So, maybe you’re curious about what books people are reading right now. I’ll start with new fiction. There’s a lot of interesting new books out there right now. The book that everyone is talking about remains The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem. Lethem has recently been interviewed in periodicals ranging from Entertainment Weekly to the Paris Review, and the book is the current pick for countless book clubs. Despite the hype, this book is a worthy read, and you’ll have something to talk about at cocktail parties. In the category of science fiction for those who don’t typically read science fiction comes Quicksilver, the first book in a new series by Neal Stephenson. The book has been out for a week and is already flying off the shelves, most likely to the very same folks who are always telling me how much they love Stephenson’s previous novels, especially Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon. Meanwhile, Zoe Heller is nearing breakthrough status with her second novel What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal, which is about a teacher who carries on an affair with her fifteen year old student. It sounds trashy, but from what I hear it turns out to be a nuanced and moving character study. It’s been short-listed for the Booker Prize and is beginning to sell accordingly. Also short-listed and selling incredibly well in England is Brick Lane by Monica Ali. Following in the footsteps of fellow young Londoner Zadie Smith, Ali’s debut novel is another unsparing look at multi-cultural London. Finally, another debut, this one is a cleverly wrought time traveling romance by Audrey Niffenegger titled, appropriately, The Time Traveler’s Wife. So there you go. A few things to read this fall. Stayed tuned for the next installment: new non-fiction.
I stepped into a book store in the old city of Barcelona. It was spacious and well lit with dark wood shelves and floors. Many langauges were well represented including a wide selection of English language books. It is very easy to take a shot at American bookstores when comparing them to bookstores overseas, and it’s really remarkable to see the difference in person. I sometimes wonder what it would be like to be an expat, estranged from my country, but sometimes yearning for contact. I think I would spend a lot of time in a bookstore like that and it would fill the void for me. With the jet lag and all that, I was having trouble diving into another book. I guess I needed a change of pace to reflect the change of scenery, so I fished into the bag of books I brought with me and came up with this beauty: Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware. I have always been drawn to certain of the visual story telling forms: typically not so much the action hero stuff, but certain “graphic novels” have caught my attention. I also like to flip through a collection of “newspaper funnies” from time to time, Calvin and Hobbes, for example, is always a delight. Rarely, however, have I encountered a book that transcends the genre like Jimmy Corrigan. This book has already received a chorus of praise and numerous awards. In a lot of cases, in fact, no one had ever considered that a graphic novel might be eligible to win certain of the awards, but this one was just too good to be ignored. I have been on a good stretch with books lately; I haven’t been disappointed in while, but my next book is a bit riskier: The Lonely Hearts Club by Raul Nunez… I’ll let you know how it goes…I’m off to Ireland tomorrow, and there might not be internet there, but I will try my best; if not, we’ll catch up when I get back to the states.
In the back of the winter issue of n+1, you’ll find both a revised version of the defense of literary weblogs I posted here last spring and a response from Marco Roth. It speaks well of the magazine that it would publish dissent as well as invite it (which is also, of course, a hallmark of the “lit-blog.”) And, as I’m still doing my best to puzzle out some of the pros and cons of this new and evolving medium, I thought I might call your attention to an object lesson: the debate over B.R. Myers’ review, in The Atlantic Monthly, of Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke.It’s often a blessing that comment-thread controversies blow over without getting wider notice. Ideas that seem vital one week may seem irrelevant the next. But in my view, the conversation developing around Myers and Johnson – at Rake’s Progress, at The Beiderbecke Affair, and now at Ed’s place – illustrates some of the positive critical capacities of the medium.That conversation began in the kind of intemperate name-calling n+1 might deride – “B.R. Myers is Satan”; “Who’s the Wanker?” – but it has broadened to encompass a number of substantial controversies – the responsibilities of the reviewer; the state of American fiction; politics and the English language. And it has helped me better understand Denis Johnson’s prose style.When I read, and enjoyed, Tree of Smoke in June, I felt that its style was both an asset and a liability. Certainly, Johnson is an unusual stylist. And yet, when the first reviews and blurbs began to appear, I was surprised at how little attention was paid to his diction and syntax. “Prose of amazing power and stylishness,” Philip Roth said, without bothering to explain how or why. Jim Lewis’ piece in The New York Times Book Review amounted to a bizarre kind of abdication. Only John Jeremiah Sullivan, writing in Harper’s, engaged with Johnson at the level of the sentence.In my own review (which I’m embarrassed to note also references n+1; this is turning into a bad habit), I attempted to account for what I felt was Johnson’s wide margin of error. “Though there are passages and even pages through which I itched to run my workshopper’s pencil,” I wrote, “I would trade a dozen finely calibrated domestic comedies for a single chapter of Tree of Smoke.[Johnson’s] sentences and dialogue, flirting with the poetic, violate the canons of understatement. Like the sentences of D.H. Lawrence, they seem to depend on the supernatural for inspiration. They may not always find it, but they are alive to the possibilities of language.To his credit, B.R. Myers, too, would pay attention to Johnson’s sentences. Regrettably, he would pay little attention to anything else (the context in which those sentences appear, for example). His review does make a couple of copy-editorial catches: Would Buddhists think of their own icons as “bric-a-brac?” Can “someone standing in […] a noisy place hear even his heartbeat, let alone his pulse?” In never moving beyond fastidiousness, though, Myers’ Atlantic review takes on the flavor of agenda-driven cherry-picking. It attempts to persuade us, by fiat, that a sentence such as the novel’s first – “Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed.” – is bad.Critiques of Myers’ motivations and methods are abundant elsewhere; I won’t rehearse them here. But I wanted to point out what lit-blogs managed to do with that last sentence, which hadn’t been done elsewhere. In an anonymous comment at The Beiderbecke Affair (anonymous because overheated and not fully thought through), I wrote: I like the way that pluperfect “had,” strategically ungrammatical, sets us up to expect something to happen in the imperfect. Something has happened, the sentence tells us. Yes, Kennedy has died, but something else…something, presumably, more personal. Thus does the book announce (quietly) its aspirations to be something more than the settled history Myers – a myopic literalist – seems to wish it was.Then a commenter named Alan (who disagreed with some of my bloviations), suggested, This is quite right. Kennedy died at 1 PM US Central Time, which would have been 1 AM in Vietnam. So the sentence “Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed” is not actually trying to say that Kennedy died (perfect tense) at that time. That wouldn’t make sense. What the sentence is doing is evoking the experience of a character who is awoken in the middle of the night in Vietnam to the news that Kennedy HAD BEEN killed. This narrative immersion in a character’s point of view can also be seen in the following passage… Alan’s comment is, I think, a small but meaningful exemplar of the critical capacities of an interactive medium, and of what close-reading actually does. Were this a seminar (which, at its best, the comment-thread approximates), the instructor might be saying, “Yes. Yes!” Rather than dismiss an unusual sentence, Alan moves from a puzzle over its meaning (centered on the verb tense) to an intuition (we’ve been thrown, without comment, deep into a character’s point of view) that illuminates an important part of the formal architecture of the whole work.One wants only to add that a serious literary essay has at least two possible registers of persuasion. It can persuade those who haven’t read the book, and then it can persuade those who have. I often feel that Myers is addressing himself almost exclusively to an audience that hasn’t read the work under review, and that his aim is to convince them not to bother. Like Myers, I’ve been disappointed by Annie Proulx and Rick Moody in the past. But, having read them, I’m troubled by the gap between my experience of their work and the experience of their work Myers constructs. A good-faith critic should aim to write an essay that can be revisited after one has read the work and that will not then seem to collapse into flatulence. I admire this about James Wood. His essays are attempts to understand, rather than attempts to seem in-the-know, and they challenge me even when I disagree with them. In this way, he, too, offers a model of what literary discourse on the web can be. On the other hand, the valuable lit-blog conversation about Tree of Smoke seems to have arisen despite, rather than because of, the merits of B.R. Myers’ remarks in print.
Yesterday, on WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show, Salman Rushdie discussed the choices he made as guest-editor of Best American Short Stories 2008. A comparison with our recent post on the year’s New Yorker fiction reveals that several of his picks date to 2007. Still, Rushdie’s taste is excellent, and it’s always fun to hear him talk off-the-cuff.
Two years ago, The Quarterly Conversation canvassed translators and publishers for great untranslated works and compiled their results in a volume called Translate This Book! In the same spirit, I offer to you Murathan Mungan, the much-loved, best-selling Turkish literary figure whose work, with the exception of some poems and an anthologized play and story, does not appear in English. Mungan is very prolific, and I am very slow; I’m sure he has many works worth translating. But I love the premise and the plots of Kadından Kentler (Cities of Women), a collection of 16 stories, each featuring a different woman in a different city in Turkey.
Mungan is a major figure in Turkey — his books become best-sellers when they appear, and just two weeks ago he received the Erdal Öz award for excellent writing (past Millions contributor Kaya Genç was a member of the selection committee). Mungan writes plays and poems and novels and music. He is openly gay and openly critical on matters political and social. He is an established member of the literary lights. (One columnist called him, somewhat pejoratively, Turkey’s answer to Truman Capote; see Nimet Seker’s biographical piece, in English, for a more substantial look at his accomplishments.)
Being a foreigner, my literary valuations are naturally suspect; sometimes I read things in Turkish and like them simply because I didn’t need a dictionary. This is not a good metric of excellence. But even while the process of reading Mungan is painful for me — my brows knit as I reach for the dictionary and try to find the verb in an artistic sentence — the strong spark of the work’s quality and interest transmits itself even to my lumbering brain.
The stories are about women’s inner lives, and their outer lives in their various cities, from Sinop to Ankara and Diyarbakir. Sometimes the happenings are small in the grand scheme of things — a newly-engaged girl strolls the Izmir pier for the first time alone. Other times, they are scandalous or macabre — a weakness for young men, a suicide by pesticide. We see the inside of people’s houses, the things in their handbags and their suitcases, their diseased family trees. The effect is voyeuristic and thrilling and sometimes grim, a literary gift to people who are prone to staring on buses and straining their ears in restaurants, trying to plumb the depths of their neighbors.
I know, thanks to Emily Williams, that there are myriad barriers to translating and publishing non-English language works in America. Still, other languages have a much better track record of translating Mungan — German, French, Italian, Greek, to name a few. If it’s a matter of money, the Turkish Ministry of Culture is here to help: TEDA, the Translation Subvention Program of Turkey, provides grants to publishing houses and universities for the translation or publication of works in Turkish. With assistance from this program, Cities of Women appeared in German in 2010, two years after its Turkish publication, and Chador was translated into German, Italian, and Greek. The deadline to be considered for this application period is, er, tomorrow, but applications are accepted throughout the year.
Furthermore, we Anglophones have a rare opportunity here for a bit of friendly cultural one-upmanship with the French: In a talk last summer, Mungan told the assembled that his French publishers rejected Cities of Women because they wanted to advertise him strictly as a novelist. The introduction of his stories and plays and poems to the market, they told him, would “confuse” the French people.
Certainly there’s an argument to be made against translating only the most famous people from a given place, but when the rates of translation into English are abysmal, we should be pragmatic. You need strong stuff to liberate the global Turkish literary market from the Pamuk monopoly, and Mungan has the credibility of critical and popular success, the seal of approval implicit in a long and august career. And most importantly, these stories are really great.