Stochastic Bookmark

abstruse unfinished commentary

about correspondence


BTBA, sorely missing

I was disappointed but not surprised that the Best Translated Book Award remains in abeyance, the announcement buried in Chad Post's 3% update:
When we put [the BTBA] on hiatus in 2020, it totally made sense. The world was ending! Everything was on fire! But now, three years later, the world is still on fire (maybe even more so), and we haven’t done a single thing.
There are two-three issues at play here. First off, the funding from Amazon dropped over the past few years, and without any other organization/angel donor to step in . . . well, reducing the prize money is a step in the wrong direction.
Secondly, the time required to coordinate fourteen judges, accept and log over six hundred submissions, and properly promote all the longlist/shortlist/winners is a lot. (Time is the villain of this post.)
Finally, I want it to be different from the National Book Award for Translated Literature and the Man Booker International. But how? What is the rationale? What makes it interesting?
If you have ideas and ambition and desire, hit me up. (Preferably by text. I’m embracing my worst email habits at this time.)
I share Chad's predilection for "pro-experimental weird literature", and the long and the short of the BTBA lists were an unparalleled resource for finding it (although moreso in its earlier years). Part of the genius of its structure was the inclusion of independent booksellers (along with translators) as judges, however much their incentives might misalign (not so evident to me as Chad makes out, given the interdependence of indie bookstores and indie presses, but he's earned the right to complain, though how such serves to reboot the award is a bit of a mys[t]ery). And BTBA's continuance, however much to be desired, is of less moment than Chad's involvement in keeping Dalkey Archive afloat. Meanwhile, he's had a sliver of time to update the Translation Database ...


another year in reading

Again, a bit shy of 100 titles. Over 2/3 in translation (which the TLS best books gave short shrift: first year I hadn't read any of their selections), whether prose or poetry. [NB: All links below lead to M.A. Orthofer's Complete Review.]

Substantial works included S.Y. Agnon's Only Yesterday (Barbara Harshav) [Princeton] and Peter Weiss' The Aesthetics of Resistance Vol II (Joel Scott) [Duke] (for which I had to reread Vol I, hoping Vol III forthcoming sooner). University presses also supplied new englishings of foundational works: Mateiu Caragiale's Rakes of the Old Court (Sean Cotter) [Northwestern] and Alexander Griboedov's Woe from Wit (Betsy Hulick) [Columbia].

My favorite press, Archipelago Books, had a strong list this year, from which I read short story compendiums from Kjell Askildsen and Saadat Hasan Manto, poetry from Giuseppe Ungaretti and Nabaneeta Dev Sen, and novels: Jean Giono's Ennemonde (Bill Johnston), Hanne Ørstavik's The Pastor (Martin Aitken) and Andrea Bajani's If You Kept a Record of Sins (Elizabeth Harris), that last the best I've read so far but I still have Willem Frederik Hermans' A Guardian Angel Recalls on the shelf ...

New York Review Books also kept me busy, between Walter Kempowski, Victor Serge, Adalbert Stifter, Natalia Ginzburg, and Aleksandar Tišma (just to mention the high points). The best from other presses were:
David Albahari, Götz and Meyer (Ellen Elias-Bursać) [Dalkey]
Miroslav Krleža, On the Edge of Reason (Zora Depolo) [NDP]
Luis Sagasti, Fireflies (Fionn Petch) [Charco]
Federico Falco, A Perfect Cemetery (Jennifer Croft) [Charco]
Thomas Bernhard, The Cheap-Eaters (Douglas Robertson) [Spurl]
Eric Chevillard, The Crab Nebula (Jordan Stump & Eleanor Hardin) [Nebraska]
Linda Boström Knausgård, Welcome to America (Martin Aitken) [World Editions]
Vladimir Sharov, Be as Children (Oliver Ready) [Dedalus]
I could go on and on with honorable mentions, but too many to mention.

As for books written in English, I read little of this year's offerings: Cynthia Ozick's Antiquities was the stand-out, but Joshua Cohen's The Netanyahus merits mention. Otherwise, I completed William Gaddis and Ann Quin, filled in James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, and in poetry, Nobel laureate Louise Glück's Poems 1962-2012.

All in all, a good year in reading, if not in posting.


another year another post

... to mark another bloggiversary, albeit a thin one; this is the longest I've gone without posting since inception. Part of it is that the BTBA was deferred until next year; I'd mentioned that 3% had planned to review (via podcasts) all the past winners, but that too was shelved due to other commitments (such as keeping Dalkey Archive going and marking where it's been). I'd thought of posting something along similar lines myself (having read the majority of the poetry and nearly all the fiction winners), but found it more a matter of my tastes than of intrinsic merits (if that's what the judges' tastes are). It seems that my tastes have diverged somewhat from those of prize-givers more generally (less so with BTBA than with other awards) in working out what it is I need to read. The need to write, on the other hand, is less pressing, at least for the time being.


2020 in perspective

A difficult year, even for reading: I fell short of 100 books again (as I had in 2018). Not that the circumstances affected my daily routine as much as most, but they did distract. It seems as though buzz and prize lists were skewed towards debuts, good as such but not quite of the requisite caliber, and of course the topical became all the more so. So, four picks for each of four categories, spare on the commentary:

Of what came out this year, what stood out:
Mercè Rodoreda, Garden by the Sea (Maruxa Relaño & Martha Tennent) [Open Letter]
Aleksandra Lun, The Palimpsests (Elizabeth Bryer) [Godine/Verba Mundi] (yes a debut, but exophonic fun)
José Eduardo Agualusa, The Society of Reluctant Dreamers (Daniel Hahn) [archipelago]
Tomás González, Difficult Light (Andrea Rosenberg) [archipelago]
(Archipelago provided many other riches for me this year: Pla, Mukasonga, Vladislavić, Kovačič, and from last year Khoury, Ikonomou, Onetti ... also from last year, but from Verso, Vigdis Hjorth, as I mentioned this mid-year)

So, rewards were to be found in backtracking translations:
Antoine Volodine, Minor Angels (Jordan Stump) [Nebraska]
Antoine Volodine, Bardo or Not Bardo (J.T. Mahany) [Open Letter]
Siegfried Lenz, The German Lesson (Ernest Kaiser & Eithne Wilkins) [New Directions]
Wolfgang Koeppen, Death in Rome (Michael Hofmann) [WWNorton]
(Also among the worthy, I filled in Kadare & Nooteboom, along with first encounters with Ruth Kluger [thx2 Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau] & Ricarda Huch)

Similarly, the best reading of English originals was stuff I'd long missed:
Helen Garner, The Children's Bach [text]
Edmund White, Forgetting Elena [Vintage]
Fran Ross, Oreo [NDP] (thx2 biblioklept)
Toni Morrison, Jazz [Vintage]

And the best of the poetry was all in translation:
Hilda Hilst, Of Death, Minimal Odes (Laura Cesarce Eglin) [co-im-press] (2019 BTBA)
Selected Poems of Su Tung-p'o (Burton Watson) [Copper Canyon]
Yves Bonnefoy, Together Still (Hoyt Rogers w/ Mathilde Bonnefoy) [Seagull]
Etel Adnan, Time (Sarah Riggs) [Nightboat] (2020 BTBA & Griffin)

So that's a wrap. Maybe a bad wrap, but I guess it's a fair cop.


In Memory

Amid the noise and clamor attending the acquisition of Simon & Schuster by Penguin Random House, a more consequential merger transpired this past week, with Deep Vellum folding in Dalkey Archive on the occasion of the demise of the latter's founder, John O'Brien. His legacy extends beyond the press and its associated efforts (The Review of Contemporary Fiction, CONTEXT), which itself speaks volumes, to the mentorship and advice proffered to many now involved in publishing, especially of literary translation. An idealistic vision tempered by clear-sighted pragmatism governed his endeavors (as is evident in conversations from 2009 and earlier), which will be no less durable despite his absence. Nonetheless, it comes at a difficult time for literature in translation, not solely due to but exacerbated by the ravages of lockdown on independent publishers and booksellers alike; there was a pre-Covid drop-off from the plateau in the mid-tweens, and now circumstances put the 2021 BTBA off (even prior to Chad Post's assumption of a continuing role in the merged press, which inspires confidence). Better days are ahead, but we have to get to them first, and that depends on our ongoing support for non-profit publishing of literature in translation, which would be fitting tribute to John O'Brien's vision.

add: tributes from John Toomey and Chad Post


Crystal Bloggiversary

Hard to believe that I've been doing this for fifteen years, even if it's slowed way down, keeping my wheel to the shoulder rather than the other way round, feel free to pass. Of course, nowadays blogging seems as quaint a vehicle as an Amish buggy, but I've been online nearly twice as long, always involved in some forum or other, talking books*, yet another outmoded medium, as for that matter the written word is being forsaken for image or emoji. Yeah, that's overblown, what with all the would-be writers, unlike say the coarsening of public reasoned discourse (promoted in and by the late lamented blogosphere, which is really merely less prominent) in other media (where I steer clear). That this here blog is public is almost incidental; it's more a matter of collecting my thoughts and giving them intelligible form, sharing more an afterthought, and as I've said before, my writing is mostly in the service of my reading. Part of the difficulty in adding to this accretion is in not restating what went before; another part is that much of what I'm thinking requires overarching context that's just too much work to elaborate (the occasional nonliterary post provides a bit of that). Also, I tend towards a succinctity meant to be unpacked in multiple but complementary ways.

One upside of such sporadic posting is that my last visit to the Bookshelf of Good Intentions is still on the front page. So this time round, a reread of Homer (after 50 years!), Fagles rather than Pope (well, also Stephen Wolfram's A New Kind of Science, but that's a whole nother thang). Seemed timely, since reading The Odyssey's conflict between Zeus and Poseidon coincides with Jupiter and Saturn being visible in the otherwise sparse metro area night sky (and then that is now there's Alice Oswald ...)

And a downward glissando (that is, quick notes, in descending order) on BTBA reads since my last post (EEG took the title):
Vigdis Hjorth, Will and Testament (Charlotte Barslund) [Verso]: dysfunction radiating thru family ties that bind, delayed reveal intrinsic to plot [TWR]
Christos Ikonomou, Good Will Come From the Sea (Karen Emmerich) [archipelago]: follow-on to Something Will Happen, You'll See, which was tauter though less interwoven [BOMB]
Ariana Harwicz, Die, My Love (Sarah Moses & Carolina Orloff) [Charco]: Mommie Direst, postpartum manic depression [LatAmLit]
Selva Almada, The Wind That Lays Waste (Chris Andrews) [Graywolf]: evangelical fabular encounter, well wrought but not too remarkable [pshares]

The biennial collection of throwaway lines:
wash your face don't touch your elbow hand in your cough and stay at least six feet away from home
in lowercase no one can hear you scream
parody is the sincerest form of irony
do I ruin it for the kiddies when I tell them the ball pit is bouncy rubble?
so, liquid propane gas, which is it, liquid, gas, or just a phase it's going through?
semi-autofiction comes with trigger warnings
he couldn't get the clock to run backwards so he mounted it in the corner next to the mirror on the adjoining wall but it still gave the correct time from behind the mirror
every integer can be represented using a decimal point followed by an infinite number of nines, except zero
been so busy lately I had to spend the weekend catching up on my procrastination
(on Dec31) I'd like to apologize to everybody I called just after midnight to wish a happy New Year's Eve. But they're not taking my calls any more.

* this spring saw an online reunion of the NYTimes BookForum, 20 years after I'd joined; despite efforts to start anew, it quickly petered out ... its independent rump successor forum was also recently wiped clean, while readerville (Salon TableTalk successor) was disappeared some long time ago. Activity on the surviving forum I frequent has also waned (mine included). And a sad if inevitable end of an era: Evelyn C. Leeper of Usenet's rec.arts.books (where I newbied) has shut down her bookstore page ...


BTBA 2020 longlist

I'd read fewer of the BTBA-eligible works this past year, on the order of 3% (funny how that number always seems to crop up). This year's nominees are more promising than last; though I've only read two of the fiction and one of the poetry so far (on which more below, along with honorable mentions of some that I thought would make the longlist), several of the others have been on my radar, and a couple already on order.

For publishers on the fiction list, FSG tops the list with three entries, while Archipelago and Graywolf return after a year's absence with two apiece, two also for Knopf (including its Pantheon imprint). And Charco makes the cut in its first year of eligibility (though I'd expected Margarita Garcia Robayo's Fish Soup (Charlotte Coombe), Columbian out-and-downer shorts [LARB] to be the one selected), while Verso makes its first appearance (Vigdis Hjorth, on order). Meanwhile, Deep Vellum and Coffee House dropped out; I thought the latter's Mario Levrero, Empty Words (Annie McDermott), discursive handwriting (and handwringing) [NPR] might make the list (looking forward to The Luminous Novel).

So, a few words on the little I've read so far:

Juan Carlos Onetti, A Dream Come True (Katherine Silver) [Archipelago]: short stories often centered on residents of the river town Santa Maria, another Yoknapatawpha County (Faulkner's influence marked) or Macando (Onetti cited by Garcia Marquez, Vargas Llosa and Fuentes as an influential precursor). Hits his stride in the '40s and keeps going strong.

Daša Drndić, EEG. (Celia Hawkesworth) [New Directions]: fatal illness of History, neveragain overandover ... kinda cumulative kinda accretive kinda what-the-hell, see also MAO: though this is cumulative, I agree that the others are better, sort of the same as with another book I'd expected to see selected, Laszlo Krasnahorkai's Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming (Ottilie Mulzet) [New Directions], worthwhile but not of the caliber of prior work, diminishing returns seeming to have set in (not for lack of ambition; and I thought it might just be me, but while I'm not as negative as Andrew Singer in WLT I'm also not satisfied that it completes a four-book project [not a tetralogy]) (overreliant on an established style ain't the same as mature, more like overcooked) (and still eagerly awaiting the delayed From the cardinal points, sundry features) (but I digress)

Gemma Gorga, Book of Minutes (Sharon Dolin) [Oberlin]: 60 prose-poems in spirit of Ponge, quotidian metaphysicality; just happened upon in my looking into Catalan lit (and one of two nominated Catalan poetry titles) [sample]

And see also 3%'s continuing coverage of Why this book should win.

In other news, Archipelago Books is extending its offer of free ebooks, both in time and titles!



We interrupt our lack of regularly scheduled programming for a special announcement:
Archipelago Books free ebooks available til April 2
Get thee hence, and thither, and be well.


2019 wrap-up

I've not had a lot to say this year, and won't say as much about my reading as in past years: I've managed two books a week (and so over 100 for the year), of which a third were poetry, a third translated novels, and the rest split fairly evenly between novels in english, short stories, and nonfiction of various stripes.

There seems to be a resurgence in short stories these days; just about half of Archipelago Books' offerings this year are in that category. The Tabucchi, selected from prior Archipelago and New Directions collections, will be the go-to book henceforth, and Vladislavić's early stories exceeded expectations, but there's also a lot newly in translation: the singular Uhart, and the still-to-be-read Onetti, Ambai, and Ikonomou. McPherson put me on to Robert Kelly's unreplicatable experiments in prose, while Song Cave brought new Raymond Roussel and Charco Margarita Garcia Robayo's Fish Soup.

In longer prose, this year's stand-out in english is Anne Burns' Milkman [Graywolf]; and late to the party, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi's Kintu [Transit]; for some reason I'd been giving African literature in English short shrift, no longer. In translation, the usual suspects (Daša Drndić, Can Xue, Laszlo Krasznahorkai) were all solid but not at their best, but Dubravka Ugresic's Fox [Open Letter] is top of her game. Some writers new to me also scored high (June was a particularly good month-of-the-book) (also, Lina Meruane's Seeing Red [Deep Vellum]).

I'm still filling gaps in my poetry reading, this year finding a lot of headliners good-but-not-great (Jorie Graham, Rita Dove, Amiri Baraka, Natasha Trethewy, Charles Simic (though his renderings of Vasko Popa [nyrb/poets] are not to be missed)), but found The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks [LoA/American Poets Project] to be essential indeed. Surprisingly, it was poetry in translation that most stood out (see Adam Mickiewicz below): Prévert & Eluard [Black Widow] and Giorgio de Chirico from the Italian [A Public Space] and the surrealist-inflected Miltos Sachtouris (Karen Emmerich, cf) [Archipelago], and as always Chinese classical via David Hinton and David Young, and current via Zephyr. Another stand-out won the BTBA 10 years back, Elena Fanailova's The Russian Version [Ugly Duckling].

As always, the blow-by-blow is available at The Fictional Woods.