Luan Starova: My Father’s Books

Starova, Luan (2012), My Father’s Books, U of Wisconsin P
[Translated by Christina E. Kramer]
ISBN 978-029928794-8

So I had been looking at the Macedonian language for a little while, which is fascinating with its closeness to my own Russian. Somewhere in the process, I took a look at literature from the country translated into English and there’s remarkably little of it. One writer who has been graced with a translation is Luan Starova. And boy o boy is this a lovely book. It’s a childhood memoir, but also an ode to books, to language, and to the feeling of being at home in books, rather than in a specific place – I say, childhood memoir, but Starova uses his childhood memories as a way to try and understand his father rather than offer us stories from his childhood. The child in this memoir is mostly someone who looks, who admires, who is sometimes hungry or sad, but very rarely actively doing anything. No, this book circles around books, more importantly, around Starova’s father and his attempt to find a place for himself in this world. The father uses books to build an identity, and to interrogate one. And throughout his whole reading life, the ebbs and flows of Balkan history shake his father’s life, but never really imperil his true calling: reading, collecting, annotating books.

Luan Starova writes his book in small vignettes, small episodes, that start with the basic elements of the house the family lived in, and where the library in it was, and how the family and the books co-existed. Later sections look at his father’s friends, of which he had few, in fact, “towards the end of his life, my father had many books but few friends,” as well as at various important objects in his life. The order is not random – as we near the end of the book, the circles Starova draws become larger and larger, returning again and again to his father’s migrancy, to his family history, to the decisions he made before he became a reclusive book-obsessed Macedonian, and in the final sections, we look at a process beyond reading – a process of creation, as Starova’s father uses old manuscripts he found to untangle not just his family history, but the cultural heritage of the Balkans altogether. His father died before finishing his work, and some of the book concerns the spidery traces of his father’s notes in his books, his father’s attempt to “shore up these fragments,” to borrow a much-borrowed line of poetry. Starova’s father was obsessed with order – and reading the book, including the almost unbearably moving final chapter, one feels a similar purpose in his son.

It’s enormously odd, for a memoir by a son about a father who is obsessed with family history and books, to be so disinterested in actual books. But the movement of his father’s life, after all, is from life, into a life in books, and then, as he neared death, back into life itself. As Starova writes: “he had found an exit from the labyrinth of manuscripts that led out into life.” And in a sense, Starova’s own book follows that path, I suppose. Starova, born on the shores of Lake Ohrid, but on the Albanian side, is a multi-lingual writer who dedicated his writing life to writing the work that his father had begun as he died, at least that’s how it looks when I peruse his biography. Still, it leaves me with an odd feeling: some of the book feels almost anthropological, a book about this strange tribe of people who love books as much as life itself – like the professor of French, who wanted to die while reading a book, and was buried holding a copy of André Gide. Or entomological, with the concentric structure of the book like a microscope, looking at these people as if at a strange group of bugs.

I don’t mean it’s cruel – it’s loving and warm and lovely throughout. But it is not a book by someone similarly obsessed, very clearly, Starova is not a book person to the same degree as his father. I mean, he’s a different category of people, very clearly. We are warned of this, although maybe warned isn’t the right word. In the small section “The Cabinet,” very early in the book, Starova tells of his acts of accidental vandalism in the cabinet, leaving that space of valuable books and documents in disarray, with valuable books and documents damaged beyond repair. I mean, reading it, my heart broke for these books. But the section isn’t written to evoke my kind of heartbreak – it is about the way his youthful misdeeds impacted the family, in particular his mother. It is his mother who finds the chaos, it is his mother who tries to get things back in shape – in fact, his mother knows her way around that inner sanctum of that house-cum-library better than his father does. She doesn’t share her husband’s predilections, but it seems as if her distance from what’s in the books helps her deal with them better than Starova’s father who is too distracted by the books to stay on top of things.

Indeed, it is the mother who is the most interesting figure of the whole book, and the fact that she survived his father and helped the children understand their father’s self-chosen mission in life maybe explains why the book is like it is. It is unbothered by what’s in the books and is thus well positioned to contextualize the reading and collecting and thinking that went on in Starova’s childhood home. His mother supported and protected his father, until the very end, without having his need for books. In fact, the very first story of the book is called “Love” and that’s what we understand to be a dominant theme of the book, running underneath everything. The marriage depicted is old-fashioned, and nobody could view an arrangement like this as ideal today, but Starova posits love as the glue that holds that household together, a small house full of people and even fuller of books and objects. Because of course his father’s obsessions didn’t stop at books, they also included all kinds of unwieldy objects like a globe or a spyglass. Love, Starova tells us, kept the household running through all the troubles. And I’m not a hundred percent sure I agree.

I agree that his father was mostly useless outside of his profession as a judge and his hobby as a reader and scholar. But the way the couple came to be married sounds a bit off, and the whole arrangement – sure, love could explain it. But you know what also could explain it? A woman trying to make a very difficult situation work, love or not. And that fits the way his mother is depicted in the book generally. In fact, she is the book’s most compelling character. It is her, whose skill with languages saves them twice from being killed by Italian soldiers during WWII, as the Axis marched through the Balkan. The very description of her knowledge of the way the books are sorted throughout the house is a marvel of practical dedication. If nobody knows where the books are, nothing will get done, and so it falls to her, who doesn’t even particularly love books. It’s curious that her son, who is clearly much more her son than his father’s, doesn’t have enough empathy for his mother to interrogate the way his childhood household was run. There’s always a bit of a haut goût to these male narratives of bookishness where the preoccupation with books allows them to filter out the practical aspects of life, forcing women who are with these obsessive men, to do all the emotional labor, to work through it, to make it work.

All this is in the book, but it bubbles under the surface. Starova admires his mother, but I don’t think the book does her justice, or his father’s blinkered blindness. The best example for the latter is an episode involving a similarly bookloving friend. This one is obsessed to the point where he accidentally uses money set aside for an ophthalmologist and buys himself a van full of books. So this friend and Starova’s father lend each other books, but they don’t always read the books and upon returning them they test each other over this. As it happens, one day, the friend borrows a book in which Starova’s father forgot food stamps. The children are angry, desperate and hungry, and as the friend returns the book, the stamps are discovered. Starova’s father does not discuss his hunger, his wife’s hunger or that of his children – instead he gloats because this discovery is proof his friend did not read the book all the way through. I mean, he is a hell of a difficult man, and making a household work around a man like that must be hard; loving a man like that must be even harder, however, and if Starova is right about his mother’s feelings towards his father, that’s even more impressive than her feats of survival.

All of this is told in a very simple language. Macedonian is, as far as I understand it, a Slavic language. I know, we all grew up on stories of Alexander and Macedonia, but that Greek Macedonia is not the same as today’s Macedonia. If you speak Russian, and you hear Macedonian spoken, you can sorta-kinda understand it. My Russian is bad, but I watched a Romanian movie this year and listened to the music of Toše Proeski at some point this spring, and even I can get the gist of it. All this is to say that Russian is a difficult to translate language – you can always either see the seams or accept that the translator papered over it. Christina Kramer translated this book with, I think, an emphasis on accuracy – that explains the extreme unevenness of style. Sometimes it flows, sometimes it sings, sometimes it reads angular and awkward. Have you read Green Integer’s Ko Un translations? Yeah, that awkward. And speaking of awkward, sometimes, and this is not a translation issue, Starova likes to end his vignettes on overly clichéd phrases or on a sentence brimming with somewhat unearned pathos. It gives the book a feeling of being overdetermined, of an author who tries to get things to come out with the same emotional power that they felt when writing it, but that’s not how writing works. However, the structure of the book, which repeats phrases and observations again and again, leading readers to the powerful ending, is extremely well done. The book works best when its language is simple and declarative. Some of the most shattering sentences here are unremarkable in terms of style, but Starova imbues them with meaning.

You should read this book. There are other topics I haven’t even touched on, like his father’s attitude towards language and script. And despite some of my gripes, the portrayal of someone who loves books is heartwarming, and as a fellow book nut, I connected strongly to the book. But the most important aspect of the book that I haven’t touched on is the idea of migration. I’ve talked before about James Clifford and traveling cultures – in a sense, Starova’s book works like an example of that. His father lived in Turkey for 4 years, talked to Atatürk and was happy – but he returned home, to the “hell” of the Balkans, to connect with his family, and ultimately, to write an anatomy of the post-coloniality of the Balkans as they recovered from the Ottoman empire. He brought his books with him, wherever he went, but once he settled in Macedonia, he didn’t actually go anywhere, but he traveled through his books, but even in his travels through ink and paper eventually he returned home, as he found documents that helped him understand his country, his family and his heritage.

 

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Translating for Writing

I comment a lot about translation here and I have many complaints. Maybe it’s fair to point out that the times someone paid me to do a translation can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and still have fingers left over. That doesn’t mean I don’t translate, it just means I am incredibly unfamiliar with the pressures of translation from a practical point of view.

But, as I said, I do translate, almost every day, and in various genres, like I am currently doing small translations of Marcel Schwob’s prose pieces. I like to call what I do “translating for writing” and it’s the same thing, though on a less competent level, what writers like Robert Lowell did. Lowell translated the poetry in Imitations in order to break through a block in his own writing. Now, I don’t have writing blocks per se, but I do translate in order to play with my words and to defamiliarize my syntax and metaphor routines.

Recently, I was thinking about this and I think the term “translating for writing” fits it very well. I borrowed the term from the very brilliant linguist Dan Slobin, who, a few years back, offered a weak version of Sapir-Whorf that he called “thinking for speaking” – meaning, our language does not influence our thinking maybe, but when we think in order to speak, the kind of language we speak does influence and shape our thought. I think my translations that result from the process are not “good” translations – they are shaped by my ideas about writing and not by the author’s ideas about writing, beyond what’s on the page.

As a teenager, like many well read obnoxious male teenage poets, my poetry writing became increasingly Celan-y, to the point where I mastered a certain epigonal idiom fairly well. It was then that I decided to interrupt my routines by translating dozens of poems by Creeley, an objectivist American poet. And I think it helped me develop a certain personal idiom. I have since gone back to this well again and again – not Creeley specifically, but the process of translation.

I write every day, but I also translate almost every day, and in a way, it helps me stay sane sometimes. But since I do so much “translating for writing” sometimes I worry it skews my judgment of professional translators who provide the books in all the languages I cannot read (and they are many because I am terrible). But in some sense, translating other people’s writing is, for me, not just the best way to understand their writing, but also my own.

Walter Kaufmann and American readers of Nietzsche

Long title, short post. I understand that this is mostly for me to vent, and probably not of larger interest, but beyond the parochial matter at hand which caused me to get upset, there’s a broader issue that has annoyed me for a while. So what happened was I wanted to write something about an argument offered by Richard Wolin, a philosopher from New York, in an essay published in 2016. It was given at a conference and collected in the German book Martin Heidegger’s “Schwarze Hefte”: Eine philosophisch-politische Debatte, edited by Prof. Marion Heinz from the University of Siegen and her assistant Dr. Sidonie Kellerer. I was interested in how what Wolin very correctly notes about rationality and some debates dating back to enlightenment, how this ties into some Frankfurt School ideas. So I sat down to write a few hundred words on it, probably for this blog since I didn’t think anyone else would be interested. Anyway, while I might still do that, I got sidelined by something else. As it happens, today, in order to write the thing, I took a look at the essay again and noticed something that irked me greatly. It’s something that has bothered me for years and years. It’s the edition anglophone readers usually use of Nietzsche’s work.

Look, sometimes, discussing Nietzsche with Anglophone readers can be difficult – regardless of their skill and reading. And the reason for that is that the Nietzsche I know and the Nietzsche they know are two different people. The Nietzsche I know exists in the lovely, important, authoritative German edition by Colli and Montinari. It presents all of Nietzsche’s works, including multiple volumes of unpublished fragments. However, most Anglophone readers I know have read Nietzsche in Walter Kaufmann’s edition. And therein lies the problem.

Nietzsche’s published books, particularly in the middle period, after the first book, and before the mildly nutty late books, are extremely well constructed. Wolfgang Müller-Lauter has given excellent insights into the way Nietzsche uses paradoxes and structure as a way to give additional and sometimes contradictory meaning to his aphorisms. That makes him very hard to quote, and despite this, Kaufmann’s Portable Nietzsche stitches up the original books to fit Kaufmann’s own reading. It also, confusingly, contains three of the late books in full, but only selections from, say, Beyond Good and Evil, inarguably one of his most central books. But that’s not the main sin. The main sin is related to the “book” called The Will to Power.

The Will to Power is a posthumous “collection” of fragments, assembled by Nietzsche’s antisemitic sister, a horrible “collection” which Colli and Montinari call, accurately, a “historical forgery” – it is a book assembled from various, often re-assembled fragments Nietzsche never put into an order and never intended to be part of one book or argument. Walter Kaufmann not only translated it, but he also included it in his Portable Nietzsche, a book, let me remind you, that only contains a selection from Beyond Good and Evil. And having it there, as one of Nietzsche’s comparatively few books, severely distorts Nietzsche’s political and philosophical intentions. This would be ok, if the edition was old (it is) and Viking (now Penguin) had corrected itself and removed the historical forgery from reprints. However, you can still find the book listed by Penguin, Will to Power and all.

And thus, Will to Power continues living, even in German academic publications, despite the authoritative edition having expunged it as a book, and re-sorted the fragments as fragments into chronological order. Why? Because American academics are involved and Walter Kaufmann’s poisonous little edition continues to exist. This brings me back to Richard Wolin and his essay on Heidegger I mentioned at the outset. A few pages into his genuinely interesting argument, Wolin goes off on a tangent and offers a spurious argument about Nietzsche. That’s ok, it’s not uncommon. But then, in support, he offers a quotation from The Will to Power. The book, mostly edited, I suspect, by Dr. Kellerer, is very well edited, and naturally all its citations of Nietzsche come from the Colli/Montinari, the authoritative edition of Nietzsche. But of course you cannot cite this edition as Wolin’s source because, as a book, Will to Power doesn’t exist in this edition. So what do you do?

Now, there would be two honest ways of dealing with this. Option one: leave Wolin’s text alone and in the footnote citation, cite the volume in the Colli/Montinari edition and use the footnote of the citation to explain the fact that what’s cited as part of a “book” in the text is actually merely a fragment of little canonical value; this would of course somewhat undercut the authority of Wolin who uses a “well known” book as evidence, evidence that would be much weaker coming from a random fragment. Option number two would be to write Wolin and have him change it in the text itself, and then cite the Colli/Montinari volume in the footnote.

The editors picked option three: Wolin changes nothing, and the editors cite the 1906 edition, edited by Nietzsche’s sister, the avowed antisemite Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, as source. I would bet a large amount of money that that was not Wolin’s source: I am pretty sure Wolin drew his opinion of Nietzsche, and this source specifically, from Walter Kaufmann. But you have to cite some German source, so the editors picked the Förster-Nietzsche edition, published 110 years ago. To not make this look like the outdated antiquity it is, they actually don’t cite the original text, they cite most recent reprint from 1980, but it’s not a modern edition, it’s a straight reprint of the turn-of-the-century edition by Nietzsche’s sister. And then, to sorta kinda satisfy editorial ethics, they add, after a semicolon, where the fragment can be found in the Colli/Montinari edition. This way you allow Wolin to cite the forgery like it’s a real book, and pretend his argument about Nietzsche has substance (it doesn’t) and you help him by providing a footnote that pretends to offer a supporting citation, but mostly offers cover. It also shows awareness that the editors know that the Will To Power book they cite is not the correct/authoritative source, but keep it in the footnote to allow Wolin to keep it in the text.

And so Walter Kaufmann’s poisonous little edition lives on in German, closing a curious little circle. It’s like Frankenstein’s monster, only this one has two sets of parents. There’s Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, and then, as the book was fading out of circulation and use in its original language, there’s Walter Kaufmann, who sends a jolt of electricity through the tired antisemitic body of that strange assemblage of a text, and keeps it alive for a few more decades, albeit in English. And now it has come back, in a German-language academic essay, albeit as a translation, masquerading as the real thing, and not the creation of two Dr. Frankensteins.

That’s it. If you made it all the way to here: I apologize. I had to vent. That dishonest footnote made me very upset.

Man Booker, man.

so this is what we got this year. as if to remind me to stop caring about awards, this year’s Booker has arrived with a list that starts with Paul Auster’s colossal turd. I know, I know, it’s the alphabet. This year, as most years since the ill advised inclusion of US literature in the Booker roster, the mixture is the usual. Commonwealth super heavyweights (the Smiths), Commonwealth solid lit (Barry, Roy, Shamsie), Commonwealth mediocrity (McGregor, Hamid, and if I may add: the constant praise for Hamid is a mystery to me), and Commonwealth writers I don’t know. PLUS super famous and brilliant American writers. Yes, this is not Saunders’s best work, but Saunders is one of the world’s best short story writers. This is not Whitehead’s best novel, but I consider Whitehead a complete genius. this seems a bit unfair for the Commonwealth part of the list. Ah yeah. And then there’s Paul fucking Auster.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Solar Bones by Mike McCormack
Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor
Elmet by Fiona Mozley
The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
Autumn by Ali Smith
Swing Time by Zadie Smith
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Rummelplatz in English translation!

I mean this may be old news for you, but I had somehow missed it! Rummelplatz, a messy but exciting novel, has been translated into English and published by, who else? Seagull Books. Here is my review which dates all the way back to 2011. YOU WANT TO READ THIS BOOK, trust me. I cannot speak to the quality of the translation, but here is my summary of the book from my review:

My grandfather, who worked in various mines in the area that Rummelplatz is set in remembers a time of excitement, of hopes, of possibilities. Workers often felt empowered, and skill was often more respected than seniority or clout. This is the time that Bräunig portrays and this is the energy that suffuses this incredible book. There are countless flaws, inconsistencies etc. in it, but it’s only a draft, after all, never readied for publication. Bräunig may not one of the great writers of his time. But he could have been, and that is not an overstatement. This book brims with talent. Rummelplatz has similarities to books by writers like Anna Seghers and is historically fascinating, but above all, it’s a feast of a book.

Translated by Samuel P. Willcocks
544 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2015
The German List

Object Lessons

My little shelf of books in my apartment is not full of all kinds of weird editions – I prefer to collect books in larger volumes and will replace many individual copies with Library of America editions, say, or in the case of comics, with one of those trade omnibus editions or with poetry with a poet’s collected works. Sometimes as I stare at the shelf, I wonder how much I am losing. Is my reading of comic books in any way accurate, reading them in trades first, and then in a thick omnibus edition? How much does the understanding of comics depend on reading it issue by issue?

Armand Schwerner is an interesting exacmple. As readers of Schwerner’s enormous The Tablets we are naturally aware of the multi-level fiction, and Schwerner has found interesting ways to engage us. As McHale has pointed out, unlike other postmodern ‘archeological’ poems like Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns, Schwerner’s unreliable scholar/translator shoulders all the blame for anachronisms, jokes and other breaks with the solemnity of imitating the poetry of a (much) earlier age. And unlike books with similar narrators, like Nabokov’s Pale Fire, the doubtful material nature of the poetry under examination undercuts too glib a reading of that narrator.

The Tablets is a book about translating fragments that is itself made up of fragments, in more than one way. As we near the end of the book, the commentary and annotations become longer and more revealing, and eventually allow us to have a much fuller view of the character of the scholar/translator – but for all of Schwerner’s life, The Tablets weren’t available in book form at all. The first eight tablets were published in 1968 – and the collected posthumous edition wasn’t available until 1999, 31 years later. For us, who have access to the full book, it’s hard to imagine the interpretative process of earlier readers. Acquiring all the segments of the poem must have been a task similar to the one undertaken by the scholar/translator. Thus, the book itself is an object lesson in the sometimes arduous task of reading and understanding a text as a whole, in order to be able to contextualize and read smaller portions of it.

I know there’s quite a bit of literature about what constitutes a “text,” but the material aspect of it, of readers being also collectors by necessity, I find extremely fascinating. I have an unpublished longer academic essay on Schwerner in my desk somewhere, and recently I keep taking notes in it on materiality, seriality and the way materiality impacts reader reception theories.