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Results 1 - 7 of 7
1. "False Friends" by Uljana Wolf [5 Days of Poetry]

With the Best Translated Book Award announcements taking place Friday, May 4th at 6pm at McNally Jackson Books it’s time to highlight all six poetry finalists. Over the course of the week we’ll run short pieces by all of the poetry judges on their list of finalists.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

“False Friends”: by Uljana Wolf, translated by Susan Bernofsky

Language: German

Country: Germany
Publisher: Ugly Duckling Presse

Why This Book Should Win: Ugly Duckling is one of the most consistently interesting presses (or “presseses”?) in the world, and Susan Bernofsky one of the greatest translators ever.

Today’s post is from Erica Mena and is actually a chunk of the review she wrote of this for the Iowa Review. Click here to support the Iowa Review and read her full piece.

False Friends by Uljana Wolf, translated by Susan Bernofsky, is a delightful foray into language and poetry. Even for someone who has no knowledge of German, the playful shifts between the English translation and the German hinted at behind it are enlightening: both Bernofsky and Wolf clearly delight in the slipperiness of language and sound.

Cognates and homonyms suffuse the poem, toying with seemingly straightforward sentences and twisting them around against themselves. Bernofsky sustains this density of sound against the lightness of the tone, a balance she creates through deft rhythmic and rhyming patterns. The rhythmic quality of the prose poems is striking. In much of the book, Bernofsky hits regular iambic meter, and the poems are stuffed with internal rhyme with equally surprising (because non-lineated) sentence-end rhymes. The bouncy rhythm and dense sounds drive the reader forward through sometimes nonsensical phrases, foregrounding the absurdity of language.

Many of these prose poems read as though they could be nursery rhymes for precocious, hyper-literate children:

he who has a hat has what? i ask. broad-brimmed, you say, a roof above one’s head, cornered, crushed, and most likely of felt—so you’ll feel sheltered till a gust comes blustering by.

But there is exquisite darkness in the images:

still, it would be sinful, you say, not to speak of swans: six is silence, seven love, and in the end there’s a one-wing surplus. seems silly perhaps, but fairy tales save us many a swan song. so i say: consider the woodpecker’s third eyelid sliding supportively across its pupil. with its help, you can strike home any point without eyes popping from sockets. and after that first flutter of hard knocks, the silence cannot hurt you at all.

This book moves deceptively quickly, thanks to all its brilliant poetics and puns. It’s worth a second, third, even a fourth read. It demands to be read out loud, in the way that good poetry does. The book is organized alphabetically (“a DICHTonary of false friends true cognates and other cousins” reads the text on the title page). Each letter gets a short, 6­–12 line block of prose full of alliteration and punning. The alphabet runs the gamut in English, then the second section of the book begins (on noticeably different paper, and printed differently, to accentuate the shift) in German. The original German poems have one obvious difference from the English: they are titled with words rather than listed under the letter of the alphabet. So “A” is, in German, “art / apart.” What espe

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2. "engulf — enkindle" by Anja Utler [5 Days of Poety]

With the Best Translated Book Award announcements taking place Friday, May 4th at 6pm at McNally Jackson Books it’s time to highlight all six poetry finalists. Over the course of the week we’ll run short pieces by all of the poetry judges on their list of finalists.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

engulf — enkindle”: by Anja Utler, translated by Kurt Beals

Language: German

Country: Germany
Publisher: Burning Deck Press

Why This Book Should Win: Burning Deck! Rosemarie and Keith Waldrop have done more for “experimental” international poetry in translation than anyone. They deserve to be honored.

Today’s post is from Erica Mena.

engulf — enkindle is a stunning book of poetry. It literally stunned me into absolute submission; it is the book of poetry I’d been wanting to read for years. It’s a small volume, and I read it in one sitting, faster than I normally read poetry, because I couldn’t slow down. The language sunk its hooks into me and pulled me through the book, like rafting down rapids. If some of this sounds violent, that’s no mistake – the book is full of sensual violence, done to the body of language and the body in the poem.

want now: you – drive into me
want to push to the edge, hang, you
haul all my: shale, scrape
it off from: the head, from the shoulders
to rootstock throat gravel: you split me
give me – as if severed – sharp
countours – fangs wolffian ridge
questions too – will i? –
i – take you to me
                                 balances I

The stacatto lines, broken by strange punctuation, expose themselves as duplicitious; the punctuation is superfluous, and yet it’s not. It’s a violation of the line, of the rules of grammar, but it forces a rhythm on the almost unwilling reader. It’s pleasurable and distressing simultaneously, mimetic of the poems. The I in the poem submits to the violence of the you, while exerting her own controlled violence over the reader, and the poem and ultimately her poetic body.

Like most “experimental” texts this work demands more of its reader, a different set of tools and strategies. It is a text that has been splayed wide open, disgorging multiple readings. This extract from the second poem could be read as describing what the poetry itself is doing:

     II

– percieve:     just at the opencuts: set free
furrow –          to stand, sense, to drift now am: pitching to you
                        through the: fissures [. . .]

[The bracketed ellipsis is mine.] Pay attention to the slippery shifts of meaning across and through the punctuation, the way caesura is inserted into the lines and creates tension with the phrases that follow the colons. Feel the tension that is created by the speeding up and slowing down of the lines, the gaps in meaning and thwarted grammatical expectations (the missing subject for “am” for example).

This is poetry that demands several readings, at least one of which must be aloud. When I teach poetry, I always ask that the students read the po

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3. "Funeral for a Dog" by Thomas Pletzinger [25 Days of the BTBA]

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next five weeks highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Funeral for a Dog by Thomas Pletzinger, translated by Ross Benjamin

Language: German
Country: Germany
Publisher: W.W. Norton

Why This Book Should Win: Two reasons: 1) during Thomas’s reading tour, three consecutive events were disrupted by a streaker, a woman passing out and smashing a glass table, and a massive pillow fight amid a Biblical thunderstorm; 2) the phone number.

The following piece is written by Erin Edmison who is a partner at Edmison/Harper Literary Scouting and worked on Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision, which beat out Eugenides & Co. for the NBCC award in fiction.

Thomas Pletzinger is a romantic. He’s not a Romantic; the language of his 2011 debut novel Funeral for a Dog is more observational than emotional, or maybe it’s observational about emotion, in the way of that midcentury German master, Max Frisch (ripples of Montauk lap at this novel’s edge). Then again, Pletzinger’s book feels totally modern (if not Modern). The characters’ central drama has to do with The Way Some of Us Live Now: over-educated, burdened by choice, willing to throw out the cultural roadmaps, but unsure how to draw new ones.

Daniel Mandelkern (his surname translates to “almond seed,” and is also the German word for the amygdala, the part of the brain most responsible for processing memory and emotion) is at a crossroads. He’s left his doctorate in the German-sounding field of ethnography (we would call him a cultural anthropologist) to write feature pieces for the Arts & Culture section of the Hamburg newspaper. His wife Elisabeth is his editor at the paper, and it’s starting to chafe: “(since I started working for Elisabeth’s department, our marriage has become more professional).” When she sends him on what he considers to be a ridiculous assignment— fly down to Italy’s Lake Lugano to interview Dirk Svensson, a mega-bestselling but reclusive children’s book author, and fly back that night—Daniel knows exactly what she’s punishing him for. She wants a child; Daniel’s resistant.

The specter of that phantom trio (Daniel, Elisabeth, Baby Mandelkern) is only one of a series of threesomes—both romantic and situational— that occur throughout the book, down to Svensson’s three-legged dog. The three-part arithmetic of one person choosing between two options leads to several of the book’s dilemmas, and they’re ones many of us face: I could live here, or there; I could love this woman, or that one; I could have this kind of life, or one completely different. All is not possible; one must choose. When Mandelkern arrives on the shores of Lake Lugano, he’s surprised to find he’s not the only person coming for a visit: a fetching Finnish doctor named Tuuli and her young son also clamber into the boat when Svensson comes to pick them up. And contrary to the dossier given to him by his wife befo

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4. "Seven Years" by Peter Stamm [25 Days of the BTBA]

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next three weeks highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Seven Years by Peter Stamm, translated by Michael Hofmann

Language: German
Country: Switzerland
Publisher: Other Press

Why this book should win: Dismantled relationships FTW!

Today’s post is by Tom Flynn, bookseller and events coordinator at Seminary Co-Op in Chicago.

Let’s get this bit out of the way first: Peter Stamm’s Seven Years is not a terribly pleasant novel. The characters—particularly the narrator, Alexander—are deeply flawed people who probably would have done better in their fictional lives had they never encountered one or another or, after meeting, run in opposite directions. But it is also an engrossing read with direct, clear prose that engages and eggs the reader on.

Alexander is a German architecture student who, at the end of his final year of school, becomes involved with a Polish woman, Ivona, whom he does not much like. She does not engage him intellectually, he finds her unattractive, and he feels her to be beneath him socially. Yet he finds himself unable to stop seeing her. While this is going on, he begins a relationship with a fellow student, Sonia, who possesses an ambition and drive completely absent from Alex. Sonia and Alex marry and open a firm but after several years (the seven year itch that the title can, perhaps, be understood to reference) of marriage Ivona reappears in his life and he takes up with her once again. The effect of this affair eventually lays bare the weakness of his and Sonia’s relationship, which, despite its solid presentation at the beginning of the novel, is doomed to crumble around them.

Architecture and its various metaphors prove an apt vehicle for exploring Sonia, Alex, and Ivona’s movement through life. Sonia wishes to build socially conscious structures that work toward the creation and fulfillment of an ideal human. She has very firm ideas on the type of life she and Alex ought to lead: their work, home, and family life are all clearly laid out. Alex, for his part, finds himself happiest designing buildings he can never build, nor wants to construct; he would rather explore space on the page than express it in the world what with all the compromises that accompany such efforts. He allows others to determine the shape and course of his life, effectively drifting from one event to the next. And Ivona is simply a dweller, moving from one small, unpleasant residence to the next with little regard for how much smaller the physical space she inhabits becomes along the way. Instead, she carves out a world within that houses her love—her mania, really—for Alex and Alex alone.

Much of the drama in the novel feels, well, anti-climatic. A sense of the inevitable pervades the novel. Alex is by no means a passionate character, nor is he anyone—in fiction or life—for whom one should feel much pity. The events of the novel plays out as they do because of his own inertia, his willingn

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5. "The Shadow-Boxing Woman" by Inka Parei [25 Days of the BTBA]

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next two weeks highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

The Shadow-Boxing Woman by Inka Parei, translated by Katy Derbyshire

Language: German

Country: Germany
Publisher: Seagull Books

Why This Book Should Win: Seagull produces some damn beautiful books.

Today’s post is by Hilary Plum, an editor with Interlink Publishing and co-director of Clockroot Books. Her novel They Dragged Them Through the Streets is forthcoming from FC2.

Hell and Dunkel (in German: Light and Dark) are two squatters in Berlin, young or youngish women, the only remaining residents in their wing of a “formerly elegant Jewish apartment house.” At the opening of The Shadow-Boxing Woman, Hell’s monotonous daily life is disturbed: Dunkel has disappeared. Hell sets out on a search for her missing neighbor, not out of friendship—she and Dunkel rarely speak—or even any real sense of morality, but some other more visceral drive, one which leads her and the novel through a dark picaresque in ’90s, post-Wall Berlin. Her tone deceptively flat, Parei offers an unsettlingly intimate evocation of the city. In her portrayal Berlin is both sinisterly populated and desolate, everywhere its surfaces defaced and indistinguishable from the prevailing refuse and excrement, a place in a state of ruin and troubled growth, continual becoming and decay (as the Eastern philosophy the novel toys with might put it).

“I can’t imagine a greater contrast than between Dunkel’s apartment and mine. At least bearing in mind that the layouts are exactly the same, mirrored across the axis of the stairwell,” Hell tells us, and maybe you’re starting to sense what this uncanny, masterfully structured novel is up to. The Shadow-Boxing Woman is a political fable in contemporary motifs: never simple allegory, but through the story of these two women offering a profound commentary on existence in fractured and then reunited Berlin. Hell is joined on her search for Dunkel by Markus März, some kind of old consort of Dunkel’s, who has come from the suburbs in search of a father long lost to him in Germany’s division. März is a bank robber of sorts (the novel’s understatement and ambiguity make an “of sorts” always in order as one describes it), and his and Hell’s hunt for Dunkel echoes the forms of both a crime novel and a classic tale of the Wild West, two outlaws teamed up on a near-hopeless quest. Interspersed with this plotline is a series of scenes from Hell’s past, just as the Wall is coming down, when she suffered some monstrous incident of violence; in response she has turned to martial arts, as well as developing, it seems, the relentlessly precise awareness that pervades the novel, the extraordinary eye for detail that is both hypnotic and suffocating. Hell deploys her martial arts skills several times in the novel’s course, with a casual brutality befitting any cowboy; but in time specters will return to haunt her, and us.

Parei sets all this up playfully, with a wicked humor that wil

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6. Latest Review: Why Is the Child Cooking in the Polenta

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Heather Simon on Aglaja Veteranyi’s Why the Child Is Cooking in the Polenta, which is translated from the German by Vincent Kling and published by Dalkey Archive Press.

Heather Simon is another of Susan Bernofsky’s students who kindly offered to write a review for our website. And this is quite a review. It makes the book sound really interesting and strangely funny, but then, at the very end, the review takes a seriously dark turn.

Here’s the opening of her review:

Why the Child Is Cooking in the Polenta by Aglaja Veteranyi cartwheels through the childhood exploits of the unnamed daughter of circus performers: Romanian refugees caravanning through Europe with dreams of fame, fortune, and a big house with a swimming pool. Veteranyi’s (almost) memoir and literary debut is told from the point of view of an ungainly young girl who is constantly being shushed by authority. Her mother—who never lets anyone get a word in edgewise—makes a living dangling from her hair, and her father works as clown and amateur filmmaker, shooting home-style documentaries for the narrator to star in as a silent protagonist; her only line is ever “Help.”

Relaying events in the present tense, the first-person narrator carries the reader on her jagged journey through circus camps, crowded hotel rooms, a short stint at a Swiss boarding school, and finally the vaudeville stage—all before hitting puberty. The narrator has no say in the direction of her journey. She hates parading around with the circus, claiming, “The closing parade with fanfare music is almost as awful as when I had my appendix out. All the artistes stand in a row or a circle and wave. That’s so embarrassing.” To make matters worse, every day the narrator worries that her mother will die while performing. “I sleep late in the morning to shorten my fear, because if I get up early the fear will last until her performance begins,” she confesses.

But what can the narrator do to change her situation? Whom can she tell? She is forbidden from having friends—even speaking to someone without permission is “prohibited” because according to her mother other people might be dangerous or steal her family’s circus acts. On the rare occasion that the narrator does voice her opinion, she is either punished or ignored. Throughout the book, the narrator claims she wants to be an actress and make a lot of money. But when she gets an opportunity to perform on stage she laments, “I pictured happiness differently.” This is probably because her visions of being a glamorous actress didn’t involve nipple tassels. She also hadn’t considered that her modest earnings would spark an onslaught of monetary requests from distant aunts and ancient grandparents. What does the narrator really want? “. . . To be like the people out there. There they can all read and they know things; their souls are made of white flour.”

Click here to read the full review.

7. Does it matter if the Emperor is really naked?


Over Christmas I’ve been reading Thomas Mann’s ‘Royal Highness’ (first published 1909)– which is published in the UK by Vintage. It’s rather different from the rest of Mann’s work – though he actually wrote it about the role of the artist in society – an early-twentieth-century conception of the artist which saw him/her as a being essentially set apart from everyday life – it’s a Ruritanian romance – impoverished grand-ducal prince falls in love with American millionaire’s daughter and finally marries her. Though themes of madness, disease, a crazy dog, an insane countess, and a rose that smells of decay run through the novel, its subject-matter is an up-market treatment of one of the penny-novelette themes of the time.
Re-reading it for the first time since university – and for the first time since I became a published author – I found it hard work. Granted, I find ‘The Magic Mountain’ hard work, but that is for different reasons. There are many touches of humour and wonderful writing that show that the novel is really written by the Thomas Mann who wrote the wonderful ‘Buddenbrooks’ but my judgement, after reading it was that a novel of 381 pages (this comment, as Amazon likes to say about customer reviews, refers to the German version, the length of the English one may be different) has about as much proper, publishable material as a novella. It should have been cut, cut, cut.
Now Thomas Mann’s work is not where you would expect to find brief, punchy writing, but whereas his other works are meaty, and all those pages are stuffed full of intelligent and and thought-provoking subject-matter, I found this one sadly repetitious and full of empty narrative spaces. He spends far too much time describing domestic interiors, for example – I kept thinking I was reading World of Interiors magazine and wondering where the photographs would come. (They’d be taken by Fritz von der Schulenburg of course.)
Mann famously (well, famously in Germany) refused to cut ‘Buddenbrooks’, and I think there he was right. I wouldn’t miss a word of that wonderful novel. But he should have cut ‘Royal Highness’. Mind, the early twentieth-century critics had different reasons for greeting it with less than enthusiasm: the ‘Happy End’ and the operetta-atmosphere of the whole thing. ‘A descent into the flat land of optimism,’ one critic called it, while another remarked that ‘German novels should end tragically, in downfall, in the twilight of the Gods.’ (The history of the next thirty-six years provided plenty of material for such literature, but I won’t go there now.)
Of course novels were much longer in the past, and that it’s wrong to apply modern-day criteria to them – but I do honestly think that ‘Royal Highness’ has survived hostile crits, is in the canon, still published even – and translated into I dunnamany languages – just because it’s been buoyed up by the author’s other work. And of course because it provides material for students of German literature to chomp.
My question is: does it matter? Does it matter if some ordinary person picks up this slightly flabby novel and thinks this has to be good writing, because everyone respects it, because the rest of Mann’s work is brilliant? Clearly it doesn’t matter to the publishers. They can sell it. If they couldn’t, it’d be for the scrap-heap licketty-split. We all know THAT.
But that’s my question for the New Year: is a work of fiction good if the public has been persuaded it is, or is there such a thing as intrinsic literary merit?