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.”
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.
In today’s post, Assistant Blog Editor Nina Perrotta reflects on the many books that accompanied her during a year abroad in Brazil, ranging from classic Japanese novels to contemporary fiction in translation.
Early in 2018, as I was preparing to move to Brazil, I picked up a faded old book from my parents’ bookshelf. Junichirō Tanizaki’s classic novel The Makioka Sisters, originally published in serial form in the mid-1940s, follows four sisters, two of whom are in need of husbands, as they navigate their own altered fortune and the clash between tradition and modernity in inter-war Japan. There’s nothing I love more than a really long novel, and this one, for me, was an ideal blend of familiar (the Jane Austen-style plot) and different (the specifics of Japanese society in that era, which I knew little about). In hindsight, it was probably my favorite of all the books I read this year.
As soon as I finished The Makioka Sisters, I started The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami (who, notably, was shortlisted for Literary Review’s “Bad Sex in Fiction” award this year). Though the two novels were written nearly a half-century apart and have little in common, I enjoyed reading them back-to-back, especially since one of Murakami’s characters, who would have been a contemporary of the Makioka sisters, tells war stories from his time in the Japanese army during World War II.
As my trip to Brazil drew nearer, I rushed through The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and, fortunately for my suitcase, managed to finish it just before I had to leave for the airport. Once at my gate, I got started on Charles Dickens’ massive Bleak House, which I had tried—and failed—to read once before. I promised myself that I would finish it this time, no matter how long it took. And so I spent the next two months carrying Bleak House around the streets of Curitiba, Brazil, reading it on the sunny couch in my apartment, and occasionally using it as a yoga block (it was about the right size).
Another week has flown by and we’re back again with the most exciting news in world literature! This time our editors focus on Hong Kong, Poland, and Spain.
Charlie Ng, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Hong Kong:
This year’s Hong Kong Muse Fest ran from June 23 to July 8. Themed “Museum Is Typing . . .”, the event presented an array of exhibitions and activities that took place across public museums in Hong Kong. It aimed to explore Hong Kong’s cultural heritage, history, arts and science, providing a variety of new and interactive experience to reshape the audience’s conception of the museum. Besides museum exhibitions, the programmes also included literary elements, such as the special programme, “Human Library” (part of “Sparkle! Counting the Days”), which invited members of different communities to share their life stories with readers. In the “Crossing Border” Special Talk Series, “Extraordinary Intrinsic Quality of Grandmasters—Bruce Lee vs Jin Yong”, speakers shared their views on the achievements of Chinese martial arts actor, Bruce Lee, and martial arts fiction writer, Jin Yong.
It’s never a slow news day on Fridays at Asymptote. This week we bring you the latest publications, events, and news from France, Brazil, and Argentina.
Barbara Halla, Editor-at-Large, reporting from France
Is it perhaps time to talk about a renaissance for French literature in English translation? More classic French literature has always had an audience in the English-speaking world, but in the past few months new authors are taking the literary world by storm. Édouard Louis is only twenty-five but already a public figure in France. His latest book, a semi-autobiographical work, History of Violence (translated by Lorin Stein) was published to great acclaim in late June. Alison L. Strayer translated for Seven Stories Press Annie Ernaux’s The Years (published in the UK by Fitzcarraldo Editions), an innovative collective autobiography that is both memoir and social critique of our times. To continue the trend, in June came also the publication of Gaël Faye Small Country (translated by Sarah Ardizzone), a coming-of-age story that tackles hard issues, including the Rwandan genocide and Civil War in Burundi. The Guardian went so far as to call Faye “the next Elena Ferrante.”
On May 22, Olga Tokarczuk won the Man Booker International Prize for her book Flights (which first appeared in English in our Winter 2016 issue), translated into English by Jennifer Croft for Fitzcarraldo Editions. Tokarczuk is already a household figure in her native Poland where Flights was first published in 2007. Two of her other novels have been translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, but it is only now with Flights that she is becoming a recognizable name for the English-speaking public. While the red Man Booker logo, signifying its triumph, will help it fly off the shelves in bookstores all over the United Kingdom, booksellers still face a tough challenge, for how do you summarize and sell a book like Flights?
Flights is categorized as a novel, although it eschews traditional plot and linear structure. At its most reductive, it can be described as a traveler’s diary through which an unnamed narrator contemplates and explores the roots of her nomadism. What follows is a compilation of fragments collected by the narrator throughout her journeys: short stories about home and travel, meditations on the human body, and even essays on sanitary pads, Wikipedia, and the English language. In the original Polish, the book is titled Bieguni, the name of a nomadic sect of Eastern European origin who believe the only way to escape the devil is by being in constant movement. And indeed, if the narrator of Flights has a life philosophy, it is this: “a thing in motion will always be better than a thing at rest.”
“A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a re-reader,” Vladimir Nabokov reminds us in his article “Good Readers and Good Writers”. There are so many books in this world, and unless your life revolves solely around books, it might be hard to be widely read and an active re-reader. Attaining this level of perfection that Nabokov describes is impossible, but the idea of re-reading as a tool to better understanding the value of a book underpins the philosophy of the Man Booker Prize International’s judging panel since its inception.
The 2018 Oscars may be over, but the awards season for the literary world has barely begun, with the Man Booker International Prize receiving the most international attention. In the world of translated fiction, the Man Booker International holds a prestige similar to the Oscars, which explains the pomp and excitement surrounding the announcement of this year’s longlist, made public March 12. The longlist includes thirteen books from ten countries in eight languages, from Argentina to Taiwan.
The MBI used to be a career-prize akin to the Nobel, awarded to a non-British author for his or her entire body of work every two years. Since its merger with the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize its format has changed. Now the Prize seeks to honor the author and translator of the best book (“in the opinion of the judges”) translated into English and published in the UK for the eligible period. For 2018, all eligible submission were novels or short story collections published between May 1, 2017 and April 30, 2018. Much like its sister prize (known simply as the Man Booker Prize), the winner of the MBI tends to garner much attention and sees a boom in book sales. Its history accounts for its prestige, but just as importantly, the MBI is one of the few prizes out there that splits the monetary value of its prize between the writer and translator.
Part of the MBI’s unofficial mission is to raise the profile of translated fiction and translators in the English-speaking world and provide a fair snapshot of world literature. What does this year’s longlist tell us about the MBI’s ability to achieve that goal? Progress has been made from past years, especially with regard to gender equality: six of the thirteen nominated authors and seven of the fifteen translators are women. Unfortunately, issues arise when taking into account the linguistic and regional diversity of the prize not only this year, but with previous lists as well. For 2018, only four of the thirteen books come from non-European authors, with no titles from North and Central America or Africa. This is an issue that plagued the IFFP before it merged with the MBI and marks even the Nobel Prize for literature, as detailed by Sam Carter in his essay “The Nobel’s Faulty Compass.”
Solidly into the hustle and bustle of December, we are back with more updates from around the world. Omar El Adl shares the latest in film and academia from Egypt. We learn about the happenings on the Polish literary scene from Julia Sherwood. Finally, Cassie Lawrence updates us on recent literary prizes and a new publisher in the UK.
Omar El Adl, Asymptote Editor-at-Large for Egypt:
The Townhouse Gallery is hosting an event titled Mise.en.scène on the representation of women and the main female characters in author Ehsan Abdel Qudoos’s work, through the screening of films based on his writings. The event took place over two days, December 5 and 6. The first day featured a screening of Henry Barakat’s Thin Thread, followed by a conversation with women’s rights advocate Doaa Abdelaal. On the second day, there was a screening of I Am Free by Salah Abu Seif, followed by a conversation with Arabic literature professor Samia Mehrez, moderated by Nour El Safoury.
This week, we dock first in Romania, where Editor-at-Large MARGENTO updates us on the political climate and how it’s influencing literary output. Then we sail southwest to Cuba, where we’ll hear from Blog Editor Madeline Jones about the foreign diplomats barred from an awards ceremony, as well as highlights from the International Book Fair in Havana. Finally, back across the Atlantic, M. René Bradshaw, Editor-at-Large for the UK, maps out the best literary events taking place in and around the capital throughout March and April.
MARGENTO, Editor-at-Large for Romania & Moldova, catches us up on the Romanian literary scene:
The recent wave of rallies that have swept Romania, where hundreds of thousands took to the streets to protest the government’s decrees decriminalizing certain corruption-related offences, has sparked reactions both on social media and in literary and creative circles. The “light revolution” received huge global media coverage when tens of thousands of smartphones converged their glows outside the government building in Bucharest, sending a blinding anti-graft message while also forming the image of a huge national flag. The true hallmark of this revolution has been internationally perceived as the deployment of digital apps and catchy, pun-filled slogans in both English and Romanian, inundating social and mass media with what hip-hop star Călin “Rimaru” Ionescu has termed the new “OUGmented reality” (OUG being the Romanian acronym for a governmental decree). As #Rezist has gone viral across digital media channels, it is apt to share from our past archives a celebration by Asymptote contributor Ruxandra Cesereanu of what she sees as a revival of the anti-Soviet and anti-communist rezistance, a Romanian partisan movement that heroically lasted from the late 1940s through the mid-1960s.
In a similar vein, American poet and translator Tara Skurtu—currently in Romania on a Fulbright grant—has revisited the Romanian gulag in a poem inspired by the recent protests and published in the Huffington Post. A couple of days later, the same publication ran an interview on similar issues with Radu Vancu, also an Asymptote contributor. Still, one of the authorities on modern and post-communist history Mircea Stănescu, who has consistently and shrewdly chronicled and analyzed the protests, maintained a cautionary stance, pointing out the generation gap strongly manifest in the current movement and warning about deeper political and educational issues that might remain unaddressed and resurface later. Yet it seems that the ongoing rallies and sense of solidarity are a breath of fresh air that has already inspired a great deal of writers. Poet, novelist, and essayist Cosmin Perța has already announced a forthcoming #Rezist literary anthology.
Acclaimed Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk (pictured) has received a steady stream of hate mail and even death threats after questioning her country’s view of itself as “an open, tolerant country.” As one person put it in a post to Tokarczuk’s Facebook page, “The only justice for these lies is death. Traitor.” Many agree that Tokarczuk’s “betrayal” must be punished; milder comments call for her expulsion from Poland. On a visit to Kraków last week, Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich spoke out in support of Tokarczuk, whom she called a “magnificent writer,” saying, “Some people would happily kick me out of Belarus in just the same way others are now calling for Tokarczuk to be removed from Poland.” While others have also expressed their solidarity with the author, the widespread outrage at Tokarczuk’s remarks has yet to subside.
The remarks in question are taken from a television interview Tokarczuk gave shortly after receiving Poland’s highest literary honor, the Nike, on October 4. She was awarded the Nike for her latest book, Księgi Jakubowe (The Books of Jacob), a monumental novel that delves into the life and times of controversial historical figure Jacob Frank, leader of a heretical Jewish splinter group that ranged the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth seeking basic safety as well as transcendence. Tokarczuk’s twelfth book, considered by many critics to be her masterpiece, The Books of Jacob is also a suspenseful and entertaining novel that remained a national bestseller for months after its November 2014 release.