A feature by Madeleine LaRue
A Lesser Day is partly a reconstruction of memory—the narrator is attempting to order her sense of self via five different addresses she’s lived at during a particular period of her life—but it’s also something like a metaphysics of space. Where did this premise, or this structure, come from?
Actually, I had been working on a different book for several years, a novel that’s still unfinished. And in between all of this, I had my son. The hospital I gave birth in had a tiny library, where I happened upon a book by Marie Luise Kaschnitz titled Orte—“Locations” or “Places” in English. I stole it, brought it home, and read it in a state of wonder. It certainly provided one of the impulses for my book, although I didn’t know it at the time. Kaschnitz begins some of the sections of Orte with specific locations, as I do in A Lesser Day, and goes on to search her memory for everything she can remember that’s attached to a particular place in the past—in her case, very far in the past. She was writing about her childhood in the first years of the twentieth century, from a perspective of some seventy years later, near the end of her life.
A feature by Madeleine LaRue
I was thinking about a lot as I was reading about how, in the translation workshop, every week we would have a theme, translation as X—translation as copying, translation as refraction, translation as dépaysement—and we would work with this theme and write about it. So as I was going through your book, I was thinking, “What is this translation as?” The first one is translation as affirmation: I accept the terms under which this writing has come to me, but I also accept that I can read it and participate in it, I accept that this is a proper text and not an inferior copy.
Yes, I think that’s what the opening section is all about—as I say repeatedly, I don’t read German, and yet here is this book, which I receive as The Magic Mountain, which has become very important to me. Perhaps it is worth making clear that all the materials that I draw on, all the books that I think with in This Little Art, whether it’s The Magic Mountain or Robinson Crusoe, are the books that Barthes was also thinking with [in The Preparation of the Novel and How to Live Together]. In other words, those are the books I was reading in order to translate Barthes’s lecture notes, and so they were the ones I was also thinking with as I was thinking about the translations. But beyond that requirement to read it, The Magic Mountain was also just this extraordinary reading experience. I mean, it’s an amazing novel. Unlike Barthes, who read it in Maurice Betz’s French translation, I received it in Helen Lowe-Porter’s English, in the form of the book-object that she made. The question I wanted to open the book with was: How to make the fact of this appear? How to make translation appear when, as we all know, it is so easy to lose sight of, so easy to forget and pass over? You know that famous line from Viktor Shklovsky? Something like “art exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony”—art exists to make things unfamiliar, to de-familiarize them even if ever so slightly, so they have a chance of being registered, kind of received in all of their strange particularity. How do you make the stone stony? I was thinking about that a lot: How do I make translation thick—
A feature by Daniel Medin
Daniel Medin: I can’t help but try to situate Le Silence des Sirènes in relation to previous works of yours, and one obvious connection seems to be to the concertos. Yet writing for a human voice has to be different from writing for piano or violin or any of the instruments featured in a traditional concerto; what sort of concerns does it raise for you?
Unsuk Chin: The human voice is always something different, as you say. Naturally, differences exist between instruments; for example, when a string instrument plays a long note, it expresses certain emotions which couldn’t be expressed in the same way if the note were played by the piano. But there is a stark difference between these instruments and the voice, because you can’t use the voice without implying a particular set of underlying affects. I can’t sing at all myself, but I have a great affinity for the human voice, and I’ve written lots of vocal music. The reason, perhaps, is that I come from Korea—Koreans like to sing, and when I compose for other instruments, even when the music is multi-layered and abstract, I try to sing it with my “inner voice.”
Madeleine LaRue: One thing that strikes me about all of the stories in The Sleep of the Righteous is Wolfgang Hilbig’s tendency to develop these slowly-unfolding contradictions. He’ll set up one proposition, and then later, seem to state the opposite. This happens even in the very first story: it’s called “The Place of Storms,” but there are, in fact, no storms. And in “The Bottles in the Cellar,” which is my favorite story in the collection—
Isabel Fargo Cole: Mine, too.
ML: It’s so great! And your translation is so beautiful. In that story, there’s a weird contradiction of time. The narrator seems to be terrified of the past that the bottles represent, but also terrified of the future—he’s afraid he’s going to grow up and have to deal with these bottles. And because of these fears, the present is somehow cancelled out. This all seems connected to Hilbig’s relationship to the past, to time in general, and to the post-war state he’s always writing about. Can you comment on that?
IFC: That’s a really interesting observation. I think there are a couple of different levels to it. One of them is that, fundamentally, he always calls into question the idea that you can have a precise idea of reality. Reality can be two things—maybe it’s one thing, maybe it’s the exact opposite, and it’s impossible to figure out what it is. You might try and try to figure it out, and it might look like one thing, but then suddenly turns into the other thing, and then back again . . .