PEN World Voices Festival Recap #3: The Literary Safari, 2.0

My last PEN event this year was the second Literary Safari at Westbeth, which was another remarkable event that I was able to write about for The L Magazine. The full post is available on their website, cleverly titled by someone-not-myself as “Stalking the Exotic Author at the Westbeth Literary Safari,” here. The full text is below.

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An opportunity to “[e]njoy intimate readings by Festival participants inside the homes of famous Westbeth residents” the second Literary Safari held during this year’s PEN World Voices Festival was, in response to the whimsical chaos of last year’s event, ever so slightly more streamlined. In addition to the simplified map of Westbeth’s winding hallways and the reading schedule that was handed to each guest, this year, attendees had the advantage of signage throughout the hallways and balloons taped to each hosting apartment’s doorway. It lent a cheerful suburban party vibe to what is otherwise the single most hip literary event to have ever been conceived.

Last year’s attendees came to this year’s safari with plenty of tips on how to maximize the experience and see, depending on your predilections, either the most readings or the most apartments. (Lurk near the back of each apartment for an easy exit during the inevitably late-running Q&A; don’t revisit an apartment you went to last year.) Scheduled in optimistic twenty-five minute increments with five minute ‘passing periods’ in between, the maximum number of possible readings/apartments that one could see during the course of the night would have been four; my group was proud to have successfully seen three.

Colson Whitehead was this year’s marquis participant, but part of what makes the Literary Safari such a unique and pleasantly awkward event is the opportunity to be introduced to new authors, to sit knee-to-knee with luminaries who while unfamiliar to you, are important participants in their home country’s literary milieu. (There are undoubtedly downsides to this arrangement from the writer’s perspective, as attendees just love forcing international authors to shill their country’s cultural output wholesale, asking hugely generalizing questions about “the state of fiction” or sometimes, even non-literary traditions in another country or geographic region. Example: “Is fiction less popular than film in [insert country name here]?”)

In her first reading of the evening, Romanian author and journalist Gabriela Adamesteanu, was asked a battery of such questions, which she kindly qualified with nuanced responses. When asked to talk about how literary reception in Romania might be different from that in the U.S., she explained that following the country’s revolution, the public’s main reading interest was in non-fiction, particularly the memoirs and essays that had been censored during communism. In the intervening ten years, however, a new wave of young authors is reinspiring an interest in novels and poetry.

Adamesteanu herself has been a leading member of the Romanian intelligentsia and was an outspoken advocate for a civil society during the communist years; she was an editor of the socio-political magazine 22, and also the president of an activist the Romanian chapter of PEN for several years. She was at the festival to read from her novel Wasted Morning (first published in 1984; translated into English last year), which was identified by the attending Director of the Romanian Cultural Institute as “one of [Romania’s] major modern novels,” and an incisive portrait of the country during the rule of dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. Though Adamesteanu was very quiet and self-effacing, listening first to a reading of her novel in English and then selecting a small passage to read in Romanian herself, the passage chosen was an assertive one–an emotional scene in which a man believes that his partner has recently had “an adventure” with another man, resulting in a clandestine abortion.

An event monitor in the back of the room ensured that all attendees got to their next reading on time, so we were able to dash to our next, that of prolific Lebanese author, critic, and playwright Elias Khoury, whose novels Archipelago Books has been in the process of releasing in English since 2006. Khoury was perched in one corner of a comfortably cluttered living room in one of Westbeth’s coveted duplex apartments, with attendees crowded around on couches and curled up on the oriental carpet, sipping the wine that was laid out on an end table. Both hosts being painters, the walls were covered in large canvases and multi-media pieces, to which Khoury gestured: “I hope my words can match the beauty around us…This is not an official reading, so I cannot behave like writers behave. We can speak like friends.”

Khoury read a passage (in English, and briefly, in Arabic as well) from As Though She Were Sleeping, which was just released in April. But before doing so, he gave extensive background about the book and its context–a meandering discussion which sweepingly encompassed Palestinian history, comparative Biblical and Quranic traditions, dream analysis, and Khoury’s belief that language should be “feminized” in order to better represent marginalized experiences. “Literature and religion are in the same register–they both speak about love, about death. Religion is totally masculine [because] with monotheism, god became masculine. Literature [and therefore language] can play the other role, can represent the oppressed.”

Khoury spoke of the novel’s character, Milia, so intimately that one attendee thought she was a real person in his life; the author clearly has a rich and full relationship with his creations. “This is the story of a woman I met in my imagination,” he explained. “We became very special friends–she allowed me to enter her inner life…I loved this woman.”

Another Archipelago author, the Norwegian writer Karl O. Knausgaard, read a few doors down the hall, in “the smallest duplex in Westbeth,” according to one of the hosts. Knausgaard was clearly less taken with the chatty intimacy of the event, and stationed himself in a corner from where he could more easily fend off idle remarks about Brooklyn and the frequently botched pronunciation of his name. When the hosts suggested that he might start his reading a little early, Knausgaard demurred–”two minutes: we will start on time”–and then, at the stroke of 8:30, stood up, button his linen suit jacket, and introduced his reading. “There is no action in this passage,” he warned. “No real characters or dialog. This is a meditation–a meditation on death.”

If this sounds intense, it was, but it was an appropriate tone for the passage, and Knausgaard is a very forceful, very engaging reader. The passage he read came from his autobiographical book My Struggle, in which he explores the death of his alcoholic father in the context of his own life. It is the first of six books that Knausgaard has written about his life, but is not strictly a memoir. “I’m a fiction writer,” he explained. “I wrote two novels before this. If I’d have known that I’d write six books [about my life], I wouldn’t have started.” The book did start as a piece of fiction, a project that Knausgaard worked on unsuccessfully for three years. When he started to write about himself, using real names and real situations, however, the project fell together. “I have a language for everyday life,” he said simply.

Following the reading, Knausgaard remained standing and looked to his audience. “If you have any questions, I’m supposed to answer them.” One question asked dealt with how Knausgaard handles writing about his life now, given that his books are no longer narrating past events, but rather his current daily life. “I have to write very fast to get distance from myself,” he said. The first 3,000+ pages of his work were written over the course of three years, although most was done in just one, with very little revision after the fact.

The next–important and inevitable–question was about the significance of Knausgaard’s title, which in Norwegian (Min kamp) carries perhaps a much more direct reference to Hitler’s manifesto of the same title. “[Its significance] besides being a provocation?” he asked, smiling ever so slightly. The title My Struggle, he explained, is meant to work on multiple levels. On one hand, it is a series of books about his life, and therefore, his tribulations and experiences. On the other, it is a gesture toward the intertwining of art and life, and a question about the nature of taboo. “You can’t just go to a cafe and sit down and start reading Mein Kampf–it’s totally forbidden.” But an awareness of the content of that book, Knausgaard asserted–with reference to the similar manifesto of Anders Breivik, the Norwegian man who killed over seventy people, many teenagers, last year–is vital. “I think everyone should read Mein Kampf, it’s an obligation we all have. It’s healthy to see what that is.”

Damion Searls and Joseph O’Neill Discuss Amsterdam Stories

On Monday, I had the pleasure of attending a reading–at my local lit hub, Greenlight Bookstore–of selections from Dutch author Nescio’s Amsterdam Stories, followed by a talk between translator Damion Searls and author Joseph O’Neill (Netherland), who lived in The Netherlands as a child and also wrote the collection’s introduction. Preceded by a casual jenever tasting (jenever being the ‘whiskey of The Netherlands,’ but certainly an aquired taste…)  it was a really animated and interesting talk with lots of great anecdotes and insights about the Dutch cultural imagination, translation practice, and Nescio.

I wanted to share some of the highlights that I scribbled down in a notebook during the event, and also encourage New Yorkers with an interest in any of the above topics to attend Searls and O’Neill’s upcoming reading and talk at 192 Books next Tuesday, April 24, at 7:00 PM. 192 Books is a great shop, but it’s tiny, so if you plan on attending, take the advice on the website and RSVP for the reading at 212.255.4022. (Any of you Dutch-lit enthusiasts in Boston and the San Francisco Bay area should also check the NYRB Events calendar–there will be a number of events promoting Amsterdam Stories in both places over the next month or so.)

For reference, I reviewed Amsterdam Stories for The L Magazine recently. My review is here.

On to the talk highlights:

Nescio and His Counterparts

Joseph O’Neill read from what is, as far as I can tell, Nescio’s most famous story, “The Freeloader,” after which Damion Searls nominated him to narrate any forthcoming audio versions. (I can confirm: O’Neill does have a very soothing reading voice.) Searls then read a few pages of “Young Titans,” which is about many of the same characters (and is one of my personal favorites in the collection).

Both selections inspired their readers to make some contextual comparisons between Nescio and some of his “accidental contemporaries” (as O’Neill put it). For his part, O’Neill evoked Kafka, discussing the “existential dilemma of the clerical worker” that permeates both Kafka and Nescio’s work (although Nescio was more successful actually holding down such a job), as well as Robert Walser (which Searls seconded). O’Neill cited (the freeloader) Japi’s famous line–“I am, thank god, absolutely nothing”–as being a classic Walser statement; that line made me and probably many others think of Melville’s Bartelby (“I prefer not to.”) Searls made comparisons to F. Scott Fitzgerald and more notably, Mark Twain.

The Twain comparison was particularly interesting, for one, because the frequently held Dutch opinion that Nescio’s work is “untranslatable” is derived in great part from its colloquial style and phrasing–its “Amsterdam-style of Dutch.” Searls said that, in Dutch, Nescio’s writing reads a lot like Huck Finn.

The ‘Untranslatability’ of Nescio (and the concept of untranslatability in general…)

As I mentioned above, there has been a sense among many Dutch readers that Nescio was somehow ‘untranslatable,’ that his prose and stylistic qualities simply could not be replicated in another language. Searls took a very practical stance on this (much like that of David Bellos, in his recent book on translation, I might add). “The thing about translating, Joe,” he quipped to O’Neill, “is that nothing is untranslatable–you just have to decide what you care about and what you don’t.” He continued, saying that when he spent time and ‘read into’ Nescio’s work, he concluded that in one example, “contractions–not so important,” but rather, for the purposes of the English translation, the overall tone was what mattered most.

(For what it’s worth, I wholeheartedly subscribe to this perspective. )

Searl’s Involvement in the Nescio Translation

Although Nescio is still a huge deal in The Netherlands–someone pointed out that if every Dutch person hasn’t read his stories, it’s probably the case that they were assigned to read him in school, but skipped it–his work has never been translated into English before. There was some speculation that the Nescio estate was extremely cautious (‘maybe too cautious’) in allowing an English translation because it would likely be the source text–rather than the original Dutch–from which further translations into Chinese or other languages would be made.

Searls was introduced to Nescio while at a writing retreat in a Dutch-speaking part of Belgium. Since his primary second language (get that?) is German, he found a copy of Nescio’s stories in German and read that first. He loved it, and so decided to pick up the Dutch original to “see if [he] could handle it.”

Alongside his German translations, Searls has also translated from French and Norwegian (the latter of which he said–delightfully–that he learned basically just so that he could translate the author Jon Fosse, who he “thinks is really great.”) Amsterdam Stories is Searls’ first translation from Dutch, and while he doesn’t have speaking fluency in the language, his grounding in German allowed him to develop a comfort in written Dutch with relative ease.

Nescio in the Dutch Cultural Imagination

Image of De Titaantjes (sculptor: Hans Baayens) via Akbar Sim on Flickr.

The point that Nescio’s characters and writing still hold a place in the Dutch imagination came up several times. A couple notable examples of this:

  • A sculpture of his ‘young titans,’ in Amsterdam’s Oosterpark (see above image).
  • A Dutch pop band called The Nits had their biggest hit with the 1983 song “Nescio” (NYRB’s Tumblr has a video of the band performing the song here.)
  • [This didn’t come up during the talk, but is worth mentioning…] As recently as 2007, a newspaper survey of Dutch readers included his major short story collection in list of the ten Best Dutch Novels of all time

Searls noted that every Dutch person he’s ever met has known Nescio’s writing. Toward the end of the short Q&A that closed the event, he also related the best anecdote of the evening–a recent episode in which a Dutch man living in New York told him that “there is a bench in Red Hook that feels like Nescio!” that the man took took his father to visit  when he was in town.

Which, after reading Amsterdam Stories, I can totally understand. I might have to make a pilgrimage myself one of these days.

PEN World Voices Recap: A Literary Safari at Westbeth

Until last week, I had never heard of the amazing artist community Westbeth, which since the 1970s has been providing amazingly attractive, delightfully eccentric, and—believe it—affordable apartments to artists of all stripes in the very West of the West Village. As part of the PEN World Voices Festival last week, Westbeth hosted a “literary safari,” inviting guests into its labyrinthine, oddly dorm-like hallways to attend readings of PEN authors in the homes of Westbeth residents. For some, this was the ultimate in real-estate envy (an avid hobby of pretty much anyone in the city). For others, it was a chance to hear great writers they had never been familiar with read. And for most, I think, it was a combination of both.

Interesting side note: there will be a documentary about Westbeth coming out in the next month, which seems to have been produced by a Danish arts organization. There’s a trailer here.

Here’s the start of the piece I wrote for The L about this:

Just after work and just before sunset, the “Literary Safari,” that took place at the Westbeth Center for the Arts’ romantically crumbling apartment complex just off the Hudson River in the West Village, combined two of New Yorkers’ most beloved pasttimes: attending exclusive cultural events and envying the well-appointed, divinely located apartments of our betters. The Safari promised a “unique experience,” and so it was. For two hours, guests were invited to “wander the hallways” of Westbeth, attending readings by 20 international authors in the homes of Westbeth residents.

For those unfamiliar with the community, Westbeth (which is, to this day, managed by a non-profit orgnaization)—is located in a former Bell Laboratories complex which were converted, in the late 60s, into 383 studio apartments by architect Richard Meier. The community first opened to residents in 1971, promising affordable housing for low and middle income artists of all stripes. (Don’t get excited—Westbeth stopped even waitlisting prospective residents in 2009 “due to the length of time applicants now spend on the list.”) The complex is 13 stories tall, and all of the studios, whose eccentric and whimsical floor plans vary considerably, are centered around a large central atrium. The hallways themselves give the building a sort of art-school dorm feel: many of the doors are painted or decorated by the owners, and each one features a different color triangle, oriented in various directions and suggesting some sort of cryptic code or affiliation. Idiosyncrasies in the layout render it impossible (on certain floors) to walk from the western end of the building to the eastern end, making navigation in the twisting, labyrinthine hallways feel not unlike stepping through the looking-glass.

My full recap is here.

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 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.

Bragi Olafsson Reading at 192 Books Tomorrow (10/5)

I mentioned in an earlier post that Bragi Olafsson (author of the recently published novel The Ambassador) was reading at Scandinavia House last week, but alas, I couldn’t make it. If you also had a commitment that evening but still want to hear Bragi read, you’re in luck! He’s reading tomorrow at 192 Books on 10th Ave. and 21st Street in Manhattan. Apparently seating is limited, so call 212.255.4022 to reserve your seat ASAP.


Bragi Ólafsson Reading at Scandinavia House: Thursday, September 30th

Icelandic author Bragi Ólafsson (yes, a former Sugarcube) will be reading from The Ambassador, which has just been translated into English and published by Open Letter Books. One of Bragi’s previous novels, The Pets, was published in 2008, and is definitely one of the best books I’ve read in the last few years. I’ve started reading The Ambassador and already love it–Bragi has a gift for writing characters who are deeply, irrevocably immersed in their own minds and circumstances, but don’t realize it at all. And he’s extremely funny.

Unfortunately, I have class on Thursday nights and won’t be able to make this reading, but I do hope it’s not the last time we see Bragi reading in New York for this book. I can say from past years that he’s a great reader and will definitely pick an entertaining passage to share, so if you can make it, definitely go! Information about the reading is available on Three Percent, here.