Forthcoming from Archipelago Books, Nest in the Bones: Stories by Antonio di Benedetto (tr. Martina Broner), May 23. Di Benedetto, of course, is the author of the masterpiece, Zama (NYRB Classics, 2016, tr. Esther Allen).
Forthcoming from Archipelago Books, Nest in the Bones: Stories by Antonio di Benedetto (tr. Martina Broner), May 23. Di Benedetto, of course, is the author of the masterpiece, Zama (NYRB Classics, 2016, tr. Esther Allen).
Almost immediately when President Donald Trump’s Muslim Ban went into effect (since rechristened the “Travel Ban,” and since scaled back by court order), British independent publisher Comma Press had an innovative response: in 2018 they would do a full year of titles only written by authors from the banned nations.
I’ve long known Comma Press as one of the U.K.’s most daring publishers of international literature, but I was still surprised when I saw this. It was such an immediate, large-scale response, and it seemed like a huge challenge on numerous grounds (for one thing, given that we’re already in 2017, upending one’s 2018 schedule is a huge logistical hurdle). Little did I realize just how audacious Comma’s publishing plans are (read on).
For more on the why and the how behind this audacious decision—as well as some frank talk about the state of UK politics and our roles as members of the publishing community—I corresponded with Comma’s editor-in-chief, Ra Page. As eic of Comma Press, Ra has long helped oversee the entry into English of numerous important world writers, and he has long worked with writers from the Middle East and North Africa. In just one of many examples, Comma discovered the Iraqi author Hassan Blasim, now decorated with multiple international honors, published in the States by Penguin, and generally regarded as one of the most important contemporary writers from the Middle East.
Scott Esposito: Comma Press has announced that its 2018 translation titles will be exclusively by authors hailing from countries affected by Donald Trump’s Muslim Ban. Could you explain how you came to this decision and give a sense of Comma Press’s prior work with authors from these nations?
Ra Page: It was a snap decision, really. An impulse. We spent the weekend before watching all footage of all those demonstrations in airports across America. We were heartened by them almost as much as we were terrified by the ban. Come the Monday, we were in the middle of stressful deadline, and it struck us that there were more important things happening in the world than that deadline, so we took five minutes out to consider how we might respond. I proposed it to my colleague Sarah Cleave, very casually, and she just said yes, instantly. The rest followed.
There’s a lot to fear in all of the appointments, executive orders and throwaway comments issuing from the White House right now, but the travel ban has been the most symbolic so far. The resistance movement has formed around that one act, even though other executive orders will probably prove just as damaging.
Our decision is to champion, give voice to and better understand a set of nations that the White House would like is to believe are populated entirely by terrorists. Seven countries worth of “bad people.”
Prior to this decision, Comma had published a number of translation titles from the Middle East and from the Arabic in particular. Most notably, Comma was the first to publish the award-winning Iraqi author, Hassan Blasim, in any language. (Blasim has since been published in the States by Penguin, with the collection The Corpse Exhibition). Comma also publishes a series of anthologies of short stories from cities, including Madinah, The Book of Khartoum (the first anthology of translated Sudanese short stories ever published in the UK), and The Book of Gaza. This latter title came out in the summer of 2014 just days before the Israeli bombardment of the Strip started. Having been in close contact with these Gaza authors for months beforehand, Comma then became a means for their first hand reports of the bombardment to leak out into the world. Diary entries by one writer in particular, Atef Abu Saif, were sent through Comma to media outlets such as The Guardian, Slate.com, and The New York Times. Eventually all of Atef’s diary entries were published in The Drone Eats with Me (published in the States last year by Beacon Books).
A few months ago, Comma also released an anthology of specially commissioned stories from Iraqi authors, called Iraq + 100. The brief was to write a story set a century after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. What transpired turned out to be the first anthology of science fiction from Iraq ever (not that we were aware that it would be!), with some astonishing visions of Iraq, and extrapolations of the long-term consequences of 2003 – ranging from the Orwellian to the farcical (image: South Park meets ISIS). The book got an enormous amount of interest on Twitter, and we’re currently in the middle of striking a deal with a major SF publishing house to bring it out in the States.
SE: What has been the reaction to this decision?
RP: We’ve been inundated with offers of help – ranging from translators and volunteers (offering to read and proof-read manuscripts) through to fellow editors and in one case the wife of a diplomat! It’s been amazing. I think others in the UK publishing industry probably think we’re a bit barmy, but we already work in short fiction and translation both of which are very niche areas; we’re used to making life hard for ourselves.
How it will impact on the wider political conversation I don’t know. I think the idea of a cultural boycott on America is a little ambitious. But maybe we could start by not watching the Apprentice anymore? Maybe even that’s too ambitious.
SE: The UK is, of course, having its own round of right-wing, so-called populism at the moment, following the vote to leave the European Union and the election of Theresa May to Prime Minister. Anti-immigrant sentiment was clearly a part of the success of these politics, as it was here in the States. How are things right now in the UK as regards foreigners, and how do you see your own role as the publisher of a press that specializes in international writing?
RP: Yep, there’s a tide of right-wing populism crashing over Europe right now. And history would suggest it’s just the inevitable consequence of a prolonged period of economic recession. When you’re in the middle of it, though, it feels like there’s more going on.
I think first, we need to remove the word “populism” from the problem. The movement that brought Obama to power was a populist one, and only became ‘non-populist’ when he failed to deliver on half of his election promises, and sank into the mire of day-to-day compromise. He was only non-populist in retrospect. What’s happening at the moment is wave of right-wing manipulation of the working class/blue-collar vote, there’s nothing particularly populist about it. Obama’s base was initially young and multi-ethnic. Why is that not populist, but the base of Brexit or Trumps’ vote – i.e. old and white – is? Yes, the current wave involves previously unelected figures, who trade on their personalities over and above their beliefs, but that’s an classic (very conscious) top-down campaign tactic, not a bottom-up grassroots decision.
To say it’s populist is to fall into the journalists’ trap of saying “there’s something in the water” right now, and to pretend to be merely reporting on that wave of feeling. It’s a construct.
For the last four years, in the UK, the BBC has been putting one man at the forefront of all their political coverage, a man who isn’t even capable of winning a seat in the British parliament despite seven attempts! A failed politician (Nigel Farage). The reason they did this is the media needed to create ‘a new type of politics’ and it was third attempt to do so. Their first attempt to create ‘a new type of politics’ was with the self-confessed holocaust denier and fascist, Nick Griffin (of the British National Party). After Griffin and his party fizzled out, they tried it with Nick Clegg, when he appeared in the first presidential-like TV debates, ahead of the 2010 general election. Again he was the voice of “a new type of politics.” Then, when his party scored fewer votes than it 5 years before, and consequently sold out to the Tories in a coalition government (and became hated for it), the BBC had to go somewhere else for their precious “new type of politics.” They went to Farage, and after four years of unprecedented coverage it finally amounted to some votes.
The reason for the unprecedented levels of exposure Farage enjoyed, for four solid years before Brexit, was not some grassroots groundswell, or something “in the water,” it was simply a consequence of the way politics is covered in the media in Britain; it takes all its cues from entertainment industry – from celebrity culture and gossip columns – and nothing from anywhere else. There are too many journalists in the world, and no one wants to step out of line, so they all chase after the same “story.” And what makes a “story” – whether in reality shows or in political news coverage – is the same set of dumb-ass archetypes: the maverick outsider, the plucky underdog; the man fighting the system (or fighting for the little guy). Even if the “system” he’s fighting against is the democratic rule of law, and the “outside” he’s hailing from is fascism.
We need to re-learn the art political coverage. Our conversations about politics need to aspire to be more than just gossip around the kings’ court. We need to talk about ideology for a change, not just scandal and outrage. The hysteria around the new president just feeds that presidency. In his world of reality shows and show business, no coverage is bad coverage, and the more we mock him, the more his supporters will love him, for being the underdog.
SE: What are things like in the UK right now post-Brexit?
RP: Well, race hate crimes have gone up. Homophobic hate crimes have soared. Islamophobia is finding its full voice. The Labour MP Jo Cox was stabbed to death on the street outside her constituency office, primarily for supporting refugee children from Syria, in the run up to the Brexit vote – an event which seemed to make no impact on the vote a few days later. This is not a happy picture is it?
I don’t think I’m qualified to comment on how “foreigners” or outsiders are viewed in the UK right now, because I’m not one of them. I can’t say. The figures tell their own, frightening story.
But perhaps all is not lost. There are a few, small crumbs of hope within the Brexit result. It was a close call, and the Leave vote was based on a profoundly misinformed and badly reported campaign. Anecdotally, there seems to be many stories of regret the morning after, coming from people who weren’t really aware of what Leave would mean. The reasons for voting Brexit in many cases were farcically misinformed. A friend’s mother said she voted Brexit “because of the traffic on the Prestwich roundabout.” Another woman on a recent televised debate, said she voted Brexit “because of straight bananas” – a myth perpetuated by the Sun newspaper in late 80s about EU edicts.
Perhaps we shouldn’t mock these individuals. But we should, at least, mock the media that has allowed the debate to leave half of the electorate behind and, for the other half, reduced it to the language of the gossip column: chasing after Bozo (Boris Johnson)’s latest, hilarious gaff, or surrounding Farage at every photo op, holding a pint of flat English beer, monopolising what it means to be an English ‘bloke’.
Perhaps we should start to question this “free news” we’re getting all the time. Someone must be benefitting from us getting it for free, right?
SE: How do you see you role, as a publisher amid these politics?
RP: I could get all misty-eyed and tell you that writing, reading and publishing are all acts of resistance; and that we’re all in the business of offering alternatives, resisting the ones being sold to us. And there’s an element of truth in this. The purpose of literature is indeed to increase sales resistance, to equip us as human beings with the means to look beyond one account of events – the one being “sold” to us – and infer or imagine alternatives.
But everyone who’s scared of what’s going on right now, in all walks of life, will be thinking how they too can resist, professionally or otherwise. But, as a publisher at least, I have to be honest. Symbolic gestures like this might not be enough. Just as posting amusing memes of Trump or May on social media might not be enough. Eventually, we’ll have to put down our pens, our phones, our tablets, and try something else.
SE: I agree that it’s essential for members of the artistic community to be politically active—I mean in terms of engaging directly in politics as citizens, and not necessarily as writers, artists, editors, booksellers, etc. We’ve seen a lot of that here since the inauguration of Trump, with thousands of political action groups springing up across the nation, massive protests, enormous amounts of pressure being put on Congressional representatives, and unprecedented donations to groups directly fighting Trump’s agenda. That said, I also feel like it’s up to us to find ways to develop our own responses as a literary community, be it through publishing initiatives like yours, events highlighting groups and nations that are being discriminated against, or even simply just trying to get more people to read and pay attention. In those terms, do you see responses to Farage and May coming together in the UK?
RP: Writers (and most people in the arts community) are generally very good at displaying political outrage among their like-minded friends, especially on social media. But if it isn’t accompanied by any action, it’s hard to distinguish it from opportunistic “value signalling.” It’s a harsh criticism, but everyone in the arts community has to stand up and defend themselves against this accusation. There are lots of small, promising things happening at a grass roots level – reader and bookshop initiatives that parallel what’s been happening in the States (for instance, book club initiatives like this one); and publishers are responding with their commissions too (two random sets of examples, here and here).
But we’ve barely started when it comes to the bigger challenges. We need to stop being complacent or even ambiguous about where literature and the arts stand in relation to politics. If we carry on pretending that art somehow stands aloof from ideology – that a single, isolated piece of art can exist outside of its political context – then we’re reducing all art to merely the product of patronage; a set of ornaments for rich people to spend their money on, signifiers of wealth and class to separate art’s owners from those who can’t afford it.
If art is to be any more than this pathetic, class-signifying ornament, it must be conscious of political context, aware of the undercurrents and dominant narratives at any one moment; it must actively push against these, to redress the dominant narratives being ‘sold’ to us, and to swim upstream. To quote Corbyn recently, “If you’re neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
Readers have to start questioning literature in the same way a Chomskyite might question a piece of media coverage: Who benefits from me buying into this narrative? What is this story trying to get me to do? If the answer is merely “To feel good about myself for having read it,” or “To line my nest with this and other products like it – to affirm my identity as this or that sort of cultured person” then the art has failed, and this failure should be exposed.
If a story can be enjoyed by an ignorant nationalist – a Trump fan or a Farage supporter – without bringing them into any kind of greater awareness of the world beyond their blinkers, then it’s failed as piece of art; it belongs with the rest of the “narrative-machine” out there, whose narratives are “sold to us” – to make us blame others, act conservatively, carry on lining our identity-nests, etc. If a story doesn’t take us further out into the world than we’re used to going, then the story-teller has failed in a key part of his or her duty, and should be called out for it. Escapism isn’t enough. Entertainment isn’t enough (Sorry, La La Land). They both offer as much succor to the ignorant as they do the informed. They’re neutral, they go with the flow.
Instead publishers, writers, producers, filmmakers – all have a responsibility to fight back.
After all, things like Brexit and Trump are the logical consequences of isolationism – of us all retreating into our bubbles – be these bubbles of nationalism and national nostalgia, or echo-chambers of like-minded friends. Writers, artists, and producers of art all have a dytu now: to grab people kicking and screaming out of their bubbles and to dump them in front of the strangers (including population groups that have become strangers, even in their own countries).
SE: As you’ve noted, Comma Press has long been involved with world literature, and its work with authors from these seven countries greatly predates the Muslim Ban. What kinds of unique challenges are present with projects like Iraq + 100 or The Book of Khartoum, and do you expect those challenges to escalate as politics becomes more nativist? Can you see any potential advantages that the changing political climate might present to a press like Comma going forward?
RP: There are many challenges, or rather pressures and expectations, when translating from these countries – coming from within and without. From without: there is the expectation that these authors should write about what we, as Westerners, already know of their culture, and that they confirm and speak to our existing perceptions of them; when actually the good writers shouldn’t be remotely interested in how we, in the West, currently perceive them.
From within: there are all kinds of pressures like the weight of expectation when representing a cultural, or indeed a language and its literature, on an international scale. It’s so rare that a writer from Iraq, say, gets translated and published in English – so rare there’s an expectation that he or she should show the language and the culture in its “best light.” This is hard, because for one thing, a country like Iraq isn’t exactly in its best light right now; and for a second, when it comes to Arabic (the predominant language in 6 of the banned countries), the language is itself sometimes the primary method through which ordinary people are oppressed.
But for a language to truly grow, it must be dirtied, broken, contaminated, muddied, or dragged into interactions with the outside. When Arabic writers do this, however, as Blasim does, they generally get a lot of flak, most often from people who don’t care about the language at all.
As for how the challenges will change . . . I think the situations around censorship on the ground are improving in some places (Iraq and Syria for instance, as the secret police have other battles to fight). In places like Yemen and Syria, the biggest problem is getting access to writers (or writers having any time to safely write at all) while a war is still raging (I should also say the same for West Sudan/Darfur, and also for Libya). You can’t really imagine it getting any worse than it is now for these places.
From a publishing point of view, the problem of movement is the biggest challenge, and it will get worse for as long as Trump is in power, and for as long as Brexit is read as proof of some “groundswell” of anti-immigration nationalism (which it isn’t).
Many of Comma’s writers can’t get out of their countries (or into the UK) as it is. Comma has struggled to get authors out of Sudan and Iraq before. We also work a lot with Palestinian authors, in particular writers from Gaza, and we’ve had many events in the UK in the past where some, or all, of the authors have failed to get permits to leave the Strip (either failing to get permission to travel across Israel to the airport in Amman, as the Egyptian border is almost permanently closed, or failing to get a visa to enter Britain for the tour). This will only get worse. Arabic artists from across the Middle East and Africa will find visas to enter the UK harder and harder to come by. It’s already extremely hard. For years, the UK Border Agency has seen itself as some kind of extension of tabloid racism. Their systems have xenophobia and particularly Islamophobia hard-wired into them; they’re brilliantly designed to “appear” to be asking impartial (if ridiculous) questions, whilst in effect they trip up and block exactly the right race and creed of people – namely those that the readers of The Daily Mail, The Express and The Sun think should be blocked: Muslims. If you’ve ever tried to get an Arab artist out of Palestine or Iraq, you’ll know Britain has had its own effective Muslim ban for years – it’s just a lot more subtle, and under the radar. For instance, Comma had its first visa application to bring Hassan Blasim to the UK from Finland rejected by the British Embassy in Helsinki because his letter of invitation from various literature festivals weren’t signed in blue ink (being signed in black ink, the British Embassy said it was a photocopy and therefore invalid). Britain’s a bit smarter in the way it pulls up its racist drawbridge.
So with writers unable to travel (to the States or the UK), the book will increasingly be the only way we get to hear from life on the ground in these countries. So people should get used to attending literature events where the author speaks to you via a pre-recorded video message; we should get used to asking questions of glitchy Skype images of authors projected onto the walls of bookshops. This will probably be the best we’ll get.
SE: Lastly, can you offer us any previews of the titles and/or authors you’ll be working with to put together this year of Muslim Ban authors?
The first title in this series will be a fast-turnaround publication: an anthology of seven short stories by authors from each of the seven “travel banned” countries, written specially in response to Trump’s ban. Titled simply Banthology – it will ask writers to respond to one or more of the issues exposed by the ban: the experience of being treated like a second class citizen (and a terrorist) when travelling at the best of times; the emotional and political consequences a ban like this could have; what the world might look like if bans like this become normalized, or an on-going reality. Most importantly the book will offer perspectives from ordinary people trying to live ordinary lives in countries that the White House regards as populated entirely by terrorists.
The full list of participants hasn’t been confirmed yet, but they will include Rania Mamoun (Sudan), who first appeared in The Book of Khartoum; and Anoud (Iraq), who first appeared in Iraq + 100. (We plan to have a full list of all seven authors by the end of this month.) Comma plans to publish Banthology within the period of the original 90-day ban. We also plan to simultaneously co-publish this title with a U.S. publisher (to be announced shortly).
Then, next year, we plan to publish up to four, full collections by writers originally showcased in Banthology. These will most likely include Rania Mamoun’s Thirteen Months of Sunrise (translated by Elisabeth Jaquette) and Anoud’s Kahramana, as well as a second anthology of science fiction from Iraq, and anthologies from specific cities around the region, including Basra and Tehran. (I’m also half-tempted to commission a series of superhero origin stories, from “banned country” perspectives . . . but I’m yet to persuade the rest of the team about this one. :) )
My latest column is up at Literary Hub. It all touched off from a remarkable quote that I found in an essay of John Berger’s, collected in the volume Keeping a Rendezvous. I think the zing in that quote come from these words, ” I know too that the powerful fear art, whatever its form, when it does this . . .”
I don’t have a ton to add on top of that. I think I mostly said what I had to say in the column, and I think I managed to get it all out rather well in that space. So, you should go have a look.
If you are a Kafka fan (or just a fan of great literary biographies), the translation of Reiner Stach’s enormous, three-part biography is something not to miss. Now that it has been translated into English by Shelley Frisch, the book offered English-language readers unparalleled insight into Kafka’s life, his world, his colleagues, his lovers, his family, and of course his writing. As a longtime Kafka devotee, I found this biography exceptional, not just a great book about Kafka but simply a great book to read.
I reached out to Frisch to answer a few questions about her work with Stach’s gigantic book (which, as we will see, took quite a long time to translate). Frisch is no newcomer to German literature, having published widely on that subject, as well as on cabaret, the political and linguistic dimensions of exile, and on translation, and she holds a Ph.D. in German literature from Princeton University. In addition to her translation of Stach’s Kafka biography, for which she has been awarded the Modern Language Association’s Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Translation Prize and the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize, she also co-directs international translation workshops with Karen Noelle, and is currently serving on three translation juries. She lives in Princeton, New Jersey.
Scott Esposito: Reiner Stach’s biography of Kafka is a major work in terms of its size and depth. It is particularly important for audiences in the English-reading world, as much of the scholarship and biographical details that Stach brings to bear in the biography have not appeared in English (despite being well-known in the German-reading world). Can you tell us a few new things that make this project such a significant one for readers of Kafka who can’t access the sources the Stach uses?
Shelley Frisch: There is a vast array of scholarship, on both sides of the Atlantic, devoted to analyses of Kafka’s literary works, and a high degree of “cross-pollination” between American and European Kafka specialists. Readers of Kafka seeking textual analyses have ample material to draw on. By contrast, the big missing piece has been a comprehensive biography that invites the reader in to experience, to whatever degree possible, what it was like to live in Kafka’s world and see the world through his eyes. There have been startlingly few biographies of Kafka, in spite of the tremendous fascination he has held for readers over the generations, and not one has accomplished Reiner Stach’s stated objective of offering a way into Kafka’s perspective on life in general and his place in it. Max Brod’s and Klaus Wagenbach’s early biographies of Kafka are limited and hopelessly outdated, and the few other biographies to emerge over the intervening decades did little to fill in the many gaps. Until Reiner Stach embarked on this study, which spanned two decades of intensive and extensive research and writing, there was a treasure trove of untapped information that had yet to be evaluated and presented to readers, much of it tucked away within academic tomes and archives. I think the problem is less the language barrier than the huge amount of sleuthing required to track down myriad details (“mosaic pieces” or “puzzle pieces,” as Reiner calls them, often found in unlikely places) that made Kafka Kafka, and fit them together to draw an artful, compelling, and highly readable picture of the world that was Kafka’s and highlight the hows and whys of his emergence as a key writer of and in his time.
The critical edition of Kafka’s works in Germany brought together many of his unpublished writings, yet much invaluable material continued to be as unknown to readers of Kafka there as they were here. Reiner Stach’s biography has been a revelation on both continents. We knew about Kafka’s “office writings,” for example, but relatively little attention had been paid to the way the information Kafka gathered for his legal briefs shaped his literary texts. We knew that Kafka and Brod set up a contest of sorts to chronicle and compare their impressions of the air show in Brescia, but Reiner Stach was the first to highlight the ways in which their differing texts shed light on Kafka’s perceptual approach to writing. And we knew that Kafka was intrigued by technology, but now we learn how this interest informed Kafka’s narrative technique and thematic range.
Reiner Stach’s biography breaks significant new ground in Kafka studies in at least two other ways: he explodes enduring myths about Kafka’s alleged estrangement from everyday life, and his work is the very first to evaluate and integrate portions of the Max Brod literary legacy in Israel, long concealed from literary scholars.
SE: How did you come to be the translator of this book, and how long did this project take you to complete?
SF: Both parts of that question are more complex than you’d think! In a sense, I came to be the translator of this biography a total of three times, not because the work is in three volumes, but because three different publishers were involved (and even more editors!). I was first offered the project by Norton; my editor there, with whom I’d worked previously, hoped to acquire the biography when it was up for auction in the US, and to have me translate the 3-volume set. We were already discussing specifics when an editor at Harcourt, with whom I’d had no connection, outbid him, and the biography was Harcourt’s to publish. I soon bounced back from my “Well, there went that!” moment and turned my attention to other things. I believe the year was 2002 (back when I was still on aol, so it’s hard to retrace the timeline on my computer without rifling through chaotic paper files…). A couple of months passed, and Harcourt contacted me, somewhat out of the blue, as it now seemed, with a fine offer for this project. That first volume (Kafka: The Decisive Years) was published in 2005. Halfway through my work on the volume, the editor left Harcourt, and I continued to work on it with editor Drenka Willen.
Then Houghton Mifflin merged with Harcourt, and a good many of the latter’s literary projects fell by the wayside, including the Kafka project, although the first volume had been showered with glowing reviews and prizes. It was now time for a second “Well, there went that!” moment. Eventually I heard the happy news that, not too long after Reiner Stach published the second volume of the Kafka biography in Germany (Kafka: Die Jahre der Erkenntnis, which became Kafka: The Years of Insight in English), Princeton University Press decided to acquire the full 3-volume set! I was delighted by the opportunity to work with PUP, which is a five-minute bike ride from my house, and the people there are terrific. The second volume was published in 2013, along with a softcover edition of the original Decisive Years volume. By the third and final volume (covering Kafka’s early years, in quasi-Kafkaesque fashion), I was translating the book at the same time that Reiner was writing it, and it was published in the US in 2016, well ahead of schedule. At PUP, I worked with a total of three editors, first the wonderful Hanne Winarsky, who acquired it, then Alison MacKeen, who temporarily replaced Hanne when she left for California, then Anne Saverese, my current (or must I now say “former”?) editor par excellence. I cannot imagine a better home for the biography; I’ve gotten to know and admire the work of outstanding editors, and also of production, publicity, and prize-applying people (had to strain a bit to complete the alliterative set here).
How long did the translation take? Well, for the aforementioned reasons, there were substantial gaps between my work on each volume, but from soup to nuts, fourteen years went by. Each volume took me about 1½ years to translate, and an additional ½ year to work with editors and production people. I am both thrilled and woeful that the project is over; I will miss the years I spent with Franz.
SE: I wanted to ask you to discuss some of the challenges of translating this book. Usually on this website we deal with works of literary fiction, not biographies-in-translation of iconic authors, so I’m especially curious about things particular to this project that might have posed a challenge. On that same note, there is of course a lot of Kafka’s own writing in this book, and I read that you chose to re-translate the Kafka, even in cases where translations were already available. Can you also comment on why you made this decision and any challenges there?
SF: Let me start with your second question. There were several reasons for opting to retranslate textual excerpts that already exist in English. First, there is no standard or critical edition of Kafka’s works in English, so if I were to pick and choose from available translations, I’d be introducing the cacophony of several different translators’ voices. Second, the Kafka community’s understanding of the wording and import of Kafka’s texts continues to evolve as newly revealed documentation comes to light; published translations, particularly the older ones, don’t necessarily reflect our current understanding of what’s in the texts. Third, I had distinct notions of how Kafka’s texts needed to read in English, so it made more sense for me to translate them myself. The fourth and final reason is a practical one: paying for permissions to use published translations can run up a big bill if lengthy passages are reproduced.
The translation of this biography was rendered unusually complex by the volumes’ scrambled dates of composition, and because some key information about Kafka’s early life was coming to Reiner and then to me in dribs and drabs, and via clandestine paths that precluded our referencing certain information fully, so I had to work with my editors to supply only truncated endnotes in spots. One purpose of the Translator’s Preface I wrote for the Early Years volume was to address the compositional and annotational oddities surrounding this project.
A key challenge for me was to come as close as possible to the high stylistic bar Reiner Stach had set with his superb, engrossing prose. His multifaceted voice was not the easiest to capture. An anonymous reviewer of the biography when it was still in manuscript form noted in this regard:
Stach writes with a quite special voice—better, a quite special voice inside a fine and normal one: this fine and normal voice conveys social and historical data coolly and lucidly; but in this other voice, Reiner Stach aims for psychological and literary-critical brilliance in a racy diction, exploiting the vernacular and “illustrated” with (over)abundant figures of speech [that] will prove a hardship to a translator.
The text is of course studded with Kafka’s voices: Kafka as prose writer, Kafka as creator of memorable characters with their own narrative voices, Kafka as diarist, as letter writer, as wooer, as drafter of legal briefs … Because Kafka wrote in German in a Czech-speaking community, the Czech language made numerous appearance in the biography. I had to devise a system for choosing German, Czech, or Anglicized place names, and be sure to double-check the Czech. And because I worked on the three volumes over a prolonged period of time, with extended gaps between each volume, I had to keep cross-referencing each volume-in-progress with the earlier ones to recall the myriad decisions I’d made along the way in order to ensure a uniformity of tone and terminology.
And then there’s the issue of my own voice. I deliberately inject my idiolect and flavoring into the texts I translate to make them live in their own right and not be reduced to mere translationese. After all, one of the cruelest possible barbs about a writer’s style in English is to accuse a text of sounding “translated from the German.” As an acoustically minded translator, I read much of the material out loud to hear its effect, and to make the medium mesh with the message. (I do enjoy alliteration, as you can see.) I’m quite fond of this comment by Toni Morrison: “You rely on a sentence to say more than the denotation and the connotation; you revel in the smoke that the words send up.” Though not a smoker, I strive to send up intriguing smoke.
SE: Could you tell us about this book’s reception, both in Germany and in English translation? I’m also curious to know if you have been asked to represent it (and, by that token, to represent Kafka) in things like conferences, book events, and the like, and how it has been to take on that role.
SF: The biography has enjoyed a dazzling critical reception on both sides of the Atlantic. John Banville, Michael Dirda, Colm Tóibín, Cynthia Ozick, Joy Williams, Robert Alter, Gary Giddins, and Imre Kertész are among the biography’s many reviewers in the English language. The most intriguing narrative stance adopted by any reviewer to date has certainly been that of William Gass, in his essay called “Half a Man, Half a Metaphor,” which was published first in Harper’s Magazine and then as a chapter in Gass’s Life Sentences. The narrator of this piece is none other than Gregor Samsa himself!
The very latest review came out just the day before yesterday, in Open Letters Monthly. Here’s a link to Robert Minto’s incisive essay, which offers a sweeping overview of all three volumes of the biography. My favorite passage in the review is this:
Reiner Stach’s biographical trilogy belongs in the company of the masterpieces of literary biography, [l]ike Leon Edel’s Henry James, Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf, and Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky. Thanks to the superb work of Stach’s translator, Shelley Frisch, the trilogy also stands out in English at the sentence level, for the unbroken clarity, verbal ingenuity, and unflagging momentum of its prose. … With the care of an archeologist, Stach picks up each available piece of Kafka’s history, habits, and personality, brushes off the dust, holds it to the light, and turns it carefully to examine every side.
The biography has received numerous awards in Germany (the prestigious Bavarian Book Prize) and here (the MLA’s Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Translation Prize, the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize, and longlisting for the PEN Translation Prize). As for whether I’ve represented the book for the English-language readership: most assuredly! I’ve lectured about the biography in all kinds of venues, recorded podcasts, translated essays by the biographer and others for news publications, took part in an extended book launch, and promoted the work to journalists, on the social media, and to anyone else willing to listen. How has it been to take on the role? It’s been exhausting but exhilarating and rewarding, because the biography is that good.
SE: As someone who has lived in a sort of intimacy with Kafka for several years now, I’m curious to know what are some of your favorite moments from his life, and if you could name one or two textual moments in Kafka’s writings that stand out for you.
SF: Off the top of my head, I’d say that the moments in his life I most enjoy recalling are the ones that bring a smile to my lips, or a belly laugh to my—well, belly. I marvel at Kafka’s parents’ decision to give Franz a healthy start in his professional life by setting up an asbestos factory for him to run. I picture him arriving at a Christian fundamentalist nudist colony and refusing (initially) to part with his swim trunks. I see him getting a coveted promotion at work and responding with a roar of laughter instead of the expected somber expression of gratitude. I watch him getting engaged and disengaged, several times, at the drop of the proverbial hat, most startlingly while courting Felice Bauer, a woman whose looks (her teeth in particular) are repulsive to him. I laugh every time I see him, in my mind’s eye, “Fletcherizing” his food while his father cringes behind a newspaper so as not to witness this act (you’ll have to read the biography to follow that one . . .).
I also find instances of hilarity throughout his writings, such as in the story fragment about the Olympic swimmer who cannot swim. My funny bone is also tickled by numerous episodes in all three of Kafka’s (unfinished) novels: Josef K.’s visit to the painter Titorelli in The Trial, Karl Rossmann’s time with Brunelda in The Man Who Disappeared, and K.’s encounters with a whole host of kooky characters in The Castle. One of my favorite short stories is “Report to an Academy,” narrated by an ape who’s been forced to become human to gain some degree of freedom. Here we learn an intriguing set of elements (spitting, getting drunk . . .) that are said to constitute humanness, and hence freedom.
I could go on and on, but I’ll end this question simply by quoting in full my favorite Kafka parable, the spare prose of which says it all:
It was very early in the morning, the streets clean and empty, I was walking to the station. When I compared the tower clock with my watch I realized that it was already much later than I had thought, I had to hurry, the shock of this discovery made me unsure of the way, I did not yet know my way very well in this town; luckily, a policeman was nearby, I ran up to him and breathlessly asked him the way. He smiled and said: “You want to know the way from me?” “Yes,” I said, “since I cannot find it myself.” “Give up! Give up,” he said, and turned away with a big sweep, like people who want to be alone with their laughter.
SE: Having read the biography, I think I can say that among the most fascinating things about Kafka are the lacunae. What do you consider the most fascinating unanswered questions about Kafka, and do you think we will ever know the answers to them?
SF: Here are some questions I’d love to know the answers to, and I’m highly doubtful of ever getting them: What texts have been irretrievably lost, and what pleasure might they have afforded us and revealed about Kafka? Why didn’t he complete any of his novels (or did he?)? Why was he so reluctant to part with his writings and get them published? And finally: although Kafka appears at long last to have found a reasonable degree of happiness with Dora Diamant when he was already confined to his bed and near death from tuberculosis, in what circumstances might he have found contentment while still able to enjoy it?
I’m very pleased to announce an expanded, fully bilingual print version of the Latin American Mixtape. It will be titled The Latin American Mixtape / Mixtape Latinoamericano and published this April by Argonáutica, a Mexican publisher.
This is the first full-length book of mine to be translated into another language, and I’m thrilled!
I’m also hugely thrilled to say that I will be making my first ever trip to Texas this spring to do events in support of this book alongside Mark Haber, whose book Melville´s Beard / Las barbas de Melville will released by the same press in April. There will also be an Oakland event. (Details to come soon!)
If you’d like to find out more about the press, you can find them on Facebook as Editorial Argonáutica, out of Monterrey, Mexico.
I will share more information about this book and the events to support it as we get closer to the April release date.
By implementing his Muslim Ban, Donald Trump has, among other things, begun to slow the spread of ideas and stories across borders. Here are a few people we won’t be hearing from any time soon in the U.S., at least not in person.
Mohsen Emadi. Emadi is an exiled poet, who is currently residing in the United States but is leaving at the end of this week. Per his publisher, David Shook, of Phoneme Media:
Because of President Trump’s executive order on immigration, exiled Iranian poet Mohsen Emadi will be banned from returning to the United States following his departure next Friday.
Emadi’s first book to be translated into English, Standing on Earth (translated by Lyn Coffin) is available from Phoneme Media. It is unfortunate that he will be cut off from his publisher and his friends in the United States and will no longer be able to enrich our culture.
Mahmoud Dowlatabadi. Dowlatabadi is best-known in English translation for his novel The Colonel, deals deeply with the Islamic Revolution and oppressive governments. He is also a strong proponent of social and artistic freedom. All in all, he has won numerous international awards and has had his work translated into multiple languages. He would seemingly make an ideal visitor to the United States to help promote understanding between the U.S. and Iran, but under the current Executive Order, the 76-year-old Iranian citizen is too dangerous to be let in.
Khaled Khalifa. Khalifa is a major Syrian writer born in Aleppo who has been critical of the Syrian government and a signatory to a petition in solidarity with the Syrian people’s “dreams of justice, equality and freedom.” His novel In Praise of Hatred, about the conflicts between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Syrian government arrived in English translation in 2014 from Thomas Dunne Books in Leri Price’s translation, garnering praise from The New York Times and The New Republic.
He is seemingly an ideal individual to help share the stories of the Syrian people and promote mutual understanding between nations, something he will not be doing in the Untied States any time soon.
Nadifa Mohamed. Somali-born author Mohamed became a refugee when the civil war in Somalia broke out during a temporary stay in the U.K. Fortunately for her, the politicians at the time did not decide to deport her back to Somalia.
It was a good thing, as she has proven a great asset to the culture. Her debut novel Black Mamba Boy (2009) was broadly acclaimed, being shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, the Dylan Thomas Prize, and the 2010 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. She has since been honored as one of the Africa39, as well as participating in literary festivals worldwide. A British-Somali dual citizen, it is unclear if she could now participate in festivals in the United States.
Mansour Bushnaf. As a university student journalist, Bushnaf was detained by the Gaddafi regime in 1976 and spent 12 years in prison. The obviously didn’t stop him from speaking truth to power, as the longtime essayist’s first novel, 2008’s Chewing Gum, was swiftly banned in Libya. It has circulated secretly throughout the Arab world and become a popular critique of the Gaddafi regime. The book was subsequently released in 2014 by Darf Publishers in London in a translation by Mona Zaki.
One hopes that Bushnaf does not further run afoul of the authorities in Libya and need asylum, as he would currently get no help from Trump’s government.
Hassan Blasim. Blasim is one of the most internationally regarded Iraqi authors, best known for his books The Iraqi Christ and The Corpse Exhibition (the former winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize). He is also a filmmaker, and he was forced to seek asylum in Finland in 2004 because of troubles encountered while making a film in northern Iraq.
Just 43 years old, Blasim is a rising star of world literature. It is unfortunate that readers and literary festivals in the United States will be deprived of this courageous, innovative, and increasingly famous author.
Betool Khedairi. Khedairi was born in Baghdad and currently lives in Jordan. Two of her books, Absent and A Sky So Close, have been translated into English. Her writing has been widely acclaimed throughout the Arab world.
Nadia Alkowkabani. Alkowkabani is the author of eight books of fiction, and her work has been translated into English, French, German, and Italian. Alkowkabani has not had an entire book translated into English, although some of her writing can be read in English translation here.
Ali al-Muqri. Al-Muqri has been longlisted for the Arab Booker Prize, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times. His 2012 novel Hurma appeared in Thomas Aplin’s English translation in 2015, and a new edition is forthcoming later this year from Darf Publishers. He currently lives in France, which presumably would make no difference so long as his citizenship remains Yemini.
Hammour Ziada. A Sudanese writer and journalist, Ziada won the Naguib Mahfouz Prize in 2014 for The Longing of the Dervish and has been nominated for the Arabic Booker Prize.
Dervish “examines the social conflict between white Christian and Islamic Sufi cultures in Sudan,” which would seemingly make him a very interesting guest to host in the United States. Unfortunately, not any time soon.
I pontificated this into a thread on Facebook, and it sounded more or less worthwhile to me, so I thought I would copy it here and expand on it a bit.
I disagree with the idea of “I won’t review a small press book I didn’t like.” First of all, unless a book is complete garbage, a mixed review that attempts to tease out what does and does not work will often make me want to read a book much more than bland praise. If a book has sufficiently engaged someone that they will spend the time to think through their feelings on it, then it is often a deep book that I will find compelling in some ways (and maybe I will like it more than them). It’s usually when we are wrestling with our feelings that we produce the best criticism.
Secondly, every author needs rigorous and honest critics. None of us write perfect books, we can all profit from people making intelligent critiques of what we have done. Authors only become better writers if people take the time to critique weak spots and help make their work more rigorous and in-depth.
All that said, hatchet jobs may have some place (yes, they’re fun, and it comes with the territory when you’re as big as Auster), but they are rarely of any lasting value for anyone—critic, author, or audience.
I do understand the idea of just letting a book die from lack of attention, and certainly this is something that tends to happen in the great majority of cases, intentionally or not. I don’t necessarily disagree—oftentimes I do this myself when something just doesn’t seem interesting enough to critique in any meaningful way. But if the author is someone I’ve cared enough to take an interest in, then in almost all cases it will be worth both of our time to sit down and write out my honest feelings about the book. I will have gained from the rigor of working out my thoughts, and the author will gain from the second perspective on his/her work.
My review of Javier Marías’s latest novel, Thus Bad Begins, is a good example. Certainly it is not a bad book, and I could have given it a rather honest if bland positive review. But of course if you look around the web you will see many, many such reviews of that book. There was no need for another. And, in fact, I felt that there was some ground for critique: yet, Marías is a gifted writer who would be hard-pressed to write a bad book, but this one was rather weak when placed against his other novels, and it is filled with repetitions of things he has said better elsewhere. (Also, for whatever reason, I found the typical Marías sexism must more jarring in this one.)
So I gave it a mixed review, partially to be completely honest, partially as a way to impart my feelings to other writers who are not as good as Marías but who may gain something from reading an honest critique of him, and partially to tell Marías himself that he’s beginning to repeat himself. (I have no idea if the message ever reached Marías, although I do know he has read and admired other things I have written about him.) Obviously, in the small press sphere the chance is much, much greater that a writer will read your critique, and possibly take it to heart.
Being the author of two published books and many, many essays, I know that reading a negative critique of your work is a bracing experience. I have read negative reviews of my own work. It’s not a fun thing. I take other people’s feelings seriously, and I do not criticize a fellow writer lightly. When I do critique, I try to do it with dignity and respect.
But I do think that the shock of reading a negative review of one’s own writing does wear off fairly quickly—what is much less ephemeral are the lessons you learn about your own work, which are not things you can figure out for yourself. These lessons take your arguments and art to a deeper level, they force you to be more rigorous, and they keep you honest. In short, they make you a better writer and probably a better person.
Of course, honest criticism is also the mainstay of the writer/editor relationship, and that is one of the great sources of improvement for a writer. It is not a common thing to find an editor with the time and capabilities to truly analyze your work word by word and to make deep and lasting critiques, but every time I have come upon such an editor I have gained greatly. It may be in many ways easier and safer to just blindly praise and copyedit as an editor (and sometimes this must be done, particularly in the small press world), but you are always doing your writers a service if you give them a rigorous and deep response to the work they have taken so much pain and effort to labor over.
For the third and latest installment of my column over at Literary Hub, I went to the American philosopher William James for a little inspiration amid a very depressing political moment for this country.
James wrote was is probably the best American philosophical essay on why you should have faith in things, and it has long been a work that has inspired me. In addition to that, he liked through the Civil War (as a young man, no less), which makes our current mess pale by comparison.
So, I think there’s a lot to him that’s pertinent for us right now. Enjoy, and column #4 is in the works.
Edwin Turner, aka Biblioklept, did a nice interview with me regarding The Missing Books. In it, I talk about the origins of the project, the different sorts of books that exist in it, whether or not the project if fiction or nonfiction, what makes a missing book “missing,” if I’ve ever stolen a book, and lots more. Here’s a bit:
I was also always interested in books that seemed to push up against the boundaries of the categories. Like The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa, which I place under the heading of “lost books”—is it really lost, or did Pessoa complete it? Well obviously Pessoa never “finished” it in the sense that most books are finished, but then again, Pessoa’s life project arguably rebuts the whole notion of finished books as we tend to construe them. And also, The Book of Disquiet is arguably a journal of sorts, and are those ever completed? George Steiner also makes an interesting case when he argues for Disquiet as a complete work by telling us that “As Adorno famously said, the finished work is, in our times and climate of anguish, a lie.” So I was also always on the lookout for titles that seem to render these categories less stable, the better to contemplate what they actually mean and whether or not there really is such a thing as a “missing book.”
If you want to read The Missing Books, I’m offering a pretty sweet deal right now: you can get the Latin American Mixtape and The Missing Books for $4.99.
The details of the offer are all right here, or just get it below.
You can also order just The Missing Books—which has been 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. Do that right here:
I appreciated that Anderson looked at this book as one about the nature of desire (this was one of my intentions in writing it), and I also liked that he discusses how much I delve into my dialogue with film and books as an integral part of my journey. It’s very important to me that I see art as something that plays a material role in our lives, and I like to take the opportunity to examine that process in writing.
One of the most touching things is the way Esposito describes the evolution of his identity in sync with the theory, literature and films he consumes. He meaningfully enters into a dialogue with those whose ideas feed into his experience helping him to better articulate his own desires. It made me aware of why reading feels like such a vital part of my life and how all the feelings produced from the things I read aren’t just abstract concepts, but things that apply directly to my day to day life. I think this book makes a perfect companion to Maggie Nelson’s “The Argonauts” which I only read recently. Both reflect strikingly on the dynamics of gender in a deeply personal and intelligent way.
I thought it’d be fun to run down some of my favorite movies watched in 2016. These are not all new releases; in fact, this will be a pretty heavy non-2016-release list.
These are more or less in the order I saw them this year (as well as memory serves). I’m only recording films that I saw for the first time in 2016.
This is cinema at its most maximalist and self-indulgent. Yeah, it’s a little too long, it’s got a little too much weirdo/mystical shit going on, but Malick does create a imagistic language and visual grammar all his own (and which has already been transparently ripped off). And he does a pretty good job turning the Book of Job into a cinematic fable for our times while also cutting in a good deal of the scientific explanation of all existence. So, it should be experienced.
This is a feature movie with documentary aspects following a group of Tibetan villagers making a 1200-mile pilgrimage to Lhasa. Not only do they walk the entire way, they do so kowtowing, which means that they throw themselves onto the ground roughly ever 5th step. This is an incredible thing that people actually do, and it takes months (if not more) to complete a pilgrimage, turning the journey into a way of life itself. A remarkable story and a well-made film that takes you into a completely different way of life.
This feature by Colombian director Guerra was one of the most visually and psychologically shocking movies I’ve seen this year. It tells twinned narratives, one about a sick explorer being led through the jungle by an Amazonian shaman to retrieve a life-saving substance; the other occurs roughly 30 years later, when the same shaman is used by a scientist as a guide. Elements of Werner Herzog, 2001, Apocalypse Now . . . this is a must-see.
This early feature (1974) may be my favorite Wenders movie yet. It’s about this European journalist who has been given a trip through the U.S. to write a magazine story but who gets so existentially dislocated by the source material that he ends up writing nothing. Told to return to Germany by his irate editor, he ends up shepherding a young girl who has been abandoned by her mother. Wenders’s outsider’s view on the U.S. is profound (particularly its mediation), and the movie has a strange texture all its own.
Welles playing Falstaff! What else needs be said? This is Welles’s cinematic adaptation of Henry IV, and it’s a pretty staggering film. The famed war scene is worth the price of admission, as is the moment when the newly crowned King Henry V turns his back on the old man. Welles plays this material for a nostalgic, elegiac reading of Shakespeare’s famed play.
Documentary based on the famed book of the same title. There’s a lot of candid Hitch in this one (Jones makes heavy use of the original recordings of the conversations between Hitchcock and Truffaut), as well as lots of homages to what the book has meant for the generations of filmmakers after it. Good fun.
17-year-old Kaqchikel-Guatemalan María is going to be married off to a wealthy, middle-aged farm-owner. This doesn’t go over too well with her, and she tries to run away with a ne’er-do-well her own age who’s going to the U.S. But instead ends up pregnant and alone. A very beautifully shot, moving film, and one that takes you deeply into the culture of indigenous Guatemalans.
Late Ophüls! This is the director’s last completed movie, and it’s incredibly strange. Based on a real-life Irish dancer and courtesan and affaired with Franz Lizst and King Ludwig I of Bavaria, climbed to the heights of European society, and then ended up lost and abandoned in Gold Rush California where she dramatized her own bizarre life in a surreal circus show. (The movie takes place in New Orleans.) This movie is visually stunning and incredibly provocative on subjects including fame, media, the male gaze, and the representation of femininity and the female.
Voyage of Time by Terrence Malick
This should be experienced as an IMAX just to know what it feels like. As a spectacle dedicated to the cosmological/mystical explanation of all life and being, it’s pretty intense, and it’s also an incredibly beautiful thing to witness.
One of the best new releases of 2016, hands down. This is a triptych based around the life of African-American Floridian Chiron—three different actors play him as a child, adolescent, and young man, and in each 35-minute vignette we get insight into the person he is at the time and the circumstances that are shaping him. It’s a very nuanced portrait of a life, one that treats identity and male homosexuality with a degree of subtlety and complexity that I have rarely (if ever) seen in a motion picture.
A cinematic essay (and a pretty long one at that) about all the ways that Los Angeles has been depicted or otherwise used in films. It reminded me in some very good ways of Chris Marker and Mike Davis, and it also revealed a lot to me about film, famous locations in Los Angeles, and the ways that place-identity is constructed in movies. This is a fun one just to watch, but also one you can think about pretty in-depth.