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Category Archives: Interviews

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…

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.

Four Questions with Philip Boehm and a Short Review on Chasing the King of Hearts by Hanna Krall

Although little-known in the United States, Polish author Hanna Krall is famous in her native country as one of the grand masters of the uniquely Polish genre of literary reportage. A colleague of the great Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski (she inspired his Eighth Dekalog) Krall worked as a journalist for much of the 1950s and ’60s before publishing her first book in 1972.

A Polish Jew, Krall was a young child during the Second World War, and she narrowly escaped deportation to the Nazi death camps during the Holocaust, though many of her relatives perished. The Holocaust has accordingly been one of the major themes of her literary work, and American readers now have a chance to see it for themselves in a short, intense work of hers, Chasing the King of Hearts, recently published by Feminist Press in Philip Boehm’s translation.

The book follows the life of the Izolda, whose recent husband Shayek has been deported to Auschwitz. (By the time Krall caught up with her in the early 2000s, Izolda was a Holocaust survivor, and a grandmother, who had long since moved to Israel.) Much of Chasing the King of Hearts deals with the day-to-day things Izolda must do to simply survive as a Jew in occupied Poland, to say nothing of the efforts she makes to secure items to send to her husband in Auschwitz and to remain in contact with him. As a portrait of lives suffering under the weight of the Holocaust, Chasing the King of Hearts is a remarkably affecting, often tear-inducing work.

It is also a stirring, complex portrait of a remarkable woman. Krall’s style here is cinematic, telegraphic, working in intense bursts of narration that drive the story forward at supersonic speed. Though the book is less than 200 pages, this material might have made for an epic of 500 in the hands of another writer. I like Krall’s method for how it gives a sense of the chaos that Izolda faced, the way that all of her life could change at any moment during the War, and the unceasing array of obstacles that battered her as she sought to merely survive and attend to her husband’s survival. It makes the book into less of a philosophical or meditative work than a tactile one, a kind of whirlwind of sensory impression, tautly narrated incidents, interpersonal conflicts, hustling, quick-witted decisions, pure chance, and the battlefield reflections that come to mind amid the ongoing assault of historical forces. Which is not to say that Chasing the King of Hearts doesn’t have discernable ideas and a philosophy about Izolda’s life (it does), only that the book is primarily an immersive, accelerated, imagistic experience.

One of the most interesting things about Chasing the King of Hearts—and one thing that sets it apart from most other Holocaust literature—is that it does not end with the end of the Holocaust. Izolda’s life continues, and there are some surprises that put the events of her wartime relationship with Shayek into interesting perspective. Ultimately the book becomes something not just about the horrors of the Holocaust and survival in wartime Poland; it also delves into the nature of love and identity and what the major events from our life become as we age.

Below you will find four questions with the book’s translator to give a greater sense of this remarkable title and some of the challenges of bringing it into English. In addition to being a translator, Philip Boehm is an American playwright and theater director. He has translated over thirty novels and plays by German and Polish writers, including Herta Müller, Franz Kafka, Gregor von Rezzori, and Ingeborg Bachmann. For these translations he has received fellowships from the NEA and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, as well as awards including the Schlegel-Tieck Prize, the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize, and the Helen and Kurt Wolff Prize.

Scott Esposito: I’d like to start with a little information about the author, Hanna Krall, as she’s someone who may not be so well known among readers of this website. When I was in Krakow in 2015, she was spoken of in the highest terms, a true legend of the literary reportage genre that is so important to Polish literature. Could you give some sense of Krall’s career as an author and where she stands among the writers of Polish literary nonfiction?

Philip Boehm: Polish reportage is often associated with the three “Ks” — Ryszard Kapuściński, Krzysztof Kąkolewski and Hanna Krall. The website culture.pl has a nice overview: http://culture.pl/en/article/a-foreigners-guide-to-polish-reportage.

Hanna Krall contributed enormously to this school with her book on Marek Edelman, the last living leader of the Warsaw Ghetto resistance, who stayed in Poland and became a renowned cardiologist. She has always considered herself a journalist, but has devised her own style to convey meanings lurking under the surface of the events themselves—the memory and motivations of the protagonists. She was a noted dissident in the Communist era and she remains outspoken on social issues in the face of the demagoguery now besetting Poland and elsewhere.

SE: Whatever else it is, Chasing the King of Hearts is a part of Holocaust literature, as it details the life of a Polish-Jewish woman named Izolda, who was ghettoized by the Nazis and survived Auschwitz. The book deals with her devotion to her husband, who is taken by the Nazis early on, and whom she desperately fights to help survive the war. Can you explain a little about who Izolda was and how Krall came to write her story?

PB: Izolda Regensberg believed her story ought to be told, ought to be made into a film. Hanna Krall’s first attempt to retell Izolda’s story didn’t satisfy either of them. Only many years later—and after Izolda had approached other writers who did not take on the assignment—did she return to Hanna Krall. And in the meantime Hanna Krall had figured out how to tell the story, paring it down and compressing it into the form we now have. It’s important to remember that this is also a love-story: it’s her love for her husband that drives her to save him, that enables her to survive all the ordeals described in the book. And in the end–well, it’s important not to give away the ending.

SE: You’ve mentioned the compressed nature of the prose in Chasing the King of Hearts, which is really one of the most distinctive things about this book. It is a very lean, very energetic kind of writing, incredibly lapidary (which, I would imagine, suits both Krall and Regensberg). Yet, as you pointed out, this is also a love story, one that is at times deeply affecting. I found it rather impressive, how Krall’s prose can at once feel so hard-boiled, yet also modulate to those other tones that this story requires. So two questions for you about the prose: first of all, you’ve pointed out that this was how Krall felt the story had to be told (and she followed this directive even to the extent of going against the subject’s own wishes). Can you offer any insight as to why Krall would choose this method? And secondly, what was the experience of translating this prose for you? Were there certain challenges to such an exacting, compressed style?

PB: I think that Hanna Krall wants to invite her readers on a journey. Instead of presenting them with more facts than they can handle, she intrigues them with just enough to lure them ahead. Incidentally my guess is that the lapidary style is far more hers than Regensberg’s. A reoccurring them is that Izolda felt her story should be a film, and what Hanna Krall gives us is very cinematic, partly because the editing is like a classic shooting ratio. The taut prose and tight pacing keep the movie running, but the scenes show a remarkable variety of emotional tone.

Various challenges do arise—for one thing, Polish sentences don’t always require the subject to be spelled out—it can often be inferred from the verb inflection. In English I had to use more nouns or pronouns—which I tried to counterbalance by paying careful attention to the rhythm of the prose.

SE: Among other things, Chasing the King of Hearts offers some very precise descriptions of World War II–era Europe: Polish ghettos, concentration camps, SS prisons, SS officers, hiding places, Viennese restaurants . . . even dentistry (Regensberg’s teeth are a surprisingly recurrent leitmotif in this book). As a translator, how did you get all of these details correct? Were there particular resources you used?

PB: As it happens I’ve had a lot of experience working with similar material: for instance Words to Outlive Us: Eyewitness Accounts from the Warsaw Ghetto, which took a very long time to research and translate. Since I also work in German I could corroborate details. And the details are essential: for me it’s important to visualize a scene as concretely as possible. That’s also what I have to do when I’m directing a play—I’m constantly surprised how much these two professions overlap.

Six Questions for Katherine Silver on The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira

Katherine Silver is one of the most talented, interesting, and dedicated translators working from Spanish today. She recently translated Cesar Aira’s novel(la) The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira, her second Aira translation (it joins The Literary Conference) though definitely not her last (read on).

I asked her six questions about the particular challenges of translating Aira, her own interpretations of his oeuvre-in-progress, her discovery of Aira, and what lies ahead for Aira-fans in the English language. In addition to Aira, Silver has translated Almost Never by Daniel Sada (with two more Sada novels to come), three novels by Horacio Castellanos Moya, Battles in the Desert by Jose Emilio Pacheco, My Tender Matador by Pedro Lemebel, and numerous others. She also codirects the Banff Centre’s translation program, which is a fantastic program that all translators (not just of books into English) should apply for. Lastly, her translation of Martin Adan’s The Cardboard House has just been published by New Directions.


Scott Esposito: Like all Aira books I’ve read, The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira will sound a bit strange in summation. It seems there’s Dr. Aira, whose archnemisis, Dr. Actyn, keeps trying to trick into performing one of his “miracle cures,” through the use of actors pretending to be doctors attending to dying patients. For some reason, it’s very important to Actyn to record this, and just as import to Aira not to be recorded. This may all be an elaborate metaphor for Aira’s method of writing novels.

One thing that stuck out at me as I read the book was the attention paid to acting vs being “natural” and the different ways Aira would distinguish between the two in the book. There are all sorts of things here about writing vs living vs acting vs performing one’s identity vs memory . . . the concept of the “blunder” is very important to the book; on page 22, Aira writes “blunders were a tributary of spontaneity.” I think this perhaps bears some relevance for Aira’s “constant flight forward,” his perpetually improvisational method of writing books. I’d like to ask you if and where “blunders” come into your practice as a translator, particularly with regard to your translations of Aira.

Katherine Silver: Your question points to an important “theme” in the book, perhaps in all of Aira’s work, as well as one principal difference between translating and composition. Nor is the fact that Aira made his living for many years as a translator, often of genre fiction, irrelevant to these considerations. The answer to your question is, simply put, that they don’t, that blunders, improvisation, and spontaneity have little to do with the method or the madness that is literary translation, which is, at least how I do it, picky, detailed, fussy, and painstaking. There are times, many, when I feel I am channelling the text, translating as fast as I can read and type. But what spills onto the page during those sessions is not what you, or any other reader, finds in a published book, which has subsequently been read, reviewed, and corrected at least five more times. Unfortunately, as a translator, my mistakes are much less whimsical, fanciful, or even excusable than blunders, as Aira defines such things. And having done lots of both kinds of writing, he knows of what he speaks.

SE: You’ve clearly read a lot of Aira and enjoy him very much. Can you talk a little about your introduction to Aira–how you first started reading him, and what about the books appealed to you so much as to make you want to begin reading deeply into his work?

KS: Aira was a gift, a precious and deeply appreciated gift, to me from New Directions. His translator, Chris Andrews, was busy translating something else, probably Bolaño, and they asked me to do one. I was thrilled, and suspect I will continue to be so, as long as there is more Aira to read and as long as I get to keep translating him. I think to read Aira is to gain a fresh awareness of what narrative is and can be. With all his supposed gimmicks and nods to genre, he brings the reader very close to the raw material, the original text, so to speak, that is, the primary experience of being human. He seems to write directly from that liminal state, half-dream, half-awake, that is precisely (see prior question) uncensored and so difficult for us mere mortals–who don’t make clones or work miracle cures or follow the walking dead–to hold onto. One feels one is tagging along behind his mind as it weaves and ducks and cross-punches. As a translator, and as a reader, one must trust him and not try to make “sense,” whatever that might mean, of it all. I appreciate that practice.

SE: At numerous points throughout The Miracle Cures of Dr Aira, Aira strikes a contrast between the “partiality” of writing and the “totality” of the present, as though writing is an act of cutting out parts of a “total” reality. This is reflected later in his “miracle cure,” which entails closing off possible realities in favor of the one preferred reality (in which the “cure” is successful), which Aira at one point directly compares to the act of writing a novel. Do you feel like something analogous happens when you translate?

KS: Here, I would answer quite differently, and give a qualified yes. Every word, every phrase, every syntactic construction, every lilt or pause or tone or twist of a translation is the result of a million decisions of exclusion and inclusion. This becomes evident when one compares various translations of the same, even simple, passage, which are never identical, suggesting that there are infinite ways to solve any particular puzzle and that the puzzles are endlessly multiple and overlapping. Sometimes, indeed, I feel language cascading into my office in the same way reality intrudes on the sickroom where Dr. Aira is working his miracle, and though I probably don’t actually do the dance of a madman while trying to hang screens that stretch and bend and slice through any onrush of parts of speech and possible lexical combinations, there’s a lot of picking and choosing going on behind the scenes . . . or is that screens?

SE: Was there anything in particular in this translation where you felt a sense of closing off options particularly strongly, or where you agonized over choosing just one of the many ways you might have translated a span of text?

KS: As you pointed out, certain concepts, expressed by specific words, are pivotal and recurrent in the book. I knew I would have to repeat whatever word I chose as often as he repeated its counterpart, hence they had to be words with a broad enough range without being too vague. Alternatives offered other nuances, but since Aira is, in a sense, defining the words as he uses them, I sensed that I had a little wiggle room. For example, “Blunder” may not have been the most natural choice, but it was the best available, in my mind, and I think it works quite well, in part because it is currently underused hence open to being swayed.

This does bring up another issue that comes up in any translation, but with a particular lilt in Aira. And a method I use for dealing with it. Aira’s prose is just barely off kilter, to my ear, slightly out of tune or off the beat. This is inseparable from the work’s sensibility, not some kind of imposed style. That same oddness comes through in my English, I hope. Upon each re-reading, I must resist making minor, mostly syntactic corrections that would tune it up, so to speak. Whenever tempted, I go back to the original and translate back, that is, check to make sure that Aira did not choose that other wording, or its close equivalent, in Spanish, that would have made me translate that passage in the first place in the way I am now tempted to correct it.

SE: Early in the book, during the first scene where Dr. Actyn’s agents are trying to trick Dr. Aira into performing his “miracle cure,” Aira reflects that “The trap consisted of making him think until he’d convinced himself that it wasn’t a trap.” I think this, obviously, can be read as pointing toward the act of writing a novel, as Aira implies at many points throughout the book. But I felt that one of this book’s strengths was that Aira leaves things schematic enough that you don’t need to reduce this to a book about writing novels. What was your own read of what this book was about, or trying to do?

KS: I’m always reluctant to say what a book is about because if a book can be “about” something that can be summarized briefly, why write or read it. And I usually only think about what a book is trying to do when it doesn’t quite manage to do it. This book, in itself and as part of Aira’s oeuvre, has changed the way I feel the world, being alive, reading and writing. Oddly enough, I felt the same way many years ago about his compatriot, Jorge Luis Borges, someone with whom I feel Aira is always in some kind of concrete or highly abstract dialogue. Borges, however, at least in his stories, isn’t half as funny, at least not to my bone.

But to answer your question more directly: Dr. Aira is a character who undoubtedly undergoes trials, tribulations, doubts, inspirations, persecutions, and tragedies that are, in some form, familiar to the author. I do not think I reduce the book at all by saying that I intuit in more detail something about how the author Aira writes and thinks about his writings by reflecting on the good doctor and his struggle with theory, practice, and humiliation. Also, I like to read his books as installments, parts of a large whole that is, under it all, a slow and stealthy plot for world literary domination. We already knew that outlandish scientific experiments were not beneath his dignity, and now we have miracles on top of it. All I can say is, beware!

SE: Have you read much Aira beyond what has been translated into English? Can you give us some idea of the treasures that still have yet to reach us in English translation?

KS: I have read some, but relative to what is out there, still very few. I picked up around ten slight tomes last time I was in Mexico. Several were brilliant (and some of those will be coming to your local bookstores within the next year or so), some less so, and some were downright awful. That is part of the charm and wonder that is his oeuvre: the treasures in the sand. According to Borges, G.K. Chesterton wanted to compile an anthology of the very worst poems in the world, as long as they were by the very best poets. If Shakespeare, he said, wanted to write a ridiculous page, he would have no qualms about doing so, but a mediocre poet would have no really bad poems because he would be too cautious, would watch over himself too closely.

Six Questions for Margaret B. Carson on Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds

Without a doubt, one of the most interesting new books I read last year was My Two Worlds by Sergio Chejfec. The book raises quite legitimate comparisons to authors like Sebald and Walser, and its brief 100 pages are made expansive by intricate, precise prose. The book concerns the reflections made by its unnamed narrator over the course of a short walk through a park in some unnamed Brazilian city. What is perhaps most striking about this walk is the haze of thought that Chejfec creates within it. Reading, we sense some sort of meaning at the core of this thought, but that meaning stays elusive. It is from this movement between meaning and absence that the book derives its power.

For some insight into both this remarkable translation and the book itself, I corresponded with My Two World’s translator, Margaret B. Carson.


Scott Esposito: In our correspondence prior to this interview, you mentioned working closely with Chejfec on this translation. What sorts of things did you consult him on?

Margaret B. Carson: Yes, we worked closely together while I was doing the translation. Sergio lives in New York and we would often meet to go over words, phrases, and whole passages in the novel, and I also emailed him questions.

One interesting exchange was about a phrase used in the scene where the narrator stands at the park’s lake and talks to the fish and the turtles that have assembled there. He meditates on the sort of controlled, artificial life led by these animals, describing it as “la vida aplicada.” We went back and forth on possible equivalents in English that would best capture that phrase. “The applied life”? A direct translation, but it sounded too strange. I tried other adjectives: The obedient life? docile? planned? Not quite, he said. We finally hit upon “the regulated life,” later fine-tuning it to “the well-regulated life.” It’s not an exact equivalent to the Spanish, but it suggests the odd lives of these captive animals. Of course I didn’t run every word choice by Sergio, but at key moments I often checked. I didn’t want to simplify or misrepresent something that had obviously been well-considered in the Spanish.

Another great help was seeing the actual vintage cigarette lighter that inspired the one described so meticulously in the novel. Sergio brought it to one of our meetings and I took some photos of it. The mechanism was truly amazing. Seeing it in action helped me work out the details of the description, once I’d acquired the vocabulary for its precise parts (the Wikipedia entry for cigarette lighters also came in handy).

SE: We were also emailing about the art of William Kentridge, which plays an important role in Chejfec’s book because it concretizes one of the book’s most important concepts: the gaze. What originally drew you into Kentridge’s art, and how did you apply it to the translation of My Two Worlds?

MC: When I read the book in manuscript, the passages about William Kentridge’s art really stood out for me. I first saw Kentridge’s early animated films in the 1990s at MoMA, the ones that feature the characters Soho and Felix, and I recognized many of the images described in the novel, such as the “visible gaze” and the “intermittent dashes.” The narrator’s meditation on Kentridge’s art was, I think, one of the subliminal hooks that made me want to translate the novel. But though I was already familiar with Kentridge’s work, I found these paragraphs some of the most difficult to translate. Thankfully, I could refresh my memory through YouTube clips, and there was also a big retrospective of Kentridge’s work at MoMA last year. What’s also fascinating is that the narrator describes Kentridge’s art-making process, which is to layer images on top of earlier, partially erased ones—“a work that displays itself being made”—art gazing at itself, so to speak, which I think is also an important theme in Sergio’s work.

SE: That’s interesting that you were taking on specialized vocabulary and knowledge to help the translation of this book. In my opinion, that strengthens the Sebald connection that I and others have established to Chejfec’s work, since a mastery of various minor forms of 20th-century knowledge was so essential to his project. Relative to other things you’ve translated, did you feel that Chejfec’s language placed more demands on your English?

MC: Yes, language and its nuances are extremely important to Sergio, and part of the challenge of translating My Two Worlds was exploring equivalent words and phrases for the English version. Many of the descriptive passages take delight in visual minutiae, as for instance the appearance and texture of the path the narrator follows into the park, or the workings of the large fountain whose spray of water gives him the first inkling of Kentridge’s dotted lines. It was tricky to keep these and other passages moving in the English; what feels effortless in the original breaks down as soon as you begin to translate it. Often sentences would flash back to life again after a few key words were in place; it’s a joy to run wild in English and find such a wealth of possibilities.

In the midst of working on this translation I became won over by words that on previous projects I would probably have rejected as too obscure. For instance, a word that appears a few times at the end of the novel, “disyuntiva,” could be translated more commonly as “crossroads” or “dilemma”; but in choosing “disyuntiva” Sergio chose a word that strongly implies a choice between two options, and so “disjunctive” was really the best equivalent in English. Similarly, the adjective “lacustre,” which occurs twice in the novel, gave me pause; should I use the almost unheard-of cognate “lacustrine”—“of or pertaining to a lake or lakes”—or should I try something more familiar, such as “lakelike”? In the end I decided to keep the stranger word, “lacustrine,” completely justifiable, I thought, since “lacustre” is fairly strange in Spanish as well.

On the whole, I tried to stick quite close to the original, not just in word choice but also in preserving the length and density of the sentences. I had to search for models in English to give me an idea of how to structure and balance the clauses and sub-clauses that, as Enrique Vila-Matas points out in his introduction to My Two Worlds, seem to test the elasticity of the sentence itself. I was happy to discover that the long literary sentence en English is not a relic from 19th-century, and that many contemporary writers—among them Lynne Tillman, William Gaddis, and David Foster Wallace—provided excellent models that helped me carry over this essential part of Chejfec’s style.

SE: Since you mention the subliminal hooks that ignited your interest for the book, can you talk a little about how it came to be translated? Did you pick it out for Open Letter, or did they have a list of titles they were interested in getting translations of? Something else entirely . . . ?

MC: I met Sergio after he moved to New York City and sometime later began to translate a short story of his to submit to Bomb magazine, which at that time published an annual Américas issue featuring new Latin American authors. We met through a mutual friend, the Argentine poet Mercedes Roffé, whom I’ve also translated. I’d never heard of Sergio’s work before we met.

When I was midway into this translation, Sergio sent me the manuscript of the novel he’d just finished, Mis dos mundos. I read it quickly and realized that an excerpt from it might work better as a submission. Sergio agreed, and I translated the opening pages of My Two Worlds and submitted it to Bomb. They loved it, and ran the excerpt in their Winter 2009 issue. At around the same time, Chad Post on his Three Percent blog was wondering who Sergio Chejfec was, since Enrique Vila-Matas had just named Mis dos mundos as one of his favorite novels that year. I wrote to Chad and attached the translation . . . a short time later Sergio and I met Chad in New York City, and within a few months Open Letter offered me a contract to translate the novel. It’s been great working with Open Letter, and Sergio is also pleased to be part of a list that includes two Argentine writers he holds in very high esteem—Macedonio Fernández and Juan José Saer.

SE: With the layering and “work that displays itself being made” aspect of My Two Worlds, did you feel that this is a book that benefits from the kind of extremely close, slow reading required for translation?

MC: When I first began to translate the book, I inched my way through it so slowly and microscopically that I couldn’t see beyond the paragraph I was working on. The shifts in time and place in the novel often caught me by surprise and I had to check with Sergio—is this scene happening in Brazil or elsewhere? The uncertainties of the narrator as he finds his way to the park and wanders around it seemed to mirror my own as the book’s translator. But with each draft (there were maybe six or seven) the confusions began to clear up and I could step back a bit more to appreciate how one scene leads to the next and how it all flows together as a single narrative.

I think it’s a novel that benefits from a slow reading. The images and reflections that drift into the narrator’s mind seem to trigger memories and thoughts in the reader’s mind as well. A few people have told me about passages or phrases they identified with so strongly that they repeated them out loud to others. Sergio mentioned there was a similar response when the novel first came out in Spanish. It’s been exhilarating to see tweets quoting little snippets of the translation, or whole passages posted to blogs.

SE: It’s exciting to hear that authors like Gaddis, Tillman, and Wallace are finding new life in translations such as this one. It points to a very palpable way that their work enriches the English language. What are some of your literary touchstones, either as important books or as books that inform your prose style as a translator?

MC: The most essential books are the ones that let you see great prose in action, live on the page. When you go back and forth repeatedly between the original and the translation it’s easy to stop hearing English. You need to be reminded how sentences flow in English, and even how quirky they can be at times. Any kind of adventurous, ambitious literary fiction is a touchstone for me when I translate contemporary novels.

As to the process of translation itself, some of the best accounts that I’ve ever read are by Lydia Davis, especially her recent piece on translating Madame Bovary in the Fall 2011 The Paris Review.

Nine Questions for Natasha Wimmer on The Third Reich by Roberto Bolaño

Roberto Bolaño and Natasha Wimmer are two people who require no introduction for readers of this blog. So instead, let’s introduce the book at hand: The Third Reich, the latest Bolaño book to be published in English.

The Third Reich was unpublished at the time of Bolaño’s death, but there are indications that he meant it to be published one day: he had begun typing it up, as he did with earlier unpublished novels that were eventually published in his lifetime. The book follows the transformation of one Udo Berger, a German tourist in Spain’s Costa Brava as he plays a board game called The Third Reich. My review of the book is available here.

Wimmer corresponded with me on the actual board game that inspired The Third Reich, reading fast for pleasure vs reading slow for translation, the role of creativity in the process of translation, and readings and misreadings of Roberto Bolaño. She is currently translating Bolaño’s Los sinsabores del verdadero policía, which takes as its protagonist Amalfitano from 2666.


Scott Esposito: To start, you once described this book to me as Bolaño in “farce mode,” and you’ve also told me it’s Bolaño’s funniest book. Given that this book deals with a lot of the familiar Bolaño tropes—horror, fascism, exile, that vague sense of existential menace we all seem to live with these days—in other words, some fairly unfunny stuff, I’m curious to know what you’re keying in on as the humorous aspect of the book. What indicates to you that this is humor, and what kind?

Natasha Wimmer: It’s true—the first time I read The Third Reich I was so struck by the audaciousness of the humor that I had to keep putting the book down to snort in disbelief. I should say that I think Bolaño is generally a funny writer, and maybe especially so in his most apocalyptic moments. A fair number of tragic scenes in 2666—Hans Reiter’s lover dying of consumption in The Part About Arcimboldi, for example—are so florid that I, at least, can’t take them entirely seriously—and I don’t think Bolaño expects us to. In The Third Reich, the cheerfully banal hotel setting struck me immediately as a stage for farce. The early scene in which Udo clashes with the hotel staff when he demands a proper-sized table for his gaming is a brilliant comic set piece. Then there’s the outrageous self-seriousness of Udo, the protagonist (compare him to The Savage Detectives’ García Madero, who is full of himself but also vulnerable). The game itself almost demands to be mocked. And the whole world of gaming ‘zines that Udo is so eager to break into struck me as a parody of the literary world, with its conferences and eminences and publishing contretemps. Most of all, though, I feel that in this book Bolaño exploits to humorous ends the very sense of foreboding that is arguably the trademark of his fiction. Over and over again he sets the reader up to expect some terrible occurrence—and particularly some terrible clash with El Quemado, the hideously scarred pedal boat man—and then fails to deliver. The climactic dream-scene in which Udo is pursued by a phalanx of pedal boats, for example, is truly and deliciously silly. The pacing of the book overall—which I think is one of its most distinctive stylistic features—breeds a sense of anticlimax, as Udo’s stay at the hotel is endlessly drawn out.

SE: It’s interesting that you read the novel’s lack of a strong climax as a positive thing, since I’ve seen a number of reviewers ding The Third Reich for not having that one culminating scene of horror that many of Bolaño’s other novels accustom you to expect. (For my own part, I liked the anti-climax, regarding it more as a failure of Udo’s transformation than of Bolaño’s imagination.) To tie this in to your reading of the book as a farce, do you think there’s a certain perception out there of what Bolaño represents and that a book like Third Reich will be judged in terms of what’s accepted “Bolaño” instead of simply on its own terms?

NW: Yes, I do think that there is a certain expectation of what a Bolaño novel will be, and I worried from the beginning that critics wouldn’t appreciate The Third Reich. Mostly I thought they would have problems with it on a sentence level, because Bolaño’s prose is thinner and more transparent than usual, with fewer of the oblique-lyrical moments that so dominate a novel like By Night in Chile, for example. My sense of the book, though, is that it’s one giant oblique-lyrical moment, and that the pacing is what gives it its stylistic edge and distinctiveness. It’s a book that leaves you feeling off-balance without realizing quite why, because the effect develops so gradually. I like your interpretation of the anti-climax as a reflection of the failure of Udo’s transformation, although I do think that he’s changed—diminished, or somehow shrunken—by his loss of faith in gaming, absurd or creepy as that faith was.

SE: Was this reading of the book as a farce something you came across on your initial read, or did it come out as you took the book apart for the translation? And could you talk a little generally about how a book changes in your perception from that first read to the subsequent readings as you translate it?

NW: It was definitely something I came across on my initial read, and it didn’t change. As for the way my perception of a book shifts in the course of translation: as I work, I almost always become fonder and fonder of the book in question. I pick up on all kinds of details and correspondences that I wouldn’t notice as a casual reader (Bolaño in particular is a massive tapestry of correspondences), and I develop a kind of personal allegiance to the book even if I didn’t love it at first. It may help that I’ve never translated a book I out-and-out hated.

Also: George Steiner says somewhere that translating is like loosening the weave of a fabric until you can see the light through it. He considers this to be a negative effect, but it’s something I must admit I enjoy. As a civilian reader, I tend to read too quickly, skimming over small tangled bits without even noticing, but as a translator I have to shine a light on every phrase and decipher what I think the author means, even if there’s no way to know for sure, and even if it happens to be a phrase that was obscure to the author himself. This is especially true when the author is dead, of course. The result is a text that is perhaps too brightly lit, but the experience of total illumination can be an exhilarating one for the translator.

SE: Given that there’s a range of opinion as to how to untangle those bits (or how much to), and also given that different translators will “read” texts in different ways (and thus produce slightly different versions in English), to what extent do you view translation as a creative or interpretive act?

NW: Only to a minor extent. I think critics tend to overemphasize the importance of individual phrases and bits and don’t take into account the extent to which plot and subject matter (things a translator has no power to alter) affect our experience of a novel, and even our sense of the novel’s style. Small things do add up, but I would argue that as long as the translation is consistent and confident (and competent), the degree to which it’s tilted in any particular direction by the translator is so slight as to be insignificant.

SE: Since you’ve written a lot of book reviews, I’d like to ask where you think “reading books for review” fits on this continuum between reading very quickly for pure pleasure and reading very slowly for translation. For my own part, I tend to like to read a book I’m reviewing very quickly on a first pass to get a very “hot” impression of the book as a whole, but I always go back through more slowly to pick up nuance and fill out my impression.

NW: Gabriel Zaid, a Mexican essayist and poet I’ve translated, has some great things to say about the importance of reading quickly. He goes so far as to claim that unless you move along at a decent speed, you aren’t really getting a sense of the book at all—I think he compares it to getting a slug’s-eye view of a mural. I do think that’s true for me. I can’t say it applies especially to books that I read in order to review, but it does explain why I find it so depressingly difficult to read now that I have small children, and why I so often can’t manage to finish a book. I simply can’t move fast enough to get up the proper momentum.

SE: Fascism and the Nazis in particular were important touchstones to Bolaño throughout all of his major novels, so it’s obviously notable that he titled this book The Third Reich, of all things. But then, being Bolaño, he turns that in to something of a red herring, as he never actually discusses the thing that we all immediately think of when we hear the words “third reich.” Instead, Bolaño’s third reich is a Risk-like board game played by a nerdy subculture (that’s the name of the game, The Third Reich), sort of like Dungeons and Dragons. How do you see this game functioning in the book?

NW: I guess I see it as a stand-in for literature, as something at once ridiculously trivial and deadly important. I think there’s a consciousness of that tension in most of Bolaño’s novels, but here the triviality is played up to an unusual degree. It’s this triumph of the trivial—the conclusion that yes, gaming is meaningless, and literature too, by extension—that gives the novel an unfunny edge. Incidentally, the game referred to in the book is a real game, called Rise and Decline of the Third Reich. I bought an old copy of it on Ebay for research purposes.

SE: I’m surprised to hear that the game exists, but not that surprised, since I read that Bolaño was a huge enthusiast of these games. (I love the idea of the author of By Night in Chile and Distant Star playing this game.) It would be interesting to actually see the game as a real, physical object, since in The Third Reich Bolaño only grants the game a kind of piecemeal presence, where you feel like you only ever have access to bits and pieces of this whole that you never come into contact with. With all that said, I don’t know that I’ve ever heard of a translator purchasing a board game as a translation aid. Was it strange to see the game after having it presented in The Third Reich?

NW: It was exciting to see the game—you rarely have that kind of tangible connection to a novel you’re translating. It was mostly useful to me as a source of vocabulary: the instructions are very long and detailed, and the terminology corresponds pretty closely to Bolaño’s descriptions in the book. To fully immerse myself, I really should have played a match, but it’s not an easy game to pick up quickly.

SE: Given the plot arc of The Third Reich—where Udo inculcates a newcomer into The Third Reich, with not-so-positive results—it’s a little funny to think of you then being brought into the game as an aspect of the novel’s translation. Do you see an analogue between the influence that a game like The Third Reich works over on its participants and the influence that a book (like The Third Reich) can exercise on its readers?

NW: Yes, to a certain degree. Though I think a great novel exerts a more powerful influence than a great game. Gamers, of course, might take issue with that. I’m not a gamer myself, but for the record I will say that I spent one very happy winter when I was thirteen playing Dungeons & Dragons. In theory, books and strategy games both encourage the reader or player to immerse herself in worlds of the imagination, but I would argue that game worlds are so rule-bound and elaborately conceived that they don’t actually leave much room for the imagination. I would say they’re really more about puzzle-solving. But I do think that game-players and obsessive readers (particularly those who fixate on a single author or book) are often consumed by minutiae in ways that are recognizably similar.

SE: That’s a good point about game-players and obsessive readers focusing on minutiae, and Bolaño of course encourages this by distributing characters and images among his novels and stories. Even so, I feel like with an author like Bolaño focusing on the minutiae too much is to somewhat miss out on the good stuff, which, for me, are the stand-out scenes and images, and the ways in which they interrelate throughout a work. I would say his minutiae is more toward creating an atmosphere and a strong sense of an idiosyncratic “Bolaño world” than toward offering fodder for literary interpretation. How do you prefer to read and interpret his work?

NW: Bolaño himself said that he intended everything he wrote to make up part of a “total novel” or roman-fleuve, so I think the reader is absolutely intended to feel as if she’s entering a Bolaño world. The consistency of his vision is one of the most striking things about his work. It’s so strong that after reading one of his novels (or essays—makes no difference), it can be hard to pry yourself out of Bolaño mode. But the reader who focuses on minutiae will soon discover that Bolaño is absolutely inconsistent on a detail level. Characters are constantly cropping up in different novels, but they’re never exactly the same characters. Even specific passages (long passages!) appear in multiple forms in different places. It’s like being in a dream, in which the markers of identity are fluid (one minute you’re yourself and the next minute you’re someone else) but the essences they represent remain constant.

Six Questions for Rosalie Knecht on Cesar Aira’s Seamstress and the Wind

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By now, readers of this blog (and I would hope readers in general) need no introduction to Cesar Aira, one of the most exciting authors to be making his way into English. Over the past couple of years, New Directions has done amazing work with Aira, publishing novel after novel. I think they’re beginning to make some headway in developing the kind of audience that this writer deserves.

They have just published The Seamstress and the Wind, the sixth title of Aira’s to appear in English from New Directions. (A seventh, The Hare, was published in 1997 by Serpent’s Tail but has since gone out of print.)

Perhaps New Directions is beginning to feel that an audience for Aira in English is somewhat assured, as this is the strangest Aira they have yet published. (Although, as this interview makes clear, there are much stranger things out there.) Although no Aira title I have read is conventional, this one goes further than anything I’ve seen in English in throwing out the traditional mechanics of plot and character to create something pure Aira-ian. It’s a strange book, albeit a powerful read. I interviewed its translator, Rosalie Knecht for some insight into Aira, his books, and his future in English.


Scott Esposito: Your bio accompanying Seamstress and the Wind indicates that you received a Fullbright to work with Aira on the translation of this book. Can you tell us a little about how Aira participated?

Rosalie Knecht: We met several times for coffee and talked about how the translation was going, and I emailed him drafts as I finished them. I was in Santa Fe, Argentina, and he lives in Buenos Aires. He had a pretty light touch on the whole thing–he translated mass market stuff from the U.S. for a living for years. He would read the drafts and say, “Sure, that’s fine.” Close to the end of the process I had a list of problems I couldn’t solve and we met in Buenos Aires and went over them. He approved the final draft and gave me the go-ahead to talk to his U.S. publisher.

SE: Can you discuss one of the translation problems from the list that you brought to Aira?

RN: One of them was the word acanastado. I’d had no luck in my dictionary or online–Google returned exactly one result, and it was the same text I was working on, which is apparently online in PDF form somewhere. Anyway, canasta means basket, and acanastado is what would happen if you could conjugate basket like a verb. It was referring to the backseat of a car that had been in a wreck. I asked him if I could use basketed, and he said that that was probably what he meant. He wrote the book in 1994, so some of it was reverse-engineering to something that he hadn’t needed to think about in a long time.

SE: It’s funny that you mention about Aira not having thought about the text since 1994. I conducted an interview with him in the spring where he essentially said that he writes so much that he more or less forgets what he’s previously written, to the point that it’s hard to talk about it with critics, interviewers, etc. Did this come up a lot with the translation of this book?

RN: It did come up, yeah. When I brought him translation problems he tended to approach them in a collegial way, as if the two of us were working on a third party’s book and he just happened to be more knowledgeable about it than I was. He doesn’t like to look back on his past work, and people often remark on that, but I think it’s actually kind of typical for writers. I write fiction too, and once I’m really finished with a piece, I kind of superstitiously avoid it. There’s a sense that once you let go of a piece of work, it may change into something you don’t recognize.

SE: I take it you’ve read a number of books of Aira’s. Can you talk a little about why this one was chosen for you to translate, as well as how you see this one fitting in with some of the better-known Aira books out there? For my own part, I found it a remarkably whimsical book from an author who, of course, tends not to spare the whimsy.

RN: I picked this book myself. It was the second half of a two-novella volume put out by Beatriz Viterbo in Argentina, the first half being How I Became a Nun. I was just pulled in by it. I think a lot of it is about loss. All the stuff you lose, all the stuff you can’t get rid of no matter how hard you try. But it’s sort of wide-eyed instead of being depressing.

It does fall more on the whimsical side–How I Became a Nun buries its weirdness a little deeper, messing with gender and continuity instead of monsters and cars made out of armadillos and that kind of thing. An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter plays it pretty straight, by Aira’s standards, a lot of the time. I think some of the weirder stuff hasn’t been translated yet, like his short stories, for instance. Cerebro Musical is about a brain made from cardboard that plays music in a library, and then escapes and wreaks havoc on Aira’s actual hometown. Mil Gotas is about the drops of paint that make up the Mona Lisa, which escape (a theme?) and go into space and get into some kind of interplanetary showdown. But he’s published about eighty books, so I can’t claim to know his whole catalog.

SE: Seamstress has a strange sort of beginning. Aira discourses about the role of memory and forgetting in the creation of fiction, and then he starts telling what is ostensibly a true anecdote about when he was a boy growing up in Colonel Pringles and a boy named Omar went missing. This ends up being the first event in what is clearly a fictional story; and, throughout the book Aira casually injects himself into the narrative, seemingly per whim. How do you construe his relationship to this text?

RN: There’s a lot about things going missing and “disappearing” in the novel, which is a very loaded word in Argentina. I think Omar’s disappearance is kind of an oblique reference to the dictatorship years–something historical and specific turned into something abstract and personal. Maybe it’s that “personal” aspect that explains Aira’s relationship to the text, beyond just the fact that Aira tends to insert himself into his own books, either as a character or a commentator, pretty often. The memories described are obviously not real, because these things can’t actually happen, but they could be seen as a personalized, individualized interpretation of national collective memories that are traumatic.

I think if he heard me say this, though, he would roll his eyes.

SE: One final question about where translators might head next with Aira. Of the stuff out there to be published, there’s the story “Cecil Taylor,” one of my favorite Aira works. I’d love to see that published somewhere someday. Will you be translating any Aira in the future and what books of his you’d most like to see make their way into English.

RN: I’d be happy for the chance to work on another Aira book, and I’m also looking into some other writers. The challenge is finding the money to do it. Most translators are either grant-supported, as I was in this case, or they’re academics.

I was just talking to somebody the other day about Ema la Cautiva–one of his more popular books, and as far as I can tell, unavailable in English. It was sort of his breakout novel in 1981, after which his books started getting printed in Europe. Somebody should get on that.

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Seven Questions for Ottilie Mulzet on Animalinside

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Perhaps no other author has grown in my estimation over the past 12 months as much as László Krasznahorkai. An author known for his challenging grammar and long, complex sentences, he has previously published two novels in English translation, both by New Directions–War and War and The Melancholy of Resistance.


Animalinside
, his third book in English, has taken a circuitous route, first being published in Paris as part of Sylph Editions’ Cahiers series, in conjunction with New Directions. It has just been released by New Directions in the U.S. as a gorgeous 48-page pamphlet.

Though the book is short, it is intense and beautiful, as Krasznahorkai created it in conjunction with the German artist Max Neumann. The language throughout is excellent, and very literary. As I recently wrote in a review of the book:

The result of this international, multimedia collaboration is Animalinside, a book in which a galaxy of implication springs from Neumann’s striking, muscular animal form. It is an iconic image, somewhere between a demented howl and a vicious leap, instantly recognisable, adaptable, enigmatic. The figure features prominently in each of Neumann’s paintings, which are reproduced magnificently in the book. The reproductions’ range of texture is superb, capturing the subtle, diffuse shifts in shade that characterise Neumann’s backgrounds and the crisp blotches of colour that seep atop them.

I recently corresponded with the book’s translator, Ottilie Mulzet, for some very interesting thoughts on Hungarian irony, the art of translation, and the use of graphics in literary texts.


To start, you’re obviously someone who has spent a lot of time inside of Krasznahorkai’s prose. I’m curious to know what kind of a tradition you see it coming out of, or continuing. Would you classify him as a “Hungarian” author?

Definitely, on one level Krasznahorkai’s prose, and particularly a piece like Animalinside, has its “roots”—if one can put it that way—in post WWII European existentialism. Having said that, however, I do see much in his work that has its own uniquely Hungarian qualities, or perhaps has been shaped by a very specific mentality, which for me is intrinsically tied up with the Hungarian language itself.

As Hungarian literature entered the modern era (i.e. from the early 20th century on), Hungarian writers were always generally considered as either “népi” (i.e., folk, more concerned with themes having to do with the countryside) or “urbanus” (i.e., belonging to a more urban, cosmopolite sphere). There are of course quite a few writers, including, of course, Krasznahorkai himself, whose work transcend both these categories. I probably don’t need to add that that these terms can be used as labels, and that in a way they also define what can be perceived as fairly harsh societal divides.

I do think there is a drive in Krasznahorkai’s prose to push any given hypothetical event to its extreme and ultimate conclusion, as well as a willingness to hold it up to intense and unrelenting psychic scrutiny. For me, this is the most “Hungarian” aspect of his work. There is no Bakhtinian element of carnival here, rather the long sentences force the reader to suspend his or her own consciousness. Krasznahorkai forces the reader into an extremity of otherness, in this case, if you will, the performative “devenir animal” (to quote Gilles Deleuze) of the narrating beast in AnimalInside.

There is one pre-war Hungarian writer I would like to mention, however: Frigyes Karinthy (1887-1938). He was primarily known as a satirist and humorist and in fact, his satiric writings were absolutely brilliant. In a series of longer short stories, though, he explored the themes of extreme psychic disintegration. Clearly he was trying to see how far he could push the Hungarian language in these stories, what happens to it when subjected to a maximum level of psychic breakdown. I see some of these experimental writings as something of a precursor to Krasznahorkai’s work within Hungarian literature, although I have to add here I don’t know if Krasznahorkai himself would consider this to be the case.

You’ve previously remarked on an odd instruction that Krasznahorkai gave you on the translation–you’ve said that he instructed you “there are many repetitions in the text, and this is very important; repeat everything exactly as it is in the original regardless of what the English language WANTS.” As a translator, how did you react to such an admonition, and what did you feel that the English wanted vis a vis the Hungarian?

I think he was right to point that out, and I would have done so anyway. The repetitions are so integral to the text, to its absurdity and irony: they are almost something like apocalyptic mantras.

Of course, there are a number of real challenges moving from Hungarian into English, but I will just mention the more important ones in this case: you’re translating from a left-branching agglutinative language to a right-branching isolative one. A “left-branching” language basically means that prepositional phrases are used in situations where English uses a subordinate clause (i.e. “I saw the man coming towards me,” as opposed to “I saw the coming-towards-me man”), and that sentences are constructed—roughly speaking—in reverse order from English. The agglutinative nature of Hungarian means that an incredible amount of information can be expressed very tersely, in many fewer words than in English, and in addition, information can be encoded in other words (for example, objects included in verbs). This adds up to a considerable challenge for the English translator, particularly in this era of “globish,” when English is in many respects the victim of its own success. There is, however, a bright side: I am more than convinced that many “minor languages” (to use a Deleuzian term again) exist within English: there is African English, Indian English, Afro-American Vernacular, etc. And so my goal in translating a text like Animalinside is—I would hope—to create a space for one of these “minor Englishes,” perhaps an entirely new “animal English,” while translating this work. A text translated in such a way could possibly fulfil the “task of the translator,” as set out by Walter Benjamin, which is to maintain the underlying “foreignness” of the text even despite its rendering into the language of its presumed readers.

Perhaps what you’re creating a space for is a Krasznahorkai-English. Regarding the Hungarian, could you compare the prose in Animalinside to the prose in some of Krasznahorkai’s other books? Does he speak in the same “voice” as it were, or does he suit it more to the task of each individual book?

I certainly think there should be a space for a Krasznahorkai-English. As I said, I think contemporary English is infinitely enriched by all the “minor Englishes” out there, and yet English itself, as one of the dominant linguistic paradigms of our age (perhaps not forever though . . .) still needs this injection of “difference.” English is the great normalizer of our time, while many smaller languages of the world are literally fighting for survival (and threatened not just by English) and as such, any crack or fissure where “otherness”—however unfashionable that term may have become—can creep in is, in my view, to be welcomed.

In terms of the question of “voice,” for me, at least, what is very particular about Animalinside was not only the irony in the text. Any language like Hungarian, with a highly developed sense of registers of politeness, has a natural tendency to irony. Plus, there is the Eastern European “experience” (which has not necessarily ceased with the end of Communism). Actually, it is really the kind of irony being expressed that is so unique. Grave, terrifying, unrelenting, yet at the same time comic in its absurdity—this was actually the most difficult thing to convey in the translation. This was something well beyond your usual garden varieties of Hungarian or “Eastern European” irony, and I think it partially stems from the absolute intensity with which Krasznahorkai is able to “channel” the voice of the dog. It is irony saturated with a heavy dose of the uncanny.

Yes, I agree completely, the irony in Animalinside has a very particular feel to it; “uncanny” is a good word to use. I found it impossible to take anything in this book at face value, yet, oddly enough, this didn’t undercut the sense of meaningfulness or “aboutness” so much as add to it. You’ve touched on this a little already, but I’d like to ask you directly about where you see this irony coming from. Did you feel that either the Hungarian or the English better lent itself to the construction of this irony?

As I mentioned, Hungarian has always struck me as a language full of irony, from the most casual exchanges on the street to high literary art. A friend of mine, who was visiting Budapest and speaks some Hungarian, was heading to the train station to return home, when a homeless man tried to sell her a copy of the Hungarian streetpaper Fedél nélkül (literally “without shelter”). She bought a copy, and then worked out that he was asking her where she was from: “mobilizing her Hungarian into action,” she answered that she was from the Czech Republic. “Gratulálok” (congratulations) replied the man, in an utterly deadpan manner. My friend said it was absolutely impossible for her to figure out if he meant it seriously or not. And she mentioned that part of mastering the Hungarian language necessarily has to include a mastery of this ‘technique’ of irony.

At the same time, there’s the irony of a writer like Imre Kertész—the one line that somehow is engraved in my mind is the statement made by the narrator of Fatelessness (quoting from memory): something to the effect that “I really would like to remain alive just a little bit longer in this lovely concentration camp.” The irony in the original is so searing, so cutting. It’s impossible to pin down what Kertész is really saying. If the classic definition of irony is that you appear to be making one statement but are actually making one completely different, I think what distinguishes Hungarian irony is the semantic fluidity of the “hidden statement.” Hungarian, due to the linguistic features I listed before, can be highly ambiguous. In AnimalInside, Krasznahorkai really carries this ambiguity to the ultimate macro-level, as the reader can never really discern what the approaching “disaster” is, and yet the text is imbued with a sense of menace. I think this is one of the most brilliant features of the text, the highly amorphous quality of this apocalypse. In translating, it’s very important to retain the ambiguity as much as possible. English can be ambiguous—think, for example, of Henry James, and those dialogues, particularly from his later works, where language is utterly emptied out, he turns it into a hollow vessel. And yet the amorphousness, in a text such as Animalinside, is different—you’re dealing with a referent that simply cannot be pinned down, whereas Henry James makes it disappear altogether.

Given your remarks on the length of Krasznahorkai’s sentences—the way in which they work with a reader’s consciousness and force a reader into an “extremity of otherness”—I’m curious to know how you read the prose. And how does your approach change when you read it in order to translate it?

Péter Nádas noted somewhere that Hungarian is a “slow” language. There is a way, as I remarked, in which Krasznahorkai’s prose forces one to slow down, something like when you watch a Noh drama (or one of the infinitely long cinematic takes of Béla Tarr, which express the dynamics of a Krasznahorkai sentence so perfectly). Krasznahorkai’s sentences, particularly in Animalinside, are for me something like ever-expanding circles of repetition: on the one hand, he’s something like a master tight-rope walker of verbal art (how long can he stay up there, keep this sentence going?); on the other, you are drawn into, surrounded, or for that matter engulfed, by the subordinate clauses piling up endlessly upon each other. The repetitions then shift direction. Like ripples expanding outward on the surface of a pond, the subsequent clause is always implicit in the previous one.

Of course, when you read something as a translator, your reading of the text has to be as absolutely close as possible, it is possibly somewhat different than the esthetic “jouissance” of the reader. You truly have to dissect it—actually, a perfect metaphor comes to mind from a chapter of Seiobo (Krasznahorkai’s latest novel), which I am now translating, in which an ancient statue in a restorer’s workshop has to be fully disassembled into its tiniest component parts in order for the restoration work to take place. The translator, of course, has a different task—but the process of mentally breaking something down into its tiniest component parts is the same. Instead of the parts of the statue laid out before you on the table, you have, as it were, on the table in your head, all the different phonemes of a particular textual segment, and you have to understand the function, the role, the purpose of each one exactly in order to transpose it to another language. The essence, though, the intangibility that needs to be conveyed—to continue with the metaphor of the statue-restoration—lies within all of these components, between them, and yet also beyond them.

I would imagine that getting that intangibility to come across would be the most difficult part. What sorts of things do you do to help determine when the various components of a translation are working together to achieve the desired effect?

Part of the answer, for me, is that I only translate texts that I feel very close to. As in the case of other writers whose work I’ve translated (Szilárd Borbély, Gábor Schein, to name just two), I felt that their work somehow demanded translation, this rendering into another tongue. I don’t feel that I could necessarily do an outstanding job with any given piece of writing, although at times it is enormously useful to translate something that you wouldn’t have attempted otherwise. Generally, however, I need to feel that I know what is behind the words, not only that I understand everything semantically, but that I can sense why the writer felt that it had to be written down. Somehow I need to go behind the sentences, to some pre-verbal space . . . It’s almost as if the text has to “die” in one language and be “reborn” in another, a process which has to be extremely technical, but also highly intuitive.

And since we’re talking about reading into the text, this would be the appropriate place to ask you about Neumann’s paintings, which are of course part of the book and its interpretation. What was your approach to these? Have you ever worked with a text with such a strong graphic element to it?

I have actually never translated a text with such a strong graphic component, so that was fascinating for me. I looked at the images as I was translating. The image of the two-dimensional beast in the three-dimensional space—I think there must be something archetypal about it . . . A while ago I happened to be watching an old Mongolian historical film about the famous prince Cogtu Taiji and the internecine political-religious wars between different Buddhist sects in Mongolia in the early 17th century: one of the opening scenes of the second part opens up with an image of a two-dimensional beast in a three-dimensional space. It is so uncannily similar to the first image in Animalinside (and we are talking about a film here that would have had little or no distribution outside of Mongolia during early Soviet times), I think this must be a very deeply archetypal visual trope. Anyway, I wasn’t sure, so I asked an older Mongolian friend about this image. It turned out that it is the skin of a dead horse, hung outside of the yurt—to warn other nomads, who could see it from a great distance—of the plague. The visual symbolism of the animal skin placed at an oblique angle (i.e. not pointing to the upper realm, to the deities) immediately conveys “don’t come here, something is wrong.”


(shot from the film Cogtu Taiji (Prince Chogt, 1945), directed by M. Luvsanjamts, M. Bold, and Yu. K. Tarich)

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Seven Questions for Lynne Tillman

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I’m no specialist on the relative reputations of contemporary U.S. authors, but I would classify Lynne Tillman as “greatly underappreciated.” Over a long and fruitful career she has worked in numerous genres to numerous ends, the one underlying quality seeming to be, simply, quality.

Her latest book, a collection of short fiction called Someday This Will Be Funny, has just been published by Red Lemonade. (And, like all Red Lemonade titles, can be read for free on the website.) In one of the all-too-few reviews of this book to appear to far, Michael Wood at Bookforum opined

For all their attention to ambiguity, Tillman’s stories make impressions almost immediately. The titles of Someday This Will Be Funny themselves tell great stories: “That’s How Wrong My Love Is,” “The Unconscious Is Also Ridiculous,” “But There’s a Family Resemblance,” “Save Me from the Pious and the Vengeful.” Some pieces feature inspired renditions of figures from pop culture and history, with characters including Clarence Thomas, Marvin Gaye, and John Lennon, all of whom are caught up in the intelligent melancholy that marks the rest of Tillman’s work. Other characters, named or not, remember old affairs, long for new ones, talk to their analysts, wonder about acts of so-called kindness, stay married in spite of (real or imagined) infidelities. They drink, make jokes, sometimes confront awkward truths, more often devise brilliant evasions of them. Quite often they write, clinging to sentences as if to memories or old friends.

This gestures toward the breadth and accomplishment of the pieces in this collection. For more on Tillman and what she does, I asked her a few questions about this latest book.


Scott Esposito: The first thing I’d like to ask is about the form of these stories. Most of them are very short, 5 pages or less. What were you trying to accomplish here? Or, to put it another way, what do you think can be done with this form that can’t be done with others?

Lynne Tillman: I began writing very short stories, so I’ve always done them. Actually, as a teenager, poems too, and I’ve recently been writing poems for my prose, like haiku. I like the intensity a short piece allows. I also love–more–the long form, novels, for how I can work with time and duration, and the development of consciousness over time, elaborating relationships, contradictions, playing with essays inside novels. The short form asks other things from a writer. More than economy, it demands the intensity I already mentioned, and there’s perhaps a different kind of attention and attitude toward time. We read with expectations, with history, other books and stories in mind, and different forms let you write with and against those expectations. There’s excitement too about starting somewhere and finishing fast.

SE: I’d like to follow up on this idea of very short work requiring a kind of intensity, perhaps having a particular creative space to fit into. Do you find yourself imposing certain limitations–like limiting revising–to maintain this intensity when you work with very short prose?

LT: I never impose that limit–I don’t see the point of doing that in writing. I’m not running a race against myself, though I am always testing myself to see if I can do better, but it’s not a race. More, I don’t think writing and writing again and changing and rewriting or revising are separate processes. It’s all writing. I don’t limit any of that. The intensity that I mentioned comes from what has to be achieved, said, written, in a shorter form.

SE: Given this intensity you strive for, do you find yourself using irony more in these shorter pieces than in longer projects? It seems to me that throughout this collection you get a lot of mileage out of unreliability, contradiction, and paradox.

LT: I think contradiction and paradox are inscribed in much of my work, though in shorter pieces, since there’s more compression, they may strike a reader harder or seem louder.

SE: Throughout the collection there seems to be a lot of appropriation, in different ways to different ends. I thought one side of it was summed up rather well by a remark you make in the story “Madame Realism’s Conscience” (itself a story that heavily appropriates quotes): “Jokes could be indiscriminate about their subjects, since the only necessity was a good punchline that confronted expectation with surprise, puncturing belief, supposition, or image.” My gloss of this is that this is a classic defense of a certain kind of appropriation that says sources only matter insofar as they are useful. Once a subject is appropriated into a joke, its broader connotations yield to the logic and goal of the joke–which is to surprise someone into laughing.

LT: It’s hard to separate appropriation or its strategies from language itself. Words name and describe things, words indicate, words are themselves objects, using words appropriates everything words have ever done historically, in a sense. I write about what’s around me, and how I see or experience or use it. About jokes, I have many thoughts. I like telling them, for one. I like being told them. I’ve used them most especially in my novel, No Lease on Life. There they were economical ways of representing what goes on in the city, what’s floating on people’s minds, what the current issues are. And, it’s the structure of the joke that counts–the film The Aristocrats demonstrated that beautifully; it’s among the best contemporary works on narrative I know, along with Tod Solondz’ Storytelling and Alain Resnais’ Wild Grass. Appropriation in visual art, as it was done in the 1970s on, emphasized what was always there–how art borrows from itself. Writing always borrows from itself. As Virginia Woolf said, “Books continue each other.”

SE: What you say about jokes strikes me as worth dwelling on since there are so many kinds of jokes in Someday This Will Be Funny (even the title implies that jokes are what unify these very different works). They range from the kinds of punchline jokes mentioned above to some fairly sadistic and elaborate practical jokes that verge on sociological studies. For instance, maybe the one in “Dear Ollie,” where a group of friends conspire to serve food artificially colored blue to one of their number, but act as though everything is normal. By the time they get to serving him blue milk with his coffee, he has stopped even commenting on the blueness. Since you mention your interest in structure, I wonder, do you see parallels between the different ways of telling a joke and the telling a story; The Aristocrats meets Exercises in Style?

LT: Parallels? I’m not sure. I was just amazed how many ways that, with a consistent beginning and end, the tale could be told and at the end I always laughed. It didn’t matter, the collision between the beginning, middle, and end inevitably was funny. Freud wrote about dreams and jokes in similar ways. I’ve stopped using dreams, for the most part, in my writing, and prefer to use jokes. They are little stories inside bigger ones that comment in uncountable ways upon what’s in the framing story, and the bigger story–what’s going on, as Marvin Gaye said. Jokes are sometimes offensive and do the job of saying the unspeakable in a permissible form. Someone’s disgusting, offensive joke is another’s way of letting off steam and not reaching for a gun. People need a place for ordinary sadism. Jokes allow for that. And also I seem to think funny and serious are often the same.

SE: I wanted to ask about your story “Love Sentence,” which I believe is the longest in the collection. It’s basically a collection of statements about love, many quoted from famous luminaries, and just as many made by your character, Paige. This story is a real treasure trove–you quote Derrida here as saying, “I can love the other only in the passion of this aphorism.”–and it has a great trick ending. All of these statements on love point to both the insufficiency and unlikely success of language. I’d like to ask, given your earlier response about appropriation, and given the grain of the story, do you see love, or related phenomena like memory, nostalgia, etc., as unique to the individual or more indebted to language that, frankly, comes from somewhere else?

LT: Romantic love is indebted to language. “The Art of Courtly Love” provided guidance for courtiers on how to woo. I don’t know that “romantic love” and “memory” are related phenomena, because memory functions differently, doesn’t it? Humans don’t learn to remember in the ways that people learn to love or to speak love. But the drive for sex is an instinct, in the way that remembering might be instinctive or at least built-in, for survival–like salmon upstream because they need to procreate and they “remember” the way. I don’t see how we separate individuals from the language they use, because individuals are constructed by language, so we’re also always social animals. Individuals take on culture and society through language. We “love” through language, we embrace ideas about love that aren’t only ours. We “need” from birth, need warmth, shelter, food, and all this before language. Humans have basic needs that get “civilized” in societies, and there are different customs for the same basic needs.

SE: In the final story in this collection you write “out of nothing comes language and out of language comes nothing and everything. I know there will be stories. Certainly, there will always be stories.” Do you see the stories a culture tells as being the aspect of that culture that endures the longest?

LT: Years ago I read a newspaper article in the Wall Street Journal about scientists who were pondering how to let people far in the future know that a land area had been the site of buried radioactive material, unsafe for 10,000 years. Scientists knew they couldn’t just put a sign at the site, and think that future generations would see it. What if the sign was destroyed or taken down? So they considered the possibility of creating myths about the area to frighten off people hundreds of years later, people would pass on these myths. I don’t know if stories do endure the longest, but we still read myths that are cautionary tales and report human behavior in fascinating ways. When I wrote “Certainly there will always be stories,” I didn’t mean that stories would necessarily be relevant or that stories are necessarily positive elements or something to count on. To me, that line is deadpan and ambiguous. Stories may and probably will continue, but they could be awful and stupid and trite. There certainly are a lot of stories that do and say nothing.

For more interviews, follow this link.

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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