- Carmen Balcells, who died earlier this month, was “a literary superagent with a license to kill, like James Bond.” (NB: she never murdered anyone. Some also referred to her, equally outlandishly, as “Big Mama.”) She changed Spanish-language publishing, launching the careers of Gabriel García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes, José Donoso, and Julio Cortázar, among others. “The moment … has been known ever since as the ‘Latin American Literary Boom’ … For writers coming of age during and after the Boom, invoking Balcells became de rigueur, the ultimate literary credential, because it linked them to a special kind of origin story.”
- A couple centuries ago, in 1815, a real ballbuster of a storm swept through New England. Recollections of the Great September Gale, as it became known, suggest that meteorology then was in some ways a more holistic, if not more sophisticated, discipline than it is today: “Gales and tempests were related, many people thought, to phenomena like lightning, volcanism, and earthquakes … In the 1810s, the idea of an ‘electric fluid’ surrounding and suffusing the world—disturbances in which manifested themselves as earthquakes, waterspouts, hurricanes, and thunderstorms—was quite mainstream … For many New Englanders in 1815, it was intuitively obvious that everything in the sky, and most everything on the ground, was connected somehow to everything else.”
- Seventy-five years after his apparent suicide, what are we to make of Walter Benjamin—or his strange end? Supposedly he took his own life in 1940, on the Spanish border, where his visa had been refused; he feared that if he returned to France he’d be handed over to the Nazis. But “there are all sorts of unanswered questions surrounding Benjamin’s death. His traveling companions remembered him carrying a heavy briefcase containing a manuscript he described as ‘more important than I am’. No such manuscript was found after his death … There has been persistent speculation that he was actually murdered, perhaps by a Soviet agent who had infiltrated his escaping party.”
- In which William Vollmann reads a novelization of Trotsky’s assassination (The Great Prince Died) and begins to mull on grave questions of power: “Do the ends justify the means? This is one of the great questions of any time. We should consider it deeply and provisionally answer it for ourselves … ‘Then it amounts to this,’ says a Mexican official to the dying Rostov’s wife. ‘Those who use all means will win, those who reject some means will lose. There is no remedy …’ Can it be so? Trotsky believed it. Sometimes, so do I. (That is why I prefer to lose.)”
- Today in recovered Babylonian epics: At last! A new version of the fifth tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh has been unearthed, perhaps illegally, from an undisclosed location in what was once Mesopotamia. It contains a whopping twenty new lines of cuneiform, rich with such narrative revelations as “Gilgamesh and Enkidu saw ‘monkeys’ as part of the exotic and noisy fauna of the Cedar Forest” and “Humbaba emerges not as a barbarian ogre but as a foreign ruler entertained with exotic music at court in the manner of Babylonian kings.”
The Latin etymology of the word translate derives from trans (“across”) and lātiō (“carrying”), which makes the translator a sort of linguistic smuggler, carrying gems from one language, one culture into another. Valerie Miles has worked as a translator, in all senses of the word, for Spanish-language culture for more than twenty years: as a journalist, editor, writer, and professor—and, of course, as a literary translator. In the early nineties, she wrote about British and American writers for the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia, and then entered the world of Spanish publishing, where she introduced English-language writers such as Lydia Davis, John Cheever, and Richard Yates to Spanish-speaking audiences. In 2003, together with Aurelio Major, she founded Granta en Español, which has served as a major platform for launching the careers of emerging writers. Most recently, she translated Milena Busquets’s novel This Too Shall Pass.
Last fall, Open Letter published A Thousand Forests in One Acorn, Miles’s anthology of twenty-eight Spanish-language writers from Central and South America and Spain. The name of the anthology comes from an Emerson essay about the whole of history folding into a single individual experience. The book features excerpts of each writer’s work, brief discussions of their literary influences, and explanations of why each writer chose a particular excerpt as being exemplary of their work as a whole.
Valerie spoke with me late last year from Spain, her adopted home (she grew up in Pennsylvania), and gave me a guided tour through the forest of Spanish letters.
Where did the idea for this anthology come from?
I came across an anthology from 1942 called This Is My Best. I was really taken with the literary value of the book as well as its historical significance. It had all these marvelous writers—Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Dorothy Parker, Pearl S. Buck, John Dewey, Lillian Hellman—talking about what they consider their best pages. Gertrude Stein and T. S. Eliot wanted to contribute, but it was 1942 and the breakout of war made communication very difficult. So the anthology becomes a multifaceted literary portrait of an era in American history and an incredibly vital way of fighting one of the most horrific moments of the twentieth century. In a time of such widespread destruction, the anthology serves as a testimony to the fact that humans also create things of beauty—they don’t simply wreak bloodthirsty havoc on one another. This book is like a shout for humanity in the midst of horror, and storytelling, poetry, and philosophy in the face of slaughter and genocide. As though saying, We are that, but we are this, too, and I want to remember that we are this. It was really an unusual way of being introduced to a moment in time.
When I saw the book, I wanted to do the same thing in Spanish. The twentieth century was a pretty busy time for the Spanish language—in the 1960s and seventies, for example, there was the Latin American Boom Generation, and there are only a few of those writers left to ask the question, What are your best pages? Beyond a reading list, I wanted to find an intimate history that only the writers themselves could tell.
“When your life is half over, I think you have to see the face of death in order to start writing seriously. There are people who see the end quickly, like Rimbaud. When you start seeing it, you feel you have to rescue these things. Death is the great Maecenas, Death is the great angel of writing. You must write because you are not going to live any more.”
—Carlos Fuentes, The Art of Fiction No. 68