August: Contemporary English Language Books

Magnolias, the whetted irony of postmodern narrative, Socrates, and the pellucid veil of translated literature. Of all these I suffer from ambivalence.

I surround myself with books, about which I am also ambivalent. Sometimes I would like to own fewer books, but I keep buying and collecting books. What I like is the literature that happens to be contained in the books in the form of fiction, but also poetry, essays, religious and philosophical writing, and critical writing about art and literature.

According to the graphs and charts on LibraryThing, where I catalogue my books, almost sixty percent of the books in what I call my library is what Kate Briggs in This Little Art terms twice-written: translated literature.

I read a lot of literature in translation as I have a little French, but no German, or Norwegian, or Portuguese, or Romanian, no Spanish or Ancient Greek, and just a little Latin. Briggs writes: “When it comes to writing and reading translations the question of what is wholly normal or truly plausible, of what was really said or written gets suspended, slightly”. I allow translated literature to seduce me because I agree with Jon Fosse’s contention that, “uniquely literary qualities can often be translated . . . because literature is more linked to the sentence, both to the single sentence and to the text, the poetry collection, the novel, as a kind of mega-sentence, than to the word, and therefore more linked to rhythm than to sound”.

Recently, my ambivalence resurfaced. Should I make more effort to read literature with, as Virginia Woolf put it in her broadcast on Craftsmanship, the right words in the right order? Certain words and lines of Aeschylus, of Paul Celan and Friederike Mayröcker, have a definite hypnotic effect on me, but, of necessity, these are mediated by the labour of a translator? What about the contemporary? Instead of dwelling in murky, hundred-times explored worlds, what of the black squiggles of today?

August found me plunged deeply into books recently published in the English language. I read books by Deborah Levy, David Keenan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Azareen Van Der Vliet Oloomi, Susanna Clarke, Sam Riviere, Rachel Cusk, Gwendoline Riley, Damon Galgut, and Claire-Louise Bennett. Some of these were good books, with memorable atmospheres, and lines that set off interesting thought-trains. Some just passed the time, most were uninteresting to me. Only one, I would argue, contained literature, that is, held life within it, sufficient life to become an imperfect conduit to what feels like my soul.

Which one contains literature, you ask? I have little to say about it because, finally, what can I possibly say that can express a text to you? This book operates on multiple levels simultaneously, blurring distinctions, crossing boundaries. It is self-conscious, introspective and demonstrates an extreme awareness of the imperfection and power of words. If it can be said to be about anything, perhaps it is about privilege, or lack of it, and control, or the lack of it. Checkout 19 opens, “Later on we often had a book with us”. Between those words and its closing pages, a small bit of the writer’s relationship, conveyed in writing, to the enigmatic nature of life (and death) is revealed.

9 thoughts on “August: Contemporary English Language Books

  1. Beautifully expressed, and very often that is my own ambivalence both about contemporary fiction (if I say I am interested in experimentation, why do I so often find it ‘samey’) and translated literature (if I say I really appreciate the translator’s efforts, why do I prefer reading them in the original if I possibly can).

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    • It is, I think, what Kate Briggs calls the “fantasy of unmediated address”, of that collaboration between reader and writer. I am currently reading Malcolm Lowry’s ‘Under the Volcano’, a deeply allusive text that plays with language in fascinating ways. I can barely imagine how much would be lost in translation. On the other hand, though I am very grateful that Alison Strayer has translated Annie Ernaux’s ‘The Years’, when I sit down and read this book I want the sense I am reading Ernaux and not Strayer.

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  2. So interesting, Anthony. I rarely gel with modern writing, and that may be as much because of the way of telling than anything else; my tastes in prose are a bit old-fashioned. I don’t have that problem with translated literature, oddly. Like you, I want to feel I am reading the original author and not the translator, but that’s always going to be a potential issue. The best solution for me is when a loved author in translation has a dedicated translator who renders all their work in English – at least I can then convince myself there is a consistent voice.

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    • We underestimate, I think, the role of posterity in thinning out the merely good, merely interesting, and the downright mediocre. Not, of course, that literature doesn’t find itself excluded in error, or due to prevailing ideology or social constructs of the time. If each decade produces, a handful, of the genuinely literary (at best), you’d have to read a lot of what is contemporary to even chance upon literature in its truest sense.

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  3. I’m curious about why you value the conveyance of life and use that to define the presence of literature. Why do we need to have life conveyed in this way? I often wonder if it is to convince ourselves that there is something other than this life in the midst of reaffirming the opposite.

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    • Conveyance is not it. It is rather a writer’s relationship conveyed in the writing to the profound mystery of life (and, of course, death). Within that is quite probably the search for something Other. We might call it our absent God. Lukåcs used the term “negative mysticism” and I think a lot about that; literature as mysticism for a disenchanted world. (I am, of course, ambivalent about this as is appropriate for anything of consequence.)


      • OK, I’m content with that, but you do write that the book is literature because it “held life within it” and later because “a small bit of life is conveyed”.

        I have read to the end only one of the latest novel by those you mention and ‘negative mysticism’ applies very well to its form and content; a disenchanting literature via its means of enchantment.

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        • Yes. I find it painfully difficult to write about writing, but it is only through writing that I can order my thoughts. I’ve altered that final sentence to better reflect the thought that crystallised in response to your question. Thank you. Would you care to share which novel you refer to, or will you be writing something about it?


          • I had mentioned Dead Souls but the ‘Post Comment’ button didn’t work (it fails to allow me to reply often) and the reference disappeared when I pasted the comment in later, hence also the grammatical error. Of those you cite, I plan to read only Damon Galgut’s.

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