Celestial Harmonies: A Novel

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A Year in Reading: Garth Risk Hallberg

Last summer, several sheets to the wind, a novelist friend of mine and I found ourselves waxing nostalgic about 1997 – the year when Underworld, American Pastoral, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and Mason & Dixon came out. (It was also probably the year both of us finished working our way through Infinite Jest, which had been published a year earlier.) Ah, sweet 1997. I was tempted to say that times like those wouldn’t come around again.

This year, however, Pisces must have been in Aquarius, or vice versa, or something. The number of novelists with a plausible claim to having published major work forms a kind of alphabet: Aira, Amis, Bolaño, Boyd, Carey, Cohen, Cunningam, Donoghue, Flaubert (by way of Davis), Grossman, Krauss, Krilanovich, Lee, Lipsyte, Marlantes, McCarthy, Mitchell, Moody, Ozick, Shriver, Shteyngart, Udall, Valtat, Yamashita… A career-defining omnibus appeared from Deborah Eisenberg, and also from Ann Beattie. Philip Roth, if the reviews are to believed, got his groove back. It even feels like I’m forgetting someone. Oh, well, it will come to me, I’m sure. In the meantime, you get the point. 2010 was a really good year for fiction.

Among the most enjoyable new novels I read were a couple that had affinities: Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies and Adam Levin’s The Instructions. (Disclosure: Adam Levin once rewired a ceiling fan for me. (Disclosure: not really.)) Each of these huge and hugely ambitious books has some notable flaws, and I wanted to resist them both, having developed an allergy to hyperintelligent junior high students. But each finds a way to reconnect the hermetic world of the ‘tween with the wider world our hopes eventually run up against. Murray and Levin are writers of great promise, and, more importantly, deep feeling, and their average age is something like 34, which means there’s likely more good stuff to come.

Another book I admired this year was Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, but since everybody else did, too, you can read about it elsewhere in this series. Let me instead direct your attention to Matthew Sharpe’s more modestly pyrotechnic You Were Wrong. Here Sharpe trains his considerable narrative brio on the most mundane of worlds – Long Island – with illuminating, and disconcerting, results. You Were Wrong, unlike The Instructions et al, also has the virtue of being short. As does Bolaño’s incendiary Antwerp (or any of the several great stories in The Return). Or Cesar Aira’s wonderful Ghosts, which I finally got around to. Hey, maybe 2010 was actually the year of the short novel, I began to think, right after I finished a piece arguing exactly the opposite.

Then, late in the year, when I thought I had my reading nailed down, the translation of Mathias Énard’s Zone arrived like a bomb in my mailbox. The synopsis makes it sounds like rough sledding – a 500-page run-on sentence about a guy on a train – but don’t be fooled. Zone turns out to be vital and moving and vast in its scope, like W.G. Sebald at his most anxious, or Graham Greene at his most urgent, or (why not) James Joyce at his most earthy, only all at the same time.

Notwithstanding which, the best new novel I read this year was…what was that title again? Oh, right. Freedom.

When it came to nonfiction, three books stood out for me, each of them a bit older. The first was Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach, an utterly unclassifiable, conspicuously brilliant, and criminally entertaining magnum opus about consciousness, brains, and formal systems that has been blowing minds for several generations now. The second was Alberto Manguel’s 2008 essay collection, The Library at Night. No better argument for the book qua book exists, not so much because of what Manguel says here, but because the manner in which he says it – ruminative, learned, patient, just – embodies its greatest virtues.  And the third was The Magician’s Doubts, a searching look at Nabokov by Michael Wood, who is surely one of our best critics.

Speaking of Nabokov: as great a year as 2010 was for new fiction, it was also the year in which I read Ada, and so a year when the best books I read were classics. In this, it was like any other year. I loved Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children for its language. I loved Andrey Platonov’s Soul for its intimate comedy and its tragic sensibility. I loved that Chekhov’s story “The Duel” was secretly a novel. I loved the Pevear/Volokhonsky production The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories for making a third fat Tolstoy masterpiece to lose myself in. About A House for Mr. Biswas, I loved Mr. Biswas.

And then there were my three favorite reading experiences of the year: Péter Esterházy’s Celestial Harmonies, a book about the chains of history and paternity and politics that reads like pure freedom; Dr. Faustus, which I loved less than I did The Magic Mountain, but admired more, if that’s even possible; and The Age of Innocence. Our own Lydia Kiesling has said pretty much everything I want to say about the latter, but let me just add that it’s about as close to perfection as you’d want that imperfect beast, the novel, to come. She was wild in her way, Edith Wharton, a secret sensualist, and still as scrupulous as her great friend Henry James. Like his, her understanding of what makes people tick remains utterly up-to-the-minute, and is likely to remain so in 2015, and 2035…  by which time we may know about which of the many fine books that came out this year we can say the same thing. Ah, sweet 2010, we hardly knew ye.

More from a Year in Reading 2010

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Inter Alia #4: International Prizewinners and the Business of Translation

[Editor’s Note: To plug a hole in the Inter Alia series, we’ve numbered this one out of order.]I know next to nothing about the translation business, except that it is vital to my reading habits. And so, earlier this week, I posted a little survey of international awards for fiction, along with the unobjectionable (I think) suggestion that more foreign-language prize-winners should be translated into English. I had been surprised at how difficult it was merely to find English-language information on, for example, The Austrian Grand Prize for East European Literature, and part of my intention was to put the “wisdom of crowds” to work for me, via reader comments and blog reactions. And, lo! The Complete Review and The Guardian’s book blog obliged. From the former, (which seems in possession of much better intel than I am) I learned that the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize may have been a weak proxy for the cream of German-language literature. I also learned, in a pleasant surprise, that my “translation quotients” apparently “do seem to reflect general translation-trends.” I thought I’d follow up today with a few interpretive gambits.First: literary awards are a notoriously subjective indicator of literary value (with apologies to fans of James A. Michener’s Pulitzer-winning fiction.) Nor is a foreign book’s publication in the U.S. or U.K. a measure of its greatness. The absence of translations of Tanizaki Prize-winners should not be taken as a reflection on the prestige of the prize, the health of Japanese literature, or even the level of American interest in Japanese writers. (Witness the runaway success – not to mention the genius – of Haruki Murakami.) And again, given the relative paucity of information, my “Prizewinners: The International Edition” feature may have been looking at some of the wrong awards.However, in aggregate, it does constitute an interesting snapshot of the business of translation. Romance languages seem to predominate. Is this because these are the languages Americans tend to learn in school – leading to a surfeit of translators? Or because of our long-standing cultural ties to Western Europe?The picture shifts a bit when we consider writers whose non-prize-winning novels are the ones that have been translated into English, and when we look at prizes given for a body of work. Writers who have been canonized in, say, the Netherlands are a sure bet for translation into English. But the single-book prize can be a testament to what’s vital and urgent in a literary tradition. It’s the difference between Philip Roth and, say, Edward P. Jones. And a healthy culture of translation will make sure that Edward P. Jones gets read in other languages now, rather than in 40 years. The Rómulo Gallegos had this effect for Bolaño; the Alfred Döblin Prize, for Katja Lang-Müller… well, not so much.Indeed, a translation gap for the historic period 1995 – 2005 seems particularly glaring when we look at Germany. With the exception of Ingo Schulze (whose monumental New Lives will appear from Knopf this fall), few of the Döblin winners have had any of their work at all translated into English. Does this mean that American publishers are doing a crappy job translating German novels, or that American readers have little appetite for them, or that I did a crappy job educating myself about contemporary German literature? (A friend who used to work at publisher Berlin Verlag suggested calculating TQs for the Friedenspreis des Deutschen Buchhandels, the Leipzig Book Fair Prize, Aspekte Literaturpreis, and the Berliner Literaturpreis der Stiftung Preußische Seehandlung.) Rather, I think it suggests that having a clearer awards consensus can make it easier for readers like me to find out about new books, and can help push publishers off the fence. Already, the creation of the Booker-esque German Book Prize in 2005 has proven a boon to German-language translation. Since being shortlisted in 2006, Sasa Stanisic’s How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, to name one example, has been published in about a billion countries.[It bears mentioning at this point, inter alia, that there is a lot of wonderful contemporary Chinese, Arabic, Slavic, Hebrew, Setswana, etc. literature that slipped through the cracks of my survey. (I’m currently reading the Hungarian Péter Esterházy’s Celestial Harmonies and Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun.) I had hoped to create a more truly International edition of “The Prizewinners,” but the criteria outlined in my original post prevented it. Literature is, of course, irremediably tangled with history, and it came to seem, as I looked at the various prizes, that they were closely linked (as language is) with nationalism. This made it difficult, in particular, to construct a proxy for African literature, or to compare specific traditions within Africa with specific European traditions. Nigerian authors are eligible for the Booker, while Egyptians would compete for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. The existing pan-African literary awards seem to represent such a diversity of languages, and such a plurality of markets, that it was difficult to find any one award to focus on. The cultural traditions of Communist China remain opaque to a monoglot like myself, and while the Nordic Council’s Literary Prize seemed comparable to the Booker or the Pulitzer, none of the winning books has been translated into English.]Ultimately, it seems to me that the “problem” of translation is, like many of the “problems” of the literary marketplace, a problem of money. Translating the second and third parts of Peter Weiss’ The Aesthetics of Resistance, for example, will require two or three years’ pay for the great translator Joachim Neugroschel. A more well-publicized award field, with more prominent awards for foreign markets, might give publishers and foreign funding agencies the “hook” they need to make deeper investments in translation. (And might yield even greater sales for presses like New Directions, Dalkey Archive, Archipelago, NYRB and Open Letter, who have already made heroic commitments to publishing translations.) The mainstream media “hype machine” has a role to play here. As do blogs.* Which gives me an idea… who wants to figure out how many of our own Anglo-English Prizewinners have been translated into Russian?*(whose job would be easier if Blogger would make it simpler to use diacritical marks in posts; sorry, no stresicas, Sasa!)

PEN World Voices Report: Public Lives/Private Lives

A crowd representing all ages, income brackets, and nationalities basking in the brilliant comedy of a Hungarian literary genius: isn’t this why one moves to the big city? Seduced by movies and periodicals (here Woody Allen and The New Yorker deserve much of the credit and/or blame), I came to New York a few years ago in search of a writer’s paradise. What I found more often resembled the galley of a Roman ship – rows of freelancers in the cafes hammering away at their laptops. But every so often, as at last night’s Private Lives/Public Lives reading at The Town Hall, the dream city breaks the surface of the everyday.The house seemed a little less packed than it did at this event last year, which may have been a tromp l’oeil brought on by my marginal seats (thanks, PEN!) The draws in 2007 were Steve Martin, Don DeLillo, and Salman Rushdie; this year, the big names included Annie Proulx, Ian McEwan, and Michael Ondaatje. Perhaps the festival organizers should have added George Carlin to the bill to spice things up. The brilliance of the PEN World Voices festival, however, is the chance to encounter new writers from abroad. This year was no different.Among my favorite discoveries last night were the South African writer Rian Malan – whose lovely reading voice has affinities with Ondaatje’s – the Mexican poet Coral Bracho – and especially the Hungarian Peter Esterhazy. In what I believe is a new twist, writers read in their first language, with a translation projected onto a screen behind them. I applaud this, in theory; in a festival that prides itself on a global outlook, it seems questionable to force readers into English. That said, the projectionist’s manic-depressive speeding-up and slowing-down of the scrolling text added a rather surreal dimension to the evening.Part of what made Esterhazy’s and Bracho’s readings stand out was the rhythmic richness of their delivery. Though my Hungarian is worse than my Spanish (which is to say, nonexistent), these writers’ attention to the sonic qualities of language kept me up-to-speed with the translation. In Bracho’s case, a meditation on the qualities of water became a sexual rhapsody, all languorous vowels. By contrast, Esterhazy’s reading – from his massive novel Celestial Harmonies – had the tempo of a drunken machine gunner. Oddly enough, his conversational rapidity made his long, contortionist sentences easy to follow. What emerged, above all, was the book’s surreal comedy – what Joseph Mitchell called “graveyard humor.”The owlish Annie Proulx, with her reading of Aidan Higgins’ Langrishe, Go Down, may have outdone Esterhazy in polish, but Celestial Harmonies was the book I walked away burning to read.

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