Notre Dame’s Charred Glory and the Challenge of Globalized Modernity
Ten years ago, I worked in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in a job that consisted of ensuring the two groups that came to the massive church every day—the worshipers and the tourists in the tens of thousands—got along with each other. Notre Dame de Paris is as much a Tower of Babel as a Christian bastion, performing a dual role as a church and a monument accessible to the world.
One summer afternoon, I took a break from my task as a crowd monitor in the sanctuary and managed to ascend to the upper framework of the building. It was one of the most extraordinary sights I’ve ever seen—a tangle of beams that has been dubbed “the forest” because it required cutting down a thousand oaks to build it. The ascent into the heart of this structure was like finding oneself in the hold of an immense galleon. To be there was also to come into dialogue with those whose hands created it in the 13th century, working with the knowledge that they themselves would never see the result of this phenomenally long-range construction project. To ascend into the forest was to feel roots under your feet.
A small door gave onto the roof. The lead tiles gave off a blinding light and radiated intense heat. The panorama over the Ile de la Cité took my breath away. At a height of two hundred feet, one was no longer in a ship’s hold, but rather among its masts. Notre Dame de Paris is a vessel that navigates along the River Seine between a glorious past and the challenge of a globalized modernity.
Using these experiences, I’ve written two novels set in the cathedral. The main protagonist, Father Kern, develops the idea that guides his actions: the primary divide among people doesn’t derive from religion, skin color or social standing; the true divide is between doves and hawks; the willingness to extend one’s hand rather than give into the temptation to withdraw into oneself.
On April 15, the forest burned. The roof melted and the great spire that dominated the cathedral collapsed, piercing the edifice’s very heart. The upper level, where it was possible to see things in perspective, is no more. That night, the people of Paris gathered to watch their cathedral ablaze. Believers and non-believers, each suddenly feeling less anchored in the earth. In the ensuing hours, an amazing mobilization occurred. The French government called for a restoration within five years. An architectural competition was announced. And nearly a billion euros were collected from businesses and private individuals to reconstruct the ravaged Notre Dame.
Then the first controversies broke out—very French battles: Should the reconstruction be identical to the old? And all this money donated by billionaires, why couldn’t they have given it instead to those who live on the streets? Notre Dame de Paris is, in both its sublime history and its tragic fire, the symbol of nation consumed in its opposition to the past and the future, the right and the left, rich and poor. A country no longer in harmony nor even capable of self-understanding.
At times the same thing can happen with monuments as with individuals: it’s in the moment that we fear losing them that one realizes how much we value them. Confronted by the cathedral’s fragility, even though its wall are still standing, we remember the imperative to watch over our heritage, material and spiritual. France is a living democracy in a Europe that has ensured us decades of peace and, no matter what one says today, a certain degree of prosperity. Perhaps we have come to take it for granted, to consider it a given, just as we have at times passed by Notre-Dame without even seeing it.
Forgive me for seeking to find meaning in this conflagration, but it’s the inveterate habit of a writer to see metaphors everywhere. To see the big picture, as you say in English, and God knows that our British friends are taking the measure of the violent fire now ravaging their own country. Certain ideas and values have united us as a people. They don’t have the solidity of stone but they have passed the test of time. The artisans who built them piece by piece made sure everyone could take refuge in them and feel reassured. Certainly, it’s necessary to undertake renovation, keep European democracy up to date, avoid its mummification, and prevent it from being distorted by a few with great power.
That terrible night, around 9 p.m., the fire began to move toward the north tower. The heroic firefighters managed to contain it. If the north tower had collapsed, the entire cathedral would have fallen, and all would have been lost.
So in the face of the ravaged monument that thankfully endures, let’s take care not to feed the fire by giving free rein to pyromaniacs who benefit from populism and set citizens against one another by stoking the rage that currently prevails within the country. And because the Notre Dame fire and its aftermath have touched people everywhere, it’s clear that this need for vigilance also applies around the world.
Ersi Sotiropoulos, author of What’s Left of the Night, discusses her book about C.P. Cavafy with Wall Street Journal literary critic Sam Sacks on Wednesday, April 24, 7 p.m. at Strand Books in New York City.
We’ve organized several readings from Italian writer Anna Maria Ortese’s seminal collection Neapolitan Chronicles, translated by Ann Goldstein and Jenny McPhee. Below please find a schedule below.
The Animal Gazer by Edgardo Franzosini is a novel based on the life of enigmatic sculptor Rembrandt Bugatti. Bugatti was the son of Carlo Bugatti, a renowned Italian decorator and designer of Art Nouveau furniture; Rembrandt’s brother was Ettore, the founder of the Bugatti automobile company. Many of Bugatti’s sculptures reflect the overwhelming love he felt for animals, a kinship that perhaps was closer than anything he felt to his fellow humans.
The Sladmore Galley London has collected some of Bugatti’s sculptures and recently put on an exhibit at the Taylor | Graham Gallery in New York City—the latest in a series of exhibitions Sladmore has put on over the years. Below is a downloadable catalogue from a 2013 exhibit, titled “Emotions in Bronze,” featuring essays on and photographs of the artist and his work.
It’s Banned Books Week, and we’ve put together a little reading guide featuring books from New Vessel Pressand a few other great indie presses who publish literature from around the world, including Open Letter, Archipelago Books, Deep Vellum, Grove Atlantic, and Bellevue Literary Press. We’ve included works by authors whose work has been repressed by both hard and soft means: sometimes, a book doesn’t have to be put on an official “Do not publish” list to disappear from discourse. Quite often books, or authors, are simply ignored, newspapers are pressured not to review certain works, or authors are forced to flee their homelands or face severe repercussions, though all “unofficially.” This expansive understanding of “Banned Books Week” allows us to widen our perspective and think about what it means to muffle voices of dissent inside a country, or culture. We hope you’ll choose a few of these books and give them a read. They’re not only insights into foreign cultures and disturbing histories, they’re also, quite simply, very enjoyable literature.
You can download the guide here and share it with friends. Thank you!
Found in Translation:
How a publishing company ‘spun gold out of nothing.’
By Peter S. Green
It began as idle chatter. Two multilingual literature buffs met at a middle school spelling bee and talked about the foreign books they’d read that had never been published in the U.S. Why not, they thought, open a publishing house and translate their favorites?
“But neither of us had any experience in book publishing,” said Michael Wise, a former Central Europe correspondent for Reuters.
New Vessel Press, founded in 2012 by Wise and Ross Ufberg, then a Ph.D. candidate in Slavic studies at Columbia University and now an editor at online magazine BreakGround, translates and publishes six books annually. The pair pooled $100,000 of their own money to start it. The money went quickly to buying publishing rights, hiring translators and a cover designer (up-and-coming New Yorker cartoonist Liana Finck), building a website, publicizing their venture and paying for printing their first year’s catalog, all before a single book was sold.
Finding manuscripts isn’t hard. Only 3% of books published in the U.S. are translations. The men travel to book fairs in Germany and the United Arab Emirates, get recommendations from friends and read voraciously—Wise is fluent in German and French, and Ufberg, in Polish and Russian. They have become a go-to outlet for foreign publishers. “We look for novels and nonfiction that put you in another place, give you access to another culture, transport you,” Ufberg said.
“What we are doing is all the more important because of the politicians who would just as soon ignore the rest of the world,” said Wise.
Their first book, The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra by prominent Argentine writer Pedro Mairal, was named one of New Republic’s 10 best books of 2013. Oblivion, a dive into the legacy of Soviet-era prisons by Sergei Lebedev, was chosen by The Wall Street Journal as one of the top 10 novels of last year. “Every other book on that list was by a major corporate publishing house,” Wise said.
Their latest is The Madeleine Project by French journalist Clara Beaudoux, who discovered a storeroom full of papers and photographs belonging to the previous tenant of her Paris apartment and reconstructed the woman’s life through a multiyear storm of tweets. “It’s a graphic novel of the digital age,” said Wise.
“Ross and Michael have really spun gold out of nothing; they’ve really made an instant classic out of New Vessel,” said John Oakes, director of the New School Publishing Institute and co-founder of OR Books.
Critical success aside, making money in the book business is tough. New Vessel lists books for $16, which are sold wholesale for $8, minus a $2 or $3 fee to the distributor. Translations can cost from $3,000 to $10,000, depending on the length and difficulty of the text and the renown of the translator. Grants from foreign cultural institutions cover about a third of the cost of translation.
The partners say they are approaching profitability, with revenue in the low six figures. Their titles sell between 3,000 and 7,000 copies, and sales were up 40% from 2015 to 2016. New Vessel buys worldwide English-language rights, making some money by selling to publishers in Great Britain and Canada. Occasionally, New Vessel gets a cut when a title is optioned for film, like Killing the Second Dog, by late Polish writer Marek Hlasko. Actor Richard Gere helped convince Hollywood studio Tadmor Films to option the screen rights for the tale of two down-and-out Poles scamming lovelorn women in 1960s Tel Aviv, Israel. New Vessel stands to earn a six-figure fee.
Another strategy is to find the next Stieg Larsson, the late Swedish author of the best-selling Millennium trilogy. The pair sees potential in Martin Suter, a German-Swiss crime writer who sells hundreds of thousands of books in Europe. His art-fraud thriller The Last Weynfeldt, published last year by New Vessel, is the first of a three-book deal that Ufberg hopes will gradually seed the market. “Suter didn’t become the biggest-selling author in Germany overnight,” he said.
Marketing remains a challenge. New Vessel offers an annual subscription for $72. Volume is still low, so Ufberg wraps all the subscription books in pastel crepe paper himself, the kind of personal touch that distinguishes New Vessel from large-scale publishers. They organize tours of major U.S. cities for their authors (paid for by the universities and cultural centers they visit). Reviews in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal give them material to share during a book’s social-media campaign. Ufberg and Wise also occasionally set up a folding table in front of Zabar’s on the Upper West Side, where selling 30 books on a slow afternoon is a success. That’s given them a freedom absent at larger publishing houses that are guided by marketing studies. “We don’t have to pass things through a committee,” Ufberg said. “If we say it’s a fantastic book, we can just publish it.”
And they are reassured that enough people want what they can provide. “Our sales are up,” said Ufberg. “A lot of people are looking for entertaining, intellectual, good reads, and as long as we can keep providing them, we’re OK.”
A version of this article appears in the May 1, 2017, print issue of Crain’s New York Business as “Found in translation”.
Salvatore Settis, author of the much acclaimed book If Venice Dies, will be embarking on a U.S. tour, with stops in Providence, Washington, D.C., New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles.
Tuesday, October 25, 7 p.m.
Brown University lecture; Providence, R.I.
Thursday, October 27, 3-4 p.m.
Library of Congress; Washington, D.C.
Sunday, October 30, 2 p.m.
Philadelphia Museum of Art
The Irma and Herbert Barness Lecture
Monday, October 31, 4 p.m.
Conversation with author and journalist Alexander Stille at NYU Casa Italiana, New York City
Tuesday, November 1, 12 p.m.
92nd Street Y, New York City
Wednesday, Nov. 2, 6-7:30 p.m.
Bard Graduate Center, New York City
The Protection of Cultural Heritage in Italy: A Short History and Some Current Issues
Saturday, Nov. 5 – 2 p.m.
Museum Lecture Hall, The Getty Center, Los Angeles
Click here to download our catalogue for 2016-17, featuring works from around the globe.
Klaus Wivel, author of The Last Supper: The Persecution of Christians in the Middle East, will be participating in the following events:
Wednesday, April 27
6:00 – 7:30pm
Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs
In conversation with James Kirchick
170 E. 64th St.
New York, NY 10065
Thursday, April 28
6:30 – 10 p.m.
PEN World Voices Festival
Westbeth Center for the Arts
55 Bethune Street
New York, NY 10014
Friday, April 29
LL 309 | Lowenstein Center
Lincoln Center Campus | Fordham University
New York, NY 10023
Saturday, April 30
PEN World Voices Festival
Zoom In/Zoom Out: Europe
With Karim Miské, Klaus Wivel
Moderated by: Adam Shatz
161A Chrystie Street
New York, NY 10003
Tuesday, May 3
Book talk, followed by Q&A
58 Park Ave
New York, NY 10016
Thursday, May 5
Foreign Policy Initiative
Exact time and address TBA
The whole thing started when I encountered Waldrapp Shorty on Facebook. This bird is part of a zoological project, but on Facebook it looked like a joke. First I thought it was fake—an ugly bird with its own Facebook account? Can’t be … Then I realized step by step that this was no joke, but a very, very serious development. Serious for the bird, serious for the people trying to reintroduce nearly extinct Waldrapps into the European wilderness—which is, by the way, a tough job—and even more serious for the social media followers who spent days and days with Shorty, taking and posting photos, commenting on his behavior and so on. I understood that there was a big story behind this individual bird tagged with a sensor—a story which had the power to change the notion of “nature” and to transform the human approach to animals and plants. I started to research and wrote a big article for one of Germany’s most popular monthly magazines, Cicero. This became the first chapter of the book.
What were some of the most fascinating stories you investigated for Animal Internet? What were the most memorable of the locations you visited and the animals you saw?
Some years ago a big brown bear turned up in the village where I live. He came from Italy, crossed two borders and some highways and started to ramble around in the Bavarian Prealps. People weren’t amused because this bear, dubbed Bruno by the media, killed sheep, ate honey and strolled through the streets at dawn. Finally he was killed by hunters because nobody was able to catch him. Today Bruno stands as a trophy in a Munich museum. The whole affair was a big scandal because it showed the distance between people and nature in modern Europe. In the book I retell the story and ask: What would have happened if Bruno had been tagged? What would be the attitude of the public if it could follow this predator in real-time on Facebook and YouTube? Some other fascinating stories were the rescue of the Saiga-Antilopes in Kazakhstan—this mammal holds the sad record of being the mammal to go extinct the fastest (this was due to the political breakdown of the Soviet Union and the ensuing anarchy)—and the way Californian and Australian oceanographers are protecting surfers and divers from the great white shark by a sort of digital warning system that’s connected to Twitter. But these are only a few of the many fascinating animal stories ranging from tagged butterflies to whales which I tell in the book. With the Animal Internet nature is telling it’s own story.
Were you putting on a brave face in the book, or do you really believe that the digitization of animals is our only hope to save them?
Let me put it this way: I am a huge fan of the real wilderness. I live in the mountains (okay, the Bavarian Alps are not the Rockies, Munich is only 100 miles away, but my wife who used to live in Paris thinks that we live in the wilderness), I like hiking and skiing, and when I’m out in nature I hate people playing around with their stupid smartphones. I am very much analogue out there. This was my starting point. But when I started talking to experts, park rangers and zoologists who really cared about their animals, I gradually understood that the mysterious opacity of nature which we hold up as romantic ideal actually is killing animals. Because you can’t protect what you do not know. You’re even less like to care about animals or to donate to a rescue fund if you are not able to follow the story of their lives. So, at the end of the process of writing the book, I came to the conclusion which is pretty much backed up by famous and influential scientists like Professor Martin Wikelski (who is the successor of Konrad Lorenz) and Professor Josef Reichholf, that analogue and digital must merge in order to create a new space of nature in which the positive, empathic, loving relationship between mankind and creation is the most important condition for the survival of most of the species. And the Internet is the key to this new space. So, theologically speaking, one could say (as has been done before by media thinkers): It looks like the Internet is God.
You speak a bit about climate change in Animal Internet; in your view, is that the greatest threat facing animals today? And will any amount of digitization and tracking be enough to stop humans from polluting the earth into extinction?
No, I don’t think so. Climate change will only transform the structure of the world’s fauna. Some species will disappear, others are benefiting from climate change and global warming. Nature reconstructed itself after the ice age. Creation is resilient. I see a much bigger and much more direct risk in man’s ineffable urge for growth, in the mental structure of our modern societies which has them hurtling towards the destruction of the environment. Climate change will not kill gorillas or orangutans, but deforestation will. Digital tracking is a feeble measure against this global bulldozer. So the book definitely has a melancholy note.
You have a chapter in your book that deals with house pets—we love our dogs and cats more than ever, and spend billions of dollars a year on pet-related products. Do you think that the increasing closeness of humans to our pets obscures our views of animals in the wild, to the detriment of the latter?
That is definitely so. We look at house pets more as family members, as parts of a social structure than as animals. Every dog species once had a duty, at least in old Europe. Dalmatians escorted stagecoaches, Schnauzers protected breweries, Rottweilers cleaned up stockyards. This is all long gone. Today we choose a dog not because of his abilities (agility excepted) but because of his shape, color and so on. We make an aesthetic decision—as if we are picking out a new table or TV set. This has nothing to do with the substance and essence of nature which used to be present in the way people looked at farm and working animals all through history up to the beginning of World War Two. Then came technology, and it was all was gone.
You mention the popularity of bird watching in the book. Several prominent American authors—Jonathan Franzen, James Wolcott, Jonathan Rosen among them—are avid birders and like apprising their readers about their sightings, making it seem like bird watching has replaced baseball as the eggheads’ favorite sport. What’s going on here?
Birding is an old discipline. It started with Aristotle and used to be an aristocratic pastime especially in Great Britain. So there are two ways to explain the current fashion for sitting still and gazing at water birds who all look identical through $2,000 binoculars: The first is that we are bored with postmodern abstraction and want to go back to basics; we want to reconcile with our ancient roots (Aristotle). The other explanation would be: Americans especially are bored with democratic mass civilization and want to turn into real Englishman again with Barbour jackets and gumboots. Like: “My inner self is actually Sean Connery!” or “Make America English Again!” This seems to me the background and significance of these eggheads crawling through the wilderness and counting ducks. And this might also explain the shift from baseball to birding (B2B): Birding is as much impregnated with statistics as baseball. You count, you make lists, you share your numbers. And Birding versus Baseball has an added benefit: It’s healthier for the egghead.
You’re a German author whose book has now appeared in English. Do you have a sense at this point about the differences in how the tracking of animals is received in the United States versus Europe?
Sure. Very much. Europeans are technophobes. Americans are technophiles. In Germany we are curbing our use of nuclear power and going back to the Middle Ages in terms of energy production. The European equation reads like this: technology = risks. The U.S. equation reads: technology = chances. So it’s no wonder that the leading guy, even the “inventor” of the Animal Internet (the term stems from me, the technology from him), Martin Wikelski, used to work at American universities before coming to the Max Planck Institute. That’s where he developed his vision of a new zoological discipline of monitoring animals from outer space by GPS. He has a lot of trouble with German colleagues and environmentalists who believe that the new transparency of nature represents more of a risk than of a chance. And then there is the European obsession with data security. We are already talking about data protection for individual animals. All this is patent nonsense because why should we care about the data set of a sea turtle which our ignorance has killed? I would recommend these ecological conservatives read Animal Internet. There they will find the future of humanity and nature.
Alexander Pschera, author of Animal Internet: Nature and the Digital Revolution, will be reading at the following venues. Check back here for more updates on Animal Internet:
Monday, April 18
NYU Deutsches Haus
42 Washington Mews, Greenwich Village
New York, NY 10003
Tuesday, April 19
St Agnes Branch of the New York Public Library
444 Amsterdam Avenue and 82nd Street
New York, NY 10024
Tuesday, April 19
Discussion with David Rothenberg
21 East 1st Street, Lower East Side
New York, NY 10003
One day, on a cold winter eve, my father took his rifle down from the rafter to clean it. In answer to my unspoken request, he took out, from under the ceiling of the apartment, tightly bundled heavy canvas sleeping bags, a threadbare, faded rucksack, marsh boots, smoky mess kits, an officer’s field desk for maps, and a geologist’s hammer—his expeditionary equipment. While he took apart the rifle and cleaned the barrels with the ramrod, I, who had never been farther than the dacha, looked at these items from his past—and I knew who I’d become when I grew up, where the blue arrow of the compass, with its cracked leather strap, would take me.
North. And East.
I don’t know or remember what my peers dreamed about. My book of desires was a geographical atlas of the USSR, a giant folio with maps on the scale of 1:2,500,000, twenty-five kilometers to one centimeter. I’d open at random to a page with a map of the Transbaikal or the Archangelsk region, drink in, swallow from the pages the names of rivers and mountain ranges, distant islands in the polar seas; I’d imagine where I’d go, alone in a dark valley, along susurrus rivers in the fog, with clear stars climbing above the glaciers at the foot of a gorge. Neither my friends nor my comrades appeared in these dreams. Only untamed spaces, and their calling out to me.
North. And East.
My parents’ friends used to gather at our apartment—the same geologists, geophysicists, the staff from polar expeditions. They held conversations over vodka, sang songs—the songs you wouldn’t hear over the radio, songs of the camps, songs of the arrestees. And an icy chill from the faraway places would blow over the table, over the simple snacks and the shot glasses, and the air of celebration abated, as if the others at the table saw what I couldn’t see—some sort of frozen abyss, where people disappeared without a trace; a dark ill-boding secret arose behind snatches of words about the abandoned barracks, exiles who were enlisted into labor, about the unknown graves.
What could I comprehend of this? Nothing. But those far-off evenings, those voices, they did something to me, mingling with the inner whisperings of blood; something further sharpened, further aimed the arrow of the compass: North, and East.
There was only one figure of childhood that was able to, if you will, divert the arrow. At my grandmother’s house—my mother’s mother—there was a hefty box of war decorations and medals. It weighed a kilogram or two. The Order of Lenin, two Red Banners, two Red Stars, countless medals; sometimes I was allowed to look at them, hold them in my hands, my fingers growing numb. My grandfather, first husband of my grandmother, was a company commander in Stalingrad, and I always knew, though nobody ever told me, that these were his decorations, the decorations of a true hero.
When nobody was looking, hesitating out my own impudence, I would pin one of the orders onto my shirt and stand in front of the mirror. And I no longer saw mountain valleys, but frozen ditches, oncoming German tanks, black smoke, misty, snow-covered fields. There was probably nobody who was more Soviet than I was at that moment, a ten or eleven year old kid, frozen in front of the mirror wearing somebody else’s—though mine, too, in a way—medal, which was pulling comically on the pocket of my child’s t-shirt.
To fight and die for one’s country; to adapt somebody else’s biography as your own—a child of the last generation of the Soviet Union, I was still open to its heroics, its myths, its hagiographies, behind which I didn’t suspect the possibility of deceit.
This ebbed when I was a teenager, of course, but still something remained deep in me: like honor or pride, like a feeling that you’re a purposive link in the chain of generations.
And then, life determined what came next—which arrived like a telegram, a sign from my own personal future, too massive to understand it at that age.
At fifteen I set off to work on my first geological expedition—there, to my coveted North, to the promised land of the East. In the city of Pechora we plunged into a helicopter to fly to the pre-polar Ural Mountains. The old Mil helicopter took off roughly from the field, gained speed, gathered height, and the striped, prison-camp color scheme of the heat electropower station flashed by, and jagged clouds, a sliver of Pechora with the scattered logs of tree felling on the shoals—and all the sudden, just like an irregular heartbeat, the entire taiga opened up for tens of kilometers all around.
There was a strange bald patch that could be seen in the middle of the taiga, half overgrown roads and toy-like houses (from the distance), with caved-in roofs, grey and black, decorated by light lilac-covered smears. Smears the color of fireweed, the plant that grows on fire sites and vacant lots. And all of this—again, from a bird’s eye view—came together into a certain scheme, an architectural draft, as if an invisible hand had scattered them all across the taiga, united by roads, decayed bridges over rivers.
Not believing, not wanting to believe, I looked at the second pilot through the open door of the cockpit. Understanding my question, he shouted in a loud voice, to block out the roar of the turbines:
“That’s a camp! A former camp!”
I’d already read Shalamov and Solzhenitsyn, already understood what was being discussed around my parents’ table as a child. However, being born in Moscow, living in Moscow, I never thought that the camps existed in the same times as I did; in my time. They had to do with the deep past, the era of my parents’ youth, and it was impossible to imagine them in 1996.
When you’re on a helicopter that’s in flight, the scariest thing of all is to hear silence. That means water’s gotten into the fuel line, the turbines have stalled, and the propellers have begun to windmill.
But at that moment I heard silence. No, the turbines hadn’t stalled, there was a terrible vibrating din, but I was cut off from it all, I’d been tossed into another dimension. I sat on the seat at the side window looking down and I was sealed in a capsule of silence, was one on one with myself, just myself. I felt I was a witness, that life had changed irrevocably simply because I had seen what I saw.
Then there were seven years of expeditions; the same North and East. Deserted mines and adits, rusty rails and train cars, rotting wooden boards of former barracks, old caravan trails, sunken in the yielding tundra earth by the hooves of packhorses. We walked the areas of the former camps, gathered samples of minerals for museums there, where once inmates had labored.
There weren’t enough of us and in order to cast our wide net without gaping holes over the huge area, we walked solitary routes, a strictly prohibited technique for safety reasons. Why do I mention this? Because, of course, later this would tell upon our fate: the feeling when in the morning you lace up your boots at the campfire, and around you are the voices of your comrades; but by the time you’ve finished tying them, you take a step and you’re alone already, only dispassionate nature all around, and whether you’ll make it through depends on you.
You’re alone, and nobody will help you.
I believe this feeling helped me back then. Then, when the North and East let me go, released me, all of the sudden I felt they’d given me everything I needed, and further expeditions would simply be repetition.
My grandmother died. I went to her apartment, to get her papers in order.
My grandmother had two husbands—one, my real grandfather, the same one who was the company commander in Stalingrad, and a second one, who died when I was six months old. I didn’t know anything about the second one except his name—Aleksandr Ivanovich—and what he left behind: two fishing rods, a hat, and a folding chair, stored in the attic at the dacha.
Among the papers I found two officer’s ID booklets. I remembered how in childhood I imagined myself as the descendant of a grandfather-hero. And, spurred by curiosity, I opened the ID card of my grandfather Grigory.
But there was nothing noted in it except a medal “For Victory over Germany”—a medal given to everyone who participated in the war.
Already standing stock still, I opened the second ID card.
Aleksandr Ivanovich Erkin.
Lieutenant Colonel, B.Ch.K. (All-Russian Special Commission for Counter-Revolution and Sabotage); OGPU (Joint State Political Directorate); NKVD (People’s Commission of Internal Affairs); MGB (Ministry of State Security).
Did not fight in the war.
Was awarded …
All of these orders and medals belonged to him, my grandmother’s second husband, an executioner and murderer, twice decorated in 1937, the year of the Great Terror.
And I stood with two cardboard ID booklets in my hands, cursing myself, cursing my parents—yes, they knew whom the medals belonged to in reality, and they were silent. I stood, understanding why I wandered through the North and East, for what reason I’d seen the ruins of the former camps, stood at the foot of the unnamed graves—in order to write a book.
A book for those like me, who will one day open their family archive—and find there something completely different than what they expected.
Yitzhak Gormezano Goren writes on Lit Hub about the joys of finding his novel Alexandrian Summer translated into English for the first time, and on revisiting the text as part of the translation and editing process:
“So—how come it took another 37 years to see this novel in its English version, when there’s much Israeli literature constantly being translated and reaping admirable success in the international market? Maybe this too can be attributed to the fact that these same themes of the kibbutz, the Holocaust, the Palestinians and the Jerusalem Syndrome, dominate in translated Hebrew literature and elbow Levantine Alexandria off the shelves.”
Read the full essay here:
The following is an adaptation of the Introduction by George Z. Gasyna to All Backs Were Turned, the novel by Marek Hlasko that New Vessel Press published two weeks ago. Gasyna is Associate Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Illinois. He has written extensively on 20th century Polish literature, exile and immigration, and Jewish-Polish relations. He is currently writing a book about modern Polish borderland literature.
The inscription on the grave at Warsaw’s Old Powazki Cemetery reads, “His life was short, and all backs were turned.” Indeed, Hlasko was just 35 when he died – though years of eking out a marginal existence, frequently underemployed or resorting to what Poles of that generation called “black work,” and a penchant for running afoul of the law, all conspired to make him look like he was in his fifties.
By most accounts (of those who knew and cared for him, at least), the final two or three years of Hlasko’s life were a period of intense burnout, the tail end of a spectacular career that had launched him, at mere twenty, as the foremost voice of his generation—a deeply troubled generation, traumatized by the horrors of Nazi occupation, the Holocaust, and the violent Soviet-backed communist takeover of Poland that followed—and simultaneously its chief iconoclast.
By other accounts, however, Hlasko in 1969, the year of his death, was about to enter a new stage in life. Having led a peripatetic existence throughout the previous decade, shuffling between various safe havens in Western Europe, Israel, and the United States—his native Poland declared Hlasko persona non grata in 1958, following the illicit publication of one of his novels by an émigré press, while he himself was in France on a state-funded fellowship—Hlasko was seriously considering settling down somewhere on the American West Coast, ideally the LA basin. When asked why there, of all places in the world, and in light of his halting English and a relative lack of contacts in the area, Polish or otherwise, his response was simple: “LA has good weather. I like good weather.”
Was his sudden death on June 14 while staying at the home of his West German publisher, of an overdose of sleeping pills, a deliberate act, as the popular press insisted, the last spasm of stubborn contrariness on the part of socialist Poland’s original bad boy, variously hailed as an Iron Curtain counterpoint to James Dean and as a communist Angry Young Man? Was it a consequence of ongoing disappointment and heartbreak? Or a merely banal though tragic miscalculation, exacerbated by immoderate alcohol use? We will probably never know with certainty. And perhaps it does not matter. Fellow author and adventurer Jerzy Kosinski, another of communist Poland’s very bad boys and a fellow exile ultimately to the US—though his eventual suicide, in 1991, was by all accounts planned—possibly settled the matter when he declared that Hlasko “personally lived through what he wrote and died of an overdose of solitude and not enough love.”
Hlasko began writing fiction while still in high school, and was publicly recognized early and often. He had movie star good looks, a roguish smile, and an ideologically “correct” past, having refashioned himself as an orphaned child of simple laborers, a housemaid and a fireman, when his father had in fact been a prominent attorney in interwar Poland. Hlasko said the right thing frequently enough when called upon and talked his way into the front offices of the premier state-run youth-oriented literary magazine, Po prostu [“The Way It Is”]. He was being groomed for his tenure as a shining star of Poland’s new socialist culture. Hlasko was to be the poet of the transport truck and the proletarian suburb, a writer of youth and possibility – within Party-approved boundaries, of course. This was a role he initially assumed with enthusiasm, and it paid big dividends for a time, in the shape of fellowships, interviews, cash awards, vacations at writers’ colonies on the state’s dime, and the like.
Hlasko’s rise was meteoric; he became a legend in his own time, a paradoxical socialist brand. Yet he was hardly the slightly disparaging painter of everyday life of Marxist utopias-in-progress, as many critics maintained (at least in their public discourse). Rather, in a true Conradian idiom he sought to “make you see,” to partake in his own vision. And as the years passed, this vision diverged further and further away from the constraining dogmas of approved, formulaic “production novels”—novels that focused, literally, on “production” in farms and factories—towards dramas of power, lust, and revenge, dramas enacted between and among fallen men – men who are in turn elevated to the status of archetypes, symbols even.
In fact, the socialist heroes of even his early stories and novels, such as The Eighth Day of the Week, are no wise triumphant New Men with a flaw or two. Instead, they are broken subjects, unsteadily seeking their way within an inhuman system, sometimes improvising, frequently resorting to manipulations and lies as they seek to improve on impossible odds. Already in 1956, at the peak of his Polish fame, Hlasko stated that his narratives, chock-full of brutality and heartbreak though they were, simply reflected reality as he knew it, that his protagonists were looking in vain for love and fulfillment in a city that never smiles. (Post-war, derelict Warsaw was the setting here, though any number of Polish cities and towns would have fit that bill.) Indeed it was socialist realism, that bastard genre of happy tomorrows pledged but never delivered on—since infiltrators, saboteurs, and eternal enemies lurked always and everywhere and had to be eliminated first—which presented the cynic’s vision of life. The protagonist of The Eighth Day of the Week, an underemployed writer named Grzegorz, wrestles with the contradiction between what has been promised him of the brave new world and what has been borne out. In the end, he asks, “Can anything valuable come out of a world that has to use blackmail to keep from collapsing?” The indirect answer to his question, which he himself provides, is, “Waiter, half a liter, please.”
From 1959 until his death, Hlasko led a life of exile: his petitions to return home to Poland were ignored or rejected by the regime in Warsaw, and so he roamed around Western Europe and Israel. Soon, what had begun as youthful wanderings began to resemble an existential imperative. By consensus, Hlasko’s most intensely productive phase is the period between 1959-64, though even then, as an avowed “outsider,” he shuffled between West Germany and Israel.
The texts either dating from or inspired by this chapter in his life, such as the short novel Killing the Second Dog (Drugie zabicie psa, available in English also from New Vessel Press), are unusually sparse, claustrophobic, oversaturated by color and light, and punctuated by images of surprising beauty which serve as a vivid counterpoint to the stark portrayals of brutality and humiliation endured by the down-and-out antiheroes. This semi-autobiographic world is a zone dominated by men, men who are often paired in their peregrinations so as to both complement and expose one another’s weak sides. In fact, all the protagonists of Hlasko’s oeuvre suffer from major handicaps. At the opening of the novel, co-protagonist Dov Ben Dov, a former Israeli Army officer who has fallen on hard times, is on trial yet again, this time for assault in a Tel Aviv club. When the presiding judge asks him for his name and demands that he answer whether he will plead guilty to the charges of “disrupting public order in the city of Tel Aviv on June fifth,” Dov fires right back: “No. As far as I remember, there’s never been any order in this city.” Conflict is in the very bones of Hlasko’s protagonists, and of his plots, and there are never any easy answers.
Expansive and self-congratulatory male bravado fills the entire canvas, but it becomes clear soon enough that the root cause of Dov’s misfortunes, present and future—apart from his cantankerous, narcissistic father perhaps—is his spectacularly failed marriage. All the other men in the novel, whether friends, enemies, or mere bystanders, concur on this point. “She brought him down” is the laconic assessment of one of the peripheral men in the story, as he sits in a restaurant where he’s just met with Dov. “She did,” a passing waiter nods in fatalistic agreement.
As noted above, Hlasko’s novels and shorter fiction, especially those produced in the late ’50s and early ’60s, are organized around two male protagonists who share the spotlight. We often encounter the two principals while they are already on the road, in the midst of a longed-for escape from their problems, which sometimes involves their participating in some elaborate swindle or dealing with similar reversals of fortune fate has thrown their way. And while they despise significant elements of each other’s personalities, they desperately need one another – much the same way as Beckett’s characters in Endgame or Waiting for Godot depend on one another’s presence even as they abhor it. The idea of setting out on the road with a companion constitutes a time-honored literary paradigm in the Western canon. Hlasko borrows liberally from the picaresque convention, but further sharpens his encounters “between men” through the cinematic twist of extreme close-ups, abrupt perspectival changes, and the deployment of recurrent objects that may foreshadow dramatic action. In All Backs Were Turned, for instance, stones play such a symbolic function, evoking—among other images—Christ’s parable on the doubtful virtue of guiltlessness and, more obliquely, the Genesis account of the contest between Cain and Abel.
The protagonists engage in pithy sarcasm and constant one-upmanship – but the situation can also turn on a dime. The stakes are deadly serious, the categories of survival starkly elemental, leaving precious little room for maneuver. And justice, here on the frontier, ends up as a cruel handmaid of forces that our protagonists, preoccupied with scraping a living, with capturing happiness if only for a fleeting moment—and thus human, all too human, tragically human—are simply unable to grasp. Wrapped up in their fragile egos, engrossed in their dramas, their backs turned, they never see that stone coming.
George Z. Gasyna
Associate Professor, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Nina Sparling, editorial intern at New Vessel Press, recently asked Marjana Gaponenko, the author of Who Is Martha? (translated by Arabella Spencer), a few questions about her majestic novel. Der Spiegel calls the novel “a celebration of creation and all its wonders, full of the joy of life.” Here’s what Gaponenko had to say.
NVP: There is something fantastical about this novel, but it remains so grounded in reality: the realities of history, the realities of the aging body. How did you find a balance between Levadski’s playfulness and the gravity of both his past and his present?
MG: This question raises a further question: about the tradition I see my writing belonging to. The discomfort with reality, the uniformity of the industrialized world, being drawn to mystery, playfulness – these are all attributes of romanticism; in particular, the German romanticism which can be seen as an answer to the French revolution and the “spirit of geometry”. There was no return to ornate baroque and the straight line of classicism generated the feeling of crampedness. That’s a description of my feelings in 2014. I am looking for my own romanticism and find it in the midst of reality, in irony.
NVP: What drove you to explore questions of death, aging, family and friendship through the eyes of an ornithologist? What kinds of research went into writing this novel? Did you know anything about birds before you started writing?
MG: I have long sought a suitable career for my lonely Levadski, something poetic, it should be something light, uplifting. Thus the birds came in handy – which raise him above his misery. And yes, I have learned a lot for the book, reading and analyzing different books on birds, observing them, I spent a lot of time in nature. I am now so fond of birds that I cannot help but to observe them and study their behavior. It has become a love for life.
NVP: The last few chapters of the novel strike a beautiful counterpoint between the disintegration of body and mind and the blossoming Levadski’s friendship with Habib, a human connection the reader doubts Levadski has ever known before. What does the friendship they form teach Levadski?
MG: This connection gives him the feeling at the end of his life, that his little modest and reclusive live was beautifully and worth living – just in the moment when he doubts this. He had no family and no grand circle of friends – but that was his way. Habib’s sympathetic silence in Levadskis suite allows him to taste a joyful, socially fulfilling life in a short time. Although the proximity of the butler is bought, it is a voluntary gift of youth to the old, of a stranger to another stranger, of a Palestinian to a Jew.
NVP: Throughout the novel, Levadski’s mother hovers in the background. Both have suffered tragedy, and suffered it together. Does he return to Vienna to find something of her before motherhood?
MG: I imagine that one wants to return at the end of one’s life to the old sources to lighten up again the old good times and to close life’s circle. One can do this mentally but also physically. Levadski returns because of sweetness. Because sweet was the taste of the Imperial pie of his childhood. Now he is back in the old hotel and eats the pie for two, for himself and for his mother who had experienced many hardships.
NVP: The question, “Who is Martha?” persists throughout the book. We only hear about her twice – at Levadski’s birth and death. Why Martha? What is the significance of this?
MG: READ THE BOOK TO FIND OUT …
The Wall Street Journal reviewed The Good Life Elsewhere on April 12-13, writing that the novel “entertainingly illuminates the oft-forgotten country’s national neuroses.”
Troy Pozirekides at The Arts Fuse gives lengthy treatment of Killing the Second Dog, calling it “captivating as a stormy sea.” To read the full review, visit:
Nathaniel Popkin reviews three books by Marek Hlakso in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, including the recently published novel Killing the Second Dog, available now from New Vessel Press.
We are pleased to announce that The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra by Pedro Mairal, translated by Nick Caistor, was included on the 2014 Longlist for the Best Translated Book Award. You can see the announcement here – and keep checking back for more updates and to see if the novel has advanced to the next round.
Pedro Mairal talks about inspiration, style, and beaming books into outer space in this interview in Tweed’s Magazine.
Check out an abridged version of Alexander Stille’s Afterword to Pitigrilli’s Cocaine on the New York Review of Books blog. And find out who Pitigrilli called “a man above all adjectives.”
Learn lots of things from Nick Caistor, translator of The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra, including why translation is a lonely business, in his interview here with World Literature Today.