Dispatch from PEN World Voices: A Lunchtime Literary Conversation with Eugène Nicole and Lila Azam Zanganeh

My first PEN WV event this week was on Wednesday afternoon, at the regular “lunchtime literary conversation series” that is ever-so-conveniently around the corner from my office. Each year, several of these events bring together two authors to discuss a variety of topics over the lunch hour. Past events have often featured rather unlikely pairings—for instance, all Norwegian author Kjersti Annesdatter Skomsvold  and French graphic novelist Ludovic Debeurme had in common, I believe, was that neither had been published in English–and often, that’s part of the appeal. In these slightly off-kilter match-ups, there can be an endearing attempt on the part of both guests–who in all likeliness, are not familiar with the work of their co-panelist–to connect with the other’s work, to find common ground in artistic practice or thematic interests. To affirm their shared status as successful, notable authors–and usually as authors whose native language is not English–carefully navigating a week-long literary event where most of the audience has never before heard of them. Yesterday’s event broke with this tradition admirably–Nicole and Zanganeh, although neither contemporaries in age, background, or writing concerns, were a delightful and well-matched pairing, who both obviously had a great deal of respect for one another’s work.

I wrote about the event for The L Magazine; you can see it here. The full text is below.


The Lunchtime Literary Conversations series, hosted by La Maison Française at NYU, is now a mainstay of the PEN World Voices Festival. Each year, several of these events bring together two authors—usually one of French or Francophone extraction—to discuss a variety of topics over the lunch hour. Wednesday’s conversation, between Eugène Nicole and Lila Azam Zanganeh, was a delightful pairing, highlighting the “miraculous points of intersection [of] interests and passions” that both authors share. Nicole, who was born on the tiny North Atlantic island (and French territory) of Saint Pierre, is a respected Proustian scholar at NYU whose cycle of five interrelated novels about his native isle, L’Oeuvre des mers, has taken inspiration from À la recherche du temps perdu. Zanganeh was born in Paris to Iranian parents, and currently teaches at Harvard. She is also a respected literary critic, and recently wrote her first semi-fictional book Enchanter: Nabokov and Happiness, in which she pays homage to her own Great Author.

Although both speakers graciously shared the mic and consistently shifted the conversation to the other’s work, the panel clearly belonged to Zanganeh, a wholly enthusiastic, well-spoken, well-read, and charming speaker. On her impetus, they started by discussing the “anxiety of influence,” particularly when one’s work has been so affected by an author of such great stature, like Proust or Nabokov. Nicole referenced Enchanter (Zanganeh’s book), in which, he noted, she “constantly” quoted Nabokov, integrating his work within her own without ever “breaking tonality.” Zanganeh laughed that doing this was “indeed very perilous,” since Nabokovians are “very jealous of their author,” and eager to find fault with tributes that fall short of their inspiration. All the same, she said, “in order to pay homage fully” to an author like Nabokov, “you need a measure of disrespect and irreverence.” It was necessary, she said, for her to “punch him on occasion.” She then reeled off a short, happy list of censures against her hero: “He was a terrible poet! I don’t like his Russian works—I secretly don’t like Pale Fire that much.”

Nicole then suggested that Enchanter was not just about Nabokov, but rather “a lively way to say something about Nabokov, using his own words.” This got to the heart of Zanganeh’s reading of Nabokov, to her strongly felt assertion that he is “a great writer of happiness.” So her own book about him “had to be playful.”

Zanganeh then turned the conversation to Nicole’s work, starting by reading a short excerpt from L’Oeuvre des mers, which had been translated into English for the occasion by NYU professor and lauded translator Richard Sieburth. (It bears noting that none of L’Oeuvre des mershas been translated into English, nor has any of Nicole’s other fiction. Even if only based on the passage read during this lunchtime event, this clearly needs rectifying.)

When setting out to write L’Oeuvre des mers, Nicole felt a great deal of responsibility toward the place where he was born, his “filiation.” Saint Pierre, he explained, “had not yet entered into French literature.” (Chateaubriand and Celine, he mentioned, had written maybe a page each about the island, but that was all.)

The Saint Pierre that emerged in the course of the conversation was something of a no-man’s land, neither North American nor really French, a French territory, but not one that most could locate on a map—”a place that is, and yet isn’t,” Zanganeh summarized. And yet, as a child, Saint Pierre was the whole world to Nicole, to all of the residents. “We are dealing with an island,” he said. “Islanders think that nowhere else exists.” At the age of 14, in order to continue school, Nicole had to leave Saint Pierre in order to attend a private school in France. From this experience, he began to practice “focusing from far away,” a skill that has served him well in the course of his novel writing, as he very rarely returns to the island now. “I always had this dual image of being far away, and still exactly where I was [in France],” he said.

After meandering discussions of lived experience’s integration in fiction, the Proustian sentence, how “all of literature is a rewriting,” and the elasticity of English as compared to French, the conversation concluded with the question of practical writing techniques. When she starts a project, Zanganeh admitted, she has difficulty focusing. “You want to do anything else—you want to check your email, run around, eat chocolate,” but it eventually becomes easier to focus on writing. For Nicole, it’s not a matter of forcing himself to work for a specific number of hours a day, but rather to “give as much information as possible in each sentence.” He tries to capture images, to see the full possibility of a given location or circumstance. As with a child, he explained, for whom “one centimeter of asphalt is a world.”


Retaining the Strange: Tomas Transtromer (and Ismail Kadare) in (Re-)Translation

Last week, poetry critic David Orr published a great piece (“Versions: Tomas Transtromer’s Poems and the Art of Translation“) in the New York Times about two competing English translators of Swedish poet (and recent Nobel laureate) Tomas Transtromer’s work. While it’s typical, Orr explains, for Nobel laureates “outside the Anglophone world” to experience “a fair amount of pushing and shoving among your translators (if you have any)…”

…[T]he most interesting debates over English versions of [Transtromer’s] work actually took place before his Nobel victory. In this case, the argument went to the heart of the translator’s function and occurred mostly in The Times Literary Supplement. The disputants were Fulton, one of Transtromer’s longest-serving translators, and Robertson, who has described his own efforts as “imitations.” Fulton accused Robertson (who doesn’t speak Swedish) of borrowing from his more faithful versions while inserting superfluous bits of Robertson’s own creation — in essence, creating poems that are neither accurate translations nor interesting departures. Fulton rolled his eyes at “the strange current fashion whereby a ‘translation’ is liable to be praised in inverse proportion to the ‘translator’s’ knowledge of the original language.” Robertson’s supporters countered that Fulton was just annoyed because Robertson was more concerned with the spirit of the ­poems than with getting every little kottbulle exactly right.

Orr then goes on to examine–in really a very illuminating fashion–the tonal/metaphorical/stylistic variations between the two translators’ versions of Transtromer’s work, and how those do (and don’t) reflect back on the originals. (His thoughtful but accessible analysis of the few Transtromer poems in the article actually makes a very convincing sell for Orr’s forthcoming book, Beautiful & Pointless, a guide to poetry in which he “argues that readers should accept the foreignness of poetry in the way that they accept the strangeness of any place to which they haven’t traveled—that they should expect a little confusion, at least at first.”)

Orr’s explanation of why Transtromer’s poetry is “exactly the sort of writing that tends to do well in translation, at least in theory” is also useful. As he explains,

“The plainer a poem looks — the less it relies on extremities of form, diction or syntax — the more we assume that even a translator with no knowledge of the original language will be able to produce a reasonable match for what the poem feels like in its first incarnation.”

Ultimately, Orr is skeptical of Robertson’s “alterations,” although he concedes that they “do a fine job of conveying a poem’s spirit.” But what I found perhaps the most interesting about the article is that Orr does not dismiss out of hand the possibility that Robertson could have produced a successful version of Transtromer’s work, even though he doesn’t understand Swedish. Instead, he looks at two shot poems in alternate translations by the two translators and comes to the conclusion that in Robertson’s versions, “The changes generally make Transtromer less, well, strange and more typically ‘poetic.'”

For my own part, I have to say that I audibly tsked when I read that Robertson didn’t speak Swedish and had used, presumably, other (English) translations to render his own versions. It sounded to me more like a cover song (a parallel Orr draws himself late in the article), or an homage, maybe–but not a translation.

I won’t use this as a moment to completely digress into debates about translation theory and practice (which honestly, I’m not even fully equipped to have yet), but suffice to say that maybe before completely writing off Robertson’s viability as a translator, I should have taken Orr’s approach and considered–for one–how his ‘translations’ were or weren’t appropriate for the medium. After all, there have been scenarios in which “twice-removed translations” have been successful.

I’m referring in particular to the English translations (by David Bellos) of Albanian author Ismail Kadare’s works. For a whole host of viable–and fascinating–reasons, Kadare’s novels have almost entirely been translated into English not from Albanian, but from French. Kadare not only hasn’t minded that his works have been translated in this manner, he’s preferred it.

The history of Kadare’s body of work and its later translations is complicated (and again–really, really interesting), so when the Orr piece got me thinking about “re-translation,” I took the opportunity to re-read a piece that Bellos wrote in 2005 called “The Englishing of Ismail Kadare: Notes of a retranslator.” I would highly recommend this (short) piece, if any of the above topics are of interest. As with everything Bellos writes about translation, it’s sensible, articulate, and nuanced, and provides a fresh lens through which to consider the roles of translation and translators.

Mister Blue

My latest review is of Mister Blue by Québécois author Jacques Poulin. I discovered Poulin last year when I read his Translation is a Love Affair, a slender, whimsical, shaggy-dog sort of novel which, in its sweetly roundabout way, manages to convey quite a lot about human connections and the importance of reaching out to other people–strangers–to find those connections.

Although he is much lauded in Canada and France, Poulin is not (as far as I can tell) well known outside of either country (and honestly, the one Quebecer I asked about  Poulin’s work had never heard of him, either), so I’ll direct your attention to his bio in The Canadian Encyclopedia. According to the entry, he “is among the most widely read Québécois novelists of his generation and the most respected by critics”; additionally, his novel Spring Tides (also available in an English translation published by Archipelago Books), is said to be “one of the most profound Québécois novels.”

Poulin’s most recent novel to be translated into English, Mister Blue, didn’t appeal to me quite as much as Translation is a Love Affair, but it was still a very affecting, empathetic, and quirky story and emphasized many of the the themes that were raised in TiaLA. It also opens with one of the best poems I have read in a really long time, by Jean Tardieu (from The Hidden River):

(amiably, standing in the doorway)

How are things on earth?

-Fine, fine, very fine.

Are the little dogs flourishing?

-Oh my goodness, yes, indeed they are.

What about the clouds?


And the volcanoes?


And the rivers?




And your soul?


the springtime was too green
my soul ate too much salad.

My full review is below, or you can read it on Three Percent here.


The fictional world of Québécois novelist Jacques Poulin can, poetically speaking, be likened to a snow globe: a minutely-detailed landscape peppered with characters who appear to be frozen in one lovely, continuous moment. Mister Blue, recently published in a new English translation, captures this timelessness in a fluid and deceptively simple story about the complex bonds that can develop between completely unlike people, if only they are allowed to.

Brooklyn’s Archipelago Books has previously released two Poulin novels—Spring Tides and Translation is a Love Affair—both of which share some basic fundamentals with Mister Blue. Each of these slender novels feature reclusive literary types (authors and translators), their beloved cats (all with names worthy of T.S. Eliot’s Practical Cats: Matousalem, Mr. Blue, Charade, Vitamin), and enigmatic strangers who quickly insinuate themselves into the lives and imaginations of the aforementioned writers. But although Poulin frequently returns to the same themes, the same hyper-specific scenarios and characters in his work, each of his novels retain a freshness and idiosyncratic sweetness that reward readers with small revelations and happy coincidences.

Mister Blue opens on Jim, “the slowest writer in Quebec,” a former Hemingway scholar turned full-time novelist who now summers in his dilapidated childhood home, a ramshackle cottage in a quiet, uninhabited bay on the Ile d’Orleans. Jim’s daily writing follows a quiet routine with little to punctuate it other than semi-regular tennis matches with his brother, feeding and tending to his cats and the scrappy strays that invite themselves into his home, and solitary walks on the beach in front of his home. It is on just such a walk that Jim discovers footprints in the sand leading to a cave where someone has been camping. Finding a copy of The Arabian Nights in the cave with the name “Marie K.” written on the flyleaf, Jim becomes instantly besotted with this mysterious unseen stranger, whom he nicknames Marika.

Here, as in Translation is a Love Affair, real life quickly begins to intermingle with fiction and vice-versa. For Poulin’s characters, life itself is a process of composition, improvised and redrafted as unforeseen events take place. As Jim struggles to write a love story, he becomes convinced that his authorial problems can all be chalked up to the fact that he has ignored Hemingway’s rule: “a writer must stick to the subject he knows best.” He surmises that his story has stalled because “I was trying to write a love story without being in love myself.” Ergo, he whimsically decides, he must “take a closer interest in that person named Marika.”

But matters of the heart, much like matters of fiction, are not so easily constructed. Instead of meeting Marika, he meets a woman named Bungalow, a former housewife who left her “gilded cage” to run a shelter for young women in Old Quebec, and La Petite, who lives at the shelter but increasingly becomes a regular visitor at Jim’s cottage. The arrival of these two women takes both Jim’s fictional and real life love stories off course: the mysterious Marika continues to elude him, and obstinately, his fictional characters become friends instead of lovers, despite his frequent attempts to revise their relationship. The romantic story that he set out to write (and to live) gives way, ever so slowly, to a gentler, more protective, tender kind of love—that between himself and the curious, lovable, but often volatile La Petite—the love between a parent and child.

In simple, clean prose (musically rendered in Sheila Fischman’s translation) Poulin delivers his bittersweet tale with a restraint that belies true joy, the dogged optimism that complete strangers from totally different backgrounds and circumstances can find in each other real empathy and kindness. That such connections are right there in front of us, if only we trouble to look for them.

“What matters are the emotional ties that connect people and form a vast, invisible web without which the world would crumble,” Jim realizes. “Everything else to which people devote the greater part of their time, looking very serious as they do so, is of only minor importance.”

Upcoming November Translation Events

For those of you in the New York area with an interest in translation, there are a few upcoming events which might catch your fancy:

Friday, November 4 (Tomorrow)
“The Art of Translation”
7 PM

The Bridge, an “independent reading and discussion series in New York City devoted to literary translation” will be hosting this talk with three “Distinguished Editors of Translations” at The Center for Fiction.  The editors, Drenka Willen, Barbara Epler and John Siciliano all have impressive credentials, having among them edited/published works by Roberto Bolaño, Danilo Kiš, Tomas Tranströmer, and Arto Paasilinna among others. From the event description:

The Bridge Series founded by Sal Robinson and Bill Martin shines the spotlight on the art of translation. This event in partnership with the series features a panel of editors and publishers of translation discussing the special issues that come along with bringing foreign language literature to American audiences.

Friday, November 11
“Contemporary Poetry and Translation”
La Maison Française, NYU
4:30 PM

A reading and discussion with:

Poet; actor; director; author of Neiges; Parole et musique; Amitiés à Perec

Poet, author of In Wind: A Paper; translator; editor, Carnet de route

Marcland and Freeman have translated American poets Barbara Guest, Jorie Graham, Geoffrey Nutter, and James Tate, among others, and French poets Suzanne Doppelt, Dominique Fourcade, and Jean-Christophe Bailly.

This is a free event and does not require RSVP.


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.

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.

A Novel Bookstore

I’ve noticed lately that I’ve been developing a bit of a thing for “bibliomysteries.” I first became aware of the genre during a Rare Book class that I took during my first semester at library school, when I read and really enjoyed the first in John Dunning’s Cliff Janeway series, Booked to Die. I recently reviewed Amanda Flower’s Maid of Murder and enjoyed High Lonesome Road by Betsy Thornton (about the murder of a bookmobile driver in Arizona). And there are several biblio-themed selections on my ever-growing to-read list: the Danish novel The Library of Shadows and Real Murders by Charlaine Harris (who, I somewhat belatedly found out writes the Southern Vampire series with Sookie Stackhouse) among others.

It’s only natural then that when I found out about the upcoming translation of A Novel Bookstore by French author Laurence Cossé, that I would jump on it. A book about a bookstore of discriminating taste in France whose super-secret selection committee starts getting violently targeted for asserting their literary taste? Sounds awesome, right?

Well, it is in a lot of ways, although it’s not really a crime novel in the traditional sense–Cossé does not place so much importance on the development of the investigation, for instance. I genuinely loved about 3/4 of the book–even when I disagreed with particular declarations of certain novels’ literary greatness–but toward the end, it became a bit murkier for me. Rather than hash all that out here, however, I’ll just let the review speak for itself. You can read the original on the Three Percent website, or the full text is below.

You may also want to check out the website that Cossé set up for the book–nicely immersive and set up as if it is the website of the bookstore in the novel.


“Who should we see at the police to denounce attacks against literature?” Such is the question that two bookstore owners—one an elegant heiress, the other a self-educated, solitary, bohemian bookseller—solemnly pose at the opening of French author Laurence Cossé’s satirical biblio-thriller, A Novel Bookstore. Both avid and opinionated readers, Francesca Aldo-Valbelli and Ivan (Van) Georg embarked on an entirely idealistic enterprise—to open The Good Novel, “a perfect bookstore, the kind where you’d sell nothing but good novels.” Their inventory selection process was complex and clandestine: a panel of eight unidentified novelists—each with their own code name, such as “Quinoa” and “Strait-laced,” or “The Red” and “Green Pea”—would generate lists of titles to be stocked. Books on hand would be old and new, from countries worldwide. However, The Good Novel would not fall prey to current publishing trends, and would not depend on forthcoming novels or best sellers—“books not worth bothering with”—to make a profit.

The Good Novel had a fabulous debut, but its unfettered success was not to last. Shortly after its opening, the store faced a sudden onslaught of attacks. Vitriolic opinion pieces declaring the store’s mission to sell only good books as “totalitarian” were published in newspapers. Malicious customers arrived in hordes, ordering Danielle Steele books they never planned to pay for. Most shocking, three of the members of the secret selection committee were not only identified, but violently attacked by mysterious strangers who pointedly taunted them: “It’s like being in a bad crime novel, huh. . . . ? With vulgar characters and a stupid plot . . . So this isn’t a good novel, huh?”

While the novel flirts with the mystery genre, it ultimately defies such classification. Starting much like a thriller, A Novel Bookstore quickly steps back, exploring—in great detail—Francesca and Van’s first meeting, their histories, and their debates on everything from Pierre Michon to whether the store’s inventory should be organized alphabetically, chronologically, or geographically (they opt for combination of the three). Cossé also playfully manipulates the narration, starting the story in third person, and then revealing an unnamed first person narrator who is actually a character in the story as well.

Each character is precisely articulated, with personalized quirks and gestures and even wardrobes. Cossé observes the smallest details—such as a hole in the elbow of a favorite sweater—and imbues them with meaning. These characterizations, combined with such explicit details about preparations to open the bookstore, immerse one in a world that feels entirely real. The thriller aspect of the novel falls to the wayside, with its eventual explanation feeling almost irrelevant to the real meat of the book. Reveling in minutia, occasionally overwrought declarations of literary superiority (Cormac McCarthy is consistently touted the greatest living writer), and piquant asides on the state of literary criticism in France, Cossé seems to have created an ideal shaggy dog story: it’s not really a matter of what “happens” or doesn’t, as the case may be, but simply immersing oneself among these characters.

As the novel progresses, however, this verisimilitude gives way to a much more fictional fiction—a plot-driven, theatrical dénouement that feels strangely out of step with the rest of the novel. Suspicions that The Good Novel is the victim of a greater “conspiracy”—wrought by members of the greater (very cynical) literary community—are actually well founded. And as the trials and tribulations faced by the bookstore and its denizens become more and more dramatic and outlandish, so do the characters’ responses. “With all due allowance, something happened here that is comparable to what happened with Al Qaeda and its consequences,” the policeman investigating The Good Novel attacks remarks.

It seems clear that the dramatic shift in tone at the end of the novel is intended to symbolically illustrate Cossé’s pet moral: that mainstream society only has a literary appetite for banal bestsellers, and that “lazy and frivolous” critics and journalists are in great part to blame for this mediocre taste.“They heap praise on books that are nothing but fluff, and in the rush they overlook real jewels,” we’re told. But maybe there is a bit of a wink in the self-righteous exclamations of the downtrodden booksellers. Cossé is, after all, a journalist herself. In the end, perhaps the greatest strength of A Novel Bookstore is to simply compel readers to consider their own literary preferences more consciously. For as Van says, “one of the most fortunate purposes of literature is to bring like-minded people together and get them talking.”