Place: Sweden

The Nobel’s Faulty Compass

After all, it seems hard to believe that the magnetic north of the literary lies in Europe or in the languages that have emerged from it. 

In the will he signed in Paris on November 27, 1895, Alfred Nobel established five prizes in the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and the promotion of peace. In the sciences, the key characteristic of a laureate’s contribution to the larger field was that it should be the “most important” discovery or improvement, while the peace prize was intended to recognize “the most or the best work” performed in pursuit of fostering what he called the “fraternity between nations.” Yet when turning to the award for careful work with language, Nobel would distinctly modify his own: he specified that the literary prize should go to whichever writer had produced “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.”

From 1901 to 2017, women have exemplified that ideal direction a mere fourteen times. Although that dismal distribution has somewhat improved in recent years, it is nothing to brag about: only five women have won since 2004, and only six in the past twenty-one years. Such disappointing diversity continues when we turn to languages: of the 113 laureates in that same period, twenty-nine have written in English. That number does not even include three laureates who each wrote in two languages, one of which was English: Rabindranath Tagore, the songwriter who won a century before Bob Dylan and who also wrote in Bengali; Samuel Beckett, whose most famous work is titled En attendant Godot in the original French; and Joseph Brodsky, whose poems appeared in Russian and whose prose was written in the same language as the documents certifying the American citizenship he had acquired a decade before winning.

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Section Editors’ Highlights: Fall 2017

Our editors choose their favourites from this issue.

Asymptote’s new Fall issue is replete with spectacular writing. See what our section editors have to say about the pieces closest to their hearts: 

As writer-readers, we’ve all been there before. Who of us hasn’t been faced with that writer whose words have made us stay up late into the night; or start the book over as soon as we’re done; or after finally savoring that last word, weep—for all the words already written and that would never to be yours. The feeling is unmistakeable, physical. In her essay, “Animal in Outline,” Mireia Vidal-Conte describes this gut feeling after finishing El porxo de les mirades (The Porch of the Gazes) by Miquel de Palol: “What are we doing? I thought. What are we writing? What have we read, what have we failed to read, before sitting down in front of a blank sheet of paper? What does and doesn’t deserve readers?” There are the books that make you never want to stop writing, and the books that never make you want to write another word (in the best way possible, of course). Vidal-Conte reminds writers again that none of us is without context—for better or for worse. Her essay is smart, playful, honest, and a must-read from this issue.

—Ah-reum Han, Writers on Writers Editor

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Rape à la Polonaise, or Whose Side Are You on, Maria?

"A hundred thousand furious women wearing black, armed with symbolic umbrellas. One hundred thousand women, undeterred by pouring rain."

A year ago in 2016, thousands of Polish women went on strike from work, dressed in all black and marched on the streets waving black flags and umbrellas to protest a proposal that would make abortion completely inaccessible to them. While they succeeded, Poland still has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. On the anniversary of the Black Protests this Tuesday, on Oct 3, 2017, Polish women marched again to demand greater reproductive freedom. Feminist writer and columnist Grażyna Plebanek recaps for Asymptote the year of struggle for Polish women’s rights and the role of literature in the protests. —Julia Sherwood

A year ago we women went out into the streets together—young and old, teenagers, mothers, grandmothers. Women from all walks of life. Women from small towns and big cities, educated and uneducated. When I first canvassed women in a Polish shop in Brussels to take part in the Black March last October, I was worried that the shop assistants and shoppers might respond in the time-honoured way: “I’m not interested in politics” or “I’ll leave it to the politicians.” Or the excuse that’s really hard to argue with: “I’ve got enough on my plate already.”

As it turned out, this is an issue that concerns us all: the issue of our freedom and dignity. In October 2016, every one of us in that shop—customers and shop assistants—poured out our grief over what “they” were planning to do to us, by introducing a near-total ban on abortion, making what is already one of the most restrictive anti-abortion laws in Europe even stricter. The following day we marched shoulder to shoulder, united by a real threat—that of being robbed of the basic right over our own bodies. We were being dragged back to the status of women during the Napoleonic times. We would no longer be equal to men and have our lives directed by others, as if we were children.

We went out into the streets in Poland, in Brussels, Berlin, London, Stockholm, New York, and many other cities across the world. In Poland one hundred thousand women joined the protest. A hundred thousand furious women wearing black, armed with symbolic umbrellas. One hundred thousand women, undeterred by pouring rain.

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Sea of umbrellas. Warsaw, 3 October 2016. Photo © Tytus Duchnowski

The protests worked but in late August, almost a year later, Polish women once again went out into the streets of Łódź. Again, we wore black. However, this was a smaller and quieter march, an expression of grief. We were grieving for a young woman held captive for ten days by two men who had tortured and raped her. She ran away but later died in hospital. Her injuries were so severe that the doctors couldn’t save her.

What has happened in Poland between the two black marches—between the protests of 2016 and the funeral procession of 2017? READ MORE…

Section Editors’ Highlights: Summer 2017

From an essay investigating a literary hoax to new art responding to Trump's xenophobia, our editors share their favorites from the new issue!

Asymptote’s glorious Summer issue is chockablock with gems. Some of our section editors share their highlights:

“To assert that Tove Jansson’s invention of the Moomin world may be partially rooted in ancient lore is, for this writer, to fear performing an act of sacrilege,” confesses Stephanie Sauer in her essay on renowned Finnish author-artist, Tove Jansson. This confession is the crux of Sauer’s questionings. Journey with Sauer from the moment the Moomins were conceived, to its unlikely, subversive evolution. Hold tighter still as she dives into Jansson’s personal life, her questions of war, artistry, womanhood, and sexuality, and the fearless, unconventional course she cut through history.

—Ah-reum Han, Writers on Writers Editor

This issue features excerpts from two plays that deal with aspects of “disappearance” and surveillance. In Blanca Doménech’s The Sickness of Stone, translated from the Spanish by William Gregory, we take a look at a cold, dark world where random pieces of text read from discarded books become a kind of key to unlocking society’s ills or sickness. Gregory’s eloquent, tart translation finds the humor, bite and despair in this fascinating play.

In Hanit Guli’s Orshinatranslated from the Hebrew by Yaron Regev, a father must decide how he will disappear from his family’s life and what he will or will not tell them. An odd, compassionate family drama, Regev’s translation of Guli’s one-act is evocative and clear.

—Caridad Svich, Drama Editor

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Ida Börjel Invents New Language to Examine Authoritarianism, Resistance, and Sabotage

what happens if the cute start to speak, if they start making claims on our way of reasoning?

Born in Lund, Sweden, Ida Börjel is one of the most radical voices in contemporary conceptual poetry. Since her multiple award-winning debut collection Sond (Probe, 2004), Börjel has been investigating the current conditions of our world, raising questions such as ”Why do we walk in circles when we are lost?”, and, ”what is a waist measure of nationalistic characters?” Her poetry absorbs and reinvents language from consumer law, juridicial clauses, racist radio, political pamphlets and other sprawling sources to expose our contemporary, linguistic, and societal circumstances in relation to various forms and systems of power and authority. Her collection Miximum Ca’Canny the Sabotage Manuals (Commune Editions, 2016) is available to English-language readers in the translation of Jennifer Hayashida. Hayashida is working on a forthcoming translation of Ma, Börjel’s most widely-acclaimed book, which received many awards in the original, including the prestigious Erik Lindegren prize and Albert Bonnier’s poetry prize.

Asymptote‘s Sohini Basak caught up with the poet over email last month.      

Sohini Basak (SB): In your collection Miximum Ca’Canny the Sabotage Manuals, a collective of industrial workers’ voices confound and sabotage capitalist machinery and “the boss” in various ways, including providing instructions for what to do when they “cutta da pay”: hide paperwork, peel off labels, forget tools, embrace slowness, hold meetings, ask questions—it’s a very real and fascinating interaction between materiality and ownership of language. I’m interested in the blueprints of this collection. Where did you begin?

Ida Börjel (IB): It began, I guess, with that old question about free will, about akrasia and how we might come to deviate from a given pattern. What compels a person to step across the threshold, out on the piazza, into action? Or to activate a gesture of refusal, discontinuation, or silence? And, in addition, the question I’ve been dragging along in my writing since day one: How, in what kind of language, can I think differently about a system of which we are a part? In which we are apart?

So, in pursuing those questions, I conducted a minor survey of sabotage in time and space, from above and below, inside and out: from Elisabeth Gurley Flynn and her 1916 pamphlet ”Sabotage: The Conscious Withdrawal of the Worker’s Industrial Efficiency,” to—still in the U.S. but directed overseas—the OSS (a predecessor to the CIA) pamphlet ”Sabotage: A Simple Field Manual,” which suggests the ”citizen-saboteurs” in France and Norway during WWII issue two tickets for one seat on the train in order to set up an ”interesting” argument, just to name example. It also states that ”purposeful stupidity is contrary to human nature,” so the citizen-saboteur ”frequently needs pressure, stimulation or assurance.” From there, I I looked at contemporary workers in the textile industry in Pakistan or the closing of an Ericsson factory in Gävle, Sweden, in 2009, and many others—there are pamphlets, diaries, blog texts, conversations, memories to sift through. There is much to be found and read out there, though there are sources that need to stay anonymous.

SB: That’s very immersive … and once you had points of references, memories, material, how did you map it all out?

IB: What seemed urgent to me in rewording and sampling texts from these various sources was not a simple whodunnit, but rather, how does one find and pick up that ”fine thread of deviation,” as Gurley Flynn puts it, in the present order of things? In the factory or at the office, yes, but also in factory life outside of the factory. In the prevailing social structures, in our daily lives… Do we speak, think, write, like in a factory? Leslie Kaplan, author of Excess– The Factory, asks this.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

The latest literary news from Slovakia, Hungary, and the Nordic countries.

Friday is once again upon us, dear Asymptoters! This time, our report brings you the latest literature in translation news from Europe. Editor-at-Large for Slovakia Julia Sherwood has been at the Central European Forum conference and Blog Editor Hanna Heiskanen attended the Helsinki Book Fair, while Zsofia Paulikovics has an update from Hungary. Enjoy the ride!

Editor-at-Large for Slovakia Julia Sherwood has these stories from Slovakia:

On 20 October, the emerging writer Dominika Madro’s story Svätyňa [Sanctuary] won the annual short story contest Poviedka 2016. Now in its twentieth year, the competition is run by the publisher Koloman Kertész Bagala and all submissions are anonymous. This year’s runner-up was the story Šváby [Cockroaches] by novelist and Elena Ferrante’s Slovak translator and Asymptote contributor Ivana Dobrakovová.

A survey of reading habits, commissioned by the Slovak Publishers’ and Booksellers’ Association, has recently published very depressing findings: 72 percent of the public don’t buy a single book in any year; 40 percent read books only once a month and 28 percent don’t read at all. Nevertheless, judging by the crowds attending a huge variety of literary events taking place across the capital, Bratislava, over the past month, the picture isn’t perhaps quite as bleak as these figures suggest.

Slovak-Swiss writer and journalist Irena Brežná, Polish novelist Grażyna Plebanek, and recent Neustadt Prize winner Dubravka Ugrešić sought antidotes for despair as part of Bratislava’s annual Central European Forum conference from 11 to 13 November (video recordings here); Dubravka Ugrešić also read from her book of essays, Europe in Sepia, which will be published soon in a Slovak translation by Tomáš Čelovský. Parallel with the conference, some 200 publishers displayed their recent publications at the Bibliotéka Book Fair, held in the somewhat drab Incheba exhibition halls and vying for space with a “World of Minerals” exhibition. At the Centre for the Information of Literature stand two young authors, Peter Balko and Peter Prokopec, along with graphic designer David Koronczi, introduced their new “anti-logy” of Slovak writing. Aimed at schools but very far from being a stuffy textbook, Literatúra bodka sk (Literature.dot.sk) aims to show that contemporary authors inhabit the same world and share the same sensibilities as young readers, and includes samples of fiction and non-fiction as well as a graphic novel, Rudo, by Daniel Majling. Rudo started life as a Facebook cartoon strip and has now been issued in book form by Czech publisher Labyrint (in a Czech translation!).

slovakiaimage_rudo_obalka

On the other side of the Danube, housed inside the Slovak National Gallery and overlooking the river, Café Berlinka is fast establishing itself as a vibrant literary venue, in association with the adjoining Ex Libris bookshop. Since September 2016, the café has been hosting Literárny kvocient [Literature quotient], a series of debates featuring leading literature scholars and critics.  Of the many book launches that took place over the past few weeks, the liveliest must have been the feminist press Aspekt’s presentation of a selection of poems by Hungarian activist poet Virág Erdős, Moja vina [My Fault].  The book was translated into Slovak by Eva Andrejčáková (a past Asymptote blog contributor) in cooperation with poet Vlado Janček, who read some of the hilariously outrageous poems to his own guitar accompaniment (you can watch Virág Erdős perform “Van egy ország”/ “There is a Country” in Hungarian with the band Rájátszás here). READ MORE…

What’s New in Translation? November 2016

Asymptote reviews some of the best new books from French, Swedish, and German.

cabo-de-gata

Cabo de Gata, by Eugen Ruge, tr. Anthea Bell, Graywolf Press

Review: Sam Carter, Assistant Managing Editor, US

First published in German in 2013—when his In Times of Fading Light appeared in EnglishEugen Ruge’s Cabo de Gata, out this month from Graywolf Press, might strike a familiar note for readers who have witnessed a surge in autobiographically-inflected works that frequently take the production of fiction as a subject worthy of novelistic exploration. Hailing from both the Anglophone world and beyond, such novels record the process of their creation or the struggles to even begin them, and Ruge quickly aligns himself with this approach in his tale of a writer’s attempt to get away from it all in the hope of figuring something out. “I made up this story so that I could tell it the way it was,” declares the dedication to this slender volume, and a more precise formulation arrives soon after as the narrator recalls a period in which “I was testing everything that I did or that happened to me at the same moment, or the next moment, or the moment after that, for its suitability as a subject … as I was living my life, I was beginning to describe it for the sake of experiment.”

While in Cabo de Gata, a small town on the Andalusian coast, the narrator quickly settles into routines designed to simultaneously distract him from blank pages and provide him with some inspiration to fill them. The local fishermen, whom the narrator visits on his daily stroll, can empathize with such difficulties: ¡Mucho trabajo, poco pescado! A lot of work for only a little fish—it’s a piscatory philosophy that applies just as well to the writing life. Ruge, however, proves to be an exceptionally gifted angler as he reels in catch after catch in what would seem to be difficult waters, namely a single man’s short trip to this seaside village.

Serving as a metronome marking out the rhythm of memories that constitute the novel, a refrain of “I remember” begins many of the paragraphs that have been expertly rendered by translator Anthea Bell. Far from repetitive or reductive, such a strategy instead seems somehow expansive, particularly when we are reminded that, “fundamentally memory reinvents all memories.” Both the vagaries and the vagueness of memories—“I remember all that only vaguely, however, like a film without a soundtrack,” remarks the narrator in a line that will be hard to forget—serve as the subjects of reflection that find their counterpart in the rhythms of the sea and the surrounding Spanish countryside.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

This week's literary news from the Nordic countries, the UK and Israel.

The week is nearly over, which not only means it’s the weekend but also that it’s time for our literary catch-up! For this edition, Blog Editor Hanna Heiskanen shares updates on the upcoming awards season, among other news from Scandinavia. Editor-at-Large Julia Sherwood then reports on literary happenings from the UK. Rounding it all up is our correspondent for Israel, Alma Beck, currently residing in New Orleans, where she teaches philosophy for children.

Obligatory reminder: After you’ve caught up with all the news, head over to our just-launched Fall 2016 issue here!

First up, Blog Editor Hanna Heiskanen has the latest from the Nordic countries:

Lars Huldén, the Swedish-speaking Finn poet, has passed away at the age of 90. Born in Pietarsaari, Finland, Huldén was a much loved and highly regarded writer, scholar, translator, and recipient of the Swedish Academy Nordic Prize in 2000. He grew up among a tradition of oral storytelling in the local Swedish dialect and worked tirelessly throughout his adult life, publishing a large collection of poetry, prose, plays, and sonnets, among other works. He also produced Swedish translations of Finnish and English classics, such as the Finns’ national epic, Kalevala, and Shakespearean texts.

Finnish Literature Exchange (FILI) is accepting applications for grants until November 1. If you are a publisher, translator, author, or event organizer interested in working with Finnish literature, FILI has a handy guide on their site to guide you through the options. FILI, founded in 1977, hands out approximately 700,000€ worth of grants annually, in addition to hosting translator residencies and maintaining a database of translations of Finnish literature.

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Translation Tuesday: “The Princess” by Alit Karp

As she baked the cake, she thought about what she would say when she'd present it to the Princess.

By the time Nils Holgersson turned forty-eight, he already lived very far north, in Jokkmokk, the capital of Swedish Lapland, which could only with the utmost pretension be called a capital city, since it was no more than a small, remote village upon which, as Tacitus wrote, the sun never shone in the winter and never set in the summer. He worked as a custodian at the only local high school, which had three classes for each grade and a dormitory so that students who lived as far as 100, 200 or even 1000 kilometers away would have a place to stay. The school menu was standard for Sweden: mashed potatoes with butter and strips of bacon on Mondays, fried fish and potatoes on Tuesdays, pea soup and pancakes with jelly on Wednesdays, tuna salad on a roll on Thursdays, and noodles with ground beef on Fridays, which was the children’s favorite. He knew all this from his wife, Maria, who was the cook in the school where he worked as the custodian.

No children had been born to them. They accepted this as their lot in life and did not ask questions, neither of the doctors nor of their own parents, who were still alive when children remained a possibility. Sometimes Nils would amuse himself with the notion that if he had a son, he would teach him how to hold a hammer, how to drive in screws, and how to chop down trees. Most of the time, however, he did not torture himself with such pointless musings.

He rarely spent time with Maria during work. She would be in the kitchen and he’d be in the schoolyard, which was generally covered in ice, or else he’d be in the classrooms or the bathrooms. They didn’t think it was appropriate to consort as a couple just because they were lucky enough to share a workplace. If by chance they passed each other in the hallway, they would mumble feeble greetings and continue on their way. In the evenings, when they met at their home adjacent to the schoolyard, they did not engage in long conversations: Hi. Hi, do you want to eat? Yes, thanks. Beer? Yes, please. Can you turn up the volume on the television? Thanks. They would doze on and off until midnight, each in an armchair, and then go to sleep in their bed, which was neither particularly big nor particularly small, but in any case no act of love had been committed there in quite some time.

One particular morning Maria burst into the school storeroom which served as Nils’ office and said to him breathlessly, “Did you hear? Princess Victoria is getting married in two months and her wedding procession will pass through all of Stockholm. We have to be there. She’ll be so disappointed if we don’t go. And I want to bring her a present, something that will remind her of that day in the forest, you remember, right?” READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: An Excerpt of “Bret Easton Ellis And The Other Dogs” by Lina Wolff

An orange canary perched on a stick inside, its head aslant, looking at us with its black pinhead eyes.

So no Dad, not that I’ve lacked for stand-ins. Only my fathers have all been mayfly dads, the kind that are here one day and gone after three days at most. Some left traces behind, a khakicoloured toothbrush in the bathroom, an inhaler, a book on a bedside table, and sometimes those traces would give rise to hopes that they might come back, come in the door to the flat and suddenly be struck by the idea that this really was a bit like returning home, that everything was already herea home, a wife and a childall they had to do was enter and start living. I wrote about all of them in my diary, and because their names eventually started to blur (Valerio, Enrique, Álvaro, José María) I began calling them ‘the Jogging Pants Man’, ‘the Chuckling Man’ and ‘the Tartare Man’ instead, and then their images would immediately reappear before me. ‘The Tartare Man’ once made himself a steak tartare on our terrace. I had no idea what steak tartare actually was until he explained with a lofty expression on his face that this was what sophisticated bohemians in Paris ate. The sophisticated inhabitants of Paris were people whose taste buds had not yet been destroyed by charred meat and fried onions. He took the ingredients out of the bag and put the tartare together in front of us. The tartare consisted of cutting up a packet of raw mince and mixing it right there and then with egg yolk, salt and pepper. Have a tasteit’s delicious, he said and offered the greasy plastic tray to Mum. She turned her head away and pretended not to look, but I did. His fingers closed hungrily around the mess and you could see the pleasure in his face as he pushed the morsel into his mouth. Uhhnn, he said. Then he swallowed and it was impossible not to think of a snake as his Adam’s apple pushed the mouthful down his throat. Please don’t let her let him move in, I thought, and she didn’t.

For his part the ‘Canary Man’ made his mark with a rather distinctive present. Before he arrived Mum explained that this man wasn’t ugly, or attractive, but attractively ugly. He turned up one Friday evening, appearing in the gloom of our hall with a bottle he presented to Mum. Mum accepted the gift and put it on the linen cupboard.

‘Thank you,’ she said.

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Manolis’ Mopeds

A selection from the novella

From all of us at Asymptote, we’d like to wish you a happy holiday season, and to thank you for reading us this year. We look forward to 2014 where we will continue to publish new literature from around the world. Today, as promised, please enjoy a short excerpt from Jan Henrik Swahn’s novella Manolis’ Mopeds, translated from the original Swedish by the author himself.

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Writing an Austere Richness

On a writer's complicated career

Jan Henrik Swahn was born in 1959 in Lund. He grew up in Copenhagen and from 1970 on has lived in Malmö. His first novel, I Can Stop a Sea, about life in two gangster’s houses in a poor village in Normandie, was published in 1986 by Bonniers, the biggest publishing house in Sweden. The ten novels that followed were all published by Bonniers, and he was chief editor of Bonniers Literary Magazine from 1997-1999.

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Weekly news round-up, 20th October 2013: Nobel Prize and awards-season special

The first of our weekly columns on literary news from around the world.

The big news of the week (naturally) was the launch of Asymptote‘s new Fall 2013 issue, and, alongside it, that of a new blog, which we very much hope you’re enjoying. For those of the Asymptote team who’ve worked on the quarterly journal, one of the more exciting things about the blog is the new-found ability to comment on events almost straight away. You’re reading the first of our weekly news round-ups, and the idea is to bring together (and perhaps even hold forth on) the most interesting literary news of the past week.

Stockholm. The problem with launching just over a week after the major literary news of the year – the announcement of the Nobel Prize for Literature – is that we feel compelled to report on it, even though, given the internet’s voracious 24-hour-news appetite, it’s really all a bit old-hat by now. Oh well. We hope your own appetites will stretch to a more international view on proceedings than you might have seen elsewhere. READ MORE…