I think the interest for me was in recognizing that it’s always a hard task to figure out retrospectively what was “you,” and what was “you made by others.” There are so many people putting education into you, and giving you meanings and ideas and stories. You never know if the stories are true. This is the first thing. And there are so many emotions that come from other people. Later on you may tell people: “This is my emotion, my feeling, or my memory of something,” and it’s probably not really yours, it’s your mother’s or father’s or someone else’s altogether. This interested me and I think it’s a very complex thing to be brought up; so many people are needed to form a person and to give them an identity. Then all of a sudden you say “I” or “me,” and this, this makes me wonder.
Certainly there is some provocation to this statement, a small boutade like the ones Bolaño loved so much, but there is also something true to it. Bolaño seems to me to be the last writer that really felt part of a Latin American tradition, the last writer that responded with a knowledge of those models. Not only did he have a battle with the Latin American Boom but with all of the Latin American tradition—in particular with Borges and Cortázar—but that extends back to the 19th century. His was a profoundly political literature that aspired to be Latin American in a way different from that of the Boom, but that was still Latin American. I believe that this tradition stops with Bolaño. After him, my generation and the subsequent generations, I don’t see any authors that really feel part of the Latin American tradition, or that might be responding to these models.
There’s a great image of translation in Saer’s Scars—Ernesto López Garay, a judge and amateur translator, is looking over his version of The Picture of Dorian Gray, revising a sentence that appears fairly straightforward in the English: “Three o’clock struck, and then four, and the half hour rang its double chime, but Dorian Gray did not stir.” But appearances can be deceiving. “In red, I mark the word chime. The dictionary says, armonía; clave; juego de campanas; repique; sonar con armonía; repicar; concordar. Then I look up stir. It says, removerse; agitar; revolver; incitar; moverse; bullir; tumulto; turbulencia. I turn to T and look up threads. It says, hilo; fibra; enhebrar; atravesar.” Even phrases that seem fairly concrete, like the one above, can present an infinite array of permutations. And so the hardest part about translating is often knowing when to stop messing around with synonyms—it’s so tempting to obsess over nuances, connotations. Does chance play a role in all this? For me, at least, when I’m working on a translation, everything seems to refer back to it. Turns of phrase and snippets of conversations all go in to a sort of linguistic scrapbook arranged according to the piece I’m working on at the moment.
There is nothing that exists outside of our own experiences. You read one of my favorite writers, Thomas Bernhard: when does it ever stop being Thomas Bernhard’s voice? Sebald is the same. The autobiography is for me a liberating way of approaching fiction because . . . I don’t care about plot, coincidences in the way conflicts are resolved and characters are transformed by their experiences. That for me is utterly uninteresting. The only thing I care about is the sort of vertical descent into a character’s thoughts. How deep are we going to go, and to try to find a way to create complexity out of that.
There is no such thing as a literal word-for-word translation, at least not one that will sound anything like literature. There is however a difference between that impossibility and the other, the full rendering of meaning in terms of atmosphere or anything else. In translating you are entering a world with rules and manners that have meanings (plural) for the native reader. You are trying to understand some aspect of those meanings and to transplant it into the receiving language using any means possible, which will include a degree of lexicographical fidelity as long as it works.
Certainly there is room for disagreement about what is considered the “proper” purpose of literature. Some readers (and some critics) want “content” from the fiction or poetry they read, indeed want works of literature to “say something” about human experience depicted either through the behavior of individual characters or through their interactions with social and cultural forces. It is also true that such “saying” can be direct or indirect, as James Wood probably believes is the case in those works he praises for their psychological acuity. Such fiction in a sense unwittingly, through the formal and stylistic choices the author has made, reveals the operations of Mind. In remaining faithful to the perceptions and the cast of thought projected on the characters they have created, writers of fiction use the resources of fiction in a way that illuminates the nature of consciousness. In either case, however, these readers and critics are turning to fiction for what it is “about,” although not necessarily in the most reductive sense in which this means preoccupation with “the story.” Most of the novels James Wood approves most enthusiastically, in fact, are notably short on plot, which only gets in the way of providing depth in characterization.
Sæterbakken believes in literature as a destructive force, one that is inextricably tied to identity and should be used by both author and reader for private self-reflection and renovation. Uninterested in impressing his personal opinions and morality on his audience, Sæterbakken refuses to judge his characters, choosing instead to force the reader to suspend his own sense of self and fully identify, even if for only a moment, with the distasteful or otherwise upsetting nature of what is being depicted. While under Sæterbakken’s influence, the reader becomes, in the Rimbaudian sense, another.
If modernism’s obsession with form has morphed into a fetishization of formlessness, I propose a win-win solution for both sides of the artificial divide between “conceptual” and “mainstream” lyric poetries: a return to the time of the poem’s utterance: its breath.
The blurb to Texas-born Greg Baxter’s debut novel, The Apartment, evinces the ultimate hard-sell: stripping a bare-bones plot, such as it is, to an even leaner synopsis, and making it appear nourishing. It doesn’t work; the book looks markedly uninviting. But it is worth persevering. The Apartment is one of those novels that delights in its deception—minimal at first glance but in actual fact a trove stuffed full of haunting imagery, tumultuous thoughts and clever wisdom.
Although Russian author Mikhail Shishkin’s prodigious talent has been recognized for many years in his native Russia, as well as in Germany and France, until now English readers have only had access to “The Half-Belt Overcoat.” That story, translated by Leo Shtutin, appeared in the Read Russia! anthology published earlier this year, and was, to my mind, easily the best in the collection. Maidenhair more than lives up to its promise; beautifully translated by Marian Schwartz, it is a fierce book from a sharp and generous mind.
In the fourteen-page Author’s Afterward to his Selected Poems, Xi Chuan references or quotes from Tolstoy, Yang Lian, the Zhuangzi, the Indian social theorist Ashis Nandy, Eileen Chang, Leo Strauss, C.T. Hsia, Jonathan Spence, Milan Kundera, Li Bai, Czeslaw Milosz, the 20th-century sociologist Fei Xiaotong, ancient philosopher Han Feizi, Mao Zedong, Foucault, Tang dynasty literati Han Yu, and Goethe. This is not a poet who can be accused of parochialism. Yet Xi Chuan wears his erudition lightly, at least in the context of his verse. This is not to say that the poems do not give a sense of a formidable intellect behind them—they do—but what is striking in the poems is less Xi Chuan’s breadth of reference than his sense of humor, his humanity, and his attention to the smallest details of ordinary life, ranging from bodily functions to rats to the way drizzle soaks through socks.
The ill that is central to Pow! is contaminated food, and in that regard the novel could have been ripped from today’s headlines, since food safety has been an ongoing concern among China’s citizens. But if it were only an Upton Sinclair-esque take-down of unhygienic and inhumane slaughtering practices, Pow! wouldn’t be a novel by Mo Yan. Muckraking is but one facet of this book, which, like most of the author’s other novels, is a lusty, blood-soaked, and filth-encrusted indictment of Chinese society. And it doesn’t take much imagination to transpose elements of the story onto charged and sometimes taboo events in recent Chinese history.
The books of the Argentine writer Sergio Chejfec defy easy classification, but we can say that he writes for walkers: those for whom each step signifies something both taken/found and lost/forgotten. He writes about wanderers: those for whom destinations are rarely known, where every recognized face and remembered story proves too heavy with significance, slipping the grip of its proper naming. This is especially true of his recently translated novel, The Planets. Originally published in Spanish in 1999, Chejfec’s meditation on friendship, loss, and memory defies easy summation. This is fitting, for these also inform the fluid bounds of reality lived and described by his characters. Here, dreams are recited alongside the real events they anticipate and/or create; characters from dreams slide into the parables of protagonists; and iconic females blur within the slippages between vowels (e.g., Lesa/Sela) and consonants (e.g., Marta/Mirta). The Planets, in short, is a strange novel. It is made stranger still by the absence of its principle character, known only by the narrated memories of others, the enigmatic, nearly nameless M. This strangeness is fitting, then, for each story told about or by him is born of a gap—between dream and reality, past and present, cause and effect—and manifests the trauma of his absence.
Seidel has made a career out of his poetical surrogate, who is Ducati-driving, fancy-pinstripe-suit-wearing, and unapologetically white, rich, and male. His poems, when successful, drive a hard balance between requiring readers to let go of their disgust about what a lot of the speaker says and just enjoy the prancing, casually fun rhythms and rhymes in which he speaks. Occasionally, slivers where the reader gets to see something more tender pierce the façade and reveal the insecurities of the speaker, which are, in some ways, the insecurities upon which the entirety of 20th-century white- and male-dominated culture are predicated.
My Struggle is a mixture of elements: the layering and construction we associate with fiction; the confessional mode found in memoirs; mini-essays on music (Queen, The Pixies, and many more bands), art and the purpose of writing; lyrical passages describing Norwegian scenery; and laments and tirades on domesticity. Not far in, Knausgaard tells us he’s married for the second time and the father of three young children by his current wife. His remarks on his married life and being a father can be uncomfortable to read, and require a certain type of bravery, possibly recklessness when it comes to the feelings of others.
Forty years have passed since L’Arrière-pays was published in French to nearly instant acclaim. It first appeared as part of a collection titled Les sentiers de la creation (The Paths of Creation, 1972) that included contributions by Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Pablo Picasso and Francis Bacon. Now that Seagull Books has ushered the work into English, there can be no doubt that this was a book worth waiting for. The Arrière-pays is an immersion in the heady waters of a profound aesthetic consciousness.
In a world where most stories are produced under severe restrictions of time, space, and genre, and where their emphasis is on accessibility, digestibility, and instantaneous appeal, serious literature goes against the grain. Surely this is a fact known to Gail Scott, who before turning to literature was a newspaper reporter in Montreal, where much of her fiction, including The Obituary, is set. Far from the easy unity and confident voice of journalistic prose, The Obituary makes both the narrative and its narration into puzzles.
“My body betrayed me”: so speaks the reflective narrator of “The Gymnast,” a story tucked halfway through Karl Taro Greenfeld’s newest collection, NowTrends. Xiao is the gymnast from the title, and she has never had ownership of her body. Not that any Chinese woman in this narrative owns her form—“my athletic prowess almost made up for the fact that I was born female”—but Xiao has been scouted since doing “backbend kickover[s], frontward and backward saltos, and four consecutive forward rolls” when she was only 3. Those “stout men” had labeled her disciplined by age 5. Xiao’s father was gone, so her mother made the decision to allow her daughter to train for hours each day, probably because “she was grateful for the perks that accompanied my success.”
One might expect the Iraqi poet Amal Al-Jubouri’s new book to treat the periods before and after the war as a dichotomy. In fact, Al-Jubouri does not provide the reader with a simple paradigm of before and after—the occupation, of course, being the invasion of Iraq by American and British forces. As Alicia Ostriker notes in the foreword: “We are not presented with crude opposites.” The bulk of the collection is made up of pairs of poems that address a concept as the poet views it pre- and post-occupation, from the most grandiose aspects of life (death and love) to the most quotidian (soccer). But while before and after might seem to imply respectively good and bad, or happy and unhappy, Al-Jubouri makes it clear that life before the occupation wasn’t exactly a panacea, either. To say that after is necessarily worse than before would be too easy.
The Attic is an antic account of the young lives of its narrator, the pseudonymous Orpheus, and his friend Billy Wiseass as they attempt to come to terms with life and death, love and art. Throughout the novel we find Orpheus at work writing a novel called The Attic, and he frequently alerts us to the fact that we are reading it as it is being written. (“’What can I do for you?’ said a new character as he extended a bow.”) He meets a young woman, to whom he gives the name “Eurydice”; in doing so, he writes, he “sang her into existence”. His relationship with her, his creation, comes to resemble his relationship with his other creation, The Attic—each one forever on the verge of collapse as a result of Orpheus’ own informality, his own frankness. Composed variously of prose, letters, journal entries and lists, The Attic, Kiš’s first novel, is an extremely interesting debut, a book that contains the seed of almost every formal trait that would later become characteristic of its author’s artistic project.
Happy Moscow is an experimental novel. It has no calculated plot and develops rather like a dream wherein ideas, as characters, are repurposed and their functions regenerated as they are made to relate to other figurative elements. Three quarters of the way through the book, its heroine Moscow Chestnova disappears completely, and Sartorius the engineer, her one-time lover, emerges as a central character. Inexplicably, he then changes his identity, becoming “Grunyakin,” and goes to work in the kitchen of a small factory in Sokolniki.
Jonathan Stalling is a man of eclectic talents: as a poet, a translator of modern Chinese poetry, an editor at two literary journals, and a professor of English literature, his primary interests lie in the interstices between languages, and between language and meaning. His work offers a definitive answer to those critics who worry that when it comes to contemporary poetry, there is nothing new under the sun. Grotto Heaven and Yingelishi are fascinating poetic-linguistic experiments better described as interlingual than bilingual. Stalling calls his work “Sinophonic,” defined as a “fusion of the two primary languages of globalization—English and Chinese,” and he plays complexly with the interactions between these two languages, and with the meanings that are created in the tensions and resonances that occur there. In manipulating these spaces with techniques such as transliteration, translation, decoding and recoding, he manages to build a new tonal universe.
The undercurrents of Swiss anti-Semitism invoked at this 1944 conference feature prominently in two of three novels by the Swiss francophone author Jacques Chessex, recently published by London’s Bitter Lemon Press. Chessex, who died in 2009, won the Prix Goncourt for his novel L’Ogre in 1973, the first non-French author to do so. It was previously published in English in 1975 in a translation by Martin Sokolinsky under the title A Father’s Love, and in 2012 Bitter Lemon re-published this translation under the title The Tyrant. It joins Chessez’s The Vampire of Ropraz and A Jew Must Die, which first appeared in French in 2007 and 2009, respectively. Both are translated by W. Donald Wilson.
Ferry, best known as the translator of Horace, Virgil, and the Gilgamesh epic, is the master of poems as casually digressive meditations. Like Wordsworth, the subject of his first book (The Limits of Mortality, 1959), he often starts with a mundane premise and wanders around in it, mingling elements of narrative and essay, usually in a loosely conversational strain of blank verse. He’s back with a new collection, Bewilderment, which recently received a National Book Award.
On the first page of Dror Burstein’s novel Kin is a picture of a young child, perhaps just before his sixth birthday, showing his milk teeth in a wide smile. This is Emile, who as a one-day-old baby is left at the adoption center of a maternity hospital in Jaffa by his young parents. At the time the photograph is taken, Emile must already have been living in Tel Aviv with his adoptive parents Leah and Yoel for years—his whole life minus one day. It is this one day that hurts. It is also the nine months of Leah’s empty belly that hurt, even long after Leah is killed in an elevator accident when Emile is six years old. Kin unfolds over the thirty years after this tragedy, as the doubts suppressed by Leah’s presence rise to the surface of Yoel’s consciousness and are never quite dispelled.
Sans Soleil has simply occupied a place of its own. An assembly of material Marker shot, found, and gathered from collaborators, the film offers a globe-spanning epistolary travelogue as told to an apparently fictional narrator by, we suspect, a practically nonfictional protagonist. The movie’s fans usually treat this peripatetic letter-writer, a certain Sandor Krasna, as Marker’s barely altered ego. (See also Peter Greenaway’s avatar Tulse Luper, who stands at the center of Greenaway’s international, intertemporal, and nearly indecipherable early-2000s multimedia project The Tulse Luper Suitcases.) Krasna, no less impulsive a wanderer than Luper, reports from points around the world. He frequents Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, but draws his most frequent and most striking observations from Japan.
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