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Much if not all of Césaire’s work has been available in English for many decades, but several recent re-releases and new editions of his works draw fresh attention to his writing and legacy. This August will in fact mark seventy-five years since the first publication of “Notebook of a Return to the Native Land,” an anniversary that coincides more or less exactly with the publication by Archipelago Books of Return to My Native Land. This translation was first completed by Anna Bostock and John Berger for Penguin in 1968, appearing in 1969. Wesleyan University Press has also brought out two bilingual scholarly editions of Césaire’s work, The Original 1939 Notebook of a Return to the Native Land and Solar Throat Slashed: The Unexpurgated 1948 Edition, both translated and introduced by A. James Arnold and Clayton Eshleman. The numerous cuts and revisions Césaire made to these texts are an especially interesting aspect of his development as a poet and politician. These books offer a new vantage point on his legacy, and, I predict, will be of particular interest to readers of avant-garde poetry and scholars of postcolonialism, race, and identity politics.
Knowing these narrators and how their lives paralleled David’s own, it’s difficult to deny his being a recluse. I certainly held that image of him, and nursed it, secretly cherishing it because it meant I was one of the few people with whom he corresponded, and with whom he would occasionally meet. Arranging our first meetings in person was something of a nightmare—even after he’d said “I will will will see you when you’re here,” and committed to a date, time, and place, he would often cancel at the last minute, citing one or more of his myriad illnesses, his anxiety over the pending results of medical tests, or even inclement weather. When we did meet, either at a restaurant in the Village or at his apartment, he was voluble and self-deprecating, full of anecdotes and charm. It was hard to imagine such a talkative, friendly, and funny man hiding himself away as he supposedly did, but even by his own account he was a hermit, a man who “did not even get to [his] granddaughter’s third birthday, alas,” so who was I to refute the claim?
Two of the greatest of Tom Holland’s predecessors in translating Herodotus are Victorian scholar George Rawlinson and Aubrey de Selincourt; the former translated Herodotus in 1860, making an enormous hit (despite the fact that its detractors often referred to it as “dull and prolix”), while the latter’s 1954 Herodotus was another enormous hit, this time for the Penguin Classics series. Rawlinson and de Selincourt are mountains on the terrain Holland is entering: countless readers who love Herodotus came to that love through one of those two translations, and any version that seeks to join their ranks must take their measure. Will the Holland Herodotus be for the 21st century what the Rawlinson was for the 19th and the de Selincourt for the 20th?
David Peace’s novel Red or Dead is about British football, but it partakes in the traits of Homer’s epic. This is a novel about the place of myth and heroes in modern society, about how the cyclical rhythms of athletic seasons reflect the cyclical patterns of life. It is a book about honor and fate, and one which bridges the profound, dreamlike terrain separating one social order from another. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Red or Dead is that it invokes all of this while remaining resolutely a book about football scores and tournament results.
Few habits are as prone to affliction, or as vulnerable to an ordeal, as the bent of a peddler’s consciousness. Placeless, the peddler completes an untold number of transactions; there are ideas to conduct (through language, which can transact a mind) and feelings to certify (through tasks, repeated interminably).
Storm Still (Immer Noch Sturm) does not necessarily represent new terrain for Handke. Originally published by Suhrkamp Verlag in 2010 and now available for English-language readers thanks to Martin Chalmers’ fluent translation, the play chronicles the dissolution of the Svinec family, a family of Carinthian Slovenes—a quasi-fictionalized version of Handke’s own matrilineal forebears—whose members are either driven from their home, psychologically traumatized, or killed during the agonizing events of the Second World War. The central action of the story is concerned with the family’s involvement in the Slovene Partisan resistance to the Nazis. But the plot largely plays a secondary role, serving as a background against which the family’s endeavor to maintain its ethnic identity takes precedence. Though this text is his first to deal almost exclusively with the resistance, Handke had already offered a moving portrayal of his relationship with his Slovenian mother in the 1982 novel A Sorrow Beyond Dreams (Wunschloses Unglück), and the political repression of the Carinthian Slovenes had already been touched on several times in earlier works.
Sworn Virgin was made to be translated. Elvira Dones wrote this book not in her native language of Albanian but in Italian—a necessarily fraught and complicated decision. In an Italian-language interview with Pierre Lepori, Dones speaks about her choice of language: “Sworn Virgin was born in Italian . . . I’ve lived using Italian for nineteen years, it has slowly and inexorably invaded me, little by little, like the sea.” Dones has worked as an interpreter for foreign tourists and as a literary translator of poetry. She has navigated between Italian and Albanian (and sometimes English) for most of her life, and she is deeply aware of the strain and discomfort of moving across languages. Her constant mindfulness of the struggles of inter-lingual shifts underpins every moment of this tight, utterly original story.
The premise of Yasushi Inoue’s debut novella Bullfight, celebrated in Japan as a classic of postwar literature, is unassuming enough: an evening newspaper sponsors a tournament of the regional sport of bull-sumo. As practical and financial issues arise, the paper’s young editor-in-chief, Tsugami, soon realizes he has taken on more than he can handle, and the spectacle of the bullfight itself becomes a catalyst for Tsugami’s struggle with what his lover, Sakiko, calls his “unsavory side”. Like much of the best Japanese fiction of its era, Bullfight is a marvel of compression. Its 124 pages form a subtly crafted microcosm of a nation coming to terms with the legacy of war.
August 1939. You sail to Buenos Aires on the Chombry as a cultural ambassador of Poland. Why say no to a little holiday on the government’s tab? Soon after arriving you sense that something isn’t right. You emerge from a welcome reception and your ears are “filled with newspaper cries: ‘Polonia, Polonia,’ most irksome indeed.” Before you’ve even had a chance to see the sights, world war breaks out. The natural, dutiful response is to pile back aboard with your countrymen and head home to Europe. You line up on the dock with your bags and wait. Then, something—a big something—makes you turn around. You leave your group and slip through the crowd and into the streets, never to see Poland again. So began the self-imposed exile of Witold Gombrowicz.
The first collections of most young poets, even the better ones, carry with them a hint of bravado. Flush with recognition, vindicated by the encouraging attentions of at least one editor and three blurbists, the poet strikes a triumphant pose and high-fives the Muse: “We did it, baby.” When Joshua Mehigan published his impressive first collection, The Optimist, in 2004, one’s pleasure was tempered by the wish that Mehigan had shown off a little more, strutted his content as much as he had his technical mastery. The poems were almost too careful and too prematurely mature—granted, qualities rare and gratifying in poets of any age. In the first lines of that collection’s first poem, “Promenade,” Mehigan matter-of-factly announced his project: “This is the brief departure from the norm / that celebrates the norm.” No pyrotechnics, no obligatory transgressive gestures, no mimicking of madness.
There are some writers who are, and likely always will be, inextricably linked to the “period” with which their work is associated, and in many cases helped to define. Surely Wordsworth and Keats will always be “Romantic” poets, while Faulkner and Woolf will remain modernists, as the term “modern” has been fully appropriated to describe the historical era beginning just before World War I and ending with the coming of World War II (the 1920s in particular representing the truest efflorescence of modernism). Anyone who has taken a college literature course knows that the English department (and literary study more broadly) organizes itself using these sorts of historical designations, but this way of understanding literary history has become so pervasive that probably few readers regard it as an especially “academic” assumption.