Monthly Archives: April 2017

My Personal Canon of Great Books

There have been lots of fascinating lists of personal canons of great books among lit bloggers and I’ve succumbed to peer pressure and made my own list.  As I was thinking about my list I realized that the ancient authors are embarrassingly predictable.  So I’ve broken my canon into two parts, ancient and everything else.

Ancient Authors:

Homer, Iliad

Presocratic Philosophers, The Main Fragments in Ancient Greek

Aeschylus, Agamemnon

Euripides, Trojan Women, Medea

Sopocles, Oedipus, Antigone

Plato, Symposium

Aristotle, Poetics

Catullus, poems

Vergil, Aeneid

Seneca, everything he wrote, especially The Trojan Women

Cicero De Senectute, Pro Caelio

Ovid Metamorphoses, Heroides

Propertius, Elegies  (Many read Catullus and Ovid and unfortunately bypass Propertius.  But his poems are just as good and important.)

Lucan The Civil War  (A very underappreciated epic from the Latin Silver Age)

Everything Else:

James M. Redfield, Nature and Culture in the Iliad

Pascal Quignard, The Roving Shadows and The Sexual Night

Jean-Luc Nancy, Corpus and Coming

John Wiliams, Augustus and Stoner (Stoner is his more popular novel, but Augustus is brilliant!)

Anne Carson, Nay Rather, The Bakkhai (This is being published in the US in the fall and it is stunning.)

Christopher Logue, War Music

Antal Szerb,  Journey by Moonlight

Christa Wolfe, Medea

Alexander Pushkin, Eugene Onegin

R.D. Blackmore, Lorna Doone

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh

George Eliot, Middlemarch

Sandford Friedman, Conversations with Beethoven

Derek Walcott, Omeros

Georgi Gospodinov,  The Physics of Sorrow

Sergei Lebedev, Oblivion and The Year of the Comet

Stuart Shotwell, Edmund Persuader, Tomazina’s Folly (a little know author, both books are 1500 pages each and some of the best modern writing I’ve ever encountered)

Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre

Jane Austen, Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice

Teffi, Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others and Me

Of course all of this is subject to change according to the year, my mood, the weather, etc.  What are the books on your personal canon?

34 Comments

Filed under Opinion Posts

Review: Blindness by Henry Green

Blindness is the first of Henry Green’s nine novels and has elements of autobiography woven into the character sketch of seventeen-year-old John Hayes, a student attending British public school in the early twentieth century.  The first part of Blindness is written as a series of diary entries by John who is attending Noat, a school that closely resembles Green’s alma mater, Eaton.  John’s diaries are filled with entries about his keen interest in writing, stories of his silly friends, anecdotes about public school life and the various duties of his important role as the secretary of the Noat art society.  During one of his trips home, John is injured in a horrendous, freak accident and he is permanently blinded.  Forced to leave school and live at Barwood with his stepmother and old Nanny, John’s carefree life comes to a dramatic end.  In Green’s unique presentation of a Bildungsroman, young John must reexamine the world through the use of his other senses and learn to deal with his new version of reality as he moves forward with his life.

Green’s use of  diary entries for part one of his book, the single chapter of which is aptly called “Laugh,”  is a subtle way of showing us the humor and quirks of John’s easy existence but without turning his protagonist into a ridiculous caricature of a British school boy.   John’s entry for October 1 reads:

Brown, a friend of mine, has hit Billing, who keeps the food shop where you get rat poison, in the stomach so that he crumpled up behind the counter: the best thing that has happened for years.

Billing had apparently hit Brown previously, and had sent him to the Headmaster for being rude, and he, instead of backing Billing up, had asked Brown why he had not hit back: so when Billing hit Rockfeller today, Rockfeller being with Brown was rude to Billing, who attacked Brown, who laid Billing out.  Meanwhile Brown has gone to his House master to ask that Billing’s shop may be put out of bounds, and Billing presumably is going to the Headmaster.  There will be a fine flare-up.

John’s diary is replete with these seemingly mundane stories that Green’s writing style manages to make witty and charming.   John takes his role as secretary of the Noat art society very seriously and is oftentimes stressed out because of the various shows and lectures the he helps to organize.  Social ostracism, wearing the right clothes and hats, thoughts on his favorite books and his interest in a writing career are topics that fill up the pages of this entertaining diary.  We also get a glimpse of John’s fussy stepmother who is consumed with running her household, fighting with the Town Council and making certain that everyone in the village is behaving properly.  John thinks that she doesn’t really understand him on any kind of a deep level, but he acknowledges that she is a concerned and loving mother figure to him.

Although the rest of the book is not written in diary form, Green continues to narrate the actions through the intimate thoughts of various characters.  Green’s strength as an author begins in this first book with his ability to allow his audience to experience the events and images of the book right alongside with his characters.  For example, we learn through her rambling thoughts that Nanny has raised John since he was born and that she is completely distraught over the accident; Mamma is concerned that John will never have anything to do with his life and will be in danger of staying a bachelor.  Mamma dearly misses her husband, John’s father, whom she is certain would have know the right courses of action to deal with this tragedy.

Parts two and three have a marked change of tone from the humorous to the more serious.  But Green manages to do this without turning the story into a banal tragedy.  What ties the three parts of this book together is John’s optimism even when he can no longer see.  As he learns that there is no chance that he will ever have his vision back, he absorbs this bad news with a stoicism that developed in him while he was a student at Noat.  He tries to console his mother and his nanny who seem much more distraught at the news of his blindness than John himself.  While he is getting used to the darkness that has permanently set in we see the first glimpses of his optimism:

But he was blind, everyone would be sorry for him, everyone would try to help him, and everyone would be at his beck and call; it was very nice, it was comfortable.  He would take full advantage, after all he deserved it in a conscience.  He would enjoy life.  Why not?  But he was blind.

Another strength of Green’s writing that shines through in Blindness is his ability to describe in great detail images that beautifully capture the splendor of the English countryside.  Green weaves these different images throughout his story so that they are fitting for John’s metamorphosis from Caterpillar, to Chrysalis, to Butterfly, as the three parts of the novel are fittingly named.  When John is first blinded he is still trying to experience the beauty of Barwood estate through memories of vision.  Green writes:

So much of life had been made up of seeing things.  The country he had always looked to for something.  He had seen so much in line, so much in colour, so much in everything he had seen.  And he had noticed more than anyone else, of course he had.

But when he had seen, how much it had meant.  Everything was abstract now personality had gone.  Flashs came back of things seen and remembered, but they were not clear-cut.  Little bits in a wood, a pool in a hedge with red flowers everywhere, a red-coated man in the distance on a white horse galloping, the sea with violet patches over grey where the seaweed stained it, silver where the sun rays met it.  A gull coming up from beneath a cliff.  There was a certain comfort in remembering.

As John adjusts to his new world, Green shifts his imagery in the final part of the book from an emphasis on the visual to the aural and the tangible:

He was in the summer house.  Light rain crackled as it fell on the wooden roof, and winds swept up, one after the other, to rustle the trees.  A pigeon hurried rather through his phrase that was no longer now a call.  Cries of rooks came down tohim from where they would be floating, whirling in the air like dead leaves, over the lawn.  The winds kept coming back, growing out of each other and when a stronger one had gone by there would be left cool eddies slipping by his cheek, while a tree further on would thunder softly.

John’s newfound outlook on life coincides with a bizarre relationship he has with a woman named Joan who lives in a dilapidated cottage with her drunken father.  Green’s insertion of this storyline and character has a mixed success in the overall narrative structure of the story.  There is a long interlude at the end of part two that describes Joan and her miserable life with her father who was once the village parson but has been ostracized because of his alcoholism and the rumors that he deceased wife was cheating on him.  The abrupt change from John and his family’s perspective to Joan and her father seemed out of place especially since her story was given no real ending by Green.  At best Joan serves as a catalyst for John to explore the world through other senses as he and Joan take long walks in the woods together.  But it is evident that their different social classes and upbringing is too much of an obstacle for them to have any long-term commitment to one another.

The Joan episode is not completely devoid of its merits within the framework of the book, however.  Green could have been easily turned their story into the cliché blind-rich-boy meets and marries poor-downtrodden-scared girl who live happily ever after.  Even in his first novel Green writes an unexpected ending;  John’s optimism wins over and an unlikely character, who isn’t Joan, helps him embrace a new life and become the adventurous, independent butterfly he is meant to be.

About the Author:
Henry Green was the nom de plume of Henry Vincent Yorke.  Green was born near Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, into an educated family with successful business interests. His father Vincent Wodehouse Yorke, the son of John Reginald Yorke and Sophia Matilda de Tuyll de Serooskerken, was a wealthy landowner and industrialist in Birmingham. His mother, Hon. Maud Evelyn Wyndham, was daughter of the second Baron Leconfield. Green grew up in Gloucestershire and attended Eton College, where he became friends with fellow pupil Anthony Powell and wrote most of his first novel, Blindness. He studied at Oxford University and there began a friendship and literary rivalry with Evelyn Waugh.

Green left Oxford in 1926 without taking a degree and returned to Birmingham to engage in his family business. He started by working with the ordinary workers on the factory floor of his family’s factory, which produced beer-bottling machines, and later became the managing director. During this time he gained the experience to write Living, his second novel, which he worked on during 1927 and 1928. In 1929, he married his second cousin, the Hon. Adelaide Biddulph, also known as ‘Dig’. They were both great-grandchildren of the 1st Baron Leconfield. Their son Sebastian was born in 1934. In 1940, Green published Pack My Bag, which he regarded as a nearly-accurate autobiography. During World War II Green served as a fireman in the Auxiliary Fire Service and these wartime experiences are echoed in his novel Caught; they were also a strong influence on his subsequent novel, Back.

Green’s last published novel was Doting (1952); this was the end of his writing career. In his later years, until his death in 1973, he became increasingly focused on studies of the Ottoman Empire, and became alcoholic and reclusive. Politically, Green was a traditional Tory throughout his life.

7 Comments

Filed under British Literature, Classics, New York Review of Books

Review: The Happy End/All Welcome by Mónica de la Torre

My Review:

As much as companies like Google have attempted to rearrange office space into non-traditional configurations and break free of the rat maze of traditional cubicles, we still show up to work every day and have to function within a corporate structure.  Monica de la Torre’s collection of poems in The Happy End/All Welcome satirize the futile attempts of office dwellers to break free of the constraints imposed on them by bosses, human resources, and even the chairs they sit in.  De la Torre cleverly highlights the absurdity that we face in our every day work lives by using a scene from the unfinished Kafka novel, Amerika,  as her backdrop.

Kafka’s Amerika, which was published posthumously, tells the story of sixteen year-old Karl Roßmann who is forced to emigrate to the United States after it is revealed that he was seduced by a housemaid.  At the end of the novel, after Karl has had adventures with a stoker from the passage ship, a couple of drifters and his uncle, he sees a job advertisement for the Nature Theater of Oklahoma which promises to employ every applicant.  When Karl is hired as a “technical worker” he goes off to Oklahoma by train but the novel breaks off suddenly within this final chapter.  The poems in de la Torre’s collection are all set in a job fair being held by the Nature Theater of Oklahoma from Kafka’s novel.

De la Torre uses an interesting array of formats and arrangements for her poems: interviews, ad copy, reports, questionnaires and descriptions of chairs are all employed to satirize every aspect of corporate life from the job interview, to office design, to strategic plans, to the use of social media and to office politics.  Inspired by artist Marin Kippenberger’s installationThe Happy End of Franz Kafka’s Amerika” the poet states at the beginning of her collection that we are to imagine “an assortment of numbered tables and office desks with pairs of mismatched chairs within a soccer field flanked by grandstands.”  The numbered tables become the settings of poems involving job interviews for applicants who are sorely unqualified but are hired anyway.  These series of poems magnify the painful experience for everyone involved–applicant, employers, human resources, headhunters— in the job application process.  At Table 20, for example, an aspiring lifeguard with a terrible case of astigmatism is immediately given the job despite openly admitting his vision impairment.  And some applicants are asked to do the most random, absurd tasks that seem more fitting for auditions for a reality TV show than an office job:

Three people sitting on a tandem bench come forth.

Each applicant is assigned a color around which to improvise
lyrics for jingles.

Only found language displayed in the color assigned to each can
be used.

Applicants are given two hours to go searching for text in the city.

The Assistant Director selects corresponding loops from the
Buddha Machine 2.0, a portable music player, as accompaniment.

One of the funniest and most absurd poems describes a headhunter and the object of his hunt, a man who oddly looks like the artist Martin Kippenberger:

A Headhunter at the hunting blind at the edge of the field
keeps an eye on a middle-aged potbellied man in oversized
underwear who eerily resembles Martin Kippenberger. He’s
about to get in a full-sized Barbie tub near a couple of lifeguard
chairs, holds a cigarette in one hand and a hard-boiled egg in
the other.

In the Headhunter’s estimation, the man could be either rapt
in thought or overhearing the interview between the Bather
and the Lifeguard next to him. He might also be reminiscing
on the teepee villages at American Western theme campsites
he stayed at in the old days with friends, which always had hot
tubs.

The Headhunter wonders if he is seeking employment—why
else would he be at the fair? He cannot begin to imagine
what position might be appropriate for this individual defying
categorization, whose insouciance clashes with the professional
aspirations of the fairgoers.

An idea comes to him in a flash: this man could play the
Unhappy Hedonist!

This poem is set in the middle of the collection and serves a centerpiece that showcases de la Torre’s many talents as a poet.  The image of the headhunter lurking in the bushes underscores the ridiculous name given to workers whose role is recruitment.  She also brings us back to Kippenberger the artist whose installment is the specific inspiration for her strange job fair setting.  As the headhunter marks his “victim,” he proceeds to psychoanalyze him so that he can slot him into the company role that will suit him best, even if he has to invent a new job title.  It appears that the theater will now have an “Unhappy Hedonist” which position reminds us of the absurd titles that corporations have used to give a façade of importance in order to attract the highest quality of candidates for jobs which no one can clearly identify.  As I was reading this poem I kept thinking about the vague names we have for jobs even in schools. For instance, we no longer have the specific title of “Librarian” but instead we now have the difficult-to-pinpoint position of  “Media Specialist.”

When one does finally land what he or she thinks is a desirable job, reality and disappointment often set in as we see in this Case Study poem. It is interesting to note that Kafka’s working title for his novel was “The Man Who Disappeared” which is fitting for the theme of an oppressive and hard-to-break-free-from system of working life where few stand out among the corporate crowd.  The tone of this piece is markedly sadder than others in the collection:

On the first day of a new job, after quitting a highly desirable
one, the subject experiences genuine befuddlement when asked
to contribute $20 for a colleague’s taxi fare from the airport.

The day’s obligations include putting documents in boxes and
loading them into a coworker’s trunk. It soon becomes ap-
parent that the subject occupies the lowest rung of the bureau-
cracy and that, other than this odd version of paperwork, there
is nothing of consequence at stake.

The most clever and thought-provoking pieces were those that explored the idea of how we use furniture and space in an office.  An entire thriving industry has been devoted to choosing, planning and fitting out offices to make workers more comfortable and more productive.  De la Torre’s poems exude a particular tension between open and confined space, and productive and unproductive workers and ask us to think about whether or not a different arrangement of space truly makes people more active and engaged members of an office hierarchy.  In one of the poems entitled “Yes or No,” she writes:

So that personnel can move around and up and down
and function as vertical machines
office landscapes are sectioned into action offices.

It is suboptimal to give vertical machines space to move
around and up and down.

Flexible offices are not cost-effective.

Furniture in action offices is placed orthogonally.

Plants are replaced by partitions on three sides.

Action offices become cubicles.

Action offices become dead offices.

Plants enliven offices in pictures.

Living offices are safe environments for plants.

These poems force us to question whether or not it really matters how we arrange our furniture, our partitions, or our plants.  There is still a hierarchy which must be obeyed in a workplace environment or all will fall into chaos.  This collection uses several descriptions of chairs as a metaphor for the constraint that must be endured when we walk into an office regardless of  how the space is used or how it is decorated.    De la Torre poems include “The View from an Aeron Chair,” “The View from the Folding Chair,” “The View from a Womb Chair” and so on.  My favorite view from a chair is the Dodo Chair.   The Dodo is a swivel armchair, easily converted into a lounger, which is ergonomically designed for comfort.  But the poet uses a reference to the extinct bird by the same name to satirize the practicality of a comfortable chair in an office where not a single moment of rest is allowed.

A mutable shape stating that downtime hasn’t gone the way of the Dodo.

Yet the days of sitting around seem extinct.

Now it’s all go-go.  No need to go into it; who doesn’t know the feeling?

The dodo maybe?  Its temporality is other.

Its inability to adapt rendered it obsolete.

It is ironic that in an age in which we are working longer hours, are more stressed out than ever that we spend so much time in fitting out our offices with just the right type of chairs and configurations of chairs.  De la Torre sums it up best when she writes, “The office chair’s revolution is an oxymoron.”

This is one of the most clever, well-written, descriptive and hilarious collection of poems I have read this year.  For anyone looking for a new and innovative book of poems for poetry month then this one comes highly recommended by me.

Read an interview with Monica de la Torre about her inspiration for this collection at Lit Hub: http://lithub.com/monica-de-la-torre-on-corporatese-and-the-oppression-of-fancy-chairs/

About the Author:

Mónica de la Torre is co-author of the book Appendices, Illustrations & Notes (Smart Art Press) with artist Terence Gower, and co-editor, with Michael Wiegers, of Reversible Monuments: Contemporary Mexican Poetry (Copper Canyon Press). She edited and translated the volume Poems by Gerardo Deniz, published by Lost Roads and Taller Ditoria, and has translated numerous other Spanish-language poets. Born and raised in Mexico City, she moved to New York in 1993. She has been the poetry editor of The Brooklyn Rail since 2001 and is pursuing a PhD in Spanish Literature at Columbia University. Her work has appeared in journals including Art on Paper, BOMB, Bombay Gin, Boston Review, Chain, Circumference, Fence, Mandorla, Review: Latin American Literature and Arts, and Twentysix. Talk Shows was her first book of original poetry in English.

5 Comments

Filed under Poetry

Review: Down Below by Leonora Carrington

When I gave birth to my daughter eleven years ago I suffered from a severe bout of post-partum depression.  About two weeks after she was born it was as if a cloud or a thick fog had descended over me and I no longer felt like myself.  I could barely move except to do the most essential tasks to take care of my newborn and was silent for most of the day.  I also felt a deep sense of embarrassment over experiencing this depression because what should have been one of the happiest times of my life was one of the saddest.  Talking about one’s physical health seemed far more socially acceptable than discussing ones struggle with mental health.  The New York Review of books reissuing of Down Below helps to ease this stigma and to begin much needed conversations about the importance of mental health.

While reading Down Below, Leonora Carrington’s autobiographical account of her nervous breakdown during World War II and her resulting admission into a sanitarium in Spain I couldn’t help but think about my own bout with mental illness.  There were two themes throughout her account with which I particularly identified: her fear of a relapse and her determined and constant struggle against her demons.  The mental health issues I experienced with post-partum were no where near the severity of the nervous breakdown that Leonora Carrington suffered in 1940.  But the fear of lapsing back into that fog of depression, a fear that is not uncommon to anyone with an illness,  has always haunted me.  Carrington’s recollection of these harrowing events felt to me like they were her attempt at catharsis to rid herself of the fear that she would someday, once again, lose her grip on reality.  She writes, “I am in terrible anguish, yet I cannot continue living alone with such a memory…I know that once I have written it down, I shall be delivered.”

Carrington originally wrote out this short memoir herself a few years after the breakdown but the original manuscript was lost.  She then dictated in French this version we have now to the wife of a friend in 1943 which was translated into English and published in 1944.  As she speaks about these events to her friend’s wife it becomes evident that her motive for bringing forth these horrible memories is to cleanse her mind of these awful events, to unburden herself and to allow her friends to know the full story so they can help her stay whole.  She begins her dictation of this period in her life with:

I must live through that experience all over again, because, by doing so, I believe that I may be of use to you, just as I believe that you will be of help in my journey beyond that frontier by keeping me lucid and by enabling me to put on and to take off at will the mask which will be my shield against the hostility of Conformism.

As she gets deeper into the more disturbing events of her commitment to an asylum Carrington never pities herself or asks her audience to pity her.  She is able to recall the broken and fractured thoughts of a tormented mind with the detached style of writing that seems more fitting for a journalist.  But her lack of emotional response, I felt, was due to the fact that if she stopped and allowed herself to become awash in her feelings, she would never have been able to make it through her entire story.  She continues to stave off her fear as she gets farther into her memoir:

I have been writing for three days, though I had expected to deliver myself in a few hours; this is painful, because I am living this period all over again and sleeping badly, troubled and anxious as I am about the usefulness of what I am doing.  However, I must go on with my story in order to come out of my anguish.  My ancestors, malevolent and smug, are trying to frighten me.

The cover that the New York Review of Books chose for this reissue of Down Below evokes the thoughts in these lines.  It features the center image of Carrington’s painting Crookhey Hall, which was also the name of her childhood home in Britain, with a ghost-like figure dressed in white fleeing other ghostly images that surround a gothic style house.   This painting can be viewed as Carrington’s representation of her escape from her childhood home in Britain and the grip of her wealthy, industrialist family; but it is also a fitting image to portray her never ending struggle to keep her mental demons which describes in Down Below at bay.

The other theme that appears on every page of Down Below is Carrington’s struggle against her illness.  There were many times throughout her experience where it would have been easier for her to give up and succumb to her disease but she never allows this to happen.  Carrington’s breakdown begins when Max Ernst, the surrealist painter with whom she was living in France, was captured by the Germans and brought to a concentration camp.  Even at the very beginning of this episode she fights against the sadness and anxiety that threatens to overwhelm her:  She describes the first few hours after which Max was taken away,

I wept for several hours down in the village; then I went up again to my house where, for twenty-four hours, I indulged in voluntary vomitings induced by drinking orange blossom water and interrupted by a short nap.  I hoped that my sorrow would be diminished by these spasms, which tore at my stomach like earthquakes.

An old friend from England arrives in France to help her escape to Spain where the symptoms of her illness become more severe.  Carrington is committed to Dr. Morales’s sanatorium in Santander, Spain which she believes at the time was a “god-send” because of her increasingly disturbing thoughts and behavior.  Once at the asylum she is tied down to her bed because her fighting against the doctors, which is described as animalistic, is constant.  “I learned later that I entered that place fighting like a tigress,” she says.  The descriptions of her restraints and her injections with the drug Cardiazol, a common treatment for mental disorders at the time, are especially difficult to read.  The indignities she suffers at Santander, instead of mitigating her disease, only add to her trauma:

I don’t know how long I remained bound and naked.  Several days and nights, lying in my own excrement, urine and sweat, tortured by mosquitoes whose stings made my body hideous—I believed that they were the spirits of all the crushed Spaniards who blamed me for my internment, my lack of intelligence and my submissiveness.

Carrington’s delusions are numerous while she is confined to Santander; she believes that Dr. Morales is the supreme commander of the Universe, that she is part of the Holy Trinity, and that there is a paradise at the sanatorium the she calls “Down Below.”  She feels that gaining admission into what she believes is the paradise of “Down Below” will help her to heal and she constantly struggles to make it to this magical place.  When she is injected with Cardiazol which induces painful episodes of epileptic seizures she still continues with her fight to make it through this illness.  She recalls her second injection of this awful drug: “Keeping my eyes closed enabled me to endure the second Cardiazol ordeal much less badly, and I got up very quickly, saying to Frau Aseguardo, ‘Dress me, I must go to Jerusalem to tell them what I have learned.'”

Carrington’s delusions gradually subside to the point where she is able to be released from Santander.  Her parents decide that they want to send her far away to another asylum in South Africa.  But as her last act of defiance in this memoir, she escapes to the Mexican embassy where she eventually meets Renato Leduc who marries her and brings her to Mexico.  She knows that she cannot endure another stay at an asylum that would undoubtedly use the same harsh treatments that she received in Spain.  She decides she has had enough and her last act of struggle, of fighting is what most likely saves her sanity.

After her marriage of convenience with Leduc falls apart, Carrington goes on to marry Imre Weisz with whom she had two sons.  She lives with her family very happily in Mexico for the rest of her 94 years and has a successful career as a Surrealist painter and an author.  Carrington’s memoir not only serves as a testament to her strong will but it also provides us with a brave example of the ability to overcome the struggle with mental illness and the resulting fear of relapse.

This month was the 100th year of Leonora Carrington’s birth and many commemorative articles have been written about her life, her writing and her art.  I have collected a few of these links here:

An article in the Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/apr/06/leonora-carrington-from-high-society-to-surrealism-in-praise-of-100-years-on

A review of her short stories from NPR News: http://www.npr.org/2017/04/08/521959754/rediscovering-surrealist-leonora-carringtons-delights-and-disturbances

An article written by author Joanna Walsh for the Verso Blog: http://www.versobooks.com/blogs/2275-i-have-no-delusions-i-am-playing-leonora-carrington-s-madness-and-art

 

 

 

16 Comments

Filed under Classics, New York Review of Books, Nonfiction

The Ear and the Heart Know: An Interview with Translator Alexander Booth

Alexander Booth is a writer and translator who lives in Berlin.  A recipient of a 2012 PEN Heim Translation Fund Grant for translations from the German poetry of Lutz Seiler, his poems and translations have appeared online and in print at Asymptote, Dear Sir, FreeVerse, Konundrum and Modern Poetry in Translation. In addition, when he lived in Rome he kept a weblog on (mostly) Rome in literature and Roman literature, Misera e stupenda città. His work can also be found on his website Wordkunst. His translation of Lutz Seiler’s collection of poetry entitled in English in field latin was published in 2016 by Seagull Books.  I conducted this interview via e-mail in March and April of 2017.

Melissa Beck (MB): How did you come to translate Lutz Seiler’s collection of poetry for publication by Seagull Books?

Alexander Booth (AB):I began translating Seiler’s poetry in 2011, just a few days after first reading his work. I was still living in Rome at the time and was in the old Herder Bookshop on Piazza Montecitorio and picked up his first collection of poetry for Suhrkamp, pech & blende. It was electrifying. I read the whole thing through on my bus ride home. I felt such an affinity to the work that I knew I had to try. And so I looked for his latest, which was in felderlatein (in field latin), ordered it, and got started. After having some of those first translations published by the UK journal Modern Poetry in Translation rather early on, I decided to keep going and then applied for a PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant, which, to my great surprise, I was awarded in 2012. And from there I went on to complete the whole collection. However, being a complete unknown and not having any connections to any publishers at the time, it was impossible for me to get through to anyone. As you can well imagine, poetry in translation is a much harder sell than a novel in translation, indeed almost impossible, and I was attempting to do so completely on my own. Be that as it may, around the end of 2014 (I’d relocated to Germany the previous year), I got an email from Lutz (whom I had gotten to know by then) and one from Nora Mercurio, Suhrkamp’s foreign rights manager, saying that they had exciting news: the wonderful and wonderfully unexpected gift that Naveen Kishore of Seagull Books was interested in taking on the manuscript! I couldn’t believe it. I really had more or less given up on finding in field latin a home anywhere. And now here we are in 2017 and I’m working on my fourth book for Seagull, which still surprises me when I think about it. I am very lucky, humbled, and honored to be, and to have been, able to work with such great people.

MB: What in particular about Seiler’s poetry compelled you to translate it?

AB: Well, again, I felt such an immediate affinity to his whole approach, his musicality, his eye, and felt that it just had to be available to an Anglophone audience and, rather selfishly too, that my own poems might benefit from doing the work; furthermore, I wanted to live in that world for a spell, there was something there I needed to touch, something there seemed familiar somehow. Something perhaps in that “concentrated absence” as he calls it. It is indeed an extremely rare occurrence to read something and physically feel it surge through you. Its singular song. Reading Seiler’s poems was one of those moments. “The ear knows” as the poet George Oppen said. Here I’d add the heart too.

MB: You have a lovely mention of your mother in the acknowledgements. How did she influence your decision to become a translator? Do you work with her often?

AB: That is kind of you to say, thank you. Well, I never really made any conscious decision to be a translator, as is the case with most translators I think, it just kind of happened. In fact, as a child, many people said that I had no real talent for foreign languages, and, to be honest, I don’t think I showed all that much interest either! That changed with my discovery of Italian, however, and, in particular, Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s translations of a selection of poems by the great Pier Paolo Pasolini. Some years later I began to translate poetry on my own, poets with whom I felt an affinity, poets I felt might help me with my own work (especially when, to paraphrase the poet Charles Wright, I was in between poems) or just plain excited me (for example, Hölderlin, the later Marie Luise Kaschnitz, Friederike Mayröcker, Sandro Penna); then, for extra money, I would do academic translations. Moving to Germany at the end of 2013, for various reasons I found myself doing more and more translation work and now find myself even doing novels!

But to return to my mother: over the years we have developed a lovely relationship through my work with some rather challenging writers; in Seiler’s case, she helped a lot with some of the rural and/or East German expressions/language that has remained fairly similar over time (my mother originally comes from Upper Silesia, in Prussia, and grew up in the country as her father was a forester; Lutz Seiler also comes from a rural environment). She is such an inquisitive person and loves to have me ask her questions and over the last few years in particular, since the death of my father, we have developed an even closer relationship through my translations. In fact, having been a witness to my work over the last fifteen years or more, she says she actually reads differently now, thinks about the written word differently, which is an immense compliment. When I get to visit her in the States or she comes back here to Europe, we get the tea ready, then she sits down with her crosswords or journals or what-have-you, and I get to translating and when something comes up, I ask her. Of course I send emails too if need be. In ways, through translating, I was able to get closer to my mother and to some of her interior landscape and, I think, she was able to get to closer to me and mine. That in itself makes the process worthwhile, no? How many people get that kind of opportunity? And it is this aspect of translation, this sometimes disorienting, sometimes rather unsettling sense of inhabitation (and, at times, possession), that intensity, that remains one of the most intriguing and rewarding aspects of the whole process for me. I hope it is so for the reader too.

MB: Are there one or two poems in the collection that you found particularly difficult to translate into English? Are there any pieces of the poems that you felt got lost in the translation?

AB: Oh goodness, yes, there are a few and there are certainly some things that got lost. I think with someone like Seiler, in particular the poetic nexus of individual words, certain phrases, their echoes are so numerous and reverberate not only throughout German culture and history but much of Seiler’s other work that there is no possible way they can be carried over. Furthermore, the point/port of entry into some of the poems is very difficult to locate indeed. So, in the end, I added some notes where I thought it might help and simply let it go where I saw little point.

MB: Is there anything particularly interesting or surprising that you found out about Seiler as you were translating his poetry?

AB: I learned that he was a Pink Floyd fan when he was younger! That was a real shock. Sorry, in all seriousness: learning that one of his favorite poets was Ernst Meister (Graham Foust and Samuel Frederick have done excellent English translations of his work for Wave Books) certainly made a lot of sense though, in the end, I’m not sure if that surprised me too much. All the same, it’s an insight that helps to explain a fair amount, even though Seiler is a very different poet.

On a purely personal note that doesn’t really have anything to do with his poems, however, (though you’ll find an allusion to it in one of his stories), I was surprised to learn over a beer with him that he had been a bartender at one of the first bars to appear in East Berlin after reunification, a basement bar near the Museum Island on Oranienburger Straße called Assel (pill bug – sadly, no longer there). Now, that was a bar I used to love to go to whenever I was in Berlin. It was a strange connection. One of those times you think: “Of course he did.” And to realize that he had been in Rome at the Villa Massimo at the same time I was still living there and had begun translating his poems. It seemed to me then that our work together was fated!

One thing I really like about Seiler’s work is that, the deeper you go into it, the more you see how all of it really is connected: all the poems are woven into one another and into the short stories and here and there into the novel and each sheds a certain light on the other. There is no sense whatsoever of “the writer of the poem” as distinct from Seiler. The personal is universal and, as continues to be said, most certainly political. All these fragments making up the greater narrative of the man himself and the time, the place, of which he is part.

MB: Can you discuss some of the current stylistic trends in contemporary German poetry and how Seiler embraces or rejects these trends?

AB: Well, to be rather reductive, it seems to me that there are more or less two poles here (though you could probably say as much for the States too): the quiet, “straightforward” narrative (when not “nature”) poem and a more “experimental”, what I’d be tempted to call a kind of “neo-L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E” sort of approach to writing. Maybe this will seem evasive or intentionally vague, but I don’t think Seiler explicitly embraces or rejects either nor would he be particularly interested in championing any one tendency over another; acknowledging and incorporating all of his—not only—poetic inheritances he has created his own subtle and singular style: at times dark, it is ecologically aware, haunted, highly personal, historical, syntactically strange, and uniquely lyrical. In short, it is undeniably his own. I don’t think there are too many poets, or writers in general actually, you could say that about today. Before you even reach the end of the first line you know you are in a Lutz Seiler poem.

MB: What translation projects are you currently working on?

AB: My translation of the Gunther Geltinger’s neo-Gothic, experimental novel Moor was published last month by Seagull Books and my translation of Friedrich Ani’s dark, psychological “crime” novel The Nameless Day will be coming out with them this winter. I’ve also just finished translating an art book for Suhrkamp called Berlin Heartbeats: Stories from the Wild Years, 1990-Present, which contains photographs and interviews with a number of important cultural figures from around the time of German reunification (Klaus Biesenbach, Frank Castorf, Sasha Walz, etc.). In addition, I am translating two poems for a trilingual anthology (Chinese – English – German) responding to a poem by the (late) American poet C.D. Wright being put together by the young poet Dong Li. I have also just begun translating a novel by the German-Iranian writer and Orientalist Navid Kermani, which is very interesting indeed, suffused as it is with references to and quotes from Persian poets such as Attar, Ibn Arabi, and Nizami. Quite a challenge. And last but not least, I am working here and there on a fascinating, experimental novel of “journal sentences” by the writer Jürgen Becker, an excerpt of which appeared in the latest issue of Chicago Review.

 

6 Comments

Filed under Author Interviews, German Literature, Poetry, Seagull Books