Place: France

Blocages and Barricades: Les Miserables and French Dissatisfaction

Revolution by revolution, France inches forward in search of its ideal of a just society, and every revolution thinks it will be the last.

France’s revolutionary past and future come together in Claire Jacobson’s reflections on the gilets jaunes movement and its connections to Victor Hugo’s famous revolutionaries in Les Miserables. Read on for Kylian Mbappé, Édouard Louis, and Emmanuel Macron. Vive la Révolution!

Marius and Enjolras didn’t wear yellow vests to the barricade on rue de la Chanvrerie, at least not as Victor Hugo tells it. But after watching a group of gilets jaunes attack three police officers on the Champs-Élysées on BFMTV the weekend before Christmas, the comparison suddenly didn’t seem so far-fetched.

I was in Paris with friends to see the PSG-Nantes game that evening, enjoying Turkish kebab in Boulogne-Billancourt and then cheerfully singing “joyeux anniversaire” to World Cup hero Kylian Mbappé with a stadium full of his adoring fans, and we didn’t hear the news from the Champs-Élysées until the next morning. It seemed inconceivable that such a thing could be happening scarcely five kilometers away while we chanted “ici c’est Paris!” and picked apart Paris Saint-Germain’s defensive strategy from the nosebleeds. Inconceivable, and yet it made a strange kind of sense; what the gilets jaunes lost in numbers each week, they seemed to make up in desperation and increasing anger worthy of the most vehement nineteenth-century revolutionaries.

I was thirteen when I first heard Les Misérables all the way through, listening to my parents’ Original Broadway Cast Album cassette tape in the car over and over as we moved from Seattle to Iowa City. We saw the touring cast perform in Madison a few years later, and went to see the movie as a family when it came out on Christmas. So when I picked up the book at the end of November, I read with the gilets jaunes watching over my shoulder and the musical whispering in my ear.

Knowing the musical backwards and forwards has actually helped me while reading, keeping the greater narrative arc in view despite frequent digressions analyzing corrupt church leadership, all of the potential reasons Napoleon lost at Waterloo, or the value of monasticism to society. The unabridged French edition is 1,254 pages, which I read alongside the Fahnestock and MacAfee translation, an update of Charles Wilbour’s 1862 original. READ MORE…

An Interview with Alexander Dickow

I think poetry and translation have always been intertwined.

Alexander Dickow has been Asymptote’s Communications Manager since April 2017. He is also a talented translator: in 2018, he received a prestigious PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant to translate Sylvie Kandé’s Neverending Quest, and was a runner-up in Asymptote’s 2013-2014 Close Approximations Translation Contest. As a scholar at Virginia Tech, Alexander Dickow specializes in French and Francophone literatures and cultures. And as if all of these activities didn’t keep him busy enough, he’s also a respected bilingual poet. He published his very first book, Caramboles, a French/English bilingual poetry collection, with publisher Argol in 2008, and a French poetry collection, Rhapsodie curieuse, with Louise Bottu in 2017. His first poetry collection in English, Trial Balloons, appeared in 2012 with Corrupt Press, and his latest work, Appetites, has just been published in 2018 by MadHat Press. As a bilingual poet herself, Asymptote’s Assistant Managing Editor (Issue Production) Lou Sarabadzic wanted to know more about his views on multilingualism, poetry, and the creative process.

Lou Sarabadzic: Your latest collection, Appetites, has just been published by MadHat Press. In a 2016 interview, you said that you were “fatally allergic to titles.” However, with such a strong theme connecting your poems, eloquently announced by a single word, “Appetites,” I have to ask: what came first? Was it the collection’s title? The idea? Or individual poems which happened to share this common theme?

Alexander Dickow: The poems came first—I wrote a whole slew in a short period, maybe a month, with the culinary themes. It occurred to me at some point that more or less everything I’ve done is related in some way to eating: my first book was Caramboles, which designates the starfruit, among other things, and it contains a culinary poem or two also, and Rhapsodie curieuse, in French, is based around the central emblem of the persimmon. My first publisher found the title Caramboles, but the others were my choice. So I guess what came first was the obsession—then the poems, and then the actual title. Of course, food is what I refer to elsewhere as a “paravent” topic—i.e. it’s a vehicle for talking about something else, much like love or politics as subjects of poems.

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My 2018: Andrea Blatz

August was “Women in Translation” month, so, naturally, I took advantage of this as a reason to buy some more books.

Blog Copy Editor Andrea Blatz’s 2018 reading list was packed with nineteenth-century science fiction and women in translation. In today’s post, she discusses the common themes that unite many of these books, among them the experience of trauma and the role of space and place in our lives, before looking ahead to her reading list for the new year!

Like most book lovers, I buy more books than I have time to read, so my “To Read” list is usually longer than my “Already Read” list. Having so many books to choose from for my next read means I usually pick something completely different than the book I’ve just read. However, this year, it seems as though spaces have been a prominent theme in much of what I’ve read.

I started the year with The Other City by Michal Ajvaz, translated by Gerald Turner. After finding a book written in a mysterious script in a bookshop, the narrator begins noticing strange things around him in his home city, Prague. The result is a strange, new reality composed of spaces that are ignored in the daytime. Fish talk to you, tiny elk live on the Charles Bridge, and ghosts appear as the mysterious narrator crosses a boundary into this “other city.”

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My 2018: Barbara Halla

It would be a lie to say that I don’t seek stories written by women about what it feels like to live as a woman.

Barbara Halla, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Albania, walks us through her reading list for 2018, a diverse set of novels, short stories, and nonfiction books by women writers. Along the way, she reflects on feminist theory, the beauty of contemplative essays, and the power of collective memoirs.

Anyone who has had the (mis)fortune of following me on Twitter knows I am a dedicated disciple of Elena Ferrante. So, when I found out that Edizioni E/O had published an extended literary analysis of her work, I risked missing my flight by rushing to my favourite Milan bookstore (Rizzoli) to buy a copy.

Tiziana de Rogatis is an Italian professor of Comparative Literature, and her book Elena Ferrante. Parole Chiave (Elena Ferrante. Key Terms, not yet available in English) is exactly the kind of book my nerdy heart needed: an investigation into the literary and philosophical works underpinning Ferrante’s literary creations. I think it’s important to note that a great part of Ferrante’s appeal is in her ability to shore her works into a lived reality, one that does not require an extensive knowledge of Italian history, or feminist theory, to be appreciated fully. In fact, with the slight exception perhaps of her collection of essays and interviews Frantumaglia (translated by Ann Goldstein), you lose absolutely nothing if you go into it with little context. That being said, de Rogatis does a fantastic job at explicitly laying out and connecting Ferrante’s text to the literary foundation upon which they were built, her analysis a sort of Ariadne’s thread helping the reader through the labyrinth of Ferrante’s writing. Ferrante borrows heavily from Greek and Latin mythology, like Euripides’ Medea or Virgil’s The Aeneid. Many of the struggles her women experience and the way they think about those struggles can be mapped directly onto various modern feminist texts, including Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” and Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born. Hopefully Europa Editions will translate this book, too, because it is essential reading if you are even mildly obsessed with Ferrante. I am currently re-reading the series and am amazed at how much de Rogatis’s work enriched my understanding: Elena Greco, for example, uses the word “subaltern” frequently throughout the Quartet.

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Festive Reads: Holiday Writing from Around the World

The Christmas season can be oppressive in everything from familial expectation to brow-beating advertising to relentless good cheer.

For many of us, Christmas is a time for gathering with family, giving gifts, and singing carols. For others, however, the holiday isn’t a snowy Love Actually postcard scene; in some parts of the world, it features tropical weather and end-of-year department store sales, while in others, it’s a just a regular day. You’ve read the blog’s Summer Ennui reading recommendations, and now we’re back with a list of our favorite Christmastime reads from Assistant Managing Editor Rachael Pennington, Communications Manager Alexander Dickow, and Editors-at-Large Alice Inggs and Barbara Halla.

Alice Inggs, Editor-at-Large for South Africa

Picture this: it’s December 25 in South Africa and there is drought somewhere in the country. Farmers pray for rain, sink boreholes, shoot dying sheep. The acacia in the bushveld to the north is bone-white and the grass invites fire. The heat is a white heat and cattle bones glare in the sun. The paint on Father Christmas statues outside shopping centres begins to melt and pine cuttings out of water droop. Tempers crackle and flare. The roads are too busy and the accident death toll climbs. White-robed umnazaretha worshipping in the open veld stand out against the brown-grey earth. It is hot and bleak and houses are full because all the family came to visit.

“It is a dry, white season” begins South African Black Consciousness writer Mongane Wally Serote’s poem “For Don M. — Banned.” It was written in the early 1970s for Don Mattera, a Xhosa-Italian poet and friend of Serote’s who had been banned by the apartheid government. The first line of Serote’s poem was later borrowed by Afrikaner André Brink for his 1979 novel ’n Droë Wit Seisoen (A Dry White Season). The book was banned too, as well as a subsequent film adaptation starring Zakes Mokae and Donald Sutherland. It’s been two and a half decades since those laws were repealed and the cultural whitewash acknowledged, but that line—“It is a dry, white season”—still echoes through summer in South Africa, the season in which Christmas falls; a reminder of the oppressive atmosphere that back then was not limited to the months when the temperature climbed.

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What’s New with the Crew? A Monthly Update

See how the unstoppable Asymptote crew is finishing up 2018!

As the year draws to a close, Asymptote staff members have been as busy as ever. Here is a selection of what our colleagues have been up to, from reviews written, to panels spoken on, and new blogs too.

Communications Manager Alexander Dickow contributed a review, “Mystery and Surprise: Two Chinese Poets,” and translations of Swiss poet and photographer Gustave Roud, to the 88th edition of Plume.

Senior Editor (Chinese) Chenxin Jiang discussed the political power of literary translation as part of a conference at the Centre d’études de la traduction at Paris VII.

Romania & Moldova Editor-at-Large Chris Tanasescu aka MARGENTO jointly (along with Raluca Tanasescu) contributed a book chapter entitled “Translator networks of networks in digital space: The case of Asymptote Journal” to the hot-off-the-press Complexity Thinking in Translation Studies from Routledge (eds. Kobus Marais & Reine Meylaerts).

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

The latest in world literature can be found here in Asymptote's weekly roundup!

This week, our weekly dispatches take you to Poland, France, Mexico and Guatemala for the latest in literary prizes, and literary projects, featuring social media, and indigenous poets in translation.

Julia Sherwood, Editor-At-Large, reporting from Poland:

Hot on the heels of a US book tour for her International Man Booker Prize-winning novel Flights (translated by Jennifer Croft), the indefatigable Olga Tokarczuk appeared at a series of events to mark the UK publication of her newest book. The “existential thriller” Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, is fast garnering rave reviews, and London audiences had an opportunity for a Q&A with the author combined with a screening of Spoor, the book’s film adaptation. There was also a lively conversation between Olga Tokarczuk and writer and chair of the International Man Booker judges, Lisa Appignanesi, at the Southbank Centre. Meanwhile, Flights has been shortlisted for the National Book Award for translation as well as for the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation, the shortlist of which includes another book by a Polish author, Żanna Słoniowska’s The House with a Stained Glass Window (also translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones).

Anyone who may have been afraid to tackle the classics of Polish literature will no longer have any excuse now that Adam Mickiewicz’s epic poem Pan Tadeusz has appeared in a new and highly readable English version. “I undertook this translation out of the conviction that Pan Tadeusz is fundamentally an accessible poem for twenty-first-century non-Polish readers. It’s witty, lyrical, ironic, nostalgic, in ways that seem to me quite transparent and universal,” writes multi-award-winning translator Bill Johnston in his introduction. At a book launch at the Polish Hearth Club in London on October 8, Johnston compared notes with poet and translator George Szirtes, who introduced his translation of the Hungarian classic The Tragedy of Man by Imre Madách.

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Don’t Look Back in Anger: Virginie Despentes and Modern France

Despentes shows that evil is all too human.

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.

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Documenting Translators: The Political Backstage of Translation

These films make protagonists out of the ultimate supporting actors in history, the translators.

Translators are often represented as mediators, actors in the communication of a text who are subordinate to the author. However, translators have often played crucial roles in politically pivotal moments. Denise Kripper tells us more about these translators, and the films in which their stories feature.

Coming soon this year is Les Traducteurs, directed by Regis Roinsard, a high-profile French thriller inspired by the true story behind the translation of Dan Brown’s novel Inferno. During this process, several international translators were shut away in a bunker in an effort to avoid piracy and illegal editions while aiming to launch the book simultaneously in different languages, all over the world. In real life, the book ended up generating $250 million, but in the action-packed film, “when the first ten pages of the top-secret manuscript appear online, the dream job becomes a nightmare – the thief is one of them and the publisher is ready to do whatever it takes to unmask him – or her” (IMDb).

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Section Editors’ Highlights: Fall 2018

Don’t know where to start with our Fall 2018 issue? Here are the stand-out pieces, according to our section editors.

The brand new Fall 2018 issue of Asymptote was released last week and we are still enjoying its diverse offerings from 31 countries, including a Special Feature on Catalan fiction. After the blog editors posted their highlights two days ago, the quarterly magazine’s section editors share their favorites from this season’s haul: 

What good is French today? After years of patient apprenticeship, and years of mastery, perhaps writing in French was only a means of escape, or a way of doing battle. These are the questions that Abdellah Taïa battles with, in ‘To Love and to Kill: Why Do I Write In French?’ Beautifully translated by Hodna Bentali Gharsallah Nuernberg, Taïa’s essay attacks the French language, with great vigor and style, and—of course—in French. In a succinct essay, Taïa adroitly sets out the class politics of speaking French in Morocco, and the satisfactions (and oblivions) of conquering a language and a place, and all the complicated forms of hatred (and self-hatred) that come with it.

—Joshua Craze, Nonfiction editor

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Blog Editors’ Highlights: Fall 2018

To give you a taste of the Fall 2018 issue, the blog editors share their favorite pieces from Russian, Catalan, and Vietnamese.

Today, we share our favorite pieces from the Fall 2018 issue, released just four days ago, highlighting the diversity of cultures, languages, and literary styles represented. Chloe Lim, writing from Singapore, is joined today by two new blog editors as of last week: Jonathan Egid and Nina Perrotta, writing from the UK and Brazil respectively. Happy reading! 

From the visceral, violent power of José Revueltas’ The Hole to the lyricism of Osama Alomar’s “Nuclear Bomb” and the schizoid voices of George Prevedourakis’ Kleftiko, our Fall 2018 edition plays host to a typically broad variety of styles, forms, and languages. A piece that particularly caught my eye was “Epilogue,” a quiet, sombre short story by Irina Odoevtsova about two Russian émigrées in Nice, their separation and their separate fates.

The story follows the unhappy existence of Tatiana and Sergei, initially as poor migrants surrounded by the Anglo-American holidaying elite of the Riviera, through Sergei’s uncertain departure and Tatiana’s newfound wealth to a tragic conclusion, with much of the story being told through short, terse conversations between Tatiana and Sergei, Tatiana and her new lover and (more frequently) Tatiana and herself. The restrained, even sparse dialogue and plain prose nevertheless creates touching, vivid and tragic characters in strikingly limited space, conveying to us the tragic story of a woman struggling to understand her dreams and desires, and the tragic consequences that come from her acting upon those confused and conflicting desires.

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What’s New in Translation: October 2018

Join us to find out more about titles fresh off the press in the world of translation.

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.

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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.

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Teaching and Learning Narrative Identity

"Though there is no substitute for language immersion in pursuit of fluency, you don’t need to leave home...all you need is a book"

What does it take to truly communicate? In this essay, Claire Jacobson takes us on a journey from language classrooms to the souqs of Morocco, exploring the narrative frameworks that create culture. Read on to discover the differences between learning a language, and the narrative identities that language use is built on.

Humans are inveterate storytellers. We narrativize our memories, use allegory and metaphor to communicate complex ideas, and search for meaning in suffering by placing it in the narrative arc of our lives. “When someone asks you who you are,” writes Richard Kearney, “you tell your story. That is, you recount your present condition in the light of past memories and future anticipations. You interpret where you are now in terms of where you have come from and where you are going to.” Or, as Paul Ricoeur says, “Selfhood is a cloth woven of stories told.”

But it’s not only individuals, Kearney writes. “Communities come to know themselves in the stories they tell about themselves.” When families gather, we always tell stories, sometimes new ones but mostly the old ones over and over—these stories are part of what makes us family. No Christmas celebration in my home is complete without reading about shepherds and wise men and the sociopolitical implications of the term “messiah” in first-century Palestine. These stories are part of what marks us as people of faith and also total nerds. A few weeks ago, my boss told me about the day we went from one bookmobile in town to two, traveling around to neighborhoods without access to the public library—this is one of the many stories that place me firmly in Iowa City, the only city I’ve ever known where you can find inter-bookmobile competition drama.

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A Book of 50 Square Meters: Thomas Clerc’s Interior In Review

This book will not sit comfortably on any genre shelf.

Interior by Thomas Clerc, translated from the French by Jeffrey Zuckerman, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018

“The doorbell rings. I go. Peephole. Nobody. I grab my keys. I open the door. The 3rd-floor hallway. Empty. A glance.” Interior is an elaborate, three-hundred-page description of the experimental writer Thomas Clerc’s Paris apartment, a modest 50 square meters on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Martin. The reader begins at the doorstep and is taken on a room-by-room tour of all of Clerc’s furniture and possessions, guided by a narrator—Thomas—as he leaves no nook or cranny unexplained.

Published in French in 2013 and translated into English by Jeffrey Zuckerman, Interior is not Clerc’s first meticulous endeavor. In a previous book (Paris, musée du XXIe siècle, le dixième arrondissement; or Paris, Museum of the 21st Century, the Tenth Arrondissement), the writer walked along all the streets in his neighborhood and documented everything he saw over the course of three years, the same amount of time it took to construct this literary blueprint of his apartment.

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