Category Archives: Uncategorized

Good Things Upcoming

It’s been a rather busy couple of months, hence the relative lack of new material on this website. But that will soon change! I’m working on a couple of translator interviews, plus a few other odds and ends, all of which will be appearing here shortly.

In the meantime, you may enjoy my latest at Literary Hub, where I wrote on the stunning new translation of Virgil’s Aeneid by poet David Ferry—a book that is an absolute must at least once in your lifetime (and hopefully more than once).

I’ve also put together a profile at Patreon, if you’d like to support this site with a small monthly donation. There are ebooks and other pieces of upcoming writing to be had at the $3/month level.

15 Movies I Wish I Could Have Included in The Doubles

As I’ve been doing events and interviews for The Doubles, and just having conversations about it, one question that seems to keep coming up is “what films didn’t make it into The Doubles?” So I thought I’d do a quick list of a bunch of really major films for me that I wish had been in the book but just didn’t make it for one reason or another.

Many of these 15 movies were at one point under consideration for The Doubles, and some of them are just things I love that were never going to work for the project.

These are all films that I absolutely recommend and that you should go out and see immediately.

Close-Up by Abbas Kiarostami. If you’ve read my essay “The Last Redoubt,” you know exactly how much this film has meant to me—just about as much as any film can. And, in fact, “The Last Redoubt” was originally going to be an essay for The Doubles. In my interview at Vol. 1 Brooklyn, I explained about how it ended up in The Surrender:

Well for one thing, it’s insightful that you mention The Surrender, because the middle essay in that triptych—which revolves around Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up—was originally to be a part of The Doubles. It was only subsequently that I realized that The Surrender would be written and that this essay would be a part of that book. So these The Doubles and The Surrender are very connected, even though there are big differences in the subject matter of each.

Ultimately, I liked the way that these two books ended up being connected and the theme of cinema that runs through each.

Le plaisir by Max Ophüls. Le plaisir is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen on the nature of love and all its attendant emotions (romance, heartbreak, longing, nostalgia, etc). It’s visually stunning, and just perfect. On top of all that, I also have a really strong story to go along with my screening of this movie. It ranks up alongside Close-Up in terms of being “the right movie at the right time” for me. But it just didn’t happen, in part because I’m not sure I’m ready to tell that particular story yet. But it is great, as is much of Ophüls. Go see it!

Certified Copy by Abbas Kiarostami. It’s really hard to pick whether I prefer Close-Up or Certified Copy—both are extraordinary films, and they each excel in their own way. Certified Copy is very much about language and translations—core themes to my work—and the movie feels incredibly close to the novels of Manuel Puig, a major influence on my writing (particularly The Doubles.) So to not have it in the book was not an easy choice, but it was one I ended up having to make. Possibly Kiarostami is the biggest omission in there.

At Berkeley by Frederick Wiseman. I can more or less tell you exactly why this film isn’t in The Doubles: 4 hours. It’s 4 hours long. It’s one of the most compelling long movies I’ve ever seen—this is definitely the best Wiseman I’ve ever seen, and likely one of his top films overall. But it would have killed me to re-tell this movie—not only for the length of it, but to figure out how to reproduce its rhythms and the depth of its conversations in the format of my book.

Vagabond by Agnes Varda. Varda is another huge omission. This is the first of her films I saw, and I still may like it the best. The mood of this film is incredible, and the storytelling is so taut.

F Is for Fake by Orson Welles. I’ll again quote from my Vol. 1 Brooklyn interview:

Earlier this year I watched for the very first time Orson Welles’s last film, the rather extraordinary F Is for Fake. This movie is generally categorized as a documentary, although such a term is hardly suitable for a movie that has such a tortured and halls-of-mirrors-like relationship with anything in the vicinity of the “truth.” It begins with a magic trick, and the rest of the film is constant cinematic sleight of hand, Welles screaming “look over there!” then manipulating something just out of your field of view, thrusting you from one situation to another, telling you to pay attention to this detail, only to then give the impression it is a red herring, or an outright lie, and then, 15 minutes later, telling you it is God’s own truth. I think I would need to watch it a dozen times just to sort it all out, and even then one could never really be sure. The film would be a distinct challenge to re-tell, and it offers so many points of entry for thinking about the nature of truth, as well as the original versus the fake, for a world in which our relationship with reality and truth is growing stranger by the day.

Summer by Éric Rohmer. Sometimes also known as The Green Ray, this is possibly my favorite Rohmer film of all. It is an extraordinary character portrait of a normal middle-class Frenchwoman on her summer vacation; her depths are beyond 99% of film. And it’s just a very strikingly shot, beautiful, romantic movie.

The Sunset Trilogy by Richard Linklater. I saw these too late for them to get into The Doubles (and Linklater is already represented by Boyhood), but they really are exquisite. the third in the trilogy feels almost like Linklater trying on the style of Kiarostami (and finding it a rather good fit), and the first two capture that feeling of young love while also managing to fit in so much else of the world. These movies will just make you feel good.

Woman in the Dunes by Hideo Teshigahara and Kobo Abe. This was such a powerful film when I first saw it; it’s filmmaking that makes you re-evaluate everything and think hard about who you are and what the hell you’re doing. Fortunately though I didn’t get to include this in The Doubles, I did get to write about the collaborations between Teshigahara and Abe for the next issue of The Scofield.

Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould by François Girard. I saw this so long ago (I think it was around 2002), back then the Fine Arts Cinema still existed in Berkeley and when I knew so much less about everything. It would have been a remarkable film to revisit.

Kingdom by Lars von Trier. Not so much a movie as a miniseries, this would have been ludicrous to attempt with the method I employ in The Doubles, and anyway von Trier is already represented by The Five Obstructions. But I am convinced this is the greatest thing von Trier has ever done. If you think Twin Peaks is the best TV can be, watch this.

The Clock by Christian Marclay. This had to be disqualified because it’s currently only viewable in museum settings, and because I’ve only seen about 3 hours of it, but those three hours were unlike any other cinematic experience I’ve ever had. This “movie” is 24 hours long, and it changes virtually ever minute, so it would have been insane to retell, but it also would have been something wonderful to attempt. I do hope I get to one day watch this in full, preferably in a 24-hour viewing session.

The Long Goodbye by Robert Altman. I just can’t get enough of Elliott Gould mumbling his way through this movie as a down-on-his-luck Sam Spade. As far as I’m concerned, this is the definitive Los Angeles movie, and it’s also an incredibly enjoyable deconstruction/endpoint of the noir genre.

Last Year at Marienbad by Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet. This is what it’s like to be inside of memory—it’s a movie from the perspective of being within memory. In addition to this just being a great film, I also happened to see it at a very important juncture in my life. I had just been living in Argentina, where I had discovered Adolfo Bioy Casares (whose novel the Invention of Morel was the inspiration for this film), and now I was back home in the U.S. beginning to make my way back into the cultural scene of the Bay Area.

The Exterminating Angel by Luis Buñel. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to include any Buñel, particularly something as bizarre and open to interpretation as this absurdist, farcical film.

Listen to The Doubles Launch Events

Apologies for the relative lack of updates on the blog front throughout September. I’ve been traveling for The Doubles and work has been piling up. But I do have some audio from the launch events at Skylights Books in Los Angeles and City Lights in San Francisco for you to enjoy, if you so wish. My deep thanks to both bookstores for putting together really beautiful events and to my collaborators, Penny-Ante publisher Rebekah Weikel and novelist Micheline Marcom, who interviewed me in LA and SF, respectively.

Here’s the audio from Skylight:

And here’s the audio from City Lights:

Unfortunately, no audio was recorded from the New York City launch at Community Bookstore, where I was graciously interviewed by novelist Álvaro Enrigue, author of Sudden Death.

Quarterly Conversation Issue 49

We’ve just published Issue 49 of The Quarterly Conversation. Here are the contents:

Features


Louche Life: The Literary Crimes of Gary Indiana

Louche Life: The Literary Crimes of Gary Indiana

As the 24-hour news cycle exceeded Hollywood in narrative originality, the Menendez brothers became TV stars, O.J. got away with it, and California elected Arnold Schwarzenegger as its 38th governor (a friend who attended San Diego State University told me he voted Republican only so that his diploma would come adorned with the Terminator’s autograph). This Southern California—of Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust, Irwin Shaw’s “The City Was in Total Darkness,” Kenneth Anger, Charles Bukowski, early Tom Waits, Bret Easton Ellis, David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino, and Kathy Acker’s death, of breast cancer, in a Tijuana clinic—is Gary Indiana’s Southern California, an oasis of junkies, con artists, prostitutes, and thieves sipping afternoon cocktails in hotel bars. As Jean Baudrillard wrote about one of its many symbols in 1981, “Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, whereas all of Los Angeles and the America that surrounds it are no longer real, but belong to the hyperreal order and to the order of simulation.” For every Marilyn Monroe, there are more than a few Norma Jeanes who never made it onto the lot, while others imitate the real thing in Las Vegas and West Hollywood––and then, Indiana reminds us, there’s Marilyn herself. Los Angeles is the city of Skid Row, but it’s also Kim Kardashian’s hometown.


Three by Krasznahorkai

Three by Krasznahorkai

In the nearly twenty years since László Krasznahorkai’s The Melancholy of Resistance first appeared in translation, his reputation in English has grown at the same gradual, inexorable pace that his books favor. Nearly all his novels of lonely visionaries and glimpsed apocalypses have made it by now into English, and later this year New Directions will substantially fill out the short fiction with a large collection titled The World Goes On. In the meantime, we have last year’s smaller volume; Herman/The Last Wolf picks out three pieces from Krasznahorkai’s short work, two early and one late, and joins them up in an inverted tête-bêche binding. Additionally, The Manhattan Project is a broad, slim volume co-credited to Krasznahorkai and the photographer Ornan Rotem and constructed as “a literary diary presented as twelve chance encounters or coincidences.”


Following The Peregrine

Following The Peregrine

Baker dedicates to this land an imagination that is foil and febrile kin to Wordsworth’s genius. His prose has a sheer disorienting power: the words of a place raised out of time yet shaped through historical time. The uncertainty of wildness is at its center, bound to a persistent human namelessness that hangs on the fringes: “As so often on spring evenings, no birds sing near me, while all the distant trees and bushes ring with song. Like all human beings, I seem to walk within a hoop of red-hot iron, a hundred yards across, that sears away all life. When I stand still, it cools, and slowly disappears.” Such prose slips the read


Herrera’s Trilogy-of-Sorts

Herrera’s Trilogy-of-Sorts

In the often-staid world of literary translation, it is rare to come across the true shock of something new—sentences like “a few houses had already been sent packing to the underworld, along with a soccer pitch and half an empty school” or “Three Times Blonde’s pants rode her all over.” Sentences that let their readers into a strange new view of the world. But this is what Yuri Herrera has taught us to expect in his books, and with the publication of Kingdom Cons, his trilogy-of-sorts is brought to a close at the very moment that it brings language itself into question.


“How It Came to Me to Say” Gordon Lish

“How It Came to Me to Say” Gordon Lish

If, as Jonathan Sturgeon has suggested, we have entered an era dominated by “autofiction,” in which “the life of the author is now the novel’s organizing principle” (“2014: The Death of the Postmodern Novel and the Rise of Autofiction”), then in the search for progenitors of this literary phenomenon we might consider the fiction of Gordon Lish. Indeed, a common reaction to Lish’s books, at least since Peru (which may be his last work of fiction to predominantly feature a main character who can, to some degree at least, be separated from “Gordon Lish”) is to question whether Lish is writing fiction at all rather than some sort of free-form (some would say self-indulgent) autobiography. However, the wary reader would be just as mistaken to trust Lish’s writing to provide reliable accounts of the author’s actual experiences as to expect his “stories” to bear much resemblance to the traditional well-made short story.



Interview

The Rodrigo Hasbún Interview

The Rodrigo Hasbún Interview


Kafka definitely is the best example of the writer as the permanent apprentice, to the degree that he often gives the impression of being unable to finish the texts he begins. His diary is a laboratory where we can see evidence of investigations that, after twenty years of writing, shouldn’t still be going but that he, miraculously, pursues until the very end. His is an almost childish approach to writing, and this I like, because maybe it’s in the beginning of a writer’s life where writing feels most necessary and truthful. With Bolaño I have a similar sense. I see a continual brilliance to his writing: for him literature is also like a fascinating game. This game doesn’t fail to amaze Kafka, but it preoccupies and torments him to not understand how it works. By contrast, it only brings Bolaño happiness. Reading him, one sees how much he enjoyed writing. It’s even possible to hear him dying of laughter between certain lines.



In Translation

From The Diaries of Emilio Renzi by Ricardo Piglia

From The Diaries of Emilio Renzi by Ricardo Piglia

The government’s intelligence services monitored him for months, censored his correspondence, controlled his visitors, and once in a while a nocturnal voice would threaten him over the phone. He would not treat it as a threat; in fact, he kept up a philosophical and theoretical conversation on the meaning of civil duty and moral responsibility with those deceitful voices. Those men were the new intellectuals, the thinkers of the future; any Argentine knows that a mark will be placed on his life if he dissents, which may be invoked at some future moment to track down and incarcerate him. The services had turned into the political version of the Oracle of Delphi; they decided in secret the fate of entire populations. Now they are the witches from Macbeth who control the power! They suppress everything that can threaten mediocre and average life; they attack diversity in all of its aspects, control it and surveil it, write our biographies. Conformism is the new religion, and they are its priests. He had reached a point at which he argued directly with the state, with the spokesmen for the state’s intelligence. Smash and grab exchanges in the depths of night; the voices came and went, through wireless circuits. They hounded him, cornered him, wanted to turn him into an intellectual outlaw. They know that I know; they want to destroy my thought.



Reviews

The Invented Part by Rodrigo Fresán

The Invented Part by Rodrigo Fresán


Having read The Invented Part, it is not surprising that Fresán is often mentioned in the same breath as Bolaño and Cortázar; Bolaño because he is widely considered to be the Chilean’s heir, a folly that I will not elaborate on here, and because Fresán was also a close friend of his; and Cortázar because, as I stated above, The Invented Part is, rightly or wrongly, compared frequently to Cortázar’s magnum opus, Hopscotch; but more importantly because, like Bolaño’s and Cortázar’s translated works, The Invented Part is a welcome addition to the canon of translated Latin American literature.


Belladonna by Daša Drndić

Belladonna by Daša Drndić


For a reader not versed in the politics and history of Croatia, Yugoslavia, and, more generally, Europe, Belladonna can be a challenging novel. It is also enlightening and beautiful, sophisticated and tragic, haunting and stirring, not to mention a seamless blend of fact and fiction. It’s an angry book, at rage with nationalism and blind fanaticism, as well as the stifling mediocrity that can be academia. And it’s a heartbreaking meditation on aging and its many ills. Lest I forget to also mention, it is one of the most rewarding books I’ve read in years. The work that Daša Drndić asks of her readers does not come from the prose, which is razor-sharp, biting, and often hysterical in its outrage. The challenge lies in the constant shifts of time, which can often displace the reader. But I implore you to hold fast, because Belladonna is worth it.


Down Below by Leonora Carrington

Down Below by Leonora Carrington


Before Leonora Carrington became a famed surrealist artist and writer, she went mad. In the late 1930s, the English debutante was living with her lover Max Ernst (more than 20 years her senior) in a farmhouse in Provence, when Ernst was imprisoned on a visit to Paris and sent to a concentration camp. As the German army advanced, Carrington fled across the Pyrenees into Spain, where, after exhibiting increasingly deranged behavior, she was interned in an insane asylum in Santander. Down Below is Carrington’s brief yet harrowing account of her journey to the other side of consciousness.


Let Us Watch Richard Wilbur: A Biographical Study by Robert Bagg and Mary Bagg

Let Us Watch Richard Wilbur: A Biographical Study by Robert Bagg and Mary Bagg


In 1947, Louise Bogan reviewed for The New Yorker a first collection of poems by a 26-year-old who less than two years earlier had been discharged from the U.S. Army after seeing combat in Italy, France, and Germany. Bogan praises his wit and technical facility, and says he surpasses his contemporaries in “range of imagination and depth of feeling.” He possesses the gift, Bogan says, of “fitting the poetic pattern to the material.” She concludes her review with a forward-looking endorsement, almost a prophecy: “Let us watch Richard Wilbur. He is composed of valid ingredients.” Robert and Mary Bagg have written the first biography of our greatest living poet, now age ninety-six, borrowing their title from Bogan’s prescient review of The Beautiful Changes, published seventy years ago.


Old Rendering Plant by Wolfgang Hilbig

Old Rendering Plant by Wolfgang Hilbig


Long after he escaped East Germany to settle in the West, where he continued to reside until his death in 2007, Wolfgang Hilbig remained bound to the darkened landscapes of the GDR. He was not one to downplay the bleak and oppressive qualities of life amid the abandoned mines and crumbling factories of his hometown, Meuselwitz, and his dense, swirling prose evokes a world of strange, suffocating beauty. But his emotional attachment to his birthplace and his complicated misgivings about the benefits of reunification, left him forever torn between East and West—a conflict captured clearly in the stories that comprise the second part of the collection The Sleep of the Righteous. By contrast, Old Rendering Plant, the latest Hilbig offering to be released in English, presents a narrative firmly planted in the GDR that does not travel far beyond the immediate environs of the narrator’s home; yet this tightly defined arena affords the perfect space for a multi-layered exploration of one man’s struggle to define himself against the restrictions and expectations imposed by family, class, history, and circumstance.


Ten Questions for Margaret Jull Costa on Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet

The Portuguese modernist par excellence Fernando Pessoa remains an immense figure in world literature. Any significant new translation of his work is an event worthy of attention (all the more so because much of his writing remains untranslated still). But what do you call it when his undisputed masterpiece is translated in a new, impeccably edited, expanded edition by possibly the greatest translator of Iberian literature working today?

That is what we have in Margaret Jull Costa’s new version of Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, forthcoming from New Directions later this month. This central text of Portuguese modernism—an unclassifiable, utterly original, and indisputable genius work—here gets what is possibly its most complete and best-translated English edition ever. Pessoa’s magnum opus is famously incomplete—we do not even know the correct order of the hundreds of fragments that now comprise this “book”—and this edition of The Book of Disquiet offers a version that has been carefully edited and is more complete than other available translations.

And, of course, it has been translated by one of the true legends of the translation field. In addition to being the lead translator of Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago and frequent Nobel finalist Javier Marías, Margaret Jull Costa is also the translator of scores of other works from Portuguese and Spanish, both classic and contemporary. It is no exaggeration at all to call her the leading living translator of Spanish and Portuguese literature, and her work has won multiple awards. I corresponded with her via email to hear about her latest project.


Scott Esposito: This is not your first try at The Book of Disquiet—you did an edition with Serpent’s Tail in 2011, and you also received a 1992 Portuguese Translation Prize for what I take to be a different translation of Pessoa’s magnum opus. For all I know, there might even be other Margaret Jull Costa translations of Pessoa, as you’re rather prodigious. So can you enlighten us as to why you took the opportunity to translate this book again and how this edition might be different from other translations of Pessoa currently available, either yours or others?

Margaret Jull Costa: The 2011 edition was a reprint of my 1992 translation, and this new edition is actually an expanded version of that original 1992 translation. That first translation was based on Maria José Lancastre’s selection of texts for the Italian edition (translated by her husband, novelist Antonio Tabucchi). This translation follows Jerónimo Pizarro’s 2013 edition, and while this new English edition includes all the texts that appeared in my earlier translation, it also includes a large number of texts that did not. Jerónimo’s edition gives us the Book of Disquiet as it evolved, with the first part attributed to one heteronym—Vicente Guedes—and the second to the better-known heteronym—Bernardo Soares. These two “parts” are very different in tone, and you get a real sense of how the book evolved over the many years Pessoa was writing it. I can’t remember now whose idea it was to produce this new expanded version, but I found it fascinating to return to the book after all these years and to discover a very different voice in the earlier Vicente Guedes sections. I did revisit the texts from my 1992 translation, but I actually changed very little, which is encouraging!

SE: You’ve done extensive work with many classics of Portuguese literature, among them numerous books by José Maria de Eça de Queirós and José Saramago, as well as books by Teolinda Gersão, Lídia Jorge, and many others. I take it your knowledge of Portuguese literature is rather substantial. Where does Pessoa fit in for you? What is his importance?

MJC: I’ve been reading and studying Portuguese literature for the last forty or so years, but there is always more to learn. And I’ve been enormously privileged to be asked to translate so many of Portugal’s finest writers. Pessoa is the Portuguese poet, but, oddly, he had no real followers. I suppose the same could be said of Eça. But maybe that’s the mark of true genius. Pessoa was a contemporary of Eliot and Pound and other Modernists, but none of them produced that wild proliferation of other selves, that constant splitting off into different personalities. To me, he still seems utterly modern and speaks so directly to us across the years that he remains forever fresh.

SE: This is a strange thing about Pessoa—if you visit Portugal nowadays, he’s everywhere. As you say, he is the poet, he’s read by schoolchildren, etc, etc. But The Book of Disquiet only appeared as a complete book in 1982, which was half a century after Pessoa died. In his own lifetime he was a marginal figure, published here and there in little magazines, but not really seen as a great writer along the lines of an Eliot or a Pound. It is a real testament to this book that, as you say, it could appear six or seven decades after it was composed and still feel entirely fresh and new. What kind of an impact did this book have on its release, and who among the contemporary Portuguese writers have been influenced by Pessoa?

MJC: Yes, a whole industry has built up around Pessoa, and that image of him striding along a Lisbon street is everywhere. This does seem ironic, given what a very private person he was in real life. The late appearance of The Book of Disquiet can be put down to the many years it took for researchers to make any sense of the more than 200,000 bits of paper found in the famous trunk after Pessoa’s death. Since the first 1982 version put together by Maria Aliete Galhoz, Teresa Sobral Cunha and Jacinto do Prado Coelho, there have been numerous versions in Portuguese, all of them different and in a different order, and even more translations, again all different, all with a different selection of texts and all in a different order. I’m sure Pessoa would have been most amused at (or bemused by) this chaotic legacy and posthumous celebrity. Pessoa was already known as a poet prior to the publication of The Book of Disquiet, but this prose work seems to hold a perennial fascination for scholars and readers alike, perhaps because it is so incomplete and uncertain. Paradoxically, as I said before, I don’t feel that contemporary Portuguese writers have been much influenced by Pessoa, perhaps because he is a complete one-off.

SE: I’ve read The Book of Disquiet a couple of times, and I still have a hard time when it comes to the matter of categorizing this book. Is it a diary? Notebooks? A collection of pensées? A sort of philosophical work? Fiction or nonfiction? How would you classify The Book of Disquiet?

MJC: I think The Book of Disquiet defies categorization. It is all of those things, and never just one of them. I would prefer not to classify it at all.

SE: Are there particular books, essays, stories, poems, or writers that you would recommend to read alongside The Book of Disquiet?

MJC: I think perhaps as an antidote, people should read Eça de Queiroz, so eminently unneurotic and unintrospective. For something similar, Pessoa himself recommends Henri-Frédéric Amiel’s Journal. And he has another kindred spirit, I think, in Italo Svevo’s The Confessions of Zeno.

SE: What are the particular challenges of translating The Book of Disquiet? Were there certain resources you drew on for this project?

MJC: The translator of Book of Disquiet really has to be able to use his or her own language as inventively as Pessoa used Portuguese. That is, of course, also the great pleasure of translating, and the book is full of wonderful passages which are, at once, so physical, so vivid and so strange. For example: “The trams growl and clang around the edges of the square, like large, yellow, mobile matchboxes, into which a child has stuck a spent match at an angle to act as a mast; as they set off they emit a loud, iron-hard whistle. The pigeons wandering about around the central statue are like dark, ever-shifting crumbs at the mercy of a scattering wind.” Isn’t that amazing? And I don’t mean the translation (!), but the imagery, so vivid and so original, that ‘iron-hard whistle’, for example. Translating such wonderfully creative writing forces the translator to find what his or her own language can do, to test it to its limits. Fortunately, English is a wonderfully rich and flexible tongue. As for resources, I suppose I drew on what every experienced translator would draw on, many years of translating and a life spent reading and absorbing both languages, Portuguese and English.

SE: Could you talk a little about one or two particular ways in which Pessoa’s Portuguese differs from that of the other Portuguese-language authors you’ve translated?

MJC: All the Portuguese authors I’ve translated have their own particular style and voice. Eça, for example, writing in the nineteenth century, is full of detailed descriptions of people and places, but also very funny, naturalistic dialogues. In his earlier work, Saramago also contains brilliant descriptions of nature (his descriptions of rain and darkness in All the Names are unsurpassed) and excellent dialogues embedded in long, long sentences. Teolinda Gersão has a plainer style, but with every word weighed carefully, and with some exquisite descriptions of nature, particularly in The Word Tree. Ana Luisa Amaral’s poetry is perhaps the closest to Pessoa’s writing in its obliqueness, in the challenge it lays down for the translator to step outside the usual boundaries of language, of what we can say. And Pessoa is constantly trying to say the unsayable, to describe the undescribable, but in way that the reader can understand, because Pessoa, for all that linguistic complexity, does speak to us so clearly across the years.

SE: Pessoa is rather voluminous, prodigious. And though The Book of Disquiet is rather well-represented in the English language, as well as scattered volumes of his poetry in excellent translations, there is still so much of his writing that has never made it into the English language. Do you have plans to go further with him? And beyond your own translation work, are you aware of any future editions of Pessoa that we should know about?

MJC: I’ve heard Pessoa described as “o homem interminável”—the interminable man—which doesn’t actually sound that complimentary in English! But he was SO prodigious in his output. I don’t know about other Pessoa projects, but New Directions have asked me to translate all the poetry and prose of his three best-known heteronyms: Alberto Caeiro, Alvaro de Campos and Ricardo Reis. That will take me a few years. And there is a possibility that I might translate some of his detective fiction—you see what people mean about his interminability!

SE: In The Book of Disquiet, Pessoa’s heteronym Bernardo Soares writes, “I’m always astonished whenever I finish anything. Astonished and depressed. My desire for perfection should prevent me from ever finishing anything; it should prevent me even from starting.” How did you feel upon completing this translation?

MJC: Oh, those words have haunted me for years! As a translator, I have that same ‘desire for perfection’ and the same fear of falling short. I only hope that I have done justice to Pessoa’s prose. Perfection is, they say, for the gods. Although when one considers Pessoa’s prodigious output, of course, his desire for perfection clearly didn’t prevent him from starting!

SE: Lastly, we’ve talked a bit about how this book did not see the light of day until four decades after its author’s death, and how even then the writing was still quite fresh and relevant. What would you say The Book of Disquiet has to offer readers in the Anglosphere in this year 2017?

MJC: I think certainty is a very dangerous thing. Beware of people who are too certain about anything. The Book of Disquiet embraces doubt and uncertainty and an awareness of human frailty. Alongside those feelings, though, there is an intense love of life and the physical world, a celebration of seeing, and that, in our overly busy, screen-fixated world, is something to be treasured.

28 Women Authors to Read This Year for Women in Translation Month

August is Women in Translation month. Here are a bunch of writers to enjoy. Add more suggestions in the comments, and share you reading on your favorite social network!

And if you like this list, you should also check out my 22 Classic and Contemporary Female Latin American Authors to Read.


Can Xue

Leading Chinese avant-garde author and Nobel contender known for her highly eccentric idiosyncrasies, her prolific output, and her indescribable books (one of the most frequent points of reference, and a large influence on the author, is Kafka). Start with her short stories, Vertical Motion (tr. Karen Gernant), or dive into a longer work: Five Spice Street (tr. Karen Gernant), The Last Lover (tr. Annelise Finegan Wasmoen), or Old Floating Cloud (tr. Jian Zhang).

 

Silvina Ocampo

Mystic, student of de Chirico, master of the short story, and close friend of Jorge Luis Borges, for years Argentina’s best-kept literary secret until NYRB Classics released a large selection of her stories, Thus Were Their Faces (tr. Daniel Balderston). Known for her cruelty, her dark humor, her exceedingly strange plots, and her remarkable language.

 

Marlene Van Niekerk

A South African author writing in Afrikaans, she is know for her penetrating explorations of apartheid society and its aftermath. Her books can veer toward the graphic, and she is not a writer to shy away from harsh scenes and difficult relationships. Try her best-known novel Triomf (tr. Leon de Kock), about a poor Afrikaner family in Johannesburg, or Agaat (tr. Michael Heyns), about a wealthy white woman dying of ALS and the black servant who cares for her paralyzed body in her final days.

 

Mariama Bâ

Senegalese author who strongly criticized gender inequality in her society. Her recognized masterpiece is So Long a Letter, called “the most deeply felt presentation of the female condition in African fiction.” A second novel, Scarlet Song (tr. Dorothy S Blair), was published posthumously.

 

Magdalena Tulli

Leading Polish author, influenced by Italo Calvino and creator of postmodern fables with affinities to the work of Jose Saramago. Archipelago has published a number of her works, including In Red, Moving Parts, Dreams and Stones, and Flaw (all tr. Bill Johnston).

 

Kim Hyesoon

One of the leading Korean poets, known for her aggressively postmodern writing, her strident feminism, and her bizarre sense of humor. Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream is a great one to start with, as is All the Garbage of the World, Unite! (both tr. Don Mee Choi).

 

Basma Abdel Aziz

This is the first book in translation from the Egyptian writer, psychiatrist, and visual artist who has waged a struggle against the darker sides of Egypt’s regimes. The Queue (tr. Elisabeth Jaquette) is a dystopian work about subjects of an authoritarian regime who must wait in an interminable line to have their needs met. To make matter worse, they live in the repressive aftermath of a failed popular uprising. The New York Times compared The Queue to George Orwell’s 1984 and Franz Kafka’s The Trial.

 

Malika Mokeddem

The daughter of an illiterate nomad family in Algeria, she established herself as a doctor and eventually moved on to writing full time. Try The Forbidden Woman (tr. Karen Melissa Marcus), her surprising memoir My Men (tr. Laura Rice, Karim Hamdy), or Of Dreams and Assassins.

 

Svetlana Alexievich

Nobel Prize winner for her oral histories of Russia and the post-Soviet nations. Her largest book, and likely masterpiece, is Secondhand Time (tr. Bela Shayevich), a massive history of the end of communism. The Unwomanly Face of War, recently reissued in a new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky is acclaimed as a landmark work of gender studies.
Voices from Chernobyl (tr. Keith Gessen), about the nuclear disaster near Pripyat, Ukraine, is also fantastic.

 

Simonetta Agnello Hornby

Italian author whose work has met with great international acclaim and has been widely translated. Try reading The Almond Picker (tr. Alastair McEwen), which won a number of Italian prizes, or The Nun (tr. Anthony Shugaar), a tale set in the 19th century and involving a woman who is forced to join a convent.

 

Minae Mizumura

A Japanese novelist, scholar, and critic known for formal innovation. Try her lengthy A True Novel (tr. Juliet Winters Carpenter), which is a re-telling of Wuthering Heights in postwar Japan. Or read her work of scholarship, The Fall of Language in the Age of English (tr. Mari Yoshihara), which explores the struggles to retain a native language against the invasive and dominant English language. Her Inheritance from Mother has just been released.

 

Celia Dropkin

Yiddish modernist poet known for her rough poems exploring dark themes of sexuality and depression. Try the recent The Acrobat (tr. Faith Jones, Jennifer Kronovet, and Samuel Solomon)

 

Anne Garréta

French novelist and member of the Oulipo since 2000. Well-known in English for her experimental, genderless novel Sphinx, as well as her erotic memoir Not One Day (both tr. Emma Ramadan). She won the Prix Médicis in 2002 for Not One Day, awarded each year to an author whose “fame does not yet match their talent.”

 

Jenny Erpenbeck

An award-winning German novelist and theater director known for her innovative ways of exploring multiple lives in the same novel, mixing politics and penetrating analyses of character. Try Visitation, The End of Days, or Go, Went, Gone (all tr. Susan Bernofsky).

 

Samanta Schweblin

Argentine author known for her mixing of surreal touches into everyday stories, as well as for her gothic touches and her love of the grotesque and the nightmarish. The only one thus far translated is her debut novel, Fever Dream (tr. Megan McDowell), the very frightening story of a dying woman and the young boy who seems to control her demise. Stories from her debut collection, Pajaros en la boca, are available in English translation in various journals, online and off.

 

Bae Suah

Korean author known for her bizarre plots and experimental prose. Try A Greater Music, called “another addition to a growing body of literature that explores the idea that human sexuality is more pliable and fluid than the rigid labels we assign to it” by Melissa Beck of World Literature Today; or Recitation, a fragmentary novel about language, travel, and memory (both tr. Deborah Smith).

 

Marie Vieux-Chauvet

Haitian author known for her in-depth portrayals of issues of class, race, gender, and family attendant to political upheaval in Haiti during the U.S. occupation and the regime of dictator François Duvalier. Try her family saga Dance on the Volcano (tr. Kaiama L Glover) or Love, Anger, Madness (tr. Rose-Myriam Rejouis).

 

Sara Uribe

Mexican poet and author of seven collection, living in the northern state of Tamaulipas. Her booklength poem, Antígona González (tr. John Pluecker), based on the story of Antigone, is about a woman’s search for the lost body of her brother, who has died in the Mexican drug war. It is spare, evocative, moody, and heartbreaking.

 

Margarita Karapanou

Classic Greek modernist who integrates surreal and fantastic elements into her labyrinthine plots, as well as for her depictions of madness. Try Kassandra and the Wolf (tr. N.C. Germanacos) narrated by a frightening 6-year-old child or The Sleepwalker (tr. Karen Emmerich), an absurd, postmodern mixing of genres involving the appearance of a new Messiah on a Greek island.

 

Dubravka Ugresic

A Croatian author widely regarded as the master of post-Yugoslav literature, known for her acerbic wit, and deemed “the fantasy cultural studies professor you never had” by Ruth Franklin. Try Thank You for Not Reading (tr. Celia Hawkesworth and Damion Searles), essays that masterfully dissect and mock the realities of the literary marketplace; Karaoke Culture (tr. David Williams, Ellen Elias-Bursac, Celia Hawkesworth), more witty deconstructions of Western culture; The Museum of Unconditional Surrender (tr. Celia Hawkesworth), a postmodern, innovative novel exploring the realities of a life lived in exile; and Europe in Sepia (tr. David Williams), more masterful essays.

 

Hiromi Itō

Prominent Japanese poet exploring transgressive themes, including pregnancy, feminine erotic desire, and bodies, using very in-your-face, frank language. Try Wild Grass on the Riverbank, or the very powerful and grotesque Killing Kanoko (both tr. Jeffrey Angles).

 

Carmen Boullosa

Mexican author, playwright, and poet who has mastered a variety of fictional genres and is known for her deep exploration of feminism and gender roles. Try the historical novel Texas: The Great Theft (tr. Samantha Schnee) a re-writing of the history of the U.S./Mexico border regions, They’re Cows, We’re Pigs (tr. Leland H. Chambers) a feminist fantasia of the wild and chaotic 17th-century Caribbean world, or Before (tr. Peter Bush) a coming-of-age story that received won Mexico’s two most prestigious literary prizes.

 

Christa Wolf

Major, and controversial, East German author exploring themes of illness, fascism, and feminism, one of the most widely read and respected authors of her generation. They Divided the Sky (tr. Luise von Flotow) was the book that brought her to prominence; also try The Quest for Christa T (tr. Christopher Middleton), which was denounced as “an attempt to replace Marx with Freud” or her modern retelling of Medea.

 

Mercé Rodoreda

Regarded as among the greatest Catalan novelists of all time. The Time of the Doves (tr. David H. Rosenthal), a novel of the Spanish Civil War, is considered her masterpiece and is her most famous work. Death in Spring (tr. Martha Tennent) has also been popular in English translation, and it is the story of a bizarre, violent unnamed town. Also of interest is The Selected Stories of Mercè Rodoreda (tr. Martha Tennent).

 

Lina Meruane

Prominent Chilean author whose only translated work is the remarkable novel Seeing Red (tr. Megan McDowell). It is an autobiographical novel about a Chilean writer who moves to New York and suffers a stroke the leaves her blind. This novel won the prestigious Mexican Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Prize in when it was originally released in Spanish in 2012.

 

Laia Jufresa

Up-and-coming Mexican author whose novel Umami (tr. Sophie Hughes) has met a great deal of success in English translation and has been translated into multiple languages. The book follows the lives of five different families in Mexico city following the death of a little girl.

 

Clarice Lispector

Widely acclaimed as the greatest Brazilian novelist of the modern era and memorably described by Hélène Cixous as what “Kafka would have been had he been a woman, or if Rilke had been a Jewish Brazilian born in the Ukraine. If Rimbaud had been a mother, if he had reached the age of fifty. If Heidegger could have ceased being German.” Start anywhere, as they are all extraordinary, but popular starting points are her haunting final novel Hour of the Star (tr. Ben Moser) and her Complete Stories (tr. Katrina Dodson).

 

Qiu Miaojin

Taiwanese queer author who became a cult phenomenon in her home nation and tragiclaly killed herself at 26 years of age. She lives on through her remarkable, Lispector-like autobiographical work Last Words from Montmartre (tr. Ari Larissa Heinrich), as well as her novel about queer youths coming of age in the post-martial-law era of late-1980s Taipei, Notes of a Crocodile (tr. Bonnie Huie).

The Missing Books Version 2

The Missing Books Version 2 has just been released.

The Missing Books is a curated directory of books that do not exist, but should.

When you now purchase The Missing Books you will receive: 1) a PDF of The Missing Books Version 2; 2) an ePub of The Missing Books Version 2 3) a PDF changelog highlighting new text to The Missing Books Version 2.

The original The Missing Books was released in October of last year and was featured in Literary Hub, 3 Quarks Daily, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, and many others, as well as co-signed on Michiko Kakutani’s Twitter feed.

Featuring missing books from: Cormac McCarthy, the Oulipo, Margaret Atwood, Stephen King, JM Coetzee, Roberto Bolaño, Vladimir Nabokov, Mario Bellatín, Jose Saramago, Philip K. Dick, Christian Bök, Kenneth Goldsmith, Gerald Murnane, Jorge Luis Borges, László Krasznahorkai, Edouard Levé. Nearly 100 titles in all.

You can read more about the project here, or get it below.

Kindle ($4.99)

 

Seven Questions for Lytton Smith on Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller by Guðbergur Bergsson

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The remarkable thing about literature in translation is that there can be an entire Ulysses just sitting around for decades, unknown until someone translates it—and boom, suddenly it exists in our world.

Such is the case with the 1966 Icelandic novel Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller by Guðbergur Bergsson, which is often compared to Ulysses and which was a complete revelation that forever transformed Icelandic literature. This mammoth, enormously complex and playful novel has been carefully translated by Lytton Smith into English and is now available to readers from Open Letter Books.

In addition to being a translation of such Icelandic authors as Jón Gnarr, Bragi Ólafsson, and Kristin Omarsdottir, Smith is also a poet whose collections include The All-Purpose Magical Tent, which was selected by Terrance Hayes for the Nightboat Books Poetry Prize in 2009, and While You Were Approaching the Spectacle But Before You Were Transformed by It. In addition, his poetry has appeared in literary journals and magazines including The Atlantic, Bateau, Boston Review, and Tin House.


Scott Esposito: If you know one thing about this book, it’s probably that Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller has been called the “Icelandic Ulysses.” In the world of literary translation we definitely see our share of such claims, and it is true that many of them are quite legitimate and useful, but they are a thing one tends to take with a grain of salt. So I’m curious to know your own take on this description of the book. Do you see similarities there?

Lytton Smith: The translator Michael Scammell introduced me to the importance of “touchstone” texts in the target language, the language you’re translating into—texts that might be comparable to the experience a reader in the original language would have. In that sense, Ulysses, or perhaps Finnegans Wake, make good comparisons: they’re poetic in that they play with words and the meaning of language even as they have onward momentum and narrative causality. So thinking back to Ulysses as a reader helped: I read it in a group, with a compendious books of notes with us, often out loud, and that’s a different, wonderful, reading experience—I hope some readers of Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller do that, too.

But I also want to throw out two other touchstones, perhaps more important to me. The first is Moby-Dick, which I had in mind because it’s a work of self-conscious national construction which is composed and pastiched from myriad places. Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller is much more ironic, suspicious and critical of the national myth, but the two texts go together well—not for nothing does Bestseller end on the high seas! And then there’s Lawrence Sterne’s 18th century The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, largely because of the importance to both books of the unreliable narrator. I love books that explore the unreliable narrator—Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier is one of the books I keep re-reading—and thinking of those types of novel helped me think about Bestseller.

What matters most about Bestseller, though, is that it’s a sort of anthology: it contains stories within stories. So I was also thinking about Moby-Dick and other texts that share that approach: you’re reading one story, come across another, and get influenced by that. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad were often in my mind, in quite different ways. Perhaps we’re less looking for the perfect touchstone than some kind of Venn diagram of myriad touchstones!

SE: Hearing you talk about stories within stories, unreliable narrators, and works on the level of Moby-Dick and Tristram Shandy, it’s clear that this is a rather sizable, complex book. So this may not be the easiest thing to do, but could you give us a sense of what this book is about in terms of plot, character, theme, etc?

LS: You’re right that the plot is hard to sum up, but I’d say this: Tómas Jónsson, a retired bank-clerk living in a basement apartment in Reykjavík, decides to write a best-selling autobiography, both to lament the diminishing quality of Icelandic people—particularly the increasingly soft men—and to laud its culture, through stories about an opera singer who Hitler chased around Europe and the first black baby born in Iceland, among other things. Along the way, he digresses into meditations on owning property—the book’s plot can be measured by which story a character lives on: the ideal is to progress from basement apartment to first then second or even third floor, and Tómas, despite a life of hard white-collar work, has ended up in the basement, subletting rooms. It’s a novel about disability—he’s blind for at least part of it, and bedridden, and needs carers—and about intimacy—hearing subletters having sex, revealing one’s bodily functions—and within in Tómas tries to make a case for innocence against charges of rape.

SE: As with many of the titles you’ve brought up here, this is a text that is extraordinarily playful and abounds in wordplay. For you as the translator, is rich prose like this more of a pleasure or a pain? What were some of the memorable challenges of this text?

LS: It’s a tremendous pleasure, but also a responsibility: as a poet, I’m trying to make language supple and energetic in the ways I believe poetry, and poetically minded prose, can be, but as a student of Icelandic modern and ancient (I started out learning Icelandic by learning Old Iceland and studying the Icelandic Sagas at University College London) I’m trying to be responsible to the whole sweep of that history. For instance, the character Bósi appears in places, a bit-part. I eventually learned that is the name of the main character in a less celebrated, less ancient saga (from the group known as “fornaldarsögur Norðurlanda,” not part of the classic canon)—and his saga is known for its pornographic nature. So there’s another level of challenge: you can’t teach the often esoteric history of Iceland, but you’re wanting to keep avenues open for readers who might disappear down the rabbit hole and search out all the references. And such is the author’s own compendious, deft mind, that you know you’re going to miss things.

I was stumped by a simple description of Tómas getting up one morning, laboriously doing everything you’d expect him to do (swinging his legs out of bed, stretching) and amid this all there’s a reference to him emptying his socks. Was he turning them inside out? An Icelandic friend and author pointed out the contraction involved: you can use “skin-sock” as a euphemism for penis in Icelandic, so TJ is taking a piss—that’s quite a few steps of association, and it’s one reason I love the writing of Guðbergur Bergsson, but it makes the task difficult. I think I could spend my life translating this book; there will always be more to uncover. Which is another reason to have collaborative rather than isolated, individual reading: we’ll each discover from one another.

SE: I have read that this is a very, very well-known book in Iceland—the sort of thing that everybody owns, or at least everybody knows about. Could you give some since of the impact of this book on Icelandic literature and the Icelandic language?

LS: The impact was huge, and still is. I think it’s hard to contemplate an equivalent in the UK or the US. Bestseller skewered a set of cherished ideas about what a novel was meant to be for, how it was meant to be written, and what the Icelandic nation was. Against a prevailing romanticized idea of rural purity and wisdom, the sort of pastoral celebrated in Hálldor Laxness’s earlier (but not later) novels, Bestseller recognized the corruptions and injustices, the danger of that myth. And the publication hugely divided the reading population—which in Iceland is just about the entire population. Almost every review was scathing. The keepers of prevailing culture indicated he’d destroyed everything, which was about the best compliment he could receive. But what’s crucial, and something I learned from the scholar Daisy Neijman, is that Guðbergur Bergsson’s achievement is stylistic as much as in terms of content: she points out that he’s anti-mimesis, suspicious of the kind of word that claims to replicate experience. Every time you think you’re identifying with a character, the narrative doubles back on itself. (And I should mention that, beyond all this, Guðbergur is a notorious figure who is prone to outlandish and controversial statement about other authors—he can be exacting/dismissive, depending on your perspective – and wider culture. I hesitate to focus on the author rather than the book, especially with a book like this, but his continuing divisive impact on Icelandic life shouldn’t be understated.)

One metaphor that Bergsson himself has used for the role of the author is that an author is involved in creating “groups of islands.” We start off writing in a particular geography—say, Iceland—but, he argues, the author should be less concerned with this originating geography and more with creating some set of places (it’s telling he uses islands as the metaphor, not constellations or cities or something) which creates “another possible world,” even, he argues, a “mother tongue” existing in his works. So there’s a sense in which this most Icelandic of books is also aware of a universe that exceeds Iceland.

It’s telling that I’m writing to you in the wake of Donald Trump Jr.’s e-mails. Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller, really is about the danger of us trusting the narrative rather than questioning the narrator. I think that’s a lesson many of us—on all sides of the political spectrum—need to learn again. It was an education to be working on this book this past year.

SE: Hearing about the radical impact that Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller had in Iceland, I’m curious to know about Bergsson’s work following that book. This was (I believe) his second published novel, in 1966, and there has been quite a steady output since then, going right up into 2014. What is the work since then like, and is there something of a shadow cast over it by the impact of this early, major work?

LS: One of the key incursions made by this book was that it advanced the novel by skewering the fetish for biography, particularly for overly laudatory biographies: Tómas is an anti-hero, fleshly and led by appetite, and as such he’s both true to Icelandic culture and a way to parody it. In one sense, nothing Guðbergur wrote lived up to this—it’s been in three editions in Iceland, over the years—but it’s also true that the effect of it in 1967 exceeded the number of readers: perhaps like D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, far more people had an opinion on than had actually read it. (There’s a bit of a joke today that everyone in Iceland owns a copy but almost no-one has finished it. That’s not quite fair, but it’s like Don Quixote or Infinite Jest: you’d want to be able to say you’ve read it, but perhaps haven’t.)

That’s not to say he hasn’t had great successes and continued cultural importance: there’s a museum devoted to his life and works, he’s been the subject of international symposia, received from the King of Spain the award De la orden de Isabel la Católica, a huge deal for Spain, translated numerous writers including Gabriel García Márquez and Don Quixote (twice!) into Icelandic, and his own books have won acclaim. The other book he’s most known for is probably The Swan, because it won the Iceland Literary Prize in 1991; it explores the sufferings and toils of rural life, in ways that Bestseller touches on, but it’s an inverse of that book in that it’s set in the country whereas Bestseller is really set in the city and aware of the country. Plus the protagonist is a young girl, not a near-senile man. It was translated into English by Bernard Scudder. But there are other gems: he also received the Icelandic Literary Prize in 1997 for a book whose title translates as “Father and Mother and The Mysterious Power of Childhood,” a fictional autobiography. And his novel Sú kvalda ást sem hugarfylgsnin geyma, a title usually translated as “The Mind’s Tormented Love,” also uses diaries and the conceit of a man writing in his basement. I’d see the shadow cast by Bestseller more as a reaching, that it’s exploring themes that other books also turn to. And Guðbergur’s continued success make clear he’s far from a one-hit wonder: Bestseller may be his most important book, but it’s so because of the literary environment of the time, not necessarily because it’s his most accomplished or read.

SE: It’s interesting to hear you bring up Trump in this context—I suppose right now it’s a very unavoidable subject, but it also brings up a question that I’m always interested in when we’re talking about translations. What sorts of things would you say this brings to a U.S. context—words, ideas, plots, characters that you think can add something to our understanding of the world?

LS: Bestseller‘s very taken with the idea of meritocracy: one key subplot concerns Tómas being passed over for promotions he feels are owed him. It’s hard to know whether to side with his view or not: on the one hand, he seems to be a dependable kind of worker with great experience. On the other, he’s clearly old-fashioned and bumbling and the guys that get the management positions are perhaps scoundrels and fraudsters, but they’re also high-flying in ways he isn’t. We’re living at a moment where the first family is the manifestation of that process: they believe they’ve succeeded by merit, and many people want to buy into that because it would mean they, too, could succeed by merit. But merit has very little to do with it: privilege, nepotism, access to cash, and lack of scruples have more to do with it. At the heart of the book is a group called the Board or the Table, who eat together in a restaurant in Reykjavík. They’re the movers and shakers of Iceland, and there are definite hierarchies of who sits where. But the joke is that they’re insular and all they’re doing is eating: they’re less a Board than a table. And I think Bestseller can help us realize the illusion, see that the emperor’s new clothes are actually no clothes at all. The novel begins with the narrator trying to write his autobiography in a way that emphasizes his noble descent, and he has to give up right away: it’s nonsense. And that move seems one we need to make now: so much of what’s being said about transparency and such like is nonsense, literally: it doesn’t not accord with any definition of words in any dictionary or common usage anywhere. In one sense, this isn’t a political point: it should be possible to agree with Trump’s politics and still notice the nonsense. But either we’re so partisan that’s impossible, or so post-political that the politics doesn’t matter at all: the illusion does.

SE: Lastly, to circle back to what you were saying about Bestseller having a sense that there’s a whole world out there that exceeds Iceland, do you feel like this is kind of an Icelandic thing? I mean, there are some countries I could think of (e.g. America) where it seems that most authors don’t tend to be troubled by such thoughts when writing a novel. And as a related question, what was it like walking the line of keeping this book firmly rooted in what must be a very Icelandic sort of prose and culture, while also making it a work of its own in English?

LS: My sense of Icelandic literature, particularly contemporary writing—and much contemporary writing does owe a debt that starts with Bestseller, to the ways it exploded conventions and expectations of literature—is a beautiful paradox in which the world, both spiritually and geographically, is profoundly Icelandic, often including very esoteric meditation on dirt floor homes or sheep herding or the fishing industry, and yet will often draw on many languages (it’s not uncommon to encounter Danish, English, and German in an Icelandic book, alongside poetic coinages) and either allude to or reference directly other places and cultures and literary situations. Guðbergur is heavily associated with the town of Grindavík, but engages with it in ways that cast it as a kind of Florence. Kristín Ómarsdóttir’s beautiful and sad Hér (which I got to translate as Children in Reindeer Woods) exists in this no-place that’s both Iceland and non-Iceland, and it’s informed as much by her experience of Spain as Iceland.

I think many writers reach beyond the place they’re from or writing about, even as they’re writing about it. But that seems to be particularly common within the Icelandic writing I spend time reading—I’m not saying it’s true of all Icelandic writing (I don’t see it as much in the poetry, and not in the thrillers), but I don’t want to be an outsider claiming to know exhaustively all of Icelandic writing: there’s a sense in what I see is often pre-selected by publishers as right for translation. But I would feel comfortable saying that Icelandic insularity means, post-Bestseller, not a navel-gazing focus on one’s own small island, but on the fact that you need to be aware of a world beyond your island to recognize it is an island—and so Icelandic writings often tends to triangulate narrowly Icelandic phenomena via other cultural events. That’s not to say there aren’t blind spots: Icelandic writing can be years behind American when it comes to thinking through race, and one other challenge I had with Bestseller was working out just how much the novel was challenging racist tropes and where it was repeating them; the story-within-a-story about the black baby is going to be something that American readers take issue with, and should. So we have to be careful about being overly full of praise for Icelandic open-mindedness. I know there’s plenty of criticism of that from within Iceland. But I do think, to go back to one of your prior questions, we can learn something from Bestseller and Icelandic literature more widely: that there’s a way to be of one’s nation, aware of and engaged with the place you’re from, without being protectionist and closed-minded: to be nationally international, or something.

On Bolaño, Art, and Fascism

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It’s rather fitting the my column on the cultural roots of fascism in America comes out amid the latest cluster bombing of bombshells from President Trump—the latest being the currently evolving story surrounding his son, Donald, Jr.’s, betrayal of America by colluding with the Russian government to dig up dirt on Hillary Clinton during the summer of 2016.

To be clear, I am not at all arguing that our government is fascist. No one worth taking seriously is saying anything of the sort, for the simple reason that it’s not true. Our votes still matter, we still hold free and fair elections, we have a division of power in our government.

However, it’s clear to me that our culture is beginning to lean toward one that enables fascist government. That is, powerful politicians and their strategists are exploiting fears and hatreds to manipulate large swaths of the voting public. Anti-intellectualism has reached the point that a majority of Republicans now say that higher education is a bad thing for America. The Republican President regularly spouts enormous, grotesque lies that go far, far beyond the twisting of facts typical of any harmless, garden-variety politician in any reasonable democracy. And the Republican Party is now engaged in massive, racially inflected voter suppression efforts to help game the next election.

I would argue that these things are consistent with a culture of fascism. That is, a dangerous culture that makes fascist government possible, that we could say is a pre-condition of fascist government existing. As I explain in the column, this is where I have found Roberto Bolaño so instructive. As I have reflected on his books in the past year or so, it seems to me that he understood things about how the culture of fascism has infected the Americans and the West, and he put these things into his books. My column is an opening salvo into some of that territory.

Bolaño also opened up the very interesting overlap between fascism and art, a subject that I have not seen discussed very much (other than in Thomas Mann’s masterful novel Doctor Faustus, which is essential reading at any time, and especially these days). I discuss this a little in the column as well, although it is a very big question, and there is still very much to think about here. But it does seem to me that there is something going on, some overlap among art, the performances of the President and other partisan media personalities, and the embryonic Internet-native communications and social performances that we are all feeling our way through these days.

There column is here. I hope you give it a look.

Strong Recommend: Empire of Things by Frank Trentmann

I’m doing a summer subscription drive. If you’ve found the content on this site valuable, make a small donation to sustain this website.

I’m hoping to write a little more in-depth about this book down the line, but here’s a strong recommendation for Frank Trentmann’s Empire of Things. Basically, this is an extraordinarily thorough, compelling single-volume history of consumerism, starting in roughly 1500 and continuing up through the present day.

As a work of history, Empire of Things is mammoth and revelatory. But it is also a book that comments very much on the present day. Basically, Trentmann puts contemporary debates about materialism and environmental decay into the context of the 200 years or so that have formed the modern consumeristic world as we know it. This adds a very important layer to our understanding of these problems and how we can possibly solve them.

So, for that one reason, this is a really necessary read. In addition to that, this is just a plain fascinating book, with all sorts of facts and statistics from the last 500 years or so. It’s a very eye-opening read, one that puts the lie to a lot of received opinions and makes little-known histories visible.

There is lot of information in this book, and Trentmann knows how to turn this raw information into knowledge and narratives, which makes it very powerful. I strongly recommend this book as a big summer read. It will change how you look at our contemporary society.

THE SURRENDER

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


LADY CHATTERLEY'S BROTHER

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

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

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


THE LATIN AMERICAN MIXTAPE

5 essays. 2 interviews.

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

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

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