Posts Tagged ‘Daniel Medin’

Congratulations to Dubravka Ugrešić, winner of the Neustadt Prize!

Friday, October 23rd, 2015
(Photo: Zeljko Koprolcec/Wikimedia Commons)

(Photo: Zeljko Koprolcec/Wikimedia Commons)

In May we announced that Croatian writer Dubravka Ugrešić was a finalist for the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. Tonight we are thrilled to announce that she’s a winner!

The Neustadt Prize, offered by the University of Oklahoma’s World Literature Today, is considered the “American Nobel,” and is often a harbinger of the Swedish award.

Ugrešić is the author of several works of fiction and essay collections. She went into exile from Croatia after being labeled a “witch” for her anti-nationalistic stance during the Yugoslav war. She now resides in the Netherlands.

Here’s what she had to say about that:

Ten years ago I held a Yugoslav passport, with its soft, pliable, dark red cover. I was a Yugoslav writer. Then the war came, and the Croats, without so much as a by your leave, shoved a blue Croatian passport at me. The Croatian government expected a prompt transformation from its citizens, as if the passport itself was some sort of magic pill. Since this didn’t go down easily in my case, they excluded me from their literary and other ranks. Croatian passport in hand, I abandoned both my newly acquired and formerly demolished homeland and set out into the world. With impassioned, Eurosong-like glee, the rest of the world identified me as a Croatian writer. I became a literary representative of a place that no longer wanted me. I, too, no longer wanted the place that no longer wanted me. I am no fan of unrequited love. Even today, I still, however, haven’t shaken free of the labels.

Again I hold a passport with a soft, pliable, dark red cover, a Dutch passport. Will this new passport make me a Dutch writer? It may but I doubt it. Now that I have a Dutch passport, will I ever be able to “reintegrate” into the ranks of Croatian writers? Possibly, but I doubt it. What is my real problem? Am I ashamed of the label of Croatian writer that still trails after me? No. Would I feel any better with a label like Gucci or Armani? Undoubtedly I would, but that’s not the point. Then what is it that I want? And why am I, for God’s sake so edgy about labels?

ministryWhy? Because the reception of literary texts has shown that the luggage of identification bogs down a literary text. Because it has further been shown that labels actually alter the substance of a literary text and its meaning.

Not surprisingly, then, she considers herself a “post-Yugoslavian writer.” Clive James wrote of her: “For her, Yugoslavia lingers in the mind and heart as the dreamed reality, whereas Croatia is the living nightmare. Tito’s iron hand at least kept the ethnic minorities from each other’s throats. … She comes from one of what Kundera memorably called the Kidnapped Countries, and she has given it its voice, which is the voice of a woman. The woman carries plastic bags full of the bad food and the thin supplies she has queued for by the hour while the men sit around in the square scratching their crotches and dreaming up their next war.”

As he points out, there is much to discomfit Western readers. For example, when she writes: “Proudly waving its own unification, Europe supported disintegration in foreign territory. Emphasizing the principles of multiculturality in its own territory, it abetted ethnic cleansing elsewhere. Swearing by European norms of honour, it negotiated with democratically elected war criminals. Fiercely defending the rights of minorities, it omitted to notice the disappearance of the most numerous Yugoslav minority, the population of a national, ‘nationally undetermined’ people, or the disappearance of minorities altogether.”

You can read an excerpt from her excellent interview with Daniel Medin in Music & Literature here.

Neustadt finalist Dubravka Ugrešić: “Risk is a moral category.”

Sunday, May 31st, 2015
(Photo: Zeljko Koprolcec/Wikimedia Commons)

Not risk-aversive. (Photo: Z. Koprolcec/Wikimedia Commons)

A few days ago I wrote that my friend Daniel Medin of the American University of Paris said he was “over the moon.”

That was true, but for more reasons than we had time to say. He wrote me in the wee hours (Paris time) to say, “So much good news, I don’t even mind being up this early.” The main reason was that one of the authors in the university’s Center for Writers and Translators – László Krasznahorkai – had just won the Man Booker Prize. Here’s another: two of the writers he works at have been named as finalists for the Neustadt; one is Can Xue (M&L5), too, on the heels of taking the just-announced Best Translated Book Award for The Last Lover. She was recently featured in Music and Literature, here.

The second, Dubravka Ugrešić, is the author of several works of fiction and essay collections. She went into exile from Croatia after being labeled a “witch” for her anti-nationalistic stance during the Yugoslav war. She now resides in the Netherlands.  Other contenders include Caryl Churchill (England), Carolyn Forché (United States), Aminatta Forna (Scotland/Sierra Leone), Ann-Marie MacDonald (Canada), Guadalupe Nettel (Mexico), Don Paterson (Scotland), Ghassan Zaqtan (Palestine).

The Neustadt Award, a prize offered by the University of Oklahoma’s World Literature Today, is considered the “American Nobel,” and is often a harbinger of the Swedish award. The winner will be chosen in October. Read more about it here.

Daniel is understandably chuffed. “Happiest for the recognition these authors are getting for their (brilliant, uncompromising) work,” he wrote. Daniel, who is co-editor of Music and Literature, recently interviewed the Croatian author. It’s very, very good  – and it’s online here.

A few excerpts from the interview:

DM: In your essay on Susan Sontag, you introduce the importance of “literary apprenticeship.” Could you discuss this notion at greater length?

DU: One has to earn the right to write, the right to “a voice.” I propagated an old-fashioned apprenticeship. I was a passionate reader from an early age. I studied comparative literature. I wrote about other writers. I translated them, too, from Russian to Croatian. I assembled anthologies. I edited, selected, and collected works of classical writers (Chekhov and Gogol, for example). I edited scholarly editions. I did a bit of literary history, criticism, and theory. I rediscovered some forgotten Russian writers (such as Leonid Dobychin and Konstantin Vaginov) and wrote about them. I think that the notion of a literary work ethic is extremely important, especially today when practically anybody can write, produce, and distribute his or her own work. This work ethic presupposes knowledge and a deep respect toward—and compassion for—your ancestors and contemporaries, toward your trade. It also assumes a deep awareness of what one is doing, why one is doing what one is doing, what the sense of the work is, what it brings to the cultural context, what it brings to the reader, and so on and so forth.


ministryDM: Could you please elaborate [on “literature as seduction”]?

DU: Yes, literature as mental, aesthetic, linguistic, emotional, intellectual, and sensual seduction. In that sense, Scheherazade is an ideal author, not solely because of her skill as a storyteller (although that too!), but for the risk that hovers above this activity. There are so many writers in this world who never ever question their trade. Fewer are prepared to confront all the dangers—and all the consequences—of their work. I experienced writing as a dangerous or double-edged activity. I was awarded the biggest prizes for literature in the former Yugoslavia (the NIN prize for fiction, for example), but only a few years later—at a time of nationalism and war—I was expelled from my cultural community and ostracized because of my writing. Instead of conforming to a changed situation, which is what the majority of people did, I took a risk. Then bore the consequences. I left my country.

museumDM: It sounds like you’re proud of that.

DU: No; I am sad because of it. I learned a lesson I would have rather avoided, namely that the majority of writers, intellectuals, artists, and thinkers will conform to any situation—whether it is war, dictatorship, communism, fascism, extermination of the “Other,” et cetera. However, going against the mainstream is not an aesthetic category. Risk is a moral category, which shapes our attitude toward our vocation as well as our ideological, political, aesthetical, and ethical choices.


DM: You’ve already explained why you channeled these new experiences into fiction, instead of memoir or autobiography. Yet at least half the books you’ve published in English are collections of essays, and even the novels themselves borrow often from essayistic strategies and tone. What attracts you to this particular form of writing? Were you steeped in a particular culture of essay writing, for example a Central European one?

DU: The choice of an essay came naturally to me at one point in my life. I stepped into it like into an old comfortable shoe. In that respect, the strategy of “fictionalizing” an essay and of “essayizing” fiction also came naturally. That impulse was there from the very beginning, I would say. Besides, stepping outside his “domain” is an act of artistic freedom: that’s why some excellent writers (first recognized as fiction writers and poets) also became first-rate essayists. Joseph Brodsky, Danilo Kiš, and Milan Kundera come to mind.

The choice to write essays came with a radical change of my life: the outburst of nationalism (i.e. fascism, at this particular time and place) in former Yugoslavia, with the fall of the SFRY, the war, and subsequent exile. The essay was, at least for me, the most appropriate form to protest against human conformism, lies, killings, national and ethnic homogenization of the society (e.g. fascization of society), against trivialization and standardization of culture, and so on and so forth. I turned to the essay at a crucial moment, when things desperately (at least from my point of view!) needed to be explained, when I lost my familiar addressee and my familiar cultural environment.


Theodor W. Adorno

Heretical essays

DU: The best definition of the essay came from Theodor Adorno, who said that heresy is at its essence and core. However, we have to be careful with all these notions today: the notion of heresy included. In our contemporary society—which is highly homogenized by the global marketplace—intellectual and artistic heresy is like oxygen. Globalized culture sucks that oxygen from our mental landscape. The global marketplace pretends that it offers us a diversity of products but in fact sells us the powerful substitute of the holy ONE. Today, we get one “subversive” philosopher, one “subversive” artist, and one subversive “writer”: the global market can’t bear more than one! In other words, we get one Coca-Cola, but we believe that by consuming it we consume the whole world. Celebs are our modern prophets, whether they sell the photos of their impressive posteriors, like Kim Kardashian, or their seductive theories, like Slavoj Žižek, or millions of their books, like Haruki Murakami. I don’t have anything against Kim Kardashian or, God forbid, against the great Slavoj Žižek, or my fellow writer Haruki Murakami, but the holy ONE policy (created, ultimately, by consumers themselves) is a quite obvious sign of a society homogenizing its tastes and needs. That’s why many cultural “species” (forms, patterns, genres, practices, ideas, and cultural spaces) are disappearing. The global market standardizes our tastes, our intellectual and cultural needs. In the result, we all read one book, one Bible, one Koran, we all follow one “prophet”; we all wait in long lines to buy a new book by one writer, or in line to see the exhibition of one artist. There is a market pressure to love Him, to buy Him, and as we live in a religious world, we like to establish our modern “prophets” (in visual art, the entertainment industry, literature, film, etc.). And then we like them and respect them because everybody else likes and respects them…


Do yourself a favor. Read the rest here.


The Booker Prize: Big night for Krasznahorkai, and his editors and translators, too.

Wednesday, May 27th, 2015

Krasznahorkai’s German publisher, Hans Balmes, took a photo of Daniel Medin with the man of the hour.

There is much to celebrate in László Krasznahorkai‘s winning the Man Booker International Prize – I say that as someone of Hungarian descent, and heir to that impossible language. Certainly one reason to pop a few corks is the Hungarian novelist’s frank and humble appreciation for some of the people who made it happen. His remarks were welcome for another reason: one of the recipients of his comments happens to be among our friends, poet and translator George Szirtes. (We’ve written about him here and here – and about the London onstage conversation between the author and Colm Tóibín here, and we’ve written about the Krasznahorkai here and here, too).


Poet and translator George

In “My Hero: George Szirtes and My Other Translators” in The Guardian, Krasnahorkai writes: “I have had six translators into English but the first was George Szirtes, who was born Hungarian but moved to England as a child and relearned the language as an adult. I knew his poetry and felt I understood his sensibility. When my publisher asked who would be a good translator, I suggested him. George said: ‘OK, but I’m not a translator, I’m a poet.’ My publisher replied: ‘Krasznahorkai wants you, so we’re prepared to be patient.’ He began with my second novel The Melancholy of Resistance and it took years.”

The £60,000 award has made other friends happy, too: “I’m over the moon about the prize,” wrote Daniel Medin of the Cahiers Series and the American University of Paris. The Cahiers Series (we’ve written about it here and here) published Krasznahorkai’s Animalinside, hence the jubilation. “I was excited even before they announced the winner – such a terrific, diverse group of finalists. Dozens of translations will appear as a result of this, and scores of new readers will now find their way to his books,” Daniel told me.

“All I would add is that the two publications I’ve been involved with: Issue 2 of Music &Literature, which provides a thorough overview of his entire career, and Animalinside are both, by design and by circumstance, optimal points of entry to his work.” We pass that info on.

Daniel Medin is also a contributing editor to The White Review in London, which featured a Q&A between author and translator in 2013:

G.S.: Why do you think  Sátántangó has been so successful right now? Has something happened in the world, or in literature, that has opened doors for it?

Animalinside2L.K.: I think readers who already knew Sátántangó, the film by Béla Tarr and myself, and had read The Melancholy of Resistance, War and War and Animalinside were waiting to read this too. And it seems that at the time of publication, Sátántangó was the kind of book many people actually wanted. People who wanted to escape the middle ground of high-formal pyrotechnics and the exhaustingly new; those who were waiting for a book that says something about the world; those who want something other than entertainment, who don’t want to escape from life but to live it over again, to know that they have a life, that they have a part in it, and have a preference for the painfully beautiful. My explanation is that we have no great literature. But readers need it, not as medicine, not as delusion, but because they need someone to tell them there is no medicine.

G.S.: Why is it so important for you to map things so clearly? Why is it so important to specify precise location?

L.K.:  Because it’s always important to know where things are. And a thing can only precisely be where it is.

G.S.: What do you read apart from the classics such as Kafka?

L.K.: When I am not reading Kafka I am thinking about Kafka. When I am not thinking about Kafka I miss thinking about him. Having missed thinking about him for a while, I take him out and read him again. That’s how it works. It’s precisely the same with Homer, Dante, Dostoevski, Proust, Ezra Pound, Beckett, Thomas Bernhard, Attila József, Sándor Weöres and Pilinszky

Read the whole thing here.




More praise for the Cahiers Series – with new works by Anne Carson and Paul Griffiths

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

Anne Carson’s essay, translations, and the Greek poet Ibykos

From this week’s Times Literary Supplement:

The Cahiers Series is a collection of beautifully produced booklets (twenty-two have been published so far), around forty pages in length, all illustrated with images, which are sometimes apposite, sometimes not, but always interesting. The declared goal of the series is ‘to make available new explorations in writing, in translating, and in the areas linking these two activities’. Some editions have a fairly tenuous connection to translation: in Shades of the Other Shore, two Americans, a poet and an artist respectively, are “translated” from the United States to rural France, with Jeffrey Greene’s short prose pieces and poems exploring “imagined correspondences between personal and historical ghosts tied to the seasons”, and Ralph Petty’s watercolours recording a journey to the source of a local river; in Józef Czapski: A life in translation, the novelist and translator Keith Botsford writes an imaginary autobiography of the Polish author and critic; in In the Thick of Things, the French architect Vincen Cornu attempts ‘to “translate” architectural sensation into words and images’. Then there are the cahiers written by translators or by poets who also translate, as well as translations of stories or plays followed by a brief translator’s note.”

That’s about as good an introduction to the Cahiers Series as I’ve seen anywhere (I’ve written about the valiant endeavor here and here – and the Book Haven even sponsored the Józef Czapski giveaway here).  Alternatively, you could take this, from the Book Trust: “The Cahiers Series represents all that we should be striving for in our increasingly interwoven world.” The effort is managed on a shoestring out of American University of Paris, and yet the short cahiers are truly elegant productions with thick paper and hand-stitched bindings, lavishly illustrated – a friend, Assoc. Prof. Daniel Medin (we’ve written about him here and here) is one of the admirable champions behind the project, and one damn fine editor, too.  Margaret Jull Costa‘s article about the Cahiers Series in the current Times Literary Supplement here seems to pretty much weave together all the past issues. Although I don’t have the list in front of me, it looks like she’s been able to fit about every title into her text.

Except the newest two.  That gives me an opening to tout them:


Eleven Noh plays become stories in English.

Nay Rather
Anne Carson

This cahier unites two texts by celebrated Canadian poet Anne Carson, encouraging readers to experience them alongside and illuminating each other. ‘Variations on the Right to Remain Silent’ is an essay on the stakes involved when translation happens, ranging from Homer through Joan of Arc to Paul Celan; it includes the author’s seven translations of a poetic fragment from the Greek poet Ibykos. ‘By Chance the Cycladic People’ is a poem about Cycladic culture where the order of the lines has been determined by a random number generator. The cahier is illustrated by Lanfranco Quadrio drawings and gouaches, inspired by his reading of Anne Carson’s texts.

The Tilted Cup: Noh Stories
Paul Griffiths

Paul Griffiths effects a multi-layered translation, taking a series of eleven Japanese noh plays and turning them into stories in English. The reader will encounter spirit-beings set free, lovers lost and found, dreams and desires fulfilled, lessons learned from nature, and always a longing for the infinite, as the long, slow drama of each noh play is transformed into a short and moving tale. Interspersed and contrasting with the stories are ten photographs of contemporary Japan by John L. Tran which further explore the relation between theatricality and narrative, while offering hints of a very different vision of infinitude.

The price (£12) is pretty good. Order them here.

Chez moi – old neighborhood, eminent neighbors, and a long wait

Sunday, November 18th, 2012

My neighbors at the Palais-Royal.

Diderot lived and died here.

So, while waiting for my luggage, and deepening my relationships with the baggage resolution personnel at United Airlines, I finally did spend a few minutes this afternoon wandering around my neighborhood, with my cellphone handy in case I had to rush back home for a joyful reunion with my suitcase.  Alas, the phone call never came… (we’re getting close to three days now).  Clearly, this arrondissement is big on the 17th century – so am I, so it’s a nice match.

Colette lived and died here.

Daniel Medin was right in telling me that this is a literary neighborhood – but really, aren’t all Paris neighborhoods literary ones?  Certainly my previous digs near the Eiffel Tower had its share of literary associations. Since I could not meet Daniel at the Louvre today as we had hoped, this increasingly grubby woman could explore the sites that Colette, Diderot, Molière, Corneille, and even Peruvian writer César Vallejo (1892-1938) called home – or at least a place to die.

A few blocks away, French tragedian Pierre Corneille (1606-1684) is entombed at the magnificent Eglise St. Roch.  Nearby, the Comédie-Française, which reaches back to the days of Molière (1622-1673). Good company for an afternoon walk.

The brouhaha with the airlines reminds me of the famous saying of Colette (1873-1954), “Plus je connais les hommes, plus j’aime mes chats.”  Mes chats are far away, but I’ll settle for the company of a few ghosts, these eminent and familiar spirits.

This one, however, disquiets me.  A marker for Ludovic J. Jacquinot, one of the “group of angels” who “fell gloriously” on the 26th of August, 1944.  The name, which has slightly Slavic resonances for me, reminds me of the ones I saw in Poland, trying in my off-hours to find out what I could about these wartime victims and heroes.  Unlike his Polish counterparts, however, there were no flowers at Ludovic’s marker.

There’s not much about him online. The FFI, or “Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur,” were the French Resistance fighters at the tail-end of the war. He may have been an architect, and may have lived on this or that street.  He was forty years old, and of course did not fall but was “tué,” under what circumstances it isn’t clear, except that it occurred here, at 2 rue des Pyramides.  Who remembers him?  I will, I guess.

Postscript:  Voilà!  My luggage has arrived while I have been writing this.  What a glorious thing it is to be clean again.

László Krasznahorkai: “So-called high literature”? Finito.

Saturday, July 7th, 2012


Hungarian writers tend to be a lonely lot – the fruit of their labor is stranded out on the most inaccessible branch of the broad language tree.  Who speaks Hungarian, except those born to it?  Its closest antecedents are Turkish and Finnish, and they aren’t all that close.  Wisely,  László Krasznahorkai divides his time between New York and Berlin, as well as the cosy little village of  Pilisszentlászló,  about half an hour out of Budapest.  That, in addition to the skyrocketing  reputation of his work, has put him in the world’s literary epicenter.

More thoughts on "this rotten world we live in."

After all, Susan Sontag said he is “the contemporary Hungarian master of apocalypse who inspires comparison with Gogol and Melville. W. G. Sebald said, “The universality of Krasznahorkai’s vision rivals that of Gogol’s Dead Souls and far surpasses all the lesser concerns of contemporary writing.”

To my discredit, then, I discovered Krasznahorkai only this year when, in Paris, Daniel Medin shoved a Cahier into my hand.  The short, 39-page work,  Animalinside, was undertaken for the Cahiers Series as part of a collaboration with German painter Max Neumann (we’ve written about the Cahiers series here). For reasons to tedious to get into, the book wound up in a stack of backlogged reading, and I’d only got round to reading it after the interview in the current Quarterly Conversation.

The interview is republished from The Hungarian Review – a publication I regard with gratitude, as its editors allowed me to republish Czesław Miłoszs poem “Antigone,” translated by George Gömöri and Richard Berengarten – the poem, in English, exist only in the journal and An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz. It’s not the only reason I read the Q&A with interest, however; it’s lively stuff.

A few excerpts:

Ágnes Dömötör: Many people have the impression that your books are hard to read and to understand. That’s a myth, but don’t you think you’ve got some bad PR?

László Krasznahorkai: You know, the problem is that anything that’s the least bit serious gets bad PR. Kafka got bad PR, and so does the Bible. The Old Testament is a pretty hard text to read; anyone who finds my writing difficult must have trouble with the Bible, too. Our consumer culture aims at putting your mind to sleep, and you’re not even aware of it. It costs a lot of money to keep this singular procedure going, and there’s an insane global operation in place for that very purpose. This state of lost awareness creates the illusion of stability in a constantly changing world, suggesting at least a hypothetical security that doesn’t exist. I see the role of the tabloid press somewhat differently. I can’t just shrug it off and say to hell with it. The tabloid press is there for a serious reason, and that reason is both tragic and delicate.

AD: Suppose someone who has never read anything by you picks up this interview and says: what an interesting guy, which one of your books would you recommend to them? What would be a point of entry to your life’s work?

LK: The Old Testament. The Book of Revelation. Let them choose from my books at random.

AD: How do you relate to your fellow Hungarian writers? Do you ever e-mail one another? Would you tell György Spiró, for instance,‟I liked your last book, Gyuri?” I’m asking because in an earlier interview you seemed to see yourself as an outsider on the literary scene.

Pilisszentlászló ... half an hour away from Budapest

LK: I don’t just see myself as an outsider, I am one. Which doesn’t mean I’m not happy to see colleagues I admire; after all, we share the same fate. But I also worry about them. I worry, for instance, because they’re in literature, something that you can still sell for awhile, but it’s getting harder and harder. This kind of communication is really over and done with. Its disappearance is a rather obvious process; it is happening faster at some points of the world than at others. I’m afraid this kind of literature is not sustainable.

AD: You mean it’s not just the authority of literature that’s finished but literature as such?

LK: The so-called high literature will disappear. I don’t trust such partial hopes that there will always be islands where literature will be important and survive. I would love to be able to say such pathos-filled things, but I don’t think they’re true.

On our tabloids: “The structure of vulgarity is very complex.”  He also talks about apocalypse, and “this rotten world we live in.”  And rock bands?  You can read about his favorite ones, along with the rest of the interview, here.

What does he think about bloggers, such as Humble Moi?  “Recently one blogger suggested that I should be hanged. I immediately put on my space suit, started the engine and went to the moon for a while.”  That puts me in my place.

Meanwhile, here’s what Irish novelist Colm Tóibín said about Animalinside:

Language for Krasznahorkai is a force struggling against the domination of cliché and easy consumption, offering small, well-organized revolts, plotting in upstairs rooms for plenitude and jagged rhythm, arming itself with clauses, sub-clauses and asides, preparing high-voltage assaults on the reader’s nervous system. … The world of his fiction is enclosed and stable, it must be taken on its own terms. … His work is full of menace, but it would be a mistake to read the menace either as political or as coming from nowhere. …



Translation, Book Expo America, and le bruit du temps…

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

The publisher...

Some of you may recall my visit to the innovative Parisian publishing house of Le Bruit du Temps and it’s founder, Antoine Jaccottet, during my recent visit to Paris, during the cold, cold, cold snap of last February. I also spoke at the American University in Paris, and visited friend and colleague Daniel Medin.

Here’s a podcast that entwines them both:  Daniel interviews Antoine Jaccottet at “That Other Word,” a series of podcasts on literature and translation, the result of a collaboration between the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris and San Francisco’s Center for the Art of Translation.

...and his admirer

Said Daniel:  “It surprised me to learn that it was a small press in France doing the complete works of Zbigniew Herbert … that it was a small press in France doing the completeIsaac Babel, a volume even larger than the [Peter] Constantine one that appeared a decade ago in English , and that it was a small French press discovering books like the Julius Margolin‘s gulag memoir, and bringing them to life.  And I wanted to meet this editor, because of the interesting books he was selecting, because of the variety.”  Now you will have a chance to meet him, too.

But first, you’ll get Daniel’s quick overview of this month’s Book Expo America in New York City, where “Russia was the country of honor this year,” he said. He and Scott Esposito discuss a range of contemporary authors and books, including Mikhail Shishkin‘s Maidenhair, which will appear in English this October; Polish author Marek Bieńczyk’s Transparency;  Julius Margolin’s gulag memoir, Voyage au pays des Ze-Ka; and Dalkey Archive Press’ Contemporary Georgian Fiction.  

Their interests do not lie entirely east of the Vienna: they also discuss Éric Chevillard’s Prehistoric Times and his Demolishing Nisard.

Then, on to Antoine Jacottet.  On the perils of translation, the French publisher said:  “You do well what you know a little. I worked myself as a translator. I might mention my father [Philippe Jaccottet] was – is still – a well known translator.  For me, it has always been very important to be attentive to the quality of translations. When we began the press, my idea was: if you are a very small press and if you want to publish works that you think are masterpieces, one way of doing it is to order a new translation, and then you have to find a good translator for it. It’s not always easy, but  I think it’s the part of my job that fascinates me most.”

The podcast is here.

Józef Czapski: A Life in Translation – and a Cahiers Series giveaway

Wednesday, March 21st, 2012

Update on 3/26:  Still some editions of this treasure available for free for a retweet (or Facebook “share”) during the giveaway: Go to Facebook and Twitter pages here and here, beginning today.  I wouldn’t miss it. The New York Review of Books called this series “exquisitely produced, lavishly illustrated, and lovingly edited”

“…but knowing him at all was my good fortune.”

With those words – iambic pentameter with a stranded, falling syllable at the end – Keith Botsford begins his “autobiography” of artist, author, and critic Józef Czapski in the Cahiers Series’ Józef Czapski: A Life in Translation.

The Cahiers series/Sylph Editions will be hosting a giveaway on its Facebook and Twitter pages here and here, beginning today.  I wouldn’t miss it.

While visiting the Cahiers headquarters in Paris, Daniel Medin casually handed me Józef Czapski: A Life in Translation.  I didn’t realize until some time later, after my return to America, what a gift it would prove to be.

Botsford uses Czapski’s own words, interrupted with his commentary and illustrated with twelve of Czapski’s paintings. He calls this a “biography from within,” but he begins on the outside, with externals: Czapski was “not just tall, he was elongated…enormously wide awake behind his glasses.”

“There were two odors about him: the saddle-soap smell of the Uhlan officer and the more delicate perfume of the diffident man of delicate sensibilities, a whiff of the ascetic.”

Czapski seems to have cast a salutary spell on Botsford: “How could one fail to love such an Eye?” he asks. But it’s not just the artist’s vision that haunts him: “I am setting down a quality of his mind: the way he made connections. Not table-talk. He spoke ill of no one; even about Picasso he changed his mind.”

Polish officer in 1943

It’s hard to read much of 20th century Polish literature without running across the name Józef Czapski, one of the founders of the influential Polish emigré monthly Kultura.

My visit to the Kultura office in Maisons-Laffitte last month more insistently reminded of the remarkable man I had so far overlooked. A crucial chunk of Czapski’s  bio is necessary to understand him:  he was one of about 400 officers to survive the Katyń massacre, in which the Soviets slaughtered 20,000 Polish officers.  In 1941 and 1942, Czapski was sent as an envoy of the Polish government to look for the missing officers in Russia. After the war, Czapski remained in exile in Maisons-Laffitte. He was in a key position to offer help to dissidents and defectors. And he did.

During Czesław Miłosz’s time in Washington as a cultural attaché for the Soviet government, Czapski had told him that if he decided to jump ship, Kultura would protect him.

Miłosz had other reasons to be grateful to Czapski, the man who introduced him to the writings of Simone Weil through her first published book, Gravity and Grace. Czapski also showed him Arthur de Gobineau’s pages about ketman, which would become a key concept in the poet’s influential denunciation of communism, Captive Mind.

Botsford writes of Czapski: “In fact he was serene, and good order reigned in his mind. I take it as significant that from a man who had, like every Pole, suffered greatly from Poland’s German and Russian neighbors, I never heard a word against either nation, only a very pure love of his childhood and Poland.”

Yet, “Poland, and his exile, weighed on him.”

“not just tall, he was elongated” (Self-portrait, 1984)

“Striking is the fact that I can recall no whining. As he’d faced all he alterations of his long life, that Tolstoyan and Catholic streak in him was powerfully directed towards what was actively good, to what could still be celebrated about life.”

Czapski wrote:

Matisse was visited by Rouault. The two men had not spoken to each other in years. Matisse had survived two major operations. He told Rouault: How quickly life goes by! It’s terrible. Yet he was quite calm, blessed the blue sky he saw out the window, and wished his daily work was more like prayer.

How does one escape history? One doesn’t. There is something unbreakable about one’s being who one is, how formed, what seen and heard, where been when.

I think that Miłosz would have characterized him by the word he repeatedly emphasized in my own interview with him, “piety,” a term that embraced a respect for an aesthetic hierarchy. Joseph Brodsky would likely have called it “a plane of regard.”

The Nobel laureate said of Czapski: “He was deeply religious. So many of his major influences were men who thought of a divine order in the world. He read Rozanov, he debated with Simone Weil. All that was private and internal to the man. He had an idea of the Good in his head.”

This “idea of the Good in his head” permeated Czapski’s views of his art: The fullness of art is reached by the strait and narrow path of absolute humility, by veneration for the world as we see it, the use of the hand to draw it.  (Words that remind me an awful lot of the poet Julia Hartwig.)

Botsford, however, met Czapski when the artist was 70 – and  this short, 42-page study becomes truly remarkable when describing Czapski’s old age.  Czapski’s words again:

Akhmatova said: I kissed boots among the higher officials to get some news of my son, whether he was alive or dead, and got nothing. So many extraordinary people I’ve known. Why do I recall my fellow-officers in Griazovietz? Why did Herling-Grudziński listen to the stories of his fellow-prisoners, and tell them?  Because the stories they had to tell deserve to be remembered. They are gone, but who they were should not disappear. The Communion of Saints, the talk of the living and he dead, goes on.

Somewhere I read or heard of a woman who begged God to show her – even if just for a second – what paradise was like. An angel visited her and told her to shut her eyes and He would grant her wish. When she opened them again and looked about her, she said, But that is what I see every day.

Czapski’s old age lasted decades.  He soldiered on until 1993, and was more than ready for his death at 96.

But at eighty-three: I see death differently: as a form of salvation, a deliverance, as an ‘enough.’ What remains is what is poetry and what is goodness.

And elsewhere – “die and become. As a moth alters.”

Check out the giveaway.

(Photos at top and at right reproduced from the Cahiers Series with permission.)

Another souvenir from Paris…

Thursday, March 15th, 2012

My charming host

I’ve received another souvenir from Paris, following last month’s talk at the American University on “Old Wine in New Bottles: Literary Journalism as Cultural Translation.” This time the ever-gracious Center for Writers and Translators has added a few sound clips from the workshop session.

They described them this way:

She joined us to discuss the changing face of cultural and literary journalism, touching on Twitter, Polish poets Czesław Miłosz and Adam Zagajewski, her memories of studying with Joseph Brodsky at the University of Michigan, the unexpected heroism of Marina Tsvetayeva‘s husband, and how to review books that don’t exist.

The sound clips are on the CWT website here. I share the new site with translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky discussing Nikolai Leskov. (I’ve written about the translating duo here.)

Dynamic duo

Meanwhile, my correspondence with my charming host for the visit, Daniel Medin, yielded this photo, more flattering (and more true-to-life) than the one I’ve used in earlier posts.

Daniel, by the way, is associate professor of comparative literature at the American University, associate editor of the Cahiers Series (we’ve written about that here), and the European editor of Quarterly Conversation (which I discussed here).

(Special thanks to Madeleine LaRue for coordinating the website effort!)

Roberto Bolaño on Neruda, Kafka, and the abyss

Thursday, January 19th, 2012

"A certain composure" (Photo: Creative Commons)

After reading my post on Pablo Neruda a few days ago, Daniel Medin sent me this insightful snippet from a Swiss journalist’s  interview of Chilean poet and novelist Roberto Bolaño, in the year before the writer’s death. Neruda is the least of it, really:

Which authors would you number among your precursors? Borges? Cortázar? Nicanor Parra? Neruda? Kafka? In Tres you write: “I dreamt that Earth was finished. And the only human being to contemplate the end was Franz Kafka. In heaven, the Titans were fighting to the death. From a wrought-iron seat in Central Park, Kafka was watching the world burn.”

I never liked Neruda. At any rate, I would never call him my one of precursors. Anyone who was capable of writing odes to Stalin while shutting his eyes to the Stalinist terror doesn’t deserve my respect. Borges, Cortázar, Sábato, Bioy Casares, Nicanor Parra: yes, I’m fond of them. Obviously I’ve read all of their books. I had some problems with Kafka, whom I consider the greatest writer of the twentieth century. It wasn’t that I hadn’t discovered his humor; there’s plenty of that in his books. Heaps. But his humor was so highly taut that I couldn’t bear it. That’s something that never happened to me with Musil or Döblin or Hesse. Not with Lichtenberg either, an author I read frequently who fortifies me without fail.

Musil, Döblin, Hesse wrote from the rim of the abyss. And that is commendable, since almost nobody wagers to write from there. But Kafka writes from out of the abyss itself. To be more precise: as he’s falling. When I finally understood that those had been the stakes, I began to read Kafka from a different perspective. Now I can read him with a certain composure and even laugh thereby. Though no one with a book by Kafka in his hands can remain composed for very long.

Postscript on 1/25:  Thanks to one of our readers, F.H., we have a link for the full interview.  It’s in German, here.