Following our recently published review of Virginie Despentes’ Pretty Things, Barbara Halla takes on the Vernon Subutex Trilogy. In this essay, Despentes’ most recent work is seen to interrogate female anger, everyday life, and the power of community in new, thought-provoking ways.
In a 2017 profile of Virginie Despentes, Le Monde eschewed Despentes’ name, preferring to refer to her simply as Le Phénomène, The Phenomenon, throughout the piece. This epithet is no exaggeration: Despentes has held the French literary scene in her grip since the mid-nineties when she published her first book, Baise-moi (translated into English as Rape me, by Bruce Benderson), and then directed its 2001 movie adaptation, featuring two porn actresses in the lead. Manu and Nadine, the main characters and both victims of violence of some kind, embark upon a road trip where they lure, sexually exploit and kill off men. It wasn’t just the violent acts that made Baise-moi feel radical. It was the lustful pleasure the protagonists took in this violence that stunned audiences, leading to a temporary ban of the film in France. As Lauren Elkin points out in The Paris Review, when the movie came out, there was nothing else to compare it to, so critics fell back on Thelma & Louise, another feminist road film about two women on the run. But Despentes’ nihilistic and sadistic story has little in common with Thelma and Louise.
It’s been a busy October in world literature! Join us to find out more about literary happenings from around the world, in Taiwan, China, the United Kingdom, and Albania.
Vivian Chih, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Taiwan:
The “Double Tenth Day” on the 10th of October has been commemorated as the “birthday” of the Republic of China, the official name of Taiwan. On this day in 2018, the Li Mei-shu Memorial Gallery in Sanxia District, New Taipei City, held an opening ceremony for a series of exhibitions featuring the works by two important Taiwanese cultural figures, Li Mei-shu (李梅樹, 1902-1983) and Zhong Lihe (鍾理和, 1915-1960), respectively a painter and a novelist. Both were influential to the development of Taiwan’s art and literary scenes, and having lived through the martial law period, Li and Zhong grounded their paintings and novels in depicting the homelands that had nourished them. Both are considered to be among a group of Taiwanese nativist artists, who composed works to express their concerns and affections about the local people and places in Taiwan. The exhibition is open to the public until the 18th of November, featuring many precious manuscripts by Zhong, paintings by Li, as well as artworks of the other two younger Taiwanese artists.
Cities can be energizing or inspiring, sites of sensuality or spirituality. Two such cities take center stage in this edition of What’s New in Translation, where our team members introduce you to new and exciting publications.
Sarab by Raja Alem, translated from the Arabic by Leri Price (Hoopoe Books)
Reviewed by Erik Noonan, Assistant Editor
Not only does Sarab, the forthcoming novel by Saudi author Raja Alem, open a new chapter in the fictional treatment of the 1979 siege of the Great Mosque—following Badriah al-Bishr’s Love Stories on al-Asha Street, Yousef al-Mohaimeed’s Where Pigeons Don’t Fly and Alem’s own The Dove’s Necklace (winner of the 2011 International Prize for Arabic Fiction)—it also marks a precarious moment in the development of the global novel. The book first appeared in April in German, and it’s set to be published in English in October by Hoopoe, an imprint of Cairo University Press. The work is intriguing, translated from a text that the novelist does not regard as finished. Since it deals with “a dark chapter in the history of this most holy city” of Mecca—as the Paris resident, Raja, says of her hometown, in a recent interview with Publisher’s Weekly—“I am very sensitive to the words, and up until now I cannot find the right words to capture this story, this wound,” she continues. “I feel I need to rewrite this book in some new Arabic, after taking a distance.” Thanks to translator Leri Price, the Anglophone public who cannot read Arabic can nevertheless now imagine that new Arabic for themselves, across a different, and otherwise uncrossable, distance.
Babylon by Yasmina Reza, translated from the French by Linda Asher, Seven Stories Press, 2018
The “soirée entre amis” (literally an evening among friends) is one the most quintessential of French clichés. Quintessential not only for its pervasiveness in art centred in Paris, but also because it is ridiculously pervasive in real life, too. A staple, even, of life in France. And, if like Yasmina Reza, you believe that “you can’t understand who people are outside [their] landscape,” what better setting for the exploration of the pressures and absurdities of daily existence than precisely a dinner party between friends, a space that demands constant performance due to its many spoken and unspoken social rules?
In a fictional suburb of Paris, Elisabeth and her husband, Pierre, are throwing a party for their friends and family. Invited, at the very last minute, are their neighbours the Manoscrivis, Jean Lino, and Lydie. The party goes well, but tragedy strikes shortly after: Elisabeth and Pierre are woken in the middle of the night by Jean Lino, who has killed his wife after a banal domestic dispute. Even more inexplicable is what follows as Elisabeth, a sensible and rather ordinary woman, decides to help Jean Lino get away with the crime, despite sharing nothing more than a tentative friendship.
It’s never a slow news day on Fridays at Asymptote. This week we bring you the latest publications, events, and news from France, Brazil, and Argentina.
Barbara Halla, Editor-at-Large, reporting from France
Is it perhaps time to talk about a renaissance for French literature in English translation? More classic French literature has always had an audience in the English-speaking world, but in the past few months new authors are taking the literary world by storm. Édouard Louis is only twenty-five but already a public figure in France. His latest book, a semi-autobiographical work, History of Violence (translated by Lorin Stein) was published to great acclaim in late June. Alison L. Strayer translated for Seven Stories Press Annie Ernaux’s The Years (published in the UK by Fitzcarraldo Editions), an innovative collective autobiography that is both memoir and social critique of our times. To continue the trend, in June came also the publication of Gaël Faye Small Country (translated by Sarah Ardizzone), a coming-of-age story that tackles hard issues, including the Rwandan genocide and Civil War in Burundi. The Guardian went so far as to call Faye “the next Elena Ferrante.”
It is a summery Friday in the Northern Hemisphere and that means sun-filled afternoon beverages and literary updates from around the world! Barbara Halla discusses recent publications from Albania and delves into the political debates with which they engage. Daljinder Johal discusses conversations about libraries and marketing that were held at literary festivals around the United Kingdom. Finally, reporting from Australia, Tiffany Tsao discusses the controversy surrounding a recent literary journal cover and provides information on opportunities for emerging writers.
Barbara Halla, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Albania:
At barely three million people living in Albania, it has become a national sport of sorts to look for traces of Albanians and Albanian influences in other cultures. In this vein, one of the most anticipated books of the season has been Luan Rama’s Mbresa Parisiane (Parisian Impressions). Luan Rama is both a writer and a diplomat. Between 1991 and 1992 he was the Albanian ambassador to France, where has spent most of his life since, writing several titles on Albanian culture and its ties to France. A good portion of this new book veers toward familiar territory, dwelling on the lives of famous authors that made Paris their home. Yet its real appeal is Rama’s research into Albanians who lived in Paris and, more simply, reading the perspective of an Albanian writing about his life in Paris.
On May 22, Olga Tokarczuk won the Man Booker International Prize for her book Flights (which first appeared in English in our Winter 2016 issue), translated into English by Jennifer Croft for Fitzcarraldo Editions. Tokarczuk is already a household figure in her native Poland where Flights was first published in 2007. Two of her other novels have been translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, but it is only now with Flights that she is becoming a recognizable name for the English-speaking public. While the red Man Booker logo, signifying its triumph, will help it fly off the shelves in bookstores all over the United Kingdom, booksellers still face a tough challenge, for how do you summarize and sell a book like Flights?
Flights is categorized as a novel, although it eschews traditional plot and linear structure. At its most reductive, it can be described as a traveler’s diary through which an unnamed narrator contemplates and explores the roots of her nomadism. What follows is a compilation of fragments collected by the narrator throughout her journeys: short stories about home and travel, meditations on the human body, and even essays on sanitary pads, Wikipedia, and the English language. In the original Polish, the book is titled Bieguni, the name of a nomadic sect of Eastern European origin who believe the only way to escape the devil is by being in constant movement. And indeed, if the narrator of Flights has a life philosophy, it is this: “a thing in motion will always be better than a thing at rest.”
Woah! It has apparently been a busy week in world literature. Today we bring you news from not just one, not two, but five different countries: Iran, Morocco, Spain, Argentina, and France.
Poupeh Missaghi, Editor at Large, reporting from Iran:
The 31st Tehran International Book Fair was held from May 2nd to May 12th, 2018, in Tehran, Iran.
In this year’s fair, a much-awaited novel by Iran’s foremost novelist, Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, was finally offered to readers. طریق بسمل شدن , a novel about the Iran-Iraq war, had been awaiting a publication permit from the Iranian Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance for ten years. The book has, however, already been offered to English readers, under the title Thirst, translated by Martin E. Weir and published by Melville House in 2014. (You can read a review of Thirst here.) (You can also read a piece by Dowlatabadi in Asymptote’s special feature on the Muslim ban here.)
“A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a re-reader,” Vladimir Nabokov reminds us in his article “Good Readers and Good Writers”. There are so many books in this world, and unless your life revolves solely around books, it might be hard to be widely read and an active re-reader. Attaining this level of perfection that Nabokov describes is impossible, but the idea of re-reading as a tool to better understanding the value of a book underpins the philosophy of the Man Booker Prize International’s judging panel since its inception.
Spring is creeping in and we have just launched a very special and very exciting new issue full of amazing literary voices from around the world, including Jon Fosse, Dubravka Ugrešić, and Lee Chang-dong. Check out the Spring 2018 issue here! In the meantime, we are here with the latest literary news from around the world. This week we report from Albania, Hong Kong, and Brazil.
Barbara Halla, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Albania:
Classic and contemporary Albanian literature is heavily focused on male authors and the male experience, a status-quo challenged recently by “Literature and the City.” Throughout April and May, journalists Beti Njuma and Alda Bardhyli will organize the second installment of this event consisting of a series of discussions and interviews exploring trends in contemporary Albanian literature. This year the encounters will highlight the work and world of Albanian women, through discussions with authors including Flutura Açka, Lindita Arapi, Ardian Vehbiu, Edmond Tupe, and Fatos Lubonja. A particularly exciting event was the conversation conducted with Ornela Vorpsi, a prolific author who writes in French and Italian but who remains virtually unknown in the Anglophone sphere. So far, only one of her books has been translated into English by Robert Elsie and Janice Mathie-Heck: The Country Where No One Ever Dies.