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Recommended: At the Lightning Field by Laura Raicovich

I’ve recently finished Laura Raicovich poetic essay At the Lightning Field, just released by Coffee House Press. The book revolves around Raicovich’s experiences at The Lightning Field, a major work of Land Art constructed in 1977 in New Mexico (see more here).

In this book, Raicovich combines poetic narratives of her experiences at The Lightning Field with reflections on mathematics, the nature of memory, artistic theory, and poetry. The result is a substantial, spare long essay that at times functions more like poetry than prose. It’s a delightful little book, the sort of response to works of art that I wish more essayists would make.

7 Questions for Charlotte Mandell on Compass by Mathias Enard

Scott Esposito: Before Compass, Enard’s best-known work in the States was Zone (which you also translated), famously a one-sentence novel of about 500 pages in length, delving very deeply into the life, culture, and history of the “Mediterranean zone,” more or less North Africa and Southern Europe. Could you talk a little about what this new book is, and how it compares to Zone?

Charlotte Mandell: Zone was narrated in a stream-of-consciousness narrative while the narrator was in an enclosed space (on a train from Milan to Rome); Compass has a similar constraint in that the narrator is also in the enclosed space of his bedroom, and the entire book is narrated during one night of insomnia while the narrator, Franz Ritter, looks back over his life and travels and pines for his lost love, Sarah. The scene of Ritter’s travels centers not on the Mediterranean basin this time but on the East — on Syria, Iran, and Turkey mostly. It’s a kind of melancholy ode to the Orient, to an East that exists only in the narrator’s mind now that most of the places he has visited have been ripped apart by war and revolution.

SE: What are some of the challenges and pleasures of translating this book?

CM: Since Ritter is a very well-read Viennese musicologist focusing on the influence of the East on the West, he refers often to Arabic-language and Persian books and poems with which I am unfamiliar; it was a challenge tracking down all the references to books and musical pieces Ritter makes. The challenges were curiously like the pleasures, since I love classical music and grew up listening to it, but many of the pieces Ritter mentions (Félicien David’s symphonic ode Le Désert, for instance) were unfamiliar to me, so I grew to know them — fortunately YouTube was a huge help. Fitzcarraldo has posted a playlist to most (but not all!) of the musical pieces mentioned in Compass:

http://blog.fitzcarraldoeditions.com/compass-playlist/

SE: It’s interesting to hear you talk about the geographies of Zone vis a vis Compass. These are places that will exist very differently in the mind of a Frenchman versus an American. Could you tell us a little about why Enard chose to center a major novel around nations like Syria, Iran, and Turkey, and what the reception was like from the French reading public and the critics?

CM: Énard teaches Arabic at the University of Barcelona and has lived for long periods of time in both Syria and Iran. Compass is dedicated to the people of Syria; just as Europe looked on while Yugoslavia burned in the 1990s, a similar thing is happening now with Syria. While the narrator of Zone was half-Croatian and fought in that Yugoslav war, the narrator of Compass is half-French, and speaks both German and French fluently. One of the themes of Compass is the importance of the Other and the danger of over-identifying with one particular nationality; the only way we as humans can grow, spiritually and emotionally, is to be open to ‘foreign’ cultures and to realize that nationalism is a construct — there is no such thing as a fixed identity. I think this message resonated with the French reading public, since Compass received glowing reviews and won the Prix Goncourt in 2015, France’s highest literary honor.

SE: Could you talk a little more in-depth about the relationship of the musicology to the concerns of the novel at large? Reading your response, I’m instantly reminded of Mann’s great Doctor Faustus, where of course the ideas behind twelve-tone music become enmeshed with the long history of the Germanic people and their fall into Nazism. I’m quite intrigued to know more . . .

CM: Franz Ritter is interested in the influence of Eastern composers on Western music; we tend generally to think of the two traditions as being completely separate and as developing independently of each other, but his argument is that throughout the nineteenth century, and even before that, Western composers like Liszt, Félicien David, and Rimsky-Korsakov incorporated Eastern themes and musical tropes into their work. Some examples: Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca, which incorporates a Turkish march into it; Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, based on The Thousand and One Nights; Schubert, who set to music some poems of Goethe’s West-Eastern Divan, itself based on the poems of Hafez. And then in the other direction there’s Giuseppe Donizetti, brother of the famous opera composer Gaetano; in the Levant he was called Giuseppe Donizetti Pasha and became the music teacher to the Sultan of Constantinople Mahmud II from 1828 on.

​Thomas Mann is an important figure in Compass as well, since Ritter holds a long conversation with him in his head at one point; he comes up with a very funny division of all European artists into two kinds: the tubercular, or the public, the social; and the syphilitic, or the private, the shameful. He also inveighs against Wagner for his racism and isolationism, and for his poor treatment of the great Jewish composer Meyerbeer — whom he imitated in his early works.

SE: One aspect of Zone that was fascinating was all of the little- known historical episodes that Enard weaves in. What are some of the episodes here from Eastern history that might surprise people?

CM: This isn’t Eastern history, but at one point Ritter quotes from a text written by Sarah (another great Orientalist scholar, with whom he is in love) about Balzac’s friendship with the Austrian Orientalist Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, which led to a text in Arabic being included in the second, 1837, edition of La Peau de chagrin; this text was not present in the first, 1831 edition.

Another surprising historical tidbit is that the Germans and Austrians launched an appeal for global jihad in 1914 — they wanted Muslim troops to rise up against their enemies, the English, French and Russians. The Germans actually created a camp for Muslim prisoners of war outside Berlin; it was called the Camp of the Crescent, or the Halbmondlager — you can see the Wiki entry for it here:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halbmondlager

SE: This book starts in the deeps of night and ends just before daybreak. Would you call it a hopeful book?

CM: ​The book ends with the “sunlight of hope” filtering through. Without giving away the ending, let’s just say that against the hopelessness of death and war there is the profession of love, which is always a hopeful (and timeless) thing.

SE: What do you make of the titular metaphor, a compass that points not North but East, and which was owned by Beethoven?

CM: One of the themes of the book is the importance of learning that one’s identity is not fixed but fluid; a person is not defined by his or her nation or genes but by their openness to the other, to the seemingly foreign, to the new and strange. Beethoven broke new ground in his music, as in his Opus 111 which Franz points out has only two movements instead of the usual three, and features an incredible syncopated section in the second movement that heralds the rhythms of jazz. By owning a compass that points east instead of north, Franz (and Beethoven) show us that everything is relative: nothing is absolute, since everything is filtered through the subjectivity of each individual consciousness. In a Tibetan mandala, for instance, the main gate of the palace always faces east, not north. The important thing is not to take anything for granted, to keep one’s mind open to other realities and not to posit one’s own reality as the only one, since that way madness (or terrorism) lies.

Nine Questions for Emma Ramadan on Anne Garréta, Sphinx, and Not One Day

In addition to being one of the most impressive new translators to come onto the scene in recent years, Emma Ramadan is a good friend. I was very pleased to see her translation of Anne Garréta’s Sphinx become a huge success, and I was excited to see that Emma then began work on a second translation of Garréta’s. That book is now with us, Not One Day, a sort of catalogue/journey-through-memory of Garréta’s experiences with women. That book is now published.

When Emma is not translating, she is preparing to open a new independent bookstore called Riffraff with Tom Roberge, formerly of New Directions and the prestigious French bookstore, Albertine, on New York’s Upper East Side.

I reached out to Emma via email to learn a little more about Not One Day, as well as her experiences with Sphinx and Garréta.

Scott Esposito: Most people reading this interview will know of Anne Garréta through her first novel, Sphinx, which you also translated. That novel has been very often described as a “genderless love story,” and, indeed, never revealing the gender of the two lovers at the center of the novel is that book’s foremost constraint. Sphinx granted Garréta entry into the Oulipo, where she would continue to write books employing various constraints. So, can you tell us a little about what the premise of this book is, and some of the constraints employed therein?

Emma Ramadan: Not One Day begins “Why not write something different, differently than you usually do? Once more, but with a new twist, rid yourself of your self…Since you can no longer conceive of writing except in long and intricate constructions, isn’t it time to go against the grain?” But unable to resist her self, Garréta proceeds to set up a series of constraints that have come to feel characteristic to her writing. “If you aim to thwart your habits and inclinations, you might as well go about it systematically.” And so we get the constraints. Garréta vows to write every day, for 5 hours straight, for a month, teasing out the memory of one story of desire each day, a woman she has desired, a woman who has desired her, (hence the idea not one day without a woman), or a different kind of desire altogether. Written in the order they come to mind. Arranged alphabetically rather than chronologically. No pen, “nothing but the keyboard,” no draft, no notes, writing only from memory. Not writing things as they happened, or might have happened, or as she wished they had happened, but as they appear to her in memory in that moment. No erasing, no rewriting, “syntax matching composition.” The ultimate aim being to dissipate herself through this process, “in order to dispel the desires that you still feel.” These constraints are clearly laid out in the Ante Scriptum at the beginning of the book, but Garréta hints in the Post Scriptum that some of these rules may have been broken in the process.

SE: To talk about Sphinx for a moment, this book has been very successful in your translation, and you’ve had the opportunity to do events in support of that book and to represent it in various capacities. Can you tell us about some of the reactions to this book by readers you encountered?

ER: I was blown away by the incredible response to Sphinx. People really seemed to connect with the book, which I think speaks to the power of Garréta’s fictional world to embody precisely what it is people seek out in their own realities, but are often unable to inhabit because of the nature of the society they live in. Ultimately Sphinx is the demonstration that gender is just one more false binary that has been imposed on us by outside forces. Many of us feel a disconnect between our lived experience and the ways we are told and expected to live in the world. By creating the possibility for a new way of talking about love and relationships that doesn’t have to subscribe to typical constructions of gender, Sphinx has carved out a space where people can project themselves onto these genderless characters in a way that they can’t always with characters in other books, providing a different experience for each reader. It was pretty fucking special to meet and talk with other people who found this opportunity in Sphinx to be as necessary and effective as I did.

SE: Do you feel that Not One Day provides some of the same opportunities for the reader to project him or herself into the text?

ER: Yes, but maybe not in such a straightforward way as in Sphinx. Not One Day is, essentially, one woman’s memories, experiences. And while many of those experiences may be relatable for some, many of them won’t be. But the conclusions Garréta draws from her memories, about desire and the way we talk or write about desire, the way desire is expected to play out versus the ways it manifests in reality, those conclusions can certainly be adapted to anyone’s experience, and are meant to provoke thought in everyone who reads the book about their own relationships. So in a lot of ways, the take-aways do resemble those of Sphinx, but they’re grounded in one person’s reality rather than taking form in a fictional space.

SE: What were some of the challenges of translating this book? Some of the pleasures?

ER: The biggest challenge for me in translating this book was the same I faced in translating Sphinx: Anne Garréta is a genius who puts her genius ideas into writing in a way that can be difficult for the average human to understand, let alone rewrite in English. The Ante Scriptum and the Post Scriptum are pure thought, and Anne and I Skyped and went over almost every line of those chapters so I could better get in her head to translate them. Another challenge was that I strongly believe in the idea of translating constrained writing by applying that same constraint to yourself, as I did with Sphinx, but for this book it just wasn’t possible. Translating each chapter in five hours without any editing just wasn’t going to be feasible, particularly not for a book like this.

The biggest pleasure of translating this book was how personal it is. It was a new experience for me to delve so deep into the life and mind of an author, especially someone like Anne whose writing I think of generally as deeply intellectually driven. There’s a lot of vulnerability and humanity in this book, and it’s a nice change to translate someone’s life as opposed to someone’s words.

SE: It’s clear that Garréta’s writing has touched you really deeply. It I’m not mistaken, Sphinx was the first book of hers that you read. Could you talk briefly about how you discovered Sphinx and why you wanted to translate it?

ER: I read about Sphinx in Daniel Levin-Becker’s book Many Subtle Channels, which is about the members of the Oulipo and their work. I was curious to see how it had been translated in English, since gender works so differently in the French language than it does in the English language. And when I realized that no one had translated it yet, I wanted to see if I was up to the challenge.

SE: Which episodes from Not One Day did you like the best?

ER: I loved translating B*. It felt very real, this idea of pacing the room, replaying your encounters with a given person, debating whether or not to make a move. I could imagine the scene very clearly in my mind, could feel Anne’s anxiety. I also liked translating K* because as I was translating it, I felt as though I was discovering along with Anne her true feelings for K*. The process of realizing things as you flesh them out in writing is on full display here.

SE: I like that idea, using the same time constraint to translation the book that Garréta used to write it. You mentioned that she wrote this book in a month. How long did the translation take?

ER: To be fair, in the Post Scriptum at the end of the book, Anne reveals: “As for writing every day or even every night, that was rather optimistic… Did you really bank on so easily curing yourself of your cardinal vice—procrastination?…What should have been a month’s work was disseminated over more than a year.” It probably took me, also, just over a year, editing time included.

SE: Which constraint of Garréta’s (from any book, story, etc, translated or not) do you find most fascinating?

ER: Anne’s novel La Décomposition has as its protagonist a serial killer who systematically assassinates the characters of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Anne once showed me an enormous binder full of the notes she used to write that book. She has called it “a strategy for reversing the censorship, for opening the potentiality of the Proustian text.” Which is pretty great. But Sphinx‘s constraint is still really exciting to me, it has so much explosive potential to it, I’d like to see everything from Greek myths to nursery rhymes to the literary canon rewritten without any indication of sex or gender.


SE: What’s next for you and Garréta? Another book? Other projects?

ER: Honestly, I’m not sure! I heard a rumor that she’s been producing a lot of new writing recently, so who knows…

Read Sergio Pitol!!!, aka The Magician of Vienna by Sergio Pitol

The Magician of Vienna by Sergio Pitol is coming out next week. It completes Pitol’s “trilogy of memory,” which begins with The Art of Flight and continues with The Journey.

Pitol is a true master, and these are incredible books. The words that currently come to mind to encourage you to read them feel inadequate . . . I will simply say that you should experience them. You will be better for it.

We excerpted two essays from The Magician of Vienna at The Quarterly Conversation: you can read them here. And BOMB magazine excerpted The Art of Flight. Read that here. (I am linking to the Google Cache page, as something appears off with the actual webpage.)

And here, for good measure, is a photo of Pitol and Bolaño together. It was taken on the occasion of Bolaño being awarded the Romulo Gallegos Prize for his novel The Savage Detectives. (You should also read TSD, if you have not already done so.) Pitol, a member of that year’s jury, awarded him the Prize.

Four Questions for Deepak Unnikrishnan on Temporary People

Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan is a book (variously described as a novel, short stories, and something in between) based around the lives of people who come to the United Arab Emirates and, in the author’s words “are eventually required to leave.” Indeed, the UAE has become infamous for importing foreign-born people in order to build the massive infrastructure of a booming nation, only then to be told to go when their work is complete.

For this book, Unnikrishnan won the inaugural Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing, as Unnikrishnan himself is a immigrant to the United States. This is his first novel, and it has been getting rave reviews, in venues like The Washington Post and The New York Times.

Unnikrishnan has also recently been on a book tour throughout the United States for Temporary People, and of course this is a strange time for a book that so deeply deals with the immigrant experience, particularly when it occurs Middle Eastern context. Below, we talk about the book, what it’s like to be releasing a book like this at this political moment, and about home, migration, and related subjects.


Scott Esposito: Temporary People is based around transitional workers who come to the United Arab Emirates to do the work necessary to build up the country and are then forced to leave. As you mention at the beginning of the book, “Temporary People is a work of fiction set in the UAE, where I was raised and where foreign nationals constitute over 80 percent of the population. It is a nation built by people who are eventually required to leave.” Do you have any particular sources or experiences that underlie the lives depicted in these pages?

Deepak Unnikrishnan: I am the child of Indian parents who have lived in the UAE for over four decades. I am the nephew of uncles who have lived, or continue to live in the Khaleej (Arabic for Gulf). My family has a warm and complex relationship with the Emirates, so in that sense, yes I understand what it’s like to live in a city that hosts you for a while, not forever. I also have friends from high school who have either left or stayed. And some of those who stayed are raising their own children in the place my mates and I were raised. So you could also say, yes, I’m aware of certain states bodies occupy when their documents buy them a fixed amount of time. I’m also hyper aware of the privileges my sibling and I have enjoyed, proximity to parents sitting pretty on top of that list. None of my first cousins grew up with both parents by their side. Their fathers sent money from the Khaleej. Their mothers looked after them. And if you’re from here, if you’ve paid attention, you see men and women who have come from elsewhere; people who’ve left much behind and you can read such sorrow on their faces. But then if you wait a little bit longer, you can also spot the drive and the joy and the craziness of what being a temporary resident means to these people. The hopes they carry in their heads, the stories they’re itching to tell. When I tell people Abu Dhabi raised me, I’m not just talking about the city. I’m also talking about its people, those who’ve been here a while, those from here, and especially those who may not last long, but help the city run. And it’s interesting you call these people who populate my book transnational. I am not sure that’s what they are. I’m not sure what they are, but transnational feels like a stretch, or some form of happy lie. What I’d say instead is that these men and women who reside within the pages of Temporary People are people who are conscious of time, all the time. And that state, where they are always thinking of their futures, does something to them, something visceral. Because you see, they are not forced to leave. They just have to leave. There’s a difference between those two scenarios. I suppose when you know you have to leave, often you’re just wondering about how to leave. And that can break some people. Others thrive.

SE: Temporary People is publishing in the United States at an interesting time, when we are having our own debates over the degree to which this country welcomes outsiders, and how we see their contributions to this country. You yourself were raised in the UAE and immigrated to the U.S., and this book won the first Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing. So two questions: what do you feel that these stories of the UAE bring to an American context, and will this book be published in the UAE?

DU: I am the son, nephew, and grandson of migrants. My parents raised my sister and I in a city they didn’t fully understand at first. Yet they expected us to prove ourselves worthy to live in a place they were afraid to claim, but went to anyway. We were always expected to behave and be respectful, not embarrass them or ourselves. And with my folks having aged in the Khaleej, the place represents something else now to my family, part history and memory, something sacred, joyful, and sad. They care about the Khaleej, my parents. It’s home, you understand. But they care about India too. Americans may understand this basic need to acknowledge/accommodate two nations, one that raised you, and the other that adopted you. But what they may not get is what it means to return to a nation after you’ve left it for a while, what it means to return to the place where you were born, so that you may die. And it’s perfectly fine to not understand the significance of this voluntary act, without veering towards pity, or professing rage. But in an age where attachments are questioned, people corralled, questioned and bullied over nationality and paperwork, certainly in the States, there’s something instructive in contemplating why/how people cherish a place even when they aren’t required/expected to do so. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t want to romanticize any of this, the leaving part especially. It’s hard to leave a place, man. It sucks to be a creature perpetually wedded to paperwork, but my hope is when people read my work, they are not only ingesting the language of temporary people, they are also thinking about vulnerability, why living elsewhere is often an act of sacrifice (especially if you are a parent), with the expectation of hope; and if you’re lucky, good fortune. I hope some people in the States (and elsewhere too), the ones who rage against foreigners – especially the most vulnerable, children, refugees, and the undocumented – come across the book, maybe skim through it, then contemplate over what it must be like to explain yourself all the time to people who assume they know what you are, people who wonder whether you’re harmless, that you’ve hopefully got something to give. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are migrants or temporary residents the world over just fed up with explaining themselves. I’d wager some of them don’t know what to say anymore and that they are tired. And you bet I hope readers in the UAE will get to read the book.

SE: You’ve been on a book tour, doing events for this book in New York City and San Francisco, and elsewhere throughout the country. What have been the responses to this book? Have these events veered toward the political context here in the U.S.?

DU: Let me be frank. I didn’t think many people were going to come to the readings. Don’t know why, but I didn’t buy that folks wanted to hear some stranger they’ve barely heard about talk about the Khaleej, or hear me recite myths and tales mined from the place, but I’ve been surprised and humbled by the response. I’ve bumped into people I’ve gone to high school with. I’ve had people come up to me saying, Man, that happened to me too! I’ve seen brown and black and white people in the audience. I’ve had questions that covered multiple topics: home, language, and yeah, cities. And sure: politics, too. That comes up a lot, and I find myself wanting to talk about the state of the States. It’s home too, you know. I mean some of us are frightened. I have friends who are angry, who’ve turned soothsayers. And we don’t know why we’re all behaving this way, and then we know why. I ‘d like to think people want to talk about the current state of affairs, but a part of me believes most folks have also made up their minds. It’s as though we’ve got to pick this camp or that camp, and that scenario frightens me. I’ve also had little old ladies come up to me in the Midwest to apologize, to state that the current administration doesn’t speak for them. And I remember being moved by that. They didn’t have to do that, walk over to the brown man and try to calm him down, but they did. So there’s hope. At the same time, there are people who voted for Trump. And a part of me wants to know why. And a part of me is afraid to know why. But it’s important to know what’s going on with the country. It’s important to talk. I’m not saying we should all hold hands and pretend everything’s okay. Everything’s not okay, more reason to have difficult conversations. Something broke. What?

SE: I’ve seen this book variously described as 28 stories and as a novel. How do you see it, and why? Are genre conventions like these something that may hold more weight here in the States than in the literary culture of the Middle East?

DU: I identify as a short story writer. Writing a collection, that’s what I thought I was doing when I began the work. But gradually I realized I was also toying with things, language most certainly, and to an extent, form. So the work began to morph. I started calling it “the book,” because that made more sense. As more time passed, it became clear the chapters, as I call the tales, needed each other to speak to one another, as well as to speak over one another, to create something almost animal-like and city-like. Because I wanted my book to sound a certain way, you see. I wanted readers to hear these people, temporary inhabitants with accents and myths, and I wanted them to appear and disappear, maybe reappear. That meant I had to break certain conventions, explore what a book was supposed to do, then burn certain rules. But some of these breakthroughs were unintentional. I’d like to claim that everything was thought out. But no, I hadn’t really given architecture of the book much thought until I started studying at the Art Institute. And all of a sudden, I was like, wait a minute, I want the languages in the book to mimic streetlights and road signs, take the reader somewhere familiar yet unexpected, wild. And I suppose it helped that I didn’t have much of a literature background. I was a bit of a novice, and slightly stupid, plus arrogant, useful qualities if you’re trying something new, and you don’t know you’re trying something new. But yeah, genre holds a lot of weight in the States. I’m in fact super pleased the book has not only been described as a collection or a novel, but also been reviewed as either a fragmented collection or a novel held up by some-short-some-long stories. There’s been no universal consensus on what the work is or what it’s become and that’s pretty wonderful! But to be fair, I think genre matters in other nations too. And I’ve been guilty of wandering over to certain sections at bookstores, seduced by genre. And that’s a shame, because at the end of the day I identify as a user of words, someone who deploys language to express his thoughts about imaginary and realist realms. Shouldn’t that be enough? At the risk of sounding pompous, it might be helpful to ditch categories from time to time and relearn how to read, especially if the work stems from someone’s imagination, especially if we want our minds blown.

The Collected Poems of Thomas Bernhard

Over at Lit Hub, as part of their April recommended releases, I recommend the Collected Poems of Thomas Bernhard.

This is a pretty massive release that has been a long time in the coming. It’s close to 500 pages, and it’s got everything. Bernhardians should rejoice.

Indie Bookstore as Political Instrument

My latest Lit Hub column is up, and it’s all about the intersection of indie bookstores and political resistance.

I think for a long time now I’ve had some kind of sense that indie bookstores aren’t really like most other normal businesses, but it’s only been with the arrival of Donald Trump and the response by many indies in my community that I’ve been able to put these thoughts into coherent shape. It does say something that the one business I all but expected to see a strong and prolonged engagement from—and which has provided just that—was the indies in my community.

Anyway, some thoughts on all that over at the Hub.

The Re-Emergence of Henry Green

Long a closely kept secret (a writer’s writer, or maybe a writer’s writer’s writer), Henry Green is getting the treatment by NYRB Classics and coming back into the mainstream. It’s about time.

They’ve done these 5, with more on the way. For an introduction and some ideas where to get started, I recommend Dan Green’s essay in The Quarterly Conversation.

If you want to see more about Green on Amazon, do so here.

Let’s Hear It for the Editors

With the passing of founder and 50+-year editor of the New York Review of Books, Robert Silvers, we’re seeing a number of remembrances praising what he built.

The New York Review has been special for a number of reasons, which include: being profitable for 50 years despite not dumbing down its content or catering to the trends; and being a wide-ranging publication of ideas that aimed to publish timeless essays but that also stayed on top of the news.

The other reason for the NYRB’s belovedness is of course that Silvers was by all reports an incredible editor, one who was dedicated and tireless, and who made everything he touched much, much better.

After an essay was finally on track, he would send an edited copy back — the famous “A Galley.” Your argument would be better, and your prose would be cleaner. But on every page, there would be his cramped handwriting, asking for page references for every quotation, questioning word choices, inserting paragraph breaks, pointing to recent work from the Congressional Research Service, invoking arguments from James Madison, John Marshall, John Stuart Mill or Immanuel Kant.

After you responded to “A Galley,” you would get “B Galley,” with still more questions and corrections, more references, meticulous editing and, occasionally, a serious concern. A direct quotation: “After many readings, I appreciated the changes you made, but in our ignorance my colleagues and I still had questions.”

When an essay was far along and close to ready to run, he would occasionally call to say, “We just have a few final questions.” My heart would sink. Was a conversation actually necessary? Had he found a serious defect? Wouldn’t email be better? Were we going to go over whole sentences, word by word?

Yes, yes, no and yes.

It’s really impossible to overstate how important editing experiences like this are for writers, especially up-and-coming writers who are still finding their voice.

Given the trajectory of many young critics today—which would include lots of blogging, writing reviews and essays for Web-native venues, and maybe doing some newspaper reviewing—I do wonder if this sort of intense editing is getting lost. And I wonder what this is doing to the current up-and-coming generation of American public thinkers.

To be clear, I think it’s fine that many Web-native venues don’t do a ton of editing. Oftentimes the nature of the work is that it is not to be lasting, and certainly there have always been venues where the editing was light. Oftentimes there’s not a whole lot you can do with a shortish book review if it’s submitted well-written. This will always be true, and it’s fine.

But, really strong editing is so important to a writer’s development. Looking back on the editors I’ve worked with who have stepped me through multiple edits of my own pieces, making them immeasurably better in the process, it is clear how 100% crucial good editing is. This is really where a writer learns to take note of his/her blind spots (we all have them, no matter what you think of your own self-awareness), to step beyond the sources and logic we are most comfortable with, to consider arguments we never would have thought of before, and just to take the prose and the reasoning behind it to the next level. Even though it can be hell for a writer to be asked to go through that draft one more time, in retrospect it is always something I value and appreciate, and editors who can do this well are people I am always inclined to work with in the future.

As Cass Sunstein writes, this is really a matter of “what a democracy needs,” as such on-the-job learning-via-editing is one of the only ways talented, promising writers can become the sorts of public intellectuals who are rightly looked to an admired. It’s one of the only ways to be kept humble, to make a writer really see all of the sides of an argument, to deal with his/her flaws, and to have the kind of scope and thoroughness necessary to be a great essayist. And if you can’t see the applicability of such writing to a functional democracy . . . well, it should be clear.

If you’re a writer (at whatever point in your career), try this: take a look at all the pieces being written about Silvers right now (they will invariably include discussions of his in-depth edits), and ask yourself if you couldn’t benefit from an editor with the skill, resources, and dedication.

Quarterly Conversation Issue 47

Features


Charting a Course Toward Cultural Decolonization

Charting a Course Toward Cultural Decolonization

Enter Souffles, a Moroccan magazine of culture and politics. Hassan II’s aforementioned broadcast had mapped a how-to of sorts—in this instance, how to best pose a threat to the monarchy—and, heeding the call, a group of young poets and artists decided to start a magazine. Abdellatif Laâbi was the group’s main instigator. The twenty-four-year-old poet ran the magazine out of his apartment, penned the first issue’s opening salvo and served as the magazine’s editor throughout its five-year lifespan, from 1966 to 1971. In the prologue to the first issue Laâbi wrote with a brash confidence and made his intentions clear: those involved with his magazine intended to “demonstrate that they are less continuers than they are initiators.” A young country with young writers was charting the course toward cultural decolonization.


Novel Spirits: George Saunders Goes Long

Novel Spirits: George Saunders Goes Long

Saunders is thought of somewhat generically as a saint, as someone who exudes a Jesus-like kindness, about whom Joshua Ferris says, “He seems in touch with some better being.” Tobias Wolff says, “He’s such a generous spirit, you’d be embarrassed to behave in a small way around him.” I have no wish to dispel these excellent thoughts about Saunders’s character, but it’s a little weird how our literary culture turns excellent male writers (again always male) into gurus. Saunders isn’t just the best American writer currently writing stories; he’s the Gandhi of grad school. But all this adoration aside, Gandhi still hadn’t written a novel. And short story writers who haven’t yet written a novel are treated like spinster women in a pre-war patriarchy: Why won’t they get with the program? What is wrong with them? And so here we are at the beginning of 2017 with Saunders finally walking a novel down the aisle, whether by cultural compulsion or authorial ambition no one truly knows.


Five Hungarian Writers to Know

Five Hungarian Writers to Know

the fact is that, in looking at Hungarian literature over the course of the 20th century and into the early millennium, what strikes one—for all the violent ruptures—is the extraordinary continuity of literary life and “generations,” as Hungarians themselves formulate it. This extraordinary microcosm of an extraordinary literary culture is now suffering additional stresses under Viktor Orbán’s illiberal regime, and only time will tell how it will evolve. Still though, the history of Hungarian literature in the 20th century, the extraordinary resiliency of its creators faced with genocide, deportation, totalitarianism, and the three T’s (Tiltott, Tűrt, Támogatott: prohibited, tolerated, and supported) tends to fill one with hope.



In Translation

From Poetry and Photography by Yves Bonnefoy

From Poetry and Photography by Yves Bonnefoy

This research I am beginning—on the impact of the earliest photography on the experience of the world and the conduct of existence in the nineteenth century and up to our own day—must necessarily also be a reflection on poetry, since the study of what I shall call “the photographic” enables us better to understand both how poetry has developed and the tasks that confront it. The kind of—historically unprecedented—act the photographer has accomplished, and continues to accomplish, in fact exerts its influence directly on what poetry is seeking to be. And poetry, in its turn, must therefore examine what that act is, and what it asks of, or imposes on, contemporary society.



Reviews

Imaginary Cities by Darran Anderson

Imaginary Cities by Darran Anderson


As one navigates the sprawling streets and avenues that spread out across the pages of Darran Anderson’s ambitious guidebook to the metropolitan ideal—past, present, and future—there is likely to be more than one occasion of disorientation, an invitation to entertain an entirely new way of understanding the possibilities of the urban reality. In this sense, Imaginary Cities is a map that encourages you to get lost. Subtitled A Tour of Dream Cities, Nightmare Cities, and Everywhere in Between, this journey is an open-ended inquiry into the myriad ways that the idea of the city has been conceived in history, art, literature, social theory, and architectural design—for better or worse.


A Separation by Katie Kitamura

A Separation by Katie Kitamura


To say that a book written in the author’s own language reads like a translation would normally be considered an insult. But this is exactly what Katie Kitamura achieves in her remarkable new novel, A Separation. The narrative voice has an otherworldly and disconnected air—quite unlike the hard clarity of her previous book Gone to the Forest—which is doubly appropriate, as the unnamed narrator is herself a literary translator, and because the story is a report of the search for her estranged husband in a foreign country.


Bright Magic: Stories by Alfred Döblin

Bright Magic: Stories by Alfred Döblin


Two years before his death, Alfred Döblin, author of seventeen novels and a dozen volumes of stories, essays, and memoirs, complained, “Whenever they mentioned my name, they always followed it with Berlin Alexanderplatz.” That there are worse fates a writer could suffer is a fitting rejoinder in the German-speaking world, where his novel is ranked among the milestones of literary modernism and readers can relish its seediness, its bewildering structure, and its vertiginous language in the original. In translation, however, the book has been cut and bowdlerized, and its formal innovations tamed; and the slang and sudden shifts in linguistic register, which are among its signal pleasures, drift from dated to incomprehensible. A new version by Michael Hofmann, due out this year, will doubtless do much to address these lacunae, but in the meantime NYRB Classics has issued translations of two seminal works of Döblin’s: The Three Leaps of Wang Lun and Bright Magic: Stories, selected and translated by Damion Searls.


The Billy Collins Experience and Sleaze & Slander: New and Selected Comic Verse, 1995-2015 by A.M. Juster

The Billy Collins Experience and Sleaze & Slander: New and Selected Comic Verse, 1995-2015 by A.M. Juster

“A.M. Juster” is an incomplete anagram of the poet’s given name, Michael J. Astrue, who from 2007 to 2013 served as Commissioner of the U.S. Social Security Administration (his tenure straddled the reigns of Bush and Obama). The pen name echoes “jester” and “adjuster,” and suggests that its bearer is juster than the late American poet Donald Justice. Juster was outed as Astrue in 2010 by Paul Mariani in the journal First Things, and may have the most unorthodox curriculum vitae in American literary history. He graduated from Harvard Law School, served as General Counsel of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, ran three publicly traded biotechnology firms and, since 2008, has published volumes of translations of Latin poetry by Horace, Tibullus and St. Aldhelm. Since leaving public office, Juster has been busy. The two volumes under review came out in 2016, and this year will see publication of two more books of translations: The Elegies of Maximianus and Milton’s Book of Elegies.


Cockroaches by Scholastique Mukasonga

Cockroaches by Scholastique Mukasonga


The opening pages of Cockroaches, Mukasonga’s memoir about the Rwandan genocide and the decades surrounding it, introduces a distinctive narrative style and framework onto the story that follows. Mukasonga creates an intimate space where she can speak. She seats us across the table and, in hushed tones (her children sleeping in the next room), shares her memories. It begins in the late 1950s, after the Rwandan Revolution. Hutus are in power. Mukasonga and her Tutsi relatives are forcefully relocated to Nyamata, in eastern Rwanda. Then they are moved to Gitwe, a village built by the government specifically to put displaced Tutsis. They will remain there for a time, but eventually will find a more permanent home in Gitagata. Gitagata is where her family will be killed.


A Greater Music and Recitation by Bae Suah

A Greater Music and Recitation by Bae Suah


Readers that rely on plot will find themselves on unpredictable ground. Bae Suah is a circular writer, and a circle, as we know, has no end. Recitation, especially, whose protagonist is a wandering actress, whose stories and memories become the stories and dreams of other characters, seems akin to gazing at a beautiful painting without a point of focus. Perhaps this is the point; where does one draw a map of life? Or art? Where do these things start and end? Are they supposed to start and end? García Márquez insisted that intuition was fundamental to writing fiction; Bae Suah seems to support this belief, demonstrating how this conviction shapes their work. As the characters in both these books wander through their lives, their pasts, and their memories, so too does the reader.


Of Darkness by Josefine Klougart

Of Darkness by Josefine Klougart


The human-precipitated Anthropocene promises unprecedented loss: of beauty and wildness in the natural sphere, and the comforts of convenient consumption in the domestic sphere—yet outside of science fiction, this has yet to register in our literature. In The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh argues that the blame should be put on the very structure of the novel, which employs depictions of mundane reality to conceal a scaffold of more remarkable plot points, and which developed at a time when nature was viewed as a bucolic canvas upon which human individuals acted rather than a system of which we are part. The best way to think about the Anthropocene may be through images, Ghosh suggests—film and television already seem to be having a more successful time. Danish writer Josefine Klougart’s cinematic experimental novel, Of Darkness, would seem to be the sort of novel Ghosh would appreciate


Our Street by Sándor Tar

Our Street by Sándor Tar


Our Street, which can be read both as a series of interconnected stories or a fragmented novel, consists of thirty-one vignettes depicting the post-1989 Hungarian countryside through a cast of villagers living in a dead end called “Crooked Street.” Coming from an impoverished family himself and having worked as a manual laborer most of his life, Tar chronicles the harsh yet often humorous realities of the working class in the industrial provinces and the post-agrarian rural world. His protagonists are the downtrodden, the marginalized, and the forgotten, those for whom the collapse of communism brought mainly unemployment. Tar’s people became known as the “losers” of the regime change—and they represented a sizable section of East European society.


Movieola! by John Domini

Movieola! by John Domini


Domini balances on the knife-edge of sheer surface content and the profundity that literary fiction, especially anything that verges on the experimental or exploratory, is expected to have as one of its characteristics. After so many novels and movies about filmmaking it’s hard to see how any writer can say something newsworthy about the core of the industry. For the most part Domini focuses on the surface because that’s where the producers, directors, screenwriters, and stars reside, and because that’s where the film genres lie that he wants to explore.


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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