The End of Oulipo?

The End of Oulipo? My book (co-authored with Lauren Elkin), published by Zero Books. Available everywhere. Order it from Amazon, or find it in bookstores nationwide. The End of Oulipo

Lady Chatterley’s Brother

Lady Chatterley's Brother. The first ebook in the new TQC Long Essays series, Lady Chatterley's Brothercalled “an exciting new project” by Chad Post of Open Letter and Three Percent. Why can't Nicholson Baker write about sex? And why can Javier Marias? We investigate why porn is a dead end, and why seduction paves the way for the sex writing of the future. Read an excerpt.

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Translate This Book!

Ever wonder what English is missing? Called "a fascinating Life Perecread" by The New Yorker, Translate This Book! brings together over 40 of the top translators, publishers, and authors to tell us what books need to be published in English. Get it on Kindle.

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The Tunnel

Fall Read: The Tunnel by William H. Gass

A group read of the book that either "engenders awe and despair" or "[goads] the reader with obscenity and bigotry," or both. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Naked Singularity

Summer Read: A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava

Fans of Gaddis, Pynchon, DeLillo: A group read of the book that went from Xlibris to the University of Chicago Press. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

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Life A User's Manual by Georges Perec

Starting March 2011, read the greatest novel from an experimental master. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Last Samurai

Fall Read: The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

A group read of one of the '00s most-lauded postmodern novels. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Tale of Genji

The Summer of Genji

Two great online lit magazines team up to read a mammoth court drama, the world's first novel.

Your Face Tomorrow

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A 3-month read of Javier Marias' mammoth book Your Face Tomorrow

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Ten Memorable Quotes from William Gaddis’ Letters

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Interviews from Conversational Reading

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See this page for interviews with leading authors, translators, publishers, and more.

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    Sybille Bedford had the benefit—or bad fortune, however you see it—of being born into the German aristocracy in 1911. Her father was a retired lieutenant colonel and art collector from the agrarian south, from a Roman Catholic family in fiscal decline. Her mother came from a wealthy German-Jewish family from Hamburg. A widower from his first marriage, Bedfor […]
  • Reviving Antal Szerb March 15, 2015
    Antal Szerb’s lithe, lively, and wholly endearing fiction is peopled by male dreamers on spiritual journeys of self-discovery. Each one sets out on his respective mini-mission with good intentions but knows from the outset that there are only so many harsh truths he can withstand. In this respect, all Szerb’s protagonists seem to have heeded the advice of Gr […]
  • 39 Africans Walk into a Bar March 15, 2015
    New anthologies of African fiction seem to materialize virtually every year, if not more often in recent years. When presented with the physical fact of yet another new anthology of African fiction, the immediate question, one which I was asked when I pressed the warm, bound pages of the Africa39 anthology into the even warmer hands of a new acquaintance, wa […]
  • The Country Road by Regina Ullmann March 15, 2015
    This collection of short stories, her first to appear in English, counters material poverty with a fulfilling and deeply spiritual relationship with the natural world. Ullmann herself was no stranger to hardship. A depressive, she was plagued by personal and professional crises. Financial constraints forced her to send her illegitimate children to the countr […]
  • The Fall of Language in the Age of English by Minae Mizumura March 14, 2015
    The Fall of Language in the Age of English stirred up debate upon its publication in Japan in 2008, and it’s possible it will do so in the U.S. with its arrival in Mari Yoshihara and Juliet Winters Carpenter's translation. In their introduction, Yoshihara and Winters Carpenter, point out that Japanese reviewers accused Mizumura of being a jingoist, an e […]
  • Another View: Tracing the Foreign in Literary Translation by Eduard Stoklosinski March 14, 2015
    Another View demonstrates exciting potential in translation study and praxis. It is especially significant in deconstructing assumptions about fluency and linguistic identity. The author makes some persuasive arguments for considering and even preferring non-native translation of texts, the most controversial of which is the possibility that linguistic compe […]
  • The Latest Five from Dalkey Archive’s “Library of Korea” Series March 14, 2015
    Despite South Korea having the kind of vibrant literary scene you'd expect from a country with one of the highest literacy rates in the world, we're still not exactly inundated with English translations of South Korean fiction. Given this dearth, Dalkey Archive Press's Library of Korean Literature series, twenty five titles published in collab […]
  • B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal by J.C. Hallman March 14, 2015
    here’s a conspicuous history of books that simply should not work: Books like U & I by Nicholson Baker, a book-length exercise in “memory criticism,” where Baker traces Updike’s influence on his own writing life while studiously not actually re-reading any of Updike’s books. Or books like Out of Sheer Rage, Geoff Dyer’s book that procrastinates away from […]
  • The Valerie Miles Interview March 14, 2015
    The idea was to uncover the secret life of these texts, why do their creators consider them their best work? What’s the clandestine, the underground, the surreptitious meaning or attachment? Where’s the kernel, the seed from which a body of work grew, what the driving obsession? Is it something sentimental, something technical, maybe even something spiritual […]
  • On Being Blue by William H. Gass March 14, 2015
    Look up at the sky, or down into the ocean, and what color do you see? We see blue, but not Homer—he never once employs the term throughout The Iliad and The Odyssey, famously calling the sea "wine-dark" and the heavens "bronze." Neither did the Greek philosopher Xenophanes say blue—he described the rainbow as having only three colors. Th […]

Where the Truly Audacious Work Lies

So I took the opportunity in my review of Blinding to editorialize a tiny bit about the state of American fiction. My thesis: if you want epic ambition, look overseas.

I don’t think it’s controversial at all to say that in the past decade or so, the great majority of the real shoot-for-the-moon, thrilling novels published in English have appeared in translation. Things life Freedom and The Goldfinch may pack in a lot of pages, but in terms of style, theme, and structure, they’re extremely tame. They’re page-turners that are mean to be plowed through, and if you don’t linger over the prose that’s because there’s little there to linger over. They don’t take risks, and they give their audience that they want.

Here’s a book that does none of that.

Increasingly, the truly audacious novels published in English are not originally written in this language, but are translated into it. Consider the projects that have appeared here in just the past five years: the My Struggle sextet by Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard, thousands of pages in length and regularly compared to classics of Modernist literature. Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, an epic of language, geography, politics, and horror. Parallel Stories by Peter Nádas, over a decade in the making and an attempt to sum up all of postwar Eastern Europe. Mathias Énard’s single-sentence, 500-page novel Zone, telling the 2,000-year history of the Mediterranean. The baroque disasters brought to us by Laszlo Krasznahorkai . . .

The list goes on. These books are not only lengthy and ambitious in their subject matter, but they are also formally challenging and take considerable risks with language: extremely long sentences (some as long as fifty pages or more), the incorporation of arcane terminology, the use of mathematical logic and symbols as a part of the prose. It is no exaggeration to call them the works that are driving the novel forward in the twenty-first century, and they are increasingly being studied by students of writing in the United States. To their ranks must be added Mircea Cărtărescu’s 1,500-page Blinding trilogy, originally published in Romanian across the decade from 1996 to 2007, and the first book of which has been published in English this year in Sean Cotter’s marvelous translation.

Insofar as I comprehend it—insofar as it can be comprehended—the aim of this octopus-like work, which seems to move in several different directions on each page . . .

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6 comments to Where the Truly Audacious Work Lies

  • Lance

    Any idea on the schedule for The Body and The Right WIng? Also: have you heard anything about a reprint or new translation of Knausgaard’s first book?

  • Lance

    I agree with you about the state of American fiction and I blame the MFA machine (which now begins in middle school) that has come to work a lot like Hollywood. Lots of market research and giving people what they want and it’s all nice and fine. I spent years reading stories for a fiction prize offered by Prairie Lights to the students of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. They all start out pretty much the same, “I’ll never forget the summer I was 12… I’m changed.” That’s the last time they did something other than workshop a story into the ground. Even writers who used to be at least trying to nudge the envelope have consciously broadened their audience to include the book club crowd (think George Saunders and Lydia Davis). I think it’s time to demote MFA fiction to genre with the rest of the predictable, safe, page-turning junk food. It’s frustrating and disappointing but it’s what Americans want. I’m in awe of stats from Iceland and Norway and Romania etc about not only the numbers of books they sell but the quality of their bestsellers. I know that these countries have the population diversity of a college town but still…

  • Paul

    Vanessa Place’s ‘La Medusa’ seems like an American authored novel that fits in this category, as does De La Pava’s Naked Singularity. Others?

  • I think the fireworks may come from the fact that these authors inhabit a space between the modernist and the postmodernist, and that the conversation in Europe is based around the modern. Cartarescu etc. look from the modern perspective – ‘news that stays news’ – but relentlessly pursue it with the doubt of the postmodern. It’s like approaching modernism, but from the point of exploring ‘perception’ rather than ‘reality’; a more introspective form of the modern, perhaps, less societal. (Not to mention the fact that both modernism and this style of writing were forged in the heat of disasters which makes all doubt the point of art, and are often overshadowed by the Spanish Civil War, the fall of communism, the drug wars, and so on. I think America’s position of twentieth-century dominance is more likely to produce ‘systems novelists’ like Pynchon and DeLillo – gigantic systems were needed to maintain this flimsy hegemony, and naturally inspired paranoia. But what hopes for the multipolar twenty-first century world in American fiction?)

  • Mike

    I agree with much of this discussion, though I’m not sure where the blame lies. Perhaps it is the MFA program, perhaps not. Does it lie with the marketplace? In some ways I doubt it, especially with the dire reports of people just not reading (though I would argue that reading has always been done by an elite, since universal literacy is a relatively recent phenomenon). I really do not read much contemporary American fiction for this reason: it just really is not good, with a few exceptions, such as Vollmann’s Seven Dreams novels. I think that some of our best writers have actually gone to other media, such as cable TV and film. Charlie Kaufman has written some brilliant screenplays, and I really admire the work of Paul Thomas Anderson.

    There is indeed much to admire in the fiction of Central Europe. And not just in the living writers. The past hundred years of history, at a minimum–the shock wave of the First World War(and its catalyst)onward–has produced some great and resonant work. Some of these are just now being translated into English, such as Ernst Weiss’ fabulous Georg Letham, Physician and Murderer.

  • Max

    Henry, it seems a little odd to say that Proust and Kafka and Faulkner were not exploring “perception” rather than “reality,” or that their works were not completely saturated with doubt. There was doubt before postmodernism.

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