30 March 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Between the announcement of the Best Translated Book Award longlists and the unveiling of the finalists, we will be covering all thirty-five titles in the Why This Book Should Win series. Enjoy learning about all the various titles selected by the fourteen fiction and poetry judges, and I hope you find a few to purchase and read!

The entry below is by Trevor Berrett of The Mookse and the Gripes. He also moderates a GoodReads discussion group dedicated to the BTBA. Feel free to join and post your opinions and rants and raves.



Ladivine”:http://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/234541/ladivine-by-marie-ndiaye/ by Marie NDiaye, translated from the French by Jordan Stump (France, Knopf)

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Making the Shortlist: 85%

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Winning the BTBA: 17%

NDiaye’s books are illuminating while retaining so much mystery, or, rather, they are illuminating because they retain so much mystery. For example, the lines between characters often feel blurry to the point I sometimes don’t quite know who’s on the page anymore, and yet this confusion is the very moment I see light. NDiaye plays with this mixture of illumination and mystery particularly well in the seemingly straight-forward Ladivine, a worthy inclusion to this years Best Translated Book Award longlist, and, for my money, a worthy winner.

As the book begins, we meet a woman named Clarisse Rivière, but from the first sentence her identity is in flux:

She was Malinka again the moment she got on the train, and she found it neither a pleasure nor a burden, having long since stopped noticing.

When I first read this, I smiled and settled back in my chair, excited to again be in such capable hands. The next paragraph keeps the mystery alive, as we learn this is a woman who has somehow split her identity:

But it happened, she could tell, for no more could she answer without a second thought to “Clarisse” when, rarely, someone she knew took that same train and called to or greeted her as “Clarisse,” only to see her stare back in puzzled surprise, a hesitant smile on her lips, creating a mutual discomfort that the slightly flustered Clarisse never thought to dispel by simply echoing that “Hello,” that “How are you,” as offhandedly as she could.

Clarisse is on the train to Bordeaux, to visit her mother, as she does once every month, and we soon find out that her mother knows her as Malinka. Naturally; it was her mother who named her Malinka, and her mother has no idea of any other name. Clarisse has, but for these monthly ventures to a forsaken existence, completely repudiated her past and, with it, her mother. When she leaves Bordeaux, she sheds the skin of Malinka and finds no difficulty answering to Clarisse.

The book continues for some time to tell us about Clarisse by telling us about the people in her life: her mother, a black seamstress with no money, whom Clarisse refers to (and, thus, keeps distant) as “the servant”; her husband, who eventually leaves her, in part because Clarisse “couldn’t hold back the numbness gradually overtaking her household, the cold torpor exuded in spite of her by her artificial, oblique self”; and her daughter, whom she has named Ladivine, Ladivine being the name of her repudiated mother in Bordeaux and therefore a conscious tie to that past. Clarisse’s mother Ladivine knows nothing about her granddaughter Ladivine, though she suspects. After all, because visits from her daughter are so scarce she has watched her daughter with that much more attention. And she can fill in the blanks: those months when Malinka did not visit were because she was pregnant. Her mother loves her enough, perhaps even sympathizes with her motives to shun her, that she doesn’t rock the boat by asking questions. Which is not to suggest that NDiaye wants us to feel any of the same sympathy.

Throughout this section—it’s just the first—NDiaye manages a beautiful ambivalence, just as Clarisse manages her tragic ambivalence. Clarisse repudiates her past but she visits her mother every month, thereby retaining this past. We come to understand that she loves her mother; she’s just ashamed of “the servant.” Clarisse’s hope to become the person she envisions in her mind is felt on each page, though we also feel the melancholy of a half soul. Such nuance imbues the books with its mysterious power, though the story, as it explores the gulfs between people, gulfs they create while apparently seeking something, is fascinating as well.

This first section comes to a conclusion with surprising violence, and NDiaye destabilizes the entire narrative as our attention is directed primarily at Clarisse’s daughter Ladivine who begins to sense, without fully understanding, her mother’s hidden half. With Ladivine, we descend into a horrific labyrinth.

Making the labyrinth a psychological nightmare are all of the doubling and transformations throughout: obviously we have the two women named Ladivine, their disconnection/connection, and what all of that says about Clarisse, but we also have Clarisse’s husband Richard who, after he has abandoned her, marries another woman named Clarisse. The novel’s strangest bits suggest a transformation in to a protective dog. The transgression of these boundaries, though, are based in psychological realism, leading to the novel’s fascinating conclusion.

29 March 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Between the announcement of the Best Translated Book Award longlists and the unveiling of the finalists, we will be covering all thirty-five titles in the Why This Book Should Win series. Enjoy learning about all the various titles selected by the fourteen fiction and poetry judges, and I hope you find a few to purchase and read!

The entry below is by Trevor Berrett of The Mookse and the Gripes. He also moderates a GoodReads discussion group dedicated to the BTBA. Feel free to join and post your opinions and rants and raves.



My Marriage by Jakob Wassermann, translated from the German by Michael Hofmann (Germany, New York Review Books)

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Making the Shortlist: 7%

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Winning the BTBA: <1%

Wassermann’s My Marriage is a beautifully complex emotional and intellectual account of a budding relationship that careened into a failed marriage, based, reportedly, a great deal on the author’s own first marriage to Julie Speyer (whom you can see on the NYRB Classics edition cover). How much of the book is actually autobiographical, I don’t know, but perhaps we can take the word of the German literary historian Peter de Mendelssohn, who said it was the “exactest, most scrupulous autobiography,” “the true confession of the death-marked author,” as per translator Michael Hofmann’s Afterword. At the same time, the book is presented as fiction, with names changed and pasts imagined.

The book was originally published posthumously in the autumn of 1934; Wassermann himself had died on New Year’s Day of that year of various troubles, including what Hofmann calls “general exhaustion.” After reading this book, we might extrapolate what Hofmann means.

The book pulled me in immediately. It isn’t happy reading, but it is an exquisite rendering of pain that is brought on by union and separation at once. Wassermann seems to be exploring, trying to comprehend just what happened with this central experience of his life, and I loved the step-by-step exploration of his painful past—not that it was entirely the past.

Let me introduce the characters who stand in for Wassermann and Speyer. The author/narrator is a man named Alexander Herzog. He divides his account into three sections: Mirror of Youth, The Age of Certainties, and The Age of Dissolution. Mirror of Youth begins before he’s ever met the persistent, eccentric Ganna Mevis. Again, it’s like Herzog has to go back that far just to get his footing, just to see where this juggernaut that would run through his life got its beginning.

The youngest of six daughters, Ganna doesn’t fit in. Ganna is fiercely competitive with her sisters. She dreamed of a glorious future. Hers weren’t the usual banal girlish dreams, they were scenarios and imaginings of an usual definition. She felt chosen, even though she couldn’t have said in what way.

Meanwhile, in this early section Herzog is a young author who has published one great book that made him no money. Ganna gets a hold of that book and her imaginings tell her that she must be a part of the author’s life. She knows nothing about him, naturally—she even is afraid that any letter she sent would simply be lost amongst the flood of letters Herzog was definitely not receiving—but she pursues him even when he obviously thinks little of her.

The next day, I got a pneumatique from her. Why the rush, I asked myself. There was nothing pressing in it. The letters were just as urgent as her speech. Big, jagged, impetuous characters that resembled a meeting of conspirators. I can’t remember if I wrote back. It seems to me it was only the third or fourth letter that induced me to give her an answer. Because she wrote to me almost every day. Always pneumatiques. A few lines, with obvious attention to style. I thought sardonically: writing letters to a writer is surely an education in itself. And the content? Atmospherics: happy wonderment at the new turn in her life; a plea to me not to forget her; a friendly greeting because it was a nice day; anxious inquiries about my state, because she’d had a bad dream about me. She wasn’t short of things to say.

Herzog thinks back on this time and tries to understand “what possessed me to answer her?” His answer: “I don’t know.” But he has some ideas and he works through them. For one, “[e]ven the most resolute misanthrope has a spot where he falls prey to vanity. And I was anything but a misanthrope.” Still, the notes are exhausting, and he admits that sometimes, “when I was opening one of her notes, it was as though I had to push away her little hand that reached for me with greedy grasp.”

Money, though . . . he’s honest enough to admit that her money and his lack thereof contributed greatly, even if he did his best to leave the subject under the surface. She’s the one who brings it up, and I love Herzog’s lingering amazement, capable of erasing the years between their courtship and his writing this account, taking him back to the initial confusion as his younger self pondered just what she was thinking:

But patience, Ganna, patience: do you propose to take what you call your wealth, today or tomorrow, and merely drop it at his feet, unconditionally and impulsively and without regard to yourself, and without any reference to any of the usual contracts and obligations? It would be a splendid impulse, whether it were possible or not. Or is some forfeit not required—in fact, wouldn’t the person, the future, the whole man from head to toe have to serve as your collateral? Speak!

We already know where this is heading, despite words of warning from the author himself: “You can find a woman lovable without loving her; that’s a dangerous grey area.”

Marriage, honeymoon, children, pain, a slow—and strange!—separation. Throughout, Herzog—Wassermann—shifts back and forth from a distant perspective, trying to see the forest for the trees, to an impassioned closeness. It was his writing that brought Ganna into his life, and it is with his writing that he attempts to exorcise her. He knows in the end that such an act is impossible: “But in the end it’s just words on paper, which can be turned and twisted and perhaps challenged by a higher instance.” It’s not spoiler to say that he is still struggling even with his last paragraph:

So what do I need? A hand to help me past an obstacle whose nature I cannot ascertain. A human breath to imbue me with the spirit of understanding. Understanding would surely illumine me like a flash of lightning ripping apart the sheet of darkness. And then the devil riding over the wreckage of my life would disappear with a howl into the gulch of his hell. A slightly overdone image. But then I’ve lost all sense of measure.

13 June 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This match was judged by Trevor Berrett. For more info on the World Cup of Literature, read this, and download the bracket.

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.

5-3 Italy

——

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).

——

Did The Days of Abandonment Deserve to Win?

Yes
No


13 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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?”

9 April 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over at The Mookse and the Gripes, Trevor Berrett posted a really interesting interview with Margaret Carson, the translator of Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds (among other books):

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 . . .

....
A Greater Music
A Greater Music by Bae Suah
Reviewed by Pierce Alquist

A Greater Music is the first in a line of steady and much-anticipated releases by Bae Suah from key indie presses (this one published by Open Letter). Building off of the interest of 2016 Best Translated Book Award longlist nominee. . .

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Two Lost Souls: on "Revulsion" and "Cabo De Gata"
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The dislocation of individuals from the countries of their birth has long been a common theme in contemporary literature. These two short novels recently translated into English appear firmly rooted in this tradition of ex-pat literature, but their authors eschew. . .

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In Melancholy, Hungarian author, critic, and art theorist László Földényi presents a panorama of more than two thousand years of Western historical and cultural perspectives on the human condition known as melancholia. In nine chapters, Földényi contrasts the hero worship. . .

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The Hatred of Music by Pascal Quignard
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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. . .

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Fragile Travelers by Jovanka Živanović
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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. . .

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Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei
Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei by Eliot Weinberger
Reviewed by Russell Guilbault

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. . .

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Radio: Wireless Poem in Thirteen Messages
Radio: Wireless Poem in Thirteen Messages by Kyn Taniya
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

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. . .

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