With our February selection, the Asymptote Book Club is taking subscribers back to school. Fortunately, Zsófia Bán’s Night School is a school unlike any other—populated by a cast of literary and cultural figures ranging from Frida Kahlo (and her double) to Laika the space dog. Each chapter of Bán’s textbook primer is filled with ‘defiant irreverence’ and the perfect combination of wit and profundity.
We’re delighted to be sending our subscribers one of the year’s most coruscatingly original short story collections, in Jim Tucker’s superb English translation. If you’d like to join us in time for next month’s Book Club pick, you’ll find all the information you need on our web page. Once you’ve joined, head to our Facebook group to meet other Book Club members and contribute to the discussion. We look forward to seeing you there!
Night School: A Reader for Grownups by Zsófia Bán, translated from the Hungarian by Jim Tucker, Open Letter, 2019
Reviewed by Jacob Silkstone, Assistant Managing Editor
Let’s begin with a simple biographical detail: Zsófia Bán has spent much of her life in academia, and her first novel (originally published in Hungarian in 2007) is a textbook. It seems barely necessary to add that Night School is a textbook like no other.
This week, we present a darkly funny short story in which an important dinner party is hijacked by a gang of malevolent chairs. Written by Jonathan Minila and translated from the Spanish by Will Stockton, “The Attack of the Living Chairs” is both an absurdist romp and a mocking portrait of Mexico’s ruling class.
The chairs revealed themselves as soon as we crossed into the dining room. They drew back to the wall and surrounded us as we approached the table.
The women screamed. We did, too. The guest of honor—the President’s wife—swooned and fainted. I served as the home’s proprietor, and something had to be done.
I tried to pick her up, feeling ridiculous, disgusted to touch a woman with so much fat on her arms and such a formidable mustache. Still, everyone hoped I would find a solution.
My wife seemed to have been rendered speechless. The others, too. No one moved. Only me, who struggled to lift this influential fat woman.
Belgian composer Thomas Smetryns wrote one third of Triptych, a new opera commissioned and created by Opera Erratica. His piece A Party uses the English language-learning records L’anglais sans peine from 1950s France as the basis for an absurdist comedy.
How did you come across the L’anglais sans peine records?
I DJ with 78rpm records with a friend, and I was always looking for new material, because we didn’t want to only play the regular Bing Crosby and Andrews Sisters songs. I found the German-language records first and then I started to look for them, especially, and collect them. They’re all from the 1950s because they stopped producing 78rpm at the end of the 1950s.
How did you choose which records to use in A Party, your section of Triptych?
I was quite fascinated by L’anglais sans peine because there is a lot of material, it had the book with it, and because it was just quite funny. The accents of the records… the way they pronounce the words, as a Belgian I find them very refined, but for Patrick and other native speakers they are funny just because it’s a very old-fashioned way of talking.
I had already transcribed the whole record, so when Patrick [Eakin-Young, director and co-librettist] and I were trying things out for Triptych, I said he should take a look at it. He was completely enthusiastic, so from then on it went really fast, I think two weeks later I got the first draft of the libretto from him.