Things are going to be sporadic around here for a bit. Enjoy the sun, a good book, etc.
The writing on this can get pretty annoying at times, but there are some interesting findings in Tom Bissell’s profile of William T. Vollmann. For instance: apparently, Viking is getting a little too tired of Vollmann’s doorstoppers. (And after Last Stories, who can blame them?)
Vollmann told me that Viking, which has been publishing his Dreams for decades, was currently “sadly contemplating” the publication of The Dying Grass, volume five, about the Plains Indian wars of the late nineteenth century. For the first time in Vollmann’s career, Viking had begun to impose page limits in his contracts. For The Dying Grass, the page limit was 700. “I gave them 2,100 and they weren’t super happy,” he said, “so I corrected it to 2,300.” According to Vollmann, the book is composed mostly of dialogue. “It looks like a concrete poem,” he said, “because I treat the printed page as a stage. Since we read from left to right, there might be dialogue which is occurring, say, on the left-hand side of the page, and then maybe in the middle part of the page people are thinking what they actually think as they talk to each other.” It sounded a bit like William Gaddis, except more insane.
I could, however, have done without the bro-ish glorification of Vollmann’s creepy behavior around women (which, actually, given conversations I’ve had with people who know Vollmann, I’d say paints him in a really narrow and unfair light):
The next morning, Vollmann’s model, Lindsay, arrived by bus from San Francisco for her session. “Hey, Goddess,” Vollmann said warmly. “Did you bring a robe?”
Lindsay, a former exotic dancer in her mid-thirties, had not brought a robe. Vollmann suggested that she wear one of Dolores’s robes. “Dolores doesn’t mind,” Vollmann assured her. “She likes it.” While Lindsay went off and changed, Vollmann asked me if I wanted to pick out the music for today’s session. That meant digging through the twin towers of Vollmann’s compact-disc collection. Vollmann’s tastes ran to classical and ’70s-era thought rock: Bowie, Randy Newman, Jethro Tull. After looking through his discs for a while, I said Lindsay should probably pick the music. Once she came back out, barefoot in a thin black and white dress (“You look much prettier in that than Dolores does,” Vollmann said, “but how could you not?”), she popped Lou Reed into Vollmann’s Silurian disc-playing boombox.
He arranged before him the three paintings of Lindsay he was currently working on. One was a portrait, one was a nude, and another was a more impressionistic rendering of her as a gold-sequin-clad angel. All would receive “another layer” today. He’d been at work on these pieces for several months; he’d seen Lindsay at least six or seven times in the last year. Lindsay was a professional sitting model these days; when I asked how many people she sat for, she laughed and said, “Quite a few!”
Then Vollmann began painting. Once again, he told Lindsay she looked beautiful. How salacious—how Terry Richardson—this must sound: an artist repeatedly telling a younger model how beautiful she looks while he paints her in his studio. But it didn’t feel that way to me, and Lindsay pretty clearly adored Vollmann. The afternoon before, at lunch, Vollmann told our waitress he had a question: “How did you get so darn beautiful?” Our waitress, an utterly normal-looking person, laughed and thanked Vollmann for noticing. It felt like a dorky, sweet encounter, but, again, I have no idea how it felt from her end. A man who constantly compliments women could be seen as wielding power over them, especially in social situations shaped by payment or gratuity, which I think is true whether we as men are aware of it or not. “I’ve never seen a woman who isn’t beautiful,” Vollmann said, as he painted. “When I talk to guys who say they had to dump their wives when she turned forty, I always think, ‘Why?’ ” Vollmann would keep on living in his world of clumsy, sword-bent gallantry.
Pound for pound, though, this is brilliance compared to Charles McGrath’s Most Banal Vollmann Profile Ever.
Fantastic interview here with Ottilie Mulzet, translator of Seiobo There Below and AnimalInside.
One of the great things we learn here is that there are three new Krasznahorkai translations on the way:
Two translations haunt me as we speak. One is Destruction and Sorrow Beneath the Heavens, which I’m translating now. It’s literary reportage based on Krasznahorkai’s extensive travels in China, and, if anything, it’s even more relevant today than when it was first published in 2002. The other is The World Goes On, an amazing collection of short stories. George Szirtes, who won the Best Translated Book Award in 2013, also for a Krasznahorkai title, is translating From the North by Hill, From the South by Lake, From the West by Roads, From the East by River, so readers should have at least three more titles to look forward to in the next few years.
We also learn why Krasznahorkai writes such long sentences, or, at least, how the Hungarian language enables him to do it:
What are the strengths and particularities of Hungarian as a language, and what challenges does it present to translate it into English?
I feel extremely close to Hungarian as a language. I love the sound of it, I love how it works grammatically, I love the vocabulary, the astonishing mishmash of words from so many different languages, I love what writers can do with it. Hungarian is an agglutinative language with vowel harmony—it has seemingly endless suffixes and amazing possibilities for compound words, and it has absolutely flexible word order, depending on what you want to emphasize in the sentence. And I would certainly mention the unbelievable elasticity of Hungarian—it’s like a rubber band. It can expand and expand, until you think, Well, this rubber band is going to break at any moment now, or it can shrink into just a few sparse words, where all the most important parts are left out and you just have to know.
English, despite how global it is, is a lot less flexible. Maybe the kind of English that’s spoken in the Indian subcontinent—where it’s partially subjugated to the tendencies of Hindi—would be a more suitable English for translation from Hungarian, but I have to work with the language I know the best. You have to struggle to make sure the sentences don’t seem too jam-packed with information, and yet, when there’s some pretty serious elision going on, you have to test the boundaries of English, with its rigid subject-verb-object structure and having to have all your indicators in place. Hungarian can look like just a splash of ink on the page. There are sentences—or, in Krasznahorkai’s case, subclauses—of just two or three words. I’m intrigued by all of this elision, and fascinated by the problem of conveying it in a recalcitrant language like English—just trying to get English to do something it’s not really meant to do. English today is the global language of commerce and trade, so while it’s dominant, it’s also in some respects deeply impoverished. It desperately needs these transfusions from other languages.
Great job. My hat off to both Ottilie and interviewer Valerie Stivers.
Tim Parks at the NYR Blog has got beef with people claiming My Struggle is a bestseller:
One could be forgiven, then, for imagining that this is one of those books which periodically impose themselves as “required reading” at a global level: Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World, Peter Hoeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom all spring to mind, literary equivalents of internationally successful genre works like Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, and E. L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey.
Well, as . . . continue reading, and add your comments
I owned this book for quite a while before I noticed this,
So translator Chris Andrews wrote a book on Bolaño: Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe. I’m pretty excited for this one. Andrews is one smart guy, and he’s a fantastic translator who has been extremely close to a number to Bolaño’s best novels.
Publishers Weekly gave this book a starred review.
This is how I first came across this book. An amazing list of the murders recounted in “The Part About the Crimes” from 2666 and their real-life analogues.
And here’s Andrews discussing Bolaño and Aira at The Quarterly . . . continue reading, and add your comments
New issue of Asymptote, with some intriguing pieces by Cesar Aira and Sergio Chejfec.
In Aira’s piece, the Argentine pays praise to his literary father, Osvando Lamborghini:
The first publication of Osvaldo Lamborghini (Buenos Aires 1940 – Barcelona 1985), shortly after his thirtieth birthday, was El fiord; it appeared in 1969, but had been written several years before. It was a thin book, and for a long time it was sold in a single bookstore in Buenos Aires via the discreet method of asking for it from the salesperson. Though it was never republished, it traveled over . . . continue reading, and add your comments
David Auerbach makes an intriguing case for the novel Oil on Water by the Nigerian writer Helon Habila.
What transported me most in Oil on Water was the chronology. Our intrepid but callow reporter Rufus heads into the Niger Delta with a very flawed father-figure, Zaq, originally intending to meet up with some rebel guerrillas (under the leadership of the shadowy “Professor”) to negotiate for the return of a hostage. The hostage, Isabelle Floode, is the wife of a bigshot oil executive, and thus seemingly a pawn in the fight between the rebels and the Nigerian . . . continue reading, and add your comments
The New York Times and I agree, Vollmann’s latest book is not very good.
I feel like, recently, Vollmann’s been a lot better at nonfiction than fiction. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with the next installment of his “Seven Dreams” series, in theory publishing next year.