Tag Archives: Archipelago Books

Konundrum: Selected Prose of Kafka Translated by Peter Wortsman

In this new translation of Kafka’s prose published by Archipelago Books last year, Peter Wortsman has chosen a wonderful selection of shorter writings that showcases the range of the author’s brilliance.  Old favorites such as “The Metamorphosis,” translated in this collection by Wortsman as “Transformed” appear in the volume with fresh, updated language for a 21st century audience.  For those who are new to Kafka’s writing, the inclusion of additional classic short pieces such as “The Penal Colony” and “A Report to an Academy” make this a perfect volume with which to be introduced to his writing.

For enthusiasts who are already devotees of Kafka, some surprising new translations of smaller pieces can also be found within the pages of Wortsman’s translation.  Letters, aphorisms, and short stories that would today be classified as flash fiction are all included in this new volume.  I especially enjoyed the short prose that Wortsman includes in order to highlight the different aspects of Kafka’s personal side—his sense of humor, his anxiety, his thoughts on writing and his loneliness.  In his Afterword, Wortsman writes about his love of Kafka and his decision to attempt a translation of this legendary author:

Translating Kafka for me is a bit like looking back at a first love, an attachment saved from sentimentality and necrophilia by a corpus of work in need of no face-lifts or taxidermy to entice, still as alive and relevant as any musings of an elogquent insomniac committed to extreme particularity of expression.  I give you these precious nuggets of a gold miner in the caves of the unconscious.

One of my favorite pieces that Wortsman translates, entitled “I can also Laugh,” appears to be in response to a comment made to Kafka by his fiancé Felice about his lack of a sense of humor.  Kafka’s emphatic response to her begins:

I can also laugh, Felice, you bet I can, I am even known as a big laugher, even though in this respect I used to be much more foolhardy than I am now.  It even happened that I burst out laughing —and how!—at a solemn meeting with our director— that was two years ago, but the incident has lived on as a legend at the institute.

Kafka goes on to describe in great detail how, having received a promotion at his job, was required to appear in front of the director of the insurance company in order to give thanks for his new position.  Such an occasion was expected to have an atmosphere of solemnity but during the meeting Kafka developed a ranging case of the giggles.  He tries to pretend that he is just coughing, but he begins laughing so hard that he can’t stop himself.  It was fun to see that Kafka, whose writing is so often associated with feelings of existential angst, loneliness, and isolation actually had a good belly laugh every now and then:

The room went silent, and my laugh and I were finally recognized as the center of everyone’s attention.  Whereby  my knees trembled with terror, as I kept laughing, and my colleagues had no choice but to laugh along with me, though their levity never managed to reach the degree of impropriety of my long-repressed and perfectly accomplished laughter, and in comparison seemed rather sedate.

Kafka, 1923

Three additional works of short prose that particularly attracted my attention in this volume were the ones dealing with Greek mythology: “The Silence of the Sirens”, “Prometheus”, and “Poseidon” all showcased Kafka’s ability to take elements of the fantastic and put a realistic and even humorous spin on them.  Kafka images Odysseus chained to his mast with wax stuffed in his ears to avoid the alluring songs of the Sirens.  But Kafka goes on to describe the Sirens as being silent when Odysseus passes by so the Greek hero looks rather ridiculous with his blocked-up ears.  In “Prometheus”, Kafka images the hero chained to a rock with his liver being continually eaten by eagles; but how long can this really last?  Kafka points out the absurdity of Prometheus’s punishment by concluding, “…the world grew weary of a pointless procedure. The gods grew weary, the eagles grew weary, the wounds closed wearily.”

My favorite of the three myth-based stories is the one that imagines the god Poseidon sitting at his desk under the waves and crunching numbers.  Kafka presents us with a Poseidon whose job as god of the sea no one truly understands.  Because he is so busy in his management position, he never gets to enjoy the sea over which he rules.  Poseidon would love to find a new job, but what else is he really qualified to do?  Kafka ironically and humorously concludes his story, “He liked to joke that he was waiting for the end of the world, then he’d find a free moment right before the end, after completing his final calculation, to take a quick spin in the sea.”

Wortsman concludes his translations with a series of notes that Kafka composed while very sick and unable to speak because of the pain he suffered due to his tuberculosis.  The notes, entitled by Worstsman as “Selected Last Conversation Shreds,”  are sad and tragic and show us the author’s painful last days:

To grasp what galloping consumption is: picture a bevel-edged stone in the idle, a diamond saw to the side and otherwise nothing but dried sputum.


A little water, the pill fragments are stuck like glass shards in the phlegm.


Might I try a little ice cream today?


It is not possible for a dying man to drink.


Lay your hand of my forehead a moment to give me courage.

Wortsman has put together and translated a truly enjoyable selection of Kafka’s prose that has wetted my appetite for more of the German-Jewish author’s writing.  Stay tuned for more Kafka posts!

About the Translator:

Peter Wortsman was a Fulbright Fellow in 1973, a Thomas J. Watson Foundation Fellow in 1974, and a Holtzbrinck Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin in 2010. His writing has been honored with the 1985 Beard’s Fund Short Story Award, the 2008 Gertje Potash-Suhr Prosapreis of the Society for Contemporary American Literature in German, the 2012 Gold Grand Prize for Best Travel Story of the Year in the Solas Awards Competition, and a 2014 Independent Publishers Book Award (IPPY). His travel reflections were selected five years in a row, 2008-2012, and again in 2016, for inclusion in The Best Travel Writing. He is the author of two books of short fiction, A Modern Way to Die (1991) and Footprints in Wet Cement(forthcoming 2017), the plays The Tattooed Man Tells All (2000) and Burning Words (2006), and the travel memoir Ghost Dance in Berlin: A Rhapsody in Gray (2013), and a novel Cold Earth Wanderers (2014). Wortsman’s numerous translations from the German include Telegrams of the Soul: Selected Prose of Peter Altenberg, Travel Pictures by Heinrich Heine, Posthumous Papers of a Living Author by Robert Musil, Peter Schelmiel, The Man Who Sold His Shadow by Adelbert von Chamisso, Selected Prose of Heinrich von Kleist, and Konundrum: Selected Prose of Franz Kafka, many of which are published by Archipelago Books. He edited and translated an anthology, Tales of the German Imagination: From the Brothers Grimm to Ingeborg Bachmann, from Penguin Classics. He works as a medical and travel journalist.


Filed under German Literature, Literature in Translation

Subscription Plans: A Great Way to Support Small Presses

In this post I will highlight some of my favorite small and indie presses that offer its readers subscription plans.  By offering subscriptions a press is able to fund upcoming publications and readers get a fantastic discount on books.  These are a few of my favorites and this is by no means an exhaustive list.   I have included links to all presses for those who want more information on each plan.  Please add any additional suggestions in the comments:

new-vessel-subscription-planNew Vessel Press: A subscription of New Vessel books includes all six of their books for the publication year.  Subscribers also get to choose one book from their backlist.  The cost is $80 which amounts to about 25% off of the cover prices.  I haven’t read a book from New Vessel yet that I haven’t enjoyed.  This year’s titles include If Venice Dies and A Very Russian Christmas so this subscription is definitely worth it.  New Vessel Subscription Page.

Two Lines Press:  I embarrassed myself with a gushing review of Two Lines 25, a collection of international writing for which the Two Lines editors have scoured the world.   A copy of Two Lines 25 is included with a subscription and to me that alone is worth the price of admission.  Two Lines is also one of my favorite subscriptions because every year they send some sort of book related gift to their subscribers.  This year is was a package of postcards which all contained quotes from their latest books.  A subscription for 2016 is only $40 ($80 International) and you get four fabulous books.  Two Lines Press Subscription Page

Deep Vellum: This non-profit press offers subscriptions of five or ten books and they also provide a few options with each subscriptions.  Readers can choose both paperback and ebook versions of their books for $60 or the ebook versions alone for $50.  International subscriptions are a bit more pricey at $150.  But Deep Vellum also puts out a large variety of fantastic books that are translated from languages around the world. Deep Vellum Subscription Page.

Archipelago Books: Archipelago is also a non-profit press dedicated to publishing contemporary and classic world literature.  A one-year subscription of print books which archipelago-subscriptionincludes twelve of their titles is $170.  A full-year of ebooks is $70 and a half year subscription for six books is also $70. They provide a lot of choices depending on one’s budget.  Subscribers who are really passionate about their books and want to spend some money up front can also purchase two or three year subscriptions. Archipelago Books Subscription Page

And Other Stories: This is one of my favorite book subscriptions because they offer a recurring subscription.  I don’t have to worry about there being a gap in the books I receive because I’ve forgotten to renew.  I wish that other publishers would follow suit and also do an auto renewal option.  I was very impressed that And Other Stories sent out a lengthy survey recently to its subscribers asking for ways in which they could improve their service.  They also offer a range of options to fit different budgets: 6 books a year for £50 in UK/Europe/USA/Canada (approx $80 US), 4 books a year for £35 in UK/Europe/USA/Canada (approx $55 US), 2 books a year for £20 in UK/Europe/USA/Canada (approx $32 US).  And Other Stories also prints the names of subscribers in their books since it is the funds from these readers that have helped to publish their books. And Other Stories Subscription Page

Open Letter: This small press also specializes in world literature in English translation (notice a theme here.)  One of my favorite books this year,  The Brother by Rein Raud, has been translated from the Estonian and published by Open Letter.  They offer a six month subscription for $60 or a twelve month subscription for $100.  Shipping is free within the U.S. for both subscriptions.  I love that each new release comes with a letter from the publisher which explains the book and how they came to publish it.  Open Letter Subscription Page

Persephone Books: Persephone specializes in reprinting neglected fiction and non-fiction by (mostly) female twentieth century writers.  A friend who has impeccable taste in books sent me a copy of Greenery Street and I have been hooked on their titles ever since!  They offer a six month subscription for £60 or a twelve month subscription for £120.  For an additional fee they will also gift wrap the books.  Subscribers get to choose which books they would like to receive from their catalog of 120 titles.  My husband bought me a Persephone twelve month subscription for my birthday last year and it was delightful to receive a new Persephone title each month.  It’s the gift that keeps on giving.  Persephone Books Subscription Page

nyrbplustpr-450pxThe New York Review of Books:  This press also specializes in reissuing lost classics from different countries around the world.  They call their product a “book club” but it is essentially a subscription service.   For $140 members receive a book every month for 12 months and the membership automatically renews.  For a limited time NYRB is also offering a four issue subscription to The Paris Review when readers purchase a membership.  I can’t get enough of the books from NYRB classics and I might have to buy a storage unit to house all of my books from their catalog.  I will pretty much read anything they publish and $140 is a pretty good bargain for a year’s worth of their books.  NYRB Book Club Page

Melville House: This indie press based in New York publishes a series called “The Art of the Novella.”  They have published classic novellas written by Chekov, Tolstoy, Melville and Woolfe just to name a few.  Subscribers can choose a hard copy book for $12.99 per month, an ebook for $6.99 per month or both for $17.99 per month.  Subscribers are automatically billed monthly until they choose to opt out of the service.  This is a great option for someone who wants to try a subscription and not spend a lot of money.  Melville House Novella Subscription Page

Peirene Press: Peirene specializes in contemporary European novellas and short novels in English translation. All of their books are best-sellers and/or award-winners in their own countries. They only publish books of less than 200 pages that can be read in the same time it takes to watch a DVD. As an added bonus, their books are beautifully designed paperback editions, using only the best paper from sustainable British sources.  A one-year Peirene subscription is £35.00 and members receive a book every four months.  There is also the option to sign up for automatic renewal (UK only). Peirene Press Subscription Page   Peirene has also decided to crowd fund Peirene Now! No. 2 on kickstarter. For a pledge of only £12 supporters will receive a copy of the book which looks like another fantastic and thought-provoking read.  Peirene Now! 2 Kickstarter Page

Pushkin Press: A one year subscription to Pushkin Press is £95.00 and subscribers receive one book each month from the Pushkin Collection, a %25 discount on all purchases from the pushkin-collectionPushkin online bookshop, and a free copy of Stefan Zweig’s novella Confusion.   The Pushkin Collection is a series of paperbacks typeset in Monotype Baskerville, based on the transitional English serif typeface designed in the mid-eighteenth century by John Baskerville. It was litho-printed on Munken Premium White Paper and notch-bound by the independently owned printer TJ International in Padstow, Cornwall.  The cover, with French flaps, was printed on Colorplan Pristine White paper. Pushkin Press Subscription Page

Vibrant Margins:  Ben Winston has started this fantastic subscription service that delivers to its subscribers a variety of books from several different small presses.  According to the website, “Great novels from small presses are out there. Let us find them and deliver them to your doorstep.”  For their debut season they have chosen titles from Dzanc Books, Restless Books, Lanternfish Press, Unthank Books, The Heart and the Hand Press, and New Door Books. Subscribers receive a new book every month and can choose two, three or six books for as low as $15.33 per book.  This is a great way to try a variety of small press books.  I will be reviewing two of the titles from their debut season later in the month and doing a giveaway.  So stay tuned!  Vibrant Margins Bookstore Page

For my next post maybe I will dare to dive into the world of literary magazines!



Filed under Opinion Posts

Review-The First Wife: A Tale of Polygamy by Paulina Chiziane

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Archipelago Books via Netgalley.  This is my second contribution to Women In Translation month.  Please see the hasttag #WITMonth on Twitter for all of the great reviews that have been shared.

My Review:
The First WifeThis is a challenging book to read for several reasons.  It is a sad fact that women in Mozambique, even in the twenty first century, have extraordinarily tough lives and the author does not hold back from describing the hardships that women face on a daily basis in this country.  The story is told from the point of view of a woman named Rami who is in her forties and is tired from trying to raise her five children alone.  She is not divorced and but her husband of twenty years is the chief of police and doesn’t come home very often.  Rami reaches her breaking point when one of her sons breaks the window of a car while playing ball and she has to take care of the situation by herself.

Rami suspects that her husband, Tony, is not only kept away from home by his career but she also thinks he has another woman stashed away somewhere in the city.  Through local gossips she learns the name of this woman and goes to her home and confronts her.  Rami is shocked to find out that Tony is not only seeing another woman, but he has another family and home with this woman that includes four children and one on the way.  Rami gets into a physical altercation with this woman but once they both calm down and get to know each other they realize that Tony doesn’t visit either of his families very often because he has a total of fives wives and five different families.

Once the knowledge of Tony’s polygamist lifestyle is out in the open and the shock wears off,  Rami becomes empowered to improve her life and the lives of the other wives.   The only family that Tony sees on a regular basis is his fifth, most recent and youngest wife.  The other women and children suffer from the lack of a partner and male figure in their homes and they are dependent on Tony for whatever money he happens to throw their way every month on his sporadic visits.  There is an underlying tone of humor as a battle of wills ensues between Tony and his five wives who have now joined together to force him to become a proper husband.  Rami makes Tony accept the bride price from each family and recognize each woman as a proper wife.  Even though Rami is his only wife by law, the acceptance of the bride price is an acknowledgement of marriage in Mozambique culture.  The wives draw up a conjugal rota in which Tony spends one week at each house and the women have a meeting to discuss his health and his mood before they pass him off to the next wife.

There is a lot of repetition in the text as Rami constantly laments her loneliness and inadequacies.  The emphasis on cultures in the north of Mozambique versus those in the south are oftentimes reiterated.  The style of writing reminded me of epics like the Iliad and Odyssey which are prone to repetition because of their origins as oral literature.  In addition, each wife is assigned a sort of epithet that is repeated throughout the text: Rami-the first wife, Julieta-the abandoned one, Saly the feisty wife, Maua the youngest.  These titles for the women were very helpful in remembering each wife and her role in the polygamist family.

Chiziane, the first published female author in Mozambique, brings out into the open the harsh reality of life for women in her native country.  But Rami, her main character, becomes a role model for all women to take charge of their lives instead of passively accepting the dominance and suppression forced on them by the old customs in their culture.  As Rami and the other wives ban together they realize that they are stronger as a unit and eventually they come to realize that Tony is no longer so important to them and he loses his power over this family.

About the Author:
P ChiazinePaulina “Poulli” Chiziane (born 4 June 1955, Manjacaze, southern province of Gaza, Mozambique) is an author of novels and short stories in the Portuguese language. She studied at Eduardo Mondlane University, Maputo. She was born to a Protestant family that moved from Gaza to the capital Maputo (then Lourenço Marques) during the writer’s early childhood. At home she spoke Chopi and Ronga.  Chiziane was the first woman in Mozambique to publish a novel. Her writing has generated some polemical discussions about social issues, such as the practice of polygamy in the country. For example, her first novel, Balada do Amor ao Vento (1990), discusses polygamy in southern Mozambique during the colonial period. Related to her active involvement in the politics of Frelimo (Liberation Front of Mozambique), her narrative often reflects the social uneasiness of a country ravaged and divided by the war of liberation and the civil conflicts that followed independence. Her novel “Niketche: Uma História de Poligamia” won the José Craveirinha Prize in 2003


Filed under Literature in Translation

Review: Distant Light by Antonio Moresco

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Archipelago Press.  The original novella was published in Italian in 2013 and this edition has been translated into English by Richard Dixon.

My Review:
Distant LightThis is a short yet powerful book that raises many more questions about the mental state of the main character than it answers.  We are led to understand from the beginning that the narrator is living alone in the mountains in what is now an abandoned village.  The only time he has interaction with other human beings is when he drives his car down the mountain to another small village.  He seems to do this only when he needs food or supplies.

The narrator spends quite a bit of time interacting with nature and even talking to the swallows, the fireflies and the trees that surround him.  Since he lives in complete solitude without an trace of another human around, he is captivated by a light he sees in the distance at the same time every night.  He spends a lot of time speculating what the light could be and it takes him a while to work up the courage to investigate the light.

I won’t fully give away what he finds when he investigates that light, but I will say that it brings him into contact with another person.  His interaction with this person makes us question the narrator’s mental state and what circumstances have brought him to live alone on that isolated mountain.  There is one sentence, which one could easily miss, in which he does say that at one point he was in the military but now chooses to live in complete solitude.  We are left to speculate if was his experience as a soldier that forced him to reject all human contact.

The book has an eerie and mysterious feeling to it, especially when the narrator figures out what is causing that light in the distance.  I would go so far as to even categorize the book as magical realism.  The narrator seems calm as he is relating his matter-of-fact existence among the foliage and animals on the mountain.  But there is an underlying uneasiness about him the punctuates the story and keeps us turning the pages to finds out what happens to this strange narrator.

This is a very quick read, one that can be finished over the course of an afternoon. I would love to hear what others think about this story since there is quite a bit of symbolism in this book that would make excellent topics for discussion.

About The Author:
A morescoAntonio Moresco did not find a publisher until late in his career, after being turned down by several editors. His output is centred on the monumental trilogy L’increato, whose three volumes are: Gli esordi (Feltrinelli 1998, republished by Mondadori in 2011 – 673 pages), Canti del caos (part 1 by Feltrinelli in 2001, part 2 by Rizzoli in 2003; republished by Mondadori in 2009 – 1072 pages), and Gli increati (Mondadori 2015).


Filed under Italian Literature, Literature in Translation, Novella