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 of a few days ago UK sales of all three volumes of Knausgaard work in hardback and paperback had barely topped 22,000 copies. A respectable but hardly impressive performance. In the US, which has a much larger market, that figure— total sales of all three volumes (minus e-books)—stood at about 32,000. This was despite the fact that with Knausgaard’s growing reputation the powerful Farrar, Straus and Giroux stepped in to buy the paperback rights from the minnow Archipelago and bring its own commercial muscle to bear. On the Amazon bestsellers ranking, A Death in the Family, the first and most successful volume of the My Struggle series, is presently 657th in the USA and 698th in the UK, this despite a low paperback price of around ten dollars.
So what is going on here? Should we be reassured that critics are sticking loyally by a work they admire regardless of sales, or bemused that something is being presented as a runaway commercial success when in fact it isn’t? Wouldn’t it be enough to praise Knausgaard without trying to create the impression that there is a huge international following behind the book? Or do the critics actually assume that everyone is buying it because they and all their peers are talking about it?
So a few points in response here: First of all, last time I checked, the critics Parks name-checks in his piece (e.g. Zadie Smith, James Wood) have no interest in Peter Hoeg, Stieg Larsson, and Dan Brown. Their sales, admittedly titanic compared to the average literary bestseller, are irrelevant to this discussion. For Parks to pretend otherwise is just to stack his argument in an obviously fallacious way.
As to Knausgaard’s U.S. sales: let’s have a little conversation. Bookscan (where Parks says he is getting his figures) currently lists My Struggle’s cumulative sales at about 35,000. Rule of thumb is to say that Bookscan records about 75% of all sales, so that figure is really more like 43,000, significantly more than Parks claims.
But still, this is peanuts compared to Franzen (which Bookscan has selling well over half a million copies of Freedom). So aren’t critics lying to their naive readers when they pretend Knausgaard is a bigger deal than he is?
In a word, no. First of all, keep in mind that Knaugaard has been a celebrity author in American for maaaybe 1 year, whereas Franzen has been a known commodity for damn near 15 years (he originally appeared on Oprah and won the National Book award in 2001). So it’s still very much an apples to oranges comparison. Let’s see where sales of My Struggle are at a few years from now. (For instance, Roberto Bolaño, a much more legitimate comparison, has seen The Savage Detectives and 2666 do decidedly more Franzen-like sales in the 7 or so years that they’ve been around, even though it’s doubtful that a writer like Bolaño will ever sell as well as a writer like Franzen.)
But even more to the point, let’s try comparing Knausgaard to one of his peers: another international writer with an enormous reputation. For instance, Javier Marias, frequently called Spain’s most important novelist, translated into over a dozen languages, a Nobel Prize contender, so important that Penguin bought him away from New Directions. If you look at Bookscan, lifetime sales for his ten plus translated books might be a smidgen over Knausgaard’s. So will Tim Parks say that people are also lying when they call Marias an international phenomenon worthy of your respect and attention, just because the American public has maybe bought 50,000 copies of his books total?
And then you can compare Knausgaard’s sales to those of the other titles its publisher, Archipelago Books, has previously brought out. I won’t go into the numbers, but needless to say the sales figures are a cause for celebration. An enormous celebration. And if you compare these figures to those from other small publishers, you will find the same thing.
So I don’t know what Parks is about here—is he pretending not to know these things, or is he being disingenuous? Becuase the fact is that no one who operates in the publishing world that I know would say that My Struggle has been anything but a huge success, even though its sales are not in the stratosphere as are sales of Dan Brown et al. And I think that modern readers are savvy enough to understand that. When people hear critics say that they feel like they’re the last person on earth not to have read Knausgaard, I think they can figure out that this is critical hyperbole rather than a realistic portrayal of Knausgaard’s sales.
But let us continue on with Parks’s argument (there is more, much more). You see, all of this deceit around Knaugaard’s sales somehow ties in to a blurring of the lines between high literature and genre fiction. Apparently, in Parks’s mind, very reasonable claims that Knausgaard is a bestseller somehow mean that critics are treating him no differently from a writer like Dan Brown:
Certainly now, for better or worse, almost all distinction between the way different kinds of novels are presented has largely disappeared. Newspapers review Dan Brown, Alice Munro, J.K. Rowling, and Orhan Pamuk with equal solemnity, attention being driven by the sense that the writer is winning prizes or moving copies or being pushed as the book of the season by a major publisher, not by a lucid curiosity for whatever may be written between the covers.
And it’s not just critics but also those deceitful publishers!
At the same time serious publishing houses have discovered the trick of packaging genre fiction as if it was great literature; one thinks of the prestigious Italian publisher Adelphi, reissuing all seventy-five of Simenon’s Maigret novels in very much the same format and with the same $25 price tag as their editions of Thomas Bernhard, Sándor Márai, or Nabokov. Even the academics have joined in with whole conferences dedicated to, for example, the “problem” of translating the character names in the Harry Potter saga. No one wants to be left out of a global success.
Please. I have no doubt that some critic somewhere has tried to treat Dan Brown as serious literary fiction on the level of Alice Munro, but has anyone with any sense ever taken that person seriously? And has any real review of books (like Parks’s own New York Review) ever mistaken the difference?
As to packaging of titles, I don’t know why Tim Parks thinks what some Italian publisher did with an author who genuinely straddles the popular/literary divide is relevant to this conversation, but here are some covers for Dan Brown and Knausgaard. Notice any differences?
Well, I can tell that you all are getting tired of reading this post, but Parks is still not done. Bear with me as we slog on forward. From here the argument now transforms into a polemic against the tendency of commercial concerns to cut into authorial and editorial choices. You see, My Struggle was actually a nefarious plot hatched by Knausgaard and his publisher once they realized they had a commodity on their hands:
Would Knausgaard have written six volumes of My Struggle, if the first had not been infinitely more successful (in Norway) than his previous novels?
Actually, yes: as anyone with a passing familiarity with Knausgaard’s backstory knows, the decision to do all six (and at the utterly demented schedule of writing and bringing them all out in roughly 2 1/2 years) was made before the books had sold even a single copy. And the first two volumes were written before a single word was published. It was a huge risk that they never expected to pay off.
At long last we reach Parks’s conclusion:
Or put it another way: a critic who likes a book, and goes out on a limb to praise it, may begin to feel anxious these days if the book is not then rewarded by at least decent sales, as if it were unimaginable that one could continue to support a book’s quality without some sort of confirmation from the market.
I know I can’t speak for all critics everywhere, but in complete honesty the sales potential of a book that I praise is the very, very, very, very last thing on my mind. In fact, it pretty much never even enters into my thoughts. And why would it? Why would I give a damn about the sales potential of a book that I think is incredible? Why would anyone care, when amazing books routinely struggle to sell just 1,000 copies, while absolute bullshit can bring in 50,000 sales with no problem?
No, what I’m much more concerned about is that my peers agree with my argument for why a book is worthy of regard. And maybe, way, way down the line, an author that I’ve championed will become a name author, with sales potential in the tens of thousands. And then I will call that author a success, and Tim Parks will maybe think I’m a liar.
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.
A cool list by Janice Lee at Entropy mag.
Might the novel, as a form, signal a sort of failure inherent in its own slightly paradoxical but insistent existence? There is something that a novel, often in its ability to pause, or in its longness or sheer density, can achieve that other forms cannot. But in the ambition to get at something so indescribable that the mere attempt requires an entire novel to represent the attempt at its description, this is a failure in itself, the epic as a sort of fabrication or proportional importance to conduct . . . continue reading, and add your comments