Interview with Josh Calvo: On S. Yizhar’s Days of Ziklag, Albert Suissa’s Aqud, Volter Kilpi’s Alastalon salissa, unjustly untranslated Hebrew and Arabic literary works, and on the present state of Anglophone literature

When I learned from Josh Calvo, a writer, translator, and Princeton PhD student, that he had read S. Yizhar’s modernist masterpiece Days of Ziklag in the original Hebrew and that he had been assisting with the English translation of Volter Kilpi’s modernist masterpiece Alastalon salissa, I immediately knew I wanted to interview him. Our back-and-forth via e-mail lasted fifteen months, which roughly corresponds to the gestation period of the whale. It is no wonder then that I ended up with a whale of an interview: more than 16,000 words! Josh proved to be an exuberant, erudite and insightful correspondent, fired by a fierce passion for literature and languages. I am especially glad that, among many other things, he helped me fill in some crucial blanks regarding literature in Hebrew and Arabic, the languages which I cannot read. I am positive that you will take away a lot of useful ideas, facts, and arguments from this interview, and, considering the sheer amount of information that is about to come pouring down on you, that you will keep coming back to our conversation, taking note of things you might have missed the first time through.

 

The Untranslated: Why did you choose to study Hebrew and Arabic? To what extent was that choice motivated by literary factors?

 Josh Calvo: I was raised in an observant community of Syrian Jews on the Jersey Shore, so I heard both Arabic and Hebrew regularly throughout my childhood. My mother’s family hails from Aleppo for centuries, and my father’s from islands off the coast of what is now Turkey. Most of the “old timers” I knew from my community spoke a dialect of Arabic which they called “Syrian,” having never been educated in any formal Arabic; what I knew of the language from childhood, then, had irrevocably changed from whatever classical antecedent it once resembled, and had now become mixed in with the English I still use for everyday communication. Hebrew was the untouchably soul-soft language of study and prayer; Arabic, Ladino, and Yiddish, the crasscant-slang of my family and community; and English the everything-else mix-it-all-together concession to our ordinary American reality. This multilingualism left a deep impression on me, and continues to fuel my writing, translation, and current PhD work.

My earliest literary ambitions were spent on the yellow legal pads that I filled, under my school desk during class, in illegible scrawl, with imaginary spy novels and fantasy rip-offs. Later, in high school, I ran a creative writing club, where I read aloud the sad poems I’d written under the influence of Radiohead and my historical fictions inspired by Wikipedia binges. All these were straightforwardly English and could feasibly have been written by any other American kid who grew up in a leafy suburb on the edge of the digital age; rarely, if ever, did I tackle my own community in writing, even though my upbringing in some ways was then and remains the most ubiquitous and inescapable influence on all aspects of my being. More than anything I wanted to leave the “old world” I felt I’d been raised in and become a “Writer” — a New York School devotee in the mold of John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara, trotting the streets of Manhattan with a notebook always on hand, an American writer who, like many other mythical Americans, had shed the skin of history to walk the world wholly anew. It would take time and the usual beatings of adolescence to complicate my understanding of where I’d come from and where I wanted to go.

My adolescent ambition to follow Ashbery’s sacred footsteps led me away from my home community to the utterly-other campus of Bard College, where I’d heard he taught. (As it turned out, he had not taught at the College for some years, but there was no shortage of professor-poets who took me on and worked closely with me throughout my years there, even as I moved slowly from writing verse to fiction.) By the time I started at Bard, my interest in writing and in my Middle Eastern heritage had begun to merge in the form of a late-onset obsession with modern Hebrew language and literature — this was my first step, taken late in high school, to bring something of my cultural inheritance into the sanctus sanctum of my literary dreams. I decided to add an Arabic class to my first semester schedule to see this through even further. As I continued to study Hebrew and Arabic, then, my literary interests aligned more closely with my academic focus. I learned more about the forgotten history of Jewish writers in Arabic, and the neglected counter-history of Hebrew writers of Arab Jewish extraction. I became enthralled with modernist literature and looked everywhere for echoes of Faulkner and Proust in Hebrew and Arabic bookstores. Graduate school eventually seemed the next logical option — both to follow these interests where they might lead, and to support myself while I selfishly keep reading and writing and discovering.

Indeed it did once seem to be the inevitable course, but the realization itself came slowly, and with many years’ travel, reading, and study in Israel, France, India, Morocco, and elsewhere, and as my Arabic eclipsed my Hebrew, and then my Hebrew leapt ahead of my Arabic, the one language always leapfrogging over and encircling and mixing with the other, I discovered more writers in and between the two languages, and discovered myself as a writer and would-be critic by devouring texts that I wish I’d written myself, so much so I sometimes feel that even in my best Anglo-Saxon English I am always articulating myself somewhere between Hebrew and Arabic, whether I want to or not. (And yet I write, mostly, in English; more on this below.) I like to think that at the best of times, all of my interests and commitments are cyclical: the reading and language-learning feed the writing and vice-versa. But I know that the writing is always the strongest of all these impulses, and the dream of having the stories I carry inside me written and then read in their full multilingual breadth has not left me alone from my boyhood until now.

 

The Untranslated: Could you tell me more about S. Yizhar’s masterpiece Days of Ziklag? I am especially curious about two things: your personal reading experience of this book and your assessment of its place within world literature.

J.C.: I’m not sure where to begin with Ziklag. The book is nothing short of a behemoth; an endless labyrinth; an intensely real and superbly minute chronicle of a decisive (if belabored) battle in a war that irrevocably changed the face of the land it was waged on; a war novel refusing at every turn of its dense hundreds of pages and 55 chapters to yield to the cheap impulses of Hollywood thrill-making and suspense; a hymn to the human need for beauty and music and a plea for belief in something beyond mere matter; a map of the human soul and its destiny, charted at a moment of dire crisis; a thick interthreading of existential interrogation and impressionistic scene-setting, with the heat of the Negev sun and the cool of the desert night coming and going and coming and going again and again and again; a defiantly anti-war and non-nationalist novel so impossibly bound up with both that it has become confused for both warmongering and nationalism by critics and readers; most amazingly of all, for me, Days of Ziklag is a regenerative feast of language (weaving together varied registers of literary Hebrew, early-State colloquial Hebrew, military terminology, Palestinian Arabic, Russian, and Yiddish) written in a “revived” language whose modern literary legs had only some decades before they begun to leave the synagogue and study hall to walk the rotting city-streets and warzones of the modern world.

Despite all this fanfare, Ziklag, like so many other novels written in the age of high modernism but at the far edges of metropolitan Europe — Volter Kilpi’s Alastalon salissa is another candidate — is now notoriously under-read and, when read, too often misunderstood. The controversial reception of Ziklag would suffice for a book-length essay; moreover, this controversy is so overwhelming that the book itself, its magic and its meaning, has too often been swept aside by ideological readings on the left and the right that are more revealing of social and political change in Hebrew and Israeli culture than the meaning of Yizhar’s novel itself. Still, a brief outline of the “Ziklag controversy” may help set the stage for understanding the novel on its own terms. Upon its release in the 50s and 60s, Yizhar’s book was seen by some as insufficiently Zionist and unfair to the heroism of the soldiers who had actually fought the real battles it depicted; others on the left cheered the book, arguing that the representation of the soldiers’ self-doubts and boredom to be true to a shared national reality, although later waves of leftist critics, among them Yitzhak Laor, an important novelist in his own right, have revised that earlier enthusiasm, and now see the book as too Zionist to swallow, and thus insensitive to the suffering of local Palestinians and adjunct to the building of the founding colonial myths of the Israeli nation-state. One crucial critical voice, the influential literary and cultural critic Barukh Kurtzweil, who had written appreciatively of Yizhar’s earlier work, lambasted the book as a horribly overblown short story whose literary core consisted of nothing more and nothing less than moral emptiness and nihilism — a criticism so loud (and so wrong!) from a voice so respected that it has been alleged, and with reason, to have been the cause of Yizhar’s three decades of literary silence. (Yizhar did not write another novel till 1992’s Mikdamot — which has been translated into English by Nicholas de Lange as Preliminaries.)

For nearly a month and a half (mid-October – early December 2017) I followed those soldiers onto the hill, then off it, then onto it, then off it, again and again. I watched some become casualties – entering the memories and monologues of the others – while others scuttled out of view for a time, only to return and dominate an entire chapter. (In some of the monologue sections, it was delightfully difficult to figure out who was narrating; and incidentally, while none of the books’ characters are female, often the only way to determine whose voice I was listening to was to follow the lustful and lovelorn descriptions of the woman back home the speaker was trying to talk to or think about). I scribbled feverish and illegible notes in the margins, navigated difficult and thorny wordings and sentences, looked up several hundreds of words I did not know before, many of which I still have not found definitions for (Yizhar invented some; others I have listed and will soon be searching after in the exhaustive six volume Even Shoshan dictionary, the OED of Modern Hebrew, one of whose most oft-referenced sources is none other than our Days of Ziklag). I tracked down the books’ many reviews from the original issue (1958) and the later revision (1989). I read nearly all the material I could find on the book in Hebrew and English, from Facebook rants by unsatisfied readers to some illuminating reflections by the editor of the later revision about the made-up words Yizhar decided to take out or the completely reworked sections no critic or reviewer seemed to have noticed in the latest round of reviews. (I’ve now begun tracking these differences, in the hope of extracting still more from the book!) I would listen to nothing other than the book’s musical references (Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, and César Franck all make appearances in the monologues of Amikhai the medic). I did everything I could, while reading and while not, to feel immersed by the total world of the novel, to have some corner of my head always stuck in Ziklag the book and on Ziklag the hill. It was (to my delight) a totally-consuming reading experience.

Not the least for the internal variety and symphony of the novel itself. Stylistically, Yizhar demands that his reader move in and out of slow, atmospheric descriptive sections; fast-moving, but fast-ending battle sections; conversations among the soldiers, often debates or disputations; extended passages written in the collective (plural) and singular second tense, referring to the feelings of presumably anyone and everyone in the moment of narration; and personalized internal monologues taking the form of letters back home written in the heads of one among the soldiers, or poems, or merely self-reflections and binges of introspection, or rants and rambles about the heat and the war and the desolation of the desert, or descriptions of symphonies and concertos that have ear-wormed into the head of the speaker. The result has been described as something like attacking the impossible task of capturing the “real” from all sides: from every grammatical tense, from the tenseless nature surrounding the soldiers — Yizhar exploits every available linguistic, thematic, and literary force possible to capture the infinite richness of a single moment of human experience.

For me, though, the heart of the book, the fire that kept me joyously struggling through the desert, the secret ingredient so fatally misread by Kurtzweil, was its constant searching for human meaning, and its belief, however shaken by the horrors of war and the existential emptiness that military combat stirs in the souls of those doomed to fight it, in the magical or divine capacity of language — human language, that is, in all its color and scope — to convey or to comprehend, in fits of inspiration or in subtle searchings, or else to struggle or to battle with, or to otherwise approach, enact, and make real meaning. Language means things; real, important things humans need to say and have said; another someone, an Other, can hear. Someone is listening in the void: God, your girlfriend, maybe even the craggy mountains themselves. This seems to me the essential “message” that will help those with good faith make it to the end of the novel — it may well have been the literary motive that kept Yizhar writing for so long.

(Ziklag took him some six years, he says; scribbled all in longhand between meetings as a member of Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, or on buses to and from the capital; still, six years seems to me, all things considered, a remarkably short amount of time to complete such a monumental book! And what’s more, while he did enter a nearly-definitive literary silence in the wake of Ziklag, having said that he felt he would “die” after completing the novel, Yizhar immediately began writing a series of short stories “for young adults” – though by no means your typical YA fiction – in the aftermath of its release.)

I suspect that the failure to appreciate this essential and earnest effort driving Yizhar’s literary writing, and instead the politicking and racketeering that critics have used to distract themselves from actually reading the book for what it is and not what it “seems” to be superficially — that is, yet another novel, however unfortunately long, about Israel’s War of Independence, and the generation of young native-born Zionist pioneers who fought it — led to Yizhar’s long disillusionment and silence. (Tellingly, his next major work, written long after he left Knesset and thus his last vestige of public life, was a two-volume primer on [how to] “Read a Story,” (Likro Sipur, Am Oved, 1982) in which he argues forcefully for the ciphering off of the world beyond a literary work, and the primal meeting of author and reader in the language-world of the text).  Yizhar even noted in an interview with Hilit Yeshurun, the Terry Gross of interviewers to many an important Israeli writer, that the book would’ve been about Canada had he been born and raised there and not in mandatory Palestine-cum-Israel. The belligerent founding of the State of Israel, the invading army of the Egyptians, the Nakba, the collapse of the agrarian-pioneer Zionist ideal these feature importantly in the novel, and it might be considered rash or incomplete to remove them from our discussion entirely, as Yizhar himself may have argued, but still, there can be no doubt that they serve as background, context, the surface upon which to build his tome, rather than the determining structure which his book would, at best, mimic and reenact.

Yizhar’s is a work of art that stands beyond these contingencies, far above in the radiantly blue desert sky — an extended heart-wrenching description of which closes the novel (“and it called to you, till your insides roared out for it”). My hope is that the English translation of Days of Ziklag forthcoming by Nicholas de Lange and Yaacob Dweck — who previously tackled, with much deserved success, Yizhar’s earlier and also controversial novella Hirbet Hizeh — will rightfully elevate this masterpiece onto the highest shelves of world literature. (De Lange has said as much in an  interview with Words without Borders   following the release of his translation of Amos Oz’s Judas.) My own concern is to have the book read alongside other enduring works of high modernism whose linguistic daring we seem to have forgotten or else completely abandoned. The sad truth is that because Yizhar’s oeuvre (with the small and politicized exception of Hirbet Hizeh) is so notoriously under–/misread among Hebrew readers — both of Ziklag’s two editions have run out of print, along with nearly all the later work, leaving behind only Hizeh, and that alone was hard enough to find in bookstores until a recent reprint — his books have not had much of the necessary inertia to emerge onto the scene of what we consider the body of essential “world” literature, and world modernist fiction in particular. I mentioned Volter Kilpi earlier because I see his and Yizhar’s modernist masterpieces as fascinatingly complementary: both suffer from relative neglect in their home countries, both written on the outskirts of Europe but clearly under its influence, both await their second lives in translation. From a writer-literary perspective, too, both texts are fountains of inspiration; Yizhar’s relatively late addition to what I would call the world modernist canon raises the hope for that revolution in literature to be continued across languages, even in our day. From an academic-critical perspective, I’m hoping to use my dissertation to make some of the necessary literary connections between works like Kilpi’s and Yizhar’s — even where historical connections between their respective works might seem wanting or, on the surface at least, non-existent. I would hope to weave the thread of what we think of as high modernism wider in time and space, beyond Dublin and Paris, to include the forgotten island of Kustavi and the wastelands of the upper Negev — and these among other varied landscapes brought to life by the worldwide revolution of Modernism, which should straddle if not erase our illusions of East and West, whether we acknowledge it with our translations or not.

 

The Untranslated: Most probably you are familiar with Gil Z. Hochberg’s book of literary criticism In Spite of Partition: Jews, Arabs, and the Limits of Separatist Imagination. In the November 2009 issue of AJS Review there appeared a critical appraisal of this work by Nancy E. Berg, whose reference to one of the novels analyzed in Hochberg’s book immediately caught my attention. This is what she writes about the Moroccan-born Albert Suissa’s challenging novel Aqud: “Its macaronic multilingualism – including lexical items from Hebrew strata ranging from the rabbinic to the street, the biblical and the mystical, combined with Judeo-Berber and phrases from the Jewish Moroccan Arabic dialect – was criticized rather than celebrated as a ‘new and “foreign” kind of Hebrew text or as a further development in the actualization of modern Hebrew.’ ” Since you are currently translating this novel into English, I would like to know two things. Firstly, does it live up to the hype – for based on the above description it sounds like a Middle-Eastern Finnegans Wake? And secondly, how do you go about rendering its linguistic eccentricities in English?

J.C.: I’ll start by saying that I would want to respectfully qualify Nancy Berg’s characterization of Aqud within the context of the development of what we now call Israeli literature. The book is indeed “macaronically” multilingual; so much so that its critical reception has focused more heavily on the language and style than the book’s content, which is equally and richly weird, wacky, and wonderful. That said, I don’t think it is quite right to see Albert Swissa’s multilingualism as strictly “a further development in the actualization of modern Hebrew.” If anything, what Swissa is doing is recapturing and reclaiming a multilingualism so endemic to much of world Jewry before the Holocaust/establishment of Israel, and so foreign to the monolingual-nationalist demand that “Hebrew(s), speak Hebrew!” (ivri, daberivrit!). Swissa was himself born in Casablanca and raised in the Jerusalem slums in which his novel is set: it would be natural, among Moroccan immigrant communities of that time, to hear a mix of low-register, immigrant modern Hebrew with layers of rhetorically “higher” Rabbinic, kabbalistic, ritual, Biblical Hebrew — not to mention French, Berber, and of course Arabic, dialectical and classical. This is *not* to say that Swissa’s language is unmediated or mimetic, only to clarify that his multilingualism is as much a tribute to an enduring Moroccan Jewish cultural reality – in a recognizably modernist and novelistic form, to be sure – as it is his own unique contribution to the opening up of modern Hebrew’s literary horizons. It is truly remarkable to read a novel that is so richly multilingual in the form of the narrative as well as its content, being a multilingually told story of a historically multilingual community thrust into an aggressively monolingual Hebrew-speaking nation-state.

Modern Hebrew literature and culture has never been truly monolingual, anyway — though not for lack of trying by ideologies and nationalists of varied stripes. Even our friend S. Yizhar, born to a pioneering (halutz) family of Hebrew writers from Russia — his father was said to have arrived in Palestine “with the Bible in one hand and Tolstoy in the other” — depended on the vitality of colloquial Arabics, Yiddish, Russian and emerging Israeli slang (itself often a dictionary of repressed multilingualism) to enrich his monolingual Hebrew masterwork. Generationally Yizhar is one of the last (Ashkenazi) writers of modern Hebrew in a long tradition of different strategies for writing fresh and modern literature in a language once exclusively textual or liturgical; models were originally drawn from Yiddish, Russian, Arabic, and other languages that were spoken and written alongside Hebrew in the diaspora (not to mention the decisive shift in modern Hebrew literature from a stiff Biblical idiom to one more in keeping with Rabbinic Hebrew and Aramaic — which was still in use in religious and legal texts and had been developing quietly among Jewish communities, without being used for spoken communication, for centuries). This was as much about the necessity of developing a living literary language by borrowing from neighboring colloquialisms as it was about the very essence of Jewish literary culture across the world: from the moment we begin to meaningfully speak of something called “Jewish” culture, we are attending in some way to the mixing and intermingling of cultural and linguistic elements both uniquely Jewish and Other.

I would also qualify the Finnegans Wake comparison, though not by forfeiting the idea of that sort of comparison altogether. Such formulae [“the James Joyce of X”] often come under fire by academics for any number of reasons, many of them reasonable, most of them political if not especially literary, but I do think comparing in this way can be useful at least as a start; by identifying the James Joyce of x language, we may begin to make the sort of aesthetic and literary links that should, in my view, be the basis of what we call “modernist literature” across time and space, where modernism is understood as a literary and not a historical-historicist term. In this case I would say that Aqud more closely matches the wonder world of Joyce’s Ulysses – and especially the famous (or infamous) Oxen of the Sun chapter, where Joyce’s language dances through the many substrata of English much the way that Swissa’s does through Hebrew and Moroccan Arabic throughout his novel. The links between Joyce and Swissa are endless and fruitful: on the level of language and form, both are deeply committed to dedicating the extreme highest and lowest registers of their languages for literary use, both are unafraid of and indeed embrace the multilingual origins of their own languages and literary traditions, both are comfortable swimming in the stream-of-consciousness; further still, on the level of content: both write about thorny political-historical realities without prescribing didactic solutions, both write from a necessary and cultivated distance but display essential closeness to the national, religious, and cultural communities in which they were raised, both have more than just one good laugh at the expense of nationalist myths, both are, in different ways, exiles. Differences are worth acknowledging, too, and I could certainly ramble on about them, but it seems to me that too much is said in the academy in honor of difference and too easily. It is far more difficult to make the case for more-than-superficial links and affinities between Joyce and other modernists in other languages and later decades than it is to rule out the connection entirely, and to trust thereby that our best understandings of “Literature” and “literatures” are mimicked by the naming and organization of university departments along national lines.

A word here about Aqud (The Bound) itself. The novel follows the interconnected boyhoods of three Moroccan Jews — first generation Israelis — growing up in the “concrete slum” of Ir-ganim (“city of gardens”) in 1970s Jerusalem. (Ir-ganim is a real neighborhood, by the way, integrated now into the long-expanding capital, but born of the sort of shoddy, overnight mass construction built to house the mass influx of Jewish immigrants that arrived in Israel from the 50s onward.) Structurally the book is divided into three parts, each focusing on the adventures and inner worlds of one young male protagonist: the first section, titled (like the novel itself) The Bound, follows the uncontrollable Yohai, who is sent to an all-Ashkenazi religious boarding school in Bnei Brak after forcing a neighborhood boy to drink his urine; A Blessed Orphanhood, the second section, explores the failed relationship between tough-boy bully Beber (born in Israel) and his father Mr. Sultan (born in Morocco); the last section, A Futile Attempt to Hold Onto a Fading Memory, focuses on twelve-year old Ayush, who flees from the impending moral and social responsibility of his coming bar-mitzvah (and its erasing of  “childhood” and bestowing of “manhood”). Ayush’s section is by far the longest (190 pages out of 270) and most bewildering of the three, delving deep into its protagonist’s surreal and boyish imagination, and blurring the boundaries of fantastic and realist representational modes. We watch Ayush as he adventures in the magical front yard of neighborhood madman and holocaust survivor Gersha, imagines himself as an American cowboy raping (yes, it is that graphic) his schoolteacher, unwittingly experiences an all-boy sex orgy, and imaginatively transforms the sex of his younger sister’s dolls from female to male. These plot points are constructed from Ayush’s streaming consciousness and surrealist philosophical explorations, as well the ramblings of Gersha, and the lessons of the talking “Little Man” (once his sister’s female doll, now a kind of rabbi-teacher incarnate). What ostensibly holds the novel’s three parts together is the titular theme of The Bound, of the Biblical binding of Isaac (aqedah) especially — the novel’s first paragraphs feature an inquisitive Yohai wondering “what Isaac thought of on the day of his Binding?” But unlike earlier modern Hebrew literature, which recast the story of the aqedah as an origin story of Zionist sacrifice, the meaning of “binding” here is various, internally-contradicting, and anything but nationalist.

Another unique feature that links these characters topographically, in addition to the book’s stylistic and thematic unity, are the repeating refrains describing the concrete colony (moshavat ha-beton) of Ir-ganim and its environs. If you’ll forgive me the long quote — this is from the second section’s opening sentence — I think it in its own way serves as a sort of summary of the themes and images that reoccur throughout the book:

Before then, there were these blissful rolling hills and fields of sewage trickling freely down the black ravines, between enormous tractor tires and artichoke thistles and   za’arour   bushes with ripe berries, and many other kinds of trees still unnamed, and the spring and autumn flowers still remained, along with the wild Arabs and their wild animals and their wild black sons riding donkeys and stealing almonds and figs, else dragging around the remains of old cars and rolling their wheels down the slope of the wadi. Until the day when the wheel of what they call “fortune” in this country turned on them, and it seemed to Mr. Sultan that they’d been told — with unbearable viciousness and frantic national pride, and in a tone that one university professor, half-Moroccan and half-Ashkenazi, but very radical, would call “Bolshevik” — they’d been told that  “here we’ll build palaces for you paupers” and not “we came to this land to build and to be built up,” sung out sweetly and innocently to the depths of the old virgin valleys.… and then they dug through and scooped out the hills, and filled them with the steel foundations for rows and rows of bomb shelters, and above these (day and night a strange wind whistled through the dirt-black empty holes as if conducted by the silent rusted machinery) the high cranes raised the doors, windows, hallways, and endless staircases; and so rose the colossal tenements, painted the pale yellow of beer, towering towards the edges of heaven; then the buildings were peopled with women, children, and the elderly, with immigrant mobs resettled in almost a single day alone, each family according to the redemption of its exile: the Persians and the Tunisians and the Algerians and the Iraqis and the Cochinis, and even some Ashkenazi families that called their neighbors “our brothers” — even if they were forced to suffer life alongside those Orientals — of course with such tolerance and eagerness so as to nauseate themselves and without convincing anyone entirely; all these lived under the harsh intensity of a sun that covered itself in a faint Biblical blue, that claimed back the bright colors of the wildflowers and desert-poppies, that now and again burned its white fever into the sky cast over the rows of overflowing tenements.

You may already see the beginnings of what might be my argument for how Swissa can be successfully Englished. It would doubtless be foolish to attempt do so without having read the other modernists whom he has cited as the three main inspirations for his fiction Proust, Woolf, Faulkner — but equally foolish to think that translating Swissa into English means cheaply imitating his English forebears. Aqud is not only a self-referential feast of language and style; nor is it strictly a story of Moroccan immigrants and the failure of mainstream Israeli society to integrate them; one could easily lose one’s mind (along with the novel’s content) in attempting to somehow replicate in the target language the original effect of the language in Hebrew; one could similarly lose sight of the essence of the novel if one translates merely at the surface of the story, since, as it turns out, there isn’t much of a story to translate. Translating Swissa’s novel of course necessitates deeply attending to the stylistic and literary affinities he shares with other modernists, as it does knowing the historic context inside and out. But more important than either of these, for me at least, is the *essentially literary* demand that the translator make the text work as beautifully in English as it does in the original — and this might mean occasionally sticking strictly to the style and idiosyncrasy of the Hebrew, and occasionally doing the opposite, taking whatever literary license seems necessary in context. Ultimately this means that I cannot advocate for any all-encompassing “approach” or “theory” for my translation beyond what I (subjectively, I admit) deem to be its literary merits in Hebrew and my own ability (or lack thereof) to create similar literary merit from English. (I will also admit to being suspicious of such theories in any case, and I know I would be unable to commit to any of them from sentence to sentence.) I am reminded of what Swissa himself told me when I started working on the translation: “make your own Aqud,” he said, which I thought and still think is exactly right. I am sure a celebrated scholar of Hebrew literature or Moroccan Jewry would do as well if not a better job than myself in capturing either the novel’s content or charting its influences in Hebrew and elsewhere; what I hope I am bringing to the text is an essentially literary sensibility that does not ignore content or style but sees the act of translating as something other than transferring either of those from one language to another, that sees translating as writing, as making one’s own Aqud out of a tenuous synthesis between the demands of English and of the original. It is a dangerous approach, to be sure, but one that succeeds brilliantly when it manages to succeed: the perfectly accurate and academic translations of yore may have been forgotten except among scholars, but Pope’s Homer remains a delightfully English read many centuries later.

(The trouble, of course, is finding someone with enough interest in your translation to actually take the time to determine whether you are in the Sky Lounge with Pope or whether you are flying coach, so to speak. In the English-language publishing world, and for someone like me with little to no contact with those mysterious beings called agents and publishers who hide, I am told, in the heaven-high skyscrapers of Manhattan, this challenge can often seem formidable. But my hope is to do the work, to be upfront with the involvement therein of my own idiosyncrasies and passions, and to keep trying to make forays.)

This non-approach approach is what I like most about translating: I am most drawn to translate books I wish I’d written myself, and when I myself write I could hardly say I do so with anything resembling a systematic or theoretical program for how images and feelings and experiences are expressed from sentence to sentence. But the real joy for me in translation lies in the sad fact that I am, after all, only me: “multiple” and various though my inner world might be if I attempt, like Whitman, to explore and “sing” it, I am ever and always the same Josh who was born and raised in mind-numbing New Jersey, and who has at hand, whenever the urge to write occurs in him, only his own dense cluster of experience and heritage and researched knowledge. Translating allows me to write as Albert Swissa, but also as that same Josh, without there being any need for total metaphysical union or complete separation, and so it is a wonderfully empathetic and ecstatically creative process. It is also far easier and more comforting than original work, which one must always begin in the terrifying mode of ex nihilo. By contrast, translating is always ex original — or whatever the Latin would be. Octavio Paz has a lovely essay where he describes translation as a form of writing (yes, a form of writing all its own!) that begins in the concrete world of the original-language text and then moves to the subjective inchoate world of the translator, only to reappear once again transformed into the tangible world of the translated text. Whereas original writing begins in that same subjective tohubohu and moves toward the articulate and articulated, translation has always its starting point in the richness of a concrete original. It is a great comfort to be able to hang for dear life onto that unchanging original when one’s own impulse to write seems so precarious and unyielding. It is also a kind of vital exercise for future writing of any kind, and I often turn to translating when I find the creative well for my own work has run momentarily (I hope) dry.

 

The Untranslated: Which works of Hebrew and Arabic literature remain, in your opinion, unjustly untranslated?

J.C.: Oh boy: this is an exciting one.

Unlike Arabic, nominally “successful” (the terms of which I will illuminate in a moment) Israeli literature often makes it into English, and there exists a lovely cadre of Israeli Americans (and others) in the Englishing business: I am thinking now of Vivian Eden and Jessica Cohen, a translator of David Grossman’s recent works, for which they both recently shared the Man Booker, though there is also the British Nicolas de Lange (whose co-translation of Khirbet Khizeh introduced me to Yizhar, and whose translations of Amos Oz were the first books of modern Israeli literature I ever read). There is of course the bias for (Ashkenazi) authors whose work sits comfortably on a liberal Zionist spectrum — Oz, Grossman, Yehoshua and the beloved Etgar Keret have all been translated extensively and lumped, at least in English, into the same ideological ticket; yet Zionists they may all be, or declare themselves to be, but of different stripes indeed. (Yehoshua, for example, is known for ridiculing American Jews for their allegedly cozy diasporic lives, though for some reason they continue to gobble up his novels in English; Grossman, on the other hand, may seem soft-spoken, but his is some of the most bitingly incisive and condemning Israeli writing on the cruelties of the conflict that manages honestly to “speak truth to power,” as it were, without slipping into the language of ideology.)

The fact is that Hebrew literature has for a long time been organized both in Israel and in translation around a rather rigid model of center — comfortably Zionist and comfortingly liberal, usually Ashkenazi and with some relation to the State’s founding families and institutions — and periphery — ethnic, multilingual, female, Arab, ex-Soviet, Ethiopian, Mizrahi, working class, religious, Hassidic, exilic, etc.. That there have been more and more translations from the latter category has not yet broken the resilience of this model in the minds of critics and readers alike; in English, at least, we have a beautiful translation of Anton Shammas’ Arabesques, one of the first Hebrew novels written entirely by and about Arab Christians, but it is not the sort of thing one expects to see in (non-used) bookstores — instead, one might cynically say that it exists solely to serve the just needs of academics in search of syllabus diversity, and the occasional, usually Jewish reader who wants to compliment his or her reading from the major Israeli names mentioned above with a variation (ethnic, religious, etc.) on their themes. In other words, while the center/periphery model continues to dominate, it is after all merely a cultural reflection of a much larger and more insidious political reality in Israel and the US, and in spite of its dominance readers of Hebrew literature in translation are at least lucky enough to be able to find so-called “peripheral” names like Ronit Matalon, Shimon Ballas, and Orly Castel-Bloom in fiction, and Erez Biton and Ronny Someckin poetry (among many others still). Many of these, sadly, are only available in print-on-demand editions, whereas one could reasonably expect to find representatives of the would-be Hebrew “center” in one’s neighborhood Barnes & Noble. (But again, better they exist than not.)

The center/periphery model has another important edge, which is neither ideological nor identitarian: this is the simple bias for what sort of stories we consider “Israeli,” as much in translation as in the original. Fiction about war and the conflict will always and forever edge out novels that just happen to be in Hebrew and are about anything and everything else. One could debate endlessly whether all post-48 Hebrew writing is in some way touched by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the recent success — and translation — of Ruby Namdar’s decidedly non-Israeli Hebrew novel The Ruined House, set in Manhattan (where its author lives) and having more in common with the Anglo-Jewish literary tradition of Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, would serve as a fitting challenge to the notion that Hebrew is forever bound with a specific territorial reality and the ongoing war and occupation in that territory. But one must also remember that Namdar is a lucky exception, and his winning of the Sapir Prize in Israel (an equivalent to the Pulitzer) sparked so much outrage that the Prize, so they have ruled, will no longer be awarded to novels written by Israelis abroad — that is, by those who have “descended” (yerida) rather than “ascended” (aliya) from their national homeland.

Uri Nissan Gnessin

This brings me to back to the initial question: what Hebrew books are unjustly untranslated? So much more of the above, of course: Anton Shammas’ verse could see light in English, some of the new fiction by Ethiopian immigrants would do well, and my bias for Albert Swissa’s The Bound is eternal and more urgent than any other book I can think of. (Forgive the necessary and ever recurrent blurb, but: there was nothing in Hebrew like this novel at its release, and has been nothing since: it is sui generis brilliance by any reasonable standard, and especially by the standards of this blog.) So yes: we need more Mizrahi literature, more religious literature (that is, written by religious writers), more non-Ashkenazi women — more of anything that rattles the certitude of the reductive model I discussed above. This said and done, another real lacuna I am reminded of when rambling about Hebrew’s territorial link, unbreakable or otherwise, with the land of Israel-Palestine, is the pre-State Hebrew literature of Europe and to a lesser degree the Middle East. In keeping with the relative success of Hebrew works in English, much of this body of literature has also been translated, some of it terribly (forgive me the crude adjective, but really: some of this stuff is unreadable, and not in the good way) and likely out of an academic necessity, with no real expectation of commercial readership. Some of this literature is wanting in the way of non-historic merit, and so it makes some sense that the majority remain untranslated, and that those who are translated are done so in a way that betrays no intention of being used outside of a classroom. But other exemplars from this period, some of whom have been already translated in the mode just mentioned, very much deserve re-translation and re-release, and for so many reasons. Here I am thinking of Uri Nissan Gnessin (1879-1913), who more or less invented a form of writing (we now call it “stream-of-consciousness”) in a “dead” language some years before his coreligionist Marcel Proust would do some of the same in a very alive language. Gnessin’s novellas are brilliant in all the ways we want literature to be, and unlike some of the other big names in pre-State literature, would in the right hands translate unstiffly if not beautifully: turn to the many well-rendered versions of Mr. Aforementioned Proust for an example (and for another example closer to Gnessin’s home: the symbolist-modernist novels of Andrey Bely or, earlier, Dostoyevsky). Beyond the case of Gnessin, someone may discover the clue to Englishing Hebrew’s only Nobel Laureate, S. Y. Agnon, whose life and literature straddle the pre-State European Jewish world and the new Israeli reality. The trouble with Agnon is not that his work is so wildly inventive and modernist but that it derives so much of its vitality — and indeed much of what makes some of his short folk tales “Literature” with a capital L — from specific intertextual links across the long tradition of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Yiddish religious literature. I admire what I have read of Barbara Harshav’s English translation Only Yesterday (I have no idea how this became the title of Tmol Shilshom, which literally translates as “the day before yesterday,” with no quasi-elegiac “only” to be found… then again, that is exactly my point, since the title in Hebrew has a very specifically Biblical echo to it that I imagine the translator felt unable to bring literally into the English). But even this book is driven (in translation) largely by content — it does tell a lovely and bit strange tale — and the specific joy of Agnon’s language is all but lost, even when the English itself reads well. Perhaps Agnon is among those few untranslatables, if any truly exist, but I suspect his work is just waiting for the right reader/translation to come along. Gnessin, though, is an easier problem to solve: Gnessin can and should be re-translated, restored to the world modernist shelf on which he so justly belongs. A selection from the short fictions of Dvora Baron (roughly contemporary with U. N. G., though she outlived him by several decades) was so recently and so successfully translated by two brilliant academics/translators, Naomi Seidman and Chana Kronfeld, and published in a beautifully designed University of California Press paperback — shouldn’t Gnessin receive similar treatment, with the expectation being that if you built it well enough, non-academic readers, those on the hunt for good fiction in translation, will come?

All these biases of mine having been laid bare, I heretofore declare that we most of all need more Hebrew literature as Literature — breaking boundaries being a lovely fringe benefit, but Swissa and Gnessin (and others!) deserve to be brought to English because they are timeless and brilliant and mind-expanding, and not only because they challenge bad politics or literary preconceptions. Gnessin was sickly and remained in his hometown whereas his contemporaries sought success in bigger cities like London, Berlin, or elsewhere, not to mention that he was decidedly not a Zionist, and a whopping zero amount of his stories are set in/about Palestine; and Swissa, of course, definitively checks the ethnic mark in his heavily Mizrahi and Moroccan novel. But both of these writers’ works are so much more than whatever superficial controversy these aspects of their lives and writing may stir.

On to Arabic, where the literary-translation situation is both similar and importantly different.

By Hassanzdf – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0. Image Source

First and foremost, I implore any of those dedicated literary laborers in English publishing (US, UK, et al) who may be reading these words to burn a name deep into their hearts and brains, and that name is Salim Barakat. Salim Barakat is, in my not so humble opinion, the beginning and end of what must urgently and immediately see translation to English from Arabic. Not the least because he, too, expands our understanding of what Arabic literature is and can be (ethnically, he is Kurdish, and often his subjects are the ordinary Kurds of the Syrian Jazira-region; at the level of linguistic style, too, his is not the reigning mode of engágement/iltizām literature once so widespread in Nasserist Egypt and the Baathist Syrian State he was born into and came of age in) – but because his books, all nearly-fifty of them, cover the widest imaginative terrain of any living writer I know of, in any language. Let’s take a rough timeline of his fiction alone as indicative of the continual overflowing of his literary brilliance. Barakat has written (in two parts) what amounts to one of the most beautiful and poetic memoirs of boyhood and adolescence in any language (Two Autobiographies: The Iron Grasshoper; Play the Horn, Play it to its Limit!; 1980 — 1982); as well as several incredible and incredibly under-read darkly magical realist novels set among rural Kurds (Sages of Darkness, 1985; The Feathers, 1990; The Camps of Infinity, 1993); an epic trilogy in the same style and mode (The Astrologers of the Tuesday of Death, 1: The Crossing of the Flamingo,1994, 2: The Cosmos, 1996, 3: The Liver of Milaeus, 1997); a thrilling novel of the Lebanese Civil War (Geometric Spirits, 1987); three separate novels so wonderfully difficult he calls them his “cathedrals” (Debris of the Second Eternity, 1999; Seals and Nebula, 2001; Delshad: Leagues of Abandoned Eternity, 2003); two novels set in fictional fantasy worlds with centaur-like cryptozoological creatures of his own invention (Caves of the Hydrahodahose, 2004, Crushed Hoofs in Hydrahodahose, 2010); novels of djinn, mermaids, and “dead beginners” that are too many to name and too various to categorize; a novel of black-humor and crude conversation among Kurdish refugees in Stockholm (The Rampage of the Geese, 2010); a two-volume historical fiction about Kurds and the Crusades (The Skies are Empty over Jerusalem, I and II: 2011-12); a long novel split between Sweden and Kurdish Iraq, amidst the violence against Yezidi Kurds (Slaves of Sinjar, 2016); and a recent, enormous once more, historical tale set in the court of the Palmyran Queen Zenobia (The Roaring of the Shadows in Zenobia’s Gardens, 2017). These are not even the full borders of this writer’s literary ability and imagination: there are still two books of nonfictional reflections and essays, some 20 volumes of verse on any and every topic imaginable, but especially Kurdish legend, landscape, flora and fauna (a recent collection from 2016 entitled Syria won a recent award in France for its French translation) and three children’s books that even he has lost his copies of.

        

With Salim’s blessing, I am currently beginning to translate his fictional works, and I hope to do as much as I can, moving from The Autobiographies and Sages of Darkness onward. But I (and, more importantly, Salim Barakat himself) need the backing of a publisher to finally bring his work to English readers. Knowing that some of his novels and poetry are already available in German, French, Spanish, Swedish, Catalan, Turkish, Kurdish, and Hebrew, it is nothing short of a total shame that we in the Anglosphere look in vain for a full volume of Salim Barakat in English.

Beyond Barakat, a word about the situation of Arabic translation generally. Like Hebrew, there exists in the English-reading world a bias toward Arabic novels that reinforce our stereotypes of what Arabic literature is (or should be) — and I am not even talking about Naguib Mahfouz, whose works are extensively available thanks to his Nobel win. (Allow me a brief interruption in order to return to the topic I have only just now left behind to address the esteemed Nobel committee. If any of you luminaries are reading this, though doubtless you are not: it is this curious Mr. Barakat who lives in your backyard, in the foresty Skogås suburb of Stockholm, who deserves the next Arabic Nobel, not the oft-mentioned Adonis/Adunis, who himself once said that “this Kurd contains the key to the entirety of the Arabic language in his pants’ pocket.”) So, not only Mahfouz, or more than Mahfouz: I am talking about our bias toward translating and consuming Arabic novels that seem cued directly to subjects on syllabi in Middle Eastern Studies college classes — of which I was once a serial attendee, by the way, having jointly majored in Written Arts (a fancy coinage for creative writing) and Middle Eastern Studies. We thus have texts on women in the Arab-Islamic world, on the Lebanese Civil War, on oil and the Gulf countries, on colonial resistance, and of course, the forever favorite, unendingly interesting, widely translated and disseminated texts of Israel-Palestine. I am certainly not saying that there is anything wrong with a text being ostensibly “about” or touching on that conflict or on any of these and other important sociopolitical issues; they’re important, we should talk about them, I myself have learned much about these various topics in the modern history of the Middle East from basically-readable if unmemorable novels; but I am arguing here and will forever argue that enduring Literature is not “about” anything in the superficial sense, and certainly not “about” any social issue or historical moment as to be itself the representation of that moment/issue or its critique. So, when our understanding of the worth of literary texts is limited in this socio-historical way, when we conceive of novels and poems as being merely fanciful mirrors of historical and social contexts, we should not be surprised that what is newly translated will fit too narrowly into these syllabi-tailored categories — that is, we should expect Arabic literature and not Arabic Literature. Take Ghassan Kanafani, a poster child of the Palestinian “engaged” (iltizam in Arabic, as mentioned above) fiction who was himself a PLO member (before the organization dropped its weapons, that is; one is not left with any doubt, reading his often didactic fiction, that Kanafani would’ve strongly opposed the move). Even if his work were independently complex and irreducible to its didactic political claims made about the conflict, it would not matter much, given the way he is so often read —indeed the main purpose for his being read and translated into English — as a proxy for discussion about the conflict. In my view anyway, Kanafani’s work can only be accorded so much merit as Literature, which is why it makes perfect reading as “literature of Palestine,” or literature of colonial struggle: its language is superficial and simple enough to translate and thus to assign to the student masses, and it stimulates important conversations about the conflict in history and to this day. But no casual reader of world literature (an endangered species in English, maybe, if this blog is any indication, but not yet an extinct one!) who reads as much for content as for aesthetic reasons would bother with it, and why should they? To speak plainly, and polemically, much of Kanafani’s fictions, though enormously influential, or so may seem, is no more interesting than its capacity to probe the biases of your average college student on things Israel-Palestine.

Unfortunately, this industry of translation-as-political-proxy plagues Palestinian literature especially, although its side-effect and fringe-benefit is that much of the most brilliant Palestinian writing *is translated*, but only under the burden of being a statement about the conflict. (Take Mahmoud Darwish’s later work, for example: famously individuated, thorny, lyrical, beautiful, certainly political, but also available widely in translation, which is not something that can be said of very many poets of Arabic who share all of the above attributes with Darwish — not to mention that he was well aware of this trend; as one of his later texts begins, “the critics kill me sometimes,” by which he meant literary critics and criticism, for whose academic activism translations of “conflict lit” are most useful). More ironically, even in mainstream Palestinian literature in translation, the would-be complexities at the level of language and content — those subtle elements that would make a novel a novel more than a statement about the conflict — are often mis-translated, to little notice, because no one who is reading these texts is looking for them. (They are looking, instead, for books that cue in well with the discussion they may wish to have in class, say, about literature as “resistance” and so on). One example: in a wonderful and linguistically-multilayered text (though you wouldn’t know it from the English) like Emil Habibi’s tragicomedy The Pessoptimist, the frequent punning on Hebrew and Arabic is equally frequently missed by the English translator, who cannot be faulted for knowing only the latter of the two languages except in so far as they, and their uneasy intermixing, serve as one of the novel’s core themes. (Anton Shammas brilliantly translated Habibi’s text into Hebrew, by the way, and for the famous title Arabic neologism, built of the words for “optimist” and pessimist”, he invented the Hebrew “Opeeimist,” or “Opsimist,” which to my ear is far kinder than the grating pause in the conjunction of “Pesso-optimist”). Jokes on a bilingual basis appear throughout the novel, including the famous confusion of “medina,” which in Hebrew means “state” (as in, State of Israel) and in Arabic means “city,” leading the foppish protagonist Sai’d to imagine that his beloved hometown of Haifa has been renamed “Israel” when, upon returning to the city from exile, he is told “welcome to Medinat Yisra’el” (i.e., to the State of Israel, not to the city of Israel). But for those who read this novel merely as a segue into a seminar conversation about the conflict, these jokes don’t matter — or rather, they are easily missed as trees for the superficial forest, so to speak, and the distinctions between Kanafani’s activism in exile and Habibi, who “remained” (as his tombstone says) in what became Israel, served in Knesset and accepted, to the chagrin of many an Arab commentator, the state-sponsored Israel Prize for Arabic Literature, are all but lost.

(For a thorough analysis of these mistranslations in Habibi and elsewhere that is both scholarly necessary and actually readable, I recommend Lital Levy’s Poetic Trespass: Writing Between Hebrew and Arabic in Israel-Palestine. Full disclosure, LL is my PhD advisor at Princeton, but I read her book before applying and as far as modern lit-critic books go, the book has deserved every award it has received.)

The long and the short of what I am trying to convey here (and it is similar to what I had to say above in the case of Hebrew) is that we are sorely in need of Arabic fiction and poetry that relieves us of our narrow and superficial literary-political categories — first by complicating them, but ultimately by leaving them behind altogether, leapfrogging from the realm of “literature *about* X social issue” to the more enduring canon of world Literature, which is itself not removed from its first noun, but is not determined exclusively by it. Put differently, “always historicize!” — or so commands eminent Marxist critic Frederic Jameson in his extremely influential treatise on The Political Unconscious (1981), whereas I am saying, with the full knowledge of immense hubris involved, Jameson being tenured academic royalty and myself not even having finished my doctoral degree, “meh.” My personal maxim would be a bit different: historicize sometimes, because history is important and a real subject matter for all forms of art, but where we must historicize, we must never do so in a way that prevents the reading of Literature as Literature — both for our students’ sake and our own.

To that end, I present some important but subjectively-selected names from Arabic literature in need of translating, with a bias for fiction of an experimental nature, arranged roughly Eastward by country, and excluding those countries for which I, with much regret and eagerness to learn more, have no recommendations for the moment:

Morocco: more of Muhammad Barrada’s fiction and nonfiction (The Game of Forgetting is in English, if hard to find outside Amazon, but very satisfying).

Egypt: relative newcomers Ahmed ‘Abd al-Latif and Na’il el-Toukhy (whose first novel, Women of Karantina, is available in a lovely English translation), Fathi Ghanem, the bilingual Yusuf Rakha, Mustafa Zikri, Tariq Imam, Muhammad al-Makhzangi’s short story collections of rural Egypt, Sabri Musa’s The Corruption of Places sorely deserves translating. Gamal al-Ghitani’s Book of Revelations, whose French translation has been written about before on this blog, should be re-translated in full, and certainly not excerpted without clarifying as such (this happens all too often in Arabic translations).

Israel-Palestine: Contemporary Ala Hlehel, who lives in Akko/Akka, and re the discussion above, we are desperately in need of more of Emil Habibi’s work to be well translated and made widely available. There are a number of important Palestinians writing in Hebrew and awaiting translation, too, but that’s another list.

Lebanon: Rabee Jaber’s trilogy Beirut: City of the World and Druze Belgrade (and many other novels besides); Yusif Habchi el-Achqar’s trilogy of the Civil War (set not in the city but in a rural village, has been compared misleadingly to Proust, hard to find even in Arabic, but one short story of his appears in an old issue of McSweeny’s); more of Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq should be translated, though Humphrey Davies handled Leg over Leg excellently, and I humbly invite him to turn his talents now to The Secrets of Night, on Metathesis and Substitution in Arabic Words, a tale of insomnia and deep dictionary diving.

Syria: Maha Hassan (another Syrian Kurd with many novels to her name; my favorite of those I’ve read is The Storytellers — the title word is female in the Arabic, by the way, so should be The Female Storytellers, and while that’s too awkward-sounding I don’t have a solution at the moment); Rosa Yaseen Hasan’s recent long novel Those Touched by Magic; Taysir Khalaf, whose The Slaughter of the Philosophers was longlisted for last year’s IPAF; more microfiction from Zakariyya Tamir; the historical Syrian epic The Plague by Hani al-Rahib; and finally the Druze writer Mamdouh Azzam, a lover of strange metaphors whose equally epic The Castle of Rain ought to find translation someday.

Iraq: Gha’ib Tu’ama Farman’s novels, and everything by Samir Naqqash (who constitutes, by the way, another obsession of mine, and after Barakat has my translator’s eye; his longest Ulysses-like multivocal tome of colloquial Iraqi dialects entitled Nuzuh wa-Khayt ash-Shaytan (Tenants and Cobwebs) will be published in late 2018.)

The Gulf (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, and the UAE): ‘Ali Muqri from Yemen (one novel, The Handsome Jew, has been on my to-read list for a long while), Omani Husayn al-Ibri, who says he doesn’t read Arabic literature (but knows how to write a decent novel in the language nonetheless). Yes, I am terrible and lumped all these countries into one big hulk of a peninsula but I must, and will, find more names in my continued Mid-East travels to come.

There are likely several more names from the Gulf, North Africa, and Iraq that I have in my library but since I am not with it, writing these words from Stockholm, I of course am forgetting them. The honest truth, though, is that I know far too little of Arabic literature — indeed we all do, and what we do know (in English) is not necessary the best or most enduring. The simple truth, both encouraging and daunting, is that modern Arabic literature is an enormous ocean, with some of its nautical regions mostly uncharted or at least to some degree isolated from or unknown by others.

On that note, then, and unrelated to all the novels and writers above, it must be sadly admitted that what we most sorely lack in English is a robust collection of translated Arabic classical texts. Where are our non-deadening (the available options being mostly old, outdated, and orientalist, but also boring) translations of al-Mutanabbi, al-Ma’arri, Abu Tammam, Abu Nuwas? And before them, the Umayyads Jarir and al-Farazdaq, and the Jahili “hanging odes” (mu’allaqat) of Imru al-Qays, Antar bin Shaddad, Tarafa, Labid? Where are the Andalusian poets and the ancient Arabian bandit (su’uluk) poets? The list would simply never end. A relatively recent endeavor, NYU’s Library of Arabic Literature, is working to change this ironically “deserted” translational landscape, but it will take decades, and several dedicated literarily-inclined translators, to bring over a broad stroke of the so-called “classical” Arabic tradition into literary English. (Not to mention that the editors of the NYU Library reject the notion that they are bringing over an absolute Arabic “canon” so much as building one as they go). The enormous difficulty here will be not only to produce translations that are linguistically accurate (of these there already exist some boring renditions, essential for students, but still very little compared to the breadth of the tradition involved) and exciting and engaging in a literary way. A tall order, but one I hope will come together in time. The same Library of Arabic Literature is slated to release all of al-Mutanabbi’s Diwan (collected poems) in English sometime in the not especially distant future; this would be a wonderful inaugural step in a new era of Arabic translation, and knowing their work it will likely be translated with both the utmost philological precision and with subtle literary care.

 

The Untranslated: Let us turn to European literature now. You have drawn parallels between Yizhar’s Days of Ziklag and the monument of Finnish modernism Alastalon salissa by Volter Kilpi. If you are at liberty to talk about this, could you provide some details about your involvement with the English translation of Volter Kilpi’s mammoth novel as well as share your initial impressions of this work?

 J.C.: Sure, I could. (I say this having double-checked that I am, indeed, at liberty to discuss what I am about to discuss).

As for my involvement: all the credit, really, must go to Jaakko Mäntyjärvi — the translation with which I am involved is really and truly his own, and I can only claim to have offered comments that were at best annoyingly helpful and at worst frustratingly idiosyncratic. Mäntyjärvi’s approach to translating this opus could be reasonably compared with Lydia Davis’ version of Du côté de chez Swann (which she renders, true to her thinking, as the “The Way by Swann’s,” although the American Penguin refused this innovation — itself truer to the original French — on Montcrieff’s canonical choice of “Swann’s Way”) — in a word, these two translators set accuracy and fidelity atop the wobbling tower of competing values in translation. (You have already heard how I stack the deck myself.) Mäntyjärvi alliterates where Kilpi alliterates; he neologizes where Kilpi neologizes; he tries holding the varying dialects and registers in the same order of relations, increasingly complex and unbearable to some readers, as Kilpi kept them in the Finnish; the standard of syntax of English is broken where Kilpi has broken that of Finnish (or rather, the Finnish of his day), and this even if to some readers the result is less than melodious or awkward, but to the end that the effect of the original is conveyed as best it can be — that recreates in English as much Kilpi’s occasionally strange, disturbing, masterful, musical if unexpectedly so, colloquial, coarse, alliterative, idiosyncratic, archaic language. Jaakko also makes use of period-specific words and anachronisms, corresponding with the usage of the same in Kilpi’s Finnish: over these we occasionally battled, especially over his choice of “must needs” (which reminds me too much of Melville, though this is precisely the point!) and other instances where I felt that the old or discarded word or saying was more of an impediment to the overall effect of the translation than it was helpful in the way of conveying the original. (To be clear, by impediment I don’t mean “hindrance to the ease of reading”; I do not have the mind of an editor, and am not one to chop into bits an elastic long sentence simply because it cannot be said in one breath, whether in translating or writing. But there are literary impediments, too subjective than can be elucidated and theorized, that, to my ear, render some choices aesthetically meaningful and others less so.)

One other example from Kilpi that I am reminded of now is the interchangeable use of first (Christian) names and the names of the residences that the men at the novel’s titular “salon” own in the town of Kustavi. Alastalo, in whose salon the entirety of the novel takes place, where men of the parish have congregated to discuss the collective investiture of building a new barque, is both the name of the residence (part farm, part seaside manor) and of its patriarch, Hermanni Mattson. Such effects are mostly lost in the English, and maybe needlessly. Yet this quirk is emphasized even in the title of the novel, Alastalon salissa, which Mäntyjärvi chose to translate as “In the Parlor at Alastalo” on the basis of an earlier Swedish translation — Thomas Warburton’s I salenpå Alastalo. (Coincidentally, or not, this Finland Swede also translated Joyce’s Ulysses into Swedish.) I remember thinking that a more sonorous title “In Alastalo’s Salon” (retaining the inessive “—ssa” suffix appended to the word “salon” (sali) in the title) was staring us in the face, but Jaakko felt, with some justification, that Warburton’s precedent was not to be casually ignored, and that the “at Alastalo” already indicates the culture-specific complexity by which the characters will be referred throughout the novel.

It should be said that when we began (and how this occurred I can explain shortly) I was perhaps less naturally inclined toward historic accuracy and slavish adherence to the original than Jaakko was, and there remains in me an impulse, when I translate, to think first (if not dramatically before values of accuracy and faithfulness) of making something beautiful in English, since, as I think I mentioned in an earlier response, I am only ever drawn towards translating into my native language those texts in my reading languages that I wish I had written myself, and that seem to me, for after all I love them, exceptional and difficult aesthetic achievements. Still, in the months and now years that we have been corresponding and trading back comments and counter-comments on the English, I have come to accord Jaakko’s own impulses, developed as they were over decades of his translating from Finnish to English, with deep reverence, even to the extent of tempering my own idiosyncratic impulses in translating other texts, as when I am at work on Albert Swissa’s Bound and I think of its author’s comment that I should “make my own Bound.” As well, I would hope that my own extensive (often sentence by sentence) comments have had the effect, for Mr. Mäntyjärvi’s thinking, of adding to his already well-trained bilingual ear my own literary sensibility as a native speaker, not to mention my admitted bias that there exist some words or phrases — even if they could be argued to agree, in some way, with the original language’s difficulties — do not help render the novel in English but beautiful and difficult. Where one sets this red line, so to speak, may be the subject of disagreement, but that they should be set somewhere seems to me indisputable. I do not believe in this business of making translations foreign simply for their own sake; despite whatever academic argument will be made for the need for political sensitivity and for the work of any translator into English to take seriously the deleterious effects on foreign literature of Global English and the World Literature translation-engine, which, so these argument go, domesticates and makes American everything which is in the slightest bit difficult or alien to the resistant, barely literate English reader — despite whatever merits these arguments may have on their own terms, and having heard and read them more than once I cannot say that their  claims are worth ignoring entirely, it still feels spurious to me to bow before the idol of the “foreign,” as if that were something readily identifiable and reified, and to somehow replicate or honor this divinity of otherness in the form of the translation itself. Translations should be as worth reading as literature in one’s native language, and by “worth reading” I mean to refer to a set of literary or aesthetic values, however defined, rather than ideological or identarian ones. I would further claim that translation, as an art of both distortion and creation, has a longer and more dynamic history than the forces of either capitalism or colonialism, or even of English; and that translators have trouble enough finding the right words in the right order for their books without having to lose sleep over whether their work, which makes them no money almost all of the time, is feeding an English-speaking capitalist beast, or is servicing well enough some or other political cause to justify its existence, or is insufficiently foreign, whatever that means, or excessively domestic, whatever that means.

The right words in the right order: this is the beginning and end of the battle, for me at least, and whatever our differences or phrasing disagreements, I hope I can say the same for Jaakko too. And maybe also for Kilpi himself, who translated Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays into Finnish, or Proust, who translated two volumes of John Ruskin’s.

I had become obsessed with Kilpi after reading your own post on his meganovel in the late summer of 2016. I was just then moving to (suburban, droll) Princeton for the first time, and was ripe for a new literary infatuation from very far away to take hold of me like a sickness. And this is what happened with Kilpi, and with Finnish: an academic year later, in May, when I was leaving the same apartment to which I was moving when I first read of Kilpi, I had already built up an extensive library of Finnish literature, some of it quite rare even in Scandinavia. To wit, I’ve found every book Kilpi has written in every published edition, including all firsts; several monographs in a series on Kilpi and his life and work; his translations into Finnish from various languages; his essays; his correspondence with his wife and with his publisher; the first dissertation-turned-monograph on Alastalon salissa; and all this among other Finnish modernists and literary experimenters and many of the delightful paperback classics of the Finnish Literature Society (Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura) — which I suppose is like our black-covered (in the US) Penguin Classics series. I had also in the intervening two semesters begun to learn Finnish, first on my own, by aid of the few books I could find, and then with the help of a tutor from the Finnish American Society of the Delaware Valley, who would meet me in Philadelphia, where I was taking a course at UPenn in the fall. I emailed whoever I could find that was associated with Kilpi and Kilpi studies; eventually I reached out to Professor Pirjo Lyytikäinen of the University of Helsinki, who had written that first dissertation/monograph I mentioned earlier, Mielen meri, elämän pidot: Volter Kilven Alastalonsalissa (Sea of Mind, Feast of Life: Volter Kilpi’s “Alastalon salissa”). She referred me to Jaakko, who, bless him, sent me his then-current draft of the first two chapters; amazingly he had actually completed a full translation, and in a little under a year at that, whereas I had been diligently laying the plans to slowly learn Finnish solely for the purpose of translating this novel, then the other two in the “Archipelago trilogy” of which it forms the first and largest part. I was so absolutely taken in by this text that I had for so long only been imagining — whether on the basis of whatever description I could find in English (almost none, outside of this blog) or of that which I could tentatively translate from Finnish, or of what my Finnish bookseller correspondents would tell me — but I also began to notice things here and there in Jaakko’s translation that I might wish to see differently, and so indicated them in the form of comments, which kept building up endlessly along the sides of the Word document much in the manner of Proust’s infamous paperoles (apparently I’m keeping all my references modernist for this answer!). I sent these comments back to Jaakko, albeit timidly, remarking in all frankness that I did not know what value they could have, if any, coming from a barely-literate non-native Finnish reader with a healthy if still uninformed love of all things Kilpi. He was, if I can say so without paying myself undue compliment, astounded by how closely I was reading his English — and even if he did not accept any or even most of my comments or proposed revisions, he nonetheless responded to every one of them, often at length, sometimes by way of explaining what I had missed in the original, or defending his own choice, or taking something of what I’d suggested and incorporating it into what he felt was a closer and more precise second rendering. In this way we moved, chapter by chapter, through the book, eventually reaching an understanding so refreshing and mutually respecting that he would know to expect what I might comment on, and I might know not to comment on those choices that he had time and again defended making. At the risk of boasting I’ll say that I feel this has improved the draft overall, and Jaakko has been kind enough to speed ahead of me, editing later chapters on the basis of reoccurring comments I had been making that he incorporated in good faith; but even if my contribution hadn’t improved his draft, it will be sadly observed that whether this book will find a publisher in English is only partially based on its inherent merit in the original or in translation.

It’s been a lovely experience, on the whole, and Jaakko and I have even discussed taking on the next volumes in the Trilogy, following the model of the famous Pevear and Volokhonsky, only one of whom knows fluent Russian.

About the book itself. It is deservedly compared, even to its author’s dismay, with Proust and Joyce (Kilpi did not have the English for Ulysses, but was horrified to find that someone had discovered a new literary prose style that he fancied himself the inventor of in all Europe!). It will indeed take some time and diligence before Kilpi’s achievement can be brought more meaningfully into dialogue with the modernist magnum opuses written in the same decade of its publication and in its same continental backyard, but I’m astounded by how little attention Kilpi has received in the international (English language) academy; as it stands, his work has only made it as far away from Scandinavia as Germany, where as you know an excerpt has been published in translation. All the same, his writing is very different from Proust, and even more so from Joyce; Kilpi shares with the latter a fondness for language archaisms and an investment in closely, almost maniacally, stretching across several hundred pages a short span of time, even shorter than the twenty-four hours of Ulysses. Kilpi also writes in something like what we would call a stream-of-consciousness style that shares affinities with Joyce, too, if not as much with Proust, whose several volumes are written largely in the relentlessly analytical and self-probing voice of the narrator; in Kilpi we hear from all the men at Alastalo’s manor, following their colloquialized thoughts, worries, memories, and observations of the others, and the stream, as it were, is rife with Kilpi’s own authorial interventions as well as seemingly mimetic representations of each of these men who think or talk. But aside from these mitigating factors, it is with Proust that I believe Kilpi could be most fruitfully compared — after, of course, one attends to the native Finnish context, and reads closely Kilpi’s own models, especially Aleksis Kivi’s Seitsemän veljestä (for which three English translations now exist). This is because Kilpi’s novel is essentially one in search of temps perdu — in his case, not that of any narrating I, but that of an entire world lost to history, a world on the edge of obliteration by the time of his composing; a world Kilpi himself could not be said to “remember” the way Proust remembered his vacations at Illiers and made of them his Combray.

Like Proust, though, Kilpi consciously modeled his characters, with necessary adjustments and enlargements, on once living men and women, though not those he had closely known so much as those of his grandfather’s generation; in fact the novel opens with a “preamble” or “pre-chapter” (esiluku) in which Kilpi visits the old cemetery at Kustavi and mourns the loss of that generation, and their religious, cultural, and economic way of life. This lamentation, apparently the text of a speech he had made in real life at reunion or memorial on Kustavi, is of a style dramatically different from the text that follows; it is sentimental and anguished almost to excess. The novel that follows is thus marked by the rainclouds of memory, if I can speak figuratively: memories, fading and blurring, of this world that no longer exists: no longer exists because from the Swedish and Russian Empires there emerged the nation-states of Sweden and Finland in the shadow of Soviet Russia, and because there is no longer that class of trilinguals of the archipelago region who, though native Finnish speakers, made their money skirting the various tax and import regimes in the seas between their island, closer to Finland, and the ports of Sweden; because the world of the nineteenth century in all its rich historic complexity had crumbled over two world wars; because the twinned livelihood of farming and seafaring in these islands was replaced by more industrial labor in the cities; because the social structure of collective ownership (on islands such as Kustavi, all the members of the local parish would share partially in the ownership of each other’s houses, so that the ruin of any one by storm or circumstance would not spell total financial destruction for that family; hence the meeting at Alastalo’s, the sole object of which is to discuss the collective building and owning of a barque, with much ado about how the shares are apportioned) was not entirely in keeping with the developing of a modern nation, whether Sweden or Finland; because the Biblically-fluent Lutheran ethic of this island community was to be replaced by the forward-marching, secular-minded Scandinavia of the future; and because all ages and times, all capitals and all communities, are blown over by those same indifferent sands of time that Shelley says are “boundless and bare…[and] stretch far away.”

I think that for me the remembering of this lost world, the conjuring of its full life and voice, and the full faith with which Kilpi makes (for one example) 70 pages of narrative and consciousness out of the few minutes it takes one of his characters to choose a pipe from a pipe rack — for me these are the most attractive and enduringly fascinating of his achievements. I hope that someday, when my Finnish is up to the task of reading the original in full without the aid of a dictionary, I may know even more intimately the unique delights of Kilpi’s malleable and magic deployment of any and every tool in the Finnish language in the forging of what can only be called an enduring literary masterpiece.

 

The Untranslated: Many great works of contemporary literature written in languages other than English have been deeply influenced by the masterpieces of Anglophone modernism: works by Joyce, Faulkner, Woolf, T. S. Eliot. As you have noted above, “the James Joyce of X” has become a widely used (and abused) mantra when talking about authors of ambitious and linguistically challenging texts. If we take a look at most of the English-language literature written in the 21st century so far, it becomes painfully obvious that it has nothing of the might possessed by those early-20th century literary landmarks. What could today’s Anglophone writers learn from literature in other languages to find their way back to greatness?

J.C.: Thanks for this magnificent final question.

The first and most obvious argument that will be made concerning the fate of Anglophone writing rests on seeing the challenge of English literature in terms of unsavory duals: on the one hand, English is an absurdly globalized language and culture; yet at the same time it imports, proportionally speaking, far less works in translation than other world languages of comparable size and commercial importance. To make matters worse and still more complicated, even among the available translations the sensitive reader will not fail to notice how much is left wanting in the way of what I have been throughout this interview calling (with admitted vagueness) literary merit, this being the natural result of academics taking up the lion’s share of the consumers and manufactures of world literature in English translation, since many academics — through no fault of their own, maybe? — are not always the best writers of non-academic writing, not to mention that what they choose to translate and how often is motivated by extra-literary factors. (The industry of translation theory is, by the looks of randomly selected panels at randomly selected academic conferences in the field of Comparative Literature, having something of a hot moment; at the same time, somehow, translations of challenging works are by no means appearing in abundance; where they are published, they are not bought, and are often not very well made; worst of all, to the chagrin of bibliopsychopaths like myself, their covers are often ugly, and their titles are maligned by needless sociological subtitles, such as “an Egyptian novel”, that serve only to stimulate a specialist audience). But you have made this argument your own over various entries in this blog about works “untranslated” (and not untranslatables!). Instead of aping your words then, I’ll try and devote my time here to considering the literary future of English — that world language that so few remember is, actually, a language.

I mean a language no less specifically itself than the Upper Arrernte language of the indigenous Australian communities around Alice Springs, spoken by some few thousand guardians of an ancient culture, connected to the stuff of the land — the flora and fauna — around which it flowered and bloomed; yet also a language no more ample and generous than other languages of regional and world conquest, Arabic on the heels of Islam, Spanish with the conquistadors, Latin with the Romans; a language with a history and a geography both enormously unmappable and microscopically local, with dialects, lexical borrowings, spelling variants, dead verb forms, and forms of style as specific to places and times as genetically near duplicate (save for a single defining allele) as differently named species of plants in counties once separated by a day’s travel and now traversable by a car in some twenty minutes. Yes, English is huge; huger than any language has ever been before, no doubt; carnivorous, and the would-be enemy of languages as large (in number of speakers) as French and as small as the aforementioned Arrernte. Yes, the happy marriage of the globalizing forces of the British Empire and of twentieth century American capitalism has led to consequences far more threatening and overreaching than the crescent of Islamic monotheism being raised across Africa and Asia, or the language of Cervantes being forced onto the lips of fallen Incan royals. But all this is, if you’ll forgive me the political insensitivity, not quite enough to stop a writer of English from being sensitive to his or her language: all of this matters little, in my view, when this writer of English must needs recognize the Englishness of English, from its indecipherable runic origins to our day. English is indeed a language; a language of considerable beauty; a language — we should hold as self-evident that all languages are inherently equal in this respect — in which great and enduring literature has and can still be written. But only by those who write in it, instead of through it, as if it were an obstacle or a tool of simple use, employed toward some straightforwardly communicative non-language modelled on that of highway-side ads or radio jingles.

Not the faculty of language as such, but a language. A language built up of disagreeable halves Latinate and Germanic, with plenty of wild cards besides. A language whose miniature specificity and whose astounding breadth I could spend many a lifetime writing my way across. A language without the case markings of many a classical tongue but with wonderfully varied and intricate sentence structures, from the voluminously verbose and baroquishly long to the stilted staccato rhythm of the short sentence of a single clause. A language that still offers its speakers the opportunity to invent, as I have just done, a neologism of existing parts. (Whether “baroquishly” has the aesthetic or communicative merit to go the dictionary’s distance, so to speak, I cannot say; but it is worth reporting here, if only in a complete sentence between parentheses, a vanity which English permits me, that it seems to my ear especially English-sounding to have the squish of the –sh adjectival suffix applied to so stuffy and Latinate-sounding a word as “baroque”; and that, while they are very often unjustly maligned by writers and readers alike, it seems to me equally English to make of that grotesque half-breed adjective “baroquish” an adverb by which to not so much succinctly describe the manner in which an action as done so much as to make that action more complicated, more meaningful, even.)

We are at a moment in our literature – Anglo-American literature – when the cult of televised realism has all but won out against the likes of Joyce’s book(s) of the day and the night. We – allow me the nosism – have had enough of the sort of fiction meant simply to replace that suspense stirred automatically in the breasts of many an action movie lover with phrases so translatably boring and so terribly clichéd they might as well have been written in computer code. (Ironically or horrifyingly enough, since I’d first written these words in August this terror of a report from the deathbed of Literature has appeared in the NYT.) We have had enough of the sort of poets who merely turn down their blinds and remark pithily on the appearance of a bird in a language less interesting in color and tone than that sung by the same bird; likewise have we tired of their urban poet-cousins, knockoff Ginsbergs or would-be social media activists, those who stroll down the repugnantly bright streets of a city as deadening as New York and write with the mind-numbing clarity and foot-stomping ease of Soviet soldiers in old propaganda films. We have had enough of writers writing without paying the least attention to the heritage of the language in which they write, have had enough of what we might as well just call out, at the risk of being crude, as bad writing; enough dead metaphors used out of laziness and not for the love of dead metaphors; or of so-called literature written in a communicative matter no more complicated than that of turn signals or popup ads. (John Ashbery loved, and made alive again, every cliché in our Anglo-American book; he also made wonders out of the stuff of ads; but he was a special case; the rest of us would have trouble striking the same magic with material that is in most hands dead on arrival). Enough, I (we) say, along with a host of dead writers who I trust will back me up from their graves, of English writing that takes English for granted, writing in anything-ese with no more meaning than acronyms or surfaces, and no more difficult to comprehend faster than the speed of Netflix buffering.

This is not a stylistic recommendation (read: demand) I am making, because English is large even when small, and contains multitudes (to riff again from one of our best poets, who I trust would approve of my personal English) even when written in the narrow and uneducated idiolects of Faulkner’s former slaves or Gaddis’ grog-voiced Vietnam vet. It is also large when large, even when impossibly large; if we return to Joyce, who understood this argument of mine far better than I do myself, we read a book “basically in English” — Finnegans Wake — and find ourselves either bored to death (wrong answer, bub) or astounded by the explosive and not at all solipsistic celebration of meaning entailed by the writing, reading, and reciting of that tome. But Finnegans Wake isn’t just basically in English: it is in English. For all its foreign imports and kooky coinages, Finnegans Wake, says I, is the best book written in the English language, and consequently a better instructor for this polemic than I could ever hope to be in as many words. Don’t believe me? Take up that book in your hands, because you are not reading this blog unless you own a copy, or several (doesn’t everyone?), and read through any random sentence, from where the first word leaps ahead of the last sentence’s period to when the last word stomps at its end with the next. Remove all neologisms. Remove all that seems to confound or that would confound your average Barnes-&-Noble-going reader. Metaphorically speaking, remove from the road of the sentence all manner of cars and trucks and other moving things and leave only that which directs you from sound to image, that which suggests the motion of the syntax — the street signs, the speed limit, the comas, the small phrases, the “thats,” the little verbs and pronouns. That syntax is English. These sentences are – “basically,” that is, at their very base – English. Joyce just knew how to fill them with all sorts of goodies, sure. But those goodies, too, are often English. Certainly they become so when they are musically integrated into the whole of the work. You can get away with anything in English — in any language, of which English is (I remind you) but one — if you’re good enough at English. Having done his time in the idiom of realism (Dubliners, some of the Portrait) and having already transcended the high modernist style that came after it (Ulysses) — Joyce, ever the Irishman in exile, was better than anyone at English, and we are still waiting for someone to top his achievement. (Or at least, let us try!)

It may be argued, and with merit, that smaller languages — even big-small languages, like Dutch and Danish — or languages of the so-called Global South — from Arabic to Shona and etc. — suffer from English; suffer the lack of English’s audience; are swallowed by the insatiable stomach of English imperialism. A recent Guardian article makes this last point well enough, though its argument will not suit my purposes, for its author leaves the writer of English with nothing but an anxious burden with no solution, however imperfect, to be found. (I will note by way of aside that my non-English allegiances, of which I bear many, render me not at all the optimist when it comes to the death of small languages; I have felt so deeply and inexplicably connected with their loss that I have gone the length of teaching myself the rudimentary elements of languages as varied as Navajo and Lenape; but these are separate stories, relevant here only to inform my reader than I am not cold nor insensitive to the oppression of English; just that I still believe, as I write these words with its blessing, in English; and in fact I have no other choice but to take up this belief as earnestly as I can — more to come on that below). I will venture the opposing argument, if only to shed light on the side of the coin we tend not to talk about when we talk about English: these languages suffering under the very real burden of globalized English have the gift of what much of English has lost: a blessed sense of specificity, of the danger that drives us to cherish what we would otherwise take as a given. Of “the course of a particular,” or of various language-specific particulars, to use a phrase of Wallace Steven’s. Writers who write in so-called minor languages around the world do so under the stormclouds of English; but it is precisely those stormclouds that (at least as often as they provoke an impulse toward “translatese,” where a book in Norwegian is written with the ease of English translation and world audience in mind) also incite the writer to turn into his or her own language. (Translatese is a serious problem, to be fair, but not one I’ll address here.) Not to turn away from an increasingly English world, but to find and express the world of their own language, in its particular music. We, writers and readers of English, would do well to imagine those globalizing stormclouds that are so often called by the name of our language as being not inherently related to that tongue in which our mother sang us lullabies — that language both small and large, that language which, like all languages, will always and forever remain just a language, and how much better, how much more human, for that fact — but as being the thing in English that makes us forget English. In other words, we might turn our attention to the necrophilic tendencies of a global monstrosity that seems to be the English language but that, in occupying so much of our fear and our effort, takes us only further away from all that English is at heart and can still be in the right hands.

There are those who, with Silicon valley style efficiency, would see a world language of supposed succinctness and prescribed precision as a harbinger of world peace, but a certain writer of English knows, as does a certain writer of French or of Japanese and every other written language still alive on human tongues, that the illusion of greater communication only brings ruin upon us — that we can choose between the beautiful babble of human languages worldwide, a blessing in disguise from God, and the world-destroying nothing-ese of a Newspeak that condemns us all to soul-stilling sameness. A certain writer of English knows furthermore that a truer form of “connecting the world” than Facebook friend-requests or United Airlines in-flight videos is in literature that seems, but only seems, disconnectedly singular, and utterly English. A certain writer of English knows he or she has only one language, however various, however multiple and welcoming of italicized intruders from beyond — and that that language is none other than beautiful, many-faced, monumental English.

*

In the time since I began exchanging these responses with you, dear Andrei, and imagining with patience how they may be received when they eventually appear on this blog which I have followed eagerly all the while and which I believe to be a real force for good in the various literary battles described at length above, I have visited, sojourned, and lived in Paris, Beirut, Erbil, Brooklyn, Stockholm, Paris (again), Cairo, Rabat, and of course the Jersey shore, my hometown. Now I write you from another hemisphere and continent entirely — from a quiet café on a rainy winter day (or else the first of spring; it’s all opposite) in Melbourne, Australia. I am here to visit a writer of English whose work has, for lack of a better phrase, changed my life. And yes, here English is all around me, and drowning out many dead and dying Aboriginal languages. Even in my time in Iraqi Kurdistan, I admit that my English was often more practicable than my Arabic. But I have concluded, throughout all my traveling, and despite my ongoing love affair with any number of different languages and cultures, that I cannot but write these words to you or to anyone else in English, my native language, even if it was not that of my ancestors’, nor that of my ancestors’ ancestors’. (The trail leads backwards from Arabic-speaking Aleppo through Spain to who knows where). My last name is of Ladino origin; I pray to my God in Hebrew; my curse words are invariably Arabic; and in all the places I have traveled just this year alone, I have had the recourse to navigate through or make use of any number of languages, some of which I know quite well after much effort spent relearning them, others self-taught but steady (French, Swedish), and others still completely foreign (Tamazight, Kurdish). But all that I really have is English.

I have concluded, then, what Paul Celan concluded long before me: “only in the mother tongue can one speak one’s own truth — in a foreign tongue the poet lies.” I no longer aspire to be a poet, but I interpret his words as applying to all forms of that sacred endeavor I call Literature, and thus to my own efforts in prose. It should be noted that Celan wrote in German — rewrote German, some say, not that it matters, since some form of German it remains — against the weight of the Holocaust, which he survived, at least until he killed himself after a lifetime of torment and trauma. Much murder has been conducted in and with English, but the weight of the language’s imperial and capitalized heritage, real though it is, does not hang over me as I write, or at least does not blind me from English, or make mute its music. I hear only the sound of the thoughts of my narrator or the narrating of images that have often woven themselves through my mind, and all this occurs in English. I try and relax. Sometimes I imagine mastering Arabic, learning its 500 million words and finding use for them in fictions about a community – my own – that has spoken Arabic for centuries. I imagine myself a monolingual Hebrew-speaker, writing in and of diaspora, and thus honoring the long tradition of Hebrew literature kept alive by the likes of my ancestors. Or I imagine forgetting my Hebrew and my Arabic and taking up Japanese or moving to some tree-lined Tokyo suburb and only eating sushi and pretending to be hip, up-to-date, and readerly. But when I’m ready, often after many hours of effort, I leave behind these fantasies or nightmares and write word after word in the only language I have had the random but blessed fate of calling my own: I write in English.

About Josh Calvo

Josh Calvo is a writer of fiction, translator from Hebrew and Arabic, obsessive reader and language-learner, shameless bibliophile addict, and PhD student in Comparative Literature at Princeton University — in that order. He is currently at work on two increasingly large manuscripts of fiction and the beginnings of a dissertation focused on modernism in modern Hebrew and Arabic that also entertains comparison with similar material from Finnish, Hungarian, Judeo-Spanish, Russian, Japanese, French, Dutch, and much too many others. He has twice tried living in Brooklyn, but for want of trees, affordable rent, and other such luxuries, finds himself often returning for long sojourns to the Jersey Shore suburbs and Syrian Jewish community in which he was raised — though he sometimes also moves to Princeton, NJ, in which leafy quiet town one may walk humbly in the footsteps of Mann, Eliot, Fuentes, among other literary ghosts. Josh welcomes any questions or comments on anything mentioned above or otherwise — especially from those who should like to hear more about his fiction or translation work. He can be reached directly at joshuac220@gmail.com or jcalvo@princeton.edu.

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Outrageously Out of Print: Ten Books You Didn’t Even Know Existed in Translation

Secondhand Bookseller on the Quai Voltaire in Paris, France, 1821. Image Source

The heading is unapolagetically clickbaity as I sincerely hope that you do know about the existence of at least some of the titles listed below. The idea for the post cristallised after several occasions when I was planning to write a review of some novel I was absolutely sure was not available in English translation, but, upon last-minute fact-checking, had to give up the idea because I discovered (to my surprise and, I have to confess, a bit of chagrin) that the book in question had appeared in English years ago but since then had gone out of print and sunk into oblivion. As you know all too well, I am an obnoxious, self-righteous, pompous advocate of untranslated literature whose glaring absence in the English language is a huge disservice to the English-speaking world.  This time, however, I would like to draw your attention to another problem: that of neglected literature in translation. It is common knowledge that not only ridiculously few works of world literature get translated into English every year, but also that translated books are hard to sell and that they are less likely to get a second printing, let alone a new edition. The fact that so few complex and innovative books get translated is aggravated by the grim circumstance that so many complex and innovative books that did get translated at some point have fallen into obscurity. I have picked ten important works of world literature which at the moment can be found only in second-hand bookstores and now would like to present them to you. The list is chronologically ordered according to the year of the first publication in the original language. Perhaps, you will discover something new or, maybe, recognise the old tome from a garage sale which you never got down to reading; if the latter is the case, now’s the time! After each title I put a quote from a review or two which appeared the same year as the translation of the book, with the link to the full text. I could have found more recent, thorough and, frankly speaking, much better reviews, but that wasn’t my purpose. I wanted you to witness the encounter with the new in all its naked vulnerability. Most of the reviewers were obviously not ready for these books, and it shows. There is also a strong possibility that the translations themselves were not very successful, and that might have influenced the subsequent destiny of these titles. But I want you to look at these ten books from a slightly different angle: the very fact that they have been translated is the cause for joy and celebration, albeit tainted by the awareness that all of them are out of print now.

 

1. Nikos Kazantzakis. The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel (Οδύσεια, 1938), trans. by Kimon Friar

From Time, Dec. 8, 1958 (Unfortunately, the complete review is behind the paywall, but you can google, can’t you?):

Masterpieces of literature are hard to come by and even harder to recognize. This is particularly true when they are written in verse, and when they presumably lose their pristine shine in the process of translation. It has taken 20 years for The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel to reach English in hexameter from its original modern Greek. The poem has not been translated into any other language and so is virtually unknown outside its native Greece.

2. Heimito von Doderer. The Demons (Die Dämonen, 1956), trans. by Richard and Clara Winston

From Kirkus Reviews, 1961:

[…] this enormously long and complex novel deals with the relations among a group of people in Vienna in the late 1920’s. In a sense little happens but the whole texture and detail of a society is reconstructed, in cafes, bourgois homes, castles, workrooms, offices. And they are welded together by astonishing, lucid perceptions of the most peripheral insights and relations. […] Narrower, drier, more intellectualized than Proust, though in some ways as complete a segment of a society, this pinpoint concentration on the minutiae of many lives is a complex and brilliant reading experience.

3. Manuel Mujica Láinez. Bomarzo (1962), trans. by Gregory Rabassa

From The Spectator, Aug. 29, 1970:

The book purports to be the memoirs of Pier Francesco Orsini, Duke of Bomarzo, born in 1512, and who died in 1572. Yet the Duke disconcerts us by juggling not only with Medici and Farnese, with Aretino and Cervantes, but also with Freud, Nabokov and Miss Vita Sackville-West […]

To evoke this astounding era, the writer deploys a profound historical imagination, massive erudition, a vivid period sense of character, and a lapidary, if somewhat hypnotic, style. Some may find that if Senor Mujica-Lainez wears his learning lightly as a glove, this is rather overencrusted with ornamental rings; others that the Proustian periods—admirably translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa—verge at times upon a self-indulgent verbosity. Yet none can surely deny that the writer’s huge ambition—which is no less than to portray the essential essence of the Italian sixteenth century—has been splendidly achieved.

4. Paolo Volponi. The Worldwide Machine. (La macchina mondiale, 1965), trans. by Belen Sevareid

From Kirkus Reviews, Oct. 16, 1967:

The essay-novel, or the novel of introspection or symbolic action, has only recently caught on in Italy. Moravia is sexually oriented, the interests of Silone and Vittorini are basically social, and all three employ a more or less realistic immediacy. Paolo Volponi’s The World Wide Machine, on the other hand, is closer to Musil and Kafka, to dehydrated prose, indirect representation, and allegorical issues.

5. Luigi Malerba. The Serpent (Il serpente, 1966), trans. by William Weaver

From Kirkus Reviews, May 13, 1968:

Behind every thing there is almost always something else hidden. Certainly more than meets the eye with playful images and conceits, while most of it takes place in the head of Mr. Malerba’s scapegrace little stamp dealer, confined in his small shop with its “odor of gum arabic. . . of faint mold.” […] He’s a Cannibal; he’s a Sorcerer: he’s a free-floater with the motility of a paramecium.

6. Juan Benet. A Meditation (Una meditación, 1970), trans. by Gregory Rabassa

From Kirkus Reviews, May 3, 1982:

Benet, like Juan Goytisolo (Makbara, Juan the Landless), is a highly intellectual contemporary Spanish novelist who’s not afraid of knotty forms. This novel consists of a single long paragraph, a “meditation” on the provincial, the erotic, the obsessional, the conscious. Set in a Catalonian area called Región, the book casts disparate elements–bits of family history, the story of a local inn owned by a mysterious and dusky woman, the effect of the civil war, incest and sexual implacabilities–into a stream of apothegms and snaky reflections […]

7. Vassily Aksyonov. The Burn (Ожог, 1975), trans. by Michael Glenny

From Kirkus Reviews, Sept. 1, 1984:

Aksyonov’s magnum opus–and quite something: shaggy, surrealist, knowingly comic, painful, and always utterly carbonated. Is there a plot here? Well, yes and no. Aksyonov (The Steel Bird, The Island of Crimea) offers a narrator/hero named Tolya von Steinbock–a quasi-autobiographical figure who is variously metamorphosed into a scientist, a jazz musician, a sculptor, a writer, a doctor.

8. Abel Posse. The Dogs of Paradise (Los perros del paraíso, 1983) trans. by Margaret Sayers Peden

From Publishers Weekly, Jan., 1989:

The medieval Spanish state and the New World in the early years of its discovery by Europeans are the backdrops for a revisionist historical farce that will be best appreciated by those already familiar with the personalities and events of the period. The disjointed narrative renders with Rabelaisian gusto (and, frequently, crudity) several settings: Aztec and Inca societies; the passionate, cruel court of Isabella and Ferdinand; the lonely wanderings of Christopher Columbus as he moves toward his fateful mission of finding Earthly Paradise.

From Kirkus Reviews, Jan. 1st, 1989:

Argentinian writer Posse, translated into English for the first time, joins those other Latin American writers who dazzle us with their verbal virtuosity, flair for magic realism, and incomparable interplay of the sacred and the profane. Mindful perhaps of that approaching half-millenium celebration, Posse makes Christopher Columbus the central character of the novel. But Posse’s Columbus is a mystic, a sensual lover, and a utopian–not the usual crass fortune-seeker of the history books, though he is shrewd enough to play on other men’s greed.

9. João Ubaldo Ribeiro. An Invincible Memory (Viva o povo brasileiro, 1984)trans. by the author

From The New York Times, Apr. 16, 1989:

Joao Ubaldo Ribeiro’s novel ”An Invincible Memory” is about the forging of the Brazilian national identity – the incongruous merging of the various elements of its indigenous, Dutch, Portuguese colonialist and African slave populations into one unified spirit that calls itself Brazilian. As such, the novel attempts to trace the history of Brazil from the arrival of the early Dutch settlers in the 17th century (with some fairly hilarious Rabelaisian passages regarding their cannibalism) to the country’s recent struggles with right-wing dictatorship and state-sponsored terrorism.

10. Sasha Sokolov. Astrophobia (Палисандрия, 1985), trans. by Michael Henry Heim

From Publishers Weekly, Nov., 1989:

With their exploded sense of time and space and one-dimensional characterization, these postmodern “memoirs” of a 21st-century Soviet leader are purely Russian in temperament, although the author’s inventive use of language is uniquely his own. The narrator, Palisander Dahlberg, is raised in an orphanage inside the Kremlin walls, a warm, enveloping womb of a place that even includes a whorehouse for residents.

From Kirkus Reviews, Oct. 1, 1989:

Most notable for its rich Rabelaisian style, the book’s farcical indulgences can be hilarious or merely hysterical. […] At best, a paean to vibrancy and to life (“Long live existence!”) worthy of Falstaff; but also too often impressed with its own excess.

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The Great Untranslated: Ostatnia powieść (The Last Novel) by Teodor Parnicki

In world literature there is a special category: the Great Unfinished Novel. It comprises such early-20th century classics as Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities, Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk, Franz Kafka’s The Castle, and, from more recent times:  Ralph Ellison’s Three Days Before the Shooting and David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. Teodor Parnicki’s thousand-page The Last Novel belongs to this revered company: the Polish author left it uncompleted at the time of his death on December 5, 1988. When it comes to complexity, however, this cognitive overkill of a novel stands out even among the above-mentioned titles. Based on the critical response of those Polish readers who managed to read, let alone digest, this colossal book, I can assume that it has secured the place as the most formidable work of 20th century Polish literature.

Teodor Parnicki is a great unknown for the Anglophone reader as none of his works have been translated into English so far. But the fact that he is little known outside Poland does not diminish his stature: his literary heritage is a dense forest we don’t see for a clump of scrawny trees. If you want to learn more about his life and work, I am more than happy to refer you to the fascinating article appropriately called Teodor Parnicki, the Man in the Labyrinth, from which I’d like to quote the following description:

Parnicki uses novel and surprising literary structures: interview (or rather, and almost always, interrogation), informer’s reports, police reports, confessions, dream-journals, and letters (often fragmentary). He writes in extraordinarily long, dense, complicated sentences using odd grammatical constructions (past perfect, for example, the use of which in Polish he single-handedly revives) and unusual vocabulary. He adds intentionally to the confusion of the text by referring to certain individuals by a number of different names or to different individuals by the same name. Often, not all clues to the mystery of the particular novel can be found in it – one has to turn to encyclopedias and scholarly works to understand some aspects of the plot or some of the ideas of the heroes. With each successive novel, the complexity and opacity of the text is increased. The novels become elaborate labyrinths in which the reader is constantly searching for clues and interpretations.

He sounds like our man, doesn’t he? In Parnicki’s last novel, posthumously published in 2003, this life-long symphony of increasing complexity reaches a deafening crescendo: the story unfolds over the period of 30 years, takes us all over the world and features more than a hundred characters from numerous countries; it discusses at length and in detail literature, politics, diplomacy and religion and lures the reader into an intricate web of international conspiracies and secret alliances — yet most of this information overload stems from a series of conversations between a man and woman in a Berlin apartment. The novel starts as a trite detective story. A woman called Ingrid Jakobsen approaches private eye John Wang with the request of solving the mysterious death of her first husband. They meet in his apartment for a talk. From then on, the pseudo-detective plot explodes into a kaleidoscope of elaborate storylines, proliferating puzzles, and cultural references overwhelming in their abundance. Gradually it becomes evident that the man and the woman are not so much interested in solving the murder mystery as in running a game of their own whose complexity boggles imagination. Since the elaborateness of the plot is aggravated by that of the language, it is perfectly understandable why The Last Novel has so few readers even in Poland. This obscure and bewildering testament to Parnicki’s extraordinary talent as a storyteller, stylist and world-maker is biding its time: it is patiently waiting to be read, understood and appreciated, and, perhaps, even translated some day.

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Bastard Battle by Céline Minard

Céline Minard’s novel is written in a brilliant pastiche of Middle French speckled with amusing anachronisms. She has drawn inspiration from Jean Froissart’s Chronicles as well as Villon’s poems and Rabelais’ satirical pentalogy. The other major source of influence lies in kung fu movies, samurai cinema, and westerns. The anachronistic clash of these two media, the late Medieval/early Renaissance texts and popular movies of the second half of the 20th century, has brought into being a monstrous hybrid that portrays the unspeakable cruelties of the Middle Ages with cinematic intensity and panache.

The novel is set in 1437, a time when French towns still suffered from raids of well-armed, ruthless brigands known as the écorcheurs (flayers). These bands of pillagers mostly consisted of unemployed mercenaries who had earned their lurid nickname for the frequent practice of stripping their victims naked.  Denysot the Cleric, aka the Hash, aka Spencer Five, narrates the gripping story of how the small town of Chaumont is first liberated from and then successfully defended against one such band led by Aligot, the bastard of Bourbon.

For the inhabitants of the neighbouring areas, the seizure of Chaumont marks just the beginning of a chain of iniquities committed by Aligot and his troops. Using the captured town as the home base for the écorcheurs, the bastard and his lieutenants unleash a gory orgy of murder, torture, rape, and desecration wherever their forays take them. However, the bastard’s well-established routine of unredressed atrocity from time to time gets interrupted by the sudden appearance of warriors whose extraordinary fighting skills provoke cognitive dissonance in the medieval minds of the brigands. It is no wonder, for these preternaturally gifted individuals owe their skills to the conventions of action movies. The first one to shock the brazen bastard is Six-Foot Adder (Vipère-d’une-toise), a Chinese woman with Shaolin Kung Fu training, who expertly wields a pole-arm tasselled with a scalp and can single-handedly defeat scores of the murderous mercenaries. Another shock comes when the Japanese swordsman Akira (an hommage both to the famous film director and the cult manga series) demonstrates his incredible mastery by splitting with his katana a flea on the cheek of a monastery novice without causing him any injury and thus saving his life from the jeering raiders, after which he takes the bastard himself as a temporary hostage and effortlessly escapes the retribution of his men. There is also a phenomenal archer called Billy (based on Billy the Kid, naturally) whose secret weapons are a pair of miniature culverins with revolving cylinders. In contrast to the two Asian masters, Billy briefly joins the bastard’s band, but his sympathies will eventually shift to the abused citizens and villagers. The recapture of Chaumont is precipitated by the arrival of the Valencian master of the spear Enguerrand de Montorell. Instead of confronting the bastard in a fair one-on-one combat, he is forced to engage a whole bunch of his lieutenants; the resulting mêlée rapidly evolves into an organised armed resistance. The main actors of the recapture are all of the above combat experts plus three reluctant members of the bastard’s cohorts, each proficient in his own way:  the peasant Tartas, who is unsurpassed in fighting with the spiked club “morning star”,  the forger Sunday the Wolf (Dimanche-le-loup), who is well versed in espionage and reconnaissance methods, and the narrator himself, who, aside from being a competent scribe and copyist, also proves to be skilled in the fighting style of the drunken master. Thanks to these seven leaders or “the seven samurai”, as they start calling themselves after Akira fills them in on his background, the bastard and his men find themselves stranded outside the city walls, yearning for revenge.

Still from Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, 1954.

Each of the seven commanders organises combat training of the townspeople in the respective discipline. Thus, for example, the donjon court becomes a dojo in which Six-Foot Adder teaches women and young men the basics of kung fu. Her most talented pupil is Brucelet, who will demonstrate wonders of hand-to-hand combat at the end of the novel, terrifying the enemy both with his fighting technique and the stridency of his battle cry. After getting the blacksmith to forge swords similar to his katana, Akira instructs his students in the subtleties of swordsmanship, while Billy is in charge of training longbowmen. All the other members of the cadre are also involved in some kind of mentorship. When the citizens are well-trained and the fortifications are reinforced, Chaumont is ready to withstand any assault of the bastard’s troops. Even if some of “the seven samurai” are destined to perish in combat, we know that Aligot de Bourbon doesn’t stand a chance. We know it, because unlike him, we have seen the films featuring fighters similar to his opponents.

The clash of the two worlds orchestrated by Céline Minard in her bastardised text is anachronistic, for sure, but it is not incongruous. The writer’s main message is that although the sets and props of the human drama change with time, the primal violence accompanying it from the very beginning will always remain a constant. The last sentence in Denysot’s chronicle is “Et ainsi ja l’histoire ne finira” (And thus the story will never end). He writes this after the story of the bastard battle is long over and all the survivors have moved on with their lives. But he doesn’t mean that story, of course. It is a pessimistic observation regarding the violent nature of humanity. On the whole, Minard’s novel is a powerful and eloquent statement about our ambivalent relationship with violence. Many of us crave its aestheticised representation in novels, films and comic books, yet we are shocked when confronted with raw violence in reality, not less because the modern civilised society has insulated our daily lives against it. With Bastard Battle, Minard makes us acknowledge this ambivalence by infiltrating into the sordid and brutal Middle Ages familiar agents of aesthetically pleasing violence, so that we can catch ourselves at the exact moment when we start feeling relief, that crucial moment when the repugnant and horrific massacre perpetrated by the brutal denizens of the medieval world gives way to the fun massacre gracefully performed by our favourite action movie heroes.

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Finisterra: Landscape and Settlement (Finisterra: Paisagem e Povoamento) by Carlos de Oliveira

Carlos de Oliveira’s brief novel is a thing of exceptional, exquisite beauty. It’s one of the rare cases when the expression “to paint with words” is not just a glib figure of speech, but the only possible way to characterise the imagistic splendour of the Portuguese author’s writing. Finisterra is something to be seen, contemplated, gazed at, rather than simply read. And no, there are no typographical gimmicks or fanciful illustrations — just plain text, but the evocative power of the words used by this virtuoso is so great, that you will see things. I guarantee you that. Before I proceed,  let me quote the passage from the very beginning of the novel, taken from the extract translated by Kenneth Krabbenhoft (this sample translation used to be available on the site of the publisher And Other Stories, but, regrettably, it has been taken down):

The familiar garden (first stage of disrepair): brambles in shapeless mounds, untrimmed boxwood, nettles, wildflowers. Stunted palm trees, so swollen they look like aging, diseased dwarfs, their long hair and matted leaves bent to touch the ground.

Perched on a whale bone, more correctly the middle section of a whale’s backbone, fifty-five centimeters wide and thirty-three high: two vertebras spread open like the blades (arms) of a propeller, quite far apart, providing a resting place for the elbows. Balancing the sketchpad on his knees he is able to draw (pretty soon the summer rain will send him indoors). Whale bone, the texture of softwood, waterlogged and weatherbeaten but free of rot: when light strikes its muted grain it raises a gray powder, as if re-igniting. The stone hardness relents, and they both float (the child and the whale bone) above the bilious moss, the stalks of gisandra, the lichen — these lingering afflictions.

A clashing in the clouds catches him by surprise then fades away, but it is enough to open a crack (irreparable) in his memory, and he reproduces the landscape outside his window, from memory. He shapes primordial beings, mixes summer and winter, tones down the blinding (excessive) summer sunlight that strikes the sand, crushed mica, mortar-ground glass (whatever), swells the grains of sand to the size they seem to have at night when the wind throws fat fistfuls of pebbles at the windows. At this point the rain drives him from the garden. Not much time for floating.

If a novel begins like that, you get a hunch that your display of all-time favourite books might require additional shelf space.

Besides being beautifully written, this short but extremely dense novel is as enigmatic as a coded alchemical treatise. Even several close readings will not reveal all its mysteries. It’s one of those books that can be continuously re-read, each time yielding new revelations and insights. If upon the first reading I was sure that Finisterra was an extraordinary book, after reading it for the second time I knew that it was a timeless masterpiece and that I would re-read it again. There is nothing like it not only in Portuguese letters, but also in world literature as a whole.

The first impression of the novel is that of an incomprehensible and gorgeous pandemonium. It is hard to tell when the given scene is set and who is talking.  The dialogues are unattributed and even the circumstantial evidence hinting at the speakers is scarce. There are no clear time indications, which often misleads the reader into thinking that the current events happened a long time ago, and, conversely, that the occurrences from the distant past are the most recent developments. Yes, Carlos de Oliveira masterfully pulled this off long before Westworld. It takes patience, concentration and resourcefulness to make a semblance of the blueprint for the plot of this mysterious novel.

A man returns to his childhood home, now derelict and dilapidated, and tries to piece together the history of his family, the house, and the enthralling landscape around it. A folder with the family papers is of some help in his task, but the key element of his probe into the reasons that brought about the ruin of the house, eventually devoured by the forces of ruthless nature, is the prodigious theatre of his mind. It is his staged recollections and reveries which are mostly responsible for the befuddling effect of the text on the reader. As it becomes apparent, the man’s main conversation partner is his younger self from the past, the little boy who once drew a picture of the landscape as it appeared in the window of the house, revealing thus that he had inherited from his parents a very peculiar obsession.

We learn next to nothing about the backgrounds of the boy’s father and mother. Not even their names. What we do learn in spades is their approach to representing the landscape. The father believes in the objective representation by means of photography. He attaches an enlarged photograph of the landscape to the same wall as the window overlooking it: the original and the faithful copy side by side. The mother’s method is subjective and, therefore, more creative. She burns the picture of the landscape with a pyrography tool on a sheepskin cushion. It is their child who advances the farthest, of course. His drawing, executed from memory, represents the landscape as an environment subject to the transformative power of imagination. In contrast to his parents, the boy not only considerably distorts the original by making the lake tiny like a drop of water and the sand grains huge like rocks, but also populates his version of the landscape with pilgrims who are fleeing their native land stricken by apocalyptic calamities. The fugitives’  heads are black and wrapped in flames. The livestock and other domestic animals of the pilgrims are also depicted with deviation from the norm: the lambs are larger than the oxen, and the horses slither on the ground like snakes.

The efforts of the family members to capture the landscape via different media might be seen as the irrational attempt to save their house from the encroachment of nature embodied by thick fog and viscous corrosive mud whose main ingredient is the sap of the fungal plants gisandras, which are solely the author’s invention. The only external protection their dwelling appears to have is the “halo”, a mysterious shield of light surrounding the house, but there is little hope that it will keep staving off forever the intrusion of the elements. Another threat is of legal origin: the house was bought on a mortgage loan and the family are behind in payments. The boy’s uncle studies old alchemical writings, hoping to find the secret formula of some fabulous translucent porcelain and to save the house with the riches it will bring him. But it is obvious to everyone that he’s on a fool’s errand. The original sin lies with the first settlers, the pioneers, who more than a thousand years ago claimed the wilderness, which is now home to the family. The mortgage is just the latest stage in the long-term imposition of order and structure on the dunes, the lake, and the wild grasses that make up the landscape.

Yet another version of the landscape is added to the existing ones when the adult protagonist makes its three-dimensional  model on the top of a table, using sand, ashes and salt as his main materials. His most impressive creation, however, is the imaginary space in which the past and the present converge and which draws a lot on the fantastic world of his childhood drawing. This new dimension serves as the stage for an expiatory masque produced by the man in order to enact symbolical salvation of the doomed home. The performance is saturated with Christian motifs; there is even a sacrificial lamb bought from the pilgrims, which is to be decorated alive by the mother’s pyrography tool. Despite the higher degree of sophistication present in the theatre of the mind, nothing can be done to save the house from wrack and ruin. Nature will not accept another man-made system, no matter how creative, in exchange for its mercy. The place with the rotting house (known as the End of the Land or Finisterra in Latin), after all these centuries, is about to enter a new epoch which begins as soon as the oppressive human presence ends.

Carlos de Oliveira’s last and greatest novel is very short — just 140 pages, yet it fully deserves to be called his magnum opus. Beautiful, poetic, philosophical, and boldly experimental, the text of Finisterra showcases density and depth that very few present-day doorstoppers possess.

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Forthcoming: Abel and Cain by Gregor von Rezzori

New York Review Books is going to publish Gregor von Rezzori’s novelistic diptych in all its toxic splendour. Joachim Neugroschel’s 1985 translation of the massive, controversial The Death of My Brother Abel (Der Tod meines Bruders Abel) has been revised by Marshall Yarborough for this publication, and the prequel Cain (Kain. Das letzte Manuskript)translated by David Dollenmayer, will appear in English for the first time.

It is the year 1968, and the middle-aged narrator of The Death of My Brother Abel looks back at his hectic and eventful life from his room in a Parisian hotel. Making use of the copious notes for the unwritten autobiographical novel distributed over the four folders labelled Pneuma, A, B and C, he gives us a disjointed and rant-fuelled account of his turbulent past: early childhood in Bessarabia, the adolescence in Vienna where he witnesses first-hand Hitler’s Anschluss, the subsequent service in the Romanian army, the years spent in post-war Germany where he manages to attend the Nuremberg trials of the Nazi criminals and get his foot into film industry. While leading us through a number of Europe’s locations and relating some crucial moments in its history before and after the Second World War, the erudite and polyglot narrator subjects us to a cacophonous barrage of cultural references, philosophical concepts, and literary allusions demonstrating the universal knowledge characteristic of the archetypal Central European intellectual fostered in the multicultural cauldron of the disintegrated Austria-Hungary.

Here are some of the reactions to the book when its English translation was first published.

Elie Wiesel in The Washington Post:

Pathos, humor, a disillusioned but strangely generous irony, an appreciation for the beauty of a landscape, the lyricism of an erotic moment — the narrator knows all these and all the languages of the uprooted: French quotations, Yiddish songs, sentences in Romanian, Hungarian names, Russian shouting. He talks breathlessly of everything — Rembrandt and Art Deco, Nietzsche and Art Nouveau, the religion of pleasure, the Apocalypse.

Gabriele Annan in The New York Review of Books:

You need to think big about it: think of terms like epoch (1918–1968), epoch-making, Gargantuan, Promethean, apocalypse, holocaust, maelstrom, Götterdämmerung, Wirtschaftswunder, The Decline of the West, A la recherche du temps perdu, the mega-Mann of The Magic Mountain, Dr. Faustus, and The Confessions of Felix Krull. […] Sexual boasting is matched by cultural boasting, with classy quotations in every European language dropping like crystals from a chandelier in an air raid.

Robert Leiter in The New York Times

Readers conversant with the great works of modernism will be familiar with the almost foolhardy ambitiousness of Mr. von Rezzori’s novel; what may give some people justifiable pause are the narrator’s opinions. His remarks about the Nuremberg trials are troubling. […] ACCORDING to him, the Nuremberg trials were ”a process of revenge wreathed in embarrassing claptrap and carried out against inferior losers by men who just barely won, and who might be accused of the same crime tomorrow, since they failed to prevent what happened from happening.”

The story in the unfinished and posthumously published Cain unfolds, for the most part, in a ruined and defeated Germany immediately after World War Two but also captures the restless atmosphere of the Wirtschaftswunder years and provides an insider scrutiny of the West German cinema scene of the period. The disorienting narration is contested in a feverish tug-of-war between three voices: those of Aristide Subics (the storyteller in the previous novel), his editor Schwab, and Rezzori himself.

As usual, NYRB Classics does a sterling job not only of re-acquainting the readers with a forgotten classic, but also of introducing to them an important addendum to it, which is likely to enrich the overall reading experience even for those already familiar with The Death of My Brother Abel. As for the first-time readers of Gregor von Rezzori’s magnum opus, they will decide for themselves if its rescue from oblivion has been justified.

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Guest Post: Simon Collings on Georges Limbour

Georges Limbour. Image Source

Michel Leiris, writing in Atoll in 1968, described the writer Georges Limbour as: ‘a great poet in every heart-beat of what he wrote, but a poet without fanfare or vain display’. In ‘a society less gross than ours’ Leiris went on to say, Limbour would have had a far larger following. Limbour was greatly admired by his contemporaries, many of whom he knew as friends, including Max Jacob, Jean Cocteau, George Bataille, and Raymond Queneau. But very little of his work has been translated into English, and even in France he is not widely known.

He was born in 1900 and grew up in and around Le Havre. His childhood friends included the painter Jean Dubuffet, and Raymond Queneau. He started writing in his teens. Aged 18 he went to Paris to study medicine, then switched to philosophy. But he spent more time in literary circles than with his text books, drawn to both André Breton’s Surrealist group, and the experimental artists and writers who met at the studio of the painter André Masson. Limbour’s first story, L’enfant polaire (The Polar Child), heavily influenced by Surrealism, appeared in two parts over the winter of 1921/22. A slim volume of poems, Soleils bas (Low Suns), with illustrations by Masson, was published in 1924. More poems followed, and more stories, three of them published in 1930 as L’Illustre cheval blanc (The Illustrious White Horse).

Limbour never fully applied the strict ‘automatic writing’ methods demanded by Breton, and these early works already reveal a level of literary artifice which other Surrealist texts of the period eschew. He was, accordingly, denounced by Breton, in the second Surrealist manifesto of 1929, and expelled from the movement for ‘literary coquetry in the worst sense of the word’. By this time Limbour had aligned himself with the writers linked to George Bataille and the journal Documents, and he contributed to the anti-Breton pamphlet Un Cadavre (A Corpse).

First page of the 1930 pamphlet Un Cadavre. Image source

After 1930 Limbour’s writing shifted register, with prose becoming his primary focus. The excesses of the Surrealist phase modulated into a gentler, more subtle style, yet still magical.  He published four novels: Les vanilliers (The Vanilla Plants, 1938), La pie voleuse (The Thieving Magpie, 1939), Le bridge de Madame Lyane (Mme Lyane’s Bridge Club, 1948) and La chasse au mérou (Fishing for Grouper, 1963). Les vanilliers won the Prix Rencontre the year it was published.  After his death Limbour’s short stories were collected and published in two volumes by Gallimard. He also wrote a play, and three opera librettos.

During much of the early period of his life Limbour lived outside of France. Between 1924 and 1939 he had teaching jobs in Albania, Egypt and Warsaw – and he travelled widely in Europe. In his later years he spent a great deal of time in Spain, where two of the novels are set – La pie voleuse and La chasse au mérou. The other novels, and many of the stories, also have exotic settings. Les vanilliers is set in Réunion, and Le bridge de Madame Lyane on the Danube. Several tales are set in Egypt (including Le main de Fatma, and Lettre d’Omdah), À l’encre sympatique takes place in Albania, and Le chien blanc in a remote mountain village. Even the stories set in France tend to happen on islands off the coast, as in Le calligraphe, La Chapelle de la Joie, and Un petit micro-climat. The events in the Surrealist influenced stories of the 1920s, of course, take place in imaginary landscapes, only loosely anchored in reality, where locations dissolve into each other with the fluidity of a dream.

The American writer Donald Heiney published a perceptive overview of Limbour’s writing in The Iowa Review in 1974. This is the only extended piece of writing on Limbour in English, which I have been able to find. Heiney says:

It is an odd fiction, rich in energy and full of partly resolved conflicts. There is a great note of enthusiasm and sensual delight running through it, yet the verbal effervescence is always tempered by intelligence. Leiris characterizes him as a being ‘intoxicated with life and at the same time too lucid not to perceive its inanity.’ The heroic is established in deft sketches and then deflated by the playful.

Heiney’s essay provides details about the novels, as well as commenting on a few of the stories. I have been particularly focused on the stories, which I am in the process of translating, and it is to these I will now turn. Limbour wrote short fiction throughout his life, and the evolution of his style can be clearly traced through these works.

The Surrealist stories are madcap, plotless adventures, full of rich invention. L’acteur du Lancashire (The Lancashire Actor), written in 1923, includes a wonderful rant against British imperialism – delivered by a horse. The hero, Herodstar, is looking for somewhere to bury his companion Pamela who has suddenly died. At one point on his quest he wakes up a bookseller in the middle of the night in order to buy a Spanish dictionary:

…marvelling at how the words of this foreign language were like fruit fresh from the tree and not old and dry; they touched the senses delightfully, new like the young beggars that assail you, no longer words but the things themselves which they designate, happy to run naked before clothing themselves in abstraction.

A battle with three policemen ensues, in a passage which anticipates Ed Dorn’s  Gunslinger, and the story ends with Herodstar gassing himself in the apartment he once shared with Pamela, while filling coloured party balloons. The balloons drift away into the night, across space and time, the last of them falling at dawn into a sandstone courtyard where the ‘glory of Rome’ slumbers, the balloon startling ‘the geese of the Capitol’.

Les yeux de verres (The Glass Eyes), from 1924, is a more straightforward tale with a macabre twist at the end. The central character purchases a ‘fist-full’ of glass eyes at an optician’s and gives them to a group of children playing marbles in front of a bench on which a group of blind old men are sitting. On discovering that the children are using eyes instead of marbles several of the old men go mad, thinking the eyes are their own.

From 1930 onwards the stories are less frenetic, more ‘naturalistic’, though no less magical.  In Conte d’été (A Tale of Summer), the narrator is on a deserted beach with the strange name of ‘Domino’. In the brilliance of this landscape, memories of a masquerade in Venice, and of a former lover, take on bodily form and seduce him.

The charm of the south held me, unmoving: then two hands (with the lightest of touches) suddenly placed a mask, without holes for eyes, over my face, thus divesting me of the world, and a voice (seductive and amused) sang out behind me, like the sound of small black, shining pebbles cast into the sparkling sea, these three sombre and clear notes: Domino!

The text unfolds in a series of lyrical descriptions of the sensuous visions he experiences, culminating in a revelation of the woman and the world as one:

That’s when the sea, the sky and all things lifted for a moment their frail domino, to allow me at last to expose their secret. As vast as the sea, higher than the sky (and speaking on a human scale, with the true dimensions of love and the size of my hands, for that image was close to me beneath far off things) your limpid face reigned in its fresh and tender nakedness. Your hair crowned the golden splendour of the universe and the light gleamed in the hollow of your shoulders which rounded off the horizon. Through you, I saw everything, the face not of a dream but of one woman, and the material of the world was your body, and the sea covered it…

Conte d’été was later reworked into a text called Domino: Project for a Ballet, in which the events of the original story are expanded and developed into a dance piece.

Limbour’s tendency to write long, involved sentences, piling image upon image, is evident in the above quoted passages. Heiney comments on this in his essay, but also observes that: ‘…the style is less sentimental than it seems at first. In spite of the curlicues and little flourishes it is tightly controlled; the excesses are not really effusive or emotional, they are gongoristic. A verve of irony chills them sufficiently to avoid the mawkish.’

Le chien blanc (The White Dog) of 1953 has the quality of a story by Kafka, though without the sense of menace. The narrator is writing from a small inn high in the mountains. It is a winter’s night, and time has a fluid quality, moving at a pace divorced from that of the rest of the world. There is a white dog at the inn which the narrator is drawn to. But the landlady is suspicious, and discourages his attempts at familiarity.

After his second visit to the inn he has a vision of a woman he knows and desires floating naked in an icy stream flowing through the hamlet. The next day he witnesses a woman with a broken leg being brought to a roadside chalet, where he buys a scarf with the motif of a white dog printed on it. The story ends with him back in the inn. The dog is by the fire when he enters, but is led out by the landlady when she sees the scarf. The text concludes:

As he passed the door he turned and looked at me, but I couldn’t tell what he was thinking. Yet everything is clear to me now. I am approaching that night in the inn I have dreamed of.

Unfortunately the evening hasn’t even begun yet, and in a short while the woman will put me out. (Donald Heiney’s translation)

Jean Dubuffet. Image Source

The theme of the absent lover is returned to in Description d’un tableau (Description of a Painting) from 1957, which is based on a painting by Dubuffet, Pierre aux figures (Stone with Figures), given to Limbour by the artist. In this abstract work, in which the ‘figures’ are barely discernible, the narrator of the story sees different shapes and patterns. A small splash of red in one part of the picture makes him think of the coat of a lover, Pauline, who he believes is lost to him. The description of her implies she is dead, perhaps drowned, but this isn’t clear. The narrator decides to throw out all the letters he has from her ‘in order to reach her through space, and even to wound her a little’. Having considered various options for their disposal, he casts the bound letters into a pond in a forest.

The narrator is considering selling the painting to a collector called Falseau, but doesn’t like the man’s obsession with ‘owning’ things, nor share his views about the picture. Limbour is making some interesting observations here about art and its place in society. At the end of the story, having decided not to sell the painting, the narrator revisits the pond in the forest. It is winter, the pond is frozen, and he finds Pauline there skating on the ice.

The later stories have less of the elaborate lyricism of the earlier work and are written in a more straightforward style. This is the case, for example, with Description d’un tableau, and is mirrored in the novels.  As Heiney notes, Fishing for Grouper is the most ‘conventionally structured’ of the novels.

At the end of his life Limbour published a number of short tales which draw on his memories of Albania and Egypt. These are humorous, whimsical pieces. In À l’encre sympathique (In Invisible Ink), dating from 1965, a young teacher stationed in Koritza in Albania decides to visit a nearby lake in search of solitude and inspiration. He tears some pages from an exercise book, stuffs them into a bag, and hitches a lift to the lake. While looking for somewhere to spend the night he runs into a mysterious group of men who hand him over to the local police. The corporal in the police post is soon convinced the pages in the man’s bag are written on in invisible ink. In the morning the young teacher is escorted back to Koritza by two officers who take pot shots at birds and squirrels along the way, though always missing their mark. Back in town the young man is released after further questioning by the police commandant. The story ends:

Was he convinced of my innocence when he allowed me to leave? He had placed the sheets of paper in a folder, and I imagine now, with the passage of time, that the invisible ink has become legible, and how I would love to read the secret message which it concealed.

Fortnightly Review recently published translations I have made of three short tales, written in 1968 and all set in Egypt where Limbour lived from 1926 to 1928. I am currently working on translations of other stories, and of the long poem Le manteau rouge (The Red Coat) written between 1945 and 1949, which Limbour drew on for Description of a Painting. For further biographical information on Limbour see the English Wikipedia entry which I recently updated.

 

About the Author

Simon Collings is a writer based in Oxford, UK. His poems, stories and essays have appeared in a range of publications, and he has published two pamphlets of poetry.  https://simoncollings.wordpress.com

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Guest Post: Matthias Friedrich on Karin Moe’s 39 Whirlwinds: The Immeasurable Wanderings of Louise Labé the Younger & Other Specula (39 fyk: Louise Labé den yngres ustyrtelige vandringar & andre spekulum)

This is a novel, a hybrid, a text collage, a poem, which disappeared nearly immediately when it was published. Øystein Rottem, who wrote a small paragraph about it in his Norwegian post-war literary history (1998), stated that it was “a frolic”, but that it appeared to be “mannered”, that it was affected by its “nebulosity, its many digressions and an inventiveness which was on the verge of strangling itself”. And, in fact, the book is as immeasurable as its title suggests: a female first-person narrator is speaking; but about what or to whom, is uncertain. Pictures, photocopies, still-lifes, illustrate the 39 paragraphs named as fyk, “whirlwinds”. The fyk is a Norwegian word for an exuberant person, and the verb (fyke) describes a breathtaking velocity. These texts have taken a fast lane: Karin Moe reinvents the figure of Louise Labé, a French poet, and places her in Norway; but she isn’t influenced by the Petrarchan School of poetry, as it is the case with her historical archetype, but by feminist theory, surrealism and linguistic experimentalism. The result is a text which surpasses its own borders.

Louise Labé lived approximately between 1524 and 1566. She was influenced not only by Francesco Petrarca’s sonnets, but also by Ovid’s Metamorphoses and by Spanish poetry. Labé, who married Ennemond Perrin, a rich cord-maker, was a member of a group called École Lyonnaise and wrote sonnets which later became known for their extreme formal skilfulness. The other poets of this school, e. g. Maurice Scève and Olivier de Magny, are forgotten; Louise is the only one of them whose celebrity lasts until today. Her texts are often featured in French anthologies and seem to be paradigms of accomplished love poetry.

Louise Labé. Engraving by Pierre Woeiriot, 1555

However, it is rumoured that Louise Labé didn’t exist at all. Her sonnets and odes are regarded as a collective work of male poets who intended to glorify the female genius they had made up of their own accord – thus, they had wanted to praise their own would-be ingeniousness. Therefore, Louise Labé ‘reveals’ ‘herself’ as a fiction and as a projection screen for male poets’ fantasies. Ironically, poets like Scève or de Magny seem to have assured their personal legacy by erasing their own insignificant names from literary history. Although this thesis has been debated, as for example by comparing Labé’s laconic and eloquent style to Scève’s obfuscations and de Magny’s platitudes, it is still appealing to those who intend to criticize the constant marginalization of female authors in literary history. However, 39 Whirlwinds establishes Labé’s figure as a living paradigm of ‘female’ writing. Born into a postmodern society still dominated by men, Labé the Younger has to find her own way – and, more important, her own language. She must disenthrall herself from the threads male authors have wrapped her in. The text she writes does not rely on the artificial structure of a plot; it is a “whirlwind” which raises a storm and comes to a sudden halt. Thus, the 39 fragments or fractures do not form a whole. They are a hole, an abyss, and absorb everything. Louise Labé the Younger, as she is depicted in Moe’s text(s), doesn’t use the conventional love images of her French predecessor – for her, love has nothing to do with a sudden flash of ice and fire, and cannot be described as the expectable amalgamation of contrasts and oxymora – but she speaks Nynorsk, a language which is based on old Norwegian dialects and nearly exclusively used in written texts; furthermore, she introduces many colloquial forms into her speech (“kje” instead of “ikkje”, “not”) or she can employ Bokmål forms such as “kjærlighet” (in place of “kjærleik”, “love”). Her idiolect is characterized by violent digressions, aggressive vulgarisms, and erratic punctuation; thus, Louise is able to expectorate a whole paragraph of invectives without separating her sentences with the aid of commas, semicolons, or full stops. In a passage which is full of gruesome humour, Louise meets a man who has been bleeding from his breast for three days in a row; she asks him if his blood coagulates. It doesn’t. She tastes it and says: “You are menstruating.” She realizes that the discourse in the room “coagulates” immediately. “Comprehensions by way of language can take a few generations”, she notes. She subverts the roles: Firstly, she acts as the man who constantly denies the value of female experiences; secondly, she adapts his toxic masculinity (which is based on sheer ignorance and a striking lack of empathy) and commands him to have sex with her – although he is bleeding. Of all things, the man Louise has encountered is a sociologist, a researcher whose insights are based on empirical examinations – and she confronts him with facts which might seem mind-boggling and offensive to him: “No litmus paper in urinals, no dead rats dissected after one thousand electric shocks. It happens to you! Feel it! It’s fantastic. I’ve made an important observation: Possibly, the sex drive is reduced during male menstruation.” The sociologist becomes furious and accuses Louise of having caused his pain; but she answers that his reactions are an indication of his defective adaptability to extreme situations.

Language is afflicted with its own coagulation.

Louise’s mission does not consist of repeating Petrarca’s desiccated paroles of love to an ideal, Platonic mistress; it consists in liquefying a speech which has suffered from its own meagreness for a very long time. The time has come to swap the roles and change every misconception of what it means to write as a woman. Hélène Cixous’ essay The Laugh Of Medusa, which might have influenced Karin Moe in a considerable way, is centred around the following plea: “And why don’t you write? Write! Writing is for you, you are for you; your body is yours, take it.” Thus, Louise searches for a way to reclaim the female body she has forgotten; after having found it, she tries to reinsert it into history again. But history has been deformed by a Reason which always favoured a male point of view. Louise must invent another form of rationality: a playful, swirling form of writing which is suitable for her own experiences in a literature dominated by men. The 19th century was marked by writers like Ibsen who wanted to engage in societal debates; and Georg Brandes, the Danish critic who coined the slogan of the Modern Breakthrough, called one of his books Det Moderne Gennembruds Mænd – he didn’t bother to be on the lookout for female writers, he referred exclusively to male authors. A perspective which has proved to be ignorant: recent studies have highlighted the importance of female voices, and anthologies like Nordisk Kvinnolitteraturhistoria provide informative insights into texts which have been neglected and ignored. But this awareness has increased gradually. The four most influential Norwegian writers – De Fire Store – are all men: Henrik Ibsen, Jonas Lie, Alexander Kielland, and Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson.

The latter enters Labé’s text for a short and embarrassing performance. Having arrived in the hypermodern Oslo of 1983, Bjørnson is scandalized at finding Synnøve Solbakken, the female protagonist who contributed her name to his homonymous novel, has escaped her narrow textual prison and become the director of Gyldendal, the most important Norwegian publisher. Louise is amused about what happens next: “In P2’s live broadcast, Norwegians can hear a sepulchral voice in heavy need of logopaedic assistance railing against Synnøve Solbakken who has become the director of Gyldendal Norsk Forlag: aren’t there any male protagonists? A Happy Boy has been overlooked! Aren’t there any male authors, wrinkled, weather-beaten? No male publishers? No male editors? Not a single male typesetter who could be kept busy with metrics? Not a single vigorous offer? Not a single stallion?” Bjørnson’s times, they are a-changin’; the Venerated Skald, who wrote the lyrics for Norway’s national anthem, proves to be a braggadocio who needs to be restrained. The often repeated legend states that Henrik Ibsen, the Admired Dramatist, never came to terms with his opprobrium: his father had become insolvent; therefore, the family had to move to a smaller house where Henrik lived for eight years. But a legend is a legend is a legend; in fact, the Ibsen family could afford housemaids and a commodious kitchen. Later, the playwright decorated the story about his trauma; actually, he disdained countrymen, and was anxious about distancing himself from them in every possible way. Synnøve leaves Gyldendal; and this is how Louise comments the twist: “As the daughter of a bankrupt merchant, I understand that Henrik Ibsen didn’t throw his hat in the ring.” She seems to know that Ibsen’s heroic biography isn’t as heroic as the dramatist tended to present himself; it is the tale of a peacock who succeeded in leaving an altruistic mark which in fact was pseudo-altruistic. Thus, Louise’s opinion about the most important Norwegian writers is affected by scepticism; she takes nothing for granted.

Louise wants to establish a border between herself and those men who still believe that they alone are allowed to define what literature is. Love is connected to masculinity; make-up, fashion, nursing, and many other things, are connected to love. A small detail belongs to a whole: thus, everything is, in some way, intertwined with masculinity. It is Louise’s mission to cut these threads. She wants to create another language: a language which is more flexible, which doesn’t rely on metonymical similitudes, but on metaphorical volatilities. Thus, she intends to prevent men from invading the room which exclusively belongs to herself; with this conception of love, Louise wants to avoid “some old men’s colossal, territorial love to some other men” getting in the way of her own language. Her love isn’t territorial; it is based on coincidental connections, ephemeral combinations, and spontaneity; in short, it is a “whirlwind” which is capable of tearing everything apart. It is a love based on language’s erotic capacities: a love which accepts the unknown and the unconscious without even trying to reject it.

 39 Whirlwinds begins with a quote by Arthur Rimbaud. In one of his famous letters, the French poet imagines that women – after the end of their “infinite thraldom” – will be able to “find the unknown”; they will discover “strange, fathomless, abhorrent, delicate things”, and they will be “understood”. By whom? By men? Probably. Rimbaud’s quote can be read as a programmatic comment on Louise Labé as she is depicted in Moe’s hybrid text. With the aid of metaphorical volatilities, she learns how to break free from the tight and narrow shapes men’s aggressive and toxic language has detained her in. But she still needs to gain access to her new self: a new mirror to reflect herself in. This new mirror – or, as it is subtly called in the book’s title, the speculum – is the written text with its potential to combine many distant impressions into a fragmentary whole. Thus, the first “photocopy” shows a mirror; beneath are Rimbaud’s quote and a French-Norwegian Labé palimpsest, a translation, obviously conducted by Moe, where “amoureux” becomes “manful” and “braise” “munchkin”. A poem which differs radically from its source text: it doesn’t show the (old) woman who is willing to abandon herself to a man; instead, it shows the (new) woman as Arthur Rimbaud depicts her, a woman who isn’t afraid to transcribe tradition, to unleash unconscious drives, to scrape together a language which isn’t affected by metonymy’s “stickiness”, but by “metaphorical volatilities.”

 

About the Author

Matthias Friedrich, born in Trier (Germany) in 1992, studied Creative Writing in Hildesheim (2012-2015) and is currently studying Scandinavian Literature in Greifswald. Last publication: kleine thanatoiden (Berlin, Sukultur 2016). Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/matthias.friedrich.359

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On French Translations of Anglophone Literature

Garçon et crâne by Paul Cézanne. 1896-98.

Welcome to our alternative universe. It is quite similar to the one you happen to inhabit, but there are slight differences. For example, in this alternative world, I and you, my dear readers, are French monoglots. Yes, we can speak and read only French, and, as a matter of fact, this text is also written in French or, at least, you have to pretend it is. “Why French?” you might ask. “Why not German, Italian or Korean?” Well, because French was the first thing that came to my mind, and now you have to deal with it. In this world, all of you are French speakers. That’s a given, don’t argue with me.

We love reading French literature, of course. But even more so, we enjoy reading foreign literature translated into French, especially anglophone literature, you know: the US, Canada, Great Britain, Ireland, Australia, all those countries. More than fair share of that literature finds its way into French: most of Stephen King’s, JK Rowling’s, Dan Brown’s, and E L James’ books are available in quality French translations. However, there are some writers, some really good writers, as we have heard, whose works are woefully under-represented in French translation, and we feel really bitter about it. There is this Irish writer James Joyce whose short-story collection Dubliners finally made it into French thanks to a small independent press. We really like his stories, but there are also some novels he has written that nobody wants to translate and publish: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses. Especially the latter looks interesting — it has been compared to Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, but, as some of the few English-speaking French critics say, it is much shorter and at the same time much denser. It plays a lot with different literary styles and there is a long monologue at the end without any punctuation. His last book is the experimental novel Finnegans Wake, but even the English-language readers say it has to be translated into English for them to be understood, so I’m not holding my breath for this one.

Then there is this American fellow called William Faulkner. If my memory serves me right, only his debut novel Soldier’s Pay is available in French. We keep hearing good things about his novels The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom! but since the publisher of his only novel in translation has gone bankrupt, it is very unlikely anyone will risk investing in the translation and publication of these novels. Some even say it would be more realistic to spend  two or three years learning to read English, a very challenging language as we all know, than to wait for the miracle of seeing these books appear in French.

We also keep hearing about Thomas Pynchon, another American writer. As you all know, his short novel The Crying of Lot 49 enjoyed a short-lived success in France before going out of print. All the American critics, however, keep praising his other novel: Gravity’s Rainbow. I’m particularly curious about that one, as some Americans say it is a bit like big novels by Maurice Dantec (as you know, in contrast to the situation here, most of French-language literature gets translated into English), but I have to resign myself to the idea of never getting to read it. Even if there was someone capable of translating this novel into French, no publisher would agree to deal with such a difficult and commercially unviable doorstopper or, as we say, un pavé.

Alas, our only consolation seems to be the quirky blog Le non traduit, which features the reviews of these and other challenging novels unavailable in French. The person running the blog has a good command of English, a rare asset these days, and mostly focuses on innovative anglophone literature. Besides his critical appraisal of the above-mentioned authors, I recommend reading his posts about Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot (that Wasteland poem sounds phenomenal!), William Gaddis, John Barth, Robert Coover, William Gass, Cormac McCarthy, Angela Carter, and William T. Vollmann. Although I have to confess that sometimes I feel like punching him for teasing us with all those great books that we’re unlikely to read.

P.S. In a Borgesian fashion (you might remember several of Borges’ stories appearing in French translation in Mots sans frontières), I came into possession of this list of translated titles, which cannot possibly belong to this world, and therefore is the sure sign of the existence of parallel universes. I believe you might find it of interest.

Portrait de l’artiste en jeune homme de James Joyce, traduit de l’anglais par Jacques Aubert et Ludmila Savitzky.

Ulysse de James Joyce, traduction sous la direction de Jacques Aubert.

Finnegans Wake de James Joyce. édition intégrale, traduit de l’anglais et présenté par Philippe Lavergne.

Le bruit et la fureur  de William Faulkner, traduit de l’anglais par Maurice-Edgar Coindreau.

Absalon, Absalon ! de William Faulkner, traduit de l’anglais par René-Noël Raimbault.

L’Arc-en-ciel de la gravité  de Thomas Pynchontraduit de l’anglais par Michel Doury.

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Games of Eternity (Giochi dell’eternità) by Antonio Moresco

                                   

The trilogy consists of the following novels: The Beginnings (Gli esordi), Songs of Chaos (Canti del caos), and The Uncreated Ones (Gli increati). To the best of my knowledge, only the first novel has been translated into another language. Aufbrüche, the German translation of the book by Ragni Maria Gschwend, was awarded The Leipzig Book Fair Prize in 2006. As for English-language readers, for the time being they have to content themselves with Moresco’s slim novel Distant Light (tr. by Richard Dixon), the only work by the Italian author that has appeared in English so far.

For the most part of its gestation, Moresco referred to the main literary project of his life as The Uncreated (L’increato), but eventually, when it was time to reissue all three novels as parts of the greater whole, he chose the title Games of Eternity (Giochi dell’eternità), which is the expression we come across on the first page of The Beginnings when the narrator describes how he is polishing his boots trying to catch the moment when the shoe polish disappears, and only “shining light” remains instead: “I play this and other games of eternity”. The entire opus is 2,760 pages long, and it took Moresco more than 30 years to create it: from 1984, when he started writing the first novel of the trilogy, to 2015, the year when the final volume came out. This long stretch of time comprises the four years it took the unknown author to write the first novel and eleven more to get it published with considerable revisions, as well as the fifteen years spent on writing the second novel. Not to be overwhelmed, I have decided that the best way to tackle Games of Eternity is by looking at one volume at a time, and, having accomplished that, to draw some general conclusions bearing on the entire trilogy. Stay with me — it will take me a while.

 

The Beginnings (Gli esordi)

In the second edition of the novel we can find a rather unusual document, one of those professional texts from the world of publishing that common readers usually don’t get to see. It is the synopsis of the book written by Italian writer Tiziano Scarpa for the publishing company Feltrinelli at which he was working as an editor. I would like to quote some sentences from this synopsis, which, in my opinion, accurately reflect the ambition, scope and anomalousness of Moresco’s novel as well as give us the idea why the literary establishment of the 1990s Italy was not ready for this bold and uncompromising work.

Let’s say that we deal with writing which is completely imbued, soaked with images. Come to think of it, Kafka comes to mind, but a Kafka completely stripped of any explicit argumentation or metaphysical discussions. […] in this writing any psychological drift has been removed; what is left is an animal, creatural, physical perception of the events. […] We are thrown into some kind of uninterrupted pre-Socratic dawn or, better still, into an atemporal tour in the claritas of the creation. […] what happens is, so to speak, aion, not chronos. […] I do not hesitate to say that The Beginnings is the cornerstone of our literature of the second half of the century. It resolves a myriad of aesthetical problems being neither mimetic nor fantastic; it gives a definitive word on the destiny of the individual in our time, on his prospects of finding an existential posture, a mark of his calling, a space of political expression, a connection between I am and I do. It is a book that will remain a literary event, the work of a lifetime.

A 600-page novel totally devoid of character psychology and blatantly unforthcoming with the motives for their actions is an uncomfortable read, to say the least. It would be easier to accept the book if it was a slim nouveau-romanish exercise in form and style, instead of an epic narrative spanning more than 20 years of Italian history in which the minutiae of everyday life and surreal episodes of brain-searing intensity are recounted in the same dead-pan, unreflective tone. There is some affinity between The Beginnings and Mircea Cărtărescu‘s latest novel Solenoid: both novels integrate the fantastic, bizarre and extraordinary into the mundane to a stunning effect. Both are ironic subversions of the Künstlerroman and both contain a heavy dose of autobiographical material. But Solenoid is all about the voice and attitude of its main character, who obviously serves as the mouthpiece for Cărtărescu’s own ideas. By shutting down this “channel” for his characters, Moresco heavily sacrifices the readability of his book: it’s as if he had chosen to show a sound film without the sound. Out of the two novels, Solenoid is by far more enjoyable, whereas The Beginnings is more iconoclastic in the uncompromising pursuit of its artistic principles to the detriment of readerly comfort.

The three parts of Moresco’s novel show us the three main stages of the unnamed narrator’s life: his studies at a seminary, involvement in the political activities of a left-wing extra-parliamentary group, and the period of uphill battle to get his novel published while living a lonely life in an apartment block in Milan. Moresco himself, of course, went through all these stages. He was a seminary student, spent a decade fighting for such leftist organisations as Servire il popolo and Autonomia operaia, and, having discarded the youthful illusions and maximalism, set out on a long and gruelling journey of becoming a writer.

The first part of the novel is called Scene of Silence (Scena del silenzio). It gives an account of a certain period in the narrator’s stay at a seminary in an unidentified Italian region interrupted by a short trip to his relatives in a country estate called Ducale. The boy has taken a vow of silence, and doesn’t utter a word until the very end of the first part. Everything we see and hear is channelled through his consciousness; he acts as an observer and chronicler of the events taking place in the seminary and its environs as well as in the Ducale estate. Although the events are narrated in the most neutral and objective tone possible, it would be rash to call the young seminarist a neutral observer. From the very beginning we are trapped in the ambiguous position between accepting the wild flourishes of surrealism as the inherent feature of the novelistic world and shrugging them off as the mental fabrications of the protagonist. As we proceed, we realise that there won’t be any resolution to this issue and the best way to act is just let the outlandish imagery wash all over us without looking for the underlying cause. The narrator contemplates with the same detached curiosity a can of shoe polish and the head of his fellow student covered in a translucent gelatinous crust with a whole shimmering city sprawling underneath, complete with an airport from which miniature planes take off. In the same matter-of-fact manner the protagonist describes how the calluses on his uncle’s foot grow into a complex structure of ramifying calcified protuberances which are expertly cut off by a chiropodist to be later used as animal feed or how a recently married woman goes through pregnancy and enters labour in the matter of hours.

A distinctive feature of The Beginnings worth mentioning is that the characters are not called by their proper names. They are mostly referred to by their occupation (i.e. the prior), their relation to the narrator (i. e. the Uncle) or by a nickname. Among the many eccentric personalities we encounter in the first part, the most prominent are the Cat (il Gatto), the senior prefect at the seminary who is about to get ordained as priest, the Black Sister (la Suora Nera), a mysterious black nun with a passion for knitting whose long hair completely wraps her body like a cloak, and the Peach (la Pesca), a strabismic girl at the Ducale estate who, as can be surmised, is the narrator’s love interest. The cat, as we know, is anything but an angelic creature: we’ve got centuries of folk and traditional literary forms depicting the animal as the faithful companion of witches, warlocks and other malicious entities consorting with the devil. For example, it’s not without reason that one of the members of Woland’s retinue in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita has the appearance of a giant cat with the fitting name Behemoth. There is something diabolical about the senior prefect in Moresco’s novel, although we are not given any clear indication of that. But the way he can hardly contain laughter during a religious service or the fact that his newly tonsured scalp reveals an ugly scar that he constantly tries to hide from the narrator gives us an early hint that the Cat will not remain in the service of God for long. Neither will the narrator, for that matter, although the first part ends with him uttering an emphatic “yes” after the prior asks the boy whether he stands firm in his calling.

1970 Fiat 500 L

Fast-forward to the 1970s, the years of social unrest and political violence in Italy. In the second part of the novel titled Scene of History (Scena della storia) we catch up with the narrator as a young man performing various agitation tasks for an underground organisation whose agenda remains obscure despite the detailed descriptions of its members’ frenetic activities. The boss of the main character, known simply as the bald man, makes him in charge of a certain zone that comprises several rural towns. His duty is to travel from town to town (first in a plastic car, then in a small yellow Fiat) equipped with a loudspeaker and a portable stage, disseminating leaflets and holding political rallies. The sheer absurdity of the task becomes apparent as we realise that most of the time there is no audience to listen to the protracted political rants of the young man. Moreover, the content of his speeches is never revealed. The empty squares of Italian towns harking indifferently to the lonely voice of the narrator remind us of the eerie town squares depicted by Giorgio di Chirico in his famous series of  metaphysical paintings. Gradually, the agitator picks up a company of collaborators, who might have easily migrated from the works of Beckett: a blind man with extraordinary hustling skills, a constantly yawning man with rotten teeth called Drowsiness (Sonnolenza), a factory worker with a blank face — literally blank: no eyes, no nose, no mouth — and an eye-seeing dog that eventually gets pregnant. By some feat of accommodation the whole crowd fits into the interior of the little yellow car together with the rally equipment, and in this composition they continue conducting their cryptic mission for a little while. In one of the rare episodes featuring a crowded square, the Black Sister, wrapped in the mantle of her long hair, reappears as the ringleader of violent protesters clashing with the riot police. The brutality of the confrontation stands in stark contrast to all the vacuous agitation errands run by the narrator and his companions. Stunned, he watches the Black Sister murder a police officer by driving a knitting needle through his nostril.

Giorgio de Chirico, Italian Square, 1948.

The folly of the whole pseudo-revolutionary enterprise reaches crescendo when the narrator is dispatched on a new mission in the fictional town of Bindra. His task is to join one of the regional headquarters of the organisation situated in an imposing three-story building. When he arrives at the site, he finds out that the building has long been abandoned and fallen into neglect: its spacious rooms that still contain some duplicating equipment and the cell’s documentation are now hung heavy with cobwebs and infested by rodents. In the same expressionless manner in which he does everything else, the newly arrived undertakes the futile task of reviving the local cell by tracking down all the people who at some point applied for the membership in the organisation. But the more he tries, the more conspicuous becomes the scale of the entropic dissolution that has permeated the activity of his group and, in fact, the whole cause of the radical left. Apart from the small boy remaining as the deputy head of the deserted HQ, the only other faithful member of the cell proves to be an eccentric old man called the Fop (il Gagà) who, when confined to sickbed, recounts a wildly delirious tale that cries to be included into any major anthology of weird literature. The story is about his early years of apprenticeship to a wandering embalmer who one day receives a commission to go to Vladimir Lenin’s residence in Gorki, a locality in Moscow Oblast, and carry out around-the-clock surveillance of the half-paralysed Communist leader. Their secret mission is to catch the moment just before Lenin’s demise and to carry out, as swiftly as possible, the initial steps of the embalming process. A considerable obstacle to the venture is posed by Lenin’s chambermaid who proves to be none other than Anastasia Romanov, a daughter of the assassinated Russian czar: the girl develops an uncanny affection for the wheelchair-bound leader, which is consummated in a hallucinatory coupling ritual involving a double split on cupboard tops and a sudden change of seasons. Like the previous part, this one ends with the narrator saying “yes”. This time the answer is given to the bald man’s proposal for him “to become a warrior”, i. e. a revolutionary terrorist. Next thing we know, instead of a Che Guevara there is a frustrated writer living on his own in one of Milanese tower blocks.

Scene of Celebration (Scena della festa) is the final part of the novel and is perhaps the most Kafkaesque. The parallels with The Castle are all too obvious. The narrator’s continuously forestalled efforts to meet the chief editor of a publishing house, who has expressed unbridled enthusiasm about the manuscript of his novel (actually, the first and second parts of the book we are reading), are only matched in their doggedness by the surveyor’s single-minded quest to enter the Castle. In the course of numerous phone calls, enquiries and visits to the publishing company’s offices, the writer on many occasions seems to be tantalisingly close to meeting the editor, but at the last moment some circumstance gets in the way and the cherished encounter has to be postponed. When the narrator gets through the web of chicanery and finally confronts its sleazy architect, he is surprised to see none other than the sinister Cat from his seminary days who, fittingly enough, has acquired a devilish limp. According to the Cat’s skewed logic the best way of dealing with such an extraordinary novel is to destroy it, to consign it to flames. I see here an obvious nod to The Master and Margarita with a very peculiar twist. As you might remember, Bulgakov’s Woland utters the proverbial phrase “manuscripts don’t burn” before conjuring up the restored novel about Pontius Pilate that was earlier burnt down by its author. The Cat as if refashions this famous saying into something like “truly remarkable manuscripts must burn”, for only then they will forever remain pure and intact.

After participating in a literary-themed variation on Walpurgisnacht that takes place in a roadman’s house and is attended by famous writers and book characters (i.e. Alexander Pushkin, Emily Dickinson, Giacomo Leopardi, Bartleby, Smerdyakov), and where he is briefly reunited with the Peach, the narrator goes for a walk with the Cat for the last time. In the final scene, imbued with Faustian undertones, the writer and his dark companion end up on the roof of Milan Cathedral, which they call “the cathedral of foam”. The third “yes” is in order, yet we do not hear the narrator pronounce it. This “yes” is embedded in the Cat’s wicked proposition: to take a leap into the uncreated. Although it appears that the Cat wants them both to do that when he says “let us throw ourselves headfirst into the uncreated” (gettiamoci a capofitto nell’increato), he nevertheless suggests that the writer should be the first to step off the roof of the beautiful building so that he can see “how worlds re-open” and enter “the realms where one appears and disappears at the same time”. The Cat is praying to God that his former seminary schoolmate make the fatal step into the void even before his mouth utters the third “yes” — the limping plotter seems to be well informed about the two previous assents of the narrator. However, the reader is left in the dark as to whether the writer will fulfill the wish of his diabolical editor by giving the expected assent and immediately acting upon it.

Milan Cathedral. Image by Jiuguang Wang.

Moresco builds his strange world not only by the unexpected injections of the surreal, but also by the orchestration of the recurrent motifs and symbols. Mirrors, ladders, and, especially, fire, play as important a role in creating the effect of estrangement as more bizarre objects like the severed cat’s paw, which keeps appearing on different parts of the Peaches’ body or the glass reliquary in the hothouse at the Ducale estate containing a stuffed golden pheasant, grey heron, and toucan. There is a lot of confusion about the Peach’s ascending and descending the ladder: sometimes it is difficult to say whether by going down she is  more likely to reach the ground or end up upstairs. Depending at which angle the Peach places the mirror, the topography of the estate suddenly changes to correspond to its skewed reflection. As for the fire, one of the key scenes in the whole novel is the conflagration of the enormous pile of dry leaves at the Ducale, which utterly mesmerises the narrator. No less fascinating to him is the Fop’s description of the fireplace in Lenin’s villa in Gorki, which he comes to see as the metaphysical double of the Ducale estate.  And, of course, the narrator’s games of eternity consist primarily of his interaction with fire and light. At the seminary, he is fascinated by the shoe polish turning into pure light on his boots. Later on, he discovers the ability of splitting candle flames with his finger. The real purpose of these and other games could be getting a glimpse of or maybe even an access to what lies beyond everyday reality. Could it be that his unconscious search for the uncreated has already begun at an early age?

 

Songs of Chaos (Canti del caos)

 The second novel of the trilogy came as a shock. Based on a handful of the reviews in the Italian media, I had naively believed that I was ready for it. Not only because I had read the first volume, but because I had read François Rabelais, Jonathan Swift, the Marquis de Sade, Herman Melville, James Joyce, William Burroughs, Gertrude Stein, Günter Grass, Thomas Pynchon, Robert Coover, Joseph McElroy, Carlos Fuentes, Paolo Volponi, Alexander Goldstein, Alberto Laiseca, Miquel de Palol and, more recently, Mircea Cărtărescu. So, I thought nothing could surprise me anymore, there was no weirdness left that would be too weird for me, no imagery so violent and outlandish it would be scorched into my brain to haunt me for weeks, no narrative and language idiosyncrasies that would leave me infuriated, appalled, dismayed and, at the same time, intoxicated with the unexpected exhilaration of being in the presence of something significant, albeit extremely disturbing, being synthesised right in front of my eyes. Man, was I wrong! Songs of Chaos seems like a book from another dimension, written in some inconceivable language, which has been smuggled into our world and clandestinely translated into Italian. It doesn’t belong in this time and space. Yet it is here. I am far from declaring this flower of evil the greatest work of Italian literature — God forbid! But, if Earth was invaded by aliens and I was responsible for selecting just two Italian books for their museum of human culture, I would choose without hesitation Dante’s The Divine Comedy and Moresco’s Songs of Chaos.

This novel represents a drastic shift in the Italian author’s poetics, comparable to the leap from Newtonian mechanics to Einstein’s relativity. Despite being a direct continuation of The Beginnings, the second book is a whole new world in itself and there is precious little in the first novel which can help the readers stranded in the chaosmos of Songs of Chaos to find their bearings. The arduous task of disentangling the complexities of this depraved world will rest solely on their shoulders, and even if they manage to reach the final page, none of them will walk away from this experience unscathed.

Before I even start discussing this 1,000-page opus, I would like to quote Moresco himself who throws some light on the research that went into the making of the book in the brief note at the end of the novel:

Manuals, encyclopedic entries, scientific books and articles on astronomy, computer science, genetics, anthropology, human, pre-human and post-human biology, artificial intelligence, religion, history; travel accounts, fashion show reports and catalogues, but also first-hand investigations, inquiries, private meetings in the world of advertising, sperm banks, publishing, economics, pornography etc. … have been merged in an autonomous and unpredictable way in this adventure in the shape of a book that lasted for fifteen years.

The first remarkable thing about the novel is that while reading it, you wouldn’t have noticed all this insane amount of research. This is because Moresco, unlike many lesser writers who go out of their way to appear encyclopedic, does not parade the tremendous knowledge gained while writing Songs of Chaos — he seamlessly integrates it into the fabric of the text, modifying and transforming it to fit the purpose of his poetic vision.

The novel starts with the preface written by the Cat for the as-yet unwritten book by the narrator of The Beginnings,  who finally gets a name, or rather a nickname, from his Mephistophelian editor: from now on the writer is going to be called the Madman (il Matto). Please note that in Italian their names differ only by the initial letter: Gatto/Matto. (I owe this and some other insights to Raffaele Donnarumma’s brilliant essay La guerra del racconto: Canti del caos di Antonio Moresco). As was to be expected, the Cat refused to publish the Madman’s first novel, The Beginnings, because it did not correspond to the new spirit of our materialistic and information-saturated global society. Now the author is expected to write a new book, which is apparently destined to become the Songs of Chaos we are reading at this very moment. The problem is that the first pages of the new novel, in which the narrator finds himself lying in the grave and listening to the voices on the surface, do not satisfy the editor at all. The Cat is sure that the Madman is experiencing writer’s block and, therefore, he sends him to the Muse for inspiration.

The Muse is a prostitute moonlighting as a hard-core porn actress who receives blocked authors at her home and instills in them the cherished inspiration by a variety of manipulations, not all of which are of identifiable sexual nature. She introduces the first characters of the Madman’s future novel by telling their stories and thus sets in motion the erratic and unpredictable narrative-spouting machine which Songs of Chaos proves to be. The characters rapidly multiply and most of them have stories to tell with more characters in them, and then some of those characters unexpectedly show up at the principal narrative level to tell more stories. The violation of the diegetic hierarchy is perhaps the only constant in the highly volatile environment of this book. The narratives are created by a variety of ways: as oral tales, as written texts, as visual storytelling, as drug-induced hallucinations. A very important form of narrative is the song. In the novel, a song (canto) is a character’s incantatory monologue midway between prose and poetry embellished by rhetorical sweeps, rhythmic patterns, fixed epithets and recurrent motifs. It is through the songs that many of the characters reveal their backgrounds and the major events in their lives. And most of these characters are rather strange, to say the least.

There is a programmer who also happens to be a sperm donor. He is developing software for a video game whose main theme is the conflict of generations. The idea springs from the never-ending feud between his father Pericles and sister Grace. In the game, the young generation is represented by hoodlums zipping around on roller-skates, whereas the old one by geriatric stilt walkers. Both groups are wearing stylish helmet masks of the designated colour. There is a woman called the Interface (L’interfaccia) who is artificially inseminated with the programmer’s sperm. She gets inspiration and instruction by pressing her vagina to the screen showing the Muse’s vagina broadcast via a private TV network. There is the hit-and-run driver (l’investitore) whose hobby is driving through the city streets at night and running over pedestrians. Mind you that investitore also means “investor”. There is Inspector Lanza who has no previous experience of solving crime cases but aspires to become a writer and is responsible for a few exciting narratives in the novel. There is the old man suffering from a masturbatory paresis, who is constantly trying to foist on the Cat his manuscript. The editor eventually borrows its title for the Madman’s novel: Songs of Chaos. There is the woman who screams. There is the priest, who is addicted to heavy drugs. He keeps a cut-out picture of the Muse’s vagina in the tabernacle alongside the Eucharist and gets to meet the fugitive Pope Elvis II whose first edict was the dissolution of the Roman Catholic Church. There is a Bantu prostitute called Princess who falls in love with the mover (il traslocatore): a man in possession of a truck who almost daily moves to a new place completely removing not only all the furniture but also all the fixtures of the previous place of residence and installing them in his next domicile. There is the girl with the sanitary pad with an unnaturally copious menstruation flow and the girl with acne, who proudly proclaims that it’s the first sign of leprosy. There is the tamer (il domatore) whose principal task is to break the recalcitrant girls dragooned into hard-core pornography. He sports a world map tattooed on his penis, which reveals unexpected details during tumescence: an ancient sailing ship, Napoleon with his general staff atop a hill, a bas-relief depicting archers on the palace of Assyrian King Ashurbanipal. There is the prepuce trumpeter who sounds a prepuce like a trumpet. There is a snake involved in the making of underground porn movies. There is the lady with a tail, who is also an emissary of the world of underground porn. There is the spastic gynecologist. There is the rapist of pregnant women. There is the man who steps into shit. Gradually, different geological layers of the substance on his foot soles coagulate to form some kind of flexible stilts and allow him to cover great distances and step over buildings. There is the sky of shit. Yes, it’s a fully fledged character with its own song! There are the signs: people who got completely squashed on the highway and then unstuck themselves from the tarmac and started moving and showing directions. There are the flag wavers whose flags are anatomical extensions of their muscular bodies. There is stylist Lupus suffering from lupus who copulates with his own dogs. There are three men on the bridge of a ship traversing the ocean: in profile, who sees only the waves in transit – the present; from behind, who sees only where the waves end up – the future; in front, who sees only where the waves come from – the past. There is God who appears to humans as a man with a hoarse voice wearing a porcelain mask. And many, many others.

In Songs of Chaos to narrate often means to create, and once a character is mentioned he or she cannot be cancelled and might turn up at any place any time. The competition for the right to be the main narrator runs through the whole novel. If in The Beginnings all the events were filtered through the Madman’s consciousness who was the only first-person narrator of the highest level, in the second novel this position is contested, fought over, and usurped. The Madman maintains this high status until he decides to save his beloved the Meringue (la Meringa), the Cat’s secretary, who is kidnapped by an unknown cyber-biological terrorist group that first demands that a novel should be written for their heinous purposes (and again, it is quite possible that Songs of Chaos is this novel), and then hands the girl over to an extreme pornography syndicate. The Meringue is wrapped in tinfoil with only two holes cut out (and those are not meant for her mouth and nose) and is carried from one secret porn set to another by a laryngectomised thug. If that wasn’t bad enough, there are preparations for brutally murdering her on the set of a snuff movie. The Madman sets off on a long quest to locate and rescue the girl, which is at the same time hilarious and shocking. Moresco is so over-the-top with all the naturalistic details of the porn set activities that at a certain point one stops perceiving all the accumulating intercourses as proper sex scenes but rather as conceptual elements of a greater surrealist collage. All the fornication and violence that pour onto us also have distinct Rabelaisian undertones and could be considered as the ultimate triumph of what Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin called “the material lower body stratum”. Sperm, blood, shit, and other bodily substances gush on the pages without restraint. There are animals involved you would never think could be cast in bestiality porn: a crocodile, an ant-eater, and the already-mentioned snake. The Madman, guided by a mysterious and powerful ally named Lazlo, tracks the syndicate all the way to Los Angeles, to a decommissioned tower for space simulations, to save the love of his life with the help of a flamethrower. However, in order to do all that, the Madman becomes just one of the characters, and the privilege of narrating the frame story passes over to the Cat. It is also the Cat who takes the responsibility for writing the novel which the Madman failed to produce.

The cunning editor narrates the second part whose main focus is the greatest business transaction of all time: the selling of the planet Earth. It is God, of course, who has grown tired of his creation and wants to fob it off to somebody else. He commissions an advertising agency to plan, develop and carry out the media campaign for selling the planet, appearing to them, as we already know, as the mysterious man in the porcelain mask. It is worth noting that the chief members of the agency, the art director, the copywriter and the account executive, come from a short story written by the inept Inspector Lanza. Moreover, the book that the Madman was supposed to write and the video game developed by the programmer/sperm donor are all part of the advertising campaign. The course of the campaign is discussed by the Cat and the advertising agents during an interminable briefing somewhat similar to the mad tea party in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  All kinds of absurdities and common sense violations thrive as more guests join the meeting, which is supposed to end with the announcement. This announcement, pre-heralded by the lady who screams and given by God, will declare the birth of the redeemer, the baby girl of the Interface artificially inseminated by the programmer’s sperm. The announcement should immediately follow the selling of Earth to the highest bidder in the heretofore unforeseen global auction. But what does it mean, to sell Earth? And who would buy it? As becomes clear from a conversation between the masked God and the account executive, this could only mean that the global market will buy itself. This situation is not unlike the destiny of a star collapsing into itself and becoming a black hole. And indeed, something of the kind happens in the third part of the novel. But let us not run too far ahead.

Among the first to join the briefing is the programmer with his computer. He continues working on the software, tweaking some details and following the multiplying storylines, while the advertising campaign is gathering momentum and the borderlines between the video game and reality are getting ever more tenuous. Some of the characters appear to operate simultaneously in the video game and in the real world. Moreover, by changing the code of the character on a computer, the programmer inevitably changes the appearance of the respective person in real life. His main concern is the safety of the Interface pregnant with his child, the future redeemer. The notorious rapist of pregnant women whom the programmer himself created for this game (because the Cat mentioned him, and anything which is mentioned in Songs of Chaos comes alive) is intent upon raping the Interface and thus thwarting the whole advertising campaign. The man who steps into shit is designated as the Interface’s guardian angel and saves her from several insidious encroachments of the rascal, ultimately bludgeoning him to pulp with a car jack.

The large office in which the impossibly long briefing is taking place is a convenient environment for the participants to tell various stories, which provide entertaining digressions from the immediate business matters. The place serves as the modern analogue of the abandoned Florentine villa in The Decameron or, more appropriately, the remote mountain castle of The 120 Days of Sodom. One of those tales stands out in particular. It is the story told jointly by the girl with acne and her boyfriend copywriter, in which the girl recounts her terrifying experience of working as a model for stylist Lupus and the copywriter recounts his thrilling mission to rescue his beloved from a most horrible fate. It’s one of the greatest surreal set pieces I have ever read. I’d put it at the same level as the story of Byron the Bulb in Gravity’s Rainbow. If only fifty pages out of the whole novel could be translated into English, it must be those containing this story, which showcases in a condensed way, as if reflecting its subject matter, all the abilities of Moresco the stylist, the story-teller, the satirist, and the innovator. The main object of the Italian author’s satire here is the world of fashion with its detachment from everyday life and common people’s needs as well as its commodification of the female body. A similar critical attitude could be found in Robert Altman’s film Prêt-à-Porter, at the end of which the models saunter down the catwalk without any clothes on. But, Moresco, of course, goes well beyond that. In this narrative the models strut about without skin, which has been abraded with sandpaper so that the girls’ bodies can have a closer contact with space. The depraved and disease-ridden Lupus, always surrounded by his barking pack, chooses for his unusual fashion show only girls with perfect bodies but deformed or blemished faces. At first they are even allowed to wear some shreds of clothing on the catwalk. Soon enough, they walk completely naked, for, in Lupus’ words it is “cosmos” which they are trying to put on. Then come the sandpaper and more grisly stuff. The real purpose of Lupus is to make his models tear down the invisible wall between their bodies and space itself, by pushing the latter to the point of absolute concentration, which will create a pocket of completely immobilised space, a present-day inferno. And it is from this inferno that the copywriter has to save his girlfriend, with the help of a jackhammer and guided by an unlikely Virgil in the person of a porn actress.  No retelling will ever convey the inventiveness and decadent poetic charm of this episode, and therefore I will stop here. It has to be read to be believed. The least I can do is to offer my translation, no matter how inadequate, of a passage in which the girl narrates her peregrinations as a member of Lupus’ entourage, couched in the typical for this novel style of a cascading litany:

And also other cocks and other shapes flickering in the dark, during the relocations, here and there on earth, in front of the tumultuous turreted cities we were traversing in the jeep, in the midst of the exploding bodies, all that detached live matter which swarms in the interstices of the confronted plane of space, the obtuse masks of faces, flashing teeth, turbans, those blind fissures of eyes riddling the entire space with holes, limbs moving over the gravitational line of the horizon, cities suddenly coming into view, at night, against the space, crenellated walls of mud and water in front of which we could make out the magnified shapes of the flag wavers stirring against the tumultuous celestial vault, while we were travelling beyond, tossing between sleep and wakefulness in the tundras, in the savannahs. Cities never seen, places almost imagined and dreamed about, our flayed, inflamed faces poked out the windows, we felt the air of the night teeming with starlight dust on a one-way journey through space wash over our projecting faces. The noises of the running engines, the convulsed barking of the perfumed dog pack running at large around the jeep and the cars, when Lupus unleashed the dogs in the dead of night and let them trot along by the vehicle column, in the cloud of red dust lifted by the large wheels crossing desert territories. Inside the cars more and more distinctly could be heard the sounds made by the girls who continued to sandpaper the egg-yolks of their bodies half-dormant in the seats, injecting the space with the yawns of what was remaining of their mouths and tongues. And then other relocations, and other journeys, rushing blindly in a confronted and retreated space. Other cities in turmoil, other skies, while we were racing through the cavity of the vertiginous and animate space. Other undulating bodies against the backdrop of the nocturnal structures of other cities of glass and steel. The bodies that were snapping into motion as we were passing by, greeting us with their incredible banners fluttering in the night wind, against the backdrop of other skies, retreated and ruptured, the jets of decorticated matter, the ignited, nebulous stars on a one-way journey in the massacred matter of the confronted universe, with their orbital movements, the shapes glimpsed in the wind raised by the flags, by the flag wavers. Their gestures silent, concentrated, solemn. In the night there was nobody to watch them but us. Their banners, glimpsed in the dark, appeared to make up a whole with the musculature of their flag-waving bodies. But what flags were those? Who could be those flag wavers?

Meanwhile the avalanche of economic transactions is rapidly growing as the moment of the announcement and of the selling is approaching. The Ashanti sovereign, riding a bicycle across Africa and simultaneously travelling in time all the way to the Quaternary Period, has been designated as the symbolic driving force of the deal. By pushing the pedals he is dragging the economic avalanche towards the grandiose culmination. Lanza, who has become a TV presenter now, arrives at the briefing with the camera crew to live-broadcast it. At this point, the interpenetration of the various media harnessed for the purposes of the sale reaches the apogee. Everything and everyone is connected, and there is only one to narrate it all! For some time, the programmer usurps the right of the first-person narrator from the Cat, for it is his video game which gave the initial spark to the campaign and it is his sperm, which fertilised the Interface: “My semen and my video game have been explosively fused into one thing, here inside. Your figures have been thrown beyond themselves into that new uncreated space.” This fusion illustrates one of the overarching concerns of the whole novel: the impact of computer and information technologies on biology. But it’s not the software developer who will have the final say in the second part. He loses this privilege to the Meringue, the Cat’s secretary and apparent éminence grise, thus re-establishing the supremacy of the printed word embodied by her boss’s publishing house. That doesn’t last long either. Finally, the buck stops with the creator of the highest rank, as God himself sits down to give the announcement. And what an announcement is that! The man in the porcelain mask proclaims that from now on spacetime will become immobile, for his time has come and theirs is over. And it is in that frozen domain, also known as “the uncreated space” that the final part of the novel is set.

In the third part, which is radical even in comparison with the most off-beat passages in the previous two, Moresco undertakes to represent the unrepresentable: the uncreated space, which appeared as a consequence of time grinding to a halt. For that purpose, he invents a new language. He doesn’t introduce a lot of neologisms to achieve his goal, but rather manipulates grammar forms to approach the most suitable linear representation of a situation in which the past, the present, and the future are no longer relevant, which results in a progression of ambiguities when the characters themselves are not sure whether something has already happened, is happening or will happen. The resultant prose, repetitive, redundant, yet utterly mesmerising, reminds in equal measure of Gertrude Stein’s iterative narration in The Making of Americans and of the most rampant swirls of verbosity in Günter Grass’s Dog Years. The paradoxical statements enveloping all temporal possibilities permeate the text to such an extent as to make it extremely disorienting and difficult to understand, but far from rendering it illegible as some of the book’s detractors have complained. It just takes a bit of patience and perseverance to follow the final stage of Moresco’s visionary enterprise.

New characters appear, and most of them carry the names of Asian cities: Benares 2, Chongqing 3, Tokyo 4, Shanghai 5, Semarang 8. We follow the vicissitudes of their travels and encounters, with the special focus on the love story of Chongqing 3 (male) and Shanghai 5 (female). The symbolic mainstay of the whole part is the phenomenon of the Asian megacity, that sprawling conurbation with its towering skyscrapers, tangled multi-level stack interchanges, gargantuan shopping malls and the tiny flecks of its human population, hustling and bustling inside this cyclopean infrastructure not unlike nimble spermatozoa in search of the ovum. And, in fact, this is what they are: all these characters fulfilling their minor missions, narrating stories and interacting with the participants of the briefing, because the briefing cannot finish when time has stopped, are just gametes each dreaming about its own potential provided they end up as zygotes and then get born. Chongqing 3 and Shanghai 5 are a potential couple that due to the paradoxes of immobilised spacetime has never met, but, at the same time, has met, fallen in love and had children. The situation gets even more complicated when the megacity dwellers/gametes, while trying to reunite/meet for the first time and also running away from a group of hostile creatures that want to merge with them, get unexpected assistance from their parents who are also their children: Shanghai 5’s fatherson (padrefiglio) and Chongqing 3’s motherdaughter (madrefiglia).

Chongquing. Image by Archey Firefly.

The final destination of these characters as well as of numerous other people/gametes is the ultimate megacity: the splendid city of sperm. And in order to get there, they have to break through the wall of immobilised spacetime. To that end, if we are to believe him, Chongqing 3 has created a Trojan virus, which is at the same time a huge wooden Trojan horse, in whose dark belly billions of spermatozoa attempt to reach the genetic utopia, the City of God for the information age. The foggy stainless steel megalopolis with the constant temperature of -80 °C is an enormous cryopreservation facility, and once its dam protecting the ova is burst by the deluge of the spermatozoa, the ovulation process will begin. This is how the process of “uncreation” takes place. As a result of the global collapse provoked by selling the planet and the subsequent immobilisation of spacetime, all the humanity has been reduced to genetic material. The cycle of the creation has come to an end, and the new one is about to begin. The hope for the regeneration is offered by the city of sperm, but this time all the creation will be artificial and maybe even the masked God will not be able to predict the consequences. As he himself declares: “I am the shadow of the spermatozoon of God who will dream, who will be”.

All the while, the characters continue to sing, revealing more clues not only about the chaotic developments in the uncreated space, but also about some of the significant past events narrated in the first volume of the trilogy. In his song the Cat unequivocally admits his diabolical character, which was just hinted at in The Beginnings, by referring to himself as “the demon”. What is more, in his torrential, cadenced monologue he recounts a new version of the Gospels in which Jesus Christ appears as a donkey-riding man/spermatozoon called Jerusalem 9. Just like the biblical Satan, the Cat leads Jerusalem 9 to the top of a temple. However, if in the Gospels the Devil urges Christ to throw himself down alone, the Cat suggests that he and Jerusalem 9 jump together “headfirst into the uncreated”, which brings us back to the episode on the roof of the Duomo at the end of The Beginnings. As you remember, that time, the scenario was more similar to that of the Bible, although the Cat did say “let us throw ourselves” he wanted the Madman to do it on his own. By looking at the final scene of The Beginnings in the light of the devil’s temptation of Christ, we can surmise that the Cat was tempting the Madman as well, and that it was not the uncreated dimension he really wanted the writer to jump into, but something else.

The video game is finished, and the next step in “uncreating” is the wholesale massacre of the characters of the novel as the briefing continues inside the hit-and-run driver’s car. The right to destroy is contested as ardently as was the right to narrate. Despite all the violations of narrative hierarchies, when even God could be handled as just another character, there is one authority who can still effectively exercise his power: writer Antonio Moresco. His alter ego Madman, who even declares in his song “my name is Antonio Moresco”, regains the control over the narrative, pushing the tail of the ouroboros into its mouth. We get back to the story of the Madman buried alive, which was discarded by the Cat as inappropriate for the novel he commissions him to write. Only this time, the indeterminacy of uncreation has taken hold. The Madman’s monologue refers simultaneously to the past and the future, the epitome of which is the neologism “beforafter” (primadopo). He vaguely remembers being run over by a car and wonders what will be made of the manuscript of Songs of Chaos left on his desk: “No one will be able to understand anything, to decipher it, let alone discern its projections, incarnations.” Now, almost ten years after the novel’s publication, we know that this prediction is valid only to a certain extent, for more and more serious readers and academics tackle this fascinating and formidable novel. And so, just as the Madman deliriously shares his impressions of the uncreated dimension and its ramifications, declaring, paradoxically, that his time is over and now his time has begun, we brace ourselves for the final volume of this incomparable lifetime undertaking.

 

The Uncreated Ones (Gli increati)

It would have been hardly possible to surpass the feral energy of Songs of Chaos, so the final novel of the trilogy offers, understandably, a more subdued narrative, written in a more limpid language with fewer stylistic embellishments. Yet, it’s the most radical part of the trilogy. With this one, Moresco throws readability to the dogs, not at the lexical level like Joyce did in Finnegans Wake, but at the level of constantly reiterated and recycled phrases and sentences which pervade the text in such frustrating profusion as to drive nuts even the most patient reader. To make matters worse, there is no lack of painstaking recapitulations of many episodes from the previous novels, which might serve as useful reminders for those who read them a long time ago and forgot most of the evoked details, but prove to be a mind-numbing chore to read for those who, like me, have been reading all three novels in close succession. Although there are enough moments of original brilliance in this novel which do not allow me to call it a failure, it is definitely the weakest book of the trilogy: exhausting and not often rewarding. Who knows, maybe that’s the price Moresco had to pay for the faithful representation of the uncreated universe.

The challenge of the third part of Songs of Chaos now passes on to the whole of The Uncreated Ones: how to describe by linear and sequential means the situation inside the uncreated dimension, in which time has lost its relevance. On the one hand, the author cannot just dispense with the plot as this would render the novel too chaotic and incomprehensible. On the other, it should be obvious that we are no longer subject to the laws of everyday reality. As in the previous book, the ambiguity of the situation is conveyed through the employment of mutually exclusive tenses (i. e. something happened and is happening now, something happened and will happen later) as well as through the characters’ constant confusion with regard to the time of the events: how can something be happening for the first time now if it has already happened? There is no shortage of time warps, doppelgängers, and bilocations either. The basic categories of our logical universe are reversed by the main tenet of the novel according to which death always comes before life. So, the main character’s death is just the beginning of his journey that will take him to the world of the living and then beyond to the state of uncreation. This might seem like a typical linear progress from one point to another, but we shouldn’t forget that this is not what actually happens. This narrative is just a convenient approximation of the ineffable and unrepresentable process to which none of our criteria and none of the known terms can be applied, including the word “process”.

Like the two previous books, The Uncreated Ones consists of three parts. The first one, titled Preface of the Dead (Proemio dei Morti), follows the Madman, who is still the main narrator, on his journey across the continent of the dead where he ends up after being killed in the above-mentioned road accident. It’s worth noting that the nickname “Madman” has been revoked, and the protagonist once again turns into the nameless first-person narrator, just like in The Beginnings. The narrator travels through the enormous cities of the dead following the elusive Peach, who is there to show him the way out of the dark reign of death into the world of the living. The cities of the dead are similar to the sprawling megalopoli of our world, but they are constantly being shaken by tremendous earthquakes which inevitably cause the skyscrapers, in which most of the dead reside, to crack, crumble and ultimately collapse. The reason of the cataclysms scourging the dead cities is the waves of the new arrivals from the continent of the living. This process is called “overflowing” (tracimazione). When people die they “overflow” from one realm into another. At the same time there is the contrary movement  of the dead who “overflow” into the continent of the living. Some of the dead choose first to resurrect inside their realm and only then to overflow, and others prefer to get to the other side while still being dead. Thus, the two continents are caught in a perpetual collision.

On his journey, the protagonist meets a bunch of colourful characters, both familiar from the previous books and completely new. For some time he is accompanied by Lazarus, who is actually Jesus Christ, who resurrected Lazarus, lay into the tomb instead of him and then refused to get resurrected himself. While the Christ aspect of this character remains entombed and unresurrected in the biblical Bethany, his Lazarus aspect in the reign of the dead wants to resurrect as well as to trigger the “vortex” of resurrection on the whole continent. Things get more complicated when another Lazarus, identical to the first one, joins them. This one, on the contrary, is against resurrection within death and proselytises remaining dead within death. This and many other situations of that kind reflect the recurring mantra of the universe subject to uncreation: “everything is split in two”. Thus, for example, there are two gods: the God of the living who is dead and the God of the dead who is alive. Both are wearing a porcelain mask, naturally. The encounter with the Black Sister allows the narrator to fill in some of the gaps left in The Beginnings. While driving him to the next point of his itinerary in a stolen truck, the woman reveals to her passenger that she was having an affair with the Cat at the seminary. It also turns out that after she joined the left-wing terrorist organisation which can be easily identified as the Red Brigades, she was in charge of kidnapping the former Italian prime minister Aldo Moro.

The meeting with the Muse takes place underground where the narrator discovers vast subterranean cities quaking and rumbling on account of millions of bodies of the dead denizens engaged in sexual intercourse. All the sperm spilled as a result of that activity forms a turbulent river. The protagonist and the Muse have to swim in it in order to reach the upper regions of that realm. From there the narrator, alone again, passes through the sky of the underworld and back onto the surface to find the dead and the resurrected clashed in a furious battle that inaugurates the commencement of the Third World War between the living and the dead. The growing army of the resurrected is considered to be the fifth column of the living who are continuously overflowing into the continent of the dead, and there is no one better to perform the task of slaughtering the resurrected cohorts than Napoleon himself. But he is the dead Napoleon, of course. Moreover, the commander of the dead troops is Napoleon with a female womb, as the genitals were removed from his corpse on the island of Saint Helena. Another significant historical personage met by the narrator before he is temporarily reunited with the Peach is Vladimir Lenin accompanied by Anastasia Romanov. The Soviet leader’s mission is to foment the revolution of the dead, whereas the resurrected ones are dismissed by him as the equivalent of the Mensheviks. In order to get to the continent of the living, the dead have to jump down from the tops of tall towers, and that is what the Peach and the protagonist do. Following his beloved, he overflows into the world of the living, having resisted two temptations: that of resurrection within death and that of remaining dead within death. The Peach, his Beatrice, guides him to a different destiny, which, as we suppose, can only be uncreation.

The second and the longest part is Preface of the Living (Proemio dei vivi). It recounts the wanderings of the solitary narrator on the continent of the living, which are at the same time a journey into his past and the revisiting of some of the events narrated in The Beginnings and Songs of Chaos. In the course of what seems like a time-travelling adventure, the narrator keeps losing and finding the Peach again and again until their final reunion in a royal palace.

As the world war between the living and the dead rages on both continents, and, as the new belligerent force of the immortals enters the scene, the protagonist becomes a small boy and retrieves his family home in Mantua. As he keeps searching for the Peach, he grows up again and revisits all the most important places featured in The Beginnings as well as re-encounters all its major characters. At the same time, his quest is a fictional recreation of the main stages of Antonio Moresco’s life. The “everything is split in two” principle becomes especially evident when the protagonist meets himself two times: his younger self studying at the seminary, and his older self — a disillusioned writer who is about to die in his Milanese apartment. The narrating voice shifts from one self of the protagonist to another, which is yet another approximation on the part of the author to show that all the events take place in a timeless dimension. What is happening now has already happened in The Beginnings, but it is also yet to happen in the future.

Saint Lucy by Domenico di Pace Beccafumi, 1521.

Besides the well-known characters already seen in the first and the second books of the trilogy, the narrator interacts with an array of martyrs, rebels and the revolutionary heroes of his youth. He receives Letters to No One (Lettere a nessuno) (Moresco’s memoirs about his struggle to become a published author) and the Peach’s love letter from Saint Lucy, a Christian martyr who carries her torn-out eyes on a plate. She now acts as a letter-carrier between the worlds of the living and the dead. At the seminary he meets the first cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, an icon of the Soviet atheism who, we could also say, has become the new martyr of the space age. There are also appearances by John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Malcolm X, Marilyn Monroe, Che Guevara, Pasolini, Jan Palach, a Czech student who committed self-immolation in protest against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and Mao Zedong, “the obese idol”.  The upheavals caused by the attraction of all matter towards the uncreated have affected not only human beings, but also man-made images. There is, for instance, a captivating digression about the love affair between Che Guevara and the funerary effigy of Italian noblewoman Ilaria del Carretto. At one point, while traversing the war-ravaged Milan, the protagonist sees Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man engulfed in flames.

The Cat doesn’t remain unaffected by all the transformative processes either. Being just the devil in the world of the living does not appear to be enough for him anymore, so he has embarked on an evolutionary journey of his own. When the narrator sees him again at the seminary, the young Cat has become the prior and is now in charge of the derelict place with just a small cluster of students remaining under his supervision. In contrast to the narrator, who has just overflowed into the world of the living while still being dead, the Cat has been resurrected. The next step for him is immortality. But he will not become a mere immortal, of course, he will change his demonic status to the divine one by becoming the God of Immortals. The duality of everything is also reflected in the religious, or rather pseudo-religious, services held by the new prior. First he celebrates the mass of the living, and then the mass of those who have overflowed (la messa dei tracimati). During the latter, conducted on the Christmas Eve, the Cat is assisted by three people: the protagonist as a young seminarist, the protagonist as an adult, and Yuri Gagarin. The mass gets interrupted all the time by the appearance of Biblical characters, such as the prophet Micah and the angel Gabriel, as well as God himself, who impugn the veracity of the canonical account of the saviour’s birth.

Meanwhile, the character of the global war undergoes an important change. It is no longer a conflict between the dead and the living, but between the immortals and the joint forces of the living and the dead, as death and life turned out to be the same thing: lifedeath (vitamorte). The final destination of the protagonist is the city of Milan heavily bombarded by the immortals using missiles with genetic warheads. The blaze of explosions illuminating the city’s night sky brings to the narrator’s mind TV broadcasts of the US forces’ missile strikes against Baghdad during the invasion of Iraq. Most of the loose threads are tied here as the narrator undergoes his final test, which is inextricably linked to the Cat’s temptation at the end of The Beginnings. Escorted by a crowd of human torches led by Jan Palach, the protagonist enters, one after another, two identical palaces. The first one is hosted by the Muse and is the portal to immortality. There, the Cat as the God of Immortals tries for the last time (or perhaps for the first time, since there are no temporal coordinates anymore) to trick the narrator into accepting immortality. This harks back, once again, to the episode on the roof of Milan Cathedral in The Beginnings. When the Cat suggested jumping “headfirst” into the uncreated, he was tempting the protagonist with immortality, pretending to tempt him with uncreation. Such a tangled explanation would be in keeping with the perplexing character of the whole trilogy. Not yielding to the temptation allows the narrator to enter the second palace where the Peach awaits him. There he embraces love and uncreation. Finally he is ready to take the jump into the uncreated from the roof of the Duomo. But this time, the magnificent cathedral is wrapped in flames, and it is the Peach who jumps together with him, leaving the frustrated Cat on the burning roof.

The last part, Preface of the Uncreated Ones (Proemio degli increati) is just about 100 pages long. It consists of three chapters that finally take us to the point where there is nothing left except the uncreated in its pure state. The characters of the final part somewhat resemble the ones in the first two, but it is impossible to ascertain whether we’re really dealing with some transformed versions of the Peach, the Cat, and the protagonist; rather, these are archetypes that demonstrate at a much higher and more abstract level the progress towards uncreation made by the main characters of the novel.

The chapters are tellingly titled The Creator (Il creatore), The Destroyer (Il distruttore), and The Uncreator (L’increatore), and can be regarded as some sort of holy scripture of the uncreated ones. The creator is similar to the biblical God who creates the earth, the first man and the first woman. However, the borderlines between the creator and his creation become blurred as the god falls in love with the first woman (who proves to be none other than the Peach), and as the first man (who in many aspects resembles the Cat) takes over the narration from his creator as he moves on to a more advanced stage of creation: that of destruction. The destroyer espouses the supremacy of destruction over creation, for the latter is comprised by the former, until reaching even higher ontological state and becoming the uncreator. What is interesting, it is hinted here that the main precondition for accessing the uncreated is the merging of the destructive and creative potentials personified respectively by the Cat and the protagonist. The great meeting of the creator, the destroyer and the uncreator accompanied by their spouses that takes place in the same royal palace in which the protagonist has been reunited with the Peach can inaugurate only one thing: at last nothing and nobody have any relevance, even the figure of the uncreator, the last link in this chain of transformations, as there is nothing left but the uncreated itself.

So, what is, after all, Games of Eternity, and why did the author decide to discard The Uncreated, the initial title of the trilogy, putting thus emphasis not on the destination but the journey, not on the result but the process, not on the findings but the search? This message, so simple and yet hard-earned, derives from looking at the development of the main character, which mirrors the development of Moresco the writer. After all, what is any creative writing if not a game, and what is any good creative writing if not a game of eternity? The protagonist escapes from the rigid systems of religion and ideology to break through to the pure essence of creation only to find himself trapped in yet another system: that of the predominant literary aesthetics upheld by the leviathan of the publishing industry. Only as the Madman he is capable to fully liberate his creative potential, which in equal measure proves to be destructive. This results in the emergence of Songs of Chaos, the terrifying masterpiece that threatens to engulf its own creator-turned-destroyer. It becomes clear that despite its immense appeal, destruction is not really what the protagonist has been looking for. Since there is nowhere he can move on further, the protagonist does not really move forward, but re-traces and, actually, re-assembles his previous life with a view to finding what he now firmly believes to be his Holy Grail: the state of uncreation predicated upon his love for the Peach. Perhaps, plunging into the uncreated is equivalent to reaching the Nirvana in Buddhism or returning to the One in Neo-Platonism. It is quite possible that Antonio Moresco, the greatest living Italian writer and one of the greatest writers of our time, eventually realised, along with his protagonist, that no matter how sweet and coveted the moment of achieving your goal could be, which is the dissolution in the uncreated for the latter and international recognition for the former, it is the boldness to play the games of eternity despite the odds that counts above anything else. And this whole trilogy, massive and messy, splendorous and horrendous at the same time, is nothing more and nothing less than an immortal paean to those who dare to play games.

Coda

Some final words about Songs of Chaos. Even if Moresco had not written the other books of the trilogy, even if it was the only book he had ever written, that would have been enough to secure him a prominent place in literary history. Riccardo Dal Ferro, a writer, philosopher, YouTube personality, and a fervent promoter of this novel, has said: “Songs of Chaos is perhaps the only contemporary work of Italian literature that will be studied in 200 -300 years from now.” It was this statement that goaded me into reading the novel in the first place, and I have to admit that it’s not an exaggeration. The Anglophone trendsetting in innovative literature is over. If Ulysses was the pinnacle of modernism, and Gravity’s Rainbow of postmodernism, it is the Italian Songs of Chaos that is the next big thing for which we don’t have a name yet.

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