Category Archives: Hungarian Literature

Respice Futurum: Reading Plans for 2017

books-2017

I have the privilege every day of going to work at a place that I love and that has a long and rich tradition of education.  The Woodstock Academy, founded in 1801, is one of the oldest public schools in the United States and it has a simple yet profound Latin motto which reflects and respects this tradition: Respice Futurum– “Look back at your future.” (For the philologists out there, respice is a present active imperative, a compound made up of the prefix re (back, again) and the verb spicio (to look) and futurum is the accusative, singular of the noun futurum which is formed from the future active participle of sum.)

These two simple Latin words capture the idea that one moves towards the future while also reflecting on the past.  My husband likes to say that this motto is the equivalent of moving forward on a train while sitting in a seat that is facing backward.  I thought Respice Futurum is apt for a reflection on books as well;  it seems fitting to look ahead to my reading plans for 2017 while also reflecting on the types of books I have encountered over the past year and how they will influence my reading choices moving forward.

According to my list on Goodreads I read 105 books, a total of 24, 484 pages in 2016.  A few books were left off this list such as Pascal Quignard’s Roving Shadows and The Sexual Night. The Goodreads list also doesn’t include a few volumes of poetry I’ve read and some collections of essays.  And my list does not include any of the Latin or Greek authors I’ve translated or retranslated in 2016.   This was not a bad year for me, but not my best either.   The books in translation I have read have come from the following languages:  French, German, Spanish, Estonian, Russian, Italian, Bulgarian, Korean, Malayalam, Kannada, Hungarian, Swedish, Turkish, Slovene, Icelandic, Hebrew, Norwegian, Portuguese.

In looking at this list of lit in translation, I would like to explore more books from Asia and Africa which are not well-represented on my list.  I would also love to explore more books translated from Arabic which is a huge gap in my translated fiction.  If anyone has suggestions, please leave them in the comments!

Almost all of the books I have read have been published by small presses which will continue to be my main source of reading: Seagull Books, New Vessel Press, Open Letter and Deep Vellum, Archipelago, New York Review of Books and Persephone Books. 

My first read of 2017 has been The Story Smuggler by Georgi Gospondinov.  This is #29 in the Cahier Series and the first one I’ve read from this series.  I loved it so much that I went back and bought six more titles from the series, so there will be more Cahier titles in my future.

Gospondinov’s book The Physics of Sorrow is my favorite book from the Open Letter Catalog and one of my first reads in 2017 that I just started is another title from Open Letter, Justine by Iben Mondrup. 

A book that I have already started in 2016 and will finish in 2017 is The Collected Prose of Kafka from Archipelago Press.  This is a title that I am slowly making my way through and savoring.  Archipelago has managed to collect some of Kafka’s best short pieces into one volume.

I have discovered the works of French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy this year and reading his extensive backlist published in English should keep me busy for a very long time.  Next up on my list of books written by him is his title on Sleeping.

Speaking of French writers, I am eager to read Pascal Quignard’s Terrace in Rome and All the World’s Mornings in 2017.

I was lucky enough to get an advance review copy of  Russian author Sergei Lebedev’s The Year of the Comet which is being published in 2017 by New Vessel Press.  I am very excited that I will have an interview with Lebedev coming up in an issue of Numero Cinq, for which literary magazine I am also privileged to continue to do production editing, to scout and recruit translators and to write reviews.   I am also looking forward to two additional lit in translation titles from New Vessel:  Moving the Palace (from Lebanon) and Adua (from Italy.)

I am always eager to read whatever Seagull Books publishes and thanks to their wonderful catalog I have discovered some classics of Indian literature.  I am also looking forward to reading Goat Days by Benyamin which is already sitting on my bookshelf.  I also understand that Seagull is publishing more works from Tomas Espedal in English translation which I am very eager to get my hands on.  A long-term, very long-term goal of mine is to read the entire backlist from Seagull Books.  I will do my best to put a large dent in that list this year.

This year I discovered Ugly Duckling Presse and I am eager to explore their backlist of poetry as well as their essays.  I have a copy of To Grieve by Will Daddario on my shelf already.  I would like to read more essays this year, so please leave suggestions for essays in the comments!

Finally, I would like to read more classics in 2017, especially Tolstoy, Pushkin and other Russian masters.  I have a collection of Tolstoy’s short stories and a copy of The Complete Prose of Pushkin sitting on my shelf that I have yet to read.  I also look forward to the reissues of classics from NYRB who is publishing more books my Henry Green.  I am hoping to have read all six reissued Green books by the end of 2017.  And, as always, I look forward to whatever classics from British, (mostly) female authors that Persephone Books has in store.

And as far as posts on my blog are concerned, I have always shied away from writing about Latin and Greek and classics, but my reading of Logue’s War Music has inspired me to continue writing about The Iliad and to do some of my own translations and interpretations of various Latin authors.

classics-booksA sampling of some of my most cherished classics books; the Loebs are nestled snugly on the bottom shelf.

Well, I could go on and on about my reading plans for 2017 or I could just go and actually get to reading.  Happy new year to all of my fellow bibliophiles.  I hope you also get a chance to Respice Futurum.

chair-bookroomThe cozy spot where much of my reading takes place.  It is overlooked by a print of The Roving Shadows cover done by Sunandini Banerjee, Seagull Books artist.

 

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Filed under British Literature, Classics, Favorites, French Literature, German Literature, Hungarian Literature, Italian Literature, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, New York Review of Books, Opinion Posts, Persephone Books, Seagull Books

Review: Berlin-Hamlet — Poetry by Szilárd Borbély

I received a review copy of this title from NYRB.  This collection was published in the original Hungarian in 2003 and this English version has been translated by Ottilie Mulzet.

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My Review:
berlin-hamletI was debating whether or not to even attempt any type of review of this collection of poetry.  The layers of imagery, references and allusions to great figures like Kafka, Walter Benjamin, Attila József and Erno Szép could never be unpacked or fully explained in one short review.  But I found the language and images of Borbély’s  poetry so moving that I decided I had to at least attempt to put some thoughts together in order to bring more attention to this Hungarian poet and his tragic end.

The collection of free verse poems is divided into five interwoven themes and each poem in a cycle is given a sequential number.  The cycle of poems entitled “Letter” are based upon quotations extracted from diaries and letters of Kafka.  Borbély puts his own unique touch on each of Kafka’s quotations by rewriting and reworking them.  Kafka is the perfect figure through which to mix images of Berlin, with city he had a connection through Felice, and Hamlet, whose indecision is reminiscent of Kafka’s own hesitancy about his relationship.  The first in the series of “Letter” poems is the perfect blend of elements that include Kafka, Berlin, and reticence:

[Letter I]

At last I have a picture of you as I
once saw you. Of course not as when
I glimpsed you
for the first time, without your
jacket, bareheaded,
your face unframed by a hat. but
when
you disappeared before my eyes into
the entrance of the hotel,

as I walked beside you, and nothing
as of yet
connected me to you. Although I
longed only
for the strongest tie to bind me to
you. Tell me,
don’t your relatives pursue you
altogether too much? You shouldn’t
have had time for me, even if I had
come
to Berlin. But what am I saying? Is
this how I want
to bring my self-reproaches to an
end? And finally,
wasn’t I right not to have come to
Berlin? But
when shall I see you? In the
summer? But why
precisely in the summer, if I shan’t
see you at Christmas?

The second cycle of poems specifically deals with the city of Berlin and Berbely’s visit there in the mid-1990’s.  Each poem in this series is given the name of a specific place or a district in Berlin. Poem titles include, “Naturhistorisches Museum,” Herrmann Strasse,” and Heidelberger Platz.”   The translator, in his afterword, points out that it is in this series of poems where Benjamin’s Arcades Project is heavily alluded to.  The poems are a blend of Borbély’s personal experience of Berlin with that city’s complicated history.  In “Krumme Lanke” he opens with a memory of the “last days of the Reich” and proceeds to tell a story of two soldiers who ignore their superior’s orders and have a clandestine meeting.  The poem then shifts without a transition to the poet’s own memory of walking next to Krumme Lanke:  “Our conversation/ was more of a remember, a/revocation of all that had happened earlier. Like a/ film being played in reverse.”  There is a deep sense of wandering that pervades these poems as he visits train stations, various seedy parts of the city and the natural history museum and uses these places as starting point with which to reflect on Berlin’s past and the poet’s present.

The series of poems entitle “Epilogue” do not appear to have any specific references to famous authors and are the most deeply personal and reflective.  These poems only appear at the beginning and end of the collection and show us a writer who is battling many emotional demons:

[Epilogue II]

For the dead are expected to know the
path
above the precipice of the everyday.
When
they leave the lands of despair, and
depart
towards a kingdom far away and
unknown,
which is like music. Swelling, a solitary
expectation everywhere present. this
music
does not break through the walls. It
taps gently.
It steals across the crevices. Silently it
creeps,
and cracks open the nut hidden deep
within the coffer.

Next, are a series of poems entitled “Fragment” which are all addressed to an unnamed receiver.  There is a deep sense of not only hesitation but also loneliness in these poems.  He begins the first “Fragment” poem:

Yes, I could express it simply by
saying
that our conversation left in me a vacant space. Since then, every
day contains this space.

Of the five different categories of poetry, the “Fragments” are my favorite because Borbély’s  own voice, pain, and struggle come through most clearly.  I found a line from “Fragment III” especially chilling and laden with foreshadowing: “My need is for those who will know/how/all of this will end.”  Borbély tragically takes his own life in 2014at the age of fifty and there are hints throughout his poems that allude to his melancholy.

The final category of poems are called “Allegory” and are a mixture of philosophical observations which still maintain obvious references to Kafka.  The first poem in the collection especially evokes images of Kafka and his complicated relationship with his father:

[Allegory I]

The pierced heart, in which lovers
believe, recalls me to
my task.  Always have I desired

to be led.  My father’s spirit instruc-
ted me
in ruthlessness.  what he missed in
life, he now
in death wished to supplant.  I did
not

find my upbringing to be a comfort.
the spirit of our age is for me
excessively
libertine.  My scorn is reserved for
the weak.

Finally, a word must be said about the afterward which was beautifully written by the translator. It serves as a thorough introduction to Borbély’s life, literary influences, and style of writing but is also a fitting eulogy for this gifted poem whom the world lost too soon.

 

About the Author:
borbelySzilárd Borbély is widely acknowledged as one of the most important poets to emerge in post-1989 Hungary. He worked in a wide variety of genres, including essay, drama, and short fiction, usually dealing with issues of trauma, memory, and loss. His poems appeared in English translation in The American Reader, Asymptote, and Poetry. Borbély received many awards for his work, including the Attila József Prize. He died in 2014.

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Filed under Hungarian Literature, New York Review of Books Poetry, Poetry