We were thrilled to get our hands on a copy of yet another contemporary Hungarian novel, soon to appear in English translation from estimable publisher Counterpoint, Ágota Bozai's To Err Is Divine (see, for example, their publicity page).
Originally published as Tranzit glória in 1998, it was apparently a bestseller in Hungary (and then Germany).
And the description of the book makes it sound fairly interesting.
So far, so good.
Less good: opening the book we find this description:
ENGLISH VERSION BY DAVID KRAMER
translated from the German with
the close collaboration of the author
Causing us, of course, to howl in disappointment.
What is it about translations from the Hungarian that American publishers so often can't get it right -- or, at the very least, can't get it straight out of the Hungarian ?
We've moaned about this at length regarding Sándor Márai's Embers -- and, admittedly, it's not just a problem with Hungarian (see our painful documentation of twice-removed translations).
Still, Hungarian literature seems particularly hard hit.
(Is everybody in the field booked solid with the Kertesz translations ?)
Again we must ask how American publishers can ever expect to find an audience for translated literature if this is how they go about presenting it -- second-hand.
If the publishers don't respect the work, why should any audience ?
Amazingly, it is also some of the literary standard-bearers -- Knopf in the case of Embers, Counterpoint in this case -- that are responsible for these outrages.
We're very curious to see how (and if) the critics react.
Disappointingly, the fact that this is a twice-translated text is not mentioned on the Counterpoint publicity page, nor is it evident at the Amazon pages (where you can pre-order your copy at Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk).
We only have a proof, not the finished book, so we don't know how much they'll cop to there, but the proof evades the question of double translation (they acknowledge that this is an "English version" and that it was "translated from the German" -- but fail to mention that it exists (originally, in fact) in Hungarian as well).
Nor do they mention the intermediary translator (Christina Kunze, who rendered it into German) or the title of the German version (Irren ist göttlich; get your copy of this closer-to-the-original version at Amazon.de).
We don't really know what to do about this sort of thing.
Boycott the book ?
The publisher ?
Rant and rave (yeah, that's gotten us real far) ?
Learn Hungarian ?
For now we just howl in frustration (which the neighbours really don't appreciate at this hour), and wonder whether we should bother making our way through our now tear-stained copy of this book.
In yesterday's issue of The Guardian there's a brief profile of The bard of Balloch, Agnes Owens, by Laura Barton.
We just recently finally got our hands on a copy of Alasdair Gray's The Ends of our Tethers (and our review will be forthcoming soonest).
It's dedicated to Owens, and in his End Notes Gray adds: "Agnes Owens is the most unfairly neglected of all living Scottish authors. I do not know why."
We don't have anything by her under review, but have been impressed by what works of hers we have read.
The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Peter Singer's look at The Ethics of George W. Bush (or as the UK sub-title has it, his attempt at: Taking George W. Bush Seriously), The President of Good and Evil.
It will be interesting to see what a kind of a shake Singer gets from those not predisposed to his arguments, i.e. how those that are fans of the president (or his policies) will deal with the book.
An example of how not to go about it can be found in Shawn Macomber's review-article in The American Spectator, a "Don’t Buy the Book"-recommendation, Singer's Plague.
Singer's other works have led many conservatives to accuse the ethicist of having a deviant sense of morality, but there is an undeniable brilliance and lucidity in his writing.
Singer's critique of Bush's ethics, on the other hand -- both in speeches and in his new book -- is juvenile.
Discussing the president's opposition to using human embryos for research, Singer states that yes, embryos are unique, but so are snowflakes, and "we don’t have laws protecting snowflakes."
Macomber -- after cleverly giving Singer some credit for previous work -- offers this pretty outrageous-sounding example.
Comparing embryos to snowflakes !
Anyone who just reads that passage or this review would, indeed, surely be led to believe that Singer's arguments are on this level: ill-considered and poorly made.
Looking at the actual book one finds that the reason Singer brings up snowflakes in this context is because the junior Bush had.
Indeed, the passage, taken in its entirety, seems perfectly sensibly argued:
Bush tells us that every embryo is unique, "like a snowflake."
He is right: both embryos and snowflakes are unique.
But the fact that something is unique is not in itself a reason for trying to preserve it.
(We don't try to preserve snowflakes.)
Bush needs to tell us why the uniqueness of each human embryo is a reason for preserving it.
Since he doesn't do so, we can only speculate.
Again: surely Singer's argument and presentation is clear, reasonable, coherent.
Surely, it is the president, comparing embryos and snowflakes and babbling about uniqueness, that is -- if not exactly juvenile, at least a bit off the wall.
And notice that Macomber's quote of Singer's words -- in quotation marks ! -- not only takes the parenthetical remark entirely out of context, it actually gets it wrong.
(Updated - 9 April): Shawn Macomber wrote to us, clarifying matters: "You may have noticed the basis of the article was a lecture/signing I attended. The 'snowflake' quote is correctly pulled from Singer's speech that night."
So we were wrong to accuse him of getting the quote wrong, for which we of course apologise.
Unfortunately, it was not apparent to us from the article that Macomber was quoting from Singer's speech that night, as the lead-in -- "Singer's critique of Bush's ethics, on the other hand -- both in speeches and in his new book -- is juvenile. Discussing the president's opposition to using human embryos for research, Singer states that" -- was ambiguous enough to lead us to firmly believe Macomber was relying on the text (which was also conveniently at hand, and in which Singer raises the cited example) rather than a specific speech.
We will try to be more careful in the future.
Still, we wonder how many readers made the same mistake (assumed that the outrageous snowflake-example/comparison was Singer's, not Bush's) .....
So, in case we haven't told you often enough: don't trust what anybody says, especially in a book review.
Always be suspicious.
We appreciate it if, for example, we've earned a bit of trust from you on the basis of the body of reviews on this site -- but we certainly hope you don't take them as gospel.
As to The American Spectator ... well, this is just one example (i.e. not enough to damn them for all eternity) -- but certainly we would advise great care in relying on what you find there.
((Updated - 9 April): Given Macomber's explanation -- see above -- we perhaps over-damned The American Spectator (certainly we regret claiming that they get their quotes wrong, when they clearly didn't in this instance); still, we find the presentation of the arguments offered in the article (including what led us to make our mistake) somewhat troubling.)
The Telegraph and Ottakar's launch ‘The Real Read', a poll to find the country's best-loved work of non-fiction.
(Yeah, the name of the competition is a clever play on words; still, we don't like the implication that any non-non-fiction is, therefore, some sort of fake read.)
Only about 10 per cent of the commercial titles published each year are fiction, and fiction accounts for only about a quarter of retail sales.
We talk about fiction incessantly -- the Man Booker Prize, for example, continues to bear far more prestige, and attract far more excitement, than its non-fiction equivalent, the Samuel Johnson -- but it is non-fiction, as a nation, that we are actually reading.
So non-fiction accounts for three-quarters of all sales -- but much of that presumably includes literally unreadable books -- cookbooks, etc.
And given that fiction only accounts for ten per cent of titles, it surely gets a very disproportionate share of sales (fully twenty-five per cent) -- suggesting that what little of it exists is much more eagerly lapped up.
There's lots of good non-fiction being produced, but we hate the shift of emphasis from fiction to non (an almost entirely publisher and marketing-driven one, it appears to us).
As Leith notes:
Nicholas Clee, editor of the trade magazine The Bookseller, says: "There are a lot more important narrative non-fiction titles making the bestseller list; and they are being published with more hope and more hype."
Ah, yes, glorious hype and hope -- non-fiction is clearly easier to package and hype than fiction (which, if it gets hyped, tends to on the basis of the glossy eight-by-tens of the author, not the content).
Non-fiction is an easier sell for the quick pitch -- to agent, publisher, bookstore-buyer, for the newspaper editor looking for a story, etc. -- and that's the kind of world we currently live in.
If you must, go vote in the poll (heavily weighted towards their hundred pre-selected titles), but we suggest you just ignore this nonsense and turn instead to the real real read on your bookshelf or nightstand: that novel waiting to be read.
It's at the horribly registration-requiring Washington Post, so we only reluctantly link to it: Anne Applebaum writes about The Literary Divide in yesterday's issue.
We don't really get these debates, but apparently:
Popular culture now hates high culture so much that it campaigns aggressively against it.
High culture now fears popular culture so much that it insulates itself deliberately from it.
As for the rest of us -- we're inundated with the former, often alienated from the latter.
At Return of the Reluctant Ed points to an Ed Park article in this week's issue of The Village Voice on the cover of the American paperback edition of William Boyd's Any Human Heart (see also our review).
It's a painting by Duncan Hannah, based on a photo of Anthony Powell.
Fine -- and appropriate enough.
But we liked the cover of the hardcover edition too.
Odd that Park doesn't mention it -- as he did in his review of Boyd's book when it first came out: "In an act of intra-oeuvre reciprocity, Any Human Heart's cover art is credited to the equally nonexistent Tate."
Yes, the painting is attributed to Boyd's previous invention, artist Nat Tate (who also figures -- ever so slightly -- in Any Human Heart).
We've accumulated quite a stack of Stewart Home titles, an author we've been meaning to tackle for years now and still somehow haven't gotten to.
Now there's another title to add to the pile: Down and Out in Shoreditch and Hoxton (see the Do-Not Press publicity page).
In yesterday's issue of The Guardian, Bill Drummond (several of whose works we do have under review: 45, Annual Report, and The Manual) walks and talks with him, in The liar.
See also Nicholas Lezard's review (The Guardian, 21 February).
This is a book that will earn love only from the wilfully perverse.
It does not want to curl up in your lap and be petted.
(Yeah, we don't know too many books that want to curl up in our laps and be petted either -- and we're pretty sure that's not what we want in a book.)
But he also finds:
It's funny, it's intelligent, or at least very learned; and in the strangest way, sincere.
I loved it.
As has been widely noted, the 2004 Pulitzers have been announced.
Among the winners: The Known World by Edward Jones won the fiction prize (which is awarded to a book: "preferably dealing with American life").
Also of interest: the criticism prize went to Dan Neil of The Los Angeles Times.
What does Mr. Neil review ?
(The two other nominees were architecture critics.)
Should we read anything into this ?
(Note also that one of the jurors for the criticism prize is the "U.S.-Mexico border editor" at the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Should we read anything into that ?)
The second volume of Neal Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle, The Confusion just appeared in the UK and will be out in the US next week; Josh Lacey reviewed it in The Guardian over the weekend -- and now we have too: see our review
The AP report (here at USA Today) is popping up in a number of newspapers: Penguin imprint New American Library has decided not to re-publish a novel Lynne Cheney (the wife of American vice-president Dick) first published over twenty years ago, Sisters.
The book has achieved some notoriety, especially since it apparently includes a touch of lesbianism: see excerpts at Whitehouse.org (not an official government site), a Newsweekreport on the re-publication of the book (issue of 5 April), and, most usefully, Elaine Showalter's Chronicle of Higher Education piece on Lynne Cheney, Feminist Intellectual ?.
I found Sisters surprising and impressive then, very different from Cheney's public persona.
Rereading it a decade later, I am even more struck by its narrative power and daring.
Historical color, forbidden passion, female bonding, whips and fires, strong opinions, scenes of morbidity and madness -- Sisters is a real page-turner and would make a wonderful movie.
Given all that -- and with no advance to pay (NAL still holds the rights) -- , it would seem that re-publishing the long out of print title makes a lot of sense.
So why did the publishers back down ?
Obviously -- so the reports -- there was considerable pressure from the author, who clearly prefers this book to be out of sight and out of mind.
And while we generally approve of authors having the freedom to do with their books as they see fit, we're not entirely happy with this situation.
Particularly disturbing are the comments by Cheney's attorney, Robert Barnett, including:
"If there is a serious demand for this 25-year-old book, I am confident that America's used bookstores will be able to satisfy it," Barnett said.
His confidence in the American used-bookstore system is heart-warming -- and suggests he's never been in one.
No doubt, a few copies of Sisters are floating around in some, but certainly nowhere near the number required to meet demand.
Online searches at ABE Books and Alibris found no copies available yesterday (none, at any price), and the Amazon.com page for the original edition also had no marketplace copies for sale.
(Amazon.com also still has a page for the new (and now abandoned) edition; don't bother ordering.)
Even Elaine Showalter wrote: "I first discovered Sisters in a used-book stall in Paris in the early 90's" (those damn French !).
What a fine illustration of the complete failure of the American book-publishing and -selling industry: a book which is a guaranteed money-maker for the publisher (costing them almost nothing to put on the market) isn't published (admittedly an arguably sound business decision, since the ultra-petty administration no doubt would have tried to punish Penguin for humiliating them, by perhaps not offering their memoirs to Penguin once the members of the administration are out of office -- or, even worse, selling all those guaranteed money-losers to Penguin .....).
And among the excuses offered is that that the great American used-bookstore system could easily meet demand: as usual, all those affiliated with the Bush administration show no grasp of basic economics and business, at least on the real-life level.
In yesterday's issue of Vanguard Mcphilips Nwachukwu interviews Okey Ndibe, finding The future of Nigerian literature looks bright.
A pretty good overview, noting also the recent success of several Nigerian authors abroad.
Nigerian literature is not as strong as it ought to be, but this has nothing to do with our being snubbed by the Nobel, Booker and other establishments.
We should worry about the tiny domestic market for literature, the "disappearance" of the leisure reader in Nigeria.
We should be concerned about the inadequacy of publishing outlets and opportunities in Nigeria.
We ought to rue the fact that Nigeria doesn’t have enough discerning reviewers and champions of literature to introduce new writers to a general readership.
These are some of the real, deep plagues of our literary enterprise, not the paucity of prizes going to Nigerian writers.
And there a few quirkier observations:
But there’s no question that the climate of insecurity in Nigeria is an enemy of creativity.
Some writers need the freedom of travel, including at night, to gather material for their writing.
Every Nigerian knows that violent criminals stalk the night, and even make the day sometimes inhabitable.
These criminals are sired by the irresponsible and evil policies pursued by the present government and its predecessors, especially Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha.
For those who want to really sink their teeth into a book .....
Oh, hell, we can't do this.
But it's understandable that this idea catches on in the small-town/regional press and serves to amuse -- and maybe it does get some of the participants thinking about the literary works as well.
Yes, it's time for the Festival International du livre mangeable.
The Fifth International Edible Book Festival, celebrated any time between 1 and 5 April -- in quite a few American locations as well.
Maybe even in your town.
The Economist promises (threatens ?) to provide readers with The big book index every month now: Amazon is going to: "draw together the global sales of its six websites in America, Britain, Canada, France, Germany and Japan to offer readers of The Economist a snapshot of the books that really sell."
Apparently this is supposed to reveal: "What is the world’s biggest selling book ?"
It doesn't appear to account for translations (i.e. only specific editions are considered -- so, for example, a Japanese edition of Harry Potter currently ranks number one), which already seems a fatal flaw.
Much worse, of course, is something they seem to miss completely, as they claim:
Anyone who assumed that pulp thrillers sold in airports and supermarkets will always top the list is in for a surprise with our first list.
But only a moron would be surprised that "pulp thrillers sold in airports and supermarkets" don't dominate this list -- because the sales of those books occur at -- surprise ! -- airports and supermarkets, and not at Amazon.com, which is where all the data used for The Economist-list comes from.
Of course, people buy different books online than they do at the supermarket (or at a university bookstore, etc.) -- and the problem with this list is that it looks at only a tiny part of the market.
Yes, Amazon sales are impressive, but still represent only a small amount of total books sales (and considerably less so in the other Amazon-territories than the US, by the way).
So to suggest this list accurately reflects what "the world’s biggest selling" books are -- sorry, not even close.
(And the good folk at The Economist should know better than to present this stuff in this way -- the list isn't entirely useless, but they shouldn't try to sex things up by making claims that even a ten-year-old can see are patently false.)
Across the country, 95 university presses publish 11,000 books a year.
In 2002, these scholarly works generated $444 million in sales.
Although they account for a fraction of the 150,000 titles published in the US annually, they create what Douglas Armato, director of the University of Minnesota Press, calls "an impressive cultural entity."
Depressing stuff, but it's a tough issue.
Like most educational facilities, the benefits accruing from what services they provide don't translate readily into profit: they're not meant to be money-making ventures, and they often can't be.
Many university presses have moved towards being more commercially viable and competing in the marketplace, but that threatens to undermine some of their other, long-term functions.
On the other hand: you look at some of their catalogues and you wonder what the hell they're thinking publishing this stuff .....
Irresponsibility has Americanised Russian humour to make it coarser than it used to be.
It was much subtler when it had to get through censors
(Maybe he should have a look at Constance Rourke's 1931 American Humor: A Study of the National Character, recently discussed by Adam Kirsch in Slate.
On the other hand, maybe they should just send the bum to Siberia for a few decades, like they used to do in those good old days, eh ?)
We've mentioned some of the uproar surrounding the Hungarian Writers' Union, and now the Nobel laureate -- who turned his back on the organisation more than a decade ago -- weighs in.
Unfortunately, we've only found the comments in German, as Die Zeit publishes his peice, Ein Mythos geht zu Ende.
We hope somebody picks it up for English-language publication.
Yeah, it's only Hungary, but it is still important stuff.
Selling translations to American audiences is, allegedly, a tough business.
The way some publishers go about it doesn't help matters, insulting audience and author alike.
The generally estimable University of Nebraska Press recently brought out a translation of Christian Oster's My Big Apartment (see also our review)
In his review of the book in the Times Literary Supplement (26/3/2004) Shaun Whiteside notes:
One puzzle is that towards the end of the book the translator, perhaps with the author's blessing, has excised a hefty chunk of dialogue in which Gavarine quizzes Flore about his place in her child's life.
Her replies are crucial, and without them, an already enigmatic novel becomes simply mystifying.
We'll try to look into what the hell happened here -- as we also wonder what to do about our estimation of the American publishing industry (which we really thought could not possibly go any lower).
With Faber bringing out several Amélie Nothomb titles later this year, the Times Literary Supplement apparently decided to consider the author: in the 26 March issue Ingrid Wassenaar reviews the recent (and not-expected-in-English-soon) Antéchrista (see also our review)
It's just a short review, but a decent introduction (though the generalisations are a bit too far-reaching).
Unfortunately - as she also points out -- Antéchrista is decidedly not Nothomb at her best.
We've also updated all our Stoppard reviews and pages.
Among the interesting new links: an interview at the British Council Warsaw, where he talks about his work on the film adaptation of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials
Citizens of (...) the United Kingdom may travel visa free under the VISA WAIVER PROGRAM if they meet ALL of the following requirements:
The traveler is a citizen of one of the countries named above, traveling on an unexpired national or EU passport.
Traveling for business, pleasure or transit only;
Staying in the United States for 90 days or less
Plus, if entering the United States by air or sea is,
Holding a return or onward ticket.
Other than the return ticket requirement, it's not clear where McEwan could have gone wrong.
It is apparently not an issue of whether he was on business or not (as opposed to simply being a tourist): the waiver applies to business travel as well (at least according to the US embassy).
Yes, "Some travelers may not be eligible to enter the United States visa free under the VWP" -- but basically that applies to those with criminal records and similar undesirables; it seems unlikely that McEwan was disqualified on that count.
So what was the problem ?
It should be noted that this isn't quite as egregious a case as the treatment of authors previously, many of whom were entirely prohibited from entering the US (Graham Greene and Gabriel Garcia Marquez being the most prominent examples; see this article from The Guardian as a reminder).
All they wanted from McEwan was a visa (which they were apparently happy to grant him once he asked) -- but it remains a mystery why he needed one.
We look forward to hearing the official explanation.
(Updated): In today's Seattle Post-Intelligencer (closer to the scene) John Marshall reports:
Ian McEwan (...) was refused entry into this country by immigration and border patrol officials because he was traveling on a tourist visa and was scheduled to earn thousands of dollars for literary speaking engagements in Seattle, Portland and Pasadena, Calif.
The size of his projected earnings from his talks raised issues with authorities about whether they exceeded honoraria (allowed under a tourist visa) and tipped over into substantial income (requiring a work visa).
So he did have a visa ?
The other reports say he didn't -- and under the Visa Waiver Program it doesn't sound like he needed one.
But if he did have a tourist visa, then doing business on his trip probably is a no-no.
In his obituary of Derek Jarrett ("Radical schoolmaster, historian and editor of Horace Walpole") in The Independent today, Tim Heald recounts the deceased's "celebrated exchange (...) with Joseph M. Levine".
The full letters are actually available at The New York Review of Books site: Levine's accusation that Jarrett sold off his review copies before reading them, and Jarrett's response.
We recently mentioned that Rebecca Gilman's new play, The Sweetest Swing in Baseball was opening in London.
Now it has; the first review we've seen is Paul Taylor's in The Independent.
As we mentioned, we were a bit surprised that a play in which former American baseball player Darryl Strawberry figures prominently would have its world premiere in the UK.
We're still not convinced that British audiences will get the whole Strawberry-thing -- after all, Taylor describes him as: "a black sportsman with a history of inherited alcoholism and publicised recovery", which, we're fairly certain, is not how he's ever been referred to in the US.
Taylor isn't exactly bowled over by the play:
You think: Oh God, Gilman is surely not going to have the heroine find her way back to art by painting in the persona of a deluded "outsider", which liberates her from the conventions of the venal white art world ?
Oh yes, she does.
(Updated): Michael Billington also weighs in in The Guardian.
(Updated - 4 April): See yet another review, in The Observer.
(Updated - 8 April): In the Telegraph Dominic Cavendish finds it: "a dismayingly lacklustre affair from start to finish."