Category Archives: Seagull Books

Charges by Elfriede Jelinek

Aeschylus’s tragedy The Suppliant Women is a unique piece of Ancient Greek theater because the poet uses the chorus, normally reserved for a secondary role, as the protagonist of his play.  The Danaides, the fifty daughters of Danaus, are refugees from Egypt where they were going to be forced into marriage with their cousins.  Having chosen flight from Egypt instead of  mandatory betrothal, The Danaides arrive in Argos seeking asylum.  As the chorus/protagonist of this tragedy, these women tell us, with one, strong, loud, simultaneous voice, about the hardships they’ve suffered and they beg, as suppliants at the altar of Zeus, for protection.

Elfriede Jelinek adopts the narrative structure, setting and themes of Aeschylus’s Suppliant Women for her drama entitled Charges which delivers a powerful, raw, emotional depiction of the refugee crisis playing out globally.  The nobel prize winning author witnesses via television and other media—she is an agoraphobe—the plight of a group of refugees from Central Asia and the Middle East who arrive in Vienna in November of 2012 and set up a camp in front of a church.  The local populace engages in an intense debate about what to do with these illegal immigrants, politicians and the media get involved, and some of the refugees take shelter inside the church where they go on a prolonged hunger strike.

At the same time that this humanitarian tragedy is unfolding, a world-renowned, Russian opera singer and the daughter of Boris Yeltsin, both very wealthy with powerful political allies, are given citizenship.   While the refugees from the church are shuffled off to a monastery where they can be kept out of public site these two privileged women are bestowed with the freedom and honor of asylum and naturalization.  Although she uses this scenario that takes place in her hometown as the backdrop for her drama,  Jelinek chooses not to mention Vienna or  other specific place names in her text;  she makes her themes of displacement, fear and privilege universal, ones that can be applied to any of the current refugee crises we see playing out on a daily basis in various parts of the world.

Les Danaide, by Paul Oesten, 1908

By using the chorus, in the tradition of an Ancient Greek tragedy, Jelinek is able to employ several dramatic techniques to emphatically get her point across about the desparate and sad plight of the refugees.  For instance, as is common in ancient tragedy, the chorus in Charges repeat themselves, in a rhythmic way, circling back often to the same themes and topics.  In addition, punctuation and connectives are dispensed with in order to give their speech a vehemence that conveys the deplorable hardships that they have suffered and continue to suffer:

We lie on the cold stone floor, but this comes hot off the press, here it is irrefutably, irreconcilably, poured into this brochure like water that instantly runs down and out instantly, like water thrown from cliff to cliff, turned into water as well, sinking like statues, almost elegantly, with raised hands, no, no, from dam to dam, into the bottomless, into the micro power plant, down, down it goes for years, we vanish, we vanish as we become more and more, funny, we still vanish, though our numbers increase, our  courage does not vanish, there are ever more, though also fewer and fewer of us, may don’t even arrive, the suffering people are falling like water off the cliff, down the butte, into the chute, over the mountains, through the sea, over the sea, into the sea, always thrown, always driven…

The most striking similarity between The Suppliants and Charges is the explanation that the refugee choruses give in both plays for choosing flight from their homelands and for seeking refuge from strangers. Aeschylus’s chorus begins the play with an justification for their sea voyage to Argos:  “This exile is our own decision.  We have fled a despicable situation.”   The words spoken by Aeschylus’s chorus more than two thousand years ago, which evoke sympathy and compassion from the audience,  is equally fitting for Jelinek’s refugee chorus who, by their own choosing, have also escaped dangerous conditions in their homeland and at sea.  Escape into the unknown is a theme that Jelinek’s refugees return to repeatedly in the play; they speak of family members who have been murdered and their attempts to avoid the same fate for themselves.  Some of the most heartrending parts of the chorus’s speech are when they recount their griefs and their woes and the endless indignity of their misfortunes:

…We look around, but how does prosperity work?  If it is that common, should we have it too?  At least be able to obtain it?  After those monstrous killers back home, no, that isn’t your fault, we aren’t throwing that in your face, we are throwing ourselves in front of you, after they took everything from us, we should be able to get something, anything back, no?  Something should be accessible to us, we should get something, instead you call us a cursed, raging brood, brood, brood!  Like animals! Brood of foreigners!

Hearing the refugees speak, in the first person, about their escape, rejection and maltreatment from other citizens of the world increases the pathos of Jelinek’s narrative.  There is a point in their speech during which the tone of the narrative becomes decidedly angry; these feelings of resentment come from the fact that two prominent Russian women are given citizenship while these refugees live in squalor like beggars.  The opera singer, in particular, becomes the focus for Jelinek’s outrage as the author uses parallels between this privileged refugee’s circumstances and the mythic character of Ovid’s Io.

Io was loved by Zeus and in order to protect his lover from his wife’s wrath, Zeus disguises Io by turning her into a cow.  In Jelinek’s narrative the opera singer becomes that cow, traveling around the world, not suffering any consequences for her transgressions.  Once this prominent woman is issued citizenship, she chooses not to live in this country but instead travels the world.  Io is usually a character worthy of sympathy because of her seduction by Zeus; but in Charges the opera singer becomes a derogatory cow, the name of which animal is uttered with biting sarcasm:

How did she become a citizen?, alright then, we guarantee you no one died there, in that dump, not the daughter either, the European cow, excuse me, she turned into one only now, an official main residence has been registered here, which we don’t have, she does, but she does not live there either, you are here to stay, you have a say, you have the voters, at least on your side, you the but sponsors but no trace of those—now I don’t know myself whom I mean.

In his book The Greeks, H.D.F. Kitto argues that the Greek dramatists used myths infused with moral, religious and philosophical meaning to instruct their fellow Athenians on how to live a good life.  Drama becomes “an explanation of human life and of the human soul.”  Jelinek has brilliantly adopted the medium of these ancient poets in order to enlighten us about those who have been displaced from their homes and cannot return safely.  The chorus of refugees in Charges, speaking in one loud, emphatic, emotional voice is distressing and tragic.  We should treat them with dignity, kindness and generosity instead of with disgust and xenophobia and recognize that this has become a human rights crisis of epic proportions.

Vitvkirche, Protest of Refugees, 2012. © Bwag/Commons

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Filed under German Literature, Seagull Books

A Bibliophile’s Conundrum: How do you organize your books?

There have been complaints recently by my family members (i.e. my husband) about the piles of books that have taken over various parts of the house.  The kitchen table has two stack of books that are getting so high they are threatening to topple over and crush one of the cats.  The book piles are also in the way of the cats’ favorite window from which they view the yard; notice the picture of Henry attempting to navigate around the books in order to watch a chipmunk that has made a nest under his favorite window.

Current stack of books on the kitchen table

 

Henry attempting to navigate around the current stack of books on the kitchen table

Then there are the various piles on the coffee table, the top of which table can barely be seen because of the amount of books. (As I look at this photo I realize it’s probably not a great idea to have so many candles among my books.)

But it is not that I am lazy or unwilling to move my books.  My issue is one of organization and trying to make decisions about which books go where and oftentimes these important decisions paralyze me.  I like to keep the pile of books that I really want to read immediately (which has grown impossibly large) as close to me as possible, thus all of the Vergil books currently hanging out on my coffee table.  I also like to categorize books by my favorite publishers: thus I have a handsome collection of Seagull Books and New York Review of Books.  But then I also like to collect books by author and by topic.  And finally, my Classics books are organized by subject—Greek tragedy, for instance, and within each of those categories books are further organized by author—Aeschylus, Euripides, etc.

Some of my Seagull Books Collection

 

Some of my NYRB collection

The conundrum I have comes when a book falls into more than one shelving category; for instance, I have collected many Ann Carson books, but one of them is a NYRB publication, so where do I put that book?  It seems that it ought to go in the Carson section, but then my NYRB collection seems lonely and incomplete without it.  And what should I do with the Bachmann/Celan Correspondence book that I recently reviewed?  I want to put it with the other Seagull titles, but then again I have a growing section of Bachmann books and a small section of Celan poetry.  Oh, and I also have a shelf of books all about letters and correspondence (the Letters of Virginia Woolf, Love Letters of Great Men, Nabakov’s Letters to Vera, etc.)

Books from my Classics collection

Nothing aggravates me more than when I can’t find a book because I forgot where I shelved it.  I have been looking for my copy of Jean-Luc Nancy’s Listening for weeks.  Did I put it with the philosophy books?  It isn’t with the other Nancy titles.  I bought a translation of Propertius’s poetry that has the exact same cover as the Nancy book.  Should I have a section of books that have the same covers?  It’s really exhausting.  My husband has generously offered to build me another bookshelf or two; although this also further enables my habit of book hoarding.

How do my fellow bibliophiles organize books?  I would love to see some photos!

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Filed under Anne Carson, New York Review of Books, Opinion Posts, Seagull Books

The Heart Will Know How to Live: The Correspondence of Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan

I have always loved handwritten, personal letters; they are so much more tangible, intimate and sensual than the digital correspondence to which we have become accustomed in the 21st century.  There is a certain anticipation and excitement when one sends a letter and eagerly waits for a response; to see the other person’s handwriting, to touch the object they once touched, to tuck it away in a special place are all of the things we lose with digital communication.  When I was reading the letters, post cards, notes, telegrams and poems sent between Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan I felt like I was eavesdropping or spying on the unfolding of an intense, passionate and, at times tortured, love affair.  I wondered what this correspondence would look like in the 21st century and it occurred to me that texts, direct messages, emails and video chats would not have the same underlying tone of intimacy that one feels while reading the Bachmann and Celan letters.

In May of 1948, Ingeborg Bachmann writes a letter to her parents describing her first few meetings with Paul Celan.  She tells them that Celan has “fallen in love with me, which adds a little spice to my dreary work.”  The letters between Bachmann and Celan throughout the rest of 1948 and 1949 are full of passionate longing, a strong desire to see one another again and misunderstandings that are inevitable with written correspondence.  They make plans to meet many times, but for a variety reasons they don’t get the opportunity to see one another very often for the next twenty years.  Their careers, geography, and other relationships all serve as obstacles that keep them apart.  Celan writes to Bachmann in April 1949:

My dear, you,

I am so glad this letter came—and now I have kept you waiting for so long too, quite unintentionally and without a single unkind thought.  You know well enough that this happens sometimes.  One does not know why.  Two or three times I wrote you a letter, and then left it unsent after all.  But what does that really mean, when we are thinking of each other and will, perhaps, do so for a very long time yet?

And in late May/early June Bachmann responds:

Paul, dear Paul,

I long for you and for our fairy tale.  What shall I do?  You are so far away from me, and the cards you send, which satisfied me until recently, are no longer enough for me.

The excerpts from these two letters are typical of the feelings of absence and yearning that the authors feel for one another.  Stolen moments on brief trips to Paris, telegrams, and letters are not enough to satisfy either one of them.  But as the years progress and they continue with their letters, a deep sense of trust, friendship, love and mutual understanding is sustained between them.  Bachmann becomes for Celan a champion of his work and a mortal and emotional support.  In the early years of their communication she is constantly receiving his poems, giving him feedback and trying to get his work published in various literary magazines.  When the Goll plagiarism scandal happens, she writes to him and encourages him to put that incident behind him.  I also found it sweet and endearing that they continue for many years to exchange books as gifts on one another’s birthdays and at Christmas.

It is touching and selfless that even when they reconnect in 1957 and rekindle their romance, Bachmann encourages Celan to stay with his wife Gisele for the sake of their son.  Bachman also struggles to make the decision on whether or not to live with Max Frisch in early 1958.  As the years go by and it is evident that fate has conspired against them to ever live together, they still maintain an emotional dependence on one another.  Celan’s words dated October 31st—November 1st, 1957 sums up what their relationship evolves into:

Life is not going to accommodate us, Ingeborg; waiting for that would surely be the most unfitting way for us to be.

Be—yes, we can and are allowed to do so.  To be—be there for another.

Even if it is only a few words, all breve, one letter once a month: the heart will know how to live.

 

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Filed under German Literature, Nonfiction, Seagull Books

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.

 

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

Review: in field latin by Lutz Seiler translated by Alexander Booth

Lutz Seiler was born in the former East Germany in the Langenberg district of Gera, Thuringia.  He first had a career as a skilled construction worker as both a bricklayer and carpenter.  It was during his service in the National People’s Army that he first took an interest in poetry and literature. Since 1997 he has been the literary director and custodian at the Peter Huchel Museum in Wilhelmshorst.  He has won numerous awards for his writing including the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize for his short story volume Turksib.

in field latin, published by Seagull Books in 2016, is Seiler’s debut volume of poetry translated into English.  Divided into seven sections which include between one and eleven poems, this collection gives us an interesting glimpse into life in the former East Germany via lyrics that describe landscapes, personal reflections and ghosts.

The most striking images that Seiler weaves throughout this collection are those of nature; in the first poem, entitled “Departure” he invites us into his bucolic world:

bed against window, the trip
into the wood, ever more softly
shifting gears & sleep: every

dream begins uphill, at the fence
onto the street where
someone squats like you, where

the resinous poppy with its
capsules clings to your ears, where
above already blossom edges have

gone to grey…leaf
after leave put into place
& uncompleted sent away.

The short, startling lines in this first poem are typical for the entire collection where images of reality and dreams are mingled and blurred.  His poetry is both personal reflection but also captures the universal feeling of calm while walking in the woods in autumn.  In “autumn” he writes:

is silence & custom. autumn
is rake, wood, is a mild
chill upon the eyes &

unexpected gooseflesh.  is also
the good old ready-to-fight feeling, soft, secret, skull-still
designs maturing.  the leaves all burnt, sand

still warm beneath the ashes, you
feel it now upon your hand: something
wants to flee &something never leave…

The ghosts of the past, both personal and political, also pervade his poetry.  The phrase “all the wasted time” in the following poem entitled “the stay” in particular stood out to me as an interesting commentary on the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the reunification of his country:

one evening they came
the dead of my house
back from the train-station.  one

after the other, with
balled fists, reminiscent
of tulips in their

nigh-reserve, reminiscent,
in the long being-dead, of all
the wasted time.

In a poem entitled “culmitzsch” Seiler weaves together images of landscapes, ghosts and life in the former East Germany.  The translator includes some excellent and helpful notes in the back of this edition and for this poem he explains that Culmitzch was a village in the GDR whose inhabitants were forced to move in order to make room for one of that former country’s largest uranium mines.  Seiler’s poem about this abandoned place is chilling:

in the evening the sheep go rusty
over the wasted land, birds
as if snowed therein & darkened…

only under the rubble
the farmyards are still warm.  the spoons
there by the spoons, the polish
by the boots & that little door
to the boot-room which moves you
to tears…

As always, Seagull Books has brought into English translation a fascinating collection of poetry.  I had the opportunity to interview Alexander Booth, the translator of this collection which can be read here.

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Filed under German Literature, Poetry, Seagull Books