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Archive for the 'Fiction' Category

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

Thursday, December 8th, 2016

Thursday Fiction Corner: Between Dog and Wolf in Translation

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

Between Dog and Wolf

Welcome to the Columbia University Press Thursday Fiction Corner! This week Russian Library intern and Columbia Russian Literary Translation MA student Elaine Wilson delves into Alexander Boguslawski’s translation of Between Dog and Wolf.

Sasha Sokolov’s novel Between Dog and Wolf is intimidating in its complexity: time is non-linear, character names are inconsistent, register moves along a wide spectrum from peasant dialect to sophisticated, even Biblical style, and the language is filled with neologisms. It is highly intertextual, astoundingly rich in its reference to Russian literary tradition across the centuries. Space, time, life and death are all uncertain—rarely is any one of them clearly demarcated—and events are told and retold from differing perspectives. And that’s just the content.

The structure likewise poses a challenge: dialogue, monologue and third person omniscient narration coexist on the page with no breaks, no indentation, no typeset cues or even general conventions of reported speech, but rather flow freely along in a train of associative (and sometimes seemingly unassociated) thought. Sokolov’s writing style belongs in a category all its own, a genre Sokolov himself categorizes as somewhere between prose and poetry, or “proetry.” And speaking of poetry, there are plenty of poems throughout, too—complete chapters of poetry tucked among the “proetic” sections of the novel.

How can something like this find its voice in a foreign language? For a long time, publishers and translators asked themselves that very question. When the Russian version of the novel was first published in 1980, critics gave it a rather mixed reception, and many within the literary community—capable translators among them—balked at the idea of an English-language version, suggesting it could never be done.

And yet it could. Sokolov’s Between Dog and Wolf is being published in English for the very first time, and so the idea of the “untranslatable” returns to the realm of translation mythology. Or does it?

I am a student of translation. Russian into English literary translation, to be specific, and so I feel a personal kind of victory in the release of this novel, a sense of celebration in a triumph over apparently insurmountable linguistic odds. Yet for all my excitement I still wonder about the inevitable losses that occur when we bring a literary work from one language into another; in the back of my mind I can’t help but hear Nabokov denouncing the “sins” of our “queer world of verbal transmigration,”* crying out that all translation but for literal, scholarly renderings are false. (Though perhaps Nabokov would find the most egregious transgression of all to be the lack of exhaustive notes on the same page of the referenced text, an organizational decision specified by Sokolov himself.)

Nabokovian doubt on the value of translation aside, can translation of something like Sokolov’s convoluted work be done well? The novel is difficult, packed with myriad obstacles that translators don’t frequently face, much less all at once. Puns, peasant dialect, a general sense of disorientation—translator Alexander Boguslawski tackles these challenges by the best means possible: culturally conscious creativity, or what Philip E. Lewis calls “abusive translation.” When a translator must force an idea from a unique mode of expression in the source text into a new linguistic framework, the translator’s job is to convey sense and meaning while still communicating the uniqueness of the source form in the receiving language. Often what “works” in Russian won’t work in English, and so the translator needs to “abuse” the text, that is, creatively engage the receiving language so that it can carry the meaning, the humor/ irony/ sadness, etc. and the unorthodox medium of the source in its new linguistic code. Consider Boguslawski’s translation of the Russian dva sapoga para: “two boots of leather flock together.” This is a clever blending of the Russian subject and English idiomatic structure to convey the literal scene—two characters sharing a pair of boots—and the spirit of collaboration implied by the Russian proverb Sokolov uses to describe them. The Russian, literally “two boots are a pair,” folds into “birds of a feather flock together” to create an English-Russian proverbial hybrid.

Why not simply use the English idiom here? Wouldn’t the spirit of the proverb be enough to convey the characters’ sense of comraderie? A translator could take this easy way out, but more than just sounding trite, the imagery would be lost, deafening the line’s descriptive power in Russian. Boguslawki does not take the easy road, and thank goodness, for his solution is lovely: it retains the visual and sense of the Russian while infusing some “foreignness” into the English text, an “abuse” that works in service of conveying the character and style that we experience in Sokolov’s Russian.

So much for linguistic obstacles. What about literary density? Again, Nabokov’s cynicism echoes in the back of my mind: the translator of a text “must have as much talent, or at least the same kind of talent, as the author he chooses.”* Between Dog and Wolf is packed with references to past and modern Russian artists, particularly Pushkin, something which only a reader with comprehensive, arguably exhaustive knowledge of Russian literary tradition would understand. Careful Russian readers have trouble identifying everything that is layered within the story, so how can we expect anyone but the most meticulous scholar to identify these layers, much less translate such a text? Of course, Boguslawski’s friendly relationship with the author establishes him as the closest thing to a Sokolov specialist for this translation, but Nabokov’s standards still reach impossibly high; in the case of this extremely learned text, is anyone capable of translation? Or perhaps the “untranslatable” does not exist, but is it possible that scholarly translation and Nabokov’s towering footnotes are the only recourse? If so, are there “prerequisites” in literary pedigree for both translators and readers of these works?

To silence this existential questioning I could turn again to literary and translation theory for inspiration, but I don’t need to. A novel’s complexity notwithstanding, translation is ultimately a dialogue between cultures and an exchange of ideas. And even though things are certain to get left by the wayside as they move from one linguistic and cultural framework to another, the receiving language and audience still gain. Perhaps readers won’t or possibly can’t identify all that the author has folded into the text, but this is an invitation to study, to revisit the story and look closer.. No matter how deep the reader chooses to go, reading a text in translation is an entry point into another literary tradition and culture that was previously closed; exhaustive research can be nice, but ultimately we have reason to celebrate because one group has gained insight into another, and that is a beautiful thing.

*Nabokov, Vladimir, (August 4,1941). The Art of Translation. The New Republic.
Retrieved from https://newrepublic.com/article/62610/the-art-translation

Wednesday, December 7th, 2016

Excerpt from Catharine Theimer Nepomnyaschy’s introduction to Andrei Sinyavsky’s 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

Anglophone readers, and perhaps Americans in particular, have a hard time understanding the centrality of Pushkin to Russian culture. The most tempting comparison is to Shakespeare: after all, Pushkin and Shakespeare are the generally acknowledged “great writers” of their respective languages; both wrote not only lyric poetry but also longer, more complex works; both popularized plots that continue to energize the writing of others; both are taught in schoolrooms and authored phrases that have entered everyday speech. And, Pushkin really liked Shakespeare, a fact that seems to give an added imprimatur to the comparison. But to me, at least, Shakespeare has never felt as immediate as Pushkin. He’s much further removed temporally, of course, having been born in 1564 to Pushkin’s 1799, and that makes his language more removed from the modern idiom as well. And I suspect that Shakespeare’s Englishness contributes to this sense of distance for me as an American. But more than anything, it’s Pushkin’s ubiquity in Russian life that lacks an appropriate analog in the Anglophone world.

This ubiquity both motivates and makes possible Andrei Sinyavsky’s book Strolls with Pushkin. Sinyavsky wrote the book while in Dubrovlag, part of the Soviet gulag system (the “lag” in both words in short for “lager’” or “camp”). He explains that while politics and camp conditions were proscribed topics, it was entirely permissible to fill his bimonthly letters to his wife with musings on Pushkin. After all, what could be more innocent? Nevertheless, the resulting book would prove to be Sinyavsky’s most controversial, as Catharine Theimer Nepomnyashchy explains in her masterful introduction. Following a biography of Pushkin that begins with his birth and continues, in the form of an overview of the cult of Pushkin, past his death and up to the time when Sinyavsky was writing, Nepomnyashchy offers the following invitation to the text:

It is precisely the boundary between the revered and the irreverent Pushkins that Sinyavsky transgresses from the very beginning of his Strolls with Pushkin. He sets off on his meanderings through the “sacred verses” of the poet with the Pushkin of pushkinskie anekdoty as his companion in hopes of circumventing the “wreaths and busts” that enshrine the canonic Pushkin and finding the “beautiful original.” This initial border violation defines the course of Sinyavsky’s strolls throughout. At every step he challenges accepted dividing lines—between writer and critic, author and character, sacred and profane, art and life—in order to undermine the commonplaces of the Pushkin myth as well as the understanding of literature as a reflection of reality that the myth entails. His project, moreover, rests on an internal contradiction. If strolling is by definition aimless motion, how can one stroll in search of something? This paradox is ultimately resolved when Sinyavsky reaches his goal only to discover that it is “zero,” that it lies in the very imposture embodied in the anecdotal Pushkin with whom he began. His strolls have both attained their object and gone nowhere and thus become a paradigm for “pure art”—art that transcends purposes external to it and becomes an end in itself. As Sinyavsky observes, “Art strolls.”

To read more:

Check back later this week now for an excerpt from the main text of Strolls with Pushkin.

Tuesday, December 6th, 2016

Excerpt from Sasha Sokolov’s Between Dog and Wolf

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

Between Dog and Wolf

This excerpt from Chapter 5 finds one of the principal characters, the erudite poet-philosopher Yakov Ilyich Palamakhterov, reveling in scholarly company at a publishing meeting-turned-party. Uncomfortable in his own skin, his social blunders launch the narration into recollection of awkward episodes past. This passage is the reader’s first formal introduction to Yakov and his interiority.

“And God only knows how long their confusion would have lasted if the porter Avdey, a sleepy peasant with a pitch-black beard reaching up to his dull and birdlike tiny eyes and with a similarly dull metal badge, did not come to say to the master that they should not be angry—the samovar completely broke and that is why there will be no tea, but, say, if needed, there is plenty of fresh beer, brought on a pledge from the cabbie, one should only procure a deed of purchase, and if in addition to beer they had wished to have some singing girls, they should send a courier to the Yar right away. Eh, brother, You are, methinks, not a total oaf, the policeman addresses the sentinel—and soon the table cannot be recognized. The prints and typesets are gone. In their place stand three mugs with beer, being filled, in keeping with their depletion, from a medium-size barrel that, with obvious importance, towers above the modest, but not lacking in refinement, selection of dishes: oysters; some anchovies; about a pound and a half of unpressed caviar; sturgeon’s spine—not tzimmes but also not to be called bad; and about three dozen lobsters. The Gypsies are late. Waiting for them, the companions arranged a game of lotto, and none else but Ksenofont Ardalyonych shouts out the numbers. Seventy-seven, he shouts out. A match made in heaven, rhymes Palamakhterov, even though he has no match. Forty-two! We have that too, the man from Petersburg assures, although again his numbers do not correspond. Deception of Nikodim Yermolaich is as petty as it is obvious, and as outsiders we are quite embarrassed for him; but the pretending of Yakov Ilyich stands out black on white. Possessing from his birth the enchanting gift of artistic contemplation, but being both shy and frail, now and then he tried not to attract attention to the fact that he was the one whom he, naturally, simply was not able not to be, since he possessed what he possessed. For that reason, probably, Yakov Ilyich’s attempts turned into complete blunders and consequently led not to the desirable but to undesirable results, again and again drawing to the gifted youngster uninterrupted, although not always favorable attention of the crowd. Do you remember how once, long ago, he let his mind wander, and a gust of the April chiller did not wait with ripping off the skullcap from his proudly carried head? It’s really not important that the street, as ill luck would have it, teeming with concerned well-wishers, kept admonishing the hero, warning: Pick it up, you will catch a cold! Ostentatiously ignoring the shouts, taking care not to look back, and arrogantly not stopping but turning the pedals forward and—cynically and flippantly chirring with the spokes, the chain, and the cog of free wheel—backward, attempting to present everything as if he had nothing to do with it, he continued riding, the way he definitely wanted it to be seen through the eyes of the side spectator, with melancholic detachment. But, you know, a certain superfluous stooping that unexpectedly for an instant appeared in the entire subtle look of the courier (exactly like his great-grandfather, his grandfather used to say), diminished, even nullified his efforts to make his bodily movements carefree, froze them, made them childishly angular and exposed the daydreaming errand boy, with his feeble straight-haired head, to the curses of the mob: Scatterbrain, dimwit—the street carped and hooted. And if it were, let us suppose, not simply a slouching chirring courier but a real humpbacked cricket from Patagonia, then, with such a mediocre ability not to attract attention, it would have been immediately pecked apart. But, fortunately, it was precisely a courier—a messenger-thinker, a painter-runner, an artist-carrier, and the nagging feeling that everything in our inexplicable here takes place and exists only supposedly did not leave him that evening even for a moment. That is how, either absentmindedly looking through the window or paging in the diffused light of a smoldering lamp through Carus Sterne—once respectable and solid, but now thinned, reduced by smoking and bodily urges, and yet, even now adequately representing the sole volume of this modest home library—Yakov Ilyich Palamakhterov, the incorruptible witness and whipper-in of his practical and unforgiving time, philosophized and speculated.”

Monday, December 5th, 2016

Interview with Alexander Boguslawski, Translator of Sasha Sokolov’s Between Dog and Wolf

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

Between Dog and Wolf

Alexander Boguslawski’s English translation of Sasha Sokolov’s second novel Between Dog and Wolf is the first of its kind, even though the Russian original was published in 1980. This English-language edition, recently published by Columbia University Press, marks the introduction of what has long been considered Sokolov’s most challenging work to Anglophone readers and, possibly, a new wave of Sokolov scholarship. We asked Boguslawski how he came to translate the “untranslatable,” what makes up his translation process, and what he hopes this new translation will achieve:

Not all translators are able to collaborate with the author of the text they translate. How did you come to meet Sasha Sokolov, what is your relationship like, and how–if at all–did it shape your translation process? How does working on a text by an author who is no longer living differ in terms of your sense of responsibility and confidence in your task?

We met in Vermont in 1982. After some brief letter exchanges that dealt primarily with my ideas about A School for Fools and with Sokolov’s inquiries about Polish translators, I decided to show him my sample translation of the School into Polish. I went to visit him in Vermont, where we walked around, talked, played Russian music, picked mushrooms, and admired the hills, rivers, and fields so attractive and enchanting to European emigres. His friends, who spoke both Russian and Polish, approved of my translation, and it came out in London in 1984. We’ve been good friends since then.

Having the author as an advisor and critic, but also as a friend is, in my opinion, extremely valuable and reaffirming. You simply know that you did not misinterpret the author’s ideas or that you caught what was hidden and could have been missed. And the collaborative translation process – getting together, talking, cooking, eating, drinking, laughing, breathing in unison – those are the unforgettable experiences which translating deceased authors can never give us. I would not hesitate to say that to translate an author without personal contact with her or him is a horrible burden on the translator. All the responsibility is on your shoulders, and regardless of how well you know the language and culture of the original text, sometimes it is impossible to guess what exactly the author wanted to say or reveal in his turn of phrase, in a hidden quote, or in a camouflaged reference. In contrast, the living author, especially when you consider him a friend, is a steady guide, a beacon of light you follow, a crutch you always have to support you.

How does your experience translating Between Dog and Wolf compare to that of translating A School for Fools?

I think that it could be useful to start with the common things: every word counts; remember that a master created these texts, so be humble trying to render them as faithfully as possible without imposing your translator’s ego on the final version; be aware of the music of the text, of the rhythm of the phrases, and don’t try to “improve” them.

English is an incredible and flexible instrument able to render the most complicated texts. Many readers would say that A School for Fools is “simpler” than Between Dog and Wolf. But it is not exactly so. They are simply different texts. The biggest difference is that Between Dog and Wolf forces the translator to render three distinctive narrative voices: the voice of Ilya the grinder, the voice of the authorial persona, and the poetic voice of Yakov. In A School for Fools we have one (well, we could argue about this) voice: the extraordinarily sensitive and complicated narrator and his alter ego. The other voices (the author, the narrator’s parents, Doctor Zauze, Savl Petrovich) more or less occupy the same linguistic register. The only distinctive and clearly distinguishable “other voice” is the narrative of Chapter two, and it’s down to earth, simpler, more prosaic. So, translating Between Dog and Wolf is definitely a greater challenge for a translator – besides complicated layers of vocabulary, it forces the translator to be more creative.

Between Dog and Wolf contains many original poems, and Sokolov’s prose is poetic in and of itself. What are some of the unique challenges posed by Sokolov’s “proeziia”(“proetry”), and how did you work to overcome them in your English rendering? An artist yourself, did your own creative sensibility influence the translation process?

Let’s start with creativity because I ended my last response with it. Creativity is a necessary and intrinsic element of any translation; after all, we are creating works of art and without imagination, invention, and artistic sense we would be just robots. As far as the prose is concerned, we have to be tuned in to the euphonic quality of the phrases, to sound repetitions, alliterations, rhymes, rhythm, and all the elements that constitute Sokolov’s “proetry.” Translating poems, in my opinion, is an extremely “delicate” artistic game: if I want to preserve the meaning and the rhymes of the poems, what am I willing to sacrifice? How much of “stuffing” or, as Russians aptly name it, “otsebyatina” (stuff from yourself) will I have to put in? Or how much will I have to rephrase the author’s expressions? Are my rephrasings adequate? Here we find ourselves at the border between creativity and making up nonsense. I try whenever I can to add as little as possible and when I add, I always ask myself: Does it fit the tone and style of the poem? Is it going to make the reader cringe or read it naturally as if it belonged there in the first place? Of course, most of these considerations are a matter of personal taste, personal sensibility, and creative restraint.

Translation is writing, and your English-language version of Sokolov’s story and characters required creativity and compromise across language. Do you believe there are any nuances or subtle differences that emerged in your English-language characters in contrast to the Russian originals? If so, what are they?

My Ilya Zynzyrella may appear to the readers who know the Russian original as too “literate” and “smooth” because his language does not have all the incorrect grammatical forms, dialectical forms, and diminutives and augmentatives so rich in Ilya’s Russian. But I tried to substitute for these differences by inventing language features English speakers will notice and appreciate: phonetic spelling of words, double negatives, and rendering his Russian “blunders” by English neologisms. Yakov’s poems may be missing some of his fascinating word plays – again, a result of sacrificing something beautiful for the sake of being as faithful as possible to the original meaning of the poem.

Between Dog and Wolf is rich in literary and historical references and wordplay. For English-language readers with little to no knowledge of Russian literary tradition, do you believe this text is truly accessible? To what extent?

If you read the text as it appears in English, you will have no difficulty understanding it. Most readers will probably not notice word plays or language “distortions” that I explain in the annotations. They will also not see the multiple references to Russian literature, Russian songs, proverbs, or Scriptures. However, we should be aware that most Russian readers also missed these references and that the average Russian reader was as puzzled by Sokolov’s text as an average English reader may be puzzled by Finnegans Wake. However, for the curious readers, I provide extensive annotations. These may not only identify the authors or sources quoted, but they also explain proverbial expressions and place names from the novel in proper cultural context.

Translators generally fall along a spectrum regarding how truthfully they believe a translation should adhere to a source text. How much creative license do you believe a translator has in their own production of text? Does this level of creativity change with respect to content, writing style, etc? If so, how?

We know from examples by Constance Garnett that one can produce a refined translation that reflects the moral or ethical sensibility of the translator. Are her translations bad? No; after all, thousands of English readers enjoyed Dostoevsky in her translation not knowing that she changed the original, imposed her Victorian taste on the text and presented to us a “different” Dostoevsky. That’s why new translations are needed, especially when they reveal better the stylistic, linguistic, and cultural idiosyncrasies of the writer.

This novel has long been regarded as “untranslatable.” Do you believe any text truly falls into that category? How do you understand your own success in carrying the spirit and language of Sokolov’s Russian into English?

I am sure that there are some works written mostly as a challenge to readers and translators. In those rare cases, I don’t think they deserve the effort or attention of the reading public. Sokolov’s books are not written to puzzle and confuse the readers. The more you open up to their beauty and their stylistic and verbal mastery, the more natural they become. But, as most of great literature, they are not written for lazy readers. Literature is art, and reading it can be difficult. But the rewards are enormous. I hope that my efforts in translating Sokolov are successful and appreciated, even if in a few years I decide that I could do it even better.

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

First of all, I am hoping that Between Dog and Wolf will gain many new readers who were kept away from it by the linguistic complexity of the original. I would like to see critical studies by literary scholars from many Western nations. But most of all, I would like to see a general acknowledgment of Sasha Sokolov’s great talent and mastery. In the last few years, I have presented to English-speaking readers Sokolov’s literary essays and vers libres, the new translation of A School for Fools, and now the first translation of his best novel, Between Dog and Wolf. Working so closely with these unique works of art and admiring their artistic qualities and their exploration of the possibilities of language, I am absolutely convinced that today Sasha Sokolov is the most deserving candidate for the Nobel prize in literature.

Monday, December 5th, 2016

Book Giveaway! The three inaugural titles of the Russian Library

The Russian Library series

“Sasha Sokolov’s classic Between Dog and Wolf is intricate and rewarding–a Russian Finnegans Wake.” — Sloane Crosley, Vanity Fair

This week, we are featuring the three inaugural titles of the new Russian Library series of Russian literature in translation: Between Dog and Wolf, by Sasha Sokolov, translated and annotated by Alexander Boguslawski; Fourteen Little Red Huts and Other Plays, by Andrei Platonov, edited by Robert Chandler and translated by Chandler, Jesse Irwin, and Susan Larsen; and Strolls with Pushkin, by Andrei Sinyavsky, translated by Catharine Theimer Nepomnyashchy and Slava I. Yastremski.

Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about these books and their authors and translators on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

Thursday, June 9th, 2016

Thursday Fiction Corner: Many Annas Karenina

Repin's Volga Boatmen

Welcome to the Columbia University Press Thursday Fiction Corner! This week Russian Library editor Christine Dunbar comments on Janet Malcolm’s recent piece in the New York Review of Books on translations of Anna Karenina.

Janet Malcolm’s recent piece in the New York Review of Books on translations of Anna Karenina has spurred many discussions in the Slavic studies community. Malcolm comes down hard on the translating duo Pevear and Volokhonsky, who are as controversial amongst Russian scholars as they are feted by the non-Russian-speaking book world (chosen by Oprah!). On the other hand, she praises Constance Garnett, who is having a reputational renaissance in the scholarly world.

Arguing that Garnett is superior because she is more readable, Malcolm in turn insists that translators not sacrifice readability for textual fidelity. Like most generalizations, it’s easy to pick holes in this one: translation invariably requires an interpretive move, but if the source text is ambiguous or confused, perhaps reflecting, in the case of Anna Karenina, Anna’s disordered state of mind, smoothing it out is not in the reader’s best interest. The example Malcolm ends on—the confusion the reader feels when reading that Stiva Oblonsky’s hunting attire includes “linen bands wrapped around his feet” (in the Kent and Berberova edition of Garnett) and the additional explanation (in the Maudes’ translation) of “instead of socks,” not present in the original—is one I suspect many translators would sympathize with. I have heard Marian Schwartz, whose translation of Anna Karenina Malcolm casually and unfairly dismisses, say that if she can avoid unnecessary confusion (or a footnote) by inserting one or two extra words in the text, she may do so. Scholars tend to worry about what is lost in translation rather than what the reading public gains from works being translated, and so are more likely to quibble with this kind of deviation from the source text. (more…)

Friday, April 29th, 2016

The Plays of Gao Xingjian

City of the Dead and Song of the Night

The Plays of Gao Xingjian

Our World Literature Week celebration continues today with a brief look at the plays of Gao Xingjian, a writer who has worked in multiple genres—short stories, essays, novels—but is best known as a playwright. Sixteen years ago Gao became the first writer in Chinese to win the Nobel prize for literature, since then The Chinese University Press has been steadily publishing translations of his work into English.

City of the Dead and Song of the Night is his most recent collection of plays. In City of the Dead Gao updates the ancient morality tale “Zhuangzi Tests His Wife,” a cautionary tale against infidelity, to confront the traditional patriarchal system. Song of the Night, considered one of his most ambitious plays, theatrically portrays the female psyche. MCLC has called the book “intriguing and thought-provoking.” For a more detailed explanation of these two plays, you can read “Gao Xingjian: Autobiography and the Portrayal of the Female Psyche,” the volume’s introduction by Mabel Lee, one of his translators and an expert on his work.

Of Mountains and Seas is based on the ancient text The Classic of Mountains and Seas. This play reenacts the classical world of Chinese mythology, traversing the creation of humans to the beginning of Chinese dynastic history. (more…)

Thursday, April 28th, 2016

An Overview of the Inaugural Russian Library Titles

Between Dog and Wolf

Our World Literature Week celebration continues today with a focus on our exciting new Russian Library series. In this post, series editor Christine Dunbar introduces the first three titles in the series.

An Overview of the Inaugural Russian Library Titles
By Christine Dunbar

One of the defining features of the Russian Library is its generic diversity. This is particularly significant for an Anglophone audience, because we tend to think of the Russian literary tradition as one that derives its greatness from novels, primarily the 19th century masterpieces of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Others think first of Chekhov’s fin-de-siècle plays, which have become part of the Western canon in large part because of their connection to Stanislavsky and eventually to method acting. Russians, and for that matter, scholars of Russian, are more likely to consider poetry the best and most powerful iteration of Russian letters.

The first three books in the Russian Library will publish in December, and while the three have much in common—linguistic virtuosity being the most obvious example—they amply demonstrate the profusion of genres that make up Russian literature. Before going any farther, let me digress momentarily to admit that I am and will be referring to genre in a fairly unsophisticated manner. I believe that it is generally more productive to think of a work as exhibiting certain generic characteristics, rather than belonging to a genre. However, obeying the generic conventions of the blog post, I’m not going to get too hung up on it here.

Andrei Platonov (1899-1951) was a supporter of the 1917 revolution, and in both his best-known novel The Foundation Pit and the plays in the Russian Library volume Fourteen Little Red Huts and Other Plays one can see his sympathy for the dream of communism, even as he absolutely eviscerates the policies and realities of the contemporary Soviet Union. Fourteen Little Red Huts and Other Plays contains two plays written in the early 1930s as direct reactions to the travails of collectivization and the resulting famine. (Estimates vary, but most place the death toll of the famine at between 5.5 and 8 million.) (more…)

Wednesday, April 27th, 2016

When the Incident Occurred

The Lost Garden

“When the incident occurred, Zhu Yinghong was startled out of a deep sleep by a commotion somewhere in the house. The moment she opened her eyes she had a feeling that neither of her parents was in bed. As usual, she reached out to touch the thin blanket covering the plank bed, and felt nothing but a cold chill. Years later, she would piece together what little she remembered of that night with what she’d heard here and there, and concluded that it had happened sometime in April or May.” — Li Ang

Our World Literature Week celebration continues today with a focus on an inventive collection of short fiction from Ng Kim Chew: The Lost Garden: A Novel, translated by Sylvia Li-chun Lin with Howard Goldblatt. We are happy to present the video of a recent panel on The Lost Garden, featuring Li Ang herself, along with her translators and Columbia University Press Director and editor Jennifer Crewe, followed by an excerpt from the second chapter of Part 1 of the novel.

Li Ang and her “Lost Garden”

When the Incident Occurred

Wednesday, April 27th, 2016

The Disappearance of M

Slow Boat to China and Other Stories

“When I (uh, it’s not me) . . . when he discussed that essay, he had an uncanny feeling that he had written it himself, while at the same time it was obviously mocking his writing. How could there be another author like this, who was able to penetrate into his thoughts and preemptively write his future, thereby forcibly removing him from this position of the ‘author’?” — Ng Kim Chew

Our World Literature Week celebration continues today with a focus on an inventive collection of short fiction from Ng Kim Chew: Slow Boat to China and Other Stories, translated and edited by Carlos Rojas. “The Disappearance of M,” excerpted below, is the first story in the collection:

Tuesday, April 26th, 2016

The Problem with History

Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure

“Think of official history as a book. A book comes into view; it seems to suggest that it has no blank spaces, no margins. But it does, it contains blank spaces. In those spaces I cram my own notes, copious notes that are not yet articulated thoughts, and in the end weave a new book solely from the notes in the margins.” — Hideo Furukawa

Our World Literature Week celebration continues today with a focus on Zhu Wen’s Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure: A Tale That Begins with Fukushima, translated by Doug Slaymaker with Akiko Takenaka.

Hideo Furukawa is in New York this week with Monkey Business for the PEN World Voices Festival (along with other fantastic writers, editors, and translators), and will be participating in a number of events: April 27 (Wed.), New York University, 6:30pm; April 28 (Thur.), Kinokuniya Bookstore, 6pm; April 29 (Fri.), BookCourt, 7pm; and April 30 (Sat.), Asia Society, 2pm (Ticket purchase required)! And now, on to the post:

Five years ago, on March 11, 2011, the town of Fukushima, Japan, was struck by a devastating earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident. Over 20,000 people died.

The reconstruction has been swift. ‘The incident is about to be forgotten, or they pretend nothing has happened,’ Japanese writer Hideo Furukawa said about his hometown. For Furukawa, careful examination is the only route to healing. One must investigate one’s nation and its past and present. His new book, Horses, Horses, In the End the Light Remains Pure: A Tale that Begins with Fukushima, is a mix of fiction, history, and memoir, as one can see in this short excerpt.

The Problem with History
Hideo Furukawa

Our history, the history of the Japanese, is nothing more than a history of killing people.

I am not sure of the best way to phrase things, given that rather inflammatory start. I will explain things as simply as I can. We live within the echoes of the Warring States period. For example, bushō, the term for military leaders, circulates as a commodity in contemporary society, and, thus, it continues to echo in everyday Japan. By the “Warring States period” I include the Azuchi Momoyama period right up to the beginning of the Edo period (1573–1603). I am not sure if the Azuchi Momoyama period is still taught as a single historical period in schools (elementary, middle, and up through high school). But I am quite sure that everyone learns that there was a period when Oda Nobunaga and then Toyotomi Hideyoshi ruled supreme. For example, we consume these two men as commodities all the time. When I say we “consume” them as commodities, I mean how we see them as “heroic” and think of them positively. Why would that be? (more…)

Tuesday, April 26th, 2016

The Complexity and Individuality of Contemporary Chinese Experiences and Perspectives

The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan: More Stories of China, by Zhu Wen

Our World Literature Week celebration continues today with a focus on Zhu Wen’s The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan: More Stories of China, translated by Julia Lovell, and newly released in paperback. We are happy to present part of an interview with Julia Lovell from the Los Angeles Review of Books, as well as the short story “The Apprentice,” excerpted in full from the book:

On Zhu Wen’s Stories and Other Works of Chinese Fiction: A Q & A with Julia Lovell

Jeffrey Wasserstrom: In an endorsement of the new collection, Jonathan Spence, who praised I Love Dollars in the London Review of Books, says that this “second volume of short stories” is “both darker and denser than the first.” Does that fit with your feeling about the new book or would you characterize the contrast differently?

Julia Lovell: I think that’s a perceptive comment by Jonathan Spence. There was plenty that was shocking and dark about the first collection – in particular, the kind of careless amorality that some of the stories diagnosed in 1990s China. But there was also, I think, a strand of humor, a strong appreciation of the farcical, running through some of the pieces. That’s less dominant in the new collection. Two of the stories that take a more conversational, absurdist take on life in the People’s Republic – “Da Ma’s Way of Talking” and “The Apprentice” – are also overtly tinged with sadness. The relaxed, humorous narration of the first story contrasts with its ending; in the second piece, the lightly sardonic tone blurs into the narrator’s sense of despairing melancholy as he feels increasingly trapped by his future in the socialist economy. At the same time though, I think that the new volume offers more thoughtful insights into human relationships, and into the impact of political pressures on day-to-day life.

But I’m still very drawn to work that showcases the more relaxed side of Chinese culture. At the moment, I’m working on a new abridgement of Journey to the West, a book from the imperial Chinese canon that fizzes with humorous irreverence. Stodgy Neo-Confucians, covetous Buddhists and libidinous Taoists – all are mocked in the novel; at one point, the book’s hero, the Monkey King, even urinates on the hand of the Buddha. (more…)

Monday, April 25th, 2016

An Interview with M. A. Orthofer, author of The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction

The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction

“There does seem to have been a definite move from larger publishers dominating publishing translations into English to smaller, more nimble independents and non-profits taking the lead in the field, and I think the future success of fiction in translation depends on their continued viability.”—M. A. Orthofer

The following is an interview with Michael Orthofer, author of The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction:

Question: Your site has become legendary in its ability to stay on top and find the most exciting new works in global fiction. How do you do it?

M. A. Orthofer: It all starts with reading as much as possible—though ironically, working on the site cuts into my reading-time (though I think I would complain about finding too little time to read, even if that’s all I did all day). I’ve also always read very widely—fiction in every category, from every corner of the world, from any language—and have always been eager to seek out new and different voices, approaches, stories. Many readers seem to find specific areas or periods or styles or genres they’re most comfortable with and concentrate much of their reading on these, but I’ll read pretty much anything, and I think that has made a big difference, as the site (and now the book) reflect that and offer something for everyone.

And while I’ve always tried to look beyond the merely local and familiar, the internet, with its easy access to information and writing from everywhere in the world, has obviously helped expand my own horizons tremendously.

Q: What are you seeing as some of the most noteworthy trends in global fiction?

MAO: One of the great things about international literature is that there is such incredible variety, and so not even hot trends like magical realism, “Da Vinci Code”-type thrillers, “Harry Potter”-like fantasy, or Nordic crime fiction can completely crowd out everything else. Success does breed a lot of imitation, locally and internationally, and there are certainly still too many instances of foreign writers trying to follow the formula of the biggest American and British best sellers, but I think there has been a distinct move back towards relying on local strengths—be that language, history, mythology, tradition—in foreign writing too. Crime fiction is probably where this is most visible, with other countries and cultures putting more of a local spin on stories again—which has certainly worked for writers from the Scandinavian countries.

A curious trend as far as books in translation in America (and the UK) goes does seem to be the rise of the short work of fiction, as I can’t remember ever seeing as many translated novels and even story-collections in the hundred-page range. There are still lots of big works being published—not least the multi-volume epics by Karl Ove Knausgaard and Elena Ferrante—but the small, slim volume of fiction in translation has become much more common. I don’t think this is a real global trend—it seems limited to the US and Britain—and I assume one reason for it is simply that publishers are more willing to take on short works because they are considerably cheaper to translate.

Q: What is your sense of what and how much of international fiction is the English-speaking world missing? Are there many authors and books that English-language readers don’t have access to because of lack of translations

The number of books published in English translation is still so low—less than five hundred new works of fiction in 2015, according to the Three Percent database—that it’s impossible not to conclude that we are missing a tremendous amount. It looks to me very much like a tip-of-the-iceberg situation—compounded by an uneven distribution of what gets translated. BecauseAmerican publishers are so reliant on outside financial support for the additional cost of translating works, those countries that are able and willing to subsidize the translation of their literature are far-better represented in translation. As a result, fiction from many European countries, or South Korea and Japan, is much better-represented than that from countries and languages that haven’t invested in subsidizing translation—or aren’t able to.

(more…)

Monday, April 25th, 2016

Weekly Feature and Book Giveaway: World Literature Week

World Literature Week

This week, in conjunction with the PEN World Voices Festival, we will be highlighting our wide range of books of and about world literature here on the Columbia University Press blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

Here’s a quick summary of books we’ll have posts for this week (we’ll add the posts, as well, as they arrive!):

Monday

  • An interview with M. A. Orthofer, highlighting his thorough and fascinating new guide to contemporary fiction around the world, The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction
  • Tuesday

  • An interview with translator Julia Lovell and “The Apprentice,” an excerpted short story from The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan, a collection of short stories about everyday life in China in the late 1980s by Zhu Wen (following up his previous collection, I Love Dollars)
  • An excerpt on writing a book composed from notes in the margins of history, from Hideo Furukawa’s novel/history/memoir of the 3/11 disaster at Fukushima, Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure, translated by Doug Slaymaker with Akiko Takenaka. Hideo Furukawa will be in New York for the PEN World Voices festival! For more details, click here.
  • Wednesday

  • “The Disappearance of M,” the first story in Ng Kim Chew’s collection of short fiction, Slow Boat to China and Other Stories, translated and edited by Carlos Rojas
  • Watch novelist Li Ang discuss The Lost Garden, her eloquent and beautiful exploration of contemporary Taiwan, with translators Sylvia Li-chun Lin and Howard Goldblatt, and Columbia University Press Director Jennifer Crewe, and then read “When the Incident Occurred,” an excerpt from Part 1
  • Thursday

  • A quick critical look at the dominance of English and its effect on world literature from Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literature, by Rebecca L. Walkowitz, and The Fall of Language in the Age of English, by Minae Mizumura, translated by Mari Yoshihara and Juliet Winters Carpenter
  • Editor Christine Dunbar introduces our new Russian Library series, with a particular focus on its first three books: Between Dog and Wolf, by Sasha Sokolov, translated by Alexander Boguslawski; Fourteen Little Red Huts and Other Plays, by Andrei Platonov, edited by Robert Chandler, translated by Robert Chandler, Jesse Irwin, and Susan Larsen; and Strolls with Pushkin, by Andrei Sinyavsky, translated by Catherine Theimer Nepomnyashchy and Slava I. Yastremski
  • Friday

  • Take a closer look at Chinese University Press’s extensive collection of drama from Nobel Prize for Literature winner Gao Xingjian, including, among others, The Other Shore, Snow in August, and, most recently, City of the Dead and Ballade Nocturne
  • A wonderful selection of poetry from Chinese University Press’s series of International Poetry Nights in Hong Kong anthologies, particularly the most recent installment, Poetry and Conflict, Edited by Bei Dao, Shelby K. Y. Chan, Gilbert C. F. Fong, Lucas Klein, Christopher Mattison, and Chris Song
  • Book Giveaway

    We are also offering a FREE selection of titles discussed in the feature: The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction, by M. A. Orthofer; Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure, by Hideo Furukawa; The Lost Garden, by Li Ang; and The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan, by Zhu Wen. To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select our winners on Friday, April 29th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

    Thursday, April 21st, 2016

    Thursday Fiction Corner: Chu T’ien-wen’s Notes of a Desolate Man

    Notes of a Desolate Man

    Welcome to the Columbia University Press Thursday Fiction Corner! This week Russian Library editor Christine Dunbar tries to explain why Chu T’ien-wen’s Notes of a Desolate Man is so awesome.

    I have been struggling to write about Chu T’ien-Wen’s Notes of a Desolate Man, which I read in Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-Chun Lin’s translation, because by starting with one aspect of the text, I am unavoidably not starting with any number of other aspects, all equally deserving of attention. In other words, I am finding hard to write about this book because I love it so much.

    It is a book about belonging and mortality and art, which is just about the least informative thing I could say. It is also a book about a Taiwanese gay man, Xiao Shao, watching his best friend die of AIDS. The beginning of the novel foregrounds this information, as though the implied author is conspiring with the first-person narrator to show the reader that being out and proud kills you. But the narrator’s language of guilt, sin, and unnaturalness only partially obscures a life rich in love, art, and, above all, words.

    Theory and narratives—particularly from films—provide a structure with which the narrator makes sense of life, but words provide comfort. When his partner leaves on an extended business trip, Shao combats debilitating loneliness and anxiety by reading lists of colors from an article on visual imagery in Chinese poetry: “moist red, light primrose red, fingernail red, vale red, light peach red, light poppy red, apple red, cheek red, melon pulp red, molten iron red, strawberry red, distiller’s red, escargot red, cassia red, pomegranate red, mercury red, cooked-shrimp red, blush red, and crab-pincer red” (65). These reds return, in a lover’s well-kissed lips, in a sister’s first lipstick and menstrual blood, in the communism of a mainland China Shao will never see.

    Shao’s alienation from what he sees as normal family life is reinforced by the book’s non-linear chronology—and how could it not be, with a narrator whose default touchstones are arthouse cinema and French theory. But in the novel’s penultimate chapter, Shao recognizes that the China he both longs for and shuns, which he has been conflating with the space on the map occupied by the mainland, doesn’t actually exist, or if it does exist, exists only in language, only as a concept that he himself creates. I would argue that on a higher authorial level, a symmetry is being drawn between the false outsider status of the homosexual and the Taiwanese people. That is, perhaps in time Shao will recognize that his idealized notion of a heterosexual nuclear family that flawlessly insulates its members from loneliness and loss cannot be found in reality, and to the extent that a family can mitigate sorrow, his own is no less capable.

    As a Slavist, I can’t help but compare Notes of a Desolate Man to Notes from the Underground, and there are many similarities: the intimate tone; the defiant embrace of irrationality; the loneliness; the non-linearity; the centrality of thoughts about sex and power. Even the way Shao weaves together personal reflections with critiques of social theory mirrors the narration of the underground man. And the narrators, both of whom are 40, are going through something of a midlife crisis. But Dostoevsky’s narrator is an outward-facing one, ranting to an audience, seeing himself as set against all of society. Shao’s narration is quieter. He’s unreliable, but not slyly so. This is a man attempting, if not quite managing, to be honest with himself, to gain meaning through details and grand theory alike. The underground man would scoff at Shao’s naiveté, but I appreciate his attempt to use the tools at his disposal—Lévi-Strauss, Fellini, Miyazaki—to make sense of a life not governed by reproductive cycles, and that will eventually end in death.