Return to Egypt (Возвращение в Египет) by Vladimir Sharov

Vladimir Sharov’s dense and voluminous novel, the winner of the 2014 Russian Booker Prize and a runner-up of the Big Book Award of the same year, is in many ways similar in its themes, ideas and obsessions with the much shorter   The Rehearsals. The former actually could serve as a good appetizer for the sprawling smorgasbord offered by Return to Egypt. Here are some of the topics explored in the book: the Russian Schism, the Old Believers and their offshoot Beguny, the Great Flood, the Exodus, the Apocalypse, Christian eschatology, Nikolai Gogol’s life and work, Dante and The Divine Comedy, the Emancipation Reform of 1861, the Narodniks, the Bolsheviks, the October Revolution, the Russian Civil War, Stalin’s repressions and prison camps, kolkhozs, the painter A. A. Ivanov and his masterpiece The Appearance of Christ Before the People, the Islamic ornaments of the Tash Hauli Palace, palindromes, the noosphere of Vladimir Vernadsky, agronomy, a theory of the evolution of inanimate objects. What is remarkable, all this wealth of facts, narratives, exegeses, and mystical insights is presented as a vast mosaic composed by the author himself using as “tiles” the fragments of the letters exchanged by Nikolai Gogol’s 20th-century descendants over the period of thirty-seven years.

The reader’s minimum for a partial understanding of this opus is a good knowledge of Gogol’s play The Government Inspector, also known as The Inspector General, his poem in prose Dead Souls (the first volume and what is left of the second whose complete manuscript was burned by the writer shortly before his death), Dante’s The Divine Comedy and the biblical Book of Exodus. At least a fleeting acquaintance with Russian history from the mid-17th century and up to the 1960s is also desirable. For the full appreciation, however, you really have to be a specialist in Russian history and culture as the scope of Sharov’s literary allusions and historical references is breathtaking. I can imagine an English edition of the book, published by a university press, with a good hundred pages crammed with detailed annotations.

The main correspondent in the letter exchange taking place from 1931 to 1968 is Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol (the Second), the famous author’s great-grandnephew whose bloodline originates from Yelizaveta Bykova, one of the writer’s younger sisters. (Since Gogol didn’t have any children, all the descendants stem from his siblings). On most occasions the author’s full namesake is referred to as simply Kolya, which is a diminutive of Nikolai. The other participants of the correspondence are his numerous relatives, the most active of those being his first and second cousins once removed, whom he prefers to call uncles. We’re talking about the closely knit clan of Gogols connected via the network of mail communications, who share stories, ideas and revelations with topics ranging from personal anecdotes to ambitious theological theories. The major obsession of the Gogols is the failure of their great ancestor to complete the poem Dead Souls. Modelled on Dante’s The Divine Comedy, Gogol’s work was also supposed to have three parts corresponding to Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso.  As we know, only the first part, which depicts Hell, is available in its entirety. Just several chapters remain of Gogol’s Purgatory, and Paradise was never written. The mystics of the Gogol clan see in this the root of all the calamities that have been besetting Russia and its people. They believe that if Gogol had succeeded in finishing the trilogy, Russian history would have been different. Hence the ambitious plan: to finish Gogol’s poem. Kolya is chosen as the most appropriate candidate for the task. The writing of Gogol’s Purgatory and Paradise will be the culmination of the long-standing preoccupation of the writer’s descendants with his texts that has taken a variety of whimsical shapes.

One such idiosyncratic display of this fixation, Kolya learns from Uncle Artemy, was the annual staging of Gogol’s plays or excerpts from Dead Souls at the estate owned by Artemy’s grandmother. The amateur performances happened regularly for more than a decade until the area with the estate was included in the frontline zone in 1916 and everybody had to leave. All the actors were recruited from Gogol’s descendants, of course. The 1916 production of The Government Inspector was to be the most radical of all, but since it was interrupted at the preliminary stage, all we’ve been left with are Uncle Evgeny’s detailed notes on the pre-production analysis of the play conducted by the director Blotsky. The director’s bold vision, which unsettles the actors, is actually based on Gogol’s own metaphysical re-interpretation of his own play that found its expression in the posthumously published metaplay The Dénouement of the “Government Inspector”. Gogol wanted a new production of The Government Inspector which would not end with the famous silent scene (the town officials bamboozled by the roguish Khlestakov whom they have taken for the inspector general frozen aghast as they learn that the real inspector has arrived), but with The Dénouement, in which “the first comical actor” explains to his audience — actors and theatre connoisseurs — the true meaning of the play. According to “the first comical actor”, the corrupt town officials are the metaphorical representations of human vices, and the inspector general who arrives at the end of the play is the personification of consciousness. Blotsky goes even further in his interpretation, viewing the inspector as the formidable judge who has visited humanity to punish them for their sins. Therefore, the final silent scene should be played as a live tableau of eschatological consternation. The motionless actors should convey the unspeakable horror in the face of the inevitable Last Judgement. Blotsky regards the silent scene not only the key element of the whole production, but also as the companion piece to A. A. Ivanov’s sweeping canvas The Appearance of Christ Before the People. He sees the both pieces as some kind of multimedia diptych: the painting represents the beginning of the divine revelation to mankind, whereas Gogol’s tableau shows the end of human history: the frozen figures stand for sinners who will not be saved.

Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov, The Appearance of Christ Before the People, 1837–1857.

The Silent Scene in the 1966 production of The Government Inspector in the Moscow Art Theatre. Director: Igor Ilyinsky.

The ambition for the 1916 production considerably overshadows Blotsky’s previous direction of the same play just a year before. In that staging Khlestakov represented the Russian nation as the chosen people during the Exodus, his hometown stood for the Promised Land, and the Town of  N, in which he was stranded and managed to pass off as the government inspector before the officials, symbolised one of the stops in the desert on the way to the Promised Land. It’s just one of scores and scores of occasions when the members of the Gogol clan invoke this powerful biblical plot.

The mythical story of the Hebrews fleeing the Egyptian captivity, crossing the Red Sea and wondering for forty years in the desert led by Prophet Moses is the master narrative for the Gogols against which they constantly compare, parse and reconceptualise the last three hundred years in the history of Russia. In this respect Kolya’s historiosophical versions of the second and third volumes of Dead Souls are no exception: the myth of the Exodus underpins both of them, just like Dante’s Commedia, which is the other equally significant master narrative.

Kolya never accomplishes his task, however. All he manages to do is write a short synopsis of Purgatory and Paradise before being accused of anti-Soviet propaganda and sentenced to 10 years in the Gulag. By this time his father, an NKVD officer, has already been serving time in a prison camp. The content of the Synopsis is recreated in the series of the letters written by Kolya to Uncle Artemy in 1955-1956, after Gogol’s namesake has been released from the camp and settled in the town of Staritsa located on the Volga river. As we know from the poem’s first part, it’s picaresque protagonist Pavel Chichikov purchases from a bunch of grotesque landowners around four hundred dead serfs, registering them as if they were alive. The motivation of the original Gogol character for this bizarre transaction is carrying through the fraudulent scheme of taking a loan against the non-existent serfs and making off with the money. However, in Kolya’s interpretation, the figure of Chichikov gains unexpected metaphysical dimensions. Gogol the Second believes that in reality Chichikov intended to populate with his dead souls a specially designated territory within the Russian Empire so that they would build the City of God on earth.

In the Synopsis, Chichikov rises from the depth of Hell, and goes through the circles of the Purgatory to become a Moses-like figure that is destined to liberate the chosen people (the adherents of the Old Belief who rejected Patriarch Nikon‘s liturgical reforms of 1653) from the tyranny of the Antichrist (the Romanov dynasty) and to lead them to the Heavenly Jerusalem where eternal bliss and happiness will reign. The worldly manifestation of this metaphysical enterprise is Chichikov’s mission to restore the hierarchy of the Ancient Orthodox Church to which he devotes all his wits and industriousness after taking the vows as an Old Believer monk. In the course of his adventure-packed peregrinations that take him to Austria, Turkey, Greece, Egypt and Palestine, Chichikov succeeds in his ambitious plan despite the imminent persecution of Tsar Nicholas I: the Old Believer bishopric is established in Belaya Krinitsa with the consent of Ferdinand I of Austria, the first bishops get ordained, and Chichikov is among them. Thanks to his missionary activity hundreds of thousands of priestless Old Believers return to the fold of the Popovtsy, the Old Believer faction with ecclesiastical structure. Closer to the end of his life and his great mission, Chichikov accepts the Narodniks, anti-tsarist revolutionary intellectuals and activists, as the welcome addition to the chosen people marching under his guidance across the Sinai desert towards the Heavenly Jerusalem. Within the discourse of the Exodus, Chichikov regards the revolutionaries as those Egyptians who have found belief in God, rejected the tyranny of the Pharaoh and joined the Israelites in their flight from Egypt. At the end of his spiritual and earthly journey, Chichikov realises that the socialist revolution which will overthrow the monarchy associated with the Antichrist is that long-awaited event which will inaugurate the emergence of Paradise on earth. This Paradise will be known as Communism, and the Heavenly City will be created “out of space aether and Edison’s electricity”.

The Synopsis is by far the longest embedded narrative in Sharov’s novel: distributed over ten letters to Uncle Artemy, it takes almost ninety pages of the book. It makes for a fun and erudite read, but it’s hardly possible to take it as seriously as its author does. Kolya’s relatives expected the full namesake of the great writer to create a commensurate piece of literature imbued with transformative spiritual force. Not only does he fail to do that, for he never writes the complete book, but judging by the summary of the plot in the Synopsis we can see that even in the complete form his work would be laughably naive and, at best, would just reflect the delusions of 19th century Russian socialist thinkers. The 20th century communist era turned out to be anything but Paradise on earth. By embracing the ephemerous and unrealistic ideals of the revolution, Chichikov leads his followers back to the Egyptian slavery. The Dantesque ascension to Paradise via Purgatory proves to be a meandering re-descent into Hell, the Inferno of the Civil War, the Red Terror, collectivisation, and the Gulag. Kolya’s relatives who have the opportunity to read the Synopsis have a mixed reaction to it. Some even suggest that it should be burned like the second part of Gogol’s Dead Souls. Others prefer to view it as a playground for their own historiosophical musings, and use it to come up with diverse interpretations of Gogol’s literary heritage and the course of Russian history as seen through the prism of the Exodus myth.

There is no lack of all kinds of mystical theories and quirky hermeneutic methodologies professed by Gogol’s descendants and their close friends. The encapsulated summaries of these as well as fragmentary applications to biblical narratives, Gogol’s texts, and important historical events keep cropping up in the correspondence and can be seen as an important part of Kolya’s growth and development as an independent thinker. For example, the protagonist’s friend and long-time correspondent Isakiev is the founder of  palindrome philosophy. A prominent representative of the association of poets-palindromists, Isakiev gained notoriety for composing a 100 page play-palindrome about the Great Flood titled, appropriately enough, Potop (The Flood). The play was about to be staged in a theatre of his hometown Gomel when he was arrested and sentenced to 10 years of labour camps. The indictment boiled down to the following: “the aim of a work that can be read equally from left to right and right to left is to persuade our people that the course of history is reversible and that Soviet Russia soon will become again the Romanov monarchy.” Upon his release, Isakiev has already formed his specific Weltanschauung in which everything is subject to palindromic interpretation and he readily shares his revelations with Kolya. In Isakiev’s mysticism different places, events, objects and entities smoothly lock together into pairs forming a palindromic whole. The Tower of Babel and Dante’s funnel of Hell are such a pair. The emancipation of serfs by Alexander II and the October Revolution constitute a historical palindrome in which the former corresponds to the Exodus and the latter to the return to Egypt. Needless to say, Egypt and the Promised Land also make up a palindrome along which Russian people keep shuttling back and forth. Isakiev believes that the palindrome is the true voice of language because of the inherent randomness of its formation and its total independence from the speaker’s intent. He sees the future in the utopian palindromic language, which “will not be shattered even by the Apocalypse”.

Tash Hauli Palace, Khiva. Photo Credit:  Fulvio Spada.

Quite often the mystical leanings of the Gogol clan and its immediate circle find confirmation and even elaboration in visual arts. There are several artists among Kolya’s relatives, and many of his numerous uncles and aunts take lively interest in different art forms. When paintings or drawings are described in the novel, it is not done for mere ekphrastic embellishment, but as another means of revealing the arcane dimension hidden from the eyes of the uninitiated. The image is never what it seems; it persistently balks at surrendering its true meaning to a cursory glance. You really have to take your time and zoom in to see what lies beneath the superficial details. In this respect, Sharov’s ideas are close to those expressed by Julio Cortázar in his short story The Devil’s Drool, on which Antonioni later based his cult classic Blowout. The case in point is the graphic works of Valentin Stanitsin, or Uncle Valya as Kolya refers to him in the letters. Trained as a miniaturist, Valentin is fascinated by the elaborate carvings on the wooden columns of Alla-Kuli-Khan’s Tash Hauli Palace in Khiva, a city in Khorezm Region of Uzbekistan where he works in the regional museum. His fascination with the Islamic non-figurative patterns gives rise to a powerful allegory on how interpretation turns historical events into subjective, ideologically charged narratives. In fulfillment of a commission, Valentin prepares graphic sketches for the columns of the new city council building using the Tash Hauli ornaments as his inspiration. He manages to complete the ornaments for two columns before the whole project is suspended. When seen from a distance, the patterns in these drawings do not much differ from the Islamic floral ornaments; however, if one takes a magnifying glass and looks closely, they will see that the fancy curlicues are made up of tiny human figures ascending through space and time: on one column those are the forebears, participants and inheritors of the French Revolution, and on the other, obviously, of the October Revolution in Russia. Thus the neutral non-figurative patterns are transformed into ideological statements. But that’s only part of the story. With time, Valentin’s art evolves from the dialectical-materialist representation of the triumph of revolution to the depiction of abstruse mystical entities. Now he applies the lessons learnt from the carvings on the columns of the khan’s palace to the design of the posts of the metaphysical gates that, as some believe, lead to the City of the Antichrist. Each gatepost is associated with either of the two sepulchral orders: the Khodynka and Trubnaya Brotherhoods.  These secret societies were born out of two mystically related tragedies: the stampedes which resulted in many deaths among the participants of the festivities following the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II in 1896 on Khodynka Field, and, fifty-seven years later, among the mourners who were pushing through Trubnaya Square to pay last respects to the body of Stalin lying in state in the House of the Unions in the centre of Moscow. The Khodynka Brotherhood maintains that the hundreds of deaths during the coronation festivities were the prediction of the tragic fate of the whole Empire, while the Trubnaya brothers believe that the people trampled in Moscow in March of 1953, in blatantly pharaonic fashion, were claimed by the dead Soviet leader as his retinue in the afterlife. Many also believe that the tragedies symbolise for the Russians two stops during their journey away from the Promised Land and back to Egypt. Just like Valentin’s floral patterns for the columns of the city council in Khiva, his ornaments for the mystical gateposts upon close inspection transform into miniscule human figures. This time those are not prophets and ideologues of revolution, but common people jostling in throngs to witness two historic events that will claim some of them as the due sacrifice.

After about three days, Uncle Valya brings a couple of new drawings. Both depict a sequence of his favourite elm columns supporting the portico of the Khivan Khan’s harem. They are adorned from top to bottom with a fancy floral ornament. The lianas thick as a hand, which gird the tree, and other stems with buds and half-blown flowers tangle with the clusters of ripe grapes, the fresh sprouts twist and twist making up a spiral.

Only when looking through a magnifying glass, it becomes clear that these are not meticulously drawn vignettes. On the even columns, queues of people not yet crushed by the crowd meander and twist around the trays with bread rolls and sausages, around the large oak barrels with fresh beer brought by horse carts; on the odd ones,  folks in the equally peaceful manner flow to Trubnaya Square through boulevards, side-streets and communicating courtyards. It’s the mourners who flock from different parts of the city to bid farewell to Joseph Stalin. […] Already in Trubnaya Square, and especially in Neglinnaya Street […] Uncle Valya depicts how the people are squashed together by an incredible force and now, as it should be, this united people’s body flows to the House of the Unions.

Streets of Moscow on March 9, 1953. Image source

In Return to Egypt, hidden meanings and enciphered revelations are not limited to fictitious artworks. What is more, sometimes well-known real pieces of art prove to harbour equally astonishing secrets. While copying A. A. Ivanov’s sketches of the already mentioned The Appearance of Christ before the People, Valentin’s course mates at the art school Vkhutemas notice that blended with the foliage of the tree, hidden in plain sight, there lurks a group of dead people risen from the graves, which leads to the sensational conclusion that the Russian painter at some point changed his mind and instead of the apparition of the messiah ended up depicting the Second Coming and the Last Judgement.

The conceit of artworks as vehicles conveying secret messages is taken to the extremes, which seem absurd and parodic even within the framework of Sharov’s outlandish world, in the apocryphal story about the subversive character of Kazimir Malevich’s paintings. This anecdote is hilarious and horrible at the same time, for in all its grotesquerie it perfectly encapsulates the mundanity of the bloodthirsty paranoia in whose thrall the Soviet regime indulged in imprisoning, torturing and executing thousands of its innocent victims. The fact that Malevich in reality was arrested, interrogated and held in custody two times — first in 1927, on charges of being a German spy and second in 1930, for anti-Soviet propaganda — gives us the chilling realisation that Sharov’s apocryph is not totally inconceivable.

Uncle Valya writes that when the famous artist Kazimir Malevich, who taught him and Kolodezev in Vkhutemas, was arrested in 1926, he testified during the interrogation that his paintings sold to the West over the last six years — from 1918 to 1924 — were in fact coded messages. The addressee was the English intelligence service MI5  for which he had been employed as a freelance operative since 1912. In the works one way or another related to figurative painting, the information about the Soviet Army and the industrial capabilities of the state was encoded in the colour, individual details and their relative placement on the canvas. As for the abstract art, to be more specific, Black Square recently smuggled out by the private collector Gornfeld: that was an analysis of the general situation in the country carried out by order of MI5.

Kazimir Malevich, Black Suprematist Square, 1915.

As Kolya gets exposed to more of the various philosophical and religious ideas bandied about by the host of his learned correspondents, he comes to the realisation that there is only one schismatic denomination in Russia whose principles and practices promise true salvation in the face of the repeated victories of the Antichrist and the never-ending cycles of the Egyptian enslavement. Confident in this belief he moves to Kazakhstan, where his ill father has already settled in the house of a member of the mysterious Beguny sect. Later, having buried his father and having been joined by his erstwhile sweetheart and distant relative Sonya, Kolya will decide to spend the rest of his life there, more than twenty-five years.

The Beguny or Stranniki (Wanderers) are the branch of the priestless Old Believers who decided to sever all ties with the official authorities of the Russian Empire, considering them to be the incarnation of the Antichrist. They refused to pay taxes, avoided conscription and instead of state-issued passports carried their own, which were just pieces of paper with pithy religious slogans like “The Lord is the protector of my life: who am I to be afraid of?” The only effective way of resisting the enormous power of the Antichrist for them was perpetual flight from the powers that be and their servants, so most of them did not have a permanent domicile and kept wandering all their lives. The Beguny who maintained such a peripatetic lifestyle were called mirootrechentsi (those who have renounced the world). However, there emerged among the Wanderers a large faction that actually stayed in one place. The houses of the so-called strannopiimtsy (the hospitable ones) were offered as temporary shelters to those Beguny who followed the practice of wandering. Quite often the latter were concealed  in specially designed hiding places.

It is in such a house that Kolya’s father and later Kolya himself find shelter and solace. In the Beguny’s parlance the house-shelter is called a ship and its owner the helmsman. The last name of the helmsman who welcomes the two descendants of Gogol in his solitary abode lost amid the sun-scorched takyr (the Central Asian equivalent of the salt flat) somewhere in Kazakhstan is Kapralov. He has inherited the last name from the previous owner of the house who also received it through the hereditary chain stretching all the way back to the original house owner. Kapralov believes that the wandering Beguny weave with their footsteps the giant net that God will use shortly before the Last Judgement to catch the pure and the repentant part of humanity. He will deposit the saved ones into the new arc, which will come to a stop at Mount Moriah where the One and Only Temple of One and Only God will be built. It will be the earthly prototype of the Heavenly Jerusalem. The metaphor of a ship applied to Kapralov’s house is miraculously reified in a strange episode that could be viewed as either a mystical journey or a collective hallucination. In a letter to Uncle Peter Kolya recounts how one day a mini-version of the Great Flood hits the steppe in which the house is located and in order to survive the deluge, Kapralov, Kolya and Sonya quickly transform the adobe hut into a navigable ship. The helmsman is sure that the hour of the final battle between the forces of good and evil is near, explaining to his tenants that their ship is going to join the fleet of similar floating houses of the Beguny somewhere near Chelyabinsk. The next day, however, the waters recede and the crew of of the newly-minted arc find themselves not on a mountain, but in the same steppe just a couple of kilometres away from their original location.

After settling in Kazakhstan and being exposed to the Beguny’s beliefs ardently espoused by the helmsman, Kolya never returns to the idea of completing Dead Souls. It is obvious that he doesn’t believe anymore in the conceit that finishing his famous ancestor’s masterpiece might save the Russians from the never-ending cycles of oppression and authoritarian rule. What he chooses instead is the individual salvation sought through pious living and regular animal sacrifice harking back to the biblical times. Near the house there is a vast caldera, a bowl-shaped depression formed by the inward collapse of a volcano, which is regarded by Kapralov and Kolya as an analogue of Dante’s Inferno. The sacrificial animal is a scapegoat laden with gurdjans (leather sacks) stuffed with rocks symbolising the sins of the ship dwellers as well as those of other people. The poor beast is led down the terraced slopes of the caldera to the sulphur lake at the bottom signifying the waters of the Cocytus, and is left to die from starvation and exhaustion as the heavy burden prevents it from climbing back to the surface. As opposed to Dante’s Inferno, and in keeping with the specific character of the Soviet version of Hell, Kapralov has divided the depression into fourteen circles instead of nine, corresponding to the number of sections and subsections in Article 58 of the Russian SFSR Penal Code used against those suspected of counter-revolutionary activities. With time, the corpses of the goats strew the slopes of the caldera, creating a ghastly spectacle that, as if in conformity with Isakiev’s bizarre theory, makes up a palindrome with the macabre sight of another group of dead animals that were sacrificed to the improvement of the Soviet infrastructure:

The path descends to the Cocytus, — the last road of the scapegoats. Their sulfur-coated mummies lie along it, bringing to mind the bones of a million and a half camels, bleached by wind and rain, which  frame each kilometre of the railroad to Karaganda like a decorative border.

Caldera of Gorely Volcano in the southern part of Kamchatka Peninsula. Image Source

The Abyss of Hell (1480s) by Sandro Botticelli. The image of the drawing is used as part of the cover art of the first edition of Return to Egypt.

While living in Kazakhstan, Kolya continues correspondence with the other Gogols. The excerpts from the letters appearing closer to the end of the book reveal a particular agitation among the Gogol clan with regard to the meaning of the Soviet period in Russian history within the Exodus narrative. There is unanimous agreement that the Soviet project proved to be a return to Egypt for the Russian nation. However, the opinions on the true nature of Egypt as well as on the aftermath of the journey back across the Red Sea vary. For Uncle Svyatoslav Egypt is akin to the Heavenly Jerusalem which descended upon the earth. He views it as a man-made paradise that sprang up in the middle of the desert thanks to the collective labour of workers, and Lenin, the architect of the Soviet version of Egypt, is comparable if not superior to Jesus Christ. For Uncle Ferentz and Uncle Artemy coming back to Egypt can only mean a voluntary return to slavery. For them Lenin is just another cruel pharaoh, which is corroborated by the fact that his body was turned into a mummy after death. As Artemy succinctly puts it:

The Plagues of Egypt — locusts, droughts, rivers of blood — were beyond count. We built hundreds of Pithoms and Ramseses, learnt again to deify the pharaoh, to erect tombs, and, when he departed to the world of eternal rest, to mummify his body. The latter proved to be the toughest of all. For more than twenty years lasted the fight with the mould on the skin of God Ra’s son, but we defeated it.

The brief excerpts of the letters merge into a continuous but dissonant chorus, each voice trying to come up with the persuasive explanation of the dire straits of the chosen people, splitting hairs over the symbolic meaning of historical personages and major events, mostly tragic, within the whole theological model pieced together from sacred and secular texts, pseudo-science, philosophy and superstition, which increasingly begins to resemble a drawn-out round of some kind of Glass Bead Game, a virtuosic but utterly useless juggling with ready-made concepts that does not necessarily yield anything new.

Perhaps the greatest revelation for Kolya comes from the allegorical anecdote told him by a certain Yevtikheyev who used to serve time in the same labour camp as his father and Kapralov. In fulfilment of Kapralov’s request, Kolya visits Yevtikheyev in a nursery home in Ust-Kamenogorsk. The story dates back to the old man’s childhood when his mother would tell him of the flooding of the Nile as if it was taking place in their Cossack village. Herein lies a valuable if bitter lesson for Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol (the Second) as well as his relatives: if they had become reconciled with the fact that regaining the Promised Land was a chimera and stopped their futile hermeneutic speculation that had been consuming too much of their time and effort, they would have regained at least peace and serenity, which in earthly Egypt might be the next best thing to the eternal repose in the Heavenly Jerusalem. There is even something soothing in the sound made by the River Nile at night. Yevtikheyev and his mother learnt how to listen to it, so the others could have too.

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Five-Year Blog Anniversary: The Story of The Untranslated

William Blake, Christian reading in his book.

Five years ago on this day I posted my first review here. Since I have managed to keep my few but faithful readers interested thus far, I believe that time has come to tell the story of The Untranslated.

The story began 12 years before the appearance of the blog when I was studying for my Master’s in literature. During my first year, there arrived an oversees guest lecturer in literature and philosophy — the Stanford professor Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht. At the time, at my university knowing English well was cool. Being able to read an English-language book or a book translated into English without a dictionary was extraordinary. We always adored professors with rich English vocabulary and the most native-sounding pronunciation. Those were the signs of great mastery achieved through perseverance and determination by people who spent most of their lives behind the Iron Curtain. So, there was this professor speaking fluent English who was going to talk about literature not originally written in English, which he must have read in translation. I still remember the moment when he distributed photocopies of Garcia Lorca’s poems with the English translation facing the Spanish original. And then something incredible happened: he told us to follow the translation while he was reading out the poems in Spanish. I was astounded. I had never experienced anything like that before. I didn’t understand most of the Spanish words, but I could feel the tremendous difference, I could hear how incomparably better the poems sounded in Spanish. I realised that some day I would like to be able to do just that: to read the works of my favourite writers and poets in the original, and in as many languages as I could learn. I was further bowled over when Gumbrecht casually said during a different lecture that when he read Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose in Italian, he had the impression that its style strongly resembled that of a medieval chronicle. As it turned out, besides English and his native German, Gumbrecht was proficient in Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese, and could also read some additional languages. Knowing English well wasn’t cool anymore. I wanted badly to get at least reading proficiency of the major European languages. Of course, there were considerable differences in my background and Gumbrecht’s. He was born in West Germany in a middle-class family and had the opportunities to study in France, Spain and Italy. I was born in the Soviet Union in a family with modest income and at that time I had not even been outside the borders of the former USSR, which had collapsed a decade before. It wouldn’t be until my first year as a PhD student in Comparative Literature when I would travel to England for the first time. Notwithstanding these setbacks, I set out on my journey.

By the time of Gumbrecht’s visit I had studied French as my second foreign language, but it was at such a low level that reading original literature was still out of the question. I developed my own system of drastically increasing my vocabulary that proved to be tedious but effective. I started with a short story by Maupassant, just several pages, which I read with a dictionary by my side, copying into a notebook all the words which I didn’t know and writing next to each of the words the Russian translation. There were lots of such words. Then, when I had that glossary at my disposal I would read the same story exactly ten times, so that during the final read I didn’t have to rely on the list anymore. After that, I moved on to another story, which was a bit longer. I proceeded in this fashion until I was able to read a complete novel in French, and, strangely enough, I cannot remember what it was. Slowly but surely, my reading abilities in French were improving, but there was still so much to achieve.

When I started working as a translator and foreign language course manager at a small company, I profited from the opportunity of taking ten private lessons of Spanish with a teacher from Peru for less than the regular price. After that, I bought a couple of Spanish textbooks, some books in Spanish by the authors I liked and went on to study solo, more or less following the pattern of my French studies with the only difference that this time things moved a bit faster. In two years’ time I was able to read Roberto Bolaño’s mammoth 2666, long before the English translation appeared. I was ridiculously proud of that.

Next was the Italian language whose intensive study was triggered by a tourist trip to Italy. I was as astonished by the beauty of the spoken language as by the beauty of the architectural monuments. After going through two textbooks I started reading immediately Pinocchio with a Russian translation close at hand to help me out when I couldn’t puzzle out the meaning of some phrases. The next book that I read was Umberto Eco’s Baudolino, which I had read before in William Weaver’s translation. Baricco, Pirandello, Landolfi, Buzzati, and more Eco followed.

German proved to be a tough nut to crack. So much different and so much more difficult than the other languages I have studied, it stubbornly refused to join my arsenal. It is still weaker than my French, Italian, and Spanish, but several textbooks and novels later, I can read German texts at an unhurried pace and with a recourse to the dictionary, which still requires me to interrupt reading too frequently to really enjoy the process.

That was my linguistic situation around the time I decided to start a blog. The idea had been floating around for some time, and I can point out at least two major sources of inspiration. The first one was to be found in older issues of the magazine World Literature Today, which used to be nothing like it is these days, a faint shadow of its former self. While looking through the magazines in a library when still a student, I was utterly fascinated by the reviews of recently published foreign language books. It was such a great idea, to share with the English-speaking audience what was going on in other literatures, presenting for the first time what would perhaps later become classics of world literature. Those reviewers who could read foreign languages were at the cusp of grandiose events that would reach the English-language world with a delay, like the light of remote stars.

With time, I developed a peculiar habit of searching for any available information, in any language I could read, about particular kinds of books. From time to time, in various articles, essays, interviews, and blog posts dedicated to literature there was a clue, a slight inkling, or sometimes even a detailed examination leading to books that were not widely known, that were  left outside of the established canons due to their complexity, experimentalism, eccentricity, weirdness. Most of those books were either unavailable in English translation or, if they managed somehow to fall through the cracks, remained out of print. There was a whole world to discover, a hidden dimension of the shadow canon lurking outside the matrix. Each time when I stumbled upon a brief mention of some book which sounded extraordinary, I caught myself wishing that there was somebody who would write a longish review in English so that not only the curious reader like myself, but also the potential publisher of its translation could get a better idea of what the book was about. There were all those awesome long, complex, encyclopedic novels, like Alberto Laiseca’s The Sorias and Miquel de Palol’s The Troiacord, nobody knew existed, yet they seemed to be so much better than most of the mediocre stuff that was being translated. If somebody could write about such books, to put them on the map of the English-speaking world… At that time I didn’t know, of course, that I would become this person.

La salle des planètes. Etching by Erik Desmazières. Image Source

The other source of inspiration, which proved to be decisive for the appearance of my blog, was the 2009 post in the online literary journal The Quarterly Conversation under the title Translate this Book! It offered a collection of recommendations from authors, translators, journalists and publishers, who briefly described great books in foreign languages which were still not available in English, drawing attention to the goldmine of untranslated literature that I had been exploring on my own for some time. Here it was, the idea for my blog in all its simplicity: a blog dedicated to great untranslated books. No more occasional name-dropping, no more clues and hints and winks and nudges, no more meek footnotes and self-effacing marginalia. All that is obscure, wild, strange, challenging and completely ignored by most of English-language readers will take centre stage now. At least on my wee blog.

During the following four years I consolidated my knowledge of the languages and acquired some of the books I discovered in the course of my investigations. God bless the online bookstores! If it hadn’t been for them, The Untranslated wouldn’t exist. After posting my first five reviews I finally realised all the inherent challenges of running this kind of blog. First and foremost, my readership was too small. Although Google generously began putting links to my reviews on the first pages of search results for the titles of the books I reviewed, the fact that almost nobody searched for those titles perfectly explained not only the high rankings of my posts but also the lack of the readers. Remaining elitist meant remaining ignored. There was no way I could draw readership by blogging purely about untranslated literature, but adding reviews of books in English was also out of the question, for it defeated the original purpose of The Untranslated. I found a compromise by introducing a new category  in which I started posting short descriptions of forthcoming translations that were of particular interest to me, and, hopefully, to my readers. Those attracted some additional traffic. Reviewing Michelle Houellebecq’s and Umberto Eco’s newly published novels, whose translation was inevitable, also helped to boost my view count. Another significant addition to my blog which helped to make it more visible was, of course, my reading diary of Arno Schmidt’s Zettel’s Traum kept during the year preceding the publication of John E. Woods’ monumental translation. It even got me a tiny interview with The Wall Street Journal. Now many random readers who stumbled on my blog while searching for the translations of known works could also be exposed to the titles they didn’t even suspect existed. Going on Twitter also proved extremely beneficial. If used wisely, it’s an effective platform for promoting your stuff. The most important recent development for me has been the willingness of some of my readers to contribute guest posts. I regard that as a sure indication that there is some inherent value in what I’ve been doing.

And yet, and yet, and yet, after these five years I cannot help but think that my blog is, if not a failure, a very insignificant accomplishment. Of course, I can be bursting with pride for having written the only English-language reviews of some of the greatest books of world literature, but this does not mitigate the fact that my readership is unforgivably small for a five-year-old blog. 367 subscribers in five years? Who am I trying to fool? When I look at some other blogs, I am constantly amazed by their authors’ ability to put up quality posts with enviable frequency. This is not my case. I will never be that productive, and most of my reviews will always require a lot of time and effort. That’s the way things are, and I don’t see that improving anytime soon.

This brings me to the way I write my reviews. Perhaps, some of you might be interested in the mechanics of the process. First, I read the book to be reviewed. While reading, I usually do not take any notes and occasionally consult the internet for some crucial facts or events I don’t know or know too little about. When about a third into the book, I start accumulating some material for the background reading and research. That could be anything: articles, books, documentaries, radio podcasts. Very little of all this finds its way into my reviews, but it is very important to me to have all that information for a better understanding of the given text. When I have finished reading, I take a notepad and look through the book again, writing down a summary of the plot with all the quotations I find striking or just noteworthy. The length of this summary varies from ten to a hundred pages. When the summary is over, I take a red pen and go through it underlining the most important details. At this point the idea of the structure and content of the review begins taking shape in my mind. The final step is the review itself, which can take from a couple of days to several weeks to write. The only review that I wrote in the matter of hours is the first one, and, needless to say, it is the worst. The most time and effort-consuming review I have written so far is that of Miquel de Palol’s novel The Troiacord. I spent more than a year teaching myself Catalan, and then six months reading the novel. It took me another month to prepare the summary, for which I used up three notepads. The writing of the review itself took more than three weeks. In my opinion, this review is the best thing I have done so far.

A few observations on reading great books in the original. It is very difficult to achieve for a complete beginner, but it is possible for any of monolingual readers out there to learn at least one language for reading their favourite books without the distorting mediation of translation. I would suggest the following sequence:

  1. Enrolling on a language course. If you haven’t studied any foreign language before, instruction is absolutely essential. Parallel to that, you can later start studying additionally on your own.
  2. Going on your own through at least two different elementary to intermediate level textbooks of the chosen language with audio CDs, exercises and the answer key. Looking at the same concepts from different perspectives will help you retain the necessary information.
  3. Reading adapted texts with glossaries and grammar explanations. No matter how badly you want to dive into the stuff you so enjoyed reading in translation, it ain’t happening soon.
  4. Reading short authentic texts, translating all the words you don’t understand, and reading them again as many times as it requires you to internalise all the new words.
  5. Reading a short novel written in a simple language that you have already read in translation and enjoyed, and also diligently copying down all the new words with the respective translations. After that, reading the same novel at least three times.
  6. Reading more novels of moderate length.
  7. Finally reading the novel you have always dreamed to read in the original. Since you are a reader of my blog, I suppose it is quite bulky and challenging.

The whole enterprise might take anything from two to five years depending on how frequently and how long you study and practice. It is a lot of hard work. Don’t believe anyone who says it is easy. Most probably, they want to sell you something. I have had an opportunity to get acquainted with the so-called online polyglot community, and came to the conclusion that although there are a lot of people who can read in multiple languages different translations of The Little Prince and the Harry Potter series or some popular science articles swamped with cognates, very few can boast of the ability to read fluently sophisticated literary fiction in more than five languages. The most proficient reader of great literature in several languages that I have the honour to know is the creator of the site The Modern Novel. He is jaw-droppingly phenomenal and efficient. Every year he reads an insane number of books written in or translated into six languages and posts the insightful reviews with preternatural frequency. How many individuals in the whole world can do that? Not a lot, I guess. I will never achieve that kind of proficiency, and each time I visit this inexhaustible resource I am humbled and, at the same time, inspired to do more.

Finally, here are some stats of the blog that some might find interesting. As of now, I have 98 posts on my blog excluding this one. Those have attracted over 69,000 visitors and 136,000 views. My most popular post is the brief report on Oğuz Atay’s novel Tutunamayanlar, which has collected over 8,800 views. The most unjustly neglected post, in my opinion, is my review of Gamal al-Ghitani’s The Book of Illuminations, which cost me a lot of extra research and reading-up but has been viewed just a bit short of 250 times. I have had visitors from 168 countries and territories of the world. Based on the geographic origin, the most views have been coming, in the descending order, from the USA (over 49,000), the United Kingdom (over 10,000), and Germany (over 8,500). My shortest review is that of Vladimir Sorokin’s novel Telluria – 760 words. The longest review so far is that of Antonio Moresco’s trilogy Games of Eternity – 11,281 words.

Also, if you ever wondered, let me share my personal top 10 of great untranslated novels:

  1. The Sorias by Alberto Laiseca
  2. Songs of Chaos by Antonio Moresco
  3. The Troiacord by Miquel de Palol
  4. Solenoid by Mircea Cărtărescu
  5. Remember Famagusta by Alexander Goldstein
  6. The Weaver of Crowns by Germán Espinosa
  7. Corporal by Paolo Volponi
  8. Finisterra by Carlos de Oliveira
  9. The Absolute Marshal by Pierre Jourde
  10. The Book of Illuminations by Gamal al-Ghitani

I have no idea how long I am going to continue this mindless pleasure. To tell the truth, as years go by, I get more and more reconciled with the idea that, above anything else, this blog is a time-consuming and energy-sapping plaything whose real purpose has always been just to boost my own ego. But I think I have had more than enough of that by now. Learning a couple more languages in addition to the nine I can read at the moment would perhaps bring a short spell of satisfaction, but wouldn’t make any considerable difference. After all, we don’t have the time to read what we would love to, even in one language. And there are so many glaring omissions in my knowledge of classics that I feel like giving up everything and retreating to a hermitage in the wilderness for several years to fill at least some of those gaps. When I stop seeing any reasons for spending any of my limited time on this blog thing, I won’t have any regrets shutting it down. Until then, I still hope to show you some of the treasures unearthed during my obsessive digging.

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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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