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America First?

Best European Fiction 2010

edited and with an introduction by Aleksandar Hemon, with a preface by Zadie Smith
Dalkey Archive, 421 pp., $15.95 (paper)

Americans do not read enough foreign fiction. The accusation is made by Aleksandar Hemon in his anthology Best European Fiction 2010, and again by Edith Grossman, celebrated translator of Don Quixote, as well as many other Spanish works, in her Yale lectures, Why Translation Matters. Only 3 to 5 percent of books published in the US are translations, we are told. Hemon sees this as another manifestation of “culturally catastrophic American isolationism”; Grossman feels that the resulting incomprehension of foreign cultures has dangerous implications for world peace. Thus both these publications that invite us to experience other cultures do so within the frame of a polemic at home.

Hemon’s anthology arranges thirty-five stories in alphabetical order of the country of origin, from Albania to Wales. The initial impression is that it offers one piece from every European country, except in cases where a country has two languages; so Belgium, the Republic of Ireland, and Spain all have two contributions. However, we then notice that Europe’s largest country, Germany, is not represented at all, nor are Sweden, home of the Nobel, Northern Ireland, an area of great political sensitivity, Greece, the source of Europe’s richest mythology, and the Czech Republic, home of Franz Kafka, to whom so many of the writers pay homage in personal statements at the end of the book. Wales, which has a large and lively Welsh-speaking community, is represented only by a story in English, and Switzerland, with its three official languages, by one story translated from German.

Represented” is hardly the right word. Many of the stories do not take place in the writers’ native countries: the pieces from Castilian Spain and Serbia take place in France, the French story in Japan, the stories from Poland and Macedonia in Austria, the story from Croatia in Hungary, the story from England in France; most curiously, the story translated from Gaelic tells of an old blind clairvoyant in rural Bolivia.

I have no problem with this. All the contributions are interesting and some impressive. That is enough for me. But it does make one wonder whether we are learning much about other cultures from this venture, whether it is true, as Hemon claims, that “ceaseless” and “immediate” translation of literature from abroad is a “profound, non- negotiable need.” Similarly, as if in response to Grossman’s concerns about eventual conflicts brought on by cultural isolation, frequent references here to the recent wars in the Balkans remind us that familiarity with each other’s literatures has never prevented Europeans from slaughtering one another. Remarking, in her short preface, on this reluctance of the anthology’s contributors to be identified with their national cultures, Zadie Smith nevertheless feels that

if the title of this book were to be removed and switched with that of an anthology of the American short story, isn’t it true that only a fool would be confused as to which was truly which?

Truly, truly, aside from superficial markers like names and places, or the fact that it is fairly easy to distinguish translated texts from those in their original tongue, I am not sure that Smith is altogether right. It seems to me rather that as we tackle intriguing stories from Latvia and Lithuania, Bosnia and Macedonia, we are struck by how familiar these voices are, how reassuringly similar in outlook to one another and ourselves.

This affinity is most evident in the stories that take a satirical approach. The Slovakian Peter Krištúfek imagines a city given a cosmetic facelift for an international summit, as a result of which it now “contained numerous phantom doors that led nowhere and false windows that could not be opened.” Ornella Vorpsi pokes bitter fun at male attitudes in Albania, a place where a woman is encouraged to “sew up her slit” when her husband is away, since Albanian men “have a highly developed sense of private property.” Julian Gough indulges in surreal farce to expose the extent of Irish xenophobia and backwardness. Each writer appeals confidently to an international liberal readership at the expense of provincial bigotry and hypocrisy.

This is equally true where humor is renounced for more direct denunciation: Polish writer Michał Witowski recounts the fate of a Slovak rent boy in Vienna; Croatian Neven Ušumovic´ tells of an illegal immigrant in Budapest tortured by local youths and eventually rescued by the local Chinese. It is as if literary fiction didn’t so much reflect other cultures, obliging us to immerse ourselves in the exotic, but rather brought back news of shortcomings and injustices to an international community that could be relied upon to sympathize. These writers seem more like excellent foreign correspondents than foreigners. Across the globe, the literary frame of mind is growing more homogeneous.

The many different narrative forms used in the collection, though frequently “experimental,” are, again, hardly unfamiliar; stories are fragmented, seen from different angles, in ways that make it interestingly difficult for us to decide how much reality to attach to them or how much emotion to invest. Again this is in line with an eclectic renunciation of any absolute version of events. In personal statements included at the back of the book, writers mention such models as Kafka, Borges, and Barthelme, suggesting that narrative experimentalism (which invariably undercuts certainties, rather than reinforcing them) has become a literary lingua franca, an international convention.

Both the Austrian Antonio Fian’s “While Sleeping” and the Slovenian Andrej Blatnik’s “You Do Understand” offer a half-dozen densely plotted melodramatic fragments whose witty and disquieting juxtapositions leave us confused between engagement and detachment, at once intensely aware of how varied human experience can be, but also of how ultimately equivalent. Either piece, one feels, could equally well have come out of America, or the Orient for that matter. Christine Montalbetti’s account of a breakfast that may or may not have taken place with Haruki Murakami focuses precisely on a notional meeting of cultures in an experimental literary medium, the French writer’s style both emulating and pastiching the Japanese. Her opening sentence suggests a déjà vu that is frequent as one reads through this collection:

Murakami spoke to me, he was addressing me, but really, I felt as though none of his sentences had been composed especially for me. The things he said were well used, he was drawing from a stock of phrases that he must have tried out a thousand times before, as though we were still in his bar and he was playing a record for me, many records in fact, having decided to make me, me in particular, listen to them, naturally, but having chosen all the selections long before.

Translation matters, Edith Grossman tells us, because without it we would not have books like Best European Fiction 2010, or indeed any literature written in other languages. This is self-evident. She also insists that American publishers have a special duty to foreign writers since without an English translation their work cannot compete for international literary prizes, in particular the Nobel. While it is debatable that American publishers need concern themselves with Nobel ambitions around the globe, the remark does hint at differences between the forces driving translation in Europe and America.

Both Grossman and Hemon applaud countries like Germany, France, and Italy where translations account for perhaps 50 percent of published fiction. What they do not say is that all but a few of these translations are from English and take the form of genre novels, detective stories, thrillers, and so on. So commercially successful are these books in a country like Italy that the newspaper Corriere della Sera splits its best-seller list into domestic and foreign fiction, since otherwise there might be times when domestic authors would not feature. Some publishers concentrate almost exclusively on translations, freeing themselves from the arduous task of finding and fostering new writers in their own language.

Is this, then, American isolationism, or imperialism, or a new kind of internationalism? Grossman says she is at a loss to understand the American reluctance to translate; the fact is that in Europe there is enormous public interest in America as the world’s first power and the perceived motor of changing mores. American authors take up considerable space in the literary pages of Europe’s newspapers not, or not only, because they are good, but because they are American, they talk about America. This gives them a celebrity value; readers want to read them. An equally good Polish author talking about Poland is simply not considered interesting and will very likely not be translated. Indeed many of the authors who appear in Best European Fiction 2010 are not widely published in other European countries.

Since many people have come to share a vision of the novel as a peculiarly liberal art, related, for better or worse, to journalism, dedicated to the construction of a better future through an account of the present, and deeply hostile to anything that curbs the freedom of the individual, it is not so surprising that we are moving toward a literary internationalism whose driving force, at least at the commercial and popular level, remains, for better or worse, the mainstream American novel.

It is ironic here to find Grossman quoting a Nobel Prize judge claiming that Europe is still the center of the literary world; this is wishful thinking on the Swede’s part. European writers may be unconcerned whether or not they are published in this or that other European country, or indeed in Chinese or Japanese, but they are all extremely anxious to be published in America, precisely because, as Grossman points out, this gives access to world recognition. If Americans translate little it is partly because all eyes are turned in their direction. That said, a University of Rochester research program lists 349 works of translated fiction and poetry published in the US in 2009, more than anyone could read in a single year and not, for the most part, made up of the kind of genre fiction that European countries import so avidly. Does the unceasing translation of the second-rate matter?

Grossman is at her best when she focuses on the special blend of skills and experience required to translate and least helpful when she bemoans the inability of reviewers to comment intelligently on translations. She is concerned that a reviewer able to examine translation against original may only look for semantic errors, yet she feels that not knowing the language of the original text is no excuse for not remarking on its translation. She fiercely objects to reviewers praising the “author’s” style without acknowledging that the writing is actually the translator’s. However, when it comes to giving a positive example of translation reviewing, all she can do is admire this statement by James Wood in a piece on Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation of War and Peace:

Literary translators tend to divide into what one could call originalists and activists. The former honor the original text’s quiddities, and strive to reproduce them as accurately as possible…; the latter are less concerned with literal accuracy than with the transposed musical appeal of the new work. Any decent translator must be a bit of both….

Not only is this too generic a remark to give us a sense of what sort of criticism Grossman would like to see, but it actually rehearses the false dichotomy that plagues so many discussions of translation. Grossman herself brilliantly describes a translator’s task as first one of deep reading:

To hear the first version of the work as profoundly and completely as possible, struggling to discover the linguistic charge, the structural rhythms, the subtle implications, the complexities of meaning and suggestion in vocabulary and phrasing, and the ambient, cultural inferences and conclusions these tonalities allow us to extrapolate.

After which, the translator seeks to

re-create…within the alien system of a second language, all the characteristics, vagaries, quirks, and stylistic peculiarities of the work…. And we do this by analogy—that is, by finding comparable, not identical, characteristics, vagaries, quirks, and stylistic peculiarities in the second language.

There is no question here of being “a bit of an originalist” and “a bit of an activist,” as if in some gentleman’s compromise between competing ideologies. It is rather, as Grossman herself suggests, that the more profoundly the work is heard and understood the more actively and radically it can be recreated in a way that recovers both semantic content and style. Renderings that tend to the awkwardly literal on the one hand or the fluently inaccurate on the other are simply different manifestations of inadequacy and inevitably result in an unraveling of that tight relationship between style and content that lies at the heart of all literary achievement.

What can I say then, if I wish to comment on the thirty-one translations in Best European Fiction 2010, twenty-two of them from languages I do not know? That on the whole the reader gets a strong impression of a cohesion of style and content that can only be the result of extremely attentive reading, followed by respectful and imaginative rewriting. This cohesion is the hallmark of good translation and the only thing a reviewer with no knowledge of the original can sensibly comment on and elucidate. In each case it would be futile to seek to establish how much we should be praising the author and how much the translator: the author wrote a fine story, which inspired the translator to make a fine translation. Of my own translations, I should say that I was always happy when the author got the praise and I escaped mention; it’s self-evident that only a good translation makes it possible for the reviewer to praise the author.

Perhaps with the world now so intimately and immediately connected, the only real exoticism we are likely to find is in the past. Steven Moore’s The Novel: An Alternative History, Beginnings to 1600 is another case of a work turning its gaze elsewhere to pursue a quarrel at home. Moore, an independent scholar in Ann Arbor, Michigan, opens with a scathing attack on critics who would like the novel to remain an expression of nineteenth-century realism, naming as his primary enemies B.R. Myers, Dale Peck, and Jonathan Franzen, all guilty of hostility toward narrative experimentalism; in contrast, Moore believes that the best writers are always more concerned with their performance than their subject matter, literature distinguishing itself from entertainment insofar as its “story is primarily a vehicle for a linguistic display of the writer’s rhetorical abilities.” Content is hardly important since “most plots are just variations on one masterplot” that invariably takes its characters from innocence to experience. The only thing that matters is style, and the more elaborate the better: “the novel is essentially a delivery system for aesthetic bliss.”

Since “MPF” (as he dismissively abbreviates his enemies) insist that stylistic experimentation is an aberration that undermines the novel’s historic function, Moore is determined to prove that the opposite is the case, launching into a 650-page history of prose narrative to show that the novel has been with us from the earliest times and has always been “experimental.”

Nothing could be more detrimental to an ambitious work of history than to frame it in the crabbed terms of a contemporary spat. For the first hundred pages Moore seems more eager to convince us that the fascinating if fragmented texts he is talking about are experimental novels written by gifted individuals not unlike William Gaddis and Donald Barthelme than he is to offer the kind of cultural or literary setting that would help us make sense of them. The notion that at bottom there is only one masterplot, and that content is thus unimportant, is immediately felt to be wrong as we read through summaries of tales far stranger than anything to be found in Best European Fiction 2010, and hence fascinating precisely for their content, beside which any stylistic vagaries (which we are given little chance of savoring) must pale in comparison.

While reading these summaries is a pleasure, Moore contrives to spoil it by adopting the gung ho tone of the schoolteacher anxious that his pupils will be bored by the museum they are visiting. Here he is talking about early Egyptian fiction:

When fiction-writing resumed during the Ramesside period (c. 1292–1070 BCE, the setting for Norman Mailer’s huge novel Ancient Evenings), Egyptian writers invented a few more genres, like the war story, the ghost story, and the fairy tale, but mostly pushed magic realism to bizarre lengths. In “The Tale of Two Brothers,” for example, an upright young man named Bata lives with his older brother Anubis, a landowner. (These are also the names of Egyptians gods, but they’re introduced as average citizens.) One day, Anubis’s wife makes a pass at Bata but is rebuffed. As in the later Hebrew story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, the scorned woman tells her husband that Bata tried to assault her. Anubis then hides himself behind the stable door to kill his brother when he returns from the fields, but a talking cow warns Bata of Anubis’s plan. He runs off but is pursued by his brother, so he prays to the sun-god for protection, who obliges by creating a wall of water between the two brothers, infested with crocodiles.

Then things really get weird. To demonstrate his innocence, Bata cuts off his phallus and throws it into the water (where a catfish swallows it), which convinces his brother that his wife lied to him. Then Bata goes off to live alone in the Valley of the Cedar, where he cuts out his heart and puts it on top of a cedar tree for safekeeping. The gods pity him and so create a beautiful woman for him (even though the catfish still has his ankh); one day the sea surges up to try to drown her but misses, and so instructs the cedar tree to grab her—and it just gets stranger after that. (Like a god in Ovid, Bata later metamorphoses into a bull, then a Persea tree, a splinter from which enters the mouth of the pharaoh’s wife, who then gives birth to…Bata! who eventually becomes king of Egypt.) It’s a remarkable testament to the colorful imagination of one Egyptian fantasist.

Does it make sense to speak of this as “magic realism,” a genre that achieved its effects precisely insofar as it departed from the realism that twentieth-century readers had come to expect? How does it help to be reminded of Norman Mailer’s “huge novel”? Would the story’s first readers have found it “weird” that Bata cuts off his phallus and throws it into the water, or would they perhaps have been expecting precisely this gesture? In which case, rather than speaking of a colorful individual imagination, wouldn’t it be more useful to tell us something about the system of beliefs and traditions that no doubt underpins this story? For example, what is a Persea tree and does it have any special significance? The “god in Ovid” who transforms himself into a bull is of course Zeus, the story of whose rape of Europa predates the imaginative Ovid by at least eight centuries.

Moore of course is perfectly right that narrative is far older and infinitely more varied than the “realistic” novel, but his insistence on reading ancient texts as if they were created in a modern setting is unhelpful. Of miraculous events in the Old Testament, he remarks:

Only [the] inability or unwillingness to distinguish fact from fantasy has prevented ancient Hebrew authors from being accorded their rightful place in the development of literary fiction.

If we had understood, that is, that the Bible writers didn’t mean that God really intervened but were only using techniques later perfected by Gabriel García Márquez, not only would we have saved ourselves millennia of religious delirium, but we could also have added some new writers to our literary canon.

Arranged into large blocks of time—ancient Christian fiction, medieval Irish fiction, Renaissance French fiction, Indian fiction, Japanese fiction—Moore’s book has the great merit of listing and summarizing scores upon scores of stories. Readers whose teeth are not set on edge by the sound of grinding axes will enjoy it. The huge translation issue that conditions our reception of most of the texts discussed in the book is mentioned in passing.

Like Moore, David Shields in Reality Hunger is unhappy with Jonathan Franzen; however, the bone he picks is of a more interesting kind:

Still (very still), at the heart of “literary culture” is the big, blockbuster novel…. Amazingly, people continue to want to read that.

The Corrections, say: I couldn’t read that book if my life depended on it. It might be a “good” novel or it might be a “bad” novel, but something has happened to my imagination, which can no longer yield to the earnest embrace of novelistic form.

For Shields, the novel is too labored and theatrical adequately to express an age as fragmented and frenetic as our own. Evidently contrived, it is inevitably “perceived as false.” It is also wasteful:

You have to read seven hundred pages to get the handful of insights that were the reason the book was written, and the apparatus of the novel is there as a huge, elaborate, overbuilt stage set.

What to do? Reality Hunger puts together 618 numbered paragraphs that simultaneously seek to justify Shields’s conviction that the novel is no longer the form for our time and, more importantly, grope toward a form that would be adequate. It is not simply a question of rejecting artifice in exchange for fact-checked nonfiction: every account of the past is more or less fictional, since our urge to grasp reality is matched only by our instinct to shape it; indeed that shaping (falsifying?) instinct is itself part of reality.

The form Shields gravitates toward is the kind of memoir or essay that exposes the tension between revealing and shaping, reporting and creating, incorporating chunks of “reality”—literary quotations, newspaper reports, whatever—and transforming them through style and juxtaposition so that the reader is constantly aware of the distance traveled between world and word, experience and autobiography. Quoting a wide range of models—W.G. Sebald, Lorrie Moore—and including practitioners of the graphic novel and collage art of every kind, Reality Hunger becomes itself a witty demonstration of the form, as Shields draws on a wide range of reference, mixing historical reports, personal events, discussions of new media, and literary quotations (some verbatim, others rejigged), to construct a protean polemic that is also an account (whether accurate or not we can’t know) of his own mental life.

Controversially, these quotations and borrowings, at least one in every paragraph, come unannounced and with an invitation not to check the reference list on the end pages, thus challenging the proprieties of literary etiquette and suggesting the extent to which all utterances form a continuum that it makes no sense to divide by reminding ourselves who said what. In short, the new form he foresees would sever the tight relationship between individualism and literature that has been with us since the Renaissance: Shields’s new author no longer claims that the work is his own, nor does he accept that others “own” their work.

Most importantly, Shields knows how to provoke argument without needing to crush all opposition. Rather, the tussle between reader and writer over the nature of reality, the nature of the text we are reading, is itself the aesthetic experience he is after. So while sharing his ennui with a wide range of fiction and thoroughly enjoying his capacity to seduce and perplex, it’s hardly a criticism to say I’m not convinced that the novel can’t still play some exciting cards. Indeed, of all the stories in Best European Fiction 2010, my favorite was Igor Štiks’s traditionally told account of a young man and woman rummaging through items at a Sarajevo market in time of war; here the discovery of a pocketwatch with an inscription made during a previous war redefines and redirects the couple’s relationship in a way as anxious and uncertain as it is free from all melodrama.

On second thought, however, it may well be that this story—with its precise historical references and incorporation of “real” items from the bric-a-brac of besieged Bosnians—is a reworking of the author’s personal experience and not in the end so far from the sort of writing Shields proposes. Certainly we are made to feel that a great deal is at stake for the author in the transition from original experience to finished story, and likewise for the translator in the movement from original text to English version.

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