Assistant Managing Editor Jacob Silkstone travelled between several countries and two distinct stages of his life in 2017—and still had time to read a ton of literature! Today, in our final column, he reflects on the books that accompanied him on the move.
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“If I imagine something, I see it. What more would I do if I travelled? Only extreme feebleness of the imagination can justify anyone needing to travel in order to feel.”
The complete edition of Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet (translated by the incomparable Margaret Jull Costa) finally became available to English readers in 2017, and I first read Bernardo Soares’ hodophobic lines in an Airbnb flat in Portugal at the 40-degree height of summer. The water supply had been temporarily cut off and for hours the taps dribbled a thin brown fluid, but I had Soares’ life “of slow rain in which everything is … half-shadow” to keep me occupied.
In a year that began with the Trump travel ban and continued to be marred by small, scared attempts to shelter from the world behind various walls (both real and imaginary), it seems worth playing Devil’s advocate to Soares/Pessoa: perhaps there can be some justification for travelling “in order to feel.”
This year, I moved between several countries and two distinct stages of my life—having finally proposed after nearly nine years in a relationship, I got married in July. The evening after the wedding, I gave my copy of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness away on a whim to one of our guests, a foreign correspondent working in the Middle East. That copy subsequently embarked on a journey Arundhati Roy would have been proud of, travelling from Beirut to Syria to Yemen. READ MORE…
Editor-at-Large for Hungary Diána Vonnák, who joined us in October this year, moved between fiction and nonfiction titles in 2017. Some of these books blurred the lines between both and probed the relationship between invented worlds and our own.
I spent much of this year reading books I would have trouble classifying either as fiction or nonfiction. They reminded me of Geoff Dyer, who began his “Art of Nonfiction” interview with the Paris Review by protesting the division: “Fiction, nonfiction—the two are bleeding into each other all the time.” They do, and the result is often great. Here are my favourites from 2017.
I started the year with Philippe Sands’ East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, an engrossing family memoir-cum-intellectual history. Sands, a human rights lawyer, sets off on a journey to recover his own family history—which leads him back to Lviv, a city in Western Ukraine. Before the Holocaust eliminated its prolific Jewish life, Ralph Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpacht, who would later become legal scholars, both studied there. Just like Sands’ own grandparents, Lemkin and Lauterpacht left their hometowns and were spared from the massacre that eradicated their entire families. Sands combines a precipitating personal memoir with a vivid reconstruction of how the Holocaust led these two thinkers to develop the notions, in Lemkin’s case, of genocide and, in Lauterpacht’s case, of crimes against humanity. Sands shows how their ideas originated from their personal lives, and as he follows Lemkin and Lauterpacht through emigration, he reconstructs their respective intellectual environments. It all culminates in the milestone legal debates that took place after the Holocaust—Sands shows us how Lemkin’s and Lauterpacht’s own compelling circumstances shaped their arguments. It is rare to see legal history woven so seamlessly into personal reflection.
Today, we hear from Editor-at-Large for Iran, Poupeh Missaghi, who played an instrumental role in assembling our Spring 2017 issue’s Banned Countries’ Literature Showcase, even translating one of the pieces herself. Not unexpectedly, she reminds us of the need to be politically engaged, whether as readers, writers, or translators.
I want to focus on a few timely, essential titles that remind us all that politics infiltrates every layer of our existence.
I started my year reading Finks, a book by Guernica cofounder Joel Whitney about “How the C.I.A. Tricked the World’s Best Writers.” The book reveals the ugly side of the literary world during the Cold War, by delving into the blurred lines between literature, journalism, and “the needs of the state; between aesthetics” and “political requirements” of the times. In the present political climate, I found it an important reminder that literature cannot truly separate itself from politics and money; and that we, as writers and translators, cannot afford the luxury of separating ourselves from the sociopolitical contexts of our work and need to strive to continuously raise awareness—both our own and others’—about such contexts.
Today, Assistant Managing Editor Rachael Pennington, who joined us in October this year, tells us about her year of reading Japanese literature—and how it gave her a heightened appreciation for the smaller details of life.
When asked to review my year in reading, my initial reaction was to think back to my most significant moments—travelling to Japan, getting a new job, seeing my best friend getting married—and to recount what I was reading at the time. But on second thought, remembering Ishiguro’s Nobel lecture, which celebrated “the small and private”, I decided to look past 2017’s more momentous occasions in search of the quiet moments of revelation. Asking myself, when nothing seemingly important was happening around me, what books was I reading in what Ishiguro described as “quiet—or not so quiet—rooms”? In the times I was caught up in the monotony of everyday life and lost to my daily routine, which books had tided me over and heightened my appreciation for the minutiae of life?
I read Nastume Sōseki’s The Gate (translated by William F. Sibley) on several Sunday mornings throughout September. Here, cradling a hot cup of coffee and basking in the first rays of the day peeking through the window of my downtown Barcelona flat, I came to understand why Sōseki declared it his favorite amongst his works. The novel captures the intimacy of life through a minimal plot, tracing the magnificently undramatic existence of a middle-aged couple, old before their time. With this relationship as the anchor, people come and go, seasons flourish and wither, yet the patience with which Sōsuke trims his toenails and the grace with which Oyone carries the loss of their children never once falter.
Merry Christmas to those who celebrate it! This week, our staff continue to take turns looking back on 2017 through the lens of literature. Next up, Assistant Managing Editor Sam Carter.
One of the highlights of my reading year was the entirely unplanned—and unexpectedly delightful—move between translations and originals within a series not once but twice. Early in the summer, I had the chance to review the third volume of conversations between Jorge Luis Borges and Osvaldo Ferrari that Seagull Books brought out in July. Some years ago I had read in the original Spanish much of what constitutes the first two volumes in English translation, yet, for reasons I don’t quite recall, I never made it to these discussions that display a Borges who, despite being 85 years old at the time, remains a consummate conversationalist with a voracious intellectual appetite. He moves effortlessly from an unabashed Anglophilia—Joyce, Whitman, and Wilde are just some of the figures he enjoys reflecting on—to a more global concern. As he puts it in an Asymptote-appropriate formulation, “Why not accept all possible countries and cultures? Why not spread out to be cosmopolitan?”
It was with another Argentine author—cosmopolitan in his own right—that I ended up moving in the opposite direction: from translation to original. A few months before Restless Books was set to publish it in November, a friend handed me a galley of The Diaries of Emilio Renzi: Formative Years. Unwilling to wait to get my hands on a Spanish copy, I devoured it in the course of a few hours. (You can find an excerpt of this title, which was released in November, in our October 2017 issue.) There are two more volumes of these diaries, the last of which was released in Spanish in September, and I was thrilled to finish this masterful trilogy that traces the vicissitudes of the writing life with a unique intelligence and unmatched willingness to reflect on what different forms might offer. In Piglia’s view, for instance, a diary is a place where “you should ultimately write about the limits or the frontiers that make certain words or actions impossible.” He elegantly explores those limits in this record of how a great reader struggles to become a great writer by drafting versions of a novel that will only appear decades later, defining himself both with and against dominant influences, and spending what little money he has on books. The first volume is also, somewhat miraculously, both a great starting point for anyone who has yet to read any Piglia and a welcome addition to those who already familiar with much of his work.
It’s time to kick off an annual tradition! From today till the end of the year, Asymptote staff will take turns reflecting on his or her year in reading, revealing the pivots they took in their consumption of literature, and the intimate ways those pivots informed their lived experience. First up, our Editor-at-Large for Brazil, Lara Norgaard.
In the first painful weeks of 2017, I found myself looking to the past to make sense of the present. How did we get here? That was the question that repeatedly echoed through my head, like a drumbeat, during inaugurations, rallies, executive orders, new legislation. How did we get here?
It was on a flight to Buenos Aires during those first painful weeks of January that I gained insight into why this is so difficult a question to answer. I’d packed an old copy of the Argentinian-Chilean-American playwright Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden (1990) and, as the plane took off, found myself transported back to the first years of democracy after Pinochet’s fall from power. A woman who had been kidnapped under the dictatorship faces the very man who tortured and raped her: he enters her home, randomly, after helping her husband Gerardo get back home when he is stranded because of a flat tire. She takes justice into her own hands, staging a trial in her living room, while Gerardo, who is a member of the truth commission investigating deaths incurred by the military regime, urges her to follow democratic procedure even if the state might never recognize her story or bring the man to court. In his stunning English-language play about post-dictatorship politics, Dorfman captures a private memory that is at odds with public discourse. Though the fairly recent periods of fascism in South America predate the global bubbling up of right-wing energy in 2017, official narratives of those regimes remain incomplete.