Category Archives: Interviews

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.

, 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.

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Seven Questions for Translator Tim Mohr


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I don’t say things like this a whole lot, but I feel relatively safe in saying that if Tim Mohr wasn’t translating, our image of contemporary German literature would be quite different. His first two translations were two of the most notable and noted books to emerge into English from Germany in the ‘00s: Guantanamo by Dorothea Dieckmann and Wetlands by Charlotte Roche. He followed up those two with two novels for Europa Editions by Alina Bronsky, who has quickly built a name for herself as a writer to be reckoned with in English.

Prior to coming on the translation scene in 2004 with Guantanamo, Mohr worked as an editor with Playboy, and, as you’ll quickly see, information he might have picked up there came to bear on his work. In addition to translation and editing, he’s also currently at work on his own book, a history of the punk music scene in East Germany.

Scott Esposito: I’m very curious as to why you wanted to translate Wetlands. The book is infamous, and some seem to like it quite a lot, but many people I know don’t think much of it at all. Where do you stand on this, and what drew you in?

Tim Mohr: I definitely supported the basic mission of Wetlands, which I saw as taking issue with a perceived American cult of feminine hygiene–the antiseptic vision of femininity promulgated by things like “Sex and the City.” The German press was full of references to that, suggesting that this hygiene cult was incompatible with feminism, and that Wetlands was a corrective to it. I was glad to be able to help bring that debate home. But as far as translating it, I came to the book in a roundabout way. An editor at Grove/Atlantic asked me to read Wetlands overnight and prepare a reader’s report on it for her publisher, Morgan Entrekin, who was over at the London Book Fair—there was a lot of buzz surrounding Wetlands at the fair that year as it was already approaching a million sales in Germany, I think. Once it became clear Grove was interested in acquiring the U.S. rights for it, I mentioned to the editor that not many translators would understand as well as I did the distinction between, say, the German word for “pussy” and the German word for “cunt”—an important distinction in Wetlands. The reason my vocabulary is a bit unique that way is because I learned all my German while working as a club DJ in Berlin. As you can imagine, in that world I learned the German terms for things like “nipple piercing” and “anal sex” long before I ever knew things like “gender politics.” And though Wetlands is really about the latter, it’s expressed mostly in terms like the former.

SE: When we were emailing prior to this interview, you mentioned that Wetlands has the one word in your career as a translator that you’d like to have back. Can you tell us now about that word?

TM: The word I’d like to have back is “ladyfingers.” I wish I’d used “madeleines” instead. But it will take some explaining to understand why I would agonize over baked goods in the midst of a hyper-sexual story about distended assholes and intimate shaving. Charlotte stressed to the German press that she hoped to help facilitate women talking about their bodies the way men do—she wanted to create a new vocabulary, in part by creating nicknames for various body parts. Probably the hardest part of the translation was coming up with English equivalents for the nicknames she invented in German. I had to jettison the literal translations of some of them since they wouldn’t function fluidly in English, the way any decent nickname needs to. For example, the literal translation of her nickname for the clitoris would be “pearl-trunk” or “pearl-snout.” But that sounds like crap in English. I just could not imagine English speakers adopting that term. So I started extrapolating from the base words in German, and bouncing various ideas off women friends. In the end I opted for “snail-tail.” The “snail” part rings true to the oyster association (the “pearl”) of the original, and the use of a body part (“tail” in my version) also mirrors the original “snout” or “trunk.” I also debated about the German word adopted as a nickname for the inner labia, Hahnenkaemme. Technically it’s “coxcombs” in English. But the fact that the English word derives from “cock” made it a rather unfortunate word to use to describe female genitalia. Yes, Hahn means the same thing as “cock,” but Hahn doesn’t have the instant association with male genitalia that “cock” does in English. It just means rooster. I thought about using “wattles,” which are the similar skin below a chicken’s beak. In the end I chose “dewlaps,” which, on the necks of some lizards at least, look similar to coxcombs. OK, now on to the outer labia, which were named after a type of German cookie. This is where I used the dreaded “ladyfingers,” which I figured were a kind of baked good English readers would know and which have a similar shape to the German cookie mentioned. But one female reviewer said “ladyfingers” made her shudder. And while some other reviewers with no knowledge of German took potshots at me for the frequent use of “pussy” in the book—not realizing that the German word Muschi, which Charlotte peppered the book with, is such a direct analog to the English “pussy” that it, too, can be used to describe a small cat—this reviewer’s reaction to “ladyfingers” struck me as both totally legitimate and spot-on. There was no way this term had any chance of becoming a viable nickname in English, meaning I made a bad call there. And it bugs me all the more because I had an alternative I kept plugging in and out while I tried to decide how to deal with those damn German cookies. Nobody would have shuddered over madeleines.

SE: So, let’s switch gears to Alina Bronsky, from whom you’ve translated last year’s Broken Glass Park and The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, just released last month. Given your remarks on Wetlands vis a vis the feminine ideal, I’m wondering if this was something that drew you to the two books of Bronsky’s that you’ve translated. The female characters presented here are certainly atypical.

TM: Actually, at the time the offer to translate Bronsky came along, I was already determined to work on something from the boom in what you might call German immigrant literature. I had been to a talk at Carnegie Hall during the “Berlin in Lights” festival a few years ago, and at one point the ostensible experts on the panel began bemoaning the fact that there wasn’t any immigrant literature in Germany. I sat there in disbelief, as I’d probably read ten books in the previous five years by writers for whom German was their second language–some of which had been spectacularly successful (Wladimir Kaminer’s Russendisko sold over a million copies in Germany) and others, like Yade Kara’s Selam Berlin, had received prestigious literary prizes. After that experience, I decided I would translate a book by one of these writers. That is what drew me to Bronsky initially; reading Broken Glass Park convinced me it was the right book.

SE: I’d like to ask you about how you, or you and your editors, marketers, etc, arrived at the title The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine. It plays rather comically off the book’s story–about a decidedly undesirable young woman’s immaculate pregnancy–but to my ears it doesn’t quite sound right . . . something that, if I saw it in the bookstore, I wouldn’t want to read.

TM: The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine is actually a very direct translation of the German title. The only question was whether to translate it as “hottest” or “spiciest,” and since hottest had a more obvious double meaning, we went with that. Like English, there’s no word in German for the sensation we call “hot” or “spicy,” and they, too, are stuck having to describe it metaphorically–in German hot food is described as “sharp,” so the original title also had something of a potential double meaning given the barbs and jagged edges of Rosalinda’s personality.

SE: Can you talk a little about German immigrant writing, as I’m sure this will be something of interest to the people who follow this site, in particular books that should be translated into English.

TM: Well, I first became aware of it because of Russendisko, which was published in 2000. Russendisko was a collection of short stories based on Kaminer’s experiences following his emigration from the Soviet Union to East Germany just before the fall of the Berlin wall. Taken together, the stories created a kind of pointillist image of Berlin in the 1990s. Kaminer also DJed at Kaffee Burger, a great little sweatbox of a club where I had played, too, so I was intrigued by the whole thing. I suppose in part because his book sold so well, soon after came a wave of writers with Soviet-era East European backgrounds. But the trend also broadened to include writers like Kara, who grew up bilingual in Turkish, Sasa Stanisic, whose family fled war-torn Bosnia, and, more recently, Mariam Kuehsel-Hussaini, who has Afghani roots. What interested me in this writing wasn’t exoticism or the off chance of spotting linguistic innovation or the desire to find a common thread in works that didn’t really share one; I just thought Americans should know that voices beyond ethnic Germans were represented–and quite extensively–in the German publishing world. Particularly now, at a time when renewed anti-immigration sentiment has allowed statements in the political arena unthinkable just a few years ago–I mean, when the chancellor calls multiculturalism an utter failure, as she did last fall, you know things have changed–it’s important to realize that non-traditional voices have a stronger presence than ever before on the cultural front.

SE: If I’m not mistaken, Guantanamo was your first novel-length translation. What were the circumstances of you doing this book? Did you get involved with the idea of moving into translation more seriously, or was this more only the lines of a one-off project that drew you in to the world of translation?

TM: It’s sounds kind of cheesy, but when I moved back from Berlin I felt a strong sense of obligation to the city specifically and to Germany in general. Basically, I took away so much from living in Berlin that I wanted to try to repay that philosophical debt somehow. This was ten years ago, back before Berlin was known as the coolest city on the planet, and I wanted to help get the word out about what a great place it had become and facilitate the exchange of ideas between Germany and the US in whatever small way I could. One of the things I did–on the side, while I was still at Playboy–was to start writing reader reports and doing sample translations for US publishers considering buying the rights to German books. Guantanamo just sort of fell into my lap as a result of that work. Richard Nash at Soft Skull needed the book translated quickly and somehow heard my name. He had me prepare a sample of the first few thousand words. I had no further credentials, but he took a chance on me based on that sample. I’m very grateful he did.

SE: Obviously releasing a book titled “Guantanamo” in 2004 is going to evoke politics, but after reading a lot of the coverage around it, I get the sense that this isn’t a book strictly “about” torture, imprisonment, etc. Do you see this as a book tied to a particular historical moment, or more as a book that uses a very particular set of circumstances to make an interesting work of art?

TM: Dude, I’m just the translator. I’ll let others make that call. Though I will say the writing in Guantanamo had more musicality than anything else I’ve translated–Dorothea Dieckmann’s original text had a churning, rhythmic feel that I thought very important to try to recreate.

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Five Questions with Marius Kociejowski, Author of The Pigeon Wars of Damascus


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This is an interview by editor Eric Ormsby an editor with the press Biblioasis: The Pigeon Wars of Damascus by Marius Kociejowski. I’m presenting it here for two reasons: first, having published the work of author Ray Smith (have a look at Century), Horacio Castellanos Moya, and others, as well as having an international fiction series edited by Stephen Henighan, the press has distinguished itself in my mind for quality literature. The second reason is that the book in question, The Pigeon Wars of Damascus, is a work that fits into the genre of “atypical travel literature,” and as such might resonate with the readers of this site who have enjoyed authors like Jean Rolin, W.G. Sebald, etc.

Eric Ormsby: You’ve been fascinated by Syria for a long time and you’ve now written two books about the country. What sparked this fascination? How do you explain it to yourself?

Marius Kociejowski: There were many sparks, of course, whole constellations of them, but if I had to choose a single flicker it would be when I first went there in 1995 and found myself spending an hour with a young man in the traditional dress of a Naqshbandi Sufi. The pointed turban alone was enough to make an Orientalist of me. We were unable to communicate and yet we managed to do so somewhere beyond language, in a manner approaching the sublime. A year later, I sought him out and found him in the company of a close friend of his, who spoke near-perfect English. Often I wonder if it were not for that first meeting whether I would have gone back to Syria. Something in that man’s face haunted me. When I did return it was with the ridiculous notion that I’d write a book about a country and its people, and it took a while before I realised my subject was in the lives of these two people, Abed and Sulayman. I am not sure if what I write is, properly speaking, “travel literature” but among those who profess to write it the majority tend to write either about place, as does Robin Fedden in his superb book, Syria, or about people, as does Tim Mackintosh-Smith in his trilogy following in the footsteps of Ibn Battutah. I travel through people.

EO: In your Pigeon Wars, you reveal a hidden subculture. How did you learn of this feathery “underworld” and, even more to the point, how did you gain such privileged access to the pigeon fanciers and racers of Damascus?

MK: Well, I’m stubborn. The book recounts not only my successes but also my failures. My first experience of Syrian pigeon fanciers was in the company of a French couple, the husband something of a fancier himself. His wife walked about with a basket of rose petals. They were quite wonderful, a bit zany, very French, and inquisitive. They were invited for tea by a Damascene fancier, curiously enough a woman, which is as close to a true instance of women’s emancipation as I have ever been. Actually it is almost unheard of for a woman to be so inclined. She and her husband were equals in folly, which surely is an instance of pure love. What shocked me a little is that physically she resembled a pigeon, her bosom tucked high beneath her weak chin and, yes, her beaklike nose. Admittedly I was befuddled by this obsession for what goes up in the air, flies about in circles, and then comes home. A couple of visits later, I found myself on another rooftop in Damascus with a man called Waseem who told me that if I wanted to understand the Middle East I need look no further than his birds. What did he mean by that? The conditions for inspired thought were just right ― it was coming on evening, there was the call to prayer from a nearby mosque, and here was this rather angry man finding solace in his birds who were spinning in circles. I have a good appetite for the illogical especially when so nicely packaged. Actually his remark flew over me. It was only later that same night when, sleepless, I realised he had handed me a big theme. What it set off in me was unstoppable. It was, if you like, a gift ― I was not looking for it. It took me almost five years to work out something approaching the truth of his statement. Up to that point, I had been floundering. When later, I discovered people killed each other over pigeons I fell into the trap of wondering whether in some cases those murders were justifiable. I became like an actor hooked on his role.

The pigeon fanciers, because they are reviled in Arab society, such that even evidence given by them in court is inadmissible because they are liars by nature, are a closed world. It was my good fortune to have met one fancier who would then lead me to others. Not all of them trusted me, I got thrown out of one place, but there were enough to make it worth my while.

EO: You state that the history of the Middle East is in some ways played out in the pigeon wars. Do the recent uprisings in Syria, as well as the horrific official response, confirm this for you and, if so, how?

MK: Actually I nowhere state this. I prefer quieter analogies. It was why I decided to include short historical chapters, a number of which describe how whole kingdoms were brought down by their rulers’ obsession with pigeons. As I state in the Prologue to the book: “Wherever obsession is, Death watches from some place near.” Curiously enough, this notion of analogy was put to me directly by a figure in the regime, who told me he knew what I was really writing about. “Oh,” I said, pretending to know what he meant, “do you now?” And then, after many false starts, I struggled to discover what exactly it was. When I asked him whether he approved of my subject, he said yes, go for it, it’s a truly Arabic theme. I wonder if he regrets those words.

If my first book The Street Philosopher and the Holy Fool was “a book of light,” the second is “a book of darkness.” I chose not to write about politics, one reason being that no sooner does the ink dry on the page than the situation changes. Nothing gets older more quickly than another new book on Arab politics. And yet the subject is unavoidable ― it pollutes the very atmosphere one breathes. When I wrote The Pigeon Wars of Damascus it was at a time of mental and emotional turmoil in the country. The war in neighbouring Iraq was tearing at everyone’s nerves. Clearly the people despised Saddam but what they hated more was the sheer ineptitude of those who removed him. One consequence of this was that they rallied about their leader, anything other than have to endure similar chaos in their own country. Sadly the trust invested in him has been cruelly betrayed, if not by him directly then by those surrounding him. Quite honestly, I could never have anticipated any of this. It is only with hindsight that I approach brilliance. A poet friend describes me as “a Cassandra with two left shoes.” This said, a few months ago not even the Arabs themselves could have imagined such a sudden reawakening of their pride.

There is, however, one thing in the book that describes the mental state which allowed for this, and this was an expression, oft-repeated, of a people falling endlessly through space. One can fall only so far before beginning to rise again ― says me, quite unsure as to whether I really believe this ― but then what we are witnessing now would seem to be a defying of gravity. May they continue to rise, but not, I hope, at the expense of more lives.

EO: As your first book on Syria made wonderfully vivid, you have developed remarkable friendships in Damascus and you’ve written very memorably about your friends there. How do you maintain the balance between loyalty to, and protection of, your Syrian friends and writing about them freely? Do you see this as an ethical as well as an aesthetic question?

I have, in most instances, disguised identities, often altering not just names but also the circumstances in which people live. As soon as I made it clear I would not expose them, people felt much freer in speaking to me. It is indeed an ethical question and a very important one that has been ignored by rather too many writers. Nothing would cause me more pain than to bring trouble upon the heads of those who are my friends or who have helped me. At the same time, not one of them spoke against the regime. I wasn’t seeking that kind of information and certainly I wouldn’t ask it of them. Sadly there are some writers for whom their books are more important than the people whose lives they relate.

EO: What would you most like for North American readers to take away from The Pigeon Wars of Damascus?

MK: If there is just one lesson that they should learn it was what my friend Sulayman said to me, only days in advance of the revelations about Abu Ghraib: ‘When an Arab is wounded in his honour or in his dignity he will become harmful. He will consider you his enemy. If you hurt him he’ll be sad for five minutes and then move on, but if you humiliate him he will be in a rage forever.’

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Seven Questions for Translator Jan Steyn on Edouard Leve’s Suicide


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Without a doubt, one of the best things I’ve read this year is a small book called Suicide. It was written by the contemporary French writer Edouard Levé, who, ten days after delivering the manuscript, in fact did commit suicide, but the book is not so much a suicide note or explanation as it is an exactingly wrought object.

It was only on a second reading that I was able to truly appreciate how precise the prose is, and how enigmatically this small book opens up to envelop you as a reader. If the suicide on the face of this book leads you to assume that only one interpretation of this book is impossible, everything in the book stands to refute it.

After reading Suicide, it’s clear to me that Levé was a major talent. Already, Dalkey will follow up Suicide with a second Levé book, Autoportrait, to be translated by Lorin Stein and published in early 2012, and I expect Levé’s final two books will not be long in following.

I interviewed Suicide’s translator, Jan Steyn, for more about this intriguing book and its author.

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Scott Esposito: Could you give us some sense of Edouard Levé the writer and artist? Obviously the fact of him committing suicide 10 days after handing in this manuscript makes a great lede, but it shouldn’t overshadow his photographic/literary endeavors. As I understand them, there’s a remarkable unity there, and they’re all very interesting.

Jan Steyn: I was one of the few readers of Suicide who didn’t know about the author’s own decision to end his life before reading the book. Suicide is quite shocking even without this back story, not least because it is written in the second person, addressed to “you,” the friend who committed suicide.

Levé left us a small, distinguished, body of work: Oeuvres (2002), Journal (2004), Autoportrait (2005), Suicide (2008), and his photographs. I think you are right to point to the “unity” of these works. Levé did not start off as a writer and photographer. He attended a prestigious business school and then tried his hand at painting first. But I think all his subsequent work shares an aesthetic with, and are (sometimes quite explicitly) announced by, Oeuvres. That book consists of a numbered list of 533 projects, some of which Levé went on to undertake. It is as if he sat down and decided, “This is the kind of work I want to do,” and then made a meta-work out of this list and, in a recursive gesture, added the meta-work to the list.

None of his books, not even Suicide, delivers a straight-up narrative with a beginning, middle and end. They are frequently compared to pointillist paintings, but perhaps it would be more useful to compare them to his own photographic series: a sequence of similar but discrete elements that add up to a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Autoportrait consists of a long list of facts about the author recounted in no apparent order; the narrator of Suicide remembers his friend ‘at random’; the works in Oeuvres could be described in any sequence; the stories in Journal are only arranged by which section of the newspaper they would appear in. Each fact, memory, work or newspaper article is self-contained, but each also helps build a picture of the author, the dead friend, the artist or the newspaper (and hence the current state of the world).

SE: How did you discover Suicide?

JS: I first read Suicide in 2009. I had just finished my translation of Alix’s Journal and was casting about for my next project. The good folks at Dalkey suggested I take a look at some of the French books they were considering. Suicide was one of these. I read it in one sitting. I immediately knew this book merited translation and wanted to be the one to do it.

SE: Levé himself describes the structure of Suicide in the pages of the book; in your translation, he says that it is composed of “stochastic details, like picking marbles out of a bag.” While I see a lot of truth to that statement, I thought it was somewhat belied by the suicide itself, which has an uncanny power to impose a narrative on a life, and which I thought was imposing a kind of order on the book. Your thoughts?

JS: I would sooner say the suicide imposes a meaning than a narrative on life. Far from imposing an order on the book, it is the element that allows the book to be episodic while still having an undeniable coherence.

The narrator uses the marble metaphor to describe the way that he remembers his dead friend: not in a coherent narrative with a beginning, middle and end, but in fragments that come to him in no discernible order. This metaphor could certainly be extended to the composition of the book, Suicide, but only if we also extend what it would mean to “remember” someone. For much of what is recounted in Suicide, the narrator isn’t himself present as a witness and is inventing as much as he is remembering. Perhaps memory always entails an element of invention, but at times he recounts in detail entire episodes that he could only have had the scantest evidence for.

That said, there are two things about the ordering of Suicide that are obviously not “stochastic.” It begins with the scene of the suicide itself, and it ends with a poem, not by the narrator, but by the dead friend. Only after introducing the suicide itself can the narrator flit between the years before and the years after his friend’s death knowing that each episode is tied to this first one. And only at the very end, outside the stream of the narrator’s memory and invention, do we get the (in my opinion rather anticlimactic) poem that gives us the voice of the friend.

SE: I’ve read Levé described as a follower of Oulipo, and certainly the influence comes out in Suicide. Do you know what (if any) was his relationship to the group?

JS: I am regrettably ignorant of Levé’s biography outside of what is publicly available. The Oulipoian influence on him is clear from the work itself though. He starts of Autoportrait with a reference to Perec, who of course also wrote a novel in the second person. Each of Levé’s works, both literary and photographic, exercises the formal limitations Oulipo is known for. But I’m afraid I don’t know if he attended meetings or had friends in the Oulipo.

SE: Can you tell us anything about Levé’s death? I’ve read that he had contemplated suicide for at least a year before writing Suicide, and that he had even constructed a mock-up of himself being hanged (his eventual mode of suicide) in order to photograph it. [Note: in addition to being an author, Levé was an equally successful and innovative photographer.]

JS: I’ve read the same things you have, and I don’t know any more. In a way, I’m not sure that I want to know more either. I completely understand why the reception of the book has been determined by the author’s suicide, which does cast quite a different light on it. But my fear is that it distracts from the book. I agonized over whether I should even mention Levé’s suicide in my foreword. Eventually I decided to mention it, but to go with an afterword: a gesture that was completely wasted since the blurb on the back (not by me) asserts that the book must be read as a kind of suicide note.

SE: I’d like to get a sense of the translation challenges involved in this book. This will be hard to describe to someone who hasn’t read the book, but the feeling of precision to Levé’s language is intense–I’ve read that he was a perfectionist, but that doesn’t begin to describe the sheer sense of precision that comes across in your translation. As I read, I felt that this sensation reaches a high point in the poetry at the end of the book, where the lines can be as short as 3 or 4 words yet communicate much subtlety and meaning through their arrangement and word choice.What was your experience translating it?

JS: You are right that Levé’s language is usually clinically precise. But there are exceptions, passages that have a slightly out-of-control romantic feel. I am thinking of the passage where the narrator recalls “you” riding on horseback through a thunderstorm. My guiding principle throughout was to avoid the temptation to “improve” Levé’s prose or to try to make it more consistent. A translator is not an editor.

The poem was especially tricky, partly because, as the old saw goes, poetry is that which is untranslatable, but also because of the form of this particular poem. In my translation, nearly every line ends with the word “me,” which is not the case in the French. What I hoped to retain was the incantatory rhythm of repetition and near-repetition. That and the precision of meaning.

SE: One final question: Obviously the facts surrounding this book are going to color the way people look at it, but as I read it for myself I was struck by how easy it was to let go of all that. It didn’t feel like a suicide note, or an expression of depression, or anything like that so much as an enigma. I would say that it wasn’t a book about suicide so much as an art object with suicide as its theme. What is your impression of what this book is “about,” or, rather, what kind of a reading of this book would you give?

JS: I like the idea that Suicide is an “enigma,” and I certainly prefer that to anything as reductive as the idea that Suicide is a straightforward suicide note. And, like you, I prefer thinking of it as a work, to thinking of it as an explanation. It is a question, not an answer.

Yet Levé’s work, especially Autoportrait, actively thematizes the relation between the artwork and the life (and death) of the author. So it is not surprising that people look to the details of Levé’s life, and death, for an explanation. This need to find an explanation is not something external to the work but rather produced by the work itself. I think of it more as a case of art spilling out into life than of life contaminating the purity of the artwork. In as far as Suicide is a good enigma, it should leave its readers puzzled, the way the wife, mother, father and friends of the ‘you’ character are left puzzled.

If Suicide is an enigma, it is not because it is in any way murky or obscure in its treatment of its topic. Quite the contrary. It gets its force as an enigma from the clarity of its prose and its unblinking narrator.

But you are asking me to interpret the book, or to give you a reading, which I suppose I could do, but not as a translator. My role as translator is the opposite one. I do not pair down or exclude possible meanings. I try to keep all the possible “solutions,” even those which would ultimately prove false solutions, alive within the English text. I am the guardian of the enigma. The sphinx, not the hero.

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Four Questions for Kate Briggs on Roland Barthes’ Preparation of the Novel


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Last December Columbia University Press published a posthumous work by Roland Barthes titled The Preparation of the Novel. The book consists of lectures for a series of courses on the writing of a novel, lectures which were among the last Barthes delivered before his sudden death in 1980. They also include excellent and informative introductions by both the book’s editor, Nathalie Léger, and translator, Kate Briggs.

At the time of the lectures many speculated that they were a run-up to a project many had long hoped Barthes would take on: the writing of his own novel, provisionally titled “Vita Nova.” Although Barthes never did write a novel, the lectures provide both an idea of how Barthes might have approached this unique task, as well as his typically profound thoughts on numerous aspects of the novel.

I’ve interviewed Briggs, on this capacious text. The Times Literary Supplement praised Briggs’ translation, saying in part “Kate Briggs’s wonderful translation finally makes available in English a most unusual book by one of the most significant literary figures of the twentieth century.”

Scott Esposito: In his introduction to the first lecture, Barthes writes “for someone who has written, the domain of the Vita Nova can only be that of writing: the discovery of a new writing practice. The New expectation is only this: that the writing practice should break with previous intellectual practices . . . it’s this daily grind that must be interrupted.” What kind of writing do you think Barthes is getting at here, and are there any practitioners of it that you are aware of?

Kate Briggs: Barthes begins his lecture by noting that sometimes an event can occur in a life which turns out to mark a “decisive fold,” to prompt a shift, a radical change. One example he gives of this is Jacques Brel, who abruptly left the world of music after being diagnosed with cancer and took to sailing around the world. What has always struck me about the passage you quote is the fact that for Barthes this entirely new life should still be a life of writing. Perhaps it’s worth noting that Barthes’s version of the “daily grind” was the daily life of an academic: a life of teaching, supervision, articles, book editing, proof correction–those sorts of activities. But while Brel switched to a new activity, for Barthes the exigency was not to do something completely different, but to find a new way of engaging with what he’d already spent so much of his life doing. So Barthes’s Vita Nova would still be a life of writing, which suggests to me that the writing’s possibilities hadn’t yet been exhausted, and possibly that they’re just not exhaustible, and this has something to do with the peculiar nature of writing activity and why writing has such a powerful hold over those who practice it. Not only would Barthes’s Vita Nova still be a life of writing, it would still be a life of teaching. The lecture course amounts to a break with previous intellectual practices in itself in the sense that it’s a novel experiment in how to integrate teaching and writing, a test to see whether it’s possible to make those two activities into one and the same project, which in this case is the project of writing a novel. So I have always felt that the task Barthes is setting himself is actually harder than switching to a wholly unrelated activity: the break with the daily grind involves transforming rather than escaping that daily grind; trying to live the same life, but on an entirely different basis.

In terms of the novelty of this newly discovered writing practice, I think the point is it had to be new for Barthes: a writing practice that he’d not yet attempted. But it’s interesting to think about the kind of work he had already published–conceptually (and formally) innovative works such as A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, or Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, both of which seem to me to break with customary intellectual and writing practices. Yes, I can imagine Barthes saying, but: those works involved a fragmented writing; there it was a question of writing discontinuously whereas what would be entirely new would be the novel, conceived as a long, grand continuity. Length is very important here: the novel is the long, continuous prose form par excellence, even by definition (the one definition theorists seem to agree on is the novel is a long, continuous piece of prose). So to answer your first question: the sort of writing Barthes is getting at here is specifically the writing of a novel, in its connectedness, its continuity, its length. For Barthes, to write a novel would have been to engage in something entirely new, but something that he wasn’t sure he had the aptitude for. There’s a beautiful moment in the notes when he compares his anxiety around his aptitude for novel-writing to someone who worries his hands might be too small to play the piano. And that willingness to expose his vulnerability remarkable to me: remember that Barthes is setting out his desire for change in the context of a public lecture course at the Collège de France, he’s using the format of the lecture course as a means to engage in a writing project, but apparently had no idea what the outcome would be, no idea whether he’d manage to write the desired novel, and no idea whether he was capable of writing one. There’s a vulnerability running through the whole course that’s also–I think–a generosity: a way of not intimidating his audience, a form of what Barthes calls non-arrogance. So to come to your second question, I would reformulate it slightly, and ask: Are there writers, academics, intellectuals out there writing and teaching in this way, in the sense of daring to attempt something wholly new? Are there writers, academics, intellectuals out there showing similar willing to break with past practices, even if that means breaking with past positions, changing their minds, risking failure?

Barthes didn’t manage to produce a novel, but he does describe the kind of novel he would like to see written. It would, he says, be simple: which he defines as non-ironic, unself-conscious, non-arrogant, loving. It would be filial, so conscious of its lineage and it would desirous–something that calls for reading, that wants to be read and that we want to read. Those are perhaps surprising, not especially innovative criteria for this “new writing practice.” But then, again: How many contemporary novels do this? How many novels manage to be both intelligent and generous (non-arrogant)? How many novels are filial, in the sense of being alert to or even interested in the complex tradition of the novel? I’m thinking of what Tom McCarthy has said recently about what he sees as a refusal to engage with a legacy of modernism, or even with the fact that the nineteenth century realist novel–still the template for so much of what gets written today–was already anxious about itself and its own tenets. And how many novels actually manage to be objects of desire, to be something I want to read, that calls for reading?

Barthes didn’t write the novel he envisaged. But what he did is formulate a very concrete sense of a practice of notation, a daily writing practice which would be a form of preparation for the novel. Which leads me to your next question . . .

SE: I was intrigued by Barthes’ lecture on haiku, and his connecting its drastic brevity to the novel, which would be something along the lines of the opposite. Yet for all that, he leaves the connection between haiku and novel tantalizingly open. In your opinion, what do Barthes’ thoughts on haiku say about novels?

KB: I agree that the connection is surprising. In the story Barthes’ is telling, the novelist takes notes from life and these notes serve as the basis for the novel. Barthes’ opening claim is that novels are made of out of life and the capturing of life as it happens, as it befalls you, requires a practice of note-taking. This–that the material of the novel should be life–is intriguing in itself. Throughout the lecture course, one of the points Barthes insists on is just how hard writing is: how difficult it is to get started, how difficult it is to sustain a writing practice over time, how difficult it is to negotiate life with all its demands and still find the time necessary for writing. Another aspect of that difficulty is around having to make things up, to lie. It’s not easy to lie convincingly, but for some people (for Barthes) it’s difficult to bring yourself to lie in the first place: to make things up and write them down and present them as such to a reader. And the difficulty has to do with the simple fact that they’re not true. I’ve read this as described as primness on Barthes’s part, which doesn’t seem right to me at all–but perhaps that’s because it’s something I struggle with too? Either way, a resistance to making things up is clearly going to be a problem for any would-be novel writer. In the face of that difficulty, the tradition of preparation of and for the novel that Barthes engages with is that of the realist novel, the nineteenth century novelist who goes out in the world and takes notes directly from daily life. So that’s the starting point. But that in itself is by no means straightforward. How do you start up a practice of notation? What’s worth noting down? What isn’t? How do you decide? For Barthes, the haiku is the exemplary form of the sort of notation he’s getting at: the haiku–the shortest of short forms–captures life in its minutiae, its tenuity in the sense of all that’s slight, insubstantial, inconsequential. This is life in its tiniest details: a snail baring its chest, an empty ashtray on a cold morning. The idea is to develop a practice of notation that would achieve what the best haiku manage to do, which is capture in a minimal number of words something of life that makes us feel something; specifically, that makes us say, Yes! That’s it! That’s exactly how it is. The task of novel-writing would then be to somehow weave those moments together–or more accurately dot them, scatter them throughout a longer narrative because the novel just can’t sustain that level of intensity. But the question of how you’d actually achieve this is left suspended. So I’d suggest that the connection between haiku and the novel is left open because this problem– How to pass from the note to the novel, how to turn a sequence of discontinuous notes into a piece of lengthy, sustained prose?–is never adequately resolved.

We have no sense of the novel that would be tacked together out of that material taken directly from life. But Barthes does give us some examples of what that kind of notation might look like or read like. At one point, he describes sitting next to a man on the bus who was underlining every single line of a book in black ballpoint pen. The description is to illustrate a point about the difficulty in deciding what’s noteworthy, but as a notation from life it has a certain power, for me at least–I’ve retained it, I return to it, it rings “true”, that little scene speaks to me; Barthes notes that he didn’t get to see what book it was, and for some reason that speaks to me too.

So to go back to your earlier question: Can I think of any contemporary practitioners of the kind of writing Barthes is proposing? Well, if we think that the first stage of that new writing practice is a practice of notation, then Lydia Davis’s use of the very short form seems to me to have an affinity with a practice of notation Barthes is proposing in the course. For me, there’s something of that condensed capturing of life as it happens in her very short stories–and reading them I sometimes find myself thinking: Yes: that’s exactly it.

SE: In your translator’s introduction, you talk about the various ways in which “preparation” might be interpreted, at times linking the idea of novel-writing to a quest. What do you see as the relationship between writing and desire, both generally and in regards to “Preparation of the Novel”?

KB: The term ‘quest’ is there for several reasons. First because I had difficulty deciding on an equivalent noun for the French “une recherché” in English: a “search” is one option of course, and an important one because in it we hear the echo of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time; “research,” is another, and the point is that this is an inquiry, an investigation. But as your question makes clear, though–in this case the search or inquiry is explicitly incited by a desire, and so “quest” imposed itself. But not just for reasons of translation.

Barthes refers to the protagonist of the story he’s telling (the story of someone who has experienced the desire to write and wants to set about writing a novel) as a “hero,” a “hero” who will have to undergo three “tests” or “trials.” So there’s already something mythical about the way this story is presented: writers as heroes who somehow manage to achieve their goals despite the setbacks, the difficulties, the interruptions, the breakdowns. Barthes is interested in the force, the desire-to-write that somehow sustains the writer throughout that process. In terms of the relationship between writing and desire, his point is that it’s a question that has been insufficiently studied in the field of literary theory–and this leads him to ask what for me are some very important, but very difficult questions: How is it that works of literature get written? What are the necessary conditions for writing to happen? Why is it that some readers, in love with certain books, feel compelled to write while others don’t? Barthes’ lectures were delivered in 1978-1980. His questions have received more attention recently–I’m thinking of the collected editions of The Paris Review Interviews, or a series in The Guardian where writers were invited to describe their rooms, as if access to the physical space of writing might offer insight into how the words get placed on a page, or the rise of what’s called “genetic criticism,” a particular critical approach which attempts to reconstruct the writing process from the available material traces. But what intrigues me about all of that is how these attempts to demystify the writing process seem to harbor or even generate their own kind of mystery: explanations that aren’t really explanations, because they never quite account for the existence of what they’re trying to explain. Arguably, this is also true of the lecture course, which initially seems to promise a thorough examination of the desire-to-write and how it gets converted into actual writing. But then, with the multiplication of examples–from Chateaubriand to Flaubert to Proust to Kafka–and of details–from the choice of form to pen to desk to daily writing timetable–Barthes’s questions somehow manage to look even more urgent, even more necessary, and even more unanswerable.

As for my own experience of writing and desire (since translation is a writing practice, albeit a very particular one), there’s a point in the course where Barthes talks about wanting to somehow append yourself to something that you find beautiful, something that for you is necessary, but that you lack. I think that’s a good description of where my desire to translate this work came from.

SE: Which of the lectures strikes you as particularly insightful, peculiar, worthwhile, or memorable?

KB: Barthes suggests that the destiny of all books is to end up as ruins, fragmented, remembered in bits and pieces but never in their entirety. I think the image he uses is a piece of lace: in our recollections of them, we turn the books we read into pieces of lace. Translating a book is a very specific sort of reading experience, and at one point I had spent so much time with the course that I was convinced I knew the lecture course by heart. I don’t, of course! My own piece of lace wouldn’t be made up of whole lectures. But I often find myself thinking of moments in the course. I certainly feel inhabited by the book–it’s still speaking to me, on a more or less daily basis. One passage I think of as particularly insightful is the section called “I’m Worth More Than What I Write.” Barthes is describing what he calls the mechanism of writing, how writing works in the sense of why writers keep on writing–why, to come back to my answer to your first question, for a writer even a wholly new life would still have to be a life of writing. Another relates to this curious way we remember books. At the end of Part 1 Barthes hypothesizes a new form of literary criticism which would be primarily interested in a book’s most powerfully affective moments. He calls it “pathetic criticism,” a criticism that would index those fragments of a book whose affective power ensures we remember them over all the others. I have found myself returning again and again to that proposition, wondering how it would work, would such a criticism would look like or read like. Since the experience translating The Preparation of the Novel (an experience that occupied most of about three years) I find I think differently about what critical writing can be and do, and about what teaching can be and do–thoughts that I’m now trying to put into practice. So to address what I consider worthwhile about the course: I would say that for me personally, as a reader, its singular value lies in the way it has profoundly shifted the way I think and work.

As for what might be seen as peculiar, I would say the lecture on photography. Not the content of the lecture itself–where Barthes anticipates the arguments he’ll develop in more detail in Camera Lucida–but the context in which it appears. In Camera Lucida Barthes refers to the relationship between photography and haiku only once, I think; certainly, photography is clearly very much the focus of that book. But when you read that the course, in terms of Barthes’s thinking at the time, it looks as if the main preoccupation was haiku, or more precisely the practice of notation (of which haiku is considered an exemplary form), with photography there as a particular instance or even as an example of that practice. So the proportional relationship is reversed, if you like: there’s a sentence on haiku in the context of a discussion of photography in Camera Lucida, but in the lecture course there’s a portion of a lecture on photography in the context of a sustained, lengthy discussion of haiku and notation. I mention this because Camera Lucida has always taken to be Barthes last work, a tragically apt meditation on the relationship between photography and death. And I wonder what would happen if the thinking on photography were seen as a kind of staging post on a much longer journey, a much more broadly conceived project, which was the writing of the novel? I wonder what would happen if, rather than rather than a final work, a last word, Barthes’ “note” on photography were read as part of this reflection on notation, itself just one element of that crucial first stage in the preparation of and for the novel?

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