Stochastic Bookmark

abstruse unfinished commentary

about correspondence


BTBA shortlist 2018

Just a quick take on the winnowing of the longlist, as announced at The Millions and 3% (fiction & poetry): as always, sorry to see some of my favorites fall off, glad to see that what piqued interest made it (more at my longlist post), and congrats to Open Letter and Two Lines for their double-entry bookkeeping. And, as usual, I expect I'll end up reading half the shortlist entries. But the turnover among the judges makes it less predictable, not that that isn't a Good Thing, just that my interests seem to be diverging somewhat from the prize criteria (more esoteric? I dunno: has the fiction BTBA become more exoteric?). Looking forward to attending the announcement of the winners (May 31, 6PM, at the Metropolitan Pavilion, 125 W 18th St, NYC).


a long look back

Attention conservation notice: personal reminiscence sans advice, draw what lessons you may.

Today marks a decade since my last full day of work.

A story I liked to tell on my dad:
When I was on the decade plan in college (finished in 9 years, but had a semester's worth of advanced placement), my father would complain, "When are you going to graduate and get a job, you lazy bum?"
So when I finally graduated, and took a position on staff in a NYC programming consultancy, my father asked, "When are you going to get a real job, you lazy bum?"
The consultancy placed me in a research group at Merrill Lynch, which then hired me away, and my father changed his tune.
"Lucky bum."

As, indeed, I was, and am. My career in finance spanned The Great Moderation, which I graduated pretty much just in time for, and I brought a package of skills* in high demand and short supply just as finance was adapting techniques from mathematical physics. Not that I had any idea, it was just stuff I picked up along the way, often at work whilst in and between college (you may have gathered that I was not such a good student by conventional measures, but I was an excellent self-teacher, and I shan't deny other talents) (some of this path previously retraced, though I should note that when I first started as a programmer [cheap, dues to be paid], the only F on my transcript was Intro to Comp Sci [Algol, couldn't be bothered]). Once on Wall Street, I fell quickly on to the fast track, and just as quickly fell off, just as well (never administrated anybody or sold anything, supervising and marketing different story; more a grease monkey than a cog in the machine). So, as a model-maker for market-makers and reconciler of business and risk models, I became a postgrad student of markets, hard work but with an unheard-of stipend (even broke the 1% threshold once, back when it was lower, but only because bonus and severance collided). Yes there were accomplishments, but it would be tedious to list, or read; and while some of these were ostensibly solo, they persistently depended upon a broad array of co-workers and their diverse skills and talents, and not just within my department. But I served with distinction, among which, my last employer declared me redundant, twice over (albeit a decade apart).

So I left between the Bear Stearns and Lehman Bros fails, but didn't know it was for good. I thought I'd sit out the coming round of Musical Chairs, but further events interceded: divorce (my wife's career restarted as mine wound down), a Cipro misadventure, and Irenic wrath ... by which point my shelf life was past expiration date. But a 5-figure lifestyle on a 6-figure income left enough to last long enough (I hope), and time enough for nonremunerative but otherwise rewarding pursuits.

* maths, stats, tech writing, programming: I stumbled into APL without knowing it was a Wall St fave; nor that my homegrown knowledge was top-notch, until the consultancy shoe-horned me into an interview (2 strikes against) wherein I requested an ashtray while taking the tech exam (+ foul tips), which I knocked out of the park. Wholly unplanned but not unforeshadowed: my high school yearbook quote was "Technology has brought meaning into the lives of many technicians." Nowadays, such a mix is often prerequisite to entry-level interviews.


BTBA longlist 2018

This year's BTBA longlist was published Tuesday at The Millions, and repeated (with publisher links) at 3% and with commentary by M.A. Orthofer at The Literary Saloon. I've read a quarter of the nominees, and won't repeat MAO's comments with which I generally agree, but will add that it's odd to see so little representation from Eastern Europe (just Poland, unless one counts East Germany post-unification). (Also, I picked up David Grossman's A Horse Walks into a Bar, expecting to see it listed, but, no.) Of the listed titles that I haven't encountered, the one that most piques my interest is Wu He's Remains of Life (the sole university press offering), then Bergsson's Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller; and I expect and want to see the shortlist (May 15) include Volodine, Hilbig, Schweblin, and Tabucchi (expect but don't particularly want Énard and Fresán). And besides the triple listigs for Open Letter and Feminist Press, congrats to the presses that had two titles selected: Archipelago Books, New Directions, and Two Lines Press. More discussion is being hosted by Trevor (The Mooksie and the Gripes) over at goodreads. (add 17.4: also continuing coverage at 3%: Why This Book Should Win.)


dust collects in the corners of the poem
in places hard to reach
underneath and behind or way above
a slight disturbance in the air
sends motes swarming into sunbeams

(also, a new appendage to legend)


points elsewhere

While we await US release of Border Districts, Blair Mahoney [aka Funhouse] shares his account of encountering Gerald Murnane in Goroke (previously, my selecting Barley Patch as best of '11)
image: Joy Salt via

add 26.1: another report, from PRDaily
add 6.2 Murnane's Goroke address


the year in the rest and the best of it

The prior two posts cover current fiction in translation and poetry, each of which accounted for a quarter of my reading overall (another quarter consisting of older translated fiction). Of the current fiction, Can Xue, Wolfgang Hilbig, Yuri Herrera, Jenny Erpenbeck, and Antonios di Benedetto and Tabbuchi all met high expectations, even if not their best; so too with Pierre Senges and Antoine Volodine (perhaps at their best), but Samanta Schweblin's Fever Dream and Olga Tokarczuk's Flights surpassed even their raves. Of the poetry, in English, Tyehimba Jess' Olio was the standout, edging out Monica Youn's Blackacre (and reading Berryman's Dream Songs in proximity didn't hurt, nor broader background), and in translation, Luljeta Lleshanaku's Haywire.

Other readings that exceeded high expectations:
Christa Wolf, Cassandra (Jan Van Heurck) [FSG] brilliant in concept and execution, the essays following more interesting than most critiques
Mike McCormack, Solar Bones [Soho] the hour or day of reckoning
the latter my first exposure; other authors who've I'd not encountered and who impressed include Tarjei Vesaas (The Ice Palace, The Birds) and Tor Ulven (Replacement) (both overcoming my aversion to scandifiction), Antonio Moresco (Distant Light), Yiyun Li (The Vagrants) ...

... and from The Bookshelf of Good Intentions: James Joyce, Finnegans Wake [Penguin]: must say something, what I said along the way:
(after part I): funny how a book of such reputation hinges largely upon reputation; and speaking of gossip and such, such modalities: he do the puhleeze in different joyces; I knew going in it was circular but it's more matryoshka without an outside, everything nested within everything else
(after part 2): many a novel throw one into the middle right off but few manage to keep one in the muddle the whole way thru
(and once the whole way thru) (with the prop of Campbell & Robinson's Skeleton Key, which was the Baedecker at hand, not so much an analysis as a gloss, but all such inadequate anyway to the multischema underlying; also appreciate Anthony Burgess' appreciation in ReJoyce), my first take is closest to that of Waggish (except that I put in weeks rather than months) (cf further reflections), and might elaborate further that the collisions are inelastic, everything holds together because it sticks together, whether at the level of portmanteau words or twisting turns of phrase (both of which along with the musicality serves to slow one down) or semiotectonics or modes and registers or architexture ... could say more about the chaotic neurotic indeterminancy and humor but it's still settling, unsettled ... and I have a substantive disagreement with one characterization, though I'm no expert: Joyce doesn't create a universe, he recycles the one we got (same with the language) ... on musicality, Skeleton Key and ilk may be thought fake books, but then so too the Wake itself to an even larger music (which also plays into encyclopaediac aspect).

And even with all this I'm leaving out some worthies, so: the year's full reading list


the year in poetry

What I've read rather than what's been published this year (small overlap) (and rather more each year, at least proportionately), similarly collated chronologically with unqualified short takes:

Pegasus Descending: a book of the best bad verse (James Camp, X.J. Kennedy, Keith Waldrop eds) [Burning Deck]: unfortunately no Stuffed Owl
Benjamin Fondane, Cinepoems and Others (var, Leonard Schwartz ed) [nyrbpoets]: strong selection across oeuvre of Romanian/French small-s surrealist [3AM]
Ezra Pound, Cathay: The Centennial Edition (Zhaoming Qian,ed) [New Directions]: historical significance (and controversies) overshadows merits (but does not reduce them)
Angélica Freitas, Rilke Shake (Hilary Kaplan) [Phoneme]: 2016 BTBA poetry winner, blending hi/lo working best for titular sequence, only occasionally otherwise [3%; samples]
Proensa: An Anthology of Troubadour Poetry (Paul Blackburn) [nyrb]: good broad scope, fair rendering [RainTaxi]
Monica Youn, Blackacre [graywolf]: justly a contender for NBCC NBA PEN awards, strong and well-crafted [Stephen Burt's pick of '16 & interview]
Stephen Edgar, The Red Sea: New & Selected Poems [Baskerville]: put on to this by Clive James; selected well judged new less so
Tyehimba Jess, Olio [Wave]: delivers (partly on the strength of the underlying material and grounding and selection, partly on method [Susan Howe comes to mind]) ... it was on the radar as finalist at NBCC (poetry) and PEN (Jean Stein) and won the Pulitzer [topical cf]
Szilárd Borbély, Berlin-Hamlet (Ottilie Mulzet) [nyrb/poets]: a braid of postwar Berlin a la Benjamin, Hamlet, Kafka, and some Hungarian poets with whom I'm not familiar, more cumulative effect than local brilliance [BTBA poetry finalist]
Robert Creeley, Collected Poems 1945-1975 [California]: the stuff from the 60s and either side a couple years is Creeley at his best, syntactical master; what preceded (and to a lesser extent succeeded) more often slighter (not a function of brevity) but worthwhile beyond merely tracking development
John Berryman, The Dream Songs [FSG]: still filling in holes in my understanding of development of US poetry ...
Elsewhere (Eliot Weinberger, ed) [Open Letter]: small selection of translated travel poetry, loosely connected, Paris/NY/LA etc from outside [excerpt]
Abdellatif Laâbi, In Praise of Defeat (Donald Nicholson-Smith) [archipelago]: poems from across career selected by the author, French and englishing on facing pages, some of the music of language lost but that of idea preserved, runnerup for 2107 poetry BTBA [QC]
Odysseus Elytis, The Sovereign Sun (Kivion Friar) [Temple]: yes good but short of Cavafy, Seferis even as wider-ranging
John Kinsella, Jam Tree Gully [WWNorton]: Bush Thoreau, of place and place within, certainly competent but not my cuppa [JK thereon]
Susan Howe, Debths [NDP]: a little of everything that came before, a little of that this ... [Boston Review]
Luljeta Lleshanaku, Haywire: New and Selected Poems (various) [Bloodaxe] combines NDP's (US) Fresco & Child of Nature with a handful of new poems. (arguably) foremost among post-Hoxha Albanian poets, warmly recommended: from Peter Constantine's intropening:
Luljeta Lleshanaku is a pioneer of Albanian poetry. She speaks with a completely original voice, her imagery and language always unexpected and innovative. Her poetry has little connection to poetic styles past or present in America, Europe, or the rest of the world. And, interestingly enough, it is not connected to anything in Albanian poetry either. We have in Lleshanaku a completely original poet.
Theodore Roethke, The Collected Poems [Anchor]: after mediocre debut (despite reception, and I'm being generous) hit his stride in the late 40s early 50s but after seldom returned to what made that work (eg North American Sequence), too often giving rhyme (if often slant) and meter precedence
Jean Toomer, The Collected Poems (ed Robert B. Jones & Margery Toomer Latimer) [UNC]: Curious sidebar to Harlem Renaissance; selection from aesthetic, ancestral consciousness, objective consciousness (Gurdjieff), and christian existential (Quaker) periods, incl from Cane in second case, and "The Blue Meridian" (Whitmanic) in third.
Nicanor Parra, Antipoems: How to look better and feel great (Liz Werner) [NDP]: good fun, sometimes slight but oft with bite of wit: eg via Bashō, "el poeta se viste de hombre rana / y se zambulle en la pileta del parque" (the poet dresses up as a frogman / and kerplunks into the pool in the park) [MAO; Edith Grossman]
Robert Desnos, Essential Poems and Writings (Mary Ann Caws ed and et al) [Black Widow]: less essential than I'd hoped, Desnos rightly overshadowed, though not without moments or merits
Virginia Hamilton Adair, Living on Fire [RandomHouse]: a fall-off from Ants on the Melon [downscroll]
Yu Jian, Flash Cards (Wang Ping & Ron Padgett) [Zenith]: Billy Collins-ish [WLT, 3%]

on deck: Guiseppe Gioachino Belli, Sonnets (Mike Stocks) [Oneworld] something to follow on Burgess' ABBA ABBA & Peter Dale's Strine

to be acquired: Thom Gunn, Selected Poems ...


the year in translation

Despite constraints on reading (& blogging) I've managed to read a score of BTBA-eligible titles this year, half of which I expect to be longlisted ... but which half? collated and enhanced from litchat through the year:

Pierre Senges, Fragments of Lichtenberg (Gregory Flanders) [Dalkey]: a fine conceit ambitiously overcooked [MAO]
Gerard Reve, The Evenings (Sam Garrett) [Pushkin]: effective portrait & landscape, but not as bowled over as MAO ...
Samanta Schweblin, Fever Dream (Megan McDowell) [Riverhead]: wow (expect MBIP BTBA shortlisting) [MBIP shadow panelist(s), M&L]
Bae Suah, Recitation (Deborah Smith) [Deep Vellum]: statelessness and shamandipity; instabilities of character, place (urban), time, family ... there are bits that are a bit much, worthwhile nonetheless [M&L]
Can Xue, Frontier (Karen Gernant & Chen Zeping) [Open Letter]: lives up to the hype (what little there's been of it) and its title, which it does not describe or inscribe so much as enact, blurring chronology geography identity relation etc in her own sharply distinctive way [M&L, #5]
Mathias Énard, Compass (Charlotte Mandel) [New Directions]: very good verging on great (and yes put Hedayat on my list) but to cavil, there's a falling off in the last fifth +/-, less density, a more conventional tendency towards narrative resolution even if only in part, yes inherently anticlimactic but not managed as well as what preceded, not reading becoming easier by acclimation but by relaxation (and yes it may be intended as such but [MAO]
Antoine Volodine, Radiant Terminus (Jeffrey Zuckerman) [Open Letter]: between this and Lesson 11 I think I have a feel (and respect) for the project, in its best manifestations, but not tempted to go whole hog [LARB]
Antonio Di Benedetto, Nest in the Bones (Martina Broner) [archipelago]: short stories (up to novelette length) spanning his career and range, some better than Zama (which was much less scantily reviewed)
Antonio Tabucchi, For Isabel: A Mandala (Elizabeth Harris) [ARChipelago]: Tabucchi's range continues to surprise [#5]
Yuri Herrera, Kingdom Cons (Lisa Dillman) [& Other Stories]: worth the wait, in gold [MAO]
Olga Tokarczuk, Flights (Jennifer Croft) [Fitzcarraldo]: ibid (but UK distrib only not BTBA eligible)
Rodrigo Fresán, The Invented Part (Will Vanderhyden) [Open Letter]: So so pomo, too pop despite touchstones shared, more DFW than Pynchon et al, some moments some even longer but some slog [#5]
Gisèle Prassinos, The Arthritic Grasshopper: Collected Stories, 1934-1944 (Henry Vale and Bonnie Ruberg) [Wakefield]: footnoteworthy, highlights Surrealism's indebtedness to folktales (again not my thang so much), Verne, etc [biblioklept]
César Aira, The Little Buddhist Monk / The Proof (Nick Caistor) [NDP]: different in that stories take own momentum wherever [MAO-MAO]
Anne Garréta, Not One Day (Emma Ramadan, w/author) [Deep Vellum]: memories of desire, memory of desires; falls off a little in postscriptum [MAO]
Christine Angot, Incest (Tess Lewis) [archipelago]: separations with an immediacy to efface but not erase distances between (incl author-text-reader); distinct from autofiction (per author) (questions of subjectivity, subjectivities questioned)
Wolfgang Hilbig, Old Rendering Plant (Isabel Fargo Cole) [Two Lines]: fat of the land gone rancid [QC; translator interview]
Andrés Barba, Such Small Hands (Lisa Dillman) [Transit]: orphanning the flames, tight but slight [MAO; interview]
Bae Suah, North Station (Deborah Smith) [Open Letter]: Korean takes on Europe esp Germany, surreal episodic dreamy and digressive, strands between incidents almost incidental
Jenny Erpenbeck, Go Went Gone (Susan Bernofsky) [NDP]: dislocations de jure et de facto, multilayered and mostly deft [NYer]

Raduan Nassar, A Cup of Rage (Stefan Tobler) [Penguin]: lovehate dehyphenated (inseparable or unseverable), powerful (read last year, UK distrib only; now [NDP]) [MAO]
Han Kang, Human Acts (Deborah Smith) [Portobello]: haven't read The Vegetarian, chose this because supposedly better than, and it's that good (ibid; now [Hogarth]) [3AM]

Waiting ominously on the shelf:
Luis Goytisolo, Recounting: Antagony, Book I (Brendan Riley) [Dalkey] [TMN]

Amd yet to be acquired (though there may still be others):
László Krasznahorkai, The World Goes On (John Bakti) [New Directions] [4columns]
Daša Drndić, Belladonna (Celia Hawkesworth) [New Directions] [M&L]

Finally, only one poetry BTBA-eligible under my belt (will await the longlist before loosening):
Proensa: An Anthology of Troubadour Poetry (Paul Blackburn) [nyrb]: good broad scope, fair rendering [RainTaxi]

More to follow ...


Literary translation: a matter of import

This is a difficult post to pull together. I could speak of what translated literature means to me, but that might not mean that much to you. So I'll try to confine myself to what it means to us.

But who's (or whose) us? Readers, certainly, particularly those who read literature in preference to, say, genre fiction (not that there's no overlap). Still, the effects are far wider, as word and story permeate other media (and vice versa). And as the arts are permeable, so too culture: f'rinstance, one foundation stone of Modernism is Pound's free translation of classical Chinese poetry. To "make it new" one must see it anew, from unfamiliar perspectives or in different contexts. I will not speak of cultures, as such are merely thematic variations on universal human urges, drawing upon disparate resources, some local, some from beyond the horizon ... often, it's the latter that revitalizes the former. And as distances diminish, our world expands.

Languages provide modes of expression that recalibrate distances, redraw the map, somewhat akin to geometries or topologies, with variations not just between but within them (from dialect all the way down to idiolect). Insights that occur naturally in one language may be harder to accomplish in another; literature traffics in more elaborate insights, drawing deeply upon the resources of language, and literary translation captures what's essential to it, not the destination but the journey, or more geometrically, the transformation. (I've previously drawn the analogy to musical transcription, but changes to coordinate systems are also apt; it all works because the underlying matter is the same.)

The above is more sketch than exposition, but I hope it conveys the importance I attach to literature in translation and to the processes and people who support it: not only the translators (for whom it is more a labor of love than of money), but also the publishers and promoters (for whom, similarly), which is why I natter on so about the BTBA. Fortunately, the number of non-profit cultural conduits has increased in recent years (and continues: welcome aboard, Transit Books! and there's a slew of others [pdf] deserving of mention). Unfortunately, a keystone to the support system, the National Endowment for the Arts, is under siege, despite its making a little go a long way (as may also be said of the non-profits); many foundations and state agencies use NEA grants as indicators for what's worthy of their support. The ensuing uncertainties have only added to the precarities of publishing literature in translation.

So here comes the ask.

Archipelago Books (on whose board I serve) has launched its annual fundraising drive. I've long been a supporter (and fan) of the press, as the diversity of its efforts have consistently maintained a high standard of quality; this spring it embarked on another tack, bringing children's literature in translation into play with a new imprint, Elsewhere Editions. And recognition keeps coming, for specific titles as well as for overall efforts: Jill Schoolman will be receiving the Ottaway award from Words Without Borders in November. Such recognition helps, but in the current environment, individual support is more important than ever, in itself and again as an indicator for foundations and others. Numbers matter, beyond dollars: the scope of individual support influences other funding sources and the politicians in whose hands rests the fate of the NEA. So give what you can. It's worth it. (Another opportunity to show support, in person, is the Fall Fête on Oct 5 at the Wythe. Hope to see you there!)

previously, previously