PEN World Voices Recap: Laurence Cossé and Hervé Le Tellier

Yesterday, I attended the second “lunch time literary conversation” at Maison Française. The panelists were French authors Laurence Cossé and Hervé Le Tellier, who both had a bit more chemistry and common ground to speak from than the previous day’s panelists. I recapped the event for The L Magazine here. Here’s the start:

“I read a lot of novels—only great novels. I attach no importance to novelty, so I’m actually very liberated.” So explained, via interpreter, the dignified and elegant French author Laurence Cossé, a former journalist and bitingly satirical novelist of numerous works of fiction, many of which are available in English. Her most recent novel to be translated, A Novel Bookstore, is deeply interested with the process of taste-making for the erudite—the manner in which the serious reader of discrimination selects the novels that will occupy her time. This makes for an interesting topic of conversation, particularly when in discussion with the multi-talented Hervé Le Tellier, who besides working as a linguist, food critic, teacher, and mathematician, is also the author of over a dozen works of poetry and fiction, and a member of the famously selective, playfully avant-garde French literary collective Oulipo.

Tonight, I’m off to the Westbeth Arts Center for “A Literary Safari,” which will certainly be more interactive than most PEN events and tomorrow, there’s a whole day of translation related panels which I will be cheerfully taking the day off for. So keep it on this channel.

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PEN World Voices Recap: Lunchtime Literary Conversation with Kjersti Annesdatter Skomsvold & Ludovic Debeurme

PEN World Voices started this week and my introductory event took place, nicely enough, over my lunch hour and right down the street from my office. I wrote a recap of the event, a “lunchtime literary conversation” between Kjersti Annesdatter Skomsvold and Ludovic Debeurme for The L Magazine, which is available in full here. Here’s a teaser:

“If there is anything that mars the experience of each year’s PEN World Voices Festival—besides the fact that an increasing number of panels are not free—it’s that so many interest-piquing events are scheduled during the workday, making attendance difficult if you don’t have a few spare sick days to burn. Luckily, this year there are a handful of events scheduled around the lunch hour, including the three-part “Lunchtime Literary Conversations” hosted at NYU’s La Maison Française. The first of these conversations featured two authors whose work is yet unknown to English language readers—Kjersti Annesdatter Skomsvold, a Norwegian author whose first novel, The Faster I Run, the Smaller I Am has been sold to Dalkey Archive and is, hopefully, forthcoming, and Ludovic Debeurme, a French graphic novelist whose 500+ page autobiographically-inspired graphic novel Lucille—about two teenagers struggling with anorexia, alcoholism, and more mundane trials of adolescence—is forthcoming in English translation next month.”

Tomorrow, you can look forward to a similar recap on The L website of the second lunchtime conversation that took place today between Laurence Cossé and Hervé Le Tellier. And I’ll probably do a more detailed round-up of all the panels next week, with what little anecdotes don’t make it into the recap posts. So keep stopping by, and let me know if you attend any events yourself.

We, the Drowned

In 2007, the Danish Literary Magazine published a short review of Carsten Jensen’s epic Novel of the Sea, Vi de druknede (English translation, We, the Drowned). The novel, according to reviewer Anne Mette Lundtofte, presented a unique portrait of Danish history and culture:

“As Jensen plays with the history of European Enlightenment in We, the Drowned, he also turns the Danish national consciousness upside-down. He doesn’t depict the Danes like a homey culture of earth-bound farmers, as is usually the case in history books, but as a wild bunch of restless sailors. This new perspective on a small country has in turn made the book popular on the international market, where it has sold to 11 different countries, including England and the US. The book’s English editor, James Gurbutt, attributes this success with the novel’s ability to connect the local history of Marstal with world history through universal and current themes…”

My appetite whetted for wild, Danish seaman and raucous adventuring, I spent the next couple of years eagerly awaiting what sounded like the imminent English translation and publication of the book. Thinking perhaps England published the translation first (they are often ahead of America with Scandinavian translations), I scoured UK booksellers’ websites, and even made a point of checking for English translations of the novel all over Copenhagen when I visited years ago. But alas, the translation was simply not available and I gave up looking.

But, huzzah! We, the Drowned has finally made it to the US! And, according to the review published by Three Percent earlier this week, it was worth the wait. According to K.E. Semmel, a translator from Danish (and Norwegian, apparently–he has a translation of a Karin Fossum novel, The Caller, forthcoming) We, the Drowned will establish Denmark in American readers minds as “one of the greatest seafaring nations in the history of the world,” while also giving us an expansive, multi-generational adventure, much of which is narrated in the first person plural (which: whoa). Says Semmel:

“[I]n We, the Drowned, Jensen gives us the big story. The inhabitants of the town of Marstal, on the island of Æro, have been seafarers for generations. They live and die by the code of the sea. Jensen writes in the communal first person plural, with its distinctive and authoritative “we” lending a familiar sense of intimacy, and starts his story in the year 1848. Like the docent in a fine museum, he then leads us through the next 100 years in Marstal’s history. That history is extraordinarily rich, and includes Denmark’s Three Years’ War (1848-51) with the Germans, two world wars, the rise of late capitalism and concomitant descent of the very life-blood of Marstallers’ lives, the sailing industry, and finally the ascendency of globalization (though the “g” word is not used).”

I have been lucky enough to be given a copy of Jensen’s novel–now I just have to find myself the mood/time/weather for such an expansive story (these things really do make a difference). Perhaps this will be my Big Summer Read.

Gyrðir Elíasson wins the 2011 Nordic Literature Prize

Icelandic author Gyrðir Elíasson won this year’s Nordic Literature Prize for his short story collection Milli trjánna. The selection committee remarked that Gyrðir won “for stylistically outstanding literary art which depicts inner and outer threats in dialogue with world literature.”

According to this article on norden.org Gyrðir “made his debut in 1983. Throughout his literary career he has published a great number of works of short prose, lyric poetry and five novels.” The website literature.is (a comprehensive site dedicated to Icelandic authors and literature, maintained by the Reykjavík City Library) has a nice biography for the author, as well as a selection of English (Danish, German, and Norwegian) translations of some of his poetry and short stories. Perhaps we’ll see an English version of Milli trjánna soon, too!

A Preliminary PEN World Voices 2011 Schedule

By now, you (New Yorkers, at least) have almost certainly marked your calendar and set aside all of your free time at the end of April for the annual PEN World Voices Festival, that annual literary celebration of writers the world over who get together for a host of small, intimate panels featuring frequently esoteric subject matter (i.e. “Poetry and Yoga“) and often incongruously paired authors (i.e. David Almond and Sofi Oksanen) to almost universally delightful effect. There are a handful of annual events and happenings that I look forward to every year, and World Voices is–to me–up there with Ben & Jerry’s Free Cone Day and the Halloween Parade in Greenwich Village.

There are always more events than anyone (at least anyone with a day job) can attend, and progressively, more events are ticketed which although may be valid (for reasons of keeping attendance down and raising much-needed funds), is a development which I am kind of unhappy with. Never fear, though, there are plenty of free events worth attending. Below is a list of events I think are particularly worth noting and making it out for, especially since many like-themed events (on subjects such as translation) are scheduled on the same days and in the same locations. So go ahead, take a half day from work, and have a literary-minded day.

Also, many of last year’s events were recorded as MP3s and/or streaming video (such as the wonderful conversation that I linked to above) and are available on the World Voices 2010 website. If you want to get a sense of the festival, or catch up on some panels you missed last year, there are a lot of gems there.

The festival runs from April 25 to May 1. Here are some of the (free) events I’m looking forward to most (all descriptions from the PEN website):

Tuesday, March 26:

12 Noon: Lunchtime Literary Conversations: Ludovic Debeurme and Kjersti Annesdatter Skomsvold

In a not-so distant past, the lunchtime hour was a sacred time for editor and writer alike to exchange ideas. Take a respite from the day’s activities to hear a conversation between French graphic novelist Ludovic Debeurme and Norwegian author Kjersti Annesdatter Skomsvold. Winner of the Rene Goscinny Prize, Debeurme’s Lucille (forthcoming in May 2011) explores life and fantasies with elegant clean graphics and a profound love of childhood games. Winner of the 2009 Tarjei Vesaas First Book Prize, and Nominated for the 2009 Booksellers’ Prize, Kjersti Annesdatter Skomsvold’s first novel, The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am, stands out for its humorous earnestness and unusually inventive prose.

Wednesday, April 27

Lunchtime Literary Conversations: Laurence Cossé and Hervé Le Tellier
[Ed. Note: I reviewed Cosse’s newly translated novel A Novel Bookstore when it came out last year. My review is here.]

Take a respite from the day’s activity with the second event of our lunchtime conversations and enjoy a tête-à-tête between two bestselling French authors: Laurence Cossé, the author of The Corner of the Veil, Prime Minister’s Woman, and most recently, The Novel Bookstore; and Hervé Le Tellier, the author of Enough About Love, and the forthcoming The Sextine Chapel. Translation is available.

3:30 PM: Authors and Audiences (feat. Mario Bellatin, author of Beauty Salon)

A writer spends considerable time envisaging his or her readers. But as a manuscript makes its way across the editorial labyrinth—through the hands of editors, agents, publishers and booksellers—the imagined readers become elusive. Editor and author Albert Mobilio leads a fascinating panel discussion exploring the wide gulf between a writer’s desired audience and the readers they ultimately find.

7:00 PM: The Next Decade in Book Culture

The critic’s voice indelibly shapes the works we read. But in an age when readers are rapidly migrating to Twitter book clubs, literary web sites, and Amazon reader reviews, how will the critic continue to lead literary conversations? Join a conversation about the new power of the book review and the emergence of a unique reader experience in the age of the digital revolution.

Friday, April 29

12 Noon: Translating America

The quest for authenticity and idiosyncrasy would seem to place American writers beyond translation. Yet their popularity abroad—equaled only by loathing for our foreign policy—has sometimes dwarfed their readership at home and reshaped the global literary landscape. Here to discuss how this encounter has influenced their writing and their culture are four authors who have translated canonical American works: Huckleberry Finn, The Bell Jar, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Nickel and Dimed.

2:00 PM: The Great Global Book Swap

Imagine you are invited to a great global book swap and have to bring just one beloved book originally written in a foreign tongue: what would it be? Join five eminent writers who have trotted the globe and lived everywhere from Ireland to India, Latvia to Sudan, for a reading and a talk about the works of translation that enriched and changed their lives.

4:00 PM: Catalan Literature’s Modern Tradition

One of the world’s most beautiful romance languages, Catalan, has a rich literary trove, unknown to most of the English-speaking world. A discussion of seminal 20th-century works, such as Llorenc Villalonga’s The Doll’s Room and Josep Pla’s The Gray Notebook, led by renowned Catalan literary historians and translators, will show you a treasure of literature you’ll wish you’d found sooner.

8:45 PM: Best Translated Book Awards (Hosted by Open Letter Press’ Chad Post)

Established writers and translators such as David Grossman and Susan Bernofsky go up against relative newcomers such as Julia Franck and Edward Gauvin in this contest naming the Best Translated Books from 2010. Sponsored by the Three Percent web site, this event will name the winners in both the fiction and poetry categories, with $5,000 cash prizes (underwritten by Amazon.com) going to the winning authors and translators. Hosted by Chad W. Post, and featuring a range of top translators and literary enthusiasts, this program will highlight great works of world literature now available to English readers.

Saturday, April 30

2:00 PM: Best European Fiction

Revel in the spectacular story-telling of the celebrated anthology Best European Fiction. For 2011, editor Aleksandar Hemon and preface writer Colum McCann return to continue their discussion of European literature today, followed by readings and discussions with contributors from Moldova, Norway, and Slovenia.

6:00 PM: New Tendencies in Spanish Language Literatures

As in previous editions of the festival, Instituto Cervantes hosts a panel on the state of affairs in contemporary Spanish-language fiction. A distinguished group of novelists from both sides of the Atlantic will examine the situation of Latin American, Spanish, and Catalan literature, looking into the complex relationships among these rich traditions today. With the participation of Marcelo Figueras (Argentina), Enrique Serna (Mexico), Teresa Solana (Catalonia), and Manuel de Lope (Spain). Moderated by Eduardo Lago, novelist and executive director of the Cervantes Institute.

Sunday, May 1

1:00 PM: Translator Rights and Translator Wrongs

PEN Translation Committee Chair Susan Bernofsky teams up with intellectual property attorney Erach Screwvala to discuss intellectual property issues in literary translations and their implications for both the business and the artistic sides of the translator’s work. They are joined by three prominent translator-authors from Poland, the Czech Republic/Spain and Israel who will report on the status of the ownership of artistic works internationally, and reflect on the culture of translation in their respective countries.

Barbara Fister Interviews Quentin Bates

Nordic crime enthusiast (and fellow librarian) Barbara Fister has a nice long and interesting interview with Quentin Bates on her Scandinavian Crime Fiction blog. Among other things, they discuss how Iceland has changed since Bates first lived there in the 70s, the 2008 economic Crash, Arnaldur Indriðason, and writing from a female prospective. I won’t spoil the highlights for you, but I will pass along my hearty agreement with Bates’ assessment of “the mighty Bernard Scudder,” the translator of record for oodles and oodles of Icelandic literature–everything from sagas to the English subtitles in the film version of Jar City. Says Bates:

“Arnaldur and Yrsa both had the tremendous good fortune to be translated into English by the mighty Bernard Scudder, who did a magnificent job – to the extent that their books are as good, if not better, in English than in Icelandic.”

Here, here. Scudder’s translation record is inspirational and staggering, and I’m delighted that he is still receiving due credit, even if he isn’t around to enjoy it.

Spontaneous Reads: Northanger Abbey

I now find myself in the unexpected position of having read half of Jane Austen’s oeuvre. Let it not be said that people’s carved-in-stone literary tastes and opinions cannot change. Having once thought Austen to be one of the most deadly boring authors to have been perpetuated upon us (up there with Dickens), I now find her novels as witty and engaging as I always found those delightful BBC mini-series adapted from them. (I still think S&S is a little contrived in places, but never mind that for now…)

Northanger Abbey is an interesting entry in Austen’s work for a variety of reasons (and I’m cribbing these details from the Foreword/Afterword in the book–due credit). Let’s list:

1. It was Austen’s first novel, written when she was 20(ish), and sold to be published in 1803. However, for reasons that apparently escaped the author at the time, the novel was not published until a year after she died, in 1818.

2. Where Austen is said to have assiduously rewritten all of her manuscripts (almost obsessively), Northanger Abbey remained in much the same form from the time of its writing to that of its publication. She even wrote a note to precede the text when it was being finally prepared for release that apologizes (in witty, ironical fashion) for the fact that it was now rather out of date with reference to fashion and styles because it had been intended for publication over ten years earlier.

3. Jane Austen, the author, is all over this book. She includes a variety of opinionated asides about novel reading, her heroine’s lack of understanding, the tricks that a young woman must employ to secure a man’s attentions, etc. They are jarring little rants, and all a little po-mo for the time, but quite delightful in that she doesn’t really seem to have any interest in restraining herself.

Those are the main differences, at least in terms of the novel’s general style and publication. But there are also a few other notable points which occurred to me as I was reading. For one, there’s the fact that while there is certainly a romance involved in the novel’s plot, it isn’t the central focus of the book. The titular abbey, home to Catherine Morland’s love interest, doesn’t even make an appearance for the first half of the book. Rather, this is a book about a young, good-hearted, but generally naive, woman growing up and if not becoming cynical, than at least becoming a little more aware of the inclination of most people to act in self-serving and not entirely upstanding ways.

Northanger Abbey feels very contemporary in some of its relationship dynamics–it feels (and the updated packaging does underscore this) very much like a Chick-Lit book. I jokingly commented while reading this that a better title would be Frenemies in Regency England, and I think that actually still rings true. Catherine meets and instantly becomes entwined forever and ever BFF-style with the desperately cynical and conniving Isabella Thorpe and her more-than-equally rakish brother James. Isabella manipulates and lies to Catherine, pretends to put her needs and feelings above all else while constantly lying to her face and attempting to overthrow any other friends that Catherine might make. It’s a vicious power dynamic–particularly to any gal who lived through grade school friendships–and one which certainly features prominently in a variety of contemporary lady books. I’m not an expert on the genre, but people who are (hey you, Georgia!) have affirmed for me that a central element of chick-lit books is the main (female) character’s process of becoming an independent, self-confident, and self-actualizing (forgive me, it seems an appropriate phrase) person–often while working through a difficult, and somewhat demeaning relationship with a close female friend. And that, is Northanger Abbey in a nutshell.

One last thing that bears mentioning is that where the other Austen novels I’ve read (P&P and S&S) are all really emphatic about the fact that the actions of one’s family (or connections, to be Austenian) have every bit of bearing on the way that that individual is treated. Your sister elopes with a soldier and lives with him out of matrimony, and you–the upstanding virtuous sisters–are toast. No one will marry you ev-er because your sister’s trampy and your mom is a money-grubber or your father died and your step-brother isn’t interested in introducing you to proper society. This always seemed to be one of the more terribly unfair aspects of matrimonial rituals in these novels. As if anyone can escape having one or two people in the family (and extended family) who they aren’t totally proud of. But in Northanger Abbey, this your-family-does-wrong-thus-you-are-besmirched thing doesn’t really hold. Henry and Eleanor Tilney acknowledge (tacitly, I’ll grant) that their father is an overbearing, rather hateful fellow, but they specifically distance themselves from his behavior as having nothing to do with them, and other people (including Catherine’s family) accept that. Same goes for their brother, the “rattle” Captain Tilney. He acts dishonorably, and they accept that, but don’t see it as being material to their standing as people. It’s obviously men in question in these examples, so maybe that’s the difference, but given that Eleanor Tilney fairs pretty well, it still seems a pointed variation to other Austen novels.

And with that, I’ll just close with a quote that tickled me early on in the book, although it’s not really a key moment–just touching in a bittersweet sort of way:

“Her love of dirt gave way to an inclination for finery, and she grew clean as she grew smart; she had now the pleasure of sometimes hearing her father and mother remark on her personal improvement. ‘Catherine grows quite a good-looking girl–she is almost pretty today,’ were words which caught her ears now and then; and how welcome were the sounds! To look almost pretty is an acquisition of higher delight to a girl who has been looking plain the first fifteen years of her life than a beauty from her cradle can ever receive.”