I’m apparently not the first person to wonder, in connection with last week’s PEN World Voices Festival, What makes a good panel discussion? It may seem a parochial concern – the kind of thing best hashed out at… well, a panel discussion – but it has real-world implications. Discussions of books by people who write them can be exhilarating to witness, but there’s also the potential for gnaw-your-own-leg-off tedium.
Wednesday’s celebration of 40 years of Anagrama, the illustrious, Barcelona-based independent publisher, highlighted some of these possibilities and pitfalls. The panelists themselves, including Anagrama founder Jorge Herralde and four of his authors, had personality to spare. According to Herralde, these authors occupied the “in-between spaces” of culture and language – always a good thing for conversation. And yet translation problems kept the evening from sustaining any real momentum.
Francisco Goldman led off, attempting to capture the role of Anagrama in Hispanophone literary life. He likened it to “Knopf, FSG, Grove, and New Directions” rolled into one. With a novelist’s eye for detail, he described the dustjackets of Anagrama’s various series – “bright, marigold yellow” for translations; “mint green” for Spanish-language originals; gray for “grown-up books” like philosophy. Anagrama, he pointed out, was founded at the tail end of the Franco era, when publishing serious literature was itself an act of editorial daring. And yet even in a more genteel 21st Century Spain, the house keeps renewing itself, most recently by bringing to international attention the extraordinary “flowering of Latin American fiction” in the last decade.
Goldman promised to tell us later about Anagrama’s great parties and “How I got to get drunk with the heavy metal rock band Slayer.” But, as the translator fumbled with Herralde’s introduction of the next speaker, A.M. Homes, it seemed increasingly unlikely we would have time to hear from Goldman about Slayer, or about anything else. By the time the translator (an American, it seemed) described Homes’s work as “misericordian” and (I swear) “vorocious,” half of the audience was laughing in embarrassment, and the other half, including the elderly woman next to me, were yelling out the correct translations. Given the floor (finally) Homes spoke movingly about what it meant to a “horribly American” writer like herself to be published abroad. “It means my work has relevance,” she said. Being translated was “an honor. . . and a gift.” The panel had righted itself again.
Next up was Siri Hustvedt, looking prosperous in a designer cardigan as her husband, Paul Auster watched from the front row. Herralde’s introduction made it clear that Hustvedt is huge in Spain, with something like 20,000 copies of Sorrows of an American in print. For previous books, she shared a Spanish publisher with Don DeLillo, he said. (I figured that out, and I don’t speak Spanish.) The translator’s version? “She shared a car with Don DeLillo.” At this point Hustvedt herself interjected – “No, no, no, no.” Fortunately, after Hustvedt’s fanciful disquisition on neurology and the imagination a new translator had arrived. The first young woman may merely have been pinch-hitting for the second, who I’m guessing got lost or had train problems. And so the two Spanish-speaking novelists on stage were the beneficiaries of fluid translation.
The first to speak was Daniel Sada, who, according to Herralde, was on Roberto Bolaño‘s short-list of favorite writers, which fluctuated according to who he was friends with at any given time. The other candidates? Rodrigo Fresán, Alan Pauls, Rodrigo Rey Rosa, Javier Marías, and the man seated to Sada’s right, Enrique Vila-Matas. Sada spoke about the 19th-Century tradition that shaped him, and its two great problems: managing character and managing time. He quoted Zola: “a novel with less than 25 characters is not worth reading.” Sada’s ambition as a young man was to write a 19th-Century novel that would also be a piece of poetry. “I understand now that this is an idiotic idea,” he said. Still, his fiction is apparently difficult to translate because of his careful attention to the rhythms of his sentences. (All of this made me hungry to read his novel, Almost Never, which will be published in English next year by Graywolf.)
The final panelist was Vila-Matas, whom I can only describe as looking like an Iberian Christopher Hitchens. Open-collared and looking pleasantly sauced at 7 p.m., he delivered a fluid series of anecdotes and aphorisms, most of them offering a rascally picture of his dealings with Herralde. My favorite had to do with bumping into Herralde in a discotheque while “in a euphoric state” and lying about having completed a novel. In the end, though, Vila-Matas turned earnest. “Without the trust [of Herralde and Anagrama] it’s not clear I would still be a writer.”
The best part of any panel discussion is the discussion, but because so much time had been burned up by prepared remarks and language difficulties, there was hardly any time for these panelists to mix it up. (Note to future programmers: the next best thing to a good translation is not a bad translation, but no translation at all.) Still, this remarkable gathering of writers offered an effective introduction to Anagrama’s work, and offered a testament to the power of independent presses and iconoclastic publishers.