Happy Halloween to our All-Hallow’s-Eve-observing readers. Do you have a literary costume? You could dress up as tumultuous Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, who celebrated his 100th birthday this week (from the grave). Or you could simply celebrate by reading R.L. Stine (of Goosebumps fame)’s recently live-tweeted short story, “What’s in my Sandwich?” (Good question). Or ponder the following question, as answered by Ayana Mathis and Francine Prose: what’s the most terrifying book you’ve ever read? READ MORE…
This week's literary highlights from across the world
“As he progresses on his quest, K comes to realize that a vast intelligence, inhuman but capable of taking human form, is guiding events.”
God often plays an outsized role in science fiction, if only by not showing up. In H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, for example, the narrator encounters a deranged curate—that’s an assistant to an Anglican priest—in the turmoil following a Martian invasion. The two hide in a ruined house, where the holy man rants on how the extraterrestrials are God’s punishment for a fallen world. The narrator must incapacitate him with a shovel to prevent the enemy from detecting them. Later, as the Martians fall prey to a virus benign to humanity, the irony becomes clear: Matter, not spirit, drives the universe.
But the genre can’t quite leave Christianity, and many SF writers have speculated in ways much more commodious to the religion. In November 1974, Philip K. Dick received a mystical vision that would later become a legendary episode in the history of the genre. At home, recovering from an operation on an impacted wisdom tooth, he received a visit from a strange and beautiful woman wearing an ichthys, the Christian symbol of the fish, as a gold pendant on her neck. Dick then described a “pink laser” shooting from the symbol directly into his mind and imbuing him with divine logos. This included the author catching a glimpse into a parallel life as Timothy, a persecuted Christian living in 1st-century Rome. The vision set off a torrent of creative activity, which included Dick’s later novels VALIS, The Divine Invasion, Radio Free Albemuth, as well as an 8,000-page journal of philosophical speculations, selections of which were published in 2011 as The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick.
A review of the Belgian documentary film Ne Me Quitte Pas—a tragicomic ode to pain, boredom, and the spaces in-between
There’s a moment in the documentary Ne Me Quitte Pas that should be utterly unremarkable but got to me beyond all logical proportion. We’re about an hour into the film, and the protagonist, Marcel—middle-aged, morose, pyjama-clad—is sitting alone in the hospital room where he’s being treated for alcoholism. Before him is a large plastic bottle, filled to the peak with a litre of water, and when he goes to pick it up he spills a little. He curses, stands up, and with almost balletic attention to detail embarks on an intricate process of cleaning it up, manoeuvring paper towels as if polishing a masterwork of carpentry. Finally satisfied, he walks across the room, bins the towels, trudges back, sits down with a sigh, slides the bottle over, and delicately extends his hand around it once more to take a sip—only to spill it again. “Merde!” he yells, “C’est pas vrai!” READ MORE…
Translated by Leanne Hoppe
I Chain Myself to the Origins
I chain myself to the origins
I undo a sunset,
just as poetry touches me,
with my lips I create the fate
of a horizon that glorifies
cemeteries filled with bones.
I rest in the sudden vibration
of a cloud,
intersecting rivers of silence
at the whimsical azure of a crowd
Embodied in the exile
of earth and water,
I bind myself to the wind, I yield to the flames.
To eyes permeated by the world
surrounding the sun,
I make myself eternal
like Daphne. I make myself
a forest of olive trees.
In the first of a series of essays on the lives of translators, Josh Billings explores the work of pivotal Russian translator Constance Garnett.
Nobody had told her how bright it would be. Cold, yes, dangerous, of course (this was 1894, after all). But the light! It surrounded them like an ocean, assaulting the tiny sled with a relentlessness that would have been painful for anyone but was torture for her, whose eyes had been sensitive from birth. Later in life this photophobia would become so bad that she would have to hire someone to read the pages she was translating out loud (a method one amanuensis described as “very tedious and exhausting”). But at this point, there weren’t any assistants: there was just Russia, which shone during the day but emitted a soft glow after dark, like a horse steaming in its stable. When the sun went down, the sled stopped at a village for directions, and a peasant whom Constance Garnett described as having “an ivory face and jet black hair and beard, rather like some picture I have seen of John the Baptist” invited her into his hut:
I was blinded by the steam on my spectacles at first, then I saw the interior of a Russian izba for the first time. Two women and several children got up from their lockers on which they had been asleep… In the middle of the fearfully hot airless hut swung a sort of large birdcage covered with a large red cotton cloth, and from it came the miauling of a baby… I could not stay more than a few minutes in the izba—I was afraid of fainting—so I went out and sat in the sledge where the temperature was somewhere about zero under the immense dark blue starry sky. The peasant directed our driver. I remember one of the women ventured to put in advice—and was at once told to hold her tongue—that this was not a woman’s business .
It was a scene straight out of Turgenev, a writer whose unexpected vogue in late 19th-century England turned out to be the first wave of a fascination with Russian literature that would grip the anglophone world until the late 1920s. Over the course of its thirty-year run, this “Russian fever”  would influence not only specific artists, but also the way that writers, and readers, thought about fiction. It would transform the novel in English, swinging interest away from corseted descriptions of late-Victorian drawing rooms, and towards what D. H. Lawrence, writing about Anna Karenina, called “the bright book of life.” And it would do so, for the most part, in the voice of a single translator: Constance Garnett.
This week's literary highlights from across the world
Extra! Extra! Take a look at the November/December issue of the ever-venerable World Literature Today, or the latest (fifth) issue of Music & Literature hot off the press, featuring some Asymptote favorites like Norwegian phenom Stig Sæterbakken and Chinese avant-gardist Can Xue. While Music & Literature has always released a concurrent print publication, ten-year-old Internet mainstay Guernica is about to enter the world of physical print for the very first time. And while we’re at industry water-cooler chat, McSweeney’s also seems to be undergoing a shift: the publishing house/Internet Tendency/friendly lit journal has applied for nonprofit status. That “Nonprofit” denomination isn’t for nothing, either: according to Graywolf Press executive editor Jeff Shotts, the nonprofit status allows for some serious mission-driven publication.
Mahmud Rahman concludes his insightful series by addressing your questions and responding to the discussion he sparked.
Read all posts in Mahmud Rahman’s investigation here.
In this final post, I want to respond to some issues that have come up among readers. Besides a few comments on the blog posts, this series also generated conversations that came to me via personal emails or messages on Sasialit, a mailing list about South Asian literature.
Huizhong Wu, a literature student at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote me:
I appreciate the insight you give about the lack of institutional support/interest both in the U.S. and in India (at least for translations to the U.S.) but I am curious about the question of audience, which I don’t think you’ve addressed in-depth yet. In your second article you noted that South Asian novels aren’t really widely taught and that the audience for the translations would be a small audience of academics—I’m curious then, who is the audience for translations in general (not South Asia-specific)? Even if other literatures do get translated more into English, is it still for a small academic audience (smash-hits aside)? And does the audience really dictate what academic/smaller presses publish?
If the collective audience for South Asian translations are academics, who will already go out of their way to pay attention to and seek out these books, is there significance in introducing six or ten more translations per year? Especially if the author already had a huge following in his/her home country.
Jasmine Heydari reports back from the Södermalms Poetry Festival and Gothenburg Book Fair
September and October are the months for literary events in Sweden, and this year I started my literary adventures with the Södermalms Poetry Festival, which partly took place on an old steamboat cruising through Stockholm’s archipelago, the Skärgården.
Festival director Boel Schenlaer is a well-known poet herself; she often attends national and international festivals, and the Södermalms Poetry Festival is her baby. Running for the 12th year in a row, the festival is three days long. Poets from countries including Israel, Egypt, USA, Syria, and Norway (thirteen nationalities in total) were all invited. As we boated through a dark blue surface shimmering with sunlight, Boel started the poetry cruise, offering everyone a buffet for lunch.
As we ate, Boel told me that her motivation with the festival was to build a bridge between Swedish and international poets.
On the trail of a one-woman publishing house
Berlin native Eva Schweitzer learned a lot about the publishing industry from her years of work as a writer and New York correspondent for German newspapers. In 2011, she decided to open her own publishing house, focusing on books related to the city of Berlin. Eva runs Berlinica between New York City and Berlin. I spoke to her via Skype after one of her frequent trans-Atlantic flights.
Frances Riddle: How was Berlinica born?
Eva Schweitzer: I’m an author and nowadays it’s becoming easier to break into the market, even if you’re small. You don’t need so much overhead anymore. You can do print-on-demand and e-books, you can distribute them internationally with Amazon; and I thought why not try and publish books myself? I know how to write a book. How hard can it be to publish a book?
FR: So was it as easy as you thought it would be to open your own publishing house?
ES: No, it turns out it’s a great deal more time-consuming and complicated than you can imagine. READ MORE…
Ghost noir, death in Mexico, and what artists do after they’ve found success (and a lot of it): reading recommendations from Asymptote!
Ellen Jones (criticism editor): For my birthday this year I was given Outlaws (Las Leyes de la Frontera) by Spanish author Javier Cercas, translated by Anne McLean. I immediately broke that fundamental rule and judged it by its cover—the Bloomsbury hardback has one of the most exquisite jacket designs I’ve seen in a long time. Fortunately I wasn’t disappointed by what was inside. Inspired by the life of Juan José Moreno Cuenca, a notorious criminal known as “El Vaquilla,” the narrative follows a gang of teenagers led by a soon-to-be famous juvenile delinquent styling himself “Zarco.” At the novel’s core is the relationship between Zarco, the media persona, and Antonio Gamallo, the real person behind bars. In post-dictatorship Catalonia where the after-effects of Franco’s rule are still being felt, the gang members are divided by class and their fates apportioned accordingly. The novel is narrated entirely through reported speech, allowing Cercas to explore the unreliability of memory through a series of voices that are always measured and deliberate (The Telegraph’s description of it as a “rip-roaring crime romp” seriously misses the mark).
This week's literary highlights from across the world
The biggest news this week is Asymptote’s hot new issue launch. We know time is limited, but it’s worth taking a peak at our (best yet?) video trailer or the blog’s own highlights feature for tips on where to start (and stay tuned for even more issue coverage in the coming weeks). Really, you can’t go wrong with such a wealth of literary gems at your virtual fingertips.
Last week, the literary world was abuzz with news of its latest Nobel laureate—French writer Patrick Modiano. Perhaps “abuzz” is too misleading a term, since many English-language readers were mostly clueless as to his existence, which begs the question: what does it take for an author to be (respectably and thoroughly) translated into an English? (An aside: here’s a great primer to Modiano via Slate and pure chance). Speaking of prizes, the Man Booker’s decision to include American Anglophones in its entry pool caused quite a stir for those not of the United States, but didn’t stop Australian author Richard Flanagan from snagging the prize. Still, there are naysayers, including twice-winner and Australian author Peter Carey, who thinks the inclusion undermines the particular “Commonwealth culture” of all Anglophones outside the fifty states. Some prizes are still United States-exclusive, though, like the National Book Awards, which just released its nominations—here’s a handy guide to the nominees, via NPR. Or we could switch continents and take a look at the just-released shortlist to the “Russian” Booker.
Four highlights from the latest issue, including work by American Mary Jo Bang, Brazilian Paulo Scott, and Taiwanese writer Sabrina Huang
Just in time for Halloween, we welcome the launch of Asymptote’s spookiest, ghouliest issue yet! Featuring an uncanny English-language poetry feature on mythology, major contributions from the likes of Lawrence Venuti and Shi Tiesheng, an embrace of the absurd (rampaging cows, anyone? Or do you prefer a minotaur?), and some phenomenal special features, this latest issue is a must-read—and out now!
We say this every quarter, but it’s impossible (and annoying) to pick absolute favorites. So we (being your loyal blog editors, Eva Richter and Patty Nash), hedge our bets, and have selected two standouts each we really hope you check out. The list isn’t conclusive; feel free to attack our Buzzfed shortsightedness. We’re just happy to be reading.
“Translating a poem from 1894 into a language that has evolved and cast off as much as English has is no easy task.”
Read all previous posts in Asymptote’s “Mimes” translation project here.
Mime XVI. Sismé
She whom you see withered before you was named Sismé, a daughter of Thratta. First, she came to know of bees and flocks; then she tasted the salt of the sea; finally, a merchant trader lured her to the white houses of Syria. Now she remains enshrined like a precious statuette upon a stone plinth. Count the rings sparkling on her fingers: she has lived as many years. See the bandeau, taut about her crown: here, so timid, she received her first loving kiss. Touch the star of pale rubies that sleeps where her bosom once lay: there rested the head of a beloved. Near Sismé have been placed her faded mirror, her silver jackstones and the long amber pins that once wound through her hair; as come her twentieth year (there are twenty rings), she was adorned with treasures. A wealthy magistrate gave her all a woman could desire. Sismé will never forget him, and his jewels are not spurned by her fragile, white bones. In kind, he built this ornate tomb to protect his tender departed, and he surrounds her with perfumed jars and golden vessels for his fallen tears. Sismé is grateful to him. Yet you, if you wish to glimpse the secret of an embalmed heart, unclench the tiny joints of this left hand: here you will find a small, humble glass ring. This ring was once transparent; but with the years it has become hazy and obscure. Sismé loves it. Be silent and see.
Short fiction translated by Kadiri Vaquer
An unpredictable cloud of smoke forced him to move around constantly. He had nowhere to stand to avoid it. That day, grandpa mentioned how every January 1st, the wind blew in all four directions. The rest of the family watched him start the fire for the barbecue and his theory, once again, was proven.
It was a thick and humid beginning of the year. After eating, the family rested under the ombu tree like animals waiting for the storm. When the sky turned black, the women hurried to take everything inside: cups, chairs and the clothes hanging on the line. Then it began to rain, just like that, a curtain of water, hard and even. READ MORE…