Archive for April, 2009

Local consumption vs. international audiences?

Sunday, April 26th, 2009

This weekend, Clockroot participated in the Juniper Literary Festival, hosted by the MFA Program for Poets and Writers at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst. It was my first time attending, and was truly a wonderful experience. Despite the bleak perspective of the publishing world overall, the small presses, bookstores, and writers represented at the festival seemed not overly gloomy, and possibly even heartened by a growing sense of community, by the need to find creative solutions to the challenges we all face. Most are located within New England.

Eric Lorberer, founding editor of the Rain Taxi Review of Books, gave a great talk on “The New American Renaissance” in literature, tying the historical moment we find ourselves in to the beginnings of American literature and democracy. He brought up Alexis de Tocqueville’s idea of associations as a defining element of American democracy and culture–associations to build schools and churches, to publish books and newspapers, to play music and govern the life of the nation–in short, to do everything. Lorberer made the point that we are much stronger when we band together than when we try to accomplish everything we need to do on our own.

He also argued that book publishing’s fate is intertwined with that of newspapers and magazines. At a time when we may be trying to save ourselves first and foremost, we cannot ignore the serious losses and setbacks that other media are undergoing, he argued, and we must do everything we can to support them. As an example, the drastic cuts in newspaper and magazine coverage of books are already decreasing publishers’ ability to get the word out about their books to potential readers. (Ray Bradbury laments the loss of LA Times’ book section, which he used to write for, here.) More generally, the health of the news media directly reflects the health of our democracy overall, and in consequence, our ability to question and influence cultural trends. And to publish what we like.

A panel with editorial members of the Massachusetts Review, FC2, Slope, and the lit magazine Jubilat also discussed their approaches to problems of editorial curation, funding, and distribution. No small problems. But the thorniest and most interesting issues came up in questions posed by the audience. One audience member asked the panelists what they were doing to strengthen their associations with other members of the small/independent press community. Their answers: trading ads, hosting joint readings. This is a start, and wonderful events like Juniper, which bring many members of this community together (some for the first time), are a strong step in the right direction. But is this really enough? Will it help us weather all the challenges ahead? Are we doing enough to strengthen our associations with people whose values we share and whose projects and successes are important to our own?

(On that note, I think everyone at Clockroot has been inspired by Open Letter and its blog, Three Percent. Personally, I most admire Chad Post’s endless willingness to devote what some publishers see only as personal PR space to promoting other small presses, bookstores, and authors. In keeping with that idea, we hope, I think, to promote here not only Clockroot’s books, but other relevant and deserving presses and authors as well, that we might strengthen each other and work to create new collaborations.)

Pam brought up another hot topic: e-books. Specifically, she asked if any of the panelists were considering implementing any electronic reading technologies. The resounding answer was no. Certainly, the represented organizations’ small sizes and lack of extraneous funds partially explains their reluctance, or the mere impossibility of such projects. But, meaning no disrespect to the panelists, there also seemed to be a general attitude of: “We don’t like it, and we don’t need it.” And like many bibliophiles, I myself will probably always prefer an actual book to an LCD screen. But does this mean that we should dismiss the idea altogether? Doesn’t this decision mean limiting our ability to reach new, unconventional, or simply distant readers? Doesn’t it mean restricting us to an old-fashioned, highly imperfect system of distribution? Should we really make such an important decision based solely on our personal aesthetic preferences?

Most of the presses represented at the fair may be intentionally cultivating a local, regional, or national audience, and so may be perfectly content with this sort of willful self-containment. But Clockroot, as we focus specifically on literary works in translation, draws authors and ideas from all over the world. If we draw works from everywhere, why would we want to limit our ability to find readers who appreciate this work–wherever they happen to be, regardless of our ability to deliver to them in a conventional fashion?

The ideas of consuming locally grown food and locally created products is, I’m sure, also contributing to this debate. And as you may have noticed, Clockroot’s identity is greatly informed by the Pioneer Valley and the sense of cultural community here. This is something we’re all grateful for. But does the desire to support local presses, authors, and bookstores have to be in conflict with creating a more global audience, or learning about the wider world out there? I don’t know the answer to this question, but I would rather entertain it than answer too hastily.


“So that with the backs of their bloody heads the meadows they kissed”

Friday, April 17th, 2009

Last night I went to another wonderful reading at Schoen Books, Susan Bernofsky reading her translations of Robert Walser, particularly The Robber and Walser’s first novel, The Tanners, which is forthcoming from New Directions this summer, with an introduction by Sebald.

Her reading was so loving and precise; she often interrupted herself as she talked about Walser to share another anecdote, another thought, another challenge or pleasure in translating him, so that each statement branched off and escalated into celebration.  She couldn’t help but pause after a passage to note something about how the prose functioned, to note some particular beauty of the German she regretted her English couldn’t convey.  The title of this post was from a sentence in one of the stories in the collection Masquerade, her first translation of Walser’s, and she noted sadly how in English there was no way to finish the long fantastic construction of it–about, if I remember, peasants in the Swiss revolution knocking soldiers off their horses, a brutally effective maneuver as the soldiers’ pointed shoes caught in the stirrups as they fell–with the perfect verb “kissed” as in the German.  A loss.  And it struck me then listening to her that translators are really the most beautiful readers, the readers who are at once so perfectly humbled by and invigorated before the text.

Masquerade, she said, was accepted for publication when she was 22 or 23, which she said happens more and more rarely now; publishers are hesitant to take chances on new translators.  Something to remember.

In answer to a question from the audience, she discussed the mystery of why Walser stopped writing when he entered the asylum, or even whether he did, since there are claims to the contrary.  I hadn’t known anything—is it terrible to admit this?—of his biography before going.  I sat back and listened.  People used to ask him why he no longer wrote, she said, and he would reply “I’m not here to write, I’m here to be mad.”  And as she went on about his time in the asylum, how he dedicated himself to his job gluing paper bags, I thought: this is a small useful metaphor for encountering literature from another language.  One enters abruptly at the middle of the conversation, listening to the perambulations and vertiginousness of Walser’s descriptions, swept up in them while knowing nothing.  Others in the room begin an informed conversation of his life and work and one just soaks it up, each story unfolding unexpectedly into another, all of them unknown.  Or, how any great work comes abruptly out of a life and into the shared language: announcing itself as though it had always been meant to be there, any further explanation failing to enter the space it has made for itself, and which its readers are surprised to note was so empty in them before.

Gogol’s identity crisis

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009

This article from yesterday’s NY Times, spurred by the release of a state-sponsored Russian film adaptation of Gogol’s Taras Bul’ba,  caught my eye. As usual, Russians and Ukrainians will find any cause necessary to argue (in addition to the recent gas crisis, they’ve also disputed the ownership and financing of Anton Chekhov’s estate in Yalta). In short, both parties dispute who “owns” Gogol’ and Taras Bul’ba: Gogol’ was born in what is now Ukraine and spoke Ukrainian, but also spoke Russian fluently, wrote all of his major works in Russian, and spent much of his regrettably short life in Russia. His writings were heavily influenced by both cultures, and his works are commonly cited as one of the foundations of Russian literature (Dostoevsky said that “we all came out from under Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’”).

To me, the answer to this question seems obvious: Gogol’ was neither Russian nor Ukrainian; he was both Russian and Ukrainian. I don’t see who benefits from this argument over Gogol’s ethnic identity–Russian nationalists? Ukrainian nationalists? Surely not readers. This desire to claim a writer as exclusively one’s own seems to me thoroughly childish and in contradiction with the facts. Cultural identity was at that time far more ambiguous and blurred than it is today, and even today, it is more mixed than many people would like to believe. I understand the desire to preserve one’s own culture, and to see outside influences as sometimes nefarious, but isn’t it better when we can find chances to share cultural treasures and admire and respect each other’s cultures, rather than argue about ownership?

I myself am very interested in seeing the adaptation–Taras Bul’ba is one of my favorite works by Gogol’, despite my general dislike of war fiction. The vividness with which Gogol’ depicts Cossack life is, put simply, exhilarating, and with it, his title as a master of realism finally makes sense. And the film’s director, Vladimir Bortko, who was also born in Ukraine, focuses specifically on film adaptations from Russian literature, for which he has a great gift. He somehow managed to make Dostoevky’s notoriously difficult Idiot into a compelling film, a feat I didn’t think was possible. It seems, judging from some statements in the article, that he may have veered too close to propaganda with Bul’ba, which I certainly hope isn’t true. For Gogol’s sake as well as his.


More on the Fall

Monday, April 6th, 2009

It turns out I’m not the only one thinking about post-Soviet realities… Words Without Borders has, apparently, just decided on a name for their upcoming anthology, to be produced in cooperation with Open Letter: The Wall in My Head: Words and Images from the Fall of the Iron Curtain (info via their Facebook page). I’m definitely looking forward to this, because, if I know WWB, it will probably include a wide variety of representative countries and approaches to the topic. No word on a release date yet, but I’ll keep you posted.

Also, as I was thinking about Chad Post’s very depressing post on income and labor conditions for European literary translators, I remembered this in-depth interview with Nora Favorov, a Russian-English translator. She’s not strictly a literary translator, but the interview is valuable in that it talks about her career path, ways of finding work, and the many challenges faced by all translators, literary or not. Most translators have at least an undergraduate degree, while many have advanced degrees or even Ph.D.’s. They must possess both wide general knowledge and sometimes deep specific knowledge on their subject, as well as idiomatic knowledge of the source language and superb facility with English. Despite this, many European, and probably American, literary translators frequently make less than manufacturing wages, according to a CEATL study cited in Chad’s post. Chad suggests some ideas for improving translators’ working conditions. And of course, greater interest in looking beyond our borders would also help foster a better environment for translators.


Queueing up for change

Sunday, April 5th, 2009

I knew I had to read The Queue. Vladimir Sorokin’s first work, published in Russian in 1983 and finally issued last year by NYRB in a fine English translation by Sally Laird, is an ode to that quaint Soviet phenomenon, the line for rare consumer goods. Even today, lines in Russia take on strange shapes and a life of their own; in Soviet times, as Sorokin suggests in a fascinating essay, when waiting in lines for bread, sausage, clothing, and other necessities could easily take up a third of one’s day (or more, should some particularly desirable Western goods arrive), the line had an ordering effect on the mindset of every Soviet citizen. It also provided a forum for the airing of grievances, the creation of temporary friendships (even romances, in Sorokin’s imagination), and finally, for a sense of gratitude for the small but predictable ration allotted to anyone willing to wait in line. My own acquaintances don’t seem to remember these lines so fondly, but members of the older generation–those who were born in Stalin’s time, or shortly thereafter–can look on these lines, and the sense of comforting sameness they provided, with nostalgia.

If the idea of a book premised on waiting in line seems uncompelling, then Sorokin’s accomplishment is all the more impressive. The book’s level of interest is inversely proportional to any fascination its topic may provide. Relying only on dialogue with no narrative markers, Sorokin deftly steers us through the line. His mastery of voice always makes clear the fading in and out of various conversations; he devises long gaps of blank pages to indicate sleep and the passage of time. Unlike reality, Sorokin’s line is always interesting. The clashes of various personalities, vivid humor, and the desire to do whatever it takes to get to the head of the line make the book brisk, and truly enjoyable, reading. Another nice review from Three Percent.

For me, the book is also valuable as a rare (for English-speaking audiences, at least) document of Soviet life seen from the inside. True, the book is a work of fiction, but one that represents a fascinating glimpse of daily life in the Soviet Union. The more I have learned about the daily lives of ordinary people in the USSR, the less American foreign policy towards it makes any sense, the more the Cold War seems a long string of unwarranted absurdities. That we legitimized Stalin–perhaps the one politician who could truly be considered part of an “evil empire”–and heated up our rhetoric, decrying said evil empire exactly when it was already collapsing in on itself, shows just how little pragmatism and basic knowledge American leaders really possessed.

The disconnect between Soviet realities and American political rhetoric is something that has also occurred to me as I read Svetlana Alexievich’s Zacharovannye smert’iu (Enchanted by Death). Unfortunately, the book was never translated into English, although I’m told that portions of it will be used in one of Ms. Alexievich’s upcoming projects. Alexievich is one of the most interesting writers in Russia today; she has covered epoch-making events in the Soviet Union (WWII, Chernobyl) with her unique brand of what I call “documentary writing.” Her works read like fiction–they are very artfully put together–yet they are compiled from Alexievich’s first-hand interviews of witnesses of some of Russian history’s most important events.

The subject of Enchanted by Death is the fall of the Soviet Union, and the crisis it engendered for everyone invested in the Soviet system, but particularly the elderly. In the West, we tend to consider its fall a victory, the winning of a war. Regardless of one’s political convictions, however, in the USSR, the Fall meant the end of life as they knew it. Social markers of stability like pensions and real estate holdings were disrupted and often redistributed by extremely corrupt means; unemployment and poverty were widespread; and the predictability, if lack of choice, of life that we spoke of before was shattered forever. Of course, many young liberals viewed this as an opportunity, and their ranks make up today’s elite oligarchs and politicians. But for elderly people who had invested their entire lives in the system–whether they wanted to or not–the Fall was an unbelievably tragic event.

Enchanted chronicles the suicides of people who felt they had no other choice after the Fall. It occasionally becomes uncomfortably histrionic, which comes with the territory, but it provides a strong antidote to the political propaganda pumped out so continually in this country in the ’80s and ’90s–that the Fall meant “freedom,” “opportunity,” “prosperity.” Of course, these words only became reality with the rise of Putin, a familiar pattern… Though Alexievich’s books have been published in English and many other European languages, this particular message apparently wasn’t one American publishers wanted to hear.

Works of fiction in translation from countries like Iran, North Korea, Cuba–any country that is or has been marked as “enemy” by our government–is all the more deserving for our critical attention. Words Without Borders seized on just this idea for their ingenious anthology Literature from the “Axis of Evil” (New Press, 2006). Interlink Books (Clockroot’s parent company) has also devoted a great deal of energy to bringing international fiction, and especially fiction from Arabic-speaking and Middle Eastern countries, to English-speaking audiences, in the hopes of creating a greater context for mutual understanding in this country (shameless plug–please buy our books!). All too often, governments are confused with their people; the aims of self-interested governments are confused with the ordinary hopes and ambitions of people like ourselves. If we were more cautious with ideology, perhaps we could develop more pragmatic approaches in our foreign politics.

On that note, I’m cautiously awaiting a thaw in US-Russian relations. And the closing of Guantanamo and secret prisons. And the end of the war(s). We’ll see.


P.S. (Forgive me, I know this is already long–) On the subject of Soviet phenomenology of the Fall, I would also highly recommend Nina Gorlanova’s story “Confessional days: in anticipation of the end of the world” in Half a Revolution: Contemporary Fiction by Russian Women (Cleis Press, 1995), which masterfully plays off Bunin’s account of the Revolution of 1917. This is a subject I really wish Americans would find interesting, and understand more deeply…

IMPAC Dublin

Thursday, April 2nd, 2009

The shortlist for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, a €100,000 prize for a work of fiction published in English (including translations) in any country, has just been announced. There are a couple works published by small and independent presses on the list, including Ravel by Jean Echenoz (New Press, 2007). The books are nominated by participating libraries around the globe. Another article.

Other shortlisted titles include:

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz (Dominican / American), Riverhead Books
The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid (Pakistani / British), Hamish Hamilton /  Harcourt / Doubleday, Canada
The Archivist’s Story by Travis Holland (American), Dial Press
The Burnt-Out Town of Miracles by Roy Jacobsen (Norwegian) in translation, John Murray Publishers
The Indian Clerk by David Leavitt (American), Bloomsbury Publishing
Animal’s People by Indra Sinha (Indian / British), Simon & Schuster
Man Gone Down by Micheal Thomas (American), Grove / Atlantic


“This picture is going to stop the war”

Thursday, April 2nd, 2009

In the March 30th New Yorker, there’s a piece called “War Story” by Shauna Lyon, on an exhibit of the work of Eddie Adams, a Pulitzer Prize–winning photographer of the Vietnam war.  Adams took the famous photograph of the police chief of South Vietnam executing a Vietcong suspect.

Toward the end of the piece, Lyons speaks with Chris Hondros, a photographer  who has been to Iraq thirteen times.  I thought the following anecdote of Hondros’s was very telling—but of what, I should be able to say but can’t.  Of our saturation with images (an observation made so often is it now just cliche)?  Our ability always to click away from anything and on to something else?  How an image itself may not be enough, but must be answered by something in the culture, a willingness to see that there may have been in Vietnam and isn’t now?  Vietnam was the first war to take place in people’s living rooms–this is the phrase we learn in high-school history.  So now, if all wars are “in our living rooms” (and yet of course, farther from them than we can imagine), what?

[Hondros] took one photograph, he said, that reminds people of Adams. “It’s a picture of a little girl. It was after a checkpoint shooting with U.S. soldiers. They shot up a car coming toward them, and it turned out it was just an Iraqi family. They killed the parents, who were in the front seat, and the children in the back survived.” Hondros’s picture shows the girl, one of the survivors, crouching at the feet of an American soldier and holding out her hands, which are covered with blood. “It ran all over the world,” he said. “I got a lot of e-mails—‘This picture is going to stop the war, just like Eddie Adams’s picture.’ This was in January, 2005. And that didn’t happen.”