This post is courtesy of BTBA judge, Scott Esposito. Scott Esposito blogs at Conversational Reading and you can find his tweets here.
Works – Edouard Levé, Translated byJan Steyn
Dalkeyy Archive Press
You really have to be impressed with the fact that Edouard Levé has had three books translated into English, and all three of them have hit the Best Translated Book Award longlist. Very few writers have had that honor.
I think what this points us toward is the fact that, despite some similarities among his books, each time Levé is doing something new and different. This, to me, is what book awards should be all about: awarding authors who show an incredible range, are willing to continually take risks, resist falling into patterns, and overall produce amazing results from original ideas.
Levé did all of these things consistently throughout his too-brief career, and if he were here now I’m sure he would still be doing just that. Works was his first book, and maybe his best. It’s simply just a bunch of descriptions of possible artworks that someone might make. Of course, a lot of people could come up with an idea like that for a book, but how many people could turn that idea into a brilliantly executed book that tears apart our notions of art while offering some of the most precise, beautiful writing of the year? And who other than Jan Steyn could bring it into such equally precise and beautiful English?
Maybe out of all the titles on the longlist, Works would permit the most rereadings, would still sound the freshest no matter how many times you read it and no matter how long from now you picked it back up. It has broad, fascinating notions about what art is or could be, and it’s loads and loads of fun. Levé was always subversive and comical, even if you couldn’t always tell exactly when he was being deadpan and when he wasn’t.
A book offering all this obviously deserves an award. There’s no other way to look at it.
As we work our way through the 500-some new translations released in 2014, I’m going to repost on a few books that have stood out for me so far. This list is not exhaustive at all, and it is incredibly subjective, so, disclaimers. But for what it’s worth, here it is.
Paris by Marcos Giralt Torrente (translated by Margaret Jull Costa)
It’s like Giralt had a direct line into the skull of Javier Marías—and, yes, this first novel from one of Spain’s biggest authors can stand up to that kind of comparison (plus, look who translated it). But Giralt is no Marías clone. Though his style is clearly indebted in this book, the concerns and narration are wholly Giralt’s. Very few authors could write a debut novel this good.
La Grande by Juan Jose Saer (translated by Steve Dolph)
From debut to swan song: La Grande was what one of Argentina’s greatest postwar authors was working on when he died in 2005. He got close enough to finishing it that I think we can consider it a complete work. It’s huge, ambitious, and very successful.
Ready to Burst by Frankétienne (translated by Kaiama L. Glover)
As publisher Jill Schoolman put it, Frankétienne is a force of nature. A poet and author with dozens of works to his name, he is also an artist, musician, and activist. In this slim book he (among other things) articulates his aesthetic of spirialism. It looks to be an amazing read.
Bombay Stories by Saadat Hasan Manto (translated by Matt Reeck)
Manto gets name-checked a lot as the greatest Urdu short story writer of the 20th century. After having read a few of the stories in this book, I can believe that.
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein)
Just as Knausgaard’s moment seems to be fading, Elena Ferrante is heating up in the U.S. media. And with good reason.
Melancholy II by Jon Fosse (translated by Eric Dickens)
Jon Fosse’s original Melancholy was a damn good read. So, of course, I’m hoping that Dalkey manages to live up to its Nov. 11 release date so that we can consider this for the award.
Suspended Sentences: Three Novellas by Patrick Modiano (translated by Mark Polizzotti)
I have to hand it to the Nobel committee—they usually end up picking writers that I find pretty interesting. I’ve never read Modiano and am eager to give this one a look. Plus, Yale has been doing astonishing work with its Margellos series, so the fact that they were on to this before the Prize is a good indication.
I like the fact that the BTBA has a strong track record for picking not only the massive, monumental doorstoppers that tend to garner the lion’s share of award attention but also the slim, sleek books that are often much richer and better-constructed. The best possible example is our first award, in which we gave the svelte Tranquility by Attila Bartis the nod over the imposing 2666 from, of course, Roberto Bolaño. 2011 saw us pick the slender The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson (beating out sizable finalists Hocus Bogus by Romain Gary, Agaat by Marlene Van Niekerk, and Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer by Ernst Weiss). But we’ve also gone for the bulky books: in 2013 we gave it to the sizable Satantango by Laszlo Krasznahorkai, and in 2012 is was Wiesław Myśliwski’s epic Stone Upon Stone.
So, in that spirit, here’s my discussion of some of the more sizable books that I both think are strong contenders for the award, and that I think should be left out.
Blinding by Mircea Cartarescu.
This is, quite simply, one of the most amazing books I’ve read this year. Cartarescu is one of the few authors I’ve read that could legitimately claim the legacy of Thomas Pynchon (now that Pynchon is writing parodies of himself). I’ll have lots more to say about it in an upcoming review at The Kenyon Review, but for now, here are links to a review and interview at The Quarterly Conversation. Read it.
My Struggle: Book Two by Karl Ove Knausgaard
I have a feeling that when it’s all said and done, this will be many people’s favorite volume of the My Struggle sextet. It’s subtitled “A Man In Love,” and that’s just what it is: the story of Knausgaard falling in love with the woman who is now his wife. There are so many passionate, ecstatic moments in here that anyone who has ever been in love will recognize, wrought extraordinarily well by Knausgaard. Plus, the book also has: his on and off feud with his crazy neighbor, who might be a prostitute; why he hates interviews; and the story of the incident in which he turned his face into a bloody mess with a razor blade.
Leg over Leg, Volume 1 and 2 by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq
This is billed as the Arabic world’s answer to Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne. Apparently it begins with a lengthy list of synonyms for various parts of the male and female genitalia.
Seiobo There Below by Laszlo Krasznahorkai
If the Nobel committee would ever give their award to a writer like Krasznahorkai, this would be the book they would give it to him for. An inquiry into what humanity needs spirituality that is unlike anything I have ever read. Grand in scope, accomplishment, virtuosity. Grand, grand, grand. Read my review in Wednesday’s Washington Post.
Where Tigers Are at Home by Jean-Marie Blas de Robles
Reviews have made this book sound extremely diverse and remarkably achieved. Could either be incredible or too big for its own good.
A Treatise on Shelling Beans by Wiesław Myśliwski
Okay, the title of this book is not awesome. But it is by the author of Stone Upon Stone, a book that seemingly everybody loves (I did enjoy it). And it is reputed to be even more of a masterpiece than that one.
City of Angels or, The Overcoat of Dr. Freud by Christa Wolf
An autobiographical look at ‘90s Los Angeles interspersed with memories of the Eastern Bloc where she re-discovers that she was actually a Stasi agent? Might just be crazy enough to work.
In the Night of Time by Antonio Munoz Molina
Billed as the War and Peace of the Spanish Civil War. Muñoz Molina is certainly one of Spain’s pre-eminent authors, but I’ve already read War and Peace.
Altai by Wu Ming
I’m tossing this on because “Wu Ming” is an awesome name and it’s a pseudonym for a collective of Italian writers. How cool is that? Apparently not cool enough to make something more than middlebrow Dan Brown. The collective’s previous book, Q, was a massive hit: I hope this book makes Verso boatloads of money so they can keep publishing Badiou and Ranciere.
One of the books that I’m most looking forward to reading this year is Scott Esposito and Lauren Elkin’s The End of the Oulipo?, which just came out this week. As a huge fan of the Oulipo—and a huge fan of Scott and Lauren—this has the potential to be really interesting.
The jacket copy isn’t that spectacular or illuminating, but for those who are interested, here it is:
The Oulipo, founded in 1960s, is a group of writers and mathematicians which seeks to create literature using constrained experimental writing techniques such as palindromes, lipograms and snowballs. A lipogram is writing that excludes one or more letters. A snowball is a poem in which each line is a single word, and each successive word is one letter longer.
The Oulipo group celebrated its fiftieth birthday in 2010, and as it enters its sixth decade, its members, fans and critics are all wondering: where can it go from here? In two long essays Scott Esposito and Lauren Elkin consider Oulipo’s strengths, weaknesses, and impact on today’s experimental literature.
To give you a slightly more appealing entryway to the book (which you should definitely buy, here’s a bit from the introduction:
In the movement’s first “manifesto” co-founder François Le Lionnais implies that it isn’t possible to pin down a definition of the Oulipo: there is an “annoying lacuna,” he says, in the dictionary under the term “potential literature.” Whatever the Oulipo is, and the Oulipo has the potential (of course) to be many things, it will always endeavor “systematically and scientifically” to find new forms for literature. Some Oulipians will make their constraints explicit (Georges Perec and Italo Calvino believed this was crucial), while others will leave them implicit, leaving readers, as Harry Mathews put it, “straining to find out” what constraints are at play (if any). Mathews himself has said
that he only occasionally produces Oulipian literature, while, according to Hervé Le Tellier, any work created by a member of the group is Oulipian to some extent.
The skeptical reader would be forgiven for wondering whether such games aren’t, after all, a little juvenile. Why write a novel, as Georges Perec did, without the letter e? But the Oulipo’s game-playing fits into a long French tradition: the avant-garde just loves a game, with its rules of engagement and its unknown outcome. It was only a matter of time before a group made games its entire raison d’être. (The Oulipo weren’t the first to do so, joining the Situationists and the Lettrists and the ’Pataphysicists in the game mentality of the postwar period.) [. . .]
Exhaustion is the necessary corollary to the Oulipian concept of potential. The constraint acts as a rubber band, expanding around the contours of the work as it pursues exhaustion, stretching to its limits; then it’s snapped, and the work’s potential sails out into the world. The constraint creates an environment in which creation can be helped along. Rather than facing down the blank page, the Oulipian writer can begin with a project.
There is no doubt that the Oulipo remains a productive and much-admired literary force on both sides of the Atlantic, but today, as the group enters its sixth decade of existence, its relevance and its future are in question. None of the Oulipian works that have made their way into English in the past decade (with the possible exception of Jacques Roubaud’s “great fire of London” project) can rival the best work published during the group’s staggeringly successful run through the 1960s and 1970s. In fact, in many instances the writing produced now is strikingly derivative of prior Oulipian works. Increasingly, the strongest work in the Oulipian spirit is occurring outside of the group, being done by authors working both consciously and unconsciously within its shadow. Perhaps this was inevitable: embedded in the Oulipo’s “open source” ethos is the idea of discovering forms and methods that anyone can use, regardless of membership in the group (though they can always be coopted sooner or later). It is possible that the group has become too inbred: it is now as concerned with archiving its history, carrying on its traditions, as it is in making new literature. Perhaps it is now the case that writers who wish to make their mark by following the creative spirit of the legendary cadres of Oulipians must do so beyond the group’s margins. These questions cut to the core of artistic movements in general, commenting profoundly on where true experimentalism comes from and how it is sustained. Can potential literature outlive its potential? Is the inevitable progression of an avant-garde group from fringe to mainstream? Which aspects of Oulipo have thrived, and which have become co-opted and defused? Where
is the Oulipo vulnerable to caricature?
It’s great to see this resurgence (at least among the younger American literati) of interest in the Oulipo. In fact, this seems like a really nice complement to Daniel Levin Becker’s book, Many Subtle Channels, which you should also read.
Anyway, I’ll write a more descriptive piece after I’ve had a chance to read this, but for now, I just wanted to share my excitement about this . . .
The new episode of “That Other Word”—a podcast sponsored by the Center for Writers and Translators and the Center for the Art of Translation and co-hosted by Daniel Medin and Scott Esposito—is now available online.
Sometimes marketing copy is all the copy you need . . . I’ll just let this description speak for itself:
Daniel Medin and Scott Esposito return to the second season of That Other Word energized by the translators’ duels at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the great work being done at the UK-based press And Other Stories. They look forward to new works in translation this fall, including Antonio Tabucci’s The Flying Creatures of Fra Angelico, Basque author and Edinburgh guest Bernardo Atxaga’s Seven Hours in France, and the latest from César Aira, The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira. Daniel Medin hopes that several novels generating interest in Germany and France — Jenny Erpenbeck’s Aller Tage Abend, Clemens J. Setz’s Indigo, and Jean Echenoz’s 14 — will soon be translated as well.
Afterward, Scott Esposito sits down with Margaret Jull Costa, a distinguished translator from Spanish and Portuguese who has brought Javier Marías, José Saramago, and Eça de Queiroz into English. She is the winner of numerous literary awards for translation, including the IMPAC Dublin award for her version of Marías’ A Heart So White. She speaks about her twenty-five year career, her pragmatic approach to translation, her favorite authors and her love of the nineteenth century, as well her thoughts on the evolution of Javier Marías’ style and his latest novel, which she has translated as The Infatuations.
DEFINITELY worth checking out. And you can also subscribe through iTunes.
I just received email notification that the third episode of That Other Word, the podcast from American University of Paris’s Center for Writers and Translators and the Center for the Art of Translation is now online.
This particular episode features a discussion between Daniel Medin and Scott Esposito about W.G. Sebald’s Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems 1964-2001 and Robert Walser’s The Walk, and includes a special interview with Three Percent hero Benjamin Moser.
On a related note, Ed Nawotka of Publishing Perspectives was praising the latest Monocle podcast on the Twitter or the Facebook the other day for it’s excellent series on visiting bookstores around the world. This particular episode features reports on stores in Tunis, Buenos Aires, and Barcelona . . .
So while you’re waiting for me and Kaija to break down this year’s Eurovision Song Contest (subject of the new Three Percent podcast, which will be available Friday), you can listen to both of these. Probably not as profane/filled with hysteria and crazy Euro “songs,” but interesting nevertheless . . .
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!
On Thursday morning, I’ll be taking off to attend (and participate in) this year’s Blue Metropolis festival in Montreal.
In case you haven’t heard of it, the Blue Met is one of the (or maybe just the?) largest literary festivals in Quebec. It runs from April 18th through the 23rd, and features a ton of great events taking place in several different languages and featuring authors from Canada (Perrine Leblanc), the U.S. (Joyce Carol Oates), and the rest of the world (Juan Gabriel Vasquez, Teresa Solana).
The main reason I’m going to be there is to participate in this event:
Friday, April 20, 2:30pm (aka 14:30)
Godin Room, Hotel Opus
Cracking the U.S. Market
Two influential critics, writers and publishing insiders talk about how Canadian writers, editors and publishers can break into the U.S. publishing market and possible directions that the market will take in the next few years.
Scott Esposito, Chad Post, Katia Grubisic (moderator)
First off, it’s awesome to be referred to as “influential,” and also awesome to have a full panel to talk about all these issues with Scott. The three of us have exchanged a few emails about the event, and just based on these, I can guarantee the panel will be fun, funny, and informative.
If you’re going to be at the festival, here are a few other events I’d recommend:
Hopefully I’ll meet up with some of you there!
Over at Conversational Reading, Scott Esposito has posted a six-question interview with Margaret Carson, translator of Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds, which has been gathering a ton of praise. (Coincidentally, I finished reading his next Open Letter book—The Planets—while at MLA and can assure his fans that this is just as good. Very different book, but if you liked My Two Worlds, you won’t be disappointed.)
Without a doubt, one of the most interesting new books I read last year was My Two Worlds by Sergio Chejfec. The book raises quite legitimate comparisons to authors like Sebald and Walser, and its brief 100 pages are made expansive by intricate, precise prose. The book concerns the reflections made by its unnamed narrator over the course of a short walk through a park in some unnamed Brazilian city. What is perhaps most striking about this walk is the haze of thought that Chejfec creates within it. Reading, we sense some sort of meaning at the core of this thought, but that meaning stays elusive. It is from this movement between meaning and absence that the book derives its power. [. . .]
Scott Esposito: That’s interesting that you were taking on specialized vocabulary and knowledge to help the translation of this book. In my opinion, that strengthens the Sebald connection that I and others have established to Chejfec’s work, since a mastery of various minor forms of 20th-century knowledge was so essential to his project. Relative to other things you’ve translated, did you feel that Chejfec’s language placed more demands on your English?
Margaret Carson: Yes, language and its nuances are extremely important to Sergio, and part of the challenge of translating My Two Worlds was exploring equivalent words and phrases for the English version. Many of the descriptive passages take delight in visual minutiae, as for instance the appearance and texture of the path the narrator follows into the park, or the workings of the large fountain whose spray of water gives him the first inkling of Kentridge’s dotted lines. It was tricky to keep these and other passages moving in the English; what feels effortless in the original breaks down as soon as you begin to translate it. Often sentences would flash back to life again after a few key words were in place; it’s a joy to run wild in English and find such a wealth of possibilities.
In the midst of working on this translation I became won over by words that on previous projects I would probably have rejected as too obscure. For instance, a word that appears a few times at the end of the novel, “disyuntiva,” could be translated more commonly as “crossroads” or “dilemma”; but in choosing “disyuntiva” Sergio chose a word that strongly implies a choice between two options, and so “disjunctive” was really the best equivalent in English. Similarly, the adjective “lacustre,” which occurs twice in the novel, gave me pause; should I use the almost unheard-of cognate “lacustrine”—“of or pertaining to a lake or lakes”—or should I try something more familiar, such as “lakelike”? In the end I decided to keep the stranger word, “lacustrine,” completely justifiable, I thought, since “lucustre” is fairly strange in Spanish as well.
On the whole, I tried to stick quite close to the original, not just in word choice but also in preserving the length and density of the sentences. I had to search for models in English to give me an idea of how to structure and balance the clauses and sub-clauses that, as Enrique Vila-Matas points out in his introduction to My Two Worlds, seem to test the elasticity of the sentence itself. I was happy to discover that the long literary sentence en English is not a relic from 19th-century, and that many contemporary writers—among them Lynne Tillman, William Gaddis, and David Foster Wallace—provided excellent models that helped me carry over this essential part of Chejfec’s style.
Read the entire interview by clicking here.
OK, so I don’t really heart Scott Esposito—as well all know, he’s shit at riding a mechanical bull and that is a NECESSARY in my book—but he has been doing a lot of great work lately, and has prompted me to write an appreciation of his recent reviews and round-up of some year end lists that I’ve been digging.
First up though is Scott. The new Quarterly Conversation is out and contains a review of Can Xue’s Vertical Motion, (translated from the Chinese by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping) which helps elevate this already brilliant web publication. (More on the new issue next week.)
Just before Thanksgiving, Scott’s review of Pelevin’s The Hall of the Singing Caryatids (translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield) was published by The National. As I mentioned yesterday (and in the forthcoming podcast), I just read this and really loved it for its weird and unsettling nature. Here’s Scott’s summary:
A very worthy new addition to this collection is Pelevin’s recently translated novella The Hall of Singing Caryatids, which comes to us by way of New Directions’ Pearls series of short works. It is a brilliant fable of a Russia oversaturated with “semiotic signs”, a skewing of a country where rhetoric – and not actual substance – is most often the locus of communication. The unlucky recipients of this verbiage are call girls employed by a palace of gratification built to capture some of the trickle-down wealth from Russia’s affluent classes. The book gets off to a fitting start as the women are sanctimoniously informed by their employers that their task is one of national importance, the pleasuring of the rich and powerful being vital to beating the West at its own game and keeping the precious oligarchs safe from imperialist influence.
The plot follows Lena, whose job is to join 11 other women in two-day shifts standing perfectly still as living statues that wait to take their next customer into a side room. Such a performance would be taxing to say the least, but Pelevin gives the women a secret weapon: before each shift they’re injected with a chemical modelled on that which allows praying mantises to stand perfectly still while waiting for unwary prey. The chemical offers a bonus: as a side effect, it sends Lena and her counterparts into a Zen-like nirvana where they commune with a vaguely Deepak Chopra-like spiritual mantis. As Lena explores this mantis-world more deeply, Pelevin puts her on a collision course with Mikhail Botvinik, a jet-setting oligarch who wields a force known as “Crypto-Speak” – powerful word-weapons that are cleverly disguised as “everyday speech”.
This is a book that must be read to understood.
But this isn’t the only great book of 2011 that Scott’s recently reviewed—not at all. Next up was his incredibly measured and comprehensive piece at The Critical Flame on Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds (translated from the Spanish by Margaret B. Carson):
My Two Worlds is a dance, a seduction that draws us right up to the palpable center and then fades away to the margin, drawing one back toward that center before fading into another marginal space – back and forth, round and round. It is that same haze of thought one feels when hovering around an idea that remains unelucidatable. Yet the book is merely Chejfec’s thoughts over the course of a walk. It is two hours of serpentine meditation, that same maddening dart and weave between significance and insignificance, transcendence and babble.
The best description for the book – one that might also be suitable for Sebald – is to call My Two Worlds a fragmentation of gazes. As with Sebald, mundane objects play a central role in provoking the narrator’s curiosity: the action of the book gets underway when, looking at his map and preparing to make his trip to the park, the narrator becomes fixated by “the great green blotch, as I called it.” On the map he sees “a small black 9 printed at the heart of the park . . . it strengthened my resolve to visit the park.” These are just the type of everyday, slightly obscure details that might become the object of anyone’s irrational fixation, giving the book an odd realism.
We will be posting our video from the recent Chejfec & Carson RTWCS in the near future . . . But going back to Scott’s run of reviewing great books, his piece on Juan Jose Saer’s Scars (translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph) just ran in Bookforum:
What Saer presents marvelously is the experience of reality, and the characters’ attempts to write their own narratives within its excess. Scars is stuffed with unnecessarily minute details, and Saer smothers his readers—and narrators—beneath more information than can reasonably be interpreted. In doing this, he presents reality as an abundance so great that we must necessarily ignore much of it in order to find meaning.
Fortunately, Saer never loses sight of the book’s larger rhythms amid these details, making Scars a brisk, engrossing novel. Scars is best read quickly, so that what remains after reading is not any single moment but the flow of the narrative. Saer, who doesn’t hesitate to drop in a passage that instructs readers how to read his books, indicates as much when he has Ernesto consider Wilde’s advice that “one should absorb the colour of life, but one should never remember its details.” In Scars we see the colors of blurred motion, not the individual scenes that make up the action.
I’ve said it before (and am known to repeat myself), but Scars reestablished my faith in fiction. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. READ IT.
Not to shift gears to dramatically, but a lot of year-end lists are coming out (it being December and all), and a few of our titles have been getting some love.
Although it’s not an official “year end” list, I’m probably most psyched that Scars was included on the December list of Movers & Shakers at GoodReads. It is one of only six books featured. TRUST ME, IT IS THAT GOOD.
Over at Emmett Stinson’s blog, he has a list of the “Best Lit in Translation from 2011.” It’s a solid list featuring In Red, Perec’s Raise book, the new translation of Lispector’s The Hour of the Star (no, I won’t shut up about how great this is), Hrabal’s Dancing Lessons, and Chejfec’s My Two Worlds. All of these books are worth reading, and I like the way Emmett describes all of these.
There are more lists worth discussing (the cool one at Love German Books) and ones better ignored (the so-predictable-that-it’s-almost-not-predictable NY Times list of 100 Notable Books), but for now, this is a decent start . . .
I do have some serious things to say about ALTA 2011, which took place in Kansas City last week, but I’m trying to power through a few big things here before the Thanksgiving vacation, so I’m probably going to reserve those legit posts for next week. Instead, let’s talk about riding a mechanical bull.
Kansas City is a fun place that is filled with bar-be-que, concealed weapons, and mechanical bulls. To celebrate this fine heritage, I thought it would be fun if a big group of translators went down to PBR Big Sky (the PBR stands for “Professional Bull Riding,” FYI) to ride a mechanical bull and
shoot bullets into the sky try on cowboy hats.
To make this more interesting, I thought this could be the first of the “Feats of Translators” series here at Open Letter Books. See, rather than spending all this time reading and evaluating books, I think we should institute a new editorial policy whereby certain books are published based on which translators win particular contests. Like, you know, a scavenger hunt, or a Words With Friends tournament, or bull riding . . .
Based on the enticing possibility of having a book published by Open Letter, about
100 9 of us went to PBR and rode that bull. Actually, all of us rode the bull except for Scott Esposito, who decided that he wasn’t “manly” enough. (Which is maybe why he overcompensates at the beginning of this video by yelling “F*&^ you, Chad Post!” Some people . . . )
There are videos of all the riders, but I thought I’d just post mine since I decided that I won. (Our “timekeeping” sort of malfunctioned, so I win by default of having gone first. Publisher’s rules!)
Enjoy. And yes, “Wild Thing.”
Back when the Life A User’s Manual Big Read first started,1 I referenced this huge chart of constraints that served as Perec’s guide in constructing this novel.2 At the time, the only constraint I mentioned was the “Knight’s Move,” which determines the chapter order of the novel. But as you can see in that chart, there’s a lot more at work behind this novel . . .
If memory serves, the Oulipo Compendium has the best explanation of the constraints at work in this book, but since I’m moving tomorrow and Wednesday (perfect time to be reading a book on an apartment building, no?) my copy is currently buried within one of about 28 boxes of books. So, turning to the second most expert info source on the Internets, here’s how Wikipedia explains it all:
[Perec] created a complex system which would generate for each chapter a list of items, references or objects which that chapter should then contain or allude to. He described this system as a “machine for inspiring stories”.
There are 42 lists of 10 objects each, gathered into 10 groups of 4 with the last two lists a special “Couples” list. Some examples:
number of people involved
length of the chapter in pages
a position of the body
2 lists of novelists, from whom a literary quotation is required
“Couples”, e.g. Pride and Prejudice, Laurel and Hardy.
The way in which these apply to each chapter is governed by an array called a Graeco-Latin square. The lists are considered in pairs, and each pair is governed by one cell of the array, which guarantees that every combination of elements is encountered. For instance, the items in the couples list are seen once with their natural partner (in which case Perec gives an explicit reference), and once with every other element (where he is free to be cryptic). In the 1780s, the great mathematician Leonhard Euler had conjectured that a 10×10 Graeco-Latin square could not exist and it was not until 1959 that one was actually constructed, refuting Euler.
Aside from these overarching combinatorial restraints, there are various moments of Oulipian fun and games to be found in Life, such as pages 259-265, which, as Scott pointed out features diagonal e’s, g’s, and o’s. (If you can’t see this, start at the far right side of line 1, which ends with “Pelage.” Drop to line 2, which ends “exiles.” Then 3, with “eye.” Slowly but surely, the e’s travel from far right all the way across to line 60—there are 60 characters in each line—which begins with “Embattled.”)
As someone mentioned in Scott’s question thread, in French, the crossing letters spell out “ame” (soul), for which, “ego” seems a satisfactory English equivalent.
But even better than simply finding a three-letter replacement for “ame” is translating all 179 lines3 into 60-character English statements that fit the pattern exactly. David Bellos deserves a MacArthur Genius Grant for this alone.
(It’s also fun that many of these 179 statements reference Life itself, such as “The puzzlemaker’s backgammon game giving him his bad tempers” or “The technician trying a new experiment, and losing 3 fingers.”)
In relation to these intricate—and near overwhelming—constraints, Christopher Beha included a bit of a warning about this in his 2006 article about an Oulipo conference that ran in The Believer:
On Saturday morning, the weekend’s final panel, “La Contrainte et après?: A debate on the achievements, ambitions, and future of writing without ease,” got off to a kind of false start before Frischer arrived with coffee for the panelists. Then there was much talk about whether a constrained work should announce itself as such. Mathews expressed the opinion that Perec’s work is too often reduced to its formulae, rather than read for its true pleasures. It’s an obvious temptation to think that learning the elaborate conceits of La Vie mode d’emploi might stand in for actually reading the book. And yet this is a bad mistake, for when one actually experiences the novel, the constraints that gave rise to it become rather beside the point—in that same way that Joyce’s Homeric parallels mean a bit less with each rereading of Ulysses; in the same way that neither the Big Bang nor the expulsion from Eden is foremost in our minds when we step outside on a beautiful morning.
Warren Motte commented on this tangentially in a “discussion with Martin Riker”: that appeared in Words Without Borders:
Whereas while that’s going on in the New Novel, there seems to be, in the last 20 years or so, a return to certain kinds of storytelling that had not been massively apparent in progressive writing in France for a long time. And I think Perec had a lot to do with that. You know he said about Life, a User’s Manual that you could read it in a number of ways, but one of the ways he wanted you to be able to read it was flat on your back on your sofa.
And it’s absolutely true . . . One can dig into the various constraints and other games, but in the end, Perec’s book is a masterwork because it’s so much more than these constraints—it’s a long series of moments that are best read “flat on your back.” And speaking of flat and backs, here’s the last two paragraphs of “Servants’ Quarters, 10”:
Today the room is occupied by a man of about thirty: he is on his bed, stark naked, prone, amidst five inflatable dolls, lying full length on top of one of them and cuddling two others in his arms, apparently experiencing an unparalleled orgasm on these precarious simulacra.
The rest of the room is more bare: blank walls, a sea-green lino on the floor, strewn with odd pieces of clothing. A chair, a table with an oilcloth covering, the signs of a meal—a can, shrimps in a saucer—and an evening newspaper lying open at a monster crossword puzzle.
To me, that’s what Life really is: an “unparalleled orgasm” and a “monster crossword puzzle.”
Also from this section, I highly recommend “Cinoc, 1,” which includes a long bit about how no one—including Cinoc himself—knows how to properly pronounce his name, and a bit about how over ten years he has gathered more than 8,000 rare words that he’s decided to save. Words like:
PISTEUR (masc. nn.) Hotel employee with the task of attracting customers.
So behind the math and the lists, there’s a great deal of fun in Life . . . (Sorry—it’s hard to resist creating non sequiturs with the title of this book. “Life is filled with sex and puzzles.” Yep, here all week.)
Read more: http://wordswithoutborders.org/dispatches/article/work-and-play-a-conversation-with-warren-motte/#ixzz1JuOTRyAM
2 I assume most everyone reading this blog knows about the Oulipo, but in case you don’t, Wikipedia has a nice overview page. In short, Oulipians use constraints in writing. The most obvious—and in some ways relevant—example is the “Lipogram,” which requires the writer to avoid using particular letter(s). Perec’s A Void was written entirely without the letter ‘E’.
A few weeks back, I posted about the first section of Life A User’s Manual (TRANSLATED BY DAVID BELLOS), which is the Spring Big Read over at Scott Esposito’s Conversational Reading blog. As mentioned, I love Life, haven’t read it in years, and had every intention of keeping up with this reading group and posting weekly comments.
Well, of course that didn’t happen.
I’m almost back on track though. Almost. But rather than abiding by Scott’s reading schedule I’m going to catch up by writing short(ish) posts about each “Part” of the novel. My last post covered Part I, so here goes with the second section of what is arguably Perec’s masterwork . . .
First off, I want to direct you to Scott’s first post about this section of the book. He does a great job of providing an entryway to this section, beginning with the wonderful con (or is it a double-con?) of Sherwood:
We’ve already been talking a great deal about things and descriptions, so now it’s time to talk about surfaces. I’m thinking specifically in terms of Sherwood’s Tale, in which our overly credulous Sherwood purchases what he believes to be the Holy Grail, but is in fact scammed by crooks [pp. 96 – 109].
It is one of those elaborate confidence scams where a person is shown one small piece of evidence after another to slowly build up trust in what is ultimately a big, unbelievable falsehood. As such, it is very much a story about surfaces, about essentially taking evidence at face value in a naive sort of way, which of course we all do as a simple part of life every day. If there is any one thing that has distinguished itself so far in Life A User’s Manual, it is that Perec is challenging us again and again to look beyond surface descriptions.
This particular version of that exhortation adds a special twist. In the lead-up to Sherwood’s Tale, Perec goes into the idea of collecting unica–objects like the Holy Grail for which only one example exists in the world. In his discussion of unica, Perec notes examples like “the octobass, a monstrous double-bass for two musicians,” or “animal species of which only one member is known to exist,” before finally giving us a small warning: “any object whatsoever can always be identified uniquely, and . . . in Japan there is a factory mass-producing Napoleon’s hat.” 
There are innumerable things about this book that draw me in—the self-referential bits, the descriptions of objects upon objects, the brilliant lists, the ambitious construction, the jigsaw puzzles and other games, etc.—but one of the strongest has to be the little mini-stories littered throughout the novel.
In Part Two, there are a number of really fascinating ones, which tend to revolve around quests for things, or for revenge . . .
There’s the aforementioned story of James Sherwood—collector of unica—and his attempt to buy the Holy Vase containing Christ’s blood. There’s Appenzzell’s pursuit of the Orang-Kubus, a Sumatra tribe living in the forest, moving and setting up new villages any time the outside world found them. There’s Ericsson’s quest to find the nanny responsible for the death of his son and suicide of his wife. There’s the conclusion of Bartlebooth’s life-quest to paint 500 seascapes, have them made into puzzles, complete the puzzles, then remove the watercolor and dip in into the sea.
Scott makes an interesting point about these quests in his second post related to Part Two of the novel:
At this point in our read, I would think that if the title “Life A User’s Manual” is to be taken as an unironic title we have to think it has something to do with these futile, ultimately life-constraining quests that have already proliferated so much in the book. We might consider what causes people to enter into these quests, what roles the quests serve in the lives of their owners, how and when they become traps, how they ultimately end, and whether and how they give a life meaning.
When I was reading this section, I was struck by how many of these quests or pursuits were either futile or self-destructive.
For example, when students decipher Appenzzell’s notebook about the Kubus, they find this “cruel and obvious truth” about why the Kubus kept moving everytime Appenzzell started getting involved with their tribe:
However irksome are the discomfitures which a man who has given himself body and soul to the profession of ethnography may encounter in his attempt to grasp the deeper nature of Man in concrete terms—or, in other words, to apprehend the minimal sociality defining the human condition by conquering the heteroclite evidence of diverse cultures—and although an ethnographer may not aspire to more than the discovery of relative truths (since it is vain to hope to reach any final truth), the worst difficulty I have had to encounter was not at all of that kind: I wanted to go to the absolute limit of the primitive; had I not got all I wanted in these graceful Natives whom no one had seen before me, who would perhaps no be seen again after me? At the end of an exhilarating search, I had my savages, I asked for nothing more than to be one of them, to share their days, their pains, their rituals. Alas! they didn’t want to have me, they were not prepared to teach me their customs and beliefs! They had no use whatever for the gifts I laid beside them, no use at all for the help I thought I could give! It was because of me that they abandoned their villages and it was only to discourage me, to convince me there was no point in my persevering, that they chose increasingly inhospitable sites, imposting ever more terrible living conditions on themselves to show me they would rather face tigers and volcanos, swamps, suffocating fog, elephants, poisonous spiders, than men. I think I know a good deal about physical suffering. But this is worst of all, to feel your soul dying . . .
And Bartlebooth’s 50-year plan is a perfect example of going from nothing to something to nothing, as he learns to paint, paints 500 ports, solves 500 puzzles, and then dips the 500 paintings in water, washing away the image and leaving only the experience . . . This is perfectly stated in the third reason for his lifelong plan:
The third was aesthetic: the plan would be useless, since gratuitousness was the sole guarantor of its rigour, and would destroy itself as it proceeded; its perfection would be circular: a series of events which when concatenated nullify each other: starting from nothing, passing through precise operations on finished objects, Bartlebooth would end up with nothing.
Perec’s relationship to “things” is a very fruitful line of inquiry, starting from his early work Things: A Story of the Sixties. More on that in a different post.
The other thing I wanted to mention was the thread of violence that runs through this Part. Not only is there the sordid story of Ericsson’s revenge, which results in a heap of dead bodies and a couple of suicides, but there’s this curious bit from “On the Stairs, 3” about the life of a flat and the building as a whole:
one day the young Marquiseaux girl will run off with the Reol boy, one day Madame Orlowska will leave again for no apparent reason, for no real reason either; one day Madame Altamont will fire a revolver at Monsieru Altamont and the blood will spurt onto the glazed hexagonal tiles of their octagonal dining room [. . .]
So, yes. If anyone has an comments/thoughts/opinions, post them below, or over at Conversational Reading.
Part III on Monday, Part IV next Friday, and then I’ll basically be caught up . . .
As mentioned a couple of times already, Conversational Reading is currently hosting a Group Read of Life A User’s Manual. This project officially kicked off yesterday with the first Part (up to page 89), and since I’m actually on schedule with this (although with nothing else), I thought I’d participate by writing up my own notes on this as we go. If asked (or even if not), I frequently refer to this as one of my all-time favorite books, but to be honest, I haven’t read it in more than a decade, when I was much younger and less well-read. So, I think it will be interesting going through this section by section, both here, and on Conversational Reading.
When talking about Life, it’s almost impossible to avoid talking about the contraints behind it. Perec was a member of the Oulipo, a French writing circle that applies certain restrictions when writing texts. (Most famous example: Perec’s A Void, a novel that doesn’t contain a single instance of the letter “e.”) The Oulipo has generated a number of great books and interesting experiments, with Life being probably the grandest and most ambitious. If you don’t believe me, check out this chart which lays it all out in all of its overwhelming complexity.
Personally, I mostly want to avoid talking about these constraints. If a novel is great, it’s great not just because of its underpinnings, but because of how it works as a whole.
The one contraint worth mentioning is the Knight’s Tour. For those not familiar with this book, it all takes place in an apartment building (11, rue Simon-Crubellier) that can be basically divided into a 10×10 grid. This is reprinted in the new edition on page 569, laying out all the apartments and who lives in them. This is helpful when reading, since each chapter focuses on one resident, and one of the 100 sections of this building. This sounds more complicated than it reads, but basically, characters who own large apartments (like Bartlebooth) have as many chapters as “squares” they own (in the case of Bartlebooth, he has 5 squares, so 5 sections).
With me so far? Now, in determining the order in which the chapters would be written, Perec employed the Knight’s Move to his 10×10 graph. The Knight’s Tour is a chess term, in which the Knight can move all over the board, landing on each square once and only once. If you want to see what this looks like when applied to Life then click here.
OK, now that the intimidating, crazy shit is out of the way, I want to try and convince you (if, that is, you need convincing) that the first part of this book is incredibly interesting, and fun to read even if you’re not a mathematician or an Oulipian junky. And I’ll try and do so by tying this into two of my favorite art works: Lost and Gravity’s Rainbow.
The Preamble and Part One lay out three main motifs that provide entrance ways to this work. First off, there’s the motif of “puzzle-making and puzzle-solving,” which is articulated in the Preamble. This section details the art of jigsaw puzzling—not those shoddy cardboard mechanically-created things, but real puzzles, the type made of wood, expertly designed, using various means of trickery to make things difficult for the puzzler. (For instance, cutting pieces that could fit in two places, using the same element in various places, etc.) But what’s most interesting is the interaction between the maker and the solver:
From this, one can make a deduction which is quite certainly the ultimate truth of jigsaw puzzles: despite appearances, puzzling is not a solitary game: every move the puzzler makes, the puzzle-maker has made before; every piece the puzzler picks up, and picks up again, and studies and strokes, every combination he tries, and tries a second time, every blunder and every insight, each hope and each discouragement have all been designed, calculated, and decided by the other.
As can be seen on this earlier cover jigsaw puzzles play an important role in this book. In fact, the central story is really all about puzzles . . . The outline of Bartlebooth’s story is given in Rorschach’s second chapter and in Smautf’s chapter. Smautf is Bartlebooth’s long-time manservant who helped orchestrate the millionaire’s life-long project. From his chapter:
Bartlebooth’s, and therefore Smautf’s, travels lasted twenty years, from 1935 to 1954, and took them in a sometimes fanciful way all around the world. [. . .] Bartlebooth’s idea was to go and paint five hundred seascapes in five hundred different ports. The ports were chosen more or less at random by Bartlebooth, who thumbed through atlases, geography books, traveller’s tales, and tourist brochures and ticked off the places that appealed to him.
Bartlebooth allowed two weeks for each port, inclusive of travelling time, which usually gave him five or six days on site. [. . .] On the penultimate day he would paint his watercolour, usually towards the end of the morning [. . .] He painted extremely fast, and never corrected himself. Scarcely was the watercolour dry than he tore the sheet of Whatman paper from the pad and gave it to Smautf. [. . .] Smautf wrapped the seascape in tissue paper, slipped it into a stiffened envelope, and packed the parcel in kraft paper with string and sealing wax. That same evening, or at the latest next day, if there were no post office nearby, the parcel was dispatched to: Monsieur Gaspard Winckler.
Crazy project, but it gets more interesting . . . When the watercolour arrived at Winckler’s (he also lives in 11, rue Simon-Crubellier, sixth floor right) he created a jigsaw puzzle out of the watercolour. Then, as sort of explained in “Rorschach, 2” and “Morellet,” Bartlebooth returned from his travels and started putting all these puzzles together, one-by-one. After he was finished, they went up to Morellet (floor eight, servant’s quarters) who used a special chemical process to reattach all of the pieces of the watercolour, allowing it to be removed from the wooden puzzle backing. (We’ll get to the final part of Bartlebooth’s project later.)
This brings up the second motif, which reminds me of Lost: the web of connections that bind these characters. As you read the first part, you start to notice all the overlaps among the residents of this building. And a good deal of them center around Bartlebooth, especially the aforementioned Smauft, Morellet, Winckler, and Rorschach. From there, the lines branch out, with Smauft connecting to the strange “cult of The Three Free Men,” who are holding an initiation ritual involving dice in the apartment at third floor right. Morellet is connected to the Plassaerts, etc., etc. (I believe these connections grow as the book progresses.)
Like Lost, one can get lost in the dizzying connections between the characters and their life histories—histories which intersect, nearly intersect, or parallel each other—and in trying to figure this all out. Which brings us back to the puzzling motif. In reading Part One, I felt like jigsaw puzzles were a sort of synecdoche for the book as a whole. That to “get” the novel, the reader has to puzzle out the connections, building a big mosaic of sorts represented by the apartment and the lives of the residents therein. And, as explained in the Preamble, the puzzle-maker is setting up traps, games, clues, etc. Again, feels a bit like Lost in that way . . .
In Winckler’s chapter, he points to the endlessness of connections when talking about organizing the postcards Smautf sent him from all over the world:
He wanted, so he said, to sort the labels into order, but it was very difficult: of course, there was chronological order, but he found it poor, even poorer than alphabetical order. He had tried by continents, then by country, but that didn’t satisfy him. What he would have liked would be to link each label to the next, but each time in respect of something else: for example, they could have some detail in common, a mountain or volcano, an illuminated bay, some particular flower, the same red and gold edging, the beaming face of a groom, or the same dimensions, or the same typeface, or similar slogans (“Pearl of the Ocean,” “Diamond of the Coast”), or a relationship based not on similarity but on opposition or a fragile, almost arbitrary association: a minute village by an Italian lake followed by the skyscrapter of Manhattan, skiers followed by swimmers, fireworks by candlelit dinner, railway by aeroplane, baccarat table by chemin de fer, etc. It’s not just hard, Winckler added, above all it’s useless: if you leave the labels unsorted and take two at random, you can be sure they’ll have at least three things in common.
One of the tricky things about reading a book like this—and here comes the Pynchon—is that it’s difficult to separate signal from noise. We know there are clues, but there’s also a surfeit of information, so picking out what to pay attention to is a bit tricky, a la Pynchon. Especially if you start seeing conspiracies everywhere . . .
For instance, let’s look at “Rorschach, 2.” In this chapter, the sort of unlucky fool introduced earlier is transformed into Bartlebooth’s nemesis. Rorschach (a Pynchonian name for sure, especially when you think about Rorschach tests, patterns, and puzzles) is connected to the TV and movie industry and wants to make a show based on Bartlebooth and his watercolour and puzzle project. Bartlebooth wants no part of this. Here’s the semi-sinister (re: Pynchon) ending of that chapter:
Without wishing to anticipate events, it might be useful to point out that Rorschach’s initiative had serious consequences for Bartlebooth. It was by hearing of these televisual misadventures that Beyssandre got wind, last year, of Bartlebooth’s story. And, oddly enough, it was to Rorschach that Bartlebooth came for the name of a director to film the final stage of his enterprise. However, that got him nowhere, except a step deeper into the web of contradictions which he’d known for many years would tie him inexorably tighter.
OK, fine. But what’s also interesting is that in describing what’s in Rorschach’s apartment, there’s a
silver statuette about ten inches high. It represents a naked, helmeted man on the back of an ox, holding a pyx in his left hand. [. . .] The statuette, a classical caricatural representation of the minor arcanum called the Knight of Cups, is supposed to have been unearthed during work on that “drama” entitled The Sixteenth Edge of This Cube which we have already had occasion to mention, and which does indeed deal with a murky tale of seeing into the future;
So, flip to the index to remind yourself of where The Sixteenth Edge of This Cube first appeared and in addition to finding a typo (this should refer to pages “15, 71, 72” not “15, 71, 42,” but we all make mistakes), you’ll be directed back to the chapter about “The Three Free Men” cult, which is having its initiation ceremony (which involves dice, remember?) in a vacant apartment:
Nobody lives on the third floor right. The owner is a certain Monsieur Foureau, who is said to live on an estate at Chavignolles, between Caen and Falaise, in a farm of thirty-eight hectares, a with a sort of manor house. Some years ago, a television drama was filmed there, under the title The Sixteenth Edge of This Cube; Remi Rorschach took part in the shooting but never met the owner.
Nobody ever seems to have seen him. There is no name on the door on the landing, nor on the list fixed on the glass pane of the concierge’s office door. The blinds are always drawn.
Does this mean anything? Is it a clue to something? And if so, what does it mean that this “drama” is only referenced in Part One? And speaking of dice, they are also alluded to in the story of Helene Gratiolet, who sells her inherited painting (foreshadowing next motif) to move to America with her husband to become professional gamblers participating in organized dice games. (Sort of seems odd to have dice—a symbol of chance—in a book so meticulously planned out.)
There’s also the thread maybe connecting Paul Winther’s The Mousetrap about a “dangerous psychopath wreaking murder in a Baltic port,” to Bartlebooth’s port obsession, to a clipping from a newspaper referring to The Worried Hulk by John Whitmer (awful similar to Paul Winther in cadence and number of letters.)
This kind of detail picking gets more complicated in relation to all the paintings described in this Part. Actually, painting is the third motif I wanted to point out. Not only are there are a proliferation of paintings described in Part One, but there are two painters who receive chapters (Hutting and Valene), and the whole Part (book?) is almost like a painting. A painting depicting everything that’s going on in the building (and in the inhabitants pasts) on a particular day in 1975, just before the Altamonts’ annual party.
This is already way too long, so I won’t get into the painting thing. But I hopefully will be back next Monday with notes on pages (93-173). And in the meantime, check out Scott’s post on Part One and please share your own reactions and comments below.
One of my favorite writers from the past few years has to be Enrique Vila-Matas, whose Bartleby & Co. and Montano’s Malady are absolutely fantastic. Very excited that Vila-Matas wrote an intro for our forthcoming publication of Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds, and also very excited to read his new book, Never Any End to Paris, which is forthcoming from New Directions, and was reviewed by Scott Esposito (today is a day of almost all Esposito post) in The National:
Never Any End to Paris (which takes its name from Hemingway’s famous memoir, A Moveable Feast), is a curious anti-memoir of the time he spent living with Marguerite Duras as a young writer in the French capital. The book, which Vila-Matas pitches with characteristic absurdist aplomb as a three-day lecture, gets off to a proper start with an anecdote about a Hemingway lookalike contest Vila-Matas claims to have entered. (I doubt he ever did.) It quickly turns farcical, as Vila-Matas looks nothing at all like Hemingway: “I should say that I made a ridiculous fool of myself . . . I was disqualified; worst of all, they didn’t throw me out of the competition because they discovered my false beard – which they did not – but because of my ‘absolute lack of physical resemblance to Hemingway’”.
This self-effacing beginning is a spot-on way for Vila-Matas to start his retelling of how his youthful pretensions to become a second Hemingway quickly ran off the rails. Befitting a writer who would stake his name to the quicksands of the derivative, the young man we find in this book is one who is constantly trying to copy others. He attempts to mimic Hemingway’s effortless bohemianism, he adopts the thick glasses and harsh demeanour of the Parisian literati (themselves poseurs), and he tries to fit in with one of the avant-garde movements. From Duras (whose elevated French he never quite understands) he receives a 12-point list of qualities he must work into his writing, which he follows with a naive ardour. He even steals the plot and format of the literary work he creates in Paris from Unamuno and Nabokov. [. . .]
It is true that the actual Vila-Matas did journey to Paris, where he lived with Duras and wrote a literary mystery titled La asesina ilustrada, about a book that could kill its reader. And yet I’m quite sure the author has never given a three-day lecture on his time in Paris, nor grown a beard (to the great chagrin of his wife) in an attempt to look like Hemingway. The heteronym of Vila-Matas in the book even claims that La asesina ilustrada is his first work, but the Vila-Matas whose book I’m reviewing wrote Mujer en el espejo contemplando el paisaje years before La asesina.
It’s not enough to say that what Vila-Matas does is fictional autobiography; it’s more akin to something he attributes to Raymond Roussel, whom he writes told “stories that emerged from the prose itself.” Vila-Matas tells stories that emerge from the past. In this “ironic revision” of the author’s youth, the paradox that holds this book tight as a boa constrictor is that the Vila-Matas in Never Any End to Paris is the real-world Vila-Matas precisely because he isn’t. This works in a way analogous to a story he claims to have heard Borges tell one night in a bookstore in Paris. Relating the words of his father, Borges tells the audience that the past does not exist because all we have of it is a chain of memories: “Each time I remember something, I am not really remembering it, but rather am remembering the last time I remembered it . . . So in reality I have absolutely no memories or images of my childhood, of my youth.”
One of my all-time favorite books is Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual, and for
months years, I’ve been meaning to reread it.
Well, starting sometime soon, Conversational Reading will be hosting a Big Read of Perec’s classic novel.
No real info up there yet, but as soon as the schedule is announced, I’ll post it here. It’s been ages since I participated in an online book club, and I’m a bit psyched . . . Mostly just to reread Life, but also because Scott does such a great job of getting interesting content about the title under discussion. (I’m not-so-secretly hoping to contribute something myself.)
If you’re interested in joining in, be sure and get a copy of Godine’s revised edition of the book. This version contains some corrections, etc.
For more info about the new edition, and Perec in general, be sure to check out this interview Scott conducted with Godine editor Susan Barba.
Zone has been getting a lot of attention recently, such as this review in the New York Times and in the recent issue of N+1. (I also found a copy on display at the Bay City Public Library—my hometown library—and someone had actually checked it out!)
One of the first reviews of Zone actually appeared in the Quarterly Conversation last year (or maybe even in 2009 . . ), and to celebrate the launch of the English-language version, Scott Esposito interviewed translator Charlotte Mandell:
Scott Esposito: According to the information on your website, you’ve translated some 28 books since 2001, including The Kindly Ones, which is nearly 1,000 pages. How long were you working on Zone, and how did it compare, in terms of difficulty, rate of progress, etc to other books you’ve translated?
Charlotte Mandell: Good grief! I thought that was a mistake when I read it–28 books in 10 years does seem like a lot . . . It took me about 6 months to translate Zone, and then a few more months to revise it. I’ve almost always worked under pressing deadlines, so I’m used to working fast, and once I’d started translating Zone it was honestly very hard to stop. For one thing, there are no obvious resting places, since there are no periods! So I had to mark out ahead of time where I would stop for the day, so that I didn’t overdo it. It was really a joy translating Zone, since it felt like a long prose poem in which I could give myself free rein.
SE: Funny that you mention that. I felt that unstoppability while reading (and others have told me they did too), and it seems it works the same for translating the book. Like you, I had to tell myself to slow down, and one way to do it was to look up just a fraction of the references in this book. There are tons! At the end of the day, the book feels like a cross between a postmodern novel of information and a modernist stream of conscious novel, maybe something William Gaddis would have come up with. How do you classify it, and do you see any novels in the French landscape that resemble or contextualize it?
CM: I suppose the first book that comes to mind as a sort of precursor to Zone is Michel Butor’s La Modification (published in English as Second Thoughts1). It too is about a man on a train journey, and it’s narrated solely in the second person. The entire narration revolves around the narrator’s thoughts and memories, and nothing actually “happens” in the book (except that the narrator changes his mind—hence the title—by the end of the book).
You’re right, there are a lot of references, and I think all the books mentioned in Zone influence Enard’s narrative in subtle but meaningful ways: Tsirkas’ Drifting Cities; William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch; Pound’s Cantos; Finnegans Wake; Apollinaire’s Zone; Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night; and especially Malaparte’s masterful Kaputt, one of the most underappreciated (and well-written) war novels I can think of, narrated from the point of view of the losing side.
In terms of the contemporary French literary landscape, I think Zone shares a lot of similarities with The Kindly Ones: in fact I can think of no other French novel today that mentions Bardèche, Brasillach, and Burroughs!–though I think it was Edgar Rice Burroughs in The Kindly Ones . . . Both narrators are fascists (a recovering fascist in the case of Zone, but a fascist nonetheless), and both are consumed by their respective wars. Also, both The Kindly Ones and Zone incorporate dreams, fantasies, and memories into the narrative in interesting ways–the boundaries between fantasy and reality are often blurred.
I think Enard and Claro also have some things in common, in the risks they take in terms of narration and style. Claro’s recent Madman Bovary comes to mind, if only for its narrative inventiveness, and for its way of portraying a narrator consumed by a book (the way _Zone_’s narrator is consumed by a briefcase). I heard that Enard and Claro traveled around Europe once performing a magic show–I’m not sure if I dreamt that, but it sounds very apt!
The other four questions are even more interesting, and definitely worth checking out . . .
1 Actually, I believe the American edition was A Change of Heart. Just a footnote for those interested in reading this very interesting Butor book . . . though maybe not as interesting as Passing Time.
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.
Again with me and the last minute postings, but if you’re planning on participating in Conversational Reading’s YFT Reading Group, here’s the official schedule:
And more importantly, for anyone getting started, Scott posted an excellent overview of Marias’s work, linking to a number of overview pieces in The Quarterly Conversation, New York Review of Books, and elsewhere.
Even if you’re not participating in the book club, Scott’s piece is really interesting for finding out about Marias’s work. So often people talk about the more crazy aspects of his life—like the fact that he is the King of Redonda.
I’m already behind in the readings, but hopefully will catch up by the 3rd . . .
After reading a bunch of glowing reviews for the third volume of Javier Marias’s Your Face Tomorrow trilogy (including this one from the Independent in which the trilogy is referred to as “one of the most thoughtful and inspiring fictional works of the last decade”) I tentatively decided that I would spend the last few months of 2010 reading all 1,500 pages, so that I could fully experience the hype.
I love Marias’s other books—especially the twinned All Souls and Dark Back of Time, the latter of which actually references Normal, Illinois of all places—and back years ago, like literally years ago, when Volume I of the YFT trilogy came out, I read about half of it on a plane to somewhere and remember greatly enjoying it. Actually, all I really remember is that the sentences were labyrinthine in that Marias way, and that the book was all about reading, about learning how to read, how to interpret. At the time it seemed like vintage Marias: pensive, thoughtful, detailed and methodical to a point of near-overkill. But in contrast to some of his other books, which are often about secrets, human relations, and women’s legs, the mental meanderings of the YTF trilogy are strung onto a spy-thriller plot. It’s like Proust meets Ian Fleming. (Or some other reviewer platitude.)
Anyway, as compelling and mentally exhilarating the idea of reading one of the great twenty-first-century works (so far) might be, I still need a little motivation . . . It’s not like I’m not already inundated with fascinating samples, readings for the Best Translated Book Award 2011, or Open Letter books that need to be proofed. But still . . .
Which is why I’m thrilled that Scott Esposito put together a Your Face Tomorrow Reading Group. Kicking off this week (I believe—more info TK), this should be pretty interesting. Scott does shit right. (Check recent issues of The Quarterly Conversation if you doubt.) And I know he already has a number of great features lined up.
Hopefully we’ll be able to do some cross-posting, etc., etc., between Conversational Reading and Three Percent, and regardless, I’ll definitely keep everyone updated as things progress.
Now, if you’re not up for 1,500 pages of European intellectual spy games (of however you want to categorize this), you might be more interested in Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico, a very, very short Marias book that just came our from New Directions. I know little about this novel (except that Esther Allen translated it, so it must be awesome), although I do know that ND absolutely nailed the jacket copy: “In this classic Marias story, Elvis and his entourage abandon their translator in a seedy cantina full of enraged criminals.” Sold!
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 . . .
The article is primarily based on Sarah Pollack’s essay “Latin America Translated (Again): Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives in the United States,” which will appear in the next issue of Comparative Literature (pre-order your copy today!). Hard to get into too many specifics without having read Pollack’s essay, but it sounds like she questions the way Bolano’s personal life was mythologized in order to make him that much more marketable. (Moya points to the hippie-esque author pic on The Savage Detectives as an example of the “Bolano-as-Renegade” image, although TSD was written while Bolano was a calm family man.)
Since Scott’s Spanish is much better than mine, I’ll let him summarize the Moya piece:
Basically, in order to sell books marketers invented the Bolano myth, which Moya is taking as an act of U.S. cultural imperialism on Latin America. Throughout the rest of the piece, Moya goes on to argue that marketers and journalists created an image of Bolano to fit preconceived U.S. stereotypes of what a Latin American is—and especially what a Latin American author is. [. . .]
I can’t disagree too much with what Moya says, although I think he’s painting things a little too broadly. (Granted, this is a diatribe . . .) Where he’s dishing out blame, he’s mostly talking about the old media press and the publisher FSG, and while I would say that old media coverage of Bolano has featured a lot of what Moya calls out (remember the whole heroin thing?), I don’t think FSG is quite the publisher Moya claims it to be. True, it’s no New Directions, and, true again, if there was any justice New Directions would have gotten first shot at The Savage Detectives, but FSG does tend to treat literature with a lot more respect than other publishers out there.
First off, I agree with Scott. The mainstream media seems more to blame for this image creation than FSG. In fact, I’d argue that both FSG and New Directions did a great job marketing Bolano and helping introduce his masterful works to an English-speaking audience.
That said, this sort of stereotyping (in terms of what makes a “typical Latin American author” or constitutes a “typical Latin American book”) has gone on for a while, and in terms of aesthetic pigeonholing, publishers really do deserve a lot of the blame. Post-Garcia Marquez, it’s been near impossible for a non-magical realist from south of our borders to get published in America. A certain Isabel Allende-tainted vision of what “counted” as good Latin American literature came into being, and anything that didn’t fit that mold wasn’t marketable.
The “Crack group” (Jorge Volpi, Eloy Urroz, Ignacio Padilla, etc.) rose up as a response to this situation, this sort of pre-marketing that filters out certain types of literature in favor of more “marketable” books. And it would be foolish to pretend that marketing doesn’t play a role in which authors get published—especially in translation.
Another aspect of American cultural imperialism is our general arrogance that an author doesn’t exist until he/she is discovered by the American public. Although Bolano was huge in the Spanish-speaking world for years before his big novels were translated into English, there’s a tendency to treat him as a “new” author who has finally broke through. (Although the majority of reviews I read for 2666 and TSD were by really thoughtful, perceptive critics who were more engaged with the complexity of the work than with the myth of Bolano. So this is by no means a blanket statement.)
A good example of American publishing arrogance is what Scott Moyers said about W. G. Sebald on a “buzz panel” a few years back. I wrote about this at the time but his comment about how Sebald had been “getting his name out there a bit” thanks to New Directions, but that it was Random House’s publication of Austerlitz that put the “stamp of authority” on Sebald as one of Europe’s great writers still makes me vomit in my mouth a little bit.
Two Lines (and the Center for the Art of Translation as a whole) is one of the most impressive annual anthologies of literature in translation being published today. (Actually, most of those qualifiers can be eliminated: it’s one of the best annual publications in the world.)
One of the reasons for the organization’s success (in addition to a staff that includes Olivia Sears, Annie Janusch, and now Scott Esposito), are the amazing guest editors they get to work on the anthologies.
The next volume (the seventeenth) will be edited by translator Natasha Wimmer (one of the absolute best, most well known for 2666 and The Savage Detectives) and poet and translator Jeffrey Yang.
I’m convinced that they will put together one of the best Two Lines yet. And if you’re a publisher or translator and want to submit something to the magazine, you should contact Annie Janusch at ajanusch at catranslation dot org before November 25th . . .
Desert was acclaimed as Le Clézio’s “breakout” novel by the Swedish Academy, but the book’s mass appeal can be difficult to see at first — it is not the easiest read to get into. It starts with a gathering of thousands of Moroccans around the famous sheik Ma el Aïnine, a man who led an anti-colonial jihad in the first quarter of the 20th century and succeeded in deposing the Sultan before being turned back by the French military. Although we are introduced to certain characters in this opening scene, Le Clézio’s vantage is so wide that we never attain any degree of intimacy with anyone, and it is clear that what most interests Le Clézio is painting a portrait of this incredible accumulation of human beings and the environment in which they wait. Notably, in this opening section Le Clézio never once directly mentions the broader historical forces in which these people are caught up, or even the reason for which they will march. Though Desert is informed by those turn-of-the-century maladies, colonialism and warfare, it is not about either of these topics in the least. Le Clézio only cares for the lived experience of people caught up in these forces, and he does not dilute their lives with recourse to philosophical or historical abstraction. His panorama is powerful for its sense of humanity amassing in religious conviction from out of the wide and empty desert, but those looking to fiction for vivid characters and a strong sense of plot might be put off by these first fifty pages. [. . .]
All that is to say that Desert is not a page-turner, a fact most evident in the Lalla sections. As befits a book attempting to articulate a non-Western sensibility, Desert moves to a rhythm of its own, and those not willing to embrace the book on its own terms will likely find it dull. But those readers who are able to open their mind will find a rich portrayal of a distant way of life and a writer who is working quite hard to find a language with which to convey it.
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:
Scott Esposito at Conversational Reading has a wonderfully detailed write up of the Center for the Art of Translation Event that took place last week where Karen Emmerich read from the work of four of her favorite Greek authors.
You should really read Scott’s complete write-up, but here’s are the brief highlights of the four authors:
Emmerich started the event by reading from the text I’d Like, [by Amanda Michalopoulou] which was awarded the NEA’s International Literature Prize. I have seen I’d Like variously described as a novel in stories, a collection of linked stories, a fictional biography, or the shards of a novel yet to form itself.
I’d Like was one of my favorite books from the 2009 Best Translated Book longlist and hopefully someone (possibly Open Letter) will bring out more of Michalopoulou’s work.
The second writer Emmerich presented was the poet Eleni Vakalo. [. . .] Emmerich read from a book of Vakalo’s that is one of a collection of nine books called The Other Side of Things, written between 1954 and 1994. Emmerich described this work as as one continuous poem with titles interspersed and called these 9 books, which she is currently translating, a 15-year project.
The third of the four authors presented Tuesday afternoon was Ersi Sotiropoulos, an avant-garde Greek writer born in 1953. Emmerich first discussed the odd case of her book Zigzag Through the Bitter-Orange Trees, which was censored as pornographic and removed from school libraries in Greece. Emmerich considered this to be a sexist gesture, as she noted that one of the most celebrated works in the Greek postwar period, Megas Anatolikos (Great Eastern by Andreas Embirikos), is a completely filthy work that consists of the transatlantic journey of what Embirikos calls a “hedonistic vessel.”
The final author that Emmerich read from was the Greek poet Miltos Sachtouris, whose collection Poems (published by Archipelago Books) was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award in 2007.
Might be because it’s Monday, but this event strikes me as a sort of perfect storm of international literature . . . You have a incredibly talented translator giving English readers recommendations of four modern Greek writers that have been published in translation at an event organized by one of the premiere translation organizations in the country and reported on by one of the best international literature blogs . . .
Over at Conversational Reading, Scott Esposito is trying out an online book club experiment. Over the next month he will be reading Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks along with two friends—Sacha Arnold and John Lingan—and discussing the book online.
Hopefully this will generate an interesting conversation and will pull in some other readers along the way. (I’m tempted to join in, but I have thousands of manuscript pages and submissions waiting to be read . . .)
In case you’re interested in participating, here’s a bit of Scott’s intro to Buddenbrooks:
It was Mann’s first novel, published in 1901 when he was 26, and it charts (as called out in the book’s subtitle) the decline over multiple generations of the titular Buddenbrooks clan. Although I’ve never seen substantiation of this, it is commonly said that Mann, who received the Nobel prize in 1929, was awarded the Nobel for Buddenbrooks.
Although Mann would later take up 20th-century Germany in major works like Doctor Faustus and The Magic Mountain, Buddenbrooks is basically his statement on the lands that would become Germany during the 19th century. Although the book remains centered on the Buddenbrooks’, Mann does reach out broadly to include a wide cross-section of the society they inhabited. The exact location of the Buddenbrooks family mansion, and cheif theater of the novel, is never explicitly stated, but it is generally understood to be the northern German city of Lübec. Mann is said to have conducted detailed research into life int he 19th century to realistically depict the Buddenbrooks’ daily lives.
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.
Scott Esposito’s series on independent presses in the recession continues with a look at Coffee House and its founder, Allan Kornblum:
SE: How sensitive is Coffee House to unexpected changes in grants and donations? For instance, if some of your expected grants got stuck in limbo due to budget cuts and freezes, would this force you to postpone titles?
AK: At one point Coffee House income was 60% donated and 40% earned. During the last two years, those percentages have flipped—not because of a drop in donated (which has been flat) but because of an increase in earned income. I know we’re in a world-wide recession—it’s not just a US problem. But between US sales and translation rights sales, we think we can continue to build on our recent growth in earned income. But whenever I say things like that, I have to remind myself and my listener that you have to have an “optimism gene” somewhere in your emotional make-up to be a publisher. I try to cock my head, get some distance, and coldly evaluate our books and the marketplace, and I think I’ve done that and I still think we can continue to improve our earned income. Time will tell if the idealistic part of my personality has fooled my realistic side. But to answer your question—for the moment, we believe we will be able to live up to all the commitments we’ve made to authors. If the recession drags on longer than anticipated, we’ll have to reassess our resources and our plans.
And his bit about the difference between corporate publishers and presses like Coffee House is spot on:
As a nonprofit, our mission is to serve the public good. Survival is a key part of serving the public good, but we’re not under pressure to make the same kind of margins as a for-profit house must make to serve both of its missions. And expectations are different—our authors don’t expect to be picked up at the airport in a limo when they tour. They sleep on couches in the homes of friends, not at the Hilton, when they give readings. And we don’t get into pissing contests with our peers, bidding up celebrity memoirs so a competitor won’t get it. But all that being said, we’re all at the mercy of the moods of the booksellers.
In case your reading list isn’t long enough, Scott asked his readers to put together a list of great books/authors from the former empire:
A couple weeks back I noted that a a great city (Vienna) surrounded by a great empire (Austria-Hungary) deserved great literature. I started making a list of this literature, and readers had no trouble filling in the blanks for me.
So now I present the revised list of great literature of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
The latest installment in Scott Esposito’s series on how to publish in a recession features Margo Baldwin of Chelsea Green, which just finished its best year ever. Margo’s responses are really interesting—especially her predictions about the future:
Scott Esposito: As someone who has been publishing for quite some time, do you think the industry is at a crossroads?
MB: Indeed I do. It needs to reinvent itself: get rid of returns and huge advances and all the waste inherent in the system. Amazon has perfected the ordering to demand systems and other booksellers need to do the same. It’s no longer feasible to push lots of books out and then take them all back; way too wasteful. E-books and digital content will continue to grow, but will remain relatively small compared to printed books for awhile. Bricks and mortar stores will need to reinvent themselves into community activist centers with a mission in order to keep their customers. Chains will become less important except for the megahits and brand name authors. Backlist will continue to migrate to the internet.
SE: What parts of the publishing industry do you think will look different in a few years?
MB: Everything! Publishers will be more niched and using POD and e-books for penetration into certain markets. Bookstores will be transformed as above. General trade stores will stay afloat by being linked to Amazon and other Internet sites to gain commissions on backlist sales from their customers, while concentrating on frontlist titles. Many general trade publishers will have gone out of business or drastically reduced in size. More content will be published online and by subscription. More user-generated content will be sold. As the industrial culture crashes, how-to survive and thrive self-sufficiently will gain in importance.
The latest entry in Scott Esposito’s fascinating series of interviews with independent publishers about publishing during a recession is now available online. This time he talks with Richard Nash, publisher of Soft Skull, and one of the smartest (and most articulate) people in the field when it comes to talking about the business of books.
Scott Esposito: Since November, newspapers have been full of reports of layoffs and cutbacks at large New York publishers, and the general mood one gets from reading these reports is gloom. Would you agree or disagree that things are gloomy for publishing right now?
Richard Nash: There are several distinct things going on at once. The first is the macro-economic problem which is indeed giving cause for gloom as it has caused a serious drop on aggregate adult trade book sales, greater than any recession heretofore.
The second is the shift on what media consumers purchase, and how they consume it, occurring for books, music, television and film—because it is the smallest of those industries, and because its technology—the printed book—was the most robust and fine-tuned of the analog technologies, it is only know we’re starting to see the impact. And the impact is currently less on the industry itself; it’s more that the cumulative effect of the changes from other industries, chiefly the amount of content consumed online, is drawing people away from the printed book format. The shift can be cause for gloom if you’re of the handwringing temperament, but it is far more an opportunity to rid the publishing business of a lot of cant and laziness and arrogance.
The third is the effect of all the other, non-consumer-facing change sin technology, especially that of supply chain management, in combination with the above two trends. Basically, retailers and wholesalers have been rapidly shifting risk from themselves back onto the publisher. Retailers order fewer and fewer copies of each book, believing that if the book is a failure, they’ll be stuck with less slow-moving inventory, and if it is a success the publisher can just reprint and ship them more. Retailers and wholesalers share less of the burden of printing books on spec., the publisher ever more. This has been especially hard on independent publishers, without the capital/cash flow to be doing extra lower profit margin printings of the book, and getting stuck with higher initial units costs because they’re printing 2500 copies rather than 3500 copies of an average title. The macroeconomic situation has made this worse, and the collapse in music sales (pace the second observation) has hurt retailers like Tower, Virgin, Borders, putting more pressure on the books to perform . . . This phenomenon is cause for gloom, though it has been going on for years and won’t stop really until there’s been a significant shift to digital download of books, and to subscriptions for direct-to—consumer physical books.
And his comments about Anita Elberse’s article on the blockbuster model and how this model will play out over time are both hilarious and accurate:
RN: Oh she’s really not done much research—she’s only looked at the corporate model, and developed theories about what works on their system. Which is self-fulfilling, since their system is designed to work that model. It’s really quite dense. Almost hare-brained. [. . .]
Corporate houses were already shifting to publishing fewer titles, and the recession will accelerate that process. They will continue to follow Elberse’s model, which will cause them to become smaller and smaller companies, since chasing blockbusters has never worked in books except one or two years out of every four or five, when they’re lucky. There will be layoffs in all the down years, which will be the majority, until they’re really just backlists with a sporadic hit factory attached.
All of Scott’s interviews are really interesting, in part because there does seem to be a greater awareness among independent presses about how things are changing and about what business models/strategies need to be instituted in order to survive and continue serving the reading public.
Scott Esposito of Conversational Reading is starting a series on how the economic downturn/recession/late-capitalist implosion is impacting smaller, independent presses. As he writes, all the coverage has been focused on Random Reorganizing, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Hijinks, etc., but not much on what’s going on at places like a New Directions.
His first interview is with Declan Spring, senior editor at New Directions (and, full disclosure, member of Open Letter’s executive committee), and is very interesting, honest, and revealing.
SE: The recession was officially declared a couple of months ago, and many economists have backdated its beginning to early 2008. Over this time what has business been like—better, worse, or about the same?
DS: We’ve seen drops in sales throughout 2008, but especially in the spring and early summer. This was due to a number of factors: lower sales, a gap between lead titles, and returns (many of which came in from Borders). Things picked up at the end of the summer and early fall because some big books came out and the college orders were coming in. (New Directions is required reading for so many literature courses.) We did see much higher than usual returns in October from booksellers. (And I hear publishing sales were down 20% overall in October.) The national accounts (meaning the chains) were returning many books. You could say that our autumn drop was due to bookstores getting nervous more than an actual drop in net sales, at least that was the case with our books.
The biggest factor for us hasn’t been so much big drops in actual sales, but the enormous amounts of returns from booksellers, primarily the chains.
I don’t know if this applies to ND’s distribution relationship with W.W. Norton, but a lot of indie/university/nonprofit publishers have to pay their distributor a percentage on returns. Typically this is around 4%. And unlike the amount you pay on net sales for distribution (typically around 24-26%), there’s no way a press can put the charge on returns in a good light. With the percentage paid on net, if you’re paying more it’s because you’re selling more—sort of a win-win. But if stores are upping their returns . . . well, basically, presses just have to suck it, losing out on possible sales (if the book isn’t on the shelf, it won’t sell) and paying for it at the same time.
(This is part of the logic behind Jasmine-Jade’s million dollar lawsuit against Borders.)
Declan also points to the fantastic ND backlist as being one of the things that helps during times like these (a healthy backlist can make up for a lot of fluctuations in frontlist sales):
Most important, while we always expect people to get excited about the new books we publish—many of the most innovative and exciting foreign authors, and some of the foremost avant-garde American poets—we have always had the luxury of being able to count on the steady sale of our luminous backlist. James Laughlin started New Directions in 1936 and since then, ND has built up one of the great literary lists in American publishing. Those books are essential texts in any worthy bookstore and are adopted on a wide scale in college courses across the country.
And he also touches on the shelf life/browsing issue:
I first became really aware of New Directions books when I started haunting the St. Marks Bookstore (when it was actually on St. Marks Place) and their selection influenced what I read. I’m sure there are lots of people like me, and what’s encouraging for New Directions is that there are lots of young folks who still support the independents, recognize their value, and just eat up our books and revere the history of our press. I don’t think that’s happening quite as much in the Barnes & Nobles. As I said above, the greatest damage due to the economic downfall this year has been due to the fact that the chains aren’t buying as many books up front, they’re reducing their shelf life (our author Eliot Weinberger says books now have the shelf life of yogurt), and in response to the climate, they’re returning more books. That’s incredibly damaging for a small company like New Directions. It effects not only our sales, but how many we decide to print off the bat.
Great start to Scott’s series, and I’m excited to read what others have to say . . .
Over at Ready Steady Book Mark Thwaite has posted the “Books of the Year 2008 symposium” featuring recommendations from a host of authors, translators, and reviewers, including Scott Esposito (who recommends Adolfo Bioy Casares and others), Charlotte Mandell (who is all about Flann O’Brien), her husband Robert Kelly (who recommends Littell’s The Kindly One, Marias’s Dark Back of Time, and Nadas’s The Book of Memories), and Tom McCarthy (whose only recommendation is Toussaint’s Camera) among others.
Definitely worth checking out, especially if you’re looking for good recommendations to kick off 2009.
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 . . .
Like most of us, Paul Davies and Fern Smith enjoy immersing themselves in a good book. [Ed. Note: That use of “like most of us” signals that we’re not reading a U.S. paper.] But when they stumbled upon a copy of The Rings Of Saturn by W G Sebald, the seed was sown for a new stage production.
Now 10 years after the book’s original publication, and seven years after the German author’s untimely death, Volcano Theatre Company are presenting the UK premiere of i-witness, which was inspired by his words. It’s the first time Sebald’s work has ever been taken to the stage.
But it isn’t a straightforward adaptation of The Rings Of Saturn, which is an account of the narrator’s walking tour of south eastern England. Instead it takes a wider look at literature in general.
You can see the 5 minute clip below, but here’s how it’s described:
During the performance, the cast of four – Smith, Davies, Catherine Bennett and Philip Ralph, who wrote the award-winning Sherman Cymru production Deep Cut – all give their own thoughts on Sebald’s book.
Bennett is fanatical about the things no-one notices. Davies plays music to keep the silence at bay. Ralph has not been sleeping well since he read it. Smith is hypnotized by the rhythm of endless walking.
Even aside from the Sebald connection, the Volcano Theatre Company sounds pretty cool—their last production was called “A Few Little Drops,” and “was staged in a purpose-built inflatable arena, complete with its own self-contained water world.”
Literature is not very popular these days, to put it mildly. According to the National Endowment for the Arts, nearly half of Americans do not read books at all, and those who do average a mere six a year. You’d think literary writers would be bending over backwards to ingratiate themselves to readers — to make their work maximally accessible, straightforward and inviting. But no.
Perhaps no single emblem better epitomizes the perversity of my colleagues than the lowly quotation mark. Some rogue must have issued a memo, “Psst! Cool writers don’t use quotes in dialogue anymore” to authors as disparate as Junot Díaz, James Frey, Evan S. Connell, J.M. Coetzee, Ward Just, Kent Haruf, Nadine Gordimer, José Saramago, Dale Peck, James Salter, Louis Begley and William Vollmann. To the degree that this device contributes to the broader popular perception that “literature” is pretentious, faddish, vague, eventless, effortful, and suffocatingly interior, quotation marks may not be quite as tiny as they appear on the page.
By putting the onus on the reader to determine which lines are spoken and which not, the quoteless fad feeds the widespread conviction that popular fiction is fun while literature is arduous. Surely what should distinguish literature isn’t that it’s hard but that it’s good. The text should be as easy to process as possible, saving the readers’ effort for exercising imagination and keeping track of the plot.
Like with Franzen’s attack on “experimental” writers from a few years back, I simply can’t fathom what motivates people to write things like this.
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.
Over at Conversational Reading, Scott Esposito has a great review of J.J. Long’s recent book, W.G. Sebald: Image, Archive, Modernity:
A partial list of major topics will bring more detail if not more cohesion: (post-)colonialism, photography, the gaze, maps, archives, police/nanny states, the Holocaust, passports/travel, taxonomies, World War II, memory, identity, Foucault. In other words, the raw material of Long’s book is the raw material of modernity itself, which, Long contends, is also the major ingredient in Sebald’s literature. And so, modernity being a difficult bag to grasp, it’s hard to get too tight a hold on what sits between the covers of Long’s book.
Perhaps the best way to sum it up is to say that Long discusses how Sebald’s books attempt to bring together the disparate aspects of modernity through the technology of the archive, much as the modern state tried to do. Long contends that Sebald’s books are archival in nature, and he attempts to show how Sebald’s archival books present aspects of modernity ranging from wonder and spectacle to migration and dislocation.
Scott Esposito has an excellent essay on Bolaño, and how translations are received in the U.S., up at Hermano Credo. You should go check it out:
I love literature because I love it, but also because I derive hope from it. Each time a writer sits herself down to work, she dashes herself up against the impossible task of penetrating another’s mind, and though no one ever manages to accomplish it, it’s nonetheless inspiring that so many writers have failed so well at it. And if we step back from that solitary writer and enlarge our glance to take in all the writers of the world trying to put the workings of a mind down on paper, and then if we think about how much of this writing is shuttled back and forth across languages and borders to readers trying to commune with alien minds and alien cultures, it makes me hopeful to think that something is getting across.
Amidst all this activity, to discover something that you find personally rewarding is a wonderful feeling. It is like finding a kindred soul on the other side of the Earth. The pursuit of this feeling motivates a good deal of my trips deeper and deeper into the great vault that we sometimes refer to as literature, and I admit that when I do find an author who can give it to me, I like to come back and back to that author. And yet, when I recover from my swoon and look up to all the thousands and thousands of books still out there that might potentially hold my next kindred soul, the feeling is overwhelming.
And yes, I am finally (how embarrassing that it’s taken me this long) starting to read Bolaño. I guess I have a lot of catching up to do before 2666.
In recent years I’ve become increasingly interested in reading books dealing with Africa, and so I present the Africa Reading Challenge.
Participants commit to read – in the course of 2008 – six books that either were written by African writers, take place in Africa, or deal significantly with Africans and African issues. (Read more if you like!)
Participants are asked to post a reading list on their individual blogs and then write a review of each title they cover. Pretty interesting idea—simple to execute, and very valuable for anyone looking to find out more about literature from Africa.
Esposito suggested doing one for Reading the World . . . Which isn’t a bad idea at all . . .
Above all Marìas’s novels are concerned with the processes of telling, with what it means to tell and not to tell, with the bonds we establish or dissolve by telling, with the ways telling may either release us from the past or seal us in it. “One should never tell anyone anything,” Deza declares in the opening sentence of Your Face Tomorrow, but then proceeds to tell us all he does and thinks, and he makes of that telling a compulsive and enthralling performance; for he is one of those people on whom nothing is lost.
Following on the Monzo review, Conversational Reading has an interesting Friday Column by Barcelona author Neus Arques called “On Translations or the Pursuit of the Domino Effect.”
Arques recently published her first novel, and discussing the long, winding road to trying to get her book published in English:
My agent’s strategy was to immediately move it in the European market. First, she approached publishers in smaller markets, such as Greece or Portugal. This would be the first tier.
If you succeed in overcoming hurdle one—and my novel has been fortunate enough to do so, with rights sold to Portuguese—then the agent targets more competitive markets, such as the Italian or German publishing industry. In the words of an Argentinean publisher: “Spanish is a marginal language as far as translation goes. It takes years to persuade an Italian or a French publisher that we have quality books to offer.”
She also includes a list of five ideas for trying to get her book published in translation, including having translated a chapter, and possibly being willing to translate the entire book to reduce the publisher’s costs . . .
Not sure any of her ideas will directly lead to publication, but whatever, it can’t hurt. I still find it strange and disturbing that the presumed best path to getting published in English is getting published everywhere else first. Like American editors need the confirmation of a dozen other countries/reading markets before they’re willing to look that closely at a book like this. . . . This is more true for large, commercial houses than it is for independents, but even so, it just seems backwards.
Scott Esposito of Conversational Reading, reviewed Quim Monzo’s The Enormity of the Tragedy in the Philadelphia Inquirer, hitting upon the fascinating way Monzo takes the setup for a lewd joke (the main character has a permanent erection that’s actually a symptom of a disease leaving him with seven weeks to live) but creates something more interesting:
A priapic protagonist virtually begs for bawdy, Rabelaisian humor, but The Enormity of the Tragedy is actually quite restrained. The book is full of subtly funny lines, and often they have nothing to do with Ramon-Maria’s tumescence. At one point, for instance, Anna-Francesca reflects somewhat foolishly on a 17-year-old she almost went all the way with: “Unlike other older youths she’d met . . . he didn’t spurn her because she was too young.” In other words, he was the only boy slimy enough to try to take advantage of an underage girl. Throughout, Monzó has a lot of fun condemning his protagonists’ innocence and self-involvement by presenting similarly ironic thoughts. At times this borders on excessive, but for the most part Monzó mocks without seeming cruel.
Adding a healthy dose of Thanatos to the book’s Eros, Anna-Francesca fantasizes about killing Ramon-Maria. Eventually she gets around to doing some research, the fruits of which Monzó lays out in an amazing, seven-page-long list. Fascinating and deadening, the list makes murder both titillating and banal.
Monzo is one of Catalan’s most honored contemporary writers. He gave the opening address at the Frankfurt Book Fair last October, and is extremely funny, sharp, and playful. In addition to this novel, there was one book of stories published in the States back in the ’80s called O’ Clock. His stories remind me of a cross between Cortazar and Coover, if that makes any sense.
As you can probably tell, I’m a big fan of his work, and actually, Open Letter is going to be publishing his novel Gasoline (as translated by Peter Bush) next spring. And hopefully many more of his books . . .
Here’s a link to his recommendation of Enrique Vila-Matas’s Moreno’s Malady.
In these seemingly anti-literary times, authors tend to do all they can to support literature; Spanish novelist Enrique Vila-Matas (pictured above) is the first I’ve seen to treat it like a disease. That’s not to say, however, that he isn’t supporting the literary in his own way; rather, it’s just that Vila-Matas’s way of pushing the medium forward is by contemplating whether or not we’re going though a period of literary parasitism because mostly everything Western literature has to utter has been said. Befitting an author who entertains the notion that contemporary literature amounts to scribbling in the margins of the great works, Vila-Matas seems to be pioneering a strange new genre: the literary essay as novel.
“Scott Esposito” shares the good news for all B.S. Johnson fans:
I was thumbing through New Directions’ spring 2008 catalog and was somewhat surprised to see that they are taking the daring step of publishing B.S. Johnson’s “novel in a box” The Unfortunates as it was originally intended to be published.
What’s interesting here is that Johnson, who wrote this book in the 1960s, intended it to be published as a collection of chapters lying loose in a box. The reader was to withdraw a chapter randomly, read it, and continue on in this manner until all were read.
I totally agree with Scott Esposito’s take on my take on publishers paying more attention to marketing, especially when it comes to writing good jacket copy.
Basically, if you can convince in 50 words of less that a book is really “Borgesian,” this will do far more than any amount of trying to convince me how hip and exciting the plot is.
Exactly. This isn’t all that easy to do though . . .
In my opinion, a plot-recap makes for really crappy jacket copy, especially since I don’t really read the book for the plot. (This probably works better for thrillers, but that’s not the type of book we’re talking about.)
Northwestern University Press goes in the opposite direction, describing their books in a generally dry manner that makes them sound like a lot of work.
From Konstantin Fedin’s Cities and Years:
The cities are Berlin and Moscow, the years those of the First World War and the Russian Revolution, and the theme enduring: what role should the intelligentsia play in the inevitable revolution looming over society? Konstantin Fedin’s intense exploration of war and its aftermath focuses on Andrei Startsov, an intellectual who must wrestle with his ambivalence toward the convulsions in his homeland and with his love for the rebellious and fiercely independent Marie.
Well now. What that doesn’t convey is that the novel is fun, the form fragmented, and the writing engaging. But if you’re interested in the role of the intelligentsia . .
But “those in glass houses,” etc. By no means am I a good writer of jacket copy, but my goal in doing this is always to try and appeal to readers similar to me. It’s hard though, since we all read for so many different reasons. Reading is a pleasurable activity, but pleasurable to different people for different reasons. (Some do like the plot!)
Anyway, for Open Letter books, I think we should stick with the “x is like y meets z and a” strategy, with Nabokov, Borges, Cortazar, Antunes, Beckett, and Joyce being the data set for y, z, and a.
(And on a sidenote, in addition to good copy, there are other channels through which a publisher must get the word out about its books. Browsing doesn’t take place in a void, and publishers—especially small and mid-sized ones—have to pay attention to all these other ways of getting info about their books to readers.)
The Fall issue of The Quarterly Conversation is online now, and features reviews of Gabriel Josipovici’s Goldberg: Variations, Dumitru Tsepeneag’s The Vain Art of the Fugue, and Tadeusz Rozewicz’s new poems.
Definitely go and check it out.
Scott Esposito at Conversational Reading took up the recent AP-Ispos findings, comparing the finding that the average American reads 4 books a year to other countries (the U.S. comes out well in this, but there are reasons) and pointing to economics as one of the issues adding to this statistic.
If people who read 50 or more books per year are willing to cut consumption in response to prices, think what people who only read four books per year would do. Taking up this point, in an article at the Huffington Post, Alex Remington makes much of the rise of trade paperback prices, speculating of a growing gap in books for “the masses” and books for “intellectuals.” He says that trade paperbacks can increase in price because they’re targeted at better educated, more cultured readers who tend to buy books despite price increases, but that this practice leaves many readers behind.
He explains this in greater detail, and he’s partially right that prices for books are crazy. (Although people still could go to libraries, so cost can be overcome.)
As someone personally involved, I should point out that there are a lot of costs eating into the publisher’s revenue stream. In brief, a bookstore gets an average discount of about 45% off the retail price of a book. Of the remaining amount, 20%+ goes to the publisher’s distributors—more if you figure in charges for returns. Authors get 7.5%, or more, of the retail price on all sales, and most translators get 1.0%. That leaves approx. 35% of the retail price to cover salaries, production, marketing expenses, operating costs, etc. So, if a trade paperback lists for $15, the publisher gets about $5.25 per unit sold. And if a book sells about 3,000 copies (which is solid for a work of literature), that comes out to $15,750. And printing costs alone run about $6,000.
This is why I love non-profits that can raise the necessary funds, and work on the appropriate scale, to publish great works of literature at a reasonable price despite sales expectations.
But hopefully as technology advances, a new model will arise that will allow publishers to reach even more readers at a lower cost. Because it is important that all readers—income aside—have access to literature. Regardless of how great their local library system is.
And as a sidenote, apparently Bulgaria Youth Hate Books. At least this isn’t just a local problem . . .
Some of the photographs in the Max Ferber section of W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants harken back to what is probably the earliest work of fiction ever to embed photographs, Georges Rodenbach’s Bruges-la-Morte. Somehow I feel that Sebald knew this seminal work, which was first published in book form in 1892 (after appearing serially in Paris’ Le Figaro). Rodenbach’s Symbolist novel is the story of love and murder in the “dead” city of Bruges.
The book sounds fascinating, and is available from Atlas Books.
Nice to see The Guardian branching out and choosing Siddhartha Deb write on Indian Literature. As Scott Esposito at Conversational Reading points out, within the past couple months, the New York Review of Books, Harper’s, and the New Yorker have all had articles by Pankaj Mishra on new books from India.
The Palace of Dreams, written in Tirana between 1976 and 1981, takes us into an entirely different universe set at the fictitious crossroads of a twentieth century dictatorship and the fourteenth century Ottoman Empire. Characters from those ancient times mix with contemporary characters—state employees and office clerks reminiscent of Kafka’s world—in a bureaucratic labyrinth identical to any other bureaucracy, save for its purpose: to collect, sort, interpret and finally choose the “Master-dream” of all the dreams dreamt throughout the Empire, and to decipher in it the fate of the Empire and of its rulers.
The Palace of Dreams incorporates the traits of all powerful secret institutions—one cannot help think of the Sigurimi, the Albanian Secret Police of the Communist era—as well as the characteristics of an almost Totemic figure, a Kafkaesque Castle whose rules no one can figure out. Kadare himself has declared that this is probably his best novel from a literary standpoint, and very likely his most courageous, an opinion the Albanian Communist regime must have agreed with, considering that shortly after its release the novel was banned.
But Kadare’s genius is such that, in the end, the Palace of Dreams has no precise signification, except that revealed by its name. It is a fabulous, otherworldly place where the “real world” doesn’t exist, sleep is reality’s only substance, and it isn’t the real, as we know from Freud, that brings the dream into being, but the other way around. Thus, at the end of the novel, one of the dreams that the main character, Mark-Alem Quprili, who works at the Palace, sorted and filed at the beginning of the novel, makes an unexpected appearance, literally acting upon the present and causing the drama the reader has been anticipating all along.
Kadare is someone I’ve always meant to read—especially his General of the Dead Army —but I’ve never managed to get to him yet. This essay is awfully inspiring though.
It’s just that Scott Esposito writes about books that I’m interested in supporting. In this case it’s Carlos Fuentes’s The Death of Artemio Cruz and Roberto Bolano’s By Night in Chile.
Both are very interesting books, and Scott’s comparison of the two death-bed confessions is pretty illuminating. And worth checking out. As is Fuentes’s Terra Nostra, which, in my opinion, is awe-inspiringly awesome and his finest book.
In celebration of Reading the World Month, Scott Esposito has posted a number of interviews, reviews, and general articles about international literature in translation. (Full disclosure: He interviewed me as well to kick off this celebration. Which is why I really like him and keep posting about his site. Just so we’re clear about my bias.)
Linked from this article you can find other interviews with Katherine Silver, Karen S. Kingsbury, Howard Curtis, Humphries Davies, and Natasha Wimmer.
The opening of Jón Gnarr’s novel/memoir The Indian is a playful bit of extravagant ego, telling the traditional story of creation, where the “Let there be light!” moment is also the moment of his birth on January 2nd, 1967. Then. . .
Mahasweta Devi is not only one of the most prolific Bengali authors, but she’s also an important activist. In fact, for Devi, the two seem to go together. As you can probably tell from the titles, she writes about women. . .
The prolific Spanish author Benito Pérez Galdós wrote his short novel, Tristana, during the closing years of the nineteenth century, a time when very few options were available to women of limited financial means who did not want a husband.. . .
Pedro Zarraluki’s The History of Silence (trans. Nick Caistor and Lorenza García) begins with the narrator and his wife, Irene, setting out to write a book about silence, itself called The History of Silence: “This is the story of how. . .
There are plenty of reasons you can fail to find the rhythm of a book. Sometimes it’s a matter of discarding initial assumptions or impressions, sometimes of resetting oneself. Zigmunds Skujiņš’s Flesh-Coloured Dominoes was a defining experience in the necessity. . .
In a culture that privileges prose, reviewing poetry is fairly pointless. And I’ve long since stopped caring about what the world reads and dropped the crusade to get Americans to read more poems. Part of the fault, as I’ve suggested. . .
I would like to pose the argument that it is rare for one to ever come across a truly passive protagonist in a novel. The protagonist (perhaps) of Three Light-Years, Claudio Viberti, is just that—a shy internist who lives in. . .