Some Thoughts on Translations of Genji

It’s been a few years since I last reread Genji, but I’m vicariously living through the experience as two of my literary friends on Twitter read it for the first time in English and French translations. Yee @hdinguyen11 (check out her book blog here)  and Knulp @KnulpTanner, who has a book blog in French, are comparing notes on their respective translations as they go along. It’s such fun to read their tweets and to add my tuppence worth of additional info and comparisons to the (possibly far too many) translations that I own. I wrote the article below for the Asymptote fortnightly newsletter back in 2018, but it’s not currently available anywhere online, so I thought I would share it here on my blog, with big thanks to Yee and Knulp for reminding me of it!

Scenes from the Tale of Genji painted by Tosa Mitsuyoshi, of the Tosa school in Osaka. Dating from the second half of the 16th century (Azuchi-Momoyama period).

Written by court lady Murasaki Shikibu roughly 1000 years ago, The Tales of Genji (Genji Monogatari) is considered the oldest novel in the world. It is perhaps also the longest novel in the world, more than 1200 pages, spread over 54 chapters. Although it has a cast of over 400 characters, there is a recognisable main character (Genji himself, the son of the Emperor by a beloved but not royal concubine) and a small core of recurring characters. There is a narrative arc (of sorts): the characters grow older and wiser, while the story gets darker as old age and regrets set in. However, the chapters are believed to have been written episode by episode for distribution amongst the other ladies of the court (therefore, there are some inconsistencies, time lapses or overlaps), much like a feuilleton in a newspaper in more modern times.

When I first encountered Genji Monogatari as a student, our Japanese professor told us: ‘It’s the kind of book that everyone talks about, but very few read properly.’ This is in marked contrast to the 13th century poetry anthology of Hyakuninisshū, which is widely known and often quoted in contemporary Japan (thanks in part to the card game based on its tanka poetry, which is traditionally played on New Year’s Day). Why should that be the case? It cannot be solely because of the obscure allusiveness to classic Chinese poetry typical of the Heian period, for the poetry anthology too contains many such examples, including the author of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu, herself.

It could have something to do with the sheer length of the story, which is not for the faint-hearted. However, the main reason undoubtedly is that until the early 20th century there was no adequate translation of it, not only in English, but even in modern Japanese. The 11th century saga remained part of the cultural legacy of Japan, but the refined, almost effeminate aesthtetics of the Heian court fell out of favour in the period of warring clans and samurai codes which followed. It would be like English readers trying to tackle Chaucer in the original.

It wasn’t until 1912 that Japanese modernist poet, feminist and social activist Yosano Akiko published an abridged version of Genji translated into colloquial Japanese. This was the result of a lifetime’s infatuation with the work: she had read it countless times by the time she turned twenty, wrote biographical studies of Murasaki Shikibu, produced a series of lectures and a scholarly commentary of the text. The latter was sadly destroyed in a fire following the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, but she published a full translation in 1938. While it is perhaps surprising that such a resolutely modern, unconventional woman as Yosano Akiko found common ground with the confined women of the Heian court, waiting patiently for fickle lovers, she somehow found a voice that would speak across the centuries to both men and women of her day.  Both her translations are still in print and transformed the fate of Genji.

It was thanks to her earlier version of the modernised Genji that we have the first complete English translation of the work. A partial, unsatisfactory translation attempt was made by Baron Suematsu in 1882, but that sank without a trace. Then Orientalist Arthur Waley discovered both the original and Yosano’s translation in the 1920s and there is something of the flow and verve of Yosano in his own work. As a confirmed Sinologist, Waley was also familiar with many of the classical Chinese poems that are being referenced in the text. Last but not least, the translator was an admirer of the artistic and literary style of the Bloomsbury group. We see all of these influences at work in his creative, some might even say idiosyncratic translation.

Waley skips any bits he finds too dull or obscure. He has no qualms about rearranging names, sentences, even paragraphs and themes to make the book more palatable to an English audience. He tries to capture the spirit of the beauty of the original prose, rather than sticking to it literally. The flowery style may on occasion veer towards sentimentalization and prettification. It seems to capture an echo of an earlier period much like the pre-Raphaelite painters captured the medieval spirit in a new style that had little in common with the original.

There is also a paternalistic bias which jars with the modern reader – the translator’s voice intervenes at times, giving us his value judgements rather than Murasaki Shikibu’s voice: ‘This chapter should be read with indulgence. In it Murasaki is still under the influence of her somewhat childish predecessors…’ Yet in spite of his imperialistic tendency to judge other cultures through the prism of his own, his translation helped perceptive readers to see beyond mere ‘exoticism’. Virginia Woolf reviewed Waley’s translation in 1925 and saw instantly that this was far more than ‘cranes and chrysanthemums’. Genji is about universal human nature: ‘how passionately he desires things that are denied; how his longing for a life of tender intimacy is always thwarted; how the grotesque and the fantastic excite him beyond the simple and straightforward; how beautiful the falling snow is and how, as he watches it, he longs more than ever for someone to share his solitary joy’.

Despite its flaws, Waley’s attractive translation raised the profile of this Japanese classic so much that when Japanese novelist and short story writer Tanizaki Junichirō attempted his own translation into modern Japanese, he admitted that he was heavily influenced by Waley’s work. While Tanizaki and Yosano’s translations are the most literary, there have been other modern Japanese translations, for example the more erotic version by Funchi Emiko and the most accessible one, the everyman’s edition by Buddhist nun Setouchi Jakuchō. Contemporary scholars of Japanese literature recognise, however, that it was Genji’s surprising success abroad which led to its enshrinement as the ‘greatest Japanese classic’ in its home country.

The second complete English translation of Genji was published by Edward Seidensticker in 1976 and could hardly be more different from Waley’s work. Seidensticker resolutely sticks to a pared-down, understated style, with relatively few footnotes. As such, it is very readable, clear yet faithful to the original. His treatment of the 800 or so poems which appear throughout the pages of Genji has provoked some ire from purists: he renders them as couplets. It may not be true to Japanese poetic form, but at least he keeps them distinct from the main text, unlike Waley, who turns them into dialogue.

Royall Tyler’s translation in 2001 consciously attempts to return to the original Heian text and mimic its highly elliptical style. For instance, he does not use place or chapter names to identify the characters – an unspoken convention that all translators have resorted to for the sake of clarity. Instead, Tyler sticks to identifying them by their titles with elaborate ceremonial indirectness. This makes it difficult to follow, since those titles constantly change over the course of the book, as characters get promoted or fall out of favour. The endless hesitations and circumlocutions may be closer to the original style, but they feel old-fashioned and heavy-handed. The poetry sticks to the Japanese form but sounds a little pedestrian. For those who would like an insight into the intricacies and dramas of the Heian period, however, there is much to learn from the encyclopaedic footnotes.

Finally, the most recent translation is the 2015 version by Dennis Washburn, who tries to find a middle ground between clarity and as literal a translation as possible. The strength of his translation lies in its psychological depth and a modern sensibility to the different voices, which is in direct contrast to Waley’s. Washburn allows these often introverted, opaque characters to muse about their life and regrets, without judgement or sense of superiority. In his interpretation, it becomes clear just how much the characters are torn between the fleeting appeal of material, secular culture and a desire to escape worldly attachments.

To demonstrate just how different these translations can be, and why none of them can be considered the definitive translation, let us look at just two examples:

  • Chapter Five: Wakamurasaki

Genji visits a Buddhist monastery in the mountains and encounters there the love of his life, Murasaki, who is but a little girl at the time.

Arthur Waley: “Genji felt very disconsolate. It had begun to rain; a cold wind blew across the hill, carrying with it the sound of a waterfall–audible till then as a gentle intermittent plashing, but now a mighty roar; and with it, somnolently rising and falling, mingled the monotonous chanting of the scriptures. Even the most unimpressionable nature would have been plunged into melancholy by such surroundings. How much the more so Prince Genji, as he lay sleepless on his bed, continually planning and counter-planning.”

Edward Seidensticker: “Genji was not feeling well. A shower passed on a chilly mountain wind, and the sound of the waterfall was higher. Intermittently came a rather sleepy voice, solemn and somehow ominous, reading a sacred text. The most insensitive of men would have been aroused by the scene. Genji was unable to sleep.”

Royall Tyler: “Genji felt quite unwell, and besides, it was now raining a little, a cold mountain wind had set in to blow, and the pool beneath the waterfall had risen until the roar was louder than before. The eerie swelling and dying of somnolent voices chanting the scriptures could hardly fail in such a setting to move the most casual visitor. No wonder Genji, who had so much to ponder, could not sleep.”

Dennis Washburn: “Genji was feeling ill. It has started to rain, bringing a cooling breeze. Moreover, the water in the pool of a nearby waterfall had risen with the spring runoff, and the roar was clearly audible. He could just barely make out the sound of sleepy voices reciting sutras, a sound that sent chills through him. The atmosphere of the place would have affected even the most insensitive of people, and, coupled with his preoccupation with both Fujitsubo and the girl, it prevented him from getting any sleep at all.”

In this passage, Waley comes across as charmingly entertaining, Seidensticker as pedestrian, Washburn as a little too emphatic, while Tyler’s version seems both respectful to the orginal and the most seductive to modern readers.

  • Chapter One: Kiritsubo

However, the test I always give to any new translation of Genji is to read the first paragraph of the opening chapter, which is fiendishly difficult to render comprehensible to a modern reader. The chapter describes Genji’s mother and the circumstances of his birth. In this case, it seems that Waley is the most gossipy and entertaining, Seidensticker the most unobtrusive and clear, Tyler the most instructive, while Washburn is once again too long-winded.

Arthur Waley: “At the court of an Emperor (he lived it matters not when) there was among the many gentlewomen of the Wardrobe and Chamber one, who though she was not of the very high rank was favoured far beyond all the rest; so that the great ladies of the Palace, each of whom had secretly hoped that she herself would be chosen, looked with scorn and hatred upon the upstart who had dispelled their dreams. Still less were her former companions, the minor ladies of the Wardrobe, content to see her raised so far above them. This her position at Court, preponderant thought it was, exposed her to constant jealousy and ill will; and soon, worn out with petty vexations, she fell into a decline…”

Edward Seidensticker: “In a certain reign there was a lady not of the first rank whom the emperor loved more than any of the others. The grand ladies with high ambitions thought her a presumptuous upstart, and the lesser ladies were still more resentful. Everything she did offended someone. Probably aware of what was happening, she fell seriously ill…”

Royall Tyler: “In a certain reign (whose can it have been?) someone of no very great rank, among all His Majesty’s Consorts and Intimates, enjoyed exceptional favor. Those others who had always assumed that pride of place was properly theirs despised her as a dreadful woman, while the lesser Intimates were unhappier still. The way she waited on him day after day only stirred up feeling against her, and perhaps this growing burden of resentment was what affected her health…”

Dennis Washburn: “In whose reign was it that a woman of rather undistinguished lineage captured the heart of the Emperor and enjoyed his favour above all the other imperial wives and concubines? Certain consorts, whose high noble status gave them a sense of vain entitlement, despised and reviled her as an unworthy upstart from the very moment she began her service. Ladies of lower rank were even more vexed, for they knew His Majesty would never bestow the same degree of affection and attention on them. As a result, the mere presence of this woman at morning rites or evening ceremonies seemed to provoke hostile reactions among her rivals, and the anxiety she suffered as a consequence of these ever-increasing displays of jealousy was such a heavy burden that gradually her health began to fail.”

Which of those translations do you prefer? And do you think you might be tempted to tackle Genji yourself, if you haven’t already done so? Let’s start the Murasaki Shikibu fan club [I was going to say the Genji Fan Club – but that is in fact the entire plot of Genji Monogatari, one might say!].

 

Literary Weeks Are the Best Weeks…

And bookish friends are the best friends… I had a rather lovely week filled with books and literary discussions, just what the doctor ordered: the perfect nourishment to keep my soul from unravelling.

On Tuesday I had another Skype session with my poetry mentor and it is amazing how excited I get about rewriting some poems that I’d set aside because I felt I’d revised them so much that I was sick of them. It took another poet to read them and ask me what I was trying to achieve to actually regain some of that original spark that gave birth to the poem.

Freddie Bruckstein and Susan Curtis, founder of Istros Books.

On Thursday I attended the book launch of The Trap, two novellas by Romanian Jewish author Ludovic Bruckstein, translated by Alastair Ian Blythe. The author’s son, who has been the driving force behind the publication of his father’s literary estate, was there and gave us a very moving account of his father’s life.

Not many people born in that part of Europe can summarise their lives in simple terms. Their choices have been horribly affected by external events.

Freddie Bruckstein

Ludovic grew up in Sighet in North Maramures, just across the street from where Elie Wiesel used to live, but during the Second World War this thriving Jewish community was rounded up and sent to concentration camps. Ludovic discovered he was almost the sole survivor when he returned home after the war. For a while it seemed like he was going to be active and successful in the post-war writing community, with plays written in both Yiddish and Romanian, but he preferred a quieter life in the north of the country rather than becoming an establishment figure in Bucharest. Of course, he was duly expunged from Romanian literary history when he emigrated to Israel in 1972. But the poignant thing is he continued to write in Romanian for the Romanian community in Israel (most of his work was translated into Hebrew as well). I gave my copy of the book to my friend from Geneva days who came to visit me this weekend, and have promptly bought another one for myself. The brief reading we had from the book was absolutely brilliant and the stories really are a stark warning that passivity and political apathy often lead to the same consequences as deliberate malice.

On Friday my friend from Geneva came over to find me after work and we did non-stop literary things all weekend. First, we visited the Writing in Times of Conflict exhibition at Senate House and I discovered that my friend Jenny (a trained actress) had actually played Anne’s mother in a theatrical adaptation of the diaries, and toured with it around Europe.

I could listen to Kathleen Jamie forever…

We then went to the LRB Bookshop to see Kathleen Jamie in conversation with Philip Hoare, talking about her latest collection of essays entitled Surfacing. I’ve had the pleasure of attending a poetry masterclass with Kathleen and have always admired her sincerity and lack of pretension. She told us how she needed to write something to fill in those fallow periods in-between moments of poetic inspiration and for some reason she thought that essays would be easier and more lucrative than poetry (‘and boy, was I ever wrong!’). She also talked about her process, how she never starts out with a theme she can research, but just lets things accrue until she finally detects a pattern right at the end.

What I really appreciate about her writing is that she bears witness to a disappearing world, muses about the connections between past and present (and future) but refuses to romanticise the past or even nature. She doesn’t consider herself a pure nature writer, because it is the collision between humans and nature that she finds most interesting. Furthermore, because she is not as bound by science as archaelogists are, she can use her imagination much more freely to speculate about the lives and emotions of the people whose objects they are unearthing.

We spent a lazy Saturday in Oxford, talking non-stop about writing and reading, having pie and mash in the Covered Market, but unable to visit any of the colleges because of the graduation ceremonies taking place in the Sheldonian. Except Keble College, where I was overjoyed to see a quince tree against the ornate Victorian Gothic background. In the evening, we watched the rather depressing Marianne and Leonard documentary about Leonard Cohen’s Norwegian muse and their life together on the island of Hydra and wondered about the excuses and sacrifices we make for men who are considered geniuses (and not just them).

On Sunday we went to Henley Literary Festival and, although the weather prevented us from taking full advantage of riverside walks, we enjoyed seeing three indomitable women writers talk about why they find family dynamics so fascinating. The writers were:

  1. Harriet Evans, whose inspiration for her latest novel The Garden of Lost and Found came via a strong visual flash of children running down to the bottom of the garden when she heard someone sing the old song ‘The Fairies at the Bottom of the Garden’
  2. Hannah Beckerman, who said she wrote 24 drafts for her novel If Only I Could Tell You, because the characters usually come to her to lie down on a therapy couch and gradually reveal their stories
  3. Janet Ellis, whose second novel How It Was I have on my Kindle but haven’t read yet, said she gets her inspiration when a voice starts plucking at her sleeve and demanding to be heard.
From left to right: Harriet Evans, Hannah Beckerman and Janet Ellis.

There was a great deal of warmth and humour in their interaction, they were almost interviewing each other, or rather, having a delightful literary conversation that we were allowed to witness. One thing that they said really stuck with me: how we assume that older women just fade and vanish from public life or literature, but maybe some of that is by choice. That it is such a relief not to be at the cutting edge anymore, constantly scrutinised, judged by appearance or have every choice analysed. And also what satisfaction it is to have survived things that if anyone had told us in our youth that we would have to endure, we would probably not have believed ourselves capable of enduring.

I was planning not to buy any more books (I’d received quite a few in the post), not even if I could get them signed by the authors – although I was intrigued by the three of them and will certainly borrow their books from the library. But then Jenny took me into the Oxfam bookshop… and, in short, here is the week’s book haul. Alas.

China in September: Chilli Bean Paste and Noisy Families

A Chinese friend once told me: ‘We Chinese families are very noisy, you know.’ and I certainly spotted the contrast between people on streets in China (jostling, laughing, chatting you up) and Japan (carefully respecting the distance – at least, if you are a foreigner). Yan Ge’s The Chilli Bean Past Clan certainly dials up the volume on this story about a dysfunctional family in a small provincial town in Sichuan, a landlocked province in the south-west of China, renowned for its extremely spicy food.

The Xue-Duan family runs a chilli bean paste factory in this town and the main character (known as Dad, because it is his daughter who is telling the story, although it is in fact more like a third person narrative) is a bon viveur, who likes to smoke, eat, drink and mess around with women. He is also foul-mouthed, selfish and not very considerate of the women in his life (his mother Gran, his wife Mum, his mistress Jasmine and his daughter). Yet, despite the comfortable life he has created for himself, he is still envious of his siblings who managed to escape from their humdrum home town and the eagle eyes of their mother.

As the family starts preparing for their matriarch’s 80th birthday, and his siblings return home, Dad’s life gets less and less comfortable and old bitterness and memories start to resurface. By the end of the book, Dad gets a sort of come-uppance and the reader realises just what a sad creature he really is. (Although no doubt some women will feel that he hasn’t been punished enough.)

Interestingly, when the novel was first published in China, many readers were very surprised that the author was a woman, because they felt it was describing all too well the world in which men can get away with anything. Here is what the author has to say about that:

I wrote this book because, as a young female writer, I have encountered many, many men who have behaved in such an ugly way. I can think of many scenarios in my early twenties where, as a writer, I was thrilled — this was great material, it revealed the richness, the unspeakable darkness of human nature — but as a woman, I was absolutely traumatized. People often are surprised that this book is written by a woman. Actually, this book is a traumatized woman wanting to get back at those men by writing a story like this. It is venting, an expression of my anger, a therapeutic experience.

At first I was very angry. But it is important not to hold any moral judgement when you’re writing a novel. When I was writing this book, I passed no judgements on my characters, and I was actually surprised to feel the anger when I reread it. But I think my anger vanished as I wrote on. In the end I truly liked Xue Shengqiang. He is a misogynist, but once you get over it, you can see the other sides of him, his loyalty to his family and friends, his cowardice and kindness. In the end, I reconciled with him.

The book is full of local dialect and slang, so it must have been truly tricky to translate. I’m sure the ‘dude talk’ that the translator Nicky Harman has introduced is probably the closest stylistic approximation of this, but it does sound irritating (and perhaps too Western) at times.

It was fun, operatic, over the top – a sort of soap opera set in a rapidly changing town and society. Not my favourite of the Chinese reads this month (that would be Eileen Chang), but certainly more interesting than Shanghai Baby. One final little tidbit of information: the author now lives in Ireland with her Irish husband and has started writing in English. However, she says she refuses to write about China in English.

China in September: Shanghai Then and Now

This month I’ve been meaning to read mainly Chinese writers – as it happens, all women in translation, so my #WITMonth continues.

Eileen Chang: Lust, Caution and Other Stories (transl. Julia Lovell, Karen Kingsbury, Janet Ng, Simon Patton and Eva Hung)

Eileen Chang had a brief moment of fame in Japan-occupied Shanghai during the Second World War, which she was never quite able to replicate later, when she moved to Hong Kong and then to the United States. She became a recluse; sadly, her body was found in her apartment in LA several days after she died in 1995.

However, her posthumous success in China has been phenomenal. Her essays and stories were rediscovered in the 1970/80s and she became one of the most influential writers for younger authors in Taiwan, Hong Kong and finally mainland China, but she is not that well known in the West, even after director Ang Lee adapted her story Lust, Caution into a film in 2007. Although she is not an overtly political writer and has occasionally been criticised for focusing almost exclusively on the lives of women, there is no one to match her sharp observational skills. She not only manages to give us a slice of life of a certain period in Shanghai’s history, but also captures issues of class, exploitation and gender expectations in a way that feels perenially relevant. The stories are often very funny, for example In the Waiting Room, with quirky and diverse characters such as you would expect to find in a doctor’s waiting room, but far more willing to open up about their personal lives and worries than anything you might encounter in England.

Above all, I like the way she describes the simmering resentments and misunderstandings between East and West in cosmopolitan Shanghai. My favourite story in this slim volume is Steamed Osmanthus Flower, in which a Chinese housekeeper navigates the tricky relationship with her English master, while simultaneously trying to keep her husband and child content.

The title story Lust, Caution is about an affair but also a tale of war-time espionage and an assassination attempt. Apparently, it took nearly twenty years to write, and it shows: each word is so precise, so perfectly placed, the dialogue is so sparkling and full of innuendo. This is perhaps the most openly ‘political’ of her stories, but it shows how ordinary people’s everyday lives are being shaped (and sometimes destroyed) by politics rather than arguing for or against a particular political thesis.

Zhou Wei Hui: Shanghai Baby, transl. Bruce Humes

By way of contrast, Zhou Wei Hui’s novel set in late 1990s Shanghai has little of Chang’s subtlety or awareness of the complexity of East/West relations. It is the story of Coco, a young woman who aspires to be a writer, and who is torn between two men: her romance with a Chinese boyfriend who is impotent and her sexual entanglements with a married German. The Shanghai she describes certainly doesn’t correspond to any images of China you might still have lingering in your head: people in Mao suits riding bicycles or struggling to make ends meet. This is the Shanghai of the well-off, a consumer’s paradise, a city full of nightclubs and drugs, a ‘feminine’ city as the narrator describes it, in comparison to the macho cities of northern China. Coco and her friends think nothing of hopping onto a plane at short notice to attend a concert by a band in Beijing.

Ironically, the hedonistic lifestyle she describes was regarded with suspicion by the Chinese authorities and the book was banned shortly after publication for its immoral nature and irreverent style. There is nothing there that is very shocking to a Western reader: a lot of sex, a lot of drug-taking, but the details are not prurient or voyeuristic. It is clear that the author admires Western culture – there are several quotes from Henry Miller, Sylvia Plath, Milan Kundera but also from various musicians, but overall the style is pedestrian, while trying achingly hard to be hipsterish (if the term was in existence back in 2000 when this was first published). It is a young person’s book, so perhaps I am being a little harsh: it reminded me of the so-called millenial writers like Otessa Moshfegh or Sally Rooney (neither of whom I’ve read exhaustively because… they bore me. I am not the target age group, I think.) But, needless to say, there are plenty of people who love those English-speaking writers, so you might love this book. It certainly helps to dismantle some stereotypes and shows a Chinese society in flux.

The Translated Literature Book Tag

I saw a blog post this week on Portuguese reader Susana’s blog A Bag Full of Stories, and I enjoyed it so much that I decided to tag myself and take part. As you know, I am very opinionated when it comes to translations!

A translated novel you would recommend to everyone

Tove Jansson’s The True Deceiver (trans. Thomas Teal) is such a deceptively simple story of village life in winter and the friendship between two women, but it is full of undercurrents, ambiguity, darkness. Of course, if you haven’t read Tove Jansson at all, then I suggest you start with the Moomins, which are just as wonderful for grown-ups as they are for children.

A recently read “old” translated novel you enjoyed

The Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic, which was the inspiration for Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, was even better than I expected.

A translated book you could not get into

Everybody knows that my Achilles heel is The Brothers Karamazov, which is ironic, given that I love everything else that Dostoevsky wrote (and generally prefer him to Tolstoy). I have bought myself a new copy of it and will attempt it again (for the 5th time?).

Your most anticipated translated novel release

This is a little under the radar, but it sounds fascinating: Istros Books (one of my favourite publishers, for its brave championing of a part of Europe that is still woefully under-translated) is bringing out The Trap by Ludovic Bruckstein, a Romanian Jewish writer virtually unknown to me (because he emigrated in 1970 and was declared persona non grata in Romania). The book is made up of two novellas, offering, as the publisher blurb goes, ‘a fascinating depiction of rural life in the Carpathians around the time of the Second World War, tracing the chilling descent into disorder and fear of two cosmopolitan communities that had hitherto appeared to be havens of religious and racial acceptance’. The official launch will take place on 26th of September in London and you bet that I’ll be there!

A “foreign-language” author you would love to read more of

I only discovered Argentinean author Cesar Aira in 2018, and he is so vastly prolific (and reasonably frequently translated) that I have quite a task ahead of me to catch up. His novels are exhilarating, slightly mad and, most importantly, quite short.

A translated novel which you consider to be better that the film

Movie still from Gigi.

Not many people will agree with me, but I prefer the very short novella Gigi by Colette to the famous musical version of it, starring Leslie Caron and Maurice Chevalier. The book’s ending is much more open to interpretation and makes you doubt the long-term happiness of young Gigi. It can be read as a satire and critique of the shallow world of Parisian society and the limited choices women had within it at the time.

A translated “philosophical” fiction book you recommend

Not sure I’ve read many of those! Reading biographies of philosophers or their actual work is more fun. The only example I can think of, and which I enjoyed at the time but haven’t reread in years, is Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder, transl. Paulette Moller.

A translated fiction book that has been on your TBR for far too long

Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall (trans. Shaun Whiteside) is a post-apocalyptic novel with a difference. I’ve been meaning to read this much praised novel forever, but in the original, so I finally bought it in Berlin last year… and still haven’t got around to reading it.

A popular translated fiction book you have not read yet

Korean fiction seems to be having a moment in the sun right now (thanks to a great influx of funding for translation and publication), especially the author Han Kang. I haven’t read the ever-popular The Vegetarian but her more recently translated one Human Acts (trans. Deborah Smith) sounds more on my wavelength, with its examination of policital dissent and its repercussions.

A translated fiction book you have heard a lot about and would like to find more about or read

The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischwili, translated by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin is perhaps far too intimidatingly long (1000 pages) for me to read, but it sounds epic: six generations of a Georgian family living through the turbulent Soviet 20th century.

#WITMonth: The Pine Islands

Marion Poschmann: The Pine Islands, transl. Jen Calleja

On paper, this book seemed to have all the right ingredients to be much loved by me. A man – washed-up part-time researcher on beards Gilbert Silvester – has a midlife crisis, suspects his wife is cheating on him and decides to go to Japan to find himself. He embarks upon a road trip (a train trip) with a suicidal Japanese sidekick, following in the footsteps of haiku master Basho Matsuo and his travelogue Narrow Road to the Deep North. In actual fact, I thought this was a mongrel that was neither one clear thing nor another, and had no vivacity or charm of its own to make up for that.

It started off reasonably promisingly with the well-trodden but still potentially gripping ‘confused in Tokyo’ stance:

How had he ended up in this city without the slightest effort? What did he want to do here? … He was, he suddenly put it to himself, very far from everything that had ever been familiar to him. He had taken himself off into the unknown, into this most unfamiliar of environments, and the eerie feeling he was experiencing stemmed from the fact that this environment didn’t seem eerie in the slightest, simply functional, somewhat pretentious and somewhat sterile.

This confusion does not last long and does not stop Gilbert from becoming what the Germans call a Besserwisser (who knows everything better than you), an expert in Japanese culture, who presumes to lecture his travel companion, the improbably named Yosa Tamagotchi. Never mind the fact that Yosa is a native of Japan but barely speaks any English and therefore does not have much of a chance to explain himself.

Although Gilbert claims to be watching over Yosa to prevent him committing suicide, he actually takes him on a whistlestop tour of popular suicide spots and is equally obsessed with reaching Matsushima Bay, that scenic spot full of pine-tree clad islands, which seems to be catnip to suicidal Japanese. He even loses Yosa along the way, because he is too absorbed and smug about the haikus he produces at each stop in the journey, in imitation of Basho. Of course, he now counts himself among those who have imbibed all the subtlety of Japanese culture.

The traveller to Matsushima were lunatics, moon-stuck, eccentric. They composed their own sacred legends, everything was worthless to them apart from poetry, and for them poetry stood for the spirit’s path to nothingness. They were extremists, ascetics, mad for a certain kind of beauty, the fleeting beauty of blossom, the ambiguous beauty of moonlight, the hazy beauty of the secluded landscape.

The Pine Islands at Matsushima.

I tried to be generous and think of this book as a philosophical and metaphorical journey. Could the young, diffident Japanese man with the barely there beard be his Doppelgänger? A loser in Japanese society, Yosa is the perfect foil to Gilbert, who is pretty much a loser in his own society (and certainly when compared to his professionally far more successful, no-nonsense wife). By finding someone weaker than himself, someone he can hector and lecture to his heart’s content, Gilbert manages to recover from his midlife crisis. I’m not sure his wife was too impressed with the letters he sent her, though.

There are some lyrical passages and poetic descriptions, but do we really need a longish paragraph listing all of the different types of pine trees? What irked me above all was that the insight into Japanese society feels superficial, like the main protagonist has swallowed the guidebook and then regurgitated it. But that might be the author, who appears to pick on the most obvious Orientalist othering type of observations, while claiming a deeper understanding. If this was intended to be a parody of Eat Pray Love with a middle-aged male protagonist (which would have been a promising premise), then it’s just not funny enough.

I don’t think reading it in German would have made much of a difference – the translator seems to have done her best. So a bit of a disappointment and somewhat surprising that it made it onto the shortlist of the International Booker Prize.

Russians in July: Odessa Stories

Odessa Stories by Isaac Babel, translated by Boris Dralyuk (Pushkin Press)

Odessa was a lawless, cosmopolitan port town on the fringes of the Russian Empire, on the Black Sea coast, home to one of the largest Jewish populations in the world. I say ‘was’, because, although it remained an important trading port during the Soviet period, it was also savagely attacked during the Second World War (it was one of the four Soviet cities to be given the title of Hero City, together with Leningrad, Stalingrad and Sevastopol) and 80% of its Jewish community was exterminated during the first 6 months of the occupation.

With its Mediterranean architecture, mixed ethnic composition and gang culture, Odessa might remind you of Marseille or Naples.

Its great variety of ethnicites remain tangled even nowadays: it is part of Ukraine, with a majority Ukrainean population, but the main language spoken is Russian, albeit an idiosyncratic Russian with a lot of local slang. It is this rich Odessan argot that the translator Dralyuk tries to capture, and he makes the completely logical choice to use the language of American pulp fiction and films for that purpose.

Babel published these stories in the early 1920s, and they consolidated the myths about the city and its gang culture. Legendary gang leaders such as Sonya the Golden Hand and Mishka the Jap (from the turn of the 20th century) were admired as well as vilified, perceived as rebels and Robin Hood type of characters (when in actual fact they were probably ruthless monsters). They are still a popular source of stories not just locally, but throughout the Russian (and then Soviet) empire. Babel creates his own gang leader, the charismatic yet cruel Benya Krik, known as The King.

The first part of the book narrates (not in linear fashion, these are all distinct stories) the rise of Krik – how he intimidated the new head of police in Odessa by setting fire to the police station, how he first acquired the nickname The King, how he took revenge on those who messed up his deals. It also introduces many other colourful local characters: old gangster boss Froim the Rook, avaricious landlady and smuggler Lyubka the Cossack, Aryyeh Leib the elder of the almshouse, the hapless broker Tsudechkis who seems to misread every situation. Although it can be tricky keeping track of who’s who, these are stories in the best oral tradition, fun, full of sly humour, exaggerated, larger than life, designed to make the listener laugh or cry out in shock.

If the first part of the book is a celebration of diversity and virility, the second part shows what happens when virility becomes aggressive and when innocent bystanders get caught up in events. This is not about quarrels between gangs anymore and the style is much more serious and lyrical, showing the broad range that Babel was capable of.

The narrator here is Babel’s alter ego, a slightly idealistic young Odessan who recalls his childhood and youth in the city. While many of the incidents he recalls are quirky and funny, full of Jewish humour and family foibles, some of the texts, such as The Story of My Dovecote, are heartbreaking, showing the many inequities and dangers to which the Jews living in the city were subjected. A ten-year-old boy who has been saving up assidously to buy a pair of beautiful dovers gets caught up in a vicious pogrom on his way home.

I lay on the ground, the crushed bird bird’s innards sliding from my temple. They ran down my cheek, winding, dribbling, and blinding me. The dove’s tender gut slipped down my forehead, and I shut my only unplastered eye, so that I wouldn’t have to see the world laid bare before me. This world was smal and terrible. There was a pebble lying in front of me, a jagged pebble, like the face of an old woman with a large jaw; and a piece of string; and a clump of feathers, still breathing.

I’ll finish on a more cheerful note, a brilliant quote from the slippery trickster Benya the King himself, who tries to excuse himself for having killed someone ‘accidentally’.

Aunt Pesya, if you want my life, you can have it, but everyone makes mistakes, even God. That’s what it was, aunt Pesya – a huge mistake. But wasn’t it a mistake on God’s part to put the Jews in Russia, where they suffer as if they’re in hell? I ask you, why not have the Jews live in Switzerland, with nothing but top-quality lakes, mountain air and Frenchmen as far as the eye can see? Everyone makes mistakes, even God.

Let’s pretend we don’t know about Babel’s untimely death and his subsequent erasure from Soviet literature. Luckily, he has been rehabilitated now and we can enjoy this earthy, lively, somewhat madcap collection of stories, bringing a new streak of – well, I wouldn’t exactly call it realism, perhaps ‘heightened realism’, but certainly a lot less gloom and pessimism than some of the great Russian writers.

#EU27Project: Bulgaria

Although Bulgaria is Romania’s southern neighbour, and although one of my best friends at primary school was Katya, a Bulgarian, I know next to nothing about the literature of this country. So I rather randomly picked Georgi Tenev’s novel Party Headquarters, transl. Angela Rodel. Partly because it was the Winner of the 2015 Contemporary Bulgarian Writers Contest, but mostly because it was easily available to order online.

I read it back in February or March and have very nearly forgotten what it was about and what I thought of it. The plot is not the most important thing here, which is just as well, since I found it quite difficult to follow: it skips between the present-day, soon days following the fall of Communism and the summer of the Chernobyl disaster. The narrator is a man who has been tasked by his dying father-in-law, a former high-ranking Communist Party official known as K-shev, to transport a suitcase containing one and a half million euros. Many ex-Communists were suspected of squirrelling their ill-gotten wealth abroad so as to start new lives after regime collapse in their countries. The narrator hated his father-in-law and remembers all of the key moments that cemented that hatred, while wandering around Hamburg, cavorting with prostitutes and generally being a bit at a loss.

Disjointed and disturbing, just like its narrator, the novel is perhaps designed to show the lingering after-effects of a dictatorship, that keeps people in mental prisons long after they are nominally set free. But it does so in such a convoluted way, combining the sexual excesses of Philip Roth with the pretentiousness of David Foster Wallace, that I soon lost interest.

But I do remember sighing as I put it away and saying to myself: ‘Why do all the books that get translated from the former East Bloc have to be such hard going?’ After reading the books for Slovakia, Estonia, Slovenia, Latvia for my #EU27Project, I can’t help feeling that publishers of English translations from these countries have certain expectations, because they all share certain characteristics: experimental prose, anti-chronological narrative, grim subject matter about repression and dictatorship or war, very earnest and ‘worthy’ literary works.

Yet each of these countries has no doubt got a huge variety of literature, covering all genres, all tastes. I recently mentioned Lavina Braniste, who gives us a very Romanian Bridget Jones. Estonian author Indrek Hargla has a fantastic crime series set in medieval Talinn, but only one has been translated into English (and rather sloppily at that). Bulgarian short story writer Deyan Enev has been compared to Lydia Davis for his lyrical, almost flash-fiction short pieces, but there are others who have yet to be translated. It’s a shame that we only get a very one-sided view of literature from these countries.

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.

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