Friday, February 29, 2008

Nooteboom's Lost Paradise

I'm all set to read Cees Nooteboom's Lost Paradise, which has just come out in English translation. Nooteboom shares with Harry Mulisch the somewhat back-handed accolade of being one of the few heavy-weight Dutch writers known outside of the Netherlands. One reason his prose works well in translation is that it is a prose of ideas, rather than style alone. The esteemed J.M. Coetzee reviews Susan Massotty's translation of Lost Paradise in a recent New York Review of Books and places Nooteboom in the international realm of letters:

Nooteboom has a reputation as a postmodernist, not only in respect of his
fictional procedures, where he has plainly been to school with Vladimir Nabokov,
Jorge Luis Borges, and Italo Calvino, but in his sensibility too, cool,
intellectually sophisticated, ironic. He may come from the dark, heavy north and
speak a northern tongue but his heart, he implies, lies in a brighter, lighter
south (he is a devoted Hispanophile). He is a son not of Germany, whose high
peaks and dark forests breed in the soul dangerous metaphysical yearnings, but
of the commonsensical Low Countries. Even from the Dutch he keeps a critical
distance: for example, his 1984 novel translated under the paradoxical title In
the Dutch Mountains criticizes the complacency, greed, and hypocrisy of his

Perhaps that is what most appeals in Nooteboom--his resistance to provincialism; he is concerned more with manipulating ideas than with the dreary, fixed details of time and place.

The novel's story is (perhaps undesirably) fanciful, influenced by Rainier Maria Rilke's poetry as Coetzee sees it and, more directly, as I see it, by Wim Wender's film Wings of Desire. I won't go into plot summary here since Coetzee does a thorough job.

Coetzee also has this to say about Massotty's translation:

Massotty's translation of Lost Paradise reads fluently. Some of that fluency comes, however, at the cost of precision. Nooteboom is a careful
prose stylist of a notably philosophical bent. In a book concerned so centrally
with questions of dying and living beyond death, it is remiss to write of
someone who is burning with curiosity that he is "dying of curiosity," of
someone who is crying out to be seen that she is "dying to be seen," and of
someone who has one question above all to ask that he is "dying to ask"

I would imagine his judgment is likely to be valid since Coetzee is, himself, a fine translator from Dutch and appears to know a thing or two about Noteboom. His slim translation of the work of Dutch poets, Landscape with Rowers, includes a poem by Nooteboom. In his collection of criticism, Stranger Shores, Coetzee has also written on Nooteboom.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Sabotage et Clavicule, a new bilingual journal

Claire Trevien, the editor of the journal Sabotage et Clavicule, is working to launch une nouvelle revue poetique. She seeks submissions from French to English or from Anglais to Francais, as well as essays and reviews concerning literature and translation. Work from visual artists will also be considered for this online magazine. Fully half of the publication will be dedicated to new poems by French poets under the age of 30. Submissions may be sent to her attention at SabotageEtClavicule[at]

Autumn Hill Books

Dan at The Wooden Spoon lets us know about Autumn Hill Books, which is briefly featured at 3%. AHB is a small non-profit press in Iowa, loosely connected to the international writing program there, 'whose emphasis is on making fine translations of primarily contemporary literature from around the world more widely available in English.' Chad writes, 'Overall, this is one of those presses that more people should know about, and their forthcoming title Laundry by Suzane Adam sounds intriguing.'

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Reading in Kolkata

The lauded annual Calcutta / Kolkata book fair is cancelled this year. This would have been the 33rd year of the festival, which features throngs of people and hundreds of stalls of books in Bengali and English. With no book fair to go to, a disappointed attendee decides to take a literary tour of Kolkata instead. He then realizes that the Publishers Guild have put together a semi-clandestine makeshift book fair (nowhere near on the same scale as the official one):

"A few hundred book lovers are seated in plastic chairs in a
recently-restored hall decorated with chandeliers, columns and bunting. Before them sits an unlikely gang: the Bengali poet Sunil Gangopadhyay; the US consul general, who's fluent in Bengali; and Paul Theroux, who shares a few clumsy words on Hinduism and American transcendentalism. The crowd, he remarks, looks like "people meeting secretly for some furtive faith - like early Christians in a cave".

The Publishers Guild views the fair's cancellation as a blow to
Bengal's tradition of egalitarianism. "The rich can afford to go to the malls and buy books," says Mahesh Golani, joint secretary of the Kolkata Book Fair, whom I meet at the Guild's office. "It is the middle class people who cannot go to such malls in big swanky cars. Our visitors are also from the [rural] districts. They will feel very sad that they have lost the opportunity to come to the book fair."

So the Guild seem to be in the right, keeping the tradition going despite the High Court decree. But then our attendee finds himself talking to some publishers of small presses who claim that the fair "isn't about books anymore; it's about business. The Guild is guilty for this" and that "[a]ll the Guild wants is prestige[.]"

Most agree that the fair has been tainted by commercialism; the books are more expensive than they need be. Still, Kalkota's literary community is a vibrant one--Bharati Mukherjee, Jhumpa Lahiri and Amitav Ghosh are all associated with the city--and there is a large audience for literary periodicals. It would certainly be a shame for all this interest in literature to stagnate under commercial pressure.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Herbert (again)

I feel that I have been posting conspicuously often about the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, in part because a new Collected Poems appeared in 2007. (Words Without Borders recently featured Herbert in their Forum in connection with the 2007 publication of The Collected Poems, edited and translated by Alissa Valles.) The collection did receive quite a bit of attention; some reviewers, though, staunchly prefer the Carpenters' translations. Michael Hofman at Poetry writes that the text is "an uncorrected bound proof—rather unnavigable without an index of titles and first lines, and no doubt subject to all sorts of further alterations and corrections." About the translator, Hofman scoffs: "Herbert has a new translator, someone I have never heard of. Even that drafty, echoey thing the Internet (our very own updated version of Ovid's cave of rumor) has barely heard of Alissa Valles. This, by the way, is to register my surprise, not some snobbish impulse." Hofman, it seems, doth protest too much.

Valles' volume, I think, is, on the contrary, thoughtfully composed and her understanding of Herbert is, to my mind, astute. In the Jan./Feb. Boston Review she notes how English speakers still have relatively limited access to (or perhaps understanding of) Herbert despite his status as a literary juggernaut. She writes:

For most Americans, Herbert’s poetry still exists in a kind of historical void, sometimes called World Literature, in which he floats, stripped of his native matrix, alongside Anna Akhmatova, Bertolt Brecht, and Constantine Cavafy. It is, of course, no one’s fault that American readers do not have wide access to the extensive and diverse Polish criticism on Herbert. But the manner in which he was introduced to American readers has almost certainly encouraged a narrow reading of his work. It is at least in part a generational issue. Among those who started reading Herbert in the ’70s, there is angry resistance to any approach that complicates or challenges the standard vision, that of an idiosyncratic poet of historical irony.

Her new volume, incidentally, contains all the early translations of Herbert by Miłosz and Dale Scott. You may recall, Dear Reader, that I mentioned in an earlier post the minor quibbles the two had in translating Herbert's "Pebble".