“Probably the most-read—and -reviewed—independently published book in 2010 has been Las teorías salvajes (‘The Wild Theories’), written by the young Pola Oloixarac, from Argentina. Oloixarac was not only the big literary discovery of the year, she also helped redefine the public image of the writer in Spanish publishing. Oloixarac arguably wrote a kind of bestseller for minorities. As an academic novel (it’s not difficult to think that writers and characters, such as David Lodge, David Lurie, David Kepesch, Kingsley Amis, Roberto Bolaño, or Elizabeth Costello might be some of the author’s references), Las teorías salvajes is about the experience of undergrads in the Argentinean university, the broken hopes of socialism, the emotional and intellectual relationships between teachers and their students, the sexual, emotional, and intellectual relationship of a couple of nerds, and the emotion that comes with the discovery of a beloved author (the same pleasure experienced by the first reviewers in Spain who made Oloixarac ‘the next big thing’).”
“Alfredo Iriarte’s Tropical Bestiary: Dictator Chronicles, a collection of biographies of nine Latin American dictators, is a text that refuses to be faithful to established institutions and ideologies. It resists and undermines mainstream historiography, and rebels against what Iriarte viewed as a whitewashing of barbarism and cruelty with glorious myths of national progress. Iriarte’s approach is both to emphasize horrific and grotesque moments in Latin American history, and to fictionalize history, abandoning strict historical accuracy and incorporating apocrypha and popular legends into the portraits, preferring literary qualities over stodgy factual precision.”
“That story begins with a geological prologue of the glacier melt, which, millennia later, would result in the Brandenburg lakes. From there it picks up at a newly unified Germany of the 1890s and the wealthy farmer who presides over the land—and who ultimately parcels off tracts to be sold during the Weimar years to an architect and to a Jewish cloth manufacturer. Russian liberating forces pillage it at the end of the Second World War. Its occupants flee to West Berlin before the Wall is built. German Bolsheviks return from their war-time exile in Russia and settle onto the property, now collectivized by municipal authorities of the GDR. The fall of the Wall gives rise to dispute over who the rightful owners are. The house falls into disrepair, and by book’s end, it is razed.”
“All which makes this book sound rather dramatic and maybe a bit boring. But it’s neither of those things. There is drama: a dog dies, Mandelkern makes a decision about fatherhood, children are born, a man tragically passes away. Pletzinger continually undercuts these with humor and the sense that these things just happened; he is less interested in the shock and sensation of the events, much more interested in the ways in which the telling of a story can define a person. As Mandelkern asks at one point, ‘How can someone really tell his own story?’”
“I was continually struck while reading Touch by the ways in which scenes and images are constructed with an exceptionally ‘painterly’ quality, focusing in elemental ways on the color, form, and perspective of the girl’s surroundings. Shibli’s prose (through the lens of Paula Haydar’s skillful translation of the original Arabic) is polished and subtle, as in this characteristic quality of description: ‘No matter how black the courtyard was, the shaded area would always be blacker.’”
“Bill Johnston’s deft translation of Myśliwski’s magnificent 1984 novel finally gives English-speaking readers access to one of Poland’s most talented and highly respected chroniclers of the twentieth century. Myśliwski, who has twice received his country’s most prestigious literary prize, the NIKE, is nowhere better than he is here: this is a glorious book, a life-affirming, world-affirming book, in which history is story, and the stories of its hero and narrator, Szymek Pietruszka, follow one upon another like stone upon stone, as in the folk song from which the title is taken. Stone upon stone, or the slow, patient work of the peasant upon the land. This slowness, and this patience, is the novel’s core.”
“Manazuru is about connection and disconnection, location and dislocation. After becoming involved with a married man whom she keeps at a distance, Kei is unable to find (for lack of a better term) ‘closure.’ And because her husband’s disappearance is still an open question she chooses to revel in it, hover over it, obsess on it. Unable to trust, unable to believe her own senses, she lives in a quiet panic, prevented from connecting to her daughter, her mother, or her lover. The only real connection she has is to ‘the woman’ who may be a ghost or may be a figment of Kei’s warped and deluded vision of herself. And it is this woman who both pulls her to Manazuru and causes her isolation.”
“But on the whole, the anthology falls short of what I had hoped for. My first real issue is the selection of the poets. I’m troubled by the fetishization of ‘women’s literature’ in a way that seems to prioritize gender over everything else, as though the mere fact of being a woman makes these poets worth reading. This is a problem, I think, with the abuse of the gender-theory discourse, one that assumes that since historically non-heteromale writing and voices have been elided or eliminated, claiming a position outside of that hegemony automatically lends significance and interest to a work. This cheapens the position for those who are truly concerned with the substance of these positions.”
The new issue of World Literature Today is now available, and the focus is on one of my favorite topics: “The Crosstalk between Science and Literature.” (Did I mention that I have a Thomas Pynchon related tattoo? And that I rushed out of MLA to see Jonah Lehrer speak about neuroscience and creativity? Anyway.)
Here’s an excerpt from the intro essay by Pireeni Sundaralingam:
The meeting ground between science and literature has never been so busy. Not only have the last few years seen a proliferation of anthologies such as Riffing on Strings: Creative Writing Inspired by String Theory and Signs and Humours: The Poetry of Medicine, but there has also been a blossoming of conferences, research centers, and foundations dedicated to examining the common space shared by the two disciplines. The U.S. Modern Language Association’s discussion group on cognitive approaches to literature currently has more than 1,200 members, while last year in Europe alone there were over a dozen conferences and symposia attempting to bridge both literature and science.
Nevertheless, as with any pioneering age, there is a certain level of braggadocio, a tendency to jump on the loudest and most lucrative bandwagon rolling by. An article in last year’s New York Times (March 31, 2010) announced “The Next Big Thing in English,” interviewing a series of literary scholars who seem to have found their own Philosopher’s Stone sitting on the benches of the neuroscience laboratory. Their claims were as diverse as creating a scientific method for quantifying the complexity of literature to unearthing the evolutionary basis for the preponderance of love triangles in fiction. It has fallen to scholars such as neurologist–poet Raymond Tallis to caution us against blindly adopting reductionist analyses of literature (“The Neuroscience Delusion,” TLS, April 9, 2008). All too often, the finer details of the rigor to be found in each discipline are glossed over in an attempt to precipitate swift partnerships, and, unfortunately, those reporting for the mainstream media are rarely qualified enough in the technicalities of both disciplines to point out these slips.
As we strive to demarcate the nature of these new territories, it becomes vital to consider the thoughts and work of those who have lived and worked in both worlds. In the following pages, award-winning writers share their personal experiences of the strengths and the weaknesses to be found in the cross-fertilization between the two disciplines: Welsh poet and memoirist Dannie Abse examines how his own creative writing has both benefited from and remained at odds with his medical training; playwright Kenneth Lin, trained as a psychologist at Cornell, delineates the ways in which the intersection of scientific theory and the physical framework of the theater may or may not co-create a system of moral beliefs; physicist Alan Lightman and philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein discuss why they each turned to fiction to add a further dimension to their own scholarly research.
This issue also includes a number of other interesting sounding pieces, including an interview with Juan Villoro:
Juan Villoro: In El testigo, yes, I was very interested in asking, Who is the best literary witness of an event? From a judicial point of view, there are conditions determining what one can say in a courtroom. But from a moral, psychological, and literary point of view, the subjective process that makes someone a good witness is much more complex. So El testigo is about the formation of the figure of the witness and to what extent the witness influences what he sees. I do not believe that any witness is completely passive or apathetic. Inevitably, the witness participates in the experiment of looking. But the attitude of the protagonist in El testigo is very different from the one I have when I watch soccer, which is a much noisier, celebratory, and unrestrained attitude.
Ryan Long: So, it’s a question of distance, too.
Juan Villoro: Exactly. And when I write a novel in which the characters are unique and a little distanced from the reality in which they find themselves, when they’re actually uncomfortable in that reality, what I am looking for is a personal, individual voice. By contrast, in soccer I look for the voice of the tribe, the collective voice, the contemporary Greek chorus that expresses itself in a stadium.
Ryan Long: How does the relationship between the collective and the individual function in El testigo? I’m thinking, for example, of a particularly striking scene in that novel in which the protagonist looks over the “battalion of the fallen,” which is a place in the middle of nowhere populated by the shirts of dead Cristeros. Clearly this novel is about national identity, a nearly exhausted but important theme. In the novel, is there an image of the collective that still works?
Juan Villoro: Well, it’s a broken collective, whose ruptured nature is explained by its relationship to a very specific moment of Mexico’s history: the end of the government of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (pri), which was in power for seventy-one years. This moment also coincides with the end of my protagonist’s exile. The Mexican in my novel, for a very personal reason, has lived in Paris for twenty-four years before returning to Mexico. So the novel tells the story of the end of an era in personal terms—the character who returns to his country—and the end of an era in national terms—the first democratic alternation of power. But this alternation is more of a rupture than a continuity, because a conservative party comes to power with a spirit of vindication defined by Catholic conservative ideas that predate even the Revolution of 1910–20. My protagonist finds himself in a country that is at once his and not his. This is why he becomes a witness, because it’s so hard for him to participate in public life, to reintegrate himself with his people, his family, and his society. He realizes that the so-called step forward for Mexico is in reality the opportunity to settle old scores. All sorts of skeletons start coming out of the closet, and he finds himself in a country that he fails to understand.
And this issue’s WLT Book Club focuses on The Good Novel by Laurence Cosse, translated from the French by Alison Anderson, and published by Europa Editions. If you’re interested in joining in (or simply reading the book), you should definitely check out this interview Alison Anderson did with Laurence Cosse.
Running a bit behind with the news here, but the Fall 2010 issue of the Quarterly Conversation is now available online. As always, there’s a lot of great content here, including an essay on Nicholson Baker as the missing link between Updike and DFW, a piece on Helene Cixous’s So Close, and tons of interesting book reviews. Here are a few additional highlights:
Mexican writer Roberto Ransom is nicely featured in this issue. First up is the translation of ‘Lizard à la Heart,’ which is part of Desparecidos, animales y artistas, a collection that Daniel Shapiro received grants from the PEN Translation Fund and the National Endowment for the Arts to translate. It’s an odd, fantastical story about a woman talking talking to her pet—a lonely crocodile locked in the bathroom.
In addition, there’s an interview with Ransom conducted by John Pluecker, which includes some interesting bits about the origins of “Lizard à la Heart” (he cites V, and the experience of buying a house only to have the ex-owner show up at all hours of the night drunk and demanding his house back), and this story about Borges and Bioy Casares:
“Just last night I heard an unforgettable quip by Borges that goes more or less as follows. As an old man, master Borges turns to his lifelong friend, Bioy Casares, and says, ‘Do you remember that towards the end of that terrible year of ’45 we considered committing suicide?’ ‘Yes, in fact, I do,’ responds Bioy. ‘What I don’t remember,’ continues Borges, ‘is if we did so or not.’”
One of the big essays in this issue is a long piece by George Prochnik on Stefan Zweig’s World of Yesterday: An Autobiography. It’s a very interesting piece that mostly focuses on Zweig’s exile and eventual suicide. Some very interesting bits in here that make it definitely worth reading:
Zweig was obsessed with the impossibility of attaining any distance on catastrophe in an age of enveloping mass media. He saw the inability to escape word of fresh disaster wherever and whenever it was happening—a phenomenon he labeled the “organization of simultaneity”— degrading humanity’s capacity to respond to suffering. “People speak so lightly of bombardments,” he wrote in one of his final letters, “But when I read of houses collapsing I collapse with them.” Over time, his justifications for being in Petropolis come to sound like dutiful recitations of holistic prescriptions. “Montaigne speaks with infinite sorrow of people who live the sorrows of others in imagination, and advises them to withdraw and isolate themselves,” he told Friderike. The contrast between the sight of Rio’s Carnival revelries (“_Très érotique, très érotique!_” he exclaimed to friends) and the latest news of wartime abominations gave the final prod to suicide. Zweig’s defeat in exile was due, also, to an inability even briefly to sustain the psychic quarantine he sporadically craved. [. . .]
Rather than staking a claim on the “real” beauties of the past, Zweig poses the question that haunts the experience of many a nostalgic émigré to this day: what do present circumstances offer by way of compensation for loss of the invariably exaggerated fantasy of sweet home? Although “it was a delusion our fathers served, it was a wonderful and noble delusion,” Zweig wrote, “more humane and more fruitful than our watchwords of today; and in spite of my later knowledge and disillusionment, there is still something in me which inwardly prevents me from abandoning it entirely.” Zweig’s paean to the aesthetic intoxication that characterized the Vienna of yesterday recalls Nietzsche’s dictum, “We have art in order that we may not perish of truth.”
Unfortunately, the only Zweig I’ve read is The Post-Office Girl, which I really enjoyed, and which made me want to read more—a desire that’s been stoked by this piece.
Quarterly Conversation‘s review sections is one of the highlights of each issue, and the new one doesn’t disappoint. Especially pleased to see a piece by Matt Rowe on Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud’s A Life in Paper, which was translated by Edward Gauvin. This is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and I completely agree with Matt on the Cortazar connection:
Although the stories in A Life on Paper have many precedents and parallels in American writing, from Irving to Poe to Twain, the fantastic mode has been in eclipse for a century. In recent years Ray Bradbury’s freaks and dreamers, unfairly relegated to the genre shelves, are perhaps a better match than the biting humor and socio-cultural satire of a Vonnegut, despite their surface similarities. The success of writers like Kelly Link and Aimee Mann may be sign of a renaissance, or merely the exception that proves the rule.
Other literatures don’t relegate the modern fantastic to a lesser tier. Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud’s closest Latin American kin is not any practitioner in the overstretched category of magical realism but the inimitable Julio Cortázar; Italian readers know not only Calvino’s post-modern play but the works of his contemporaries Dino Buzzati and Tommaso Landolfi and many others. And beyond the many works of Châteaureynaud not yet in English, translator Gauvin says there is a whole school of the fantastic in French and especially Belgian letters.
This kind of tale is foreign not in its language (thanks to Edward Gauvin) but in its mere unfamiliarity. A Life on Paper is itself a talisman for preserving an endangered world.
Linda Lê is someone I’ve been meaning to read for a while, especially The Three Fates, which is translated by Mark Polizetti and published by New Directions. Here’s a bit from Promita Chatterji’s review:
From its first lines depicting an old man, “tired, broken . . . sitting in his small blue house like King Lear in his hovel,” the novel aligns its main characters with the most canonical of literary figures. “King Lear’s” daughters turn out to be the “Three Fates” of the title: two sisters and their cousin; three women who have left their father behind while emigrating to France from Vietnam during the early 1970’s. Living a life of relative wealth and comfort, the novel’s main thread revolves around their discussions as they plan to bring him out for a visit.
But it’s Lê‘s style that sounds most intriguing to me:
While the majority of these stories are inherently fascinating and excruciatingly detailed, The Three Fates is by no means an easy read. Although it is relatively short, the novel’s overriding feature is its forceful, difficult narration. Written without chapter or paragraph breaks—and with only a few, intermittent “section” breaks—and without any dialogue or direct discourse, the novel creates a fractured, dream-like surface that glides from one perspective to another. [. . .]
The translation, by Mark Polizetti, is impressive in its ability to render the perspectival shifts and general pacing of the language. At times, the tone of sarcasm and cruelty feels a bit over the top and the nicknames can seem clunky, but overall works quite successfully to render the fragmentation and tension that characterize the novel.
Finally, there’s also a piece by Anne Posten on Alina Bronsky’s Broken Glass Park:
In some ways, Alina Bronsky’s Broken Glass Park is exactly what one might expect from a debut novel whose narrator and heroine is a seventeen-year-old girl. The book is fast-paced, engaging, and not exactly challenging in terms of form or style. What makes the book worth reading, however, is the fact that the story is a unique one, and one which is told with great simplicity, straightforwardness, and ease. Sascha Naimann is a flawed yet very lovable heroine, and it is very difficult not to be drawn in by her voice and story.
The story takes place in Frankfurt, where Sascha lives with her younger half-brother and half-sister in a housing project filled mostly with Russian immigrants like themselves. The fact that many of the characters are meant to be speaking Russian and the interactions between newly-learned German and the mother tongue provide an interesting challenge for a translator, and one that Tim Mohr dealt with smoothly. His pop-culture background is also very well suited to the diction of a teenager, and the switches between colloquialism and precocious articulateness are navigated with ease.
Yep—another book for the “to read” pile . . .
Over at the Quarterly Conversation, David Auerbach discusses the work of Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai:
In the post-war years, many European authors, especially those from Communist states, engaged in surrealism, parable, and allegory as a way of containing the mid-century chaos that spilled over from the war, where the psychology and rationality of modernism no longer seemed capable of fighting the irrationality of Nazism and Communism. While there have been some stunning works by Ludvik Vaculik (The Guinea Pigs)1, Bohumil Hrabal (I Served the King of England, Too Loud a Solitude), Imre Kertész (Detective Story, Liquidation), and others, this general approach has more frequently produced limp sentimentality and disposable weirdness (Milan Kundera and Victor Pelevin, spring to mind). Within their own works, Günter Grass and Ismail Kadare have met with both success and disaster plowing this field.
It is Krasznahorkai who has, to my knowledge, engaged in the deepest investigation of how these metaphorical understandings are formed, how they succeed, and, most importantly, how they fail. Like Kertész at his best, he questions the process of making meaning.
Beginning with Satantango in 1985, Krasznahorkai has written, along with stories and scripts, at least half a dozen novels. Only two of these, The Melancholy of Resistance (1989) and War and War (1999), have been published in English (in translations by George Szirtes), though further efforts are currently afoot.
On Melancholy of Resistance (which is an amazing book):
In outline, The Melancholy of Resistance is the story of the visit of a carnival to a small Hungarian town. The carnival brings its two main attractions, “The biggest whale in the world” held dead and preserved in a trailer, and The Prince, a chirruping demagogue who ominously speaks through his interpreting “factotum” and foments mass riots. After great violence The Prince’s followers are eventually subdued, and after the departure of the carnival a new order is established by the tyrannical Mrs. Eszter, who has placed the town under martial law.
And War and War:
In War and War, the misfit archivist Korin finds that space as he attempts to translate and publish online a mysterious manuscript that describes four distraught men traveling through different historical eras and locales. They repeatedly encounter a nemesis figure named Mastemann, another figure like Mrs. Eszter who seeks a new world order where “money and all that stems from it would no longer be dependent on an external reality, but on intellect alone.” He is always wrong, of course: the 16th-century Genoa that he lives in and extols would lose half its population to plague in the following century and suffer permanent decline thereafter. Mastemann’s efforts become just another form of war against the uncontrollable terror of which Blumenberg speaks.
As Korin recounts the manuscript’s story to his translator, it becomes evident that he has been pulled into a space halfway between mythical history and the present day. It has sensitized him to, well, something. He sees the skyscrapers of New York as ziggurats, towers of Babel. The effects are not salutary; he becomes unable to cope with the contemporary world around him, even as he fails to comprehend the import of the manuscript.
This is a really interesting article that’s definitely worth reading. (There’s a lot more in there than simple descriptions of the two translated books.) Which comes as no surprise—I know David personally, and he may well be the most avid (and intelligent) Krasznahorkai fan in the world.
1 Soon to be reprinted by Open Letter
I know I had a week off (more or less, and thanks again to Edward Gauvin for kicking such ass last week), but all I’ve really got right now is this review I wrote of Edie Grossman’s Why Translation Matters.
Honestly, this is one of the only things I’ve ever written that I’m pretty proud of. (And all props to Scott and Heidi for their support and help—y’all effing rock.) Really curious to hear what people think of this . . .
Back in 2003, the New York Times ran an article entitled “America Yawns at Foreign Fiction” driving home the idea that American publishers don’t publish many books in translation (the commonly cited statistic is that translations make up less than 3 percent of all books published in America), that readers don’t care to read international literature (the opening line of the article is a joke about how Americans had no idea who Imre Kertesz was when he won the Nobel Prize), and that this situation is unlikely to change.
All pretty depressing stuff for anyone interested in works from beyond our borders, but, to be honest, none of this was very surprising. Conversations about literature in translation are ruled by negativity: Translators aren’t paid enough. Publishers don’t support literature in translation. Booksellers ignore these books in favor of Twilight knock-offs and other schlock. No one reads anymore anyway. Translation is impossible.
No wonder Edie Grossman is a bit touchy:
“We read translations all the time, but of all the interpretive arts, it is fascinating and puzzling to realize that only translation has to fend off the insidious, damaging question of whether or not it is, can be, or should be possible. It would never occur to anyone to ask whether it is feasible for an actor to perform a dramatic role or a musician to interpret a piece of music. Of course it is feasible, just as it is possible for a translator to rewrite a work of literature in another language. Can it be done well? I think so, as do my translating colleagues, but there are other, more antipathetic opinions.”
The whole review can be found at The Quarterly Conversation.
My unabashed love for The Quarterly Conversation is longstanding and predates all reviews/excerpts of Open Letter titles . . . In fact, I remember when we first launched Three Percent (back in the simpler, halcyon days of summer 2007 . . . ) Scott Espositon and Quarterly Conversation/Conversational Reading was by far the most oft-linked and name-checked person/publication on the blog.
But this new issue? Holy. Shit. Check out this list of features related to international literature, and then show me a magazine (print or online) as overflowing with good stuff:
Amazing, no? And that doesn’t include the “Bonus Material” section, or what might be the best feature of them all: Translate this Book! an epic list of recommendations of books to translate from a range of translators, agents, editors, etc.
I’m going to be going through this list as if it contained a secret explanation for the universe, and might be writing more in the future about the books referenced here, but for now, I just want to point out the strange coincidence that both Michael Emmerich and I nominated the same book . . . Granted, he’s been able to read this in the original, and I’ve just heard legends, but in my someone manic mood, this “coincidence” seems proof enough that Dogura Magura is a book that Open Letter should be publishing . . .
But back to the point: Not sure how Scott Esposito and Annie Janush and all the other editors and contributors pull this off, but thank god they do.
One improvement that would be supercool: a one-click button to print the entire issue . . .
In just under a year, three Jakov Lind books will be reissued (the Open Letter edition of Landscape in Concrete is available now, with NYRB’s edition of Soul of Wood coming out later this fall and our reprint of Ergo releasing in January), and to celebrate this rediscovery, Jeff Waxman wrote an interesting piece for the Quarterly Conversation:
Lind is not only a major post-Holocaust writer; he is also a modernist of extraordinary talent and vision. His writing shows an intriguing, Beckettian dissolution of reason, and it owes a clear debt to the absurdists, whose themes of obsession and the perversion of reality closely resemble Lind’s work. Born in Vienna a decade before the Anschluss, Lind also owes something also to the Austro-Jewish literary tradition exemplified by Stefan Zweig—there’s a humanist regard that colors his work and tinges his cynicism with a smirking regret. This sort of weeping giddiness characterizes all of Lind’s writing, from his excellent dramatic efforts like The Silver Foxes Are Dead to his short stories and his extraordinary dark novels. [. . .]
Reading Lind, it becomes clear that he—like so many of his fellow Jews—never recovered from the Shoah that he somehow missed; his books are stuffed with the madness of that time, of hiding in plain sight, of those dark circumstances. Somewhere in life’s meaninglessness, through LSD and hashish and stunningly good humor, Lind tried to find some structure, something beneath the insanity to cling to and make real. He found logic, because logic exists even divorced from reason. It’s from this bizarre worldview, from this confusion of ideas, that Lind wrote some of his best work. [. . .]
In a time when Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum is seeing a revival in an inspired new translation by Breon Mitchell, and when other lost post-Holocaust literature is reemerging (for example, the recently published, gorgeous Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada), there is no better time for the reading public to reengage with this scarred, deeply alone survivor of tumultuous times. A writer who blended the deranged freedom of the 1960s and the death of reason in the 1940s into an extraordinary understanding of humanity in all its hopeful and idealistic depravity, Jakov Lind wrote the kind of books that are not to be missed.
In addition to an interview with one of our favorite authors, Amanda Michalopolou (or, as Chad likes to call her, Amanda M.), there are too many interesting reviews to mention. A, small, sample:
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.
We’re publishing Mathias Énard’s Zone next year, and I couldn’t be more excited. There’s a review of it up now at The Quarterly Conversation, and while it’s not a wholly positive review, the review just makes me happier to be publishing it. Zone is definitely an Open Letter book:
Zone doesn’t seduce so much as it makes its reader uncomfortable and sets her mind to work. In Human Smoke, Nicholson Baker wrote an alternative history of World War II that led the reader to disturbing what-ifs. Énard too writes an alternative history of his zone: through the mind of Francis Servain, he makes us see what we tend to forget and, sometimes, what lies ahead. Zone is history of literature as well as history of the Mediterranean, although there is no lesson or philosophy behind all this. It’s an admission of human failure. In spite of the book’s many weaknesses it is a powerful read, a novel for the ages, because what is inside will probably never be out of date and will always somewhat enlighten the reader’s view of the times she lives in. (It remains to be seen whether it will work on an American reader, one likely much less familiar with most of what happens in the Mediterranean zone.) Francis is sure his journey is toward the end of the world, and Zone is an end of the world novel that knows precisely that this is actually not the end of the world. This might very well be the crudest joke, the most gruesome story narrated here by Mathias Énard: it is not over.
Issue 14 of The Quarterly Conversation is now available online and features a number of interesting articles and reviews.
The “Features” sound really interesting as well, especially the pieces on William Gaddis and Carter Scholz.
And on top of all that, there’s a contest featuring questions from this issue of TQC. The winning entry will receive one copy of all of Roberto Bolano’s books . . .
The new issue of Quarterly Conversation is now online, and, as can be expected, filled with great stuff.
One of the lead pieces is Scott Esposito’s article about the similarities in the writings of Adolfo Bioy Casares and Franz Kafka:
In his Prologue [to The Invention of Morel, Borges calls on writers of the 20th century to prove that “if [the literature of] this century has any ascendancy over the preceding ones it lies in the quality of its plots.” Kafka and Bioy are two writers who responded to, and perhaps proved, Borges’s declaration. For all the differences in their lives, contexts, and ways of meeting Borges’s challenge, their fictions exhibit remarkable convergences. So clear are the similarities that one might follow William H. Gass, who once declared “that Schopenhauer has read Borges and reflects him, just as Borges reflects both Bioy and Borges.” If Schopenhauer can read Borges, then Kafka has clearly read Bioy, and the two reflect each other like two mirrors, except what’s multiplied in their midst isn’t a person but a world: our very own, skewed as images caught between mirrors tend to be, but seemingly contained in both at once and, as the reproductions trail off to infinity, slightly but clearly bending in the same direction.
There are also a number of reviews of interesting titles, including pieces on All One Horse by Breyten Breytenbach, on Boxwood by Camilo Jose Cela, and The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig, which has a great opening paragraph:
Reading The Post-Office Girl is like trying to hit a slow-breaking curveball. You know the break is coming—you can intuit that the seemingly conventional story is going to drop on you in some way—but it hangs high for so long that by the time it does break, you’ve already swung blindly, thinking you knew how to read the book.
There are also reviews of Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya—one of my favorite books of 2008, which Scott Bryan Wilson also praises:
ike a lot of the great Central American novelists, Moya started out with aspirations of becoming a poet, and though Senselessness is full of really miserable, gruesome stuff, it’s exactly the ugliness, as well as Moya’s sense of language, compassion, and his healthy dose of pessimism), that make Senselessness a phenomenal read and an incredibly important work.
And finally, there’s an interesting review of Basrayatha: Portrait of a City by Muhammad Khudayyir:
Muhammad Khudayyir’s Basrayatha has no need for maps. Although the book is tagged as a travel memoir, it has little to offer the would-be (if-it-were-possible) tourist to Iraq. The narrative doesn’t pause to orient the reader—to remove our blindfolds and point us in a particular direction—and most of its landmarks are erased and rebuilt, renamed, and then erased and rebuilt again. The book’s only visual guides are not maps but slightly blurred, century-old photographs. These uncaptioned photos, like the images of a W. G. Sebald novel, obscure as much as they illuminate.
But just as Khudayyir does not present us with the pseudo-clarity of a CNN report, neither does he bring us a fuzzy, pre-invasion paradise. Basrayatha is nearer kin to Calvino’s Invisible Cities and Sebald’s Rings of Saturn. Khudayyir takes us into a story-reflecting-a-city, a series of memories and mirrors that point us toward what the book’s narrator calls “actual, defective reality.” This is not because Khudayyir has fled the land of his birth and must construct things, board by board, from faded recollections. He names himself a permanent citizen of Basra, and says that he has rarely left the city in forty-some years, his age when the book was published in Arabic in 1996.
Overall, a great issue.
The new Quarterly Conversation site looks great. If you haven’t yet checked it out, now is the time.
As has been mentioned on many other blogs, the new issue of the Quarterly Conversation is now available online.
Yet another great issue, especially the article by Dan Green on the reissuing of Donald Barthelme’s books and the reviews of Bolano’s Nazi Literature in the Americas and Antunes’s Knowledge of Hell.
What’s especially thrilling to me though is the long piece by Marcelo Ballve on Macedonio Fernandez: The Man Who Invented Borges. This a really interesting (and bold) essay and especially interesting since Open Letter will be publishing Macedonio’s Museo de la Novela de la Eterna in the Fall of 2009.
This article does a really good job of tracing the relationship between Borges and Macedonio, demonstrating in a convincing way (in my opinion at least) that of all the authors Borges is compared to, Macedonio is really the only one that seems like a just influence. (“Of course Borges claims certain influences—Edgar Allan Poe, R.L. Stevenson, H.G. Wells, etc—but these only get us so far. We read these authors’ work and Borges’s stories side by side and can’t quite fathom what might have triggered the quantum leap represented in stories like “The Aleph,” or “Funes the Memorious.”)
There are a lot of myths and stories surrounding the mysterious Macedonio—many of which are almost as interesting as his writing itself. Such as the story about how he ran for President (twice!) and his only campaigning was to write “Macedonio” on slips of paper and leave them around town. Macedonio is as unique a name in Argentine politics as Barack is in American, something he thought he could capitalize on. (He couldn’t—he lost both times.)
But the books themselves sound absolutely captivating:
His Adriana Buenos Aires was an experiment in parodying defunct novelistic forms handed down from gothic fiction and romanticism, while suggesting possibilities for literature light years beyond sentimentalism. Museo de la Novela de la Eterna, first published in 1967 and impossible to summarize, is best described as an extended experiment in writing an open novel analogous to a piece of music. The prose evokes a dizzying world of aesthetic associations and possibilities in the reader’s mind. At every moment it tests the limits between art and life, reality and fiction, as well as form and content.
(It’s worth pointing out that Adriana Buenos Aires is subtitled “the last bad novel” to contrast with Museo, which is the “first good novel.”)
As time grows nearer, we’ll get more information online about Macedonio and his strange book (more than half of which consists of a series of playful prefaces), but this article is a wonderful introduction to his metaphysical (and metafictional) ideas. And influence.
The new issue of Quarterly Conversation is now available, and full of interesting pieces including reviews of Lydie Salvayre’s The Power of Flies, Dorothea Dieckmann’s Guantanamo (which won our inaugural Best Translation of 2007 award), and Yousef Al-Mohaimeed’s Wolves of the Crescent Moon. There’s also a longer essay by François Monti on the fascinating and strange fiction of Eric Chevillard.
A really cool feature is the Overrated/Underrated list in which each of the issue’s contributors selects one overrated and one underrated book. Interesting in and of itself, but really, I only got as far as this entry, which made me giddy with anticipation:
Underrated: Doctor Pasavento by Enrique Vila-Matas
Maybe it’s problematic to consider an award-winning book under-rated, but quite a few reviewers of Enrique Vila-Matas’s Doctor Pasavento complained that it was just the same book as the previous one, and the one before. Surface-reading at its worst: if Doctor Pasavento, the third volume of Vila-Matas’s metaliterary trilogy, indeed reiterates things that were said in Bartleby & Co. and Montano’s Malady, it does so with much more depth, addressing a very different theme: the difficulty of being nobody. It is the pinnacle of Vila-Matas’s body of work thus far, and it should appeal to readers of Sebald and Walser.
I really hope New Directions publishes this sometime soon . . .
The most recent issue of The Quarterly Conversation has an excellent article by Javier Moreno on Rodrigo Fresan’s Mantra
Mantra is a novel about a Mexico City that doesn’t exist and about a man called Martín Mantra. Martín Mantra, the cursed boy genius, the son of a soap opera star and a pathetic melodic singer, the only heir of the Mantra Media Empire, the young director of the Mexican “total film” Mondo Mantra, the hypothetical mascot of a group of masked luchadores, the late revolutionary-terrorist leader also known as Capitán Godzilla (a.k.a.) Mantrax. Martín Mantra, the stereotypical citizen of that fictional Mexico D.F. [. . .]
Divided into three clearly delimited parts, Mantra is told, or compiled, by an anonymous narrator/lexicographer who, it turns out, is pretty much dead. We don’t know the circumstances of his death, but we suspect he is not among us anymore. This man is a non-Mexican who, during his early childhood, was introduced by Martín Mantra himself to the Mexican Mantraverse during the projection of a movie the Mexican kid had made. Although Martín Mantra only stayed a few months in the place where he lived, the memory of this exotic child haunted him forever. He could not forget that movie. Then he grew up to be the creator of Guadalajara Smith, a comic book heroine, went to Paris, and, accidentally, met María-Marie, the French cousin of Martín Mantra. María-Marie left him for Mexico, and he went after her. And then he died, so he could start defining things.
Sounds ambitious and fun. Fresan’s Kensington Gardens came out from FSG a couple years back, but doesn’t appear to have made it into paperback . . . KG is partially about Peter Pan, making it potentially more “marketable” than some of his other books, but hopefully more of Fresan’s books will make their way into English. Both Mantra and La Velocidad de las cosas sound fantastic.
And on a coincidental note, the title of Fresan’s first book is Esperanto.
The Winter ’08 issue of Quarterly Conversation is now available online.
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Despite cries that literature is dead, dying, and self-replicating in the worst way, once in a while a book comes along to remind readers that there’s still a lot of surprise to be found on the printed page. To be. . .
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A few weeks after moving into a farm house in the Welsh countryside, Emilie, an expatriate from the Netherlands, starts to think about her uncle. This uncle tried to drown himself in a pond in front of the hotel where. . .
Think back to the last adventure- or action-type book you read. Wasn’t it cool? Didn’t it make you want to do things, like learn to shoot a crossbow, hack complicated information systems, travel to strange worlds, take on knife-wielding thugs,. . .
In Aira’s Shantytown, while we’re inside the characters’ heads for a good portion of the story, the voice we read on the page is really that of Aira himself, as he works out the plot of the book he’s writing.. . .
Noir is not an easy genre to define—or if it once was, that was a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away; as a quick guess, maybe Silver Lake, Los Angeles, 1935. When two books as different as. . .