Last Christmas I visited Vienna for the first time in my life – an overwhelming experience. And a brief one. I visited for slightly less than 24 hours, a flu-stained night in the Weißgerber district inclusive. I went through a long checklist of places, cramming them all into my tight schedule, including multiple bookshops and food places. Through all this, however, I evaded one specific place, despite being rather close to it at numerous times: I did not visit the Ungargasse, the street immortalized in Ingeborg Bachmann’s novel Malina. That novel’s protagonist lived in Ungargasse 6, while Ivan, her lover, lived in Ungargasse 9, across the street. Bachmann herself never actually lived there, but she did live in the immediately adjacent Beatrixgasse.
I feel it’s hard to explain how important that novel is for me as a person. I mean, I have strong emotional attachments to a number of Austrian writers, like Josef Winkler, Hertha Kräftner, and I adore and admire the complete work of Ingeborg Bachmann, of which I own pretty much everything that’s ever been published, plus letters and the occasional secondary work. But for some reason, since high school, Malina has exerted a special kind of pull on me (I think the only German-language prose writer who has close to the same effect on me is Uwe Johnson). I considered at some point writing a review or essay about the novel, but I think it’s entirely impossible for me.
Malina is a difficult book, and critics like to point to supposed weaknesses, to strangenesses of structure and plot, to odd remarks; it’s a complex book that eludes easy classification. It’s also a book that readers have tried to simplify by reading it for autobiographical notes and import.
I have been rereading a new book on Bachmann by Ina Hartwig this past week, called Wer war Ingeborg Bachmann? Its publication right on the heels of the first two volumes of the new collected edition of Bachmann’s work, edited by Hans Höller, underlines a currently resurgent interest in Bachmann’s life. This new edition of Bachmann’s work is radically focused on Bachmann’s personal life – last year also saw the first volume of Uwe Johnson’s collected works being published. The editors of that edition started with Johnson’s first published novel (Johnson’s first written novel, Ingrid Babendererde, a complicated manuscript, isn’t slated for publication until much later). Höller does not begin with Bachmann’s first published poetry, or her early radio plays, or her earliest published prose. It starts with her last unpublished and unfinished novel, and a collection of her notes she took in/for therapy. There’s nothing that’s more personal than the latter, and her unpublished, and unfinished prose often reads like an open wound, dealing with loss, violence, sexuality and patriarchy. Höller makes his interest and focus known. He also specifically mentions, teasingly, that he will be publishing the Bachmann/Frisch letters, an almost mythical set of texts about a failed relationship which is detailed in only one longer text, Max Frisch’s novel Montauk.
There’s an unpleasant whiff to Höller’s project. It’s not new, this prurient interest in Bachmann. In a fantastic 1997 book-length essay, Ingeborg Bachmann und die literarische öffentlichkeit, Klaus Amann already details the distasteful nature of this interest, and how it harms Bachmann’s work. And to be clear – I am not innocent in this: I have read all her published letters cover to cover. I have read Höller’s two Bachmann books cover to cover and assembled a wealth of notes on them. I will read everything i can get my hands on.
But reading Ina Hartwig’s book, I found striking how it keeps circling back to the three late novels, the published Malina, and the unpublished Buch Franza and Fanny Goldmann. How it tries to read her life from these clues, and takes details of her life to “elucidate” details from the novel. Hartwig’s book has other oddities (the book is completely permeated by a bizarre obsession with Bachmann’s looks, to the point that she asked multiple interviewees whether they thought Bachmann colored her hair), but as a reader of Malina for all my adult, and most of my teenage life, Hartwig’s fleecing of Malina for clues was…unpleasant, I guess. And not from an ethical point of view. But it seemed to be based on a profound misreading of Bachmann’s text, which is vibrant with ambiguity and significance. It’s a strange spectacle to watch a book one cares so much about be so shallowly treated.
And maybe it’s just me. I cannot explain why I was so terrified to go to Ungargasse. Maybe because I am not convinced that the street I know from the book is there. That it’s visitable. It’s a strange book. And clearly I cannot write cogently about it.
…here is Deborah Smith in her own words in the LARB, published yesterday. Look, I started to annotate the thing in my head (because, I mean, oh man), but ultimately, I found I’ve spent too much energy on this already, particularly with this improvised rant. Smith’s essay speaks for itself. I’m tired.
This is a short note regarding, once again, after this post, the Han Kang / Deborah Smith debate. I’m writing this directly into the CMS so excuse any infelicities or oddities beyond the usual.
I do not necessarily wish to re-open the discussion about translation. I’ve had many frustrating, mind-numbing discussions with people on the topic. I’ve heard all kinds of terrible arguments. The most recent text about it, a poetically written article in le New Yorker, is interesting in that it doesn’t really try to defend the indefensible, despite praising, overall, the way Smith and Han Kang deal with translation.
The author in the New Yorker, Jiayang Fan, says at some point, “This isn’t what’s normally meant by translation.” – and she’s right. And for all I care the debate can end here. That is not what we mean when we say translation. And Han Kang’s English books, seeing as they can indeed best be described as a “collaborative work,” should have Deborah Smith’s name on the cover. I have no problems with invasive translations if they are marked as such. Look. I have two volumes of translations by Paul Celan on the shelf. They are some of my most cherished books. Celan was a linguistic marvel. BUT all of the poems read as if they had been written or edited by Celan. They are, to a very large extent, Celan poems, not poems by Mandelstam. It’s not subtle: I have two slim German volumes of Ungaretti’s poems here, one with Celan’s renditions, one with Bachmann’s. You can immediately point out which are Celan’s. It’s incredibly clear and obvious.
Look, for someone of little talent and skill like me who speaks too few languages, who travels little, lives in the country he grew up in etc., translations are necessary and at the same time a matter of trust. I trust you, translator, to render for me the work of a writer who I cannot read in his own words. And sometimes this involves overlooking some obvious issues. I adore Megan McDowell’s translations. And not because she’s such a transcendent translator: most of my adoration stems from the fact that the books she picked for translation are so good. I can see the original shine through in weird spots, but that’s fine. I trust Megan McDowell to give me the book as best she can. That’s “what’s normally meant by translation.”
Jiayan Fan, in her New Yorker article, also says “the latitude of Robert Lowell’s poetic “imitations” comes to mind.” – and that’s entirely accurate. I have written about that book of Lowell’s, and smarter people than me have pointed to its many many issues. Among the problems is that sometimes, Lowell was just re-mixing older translations. Sometimes he would translate texts from languages he didn’t speak in the first place. That is, indeed, not “what’s normally meant by translation.” And I admire Lowell’s Imitations. I think it’s one of his best books. However, none of these translations should be given to someone interested in, Say, Osip Mandelstam.
Earlier in the same article, the author dismisses Charse Yun’s careful criticism by saying that the things he notes are peripheral. They are not “the questions at the heart of Han’s work.” – Indeed, the debate about Deborah Smith’s translations goes to the heart of what we believe literature is. If we think literature is a message, some deeper content that can be paraphrased any which way, where the actual shape and color of the prose is merely incidental, then yes, maybe these are good translations. But if we think literature is made of words and words matter, then, fuck no. All translations are imperfect in some way, and to be honest, I don’t entirely believe in the translatability of poetry in the strict sense at all. But translators – we, or let’s say, I, trust them with doing their best to do this.
The article by Jiayan Fan suggests that, eh, the actual words on the page – not so important. What counts are the deeper questions and issues. The “greater fidelity” to what Han Kang has to say, not the measly detail of how she says it. It’s not an uncommon attitude. I have seen very popular short stories praised recently that were horrifically written as prose, but praised as “well written” – a statement that, upon reflection, referred to structure and the verisimilitude of the events depicted. But I, personally, don’t share that attitude. I don’t understand how anyone interested in literature can share that attitude, but I accept that I may be in the minority here. That is, I think, the basic difference and the bottom line here. That is why discussions on the topic have been so frustrating for me. I can accept that many people disagree.
And that would be all I have to say about the New Yorker article and the situation overall, but I have two remarks to add. Bug-bears if you will. One is every single review that discusses Han Kang’s “style” in English. I don’t care whether you believe the words matter (and thus we get Deborah Smith’s intense distortion of Kang) or whether you think the “deeper questions” matter (and thus we get “a greater fidelity” (to quote Smith)). Let’s be clear: under no circumstances are you getting Han Kang’s style or an approximation of it. The difference between the two positions doesn’t touch this question. The facts as raised by Charse Yun are clear. The difference between me and the millions of fans and defenders of the Kang/Smith collaborations is that they think it’s irrelevant. If you claim you’re getting Han Kang’s style you’re wrong.
The same goes for the idea that maybe Deborah Smith is a better translator in her newer books, less invasive, producing more of “what’s usually meant by translation.” This should be incredibly easy to test. Charse Yun makes clear claims: “Han’s sentences are spare and quiet, sometimes ending in fragments. In contrast, Smith uses a high, formal style with lyrical flourishes. As one critic noted, the translation has a “nineteenth-century ring” to it, reminiscent of Chekhov.” Look at the new translations. Has the style of the books changed? Is it more sparse now? Are the lyrical flourishes gone? I looked at the more recent translations and the answer is: no. And that should be immediately clear to any reader. I am honestly baffled by this suggestion of her maybe having changed her ways. It’s testable. There’s no need to throw up your hands and say “maybe!” GOOD LORD.
I’m sorry if this ran a bit long. Forgive me. This is not a theoretical essay, though I may have a draft of one lying around somewhere (focusing more on this aspect). This is just me sitting here being a bit upset. The best book on translation I have personally read, by the way, makes a case for translation as inspired deviance. I am not per se critical of that position. I guess I am writing as someone depending on that trust, that unspoken contract between me and the translator.
I don’t usually make this list, but last year I was listening to a much more diverse list of albums than in previous years, and apart from discovering the work of artists like Lisa LeBlanc, Oxmo Pucchino and Alain Bashung, and listening to an indecent amount of Sondheim musicals, I was also listening to a fair variety of music that came out in the same year. The list below isn’t of course some kind of firm canon. Xiu Xiu’s new album could have been on the list, John Moreland, Colter Wall and the Secret Sisters all published excellent country albums last year. Big Thief’s Masterpiece was, indeed, a masterpiece. Neil Young’s latest archival release Hitchhiker was pleasant and enjoyable. There’s a new German band called Faber, whose album Sei ein Faber im Wind scratches an itch I have. I mean, this list could have looked different. I have not listened to the new Björk album; it should probably be on here. So there’s something transient to this list. Nevertheless, I kept fiddling with it over the past hour and have now settled on its current shape. I like this. This is what I liked last year.
- Perfume Genius – No Shape
- Arca – s/t
- Julien Baker – Turn Out The Lights
- Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
- Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked at Me
- Priests – Nothing Feels Natural
- Loyle Carner – Yesterday’s Gone
- Lorde – Melodrama
- Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory
- Tyler the Creator – Flower Boy
- Sampha – Process
- Zugezogen Maskulin – Alle gegen Alle
- Migos – Culture
- Aimee Mann – Mental Illness
- Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 3
- CupcakKe – Queen Elizabitch
- Moses Sumney- Aromanticism
- The Mountain Goats – Goths
- Bedwetter – Volume 1
- Mark Eitzel – Hey, Mr. Ferryman
- Wiley – Godfather
- J. Hus – Common Sense
- Glassjaw – Material Control
- Playboi Carti – s/t
- Khalid – American Teen
So after blogging 26 reviews in 2016 and 2015 each, I happened to post 33 reviews this year, despite some quiet months without any reviews. An alphabetical list of the books under review this year are below, with very brief commentary.
Melinda Nadj Abonji: Fly Away, Pigeon: A Swiss novel about a not entirely common immigrant experience. Solid writing, sometimes very good. Compelling discussion about how wars in their home country can affect immigrants, and how that might change our view of them.
Charlie Jane Anders: All the Birds in the Sky: Regrettably reactionary/conservative book that is wildly imaginative and entertaining otherwise.
Nina Allan: The Rift: Nina Allan is one of the brightest stars in contemporary science fiction, although it’s maybe questionable to what extent her books are science fiction. The contrast with Anders’s novel highlights the missed opportunities in the latter.
Chetan Bhagat: The Three Mistakes of my Life: Oh God no. I regret reading this. The only book I read in 2017 that rivals this level of awfulness is Robert Waller’s bizarrely bad Bridges of Madison County, which I didn’t review on the blog.
Sophie Campbell: Shadoweyes: I admire Campbell’s art so much. She is one of my three favorite artists in comics. I bought a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles trade paperback last month just because of her art. And somehow, improbably, Campbell’s writing is almost as good. This book is also beautifully produced.
Jacques Chessex: A Jew Must Die: Chessex is a great novelist and this is just a masterpiece of prose, control, tone.
Martina Clavadetscher: Knochenlieder: Imaginative, passionate, interesting Swiss novel about the near future, about communities, biology, inheritance, ecology. It’s not perfect, and it’s weaker in the second than the first half, but it’s darn good as is.
Paul Cornell: Witches of Lychford: Of all the books I read in this novella-sized TOR imprint, this one feels most like a genre exercise. I mean, it didn’t have to be a masterpiece like Kai Ashante Wilson’s book or Brian Evenson’s, but this is a bit thin, if very well executed. It could have been better: for example, Kij Johnson’s book in the same imprint, which I read but didn’t review this year, is a novella-length riff on Lovecraft that feels more relevant, necessary, interesting. Plus, there’s a bit of an ideological haut goût in Cornell’s book that didn’t sit well with me.
Wioletta Greg: Swallowing Mercury: Oh man. This is flat, and not great, and the translation feels dubious. Moreover, since writing the review, I read more books by and about Polish writer-immigrants in the UK which made me be simultaneously more interested in the topic and less interested in this particular book.
Dorothee Elmiger: Invitation To The Bold Of Heart. A young Swiss writer. Excellent, excellent novel. Dense, postmodern, but emotionally captivating.
Nathan Englander: Dinner at the Center of the Earth. Man, I love Englander. I don’t know that I can be in any way neutral about his work. Really enjoyed this novel. Really fascinated by the way it embedded borderline nonfiction elements like a biography of Ariel Sharon. A messy book about a messy conflict. Much better executed than his first novel.
Manuele Fior: 5,000 km per second. Fantastic, moving graphic novel. Written in Italian, translated into English. Everybody raved about it in 2016. Everybody was right.
Daniel Goetsch: Ein Niemand. No. One of four novels I read this year by a Bachmannpreis participant, and -hands down- the worst. His story that he read there was a bit worse still. The politics of who gets invited there puzzle me.
Nora Gomringer: Moden. Speaking of the Bachmannpreis: Nora Gomringer won it, she is fantastic, and she will be on next year’s jury. Here’s to hoping she’ll have better luck picking than 75% of her colleagues this year. Oh, also, someone go and translate her books already.
Shirley Jackson: Hangsaman. 2017 is also the year where I became a fan of Shirley Jackson. This is fantastic. Unbelievable. She is fantastic. Saving up to get the LoA edition of her short stories next year. There’s also a recent biography of her that I need to read. Man.
Gwyneth Jones: Proof of Concept. Another one of the TOR novellas. This one is among the very best I have read. I have admired Jones for years. So should you.
Theodor Kallifatidis: Masters and Peasants: Greek immigrant, living in Sweden. Today, people read mostly his crime novels because of the whole Nordic Noir thing. This is a very very interesting sorta-kinda autobiographical novel. Funny, devastating, strange.
Meral Kureyshi: Elefanten im Garten. Recommended to me by Adrian Nathan West, whose excellent novel I have read this year but not reviewed. This book is another Swiss immigrant tale. Not as strong as others I have read, and it often echoes other writers in the tradition, but still good, and certainly better than many books that have been winning awards for German-language literature these days.
Manu Larcenet: Ordinary Victories. This is unbelievably good. I was recommended this, and boy is this good. I have since read two more books by Larcenet, both of them excellent. One is the funny Bill Baroud, about a portly secret agent, and the other one the dark Blast, about, man. Things. Go and read Ordinary Victories. You will not regret it. I promise.
Barbi Marković: Superheldinnen. Another Bachmannbook. This one much stronger than her story. I adore this writer. Someone should translate this book into English.
Ben Mazer: February Poems. I greatly admire Ben Mazer’s poetry, and this is his best book. This year, Mad Hat Press published his Selected Poems which everybody should read.
Denise Mina: Still Midnight. Denise Mina’s novels are a masterclass in how to write mystery fiction with meaning and a backbone.
Jerry Pinto: Em and the Big Hoom. Mediocre book about a shitty son. It has been reviewed extremely positively, so who knows. Maybe it’s me. (it’s not).
Sasha Marianna Salzmann: Ausser Sich. One of the best books I read all year, and almost certainly one of the three best German-language novels of the year. The other two are Michael Roes’s Zeithain, and Peter Handke’s elegiac Die Obstdiebin, neither of which I reviewed here.
Samanta Schweblin: Fever Dream. One of two fantastic Argentinian books I read this year. The other one is Mariana Enriquez’s story collection Things we lost in the fire, which I didn’t review but still might. Both books were translated by Megan McDowell, and while the translations seem a bit off here and there, the books themselves are extremely strong.
Luan Starova: My Father’s Books. A Macedonian memoir-novel. Lovely. Read it.
Elizabeth Strout: My Name is Lucy Barton. A book with many plaudits. Didn’t particularly like it. Strong execution. Hollow core.
Walter Tevis: The Man Who Fell To Earth. Fantastic science fiction classic about alienation, loneliness, hope and loss. Essential.
Lewis Trondheim/Stéphane Oiry: Maggy Garrisson. French graphic novel about a female private detective-in-training. Writing and art are lovely. Cannot wait to read more.
Juan Pablo Villalobos: Down the Rabbit Hole. Really good Mexican novel about the drug trade from a child’s eye. This tired trope is invested with some interesting new energy in this book. Good not great. If you look for something to fill that Yuri Herrera shaped hole in your life, this ain’t it.
Klaus Cäsar Zehrer: Das Genie. Interesting story. Terrible, boring, blasé execution. Someone, please, someone write a novel about the same person, but with some proper literary skill.
So that’s that. I’m incredibly grateful for every reader and commenter on this blog. Thank you.