Little Flowers: A conversation with Michael Martin

Another post in our occasional series talking to past Structo contributors. This time we feature an interview with the author Michael Martin. You can read his story ‘A Question for the Candidate’ online in Structo 9.

We published ‘A Question for the Candidate’ back in 2013. How’s the writing life treated you since then?

Being published in Structo gave me a great sense of achievement, not least because of the quality of the magazine, its appearance and the rest of the writing. Since then I’ve placed several more stories, winning the Irish Post short story competition, with the prize of visiting the wonderful Listowel Writers’ Festival, and being short-listed for the Benedict Kiely prize, which is part of the Omagh Literature Festival. Some writers say they’d rather concentrate on their novel than get distracted by short fiction but I believe you learn a lot from writing as well as reading short fiction, and sometimes there are highlights of publication or even prizes which will sustain longer term projects.

Your debut novel has just come out from Brigand. Can you say something about Little Flowers?

A critical friend had helped me pare down the draft that was accepted by Brigand. I suppose it’s because they are a small publishers, I felt at the heart of the editing process. The novel concerns a betting shop worker called Guy who hasn’t moved out of his parents’ house. The crisis in his life is brought about when his neighbour’s building work disturbs his sleep. It’s supposed to be grounded in naturalism and it does sound like it deals with very suburban concerns, but there is a slightly fantastical slant. The eccentric planner who promises to help the narrator is the catalyst who changes Guy’s life. The fantasy element, that I hope helps to stoke the increasing strangeness of the story, is where Guy reads a book about Saint Francis of Assisi – except rather than the conventional biography, this is a sensational novel where the saint has to uncover the true identity of a werewolf.

Can you point to any specific influences for the novel or for your short stories?

As Little Flowers progressed, I did think about what elements I enjoyed most in novels. They include puzzling (for me) interludes like the Pontius Pilate episodes in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, and the fictional characters’ revenge on their writer in At Swim Two Birds by Flann O’Brien. Also Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood has that brilliant portrayal of someone pursuing a misguided mission that I find fascinating. By citing such great writers, I know I will only suffer in comparison but at least it shows I’m aiming high! For short stories, writers I admire are James Joyce and V S Pritchett, and of recent writers, Yukiko Motoya’s Picnic in the Storm was a brilliant collection. I’ll never view people putting up umbrellas in high winds in a supercilious way again (well, maybe I will).

What’s next for you?

Just before Little Flowers was accepted by Brigand, I’d finished a first draft of my next novel. This was put on hold as I came to understand just how much work was involved in getting a book to publication. So it’s back to that and continuing to write short stories. In 2019 as part of Barnet Borough’s Year of Learning festival I ran a couple of writing workshops, which I really enjoyed, so I am due to run some more and get to find out what happens in several stories people are working on.

Find out more about Michael and his writing at https://michaelmartinwriter.blogspot.com

Review: ‘Neutral Evil )))’ by Lee Klein

Back in 2014, Barrelhouse Books published Lee Klein’s Thanks and Sorry and Good Luck, a collection of relentlessly honest, often hilarious rejection letters sent during Klein’s time running the literary magazine Eyeshot. A book of rejection letters might sound like an unkind gimmick which, even if done well, would stop being funny after a couple of pages, but there’s something about the blunt force of Klein’s responses which easily sustains its page count. There’s snark, sure, but there is also heart and appreciation and an expectation that people should be writing good things.

Neutral Evil ))) has a similarly unlikely set-up, one which in the hands of most writers would be completely insufferable: autofiction in which a bearded thirty-something takes some edibles, goes to a drone metal show and muses on US domestic politics, social media and guitar pedals.

Nope nope nope. Even as a 120-page novella, just nope. And I enjoy drone metal.

Happily, and unsurprisingly given Klein’s previous work, the framing device—March 18, 2017, at a Sunn O))) show in Philadelphia, just two months into the current US presidency—is simply used as a way to reflect on a moment in time and the frame of mind of the narrator. The story is about a man adjusting to the demands of a young family, sure, but he’s setting into it, not rebelling against the constraints. The time spent at the show is a gift of sorts from his wife, some time off before she leaves for a business trip and he is on toddler duty for a week.

I’m aware of my thoughts in a way that makes me aware that I haven’t been aware of my thoughts recently. They’ve been benevolently suppressed by routine, by action, or whenever they asserted themselves I elevated their status to that of a tweet, but in general I’m now beginning to realize that I haven’t been thinking, I haven’t had sufficient unoccupied free-range time alone to hear myself think, and now it seems I have an hour or more to myself in a crowd of mostly young men willing to pay $22 to stand and listen to super-loud low-frequency drone-doom minimalist-metal in a converted Spaghetti Warehouse.

It’s the thoughts of the narrator, and the feeling of thought in general, which Klein depicts so well in Neutral Evil ))). There’s a looseness and lightness to the writing which reads like thinking, with tangents, unlikely plans, and memories interrupted and shunted around by the real world.

You might not care as much as the narrator does about guitar amps, but that’s fine. He’s not aiming to impress. This is simply a snapshot of a moment in a life, deftly captured.

Neutral Evil ))) / Lee Klein / Sagging Meniscus Press / 1 May 2020

Icebergs in Ilulissat: A conversation with Nicola Stringer

Nic Stringer, left, with Michelle Penn at Corrupted Poetry’s Behind the Mask

Another post in our occasional series talking to past Structo contributors. This time we feature an interview with the poet Nicola Stringer. You can read her poem ‘Icebergs in Ilulissat’ online in Structo 18.

Can you say a little about the genesis of ‘Icebergs in Ilulissat’?

‘Icebergs’ is a poem from the final section of my first collection A day that you happen to know, which uses travel, or more specifically destinations, to think about emotional location, which often has all and nothing to do with where we might find ourselves physically. The poems start in Ilulissat which is in western Greenland and end in Alice Springs, Australia:

Travelling in straight lines as temperature rises, reactions where we fall apart are simple, as long as there is no bounce.

How long has A day that you happen to know been in the works?

I gave myself leave to take time away from my (paid) work to focus on writing and effectively took much of 2016 and part of 2017 to develop the collection. Luke Thompson at Guillemot Press had expressed an interest in the work and was open to the idea of a collaboration. Guillemot are very focused on the end product and materials and they work with some fantastic artists and illustrators from their base in Cornwall. Lucy Kerr was almost instantly able to find a way into my poems graphically. This very beautiful book was published in November 2017.

You are also part of a sound collective called Fractured Strings. First question: what’s a sound collective?

I’m not sure if there is a universal definition, but my sound collective is a cooperative enterprise of a very small number of musicians and an engineer who I work with to create the sound of my writing, which is more than simply recording words. I work often with visual and sound content so when I’m thinking about a written piece it also has look and feel – at least in my head. With my collaborators that sound is as likely to come into the world as a beautiful movement of music as it is something like the noise of a thought hitting the bottom of a well! A number of my poems have a recorded sound ‘theory’ and there is a full soundtrack to the collection, In the half-light, available on my website.

I’m sure many writers dream of taking some serious time away from the day job to focus on writing. How did you find that process? Were there any unexpected challenges?

I’m always reminded of Brian Eno’s position on this: if you want to do your best creative work, don’t get a job! Of course, most of us don’t have the luxury of not having to pay the bills, but for me it did mean giving up a challenging career in charity marketing, using savings to go back to university for a year to complete my MA, to then focus on the writing by living on the minimum I could afford to earn through part-time work. The unexpected challenge is in having to put aside skills and expertise that are often not required in the sort of work I do now – but the benefit is in not having to have a long-term commitment or view on the future of an organisation and using that energy on the creative work instead. I’m in awe of anyone who can work in a professional capacity outside of the arts full-time and still manage a creative career successfully.

What’s the latest from you?

My first collection was highly commended in the Forward Prizes 2018 and my second collection will be coming out in 2021. I’m really happy with the change I made. The events I create as part of Corrupted Poetry have also been amazingly well received. Our angle is to combine poetry with sound and visual content, working with some brilliant poets and artists as well as in collaboration with musicians and organisations such as the National Poetry Library. We’re currently putting an exhibition together for the Poetry Café, working with Poem Atlas, which will be ready mid-January and the first event of 2020, Fake, will be at the October Gallery in London in March. You can see and hear more at corruptedpoetry.com.

Review: ‘I Remain in Darkness’ by Annie Ernaux, translated by Tanya Leslie

After developing Alzheimer’s, Annie Ernaux’s mother spent a period living with her daughter, before ultimately being moved to a geriatric hospital where she lived out her last two years. On the surface, then, I Remain in Darkness (translated from the French by Tanya Leslie) is about a daughter living through the death of a parent, the process of living-through recorded in fragmented journal entries, and between every entry a week of a mother not being visited. It’s painful enough just to skim through the pages and attend to the time frame; if ever there were a book of reading between the lines, it ought to be this one.

Ernaux’s descriptions of her mother’s decline are clear and visceral. At times she comes off as cold and cruel and, at others, pained and gentle. The detachment, the horror of the banal, and the inability to shake off a lifetime of one’s own slapdash parent-child relationships—all of this Ernaux captures and offers as relief. In this way, the book is reminiscent of Sophie Calle’s Exquisite Pain, an experiment in exorcism by repetition after a failed love affair. In I Remain in Darkness, however, it is fear that is borne by ritual, and loss is tethered to the muck of the mundane. It’s hard to be so close, to smell the details, and equally hard not to feel a twofold grief upon reading: once for your own slow deterioration and once for your slowly deteriorating loved ones. To know that we pass through each of death’s sides.

I felt in equal measure Ernaux’s grief, her guilt, and her suspected failure to be a ‘proper’ daughter. (Is that how I would…? Would it be like…? Is this going to…? Will I end up…?).

The book is claustrophobic and at the same time distant. Paragraphs such as this perfectly capture the double-bind Annie Ernaux is suffering.

She looks even more withered and confused. All she is wearing is her hospital gown, open at the back, exposing her spine, her buttocks and the mesh of her underwear. A glorious sun is beating down through the double-glazed windows. I think about my room at the students’ hostel twenty years ago. Today I am here with her. We have no little imagination.

Where to place one’s focus? The section begins with the physical decline of her mother, escapes out the window into the eternity of the weather, and runs back to the safety of youth before landing again on the death that confronts her. And it is Ernaux’s mother, in her gown and slippers, who throughout remains unreachable, as flickers of her life bubble to the surface one sentence at a time, highlighting the disjunct between the mother’s lived experience and what we, the healthy spectator, is able to understand.

At just 78 pages, I Remain in Darkness is a remarkably light thing to be carrying such human weight. There’s a safety in tiny volumes, in the small doses of pain which drip from Ernaux’s note-style pages; the drip of a faucet that won’t quite turn off, however hard you force its handle.

I Remain in Darkness / Annie Ernaux, translated from the French by Tanya Leslie / Fitzcarraldo Editions / 18 Sept 2019 (UK & Eire)

Lydia Unsworth is the author of two collections of poetry: Certain Manoeuvres and Nostalgia for Bodies, and two chapbooks: My Body in a Country and I Have Not Led a Serious Life. Recent work can be found in Ambitpara.textTears in the FenceBansheeLitro and others. Find her on Twitter @lydiowanie.

Stephen Beechinor talks ‘El Llano in flames’

It started, as many things do, with a chat in a pub.

This particular chat was with Stephen Beechinor, a writer and translator from the Spanish and Catalan. We had published one of Stephen’s remarkable short stories in Structo 9. A little later he had a stint as a member of our editorial team. That day he was telling me about a Mexican author called Juan Rulfo. I’d never heard of him.

When Stephen left the magazine to concentrate on his own writing, I asked him to keep an eye out for any interesting work which could do with an English translation. Juan Rulfo, it turned out, was an incredibly well-regarded author in Latin America who had published two books in his lifetime: a novel called Pedro Páramo in 1955 and, two years before that, a story collection called El Llano en llamas. The novel was published in the UK by Serpent’s Tail but, for whatever reason, El Llano en llames was not available in English anywhere outside of North America. This became more mysterious when I came across this quote from Gabriel García Márquez:

Juan Rulfo didn’t write more than three hundred pages, but they are almost as many and, I believe, as durable as those we’re acquainted with from Sophocles.

Which isn’t a bad recommendation, as it goes.

A few months later we had begun on the path to commissioning a new translation. It was to be the first book from Structo Press.

Photo: John Minihan

I caught up with Stephen in the week of the book’s release to talk about the process of translating El Llano in flames.

How did you first encounter Rulfo?

Through Meritxell Pucurull, a translator in Barcelona. I put her on to Raymond Carver’s stories and she gave me El Llano en llamas. And it was like Juan Rulfo had carried you a great distance, the writing was so laconic and quietly tense, yet immediate and kind of undeniable. Unfamiliar country.

What was it about El Llano en llamas that made you want to take on the translation?

It was nothing short of a gift to be offered the chance. The sheer craft was there and not in an ostensible way. Rulfo is not a showy, watch-this kind of writer: it’s hard to figure out quite how he casts the spell he does. Which for the translator also heightens the prospect of outright failure, and that’s always a powerful incentive too.

What was the most challenging part of the translation process?

Being a process you only learn it by doing, which means getting it wrong in all sorts of ways, and allowing for that, before you will even begin to identify how you might get it right. Perhaps it’s like building a bicycle wheel from scratch. First of all, you accept that whatever wheel you build will never turn out perfectly true. However, at least the formal principles and outcome of the process appear straightforward: you know what it’s meant to look like, the design and architecture have already been decided for you. But there’s no set number of passes either before you’re done: it’s finished when all the spokes have the proper combined tension, their own internal coherence, so that the wheel may spin freely. And the editor is the person who comes over to let you know, just when you think you’re done, that all these spokes need changing. Vital.

Any idea why Rulfo isn’t as well known in the UK and Ireland as he is in North America?

At a guess, the mystifying quirks of cultural commerce have something to do with geography, trade, theatres of influence and conflict, traffic of people, and timing. Pedro Páramo has been translated here, but he’s still under the radar, still a writer’s writer. Fortunately though, this is a time when you have small presses like Peirene and Comma picking up on books of serious quality in other languages, just as Comma Press did with Hassan Blassim and his remarkable stories from Iraq.

How did you settle on ‘El Llano in flames’ as a title for this new translation?

El Llano or El Llano Grande is the name of the arid, treeless, shrubless, birdless flatland in Jalisco, Mexico, where the stories are set. It’s shown in the relief map on the cover of this translation.

In El Llano we have a proper noun, a toponym, a place name that describes the land. And as a general noun, a llano is a dry plain of sometimes great extension, a feature of the northern parts of south America and the south-western US. Like veldt or steppe or glen or bayou, a llano is a geographical particularity and to transpose the particular into the generic would be to traduce it. And finally, typographically, that initial ‘Ll’ digraph holds your eye nicely; it snags in the mind in just the right way.

The em-dash dialogue markers are carried over from the original. This typically doesn’t appear in English. What was the thought process there?

Declutter. Clear the page of surplus furniture and allow the syntax to perform freely as much work in translation as it does in the source. Here it should be said that Rulfo’s punctuation is not especially light: depending on the individual story, he’s apt to use every kind of mark, plus italics. Much in line with the standard in Spanish, which happens to be far more prescriptive and set in terms of how you can mark up a sentence. So, for dialogue Rulfo is using this em-dash or raya for direct speech and comillas or quotation marks (“ ”, « ») for quoted, remembered or imagined speech. Nothing out of the ordinary. These marks you also find in French and Catalan: it’s more of a European convention than anything else.

In English there’s bags of scope and licence in the language to use the em-dash to mark direct speech, with occasional italics for remembered or quoted speech. Which probably throws up as many issues as it pretends to resolve, but you select your restrictions to serve your ends. An economy that comes back to Rulfo’s clean, unfettered syntax. Lines are weighted and stressed not only so that they roll into one another but do so in such a way that the emphasis will invariably fall to good effect. This is what lends the stories their as-told quality: you hear the teller’s voice without intermediary, there’s nothing in the way.

Incidentally, right now in English, Jen Calleja uses em-dash marks for dialogue in her very fine, fluid translation from the German of Kerstin Hensel’s book titled Dance by the Canal. As does Preti Taneja in her novel We That Are Young.

This is your first book-length translation. How does it feel to have it out and about?

As though I may have inflicted a well-intentioned travesty on the original, but it’s either too early or too late for regrets – let’s see. Ultimately the book belongs first and last to the author and the person who will read it next. All you’re doing really is trying not to tarnish it too noticeably before passing it along.

El Llano in flames is available now in paperback. More details here.

Writers Rebel

The Writers Rebel event in Trafalgar Square. Photo by Ben Sullivan

The past week or so has seen Extinction Rebellion organise massive climate protests in as many as 60 cities worldwide. On 11 October in London’s Trafalgar Square, a group within the movement staged an event featuring Simon Schama, Ali Smith, Naomi Alderman, Helen Simpson, Susie Orbach, AL Kennedy, Paul Farley and Daljit Nagra, among others.

We caught up via email with one of the organisers of Writer’s Rebel, the novelist and academic James Miller, to find out more. The interview contains links to further information. These were added by us.

How did Writers Rebel come about? 

It started with a tweet from Monique Roffey saying she thought writers should do more to address the climate crisis in their work. My second novel, Sunshine State was a cli-fi novel (and largely ignored/ dismissed as unrealistic at the time) so this resonated with me. A few of us got together – initial conversations didn’t lead much beyond slightly dull discussions of doing something safe and academic, like a conference or whatever. Another founding member, Liz Jensen, said her son was heavily involved in XR and from him we met writers and XR activists Jessica Townsend and Roc Sandford who were separately thinking of beginning a writers project within XR. We all formed an organising circle and Cath Drake came on board at that point and Chloe Aridjis a little later.

Via Jessica we were able to get a slot in Trafalgar Square/ Burning Earth stage from XR and we realised this would be the most amazing place to stage a literary event. However on the day, were dismayed to find that the police had overnight taken away the stage and the sound system had been removed to prevent it being confiscated so Jessica  had to work her XR network hard to make sure there was any event at all!

Does Writers Rebel have any specific aims in addition to those of the wider Extinction Rebellion movement? 

At the moment we’re all exhausted and reeling from the success of our event and have yet to have a meaningful discussion about our wider aims. However, we are thinking about how we might draw up a manifesto for writers engaged in telling the truth about the climate crisis. Speaking personally, I believe writers have an ethical duty to engage with these issues: for me, this means our work must explore the impact of the crisis and looming ecocide, whether implicitly or explicitly – it’s not something we can ignore any longer. Writing about the weather can never ‘just’ be about the weather. I also feel that writers with a public platform now have a duty to speak out, to do what they can to spread the word and influence public opinion – we need to put intense pressure on our politicians to impose the structural changes necessary for our survival.

The Writers Rebel event in Trafalgar Square, London, on 11 October. Photo by Habie Schwarz

What was the response to the event in Trafalgar Square? 

The response has been incredible. There were hundreds, maybe thousands in the crowd and the event when viral on social media – and we’ve had messages or tweets of support from so many great writers: Margaret Atwood, Amitav Gosh, Irvine Welsh, Neil Gaiman, Amanda Palmer, Kamila Shamsie, Nick Laird… Zadie Smith recorded a beautiful reading for us as she couldn’t be there in person. We’ve had hundreds and hundreds of new followers – I think for many concerned people in the industry, not just writers but publishers, agents, booksellers, readers, this was something they had been waiting to see. Plus, of course, the incredible generosity and passion of our performers – all of whom gave their time, talent and energy to make the event (conducted in the chaos of an on-going illegal protest, surrounded by police, with the audience engaged in non-violent protest by blocking the word) something quite unique.  

What’s next for Writers Rebel?

Again, this is something we as a group need to discuss. We are hoping we will be able to hold more events and continue to engage with BAME and other voices that have perhaps been a little neglected or excluded from some aspects of XR. Again, speaking personally, I don’t see us as having any real ‘ownership’ of Writers Rebel – rather I hope we can develop it as a platform for other writers around the world to create their own events. Again, in my personal opinion, if you’re a writer an you’re worried about climate change and your work engages, in some way, with the issue, you are a Rebel Writer.

How can people get involved with the Extinction Rebellion movement?

Join your local group. If there isn’t one, set it up yourself. All the tools you need are on-line, you just have to agree with the fundamental principles. It’s a decentralised organisation made up of semi-autonomous groups unified by a common objective – it’s up to the concerned individuals to act. 

You can find out more about Writers Rebel on Twitter here.

Yarn

It might appear a little quiet around these parts, but in fact we have been busy with several projects behind the scenes. The first of these to go public is a collaboration between Structo and the Amsterdam-based risograph publisher and bookbinder Otherwhere. It’s a collection of short stories called Yarn.

Featuring stories by Ethan Chapman, Jude Cook, Uschi Gatward, Paula Hunter, Siemen Ingelse, Avril Joy, Josh Weeks and Eley Williams, Yarn is not your typical book. Otherwhere love playing with form, and the collection takes the form of seven hand-bound cahier booklets and one concertina.

The collection runs to 200 pages, and is available now in a limted, numbered edition from the Otherwhere website. We couldn’t be more delighted with the final result—our thanks to Kay Brugmans at Otherwhere for such an enjoyable collaboration.

This isn’t the first time Structo authors have appeared in Otherwhere books: Travis Dahlke’s story ‘Hollow as Legs’ was released by the studio a couple of years ago. It’s another stunning piece of work and it seems that a few copies of this title are also still available on the Otherwhere site.

Lenten Psalms Translation Contest 2019

Lent Is just around the corner and Structo is hosting its fifth Lenten Psalms Contest.

The basics: pick a psalm and translate/rework/rewrite/reinvent it. Feel free to upend, reverse, riff on, and transform. Yank out a single thread from a psalm and watch the tapestry unravel. Re-knit it. Have fun. Take chances.

You don’t have to be religious or an expert in dead languages – just dive deep into this timeless poetry. We’ve had a variety of submissions over the years from people with creeds from Catholic to agnostic, atheist to Hmong traditionalist, and all sorts in-between. The contest’s goal is to give space for reflect and writing. You can previous winning psalm ‘Kestrels’ by Cristina Baptista and psalms by Christine Darragh and Abigail Carroll online in Issue 16.

You can enter the contest here. Submissions are open until Easter Sunday (that’s Sunday 21st of April, at midnight UK time). All entries will be considered for publication in the magazine. The winning psalmist will receive $200 and a subscription to Structo. Entries will be judged by panel on originality, musicality, accuracy (to the psalm’s spirit), and aesthetic.

Review: ‘For Two Thousand Years’ by Mihail Sebastian

What’s immediately unexpected about For Two Thousand Years is the outlook of its protagonist. As a Jewish diarist living in 1920s Romania, attending a university where anti-Semitic violence is on the rise, we might reasonably imagine him to be both scared and scathing of his aggressors.  But, contrary to our expectations, instead of condemning the anti-Semites, the narrator takes issue with their victims. He is critical of the way that certain Jews wear their injuries with pride and how easily they adopt the role of martyr to the cause of Zionism. He sees these things as evidence of a vanity he doesn’t want to be guilty of himself.

In a strange way, this early attitude appears to undercut anti-Semitism by showing us that being Jewish (or, by extrapolation, Muslim, British, female, etc.) does not mean that you are pre-packaged with certain values, aspirations or characteristics; that you are also an individual with your own thoughts, responses and reactions. Later in the book, when we become mired in some truly depressing determinist philosophy, we’ll harken back with fondness to that early chink of redemptive light.

In the meantime, we’re left to navigate a novel that seems very confused about what its author wished it to be. There’s a lot of space given over to speeches by the revolutionaries and philosophers that the narrator meets along the way, suggesting that it is primarily a book of ideas. Expect, for example, to read a transcription of a lecture on the vindication of physiocratic economics. And it’s possible (after looking up what physiocratic economics is) to find that lecture quite compelling. Alongside these radical lecturers there are Marxists, Zionists, anti-Semites (plenty of them). Each get a turn to speak their mind. The author’s decision to let this polyphony of voices declaim shows incredible tolerance and bravery — a lack of judgement which is all the more impressive when we witness the intolerance that the narrator experiences.

Whilst these views make for interesting reading and help to build up a picture of the ideological cauldron bubbling away in inter-war Romania, the author’s somewhat inexplicable attempts at character driven, plot-based fiction are much less engaging. We’re introduced to — among other devices — a romance subplot. Which might be forgiven, if it wasn’t so clear that more conventional fiction really doesn’t seem to be Sebastian’s forte. There are torturous pages in which his diarist reports on the most uninteresting of things. Here’s a typical description from this part of the book:

The offices of Ralph T. Rice in Boulevard Haussmann are barely a modest agency compared to the head offices in Piata Rosetti in Bucharest. A few rooms, some desks, a small archive in the process of being organised. I don’t know exactly what old Ralph wants to set up here: a simple sales office or a public company. It’s up to him to decide whether or not we get working on the Le Havre project. (I’d prefer Dieppe, however, which seems to me more suitable for commerce, and from the construction standpoint is immeasurably more open and spacious. I’ve sent a number of plans to the master, who’ll decide.) He may in the end do nothing. It’s not the moment for heavy investment in a business that…

It goes on, making you feel as if you’ve accidentally been forwarded a not very exciting intra-office email from a company you’re really glad you don’t work for. Unfortunately, it’s this kind of writing that takes up a large part of the book.

Whenever my opinion of a book starts to slide toward the negative, I like to read other reviews to see if it’s just me not quite getting something. Because I take no pleasure in giving a bad review. I’d rather gush about something than do a hatchet job on it, because good books need shouting about whereas bad books will hopefully just drop off the radar of their own accord. (I don’t, by the way, think that dropping off the radar should or will be the fate of For Two Thousand Years.) Most reviews I found are positive. The Guardian proclaim it “one of the foremost chronicles of the rise of Nazism in Europe.” John Banville, for The New York Review of Books, is similarly complementary. But what’s interesting is that both reviews pull in Sebastian’s other book (an actual — as opposed to fictionalised — journal for the years 1935 – 1944) and a lot of supplementary detail about Sebastian’s life and the people on which his characters are based. Very little space is given to the book itself, and even less is spent treating the book as literature. (In his defence, John Banville was also a little confused by the change in tone to a more plot-heavy form of fiction. He writes: “it is as if Sebastian has set himself to write a tale in the manner of Somerset Maugham, with a light Proustian glaze and a dash of Scott Fitzgerald bitters.” Whatever that means.) It’s of course difficult to deny that the book is important as an historical artefact, especially when read in conjunction with other sources, but that doesn’t make it a good novel. And it calls itself a novel, so we must judge it on those terms.

Here’s where it gets interesting. The book is saved by its last 15 pages. The narrator has just learned that his mentor in architecture (a major inspirational figure for the protagonist) is actually an anti-Semite. At this point, the book switches abruptly back to its “novel of ideas” strong-suit. Any attempt at description is abandoned; we’re just left with the speakers shoving big blocks of text at each other. If there were space, I’d quote these fifteen pages in full. As it is I’ll just have to settle for quoting extensively. This is the part of the book which speaks across the decades directly to us, and to our own historical moment. Think back to any time you’ve had an argument with someone whose opening gambit was “I’m not racist, but…” Then consider the following:

Let’s be clear. I’m not anti-Semitic. I’ve told you that before and abide by that. But I’m Romanian. And, all that is opposed to me as a Romanian I regard as dangerous. There is a corrosive Jewish spirit.

Exchange, if you like, the instances of “Semitic” and “Jewish” with “European”, and “Romanian” with “British.” Try it with “black people” and “American.”

Then try to think of the times that you’ve despaired at people who, regardless of the consequences, want to stick two fingers up at the system. Who want to shake things up, no matter the cost. People who think:

We need a generation of men who have had enough of always being intelligent. A small band of men capable of throwing caution to the wind.

People, so dissatisfied with the current system, that they would say something like:

If the revolution demands a pogrom, then give it a pogrom.

(I remember going to school the day after 9/11, talking to some left-wing friends and finding out that they’d actually celebrated the loss of almost 3,000 innocent lives. After watching the second plane hit, they headed out to their garage, put Rage Against the Machine on at full volume, moshed and chanted ‘Death to America.’)

What’s worrying here is that these racist apologias, though far away in time, sound terribly familiar to us. They are simply variations on a theme. So we’re left with this horrible feeling that we’re stuck in a series of patterns repeating themselves. And what becomes clear when reading the last 15 pages of For Two Thousand Years is that, if this is “one of the foremost chronicles of the rise of Nazism in Europe” then what it unfortunately isn’t is any sort of textbook for ensuring we avoid that situation recurring.

For starters, a kind of pathology of racism seems impossible. The diarist writes

It is extremely difficult to follow the progressive hardening of enmity from one day to the next. Suddenly you find yourself surrounded on all sides, and have no idea how or when it happened.

But, much worse than that, is the diarist’s (and, we presume, Sebastian’s) belief that the anti-Semitism he finds himself subject to is a fundamental aspect of existence:

The Jew has a metaphysical obligation to be detested. That’s his role in the world. Why? I don’t know. His curse, his fate. His problem, if you like.

With sentences like that, it’s little wonder that the author was accused of being anti-Semitic upon the book’s publication.

Taking a moment to parse these lines reveals a truly depressing view of the possibility for progress with regards to race relations. By ‘metaphysical’, I take Sebastian to mean a state of affairs that holds true regardless of time or locality. It is absolutely essential to a Jew’s nature, he is saying, for a Jew to be detested. Anti-Semitism is not local, not dependent upon specific economic or religious conditions; it is universal and eternal. Because of this, ‘it is futile to argue back’ at anyone who claims to have reasons for their anti-Semitism. As with the narrator’s mentor, anti-Semitism precedes reasoning.

Whilst most of the rest of the book has very little impact, the incredible heft of this final section can’t be denied. What are we supposed to do with such an outlook? If anti-Semitism is metaphysical, then how can it be stopped? Sebastian’s advice for Jews doesn’t provide much in the way of conventional comfort. He suggests a

…reintegration with nature, with the awareness that life goes on after all these individual deaths, they too being part of life, just as the falling leaf is a fact if life for the tree, or the death of the tree to the forest, or the death of the forest for the vegetation of the Earth.

This was written in 1934, seven years before the beginning of the Holocaust. That subsequent horror renders this kind of peaceful resignation almost perverse. Personally, Sebastian feels

I will never cease to be a Jew, of course…It’s a fact…But nor will I, in the same way, ever cease to be from the lands of the Danube. This too is a fact. Whether someone recognizes me as such or not is their business. Their business entirely.

The onus, then, if we’re not Jewish, would seem to be on us. It’s our business how we view Jewish people, and, by extension, any other race. Does this mean that we have some sort of agency? I’m not a philosopher, and so I don’t have the requisite skills to argue against Sebastian’s metaphysical proposition. His claim also has two thousand years’ worth of evidence to back it up.

I’m still wrangling with this problem. It kept me awake last night. There’s something (hopefully) within most of us that balks at such a depressing determinism, and perhaps it’s that refusal to believe that nothing can be done which leaves open the possibility that something can be done? Or is this just wishful thinking? Somehow I feel that if I keep combing through these final pages, I can find the holes in Sebastian’s argument.

For Two Thousand Years / Mihail Sebastian, translated from the Romanian by Philip Ó Ceallaigh/ Other Press / 12 Sep 2017 (Paperback)

Adam Ley-Lange is a short story writer who lives in Bath. He holds an MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University and has recently completed his first short story collection.

Review: ‘Into English’ by Martha Collins and Kevin Prufer (eds)

The editors of Into English, Martha Collins and Kevin Prufer, take a decentralized approach to translation. The anthology contains twenty-five poems from a range of languages and historical periods, most by poets canonical to an admittedly-Eurocentric take on world literature: Sappho, Rilke, Baudelaire, Lorca, and Mallarmé all make appearances. Yet neither Collins nor Prufer selects (let alone translates) any of the poems. Rather, each poem is selected by a sub-editor of sorts who assembles not just an original and its translation, but an original and three translations, each by a different translator, and follows these translations with a commentary that triangulates their differences, critiquing and praising them at turns as they succeed or fail to convey the nuance of the original.

This format creates a textual space that is open like a discussion, whose returns are limited only by the interests and questions brought to it. As an amateur translator curious about the process of professionals, I learned a lot from the practical advice latent in the commentators’ analyses. For instance, George Kalogeris, while discussing the opening line of C.P. Cavafy’s ‘The Horses of Achilles’ (“But when they saw that Patroklos was dead”), notes that “Part of Cavafy’s genius… is not using the word ‘corpse,’ as if that term had yet to enter the immortal horses’ vocabulary, at least not while the body is still warm” (66). Embarrassing as it is to admit, it had only crossed my mind to worry about translating the meaning of the words an author had chosen, not the meaning of those words highlighted by the shadow-network of synonyms that might have informed the choice but not themselves been chosen. But as Kalogeris implies, careful translation requires such intimate knowledge of a language. I left Into English with a list of insights like these, offhand comments that revealed depths of questions I had only begun to ask about the ethics and responsibilities of translation.

Alternatively, this format allowed me, as a reader who enjoys questioning reactions to literary texts, to explore word-by-word what makes one translation of a poem more effective than another.

Case in point: the insights yielded by comparing a single word in the first few lines of Giacomo Leopardi’s ‘L’Infinito,’ as it appears in the Italian and two English translations (by Kenneth Rexroth and Jonathan Galassi, respectively):

Sempre caro mi fu quest’ermo colle,

E questa siepe, che da tanta parte

Dell’ultimo orizzonte il guardo esclude.

 

This lonely hill has always

Been dear to me, and this thicket

Which shuts out most of the final

Horizon from view.

 

This lonely hill was always dear to me,

and this hedgerow, which cuts off the view

of so much of the last horizon.

As Susan Stewart notes in her commentary, Galassi’s hedgerow is closer to the nineteenth-century sense of siepe than Rexroth’s thicket. “Had Leopardi wanted to write about thickets,” she claims, “he would have chosen boschetto” (45). Knowing neither Italian nor the intricacies of nineteenth-century shrubbery, I trust Stewart is right—historically and semantically. Poetically, however, I wonder. When I read Rexroth’s version, I do not experience thicket as semantic lack, but rather as sonic plenitude. Its unvoiced “th” modulates the voiced “th” of the repeated “thises,” which in turn echo the vocalizations in “always,” “Horizon,” and “view.” Together, these establish a baseline “drone” that persists throughout the poem, an emptiness sounding with the overwhelming infinite that the speaker ultimately “drowns in.”

Does this make Rexroth’s translation “better” than Galassi’s? Who knows. I do know, however, that none of the preceding would have taken place had Into English been a more traditional anthology or adhered to a more limited editorial philosophy. By providing readers with the raw materials of comparative analysis, Into English permits (and in fact, encourages) these kinds of discoveries with every poem it includes. In this, Into English embodies the vibrancy of the humanities classroom, and is a valuable resource for anyone committed to its mission.

Into English: Poems, Translations, Commentaries / Martha Collins and Kevin Prufer (Editors) / Greywolf Press / 7 Nov. 2017 (Paperback)

William Braun lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is a graduate of the Master’s program in English at the University of St. Thomas. His translations have appeared in Exchanges: Journal of Literary Translation and Ezra: An Online Journal of Translation, and his book reviews in Rain Taxi and Structo.