Happy Birthday, Asymptote Book Club!

It’s been one year since a minuscule team of volunteers operating on a shoestring budget launched the Asymptote Book Club and what an adventurous journey around the world it has been! Although we are sometimes at the mercy of publishers’ schedules and catalogues, we’ve made a deliberate effort to be as diverse as possible: 12 countries, 12 languages, 7 men and 5 women. 

But it’s about more than just ticking the boxes. Our editors have made a real effort to find not just high-quality literature and sterling translations, but also works which make us ponder, debate, and want to explore more about a particular author or country. And they have a pretty good eye for winners: two of our selections were English Pen Translates Award winners and another two were shortlisted for the inaugural National Book Award Prize for Translated Fiction in the US.

Then there are all of the unseen skirmishes behind the scenes with late arrivals from abroad, postal delays because of snow or holidays, sudden changes in publishing dates… Still, it has been a labour of love and a venture that I’m very proud to be associated with.

And the excellent, superb, phenomenal news is that we are doing a ‘counter-Brexit’, i.e. we are expanding into the EU! In other words, as of immediately, you can subscribe to the Book Club if you have an address in the EU (previously, it was only open for the US and UK).

I have to admit I’ve not managed to read all of the books, as review demands and other reading challenges came in. The three early summer titles are a blur: Brother In Ice by Alicia Kopf, transl. Mara Faye Lethem; The Chilli Bean Paste Clan by Yan Ge, transl. Nicky Harman and Revenge of the Translator by Brice Matthieussent, transl. Emma Ramadan, but I look forward to exploring all of them in the near future.

Of the ones that I did read, each one has meant something special to me.

December 2017: The Lime Tree by César Aira, transl. Chris Andrews – got me started on a love affair with this Argentinian writer 

January 2018: Aranyak by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, transl. Rimli Bhattacharya – the dark Bengali horse which most surprised me and which I still find myself thinking about

February: Love by Hanne Ørstavik, transl. Martin Aitken – this short Norwegian novella was the most emotionally wrecking, had me on tenterhooks

March: Trick by Domenico Starnone, transl. Jhumpa Lahiri – the cleverest in its blend of everyday minutiae and intertextuality

July: The Tidings of the Trees by Wolfgang Hilbig, transl. Isabel Fargo Cole – the most personally relatable and relevant

August: I Didn’t Talk by Beatriz Bracher, transl. Adam Morris – the most interesting from the political point of view, can see it becoming a talking point now and in the future, with Brazil descending once more into totalitarianism

September: Moving Parts by Prabda Yun, transl. Mui Poopoksakul – the boldest choice, the funniest and most experimental and also most blatantly contemporary

October: Like a Sword Wound by Ahmet Altan, transl. Brendan Freely and Yelda Türedi – the most ‘moreish’ – really got swept up in the family saga, the political intrigues and historical period

November: The Hotel Tito by Ivana Bodrožić, transl. Ellen Elias-Bursać – have just started this one, which I expect will be very emotionally resonant with me, as one of my best friends lived through that terrible period in Yugoslavia (with a Serb mother and a Croat father)

We had our first ever Book Club meeting in London on Thursday evening and we couldn’t quite agree on an overall favourite. Do I have a personal one? I think each one gave me something different to love and I simply cannot pick between them. But if you were to twist my arm, I might have to choose Hanne Ørstavik and Ivana Bodrožić.

I cannot wait to see where the second year of our travels will take us. If you want to join us in our exploration of world literature, you can find all the details about the Book Club and how to subscribe here.

Advertisements

Asymptote Fall 2018 issue is out now

Or ‘Autumn’, for those of us who are still resisting the encroachment of Americanisms into our daily speech. With photography by Olaya Barr, visual arts, drama, non-fiction, poetry, fiction and reviews, there is something for everyone here

So many goodies to explore! As usual, the sheer ambition and mix of languages is dazzling. 31 countries featured in this issue alone. Togo is represented here for the first time, bringing the total of countries in the archives up to 122.  The number of languages featured is now at 102, with the inclusion of Q’anjob’al from Guatemala.

Just a few of the things I want to read at leisure during my holidays, if I have internet connection:

  • the special feature on Catalan fiction, about which I still know far too little beyond Mercè Rodoreda and Jaume Cabré
  • Phillip Lopate talking about the personal essay as ‘a mode of being’
  • Abdellah Taïa about why he chooses to write in French – asking himself if he even likes this language anymore, this has real emotional resonance with me, since I too write in my ‘non-native’ language
  • An intriguing review about the unfinished novel of one of the great losses to Chinese literature Xiao Hong.

The contrast between intriguing possibility and depressing probability is perhaps widest of all with Xiao Hong, who, in her brief thirty-one years on this planet, managed to write some of the finest Chinese fiction of the twentieth century. I wonder what would have happened to her had she lived another few decades, but I doubt it would have been anything good.

Dylan Suher

WWWednesday 9th May 2018

I only get around to doing it once a month, but here is a lovely meme you might want to take part in, hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. It’s open for anyone to join in and is a great way to share what you’ve been reading! All you have to do is answer three questions and share a link to your blog in the comments section of Sam’s blog.

The three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

A similar meme is run by Lipsyy Lost and Found where bloggers share This Week in Books #TWiB.

Currently reading:

Negar Djavadi: Disoriental, transl. Tina Kover

A saga of 20th century Iran seen through the eyes of a young woman who came to France as a child.

… the truth of memory is strange, isn’t it? Our memories select, eliminate, exaggerate, minimize, glorify, denigrate. They create their own versions of events and serve up their own reality. Disparate, but cohesive, Imperfect yet sincere. In any case, my memory is so crammed with stories and lies and languages and illusions, and lives marked by exile and death, death and exile, that I don’t even really know how to untangle the threads anymore.

Just finished:

Olga Tokarczuk: Flights, transl. Jennifer Croft

Not quite a memoir or travel journal, more like a writer’s notebook crammed full of pithy observations, fragments of stories, snatches of ideas waiting to be developed, and beautiful phrases just made to be quoted.

Describing something is like using it – it destroys: the colours wear off, the corners lose their definition, and in the end what’s been described begins to fade, to disappear. This applies most of all to places. Enormous damage has been done by travel literature… Guidebooks have conclusively ruined the greater part of the planet… they have debilitated places, pinning them down and naming them, blurring their contours.

Next up:

Eliot Pattison: Savage Liberty

This is a book I’ve been sent on Kindle to review, a historical mystery set during the period of the American Revolutionary War. This is the fifth in a series, but I hope to be able to keep track of things. and find some good escapism along the way. The summary is as follows:

After a ship from London explodes in Boston Harbor, Duncan MacCallum, an exiled Scotsman living in Boston, discovers that the ship was deliberately sabotaged by two French agents who stole a secret ledger being sent to the Sons of Liberty. In his attempt to pursue the truth, Duncan winds up falsely charged with treason and murder and is left with no choice but to find the guilty men and the stolen document, in order to clear his name. Historical figures like Samuel Adams and John Hancock show up along the way.  

Comparing Translation and Original for Marie Darrieussecq

I thought it might be fun to compare originals and translations occasionally. Not in an attempt to undermine the work of translators, but on the contrary: to appreciate the hard work that goes into every nuance and detail. I will examine some particular choices but fear not, it will not be a linguistic dissertation, but an unscientific examination of my own reactions to the two versions.

Marie Darrieussecq: Naissance des fantômes (1998)

Translated as: My Phantom Husband by Helen Stevenson (2000)

The story is deceptively simple: one evening the female narrator’s husband comes home from work, goes out to buy bread and is never seen again. You have a summary of the book in the very first paragraph:

Mon mari a disparu. Il est rentré du travail, il a posé sa serviette contre le mur, il m’a demandé si j’avais acheté du pain. Il devait être aux alentours de sept heures et demie.

My husband’s disappeared. He got in from work, propped his briefcase against the wall and asked me if I’d bought any bread. It must have been around half past seven.

At what stage should the abandoned wife panic and call the police? What is going through her head: does she wonder what went wrong, analyse every single moment of their seven years of married life, blame herself for anything? Does she blame him, is she ashamed, do all the cracks in their family and her less than perfect relationship with her mother-in-law start to surface? At first, she believes she catches glimpses of him on the street. She learns to sleep alone, do things alone, experiences something that is both grief and a recognition of freedom. She is terrified of forgetting her husband’s face, the impression he has made on her. Fears from her childhood (of monsters lurking under her bed or vampires out to get her) start reappearing, to the point where the crime fiction lover in me starts wondering if she has done away with her husband herself…

The book reminded me of Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking, where she is trying to come to terms with her husband’s sudden death. Except, of course, in this case the grief is mixed with anger and resentment, with uncertainty about the fate of the husband, reassessing their history in the light of possibly never really having known him properly, perhaps even reluctance to have him back again.

The language is dreamy and poetical, there is a lot of underwater imagery, the sense of drowning, endless rain, memories being washed away. In French, this dream-like quality is further enhanced by alliteration of ‘s’ and ‘eu’ sounds, which remind me of a murmur of streams and a breeze blowing over them. The translator does an excellent job of maintaining the repetition of ‘s’, although the ‘eu’ is impossible to render in English.

Mais ce matin-là, le matin de ma nouvelle vie, comme je n’avais pas fermé l’oeil l’aube fut une nouveauté autant qu’un soulagement (et les deux avaient sans doute partie liée). Les rues étaient sombres encore, aquatiques, bleutées. Sans souffle, sans même un froissement, asphyxiées sous le ciel fermé, elles devenaient presque reposantes à contempler.

But that morning, the first morning of my new life, since I hadn’t had a wink of sleep, the dawn came as a novelty, as well as a relief (and the two were no doubt not entirely unconnected). The streets were still dark, and wore a bruised, underwater look. Not a breath of air, not the slightest rustle, asphyxiated under a sealed sky. I started to find them quite restful to look at.

The first thing that struck me in this passage is how French has certain adjectives which need to be translated into phrases to make sense: ‘aquatic, bruised streets’ would sound strange in English. Plus the nuance of ‘blue’ in the French for bruised describes the colour of the drab early morning streets and the narrator’s grief so well – this gets lost in translation. ‘Froissement’ also encompasses more than just ‘rustle’, there is also the feeling of shudder, of cold (from ‘froid’), of being crumpled or creased like a piece of cloth, of being hurt, like a muscular strain. How to convey all of that?

I do like the use of ‘sealed’ to describe the low clouds, ‘closed’ look of the sky, plus it adds to the alliteration. I’m not quite sure about the use of ‘novelty’ to describe the dawn, seems too literal and sounds more like advertising language. Nor am I sure about the change in subject in the final sentence. In French the narrator is letting the landscape, the streets, the view from the window dominate that paragraph, which underlines her passivity. In English, by introducing the ‘I’ (I started to find them quite restful), it makes her too much of an actor, gives her too much choice.

This is a challenge I have observed in other books translated from French (and when I was teaching French speakers how to write reports in English). The passive voice sounds much more natural in French, as does the use of the second person. This book has abundant examples of both and it is difficult to make comprehensible English out of them without losing slightly that sense of distancing and distinction between ‘I’ and ‘him/you/other people’ which the narrator seems to feel so acutely, and which is subtly conveyed throughout the book by the author – culminating with the final paragraph which is all about the ‘I’ that has broken free.

 

January 2018 Reading Summary

It’s been a long month, which is reflected in quite a good month of reading. 17 books (18 if I count the book that I read in both French and English), although I have to admit many of them were very short, more like novellas. 10 of those were in translation or another language (representing 9 countries), of which 3 books were by the same author, Cesar Aira. (Bless those rabbit holes…). 7 by men, 10 by women. 1 short story collection, 2 non-fiction, 1 1/2 books of poetry (I’ll explain about the half later). 4 definitely crime fiction, another 2 somewhat crime fiction. I am delighted to see somewhat more variety in my reading.

Bit behind with my reviewing though…

Argentinean fiction

I started off with the first title in the Asymptote Book Club, Cesar Aira’s The Lime TreeI enjoyed that so much, I promptly read another two by the author, The Literary Conference and An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter. Strange does not even begin to describe the themes and styles of this author: it’s a world away from the magical realism of Marquez which I was never that keen on. Another Argentinean writer with a surrealist metaphorical bent is Ricardo Romero: his novella The President’s Room brought back all sorts of memories of self-censorship, of everyone knowing but no one talking, of not feeling safe even in the bosom of the family.

Crime fiction

Gunnar Staalesen’s Wolves in the Dark tackled the difficult topic of child pornography and abuse, while Nadia Dalbuono’s The Extremist (review forthcoming on Shiny New Books) is a political thriller with a race against the clock hostage situation but also hints at how extremism is born and reborn in the Western world. Mary Anna Barbey’s Swiss Trafic was not cheery either, showing how immigrants are treated in Switzerland and the extent to which human trafficking is hidden in that affluent society. Kate Rhodes’ Hell Bay, meanwhile, is a more typical police procedural, set on a small island, thereby creating a closed room mystery set-up.

The additional two that might very loosely be classed as crime novels are Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd (murders do happen, both in the past and in the present), and Die Stille der Gletscher (The Silence of the Glaciers) by Ulrike Schmitzer, an Austrian author who might be said to be popularising the science of climate change via a crime story and global conspiracy about scarce resources.

Cross-cultural and translated fiction

Tove Jansson’s Letters from Klara contained some very short stories, almost fragments of ideas or flash fiction, from this always interesting, stylistically impeccable author. I had a bit of a French binge with Marie Darrieusecq’s Naissance des fantomes (My Phantom Husband) and Leila Slimani’s Chanson Douce. It is fascinating, if time-consuming, to read books in both languages and see how they compare. I find the English versions a bit colder than the French versions, through no fault of the translators, although I always thought that the English were the masters of the ‘straight to the point, no beating about the bush’ style.

The last one to fit in this category was written in English but depicts a cross-cultural relationship, Leila Abouleli’s The Translator.

Most memorable

It’s been a very good month for reading, with a lot of the books in the above categories vying for the title of ‘Book of the Month’. However, the non-fiction stuck in my mind most this January. I absolutely adored the well-documented biography and sensitive interpretation of Shirley Jackson’s works by Ruth Franklin. I was mowed down and resurrected by the eloquence and clever use of autobiographical detail in Jodie Hollander’s poetry collection My Dark Horses. Last, but not least, I was amazed at the amount of work, passion, dedication and clever detail which went into the creation of the Hamilton musical, as set out in the wonderful book Hamilton: The Revolution, full of lyrics, stage notes, background explanation, mini-bios of cast and creators, and semi-memoir, with great pictures. It offers a brilliant insight into the creative and collaborative process and shows that no genius can operate in isolation.

Glacier on the Grossglockner in Austria. Just because they are receding in worrying fashion.

 

Best Books Read in 2017 Yet to Be Translated

I’m lucky enough to be able to read books in a couple of languages other than English, but there is so much out there that doesn’t get translated and that I can’t read. Luckily, there are a few independent publishers who are exploring cultures which have hitherto been closed to me: Charco Press with Latin American literature, Istros Books (now merged with Peter Owen) with trans-Danubian countries and the Balkans, Pushkin Press with the Russians (and others), Strangers Press for Japanese literature (which I’d now struggle to read in the original – perhaps in a bilingual edition?) and Seagull Books for pretty much everything else, especially its African and Arabic lists.

For those books below, they fall into what my friend Emma from Book Around the Corner classifies as a ‘translation tragedy’ category – or ‘what a shame that this hasn’t been translated, what are you waiting for?’ So here are my favourite reads of 2017 which deserve to find a publisher in the English-speaking world soon:

Marcus Malte

Marcus Malte: Les harmoniques

Crime fiction with a difference, a strong musical element, a playful use of language and a way of blending farce and strong emotions which reminds me of Antti Tuomainen’s latest book. Malte is a poet with a plot. (France)

Bogdan Teodorescu: Spada

Slightly biased here because of the Romanian background, but this is a thought-provoking book about political intrigue, mass manipulation via the media and how easy it is to create a sense of ‘perfidious other’ at the national level. (Romania)

Thomas Willmann: Das finstere Tal

Socialist realism meets rural noir and brooding Western – a book that sounds grim in description but is rather splendid in execution, if slightly predictable. (Germany)

Alice Rivaz

Alice Rivaz: Sans alcool

An absolute pitch-perfect mastery of the inner and outer dialogues between couples or the self-delusion of individuals: poignant and unforgettable. (Switzerland)

 

 

Launching My First Asymptote Journal in Its 6th Year of Existence

The Fall Edition of the Asymptote Journal has just been launched and, although I can’t claim any credit for the content (by the time I joined the team, it was all pretty much done and edited), it is a pleasure to share some of its content with you.

First of all, there is a special feature on new voices from France – unusual and young voices, rather than the ones which have been translated before. I love the disturbing and dysfunctional relationship with a mother described by Frédérique Martin, the grim reality of abortion from three different points of view presented by Valentine Goby. Although not strictly speaking a new voice, one of my absolute favourite pieces in this issue is the provocative, energetic and rather elegiac essay by Bernard Hoepffner – much respected translator of English literature into French, who died recently off the coast of Wales. The translator as a chameleon, con-man and perpetrator of linguistic violence. Still in the sphere of France, there is also a review of Marcel Proust’s letters to his neighbour, which show a witty, charming, sensitive man rather than the hypochondriac we often seem to hear about in literary history.

But it’s not just France who features here. Overall, 31 countries are represented, including Romania, South Africa, Martinique, the Ukraine and Brazil. There is also a very interesting art project by Mikhail Karikis, bringing the sounds and images of a community (and especially that of young people) making abandoned industrial landscapes their own.

Overall, a great place to rummage around and explore, whether you like poetry, fiction, essays, art or drama. And in times fraught with the spectre of nationalism and lack of interest in ‘the other’, I find it is more important than ever to listen to other cultures and to further our understanding.