The Center for the Art of Translation has started what promises to be a wonderful new blog on all things literary & international, “Two Words”. The CAT has been putting out its fantastic anthologies of works in translation, Two Lines, for some time—the newest, Wherever I Lie is Your Bed, edited by Margaret Jull Costa and Marilyn Hacker (and, which we’re really looking forward to, with a special section on Palestinian poetry!), will be out soon, ready now for preorder.
At Clockroot we’re very happy to note that Wherever I Lie is Your Bed will also include “Rain at the Construction Site,” a story from our forthcoming Landscape with Dog and Other Stories by Ersi Sotiropoulos, translated by Karen Emmerich. For this reason, the CAT blog is doing a feature on Ersi’s work—I’ve written a little note myself, and there will be an interview with Karen about translating Ersi up next week. Many thanks to Scott Esposito, who has headed all this (and so much else, really, of all the great literary discussions that happen online) up.
In case you’re too lazy to click over (though do check out the new blog!), here are my own few thoughts about the great pleasure of working with Ersi’s writing, and we’ll repost Karen’s too once they’re up—
I fell into the extraordinary luck of editing the English translation of Ersi Sotiropoulos’s novel Zigzag through the Bitter-Orange Trees at the age of 24. So really I came of age as an adult reader and as an editor with Ersi’s work, and I find I can’t pretend to write about her in any objective, academic manner. But I suspect Ersi’s writing would resist that approach from anyone. I imagine that if you started a proper paper about her—a paper with the beginning, middle, and end that Ersi dreads—you’d find yourself taking the dog for a walk, although he had been sleeping, or going out for cigarettes, although there were plenty in the drawer. Your night would end not having produced a well-thought-out analysis but having spent hours tending to some scarred-up but chafing memory, or looking vaguely for an old acquaintance better left alone.
This is how it is with Ersi’s writing: the stories in Landscape with Dog start something like stories you know, adept in a vivid, punchy realism, and end somewhere much more upsetting. To steal her words from “The Pinball King,” it’s like “when you think you recognize a silhouette on the street and follow it for a few blocks, then turn down some other street without finding out who it was.” This without-finding-out is a great summary of her work: it’s not that she leaves you hanging, but that she makes you see how in fact you leave yourself hanging. In Zigzag through the Bitter-Orange Trees you drift along in the four characters’ dark humor and lyrically rendered apathy, to realize later that you have been complicit in what could only properly be described as their amorality. Did there have to be quite so many spitting contests? one reviewer bemoaned of Zigzag. Yes, of course: Ersi’s writing makes one dwell in just these interludes, these drawn-out meeting points of pleasure and disregard. How we like to watch the spit roll down the television screen, how many hours we waste in ways we’d never say. Ersi draws her characters with empathy and an eye for vibrant, even harsh detail; then leaves just enough space within and among them to devastate us. In this way her work becomes its singular combination of tender and voyeuristic: No, really, look, she says, and thrusts before our noses some perfect, biting line of dialogue, some image of an Athens that, even if we’ve never been there, rings so true it sets our teeth on edge. It’s hard to write about Ersi’s work because it’s as hard and as easy as saying, we see ourselves in it. And, more frighteningly, we are seen.