World Books: International Reads for the Holidays

Because of my gig at WGBH’s The World I read works in translation when I have the chance. Here’s an idiosyncratic round-up of first-rate literary stocking stuffers from around the globe.

By Bill Marx

An old book that's surprisingly new

The time has come for a brilliant collection of stories, written in the 1920s, about the Soviet future.

Some of my favorite books from around the world this year raise the thorny issue of the relationship between literature new and the old. The critical and commercial reception of a translation in English often depends on the quality of the translation. Thus the reputation of many works of international literature has been hampered by ham-fisted or inexpert debuts into English, an issue compounded by the corruption of texts because of political or social censorship.

Ironically, when superior, unexcised translations appear later they make surprisingly little impact, as if art was simply a matter of timing. American publishing puts a discouraging spin on Ezra Pound’s much-quoted adage: here literature turns out to be yesterday’s news that stays yesterday.

For example, how should we evaluate Robert Chandler’s compelling rendition of an unbowdlerized edition of Andrei Platonov’s masterpiece about Soviet authoritarianism “The Foundation Pit”? Is this a new book? Or, after two earlier versions, is this volume mainly of interest to scholars?

Is this translation necessary?

Is this translation necessary?

The flip side of the translation question touches on the influence of economics. How many versions of Franz Kafka in English we need? Oxford University Press has just released new versions of “The Castle” (translated by Anthea Bell) and “The Metamorphosis and Other Stories” (translated by Joyce Crick). Both read well, but are they really necessary? Shrinking column inches for book reviews in newspapers and magazines means that there will be few (if any) meaningful critical comparisons among competing versions.

This preamble explains the presence of “old” new volumes on my holiday list.

Please keep in mind that these are rough times for publishers, especially small presses specializing in challenging books in translation, which is why I have done my best to choose volumes from presses located some distance from the mainstream.

At this point, placing books on your gift-giving list becomes an act of cultural investment, along with the considerable readerly playbacks of stuffing your stockings with international fiction and non-fiction. Each year the paradox grows increasingly absurd: cultural pressures mount on American publishing to shed its provincialism, yet the number of books translated into English remains relatively small.


1) Memories of the Future by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. Translated by Joanne Turnbull. (NYRB Classics) A Russian writer whose morbidly satiric imagination forms the wild (missing) link between the futuristic dream tales of Edgar Allan Poe and the postwar scientific nightmares of Stanislaw Lem. Little of Krzhizhanovsky’s work was published during his lifetime because it was simply too bizarre (and politically incorrect) for the Russia of the 1920s. I think we are more than ready for him now – an impish master of the fatalistically fantastic.

yourfacetomorrow12) Your Face Tomorrow Volume Three: Poison, Shadow and Farewell by Javier Marías. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa. (New Directions) The final installment in Marías’s super spy novel extraordinaire, a final playing out, to the point of demonic exhaustion, of the last century’s obsession with double agents, secret codes, voyeurism, and betrayal. An epic dramatization of backstabbing on all levels – from the psychological to the metaphysical – comes to a fascinating if complicated end.

3) The End of Everything by David Bergelson. Translated by Joseph Sherman. (Yale University Press) First published in 1913, Bergelson’s prophetic novel makes use of a surprisingly nervy minimalism to tell the tale of a beautiful woman from a privileged background whose life is shattered by a marriage of convenience – a searching diagnosis of the anxious hollowness at the center of Jewish life during the turn-of-the-century.

4) Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto. Translated by David Slavitt. (Harvard University Press) An at times intentionally zany new version of one of the literary high points of the Italian Renaissance, an epic crowded with jousting men and monsters that influenced Spencer’s “Faerie Queen,” that Shakespeare lifted a plot from, and that Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges admired. Slavitt’s spiffy translation entertainingly reinvigorates the melodramatic, satiric, battle-heavy antics of Ariosto’s prolix fantasy. Orlando’s impossible passion for the pagan princess Angelica is conveyed through playful iambic pentameter and rhyme:

A wonderful horse, but a horse is a horse and it’s not
a hippogryph. Still, in a joust or fight
his courage and strength could never be forgot.

I await Terry Gilliam’s movie version.

thesaltsmugglers15) The Salt Smugglers by Gerard de Nerval. Translated by Richard Sieburth. (Archipelago Books) This volume is the rib-tickling oddity of the year: the first translation into English of an experimental novel that, back in 1850, appeared in a French newspaper masquerading as reportage. The powers-that-be had passed a law essentially banning serial novels; Nerval engagingly took up the challenge and concocted this deliciously subversive piece of “journalism,” a humdinger of humbug that scrambles fact and imagination amid a swashbuckling quest for an elusive book. Of course, Nerval deftly lampoons notions of authority, fiction, and censorship along the way.

6) The Golden Calf by Ilya Ilf & Evgeny Petrov. Translated by Konstantin Gurevich and Helen Anderson. (Open Letter) A satire of political and economic corruption in 1920s Russia whose delicious blend of the daffy and the acidic resonates today. A larger-than-life con man, Ostrap Bender, leads a crew of scallywags on a surreal rampage of chicanery. This is the first complete version in English of a 1931 novel whose charmingly jaundiced view of avariciousness is worthy of David Mamet and Ben Jonson.


dostoevsky1) Dostoevsky: A Writer in his Time by Joseph Frank. Edited by Mary Petrusewicz. (Princeton University Press) Not a translation but so what? Frank’s monumental five-volume study of Dostoevsky deserves to be read, if only as an inspiring lesson about how much more thrilling a focus on ideas can be than the standard biography’s obsession with the connections between creativity and the subject’s personal life. The series has been condensed with incisive care and respect, giving those with limited time (and budget) a chance to engage with a revelatory vision of the Russian writer’s enduring greatness.

2) Knut Hamsun: Dreamer and Dissenter by Ingar Sletten Kolloen. Translated by Deborah Dawkin and Erik Skuggevik. (Yale University Press) This biography doesn’t have the intellectual heft of Frank’s but its tortured subject, Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun, offers a life of Dostoevskian complexity, a manic mix of genius and moral blindness. A celebrated writer (his fans included Isaac Bashevis Singer and Ernest Hemingway) who won the1920 Nobel Prize for Literature, Hamsun collaborated with the Nazis during the German occupation of Norway. He never renounced his wartime actions, including a much-publicized visit with Adolf Hitler. “If there is one thing I have learned in this work,” writes Kolloen in the book’s Preface, “it is the following: each of us contains more fateful contradictions than we can ever fathom.”

3) Theory of Literature and Other Critical Writings by Natsume Sōseki. Translated by Michael K. Bourdaghs, Atsuko Ueda, and Joseph A. Murphy. (Columbia University Press) The nerdiest pick on my list, but for fans of one of Japan’s greatest novelists (“Kokoro,” “Kusamakura”) this volume of his literary criticism offers insights into his fiction as well as some prescient ideas about realism and multiculturalism. Much of the volume is made up of excerpts from Sōseki’s science-minded “Theory of Literature” – some of which are dated and dense. I suggest reading the informative introduction and skipping around until you hit pay dirt. For example, this interesting passage on the value of individuality from Sōseki’s essay “Philosophical Foundations of the Literary Arts”:

It is only when one has an ideal that is new, profound, or broad, only when one tries to realize that ideal in the world but finds the world foolishly prevents this – only then does technique become truly useful to the person in question. When the world prevents us from developing our ideal in real life, then the only avenue remaining is to use technique to realize that ideal in the form of a literary work.

4) Woman from Shanghai by Xianhui Yang. Translated by Wen Huang. (Pantheon) An oddly titled but fascinating book whose fables of humanity shed gruesome light on the horror of the Chinese gulags. Author Xianhui Yang spent three years talking to survivors of a prison camp that had been set up in Jiabiangou (China’s northwestern desert region) during the late 1950’s. Over three thousand Chinese citizens, condemned as “rightists” by the Communist Party, were sent for “reeducation” in the compound, which still cannot be spoken about without fear in the author’s homeland. To escape censorship, the interviews were published as works of fiction in China, though they are based on fact.

5) On the Life and Death of Languages by Claude Hagège. Translated by Jody Gladding. (Yale University Press) A polemic by a noted French linguist alarmed at the accelerating death rate for languages around the world – he claims that at the current pace half of the world’s five thousand languages will fade away within the next century. The book proffers a passionate and often eloquent argument against efforts to establish English as a single world language: “To defend our languages and their diversity, especially against the domination of a single language, is to do more than just defend our cultures. It is to defend our life.”

towersofstone6) Towers of Stone: The Battle of Wills in Chechnya by Wojciech Jagielski. Translated by Soren A. Gauger. (Seven Stories Press) This riveting work of reportage by an award-winning Polish journalist supplies an overview – flinty, empathetic, and complex – of decades of warfare in Chechnya. In 2008 the volume’s memorable vision of violence as Sisyphean absurdity won the international Literatura Frontera Award in Italy.

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