It would be a shame if the death of the Russian novelist Vasily Aksyonov yesterday got lost in the welter of cultural losses that surrounds it. Aksyonov is one of the towering literary figures of the postwar era – one who might have been more widely recognized as such were it not for the strictures of Soviet publishing culture. In his novels The Burn, The New Sweet Style, and especially Generations of Winter (which we have championed at this site), Aksyonov synthesized the Tolstoyan legacy of the 19th Century with the innovating impulses of the revolutionary generation. In making Russian literary tradition his own, and re-opening its dialogue with the rest of world literature, he pointed the way for the novelists who would succeed him. I can think of no more fitting way to honor him than to read him.
Glenn Goldman, the owner and founder of Book Soup in West Hollywood, California, died yesterday from complications from pancreatic cancer. He was 58 years old.I first worked at Book Soup when I was nineteen, and I returned after graduating from college. I loved the place, and I still do; it’s my favorite book store in all the world, with its towering shelves packed with books, and books behind books, and ladders to get to those books. Glenn started it all, in 1975, when my parents still lived in New Jersey, long before their lives in Los Angeles had even been conceived of. Sometimes I like to think that Book Soup was waiting, all along, to give little writer me some shelter, and an education. I am grateful to Glenn for this.Here’s some of what I learned about at Book Soup:Le Corbusier, Andreas Gursky, Jane Jacobs, Maseratis, Georges Batailles, David Sedaris, Patricia Highsmith, equestrian porn, Boris Vian, Gammahydroxybutyrate (GBH), Paul Bowles, Donna Tartt, Ina Garten, Joan Didion, blogs, Guy Debord, Julius Shulman, James Ellroy, wedding stylists, personal assistants, Breathless, Schlitz beer, Robert Caro, Robert Evans, Robert Greene, Helmut Newton, Paulo Coelho, the reading habits of certain celebrities, how big books can be, and how expensive, how sought after, and cool.I met a guy named Patrick at Book Soup, and I married him.Outside of Book Soup there are trashy girls from the Inland Empire, heading with arms crossed to a nearby club, and raving homeless men, and at the newsstand an actress is reading about herself in the tabloids. A man walks by selling puppies, maybe a waterproof radio. Inside of Book Soup there are highly opinionated, supremely well-read booksellers who want to know what five books you’d take with you to a desert island, go, and what your favorite Morrissey song is, and how many people you’ve slept with, and don’t you think I need another tattoo? Inside there are books, so many books.And through it all, there was Glenn – shy and notoriously stubborn, but devoted to the store, his store. He couldn’t stop ordering books, even though we couldn’t fit them anywhere. But God bless him for that, because we always had what you were looking for, what I was looking for.Glenn will certainly be missed, and his legacy, as a bookseller to the great and infamous, will continue.More: Max remembers
Not having really read anything that David Halberstam wrote, I cannot write a good-faith eulogy of the man, nor engage in anything deeper than a surface discussion of his books. But because what I have read about Halberstam has painted him as a great journalistic voice of 20th century America, and because I have recently been barking about journalists and their books, it is appropriate to acknowledge Halberstam’s unfortunate death Monday with some choice words.Two aspects of Halberstam’s written work resonate with me: his war correspondence and his interest in sports, specifically baseball. Halberstam wrote an acclaimed book about America’s journey down the road to Vietnam, The Best and the Brightest. This road was built by a few American power brokers and followed by many American GIs, and though we did finally find the off-ramp, the road we are on today offers similar views of an ugly countryside for those who have not fallen asleep at the back of the bus.On a more personal level, I have a vivid memory of being a young kid sitting at the foot of my parents’ bed as my Dad read aloud from a book by David Halberstam called Summer of ’49. A book about a different sort of journey, Summer of ’49 chronicles the legendary pennant race that year between two little baseball teams: The Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. The reader will learn that Joe DiMaggio had a brother, Dominick, who could play ball (though for the Sox), that Ted Williams hit like a hawk-eyed lumberjack, and that this particular race for first place was arguably the greatest in the vaunted History Of Baseball – and also represented a coming of age for the game in post-WWII America.There is something to the notion of sports as a balm for citizens suffering from war fatigue. They are soldiers abroad gathered in a tent in the desert somewhere to watch the Super Bowl on television, and they are children bypassing front page headlines in favor of the sports section, and the box scores of games that they were forbidden to watch because of woefully premature bed times. Sporting events bring people together in celebration of achievement, rather than in protest of failure, and are thus both a distraction from the duty of citizens as witnesses to history, no matter how grim, and at the same time real and not insignificant demonstrations of the values of a free society, complete with overpriced cotton candy, and (today) overpriced athletes. Athletic competition, so often couched in terms of battle when described, transcends violence. It is an elevated and, I would argue, rather sophisticated form of human interaction.David Halberstam will be recognized as a writer who occupied territory where these two cultural phenomena, sports and war – with seemingly endless parallel lines of history – could be said to intersect.
A recent 51-minute-long segment on The Diane Rehm Show about Orhan Pamuk’s new novel never once mentioned the name of the translator, Robert Finn. Rehm repeated several times that the book had just been translated into English, but she never said by whom.
The Los Angeles Times referred to the translation profession as “the small, unseen and largely unknown circle of men and women who translate the world’s literature into English…a low-paid job that’s also highly skilled and labor-intensive.”
It’s things like these that remind me of how much we still need Michael Henry Heim, even a month after his death.
When Heim died on September 29, Andrei Codrescu wrote: “It is impossible to imagine intelligent American life from the 20th century’s spectacular end until now without his translations.”
(I know that deaths tend to trigger the writing of many unreliable mini-hagiographies, but suspend disbelief for a moment, if you will. This is different. This is no hyperbole.)
Many know Heim’s translations of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, but he was also a professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at UCLA, mentored graduate students and young translators, volunteered as a judge for a number of translation awards and prizes, and served as an expert reader for publishers on a number of languages.
Heim knew at least 10 languages (Czech, German, Italian, Russian, Serbo-Croatian — which is now four separate languages — Danish, Hungarian, Latin, Slovak, Romanian, and Spanish). Near the end of his life, he was learning Chinese. Esther Allen, a Baruch College professor, says he didn’t sleep as much as other people do. He’d get up at five in the morning most days to study his flashcards, and would review them just before going to bed each night.
Alongside all this, Heim was an activist and true champion of literary translation.
Heim was a man who literally seemed to have more hours in the day than the rest of us. He was someone who pushed for greater visibility of translation in the larger world of American letters, who supported and nurtured would-be translators with every free minute. The list of his activities is endless:
Heim organized a conference in Romania in 1999 for translators from each of the Eastern-bloc countries. The event successfully bridged post-Soviet fragmentation and encouraged the cross-translation of the literature of those countries.
Heim started the Babel Group at UCLA, which later morphed into the Graduate Student Translation Conference, an important biennial gathering of graduate students to discuss the “work, business and craft of translation.”
Heim and his wife Priscilla were the benefactors responsible for the PEN Translation Fund, donating $734,000 to launch the fund in 2003. Joshua Daniel Edwin, a poet-translator who received the grant this year, says it has been a “publicity beacon” for his work and has absolutely done what it set out to do, which is to encourage the publication of international literature in translation.
Heim worked with the Modern Language Association, the largest professional organization for scholars of language and literature, to write up a set of guidelines for how and why translation should be seen as relevant scholarly work in the context of academia and professors seeking tenure. Russell Valentino, the editor of The Iowa Review and Heim’s former student, called Heim a “staunch supporter of literary translation as a legitimate research activity.”
In the years before his death, Heim was talking to colleagues about setting up a foundation where best-selling English language writers whose work is translated into dozens of international languages would give a small portion of their proceeds for the translation of other works into English, a sort of way to redirect the flow and address the dearth of literature in translation published in the U.S.
The good thing is that we are in a more, as Heim called it, “proactive” phase in the history of literary translation, where there is increased visibility for translators and the number of published translations increases every year, especially with the proliferation of independent and small presses.
But we’ve just lost one of our true champions.
Next year, Open Letter Books will publish a composite biography of Heim entitled The Man Between. Allen, one of the contributors calls it “a sort of cubist perspective of Mike.” I can’t wait to read it.