As 2016 finally teeters on its last legs, we decided to take a look back over a few of the year’s highlights for us. This year we were proud to publish excellent essays by Dan Fox, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Svetlana Alexievich, and Ben Lerner; as well as works of fiction by John Keene, Ed Atkins, Clemens Meyer, and Agustín Fernández Mallo with the second installment of his brilliant Nocilla triology.
For this blog post we asked a few of our translators, and an author, to reminisce over some of their own cultural highlights of 2016: Charlotte Mandell, Shaun Whiteside, Jen Calleja, and Dan Fox tell us about their most memorable experiences of the year in literature, music, and the arts.
For the past year I’ve been working on my translation of Mathias Énard’s long novel Boussole (Compass), so much of my reading has been connected in some way to that: Edward FitzGerald’s elegant translations of Omar Khayyam; Germain Nouveau’s poetry, in the Pléiade edition that Sarah (one of the main characters) bemoans no longer features him; Xavier de Maistre’s very funny Journey Around My Room. There are so many books mentioned in Compass that it would take years to read them all, but I’d certainly like to try, starting with Leg Over Leg by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, a book that Sarah claims is one of the best novels of the nineteenth century in any language, not just in Arabic.
I suppose the cultural highlight of the year for me was a gorgeous production of the seldom-performed opera Iris by Mascagni, conducted by Leon Botstein, at the Bard Music Festival last July. It was beautifully sung by the soprano Talise Trevigne; the beginning of the third act, with its mysterious, Wagnerian overture, was one of the most haunting things I’ve ever seen in a live performance: Iris is shown falling in slow-motion, while tendrils of smoke rise up from the trash heap below. A screen between her and the audience made it look even more other-worldly and ethereal.
There’s an exciting new publishing collective, an offshoot of Lunar Chandelier Press, called the Lunar Chandelier Collective, which published several innovative poetry books this past year, each one very different from the other: Heart Thread by my husband, Robert Kelly; Uncreated Mirror by a powerful young poet named Tamas Panitz; Waters Of by a lyrical and sensuous poet named Billie Chernicoff; and Porcelain Pillow, a poem that combines memoir and essay, by Thomas Meyer. Robert actually had four books published this year: The Hexagon, a long poem published by Commonwealth Books; Opening the Seals, a meditation on proto-language, published by Autonomedia Press; Heart Thread; and The Secret Name of Now, a selection of shorter, lyrical poems, from Dr. Cicero Press.
One of my favorite novels of the year, The Night Ocean, isn’t actually out yet — we received an advance copy of it from its author, Paul La Farge. Its cast of characters includes H.P. Lovecraft, Robert Barlow, and William S. Burroughs, and the narration is so beautiful and intricately wrought that any summary would do it an injustice.
Finally, I’ve been caught up lately in Nocilla Dream by Agustín Fernández Mallo, from Fitzcarraldo Editions — another difficult-to-summarize novel, having to do with the interconnectedness of things and the illusory nature of reality. It’s elegantly and convincingly translated by Thomas Bunstead. I’m looking forward to the next installment, Nocilla Experience. I’m also very excited about Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems, just out from New Directions: there’s a fascinating article about it by Dan Chiasson in the recent New Yorker, here, with this memorable sentence: “Her idiosyncratic punctuation sometimes feels like triage for the emergency conditions of her muse.”
Charlotte Mandell has translated fiction, poetry, and philosophy from the French, including works by Proust, Flaubert, Genet, Maupassant, Blanchot, and many other distinguished authors. She translated Street of Thieves by Mathias Enard for Fitzcarraldo Editions, and has received many accolades and awards for her translations, including a Literature Translation Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts for Zone, also by Mathias Enard.
At the start of BS Johnson’s pitch-black comic novel Christy Malry’s Own Double-Entry (1973), the book’s anti-hero, Christy, begins his adventure by taking an accountancy course. Here he learns the principle of double-entry bookkeeping: for every debit, there must be a corresponding credit. Christy is a miserable young man who rationalizes his dreary lot with the belief that the world has conspired against him. Deciding that the metaphysical books need to be balanced, he begins to apply the double-entry system to his life. Christy draws up a two-column ledger: one for ‘Aggravations’, the other for ‘Recompense.’ Each time life aggravates or ‘debits’ him he awards himself recompense, usually an act of minor vandalism. When for instance, he is forced to take a detour on his way to work, his compensation is to scratch the expensive stonework of a nearby building. As his sense of aggravation grows larger, the credit he demands becomes more gruesome.
What, I wonder, would the accounts look like for the calendrical crock of cowshit that called itself 2016?
Donald Trump and related misery
22% of Great Barrier Reef coral dead
Record decline in Arctic sea ice
Pulse nightclub shooting, Orlando
Murder of Jo Cox
Death of David Bowie
Death of Prince
Death of Pauline Oliveros
Death of Sonia Rykiel
Death of Leonard Cohen
Death of Leonard of Mayfair
Death of Malick Sidibe
Death of Alan Vega
Death of Doris Lamar-McLemore (last speaker of the Wichita language)
Death of William Christenberry
Death of Jenny Diski
Death of Victoria Wood
Death of Harper Lee
Death of William Trevor
Death of Sharon Jones
Death of Kenny Baker
Death of David Mancuso
Death of Raoul Coutard
Death of Elaine Lustig Cohen
Death of David Antin
Death of Dario Fo
Death of Prince Buster
Death of Don Buchla
Death of Edward Albee
Death of Elie Wiesel
Death of Caroline Ahearne
Death of Abbas Kiarostami
Death of Billy Name
Death of Tunga
Death of Peter Shaffer
Death of Bernie Worrell
Death of Tony Feher
Death of Alvin Toffler
Death of Carla Lane
Death of Tony Conrad
Death of Ken Adam
Death of Merle Haggard
Death of Umberto Eco
Death of Pierre Boulez
Death of Alan Rickman
Death of Terry Wogan
Death of Jacques Rivette
Death of Zsa Zsa Gabor
Death of Scooter, the oldest cat in the USA
This myopically Western-centric and mostly arts-fixated list could go on. I am stumped for ‘Recompense’ line items that could truly balance the bereavement, fear, heartbreak and anger that the past year has brought. Nothing on my roll-call of admiration and pleasure is going to stop climate denial or bring down Donald Trump. But these talismans of open-minded thought, empathy and action serve as a reminder for me to keep going.
Denzil Forrester, White Columns, New York, and Tramps, London
Mark Leckey, ‘Containers and Their Drivers’, MoMA PS1, New York
Marc Camille Chaimowicz, The Serpentine Gallery, London
Paulina Olowska, Metro Pictures, New York
Bruce Conner, Museum of Modern Art, New York
Jessi Reeves, Bridget Donahue Gallery, New York
Danny Lyon, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Kerry James Marshall, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
Diane Simpson, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
Nicole Eisenman, New Museum and Anton Kern Gallery, New York
Lukas Duwenhogger, Artists Space, New York
‘The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissim’ by Kristin Dombek
‘Respectable: The Experience of Class’ by Lynsey Hanley
‘The Complete Madame Realism and Other Stories’ by Lynne Tillman
‘Here is Information. Mobilize.’ by Ian White
‘Embrace of the Serpent’
‘A Bigger Splash’
‘Lodestar’, Shirley Collins
‘Last Signs of Speed’, Eli Keszler
‘Juarez’ and ‘Lubbock (on everything)’, Terry Allen
‘We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service’, A Tribe Called Quest
Borealis Festival, Bergen. (At this small, yet brilliant music festival, I discovered the stunningly strange father and daughter improvised pop duo Yeah You; a blistering footwork set from Jlin, the hypnotic Egyptian Females Experimental Music Session, and the premiere of Object Collection’s new opera ‘It’s All True’ – based on the complete archive of recorded gigs by the post-hardcore band Fugazi.)
The two works that made the biggest impression on me bookended the year. In January, it was a song: ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’, the final cut on David Bowie’s final curtain album, Blackstar, released days before his death. Opening with warm string synths in respirating refrain, as if struggling for breath, and a plaintive harmonica line that directly echoes Bowie’s 1977 track ‘A New Career in a New Town’ (what better description could there be for an afterlife?), the song begins with an admission with anxiety about the future; ‘I know something’s very wrong…’ Over skittering drums, and an increasingly frenetic saxophone, the words ‘I can’t give everything away’ are a line being drawn between the personal and private, or a defiant assertion of personal sovereignty. I’ve given you all the love I can, it seems to say, but now I must take care of myself or I will be reduced to nothing.
In December I saw Arthur Jafa’s seven-and-a-half minute video ‘Love is the Message, The Message is Death’ at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York. Cut to Kanye West’s song ‘Ultralight Beam’, Jafa’s video pulls together reportage footage, cellphone video, and archival film of police shootings, civil rights marches, block parties, iconic performances by black musicians, and the burning surface of the sun. West’s sparse, roboticized gospel track –problematised by the singer’s recent support of Donald Trump – wrings pathos from the multiple video textures on screen, from the high-res to the low-grade and pixellated. Jafa’s film has the quality of a trailer for a documentary, a tantalising promise of a longer cinematic survey of African American social history, but its compressed expression of the complexities, contradictions, tragedies and triumphs of the black experience in the USA is gut-wrenching. I don’t know what could possibly balance the books.
Dan Fox is a writer, musician, and co-editor of frieze magazine, Europe’s foremost magazine of art and culture. He is based in New York, and has published Pretentiousness: Why it Matters this year with Fitzcarraldo Editions.
What a year. Book-ended (more or less) by two black-edged farewells: Blackstar and You Want it Darker, just in case the message of 2016 hadn’t got through. Both rare much more than coded farewells, and have seldom been off the stereo in our house. Goodbye, Bowie and Len.
In literature, the great event for me was Sam Garrett’s translation of the Dutch classic The Evenings by Gerard Reve, first published in 1946 and never before translated into English. It’s a dark, existential sitcom, very unsettling and in places very funny indeed. As a Dutch commentator described it: “Nothing happens, and it seems to have been written by a psychopath.” Well done, Pushkin Press, and worth the 70-year wait.
The exhibition has to be Bosch in ‘sHertogenbosch: the weirdness of the late medieval imagination laid bare in a comprehensive show bringing together works from all over the world, except the ones in the Prado, which it eventually joined when the show moved there. Wonderful.
In film, my favourite was the touching, subtle and ultimately conciliatory divorce drama After Love by Joachim Lafosse. He coaxes extraordinary performances from his actors, not least from the children.
But the most heart-stopping experience of all, on every level, was Akram Khan’s Giselle at Sadler’s Wells, to a semi-industrial score by Vincenzo Lamagna. This borrowed not only from classical ballet and Martha Graham, but from Bollywood and, most dramatically, Japanese horror movies. It was quite stunning, with dancers constantly transformed from objects into people and back into objects again. The scary second half in particular was a real treat, and Alina Cojocaru was of course amazing. Would almost restore your faith in humanity.
Shaun Whiteside is a translator from French, German, Italian and Dutch. His translations from French include novels by Amélie Nothomb, Patrick Rambaud, Michèle Desbordes, Georges-Marc Benamou, and Georges Simenon, as well as works of non-fiction by Pierre Bourdieu and Anne Sinclair. He translated Football by Jean-Philippe Toussaint for Fitzcarraldo Editions, and lives in London.
Exhibition – Helen Marten, Tate Britain/Serpentine Gallery
I went to see the Turner Prize with a very good friend of mine and we both experienced a kind of epiphany when we saw Marten’s work. Afterwards we bought her book Parrot Problems, and while flicking through saw that she was due to have a solo exhibition at the Serpentine. We headed straight there and spent what felt like hours taking in her poetic reflection of contemporary life, it’s almost as if it’s everything in existence refracted through dreams back into materiality and image. I couldn’t be happier for her win (the last time I fell in awe with a Turner Prize winner was Richard Wright, I think) and I especially commend and celebrate her sharing of her prize money with the other artists shortlisted (for the second time in as many months) against the winner/loser hierarchy.
Fiction – Michelle Steinbeck, Mein Vater war ein Mann an Land und im Wasser ein Walfisch (My Father was a Man on Land and a Whale in the Water) & Max Porter, Grief is the Thing with Feathers
I’m currently in Zurich working on my first novel and I’ve been savouring this short book by Swiss writer Steinbeck. It’s a dark contemporary fairy tale where anything can happen, and opens with a woman accidently killing a child with an iron, stuffing it in a suitcase and being told by a wise woman to track down her father to give the suitcase to him. One critic said that she had to be sick in the head to write something like this but to write this kind of thing you have to be absolutely attuned to the structures of reality and your own consciousness. This book isn’t translated into English yet, sorry. But you can read a review in English in the latest issue of New Books in German.
I read Max’s GITTWF – that just won its one hundredth award this week – on a flight to Italy. Well actually, I read it within the first hour or so and didn’t have anything else to read for the rest of the flight. In that short time I laughed, cheered, was left breathless, and then left devastated. For a writer also writing a novel in juxtaposing fragments it’s got a reassuringly small word count and a massive impact that still wakes me in the middle of the night or interrupts my thoughts while waiting in queues.
Poetry – Jack Underwood, Happiness
Jack’s poetry has spoken to me for years and he definitely made me feel that there was a place in poetry for my kind of writing and the kinds of things I wanted to write about. I’ve returned to this book may times this year, soothed by the melancholic hesitancy, depiction of personal embarrassment and unstoppable worrying.
Non-Fiction – Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts & Chris Kraus, I Love Dick.
These have been two life- and game-changing books for many people. I did that whole ‘resist the hype’ thing I always do and then bought Nelson based on a recommendation from a friend who then bought me Kraus because she was moving to Australia. Just the quality of writing, the integrally experimental forms, and the unsurpassable honesty of both books have changed autobiographical, essay and feminist writing forever. Rebecca May Johnson and I are making loose plans to start a reading group next year and these will be the first two books for sure.
Record – Anxiety, Anxiety
Glasgow’s Anxiety made the perfect punk record. It’s not just the record though, they break out the best unhinged, be-gloved live show I’ve seen since getting to watch Vexx many times around the UK last year. After listening to this record constantly, you should listen to frontman Michael Kasparis’ solo project Apostille, which sounds pleasant on record, but live is like watching a mean and sarcastic wailing goblin addicted to dancing sweating profusely over various electronics, and bassist Helena Celle’s new synth record is subterranean and distorted, absorbingly submerged like it’s bubbling up out of water.
Jen Calleja is a writer and literary translator from German. She translated Nicotine by Gregor Hens for Fitzcarraldo Editions and her debut collection of poetry Serious Justice is published by Test Centre. She is currently translating Kerstin Hensel for Peirene Press and Wim Wenders for Faber & Faber. Throughout December and January she is index writer in residence working on her first novel.