Posts filed under 'The New Yorker'

In Conversation: Daniel Mendelsohn on his new memoir, An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and An Epic

What I’m interested in creating is something that combines all the things that I do in my life as a reader and writer and teacher

Memoirist, critic, and translator Daniel Mendelsohn is perhaps best known for the application of mythic paradigms from the Western classics to the analysis of popular and literary culture. Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2006 for The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, and finalist again in 2012 for his essay collection Waiting for the Barbarians, his criticism frequently graces the pages of The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books. The forthcoming release (Knopf, September 12) of his new memoir, An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and An Epic—about his octogenarian father’s experience auditing his Odyssey freshman seminar at Bard College and their subsequent voyage aboard an Odyssey-themed cruise—occasioned this conversation with Asymptote Interviews Editor Henry Ace Knight.

Can you tell me about the genesis of the book? Was it taking shape in your mind as early as your dad’s request to sit in on the Odyssey course?

No, not at all. The sequence was that early in 2011, before the semester began, he approached me about taking my course; I knew that he was interested in rereading the classics in his old age, and I said, “Well, I’m doing this Odyssey course in the spring…” And he said, “Oh, can I take it?” It didn’t occur to me at the time that it might be something that I would write about. Then, about halfway through the course, at which point so many interesting and funny things were happening, I started taking notes—his interactions with the kids, the things he said about the text. Much of the book is based on the notes I took right after class, memorable exchanges I recorded. Around the midterm, I thought, “OK, somehow I’ve got to write about this,” although I hardly envisioned a book at that point. In fact, at the end of the semester, when Froma [Zeitlin, a Classics professor at Princeton and Mendelsohn’s mentor] told me about the “Retracing the Odyssey” cruise, I called a friend of mine who was the editor of a travel magazine, and I said, “My dad and I are going on this Odyssey cruise and I think I want to write about it.” But I only thought I was going to write a magazine article! Then, when my dad fell ill, I started thinking all of this was…suddenly it took on a shape, you know: the class and the cruise and his illness. And so I started thinking, in a sort of inchoate way, of how all of this could add up to something: him taking the class, us going on the cruise, and him suddenly having a stroke and thereby raising the question of whether he could be his old ‘self’—a very Odyssean question indeed. I started to see it all as one event moving along an arc and that that arc was the arc of the Odyssey.

Did you start to draw more and more parallels between the Odyssey and your relationship to your father as the semester progressed?

I’ve done this with several books now, this entwining ancient texts and personal narratives. I did it in my first memoir, The Elusive Embrace, in which I wrapped exegeses of various classical texts around a story about me and my family and being a gay man who decided to become a father—my story was interwoven with musings on classical texts about desire and parenting and so on. And then I did it in The Lost, in which the intertext is not a classical text but a biblical text: I used Genesis, with its memorable narratives about fratricide and global destruction and wandering and miraculous survivals, as a kind of foil for this family story about the Holocaust. Once you start thinking about a text, these parallels to your life start to present themselves. So in this case, because my mind was on the Odyssey, everything about what happened to Dad and me, the course, the cruise, started presenting itself as “odyssean,” as potential material, and the parallels between the personal narrative and the text started to make themselves felt. So, for instance, the first major section of my book, which recreates the first weeks of the Odyssey course and our discussions of the first four books of the Odyssey, which are about Odysseus’s son Telemachus going on a sort of fact-finding mission to learn what happened to his absent father, twines around flashbacks to my childhood in which I too am a boy searching for his father, trying to understand who he is. And so on.

What happens when I start thinking about a memoir is that I’ll have an intuition about how a certain text is going to structure the memoir, and then once I’m thinking that way it just takes off. But of course it’s only in the writing that you can really carefully work out the parallels and draw attention to them in a rather purposeful, literary way; so in this sense I’m also creating the parallels, I’m establishing them in my text for the reader. I know the Odyssey intimately, so as things were happening in real life I would think, “Oh my God, this is so Odyssean!”—like the guy on the boat with the scar. [A major revelation in An Odyssey turns on an encounter between Mendelsohn and an elderly fellow passenger who had a scar on his thigh dating to an incident in World War II. In Homer’s Odyssey, a climactic moment is linked to the history of a scar on Odysseus’s thigh.] When I met that old gentleman with the scar I thought, “You cannot make this stuff up!”—as it was happening, I was thinking that no one was going to believe this, it was just too good to be true. But it really happened!

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

The latest news from our bookish reporters on the ground in Indonesia, Spain, and India

Your weekly world tour kicks off in Indonesia this week, where we’ll hear about writers receiving special honors and new books out in Indonesian and English. Then we’ll jet to Spain because some of the biggest literary awards are being announced right now! And our final destination will be India, where…

Tiffany Tsao, Editor-at-Large for Indonesia, has some serious scoop:

In commemoration of the writer Sapardi Djoko Damono’s seventy-seventh birthday late last month, seven books were launched at the Bentara Budaya Jakarta cultural institute in South Jakarta: one new novel and six new editions of Sapardi’s previously published poetry collections. The novel, entitled Pingkan Melipat Jarak [Pingkan Folds Distance] is the second installment of a trilogy, the first novel of which is titled Hujan Bulan Juni [June Rain]. Sapardi is widely considered Indonesia’s pioneer of lyrical poetry. Well-known writer and journalist Goenawan Mohammad opened the evening with a few words about Sapardi’s work, followed by poetry readings—including musical renditions—by writers and musicians.

Several writers from the province of West Sumatra have put forth a proposal that the poet Chairil Anwar be officially recognized as one of Indonesia’s national heroes. Born in the Sumatran city of Medan in 1922, Chairil wrote poetry until his untimely death in 1949 at the age of 27. Critics consider his poetry to be revolutionary on several levels, notably his engagement with the Indonesian struggle for independence at the time, his introduction of Western-influenced themes into Indonesian poetry, and the groundbreaking way he wielded bahasa Indonesia, or Indonesian—the new official language of the nascent nation.

Feminist fiction writer and essayist Intan Paramaditha’s short-story collection Sihir Perempuan [Black Magic Woman] will be rereleased at the end of April by Indonesian publisher Gramedia Pustaka Utama. The collection was originally published in 2005 and shortlisted for the Kusala Sastra Khatulistiwa Award.

The English translation of the Indonesian bestseller Perahu Kertas [Paper Boats], written by Dee Lestari will be released on May 1 by Amazon’s literature-in-translation imprint AmazonCrossing. Paper Boats is one of the seven Indonesian works that AmazonCrossing announced it would publish at the 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair, at which Indonesia was the guest of honor. Last year saw the publication of Nirzona by Abidah El Khalieqy and translated by Annie Tucker, and The Question of Red, written in English and Indonesian by Laksmi Pamuntjak.

Editor-at-Large Carmen Morawski reports from Spain:

April is an important month for prizes in the Spanish literary world and as such, let’s begin with the most prestigious. Equivalent to the Nobel Prize for Spanish literature, the 2016 Cervantes Prize, will be awarded on April 23 to  Eduardo Mendoza for his contribution to Spanish letters. Created in 1975, the prize is awarded on April 23 to coincide with Día del Libro (World Book Day), the day selected by UNESCO to honor both Shakespeare and Cervantes, who died on the same calendar date though not on the same day. At 125,000 euros, it is Spanish literature’s biggest award for Castilian language writers, with recipients alternating each year between Latin America and Spain.

Also of note, the 2013 Cervantes award winner, Elena Poniatowska, presided over this week’s announcement of the 2017 Alfaguara award for the novel, Rendición, by Ray Loriga which, according to ABC, was described by Poniatowska as both a “Kafkaesque and Orwellian history on authority and collective manipulation.” Citing Juan Rulfo among his influences, this multitalented author, screen writer, and director, Jorge Loriga Torrenova, who is better known as Ray Loriga, chooses to describe his dystopic science fiction novel as having “little science.”

Also worth mentioning is the 2017 Premio Azorín awarded to the Basque author from Bilbao, Espido Freire, for her novel, Llamadme Alejandra [Call Me Alexandra] about the last Russian Tsarina. Created in 1994, as a joint venture between the provincial government of Alicante and the Spanish publisher Editorial Planeta, the prize carries the pseudonymous name Azorín, used by Augusto Trinidad Martínez Ruíz of the “Generation of 98,” to sign his work. To learn more about this important member of the Generation of 98 don’t miss ABC’s tribute to Azorín in this week’s culture section commemorating the 50th anniversary of his death.

Finally, and certain to be of interest to Asymptote readers, is Laura Salas Rodríguez’s Spanish translation from the original French of Bosnian writer Velibor Colic’s Manual de exilio [Manual of Exile], available from Periférica. Based on his experience as a Balkan war refugee in France, Colic’s novel is particularly relevant now given the global refugee crisis. Be sure to read this Letras Libres interview, “Exile is Apprenticeship”, in which Colic discusses the paradox of writing in French, a language he didn’t begin to learn until the age of thirty.

And Assistant Managing Editor Janani Ganesan checks in with us from India:

As festival season wraps, it’s becoming clear that one festival in particular made its mark this year. Not one of the literary heavyweights in the country (like the Jaipur Literature Festival), but the lesser-known Bookaroo, a children’s literature festival in its ninth year, came into the limelight when it won the Literary Festival of the Year award at the London Book Fair (LBF). You can read an interview with the organizers of the festival here.

At a time when, not only in India but also in countries across the world, there is a noticeable shift towards tightening borders and a clinging on to an “ahistoric” nationalism, this in-depth interview with historian Romila Thapar provides an understanding of the new phenomenon. In a five-part conversation with the India Cultural Forum—an organization that focusses on issues of concern to writers, educators, and cultural practitioners—Thapar says about nationalism, “We are at the moment today when nationalism means territory. We are all nationalists in our own way and our debate on nationalism in a post-independent nation like ours is yet to be broad-based and public.”

Vivek Shanbag’s Ghachar Ghochar, the first book translated from Kannada to have a release in the U.S (in February), has had  a grand reception with a 1000-word New York Times review—a welcome sign for translated literature from the country.

On the other hand, Indian language writing faced a sad month with the passing away of the legendary Tamil writer Ashokamitran in late March. A prolific writer with 200 short stories, 20 novellas, and 8 novels to his name, he brought into being a unique literary history in the country. This exhaustive tribute by one of his translators, N Kalyan Raman, compares his work and life to those of his contemporaries, shedding light on what distinguished Ashokamitran from his colleagues. As the translator notes, his 200 short stories “belong to one indivisible world and can be experienced as the one big story in which we may all find ourselves.” Other tributes to Ashokamitran have also pointed out and lamented the obscurity of a writer, who should be read and reread much more widely.

*****

Read More Dispatches from Around the World:

What’s New in Translation? February 2017

Asymptote reviews some of the best new books from French, Kannada, and Danish.

 

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Pretending is Lying by Dominique Goblet, tr. Sophie Yanow, New York Review Books

Review: Sam Carter, Assistant Managing Editor

Dominique Goblet’s Pretending is Lying, translated by fellow cartoonist Sophie Yanow in collaboration with the author, immediately recalls the best work of those figures like Alison Bechdel, Adrian Tomine, and Chris Ware, who have done so much to insist on both the relevance and elegance of the graphic narrative form in the Anglophone world. Fortunately, New York Review Books is dedicated to showcasing the many voices contributing to an ongoing, worldwide comic conversation, and its latest contribution is this Belgian memoir. Originally titled Faire semblant c’est mentir, it centers on the experiences of Dominique—a fictionalized version of the author herself—as she navigates fraught relationships with her parents, including with her looming lush of a father. Also sketched out is a romantic relationship where Dominique attempts to grapple with that most fundamental question of heartbreak: why did he leave me?

A certified electrician and plumber, Goblet clearly understands a thing or two about the necessary connections running through structures to make them work, and her illustrations carry this skill into Pretending is Lying, her first work to appear in English. Image and text perform an intricate choreography, reveling in an aesthetic that frequently slips between the easily imitated and the utterly remarkable. If the easy analogy for reading comics is the process of examining a series of film stills—and even if we might be tempted to label parts of the construction of this work cinematic—I would instead suggest that Goblet offers something that more closely resembles a well curated series of photographs, each of which could easily stand on its own, given each frame’s clarity of vision and attention to detail.

In illustrations that move from Rothko-like explorations of pure color to nuanced collections of penmanship that gradually reveal a series of ethereal forms, the melancholia that we often find in other works emerges here as well—maybe there’s something about the form that lends itself well to expressions of such emotions in its ability to match words with alternatively visceral and measured strokes. The muted color palette of Pretending is Lying is also remarkably expressive. READ MORE…

Words For Human

Regarding Murakami's newest story in translation

A new story by Haruki Murakami was published in the October 28th issue of The New Yorker. The story is called “Samsa in Love” and is translated by Ted Goosen, who often translates Murakami’s Canadian releases. The story concerns someone who wakes up as a man named Gregor Samsa.

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