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Translating Pushkin Hills: An Interview with Katherine Dovlatov

March 26, 2014 | by

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Photo: Nina Alovert

Sergei Dovlatov, one of the great writers of the Soviet samizdat period, immigrated to New York City in 1978 and published his bone-dry, deeply thoughtful stories in The New Yorker all through the 1980s, until his tragic early death in 1990. Even in translation, Dovlatov’s work is a gateway drug to Russian humor: twenty percent booze, fifty percent understatement, and thirty percent bureaucratic despair. The writer is a household name in Russia, and the publication of Pushkin Hills—the first English translation of his 1983 novel Zapavednik, translated by his daughter, Katherine—has been greeted with celebration in the émigré literary scene. 

The autobiographical novel is narrated by an unpublished writer, Boris Alikhanov, who takes a job as a tour guide at Pushkin Hills, a group of estates affiliated with Alexander Pushkin. Alikhanov’s wife and daughter are leaving him for the West, and he is thus forced to weigh the merits of abandoning his country, his mother tongue, and even Pushkin, his literary heritage. The alternative is to remain in Soviet Russia, where almost everything external is false, and where the absurdities of the Pushkin estate function as a microcosm for the society. As the narrator observes: “Christ, I thought, everyone here is insane. Even those who find everyone else insane.”

Using language to subvert the regime was one of Dovlatov’s specialties, and his novel is rich with characters who speak in tongues—the more insane you are, the more sane, perhaps, in a mad society. Dovlatov writes with a deceptive minimalism—in fact, his humor and linguistic dexterity have made him one of the most difficult Russian writers to translate. His daughter Katherine, who also represents his estate, was happy to discuss her technique with me.

Pushkin Hills was originally published in 1983, after your father had emigrated to New York. But he wrote it in Russian. Can you talk about that?

Father was “nudged” to leave Russia in August 1978. Like many émigrés of the Third Wave, he spent a bit of time in Vienna before coming to New York in the early months of 1979. He knew a lot of words in English, and he could get by on the street or supermarket, but I wouldn’t go as far as to say that he was fluent. He wrote everything in Russian. His writing is language driven, and so of course he wrote in the only language he knew well. Read More »

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Getting Slapped Around: An Interview with Dorthe Nors

March 18, 2014 | by

Nors, Dorthe (Simon Klein Knudsen) JACKET

Photo: Simon Klein Knudsen

This month marks the release of Dorthe Nors’s Karate Chop, the Danish author’s first work to be translated into English and her only collection of short stories. Karate Chop is a small, dark collection. It consists of fifteen stories, most only a few pages long. Nors’s work often sounds like a parable relayed by one of the wryer, more fatalistic disciples, the one who doesn’t particularly care about our moral edification. But beneath the droll delivery, there tends to be a quiet heartbreak. In Karate Chop, parents disappoint, animals suffer, and certain boyfriends or husbands simply need killing. That heartbreak seems to belong as much to Nors as to her characters. We’re left with the impression that she would spare her creations all the sordid hurt and discord if the world were somehow different or she were a little less clear-eyed. Things as they are, she can only encourage them to laugh off what they can, to bear the rest, and to remember that certain dark corners of the world are “vast and beautiful and desolate.”

I spoke with Nors on her final day in the U.S. following the book’s launch. She is warm and confiding and possessed of a Northern European glamour that favors dark sweaters and disdains what most New Yorkers would consider a major and ongoing snowstorm. Throughout the hour we spent together, she drank trucker-strength coffee and held her chin in her hand. She told me about bucking tradition with new forms, the finer points of Danish comedy, and how life finds a way of slashing us all.

After four novels, it’s a short story collection—your first—giving you a breakthrough into the U.S. market. Why do you think that form did it?

Without me realizing it, I found that the short story—this compact, intensive way of writing—suited my voice. The short story isn’t really part of our tradition in Denmark. This is the country of Hans Christian Anderson and Karen Blixen, but for some reason there’s this sense that we don’t want to dirty our hands with the short story. That’s why it’s such a blessing that this is happening for me in America, where there’s such a strong tradition for the form. I feel like I’m presenting my work to a nation without having to explain what I’m doing.

How did you first step outside that tradition and decide to give the short story a try?

I always thought that writing short stories would be too difficult, but I knew this teacher who worked with at-risk teenagers and he asked me to come write a story about his class. So I spent some time with these kids and cooked something up. Afterward, the teacher assembled the entire school to hear me read this story, and when I was done, the kids were actually cheering. They could see themselves in it and they loved it. That experience boosted my confidence. Read More »

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The Expression of Not-Knowing: An Interview with Kevin Prufer

March 7, 2014 | by

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Detail from the cover of Kevin Prufer’s Churches.

The Winter issue of The Paris Review includes Kevin Prufer’s poem “How He Loved Them.” Prufer is the author of six books of poetry and the editor of several anthologies. His latest collection, Churches, was published this week. He teaches at the University of Houston.

The poem stages a scene of terrible yet familiar violence—a car bomb explodes in front of a courthouse, killing a colonel and his two granddaughters. But the poem is less about the event than the aftermath. The explosion becomes a spectacle for bystanders, who record it on their smartphones. In what ways are poems like our devices—in thrall to spectacle, turning moments into eternities?

Turning moments into eternities was truly at the center of the poem for me—the idea of the afterlife, of divine translation. I imagined that the colonel, who acknowledges he has done terrible things, dies in a moment of inarticulable love for his granddaughters. Of course, he becomes spectacle for us, his death recorded and uploaded to the Internet, where we watch it over and over again. But, in another way, perhaps he has been redeemed, has been, himself, uploaded to a kind of heaven where his love is played out eternally. At least, that’s how I like to think about him and the poem—about the moral, spiritual, digital complexities that can be packed into a single moment … a moment we, unknowing, watch play out on our computer screens.

The way this bomb works as “a divine translation” reminds me of another poem of yours, “A Minor Politician,” from National Anthem. That poem is a posthumous monologue, delivered from the crypt. The speaker is an honorable pol, though he has served questionable goals. At the end of the poem, he sees God’s hand, “like a bomb,” reaching through the catacombs to “take my body from the tatters / and lift me through the shadows / to the trees.” Are these cases of redemption through violence?

I think the same question is at play, yes. But the poems have very different contexts. When I wrote National Anthem, I was caught in a vortex during which all I could think about was classical—mostly Roman—history. I read about that to the exclusion of most other things. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were new and I was living in a small Missouri town very near an Air Force base, and heard echoes of Roman history everywhere. That ancient politician thinks he has been redeemed by God, by God’s hand breaking through the ceiling. But really, it was time and forgetfulness that redeemed him—and one of our bombs breaking through his crypt two thousand years later, shedding light on him. Read More »

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Transcending the Archetypes of War: An Interview with Phil Klay

March 4, 2014 | by

Phil Klay

Photo: Hannah Dunphy

In late 2011, Phil Klay, a former Marine officer who served in Iraq during the Surge, published “Redeployment,” a harrowing short story about a group of Marines returning stateside from the war. It drew praise for its subject matter, its lean prose, and its psychological acuity. Klay’s first collection, also titled Redeployment, is out this week. Its twelve stories revolve around war and its aftermath. Klay’s narrators include a State Department official charged with popularizing baseball in Iraq and a military chaplain offering spiritual guidance to an out-of-control unit.

Like a young professor who is still as comfortable in the world as he is in the library, Klay has an easygoing warmth. He exudes a passion for and knowledge of his craft. He is also unfailingly punctual. Last month, we sat down over coffee to discuss his book, the state of contemporary war literature, and the pitfalls of drawing too much from personal experience when writing fiction.

First books by vet-writers often read as rough autobiography, but in your collection, every story has a different narrator. Was this is a deliberate choice?

It was. When I first came back from Iraq, I of course found myself thinking a lot about it. Not just my experiences, but those of people I talked to, friends, and colleagues. What did our deployment mean, where did it fit into the broader perspective of what we as a country were doing? What was it like going out and making condolence payments to Iraqi families? What about the artilleryman who sent rounds downrange but never saw the effects of what happened, didn’t know how to conceptualize the bodies of those he helped kill, but wanted to? Even in my earliest stories, I knew I wasn’t writing about myself.

It also felt important to convey that modern war is this huge industrial-scale process with a lot of parts making the machinery work. There’s an incredible diversity of experience. We have a tendency to think of war as this quasi-mystical thing, and that interpretation flattens the experience—by using different perspectives, I wanted to open a place for readers to compare and contrast, to make judgments, to engage.

“Prayer in the Furnace” is narrated by a military chaplain in Ramadi during one of the most violent periods of the war. How did that story come about?

A lot of the great pieces of journalism from Iraq showed how important command influence was in violent, aggressive environments, where Marines and soldiers had a constrained set of choices to make in sudden moments. Sometimes that command influence was positive. Sometimes it wasn’t. So as “Prayer in the Furnace” developed in my mind, I decided to tell it from the perspective of someone who is sympathetic to those men and the decisions they make, but removed enough to adopt a more contemplative stance. An observer who’s with them, but not of them.Read More »

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The Physics of Movement: An Interview with Santo Richard Loquasto

February 24, 2014 | by

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A still from BAM’s On Set with Santo Loquasto: The Master Builder, 2013.

Santo Richard Loquasto has a big, easy smile, and an infectious enthusiasm for his work. Since his first production—Sticks and Bones, in 1972—he’s worked on some sixty-one Broadway productions, either as a scenic or costume designer, and often as both. His cunning sets and fanciful costumes have garnered him fifteen Tony Award nominations (he’s won three times), and he’s also won numerous Drama Desk Set Awards for Outstanding Set Design and Outstanding Costume Design. Loquasto is also known for his work in film—most notably with Woody Allen, with whom he’s worked for decades, most recently on Blue Jasmine. One afternoon last summer we met at the Margot Patisserie on the Upper West Side, where Loquasto talked about how he got his start, the demands of designing for dancers, and the downsides of his job.

What got you into costume design?

Well, it just always interested me as a kid. I grew up in Pennsylvania. Mine is the classic story of a teenager in the Poconos, painting summer-stock scenery because that’s what you do there. What I was really interested in was scenery and visuals. I was always creating the mise-en-scène in my backyard. The costumes were always part of it. I was interested in the scenery because in many ways it’s … well, I can’t say it’s more manageable, but it is, of course, because you don’t have to deal with people quite in the same way. People think of me as a costume designer, but in New York, the first things I did were scenery. I did a Sam Shepard one-act play off Broadway in 1970, and then worked for Joe Papp for many years. By that time, I was in grad school at Yale, concentrating on both scenery and costumes. I was designing costumes at Williamstown. When you don’t sew, you’re somewhat intimidated by that aspect of it. You’re lucky if you get to work with amazing people who make the costumes for you and with you.

I just raced from this little shop, Euroco Costumes, where I have the costumes designed for most of my dance projects. It’s two people, Janet Bloor and Werner Kulovitz. She’s brilliant at the stretch issues, and he is an amazing costume-maker of the grand school. Beautiful period cutting. I’ve only known him for about thirty years. You rely on the shorthand that develops between you and also what they bring to it, which is not only their expertise but also their passion. It’s very interesting—normally people who make costumes, who deal with the horrible deadlines and the issues of comfort and the egos of the performers, get sick of it. But I see them get excited by new projects and it’s exhilarating for all of us.

Can you talk to me about designing for Alexei Ratmansky’s The Tempest?

The Tempest you can approach in any number of ways, like most Shakespeare. I did a lot of Shakespeare in the Park in the seventies, both scenery and costumes, and for ten years, I worked in Stratford, Ontario, at the Shakespeare festival. I didn’t do The Tempest there, but I’ve dealt with the play. It was interesting to work with Ratmansky. For him, working on The Tempest is not like, say, Romeo and Juliet, which is so much more of a ballet vocabulary, both because of the great score, which so guides you, and because of his ballet background. Also, everyone knows the story so well. Whereas with our production of The Tempest, there is this much looser Sibelius score.

I follow the play, and I think you have to start there. As an interpreter, you have to follow the progression as Shakespeare laid it out, with your own understanding of where the words aren’t applicable to movement. You understand when Ferdinand and Miranda fall in love. You know what to do. There’s anger and rage and comedy. There was a debate at one point about losing the clowns, Trinculo and Stephano. I quietly fought to keep them. I said, their relationship to Caliban makes for a wonderful scene, and those things are in the structure to give us a breather, so it’s not just this man railing against everything.Read More »

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All You Do Is Perceive: An Interview with Joy Katz

February 18, 2014 | by

Photo(c)2011 by Star Black4_2

Photo: Star Black

In her third book of poetry, All You Do Is Perceive, Joy Katz moves between narrative, lyrical, and meditative language, making meaning from the switches in register. Her images—a newborn, a lynched man, a woman’s mastectomy scar—are dependably urgent and resonant.

The book begins with a poem about bringing home an adopted baby as ashes from the World Trade Center settle over Brooklyn. “The woundable face of a boy” fills the speaker with terror and awareness. Other poems wrestle with the conventions of the baby as an image—Katz is intent on portraying motherhood without succumbing to sentimentality. To resist preciousness, she invents “endearments” for her baby: “my bus, my tarmac.” In Katz’s work, beauty and glamour twine with danger. An “ambulance dazzles like a cocktail ring”; a speaker befriends a holocaust and takes it to a movie; the sounds of a newborn “run over her like mice.”

A former Wallace Stegner and National Endowment for the Arts fellow, Katz lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she teaches in the graduate writing program at Chatham University.

Tell me a little bit about the origins of All You Do Is Perceive.

The title of the book is a little accusatory. OMG, all Joy does is perceive. Meaning—ask my husband—no one got to the grocery store again. On my kitchen counter, there’s a cooking magazine opened to a self-help article, “How to Savor a Moment.” I needed help figuring out how not to savor a moment—how to move through time, seeing in an ordinary, not-intense way.

From my son, I learned a deep, meditative seeing. I watched him looking at his own hands or at a little car or something. For hours. Maybe it was ten minutes? Or days at a time. I was trapped with a small baby, but I was in a trance state, like a heroin high. It was addictive. My book’s epigram comes from Bishop George Berkeley, who says, roughly, I exist because I perceive. You exist because I perceive you. Writing the poems, I came to think that regarding is a form of love, but the regarding is not necessarily accurate. In the poems, people are always misperceiving one another. But misperceptions are a part of being alive to others. You don’t need truth or beauty. All you do is perceive. That’s all you need to have loved and lived fully. Read More »

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