Daniel Sada Tribute

daniel-sada

Last fall I had the great pleausre of participating in a tribute to the Mexican writer Daniel Sada alongside his English translator, Katie Silver, and her editor, Ethan Nosowsky. The audio of that event is now online.

Some fascinating things were said by the both of them about the publishing and translation of Sada’s works, as well as about his status in Mexico and some of hs untranslated books. During the event we discussed Almost Never, translated by Katie and published by Ethan a few years ago with Graywolf, and One Out of Two, published by both of them late last year.

Looking Back at Enrigue

sudden-death

In light of a lot of the reviews we’ve seen of Álvaro Enrigue’s recent novel Sudden Death, I thought it would be interesting to look back at what I had to say about Enrigue the first time I read him, in 2009, in Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction. It was his magnificent story “On the Death of the Author” (from his novel/story collection Hypothermia.)

A lot of the reviews have focused on how the book fails to “come together,” and, interestingly, this was something I said about “On the Death of the Author.” However, two caveats: I added that the story still feels unified despite that, and rather than a criticism, this was a selling point for me:

There is, however, one story in Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction that does bear favorable comparison to Borges, or perhaps the more accurate reference is to the Spanish postmodernist Enrique Vila-Matas. There are elements of both to be found in the playful, portentously named “On the Death of the Author” by Alvaro Enrigue. Enrigue is such a talented writer that he manages to describe, from within his own story, exactly what makes his story superlative, and he pulls this off without making the inclusion seem the least bit strained:

There is a story, and a very good one at that, told by Bernardo Atxaga. He says that one day, as he walked through a town in his native Basque country, all of a sudden he came upon a man by a door with a hole in it. He chatted with the old man for a spell and then the man asked, Did he know why there was a hole in the door? Atxaga answered, It would be for the cat. No, said the man. They made it years ago, in order to feed a boy who, having been bitten by a dog, had turned into a dog.

The stories I like, the ones that make me wildly jealous and yearn to be able to write that well, have the bedazzling logic of that old Basque: they lack a piece, and this lack transforms them into a myth, appealing to the lowest common denominator that makes us all more or less equal.

“On the Death of the Author” lacks a piece; in fact, it lacks about four or five pieces, as there are four or five “mythical” sub-stories found within this work. Impressively, Enrigue manages to join these sub-stories together with thematic and particular links that make the entire piece come together as a deeply mysterious yet quite comprehensible whole.

Sudden Death does similar things: it works with mythic stories of the modern era, and it tries to join them together in innovative ways. It also gives a reader a lot to work with but resolutely refuses to tell the reader what to think about them. Very much like that story Enrigue got from Atxaga, it gives you moments of wonder, and then it makes you wonder.

It’s been interesting to see the Anglo reaction, which has focused a lot on historical accuracy and authenticity of character, two things that I don’t think Enrigue cares very much about insofar as his literature goes. Some critics have also been uncomfortable about how quickly the book moves I think Jeremy Davies put it well when he says that Sudden Death has lightness in the sense of Calvino.

Indeed, lightness, in Calvino’s sense, is paramount to Enrigue’s approach. The short chapters and breezy tone give the reader the impression that she isn’t engaged in piecing together the tortuous narrative of a world-destroying conflagration—in which, as the narrator himself has cause to remark, the bad guys have already won many times over—but instead popping bonbons into her mouth, enjoying little after-dinner divertissements, only gradually getting queasy, coming down with a bad case of history. History, that is, with its capital aitch, that unending nightmare of murder after murder, war after war, innovation after innovation, erasure after erasure; history the god who goes quite mad quite regularly, swallowing whole worlds in its “pool of blood and shit,” leading to the deletion of cultures willy-nilly, and, in this case, the squelching of all the pluralistic, pagan possibilities that were once open—we can pretend!—to Western civilization. Enrigue’s little flechettes, harmless in themselves, come to describe a cunning and solemn design.

Again, to go back to that Atxaga parable, Enrigue’s books work best then they’re frustrating your expectations and movie too quickly to be caught. This seems to be something that Anglo critics are missing when they try to read this book as a historical novel in the sense of Anglo historical novels. This book is ridiculous: it has Caravaggio and Quevedo playing tennis with Anne Boylen’s hair. Caravaggio and Galileo are having sex in Roman flophouses (or whatever the Counter-Reformation equivalent was). There are absurd dialogues between Cortes and Native Americans. It seems to me you have to work pretty hard to ding this book for lacking historical heft or depth of character.

Insofar as I’ve read Enrigue, I would say one of his major strengths is his lightness, the way he can give you just enough rope to hang yourself. He constructs his stories in hugely original, fascinating ways. And this is good, because bringing his books into the American market is one of the ways that translated literature can rejuvenate abother culture and language.

Likewise, the great thing about having an author like Enrigue get picked up by a press with significant publicity muscle like Riverhead is that it can make critics at rather conservative venues open their eyes as to what literature (especially translated literature) can do. It does seem like they’re at least giving this book a chance (more than a chance than most translated (or just plain innovative) literature tends to get). So that’s good. But I’m not so sure the messages are getting through.

“The sky is then filled with a million flying things . . .”

zone

From Zone: Selected Poems, by Guillaume Apollinaire, translated by Ron Padgett. Published November 2015 by NYRB Poets.

What Is a Symbol?

symbol

Epigraph to the dazzling Poetics of Cinema by Raul Ruiz. A fascinating book of theory, film, and aesthetics . . . you don’t have to love film to love this book.

Interview with Álvaro Enrigue

enrigue

BOMB has posted my interview with Álvaro Enrigue from its current print issue onto its website. We talk a great deal about his new novel, Sudden Death, as well as his prior book, Hypothermia (very much worth your time if you liked Sudden Death), as well as influences (DeLillo plays a big role here) and Álvaro’s penchant for awfully morbid humor.

And as a bonus, here’s a link to a review I wrote of Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction, which was where I first read Enrigue (his fantastic “On the Death of the Author,” extracted from Hypothermia).

And here’s some of Enrigue from the interview:

It comes down to where you want to draw the line of modernity: the debate is so wide and has existed for so long that it is almost a personal decision. I have a preference for a term used by academics to define those seventeenth-century braves who threw themselves onto the train of obsessive innovation: “early moderns.” It’s lovely, as the idea of modernity involves the faint smell of decadence; the notion of something newly born yet already rotting is elegant—and maybe it’s precise in political terms, since it is in this period that things went wrong forever. But I tend to prefer definitions that are a bit more extreme: Lyotard says that modernity began the moment that Saint Paul projected history as a line and not a circle, as something with a beginning and an end.

There is something “Pauline” and apocalyptic in the way Caravaggio kept moving forward, destroying the tradition of Catholic art and himself in the process. His was a desperate effort to give testimony of a world that, according to the creed of Counter-Reformation, had been misrepresented. My novel, then, begins closed up in the pallacorda match. Quevedo is nineteen years old—or something like that—and he is there, in the service area of the tennis court at the Piazza Navona, trying to understand this creature on the other side of the net, at the same time unbelievably sophisticated and unacceptably vulgar—as are we, keeping our records of Miles Davis and The Clash in the same box. I don’t have to say that Quevedo’s fascination with the monster is mine. The game is told not from his point of view but perhaps from the perspective of someone who is just behind his shoulders, someone who has accepted his poems’ poisonous advice. Then the picture opens, first to Rome, and then to Europe. When the players change courts, the point of view changes. Now the reader looks at Quevedo and his friends, and imperial Spain and the Americas behind them.

During the hour and a half in which they are playing, the court is the center of the world. A world that had become so big and confusing that it began to demand bigger tools to be understood—Galileo’s theories renewing the way in which reality was organized, and Baroque art too, as a desperate way of representing a universe in perpetual change, or sonnets as the ultimate tools to understand the human soul’s contradictory nature. The modern novel was about to be invented by Cervantes, as a machine to think about what is and what is not moral in a universe that didn’t fit in the Bible anymore. Sudden Death is a novel—we are still there. We are the children of that generation, chasing again and again the volleys of religious fanatics and the abusive politicians who prosper thanks to them, the bankers and capitalists cashing in on the misery they produce in the rest of the world. Sudden Death is not about Caravaggio, Quevedo, and their world, but ours.

Quarterly Conversation Issue 43

Here’s your Spring 2016 issue. Or just go here.

h3>Features


The Hostile Situation of Hope

The Hostile Situation of Hope

Some of the greatest innovations in modern literature have arisen in the aftermath of tumultuous occasions, awakening in us spiritual dilemmas that stir striking questions concerning our position within the world. Feeling abandoned, and unable to comprehend ourselves within traditional philosophical and historical frameworks, we reach instead toward more inward aspects—the irrational and incomprehensible. Emil Cioran’s “organic man” is raised on these ruins. Faced with failing structures of knowledge and a human consciousness that has long been corrupted by order, ambition, and abstract constructs, Cioran returns us to a more primitive, fundamental mode of being; it stems from a “vital imbalance” rather than intelligence or reason.


War Music by Christopher Logue

War Music by Christopher Logue

There is probably no work more influential in Western literature than The Iliad, and Logue came to the poem late in the history of its influence. As he put it in an interview, Logue aimed to “write an English poem that is dependent on the Iliad.” He placed it in a tradition with writing by Chaucer, Tyndale, Jonson, Pope, Dr. Johnson, Edward Fitzgerald, and Pound, all of whom, he noted, wrote original works in English that depended on poems in other languages. We might add to this list other late Modernist examples of such “dependent” projects, like Nicholas Moore’s thirty-one versions of Baudelaire’s “Spleen (III)” in the different voices of 1960s England, or the free variations of Robert Lowell’s Imitations. But Logue’s poem is perhaps better read as a forerunner of a tendency that in the last fifty years or so has produced some of our most visionary poetry: a tendency to compose spare, tensely-focused new works of literature out of longer canonical works.



Interviews

An Interview with Mariusz Szczygieł

An Interview with Mariusz Szczygieł


From Ryszard Kapuściński I learned that everything has to be seen in its wider context—that we’re not alone, meaning that what happens to us has already happened to other people, somewhere else in the world. He taught me to see that we are only a very small part of the world. From Hanna Krall I learned to write less rather than more. She taught me that all the words have already been used, everything has already been said, which means I must always remember to stop and wonder whether the world actually needs my words. From Małgorzata Szejnert I learned that reportage should be about whatever it’s about, plus something else as well. She taught me that the story is not everything. There has to be an idea behind it.


A Conversation with Angela Woodward

A Conversation with Angela Woodward


This book started out so complicated. I didn’t know what it was, or why it couldn’t be everything. It had a set of chapters interspersed throughout that told about a traveler going to the ceremony of some indigenous people in Siberia, and a terrible accident. Then it had another story about a disastrous archaeological dig. The relationship between Jonathan and Jenny was really fleshed out. And then it had bits and pieces of the chapters you see today, that have whatever flavor they have, a more folkloric feel, whereas the rest of it was sort of novelistic. It was a huge mess. It, and I, reached a point of collapse and implosion, and I started over completely.



In Translation


The Fashion by Germán Sierra

The Fashion by Germán Sierra

Germán Sierra’s work is a rare exception. A respected neuroscientist at the University of Santiago de Compostela, he is one of a small group of writers to have considered in earnest the challenges contemporary science presents to the narrative model that has come down to us from the nineteenth century, with its emphasis on the sovereign role of individual psychology as an engine of plot. He brings to mind Philip K. Dick, but less speculative, more uncanny, and tinged with a hard-edged griminess reminiscent of Darby Crash–era Los Angeles.


From Bad Light by Carlos Castán

From Bad Light by Carlos Castán

That was around the time of the spectacular accident in the Chilean mine. Thirty-three workers trapped almost half a mile beneath the earth. In real time, heart in mouth, the world followed the tragic events that, for seventy days, TV news bulletins the length and breadth of the planet led with. As did the press, and the radio. It was practically the only talking point. First, a tunnel was opened up through which the rescue teams could introduce the medicines and provisions from the outside world that were deemed most urgent. Direct, fluid communication was then established with those trapped below, their fear probed, their hopes of making it out alive broadcast, their attempts to say farewell in the darkest hours, their messages of love, their ham-handed poetry, filled with a candor that was chilling in its simplicity—pure naïf horror. People wondered what it might feel like to be trapped beneath a hillside, with tons of earth above and all that uncertainty as to whether one might ever again see the sunlight and all that it normally bathes.



Reviews

Captivity by György Spiró

Captivity by György Spiró


György Spiró’s novel Captivity, beautifully rendered into English by Tim Wilkinson, is a work of ambition—almost literally, not only metaphorically, titanic. Undeniably, it is titanic in the sense of the evocation of gargantuan sweep and breadth; and it is no less titanic in its hopes to re-awaken a Latin-Hellenic-Hebraic world at the base of what we now consider the “Global West.”


Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue [1]

Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue [1]


Named for the tie-breaking round of pallacorda, the Renaissance game that prefigured tennis, Sudden Death is not a farce, and nor is it simply a speculative work that asks “what if?” of great historical figures and moments. Indeed, Enrigue deliberately works against the speculative mode by weaving exegetical historiography and laconic fourth-wall-breaking reflections throughout the relatively “straight” narrative lines of the apocryphal tennis match, the Mexican conquest, and the ideological formation of the Counter-Reformation.


Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue [2]

Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue [2]


“YOU’VE NEVER READ A NOVEL LIKE THIS BEFORE” proclaims the back cover of the bound galley of Death, likening the effect of the book to a “gut punch.” Like much ad copy (for which the author should not be held responsible), I take issue with these statements, not least because I have indeed read a novel like this before. Many, in fact. On those occasions, however, I would have been reading books by, say, Julio Cortázar or Italo Calvino, so it’s in a rather august company that Enrigue has earned himself a place setting.


The Birth-mark and The Quarry by Susan Howe

The Birth-mark and The Quarry by Susan Howe


Susan Howe reunites us with our ideals of what language can do in two new books that blend elements of poetry and essay: The Birth-mark and The Quarry. These essays are steeped in the history of American literature, and they make for an invitation into the wilderness of an untamed, early American writing. Howe is able to show that poetry is relevant regardless of place or time. In The Birth-mark she discovers what poets can do for the essayist’s practice; in The Quarry she compares the same poetic experience to the concrete existence of visual film. These explorations will appeal to anyone’s senses, as she examines the physical matter and tangible pieces of both mediums. However Howe’s real motive behind all of this work have to do with metaphorical transformation and a desire for a more substantial experience of reading.


Is that Kafka? by Reiner Stach

Is that Kafka? by Reiner Stach


Underlying all of this biographical work is a desire to complicate received ideas about the author. In his introduction, Stach describes the enduring image of Kafka in characteristically clear-eyed terms: even though “decades of international, interdisciplinary research” have given scholars a more nuanced picture of Kafka and his times, he has persisted in the popular imagination as ” “the quintessential archetype of the writer as a sort of alien: unworldly, neurotic, introverted, sick—an uncanny man bringing forth uncanny things.” Stach’s aim is to “destabilize” these images by introducing “counter-images” in which he emphasizes the unexpected and the overlooked to help “quietly divorce us from clichés.” Implied here is the conviction that clichés about an author’s life obstruct appreciation of their work. Why else bother to challenge them?


Montauk by Max Frisch

Montauk by Max Frisch


There’s nothing terribly new about the confessional as a literary form. It can just as easily appear as swagger as it can an act of contrition, and this book has the flavor of both. And as a form, often in the guise of a personal essay, the confessional is having quite a moment. In the wake of the successful autoerotic exposures of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s multivolume Struggles and the critically gorgeous self-scrutiny of Maggie Nelson’s more slender Argonauts, there’s a contemporary appetite for the personal essay that has hardly been sated. And in the act of confession, there’s as much to be proud of in a debauched or dissolute life as there is to regret or repent. Lest the reader of this review fall into the trap most common for first-time encounterers of Frisch, this isn’t some kind of Swiss-intellectual misogynist rant, an I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell for the pretentious. It is very honestly self-interested and self-critical. It’s messy in the way that psychotherapy is messy, or that our unvarnished motives would be if the world could see them. It’s loving, in its way, and sadly aware of how much time has passed and how badly.


Drowned and The Other Woman by Therese Bohman

Drowned and The Other Woman by Therese Bohman


The Swedish writer Therese Bohman seems to have an affinity for aimless young women vulnerable to the attentions of older men. In two of her novels, Drowned and the newly translated The Other Woman, she channels the psyches of twenty-something University students engaged in liaisons with men already involved with other women. The books share so much in common that they might be the same novel: both explore almost identical situations, share many of the same structural and plot devices, and the author’s and translator Marlaine Delargy’s prose styles remain the same from book to book. What differences there are prove to be relatively superficial. Drowned and The Other Woman are conveyances for Bohman’s thoughts on feminism, sisterhood, and perhaps even the socio-economic status of women in modern society.


That Karl Ove, Don’t Count Him Out Quite Yet

my-struggle-book-five-version-3

It’s been a bit of a roller coaster ride for me and Karl Ove. After Books 1 and 2 I was prepared to read virtually anything he had ever committed to paper. This guy was hitting all of my thematic sweet spots, he could tell stories like a bad ass, and there were plenty of beautiful sentences to linger over.

And then came Books 3 and 4—yes, they’re entertaining and have got their strong points, but I couldn’t help but begin to doubt if the whole idea of My Struggle was misconceived, some kind of ultimate dare/”seemed like a good idea at the time” that just wasn’t going to work as literature. The middle books just seemed to lack a lot of the internal cohesion and depth that made 1 and 2 so satisfying, and there was a clear drop off in the quality of the prose. I honestly had to wonder if I shouldn’t just stop right here and preserve the good memories between my and My Struggle before things started to get really ugly.

And now here we are with Book 5, which is frankly one of the better novels of a writer’s/young man’s struggles for maturity that I can remember reading in quite a while. There is some real darkness here, but it feels very authentic and honestly won. Karl Ove gains a lot of complexity as a character in this book, and one has to give Knausgaard a lot of credit for the things about himself that he’s willing to put onto the page here. In his honesty and courage as an older man writing about himself, it presents an implicit rebuke to a lot of the childish imbecility he exhibited during his twenties.

It’s not just that: in this volume you can really begin to see how the project as a whole syncs up. Books 3 and 4 begin to make a lot more sense; their place and what Knausgaard does in them start to seem a lot more necessary than would have been the case without the benefit of Book 5. You start to see how Knausgaard’s major themes have been circulating through the entire project, and how this saga is about certain evils that have been with him his entire life, things that are being projected onto the page in multiple registers and engaging with a lot of different emotions. And I believe that Book 5 is the first instance of Knausgaard re-telling an already-narrated scene from the book (no spoilers yet!), and doing it in a way that communicates a lot for how differently it looks on the page in Book 5 and its function in this narrative, versus where we have already seen it.

I’ve spent most of the past six months engaged in writing a book, and so I’ve been necessarily keeping most major essayistic work at arm’s length. But Book 5 is beginning to lure me toward something. I think there’s a lot to say here, and I’m going to try to find the time to say it.

The Surrender

Surr

Erica Mena, who is the publisher of Anomalous Press, has just finished pressing the cover of The Surrender (which you can see above). This edition is going to be limited to 100 copies, so if you’d like to own it, you should pre-order through their Kickstarter.

I should also mention that Anomalous is a really interesting, really important new press, and without it this book wouldn’t exist. I really do owe a lot to Erica encouraging me to write this book, and to her for giving it a good home. I imagine the other authors on Erica’s list would say similar things, so I think it would be great to support their work.

I’m hoping to have some more blog posting about recent books I’ve read up soon. It’s been a busy week.

Eight Questions for Adrian Nathan West on Fortuny by Pere Gimferrer

fortuny

A rather strange book by a rather strange Catalan writer has just been published in English by Godine in Adrian Nathan West’s translation. The book is Fortuny, and it is the closest thing to a novel Pere Gimferrer has written, despite publishing some 50 books.

I emailed Nate eight questions on this strange book and its strange writer, who, according to one of his friends “writes like Proust.” We talked about just who Fortuny was, why (and how) to write a book novel him, and what this book contributes to American letters at the moment.

Nate previously wrote about Michel Houellebecq in The Quarterly Conversation, and we’ll be publishing a translation of his from a novel by the experimental Spanish author Germán Sierra in the next issue.

Scott Esposito: Pere Gimferrer is the author of some 50 titles. So why did you want to translate this one?

Adrian Nathan West: Years ago, my college French professor, who is still a good friend, said, “There’s a Catalan who writes like Proust.” I didn’t catch Gimferrer’s name at the time, because this person is constantly making recommendations and foisting books off on me, but what he said stuck in my head, and a few years later, I asked him about it again. At the time, I knew nothing of Gimferrer’s work, and I think the Catalan original was out of print, because I had to order a used copy that was old and fairly expensive. I thought the book was marvelous: it’s very challenging, because his Catalan is almost its own language, full of archaisms, unusual variants, and words that are just shy of inexistent, but I enjoy that sort of thing (I only hope others do too, since I’ve tried to mirror that in the translation). This book is special among Gimferrer’s work in that it’s the closest thing to a novel proper, and there is little like it in English: maybe Ruskin, maybe Virginia Woolf in The Waves, but Ruskin is bombastic and Woolf’s sensuality has a warmth and psychological depth that are intentionally absent in Fortuny. I translated the first chapter in early 2013 and was fortunate enough that an editor I showed it to ended up at Godine and wanted to do the book. In the meantime, I did publish a book of his poetry, Alma Venus, with Antilever, but Fortuny was my introduction to his work.

SE: Looking around, the names I see in conjunction with Gimferrer are names like Proust, Claude Simon, Luis de Góngora. Could you give some sense of this author’s context?

ANW: There’s an essay by Bolaño where he talks about winning the Rómulo Gallegos Prize and he calls Gimferrer to ask him where the Venezuelan author had lived in Barcelona, because Gimferrer “knows everything and has read everything.” Having just met him the other day, I can confirm that he gives such an impression, though I did manage to find two writers he didn’t know—Cristina Campo and Harold Nicolson, two favorites of mine. He reads in seven or eight languages and has written in four, and could talk for hours about Ariosto, Dickinson, or Bolaño. If you are looking for direct influences, the writer whose impress I see most clearly in his work is Góngora, particularly in regards to this trick of delayed signification, where discreet and at times seemingly contradictory sensory details accumulate vertiginously and the reader struggles to reconcile them into a concrete image. He’s also written abundantly on film, and his narrative work is deeply cinematic, with episodes framed in the manner of shots married by match cuts and so on. He himself has said that the Civil War and the subsequent dictatorship perverted the course of Spanish literature, particularly with regards to the innovations of modernism, and that he has tried, in a sense, to overcome that breach and to write, not as though the war hadn’t occurred, but as though Spain had been able to follow the kind of formal evolution undergone by poetry in, say, England or France. Of course, he’s Catalan as well, and most of his poetry is in Catalan, so there you are dealing with a separate culture and a separate set of influences: the chivalric novel Tirant lo Blanch, which is one of the great masterpieces of Western literature, and the Valencian poet Ausiàs March, and many other writers who haven’t made it into English.

SE: So the title character of this book, Fortuny, was a real person, quite a cultural force all throughout Europe up until the Second World War. He built stages for Wagner, designed gowns for Condé Nast, was admired by Proust. As you were poring over this text as its translator, what sorts of insights did you get into the question of why write a book based on this individual, and to do it in the way Gimferrer has chosen to?

ANW: To start with, we have to distinguish between the two Fortunys, father and son. Mariano Fortuny y Marsal (1838-1874) was a painter born in Reus, in Catalonia. Several of the book’s chapters, most notably the first, are in essence prose poems devoted to his paintings, and his grandfather, who sculpted figures in wax, makes a cameo as well. Certainly, there is a desire to bring attention to this key figure of Catalan culture, whom Gimferrer has described in a lecture as one of the first European modernists, despite certain fusty aspects of his style. Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo is a different case: here you have a bridge from Wagner to Proust to Orson Welles, a person who excelled in numerous arts and exemplified a special kind of creative dynamism. Gimferrer has said he’d ruminated on the idea of doing a novel for some time, that he had a store of images and threads of plot, and that on a visit to Venice in the early 1980s, he suddenly saw how the dynasty formed by the Fortuny and Madrazo families was the keystone for a story he wished to tell about the artistic spirit from the Belle Époque to the Second World War.

SE This book is composed of many, many little chunks of a page or two, each centering around a different individual or scenario, and many of them deal with great European artists that will be familiar to readers. It’s a little like a pointillist novel, a little of the French New Novel. How radical was it to write a book like this in 1983, when Gimferrer first published it, and what do you think it contributes to Anglo letters now in translation?

ANW: Well, it is very different from anything that was being done in Spanish or Catalan at the time. Of what you might call “experimental” fiction, you had the Latin American writers of the first and second boom, and then in Spain there were figures like Ferlosio, and in Catalan, Pere Calders, Terenci Moix, or Quim Monzó. These are all important writers, but contemporary and a bit edgy, of an extremely different tenor from Pere Gimferrer. On the one hand, Fortuny is formally unusual, but thematically, it is in a kind of time capsule. Whereas something like The Death of Virgil takes a theme from antiquity and imbues it with great vitality, Gimferrer intentionally shows the figures of Fortuny as though dead and covered in dust. This is in part serious and elegiac, and in part an homage to the style of Fortuny y Marsal, whose vivacious brushwork is not devoid of a measure of kitsch. The book had a deep impact at the time of its publication, and was widely hailed as a masterpiece. For an English-speaking reader now, it is, I believe, the best introduction to the themes and style of someone who occupies a position of unquestioned authority in Spanish and Catalan letters; it is an impressionistic history of one of the richest periods of Western arts and letters; and it vindicates a kind of sober, erudite elegance that is in danger of getting lost in English letters amid the fervor for authenticity, in the sense that Lionel Trilling employs the term.

SE: Could you expand on what you mean, about vindicating a kind of elegance that is being lost amid a fervor for authenticity?

ANW: Lionel Trilling makes a distinction between sincerity, which implies a consonance between inner and outer and is inseparable from the moral relation of its possessor to the broader world, and authenticity, which he calls “the unmediated exhibition of the self.” For me, this is important to understanding a great deal about modern art and literature as well as the way various ethical and political discourses are or are not accorded legitimacy. At their best, artists concerned with authenticity rend the fabric of hypocrisy, stress the claims to dignity of people excluded from dominant discourses, and reveal things that cry out to be seen, but are more comfortably ignored. But anything that someone does well, someone else will do badly, and there will always be readers who can’t tell the one from the other. To pick an example of something that arcs more toward authenticity, Marie Calloway’s What Purpose Did I Serve in Your Life was timely and heartbreaking and a very laudable book; but alt-lit at its worst betrays a sense that as long as there’s enough violence, drugs, weird sex, and feelings of exclusion, then there’s no need for deliberation, good sentences, or literary culture. Particularly in America, where the stress on authenticity dovetails at times with a widely credited notion that craft means breaking down complicated clauses and cutting adjectives and adverbs, you end up with a huge number of books so uniform as to lead one to despair. There is room for exuberance and risk, for effort and for artifice, and particularly now, when looking things up is easier than ever, there’s no crime in an author’s asking a bit of legwork of the reader.

SE: And to bring it back to Gimferrer, what would you say is Fortuny’s contribution to this authenticity/sincerity (and maybe also craft) issue that you see in American lit?

ANW: It’s an unusual book in that there is an utter absence of psychology, whether with regard to the author himself, who has no voice, or to the characters, whom we see but never hear. From Henry James hitting on the theme of the Aspern papers to D’Annunzio, who sees Eleonora Duse on stage and composes a sonnet in her honor, they are receptacles of very dense impressions and recollections, but their feelings are hidden from us. In this way, the moral as such, and along with it the moral dilemmas that define this sincerity/authenticity dichotomy, are expelled in favor of a vision that may be pre- or post-moral but is in any case thoroughly impressionistic. As regards craft, the prose is immensely polished and lush, but not at all laborious, and is filled with poetic effects which I have tried to reproduce in my version.

SE: Of the many fragments in Fortuny, which are your favorites?

ANW: At the level of diction, I think the first chapter, “The Man in the Turban,” is just short of miraculous. It’s so bewitching, even if you have no idea what’s going on (which was my case when I first read it). It’s a description of several paintings by Mariano Fortuny y Marsal: of an odalisque, of a pair of Arabs shoeing a mule, of a battle in Tétouan, and two self-portraits, and of the interior of the Fortuny palace. Gimferrer has stressed many times that there is no need for the reader to chase down every reference, that the important thing is a kind of poetic vigor, but for those so inclined, the book is a treasure chest: every detail in it is based on some kind of real event or drawn from a film, painting, photograph, or play; my editor at Godine and I discussed illustrating the book with some of them, but for various reasons, that fell through. “Visions” is a lovely re-imagining of Proust’s conception of the character Albertine while staring at a Fortuny gown. I also love the moment in “Table Talk” when Fortuny sees himself portrayed in a painting by his father and utters the words, “It’s me,” which I think is the only instance of direct speech in the book.

SE: Other than the anarchisms, etc, that you mentioned at the top of this interview, were there any particular translation challenges to this book?

ANW: It was very difficult and very slow-going, much more so than anything I’ve worked on thus far. The cast of characters is huge, and for my own understanding of the book, I needed to have a sense of who everyone was. The same is true of the artworks, hidden citations, and so on in the text. When Henry James has a vision of a man in an asylum with “greenish skin,” in a sheet of “coarse” linen, this is a quote from William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, and the translation needed to reflect that; this is one of numerous similar instances. There are myriad poetic effects that needed to be imitated: thus “la nit californiana és àvida, gruixuda, obsedida i eixuta” became “the California night is restive, firm, obsessive, and burned.” And in the Valentino chapter, which is full of alliterated letter Vs, I read almost the whole V section of the OED before settling on the word “vauntmure,” which, believe it or not, doesn’t form part of my everyday vocabulary.

Pre-Order The Surrender

Anomalous Press has issued a Kickstarter to fund its 2016 titles, of which The Surrender is one. You can pre-order the book by funding the Kickstarter—there are lots of various contribution levels to choose from.

If you choose to pre-order, you’ll get the limited letterpress edition (there will be a regular, non-letterpress edition that will be available once these sell out). Anomalous Press books are quite beautiful, so if you do want to read The Surrender I’d recommend trying to get the letterpress.

You can read an excerpt of the book here.

THE SURRENDER

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


LADY CHATTERLEY'S BROTHER

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

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

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


THE LATIN AMERICAN MIXTAPE

5 essays. 2 interviews.

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

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

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