Six Books, Seven Days

Posted in Uncategorized on 09/15/2014 by northnorthw

Just returned from a lovely vacation that was all about reading and walking the dogs on the beach and doing the hardest 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle ever – a street map of London.

Six books in seven days. That’s a record for someone who reads as slowly as I do.

lumpen_revised_cover_small_158_237_c1_smart_scaleA Little Lumpen Novella by Roberto Bolano, Translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer, New Directions

It’s very good. But it is short. And not exceptional. But it is Bolano. And he was.


Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos, Translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey, Farrar Strauss and Giroux

I liked Down the Rabbit Hole, although precocious kid narrators drive me nuts. This narrator is bit older and the book is better. It goes batshit crazy at the end (think Aira). If someone reviews this as the Mexican Catcher in the Rye, I’ll lose my faith in humanity.


Our Lady of the Nile by Scholastique Mukasonga, Translated from the French by Melanie Mauthner, Archipelago Books

It will be interesting to read a woman’s review of this book. There are a lot of teenage girl interactions, and I don’t know whether they work or not. The Hutu / Tutsi friction is ominous and nasty. A disturbing but beautiful book.


Everyone in Their Place by Maurizio de Giovanni, Translated from the Italian by Antony Shugaar, Europa Editions

This is the third de Giovanni that I’ve read. I really enjoy the Commissario Ricciardi books, love the twists at the end BUT the way he drives the plot is annoying. He’ll write a few paragraphs of interior monologue or reflection and not tell you who is thinking it. I don’t like getting lost, flipping back and forth in a book. Another reason not to read on a fecking Kindle. The Day of the Dead is up for The 2015 Best Translated Book Award and I’m going to need to put space between these two books.


The Hunting Dogs by Jorn Lier Horst, Translated from the Norwegian by Anne Bruce, Sandstone Press

Really, really good. Horst is my find of the year. This book comes to the US from Sandstone Press, by way of Dufour Editions. They also have Dregs and Closed for Winter, both of which I immediately ordered.


Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki by Haruki Murakami, Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel, Knopf

It’s not close to the bar he set with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or Kafka on the Shore, but it’s as least as good as 1Q84.


Iceland Beyond the Mysteries

Posted in Uncategorized on 09/15/2014 by northnorthw

I’m not saying that I don’t appreciate a dark, moody Icelandic mystery by Arnaldur Indridason, Yrsa Sigurdardottir or Hannah Kent, but there’s much more coming from the country that, per capita, has more books published, more books read, more writers than anywhere else.

The three books by Sjón (Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson) released by FSG–From the Mouth of the Whale, The Blue Fox and The Whispering Muse–are all exceptional. His fiction is mythical, magical and poetic. A.S. Byatt said of Sjón: “Every now and then a writer changes the whole map of literature inside my head.”

Sjón was on the board that helped Reykjavik be recognized as a UNESCO City of Literature, and he’s active in the City of Refuge Program. He’s been nominated for both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe, and he’s a pal of Bjork. (Check out Luftgitar on YouTube.) Rumors have it there’s a fourth novel heading for translation.


IMG_1351Sjon and George at Te og Kaffe in Reykjavik

Melville House recently published Gnarr! How I Became Mayor of a Large City in Iceland and Changed the World, the story of Jon Gnarr’s Best Party campaign that resulted in his mayoral election in Reykjavik. One could spend all day Googling Gnarr or one could watch the eponymous movie, released in 2010. Deep Vellum, a nascent star in world literature publishing, is releasing autobiographical fiction by Gnarr, The Indian, in spring of 2015.


Deep Vellum publisher Will Evans and Jon Gnarr in Texas

From Open Letter Books, Sölvi Björn Sigurdsson’s The Last Days of My Mother has a first line that sets you up: “I had decided to take Mother to die in Amsterdam.”

After a failed romantic relationship in which his girlfriend bolts with a French dentist, Hermann, aka Trooper, ungracefully moves back into his mother’s attic. When his mother is diagnosed with cancer, he mans up, searches the Net, and arranges for an experimental drug treatment in the Netherlands for her.

Mother, aka Eva, decides if she’s going to do subject herself to daily injections, she’s going to do it in style. She pals up with her son. Cue drinking. And a little dancing for Eva. And drinking. And some weed (it is Amsterdam, after all). And more drinking. Says Trooper, “I was so bloated from drink that I could see my own face without the help of a mirror.”

Sigurdsson places son and daughter in strange encounters with Icelandic bankers, Nazis, con men, pot dealers. It’s funny, very funny, even though you know it’s not going to end well.


 Sölvi Björn Sigurdsson

After her emotionally confused husband dumps her in Audur Ava Ólafsdóttir’s Butterflies in November (Grove), a young woman attempts to leave Iceland for a vacation in the sun. But fate sets her up with two lottery wins and the caregiving responsibility of a deaf-mute boy. With her glove compartment packed with kronur, she opts for a road trip on the 800-mile Iceland Ring Road. For a visual reference of Route 1, think the really good movie Either Way or the really terrible movie Die Another Day.

The narrator is a likable character and her interactions with her mother, her ex, a new boyfriend and the boy are all thoughtful and genuine. The book has a commercial feel to it, which sort of surprises me. Except for Murakami, “world literature” and “commercial” don’t usually pair up in sentences. Maybe it’s the jacket image. Whatever, gangi per vel, Grove/Atlantic.

Olafsdottir, Audur Ava - photo credit Anton Brink

Audur Ava Ólafsdóttir

from Shelf Awareness

Bohumil Hrabal

Posted in Uncategorized on 08/15/2014 by northnorthw

imagesNotable contenders for The Best Translated Book Award 2015 will likely be two posthumously released titles by Bohumil Hrabal.

Harlequin’s Millions, one of the author’s last completed novels, is a fine book for Archipelago Books to release during their tenth anniversary, in the year of their 100th book, on the 100th anniversary of Hrabal’s birth.

The narrator of the book is an elderly woman who lives in a medieval castle that is now repurposed as a retirement home. Through her meditative reflections and the anecdotes of three ghostlike pensioners, she comes to terms with the passage of time. As the book progresses, as the narrator ages, her memories and observations lose their reliability.

Hrabal is revisiting characters from his early works, including the unnamed narrator, based on his mother. The famous citizens of the “little town that time forgot” are referred to by nicknames like Cervinka the Parasol, Lousehead, Dlabac the Rib Roast, Sweatbuckets and Votava the Useless.

Early English translations of Hrabal chopped his long, loping sentences into abrupt ugly fragments. Translator Stacey Knecht’s first foray into Czech (she’s an accomplished translator of Dutch) preserves those paragraph-length sentences and streams of consciousness. Ms Knecht has guided this quiet book into an engaging, heartfelt experience without letting it drop into mawkish emofiction. That’s a word, right?


Karolinum Press, Charles University, Prague has published a collection of Hrabal’s short works which the TLS calls “a painstakingly accurate translation” by David Short. For a period of time under Communist rule, Hrabal was not allowed to publish any new works. An illustrated, ribboned, unjacketed cloth edition, Ramblin’ On, collects many of the originally censored stories with other offerings.

Hrabal was a serious football fan. In Pirouettes on a Postage Stamp, he calls Real Madrid “Pussies.” I couldn’t agree more, but I’m thinking his reference was in a different context.


–From World Literature, Shelf Awareness

Reinhard Jirgl

Posted in Uncategorized on 11/07/2013 by northnorthw

450px-Reinhard-jirgl-2009-ffm-004Two years ago, I was listening to That Other Word, a podcast of the Center for the Art of Translation. Daniel Medin had interviewed Geraldine Chognard, who manages the Parisian bookstore Le Comptoir de Mots. Geraldine spoke about her enthusiasm and her success in hand-selling Reinhard Jirgl, a German author known for an unconventional, challenging style of writing.

There are no English translations of his work. I sent an email to Naveen Kishore of Seagull Books asking if an agent had discussed Jirgl’s works with him. (Naveen just won the Goethe Medal for his efforts in bringing German writing into English). He didn’t recall anyone offering Jirgl.

I did some searching on the internet, ran German reviews of Jirgl’s works through a translator. Everything sounded interesting.

When I was teaching at the Seagull School of Publishing, I observed an afternoon session with Berlin-based translator Katy Derbyshire and authors Inka Parei and Dorothee Elmiger.

After their class, I asked Katy if she was aware of Jirgl. She was, and suggested that his books would be difficult to translate. Inka overheard our conversation and asked me whom we were discussing. When I told her, she said very slowly “I love Reinhard Jirgl,” and spent the next few minutes talking about his works and writing style.

Naveen, on the other side of the office, overheard our conversation and asked me for Jirgl’s German publisher;  it is Carl Hanser Verlag. Naveen said that he knew them well, that they were like family.

Over the next few months, I kept asking, prodding Naveen. He told me these things work in their own time. I needed to be patient. Everything was all right. It would happen.

Seagull Books will be publishing all six of Jirgl’s works. Iain Gailbraith will be the translator of the books.

Jirgl’s book Nichts von euch auf Erden (Deserted Earth) was announced as one of the six finalists for the German Book Prize.

The six books are:

Abschied von den Feinden

Die antlantische Mauer

Die Unvollendeten

Nichts von euch auf Erden

Die Stille

Here’s a sample translation of Deserted Earth that was submitted to the German Book Prize:

His trepidations persisted, however – doubts born of the fear of confronting his beloved once again. (The woman had long been part of his innermost self; he had communed with her, lending her imaginary person feelings and words that were wholly his own, forging a closeness that had never truly existed. A being had emergedfrom this who possessed all the features of The One, but who was solely the repository of his own desires. Sometimes a voice would ask him: Can I help it if you love me – and he would feel abashed. Meeting her again for real meant his mental projection of her would be exposed to the ordeal of seeing his desires and imaginings tested by the woman in the flesh – who would be a stranger to him. He dreaded his renewed encounter with her, and yet there was nothing he longed for more.) –

This time, for the homecoming multitudes returning from Mars to Earth, there was no reception on the esplanade in Central Europe’s capital, no crowd clad in white, eagerly awaiting their arrival. It was as if the homecomers were sneaking into the city like an army of thieves. Nobody was on the esplanade. Instead of finely pleated, white summer robes: snow. Billions of gleaming crystals, miniscule starlets fallen from skyhigh blue, atomized the sunlight –. Not a footprint here, not a person or beast, nobody,nothing at all – the smoothly draped whiteness was untouched, beautiful. Everything sounded brighter, voices carried – a bracing chill gave freshness to the air. Gravity and atmospheric pressure bore down with an iron heft; his heart beat in his throat, flailing against the invisible dead-weight. The dense air around his mouth resisted his breathing, and although its freshness brushed his lips with the uncanny delicacy and keenness of ice-needles, it had the compact solidity of an ice-ball, and was practically impossible to inhale. He felt he was drowning in a freezing ocean of air, yet his straining lungs craved its icy rivulets, sucking them in like largesse. – By and by, able to breathe freely at last, he became re-acclimatized to the pleasantly fresh, frosty air that swirled around him wherever he went. Soon he was walking upright, his body tensed against gravity, his back straight, setting one foot before the other. Day by day he grew used to the atmosferic pressure, and to the bliss of easily breathing the snowy air of the Earth.

He had been allocated a flat in a remote part of town, and it was here that he went about his work on Earth. It had once been his task to assign contingents of prisoners to work camps on the moon; his job today was that of selecting and collecting books, morfological tomes whose content was unknown to him. The work suited him, and he liked the mellow glow of the books in the dark. He did not regret his previous activities. His experience was that people could only be improved by opening their skulls and ripping out their putrid brains. For it is written: If it offends thee, gouge it out. The sooner, the better. Now that he was no longer obliged to have contact with them, the people he did meet seemed as changeable as the weather. Like the weather, people showed peculiarities that were alien to him and functioned according to their own rules. Their intercourse was mainly distrustful and pedantic. The people had split into warring factions, and the continents were partitioned into parcels of officially prescribed benignity. As if aspiring to jurisprudence they couched their speech in legalese and adopted the piqued manner of cantankerous aunts or other such moral guardians. There was a universal tendency to jaundiced faultfinding, all sedulously prosecuted with a will to the be(a)st for everyone. No morsel of speech was too sickly-sugared to take into their mouths, and for dollops of fatty grease shot through with slivers of metal they dutifully lacerated their tongues and gums; in every word was the sweetly-fetid tang of blood. Conversations quickly congealed to a bilgy viscosity that resembled rank porridge. People swallowed down most of their rage, and affecting equanimity furtively brooded on their Right-to-One-Murder as meanly as some dog chewing a bone. Cancer and heart-attack rates on New Earth had soared in this era of global embrace and The Great Peace….. And as yesterday, so today, with the same results: hatred greed resentment deviousness spiteful cunning, but more especially stupidity laziness indifference. Occasionally there was passion, love – but even they were never unalloyed with wile. Sociability and amusement: all alien to him, vacuous trivialities. He lacked the human impulse to flock together; the C-Gene Modification had been unable to inoculate him: His will to solitude had remained resistant. He had neither the will nor the facility to mingle with all these people, and thus he shunned human society, passing his days alone with his books, monuments by people who lived on in their works. The creations of humankind are often more human than their creators, a person’s work more valuable than the person. He arranged for several collections of morfological books to be transported by shuttle to the Earth’s moon, there to be housed on the near side of the Moon in abandoned depots, the last people having finally left. There, with a view to Earth, they would be safe. Only the morfological books were to survive.

– – - translated from the German by Iain Galbraith

Destruction and Sorrow Beneath the Heaven

Posted in Uncategorized on 02/25/2013 by northnorthw


This story is all about connections and chance.

In November 2011, Seagull Books’ publisher, Naveen Kishore, was visiting a family member about three hours south of where I live. Rick Simonson of Elliott Bay Book Company is very much interested in all things India, and suggested we take the train to spend a day with him. We talked about books, about publishing, about a publishing school Naveen had just started with help from the Norwegian government. A few days and a few emails later, I was retained as the Seagull Books associate in North America, a yearlong project to heighten their exposure in the U.S. market.

A week later, in Chicago, a friend mentioned that he was on the jury of the Best Translated Book Award, which has connections with the Three Percent website and podcast, operated by Open Letter Books.

On the first Three Percent podcast I heard, Chad Post and Tom Roberge of New Directions were talking about the release of Satantango by Laszlo Krasznahorkai. It sounded so interesting that I procured a copy. It sat on my shelf for a few weeks and I decided the only way to spend time with it was to take it with me on a trip to the San Francisco Bay Area.

I then found out through Scott Esposito of the Center for the Art of Translation that Krasznahorkai was going to be in San Francisco at the same time, doing a reading at City Lights Bookstore..

I called my friend Paul Yamazaki, the buyer for City Lights. He said that before the reading there would be a small reception for Laszlo beforehand and invited me to attend and meet the author.

I asked Krasznahorkai how many books he had written that had not been translated into English. I believe he said fifteen. I asked if there was anything that wouldn’t be appropriate for New Directions, his U.S. publisher.

When Laszlo went downstairs for his reading, I sent a text to Naveen Kishore, the publisher of Seagull Books, asking him if I could approach Laszlo about doing a book for Seagull. Miraculously caught him in the office (13 ½ hour time difference) and gave me the green light. After the reading, I told Paul that I was serious about a possible project for Seagull Books. He suggested I ask Laszlo about non-fiction.

Naveen said I should just keep going with it, that I was doing fine. I sent Laszlo a rambling email asking if he would consider a project with us. Perhaps a collection of essays? Or an extended meditation? That Seagull had arranged for the US distribution of Sylph Editions, publisher of his cahier Animalinside. That we were the publishers of Thomas Bernhard, Peter Handke, Yves Bonnefoy, Cees Nooteboom, Benedict Anderson, Mo Yan, and more. That the catalog I would send him even had a contribution written by Barbara Epler, the publisher of New Directions, who is a close friend of Naveen’s.

Two weeks went by, then an email showed up in my inbox. Laszlo said he had thought a bit about what would be the best project for Seagull and he had decided “a nonfiction novel” about the South-Song-Dynasty-Time as seen from year 2000. He wanted to do minor revisions, that he held the rights, and that “Barbara (Epler) was also happy with it.” Which was critical because Naveen wouldn’t publish without her blessing.

I told Laszlo that we would very much like to publish this. Naveen promised Laszlo that he would always keep the book in print and that “we would happily and in complete faith publish anything and everything you choose to give us.”

Naveen made an offer, which reached Laszlo while he was traveling. Laszlo accepted the offer but asked for more time to do revisions. Naveen approached Ottillie Mulzet to do the translation. Laszlo told his agent to prepare a contract.

A couple of weeks went by. A month. Two months. When I asked Naveen if he had received the contract he told me not to worry, everything was fine. About three months later his agent sent an email asking for the agreed full terms of the contract. She was going to meet with Laszlo at the London Review Bookshop for an event, a conversation between Laszlo and Colm Toibin. Another month went by.

One afternoon I was answering email in Naveen’s office in Kolkata and he said he had just received the contract from Laszlo’s agent. Unbelievable! He said I could sign on the witness line if I wanted. Yes!

The next day, Naveen said he had received the manuscript via email. I asked if I could see it. He asked me if I could read Hungarian. It didn’t matter; I just wanted to see it.

It showed up in my inbox along with an email from Laszlo that said:

“I would like to inform you that I sent to Naveen the manuscript in Hungarian language of my reportage “Destruction and Sorrow Under the Heaven” a few minutes ago.I am happy, really happy for this wonderful chance to publish this writing in English.
Thanks a lot for you!



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