Literary translation is a forcefully delusional act. The assumption upon which it rests—that one language can be even approximately mapped onto another—belies the profound complexity and mysticism of all human communication. Works of translation are praised (or critiqued) on the extent to which they preserve the spirit of the original. What a silly metric: language itself is the spirit. A finished translation is never a puzzle solved, but an adaptation imagined—a work of creativity that births a new spirit all its own.
One of the reasons speculative fiction fans are always excited when a new Josh Malerman book is published is that he seems to reinvent himself with every new narrative. Malerman, best know from his bestselling novel Bird Box, explores genre limitations with every book, and A House at the Bottom of a Lake is no different. This could be called a coming-of-age narrative or a submerged haunted house novel, but those would only point so certain things Malerman brings to the table while leaving a lot out.
The Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai is a trickster, a jester entertaining an unhappy court, his sentences elongated to the point of absurdity, and absurdity is very much the man’s point. In The Last Wolf & Herman, published in English by New Directions Press in 2017 (the translators are George Szirtes and John Batki), the first tale is a long story/short novella, The Last Wolf (published in Hungary in 2009). It unfurls over a single sentence covering seventy pages and conjures thoughts of one of Krasznahorkai’s heroes, the Austrian master Thomas Bernhard. The philosophizing in The Last Wolf recalls not just the tar-black humor of Bernhard but also a more ebullient and insuppressible Thomas Mann. Krasznahorkai is a joker but not a quipster or aphorist.
The projection of self as god works far better as a mantra of living if the reality around you is believable. If the narrative and the plot holds true, and if dreams and assumptions come to fruition, then the little world around you can be one of your own creation. Unless of course, the narrative you have created disintegrates before your very eyes, washed away by every adverse or unexpected event, the true events of life playing out incorrectly according to the preconceived story. Rachel Cusk, star auto-fictional writer of the twenty-first century, wonders at this self-as-god idea, and wars against her loss of attaining it, returns to her dissection of the limits of the self in her new novel Second Place. The story is told by the narrator, referred to as M, to a Jeffers, a therapist-like presence, or maybe a pet. M recants the story of L, a famous artist, coming to stay at her and her husband Tony’s second place, a small artist’s studio near the main residence on the secluded marshland they live on (a Marfa-Marsh if you will.)
Like Never Let Me Go, Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro’s eighth novel, is set in a near future that feels much like the present. While the earlier novel is almost unbearably sad, this one leaves the reader in a more positive frame of mind. This might seem surprising, seeing that Klara, the first-person narrator, is a humanoid “Artificial Friend” (AF), manufactured to be a companion for children who are confined to the home because schooling is done remotely. But Klara is an exceptional AF with remarkable empathy for the fourteen-year-old Josie who chooses her.
In Italy they’re celebrating seven centuries of Dante ⎯ The Divine Comedy was finished in 1321, also the year Dante died ⎯ but I doubt anyone there has whipped up a carnival so wild as Dinty Moore’s. Long a champion of creative non-fiction, in this text he delivers what might be called “multi-media creative.” To Hell With It tosses together Moore’s hand-drawn cartoons and his old family photos, it toys with his Catholic-school catechism and meanders with him through the Midwestern flea markets, and the whole way, whatever the ostensible subject, it works canto by canto through Dante’s formidable opener to the Comedy, the Inferno.
There’s something slippery about the contemporary literary essay, which sometimes seems designed to allow its real subject—perhaps a personal experience or a critical intervention—to evade capture by the reader for as long as possible. The essayist will often present an accrual of observations or vignettes structured to reveal meaning in fits and starts, as if to state a thesis outright would be to strip it of its fragile ephemerality. But this delicate art of obfuscation becomes a natural mode of narration in Gina Nutt’s Night Rooms, an exquisite collection of linked essays that centers the idea of escape as a presiding principle, not just in form—as these essays break from conventional expectations in provocative ways—but also in content. In these pages, the grounding conventions of the horror film serve as handholds as the essays circle around themes of the body and grief and survival. All the while, something sinister lurks in the white space between the paragraphs, an unnamed threat that is felt rather than seen.
I have a friend who often refers to the line from Rachel Cusk’s 2014 Guardian interview, in which she admits that before writing the Outline trilogy, the conceit of traditional fiction, the idea of “making up Jack and Jill and having them do things” suddenly felt “fake and embarrassing.” As autofiction—or at least the idea of the author being starkly present in the book—becomes more and more common in the world of fiction. I wonder why it is that seven years after Cusk’s statement, traditional fiction stills feels so oddly fake and forced at times. Is it because the need for personal stories, the ones that take us out of a fictional world (one that has stretched to the other realms of life; identities stretch and comingle with our created identities online more than ever) have this intrinsic, vital sense of being urgent that standard fiction lacks? In her work, Cusk seems to bridge the divide between eutrapely (friendly, intellectual conversation that smells of heliotrope as Julio Cortazar writes about in Final Exam) and the real distance we find ourselves living from other people, both physically and emotionally. This bridge is also expertly occupied in Pola Oloixarac’s third novel, Mona, translated from Spanish by Adam Morris.