Place: France

“2817 Perec”: The Celestial Eccentricity of Georges Perec’s Writing

A profile of the extraordinary French writer that explores how he used experimentation and imagination to understand the horrors of reality.

This article by the prodigious French writer Marie Darrieussecq appeared in Le Monde des Livres on May 11, 2017. The occasion was the publication of the two-volume La Pléiade edition of the Complete Works of Georges Perec, who died thirty-five years ago, in 1982. It is a huge honor for a writer’s work to be published (usually posthumously) in the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, which is a critical edition, with annotations, notes, manuscript and editorial variations, and accompanying documents. The books are pocket format, leather bound, with gold lettering on the spine and printed on bible paper. The series was begun in 1931 by the editor Jacques Schiffrin and was brought into the Gallimard publishing company in 1936 by André Gide.

—Penny Hueston

Georges Perec is now part of the Pléiade series. The novelty of the list of his titles being collected in this edition might have brought a smile to his face. He used to say, “Nothing in the world is unique enough not to be able to be part of a list.”

But Perec is unique. More than anyone else’s, his collected works resemble a UFO. He is a successor to Jules Verne and Herman Melville, to Stendhal and Queneau, to Poe and Borges, to Rabelais and Mallarmé…And yet Perec stands alone, bearded, playful, coiffed with a cat in his hair, like an icon in our popular imagination. And, although a dizzying number of references are woven through his work, his way of writing is freakily inventive.

His books were only intermittently successful in his lifetime, but after his premature death at the age of forty-six in 1982, his reputation grew exponentially. Perec quickly became the most recent of our classics. “A contemporary classic,” as the editor of this Pléiade edition of his Complete Works, Christelle Reggiani, writes in her preface, but an odd classic, both amusing and melancholic, whose humour shaped his despair.

His lipograms, constrained writing (the speciality of Oulipo, of which he was without doubt the most famous member), play around an absent centre, a missing letter, or an alphabetical prison house. His novel, A Void (1969), written without the letter “e,” is therefore written without them: without his father, who was killed in the war, without his mother, who was murdered in Auschwitz.

What seems to be Perec’s pleasant game with words is his way of saying the unsayable, of giving shape to absence, of proclaiming the abomination of the death of his mother and of the destruction of the Jews of Europe. He had what it takes to write that. READ MORE…

The Postcolonial Kitchen: Vietnamese Recipes from Marguerite Duras’ Childhood

Duras’ recipes illustrate how cooking—like literature, like memory—is a subjective experience in a continual state of being perfected.

The prolific French writer and filmmaker Marguerite Duras is perhaps best known for her novel The Lover, winner of the 1984 Prix Goncourt, as well as for her 1959 Oscar-nominated screenplay Hiroshima mon amour. In 1987, she published a collection of texts entitled La vie matérielle (Practicalities), in which she relates “everything and nothing” relating to her life, from her work to everyday thoughts. Duras was an avid cook and had intended to include some of her recipes in the collection, too. Ultimately, though, while some recipes made it into La vie matérielle, most did not. After Duras’s death in 1996, her son Jean Mascolo sought to rectify this by publishing the slim volume La Cuisine de Marguerite (Benoît Jacob), a collection of his mother’s recipes as recorded in her handwritten notebook. After a false start in 1999 when Duras’s literary executor blocked its sale, the book was finally republished and circulated in 2014.

The recipes in La Cuisine de Marguerite are a captivating mix of flavors and influences. This can be expected from any collection of recipes curated over a lifetime. However, given her international experiences, Duras’s collection ranges wider than many others. Traditional French fare is sparsely represented in her recipe book, with leek soup, vichyssoise, and chicken liver pâté scattered here and there among the more plentiful offerings of further-off origins: nasi goreng from Indonesia, rougail sauce from Réunion, spare ribs from the U.S. The recipes are mostly brief, though some are characterized by spirited notes, such as her instructions for Dublin coddle (“The Irish will tell you: add more wine […] Don’t listen to them.”) and gazpacho (“The Spanish use broth in the place of water. They’re wrong.”). In the preface to the book, Jean Mascolo writes that the book “has no other pretense than to evoke Marguerite Duras in a daily activity that she did not hesitate, with a smile, to make as creative as her writing.”

Among the most personal recipes in the book are those originating from the place of Duras’s birth in 1914: the Gia Định province in French Indochina, near what is now known as Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Duras was the middle child and only daughter of two schoolteachers who had answered the French colonial government’s call for volunteers. Her father died early on, plunging the family into poverty, after which her mother allowed the children near-complete freedom. Unlike the other colonists, the siblings were allowed to play with Vietnamese children, and Duras spoke fluent Vietnamese. She had no taste for French foods—the Normandy apples and the meat that her mother occasionally served the family—preferring rice, soups from street vendors, and fresh fish cooked in nuoc-mâm, Vietnamese fish sauce.

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Self-Translation and the Multilingual Writer

The act of self-translation is for many, including Beckett himself, an experiment in agony.

Samuel Beckett self-translated a great many of his texts from French to English and vice-versa, and does not seem to have unequivocally favored one language over the other. For Beckett, choosing to write in French came from “un désir de m’appauvrir encore plus” (a desire to impoverish myself even further). Evidently, he viewed French as a more minimal language.[1] Beckett sparsely commented on his decision―or compulsion―to write in both languages, but in all events, such choices appear to be largely affective and difficult to justify rationally. All the more so when the act of self-translation is for many, including Beckett himself, an experiment in agony. For a minority, self-translation instead liberates the writer, at once from the risk of servility to an original, and from the effort of wrenching a brand new work from one’s mental background noise. One need neither give birth to a new text, nor obey an existing one.

The late novelist Raymond Federman, an émigré from France and a bilingual speaker, offers an example of one writer for whom self-translation was in some sense liberating. Federman wrote for several decades almost entirely in English, and only began to self-translate well into the middle of his career. In fact, English remained his dominant language of initial composition, and he once expressed to me a certain resistance to writing directly in French. Nonetheless, he self-translated extensively from the mid-nineties until his death in 2009. Federman introduces extensive and significant variations between translations and originals, so that his texts exhibit what Sara Kippur calls mouvance (variance), a term borrowed from medievalist Paul Zumthor.[2] Beckett’s own texts exhibit some variation, but in Federman’s case, narrative accounts of a single autobiographical event differ between accounts, whether they occur in different books or in the “same” book’s French and English version. Hence, Federman ties the act of translation directly to issues of autobiographical authenticity, demonstrating that such authenticity is largely illusory―memory is a kind of fiction.

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What’s New in Translation? July 2017

We review three new books from France, Turkey, and Switzerland that are available in English for the first time.

 

myhearthemmedin

My Heart Hemmed In by Marie NDiaye, translated by Jordan Stump, Two Lines Press

Reviewed by Ah-reum Han, Writers on Writers Editor

Think: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper meets Han Kang’s The Vegetarian meets Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge; then for good measure, throw in a bit of Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing. Marie NDiaye’s My Heart Hemmed In defies categorization. And yet, the novel’s crux lies in the unspoken categorization of its main characters—the schoolteacher couple, Nadia and Ange—who the townspeople have inexplicably (and violently) turned against. Not long after the reader arrives in this novel, Ange sustains a critical injury and Nadia must find a way to live in this new, hostile world. Told entirely from Nadia’s limited perspective, this forced intimacy between reader and paranoid narrator leaves us feeling curious, suffocated, and unsettled.

French literary star, NDiaye, has been my writer crush ever since Ladivine, which was longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker International Prize. She published her first novel when she was just eighteen years old and has since received the Prix Femina and the prestigious Prix Goncourt. Written in NDiaye’s distinctive, phantasmagorical style, My Heart Hemmed In is an unrelenting look inward in a world where the psychological manifests itself externally. Whether it’s the food Nadia devours or Ange’s mysterious, gaping wound, we are confronted with things that are consumed and the things they are consumed by; the things left for dead, and the things they birth. NDiaye’s details are so seductive and unforgiving, lavish and grotesque, it leaves you reeling.

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Portrait of the Translator as Neologist

Translating neologism resembles a tiny model of the whole process of translation

The Horde of Counterwind, written by the French writer Alain Damasio, takes place in a world of violent winds where a band of hardened, élite travelers make their arduous way toward the Upper Reaches, from where the winds are said to originate. Translating the thickly packed, virtuosic prose of this singular Science Fiction/Fantasy epic is a bit like having to join the Horde to battle against the winds. Skeptical readers have declared the Horde untranslatable, filled to the brim as it is with wordplay and even a long jeu-parti, or poetic duel, between the improvising troubadour Caracole and his ultraformalist counterpart, Seleme the Stylite. The poetic duel involves palindromes, among other enormous challenges to the translator. Translation, through the Horde of Counterwind, becomes a test of vigor and endurance for both writer and translator, who must faire bloc—become a single vital force—before the shattering gale of language.

Yet the Horde’s translator ultimately spends a great deal more time working on single words than on entire passages. The most difficult task facing the translator of the Horde, and indeed of many works of so-called speculative fiction, lies in the proper rendering of the novel’s innumerable neologisms. Within the first page, the Horde’s translator is called upon to translate the word furvent, a term denoting one of the most violent forms of the wind. After several hours of live discussion by Skype, and after brainstorming literally dozens of possible alternatives, Damasio and I settled on the term threshgale. Furvent derives in large part from the word furieux (furious), and the French word for wind (vent), whereas the neologism retains neither component, preferring winnowing and thrashing to fury, and the storm or gale in place of the mere wind.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Never miss a world literature update again.

We are back with literary news you simply cannot miss! This week we will take you to Romania where MARGENTO will help you discover the intricate networks of performance art. Also reporting from Europe is Fiona Le Brun who discusses the eclectic list of recent French literary prize winners, while subtly underlining the theme of migration that cuts across the various literary events. Far away from Mexico, Paul Worley and Kelsey Woodburn will highlight the increasingly important role of translation in its contemporary cultural landscape. 

Editor-at-Large from Romania and Moldova, MARGENTO, provides us with an insider’s view of the exciting world of Romanian artistic experimentation:

The Bucharest International Poetry Festival featured last month an impressive line-up of international writers and performers, among whom were Christian Bök from Canada, LaTasha Nevada Diggs from the US, Steven Fowler of the worldwide prolific Enemies Project, Max Höfler (the tireless organizer of the yearly Text-World—World-Text Symposium in Graz, Austria), the multilingual performance vocalist Maja Jantar of Belgium, the Bucharest-based American poet and translator Tara Skurtu, and many more, alongside local poets such as Claudiu Komartin and Razvan Tupa.  Organized by London-based Romanian poet and curator Simona Nastac, this annual event has grown more and more visible and central in a country where the tradition of performance poetry going at least as far back as Tristan Tzara’s DADA seems to be thriving more than ever, with festivals thrown from Craiova in the south to Brasov and Sibiu in Transylvania to Cluj and Iasi up north (some of them performance-driven events, other more standard literary ones with a strong reading or performance section).

Petrila is a one-of-a-kind venue among all of the above, both in Romanian and international terms.  The derelict milltown riddled with condemned coal mines and shutdown falling-apart factories has been transformed over the last two decades by visual artist, political caricaturist, and curator Ion Barbu into a mecca of non-conformist festivals (initially thrown in his own backyard), eclectic or scandalous arts events, and improbable post-communist absurdist or faux-kitsch museums (including one that has resonantly revived the memory of once-censored outstanding dissident writer I.D. Sirbu).  A competitor—or rather concurrent event—has been the CUCA Festival organized over the past couple of years in Cartisoara, up in the mountains of Sibiu County, where cutting-edge and indie performances and installations converge with Romanian traditional architecture restoration work done by international volunteers.  A long-feature documentary titled Planet Petrila casting Ion Barbu in the lead role and portraying his eclectic personality and work against the background of the (post)communist history of his hometown has recently been widely praised and awarded at the international film festival TIFF.

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The End of Eddy Review: Édouard Louis’s story of rejection, queerness and trauma in working-class France

He tried with such violent passion and self-betrayal, even self-degradation, to fit in with these people—his people

Édouard Louis’s debut novel The End of Eddy gives voice to a demographic often excluded from mainstream literature—the elusive “white working class” so frequently cited by politicians and publishers lately—while also telling the story of a young man who is completely rejected by that same group. In this apparent contradiction lies the work’s most remarkable achievement: to illuminate the lives of, and even empower, the narrator’s own antagonists—without forgiving them.

Bear in mind this is a work of autofiction, á la Knausgaard’s My Struggle opus or Sergio del Molino’s Lo que a nadie le importa, completed when the author was just twenty years old. Any editor would expect a manuscript so early in a writer’s life and career to lack “perspective,” to need some “distance,” especially given the drama and violence in this story in particular. Most memoirists don’t like to be too close to the time and people they’re writing about—and I did have to continually remind myself I was not reading a memoir while falling headfirst into Louis’s story. The lumps the character Eddy has taken have certainly not gone down, but that they are still swollen and purple is just what makes the read so engrossing, and makes the strange duality of the characters’ sympathetic and reproachable natures believable.

The book was first published in France in 2013 to great acclaim, making the now 24-year-old something of a literary star. Out this month in the U.S. with Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, and translated by Michael Lucey, the work has begun to receive a lot of attention in English, too. Louis has had his critics, however, particularly regarding the work’s believability—a plight that perhaps inevitably threatens the autofiction writer. There is something inherently uncomfortable about reading such a novel; you can’t settle in and let the story carry you to a made-up place and time, but at the same time you can’t walk away feeling you know something for sure, something you can report to a friend later. One can’t help but want to know after all, is it real or not?

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“Old Seams of the Ancient World”: Reading Patrick Chamoiseau’s Manifesto Against Borders

“The dream and the political vision must arise, and that is when the poetic word is as fundamental as that of experts or economists.”

In our Spring Issue this year, we ran a special feature covering literature from countries affected by President Trump’s infamous “Muslim Ban.” This was in recognition that literature is reflective of political conditions and that it is a powerful form of protest against oppression. In today’s piece, Fiona Le Brun looks at the manifesto against the Muslim Ban penned by Patrick Chamoiseau, a Prix Goncourt recipient and notable figure in Créolité literature. As France emerges from a divisive election against the backdrop of the unprecedented European refugee crisis, reading Chamoiseau reminds us that literature enables us to conceptualize cultural openness. 

This February, Martiniquais author Patrick Chamoiseau, whose previous works include the Goncourt-winning novel Texaco (1992. Translated into English by Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokurov in 1997),  launched a call for solidarity with migrants of the world. Not only was this call a reaction to President Trump’s executive order blocking citizens of six predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States, but also a reaction against Europe’s palpable fear revealed by Brexit and the several manifestations of the rejection of migrants.

A couple of months later in May 2017—between the two rounds of the closely watched French presidential election—his essay Frères migrants: Contre la barbarie (Migrant Brothers: Against Barbarism) was released. This invitation to resist intolerance, racism, and indifference is concluded by his manifesto, Les Poètes déclarent (Declaration of Poets).

Today Chamoiseau’s manifesto is more relevant than ever, for both the United States and France. While the French are rejoicing in the victory of the youthful, moderate and well-read Emmanuel Macron over the far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen, the latter still gathered over 10 million votes, mostly motivated by immigration topics. This temporary relief must not have us overlook the fact that France, whose leaders never miss an opportunity to cast the country as the nation of human rights, has welcomed only a little over 25,000 refugees last year, far less than Germany or Sweden over the same period of time. The results of this election sure bring a glimmer of hope, as the winning candidate seems interested in real change and wants to work hand in hand with fellow EU countries. He also appears to be ready to wipe the dust off our old colonial shelves: back in February, while on a trip to Algeria, Macron called France’s colonial past a “crime against humanity,” and stood firm in the face of attacks by right-wingers. But his task remains difficult. He still has to convince millions of French citizens to support his agenda. The upcoming parliamentary elections will be decisive for Macron’s mandate in a very divided country, as well as for the uncertain future of the EU.

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Asymptote Podcast

The Translator's Craft

In this week’s all new Asymptote podcast we’re getting crafty! We’ll be hearing from translator Roland Glasser about how he uses technology in his work, as well as getting sage advice from Susanna Basso who is featured in our new Spring Issue. We’ve also got a special dispatch from poet Suzannah V. Evans from the StAnza Poetry Festival in St Andrews, where she sat down with writers and artists Aurélia Lassaque and Tessa Berring to get the scoop on their translation workshop. Get ready to untangle a lot of French feelings: fear, dread, horror, terror, and finding out how marigolds inspire very different moods in standard French versus Occitan—and what exactly all this has to do with a giant fish.

Podcast Editor and Host: Layla Benitez-James

Audio Editor: Mirza Puric

What To Do With an Untranslatable Text? Translate It Into Music

Translators and musicians team up on a sweeping audio interpretation of Finnegans Wake

Finnegans Wake, the final book by Irish writer James Joyce, is a bit like the alien language in the movie Arrival. As the film’s spaceships tower mysteriously over the Earth, so Joyce’s book casts its strange shadow over world literature. Most literary minded people are aware of the text’s presence, but no one actually knows how to read the book, save for a select few who claim it is the greatest thing ever written.

In order to read Finnegans Wake, you must become a translator. You must translate the text out of it’s idiosyncratic, multilingual semi-nonsensical language, and into… music? For example, see Rebecca Hanssens-Reed’s interview with Mariana Lanari, about the process of translating the Wake into music.

For the last three years I’ve pursued the music that is Finnegans Wake. I organize an ongoing project called Waywords and Meansigns, setting the book to music. This week we release our latest audio, which is 18 hours of music created by over 100 musicians, artists and readers from 15 countries. We give away all the audio for free at our website (and you can even record your own passage, so get involved!)

Listen to a clip of the project here!

It might sound strange, but translating the book into music is easier than, say, translating it into another foreign language. But that hasn’t deterred Fuat Sevimay, who translated the book into Turkish, nor has it stopped Hervé Michel, who calls his French rendering a “traduction” rather than a “translation.”

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Translating Finnegans Wake: An Interview with Hervé Michel

I would advise that a reader approach Finnegans Wake like a work of art—a composition of sounds and colors, music and painting...

Can Finnegans Wake be translated into another language? As the joke well-known amongst Joyceans goes, “Which language are you translating it from?”

If it is possible to translate Finnegans Wake, the next question might be: who on earth is willing and able to undertake such a task? Who even has the time to translate this work Joyce spent 17 years writing?

The Wake has been translated into French twice. Philippe Lavergne translated the book in the early 1980s, but unsatisfied with this edition, Hervé Michel has spent the last two decades working on a translation of his own.

Michel was born to French parents, in 1950s Morocco. He spent his youth “wandering across Europe, America, Africa and the Near East.” From 1979 until 1984 he lived in Casablanca, studying Arabic. Michel joined the French civil service in 1986 and eventually attended the Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA). With an annual acceptance rate of only 6%, ENA is an extremely elite graduate school for French government administrators and officials. After a decade of varied work ranging from finance to international relations, in 1996 Michel accepted a high-ranking position within the French Ministry of Defense.

In his spare time, Michel reads the Wake. He first encountered the book in 1980 and began translating the text in 1997. He has tried at various times to find a publisher for his translation, but the audience for Finnegans Wake translations is limited. In 2004 Michel decided to publish his translation as Veillée Pinouilles online, a format that allows him to make ongoing updates and revisions à la Leaves of Grass.

As Michel prepared to retire from his career in the civil service, he graciously took the time to speak with me about this longstanding fascination with the Wake. The interview was conducted over email, a format allowing for conversation as well as textual elucidation and analysis.

Derek Pyle (DP): How did you first get interested in Joyce?

Hervé Michel (HM): My interest first went to Finnegans Wake, not to James Joyce. By 1985, I had returned to Paris from a five-year sojourn in Morocco—a country where I happened to be born and raised from 1950 to 1962 and where I had returned with my newly-met wife Constance Hélène in 1980—where I had spent a jolly good time studying Arabic and reading the Qur’an. Back in Paris I felt compelled to go to the Galignani English bookshop on Rue de Rivoli to buy Finnegans Wake, on the back cover of which I discovered the man-in-the-street allure of James Joyce which was a sort of a shock. For me, Finnegans Wake was the Sacred Scripture of the Modern Era. I was not to be deceived by a text displaying all the phatic function I expected and smearing a thick semiotic matter, so I immediately felt the need to have it rendered in French.

DP: So you began with Finnegans Wake. Did you go the bookshop specifically seeking out the Wake? Or did it just one day catch your eye, while you were in the bookshop? Can you also explain a bit more what you mean that this was a text ”displaying all the phatic function… and smearing a thick semiotic matter”?

HM: Reference to James Joyce was paramount in the French literary critique between 1960 and 1980, people like Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, Philippe Sollers, Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, all drove me to consider Finnegans Wake as the nexus of the modern literary fabric, which I, with my gross ignorance of the finesse of the English language and of the encyclopedic richness of Joyce’s culture, took at first as the thick material somebody like Jackson Pollock smeared on his canvasses, but eventually I craved to emulate this latter Indian creation dance myself with the French language.

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Highlights from Our Winter 2017 Issue

The blog editors share their favorite pieces from our latest issue!

Here at the blog, we’ve been mesmerized by the new Winter 2017 Issue since its launch on Monday. We hope you’ve had time to dive in, too, but if not, here are a few great places to start!

“Daland” by Lika Tcheishvili, translated from the Georgian by Ekaterine Chialashvili and Alex Scrivener, is a curious little story, told in the first person by an unnamed dock worker in Bandar Abbas, Iran. Anyone who has seen or read about Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton will find themselves in familiar territory when the narrator becomes the unlikely participant in a duel. Any sense of familiarity stops there, however. The man who challenges him is a mysterious smoker with a perpetually fresh lily—flowers foreign to Bandar Abbas—in his lapel and an appointment with a schooner no one has heard of…

I also cannot get the words of Christiane Singer out of my head. In her essay, “The Feminine, Land of Welcome,” translated from the French by Hélène Cardona, she writes to women, “stand bewitched and ready to leap: the queen, the sister, the lover, the friend, the mother—all those who have the genius for relationship, for welcoming. The genius for inventing life.” She highlights the danger of defining women only by their commonalities, as well as the horrors that could have come to pass—and could still—in a world without women. Their absence would be powerfully felt, even in comparison to situations in which they are already roundly ignored or discredited.

—Madeline Jones, Blog Editor

In “Always Already Translated: Questions of Language in Singaporean Literature”, Boston-born Philip Holden, who has lived in Singapore for more than 20 years, writes lyrically about this multilingual city-state. Having worked with languages Holden mentions—Malay, Malayalam, Javanese, and many others—I loved his description of situations where “I speak in Mandarin to Chinese patients, and they reply not to me but to my Chinese co-worker, who looks back at me in incomprehension. She speaks in Malay to older Chinese and Malay patients, and they reply in Malay not to her but to the third of us, the Indian woman who wears a tudung that marks her out as Muslim and, by a process of mistaken association, Malay.” Multilingual societies are sadly often depicted as wrought with conflict. While language in Singapore is, like everywhere in the world, a political issue, too, Holden focuses on the opportunities it provides for performing and literary arts. We don’t have to search for a common language, he argues—it’s more interesting to find “holes between languages that everyday translation continually fills up”.

I have never read Albanian literature before, however. If you are like me, I can warmly recommend the three poems by Luljeta Lleshanaku, one of the country’s most important writers, as an introduction. Taken from the collection Negative Space and translated by Ani Gjika, the poems describe a simple life: apple trees, a butcher carving meat, “gardens hidden behind houses like sensual neck bites”. But behind each poem is a rotten apple, or cold floors, and getting one’s way without any real gain—poetic realism. Do also have a listen to the translator reading the original text in Albanian!

—Hanna Heiskanen, Blog Editor

Check out the gorgeous video preview of the new issue here:

*****

Read More from the Asymptote team:

Book Recommendations for the New Normal

Suggested reading for the fast-approaching U.S. Presidential Inauguration and our changing world politics

This Friday, real estate mogul Donald Trump will be sworn is in as the 45th President of the United States. Last month, Italy’s citizenry voted effectively for the resignation of its Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, in a referendum applauded by France’s right-wing, nationalist party leader Marine Le Pen, while another far-right conservative, Francois Fillon, is expected to win the French presidential election in May. Last summer, the world watched the historic Brexit vote, and Austrian presidential candidate Norbert Hofer, who ran on the promise of an Austrian Brexit, lost the nation’s vote by a very close margin last month.  

The political climate all over the west is profoundly changing, and those who failed to predict the current developments are scrambling to make sense of them. Book proposals by diplomats, pundits, and economists are flooding publishers’ inboxes, all claiming to have the most accurate analysis of the causes of Trump’s win or Britain’s isolationism. But a look at the past, and some past literature, suggests that perhaps we should be surprised at our own surprise. We gathered some book recommendations to prepare you for this Friday and the vast challenges ahead because—wait for it—knowledge is power (sorry!) and there are many already-published texts, many in the history category, with a wealth of relevant knowledge to impart.

Asymptote’s Marketing Manager David Maclean suggests you check out:

Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday , translated by Anthea Bell (Pushkin Press, 2013)

“As a great many political pundits have pointed out, the resurgence of nationalist and far-right movements throughout Europe has more than a passing resemblance to the initial rise of fascist groups prior to the Second World War. Disguised as an autobiography, Zweig’s The World of Yesterday offers a coruscating portrayal of the idealism of pre-war Europe and the European cross-cultural project, as well as the fragility of the ideals of Enlightenment in the face of (dangerously) cynical realpolitik, ignorance, and the fostering of prejudice. The nation cannot be loved above all else, warned Simone Weil, since it has no soul—and indeed it is the balkanization of Europe that Zweig portrays as a logical result of nationalist movements that propagate loyalty to the nation above all else. His book is also one of resistance, of the possibility for literature and art to resist the totalitarianism of thought imposed upon us through exercising our creative imaginations—an understated but underestimated daily act of resistance.”

The Word for World is Forest by Ursula le Guin (Tor Books, 2010)

“I had thought to include Rachel Carson’s seminal 1962 book The Silent Spring, which arguably thrust eco-criticism and global conservation into the mainstream debate, but since the United States’ president-elect seems intent on living in a fantasy world regarding man-made climate change, I decided to be magnanimous and stick with his chosen genre. The novella details a logging colony established on the fictional planet of Athshe by Earth’s military-industrial complex, which is slowly but surely denuding the planet of its primary resources and leaving vast swathes of it barren and lifeless. The novel hinges on a conflict of ideologies between the native population, which may be well be seen as a surrogate for nature, and ourselves (the Terrans) who view nature as a disposable resource for immediate consumption and have little to no regard for the long-term consequences. In the Athshean language, the word for “forest” is also the word for “world”, showing the dependence of the Athshean culture upon the forest, much as we all depend upon a fecund, hospitable world that continues to dance on the brink of ecological ruin.”

Blog Editor Madeline Jones found pertinent wisdom in:

The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to Present by John Pomfret (Henry Holt, 2016)

“We all know that the U.S. president-elect likes to make China a scape goat for basically whatever he thinks is unsatisfactory about American affairs that he can’t conceivably blame on Crooked somebody or Lyin’ somebody else. Of Trump’s targets of aggression now that he’s been elected, China perhaps comes in second only to FAKE NEWS (caps his). We’ve all heard the “Gina” jokes. His lack of understanding of diplomacy generally but particularly regarding China is near-comical, so it’s difficult to even wrap your mind around the implications of his attitudes toward the world’s largest economy, but it is vital that at least someone in his administration does. In the meantime, I decided to try to understand the nuances of the relationship better myself. This book is invaluable—and highly readable—to that end. It’s not short, but it’s a one-stop shop.”

The Fire This Time, edited by Jesmyn Ward (Scribner, 2016)

“Pointedly drawing inspiration from James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, Ward has gathered responses from her generation’s most eminent voices on race in the form of critical essays, personal reflections, and poetry. From Jericho Brown to Daniel Jose Older, Claudia Rankine to Clint Smith, the contributors make this a worthwhile read for its own, aesthetic sake, but it’s also an emotional and timely reminder of the ways in which society has not changed since Baldwin was writing, the areas in which there is still vital need for improvement. While newspapers and magazines have been praising J.D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy since Trump won the Republican nomination as the book to understand America today, I found Ward’s book to be an important counterargument to that narrative, especially given Jeff Sessions’s imminent confirmation by the Senate. Vance’s book has merit, certainly, but the current focus on “understanding the white working class” cannot be emphasized at the expense of a focus on race relations and the continued economic and privilege gap between white Americans and black and Hispanic Americans. Reading Hillbilly Elegy is a worthwhile exercise in empathy, but it’s no more important than reading Ward’s collection. Baldwin wrote, ‘You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.’ There is plenty of pain and heartbreak in The Fire This Time, too.”

Blog Editor Hanna Heiskanen recommends:

The Establishment: And How They Get Away With It by Owen Jones (Penguin, 2014)

“British journalist and writer Owen Jones (b. 1984) hasn’t made a secret of his political inclinations (very left-wing, in case you haven’t heard), and he was a staunch critic of Donald Trump throughout his election campaign. His 2014 book, The Establishment: And How They Get Away With It, which was met both with great praise and criticism, zooms in on the power structures of British society and is now more relevant than ever. Owen claims that while the people continue voting in elections, behind the scenes, a network of the unelected, unaccountable, and immensely powerful advisors and diplomats control our lives and steer decision-making. Though Jones’s book focused on the UK and some of its seemingly unique features, such as the grooming of the new ruling class at top universities, or the privatisation of public services, its fundamental premise applies to almost any country you could point to on the map. Whether you grew up in a Nordic welfare society or listening to stories about the American Dream, this makes for a relevant, albeit depressing, read.”

The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1848, 2015 Penguin)

“It might be old, and many would say old-fashioned, but the grand ideologies of the 19th and 20th centuries, capitalism and communism, continue to have an undeniable impact on our societies and politics. Many have explained the rise of the far-right and nationalist sentiments around the world with the collapse of traditional industries that would have supported generations of working families who now feel unnecessary or displaced. Now, with the rise of China as a world power, as well as a future in which robots will take over an increasing number of tasks from humans, Marx’s writings suddenly don’t seem as outdated anymore.”

And literary critic Harold Bloom offered:

“The only thing I can think of right now is Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming’.”

*****

Read More Book Recommendations:

My 2016 by Lindsay Semel

I’ve found solidarity with characters who, like pebbles in the path of an avalanche, find themselves getting caught up in it.

This year, as I watched wide-eyed and drop-jawed the deeds and choices of my fellow humans, I read books that probe the alarming sensation of impotence in the face of inertia. I’ve found solidarity with characters who, like pebbles in the path of an avalanche, find themselves not stopping or redirecting the object in motion, but getting caught up in it.

I opened the year with a copy of S. Yizhar’s Khirbet Khizeh, lent to me by the writer, activist, and academic, David Shulman, who penned its illuminating afterward. Yizhar’s slim novella, originally published in Hebrew in 1949 with no English translation until 2008, narrates the exile of Palestinian villagers during 1948-9—the time Israel celebrates as the birth of its statehood and Palestine laments as its nakba or catastrophe. The narrator is one of the young Israeli soldiers sent to relocate mostly children and the elderly from the village destined to be resettled by Jews. His extremely complex voice captures the haunting cruelty of the task at hand without forsaking responsibility for his complicity—a complicity assured as much by official narrative as by official order. The novella is an important one in Israel’s national memory and happens to be good. Its intimate and colorful narrative voice, rich with Biblical references, shies away from none of the narrator’s labyrinthine conflict. And it’s never been more relevant. As I was reading the novel, I was living in West Jerusalem and visiting Palestine every weekend, bearing witness to the inheritance of the nakba. Over tea in their large, carpeted tent, the inhabitants of one village (clinging to the rocky hillside with nothing but the conviction that it belonged there) described their 4 am wake-up call by Israeli soldiers with stun grenades. Their offence? Asking for the soldiers to give back the generator they’d stolen. And whether you’re the one throwing the stun grenades, the one protecting your kids from them, or the one horrified by it all, the grenades still get thrown. READ MORE…