The End of Oulipo?

The End of Oulipo? My book (co-authored with Lauren Elkin), published by Zero Books. Available everywhere. Order it from Amazon, or find it in bookstores nationwide. The End of Oulipo

Lady Chatterley’s Brother

Lady Chatterley's Brother. The first ebook in the new TQC Long Essays series, Lady Chatterley's Brothercalled “an exciting new project” by Chad Post of Open Letter and Three Percent. Why can't Nicholson Baker write about sex? And why can Javier Marias? We investigate why porn is a dead end, and why seduction paves the way for the sex writing of the future. Read an excerpt.

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Translate This Book!

Ever wonder what English is missing? Called "a fascinating Life Perecread" by The New Yorker, Translate This Book! brings together over 40 of the top translators, publishers, and authors to tell us what books need to be published in English. Get it on Kindle.

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Naked Singularity

Summer Read: A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava

Fans of Gaddis, Pynchon, DeLillo: A group read of the book that went from Xlibris to the University of Chicago Press. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

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Life A User's Manual by Georges Perec

Starting March 2011, read the greatest novel from an experimental master. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Last Samurai

Fall Read: The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

A group read of one of the '00s most-lauded postmodern novels. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Tale of Genji

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Ten Memorable Quotes from William Gaddis’ Letters

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Here are ten of my favorite moments from these hugely interesting letters.


Interviews from Conversational Reading

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See this page for interviews with leading authors, translators, publishers, and more.


  • Nostalgia June 15, 2014
    Few habits are as prone to affliction, or as vulnerable to an ordeal, as the bent of a peddler’s consciousness. Placeless, the peddler completes an untold number of transactions; there are ideas to conduct (through language, which can transact a mind) and feelings to certify (through tasks, repeated interminably). […]
  • Why Literary Periods Mattered by Ted Underwood June 15, 2014
    There are some writers who are, and likely always will be, inextricably linked to the “period” with which their work is associated, and in many cases helped to define. Surely Wordsworth and Keats will always be “Romantic” poets, while Faulkner and Woolf will remain modernists, as the term “modern” has been fully appropriated to describe the historical era be […]
  • Trans-Atlantyk by Witold Gombrowicz June 15, 2014
    August 1939. You sail to Buenos Aires on the Chombry as a cultural ambassador of Poland. Why say no to a little holiday on the government’s tab? Soon after arriving you sense that something isn’t right. You emerge from a welcome reception and your ears are “filled with newspaper cries: ‘Polonia, Polonia,’ most irksome indeed.” Before you’ve even had a chance […]
  • Accepting the Disaster by Joshua Mehigan June 15, 2014
    The first collections of most young poets, even the better ones, carry with them a hint of bravado. Flush with recognition, vindicated by the encouraging attentions of at least one editor and three blurbists, the poet strikes a triumphant pose and high-fives the Muse: “We did it, baby.” When Joshua Mehigan published his impressive first collection, The Optim […]
  • The Histories of Herodotus, translated by Tom Holland June 15, 2014
    Two of the greatest of Tom Holland's predecessors in translating Herodotus are Victorian scholar George Rawlinson and Aubrey de Selincourt; the former translated Herodotus in 1860, making an enormous hit (despite the fact that its detractors often referred to it as “dull and prolix"), while the latter's 1954 Herodotus was another enormous hit, […]
  • Bullfight by Yasushi Inoue June 15, 2014
    The premise of Yasushi Inoue's debut novella Bullfight, celebrated in Japan as a classic of postwar literature, is unassuming enough: an evening newspaper sponsors a tournament of the regional sport of bull-sumo. As practical and financial issues arise, the paper's young editor-in-chief, Tsugami, soon realizes he has taken on more than he can handl […]
  • Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones June 15, 2014
    Sworn Virgin was made to be translated. Elvira Dones wrote this book not in her native language of Albanian but in Italian—a necessarily fraught and complicated decision. In an Italian-language interview with Pierre Lepori, Dones speaks about her choice of language: “Sworn Virgin was born in Italian . . . I’ve lived using Italian for nineteen years, it has s […]
  • On the Letters of David Markson June 15, 2014
    Knowing these narrators and how their lives paralleled David’s own, it’s difficult to deny his being a recluse. I certainly held that image of him, and nursed it, secretly cherishing it because it meant I was one of the few people with whom he corresponded, and with whom he would occasionally meet. Arranging our first meetings in person was something of a ni […]
  • Storm Still by Peter Handke June 15, 2014
    Storm Still (Immer Noch Sturm) does not necessarily represent new terrain for Handke. Originally published by Suhrkamp Verlag in 2010 and now available for English-language readers thanks to Martin Chalmers’ fluent translation, the play chronicles the dissolution of the Svinec family, a family of Carinthian Slovenes—a quasi-fictionalized version of Handke’s […]
  • Red or Dead by David Peace June 15, 2014
    David Peace's novel Red or Dead is about British football, but it partakes in the traits of Homer's epic. This is a novel about the place of myth and heroes in modern society, about how the cyclical rhythms of athletic seasons reflect the cyclical patterns of life. It is a book about honor and fate, and one which bridges the profound, dreamlike ter […]

5 Questions for Martin Chalmers on December by Alexander Kluge

In the most recent issue of The Quarterly Conversation, we ran a very positive review of December by Alexander Kluge. Here, that review’s author, Madeleine LaRue, engages the book’s translator, Martin Chalmers, with five questions.

Madeleine LaRue: Alexander Kluge’s distinctive style often seems to resist going into English. You have translated Kluge before, and you have also translated some of his most prominent contemporaries (Thomas Bernhard, Elfriede Jelinek, Herta Müller, among others). What strikes you as unique or special about Kluge’s writing?

Martin Chalmers: What resists going into English in Kluge? I think it’s less a question of style (though his use of legalistic language—cf. his training as a lawyer—a necessary dispassion combined with an underlying emotional response, is certainly distinctive. One can think of the boy who survives a devastating air raid shortly before the end of the war, as described in “The Air Raid on Halberstadt on 8th April 1945,” and who then spends his life as a theorist, as a writer, as a film-maker trying to come to terms with that destruction of all that is familiar, but in the knowledge of the crimes that have preceded that rather pointless air raid—an experience, of course, shared with millions of Germans and other Europeans)—well, then, less a question of style than of form, specifically Kluge’s use of short forms, an accumulation of short forms. Short forms and not simply the short story are much more central to German literature than English. The tradition perhaps begins with an admiration of Johann Peter Hebel but continues through the Brothers Grimm to Robert Walser, Kafka’s short prose, Benjamin and so on. English writing is much more bound by a division between novel and short story and has left little room for anything else, exceptions notwithstanding. And I think it’s in this accumulation of anecdote, incident, item, quotation, adaptation, (anti-)illustration, novels in pill form that the difficulty for the English-speaking reader lies (in the first instance the English-speaking publisher and critic). The difficulty is already there on the page in the layout, in the apparent lack of a narrative. Perhaps some English-speaking readers even have a difficulty taking such an “illegitimate” mixing of forms seriously as literature — as seriously as they would a novel.

MLR: Kluge strikes me as an unusually consistent writer, both in his stylistic oddities and in his intellectual preoccupations. Many of the themes and motifs in December appear in his other works (time, accidents, the relationship between good and evil, etc.), and some stories—such as “3 December 1931,” which relates Hitler’s near-fatal car accident, are taken almost verbatim from the earlier collections you have translated. Given Kluge’s consistency and your extensive experience with his work, does he ever still surprise you?

MC: Kluge’s themes are consistent indeed throughout his career. Central, for example, is the concern with the decline, the collapse of power. The moment when power shifts, when the gods abandon the once-powerful, as in the story from 2nd December about Gorbachev. Or I find the stories about the end of the GDR in Chronik der Gefühle at once impressive and enlightening. Yes, I think one’s always learning from Dr. Kluge. Another central theme across his work which is always moving from, say, the German particular to the universal are the re-workings of the return of Odysseus.

Odysseus has killed the suitors, but how will life go on now, after 10 years’ absence in which no one has remained the same? Or: a young soldier marries his childhood sweetheart in 1941, returns home twice on brief leaves before 1944, two children result, but he doesn’t return from captivity until 1954. His wife, his children are confronted more or less by a stranger more or less determined to assert his authority. Or he returns having been declared dead and finds his wife married to another. (The essence of a Balzac story which Kluge retells about a French officer gone missing during the course of Napoleon’s Russian campaign.)

How does a society cope with such returns, which also have plenty of legal ramifications?

In some authors the re-use of material in different books might seem like a lack of inspiration. With Kluge, given the sheer volume of material he’s produced, it’s more a matter of deploying a story, an anecdote in a context where it fits.

I think the range of sources, the breadth of interests of Kluge are always capable of springing surprises, of creating surprising juxtapositions. One of my favourite stories (one of many) is one in The Devil’s Blind Spot which I translated as “The Lost Command.” A small German force disappears into central Africa during the Second World War and survives there until the Congo Crisis of the early 60’s. An impossible story, a comic book story (one imagines the young Alexander Kluge devouring comic books of the old style when the family moves west from the Soviet Zone of Occupation), certainly a surprising take on the Second World War, but one that asks questions about how Germans see and write about the Second World War (and is at the same time enjoyable as a condensed comic strip).

MLR: December is full of references to religion, history, politics, science, philosophy and critical theory, as well as to pop culture (particularly music and film). How much research do you do while translating him? Do you consult the works that Kluge makes reference to (the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, for example, or Dante’s Inferno), or do you base your translation solely on Kluge’s own text?

MC: Research for translators has on the whole become much easier with the advent of the Internet. With something like the quote from the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, I think I just looked it up, found it and incorporated it in the translation. In the case of the “Old Dragon Beneath the Temple Mount,” I re-used the translation I had done for The Devil’s Blind Spot. That’s a few years ago now and I can’t remember whether I did any checking of Dante, although I’ve certainly read The Inferno. Inevitably there are limits to the amount of research a translator does or can do. He or she is working to a deadline (either the deadline the publisher sets, the deadline imposed by the need to earn money or usually both). Translators in Britain and Germany are usually full-time translators, in the United States they often also hold academic posts. For the latter, a translation may become a ‘project’; for the former, however great the commitment to book or author, it’s also a job.

MLR: I’m curious about your take on the relationship between image and text in the book. The English edition preserves not only the same order of Gerhard Richter’s photographs as the German edition, but also their placement within the stories — image A to the left of story B, for example, or image C in between pages two and three of story D. Did Richter’s photographs influence (for better or worse) your translation? Did you feel that anything changed in the relationship between image and text once the text was in English?

MC: I assumed the order of text and image was something that Kluge and Richter had agreed on and so felt that arrangement should be retained, if at all possible, in the translation (and the photo with the deer still follows the poem which refers to a deer, e`ven if the doe of the poem is fairly metaphorical).

MLR: Kluge occasionally quotes, as I mentioned above, from popular songs, particularly, in December, songs from the 1930’s and 40’s. Usually these are given in English translation, but in the story “22 December 1943”—about a soldier returning home to his unfaithful wife—the lyrics to the song the children sing appear in the original German as well. Was there a special reason you wanted to preserve these lyrics?

MC: In the story “22 December 1943” the songs are part of the action and not a comment. For density, let’s say, for atmosphere, I give the original and then the English words, as if they were subtitles in a film. Apart from that, because of the nature of the story it’s impossible to be free with the translation of the lyrics and they’re never going to have the flow of the original and so for that reason, too, I included the German here. I first encountered Alexander Kluge as a film-maker. I saw Yesterday Girl (Abschied von Gestern) in a Glasgow cinema, in a double bill with a Godard movie, some time around 1970. It may well make a difference whether a translator comes to Kluge as a writer alone or also has a knowledge of his work in film, of his theoretical texts, of his long-running TV programme. Anyone who knows the TV work and some of the films will also have Kluge’s softly insistent, deeply ironic, dead-pan voice and questions in his or her ear while translating.

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