Thursday Fiction Corner: Context No. 24

Context

We are proud to be distributing Dalkey Archive Press, one of the leading publishers of avant-garde fiction and literature in translation! Today, we are happy to present a post from Dalkey Archive volunteer Rosie Clarke, in which she discusses Dalkey’s Context No. 24. Context is a publication intended to create an international and historical context in which to read modern and contemporary literature. Its goal is to encourage the development of a literary community. It is available online, and in English-language bookstores throughout the US and Europe.

Context No. 24
Rosie Clarke

In his essay for Context No. 24, titled Notes on the Dissolution of Literature, the Chilean author and critic Jorge Etcheverry argues that ‘(a)lthough doing so now is regarded almost as a cliché, it is still necessary to talk about multiple literatures’. The writers featured in Context are illustrative of only a fraction of the countries represented by Dalkey Archive Press, and the ‘multiple literatures’ of which this diverse catalogue consists. The Press, while home to many texts written by authors who regard English as their first language, is just as well known for its plethora of translated work, and concentrates its efforts on bringing many authors to the English-speaking world before anyone else.

On a related note, the Czech publisher, translator and scholar David Vichnar discusses the phenomena of ‘translocal writing’ in his piece Translocal Writing from the City of Kafka, focusing on expat writers active in Prague who write in English but set and frame their work in the Czech Republic. According to Vichnar, translocal writing is significant because it undermines literature’s dependence on ‘national concerns and interests’ not least by ‘refusing to fit into national pigeonholes (or) attempting to merge two or more into a supranational one’. Translocal writing can communicate a crossover between cultures and languages, with narratives that represent the outsider perspectives of readers of translated work. In this article, Vichnar lists ten of his most notable translocal writers working in Prague, who act as a good introduction to anyone interested in this approach. With regards to native Czechs who have been translated into English, the Press currently publishes work by four writers, including two forthcoming novels by Michal Ajvaz – A Voyage to the South and Empty Streets.

While on the subject of ‘multiple literatures’ and ‘translocal writing’, we must remember the importance of literature within the writer’s own country, as representative of cultural standing and output. In Waiting for the Great Estonian Novel, an excerpt of which features in this issue of Context, Märt Väljataga writes of the impressive Estonian Writer’s Union, an institution whose responsibility is to ‘maintain the image of literature as something existentially important for society’. This society, in conjunction with the Cultural Endowment Foundation, spends around one million euros a year on literature, money raised by taxes on alcohol, tobacco and gambling – something that I found striking in comparison to how poorly a country like England, for example, manages its arts funding. This affords otherwise unavailable opportunities to Estonian writers. Several significant Estonian writers are currently represented by the Press; amongst these are Tõnu Õnnepalu, one of Estonia’s best known writers, whose novel Radio was published this March, and Mati Unt, whose forthcoming title – Three Novellas – is also part of the Estonian Literature Series. While these writers experience success amongst other authors and critics in their home country, through translation into English they can achieve wider recognition, becoming exposed to readers unfamiliar with Estonian life, experience and perspectives.

Far to the South of Estonia sits Slovenia, far smaller though equally interesting in terms of contemporary literature. This summer, the Press will publish new books by two of Slovenia’s most accomplished novelists, Andrej Blatnik and Drago Jančar. Jančar served as president of Slovenia’s PEN Center between 1987 and 1990, the worldwide association of writers that emphasises and promotes the role of literature in cultural development. Both he and Blatnik have experienced widespread popularity at home and through translation. West Camel, a Dalkey editor, interviewed both authors for Context No. 24, discussing their new work and how it fits into their literary aesthetic. Blatnik comments on how his nationality has shaped his writing, not just thematically but in the sense that many writers of his generation with shared cultural backgrounds and political experiences ‘had to fight for the existence of a literature that does not necessarily serve a specific political or national idea’. He and Jančar represent writers for whom the significance of Slovenian literature in the last 20-or-so years is that it has become free to be what Blatnik calls ‘‘just’ literature’, which through neutrality can choose to ‘say something political without losing dignity’. This is not necessarily the praise or condemnation of a government, but rather communicate the ‘politics of everyday life’ where ‘the individual is the battlefield’. Blatnik is already a bestseller in Estonia, and a translation of his novel You Do Understand? is available from the Press, with Law of Desire released this July.

Jančar’s forthcoming book The Tree with No Name is an excellent example of such everyday, personal politics; the novel is a non-linear account of one man’s quest of discovery, crisscrossing contemporary post-Communist Slovenia and the country’s wartime occupation. In this interview, Jančar describes his writing process as ‘trying to write something like a journey through a world of dreams, a world of both visions and reality…a spiral of eroticism, anxiety and violence’. The novel’s protagonist attempts to comprehend the ‘chaos of history’, and West asks Jančar how this novel discusses the Balkan experience; Jančar replies that it is not just that specific experience under discussion, but of Europe’s as a whole. Referring to Blatnik’s comment about the individual as battlefield, Jančar describes the protagonist of The Tree with No Name as the vessel for his attempt through writing to ‘transcend the battlefield of everyday life’ – through imagination, inspiration, and literary vision. The book will be released this August, and Jančar’s novel The Galley Slave is currently available from Dalkey Archive Press as part of the Eastern European Literature Series.

In What Did We Have to Talk About, Now That He Was Dead, Niclas Lundkvist, whose book Assisted Living was published by the Press in 2012, quotes an interview with his now-departed friend Stig Sæterbakken in which the fellow writer remarked ‘(t)o lift us out of our isolation, that’s perhaps what the greatest books do – the fact that they introduce us into an otherwise unattainable fellowship, into a greater connection, where our individuality, and therefore our isolation, is destroyed for the sake of something greater’. Such a perspective seems applicable not just to individual works, but also the translation of fiction as a whole: books that allow access to some kind of greater fellowship that transcends language barriers, such as those authored by many of the writers under discussion in Context.

Sæterbakken’s personal philosophy and writing style are deeply embedded with existential anxieties and nihilistic visions, heavy with themes of grief, loss, isolation and dread. Masterful translations for Dalkey Archive Press by Stokes Schwartz and Sean Kinsella brought Sæterbakken to the English-speaking world; the Press is home to three of his novels – Siamese, Self-Control, and Through the Night, with a collection of essays forthcoming. Sæterbakken died in 2012, yet his small but exceptional literary legacy offers the knowledge that, paradoxically, we are not alone in our loneliness; there is a melancholy alliegance between his isolated protagonists and the reader, themselves isolated in the act of reading, their empathy and compassion giving hope in even the darkest moments.

This issue of Context features another author in the Press’s Norwegian Literature Series, Kjersti Skomsvold. Like Sæterbakken, her work explores loneliness, loss and isolation, with 2011’s The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am focusing on an elderly, childless widower and dealing with the fears of growing old alone. In Reading Kjersti A. Skomsvold’s The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am, Sarah Baume discusses the disparity between Skomsvold’s youth and her skilled representation of someone much older and infirm. In fact, Skomsvold spoke at a PEN literature festival on the topic of “Loneliness and Community”, commenting that this novel was conceived over two years as she lay sick in bed, considering her mortality and frailty. This information gives insight as to how a writer so young could describe the old and weak so well. Baume writes that, after finishing Skomsvold’s novel, she finds herself thinking of its protagonist Mathea as she goes through the mundane tasks of daily life. This is a sign of a truly affecting work of literature – Skomsvold’s observations, no matter how small or insignificant they seem, get under the skin and change how we move through our world. A translation of her 2012 novel Monsterhuman is forthcoming from the Press.

Download this issue of Context at the Dalkey Archive Press website!

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