Daniel Medin is the Senior Editor of The Quarterly Conversation.
1. László Krasznahorkai: Satantango (New Directions)
I love Krasznahorkai’s dark discerning humor, and was delighted to discover that this novel retains its power – and savage funniness – after rereading. It also contains scenes of uncommon beauty. Refracted glory to George Szirtes for his translation: sentence for sentence, Satantango has to be one of the most striking books published in English in 2012.
2. Mahmoud Dowlatabadi: The Colonel (Melville House)
Unspeakably dark history of a revolution that devoured – and continues to devour – its children. Rains as hard here as it does in Krasznahorkai, and there’s as little forgiveness. The novel has haunted me for months, perhaps because its violence is by no means exclusive to Iran.
3. Kirsty Gunn: The Big Music (Faber)
A wise, generous and formally ambitious book about Scottish fathers and sons, mothers and daughters and music-making. Its structure is modeled after the classical compositional form of the highland bagpipe (and inspired by the great modernists). Remarkable glimpses of the inner lives of women and men, lives that repeat themselves with variations – like the theme of a piobaireachd – from one generation to the next.
4. Yi Mun-Yol: The Poet, trans. Brother Anthony of Taizé (Harvill)
A portrait of nineteenth-century Korean poet Kim Pyong-yon that lets in the inventions and interpolations of its author. Normally, that kind of description would put me off, but there are no “look at me!” hijinks in this novel. Despite a brisk and dry delivery, Yi Mun-Yol evokes the miseries of exile effectively. The same stands for his unsentimental representation of the mysteries of creative conception.
5. Alfred Döblin: Berlin-Alexanderplatz (dtv)
Revisited this classic while teaching in Berlin last summer. Berlin-Alexanderplatz resounds with robust dialogue that performs miracles: you’re reminded of the impending catastrophe every chapter, yet weep when the worst comes, punctually, to pass because the characters have been brought to life so successfully by their language alone. I’ve heard rumors that a new translation is underway. If true, this is a cause for celebration. Eugene Jolas’s version, while valiant, is now more than eighty years old, and it fails to capture the sound and smoke of the original. The time’s ripe for more English readers to discover Döblin.
Nescio: Amsterdam Stories, trans. Damion Searls (NYRB Classics)
Was reeled in by the first two sentences of “The Freeloader.” (See for yourself; they’re in the Amazon preview.)
Szilárd Borbély: Poems
Little of his writing has appeared to date in English – just a few translations from Berlin-Hamlet in New Order: Hungarians of the Post 1989 Generation, an anthology edited by George Szirtes. Efforts are afoot to remedy this lack. Borbély’s simply too good to remain in the shadows; his champions include Krasznahorkai and Nádas, so hopefully the situation will change soon.
William H. Gass: Life Sentences (Knopf)
His ‘review’ of Rainer Stach’s biography is the gutsiest take on Kafka in ages.
Tacita Dean: Selected Writings 1992-2011 (Steidl)
Although known principally for her work in film, Dean is also an excellent writer. Her reflections on projects about W.G. Sebald, Mario Merz et al. merit a wider readership.
Maria Soudaïeva: Slogans (Olivier)
This volume collects a hundred pages of militant calls to action by a Russian author who, according to Antoine Volodine’s preface (he is listed as translator, but I suspect that Soudaïeva is yet another heteronym), committed suicide in 2003. Her slogans are about as effective, as revolutionary propaganda, as, say, a story by Platonov. They’re also the sort of thing you can imagine in the hands of a Bolaño protagonist. The strangest, most original work of prose I encountered in French last year.