Last year at a conference in Los Angeles, Rabih Alameddine participated in a delightfully contentious panel on politics and literary fiction. When asked why he chose to write a political novel — he was there to talk about his brilliant fifth book, An Unnecessary Woman — he said, “I cannot imagine writing a novel that is not political. I am a political being. A human is a political being. You must have to be very privileged to think you could write an apolitical novel.” By “you,” I took him to mean Americans, who made up much of the audience in that conference room.
An Unnecessary Woman was political in two ways — dealing with the civil war in Beirut, as well as with the plight of women in a male-centric society. Alameddine’s new book, The Angel of History, is a novel about the myriad disasters that have marked the life of its gay, half-Yemeni, half-Lebanese narrator, Jacob. The AIDS epidemic once killed all six of his best friends, including his live-in partner “Doc,” in one fell swoop; now, he wakes up every morning to news of drone strikes killing citizens of his home country, Yemen.
Bereavement is the most personal of catastrophes, but when the world seems to care nothing for the person lost — because he or she is gay (deemed a sinner) or Arab (deemed a terrorist) — isn’t it also the most political?
Jacob spends most of the novel sitting in the waiting room of a psychiatric emergency clinic, hoping to get admitted for 72 hours of rest after having (to speak non-clinically) a meltdown at work earlier that day.
While he spins out his erudite stream-of-consciousness narrative in the hospital, back in his apartment a battle is waged, literally, for his soul. Satan (yes, that one) is busy conducting interviews with Death and with the 14 angels who have watched over Jacob for much of his itinerant life, hoping to awaken Jacob’s memories of his past: a life of drugs, dungeons, sex, and poetry that ended when his friends died.
Of course, Alameddine is not the kind of writer who would actually portray drugs and kink, or Satan himself for that matter, as evil. Satan and Death could easily make for very heavy-handed, or at least awkwardly earnest, characters. But in these incarnations they’re suavely funny and combative, and they mostly escape the danger of becoming painful clichés. These are not Biblical characters, but literary ones; Alameddine sprinkles his playfully allusive text liberally with references to Paradise Lost. Jacob speaks of himself often as “hurled headlong flaming from th’ ethereal sky,” as John Milton wrote of Satan. Milton’s Satan refused to serve God; Alameddine’s Satan is also frequently referred to as Iblis, the angel who in Islamic lore once refused to kneel to Adam.
Jacob’s rather tepid goal is to rest, so Satan carries the real drama of the novel: the battle of memory versus oblivion. The literary Satan is a rebel; and memory in this novel is a kind of rebellion.
Like Rip van Winkle, Jacob has just woken up from a 20-year nap, not of unconsciousness but of oblivion, which he’s enjoyed ever since Doc died. Unlike Rip, it wasn’t Jacob who was forgotten in those 20 years, but his friends — and the painful history of the AIDS crisis. (How perfect that Jacob lives in San Francisco, because if any city is experiencing a particular oppressive form of oblivion, it’s the rapidly gentrifying, tech-booming San Francisco.)
His first awakening comes early in the book, in a flashback to a recent encounter with a young gay literary type who waxes dramatic about the loss suffered by Joan Didion. Jacob rages at the young man for caring about Joan Didion when she did not care for them.
But the guilt isn’t just Joan’s; it’s Jacob’s too. To Doc, in his journal, he writes an agonized plea. “I put it aside for a while, forgive me. I couldn’t go on, had to move forward, couldn’t bear the burden of remembering and couldn’t come to terms with the unbearable.”
His pleas for forgiveness — not only to Doc, but to his mother, the woman he left behind in an Egyptian brothel to pursue an education under the patronage of his wealthy father and the privilege of his own maleness and lighter skin — are the heartbreaking emotional core of the book. But they also remind us that everyone is complicit in the structure that consigns certain people’s sufferings to oblivion.
There’s nothing specific that Satan wants Jacob to remember, to bring him to an epiphany. “That happens only in Hollywood movies and bestsellers. It isn’t how remembering works,” Satan says.
It might seem unnecessary for such an unconventional, meandering narrative to bother unsubtly distinguishing itself from bestsellers and Hollywood dramas. But this is the promise of the book: that the prize Satan hopes to win from making Jacob remember will be something more significant than a navel-gazing epiphany.
Novels about memory often end with a bang: some abuse or crime, a sordid secret or unconfessed love. Even highly literary novels — think of Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, for example — tend to fall in line, providing a neat epiphany to make the flashbacks pay off. We still want climactic resolution from our novels, literary or not, and The Angel of History doesn’t even make a pro forma attempt to build the kind of narrative tension that could ever lead to that satisfaction.
In fact, knowing that Jacob’s not headed for the big epiphany, it’s easy to wonder why you’re reading this meandering novel to begin with. In many ways, it’s not even exciting to read. It’s erudite, discursive, dense; the story of Jacob’s bereavement, and of his lonely childhood in exile, is spun out languidly, interspersed with his long stint in the waiting room (the plotlessness inherent in that concept is obvious), Jacob’s own darkly witty short stories, and Satan’s mordantly humorous interviews. It can make for a hard read, with rewards more intellectual than emotional (although Jacob’s grief and remorse are deeply felt and intensely moving).
But this novel doesn’t need to have an exciting plot, shouldn’t have an exciting plot, because that would distract from the important work that needs to be done, both by Jacob and by the readers: to remember the dead.
Jacob compares himself to the angel of history — Walter Benjamin’s concept of an angel who sees history as “one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage.” His dead friends who were erased by the “grand elision” of queer history are not a separate catastrophe from the Yemenis who die each day in “cataracts of fire…while [God’s] privileged practice yoga asana.”
Though he may feel he’s betrayed his loved ones, Jacob is deeply compassionate, almost too compassionate by conventional American standards of self-sufficiency and emotional robustness. After befriending a goat as a lonely child, Jacob gives up meat forever when the goat is slaughtered, though so many other human beings have managed to befriend some animals and consume the meat of others without experiencing too painful a cognitive dissonance.
So too with the drone strikes, which many Americans may find deplorable, but not so upsetting that it interferes with their day-to-day lives. Jacob, on the other hand, experiences each strike with raw grief, and his current mental distress is at least partially due to the strikes. He was recently upset by the news of one in Yemen that supposedly killed several terrorists — but then, he points out drily, “Yemenis were always that.” (Several of Jacob’s stories are blistering satires of Western Islamophobia, some more successful than others.)
This presents us as readers, perhaps especially but not only American readers, with an insistent, reproachful question. How can we go pleasantly about our days — to the law firm to work, to the steakhouse to eat, past the post office funded by the same government that funds drone strikes, or past the hospital where an epidemic is killing gay men — without, like Jacob, crumpling under the sheer weight of the catastrophe? The answer, of course, is forgetfulness — the same forgetfulness that Satan wants to shake Jacob out of. Oblivion allows some lives to be forgotten while others proceed in pleasant calm. It allows oppression, in other words, to go on.
This novel is not just the story of Jacob’s awakening. It’s a fierce, unapologetic wake-up call to everyone who, like Jacob, lives as “a productive member of a comatose society.”
A few years ago I was invited to speak at a New York bookstore with Elena Ferrante’s translator, Ann Goldstein. At the time, Ferrante was not yet the literary sensation she is today; she had a few slim volumes out with Europa Editions, for which Ann and I have done an extensive amount of translating — at that point, our combined efforts apparently accounted for over a quarter of their catalog. The event was modestly attended, as such events generally are, even in New York. But for a moment, Ann and I were on stage, visible, recognized for what we do.
Now we have “Ferrante Fever.” For for me as a translator, the phenomenon is doubly fascinating because of the author’s deliberate invisibility. Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym; we suspect she lives in Naples, but other than that she is a mystery. It is Ann Goldstein who has become the “face” of Ferrante — who is interviewed, invited to festivals or events that authors regularly attend. This reversal of the usual relationship between author and translator is an opportunity for the reader to remember — or realize — that not only is literature in translation something to enjoy and cherish, but that it is a collaborative effort. The translator, like the interpreter of a piece of classical music, is an artist in her own right, not merely a backstage employee of the publishing company whose name is all to often left out of reviews or other publicity. (Imagine advertising a concert at Carnegie Hall without crediting the soloist.)
The public perception of what a literary translator does is often as hazy as Ferrante’s identity. In a country where the study of foreign languages is no longer a requirement in most high schools or colleges, the very notion of a universe contained by a language — visible in a single, untranslatable word (duende, saudade, toska, hygge) — can seem abstract or irrelevant to many Americans. When it comes to literature, the unfortunate attitude among many readers is that a translation will somehow be substandard, an ersatz of the original.
Things are lost in translation, but they are also found. We may not hear the Neapolitan dialect of the original — or even the Italian — when we read Ferrante in English, but Goldstein found the tools to recreate that entire vanished world of Naples in the ’50s; we do not question her stage design for a moment. Any loss of “fidelity” to the original is compensated by the translator’s skill in rendering the scene; readers who have never been to Italy will be aware of cultural difference and yet enjoy the novels to the same degree as readers from Milan or Palermo. They will be there.
Over a century ago, a genteel Englishwoman named Constance Garnett embarked on an arduous literary voyage, to bring readers to new worlds. Garnett translated Nikolai Gogol, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Ivan Turgenev, and Anton Chekhov, among others — she traveled to Russia and met Leo Tolstoy in 1894. Many other translators of the great Russians have followed, perhaps improved on her work, but Garnett was the pioneer, relentless in her determination to bring the world of Tsarist Russia and its literary treasures to Great Britain and beyond. I first read Chekhov in Russian, as a student, both short stories and the plays, but the effort to focus so hard on the original Russian, and my lack of experience in life, had left me, as a student, with a somewhat blurred vision of Chekhov himself. I rediscovered him much later, with the ease (and laziness) of reading in my own language, this time through translation. And it was a great gift: at last, through her work, I could see clearly who Chekhov is as a writer, and why he is incomparable. It’s not really something you can explain; you read the translation, and you know.
How does a literary translator work? Mostly at home, alone at the computer, translating anywhere between two and 10 pages of the original a day, depending on the difficulty and the deadline, if there is a deadline; many translators who have day jobs may translate purely for the pleasure, in the hopes of someday finding a publisher. For it is a pleasure: translation shares with writing the joy of craft, of working with words to convey a tableau, an emotion, an event, without the worry of having to invent a plot or characters, for the author has provided all that. One’s ego is less on the line, but the craft is nonetheless all-demanding: several drafts, on computer and off (with the red pen), then working with the editor, the galleys, possibly the author as well, depending on their level of English and their degree of involvement. For the ultimate loyalty must be to the author: if a translator cannot use the same word or phrase because it simply does not exist in English, what was the author’s intention? How to get his or her point across, and respect the style, the level of language, but also the target audience?
Translators make for interesting protagonists within the fiction that is their province; their introspection, their knowledge of, and access to, foreign countries; their privileged insight into an author’s psyche. Spanish author Javier Marías, a translator in his own right (Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, Vladimir Nabokov, among others), has cast translators in his novels on several occasions: they make for good peripheral narrators of other people’s foibles and passion. We also see this unique duality at work in Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman, and more recently in Idra Novey’s Ways to Disappear and Rachel Cantor’s Good on Paper, all of which feature translators as central characters and interrogate the act of translation itself. When I wrote my own novel, I made my heroine a translator. Translators live at a slight remove from the tumult of the real world, in worlds with their own variety of tumult; they see life through a prism of literature. Their days are filled with another person’s mind, other people’s worlds.
In 1902, two years before his death and several years before Constance Garnett would begin to translate him, Chekhov wrote to the journal that was about to publish four of his short stories in French, regarding the work of one Mademoiselle Ducreux:
I have been shown this translation, and have been able to appreciate its very rare qualities of sober elegance and scrupulous fidelity. I am pleased to send you my full approval.
As so often, Chekhov has the last word. His vision, his world, have been made visible to readers in a new language thanks to Mademoiselle Ducreux’s work; in turn, what better proof of visibility can any translator ever hope to be given?
Image Credit: Flickr/David Mallett.
The only New Year’s resolution I’ve ever kept (sorry vegetarianism!) was 2014’s: to write down every book I read. I’ve stuck with it; thus, I’m able to offer an exact accounting of my 2015 in reading. I can’t quite believe that someone has asked me to do so, but boy am I prepared.
As I suffer from tremendous anxiety of influence, I didn’t read a single book while writing my own. (To relax, I cooked; to fall asleep, I did crossword puzzles.) From June on, though, I read deliriously, hungrily, eager to make up for lost time. First, in (fruitless) search of an epigraph for my book, I reread Louise Fitzhugh’s The Long Secret and then Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, both as wonderful, indeed much richer, than I remembered.
I played cultural catch-up, reading books that had been much discussed among my circle (my circle: complete strangers I follow on Twitter) over the previous year and half: Akhil Sharma’s Family Life, Megan Abbott’s The Fever, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, Rachel Cusk’s Outline, Elizabeth Harrower’s In Certain Circles, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life (in three days!), Cristina Henríquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans, Rabih Alameddine’s devastating An Unnecessary Woman, a book that makes bookish people feel, by association, unnecessary, and Lorrie Moore’s Bark.
We went on vacation and I sat by the pool and read Mira Jacob’s un-put-down-able The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, and Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything, which was like if Mad Men had only been about Joan (that is to say: not boring).
You can never actually be well read; there’s too much out there. So sometimes it’s best to choose randomly. I picked up Günter Grass’s Cat and Mouse because my father-in-law happened to have a particularly groovy paperback edition of it. In a piece about the Argosy bookshop, Janet Malcolm wrote about one of the owners resigning Louis Auchincloss to the bargain bin. Thus, I read his The Rector of Justin. (If you spot it in a bargain bin, give it a shot; it contains a wonderful, truly hateful character.) I read Ed Lin’s slender and foulmouthed Waylaid on the recommendation of a friend, and Grégoire Bouillier’s The Mystery Guest because I’m fascinated by Sophie Calle, and Barbara Browning’s I’m Trying to Reach You because I loved the title. I read Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps and Birds of America because I never got an MFA and I have to learn to write somehow, and I read Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight because I love sadness.
I’m working on a new novel that sort of involves a poet, so I read two books that involve poets: Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift and May Sarton’s Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing. This is like someone who’s never played tennis deciding to learn the game by studying Venus and Serena Williams, but there you go. I read Colm Tóibín’s characteristically wonderful Nora Webster, and Helen Dewitt’s icily smart The Last Samurai (I’ll confess a personal failing: I can’t handle children as narrators). I read Bellow’s superb Henderson the Rain King, (problematic, in the argot of our times) and then Dangling Man, the same author’s first novel.
One great perk about publishing a book is that people send you books. For free! That’s how I got my hands on Nell Zink’s Mislaid (my notes say I found it “bonkers”), and two titles that haven’t even been published yet: Emma Straub’s Modern Lovers and Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest, two excellent books destined to appear on a lot of Year in Reading 2016 lists. Jealous? You should be.
I read two works of nonfiction: Hermione Lee’s smart and comprehensive biography of Willa Cather, one of my all-time favorite writers, and Edmund White’s City Boy, a rambling and sort of disappointing document. And somewhere along the line, I read Margaret Atwood’s unexpectedly optimistic MaddAddam (spoiler: humanity perishes, the written word endures). I just counted: there are 36 volumes waiting on my bedside table (including collections of L.P. Hartley, Carson McCullers, and John Updike that contain multiple novels). Christ. The years are never long enough.
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The finalists for the annual National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) Award have been announced. The fiction list is an eclectic five, in keeping with what is typically one of the more well-rounded fiction shortlists out there. Here are the finalists for fiction and non-fiction with excerpts and other links where available. In addition to the Fiction finalists, the John Leonard Prize, which goes to a debut work, was awarded to Phil Klay for Redeployment. Charles Finch was among the finalists for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. In October, Finch published “The Truce Between Fabulism and Realism: On Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the Modern Novel” at The Millions.
Rabih Alameddine, An Unnecessary Woman (Alameddine’s Year in Reading)
Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings (The Book Report: Episode 5)
Lily King, Euphoria (Celeste Ng’s Year in Reading)
Chang-Rae Lee, On Such a Full Sea (Bill Morris’s Year in Reading)
Marilynne Robinson, Lila (“Marilynne Robinson’s Singular Vision“)
David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation (excerpt)
Peter Finn and Petra Couvée, The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book (excerpt)
Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction (“Extinction Stories: The Ecological True-Crime Genre“)
Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (excerpt)
Hector Tobar, Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle that Set Them Free (excerpt)
For more on the NBCC Awards and the finalists in the other categories, visit the NBCC.
This series was first conceived in 2004 as a way to get a fledgling website about books through a busy holiday season. Realizing I had spent much of that year with my nose in books that were two, 20 or 200 years old, I was wary of attempting to compile a list of the year’s best books that could have any hope of feeling legitimate. It also occurred to me that a “best of” list would not have been true to the reading I did that year.
Instead, I asked some friends to write about the best books they read that year and was struck when each one seemed to offer up not just an accounting of books read, but glimpses into transporting and revelatory experiences. For the reader, being caught in the sweep of a book may be one of a year’s best memories. It always feels like we’ve hit the jackpot when we can offer up dozens of these great memories and experiences, one after another, to close out the year.
And so now, as we kick off another Year in Reading, please enjoy these riches from some of our favorite writers and thinkers.
For our esteemed guests, the charge was to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era.
We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2015 a fruitful one.
As in prior years, the names of our 2014 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we publish their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed or follow us on Facebook or Twitter and read the series that way.
Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Anthony Doerr, author of All the Light We Cannot See.
Haley Mlotek,editor of The Hairpin.
Jess Walter, author of We Live in Water.
Karen Joy Fowler, author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.
Isaac Fitzgerald, editor of BuzzFeed Books and co-founder of Pen & Ink.
Emily Gould, co-owner of Emily Books, author of Friendship.
Blake Butler, author of 300,000,000.
Janet Fitch, author of White Oleander.
John Darnielle, vocalist for the band the Mountain Goats and author of Wolf in White Van.
Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams.
Matthew Thomas, author of We Are Not Ourselves.
Eula Biss, author of On Immunity.
Garth Risk Hallberg, contributing editor for The Millions and author of A Field Guide to the North American Family.
Laura van den Berg, author of the story collections What the World Will Look Like When All The Water Leaves Us and The Isle of Youth.
Hamilton Leithauser, frontman for The Walkmen.
Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You.
Mark O’Connell, staff writer for The Millions, author of Epic Fail.
Janet Potter, staff writer for The Millions.
Lydia Kiesling, staff writer for The Millions.
Nick Ripatrazone, staff writer for The Millions, author of Good People.
Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions.
Ben Lerner, author of 10:04.
Jane Smiley, author of A Thousand Acres.
Phil Klay, author of Redeployment.
Emily St. John Mandel, staff writer for The Millions, author of Station Eleven.
Tana French, author of Broken Harbor.
Yelena Akhtiorskaya, author of Panic in a Suitcase.
Philipp Meyer, author of The Son.
Edan Lepucki, staff writer for The Millions, author of California.
Jayne Anne Phillips, author of Lark and Termite.
Maureen Corrigan, author of So We Read On.
Porochista Khakpour, author of Sons and Other Flammable Objects.
Tiphanie Yanique, author of Land of Love and Drowning.
David Bezmozgis, author of Natasha: And Other Stories.
Lindsay Hunter, author of Ugly Girls.
Dinaw Mengestu, author of All Our Names.
Eimear McBride, author of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing.
Caitlin Moran, author of How to Be a Woman.
Rabih Alameddine, author of An Unnecessary Woman.
Walter Kirn, author of Blood Will Out.
Michael Schaub, staff writer for The Millions.
Nick Moran, social media editor for The Millions.
Hannah Gersen, staff writer for The Millions.
Kaulie Lewis, intern for The Millions.
Rachel Fershleiser, co-creator of Six-Word Memoirs and co-editor of Not Quite What I Was Planning.
Rebecca Makkai, author of The Hundred-Year House.
Gina Frangello, author of A Life in Men.
Hannah Pittard, author of Reunion.
Michelle Huneven, author of Blame
Lydia Millet, author of Mermaids in Paradise.
Michele Filgate, essayist, critic, and freelance writer.
Carolyn Kellogg writes about books and publishing for the Los Angeles Times.
Emma Straub, author of The Vacationers.
Ron Rash, author of Serena.
Darcey Steinke, author of Sister Golden Hair.
Tom Nissley, author of A Reader’s Book of Days and owner of Phinney Books in Seattle.
Molly Antopol, author of The UnAmericans.
Scott Cheshire, author of High as the Horses’ Bridles.
Caitlin Doughty, author of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.
Julia Fierro, author of Cutting Teeth.
Bill Morris, author of Motor City Burning.
William Giraldi, author of Busy Monsters.
Rachel Cantor, author of A Highly Unlikely Scenario.
Jean Hanff Korelitz, author of You Should Have Known.
Tess Malone, associate editor for The Millions.
Thomas Beckwith, writer and project assistant for The Millions.
Matt Seidel, staff writer for The Millions.
Elizabeth Minkel, staff writer for The Millions.
Michael Robbins, author of The Second Sex.
Charles Finch, author of The Last Enchantments.
A Year in Reading: 2014 Wrap-Up
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
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