Posts featuring Robert Walser

Spring 2018: The Dogged Chase of the Actual After the Ideal

Confronting the most immediate limits on human experience while resisting the arbitrary, narrow scope imposed by the commercial book market.

On 19 February 2018, responding to a pitch from Alessandro Raveggi—editor of Italy’s first bilingual literary magazine, The Florentine Literary Review—I arrange for Newsletter Editor Maxx Hillery to run in our Fortnightly Airmail the first of Raveggi’s two-part conversation with John Freeman on the occasion of Freeman’s Italian debut. “I do not feel American literary journals are doing a very good job of curating the best of our present moment,” the former editor of Granta says. “I think an American or American-based literary journal faces two ethical challenges right now, both of them related to aesthetics: 1) to try to redefine the cultural world as not being American-centric, and 2) to reveal America for what it is and has always been, but is just more apparently so now. Attacking these challenges means catching up with the best writers from around the world.” This brings me back thirteen years to the moment I stood up and posed a question to a panel of New York editors: “I am a Singaporean writing about Singapore; would my work be of interest to American publishers?” The immediate response: “Have your characters come to the US.” I end up submitting a story about Chinese diaspora in New York to a literary journal; the rejection letter that comes back reads: “Too much very culturally-specific backstory…that western readers would find compelling.” I remember a third encounter, this time with a literary agent who has read my work before our one-on-one meeting; she articulates very memorably why my fiction won’t be a hit: “A writer expresses his intelligence through plot.” But I like T. S. Eliot’s quote better: “Plot is the bone you throw the dog while you go in and rob the house.” Sometimes, in founding Asymptote, I wonder whether I was in fact revolting against all these things that all these well-meaning people have tried to tell me. But if the magazine isn’t a hit, at least I’ll have one fan in John Freeman: he very coincidentally writes me just as I’m composing this preface to say “how important what it is you do there has been for me and for a lot of us who itch to read away from the mundane.” Here to introduce our Spring 2018 issue and the Korean Fiction Feature I edited is Interviews Editor Henry Knight.

The Spring 2018 issue is one of Asymptote’s most asymptotic. Its pages are bound together by the familiar themes of futility and compromise and populated by people running up against the invisible but all too real limits imposed on them by the mysterious contours of the self, the precarious obligations of kinship, and the arbitrary structures of power undergirding society. Orphans, émigrés, postwar castaways, and second-generation immigrants all struggle to make sense of asymptotes of personal relationship (how close can we get to one another?), teleology (to fulfilling our desires?), epistemology (to knowing ourselves?), language (to legibility?), and narrative (to completion?). The issue, if it is about anything, is about how people situate themselves in the lacunae that shrink and expand as one approaches only for the other to recede. READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: Excerpt from “The Garden of Seven Twilights” by Miquel de Palol

I grew aware of the immense distances spread out in front of me, breathing for me.

“When I read Miquel de Palol,” says Mireira Vidal-Conte, “I see reflections of such authors as Claudio Magris, Robert Walser, Cortázar, Ray Bradbury, Clarice Lispector, Stendhal, Szymborska, Casares, Karel Čapek, Pessoa, Proust, Flaubert, or Novalis; but also of painters like Brueghel the Elder (the first of many predecessors of the surrealism of the detail) or the cinema of David Lynch, Fellini, or Wong Kar-wai. This is true irrespective of the genre, for the poet under discussion works not in a specific genre (save for that of language), but in the broader category of art. As a literary artist, he employs genre in the manner of a simple tool, employing the one that works or those occasions when it works. He is a poet when poetry is what is called for.” For this Translation Tuesday, we present an excerpt from The Garden of Seven Twilights, in which the great Miquel de Palol touches the real in all its vertiginous vastness in childhood moments spent face to face with the cosmos. This piece was first published last Thursday along with new work from thirty-one countries in our Fall 2017 issue.

—Lee Yew Leong, Editor-in-Chief

The Story of the Swing and the Stars

My American childhood, super-protected, closed in on itself, took place between Long Island and New England: Providence, Boston, Salem . . . Now they seem to me like places from a dream. My godfather Kaspar had a house on the outskirts of Boston, and I stayed there for long stretches in the summer, until my mother died.

There was a swing between two apple trees in the garden behind the house, but from a very young age, I preferred to kill time staring at the cockroaches and butterflies.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

If you're wondering what's happening in the world of literature, you've come to the right place

This week brings us the latest, most exciting news from Austria, Taiwan and the United States. Contributor Flora Brandl gives us a taste of what Austria’s literary festivals have in store for us; Editor-at-Large Vivian Szu-Chin Chih shares the wonderful news about same-sex marriage in Taiwan and its connection with literature; Educational Arm Assistant Reverie Powell serves up some fantastic and diverse performances taking place in the United States. 

Contributor Flora Brandl reporting from Austria: 

In Salzburg, the city’s annual literature festival took place this May. Among its most renowned guests were the actor Bruno Ganz, who read excerpts from the deceased Swiss author Robert Walser, and the Salzburg-based, Georg Büchner Preis-winning author Walter Kappacher, who read some of his own unpublished fragments. Other authors featured in the five-day festival were Kirsten Fuchs, Nico Bleutge and Franz Schuh.

In Vienna, the multicultural and interdisciplinary art festival Wiener Festwochen is currently showcasing a number of performances, theatre productions, installations and exhibitions. With this year’s overarching theme of diversity, most works dedicate themselves to pertinent contemporary issues such as postcolonialism and global conflict. The play Während ich wartete (‘While I Was Waiting’, performed in Arabic with English subtitles), by the Syrian director Omar Abusaada and dramatist Mohammad Al Attar, portrays the story of a family as it comes to reflect larger military, political, cultural and generational conflict in Syria. The production has been touring Europe for a year, albeit with a heavily alternating cast: some actors had not yet completed their own asylum processes and were lacking the necessary papers to perform.

The 48-hour performance by Spanish artist Santiago Sierra was also showcased at the Wiener Festwochen. Bearing one of Sierra’s characteristically self-revealing titles, his performance The Names of those Killed in the Syrian Conflict, between 15th of March 2011 and 31st of December 2016 aims to attach individual identities to the many nameless war victims of those images that circulate in our media. Researched by a team of Brazilian academics, Sierra’s reading of names (accompanied by images projected to a wall) toured Tel Aviv, Vienna, London and Buenos Aires. The performance was accessible not only to a number of local spectators, but also to virtual audiences around the globe who were following it online, ensuring that the humanitarian toll taken on the Syrian population is neither overlooked nor forgotten.

Vivian Szu-Chin Chih, Editor-at-Large, reports from Taiwan:

May 24 marked a milestone in Taiwan: the Constitutional Court ruled that the constitution should serve to protect the rights for same-sex marriage. This unprecedented and long-awaited decision has made Taiwan the first Asian country to legalize same-sex marriage. Taiwan’s fight for the legalization of same-sex marriage has lasted for decades and has taken an arduous journey, one which has been reflected through the country’s literature. Last Words from Montmartre, a novel composed by the notable Taiwanese lesbian writer, Chiu Miao-Jin, who took her own life at the age of twenty-six, as well as Pai Hsien-Yung’s fiction depicting the condition of gays in Taipei in the 1960s, Crystal Boys, are again being widely reread and discussed.

From the last Saturday of May until early July, Prof. Li-Chuan Ou of the Department of Chinese Literature in National Taiwan University will be speaking about Chinese Tang poets and classical Chinese poetry at Kishu An. On June 17, the two Taiwanese doctors under forty will give a joint talk on how they have been striking a balance between their vocations and passion towards writing, together with the everyday realities they face in hospital that have been recorded through their writing. Kishu An will also host an exhibition and a series of related talks to pay tribute to the great Chinese writer, publisher, and translator, Ba Jin, starting from mid-June.

From mid-May to July, the winners of 2016 Taiwan Literature Award are touring around the island to share their experiences of writing. The themes of their speeches span from restoring Taiwanese history through historical novels, to aboriginal poetry about the natural landscapes of Taiwan to the world, to silencing and violence in theatre.

Reverie Powell, Educational Arm Assistant, reports from the United States:

Wordspace in conjunction with the South Dallas Cultural Center, presented poet, performer, and librettist, Douglas Kearney on May 25 in the third season of the reading series, African Diaspora: New Dialogues . Much like the Sankofa, a bird that simultaneously looks backward and forward, Kearney embeds the past, present, and future of African Americans into his work exploring themes important to African Americans such as the reality of being threatened and being ‘threatening’ as well as the historical pressure to ‘signify’ one’s identity. Kearney samples hip hop lyrics, rewrites the myth of Stagger Lee, who kills Bill Lyons for stomping on his sometimes magical, sometimes expensive hat, and sentences him to twelve Herakles-like labors.

Additionally, Dallas’s Mark David Noble is “listening to the arts community” with his new podcast, Wordwire, which broadcasts local performances and interviews giving listeners inside peeks at various authors’ creative processes from inception to delivery.

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Translation Tuesday: from Looking at Pictures by Robert Walser

“When he felt his earthly end approaching, it irritated him somewhat that he had evidently produced, alas, almost a little too much.”

Diaz’s Forest

Translated by Susan Bernofsky

In a forest painted by Diaz, a little motherkin and her child stood still. They were now a good hour from the village. Gnarled trunks spoke a primeval tongue. The mother said to her child: “In my opinion, you shouldn’t cling to my apron strings like that. As if I were here only for you. Benighted creature, what could you be thinking? You’re just a small child, yet want to make grownups dependent on you. How ill-considered. A certain amount of thinking must enter your slumbering head, and to make that happen, I shall now leave you here, alone. Stop clutching at me with those little hands this instant, you uncouth, importunate thing! I have every reason to be angry with you—and I believe I am. It’s time you were told the unadorned truth, otherwise you’ll stay a helpless child all your life, forever reliant on your mother. To teach you what it means to love me, you must be left to your own resources, you’ll have to seek out strangers and serve them, hearing nothing but harsh words from them for a year, two years, perhaps longer. Then you’ll know what I was to you. But always at your side, I am unknown to you. That’s right, child, you make no effort at all, you don’t even know what effort is, let alone tenderness, you uncompassionate creature. Always having me at your side makes you mentally indolent. Not for a minute do you stop to think—that’s what indolence is. You must go to work, my child, you’ll manage it if you want to—and you’ll have no choice but to want to. I swear to you, as truthfully as I am standing here with you in this forest painted by Diaz, you must earn your livelihood with bitter toil so that you will not go to ruin inwardly. Many children grow coarse when they are coddled, because they never learn to be thoughtful, thankful. Later, they all turn into ladies and gentlemen who are beautiful and elegant on the outside but self-absorbed nonetheless. To save you from becoming cruel and succumbing to foolishnesses, I am treating you roughly, because overly solicitous treatment produces people free from conscience and care.” READ MORE…