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Excerpt from The Surrender


There’s a book that I wrote called The Surrender that will be publishing from Anomalous Press on March 31, 2016. It’s launching at this year’s AWP Conference in Los Angeles, so you can get it at the Anomalous Press booth then, or in bookstores, etc thereafter.

If you would like an advance look at this book, some of The Surrender was excerpted at Entropy yesterday. (I also wrote a little about The Surrender in this post from November).

The book began its existence in the fall of 2014 when I published “The Last Redoubt” with The White Review. At the time I thought that essay was going to be the end, but early in 2015 I was presented with the opportunity to expand that essay into an entire book. So I added an essay that goes before “The Last Redoubt” and one that goes after it, thus forming a triptych of essays. The first essay deals with aspects of my adolescence and young adulthood—basically things leading up to the events depicted in “The Last Redoubt”—and then the third essay deals with the past few years, that is, things that happened after the events in “The Last Redoubt.”

The excerpts found at Entropy come from essay number one. You can read them here.

Translation Issue of The White Review

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Daniel Medin has once again edited a fantastic translation-themed issue of The White Review. You can find the full table of contents here. I’ve got a rundown of some of the highlights below, but before I get to that, thought I’d mention that Daniel and I are collaborating on a little something set to hit later this year. Details forthcoming.

Galina Rymbu: a remarkable young Russian poet (check Music & Literature for a feature on her own the line). “Sex Is a Desert” is an outstanding poem.

Liliana Colanzi: a Bolivian writer who is likely to attract some serious attention over the next couple years. Dalkey will be publishing a collection of her stories this year.

Li Er: Like Can Xue, this author takes Chinese fiction to new places.

Monika Rinck: Along with Uljana Wolf, a very interesting younger poet working in German.

Wioletta Greg: Part of a novella (the title is literally “Unripened Fruit”) that Portobello will be publishing down the line.

Esther Kinsky: She generated a reputation for stunning translations, and now she’s rising as a writer. Fitzcarraldo will publish her By the River in 2017.

Nir Baram: Reputedly “the Israeli Musil.”

Wolfgang Hildesheimer: a more or less forgotten genius, whose extraordinary biography of Mozart made waves when it was published. Hildesheimer knew everyone, read everything, translated Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood. 2016’s his centennial year.

Books That I’ve Had Memorable Conversations About, 2015


I thought it would be an interesting addition to my favorite reads of 2015 to make a list of some of the books I’ve had the most memorable conversations about.

Sometimes even if a book doesn’t work as a whole, there can be a very memorable, impacting section in it, or even just a single extraordinarily pregnant image, which can often be easier to process in a conversation than an entire book. Other times books have just so overwhelmed you as an entire experience that it gives rise to remarkable encounters with fellow human beings, even though you can’t possible hope to bring the entire experience of the book into a single conversation. And sometimes a book opens up within you a space for a conversation you needed to have, either with or without knowing it. In all cases—and many others—this shows the great impact a book has had on your life and, for an hour or two, the life of another.

So here are a few books I read in 2015 that gave rise to very memorable conversations. Some of these are dramas I saw enacted on the stage that I’m counting as books read. And needless to say this is not an exhaustive list, just the ones that have come to mind. I purposely chose not to duplicate any from my “favorite reads of 2015” list, although obviously many of those would be applicable here.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream by Kim Hyesoon (tr. Don Mee Choi)

Reconsolidation by Janice Lee

Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare

Top Girls and Love and Information by Caryl Churchill

The Shadow of Sirius by W.S. Merwin

The Illogic of Kassel by Enrique Vila-Matas (tr. Anne McLean, Anna Milsom)

The Musical Brain: And Other Stories by César Aira (tr. Chris Andrews)

Vertigo by W.G. Sebald (tr. Michael Hulse)

Vertical Motion by Can Xue (tr. Karen Gernant, Chen Zeping)

Read My Desire: Lacan Against the Historicists by Joan Copjec

The Strangest by Michael J. Seidlinger

Jacob the Mutant by Mario Bellatin (tr. and contribution by Jacob Steinberg)

The Book of J by Harold Bloom and David Rosenberg

Boredom and Art: Passions Of The Will To Boredom by Julian Jason Haladyn

Subscriptions and Donations and Sales


As I sort of mentioned earlier this week, December is traditionally the time when all of your favorite publishers get those $$$ that let them keep giving you the books you love for the other 11 months in the year.

It would be immensely cool of you to spend a few of your hard-earned greenbacks on some of their wares this holiday season. This is in your own interest, as you are helping enable the publishers you love to survive another year so that they can keep giving you the books you love. And you are also spreading joy into the lives of people who work extraordinarily hard for pretty blah pay to give you those books. And you are also doing a huge favor to readers 10 and 20 years down the line, who will benefit from these publishers not having shriveled up and died amid a wave of apathy.

Anyway, if you want to do this, here are some recommendations. These are great gifts, or get one for yourself.

Archipelago Books. Subscribe. Holiday sale: 40% off all books through December 26th with the coupon code NEWSITE at check-out.

Open Letter Books. Subscribe. Holiday sale: 40% off with code BookSeason at checkout through Dec 31.

And Other Stories. Subscribe.

Verso Books. 50% off and free shipping on these titles through Dec 31.

Ugly Duckling Presse. Subscribe.

Wave Books. Subscribe.

Dorothy, a Publishing Project. All 12 books for $120.

Restless Books. Subscribe.

Melville House Publishing. Subscribe.

Music & Literature. Subscribe.

The Point. Subscribe.

The White Review. Subscribe.

Feed the Critic

I don’t know how widely this is known to people who aren’t lazy little litbloggers, but December is traditionally the “black friday” of the lame blogger world. In this month Amazon sales always go way up, ad revenues tend to spike, and this is also when the good readers of the world tend to open their kind hearts and pitch me a little change.

Which, all in all, makes for a nice little year-end bonus in the not-terribly-lucrative world of meaty literary criticism.

Not to get all “smallest violin in the world” about it, but doing this blog takes time. Yes, it’s fun to do, and it has benefits for me, and I enjoy pimping books I love, but it honestly does take a wee bit of effort to make this lame little blog happen every year. If you appreciate it and think it’s good for literary culture, please consider supporting it.

Anyway, if you’re a steadfast reader of this site and are so inclined to show your appreciation monetarily, now’s the best time. It’s easy. You can hit me directly with some Paypal love below. You can order some of your favorite 2016 titles through my Amazon links.* You can order gifts on Amazon here. You can buy The Latin American Mixtape, for yourself a total steal at just $2.99. There’s also Lady Chatterley’s Brother. Or order The End of Oulipo?, totally next-level literary criticism of the kind you’ve never read before.

* I know many of you have a completely justified and frothing hatred of Jeff Bezos and all of his projects. I understand! I put up the Amazon links in case you’re going to buy products there anyway, in which case doing so through my links will pretty much entirely kill Bezos’s razor-thin profit margin and hasten his demise. If you’d rather not purchase books from Amazon, find your local indie retailer here.

Quarterly Conversation Issue 42

Fun fact. This issue contains our 1,000th article.


The Story of a Storyteller: On John Barth’s Collected Stories

The Story of a Storyteller: On John Barth’s Collected Stories

The four books of short fiction that John Barth has published (all now reprinted by Dalkey Archive as Collected Stories) offer a usefully synoptic view of Barth’s most signature moves as a writer of fiction—or at least those moves with which he is likely to remain most identified. Although Barth advises the reader in his brief introduction to Collected Stories that his “authorial inclination” has always been “toward books rather than discreet, stand-alone short stories,” the very ways in which he endeavors in each of these collected books to unify the series of “discreet” stories are revealing of Barth’s fundamental assumptions and ambitions. Thus, while it may be true that “short fiction is not my long suit,” as Barth puts it, these collected stories do reveal the ultimate purposes of Barth’s literary art.

Later John Barth: The Wrong Peak, the Reach for Magic, the Feminist Argument

Later John Barth: The Wrong Peak, the Reach for Magic, the Feminist Argument

The peak isn’t the one most folks point to. I’m speaking of John Barth, now in his mid-80s and debilitated, and of a career that stretches back to when he was a vigorous 25. At that age Barth published his debut, The Floating Opera, and just five years later came the work for which he’s most celebrated, The Sot-Weed Factor. I’d never deny that the 1960 novel was a watershed for American fiction, nor that what he accomplished over the following decade, in particular the stories of Lost In the Funhouse, established landmarks for what we now call Postmodernism. Nevertheless, the man’s career overall now suffers a misbegotten consensus. Too many critics—a catchall expression, I realize, but bear with me—hold that the author had shot his bolt by, give or take, 1972. That was the year he published Chimera, and the same ill-informed consensus considers the subsequent National Book Award as a kind of recognition for Lifetime Achievement, a late salute to Sot-Weed or Funhouse or both. Yes, the author was barely into his 40s, at that point. Yes, but whatever he published thereafter was at best hubristic overreach and at worst . . . well, see George Steiner’s treatment of LETTERS, a Neanderthal bashing in The New Yorker. That piece appeared in 1979, and from then on the buzz about the work, in the hive mind, fell away.

In Translation

From On the Edge by Rafael Chirbes

From On the Edge by Rafael Chirbes

I’ve left and returned a few times over the years—I don’t mean the village, but the bar; there have been periods when I’ve abandoned it entirely, but I’ve always come back in the end, to that stimulating daily journey, the one that prises me out of my solitude at the workshop in the evenings: down Calle de San Ramón where I live, along Calle del Carmen, Calle de la Paz, Paseo de la Constitución (formerly known as General Mola), and here I am—as on so many evenings for so many years—in Bar Castañer, my refuge: the protective gauze of cigarette smoke, which, today, like the snows of yesteryear, has vanished. You can’t smoke inside any more. Although, even after all these months of the smoking ban, the smell of nicotine that used to impregnate walls and tables may have gone, but other components of that comforting olfactory gauze linger on: the smell of old cooking oil, damp wool, sweaty vests and overalls, the smell of cheap beer and sour wine. All of these still allow me to recognise the place, to snuggle down in my nest and shuffle the cards. Lately, I’ve been coming almost every evening. Saying goodbye to all this was the dream of an empty-headed youth who ended up staying and who has, in the meantime, become a decrepit old man without ever passing through maturity.

From Nocilla Dream by Agustín Fernández Mallo

From Nocilla Dream by Agustín Fernández Mallo

At the moment when the wind gusts in from the south, the wind that arrives from Arizona, soaring up and across the several sparsely populated deserts and the dozen and a half settlements that over the years have been subject to an unstoppable exodus to the point that they’ve become little more than skele-towns, at this moment, this very moment, the hundreds of pairs of shoes hanging from the poplar are subjected to a pendular motion, but not all with the same frequency—the laces from which each pair hangs are of different lengths. From a certain distance it constitutes a chaotic dance indeed, one that, in spite of all, implies certain rules. Some of the shoes bang into each other and suddenly change speed or trajectory, finally ending up back at their attractor points, in balance. The closest thing to a tidal wave of shoes. This American poplar that found water is situated 125 miles from Carson City and 135 from Ely; it’s worth the trip just to see the shoes stopped, potentially one the cusp of moving. High heels, Italian shoes, Chilean shoes, trainers of all makes and colours (including a pair of mythical Adidas Surf), snorkelling flippers, ski boots, baby booties and booties made of leather. The passing traveller may take or leave anything he or she wishes. For those who live near to U.S. Route 50, the tree is proof that, even in the most desolate spot on earth, there’s a life beyond—not beyond death, which no one cares about any more, but beyond the body—and that the objects, though disposed of, possess an intrinsic value aside from the function they were made to serve.


A General Theory of Oblivion by Jose Eduardo Agualusa

A General Theory of Oblivion by Jose Eduardo Agualusa

Early on in Jose Eduardo Agualusa’s A General Theory of Oblivion, the narrator offers this bit of difficult wisdom: “Any one of us, over the course of our lives, can know many different existences. . . . Not many, however, are given the opportunity to wear a different skin.” It’s an implied celebration of literature, one that weaves itself into the fabric of Oblivion. Locked as we are within a given body, temperament, and time, literature can transport us, can transmute textual experience into an expansion of inwardness, an amplification of consciousness. The best books—which Agualusa’s charmingly melancholic novel approaches—haunt us and, indeed, cover us like “a different skin.” Here, however, writing is even more than that: for Ludo, the agoraphobic and mysteriously damaged protagonist, writing is a matter of life and death, a story she scrawls on the walls of her home with charcoal. Fragmented and densely layered, Oblivion unfolds within the possibility—and the tension—inherent between writing and identity, text and meaning, story and life.

The Givenness of Things by Marilynne Robinson

The Givenness of Things by Marilynne Robinson

Is there a more chastening figure in contemporary American letters than Marilynne Robinson? Is there anyone else who seems, by her small but distinguished oeuvre, to call into question our literary predilections—for Franzonian cultural diagnostics, for confessional self-help, for vast, historical, double-hanky weepers? Or, more generally, is there a writer whose very presence—her unironic devotion to Christianity, her almost creepy level of calm, her spiritual maturity, her belief—undermines our own hectic cultural preoccupations—with Twitter icons, racist presidential candidates, our daily NASDAQ of microaggressions? Perhaps the only person who offers the same level of rebuke to contemporary life is Cormac McCarthy, a kind of grumpy, nihilistic older brother. Together they stand like Easter Island statues, implacable in the bleak gulf stream of our culture.

Industrial Oz: Ecopoems by Scott T. Starbuck

Industrial Oz: Ecopoems by Scott T. Starbuck

In an epistolary keynote address delivered this past June, poet Aaron Abeyta tells the Association of American University Presses “perhaps we are all here to trace and collect words, to sow meaning; we collect that thing which people discard as ordinary and bring it to a page of life where it can flourish and be the map of human struggle and therefore an instruction as to how we can all survive.” When I read his letter, I am interested in who “we” are. On one reading, Abeyta includes himself with the academic book publishers he addresses, thinking of writers and publishers collaborating to bring pages to life. On another reading, Abeyta identifies with his high school teacher who, to address his unruly classroom behavior, gave the freshman the key to the cabinet with seniors’ books. In the cabinet he found Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, learned that he would “love books and their saving power”, and discovered his own career path to university professor. On yet a third reading, perhaps Abeyta’s “we” speaks of writers and specifically poets. Writers are, after all, the ones who collect language, that “which people discard as ordinary.”

The Body Where I Was Born by Guadalupe Nettel

The Body Where I Was Born by Guadalupe Nettel

Part of what makes Guadalupe Nettel’s The Body Where I Was Born work so well is that, though it’s so autobiographical in nature that its protagonist has the same lazy eye that’s apparent in Nettel’s author photo, the Mexican writer treats herself as a stranger. Nettel’s life seems alien to herself as she tries to recall it accurately, and to convey it diligently to otherss. To a large degree, it’s a novel precisely about this alienness, and the emotional wooziness that can cause. The Body Where I Was Born is then a novel rooted in, but wary of, the memoir form.

Mirrors on which dust has fallen by Jeff Bursey

Mirrors on which dust has fallen by Jeff Bursey

Most books where characters openly debate the title theme would suggest sledgehammer finesse, but Bursey’s artistry here as in his 2011 debut lies in the shrewd, minutiae-driven exhibition of the obvious: liberation through transcription. Whatever’s being smuggled in, I doubt it’s message. More like the manipulations of a wry anti-novelistic sensibility: whatever he can get away with. At Johnny’s, over the course of several woozily digressive pages (a Bursey specialty), this image of purity is picked up, put down, interrupted, mauled . . . —but, taken on its own, it’s hard to see the purpose. A bull-session reproduced in admirable detail, if detailing not-too-bright conversation is in itself admirable, but Bursey doesn’t seem that interested in sounding these characters or presenting the dialog dramatically, as much more than detail work. The high burnish of this “super-realism” and its modest register leaves any obvious message-mongering at bay, and the conversation itself (including its planting) unresolved, in suspension. This formal adumbration of the bigger picture, so to speak, has a local correlative in the strong focus on moments of decision, transition, and sudden insights into roads taken and not.

Leg over Leg in Paperback


A couple of year ago many of us were quite to see the emergence in English of Leg over Leg by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, a book that kind of is a Tristram Shandy of Arabic literature. You can read the enthusiastic assessment at The Complete Review, and here’s some of what the TLS had to say:

Whatever its general maiden reception, the first publication in English from the Arabic of Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s four-volume nineteenth-century comic masterpiece, Leg over Leg, will eventually be acknowledged as one of the most important translations of the twenty-first century . . .

The only problem was that this gorgeous, hardcover, bilingual edition came out in four volumes that, collectively would set you back $125.00.

Happily, now the publisher has seen fit to release the entire book in a handy two volumes that will only cost you $17.00 each. They’re no longer bilingual (which you probably didn’t want anyway), but they do retain about 150 pages of helpful endnotes and an index. So now you have no reason not to read this amazing book.

Some Thoughts on Gender


I’ve spent a great deal of the past year writing a book on gender, or more specifically a book on my gender, and why I feel quite ambiguous about being male. I’ve learned that in this area of thought conclusions are very hard to come by, and they’re apt to change as you learn more about yourself, but I think I’ve managed to figure out at least one thing that feels pretty solid. This is it: my interest in being female is as least equally as much a disinterest in being male. Or to put it a different way, what my mind and body experienced as a desire to be female, was at least partially a desire to open up a space outside of the popular perception of masculinity. At the time this was the only way my mind knew how to make that request.

These reflections are occasioned by something I read by Rebecca Solnit today in Lit Hub. As I was reading Solnit’s piece right here, it occurred to me that this sense of alienation from conventional masculinity is probably a very widespread thing, even if I doubt that many men would feel compelled to choose the methods I have for working out that sense of alienation. In her piece, Solnit is writing against a really dumb list of “The 80 Best Books Every Man Should Read” that appeared in Esquire magazine. But what she’s really writing against is the kind of idea of masculinity promulgated by magazines like Esquire.

Scanning the list, which is full of all the manliest books ever, lots of war books, only one book by an out gay man, I was reminded that though it’s hard to be a woman it’s harder in many ways to be a man, that gender that’s supposed to be incessantly defended and demonstrated through acts of manliness. I looked at that list and all unbidden the thought arose, no wonder there are so many mass murders. Which are the extreme expression of being a man when the job is framed this way, though happily many men have more graceful, empathic ways of being in the world.

Now I don’t mean to say that Esquire exerts some occult force upon the men of the world, forcing them to live up to idiotic stereotypes about what it takes to be a man, no more than does Cosmopolitan force every woman to live up to its own cheap ideas of femininity. And Solnit isn’t arguing this. What she is arguing, and where I agree with her, is that these types of stereotypes are very prevalent in our culture, so prevalent that there is a very real pressure to live up to them. Not in the sense that every man is going to do exactly what Esquire says, but in a more general sense that there’s a certain burden that needs to be lived up to, and that you receive these messages every single day from a million different points of entry. And of course this goes for women as well.

There are differences between the expectations placed on women and on men, and where I might draw one of the most important differences would be that there are a lot of forces advocating on behalf of women’s rights to not be a Cosmo stereotype of femininity. Nowadays there are lots of people invested in delivering the message telling women to be themselves, and to not be coerced by what the mass culture is telling them to do. There’s a very established set of theory and literature arguing exactly why women should not feel compelled to receive these messages. Which I think is fantastic, and which I wholeheartedly support. And it goes to show you how deep these cultural stereotypes can get into our skulls, as these counter-arguments need to be repeated all the time in a million different ways, just to keep pushing back at what the dominant culture is trying to force into women’s heads. While I think analogous counter-forces exist for men as well, I don’t think they’re nearly as strong, and I think the options allowed for men are much more narrow. I think this is what it boils down to when Solnit writes that, “I was reminded that though it’s hard to be a woman it’s harder in many ways to be a man.”

This, at any rate, is how it has felt for me. What became clear as I wrote this book on gender is that, essentially, I had to create a whole alternative identity for myself, and an alternative system of logic to go with it, in order to give myself some sort of psychological grounding with which to step down from the ranks of the masculine men. To repeat, I don’t think it’s necessarily that every man at odds with the idiotic burdens of masculinity will step back as I have stepped back, and nor do I think many men even want to step back from these burdens. Probably many people don’t even recognize these questions as burdens and are perfectly fine being men and women in the mold that society wishes. I, however, have opted out, and I do think that this choice necessitates a kind of inner struggle to find a way to do so.

And, interestingly, what helped me a lot in this struggle was feminist theory and feminist literature. As I began to read more and more from that school of writing, I began to understand how difficult it had been for the first generations of feminists to step back from the dictates of the culture at large and to simply be the kind of woman that they felt compelled to be. That in a very real sense the writing they did was necessary to them finding the way to rebel against their culture and be as they wished to be. A lot of their arguments and methods and emotions resonated powerfully for me, and these writings were instrumental in showing me my own way forward.

I think that, in general, the matter of determining what one’s own gender is and how one wishes to express it is rather confusing and challenging, and the interference from the dominant culture makes things even more confusing and challenging than they would be already. Writing this book—which entailed going back to Day One of my conception of gender and recounting every important fact I could get a hold of—was a process that showed me just how confusing everything had been, and how difficult it was to even get to a place where I could begin to sort it out. This has perhaps been the most insidious burden of all—that it took so much struggle just to reach a place from which I could begin to systematically unwind these questions. i don’t at all think that I have exhausted these questions for myself by writing this book, but I have reached a very important point of vantage now, where I can really think clearly about these things. I hope that, if they wish it, everyone who reads this website can reach the same point of self-realization and self-understanding.

Some Thoughts on Polish Literature [2]


Following up on last week’s post, I’d like to take a moment here to write a little more about the literary reportage work that’s happening in Poland. To my mind, Poland is a nation that has not lacked for interesting world lit, and I think that the reportage happening there is one of the most interesting things going on.

First, a really quick review of just what reportage is. The best-known author by far is Ryszard Kapuściński, frequent Nobel candidate, author of some verified classics of Polish literature (and someone who is not even close to being translated in full).

For those who think reportage might be a tough sell in the U.S., let me point you to a more recent example of the genre: Gottland by Mariusz Szczygiel (tr. Antonia Lloyd-Jones), published in 2013 by Melville House. Despite being about the (some might say) obscure subject of “the Czech half of the former Czechoslovakia”, Gottland received to raves from the likes of The New York Times, NPR, and Julian Barnes. Apparently it sold out quick, as it is no longer available and copies now go on Amazon for $60.00 (I hope Melville House reprints it soon).

One of the publishers that I found there was Dowody na Istnienie (“Evidence of Existence”), which is affiliated with the Reportage Institute that I mentioned in my Lit Hub piece. To be perfectly clear about it, the Reportage Institute is an umbrella organization that oversees the Polish Reportage School, the Wrzenie Świata Bookstore, and the Dowody na Istnienie publishing house. It is run run by the legendary reportage authors Mariusz Szczygieł and Wojciech Tochman. At the book expo that ran concurrent to the Conrad Festival in Kraków I met Kamil Bałuk, who was a former student at the School and a reportage writer, and is the coordinator of the School of Reportage and an editor with the press. He was manning the booth behind a bunch of very intriguing books of reportage that I lamented that I could not read. Among the authors here were the legendary Hanna Krall, as well as Aleksandar Hemon.


Kamil is a young, hip guy with a beard and glasses, and during one of our conversations he told me about an amazing, multi-week road trip he and his wife recently took across the United States. Said trip involved some couch surfing, including one overnight stay in the house of a certified gun nut who owned multiple guns and slept with a loaded one clenched in his hand. If I had overnighted it in the Polish countryside with some guy clutching a shotgun, I would have been terrified.

This is what Sean Bye, a Polish translator with two books forthcoming and an employee of Polish Cultural Institute New York (as well as my guide around Kraków and all-around amazing human being), told me about Dowody na Istnienie publisher:

Dowody na Istnienie has two main series they’re doing: Faktyczny Dom Kultury (which would translate as something like “Factual Cultural Center”), which is their series of rediscovered classics of reportage, and the Reporter’s Series, contemporary writing.

From the Classic series, I think the most interesting book is Wiesław Łuka’s “I Won’t Swear Myself.” A family feud in small-town Poland, set off by some sausage stolen at a wedding, culminates in three people being deliberately run over by a hijacked bus full of terrified locals. At the trial, the perpetrators refuse to testify, instead repeating an odd, ungrammatical Polish phrase translating roughly as ‘I won’t swear myself.’ The witnesses also refuse to testify, and the whole town basically ends up on trial. The book was first published in the 70s and was basically forgotten about until Mariusz rediscovered the author a few years ago.

[Note: I kept hearing about this one while in Poland, and it sounds absolutely like a Polish In True Blood. I would really like to read this book one day.]

From the contemporary series, Robert Rient’s book “Witness” is about a young man raised as a Jehovah’s Witness who leaves the church and is cut off by his friends and family. I haven’t read it, but it’s purported to be great.

While I was in Kraków I also met with the head of the publishing house Znak, which does a broad range of titles, including some of the leading reportage work. Znak was founded in 1959, and it has the distinction of remaining independent during the Communist era (during which many publishers were taken over by the state). I met Znak’s avuncular publisher, Jerzy Illg, whose office is adorned with a poster of two rhinos fucking (captioned “make love not war”) and memorabilia from Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet Czesław Miłosz, who lived for a spell in Kraków and was a personal friend of Illg’s. In Polish Znak is the publisher of authors including Coetzee, Vargas Llosa, Szymborska, and, of course, Miłosz.


One of the best authors in their catalog is Małgorzata Szejnert, who is an acknowledged master of reportage but has never been translated into English. She’s written books on Zanzibar, Ellis Island, Poland in World War II, and most recently, one about Belarus called Usypać Góry (“Raising Mountains”). I happened to look through the one on Ellis Island while in Znak’s offices, and it sounds like an amazing book—basically all of these stories of people who passed through the Island on their way to America. Sort of an outsider’s/immigrant’s view of one of the most hallowed pieces of this nation’s myth and history. Below, in a spread from Usypać Góry, you can see the time-honored usage of images in reportage titles.


Znak also publishes Grazyna Jagielska, who is the wife of the noted reportage author Wojciech Jagielski, an author known for risking his life in war zones (and whose Burning the Grass was just published by Seven Stories Press in Antonia Lloyd-Janes’s translation). Jagielska has written a reportage book about the immense mental pressures involved in being the wife of a man who regularly leaves home for months at a time and puts his life in peril. She also published an amazing-sounding book called “Angels Eat Three Times a Day” about her time in a mental hospital. I really wish her books were available in English.

I also saw some very fascinating works by an author named Andrzej Szczeklik, who seemed to write books roughly comparable to Roberto Calasso’s. In particular, I flipped through the Polish edition of his amazing, genre-bending Kore: On Sickness, the Sick, and the Search for the Soul of Medicine, published in Antonia Lloyd-Jones’s translation by Counterpoint in 2012. To give an idea of this book’s range, it included a series of full-color reproductions of works of art from various eras, which are integrate into Szczeklik’s rather wide-ranging meditation on illness and medicine. This is one I’m glad I can read right this second.

Lastly I should mention Sean Bye’s two forthcoming reportage translations. The first is Watercolors by Lidia Ostałowska (forthcoming from Zubaan Books), about the Czech Jewish artist Dina Gottliebova-Babbitt who survived Auschwitz (forthcoming from Zubaan Books). During my trip to Kraków I was able to travel to Auschwitz, and they actually had some of Gottliebova-Babbitt’s watercolors on display, which she made at the request of Josef Mengele, and through which she was able to save the lives of herself and her mother. The second title is “Remember the People of Kupferberg” (working title) by Filip Springer, about the German mining town of Kupferberg, which was handed over to Poland after World War II and had its population evicted and replaced by Poles from the east, before finally being abandoned as the mines closed in the ’60s and ’70s (forthcoming from Restless Books). They both sound like hugely worthwhile books that speak to the history that is still playing itself out in Europe, and I will be keeping my eyes peeled for their eventual release.

Some Thoughts on Polish Literature [1]


I was recently a guest of the Polish Book Institute in Kraków, Poland, where I saw the wonderful Conrad Festival that is conducted in that city every year, as well as a lot of Polish publishers doing very interesting work.

Some of this I wrote about for a recent piece in Literary Hub, and some of it I’m going to write about in this space. I think I’m going to have to do it in true lazy blogger style, which will mean writing about it bit by bit over the course of a while. But I think it’s very worthwhile stuff to talk about, and there are so many worthy authors that have not had the chance of being published in English, so I hope you all will be interested to read about this. And the publishers out there should want to publish more of these books.

Kraków was the seventh UNESCO City of Literature, and there is quite a bit going on in this city. A couple of the key authors that I heard about on this trip, Hanna Krall and Olga Tokarczuk, have had some books in English, although perhaps not with the reception they deserve. Tokarczuk, who is often described as Poland’s leading author, and whom some mentioned as a future Nobel candidate, has only two books in English. They are House of Day, House of Night, which came out in 2003 with Northwestern University Press, and Primeval and Other Times, which came out a while ago with Twisted Spoon and has recently gotten a U.S. release of sorts. There are still many other books of hers to be translated, including her enormous The Books of Jacob (which I discuss in the Lit Hub piece), and Runners, which Jennifer Croft has received two grants to translate.

Hanna Krall, whom many consider the leading living writer in Poland’s nonfiction reportage genre, has scattered a number of books in English, although i do not think any of them has managed significant regard. The most recent in the U.S. was The Woman from Hamburg: and Other True Stories from Other Press in 2006. In 2017 Feminist Press will publish Chasing the King of Hearts, which many people told me is her masterpiece. Peirene Press published it a couple of years ago in the UK, and if you’re living somewhere else you can illegally buy a copy from a 3rd-party vendor on Amazon.

If you’re itching to see more of this reportage genre face to face, Seven Stories has just published Burning the Grass by the noted writer Wojciech Jagielski, translated by the remarkable Antonia Lloyd-Jones. This is a book about South African apartheid, and frankly I’m quite eager to see the Polish perspective on apartheid and the resistance movement, given everything that nation has endured in its history.

There are so many more titles in this genre that have never been translated. I’d like to share a few of them in a future post. But for now, perhaps these two authors will suffice if you’re interested in learning more.


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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