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Review of Allegria in the Journal of Italian Translation

We are delighted to share that Marco Sonzogni’s review of Giuseppe Ungaretti’s Allegria, translated by Geoffrey Brock, was published in the Journal of Italian Translation.

From the review, as translated by Geoffrey Brock:
The skill of Geoffrey Brock, without a shadow of a doubt one of the most important literary translators from Italian into English, has long been known to me: years ago I had the honor and delight of reviewing his Pavese for The Irish Times… Brock’s hand…has grown even surer and more effective, and I continue to follow his career (which include works by Umberto Eco: Herculean labors for any translator) with attention and admiration. I therefore read with great interest and care his translation of one of our poetic canon’s landmark collections: Allegria by Giuseppe Ungaretti (1888–1970), in its 1931 version, published on the fiftieth anniversary of Ungà’s” death by Archipelago Books, a New York publishing house with the highest of reputations for editorial vision and catalog quality. I would venture to say, giving two “nocturnal” examples, that in many cases the translations by Brock—who is also a fine poet—are not only successful translations but also successful new poems. The first example is “Noia”:
Anche questa notte passerà
Questa solitudine in giro
titubante ombra dei fili tramviari
sullumido asfalto
Guardo i testoni dei brunisti
nel mezzo sonno
translated thusly by Brock:

This night too will pass

This roving solitude
tentative shadows of tram wires
on damp asphalt

I watch the big heads of the coachmen
half sleeping

Were I to read this text without knowing it was a translation I would consider it in every way a successful original work in English and would immediately want to try translating it into Italian.

The second example is “Sempre Notte”:

La mia squallida
si estende
più spaventata
di sè

in un
che mi calca e mi spreme
col suo


which becomes “Night Again” in Brock’s English:

My wretched
stretches on
ever more fearful
of itself

into an
that tramples and crushes me
with its

Though it’s true that word-for-word translations rarely yield satisfying results, and true that word-level equivalence may be sacrificed on the altar of a more “comprehensive” equivalence, it is nonetheless worth noting how these two small ‘mirrors’—“ever more fearful / of itself” for “più spaventata / di sè” and “into an / endlessness” for in un / infinito”—reflect the translator’s great sensitivity. Again, should I fail to recognize in the English text the translation of a poem by one of our most important poets, I would consider “Night Again” an absolutely successful poem in English and would like to try to reproduce it in Italian.
“Noia” and “Sempre notte,” though not among Ungaretti’s most “classic” poems, are nevertheless, for their emotional intensity and expressive precision, equally definitive standard-bearers of his voice and his poetics. Likewise, “Boredom” and “Night Again” attest to Brock’s talent: a quality and integrity of reading, interpretation, and rendering that are rooted in a natural flair for the forms and functions of poetry and thus at this point go beyond the mastery of language and culture.


Jose Saramago said something as beautiful as it is true: writers create national literatures while translators create universal literature. Thanks to these translations, exemplary in their empathy and effectiveness, by Geoffrey Brock and Alberto Bertoni, and thanks to the dedication and investment of Archipelago Books and corsiero editore, the universality of Italian and Irish poetry and have been revealed and renewed.

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Karthika Naïr’s Until the Lions in the New York Review of Books

A purpley maroon book cover with a black and white photo of ruins centered on the front

A purpley maroon book cover with a black and white photo of ruins centered on the frontDavid Shulman has written a thoughtful and engrossing paean to Karthika Naïr’s Until the Lions in the September 24th issue of the New York Review of Books.  Shulman’s piece situates Naïr’s work in the long and intricate history of the Mahabharata, praising Until the Lions for its nimble play of poetic forms and deep emotional register, as well as Naïr’s inventive reconstruction  of the Mahabharata’s less-sung stories. You can find the review here, and read an excerpt below:

The most lyrical of all such attempts to see the Mahabharata through the eyes of its characters is the remarkable dramatic poem Until the Lions by the Kerala-born, Paris-based poet, dance producer, and librettist Karthika Naïr. She has given her book an appropriate subtitle: “Echoes from the Mahabharata.” The thirty haunting, heartrending chapters, in a wide range of forms and styles, resonate powerfully with one another…

Nearly all the chapters are first-person dramatic monologues uttered by female characters known from the Mahabharata (with the exception of one newly invented voice, that of the clairvoyant canine Shunaka, who reembodies the speaking dog Sarama mentioned at the very beginning, or one of the beginnings, of the epic). The female voices are, almost without exception, tormented, ravaged, grief-stricken, bitterly lamenting the irrevocable, unthinkable losses that their fathers, husbands, brothers, brothers-in-law, lovers, and sons have inflicted on them. I don’t think I have ever seen a description of rape as unflinching as Sauvali’s rage at King Dhritarashtra and the configuration of sycophantic politicians and courtiers who force her to submit to him. Sauvali exemplifies a prominent pattern in these chapters: women whose names are known from the Sanskrit epic but whose character and inner experience are muted there suddenly come to life as full-blooded people caught up in the destruction endemic to a male world (well, maybe to any human world)…

Karthika, in the voice of Uttaraa, has articulated something I remember all too well from my own wartime service in Lebanon. Among the soldiers in my unit, only one, I think—our gung-ho commanding officer—identified with the specious rhetoric coming at us from the politicians back home in Jerusalem. Karthika’s Mahabharata is, among other things, a passionate antiwar manifesto; she and her characters are sensitive to the perversion of language that is always needed to generate more dead heroes, and to the cost borne by those who survive…

This is a Mahabharata for our generation. It includes stories that have attached themselves to the classical epic via local, regional traditions…Her poems share the kaleidoscopic quality of the epic text, its persistent, dizzying perspectivism as it moves from one episode to the next, one ardent speaker to another.

One could also see the Mahabharata, as the anthropologist Don Handelman has suggested, as a vast laboratory for existential experiment, in which the great themes and above all the ethical quandaries of a civilization can be brought to light, played out, and examined. Such themes are not abstract entities but lived human realities, mostly agonizing and opaque, eluding any simple or, indeed, possible resolution. From a point somewhere deep within this laboratory, Karthika Naïr has captured in words the tonality of this mammoth text.

The Widows’ Laments

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Newcomers in the Wall Street Journal

In a book review published by the Wall Street Journal this week, Sam Sacks considers the second installment of Lojze Kovačič’s Newcomers translated by Michael Biggins. The review can be found here in full. The following is excerpted from the piece:

The second volume of Lojze Kovacic’s absorbing wartime chronicle “Newcomers” (Archipelago, 384 pages, $22) now arrives, continuing the remembrances of the autobiographical narrator, Bubi. Book One, published in 1984 (and in English in 2016), recounted Bubi’s family’s expulsion from Switzerland to the Slovene territory of Yugoslavia at the outbreak of World War II. The second installment, again translated from the Slovenian by Michael Biggins, follows the young man’s adolescence in Ljubljana during the war years. As before, the piquant particularities of childhood are set before a backdrop of global confrontation. Bubi tells of his schooldays, his troublemaking with friends and his sexual awakening while, all around him, running battles between Yugoslav partisans and Nazi occupiers are waged in the streets.
Book Two deepens one’s appreciation for Kovacic’s major stylistic gambit, his prolific use of the ellipsis. Recalling his first visit to the opera house, Bubi is awestruck by “the tiers of balconies . . . all the way up to the ceiling . . . the white, bulging loges like cells of a beehive with gilt ornamentation. And the gigantic crowns of the chandeliers suspended in air . . . But most of all the silence . . .” The punctuation has the twofold effect of reflecting gaps in memory while conveying a feeling of constant anticipation for whatever might appear next.
Ultimately, “Newcomers” crystallizes into a classic artist’s coming-of-age story, as Bubi is drawn to painting and then writing, where, as in this rich and fascinating novel, he will search for a way to synthesize the enchantments of youth with the hard realities of the war.
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The Catalan Paradox, Part III: A Conversation with Peter Bush

The original article was written by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

IN 2010, I moved to Girona in Catalonia. I lived in a run-down apartment, near a gelid river, and spent most of my time pacing the streets, trying to keep warm. I spent the rest of my time obsessing over the literature of Catalan writer Josep Pla, which I had discovered a few years earlier. His work hadn’t been translated into English yet, and I felt as though I had found a secret literary well at the foot of the Pyrenees. The magic of literature often makes us believe that we are a singular witness to the secrets of the page, but luckily, we are never alone in our obsessions. In fact, Peter Bush was already in the process of translating Pla’s masterpiece, The Gray Notebook. 

Josep Pla was born in Palafrugell in 1897. As a young adult he left for Barcelona to study law, but was forced to return to his sleepy seaside village of Palafrugell during the 1918 Pandemic. He spent the year recording deaths, reading, writing. He taught himself how to translate the landscape into words. He became consumed with writing. Decades later, he published an expanded version of his diary under the title The Gray Notebook.

What most fascinates me about Pla is his ability to fictionalize memory, to recycle his own work; over the course of his writing life he built an interconnected universe of books that have an encyclopedic relationship to one another. A complicated moody man caught between his Catalanist and Catholic identities, Pla spent the last decades of his life living in a 17th-century farmhouse in Palafrugell, known as Mas Pla. He died there in 1981 and is buried at the cemetery in Llofriu.

The Gray Notebook was published by the New York Review Books in 2014. I read it again in English while living in Chicago (also gelid, though at least my house is warm). There is a growing collection of Josep Pla’s works available in English, all exquisitely translated by Bush. Bush is not only a prolific translator, but also a political activist and an innovative pedagogue. He set up the MA program in the Theory and Practice of Translation at Middlesex University, where many stellar translators (like Anne McLean and Lisa Dillman) got their start. Peter Bush and I discussed his childhood and his long career: his translations of Marxist texts, which garnered the reproach of the Oxford academic establishment; his award-winning translations of Catalan literature; and of course, Pla’s epic masterpiece, The Gray Notebook.


AZAREEN VAN DER VLIET OLOOMI: You began your translating career by working with Marxist texts. How did you come to literary translation? How did this shift change the direction of your life?

PETER BUSH: I was a political activist in Oxford and London for six years from 1967. As I was one of the party members with a knowledge of languages, I translated Marxist texts and was also a journalist on the daily newspaper covering Spain, Latin America, Portugal, and Italy. This wasn’t to the liking of the ex-MI6 Alfonso XIII Professor of Spanish at Oxford University, where I was researching — the one idealized by Javier Marías as Toby Rylands — and I found it difficult to find a post. My references said things like, “Peter Bush spent more time haranguing at demonstrations than reading in libraries,” or in more Oxonian cadences, “He went outside the society of the university.”

Eventually I taught in inner-city London schools for 14 years. I was head of languages at Holland Park in west London and had been teaching Campos de Níjar/Níjar Country, Juan Goytisolo’s account of his visits to impoverished Almería and Murcia. Juan Goytisolo was one of the most prominent Spanish writers at the time and some of my students’ grandparents were migrant workers from those areas or from Larache, in the former Spanish protectorate in Morocco. I thought they’d be interested; they weren’t — they wanted to be part of swinging London. I prepared a critical edition hoping that some socio-economic background might help students come to grips with the narrative. Juan Goytisolo liked it and when the first volume of his autobiography came out — Coto Vedado/Forbidden Territory — I thought it was wonderfully original and was discussing it with a colleague, John Lyons, a translator of Ernesto Cardenal, in our little staffroom and he asked: “Why don’t you translate it?” That’s when my career as a literary translator kicked off.


When did you first travel to Catalonia and become aware of it as a region with a cultural identity that is distinct from the rest of Spain?

I first traveled to Catalonia mentally when I was reading French and Spanish as an undergraduate in Cambridge. In the second year of the course, I opted for the Spanish medieval literature and culture course and that’s when I discovered the importance of Catalonia in the Middles Ages and read the whole of Vicens i Vives’s economic history of Spain. I could also have opted to learn Catalan but I didn’t; I chose to read all of Cervantes instead. However, my closest friend at the time did choose Catalan and with him I read the great poets Carles Riba and Jacint Verdaguer. Ironically, my friend fell in love with a madrileña, and spent his whole life in Madrid.

Cambridge also had strong Catalan connections — exile Batista i Roca lived in the city and Catalan lecturer Geoffrey Walker was a leading member of the Anglo-Catalan Society. There was somewhat of a division in the faculty: those who were into the 1898 Generation and Ortega y Gasset, and those who thought they were all second-rate — with the exception of Machado — and were more drawn to history. David Barrass was one of the latter and he offered a course on contemporary Spanish history that had a strong Catalan focus. (No Latin American literature was taught in Cambridge until 1968.)

I first traveled to Barcelona in 1968 in pursuit of my academic research into the relationship between writers and working-class organizations at the time of the 1868 Revolution. Many of my sources were newspapers, chapbooks, and pamphlets written in Catalan, so that was when I first began to read Catalan. In 1970, I returned to Barcelona to pursue my non-academic activities. Oxford historian Raymond Carr had gathered around him a group of postgraduate researchers from Spain, and some of them took an interest in my political activities — Pepe Varela, Juan Pablo Fusi, and Santi Udina. Santi was an economic historian and had published in the New Left Review under a pseudonym, given that Franco’s dictatorship still had Spain under its heel. Santi was active in a left-wing group in Barcelona, and I went over for 10 days to give lectures and talk to a range of intellectuals and trade-unionists mainly in an abandoned flat on Carrer de Balmes. I stayed with Santi in Sant Cugat and that’s when I first heard Catalan being spoken en famille. I also visited activists in Baix Llobregat, workers in the Seat factory who spoke in southern Spanish, and textile workers in Terrassa who spoke Catalan. I had previously spent three summers teaching English in Madrid from 1964 to 1966, and my sense of the difference between Madrid and Barcelona was, yes, that there was the Catalan language, with very little public presence, and that Barcelona seemed much more like a city under occupation. It was very gray; Gaudí was covered in soot.


I often think of learning a new language as a kind of love affair. Can you describe your love affair with Catalan? How is your relationship with Catalan different from your relationship to Spanish, French, and Portuguese?

Everything depends on your point of departure. Estrangement, evasion, the search for another place to be are all elements in a love affair, and as consciousness is so located in language and culture, the addition of other languages leads to an expansion of consciousness and culture (in its broadest sense).

I was brought up speaking a non-standard working-class dialect of English — a hybrid of my father’s rural Lincolnshire and my mother’s urban Yorkshire. When I entered elementary school and was told this wasn’t “proper” English, I was shocked. I knew standard English from radio, movies, and newspapers, but it wasn’t what we spoke at home. The situation worsened when I passed the exams to go to the Grammar School, the first time anyone from my family had gone to this place that had existed in the town since the 16th century. At the elementary school, most pupils came from the neighborhood. The Grammar School was the “natural” home for the sons of the middle classes. I felt increasingly estranged from my home language and uncomfortable with the standard that the majority used in their homes in very different parts of town. So Latin and French rescued me. Here we all started from zero, and I excelled, and then came Spanish.

My estrangement was linguistic and cultural. My father was a print worker and active trade-unionist, not a manager, banker, shop-owner. I loved jazz, rock ’n’ roll, country-and-western; school music was only classical. I only really came to like and read English literature for pleasure when I was 16 and reading Virgil and Horace, Balzac and Lorca and company in the original. Those three languages freed up my imagination, feelings, and intellect, got me over what I suppose was a narrowness caused by a visceral sense of class that simultaneously was powering me into other places. In Cambridge, for example, I was more interested in going to Raymond Williams’s lectures on European drama and the English novel and Nikolaus Pevsner’s on the Baroque than most of my Spanish and French literature lectures, though I was thoroughly enraptured and absorbed by Rimbaud and Baudelaire, Proust and Galdós and Gide, Camus and Sartre, who were the authors most in vogue. I started to learn Portuguese when I was a journalist and consolidated that when I translated Chico Buarque and made a TV documentary about him. I began to learn Catalan at the end of the 1970s as I was hoping to live in Barcelona for a year. That didn’t turn out — I went to a small town in Murcia!

Later it was literally a matter of love. When I was director of the British Centre for Literary Translation, I met my wife, Teresa Solana, the director of Spain’s Translators’ House. We both left our posts to go and live in Barcelona in 2003. That’s when I really started to be fluent in Catalan. For the first time, I was learning the language properly in the country where it was spoken. Again, the linguistic shift wasn’t straightforward. I met Teresa speaking Spanish and that’s what we still mostly speak to each other. Teresa speaks Catalan to our daughter, who speaks to me in English, and most of our conversations are trilingual, even after our move to the United Kingdom in 2014.


Many of the Catalan books you’ve translated deal with exile and disenfranchisement, with lives lived at the margins. Do these themes speak to you personally?

I started in Spanish with Juan Goytisolo and Juan Carlos Onetti, both exiles and victims of dictatorship. The exclusion of my working-class culture from my own education led me to embrace other languages and literatures and want to bring those into the English-speaking world through translation, to challenge, as it were, the hegemony of the nationalist standard and canon.

Memories of disenfranchisement came from my family. I was to an extent franchised by the postwar settlement and the welfare state; I studied at Cambridge and Oxford and it didn’t cost me or my parents a penny. My new reality clashed with the visions of life my parents and other members of my family retailed in story after story. I’ll just mention a few details. My grandfather in the village of Pinchbeck was a shepherd living in a tied cottage. He fell ill, and the landowner threw him and his family onto the street. (This was at the end of World War I when three of my uncles were killed in France.) My mother came from Sheffield, lived in the center of the city of steel, and enjoyed an urban working-class culture — socialist cycling clubs, visits to the theater and opera, movies and dancing — until she was put into service with an uncle and aunt, which she left to go strawberry-picking in Lincolnshire in 1929. She met my father and never went back. Then came World War II, and my father was away for two years in France and four in the Middle East; when he returned, he was a stranger to my mother and his young daughters. I was then born into a family that had been ravaged by war. It was a “happy” family on the surface, but turbulence was never far away.

When I was school teacher in London, I taught in schools that were multilingual — 50 or 60 languages spoken by students — and I was fortunate that there was a progressive educational authority, and we attempted to forge a curriculum that responded to the experiences of our students. Students would suddenly appear on the school doorstep as a result of conflicts thousands of miles away — from China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Cyprus — exiles in flight from civil war and dictatorship. We developed whole school policies on language and culture. All that pedagogical potential was ended by Thatcher, who abolished the educational authority. All these memories and experiences, as well as my academic and linguistic knowledge, nourish my translations, driven by a political anger.

My encounter with Catalan literature also made me angry with myself. I considered myself as a Hispanist, but I had virtually ignored a literature where some of the best fiction of the civil war was written — Uncertain Glory by Joan Sales, In Diamond Square by Mercè Rodoreda, or Josep Pla’s amazing short fiction, as in Life Embitters. Shouldn’t all students of Spanish have to read these authors? Shouldn’t they be as well known to general readers in the English-speaking world as Zafón, Cercas, or Marías?


Do you think the art of translation has anything in common with the art of listening? Do you consider the process of conducting a translation to be an embodied experience?

The art of listening is about capturing nuance, subtext, irony, wordplay, social and political resonances, and being able to listen alertly, whether it be in an exchange with a butcher or to a lecture by Judith Butler, about being interested in and interpreting what another person has to say. On the other hand, listening is usually a one-off; translating involves rereading and then rewriting, researching, and self-editing, interactions with editors and, sometimes, writers. Though, in oral cultures, like my family’s, it involves hearing the same stories many times, over many years, and catching the fresh elements and variations in what is being recounted, and, in my case, nearly all those storytellers are now dead, or have dementia or Alzheimer’s, and that leaves me alone to tell them.

I like the idea of “conducting” because it is as if you are appealing to all the strands in the text as instruments you have to weld into a new whole. The various drafts feel like a succession of rehearsals for the final performances which will be the readings by others. And that is a very intense, embodied experience — as is any act of reading — but more so because you are rewriting and rewriting, and that’s physically exhausting: body and mind are engaged. Literary translation is embodied in another sense. It’s a livelihood. It’s the means to pay the rent and put food on the table.


Has the act of translation changed how you think about yourself? Do you think of literary translations as a form of self-translation? Or is it more like a journey?

It is self-translation in the sense that you are moved deep into the language and experience of another person and culture, into unknown territory that then speaks to parts of yourself; through translation your own experience and imagination are extended, your use of language is broadened.

In my case, translation has taken me on real journeys to Havana, Montevideo, Rio de Janeiro, Barcelona, and Palafrugell. My translations of Cuban literature, for example, sprang from a commission to make a TV documentary about Tomás Gutiérrez Alea. Translating Pla, Sales, and Rodoreda has changed my view of the civil war and Spanish culture. These writers and their work are obviously embedded in Catalan language and history and have suffered as a result in terms of recognition both inside and outside Catalonia because of the civil war and dictatorship. However, I think in the act of translating, you say to yourself and others, these are great books about specific moments in Catalan and Spanish history, but they are also about a young man forging himself as a writer, or a group of radical students in the early 30s whose lives are ruined by the rise of fascism, or an older working-class woman looking back on her struggle to survive with her children in a city under siege.


How do you approach teaching the art of translation? What advice would you offer a novice translator?

I approach it as a form of creative writing where students must read widely and learn to become writers in their own language. Most come from degrees that have prioritized academic discourse, which, generally, isn’t the language of literature! I advise emerging translators to be proactive, to think laterally and network extensively in the world of professional literary translators and publishing. And to start building up a vitae by translating short stories, poems, or excerpts from novels in magazines.


We share a deep love for Josep Pla, whose work wasn’t translated into English until you took on El Quadern Gris. How did you happen to start translating Josep Pla? What is the most enjoyable part of translating Pla, and the most challenging?

You’ll probably be shocked by my response. I came to Pla via Valle-Inclán. I had translated Tyrant Banderas for Edwin Frank at the NYRB. A few months later, Edwin wrote to tell me he’d bought the English rights to El Quadern Gris and asked if I knew someone who could translate it. I’d not read a word by Pla. I consulted with my wife, and she said I’d enjoy translating the book. I responded to Edwin that I could do it. The adventure of translation …

The most enjoyable part [of working on the book] was the humor and the description of literary life in Barcelona; the most challenging was Pla’s description of land and sea. I’d translated a lot of complex literature, but never such descriptions. Here is an example:

The sunlight is like a sheet of glass. Wind and sea battle in a futile, delirious fury. Everything stays the same, impassive and still — the coral of the almond trees, the playful kitten, the aioli, and the anglerfish soup. The things of the world pass by the light in my window — wind, water, and diamond spray racing toward the raw purple of the horizon. The brightness turns daylight into haze and my eyelids droop after that sudden, shimmering, dazzling illumination.

I had to draft and redraft these sections. I had to develop a new strand in my literary writing.


You are currently working on another of Pla’s books, Aigua de mar.

It’s another stylistic challenge because of the descriptions of the nautical world, of boats and fish. It also shows the immense humanity of Pla. He was at home in the bohemian, expat colony in hyper-inflationary Berlin or boarding-houses in London or Paris, but he never turned his back on the fishermen and farmers of the Empordà and Costa Brava.


What is your favorite region in Catalonia? Do you like to spend time in the cities or provinces described in the books you are working on?

I lived for 10 years in Barcelona and frequently return. Beyond Barcelona, I love the small towns on the Costa Brava described by Pla — Begur, Calella de Palafrugell, and Cadaqués.

I’ve always liked to see the places in the books I translate. Learning other languages and reading other literatures makes me want to go to where they come from.


Do you feel optimistic about the future of Catalonia? How has the recent geopolitical crisis affected your work or influenced your process as a translator?

By nature, I’m an optimist, but at the moment it’s hard to be optimistic about Catalonia, the United Kingdom, the United States, or anywhere, what with Vox, Brexit, and Trump and the rise of the extreme right all over the world.

The crisis has affected my work, in the sense that I now promote Catalan literature widely, and some say that I’m “anti-Spanish,” which is ridiculous. I’m still translating from my other languages and have spent years promoting the teaching of the Spanish language and its literatures. I’d say rather that I’m enjoying becoming a specialist in Catalan literature and discovering for myself all these great writers I want to bring to readers in the English-speaking world.

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Lojze Kovačič, the Greatest Undiscovered Cosmopolitan Writer of the South Slavs

Lojze Kovačič

“Lojze Kovačič, the Greatest Undiscovered Cosmopolitan Writer of the South Slavs”

– Miljenko Jergović

First published in Croatian in Jutarnji list (Zagreb), February 9, 2019
Translated from Croatian by Michael Biggins (draft 27 Feb 2019)

Sometimes, even in a completely illiterate society such as Croatia has lately become, it happens that certain writers and their works rise up to the level of icons of their day, the gold standard for style, thought and creativity in both life and text. As a rule these are very local, yet cosmopolitan writers whose cosmopolitanism derives from their ability to make the distinctively Chilean, Mexican, Austrian or Norwegian aspects of their worlds not just universally comprehensible, but easily translatable into any other local distinctiveness. There is at least one contemporary writer still unknown south of the Sutla River who is cosmopolitan in his local distinctiveness and great in the way that Thomas Bernhard, Roberto Bolaño and Karl Ove Knausgaard are great. Who, moreover, produced the preponderance and most important part of his work by dealing with himself and the circumstances of his life and environs. He didn’t write pure autobiography, and at the time he was writing the concept of auto-fiction didn’t even exist. Lojze Kovačič wrote about himself as his primary subject the way Joyce wrote about Dublin, and he did it at a time when that kind of writing not only wasn’t in fashion, but was viewed by many as substandard and shameful.

Who was Kovačič and what provided the frame for his subject? He was born in 1928 in Basel as the youngest child of an émigré of modest means who in 1899 had set out from his homeland into the wider world in search of his fortune. In the course of his wanderings he learned the furrier’s trade and married Lojze’s mother, herself the child of a mixed Franco-German marriage who identified culturally and linguistically as Swiss German. The Kovačič family didn’t particularly prosper even in Basel; they lived quite modestly, and throughout this time the elder Kovačič, dissatisfied with his host country and acutely aware of his subaltern status as a migrant, harbored some vague notion of returning to Slovenia. Consequently, he never adopted Swiss citizenship, even though it was available. Then suddenly, on the eve of World War II the Swiss authorities, in an effort to unburden the country of any and all undesirable ethnic and immigrant ballast, proceeded to expel all aliens who had failed to take Swiss citizenship. Thus the Kovačičes arrived in Slovenia as near paupers, classic refugees, initially settling outside Novo Mesto. It was here that, after an idyllic German childhood in Basel, Lojze not only encountered the Slovene language for the very first time, but also a new, unprecedentedly foreign reality. This alone would have been enough for one lifetime and the literature it produced. But this was just the beginning. In many respects the elder Kovačič was a typical member of the Central

European underclass, a disaffected Catholic and a reflexive anti-Semite. He was a supporter of Hitler, because Hitler was going to unify Europe and get rid of the Jews, sentiments that of course Kovačič, Sr. didn’t bother to conceal during the occupation. He died in 1944. One year later, just as predictably, the victorious communist Partisans arrested his German widow as a presumed Nazi collaborator, along with his grown daughter, Lojze’s sister, and her little girl, and deported the three of them across the border to Austria, where they wound up in a displaced persons camp.

At that time, in 1945, the seventeen-year-old Lojze Kovačič was sentenced to three months in prison. When he was released, he had nothing – not a home, or a family, or the freedom to cross the border and join his mother, sister and niece. He lived as an outcast, selling torn-up scraps of old newspapers outside public toilets as pauper’s tissue. He was already acutely aware that he was going to spend the rest of his life as the enemy, or at the very least as the enemy’s offspring. Even though he did not actively oppose the regime or write on political topics, he endured endless harassment at the hands of the police, the courts and the country’s cultural apparatchiks, and he remained suspect in the extreme as a writer and cultural figure. For most of his life he supported himself as a puppeteer, a teacher of puppetry to children, and as the director of a Ljubljana puppet theater. For several years he produced the puppetry program for the summer Children’s Festival in Šibenik on Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast. He lived out his life just as the events of 1938 and 1945 had promised he would – as a complete and irredeemable outsider. But because Slovene culture was always far more dynamic than Slovene society – something you could never say about Croatian culture – Lojze Kovačič achieved recognition remarkably early. In 1969 he was awarded the Prešeren Foundation Prize, and in 1973 he received the Prešeren Prize itself, Slovenia’s most prestigious award for contributions to culture. Twice he was distinguished with Župančič Awards. Even though he was socially ostracized and politically suspect, Slovene culture made good on its debt to him. He was inducted into the Slovene Academy. He met Slovenia’s independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 with a high degree of restraint, neither jumping on the democracy bandwagon nor fanning anticommunist flames; in other words, he did nothing that he hadn’t already been doing and writing about under communist Yugoslavia. He died in 2004.

Lojze Kovačič is probably the most important Yugoslav writer you’ve never heard about. And probably one of a handful of the most important Yugoslav prose writers and novelists, period. Until recently, just one of his books had been translated into Serbian (Reality, published by Narodna knjiga in 1973), and one other into Croatian (Three Women released by Cankar Publishing in 1985). Then suddenly, practically out of nowhere, and probably thanks to the initiative and passion of the translator Božidar Brezinščak-Bagola, two major Kovačič novels in Croatian translation were published at once, beginning with the 2017 appearance from Alfa of the first two volumes of Newcomers (about which I had previously heard nothing, even though I keep very informed about developments on our literary scene), followed by Crystalline Time, published by Meander in 2018.

Newcomers is Kovačič’s best known novel, which in a recent survey of Slovene critics and literary historians was voted the best Slovene novel of the 20th century. I first read this enormous, multi-volume novel some twenty-five years ago. In the years that followed I reread it, both haphazardly and in its entirety. The book often figured in my thoughts, whether in connection with my life or my writing. (And all that time it seemed incredible to me that the book hadn’t been translated into Croatian or Serbian.)

Crystalline Time deals with the same themes and segments of time as Newcomers, and occasionally even with the same events, albeit in highly compressed, fragmentary form. Of course, the two books originated at different times, and thus the author’s emotional and intellectual perspective on those events and on himself is also quite different. Kovačič, like Bernhard, does not disdain to repeat himself, nor is he overly concerned about surface similarities between his various texts. He writes for himself, as though his ulterior motive is to transform himself into text, to disembody himself and all that is, so that it can be recreated as text, as the novel. And if at first he doesn’t succeed, he’ll try again. And on and on, for as long as he lives.

Crystalline Time begins on July 23, 1988 and ends in a single sentence on June 14, 1990. That sentence is classic Kovačič and reads, “Ripeness is All.” In just under two years the Slovenes had experienced an internal deluge of national consciousness. At the beginning, as the author observes, is the infamous court martial in Ljubljana, at which Janez Janša and three of his colleagues were convicted of conspiracy against the Socialist Federated Republic of Yugoslavia and sentenced to prison. But this is merely an outward biotope of the inner world, a moment from the unknown present which for Kovačič serves as a framework for recalling a past that remains present. Not only does the present moment not cause him joy, it frightens him, ”Fanatical love for one’s homeland, for justice, becomes a veritable pulse of energy for society, but for the individual it harbors double the risk, to the extent it’s transformed into a passion that leads him down a single path. It deforms him, it destroys his heart and his sensitivity to life. It leads him straight down the path to hell. You must never bow to anyone, including the collective violence of your own people.”

Lojze Kovačič was a Christian, a Catholic, who experienced spiritual and theological matters deeply, intensely and most unconventionally. (I suspect this is what has drawn Brezinščak-Bagola to him.) Apart from the fact of being surrounded by a communist, atheistic society, Kovačič’s God is distinguished by his solitude. Nowhere is there a trace here of any community of the faithful, just as there is a complete absence of ecclesiastical fetishes and totems. “When in the course of my wanderings I’ve come into direct contact with the Church, I’ve never had the feeling that God was any more present within its walls or around them than anywhere else…. Of all the architecture in existence, the church has uglified the earth and put a chill in the sky most of all.” For Lojze Kovačič the human conscience is the supreme proof of God’s existence.

It is extraordinarily interesting and deeply moving to read of his long search for God in Crystalline Time, this prose essay cum theological reckoning of an individual with himself and with the world of animate and inanimate things around him.

He despises the architect Jože Plečnik and in so doing comes close to offending the reader, most of all because there’s no objecting to Kovačič’s disdain. He is an eccentric, a sex addict, an unfaithful husband, and someone who with a clear conscience can write a sentence like this, “Kind creatures distinguish themselves in nothing so much as their ability to listen to others.” Kovačič writes in good Slovene, in sentences and paragraphs and whole works that he fits into his own, private syntax, punctuated with an abundance of ellipses that hint at the rhythms of thought.

Lojze Kovačič is one of the most important writers of our time, one who confirms our world in both text and deed.

Original Croatian text: slavena/8359178/

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Review of Pearls on a Branch in Kirkus

Khoury originally published these 30 tales in Arabic in 2014, having collected them as she traveled through Lebanon with a puppet troupe during the country’s civil war from 1975 to 1990.The storytellers shared tales from their oral tradition with Khoury. Instead of a Western fairy tale’s promise of “Once upon a time,” these Arab tales begin with the charming, more realistic equivocation, “There was or there was not.” Yet Western readers will recognize the wicked stepmothers, princes in love with poor girls, plucky unloved children, sorcerers and talking animals. Rapunzel-like heroines grow up locked away from the world in stories like “The Girl Who Had No Name” and “Thuraya with the Long, Long Hair.” A huntsman substitutes animal blood for the blood of the Snow White-like damsel he’s hired to kill in both “Lady Tanageesh and the Eggs of the Tawawees” and “O Palace Beautiful! O Fancy Friend!” whose heroine sets up household with Ali Baba’s 40 thieves (instead of seven dwarfs) until an old woman shows up with a deadly apple. There’s an Aesop ring to animal fables like “Abu Ali the Fox,” about a fox taking birds under his protection until he gets hungry. However, the attention paid to bodily functions may startle Western readers. “A Cow Called Joukha” centers on farting, while a sweet romance centers on “The Singing Turd.” According to Khoury, in the oral tradition, “certain stories told by women were for women only.” Both proto-feminist innuendo—crafty women outwitting men—and sexual double-entendres abound. So “Jubayne the Fair” agrees to let an old man suck her finger whenever he wants until she wises up and runs away. And in the complex title story, a king rejects his only daughter because he mistakenly thinks she’s tried to trick him into bringing her a husband when he travels to Mecca; she seeks revenge on the young man who caused this disgrace through overt sexual trickery and bed-swapping. A funny, bawdy, occasionally gruesome, and decidedly adult collection that celebrates small cultural variations amid large universal values.

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Review of Private Life in The Times Literary Supplement

Catalan Fiction

Josep Maria de Sagarra
Translated by Mary Ann Newman
240pp. Archipelago. Paperback, €16.
978 0 914671 26 8

From the mid-nineteenth century to the eve of the Civil War, which smothered what vanguardist tendencies Spain might have had, Continental innovations in literary form arrived to the country late. At worst, this gave rise to writers labouring in Zola’s shadow, forcing crude notions of class conflict and heredity onto tales peopled with stereotypes incomprehensible beyond the country’s borders; at best, it engendered a decadent, languid style well suited to the dissection of Spain’s venal elites. Josep Maria de Sagarra’s Private Life is in the second category.

A chronicle of the economic and moral decline of Catalonia’s aristocracy, the novel opens with Frederic, a drunken would-be rake, coming to in the apartment of a prostitute. He ruminates on love and gentlemanliness before recollecting his onerous gambling debts, due to be paid in a matter of days. Too poor for a life of leisure but too proud to soil his hands with work, Frederic appeals to his father, who lambasts him as a wastrel, then feigns an apoplectic fit and calls for a priest to minister his last rites. Frederic’s brother, secretly a prostitute in a brothel for the rich and dissolute, offers to pay off the debt by means he refuses to disclose. His scheme to blackmail Frederic’s creditor unleashes myriad intrigues that draw in Barcelonans from all walks of life.

The large cast of characters offers an ideal canvas for Sagarra’s withering wit. Everyone gets it in the neck: the upper classes, for whom “baseness” is a part of their “merit and grace”; the bourgeoisie enraptured by garden parties and Hispano-Suizas; and the communists, whose revolutionary fervour springs from soured religious yearnings, which, in turn, are the outgrowth of stifled sexual urges.

Private Life’s centrepiece is the 1929 Universal Exposition, when “anyone who didn’t steal simply didn’t have fingers”, and the proclamation of the Catalan Republic a couple of years later. The book’s second half is less convincing than its first; what had been a satire on manners becomes a racier, but also more mechanical, account of prurient liaisons larded with sometimes dreary philosophical divagations. Sagarra shoehorns his anecdotes into an overarching thesis about the centrality of sexual passion to social life. Thankfully, his homilies are brief, and shadow neither his ribald asides, nor his indictment of the frivolity and “mobile indifference” of Catalonia’s wealthy on the eve of the Fascist uprising.


TLS, May 13, 2016

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Review of Something Will Happen, You’ll See in World Literature Today

Review of Something Will Happen, You’ll See by Christos Ikonomou. Trans. Karen Emmerich.

Christos Ikonomou’s award-winning second collection, Something Will Happen, You’ll See, is a thoughtful glimpse into the flawed and sometimes-comic existence of the working-class men and women living at the periphery of Greece’s capital.

In the opening tale, “Come On Ellie, Feed the Pig,” a woman molds halva into the likeness of an estranged lover and proceeds to eat him. In “Placard and Broomstick,” a grocery clerk mourns the death of his childhood friend, carrying a blank sign through the streets in protest because he’s “filled with an incredible emptiness.” An unemployed dockworker in “For Poor People” watches a strange woman paint an expression of a choking face onto a bollard, where a rope is tied from a boat like a noose. In the closing story, “Piece By Piece They’re Taking My World Away,” a couple spends their final days in an old house as the unique stones of its foundation are looted by neighbors and the government moves to expropriate the property.

This collection is a kind of Dubliners for the postcrisis generation and a lament for the marginalized inhabitants of neighborhoods around the shipping district of Piraeus. Ikonomou succeeds at immersing the reader, through a panoramic stream-of-consciousness method of narration, into fifteen lives where “pain and fear come later, when the wound cools.” Characters are increasingly preoccupied with memories or daydreams even as hardship envelops them. An undefinable dread lingers and builds steadily over the course of the book, leaving you feeling that the worst hasn’t even started yet, despite occasional glimpses of hope or closure.

Where there’s fault to be found with the book, it’s most noticeable in occasionally rigid efforts at Faulknerian tangents where the sentences struggle to find their footing at the expense of flow, though it’s unclear if that’s on Ikonomou or the limits of the translation. Still, the collection mostly shines, particularly in its clever symbolism and living characters. Ikonomou is an author of substance as much as style, and Something Will Happen, You’ll See is a stunning, if somewhat bleak, sketch of a country in flux.

Michael Kazepis
Portland, Oregon