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Category Archives: Interviews

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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Six Questions for Anna Moschovakis on The Jokers by Albert Cossery

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As happens from time to time in translation, a dead author has become a mini-sensation. Though he did most of his writing decades ago, the French author Albert Cossery has been made fashionable in English with two translation in 2010–A Splendid Conspiracy (New Directions) and The Jokers (NYRB Classics). More are planned for 2011.

In a recent review of Conspiracy and Jokers in the LA Times, David Ulin claimed that Cossery “ought to be a household name.” He calls The Jokers “a small masterpiece,” about “a group of pranksters who conspire to bring down the governor of the unnamed city in which they live,” a city that frequently resembles the Cairo in which Cossery spent mush of his life.

I interviewed translator and editor Anna Moschovakis on her work with The Jokers, which has just been named a finalist for the French-American Foundation and The Florence Gould Foundation Announce 24th Annual Translation Prize, which is worth $10,000. The Jokers is also on the longlist for the Best Translated Book Award, which will announce its shortlist this Thursday. In addition to translating novels for NYRB Classics, Moschovakis is an editor and book designer with Ugly Duckling Presse and a poet whose second collection, You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake was published by Coffee House Press earlier this year.

SE: This book is about revolutionaries in Egypt, yet I sensed very little that pertained to what has recently happened in that country’s politics. Cossery seems more interested in politics as an abstraction. Really, with all the talk of politicians as buffoons and laughter as a revolutionary technique, I was reminded of nothing so much as Sarah Palin and Steve Colbert. So, do you think this book (or Cossery at large) adds anything Continue Reading

Six Questions for Louise Rogers Lalaurie, Translator of The Explosion of the Radiator Hose by Jean Rolin

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As I noted earlier this month in my interview with Charlotte Mandell, I’m hoping to run more interviews on this site in 2011. This is the second in my making good on that goal.

I read Jean Rolin’s autobiography/memoir/novel The Explosion of the Radiator Hose earlier this month for a review and immediately caught whiffs of Sebald and Chatwin. The book, which will be published in April of this year by the Dalkey Archive, is a fragmentary account of the author’s journey transporting a used car from France deep into the Congo.

As in books of this genre, the plot of The Explosion of the Radiator Hose is only one of many things going on here–a counterhistory of the Congo, an up-close look at the machinery of late capitalism, a inter-textual response to Conrad, Proust, and, yes, Sebald.

I’ve interviewed the book’s translator, Louise Rogers Lalaurie to convey more about this excellent book and it’s very interesting author, Jean Rolin. The Explosion of the Radiator Hose is the first of his books the be translated into English, but after reading this I think you’ll join me in wanting to hear more from him.

Here’s how Rogers describes herself in her own words:

Louise Rogers Lalaurie studied English, literary translation, and art history at the University of Cambridge, and worked in book and magazine publishing in London before moving to France in 1991. Her published translations include short stories by Delphine de Vigan, Serge Joncour, and Catherine Millet, and exhibition catalogs and monographs for leading Paris museums and fine art publishers. She is currently researching an MPhil on French livres d’artistes at the University of London Institute in Paris.

SE: Since this book is based on a strange sort of postmodern, Sebaldian adventure that Rolin undertook—involving sailing on a cargo ship and smuggling a car through Congolese customs—I wanted to get some sense of him as an individual and a writer. Is he known for being an adventurous sort? Are his previous books similar to The Explosion of the Radiator Hose?

LR: English-speaking readers will recognize Jean Rolin as a classic lone male traveler and writer, broadly comparable to authors like Paul Theroux, P.J. O’Rourke, and others. In France, I would say he’s probably had greater critical than popular success, although his backlist is long, and all of it in print! He’s a classic travel writer in many ways, but his full-length works are mostly presented as fiction, with elements of memoir and autobiography. I was talking about Explosion to a Paris-based English academic just today—he characterized him very aptly as a “psycho-geographer.” His travels are all real, as far as I know, but they are a process of self-mapping, too, and the vehicle for his distinctive worldview as conveyed in his writings. In this sense, he’s also comparable to Sebald and Bruce Chatwin. Like them, he might be said to have created a genre all his own—French reviewers have described his work as “Rolinian.” He has a clear preference for “underbelly” places, conflict zones, port zones, peripheral zones (literally, in the case of Zones and La Clôture, his explorations of the Paris beltway or périphérique, and the Boulevard Ney, part of the city’s petite ceinture). He portrays marginal characters with great humanity and empathy, and he also writes reportage and travel pieces for leading French magazines and newspapers, recently collected in L’homme qui à vu l’ours—which includes some of the source material for Explosion. Translating Explosion has whetted my appetite to read much more: L’organisation (written in the 1990s but describing a period touched on at the very end of Explosion) is his “hindsight” account of his involvement as a young man with the Gauche prolétarienne, a Maoist revolutionary group born of the May ’68 uprising; Chemins d’eau (“Water ways”) is an alternative tour of France on the country’s canal system; Un chien mort après lui, his most recent book, is a themed compendium of travels and encounters with stray dogs—a sidelong look at the human societies co-existing with them, and a book about “errance” itself. To name but a few.

SE: Throughout The Explosion of the Radiator Hose Rolin continually references W.G. Sebald and gives some reason to think he admires him as a thinker and a writer. (Rolin also prominently mentions Conrad and Proust as influences, among others.) At times the book even resembles Sebald in how it arranges the cultural history of European imperialism under the logic of Rolin’s personal adventure. Do you know of any links between Rolin and Sebald, and how exactly do you look at Explosion—history as otherwise told, memoir, etc?

LR: I’ve yet to meet Jean Rolin in person, and I’ve never asked about his links with Sebald, but I agree that his vision of the intersections of geopolitical and personal history (sometimes random and absurd, sometimes full of bizarre coincidences, immanent patterns) is comparable to Sebald’s. Explosion is quite like The Rings of Saturn in many ways—the wry humor, the affectionate cameo portraits, the lyrical descriptions, the historical scope, the “self-mapping,” and the underlying melancholy, with hints of death and suicide. As I mentioned earlier, the book is also a quite “Chatwinian” mix of travelogue and fictional narrative (both in the first person), with elements of memoir. As you point out, it also has a very strong sense of history, of crossed personal and geopolitical destinies, and (arising out of that), the “human comedy” and the absurd. Warren Motte, writing in the Review of Contemporary Fiction, has described Explosion as a “loiterly” novel—the narrator is bound up in his own past, his identity, his relationship with his father, but he digresses into great swathes of Congolese history, too: his extended, detailed and powerful account of Patrice Lumumba’s journey to violent death ends with the narrator figuring out (somewhat crestfallen) that the deposed leader probably didn’t cross the exact spot where the radiator hose explodes . . . With regard to Sebald, Rolin’s narrator (his fictionalised self?) takes him to task at times, accusing him of failing to quote his sources, and of anti-French sentiment. But it’s quite tongue-in-cheek – a kind of back-handed tribute, I think: the “little man” (Rolin’s self-deprecating persona in the book) squaring up to the literary giant. And as you say, Sebald isn’t the only literary heavyweight honored here—Conrad and Proust are everywhere.

SE: I loved the exchange you allude to here—Rolin first complaining that Sebald makes a “ridiculous, unpleasant character a Frenchman” before retracting it when “Sebald unleashes a series of violent anti-Belgian diatribes.” Rolin plays it quite well, implying a kind of Gallic outrage on behalf of his fellow Frenchmen before taking it all back when Sebald insults the neighboring Belgians. To continue on with the Sebald comparisons for a moment, Rolin seems to be a much more fragmentary writer than Sebald; whereas Sebald knit so much together into his lengthy chapters and paragraphs, Explosion is characterized by many, many short, discreet chapters (although the overall impression is of continuity amidst digression). With so much in the mix here, what did you see as the central strand of this book, that one thing that under it all this book was most “about”?

LR: “Continuity amidst digression” perfectly describes the book’s “loiterly” pace: Rolin’s and the car’s slow journey underpins everything. And of course, a river runs through it (to coin a phrase . . . ). Without wanting to sound too trite, it’s tempting to see the text’s relentless forward movement and eddying digressions as a metaphor for the stately Congo River itself. The chapters are carefully crafted building blocks, each one starts in a subtly or surprisingly different “place” from the last, carrying the reader along. I think the central strand of the book—and what has always touched me most about it—is its portrayal of human hopes and dreams, the quest for advancement and a sense of purpose in life, in Paris, Kinshasa, or anywhere. It’s about how people cling to hopes and delusions—through the life stories they tell themselves, and through tiny, practical, ambitious or utterly megalomaniacal schemes—and about how those hopes and delusions can be built up and shattered. This is what underpins the first-person narrative, and virtually every encounter and character sketch in the book, every historic life story retold. The Audi‘s gradual deterioration en route to Kinshasa, and the description of a transporter truck rolling out of a parking lot in northern Paris, bound for Africa, loaded with battered VW Combis packed to the roof, are brilliant metaphors or emblems of the same theme.

SE: It’s strange sometimes, the shape that hope and/or delusion can take. I’m thinking of when Rolin describes Che Guevara, who attempted to free the agrarian Congolese from the tyranny of the land, only to learn that they already owned their land and were indeed free. So Che reasons that “ways would have to be found of fostering the need to acquire industrial goods” in order to put them into a proper relationship of subjugation so that they’ll begin to want the revolution that Che knows they need. Rolin rightly, and ironically, compares this rhetoric to that of any multinational corporation looking to exploit these individuals. As with the Che anecdote, in this book we see so many forces that head into the Congo to shape it per their own wants and desires . . . do you see anything genuinely Congolese emerging in this story? Lumumba, perhaps?

LR: The passages about Che in the Congo are a great example of Rolin’s wry comedy and sense of the absurd! Also, the region’s surreal way of taking “in-comers” completely off-course, thwarting their schemes, warping their take on reality, leading them somewhere they never intended. That’s one “genuinely Congolese” characteristic, perhaps, that emerges here and in other Western texts I’ve read about the Congo, not least Heart of Darkness of course. It also seems to me that Rolin’s many portraits and cameos go some way to evoking a national character–I get a sense of a rich mix of irrepressibility and ebullience, gentleness and quiet dignity in adversity, pragmatism and archaic superstition, hard-headed realism and fervent faith in Christianity or traditional beliefs. There are touching portrayals of bravado and humility, coupled with allusions to past violence and atrocities experienced by people who cling to hope in the face of experience, finding ways to get by. We see level-headed self-preservation and concern for others; selfish, tricksy characters and people prepared to go far out of their way to help, with no thought of reward. Foudron (the exiled colonel whose family in Kinshasa are the recipients of the Audi) is resigned if philosophical, and a very sick man, but he doggedly pursues his carefully laid plan, doing what he can for the advancement of his family. Lumumba, as portrayed in the account of his last days, shows aspects of all this. In many ways, his character, story, and fate stand for the nation as a whole.

SE: I’d like to shift gears here and ask you a little about the translation of this book. To start, the prose throughout Explosion is excellent—it’s very honed and precise with some clause-ridden, intricate sentences, but it never feels overcooked or wordy. What do you think is most characteristic about this prose, and did you consult with Rolin or any particular source material while doing this translation?

LR: I think you’ve put your finger on exactly what is most characteristic about Rolin’s prose. He‘s a heroic advocate of long sentences, using clauses like building blocks, taking the cumulative effect of the discrete short chapters right down to the level of individual sentences. I tried hard to match Rolin’s register and clause sequences, and to preserve the flow of the original sentences. But while French grammar is very robust and can hold things together over many lines, English has a tendency to come apart in your hands if you over-stretch it! I did re-order the clauses very occasionally, for readability, and to keep things “up together.” Jean Rolin read the translation, and was characteristically concerned to check the precision of specific terms. We ran the ship-board terminology past a friend of his in the industry, so I learned the correct vocabulary in English for parts of container ships! With regard to his/the narrator’s family history, he also—naturally—wanted to make absolutely sure that the distinction between Vichy France and the Free French resistants (including his father) was clear in English. As with any translation, I checked Rolin’s quoted sources in English: Michael Hulse’s fabulous translation of The Rings of Saturn (which I’ve read several times before), Jerry Allen’s book The Sea Years of Joseph Conrad, snippets of Proust and Conrad… I also did some background reading, for example Tim Butcher’s marvelous travelogue Blood River (an almost exact mirror image of Rolin’s journey), and Barbara Kingsolver’s extraordinary novel The Poisonwood Bible.

SE: Did these source books go beyond serving as background information to furnish words or insights that aided you in the actual translation of the book?

LR: Well, to give one small example, Barbara Kingsolver’s novel clarified the term pagne (the traditional Congolese loincloth, but also a general term for the colorful cotton prints worn everywhere in sub-Saharan Africa). And Tim Butcher’s journey often corroborated placenames, political personalities, and historical events in English. But beyond that, both were invaluable as vivid, immersive accounts of the region, its atmosphere, and its people. Both texts compared and contrasted interestingly with Rolin’s narrative as travelogue, fiction, memoir and history. That applies to Sebald, too, but above all, The Rings of Saturn resonated in so many ways with Explosion’s narrative voice and technique, the hero/author’s personality, and his worldview.

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Six Questions for Charlotte Mandell, Translator of Zone by Mathias Enard

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One of my New Year’s “resolutions,” if you will, is to do more interviews in this site in 2011. I like to do them, they’re interesting, and they’re a great way to get some other perspectives on here.

So, the first of what I hope will be a lot, lot more is with translator Charlotte Mandell, whose translation of Zone by Mathias Enard was just published by Open Letter (you can read my review of the book here.)

No doubt if you’ve been following this site at all over the past few months, you know that Zone is one of the bigger (physically and substance-wise) French novels to be published in the past few years. Claro, the acclaimed novelist and translator of Pynchon, Vollmann, and Gaddis into French, called it one of the important books of the decade. It’s a 517-page book that’s essentially one huge run-on sentence, and it’s something like a stream of conscious history of the clash between East and West in Europe for the past 2,000 years.

Mandell is one of the major translators from French working today. She’s done over 30 books, including the huge (again, physically and substance-wise) The Kindly Ones, Proust’s The Lemoine Affair, numerous works by Maurice Blanchot, and Pierre Bayard’s, Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong. Here, we talk about Zone.

Scott Esposito: According to the information on your website, you’ve translated some 28 books since 2001, including The Kindly Ones, which is nearly 1,000 pages. How long were you working on Zone, and how did it compare, in terms of difficulty, rate of progress, etc to other books you’ve translated?

Charlotte Mandell: Good grief! I thought that was a mistake when I read it–28 books in 10 years does seem like a lot . . . It took me about 6 months to translate Zone, and then a few more months to revise it. I’ve almost always worked under pressing deadlines, so I’m used to working fast, and once I’d started translating Zone it was honestly very hard to stop. For one thing, there are no obvious resting places, since there are no periods! So I had to mark out ahead of time where I would stop for the day, so that I didn’t overdo it. It was really a joy translating Zone, since it felt like a long prose poem in which I could give myself free rein.

SE: Funny that you mention that. I felt that unstoppability while reading (and others have told me they did too), and it seems it works the same for translating the book. Like you, I had to tell myself to slow down, and one way to do it was to look up just a fraction of the references in this book. There are tons! At the end of the day, the book feels like a cross between a postmodern novel of information and a modernist stream of conscious novel, maybe something William Gaddis would have come up with. How do you classify it, and do you see any novels in the French landscape that resemble or contextualize it?

CM: I suppose the first book that comes to mind as a sort of precursor to Zone is Michel Butor’s La Modification (published in English as Second Thoughts). It too is about a man on a train journey, and it’s narrated solely in the second person. The entire narration revolves around the narrator’s thoughts and memories, and nothing actually “happens” in the book (except that the narrator changes his mind—hence the title—by the end of the book).

You’re right, there are a lot of references, and I think all the books mentioned in Zone influence Enard’s narrative in subtle but meaningful ways: Tsirkas’ Drifting Cities; William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch; Pound’s Cantos; Finnegans Wake; Apollinaire’s Zone; Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night; and especially Malaparte’s masterful Kaputt, one of the most underappreciated (and well-written) war novels I can think of, narrated from the point of view of the losing side.

In terms of the contemporary French literary landscape, I think Zone shares a lot of similarities with The Kindly Ones: in fact I can think of no other French novel today that mentions Bardèche, Brasillach, and Burroughs!–though I think it was Edgar Rice Burroughs in The Kindly Ones . . . Both narrators are fascists (a recovering fascist in the case of Zone, but a fascist nonetheless), and both are consumed by their respective wars. Also, both The Kindly Ones and Zone incorporate dreams, fantasies, and memories into the narrative in interesting ways–the boundaries between fantasy and reality are often blurred.

I think Enard and Claro also have some things in common, in the risks they take in terms of narration and style. Claro’s recent Madman Bovary comes to mind, if only for its narrative inventiveness, and for its way of portraying a narrator consumed by a book (the way Zone’s narrator is consumed by a briefcase). I heard that Enard and Claro traveled around Europe once performing a magic show–I’m not sure if I dreamt that, but it sounds very apt!

SE: If you know one thing about Zone you know that it’s a 500-page book that’s one huge run-on sentence. Despite how daunting that sounds, I found the book rather quick once I got into it–it’s not so much that the lack of periods ceases to be noticeable as that I just got used to reading a text primarily governed by commas. What do you think of the conceit, and did it force you to approach the book differently as a translator?

CM: You’re right, the commas do take the place of periods. I think it’s a vividly appropriate conceit for a narrative that takes place entirely on a train, since it feels very rhythmic and also inexorable–the sentence keeps going on, just like the train, and it won’t stop until it reaches the terminus. I like the fact that the book has exactly 517 pages, which is the same number of kilometers from Milan to Rome. So the narrative is very closely linked to the train ride, especially with the chapters in the Table of Contents referring not to the actual chapter breaks but to the towns the train is traveling through at that point in the book. Time and space are very closely linked, both in the narrative and on the page. History in Zone is a very personal thing, and, as Stephen Mitchelmore points out in his review of the book, the narrator discovers that history is not temporal but spatial: it surrounds the narrator as he travels through Italy and crowds in on him like so many vengeful ghosts. I also love the conceit that the book the narrator is reading is reproduced word for word inside the narrative itself—very Tristram Shandy-like. And that book that’s reproduced is also the only thing told from a female perspective, whereas almost all the narratives in the Zone are very male-oriented. And those periods do give the eye a rest, don’t you think? –Though I have to say I was always glad to get back to the sentence—periods are so restrictive . . .

SE: Obviously, taking the period out of the equation forces a significant shift in punctuation in this book. Did you more or less follow Mathias Enard’s lead on the punctuation, or did you make any significant shifts from what he did in the French? And how did the punctuation come into play as you attempted to recreate in English the frequent shifts in mood and register that the book’s narrator goes through?

CM: Funnily enough, I don’t think I made many changes in the punctuation. Somehow the run-on sentence moved very easily, almost effortlessly, into English–is it because the narrator admires William Burroughs and Ezra Pound, I wonder? Zone was one of the most effortless books I’ve ever translated, once I got into it and began to inhabit the voice of the narrator. I make it a policy never to read too far ahead in a book, so that I feel I’m part of the creative process as I’m translating the book–I figure the author didn’t have the luxury of reading his book ahead of time, so why should I? I also like not knowing what’s going to happen next, so that my translation can feel as fresh as the original. Of course once I’m done with the rough draft I go over and revise and revise–I usually end up with three or four drafts of a book before I’m happy with the final version. But that policy of not reading ahead helped me in the case of Zone, I think, since there is such an interesting progression in the narrator’s voice as the book goes on.

I sent the final draft to Mathias Enard when I was done, and he made surprisingly few changes. He seemed happy with how it sounded in English, which of course was a huge relief to me.

Actually one of the things Enard wanted to change was my translation of the very first–well, I can’t say sentence, but the first line of the book: “tout est plus difficile à l’âge d’homme,” which I had initially translated as “everything is more difficult when you’re an adult.” Enard pointed out that “l’âge d’homme” is more fraught in French, and it conjures up Dante’s “midway through life’s journey”–he wanted it to bring Dante to mind, but also that midlife crisis moment that the narrator is experiencing. So Robert (my husband, the poet Robert Kelly) remembered the Fool’s song in “Twelfth Night”:

When that I was and a little tiny boy
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
A foolish thing was but a toy,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came to man’s estate,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
‘Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gate,
For the rain it raineth every day.

and Mathias and I agreed that that “man’s estate” was a good phrase, and more resonant than just “adulthood” or “manhood.”

SE: I like that idea of not reading ahead as you translate–sort of like a translation version of Cesar Aira’s “constant flight forward,” or Javier Marias’ insistence on not “knowing” any more than his protagonists do as he writes. And it seems particularly true to a book like Zone. I’m thinking in particular of that segment where Francis dreams of the “railway grim reaper,” this little guy with a train schedule who can tell Francis just where he’ll be based on where he’s been. It drives home how locked in Francis feels to what he sees as his destiny, how all these horrible memories and historical facts dominate his mind. How did you see him changing as the book moves forward?

CM: I love that railway grim reaper section! In fact the whole “plot” of the book is there, with episodes and page numbers and everything. That’s a very good point about Francis feeling locked up in his past, sort of the way the briefcase is padlocked to the luggage rack. It’s hard for me to put into words, but I guess I see Francis’s narrative evolving from that initial trapped, locked-up feeling to a feeling of openness and uncertainty. All his adult life Francis has spied on other people, and in a way that briefcase is his way of controlling other people’s lives and fates. I think a pivotal point in the book is when Francis, still drunk and hung over from July 14th celebrations, knocks on Stéphanie’s door near the end of the book and sees himself reflected in her face, in the horror that appears on her face when she sees him. I think that’s the first time he begins to have some sort of self-awareness, some sort of realization of the depths to which he has fallen. And after that I see a sort of release in the narrative, a kind of desire to let go and not control things anymore, like that memory he has of swimming after dolphins near a deserted beach by the Mediterranean in Egypt. It’s interesting that we don’t actually learn Francis’ full name until almost the middle of the book, when there’s a shift in the narrative from a focus on external things–the things that Francis is spying on–to a more introspective viewpoint, when we start to learn more about Francis himself.

I think that “Chaldean giant” that appears in his fantasy of the airport terminal at the very end is another apparition of St. Christopher, the statue that came to life and dragged him out of the canal in Venice when he was dying–it’s a desire to be saved, a desire to throw the briefcase into the Tiber and give up all his various identities and start over again. We as readers may wonder if any of that will actually happen, but at least the desire to let go is there . . .

SE: That’s a beautiful sentiment to end on, but I can’t help but ask one more question. I like that you key in on that scene where Francis sees himself reflected in Stephanie’s eyes as being pivotal for him, because throughout the book I was picking up on a real strong “otherness” vibe. (My personal favorite in this theme has to be that incredible scene where Francis re-enacts in his head the (possibly apocryphal?) story of a drunk and beleaguered Malcolm Lowry coming within a hair’s breadth of strangling his wife to death before pulling back when he feels himself open into her. It’s so raw and bracing, yet also strangely sublime, even a little mystical and humbling.) And narratively, I like the idea of the super-spy getting a new lease on life by giving up the urge to subject everything to his gaze, to instead allow the possibility of bring gazed at. I want to take this all back to the language, this labyrinth of words that is all we have of Francis, as well as this idea of history being so overwhelming, becoming this destiny a person can be caged in. Do you read this impulse toward the other as perhaps Francis breaking free of the prison house of language/history, an idea that of course has been quite a favorite of French theorists?

CM: Hmm, that’s an interesting reference, The Prison-House of Language, Jameson’s classic book. I think in the case of Zone it’s more the prison house of history that Francis is escaping from–and in fact language seems to be the one thing he uses that sets him free, or almost does, since it is through this labyrinth of language that he starts to find his way out. Language is a prison-house most of all for people who have only one language as their point of reference. Francis, however, is interesting in that he is bilingual, or perhaps multilingual (since he seems able to read Burroughs and Lowry in English, and the Pound quotes at the beginning and end are both in English), and also multinational (as a French-speaking Croat who assumes a [madman’s] French identity). So Francis speaks at least French and Croatian, and maybe that’s one of the things that saves him: he sees language not so much as a prison but more as an interesting form of escape. He is, however, trying to flee from the prison-house of History (with a capital H)–in fact that would be a great subtitle for the book: Zone, or The Prison House of History! Maybe we can coin a new phrase . . .

Joyce famously writes “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake”–Zone is an embodiment of that nightmare, and Francis too seems as if he’s struggling throughout the book to wake up from that long journey that is history.

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YFTS: Margaret Jull Costa Interview

Here are the questions I posed to Costa for our reading group for Your Face Tomorrow. Please add your own questions in the comments, and hopefully Costa will be able to drop by later in the week and offer some responses.

Scott Esposito: Marias has a great knowledge of English–in fact, he’s translated many of the great English-language writers into Spanish. So two questions: can you give us some idea of how Marias’s translations are regarded in Spain, and if he’s thought of simply as an author, or as more of an author/translator. And second, knowing how much he’s been influenced by some of the great English-language writers, did you use this knowledge at all while working on Your Face Tomorrow?

Margaret Jull Costa: His translations are obviously held in high regard in Spain, but he hasn’t really done much translating in the last twenty years. After he published his second novel, when he was 21, he devoted himself to translating some of the great names in British and American literature, partly, he says, as an essential training in becoming a writer. Then he resumed novel-writing. I would say that now, in Spain, he is thought of simply as a novelist and a columnist (he publishes a weekly column in the Sunday edition of El País).

As for the second part of your question, yes, Javier’s work and language is full of literary references, particularly to English-language writers, notably Shakespeare, Conrad, Nabokov and Eliot. He has also translated that most Baroque of writers, Sir Thomas Browne, and one can clearly see the influence of the latter’s long, looping sentences in Javier’s novels. Another of his most notable translations is of Tristram Shandy, and I think Sterne’s gleefully digressive style and love of absurdity had a huge impact on Javier’s way of writing, and he does take (a possibly very English) delight in choosing words for comic effect. I love many of the same writers that Javier loves, and in a way, I suppose, I do use my knowledge of their work when translating his books, but it’s very much an unconscious thing. I think probably anything that writers and translators read inevitably feeds into their own work.

SE: Marias has been writing since the 1970s, and his style has evolved considerably in the 30+ years he’s been writing. How would you characterize Marias’s style in Your Face Tomorrow with regard to the rest of his career?

MJC: The long sentence that is so characteristic of Javier’s style first occurs in The Man of Feeling. The sentences and the novels have grown longer and longer since then, mainly, I suspect, because his novels have moved away from plot (although there always is a plot) towards the dissection of ideas, feelings, words, motivations. His sentences have the shape of a thought, full of buts and perhapses and then agains. The style in Your Face Tomorrow is the latest stage in that development–less plot and more thought.

SE: As we’ve been reading, we’ve noted how much Marias likes to make use of lengthy sentences. We’ve also discussed how this changes the reading experience of this book, and, in fact, Andrew Seal did a very nice post for the group on how the syntactical unit of Marias’s sentences compares to that of Thomas Bernhard, and what this means for each man’s objectives as a writer. As a translator, how did you deal with these long sentences? Did you try to preserve the order and cadence and length of each? Did you feel the need to break some up, or join others?

MJC: I’ve never read Thomas Bernhard and so can’t comment on his style versus Javier’s, and I’ve probably dealt in my previous answer with the significance of Javier’s style as regards his objectives as a writer. As to how I deal with those long sentences, I very rarely, if ever, break them up into shorter sentences, that would be a complete betrayal of his style. I keep pretty much to the same word order and, insofar as it’s possible, given the differences in the two languages, the same cadence too. I translate the books one sentence at a time and go back over that sentence again and again until it makes syntactic sense and has the right, convincing rhythm, then I move on to the next one. The moment when all the parts of a sentence click into place is very pleasurable–and a relief! Students of English tend to be taught that short sentences equal good style, but English is such a wonderfully flexible language, it seems to me a shame not to use every sinuous inch of it.

SE: We’ve already been noticing how the two words used in the title of volume 1–fever (fiebre) and spear (lanza)–have been popping up in various ways throughout this first book. I assume that the case will be the same for the two words that grace the cover of each of the two remaining volumes. Knowing how crucial these words were to each book, as well as how they have to function in a varieties of capacities throughout each book, did they present any particular translation difficulties to you?

MJC: Obviously, with the title of the first volume, I had to decide whether it should be spear or lance and then stick with my final choice throughout the novel. The title of the next volume–Baile y sueño/Dance and Dream–proved more problematic because sueño means both sleep and dream, and within the novel, I do tend to move between those two translations depending on context. As regards the title, though, Dance and Dream simply sounded better than Dance and Sleep! And, of course, Deza is living a kind of dream existence from which he only wakes at the end of the final volume. With Veneno y sombra y adiós/Poison, Shadow and Farewell, there were similar problems. sombre can mean shade or shadow, but shadow like sombre has some usefully dark connotations, which shade lacks. adios can, of course, be translated as goodbye and farewell, but farewell seemed to me to strike the more appropriate note, especially as that is the word I used when translating Cervantes’ wonderful lines: “Farewell, wit; farewell, charm; farewell, dear, delightful friends,” which occur and reoccur throughout all three volumes.

SE: In your translation, Marias comes across as a very careful wielder of adjectives, and a very subtle hand with word order. For instance, this description of Tupra, the first time Deza sees him: “In the first instance and at a party, Tupra turned out to be a cordial man, smiling and openly friendly, despite being a native of the British Isles, a man whose bland, ingenuous form of vanity not only proved inoffensive, but caused one to view him slightly ironically and with an almost instinctive fondness.” [45] Several aspects of this sentence strike me as noteworthy, perhaps most so the passage “a man whose bland, ingenuous form of vanity not only proved inoffensive . . .” Do you find it significantly more difficult to translate Marias than other authors, and can you compare Marias’s use of word choice and word order to some other Spanish-language authors you’ve translated?

MJC: I’ve just checked my translation against the original sentence, and it does follow Javier’s word order, except that I’ve placed ‘In the first instance and at the party’ at the beginning of the sentence, whereas in the Spanish, those words come after the verb resultó ser [turned out to be]. I think (it’s several years since I translated the book) that I did this to avoid additional breaks and commas in the opening sentence of the chapter. Otherwise, as I said earlier, I do try to keep as close to his word order as I can. And, yes, Javier does like adjectives and uses them, I feel, as ways of getting closer to the meaning that he wants, often using apparent synonyms, as if each additional word might have just the nuance he needs. As for difficulty, his books are, of course, difficult to translate and certainly more difficult than any of my other Spanish-language authors, but he’s such a precise writer I know I can trust his choice of word and sentence shape. Translating a poor stylist is much harder than translating a very good one.

SE: Lastly, I remember hearing that after Marias had finished the second volume of Your Face Tomorrow, he declared the book complete, and then later caused a bit of a surprise when he wrote a third volume. Is this correct? And if so, did that choice surprise you, and do you consider the work complete now?

MJC: It was always clear that volume 2 could not be the end of the story, because it closes on a “cliffhanger,” as does volume 1. And there are all those loose ends waiting to be tied up!

My understanding is that Javier intended the “trilogy” to appear as one volume (it has recently come out in Spain in the one-volume format he originally wanted). He published it in segments so that the dedicatees–his father, Julián Marías, and Peter Russell (the model for Peter Wheeler)–both in their late eighties at the time, would be able to read the novel as it evolved. Both, alas, died before volume 3 was published. Javier has commented that volume 3 was much longer than he expected it to be, and that the deaths of his father and Peter Russell influenced the way he wrote about them in the final volume (i.e. he wasn’t sure he could have written of their deaths in the novel if they had still been alive in reality).

When I had completed the final version of my translation of volume 3, I wrote to Javier, saying that it was finished and added “always assuming a translation can ever be said to be truly finished,” and he replied–most consolingly–that it was the same with novels. There always comes a point where you simply have to stop. But, yes, I do consider the work to be complete now, and will be most intrigued to see what he writes next. Something quite different I suspect.

Reading and Publishing in Print’s Late Age: An Interview with Ted Striphas

Late-age Ted Striphas is an assistant professor of media and cultural studies and director of film and media at Indiana University. His book, The Late Age of Print, has just been published by Columbia University Press.

Scott Esposito: Your overarching argument is that books—their production, consumption, and dissemination—have been developing alongside capitalism, and in fact are very emblematic of capitalism. And just as we’re in what's known as "late capitalism" we're also in the "late age of print." Could you briefly explain what you mean by the late age of print?

Ted Striphas: “The late age of print” is a term I borrow and adapt from Jay David Bolter, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, to describe this particular—indeed, peculiar—moment in the history of print in which we’re now living. It helps me to name a paradox. On the one hand, books and other printed materials exist—and for some, are becoming lost—in a media landscape more densely crowded than ever. On the other hand, printed books now enjoy an extraordinary prevalence and degree of accessibility, owing to the recent rise of big-box bookstores, internet bookselling, televisual book promotion, and the like. How could it be that books are dying and thriving all at once? This is the overarching question that the late age of print—both the idea and the book—addresses.

“The late age of print” also is a rejoinder of sorts to those who claim that we’re now living in a digital age and that, for better or for worse, print is consequently dead. The history of communication technologies tends to be written in terms of supercession, and usually it goes something like this. In the beginning was the word, which is to say, the human voice. Its predominance is challenged once writing, and eventually printing, appear on the scene. Print eventually gives way to first generation (i.e., analog) electronic media such as radio and television, whose pre-eminence eventually succumbs to networked personal computers and other digital media.

The problem with this type of history lies in the one-dimensional—antagonistic—relationship that successive generations of communication technologies supposedly share with one another. Where’s the complexity? For decades books and electronic media have been vying for people’s attention. That much is undeniable. But a singular focus such as this obscures the many ways in which electronic media have augmented both the presence and authority of books in society. Consider for example the bar codes appearing on most books today. These symbols work in conjunction with digital communication technologies to ensure that the book you want is available where and when you want it.

“The late age of print” is the phrase I use to underscore the complex relationships that books share with other media. It leads us to acknowledge the maturity of books as a medium and to deny claims that they are anachronisms today.

SE: In the book you describe something known as "The Cheney Report." This was a report published in 1932 urging greater efficiency and integration in publishing. Basically it chastised publishers for being sloppy and said they could do better if they got their act together. Even though the report didn't have much immediate impact, you argue that in the long run, with the introduction of things like standard sizing and pricing, more efficient warehousing, and the big one, ISBNs and EANs, that the industry has more or less reformed itself as Cheney said it should. A lot of people now view publishing in a similar way as the 1930s—an underperforming industry that has a fundamentally sound product and could be doing a lot better than it is. What would you put in a new Cheney report for the 21st century?

TS: What a wonderful question! Indeed, today’s book industry needs a comprehensive “Cheney Report” of its own. I suppose that The Late Age of Print aspires to be that type of resource, albeit in a modest way. The “Cheney Report” was 150,000 words, after all.

Cheney’s brilliance lay in the way in which he resisted popular wisdom about how to jumpstart the ailing book industry of the 1930s. Nearly everyone at the time was saying, “more advertising!” Cheney didn’t exactly reject this view, but he forcefully insisted that advertising wouldn’t be enough. What was lacking in the book industry, he claimed, was adequate intelligence about who buys which books, and why. He also suggested that the book industry pay much more attention to improving its behind-the-scenes technical infrastructure. In a sense he was asking the industry to listen better, and to find a more productive balance between competition and cooperation.

These days the book industry is quite logistically savvy, and in significant respects it resembles the one that Cheney imagined almost 80 years ago. Many new challenges have emerged in the intervening years, however, and only some can be addressed by looking to the “Cheney Report” for inspiration. One thing Cheney clearly tells us is that advertising will never be a cure-all for the book industry’s woes. It is at best only a partial solution—often a haphazard one at that.

To my mind, Cheney’s insight about listening endures above all else. But the book industry of today needs to do more than just figure out who buys which books, and why. It needs to become significantly more intelligent about how, where, why, and with whom people engage books. This is, incidentally, one of the reasons for the success of Oprah’s Book Club. Oprah has been adept at recommending strategies for how people might fit book reading into their busy schedules. She doesn’t perceive a lack of interest in books to be a moral or intellectual failing as much as a technical problem—one that requires relatively straightforward, “everyday” solutions. When her followers complained about lacking sufficient time to read, she suggested that they ask their loved ones for alone-time—as opposed to material things—at the holidays. The book industry needs to engage in exactly this type of listening, plus it needs to be much more proactive in terms of educating people about how to creatively align book reading with everyday routines.

SE: Throughout Late Age you elaborate the idea that the book is in many ways the quintessential capitalist good. It's gone from being a somewhat uncommon item that's sold to a certain subset of consumers to a mass marketed good that is aimed right at the heart of capitalist society, i.e. the middle class. Ebooks fit very much into your vision of books as the representative capitalist good. In fact you write that "ebooks don't suggest a waning of consumer capitalism. . . . They point to its intensification or, rather, to the emergence of new practices of controlled capitalism." Could you discuss this idea a little bit?

TS: The historical trajectory I trace in The Late Age of Print is “from consumerism to control,” which is the book’s subtitle. I begin by exploring how books provided a kind of alibi, or moral license, for the growth of a conspicuously consuming middle-class in the United States. People often forget that the system of consumer credit that sustains this group today (until the recent financial crisis, at any rate) was virtually unknown a century ago. Guided by the Protestant ethic, most ordinary Americans used to consider consumer debt to be a fool’s paradise. This type of thinking posed a problem for the industrialists of the early 20th century. They realized that capitalism would continue to thrive and expand if and only if they could open up markets beyond the wealthy minority to whom they’d generally catered. Books served this purpose unusually well, in that they tended to be looked upon as vehicles for moral, aesthetic, and intellectual uplift. That is, books could be marketed to the adherents of the Protestant ethic as productive investments, rather than as frivolous things. This belief also helped the burgeoning middle-class to justify its use of consumer credit to purchase books (along with sewing machines and the like), which helped pave the way for more liberal practices of consumption later in the 20th century.

The eventual result is the emergence of a true mass market for books in and beyond the United States. But this in turn created all sorts of anxieties among publishers, and to a somewhat lesser extent authors, particularly over the ways in which this mass of books could circulate beyond their control. At first the worry was that people were passing on their books too frequently to friends, family, colleagues, and acquaintances. Later, the book industry fretted over the duplication of books using photocopiers. Today, the bête noire is the digital scanner. In all cases, the overarching concern—and perhaps the erroneous assumption—is that the uncontrolled circulation of books and book content leads inevitably to lost sales.

Given this history, it’s unsurprising—if ultimately disappointing—to me to see the book industry now scrambling to find ways to micromanage the circulation of books in everyday life. The paradigmatic case for printed books is Harry Potter. Each new installment of the series brought with it ever more stringent legal guidelines and technological control mechanisms. These were aimed at regulating precisely when, where, how, and among whom the books would move up until their release dates. Many commercial ebook systems, such as the Amazon Kindle, employ digital rights management and other technological protection measures to achieve a similar end. The broader result of all this is the emergence of a variant of capitalism that is deeply suspicious of, and at times even hostile to, the consuming public, whose relationship to books is now monitored and regimented to an unprecedented degree.

SE: Speaking of the Kindle, you discuss the idea that ebooks are evolving our idea of copyright—from a concept of copyright that more or less says "you bought it, you can do whatever you want with it," to an idea that your rights over what you buy will be managed even after you buy it (built-in digital rights management would be an example). Do you think that ultimately copyright will evolve toward greater restrictions along these lines, or do you think a backlash along the lines of what we're seeing with Creative Commons licenses and open source will change that?

TS: My inclination here is to agree with Lawrence Lessig, who, in his recent book Remix, suggests that we’re presently moving in the direction of a “hybrid economy.” By this he means that a more restrictive (i.e., copyright- and DRM-intensive) mode of cultural production is likely to exist side-by-side, or perhaps in some combination, with more sharing-oriented systems such as Creative Commons, open source, and the like. If indeed this assessment is true—and I think Lessig offers compelling evidence to suggest that it is—then it seems to me that two challenges will present themselves.

The first will be to develop strategies so that the latter doesn’t merely become the appendage of, or “free labor” for, the former. I’m thinking of the photo sharing site Flikr, for instance. Some budding photographers who’ve posted their images there have, as a gesture of goodwill, offered them under a Creative Commons license, only to discover those images being used for commercial purposes because they chose the wrong type of Creative Commons license! There have been fewer instances of this type of disrespectful behavior in the book world, but clearly the temptation will be there as more material is made publicly available on- and offline through various open systems.

The second and related challenge, then, will be to preserve choice in a hybrid economy—and thus to keep the hybrid economy hybrid, as it were. The Late Age of Print will soon be offered for free online under a Creative Commons, Attribution 3.0 BY-SA-NC license. The printed edition will continue to be available for purchase, and perhaps one day will offer a digitally rights-managed Kindle edition. The tragedy for me would be if only one of these versions of the book were made available—the latter one, in particular. Like other industries, the book industry needs to learn that its clients will expect more and more choice as the years go by, and that they will find always ways to revolt if their choices narrow or become artificially restricted. As Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point shows, disrespectful behavior begets disrespectful behavior.

SE: In your discussion of Amazon you argue that it has made the business of bookselling more of a science than anyone has previously been able to. That is, its success is basically due to being able to sell more books more quickly and efficiently than anyone in history. You cite some incredible stats: books sit on Amazon's shelves an average of 18 days, compared to 161 in a traditional bookstore. Amazon turns over some books as much as 150 times per year, compared to 4 times a year for traditional stores. And, in fact, recent stats indicate that Amazon is growing its booksales while traditional bookstores are flat or in decline. First, what is the downside to Amazon's model? What do they do poorly? And secondly, what can traditional bookstores do to compete with does Amazon's incredible efficiency and reach?

TS: The major downside of the Amazon model is what goes on behind the scenes, out of site and essentially out of mind. Most of us interface with the company through its website, where we’re greeted with an extraordinary range of books and other consumer goods. But what do we really know about, beyond its attractive website?

Indeed, many of us forget that the website isn’t just a portal through which we enter the Amazon store. It’s also a conduit through which Amazon quietly enters our everyday lives to engage in intelligence gathering. Amazon knows more about which books we’re interested in and have purchased than just about any bookseller around. This occurs as a result of its sophisticated client tracking capabilities, which transform our browsing around the Amazon website into an opportunity for data mining. The problem here isn’t surveillance per se. I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy Amazon’s personalized recommendations, which are the result of my own and others’ computer-aggregated browsing and buying habits. The problem lies with the asymmetry of this relationship. There’s little possibility for opting out of any or all of Amazon’s surveillance practices, much less of finding out what the company thinks it knows about us—erroneously or otherwise. Its data gathering and retention is all the more worrisome in a political climate in which, despite whatever thaw we’ve seen under the Obama administration, the USA PATRIOT Act remains the law of the land.

Another downside is the labor practices that Amazon must engage in to supply books and other goods as efficiently as it does. I document these issues in some detail in The Late Age of Print, so I won’t delve into too many specifics here. Suffice it to say that Amazon has quite stringent performance expectations for its warehouse workers in terms of item storage and retrieval, packaging, and more. It’s also been quite aggressive about staving off their unionization. In these and other ways, doesn’t at all resemble the image of the genteel bookstore that most of us would conjure when we hear uttered the word, bookstore. For that matter, it doesn’t much resemble a Borders or a Barnes & Noble, either. Amazon is a bookseller stripped down to the bare bones.

To be blunt about it, traditional bookstores cannot compete with unless they’re prepared to abandon the mantle of the “traditional” bookstore—by which I mean, a retail outlet where something more than an economic calculus holds sway. Nevertheless, I would suggest that they make more of an issue of Amazon’s data policies, while doing their best to ensure their own client confidentiality. Traditional bookstores also might take on more of an educative function as well, along the lines of what I mentioned above in discussing the success of Oprah’s Book Club. Finally, traditional bookstores must recognize that they cannot simply rest on tradition, and that more and more people have come to expect both off- and online bookselling experiences. What this means is that, where possible, they’ll need to invest in digital infrastructures that allow their customers to interact with the store and with one another wherever they may happen to be on the network. IndieBound is an important, if still somewhat limited, step in the right direction.

SE: You’ve mentioned Oprah a couple of times in this interview, and indeed in Late Age you devote a chapter to Oprah's Book Club. Therein, you advance what I think is an interesting argument: the book club's success was far from pre-ordained and in fact rested on Oprah's ability to make people who previously did not read much (or in some cases at all) enthusiastic about reading. Certainly this is exactly what a lot of people concerned with reading want, and you say that there's a lot to be learned from Oprah. However, you also note that Oprah's method doesn't necessarily promote a book for its aesthetic or literary value but for its ability to be vital to the lives of its readers. Some people won't like this message, and they'll be of the opinion that literature doesn't need those kinds of readers, or that this will water down literature as art and reading as something special and unique. What's your response?

TS: The belief that “literature doesn’t need those kinds of readers” is short-sighted in any number of ways. In a crudely economic sense, it’s completely self-defeating for authors and publishers. If the book industry is indeed under-performing, shouldn’t it be doing everything in its power to court any and all would-be readers, instead of freezing some—and perhaps many—of them out? That type of exclusive attitude is a pathway to one thing and to one thing only: irrelevance.

Another concern I have with this view is that it is short-sighted historically. People often forget that “pure aesthetics”—by which I mean aesthetics for their own sake, or aesthetics divorced from the immediate realities of daily life—is largely an invention of the 18th or 19th century. For most of human history (at least in the West), what made good art good was its relevance, utility, or connection to people’s everyday realities. The idea that a book’s beauty is inversely proportional to its usefulness forgets two essential facts: first, there is more than one way in which to relate to art; and second, the definition of art is neither essential nor trans-historical.

Finally, it seems to me that a “literature doesn’t need those kinds of readers” attitude is short-sighted with respect to the future. Just because a person may learn to engage with books in one particular way doesn’t mean that she or he will engage with books that way for all time. I used to chew on my books as a toddler, but do I continue to do so today? Absolutely not! This example is pretty glib (and kind of gross, admittedly), but it’s roughly analogous to one of the more interesting features of Oprah’s Book Club. Oprah often follows easier titles with more challenging ones. So, for example, Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible was followed by a “breeze” (Oprah’s word) of a book, Elizabeth Berg’s Open House. There are many more examples like this in The Late Age of Print. What the broader pattern suggests is that Oprah sees reading as a trajectory to challenge, rather than a challenge in itself. And this to me is a profoundly respectful way in which to welcome people into the world of books instead of turning them away at the door.

Interview: Fran Toolan of NetGalley

Advance review copies seem to be one aspect of the book business that has a lot to gain from the increasing digitization of publishing. After all, ARCs are meant to be disposable (all those "not for resale" warnings), and every publicist I've ever talked to has had the experience of shipping them out by the hundreds with little actual result.

So, when I discovered a new service that wants to make electronic galleys available to reviewers, journalists, librarians, and other people, I wanted to know more. To find out, I conducted this interview with Fran Toolan of NetGalley.

(for more interviews, see Conversational Reading's Interview Page)

Fran Toolan is Chief Igniter of Firebrand Technologies, owners of NetGalley.

Scott Esposito: What exactly is NetGalley and how does it work? Specifically, how does it connect publishers with people who might want to read advance copies of books?

Fran Toolan: NetGalley is a service for people who read and recommend books. Publishers upload their galleys, plus any marketing and promotional information; then invite contacts to view their title on NetGalley. Readers can also find new titles through NetGalley’s Public Catalog, and request to review those titles from the publisher.

SE: Who is this service geared toward? Book reviewers only, or do you envision other applications?

FT: Book reviewers, definitely, but also other groups of “professional readers” such as journalists, librarians, professors, booksellers, bloggers, etc. Anyone who reads and recommend books can use NetGalley.

One of the most interesting aspects of NetGalley is the ability for publishers to include multimedia files with their galley. We support a wide range of file types—could be book trailers, illustrations, audio files, videos, simple Word docs or PDFs. This allows publishers to send a dynamic galley “package” which can be as creative and wide-reaching as they want it to be, to entice readers to engage with the title.

SE: What is the cost to publishers and reviewers who want to use the service?

FT: As a new service for Firebrand (NetGalley was acquired by Firebrand Technologies in December 2008), we are revisiting the pricing model and structure. When the service was with its previous owners, the price was set at $499 per title. Almost universally publishers felt that was too high. We’ve dropped the price to $199 per title, which allows publishers to upload their galley and associated content, invite unlimited contacts to view the title, and list in our Public Catalog.

As we work with more publishers, we may move to a subscription-based model (where publishers would pay a yearly fee depending on size, for example). This is an area where we are really listening and learning from our customers.

The service is free to all professional readers/reviewers.

SE: What kind of functionality does the service offer book reviewers? How is access to a NetGalley granted?

FT: Book reviewers and other readers can view titles they’ve been invited to view, and request titles from the Public Catalog. The publisher sets which reading options they want to offer for the galley itself. This includes the option to request a printed galley; read the galley online (in a browser window); or download a protected PDF. We expect to offer some options for reading on an e-reader fairly soon.

Publishers control access to their titles; so, for example, requesting a title from the Public Catalog doesn’t mean you will automatically have access to it. We’ve been encouraging users to complete their profiles on NetGalley to let publishers find them and approve requests.

Finally, if they choose, reviewers can share an “accepted or declined status” with publishers, and even share their completed reviews or comments.

SE: A June 1 Business Week report from BEA said that NetGalley had begun a pilot program with "500 forthcoming books from publishers Bloomsbury USA, Hachette Book Group, Sourcebooks, and St. Martin's Press." How has this gone so far? What publishers and how many titles do you work with currently?

FT: In December 2008, Firebrand Technologies took over the management and operations of NetGalley from Rosetta Solutions. We’re a company whose expertise is exclusively in book publishing, and we’re 20-year+ veterans of the space. We knew almost immediately that we’d have to do some retrenching of the application and the business assumptions in order to make NetGalley work, and we’ve been doing that. A lot was learned from the publishers in the initial pilot, but we’ve got a lot to do to deliver repeat value as each new season of books is published.

We’ve got two large hurdles in our sights right now. The first is making it easier to get content into NetGalley. You can’t have a publisher with 500 titles inputting metadata one-by-one! One of Firebrand’s core competencies is title management and distribution; you can expect to see big changes in NetGalley in this area.

The second area is in scaling NetGalley for large publishers. NetGalley hasn’t been particularly adept for large publishers like those in the June pilot. Our experience in managing projects will definitely help us here.

In the next few months, we’re inviting 15 Eloquence (Firebrand’s title information distribution service) publisher customers to use NetGalley to promote their fall titles. We’ll take their title information directly from Eloquence into NetGalley as a test of that first hurdle I mentioned above. Look for good news on how it goes!

We’re also working with some mid-sized publishers like B&H and Barbour Publishing, and some innovators like Unbridled Books and Chelsea Green. You can check out our Public Catalog to see more.

SE: What evidence do you have that NetGalley can reduce costs for a publisher? Has there been increased interest from publishers trying to trim costs during this recession?

FT: Honestly, none yet, because we’re still in an experimental stage. But, what publishers are discovering more and more every day is that the production and distribution of galleys is a very expensive and very inefficient way of seeding the market prior to the publication of a work. We often use the analogy of dandelion seeds. Publishers print galleys, send them out to people they already have a relationship with, and hopefully some good reviews will come back. There is often very little, if any, evidence that a reviewer even looked at the title. And, there is no good way to establish new review relationships.

Part of our reasoning in lowering the price with NetGalley to $199/title is to make it possible for publishers to experiment—broaden the audience and reach of the galley distribution, for example; or use NetGalley for their “big mouth” list or author outreach. Some publishers want to use NetGalley for desk copies to professors. We have some publishers who say, “I wish every librarian could have a copy of this galley.” And now they can.

Books that are very expensive to produce in print galley form (more pages, highly illustrated, etc.) show really well on NetGalley. And of course there’s no additional production or shipping costs to include supporting material like an author interview, Q&A, etc with your NetGalley.

SE: As someone who assigns book reviews, I've noted a definite preference among my reviewers for hardcopies over PDFs. What's your response to people who say they'd prefer a printed ARC?

FT; This question is one we answer almost every day. There’s still a ways to go getting people to read digital galleys exclusively, no doubt about it. And, this is one of the major areas we are focusing on.

Printed galleys can be requested via NetGalley (if the publisher chooses) and we’re working to try and enlist POD printers to help streamline this process. Another development we’re working on is to enable the protected galleys on NetGalley to be viewed securely on reading devices. Publishers seem to like the idea of using their limited print galleys where there’s a request and thus a higher likelihood of coverage.

But most importantly, I think digital galleys have an important role to fill in the search and discovery aspect of reviewing books. Most editors and reviewers don’t read the full text of every book they receive to decide if they will review it; it would be impossible. Why not use digital to read the first few chapters? Just reducing the paper waste alone would be a benefit.

Another benefit to digital galleys is off-the-book-page coverage, particularly for non-fiction books, where searching inside the book is essential. And digital is fast—if you have an opportunity for your author you need to capitalize on immediately, or if the book is delayed and you’re rushing the galleys, for example.

We’ve tried to stop thinking about it as an “either print or digital” proposition, and instead try and accommodate all the ways professional readers consume the title (or parts of the title).

SE: Lastly, although there are signs that publishers and readers are beginning to read books online and on portable devices, there's still a good deal of entrenched resistance to electronic books and book criticism (for instance, the outcry each time a newspaper kills its printed book section). How do you think opinions about this will change in the future? Have you noticed any trends regarding who's more inclined to use your service?

Let’s answer the easier part of that question first! We have noticed some trends on who’s more inclined to use our service—bloggers, for example, and librarians—who are perhaps more digitally-inclined, or perhaps have access to fewer print galleys because they are such a large audience and publishers can’t accommodate all their requests economically.

We should be clear that NetGalley is not trying to hasten the adoption of electronic books. We are trying to enhance a publisher’s ability to find the voices that will encourage the reading of a work in whatever form it takes.

The entire world of book criticism and recommendation is changing right in front of our eyes into a more flat and fragmented system. Reviews are no longer the sole purview of key review organizations. The internet has enabled the individual voice to be recognized as easily as that of a respected organization. It also allows individual voices to naturally coalesce into ‘micro-communities’ that are highly segmented in their interests.

If NetGalley can help those recommenders discover great new titles, that’s excellent news for book publishing.


The Surrender is Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning his lifelong desire to be a woman.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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