When we arrived at the stadium, there was a good vibe in the air.
England fans were tentatively confident. After all, they have a mighty tradition, and the stars of their current team—Smith, Hobbes, Benthan, Locke, and Russell—have been performing exceptionally well, nearly everyone agrees.
The story coming into the match is provocative. We’ve been watching short features on TV for weeks. Remarkably, most of the English players have risen from the depths of poverty and drugs in northwestern London. Because of their intimate past, the team has had its share of scandals and near breakdowns, but with the support of their new sponsor, World TeleCom Cellular, and looking back on some of their favorite players of the past, England thinks it has a shot to go all the way.
And who are the Italians? Yes, historically, they’ve done incredibly well, which is surprising because no one remembers them. And who’s even heard of their players? Ferrante? No one sitting around me even knew what he looked like. Olga? Rumors coming in to the match are that Olga is still a bit of a wreck since Mario, the Italian coach, suddenly, without any explanation, left the team. Olga was left holding the bag, and it’s not altogether clear that she even knows what she’s been playing for anymore.
Yes, a promising match for England. They’ve studied, they’ve overcome, and they’re putting all they learned at the forefront.
Imagine everyone’s surprise, then, when Italy scored in the first minute. Not only that, but they just looked coolly on—no fanfare, no running around the field. They simply lined up for the next play, sober, serious, and—if I’m being honest—joyless.
Here’s a replay of their opening drive:
One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me. He did it while we were clearing the table; the children were quarreling as usual in the next room, the dog was dreaming, growling beside the radiator. He told me that he was confused, that he was having terrible moments of weariness, of dissatisfaction, perhaps of cowardice. He talked for a long time about our fifteen years of marriage, about the children, and admitted that he had nothing to reproach us with, neither them nor me. He was composed, as always, apart from an extravagant gesture of his right hand when he explained to me, with a childish frown, that soft voices, a sort of whispering, were urging him elsewhere. Then he assumed the blame for everything that was happening and closed the front door carefully behind him, leaving me turned to stone beside the sink.
I don’t want to suggest that England had nothing to offer—of course it did—but the writing was on the wall from this short opening strike. Everyone knew it. The stadium was silent. It was a violent silence.
Nevertheless, England took the hit and didn’t let it get them down too much. Though quite a bit more roundabout, showed its skill in its opening possession. Intricately, the team kicked the ball around, proving to us that they belonged on the field:
The fat sun stalls by the phone masts. Anti-climb paint turns sulphurous on the school gates and lampposts. In Willesden people go barefoot, the streets turn European, there is a mania for eating outside. She keeps to the shade. Redheaded. On the radio: I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me. A good line — write it out on the back of a magazine. In a hammock, in the garden of a basement flat. Fenced in, on all sides.
This didn’t result in a score, but all around me people were nodding their heads in agreement: something is going on there. But at this point in the match, no one quite knew what.
All throughout, the game was a wonderful display of incredibly different playing styles, most of them from one team: England. It was hard to pin down which player for the English team was doing the most work, and whichever it was, the flow of the English possessions shifted significantly. If the opening drive was a bit abstract, a bit roundabout, they soon shifted to a more direct style as they subbed out their players, going from natural, to short bursts, back to roundabout. England was reveling in the game itself. They were clever, and they looked up at the fans often, saying with their eyes, “Do you follow?” It was impressive. They probably did have a chance if Italy’s anger drained the team of its energy. But that didn’t happen. Quite the contrary.
Throughout the match, the Italians remained direct—one is tempted to say confrontational. It was as if they blamed the English for all their hidden troubles. They didn’t appear to want to be in the stadium at all, but, hey, this is just the situation we’re all in.
With each drive, they got angrier—that poor English goalie! Brutalized! Once, Olga—obviously the central storm—scored a goal and, while the goalie lay on his side, Olga just stared him down. He had to shield his eyes. The referees wisely focused their attention on the ball.
No doubt, the English team will be analyzing this game for years, trying to express just what was going on, just what social currents were at work, just what drove the Italians to this impressive but ugly display of primeval horror. But it really might be much more simple than anything intricate analysis can capture, something the Italians showed in their playing style: simple, absolute rage.
The English, gracious in defeat, were more than happy to chat to reporters when the game ended. They were disappointed, they said, but they were thrilled just to be there, carrying on the traditions of the great teams of the past. They help up a poster of their hero, Woolf. They plan to watch the remaining matches here before returning to London, though they didn’t want to think too much about that.
Meanwhile, the Italian team was suddenly off the field. They didn’t take questions. No one saw them leave. They might be having a good cry right now. I may do the same.
Trevor Berrett created and edits The Mookse and the Gripes. He is also a co-host on The Mookse and the Gripes Podcast and The Eclipse Viewer Podcast. You can follow him on Twitter (@mookse).
As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.
My Struggle: Book One by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and published by Archipelago Books
This post is written by Trevor Berrett who blogs at The Mookse and the Gripes, where readers from around the world are discussing all of the books from this year’s longlist in this forum. Definitely the best place to share your thoughts on this year’s longlist.
With My Struggle: Book One, Karl Ove Knausgaard began a six-volume (3,600 page) novel/autobiography in an attempt to exhaust everything at the age of forty. He knew it had to be long. He also knew he’d have to write it fast. So, at a rate of 5 to 20 pages per day, Knausgaard wrote these books over the course of about five years, moving at a headlong pace that purposefully outran any ideas of censorship or style. What makes such a long and seemingly self-indulgent experimental book worth reading and why should it win the Best Translated Book Award? Well, despite the fact that Knausgaard wrote at a breakneck pace, or perhaps because of this, the book is beautiful and direct as it weaves together thoughts and surroundings from various times in Knausgaard’s first four decades, all with immediacy. We get a strong sense of his urgency and are taken away. Knausgaard is working out his struggle, he’s opened it up for us to see, and by bringing us up close he allows us to feel the heat and energy or to stare in silence.
In the United Kingdom, the book was published as A Death in the Family, and indeed throughout the book we delve into death again and again. But it is about more than death. It’s about this life, about relationships, about the passage of time, about trying to find some kind of meaning in it all, about trying to be happy when everything seems to be going well but you still feel sad.
It does this by going through seemingly ordinary days in great detail. Often, the details and memories are banal. But even the banality of it all fits and is necessary for the book to have the effect it does. We do not see that which we see all the time, Knausgaard suggests. And most of the time it is in the banal that our lives are played out. That’s where we work out our feelings. This is shown well in the last 200 pages, around 70 of which are spent cleaning a home in preparation for the wake of Knausgaard’s despised father. How do we work through all of these conflicted feelings (he wanted his dad to die, “so why all these tears?”)? The answer: in the hours in which we clean, letting the thoughts come and go as they will.
In the end, this is a tremendously powerful and personal work of art. Yes, it is long and at times even tedious. Some of the detail is excessive and could be taken out. But I wouldn’t want it that way. To remove anything might disturb the balance, might make remove it even just a fraction of an inch. This is raw, and the struggle is beautiful. The tedium is meaningful—it may hold the most meaning of all: “Why should you live in a world without feeling its weight? Were we just images?”
A “walking” book, when I finished My Two Worlds I wrote, “It’s meandering (obviously), sometimes feels pointless (deliberately), and takes longer than one would expect to go a such a short distance (which works perfectly with the book’s plot).” It’s a slow-burner, but in the time since I finished it has only grown in my esteem. My Two Worlds is only just over 100 pages, but it took me some time to read because of the many layers and switch-backs not just in the global structure of the book but alaso in each sentence. The translation is a marvel. [. . .]
Q: What were some of the particular challenges of translating Chejfec’s work?
A: What sets Chejfec’s work apart from other fiction I’ve translated is the density and complexity of his sentences. There’s no coasting along; every sentence demands an intense scrutiny and a parsing through of meanings and possible translations. When I was working on My Two Worlds, I had to ask Sergio a million questions, to the point where a gloss on the book could be made from the Q&As in the emails that went back and forth
At the same, I noticed how crucial the “little” words were in qualifying the narrator’s ruminations, such as “I can’t be sure” or “anyhow” or “whatever,” the whole panoply of verbal stutters in English that express doubt or hesitation. Even these formulaic expressions needed to be sorted through and weighed in the English translation.
Q: Some of the pleasures?
A: The biggest one? That was when I reached a certain moment in the revision and could read long stretches of the novel as a novel, I mean, I could step back and enjoy the scenes as if it were any book I’d just picked up. You then flash back to an earlier stage when your draft was a mess, full of brackets around those phrases or sentences that resisted translation . . . So it was utterly gratifying in the end to feel myself being gripped by the story as would any other reader.
And throughout the project, it was a real joy to work with Sergio Chejfec. As I said, Sergio spent an enormous amount of time answering my questions, either in emails or in person. I don’t think he ever imagined his novel would be subject to the kind of microscopic scrutiny it underwent. I asked him once about what it was like to be translated and he said it was like a parable by Kafka; he had to offer his explanation to the Guardian of the Other Language so that the door would open. If that was the case, I loved my Kafkaesque role in this endeavor!
The response to My Two Worlds has been amazing. It’s the first translation I’ve done that’s made a perceptible ripple. Chad Post and the staff at Open Letter Books have done an exceptional job at getting the novel out there to the right readers, and it’s a thrill for me to read reviews or commentaries that quote from the translation itself.
Be sure and read the whole thing. And My Two Worlds. It really is a spectacular book . . .
Pascal Quignard’s __The Hatred of Music_ is the densest, most arcane, most complex book I’ve read in ages. It’s also a book that covers a topic so basic, so universal—almost primordial—that just about any reader will be perversely thrilled by. . .
In Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Flaubert attempted to highlight the ordinary, tired, and often crass nature of common expressions by italicising them within the text. When Charles, Emma Bovary’s mediocre husband, expresses himself in a manner akin to that of. . .
Eliot Weinberger takes big strides across literary history in his genuinely breathtaking short work, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, tracking translations of a short ancient Chinese poem from the publication of Ezra Pound’s Cathay in 1915 to Gary. . .
Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .
The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .
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. . .