A feature by Maya Vinokour
Just as we can discern the ancestors of the novel—the letter and the diary—in eighteenth-century exemplars of the genre, so too does Lina Goralik’s writing betray its roots in the anarchic, confessional culture of early Runet. Even on paper, Goralik’s texts retain an intimacy and immediacy, a sense of just having been overheard, that digital natives associate with online posting. They are also eminently shareable, which is what compelled me to translate them in the first place—so I could keep on laughing and cringing, this time with English-speaking friends...
Alyson Waters: But then where does the first sentence come from, if it doesn’t come from your imagination? I’m thinking, in particular, of some first sentences from your novels that are too long to be quoted in full but which are utterly delightful: “Boborokine was not a big man, though not preposterously small, he must have stood, amounted to, or measured a head shorter than me, judging from his uniform…” (Prehistoric Times) or “The thickest clouds are gray, the tallest, mightiest cities are gray, the elephant, the hippopotamus, all the pachyderms are gray; they can be seen from a much greater distance than the garish hummingbird or butterfly, and yet the prejudice persists that gray is the more minimal manifestation of visibility . . .” (On the Ceiling); or a far shorter sentence, the one that opens Dino Egger: “Finally, I’ve got one, and now we’re going to find out.”
Éric Chevillard: The beginning is always a feat of willpower. I’ve often had to deliberately set down—like an absurd premise, an indefensible principle—a first sentence so bizarre that it opened up a wholly unexplored space. At least then I could be sure I was the first to land on this shore, to tread on this snowy stretch. I remember very clearly the moment when I started my novel On the Hedgehog by writing these words: “It seems exactly like a naive and globular hedgehog, this animal, there, on my desk.” It was practically automatic writing. I didn’t yet have any specific aim. But the impetus was there. I will maintain that any other formulation could have served my purpose just as well. It’s a matter of surprising myself in order not to repeat those worn-out phrases that have not only been put to use already in literature, but also come to dictate our very existence. I believe that art in general and literature in particular offer us the chance to broaden the range of our awareness as well as our areas of experience, to leap from a moving train of thought as if to free ourselves from the specific conditions imposed upon us. So the first words count quite a bit; here the words really do give the orders. If a writer isn’t careful he will innocently formulate the words that already dictate the world, whereupon everything will start over as it always has and, as Beckett puts it at the beginning of Murphy, the sun will shine “on the nothing new.” A mysterious or extravagant first sentence must, on the contrary, be justified. A different world order must be invented in which it makes sense.
A feature by Maria Dimitrova
What was the translation process like?
I wanted translation, or the impossibility of translation, to be an intrinsic part of the text. Because of that, its starting point was the untranslatability of the Bulgarian тъга (“taga”: sorrow, melancholy), the concept as well as the word itself. The text is made of various personal notes which take their structure from the notebooks I travel around with. I always have one with me, I am now probably on volume 67 or so.
Do you have it with you currently?
Yes, I always have the latest one. Though I travel a lot and carry at least the last fifteen with me.
Do you ever write on a computer?
Yes, but it all starts from the notebooks: the ideas, the phrases. I develop these further on a computer of course, and I do write prose on it, but poetry I can only write on paper. I am an analog poet. Poetry on a computer is a different genre altogether...
In contrast to Korean literature of the twentieth century, which battled with how to present social and political upheaval from occupation to war to industrialization, Korean writers of the twenty-first century often seem driftless. Many writers of this new generation experiment and take risks in their fiction but few have done so as brilliantly as Bae Suah. With its shifting timeframes, ambiguous narrator, and apartment empty except for small traces of previous inhabitants, Bae’s “Toward Marzahn” perfectly depicts a hypnagogic atmosphere unlike any other. Marzahn is not in Korea but rather a corner of Berlin, a city where Bae has spent long stretches of time, and her words give life to this realm far removed from her Korean readers’ homeland. Yet the loneliness of these characters never feels foreign or unfamiliar. Rather, it transplants Bae’s readers to her reality, which her critics have hailed as “a world of dreams . . . through which lost voices drift.”
A feature by Heidi Hart
Reading the introduction to German poet Uljana Wolf’s “Method Acting mit Anna O.,” I come across the word “Aberzählen.” Momentarily forgetting my own German prefixes, I see a new mashup of “aber” (“but”) and most of “erzählen” (“to narrate”). Knowing Wolf’s penchant for neologism, code-switching, and pun, I wonder if this anti-telling is intentional, before the poet explains to me that this is simply “Ab-erzählen,” a no-longer-used term for free association, or “telling off” from the expected storyline. We are sitting in a café in Berlin’s Neukölln district, where Wolf’s preschool-age daughter has somehow found a graphic novel on Hemingway and Sartre, and her husband Christian Hawkey works nearby. Both of them teach poetry and translation at New York’s Pratt Institute, while Wolf also teaches German-language courses at NYU. True to her continuous contesting of language-borders, the poet divides her time between Brooklyn and Berlin. Most often she works at thresholds between German and English, which “makes the reader slippery, too,” as she puts it, referring to my misreading of an archaic word...
The latest installment in Music & Literature's monthly fiction series is a hypnotic piece by the Hungarian writer Zsófia Bán, who was born in Rio de Janeiro and who has lived in Lisbon, Berlin, Minneapolis, and Boston even as she established herself in film studios and in the art world. She now teaches in the American Studies department of Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest. This complex background informs the many layers of her "Keep in Touch," a text that proves Bán's extraordinary stylistic versatility, as well as her uncanny ability to perfectly render in precise prose the strange peregrinations of memory and meditation . . .
Befitting its role as an arts journal committed to publishing and promoting underrepresented artists from around the world, Music & Literature Magazine is honored to inaugurate a monthly fiction series showcasing new and distinctive voices from around the globe. Our first piece features the disarming yet keenly pointed prose of Daniel Saldaña París, a Mexican author now living in Montréal who has been championed by such hispanophone compatriots as Valeria Luiselli, Mario Bellatin, and Yuri Herrera. His equally uncategorizable novel, Among Strange Victims, will be published in Christina MacSweeney's translation this June . . .
Naja Marie Aidt’s poetry collection, Everything shimmers, is a prismatic and lyrical reflection on the relation between home and abroad, familiar and strange, including the strangeness of the familiar. The poems are about separation both as loss and liberation, exile both as grief and as blessing. They are about individual, family and colonial history, about colonizing or being rejected by foreign land . . .
A feature by Emily Cooke
Alejandra Pizarnik's obsession with the form of her life—how it went, how it should go—is especially visible in her letters to her psychoanalyst, León Ostrov, a selection of which appears below. Pizarnik began seeing Ostrov in 1954, when she was eighteen. The analysis, which lasted barely more than a year, initiated a friendship that remained analytically alive long after it stopped being formally therapeutic. The conversation was not confined to Pizarnik’s “problems and melancholies,” as Ostrov would understatedly refer to the often debilitating mental illness of his former patient. Pizarnik and Ostrov shared their minor doings, riffed on books, discussed Pizarnik’s writing and career. Pizarnik visited Ostrov’s house and grew close with his family. Ostrov’s daughter, Andrea, remembers Pizarnik arriving at an elegant dinner party in a “furiously” red sweatshirt and pants. In 1960, when Pizarnik moved to Paris, she and Ostrov began regularly corresponding, and stayed in touch throughout the four years she lived abroad. The nineteen letters that survive this period (there are twenty-one in total; two date from earlier) showcase the young poet’s wit and spirit even as they reveal her anxieties. Pizarnik complains about her parents, insults her boss, mocks the Parisian literary elite (she’s appalled by Simone de Beauvoir’s screeching voice), wonders whether a poet should live artistically or like a “clerk,” and fantasizes about her artistic future. “I’m numbering the letters for our future biographers,” reads one postscript . . .
A feature by Jennifer Croft
When away from Buenos Aires, I miss its sounds: the shrieks and yelps of kids on playgrounds, squawks and car horns, carts with giant wheels that scrape against the cobblestones, shouts, yips, chirps, steps. The dazzling, dizzying southern sun. The boisterous vegetation in the city’s parks—the gnarled roots of hundred-year-old rubber trees; the palo borracho with its creamy pink flowers and its spike-lined trunk . . . This constellation of incongruous and overwhelming forces is depicted differently over the course of Argentina’s rich artistic and literary tradition. An especially arresting perspective is taken by the poet Alejandra Pizarnik (1936-1972), whose mature works, published and unpublished, are being nimbly translated into English by Yvette Siegert in a beautiful volume entitled Extracting the Stone of Madness: Poems 1962-1972. In many of these poems we find ourselves cloistered against the frenzy of the outside world . . .
A feature by Denis Frajerman
The contemporary French novelist Antoine Volodine has explored the soul’s migrations and the mind’s liminal states—between humanity and animality, between madness and reason, life and death—in over forty books since he began publishing in the mid-1980s. In this article, the French musician and composer Denis Frajerman recollects his friendship and numerous literary-musical collaborations with Volodine over a twenty-year period, the most recent of which was performed last month at the Maison de la Poésie in Paris.
A feature by Lutz Bassmann
Like an eternal wanderer in the Bardo, the post-exotic writer Lutz Bassmann exists in a constant floating state between reality and fiction. He is the primary narrator and protagonist of Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven, in which his final moments and history are described. He is also the author of several books, including not only The Eagles Reek but also We Monks & Soldiers (trans. Jordan Stump) and a collection of prison haiku. Like his comrades Manuela Draeger and Elli Kronauer, he possesses a deep sympathy for egalitarian struggle. In honor of Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven’s publication in English, Music & Literature is pleased to debut several excerpts in English from Bassmann’s as-yet-untranslated The Eagles Reek.
A feature by Nathanaël
] I wish to speak ill of translation and of translators.
] Call it a professional deformation, to abuse, for a moment, the French phrase. In the light of the contemporary pious consensus destined to the martyred translator for undertaking the often anonymous traversal of borders between languages, weighted with pacific significance as the rent frontiers of nations are more explicitly bloodied than they have allowed themselves to be in at least as many years as it has been since the recognized tellers of history have acknowledged the existence of concurrent wars on territories extrinsic to their own . . .
As the years pass, the winters seem darker and colder, the spring unsettling and fickle, and the rays of the summer sun seem wrapped in a distant, leaden cloud that drains them of energy. As the years pass, the flowers are only flowers by name. Their colours and perfumes largely fade. “Here are some flowers for you,” we say one day to please our aged grandmother. She cautiously holds out her hand, for she can barely see the colours or smell their perfume, but, because we used the word “flowers”, she looks at them as if we had presented her with a bunch of fresh memories and bestows on them a faint smile, slightly sad and distant.
A feature by Jason Grunebaum
To read Uday Prakash is to witness profound displacement. It’s not the displacement of a bride and groom migrating from India to the west and negotiating unfamiliar food, or of middle-class youth railing against their elders’ bewildering and intransigent attitudes toward love and marriage. It’s a displacement unleashed by forces both imported and indigenous in the India of today—global, hungry, late-stage capitalism steeped in centuries-old caste oppression—and inscribed on the likes of sweepers, weavers, semi-retired judges, typesetters, servants returned from the dead, sick slum kids, and others unable, or unwilling, to fall in line. Prakash narrates his urgent tales of endangered, recalcitrant beings with attention to both inner lives and external forces in a manner that at once loves and seethes. His gifts as a writer also include permitting himself to meander within the narrative, and to reveal his authorial hand, baldly and unapologetically. This creates additional layers of displacement, and ones that enhance a singular storytelling voice comprised of disjointed, circuitous lives. His gift to the reader amid these dark portraits is an unexpected, wry humor that provides needed perspective and levity. An English reader of Prakash’s stories may wonder where he or she is in the first place. A Hindi reader may remember times of dizzying change, triggering feelings of displacement that once were and continue to be. But both readers will be eager to follow the voice of Uday Prakash wherever he wishes to take them . . .
A feature by Hilary Plum
Hilary Plum: Let’s start with your first novel, The Book of the Sultan’s Seal, just out in English, in Paul Starkey’s wonderful translation. In my work as an editor with Interlink Publishing, I’ve been lucky to be reading and rereading this novel for years, as I acquired it and then saw it through several rounds of editing. This was an exceptionally challenging work for Paul Starkey to translate, since the Arabic undertakes a breadth of linguistic experimentation and intertextual references—to diverse works from the Arabic canon, medieval to present-day—that no other language could really reproduce. Yet somehow, here we are, with this book in our hands. I wonder if you could talk to us, your English-language readers, about the experiments you enacted in the Arabic original, creating a style of narration for the novel that you’ve sometimes called “a contemporary equivalent of ‘middle Arabic’.” What drove you toward this endeavor? And what has it been like for you to see this novel come into being in English?
Youssef Rakha: There were two things I wanted to do with The Seal. The first—and maybe it wasn’t the first when I was writing but now that I’m moving into English, kind of the way you move into a house, I like to think it was the first—is that I wanted, from where I was, in post-millennial Cairo, to be part of the larger conversation that is the contemporary novel. By that I mean quite simply world literature today, which though still dominated by a more or less “Eurocentric” ethos is no longer particularly European, and though rife with death-of-the-novel discourse is actually irrevocably novel-bound . . .
A wonderful sense of being consumed, this is what the Vigeland mausoleum offers its unprepared first-time visitor. But the feeling does not fade through repetition. On the contrary, I’d say. As if the knowledge of what awaits you heightens rather than diminishes this overwhelming sensation. And I guess that’s why so many visitors keep coming back: they want to be devoured again. And again. And again. And isn’t that what drives us, repeatedly, toward art in any form, the dream—however often it leads to disappointment—of being overpowered, shocked, overcome by horror and joy, the stubborn dream of becoming one with the object in question, melting into it, rather than standing at a distance watching it, analyzing it, evaluating it, in other words: the dream of being swallowed, digested, and spat out again, presumably dizzy, definitely shaken, thoroughly and utterly confused, as we re-enter the so-called real world?
A feature by Nell Pach
The previous century saw the explosion of magic realist fiction, texts where daily life and the fantastic filter through each other. The continued development of a genre that steps away from straight realism seems not just likely but, paradoxically, necessary for effective artistic representations of the real and the human. Can Xue's The Last Lover, at once alien and familiar in its casual miracles, its people and things that blink in and out of solid existence, and its radical reconsideration of subjectivity, reads like an inaugural, or at least transformative, text. Call it magic virtual realism. We are perhaps overdue for a literary approach to this new form of human experience. Most of us now live substantial portions of our lives within a cyber-sphere of kaleidoscoping stories, dialogue, and images. We waft in from all parts of the analog world to hold either infinitesimal or prolonged intercourse with people who appear, like us, out of nowhere; we friend them, fight them, not infrequently doubt their existence or aspects thereof. We share moments of feeling we don’t understand, we slide into oblivion or obliviousness with a click. We have come perhaps closer than ever to something that resembles a dreamscape in sober waking life . . .
A feature by Daniel Levin Becker
The formal resemblances between Édouard Levé's Works and Georges Perec's I Remember pale away compared to their spiritual perpendicularities: one is an assemblage of purportedly original things that do not yet exist, the other a motley litany of things that once existed but never truly belonged to anyone; one is a series of ideas abandoned at the moment before they crystallize, the other a series of memory-points that exist to be shared and collectively reified. Perec had none of Levé’s impulse toward detachment; the questing in his work was driven by his interest, on some level a desperate one, in the way people could be objectively united in their subjective experiences of time and place, even if they shared neither. Whereas Levé was fascinated by people from a remove, Perec wrote in enormous part to remind himself that he was one of them . . .
A feature by Gábor Schein
The themes of memory and forgetting are not as distinct from the theme of responsibility as we would like them to be. Gábor Schein's beautifully developed and persuasive essay begins with the physical description of a specific part of Budapest, tracing it from its origins as a swamp through its development as an industrial slum and then as a quarter for the wealthy, going on to examine the regular changing of the city's street-names as a series of excisions from memory. Such excisions, he argues, lead to apathy and indifference. Corpses float down the river in 1945 but no one notices any more. The homeless and hungry of today move past us in the street but liberal public opinion uses them more to flatter its own conscience than to do anything. The Sebaldian sense of deep ground constantly opens at our feet but we move on, returning to the moral and psychological equivalent of the swamp out of which the city sprang . . .