“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Best Literature in Translation 2011

In many ways, I thought this was a slightly odd year for literature in translation; I read an enormous number of books that I really, really liked, but only a few that I felt were truly classic books that I would return to again and again in the future. Moreover, several "big name" foreign authors released books that, in my opinion, were simply not very good (so I will warn you in advance that you won't see Murakami, Peter Nadas, Cesar Aira or Enrique Villa-Matas anywhere on this list). I have also cheated a bit: two books on it were actually published in 2010 and 2009, but I only got around to reading them this year, and another two books are either re-issues or re-translations. As ever, I refuse to rank the books below, because they are all great, and every single one of them is worth reading. Lastly, those of you who read sites like Three Percent, ReadThisNext and Conversational Reading may notice quite a few familiar titles; there's nothing magical or coincidental about this, since those are places I tend to turn for recommendations on books. And if you don't read those sites, you should! Without further ado, here were some of my favourites from the last year...

Jenny Erpenbeck  Visitation
Yes, this came out in 2010, but I only got to it in January of 2011. This phenomenal "novel"--much like Jennifer Egan's vastly overrated A Visit from the Goon Squad--is really a series of interconnected short stories about the history of a single piece of land in Germany during the 20th Century. Despite its seemingly weighty subject matter, its gorgeous prose is consistently inventive, and its rounded psychological portraits will appeal to readers of more "conventional" books as well. With this book, Erpenbeck has already become one of my favourite contemporary European writers. Highly recommended.

Goncalo Tavares  Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique
This novel--to my mind--fits in with a larger return to naturalism that appears to be burgeoning at the moment, but what separates Tavares's work is its dark sense of humour and absurdist tendencies. The protagonist, a power hungry, immoral doctor not-so-subtly named Lenz Buchmann is portrayed in a manner that walks a thin line between melodrama and pastiche--and it works brilliantly. This is a phenomenal and satisfying portrait of a despicable character, and one of the most interesting books I've read in 2011. I can't wait for the publication of Tavares's Joseph Walser's Machine in 2012. Oh, and Tavares's earlier novel Jerusalem is also brilliant, if not quite as successful as this one.

Sergio Chejfec – My Two Worlds
This short little novella--Chejfec's first to be translated into English--simply recounts an author walking through a park, but this simple plot presents the basis for a text of exceptional complexity. Although outwardly resembling Peter Handke's Afternoon of a Writer, My Two Worlds is a complicated work that slyly alludes to a variety of stories by Borges and presents--in fictionalized form--Chejfec's own meditations on the relationship between the world, memory and fiction. This book is a must-read for anyone with even a passing interest in World Literature.

Peter Sloterdijk  Terror from the Air
There are many reasons for disqualifying this book from consideration for this list: 1) it was published in 2009, and 2) it is a work of theory rather than fiction. Sloterdijk, however, is not only one of Europe's most important contemporary philosophers, but also a philosopher with a truly literary style in the tradition of Nietzsche. Terror from the Air argues for a radical new understanding of modernity in relation to three factors: terrorism, product design and increasing awareness of the fact that humans are situated in atmospheric environments. From this simple starting point, he is able to offer a radically new understanding of the 20th Century. Although the massive tome Bubbles, which is part one of his Spheres trilogy, was published this year, Terror from the Air (which is actually the first section of Spheres III: Foam) is the best introduction to this essential thinker.

Magdalena Tulli  In Red
"Whosoever has been everywhere and seen everything should last of all pay a visit to Stitchings." So begins Magdalena Tulli's enchanting novella about the ill-fated Polish town of Stichings. Although Tulli uses a technique that might be described as "magical realism," this brief narrative is full of inventive linguistic and formal surprises and a wickedly bleak sense of humour. This is a beautiful book that is also printed in a characteristically lovely edition by Archipelago Press.

Georges Perec  The Art and Craft of Asking Your Boss for a Raise
This weird little book by Perec--which had previously been considered untranslatable--uses a compositional style that is entirely based on an algorithm given to Perec by a computer scientist, resulting in a form completely unlike that of any other novel you've ever read. By turns hysterically funny, frustrating and inventive, David Bellos's wonderful translation brings this strange-but-essential book to life in English.

Bohumil Hrabal  Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age
Though previously available in English, NYRB Books has re-released this classic of 20th Century Czech Literature, which is easily the funniest piece of prose I read this year next to the ultimate section of Evan Dara's The Easy Chain. This one-sentence novel is the monologue of an old man that is full of one-liners and twisted humour that results from the structural semantic ambiguity created by intentionally misplaced modifiers. If you don't know what that means, read it and see for yourself.

Eduoard Leve  Suicide
Ten days after handing his publisher the manuscript of his final novel, Suicide, Eduoard Leve took his own life. This fact haunts this fictional work about the suicide of a young man, which intentionally both encourages and discourages identification with the real-life figure of Leve. This mesmerising short novel is written in a stark prose that only increases its emotional impact, and, except for a formal shift at the end that doesn't quite work, was one of the most affecting novels I read all year.

Claire Lispector – The Hour of the Star
Although long available in English, New Directions has published a new translation of The Hour of the Star, which further highlights Lispector's deeply idiosyncratic prose. Indeed, The Hour of the Star is such a strange book that I am still not completely sure what to make of it--and I have not been so completely unsettled and intrigued by a prose style since reading Robert Walser's The Robber (which is no small compliment). This is a novel I hope to return to soon, and, given that New Directions is publishing at least four more Lispector novels in new translations next year, it's a given that her work will begin to receive greater recognition.

Honourable Mentions: Patrik Ourednik's The Opportune Moment, 1855, Jean Echenoz's Lightning, Ludvik Vakulic's The Guinea Pigs, Gert Jonke's The Distant Sound, Rene Belletto's Coda, Antonio Lobo Antunes's The Land at the End of the World