Translation used to be my hobby, when I had another job to pay the bills. My stable side-project, the thing I could go home to or spend weekends with, the place I could turn to in secret when there were slow moments at work. I was happy to be spared from that. When my fiancé Tom and I moved to Rhode Island to open Riffraff, our bookstore/bar, for the year leading up to our opening, translation was suddenly my only job. My full-time job. I was a literary translator. I could ease into it every morning. Wake up, make a cup of tea, commit myself to my desk, pull down the blinds so the sun wasn’t shining in my face, force myself to sit and translate until I reached a certain point in the book, then let myself get up, pee, shower, eat lunch, watch some reality TV to let my mind rest for a bit, then get right back to it. I would translate until around 5pm, then Tom and I would play board games for an hour before dinner, or have a drink outside and grill. Ever-present that year was the anxiety of trying to get our store open. All I wanted in those moments was for our store to exist. But I erase that part from my memory when I look back on that time with longing.
One of the most ambitious, audacious books of recent memory, Lost Empress by Sergio de la Pava brings together a smorgasbord of plot lines and scenes ranging from the serious to the comic, including: a clash between the NFL and the Indoor Football League, the history of Joni Mitchell’s career, the heist of a lost Picasso, a court case involving a high-profile murder and an incredibly intelligent inmate, the Mandela Effect, the life of a 911 operator, the origins of a brain tumor, quantum mechanics and the mind-body divide as it relates to time and consciousness, an accidental impaling and the said consequences of such as relates to the nature of getting revenge, multiple love stories that go unfulfilled, and a fight between a pig mascot and a crab one.
As is often the case in the current economic climate, there are some problems in the singular hospital system where the narrator finds himself. First and foremost, this hospital doesn’t agree with time or space. Where is it, for starters? Yes, it’s firmly anchored in Bouanani’s native Morocco, as translator Lara Vergnaud points out in her afterword: it is anchored there by words, by substantives that connect it to the very earth and roots upon which it has been built. And yet once one is admitted into this timeless bureaucratic institution, with its “section of infinity, surrounded on all sides by pending files, moldy paperwork, and shelves overflowing with x-rays of lungs,” and its “folders stacked across miles of sky until the next eternity,” one might just as well be lost in the labyrinthine stacks of a Borgesian library where all the books have been checked out. Or, behind the Iron Curtain, in the administrative offices of an unknown future such as the papyrocracy in Stanislaw Lem’s Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, or the Government Warehouse in Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Tale of the Troika.
I was amazed that Sarah Khalili seemed to internalize the language and created an entirely new novel, one that shares Moon Brow’s concern with Iran’s political and social events before, during and after 1979. This novel felt as though it has been written for a Western audience, an American audience that knows little about Iran apart from the hostage crisis—the novel sometimes goes into details about the Eight Years War that an Iranian reader would never need.
I was reading a book in Spanish, in Mexico City, a book I no longer remember as it was eclipsed by facts I found among its words. In the flow of sentences and ideas, there was a name where all of my concentration clustered: Fleur Jaeggy. A flower with a bizarre surname. I immediately knew I needed to find out more about this writer, who, as I understood from the book that had become anonymous to me now, admired Robert Walser. Overtaken by the sudden connections and the agitation of possibly finding something familiar in a distant land, someone I could meet on the territory of ideas, which belongs to no one and has no name, I found Los Hermosos Años del Castigo, a Spanish translation of I Beati Anni del Castigo, published by Tusquets Editores, one of the last pieces available in the country, only in Porrúa bookshop in the city center. I also found out that Fleur wrote in Italian.
The Overstory displays some of the formal and stylistic ingenuity we have come to expect from a Richard Powers novel, from his acoustically adventurous prose to his multiple, intertwined narratives (even more multiple in this novel), so characterizing it as purely “agitprop” would be neither fair nor accurate, although the novel is certainly transparent enough in its effort to promote environmental mindfulness. And since Powers has always been willing to take on the weightiest of subjects, generally treated in an earnestly sincere manner, it would go too far to call The Overstory sentimental, although the passages invoking its characters’ often rapturous appreciation of the trees that threaten to replace the characters themselves as the novel’s true dramatis personae are surely full of passionate intensity.
If a novel is especially immersive, if the voice of its narrator is sufficiently consistent and evocative, the world it describes may come to life in picturesque color. I say picturesque, rather than vivid, because a novel’s dominant colors may not be entirely lifelike; they may be closer to the rich oils of Rembrandt or the downy pastels of Degas. Such colors suggest life but also remind us of art’s mediating presence. Jacek Dehnel’s lush debut novel, Lala, for instance, is awash in the sepia tones of old photographs, a few of which punctuate the text. Like an old family album, assembled by an eccentric relative with an artistic bent, Dehnel’s work is drawn from life and enriched with intent, with a kind of aesthetic cohesion that bare facts lack.
Particularly since the publication of Elizabeth Costello (2003), a strong academic conversation on literature and philosophy has developed around the writings of J.M. Coetzee. As literary scholars and philosophers have approached this nexus, they have confronted questions about what counts as “philosophy” or “literature,” and what benefits are afforded by conversing across the disciplines. So, as this dialogue continues moving forward, there may be some benefit in also slowing down, pausing, and looking back at the one monograph to expressly locate Coetzee’s writings on a spectrum between literature and philosophy. Although not the most recent publication on the topic, Jan Wilm’s The Slow Philosophy of J.M. Coetzee (2016) merits renewed attention for its use of both literary and philosophical tools in explicating how Coetzee’s texts act upon their readers’ very modes of thinking.
What most of the characters in The Sparsholt Affair actually do—is left between the chapters. The titular affair (or at least its most public and scandalous iteration) occurs somewhere between the second and third sections, and Johnny seems to lack any desire to think or speak about it when his last name reveals his scandalous heritage. Instead, Hollinghurst forces us speculate what occurs in the breaks. Perhaps, more accurately, he urges us to gossip—a fitting invitation for a novel where sex, scandal, success, and sensation never occur in the text.
Curzio Malaparte’s been in his grave for over sixty years, and he’s still trolling us. That an author whose chosen pseudonym is a conscious inversion of Napoleon Bonaparte would have a fondness for provocation is no real surprise. Malaparte’s work falls uneasily in the gulf between fiction and nonfiction: 1957’s The Kremlin Ball, newly translated into English by Jenny McPhee, is subtitled (Material For a Novel), and its opening pages set out exactly how fiction and nonfiction will intermingle. “The characters did not originate in the author’s imagination, but were drawn from life, each with his own name, face, words, and actions,” Malaparte writes.
Perhaps it is Starnone’s newness in the English-speaking world that explains why reviewers have tended to jump over his proven track record and speculate about his connections to the mysterious and pseudonymous Italian author Elena Ferrante. Their rumored personal relationship is beside the point, but their books are similarly staggering—and the resemblances between their styles and subjects is hard to ignore. Set in modern-day Naples, Trick follows seventy-something illustrator Daniele Mallarico as he decamps to the house where he grew up. There, he cares for his grandson Mario while the boy’s parents are at a conference. Only four years old, Mario possesses an uncanny breadth of vocabulary, and an unsettling grasp of how the world functions.
Bang tells us about a Mexican family that began its story based on luck, when Araceli met Eugenio in a horseracing track, but somewhere along the line that luck was lost, probably years later, when the father got deported. But that is backstory. The book begins with Araceli waiting for Eugenio to cross back into the United States from Mexico. She lives with her sons, Uli and Cuauhtémoc, in the orange groves in Harlingen, Texas. They are living their life “in hiding” and trying to belong at the same time. On the night of Uli’s sixteenth birthday, the two brothers suffer a plane accident and crash on the Mexican side of the border, and the story of their new misfortune begins. They get separated after the crash (Cuauhtémoc leaves the site to look for help and never comes back) and neither of them try to cross back into the U.S., instead going to find their father who supposedly lives in San Miguel, a town in Chihuahua, a place where they all lived before moving. The day after, Araceli also drives to Mexico to find her sons. Now we have the three family members looking for each other and trying to get to their original home, as they get sucked into the narco nightmare in the border territories.
Jaeggy has taken the written and anecdotal record of her Romantics, Creatives (each ill and delicate in his own way), and wraps them in the shroud of her slow-burning melancholic rumination. By claiming De Quincey as a visionary in the opening sentence, she enters the realm of dreams and storytelling; she depicts pirates and depressives, fairy tales, death, and grandeur — through their lives, she makes contact with the very fabric of these artists work. For our sake (and likely hers), she burrows beneath the veneer of history that allows us to rest comfortably in order to detach these men from ready caricature, to ensure we inhabit the emotional and literary forces that motivated them. This allows Jaeggy, in such short pieces, to feel for the essence of her subjects, and effectively, bring them that much closer to the reader.