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Archive for the 'Fiction' Category

Monday, August 7th, 2017

#WITMonth Book Giveaway!

City Folk and Country Folk

In celebration of Women in Translation Month, we are offering the chance to win a copy of three recent works by women, translated by women. The giveaway titles include: the newly published novel City Folk & Country Folk by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya, translated by Nora Seligman Favorov from our Russian Library series; Teresa, My Love: An Imagined Life of the Saint of Avila by Julia Kristeva, translated by Lorna Scott Fox; and new in paperback The Fall of Language in the Age of English by Minae Mizumura, translated by Mari Yoshihara and Juliet Winters Carpenter. Throughout the week, we will feature more on these titles and others on the blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

Thursday, June 29th, 2017

Kyūzō and the Red Army

Beasts Head for Home

“During that night, however, Kyūzō’s mother went out to the back shed to find some empty packing crates. There she was hit by a stray bullet, shattering her back. They called for a doctor, but after administering an injection he hurried away without issuing any clear instructions. Everyone was in a state of high agitation. Not knowing what to do, Kyūzō merely remained at his mother’s bedside staring blankly ahead.” — Abe Kōbō

This week, our featured book is Beasts Head for Home: A Novel, by Abe Kōbō, translated by Richard F. Calichman. Today, we are happy to present an excerpt from the book describing the chaos at the end of the Second World War experienced by the Japanese inhabitants of Manchuria.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Beasts Head for Home!

Wednesday, June 28th, 2017

Kyūzō Heads for Home

Beasts Head for Home

“The corner of an eroded sand dune could be seen where the river sharply diverged to again touch the edge of town. A few slanting Korean pine trees stood there, under which lay the unknown grave of his mother. When Kyūzō was in middle school, he had examined the sand dune’s movement as part of science class. He discovered that as the dune eroded with the annual spring floods, it moved northward by twenty or thirty centimeters. Before long it would overtake his mother’s grave, swallowing it up. After several hundred years, in the sandy plains created after the sand dune had swept through, what would someone think if they came across those crumbled, yellow bones?” — Abe Kōbō

This week, our featured book is Beasts Head for Home: A Novel, by Abe Kōbō, translated by Richard F. Calichman. In April, The Guardian featured an excerpt from the novel as part of their Translation Tuesday series. Today, we are happy to present a short piece of that excerpt. You can read the excerpt in full at The Guardian.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Beasts Head for Home!

Kyūzō Heads for Home
By Abe Kōbō. Translated by Richard Calichman

Raising his head, Kyūzō saw light dimly shining in above the door. There was a hole about the size of his thumb, and a dusty light could be seen whirling about. Peeking through the hole, he noted that the fog had nearly disappeared, and that several sheets of mist that had failed to escape hovered close to the ground, moving south. By the horizon a milky white light had begun to shine.

On his left, a large patch of fog was burning off in swirls, exposing the lowland that stretched from the northwest to the southeast. This was Xinghe. Here and there the snow had become bare, revealing a surface of ice that gleamed like new sheets of zinc. Further to the right, the town of Baharin stretched out like a stockyard of black brick.

In such light, however, it would no longer be easy to change cars. Suddenly the train emitted a burst of steam. Kyūzō stood motionless, vacillating, when again he heard the sound of approaching footsteps. They stopped directly in front of him. Someone rapped on the door with a stick and spoke in Chinese, with a provincial Shandong accent, “What happened to the cargo that was supposed to have been loaded here?” (more…)

Tuesday, June 27th, 2017

Introducing Beasts Head for Home

Beasts Head for Home

“By the end of the novel, Kō indeed appears to have lost all semblance of reason in his lunatic ravings, while Kyūzō, who is consistently described in bestial imagery—for example, panting like a dog, eating like a dog, potentially being killed like a dog, and so forth—seems to have surrendered all traces of humanity in being transformed into a howling, enraged beast. The pain that these two men suffer is extreme, and yet Abe steadfastly resists any notion that salvation is to be found through an ideal return to humanity.” — Richard Calichman

This week, our featured book is Beasts Head for Home: A Novel, by Abe Kōbō, translated by Richard F. Calichman. To start the week’s feature, we are happy to present Calichman’s forward to the novel.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Beasts Head for Home!

Monday, June 26th, 2017

Book Giveaway! Beasts Head for Home, by Abe Kōbō

Beasts Head for Home

“The earliest work by one of Japan’s foremost writers to appear in English, Beasts Head for Home tells the story of a young Japanese man who undertakes a harrowing journey in an attempt to reach Japan after the collapse of the Japanese Empire. The story is particularly affecting to read in this historical moment with so much forced migration all over the world. Calichman’s translation is flawless.” — J. Keith Vincent, translator of Junichiro Tanizaki’s Devils in Daylight

This week, our featured book is Beasts Head for Home: A Novel, by Abe Kōbō, translated by Richard F. Calichman. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

Friday, May 5th, 2017

Art of Translation roundtable recap

There are still 2 days left in Russian Literature Week. Check out the remaining events here.

Art of Translation roundtable

Every year, Read Russia’s Russian Literature Week provides a variety of events for devotees of literature, from raucous panels on what’s new and hot on the contemporary scene to intimate, in-depth conversations on single titles. On Tuesday May 2nd 2017 the Russian Literature Week event The Art of Translation: A Literary Roundtable focused on translators. Moderator Ruth Franklin, author of Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, began by inviting the participating translators to speak briefly about a recent translation and read a short passage from it. Thomas Kitson read from Rapture by Iliazd, the most recent publication in the Russian Library. Lisa Hayden commented that readers often assume that the most difficult part of translating Laurus by Eugene Vodolazkin was the archaic language, but actually, getting the rhythm right was harder. Antonina Bouis read a passage from Sergei Lebedev’s Oblivion, a novel that, in Nina’s words, “turned the collapse of the Soviet Union into a kind of poetry”. And Marian Schwartz was gracious enough to read to us from an as-of-yet unpublished translation of a book by Leonid Yuzefovich. It will come out in February from Archipelago and currently bears the working title Horsemen of the Sands. The book concerns the Far East and Mongolia, and Marian pointed out that this makes it work particularly well in translation because Yuzefovich has already explained the unfamiliar customs and history for his Russian readers, who are also on unfamiliar ground.

Ruth deftly steered the conversation to highlight common themes and differences between the works and the methods of the translators. We had a rousing discussion of realia, which, as Marian commented, can add or take away from the overall experience of reading the translation. She cautioned that the translator should ask herself: Why is it there? How is it being used? What’s the effect on the original audience?

One big dividing factor is whether or not the author being translated is alive. Lisa, Nina, and Marian all enjoy close relationships with these authors. This allows them to ask for clarification, of course, but more importantly, having the author’s explicit permission makes it much easier to alter the underlying work. Michael Wise, the co-founder of New Vessel Press, was in the audience, and he and Nina spoke about some tightening of the prose and in one instance even some rearranging that they were able to do with Lebedev’s blessing. This kind of liberty is harder to take with the work of a dead author. Tom Kitson added that since he was unable to discuss Rapture with Iliazd, he compensated by reading his other works and getting a sense of his relations with other Russian writers.

Ruth ended the event with a request for advice for aspiring or emerging translators:
Marian Schwartz: Pick a really good book. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter how good your translation is.
Antonina Bouis: Work with an author you like as a person.
Lisa Hayden: Listen for voices. Read out loud.
Thomas Kitson: Pick a book that you really love.

The Art of Translation: A Literary Roundtable was co-sponsored by Columbia University Press, the Columbia University Slavic Department, and the Harriman Institute

Thursday, May 4th, 2017

Thoughts on Rapture by Iliazd (Ilia Zdanevich)

Iliazd’s Rapture is one of the upcoming titles in the Russian Library, a new series that seeks to demonstrate the breadth, variety, and global importance of the Russian literary tradition to English-language readership through new and revised translations of premodern, modern, and contemporary Russian literature.

Rapture

Today Veniamin Gushchin, CC ’18, Russian Library Intern responds to Rapture by Iliazd, translated by Thomas J. Kitson

The term emigrant, as opposed to the more commonly used immigrant, is inherently backwards facing, focusing on the country of origin rather than the destination. In the popular imagination, the immigrant arrives in a land of opportunity, while the emigrant flees from an oppressive regime, hopelessly yearning to return to their past. Though the two words have vaguely the same meaning, though the distinction in writing is but a few letters and in pronunciation is often barely detectable, the terms are antonyms due to the complex set of relationships an individual has with their countries of departure and arrival.

As the son of Russian immigrants that grew up in a bilingual and bicultural environment, I am very sensitive to this distinction. My parents immigrated to the United States in the 90s for greater job opportunities in the field of medicine and made the deliberate choice – mostly to spite my grandmother, who believed such efforts to be in vain – to raise me speaking Russian and aware of my cultural heritage. From watching the Soviet version of Winnie the Pooh before Disney’s to listening to tapes of the actor Innokenty Smoktunovsky reading Eugene Onegin on road trips, my parents recreated a small island of Russian culture in our home. They spoke of their Soviet past with a mixture of nostalgia and disillusionment, as many Russians do. My childhood experience was one of continually balancing my parents’ past with the pressures to assimilate to American culture. Living in suburban Maryland rather than in an immigrant enclave like Brighton Beach, my sole source for my Russian identity was my parents, my only chance to use my Russian my home. As a result, preserving this heritage grew in significance. Now, studying Russian literature in college, I seem to have come to some sort of compromise between these identities. Nevertheless, I do often feel as if I am still that child coming back from school to my parent’s home, part of and distant from both worlds. More importantly, my experience is different than those of denizens of Brighton, than those whose heritage becomes but a percentage mentioned in discussions of ethnic background.

To turn things back a century, and three waves of Russian migration, the tension between cultural preservation and assimilation is reflected in the most prolific Russian émigré writers, Ivan Bunin and Vladimir Nabokov. Especially in the works of the nomadic Nabokov, nostalgia for an idealized version of prerevolutionary Russia is central to the artist’s identity. In terms of assimilation, even in Paris, Bunin wrote exclusively in Russian and interacted mostly with his immediate circle of fellow emigrants. Though Nabokov appears to have shown a greater degree of adaptability, becoming internationally renowned as a writer in English, his constant relocation – the only “Nabokov house” is in St. Petersburg where his family lived before the Revolution – betrays his inability to settle down and fully reconcile his lost past with the present. The idealization of this prerevolutionary period has influenced perceptions of the Soviet Union and imperial Russia both abroad and in Russia. More recently, post-Soviet discourse, exemplified in artistic expression such as Govorukhin’s film “Russia That We’ve Lost,” returns to portraying the turn of the twentieth century as a time of cultural brilliance and sophistication. These notions about the first wave of Russian immigration and that era have become so widespread that they have come to represent its dominant narrative.

The figure of Ilia Zdanevich, or Iliazd, complicates this simplistic view of the reactionary emigrant. Born in Tbilisi, Georgia, his first act of migration was to Petrograd, where he became involved in a number of avant-garde artistic groups associated with the movement of Russian Futurism. His reason for migrating to Paris was to establish new artistic relationships between the nascent Soviet avant-garde and similar artistic movements in Paris, such as Dada and surrealism. Both political and artistic, he stands in contrast to the more conservation Nabokov and Bunin. While the latter two writers proudly continued the traditions of Russian nineteenth century literature, Zdanevich eagerly embraced the possibility of reshaping and developing his genre. Despite his efforts, however, once the Soviet government turned against the avant-garde, Iliazd found himself in “poetic reclusion,” effectively exiled despite having emigrating for an entirely different set of reasons. Nevertheless, the artist continued to live in Paris, collaborating with the likes of Picasso, Matisse, and Léger, developing a reputation in the European art world and, at least in part, assimilating.

Rapture is a doubly nostalgic novel, set in Iliazd’s native Georgia and written as an allegory of the Russian Futurism movement. Published in a doubly distant Paris, it is a thick mixture of avant-garde and traditional folklore, of Russian, Georgian, and Western influences that is impossible to fully separate into its constituent elements.

This new translation of Rapture allows Anglophone readers to experience Iliazd’s complex and thrilling artistic vision for the first time ever. In addition to placing the novel on the same shelf as the modernist masterpieces of Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and Thomas Mann, the publication of this translation complicates the simplistic binary between emigrant and home country present in the most influential narratives about this era. Iliazd’s voice joins the already dominant voices of Bunin and Nabokov to paint a more detailed and nuanced portrait of the first wave of Russian immigration in Paris. Immigration, emigration, and migration are all messy concepts, crossing the boundaries of identity as much as geopolitical borders. Each individual within these processes has a unique relationship to both the country of arrival and departure, the experience only able to be captured in polyphony.

Want to learn more about Rapture? Join the event TODAY, May 4, cosponsored by the NYU Jordan Center and PEN America World Voices Festival, with translator Thomas Kitson and scholar Jennifer Wilson. “What’s Old is New: Gender and Power in Iliazd’s Neglected Rapture

Wednesday, May 3rd, 2017

Interview with Thomas J. Kitson, translator of Iliazd’s Rapture

Iliazd’s Rapture is the newest title in the Russian Library, a series that seeks to demonstrate the breadth, variety, and global importance of the Russian literary tradition to English-language readership through new and revised translations of premodern, modern, and contemporary Russian literature.

Thomas J. Kitson will be speaking about Rapture with Jennifer Wilson on Thursday, May 4th at 5:00 PM at NYU’s Jordan Center. More information here

Enter the Rapture Book Giveaway here

Rapture

Today Veniamin Gushchin, CC ’18, Russian Library Intern interviews Thomas J. Kitson about his translation of Rapture by Iliazd

What makes Rapture a classic of literary modernism, worthy of being read alongside the works of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and others? Why has it been ignored for so long?

I’ll take your second question first. Rapture got off to a bad start in the politically touchy and rapidly shifting Russian publishing milieu of the late 1920s, both in the Soviet Union and in the Emigration. But Iliazd took a stance that tended to undermine his own cause – and eventually, this became a fully conscious campaign to create art that would “vanish idly,” like the storied hidden treasures in the novel. When Iliazd began writing his novel in 1926, there was every indication Soviet publishers wanted to establish ties with left-leaning émigré writers. Iliazd sent the first chapters to his brother Kirill in the USSR, expecting it would appear alongside works by “fellow travelers” like Isaac Babel, Boris Pilnyak and other authors who had been moving more or less fluidly between Moscow, Berlin, and Paris. Kirill submitted the manuscript just when those publishing opportunities started disappearing. A new “proletarian” campaign in literature, not just against fellow travelers and their favored journal, Red Virgin Soil, but also against the avant-garde gathered around the journal LEF, including Vladimir Mayakovsky, coincided with Stalin’s consolidation of power within the Party. Iliazd’s manuscript was rejected on a combination of aesthetic and ideological grounds (reads like it’s been translated, “clumsy,” even “illiterate”; opens with a monk, displays “aesthetico-contemplative indifference to characters” and entertains a “mystical state of the spirit”). Iliazd wrote an exaggeratedly tendentious, almost mocking rejoinder to the Soviet editors emphasizing his “internationalism” and asserting that he’d been in the crowd that greeted Lenin at Finland Station in April 1917. But under conditions in the Soviet Union in 1928, his avant-garde pedigree and émigré status made him profoundly suspect. To my knowledge, his contacts in the USSR never made another attempt to publish the novel, although copies of it circulated among a small group of admirers in the 1930s. So for the vast majority of Russian readers, the novel never existed at all.

In Paris, Iliazd had taken a resolute stance against the anti-Soviet émigré arbiters of culture who controlled access to the Russian-language press, and there simply wasn’t a sufficiently large Russian-speaking audience independent of those organs. Iliazd’s associates, like the Dada writer and painter Sergei Charchoune and the younger poet Boris Poplavsky, had, one by one, “compromised” for the sake of being able to publish. Again, as far as I know, Iliazd never made any overture at all to the main Russian-language publishers, and even preferred unrealized schemes to translate the novel into French. He gave away a large number of the 750 copies he published at his own expense in 1930, and Russian bookstores refused to carry what was left on the pretext that it included several obscenities. Iliazd’s marketing strategy was openly challenging to potential buyers: “If you’re that inhibited, don’t read it!” So it disappeared there, too.
When Iliazd later gained a reputation in France as a printer and publisher of artists’ books, Rapture didn’t have the visual appeal to overcome its inaccessibility to non-Russian readers. It’s an indication of how thoroughly forgotten the novel was that it didn’t have champions to publish it during the Glasnost explosion. Luckily, there have been connoisseurs over the last thirty years, in and outside Russia, to keep pushing it forward in small editions. I find myself thinking that this is probably the most high-profile publication the novel has ever had, and that puts a lot of responsibility on me.

The novel’s modernism lies primarily in its post-Great War, post-Christian exploration of human desire for transcendence. Humans are thoroughly unnatural, time-bound, dying animals whose relentless artifice inevitably creates nostalgia for Nature, or the Infinite, or Unchanging Eternity, or Ideal Beauty, and efforts to “recover” these unattainable states exact a certain quantity of violence of one kind or another. Beneath his entertaining adventure story, Iliazd introduces Freudian drives, linguistic minimal phonetic pairs, Nietzschean jenseits, chivalric quests and fairy-tale tasks, mythologies of metamorphosis, including Christian Transfiguration and Resurrection, Romantic and Symbolist longing for the Eternal Feminine, and various strains of apocalypticism, among other features, to generate layers of meaning. Iliazd considered his novel above all a “commentary on… poetry as an always vain endeavor.” It is full of allusion, but also poetically structured (circularly, like many other modernist works) with rhyme, inversion, and recapitulation. And it wears all this remarkably lightly.

What new insights about the competing literary movements at the beginning of the twentieth century can be gained from Rapture?

Laurence, the protagonist, is said to be a portrait of Vladimir Mayakovsky, and the bare storyline grows out of a transparent pre-war polemic in which Zdanevich (not yet known as Iliazd) described a film scenario called “The Fallen Man,” a melodrama about a promising young revolutionary’s utter degradation and dishonorable death. While Iliazd could still be intransigent, I think what he saw during the war took away his unforgiving polemic edge, and Rapture is suffused with sympathy and self-deprecation – all poets are necessarily failures. We know that when Futurist and Acmeist poets rejected their Symbolist fathers, they retained, as with any Oedipal response, many of their fathers’ techniques and attitudes. The French scholar Régis Gayraud is absolutely right to see in Rapture “a return to a species of Symbolism bearing the experience of the avant-garde.” I suspect there may be a much harsher inscription of Nikolai Gumilev, the Acmeist leader executed by the Bolsheviks, lurking in the novel, but that’s something I haven’t dealt with.

I also hope, since Iliazd was close to Paul Eluard and frequently attended Surrealist meetings where Freud, Gothic novels, and German Romanticism were among the topics, someone will put this novel in conversation with the Surrealist prose emerging at the same time, like Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant and André Breton’s Nadja.

In translating Rapture, how did you navigate the multiple layers of cultural distance between the English-language reader and the text: first Russian, then Georgian?

Oddly, I didn’t feel that I needed to mediate much here. There’s an ongoing debate about where the novel is set (Soviet editors, to start with, didn’t like its lack of specified time and place). I lean toward agreeing with Elizabeth Beaujour that it’s simply set among mountain peoples, and there’s no need to specify more than Iliazd does. Iliazd loved the village culture of Georgia (and of the Anatolian areas he explored during a wartime archaeological expedition), but he also loved the Pyranees, and Petr Kazarnovskii makes a case for linking Rapture to the Albanian mountain settings that inspired Zdanevich’s first play. There are features that suggest a setting in the Russian Empire, but, once again, I don’t feel compelled to set that down in stone, and, in fact, I think the novel gains, especially on the mythical and fairy-tale levels, by leaving the question open. I deliberately translate vodka as “brandy” just for that reason. There’s a lovely interplay between the openness of “Once upon a time, in a kingdom far, far away” and maddeningly detailed descriptions of seemingly fantastic ethnographic practices and beliefs that turn out to be lifted almost verbatim from Iliazd’s notes about specific villages he visited. I want English-language readers to be immersed in minute detail when Iliazd decides to give it without breaking the effect of fantasy – and the same holds for the urban settings with their commercial phantasmagoria and the Party’s revolutionary striving for “expedient coercion.”

Rapture is rich in literary and historical references, especially to the Russia literary scene at the turn of the century. For English-language readers with little to no knowledge of the Russian literary tradition, do you believe this text is truly accessible? To what extent?

I think the novel can be enjoyed without being able to catch all the allusions (I certainly haven’t). Many English-language readers are familiar with Dostoevsky and will certainly find that characters and situations from his major novels come to mind. Readers who know modern French poetry will find echoes of Baudelaire and Rimbaud (for instance, the monk Mocius sees a satyr gnawing a rifle barrel). I have incorporated some vocabulary and phrasing from the King James Version of the Bible, which I hope will sound in many English-language readers’ ears. Some allusions, like Laurence’s invocation of Boris Pasternak when he vows to wed the government’s soldiers to “our sister death,” are extremely fleeting, but will probably register with some readers. I think the book will reward any level of reading experience for curious, intelligent readers.

When I’m feeling very inadequate as a translator, I imagine Rapture could warrant something like Yale University Press’s simultaneous publication of two versions of Máirtín ´O Cadhain’s Cré na Cille (The Dirty Dust and Graveyard Clay), where the alternate version would focus sharply on another level of puns and allusions that results in an entirely different book.

Translators generally fall along a spectrum regarding how faithfully they believe a translation should adhere to a source text. Where do you fall on this spectrum of remaining to true to the text and making it accessible to the reader?

I don’t think of remaining true and making it accessible as mutually exclusive tasks. I think the text can have some odd features and still be accessible, especially because I imagine a reader with a generous tolerance for what’s unfamiliar. In part, remaining true to this text meant taking into account the specific kinds of incomprehension or bewilderment evident in the fragmentary accounts of the manuscript’s effect on its first readers. I was particularly drawn to the impression that the novel had been translated from another language into Russian. How should I handle that in my own, actual translation? I retained a few syntactic and punctuation features I thought might create just a slight edge of unease. They were flagged at the proofreading stage, so they were perceptible, but we agreed that they didn’t impede reading. But my sense of hitting the right balance depends on the text. If I were tackling Zdanevich’s beyonsense plays, I’d have a very different feeling for what I want readers to have access to.

What are your hopes for this publication? Do you have any particular expectations for its reception or impact both on academia and general readership?

As I mentioned above, I feel like this translation has the potential to introduce Rapture to readers on a scale it’s never achieved. Today, the sheer fact of making it available in English already provides a huge advantage. I fantasize that bilingual Russian speakers will encounter it and want to read Iliazd’s Russian.

At the same time, I hope Rapture finds a place for general readers alongside Dostoevsky and Bulgakov, but also alongside Woolf and Lawrence and Mann. And, in a sense, I hope readers will think of it not as a Russian novel, but as an important element in a much broader literary heritage.

Are you interested in translating any of Iliazd’s other novels or works?

I’m currently translating Iliazd’s Philosophia, set in 1921 among Russian refugees in Istanbul — a psychologically and referentially paranoid novel moving toward a terrorist plot to blow up Hagia Sophia. It feels very timely.

Tuesday, May 2nd, 2017

Brother Mocius’s Funeral

Rapture

“Brother Mocius’s funeral was performed not by parish priests, but by monks who turned up from his own monastery, as well as from the monastery he’d been traveling to. The monks didn’t share lay opinion as to the ascetic’s violent death, since the expression in the dead man’s eyes bore witness that he had seen death, while people who die violently supposedly don’t see it; but since the monks weren’t convinced even of this (to Luke’s distress), they decided, in order to avoid any ambiguity, to accept the locals’ petition and bury the holy fool in the cemetery there. No one showed up for the funeral.” — Iliazd

This week, our featured book is Rapture: A Novel, by Iliazd, translated by Thomas J. Kitson. Today, we are happy to present an excerpt from the third chapter of Rapture.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Rapture!

Monday, May 1st, 2017

Book Giveaway! Rapture, by Iliazd

Rapture

“Magical… like a wizard’s spell.” — Aleksandr Goldshtein, Nezavisimaia Gazeta

This week, our featured book is Rapture: A Novel, by Iliazd, translated by Thomas J. Kitson. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

Friday, April 28th, 2017

Introducing Remains of Life

Meeting with My Brother and Remains of Life

“As one of the first contemporary literary works to address the scars left by the Musha Incident and its brutal suppression, the novel stimulated a renewed dialogue and cultural debate about the incident in Taiwan. After centuries of oppression, the indigenous peoples of Taiwan remain largely marginalized, and Remains of Life is one of the few literary works by an ethnic Chinese writer to address the plight of the island’s original occupants under both the Japanese colonizers and the Nationalist regime.” — Michael Berry

This week, we are pleased to feature two exciting new works of literature in translation: Meeting with My Brother, by Yi Mun-yol, translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl with Yoosup Chang, and Remains of Life, by by Wu He, translated by Michael Berry. Today, we are happy to present Michael Berry’s introduction to Remains of Life.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win both Meeting with My Brother and Remains of Life!

Thursday, April 27th, 2017

Introducing Meeting with My Brother

Meeting with My Brother and Remains of Life

“In his literary work, and in his private life, Yi not only responds to themes directly relevant to himself; he is also profoundly aware of the contemporary predicament of Korea—currently ranked the sixth most “wired” nation on the planet according to Bloomberg—in the age of the Internet and media manipulation. It is not only the younger generation of Koreans that is ruled by consumerism, narcissism, and hunger for fame and fortune. Yi’s work seems to be designed precisely to be disillusioning, and perhaps even traumatic, to such a readership because it dares to go against the grain of both popular and normative thinking.” — Heinz Insu Fenkl

This week, we are pleased to feature two exciting new works of literature in translation: Meeting with My Brother, by Yi Mun-yol, translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl with Yoosup Chang, and Remains of Life, by by Wu He, translated by Michael Berry. Today, we are happy to present Heinz Insu Fenkl’s introduction to Meeting with My Brother.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win both Meeting with My Brother and Remains of Life!

Wednesday, April 26th, 2017

The Musha Incident

Meeting with My Brother and Remains of Life

“[B]ut who would have imagined that the ‘civilized savages’ would turn around and send their civilized planes, cannons, and poisonous gases to the ‘savage primitives’ to show them the true face of civilization; customs and rituals in the end led to a horrifying and destructive cycle of revenge, the result was the historical-political entity known as the ‘Musha Incident’…” — Wu He

This week, we are pleased to feature two exciting new works of literature in translation: Meeting with My Brother, by Yi Mun-yol, translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl with Yoosup Chang, and Remains of Life, by by Wu He, translated by Michael Berry. Today, we are pleased to present an excerpt from the beginning of Remains of Life.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win both Meeting with My Brother and Remains of Life!

Tuesday, April 25th, 2017

The Madame of Yanji

Meeting with My Brother and Remains of Life

“She lowered her voice and sneaked a quick glance toward the kitchen. ‘You’re from Seoul, so I’m sure you’ve heard,’ she said quickly, ‘but do you know how I scrounged to make that money? I made it washing bloody underwear for prostitutes and getting groped by drunkards while I was bussing tables at a hostess club. What else but money would make a married woman put up with that sort of thing?’” — Yi Mun-yol

This week, we are pleased to feature two exciting new works of literature in translation: Meeting with My Brother, by Yi Mun-yol, translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl with Yoosup Chang, and Remains of Life, by by Wu He, translated by Michael Berry. To start the week’s feature, we are happy to present an excerpt from Meeting with My Brother.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win both Meeting with My Brother and Remains of Life!

Monday, April 24th, 2017

Book Giveaway! Meeting with My Brother and Remains of Life

Meeting with My Brother and Remains of Life

“Yi Mun-yol is one of South Korea’s most gifted writers, and this translation gives his simple style all of the elegant force it can bring to bear. This story of two brothers who find each other only after their defector father has died balances the weight of the country’s history on their meeting as effortlessly as only a master could achieve. Compelling and essential reading.” — Alexander Chee, author of the novels The Queen of the Night and Edinburgh

“After spending ten years living in seclusion, Wu He began publishing a series of short stories, novellas, and novels that culminated in the publication of Remains of Life. The novel stands as a singular statement, at once profound and powerful, that could only come from the brilliant literary imagination of Wu He.” — Chu T’ien-wen, author of Notes of a Desolate Man

This week, we are pleased to feature two exciting new works of literature in translation: Meeting with My Brother, by Yi Mun-yol, translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl with Yoosup Chang, and Remains of Life, by by Wu He, translated by Michael Berry. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

Monday, February 20th, 2017

Book Giveaway! David Foster Wallace’s Balancing Books

David Foster Wallace's Balancing Books

“Since its inception, David Foster Wallace studies has focused on a relatively small set of themes—irony, sincerity, addiction, and the mass media—often centered on Wallace’s own descriptions of his literary project in interviews and essays. Severs’s insightful new study builds on and challenges this critical orthodoxy, revealing how Wallace was a careful economic, political, and historical thinker. Wallace’s writing, as Severs shows in a series of original and bracing chapters that cover the author’s whole career, engaged provocatively with the New Deal, the social-welfare state, the monetary system, and the history of neoliberalism. Severs uncovers a new domain of questions that will dominate debates about Wallace’s legacy and the meaning of his important art for decades to come.” — Lee Konstantinou

This week, our featured book is David Foster Wallace’s Balancing Books: Fictions of Value, by Jeffrey Severs. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

Thursday, January 19th, 2017

Thursday Fiction Corner: Kiku’s Prayer by Endō Shūsaku, translated by Van C. Gessel

Kiku's Prayer

Welcome to the Columbia University Press Thursday Fiction Corner! This week Russian Library and Asian Humanities editor Christine Dunbar shows once again that you can take the girl out of the Russian department, but you can’t take the Russian department out of the girl.

I recently read the novel Kiku’s Prayer by Endō Shūsaku, in Van C. Gessel’s translation. We published Kiku’s Prayer in 2012, shortly after I started working at the Press, but I picked it up now because of the publicity surrounding Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of another Endō novel, Silence. Endō was Catholic, and both novels center on Christians in Japan during the Edo period, when, as of 1614, Christianity was outlawed. Silence takes place in 1639, directly after the unsuccessful Shimabara Rebellion, in which many Christians took part and after which persecution intensified. Kiku’s Prayer, on the other hand, is set at the end of the Edo period, at the moment of transition between the Tokugawa shogunate and the Meiji Restoration in 1868. At this point, the remaining Japanese Christians (Kirishitans) have been practicing in hiding for over 200 years. A French priest arrives, searching for them like rumored pirate treasure (yes, there’s a post-colonial aspect to this novel too), and while he eventually finds them, he leads the local officials right to them as well. As the political situation becomes more tangled, the officials become less and less sure how to deal with these unrepentant law-breakers. As Endō is an historical novelist par excellence, this would be enough of a reason to read Kiku’s Prayer, and Van C. Gessel’s sparse but fascinating notes point out characters based on historical figures for readers whose knowledge of the period is spotty. But at its heart, the novel is an investigation of faith, personal ethics, and the question of how to live in a world that contains so much suffering.

It’s at once a novel saturated with Christianity and Christian suffering—it’s impossible to shake the subcontext of Jesus on the cross, not to mention Catholicism’s long history of martyrs—and a novel that leaves lots of room for parallel ethical decisions. For Endō, ethics is not the sole purview of Christianity, or, to put it a slightly more Christian-centric way, Christian belief is not a prerequisite for Christian behavior. The titular Kiku is a young woman who falls in love with Seikichi, one of the hidden Kirishitans. Kiku herself has little use for Christianity, which she rightly fears will lead to trouble for her beloved. Nonetheless, when Seikichi is taken away and tortured in an attempt to force him to renounce his faith, Kiku prostitutes herself, first to one of the officials overseeing the torture, and later to others in order to earn money for bribes and food for the prisoners. In doing so, Kiku endures pain and humiliation, ostracizes herself from her family, and sacrifices her very future with Seikichi, to whom she believes she can no longer make a proper wife. She carries on an outwardly heretical but authentic relationship with the Virgin Mary, whom she sees as the other woman, in the sense that she has stolen Seikichi’s love. This is the opposite of the tension between outward quiescence and inner rebellion that recurs throughout the novel, from Father Petitjean’s promise, immediately broken, not to proselytize to the Japanese to the officials’ promise that the apostasy of the tortured Kirishitans need be in word only.

For me, the pleasure of the novel is heightened by the references Endō makes to that other author obsessed with faith and doubt, Fyodor Dostoevsky. These references are fluid—in most ways, Kiku is nothing like Sonia Marmeladova, though both turn to prostitution to help relieve the sufferings of others—but specific textual moments makes such parallels clear. Lord Itō Seizaemon, for instance, gets drunk in a tavern on Kiku’s money, and then wails to his companions about his wretched nature, much in the manner of Marmeladov with Raskolnikov in the tavern, drinking away Sonia’s earnings. At other times, Itō more closely resembles Dostoevsky’s Underground Man. He is jealous of his bureaucratic peers, who are more successful, and veers between pity and cruelty towards those under his power. He even has moments of clarity, as when, leaving the teahouse where Kiku works, he says to himself: “I’m…I’m a despicable man. A truly despicable man.”

Endō and Dostoevsky share common concerns regarding logic, faith, evil, and forgiveness, but I wonder if the turn to the Russian author might not also be motivated by the process of writing an historical novel. After all, in 1868, when Kiku’s Prayer takes place, Notes from the Underground (1864) and Crime and Punishment (1866) would have just come out. Clearly, now I must read Silence to see if Dostoevsky’s anachronistic influence can be felt there.

Click below to read the first chapter of Kiku’s Prayer. In this excerpt, Kiku is still a child, but the promise of her later bravery can already be seen.

Wednesday, December 14th, 2016

Shirley Hazzard’s 2003 National Book Award Acceptance Speech

We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think

We were terribly saddened to hear the news that Shirley Hazzard passed away Monday. We were fortunate to have the chance to publish a collection of her writing, We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think: Selected Essays. In memory of her wonderful life and career, we have excerpted her National Book Award Acceptance speech from 2003 in which she concisely explains the power of the written (and read) word.

There’s a moment to say I am delighted, and I am delighted. I’m delighted to have been in the company of the other nominees tonight who of recent days I’ve heard read from their works and been so impressed by the variety of our feelings and our approaches. There was no uniformity at all in what we brought except the wish to do well by the English language, to find the word that mattered. I honor the people who were with me because I enjoyed so much hearing them read and hearing this large diversity.

I want to say in response to Stephen King that I do not—as I think he a little bit seems to do—regard literature (which he spoke of perhaps in a slightly pejorative way), that is, the novel, poetry, language as written, I don’t regard it as a competition. It is so vast. We have this marvelous language. We are so lucky that we have a huge audience for that language. If we were writing in high Norwegian, we would be writing in a great ancient language, but we would have mostly reindeer for our readers. I’m not sure that that is the ideal outcome. We have this huge language so diverse around the earth that I don’t think giving us a reading list of those who are most read at this moment is much of a satisfaction because we are reading in all the ages, which have been an immense inspiration and love to me and are such an excitement. (more…)

Friday, December 9th, 2016

Thoughts on and an Excerpt from Fourteen Little Red Huts and Other Plays by Andrei Platonov

This post is a part of the inaugural week of the Russian Library, a new series that seeks to demonstrate the breadth, variety, and global importance of the Russian literary tradition to English-language readership through new and revised translations of premodern, modern, and contemporary Russian literature.

Enter the Russian Library Book Giveaway here

Fourteen Little Red Huts and Other Plays

Today Adham Azab-Xu, Ph.D. candidate in French and Romance Philology at Columbia University and current Fellow in Academic Administration here at Columbia University Press, responds to Fourteen Little Red Huts and Other Plays by Andrei Platonov, edited by Robert Chandler and translated by Chandler, Jesse Irwin, and Susan Larsen.

When Christine Dunbar, the editor of the Russian Library Series, asked me to read Fourteen Little Red Huts and Other Plays by Andrei Platonov, edited by Robert Chandler, I wasn’t sure I would enjoy it—I certainly don’t have a background in Russian literature, and have never been an enthusiastic reader of plays. But once I began reading, I was quickly engrossed in the stories these plays have to tell, which is why I am writing this post and urging you, our readers, to give Fourteen Little Red Huts and Other Plays a chance.

In his excellent introduction to this book, Chandler writes that “like all great art, [Platonov’s] stories and plays can speak to a reader who knows little or nothing about the author and his times. Platonov’s deepest concerns were, in fact, always universal—philosophical and psychological more than political” (xxvii). We often perceive great art as great particularly because it continues to appeal to us in changing times, or because changes in our own perspective fill it with new life. In a way, then, great art is both timeless and ephemeral—it endures, but it variously reflects differing perspectives across physical and temporal boundaries.

Wanting to disconnect from the world for a bit, I began reading Fourteen Little Red Huts on November 8th—the day Donald Trump won the presidential election—and Chandler’s observation resonated deeply with me. Like many people I know, I was up in arms for the whole presidential campaign about the unmitigated triumph of disinformation. Even now, fake news sites spread it relentlessly and virulently, and large groups of people (some of whom I know intimately) only double down on their beliefs when presented with information that contradicts the most damaging and outlandish conspiracies. On November 8th, I saw that ours is not unlike the world to which Platonov bears witness in Fourteen Little Red Huts and Other Plays—his characters, in spite of their suffering, and in spite of the obvious signs of falsehood that surround them, cleave ever more closely to their beliefs, or to what they are told to believe, and it certainly doesn’t do them any good.

Granted, to put things in historical context, Platonov’s characters, living—or, more accurately, starving to death—on collective farms (or kolkhozy) in Soviet Russia, are faced with a choice between what they’re told to believe, on the one hand, and the Gulag* on the other. While it is reassuring that relatively few people in the world today have to make such a choice, it is important not to forget that these plays’ most dystopic scenes represent Platonov’s real-life experience as a land reclamation expert in the 1920s, and as a writer sent to report on events in the Soviet countryside between 1929 and 1932. Between 1932 and 1933 alone, the Encyclopedia Britannica estimates that six to nine million people died of hunger in the fields, but even as Platonov’s characters wither away and die, many of them refuse to acknowledge the direness of their reality. They continue to toe the party line.

The plays’ jarringly unnatural, morbidly jocular language, especially in The Hurdy Gurdy and in Fourteen Little Red Huts, testifies to the unbelievability of the situation their characters find themselves in, and I sense that in using this kind of language in these two plays, Platonov was walking a fine line—struggling to find a truthful way to express the dystopic suffering he witnessed without getting himself sent to the Gulag. On several occasions, though, it seems a wonder that Platonov got away with writing so openly about the famine, since the Soviet government denied its existence and criminalized all discourse about it. To this effect, the cries of starving children in Fourteen Little Red Huts are both poignant and remarkable—a true act of literary bravery, even if none of these plays, and only one of the works Platonov wrote about the collectivization or about the famine, were published during Platonov’s lifetime.

In light of this fact, it is perhaps not surprising that Platonov expresses a distinct ambivalence about the value of writing in his plays. Reading Fourteen Little Red Huts in particular, it seems fair to say that he would reject the notion of literary bravery altogether; the three writers in Fourteen Little Red Huts certainly do not come across in a positive light, and, in the same play, reading appears to be little more than a diversion for those who are both starving and bored to death on the kolkhoz. And yet, Platonov still wrote these plays—plays that have often been deemed unperformable on account of their unusual stage directions, which seem more aimed at readers than at potential viewers. Why write plays that aren’t really plays? And why write at all, when it won’t get you anywhere?

If there is any value at all in writing, I would argue that, as far as these plays are concerned, it has more to do with revealing the suffering of the voiceless than with trying to assuage that suffering, which would be an exercise in futility. Platonov offers these voices up to us, and, eighty-five years later, they still speak to us, reminding us in so many ways that we “shall languish without motion amid the historical current, […] the same piffle as everything living or dead” (159).

At any rate, I hope all of you will read Fourteen Little Red Huts and Other Plays! Especially now, it will give you a lot to think about.

*Editor’s note: Not yet called the Gulag, but the point still stands…

See below for an excerpt from Fourteen Little Red Huts:

Thursday, December 8th, 2016

An Excerpt from the main text of Strolls with Pushkin

This post is a part of the inaugural week of the Russian Library, a new series that seeks to demonstrate the breadth, variety, and global importance of the Russian literary tradition to English-language readership through new and revised translations of premodern, modern, and contemporary Russian literature.

Enter the Russian Library Book Giveaway here

Strolls with Pushkin

Eugene Onegin, Pushkin’s novel in verse, is one of the most influential works of Russian literature. In the below excerpt, the narrator “strolls” through Eugene Onegin, explaining why it’s a good thing that Pushkin was superficial, full of nonsense, and unconcerned with consequences.

Intrigued? For more context on Strolls with Pushkin, see the excerpt from Catharine Theimer Nepomnyaschy’s introduction: http://www.cupblog.org/?p=20320