Interview with Marjana Gaponenko



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-Whoismartha-cover-jpgNVP: 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 …

 

Author Marjana Gaponenko

Author Marjana Gaponenko

 

Interview with Milena Michiko Flašar



NVP-Necktie-cover-jpgNina Sparling, editorial intern at New Vessel Press, recently asked Milena Michiko Flašar, the author of I Called Him Necktie (translated by Sheila Dickie), a few questions about her impressive English-language debut novel. The book has received praise from a diverse range of voices, from O, The Oprah Magazine to Ruth Ozeki, to the Smithsonian’s book blog.  Here’s what Flašar had to say.

NVP: How did you find yourself writing a novel about a hikikomori as he begins to weave himself back into the world?

MMF: Characters who are turned inward on themselves have preoccupied me for a while and I have repeatedly written works in which these characters appear. There were countless openings and beginnings that I rejected, until I got to the point where I told myself: “No, stop, that’s not right. I haven’t yet found the story. I’d rather sleep on it for a night.” And then I’d already gone to bed, was already half asleep, when the phrase came to me: “I called him necktie,” precisely the title and the first sentence of the book, and then it was clear to me: The character who is turned inward on himself needs to have a second one at his side, namely this him, the necktie. And that was the starting point for writing a novel that was less about being a recluse and much more about emerging. A book about encountering and friendship.

NVP: The friendship between Hiro and the salaryman is stunning. They both face a sudden shift in routine and in that uncertainty open up to one another.  Why did you choose to have Hiro befriend a salaryman, of all the people he might have encountered on a park bench?

MMF: The salaryman is not just an ordinary salaryman, but rather someone who having become unemployed has fallen out of the system and has created a bubble of illusion around himself. For this reason he seems to me a fraternal mirror image of the younger one; they are similar to each other and related to one another, they can simultaneously be teachers and students for one another.

NVP: I love the line in the opening, “I came here to try and work out whether the crack in the wall, that hairline fissure crossing above the bookshelves had any meaning internal or external.” In trying to work out the meaning of the crack, Hiro engages in a deep examination of the self.  Through observation of the spaces and movement around him, Hiro discovers his own meaning and worth.  What are some of the places and rooms that have been most formative in your life?

MMF: What shaped me most is definitely the space of my childhood. The “wilderness,” in which I moved around with my girl friends back then, out of our parents’ sight. Today I’m grateful for the great freedom I was allowed back then. Basically the space in which I grew up was a trust that was offered to me, and it protectively surrounds me even now.

Milena Michiko FlasarNVP: Networks, webs, and weaving return as themes throughout the book.  His journey out is a slow unraveling of that web while he begins to build another based in human relationships.  The friendships Hiro builds are so grounded in physical space, and seem to challenge or contrast with many of the virtual spaces that exist today.  In reading the novel, it seems clear that the author has a deep sensitivity to the power and importance of people being in the same space together.  Does the novel comment on the ultimate simplicity of our needs as people, relating to one another, in light of this?

MMF: Yes, my novel is primarily about storytelling as a form of revelation and understanding, in which listening is given as much importance as the narrative itself. That becomes clear when one lends the other an ear, without judging what is said. A simple, at the same time attentive “Hmm,” that’s all it takes to give somebody the feeling that they share one and the same space, that both people have the right to be here just as they are.

NVP: I found the line in Necktie, “I had practiced forgetting how to speak for two years,” remarkable. Hiro has a powerful voice in this novel, and you render its development with a great attention to detail and sensitivity. How has teaching language influenced your writing, in terms of both style and subject?

MMF: By teaching a language one obtains a distance from it, one stands a bit to the side, only to find oneself back in the very middle with much greater awareness. I think that this far and near relationship has decisively influenced my writing.

NVP: What do you find most exciting about seeing your work in translation?  What do you find most difficult?

MMF: It’s exciting to see how your own book broadens your range, as it goes on a journey, so to speak, and how as an author you travel with it, and you’re astonished where you end up. The hardest thing is certainly to let go, since on every journey there’s a departure from the familiar, which involves the greatest risk and at the same time the greatest relief.

NVP: The novel is divided up into short chapters – brief episodes and memories.  The sentences are short and not a word is wasted. What connections do you see between this form and the narrative?

MMF: The characters speak their own language.  Both Hiro, the hikikomori, and Tetsu, the salaryman conceal themselves, and their language mirrors this condition. Both have missed out on something decisive, both are prisoners of their conscience. The incompleteness and brevity of their sentences is the expression of what connects them internally. Their encounter marks also the beginning of an opening, an opening up to the other, to empathy and responsibility, that I wanted to make clear through the absence of quotation marks. In the end, it’s one person who speaks, one who expresses himself from his heart. Speech flows from one to the other, and in the end it (almost) doesn’t matter who’s actually speaking.

NVP: I was also interested in the question of how little is necessary to create a certain mood through language. How can something that seems simple and straightforward be described in all its depth.

MMF: I deliberately intended the brevity of the chapters (as in both of my previous books as well). I think of them as spoken images, as small images that gradually complete themselves in the mind of the reader.

Summer Reading – A French Story



The following is the first chapter of a novel called The Twenty-One Days of a Neurasthenic by Octave Mirbeau, a French author (1848-1917) with a reputation for good writing and good scandals. Nina Sparling, the editorial intern at New Vessel Press, is currently translating the novel, and this excerpt is courtesy of her. We hope you find Mirbeau to be as funny and elegant as we think he is.

Octave_MirbeauChapter One

Summer, style, or caring for one’s health, which is also a style, each pushes us to go on holiday.  As an affluent bourgeois, wholly obedient, respectful of urbane custom, one must, at a certain time of year, leave his business, his pleasures, his easy idleness, his dear companions, to go, without entirely knowing why, immerse himself in the great world.  In the discrete language of newspapers and the distinguished people who read them, this is called a trip, term much less poetic than a holiday, and so much more correct! … Certainly, the heart isn’t always ready to take off, one could say it almost never is, but we owe this sacrifice to our friends, our enemies, our providers, our servants in relation to whom one must maintain a prestigious social position, because a vacation assumes money, and money all social superiorities.

And so, I vacation which prodigiously bores me, and I travel to the Pyrenees, which makes torturous my general boredom with vacationing. What I hold against the Pyrenees above all, is that they are mountains … However, the mountains, whose enormous and wild poetry I nevertheless sense as well as another, symbolize for me all that the universe can contain of incurable sadness, of black discouragement, of unbreathable and deathly atmosphere … I admire their grandiose forms and their shifting light … But it’s the soul of this that terrifies me … It seems to me that if there is a landscape of death, it must be mountains upon mountains, like those I have here, before my eyes, while writing.

It’s perhaps because of this that so many people love them. The particularity of the city where I am, and the “sublime idyllic beauty” of which the excellent Baedecker, a tongue-and-cheek German, sings in extravagant lyricisms, is that it is not a city.  Generally, a city is made up of streets, streets of houses, houses of residents.  However, in X … there are neither streets nor houses, nor indigenous residents, there are only hotels, enormous constructions, akin to barracks or insane asylums, which stretch one after another, indefinitely, in one straight line, at the base of a foggy and dark gorge, where a small stream hacks and spits ceaselessly like a bronchital old man.  Here and there a few stands are set up on the ground floor of hotels; bookshops, illustrated postcards, photographic images of the cascades, the mountains, the lakes, assorted climbing equipment, and all that the tourists require. And a few villas scattered on the slopes … and, at the bottom of a hole, a thermal establishment that dates from the Romans … ah! yes … the Romans! … and that is all.  In front of you, the tall and dark mountain; behind you, the dark and tall mountain … To the right, the mountain, at the base of which lies a lake; to the left, the mountain still, and yet another lake … And no sky … never the sky overhead!  Enormous clouds that drag their heavy, opaque, sooty masses from one mountain to another …

But if the mountains are sinister, what to say of these lakes — oh the lakes! — whose fake and cruel blue, which is neither the blue of water nor the blue of the sky, which doesn’t fit with anything surrounding it nor is reflected in it? They seem to be painted — oh nature! — by Monsieur Guillaume Dubufe, when this artist, so beloved by Minister Leygues, elevates himself to the ponderous grandeur of symbolic and religious compositions.

But maybe I would pardon the mountains for being mountains and the lakes lakes if, to their natural hostility, was not added the bother of being the pretext to unite, among their rocky gorges and on their aggressive banks, the most unbearable specimens of all humanity.

In X … , for example, the seventy-five hotels overflow with travelers.  And it’s with great difficulty that I could, finally, find a room. There are all kinds of people, Englishmen, Germans, Spaniards, Russians, and even Frenchmen. All of these people come here, not to cure their sickly livers, nor their dyspeptic stomachs, nor their ill skin … they come — pay attention here — for their own pleasure! … And from morning to night one observes them, in silent groups or dismal lines, following the strip of hotels, collecting themselves in front of the vendors, stopping for a long time at one precise spot, and pointing enormous spyglasses at an illustrious and snowy mountain that they know is there and which is there, in theory, but which they never see under the thick mantle of clouds which eternally covers it.

This whole world is enormously ugly, with that ugliness particular to spa towns.  Scarcely once a day, amid the thick masks and heavy stomachs, I am surprised by a pretty face and a svelte allure.  Even the children seem to be elderly. A dreadful sight, because we realize the decrepitude of bourgeois values; and all we encounter, even the children so poorly hatched in the putrid marshes of marriage … it’s already the past … !

Last night, I had dinner on the hotel patio … At a neighboring table a gentleman spoke loudly. He said:

– The climbs? … Oh, yes, the climbs … I’ve done them all, me, talking to you … and without a guide! … Here, it’s a joke … the Pyrenees, it’s nothing at all … they aren’t mountains … In Switzerland, at the right time! … I’ve been three times to Mont-Blanc … like sitting in an armchair … in five hours. Yes, in five hours my dear sir.

The dear sir said nothing, he ate, his nose to his plate. The other took up again:

– I’m not talking about Mont-Rose … nor Mont-Bleu … nor Mont-Jaune … I’m not being clever … And here, me, talking to you, one year, at the great Sarah-Bernhardt, I saved three Englishmen lost in the snow. Ah! if I had foreseen Fachoda …

He said yet more things that I didn’t quite hear but throughout he repeated ceaselessly “Me! me! me!” He continued to insult the waiter, send back entrées, discuss the kind of wine, and, addressing himself once again to his companion:

– So let’s go, let’s go! … Me, I’ve done the hardest. Me, I crossed, by oar, in four hours, the lake of Geneva, from Territet to Geneva … Yes, me … me … me!

Do I need to tell you this gentleman was a true Frenchman of France?

The music of the Tziganes stopped me from hearing more, because yes, there is also the music of Tziganes … You see that it’s all here …

So what better can I do if not to present a few of my friends, a few of the people with whom I brush shoulders here, all day long? They are, for the most part people, a few grotesque, a few repugnant; generally, perfect rascals whom I would not recommend young girls read about. I understand well that you say of me “And here, a gentleman with amusing ideas” but I have many others which are not in the slightest amusing and of which I never speak, because I cherish them infinitely. I ask you, then, dear readers, and you too, gentlewomen, not to apply to me the famous proverb “Tell me who you haunt …” Because these souls whose often ugly physiognomies I show you, whose instructive stories and nearly always scandalous propositions that I recount you, I don’t haunt them, in the proverbial sense … I meet them, which is an entirely different thing, and does not imply any approbation on my part, and I set this meeting, for your amusement and for mine, on paper … For mine!

This preamble is to explain to you that my friend Robert Hagueman is not my friend. He’s more someone I knew, before, who speaks to me casually, whom I speak to casually, and whom I see, once in awhile, randomly and without pleasure.

You know him too, from elsewhere. My friend is not an individual, but a collective. Large gray felt hat, black jacket, pink shirt and white collar, white pants with a well-marked middle pleat, shoes of white leather, they are at beaches and in the mountains; they are, at this moment, thirty thousand like Robert Haguemen, for whom we could believe that the same tailor fashioned the outfits and souls — bargain-priced souls, you understand, because these are souls made from an easy cut, a shabby fabric.

This morning, as I was leaving the drink stand, I saw my friend Robert Hagueman. He wore a morning outfit of an impeccable propriety, which did not surprise the admirable plane trees of the driveway, eminently philosophical trees, and who had seen many others, since those Romans, founders of elegant baths and the captors of the world’s power. I feigned, at first, passionate interest in the maneuvers of a worker who, armed with a pot, collected water from the stream and then spread it across the driveway, under the fallacious municipal pretext of watering them … And still, hoping to give my friend the time to distance himself, I began a conversation with the workman about his curiously Neolithic implement, but Robert Haguemen had noticed me, too.

– Ah! But it can’t be! he said.

He came to me, effusive, thrusting out his hands, gloved in white skin.

– How can it be you? … And what are you doing here?

There is nothing I hate as much as having to reveal to people my petty infirmities. I responded:

–  Why, I was just taking a walk … and you?

– Oh! me! I’ve just had a treatment … It’s the doctor who sends me here … I’m a bit run-down, you see …

The conversation immediately took a banal turn. Robert spoke to me of Paul Deschanel who was expected the next day; of the Casino, which was not brilliant this year; of the pigeon hunt, which didn’t go well … etc.

– And no women, my friend, no women! … he concluded.  Where are they this year?  No one knows … Quite the season, you see! …

– But you have the mountains! I cried … with ironic enthusiasm … it’s excellent, here … it’s paradise on earth. Look at this vegetation … these phlox, these leucanthemum grown to the height of beech trees … and these gigantic rose bushes which seem to have been brought back from who knows what dreamland, in the hat of Monsieur de Jussieu!

– Oh, how you are young!

I exalted:

– And the streams, and the glaciers … All this really means nothing to you?

– You’re humoring me … responded Robert … Do I really have the air of a man who falls for that sort of thing? I’m not excited by streams. And what’s marvelous about the mountain? … It’s the Mont-Valérien, a little bigger perhaps, that’s all, and frankly less amusing …

– You prefer the sea, then?

– The sea? Ah! What’re you getting at? … Come, my boy, for fifteen years, every summer, I’ve gone to Trouville … well, if I can brag about one thing, it’s … to not once have looked at the sea … It disgusts me. Oh! no … I think I’ve got better things on my mind, than going to marvel at what you call the sights of nature … I’ve had my fair share of that sort of thing, don’t you know?

– So, you came here for you health? … Are you at least following a treatment?

– Strictly … said Robert … Without that! …

– And what are you doing?

– As a treatment?

– Yes.

– Well, you know … I get up at nine o’clock.  Walk in the park by the drink stand … Meet with someone or another … you relax a bit … then one recounts to the other what annoys him … we criticize the uniforms … This gets me through just until lunch … After lunch, a poker game at Gaston’s … At five, Casino … stand around a listless game of baccarat … maybe a game of push pennies, the family bank … dinner … the Casino again … And that’s it. And the next day, it begins again … Sometimes a short interlude with a lass from Toulouse, or a Phryné from Bordeaux … Oh! my my! my dear friend … Well, do you believe it? This so lauded resort which cures all sicknesses … it does nothing for me … I’m as run down as when I arrived … What a joke, these thermal waters …

He sniffed the air and said:

– And always this stench! … Can you smell it? It’s awful …

Indeed a sulfurous odor, coming from the drink stand, circulated among the plane trees.

My friend began again:

– That smells of … yes! … oh! What a memory … it smells like the marquise’s….

He began to laugh loudly.

– Go figure … one evening … we were supposed to, the Marquise de Turnbridge and I, dine at a restaurant …You remember the marquise … the tall blonde who I was with for two years? … No? … You don’t remember? … But, my friend, everyone knows that in Paris!  Anyway, no matter …

– What was it with this marquise? I asked

– A very chic woman … my friend … Former washerwoman in Concarneau, she became, by the grace of I no longer know whom, a marquise, and marquise de Turnbridge, again … And an intellectual, I can only tell you that! … Well, so, instead of dining at the restaurant, as it was first decided  – on a whim – that the marquise would prefer to eat at home … Of course! … We went back to her place … but hardly had the door closed again, when a terrifying odor suffocated us in the foyer: “My God! … said the marquise … it’s my mother still … I’ll never get her to stop doing that …” And, furious, she directed herself towards the kitchen. The noble mother who was steeping a pot of cabbage soup was there … “I don’t want to you to make cabbage soup here! … I’ve told you twenty times … It plagues the apartment … And if I had brought another man than my lover … how would I have looked, with this stench of toilets? … Is this understood, at last?” And turning towards me, she added “My God! you would think a whole regiment of soldiers came to fart here …”

He got all melancholy at this memory … and he exhaled:

– She was nevertheless a marvelous woman … you know? … And so chic!

And he repeated:

– Well, this odor following you here … it makes me think of the cabbage soup of the mother Turnbridge … It’s the same thing …

– The memory of the marquise must make it easier to handle … I said.

And he, extending his hand:

– So, to better health … I’m interrupting your treatment …

– Is that so … Am I …? said Robert.

But I had hopped across the lawn, in an instant placing, between my friend and me, the width of a giant redwood.

A Difficult Lover and an Anti-Communist



A Difficult Lover and an Anti-Communist

 

“Marek asked me to come and tell you that he loves you.” The young Polish writer Marek Hlasko took German actress Sonja Ziemann’s breath away when he turned up on the film set of Eighth Day of the Week in Wroclaw in 1956. He didn’t speak a word of her language; he found a go-between and refused to give up. Soon they were together.

Sonja and Marek in the tourist village of Kazimierz, not long after meeting

Sonja and Marek in the tourist village of Kazimierz, not long after meeting

It’s a story I would like to have written, as a fly on the wall, for all that was at stake, politically and artistically as well as emotionally. After the war the big industrial city in Poland’s west was a hotbed of avant-garde cinema. Director Aleksander Ford was adapting Hlasko’s novella of postwar working class life that had been a runaway success. But the country was Communist, with an official ideology, and the authorities weren’t happy. They demanded Ford tone down the hopelessness that thwarted the young lovers in Eighth Day. Crumbling apartments and drunks littering the streets didn’t belong to the Communist dream. Ziemann’s seedy agent, who fancied his own chances with the doll-like actress, wasn’t keen on Hlasko either and so concerted efforts were made to keep the author off the set. But Hlasko’s mind was made up from the moment he saw Germany’s answer to Audrey Hepburn. And so an ideological struggle turned into a personal one.

Ziemann’s memoirs, published in German in 1998 as Ein Morgen gibt es immer (There’s Always a Tomorrow), richly document Hlasko’s tragic short life. Her understanding is limited. She loves him too much. Nor does her hugely detailed account of her fifty-year career cast light on her own character. Devoted to her own career, and to her son by her first marriage, she nevertheless becomes lover, wife and helpmate to a man driven by aggression and passion and fuelled by drink. He hits her, smashes the furniture, demands to know how she can have ‘left me four times’. The memoirs are a nightmare. The relationship lasts on and off thirteen years, until Hlasko’s death from an overdose of barbiturates in 1969.

Hlasko’s fiction, which packs such a punch, is better read in ignorance of what happened to the author. As a critic I’m not keen on the biographical approach to the text. But for me as a writer of fiction Hlasko and Ziemann are both stories in their own right.

Hlasko was effectively turned out of his native Poland by the Communists he then hated for the rest of his life. They played a trick on him when he landed abroad and wasn’t allowed back. His first problem was how to earn his living and his second who to be. In Poland he had done manual work since his mid-teens and all the material for his fiction came from what in 1991 the German news magazine Stern would call “proletarian sadness in the midst of the workers’ paradise.” Ousted from that tense, coercive, downtrodden postwar east bloc, he had nothing else to write about. As Sonja put it: “A prosperous democratic society with a social safety net had nothing to offer him as a writer.” The study the Ziemanns created for him in their upmarket townhouse in Berlin’s Zehlendorf district remained a study in name only. It was the place where he wrote nothing. Though talked of in connection with a Nobel Prize (as Sonja reported), Hlasko spent his first years in the West days drunk and displaced, an airless existence with little pockets of intense personal happiness in between.

Together: an attempt at a public image

Together: an attempt at a public image

When he took the chance to go to Israel in 1959 (nothing to do with religion, he was a Roman Catholic) he thought he was going to work on a newspaper but ended up labouring for a pittance in the desert. Worse still, when he came back to West Germany, the public thought this husband of one of Germany’s most successful and glamorous actresses was indulging in champagne socialism, reverting to work as a bricklayer. Hlasko was not only trapped in an image he couldn’t get out of. Labouring was also the only economic reality open to him, for as long as he couldn’t support himself with writing. Evidently he felt some affinity too. He was a macho man, a body-builder, and saw his writing almost as an accident.

They eventually got married on 20 February 1961 at Caxton Hall in London. Sonja, having broken off the engagement before, was now routinely feeding Marek anti-alcoholism pills as part of the standard treatment then. After each pill he would kiss her hand. But no sooner were they happy than history dealt them another blow, when the Berlin Wall was suddenly erected, on 13 August 1961. Hlasko may not have done much writing there, but Berlin was finally his new home. He fitted well in the family and was a friend to Sonja’s father and now eight-year-old Pierre. But Communism reaching west destroyed that security too, and the whole family fled to Munich, in the far south of Germany, to feel safer.

I’m portraying Hlasko as a homebird, which he wasn’t at all. He often took off. In Munich he had Polish compatriots working at the American anti-Communist propaganda station Radio Free Europe who became his drinking friends. If stimulant addiction always loomed, so did a fondness for women. Filming in Paris Hlasko had an affair with his director’s wife which seriously threatened his marriage. “You are like a clear stream for me, that cleanses me,” he said, trying to hold on to a jealous Sonja, before and after a major overdose. Between March 1963 and March 1965 he spent 242 days in a clinic.

Tragedy befell Sonja. While she was away filming, a quack paediatrician over-immunized her son against polio, and then disappeared when the boy developed symptoms.  As she wrote, summing up their marriage years later: “To be Marek’s wife was an all-consuming task which I was not up to after my child fell seriously ill.” In fact Hlasko seems to have taken off for the United States when he could no longer be Sonja’s priority. Of course, the offer to work as a screenwriter for Roman Polanski wasn’t something to pass up lightly, but it led to an estrangement, and officially to a divorce, although inevitably Sonja and Marek were together again, and again …

His death in 1969 was quickly followed by Pierre’s the following year. Marek had been thirty-four, Pierre not quite seventeen.

Sonja, bildhübsch, pretty as a picture, played Eliza Doolittle in the German stage version of My Fair Lady and was the all-dancing, all-singing star of many, many film, theater and tv productions besides. She was Blanche in the first German production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof  Meanwhile her husband the James-Dean-lookalike (an image he enjoyed), may have been an arch-manipulator, but no Pole of his day wrote like that. As Sonja said, he was a very conservative man in private life (which meant he was irrationally jealous of her). Somehow his Catholic faith survived a lifetime in which he treated his own flesh abominably and hers not well either. He had a difficult, more or less estranged relationship with his mother, which Sonja tried to make good. Out of this, despite it, came literature no one else could have written, like Killing the Second Dog.

Evidently it was the time in Israel that gave him the background for that novella, but you can probably see there too, set against the desert background and the torturous immigrant life, something of Hlasko’s happy relationship with Sonja and Pierre. Pierre in particular is the young son of a mother without a husband and who needs a father to idealize. Hlasko himself is suspended between confidence trickster, true lover and an exile who just needs to survive, from job to job, country to country.

These, if you like, are the bonus stories that hover in the background of the published work.

      

This post is courtesy of Lesley Chamberlain, British journalist and novelist, who wrote the Introduction to Killing the Second Dog. You can read this post and many more at

 http://lesleychamberlain.wordpress.com/2014/05/08/a-difficult-lover-and-an-anti-communist/

A Discussion with Julita Mirkowicz, wife of Hlasko translator Tomasz Mirkowicz



Julita Mirkowicz translated various works of American literature into Polish, including Being There by Jerzy Kosinski and several novels by Paul Auster. She is also the wife of the late Tomasz Mirkowicz, who translated two books by the Polish writer Marek Hlasko. Killing the Second Dog was published by New Vessel Press in March 2014. In December 2014, New Vessel Press will be publishing another of Hlasko’s novels, All Backs Were Turned.

Born in Warsaw in 1953, Mirkowicz translated into Polish the works of Ken Kesey, George Orwell, Jerzy Kosinski, Harry Matthews, Robert Coover, Alan Sillitoe and Charles Bukowski, among others. He was also a fiction writer and critic, and the recipient of the Literatura Na Świecie Award for Best Prose Translation of 1987; the Polish Translators’ Association Award for Best Prose Translation of 1988 and the FA-ART Short Story Contest Winner (1994). Tomasz Mirkowicz died of cancer in 2003.

How did Tomasz learn English?

Tomek’s father worked in the Ministry of Commerce. In the 1960s he was sent to Egypt as a trade representative. The whole family—father, mother & Tomasz—spent 4 years in Cairo. Tomasz attended the Cairo American College, which was actually a grammar school.

In 1967 or ’68 they returned to Poland. Tomasz went to a high school where knowledge of English was obligatory (some of the classes were held in English). After high school he studied for one semester at Politechnika Warszawska, The Warsaw University of Technology, in the Department of Power and Aeronautical Engineering, but he decided that instead of learning how to build planes he preferred reading books. So in 1972 he passed his exams and became a student at the English Institute at Warsaw University.  In 1977, he wrote his M.A. thesis on the fiction of Robert Coover.  In 1980 he began his PhD studies, then took a break. Tomek resumed his PhD studies one year before his death and almost completed his thesis on the novels of Harry Mathews.

How did he first get into translation?

As a student Tomasz took part in a competition organized by the Polish Writers Union and a popular literary monthly Literatura na ŚwiecieLiterature in the World. A select group of beginning translators from different languages, with about 15 people working in English, were then taught the art of translation by older translators. These “lessons” lasted for about half a year and later they were continued by a well-known translator who took a group of us under her care. We met with her once a week for about 4 hours, for 3-4 years.

Tomasz translated some great American authors. Did he always choose writers who were close to his heart, or was his choice of translations more a result of what the publishing houses were interested in?

Both. Beginners can’t be picky. But Tomek always knew what he wanted to translate. At that time there were just a few publishing houses in Poland that published translations, and about 10 books from the English language appeared from each. However, Polish money could not be converted into foreign currency, so there was no way to pay the authors. The only way was for the author to come to Poland and spend his zlotys here. Many did come, encouraged by Tomek, who made friends easily. He organized many of their trips. I forgot to mention that we went to the States a few times – in 1981 and 1986. Both of us had USIA grants and we travelled all over the US. And in 1991 Tomek received a one-year scholarship from the Kosciuszko Foundation. Many brilliant American writers and poets were our friends.

TM-2

Translator Tomasz Mirkowicz

When did he dare (because it is quite a daring thing) to translate for the first time into English, as opposed to into Polish?

Steve Schrader, the first publisher of Hlasko and owner of the now defunct Cane Hill Press, came to Poland with his elderly, but extremely vivacious father. If I remember correctly, his father wanted to find his Polish roots. I’m not sure who gave Steve our phone number. But Steve called Tomek, they met and of course instantly became friends. Tomek never before thought of translating anything into English. But Steve started asking questions about Polish writers (“Who would you, Tomek, translate?”) and eventually asked him to do one of Hlasko’s novels. It was a gentleman’s agreement, just a handshake, no contracts. Steve said he’d pay Tomek and either publish Hlasko or not, depending on whether he liked the book. He did, and he published it. And then he asked for another novel by Hlasko. Tomek also translated a third book for Steve, Robot, by the science fiction writer Adam Wiśniewski-Snerg, which however never appeared in English. I’m not sure whether Steve didn’t like it or if by that time he had already decided to close his publishing business.

Tomek was not only a translator, but also a literary critic and a writer. He published one underground novel during the martial law period in the early 1980s. He followed that with a collection of stories – lipograms – with each story missing a letter. In the first there is no “A,” in the second no ‘B” and so on. Tomek’s third book was set in Egypt …

What was Tomasz like as a person, and do you see that come through in his work?

Tomek was considered one the best translators of English & American literature into Polish. He was incredibly intelligent, had vast knowledge in different fields, was extremely well read and loved reading. At the same time he was funny, sometimes shy, sometimes (but only sometimes!) humble. He was also very outgoing. He loved meeting new people and seeing friends. He helped many younger translators—he checked their work, made suggestions and corrections, etc.—and he loved cats. He loved to travel. He loved Egypt, and Africa (we visited Ghana, Togo, The Gambia). He loved literature, art (he used to paint and sculpt). He was not too interested in sports, and not too interested in music. I don’t think his personality traits are visible in his translations, but they are visible in the books that he wrote – especially his incredible imagination and knowledge.

What was his process like?

He was a night person. He slept late and worked mostly in the evenings and at night. And usually he’d wait until the deadline was close – then he’d gather speed and energy.

Was he always a translator?

Yes, he started translating as a student and just kept going. He stopped about 5-7 years before his death and started writing his own stuff. About two years before he died, Tomek was asked to teach American literature classes at the English Institute, which he did with a passion up until December 2002.

Finally, what about your life as a translator? How did you begin translating?

As a child I spent four and a half years in Canada, then four and a half years in India as a teenager. I finished high school in New Delhi and completed one year of college there. Then I studied English and American Literature at the English Institute at Warsaw University. That’s where Tomasz and I met. I started translating as a student for Literatura Na Świecie and just kept going. I don’t know why I started. Maybe because at first it was a challenge. Later it became a passion.

Who were some of “your” authors?

I translated, among others, John Gardner (The King’s Indian); Peter de Vries (Glory of the Humming Bird); William Gaddis (Carpenter’s Gothic); D.H. Lawrence; James Dickey (Deliverance); Dashiell Hammett; Donna Leon; Winston Groom (Forrest Gump Gump and Company); Ken Kesey (The Last Go Round); Toni Morrison (Jazz).

Memorable ones?

Favorites: Probably Gaddis, Kesey, Kosinski – because they were friends of ours.

Most difficult: Gaddis, Morrison.

Most fun: Winston Groom.

Least favorite:  An old science fiction novel by Henry Kuttner called Time Trap.

Christine Shuttleworth, Translator, on Fanny von Arnstein



Christine Shuttleworth is the translator of Fanny von Arnstein: Daughter of the Enlightenment, which was published by New Vessel Press in 2013. Christine’s mother, Hilde Spiel, was the author of Fanny and the grand dame of Austrian letters; her father, Peter de Mendelssohn, was a German writer. Here, Christine reflects on how she got her start as a translator, and what it’s like when the author is also your mother.

By Christine ShuttleworthChristine Shuttleworth, Translator

When my mother, Hilde Spiel, asked me to undertake the translation into English of her biography of the eighteenth-century social and literary hostess Fanny von Arnstein, it was entirely thanks to her encouragement and confidence in me that I went ahead with the challenging task. From my London home, I sent her my work by post, chapter by chapter, along with endless lists of factual and stylistic queries, which she promptly answered from her apartment in Vienna with her unvarying professionalism. I found I enjoyed the task immensely, finding it much more rewarding than if the text had been by an author unknown to me.

These were the days before email, and I can’t help thinking how much more quickly the work would have proceeded if we had been able to take advantage of the technology we all rely on so much today. My translation of Fanny von Arnstein, Hilde Spiel’s favorite among all her books, was eventually published in England in 1991, a few months after her death.

My previous experience of professional translation had been minimal. An early attempt (at my father’s suggestion) at translating Lenz, an unfinished novella by Georg Büchner, was dismissed by him as inadequate. I had not read the story before, and in fairness to myself it was perhaps rather ambitious for a novice to attempt the translation of such a complex and imaginative piece of prose.

Thus, Fanny was my first full-length translation from German, and it gave me incentive to pursue a career as a literary translator. This was something I had never considered before, although I had had a good knowledge of German from my childhood: my parents had emigrated to England in 1936 and spoke a mixture of German and English at home, and we had spent two years in Berlin after the war, where my mother was employed as a theatre critic and my father, Peter de Mendelssohn, worked for the Control Commission for Germany. He later became a biographer of Winston Churchill and Thomas Mann.

Both in Berlin and in London, the two cities where I spent my early years, my parents would often begin a sentence in one language and end it in another, or insert an English word into a German sentence, or vice versa. They spoke to each other and to my younger brother and me in the same way, presumably keen that we should become equally fluent in both languages. This worked better for my brother than for me. Somewhat inhibited and lacking in confidence as a child, when addressed in German I would invariably reply in English. I knew that any error I made in German would immediately be corrected by my parents, and I hated to be corrected.

I have been asked what it was like to grow up with such literary parents. I think most small children accept whatever situation they find themselves growing up in, and cannot envisage any other. My schoolfriends, visiting me at home, would marvel at the number of books shelved in the living room, but to me, being surrounded by books was the norm. A house without books was unimaginable to me. Of course I had thoughts of becoming a writer myself, but never managed to produce any creative writing of particular merit – perhaps the standard set by my parents’ work was discouragingly high.

After leaving university, I worked in a series of publishing houses as an editorial assistant, first on books and then on magazines. While working at the London publishers Thames & Hudson, I was asked to translate some passages of German text for a book of images of London by Oskar Kokoschka, a task I achieved without too much difficulty.

From book publishing I moved into the world of periodicals, and it was then that, almost by chance, I took up indexing. I was working on an art and antiques magazine, which had never been indexed. The publisher appointed me to the task of producing an index, not caring that I had had no experience in this craft. In my lunch hour, I was wandering in the Fleet Street area of London, close to my office, when I came across St Bride Library in Bride Lane. This is a library primarily devoted to printing, book arts, typography and graphic design. I looked for books on indexing and came across Indexing, The Art of, by G. Norman Knight.  This wonderful, entertaining as well as instructive manual aroused my enthusiasm for indexing. I later bought my own copy, which I still treasure (it is now out of print). With its help I managed to produce a reasonably serviceable index to the art and antiques magazine.

After this I joined the Society of Indexers and gradually built up a clientele, so that eventually I had enough work to take the step of becoming self-employed as a professional indexer. I still had no thought of becoming a literary translator until my mother convinced me that it was within my capabilities.

Some years after the original publication of my translation of Fanny into English, I decided to translate my mother’s memoirs, which were first published in two volumes by Ullstein in Germany: the first, Die hellen und die finsteren Zeiten, in 1989 and the second, Welche Welt ist meine Welt?, in 1990, the year of her death. This time I felt even more personally involved than with the earlier book, for the subject was even closer to my heart. As I wrote in my Introduction to the new translation (which was published in one volume, as The Dark and the Bright: Memoirs 1911-1989 by Ariadne Press in Riverside, California, in 2007): “I found myself deeply regretting the fact that I could no longer consult her whenever I hesitated over a phrase or reference which was obscure to me.” Without the experience of her sympathetic guidance and counsel when I was translating Fanny, I can’t imagine that I would have undertaken this second labor of love.

“Her place of birth”, Hilde Spiel wrote of her heroine, “was a Europe torn by the battles of kings, by the uprisings of nations, by war and revolution.” Like Fanny von Arnstein, her biographer lived in turbulent times of national and international upheaval and, like her, acquitted herself “with grace, spirit and dignity.” I imagine that if they had lived in the same era, they might have been close friends.

I still find pleasure in both tasks – indexing and translation – and cannot say which I prefer. What the two apparently disparate occupations have in common is, of course, that both are ancillary processes, designed to give the reader an additional way of approaching the text. The task of the indexer is to provide a key to the book, to make it more accessible to the reader, while that of the translator is to convey another writer’s style and content as closely as possible in the words of another language. The advice of T S Eliot in Little Gidding, to my mind, expresses the creative responsibility of the translator as much as it does that of the author:

The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,

An easy commerce of the old and the new,

The common word exact without vulgarity,

The formal word precise but not pedantic,

The complete consort dancing together.

One task I have found particularly interesting as a translator is that of rendering the vocabulary and turns of phrase of earlier eras. I like to think that, as a result of wide reading in my youth, I have acquired an ear for vocabulary, grammar and phraseology and can manage to produce a passable version of the foreign text as it might have been translated in the same period, or where appropriate a period-neutral version (to coin a term) which at least avoids jarring stylistic and verbal anachronisms.

Fanny von Arnstein provided a particular challenge in this respect, as many 18th-century German sources are quoted, and I enjoyed rendering them in what I hope and believe to be an acceptable style, without either glaringly anachronistic or unnecessarily archaic phraseology. Here is one example, from Chapter 7, “The High Priest’s Blessing” (Der Segen des Hohepriesters), which may also serve as an introduction to our heroine. It is taken from a letter written by a young Bavarian visitor to Vienna. First, the original:

“Die Baronin von Arnsteiner, oder wie man sie hier im allgemeinen nennt, die Fanny, ist eine Frau von einigen und 30 Jahren und von Geburt eine Berlinerin. Sie ist eine Tochter des wegen seines Reichtums, seiner Wohltätigkeit und redlichen Gesinnungen bekannten jüdischen Handelsmannes Itzig; er war ein aufgeklärter Mann, im guten Sinne des Wortes, Beweisthümer seiner hellen Denkart, die ihn über die großen Vorurtheile seines Volks und der damaligen noch geringen Kultur desselben erhoben, sind die Erziehung und Bildung, die er seinen Kindern gab. Jede der Itzig’schen Töchter ward mit so vieler Sorgfalt erzogen, genoß in allen Fächern der Sprachen und Wissenschaften einen so reichlichen Unterricht, daß sie, wenn es Wille des Schicksals gewesen wäre, den Stand der Fürstinnen nicht verunziert haben würden. Urtheilen Sie hieraus, wie angenehm man in diesem Hause sein muß, wo die Frau desselben den guten Ton und die mit diesem gesellschaftlichen Vorzug befreundeten Tugenden in sich vereinigt. Sie hat Verstand und Charakter und wird nur selten, wie andere ihres Geschlechtes, von Launen tyrannisiert.”

And here is my version:

“Baroness von Arnsteiner, or Fanny, as she is generally called here, is a woman of several-and-thirty years, and by birth a Berliner. She is a daughter of the Jewish businessman Itzig, known for his wealth, his philanthropy and honest disposition; he was an enlightened man, in the good sense of the word; evidence of his clear-sightedness, which lifted him above the great prejudices of his people and their, at that time, still meager culture, are the education and upbringing that he gave his children. Each of the Itzig daughters was educated with so much care, and enjoyed such abundant instruction in all branches of languages and sciences, that, had it been the will of fate, they would not have disgraced the rank of princesses. Judge from this how pleasant it must be in this house, whose mistress unites in herself good breeding and the virtues associated with this social advantage. She has good sense and character and is only seldom enslaved by her moods as are others of her sex.”

Seeing the book in print again has been a moving personal experience for me. It is certainly my mother’s best book as well as the one dearest to her heart. I hope I have done justice to it and to her.

Arts Fuse reviews Killing the Second Dog



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:

http://artsfuse.org/101651/fuse-book-review-killing-the-second-dog-a-pair-of-captivating-polish-con-artists/

Some Day Makes Three Different “Best of 2013” Lists!



We’re very pleased to announce that Some Day by Shemi Zarhin has appeared on several lists of Best Books of the Year for 2013!

Praising the “lovable cast of characters” and “cinematic details, wry humor, and masterfully interwoven stories of love, lust, and magic,” World Literature Today, Words without Borders, and Tweed’s Magazine all placed Some Day on their list of the best books from 2013.

The Missing Year named one of The New Republic’s Best Books



The New Republic has named The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra by Pedro Mairal one of the Best Books!

“Narration and evocation perform a savory duet in the Argentine novelist Pedro Mairal’s story of an idiosyncratic artist’s immense autobiographical murals and a son’s quietly impassioned efforts to do justice to his late father and his work. This surefooted exploration of the painter as a quixotic dreamer gives a South American twist to Balzac’s Unknown Masterpiece, with the seventeenth-century Parisian genius of the Frenchman’s classic tale replaced by a twentieth-century Argentine provincial whose work has come to the attention of a major European museum. Mairal’s quickening prose moves from the ordinary to the opulent and back again without skipping a beat. The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierrea will surely leave some readers thinking of Henry James’s tragicomic accounts of the artist’s life,” writes art critic Jed Perl.

Read the whole article and see the entire list here.

World Literature Today’s Notable Translations of 2013



Some Day by Shemi Zarhin and The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra by Pedro Mairal were both recognized by World Literature Today on their list of Notable Translations of 2013!

The magazine, which has done interviews with translators Yardenne Greenspan (Some Day) and Nick Caistor (The Missing Year) in the past, called these books some the most exciting publications of the year.

Click here to see the entire list.