Category Archives: Literature in Translation

Review: Like Death by Guy Maupassant

I received an advanced review copy of this title from NYRB via Edelweiss.  This English version has been translated from the French by Richard Howard.

My Review:
like-deathOlivier Bertin is a painter in late nineteenth century Paris and his most famous work, his Cleopatra, has earned him enough fame to be sought out by the rich and famous of high society.  He is not interested in any romantic relationships with the bourgeois women he paints because he feels that are insipid and boring.  At a party one night, however, he meets the Countess Ann de Guilleroy and is immediately captivated by her beauty and charm and decides he must do her portrait.  As Bertin paints the Countess in his studio, the two have stimulating conversations and enjoy one another’s company more and more.

Like many romantic relationships, Anne and Bertin’s starts with great conversations and friendship.  Slowly, feelings of love overtake both of them until the painter can stand it no longer and decides he must have her.  When they consummate their relationship, Anne feels very guilty at first because she has had a good marriage to the Count de Guilleroy for seven years and they have a five-year-old daughter.  But she quickly realizes that Bertin makes her happy and she welcomes the painter into her inner circle so that they can have daily contact.

Henceforth she felt no remorse, merely the vague sense of a certain forfeiture, and to answer the reproaches of her reason, she now credited to a certain fatality.  Drawn to him by her virgin heart and her void soul, her flesh vanquished by the slow dominion of caresses, she gradually became attached, as tender women do who love for the first time.

There is no suspicion among Parisian society that they are having an affair and it simply appears that the Countess and Bertin are the best of friends and both share a love of the arts.  Bertin even becomes great friends with Anne’s husband, the Count.  Their affair carries on for twelve years and settles into an easy comfort, similar to many long-term marriages and relationships.  In two simple lines, Maupassant’s sublime prose describes the deep and abiding affection achieved by the lovers:

Months then passed, then years, which scarcely loosened the bond uniting Countess de Builleroy and the painter Olivier Bertin.  For him, this period was no longer theexaltation of the early days but a calmer, deeper affection, a sort of anitie amoureuse to which he had become easily and entirely accustomed.

The central crisis in the book occurs when Anne’s daughter, Annette, who has been growing up outside of Paris, makes her entrance into Parisian society at the age of eighteen; Annette is the exact image of her mother at that age and everyone, especially Bertin, notices the striking resemblance between mother and daughter.  Maupassant takes a lot of care in his writing to develop the contrast between the youth of Annette and the growing age of her mother and the painter.  He uses the seasons as a backdrop which  mimic the painter’s feelings and observations about mother and daughter.  For example, when Bertin first realizes that Annette is a younger, more energetic version of her mother it is springtime and Bertin has accompanied Annette to the park where children are playing and mother nature is in her first bloom.  The brighter, fresh weather and Annette’s youth give Bertin feelings of energy and passion that haven’t been stirred in him for many years.

At first it seems that the appearance of Annette has just reminded Bertin of the early stages of his relationship with Anne, that all-consuming, passion that marks the beginning of an affair.  But Bertin’s feelings gradually become deeper for Annette and he soon realizes he is even jealous of her fiancé.  Bertin doesn’t acknowledge his love for the young Annette until Anne detects them and points them out to the painter.  At this point in the book, Anne and Bertin both become hopelessly wretched because the painter has fallen in love with Annette, the younger, prettier version of Anne.  At times Anne and Bertin are a little hard to take because their feelings of misery are so intense and  they make frequent allusions to death which seemed a bit melodramatic.

Maupassant weaves an interesting commentary throughout the book on beauty, age, youth and the standards of beauty upheld by society.  Anne notices her increasing wrinkles and sagging skin and believes her appearance is to blame for Bertin’s lack of affection towards her.  And instead of being proud of her daughter she is jealous of Annette’s complexion yet unblemished by time and age.  Anne takes more time to apply make-up, takes extreme measures to make herself thin and only greets her lover in the dim light of the drawing room.  Olivier, too, suffers from an obsession with his aging appearance.  His white hair and paleness are particularly emphasized.  When a Parisian newspaper calls his art work old-fashioned, he becomes particularly distraught about his advancing years.  Maupassant’s meditations on the impossible standards of beauty to which we hold ourselves are just as relevant now as they were in the nineteenth century.

Overall, this was an enjoyable read because of Maupassant’s prose which perfectly captures the extreme and conflicting emotions of love and suffering.  The ending is rather dramatic, although not at all surprising given the title and other elements of foreshadowing that Maupassant scatters throughout his text.

 

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Filed under Classics, France, French Literature, Literature in Translation, Literature/Fiction, New York Review of Books

Post-truth, Post-structuralism, and now Post-Pleasure?: My Review of Jean-Luc Nancy’s Coming

coming-coverIn this age of addiction and excessive consumption where massive modes of pleasure are readily available, have we completely fucked ourselves into oblivion? Do we give a fuck about fucking anymore? And now that we have come to the point of post-structuralism, post-modernism, post-privacy and post-truth, have we also arrived at the era of post-pleasure? There are just a few of the provocative questions that French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy raises in his book Coming as he explores the tricky, elusive and titillating French word jouissance and its various associations with orgasm, sex, coming, pleasure, joy, property and consumption.

Coming, which is the English translation of the French title la jouissance, takes the form of an interview, divided into five part as Adèle Van Reeth, the producer and host of France Cultural Radio’s daily program on philosophy, asks Nancy a series of questions about the idea of jouissance.  Through the course of this dialogue, Nancy lays out the original meaning of jouissance, which was used solely as a legal term, and he takes us on a fascinating linguistic journey to discover how this word evolved to become associated with sexual pleasure and orgasm and from consummation is now associated with the modern idea of consumption. This book is an excellent introduction for those who are new to Nancy or for those who are familiar with his prolific writings as it contains some of his most favored topics: community, modern psychology, linguistics, Christianity, the body, sex and Platonism, just to name a few. Continue reading my review in the February issue of Numero Cinq

You can also read an excerpt from the book translated by Charlotte Mandell here

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Filed under French Literature, Literature in Translation, Nonfiction, Philosophy

Review: Recitation by Bae Suah

I received an advance review copy of this title from Deep Vellum via Edelweiss.

My Review:
recitationBoth of Suah’s books that I have read, A Greater Music and Recitation, are relatively short as far as novels are concerned, but both books took me a week to read;  because of their complexity and language dense with poetry and philosophy they required and demanded my full attention.  When Recitation opens, the main character, Kyung-hee, is in a train station in a European city but has no hotel reservations or a specific address to stay.  She is waiting for a person whom she has never met, a fellow-wanderer introduced to her by a friend who has agreed to let her sleep in his living room for  a few days.  When the fellow-wanderer stands her up, Kyung-hee meets a group of Korean immigrants who become fascinated with her and they take on the role as the narrators of her story.

Recitation is, among other things,  a reflection on what it means to feel at home somewhere in the world, it is a commentary on why we feel grounded and at peace in some places but not in others.  Kyung-hee travels around Europe and Asia, never staying in one place for very long.  She doesn’t identify herself as Korean, Asian, or the resident of a specific city, but instead she calls herself a “city dweller.”  The specific cities to which she travels are vague and not the focus of the text; each city becomes for her a palimpsest upon which she can inscribe her own experiences anew with each visit.  She identifies with the Starbuck’s logo more than any other symbol because it is the one thing that remains the same no matter where she goes.

Kyung-hee meets people to whom she does not assign specific names—the healer, the teacher couple, the German teacher, the East Asian man.  Even her lover is simply assigned the name of “Mr. Nobody.”  One of the few people she meets that she does call by name is Maria, but Maria is a shadowy figure that lingers in the background for much of the book with no specific details given about her life.  We only learn at the end of the story that Kyung-hee meets Maria in Berlin and Maria has allowed hundreds of travelers stay at her home throughout the years.  Another interesting detail about the people she meets is that they are all somehow connected.  The German teacher introduces her to the teacher couple and Mr. Nobody introduces Kyung-hee to his son Banchi who also knows Maria. It is Maria that introduces Kyung-hee to the community of Karakorum who are a tribe of global dwellers, never staying in one place for very long and for whom the mere fact of their wandering makes them uniquely connected and a type of community.

The most interesting and compelling part of the text for me was Kyung-hee’s descriptions of her job as a recitation actress and how an incident one night on stage gave her the motivation to travel the world.  As she is in the middle of a recitation, she walks across the stage and breaks her toe which causes her a great deal of pain.  When she gets the cast off of her foot she has a revelation:

It was probably the incident with the plaster cast that brought about that desire to detach myself from a specific location, to free my material self from being tied to a given set of coordinates, fixed in a single place.  Looked at from a certain angle, perhaps its more accurate to call my soul the author of that shriek of despair, and relegate my toe to the role of intermediary.

In addition, Kyung-hee describes her childhood in Seoul as she grows up under the strict and abusive authority of her parents.  They have little love and affection for their daughter and control every aspect of her life, including the types of books she is allowed to read.  She has a sister who is much older than her whom she rarely sees or interacts with.  In addition, her older sister is not subjected to the same harsh rules as Kyung-hee.  She lays around the house most of the day, has no job and smokes in her room without drawing any type of criticism from their parents.  One night Kyung-hee’s sister appears to her naked in her bedroom and her sister attempts to strangle her.  There are many layers of intriguing imagery that Suah weaves throughout the story of the sisters that makes us question their relationship and connection to one another.  After reading this part of her story I viewed Kyung-hee as less of a woman possessed with a sense of wanderlust and more of a refugee;  she has been forced out of her home by the cruelty of her family and can never return to that home.

Suah’s book ends on a vague note which is fitting for the rest of the narrative in which time, places and characters oftentimes blend together and become blurred.  Kyung-hee herself becomes a shadow of a figure; has she been real all along and since she never had a fixed home will anyone remember that she ever existed?  Is Kyung-hee destined to be one of those nameless refugees that are exiled from their home, never to return to a place of comfort and familiarity?  The Karakorum reminded me of the Greek concept of xenia which demanded that men give each other a warm place to stay, a meal and entertainment when they were traveling.  If a Greek did not offer such hospitality to a fellow traveler then he could be ostracized from his community and the same hospitality would be denied to him as a traveler.  Wouldn’t the world be a much better place if we extended the idea of xenia especially to refugees who are in the greatest need of comfort and hospitality?

 

About the Author:
bae-suahSuah Bae is a South Korean author who was born in 1965.

Suah Bae graduated from Ewha Womans University with a degree in Chemistry. Originally a government employee at Gimpo Airport in Incheon, Bae wrote stories as a hobby. At the time of her debut in 1993, Bae Su-ah (1965~ ) was a government employee working behind the embarkation/disembarkation desk at the Kimpo international airport in Seoul. Without formal instruction or guidance from a literary mentor, Bae wrote stories “as a hobby” while working at the airport; but it wasn’t long before she left her stultifying job to become one of the most daringly unconventional writers to grace the Korean literary establishment in modern years.

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Review: Justine by Iben Mondrup

My Review:
justine-front_frame_largeJustine is another example of the cutting-edge, fascinating, and experimental writing that Open Letter seeks out and publishes from authors around the world.  Originally written and published in 2012 in Danish, it has taken a few years for Mondrup’s work to become available in English.  It is just the type of creative, sensual, interesting book that was screaming out for Open Letter to translate and publish.

When the book opens, Justine’s house has just burned down and along with the house all of her artwork for an upcoming exhibition has gone up in flames.  Justine inherited the house and her artist sensibilities from her grandfather.  We are given some vague hints about what started the fire and whether or not Justine herself is to blame.  Most of the book is taken up with  Justine’s jumbled thoughts about her life past and present, about her experimentations with her art, about the sexist world of the Dutch art school, about her varied sexual relationships and about her disintegrating state of mind.

Sex is available to Justine no matter whom she encounters in art school; professors, graduates and students alike, male or female, will sleep with her.  I can’t help but think that the author chose the name for her title and main character, Justine, as a literary nod to de Sade who also penned a book with this title.  Justine is officially dating a woman named Vita, whom she appears to have genuine affection for: “I love her,” she writes, “I already loved her that New Year’s Eve when the light had long since departed, everyone had gone home, it was only us tough dogs left.”  Notice the interesting mix of past and present tense—the polyptoton love and loved is especially fitting— even in this one short sentence spoken by Justine.

But despite her feelings for Vita,  Justine keeps cheating on Vita with an interesting variety of men.  It turns out that Vita has also been seeing another woman behind Justine’s back and Justine becomes extremely jealous when she finds out.  Like the writing and some of the plot in the book, Justine’s sexual orientation is ambiguous.  Her sexual encounters with men and women are, like her state of mind, frenzied, intense, dark and highly erotic.  She describes a drunken escapade with a man named Bo she regularly meets for sex:

I can perch atop him and ride.  In my hand he’s an animal I’m bringing down.  I’ll ride him like he’s never been ridden, until he spurts until he dies.  I unzip his pants.  There’s softness in the warmth between the hairs.  I ride him with my hand.  I transform him to a fountain that shoots high in the air.

When her Grandfather and Ane, a good friend from art school, are described the narrative is more straightforward, more traditional.  But when she tells us about her various erotic interludes the text becomes poetic, scattered, broken.  Grandfather, who was himself a painter, discusses art, life and family history with Justine.  Grandfather himself has not had an easy existence because his wife, Justine’s grandmother, suffered from a nervous breakdown after she gave birth to Justine’s mother.  Justine’s mother is also mentally unstable and a drunk who accidentally burns herself to death.  Mondrup subtly weaves patterns of images throughout Justine’s scattered narrative: fire, burning, passion and madness.

Another significant stylist detail to note about the book is that several of the pages of the text are very short, a paragraph or even a sentence in length.  Since Justine jumps back and forth between past and present sometimes we are thrust into the midst of one of these short meditations and we aren’t sure if she is talking about past or present.  Many of her thoughts are eerily foreboding:

Is it even possible to find a cut-off?  An exact moment when it all went wrong?  A point around which all events are distributed?  Before and after?  A crime scene?  A weapon cast in a backyard?  The road to murder is a slippery slope of things that are said and done.  An eye that saw amiss.  Something that should’ve remained hidden.  Or something that  didn’t happen.  After the murder there’s the clean-up.  The cover up.  Someone must pay the penalty.  Others must receive it.

Justine finally manages to pull enough of her art work together to have a successful showing at a local gallery.  But the ending of the book can only be described as ambiguous.  Normally I would find this frustrating, but it is a fitting end for Justine whose own ambiguities abound throughout the novel.

About the Author:
mondrupIben Mondrup is a trained visual artist from The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts who is also the author of four novels, including Justine, its sequel, and Godhavn.

Read an conversation with Mondrup from The Rumpus: http://therumpus.net/2016/12/the-rumpus-book-club-chat-with-iben-mondrup-and-kerri-pierce/

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Filed under Literature in Translation, Art

Review: The Underground By Hamid Ismailov

My Review:
the-undergroundCaveat lector.  Let the reader beware.  This book is deeply sad and does not have a happy ending.  But for many readers a happy ending is not a necessary factor for a book to be considered successful  The narrator of Ismailov’s novel is a child nicknamed Mbobo whose mother is from Siberia and whose father is an unknown African athlete that visited Moscow, and his mother, during the Olympics in 1980.  The boy’s sad story of a tumultuous childhood fraught with domestic violence and racism is told posthumously: “My mother died when I was eight, and I died four years later.”

As a boy, Mbobo oftentimes finds himself being taken from one part of Moscow to another via the city’s subway.  Each of the title chapters in the book is a station from the Moscow underground which is appropriate for the themes of darkness and death that are woven throughout the narrative.  The chapter entitled “Kropotkinskaya Station” begins:

If I ever wanted a tomb for my dead body, I would have picked the Kropotkinskaya Station. That is my vault: elegant and airy, impractical and absurd, standing all by itself, in the middle of the road, like an arch from nowhere to nowhere. If you find yourself on Volkhonk Street and pass under this frilly gape of an arch, you should turn left, you’ll end up in my underground hell, the very station where I, the stoker-imp, am covered in soot. There fountains of flames spurt up toward the hot ceiling from the torch-like pillars, where the light of day is never seen.

Because Mbobo is black he suffers from horrible, daily episodes of racism throughout his young life.  His nickname, Pushkin–the poet’s maternal great- grandfather came to Russia from Ethiopia with Peter the Great— is even a cruel reminder that he is not like everyone else.  When he is at school he is pushed by a bully and he suffers a severe concussion.  While recovering at the hospital, which should have been a safe resting place for him, two other boys tie him up and call him awful, racist names.

The only real solace in his life is the unconditional love shown to him by his mother, whose name is Moscow. He calls her “Mommy Moscow.”  But she has her own issues with alcohol and promiscuity which also affect Mbobo’s life.  Her husband,  whom the child calls Uncle Gleb, is a struggling writer.  On the rare occasions when he does get paid he spends his earnings on vodka and then beats his wife.  Mbobo witnesses regular episodes of domestic violence and oftentimes tries to intervene to stop Uncle Gleb from killing his mother.  When she finally gets tired of his drunken beatings, Mbobo’s mother takes up with a railway police officer named Uncle Nazar.  Even though his second stepfather is kinder to his mother, he is stern and distant with the boy.

When Mbobo’s mother succumbs to her intemperate lifestyle, he is left orphaned.  He bounces between his uncles who attempt to care for him but with the loss of the unconditional love of his mother he is drowned in his feelings of utter and complete loneliness.  These tragedies happen to Mbobo with the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union as the backdrop.  One of the final tragedies that the boy experiences is the renaming of his underground stations that had been one of the few constants in his short life.

The book is fused with literary allusions to the Russian greats: Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Nabokov and Platonov all peak through Ismailov’s text.  The greatest of greats, Tolstoy himself, makes his appearance at the end of the novel which has a conclusion similar to that of Anna Karenina.  Despite the melancholy ending, Ismailov’s talented writing about identity, race, loneliness and the collapse of a government make it a highly successful literary novel.

Ben Winston, who has founded the site Vibrant Margins which is dedicated to bringing small press books to readers through a subscription service, has agreed to give a copy of The Underground as well as Country Life by Ken Edwards to one of my readers. Both of these books, which are great literary reads,  are included in the first subscription season of Vibrant Margins.   If you would like a copy of these books then just leave me a comment and I will randomly pick one US reader.   So that my friends outside the US will also have a chance to read these books,  I will also pick one International reader to win my own copies of these books.

About the Author:
hamidismailovBorn in an ancient city in what is now Kyrgyzstan, Hamid Ismailov is an Uzbek novelist and poet who was forced to leave his home in Tashkent when his writing brought him to the attention of government officials. Under threat of arrest, he moved to London and joined the BBC World Service, where he is now Head of the Central Asian Service. In addition to journalism, Ismailov is a prolific writer of poetry and prose, and his books have been published in Uzbek, Russian, French, German, Turkish, English and other languages. His work is still banned in Uzbekistan. He is the author of many novels, including Sobranie UtonchyonnyhLe Vagabond Flamboyant, Two Lost to LifeThe RailwayHostage to Celestial TurksGoogling for SoulThe UndergroundA Poet and Bin-Laden, and The Dead Lake; poetry collections including Sad (Garden) and Pustynya (Desert); and books of visual poetry including Post Faustum and Kniga Otsutstvi. He has translated Russian and Western classics into Uzbek, and Uzbek and Persian classics into Russian and several Western languages.

 

 

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Filed under Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Russian Literature