Posts Tagged ‘James Wood’

The Cahiers Series: “really, really beautiful” – and hand-stitched, even

Monday, September 26th, 2011

In a world where everything is becoming faster, cheesier, and more functional – when books are no longer tactile, sensual objects, but characters on Kindle – it’s cheering to see anything swimming upstream.  Bonus points if it extols that most underrated of literary trades, translation.

Applause keeps mounting for the Cahiers Series, published by the Center for Writers & Translators at the American University of Paris and Sylph Editions. It’s hard to stay on top of it.  But Daniel Medin, one of my more charming correspondents, has been sending me updates from the American University.

The latest plug is in Friday’s New York Review of Books blog, where Colm Tóibín introduces László Krasznahorkai‘s Animalinside (with illustrations by Max Neumann):

The prose of Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai is full of menace, but it would be a mistake to read the menace either as political or as coming from nowhere. In novels such as The Melancholy of Resistance and War & War, his imagination feeds on real fear and real violence; he has a way of making fear and violence seem all the more real and present, however, by removing them from a familiar context.

Daniel, now an associate professor at the American University (after teaching at Stanford a year or two back), said this:

The allegorical tissue in that text [i.e., Animalinside] is very thick, the “animal inside” a literal and metaphorical thing at the same time – think Herbert‘s Report from the Besieged City, where “a rat became the unit of currency.” We’re in the realm of Kafka and Beckett here, and not just in approach: I believe that Krasznahorkai is a writer of nearly the same magnitude who has the mixed fortune of having been born Hungarian – mixed because of that country’s embarrassment of (literary, cultural) riches on one hand and its linguistic isolation on the other.

Quite a coup for a small series that lives more or less hand to mouth, on uncertain funding. Part of the problem is shipping, which makes U.S. distribution difficult, even for a downright modest price of, say, $15.  Distribution in France is a little problematic, too, since the language is English.  “Every penny goes toward quality of production and keeping down the price,” Daniel writes.

Via the Cahiers Series subscription page you can buy a boxed set of volumes 1-6 (or a boxed set of volumes 7-12) for £51 – “which is approximately $4,000, but like I said, these are really, really beautiful. (Kidding—£51 is only $75 and these are worth every dime),” according to the Three Percent blog.  (Sorry, the blogger got me going for a moment – so I had to try it on you.)

[New updated deal: In addition to having the option of ordering cahiers individually, readers can now select any 6 cahiers for £55 in Europe/£59.50 everywhere else. Check it out here.]

Last year Daniel  told the Three Percent blog: “There are two main justifications for the Cahiers Series. The first is that we publish material that cannot easily be published anywhere else; we can play with form in a way that commercial publishers cannot. The second justification is to make something where the parts, through their relation to each other, add up to more than just that.”

Much more.  Clearly, the project is gaining momentum and some very high-profile attention – for example, from James Wood in the New Yorker here.

Daniel – handsomer than this, really

Daniel also sent me a copy of George Craig‘s Writing Beckett’s Letters. Craig spent 15 years translating the thousands of letters Beckett wrote in French.  It’s chock full of impressive insights, and handsomely produced – hand-stitched, even. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but Rhys Tranter did, and said this in the Spectator Book Blog (it’s here and here):

Whilst George Craig’s book is neatly timed to anticipate the next volume of Beckett’s Letters, it is more than just a preview of things to come. To Beckett scholars and enthusiasts, the appeal of this book is obvious, tightly-woven with rare insight and beautiful reproductions. But it is also thoughtful and engaging introduction to the problems of translation, and a testament to the status of correspondence as a kind of art-form. To paraphrase Craig’s description of Beckett and Duthuit’s correspondence, this is a work that abounds in strange, unexpected things.

Prescient words. Daniel has been promoting literary translations in other ways: He’s proud that the first invitation he issued at the American University was to Adam Zagajewski, who read from his latest collection and chatted with his students about his first encounter with Kafka. “An incredibly lucky bunch, they were: Tomas Venclova dropped by the next week and shared his own stories about discovering The Metamorphosis – in Polish!”

We’ll be writing more on the exceptional Cahiers series in posts-to-come.

From a lawyer in Hawaii … more on the state of litcrit today

Saturday, August 14th, 2010

The photo says it all?

My post on “More Heat than Light: Life is Too Short to Read Crappy Books” didn’t please everyone, and Anis Shivani‘s ability to piss people off seems pretty bottomless.  (He’s at it again today with “17 Literary Journals That Might Survive the Internet.”)  Jezebel responded with “Literary Critic Hates Vaginas, “Ghetto Volume” (also picked up by HuffPo here).

The debate over the post happened not in the comments section of this blog, but on my Facebook page.  This, from my friend Paul Achitoff in Hawaii: “I don’t know enough about him to know what he risked by writing a pissy, supercilious rant, but I’m not sure I agree it took guts. It got him what he wanted–a lot of attention, which he well knew would include a lot of negative attention. Sneering at allegedly poor writing takes little talent, and one can always roll one’s eyes at those who imagine the disparaged writing is worthwhile (his photo suggests just such a tendency). Writing even a second rate novel requires more skill than is displayed by his somewhat clumsily written column.”

From Hawaii

Someone has to weed the garden. Looking back, I often feel I have pulled too many punches in the misguided effort to be kind. This doesn’t serve the reader and throws the burden on someone in asbestos with a blowtorch to do a controlled burn. It’s hardly just me who wimps out. The whole reviewing gig has become largely gutless — critics don’t want to diss a colleague in their MFA program, or someone from whom they might need to get a blurb for their next book.

I don’t think any good writer has been broken by bad reviews. But many inflated, trendy writers have pushed good writers to the side for a generation or so.

This biting exchange between Dana Gioia and James Wood on Slate is 11 years old. This was before Dana was chair of the NEA, and before Wood joined the New Yorker.

In their epistolary columns, D.G. writes to J.W.:

From the New Yorker

And if you think that most new poetry is–what is the polite word?–“uneven,” then just look at the criticism. The innocent reader of fiction cannot comprehend how dull, esoteric, and pandering poetry reviewing has become. Most critics never give a negative review. After all, in the small world of American poetry the critic will eventually meet the author. And who knows what writers will be sitting on the next prize committee? It is safer to declare everyone a genius. Reading the smarmy acclaim that fills most literary journals, one would think we live in an age of unprecedented poetic achievement. Welcome to Potemkin Village, Mr. Wood.

It may bring gentlemanly tears to your eyes to learn that even so tenderhearted and soft-spoken a critic as yours truly is often castigated for giving books negative or mixed reviews. The assumption is that contemporary poetry is such an endangered art that no one should criticize it in public. That Chamber of Commerce claptrap doesn’t even constitute an adequate philosophy for public relations, not to mention literary criticism. I believe that one reason poetry has such a small readership, even among the literati, is that current criticism is so bad. There is almost no really engaging or reliable public conversation about new poetry–just paid publicity and unpaid hype. Academic criticism has become so parochial in its concerns that it no longer has much relevance to the general literary reader, and the little journalistic criticism that remains rarely goes beyond log-rolling.

From the NEA

The exchange is interesting and, of course, witty.  I reread it occasionally to keep my standards up, in a world where so much garbage is being treated like crème brûlée.

Paul liked it, too.  He wrote me:  ” Cynthia, thanks for forwarding that Woods/Gioia dialogue. I’m only halfway through it, but am enjoying it. I wouldn’t compare it to the other piece; they explain very clearly and specifically what disappoints them about the poets, with less arrogance than sadness. They make the critique about the poets, rather than about themselves.”

But Paul’s comments made a further point:  Has the drive to whacked-out, souped-up internet-style writing pushed aside the criticism the average reader might crave — reviews where the writing is elegant and takes its time, where claims are buttressed more substantially than hit-and-run internet journalism offers?   Must every line be a punch to keep the reader’s attention?

Isn’t this the very thing Shivani was criticizing in Junot Díaz?  Isn’t this the litcritic equivalent of someone who, as he wrote,  “replaces plot in stories and novel with pumped-up ‘voice’”?