Last week, The Millions ran this excellent piece by Arnon Grunberg on fellow Open Letter author Dubravka Ugresic:
The Russian word poshlost, according to a seminal essay by Vladimir Nabokov, has a number of possible definitions — “cheap,” “inferior, “scurvy,” “tawdry” — but is perhaps best grasped by example. He cites a character from a story told by Gogol. A German tries, unsuccessfully, to seduce a young girl who sits each evening on her balcony along a lake. At wit’s end, he decides at last to go swimming in the lake each evening with a pair of swans, prepared by him specially for that purpose. He succeeds in embracing both swans while swimming. The ritual repeats itself for a few successive evenings. The girl resists at first, but finally, in Gogol’s telling, “the lady’s heart was conquered.”
Poshlost, then, is the generation of sentiment in the hope that it will elicit someone else’s favor. Or, as Nabokov puts it, a form of sentimentalism “so cleverly painted over with protective tints that its presence often escapes attention.” [. . .]
Seduction is one of the great themes of the Croation writer Dubravka Ugresic’s essays . . . but not – or only rarely – the seduction that takes place between two lovers. She is far more interested in the seductive tactics of generals, intellectuals, wartime profiteers, academics, and businessmen (the latter category being one in which she also places publishers). Seduction, she suggests, is not only the lead-up to the conquest of a lover, but also the lead-up to war, ethnic cleansing, and the rewriting of history. No ideology, no sales, no religion, no democracy, and no dictatorship without seduction.
The bitter truth behind all seduction does not escape Ugresic’s notice, either: the seducee is merely an obstacle. The seducer conquers like a supreme commander, without worrying too much about the collateral damage, focusing solely on efficiency, on the result. Poshlost, Ugresic observes, is an inevitable byproduct.
Indeed, poshlost is one of Ugresic’s favorite words, cropping up all over her five collections of essays. For her, it is linked inextricably to Nabokov’s earlier essay, and is often deployed alongside her own formulation: “a gingerbread heart.” But what continues to amaze and agitate her in these essays is that the imitation, the gingerbread, turns out to be so seductive. Indeed, it is the lie that seduces us, that makes our hearts skip a beat. Two swans embraced by a German in a lake at dusk — how could one ever resist that?
Poshlost is, of course, a subspecies of kitsch; it is kitsch that is no longer recognized as such, that is to be found everywhere, including in what we may call “great art,” and from which one can never escape. The writer himself is caught up in the thick of it. He too, after all, is a seducer, he too wishes to sell something, and to the extent that he has ever felt ashamed of that, he stopped noticing a long time ago.
Ugresic, and this speaks in her favor, does not feign coyness about this situation; coyness, after all, is one of the hallmarks of poshlost. No, she is very much aware of the fact that she herself is a part of the literary and intellectual machinery and its sales techniques. She knows that she, too, seduces in a professional capacity. (Ugresic cites approvingly another remark of Nabokov’s: “In the kingdom of poshlost, it is not the book that ‘makes a triumph’, but the reading public.”) An essay in Thank You for Not Reading discusses a prostitute in America who claims not to be a prostitute but a “pleasure activist.” Ugresic ends the piece with the statement that she too is a “pleasure activist,” and that no one may take her profession away from her.
Then again, the pleasures of Ugresic’s essays are unusual ones. Some one hundred and fifty years ago now, the Dutch writer Multatuli pointed out that the author has a great deal in common with the prostitute. Multatuli himself tried to maintain his dignity, he said, by haranguing his customers. Ugresic in turn, I believe, tries to maintain her dignity by not giving her customers what they expect from a Balkan-born writer. Gripping tales of communism and post-communism, for example, stories about standing in line for butter and about no longer having to stand in line for butter.
Instead, she asks: What are we to do if we breathe in kitsch every day, if kitsch saturates even our private lives? How can intellectuals maintain a critical stance with regard to something ubiquitous, unless they, as Isaac Babel put it, become “masters in the genre of silence?” Ugresic’s melancholy conclusion is that there remains no position possible outside the world of poshlost, not for the intellectual either. A position like that would be a pose, insincere and misleading: poshlost itself, in other words. Ugresic concedes, in short, its inescapability. She admits that it would be deceitful to pretend that poshlost has not won the final victory.
Speaking of Dubravka, her new book, Europe in Sepia, is currently being translated by David Williams and will come out from Open Letter in February 2014.
The Millions just released it’s Most Anticipated: The Great 2013 Book Preview, and although there’s not a single Open Letter book included on this list, which, honestly makes it pretty damn suspect in my mind, since, if they’re skipping books like Tirza and the never-before translated L’Amour by Marguerite Duras, and Sergio Chejfec’s new book (out in October), they must be overlooking dozens of other books from dozens of more interesting presses, it’s a decent enough overview of numerous books you’ll be seeing on the tables of every bookstore in the country (and most Amazon recommends screen) over the next few months. Click above to read the full list, otherwise, here are the handful of translations that are highlighted:
Revenge by Yoko Ogawa: English-reading fans of the prolific and much-lauded Yoko Ogawa rejoice at the advent of Revenge, a set of eleven stories translated from Japanese by Stephen Snyder. The stories, like Ogawa’s other novels (among them The Diving Pool, The Housekeeper and the Professor, and Hotel Iris) are purportedly elegant and creepy. (Lydia)
I’m not a huge Ogawa fan, but I received a NetGalley eversion of this book, and it looks like it’s her strongest yet. And, as with everythigng Stephen Snyder works on, it’s wonderfully translated.
Ways of Going Home by Alejandro Zambra: Drop the phrase “Chilean novelist” and literary minds automatically flock to Bolaño. However, Alejandro Zambra is another name those words should soon conjure if they don’t already. Zambra was named one of Granta’s Best Young Spanish Language Novelists in 2010, and his soon-to-be-released third novel, Ways of Going Home, just won a PEN translation award. The novel has dual narratives: a child’s perspective in Pinochet’s Chile and an author’s meditation on the struggle of writing. In Zambra’s own words (from our 2011 interview): “It’s a book about memory, about parents, about Chile. It’s about the 80s, about the years when we children were secondary characters in the literature of our parents. It’s about the dictatorship, as well, I guess. And about literature, intimacy, the construction of intimacy.” (Anne)
This looks to be a much different book than Bonsai, or _The Private Lives of Trees, and could mark a huge advance in his aesthetic. We shall see whenever FSG cough gets around to sending us a galley . . .
The Bridge Over the Neroch: And Other Works by Leonid Tsypkin: Like Chekhov, Tsypkin was a doctor by trade. In fact, that was all most people knew him as during his lifetime. At the time of Tsypkin’s death, his novel Summer in Baden-Baden, one of the most beautiful to come out of the Soviet Era, remained unpublished, trapped in a drawer in Moscow. Now New Directions brings us the “remaining writings”: a novella and several short stories. (Garth)
I’ve been meaning to read Summer in Baden-Baden for a decade or so now. It’s one of those books that’s I’ve had in the backburner of my reading mind, waiting for the perfect moment to actually read it. Maybe that will happen soon . . .
How Literature Saved My Life by David Shields: Like his 2008 book The Thing About Life is that One Day You’ll Be Dead, which was nearly as much a biology text book as it was a memoir, How Literature Saved My Life obstinately evades genre definitions. It takes the form of numerous short essays and fragments of oblique meditation on life and literature; and, as you’d expect from the author of Reality Hunger, it’s heavily textured with quotation. Topics include Shields’s identification with such diverse fellows as Ben Lerner (his “aesthetic spawn”) and George W. Bush, the fundamental meaninglessness of life, and the continued decline of realist narrative fiction. (Mark)
Not a translation, but I picked up the galley of this at MLA this past weekend, and absolutely love it so far. My suggestion for the Best Event Ever: David Shields in conversation with Dubravka Ugresic about the Personal Essay. BOOM. Someone should make this happen.
Middle C by William H. Gass: Not many writers are still at the height of their powers at age 88. Hell, not many writers are still writing at 88. (We’re looking at you, Philip Roth.) But William H. Gass has always been an outlier, pursuing his own vision on his own timetable. His last novel (and magnum opus) The Tunnel took thirty years to write. Middle C, comparatively svelte at 400-odd pages, took a mere fifteen, and may be his most accessible fiction since 1968′s In The Heart of the Heart of the Country. It’s a character piece, concerning one Joseph Skizzen, a serial (and hapless) C.V. embellisher and connoisseur of more serious forms of infamy. The plot, such as it is, follows him from war-torn Europe, where he loses his father, to a career as a music professor in the Midwest. Not much happens – does it ever, in Gass? – but, sentence by sentence, you won’t read a more beautifully composed or stimulating novel this year. Or possibly any other. (Garth)
Also not translated, but it’s WILLAM FRICKIN GASS. Every Gass book is an event, considering that he may well be the greatest living American writer and reader. Since today is waxing hyperbolic, I just want to say that studying his nonfiction and fiction output together would make up the greatest year-long seminar the academy has ever known.
A Map of Tulsa by Benjamin Lytal: In the 2003, “a young Oklahoman who work[ed] in New York” stole the eleventh issue of McSweeney’s from the likes of Joyce Carol Oates and T.C. Boyle with a story – well, scenario, really – called “Weena.” Maybe I only loved it so much because I, too, was from outlands like those it so lovingly described. Still, I’ve been keeping an eye out for that young Oklahoman, Benjamin Lytal, ever since. I assume that A Map of Tulsa, too, is about coming of age in Tulsa, a city that looks from the window of a passing car at night “like a mournful spaceship.” (Garth)
One final untranslated book, but it’s pretty well documented that if there’s one person Three Percent would marry if it were a person and of legal age, it’s Lytal.
The Dark Road by Ma Jian: Ma Jian, whose books and person are both banned from China, published his third novel The Dark Road in June (Yunchen Publishing House, Taipei); the English translation will be released by Penguin. The story: a couple determined to give birth to a second child in order to carry on the family line flee their village and the family planning crackdown. At Sampsonia Way, Tienchi Martin-Liao described it as “an absurd story” that uses “magical realism to describe the perverse reality in China.” The publisher describes it as “a haunting and indelible portrait of the tragedies befalling women and families at the hands of China’s one-child policy and of the human spirit’s capacity to endure even the most brutal cruelty.” Martin-Liao tells us that the book’s title, Yin Zhi Dao, also means vagina, or place of life and origin. (Sonya)
Starting to go on a mini-bender of Chinese literature, of which this book might be added to my list . . .
My Struggle: Book Two: A Man in Love by Karl Ove Knausgaard: The first part of Knausgaard’s six-part behemoth was the single most stirring novel I read in 2012. Or is the word memoir? Anyway, this year sees the publication of Part Two, which apparently shifts the emphasis from Knausgaard’s childhood and the death of his father to his romantic foibles as an adult. But form trumps content in this book, and I’d read 400 pages of Knausgaard dilating on trips to the dentist. There’s still time to run out and catch up on Part One before May rolls around. I can’t imagine many readers who finish it won’t want to keep going. (Garth)
Knausgaard is on the list for our “Book Cült” reading group. (Which went well, despite the fact that my “meh” attitude toward Amerika came off as being particularly aggressive towards academics. Touchy, touchy!) After this weekends MLA, and seeing the swarms of Knausgaard fans rave over both A Time for Everything and My Struggle, I think I’m going to have to give both of these a go . . . immediately.
Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai: The novels of the great Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai have recently begun to break through with American audiences. Thus far, however, we’ve only glimpsed one half of his oeuvre: the one that deals (darkly, complexly) with postwar Europe. Krasznahorkai has also long taken an interest in East Asia, where he’s spent time in residence. Seiobo There Below, one of several novels drawing on this experience, shows a Japanese goddess visiting disparate places and times, in search of beauty. (Garth)
All the Krasznahorkai! If you haven’t yet read Satantango, you MUST. It’s a good odds on favorite to make the BTBA shortlist, and very well could win the whole damn thing.
The Infatuations by Javier Marías: Javier Marías’s new book, translated by Marguerite Jull Costa, is his 14th novel to be published in English. It was awarded Spain’s National Novel Prize last October, but Marías turned it down out of an aversion to receiving public money. It’s the story of a woman’s obsession with an apparently happy couple who inexplicably disappear. It’s his first novel to be narrated from a woman’s perspective, so it will be interesting to see how Marias manages to accommodate his penchant for detailed descriptions of ladies crossing and uncrossing their legs. (Mark)
I still have to read the trilogy. From what I’ve heard, that—and all of his previous books, of which, I particularly love Dark Back of Time and A Heart So White, well, and everything—are better than this one . . . But that might be the normal “sell out!” reaction to an author who leaves his loving New Directions home in search of ever more money and prestige.
I mentioned this in passing a couple weeks back, but The Paris Review website recently posted Dubrakva Ugresic’s “Assault on the Minibar,” which is one of the many fantastic pieces in her new collection, Karaoke Culture.
A number of sites have been linking to this essay, and I particularly like the summary that The Millions posted:
Anyone who travels a lot will enjoy Dubravka Ugresic‘s essay on hotel minibars. As a matter of fact, just about anyone will enjoy this essay regardless of how often they travel.
Here’s the opening of Dubravka’s attack:
At the reception desk I filled in all the necessary details and got the key. Before I headed off to my room the receptionist asked:
“Would you like to open a hotel account?”
“It means that you don’t have to pay for everything you have or use in the hotel immediately, you just give your account number.”
I declined. What do I want with a hotel account? I’m only here for three days. Breakfast is included, and most of the time I’ll be out and about.
The room was large, luxurious, and had that fresh new smell. The furniture was certainly brand-new, the bathroom enormous, and the heavy windows opened gracefully with the touch of a button.
I hadn’t even gotten around to unpacking my things when I heard a knock at the door.
“Can I help you?” I asked the young porter.
“Sorry, but I have to lock the minibar.”
“Because you didn’t open a hotel account,” he said, before heading for the minibar, locking it, and leaving.
All of a sudden I felt the blade of the invisible sword of injustice pressing on the back of my neck. I don’t even use minibars. Alcohol doesn’t agree with me; I don’t like greasy, stale crisps; I hate any kind of peanuts; candy bars of uncertain origin aren’t my thing; random bottled liquids inevitably give me heartburn; and carbonated, nonalcoholic drinks are just plain bad for your health. The bottom line is that a minibar doesn’t have anything I’d ever want. So why did I feel so humiliated? Just because the bellboy locked the minibar? Did he put a padlock on the shower, the bathroom tap, the TV remote, the toilet seat? He didn’t. Rationalizing it, comforting myself with thoughts of the palatial bed or a hot shower, nothing helped. I was inconsolable. It was just the hopeless sense of deprivation.
Last week, The Millions posted a very interesting piece by Pauls Toutonghi entitled Six Egyptian Writers You Don’t Know But You Should. Toutonghi opens by describing a very common problem:
In Cairo, in March, the city had a surplus of intellectual energy. Literature, it seemed, might just be at the vanguard of Egypt’s social change. [. . .]
I spent an afternoon at the Cairo’s Diwan Bookstore, talking to writers about their hopes — and anxieties — about the future. Just across the 6th of October Bridge in the Zemalek neighborhood, Diwan had an extensive collection of contemporary Egyptian novels, essays, and short stories. I bought a half-dozen books.
When I returned to to Portland, Oregon — I noticed the conspicuous absence of these books on the shelves of my city. Even at Powell’s, arguably the greatest (and largest) independent bookstore in the country, I couldn’t find Mansoura Ez Eldin’s first novel, the critically acclaimed, widely read Maryam’s Maze.
He then goes on to name 6 Egyptian authors—none of whom are named Naguib Mahfouz—including these two, which sound interesting to me:
2. Mansoura Ez Eldin. A journalist, activist, and writer, Ez Eldin has published two novels. One, the slender volume, Maryam’s Maze, is a masterpiece of imagination and literary form. Her story, ”Déjà Vu,” was also featured in Emerging Arab Voices — the bilingual reader published by Saqi Books in April of this year.
Ez Eldin’s account of the first days of the revolution appeared in The New York Times, in late January of this year — weeks before Mubarak’s resignation. “Silence is a crime,” she wrote. “Even if the regime continues to bombard us with bullets and tear gas, continues to block Internet access and cut off our mobile phones, we will find ways to get our voices across to the world, to demand freedom and justice.”
Maryam’s Maze tackles the issues so central to the experience of modernity in a metropolis like Cairo: Isolation, pollution, bureaucracy, madness. Awakening — like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa — in a world that she no longer recognizes, Maryam struggles to regain any semblance of her former life. It is a haunting book.
4. Muhammad Aladdin. A young lion of the Cairo literary scene, Aladdin began his career as a graphic novelist — publishing the youth-oriented, serial zine, Maganin (Mad People). Possessed of a mordant sense of humor — as well as an occasional passionate earnestness — Aladdin has begun publishing his work in American magazines.
His story, “New Lover, Young Lover,” appeared in The Cairo Portfolio in Issue 9 of A Public Space.
During the height of the revolution, Aladdin kept his friends apprised of his situation with his trademark wit: “Hello, am fine, just five rubber bullets in my leg but nothing serious.”
Only 31 years old, Aladdin has published five novels and over a dozen short stories.
You’ll have to check out the whole article for write-ups on the other four.
One of the best literary blogs out there has be The Millions. Consistently good features. Excellent writing. Interesting aesthetic taste. Et cetera.
As proof, here’s a link to their Great 2010 Book Preview column that highlights a lot of interesting books coming out this summer and beyond. And although these aren’t necessarily translations, I thought I’d share the ones that I find most intriguing. And maybe sometime later this month we’ll put together a list of forthcoming translations of interest:
The Four Fingers of Death by Rick Moody: The Four Fingers of Death is a 700 page supercollider. It brings together the various interests Rick Moody has explored in his eight previous books: metafiction, domestic drama, satire, the entertainment industry, and the Way We Live Now…er, tomorrow. The framing tale, set in the year 2025 (yes, man is still alive), concerns Montese Crandall, a self-involved writer-type who will be familiar to readers of Moody’s short stories. The longer, framed section is a Vonnegut-inspired sci-fi romp. Gradually, one imagines, the two converge. Mutual illumination ensues. (Garth)
The Return and The Insufferable Gaucho by Roberto Bolaño: The frenzy of posthumous Bolaño publication continues. The Return (July) is a new volume of short stories. And The Insufferable Gaucho (August) — more stories, plus two essays — was apparently the last book Bolaño delivered to a publisher. And we hear there’s more “new” Bolaño to come in 2011. (Max)
I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson: Petterson has been on the road to international literary stardom for a few years now and that means his new novels get translated into English with relative alacrity. The book won the Norwegian Brage prize and, according to a “sample translation” on Petterson’s agent’s website, it begins: “I did not realize that my mother had left. There was too much going on in my own life. We had not spoken for a month, or even longer, which I guess was not that unusual, in 1989, when you consider the things that went on around us back then, but it felt unusual.” (Max)
Encounter by Milan Kundera: Fans of Milan Kundera’s previous essays on the power of art (particularly that of the novel), memory, mortality, and human nature can look forward to Encounter, his newest collection, which was released in France in 2009 and will land in the English-speaking world in August. Kundera’s devotion to modernism is a particular focus here, with reflections both critical and personal on the work of established masters – Francis Bacon, Leo Janacek, Garcia Marquez, Dostoevsky, and Fellini – as well as homages to those he considers unsung, including Anatole France, Curzio, Malaparte, and Celine. (Both the Malaparte and Celine sections apparently hone in on episodes involving dogs – the dignified way in which animals face death, in contrast to human posturing and vanity – which I especially look forward to). In a review last year, Trevor Cribben Merrill described Encounter as “a self-portrait of the artist as an old man […]the most personal of Kundera’s essays.” (Sonya)
C by Tom McCarthy: One of Tom McCarthy’s many roles in addition to novelist includes acting as the General Secretary of the International Necronautical Society, who in their first manifesto declared: “our very bodies are no more than vehicles carrying us ineluctably towards death” and that “the construction of mankind’s sole chance of survival lies in its ability, as yet unsynthesised, to die in new, imaginative ways.” In keeping with these moribund tendencies, McCarthy returns with his second third novel, C, which in general terms deals with technology and mourning. In McCarthy’s own words, “C is about the age of the wireless: the roar of transmission, signals flung from towering masts, global reaches crackling out of earphones. And empire. And insects. And incest.” Simultaneously a bildungsroman and an anti-realist period novel, C follows the life of Serge Carrefax, the son of a man who runs a school for the blind, who grows up to become a WWI radio operator for reconnaissance planes, is imprisoned by the Germans, and escapes. The book jacket designer, Peter Mendelsund, claims that if MacCarthy’s first novel, Remainder, recalls Beckett then C reads like Joyce. McCarthy says that if Remainder is his French novel, then C is his German. If one can judge a book by its cover and anticipatory buzz, C will be one to remember. (Anne)
The Box: Tales from the Darkroom by Gunter Grass: The publisher’s description of this one lays out its unique premise: “In an audacious literary experiment, Günter Grass writes in the voices of his eight children as they record memories of their childhoods, of growing up, of their father, who was always at work on a new book, always at the margins of their lives.” It’s another journey into autobiography for Grass, whose Peeling the Onion set off a furor in Germany and elsewhere with its revelation that Grass had been a member of the Waffen-SS during World War II. (Max)
My Prizes by Thomas Bernhard: This collection of essays was originally published in 1980 but never in the U.S. The book will be a balm to those worked up by literary prizes and the teapot tempests they tend to foment. Bernhard’s focus here is the myriad prizes he collected and his bemused, sardonic reaction to them. The book seems likely to stand as an irreverent footnote at the intersection of 20th century literary history and 20th century publishing culture. A review of the German edition of the book suggests: “Although it’s a barrel of laughs, it’s also a serious book about what drove Bernhard to become the writer he eventually turned out to be.” (Max)
Sorry for quoting so much . . . There’s just so many interesting books coming out over the next few months. And check out the whole list, I’m sure other people (people who like Jonathan Franzen for instance) will get excited about other titles.
And over at The Second Pass there’s a mini-supplement with a few titles that caught my eye:
How to Read the Air by Dinaw Mengestu (October 14): Mengestu’s first novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, was one of the best debuts of recent years. This sophomore effort concerns Ethiopian immigrants to the U.S. and their son, who recreates a road trip his parents took before he was born.
The Instructions by Adam Levin (November 1): Levin’s debut novel runs to more than 900 pages, and chronicles four days in the life of Gurion Maccabee, a 10-year-old with a messiah complex. The publisher (McSweeney’s) says the novel combines “the crackling voice of Philip Roth with the encyclopedic mind of David Foster Wallace.” So, no pressure or anything.
Skippy Dies by Paul Murray (August 31): Published as a box set of three books in the UK, Murray’s latest comes to the U.S. as one big volume (nearly 700 pages). Speaking of high expectations, the promotional copy compares the fictional boarding school at the center of this adolescent murder mystery to Harry Potter’s Hogwarts School and Enfield Tennis Academy in Infinite Jest.
How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu (September 7): The theme of parents and children continues. Sarah Weinman has already raved about Yu’s first novel, saying: “Yu’s literary pyrotechnics come in a marvelously entertaining and accessible package, featuring a reluctant, time machine-operating hero on a continual quest to discover what really happened to his missing father, a mysterious book possibly answering all, and a computer with the most idiosyncratic personality since HAL or Deep Thought.”
“Best Of” lists tend to pop up all over the internet come December, but both the National Book Foundation and The Millions got the jump on everyone with two very intriguing projects that kicked off this week.
Over the course of the summer, the NBF has been highlighting all 77 fiction winners from the past 60 years of the award. (Some years featured paperback and hardcover winner, etc., which is why the numbers don’t match.) Every day since July 7th, a different title has been featured on the blog complete with a short write-up by various writers, publishers, reviewers, or NBF director (and translator) Harold Augenbraum. (They even let me write two of these: one for Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon and one for J R by William Gaddis.) Well, now that the 77 part overview is complete, 140 writers from across the country have selected the six best books from the list, and it’s up to the general reading public to pick the Best National Book Award Fiction Winner from the past 60 years. Here are the finalists:
Granted, all of these have their merits, but short story collections? C’mon, this should be a Pynchon slam dunk . . . So, click on the link above to vote
for Thomas Pynchon and have a chance to win two tickets to the 2009 NBA ceremony on November 18th.
The Millions is one of the most consistently interesting and well-written litblogs out there, and their new Best Fiction of the Millennium project is a perfect example of why this site is so popular and respected. In their own words, here’s the scope and purpose of the project:
It’s a bit early, of course, to pass definitive judgment on the literary legacy of the ’00s, or how it stacks up against that of the 1930s, or 1850s. Who knows what will be read 50 years from now? But, with the end of the decade just a few months away, it seemed to us at The Millions a good time to pause and take stock, to call your attention to books worthy of it, and perhaps to begin a conversation.
To that end, we’ve conducted a poll of our regular contributors and 48 of our favorite writers, editors, and critics (listed below), asking a single question: “What are the best books of fiction of the millennium, so far?” The results were robust, diverse, and surprising.
We’ve finished tabulating them, and this week, we’ll be counting down the Top 20 vote-getters, at a rate of five per day. Each book will be introduced by one of the panelists who voted for it. On Friday, we’ll reveal Number One, along with the results of a parallel reader poll conducted via our Facebook group. And next week, we’ll run follow-up posts including Honorable Mention and “Best of the Rest” lists.
The list is pretty Anglo so far (Marilynne Robinson, Ian McEwan, Lydia Davis, Jonathan Lethem, Kelly Link, Lynne Tillman, and Jeffrey Eugenides), but I’ve read some speculation that a certain dead Chilean will come in at #1 . . . Nevertheless, this is a pretty fun idea, and one that results in a great reading list.
Based on the response to their online walking tour of NY indies, The Millions are taking this idea physical and have organized a real walking tour of independent bookstores in New York. (Or at least six of them.)
On Saturday, May 2nd at 11am, participants will meet at Three Lives (154 W. 10th at Waverly Place) and go from there to Housing Works, McNally Jackson, Bluestockings, Book Court, and Freebird Books & Goods.
According to the post, this tour will last between three and four hours, and will cover about 4.5 miles. You don’t need to RSVP to participate, but if you e-mail themillionsbookstoretour at gmail dot com, they’ll be able to alert you if there are any changes, or if the tour is rained out.
I know next to nothing about the translation business, except that it is vital to my reading habits. And so, earlier this week, I posted a little survey of international awards for fiction, along with the unobjectionable (I think) suggestion that more foreign-language prize-winners should be translated into English. I had been surprised at how difficult it was merely to find English-language information on, for example, The Austrian Grand Prize for East European Literature, and part of my intention was to put the “wisdom of crowds” to work for me, via reader comments and blog reactions. And, lo! The Complete Review and The Guardian’s book blog obliged. From the former, (which seems in possession of much better intel than I am) I learned that the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize may have been a weak proxy for the cream of German-language literature. I also learned, in a pleasant surprise, that my “translation quotients” apparently “do seem to reflect general translation-trends.” I thought I’d follow up today with a few interpretive gambits.
Max’s recent post cataloging 13 years of Anglo-American “Prizewinners” got me wondering… what were the most decorated books in foreign-language fiction during the same period? And how many of them are currently available in English? I assumed that, in an Internet age, this information would be easy to come by in consolidated form; as it turned out, I was wrong. And so, by way of a remedy, I embarked on a tortuous research process.
The first step was to figure out what prizes I should be looking at. I tried to identify awards that recognized a single work of fiction annually, or biennially; that focused on a specific linguistic tradition; and that would give a book traction in a market sizable enough to facilitate comparison. That is, I was looking for analogues for the National Book Award or the Booker. The list of prizes I ended up with covers a slightly expanded version of the U.N. Security Council – France and its former colonies, the Spanish-speaking world, Germany and Austria, Italy, Russia, and Japan – which may, in itself, tell us something about the nature of literary laurels.
To follow up on last night’s brief post about the IMPAC Shortlist, be sure to check out the coverage at The Millions to find links to reviews of the books and/or interviews with the authors. (I wanted to do something similar, but this post is better than anything I would’ve come up with.)
Garth Risk Hallberg has a solid overview of Bolaño and why he matters at The Millions:
In American literature, experimentalism is kept like a domesticated animal. For twenty-two hours a day, it sleeps under the kitchen table. Occasionally, when we get bored, we trot it out and put it through its tricks to remind ourselves that, hey, we’re as hip as the next guy. But an avant-garde novel is never going to change the way we see the world.
Well, The Savage Detectives blew my pessimism all to hell. Aiming to usurp the throne of literature from Octavio Paz (and, later, Gabriel Garcia Marquez), Roberto Bolano produced something unselfconsciously yet distinctly his own.
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .
It took reading 44 pages of Intervenir/Intervene before I began to get a sense of what Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez were up to. Recurring throughout these 44 pages—throughout the entire book—are shovels, shovel smacks to the face, lobelias—aha!. . .