A Report from the Deep Wilds of Mario Vargas Llosa’s Conversation in the Cathedral

250-conversation

250-conversation

I’m a little over halfway through Mario Vargas Llosa’s Conversation in the Cathedral and thought I would drop in with some thoughts and observations.

This is a major early work for Vargas Llosa, his third novel (written when he was 33) and running to about 600 pages. Published in 1969, it grapples with what was then the recent past, the dictatorship of Manuel A. Odría from 1948-56.

Conversation is where Vargas Llosa honed what has become his trademark technique—the mixing of various strands of time on the page, so that from paragraph to paragraph (and sometimes from sentence to sentence) we may jump from one temporal reality to another. This can be confusing, as sometimes a sentence being uttered by a character in, say 1950, is immediately followed by that same character saying something (to the same person even) in 1960. Needless to say, Vargas Llosa gives few cues as to these jumps, the reader generally having to figure it out through the texture of the stories being depicted.

Michal Greenberg sums it up well in The New York Review of Books:

Two characters will be engaged in a conversation, for example, during which thoughts, experiences, and prior conversations that relate to the current one are provoked in the characters’ minds. As the scene unfolds, these associations stitch into a unified narrative account. It’s a difficult, supremely modernist technique that Vargas Llosa has used throughout his career. When successful, it allows him to present a more or less seamless stream of concurrent realities and to bypass the cumbersome formality of flashbacks.

His social lens is wide, encompassing cholos (as the mixed-blood Indians of Peru are disparagingly called), businessmen, aristocrats, pimps, revolutionaries, foreigners, convicts, politicians, and artists in intertwining tales. His writing about Peru can be bitter, tinged with history’s cruelty . . .

Vargas Llosa also tends to do another thing that I would consider high modernist: he likes to hide significance in seemingly insignificant details. So for instance there will be a beautiful nightclub signer casually mentioned in the early pages, and some hundreds of pages later you will suddenly understand that this woman is the pansexual mistress of one of the central officials of the ruling dictatorship whose domestic life Vargas Llosa has been following for scores of pages.

While these techniques are interesting and add some excitement to Conversation, I would say that Vargas Llosa is firmly in line with the consolidators, not the innovators. Conversation is a fundamentally conservative novel. That is, by the time he wrote this book, such techniques had long since become common in modernistic fiction, and Vargas Llosa isn’t breaking any new ground. He’s simply employing decades-old innovations in his own idiosyncratic way toward the end of literary realism and something along the longs of political sociology.

I think the same could be said of Conversation as a whole. When you strip away the modernistic trappings, what you have here is a fairly conventional story: the main character is Santiago, son of a wealthy industrialist with connections to the upper echelons of Odría’s government. He has rejected his inheritance and gone to work at a newspaper as a journalist, and one day he runs across Ambrosio, a mixed-race dogcatcher who used to work for his and various other connected families as a driver. The two go into a dive called “The Cathedral,” where they have an epic, alcohol-fueled conversation covering the decade they’ve spent apart, which then forms the bulk of this book.

I keep comparing this book to a mob movie, because what we see most often here are depictions of how power gets exercised by Peru’s upper class. Conversation is filled with innumerable scenes of government officials leaning on newspaperman, disrupting (or calling) protests, conducting voter fraud, jockeying among one another for dominance, using the police as their personal henchmen, etc, etc, etc. This may be where the book is most interesting, in its understanding of how politics is practiced in Peru and its very lapidary depiction of the execution of various political schemes.

As much as Vargas Llosa should be commended for his grasp of politics and his ability to distill them on the page, this does, however, mean that Conversation’s main interest is sociological. At the moment I don’t feel that Vargas Llosa’s novel adds a whole lot that a history or an anthropological study of the same period would not. Santiago and Ambrosio are dutifully drawn as characters, but neither one seems to have a very rich interior consciousness. Their thoughts are boilerplace, what is required to fill the spaces the novel needs them to occupy, but not much more.

The other main strand of this novel is a maid named Amalia, an innocent who represents Peru’s lower classes, and who gets an education in worldliness by becoming employed with the aforementioned sexually ambitious mistress one of the governmental elite. I find her to be a slightly more compelling presence than Santiago, but not much more, definitely not enough to carry a 600-page novel.

And here we get to the crux of the matter: Conversation in the Cathedral is long. Because of Vargas Llosa’s formalist tricks, the book is a fairly arduous read, which makes those 600 pages feel even longer than they are. And I’m not sure that a 33-year-old Vargas Llosa quite had the necessary skill for a novel like this. At the moment, things are beginning to get repetitive. The names and dates are changing, but more or less the same thing keeps happening: Santiago laments his past, Odría’s men work the levers of power, Amalia becomes corrupted. For all of its modernistic trappings, the language is workmanlike—one goes on for pages here wanting an original image or some grouping of language that produces an original way of seeing the world.

Part of the problem here is that Conversation in the Cathedral is, by design, almost 100% past. To a large extent we know what is going to happen with these people and so the book is not so much about the plot resolving as it is about combing through the various strands that have brought about the present situation. This is the domain of Proust, and for a book like this to succeed, one requires an excellent eye for observing human beings, tack-sharp characterization, and some great capacity for original thought. In this book Vargas Llosa is not standing up to the challenge—it is not that he completely lacks what is called for, just that he does not have it the necessary amounts to support a 600-page, largely overdetermined novel (probably at 300 pages Conversation in the Cathedral would stand quite solidly).

This book is definitely most original and worth reading for its state-of-the-nation depiction of Peru in the ’50s. The ideas about a person’s identity (for which this book is often lauded) are run of the mill, and there is nothing in the perspectives of any of the characters that would challenge our everyday conceptions of who and what we are. To take, for instance Cortázar (with whom Vargas Llosa is often grouped), one of his short stories would surely contain many more original insights on the subject than the whole of this book and would feel more visionary as literature.

Enormous Recent Mega-Novels in Translation

Over at Literary Hub I’ve got a fun piece celebrating the publication of the grotesquely huge Bottom’s Dream by running down some of the biggest books to recently arrive in translation. Full list here, and here are a few to whet your appetite:

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami (tr. Jay Rubin, Philip Gabriel)
2666 by Roberto Bolano (tr. Natasha Wimmer)
Martutene by Ramón Saizarbitoria (tr. Aritz Branton)
Zibaldone by Giacomo Leopardi (tr. Kathleen Baldwin, Richard Dixon, David Gibbons, Ann Goldstein, Gerard Slowey, Martin Thom, Pamela Williams) (not a novel, but how could you fail to include it?)

A Few Hasty Thoughts on All Souls by Christine Schutt

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all-souls

Christine Schutt came to national prominence in 2004 when she, alongside 4 other “quiet” “women” writers, were selected as finalists for the National Book Award. The minor outcry in the wake of the selections—how dare the people entrusted with the privilege of bestowing such honors ignore the too-big-to-fail turds?—handily revealed the implicit assumptions about what kind of fiction is considered worthy by the gatekeepers of our literary discourse, and it also had another benefit: an author of Schutt’s great talents and dedication was momentarily bandied about in the nation’s major reviews of books.

One wonders what those same people would have made of Virginia Woolf, were she alive, largely unknown, and being published as a midlist author on a midsized press today. I mention Woolf because Schutt references her more than once and resembles her to an impressive degree in her 2008 novel All Souls.

The book takes place amid the senior class in an elite women’s high school for the 1996-97 school year. What I most admire about this book—well, what I most admire is the writing, plain and simple, more on that in a moment—what I most admire about this book is its ability to enter the adolescent mind without itself being adolescent. Schutt has really captured what it feels like to be a high school teenager; that sense of practicing for real life, yet of also taking yourself deadly seriously—the book is robust with the thoughts, the notes, the essays of the teen mind—but she puts it into language that is so mature and refined and reflective; you get a momentary whiff of your teenage years while at the same time a sort of meditative, adult perspective on what it all means.

At the same time All Souls is a remarkably tactile book. There’s a bit about hair buried in there that gets at it. A bunch of seniors at the high school have just given a dance performance, and they are changing into their street clothes:

. . . Damn. Her mother was in the dressing room.

“I’m sorry, I couldn’t wait. You were all so beautiful.” Mrs. Van de Ven, jostled, backed away from the door, watching. Far-fetched hair, lots of hair, spectacularly flying free of popping hair bands, hair astonishingly clean and glassy. If she could touch it . . .

“Mother, please, we’re all getting changed in here.”

There is so much happening here. First of all, that sentence where Schutt uses “hair” three times, it always puts me in mind of a very youthful plenitude (so much hair flying everywhere!), potentiated by the fact that it comes through the mind of an older woman who achingly remembers that she was once this age with her own bounteous hair. I read this and I can see all that hair, really feel it. And look at how economical Schutt is, just one 18-word sentence is needed.

But then, too, the way Schutt weaves from daughter’s consciousness to mother’s, the way we get the counterpoint, that childish irritation that comes from taking one’s mother for granted (which we all do at that age), contrasted against the mother who can no longer quite remember what that was like to think that like, and for just a second is beguiled and wants to have a way to get back into that adolescent world.

I suppose if you were of a certain disposition you could attack All Souls for being very much about beauty and hair, in the same way that someone might attack Mrs. Dalloway for being about a society lady throwing a party. In both cases it would be dumb, and for the same reason.

I’d like now to talk for a second about Schutt’s prose. In an interview between her and the critic David Winters that I published a few years back, Schutt says this about her own writing:

Christine Schutt: “By the mouth, for the ear”—is there any other way in which to write? For me, banging together unlikely words so that the sentence might sound as it means is the fun part of writing. Hearing story is part of reading’s pleasure: “(S)he swore in faith ‘twas strange, ‘twas passing strange; ‘Twas pitiful, ‘twas wondrous pitiful./ She wished she had not heard it, yet she wished/ That heaven had made her such a man.” Why should we wonder at Desdemona’s “downright violence, and storm of fortunes” to wed the Moor and “with a greedy ear/Devour up (his) discourse”? Shakespeare gives a writer license to be extravagant with sound.

But ear alone can’t be all. Eyes (in the sense of image) and mind (capturing a scene) must be appealed to. Take the first sentence from an early story of mine, “The Summer After Barbara Claffey”: “I once saw a man hook a walking stick around a woman’s neck.” Sound, yes, but something is happening in the sentence that is meant to captivate from both a visual and plot standpoint. My stories may be musically arranged but there is also event, there is also action.

I think she gets it very right. The groupings of words that Schutt gives us in All Souls are often unusual, the prose feels very fresh and original to my ear. Yet it is also very, very tactile (as I’ve been saying), there is much action and emotion and personality in this book; in this book you are never far from some dilemma, some disappointment, some earnest reflection, some aspiration, some snide observation, some nostalgia . . . even though the prose and the shape of this book continually push themselves toward things that have never been seen in a literary novel.

Long story short: I don’t know very many novels that try to write about teenage women (or, really, teenagers at all), it’s just not a subject that gets taken very seriously in literary fiction, and not so many people do it; of those that do, it’s hard to think of novels that get beyond the typical tropes and clichés of this subject, or that don’t get swallowed up in a self-conscious effort to defy those things. All Souls feels easy, effortless. It makes this subject feel meaningful, and it makes it feel new, and it does it all very lightly, in the way that could easily be missed if you were not disposed to take this book seriously. It’s one of those wonderful books that is very much about language but it also very much about life and reality and our experiences of the world.

Quarterly Conversation Issue 45

Features


Queenpins: Megan Abbott’s Women in Noir

Queenpins: Megan Abbott’s Women in Noir

Megan Abbott is another consummate crime writer who deals with this feminine underside, putting women’s relationships at the center of what has always been a manly genre. Her neo-noir creations, published between 2005 and 2009, are flawless ’40s period pieces, two in the Los Angeles we know so well from The Big Sleep and The Black Dahlia. Her brand-name decor, the snappy, wise-cracking dialog, the endless twists of plot and descent into ever bleaker and lower social worlds, are all done to perfection. But where classic noir insisted on a kind of deadened sheen, a callous stupor in the face of unending corruption, Abbott gives us women who are fully alive to the evil broth they stew in. Far from being objectified creatures of male desire, Abbott’s women talk, feel, and relate to each other with great depth. The passion and complexities of women’s friendships motor these books. Women have all along been part of the noir novel, yet to find them vivid and at the fore disturbs, as if these long-legged blondes had been mute animals who now address us.


A Face to Meet the Faces That We Meet

A Face to Meet the Faces That We Meet

Restless Books, an independent press dedicated to publishing diverse international literature, has launched a new series of novella-length essays exploring the biographical, philosophical, racial, gendered, and aesthetic dimensions of one’s own face. At first blush it sounds like a marketing gimmick, an attempt to translate celebrity culture into literary style or to leverage the current confessional fad. It also risks the boredom of the 17th-century portrait gallery, over-burdening writers to be interesting without pandering;, reflective without navel-gazing. Which is why it’s no small feat that, for the most part, these first three installments in the “Face” series are so effective—and more so when read together.


Hiding: Looking for Henry Green

Hiding: Looking for Henry Green

Contemplating Green’s body of work more closely, however, reveals that even to the extent that Green was willing to work loosely within the confines of this important mode of English fiction, his novels simultaneously seek to escape, enlarging the scope of the “manners” portrayed, expanding the formal range of the scenic method, disturbing assumptions about the role of “voice” in fiction. If Green’s fiction finally doesn’t entirely leave the formal ambit of the novel of manners, it does stretch and reshape its conventions. This use of the form to alter its own usual habits, to determine possibilities not yet realized, is what most warrants considering Green an “experimental” writer. Literally Green’s novels explore new ways to test the limits of the presumed norms that novels must observe for them to be fully intelligible.


A Bastard Form of Writing

A Bastard Form of Writing

The insufficiency of our genre distinctions is a preoccupation of one of the more interesting editorial projects published in the last several years, John D’Agata’s three-volume, 2,000-page anthology A New History of the Essay. D’Agata is the author of three books, an editor at Seneca Review, and the director of the graduate Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa. His book The Lifespan of a Fact, co-authored with former fact-checker Jim Fingal, was the subject of controversy years ago because of what some considered to be his flippancy about facts when writing nonfiction. Perhaps some of the people who objected to that book will find a similar presumption and flippancy in this anthology’s challenge to previous generic classifications, as works traditionally known as fiction and poetry are included here as “essays” alongside classic examples of the genre.


After Szymborska: The 2016 Szymborska Prize and Polish Poetry Today

After Szymborska: The 2016 Szymborska Prize and Polish Poetry Today

Meanwhile, Szymborska’s legacy since her death has been tended by her former assistant, Michał Rusinek, head of the Wisława Szymborska Foundation. Every year, the Foundation administers the Szymborska Prize, Poland’s leading poetry award. Rusinek has more of a taste for theatrics than his old boss, and the Prize ceremony is a glitzy, televised affair—a rare moment in the spotlight for an often-overlooked art form. The Prize got a double-dose of publicity this year when, at the ceremony on June 11, Jakub Kornhauser was announced as the winner. Kornhauser is the son of one of Poland’s leading poets and critics. A passionate cyclist and outspoken progressive, he is of Jewish descent.



Interviews

The Daniel Saldaña París Interview

The Daniel Saldaña París Interview


One of my premises, when I started writing the novel, was to see how far could I get with an extremely passive and unambitious character. In a way, it’s Bartleby’s premise too, and Melville’s character was one of my principal references for the first part of Among Strange Victims. I think that life is so fundamentally absurd and nonsensical that if you let yourself be carried along by the circumstances, without opposing any will, the resulting actions will be interesting, rather than tedious. Especially in Mexico, passiveness can take you to strange places, because of how bizarre everything is.


The Anca Cristofovici Interview

The Anca Cristofovici Interview


Certain works gave me a base: those of Claude Simon, in particular, or Joseph Brodsky, for their firm nonalignment, their rigor, and for their fine irony tinged with tenderness, or the work of Elizabeth Bishop—a master in the art of traveling light. Much like the documentary material, echoes of these writers have made their way into the novel, wittingly or not, along with other reminiscences. Here and there, I incorporated short excerpts. I hesitated to provide a list of these appropriations, since they seemed to be poetically more effective under cover, so to say. Still, I found a way to weave into the book’s fabric an allusion to the source of fragments I used deliberately.



In Translation

From Between Life and Death by Yoram Kaniuk

After the operation, my fever soared, I was told, and among the three viruses called virulent viruses, my virus was the worst. A real rascal, only one antibiotic could help, and it penetrated from the belly to the lungs, and they collapsed. Dr. Szold, who was both our family doctor and the head of the ICU in Surgery B, didn’t give up. A giant man, Szold. An outstanding doctor. It was Friday night. The one pharmacy that was open didn’t have what he was looking for. The hospital pharmacy was closed. Szold yelled at a nurse, they said, to go find the sleeping pharmacist. The nurse woke him up and he came, the poor man, he opened up and found that rare serum, Szold gave me an injection, and two pneumonias were struggling in me at the same time, I couldn’t breathe.



Reviews

The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt


Fifteen years after its first publication, Helen DeWitt’s novel The Last Samurai is back in print. Its long absence has owed to the messy legal history of Miramax Books, rather than lack of interest from readers: many have remained devoted to the novel, which is still a fresh and startling work. In the intervening years, DeWitt has published a good deal of other writing, including two novels (one co-authored) and a book’s worth of short prose. The republication of The Last Samurai provides a useful occasion to assess this body of work as a whole.


The Life-Writer and In Another Country: Selected Stories by David Constantine

The Life-Writer and In Another Country: Selected Stories by David Constantine


These continuities are at the heart of Constantine’s novel The Life-Writer, published in the U.K. in 2015 and just released in North America by Biblioasis. It begins abruptly, as Eric is dying—his identity and circumstances only gradually come into focus. Eric’s is a good death, as far as that is possible; he and his wife Katrin are able to spend the necessary time focusing “on where and who they were and what they were doing in the present tense.” Eric’s strongest wish is to leave nothing “that still needed to be mended or forgiven” between him and Katrin. “Was there any such thing?” It seems not. But there are gaps in her knowledge of him, and very near the end he is overcome with the urgency of filling them in.


Dreams and Stones by Magdalena Tulli

Dreams and Stones by Magdalena Tulli


Born in 1955, Tulli is one of Poland’s most original contemporary writers. She has received three nominations for the prestigious Nike Prize, and four of her novels translated into English to date, including In Red which was longlisted for the 2012 Best Translated Book Award. Recently re-issued by Archipelago Books in paperback (they published a hardcover edition over a decade ago), Dreams and Stones truly defies simple classification. From the opening passages, the contemplative poetic imagery reads like a re-invented Book of Genesis, sketching out the life cycle of the metaphorical tree upon which a fruit ripens, falls to the ground, and germinates; it holds in its core the seeds of a great city and the parameters of the human system that surrounds it.


A Terrace in Rome by Pascal Quignard

A Terrace in Rome by Pascal Quignard


To say that Pascal Quignard’s words are a meditation or an exploration is too simplistic—there is a philosophical stream of consciousness in his writing that has a realism both enlightened and carnal which attempts to grasp the essence of human nature in a handful of grand themes. While these are revisited (and often together), the nuances of the subjects in which he finds connections ensure that an originality is retained: sex, whether the act itself or the analysis of its echoing effects on the psyche; art; mythology; books; and death, as found in Sex and Terror, The Sexual Night, and The Roving Shadows, among others. These are his themes, and memory is always present in what links them. Reading Quignard, one is struck by the feeling that they are witnessing someone transcribing his thoughts, pure and fresh as they form in the mind, or to use a fitting mythological connection, Athena springing from the head of Zeus.


Grief Is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

Grief Is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter


After the suicide of Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes wrote what he considered to be his most important poetic work, Crow: From the Life and Times of the Crow. At the book’s center is Crow, one of folklore’s iconic figures. Hughes uses this feathered symbol of death to take on mythology, Christianity, and conventional poetry. This is more or less the same Crow we find in the pages of Max Porter’s debut novel Grief Is the Thing with Feathers. Except that here, in a slim novel barely more than 100 pages, Crow is given the space to grow beyond his folkloric origins.


Interesting New Releases: September 2016

Bosch-garden-delights-left-book-reading

Bosch-garden-delights-left-book-reading

Here are a few new releases for the month of September 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.

Substitute: Going to School With a Thousand Kids by Nicholson Baker Sep 6, 2016. Pray for the children if Nicholson Baker is their substitute teacher.

The Revolutionaries Try Again by Mauro Javier Cardenas. Sept 6. For years I’ve watched Mauro work on this book. I’m hearing great things, and I expect a lot.

The End of Imagination by Arundhati Roy Sep 6. Roy’s first book in a long time.

Jerusalem by Alan Moore September 13. 1280 pages. People have been waiting a long time for this book.

Pax Romana: War, Peace and Conquest in the Roman World by Adrian Goldsworthy. September 13. Rome is pretty damn fascinating.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead September 13. This one looks promising.

Nutshell by Ian McEwan September 13. McEwan writes about an affair from the perspective of a fetus. Sure.

Good People by Nir Baram September 13. This one has got me intrigued.

Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories by Robert Walser Sep 13. More Walser is always a good thing.

A Tree or a Person or a Wall: Stories by Matt Bell September 13. Stories to tide you over while you wait for Matt Bell’s next novel.

Inferno: A Poet’s Novel by Eileen Myles September 13. I always love it when poets can write good novels.

Now: The Physics of Time by Richard A. Muller Sep 20. We still know so little about what time actually is.

Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School by Stuart Jeffries September 20. Frankfurt School group bio. Looks like fun!

The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride Sep 20. Modernist Irish literature is alive and kicking.

Bottom’s Dream by Arno Schmidt Sept 23. You may need a load of $$$ and a vacation to read this one.

The Last Wolf and Herman by László Krasznahorkai Sept 27. A 2-in-1. The Last Wolf is this.

The Black Notebook by Patrick Modiano Sep 27. It just keeps coming.

Vampire in Love by Enrique Vila-Matas Sept 27. A selection of E V-M’s short stories, at last.

Ophelia in 483 Words

John_Everett_Millais_-_Ophelia_-_Google_Art_Project

Over at Literary Hub they’ve republished my interview with Paul Griffiths from Music & Literature Issue 7. This is a fairly long and in-depth interview with Griffiths about his novel let me tell you. (Bless Music & Literature for publishing a nearly 7,000-word interview and Literary Hub for taking it whole.)

The key thing about let me tell you is that it is a constrained novel that is limited to the 483 words Ophelia utters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Incredibly, Griffiths makes a remarkably rich psychological novel out of this with language that is utterly beautiful.

Griffiths is not a member of the Oulipo, and as such he coincides with one of the theses of The End of Oulipo?, which is that most of the interesting work along Oulipian lines is being done outside of the Oulipo these days (with some exceptions).

Anyway, i encourage you all to read the interview, as I think Griffiths will make you see language in new ways—that was my experience in corresponding with him. And do read the book: it is a very beautiful, original novel.

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.

deborah

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.

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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