Eight Questions for Deborah Smith of Tilted Axis Press

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I have to declare my biases up-front: since I first published Deborah Smith in The Quarterly Conversation in 2013 I’ve felt that she was going to make an impact in the world of translated literature. I did not expect, however, that just 3 years later she’d walk away with one of the biggest prizes in world literature, the International Booker Prize, which she shared with author Han Kang, whose novel The Vegetarian she translated into English and which has become a best-seller.

When I traveled to London in the spring of 2015 for the London Book Fair I had the chance to meet with Deborah in person and hear more about the translation press that she was then putting together. Called Tilted Axis, it launched earlier this year and is debuting with three titles in 2016.

I corresponded with Deborah to hear more about how she put the press together, what it stands for, and what its plans are for the future. I wholeheartedly recommend Deborah’s work to you and hope that you’ll give Tilted Axis a closer look.

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So first of all, why start a press? You’re already a successful and sought-after translator, so I can’t imagine it’s for lack of things to do. What do you want to add to the international publishing scene, and what are your goals?

I was in the third year of my PhD when I first had the idea—I’d recently started working as a translator, which meant firstly that I was hearing about amazing-sounding books from other translators, and also that I was getting enough of an insider’s view of the publishing industry to be aware of all the implicit biases that made it so difficult for these books to ever get published, especially if they weren’t from European languages (harder to discover, editors can’t read the original, lack of funding programmes, authors who don’t speak English). Plus, publishing’s inherent conservatism means that what little did get through was weighted towards the commercial end of the scale, which is not the kind of writing that excites me.

This and the small sample size inevitably leads to stereotypes–sweeping family sagas from India, “lush” colonial romances from South-East Asia. And even if something more exciting does manage to sneak through, it gets the same insultingly clichéd cover slapped on it anyway, so no one will ever know.

So the aim for the press was a mixture of things: to publish under-represented writing, which is an intersection of original language, style, content, and often its author’s gender. To publish it properly, in a way that makes it clear that this is art, not anthropology. To spotlight the importance of translation in making cultures less dully homogeneous. To push for better rates and recognition for translators themselves. And to improve access to the UK publishing industry–we recently hired our first intern, the wonderful Sabeena, who we’re proud to be paying a proper wage. Not only are unpaid internships exploitative, they’re one of the main forces keeping UK publishing a primarily white middle-class industry, which has a direct knock-on effect on what gets published and how.

What’s it like starting a translation-focused press in London right now? What advantages/disadvantages are there to being in London?

Funny you should ask this, as I’m about to move to Sheffield! For a mix of personal and professional reasons: literary translation just does not cover London rent (I can’t afford to pay myself for my work as a publisher yet) and now my PhD is done I no longer have the safety net of student funding. Around Brexit, there were a lot of articles about the divide between London and the rest of the country, the brain drain from the provinces (people like me who leave their poor, post-industrial northern towns as soon as they can and never look back) and the need for decentralisation, all of which I absolutely agree with.

I don’t at all regret my 6 years in London, but London is already an international city. Having a large, ready-made network of like-minded people and organisations is a double-edged sword: the support is invaluable when you’re starting out, but there’s a danger that it can function as a Twitter-style echo chamber. Non-profit translation publishers are constantly writing funding applications explaining how we’re providing alternative narratives, acting as cultural bridges etc, and I always get simultaneously fired up about the idea of doing this and worried that all I’m actually doing is preaching to the choir.

In places like Sheffield, the lack of government funding and support, while reprehensible in itself, has encouraged a lot of grassroots work, creative start-ups, and a real sense of community. It seems the ideal place to try and build a press that is simultaneously local and global–to support local communities in forging global connections and taking part in international conversations which might otherwise be closed to them. That’s always been important; post-Brexit, it feels imperative. And if I can get my accent back, even better.

Can you talk a little about how you got started in literature, basically how you got your first jobs and acquired the knowledge and connections to make it to the point where you could found a press?

My first job in publishing was head of Tilted Axis, so it’s fair to say the interview was a walk-over. But translation was what got me the connections, and my first gig as a translator was Han Kang’s The Vegetarian–essentially a combination of being lucky, persistent, and niche (I was the UK’s only Korean-to-English literary translator). After that, it all happened very quickly. Translators, translation publishers, and related organisations are such an incredibly supportive community–it was them sharing their knowledge and connections, and being so encouraging, that made Tilted Axis a reality (i.e. convinced the UK Arts Council that it would not be completely mad to fund someone with zero publishing experience). Plus the wonderful Simon, Sarah, and Soraya agreeing to come on board–they all do have experience, so they’re the ones who actually know what they’re doing.

Your first three titles are all by authors originally from Asia, they are all short works, and they are all by women. An upcoming author of yours, Prabda Yoon, would also hold to this general aesthetic (except for being male). Can you tell me a bit about your editorial aesthetic and how you how to shape your list going forward?

With such a small list, I wanted to have a tight focus. So we publish exclusively fiction that is translated from an Asian language, contemporary, and innovative. In other words, the kind of books that might not otherwise make it into English, for the very reasons that make them exciting to us.

Asian languages, because that’s what we’re lacking, and because it would be so much easier to publish, say, Singaporean writing in English, or Mauritian writing in French. That’s the stuff that will be brought to you without you having to go and look for it. We don’t take submissions–I’ve scouted all of our books myself.

By “innovative” I mean that we’re not really into straight, realist, chronologically-ordered writing–it has to be stylistically and/or formally distinctive. Partly this is personal taste, but it also helps us to push against this idea of reading Asian literature as more anthropology than art. A lot of our books also have a radical social edge, which is again something we’re passionate about. There are so many fantastic books out there, why not do the ones that also have something to rage against, like the violence of forced gentrification (One Hundred Shadows), ableism (Indigenous Species), or male proscriptions on female sexuality (Panty)?

Aims for the future are to stick to this while expanding our range of languages. So far we have Bengali, Korean and Indonesian, with Thai, Uzbek and Japanese in the pipeline.

And yes, we publish a lot of women.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about gender disparities in terms of who gets published, who gets read, and who reviews these books. These disparities are especially stark in translated literature. What contribution do you hope for Tilted Axis to make to these issues?

I said from the beginning that at least 50% of our list would be by women, and when Kamila Shamsie called for a Year of Publishing Women I was excited to sign us up. Her caution that “the YPW doesn’t end up looking like the year of publishing young, straight, white, middle-class, metropolitan women” was spot on. It’s a reminder that if the publishing industry is serious about improving diversity, we need to take an intersectional perspective.

The most important thing we want to make clear is that this isn’t some dreaded worthy cause. Actively seeking work from under-represented groups is one of the most effective ways of giving publishing a much-needed shot in the arm. Establishments are conservative, and conservatism means more of the same; women writers’ outsider status can make for thrillingly original work.

Tell us a little about your three 2016 titles.

Our first-year list is Panty by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay, translated by Arunava Sinha; One Hundred Shadows by Hwang Jungeun, translated by Jung Yewon; and Indigenous Species by Khairani Barokka.

Sangeeta is a stylistically daring writer in love with surrealism, credited with being “the woman who reintroduced hardcore sexuality to Bengali literature.” But though the (male) establishment used this label of erotica to dismiss her work, the sex scenes have exactly the same transgressive function as her use of chronology and narrative voice.

Hwang Jungeun is one of the brightest stars of the new South Korean generation–she’s Han Kang’s favourite, and One Hundred Shadows scooped the prestigious Bookseller’s Award, for critically acclaimed fiction that also has a wide popular appeal. She stands out for her focus on social minorities–her protagonists are slum inhabitants, trans women, orphans–and for the way she melds this hard-edged social critique with obliquely fantastical elements and offbeat dialogue.

Khairani Barokka is a writer, spoken-word poet, visual artist and performer whose work has a strong vein of activism, particularly around disability, but also how this intersects with, for example, issues of gender–she’s campaigned for reproductive rights in her native Indonesian, and is currently studying for a PhD in disability and visual cultures at Goldsmiths. Indigenous Species is a feminist, environmentalist narrative poem, with tactile artwork and a Braille translation.

The press’s name and logo are very distinctive. Can you tell me a little about where they come from and what they signify?

“Tilting the axis of world literature from the centre to the margins allows us to challenge that very division.” That’s our official line! And the logo is supposed to look like a T and an A, but also an appropriately tilted (globe) axis. I liked it so much I got a tattoo of it.

If readers want to support Tilted Axis and its work, what should they do?

Subscribe! Our subscriptions are very reasonable, and at the moment they’re the only way we can afford to ship to the US. And spread the word–word of mouth is crucial for small presses who don’t have the budget for advertising. But don’t just read our books–read Archipelago Press’s translations by African women, Deep Vellum’s wonderful Indonesian, Mauritian and Korean titles, read Can Xue and Uday Prakash. Buy from your local indie bookstore, #namethetranslator, join in with #WITMonth.

Vladimir Nabokov’s Letter to Stanley Kubrick

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I recently had the chance to see the letter that Vladimir Nabokov wrote to Stanley Kubrick upon the successful completion of their screenplay for the film of Lolita. It was a part of the Jewish Contemporary Museum’s retrospective on Kubrick, which included a treasure trove of ephemera related to all of his major movies.

Uncharacteristically for Nabokov, in this letter he is very complimentary toward the edits that Kubrick made to his (enormous) manuscript of the screenplay. It’s a bit of a surprise, as this is, after all, the writer who famously said of editors:

By “editor” I suppose you mean proofreader. Among these I have known limpid creatures of limitless tact and tenderness who would discuss with me a semicolon as if it were a point of honor—which, indeed, a point of art often is. But I have also come across a few pompous avuncular brutes who would attempt to “make suggestions” which I countered with a thunderous “stet!”

So how did Kubrick and Nabokov work it out?

Well, they almost didn’t: for quite a while it looked that Nabokov’s “thunderous ‘stet'” would prevent any possibility of a Lolita film. As chronicled by Brian Boyd in his magisterial, two-part biography of Nabokov, the author originally felt that a screenplay of Lolita would be impossible, in no small part because (in order to appease the moral censors of the period) Kubrick wanted to end the movie with Humbert and Lo married, the union blessed by one of the latter’s relatives.

That didn’t happen, and in fact Kubrick was to give Nabokov the upper hand (or at least the impression of the upper hand), seemingly the only way to work with the great, and hugely egotistical, author. Some degree of flattery was required:

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But, for however much ego-fluffing was involved, Kubrick did end up getting Nabokov to do a great deal of editing, and the final product improved for it:

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But even after all of Nabokov’s hard work, Kubrick did have a trick up his sleeve:

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This was in part by necessity, as Kubrick had to satisfy the censors, and the script that Nabokov had handed off to him would not have fit the bill. But, it’s also undoubtedly true that the great director also wanted to make sure that Lolita would be his film, not Nabokov’s.

Ultimately, however, it seems that things turned out for the best. Here’s Nabokov’s letter congratulating Kubrick on how well the screenplay turned out, and even encouraging him to make any further edits he wished:

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Although the film version of Lolita did turn out far more chaste than the book (Kubrick famously commented that if he’d known how restrictive the censors were going to be, he never would have tried to make the film), it was generally agreed that the movie captured the feeling of the book quite well, and the screenplay was ultimately released as a book itself. Those interested in a full comparison of the book to the movie should read Boyd’s excellent commentary on the two in Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years.

The movie proved a financial success, earning over $9 million against $2 million expenses, based largely on word-of-mouth and a promotional campaign that leveraged the curiosity inherent to making a movie of a controversial book about sexual desire for a pre-pubescent girl:

One last little tidbit: interestingly, Kubrick and Nabokov also seemed to agree on the ideal casting for the title character:

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13 Pounds of Literature

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Bottom’s Dream is coming, September 23 to be exact. Written by the major postwar German author Arno Schmidt, it is 1500 pages long, measures 11 x 14, and weighs 13 pounds. It is almost surely the largest work of literature yet released this millennium, and it is described as an unreadable work of pure genius on par with Finnegans Wake.

Per The New York Times,

That book is in some sense Schmidt’s response to “Finnegans Wake”; it is a sprawling novel about a brief period, from 4 A.M. to early the next morning, outwardly centered on a discussion of that American father of European modernism, Edgar Allan Poe. Written in three columns and published only as a facsimile of an idiosyncratic typography designed by the author, the “Dream” represents the ultimate but untranslatable challenge to any translator.

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It was originally published in 1970, and the title is a reference to the character Bottom from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Per the Complete Review, it contains 2,225,000 words, which, if correct, would make it approximately 4 times the length of War and Peace.

John Woods, one of the great German translators of our time, is the one who has brought it into English. At a pay rate of 10 cents per word, Woods would have earned in excess of $200,000 for this translation.

Kafka’s Fourth Novel and Other Lost Treasures

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There was some major news today when Israel’s high court ruled that a cache of Kafka’s writings was to be made public for the first time in history.

Israel’s supreme court has ruled that Franz Kafka’s manuscripts are the property of the National Library of Israel, ending a lengthy legal battle, judicial sources said in Monday.

The nation’s top court on Sunday rejected an appeal by the heirs of Max Brod, a friend of Kafka and the executor of his estate to whom he had willed his manuscripts after his death in 1924.

This ignited a lot of excitement today on social media over what kinds of Kafkaesque treasures might await us readers, but sadly there will be little of any interest to the common reader interested solely in literary works. For those who are intrigued by Kafka’s life and want to know more about what he thought and how he lived, there will probably be many things of interest.

Sadly, the true literary Kafka treasure horde is likely lost forever. As Reiner Stach details in Kafka: The Years of Insight, it was Dora Diamant, a Pole nearly half Kafka’s age whom he fell in love with and lived with in Berlin in the last months of his life before dying of tuberculosis, who received the precious notebooks Kafka made during his last months on Earth. Sadly, these were seized by the Gestapo and have been lost:

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These writings likely included many literary works that Kafka had attempted while he lived in Berlin with Diamant during the Weimer hyperinflation, of which all we today have are three late works: “Josephine the Singer, or The Mouse Folk,” “The Burrow,” and “A Little Woman.”

The lost literary writings destroyed by the Gestapo also include a lengthy work that Kafka was inspired to write by a little girl and that, had it been found, could have plausibly made a fourth and last novel:

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The release of Kafka’s writings by the Israeli court has also led to some outcry that Kafka intended that his friend and literary executor Max Brod burn all of his work, so we should not be reading any of these pieces, in addition to virtually everything Kafka published during his lifetime. Here is what Kafka asked of his friend:

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While these statements appear conclusive, Kafka’s own actions provide some doubt. One should remember that Kafka attempted to pursue many courses of action during his life that made no logical sense and that were in fact impossible; some of these he lived long enough to regret and see the error of. Indeed, it seems unlikely that Kakfa would have had a legal right to prevent re-printing of many of the works of his that he published in his lifetime, in accordance with the wishes above. Moreover, Brod made it very clear to his friend that he found his writing of the greatest literary value and that he would under no circumstances burn it or rescind its publication. Despite this, Kafka continued to keep Brod as his executor and made no efforts to destroy his writings himself when it became clear that he was in declining health and would soon die.

Interesting New Books — August 2016

Here are a few new releases for the month of August 2016 that have caught my eye. All of these, and many, many more new releases, can be found on my Interesting New Books — 2016 page.

Peacock & Vine by A. S. Byatt August 2. Sounds like a genre-breaking book from Byatt.

American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst by Jeffrey Toobin August 2. Seems like a pretty good cultural moment to reset the Patty Hearst story.

Bright Magic: Stories by Alfred Döblin August 9. A volume of Döblin’s stories has never appeared in English before.

The First Wife: A Tale of Polygamy by Paulina Chiziane Aug 9. Polygamous fiction from Mozambique. How can you not?

The Frontier Within: Essays by Kobo Abe August 9. If you think Murakami’s the Japanese master of the surreal, read some Kobo Abe.

Save Twilight: Selected Poems by Julio Cortázar August 9. Cortázar is always money.

Riverine: A Memoir from Anywhere but Here by Angela Palm August 16. Graywolf does some of the best creative nonfiction in the biz.

Little Jewel by Patrick Modiano Aug 23. More Modiano, always good.

Zama by Antonio Di Benedetto Aug 23. If you’ve got a favorite living Latin American author, chances are they’ll tell you to read this book ASAP.

Against Translation: Displacement Is the New Translation by Kenneth Goldsmith Aug 23. I’ve got my doubts about this one, but I want to give it a fair shot. Though, $49 paperback isn’t gonna happen.

Interviews on The Surrender

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Over the past couple weeks, two interviews with me on The Surrender have been published.

The first is with my good friend Emma Ramadan, translator of Sphinx by Anne Garréta, among many other things, and soon-to-be bookstore co-proprietor (in Prividence, RI). Here’s the interview.

I could dress as I wished in private, and I could enjoy the sensations and textures that are not possible with men’s clothing. I derived benefits from this, but so much of one’s personality is only unlocked when you are in public and able to interact with other people. It goes back to what I said before about meaning being social: what does it mean to be a good person or a bad person, or generous, or crafty, or wicked, or kind, if there is no one for you to interact with? Can you be mean if there is no one and nothing to be mean to? These traits only assume their full meaning in the presence of a society. Well, my sense of myself as masculine or feminine is the same. My appearance can only signify to the world what I am if there is someone out there to signify to.

And the wonderful journalist and soon-to-be-author Tobias Carroll interviewed me for Vol. 1 Brooklyn.

The first time I encountered part of The Surrender was when “The Last Redoubt” appeared in The White Review. It’s located in the middle of the book here, and I’m curious – when you wrote it, did you already know that it was part of a larger whole?

No, I had no idea! When I originally wrote “The Last Redoubt,” I thought this would be all that I wanted to say in writing on the matter of my gender, crossdressing, etc. But then, after I finished the essay and published it, I found that it had enabled me to think about new questions that had never been possible before for me. So as I began working through these new questions that “The Last Redoubt” had opened up, I realized that this essay was actually the hinge of a much larger set of questions that I could investigate about myself. Thus, I began writing The Surrender.

And, in fact, now that The Surrender has been published I am finding that the same thing is happening all over again. . . .

We Are Entering a Prolonged Period of Slow Growth

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The 20th-century was a once-in-a-species-lifetime aberration and the 21st century will be one of prolonged slow growth.

That is essentially what gets said in William D. Nordhaus’s NYRB review of The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The US Standard of Living Since the Civil War by Robert J. Gordon. In this, it echoes many of the things said in Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century.

The message of Rise and Fall is this. For most of human history, economic progress moved at a crawl. According to the economic historian Bradford DeLong, from the first rock tools used by humanoids three million years ago, to the earliest cities ten thousand years ago, through the Middle Ages, to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution around 1800, living standards doubled (with a growth of 0.00002 percent per year). Another doubling took place over the subsequent period to 1870. Then, according to standard calculations, the world economy took off.

From later in the same essay:

The last chapter of the book suggests that the US faces major “headwinds” that will continue to drag down living standards relative to underlying productivity growth. In Gordon’s account, these headwinds are rising inequality, poor-quality education, the aging population, and rising government debt. Gordon forecasts that average growth in real income per person over the next quarter-century will be 0.7 percent per year—even lower than the 1.3 percent per year in the 2000–2015 period. If inequality continues to grow, this might lead to declining incomes of the bottom part of the distribution—and therefore to true Spenglerian decline. I emphasize that these forecasts are highly speculative and contingent on many economic, fiscal, and demographic forces.

Anagrams by Lorrie Moore

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Lorrie Moore has long been known to me as one of the “name” authors of American fiction, one of a very select group of fiction writers who could probably live off her writing alone, a fixture of major anthologies, the likes of The New Yorker, and major American awards. So, in other words, everything that would scream out to me “mediocrity” or at least “careerist” (it generally amounts to the same thing). In the case of Moore, however, I know that she is very esteemed by some critics whose opinions I take very seriously, so I’ve always meant to read her. And of course, there are authors like Marilynne Robinson or Don DeLillo who have managed to produce extraordinary writing from within the confines of enormous mainstream success.

Lorrie Moore’s first novel, Anagrams, mixes aspects of experimental and realist fiction. It is composed of five self-contained sections of fairly conventional storytelling. The experimental aspect of this book is in the fact that these five sections are “anagrams” of each other. The names of the three main characters are always the same, but their various traits, afflictions, hopes, and failures are shuffled around so that each time we are presented with three distinct, not-previously seen, people.

The five parts of this book are thus related in the sense of words that are anagrams for one another. Already an implicit question is raised: is there any deeper relationship between “refer” and “freer” than between two random words, just because they happen to contain the same letters? Might we imagine reasons why some anagrams have stronger connections than others? Similarly, is there some deeper relevance between the five parts of Anagrams? Are all solitary, lonely, depressed lives connected to some extent? Or is each middling life painful in ways that have nothing to do with the others?

There is another stylistic quirk to this book. It is broken into two sections, the first of which contains four separate pieces that look and feel like short stories. With a little imagination they might even fit together in certain ways to tell a whole story. These 4 comprise about 60 pages of Anagrams. Then, section two (it is separated from section one by its own epigraphs) is made up of one long narrative of approximately 150 pages, and which feels like a novella. No explanation is ever given for the relative lengths of the parts or why they are presented as they are, although the individual pieces are numbered 1 through 5, giving some impression that we are to take the book as a whole.

Anagrams is always narrated from the first-person perspective of Benna, a wry, single, mid-thirties woman beginning to feel adrift in life and starting to worry that she will have to live through her middle age—and probably her whole life—alone. She has friends Gerard and Eleanor who are similarly rudderless in their thirties. They all work the degrading, dead-end jobs of the over-educated, underemployed lower-middle-class, and they generally have artistic inclinations, sometimes nurturing false and fragile beliefs that they will one day graduate into an artistic career.

Benna, Gerald, and Eleanor remind me of something F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in Tender Is the Night (and which Moore either paraphrases or re-discovers in Anagrams): essentially, Fitzgerald said that his two protagonists, Dick and Nicole Diver, had all the sensitivity of great artists but none of the talent. So they were essentially stuck in a “neither here nor there” of emotion—capable of experiencing profound sentiments, but incapable of ever articulating them in a satisfying way. They even have pretensions to being artists, but of course they fail.

It is this ever-present theme in Benna’s own fresh voice that gives the most continuity and originality to this book. Her narration is cynical and clenched, there are lots of wry observations on the nature of mainstays of bourgeois American life, like yard sales, telemarketers, diners, lounge acts in budget hotels. Benna’s voice seems committed to assaulting a reader with the general tawdriness of people who lead empty lives but try to convince themselves that things are really richer and more exciting than they are. On the other hand, Benna’s voice shows a softer side in its bemusement with bad puns, stale jokes, and the like, plus its occasional sentimental observations on life. Benna has a kind of everywoman wisdom about her—she speaks lofty truths, but they are always couched in the down-to-earth language of the everyday. In the hands of a weaker writer this might easily be condemned as cleverness, but Moore manages to strike the right balance between the high and the low, creating something that feels authentic: “‘It’s not that men fear intimacy,’ I said to Eleanor. ‘It’s that they’re hypochondriacs of intimacy: They always think they have it when they don’t.'”

Each individual Benna—as well as the cumulative Benna across the book’s five sections—is complex and interesting as a narrator. You can never quite trust her. In one story Benna observes that Eleanor “took our mutual mediocrity harder than I did,” although it’s not clear that this is true. Benna seems to take it pretty hard herself, and she seems to disdain Eleanor’s efforts to have some kind of artistic breakthrough in the way that bespeaks self-hatred. Later in that same story Benna tells herself, “It’s not that I wanted to be married. It’s that I wanted a Marriage Equivalent, although I never knew exactly what that was, and often suspected that there was really no such thing.” Much of the tension of this story comes from the fact that Benna may in fact want a marriage (not just a Marriage Equivalent), and is just unable to let herself know that—after all, she lives in an apartment across the hall from a man she seems to be in love with yet whom she never honestly communicates with.

“The Nun of That” is obviously Anagrams’ showpiece. It is the only part of the book where Moore breaks from first-person: Benna is an adjunct professor at a California college, and most of the activity in her classes is told from the third-person, albeit with plenty of free indirect discourse into Benna’s head. This is a satisfying and fairly subtle way to break up Benna’s first-person narration, which might have otherwise gotten a little onerous over 150 pages. Notably, Benna narrates “The Nun of That” in the present tense, which gives her narration a sort of breathless, optimistic quality, whereas the teaching sections are in the past tense, making them read as much darker and more pessimistic.

The most interesting device in “The Nun of That” is that Eleanor is now Benna’s imaginary friend, and Benna also has an imaginary daughter named Georgianne (these aren’t spoilers, as these facts are revealed very early on). However, their imaginary nature is referenced so seldom that a reader is lulled into thinking they are real people, which makes it all the more damning when something happens to remind a reader of the fact that they are figments of Benna’s immense loneliness. Also the fact that Benna may be mentally ill is completely downplayed throughout “The Nun of That,” which seems far more poignant and interesting of a way to do it than to make this aspect of her more clearly defined. The overall effect of “The Nun of That” is tragicomedy on virtually every page: Benna’s voice is irrepressible and often very funny and entertaining, but it’s impossible to get away from the fact of the situation of her life, which is chronically depressing in the extreme. It’s a very schizoid kind of narrative consciousness, one where two powerful and irreconcilable personalities are present sentence-to-sentence, paragraph-to-paragraph.

In the end, I have a hard time saying what exactly Anagrams is about, other than disintegrating relationships and lonely people. I think it’s perhaps a sort of hymn to bourgeois America—its ugly beauty—as well as an examination of why people reach a guarded sort of adulthood from which they are inherently incapable of making the kinds of deep connections that are easier to come by in one’s more naïve 20s. It always seems like the right elements are present for a happy ending in Anagrams, but things never manage to turn out that way—its letters can spell out words, they just always end up combining in ways that refuse one another.

Recommended Reading: Svetlana Alexievich, Hitchcock, Truffaut, Curzio Malaparte, Enrique Vila-Matas

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Recommended Reading is a collection of some books I’ve read recently that I’m recommending to you. It’s just stuff I’ve liked, nothing to do with release dates, theme, etc, etc, just great books. Read more here.

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Second-Hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich (tr Bela Shayevich)

This book is one of the most humanizing, acute things I’ve ever read about the Soviets and what Russia has become in the post-USSR era, but more than that it is first and foremost awe-inspiring literature. As I said in my review:

What is most important about Alexievich is that even though she treads deeply into the Russian psyche, her books have immense humanistic power. Like her other books, “Secondhand Time” is told through oral monologues, and its stories transcend national boundaries: the mother remembering the teenage son who committed suicide, the woman who leaves her husband for a murderer serving a life sentence in a remote prison, the delicate son with the macho father who forces him through a hellish military enlistment, the immigrant who has fled civil war only to find a life of depredation and degradation.

Alexievich grapples with some of the biggest questions in life, politics, and nation (she foregrounds the work with some questions from Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor), and her book is remarkably touching and full of wisdom-lines from people who have lived through the very most life can throw at a person. An incredible read.

hitchcock

Hitchcock/Truffaut

There is basically one book on film that there’s 100% approval of, and this is that book. It is a week-long series of interview that Francois Truffaut conducted with Alfred Hitchcock, covering his entire career output. Hilarious, creep, incisive, eye-opening, absurd, frightening . . . it is all of these things, an homage to the art of film by two of its greatest practitioners.

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The Skin by Curzio Malaparte (tr David Moore)

Curzio Malaparte was a fascist in support of Mussolini, the only Italian journalist to report for the Eastern Front in the Ukraine (and who did so with such honesty that he got himself in trouble), a communist after the war, and a man with a beautiful house on Capri that he designed himself and that Goddard used in his film of Moravia’s Contempt. He also named himself “Malaparte” in opposition to Napoleon’s “Bonaparte.”

An eccentric gentleman, you might say, and The Skin is a book about Naples during the war that is every bit as repulsive, honest, visceral, cynical, hopeful and original as you might expect from such a man. As I remarked previously, I can’t say I “liked” The Skin, but it was a remarkable and necessary reading experience.

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Because She Never Asked by Enrique Vila-Matas (tr. Valerie Miles)

When I interviewed Valerie Miles about this novella, she told me that it was Vila-Matas’s favorite piece of his own writing because it contained elements of his entire career, crunched and refracted in on themselves. It was also a thing Vila-Matas wrote about a near-death illness, so it came out of very intense circumstances that provoked deep reflection.

I can see all of these elements in this book, which is a “collaboration” of sorts with the Sophie Calle, who also “collaborated” in a similar way with Paul Auster. It’s Vila-Matas at his most coy, his most seductive and feinting and impenetrable.

Pillars #7: Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson

david-markson

Borrowing from William H. Gass’s essay “50 Literary Pillars” (found in A Temple of Texts), I’m writing about books and authors that have been pillars for my aesthetic as a reader and a writer. Although these items are numbered, these are listed in no particular order. See more Pillars here.

One measure of a book’s influence—perhaps the best measure—is the degree to which that book determines the shape of your thoughts and your sentences. And by this measure, David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress is undoubtedly a huge personal influence. When I fist read it in 2005, its form was unlike the form of any book I had ever previously read. Though perhaps now there are other books I’ve read that somewhat resemble it, Wittgenstein’s Mistress still stands out to me as an original.

So what exactly is Wittgenstein’s Mistress? It mostly consists of single-sentence paragraphs of just a dozen or two dozen words. (It kind of looks like a big old archive of text messages.) As we read the book, it becomes clear these sentences are being typed down by a person who believes herself to be the last human being alive on Earth. Basically, this book just follows the flow of her thoughts as she recounts what she does as the last person on Earth, as well as any number of random musings she see fit to delve through. I picture the narrator of this book, whoever she is, as striking down a few thoughts on a typewriter, going about her day, striking a few more, falling asleep and waking and striking down a few more, just collecting lines after lines. This is just what this book is.

And the thing about this book, what began to occur to me as I read it, was that, yes, indeed, this is how people think. It captures the feeling of thought very, very well (at least our thoughts that come to us in the form of language). The particular length of each thought, the way that they form little clusters as several thoughts cumulate upon one another, and the way that they digress and wander, eventually interrupted by the eruption of a sudden memory or idea.

So here’s something I’ve wrestles with in the aftermath of reading Wittgenstein’s Mistress, a kind of chicken and the egg” question: perhaps Markson got the drift and punch of thought just right, so that I often think in the manner in which this book thinks because this is just how we think. Or, perhaps I think in the manner in which this book thinks because Markson played some major role in teaching me how to think. I’m not quite sure. Regardless, to this day, a decade after I first read Wittgenstein’s Mistress, I will find an apposite sentence forming in my head, and I will know, this is a Markson sentence. Or, even more often, I will compose a tweet on Twitter, or send off a triad of text messages, or leave a Facebook comment, and I will know, these were written in the mold of Markson.

This is already a huge influence.

The other thing that stayed with me from this book is how, regardless of what exactly the “plot” of this book is, or who it’s narrated by and what her life circumstances are, this book’s true subject is the human mind—that is, consciousness, experience, structural linguistics. At that point in my writing life I couldn’t put it to you the way I’m putting it now. I didn’t know there were authors who focused on things like experience and consciousness, who wanted to understand how language contained our possibilities as sentient beings, and I certainly didn’t understand the philosophical and historical antecedents to these authors. (Nor am I sure I do now, although my grasp of such things is certain much firmer these days.) I had so many authors to discover in this school of writing. Back then, I only knew the sorts of books that would absorb my attention and fire up certain parts of my readerly brain. And this was one of them!

Now, with the benefits of hindsight, I can see how many books I’ve adored in the past decade take as their primary concern human experience, which is to say the workings of the human mind. I can see that this is indeed the central element in my life as a reader and a writer. In other words, to put a slightly fine point on it, phenomenology. I can also see how, over that same span, I’ve more and more come over to the belief that the world as our mind understands it is bounded by language. That is, structural linguistics.

And I would say these two things—phenomenology and structural linguistics—are pretty much what Wittgenstein’s Mistress is about. You’ve got the pure experience of a human mind—processed into these little orations the narrator types into her typewriter—and you’ve got this subtext where Markson is doing everything he can to get you to look at the way this book is mediated by language (more on that in a moment). Essentially, it was as though someone had written an experimental novel that was exactly designed to push all the buttons I was developing as a reader.

As to the linguistics: Markson gets half of his title from the famous philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, which is a huge tip-off that this is going to be a book about language. When I first read Wittgenstein’s Mistress, I knew a little bit about Wittgenstein. I understood that he had proposed a new approach to philosophy that many would say was one of the first genuinely new things in the two millennia following Plato’s writings based on Socrates’ dialogues. I understood that this approach was based on the idea that philosophical problems were basically problems of language, and his early work, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, somehow fixed that. And I knew that he had famously begun the work in which he explains this thesis with the declaration “the world is everything that is the case,” and that it is composed of many, many such short, enigmatic declarations.

So I could see that Markson’s book was obviously patterned on Wittgnstein’s form and ideas to a degree. What must have appealed to me so much about this was the way in which Markson continually reminds a reader of the fraught relationship between the words on his page and whatever objective reality is supposed to exist in conjunction with those words. (To that one might also add the fraught relationships between the words in one’s head to the objective world beyond the skull.) He’ll do this by troubling over things like the spelling of “Cassandra” (or is it “Kassandra”?), or asking if Anna Karenina would still be called Anna Karenina if no more copies of it existed. Or, in one of my favorite examples, by having the narrator state that one of her favorite ways of ignoring the rain is by walking through it. By continually posing questions like this, he keeps putting a reader in mind of the many ways that language constantly fails us when we try to put certain ideas into words. (Another nice thing about Markson is the pithy tone he gives his narrator when she keeps making all of these asides; Wittgenstein’s Mistress would be a very different book if she didn’t have such a succinct, compelling way of putting things.) I knew that these sorts of linguistic games were playing at things that went very deep into the conundrum of what goes on between the mind, the page, and the world, the way the all keep pushing one another along to create the possibilities that we experience as conscious life. I knew that this was striking upon something very exciting to me.

markson-rejections

There is one more strange way that this book has always stuck in my mind. At the time I read it, I was just beginning to make my way as a writer, and I was finding that being an infant writer was a very demoralizing thing. At some point in my reading of Wittgenstein’s Mistress, I came upon the now very familiar story about how Markson was forced to submit this title to something like 80 publishers before at last he found one to take it on—and, then, that publisher was the Dalkey Archive Press, which at the time had only been around for four and was obscure, tiny, and fond of books that would quickly be dismissed elsewhere as not being fit for the market because they were too “cerebral.” So in others words, at once a press that was probably Markson’s ideal publisher, and also a press that was barely one step up from self-publication. And, indeed, this book might have languished and have been completely forgotten had not David Foster Wallace championed in the heady days after Infinite Jest, when he himself had become a sensation.

The truths that hid behind the conception of this book and its existence as a material object were lessons that any writer must absorb—hopefully early on—and finding out about them at this point in my life as a serious writer was a thing of priceless value.

THE SURRENDER

The Surrender is Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning his lifelong desire to be a woman.


LADY CHATTERLEY'S BROTHER

Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


THE LATIN AMERICAN MIXTAPE

5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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