Printed Matter, one of the best art bookstores on earth, recently moved into spacious new digs, which means their legion of artists’ books, posters, zines, and whatnot has room to breathe. So, too, do their exhibitions—great news for the current show, “The Rozz Tox Effect,” an astonishing survey of publications produced by Gary Panter over the past forty-four years. On view (and for sale) are issues of Slash and Raw and Wet, copies of Jimbo books, Pee-Dog zines, a Screamers print, the stunning comic Alamo Courts from 1977, and much more. What makes this exhibition deeply weird is the ridiculous amount of Pee-Wee Herman ephemera Panter has culled from his own collection: lunch boxes, children’s clothes, coloring books, Colorforms, suspenders, dolls, and placemats—all manner of commercial objects he helped create as an extension of his role as set designer for the show. Panter’s output is voluminous and kaleidoscopic, and yet I’m constantly reminded how it’s all of a piece, sprung from the mind of one man. —Nicole Rudick Read More
- It is possible that Radiohead was inspired by William Blake in the writing of OK Computer. It is probable that Thom Yorke donated a copy of Songs of Innocence to a local Oxfam thrift store and it had “Airbag” lyrics in it. Either way: good score.
- Ruth Goodman, who lately taught us how to be Victorian, has undertaken Tudor living for her new book—including hygiene. In the interests of verisimilitude, she duly avoided unwholesome baths and donned linen underthings. The results? “No one noticed! It helps, of course, if you wear natural-fibre clothes over the top of your linen underwear. I used a fine linen smock, over which I could wear a modern skirt and top without looking odd, and I wore a pair of fine linen hose beneath a nice thick pair of woollen opaque tights (these, of course, did contain a little elastane). I changed the smock and hose daily and rubbed myself down with a linen cloth in the evening before bed, and I took neither shower nor bath for the entire period. I remained remarkably smell-free—even my feet. My skin also stayed in good condition—better than usual, in fact. This, then, was the level of hygiene that a wealthy person could achieve if they wished: one that could pass unnoticed in modern society.”
- Georges Simenon: enigmatic, prolific, and seemingly nihilistic. But was the creator of Maigret as grim as all that? Writes John Gray, “It is true that he holds out no prospect of redemption, whether for his characters or for humankind. Yet there is nothing in Simenon’s work of the horror at the human condition that is expressed in some of the stories of Guy de Maupassant—in other respects a comparable writer. Those of Simenon’s protagonists who are not destroyed in the course of attempting to escape their lives return rid of their illusions and readier to enjoy what the world has to offer.”
- On the other hand, László Krasznahorkai isn’t called apocalyptic for “letters; then from letters, words; then from these words, some short sentences; then more sentences that are longer, and in the main very long sentences, for the duration of 35 years. Beauty in language. Fun in hell.”
There is nothing more hopeless in this world than the so-called Southwestern Regional Bus Station in Nanjing on May 5, 2002, shortly before seven o’clock in the drizzling rain and the unappeasable icy wind, as, in the vast chaos of the buses departing from the bays of this station, a regional bus, starting from the No. 5 bus stop, slowly ploughs onward—among the other buses and the puddles and the bewildered crowd of wretched, stinking, grimy people—up to the vortex of the street, then sets off into the wretched, stinking, grimy streets; there is nothing more hopeless than these streets, than these interminable barracks on either side, numbed into their own provisional eternity, because there is no word for this hopeless color, for this slowly murderous variation of brown and gray, as it spreads over the city this morning, there is no word for the assault of this hopeless din, if the bus pauses briefly at a larger intersection or a bus stop, and the female conductor with her worn features opens the door, leans out, and, hoping for a new passenger, shouts out the destination like a hoarse falcon; because there is no word which in its essence could convey whether the direction in which he now travels with his companion, his interpreter, exists in relation to the world; they are headed outward, moving away from it, the world is ever farther and farther away, ever more behind them; they are shaken, jolted in advance in the disconsolate brown and yellow of this ever-thicker, indescribable fog; headed to where it can hardly be believed that there could be anything beyond the brown and the gray of this frighteningly dreary mixture; they sit at the back of the ramshackle bus, they are dressed for May but for a different May, so they are chilled and they shiver and they try to look out of the window but they can hardly see through the grimy glass, so they just keep repeating to themselves: Fine, good, it’s all right, they can somehow put up with this situation, not to be eaten up from without and within by this grimy and hopeless fog is their only hope; and that where they are going exists, that where this bus is supposedly taking them—one of the most sacred Buddhist mountains, Jiuhuashan*—exists. Read More
Translators of the Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai are a daring few, but they tend to win awards. This year’s Best Translated Book Award went to Ottilie Mulzet for the first English translation of Seiobo There Below, a dazzling, far-ranging novel even by Krasznahorkai’s standards. At 451 pages, the novel took Mulzet three years to translate; it required familiarity with everything from the terminology of Russian icon painting to the existence of Arcade Fire. The story, told in a series of loosely linked episodes, addresses small matters of death, time, divinity, and the transcendence of art. And that’s not to mention the sentences—intricately constructed puzzles designed to disorient and amaze the reader. They can be up to fourteen pages long.
Krasznahorkai is developing a cult following in the English-speaking world—he’s had one for decades in Hungary—and he draws packed crowds at readings. A recent appearance at Columbia University was so crowded that people were turned away. The author read in a dark room with only a pinpoint of light on the manuscript, for dramatic effect.
I caught up with the woman working under the name Ottilie Mulzet—a partial pseudonym, somehow not surprising from an artist affiliated with Krasznahorkai—to find out how she does it, and what else she has in store.
Tell me about your history with Krasznahorkai. How did you become his translator? How do you work with him?
Before I ever met him, I translated one of the stories, “Something is Burning Outside,” from Seiobo There Below. It appeared on the Hungarian literature website www.hlo.hu, and in June 2009, it was picked up by the Guardian for a series of translated short stories from Eastern Europe twenty years after 1989. I met Krasznahorkai briefly sometime around then. We corresponded, and I mentioned I’d be willing to take on the translation of Seiobo. Krasznahorkai was understandably a little hesitant at first, given the extraordinary complexity of the work. But I translated Animalinside, which was met with a very positive reception and went into a second printing fairly quickly. The following spring, I sent a sample chapter of Seiobo to New Directions.
Krasznahorkai and I communicate a lot by email. If I have any questions at all, he is absolutely wonderful about answering them. We communicate for the most part in Hungarian. There are times when he issues explicit instructions. For example, he didn’t want any of the foreign words in Seiobo italicized, and I could understand why, because they’re even more disorientating when they’re seemingly innocently integrated into the text. For me that was a pretty radical gesture.
What are the strengths and particularities of Hungarian as a language, and what challenges does it present to translate it into English?
I feel extremely close to Hungarian as a language. I love the sound of it, I love how it works grammatically, I love the vocabulary, the astonishing mishmash of words from so many different languages, I love what writers can do with it. Hungarian is an agglutinative language with vowel harmony—it has seemingly endless suffixes and amazing possibilities for compound words, and it has absolutely flexible word order, depending on what you want to emphasize in the sentence. And I would certainly mention the unbelievable elasticity of Hungarian—it’s like a rubber band. It can expand and expand, until you think, Well, this rubber band is going to break at any moment now, or it can shrink into just a few sparse words, where all the most important parts are left out and you just have to know.
English, despite how global it is, is a lot less flexible. Maybe the kind of English that’s spoken in the Indian subcontinent—where it’s partially subjugated to the tendencies of Hindi—would be a more suitable English for translation from Hungarian, but I have to work with the language I know the best. You have to struggle to make sure the sentences don’t seem too jam-packed with information, and yet, when there’s some pretty serious elision going on, you have to test the boundaries of English, with its rigid subject-verb-object structure and having to have all your indicators in place. Hungarian can look like just a splash of ink on the page. There are sentences—or, in Krasznahorkai’s case, subclauses—of just two or three words. I’m intrigued by all of this elision, and fascinated by the problem of conveying it in a recalcitrant language like English—just trying to get English to do something it’s not really meant to do. English today is the global language of commerce and trade, so while it’s dominant, it’s also in some respects deeply impoverished. It desperately needs these transfusions from other languages. Read More
- The winners of this year’s Best Translated Book Awards: in fiction, László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below, translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet; in poetry, Elisa Biagini’s The Guest in the Wood, translated from the Italian by Diana Thow, Sarah Stickney, and Eugene Ostashevsky.
- Jenny Diski, bless her, on aging, or something like it: “I must accept that I was old because my hairdresser says, ‘Ah, bless,’ in response to whatever I say in answer to her questions. ‘Are you busy today?’ ‘Just regular working.’ ‘Ah, bless.’ ‘How was the weekend?’ ‘A friend came to stay.’ ‘Ah, bless.’ The other day, when she asked, I said: ‘I’m being interviewed by a journalist from Poland.’ ‘Ah, bless.’ … The ah-bless alters or confirms whatever it’s responding to, and in my mind’s eye (altered and confirmed) I see a small, nondescript old lady going bravely about her business. There are other signs that I am no longer young, but the ah-bless is the most open and public.”
- In 1968, Charles Simic witnessed a group of disgruntled poets settle things the old-fashioned way—with fisticuffs. “I stood on the porch watching in astonishment with the Chilean poet Nicanor Parra and the French poet Eugène Guillevic. They were delighted by the spectacle and assumed that this is how American poets always settled their literary quarrels; I tried to tell them that this was the first time I had seen anything like that and it scared the hell out of me, but they just laughed.”
- A series of photos compares public spaces in North and South Korea. (The shot of the Pyongyang Metro is especially poignant.)
- Guillaume Nicloux discusses his new film, The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq, starring, yes, Michel Houellebecq: “He is also really annoying to the captors. He is always asking for wine and cigarettes, he asks for another visit from the prostitute, he is really tiresome for them. He gets angry. He begs our sympathy, but at the same time he behaves really badly.”
It took me twenty-five years to read Jane Eyre. The first twenty-four and three quarters were tough going—I almost never made it past the death of the annoying Christian schoolmate. Rochester drove me up the wall; so did passive-aggressive Jane. Then a couple of months ago a friend gave me a beat-up old pocketbook edition. This time it took. When I realized a couple of pages were missing, I read them on my phone. When the paperback got lost in the coatroom at Café Loup, I started taking my iPad to bed (a reluctant first). When the same friend presented me with a Folio edition giveaway, weighing sixteen pounds (with regrettable illustrations), I took it everywhere, in case I had half an hour alone. I was warned that things go downhill after you-know-who appears in the night and tears Jane’s you-know-what. Not for me. The weirder the subplot, the more Jane tightened her grip. What had changed? Maybe certain writers—Norman Rush, Defoe, Dickens, Melville, Hawthorne—or maybe just reading in general had taught me that dialogue can come in weird shapes, not just tit-for-tat, and that soliloquies can happen on the page. Maybe I’ve just gotten to know more women, like Jane, who live at war with themselves, and maybe the freakiness of wanting and hating to be bossed around makes more sense to me now. The whole time, I kept thinking, So many girls read this when they’re kids—and get it. How could it take so long to catch up? —Lorin Stein
Reading a László Krasznahorkai novel is a major commitment, and the kind I’m willing to make, but I haven’t had the time lately to devote myself to it. I’ve made do with the London Review of Books’ recent story “There Goes Valzer.” A man named Róbert Valzer who likes walking (“not that I have anything do to with the famous Robert Walser”) takes an aimless stroll on the Day of the Dead in his La Sportiva boots, through cemeteries and out to the edge of town. Because of its brevity and relatively short sentences, the story offers an opportunity to better appreciate Krasznahorkai’s sly humor, often camouflaged by his melancholic themes. Not that there isn’t disillusionment here, but it’s tempered by a ready absurdity: “I hate Michaelmas daisies and, I must confess, I am not too keen on people either, in fact you might say I hate people too, or, better still, that I hate people as much as I hate Michaelmas daisies and that is simply because every time I see Michaelmas daisies they remind me of people rather than of Michaelmas daisies, and every time I see people I always think of Michaelmas daisies not of people.” (Yes, that is a short sentence—for Krasznahorkai.) —Nicole Rudick
This unending winter—and the moods that have come with it—has reminded many Americans, brutally, of the effect the environment has on our psyches. It’s a theme I haven’t encountered in a work of American fiction in recent memory, though I wonder, with our rapidly changing earth, if we’ll begin to see it reflected more in our country’s creative output. The seasons and their regularities, their whims have figured prominently in Japanese art for many centuries, though, and Takashi Hiraide’s The Guest Cat, recently translated by Eric Selland, is a new cornerstone in this tradition. A short novel about little more than the comings and goings of a neighborhood cat around the grounds and home of a childless couple, the swells and lags in the emotional narrative of the book are propelled by a rising temperature, a blooming flower, a drooping tree. It’s reassuring to feel that perhaps a close tie between one’s mental state and the weather may be, in fact, quite natural. —Clare Fentress
Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson is a bit like Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries: there’s an entry for almost every season, holiday, or time of the year. Reading Boswell’s Life, it’s hard not to think of it at times as a practical joke; Boswell’s silliness is the great enigma of this book. Just to see what he would say, Boswell would ask Johnson questions like “What would you do if you were locked in a tower with a newborn baby?” The entry for Good Friday, 1778, contains so much: a discussion of literary aestheticism and didacticism, of the usefulness that literature can have to society, of the etiquette of making small talk. And it’s full of the usual yuks from the Boswell-Johnson buddy act:
Johnson: “Sir, it would have been better that I had been of a profession. I ought to have been a lawyer.”
Boswell: “I do not think, Sir, it would have been better, for we should not have had the English dictionary.”
Johnson: “But you would have had reports.” —Anna Heyward