This September, Ottilie Mulzet’s superb English translation of László Krasznahorkai’s masterpiece Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming will be published, completing the novel cycle he began with Satantango and continued with The Melancholy of Resistance and War & War. Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming is the culmination of Krasznahorkai’s labors, a manic Greek chorus that infuses festive Technicolor into his multifaceted, bleak vision. It is Krasznahorkai’s funniest and most profound book and, quite possibly, also his most accessible. Krasznahorkai has hinted that this may be his final novel and, if that’s the case, then it is a tremendous sendoff to one of our most talented writers.
Baron is set in a dead-end Hungarian village riddled with gossips and backstabbers and structured with chapters ominously named after drumbeats. Plastic bags swirl through the air, and a gang of frightening—yet surprisingly human—Neo-Nazi bikers patrol the town. Bitter pomp and fierce one-upmanship reign freely. Everything in this remote village feels strangely universal: everyone blames refugees and “the Gypsies” for all of the country’s ills. Politics are waged in faultfinding and bogus positioning. Then, without explanation, a huge convoy of black luxury cars speeds through town, hypnotizing the residents as they pass. Approximating horsemen of the apocalypse, their procession preludes the village’s downfall.
In a bramble patch just outside town, a world famous professor lives in a hovel fashioned from garbage. The Wittgenstein-like professor has renounced attachment to the world (including, Krasznahorkai points out, his social media apps) and works to purge his thoughts in hopes of attaining his own type of nirvana. The experiment is short lived; he wakes one day to find his long-neglected daughter standing outside his hut, flanked with reporters and accosting him with a bullhorn, demanding he acknowledge her.
Back in town, Baron Béla Wenckheim arrives on the train. Despite his grandiose image, the Baron is befuddled and aloof and is only there because his family paid his horrible gambling debts in South America in exchange for his pledge to disappear and not cause the family further embarrassment. So, in hopes of returning to the place he once knew—and to the woman he once loved—the Baron disembarks only to be greeted with grand fanfare, replete with speeches from both the mayor and the police chief, detailing the ways they will use the funds they mistakenly assume the Baron intends to donate. That the whole thing, like Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin, echoes Christ’s Passion is no mistake. The Baron suffers abandonment, accidentally insults the woman he returned to, and, in agony, finds himself wandering in a Gethsemane-like forest, vying for God’s attention. After his exit from the narrative, his clothes are divided and ruined by a homeless mob.
Coinciding with the Baron’s Gethsemane, one of the book’s most striking scenes describes the professor sitting in an empty train station, weighing belief in God. Though he knows he cannot prove—or even necessarily believe—in God, the professor considers the clear repercussions he must accept if the only alternative to our troubled existence is nonexistence. The denial of God is terrifying because the chaos we experience in our individual lives is only a repetition of the blind chaos gripping the universe. Without greater providence, culture is stunted and chaos is the only reality.
Krasznahorkai is an uncommonly generous writer. Even as he teases, maligns, and undermines his characters, he remains empathetic to their plights and blind spots, for he knows that even the most evil deeds are conjured by brokenness. Unable to find solace in the possibility of transcendence, Krasznahorkai’s characters find themselves mired in uneasy limbo, defending themselves from the chaotic world that grips them. And, finally, time runs out. The book’s closing passage is shocking, powerful, hilarious, inevitable, and about the darkest curtain drop one could imagine as the majority of the characters are wiped from existence without much explanation.
Almost every section in Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming runs about 70 pages, and these sections flow easily as Krasznahorkai’s meandering prose swaps points of view at each paragraph break, allowing his characters’ opinions to mesh and conflict. Incredible distance is covered in an oddly intimate, if disorienting, way. While this tactic can make a new reader initially seasick, the reader who sticks with it finds the going easier and the rewards many. The emotional and psychological realizations Krasznahorkai can evoke are singular and breathtaking.
In sharp contrast to the perfectly whittled dialogue so prevalent in fiction today, very few direct quotations ever appear in Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming. Rather, characters endlessly regurgitate and revise their statements, often describing a single action with two or more verbs in an attempt to either more accurately describe their actions or, more likely, better justify themselves. Perhaps they are being honest in what they report, and perhaps not. We never quite know, for these character’s truest selves—as in real life—remain inscrutable.
This, more than anything else, is what makes Krasznahorkai’s work worth reading. As the world seeks to reduce and streamline communication, and as our attention spans are attenuated by our thirst for digital-world dopamine-hits, Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming presents a powerful rebuttal to our infatuation with easy, saccharine anger. We are, all of us, clumsy egomaniacs, and the truth is that things are messy, hard to understand, and almost impossible to pin down. As Krasznahorkai’s ragtag characters struggle forward, he reminds us that the words we speak are mere indicators of our vast, submerged realities.
These days, the general feeling is that the world has moved on from long, difficult novels. They are irrelevant, plodding dinosaurs whose sole purpose is to establish the gravitas of the author behind them. Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming is the hard reset, capturing our frantic, pessimistic moment with frightening verisimilitude. The style is challenging, yes, but it is not self-serving. Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming calls into question our acceptance of the crippling status quo, delivering universal truths in a way that few books can anymore. It is precisely the novel we need in these difficult, foreboding times.
I’ve been on leave from teaching this year, so it’s been a uniquely good 12 months of reading for me, a year when I’ve read for only one reason: fun. Now when I say fun… I’m a book nerd. So I tend to take on “reading projects.” The first was to work toward becoming a Joseph Conrad completist. I’m almost there. I warmed up with critic Maya Jasanoff’s The Dawn Watch: Conrad in a Global World, which granted me permission to remember the capacious scope of his perspective, his humanistic genius. His masterwork was hard work, but Nostromo belongs on the shelf of both the most important and most difficult of the 20th century. The Secret Agent blew the top of my head off—it’s funny and deeply relevant to our moment, about a terrorist bombing gone horribly wrong. Under Western Eyes is all I got left. 2018 isn’t over yet.
But then much fun came in reading whatever, whenever. That started with a heavy dose of Denis Johnson. The new posthumous collection of his short stories, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, is uneven, but the title story is one of the most sublime pieces of fiction I’ve ever read. I do not understand how its series of narratives work together and I don’t want to. I finally read Fiskadoro, which deserves more credit than it gets for starting the cli-fi wave—it’s set in a Florida, a number of years after global ecological catastrophe hits, and everyone thinks Bob Marley is god. All of which led me to Lauren Groff’s Florida. “Snake Stories,” the finest story therein, is as good as fiction gets. Which pushed me toward Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State, which from the first paragraph of talky lyrical cadenced prose and sharply depicted parental verisimilitude (I coined that and you can’t have it!) had me hooked. That led me on to Deborah Eisenberg’s Your Duck Is My Duck, which is her most accessible and relevant book to date. Wow is she smart/funny. Which led me to finishing up both Joy Williams’s The Visiting Privilege, and Ninety-Nine Stories of God, which are as different as books by one author come and both revelatory. Which led me on to read three stories from Mavis Gallant’s Collected Stories. In the intro of that book, Gallant implores her reader to read her as she’s meant to be read—one story at a time, put it down for as long as a year or more, pick it back up. So that’s what I do. “The Moslem Wife” is my new favorite.
That’s not what I did for Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black, a book of satirical stories in the Saunders/Vonnegut mode that’s as gleefully violent as it is gleefully intelligent. While I was reading that one I decided I should really read Ottessa Moshfegh’s novella McGlue—also violent, intelligent, and gleefully so. I’ve always wanted to read more of a writer I suspect Moshfegh is disdainful of, Evan S. Connell, and having already been through Mrs Bridge I read Mr Bridge, which is elliptical and wry and smart. Which led me on to James Salter’s The Art of Fiction, which is just a talk he gave at UVA before he died, but which is full of useful advice from one of the best prose stylists of the 20th century. That led me to Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others—Spiotta is one of the most interesting stylists of the 21st, and all her powers are on display here. And that led me on to a new sampling of the work of one of my heroes, Grace Paley, The Grace Paley Reader, which FSG put out last year. I’ve read all her stories, but seeing them paired with her poetry opened my mind to her even more.
So that led me on to poetry! I like to read all of one poet every summer. This past summer it was Louise Glück. Hers might be the toughest-nosed, lithest and sharpest project of our lifetimes. And her books of prose about poetry, American Originality and Proofs and Theories, demand to be read and reread. I also fell in love with the wry perspicacity of Dianne Seuss, whose Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl slew me. Jason Morris’s Levon Helm is full of brilliant right-hand turns, turns of phrase and hard-won truths, and is the winner of the best title in the history of books. Chris Tonelli’s second book, Whatever Stasis (second-best title), made me laugh, then think, which is the right order. My colleague Airea Dee Matthews won the Yale Younger Prize a couple years back, and that book, Simulacra, is as razor-smart as they come, chock full of Plath and Stein and genius. I reread it twice. I also slammed through Galway Kinnell’s Collected Poems, and I never knew how weird and smart his long poem “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the World” was. Which prepped me for the extravagant original voice Daniel Borzutsky brings to The Performance of Becoming Human. I’ll read everything of his now. Same for Monica Ferrell. Her new book You Darling Thing is full of poems that are lyrical, spare, dry as bone.
OK so wow this is getting long, but being on leave apparently I had a lot of time to read. Cheston Knapp’s debut essay collection Up Up, Down Down is as intelligent as any book I’ve read this year, and he is a true inheritor to DFW’s explosive genius. I would gladly read Marilynne Robinson on the history of drywall, and What Are We Doing Here? is about a lot more interesting stuff than that, including the most erudite readings of the ills of American culture published this year. The title essay should be required reading for anyone who teaches at, attends or has attended a college or university in America. Mary Gaitskill is also a longtime favorite, and her Somebody with a Little Hammer is like a Christmas gift for every day of the year—“Lost Cat,” the long personal essay at its center, will now be on my syllabus every year. I clenched my teeth and everything else through Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury and Bob Woodward’s Fear. The latter was just godawful. Maybe next year we could do the Year in Attempting to Unread? Oh, and I just finished Jill Lepore’s new long history of the U.S. through the lens of Il Douche’s presidency, These Truths, where I learned more about polling and the failings of our Constitutional democracy than I thought possible.
OK OK this is getting long but I feel like we all sometimes forget that we read journals like the air we breathe. This was a particularly good year for The Paris Review—editor Emily Nemens’s first issue had exciting new work by Claire Vaye Watkins and Louise Glück. Tin House is on fire, and the Candy issue was a winner, with an essay by Rebecca Makkai about Hungary that’s right in my wheelhouse, and a deeply weird dark story by Julia Elliott. The May/June issue of The Kenyon Review alone had poems by Bruce Smith, Terrance Hayes and Jorie Graham. Bradford Morrow’s Conjunctions is always great, and its “Being Bodies” included an essay by Rick Moody on Lazarus that I’ve been thinking about since. The last issue of Salmagundi had essays on cultural appropriation by Allan Gurganus and Thomas Chatterton Williams that clarified things for me. And let’s all shed a tear for Glimmer Train, a tiny mag that launched a thousand story collections. I just read an issue with stories by Jamel Brinkley and future star Alexandra Chang, and it will be sorely missed.
OK OK OK I’m almost there I promise! This fall I went on a jag of reading two contemporary European writers I think will be up for Nobels in the next decade. The first is Hungarian novelist Lazlo Krasznahorkai. He’s already been short-listed for the International Booker Prize twice, and won once, and with each of his books New Directions puts out his legend grows. His masterwork Satantango feels like the starting point—or did, until The World Goes On came out this year. It’s a beautiful object, and as naturally both a story collection and a novel as anything I know. This also sent me back to reread Samuel Beckett’s Murphy and Molloy, as I think Krasznahorkai might, along with Coetzee and maybe Bernhard, be the only writer I’ve read who is a true inheritor of the Beckett strain. I had a similar excitement for German writer Jenny Erpenbeck, whose Go, Went, Gone is maybe the best fiction yet written about the refugee crisis. I had to go back and re-read the last two pages multiple times to fully appreciate their genius.
OK OK OK OK! I’ll stop but only after saying that my favorite mode of reading is reading side-to-side religious texts and contemporary books on physics, and then thinking a lot about cosmology. It keeps me sane. My three favorite reads of 2018 were Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time, Adam Becker’s What Is Real, and the audio version of Richard Feynman’s The Feynman Lectures. The audiobook is Feynman lecturing at Stanford in the 1960s, and it’s like listening to a character from The Godfather telling a rapt audience about how quantum physics works. Among other things it’ll make you nostalgic for heavy regional accents.
Alongside that reading, I read the Quran, and Idries Shah’s The Sufis, along with David Biale’s epic history of Hasidism, called… wait for it… Hasidism. Biale finished the book alongside a dozen other scholars, and it is and will be the standard on its subject for decades to come. And lastly, I’ve been reading the teachings of Reb Nachman, father of Breslov Hasidism, with a rabbi friend. This reading cuts against the grain of everything above. It is not to grow informed or to seek new aesthetics. It’s a minimalist endeavor. Every page of his Likutey Moharan is a revelation and an enigma, and it calls to be read very, very slowly. Like, three or four pages a week. It slows me, calms my mind and realigns me. We should all find time for reading projects like that.
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The 10th annual Best Translated Book Awards were announced this evening at The Folly in New York City. Lúcio Cardoso’s Chronicle of the Murdered House, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson, won for fiction, and Alejandra Pizarnik’s Extracting the Stone of Madness, translated by Yvette Siegert, won for poetry (read our review here).
With four books on the Best Translated Book Award Fiction longlist, Margaret Jull Costa had pretty good odds that one of her projects would win the prize. This is the first time Jull Costa, Robin Patterson, and Open Letter Books have received the award.
According to BTBA judge Jeremy Garber (Powell’s Books), “Though it took longer than 50 years to finally appear in English, Lúcio Cardoso’s Chronicle of the Murdered House was well worth the wait. Epic in scope and stunning in its execution, the late Brazilian author’s 1959 masterpiece is a resounding accomplishment. Thanks to the translational prowess of Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson, Cardoso’s saga of familial scheming and salacious scandal deservingly comes to an even wider audience.”
Fellow judge Mark Haber (Brazos Bookstore) adds “Chronicle has hints of Dostoevsky, García Márquez, and William Faulkner, yet the DNA is wholly Cardoso’s, who was not only a friend, but a mentor to Clarice Lispector. This novel is not only beautifully written and strangely profound, but a joy to read. The dramas of a prestigious family in a provincial Brazilian jungle, complete with gossip, backstabbing, cross-dressing and suicide attempts all take place beneath a single roof. There’s a fully-formed universe in this run-down mansion rotting away in the woods. Chronicle of the Murdered House is a novel about family, trust, madness, betrayal, human nature, all heavy themes really, yet handled with aplomb. . . . Its translation feels long overdue.”
Extracting the Stone of Madness is the fourth collection of Alejandra Pizarnik’s to be translated by Yvette Siegert, but the first to win the Best Translated Book Award. It is published by New Directions — which has won the BTBA on three past occasions, twice for fiction, once for poetry — and collects all of Pizarnik’s middle and late works, including some posthumous pieces.
Judge Emma Ramadan (Riffraff Bookstore) said, “The judges were extremely impressed by Donald Nicholson- Smith’s translation of Abdellatif Laâbi’s In Praise of Defeat, but ultimately chose Yvette Siegert’s translation of Alejandra Pizarnik’s Extracting the Stone of Madness as this year’s poetry winner. It’s a book screaming and barking with jagged solitude and beautiful pain, each poem’s broken melody attempting to fill a void we can all see lurking. Yvette Siegert perfectly inhabits Pizarnik’s tortuous, vivid world and allows us to do the same.”
For the sixth year in a row, the winning books will receive $10,000 each (split equally between the authors and translators) thanks to funding from the Amazon Literary Partnership. Over this period, the Amazon Literary Partnership has contributed more than $120,000 to international authors and their translators through the BTBA.
“By sharing new voices with English-language readers, the Best Translated Book Awards highlight literary excellence from around the globe while also shrinking the world a bit, fostering empathy through storytelling,” said Neal Thompson, Amazon’s Director of Author and Publishing Relations. “The Amazon Literary Partnership is proud to continue its support of the diverse voices of BTBA’s international authors and their translators.”
Nine judges served on this year’s fiction jury: Trevor Berrett (The Mookse and the Gripes), Monica Carter (Salonica World Lit), Rachel Cordasco (Speculative Fiction in Translation), Jennifer Croft (translator, co-founder of the Buenos Aires Review), Lori Feathers (Interabang Books), Jeremy Garber (Powell’s Books), Mark Haber (writer, Brazos Bookstore), George Henson (World Literature Today, Latin American Literature Today, University of Oklahoma), and Steph Opitz (Marie Claire).
The poetry jury was made up of: Jarrod Annis (Greenlight Bookstore), Katrine Øgaard Jensen (EuropeNow), Tess Lewis (writer and translator), Becka McKay (writer and translator), and Emma Ramadan (translator, Riffraff Bookstore).
Past winners of the fiction award include: Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman; The Last Lover by Can Xue, translated from the Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen; Seiobo There Below and Satantango, both by László Krasznahorkai, and translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet and George Szirtes respectively; Stone Upon Stone by Wiesław Myśliwski, translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston; and The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson, translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal.
In terms of the poetry award, past winners include: Rilke Shake by Angélica Freitas, translated from the Portuguese by Hilary Kaplan; Diorama by Rocío Cerón, translated from the Spanish by Anna Rosenwong; The Guest in the Wood by Elisa Biagini, translated from the Italian by Diana Thow, Sarah Stickney, and Eugene Ostashevsky; Wheel with a Single Spoke by Nichita Stănescu, translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter; and Spectacle & Pigsty by Kiwao Nomura, translated from the Japanese by Kyoko Yoshida and Forrest Gander.
We’re very proud to announce the finalists for this year’s Best Translated Book Awards here on The Millions. This is the ninth iteration of the awards, which have honored a variety of books and authors over the years, including Can Xue (who won in 2015 for The Last Lover) and László Krasznahorkai (the only two-time winner for Satantango and Seiobo There Below). On the poetry side of things, past winners include Rocío Cerón (Diorama), Elisa Biagini (The Guest in the Wood), and Kiwao Nomura (Spectacle & Pigsty), among others.
Five years ago, Amazon started underwriting the awards through their Literary Partnership program, providing $20,000 in cash prizes every year, which is split up equally between the winning authors and translators. After this year’s awards have been granted, the Best Translated Book Awards will have given out $100,000 to international authors and translators.
This year’s winners will be announced on Wednesday, May 4th at 7pm sharp, both online at Three Percent and live in person at The Folly (92 W. Houston St. in Manhattan). If you’re in the New York City area, please feel free to stop by. The event is open to the public.
More information about the awards, the finalists, and the celebrations can be found at the Three Percent.
First off, here are the 10 fiction finalists:
A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa, translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn (Angola, Archipelago Books)
Arvida by Samuel Archibald, translated from the French by Donald Winkler (Canada, Biblioasis)
The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Italy, Europa Editions)
The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov, translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel (Bulgaria, Open Letter)
Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman (Mexico, And Other Stories)
Moods by Yoel Hoffmann, translated from the Hebrew by Peter Cole (Israel, New Directions)
The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector, translated from the Portuguese by Katrina Dodson (Brazil, New Directions)
The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Mexico, Coffee House Press)
War, So Much War by Mercè Rodoreda, translated from the Catalan by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent (Spain, Open Letter)
Murder Most Serene by Gabrielle Wittkop, translated from the French by Louise Rogers Lalaurie (France, Wakefield Press)
This year’s fiction judges are: Amanda Bullock (Literary Arts, Portland), Heather Cleary (translator from the Spanish, co-founder of the Buenos Aires Review), Kevin Elliott (57th Street Books), Kate Garber (192 Books), Jason Grunebaum (translator from the Hindi, writer), Mark Haber (writer, Brazos Bookstore), Stacey Knecht (translator from Czech and Dutch), Amanda Nelson (Book Riot), and P.T. Smith (writer and reader).
In terms of the BTBA for poetry, here are the six finalists:
Rilke Shake by Angélica Freitas, translated from the Portuguese by Hilary Kaplan (Brazil, Phoneme Media)
Empty Chairs: Selected Poems by Liu Xia, translated from the Chinese by Ming Di and Jennifer Stern (China, Graywolf)
Load Poems Like Guns: Women’s Poetry from Herat, Afghanistan, edited and translated from the Persian by Farzana Marie (Afghanistan, Holy Cow! Press)
Silvina Ocampo by Silvina Ocampo, translated from the Spanish by Jason Weiss (Argentina, NYRB)
The Nomads, My Brothers, Go Out to Drink from the Big Dipper by Abdourahman A. Waberi, translated from the French by Nancy Naomi Carlson (Djibouti, Seagull Books)
Sea Summit by Yi Lu, translated from the Chinese by Fiona Sze-Lorrain (China, Milkweed)
The judges for this year’s poetry award are: Jarrod Annis (Greenlight Bookstore), Katrine Øgaard Jensen (Words Without Borders), Tess Lewis (writer and translator), Becka McKay (writer and translator), and Deborah Smith (writer, translator, founder of Tilted Axis).
The Man Booker International prize was just awarded to Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai, author of Satantango (later adapted for film by Béla Tarr) and Seiobo There Below. When asked to recommend a starting point for readers who have yet to encounter his work, the author defers: “I couldn’t recommend anything … instead, I’d advise them to go out, sit down somewhere, perhaps by the side of a brook, with nothing to do, nothing to think about, just remaining in silence like stones. They will eventually meet someone who has already read my books.” Well, if a stream isn’t handy, we have a few ideas: our own interview with Krasznahorkai, Stephanie Newman’s review of Seiobo There Below, and Music and Literature’s issue no. 2, featuring literature on and by Krasznahorkai and Béla Tarr.