6 Questions for Jessica Powell on venture of the infinite man by Pablo Neruda

Pablo Neruda is one of the best-known poets in the Americas—indeed he is a writer who is considered canonical and essential—but his third book, venture of the infinite man, is little-known in the English language. That should change now that City Lights publishes its first-ever English translation in Jessica Powell’s imaginative English, with an introduction by Mark Eisner.

To find out more about this strange and challenging short book, I corresponded with Powell. She very graciously answered my questions in great depth, providing a wealth of insight about this book. In addition to translating Neruda, Powell is the holder of an MA in Latin American Studies from Stanford University and a Ph.D. from UC Santa Barbara. Her translation of Wicked Weeds by Pedro Cabiya (Mandel Vilar Press, 2016), was named a finalist for the 2017 Best Translated Book Award and made the longlist for the 2017 National Translation Award, and she is the translator of (with Suzanne Jill Levine) Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo’s novel Where There’s Love, There’s Hate, as well as Antonio Benítez Rojo’s novel Woman in Battle Dress.

Scott Esposito: venture of the infinite man was Neruda’s third book of poetry, published in 1926 after Twenty Love Poems and A Desperate Song, which had won Neruda great critical acclaim and a strong reputation, and which eventually went on to be among best-selling Spanish-language poetry books of all time. But venture of the infinite man was not well-regarded when it was released, and it is generally considered neglected. Can you tell us some of the aspects of this book that made it so hard to absorb upon first publication?

Jessica Powell: Neruda was only twenty-one years old when he wrote venture of the infinite man and, despite the tremendous success of his previous book, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, he was struggling emotionally, yearning for new perspectives, a new poetic voice. This inner call toward self-exploration led him to experiment with his style, breaking away from the lyrical realism of the love poems and from more traditional forms of poetry in general. What resulted was venture of the infinite man, in which he discarded rhyme, meter, punctuation and capital letters in order to attempt to capture the voice of the subconscious. The fifteen interrelated cantos that make up the book narrate the dream-like nocturnal voyage of a young, melancholic man on an epic quest through time and space to rediscover and redefine his voice and himself. Readers who were expecting more of what they had adored about the love poems found this experimental, semi-surrealist style disorienting and even incomprehensible. Even critics at the time weren’t sure what to do with it. Today though, readers and critics are in a better position to appreciate what venture does achieve, not the least of which is that it serves as a crucial step in Neruda’s growth as a poet, linking the lyricism of the love poems to the powerful and existential despair of his landmark Residence on Earth (which was Neruda’s next book of poetry after venture). Neruda himself considered venture crucial to his evolution as a poet: “I have always looked upon venture of the infinite man as one of the real nuclei of my poetry,” he said at the age of fifty, “because working on those poems, in those now distant years, I was acquiring a consciousness that I didn’t have before, and if my expressions, their clarity or mystery, are anywhere measured, it is in this extraordinarily personal little book…Within its smallness and minimal expression, more than most of my works…it claimed, it secured, the path that I had to follow.”

SE: Why did you and City Lights feel this was the right time to bring this book to the English-reading public?

JP: This project has been in the works for many years. Mark Eisner, who wrote the beautiful and very useful introduction to the book, began discussing the project with Lawrence Ferlinghetti, of City Lights fame, over five years ago. Ferlinghetti and Elaine Katzenberger, Publisher and Executive Director of City Lights, were both enthusiastic about the project, in part, because it was an opportunity to publish the first-ever English translation of a Pablo Neruda work, and, in part, because our bi-lingual edition would also make the original Spanish available to readers in the form that Neruda intended. Since its publication in 1926, very few editions of the book have been made available, and those that have been published have not respected the original edition, failing to maintain its line and page breaks, and making changes that include “correcting” its lack of punctuation and capital letters as well as the errata that Neruda consciously decided to leave in the manuscript (because he felt it better captured the voice of the subconscious). In our edition, we have taken pains to respect the 1926 edition in every way possible—even our cover echoes the spare avant-garde aesthetic of the original. In short, City Lights, Mark and I all felt that our edition could fill in a gap for Neruda readers and scholars, making Neruda’s third book of poetry available to readers of Spanish in the way that Neruda intended it to be read, and to readers of English by providing the very first English translation of the entire work. While there was no particular reason that we felt this was the “right” time to bring the book out, we are hoping that readers today will be more open to the experimental, surrealist nature of the work than they were at the time of its initial publication. Also, it does seem that new Neruda is having a bit of a “moment,” as Copper Canyon has recently published two books of never-before translated Neruda as well: Book of Twilight, Neruda’s first book of poetry, translated by William O’Daly and Then Come Back: The Lost Neruda, a collection of “lost” poems,” translated by Forrest Gander. Together with venture of the infinite man, readers now have access to three books of Neruda’s work that were previously unavailable in English.

SE: Can you tell us about your first experiences reading Neruda and if you have previously translated any of his poetry?

JP: I first read Neruda many years ago in high school when I was studying Spanish and then came across more of his work in college and graduate school literature courses. His love poems and odes are often used in language and college literature classes because they are considered so accessible, which is funny, given that my first book-length translation of a Neruda text is this one —venture of the infinite man— which is considered perhaps his least accessible text. I have translated several other Neruda poems recently, for Mark Eisner’s forthcoming Neruda biography, but venture of the infinite man is my first foray into a book-length Neruda translation. It has been, without a doubt, one of the most challenging and also rewarding experiences I’ve had as a translator. It is a great honor to get to translate one of the great poets of the twentieth century, and most especially to get to be the first to offer an English translation of this particular work.

SE: In his introduction to this work, Mark Eisner notes that “any attempt to analyze precisely what takes place in the poem will be complicated by the fact that . . . it is likely impossible to understand everything on a purely rational level.” I wonder if the stream of conscious and surrealist qualities of this poem led you to approach this book differently than you might approach other translations you’ve done.

JP: As the translator, when I first began working on venture of the infinite man, I had a few panicked moments when I wondered what I had gotten myself into. Setting aside the issue of the translatability of poetry in general, there was the more personally pressing issue of the translatability of this poem in particular. With its dreamlike, stream of consciousness style, its seemingly disparate and, at times, bizarre combinations of words and images, and with no capital letters or punctuation to guide me, I found myself in what felt like a free fall through another person’s subconscious process. Like I was trying to decipher and ascribe meaning to somebody else’s infinitely personal and exquisitely detailed dream. But the more I worked with the fifteen cantos that, together, make up venture of the infinite man, the more it became clear to me that the work absolutely does have an internal narrative, a cohesiveness, and it’s own logic, but it’s one that must be felt through rather than reasoned with, much like a dream or an intuition, or love. This meant that, at times, I had to sort of half close my eyes and allow words and images and meaning to float to the surface. But at other times it also meant having to be more literal in my translation than I otherwise might have been, because I had to constantly resist the temptation to normalize the text, to try to make it seem more logical, more readily intelligible. I knew that I needed to allow it to be as strange in English as it is in Spanish, even at the risk of disorienting my reader, because the strangeness is an essential part of the work’s aesthetic.

At the onset of this project, Mark, Elaine Katzenberger of City Lights and I had made the decision to respect the original 1926 edition inasmuch as possible, including its lack of punctuation and capi­tal letters, and the errata that Neruda consciously decided to leave in the manuscript (but didn’t mark, so we’re left guessing which things are actual errata and which are just part of the strange, and at times, agrammatical nature of the text). So, in addition to preserving the dream-like ambiguity of the work’s overall aesthetic, I also had to wrestle with myself to not correct what I felt sure must be those errata, to resist an impulse to “tidy it up” a bit to make it easier and more palatable for the reader. Because ease and palatability are not the point of venture of the infinite man. Its aim is something different, something at once tremendously personal to Neruda and yet also somehow universal. In my translation have I been “faithful” in each word, and each line to what Neruda meant? We have no way of knowing. What I hope is that I have been faithful to how he meant the poem to feel. I like to think that Neruda would have enjoyed watching my creative process and I hope he would be happy with the result—his poem, but also a new poem.

SE: Can you delve into a few of the particular aspects of this text that have made it such a difficult translation, and any particular translation questions that you had to resolve for yourself?

JP: In addition to the larger issues I mentioned above with respect to deciphering and adequately rendering the meaning of the original text in my translation, there were countless more “nuts and bolts” issues that vexed me throughout the translation process. As I have mentioned, Neruda discarded all punctuation in the Spanish original. This meant that I tried, whenever possible, to avoid using punctuation in the English translation as well, which was a particular challenge when it came to using (or not using) apostrophes in contractions or to indicate possession (while common in English, apostrophes don’t exist in Spanish). So, where in another translation, I might have translated a line like “el corazón del mundo se repliega y se estira” as “the world’s heart retracts and stretches,” I chose instead to translate it as “the heart of the world retracts and stretches” so as to avoid the possessive apostrophe.

Another challenge is that Neruda’s “infinite man” refers to himself throughout the poem in the first, second and third person—often switching mid-canto, or even mid-line, from one to the other. He also frequently addresses both the night and an unnamed woman in the second person, and, to complicate matters further, he often personifies the woman as “the night,” making it difficult, at times, to know whom he’s addressing when he uses the subject pronoun “tú” (you)—it could be the “infinite man” addressing himself in the second person, or the woman or the night, or the woman as the night. Usually, there are clues that help us to know to whom that “you” refers, such as gendered adjectival endings, but in this work, these sorts of clues are rarely straightforward as, frequently, an adjective in one line could either be describing the noun that precedes it or a noun that appears in the next line (the flexibility of Spanish syntax makes this possible and the lack of punctuation throughout the work makes it especially challenging for the translator to determine which adjective goes with which noun). Adding to the muddle is the presence of the many errata that Neruda decided to leave in the poem, making it difficult to trust an adjectival ending in the first place. At one point, for example, he writes: “al lado de mi fotografía como la palabra está enfermo” (“beside my photograph like the word ailing”). The problem here is that the adjective “enfermo” (ill) is in the masculine, whereas the two nouns it might describe (“fotografía” (photograph) and “palabra” (word)) are both feminine. So, what does “enfermo” describe? Is this one of the errata and it should actually be “enferma”? If so, does it describe “fotografía” or “palabra”? If not, to what or to whom is it referring? In cases like these when it was impossible to know the answer, I worked hard to come up with a solution that maintained the same level of ambiguity as in the Spanish; hence, I chose “ailing” in English, because it leaves it just as uncertain who or what is ailing in the English as it is in the Spanish.

A similar problem arises with the use of the possessive pronouns “su” and “sus” (his/her/their). At one point, for instance, Neruda writes: “era cuando la noche bailaba entre sus redes” (“that was when the night danced among its nets”). I chose to translate “sus redes” as “its nets,” (because I imagined the night’s nets to be the constellations and I liked the image of the night dancing among the stars), but it could just as easily have been “his nets,” because elsewhere in the poem the narrator refers to “my nets” (when referring to himself in the first person) and “his nets” (when referring to himself in the third person). These sorts of small, but crucial decisions came up over and over as I was translating this work, and I agonized over them. Ultimately though, they were gifts of a sort, because they forced me to listen very carefully to the cantos and to think very deeply about each word, each choice.

SE: I’m curious about the decision to publish the English and Spanish versions separately in this edition, instead of the en face / side-by-side presentation that is more typical of bilingual works published in the U.S. Can you tell us a little about why the decision was made to publish it this way?

JP: This was actually an issue we debated about at some length. As you say, the most usual way of presenting bilingual editions of poetry in the U.S. is en face, that is, with the poem in the original language on one page and the translation on the opposite, or facing, page. This allows the bilingual reader to move easily back and forth between the original and the translation, while also affording the English-only reader at least a sense of the original. Initially, this is how City Lights wanted to present venture of the infinite man as well. However, Mark and I both felt strongly that, in this particular case, an en face presentation would actually do a disservice to the work. As I mentioned before, one of the things that makes our book special is that we have gone to some length to replicate the original 1926 edition of the book, respecting page and line breaks as well as the spacing and location of the text of each canto on the page, which also means preserving the blank spaces that Neruda consciously left within the poems. Several of the cantos, for example, begin in the lower part of the left-hand page, with just a few lines at the bottom and a great deal of blank space above, and then continue in the upper part of the right-hand page, sometimes (depending on the length of the canto) with considerable blank space beneath. The opposing pages are bound together by their layout, meant to be seen in juxtaposition to one another, the open spaces perhaps serving to enhance the geography of the poetic dreamscape. So, if we had presented the English and Spanish en face, the reader would miss out completely on the way the lines and the blank spaces and the cantos actually fit together, how Neruda intended his work to look on the page, to feel, to be read.

Also, personally, I sometimes find the en face presentation distracting, like I flit back and forth between the original and the translation rather than immersing myself in the flow of the work, in either language. Because venture of the infinite man has such a dreamlike, stream of consciousness style and because the fifteen cantos are so clearly linked by an internal narrative and, as such, are meant to be read together rather than as individual poems, I really felt that I wanted the reader to experience the flow of the work as a whole (whether reading it in Spanish or in my English translation) without the constant interruption of one language into the other that happens with the en face presentation. I am so happy that the editors at City Lights ultimately agreed to the idea of presenting the entire work first in English and then in Spanish, sequentially, rather than breaking the work up by presenting each page side by side. We did, however, include two pages at the very end of the book with the first lines of each canto paired together in English and Spanish to aid the reader who might be interested in going back and comparing the original and the translation.

7 Questions for Katrine Øgaard Jensen on Third-Millennium Heart by Ursula Andkjær Olsen

Recently I’ve been engrossed by the new translation of Third-Millennium Heart by Ursula Andkjær Olsen, a spectacular book of poetry that’s perhaps better experienced than described. If you want an attempt at a description, read my recent review with The Believer, which I’ll quote here.

The ecstatic, euphoric, helter-skelter, and self-contradictory movement that currently animates technological humanity at its most optimistic much resembles the churn found in Danish poet Ursula Andkjær Olsen’s multi-award-winning book-length poem Third-Millennium Heart. It is a deceptively calm-looking work of brief poems whose lines feel more like energetic prose sentences than the recondite lyricism generally associated with “experimental poetry.” Yet Olsen makes from these modest implements a work of great compression, precision, ingenuity, force, and provocation—most of all, a work where definitions, bodies, meanings, images, and personalities are ever flowing into each other, striving toward a state of complete universality.

In order to find out a little more about this difficult (and very successful) feat of translation and the book that inspired it, I corresponded with Katrine Øgaard Jensen, who translated it from Danish to English. In addition to the translator of this book, Katrine is the editor of EuropeNow, a journal of political research, literature, and art at Columbia University, a 2017 poetry judge for the Best Translated Book Award, and a judge for the 2017 National Translation Award.

Scott Esposito: In your translator’s note you mention that “when offered to translate this 214-page collection—Olsen’s first book in English translation—I was both excited and terrified.” What is Olsen’s (or this book’s) reputation in Denmark that would elicit these feelings, and how did it come about that you became the translator of this book?

Katrine Øgaard Jensen: Eight years ago, at a café in the Danish city Aarhus, I heard Ursula’s poetry for the first time. A good friend of mine had already attended several of Ursula’s readings, and it was understood that I had no choice but to accompany her to yet another one. The night we went to see Ursula, she was visibly pregnant and had an oracle-like appearance: wild-haired yet elegant, with a gaze that demanded the undivided attention of her audience. She read from her fifth collection of poetry, Havet er en scene (The Sea Is a Stage), which later earned her a nomination for the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize, the biggest literary award of the Nordic countries.

It was the most captivating performance of poetry I had ever witnessed. Olsen’s tone of voice switched effortlessly between cuddly and fuming as she inhabited the many speakers of her unusually rhythmical poems. What intrigued me the most, however, was Olsen’s use of wordplay. Almost every line contained a pun, an invented word, a Danish cultural reference, or a twisted idiom. In other words: a true minefield for a literary translator. Ursula has largely been deemed untranslatable for these very reasons.

So yes, when Ida Bencke at Broken Dimanche Press contacted me about translating Third-Millennium Heart, I was at once excited and terrified. Excited because this particular collection of poetry is considered a major work in Danish literature; terrified because of the puns, the invented words, the many references to Danish idioms and songs, as well as Norse mythology, the Bible, philosophy, and science. I found, however, that the most difficult part of translating Ursula’s poetry has to do with her use of voice. As I wrote in the translator’s note you’re referring to, the speaker in Third-Millennium Heart is an ambiguous character: abusive, yet a victim; fiercely emotional, yet icy and cynical. I had to pick about ten poems from completely different parts, or should I say temperaments, of the collection, and try to find a sort of middle course in the tone. I went through at least fifteen drafts of those ten initial poems before I found a voice I was satisfied with.

I don’t know why Ida and Ursula decided to reach out to me about translating the book. A small amount of my translations had been published online, and I had had a bit of contact with Ursula via my function as editor-at-large at Asymptote, but I had never done a book-length translation before. Ursula and I recently half-joked about how some cosmic intervention must have brought us together. Apparently, when I heard her read eight years ago, Ursula was working on Third-Millennium Heart, inspired by her pregnancy.

SE: These poems are supported by a number of evocative neologisms that you’ve created to match what I assume are similar neologisms in the Danish. I really like them all, in particular the one “namedrunk,” which to me beautifully gets at this situation of having words for everything yet not being able to communicate effectively about so many crises of our age. Can you tell us about how you arrived at “namedrunk” and what it means for you?

KØJ: Oh man. I could write a twenty-page paper based on this question alone. I guess this also ties into the characterization of Ursula’s work and Third-Millennium Heart in particular: the layers of meaning are infinite.

Namedrunk is an example of one of the many near-words that Ursula likes to invent. The original word, navndrukken, doesn’t really mean anything, but it implies a few things, which opens up to multiple interpretations: that someone is drunk on names, or someone is possibly getting a euphoric power-trip out of naming things (victor), or someone is possibly drowning in the naming of all things (victim), to name a few options. I could also have translated the word as “namedrunken,” but I thought drunken was leaning a bit toward the victim narrative, whereas drunk to me sounded more ambiguous, potentially powerful. I also considered the fact that namedrunk usually appears in Third-Millennium Heart next to the word “nameless,” as its opposite. So I figured namedrunk would have to sound forceful in contrast to the anonymity of nameless. There’s generally a lot at stake in this collection in terms of who gets a name and who doesn’t, and who gets to name or unname things and humans. This operates on the very heartbreaking level of abortion, a child that is named yet never lives to be called by that name, and the naming of blood as RED in order to suppress certain memories of the body (the “distant interior”), but also on a societal level where Mother Market names every thing, names the rules of capitalism (which is ironically called “the feminine’s final victory”), and finally the nomenclature operates on a more universal/cosmic level where all vessels are connected, all genders are one, and everything is named everything.

SE: Let’s talk a little more about Olsen for a second. Could you tell us a little more about how her pregnancy inspired this work? And I’m curious, given how much meaning is packed into this poem and how finely you had to calibrate these words, what is Olsen’s English like, and to what extent did you work with her on fine-tuning the translation?

KØJ: Ursula wrote Third-Millennium Heart during her pregnancy and in the first couple of years after her son was born. The book is considered her most corporeal work in terms of her poetic voice–a voice, which, before Third-Millennium Heart, was more otherworldly, very much outside of the body. To Ursula, pregnancy and giving birth made her hyper-aware of the brutality and complexity of the body as well as the civilization in which the new body arrives. The entire book is built around this notion of things being inside and outside one another.

Despite the fact that Ursula’s English is good, she’s been extremely hands-off about the translation–and I mean that in the best of ways. There’s this running translator joke that goes “a good author is a dead author,” because many living writers don’t like to see their work changed too much in translation. However, I found that Ursula was constantly excited about, and even encouraging of, the changes I made to her poetry in order to make the wordplay and weirdness more apparent in English. It was a stimulating and liberating translation process. When Ursula and I performed together at a Danish poetry festival this summer, she told the audience that she didn’t even consider her own version of Third-Millennium Heart the original work, but rather a translation of an idea that was much bigger than her. According to Ursula, she’s simply the first translator of the work, and I’m the second.

SE: One of the key things about translation is its power to rejuvenate a language with new phrasings and coinages. The list is of course endless, to take just one example: the phrase “the unbearable x of y,” which Sean Cotter has documented came into the English language following Michael Henry Heim’s translation of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. What words or phrases might you hope that Third Millennium Heart gives to the English language?

KØJ: Earlier this year, Ursula received the Danish Arts Foundation’s Award of Distinction with this statement from the committee: “Few poets, if any, have renewed Danish poetry in the 21st century the way Ursula Andkjær Olsen has done it.” In my translator’s note for the book, I write that Ursula is a poets’ poet and a critics’ darling in Denmark, which means that her fan base mainly consists of other writers and literary scholars who see how genre-bending she truly is. This is to say: I don’t think anyone is expecting or even hoping for Third-Millennium Heart to coin any phrases the same way a novel could. What I can hope for, however, is that Third-Millennium Heart will inspire some English-language poets and writers the way it’s inspired Danish writers, and that teachers of international literature will want to share and discuss it with their students.

SE: As I was reading your responses and looking deeper into the poem, I was getting a Deleuze/Guattari Thousand Plateaus vibe. Not just in terms of the rhizomatic movement of the poem itself but also in terms of the feel of the language. Is this something you’re familiar with?

KØJ: Ursula did read Mille plateaux, although she can’t remember whether she read it before or after writing Third-Millennium Heart—but the part about a breast without beginning or end in the book is very Deleuze. In general, though, Ursula references philosophy and social theory a lot. One of her first writing catalysts was (the also French) Lyotard. Aside from him, Third-Millennium Heart invokes Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Hegel, Leibniz, Canetti, and—perhaps more than anyone—Marcel Mauss, who wrote the foundation for social theories of reciprocity and gift exchange.

SE: This book-length poem is broken up into several sections (or maybe you could call them “chapters”) with individual titles. I noticed that and the end of each of these sections is a poem that deconstructs a binary; for instance, “Luxury Is Culture and Nature,” or “Life Is Chaos and Order.” And, of course, this practice continues until the end of the work, which concludes with the heading “ALL AND NO VESSELS ARE CONNECTED” but leaves it (I presume?) to the reader to fill in the space below. I’m curious how you, as the translator—that is, as somebody who looks so closely at the exact meaning of words and who is sensitive to all of the webs of implication, sound, cultural construction, relationships, etc that flow through a word—felt about this work that was on the one hand so evocative and precise with language but also on the other hand so open-ended and flexible as to what particular words could mean.

KØJ: In the early stages of translating the book, I thought I had to somehow untangle these spiderwebs of meaning, afraid that readers and reviewers would otherwise accuse my translation of being awkward. English is my second language—I came to America from Denmark just six years ago—so I worried that someone would crack down on my intentional weirdness in translation and assume it was unintentional due to my background. Fortunately, when I started sharing these translations with some of my most trusted friends in poetry, they all told me how much they loved Ursula’s stranger moments. So I decided to preserve the ambiguous syntax, for instance, which is one of my favorite elements in Third-Millennium Heart: the fact that any reading of a line can be disproved with an equally well-documented interpretation of the exact opposite statement.

The sections or chapters that you mention are actually poetic suites. They kind of have their own ecosystems, but they all relate to one another. Everything relates to everything. The entire book is a poetic network, which is very Deleuze, actually, but also—first and foremost—very Bach and classical music in general, which Ursula is particularly inspired by.

SE: To you, what precisely is a “third-millennium heart”?

KØJ: I think the Third-Millennium Heart is, first and foremost, a network. The book is an organ—a heart—and it has this network-like structure which connects every suite, line, and word. Ursula once talked to me about the “six degrees of separation”-idea—the theory that any person on the planet can be connected to any other person on the planet through a chain of acquaintances that has no more than five intermediaries—and I think she’s getting at something in that vein when she writes that “all and no vessels are connected.” As if we have these exohearts, like exoplanets, that, while orbiting their own star, are still part of a network containing 3,693 planets in 2,768 systems. And that, to me, is both terrifying and comforting.

Six Questions for Adrian Nathan West on Insane by Rainald Goetz

The mental asylum is of course one of the major institutions explored by modern and postmodern literature, though I can’t say I’ve seen it done quite like Rainald Goetz does it in his debut novel Insane, originally published in German in 1983 and recently released by Fitzcarraldo Editions in Adrian Nathan West’s translation. I’m about 1/3 of the way through and the book is composed chiefly of brief (3 pages or less) pieces of stream of conscious narration or largely unattributed dialogue, hopping around among mental patients and their doctors. There is a definite punk feel to the text, elements of poststructuralism, bits of Thomas Bernhard. It is a very compelling exploration of the institution of the asylum and of the question of madness and modernity in general.

To find out more about this book and its author (who, indeed, is punk, see the video below (although maybe not if you’re squeamish)), I corresponded with its translator. Nate is a familiar person to readers of this blog and The Quarterly Conversation, who have seen interviews with him previously, as well as his excellent critical writings on world lit. What can I say other than that he has great taste, I’m finding Insane to be an excellent novel and translation, that his answers to my questions are illuminating and fascinating, and that I hope to see more Goetz appear in English before long. Below you’ll find the full Q&A.

Scott Esposito: This is Goetz’s debut novel, released over 30 years ago in 1983. It won a prize, and since then he has steadily racked up leading German prizes. Why has Goetz not established more of a reputation in English, and what do you think he offers us now that we can read him?

Adrian Nathan West: To begin with, it remains a stimulating piece of writing, funny, horrifying, and shocking by turns. It is also the cornerstone of an unusual body of work that I think should be viewed as of a piece: an attempt to realize the aesthetic principles of pop art, its collapsing of the distinctions between high and low art, its ambiguous relationship with artistic intention, through writings that approximate fiction, theater, or poetry without ever entirely submitting to the demands of genre. It also offers a portrait of a time when the passional nihilism of punk was beginning to crumble against the structures it had striven to oppose, when the hope that inspired various youth movements had gone adrift, when the idealism of ’68, as expressed here through anti-psychiatry, through the Black Panthers, and so on, had entered into terminal decline, so that the energies it once channeled would re-emerge in terrorism and in the mediatization of politics—two phenomena Goetz examines in-depth in later works.

SE: Reading through Goetz’s Wikipedia page, I found this anecdote, which, unfortunately, is sourced to a page on the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize website that no longer exists: “During a televised literary tournament in 1983, Goetz slit his own forehead with a razor blade and let the blood run down his face until he finished reading.” What can you tell us about this?

ANW: I recently spoke to a couple of authors who had participated in the Bachmann Prizes and they said it was sheer torture. You read in front of a panel of critics, and then you have to sit there in silence while they pick you apart. In one way, I think Goetz wanted to turn the tables. The piece he read, Subito, elements of which would make it into Insane, takes the prize ceremony as a theme: one of the judges falls asleep during the reading, another scratches his genitals under the table, a character announces: “That must be absolute shit, Klagenfurt, and if it is shit, then logically, you’ve got to go, all the way down into the shit.” Then again, the corporeality of the writer is important in Goetz. “The writer’s body must be capable of representing what he writes,” he says; “you cannot retreat into the safety of writing, in the position of observer.” Over and over there’s a stress in his work on being in the midst of things, on calling into question the possibility of critical distance. Finally, it was self-promotion: he knew it would make a splash, it did, and even after thirty-four years, it remains one of the most infamous episodes in German literary history.

Note: this video is graphic, if you don’t like blood and bodily incisions you may not want to watch.

SE: If you watch the video of Goetz during this infamous reading at the Bachmann Prize, there’s a definite punk vibe to him. He’s wearing a suit, but on his feet are athletic shoes, he’s got what looks to be a studded leather bracelet on, his hair is long and bleached blonde, and he just bobs and fidgets uncontrollably while he reads. What was the milieu that he came out of, and what kind of a presence has he been on the German scene in the years since Insane was released?

ANW: No one’s yet written a comprehensive biography, but the facts run something like this: born in 1953 in Munich, his mother was a photographer, his father a doctor. As a teenager, he spent a year in Flint, Michigan. He studied medicine and history, and briefly practiced psychiatry in a Munich hospital. He was involved in the punk scene in Munich in the late seventies and early eighties; the “subway action” he writes about before the F.S.K. concert actually took place, and you can read about it in contemporary sources. Even the bracelet you mention he writes about in Insane: he knees a punk who’s slashed his bicycle tires in the balls and says: “To celebrate my triumph, the next day I brought myself a big white studded leather band for my left wrist; looks supercool.” Even before Insane, he had published feuilleton-style pieces and reviews; there’s a good one from 1981 on Thomas Bernhard’s Frost that you can still find online. Since Insane came out, he’s been a continuous presence on the German cultural scene, with passionate admirers and detractors. He’s collaborated with DJs and artists—his sketches for Tannhäuser with Albert Oehlen are in the MOMA’s permanent collection—he has done a photograph book, CDs, an internet diary for Vanity Fair, and so on.

SE: Insane is regarded as the book that “made Goetz famous.” Why? What drew you into translating it?

ANW: Think of albums like Raw Power or The Velvet Underground and Nico, or more recently something like Ready to Die. For Germans of a certain generation, Insane is a classic in that sense. Goetz is a writer with very long antennae, and though there is a lot of shock and crassness and nose-tweaking in his writing, he’s thought long about the allurements and frustrations of youth culture, consumerism, drugs, and art. In the third section of the novel, any pretense to straight narrative falls apart and this protean figure emerges who is sometimes Raspe, sometimes Goetz the character, sometimes Goetz the author, and you have a series of skits, some of which mock writers like Günter Grass or Heinrich Böll, some of which vindicate pop culture, some of which are calculated to offend. It says something about Goetz’s acumen that Siegfried Unseld, one of the great editors of the twentieth century, tried to get him to cut that section, and Goetz refused, because it is precisely that part, with its refusal to accept any label, to brook any commitment, that so many of his readers have found inspiring.

The translation came by chance, in a way. When my first Josef Winkler translation was going to press, I was in Berlin and visited the Suhrkamp offices, and Petra Hardt, who was director of foreign rights, asked Nora Mercurio, who has since taken over for her, to bring me copies of Goetz’s books. What drew me into them was his respect for the autonomy of the phenomena he addresses, and his feeling that each must be examined on its own terms. It’s the opposite of what we see in so much American fiction, where with an MFA and a feeling of inspiration you can make these broad-brush statements about the Zeitgeist, and if you’ve got the right agent and publisher, people will take you seriously. The great Swiss writer Hermann Burger says something to the effect that if he opens a book and sees no specialized vocabulary, he can confidently close it, he knows it isn’t true—this doesn’t mean a novel has to read like a scientific treatise, but the fact remains that every sphere of life, whether it’s tending bar, dealing drugs, or managing political campaigns, has its own linguistic world, and writers who overlook that are really just talking about themselves. Goetz, who has one foot in the tradition of Weber and Niklas Luhmann, has more respect than most for what you might call, in sociological terms, the individuation of social spheres.

I have to say a word about the publisher here, too. Insane was not easy work, and it is not something I would have done on spec. I was translating my sample when the ARCs of Fitzcarraldo’s first two books were coming out. Just seeing the breadth of interests covered by Zone and Memory Theatre, I thought, this could be the one. I happened to meet Jacques for a coffee in early 2015 and we talked the book over; it didn’t hurt that Goetz won the Büchner prize in July of that year. An incalculable advantage with Fitzcarraldo is that Jacques can read a lot of the books in French; for a translator, that’s significant, because you don’t have to worry you’re overselling, and it gives you the sense that the book is a project in common rather than your own quixotic fixation destined to drive some unsuspecting publisher into insolvency.

SE: What were some of the things that made Insane such a difficult translation? What is some of the specialized vocabulary Goetz employs?

ANW: The obvious things: there’s a lot of slang, much of it specific to Munich in the eighties. There’s a great deal of technical psychiatric and anatomical vocabulary; again, much of the former is dated—the biochemical approach to mental disturbances, which is the prevailing approach at the hospital where the protagonist, Raspe, works, was in its infancy when Goetz was writing. You want all that vocabulary to carry the stamp of its time, but it shouldn’t be incomprehensible to the reader. There were lots of references that had to be tracked down: in one section, he talks about a film, Blutjunge Masseusen, which you might translate as something like fledgling masseusses; the English title was Swedish Massage Parlor, it’s an exploitation film by Erwin Dietrich, who was a kind of Swiss Russ Meyer. Toward the end, he says something about “Hamburgs schöne Aussichten”; this could be the beautiful views in Hamburg, but it’s actually the name of a café. I did a lot of googling and a lot of bothering native speakers (I’d love to thank Flowerville, Uwe Schütte, Marcel Inhoff, and Sven Meyer for their help). Finally, I don’t like to break up an author’s sentences if it’s not necessary—even if it’s English, something of the style of the original ought to be perceptible through the veil—and many sections, for example, those that discuss Karl Held, the brilliant social critic and leader of the Marxist Group, are extraordinarily knotty.

SE: I have a feeling that Insane is going to prove popular, at least among that sliver of the public who knows how interesting and important translated literature is. Were a publisher to take on more Goetz, where is the next logical place to go?

ANW: We’ve talked that over. A likely next candidate is Rave. Goetz was deep in the electronic music scene in the 1990s with people like DJ Westbam and Sven Väth who are still active today. It’s a lighter book than Insane, it shows an important aspect of Goetz’s work that I think is often overlooked: the question of optimism, of how an optimistic comportment may be maintained amid horror and decadence. I am also a fan of his most recent novel, Johann Holtrop, which is based on the rise and fall of German media mogul Thomas Middelhoff, who was convicted of fraud and tax evasion in 2014—after the release of the Panama and Paradise papers, it’s hard to imagine a more germane theme. Then there’s Kontrolliert, about the German Autumn and the Red Army Faction. Our news is consumed with terrorism and the generic reaction is bafflement and commonplaces like “they hate us because we’re free”; we’ve forgotten how widespread terrorism was in Europe in the seventies, and the extent to which intelligent people considered it a reasonable response to political oppression.

Good Things Upcoming

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

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

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

15 Movies I Wish I Could Have Included in The Doubles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen to The Doubles Launch Events

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

Here’s the audio from Skylight:

And here’s the audio from City Lights:

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

Quarterly Conversation Issue 49

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

Features


Louche Life: The Literary Crimes of Gary Indiana

Louche Life: The Literary Crimes of Gary Indiana

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


Three by Krasznahorkai

Three by Krasznahorkai

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


Following The Peregrine

Following The Peregrine

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


Herrera’s Trilogy-of-Sorts

Herrera’s Trilogy-of-Sorts

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


“How It Came to Me to Say” Gordon Lish

“How It Came to Me to Say” Gordon Lish

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



Interview

The Rodrigo Hasbún Interview

The Rodrigo Hasbún Interview


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



In Translation

From The Diaries of Emilio Renzi by Ricardo Piglia

From The Diaries of Emilio Renzi by Ricardo Piglia

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



Reviews

The Invented Part by Rodrigo Fresán

The Invented Part by Rodrigo Fresán


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


Belladonna by Daša Drndić

Belladonna by Daša Drndić


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


Down Below by Leonora Carrington

Down Below by Leonora Carrington


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


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

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


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


Old Rendering Plant by Wolfgang Hilbig

Old Rendering Plant by Wolfgang Hilbig


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Can Xue

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

 

Silvina Ocampo

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

 

Marlene Van Niekerk

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

 

Mariama Bâ

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

 

Magdalena Tulli

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

 

Kim Hyesoon

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

 

Basma Abdel Aziz

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

 

Malika Mokeddem

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

 

Svetlana Alexievich

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

 

Simonetta Agnello Hornby

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

 

Minae Mizumura

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

 

Celia Dropkin

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

 

Anne Garréta

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

 

Jenny Erpenbeck

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

 

Samanta Schweblin

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

 

Bae Suah

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

 

Marie Vieux-Chauvet

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

 

Sara Uribe

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

 

Margarita Karapanou

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

 

Dubravka Ugresic

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

 

Hiromi Itō

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

 

Carmen Boullosa

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

 

Christa Wolf

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

 

Mercé Rodoreda

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

 

Lina Meruane

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

 

Laia Jufresa

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

 

Clarice Lispector

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

 

Qiu Miaojin

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

The Missing Books Version 2

The Missing Books Version 2 has just been released.

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

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

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

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

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

Kindle ($4.99)

 

THE SURRENDER

The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


LADY CHATTERLEY'S BROTHER

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

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

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


THE LATIN AMERICAN MIXTAPE

5 essays. 2 interviews.

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

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

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