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Dispatches

A diary from Moyra Davey, New York, USA

March 29, 2020

One by one, in less than 24 hours, nearly all of my ‘projects’ toppled like dominoes, until on the afternoon of Friday, 13 March, my assistant and I found ourselves staring at each other and realising there was nothing left for us to do.

Since then I’ve wasted the better part of two weeks reading the news, but I’ve also been in touch with many friends and family members, and am doing yoga with my teacher and our group via Zoom. To briefly see their faces and hear their voices and to go through our routine together is a lifesaver.

I usually open the New York Times first thing in the morning, but today instead I read Catherine Malabou on finding her solitude within confinement, in order to write (‘the psychic space where it is possible to do something’). I copied out parts of the essay, and for one day at least, determined to shut out the noise, I cleared off my desk, which was a disgrace, if not to write then at least to read (books).

Listening: Duane Train, an updated and expanded mini-Mancuso Loft party. DJ’d by the laid back, droll Duane Harriott every Wednesday from noon to three on WFMU. Eleven years of music and playlists are archived here.

Reading: I just finished Carson McCullers’ five novels and some of her stories, and have begun her unfinished autobiography, Illuminations and Night Glare. Writing in the 1930s and 40s, her stories feel singularly undated and contemporary. Notably, she had a way of conjuring queerness that manages to be both forthright (taken for granted), and coded. This quality is most striking in my favourite of the novels, the slim, perfect The Member of the Wedding.

Catherine Malabou, ‘To Quarantine Within Quarantine: Rousseau, Robinson Crusoe and “I”‘ (with thanks to Vincent Bonin, Montreal).

Moyra Davey is an artist and writer based in New York. Her essay collection Index Cards is forthcoming from Fitzcarraldo Editions on 3 June 2020.

 

rabbit

A fable from Charlie Fox, London, UK

Here’s this weird squelchy-voiced fable about a rabbit being eaten by a wolf which I recorded for my friend the artist Jason Yates’ radio show in LA a few weeks ago. I made this mix for him called DMT Trip D’Un Faune, which was an hour-long magic-realist simulation of a drug-addled faun’s mindscape, kind of as an homage to Debussy but with ambient jams, and I stuck this fable on its tail.

Anyway, the wolf eats the rabbit, they fall in love. I was thinking about Prometheus a lot – did he befriend those vultures that devoured his insides eternally? – and the eerie song, ‘Bright Eyes’, from the cartoon Watership Down, which is an elegy for a dead rabbit haunted by ecological meltdown. Is it a kind of dream? Being eaten up by and/or feeding off a hot beast might be the perfect romance: trippy, magical, inside-out intimacy that lasts forever. Which seems extra strange and sad to think about now when we can’t touch at all.

Listen here.

xo

Charlie Fox is the author of This Young Monster.

Agustín Fernández Mallo in London

 We’re delighted that Agustín Fernández Mallo will be in London for two events later this month:

Wednesday 23 January

Agustín Fernández Mallo will be in conversation with Isabel Waidner at Goldsmiths Writers’ Centre, as part of the Goldsmiths Prize’s ‘Literary Laboratory’ event series.

7 – 8.30pm. Entry is free. RSVP via eventbrite.

LG02, Professor Stuart Hall Building (PSH), Goldsmiths, University of London, London SE14 6NW

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Thursday 24 January

Agustín Fernández Mallo and Thomas Bunstead will be talking to the British Library’s translator in residence, Rahul Bery, about the Nocilla Trilogy, at the British Library.

7.15 – 8:25pm. Tickets £10 and available here.

Knowledge Centre, The British Library, 96 Euston Road, London, NW1 2DB

Events in November 2018

Thursday 15 November: Patrick Langley at UEA Live

Patrick Langley will be reading from Arkady at UEA Live.

From 7pm. Dragon Hall, 115-123 King Street, Norwich, NR1 1QE. Entrance is free.

More information can be found  here

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Monday 19 November: Alejandro Zambra at Oxford University

Alejandro Zambra will be giving a keynote speech based on Not to Read at the Political Histories of Modern Reading conference at St John’s College, University of Oxford.

5–6.30pm. St John’s College, St Giles’, Oxford OX1 3JP.

Booking is required. More information can be found here

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Wednesday 21 November: Alejandro Zambra at TANK

Alejandro Zambra will be in conversation with Adam Thirlwell at TANK.

7–8.15pm. TANK, 91-93 Great Portland Street, London W1W 7NX. Tickets £8 (price includes the latest issue of TANK and a complimentary drink).

More information can be found here

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Tuesday 27 November: Brian Dillon at Tate Modern

Brian Dillon will be chairing a panel discussion on contemporary approaches to narrative across different media and artistic forms at Tate Modern.

6.30–8pm. Starr Cinema, Tate Modern, Bankside, London SE1 9TG. Tickets £12.

More information here

 

An excerpt: Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants

An excerpt from Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants by Mathias Enard, translated by Charlotte Mandell, published today:

¶ Night does not communicate with the day. It burns up in it. Night is carried to the stake at dawn. And its people along with it – the drinkers, the poets, the lovers. We are a people of the banished, of the condemned. I do not know you. I know your Turkish friend; he is one of ours. Little by little he is vanishing from the world, swallowed up by the shadows and their mirages; we are brothers. I don’t know what pain or what pleasure propelled him to us, to stardust, maybe opium, maybe wine, maybe love; maybe some obscure wound of the soul deep-hidden in the folds of memory.

You want to join us.

Your fear and confusion propel you into our arms; you want to nestle in there, but your tough body keeps clinging to its certainties; it pushes desire away, refuses to surrender.

I don’t blame you.

You live in another prison, a world of strength and bravery where you think you can be carried aloft in triumph; you think you can win the goodwill of the powerful, you seek glory and wealth. But when night falls, you tremble. You don’t drink, for you are afraid; you know that the burning sensation of alcohol plunges you into weakness, into an irresistible need to find caresses, a vanished tenderness, the lost world of childhood, gratification, the need to find peace when faced with the glistering uncertainty of darkness.

You think you desire my beauty, the softness of my skin, the brilliance of my smile, the delicacy of my limbs, the crimson of my lips, but actually, what you want without realizing it is for your fears to disappear, for healing, union, return, oblivion. This power inside you devours you in solitude.

So you suffer, lost in an infinite twilight, one foot in day and the other in night.

A

¶ Three bundles of sable and mink fur, one hundred and twelve panni of wool, nine rolls of Bergamo satin, the same quantity of gilt Florentine velvet, five barrels of saltpetre, two crates of mirrors and one little jewellery box: that is the list of things that disembark with Michelangelo Buonarroti in the port of Constantinople on Thursday, 13 May 1506. Almost as soon as the frigate moors, the sculptor leaps ashore. He sways a little after six days of difficult sailing. No one knows the name of the Greek dragoman waiting for him, so we’ll call him Manuel; we do, however, know the name of the merchant accompanying him: Giovanni di Francesco Maringhi, a Florentine who has been living in Istanbul for five years now. The merchandise belongs to him. He is a friendly man, happy to meet this hero of the republic of Florence, the sculptor of David.

Of course Istanbul was very different then; it was known as Constantinople; Hagia Sophia sat enthroned alone without the Blue Mosque, the east bank of the Bosphorus was bare, the great bazaar was not yet that immense spider-web where tourists from all over the world lose themselves so they can be devoured. The Empire was no longer Roman and not really the Empire; the city swayed between Ottomans, Greeks, Jews and Latins; the Sultan was named Bayezid the second, nicknamed the Holy, the Pious, the Just. The Florentines and Venetians called him Bajazeto, the French Bajazet. He was a wise, tactful man who reigned for thirty-one years; he loved wine, poetry and music; he didn’t turn his nose up at either men or women; he appreciated the arts and sciences, astronomy, architecture, the pleasures of war, swift horses and sharp weapons. It is not known why he invited Michelangelo Buonarroti of the Buonarrotis of Florence to Istanbul, though certainly the sculptor was already enjoying great renown in Italy. Some saw him at the age of thirty-one as the greatest artist of the time. He was often compared to the immense Leonardo da Vinci, twenty years his senior.

A

¶ That year Michelangelo left Rome on a sudden impulse, on Saturday 17 April, the day before the laying of the first stone of the new St Peter’s Basilica. He had gone for the fifth day in a row to request that the Pope deign to honour his promise of additional money. He was turned away each time.

Michelangelo Buonarroti shivers in his wool coat; the spring is timid, rainy. He reaches the borders of the republic of Florence as the clock strikes 2 a.m., Ascanio Condivi, his biographer, tells us; he stops over at an inn thirty leagues from the city.

Michelangelo rails against Julius II, the warlike, authoritarian pope who has treated him so poorly. Michelangelo is proud. Michelangelo is aware that he is an artist of great talent.

Knowing he is safe in Florentine territory, he turns away the attendants the Pope has sent after him with orders to bring him back to Rome, by force if necessary. He reaches Florence the next day in time for supper. His servant gives him a thin broth. Michelangelo curses the architect Bramante and the painter Raphael, those jealous types who, he thinks, have served him a bad turn with the Pope. Pontiff Julius Della Rovere is a proud man too. Proud, authoritarian, and a miser. The artist had to pay from his own pocket the cost of the marble that he went to pick out in Carrara to build the papal tomb, an immense monument that would sit enthroned right in the middle of the new basilica. Michelangelo sighs. The advance on the contract signed by the Pope had been spent on furs, travel, and apprentices to quarry the blocks.

The sculptor, exhausted by the journey and his troubles, a little warmed by the broth, shuts himself away in his narrow Renaissance bed and falls asleep sitting up, his back against a cushion, because he is afraid of the image of death the outstretched position suggests.

(…)

Something Bright, Then Holes

Maggie Nelson in BOMB Magazine

A selection of Maggie Nelson’s poems are featured in BOMB to celebrate the re-issue of her collection, Something Bright, Then Holes, published by Soft Skull Press:

Something Bright, Then Holes

I used to do this, the self I was
used to do this

the selves I no longer am
nor understand.

Something bright, then holes
is how a girl, newly-sighted, once

described a hand. I reread
your letters, and remember

correctly: you wanted to eat
through me. Then fall asleep

with your tongue against
an organ, quiet enough

to hear it kick. Learn everything
there is to know

about loving someone
then walk away, coolly

I’m not ashamed
Love is large and monstrous

Never again will I be so blind, so ungenerous
O bright snatches of flesh, blue

and pink, then four dark furrows, four
funnels, leading into an infinite ditch

The heart, too, is porous;
I lost the water you poured into it

An excerpt: A Terrible Country

An excerpt from Keith Gessen’s novel A Terrible Country, published today:

I. I MOVE TO MOSCOW

In the late summer of 2008, I moved to Moscow to take care of my grandmother. She was about to turn ninety and I hadn’t seen her for nearly a decade. My brother Dima and I were her only family; her lone daughter, our mother, had died years earlier. Baba Seva lived alone now in her old Moscow apartment. When I called to tell her I was coming, she sounded very happy to hear it, and also a little confused.

My parents and my brother and I left the Soviet Union in 1981. I was six and Dima was sixteen, and that made all the difference. I became an American, whereas Dima remained essentially Russian. As soon as the Soviet Union collapsed, he returned to Moscow to make his fortune. Since then he had made and lost several fortunes; where things stood now I wasn’t sure. But one day he Gchatted me to ask if I could come to Moscow and stay with Baba Seva while he went to London for an unspecified period of time.

“Why do you need to go to London?”

“I’ll explain when I see you.”

“You want me to drop everything and travel halfway across the world and you can’t even tell me why?”

There was something petulant that came out of me when dealing with my older brother. I hated it, and couldn’t help myself.

Dima said, “If you don’t want to come, say so. But I’m not discussing this on Gchat.”

“You know,” I said, “there’s a way to take it off the record. No one will be able to see it.”

“Don’t be an idiot.”

He meant to say that he was involved with some very serious people, who would not so easily be deterred from reading his Gchats. Maybe that was true, maybe it wasn’t. With Dima the line between those concepts was always shifting.

As for me, I wasn’t really an idiot. But neither was I not an idiot. I had spent four long years of college and then eight much longer years of grad school studying Russian literature and history, drinking beer, and winning the Grad Student Cup hockey tournament (five times!); then I had gone out onto the job market for three straight years, with zero results. By the time Dima wrote me I had exhausted all the available post-graduate fellowships and had signed up to teach online sections in the university’s new PMOOC initiative, short for “paid massive online open course,” although the “paid” part mostly referred to the students, who really did need to pay, and less to the instructors, who were paid very little. It was definitely not enough to continue living, even very frugally, in New York. In short, on the question of whether I was an idiot, there was evidence on both sides.

Dima writing me when he did was, on the one hand, providential. On the other hand, Dima had a way of getting people involved in undertakings that were not in their best interests. He had once convinced his now former best friend Tom to move to Moscow to open a bakery. Unfortunately, Tom opened his bakery too close to another bakery, and was lucky to leave Moscow with just a dislocated shoulder. Anyway, I proceeded cautiously. I said, “Can I stay at your place?” Back in 1999, after the Russian economic collapse, Dima bought the apartment directly across the landing from my grandmother’s, so helping her out from there would be easy.

“I’m subletting it,” said Dima. “But you can stay in our bedroom in Grandma’s place. It’s pretty clean.”

“I’m thirty-three years old,” I said, meaning too old to live with my grandmother.

“You want to rent your own place, be my guest. But it’ll have to be pretty close to Grandma’s.”

Our grandmother lived in the center of Moscow. The rents there were almost as high as Manhattan’s. On my PMOOC salary I would be able to rent approximately an armchair.

“Can I use your car?”

“I sold it.”

“Dude. How long are you leaving for?”

“I don’t know,” said Dima. “And I already left.”

“Oh,” I said. He was already in London. He must have left in a hurry.

But I in turn was desperate to leave New York. The last of my old classmates from the Slavic department had recently left for a new job, in California, and my girlfriend of six months, Sarah, had recently dumped me at a Starbucks. “I just don’t see where this is going,” she had said, meaning I suppose our relationship, but suggesting in fact my entire life. And she was right: even the thing that I had once most enjoyed doing—reading and writing about and teaching Russian literature and history—was no longer any fun. I was heading into a future of halfheartedly grading the half-written papers of half-interested students, with no end in sight.

Whereas Moscow was a special place for me. It was the city where my parents had grown up, where they had met; it was the city where I was born. It was a big, ugly, dangerous city, but also the cradle of Russian civilization. Even when Peter the Great abandoned it for St. Petersburg in 1713, even when Napoleon sacked it in 1812, Moscow remained, as Alexander Herzen put it, the capital of the Russian people. “They recognized their ties of blood to Moscow by the pain they felt at losing it.” Yes. And I hadn’t been there in years. Over the course of a few grad-school summers I’d grown tired of its poverty and hopelessness. The aggressive drunks on the subway; the thugs in tracksuits and leather jackets walking around eyeing everyone; the guy eating from the dumpster next to my grandmother’s place every night during the summer I spent there in 2000, periodically yelling “Fuckers! Bloodsuckers!” then going back to eating. I hadn’t been back since.

Still, I kept my hands off the keyboard. I needed some kind of concession from Dima, if only for my pride.

I said, “Is there someplace for me to play hockey?” As my academic career had declined, my hockey playing had ramped up. Even during the summer, I was on the ice three days a week.

“Are you kidding?” said Dima. “Moscow is a hockey mecca. They’re building new rinks all the time. I’ll get you into a game as soon as you get here.”

I took that in.

“Oh, and the wireless signal from my place reaches across the landing,” Dima said. “Free wi‑fi.”

“OK!” I wrote.

“OK?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Why not.”

(…)

Why Did I Teach My Son to Speak Russian?

Keith Gessen for the New Yorker

In the New Yorker, A Terrible Country author Keith Gessen writes on bilingualism and his decision to teach his son Russian:

I no longer remember when I started speaking to Raffi in Russian. I didn’t speak to him in Russian when he was in his mother’s womb, though I’ve since learned that this is when babies first start recognizing sound patterns. And I didn’t speak to him in Russian in the first few weeks of his life; it felt ridiculous to do so. All he could do was sleep and scream and breast-feed, and really the person I was talking to when I talked to him was his mother, Emily, who was sleep-deprived and on edge and needed company. She does not know Russian.

But then, at some point, when things stabilized a little, I started. I liked the feeling, when I carried him through the neighborhood or pushed him in his stroller, of having our own private language. And I liked the number of endearments that Russian gave me access to. Mushkin, mazkin, glazkin, moy horoshy, moy lyubimy, moy malen’ky mal’chik. It is a language surprisingly rich in endearments, given its history.

When we started reading books to Raffi, I included some Russian ones. A friend had handed down a beautiful book of Daniil Kharms poems for children; they were not nonsense verse, but they were pretty close, and Raffi enjoyed them. One was a song about a man who went into the forest with a club and a bag, and never returned. Kharms himself was arrested in Leningrad, in 1941, for expressing “seditious” sentiments, and died, of starvation, in a psychiatric hospital the following year; the great Soviet bard Alexander Galich would eventually call the song about the man in the forest “prophetic” and write his own song, embedding the forest lyrics into a story of the Gulag. Raffi really liked the Kharms song; when he got a little older, he would request it and then dance.

Before I knew it, I was speaking to Raffi in Russian all the time, even in front of his mother. And while at first it seemed silly, because he didn’t understand anything we said, in any language, there came a point when I saw that he did. We started with animal sounds. “What does a cow”—korova—“say?” I would ask. “Moo!” Raffi would answer. “What does a cat”—koshka—“say?” “Meow.” “And what does an owl”—sova—“say?” Raffi would make his eyes big and raise his arms and pronounce, “Hoo, hoo.” He didn’t understand much else, though, at a certain point, around the age of one and a half, he seemed to learn that nyet meant “no”—I said it a lot. He didn’t understand me as well as he understood his mother, and he didn’t understand either of us all that much, but still it felt like a minor miracle. I had given my son some Russian! After that, I felt I should extend the experiment. It helped that people were so supportive and impressed. “It’s wonderful that you’re teaching him Russian,” they said.

But I had doubts, and still do.

Bilingualism used to have an undeservedly bad reputation; then it got an undeservedly exalted one. The first came from early twentieth-century American psychologists, who, countering nativists, proposed that something other than heredity was causing Eastern and Southern European immigrants to score lower than Northern Europeans on newly invented I.Q. tests. They proposed that the attempt to learn two languages might be at fault. As Kenji Hakuta points out, in his 1986 book, “The Mirror of Language,” neither the psychologists nor the nativists considered that I.Q. tests might themselves be useless.

In the early nineteen-sixties, this pseudo-science was debunked by Canadian researchers in the midst of debates over Quebecois nationalism. A study by two McGill University researchers, which used French-English bilingual schoolchildren in Montreal, found that they actually outperformed monolingual children on tests that required mental manipulation and reorganization of visual patterns. Thus was born the “bilingual advantage.” It remains the conventional wisdom, as I have recently learned from people telling me about it over and over.

(…)

Art Across Borders: The White Review Panel Discussion

Hotsted by The White Review and Hauser & Wirth

In the first of three talks as part of a new collaboration between Hauser & Wirth and The White Review, Tom McCarthy and Kate Briggs discuss internationalist perspectives on art and culture, the exchange of ideas between disciplines and across borders, and the nature of translation. In a conversation moderated by Founding Editor of The White Review, Ben Eastham, the two authors will consider how, even and especially in a global political climate of reactionary nativism, no art is ever ‘pure’ but rather informed by currents of intellectual thought that flow across national, economic and even linguistic boundaries.

The panel will take place on Tuesday 19 June from 6.30-8pm at Hauser & Wirth, 23 Savile Row, London W1S 2ET. Tickets are free and can be booked here.

Tom McCarthy is among the most celebrated writers working in the English language today. He is the author of four novels, two of which – Satin Island and C – were shortlisted for the Booker Prize and works of nonfiction including Tintin and the Secret of Literature. He is also known in the art world for the reports, manifestos, and media interventions he has made as general secretary of the International Necronautical Society, a semifictitious avant-garde network. He is a judge of the 2018 Turner Prize.

Kate Briggs is a translator and the author of This Little Art, a genre-bending, book-length essay celebrating the practice of literary translation. Stemming from her experience of translating Roland Barthes’s lecture notes, This Little Art threads different stories together in a portrait of translation as a means of understanding the inner lives of other people. In additional to her work as a writer and translator, she teaches at the American University of Paris and the Piet Zwart Institute, Rotterdam.

 

Photo credit: Stephen Spender

Steeped in Literature: Megan McDowell on Translating Alejandro Zambra’s NOT TO READ

Following the recent publication of Alejandro Zambra’s Not to Read, Megan McDowell discusses translating Zambra’s works in interview with Splice:

Not to Read is the fifth book you’ve translated from Alejandro Zambra’s body of work, but all the others so far have taken the form of short stories or novels. How is Zambra the essayist different from Zambra as a writer of fiction, and how did this experience of translation differ from others such as Multiple Choice?

I’ve learned through the few non-fiction books I’ve translated that having to stay faithful to actual facts can certainly feel limiting. Your comparison to Multiple Choice is right on, because that’s an experimental book that would have been impossible to translate ‘literally’, but lent itself to adaptation to fit the English language. Since that book is so dependent in parts on wordplay and cultural references, there was no other way it could have worked, I think, but to play fast and loose with ideas of ‘fidelity’.

With Not to Read, the challenges were different. It involved a lot of research — there are a lot of quotations of other works, and if a translation of any of those works existed, I wanted to use it. In the cases where I did have to translate the quotations because none existed or I couldn’t get my hands on them, I was very worried about getting things wrong. When you’re only translating a short excerpt and you haven’t read the work, there are all kinds of things you could misread. I think I drove Alejandro a little crazy asking him to double-check those translations.

.

Were there any particular rewards?

The rewards were readerly: I have a broader panorama of Latin American writers, and an interesting to-read pile beside my bed. Also, as you mentioned, I’ve translated several of Zambra’s books, but it’s been a while since Multiple Choice came out, and it was a joy to get back into his voice.

.

In your introduction to Not to Read, you mention that the original text, No Leer, has gone through several incarnations since its publication in 2010, “of which this English version is only the most recent”. This version, you add, “includes additions and subtractions to the nucleus of the original book”. First of all, can you elaborate a little bit on what has been added?

The original Spanish version compiles short reviews published in the press relatively early in Alejandro’s career. Since the last Spanish edition in 2012, Alejandro has written several essays and presentations that we included in Not to Read; I wanted the book to span the whole of his career, and we took the approach of including all kinds of non-fiction.

I went to see Alejandro give the talk that ends the book, ‘Free Topic’, when he was invited to the Cátedra Bolaño at UDP in 2016, and I immediately thought we should put it in the collection. We went back and forth on whether or not to include it, but in the end I’m very glad we did. In general, I liked the notion of including more personal essays that compliment and build upon the shorter criticism. They give us an understanding of how Alejandro introduced certain ideas in some of the earlier pieces and fleshed them out in the later ones.

We also added some pieces just for fun. For a time, Alejandro wrote parodic pieces for the newspaper The Clinic; the idea was to review books that weren’t literary as if they were high art. So there’s a review of a wine-tasting manual, a book of poems by Karol Wojtyla (otherwise known as Pope John Paul II), and a book of horoscopes.

(…)

Fitz Carraldo Editions