This morning I read this bittersweet story in the New York Times about the auctioning of Vladimir Nabokov’s personal effects by his son Dmitri. As Dmitri has no heirs, it was agreed before the elder Nabokov’s death that it would be best to sell the collection before the death of the younger Nabokov. Reading the story, with its descriptions of invented butterfly drawings for Nabokov’s wife Vera — “They have variegated colors, delicate artistry and fanciful names. Only on these pages appear the blue ‘Colias verae’ or the dark ‘Maculinea aurora Nab.'” — reminded me of how much I enjoyed reading Nabokov’s lyrical memoir, Speak, Memory, when I was in college. I read it for a class called Transatlantic Identities, taught by the dandyish Professor Tucker (who was most of all devoted to John Ruskin). We read a dozen or so memoirs penned over the last 150 years on either side of the Atlantic. Among these, Speak, Memory, was transcendent, inspiring an interest both in lepidoptery and Nabokov’s expressive prose. As I read the book, Nabokov, in my mind, was transformed from the scurrilous author of the scandalous Lolita to the quiet emigre with a fascination for butterflies, and whose expertise with these brightly- winged insects landed him the curatorship of the butterfly collection at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. Now that these butterflies have been scattered throughout the world, one can only hope that the hands that now hold them will cherish the butterflies as much as the hands that created them.
The Bookfinder.com journal rounds up some links about custom library designers, who do things like “custom-design a $70,000 insta-library for a Saudi Arabian sheik.” Would you like to buy “books by the foot?” (it’s a great way to furnish a room, if not the cheapest) We’ve looked at this phenomenon before, in March and again in August.
It’s becoming a tradition of sorts, the Nobel jury gives the Prize to an author virtually unknown in the United States, and newspaper columnists grumble while small and university presses bask in a moment of publishing glory.
Nobody outside a few square miles in New York cares that this year’s Pulitzer or Booker winner was put out by Random House or HarperCollins, but even to the casual observer of the literary scene, there’s something refreshing (and, for some, aggravating) about seeing yet another Nobel winner with only the faintest, most haphazard publishing footprint. The Nobel Prize, probably half the time, shines a huge spotlight some pretty obscure books.
For small and university presses, the Prize is a rare moment of popular notice. Daniel E. Pritchard who works for David R. Godine, Publisher in Boston wrote as much a year ago reacting to J.M.G. Le Clézio’s Nobel win, “Nobel Prizes are usually the playground for big boys. They were noticeably absent from this one, leaving all the fame and street-cred for small independents.” Godine published Le Clézio’s The Prospector.
The University of Nebraska Press also published Le Clézio, with two books in print when the Nobel was announced last year: The Round and Other Cold Hard Facts and Onitsha. According to the press’ publicity manager Cara Pesek, Nebraska sold just “a handful” of copies of both titles in 2007, but “since the prize was announced last year, those two titles have accounted for more than $100,000 in incremental sales.”
The director of University of Nebraska Press, Donna Shear, tempered the excitement somewhat, saying that the Nobel turns a book into “a steady backlist seller” as it finds its way onto University reading lists. But she added that a side-effect of the Nobel jury’s idiosyncrasies is that the Prize becomes “a validation of the efforts of University presses.”
The Euro-centric Nobel also injects some commercial viability into the typically limited world of literature in translation. After winning the Nobel in 2002, Hungarian writer Imre Kertész went from university presses to Knopf and Vintage. Meanwhile, plans are already underway to bring Müller to a wider audience. Shear said Nebraska put in a bid for Müller’s latest, Atemschaukel, recently shortlisted for the German Book Prize, but it’s expected that the book will land with one of the big publishing houses.
We expect our book prizes to confirm that a book or author’s commercial success and positive reviews are well-deserved. Sometimes the Nobel plays this role – a validator of critical opinion – but, for the American audience, it often does something different. And this is where the grumbling comes in. We don’t like to be told that an author we’ve never heard of is one of the greatest ever. But in cases like Müller and Kertész and Le Clézio, the Nobel serves as a reminder that in certain corners of the publishing industry, there are presses shepherding the work of these writers into print and keeping it available until such time as the rest of us are able to take notice.
As any student of the history of the English language – or of Walter Scott – knows, our having, as English speakers, different words for food on the hoof and food on the table is no idle fact. Consider the opening scene of Ivanhoe, in which the swineherd Gurth and Wamba the jester debate this very point:Why, how call you those grunting brutes running about on their four legs?” demanded Wamba.”Swine, fool, swine,” said the herd, “every fool knows that.””And swine is good Saxon,” said the Jester; “but how call you the sow when she is flayed, and drawn, and quartered, and hung up by the heels, like a traitor?””Pork,” answered the swine-herd.”I am very glad every fool knows that too,” said Wamba, “and pork, I think, is good Norman-French; and so when the brute lives, and is in the charge of a Saxon slave, she goes by her Saxon name; but becomes a Norman, and is called pork, when she is carried to the Castle-hall to feast among the nobles; what dost thou think of this, friend Gurth, ha?””It is but too true doctrine, friend Wamba, however it got into thy fool’s pate.”After the Norman Invasion in 1066, Norman French became the language of power in Britain, spoken by the king and court and any who wanted favor from them. The conquered residents of Britain, speakers of the Germanic Old English, were those who raised, tended, and hunted animals: Thus, cow (kuh), calf (kalb), swine (schweine), deer (deor), sheep (schaf), and hen (huhn) for living animals, while the wealthy Norman conquerors tended to be those who enjoyed the animals at table: Thus, beef (boeuf), pork (porc), mutton (mouton), and poultry (poulet).The English words have always seemed to me more sturdy – as well as more coarse. Like chewing a mouthful of rocks or biting into the branch of a sapling – too fibrous to chew, sour with sap. The French words seem like tiny exhalations of essence – bouef, mouton – the soul of the thing rather than sinews and bones.I think brains can take the character of their mother tongues. I am quite sure my brain is Anglo-Saxon – all sap and fibers and rocks and bones.
There’s a lot for readers to look forward to in the second-half of the year, and high up on the list is Zadie Smith’s first novel in seven years, NW. Lydia covered the book in our big preview published last week, “NW follows a group of people from Caldwell–a fictional council estate in northwest London whose buildings are named for English philosophers–and documents the lives they build in adulthood. Smith (who since 2005 has become a mother, NYU professor, and Harper’s columnist) has variously called this a novel of class and a “very, very small book” (highly unlikely). Smith’s own deep roots to London, and this particular corner of London, were most recently aired in her stirring defense of London’s local libraries for the New York Review of Books blog.” Smith sets the scene evocatively in the book’s opening paragraph. The fat sun stalls by the phone masts. Anti-climb paint turns sulphurous on school gates and lampposts. In Willesden people go barefoot, the streets turn European, there is a mania for eating outside. She keeps to the shade. Redheaded. On the radio: I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me. A good line—write it out on the back of a magazine. In a hammock, in the garden of a basement flat. Fenced in, on all sides.
For the last several months, the web site of the British Library has been hosting the online diary of Saad Eskander, Director of the Iraq National Library and Archive (INLA). As many readers are likely aware, the Library was looted in the early days of the American invasion, and Eskander has spent much of his time since trying to rebuild his collections under perilous conditions.Reading through the diary it quickly becomes apparent that Eskander and his team are faced with far greater challenges than simply picking up the pieces of the wrecked library. Instead they face daily threats to their lives, and the laundry list of wound and killed friends and colleagues and many more near misses makes one wonder how the library staff can go on living in Baghdad. At the end of 2006, Eskander compiles a list (scroll down) of violent acts committed against INLA staff and their families and determines that 70 have been killed since the conflict began. The number has ticked higher in subsequent months.Last month, Eskander posted an entry (scroll down) about the day that al-Mutanabi Street, the home of Baghdad’s outdoor book market and just a short distance away from the INLA, was bombed. “This day will be always remembered, as the day when books were assassinated by the forces of darkness, hatred and fanaticism,” he says. “Tens of thousands of papers were flying high, as if the sky was raining books, tears and blood.”As a whole, the diary is an incredible chronicle of lives lived under siege and put in terrible danger to keep Iraq’s cultural institutions from disappearing entirely.via The Eclectic Chapbook, which also remarks on a BBC program about Eskander and the INLA.