No. 1 #AsymptoteBookClub – César Aira: The Lime Tree

César Aira: The Lime Tree (transl. Chris Andrews)

The first title for the just launched Asymptote Book Club arrived shortly before Christmas and it was no hardship to read it during the holidays. Argentinian writer Aira’s novels are fairly slim – this one has only 106 pages – so it is quite easy to wolf it one down in one morning. This is exactly what I did, but then (just as Roberto Bolaño predicted) I found it such an exhilarating and addictive experience that I quickly followed suit with two further Aira novels The Literary Conference and An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter.

What this author misses in length (of each manuscript), he more than makes up for by sheer prolificity. He publishes on average two books a year, plus translation work, plus literary criticism. Since he started his literary career in  published 70 novels, 3 short story collections and numerous essays.  To quote from my current obsession, the musical Hamilton: ‘Why do you write like you’re running out of time? Why do you write like it’s going out of style?’

Author photo. EFE/Acero

Well, Aira has an answer for that in his interviews. He is using the forward propulsion motion of ‘flight forward’, because he believes that helps him to get out of the corners into which he tends to write himself. Having experienced his ‘flights of fancy’ and tangential observations, the effortless way he moves from one subject to the next unrelated one, he can only achieve that with elegance by being a butterfly. In other words, he does not go back and edit much. He prefers to allow himself to be guided by instinct. One might almost argue that he thinks aloud through his writing. He doesn’t care if the audience can follow or not, he is merely trying to clarify his own memories and impressions. There is a certain arrogance about that attitude; some critics have said that Aira is a great showman rather than a great talent.

Of course, when one is so absurdly prolific and unedited, the standard can drop at times. He has produced average books as well as outstanding ones, and sometimes you can see this uneven style within the same book: a pedestrian sentence followed by one which really stands out and makes you ponder. As soon as I finished reading The Lime Tree, I started it over again, to find my favourite stories, pages and sentences. There are so many wonderful quotes. As everyone knows, memories are notoriously unreliable and open to reinterpretation. This is a theme constantly addressed in Aira’s work, which prances playfully on a fine line between autobiography, fiction and dream-like surreal fantasy.

Are they memories or inventions? You can never really know.

It’s not the first time the author talks about his childhood in his hometown of Coronel Pringles (yes, really – this bit is not made up) near Buenos Aires. We cannot be sure how much of this is true, however, but what an enticing story he weaves! Not that there is much to describe in the way of plot: instead we have a torrent merrily rushing through the mountain landscape, finding its own parallel routes and occasionally overwhelming the inattentive reader. Those winding side-routes are sometimes far more exciting to explore than the straight ones.

I have strayed from my theme, but not too far. One never really strays beyond the possibility of return.

Aerial view of the Plaza, with the lime trees.

Despite the lack of clear narrative arc (although this book does have a shape, as it starts and finishes with the lime trees in the Plaza), the readers will never be bored if they allow themselves to follow the meandering monologue of the narrator, who manages to cover so much ground.

We find out about Argentine society during and after the Peronist era. We meet the narrator’s handsome, possibly bigamous father, who rose with Peron’s government (after his demise, Peron’s name is prohibited by decree, even in their house). He is the one who collects the flowers from the lime tree (better known in Europe as the linden tree) to make tea to cure his insomnia. His mother is small, dwarf-like and apparently grotesquely deformed, but stately and well-respected in town. He reminisces about childhood misdemeanours and silly games – many of these will make you smile. For instance, he helps out at the office of the local accountant and uses liquid chalk to write things on the shop window.  The child and his parents live in a massive building, a former hotel or inn, but they only occupy one room. In fact, his father goes so far as to store his ladder under their bed, ‘as if there weren’t twenty-four empty rooms in which he could have stored it.’

Translating these verbal fireworks must be a nightmare, but Chris Andrews seems to be a seasoned hand. He has translated eleven of Aira’s works into English (the other two translators are Nick Caistor and Katherine Silver). Although I cannot read in Spanish so I cannot comment on the quality of the translation, I feel that he has done justice to the author’s rich mix of genres, styles and jargon, his linguistic virtuosity and punning.

I could go on, but I’m in danger of writing a review which is longer than the book itself. This book was unusual, charming, witty, like a late night conversation with a slightly rambling friend, who nevertheless utters some profound truths that will make you rethink your life and interpret your own childhood memories differently.

Ali has also reviewed this book on her blog, and you can read a review of another work by Aira in Asymptote Journal.  Like Javier Marias, this is a writer that I want to explore in more detail.

So a real winner from the Book Club and I am looking forward to my January read (which hasn’t arrived yet). If you think you might like to join the Book Club before the next book goes out, here are the details.

Advertisements

Favourite Translated Books of the Year 2017

I am trying to find an alternative to the ‘Top 10 Reads’ of the year, mainly because I find it difficult to stick to such a small number. So this year I will be listing some of my favourites by categories (although not giving them awards, like Fiction Fan does so wittily) – and I won’t even stick to numbers divisible by five. I am not counting any of the books I read in the original languages – those will form a separate category. Interesting sidenote (and perhaps not coincidental): only one of the books below was on my Kindle rather than in paper format. Perhaps those read electronically don’t stick as well to my mind?

 

A rather dashing young Miklos Banffy.

Miklos Banffy: They Were Counted (transl. Katalin Bánffy-Jelen & Patrick Thursfield)

The last book in translation but one of the most memorable of the whole year. It took me a while to get going with it. I had a number of false starts, i.e. I’d pick it up, put it down after a few pages and then not read it for a couple of weeks, by which point I had forgotten all the complicated names. But if you give it your full attention, it is the beginning of a wonderful historical saga that gives you a real insight into a certain place and time.

Ariana Harwicz: Die, My Love (transl. Sarah Moses & Carolina Orloff)

Short and punchy, knocking you out with its breathless verve and barely concealed fury, this story of a woman feeling completely out-of-place in her life and suffering from some kind of trauma or depression will leave you reeling.

 

The instantly recognisable silhouette of Pessoa.

Fernando Pessoa: The Book of Disquiet (transl. Richard Zenith)

A diary or essay with so much to say about the human condition in general and the creative artist in particular that I know I will be reading it for the rest of my life.

Svetlana Alexievich: The Unwomanly Face of War (transl. Pevear & Volokhonsky)

Possibly my favourite non-fiction book of the year and one that I have been recommending to everyone, including my Russian friends. It also makes an appearance on Shiny New Books on my behalf.

Antti Tuomainen:  The Man Who Died (transl. David Hackston)

My favourite translated crime fiction read of the year, it has almost slapstick situations, a lot of black comedy but also a sad inner core about a dying man losing all his illusions about the people around him.

 

A rather cheeky chappy, this Bohumil Hrabal…

Bohumil Hrabal: Closely Observed Trains (transl. Edith Pargeter)

Another example of broad farce interspersed with real depth and tragedy, with surreal flights of fancy.

Ricarda Huch: The Last Summer (transl. Jamie Bulloch)

I loved the naive ideology of the privileged vs. the uncompromising voices of the oppressed who are resorting to violence – an endless debate even nowadays.

Seven favourites out of the 36 books in translation that I read over the course of 2017 (a total of 130 books read so far). So less than a third in translation (although this number would go up to about 60, so nearly half, if I added the books in other languages). What is a bit shameful is that my reading is so Eurocentric, although this might have something to do with my #EU27Project, which I  have been engaged in somewhat haphazardly this year. My only consolation is that I seem to have done a better job of it and been slightly more prepared than those negotiating Brexit…

However, in 2018, I hope that my translated fiction horizons will be broadened by my subscription to the Asymptote Book Club, about which many of you will have heard me chirruping, tweeting and even shouting! The very first title is still a top secret and I will keep my mouth firmly zipped up, but I will give you small clue: it is not European.

A good quartet [or a good book] is like a good conversation among friends interacting to each other’s ideas. (Stan Getz)

 

 

 

 

The Last of the Holiday Reading – August 2017

September is still full of ‘back to school’ vibes for me, not just because of the children. I always make my resolutions at the start of September and look back on my holiday thoughts and reading, even if I don’t always have a holiday in summer.

It’s hard to estimate how many books I read in August, because for the last week I’ve been diving into endless amounts of poetry books and some slim Japanese novellas which I am not counting as full-sized books. Aside from that, however, I’ve read 12: 3 for #WITMonth, 3 other translations or foreign language books, 4 review books and 2 library books. 7 books were by women, 5 by men. One thing is clear: I have had the privilege of reading some outstanding and memorable books this past month.

Women in Translation

Elena Varvello: Can You Hear Me? – coming of age, spooky atmosphere, spare prose style, participant in #EU27Project

Svetlana Alexievich: The Unwomanly Face of War – gripping, heartbreaking, unforgettable

Ileana Vulpescu: Arta compromisului – trying too hard, too polemical and cerebral

Other Translations

Pascal Garnier: Low Heights – one of his more attractive offerings, mordantly funny in parts

Dumitru Tsepeneag: Hotel Europa – ambitious, interesting concept, not quite right in execution

Fernando Pessoa: The Book of Disquiet – a book to brood over for the rest of my life, entry to the #EU27Project

Reviews or Features

Lin Anderson: Follow the Dead – mountain climbing, blizzards and North Sea Oil – very atmospheric

Chris Whitaker: All the Wicked Girls – judicious combination of laughter, tension and tears set in small-town Alabama

Attica Locke: Bluebird Bluebird – more personal less political, but simmering with racial tension, review to come on Crime Fiction Lover

Shirley Jackson: We Have Always Lived in the Castle – disturbing classic to be featured on Crime Fiction Lover

Library Books

Winifred Watson: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day – joyful and elegant like a Fred Astaire dance

Mohsin Hamid: Exit West – great premise but a bit disappointing in execution

 

 

#TranslationThursday: Favourite books in translation so far

Of the 101 books I’ve read so far in 2016, 23 have been translated books. I’m not counting the books I read in the original language, because I’m curious just how much gets translated and how far I stray beyond my obvious comfort zones of French/German/Romanian literature.  Here are my favourites so far:

The Young, the Aimless, the Self-Absorbed (by turns funny and poignant):

  1. Knausgard: Some Rain Must Fall 
  2. Mircea Eliade: Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent
  3. Olja Savicevic: Adios, Cowboy – to be reviewed on Necessary Fiction
  4. Tatiana Salem Levy: The House in Smyrna

Those Who Qualified for Next Round of the Euro:

  1. Pascal Garnier: Too Close to the Edge (France)
  2. Javier Marias: Your Face Tomorrow (Part 1) (Spain) – infuriatingly, still not up to date with a review for this one. I might as well read the whole trilogy and review it afterwards.
  3. Peter Gardos: Fever at Dawn (Hungary)

Non-Fiction Which Really Made Me Think:

  • Asne Seierstad: One of Us – about Norway’s most notorious mass shooting
  • Elif Shafak: Black Milk – about motherhood and creativity

Do you notice one big omission on this list? Elena Ferrante. Yes, because although I devoured her Neapolitan tetralogy and enjoyed it, it did not capture my heart and mind as much as some of her other work.

Huge thanks to Hande Zapsu, Alison Entrekin, Don Bartlett, Sarah Death, Emily Boyce, Elizabeth Szász, Margaret Jull Costa, Christopher Moncrieff, Celia Hawkesworth and all the other translators who labour in the shadows (still), so we can have access to a wider world out there.

 

Javier Marias: A Heart so White (transl. Margaret Jull Costa)

heartsowhiteIt doesn’t surprise me to learn that Javier Marias has translated Tristram Shandy into Spanish. In both Marias and Sterne we find something of the same obsession with the seemingly irrelevant detail which grows and grows in importance as time goes by, the lack of concern for narrative linearity and the love of going off on a tangent. I have not heard him compared to Karl Ove Knausgård, but this was the author I was reminded of as I read this, my first book by Marias (but certainly not my last). The same fascination with the fluidity of margins between fact and fiction, the same ability to take the most mundane little detail and philosophise about it endlessly, the same long, meandering sentences… which must be contagious, as I find my own sentences growing longer and longer as I attempt to review this book.

If that sounds like I am trying to put you off Marias, you couldn’t be more wrong. In theory, he is everything that writing craft workshops warn us against; he breaks all the rules and gets away with it. He moves from a personal point of view to a generalisation or something abstract within the same sentence, separated by nothing but a fragile comma. His characters are slippery and unknowable, enigmas to themselves and others. He has sentences that run on into whole paragraphs, half a page or more. He often repeats himself (or his characters do). And yet, somehow it all works (thanks also, no doubt, to Jull Costa’s outstanding translation). He is compulsively readable and this was the book which got me out of my reading slump back in December.

There is a mystery at the heart of the book: Juan discovers that his father’s first wife, his aunt Teresa, shot herself in the heart in the bathroom in the middle of a family lunch shortly after they had come back from their honeymoon. As Juan is about to get married himself, he starts wondering why this happened and discovers that his father had another wife even before Teresa. So, at the most basic level, this could be called a ‘whydunit’, but of course it is a lot more complex than that. The protagonist and author question our ability to cope with full disclosure and the past, ponder on just how reliable our perceptions are, how we create stories that we can live with. Above all, it is a poignant meditation on what it means to love and be loved, and how (whether?) that fits in with marriage.

Author picture, from his blog on WordPress.
Author picture, from his blog on WordPress.

If you’re still not convinced, I probably won’t help matters by saying that the first few pages can seem like hard work, until you get used to the cadence and tumultuous flow of the Marias river of prose. However, if you stop resisting, if you surrender to the hypnotism of his sentences, there is so much to love here! And it’s not all doom and gloom; there are many funny moments too. The author is a sarcastic observer of the foibles of simultaneous interpreters and speakers at international conferences and there is a particularly enjoyable scene where Juan decides to ‘pep up’ a dull conversation between two senior politicians by mistranslating.

So I urge you to give him a go if you haven’t made his acquaintance already and I certainly want to read more by him. What would you recommend I read next?

Why Translate?

This is a summary of the hugely entertaining and interesting session on literary translation that I mentioned earlier. Margaret Jull Costa (award-winning translator from Spanish and Portuguese, of José Saramago, Fernando Pessoa, Javier Marías, Bernardo Atxaga and many more) and Ann Goldstein (translator from Italian, including Primo Levi, Leopardi, Pasolini and most recently Elena Ferrante) were moderated by Boris Dralyuk (himself a translator of poetry and prose from Russian, including Andrei Kurkov and Tolstoy).

Margaret Jull Costa
Margaret Jull Costa

How did you get started in translation?

MJC: I was always useless at most subjects at school but fell in love with the translations I had to do for my Spanish A Levels and discovered I could do them. I then went on to study Spanish and Portuguese at university and was asked to translate some Garcia Marquez for a Granta magazine project – so I started at the very top.

AG: I fell into it more by accident. I fell in love with the Italian language and wanted to read Dante in the original. So I had Italian classes and at some point in 1992 was asked to read an Italian novel in the original by my boss, purely in order to reject it. But I loved it and translated part of it.

BD: My family was Russian-speaking, from Ukraine, but we came to the UK when I was a child, so I forgot all about Russian until I rediscovered it when I was 14. I then fell in love with the beauty of it, especially the poetry.

anngoldsteinWhich has been your most challenging translation project?

AG: All of them! There’s no such thing as an easy book – even the ones that seem easy are deceptive. Simplicity is sometimes harder to translate, because it can sound pedestrian and banal, while a difficult writer is easier to render into another language.

MJC: Poetry is very challenging. Especially since Spanish and Portuguese are very flowery languages and English isn’t at all, so you have to ‘unflower’ the lines. The syntax and grammar are much more rigid in English, too, while in Romance languages the place of words is more fluid, the pronouns are often dropped and so on.

BD: Dialogue is really hard to get right, to make it sound natural. You have to hear it in your head. I am currently translating stories by Isaac Babel set in my home town of Odessa. And it’s all this jargon and slang (this is where local knowledge really helps), but just so difficult to capture that flavour into English. I’ve gone for a slight American gangster tone.

Do you have a set routine?

MJC: I just sit down at my desk and work. I’m fortunate enough to be doing translations full-time – that’s my day job. I don’t know how you guys manage to do it on top of other jobs, because it can be quite exhausting. My desk is a mess, I surround myself with dictionaries, papers, notes.

AG: It is time-consuming and tiring. I work in the early morning, weekends and during my vacations, sometimes a little bit in the office. I use the internet a lot, not so much for dictionaries, but for extra research, Google images to see what an object might look like, or for further research.

dralyukborisBD: I work on it whenever I’m supposed to be doing something boring in the office. I too use the internet a lot, but I print out and edit on paper, it reads very differently then.

MJC: It is physically exhausting, playing with someone else’s words all day  – which is why interpreters at the UN get paid a lot.

Do you prefer living or dead authors?

We all prefer dead authors, because they are very quiet. But we have developed some lovely relationships with living authors – it is such a privilege and relationship of trust. I suppose they like talking to someone who knows their work so well and many are grateful to be translated into English – as long as they don’t think they know English better than you.

Do you read scholarly/critical works?

MJC: Only if I have to write an intro.

AG: I’m not scholarly at all, I don’t even have a degree in Italian. I know nothing at all about translation theory. But sometimes it can be helpful – for instance, I did ask the experts at the Primo Levi Centre in Turin.

BD: I would only read after doing the translation, so as not to taint my feelings.

What would be your dream project?

MJC: I’ve been lucky enough to have already worked on that – a 19th century Portuguese author Eça de Queiroz. I translated all his ten novels.

AG: I’ve fallen into everything by chance. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I agreed to translate Pasolini, but I became fascinated by him. And, although Primo Levi has been translated, I was delighted to become involved in a project to translate all of his oeuvre.

Who do you wish would get more attention?

AG: Leopardi – a few of his poems are well-known, but his quasi journal filled with philosophical observations Zibaldone is a massive work which deserves to be read more widely. Out of the contemporary writers, I’ve most enjoyed Alessandro Baricco. But let’s face it, translated fiction in general doesn’t get much attention.

Do you have a target audience in mind when you translate?

MJC: No, it’s a purely selfish pursuit. I translate what I enjoy reading.

How do you feel about retranslating the classics?

AG: After 50 years even very good translations can seem dated. There is always room for a new translation – the differences between the various versions can be astonishing. You have to approach your translation as if it will be the definitive one.

King's Place
King’s Place

Would you translate something you’re not passionate about?

Yes. [Laughter – implication being that it pays]

BD: I’d try to work up some passion about at least some aspects of the work and its author.

MJC: It can be hard if you don’t like the writer at all, but you don’t have to think he or she is a good writer, you can still do a good job.

AG: And you learn something even in those cases, something which will help you in those projects that you are passionate about.

How does your own style influence your translation?

MJC: That’s my greatest fear – that all the authors I translate will start to sound like me. Ultimately, it’s a little bit like being an actor – the charm of doing all the different voices.

 

Six in Six Book Meme

I found this delightful book meme with Margaret over at Books Please. It was something started by Jo at The Book Jotter. You summarise six months of reading, sorting the books into six categories. Jo suggests plenty of categories, but you can also create your own. The same book can obviously feature in more than one category.

Here is my version for 2015, with links to my reviews where those exist.  I had a hard time not using the same book more than once for each of the category – that was the one rule I set for myself, so that I could present as many books and authors as possible. It is fair to assume that books I loved and authors I want to read more of are interchangeable.

6 Books I Loved

Murasaki Shikibu: The Tale of Genji – the best three months of reading, total immersion in a very strange world, yet still fully relatable

Ansel Elkins: Blue Yodel

Tom Rob Smith: Child 44 – particularly effective when read just before watching the film, and comparing the two

Jean-Patrick Manchette: Fatale

Eva Dolan: The Long Way Home (although I could just as well have put her second novel Tell No Tales)

Jonas Karlsson: The Room

6 New Authors to Me

Sara Novic: Girl at War

Sherman Alexie: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Karim Miske: Arab Jazz

Kanae Minato: Confessions

Metin Arditi: Loin des bras

Yasmina Khadra: L’attentat

Some of them were more exciting than others, but I think I want to read more from each of these authors I’ve just discovered.

6 Books that Didn’t Live up to Expectations

Paula Hawkins: The Girl on the Train – entertaining enough, but quite average for my taste, despite its resounding success

Jenny Offill: Dept. of Speculation – poetic and thought-provoking, but ultimately too fragmented and cold for me. Perhaps suffering also in comparison to Elena Ferrante’s ‘The Days of Abandonment’, which I had read just before.

Matthew Thomas: We Are Not Ourselves – moving, well-written in parts, but just too long and trying to squeeze too much in

John Enright: Blood Jungle Ballet – I loved the first book in the series so my hopes were perhaps too high for this one

Vesna Goldsworthy: Gorsky – The Great Gatsby is one of my favourite books, so I thought I’d love to see it transposed into present-day London with all of its foreign money. But alas, it didn’t add anything new…

Stefanie de Velasco: Tigermilk – not the Christiane F. of the new generation of Berliners…

6 Authors I Want to Read More of

Elena Ferrante

Emily St. John Mandel

Laura Kasischke

Virginie Despentes

Kishwar Desai

Tana French

Would you look at that? They are all women!

6 Books I’d Like to See Translated into English

Hubert Mingarelli: La Route de Beit Zera

Jeanne Desaubry: Poubelle’s Girls

Jeremie Gue: Paris la nuit

Liad Shoham: Tel Aviv Suspects

Fouad Laroui: L’etrange affaire du pantalon du Dassoukine – or several other books by this author, he hasn’t been translated at all into English

Friederike Schmoe: Fliehganzleis

Sorry, they are nearly all in French. That’s because I can only talk about those books written in languages I can read other than English – and I’ve read far fewer German books this year and next to no Romanian books. This may be about to change…

6 That Don’t Fit into Any Category But I Have to Mention

Megan Beech: When I Grow Up I Want to Be Mary Beard – spoken poetry by a very young, talented and opinionated woman poet

Tuula Karjalainen: Tove Jansson: Work and Love

Daniel Pennac: Comme un roman – how schools or adults can kill the love of reading; and how to reignite it

Ever Yours: Van Gogh’s  Essential Letters

Etienne Davodeau: Les Ignorants – learnt so much about comic books and vineyards, all in a humorous way

Sarah Ruhl: 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write – something any mother/creator/professional can relate to