I know what my readers are thinking: You are reviewing a catalogue, how boring can that be? But please bear with me for a moment because the Seagull Catalogue of books is so much more than a listing and description of their forthcoming titles. It is a work of art, of literature and literature in translation in its own right.
When I first suggested to Naveen at Seagull Books that I review their catalogue I was surprised to find that no one had ever done so before. He told me that they choose a theme every year and it starts with a letter from him to everyone involved in their process, from authors to translators to booksellers. The responses he receives from writers are translated into English and finally are passed along to their artist Sunandini so that she can design the corresponding art work. The entire process for publishing this catalogue is impressive, to say the least, and the final product is a beautiful work of art.
Naveen’s opening letter for this catalogue, dated February 13th, contains reflections about sight and blindness and hindsight. His letter begins, “Man will pluck their eyes. This is known. Out of shame. And horror. Over a deed committed. Often more imagined than the truth. Sometimes as a gesture made drama.” The first two responses to his letter, from Reinhard Jirgl and Benedict Anderson, pick up on the idea of blindness as a punishment by referring to the Ancient Greek story of Oedipus.
Oedipus marries a woman who is much older than him; he doesn’t truly see or recognize her, he only sees happiness. If he had truly looked at her and seen her he might have noticed the family resemblance because Jocasta is actually his biological mother. Jocasta chooses to hang herself when the truth is revealed but Oedipus sees this as an easy way out. In order to truly punish himself for his crime he chooses to gouge his eyes out; blindness will cause him deeper and a more prolonged suffering than death. Naveen and Ben continue their interesting conversation via letters about blindness as penance in different cultures, stories and myths.
The artwork that corresponds to the series of letters is equally as stunning. In one image a boy looks out the window of what appears to be a train;
in another a sculpture is being painted with the finishing touches and emphasis being put on the eyes;
and in yet another a raven is painted in black with its eye highlighted in a striking shade of red.
The catalogue also gives us a chance to experiences pieces from writers whose works are forthcoming from Seagull. One of my favorite writings from the first part of the catalogue is a snippet of a the notebooks of Klaus Hoffer whose personal memoir recounts his suffering from the medical condition of elephantiasis. Because of this illness, different parts of the body become painfully swollen and as a result his classmates called him “Oedipus” which in Ancient Greek literally means “swollen foot.” Hoffer speaks about the themes of suffering and punishment which for him are of a very personal nature. He contemplates and attempts suicide a few times in his life but by the end of this writing he seems to be resigned to his sickly fate at the age of 42. I look forward to Hoffer’s novel Among the Bieresch, a description of which is included in the catalogue and will be published later this month by Seagull.
I could go on and on describing the writing and art work in this beautiful catalogue which is almost 500 pages long. Thomas Bernhard, Max Neumann and Pascal Quingard all have pieces in the catalogue that are short yet powerfully descriptive works. Furthermore, Seagull demonstrates their appreciation for the work of excellent translators by including three poems from James Reidel who has done a masterful job of translating several Seagull titles.
Naveen is not only a publisher but he is a brilliant artist and writer worthy of the same attention he brings to the books he publishes. After reading the catalogue I am even more confident of his ability to continue to find and highlight the best of translated literature, poetry, philosophy and essays from around the world.