Fall 2016: A Fresh Opportunity to Talk

Asymptote’s power lies in its willingness to account for the inexpressible and use it as ground-zero for its vision.

Halldór Laxness, Stefan Zweig, László Krasznahorkai—just when you think you are announcing just these three international literary superstars in the Fall 2016 lineup, it turns out you have four. On October 3, Italian journalist Claudio Gatti controversially unmasks Elena Ferrante as Anita Raja. But, even before Gatti’s unwelcome revelation, I had already picked out Anita Raja’s contribution as a highlight and intended to include her name in all our issue-related promotional materials. Fearing that we would be accused of riding the controversy, I drop a note to Criticism Editor Ellen Jones: “What do you make of all this Anita Raja = Elena Ferrante business? Is it opportunistic of us to feature her name in our publicity materials (which we already sent for printing) and on the cover (which can still be changed)?” The issue’s been on her mind as well. “We want to avoid the same kinds of accusations NYRB are getting in this morning’s papers,” Ellen says, “but I don’t think it would do too much harm to have her as one among many names in our promotion materials… I don’t think we need to bury a good essay on purpose, in short.” But what about in the promotional materials themselves? How much do we say about Anita Raja? Communications Manager Matthew Phipps decides in the end to take a risk and state matter-of-factly that Elena Ferrante has been unmasked as Anita Raja (which anyone who has been following literary news already knows). Too frazzled to make a call on the copy after staying up for 36 hours to put together the video trailer (it’s been a while since I made these for Asymptote, and I am rusty), I sign off on the newsletter. That’s how, in spite of a massive publicity blitz that involved printing and distributing 4,000 postcards; print and digital ads in the Times Literary Supplement that set us back by 900 GBP; 97 personalized emails to media outlets, 90 tweets, 20 Facebook posts, and seven blog posts about the Fall 2016 issue (all documented in then Marketing Manager Ryan Celley’s publicity report here), dear reader, we still came to be booed. Here to introduce our Fall 2016 issue is Assistant Editor Garrett Phelps. 

What a work of literature ‘means’ is always tough to get a feel for, let alone talk about. Of course a famous theorist or two have claimed this is an insurmountable difficulty. Maybe that’s true, I don’t know. Not being too slick with the theoretical stuff, I’ll just say that literature is meaningful to the extent it’s ambiguous and open-ended. And if any idea unifies Asymptote’s Fall 2016 issue, it’s the way interpretive problems result from this state-of-affairs.

For Anita Raja, ignorance is the reader’s point of departure and return. In “Translation as a Practice of Acceptance” she argues that “the translator must be above all a good reader, capable of diving into the intricacies of the text, taking it apart, discerning all its nuance. The translator is, in short, a reader required to puzzle over the complexity of the original text, line after line, and to piece it together in the new language—a fundamentally impossible task.” Good translators are, essentially, readers par excellence. Anyone who’s dabbled in the field probably won’t find this idea controversial. Sooner or later, though, even a top-notch translator hits the same wall as the average reader, who’s more okay letting intricacies, nuances and puzzle-pieces remain gut-feelings. Demanding much more is futile even if doing so is worthwhile. This is especially true of translation, where success is often the sum of accumulated failures.

Guillermo Fadanelli’s “In Praise of Vagrancy” makes a strong case why all the above is exactly as it should be. “After labouring over so many books—reaching conclusions, contradicting myself, stating and re-stating my principles—it feels wonderful to be without answers… Nothing excites me more than to be asked a question that leaves me utterly confounded, and mute.” This return to uncertainty is the greatest effect literature can have on a reader. It’s all about being lost at sea. What little security does exist is a product of conversation, which pushes people to make up their minds, even if only for conversation’s sake.


A similar pressure to take a position occurs in literature. Just take a look at a few stories from the fiction section: “Wayward Heroes” by Halldór Laxness, “Ten Years of Marriage” by Su Qing, and “Cafés Morts” by Maïssa Bey. If you read the issue “cover-to-cover”—or whatever the digital-journal equivalent is—these are the first three pieces you’ll encounter. Despite the enormous gaps in language, culture and period separating them, several thematic threads appear when they’re read together. (The clearest is an age-old gender divide, which gets foisted upon these female characters even though it’s little more than an empty custom.) As a result the stories feel like they were written to be read in tandem. This naturally wasn’t the case, but Asymptote’s rigorous editorial efforts did give them a fresh opportunity to talk. They no longer have to stand alone, self-referential and largely self-contained.

Again and again Fadanelli tries to clearly state what conversation is. Every verdict ends up contradicting the others, which I suppose is fitting. Still, they all point out that we’re stuck at square one no matter how wide our perspective. If you’ll allow a second quote of his: “Digressions and accidents along the road might give rise to new discoveries—like a long forgotten bottle of wine, or the realisation that the whole excursion is simply absurd. The act of wandering contains within it the most important of all human values: it reinforces our intuition of the void.” As far as he’s concerned a vagrant’s life is better than any fleeting security, even if it accepts ignorance as a permanent condition. That said, plenty of these digressions and accidents can teach us something.

In the issue’s interview with László Krasznahorkai (conducted by János Szegő and translated from Hungarian by Eszter Krakkó) the novelist puts the situation simply: “I tend to think that the only thing that exists is nature, that nothing else is real but nature, and the reality one perceives is similarly nature itself, beyond which only void resides.” At its best literature is nature’s analogue. Not in any stale realist sense, but insofar as it mirrors what Krasznahorkai’s talking about, i.e., the equilibrium between tangibility—call it nature or reality, whatever you like—and the big terrifying unknown. A heightened experience of one heightens the other in turn. The most important thing literature can give a reader, as Fadanelli claims, is the guts to acknowledge this. It’s a spur to curiosity, and sometimes it  produces an insatiable desire to read.

Yet anxiety about the inexpressible still lingers, especially for readers, writers, translators, editors and others with a bet in this game. Often there’s a fear of having no clue what one is saying, of being found out. It’s a fear that “Should music stop we would be suddenly heard. Chorus of stutterers.” (That’s taken from Dimitris Lyacos’ “Z213: EXIT” which, for the record, is one of my top three pieces from the issue.) A journal like Asymptote’s power lies in its willingness to account for the inexpressible and use it as ground-zero for its vision. It’s worth mentioning that this is key to successful works of translation as well. And to works of fiction. And poetry. And criticism and drama and so on. They all ease our fear of becoming voiceless.

Garrett Phelps has been an assistant editor with Asymptote since July 2018.


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