Tenth of December by George Saunders

April 22, 2013 § Leave a comment

I stumbled across George Saunders quite by accident in the days before I really knew how to describe, much less how to find, the sort of books I really wanted to read. I read In Persuasion Nation and The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil in quick succession, captivated by both content and form, plot and sentences. Being such an uninformed fan, I was taken aback by the strength of the hype, adoration, worship and so on that surrounded the release of Tenth of December earlier this year.

As I read the book I alternated between thinking how fantastic everything was and deciding it wasn’t all that different from other stuff I’d been reading recently. Both opinions remained with me throughout, although after I’d read a few other novels and short-story collections I did concede that Saunders truly is a master. One real ability he has that a lot of people writing in a similar genre lack is the power to stretch the ridiculous just far enough without pushing his characters over the edge (after which there’s an unsurvivable drop to the ground, with the characters’ smashed pieces revealing that they were never living and breathing in the first place). He shows the private details of lives, details that could be from our own lives, details we’re perfectly happy about while they are private, but embarrassed about when they become public. Kyle Boot and his family, for example, in the first story, “Victory Lap,” are a little unusual. Their house has a wooden indicator to show how many of the three family members are at home (but why is “All In” even necessary, Kyle wonders?). There’s also a system of points (Work Points, Usual Chore Points, Total Treat Points), which allows Kyle to cash in points for treats (TV minutes, yoghurt-covered raisins). So it’s a little over the top, setting the characters up to make his point, but far from impossible. And who doesn’t secretly find that appealing know plenty of people like that?

Kyle is supposed to be doing a job for his father, but is instead getting mud microdust on the carpet and making up swearwords in his head, when he notices–because he has to fill in the Traffic Log—an unusual van. Because the driver is a stranger, Kyle is duty-bound to stay in the house until his departure. Then he realises this man, dressed as a meter-reader, is threatening and trying to abduct his neighbour Alison (whom he considers a national treasure and the dictionary definition of beauty). We’ve already met Alison, and seen her curtsying in front of the mirror, dreaming of {special one} and appreciating her lovely normal family—and we’ve seen how she pities and even despises Kyle. Can Kyle disobey his father’s directives (Major and Minor) and help Alison, or will he stay on the deck, watching helplessly as she’s dragged away? For several long seconds, he doesn’t know, and neither do we. The story is, I suppose, a commentary on all kinds of things—on helicopter parenting, infantilising children, the loss of a sense of community responsibility. It’s hopeful in several ways too, that despite the mind-your-own-business-unless-you’re-posting-photos-of-the-event-on-the-web-instead-of-helping world we’re supposed to live in (which is partly true, but only partly) these teenagers can still drag enough decency out from somewhere.

As well of exploring imaginary places and worlds, Saunders is also interested in investigating the inner minds of all kinds of “unusual” people, including teenagers, making them seem authentic, familiar and wholly unexpected all at the same time. One of my favourite stories was “Escape from Spiderhead,” a tale in which the narrator, Jeff, is given a drug that testers hope makes people fall in love. To control the test, Jeff must then choose which of the two women he has fallen in love with that day will receive a dose of Darkenfloxx–a drug that causes the patient to feel utter despair and is sometimes fatal. The characters in the quirkier stories (perhaps even in the more realist stories) turn out to be a little two-dimensional on a second read, but that seems oddly unimportant. A little stranger is the fact that a lot of the stories seem to have socio-political messages, but Saunders is sometimes puzzlingly disingenuous in interviews about these messages. In “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” for example, which shows an American family buying into status pressure and acquiring three SGs–impoverished immigrants who function as live lawn ornaments, you might assume the commentary was about, say, Filipina nannies or exploited immigrant workers more generally. But in an interview on the New Yorker blog, Saunders first agreed that such an interpretation was valid, but then said, “If the only thing the story did was say, ‘Hey, it’s really wrong to hang up living women in your backyards, you capitalist-pig oppressors,’ that wasn’t going to be enough. We kind of know that already.” Of course that’s true, but we also know that fiction with a message has to have something much stronger than the message if it’s to succeed. Perhaps it comes down to being afraid of accusations of earnestness.

The persistent feeling that it wasn’t that different from other things I read is probably true, but it would not have been true if this book had been around when I first discovered Saunders. I enjoy two main features of his writing: his focus on sentences, and his portrayal of a world that resembles our own but is not our own. It seems to me that there’s a lot more of this around in the literary genre than there was, but there’s still plenty of space for it to develop.

Review copy

(c) All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all blog content, except comments by others, copyright JC Sutcliffe.


The Three Rs in translation: Stephen Henighan

April 19, 2013 § Leave a comment

This week’s guest is Stephen Henighan, writer, translator and literature professor.

How did you learn your source language?

I’ve learned most of the languages I know in the same way:  rigorous study of the grammar, then, once the grammar and basic vocabulary is anchored, total immersion in the environment, followed by rampant reading until I internalize the construction of sentences and develop a certain innate sense of the weight and value of particular words.  This process unfolded over a number of years with French, the first language other than English that I learned;  with subsequent languages it was accelerated.  It’s important to stress that at the time I was learning these languages, it didn’t occur to me that I might one day translate from them –or that I might translate at all.  My learning was motivated by the desire to communicate with my fellow citizens (in the case of French),  by my yearning to travel knowledgeably in faraway countries, and by my hunger to read literature in languages not my own.   From an early age, I regarded this as one of the most important activities to which a person could devote himself.

Good Morning Comrades

How did you come to translation in general, and literary translation in particular?

Until 2006, when I was invited to serve as volunteer General Editor of the Biblioasis International Translation Series, the idea of doing literary translation had rarely crossed my mind. Over the years I had become aware that sometimes when reading a novel in another language I was able to hear, in an intuitive way, what it should sound like in English.  This heightened my awareness that on certain other occasions, no matter how much I liked or admired a book, I could not hear what it should sound like in English. I had translated half of a novel from Spanish while working in Guatemala and, while living in Quebec, I had translated some poems from French as a stylistic exercise. But these were not serious efforts at becoming a working literary translator. That’s only come to the fore in the last six years or so, quite suddenly, but also with a kind of happy inevitability.

What does your day look like while you’re translating a novel?

Since my motivating drive in life is writing fiction –I’ve published three novels and three short story collections and have a couple of other books of fiction in the pipeline– and since I also hold down a demanding full-time job at the University of Guelph, when I’m in Canada my days all look pretty much the same. I get up early in the darkness and write –usually fiction, but occasionally journalism or academic criticism– from about 6AM to 9AM. Then I have a quick breakfast and leave for work. I teach, do administration, counsel students, engage in the blood sport of academic politics and so on.  If I’m translating a book,  that gets slotted in at the end of the day. I used to stay at the office until 9PM or 10PM, but these days I have a more stable private life and try to return home in time for supper at 7PM or 7:30PM. My translating is done at high speed at my office computer, during the last hour or so that I’m at work — usually between about 5PM and 7PM. When I’m translating a novel, I try to do at least a page a day and preferably two. Once I tap into the voice –into what it should  sound like– the first draft comes out very swiftly, though it does require revision.

What are your favourite contemporary books in the source language?

So far I’ve translated novels from Portuguese and Romanian. In Portuguese, I’m a big fan of Lusophone African literature, an extremely rich tradition which until recently was little known in English and is still translated only in a rather spotty manner.  It’s been wonderful to be able to include novels by writers like Mia Couto  and Ondjaki in the Biblioasis International Translation Series.   In Romanian, I’m a big reader of what’s called the inter-war period, the flourishing of Romanian fiction in the 1920s and 1930s.  I was amazed when I learned that Mihail Sebastian’s gloriously romantic novel The Accident was unavailable in English. I knew I had to translate it. I’m less well versed in contemporary Romanian literature, though I’ve read some of the major figures such as the poet Ana Blandiana and the novelist Mircea Catarescu.

What have you read recently in English that you loved?

I thought that Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending was a phenomenal novel. I was very impressed by Gore Vidal’s novel Julian;  at his best, Vidal, though remembered primarily as an essayist, was a better novelist than he’s given credit for being. Two Canadian short story collections have stood out for me in recent years: Clark Blaise’s The Meagre Tarmac and Tamas Dobozy’s Siege 13. I should say that most of my reading over the last two or three years has been in Spanish and French, so I’ve read less in English recently than might normally be the case.

What novel have you translated most recently? What were its particular interests and challenges?

I’ve just finished translating the novel Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret by the young Angolan writer Ondjaki, which will be published in 2014. The narrator is a pre-adolescent boy who lives in a southern African beachfront suburb in the late 1980s. The language is both intensely colloquial and lyrical in a  peculiarly concise and compact way that betrays an acute awareness of the natural world tempered by pre-adolescent impetuosity. Capturing this tone required the development of a very particular, oddly offhand linguistic register. I worked hard to convey the discreet yet firm Angolanness of Ondjaki’s Portuguese, which distinguishes his language from that of Portugal, Brazil or even Mozambique.  By far the biggest challenge from a translation point of view was the novel’s bilingualism. Since it’s set at a time when most of the doctors and teachers in Angola were Cuban, there are extended dialogues where authority figures speak in untranslated Spanish and the African kids reply in Portuguese, sometimes resulting in comic misunderstandings. Since there’s no other language that’s as treacherously close to English as Spanish is to Portuguese, linguistic gymnastics were required to recreate these dialogues in English.

Which is your favourite novel of the ones you’ve translated, and why?

I’ve only translated three novels so far.  I hope to be able to add many more to the list before I have to choose a favourite.

Do you write (fiction or non-fiction)?

I mentioned my fiction above. One point I would make is that, even before I began translating, I explored translation themes in my writing.  My novel The Streets of Winter, which is set in Montreal,  uses various stylistic and linguistic somersaults to convey the confusions of cross-cultural and cross-linguistic conflicts and clashes.  My short fiction, in many ways, is about “carrying over,” as the Germans say, from one culture to another.  This is very evident in A Grave in the Air, my collection of short stories that engages with Central European history, but I think it’s been there from the beginning, suggesting that, in one form or another, the way that cultural goods change as they cross cultural boundaries was going to be one of my main preoccupations.

What’s your third R, and why?

It’s all too clear:  my third R is Roaming.  I grew up on the move, and it was the assumption that wandering from place to place was a normal way to live that started all the rest, particularly my curiosity about other literatures.

Lady writeresses

April 17, 2013 § 3 Comments

Every now and again I foist my opinion about a recently released book on a paying public, which is to say I write a book review for a national publication. For each review, I am paid a sum that more or less covers the author’s back catalogue and, if I’m lucky, some of the many baked goods I have to buy to avoid being kicked out of the cafe I write in. I’m not really complaining, though. I love it.

But! I don’t put my full name to these reviews; I hide behind the anonymity of my initials. The usual busybodies, self-censorship filters on the fritz (alpha—very alpha—males, all of them), like to tell me it’s a bad thing for a women writer to go by her initials. Only women who want to pretend to be men would use their initials! If you’re such a feminist, you should be out there taking one for the girls, not perpetuating the patriarchy by pretending to not even be female!

If the only reason someone could possibly have for going by their initials is a desire to conceal their gender, shouldn’t we be wise to it by now, since women have been playing that trick for quite some time? We ought to automatically assume the inverse: that anyone using their initials must be a woman (for example JK Rowling, AM Homes, AL Kennedy, MJ Hyland and AS Byatt, to give the first few that popped into my head before any initial-using men). And if that’s the case, doesn’t that mean that any men going by their initials these days are doing it to hide their privileged gender? Shouldn’t I be the one getting cross when a man sneakily uses his initials to make people think he’s a woman? But that would be unladylike. Perhaps I’ll just jab the next man who brings up the initials thing with my darning needle instead.

Just in case any confusion still remains, allow me to clear it up. I am not a man, nor a woman pretending to be a man, nor even a man pretending to be a woman pretending to be a man.

The delicate art of disappointment

April 15, 2013 § Leave a comment

If there was a list of the top ten themes of literary fiction, one would surely be “disappointment.” Coming-of-age novels are often full of it—disappointment at the adult world, at its inconsistency and the inconsistency of everyone in it, its lack of one sort of anticipated freedom or another, its resistance to earnestness. But the rawness of this feeling has to be cultivated if it’s to survive past twenty-five or thirty, by various means including choosing under-employment, retreating from a familiar milieu in hope of finding some truer, purer meaning elsewhere, and so on. It was interesting to recently read back to back two novels that seemed to share characters with an ongoing investment in this disappointment despite coming at it from two completely different places.

Owen King’s Double Feature (Scribner) opens with Sam Dolan, son of Booth Dolan, a director of monstrously cheesy films. Sam is trying to drum up the money to produce his own feature film, Who We Are, in the summer after he graduates. Who We Are follows four students through their university career, leading them from fresh-faced eagerness to a degree of jaded experience that nonetheless leaves them utterly unprepared for the world they are about to join. Around a quarter of the novel describes the shooting of the film, Sam’s involvement, and his relationship with the assistant director, the mentally fragile, but bottomless-pocketed, Brooks Hartwig Jr. The rest of the novel, divided into three main parts, follows Sam eight years later over the course of a single long weekend. In between each part comes a short section flashing back to Sam’s childhood or his parents’ relationship or both.

Sam is very much in the mould of the loser-hero, a type some people have criticised for being unrealistic. Writers of these characters no doubt see it rather differently: that the person with artistic ambitions who is forced, either through circumstances or through lack of talent or opportunity to abandon their dreams, is not only very  common but also, perhaps, morally superior to everyone who sold out for a corner office and a minivan parked in front of the house. Sam himself has no shortage of this sort of integrity: it’s more or less what has wrecked his dream of a film career, and kept him in under-employment, first in a video shop and later as a weddingographer.

The novel’s plot comes in part from what happens to Who We Are: Sam gradually realises that his assistant director has had a very different vision of the film all along—and intends to get his own way. Who We Are then takes on a life of its own, becoming almost a character in the novel. Double Feature is fairly typical realist literary fiction, but does begin to stretch the reader’s credulity as the long weekend gears up for the climax. I’m all in favour of the implausible, but I like it much better when it’s fundamental to the novel and not a way of bringing together different plot points and even whole plotlines.

This is, in large part, a narrative arc with which we’re familiar (this is not a criticism): young adult needs to break away from parental influence to prove him/herself, as made explicit in Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, for example; attempts to follow long-held dreams and ambitions; stumbles through twenties without money, direction or love; realises at last that maybe it’s okay to lighten up a little, to live with inconsistency and falling short; understands that parents have been doing their best all along, or are at least trying to now. What we are less familiar with is the story told from the opposite side, politically speaking. In The Story of My Purity (translated by Stephen Twilley, published by Hamish Hamilton (UK)/FSG (US)), Francesco Pacifico’s narrator Piero Rosini is thirty years old, married (but impotent), and working for an extremely conservative Catholic publishing house. Having grown up in a well-to-do liberal Roman household, Piero now spends his working hours producing anti-semitic texts, and his leisure time discussing the world’s moral problems with a group of fellow ultra-religionists.

As Piero falters in his quest for purity (he lusts after his beautiful sister-in-law), he pushes himself even further to the right, until he meets Corrado, a man trying to pitch a novel about gay men to Piero’s publishing house. He strikes up a rather unexpected friendship with Corrado, before fabricating some kind of conflict with his boss over the book and striking out for Paris, alone. In Paris he falls in with a group of single woman who take him on almost as a mascot as they go to parties and bars. Inevitably things become more complicated, both romantically and philosophically, leading towards the (perhaps appropriately anticlimactic) crisis of the novel.

One problem for Piero—and ultimately for Pacifico—is the fact that the novel is narrated in the first person, which means he undermines, a little too often, the ideology of his (perhaps more committed) supposed peers, particularly given his habit of following the letter of the law exactly while entirely ignoring the spirit of it. Because Piero’s internal conflict isn’t quite convincing (although it is entertaining and, in many places, cleverly done), the reader has to work a little bit too hard for not quite enough payoff.

So although the narrators of both novels are suffering from what could be described as a crisis of extended adolescence, Piero’s disillusionment with the adult world is different from Sam Dolan’s in Double Feature. Although Sam’s decade-long existential crisis might not be as original (in literary terms) as Piero’s, it does ring true; it’s not a sleight of hand rigged up for effect. Like Double Feature, The Story of My Purity is a novel about searching for the one place you might finally feel as though you belong (with great lines like “splitting my sides laughing like I had learned to do among normal people”), something that Pacifico captures beautifully and precisely. The problem is not so much that people can’t be religious and still assailed by earthly desires, more that I am not convinced that Piero really is religious in the first place. But people from different countries have different expectation of, and relationships with, religion and the concept of piety; perhaps Italian readers can accept Piero’s predicament—which seems more social than moral—more willingly. As a non-Italian and a non-Catholic, I interpret Piero’s religious side as more like some kind of year-long intellectual challenge, while his true nature is the far less strait-laced aspect of his character that distracts him from his purpose. The comedy would have been even funnier if Piero really was as devoted to the church as he told us he was.

So high marks to both writers, but no early contenders for my own 2013 top ten.

Review copies.

(c) All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all blog content, except comments by others, copyright JC Sutcliffe.

The Three Rs in translation: Katy Derbyshire

April 12, 2013 § Leave a comment

Over the next few weeks, literary translators will be revealing their reading and writing habits. The first translator to take part is Katy Derbyshire, who works from German to English.

How did you learn your source language?

I learned German as my third foreign language at school, after French and Latin. So I started at the age of 14, I think, and had a wonderful teacher who actually brought along cake. At that time it was compulsory for a year at the school I went to, a London comprehensive. Which is a pretty strange thing today, when British children don’t even have to learn any languages at that level, let alone several. Anyway, I was an au pair in Berlin for six months and then went on to do a degree in German Studies at the University of Birmingham. My year abroad brought me back to Berlin and then I moved here for good immediately after graduating, which is 16 years ago now. I think it was the combination of academic learning and spending time in Germany that helped me to learn German well.

How did you come to translation in general, and literary translation in particular?

I began translating – other than early experiences as part of learning Latin and during my degree – after I settled in Berlin. At that time it was hard to find work here without German qualifications and I’d had a series of dead-end jobs. So I sat down and thought about how I could earn money in a way I enjoyed, and translation seemed a viable option. I got a postgraduate qualification in translation (the University of London’s Diploma of Translation) and started freelancing after I had my daughter, getting work through agencies and colleagues. I certainly enjoyed translation as a full-time job but I wanted to move into translating literature because that’s what I really love, and because translating contracts and advertising copy can be slightly soul-destroying at times. One way I got into it initially was by contacting German publishers and offering to translate samples from their books, which they send out to international publishers to try to sell translation rights. That got me my very first full-length fiction translation, a young adults’ novel. Another tactic that worked for me was building up my resumé by translating short pieces and submitting them to literary magazines. So I had some publications to show for myself and publishers could judge the quality of my work. The other thing was making contacts in the literary translation world, which probably started when I attended the literary translation summer school at the British Centre for Literary Translation.

What does your day look like while you’re translating a novel?

I get up early and go to my office, which I share with two very quiet people. Usually I’m the first to get here so I’ll sneak on to Facebook, check a few blogs, and so on. I supplement my income with other kinds of translation, which I try to get out of the way beforehand. Then I start working on the novel by reviewing what I translated the previous day. I’m quite fast so that can be up to about ten pages, depending on the text. There are always a fair amount of changes to be made at that stage, the second draft. Then I get stuck into translating. When things are going well I’ll be immersed in the text and my office mates can’t talk to me because I don’t really hear them. I research things as I go along, mainly on the internet but I also have a fairly large collection of different dictionaries and reference works. For things that need more in-depth research, I’ll get hold of books and read them at home. At some stage I’ll contact the author with my questions, but I like to save them up and ask them all in one go, so ideally (if the writer is in Berlin or is visiting) I might meet up with them one evening to discuss things.

What are your favourite contemporary books in the source language?

Two of my very favourites are books I’ve translated: The Shadow-Boxing Woman by Inka Parei and An Invitation to the Bold of Heart by Dorothee Elmiger. Other translations I’d recommend are Herta Müller’s The Hunger Angel (trans. Philip Boehm) and Benjamin Stein’s The Canvas (trans. Brian Zumhagen). And for those who read German, my hit of the moment is definitely David Wagner’s Leben. Wagner writes extremely well on the boundaries of fiction and essay, and here he writes beautifully about having a liver transplant. It’s impossible to say whether it’s fiction or autobiography, but it’s certainly very moving and oddly funny.

What have you read recently in English that you loved?

I loved Will Self’s Umbrella. I really enjoyed the style, so unashamedly ripping off modernism with its snatches of song and speech, and I loved Self’s wonderful meandering sentences. And it’s funny, and it’s fascinating.

What novel have you translated most recently?

I’m currently working on Inka Parei’s most recent novel, Die Kältezentrale.

What were its particular interests and challenges?

Parts of the novel are set in East Berlin, in the air conditioning building for the communist party newspaper. So there are a lot of technical descriptions, which are hard for me to understand, let alone render in English. Inka writes in great detail and that helps matters but I do like to visit settings if I can, and the building itself has since been demolished. Luckily, Inka went there herself and took photos, so I can use those for my research.

Which is your favourite novel of the ones you’ve translated, and why?

It’s very hard to say, but if I have to choose I’ll pick Helene Hegemann’s Axolotl Roadkill. Hegemann caused a stir because she was only 16 when she wrote the book and then it turned out she’d neglected to name some of her sources. Plagiarism! That was kind of secondary to me for the translation because I was very affected by the style and the plot, about a teenage girl who’s survived physical abuse but is spiralling towards self-destruction. And despite that it was great fun to translate because the narrator has a very distinctive, witty voice. And that needed to be translated very freely. Sadly, the translation went almost unnoticed when it came out last year.
Do you do any writing apart from translation?
I don’t write fiction. I write a blog (http://lovegermanbooks.blogspot.de) and I write very occasional articles about German writing and translation. I know a number of translators who write and writers who translate, but I don’t think I’d dare to write a novel of my own. I’m very picky and judgemental and I couldn’t bear to write a mediocre book. Whereas when I translate novels or short stories I have a creative input in terms of the language, although obviously not the structure or the plot or the style. And I do really love most of the books I translate, and I swoon over them and tell everyone how wonderful they are and basically evangelise all over the place. I know I wouldn’t feel that way if I’d written them myself – I’d be riddled with self-doubt and my life would no doubt be terribly unhappy.

What’s your third R, and why?

Research! I need to really understand the writing I translate and to do that I have to look things up, go to places to experience the atmosphere, talk to the writer, read supplementary material, sometimes read other work that inspired the book, try things out that the characters do – all kinds of things. For me, translation isn’t entirely about what happens at my desk.

Granta Best of Young British Novelists 2013

April 8, 2013 § Leave a comment

Here’s hoping that some of my Three Rs guests will be on Granta’s list, which will be announced next week. I don’t know if all are eligible, and I’m pretty sure one is too old, but he looks young in his author photo so I’ll put him in anyway. Best of British to them all.

Alison Moore

Anjali Joseph

Joe Dunthorne

Naomi Alderman

Sam Byers

Sam Thompson

Simon Okotie

Edited to add: two of these writers miss the age cut off, it turns out.

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