Archive for March, 2009

Context + Appreciation

Saturday, March 28th, 2009

Instead of talking at our readers, I’d like to ask a question this time.

How important is an understanding of context to appreciating what you read? This question is perhaps more relevant to translated literature than general fiction, with Americans’ lack of knowledge of—or lack of interest in being knowledgeable about—other countries frequently cited for their lack of interest in reading fiction in translation. I’m not sure if I buy this argument (perhaps the fact that translated literature makes up, by some approximations, three percent of published books in this country plays a more important role), but we’ll ignore that for the time being.

Chad Post and the Bureaucratic Imagination blog touched on this issue in relation to the Roberto Bolaño craze sweeping the country (old news by now). In short, Daniel Borzutsky expressed surprise with how “grey zone writers are entering the cultural center in ways that are both exciting, confusing, and nauseating”:

[I]t’s been frankly bizarre to see Bolaño, whose reception was lukewarm in Chile, catapult into the American literary mainstream… [H]is books are often about the mundane details of very specific and frankly petty literary disputes and details that must make little sense to, say, readers of The New Yorker, which just published his short story “Meeting with Enrique Linh,” wherein a first person narrator named Roberto Bolaño spills out a multi-page, unparagraphed dream in which he hangs out with the Chilean poet Enrique Linh in a bar.

Most American poets, let alone subscribers to The New Yorker, don’t know who Enrique Linh is, and I’m certain that neither group has any clue who Bertoni, Maquieira, Gonzalo Muñoz, Martínez, and Rodrigo Lira [are...] Far from having universal appeal, this story speaks to a very particular plight, namely, that of “young poets with no support… who’d been shut out by the new center-left government and didn’t have any backing or patronage”…

I don’t mean to sound like I’m one of the rare anointed ones smart enough to understand the specific references: but I think it’s fair to ask why The New Yorker published this story. Or perhaps a better question is what audience do they think they are serving? Is it the same audience that reads O, the Oprah Magazine, where book reviewer Vince Passaro foolishly compares Bolaño to Juan Rulfo and Garcia Marquez, and states that “holding a reviewer’s copy of 2666 in public was like brandishing the newest Harry Potter at the playground three months before the on-sale date.” Passaro, who probably stole his ideas about Bolaño from Jonathan Lethem’s book review of 2666 in the New York Times, apparently thinks it’s cool to run around reading a book about the murdered women of Juarez. But does he really think this? Or does he only think that he is supposed to think this because every other book reviewer thinks this?

The post is definitely worth reading in full for some other interesting issues it raises.

I bought into the Bolaño hype, picking up The Savage Detectives to brace myself for the onslaught of 2666. I figured if I liked Detectives enough, I’d go for the whole thing. But as I was reading, I kept wondering if this was the same author being praised to the skies in basically every review—the whole thing seemed very alien to me. Which doesn’t mean that it isn’t quality writing, or isn’t worth reading—but Bolaño’s writing presumes familiarity, even intimacy, with some major but mostly minor cultural figures who definitely are not indigenous to this country or its “insular” literary scene. I eventually grew weary, frustrated, and bored with the book, and decided Bolaño was a phenomenon I would have to skip.

Similar frustrations have marked my encounters with books like Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Camera (Dalkey Archive, 2008). Though the reasons for my lack of context are far removed from the issues associated with Bolaño, I still feel that if I were more familiar with the author’s society, I would’ve picked up on smaller nuances—maybe an idea of setting—that would’ve made me appreciate it far more. I’ve noticed this problem is more pronounced with so-called “experimental” literature than it is with more conventional fiction—maybe because the author’s duty in the past included creating his world from the ground up, as it were, rather than assuming, as Bolaño does, an innate level of familiarity with it.

I had no problem with context in Mati Unt’s Things in the Night (Dalkey Archive, 2006)—which I heartily recommend, by the way—probably because Soviet-era Estonia was in a sense part of the Soviet-Russian experience generally, something I’m more or less familiar with. The imperial power the Soviet Union held over Estonia meant that many Russian cultural references, as well as the Russian language, became (forcibly) widespread over its huge land mass. Besides the fact that Russia and Estonia, both northern, forested countries, already have many levels of cultural similarity.

So what do you think? How important is context in appreciating foreign literature? How does this issue affect Americans’ reading preferences, and what can be done to address it?


What we talk about when we talk about the war on terror

Monday, March 23rd, 2009

It seems terrible to follow Lauren’s inspiring post on Russian poetry with such a note, but:
If you haven’t seen it already, please do read Mark Danner’s urgent and wrenching article on the CIA’s use of torture, in the most recent New York Review of Books. I’m not sure who has access to the ICRC report, but I would hope someday we may be able to see some of that ourselves, too.

Russian Poetry in the Valley

Sunday, March 22nd, 2009

In addition to being one of the most literature-celebrating places in the nation and the home of Clockroot, the Pioneer Valley is also a mini epicenter of Russian creative activity. Joseph Brodsky taught at Mount Holyoke College for many years, and one occasionally senses the area’s landscape and character emerging in his verse. And we are blessed to have esteemed Russian poet Polina Barskova living and working in the Valley (she teaches Russian literature at Hampshire College), as well as her translator, Cathy Ciepiela (who does the same at Amherst College, and has translated other modern and contemporary poets as well). Examples of both their work can be found in the lauded anthology Contemporary Russian Poetry (Dalkey Archive, 2008), which includes a dizzying array of contemporary poets with the original Russian in a facing translation (a great tool for any student). Works by many other poets and translators included in the anthology can also be sampled in an issue of Jacket Magazine from last year.

According to my very incomplete notes, I’ve had the pleasure to hear a handful of Russian poets read at the Five Colleges (Polina, Sergei Gandlevsky, Ilya Kaminsky, Katia Kapovich, Lev Rubinstein), and Pam just clued me in to Schoen Books in South Deerfield, which hosts a number of readings of poetry in translation, with, it seems, particular attention to Russian modern and contemporary poetry. I wish I would’ve known about Matvei Yankelevich’s reading of Daniil Kharms (Yankelevich is part of the wonderful Ugly Duckling Presse, which has done a lot to bring Russian and Eastern European writing into English). The Valley never ceases to amaze!

It seems to me that a poet, whose voice is perhaps even more influenced by and dependent on the logic and nuances of one’s native language than a prose writer, would have a particularly hard time adjusting to a completely new life and language. But just as Brodsky began to write in English, Polina Barskova has also assimilated her life here into the fabric of her verse, though she still prefers to write in Russian: “I think the poet must consider himself a sponge. I try to absorb the eclectic influences around me — Slavic studies, America, jazz, film, the ocean. It’s most important that everything is absorbed into my work: a sponge doesn’t choose. Around me I have Wallace Stevens and the Argentinean building superintendent, specialists on Khodaseevich, football fans, flea markets and Stravinsky festivals, Carlos Gardel and Petr Leshchenko. All of this must find a place in the only element dependent on me, my verse, and in the element of the Russian language, and if their interpretation is а thick, pungent, living physiological solution—then I can keep going” (my translation from a Russian interview).

At the Kaminsky reading I wrote about, Polina read some of her poems on creative collaboration, which Kaminsky followed with his translations. It was a particularly sweet moment—to see Russian poets forging new relationships, and a real creative discourse, in this country.


Jon Stewart & voice

Wednesday, March 18th, 2009

Like most of America, I watched the recent Jim Cramer/Jon Stewart exchange; like most of the rest of my generation, apparently, I watch Jon Stewart regularly (and like most of the Pioneer Valley I watch it online, TVs and certainly cable seem so rare around here). Like Robert Gibbs I enjoyed it, I felt vindicated and represented by it, it was impossible not to be, it seemed. And this has to do with how infuriating this economic moment is, how powerless we’ve all been feeling—perhaps especially those in my generation, who, although our college classmates trotted off by the dozen to six-figure jobs & the high life on Wall Street, have had no sense of the whole game and how real it can be—but really I think it has to do with Jon Stewart & what he’s achieved.

I was thinking that what makes Jon Stewart untouchable—why Jim Cramer’s “he’s a comedian” insults don’t touch him, why the Crossfire challenges not only flopped but backfired—is a literary quality: his voice. His voice is unshakable, original to him; he has created in the Daily Show exactly the form to suit it, flexible enough to respond to each new challenge, stable enough to create for him enormous authority, a voice strong enough to sustain a complex form, a form that then amplifies it perfectly. The mainstream news figures feel at a disadvantage when attacked by him—and this is what the mumbling about his being a comedian is trying to get at—because he’s not “serious,” he doesn’t have to do their job. Exactly, he can always respond, he’s doing his job, which is to critique them, to hold the media accountable with his own combination of sharp observation (indicting them so often with their own words), wit, satire, and serious commentary. What he has and they don’t is his ability to speak as himself, not to represent a studio, for the most part not to represent anyone else’s idea of reporting or commentary, particularly the often—is it because of Jon Stewart that it’s commonplace just to say this?—disingenuous ideas of “objectivity” on which the mainstream media has its shaky foundations. Jim Cramer can never respond to him forcefully because Jim Cramer’s ability to speak relies on his relationship with CNBC; his voice cannot be independent of theirs, which—as Jon Stewart was pointing out—entangles him essentially into the network’s own relationships, including its problematic relationship with the financial institutions on which it is supposed to provide independent reporting. Comedy Central of course couldn’t give a shit, the popularity of Jon Stewart (I have no statistics, no matter) being I’m sure one of the greatest things that’s ever happened to it. And comedians unlike commentators never have to pretend not to be (subjective) individuals, which can be a distinct advantage, a greater honesty.

I think Jon Stewart’s success says something, as others have commented on more articulately, about a generation’s skepticism toward institutions such as the mainstream media.  That’s often framed negatively, or as a sign of how bad things have gotten (how cynical the youth, is the refrain).  It also says something quite positive about our respect for the strength of an individual voice, our interest in individual over corporate perspectives. How it is actually an extraordinary thing for a man to sit in front of millions of people and as though he were at his own dinner table state about the financial collapse, This isn’t a fucking game, to one of its many authors, and force him, through the power of his own self-created medium, to answer. This says something about a small voice filling a big and then a bigger stage, and about the great wonder of any voice realizing itself & finding its form.

Which I find inspiring and heartening for all the persistently individual, persistently weird, people out there, which I hope includes Clockroot: people who want to write & publish books in which individual voices work out their own particular forms to take on the politics, the outrages, the fictions of their times.


from “Silence for Gaza,” Mahmoud Darwish

Monday, March 16th, 2009

Gaza has slipped out of the news in the US recently. But as the blockade, air assaults, and rocket fire continue, and the outcomes of the negotiations in Egypt & the formation of a new government in Israel remain unknown (with this morning’s new upset, Avigdor Lieberman’s appointment), it seemed always an apt time for Darwish’s reflection.  Many thanks to Sinan Antoon for sharing his translation.

… Gaza is far from its relatives and close to its enemies, because whenever Gaza explodes, it becomes an island and it never stops exploding. It scratched the enemy’s face, broke his dreams and stopped his satisfaction with time.
Because in Gaza time is something different.
Because in Gaza time is not a neutral element.
It does not compel people to cool contemplation, but rather to explosion and a collision with reality.
Time there does not take children from childhood to old age, but rather makes them men in their first confrontation with the enemy.
Time in Gaza is not relaxation, but storming the burning noon.
Because in Gaza values are different, different, different.

The only value for the occupied is the extent of his resistance to occupation. That is the only competition there. Gaza has been addicted to knowing this cruel, noble value. It did not learn it from books, hasty school seminars, loud propaganda megaphones, or songs. It learned it through experience alone and through work that is not done for advertisement and image.

Gaza has no throat. Its pores are the ones that speak in sweat, blood, and fires.  Hence the enemy hates it to death and fears it to criminality, and tries to sink it into the sea, the desert, or blood. And hence its relatives and friends love it with a coyness that amounts to jealousy and fear at times, because Gaza is the brutal lesson and the shining example for enemies and friends alike.
Gaza is not the most beautiful city.
Its shore is not bluer than the shores of Arab cities.
Its oranges are not the most beautiful in the Mediterranean basin.
Gaza is not the richest city.
It is not the most elegant or the biggest, but it equals the history of an entire homeland, because it is more ugly, impoverished, miserable, and vicious in the eyes of enemies. Because it is the most capable, among us, of disturbing the enemy’s mood and his comfort. Because it is his nightmare. Because it is mined oranges, children without a childhood, old men without old age and women without desires. Because of all this it is the most beautiful, the purest and richest among us and the one most worthy of love.

We do injustice to Gaza when we look for its poems, so let us not disfigure Gaza’s beauty. What is most beautiful in it is that it is devoid of poetry at a time when we tried to triumph over the enemy with poems, so we believed ourselves and were overjoyed to see the enemy letting us sing. We let him triumph, then when we dried our lips of poems we saw that the enemy had finished building cities, forts and streets.
We do injustice to Gaza when we turn it into a myth, because we will hate it when we discover that it is no more than a small poor city that resists.
We do injustice when we wonder: What made it into a myth?
If we had dignity, we would break all our mirrors and cry or curse it if we refuse to revolt against ourselves.

We do injustice to Gaza if we glorify it, because being enchanted by it will take us to the edge of waiting and Gaza doesn’t come to us. Gaza does not liberate us. Gaza has no horses, airplanes, magic wands, or offices in capital cities. Gaza liberates itself from our attributes and liberates our language from its Gazas at the same time. When we meet it—in a dream—perhaps it won’t recognize us, because Gaza was born out of fire, while we were born out of waiting and crying over abandoned homes.

It is true that Gaza has its special circumstances and its own revolutionary traditions. But its secret is not a mystery: Its resistance is popular and firmly joined together and knows what it wants (It wants to expel the enemy out of its clothes)

The relationship of resistance to the people is that of skin to bones and not a teacher to students.
Resistance in Gaza did not turn into a profession or an institution.
It did not accept anyone’s tutelage and did not leave its fate hinging on anyone’s signature or stamp.
It does not care that much if we know its name, picture, or eloquence. It did not believe that it was material for media. It did not prepare for cameras and did not put smiling paste on its face.
Neither does it want that, nor we.
Hence, Gaza is bad business for merchants and hence it is an incomparable moral treasure for Arabs.
What is beautiful about Gaza is that our voices do not reach it. Nothing distracts it; nothing takes its fist away from the enemy’s face. Not the forms of the Palestinian state we will establish whether on the eastern side of the moon, or the western side of Mars when it is explored. Gaza is devoted to rejection… hunger and rejection, thirst and rejection, displacement and rejection, torture and rejection, siege and rejection, death and rejection.
Enemies might triumph over Gaza (the storming sea might triumph over an island… they might chop down all its trees)
They might break its bones
They might implant tanks on the insides of its children and women. They might throw it into the sea, sand, or blood.
But it will not repeat lies and say “Yes” to invaders.
It will continue to explode.
It is neither death, nor suicide. It is Gaza’s way of declaring that it deserves to live.
It will continue to explode
It is neither death, nor suicide. It is Gaza’s way of declaring that it deserves to live.

—Translated by Sinan Antoon, contributor to Mahmoud Darwish: Exile’s Poet, and whose translations of Darwish are forthcoming from Archipelago.
From Hayrat al-`A’id (The Returnee’s Perplexity), Riyad al-Rayyis, 2007.

Ilya Kaminsky & Crisis Thoughts

Saturday, March 14th, 2009

I recently had the chance to hear the prodigious émigré poet Ilya Kaminsky read at Amherst College. Kaminsky has been enormously successful for such a young poet, winning substantial praise and numerous prizes and fellowships. As Kaminsky mentions in his book Dancing in Odessa (Tupelo Press, 2004), he lost his hearing at age 4. Despite this, he reads in one of the most musical, expressive voices I’ve ever heard, working himself into a frenzy as he rises to the crescendo of a line, then falling, breathless, at its conclusion. Because his words can be difficult to make out, he asks the audience to read along with him in the book. Some audience members seemed to think his reading was too theatrical, but I disagree—I hung on his words, letting his voice, rather than the punctuation of the printed lines, dictate the poems’ rhythm.

Kaminsky’s poetry possesses equal measures of childish whimsy and adult sobriety. His verse is full of the remembrances of people, places, and things past—but also serves as proof of their continued existence in sensual memory. Like many émigré poets, Kaminsky suffers the memory of a lost homeland, a childhood that has faded even further because it has been removed by distance. However, the poems are lightened by moments of unexpected and infectious laughter.

Emptiness and silence echo each other, and both are sensed continually. As the poet senses sound through vibration, tapping on furniture, the past, the lost, also find ways to make themselves “heard” in these poems. His grandmother “understood loneliness, hid the dead in the earth like partisans”; his mother “danced … filled the past with peaches, casseroles”; his aunt “hung her husband’s picture on a wall in her apartment. Each month on a different wall. I now see her with that picture, hammer in her left hand, nail in her mouth.” Memory lives in their bodies, in inhabited places; they refuse to succumb to the language of forgetting.

There is a poignant longer poem about Osip and Nadezhda Mandelshtam, a refiguring of the Orpheus myth, in which the usual roles are reversed—Nadezhda preserves her husband’s memory on earth by memorizing all of his poems by heart.

My favorite places in this book are the mini biographical sketches facing poems dedicated to and about various writers: Paul Celan, Isaac Babel, Joseph Brodsky, Marina Tsvetaeva. As far as I can tell, they are all invented, but so apt that one wishes they were much longer than they are.

In this time, when our country is undergoing a rare crisis, the fact that people have survived far greater tragedies than we have is strangely comforting. We are not alone. And we surely haven’t suffered as they did—not yet, at least. The tenor that the media has pitched in response to our financial downfall suggests an utter lack of perspective—or sheer historical ignorance, perhaps. We have been insulated, pampered for too long—we have succeeded while others suffered, and assumed this could go on forever. It can’t.

Once or twice in his life, a man
is peeled like apples.

What’s left is a voice
that splits his being

down to the center.
We see: obscenity, fright, mud

but there is joy of shape, there is
more than one silence.

Kaminsky’s poems do not dwell on the details of various tragedies, either of his life or of his family’s or his people’s history, yet these details are somehow always present, quietly, in the spaces filled by his poems. Which makes such an utterance as “How magical it is to live!” seem not like a naïve exclamation, but the sober gratitude of one who is grateful to have survived.

The epigraph to the book reads, in Russian, “I had a voice.” Perhaps Kaminsky can no longer hear it, but his voice remains.


Chopping onions, cooking ourselves

Monday, March 9th, 2009

“If I had the chance to inform US policy I would advise that agreeing to feed the weak to the strong means sooner or later we will have to cook ourselves.” —Uzma Aslam Khan

Two spots of bright in a week in which I’ve otherwise found myself glum (considering the dark economy, the incomprehensible numbers of dollars to be cut from school budgets already pared by decades of skewed priorities, the way some things don’t seem to be changing fast enough or likely to change at all—how are we going to invade Afghanistan and rescue the world economy at the same time? how long? how long?)

One: Uzma Aslam Khan, whose novel The Geometry of God we’re bringing out in September, has launched—no, let’s scratch the military metaphors; let’s just scratch them—has stirred up two strengthening tonics for us who are weak in her interview on World Pulse and her essay about the Swat Valley and the Taliban. I was glad Uzma introduced us to both these organizations—World Pulse, which covers “global issues through the eyes of women,” and the World Can’t Wait, “which organizes people living in the United States to repudiate and stop the fascist direction initiated by the Bush regime.” And glad for the clarity and vision she distills in her words.

4904Two: The current issue of the Massachusetts Review is a special issue devoted to Grace Paley, of whom Vivian Gornick once wrote, perfectly: “People love life more because of her writing.” I’ve never before read a literary journal from start to finish; Paley’s particular mix of generosity, humor, steely vision, and freeing outrage is still, it turns out, just what I need.

“In a fury of tears and disgust, he wrote on the near blacktop in pink flamingo chalk—in letters fifteen feet high, so the entire Saturday walking world could see—WOULD YOU BURN A CHILD? and under it, a little taller, the red reply, WHEN NECESSARY.
And I think that is exactly when events turned me around… directed out of that sexy playground by my children’s heartfelt brains, I thought more and more and every day about the world.” —from “Faith in a Tree” by Grace Paley


Contemporary Russian Literature: An Introduction

Saturday, March 7th, 2009

As an intern at Clockroot, I’ve devoted part of my time to researching contemporary Russian literature, with the hopes of finding new voices to publish here, and simply to learn more about trends in contemporary writing. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Russian last year, but focused most of my reading on 19th- and 20th-century literature, with very little truly contemporary reading, and little from the latter half of the last century. Thus my interest in plunging into the (to me) unknown.

Some of the questions I hope to explore in my posts are: How do contemporary authors reflect the Russian tradition, as well as Western influences? How is the Russian reading public growing and changing? Is there hope for a rebirth of the “great Russian novel,” and what forms and themes will it project? How can we work toward a more diverse, and yet more representative, representation of Russian voices in English translation? I also hope to touch on Eastern European authors as well, as they both reflect and distance themselves from Russian influences.

Russian literature, perhaps because of the historic weight of its heritage, is fairly well-represented among translated literatures. According to UNESCO’s Index Translationum, Russian is the tenth best-represented language for translations into English of books published between 2000 and 2008, following French, German, Spanish, Danish, Portuguese, Greek, Italian, Japanese, and Dutch. (This ranking includes non-fiction books translated from the source languages.) So it’s not the most neglected literature out there. It is, however, what I know, and being able to speak Russian, I’m capable of exploring works that large English-language publishers may not deem sufficiently interesting or commercially viable to publish in translation.

I make no claims of expertise, but I do hope to share new discoveries & delights from time to time. For the uninitiated, I’ll share a few general resources for getting started on exploring contemporary Russian literature.

The indefatigable publishers of the Glas series deserve great admiration for their devotion to issuing both contemporary authors and authors silenced by the Soviet establishment in English translation. At latest count, they’ve published 42 volumes since 1991, including novels, short story collections, anthologies, and non-fiction from and about Russia, by some of the most popular and important authors of the last century. I particularly recommend The Grassy Street (1998), a collection of stories by Asar Eppel’, a writer and translator largely overlooked in Soviet times. His stories display a Chekhovian delight in detail and the natural world and village life, though “Red Caviar Sandwiches,” about love in and around a dilapidated student dormitory, is also a masterpiece. NINE of Russia’s Foremost Women Writers (2003) provides an informative panorama of recent women’s prose.

I am also heartened by the recent appearance of the journal Rossica, published by the Academia Rossica organization in Britain. In the past, the journal has covered all aspects of Russian culture, but I strongly recommend picking up issue 18 (ROSSICA: Ties of Blood), published last year, which focuses exclusively on contemporary prose and poetry in English translation, with wonderful contributions from Alexander Ilichevsky, German Sadulaev, and Oleg Zaionchkovsky. Academia Rossica has developed an energetic and inclusive approach toward cultural activity, establishing a bi-yearly prize for the best translation from Russian into English in 2005, which, most recently, Joanne Turnbull won for her translation of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. Excitingly, this year they’ve announced a similar competition for young translators from Russian into English.

Perhaps even more excitingly, they will be presenting a series of seminars on topics like “The Russian Book Market in Transition” and “New Russian Writers: The Return of the Great Russian Novel?” at the London Book Fair, with writers Dmitry Bykov, Maria Galina, Olga Slavnikova, Mikhail Shishkin, and others in attendance. A follow-up to last year’s Ties of Blood anthology will also be launched at LBF. I’m quite distressed at not being able to attend myself!

This is probably enough for now. Stay tuned for more ruminations on contemporary Russian and Eastern European writing…


Greece, Inside (and) Out

Thursday, March 5th, 2009

We’re very excited about the March issue of Words Without Borders—edited & with an introduction by Karen Emmerich and focusing on Greek literature.

It includes “Can Anybody Hear Me?” a short story from Ersi Sotiropoulos’s Landscape with Dog, to be released this fall, and an excerpt from Margarita Karapanou’s The Sleepwalker, out in spring 2010. (And if you like that, please do check out Margarita’s Kassandra and the Wolf and Rien ne va plus, coming in the fall). And there’s a wonderful translation of Vassilis Alexakis by Andriana Mastor.

More fantastic work by Words Without Borders! We’re honored to get to be a little part of it this month–